By Chris Carr <email@example.com>
Submitted March 2000
Summary: Taking off from the first season episode "Strange Visitor," Lois stumbles across some information about Superman that he doesn't even know himself. As they embark on a quest to discover more about Superman's alien origins, Lois and Clark find plenty of other lessons to learn as well.
FEEDBACK: Any and all welcome, so long as it's polite! Public via the fanfic list, or private.
INTRODUCTION: I owe thanks to a number of people: Nan for giving me General Newcomb's name; LabRat for telling me the name of Clark's landlord; all the folks who said nice things over on the MBs; Wendy and Jenni for reading through a very early and very incomplete draft and making suggestions; Wendy and Irene for reading through later drafts and spotting typos and saying more nice things; Wendy (again!) and Jenni for helping me get out of a deep plot hole (after all this time I'm not sure who should take credit for the whispering scenario, but I know that I can't do so all alone); and last, but not least, Bryce Zabel who I don't know and I'm sure I'll never meet for writing two of the best episodes of Lois and Clark.
DISCLAIMER: I don't own Lois and Clark, or Perry White, Jonathan and Martha, Jimmy Olsen, General Newcomb, Dr Klein or even Ralph and Eduardo. I'm making no money from this, and I mean no harm by borrowing the characters. No infringement of copyright intended.
Historical note: in my corner of the world, the episode Neverending Battle aired before Strange Visitor.
The elevator came to a halt, the bell pinged, and the doors opened. Lois Lane stepped into the newsroom. She inhaled the atmosphere with the proprietorial air of one who knew that she didn't just belong here, she ruled. After Perry White, the editor, Lois was probably the most important asset the Daily Planet had. She was, as she was well aware, the best reporter on the paper, if not in the city. It was a position she had worked hard to achieve, and she continued to work hard to maintain it.
En route to Perry's office, Lois caught sight of a flash of red and blue on one of the Planet's television monitors. She paused, curious as to what the big guy was doing now. She smiled faintly as she realised that he was helping out with the aftermath of an earthquake somewhere in Asia; was there anything that Superman couldn't tackle? she wondered. His debut had been astonishing enough, but since then, the kind of emergencies he dealt with had been growing ever more ambitious and impressive. As the camera panned to show the full and horrific extent of the devastation it became obvious that this one was going to keep him busy for a while.
She shook her head ruefully, thinking that no woman could resist the lure of that body; he truly was the stuff of dreams. However, when she put her dreams aside for a moment and considered her situation in the cold light of day, she knew that Superman probably barely even knew that she existed. If he had paid any real notice to her when he'd flown her back to the Planet after the Prometheus incident, she reasoned, he would never have been tempted to give the interview that should by rights have been hers to Clark Kent. Lois smiled grimly to herself as she thought back to the afternoon's interrogation session. No matter what the polygraph machine had said, she knew that she didn't have a romantic attachment to Superman, at least not in any meaningful sense. When she thought about it, the government agents' belief that she might be able to tell them something interesting about Superman was almost laughable.
Pushing thoughts of Superman from her mind, in favour of more immediate concerns, she went on her way.
"What's up, Perry?" demanded Lois as she strode, uninvited, into his office.
Perry looked up from his desk and said, "Hi, Lois. Come on in. Oh, you already *are* in." Lois didn't bother to acknowledge his jibe and Perry chose not to pursue the matter, electing instead to get down to business. "The warrant those guys had this morning?"
"Phoney?!" cried Lois. "What do you mean, phoney?"
"I mean, no-one down in Washington knows anything about it. The lawyers have been calling all over, but have come up empty. No-one recognises the descriptions of the agents, either."
"They called the Justice Department, FBI, State Department, CIA… They even called the ATF. Nada."
Lois felt her temper fray. "You mean, I let myself be strapped to that torture machine for *nothing*?"
"That's about the size of it, yes."
"That makes me mad! Really mad! Oooo, someone is going to pay for this! I'm going to find them and expose them and hang them out to dry, the lying, scheming, double-dealing, duplicitous… Words fail me, Perry. They really do!"
"Well," said Perry, "I'm pleased to hear that you're on the case, but you'd better be quick about it. The only thing we know for sure about them is that they are after Superman. They want to track him down, so you'd better make sure that you track them down first!"
The only problem with that was neither Lois nor Perry knew where to start.
Fortunately that state of affairs changed with a phone call to the Planet first thing the following morning.
Although his speed would have been envied by the passengers of the transoceanic planes he overtook, Clark flew across the Pacific at what, for him, was a leisurely pace. Twelve hours spent digging survivors out of the rubble of collapsed buildings in Asia had taken its toll on him. The sun on his back was renewing him physically, but the emotional healing would take longer. The memories of the previous night would, he suspected, haunt him for a long time to come. He had witnessed so much suffering, so much pain. Images of the victims' grief and worry for loved ones were intermixed with fragmented memories of joy as families were reunited, children with parents, husbands with wives.
Superman had helped the emergency teams locate casualties, both living and dead. He'd helped retrieve the former but had left the grizzly task of reclaiming the latter to others. As the memories crowded in on him, he felt torn. Perhaps he should have stayed, even though the emergency workers had said that they could handle things on their own now, and he, as Clark Kent, had commitments elsewhere. At the same time, he couldn't help but feel that he had run away from his responsibilities, fearing that he couldn't have borne to witness the suffering for much longer.
At thirty five thousand feet above the sea Clark found himself sighing. Being Superman was much harder than he had ever imagined it would be. He'd thought that putting on the suit would solve a multitude of problems; wearing it, he had thought, would enable him to help people without putting his identity on the line. While it was true that the suit had solved that particular problem, a new range of difficulties had arisen to taunt him instead.
He had completely failed to foresee the reaction Superman would engender. He had underestimated the furore that would be elicited by the appearance of a flying man, just as he had underestimated the good he could do as Superman and the demands, both physical and mental, that would be placed upon him.
Nothing in his previous life had prepared him for this.
He sighed again, thinking of the mistakes that he had almost made in Asia. He had wanted to tear at the rubble, ripping the debris away from the wounded. It had been the merest good fortune that he had, thinking that it would be polite to do so, consulted with the emergency crews before he started work; he had heeded their advice that the debris had to be moved with the utmost care and patience lest it topple and crush those trapped beneath. He knew that, if he hadn't given in to his impulse to be courteous, the casualty statistics could have been far worse.
The trouble was, of course, that, while, as Superman, he still had a tremendous amount to learn, there was no training course to teach him how to be a superhero. He needed to learn how to be the best Superman he could be, just as he needed to learn how to balance the two sides of himself. He didn't want to lose Clark, the essence of who he was, to the two dimensional cut-out in the red and blue suit, yet the more time he spent as Superman, the more he realised there was for him to do. He found himself pulled constantly in two directions, between being the hero and being Clark.
Clark glanced at his body. At that moment, more than anything else, he wanted to be able to shed the disguise he had adopted. He wanted — needed — to be Clark, to put the last night into some sort of perspective, and to regain his equilibrium. He needed to cling on to the moments of normality he could grab in his everyday life.
Normality, he thought with a harsh laugh. What kind of normal did he mean? As much as he might wish otherwise, being Clark was as much of a disguise as being Superman. Only at the farm or, now that he had his own place, in his apartment could he truly be himself. Only then could he shed the glasses and just be.
Just be what? he wondered. Himself, he supposed, whatever that might be.
He pushed aside the all too familiar questions of where he had come from and why he was the way he was before they could crowd in on him as they were occasionally wont to do. He didn't feel up to dealing with them at the moment although, given the raid at the Planet the previous day, he knew that they had been given a new urgency, and he was going to have to face them soon.
Right now, though, he needed to think about the practicalities of getting back to his life. As he thought about the way he'd left things in Metropolis, he realised three things. First he couldn't go home to shower and change; Perry had expressly told him to avoid his apartment. Second, he was already late for work. Third, and most worrying of all, strange government agents were after Superman.
Clark took a deep breath, not because he had any physiological need for it, but because of the calming effect it had. The first problem was the easiest to solve; a quick side trip to Smallville would take care of his need to clean up. As for the second, well, he'd have to find yet another excuse to explain away his prolonged absence.
The third problem, though, was much more difficult to deal with. The agents' reaction was exactly the kind of thing that his father had always warned him about. Jonathan Kent had always stressed the need to keep Clark's gifts a secret lest he be locked away and, as he colourfully expressed it, "dissected like a frog".
The Kent family had done a good job of keeping the secret of Clark's powers until Clark had created Superman. It was the flashy superhero and not the man beneath the suit who had lured the agents to Metropolis, where it looked as though they had every intention of conducting a witch hunt.
Why were they so against Superman? he thought painfully. What had he ever done to warrant their paranoia? Their xenophobia was unfathomable to Clark whose generous heart always sought to see the best in everyone irrespective of colour, creed or political affiliations.
If only, he thought, everyone could understand Superman as well as Lois did!
The thought of Lois caused his mouth to curl up at the edges. For some reason he didn't understand, the merest thought of her had the power to ease his disquiet. She'd recognised, before even he had done, that Superman couldn't be everywhere, couldn't do everything. "It's the idea of Superman… Whatever he can do, that's enough," she had said.
Her wise words warmed him again, just as it had done when she had first spoken them, not knowing to whom she was talking. He wondered what she would think if she knew that she was at least as responsible as he was for creating Superman. Yes, it had been his idea to create the hero in the first instance, but, without Lois's unknowing support, Superman would have fled the skies of Metropolis, afraid to carry on in the face of Luthor's threats.
Superman had stayed because she wanted it, and she had helped him to want it, too.
How ironic, he thought, that they were barely friends, yet he valued her advice over that offered by almost anyone else. She was prickly and competitive, strong-willed and arrogant, yet she was balm on his soul.
It was a wonder that the cab driver had managed to get a permit, Lois decided, as he grated the gears and lurched to a start as the traffic light turned green. Then she tuned out her immediate surroundings, preferring instead to concentrate on the morning's events. That a man called George Thompson had crawled out from underneath some anonymous stone in Washington and had seen fit to phone the Planet at eight thirty suggested someone was attempting damage limitation on an impressive scale. That he had invited her to visit him, saying that he wanted to talk, had inevitably further aroused her curiosity. However, she had been in the business long enough to know that this Thompson wasn't going to give her information for no reason; he undoubtedly had his own motives for wanting to see her. She could only wonder what they might be.
For a moment she regretted the fact that Clark wasn't with her. After all, he'd been affected as much by the raid as she had been, and she knew that he had been right to suggest that it was *their* story, not merely hers. However, Perry hadn't been able to track him down since he'd left the Planet the previous day, and that left the field clear for Lois to pursue the investigation on her own.
It wasn't as though she was stealing this story, she reassured herself. If Kent couldn't use a pager or get into work at a reasonable hour, then he only had himself to blame for missing out on the juicy stuff.
Clark disturbed her in a number of ways. He got to her, pulling her towards him as much by his unassuming personality as by his good looks. She wondered why that was. He wasn't particularly charismatic. Rather he was laid back and softly spoken, easy going and polite. He was the sort of person who faded into the background rather than demanding that others sat up and took notice. Yet, to her chagrin, she found that she was beginning to miss his steadfast presence when he wasn't around.
There was something about him that inspired confidence. When, during that Prometheus business, she had found herself spilling her inner-most secrets — and whatever had possessed her to do that, and to a man she had only just met? — he had seemed genuinely sympathetic and afterwards he hadn't spread his knowledge across the newsroom. In a business where gossip was considered to be a way of life, Clark Kent had turned out to be surprisingly good at keeping things to himself.
He was a study in contradictions, Lois thought. In a city where aggressive rudeness was a survival tactic, he was courteous. In a business where meeting people was essential, he was shy. A wordsmith, he was sometimes tongue-tied in speech. And, most curious of all, although he refused to be intimidated by her, he had never made any attempts to be intimidating, himself.
He was, Lois decided, a nice man. She wasn't sure if that was a compliment or not. She would have thought he was too soft to survive in the newspaper business, were it not for two things. The first was that he could undoubtedly deliver the goods. The second was that, if he was provoked enough, he would retaliate.
She thought about his little stunt with the Godzilla doll. Maybe it hadn't been a kind thing for him to do, but she found herself respecting him a lot more for having played the prank on her. Her behaviour had been appallingly unprofessional and, under the circumstances, he would have been well within his rights to have done much worse. She was grateful both for his restraint and for the understated way he had handled the incident's aftermath in the newsroom. He hadn't gloated over his triumph, choosing instead to accept her apology when everyone else was out of earshot. She was grateful, too, that he didn't bear her any grudge. As far as he was concerned, the story-poaching episode had ended with her visit to the sewage treatment facility and, thanks in large part to him, while she hadn't quite been able to put her guilty feelings from her mind, they were becoming easier to live with.
What bothered her more was that Clark had beaten her to the story of Superman's return. For Lois, nothing could be more galling than losing a great story to a competitor, especially if that competitor worked for the same newspaper. She was not, by nature, a team player; she could cope by being scooped by a rival paper, but to be scooped by a colleague! She worked hard to be the best, and to be beaten to the Superman story by a rookie out of nowhere was, for Lois, a blow of the cruellest kind.
Clark, Lois realised, was good, and had the potential to become better than merely good. It had been a long time since she had felt her position at the paper was under threat, but now she was remembering just how much she disliked the feeling.
Well, she scowled, thinking of the story that he'd produced, she'd show Clark Kent. She'd make sure he knew why she was the best, and, this time, she'd make sure that she played fair. No stealing stories, no underhand techniques. No, this time, she'd beat him fair and square, by being the best investigative reporter that she knew how to be. Maybe she'd lost a battle, but she was going to win the war.
The cabby pulled sharply into the kerb, throwing Lois off-balance in her seat and earning himself a muttered curse from his passenger. She climbed out onto the pavement and threw a few bills at him through the car's window along with a barbed remark about getting some driving tuition before he picked up another fare. She glanced at her watch. Two things crossed her mind; first, the stitching on the leather strap was unravelling and she needed either to get it mended or to replace the strap altogether, and, second, that if she didn't hurry she was going to be late for the appointment. Then she ran up the building's front steps.
Moments later she found herself being pointed in the direction of Thompson's office.
He didn't step forward to greet her, but he did stand up as she entered the room. He was, she judged with the benefit of long experience, being as courteous as manners demanded, but no more than that. If he had been genuinely happy about their business together, he would have approached her, introduced himself, and shaken her hand.
Well, she thought, if that was the way he wanted to do things, then she was more than happy to oblige. Dispensing with the amenities, she said. "Mr Thompson? Lois Lane." Without asking for permission, she set a little tape recorder up on the corner of his desk and continued. "Who exactly do you work for?"
Most interviewees responded to her bulldozer behaviour by quaking in the face of such determination and giving up their information easily. Not so Thompson who turned out to be as urbane in his speech as he was in his appearance. When he spoke, his voice told of a privileged upbringing and an expensive education. He was smooth. Too smooth, indeed, for Lois's taste. "I'm a sort of government ombudsman. I go where the problems are. Right now, my job is to get to the bottom of this incident at the Planet." While that told her, in vague terms, what he did, it didn't answer her question.
"Well, that's my job, too. What can you tell me?"
"Not much. The first step in our investigation process is to collect all eye-witness accounts."
His use of the word "our" was not lost on Lois, and she wondered once more who, precisely, he was working for, where the rest of his people might be, and why he was unwilling to part with the information. However, she let his slip pass, suspecting that she would meet with resistance if she pursued the matter. In fact, she was beginning to wonder if her coming here hadn't been a complete waste of her time. Still, there was no point in giving up until she was absolutely sure.
"Your investigation?" she asked. "What about my investigation?"
Thompson replied, "That's the other reason I'm here. Understand, we do not take it lightly when someone tries to pass himself off as an agent of the US government. Can you give us a physical description of any of the people involved?"
Lois stared at him, her eyes beginning to smoulder in a manner that should have set alarm bells ringing in Thompson's head, and would have done if he had known her better. "Let me get something straight. You're here to interview *me*?"
"Yes. And to advise you to stay out of harm's way. The person who did this is very dangerous."
All Lois's suspicious about the interview gelled into certainty; she could recognise a spin job when she encountered one. If Thompson knew that the person who had carried out the raid was "very dangerous" then, she deduced, he also knew who it was. In that case, what point could there be in asking for a description, other than to try to cover up for him? Moreover, it was most unlikely that he would tell her anything helpful. With only limited success, she struggled to hide her irritation. Biting off her words as she spoke, she said, "Mr Thompson, let me explain something to you. I do not need your protection. I came here because I thought you could help me find the man responsible for the raid. Do you have any clues? Any ideas at all?"
She wasn't surprised when Thompson failed to answer her questions, choosing instead to divert the flow of the conversation. He said, "Let me ask you a question, Ms Lane: to the best of your knowledge, does Superman have any enemies?"
With an exaggerated sigh, she reached for the tape recorder, and, clicking the stop button as she stood up, she said, "I can see that I'm wasting my time here, Mr Thompson. Good day." She spun on her heel, and exited the room without a backward glance.
Muttering murderous things about slimy mouthpieces, Lois strode out of the building and crossed the street, taking only cursory glances to make sure that it was clear of traffic. At the far side, she made a bee- line for a payphone, and put in a call to the Daily Planet. She made a mental note to see whether Perry could be persuaded to spring for a mobile; this was, after all, the nineties and a reporter of her calibre should have access to information at all times, and not have to worry about carrying around a good supply of quarters.
She was part way through giving Jimmy Olsen instructions to pull everything he could find on George Thompson for her when she saw the man himself coming out of the building. Intrigued as to where he was going in such a hurry, she slammed down the phone on Jimmy, put her fingers between her lips, and whistled shrilly for a taxi.
With a screech of brakes, a cab pulled up alongside her. She leapt in, saying, "Follow that car!" as soon as her first foot was inside the door.
The driver, who had undoubtedly watched too many detective shows, put the car into gear and pulled away from the kerb before she had sat down. She found herself losing her balance and falling against cushions for the second time in half an hour. Quickly righting herself, she leaned forward, keeping her eyes focused on her quarry.
Not five minutes later, the taxi came to a halt outside a warehouse on Bessolo Boulevard. Lois thrust some money in the direction of the driver and, not bothering to wait for change, she jumped out. Keeping to the shadows, she tailed Thompson to a door and watched him as he glanced around furtively then swept a card through a magnetic strip reader.
Without thinking about what she was doing, she darted after Thompson and wrapped her hand around the door, keeping it from shutting behind him. A few moments later she cautiously crept inside.
After passing through a second door, she ducked down behind some filing cabinets and stayed out of view as she watched Thompson walk to the far end of the warehouse and, without knocking, go into another room. She caught a glimpse of an office and of its occupant; he was no longer wearing a suit — instead he was wearing something that looked suspiciously like military fatigues — but Lois had no difficulty in recognising him as the leader of the goons from the Planet. She'd been right: Thompson did know him!
Once Thompson had closed the door behind him, Lois found her view impeded by frosted glass. She no longer had a clear view of the two men, but equally the glass had the effect of making it most unlikely that they would catch sight of her dodging closer to them. Coming to rest about fifteen feet away from the office, Lois hunkered down again, eager to see what would happen next.
Although the two men were reduced to mere silhouettes and were regrettably at enough of a distance to render their individual words indistinguishable, it was obvious from their tones that they were having some sort of dispute. She watched, mesmerised, as the leader back- handed Thompson then hit him a few times. Thompson did his best to retaliate, but Lois could tell that he was outclassed. It wasn't just because yesterday's leader was a younger and heavier man, solid with muscle. The way his silhouette moved told her that he was a trained fighter who had no compunction about hurting his opponent. Thompson, by contrast, appeared to lack both his skill and his killer instinct.
The fight came to a abrupt end with both men still standing. Thompson leaned over, and Lois suspected that he was supporting his hands on his knees as he caught his breath.
More words were exchanged then, and some sort of uneasy truce must have been reached because the door opened again, and they came into the main body of the warehouse together. They walked in silence towards the door, the tension between them radiating away from their bodies and setting the very air on edge.
Lois, who had clamped her hands across her mouth and cowered in the darkest shadows she could find as soon as the door to the inner room opened, felt her heart beat at double speed as she listened to the men's footsteps echo through the cavernous room, then fade as the far door closed behind him.
Now alone in the warehouse, Lois had the luxury of time to look around. Shafts of light reflected off dust motes hanging in the air and bounced off the concrete floor. Metal shelves, filled with objects covered with dustsheets, and randomly placed filing cabinets littered the cavernous space.
Lois eased herself out of her hiding space. Her footsteps sounded unnaturally loud to her ears as she walked over to the first row of filing cabinets. She pulled open a few drawers, and her eyes widened as she took in their contents. Blurred photos and eye-witness accounts of UFOs were recorded on something called Bureau 39's stationery, and were catalogued and sorted, both alphabetically by location and chronologically by date.
She thought incredulously, UFOs? The government got out of the UFO business back in 1969. Didn't they? Perhaps not, she realised.
She pulled out a file at random, flicked through it, and stashed it in her satchel for later examination. Then she turned her attention to the metal shelves. Pulling up a few sheets, she took in the sight of various bits of scrap metal. They looked like so much junk to her, but evidently one person's junk was another's extra-terrestrial space debris.
She continued her search, shaking her head as she worked her way through the collection, stunned by the amount of effort that had gone into amassing this stuff. However, she had seen more convincing alien spacecraft in the cinema and she found herself despairing of this waste of her tax dollars. Nothing she saw here impressed her, until, that was, at the end of one of the shelves, she espied a small object. Intrigued by its tiny size, she pulled back the sheet covering it.
The little craft looked as though it had been sorely neglected. A light soil filled in the indentations along the ship's side and the gaps between the raised relief of Superman's S-shield.
Lois gasped and recoiled in shock, letting the sheet fall untidily across its back. Here she was, in a warehouse full of UFOs, and she was confronted by a tiny craft, quite unlike anything she had ever seen before, sporting the famous symbol of Metropolis's superhero!
This, she realised, was major! This was the story that would bury Clark Kent once and for all and that, perhaps, might even be the key to that elusive Pulitzer.
Her hands shaking with excitement, she gingerly peeled back the corner of the sheet, peering underneath it before she threw it to one side. She took her time, approaching the ship with caution, almost as though she were afraid that it was going to leap into life and attack her. When nothing happened, she explored further and more boldly, looking in and around the tiny craft, searching in vain for a tag that might tell her where it had come from.
There was no tag, but her eyes finally lit upon a cloth bag resting next to the ship, and she quickly opened it. At first glance its contents didn't seem to be particularly interesting. The single object inside looked like a rather simple globe. She tipped it out into her left hand, almost dropping it when it was warmer than she'd anticipated. Then, taking a firmer hold on it, she examined it more carefully. She shrugged to herself. Perhaps it had some function she couldn't figure out. In any event, it was portable, which the ship was not, and she wanted evidence to take away with her. She quickly dropped it back into its bag, then, in its turn, she dropped the bag into her satchel.
Lois scrabbled around inside the satchel for a moment and retrieved a compact camera from its depths; she took some photographs. Then she returned to the filing cabinets, hoping to find some documentation to go with the little ship. However, she had no idea what it was she should be looking for, and she knew that she couldn't linger here; she was on borrowed time, as it was. Still, she had a couple of souvenirs now, and those, combined with her tale of how Thompson had led her to the goon from yesterday, would almost certainly be enough to convince Perry to organise a more official search of the building.
Lois made her way over to the exit, only to discover that it was locked from the outside. She rattled the door handle a few times before she accepted that trying to leave that way was an exercise in futility. Then she looked around her, high and low, looking for some other means of escape. Finally, just as desperation was about to set in, she spotted a window low enough for her to climb through.
She scoured the warehouse for an object that would be solid and heavy enough to break the glass, but still light enough for her to throw with the momentum necessary to do so. Eventually she settled on a lump of rusty metal labelled "Oblong, Illinois, January 27, 1973" which looked as though it had fallen off an old Chevy. She weighed it experimentally in her hands to get the feel of it. Then she drew back her arm and, with a force that would have made a major league pitcher envious, she launched it at the window.
The glass shattered and tinkled to the ground. The artefact from Oblong thudded onto the tarmac below, and burglar alarms began to wail.
Her heart pushed up to her throat by the noise, Lois pulled off her jacket and bunched it around her fist so she could punch out the few jagged shards of glass that still clung to the frame. Then, as gingerly as she could, she clambered through the opening. She teetered on the window ledge for a moment before she dropped to the ground outside, swearing faintly as she realised that high heels were not the ideal footwear for these kinds of gymnastics. Then, recovering her balance and stepping clear of the broken glass, she ripped her shoes off her feet and, clutching them in one hand, she ran, putting as much distance as she could between herself and the building before the police arrived.
It took time for the Planet's lawyers to navigate their way through all the red tape necessary to obtain the warrants required for a search of the building. Lois put some of the time to good use by putting the finishing polish on another story, though her mind kept wandering back to the treasure-trove she'd been forced to abandon. Once she'd sent her piece to Perry, she commenced pacing around the newsroom, the conference room and the editor's office, complaining in earnest about the slowness of the lawyers.
Finally, after five hours, the paperwork was completed, the men with briefcases taking great pains to reassure Lois that, in their terms, this had been a rush job, and that she should be pleased by their efforts, not critical.
She wasn't impressed by their arguments, and, as far as she was concerned, her opinion was vindicated when she discovered, upon her eventual return to the warehouse, this time accompanied by some faceless officials, that it had been emptied. To add insult to injury, someone had even found time to sweep it through.
By then, evening rush-hour was underway, and it took her forty minutes to make her way through the gridlock downtown and get back to the Planet.
Back in Perry's office once more, Lois sat down in his guest chair. She told him what had happened, throwing in a few colourful metaphors about the lawyers' tardiness for good measure.
As she finished, she saw Perry shaking his head sympathetically at her.
"Well," said Lois, trying to console herself, "at least I've still got the photos and the file. The story isn't a total loss."
Perry stood up, walked around his desk, and sat on its edge, changing from boss to father figure as he did so, "I'm sorry, Lois."
He didn't say anything more, but she knew what he meant: he wasn't going to publish the story. "But, Perry!" Lois wailed. "It's a great piece!"
"Sure, Lois, I know that. But I can't print it."
"Why not?" she asked petulantly.
"Now, Lois," Perry chided gently, knowing that she wasn't as naive as the question would have suggested to an outsider. Rather, she was bitterly disappointed. They needed more evidence than she had provided to back up the story, and that evidence had been whipped away from them. "You know better than to ask questions like that. We need solid proof, if we're going to run with this story."
Lois suddenly remembered the strange globe and opened her mouth to reply, but Perry forestalled her by raising his hand.
"Now," he said, "I know what you're going to say. We've got your photographs. We've got a file. But you know as well as I do that photographs can be faked, and the file doesn't have anything to do with Superman's ship. If it was his ship."
"What do you mean, 'if'?" Lois demanded. "It's got his shield on it! Look!" Lois jabbed fiercely at one of the photographs with a long finger.
"Well, you have to admit, it looks very small. In fact, it looks more like a toy than anything else."
Lois nodded. Perry had a point. "Maybe it was a supply ship, or something like that," she suggested.
"Look, Lois," said Perry, returning to his earlier point. "If you can find out what happened to the stuff in the warehouse, or if you can get an on the record confirmation from Superman that he *is* an alien, then maybe I could do something with this. But, otherwise, well, I'm sorry, but I can't take the risk. I mean, aliens? UFOs? We'd be a laughing stock! Whatever you've got, well, honey, it's just not enough."
Lois scrunched her lips up together, determinedly channelling her disappointment into anger as she left the office.
Clark Kent and Jimmy Olsen were sitting at the table in the empty conference room, chatting. Lois picked up a mug of coffee and went in to join them, as much to find out what they were doing as from any more friendly motive. She hated not knowing what other people were up to.
Clark looked up as she entered the room and smiled at her in welcome. "Hi, Lois," he said.
If anything, his good-humoured greeting soured her mood further. Why did he always have to be so pleasant? So pleased to see her? Being unpleasant to him was like hitting a puppy, she thought. He kept coming back for more attention, seemingly unable to learn a simple lesson of distrust.
Jimmy eyed her scowl, made some excuse, and dodged out of the room.
Clark, however, was either very stupid, or he was made of sterner stuff than their more junior colleague. Lois couldn't decide which it was as he held his ground and asked, "What's up?"
"What's up?" parroted Lois. "Why would you think anything is up?"
He shrugged faintly, his eyebrows raised as his lips twitched. "You don't usually scowl for no reason, Lois," he answered. "And you seem a little… tense?" She was vaguely aware that he'd made his last sentence into a question to rob it of its sting. However, in her present mood, everything stung, and she reacted angrily.
"Oh. I'm tense, am I? Well, you'd be tense, too, if you took Perry a story — not just any story, but a *great* story — and he said that that he couldn't print it!"
"Which story was that?" asked Clark.
"Only the Superman-is-an-alien-and-we-have-proof story!"
He stared up at her blankly as he said, "W…What? Superman is…?"
"An alien. Yes."
He seemed to have trouble speaking as he said, "And y… you have… proof? W… What *kind* of proof?"
Lois felt her anger begin to dissipate in the face of his reaction. Clark was more than ordinarily shocked. They'd had the same information about Superman from which to work, and, she was certain, the same possibilities had been pointed out to them both during the polygraph tests, yet, unlike Clark, she'd taken the knowledge of Superman's extra-terrestrial origins more or less in her stride. Therefore, she concluded, at least part of his shock had to be attributable to some other cause; the only other cause she could think of was herself. Not only did her discovery clearly demonstrate that she was still the best, it also undoubtedly had forcibly rammed that fact home to him. Suddenly it didn't matter quite so much that the story hadn't actually made it into print.
"Oh… photographs," Lois replied with studied nonchalance. She passed a selection of prints across to him, and watched with ill- concealed satisfaction as his jaw hung open and he scrutinised them, one by one.
"Where did you find this?" he asked at last.
Lois sat down at last, and her satisfaction waned to depression. "In a warehouse down on Bessolo Boulevard. I took the photos and brought them to Perry to persuade him to go down there and retrieve the rest of the stuff, but, by the time we got back there, the whole place had been cleared out." She sighed. "Unless I can trace that stuff, or unless I can get Superman to admit that he's an alien, this story isn't going anywhere."
Putting both hands palm down on the table, she levered herself upright again. Sitting here was doing no good, and she didn't like Clark seeing her like this, feeling defeated. As she reached the door and said, "If you see him around, tell him I'm looking for him, okay?" As she headed back into the newsroom, she wondered what had prompted her to say that. So far as she was aware, no-one knew how to contact Superman; asking Clark to pass the message on wouldn't bring her any closer to the man in blue.
She gathered together her belongings and summoned the elevator.
Clark stared, unseeing, as the door closed behind Lois's back. The stunned numbness he'd felt upon hearing Lois's revelation began to wear off, to be replaced by a gamut of questions and emotions chasing one another through his mind faster than he could follow. But, overriding everything else was the thought, I am not human.
He wasn't sure what that meant, exactly.
He took a deep shuddering breath and let it out slowly, trying desperately to calm himself.
Suddenly the conference room seemed unbearably small, its walls hemming him in. He had to get out and go somewhere to think things through, somewhere where he would not be disturbed.
Having decided on a plan of action, even if it extended only so far as getting away from the Planet building, Clark felt fractionally better. He grabbed his jacket, slung it over his shoulders, and headed for the stairwell, his fingers toying impatiently with the knot on his tie as he went.
He was in luck. The stairwell was empty. Before the door clicked shut behind him he'd spun into his Superman suit. Then his feet were off the floor and he was diving upwards, slicing through the air. An open window beckoned and, faster than a human eye could follow, he flew skywards.
It was drizzling, almost more of a heavy mist than real rain, but Clark, with his thoughts turned inwards, didn't feel the wet that soaked into his clothes and hair. He didn't pay any heed to the rapidly cooling temperatures as he climbed ever higher, nor did he notice when he left the clouds behind him. Only when he reached the outer limits of the Earth's atmosphere did he come back to himself and draw to a halt.
He hung suspended for a moment, surprised at where he'd ended up. He hadn't deliberately set out to come here, but, now that he'd arrived, he realised that it was as good a place as any to think. In fact, it was better than most as he was out of earshot of any distractions. For once he was selfish enough to want to take advantage of the luxury of total silence.
He floated, staring first at the planet beneath him, the only home he'd ever known, and then at the stars above from where, he now knew, he had come.
He hadn't needed Bureau 39's interrogation to drum into him the possibility that he wasn't human. He'd known for a long time that he might not be; the circumstances of his arrival in Smallville and the strange array of powers he'd developed as he grew up invited such speculation. Yet, he had always preferred the "Russian experiment" scenario painted by his parents. Despite his uniqueness, being an extra- terrestrial just wasn't the first thing to pop into his mind as an explanation for why he was the way he was.
He cast his mind back to the photographs that Lois had shown him. The glyphs on the spaceship bore no resemblance to any of the many human languages that Clark knew. Add to that the circumstances under which Lois had found it, and only one conclusion seemed possible.
The possibility that he was an alien wasn't new. The certainty, however, was, and it was deeply and unexpectedly shocking.
Clark turned to lie on his stomach, staring down at the clouds and the patches of planet that were visible through their breaks. Earth was the only home that he had ever wanted. Given that, how did he feel about his new-found self knowledge?
Conflicted, he decided. On the one hand, he had the first ever concrete knowledge about his past; just as he'd said to Lois only a couple of days ago, it was the not knowing that tore at the hearts and souls of adopted children. He'd always, on one level, needed to know who — what — he was.
Yet, on another level, he was honest enough to realise that needing and wanting were not the same. The circumstances of his arrival on Earth were so unusual that he had never been able to come up with a plausible scenario as to where he had come from from which he could draw any real comfort. No matter how hard he tried, he could find no explanation that didn't involve, at best, callousness, and at worst, out and out cruelty as far as he was concerned. He had been an infant when, at a time he should have been dependent on his parents' care and protection, he had been sealed alone in his tiny little craft and sent away. No matter how hard he tried, Clark could think of no circumstances under which such actions might be justified.
Yes, he had needed to know where he had come from, but he'd always feared the answers.
More than that, though, he realised that he'd *wanted* to be human. To be human and different was bad enough, but to not be human to begin with merely served to accentuate the alienation that he felt. He grimaced at the unintentional pun.
That, he supposed, explained why he had never asked his parents about the ship, and why he had never tried to find it. He hadn't been ready for the truths that he might learn.
Was he ready now? he wondered. He wasn't sure, but ready or not the truths were finding him. The agents had evidently known that he was an alien; their questions had been designed only to discover how much he, Clark Kent, knew.
Lois had found out that he wasn't native to Earth, and, knowing Lois as he did, he was certain that she would be digging for more information. To protect himself, he realised, he had to learn what both she and the agents already knew; not knowing made him feel peculiarly vulnerable.
Clark, nodding to himself, resolved to start taking control of his history for himself.
He pointed himself towards Metropolis, and the obvious place to start his quest.
The silence in the apartment told her that Lucy had gone out for the evening. Lois closed the door behind her and felt another wave of disappointment wash over her. She kicked off her shoes and padded barefoot through to the bedroom. She sat down on the edge of the bed, too tired to change into something more suitable for wearing around the apartment, and found herself thinking back over the events of the day.
It should have been a great day, but, all told, it had been almost unbearably frustrating. True, she had found the warehouse, but she had just as quickly lost everything once more. She'd found out something newsworthy about Superman, but she couldn't publish it. In fact, the only good thing had been managing to take Clark down a peg or two, but even that hadn't left her with any long lasting satisfaction.
She sighed. She seemed to be doing a lot of that today.
*So*, she thought, *Superman is an alien*. She wondered what that meant, exactly. There was something appealing abut the idea of an advanced — and his people must have been technologically advanced for him to have got here in the first place — and benevolent being coming to Earth. What lessons might he teach humanity? What technological wonders did he have access to? How much could he teach humans about the best way to live their lives? Could this almost- godlike being impart moral guidance to Earth's populace?
She swung her feet up off the floor and sprawled out across the bed, propping her head up in her left hand. Then she reached into her satchel with her right and pulled out the globe. She rolled onto her back and cradled it in her hands, drawing reassurance from its presence that the day hadn't been some sort of horrible nightmare. She passed it between her hands, then gently threw it in the air and caught it again. She rolled it over the bedspread, and stared at it. What was it? she wondered. What was it for?
She shrugged. No matter how hard she tried to figure it out, she failed. Frustrated, she put the globe back in its bag. She leaned over, pulled open the top drawer of her dresser, and carefully settled her souvenir into a back corner where it was likely to pass unobserved by any casual observer.
A gentle tapping on her open living room window alerted Lois to an unexpected presence. She jumped up, feeling guilty, as though she had been caught doing something wrong — which, admittedly, she almost had been. She automatically ran her hands down her body to smooth her skirt, and walked into the next room with a curiously bashful smile on her face.
"Come on in, Superman."
He crossed over the threshold and came to a halt just inside. He stood with his arms crossed over his chest and his mouth set in a stern line. Lois smiled as she took in what Metropolis had already come to know as the classic superhero pose. Then she saw the determined look in his eyes, and her smile faltered.
"I heard you've been looking for me," he said.
Her mouth tightened. Just when she'd thought the day couldn't get any more difficult, it had. For Superman to know that she wanted to talk to him, he must have spoken to Clark, and for Clark to have met the hero, he must have stumbled across another exclusive. That thought made her react more brusquely than she might have done under other circumstances. She stiffened her spine, resolutely fighting the attraction and awe that had made her tongue-tied the first time she had met Superman, and said, "So, have you come to give me an interview?"
The question seemed to take him off-guard. "What about?" he asked.
"About your origins, of course. About your home planet. About why you didn't think it was worth mentioning before that you're not human."
Superman stared at her, apparently at a loss to know how to reply.
"Well?" she prompted.
Instead of answering her, he asked her a question of his own. "Please, I'd like to know… what else did you find?"
"What makes you think I found anything else?"
"There must be more. I'd like to know what it is."
The audacity of the man! How dared he come waltzing into her apartment, demanding to know what she knew about him! But then she realised that he hadn't actually demanded to know anything; he'd asked politely.
"Why, Superman? Are you afraid of what I might learn?"
He glanced away from her. "I'm curious," he said, and Lois took note that he hadn't answered the question.
Lois gave his response careful thought. Finally she said, "Okay. Let's trade. I'll tell you what I know, if you fill in the gaps for me."
Suddenly finding the floor at his feet fascinating, Superman said, "I'm sorry, Lois. I can't do that."
Lois folded her arms. "Then we have a problem. I don't give up information for nothing, Superman."
He sighed. "I was afraid you'd say that. Still, coming here was worth a shot." He looked at her at last and said, again very politely, "I'm sorry to have wasted your time."
He turned to leave, but Lois called him back just as he began to float out of the window, "Wait, Superman!"
He turned back to face her, his expression unreadable.
"Why can't you fill in the gaps for me?"
He stared at her, and again she had the feeling that he didn't know what to say. She realised that the question had, for some reason, unnerved him, and she decided to press her advantage.
"How many other people… like you… are there on Earth? Are you breaking some tribal taboo if you talk to me? What?"
"No," he said. "Nothing like that."
Her question was again met with silence. Superman seemed to be weighing matters carefully in his own mind.
She pressed him for more answers. "What was that ship I found? It's so tiny… What did it have in it? What was it for?"
Finally he said, "If I answer your questions, I think you will know far too much about me."
"You *are* scared of what I might find out, aren't you?" she asked again, amazed as the truth of it sank in.
"Yes," he admitted this time, smiling faintly. "You are, without doubt, a brilliant journalist. If I give you any more clues about me, then I think you could find out things I'd rather you didn't. And just by saying that, I'm sure that I've already said too much." Then, in a flash of colour, he was gone, leaving Lois feeling more frustrated than ever. Superman had slipped through her hands without leaving her with anything she could use.
The story was a bust.
As was frequently the case when he was troubled, Clark found himself drawn back to his childhood home. There he knew he would find comfort and support, love and acceptance. In a world that sometimes seemed unforgiving of his differences, Clark valued his parents and the farm more than anything else.
Clark hovered over the farmhouse, checking that there were no visitors around. It would be hard to explain away Clark's appearance in the middle of the countryside with no transport; if anyone other than his parents were there, he decided, he would go back to Metropolis.
A quick glance told him that the truck was missing. Further examination found his father sitting in his favourite armchair, his feet up. The television played softly in the background as he read a farming magazine. Of his mother there was no sign.
Clark lowered himself onto the stoop then pushed the unlocked front door open. He called out as he did so. "Hey, Dad! It's me!"
As Clark walked into the living room, Jonathan Kent scrambled to his feet. He smiled warmly, opened his arms to invite Clark into a hug, and said, "Hello, son. Good to see you."
"You too, Dad," said Clark.
Jonathan heard the flatness in his son's voice and noticed the way that Clark prolonged the embrace longer than was strictly necessary as he drew comfort from the contact. "Something's wrong, isn't it," he asked, worried.
"I… Yeah." Clark stepped back, spun, and came to rest once more, this time clad in jeans and a shirt. He eyes were wide with tension and confusion as he looked at Jonathan.
"Your mom's not here," Jonathan said. "Art class." The two men shared an indulgent yet wry glance. "Will I do on my own?"
Clark nodded. "Dad…" He sat down at one end of the sofa, adopting a deliberately relaxed pose as he rested one arm across the sofa's arm and the other along its back. He loosely crossed his ankles. "Something happened."
Jonathan, himself seated once more, shot a shrewd look in Clark's direction. He pointed the remote at the television and turned it off. He could see that this was no time for distractions. "And you want to talk about it." It was a statement, not a question.
"Yeah," said Clark, relieved by his father's matter of fact manner. He hadn't really expected anything else, but it was a relief, nonetheless. He raised uncertain eyes towards Jonathan as he said, "Dad… I'm not human." It felt strange to finally say the words out loud.
"What do you mean?"
"We always knew it was a possibility, right? Well, now I know."
Clark hesitated for a moment. He shifted in his seat, planting both feet on the floor, and letting his hands dangle between his knees. He looked down as he tried to marshal his thoughts together. Finally he said, "It all started yesterday." He proceeded to explain about the raid, pausing just long enough to reassure his father that his secret was still safe. He explained how he'd been asked whether Superman was an alien, and how he'd answered truthfully that he didn't know.
"Son," said Jonathan, interrupting the recitation, "just because some men asked questions doesn't mean-"
"No, wait, Dad," said Clark, cutting into his father's sympathy. "Let me finish." He then told of Lois's visit to the warehouse and, finally, about the photographs.
Silence fell as Clark completed his tale. Jonathan looked at Clark thoughtfully, trying to take everything in. Clark stared back, his eyes wide open, almost beseeching, vulnerable. Finally, unable to stand the quiet any longer, he said, "Dad… I need to know… about how you found me. I want to know… everything."
Jonathan nodded. He began to speak. "May 17, 1966. We were driving past Shuster's field when…"
Not much of the story was new to Clark. However, there were unexpected details in the familiar history, such as how, fearing discovery, Jonathan had resolved to destroy the ship but had, at the last minute, chosen to bury it instead. He'd thought that it would be safe, if he hid it well, but now, twenty eight years later, he'd discovered that it had, nonetheless, been unearthed.
When he was done the painful silence fell once again. Falling back on the old-family cure-all, Jonathan left Clark to his thoughts and disappeared to put the kettle on. He returned several minutes later with a mug of herbal tea in each hand.
Clark took one from him, wrapping his palm around its body, heedless of the heat that could not hurt him. He waited until Jonathan had settled himself back into his chair then he said tentatively, "Does it… Does it make a difference?"
Jonathan frowned, unsure precisely what it was that Clark was asking. "How do you mean?"
"My not being… human. Does it matter?"
Jonathan looked at Clark thoughtfully. "To me, do you mean?"
Avoiding his gaze, Clark nodded.
"Of course not," Jonathan said. "You're my son. Nothing can change that."
Clark sighed silently, doing his best to hide his relief, but he knew that Jonathan could see the tension in his shoulders ease. He hoped his father wouldn't feel insulted that he had even felt the need to ask the question; it was unlikely he would because, as Clark was aware, his father knew he had always been plagued with self-doubt and fear. To some extent, Jonathan was to blame for that; his own paranoia that Clark would be taken away if it were known how he had come to them had inevitably transmitted itself to the boy.
"You're not happy about this, are you?" Jonathan said.
"I… don't know. I honestly don't know what to think, Dad."
Jonathan licked his lips. Thinking aloud, he said, "Maybe it's a good thing."
Surprised by Jonathan's observation, Clark said, "Good?"
"Well, you've always wondered why you were so different, Clark."
Clark smiled wryly as he recalled pain-filled conversations he'd had with his parents as a teenager. Every time he'd discovered a new power, he'd ask, "What's *wrong* with me?!" to which his parents would inevitably answer, "There's nothing wrong with you, Clark." Their unconditional love for him had undoubtedly done much to ease his passage into adulthood; if they'd ever had any misgivings, they'd done a remarkably good job of hiding them from him.
Remembering those past conversations Clark said, "You mean, what's wrong with me, right, Dad?" He spoke the words softly, with the faintest hint of painful humour colouring them. His eyes met Jonathan's and he could see that Jonathan, too, was remembering the past.
Jonathan smiled kindly. "Like we always said, there's nothing wrong with you. I guess this just goes to explain something your mother and I always knew. You're special, Clark. We always knew that. Now we know why."
Clark watched Jonathan intently, soaking up his words, reassurance and wisdom hungrily. Seeing that, Jonathan repeated, "There's nothing wrong with you, Clark. All those things you can do… It's not because you're a mutant or an experiment. They're obviously a part of you. They're perfectly normal — for you."
"You think other people from… wherever it is I come from… You think they'd be like me, too?"
"That'd be my guess, yes. I know all you've ever said you wanted is to be normal."
"Well, I'd guess that normal for you is being super."
"I guess I never thought about it like that before," admitted Clark, comforted beyond words by the notion.
This time the silence that fell between them was easier. They drank their tea, enjoying both its curative properties and the tranquillity of the farmhouse. When they were both done, Clark reluctantly said, "I guess I'd better be getting back to Metropolis now. Tell Mom I'm sorry I missed her."
Jonathan escorted Clark onto the porch. He watched as Clark spun back into the Superman outfit.
Clark allowed himself to levitate six inches off the ground, then he paused, looked at his father and said, "I'm going to have to find out more, Dad."
Jonathan looked at him expectantly, waiting for him to explain what he meant by that.
"There are people out there who know more about me than I do, myself." He shook his head. "I've got to learn what they know."
Jonathan nodded. "It's only natural that you would want to know where you come from."
"Yeah. But it's not just that, Dad. I don't feel *safe* not knowing."
Jonathan nodded again. That made sense, too. "So, what are you going to do?" he asked.
Clark shrugged infinitesimally. "I'm sure yet. But I'll work something out."
"I know you will."
"Bye," Clark said, and shot into the sky, leaving his haven behind him.
However, before the farm had disappeared completely from view, he heard his father's voice drift up behind him, saying, "Good luck, son."
Lois filled in the time as she waited for the first coffee of the working day to filter by skimming through the morning edition of the Daily Planet. She was satisfied to see that her article on the police department's budget cuts had made page one, and she read with interest the editorial based around the issue that Perry had included. Then she flipped through a few pages, looking to find something else of interest.
She frowned as something struck her as odd: there were no Superman stories in the morning edition. That begged the question, if Clark hadn't spotted Superman mid feat, so to speak, how had he met up with him the night before? She had taken him at his word when he had said he had been in the right place at the right time to get his first exclusive. Now she wasn't so sure; what if he had some inside track on Superman? What would that do to her position on the paper?
*Nah,* she thought. *You just had a lousy day yesterday, and you're being paranoid. How could Clark possibly have a link to Superman?* Thinking that was almost as absurd as thinking he had a hot line to Santa Claus.
As the coffee machine spluttered to signal that the last of the water had bubbled into the filter, her eyes were drawn towards Clark Kent's by- line. It was, she realised, the adoption piece he'd been working on a couple of days before. Her attention caught, she folded the paper back on itself, then in half, so that it wasn't so unwieldy, and she began to read.
It was powerful stuff, she realised, just as she had feared that it would be. Clark had pulled no emotional punches, but he'd managed to keep the article from being overly sensational. She found herself nodding in places as she read about an ongoing campaign to increase the transparency of the adoption process and the negative effects that secrecy could have upon adoptees. He hadn't ignored the stance taken by opponents of reform, and he had put forward their case clearly; however, it was clear that Clark's sympathies lay with the adoptees who wanted to trace their roots.
The machine's silence dragged her attention back towards her errand, and she quickly poured herself a mug of the fresh coffee, added whitener and sweetener, and stirred it briskly. Then she picked up the paper and proceeded to walk back to her desk, reading as she went. She had just put the mug and paper on her desk, and was about to sit down, when a nearby phone rang. Lois scuttled over and picked it up.
"Clark Kent's desk," Lois said into the handset.
"Oh, hello," a woman's voice at the other end of the connection said. "Is Clark around?"
"No," answered Lois. "I think he had to step out for a minute. Do you want me to take a message?"
"Yes. If that wouldn't be too much trouble."
Lois raised her eyebrows at the politeness. "No. No trouble at all," she said.
"This is his Mom. If you could just ask him to phone home I'd-"
Lois cut into the message. "Hold on a moment, Mrs Kent. He's just come in." Then cupping her hand over the mouthpiece, and waving the handset in mid-air, she yelled, "Clark! It's your mother!"
Clark grinned his thanks at her as she handed the phone to him, and she angrily clamped down on her automatic desire to smile in response. Why did her body always have to behave so treacherously in the face of that grin?
As Lois turned away, she heard Clark say, "Hi, Mom… Oh, so Dad told you… No, I'm fine. Really. It came as a bit of a shock at first, but I'm okay now."
Lois frowned. Something was wrong? Wrong enough to prompt his mother to phone from Kansas to check up on him? Clark hadn't mentioned anything to her. Of course, there was no reason why on Earth he should have done, but… She concentrated, trying to hear more.
"Yeah. Well, you have to admit, it does explain an awful lot… Yeah. I'd like to know that, too… Maybe I'll have another go tonight… Love you too, Mom. I'll call you later, okay? Bye."
He put the phone down, and stared at it thoughtfully for a few moments. Then he stood up and made as though to go to the coffee pot.
Lois picked up her mug once more and waylaid him. "So," she asked. "What was that all about?"
"Hm? Oh. Nothing. Just… family stuff."
"You sure? I mean, if there's anything I can do…" The surprised look on his face mirrored the surprise that she felt internally. Whatever had prompted her to be nice to him? Even more surprisingly, she found that she actually wanted to help, if she could. God, when had he started to get under her skin? She didn't have time for this!
"Thank you, Lois. I appreciate that."
A rare moment of accord passed between them, and they exchanged smiles. He had, Lois had to admit, a wide repertoire of the most beautiful smiles. They ranged from small and shy to, when he grinned or was amused, broad and blazing. When that happened, his perfect teeth gleamed against his sallow skin, and the amusement always reached his eyes, causing the skin around them to crinkle into laughter lines.
"By the way," she said, shifting the subject slightly, "I read your piece in today's paper."
He looked at her, raising his eyebrows.
"You know," she reminded him. "The article on adopted kids?"
He nodded, indicating that he was listening.
"It was good," she said grudgingly. Then, more honestly, she said, "Actually, it was better than good. It was great. You really seemed to identify with them."
"Thank you. That means a lot to me, coming from you."
"You and your parents are close?" Lois asked idly, thinking back to the easy familiarity with which he had spoken to his mother and the fact that he had obviously recently spoken to his father.
Lois shrugged faintly. "Your mom sounds nice."
Clark nodded at the apparent non sequitur. "She is," he agreed. "They both are really great. They're more than just family. They're also my friends."
"You're lucky," said Lois, feeling a strange pang of envy as she wondered what it must be like to have a closely knit family wherein you could rely on each other for comfort and support; the concept was foreign to her. "I can't remember the last time I spoke to my father. And Mother… Well, let's just say that talking to her is more of a duty than a pleasure."
Clark's sincerity was obvious as he said, "I'm sorry."
She shrugged his sympathy away and said, "It doesn't matter. I've got my sister, and I guess that's enough family for me." Lois drained the last of her coffee from her mug and realised that she had drunk the whole of its contents in the course of her conversation with Clark.
Why, she wondered, as she made her way to her desk, did he make her relax in his presence? What was it about him that made her talk of things better left unsaid? Why did he seem to care about her when she was so determined not to care about herself?
She pushed the thoughts aside as she sat down. Then she wrote a brief outline for her next article and began to make some calls.
The soft tapping on her window made Lois jump. She fumbled the ice- cream tub and spoon in her hands, but managed not to drop them. Instead she quickly put them aside, wiped her mouth to remove any tell-tale signs of her self-indulgent snacking, and stood up. "Come in, Superman," she said. "It's open."
He drifted to the ground and stood watching her. He seemed to be waiting for her to say something, but that was ridiculous, Lois thought. After all, he had come to see her, not the other way round. Presumably he'd had a reason for coming. Nonetheless, she found herself filling in the silence. "I didn't expect to see you again," she said. "Not after the way we left things last night."
"I'm sorry about that, Lois," he said, "and I was wondering…"
"Could we start that conversation again?"
She stared at him, puzzled, but she said nothing. Instead she waited for him to continue.
"You were right," said Superman. "I *am* frightened of what you might find out about me, but I want — I *need* — to know what you've learned." He fell silent, apparently unsure as to how to proceed.
There was something almost endearing about seeing the hero standing tongue-tied in her living room. Lois took pity on him, smiling sympathetically. "Curiosity overrides fear, huh?"
"Yeah," he said, his lips twitching in a way that struck her as being vaguely familiar. However, she couldn't think where she might have seen that expression before. "That's just about it."
"So, you want to trade information?" she asked.
Suddenly he seemed wary. "That depends," he said, "on what you intend to do with any information I might give you."
Lois raised her eyebrows. She was a journalist. What did he *think* she wanted the information for? However, she didn't voice the question. Instead she said, "You don't trust me to treat the story honestly. Is that it?"
Superman smiled faintly. "Oh, I have no doubt that you would be *honest*, Lois. It's just that I'm not sure I want to find my personal life plastered across the front page of the Daily Planet. Forgive me, but everything I know about you tells me that you'd put your work before almost everything else, and I don't have much faith in your… compassion."
Lois's eyes narrowed. Was she really that hard? She decided that, yes, she probably was. That was, after all, precisely the kind of front that she had been trying to cultivate all these years, but, now that even Superman had been taken in by it, she found herself wondering if she hadn't gone too far. "And… what if I said that this conversation will be totally off the record?"
"That would help."
"All right, then." She held out her hand, daring him to seal a pact. "I promise that, whatever I learn from you here, tonight, I won't publish it without your permission. It stays between us."
Superman seemed to hesitate for a moment, then he took her hand in his own. His skin felt warm and smooth against hers, and Lois felt a shiver run up her spine in response to his touch.
"And I promise," he said, "to tell you what I know."
Lois nodded her approval. "Shall we sit down?" she asked, gesturing towards the love seats. She was mildly disappointed when Superman chose to sit opposite, rather than next to, her.
"Okay," she said. "You first."
"All I know is…" he hesitated again. "All I know is what you found."
"All I ever knew is what my parents — my adoptive parents — told me. I was a baby. They found me in a spaceship. You asked me what the spaceship was for: well, it was to carry me — as a child — to Earth. They had no idea where I came from, and neither did I, until I heard about your story. I guess, we always knew it was a possibility that I wasn't human, especially after my powers started to develop. But we didn't *know*. For all we knew, I could have been some weird Russian experiment."
She felt a momentary flash of anger at the lack of information she was receiving. She thought that he had been going to tell her about the secrets of his origins. Instead she was getting nothing. However, she realised, that was also information of a kind. It meant *he* didn't know anything, and, in turn, that suggested… She flung the thought from her head; she didn't have time to think about it now.
If what he was telling her was a cover story, she thought, it was good one. It gave him the perfect excuse to tell her nothing. But the awful thing was that she believed him. It certainly explained his curiosity in a way that little else could. For some reason Clark's words from their conversation several days ago echoed in her mind. "It's that not knowing that kills ya."
Watching Superman's face, she could see that was exactly what it was doing to him, eating him from within. It was bad enough, she thought, for human kids to wonder where they'd come from. How much worse must it be for this man, who apparently hadn't even realised that he wasn't human until he'd heard about her discovery? …
"I'm sorry," she said inadequately.
He shrugged. "It's not your fault."
"No. But I do feel bad because…" She stood up and disappeared into the next room. When she returned, she was holding her souvenir from the warehouse in her hands. She held it out to him and said, "I think this might belong to you."
"What is it?" he asked eagerly.
"I've no idea. It looks like a globe of some sort, but it was next to your spaceship, so I guess the two things were together."
He took the object from her outstretched hands and examined it minutely. As she'd said, it looked like a globe, showing the land masses of Earth silhouetted in a dark green against a paler background. "It feels warm," he said.
"I know," said Lois. "Any idea what it is?"
Superman shook his head. "None whatsoever."
Then, to their joint astonishment, the object began to glow and the colours and patterns on its surface began to shift. The land reddened and the shapes changed. Superman's face took on a look of wonder and he whispered, "Krypton!"
"Pardon?" asked Lois, uncertain as to what was happening.
Superman looked up from the marvellous artefact he held and said, "Krypton. I'm from a planet called Krypton!"
"But how…?" asked Lois. "I mean, how do you know?"
"I don't know how I know. But I do. The globe told me somehow." He looked at her, and his eyes were filled his wonder.
"Wow," she said breathlessly. "That's amazing."
"Yes," he said softly. "It is." He looked down at the globe again, silently begging it to say something else, but it was quiescent once more.
After a few moments he looked at her again and said in a hushed voice, "Thank you, Lois. Having this means a lot to me."
Puzzled by his reaction she asked, "You're not mad at me for taking this? For not telling you about it sooner?"
He answered her with a question. "Should I be?"
*Yes*, thought Lois, *you should. I would be, if I were in your shoes. But then, I suppose, your generous nature is just one more reason why you're Superman.* Out loud, however, she simply said, "I guess it's up to you, but I'm glad that you're not."
Suddenly his head cocked and he said, "I'm sorry, but I must go. Bank alarm."
"Oh," she said, startled at this display of his abilities. Then she watched as he vanished in a blur of red and blue.
The curtains rippled in his wake. Lois stood watching them for a few moments as they settled down. Then she retrieved her ice-cream tub and made herself comfortable on one of the love seats, curling her feet up under her.
The more she thought about it, the more she wanted to do something for Superman. When she had first met him, he had seemed like a god. He had been confident, strong, and powerful in a way that transcended the physical. He had been admirable.
He was still all those things, she thought, but as she spent time with him, she found her perception of him altering. Her image of him as an advanced alien who could teach humanity was receding as she was coming to see that the reality was quite different from her dreams. The only lessons Superman could teach the people of Earth were those that could be learned by any human being. Superman's decency didn't stem from other worldly knowledge, but from the fact that he managed to live up to humanity's ideals better than most humans. Of course, his powers aided him in his fight for good, but Lois could see that they were simply tools he used, nothing more.
The more she thought about it, the more certain she became that Superman was not the omniscient creature that others admired or feared. As he allowed her to catch glimpses of the person inside the costume he became more three-dimensional somehow, and, she realised, she was beginning to find Superman the man more admirable than Superman the god could ever have been; she felt her instinctive worship and awe begin to shade into a more reasoned respect, accompanied by the first stirrings of friendship.
Flying was, for Clark, the best part about being himself. There was a joyous exhilaration to be had from climbing free of Earth's bonds, letting the air brush against his face, seeing the world spread beneath him. Flying offered him comfort when he was troubled because it allowed him to put distance between himself and the world with which he sometimes felt so at odds; when he was happy it enabled him to express his joy in a physical manner that he would have been hard pressed to explain. He would soar and dive, performing aerial acrobatics with enthusiasm. He would revel in the opportunity to just be.
After handing the bank robbers over to the police, Clark found that he was too excited to go home immediately. He knew that he was too keyed up to sleep, and he wanted to work off some of his excess energy.
His visit to Lois's had been more successful than he could have dared hope. He'd gone there with no small amount of trepidation, uncertain as to the kind of reception he might expect. However, to his surprise, Lois, who guarded her information and sources jealously, and who wanted a tangible return on every story she put effort into, had promised to keep their conversation off the record. Her promise had given him an unexpected insight into his colleague's personality, hinting at a gentler, more reasonable, person lurking beneath her professional mask.
The sky over Metropolis was awash with stars even through the light pollution, and the heavens beckoned, calling him. It was a familiar siren song, and one that he seldom tried to resist, lonely though it was to float alone in the empty heavens. Perhaps one day, he thought, he would have someone to share the experience with, and he found himself hoping that someone would be Lois.
Perhaps it was a ridiculous dream. She'd barely noticed Clark, only paying attention to his creation. However, just for the moment, the reality of the situation was lost to him as he was caught on a wave of euphoria.
Was it so stupid of him to think that they had shared something special together, back in her apartment? It wasn't just the sharing of confidences, but also the fact that she had witnessed a pivotal and deeply personal moment in his life and, to all appearances, she had been as moved by the experience as he had been.
Clark had been attracted to Lois from the first moment that he had seen her. To begin with, he had rationalised her attractiveness as being physical or hormonal. Certainly, he had been attracted to her before he had a chance to get to know her, and he still didn't know her very well. But he had met beautiful women before, and none of them had ever touched him in the way that Lois did.
He was fascinated by her, and even her most caustic words failed to dissuade him from his desire to be with her. Now, to discover that she could, given the right set of circumstances, transcend her work obsession just stoked the flames of that fascination. Yet more intoxicating was the thought that she had done it for him.
That reflection carried him on to another aspect of the evening. He had a name to conjure with. Krypton. The name of the planet from which he had come.
He turned his head towards the sky and stared at the stars. Which one, he wondered, was his? Was it even visible to the naked eye? He focused outward, picking up pinpoints of light that were beyond human vision, and realised just how remote the chances of his being able to identify the correct one were. Maybe, he thought, it wasn't even on this side of the planet.
There were hundreds — no, thousands — of questions to ask, but, for now, he was content to savour the tiny scrap of knowledge he'd acquired. He was from Krypton. So that made him what? A Kryptonian? He nodded to himself. It sounded right to him.
Clark came to a halt and allowed himself to drift on the breeze. Aloud, knowing that no-one could hear him, he said, trying on the words for size, "My name is Clark Kent, and I come from the planet Krypton." Then, louder, with more confidence, he said it again. And again. Then, finally, he shouted the words, sharing his secret with the night.
His new-found identity settled over him, and, despite all the misgivings he'd expressed to his father just twenty-four hours before, he found himself embracing the fact of it with gratitude. He knew who — what — he was at last.
And it was all thanks to Lois.
All thoughts came back to Lois who, somehow, had become the focus of his being. Clark smiled at the thought, and willingly embraced that self-knowledge, too.
Lois looked up from the motley assortment of papers on her desk, tilted her head back and closed her eyes, absent-mindedly rolling a pencil against the balls of her fingertips. The file she had been studying was officially "dead", and she'd had to spend half an hour going through boxes and getting covered in dust in the Daily Planet's basement before she'd found it.
She wondered how could she have had the audacity to write her adoption story three years ago when she'd had no empathy for the pain of the adoptees looking for their roots. Then she remembered; she'd written it because she had been made to. She remembered she hadn't enjoyed the experience, and that she had put as little effort into the venture as she thought she could get away with. She had collected all the research she'd needed, but, at the time, she hadn't cared enough about her article to think about the implications of what she learned and afterwards she'd let her new knowledge slip from her mind as though she was a student after finals.
Now, though, she wanted that information. She wanted to understand what was driving Superman to tell her things that he would have preferred to have kept private. She wanted to understand his need to know.
Lois sighed softly. She remembered the look on Superman's face when the globe had "spoken" to him. She had seen how much that touch of home had meant to him, even though it had done no more than give him a label for where he came from. It was as though the mere act of touching the artefact had given him something precious. Perhaps it had, she realised. He'd somehow lost track of the ship that had brought him to Earth; perhaps this was the first time, to his memory, that he had had any kind of contact with his heritage.
She sat bolt upright, startled by the realisation that that was undoubtedly the case. He'd said that he hadn't even known that he wasn't human until he'd heard about her photographs.
According to what she had just read, there was a theory that suggested the separation of a child from its natural mother, after nine months (or, Lois supposed, whatever the Kryptonian equivalent was) in the womb, could leave psychological scars, no matter how loving the adoptive parents. Even in the happiest household, the adopted child could suffer from a persistent sense of a failure to belong. Adoptees worried about their medical history, wondering what unknown diseases might linger in their genes and about what unknown, and unsuspected, diseases they might pass on to their offspring. The culmination of all these things was a need to *know*, to *understand* their heritage. And that was just human children. How much worse must it be for Superman?
She found herself thinking about something else, something she'd realised last night but which had slipped from her mind in the wake of the other discoveries that had followed immediately afterwards.
He'd told her that he'd been adopted as a baby, but Superman had only appeared a couple of weeks ago. For Superman to have grown to adulthood unnoticed meant that he must have been either living as a hermit, hidden in some barren outpost of civilisation, or he had to have been hiding *himself* away, camouflaging himself and living as a human. That, in turn, meant that Superman must have another identity, and that meant…
Her thoughts were dizzying. Superman was — or, at least, had been — someone else. It was an incredible thought. She could have walked past him on the street and never have known.
Unconscious of what she was doing, or the maddening effect it had on all her colleagues who were unlucky enough to be within earshot, Lois began to beat out a syncopated rhythm on her desk with her pencil.
She'd decided that there was no future in doing a story on her discovery of the UFO stockpile when the Superman angle hadn't panned out. However, perhaps she'd been premature to do so. The warehouse undoubtedly contained not just his secret, but also other newsworthy items. Indeed, its very existence was newsworthy. Why hadn't she seen that before?
Because, a little voice chided her, you've been blinded by Superman. There is more to the news than stories about the boy in blue.
She wanted to help Superman.
She wanted a great story.
Maybe, she realised belatedly, there was a way that she could satisfy both her desires. All she needed to do was trace the missing material from the warehouse…
She wondered how she might go about doing just that. As she thought about her options she stopped tapping on the desktop, and instead began tapping the pencil's blunt end against her teeth. Finally, having decided upon a possible course of action, she went to see Perry.
She knocked lightly on the frame of the open door and poked her head into his office. She asked, "Have you got a minute?"
Perry looked up from the mock-up of the front page he was annotating and said, "No, but when did that ever stop you before? Come on in and tell me what's on your mind."
Lois came to a halt a couple of paces short of Perry's desk and, tying her fingers into intricate knots as she fidgeted, she broached the subject that was uppermost in her mind. "It's about the UFO warehouse thing…"
"You said, before you'd run it, I'd have to get an on the record statement from Superman-"
"I remember," said Perry, cutting her off. "You got a quote from the big guy?"
"Not exactly, no. Actually, I was thinking about working this from the opposite angle."
"I want to trace the stuff that was removed from the warehouse."
"And how do you intend to do that?"
"Well," said Lois, "I was thinking… The lawyers drew Thompson out of the woodwork when they were phoning all around Washington, trying to find someone who'd admit to knowing anything about the raid, so…"
"If you give me a list of who they talked to, I could take it from there. Someone had to have a link to this Bureau 39. I just need to find out who it was."
Perry nodded thoughtfully, then, after a moment's reflection, he said, "Okay. I'll give you twenty-four hours to turn something up. But after that I'll have to put you on another story. Okay?"
"Okay, Perry. Fair enough."
By a quarter to one Lois's shoulders and back were stiff from hunching to cradle the phone against her ear, and her notepad was covered with a myriad of tiny doodles, about half of which were variations on Superman's S. She rolled her eyes as, for what felt like the hundredth time, the muzak cut out to be replaced by the artificial cadences of a recorded message. Lois didn't bother listening to the words; she'd spent most of her morning on hold with various organisations, and all their messages sounded the same. "Thank you for calling [insert name of department as appropriate]. All our operators are busy. Someone will be with you shortly. Please hold the line." Then the muzak would cut in again, offending Lois's musical sense by the way it always did so in the middle of a bar.
"Yeah," she muttered. "I'll just bet they're busy. Busy having lunch!" Lois glanced at her watch and decided to give up this latest call as a bad job.
Deciding that a break from the telephone might be a good idea, Lois stood up, stretching the kinks from her spine as she did so. Then she grabbed her jacket and purse, and headed for the exit.
Lois dead-heated with a man coming from the opposite direction as she reached the entrance to Wegner's Deli, a block away from the Planet. They danced around one another, each trying to politely allow the other to go first. The momentary stalemate was broken when Lois belatedly recognised her companion and said, "Oh, it's you," and barged in front of him as if it were her right.
Clark didn't take offence at her sudden lapse in manners; rather, he seemed to find them vaguely amusing. Good-naturedly, he waited as her order was made up, bagged, paid for, and handed over.
Lois, struck by some strange impulse, found herself waiting for him, and they fell in step with one another as they headed back to the office. Choosing to avoid the sensitive question of what her competition was working on, Lois found herself engaging Clark in small talk, and the next thing she knew, she was engaged in a teasing banter about their respective sandwich choices. Hers, he described as a health-freak's delight: brown bread, crisp salad, chicken and low-fat mayonnaise. In turn, she described his as cholesterol on a bun. "Who," she asked, "ever heard of having egg mayonnaise and ham *together* before, let alone with a slice of Emmental cheese?"
The sound of a bank alarm cut through their companionable chatter just as they reached the Daily Planet's entrance. Lois, suddenly all business again, said, "Well? What are you waiting for?" and, without bothering to check that Clark was following her, set off at a run in the direction from which the sound was coming.
Lois arrived at the scene of the crime just in time to see two armed robbers suddenly divested of their guns and swag by a fast moving blur, and then, as the blur gained substance, she saw Superman grab the robbers by their collars.
The scattering of passers-by broke into spontaneous applause. Lois smiled and joined in. Superman acknowledged the praise with a slight incline of his head and busied himself with making sure the robbers were secured for the police to find.
Lois waved frantically at the hero, calling out, "Superman! Over here! It's me! Lois!"
To her great delight, Superman drifted over in her direction. Then he lowered himself to the ground to stand in front of her.
"What can I do for you, Lois?" he said. The businesslike words were softened by a faint smile playing around his mouth.
"Superman…" Lois said quietly, making sure that nobody without superhearing would be able to hear what she was saying, "I hope you don't mind, but I've been trying to find out more about that warehouse. I know you don't want me to write anything about you, and I'll respect that wish, but this has the makings of a great story. But even if the story doesn't pan out, I'd like to help you, if I can, and you can trust me. I know that you don't know me very well, but-"
Superman's smile widened in the face of her babbling. He said, "I would be delighted to have your help, Lois."
"You would?" She sounded shyly astonished.
"Yes, I would."
"And you trust me?"
His eyes twinkled. "Yes. I'm beginning to think I do."
"Great! Then, there's a question that I've got to ask you."
"Where, and when, did you arrive on Earth, Superman?" As Lois watched she could see Superman withdraw into himself, and she knew that she was not going to get an answer. However, she was not one to give in without a fight, so she justified her request by saying, "All the records in the warehouse were classified by place and date. If I don't have that information, I won't know where to start looking."
Superman looked torn.
Lois tried again, "You said you trusted me. Trust has to start somewhere."
"It's not simply a matter of trust. It's also a matter of privacy. If it were just for myself then maybe… but there are my parents, too. It's not just my secret."
Lois bit on her lip, not liking his answer.
"I'm sorry," he said. "If you find the records, and if it becomes absolutely necessary for me to do so, then I will tell you the rest of it, but only then."
She sighed, giving in. It was, she supposed, fair. She already knew that she wasn't going to get a story out of this, so what did it matter anyway? "How do I get in touch with you, if I find anything out?"
Superman smiled faintly, accepting the change of subject as it was meant, a tacit agreement to go along with his wishes, at least for now. "Don't worry, Lois. I'll find you. I'll drop by in the next couple of days." Then he was gone, leaving her standing alone on the street.
Moments later, when Clark jogged around the corner, she greeted him with a jovial slap on his chest and said, "You've missed all the excitement." Her smile was self-satisfied as she said, "Superman's already left. Where did you get to, anyway?"
"Hm? Oh! I was… calling the police." Then, as if to corroborate his story, they heard the wail of approaching sirens.
"Well," said Lois, "there's not much left for them to do, other than collect the garbage." She waved a hand towards the two robbers who were sitting in twin trashcans, suspended from a lamppost. Her smile broadened at the spectacle; Superman had style.
Lois made another mark on her notepad, recording that the tape of Greensleeves had restarted for the ninth time since she'd been put on hold. She yawned, stretched, and realised that she had got precisely nowhere with the investigation.
Perry's concerned tone alerted her to the fact that something was wrong. She put down the handset, giving up on the call, and swivelled her desk chair around to face him. "What's up, Perry?" she asked.
"It's your man Thompson. He's turned up again."
Something about the way he said it told Lois more than the words alone could have done. "Where?" she asked, bracing herself for the inevitable.
"Washed up on a beach south of the city, down near that old airforce base. The coroner's got him. Sounds like he's been dead for a couple of days."
"A couple of…" Lois's stomach twisted as the implication sank in. "You mean… he died not long after… Oh, my God," she whispered.
"There's more," Perry said. "There was no water in his lungs. He didn't drown. My sources say he'd been beaten up pretty bad. Probably he died of his injuries and was dumped."
Lois closed her eyes against a feeling of nausea and felt her fists bunch as she tried to block out the memory of the fight she'd witnessed. She had no proof, but she didn't need proof to know that she'd almost certainly witnessed the prelude to a murder. She took a deep breath, then said, "I guess I'd better talk to the police." She didn't relish the task, knowing how Henderson would react to the news of her breaking and entering when he heard about it.
"Now, listen, Lois," said Perry, pulling her back to the present. "I won't stop you from carrying on with the investigation; your twenty-four hours have been extended, okay? But, you be careful, you hear?"
She nodded mutely, for once not arguing with Perry. No matter how great the story, she didn't want to follow in Thompson's watery footsteps. No story was worth that. On the other hand, his murder made the investigation all the more important: she couldn't let things rest. She smiled wryly to herself as she realised that Superman was not the only person in whom curiosity overcame fear.
Perry watched her in silence for a few moments, as if to reassure himself that she was going to be all right. Then he turned away, heading back to his office.
Lois found another number to call and, with renewed enthusiasm, began to dial.
Clark, sitting with his elbows on the dining table and his chin cupped in his hands, looked the very picture of dejection. He stared unseeingly at his abandoned cup of oolong tea; he'd made it thinking it would help to soothe his churning thoughts but, now that he'd let it grow cold, the thought of drinking it was vaguely repugnant.
Thompson's murder hadn't put Lois off her quest. Quite the reverse, in fact, and he couldn't help but admire her for her bravery and tenacity. However, what were, professionally speaking, admirable traits were troubling to him on a personal level. If this had been just another story she was working on, he probably wouldn't have been concerned, but, knowing that this was personal, he found himself troubled by her reaction.
Was it irresponsible for him to want her to continue with her quest, knowing that he would be at least partly to blame for whatever happened to her as a consequence? The answer to that was easy. Yes, it would be. But at the same time, he was selfish enough to want her to continue her investigations. He wanted information, and he knew that she was the key to finding it. He couldn't, either in good conscience or without arising suspicion, look for information relating to a story upon which she was working; if she gave up, the chance of him finding out more about his roots would be lost.
If only he could decide what to do for the best!
The phone rang, interrupting his introspection. His reluctance to answer it was reflected in the time he took over picking up the receiver. As Superman he could have picked it up a nanosecond after the ringing started. As Clark he usually let it ring once or twice. This time he let it ring six times before he lifted the handset and gave his name.
"Hi, Clark!" Martha's upbeat greeting made him smile, despite his more general gloom.
"Hi, son," said Jonathan, letting Clark know that he was on the other handset.
"Mom. Dad. How're things?"
"Oh, we're fine, honey. But what about you?"
Suddenly sounding very depressed, Clark replied, "To be honest, I've been better."
"Clark?" Martha's voice automatically shaded into a warm concern. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong," Clark said immediately, wanting to reassure them. "At least…"
"You can tell us. You can tell us anything." Jonathan's voice was encouraging.
"Yeah, Dad. I know that. It's just… I'm not sure what to do for the best. Or, rather, I do know, but…"
"Clark?" Martha's confusion was obvious. Clark couldn't blame her for that.
"It's Lois," he said.
"Lois, eh?" Now her confusion was intermixed with a large dose of hopeful curiosity. Maybe Martha had yet to meet Lois Lane, but, Clark knew that, despite all his best efforts, Martha had heard something in the way that he spoke about his colleague to cause her heart to beat just that bit faster with the hope that her son had met someone at last.
"You know she's been helping Superman look into his origins?" Even as Clark said the words, he knew what his parents would be thinking; how odd that he felt the need to talk about Superman as though he were a separate person. But, Lois *did* think she was helping another person; she wasn't helping Clark, and talking about Superman helped him to clarify the distinction.
"Yes," they agreed together.
"Well… I don't think that I can let her continue."
There was a small pause at the other end of the line as his parents considered his words. Clark painted a mental picture of his mother, frowning her confusion, exchanging a glance with his father who would be shrugging his incomprehension back at her.
It was Jonathan who spoke for both of them when he said, "But you always knew there was a risk she might find out about you. You said that you were prepared to take the chance-"
Clark interrupted. "I did. I *am*. I'm not worried about *that*. I'm worried about Lois."
Clark ran a hand through his hair. "I'm not explaining very well, am I?" he asked rhetorically. Then he said, "One of the men involved with this mysterious Bureau was murdered."
"Murdered! Oh, Clark!"
"Yeah. His body washed up down the coast a little way. And Lois was one of the last people to see him alive. So you can see why I'm worried about her. I don't want her putting herself in unnecessary danger on my account. I couldn't bear to be responsible if…"
"If anything happened to her," Martha finished the thought off for him. "No, I can see that."
"But at the same time I can't help feeling… *disappointed*."
Jonathan's voice chimed in. "Well, that's understandable, I suppose. To be so close to finding out about yourself and then to be faced with having to give up the search…"
"It doesn't seem quite fair, does it?" Martha chimed in sympathetically.
"No, Mom. It doesn't."
"Oh, honey. You sound so sad."
Clark shook himself mentally. "I'll get over it," he said, doing his best to reassure both his parents and himself. "Look," he said, finally deciding to take action, "I've got to go."
"Okay, Clark. Love you."
"Love you, too. I'll talk to you guys later, okay?"
"Bye," echoed Clark and hung up.
Somewhere, during the conversation, his indecision as to what to do for the best had turned into certainty. It wasn't that anyone had pointed him towards any particular course of action, yet somehow his course of action seemed suddenly clear to him. He needed to talk to Lois.
When it came down to it, there really was no choice to be made. Lois had to come first. Lois would always come first.
Clark spun into the Superman suit and left the apartment via the balcony.
Somehow Superman's arrival at her apartment didn't surprise or fluster Lois as it had done on the two previous occasions that he'd visited. She greeted him in a relaxed manner despite the poor news she could offer him about her progress, a genuine smile of welcome on her face.
Her smile slipped as she took in his expression. The skin was taut across his cheekbones and his mouth was chiselled in a determined line. "What's wrong?" she asked.
Superman didn't waste any time in getting to the point. "I want you to stop your investigation."
"What?!" Lois was indignant. "Now, just a minute-"
He cut off her protest. "I heard about Thompson's death. I don't want you to endanger yourself unnecessarily on my behalf."
Lois blinked at his words. "You want me to give up the investigation… because you're worried about *me*?" Her surprise was absolute. "When you said… I… I thought that you'd decided to hold out on me after all. That you'd changed your mind about letting me help you."
"I wouldn't do that, Lois."
Lois ran a hand through her hair as she considered how best to reply. Finally she said, "I couldn't give up this investigation now, even if I wanted to — which, by the way, I don't. The investigation isn't just about you, you know. It never was, not entirely, but Thompson's death made it front page news. I can't ignore that."
"Lois…" Superman's eyes were beseeching.
"Superman…" she said in an impatient mockery of his tone. Then, relenting slightly, she said, "Look, I'll keep my promise. Whatever I find out, I'll keep you out of it, okay? I like it that you're concerned about me. And, maybe you even feel a little responsible for me." She paused as she caught sight of a flicker of emotion crossing his face, telling her that that was, indeed, the case. "But you have no reason to. This is my choice. My life. And I don't need your permission to live it. Do you understand?"
He nodded faintly, slightly taken back by the vehemence of her words. "I only wanted to protect-"
It was the wrong thing to say. "And I don't need your protection!" spat Lois. Then she paled as she thought of Thompson. Thompson had known the person responsible for the raid on the Planet and had warned her about him, yet he hadn't been able to save himself. "I… I'm sorry," said Lois. "I'm grateful for your concern, Superman, really I am, but…" She shook her head. "It's my job."
"And it's the only way you know how to do it?" he asked.
"Yes!" she said, relieved and astonished that he actually seemed to understand. Even so, she thought that a little more explanation was in order. "Investigative journalism is still pretty much a man's world, Superman. I've had to work hard to get to where I am today. And half the battle has been to convince the less enlightened of my colleagues that I'm up to the job, that this little woman isn't afraid to go where the trouble is. That this little woman *doesn't need protecting*." A proud defiance mingled with a hint of bitterness as she recalled her past struggles.
Superman seemed to consider her words carefully and, to her relief, he didn't discount them or try to argue with her. Instead he said, "Well, since I can't persuade you to drop this, then at least promise me that you'll be careful?"
Lois nodded. "I will." However, given her past history, she wondered if it was a promise she'd be able to keep.
"Thank you, Lois," Superman said.
Lois thought for a moment then asked, "Would it make you feel happier if I asked a… friend to help? Then I wouldn't be on my own." What was she saying? she wondered. Asking for help with a story meant electing to share a by-line, something she had always resisted and resented doing. Sharing glory wasn't in her nature. Yet, Superman had met her more than half-way, and she wanted to do something in return. For Superman's peace of mind, she found herself thinking the unthinkable.
She watched as Superman's expression shifted towards thoughtfulness. "Wouldn't that place two of you in danger?"
Lois shook her head. "He's more cautious than I am. I'm sure he'll do his best to keep me out of trouble."
"And can he be trusted?"
Lois looked at him and thought for a moment. The question was a difficult one to answer. On a business level, she was pretty certain that the person she had in mind had integrity. On a personal level, she wasn't so sure. However, she couldn't see how that latter consideration would affect her guest, so she said, "I think so. Yes."
Still sounding hesitant, Superman nonetheless gave his approval, saying, "Very well."
"Good," said Lois, mentally crossing her fingers and hoping that his trust was not going to be misplaced. Watching the hero, Lois was struck by how… human… he appeared to be, and she found herself remembering something Clark had said, soon after Superman had made his debut.
Superman must have seen something shift in her expression because he said, "What? Why are you looking at me like that?"
"I was just thinking."
"About you. About something Clark said."
"Oh?" he prompted.
"He said that, apart from the flying and stuff, that you could be any regular guy. I thought he was being pretty dumb at the time, but now I'm not so sure."
"Oh?" he said again.
Lois looked away, unaccountably embarrassed by the direction in which her thoughts were taking her. She tried to put her reasoning into words, a task rendered all the more difficult by the fact that she still wasn't sure that she understood it herself. "You turn up out of nowhere, doing good deeds and being, well, wonderful is the best word I can think of. I, along with everyone else in the city, am awed by your activities, and we automatically begin to think of you as some kind of angel or saint or minor deity."
"I have never claimed to be a god!" Superman protested.
"I know that. You just claimed to be a friend. But you have to see this from the point of view of the rest of us. What were we *supposed* to make of you? Nobody had ever seen anything like you before: you fly, you're extremely strong, you're… Superman. Even if you didn't actually say that's what you were, you still *seemed* godlike." She felt her face flush under his intense scrutiny, but she ploughed on. "But in the last few days, I've seen another side to you. Deities shouldn't have any frailties. We don't expect them to have insecurities or needs of their own. And you, Superman, seem to have both. So, underneath that suit and cape, I can only suppose that there is the heart and soul of a man. Not a god."
Lois found the courage to look at him then, wondering how he would be taking her assessment of his character. Would he be offended? Hurt? Amused?
To her relief he was none of those things. Instead he was regarding her with an unfathomable expression on his face. "And… does that disappoint you?" he asked.
She thought about his question for a moment, then she said, "It did a little, to begin with. But now I've had time to think about it, I'd say that it's probably a good thing."
Lois shrugged infinitesimally, then she said, "It makes me feel more… equal to you. And it's easier to be friends with someone who is your equal."
"Friends," he said, thoughtfully. "I like sound of that. And, right at this moment, I'd have to say that you are just about the best friend I could wish for."
Lois looked shyly at him as she said, "Well, thank you, Superman. That means a lot to me."
Clark landed gently on the balcony of his apartment, a half-smile playing around his mouth. His earlier mood had been lifted by the discussion in Lois's apartment, and he felt much better than he had just an hour before. It was strange how talking to Lois could put him in better spirits.
The first reason for his new-found good mood was, of course, that his situation no longer seemed so helpless. From a reluctance to find out about his beginnings, his desire to unearth the truth had fanned into an all consuming need. Was this, he wondered, what addiction felt like? The constant hunger? The drive to get what he wanted, with scant regard to the cost either to himself or to others?
He wondered, had he given in too easily? Should he have tried harder to make Lois drop the investigation? Was it his own self-interest that had stopped him from doing so, or was it because he knew that she was right; this wasn't just about him.
The conversation had added a new perspective to his musings; he'd been considering everything from his own point of view. Lois, however, had helped him see a fact that should have been obvious, but which he had previously missed. The choices weren't his alone to make because this was about the job she had to do.
But it wasn't just that Lois was helping him that warmed him. There was also the reaction of Lois herself to Superman. "So, underneath that suit and cape, I can only suppose that there is the heart and soul of a man," Lois had said. It was such a little thing, but it meant the world to Clark who was always conscious of the differences that set him apart from the people with whom he lived and worked. Keeping the secret, while necessary, made matters more complicated. Ever since his powers had started to develop, he had wondered how other people would react if only they knew the truth about him.
Until he had created Superman only his parents had seen what he was capable of; it had never upset them. But he was very aware that they were biased in their opinions. After all, that was the way of parents. That was, of course, not to suggest that he did not value their unconditional love and support; he doubted that he could have coped without them, and for that he would be forever grateful.
People's reactions to Superman had been mostly positive, and for that he was thankful. Of course both Luthor and the government agents had shown that there were those who resented his arrival, but generally speaking his presence had been welcomed. Yet the welcome he had received hadn't been one of open-armed acceptance. Lois's comment, "You turn up out of nowhere, doing good deeds and being, well, *wonderful* is the best word I can think of. I, along with everyone else in the city, am awed by your activities, and we automatically begin to think of you as some kind of angel or saint or minor deity," had simply put something he had known into words. Acceptance of that sort was, in its own way, almost as disquieting as the hatred he had always feared.
Of all the people he had met thus far, Lois was the first to see beneath the cape, and he was warmed by her empathy and understanding. That she was beginning to see him as a person, not just as a set of marvellous abilities packaged in a gaudy outfit, made him feel good in a way that he found hard to define.
He thought about it, trying to make sense of the feelings. The best explanation that he could come up with was that her reaction made him feel as though he belonged. He felt comfortable with her, not ill-at- ease as he did with the gawpers and the sycophants he was meeting with depressing regularity. He had no desire to be admired, but being liked was something else again. Lois had offered him friendship; no one else had accorded that honour to Superman.
Friendship, he thought. He accepted her friendship gratefully as Superman. He thought, if only she would offer the same to Clark Kent then he would be supremely happy. However, everything he'd learned about Lois, variously from what she had said, the titbits offered by the Planet's grapevine, and what he had observed of her behaviour at work, indicated it would be far harder for Clark to earn her trust than it had been for Superman.
At work, she appeared driven in a way that she did not in the comfort of her own apartment. She had confided in him about Claude, and he was sure that she was embarrassed by the admission; he suspected that went a long way to explain her defensiveness. To be betrayed by anyone was bad enough, but by a colleague must have been doubly painful because it had attacked her on both personal and professional levels, leaving her vulnerable on both counts. How long, he wondered, had it taken her to put the ghosts behind her, to be able to face going into the newsroom with equanimity, and not be haunted by the remnants of a relationship gone awry?
What, he wondered, would Lois have been like if Claude had not existed? It was an interesting question. He suspected that she would still be ambitious and driven by a need to be the best, but he also suspected that she would be more relaxed. Less prickly. More like the woman whose apartment he'd just left. The woman that he, as Clark Kent, had not yet been allowed to meet.
Clark found himself angry at Claude, a man he'd never met, and jealous, too, just as he felt jealous of the unknown friend with whom Lois had told Superman she would work. He found himself trying to work out who the friend might be; he'd not noticed her being very friendly with anyone, except, perhaps, Perry and Jimmy.
He didn't see how she could ask Perry for help; his responsibilities would preclude his assistance. Jimmy, then… Clark wasn't sure that he was entirely comfortable with the idea. He liked the young researcher, but he wasn't yet convinced of his ability to keep any secrets he might learn.
Still, he trusted Lois, and he would have to place his trust in her judgement, too.
After he'd gone, Lois sat on the love-seat for a long time, just thinking.
It disturbed her to think of his isolation. Superman's comment, "Right at this moment, I'd have to say that you are just about the best friend I could wish for," had jolted her, partly because it showed just how alone he was, and partly because she realised that the reverse was possibly true as well. She had colleagues, she had interviews, and she had a sister. But she could count her friends on the fingers of one hand. Who were her friends? she wondered. She had drifted away from the crowd she'd hung around with at college. There was Superman, and, possibly, Clark Kent. Where had that errant thought come from? She'd been trying to hold Clark at bay, and now she was thinking of him as a friend?
Clark was still largely an unknown quantity. However, he had earned her respect, and he was undoubtedly both bright and discreet, two attributes she needed in her current endeavour. Besides, Lois thought that she could appeal to Clark's sympathetic nature to get him to do what she wanted.
She just hoped, for Superman's sake and for her own, that she had read Clark correctly, that he wouldn't run off with the story, leaving her high and dry and Superman exposed. She hoped that he wasn't another Claude.
Still, what was it she had said to Superman? "Trust has to start somewhere."
When it came right down to it, what had Clark done to make her so suspicious of his motives? If anything, it was he who had been given reason to question her integrity, not the other way round. She'd stolen his story, and she had gone out of her way to be unpleasant to him.
She wanted his help, but what if he didn't want to give it?
"Clark," said Lois. "I want a word." She sounded imperious, even to her own ears.
Clark looked up at her, his face a question.
"I… I mean…" she said, trying again, and suddenly feeling flustered, "can I have a word with you, please?" *Dammit Lane*, she chastised herself. *Why are you so nervous? You haven't had any qualms about ordering him around before, so why worry about it now?
Because,* a little voice at the back of her head said, *this isn't simply work. This is also personal. And that puts a different slant on your relationship with this man. *
Lois could see his surprise at the sudden change in her demeanour as he said, "Sure, Lois."
"Not here," she said. "Come with me."
Lois tugged on his sleeve, towing him in the direction of the conference room. Once the door was firmly closed behind them, she turned to face him and began.
"I want you to partner me on that UFO warehouse story I'm working on."
"The Thompson murder?!" Clark's look of surprised delight almost made her rethink her decision to enlist his aid. He was just too keen and, no matter how useful he might be, she still didn't want him getting close to her. "Well, sure, Lois. I'd love to, but… why?"
"Why, what?" she asked.
"Why do you want me to work with you? I mean, you haven't been very keen on the idea of us working together before."
"Because I need some help, okay?"
"Okay," said Clark, apparently deciding to accept her explanation at face value.
Lois looked at him for a moment, knowing that she was about to pass the point of no return. Did she really want to do this? She nodded to herself, taking courage in both hand. Committed, she began to speak. "Now, first, you've got to promise me that you'll never breath a word of what I'm about to tell you."
Clark looked at her. "Okay," he said again.
"I want a favour, Clark." She stood facing him defiantly, her arms crossed tightly across her chest.
He looked confused. "Wha'…? What's the big deal about your wanting a favour? That's what I can't tell anyone?"
"No!" she said savagely. "It's the favour that's a secret."
"Oh," he said.
"So? Will you or won't you?"
"Will I, or won't I, what?"
"Do me a favour!"
Clark, to her utter dismay, seemed to be finding her discomfiture amusing. Here she was, trying to lower her barriers enough to ask him this teensy weensy favourette, and he was *laughing* at her! "Now, why," he said, "would I want to do you a favour?" His lips weren't smiling, but his eyes were dancing with barely restrained humour.
She resisted a sudden urge to hit him, choosing instead to flounce towards the door. Her hair fanned out at a forty-five degree angle as she tossed her head, and her chin jutted forwards. "Fine!" she said, through clenched teeth. "Don't help! I don't need-"
"Lois?!" Somehow Clark was standing in front of her, blocking her exit. "I didn't say 'no'!"
Lois stared at him, nonplussed. He hadn't said no, but he had been going to. Hadn't he? Perhaps not, she thought. She bit back her anger, and tried to be reasonable. "Look, Clark, I know that we've not gotten off to a very good start, and I know I haven't been all that nice to you, and, really, I can't think of any reason why you might want to help me, other than that you seem to be a decent sort of guy, and, in any case, you probably don't have anything better to do with your free time, and, if you don't want to help me, then maybe it'll make a difference if I tell you that this isn't really a favour to me but a favour for a friend and-" She stopped abruptly. "What?!" she demanded in response to his wide-eyed and close scrutiny.
"Oh, nothing," he answered, "except that I've never seen anyone speak without stopping for breath before."
"Oh," she said, her voice small. "I was babbling, wasn't I?"
Clark nodded, but didn't make any comment. "Who's your friend, Lois? And what's the favour?"
"Well," she said. "It's like this…"
The quiet of the Daily Planet at night was eerie after the bustle of the day.
In a pool of light cast from their desk lamps, two reporters remained at work in the newsroom hours after the last of their colleagues had gone home for the day. Lois and Clark sat surrounded by stacks of books and paper, occasionally reaching over to their computers to key in commands, as they trawled through databases and directories, trying to identify any publicly owned buildings that lay unclaimed by the more accountable government departments. Given the mysterious Bureau 39's obvious liking for subterfuge, they had decided that, whatever buildings they couldn't identify by department would warrant further investigation. They'd known from the outset that it was, at best, a long shot.
Lois leaned back in her chair and sighed, discouraged. As the evening eased into night with no obvious leads coming to light she was beginning to think that there was little future in continuing.
Clark looked up at her sigh. He stood, stretched, and said, "I don't know about you, but I could do with a break. You hungry?"
Now that he mentioned it, she realised that she was ravenous. Lunch was a dim and distant memory. She nodded.
"I'll go get us something," Clark volunteered. Lois nodded again, silently and gratefully accepting his offer.
He jogged up the ramp and vanished into the elevator, leaving Lois to return to the search. However, now that her concentration had been disturbed, her attention refused to stay fixed on the task in hand, instead drifting towards the enigma that was Clark Kent.
She'd had little trouble in persuading him to partner her on this story or in agreeing to help her keep the Superman side of things under wraps. In anyone else, she'd have suspected that his willingness to assist her was due to opportunism; what rookie could resist the opportunity to share a by-line with a seasoned pro, such as herself? The trouble was, though, that she didn't think it was ambition that was driving Clark to help her, yet she found his motivations hard to figure out.
Perhaps part of his reason for helping was because he, too, wanted to help Superman. After all, she'd already figured out that they'd had some sort of contact beyond the purely professional. However, Lois realised, Superman evidently didn't think of Clark as being a friend. The conversations she'd had with the hero had shown her just how short of friends he was.
So, if it wasn't friendship with Superman that was driving him to work with her for hours after he might reasonably have decided to head for home, he must had another reason for spending his evening in the office; the only other reason she could come up with was that he wanted to spend time with her because… because… he liked her? It seemed probable. Once or twice she'd caught the admiring way he glanced at her when he thought she wasn't looking.
And how did she feel about that? she wondered. The answer came slowly, as though her mind was reluctant to give up its secrets, even to herself. She was flattered; no woman could fail to be flattered by the attention of such a good-looking man. At the same time, though, she found his interest in her terrifying.
Lois's previous experiences with men no doubt coloured her judgement where Clark was concerned, but she found it hard to believe that he didn't want something more from her than she had so far offered. Indeed, what had she offered? Not a great deal, she decided. Their working relationship was strained, deliberately so on her part. So, what was keeping him here? Physical attraction? The hope of a brief and enjoyable interlude with a colleague?
She frowned. That must be what he was after. It was, after all, what Claude had wanted, no matter how much he'd professed to love her. Well, if that was what Clark was after, he was going to be sorely disappointed. No matter how attractive he was, she wasn't in the market for a casual affair. If she were ever to find the courage to embark on another relationship, it would be with someone who wanted the same thing she did, a loving lifetime partnership. She could settle for nothing less.
Maybe she was reading too much into a few glances. It wasn't as though he'd tried to push her into anything against her wishes. Maybe he was being genuinely helpful, or maybe he had some reason for helping that she hadn't thought of.
Her ruminations were interrupted by Clark's return, and her stomach grumbled in delighted response to the sight of the bamboo containers and the delicious aromas she remembered from their first late-night meal together.
She rapidly pushed papers aside, clearing space on her desk for him to put the food down. Then all her fears receded into the darkest recesses of her mind as they began to eat.
By the end of the meal, Lois had managed to relax a little, and she found herself smiling at him without a trace of mockery or condescension in her expression. "Thanks for getting this, Clark."
"You're welcome," he said.
"Sometime you're going to have to show me where you get such great Chinese food!"
His smile widened slightly. Teasing her, he said, "Come on, Lois! Can't a guy have some secrets?"
She could feel her smile slip. "That depends on what they are," she said seriously, thinking about the men in her life, and how their lies had drummed into her the merits of mistrusting everyone. She wondered whether Clark had any idea what it had cost her to ask for his help.
But, sitting here, with Clark… She shook herself. What *was* it about this man? He made few demands upon her, and he was easy to be with. Yet there was something more, something unspoken between them. She didn't know what it was, but it pulled her towards him, making her open up to him in ways she couldn't begin to understand. And she didn't like the sensation one little bit. She floundered for a few moments for a way to shift the conversation onto less sensitive ground, and she found herself asking, "Look, I know it's none of my business, Clark, but I was wondering… are *you* adopted? Is that why you wrote that article?"
He seemed taken aback by the question, coming as it did out of the blue. "Well, yeah," he admitted.
"I thought so," she said, sounding pleased that she'd been right.
"Why? What gave me away?"
"It was how you looked when I asked you why adopted kids should care about their real parents. It was really bothering you. I could tell."
"So, which one of the categories were you in? Unrealistic expectations or tear-jerker reconciliations?"
"Well… neither, actually."
Lois frowned. "Why not? Haven't you looked for your birth-parents? After reading the article I would have thought you'd be right out there, looking for answers, no matter how well you get on with your folks."
Clark seemed to take a long time to formulate his reply, and Lois was beginning to wonder whether she had overstepped the mark with her questions by the time he finally responded. After all, their conversations had barely touched on such personal territory before. "It's just that I haven't managed to track them down," he said.
Lois frowned. "Why not?"
"These things take time. Plus I haven't been looking very long. I mean, I was travelling for so many years, and I couldn't really do both at the same time. Now that I'm settled in Metropolis though…"
"Well, I'm sure you'll find them sooner or later," Lois said encouragingly. "Just think about it: we're trying to trace the origins of an extra-terrestrial. In comparison, finding out about yours should be a piece of cake!"
Clark didn't answer. Instead he stood up and began gathering together the empty bamboo containers and chopsticks. Then, once her desk was clear, he retreated to his own, and they began their search anew.
It was fortunate, Clark decided, that he could do most things faster than other people. Judicious use of his superpowers when Lois wasn't looking helped to disguise the fact that his mind wasn't fully focused on their current task. Instead, his thoughts kept drifting off on tangents that had nothing to do with finding government buildings and everything to do with appreciating the woman who sat only a few feet distant, her head bowed, and her brow furrowed in concentration.
There was a lot for him to consider, such as the fact that she had asked for his help, something that filled him with a joyful optimism, but which, at the same time, was a little confusing.
Lois had told Superman that she would ask a friend for help, and she had elected to ask Clark. But Clark wasn't sure whether that meant she now thought of him as a friend or whether she had chosen to stretch the truth for his alter ego's benefit.
Even if she *didn't* see him as a friend, he still had reason to be happy because it was clear that, on some level at least, she had found something in him to trust and that, earlier impressions aside, he wasn't completely beneath her notice.
Was he imagining it, or was Lois beginning to warm to him, at least a little? He hoped her change in attitude wasn't just in his mind, or due to expediency, because the more time he spent in her company the more time he wanted to spend.
Clark lifted his eyes away from the volumes on his desk and looked at Lois. What she was doing here was nothing short of admirable. Yes, he knew that she was working on a story, but he also knew that wasn't what was driving her to put in long hours, staying late into the night. No, she was doing it out of a desire to help Superman. She was, he decided, pretty wonderful.
As he got to know Lois better he was coming to appreciate her more: her generous spirit, her desire to help, her strength, her determination.
For an instant he thought about telling her who he really was, but he immediately quashed the impulse. He'd never told another person about himself, and he couldn't start now. Could he?
No, he decided firmly. It was quite impossible; the secret had to be kept at all costs. Even the merest thought of letting go of it sent an instinctive shiver running down his spine.
And yet, there was something about Lois that inspired confidence, that made him wonder if the consequences of telling her would be as terrible as he feared.
The importance of keeping the secret had been ingrained into him from an early age. If he decided to tell her, it couldn't be based on a decision made in haste. It would have to be after careful consideration.
Then Clark realised with amazement that he was seriously contemplating the matter; he wanted her to know. Suddenly the impossible didn't seem quite so impossible after all.
An hour later, and no further towards their goal, Lois suddenly felt his eyes on her. She jerked her head up and around, and caught Clark in the act of watching her; his unguarded admiration was disturbing. "What?!" she said, very uncomfortable. "Why are you staring at me?"
He jumped as though he'd been poked by a cattle prod. "I… I'm sorry!" he stammered. "I didn't mean to stare! I was just thinking…"
"Yes?" she prompted him, a snarl barely hidden in her voice, and any trace of their earlier camaraderie completely gone.
"I was thinking that what you're doing for Superman is pretty wonderful."
Lois straightened in her seat and did her best to peer down her nose at him. Then, with a self-mocking curve to her lips, she said, "I can do wonderful, Clark."
He chuckled, and something deep inside her found that she liked it that she could make him laugh. "I'm sure you can," he said. Then, softly, he added, "You are."
Her expression froze. A detached fragment of thought danced at the edge of her consciousness, saying, "Now, look at you, Lane! Frozen like a rabbit caught in the headlamps of an oncoming truck just because he… paid you a compliment?!"
Clark's expression shaded into concern as she stared at him. "Lois?" he asked tentatively. "What's wrong?"
She snapped out of her stupor, and her usual prickly manner was back full-force. "Nothing," she said in a tone that should have discouraged further conversation.
Clark wasn't discouraged. Instead, he rose from behind his desk and walked over to hers. He crouched down beside her, resting his hand on the arm of her chair. Then he said, "Lois, you asked me a personal question earlier. Now, can I ask you one?"
After a moment of balancing her options, she jerked her head once, up and down. It was, she supposed, only fair that he should have this chance.
Now that he had her permission, however, he seemed reluctant to proceed. There was an awkward pause before she impatiently demanded, "Go on then. Ask your question."
He obeyed her command. "Why are you so defensive all the time? All I said was…" he trailed off, confused. "Why do you work so hard to be… unlikeable?"
She looked away, suddenly finding the pitted wooden surface of her desk to be fascinating. "What makes you think I have to *work* at it, Clark?" she muttered. "Maybe it's just how I am."
"I don't believe that," he answered.
"Oh? And why not, Clark?"
"Because," and she was surprised at the sudden asperity in his tone, "if you were the self-centred monster you seem to want people to believe you are, we wouldn't be here, now, trying to help a man you barely know."
His insight terrified her. Lois realised that Clark had seen through all her carefully constructed armour, and she suddenly felt defenceless. She responded in the only way she knew how, with anger. "And what is it to you anyway, Clark Kent? You're bright, you're popular, the guys like you. Women throw themselves -*Cat* throws herself — at you! You can have anyone you want! So why are you spending time here, with me?"
Startled, Clark was stung into replying, "Cat?! What do you take me for? Cat isn't-" He broke off abruptly.
"Isn't what I want," he mumbled.
"Oh? And what *do* you want, Clark?"
He glanced at Lois who was still avoiding his gaze. He stood up, turned away, and put a couple of paces distance between them before he answered, clearly uncomfortable at the direction the conversation had taken.
"Well, Clark? Tell me!"
With his back to her, but unable to resist her command, he replied, "Don't laugh, Lois, but I want permanence. When I find someone I want to be with, it will be because I love her. I want it to be… forever. Cat… wouldn't be that."
As she listened to his confession, Lois's mouth opened slightly, and she found herself twisting to look at him as he stood, head lowered, and with his back towards her. He turned to face her when he had finished, and seemed surprised to see her looking at him. Their gazes locked.
Lois wasn't laughing. Instead, tears glimmered at the corners of her eyes, threatening to spill down her cheeks. "That's… beautiful, Clark. But… what if what you're looking for doesn't exist?"
"It does," he said with a certainty that she envied.
"I used to believe it did," Lois said. "But Claude… you remember I told you about Claude… He showed me that it didn't. I thought… I *did* love him, and he said he loved me, and that it was forever, and then…" The tears were suddenly spilling down her face, and she was powerless to stop them, hating herself for allowing Clark to see her like this. She didn't say it out loud, although for some reason she was sure that he knew what she was thinking, but Claude was why she didn't want people near her. That was why Clark Kent's unrelenting understanding and patience scared her so much. She didn't want to be liked, let alone loved, because, outside of her dreams, love could only lead to betrayal and heartache. She wiped her cheeks savagely with the back of her index fingers. "God! Why do I always end up spilling my guts to you, Clark?"
The question was meant to be rhetorical, so she was surprised when he tried to answer it. "Because I think you know you can trust me. Because you *need* to talk to someone. You need a friend… and I'd like to be that friend… if you'd let me."
Lois didn't answer. She *couldn't* answer. Instead, she just said, "Let's get back to work."
"No," he said. "I've got a much better idea."
"Better?" asked Lois.
"Yes. I think we should call it a night. We're not getting anywhere here. Maybe if we come back to it fresh tomorrow morning we'll see something we've missed."
Lois didn't like the idea, but she could see the sense in it. She was tired both physically and, after her emotional outburst, mentally. She nodded her agreement, and began to gather her belongings together.
"Come on," said Clark. "I'll see you home."
She didn't argue.
In that strange morning haze between pulling herself out of bed and achieving full consciousness, Lois stood under the shower, letting her thoughts drift as the hot water pounded down on her head and shoulders. As she reached for the shampoo and lathered her hair, she found herself remembering the walk home from the evening before. Neither she nor Clark had said much as they strolled through the streets of Metropolis. He hadn't mentioned her outburst in the newsroom, instead giving her the space she needed to get over her confusion at the way she had behaved.
As they approached her building, she had found herself expecting him to come up with some sort of pretext to try to gain access to her apartment, and she had been pleasantly surprised when he had simply bade her goodnight before going on his way.
Lois tilted her head back, letting the water rinse away the suds, as she thought some more about Clark. The more time she spent with him, the more she found her natural suspiciousness diminish in the face of his obvious caring. She was, albeit gradually and reluctantly, coming to see that he was genuinely keen to gain her trust and her regard, and that it was not merely a line he was spinning to achieve his own ends. If he *was* simply after her body, he had to be one of the most patient men that she had ever met, she thought with a hint of humour.
Lois reached for the conditioner. As she tipped the bottle she noticed that it felt much lighter than she remembered. Lucy, she concluded, had obviously been using her toiletries as well as her clothes and shoes.
Her mind wandered again, briefly alighting on random thoughts before quickly flitting on to something else. There was something about the current investigation… about UFOs… about Lucy… about… about…
Suddenly, and out of nowhere, three syllables leapt into her consciousness and she exclaimed, "Meek the Freak!" As quickly as she could, she washed the last of the conditioner out of her hair, turned off the taps and grabbed a towel.
She was still dripping as she shook Lucy awake.
"Go 'way." Lucy said, somehow contriving to be bleary and grumpy at the same time. "It can't be morning already…"
"It is for those of us who work for a living," observed Lois dryly. "What time did you get in anyhow? No, don't answer that. I sound like Mother, and I really don't want to know."
Pulled closer towards full wakefulness by Lois's babbling, Lucy said, "What *do* you want?"
"Information. And the quicker you give it to me, the quicker I'll leave you in peace, so spill."
"Everything you know about Meek the Freak."
"Who?" Lucy yawned and blinked owlishly.
"Lucy!" Lois was exasperated at how slow her sister seemed to be on the uptake. "That boyfriend of yours from Met U? The one you dumped last month? Gary?"
"Yeah, him. He kept doing those dumb impressions of one of his professors, remember? You know, 'Don't talk to me about Roswell'?"
Lucy groaned. "Don't remind me, sis. It got so I couldn't stand it any more."
Lois stared at her for a moment. "That's why you dumped him?"
"Yeah. That and a few other things, mostly to do with a girl called Fiona."
"Ah." Lois didn't ask for more information. She suspected that her mind was filling in the gaps well enough on its own.
"Look, Lois," said, Lucy, "as much as I enjoy talking to you about my love life, could you please cut to the chase here so I can go back to sleep?"
"Sure. I just want to know everything you can tell me about this Meek guy."
Lucy's brain finally caught up with her body's wakefulness, and Lois was delighted to discover that her sister was now able to provide her with the information she wanted. "What's to tell? Gavin said his name was really Reginald Meekle. Professor Reginald Meekle, but all the students called him Meek the Freak. He's got a real obsession about UFOs and he kept dropping hints about some government conspiracy, but he always said it was too dangerous to say more. Or something. The students all thought he was barmy, of course."
"Oh, of course," muttered Lois. "Thanks, Lucy." She patted Lucy on the shoulder and said, "See you tonight."
"No," said Lucy. "You won't. Not if you work late. I'm going out."
"Again?! You've been out every night this week."
"Yeah, I know. And I'm pooped, so if you don't mind…"
Lois said, "Okay, I'm gone."
Just as she reached the door Lucy stirred enough to say, "Oh, Lois? Do you mind if I borrow your red dress?" Lois pretended not to hear; she knew Lucy would choose to take her silence as an affirmative anyway.
"Hey, CK," said Jimmy. "What've you got there?"
Clark peered over the top of the pile of small boxes he was balancing two-handedly against his chest. "These, you mean? Back issues. Microfilm."
Jimmy eyed the pile dubiously then picked one off the top. "1963," he read aloud. "That's going back aways. Are you really going to read all these?"
Clark experienced the all too familiar sinking feeling that told him he had unwittingly made a mistake; nobody else could work their way through the material he'd assembled in less than a week. By gathering them all at once, he'd laid himself open for the kind of comments he could ill afford and always sought to avoid. He tried to recover the situation by saying, "Of course not, Jimmy. There're just a few things I need to check out." To his enormous relief, Jimmy accepted his answer without question, merely saying, "Rather you than me. Those readers do my eyes in."
"Yeah. Mine too," said Clark.
Jimmy moved on, leaving Clark to make his way over to the microfilm reader.
As he put the boxes down, quickly grabbing the few that wanted to slip off the stack onto the floor, Clark sighed inwardly. Would he never learn to compensate for his powers in public? Would he forever make tiny mistakes that could lead to discovery? He rearranged the boxes, making the pile more stable, then reached for the first one.
He threaded the film through the spools, switched the machine on, and began to read.
Clark wished he had a better idea as to where to start looking. At least, though, he had some idea as to what he was looking *for*; that was more than he'd ever had in the past.
It felt odd, openly going through old issues of the Planet, looking for any reference to UFOs, or Bureau 39, or even George Thompson. After so many years of *not* looking for clues about his past, fearing that displaying too much interest in the unexplained would make people curious about him, he felt exposed as he sat in full view of the other library users. He calmed his nerves by reassuring himself that, if anyone asked what he was doing, he could provide a convincing explanation; this was for a story.
He just hoped that this new approach would yield better results than their efforts of the previous night.
Despite the reassurances the Astrophysics Department secretary had given her, Lois doubted that Meekle was in his office when she saw his door was the only one along the corridor which was closed. However, she knocked anyway.
There was the sound of movement from inside, then a voice demanded, "Who is it?"
Lois's eye's widened. The only time she had ever heard that kind of tone before was on television when bad guys feared being busted by cops. She could almost imagine him pressed up against the wall next to the door, a gun held in readiness.
Trying to put on her most reassuring voice, she said, "My name's Lois Lane. I work for the Daily Planet. I'd just like a moment of your time, if you wouldn't mind."
"What do you want?"
"Information about UFOs."
"I don't know anything! Never did! And even if I did, I never told a soul!"
Lois took a deep breath and said, "Professor Meekle, I would really appreciate it if we could have this conversation on the same side of this door."
"You got any ID on you?"
"I've got my press pass."
"That'll do. Slide it under the door so as I can see it."
Lois did as she was instructed and said, "Look, our conversation will be completely off the record, if that's what's bothering you."
She wasn't sure if it was the pass or her reassurance that did the trick, but Meekle opened the door, allowing her a first glance at the man himself. He was every inch the mad scientist, she thought, with white hair standing out inches from his scalp and glasses perched half-way down his nose. A bow tie and a baggy cable-knit cardigan further enhanced the image which was completed when he cast furtive glances along the corridor. Seemingly reassured by what he saw, he ushered her into his inner sanctum.
"You can never be too careful," he said, as he waved her to a seat. "The students will do anything to come see me out of office hours. Last week one even went so far as to pose as a spokesperson from the UN, wanting comments on a draft treaty for establishing relations with the planet Nublisno."
Lois was beginning to understand why his students were all so convinced of his mental instability. "And you…?"
"Got to page thirty-five of his document before I realised that he'd really come to talk to me about radio-astronomy. After that I sent him packing, I can tell you, and told him to come back during regular hours."
"So, Ms Lane, what can I do for you?"
"Well, I thought you might know something about an organisation called Bureau 39?" Her intonation made the sentence into a question.
"Bureau…!" Meekle raised his hands to his mouth, preventing the rest of the name from slipping out. "Never, *never* mention that name out loud!"
"Professor Meekle," said Lois, "some men from," she mouthed the next five syllables before speaking normally again, "Bureau 39 raided the Daily Planet a few days ago. I tracked them back to a warehouse full of UFOs, but they cleared out the same afternoon. What I want to know is who they are, and where they are likely to be now."
"And you came to me because…?"
"Because your reputation precedes you. One of your students used to date my sister, and I remembered that he'd mentioned you were interested in UFOs. I don't know of anyone else who is, so I thought I'd come to see if you could help."
"So no-one sent you," he said. "You're not one of them?"
"Them?" she asked.
"The ones who watch me. They don't trust me, you see. Not since I left."
Lois found herself floundering as the sense of the conversation slipped away from her. "I'm sorry, but could you be a bit more specific?" she asked.
"I left the Bureau." Like her, he mouthed the word silently. "Nobody ever leaves the Bureau, but I did. They couldn't stop me because I wasn't military, and I'm too well known in my field to just disappear, but I've had to look over my shoulder ever since."
"I see," said Lois. "And the Bureau does what, exactly?"
"Investigates the existence of UFOs, of course. Reports on the likelihood for invasion, don't you see? Its people go around the country collecting information on sightings and then draw up recommendations as to how the nation might prepare itself against alien threats."
"And do you have any idea as to who is in charge of the Bureau now?"
"No. No, no, no, no."
"Or where they might be hiding out?"
"Or how I might find them?"
"No. And, believe me, Ms Lane, you wouldn't want to."
"I wouldn't? Why not?"
"Because they are dangerous. Ruthless, even. The best information I can give you is to steer clear of them." He glanced down at his watch and exclaimed, "Oh, my! I'm late! My class is waiting. Must go. Come along, this way."
Lois found herself being hustled out of Meekle's office and watched with fascination as he double-locked his door, and made his way, crab- like, down the corridor, being careful to keep his back tightly against the wall.
Clark wasn't at his desk when she finally arrived at the office, but she managed to run him to earth in the library, sitting at a microfilm reader, peering myopically at a photograph.
"Whatcha got there?" she asked, placing a hand on his back and leaning over his shoulder so she could also see.
Clark pointed at the man in the centre of the picture and said, "Look familiar?"
"No," she said automatically, then, as she looked closer she changed her mind. "Hang on a minute. That's the creep from the raid. Isn't it?"
"I think so, yes. His name is Jason Trask, and as of 1965 he was working for the airforce in, wait for it, the field of UFO research."
"Well, good," said Lois. "So finally we have a name to go with his face. Any leads on how we find him?"
"As a matter of fact, yes." Clark said, "The other two men in the photograph are General Burton Newcomb, now retired, currently living in Metropolis and-"
"Professor Reginald Meekle, of Metropolis University."
"How did you know that?" asked Clark, impressed.
"Long story," said Lois. "Anyway, he's the reason that I'm late. I went to see him; I'll tell you about it on the way."
"On the way, where?" asked Clark.
"To see this General Newcomb, of course." Lois leaned across him and switched off the microfilm reader. "C'mon, partner," she said. "Time's awasting."
General Burton Newcomb's address was located approximately two miles from downtown. The neighbourhood's fading gentility was reflected in the peeling paint and dowdy net curtains in the windows of the brownstones lining both sides of the road. However, its decay had stopped short of the area becoming rundown, and there were signs that the gentrifiers were beginning to move in; skips were parked outside two of the buildings and painters were at work brightening up their exteriors. In five years, Lois suspected, realtors would be able to describe the area as "sought after".
Newcomb's building was, as yet, untouched by the gentrifiers. Lois swung her Jeep into the kerb, neatly parallel parking in a cramped space that seemed to expand to accommodate her. They walked over to the building's entrance and Lois watched as Clark selected the correct doorbell from an impressive array of possibilities.
A tinny voice echoed from the intercom's speaker in response to his summons. "Who is it?"
Clark leaned towards the speaker and said, "My name's Clark Kent. I work for the Daily Planet. My partner and I would like a word with you, if we may?"
Lois hoped that Newcomb wouldn't be as paranoid as his associate, Meekle, and she was pleasantly surprised, not to mention relieved, when he said, "Come on up. Door's open. Second floor."
Giving credence to his words, there was a buzzing sound from the speaker, telling them that the lock had been released. Clark pushed it inwards, and together they entered.
Newcomb led them into his study, offering them seats facing his desk before he sat down himself.
Clark said, getting down to business, "A few days ago a man called George Thompson came to Metropolis. Now he's dead."
Newcomb looked at him, his expression giving nothing away. "That's regrettable," he said. "But what does that have to do with me?"
Lois answered. "Well… He was investigating your old friend, Jason Trask." She pulled a glossy ten by eight, showing Trask, Meekle and Newcomb together at some long-forgotten press conference, out of her satchel and handed it across to the General, thus giving him no chance to deny that they were, indeed, acquainted.
Newcomb glanced down at the picture then said with resignation, "Have either of you had to keep a secret? A huge secret?" The question was clearly rhetorical; neither Lois nor Clark bothered to reply, preferring to wait for him to continue. After a pause, Newcomb said, "Keeping a secret eats away at you, just a nibble at a time. But one day you wake up and realise that it has consumed everything inside of you.
"We were just a small group when we started. But we all took a very special oath. I was just about your age."
Lois, slightly impatient with Newcomb's long-winded exposition, tried to bring the conversation back on track. "You didn't take an oath to protect people like Trask, did you?"
Newcomb didn't answer Lois's question, but his silence was an affirmative. "You don't need me to find Trask," he said. "He's probably hiding in plain sight."
"If you mean the disused furniture warehouse down on Bessolo Boulevard, then I have to tell you, your information is out of date."
Newcomb's eyebrows crawled up his forehead.
"The contents have been moved," Clark elaborated.
Newcomb said, "In that case, I don't know that I can help you any."
"Well," said Clark, sounding, at least to Lois's ears, a little disappointed, "thank you for your time, sir."
Lois didn't bother to say anything, deciding that Clark's thanks would just have to cover both of them. "Come on, Clark," she said. "Let's go."
They were almost out of the door when Clark stopped abruptly. Lois barely avoided colliding with his back. "What are you doing?" she asked impatiently. Then, more reasonably, as she realised that something had grabbed his attention, she said, "What is it?"
He pointed at a picture on the wall. The photograph, mounted in a wooden frame and fading with age, all the colours leaching into brown, was one of those posed group pictures much beloved of sports teams and high schools. The twenty or so men in this particular shot were clad in what looked to be military uniforms.
Clark turned towards Newcomb and said, "That's you, isn't it? In the front row?"
"Yes," he admitted.
"And that's Trask, second from the right at the back?"
"Yes," said Newcomb again.
"What?" exclaimed Lois. "Let me see that!" She all but barged Clark out of her way as she peered in to take a closer look. From the cars in the background and the relative youth of the men in the shot, she could only suppose that it had been taken about twenty years before. "Wow," she muttered. "You must have great glasses, Clark, to have seen them from halfway across the room." Then she turned to Newcomb and said, "Where was this taken?"
"Down south aways. At that airforce base near Golden Beach. It's been closed for years now, though."
"I know it," she said. "Well. Good-bye." She hustled Clark through the door and down the stairs.
As they climbed into the car once more, Lois said, "So what are you thinking?"
"I'm thinking… Thompson's body was washed up not far from that base. And there is a connection between Trask and it."
"Worth checking, right?"
"Definitely," Clark agreed.
"Then let's go to the country."
Lois and Clark climbed out of the Jeep and looked around. Weeds were growing out of the runways. The metal buildings were showing signs of decay; rust marks streaked their walls and some of the corrugated sheets on the roofs had slipped out of place. The airfield was desolate and looked dead. Lois sighed. This had been a good idea but, looking at the place now, she found it hard to believe that anyone had been here in the last few years, let alone the last few days. Still, they had come this far; they might as well have a look around.
Their footfalls, the screech of seagulls, and the whipping of the wind around the buildings were the only sounds as they approached the first of the hangars.
That no one cared about it showed all too clearly by the swinging entrance door, held to its frame by a single hinge, and the fact that the only contents were dust and a couple of sheets from a copy of the Daily Planet that predated her tenure with the paper. Lois fastidiously edged her way around the white splodges on the ground that provided clear evidence that birds made a habit of roosting in the building, nervously looking upwards to make sure that nothing was targeting her from above.
"Well," she said, stating the obvious, "there's nothing here. Let's try the next one."
The next building was in marginally better shape, and the padlock on the outer door looked new. Lois pointed it out to Clark, saying, "That looks more promising." She smiled at him, and produced a set of lock- picks from her purse.
"Lois!" exclaimed Clark, shocked.
She shrugged what she took to be his disapproval away, saying, "Do you want to see what's in side or not?"
"Well, yeah," he admitted. "But where did you learn to lock-pick?"
"Hm?" She looked up from where she was starting to enthusiastically poke at the lock. "Jimmy's been giving me lessons. Just hope that I can do this right…" Her face furrowed with concentration, then she grunted with satisfaction as she finally managed to raise all the tumblers, allowing her to twist the lock open. "You know, Clark," she said smiling with satisfaction, "you're going to have to learn to bend a few rules if you're going to get anywhere in this business."
"I guess," he said, but he didn't sound too thrilled at the prospect.
She led the way into the hangar, and stopped just inside the door, letting her eyes roam about its interior. The building was, she guessed, about the same height as a three- or four-storey house. Along one side, about half way up the walls, she could see a walkway which joined together what had once upon a time probably been offices. More interesting, however, were the objects scattered across the floorspace.
Clark drew to a halt next to her. With a kind of reverent anticipation, he said, "I guess we found what we were looking for."
"Yes," she said. Taking the initiative she walked over to some filing cabinets, leaving him to trail along in her wake. She opened a drawer then suddenly she was overcome, not with satisfaction that they had found the missing contents of the furniture warehouse, but a deep sense of frustration.
"Damn him," muttered Lois to herself.
"Pardon?" said Clark, startled by the muted curse.
Lois lifted her head; she hadn't meant him to hear that. Irritation writ large across her face, she said, "'Damn him.' I said, 'Damn him.'"
"Who? And, why?"
"Superman. Look at all this stuff!" She threw her arms out in an all encompassing gesture. "I don't know where to begin, and he didn't tell me…" She trailed off, and returned to burrowing through the filing cabinets.
"Smallville, Kansas, May 17, 1966," said Clark quietly.
"Pardon?" Lois didn't even bother looking up at the apparent non sequitur.
"I told you that, if you found the records, and if it became necessary for you to know where and when the ship landed, I would tell you."
That got her attention. Her head jerked up, and she stared at him, wide-eyed. "*What* did you say?"
"No. No, it's all right. I heard you the first time. I'm just… *You're* Superman? You?!"
Clark looked at Lois uncertainly, not sure how to react to her incredulity.
"I'd worked out that he… you… had to have a secret identity. And I even knew that there were some parallels in your backgrounds… But I didn't… It never even crossed my mind…" Lois turned her back against the filing cabinet and slid down against it so that she ended up sitting on the floor, knees to chest. She wiped a hand across her forehead as she said, "Boy! Have I been blind!"
Clark walked over and squatted down next to her. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to shock you."
She shook her head ruefully. "Yeah. That's me all right. Shocked. Stunned. In need of oxygen." Yet, despite her words, she seemed to be coping with the revelation remarkably well. "Why didn't you tell me before?"
Clark glanced away, then turned back to face her. "Well, it's not exactly the kind of thing that you bring up in casual conversation. 'Hi, I'm your new colleague. Oh, and by the way, I wear tights and a cape in my spare time'," he said, making light of it. Then, more seriously, he said, "In any case, what *could* I have told you? I didn't know very much myself."
"I guess not."
"And," he took a deep breath, "since I'm being honest here… Lois, I don't suppose that I would be telling you anything at all, if you hadn't found the ship in the first place."
She nodded and shrugged, thinking, *You mean, you only told me stuff because I had something that you wanted. I might not like that, but I guess I can understand it. * At least he had told her now.
"I'm sorry," he said again. "That sounds pretty callous, and I didn't mean it that way. It's just that Superman turned out to be such a big deal, and you were so gung ho about getting the story. I wouldn't have wanted to risk you finding out. We've kept the secret so long…" He shrugged and tried again. "My parents and I… we were scared that if anyone found out about me, they'd lock me up somewhere. I don't suppose there's much anyone could do with me now, not since my powers developed. But I still worry about what could happen to them, or to anyone else close to me."
And that, she realised, explained the isolation she noticed before.
He stood up. Lois watched the easy grace with which he moved, and she wondered whether he was moving away from her because he was embarrassed by what he had just said, or frightened by what she might do with her new knowledge. Maybe he was simply moving towards the cabinets, because he could no longer resist the temptation offered by the secrets they held.
She scrambled to her feet and moved across to his side. She rested a hand on his shoulder to catch his attention, and she said, "I know you must be wondering, and I suspect that you're too polite to ask outright, but I won't tell anyone, you know."
"No," she shook her head, smiling faintly. "I can't believe this! Lois Lane, the best investigative reporter this city has seen, and I'm about to sit on the greatest story of the century!" She laughed faintly of the irony of the situation. "The thing is, though, even I can tell that there are some things more important than my career, no matter what people think." Ducking her head, she muttered, "No matter what *you* think," as she remembered the conversation she'd had with Superman on the second occasion that he had visited her apartment.
"Oh? What sort of things?"
"Friendship?" she asked tentatively. And, perhaps, one day, something more? But she wasn't sure that she was ready for that yet, and so she didn't voice the thought out loud.
He grinned at her, and she had the strange idea that he had picked up on the thought anyhow. Suddenly remembering her session with the polygraph, she said, slightly alarmed, "You're not telepathic, are you?"
"No, Lois. Why do you ask?"
"Oh, no reason…" Then, to bury any possibility of embarrassing herself further, she said, "Come on. We've got work to do!" and she began to delve into the contents of the filing cabinets.
No longer inhibited by his secret, Clark lowered his glasses and looked over their top, rapidly surveying the contents of the hangar, looking for the ship. Then, his disappointment obvious, he said, "It's not here, Lois."
She looked at him, her eyes sympathetic. "The file isn't, either." She pushed the drawer she'd been going through closed, then walked over to him. She put her arms around him, offering what little comfort she could.
As he allowed himself to be enfolded in her embrace she said, "I'm sorry, Clark. I know how much this meant to you."
"Thank you, Lois."
"For what?" she asked.
"For helping me. For being here for me. Just for being a friend, I guess. I appreciate it."
"That's okay. I just wish we could have found something more here. As it is…" She trailed off. Sure, they had a story that they could publish. But that wasn't, ironically enough, the story she had wanted to get. After all these years of wanting nothing more than to see her name emblazoned across the front page, suddenly that seemed terribly unimportant.
They stood, locked together, both apparently equally unwilling to end the hug. After a while Lois said, her voice slightly muffled against his chest, "Clark… I've been thinking."
"I don't think that you were abandoned."
His eyebrows rose at the unexpected comment. "Why not?" he asked.
"Think about it," she said. "No matter how advanced a planet Krypton was, sending you to Earth can't have been the easiest thing to do. That took effort. It's not like dumping a child in front of a police station or — heaven forbid — in a dumpster." As much as it grieved them both to admit it, such things did happen from time to time. "Whoever did it, must have had a good reason."
"I have to admit," said Clark, "I like your thinking. I just wish I knew what that reason was." A hint of sadness had crept into his voice again. She tightened her hold on him, realising as she did so that she liked the feel of him in her arms.
"Now, here's a touching scene!"
Trask's voice made them jump apart.
Men streamed through the entrance, fanning out across the room, and pointed guns at the reporters. Lois wondered what Clark would have done under other circumstances, but now, standing in a room with ten men from an agency intent upon hunting him down, he couldn't risk turning into Superman, at least, not unless it became absolutely imperative.
Lois shot Clark a look which she hoped he would interpret correctly as meaning, why didn't you tell me they were coming? Why didn't you get us out of here before they could find us? After all, surely Clark had heard something with those superpowers of his.
Apparently he hadn't, though, because he whispered, "I'm sorry. I had no idea…"
"Jason Trask," spat Lois, heedless of the pistol he held levelled at her chest.
"Ah, so you know who I am," he said.
"Yes," Lois agreed. "Don't you think it was a little rude of you not to bother introducing yourself when we met last week?"
"Lois," Clark cautioned her. "Don't provoke him!"
"Wise words, Mr Kent," said Trask. Then, speaking directly to Lois, he said, "I'd advise you to listen to him."
Lois didn't bother to reply verbally, letting her body language to do all the talking necessary to convey her irritation with both of them. She straightened her lips into a petulant line, crossed her arms and tapped her foot.
"I knew you'd find this place sooner or later," Trask said, his tone self- satisfied for some reason.
"Oh?" said Lois.
"Your reputation, Ms Lane, is quite impressive you know. I knew that, if you were determined enough, you'd come here. All I had to do was wait."
Clark asked, "And why would you want us to find you?"
"Simple, Mr Kent. I have a use for you."
"And that is…?"
"It's quite simple, really. Unless I miss my guess, one or other of you knows how to contact Superman, and when you contact him — which, I assure you, you will — we'll be ready for him."
Lois and Clark exchanged looks. Both pairs of eyes were wide with barely suppressed fear, but neither was willing to let Trask see their concern. "And if we don't?" asked Clark.
"If you don't, then I'm sure someone else will get word to Superman eventually. It just might take some time for anyone to get around to rescuing you. That's all." Trask waved his gun in the direction of the far end of the hangar. "Now," he said. "Over there. Sit down."
"A trap!" Lois hissed to Clark. "I can't believe it! He set us up, used this stuff as bait and… Oh! I wonder, was General Newcomb in on this, or was he just another unwitting dupe, like us? Am I mad!"
"And," said Clark, "I suppose that explains why the ship isn't here. I'd guess all the stuff the Bureau takes seriously has been carted off somewhere else. Is that right, Trask?"
He didn't answer. Lois, in typical fashion, prompted him to reply saying, "Come on, Trask. You might as well tell us. After all, you probably want to kill us anyway."
"Lois!" chided Clark, disapproving of her outburst.
"Quite right, Ms Lane. I can hardly let you go, knowing about this operation, now, can I? In answer to your question, Mr Kent. Yes, the more significant finds are somewhere else. Somewhere, believe me, that you could never find, even if you were to get out of here alive." He waved towards his underlings. "Watch them. I've got to make sure that everything is ready for the grand finale."
Clark sat, knees to chest and eyes closed, leaning against the metal wall of the hangar, silently chastising himself for having allowed this situation to have developed.
As Clark, he did his best not to see or hear things that humans couldn't. His urge *not* to sense things that were humanly impossible had become a habit; it was a survival tactic that had been drummed into him from an early age.
Today, though, his caution had been their undoing. He'd known that snooping around the hangar was potentially dangerous, and yet he hadn't taken even the most rudimentary precautions. He had heard neither Trask nor his men approaching; if he'd been paying attention, things could have worked out very differently.
It was his fault, he thought, that they had been captured. His fault that they were being held at gunpoint by ten soldiers plus Trask, with who knew how many more men outside. His fault that Lois's life was in danger, and his fault that the secret was now hanging in the balance.
If it became absolutely imperative to reveal himself in order to protect Lois he would do it, but at what cost to himself or to his parents?
What, he wondered, feeling impotent, was he supposed to do? He had no idea. All he could do was play for time and hope for the best.
The concrete floor and the metal of the wall that comprised the best accommodations Bureau 39 was prepared to offer were hard and cold against Lois's back, but she pushed her physical discomfort aside, preferring instead to concentrate upon the larger picture.
She hated this inactivity. She hated not knowing where Trask had gone. She hated Clark's apparent patience in the face of their current situation: why didn't he *do* something? Even as the thought took form, though, Lois knew the answer. Trask wanted to destroy Superman, and Clark Kent couldn't afford to do anything that might give him new ammunition for his arsenal against him if he could avoid it. Superman had been rendered impotent by Trask's actions.
Her mind flicked back to the conversation they'd been having just before Trask arrived. "My parents and I… we were scared that if anyone found out about me, they'd lock me up somewhere." This, then, was the kind of thing the Kents must have been fearing all his life. Maybe there was an immediacy to this situation that he'd never before experienced, but the idea of persecution certainly wasn't new; he'd had years to get used to the idea that something like this would happen to him. She'd had no time at all, and she was both horrified and terrified by their situation.
Lois found herself thinking that, despite all his fears, he had still found the strength deep within him to become Superman. Yes, he hid the alien part of himself away when he was Clark Kent, but by creating Superman he'd found the courage to show that part of himself to the world.
How must he feel, having done that, to so quickly encounter Trask, a man who wanted to destroy him, and, by the looks for things, would stop at nothing to do so? How did Clark feel, knowing that someone hated him so much simply because he existed? Did he feel hunted? Scared and responsible both for himself and for his family, not to mention for her? How would she feel if someone felt that way about her, just because of the colour of her skin, the shape of her eyes, her accent or her religion? What Trask was displaying was a racism of the worst kind. Her heart reached out to her partner who did not deserve any of this. All he had done was try to help, and this was the thanks he was getting.
She frowned slightly. Clark had feared something like this would happen, yet he had nonetheless chosen to let her in on the secret. Why had he done that, when, as she could now see, there was so much at stake? And how did it make her feel, knowing that he had placed that much trust in her?
The answer was easy. She felt incredibly honoured and special, and she also knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt that Clark Kent would never willingly betray her trust in him. He was, she now knew, as completely different from Claude as any man could be, and she felt a huge weight lift from her shoulders.
Here, in a warehouse, surrounded by guns, she found herself beginning to rediscover the meaning of love. The realisation was heady and unbelievably delightful; she just hoped that she would live long enough to enjoy it.
"It's a romance novel," she said suddenly.
"Pardon?" asked Clark.
"Romance?" he said. "Now, why doesn't that surprise me?"
She wondered if he was being sarcastic, though he'd never shown any signs of being that way inclined before. It was her turn to say, "Pardon?"
"Well," he answered, speaking for her ears alone. "What better secret identity could you have than as a hard-bitten, cynical careerwoman? Lois Lane is, in reality, Romantic Woman."
She looked at him, astonished by both his perspicacity and his tone. Here they were, at the mercy of a madman, and he was *teasing* her!
"It's about a woman who dies before she finds her true love-"
"That's not going to happen to you, Lois," he said.
"I hope not," she whispered softly, edging along the floor, moving closer to Clark. She was both physically and mentally warmed as he put his arm around her and drew her against his chest, and she hoped that he drew some comfort from her closeness, too.
She could feel Clark tense against her as she asked one of the guards, "What will you do if Superman *does* show up?"
The guard shrugged as though the question was of little interest to him. "We're ready for him. He won't be leaving here alive."
"Nothing can kill Superman," she said, fervently hoping that she was right. "That recent explosion in the bank, for example. That didn't harm him at all."
"We know all about that, Ms Lane," the guard said. "Just because that bomb didn't kill him, don't think that he can't be killed. We just need a bigger bomb, that's all."
Lois felt Clark's hold on her tighten. She wished he could reassure her, and tell her that the guard was wrong, that the guard didn't know what he was talking about. However, she knew that Clark couldn't tell her anything, in case the guards heard them. She just had to believe that a man who could fly through the vacuum of space and who thought nothing of going into an earthquake zone wouldn't be troubled by an explosion, no matter how big, and that the Bureau's plan of action was based on speculation rather than any kind of concrete knowledge about the Man of Steel.
Trask returned with a telephone in one hand and a small device in the other. With no small amount of ceremony, he put the telephone on the ground next to them and said, "Phone him. Contact him. Do whatever it is that you have to do, but just get him here."
Lois felt Clark shift underneath her, but she forestalled whatever action he had been planning by saying, "We can't. We don't know how."
"I'm not sure I believe you Ms Lane, despite the results of the polygraph, and I certainly don't believe it of Mr Kent."
"You can think what you like," said Lois. "It won't change anything. Besides, why should we help you when we already know what you plan to do with us?"
"Why indeed?" Trask asked. Lifting the small device he said, "I've been doing my homework, you know. You, Ms Lane, share an apartment with your sister. You, Mr Kent, I am led to understand, are rather fond of your parents. I'm sure you wouldn't want anything to happen to any of them." He pointed to the device and said, "This button will remotely trigger explosives at your apartment, Ms Lane. This one will destroy the Kent farmhouse in Smallville. Think anyone's home right now?"
*Lucy*, she begged silently, *please, please be out again. I know I haven't exactly approved of your behaviour, and I know that you've been driving me mad by treating my home like a hotel, but right now I really hope that is exactly what you're doing, and that you're out having a great time with your friends … Please, Lucy, just don't come home tonight.* "You're insane," she whispered, appalled.
"No, Ms Lane. I'm not insane. Now, make the call."
Again, Lois could feel Clark moving. She put out a hand to try to hold him in place, knowing that if he were really determined to move, nothing she could do would stop him.
Trask eyed Clark and said, "I wouldn't try anything, Kent. I'm being monitored: if anything happens to me, someone else will set off the bombs in both locations. There is only one way you can save your loved ones. Make the call!"
"I told you already," said Lois, sounding increasingly desperate. "We don't *know* how to contact Superman!"
"Then this is what you'll do. You will telephone the Daily Planet. You will tell your editor exactly where you are, and that he must get word out that you are in need of rescue. That will bring the alien running, I'm sure."
"And then what?" asked Lois.
"This button will detonate the bomb when Superman comes."
"The bomb…," said Lois, "where is it, exactly?"
"Why, Ms Lane," said Trask, "you're inside it. This whole building is riddled with Semtex: floor, roof, walls, ceiling. When the alien comes…" He mimed a explosion with his hands.
"You'd blow us all up, just on the off-chance that you could take Superman with you? You *are* insane!"
"No, Mr Kent. I'm merely a soldier in a war. All soldiers should be prepared to die for the greater good of their country. Now, if you want your families to see the morning, *make the call*!"
Lois picked up the phone and began to dial. What other choice did they have?
"I need the bathroom."
Lois's announcement punctured the silence that for the last hour had hung heavily over the hangar's occupants.
"You should have gone before you came out," said Trask.
"I did!" Lois glared at him. "But that was hours ago."
"Well?" demanded Lois.
"Well, what?" he asked.
"Well, unless you want me to do my business *right here*, you'd better tell me where it is."
Trask stared at her, clearly trying to work out whether hers was a genuine need, or whether she was bluffing. She was relieved when he evidently decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.
He nodded to a minion, summoning him. Then he ordered, "Take her to the can. And, Ms Lane, don't even think about escaping; there are guards all over outside, and I still have your partner, and I have this." He waved the detonator.
Lois didn't bother to reply. Instead she settled for giving him another dose of her patented glare, glancing back at him with an ill-humour she did nothing to conceal, as the guard led her away from the main body of the warehouse.
Lois wrinkled her nose in distaste at the smell of the bathroom. On another occasion, perhaps fastidiousness would have made her rethink her options, but, as she'd told Trask, it had been hours since she'd had the opportunity to relieve herself, and right now need outweighed any hygiene considerations.
Her escort had dropped his guard when he'd heard the obvious sounds of Lois's pressing need being dealt with. Her business done, he assumed that she would follow him meekly back to the warehouse.
He didn't know Lois.
She noticed his attention was no longer fully focused on her, and she made the most of his lapse. Falling a step behind him, she waited until his eyes were directed straight ahead. Then, stiffening her hand into a rigid plane, she pulled her arm back, and in one smooth movement, swung her hand forward so its edge impacted with his neck. Disorientated, he tried to fight back, but his co-ordination was shot. He aimed a couple of blows himself, but she managed to block them with ease. Then she launched a series of kicks and blows that spoke of hours spent in martial arts classes.
The guard fell. Almost with surprise Lois realised that he was unconscious. She wondered what to do with him; it would do no good if anyone found him lying in this state out here in the open.
She teetered unsteadily on her heels as she put her hands under his arm pits. Grunting with the effort required, she dragged him back into the bathroom. Then she leaned back against the sink, wiped a hand across a brow now damp with perspiration, and wondered what to do next.
She didn't dare leave Clark alone for long; she didn't know what Trask might do if he discovered her absence. Then she paled as she realised what she had done. She had knocked her escort out cold; she could hardly return alone. What would Trask make of that?
"Oh, God…" she murmured. It was a prayer. "What was I thinking of?"
Lois never meant to do anything stupid or reckless, or, for that matter, recklessly stupid. But somehow that was always what happened.
How was she going to put this right?
A telephone would be a good start, she decided. If she could just warn someone about the bombs at her apartment and at the Kents…
She opened the bathroom door a crack and peered out. No-one seemed to be in sight so she carefully opened it wider and stuck her head out. Satisfied that no-one could see what she was doing, she scuttled across the tarmac, and crept back into the hangar from which she had so recently come.
She pulled her shoes off, leaving them out of sight near the entrance. Then, keeping to the shadows as best she could, she tiptoed in stockinged feet towards the staircase that would take her up towards the offices above, and, with luck, what she was seeking.
As she reached a point half-way up the steps, she threw a glance across in Clark's direction. Trask was standing with his back to her, peering down at Clark where he was still sitting on the concrete floor. Neither seemed to be disturbed by her absence just yet.
She reached the top of the steps and, hugging herself as tightly to the wall as possible, she craned her neck to get the best view that she could of Trask and Clark in the far corner of the hangar. Then, creeping along the walkway, she edged towards the office at the far end, ignoring the way the metal lattice bit into the soles of her bare feet.
Clark stared at Trask. After Luthor's machinations, he thought he had been prepared for every kind of evil depravity, but Trask's threats to his and Lois's families made him reconsider. Perhaps he could reach the detonator that Trask held, but what good would that do, if somewhere, beyond his ability to trace, someone else could trigger the bombs instead. It was a risk that he could not take. He had never felt so weak, so useless, in his life, and he didn't like the feeling.
If only he could think of a solution!
Time passed, the seconds and minutes creeping slowly. How long had it been since Trask had caught them? How long since they'd made the call? How long since Lois had left?
Lois… What had happened to Lois? She should have been back by now, he realised. No matter how slowly time was passing, it couldn't have taken her this long to go to the bathroom. Clark fought the urge to look at his watch, knowing that such an action could only cause to draw attention to his concern. It was better, he thought, to pretend that nothing was wrong.
Clark dropped his chin onto his chest, lowering his head as though he was going to doze. Then he rolled his eyes so that he could peer as best he could over the top of his lenses. His attempts to see beyond the confines of the hangar came to naught, however. Lead paint and the limited field of view combined to reward him with nothing more than a slight headache. Absently he lifted his right hand to his forehead and massaged it away.
Okay, he thought. Sight hadn't worked. What about hearing? What about smell? He closed his eyes and reached out with his other senses. Beyond the silence he could hear his own breathing and heartbeat. He discounted them and reached out further. Now he could hear Trask's heartbeat and those of the guards, the slightly shallow breaths that belied their studiedly relaxed stances, and the faintest rustle of their clothing.
Concentrating, Clark reached further, searching for the familiar beat of Lois's heart and the soft aromas of her body and hair. He sifted past the sound of the wind hitting against the outside of the building, the brush of the stiff breeze through distant trees, the cries of the birds, the sound of sirens in the distance growing closer, closer, closer…
There! He had found her! Her heartbeat was fast and she was perspiring gently; he could smell the scent of her sweat beneath her perfume and shampoo. He suppressed an automatic frown as he realised that she was above him and to the left. How, he wondered, had she got up there? And what was she planning on doing now that she was?
Lois crept along the walkway, her back pressed tightly against the wall. She suddenly felt a ridiculous desire to laugh as she realised that she must look as absurd as Meekle had crabbing along his corridor. It was nerves, she thought. Hysteria. There was nothing remotely amusing about her current position. Determinedly, she clamped down on the impulse before her giggles could escape.
Her hand touched a handle. It turned easily and she felt the door open inwards behind her. Thanking whatever higher power might be listening for this fragment of good fortune, she eased the door wider. The hinges creaked loudly in her ears and she froze, her heart suddenly in her throat, beating triple time.
Please, she pleaded silently, don't let anyone have heard that!
Eyes wide, she glanced downwards and was relieved to see that no-one was looking in her direction. She concluded that the noise must have been lost amid the more general sounds of the wind outside.
Fractionally reassured, Lois edged into the tiny office. There was space enough for a desk, a chair, three shelves and a small mat on the linoleum flooring.
The phone on the desk was old fashioned, with a dial rather than buttons, and she wondered when it had last been used. To her delighted surprise, when she picked up the handset, she was rewarded with a dial tone.
For a moment she wondered who to call. 911 was an obvious option, but what if the emergency operator thought she was a crank?
No, she decided. She needed to talk to someone who could convince the authorities of the need to act, someone who knew enough background to save her having to waste time on explanations. More than that, she needed someone whose number she could remember. In short, she needed Perry White.
Lois counted the rings at the other end. One. Two. Three. *Come on, Perry, pick up!* Four. Five. *Perry? Where are you?* Six. Seven. Eight. *This is taking too long…* Nine.
Half way through the tenth ring the call was answered.
"Perry White's desk," said a breathless voice.
"What?! Jimmy?" hissed Lois. "I need to speak to Perry! Now!"
"Can you speak up, Lois? I can barely hear you."
"No, I can't speak up! If Perry's not there, then where is he?"
"On his way to you, with the police, I think."
Lois rolled her eyes. Of all the stupid times for Perry to decide to ride to their rescue this had to be the stupidest of all! She took a deep breath, then, releasing it slowly, she said, "Okay, Jimmy, listen carefully, because I don't know how much time I'll have. You've got to warn Lucy and Jonathan and Martha Kent…"
"Where's your partner, Kent?"
Unprepared for it, Trask's voice sliced through Clark's head and Clark flinched at the pain of it, rapidly adjusting his hearing back to more human levels. His head jerked up and he turned to Trask.
Trying to sound nonchalant, Clark said, "She hasn't been gone that long," and shrugged in what he hoped was a dismissive manner.
"You think?" asked Trask in way that made it clear that he didn't agree. "Just how long does it take for you to go to the bathroom?
Turning to his minions he began to point. "You, you and you two. Get out there and find her and bring her back here!"
The chosen guards hustled away. Clark did a quick count. What with the guard who'd escorted Lois gone, and now these four more, that left only five others plus Trask himself.
Physically there was nothing to stop him taking the guards out, but there still remained the problem of keeping the secret safe.
In the distance now the sounds of the sirens was growing louder; perhaps, Clark hoped desperately, rescue would come before he had to do anything irrevocable.
Satisfied that she had done as much as she could, Lois tiptoed out onto the walkway once again, pulling the door closed behind her, her mind returning to the problem of how to get back to Clark without arousing suspicion.
However, as she looked down onto the floor below, she realised that it was already far too late for that.
She watched, terrified, as Trask quizzed Clark, then sent some of his henchmen after her. Then she saw with relief that they all exited from the hangar, none thinking to look up.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, came the echoing wail of sirens. Rescue was at hand.
Trask's head jerked up at the sound. Straining to hear him, Lois heard Trask say to the remaining few guards, "Get out. See what's going on out there."
They did as they were commanded.
Clark shifted uneasily, drawing Trask's attention to him once again.
Trask shook his head. "Don't move, Mr Kent. Maybe your partner got out, but I'm not letting you go quite so easily. I've still got a use for you." Lois could see him finger the detonator one-handedly behind his back while he kept an unwavering grip on the pistol pointed at Clark.
Clark's eyes were fixed on the barrel of the gun. "They're coming to get us," he said unnecessarily. "Superman's not coming, so why don't you just let me go? Why don't we just walk out of here before things get any more out of hand?"
"Oh, no, Mr Kent," said Trask. "That's too easy. And I still haven't got what I want." When Clark didn't reply, Trask continued. "I want Superman. In here. And I want him now."
"But he hasn't come. What makes you think…?" prompted Clark.
"I'm going to give him a little added incentive."
"Incentive? What are you-"
Lois didn't need to hear either the end of Clark's question or Trask's reply. His meaning was all too clear.
He pressed down on one of the detonator's buttons and the walls imploded.
High above the men, Lois lost her footing as the walkway was blown from its moorings and she screamed as she fell.
Then everything seemed to happen in slow motion. Time stretched as Clark leapt up, flying towards Lois as she tumbled headlong. He grabbed her close to his chest, then he barrelled backwards through the metal wall of the hangar.
In the instant before he carried her to safety, Lois caught sight of Trask. She saw the look of triumphant understanding that suffused his face.
Trask knew that Clark was Superman!
Clark dropped Lois down on the dark side of the hangar, hiding his presence as far as he could from the approaching emergency vehicles and the fleeing Bureau 39 personnel. Then he spun, and in moments was dressed in the bright garb of Superman. Lois didn't even have time to gasp at the transformation before he flew back into the inferno.
She walked, cursing the loss of her shoes, towards the blue and red kaleidoscope of lights, squinting as her eyes tried to adjust to the sudden brightness and holding up a hand to block out the glare.
"Lois, honey! Thank God!"
"Perry…" she said weakly. "Superman got me out…"
She was remotely aware of someone wrapping a blanket around her shoulders and making concerned noises about shock.
"Where's Clark?" Perry was asking.
Lois pulled her scattering wits back together. She began to point in the direction of the hangar, but suddenly remembered that she couldn't tell the absolute truth. "He's…" She waved vaguely. "Superman got him out, I think. He's here somewhere…"
Her last words were drowned in the sound of another explosion. The blast blew her off her feet, and she automatically covered her head, protecting herself against the falling debris, some of it glowing red hot.
A tiny part of her mind apparently was still possessed of the power of thought. She realised two things. First, she, Perry and the blanket- bearing EMT had been lucky enough to be at the very edge of the blast zone. Second, this explosion had been far bigger than the first; the first was just a ruse, lulling them into a false sense of security. Originally designed to lure Superman in to rescue Clark, it had instead forced him to go back for Trask.
Perry's words pulled at Lois's attention. She heard the concern in Perry's voice. In a whisper she said, "He went back for Trask. I don't think he's come out yet…"
Perry handed her a handkerchief. For a moment she couldn't understand why he was holding out the white square of cotton to her, then she saw through blurred vision that he was looking at her with concern, and she suddenly realised that she was crying. "I'm sorry, Perry. It's just…"
"Shush, honey," he said. "You've been through a lot."
She dabbed at her eyes and sniffed. "Trask said… a big enough bomb would… kill Superman. What if he doesn't come out again… I mean, we don't know what his limits are, do we?"
Perry tried to gather her into his embrace but she shook him off saying, "I'm all right, Perry."
He didn't argue. Instead he chose to stand silently beside her, offering her whatever kind of support his presence might offer.
Lois waited anxiously, wondering what was taking Superman so long. As the seconds ticked into minutes that felt like hours she found herself biting on her thumb nail. *Please, please be all right, Clark,* she pleaded silently.
He'd only been gone for a few moments, but in his absence an inferno had taken hold of the hangar, changing its internal geography beyond recognition. Clark landed, disoriented. The fire licked at his arms and his legs as he tried to find Trask. The billowing smoke and the shifting hues of the flames, dancing from sullen red through orange to a searing white and a translucent blue beyond, played havoc with his vision, and Clark had to struggle to focus past the distractions.
A trickle of perspiration slid down his back and water droplets beaded on his brow. Clark wondered fleetingly whether the perspiration stemmed from the intense heat — what were the limits to his powers, anyway? — or from his fears that he'd already taken too long over his search and that Trask was already dead.
Clark needed to find him. He had to satisfy himself that he'd done everything he could to rescue his erstwhile murderer. It didn't matter to him that Trask had been willing to sacrifice them all — Clark, Lois, himself — in his desire to destroy Superman. All that mattered was that Clark had vowed to help anyone who needed it, and to save lives where he could. In his mind, allowing Trask to die, even though it was Trask's choice to sacrifice himself to his cause, would be almost as great a sin as murder.
"Trask!" Clark shouted, his words immediately lost amidst the sounds of the conflagration. His super-hearing was rendered almost useless by the competing sounds of the fire itself, of buckling metal, blistering paint, and the creaking and snapping of timbers.
"Trask!" he yelled again, louder this time. "Where *are* you!?" His voice cracked with barely suppressed panic. How long could a human survive in these conditions? he wondered desperately. If the flames and the heat didn't get Trask, then the smoke almost certainly would.
Clark began to fight the fire. He inhaled deeply, absorbing as much of the hot and gritty smoke into his lungs as he could. It barely made an impact; as soon as he'd cleared the air, a new wave of smoke rushed in to fill the vacuum he'd created.
Yet, for a brief moment, at the climax of each inhalation, there was clarity, and Clark could see. Once, twice, a third time, he inhaled and then, not six feet from where he stood, Clark spotted Trask writhing on the floor, his hair, skin and uniform awash with flame, one hand reaching for the detonator that he'd dropped.
Clark reacted instinctively. He blew as hard as he dared, and the frigid blast dowsed the flames that were assaulting his nemesis. Then he knelt down beside Trask, x-raying his clothes, surveying the burns patterned across his whole body, looking for the best way to pick him up.
Clark's eyes caught on Trask's own. Trask's gaze was livid, and his eyes seemed to burn hotter than the fire surrounding them. Determinedly Clark ignored the hatred in them and shouted to make himself heard. "We've got to get out of here! The building'll collapse any minute!"
Even in his weakened state, Trask summoned up the energy to resist Clark's offer of assistance, more interested in reaching the detonator than in being saved. His fingers reached, connected, and, despite the obvious pain that picking up the device caused him, his hand closed around it.
Clark pleaded, "Let me help you!"
Trask's eyes glittered with the insanity he'd previously denied possessing as he spat, "Keep your hands off me!"
"You'll die if you stay here!"
Trask laughed maniacally. "Then we'll die together!"
Clark resolutely ignored him, discounting Trask's rantings as the ravings of a madman, knowing that time was running out, both for the building and for Trask who was already almost certainly past saving anyway. Clark reached beneath Trask's body and, as gently as he could, he eased Trask into his arms, drawing him into the protective zone of his aura.
Trask snarled at him, but Clark found that he now had to struggle to hear Trask's words. "Trying to save me… won't help you," he gasped through his pain. Trask, in Clark's arms, juggled with the detonator, and unseen by Clark, pressed a brief sequence of buttons. His laughter alerted Clark to the danger before the tremors beneath his feet signalled what was coming.
Clark took off just as the floor exploded beneath him, sending shards of concrete lancing upwards and outwards. This explosion was far more intense than that of its precursor which, now, Clark could see had been designed to lull him into a false sense of security, a warm up before the main event. The force pushed Clark spinning out from the explosion's epicentre, and his back impacted with one of the hangar's concrete uprights, sending a shudder through his body and down his arms, jolting his passenger. Clark shook himself and quickly recovered his equilibrium.
Trask struggled in Clark's arms as best as he could in his weakened state, angry at being cheated of the kill. Yet, Clark knew that Trask's strength was deceptive; the life was ebbing from Trask's body. He was dying.
"Secret identity… clever, Mr Kent."
Clark flinched at Trask's use of his name, knowing a sick horror at the realisation that Trask had seen him, that he *knew*.
Trask could no longer find the strength to form complete sentences, but the meaning still flowed from his words. It dripped evilly into Clark's ears, offensive and corrupting as he continued. "I'm just a… soldier… in a war. Expendable. Others will come… take my place… others will find… dirty little secret. Destroy you."
Clark tried to close his mind to the taunts, so it took him a few moments to realise that Trask had stopped talking and that he was gone.
There was no longer any need to hurry. If the building did collapse on them, it was unlikely to do Clark much harm, and Trask was now beyond all earthly help.
Trask had failed to physically harm Superman, but emotionally Clark felt like a wreck.
When she finally caught sight of Clark, she muttered an instinctive, "Oh, thank God." But, as she watched him, she could tell that something had gone terribly wrong. He was moving slowly, as though the mere act of placing one foot in front of the other was almost too much for him. In his arms lay what could only have been a body, charred now beyond recognition.
"Trask…" she whispered. She had hated him for what he had done, and for what he had threatened to do to their families; however she would never have wished this on him.
She wanted to go over to Superman, but a policeman chose that moment to come over to her.
Lois nodded dumbly.
"I'm Detective Palermo. I need to ask you a few things…"
"Now?" she asked. "Can't it wait?"
"It won't take long. You can come to the station tomorrow to make a detailed statement, but for now it would really help if you could answer a couple of questions."
Lois saw that Superman was passing over the body to the paramedics. Then, seeing him leap into the air, she turned back to Palermo, and said, "Okay. What do you want to know?"
Perry drifted away, saying he'd see if he could track down Clark; he had to be around somewhere.
The paramedics rushed forwards as soon as Superman emerged from the hangar, fighting valiantly against the heat that was determined to hold them at bay. Only when they saw Superman slowly shake his head, showing that their efforts were to no purpose, did they fall back and wait for him to reach them.
"I couldn't save him," Clark said as he gently laid Trask's body on the stretcher they had ready.
The paramedics nodded curt acknowledgements; it wasn't the first time circumstances had robbed them of a chance to save a life and it undoubtedly wouldn't be the last, but it never failed to hurt.
"I'm sorry," said Clark, unsure just who he was apologising to. To the paramedics for failing to deliver a living patient they could work with? To Trask for not saving him? To himself for not having lived up to his self-imposed and exacting standards?
He turned away from the stretcher and, with a leaden heart, he leapt into the air, putting distance between himself and his failure.
Clark wanted nothing more than to run away to somewhere where he could lick his wounds in private, but he knew that he could not do that. Superman might have left, but Clark Kent had not. He had responsibilities to attend to.
He landed quicker than the eye could follow in the shadows behind the hangar, and changed back into his Clark clothes. Then, gathering all his courage together, he took a deep breath, and returned to the fray.
"Clark! I've been looking all over for you!" Perry pounded him on the back, relieved to find his reporter in one piece. "You had me worried there for a minute."
When Clark didn't answer, Perry looked into his face. "You okay, son?" he asked with concern.
What a question! Of course he wasn't okay. In the last few hours he'd been held prisoner, been the victim of an attempted murder, seen the woman he loved placed in mortal danger, and had a man die in his arms. But of course he couldn't tell Perry everything so, instead, he forcibly gathered his straying wits together, swallowed noisily a couple of times, and said, "Sure, Chief. I'm fine."
"Good. Come on. The police need a statement."
Clark nodded. If he just took this one step at a time, he thought, he might just make it through the rest of the evening. All he needed to do was hold on until he got home. Then he could let himself go.
It took a while for Palermo to declare himself satisfied, but finally Lois had the freedom to look for Clark. Superman was nowhere to be seen. Lois frowned; he'd left Trask then vanished without offering his assistance to the firecrews which were now battling against the flames. Maybe, she thought, he hadn't seen any point in hanging around when lives weren't at stake. Or maybe he'd been hurt; he had been moving very slowly after all…
Lois forced herself to acknowledge the policewoman standing next to her.
"I thought you might find these useful."
Lois took the proffered sneakers gratefully, and slipped them on. Too large, they flopped as she walked, but they were, she had to admit, a great deal better than nothing.
To her immense relief she finally spotted Clark standing off to one side, now back in his usual clothes, his face a blank mask as he watched the flames leaping high into the sky.
A terrible ripping sound came from the direction of the hangar, and Lois spun around to face it in time to see the roof collapse, making a thundering sound that Lois could feel in her chest.
She turned back towards Clark. The fire bathed his body with an orange glow. Lois walked over to him, put her arm around him, and said, "Are you okay?"
"He's dead," he said instead of answering her question.
"I know. What happened?"
"I went back into the hangar. I thought I knew where he'd been standing when he pressed the button, but I couldn't find him immediately. Everything looked so different." He tried to control it, but his voice was shaking as he spoke. He swallowed noisily. "When I found him… He was still alive. He recognised me, Lois. He'd seen me fly up to you… He knew."
Lois nodded, remembering that final look of dawning revelation she'd seen on Trask's face before Clark had pulled her out through the wall of the exploding building.
"He said… he said… the war wasn't over… That the Bureau would hunt me down and destroy me… Then he… The second explosion… I would have saved him, if I could, Lois. You've got to believe that. But he died…" His voice faded into silence as he continued to stare at the building. At long last the fire hoses seemed to be making some kind of headway against the flames, but they both knew that nothing inside would have survived the destruction.
Perry came over towards them. It must have been obvious to him that something had changed between his two reporters, but he managed to refrain from commenting on their closeness, and the fact that Lois was happy to embrace Clark so soon after she had rejected Perry's own hug. "You both done with the police now?"
"Yes," said Clark, his voice flat and quiet. "They'll need to talk to us again, but they said we can go when we're ready."
"And are you ready now?"
"Yeah," said Lois, speaking for both of them.
"Come on, then. I'll drive you both home, and someone can come back for the Jeep tomorrow, okay?"
Lois nodded dumbly, unable to find the strength to argue.
"Lois, you can stay with Alice and me tonight, till the bomb squad gives the final all clear on your apartment. They found a small device, but want to make sure they haven't missed anything else."
*My apartment,* she thought. Somehow she'd forgotten all about that. "Lucy…?" she asked.
"Is fine. She's staying over with some friends. Your folks are fine, too, Clark."
He nodded. "The police told me." How like him, Lois thought, to have remembered them, even through his own pain.
Perry led them over to his car, opened the door, and watched with a twinkle in his eye as they both elected to climb into the back, preferring to travel together than for one of them to travel up front with him.
As Perry drove away from the airfield, Lois watched the scene recede into the distance through the back window. When she could see no more, she twisted around again, facing forwards, and let herself sink back against Clark. She lost track of time for a while, just letting herself be held in his arms. Against all the odds, she found herself dozing, her head against his chest. When she next opened her eyes she realised that they were on the outskirts of Metropolis.
Perry stopped at Clark's apartment first. Lois watched as Clark got out of the car, said a muted goodnight, and began to make his way up the steps. As Perry pulled away, she saw the defeated hunch of his shoulders and his lowered head, and knew that she couldn't bear the thought of him being alone. She should never have left him.
"Stop, Perry!" she demanded. "Please, go back! I want to be with him!"
"Lois?" said Perry, openly astonished by the degree of concern she was showing for her colleague.
"Please, Perry," she demanded. "You weren't there. Clark… I've got to make sure he's all right!"
Perry didn't argue, for which she was grateful. Instead he braked, shifted into reverse, and, looking back over his shoulder, he drove back to Clark's building. "Do you want me to wait?" he asked.
"No. I'll be fine. *We'll* be fine," she said. Then she was out of the car and running up the steps without a backward glance.
Lois rang the bell, but Clark didn't answer. She was sure that he was inside, though, because she could see a couple of lights switch on through the door's net curtains. Somehow she knew it wasn't a good sign that he wasn't answering.
Lois leaned into the doorbell and began knocking frantically on the door. "Clark! Please, Clark! Open up! I know you can hear me!"
Moments later she heard movement, and she saw his blocky outline on the other side of the glass as he fiddled with the lock. He opened the door and stared at her, saying nothing.
"Stand aside," she demanded. "Let me in."
He obeyed her, like some sort of automaton. His eyes followed her as she walked down the steps into the living area. Then, as she sat down on his couch, he finally managed to speak. "What are you doing here, Lois?"
She stared at him. "I came back," she said, as if that explained everything.
It obviously didn't because he said, "Why?"
"Because… because I was worried about you. Because you looked as though you could do with a friend and… I'm just about the best friend you could have at the moment," she said, picking her words carefully to remind him of the conversation she had had with Superman.
He let out a long sigh and slowly moved to join her on the couch, the words having done their job and made him more at ease with her presence. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the cushion. "Thanks," he said.
"For coming. For being here."
"You're welcome," she said. "It's been quite the day, hasn't it?"
"Yeah," he replied laconically.
Lois looked up at his face, made a guess at what he was thinking, and said, "It wasn't your fault."
"Wasn't it?" he said. "A man is dead because of me."
"No," she said. "Not because of you. He's dead because of his hatred. He killed himself."
"I felt so… useless… in the hangar, Lois. I couldn't think of anything to do, knowing that whatever I did, people would die. You, me, my parents, your sister… I couldn't see any way out of the situation." He looked at her, and she could see that his emotionless mask had begun to slip as reaction set in. "He died, Lois. Trask died, and I couldn't stop it. I keep thinking, there should have been another way. I should have been able to save you both! But I had to choose…"
"And you chose me. I'm very grateful for that, you know," she said.
If Clark heard her he gave no sign. Instead he continued as though she hadn't spoken. "I keep making mistakes," he said miserably.
"Mistakes?" Lois asked astonished by the idea. Despite the insecurities she knew Clark harboured, it had never crossed her mind that Superman was anything other than infallible. Nothing to indicate otherwise had turned up in any of the news reports she'd seen. She shook his hand to get his attention. "What mistakes? Superman hasn't made any… Has he?"
"Perhaps not," he said at last. "At least… But he *might*, Lois!"
"And he might not."
"You don't know that."
"No," Lois agreed, "but neither do you. Why are you so convinced that he — you — will?"
Clark didn't answer. Instead he pulled his hand out of her grasp, knotted his fingers together, and hunched his shoulders, closing himself off from her presence. Retreating into himself. Running away.
The sight of him in so much agony touched Lois deeply. For some reason she couldn't fathom, Clark was doubting his abilities; she needed to know why, but to do that she needed to regain the rapport they had enjoyed earlier when he had shared his secret with her.
She rose, stood in front of him, then crouched down, placing her hands on his knees. "Clark…" she said gently. "Clark, look at me."
Slowly, reluctantly, shyly, he lifted his eyes until their gazes locked. Certain now that she had his attention, she said, "I don't know what the problem is, but I want to help, if you'll let me."
The merest twitch of a rueful smile touched his lips. "Nobody can help me, Lois," he said. "That's the problem."
"Would you care to explain that?"
He stared at her for a moment, his eyes appearing to look straight into her soul, then, seeming to reach some kind of decision, he began to speak. He told her about the earthquake, about how, only by the best kind of luck, he had avoided causing more casualties. "Being Superman," he said, "is like walking a tightrope. One false move and… But it's not me that'll be hurt, but all those people I want to help. I need to learn to be Superman, but there's no one to teach me."
Lois nodded, suddenly understanding much more than he had actually said. She saw that, despite the confident image he portrayed, Clark was riddled with self-doubt. She saw that a brush with disaster had made him doubt his ability to help, to do things the right way. And most of all she understood that his second-guessing of his actions in the hangar had as much to do with his lack of self-confidence as it had to do with his having Trask die in his arms.
It wasn't just Trask's hatred, or his violence, or his promise of future persecution that were eating Clark inside. It was all that and more. It was the pressure of being a self-appointed guardian angel for the human race, of adjusting to a new way of life, of coping with a huge secret day in and day out, of never being able to share who he really was with anyone else…
It was Trask's actions that had brought all Clark's doubts and insecurities to a head, though.
She thought for a moment, choosing her words with care. Then she said, "Clark, I can see how difficult this all is for you, but you have to believe me when I say you're doing a great job. Really you are. Okay, so you don't know everything yet, but, Clark, neither does anyone else. We all have to learn to deal with things as we go through life."
"Perhaps," he said, "but the consequences if I get anything wrong are rather greater, aren't they?"
"That's true, Clark," conceded Lois. "But so are the rewards. Think of all the good you do. Think of all the good you've already done. I think you're losing sight of that, Clark." She spoke passionately.
Clark watched her carefully, soaking up every nuance of her speech, and as he took her words to heart, his eyes stared back at her a trifle more calmly, his back uncurled, and his shoulders straightened.
After she'd finished, he dared to reach out and cupped her cheek in his hand. Lois trembled as his skin brushed against hers. Here he was, the strongest man on Earth, and his touch was the gentlest of featherlight caresses. Lois shivered as the contact tickled.
His voice was serious as he said, "There wasn't really a choice, you know. You…"
"You couldn't have done anything else, Clark. You've got to believe that."
"I do," he said quietly. "You, being here now. You make me believe it."
Waking up to the sound of Lois's soft breathing in the next room, Clark felt an immense uprush of gratitude and wonder. They hadn't been acquainted very long, yet Lois seemed to have an understanding of him equal to that of his parents.
Last night, all he had wanted was to be alone, but Lois had come back to him and had guided him towards, if not an acceptance of what had transpired in the warehouse precisely, then at least some sort of reasoned perspective. She had helped him more than he could ever have believed possible.
A change in Lois's breathing, a yawn, a contented sigh, and the slither of flesh against cotton sheets alerted him to the fact that she was waking up. Banishing the mental images his brain was painting of her stretching languorously, he swung his legs off the couch, and padded across to the kitchen units.
By the time Lois appeared, sleepily brushing her hair back from her face with her fingers, the kettle had boiled and the table was set for breakfast.
"Mmmm," murmured Lois. "I hope that's coffee I can smell."
Clark smiled at her warmly. "Morning," he said. Then, as he offered her a mug, he added, "Freshly filtered."
"Thanks." She sat down, placing the mug on the setting in front of her. "Sorry. I'm not much of a morning person." She took her first tentative sip of the coffee and said, "I really need this…"
After a few minutes the caffeine appeared to kick in and Lois's attention began to move away from herself, towards her surroundings and situation. "Does it feel as weird to you as it does to me? My being here, I mean?" she asked.
"A little," Clark admitted. "But that's weird in a really good way, you know?" The smile he'd been wearing slid from his face. Then, serious and sincere, he said, "About last night… I want to thank you for everything you did. I can't tell you how much you helped."
Looking bashfully pleased, Lois waved his gratitude away, responding with, "It was nothing."
They both knew that wasn't true, of course, but neither chose to argue the point. Instead Clark allowed Lois to deliberately change the subject. "So, what angle are we going to take on the story?" she asked.
With a hostage situation, bombs and a tie in to a secretive government agency, their story had all the makings of an award winner. Lois's excitement was contagious, and Clark found himself agreeing with her that it demanded a follow-up — no, a series of follow-ups — and that this could be Watergate for the nineties.
Working together throughout the day, Lois and Clark managed to put together an expose the accuracy of which no one could dispute. At the end of the afternoon, as Perry received their final version with glee, Lois looked at Clark and, smiling hugely, satisfaction writ large across her face at a job well done, she said, "We do great work together… partner."
The word hung between them. Two syllables. Neither Lois nor Clark were entirely sure whether it was a business proposal or a promise of things to come. But that Lois had even dared to say the words was enough for both of them.
In an oddly detached way, Clark knew that he was dreaming, but the dream took on the hues of reality and he couldn't believe that this wasn't happening, that there was no danger, and that all was well.
It started with their arrival at the hangar. He could feel excitement in the air even before they found the UFO stockpile, a heady blend of her presence and anticipation. Then he told Lois who he was, spinning into the suit as Trask came through the door. In the dream, Trask was wreathed in flames and was followed by other fire demons; Clark tried to say, "But this isn't what happened," but no words came out.
Trask thanked Lois for unmasking the hero.
Then the dream became even more confused. The fire demons began to converge on him, chanting, "We're gonna get ya, get ya, get ya," like a twisted chorus of the old Blondie song. "One way or another, we're gonna find ya…"
Lois was wringing her hands, saying, "I didn't mean to, Clark, I'm sorry. It'll never happen again."
The scene shifted, and Clark was rescuing Lois and Jimmy from EPRAD. Only this time, instead of managing to escape with his identity intact, history rewrote itself, and Lois, seeing how he'd flown them to safety, cried, "Oh, Clark! You're Superman!" just as the helicopter carrying Antoinette Baines exploded. Its debris rained down around them, and the ribbons of fire turned into more of Trask's demons.
"We're gonna get ya…"
Clark woke up with a start, his head hitting the ceiling with an ominous crack as he sat bolt upright. Then he fell down onto his bed, flakes of plaster drifting around him like confetti.
He took a couple of deep breaths in an effort to regain his equilibrium. Already the coherence of the nightmare was fading, but snatches of it flared up, flashing images sent to disturb and torment him. There was no way he could face returning to sleep just yet, not when demons lurked in the shadows of his dreams — demons who looked like Trask.
Clark got up, putting physical and emotional distance between himself and the bed, and padded into the kitchen. Deciding he needed a drink of water, he held a glass under the cold tap and was mildly surprised to discover that his hand was shaking.
He gulped the liquid down, then, slightly calmer, he sat down on one of the hard dining chairs, rested his elbows on the table, and put his face in his hands.
Lois, he thought. Lois had been in his dream. Kind, generous, impetuous, irresponsible Lois who had accepted his secret without any qualms, promising to keep it safe, and who had helped him through a major crisis of confidence, but who, no matter how unintentionally, had caused him to reveal himself to Trask.
Awake, he knew that he'd had no choice but to do so, yet, as the dream demonstrated all too clearly, his subconscious was finding the fact of Lois's knowledge harder to accept. He trusted Lois not to tell anyone about Superman — at least he thought he did — but, at the same time, he'd learned how easily her impetuousness could put his secret at risk. She, by her own admission, was inclined to act first, and only think of the consequences much later.
Clark couldn't afford to think like that. The importance of keeping the secret had been drummed into him ever since, soon after his tenth birthday, his powers had started to manifest themselves. Keeping the secret was, to him, almost as natural as breathing.
And yet, there was something about Lois that had enabled him to put aside all the lessons of his youth and tell her that he was Superman. It had felt right, telling Lois about himself. It still felt right, but…
It was all so confusing!
It had been less that a month since Perry had first introduced them, and he'd already saved Lois's life three times, once at EPRAD, once aboard the Messenger, and, most recently, in the aircraft hangar. Lois, Clark realised, had a knack for getting herself into trouble. It was likely — no, inevitable — that he'd have to rescue her again in the future. Obliquely he wondered how she'd survived before he had turned up.
He didn't blame her for the hangar incident. He was realistic enough to know that sometimes things just happened, despite anyone's best intentions. The fact remained, however, that it *had* happened. His secret had been exposed, and Lois had been a part of that.
Ever since he'd set eyes on her, Clark had known that he wanted to be with Lois and that he would settle for whatever role she would allow him in her life. Initially the borders of their relationship had been clearly defined. Lois had laid down clear ground rules; theirs was a working relationship, nothing more and nothing less. Clark had been prepared to settle for that, if that was all she was prepared to offer, and he'd been prepared to fight to make the arrangement permanent.
Now, though, he was having second thoughts. He wanted to be with Lois, and, if the last twenty four hours were any indication, she now seemed to want it, too. He needed to maintain the secret. But unless he could find some kind of compromise with which he could work, he could see no way that he could safely have both.
He stood up and began to pace. Why, he asked himself uneasily, couldn't he just be like everybody else? Why could life never be easy?
Recognising the futility of his questions, he reluctantly put aside his soul-searching, and went back to bed. He wasn't sure whether he'd be able to sleep, or, indeed, if he wanted to, lest the nightmares returned; however, he decided that he should try. Even a Superman got tired from time to time.
He lay there for what seemed like a very long time, aware that he was tossing and turning, unsure whether or not he was managing to doze in the meantime. Yet, at some point, he must have fallen asleep because sometime later, as dawn touched his apartment, changing its interior from black to shades of grey, Clark awoke from a fitful slumber, his mind suddenly made up.
He knew what he had to do.
Lois, he told himself, would understand. Lois understood everything.
Lois didn't understand.
"I thought we were friends!"
Clark's head jerked up. "We *are* friends," he said.
Lois stood scant inches away from him, her arms tightly crossed, and her whole body exuding anger. "I don't think so, Kent!" Lois spat. "Friends don't go behind one another's back. Friends don't ask to be partnered with someone else. Friends don't-" She stopped suddenly, as if unsure what else it was that friends didn't do.
"I thought it was for the best," he said softly.
"The best? Who for?" she demanded.
"For me," he admitted.
"Really," she said scathingly. "Would you care to explain that?"
Reluctantly he nodded. "I guess so. Just… not here, okay?"
Some of the belligerence began to leave her posture as the implications of his words sank in. If he'd done something that he thought was best for him and he didn't want to discuss it in the office, the chances were that it was personal; personal almost certainly meant that it was Superman related. "Very well," she said grudgingly. "My place. Seven. That do?"
"Yes. Thank you, Lois." He hoped she realised that she was being thanked for not pursuing the matter, for not demanding answers in a public place, and for treating him with more consideration than she thought he deserved.
Lois sat on the sofa, her hands tightly clasped together, and stared at the door, waiting for Clark's arrival. Then she realised that he didn't need to come in via the door, so she twisted to face the window. But maybe he wouldn't come that way. After all, she'd made the arrangement to meet Clark, not Superman. Then again, he'd never come to her apartment as Clark before, so perhaps he would feel more comfortable as Superman, in which case…
She stood up and began to pace. It wasn't just the where-would-he- arrive thing that was disturbing her; she still had no idea what it was that had prompted him to tell Perry that they could no longer work together.
After the closeness they had shared only two nights before, she found his rejection both hurtful and incomprehensible. She had thought that they had shared something special, but now it seemed obvious to her that he hadn't felt the same way.
Dammit, she thought miserably. How come she had such unbearably bad luck when it came to men? She'd let him close to her, despite all her intentions otherwise, and, just like all the other men she'd ever known, he'd betrayed her faith in him.
Why couldn't she just learn, once and for all, that men could not be trusted.
With a definite thump, she sat down on the couch again and put her head in her hands. The pricking of incipient tears threatened and she tilted her head back, squeezing her eyes tightly closed, holding them in with all the will-power she possessed.
*I'm not going to cry over you, Clark!* she vowed silently. *It's not worth it. *You're* not worth it.*
The trouble was, though, that he was. Maybe it wasn't rational, but her heart told her that he was special; he was the man that she had always longed to meet. Yet her head was telling her something else entirely, and, right at this moment, she trusted her head over her heart. Her heart had proved to be too unreliable in the past for her to trust it now.
A knock on the door made her jump to her feet. "Just a minute!" she called out. She took a deep and steadying breath, counted to five, then strode to the door, slid back the bolts, and pulled it open.
She and Clark stood frozen on opposite sides of the threshold, both unsure as to what to do next. Finally Lois flapped a hand vaguely and said, "You'd better come in." She stepped back, allowing him to pass, then closed the door, painstakingly refastening all the locks, taking refuge in the few seconds respite the action afforded her.
She turned then, and found Clark standing in the centre of the room, looking extremely nervous. She quashed the automatic sympathy she felt, and replaced it with harsher thoughts. *Well he might look nervous! * she thought. *By the time I'm done with him…*
She crossed her arms tightly across her chest, walked over to one of the love seats, but didn't sit down. Instead she stared belligerently at him and said, "So?"
"So…" breathed Clark, but said nothing more.
Lois put her hands on her hips, thrust her chin out, and said, "Time to talk, Kent!"
He nodded. He knew it was, but suddenly things didn't seem quite so clear-cut as they had done in the pre-dawn. What if he couldn't make Lois understand?
No, he decided. That wasn't going to happen. He'd make her see why he'd made a choice that could only be good for both of them.
"Okay, Lois," he said. "I-"
But his words were cut off by the sound of keys turning in the locks and a breezy call of, "Hi, Lois! I'm home!" before Lucy appeared.
Lucy stopped abruptly on the threshold, her mouth hanging open in surprise on finding that Lois wasn't alone.
Lois turned around to face her sister, caught off balance by her sudden arrival. "Hi, Lucy," she said.
It was obvious to Lucy, who could read every nuance of Lois's expression, that her interruption was the cause of no small amount of irritation. Her curiosity piqued, she looked pointedly at Clark and back to Lois again, non-verbally demanding an introduction.
With bad grace, Lois obliged. "Clark, this is Lucy, my sister. Lucy, this is Clark Kent. He's the new reporter at the Planet."
Lucy held out a hand and smiled as Clark, somewhat hesitantly, took it. "Pleased to meet you," she said, her eyes dancing with barely hidden speculation as she tried to come to terms with the fact that Lois — Lois! — had actually invited a good-looking man back to her apartment. Smiling in a conspiratorial manner, she said, "I'll make myself scarce, shall I, and then you two can get back to whatever it was that you were doing before I came in." Behind her back, so only Lois could see, she gave a big thumbs up with her left hand.
Lois, flustered by Lucy's conclusions, began to bluster. "Oh, no! No, Lucy. It's nothing like *that*. No. This is *work*. Yeah, that's right. Work. We were just going out. *Weren't we, Clark?*" She glared pointedly at him, silently commanding him to back her up.
"Uh," he said, wrong-footed, but recovering quickly, "yes. And… We'd better get going, or we'll be late."
"I'll just grab my jacket," Lois said, and delved into the closet, grabbing the first thing she could find. Then she hustled Clark out of the door before either he or Lucy could say another word.
On the street, Lois turned right, and strode off. Clark jogged to catch up with her, and, falling into step, he said, "Where are we going?"
Lois shrugged vaguely. To be honest, she hadn't actually given the matter any real thought. Still, given the direction they were going in, an obvious destination sprang to mind. "How about Centennial Park? It's only a few blocks away."
It was evident from the brisk pace she set, and the distance she carefully kept between them, that she was uneasy in his company. Only when they went through the park's gates did Lois slow down and turn to face him. Then, once again, she said, "It's time to talk."
Clark took a deep breath, exhaled, then slightly sheepishly, he said, "I'm not sure where to begin."
Screwing her lips up in what looked like distaste, Lois said, "All right, then. I'll start." But then she discovered the same difficulties as Clark; she, too, didn't know how to broach the topic.
"Lois?" Clark asked when she didn't say anything, automatically concerned. "Are you okay?"
*Of course I'm not okay!* she wanted to scream. *There are so many things I want — need — to know! You hurt me, Clark, and I want to know *why*! * But she didn't scream; instead she just nodded his concern away.
Perhaps, she thought, if she just took her questions one at a time, maybe she'd begin to make some sense of what he'd done. Finally she said, "Why did you tell me about Superman in the first place, if you regret it so much now?"
"I don't regret it!" he denied vehemently. "Whatever gave you that idea?"
"Oh, come on, Clark!" she said, and suddenly the full force of the angry pain that had been showing through the cracks in her demeanour spilled forth, shattering it completely. "Don't lie to me! Of *course* you regret it! Why else would you tell Perry that you don't want to be partnered with me again?"
"No," he said. "It's not like that!"
Lois shook his words away and continued thinking out loud. "Everything makes perfect sense, you know. In the hangar you told me your precious secret because you thought we'd find something. And when we didn't-"
"My decision to tell you about… you know… had *nothing* to do with what we were doing!"
This time his words seemed to reach her because she almost yelled a reply. "Clark! How can you say that?! You told me-"
He sighed. "I'm sorry, Lois. I know what I said, and I know what it must have sounded like. But I didn't mean it the way it came out, and I didn't know how to explain." He shook his head. "I can't put it into words."
"Try," she demanded. "I want to know."
"All right," he agreed reluctantly. Choosing his words with care he said, "I told you that, if it hadn't been for the whole tracing my roots thing I probably wouldn't have told you about myself."
"That was true… as far as it goes. It doesn't mean that I would never have told you. It just means that I wouldn't have felt able to tell you *now*. Lois, I told you about Superman because I wanted you to know, not because we were looking into my background, but because it felt *right* that you should know. We'd begun to know each other in the last week. I mean, really know each other, and…"
"So…" she breathed out and felt a tension leave her body she hadn't even realised was there. "You told me because you *wanted* to, not because you felt you had to?"
He nodded. "Yes." Then, sounding decidedly nervous to her ears, he added, "I've wanted to tell you almost from the moment that we met."
Suddenly sounding desperate, she asked, "But, Clark, why, if you feel like that, did you tell Perry we can't work together?"
Clark stepped away from her and lifted his face towards heaven, as though drawing inspiration down from the stars. Then he turned to look at Lois and said, "I'm sorry, Lois. I didn't *want* to go to Perry, but I didn't see any other way…"
Lois stared at him. "You… you don't *not* want to work with me?" she asked puzzled.
"Of course I *want* to work with you!" he said. "You're my friend, and you're a great journalist, and if circumstances were different… If *I* were different…"
"Clark, you're confusing me. You're not making any sense," she said.
"Aren't I? Sorry."
"Don't keep apologising! Just explain, in words of one syllable if necessary. You want to work with me. I," Lois looked down at her feet as she felt a flush rise to her cheeks, "want to… work… with you. I don't see a problem here."
"The problem," said Clark, "is me. I'm not…" He paused, ran his fingers through his hair, and started again. "Lois, in the hangar, you disappeared, and Trask discovered that I was Superman when I went to rescue you. And I couldn't save him, because I had to save you."
The colour bled from Lois's face. "So, this is, what? You punishing me because I gave away your secret?" She suddenly felt light-headed, and she found herself bunching her fist, digging sharp nails into her palms as she tried to internalise her sense of shock. She closed her eyes, concentrating on bringing her body back under control, then reluctantly opened them again. "You blame me."
"This isn't about punishment, Lois! It's not about blame! Nobody could have prevented what happened. You know that! You helped me know that, too!"
"Then why?!" she wailed bitterly.
"Because… because… it happened once, and I'm afraid it'll happen again. Lois, you told me yourself that you jump into things without checking the water level, and I'm scared that, if I'm with you, I won't be able to save you-"
"-without jeopardising yourself."
He nodded. "I thought that if we didn't work together then, if — when — you get into trouble, it'd be easier for Superman to make an appearance and get you out of it. I wouldn't need to change in front of paranoid madmen… Nobody would ever need to find out."
"I see," said Lois coldly, and the appalling thing was that she really did. "You know, Clark, it makes sense. It's almost thoughtful."
"I'm so glad you understand!" he said stepping closer to her once more and reaching out to touch her. "I was so scared that you wouldn't. I… I'd hate to think that this would make a difference to us."
"Us?!" asked Lois, backing away from him, the bitterness suddenly back in her face, full force. "What us?"
"But, Lois, I thought you understood!"
"You want to know what I understand, Clark? Okay, let me tell you. I understand that someone I trusted — against my better judgement, I should tell you — doesn't trust me."
"I do trust you! I know that you'd never tell anyone my secret."
"Tell, no. But show? You think I'll give it away the first time we go out on a story together!" He didn't say anything, so Lois pressed her point. "Well, don't you?"
"No," he denied, but without much enthusiasm.
"And then," said Lois, "you make this decision, this *huge* decision. You didn't even discuss it with me! That's not what friendship is, Clark! That's not even partnership! That's… that's *nothing*! Nothing at all!" She turned her back on him, crossing her arms tightly across her chest.
"Lois…" he begged. "I couldn't bear it if I lost your friendship."
"Too late, buddy. You just did."
She began to walk. She didn't look back.
Stunned, Clark watched Lois leave. Somewhere, he realised remotely, he had made a miscalculation.
While she had been angry from the instant she'd heard about his conversation with Perry, at least she'd been willing to hear his explanation. That had allowed him to hope that he could put things between them back on an even keel. However, Lois, having heard his explanation, was angrier than ever, her extreme reaction apparently out of all proportion to his crime, and his hopes were in tatters.
He could, he decided with the benefit of hindsight, have handled things differently. He could have taken her into his confidence sooner. If she'd known what he'd had in mind, although she would undoubtedly have been upset, it wouldn't have cost them their friendship.
Maybe it still wasn't too late to put things right. Maybe if he talked to her… He would have to wait until she'd had time to calm down a little, but then, he resolved, he would try again. Somehow he had to get her to see that his feelings for her were unchanged.
Lois strode away, tears streaming down her cheeks. She resolutely kept her eyes straight ahead, not wanting Clark to see what he'd done to her.
Lois hated crying. She hated the fact that Clark had the power to make her cry. She hated Clark.
No, she thought. She didn't. Quite the opposite, in fact, but she wouldn't let herself even acknowledge the power that the "l" word had over her. Acknowledging it would make it real, and that, she suspected, would make her feel even more miserable than she did already, if that were at all possible.
She thought about what she'd said to Clark, letting him know how hurt she was by the fact that he had gone behind her back.
When Clark had told her about himself, and when he'd confided to her his innermost secrets and doubts, Lois had felt immensely privileged in a way she had never done before. He'd accepted her, making her part of the select few who were allowed to know the real man behind his guises. No other man — no other person, for that matter — had ever been prepared to share that much of themself with her, and she'd warmed to him in ways she couldn't begin to describe.
She was attracted to him, not just physically but also on a much deeper level. If she'd believed in soul-mates, she would have said that, in Clark, she'd found hers. She'd thought — hoped — that he'd felt the same way.
But he obviously didn't. Telling Perry that he didn't want to work with her showed all too clearly how easily he could cast off their relationship.
Would she, she wondered, have felt less hurt if he had talked things over with her first? She wanted to believe so, but, if she was being brutally honest with herself, she had to admit that she probably wouldn't have done.
For Lois, who had been duped by men before, words meant far less than actions. Words could not be trusted, whereas actions could always be believed. Clark's actions told her how little she meant to him; talking things through wouldn't have changed that.
At least now she had some idea as to why he'd done what he'd done. But why, his fears notwithstanding, couldn't he see that she would never do anything to jeopardise his secret?
But wasn't that the point? That was precisely what she had done. He'd told her the single most important fact about himself, and only hours later she had revealed it to Trask.
She hadn't meant to. She would never mean to again. But that didn't mean that it wouldn't happen again.
The more she thought about it, the more she regretted what had happened. If not for her reckless impulse, they'd still be together.
Lois's feet were sore by the time she returned to her building. During her walk, she'd had plenty of time to think, and her anger had slowly been replaced by a pervasive depression.
She opened the door and stepped into the living room. Kicking off her shoes with relief, she listened to the sounds of the apartment; the noise of the shower told Lois that she had a few precious minutes of privacy until Lucy emerged. She padded into the kitchen, deciding that ice- cream was what she wanted — needed — right now.
Lois opened the freezer's door and leaned on it as if she thought that peering at length would make some chocolate ice-cream magically materialise on the empty shelves. It was Clark's fault that she was out of ice-cream, she remembered. She'd finished the tub several days ago, and she hadn't got around to replacing it. She scowled to herself; she'd been spending too much time brooding about Superman, and she only guzzled ice-cream when she brooded.
Sighing, she levered herself upright again, closed the freezer door, and set about exploring the contents of the fridge instead. Some orange juice beckoned. It didn't have the same comforting properties of chocolate, but it would have to do. She took a long swig straight from the carton, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, retreated into her bedroom, and sat down on the bed, not wanting to face Lucy when she emerged. Being with Lucy would mean questions, and Lois had no idea of the answers she might give. Too many questions led to things that she couldn't say because of the secret, and the rest were simply unanswerable.
Lois propped herself against the headboard, knees raised to chest, and she began to cry again, sniffing sadly. She didn't deserve a friend like Clark, she decided. She'd never been good at friendships, either being let down, or, because she put work and career first, letting down others. Why ever had she thought that it would be any different with him?
Clark was right not to trust her, she decided. Why should he, when she didn't trust herself.
As they filed out of the conference room following the morning staff meeting, Clark tentatively cleared his throat and said, "Uh, Lois… Can I have a word?"
"Is it about work?" she demanded frostily.
"Well, no. It's about… last night."
Lois tossed her head. "Last night is over, Clark. I think we said everything there was to say on that subject."
"Well, I don't. Lois, I-"
"I've got work to do, and I don't want to talk about it," she said with such an air of finality that Clark had to admit defeat, at least for the time being. Lois, in stubborn mode, was a force not to be trifled with.
She turned on her heel and the next thing Clark knew was that he was standing in the centre of the newsroom with his mouth hanging open.
"Hey, CK!" said Jimmy, openly curious about the exchange. "So, tell me. What happened last night, eh?"
"What? Oh… it's a long story." Then, as Lois had done, Clark excused himself on the grounds that he, too, had work to do.
The awkwardness between them didn't ease over the weeks that followed. Instead it took root and flourished, an ugly weed choking the earlier growth of their friendship.
In the early days Clark tried to show Lois that his feelings for her, and his desire to retain her friendship, hadn't changed by bringing her coffee, by stopping to talk to her on his way to his desk, and by countless other little acts of kindness. However, Lois was cold to the point where even Clark could not see a way to reach through the barriers she'd erected around herself.
Lois dealt with her feelings of failure and guilt in the only way she knew how. As she had done countless times in the past, she took her hurt, internalised it, and buried herself in her work. Work had been enough for her before, and, she supposed, given time, she'd learn to be content once again. It was just that that time seemed to be a very long way off. Lucy's sudden announcement that she was moving to California and out of the apartment didn't help matters; her sister's absence only served to reinforce the loneliness she felt.
Neither Lois nor Clark was happy with the situation, but both were at a loss to see how to get past it. At work they barely spoke; nonetheless, each would surreptitiously keep tabs on what the other was doing, either via the newspaper columns, through the Planet's rumour mill, or, when they were both in the office, by covertly watching the other at work.
Clark watched in fascinated horror as Lois unearthed a scandal in the world of professional boxing. He wanted to be there for her when she learned that her father had been producing cyborgs and when an old friend had been murdered before her eyes. However, his sympathetic approaches were rebuffed by her abrupt reassurances that, "I'm *fine*, Clark. Really." And, perhaps, he decided, she really *was* all right because no sooner was that story done than she'd gone undercover to expose the links between arson attacks on the west side with organised crime.
In turn, Lois watched as Clark gained confidence and experience, producing a front page story out of what she'd believed to be a dead end piece about an invisible Robin Hood. Then he went on to uncover a major medical scandal at a local school for problem children.
For some reason she couldn't begin to fathom, Lois no longer felt insecure or jealous of his rapid assent in status to being recognised as one of the paper's best reporters. Instead all she wished was that they were working together. She, Lois Lane, lone wolf who had never wanted a partner, really wanted him. Apart they were both good, but she had a feeling that together they would be unstoppable.
Each had left a gaping hole in the heart of the other, but neither of them would admit it.
Things might have stayed that way were it not for a discovery made on a farm hundreds of miles away. It was an inconsequential thing in and of itself, but the ramifications rippled outward to touch their lives.
Clark twisted the key in the lock, pushed his front door open, and ground to a halt just on the other side of the threshold. Something wasn't right. He scanned the apartment, looking down on the living area from his position at the top of the steps. Nothing looked obviously out of place and yet he was sure that someone had been here. He looked harder, then noticed the light in the bathroom was on. He couldn't be completely certain, but he thought that he'd turned it off before he'd left that morning. Then he sniffed the air and picked up the faintest hint of stale aftershave. Two varieties, neither of which he used himself.
So, someone *had* been here. There was something disquieting about the realisation. He wondered who it might have been. His first thought was that perhaps his landlord had decided to do a spot check, unannounced.
Clark frowned. Could it have been Mr Floyd? His landlord was an odd man; there was no doubt about that. But Clark thought that, for all his eccentricities, he wouldn't abuse his rights lightly. Besides, Mr Floyd was just one man, and at least two people had been here. Clark was sure of that much.
Nothing, he thought, had been taken. The secret compartment looked reassuringly undisturbed. He wondered just what it was that the intruders had been after.
Staring intently at the door handles and work surfaces of the kitchen area, Clark searched in vain to find any fingerprints or other physical clues as to their identity. He moved into the bedroom to begin searching there.
His superhearing kicked in suddenly. "Help, Superm-" screamed a voice that he had come to know almost as well as his own.
Abandoning his own concerns, he spun into his suit and was gone in a flash.
Lois cradled a bag of groceries in the crook of her left elbow and struggled to manipulate the locks on her front door with her free hand, muttering soft imprecations under her breath as the key refused to cooperate. Finally, however, she managed to coax the door open and, once on the other side, she slammed it closed with her foot.
Still talking to herself she pottered into the kitchen, dumped the bag on the kitchen island, and thus freed of her encumbrance, she walked towards the bedroom.
The sliding of wood against wood sounded loud in her ears and she froze, framed in the doorway, a gasp catching in her throat.
A hooded intruder, dressed in black from the top of his head to the tips of his gloved fingers, spun around at the sound, abandoning his search of her drawers and pulling himself to his full height, apparently as startled to see her as she was to see him. For a moment they stared at each other, then they both moved at once.
Lois's instinctive anger made her start to yell at him. "Who are you? What are you doing here? How dare you?"
He ignored her, and too late she caught sight of his gesture to someone behind her. Then arms were wrapped around her, and a hand was pressed against her mouth.
Lois struggled in the unknown's grip. She bit down hard on his hand, and was rewarded by a satisfyingly loud grunt of pain. Then, when the hand relaxed its grip just long enough for her to gasp a lungful of air, she did the only thing she could think of to do. She and Clark might not be talking to one another, but screaming didn't count, she decided. She yelled, "Help, Superm-" before the hand's return cut her off.
A quiet hissing voice said, "Oh no you don't."
Lois flailed her legs around, making her assailant carry her weight. As he shifted his hold on her, she gauged where his feet were and slammed a two inch stiletto heel down on his foot.
Her assailant grunted more in surprise than in pain and Lois, with no small amount of chagrin, realised that he probably had steel toe caps in his boots.
The man she'd spotted on her entrance was advancing towards her, having extracted something that looked suspiciously like duct tape from a pocket. The sight made Lois more furious than before, and she began kicking out at him, holding him at bay with wild parries whenever he tried to approach.
A whoosh followed by a thump was followed by a stern voice saying, "What's going on here?"
The two men backed off suddenly. Lois, unprepared to be so suddenly released, stumbled as she regained her equilibrium.
A blue, red and black blur finally resolved itself into Superman standing over the two men who were now lying on Lois's floor trussed up in their own tape.
Lois looked at their prisoners, then crouched down next to the nearest. She grabbed the hem of his ski mask with both hands and yanked it back, an action that not only pulled the mask from his face but which also twisted his neck painfully in the process.
"Hey!" he protested loudly. "Careful lady! That hurt!" He scowled at her.
Scowling back she retorted, "And that should bother me because…?"
He didn't answer. Instead he satisfied himself with tracking her every move as she edged around him and removed the ski mask from his companion. Then she frowned, stood up, and took a step backwards.
She didn't recognised the first of her visitors, but the second… "You! You're one of Trask's men! What do you mean by breaking in here? It's an invasion of privacy. An infringement of my civil liberties! The government has no right-"
Lois stopped abruptly as she saw Clark staring at her, doing his utmost to maintain his stoic superhero expression and trying not to give in to his urge to smile at her outrage. To his obvious surprise, she rounded on him. "And what are *you* just standing there for? These guys were probably trying to find out about you, you know!"
Clark nodded, suddenly sombre again. "I know."
Slightly disconcerted by the sudden change in his demeanour she found herself blustering slightly self-consciously. "Well, if you want to do something useful, you could always call the police."
Clark nodded again and vanished into the living room, only to return a minute or so later, saying, "They're on their way."
The arrival of Inspector Henderson and his men made Lois's apartment seem very small. It was the first time that Clark, either as Superman or as himself, had met the inspector, but it was immediately obvious from the abrupt way he greeted Lois that they had had dealings previously. If Henderson's barbed comment, "I guess it feels different being on the victim's side for once," was anything to go by, they had not all been auspicious.
From where he stood on the other side of the room, next to Lois, Superman said, "You might be interested to know that Clark Kent's apartment was searched earlier, too."
Lois leaned in and hissed, "You didn't mention that before."
In an undertone he answered, "I'm mentioning it now."
Henderson glanced up from his notebook. "How come he hasn't reported it?" Superman shrugged non-commitally because he could hardly admit that, thanks to Lois's call for help, he hadn't had time. Besides, what could he have said? There was no evidence to indicate that anyone had been there. Clark's word was not enough on its own, but Superman's, allied to the break-in at Lois's, made Clark's story much more credible. "Anything taken?" Henderson asked.
"Not obviously," Superman answered. "Anyway, it might not have been the same people. I couldn't see any prints anywhere, so there is nothing to tie these two into Kent's break in."
"I see," said Henderson dubiously, making it obvious that he didn't believe in coincidences. "And how do I get hold of this Mr Kent?"
Superman obligingly recited Clark's address.
"You got a phone number?" asked Henderson.
Lois, thinking it might appear odd if Superman reeled off a string of phone numbers, said, "Hold on. I'll look him up. Or you could try at the Daily Planet." Helpfully she gave the newsroom number from memory.
Henderson wrote it down. Then, abruptly shutting the notebook, he said, "Right, Lois. I'll be going now. But I'll be in touch." To his officers he said laconically, "Bring 'em down." Then he was gone.
Left together in the apartment, Lois and Clark felt the adrenaline rush of the break-in ease, only to be replaced by a strange sense of strained embarrassment.
"So…" said Lois. "They broke into your place, too. Think they found anything?"
"I don't think so," Clark answered. "If they had, I don't think they'd have bothered coming here."
Lois's eyebrows rose. What, she wondered, did he keep in his apartment that was potentially that incriminating? Then she realised: the suits and, quite possibly, the globe.
"So… Bureau 39, huh," she said.
"You think they're making good on Trask's promise?" The flash of alarm that crossed Clark's face before he suppressed it made Lois regret the brutality of her words.
"Yeah," answered Clark. "It certainly looks that way."
Suddenly Lois found herself relaxing, and with an openness she hadn't displayed since that fateful night in the park, she said thickly, "I'm so sorry, Clark."
He nodded. "Me, too. But I guess… it was inevitable. It was just a question of when."
"If there's anything I can do…" she offered.
"Thanks," he said, "but, really, there's nothing." He paused, then said, "Will you be all right if I go? I ought to check my place more carefully, and I guess I ought to be there in case Henderson decides to ring."
Lois nodded. "I'll be fine."
"Remember," he said, "If you need me, you can just holler. Anytime. Day or night."
"Thanks," she said. "Maybe I'll do just that."
Clark took his time over leaving, glancing over his shoulder several times as he prepared to go, but finally he reached the window and, in a flash, he was gone.
Clark stood on his balcony, lost in thought. Tonight had been the first time in several weeks that he'd been able to spend any time alone with Lois, and the first time in as long that she'd seemed to be receptive to his presence. So why hadn't he taken the chance to talk to her? Really talk to her, and make her see that he was sorry for having gone behind her back? After all, that was what he wanted, wasn't it? To try to put things right between them? To recapture the brief closeness that they had shared?
Why hadn't he told her how much he missed her, how much he regretted the way he'd gone about things, and how much he wanted her back in his life?
He sighed. It had been several weeks since their argument in the park, and Lois had previously made it all too clear that she believed there was nothing left for them to talk about. If she was still adamant about not wanting to rehash old hurts, he had to respect that decision, no matter how regrettable he thought her attitude to be.
But seeing her tonight… The way she'd expressed concern at the fact that Bureau 39 was after him again… Lois was like an addiction, and having been exposed to her, he could feel the craving for her presence come upon him once again.
Lois, on autopilot, tidied up after the police, her mind elsewhere. She was sure that she'd seen a reluctance in Clark's eyes as he'd left her, as though, given any encouragement, he would have stayed. So, why hadn't she encouraged him? Seeing him again made her realise just how much she missed him. Blame or no blame, pain or no pain, she wanted him back in her life.
But, she told herself sternly, things just weren't that easy. She couldn't be trusted… For both their sakes, she had to keep her distance.
As usual, Lois's alarm woke her just before 6 am. She crawled out of bed, her natural reluctance to face the morning reinforced by the fact that she had slept poorly, her rest disturbed by fitful dreams and snatched from her by the tiniest noises. Even the footfalls of one of the neighbourhood cats out on the fire escape had jolted her awake, and she'd lain stiff with panic for a long time, fearing that the Bureau had sent someone else to her apartment.
So much, she thought, for her reassurances to Superman that she'd be fine alone.
Her edginess continued as she got ready for work and, when she left the building, Lois found herself looking over her shoulder, jumping at shadows. So, when Superman landed in front of her, saying, "Don't worry, Lois. You're not being followed," she felt inordinately relieved. Not that she would ever have admitted it.
"Thanks," she said, her tension lifting fractionally.
"But," offered Clark, "just to be absolutely sure, how about I offer you a lift?"
Lois gave the matter a moment's thought. On the one hand, she wanted to keep her distance from him. On the other, however, was the chance of a flight over Metropolis, her body cradled safely against his, the wind brushing through her hair, the promise of exhilaration…
The lure of the flight won. She nodded, saying, "That would be great. Thanks, Cl- Superman." There was no-one around to hear their exchange, but Lois wanted to take no chances; she wanted to maintain the habit of talking to him as Superman whenever he wore the suit. And she wanted him to know that she was being careful.
Clark lifted her into his arms and drifted upwards. "So… Where to, Lois?"
"Met U, please."
"Met U it is," he answered.
Was it Lois's imagination, or was Clark flying more slowly than usual, spinning out the journey? Prolonging her pleasure? The notion warmed Lois; how considerate of him. Then another thought crossed her mind. Maybe he was enjoying this, too. Maybe he was making the journey last as long as he could because it gave him pleasure, too. In which case…
Maybe, she thought, the flight hadn't been such a good idea after all. Better, she thought, to go cold turkey, and put him out of her life once and for all. No matter how much they wanted to be together, they had to stay apart. Didn't they?
Maybe not, because some treacherous part of her brain had triggered her mouth into saying, "I wish we could stay up here forever. It's so beautiful up here." What was she *doing*? she asked herself angrily. What was she thinking of, encouraging him? Initiating a conversation with him? Letting him know how much she liked flying with him? This was not good. Not good at all. Then she heard herself saying, "I suppose you probably take it for granted."
"No, Lois." There was a smile in his voice. "Flying… It's the best part of being me. And it's good to have someone to share this with for once."
"Really?" she asked.
She risked glancing at his face, and she could see that he meant it.
"But," he said, "I'm afraid we've reached your destination, and Perry is expecting me to put in an appearance at the courthouse today. You know. The Grogan case. So, I'm afraid this is your stop."
Lois wasn't sure whether she was relieved or disappointed when he left her standing outside the main entrance of the university.
Lois's rap on Professor Meekle's door was rewarded by an answering, "Who is it?" from within.
"It's Lois Lane, Professor! You might remember me — I came to see you a few weeks ago?"
"Come in, come in!" he called.
Lois, slightly taken aback by the effusive invitation, turned the handle and, to her immense surprise, discovered that the door opened quite easily.
As she entered his office, Meekle scrambled around his desk; he rubbed his right hand vigorously against his cardigan then extended it in greeting. "Ah, Ms Lane! A pleasure! A pleasure indeed!"
Lois, confused by his behaviour, looked at him dubiously as she took the proffered hand.
Her puzzlement was not lost on him, and he said, "Something troubles you?"
"Well, yes," admitted Lois. "You don't seem… quite the same, somehow. I mean, last time I came to see you…" She trailed off, not sure of the best way to remind him of his previous paranoid conduct.
It seemed, however, that she didn't need to worry because he unerringly picked up on the thread of her thoughts. "You're referring to the fact that I hadn't locked and bolted my door today, Ms Lane?"
"Yes," she said, sitting down in the seat he indicated.
"Ah, well," he said, "you're partly responsible for that, you know."
Lois's eyebrows crawled upwards. "I am?" she asked.
"Well, you and Clark Kent. And Superman, of course."
"I'm sorry?" she said.
"You wrote about it in your paper," said Meekle slightly impatiently, as though that explained everything.
Matching his tone, Lois said, "Professor, I write a lot of things for the paper. If you could just be a little more specific?" She was pretty certain that he was talking about the Trask piece; what else had she written about that could possibly have had any bearing upon the life of this eccentric man? However, she wanted confirmation from him.
He nodded. "I'm sorry, my dear! I didn't mean to be imprecise. Such a terrible failing for a scientist, don't you think? Imprecision, I mean."
"Professor Meekle," interrupted Lois, trying to stem the flow of words erupting from his mouth, "please… get to the point."
"Ah, didn't I mention…?"
Lois shook her head firmly. "No."
"Trask, of course."
"Trask," repeated Lois.
"You reported his death, Ms Lane! You remember, when you visited me before, I said that they were watching me?"
Lois nodded. She remembered.
"Well, I couldn't tell you then, but it was Trask's people. Of course, he was only one man, and the agency is so much more than that, but he was the only one I was really worried about. And now he's gone, it's as though this whole world of mine has changed. I mean, I'm even able to go to the supermarket on my own, and last week I even sat in the cinema. It's the first time in years I've dared to sit in a darkened room like that. I'm so… so… *grateful*, Ms Lane. And I can only suppose that you and the others I mentioned are responsible for my change in fortunes."
Uncomfortable at being thanked for a man's death and at the memories Meekle was unwittingly stirring up in her head, Lois blushed slightly, glanced away, and said, "Trask committed suicide. Your thanks aren't necessary, or appropriate."
"Perhaps not," admitted Meekle. "But I do feel grateful to you, nonetheless. Now, what can I help you with this time, eh?"
"It's business," said Lois. "I know it's rather a long shot after all this time, but I was wondering whether you still have any contacts in Bureau 39." As he had taught her to before, she silently mouthed the agency's name.
Today, however, Meekle waved her caution aside airily. "No need to be coy, Ms Lane. In answer to your question, yes, I have one or two contacts still. May I enquire as to the reason for your interest?"
Lois nodded. "Last night, two men broke into my apartment. They were from the Bureau. They also broke into Clark Kent's place. I want to know why."
"I see," said Meekle. "Well, I can ask around for you, certainly. Can't promise you results, of course, but…" He trailed off and favoured her with an extravagant shrug.
"Thank you, Professor," she said, standing and easing towards the exit, already eager to get on to the next thing.
"I'll be in touch, Ms Lane. And, once again, it's been a pleasure!"
Hammering away at her keyboard, all too aware of Perry's afternoon deadline looming ever larger on the horizon, Lois was tempted to ignore the strident ringing of her desk phone. However, she hadn't got to her present position by ignoring calls, so she reached across, picked up, and jammed the phone between her ear and shoulder. Resuming her typing, she said absently, "Lois Lane here."
"Ah, Ms Lane!"
The voice at the other end of the line prompted Lois to immediately forget about the story she was working on. Her hands stilled as she focused her full attention on the caller. "Professor Meekle!" she said. "So, did you find anything out?"
"Not a great deal, I'm afraid. I think the break-ins were just information gathering exercises; I don't think you have too much to worry about on that score. However…"
"However?" she demanded.
"You might want to get a warning to your flying friend. I don't know how they plan to do it, but they want to lure Superman somewhere, and then they'll kill him."
"You must be wrong," Lois replied. "They tried that already, and it didn't work. Nothing can kill Superman."
"I'm only telling you what I heard, Ms Lane. If I find out anything else, I'll let you know."
"Okay, and thanks."
After the most perfunctory of good-byes, Lois found herself listening to a dial-tone. She pulled the handset away from her ear, regarded it thoughtfully for a few seconds, then placed it gently in its cradle.
Looking around the newsroom, she discovered that Clark Kent was noticeable by his absence. On the off-chance, she tried calling him at home, but there was nobody there, either; presumably he was still down at the courthouse, or perhaps he was out on some Super business. She thought about leaving a message on his answerphone, but decided that her message was too important to be entrusted to a machine.
Lois rapidly put the finishing touches to her story and sent it to Perry. While she waited for him to signal her approval, she found herself wondering what Bureau 39 could possibly use as a lure to draw Superman out. The ship, perhaps?
Then she reached out towards the phone, planning on calling Clark again. She picked up and began to dial. However, after the fourth digit, she replaced the receiver; she decided to wait until she reached the privacy of her apartment, where there would be no chance of a sensitive conversation being overheard.
As soon as Perry told her she was free to leave, she rapidly assembled all her bits and pieces together and headed off home.
"Clark! What are you doing here? Can you stay for dinner?"
"Dinner would be great, Mom. Thanks."
"So," she asked. "Is this a social call, or is something on your mind?"
Clark smiled a slightly rueful smile as he reflected that his mother knew him too well. "Actually," he admitted, "I could really do with asking your advice about something."
"Sounds serious. Well, if you can hang on for just a couple of minutes, your father will be in."
Clark watched as Martha bustled around the kitchen, rapidly assembling all the items necessary for the meal; just as she was putting the finishing touches to the table, Jonathan came in through the back door.
Showing no surprise at the unscheduled appearance of his son, he said, "Hi, Clark," as he leaned in to kiss his wife on the cheek she offered him. Then he announced that he was going to wash up.
Scant minutes later, the three Kents were seated around the kitchen table, tucking into a thick vegetable casserole.
Half way through the course, Martha lifted her eyes to Clark, and said, "So, what's on your mind, honey?"
Clark sighed softly. "A lot of things, I guess. But mostly… Lois."
Both of his parents raised their eyebrows at the announcement. Jonathan said, "I didn't think that you two were talking to each other these days."
"We're not," he answered. "At least, we weren't. Or rather…" He trailed off into confusion.
"Did something happen?" asked Martha hopefully.
"I told you guys already about how we aren't working together any more. Right?"
"Right," chorused his parents.
"Not since we wrote that story about Bureau 39."
"We know all that, honey," prompted Martha gently.
"Something happened yesterday," said Clark. "Well, actually, several somethings."
"Go on." This time it was Jonathan who offered the encouragement.
"The first thing was that someone broke into my apartment."
"Clark?!" exclaimed Martha, instantly concerned. "Why didn't you call us?"
"What was taken?" asked Jonathan.
The two questions overlapped, almost cancelling each other out, and left Clark with the need to offer general reassurances rather than give specific details. "It's okay, Mom. Dad. We think the intruders were looking for something, but they didn't find anything."
Martha's maternal antennae focused on one particular word. "We?" she asked. "You mean you and Lois?"
Clark nodded. "She called Superman, and when I arrived at her place, she was fighting off two men. They'd been searching her apartment, and she walked in on them."
"Clark! That's terrible! Is she all right?"
He nodded and, with the single gesture, both acknowledged the truth of her assessment and let her know that Lois was fine. "Superman tied the men up, and Lois pulled their ski masks off." He sighed again and glanced down at the fork he was holding in his hand. He suddenly realised that he no longer had any appetite so he put it down and pushed his plate away from him. "We recognised one of them. He was from Bureau 39."
"Bureau… You mean, they're after you again? Oh, Clark…"
"We don't know that, Mom," said Clark. "But, yeah. I think so. I guess they were looking for some kind of link between us and Superman."
"But they didn't find anything," said Jonathan. Clark had already said that they hadn't, but the thought of the strange government agents being after his son again evidently made him want to hear the reassurances again.
Clark obliged. "No, Dad. There's nothing to find at Lois's, and they hadn't found the secret compartment at my place."
Jonathan nodded with relief.
Martha said invitingly, steering the conversation in the direction that Clark had previously indicated that he wanted it to go in, "You said you wanted to talk to us about Lois?"
Clark nodded. "I told you that she wasn't… happy… when I explained why I didn't want to work with her any more."
Martha and Jonathan both indicated that they remembered.
"I thought that she'd understand my reasoning. She sort of even said she did. But I guess I went about things the wrong way, and I should have talked to her before I went to Perry." He looked at both his parents, but their expressions gave little away. They just looked straight back at him, waiting for him to continue. "We've barely talked to each other since. Afterwards I tried to apologise to her, but she wouldn't listen. She was — I guess she still is — really mad at me for what I did."
That comment got a reaction from his mother. "I would imagine so," she observed.
Martha waved his question away with a flap of a hand. "Go on," she said.
Clark ran a hand through his hair. "Last night… Being alone with her again, even if it was just for a couple of minutes… It just made everything so much worse. It made me realise — remember — how much I want to be with her. She was my… best friend… and I miss her something awful."
Martha and Jonathan exchanged glances. It wasn't often that they saw Clark looking so thoroughly depressed and it wrenched at their hearts to do so now.
"Clark," said Jonathan. "You know that we support you in whatever you do. And you know that we try not to meddle in your business."
"Sure, Dad," acknowledged Clark, something in his voice expressing his puzzlement as to where, exactly, his father was leading. "So?"
"So, do you really want us to tell you what we think?" asked Martha.
"Well… Yeah. I do."
"Tell us again, Clark, what happened in the hangar," said Martha. "Then about what happened afterwards. And why you thought you and Lois shouldn't be partnered."
It took some time, but Clark did exactly as his mother bade.
When he was finished, Martha said, "So, you think that talking things over with Lois first would have saved your friendship?"
"Well, wouldn't it?"
"Perhaps," she said with a slightly sad smile, "but I doubt it."
"Mom?" There was a note of fear in that single syllable as Clark wondered if she was trying to tell him that the rupture in their relationship was irreparable.
"What would have happened," Martha asked, "if Lois hadn't run off in the hangar? What if she'd been beside you when Trask detonated the bomb?"
Clark thought for a moment. Then he said, "I guess… I'd have grabbed them both and got out."
"You'd have saved them both?" said Jonathan.
"Yeah. If I could've. Why?"
"Because then you'd still have revealed yourself. So why are you blaming Lois for something that would have happened anyway, or — and this is worse — for what might or might not happen in the future?" said Martha.
"Why does everyone automatically assume that I'm blaming her?!" asked Clark, stung by the question.
"Everyone?" asked Jonathan. "Who else said anything about blame?"
"Lois did," admitted Clark. "I told her I didn't blame her."
Martha's "Uh huh," suggested to Clark that she knew something that he didn't.
"Mom?" he asked.
"Clark, don't you see?"
"She didn't do anything wrong. And I'll bet she was angry because you don't trust her."
Clark nodded thoughtfully. Lois had even said as much at the time, but he'd been deaf to her words. "I've been an idiot, haven't I?"
Neither of the older Kents said a word. They just looked at him, nodded, and chuckled.
"So… how do I put things right?"
"Admitting to her that you were wrong in the first place might be a good way to start," observed Martha.
Clark straightened his shoulders, stood up, and carried his plate over to the sink, a non-verbal statement of his intention to return to Metropolis. "Thanks, Mom. Dad. You guys have given me a lot to think about," he said.
"Let us know how it all works out," said Martha.
"I will," Clark answered, spinning into his Superman suit. Then he was gone.
Clark flew back to Metropolis slowly, the black of the night fields beneath him occasionally punctuated by the lights of small settlements or isolated farmhouses.
His thoughts, however, were far from the scenery, instead focusing on the conversation he'd just had. He'd known for a long time that he'd made a miscalculation in his dealings with Lois, but he hadn't realised until now just how completely wrong his thinking had been. He had honestly believed that, if he could just get Lois to put aside her excessive anger at not being consulted, he could put things right; now, though, he could see why she had responded to neither his conversational gambits nor his tiny acts of kindness. He saw that Lois's extreme reaction and her refusal to talk to him hadn't been so unreasonable, after all. This went so much deeper than a question of how he should have behaved.
How he must have hurt her! How could he ever expect her to forgive him?
At the same time, he couldn't help but be cautiously optimistic that she would; she had expressed genuine concern for him last night. Did it mean, as he hoped, that, beneath her anger, she still had feelings for him? Perhaps, after all, she could be persuaded to listen to whatever he might have to say to her. He hoped so, because suddenly he wanted nothing more than to be able to explain.
Explain what, though?
How, he asked himself, had he managed to get things so wrong in the first place? How could he make her understand that, when he wasn't sure that he understood it himself. Even now, knowing that he'd been wrong, his actions seemed still to be possessed of a strange sort of twisted logic. What he needed to do was go back and trace his thought processes, and work out what had prompted him to reach the conclusions that he had.
His memories of the time were a jumbled mess of self-doubts and fears, underlain by gratitude for Lois's support. He'd had a nightmare which had mixed all those components up, causing him to awaken in a cold sweat. He'd feared for Lois, but, if he was honest, most of all, he had feared for himself. Perhaps that wasn't so surprising; he had been the target of a xenophobe's plot, after all. Plus he'd still be coming to terms with the fact that he had come from another planet. It had been a very difficult time for him.
More than that, though, he realised, other than with his parents, he'd had precious little practice at trusting people on a deeply personal level; it simply wasn't a trait he had ever learned. Kind, easy-going, outwardly confident and popular, Clark Kent just didn't have the skills needed to get an intimate friendship right. Because of his unique situation, he had to be more than normally self-reliant, and that helped to explain why he, at least subconsciously, had been so loath to place his trust in Lois. More than that, it also explained why he had not thought to discuss the matter with her; he was all too used of having to make decisions on his own.
So, he concluded, on all sorts of levels, his thinking had been confused.
But that didn't excuse his behaviour. Nothing could do that.
Clark saw the cluster of lights that was night-time Metropolis coming up ahead of him, and he put on a spurt of speed. Now that he'd decided what it was that he needed to tell her, he was eager to get what could only be a difficult discussion over with.
In his enthusiasm to get to her apartment, it hadn't crossed his mind that she might not be home.
Lois awoke to a lumpy mattress, a scratchy blanket, and a body stiff with cold. She had a headache and no recollection as to how she'd come to be here, wherever here was. When she tried to piece things together, all she could find were fragments of memory adrift in the fog that was her brain.
Lois opened her eyes reluctantly. Drawing the blanket close, she sat up and surveyed her surroundings with distaste. At some point while she was unconscious, her world had shrunk considerably; it now consisted of a small cell-like room, some six foot square. The walls were a dark grey and, when she reached out, cold to the touch, like metal. A bulb hung naked from a cord in the centre of the low ceiling, casting a harsh light across the walls. There were no windows and the door was closed. Besides the bed, the only other object in the room was a bucket; Lois decided not to dwell upon its probable purpose.
Lois assumed that she was locked in, but, deciding that there was no harm in checking, she stood, still hugging the blanket tightly to her body, and took the single step necessary to reach the door. As expected, it was firmly secured and no amount of rattling the handle was going to change the reality of that fact.
Gloomily frustrated, Lois returned to sit on the edge of the bed and scowled. It was obvious that she wasn't going anywhere, at least for a little while, so she decided that she might as well give some thought to trying to work out what had happened to her to land her in this predicament.
What time was it, anyway? How long had she been here? She nudged her left sleeve back to look at her watch and frowned as she realised that it was missing. The weakened strap, she guessed, had finally snapped. It was a shame, she decided. She'd liked that watch, and she didn't like to think of it coming to an end in a gutter somewhere.
The fog in her head was beginning to clear, making thinking less of an effort, and this time, when she tried to remember, the images flowed, if not easily, then at least more coherently.
Lois had unlocked the front door of her apartment building, stepped into the hallway, and stilled as she sensed a movement to her right.
"Grab her!" hissed a man's voice. "She's a tricky one. Don't take any chances!"
Lois spun around to look at him and, shocked, she recognised the guard she'd last seen lying unconscious on the bathroom floor back at the airforce base. Bureau 39 again, she thought with disgust.
A hand came out of nowhere and clamped itself across her mouth. A strong arm coiled around her waist, pinning her against its owner's body.
Lois kicked out with all her might, trying to do some damage to the man who'd spoken, then kicked back at her captor. But she couldn't get any momentum behind movements, and they did little more than irritate the men.
The one who'd spoken produced something out of a pocket. For a moment Lois couldn't work out what it was. Then, as he lifted the wad of white cotton towards her face, her eyes widened in horror. Not prepared to accept the futility of her actions, Lois redoubled her efforts to get free.
It was no use. Between them the two men managed to clamp the material across her nose and mouth.
The last thing she heard before she passed out was a voice coming from far away. "See? What'd I tell you? Tricky!"
Lois chewed on her lip. The remnants of an anaesthetic-induced headache now vied for attention with a vague queasiness in her stomach. She curled up in a tight ball on the bed and tried to push away thoughts of her physical discomfort by concentrating on the bigger picture.
She'd worked out the who and the how of the kidnapping. What she wasn't sure about was the why of it. After all their investigating, she found it hard to belief that Bureau 39 might still think that she could help them find Superman. There had been nothing in her apartment to indicate that she had any close relationship with him and the polygraph had indicated that she had no information that they could use. True, the situation had changed somewhat since then, but she didn't think that they had any reason to suspect that.
So, if it wasn't her knowledge that they wanted, then what was it?
The answer hit her, and her heart sank. Meekle's words echoed in her head: "I don't know how they plan to do it, but they want to lure Superman somewhere, and then they'll kill him."
"You must be wrong," she'd said. "They tried that already, and it didn't work. Nothing can kill Superman."
She'd wondered at the time what would lure Superman out; she'd thought that perhaps they might use the ship as bait, but now that she thought about it, she realised that the Bureau had no way of knowing that Superman had been looking for it. As far as they were concerned, the tiny vessel had only caught the attention of two nosy reporters.
So, what had drawn Superman out before? The answer to that was frighteningly obvious. He would go to any disaster he could reach, no matter how big or small. And he would go to Lois Lane's aid, a fact which the two men who had broken into her apartment had undoubtedly reported to their superiors.
Lois shivered. She was bait for Superman.
So, that was why they had kidnapped her. One last question demanded her attention before, against all expectations, she fell asleep. Now that they had her, what did they plan to do next?
The creaking of the door opening and heavy footsteps jolted Lois awake. She uncurled slightly and took in the sight of a uniformed guard carrying a tray walking towards her. Behind him, half hidden by the doorframe, she spotted another guard, this one carrying a rifle with a casualness borne of familiarity. She wondered how many more there were outside, and decided against trying to find out.
With a bravado she didn't feel, Lois said, "You know, next time you kidnap someone, you might want to give some thought to the accommodations. It would be nice to be kidnapped by someone with a little taste. You know. Carpets. Drapes. A few pictures on the walls. A proper bathroom instead of a bucket. And central heating would be nice, too."
The man ignored her as he placed the tray on the end of the bed. Lois felt her stomach groan treacherously at the smell of soup.
"Oh, yeah," she observed grimly. "A plastic spoon. Great. Really classy."
The guard still didn't comment. Instead he called back over his shoulder to someone outside. "You got it?"
"Uh huh. Here it is." A third man appeared in the doorway, holding something in his hand. He handed it over to the first guard, and Lois caught a glimpse of what looked like an irregularly shaped lump of… something.
"What's that?" asked Lois.
This time, to her surprise, her words elicited a response. The guard shrugged. "I don't rightly know, Ms Lane, other than that it's radioactive and probably it'll kill Superman." He put the object on the floor, a couple of feet from the entrance. Now that she could see it better, it looked like nothing so much as a piece of strangely coloured rock.
"Radioactive?!" Lois scrambled backwards so that her body was pressed hard against the wall of her cell, putting as much distance between herself and the rock as she could. "Kill Superman?"
"It won't harm you, Ms Lane," the guard said. "The lab boys say that it's completely harmless to humans, but it could be deadly to Superman."
Lois frowned. "What makes them think that?"
The guard shrugged. Then he turned to leave and Lois helplessly watched him go. Then, after she'd heard the door-locks fasten, she turned to eye the object her captor had left behind. An evil shade of green, it seemed to glow. So this, whatever it was, was what Bureau 39 thought could kill Superman. Could it really? she wondered. She doubted it; nothing could harm him.
But what if she was wrong? The Bureau had taken a lot of trouble to trap her in this room with the rock; they surely wouldn't have gone to all that trouble unless they were reasonably confident that their efforts would succeed. If she was wrong… If she couldn't get out of here, then she had to do her utmost to ensure that Clark didn't get in. The only question was how.
He wouldn't be able to see her, she realised. Not if the walls were, as she suspected, lead. And that meant also that he wouldn't be able to see the rock, either, even if he could recognise it as something to be avoided. With a heavy feeling in the pit of her stomach, Lois could only suppose that he wouldn't; he seemed to know so little about either himself, or his abilities.
"Oh, Clark," she whispered softly, allowing herself to give in to a moment's despair. Then she made the conscious decision not to feel useless; feeling useless wasn't going to achieve anything.
Lois needed to warn him somehow, to keep him away. She knew — because he'd once told her — that his vision powers didn't work through lead. Did that mean that lead also interfered with his other powers? If so, he'd never mentioned it.
Okay, she thought. Let's assume for a minute that it doesn't; what does that leave me with?
She ran through a mental list of the five senses; sight she'd already discounted, taste, touch, smell, hearing.
Hearing! she thought jubilantly. Clark had super-hearing. So long as he was listening, she would be able to use that. Please, Clark, she pleaded silently. Please be listening!
Quietly she began to talk, over and over again. "Superman, if you can hear me, stay away. It's a trap. There's this rock they say can kill you. Stay away."
She talked on, repeating the words until she no longer had to think about them. They became as automatic as a mantra and she grew hoarse with the effort of speaking continuously. However, she wouldn't let herself pause, let alone take a rest, knowing that to do so could mean disaster, and also knowing that, until someone came for her, she wouldn't know if her plan had been successful.
Sometime between 6.43pm, when Clark had dropped off the Grogan story at the Daily Planet, and 9.17am the following day, when he arrived at his desk, fresh from bagging another Superman exclusive down by the docks, someone had left a small padded brown envelope on his desk. Curiosity aroused, Clark prised the seal open and tipped the contents out into his hand. A small object slipped out from inside the sheet of paper in which it had been wrapped and tumbled onto his desk, landing with a thud.
His scalp crawled and his mouth opened fractionally in shock. With trepidation he picked it up, observing it minutely. It was a woman's watch; more than that, though, it was *Lois's* watch.
After a few seconds he recovered enough to put it aside and turn his attention to the piece of paper. On it was scribbled a note. Brief and to the point, it pulled no punches.
We have Lane. If you want to see her alive again, send Superman to the furniture warehouse on Bessolo Boulevard. If anyone else shows up, she'll die. *
The message wasn't signed, but it didn't need to be. The chosen location was all the signature Clark needed to know that this was from Bureau 39.
He looked up and around and, catching sight of his quarry, he called, "Jimmy!"
"Yeah, CK? What's up?"
"Do you know who brought the mail up today?"
"Sure. I did. Same as usual."
Clark gestured towards the envelope. "Did you bring this up?"
Jimmy gave the matter a moment's thought, then said, "No. There wasn't anything for either you or Lois today. Why? Is it important?"
Clark didn't bother to answer the questions. Instead he proceeded to ask more of his own. "Do you have any idea who might have delivered it?"
Jimmy shook his head.
"Have you seen any strangers hanging around the newsroom?"
"No," answered Jimmy. "I guess someone else might have, though. I'll ask around."
Clark nodded. "Thanks, Jimmy," he said absently, his thoughts already moving on.
Jimmy, despite — or perhaps because of — being the most junior employee on the floor, spent a great deal of his time in the newsroom, living vicariously the lives of the reporters, watching all their comings and goings. If Jimmy hadn't seen who had delivered the note, then it was most unlikely that anyone else would have done. Moreover, it meant that Clark had no idea how long the package had been lying on his desk; he had no idea how long Lois had been held captive.
His instincts told him that this had to be a trap; that much was obvious. But he couldn't imagine what Bureau 39 might have in mind for him this time. They'd done their best to destroy him before, and he'd come to no physical harm. He wasn't, therefore, particularly concerned for himself, but he feared for Lois. There was no telling what they might do to her. What, indeed, they might already have done.
He had to go after her. Had to.
But there was no harm, he decided, in taking out a little insurance. He scribbled a note, slid it into a white envelope, sealed it, then called Jimmy who, by this time, had drifted off. As he grabbed his jacket, Clark said, "If you don't hear either Lois or me by midday, give this to Perry, okay?"
"Sure, CK," agreed Jimmy, clearly confused by the request. "What-" The rest of his question was lost because Clark was already half way to the ramp, leaving the befuddled Jimmy behind.
Clark floated high above the warehouse and reached outwards with his senses. Relying on his eyes first, he surveyed the exterior of the warehouse, spotting five guards and one van.
Focusing through the roof, he spotted two more guards and, near the small office, a neat line of military cots and a makeshift camp kitchen. However, what really grabbed his attention was the cube that had been erected in the centre of the warehouse. Solid and dark grey, his sight couldn't penetrate it to see what was inside. So, he concluded, it was made of lead, and it was undoubtedly where Lois was being held.
His eyes having offered up all the information that they could, he let them drift shut as he switched to concentrate on the messages he was receiving via his ears. He sifted past the sounds of vehicle engines, the rattle of a faulty air conditioning unit, the call of a single robin, the chatter of two quarrelling squirrels… One of the guards was bumming a cigarette from his buddy — no useful information there.
Then, below everything else, was Lois's voice, a rough whisper, demanding that he not approach.
It seemed absurd, he thought, that Bureau 39 thought a mere rock would stop him. Yet, on the other hand, they must have been fairly confident as to its properties to have taken all this trouble to get him here. Then again, he thought, Trask had thought the explosion in the airforce hangar would kill him, so he didn't think much of their judgement.
So… Was he going in after Lois or not?
There was only one answer he could give; no matter the cost to himself, Lois's needs had to come first.
Clark torpedoed past the guards and crashed through the front door of the warehouse. Inside, he found himself confronted by two armed men. He crossed his arms and looked at them pityingly. Didn't they know that bullets couldn't harm him?
Tilting his head towards the lead structure he demanded, "Open it up!"
One of the guards said, "Sure, Superman. Anything you say."
His willingness to co-operate might have been disconcerting, had Clark not heard Lois's warnings. He already knew that this was a trap, that the Bureau's personnel *wanted* him to approach the cell. But he reassured himself once again. He was invulnerable. What *could* they do to him?
Clark walked forward, then paused at the entrance to Lois's prison, waiting for the guards to open the door. One of them pulled it ajar, standing back to let Superman pass.
At the periphery of his awareness, he was conscious of other men coming in from outside, guns trained on his back. Then all thoughts of them fled his mind because there was Lois, rising from the bed on which she'd been sitting, stepping towards him, a look of shocked horror on her face.
Instinctively he took a step towards her, then another one. Something wasn't quite right, he thought. He couldn't put his finger on the problem, so he pushed it out of his mind, shaking the discomfiture he suddenly felt away with it.
Now he was over the threshold, and suddenly the vague discomfiture he'd been feeling metamorphosed into an excruciating pain that made him double over in agony.
Dimly he was aware of someone behind him saying, "Well, whaddya know? Looks like the lab boys actually got something right," and Lois rushing up to him, putting her arms around him and saying, "Oh, god… Superman…"
The guards laughed, and the one who'd just spoken said, "Right then. We might as well leave them to it."
The door swung closed. They were trapped.
Lois was appalled, not only by what had just happened, but also by the mere fact of Clark's presence. Despite all her best efforts, she had failed to keep him safe. She could only suppose that he hadn't heard her pleas. She knelt down on the concrete floor and shook his shoulder roughly. "Superman? Superman! Can you hear me?"
Lois had never been so grateful for anything in her life as she was when he opened his eyes. She sniffed abruptly and flicked away a stray tear from the corner of her eye with her fingers.
"Lois…" he said through teeth clenched tightly against the pain, "I feel kind of strange…"
"I know you do," she said softly, reaching to ease him into a sitting position, leaning him against the wall. "Superman!" she gasped. "You're burning up!"
"My body doesn't work like anyone else's. It mightn't mean much," he said, but the fear he couldn't quite keep out of his voice gave the lie to his words. He grimaced, his handsome face contorting with another wave of pain.
Lois's first thought was to put as much distance between Clark and the rock, so she placed it in the farthest corner of the room. Glancing across at him, she could see that it had made little or no difference to his condition. Then she tried wrapping it in the blanket, but, again, her measures seem to have no perceptible affect. Giving up the attempts at lessening the rock's impact, she returned to Clark's side.
Feeling unaccountably self-conscious, Lois knelt down beside him, wrapped her arms around him, and began to whisper reassurances. "Shush, now. It'll be okay…" But would it? she wondered. She hoped, for his sake, that she sounded more confident than she felt.
Clark's head nodded against her shoulder. "They'll find us. I told Jimmy…" His words trailed off as his whole body suddenly clenched in response to the radiation's latest assault on his body. Lois gripped him tighter, as though she was trying to take some of his burden of pain away from him.
"Thank you, Lois," Clark murmured.
"What for?" she asked, surprised.
"Being here. Holding me. Not saying, I told you so."
"'I told you so'?" Lois asked. "Why would I…?"
"I heard you… warning me…"
"And you didn't listen." She shook her head. How different things would have been if he had only heeded her words. Once again, he hadn't trusted her. She should, she thought, have been angry about that. Instead she just felt sad.
"I didn't think… anything… could harm me. I'm invulnerable, remember?" His voice was soft and rueful and full of suffering.
"How could I forget?" answered Lois, her tone gently mocking, but with no hint of censure in it. Maybe later she would indeed say, "I told you so," but for now he was hurting quite enough on his own account without her adding a burden of guilt into the equation.
"Stupid of me… Arrogant…" Clark's voice drifted into silence and they sat together for a few minutes, Clark leaning on Lois. She decided that she liked the feel of his body, solid, against hers, but she wished fervently that the circumstances were different. Yet, she also found a perverse satisfaction in being needed and in his evident appreciation of her presence.
She began to rock him gently, thinking how terrible it would have been for him to have had to face this alone, just as he'd had to face so many things in his life alone. Then she reached up with her right hand and gently stroked her fingers through his hair.
"My Mom…" he whispered. "She used to do that. When I was a kid. Nice…"
His voice was getting quieter every time he spoke and Lois feared for him. What if help didn't come in time for Clark?
"I'm right here."
"If anything happens… tell Mom and Dad… I love them. Promise."
A lone tear tracked down her cheek, and this time she did nothing to wipe it away. "I promise. But nothing's going to happen to you."
"I've never been sick before… New… experience. Hurts."
"I know," she whispered. "I know it does."
"Love you, Lois…" he said, so quietly that she almost thought she'd imagined the words. "Had to… tell you… in case…" The effort of speaking was costing him dear. His breathing was shallow and uneven, and perspiration beaded on his brow.
"Hush," soothed Lois. "Don't talk."
"Helps… to talk. Focuses mind… off the pain… So much… need… to say… to you."
"Oh," she said. "Then, sure, talk as much as you want. I'm listening."
But he said no more, and Lois, horrified, realised that he had slid into unconsciousness.
Lois felt utterly helpless and alone, even with Clark still cradled in her arms. Silently she cried, *Don't you die on me, Clark! Don't you leave me! I couldn't bear it…*
Her head, if not her heart, had persuaded her that there was no possibility of their having a life together, but to be robbed of the future this way…! This wasn't how she'd pictured it at all. She'd assumed that he would always be there, somewhere, in the background. Suddenly she no longer believed the wise counsel of her head, and she found herself listening, at last, to her heart.
She wanted to be with this man. If he didn't want to work with her, that was fine, but they had to find some way to go back to the closeness that they had shared before.
Lois thought about the way Clark had come barrelling to her rescue, even though he'd known that it had to be a trap. It had been a calculated risk on his part; he hadn't thought that he would come to any harm. But the fact remained, his recklessness had cost him dearly.
So, why had he come after her? Belatedly, Lois admitted to herself that he had done it because he'd put her welfare first, not just because she had been an innocent dragged into the Bureau's twisted schemes, but because, to Clark, her needs were of paramount importance.
She thought back over the time since they'd first met and she realised that, whether it had been something little he could do for her, such as a favour at work, bringing her coffee, or letting her push past him in a queue, he had done it. He'd only stopped doing things for her when she'd managed to convince him that what she wanted most of all was to be left alone. He had been her friend when she had needed one, and he had put her life ahead of another's when a choice had to be made. He had done all these things because… because… She thought about what he'd just said. He had done all these things because he loved her. He hadn't only said it with words, but also with his actions. She'd learned years ago not to trust words, but she couldn't help but trust his behaviour.
He'd said he had things he needed to tell her; what, she wondered, were they? She prayed fervently that she'd get a chance to find out.
There was a quality to his stillness that frightened her. No sound of breathing, no signs of life at all. For a panicked moment she thought that she had already lost him, but then she reminded herself that, in the throes of his fever, he was still perspiring. When she explored his neck with shaking fingers, she found a pulse, thin and thready, but definitely there. Her panic was replaced with an uprush of relief that made her feel light-headed.
What was the difference between unconsciousness and a coma? she wondered. Was he in a coma? The word had power to disturb, bringing to mind visions of intensive-care beds, medical machinery and bleeping monitors.
If he *was* in a coma, what was she supposed to do? She had no idea.
Her father was a doctor, but none of his knowledge had rubbed off on her. She'd always professed disinterest in his work and had run as far and as fast as she could from any form of medical training, a deliberate act of rebellion. It was too late to regret that now.
What did she know about people in comas? Nothing, she thought, except… weren't you supposed to *talk* to them? She'd read or heard somewhere that the comatose could sometimes hear voices and remember conversations when they woke up.
Her throat was sore from all her hours of whispering and her voice rasped as though she had laryngitis, but she began to speak. Somehow her voice in the confined space made her feel less alone, and she drew a fragment of comfort from that.
"Superman," she began. "I don't know if you can hear me, but I want you to know that I'm right here with you. That you're not alone.
"And I want to tell you that I'm sorry. About a lot of things. You were right, that day in the park, and I said some things then that I've regretted ever since." Tears flowed down her face; she ignored them, letting them trickle down her cheeks, along her jawbone, and drip from her chin as she talked.
"Your… friendship… was the best thing that ever happened to me, and I threw it all away because I was angry. But I wasn't angry with you so much as with myself, because I could see that you were right.
"You know something? I've never really had a friend before. I mean, I've had friends, but they were always the sort of acquaintance level friends that you drop whenever you move away or change jobs or… But you! That was different. I told you things I've never told anyone else, and I…
"That's why it hurt so much when… you know.
"I guess… what I'm trying to say is… I've never been much good at being a friend. I've never had much practice at it, you see. I'm sorry I got angry. I'm sorry we didn't work this out.
"I guess… what I'm trying to say is that I want to be your friend again, if you'll have me. I won't blame you if you don't, but I really, really miss you… And," her voice dropped to a whisper so faint that she couldn't even hear it herself, "I love you, too. I want to tell you that, but you've got to live…"
Lois's head jerked up at the distorted sounds filtering in through the walls of the cell. She arrested the hand that had been stroking Clark's hair, and held it poised a quarter of an inch above his head as she concentrated her full attention on the activity outside.
It was hard to track their individual causes accurately, but the general climate of noise, shouts and gunshots could only mean one thing. Rescue was coming.
Lois's mind raced and she rapidly concluded that she shouldn't be found locked in so close an embrace with the aloof hero. More than that, she knew that she had to take responsibility for the rock; maybe the arrival of the rescue party would prevent it falling back into the hands of Bureau 39, but she found that she wasn't prepared to easily accept its release into the care of anyone else.
Lois reluctantly released her hold on Clark, and, as she retreated to the opposite side of the cell, she roughly wiped at the dried-up tracks of her tears with her fingers. Then she kneeled down to pick up the rock and secret it in her pocket.
She spun around when she heard the door clank open. She watched silently as a policeman rushed into the cell, only to be brought up short by the sight of Superman, unconscious, leaning up against the wall, looking like a marionette that had had its strings cut.
Wide-eyed and open-mouthed the policeman looked around and caught sight of Lois as she stood, pressed against the opposite wall of the cell.
She stared back at him, refusing to give anything away, either through her words or her body language.
The police officer seemed to recover himself then, because he twisted to yell back over his shoulder, "Get the paramedics in here! Now!" Then, turning back towards Lois, he said with an unexpected gentleness, "Come on, Miss. Let's get you out of here."
She nodded silently and stepped across the cell, and then out into the main body of the warehouse.
Then Perry was there, crying out, "Lois! You're all right!"
His presence and the swarm of the emergency service personnel suddenly jumbled in her mind with the memories of another rescue and of a matching concern for Clark's well-being, and she had to blink hard to dispel the disorienting feeling of deja vu.
Lois forced herself to concentrate on all the differences between the two situations, knowing that she needed to keep her wits about her and her attention focused on the here and now. This time the scene was being played out in daylight and the blistering noise and heat of the fire was missing, replaced by the quieter cacophony of human voices and the swearing of the Bureau's men as they were rounded up and cuffed.
Lois allowed Perry to grasp her elbow and steer her out of the building, into the sunlight. She had to blink against the sudden glare, too bright after the shade of the warehouse.
A flurry of activity behind them alerted Perry and Lois to the fact that the paramedics were rushing into the warehouse with a stretcher. Cries of "Superman's down!" prompted Perry to demand, "What *happened*?"
Lois stared at him, and when her words came, she felt as though they were drifting from afar, and were not a part of her at all. "Before or after Superman tried to rescue me?" she asked.
"Both," said Perry. "You can save the details for later. Just give me the headlines now. How did you end up here, and what the heck happened to Superman?"
Lois took a deep breath and tried to marshal her scattering thoughts into something approaching a coherent order. Then she said, "A couple of Bureau 39's men kidnapped me on the way home last night. They wanted to draw Superman out, and I guess they assumed he'd come after me."
"Which, I gather, he did," said Perry.
"Which," agreed Lois, "he did." She swallowed, looking at Perry but seeing only her memories. "They wanted to kill him. They said… They had… A rock. Poison. And he…" She bowed her head for a moment as she determinedly reined in her emotions. Then, grabbing hold of Perry's forearm with both her hands she said with an intensity and purpose that was at odds with her earlier attempts at conversation, "I don't know what it is, Perry, but you can see what this rock does to Superman. I need you to take it for me. Keep it safe."
Perry's eyebrows rose. "You need me to…?"
Lois nodded furiously. She released her hold on him and reached in her pocket. Then, with a skill that suggested that, with a little practice and effort, she had the potential to become a deft pickpocket, she surreptitiously slipped the rock into his jacket. "Perry," she said, lowering her voice so that they stood no chance of being overheard, "you've got to get it away from here. I don't know what kind of range it has, so we need to get it away from Superman as far and as fast as possible. And I want to stay, to make sure he's okay. Besides…" She shrugged.
"Besides?" he asked.
"Besides, the police'll want to talk to me," she said, remembering the explosions at the hangar and the procedures that the police had followed in their immediate aftermath.
Perry looked into Lois's face, and for a moment she feared that he was going to ask for explanations that, just now, she didn't feel inclined to give. However, the arrival of an officer — not the one who had released her from the cell, but a woman this time — forestalled his questions, and he simply settled for saying, "Okay, Lois. I'll go back to the Planet. But only if you're sure you'll be all right on your own?"
"I'll be fine, Perry. Fine," she said with a cheerful bravado she didn't feel.
The murmur of concerned voices close by. Talking to each other, not to him.
The scrape of heels on concrete. Scuffling. Angry words spoken by men being hand-cuffed and taken away. A remote understanding that Perry had come through for him.
A memory of voices. *A* voice, he amended. Lois's voice. Lois, who was barely talking to him, telling him that he'd been right all along… but he hadn't been. He'd been unbearably wrong; it had taken him long enough to see that, and now, it appeared, he had to make her see it, too.
Struggling with effort, he opened his eyes only to discover that all he could see was blue. He felt a flush of panic and feared that he had been afflicted by a strange form of blindness.
One of the nearby voices said, "He's awake," and its owner leaned over him, turning into a paramedic. Clark realised that the terrifying blue wasn't so terrifying after all, but was simply that of a cloudless sky.
He tried to sit up, but found he couldn't move. Even the thought of it seemed to sap his energy reserves. At least, he belatedly realised, the pain was gone.
He opened his mouth and breathed a single word. "Lois…?"
The paramedic's brow furrowed slightly then smoothed as its owner appeared to understand what he was being asked. "Ms Lane is fine. She's talking to the police."
So, she was all right. Relief exhausted him and his eyes drifted shut once more.
As the policewoman interviewing Lois ran out of questions to ask, Lois turned to see the paramedics were preparing to load Clark into the back of an ambulance.
She tentatively approached the group clustered around the supine hero and hovered uncertainly on the edge of the crowd, desperate to discover how he was doing, but unsure how much attention she should draw to herself; she didn't want to do anything that might compromise Clark later.
Lois listened in on their conversation, determined to learn more. There seemed to be some sort of debate ongoing as to how best to treat the patient. If he'd been anyone else, the paramedics would have followed normal procedures. However, this was Superman who, according to press reports (the first of which Lois and Clark had written), was actually an extra-terrestrial life-form. Nothing in the paramedic's training had prepared them to deal with such an eventuality and, on the basis that anything they did could potentially do more harm than good, they seemed to be leaning towards doing nothing. All they could realistically do was monitor him, and hope for the best.
The paramedic who had spoken to Superman caught sight of her and, apparently taking her interest and its legitimacy for granted, waved her forward. With a smile, he said, "He woke up for a moment just now."
"Oh, thank God! He's going to be all right? He is, isn't he? I mean, if he woke up, that's a good sign, isn't it?"
The paramedic said, "I'm not a doctor, Ma'am, but I think, yes, that it's a very good sign. He asked after you. I think it might be a good idea if you rode in back with him, if you wouldn't mind. It'd reassure him that you're all right."
It crossed her mind that going to hospital with Superman might not be the most discreet of things to do, but then, she reasoned, having been locked in a lead cell with him had already drawn far too much attention to them both. Somehow she doubted that travelling with him now was likely to make much difference in the wider scheme of things. Moreover, if she went with him, she'd be able to check that he was treated properly and that nobody would try to do anything against his best interests. The phrase "dissect him like a frog" echoed in her head, warning her what might happen if they weren't careful. Besides, she didn't want to be apart from him until she was quite certain that he would be all right. She nodded, agreeing to the paramedic's suggestion.
Once the stretcher was safely installed, and all but one of the paramedics — a motherly-looking woman — had exited, Lois climbed into the back of the ambulance and sat down in the cramped space. Hesitantly, she rested her right hand on top of his left. It seemed strange to be so nervous about the contact after the intimacy of their imprisonment, but she didn't want to give their travelling companion anything noteworthy to think about.
However, when she furtively glanced across at the other woman to see if she'd already gone too far, Lois saw that her actions were being met with approval. "It's good for him to know that you're here," the paramedic said by way of explanation.
It appeared that the paramedic was right, because Clark slowly opened his eyes in response to her touch. He let them wander for a moment, incuriously taking in his surroundings, then he focused on her.
"Hi," she said, suddenly feeling unaccountably shy.
"Hi," he breathed. "I'm glad you're okay… What happened…?"
Lois shrugged. "Perry came with the police," she said. "I'm still not too clear about the details. I guess we'll find out eventually."
"What happened… to the rock?" he asked.
"I hope I did the right thing," she said quietly, uncertainly glancing across at their companion. Reassured that the paramedic was paying scant attention to their conversation she risked saying, "I gave it to Perry. I didn't know who else to trust with it."
"Hmm," he said. Lois wasn't sure if it was a "hmm" of approval or not, but she decided this probably was neither the best time nor place to try to find out.
Lois watched as Clark's eyes drifted shut.
They travelled in silence for a few minutes, then he said abruptly, his voice sounding marginally stronger than before, "I heard you talking to me. In the cell?"
"You remember that?" she asked.
"Some of it," he said. "It's all a bit of muddle."
There was no opportunity for either of them to say anything further because just then the ambulance stopped, the doors were flung open from outside, and Clark was whisked away from her.
Clark felt a flash of dismay when the reassuring comfort of Lois's presence was wrenched away from him as he was wheeled towards the ER. He suddenly felt very alone, and, in a hospital teeming with people, lonely. The prospect of what might lie ahead of him was daunting, and he wished fervently that she was with him.
He was not entirely unfamiliar with hospitals per se; rather it was that they had never had anything to do with him.
Hospitals, and doctors more generally, were to be avoided, lest awkward questions be asked. Rationally he might be able to accept the idea that the medical staff here undoubtedly would want to help him, but they were nonetheless automatically suspect. Not to be trusted.
In his present condition, Clark was helpless. They could do what they wanted with him. His powerful body had betrayed him, leaving him almost immobile on the gurney, too weak to do more than make the minutest of movements.
His mental processes had, however, cleared sufficiently that he was able to take more careful stock of the situation in which he currently found himself; his thoughts were anything but reassuring.
Besides his immediate concerns, a nagging fear was playing at the back of his mind; was he going to be disabled forever? Because that was what he was, wasn't it? He'd lost all his powers, and, although he often chose not to use them in his everyday life, the inability to use them made him feel limited in ways he had never imagined possible.
Perhaps what he was sensing was how a human would feel on suddenly discovering that, instead of seeing three-dimensional colour, he was lost in a two-dimensional black-and-white world. Or, instead of hearing the majestic symphony of everyday life, hearing a single frequency in mono, with only the variation in its rhythm to show that there was any sound at all. His other senses, likewise, were limited, leaving him insulated from normal sensation. His strength was gone, and he felt bereft at the thought that the flying might be lost to him forever.
No matter that in the past Clark had expressed a desire to be the same as everyone else, he was now realising that being anything less that super was a terrifying prospect. He suddenly *wanted* to be different. He wanted to be *himself* again.
It was a startling thought; he had finally learned to accept himself as he really was. He would have rejoiced in that discovery, were it not for his fear that maybe his acceptance of who he really was had come too late.
He was pushed through double doors and along a utilitarian corridor, passing under bright strip lighting that hurt to look at with eyes open and which blinked orange through his lids when he closed them. The hospital staff wove around corners with practised ease, then Clark felt the gurney being pulled to an abrupt halt. Then there was the sound of a curtain being pulled. He opened his eyes again to find himself in a tiny cubicle with Formica surfaces, white walls and ceiling, and grey linoleum flooring. Someone said, "A doctor will be with you directly," then, for three seconds, he found himself alone.
Lois jogged uninvited along behind Clark's cortege, feeling superfluous but unable to bring herself to leave. When they reached the organised hub of the Emergency Room, Lois hung back as the gurney was wheeled into a cubicle and hidden from view behind a curtain. What, she wondered, was she supposed to do now?
"Get outta the way, lady!" demanded a porter, rushing past Lois, pushing an empty gurney in front of him.
Lois jumped backwards, out of his way. When she'd regathered her wits, and her heartbeat had returned to a more normal rhythm, she began to take stock of her surroundings. She felt lost amongst all the people, all of whom seemed to have a reason for being here, either because they were patients, or because they were doctors, nurses, orderlies… Even the obnoxious porter who had almost run her over had a purpose in the ER; her only role was to act as a spectator.
Her attention was suddenly grabbed by a television off to one side. The overly made-up visage of one of LNN's plastic-featured anchorwomen was mouthing at the camera, but it was the image being projected behind her that caught Lois's attention: the broadcast showed footage of Superman being loaded into the ambulance. Entranced, Lois was pulled closer to the set, her mouth hanging open in a tiny shocked "o" as she realised that filmcrews had been at the scene of their rescue. The image shifted to the face of a reporter standing outside the hospital, microphone held close to a falsely smiling pair of glossy lips. She hadn't been aware that the media was picketing the hospital, either.
A nurse came to stand beside Lois, and her words made it immediately obvious that she knew what Lois's role in the story was. "Don't worry, honey. They won't get in here, you can be sure of that. You won't have to talk to them, unless you want to."
Lois turned to face her, and had to force herself to show even the tiniest fraction of the gratitude she felt for that reassurance, both for her own and for Clark's sake. "Thanks," she said.
"You're welcome," the nurse replied, and disappeared as abruptly as she'd arrived.
The cubicle's curtains swished aside to reveal an ER doctor — a Dr Alvarez, according to his name badge — who sported a pronounced five o'clock shadow; the grey pouches under his eyes and the yawn he couldn't quite smother spoke eloquently of the long hours he worked.
Alvarez greeted his newest patient with a mixture of awe, bemusement and terror and the obvious display of the physician's nerves did little to allay Clark's own.
"So, how do you feel?" asked the doctor.
"Weak," said Superman. "Very… weak."
"Hm." Alvarez tilted his head to one side and considered his patient for a moment. Then he said, "I realise that this is hardly going to reassure you, but you must understand that we know very little about your biology. So, I have to ask, can you tell me anything about your physiology? Resting heartbeat? Blood pressure? That kind of thing?"
Alvarez was right, Clark thought. The questions didn't make him any more confident that the doctor would be able to do anything for him. He shook his head regretfully.
Clark's understanding of his own body didn't extend much beyond an intuitive appreciation of what he should feel like when healthy. In broad terms, he knew where the differences between himself and humans lay; the specifics, however, were lost on him. He supposed that he couldn't be so very different; he looked like a human, at least externally, and his long-held dream of being human suggested that there were certain commonalities. If he'd been more obviously alien, he would not have been so confused about his origins in the first place.
Here was yet another thing he needed to learn, Clark mentally noted. It wasn't enough to be able to say, as he'd said to Lois, "My body doesn't work like anyone else's." He needed to know why not, and how, in actual fact, it did work.
If Alvarez was disappointed about his patient's poor self-knowledge, he did a good job of hiding the fact. He shrugged faintly and said, "Then I guess we start with the basics, and see where we go from there." He unwound the stethoscope from around his neck. "I just want to listen to your heart and lungs."
"S… sure," said Clark, wondering fleetingly what, if anything, the doctor would be able to tell from his vital signs.
"I don't suppose," Alvarez asked slightly hesitantly, "that the suit comes off?"
Clark nodded. Still too weak to manipulate the fastenings himself, he said, "There's a zipper in the back. Under the cape."
Dr Alvarez quirked an eyebrow at the mention of a zipper; Clark could only suppose that the doctor had expected alien clothing to be slightly less mundane than that. He wondered what Alvarez would make of the harness that held the cape in place.
Between the two of them, they managed to divest Clark of the upper half of his costume. Then Alvarez placed the earpieces of the stethoscope into his ears and said, "This may be a little cold," as he placed the receiving end of the instrument against Superman's chest. After moving it around a few times, listening to Clark's chest from both front and back, and making some notes, Alvarez moved on to take Clark's blood pressure.
Having assembled his various readings, Alvarez looked Superman in the eye and said, "I'm sorry, Superman, but I honestly don't know if these readings are good or bad. You seem to be improving, though…"
Clark nodded. He was feeling somewhat better than he had when he'd first regained consciousness.
"So," continued Alvarez, "the best thing I can suggest is that you stay here a little longer, and that we continue to monitor you."
Clark nodded again, but slightly more reluctantly this time. It wasn't, he knew, as though he had any real say in the matter; he certainly couldn't go home under his own steam just yet. Acquiescing to Alvarez's suggestion was the only alternative available to him.
Alvarez smiled faintly and said, "I'll go and organise a bed for you, then someone will take you upstairs."
Before Clark could reply, Alvarez was gone, disappearing through the overlap in the curtains.
The on-screen drama silently replayed itself over and over in front of Lois's eyes, shocking to her, even though she knew all that there was to know about the situation. Nobody, seeing it for the first time, could fail to be dumbstruck at the sight of the fallen hero. It was, Lois knew, a defining moment in history; the moment when the world saw Superman brought to his knees.
So how, she wondered, was she able to stand around so calmly? Why wasn't she screaming at the horror she'd just witnessed? Because, when she came down to it, she knew that what she had gone through was a hundred times worse than anything the television viewers could be seeing. She had been a witness to his agony. She'd cradled his unconscious body against hers for what felt like hours. She had cried for him, and she had bared her soul to him.
And, somewhere in his mind, she thought remotely, were the memories of at least part of what she'd said. Soon she — no, they, she corrected herself — would have to deal with the secrets they had exchanged in the cell, just as he had bared his to her.
But just for now, all she felt was a curious kind of numbness, as though none of it had been quite real. She decided that she was grateful for that; it gave her an excuse not to deal with a combination of very emotional issues which she was not yet ready to address.
She shivered suddenly, and wondered if this was the precursor to going into shock. If it were, she thought wryly, at least she was in the right place for her to get help. She wrapped her arms around her body, and forced her thoughts elsewhere.
From nowhere suddenly came the thought of Clark's parents. She had, just a moment ago, supposed that nobody else could empathise with her situation, but she'd been wrong. What if they were watching the news? Without revealing themselves to the rest of the world — which she instinctively knew they would not — there was no way that they could learn any details about what was happening.
In a moment she remembered the flash of envy she'd experienced at the closeness of the relationship Clark obviously shared with his parents, and Lois knew that they had to be going quietly out of their minds with worry.
Maybe it wasn't much, but she could tell them what little she knew and offer what reassurance she could. At least it was something useful to do.
Lois made her way to the nearest payphone, mounted on the wall of the hospital corridor, and called information.
Lois dialled the number a bored operator had given her and listened to the ringing tone at the other end of the line, belatedly trying to work out what she was going to say to the Kents. Did they even know that she knew the secret? She suspected that they probably did; Clark seemed like the sort of person who would tell his parents everything. But what if he hadn't? And, if he had, how did they feel about her knowing? How would they react to her call?
When the phone was picked up, the abrupt truncation of the ringing tone made Lois start with surprise. A breathless female voice said, "Yes?"
Lois struggled to speak, suddenly discovering that her throat was dry. She forced herself to swallow.
"Who is this?" said the voice at the other end.
Lois tried again to get some words out, and this time was more successful. "Mrs Kent?"
"Yes. Who is this?" Martha asked again.
"I'm Lois Lane. We've never met, but-"
"Lois! Thank God!" There was no doubt as to the veracity of Martha's relief, and Lois suddenly knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that her call was welcomed, and that she had been right to phone the Kents. "You can tell us — how is he?" Then Lois heard Martha speaking off to one side, "Jonathan, it's Lois Lane!"
There was a click as another extension was picked up. This time it was a man's voice she heard. "Hi, Lois. This is Jonathan. Clark's father. How is he?" Jonathan's voice was calm: artificially so, Lois decided.
"I… I'm not sure," Lois said. "But he's alive, and he's conscious, and… he'll be fine," she ended firmly, refusing to accept any other possibility.
"What happened, Lois? LNN didn't seem to have much in the way of details."
Lois sighed with relief. That meant that, for the time being at least, the police were keeping the details of the kidnapping under wraps. Perry, no doubt, was guarding what information he had for a Planet exclusive. It also meant that she had a little time in which to decide how much of the story she could write. She knew that she would have to at least mention the rock; too many other people had seen it for her to hush up its existence completely. However, the personal content of the conversations she had shared, and the full extent of Clark's pain and her terror were things that she was determined to keep private.
Keeping her voice as quiet as she could so that she wouldn't be overheard by anyone else, Lois began to speak.
For the first time since he'd entered the hospital, Clark almost felt comfortable. He'd been dressed in a shapeless hospital gown and given a bed in a sunny room. A television hung suspended from the centre of the ceiling. Maybe later he would see what was on, but for now it felt good to simply lean against the plumped-up pillows and feel the crisp white cotton sheets against his skin.
He still had no strength in his limbs but he could now sit up unaided; progress was definitely being made, and the worst of his panic was leaving him. Clark didn't know how far his recovery would go, or how fast, but at least he was now convinced that some sort of recovery would, indeed, take place. He was also reassured by the fact that none of the doctors had tried to do anything more intrusive than measure heartbeat, blood pressure and temperature, realising that they had no yardstick against which to compare, in any case. As with Clark, himself, they could only watch and wait as nature took its course. His worst fears of dissection, if not banished precisely, were at least beginning to recede.
His thoughts drifted towards Lois. She was supposed to be mad at him, wasn't she? Yet, in the cell, he remembered how she had cried for him, how she had held him, rocking him like a child. Then, later, she had held his hand in the ambulance, lending him what strength she could to see him through his ordeal. Now, if the doctors and nurses were to be believed, she was waiting outside, haunting the hospital's corridors, waiting to see him. Lois, whom he'd driven away by his stupidity, and with whom he wanted nothing more that to put things right, was concerned for him. It was, he had to admit, a source of wonder.
A light knock on the door frame alerted him to a visitor, and he looked up to see the object of his thoughts. "The nurse said it was okay to see you now," she said.
Clark nodded. "Come on in," he replied, struggling to raise himself into a more welcoming position.
She did as she was bade and perched herself on the edge of the bed.
For a moment neither of them said anything; then they both started to speak at once, feeling pressured by the unnatural silence.
"How are you-" asked Lois.
"I have something to ask-" said Clark.
They looked at each other in consternation, but the shy tension was suddenly eased, and they both began to laugh softly.
"You first," said Lois.
"I wanted to ask you to do something for me, if you wouldn't mind?"
"Sure," said Lois. "What?"
"It's… the Kents," he said. "I-"
Lois understood his concern immediately. "Oh," she said. "I spoke to them already."
"You did?" he asked, surprised.
"Yeah. They were pretty worried about… Clark. But I said he was fine. He *is*, isn't he?"
Clark noted the careful way she was talking, her care at least equal to his own. "Yeah, I'm sure he's all right," he said.
"Anyway," said Lois, "Clark's parents said they'd come visit. They should get in late this evening."
"That's… good to know."
"And you," asked Lois. "How're you doing?"
The easy smile he'd worn since she'd entered the room slipped slightly. "I'm doing… okay," he said. "I think."
"You only think?"
"Yeah. I'm not in any pain any more. All my powers are gone, but…" He shrugged infinitesimally.
"But?" she prompted.
"I feel better than I did earlier. I guess… hope… that's a good sign."
"Sure it is," she said, plastering a false smile onto her face and being determinedly upbeat. However, she ruined the effect created by her reassuring words when she abruptly stood up and, driven by a surfeit of nervous energy, began to move around the room, picking things up and putting them down again, fiddling with anything moveable.
When she grabbed hold of the television's remote control and began pressing buttons without switching the set on first, Clark decided that he could stand her fidgeting no longer, and he said, "Lois… could you relax? You're making me… edgy."
"Oh…" She hastily placed the control back on the bedside cabinet. "Sorry, I just…" She sighed and sank into the visitor's chair. "Have you ever noticed," she said, "that hospital chairs are always the most uncomfortable designs? Or that they're always plastic, or coated in this vinyl stuff? And they make really unpleasant sounds when you sit down on them, like-"
Clark laid his head back against the pillow, tilting it to one side so that he could still watch her.
"I'm sorry," she said abruptly. "I'm babbling."
"Uh huh," agreed Clark.
"I just… I don't know what to say to you. I mean, I do; I've got lots of things I want to say to you, but…"
"But not here, right?"
Clark blinked tiredly as a wave of exhaustion washed over him. Then he said, "We really do need to talk, Lois." His earnest entreaty sounded needy, even in his own ears.
"Yes," conceded Lois. "And we will talk. Just not here. Not now. You're tired, and we might get disturbed, and I really ought to go to the Planet. Perry'll be waiting for an exclusive, and…" She shrugged helplessly.
"You'd better go," Clark said. "Will you… Will you come back later?"
Lois answered, "Of course I will, if you want me to," and Clark was pleased that there was no hint of any reservations in her voice.
"I want you to."
Lois stood and moved towards the door. She hovered on the threshold. "Then… I'll see you later." She turned to leave, then turned back, re-entered the room, and walked over to his side. "You will be all right?" she asked, now seeking, rather than offering, reassurance. "I don't like to leave you like this, but…"
"It's okay. I am getting better, I think. And the doctors haven't done anything to me. I'll be fine. And Perry'll be expecting you."
Lois nodded. Then, to Clark's surprised delight, she impulsively leaned over and kissed his cheek. "Bye," she said.
By the time he'd recovered himself enough to speak, she was gone.
As Clark had said, they really did need to talk, but he suddenly found himself utterly relieved that she hadn't been ready to do so yet because, when he thought about it, he realised that he wasn't either. Perhaps it was silly to want to postpone such a necessary conversation. Perhaps it would be better to get it over with, especially as he would have *already* talked to her if not for the kidnapping.
The problem was that before the kidnapping he had believed he had nothing to lose by talking to her. Since his capture, though, they had managed to recapture some of the ground they had lost; he was fearful lest their shaky efforts at reconstruction should be shattered once again. He'd thought, once before, that he could accurately predict her response to an explanation that he had offered for his actions, but he had failed miserably to do so on that occasion. While he suspected that she was likely to work with him now towards a solution to their problems — she'd given every indication that she would — he couldn't help but wonder what would happen if he were wrong.
It was selfish of him, he knew, to want Lois on his side now, but, while he was still ill, he couldn't face the thought of losing her support and protection. When he had recovered, he decided, perhaps then he would be prepared to find the strength to play for all or nothing. Meanwhile he was willing to settle for what little he already had.
Clark closed his eyes and allowed himself to float on dreams of Lois.
Lois turned at the sound of her name and spotted a harried-looking doctor jogging towards her. Slightly out of breath, he came to a halt beside her, held out his hand, and said, "I'm Dr Alvarez. I attended Superman earlier."
Lois nodded an acknowledgement and waited for him to continue.
"Let me escort you out," he said.
"It's okay," Lois replied. "I can find my own way."
"I realise that, but… Let me rephrase. You'll need my help getting out of here."
"What do you mean?" Lois asked, frowning.
Alvarez sighed. "It's not just the media outside anymore. There are crowds gathering. We've tried issuing statements about Superman's progress, but they won't go away."
Lois looked askance at Alvarez, but her silent questions were answered as they drew up in front of the entrance, Lois got her first glimpse of the assembled hordes. "Oh…" she breathed.
Alvarez shook his head regretfully. "We're just not equipped for this kind of thing. Our security staff are doing their best to keep control of the situation, but if it gets any worse, we're going to have to call in the police. As it is, we're having to ask everyone for ID before they come into the building, and we've evicted three people we caught shinning up a drainpipe."
"I had no idea…" whispered Lois, appalled.
"Superman may be used to this kind of attention, but we're not," said Alvarez, "and it's playing havoc with the running of the hospital. We're having to divert emergency admissions over to Mercy…" He shook his head. "It's a nightmare."
"If there's anything I can do…" Lois offered lamely.
Alvarez laughed, but there was neither joy nor humour in the sound. "If I can think of anything, I'll let you know. Meanwhile… If you're ready?"
Lois glanced outside, braced herself, and said, "I'm ready."
"Okay, then," said Alvarez. "Let's do this."
Someone yelled, "There she is!" as Lois stepped through the hospital's entrance, onto the forecourt.
In response to the unknown's rallying cry, Lois suddenly found herself confronted by clicking cameras and microphones being thrust in her general direction. She blinked, taken aback, and looked across the sea of faces; some were familiar but most were not.
"Lois! Lois Lane! What can you tell us about the kidnapping? What happened to Superman? How is he?" Lois thought she recognised Jo Michaels from the Metropolis Star.
Lois fought her way through the throng of journalists and hangers-on, shouting alternately, "No comment!" and, with forced bravado, "You'll be able to read all about it in the Planet!"
The crowd's mood grew nastier in response to her lack of co- operation, clearly seeing no reason to give way to her when she was giving nothing to them in return. They pressed in towards her, making her feel claustrophobic.
A hand reached out of nowhere, grabbing her arm. She tried to shake it off and turned to snarl at the person who had dared to touch her. However, her outrage turned into relief when she realised it was her chaperone, now flanked by two men dressed in the grey uniforms of the hospital's security staff. Grim-faced, Alvarez said, "Stand back, everyone. Let her through."
Breathlessly overwhelmed, Lois found herself remembering how, a few weeks before, Superman had been given the key to the City. She'd watched the ceremony on television, and she remembered the crowd on that occasion had been both restless and adoring. No matter what Alvarez thought about Superman's ability to work a crowd, Lois had seen in Clark's expression that day a dread that he hadn't been able to mask.
Now she thought she knew how he'd felt.
"Thank you," she said to Alvarez, as they finally reached a cab on the hospital's taxi rank. It didn't seem adequate, somehow, but it was the best that she could manage.
He held the door open for her as she climbed in, then slammed it closed behind her. Leaning in through the window, Alvarez said, "You're welcome, Ms Lane. If you page me to let me know when you want to come in again, someone'll escort you from here." He held out a card and added, "My number's on there."
"Thank you," she said again, gratefully.
Alvarez nodded and withdrew his head.
"Where to, lady?" asked the driver, pulling away from the kerb.
With no small amount of relief, she ordered the taxi driver to head for the Daily Planet building, and sanctuary.
Still sporting yesterday's suit, Lois felt both scruffy and dirty. More than anything her body craved a hot shower, a decent meal, and sleep, but she knew she had a story to write, and that had to come first. She compromised with a splash around in the Daily Planet's washroom (cold water only), a Double Fudge Crunch bar from the stash in her desk, and a mug of the strongest caffeinated coffee that she could find. Then she went in search of Perry White.
Perry looked up at Lois's perfunctory knock, and waved her in with an enthusiastic, "Lois, honey! Good to see you!"
"I just wanted to see what angles you've taken on the Superman story, Chief, before I write my piece."
"Nothing specific, as yet," he answered. "We've got just the same information as everyone else; that the two of you were kidnapped by those Bureau 39 nuts. We've been waiting for you to fill in the rest. You know. First hand account. When, how, et cetera. That is, if you feel up to it."
"Yeah, Perry. Of course I do. That's why I'm here."
"By the way, have you seen Kent anywhere? Nobody's seen him since he left this note with Jimmy this morning." Perry waved a sheet of paper at Lois.
"I think I saw him down at the hospital," Lois hazarded. "It's a complete mad house down there. I think he's covering the crowds that are gathering."
"Oh, the candlelight vigil thing. Kent's covering that? Good."
Candlelight vigil? thought Lois. What was that all about? However, since Perry clearly thought that she already knew about it — and, of course, if the cover story she'd given for Clark had been true, she would have done — she couldn't ask him. In any case, Perry was moving the conversation along.
"So, what can you tell me about that green rock? Everyone is clamouring to find out what happened to it. The police. The other papers."
"You didn't tell them, did you, Perry?" asked Lois, alarmed.
"No. I thought I'd wait for you. What is it, exactly? I know what you told me — that it made Superman sick somehow, but where did it come from?"
"I honestly don't know, Perry. All I know is what the Bureau's goons told me."
"That it's radioactive. And that it could kill Superman."
"And could it?"
Lois nodded, biting her lip. "Yeah. I think so, if he was exposed to it for long enough. I mean, you saw what…" She trailed off, not wanting to remember her fears. Clark was going to be all right, she told herself. There was no reason to tear up now. "Perry," she asked abruptly, "what did you do with it?"
"What was I supposed to do with it?"
Lois said, "To be honest, I didn't really think that far ahead. All I wanted was to make sure that it didn't fall into the wrong hands. I didn't know who else I could trust, and I had to get it away from Superman."
Perry nodded. "So you didn't trust those Bureau guys. That's understandable. But you didn't give it to the police, either."
"C'mon, Perry! You know as well as I do that some of those guys are on the take! I couldn't take the risk!"
"Anyone ever tell you that you're a cynic?" Perry asked dryly.
"Yeah. You. It's what makes me good at my job." Lois placed her hands on Perry's desk and leaned forward to look Perry more closely in the eye, determined to make him understand why she had done what she'd done. "Look, Perry, I appreciate that ninety nine per cent of cops are straight-up good guys, but I just couldn't take the risk, you know? Can you imagine what would happen if criminals got hold of that stuff? I couldn't take that kind of chance with the life of a man I consider to be my friend!"
Perry sighed. "Okay. But the question remains, what do you want me to do with it now?" He opened a drawer and pointed downwards.
Lois's eyes bugged. "You mean, it's *here*?! In your office?!"
"Well, yeah, honey. Why not?"
"Because… What if Superman were to drop by?" God, that sounded lame! she thought. But what else could she say? She couldn't come out and admit that Perry couldn't keep the rock at the Planet without jeopardising the life of one of his reporters. And if Clark happened to walk in… The consequences didn't bear thinking about.
No, she thought. The rock had to be moved, but where to? And what convincing reason could she give?
"Perry," she said, suddenly struck with inspiration, "do you know anyone at STAR Labs who could be trusted to run some tests quietly? No questions asked?"
Perry's eyebrows crawled up his forehead. "You want an egghead with integrity, Lois?" When she nodded, he said, "Why?"
"I want to know what this stuff is. Don't you? Maybe someone down there can tell us if it's man-made or natural. And they could do tests to see what it's made of. Did you know that chemists can do that kind of stuff?"
Perry smiled. "Yeah, as a matter of fact, I did. Okay, I'll see what I can do for you. No promises, mind."
"Now, go and write me some copy, you hear? Else we're going to have an empty front page."
"I'm on it, Chief," said Lois.
Lois sent her story to Perry and, while she waited for him to approve it, she made herself another drink. As she bit into a stale doughnut from the box left by the coffee pot she found herself thinking about Clark and wondering how he was doing.
She meandered back towards her desk, hiding a yawn behind the doughnut bearing hand. The coffee didn't seem to be doing her much good; her fatigue appeared to have gone beyond the caffeine-treatment stage. Pausing to look at the television screens, she saw the picture shift from stock footage of Superman flying over Metropolis to the crowds outside Metropolis General. Lois turned the volume up.
"… candlelight vigil for Superman. The protesters, campaigning for the expulsion of Superman from Metropolis, have now been separated from the rest of the crowd. Seventeen arrests were made." The picture shifted to images of demonstrators being pulled, kicking and screaming, towards armoured vans.
"What's all that about?" asked Lois of anyone within earshot.
It was Jimmy who answered. "Some group calling themselves Metropolitans For Superman decided to hold a vigil tonight. Only they've drawn all these other weirdoes out of the woodwork."
"Weirdoes?" asked Lois.
"Yeah. The ones with the placards, saying things like 'Alien Go Home', and 'Keep Our Biosphere Pure'. Stuff like that."
"But that's horrible!" cried Lois.
"Uh huh," agreed Jimmy.
"And discriminatory. And-" She broke off. "Poor… Superman," she whispered softly. Then, in a more normal tone, she said, "So then what happened?"
Jimmy shrugged, somehow conveying the notion that it was obvious. "They got into a fight. And the police arrested a few people." With that, Jimmy drifted off, returning to whatever errand she had distracted him from.
Alvarez had been right, Lois thought. This was a nightmare. She resolved to get back to the hospital as soon as she could.
First, however, she had some errands to run.
Alvarez met her, this time accompanied by two policemen. For all of Lois's earlier cynicism, she was grateful beyond words for the officers' presence and for the protection they afforded her as she entered the hospital.
She paused on the threshold of Clark's room, rather than going straight in. She watched, her heart reaching out to him, as she watched him sitting up in bed, his eyes glued to LNN, his expression sombre. Then she entered. "Hi," Lois said softly. "You okay?"
Clark didn't bother to reply. Instead he said, sounding hurt, "They're here because of me." He waved a hand at the images of the demonstrators gathered outside.
"No," disagreed Lois, talking quietly, for his ears alone. "They're here because of Superman. There's a difference."
Clark shook his head fractionally. "I *am* Superman."
Lois snatched the remote control out of his loose grip and pointed it at the set, switching it off. Watching the news was doing him no good, she thought, and she was determined to prevent him from seeing anything more.
"Yes," she acknowledged. "You are. But he's only a part of who *you* are. You're also Clark, and I don't see anyone telling Clark to go home. Do you?"
"That's only because they don't know… what you know."
As much as she might have wanted to argue that point with him Lois knew that she could not because he was right. However, there were other aspects of the situation she could use in her campaign to drag him out of the pit of misery into which he'd so obviously fallen. "Okay," she said, "so there are some nuts out there. They're probably the same ones who come out whenever anything happens to threaten the status quo. They probably hate all immigrants, not just those who fly. But look at all the other people! Look at the ones who've come out because they *like* Superman. I'll admit, a candlelight vigil is a little… extreme, but you have to admit that they're on your side. And they outnumber the others, at least four to one. People like Superman. Don't doubt that, just because of a few bigots who want to ruin things for the rest of us."
Clark reached out to her, and Lois allowed him to take her hand. "How come you always know the right thing to say?" he asked.
Lois shrugged. How was she supposed to answer? Was she supposed to say something flippant, such as "Because I know everything" perhaps? Or maybe she was supposed to say something more truthful, that she didn't know everything, that if she did, she would never have allowed them to drift so far apart, and that she was trusting to luck and intuition to reach him now. But nothing seemed suitable to the occasion; everything was either too blithe or brought her too close to subjects that were, albeit temporarily, by tacit consent out of bounds.
"Good evening, Superman. Ms Lane."
Lois and Clark looked towards the door, towards the cause of the interruption. The newcomer was a middle-aged woman whose personal vanity, while apparently prompting her to dress in smart clothes, did not extend so far as disguising the passage of time. Her hair, rigidly permed, was a steely grey and tiny crows feet clustered around her eyes. Large metal-framed glasses, of a style that had been popular several years before, and a no-nonsense expression made her look more like a strict headmistress than the doctor that her stethoscope and white coat labelled her as.
Without waiting to be invited, she strode into the room, thrust out her hand towards Clark, and said, "Hello. I'm Dr Patricia Mantel. I've just come to check up on you."
Clark, with his automatic politeness said, "I'm pleased to meet you, Dr Mantel."
"So, how are you doing?" she asked.
Clark shrugged slightly. "Okay," he said. "I've managed to walk up and down the corridor a couple of times."
"Hey, that's great!" said Lois enthusiastically.
Mantel looked at her disapprovingly and said, "I'll be the judge of that, Ms Lane. Now," she continued, reaching up to draw the curtain around Clark's bed, "if I can just check your heart and blood pressure, Superman?"
Lois, albeit with reluctance, took this as her cue to leave. She pointed a thumb in the general direction of the exit and said, "I'll wait outside."
Lois settled herself in yet another one of the hospital's uncomfortable chairs, this time in the open corridor. As she closed her eyes and rested her head against the wall she found her thoughts wandering back towards the conversation she'd just had with Clark. Another emotional crisis averted, she reflected, and felt a profound sense of satisfaction at what she had achieved. This wasn't the first time, she mused, that she had been able to help Clark resolve some difficult issues. Would it, she wondered, be the last? That, however, would depend on how they decided to resolve their difficulties.
Wouldn't it be wonderful, she thought, if she could solve all her own problems as easily as she managed to solve his? Why couldn't she show the same degree of common sense and objectivity when faced with situations that affected her personally? Then she realised that the answer to her question lay in the question itself.
She had never been good at dealing with anything *personal*. Nothing in her background had equipped her to deal with relationship problems. All she'd learned from her mother was how to get and stay angry. (She had refused to learn the lesson of how to get drunk.) She knew, moreover, that her experiences with Claude had only made matters more difficult for her.
Drawing on the lessons of her youth, Lois had tried to cut her losses as soon as her nascent relationship with Clark had become strained. And, she thought ruefully now, had that actually helped matters any? Had pretending that there was nothing between them made her feel any better? Made the problem go away? No. If anything, it had simply made matters worse, because her wounds had been left to fester.
Only in the cell, when she had been faced with the real possibility of his death, had she found the strength to admit her feelings for Clark. They were not just friendship anymore, she had conceded. At some point they had deepened and broadened into love.
But now, as she considered the matter, she realised that being in love wasn't, on its own, enough. She needed to learn *how* to love, and how to face up to the difficulties and responsibilities that the emotion carried with it. Yes, she had proved to her own satisfaction that she could be a friend in times of need for Clark, but, if they were ever to make good on their declarations of love, she also had to be prepared to offer herself, her soul, to him, not just in times of crisis, but always. She had to learn to share, to take the bad times with the good, to compromise, and to work in partnership, because that was what relationships were all about.
Communication was key, she realised. She'd promised herself, in the cell, that they would talk things through, but now that he was getting better, she found herself falling back into her previous patterns of behaviour, retreating from that promise and dreading the conversation they needed to have if they were to move forward.
Sorting things out with Clark, she realised, was going to demand more from her than she could easily give, but if she could, once and for all, lower her barriers, she suspected that the rewards would make the effort more than worthwhile.
Could she do it? she asked herself. She looked deep inside herself as she tried to find the answer.
Clark didn't like Mantel, though he wasn't sure whether his antipathy stemmed from her brusque manner or her cold hands. Unlike Alvarez, she barely spoke, her comments confined to curt commands such as "breathe in", "breathe out", "sit up straight", or "turn around". His attempts to engage her in conversation met with failure. To his question, "So, how am I doing?" she merely replied with a non- committal grunt.
Clark watched mutely as Mantel wrestled with the inflatable cuff of the blood pressure monitor. He wasn't convinced that she didn't over- inflate the device, but he shrugged his misgivings away. After all, he reasoned, what did he really know about medical procedures, anyway?
When Mantel was done, he said, "So?" again.
She shrugged, and Clark's misgivings coalesced into something more concrete. If he hadn't known better — and he wasn't sure that he didn't — he would have said that Mantel didn't understand the readings that she had just taken.
"Dr Mantel," Clark began, the hint of the question he was about to form colouring his intonation.
She cut him off, produced a syringe from her pocket, and said, "Now, I just want a blood sample."
"What for?" said Clark, shifting backwards, automatically pulling away from her.
"Records," she said abruptly.
"Nobody mentioned blood tests before," he observed, stalling. "Besides, you can't take blood from me. The needle won't penetrate my skin." At least, he hoped that it wouldn't. He hadn't actually tested it, but he supposed that since he'd lost all his other powers, he had almost certainly lost his invulnerability, too.
Clearly the same thought had crossed Mantel's mind. "Well," she said, "we'll just have to try, won't we?"
The question was obviously meant to be rhetorical, but Clark could hear himself saying, "I'd really rather that we didn't." Then, more resolutely, he said, "I want to get a second opinion. I want to talk to Dr Alvarez."
"There's no need for that," Mantel said. "Come on, Superman. One quick jab and it will all be over." She advanced towards him.
Clark tried to scramble out of the bed, wanting to put it between them. Instead he simply succeeded in tangling himself up in the sheets.
Mantel grabbed hold of his shoulder with a surprising degree of strength. As she pushed him down towards the pillow, Clark began to struggle in earnest. An anguished, "No!" forced its way out through his gritted teeth.
"Hi again. What are you doing out here?"
Dr Alvarez's words dragged Lois out of her introspection. She looked up at the harried man and smiled at him. He looked even more tired than he had earlier, if that were possible, and Lois found herself wondering what kind of hours he worked. "I'm waiting for Dr Mantel to finish up with Superman," she answered.
The concerned look that popped onto Alvarez's face alerted her immediately to the fact that something was amiss. "Mantel?" he said. "We don't have a Dr Mantel!"
With that, they were both up and running.
Lois rushed straight to the room, and shouted, "Superman! She's a fake!" She immediately realised that her warning was unnecessary as she took in the sight of Clark and Mantel wrestling on the bed.
Clark managed to snatch the syringe from Mantel's hand and fling it across the room. Then he grabbed hold of her wrist with all the feeble strength that he could muster, and his face contorted with the effort of trying to restrain her.
Lois ran up behind Mantel and grabbed her other flailing arm.
Mantel struggled in their joint grasp, and the three of them panted as they jockeyed for control of the situation. By the time four police officers, closely followed by Alvarez, rushed into the room, Lois could feel perspiration beading on her forehead and trickling down the skin of her back.
Lois leaned, struggling to catch her breath, against the window sill and watched as Clark, similarly exhausted, collapsed against his pillows, his face pale, and his breathing ragged.
The police officer, cuffing Mantel roughly, gasped out between gritted teeth, "I didn't expect to see *you* around here again. Thought you'd've learned your lesson the last time!"
"You know her?" asked Alvarez.
"Sure do, Doc." Disgustingly pushing his prisoner into the awaiting arms of his colleagues, he elaborated. "She's a freelancer who works for the tabloids. Got into trouble last year when she broke into the Lexor Hotel and stole the personal correspondence of a visiting head of state."
Lois, still trying to catch her breath, didn't comment but she did look a little uncomfortable; she'd done her fair share of breaking and entering in her time.
The policeman clearly picked up on her unease because he said, "Look, Ms Lane, I know that all journalists have a… flexible… attitude to the law from time to time. We try to draw a blind eye to some of your activities because sometimes they work in our favour, you know? Some of the things you guys find out… I dunno how you do it sometimes. But Mantel! She's in a class of her own, you know? Sinks to levels you couldn't begin to imagine."
Perhaps not, thought Lois, but given the scene she had just witnessed, she wasn't altogether sure about that.
"Guess she was up to her usual tricks again, eh? What was she after here, anyhow?" asked the police officer.
Clark cleared his throat and said, "Blood. She was after my blood."
The policeman shrugged dismissively. "Guess that makes a change from compromising photos or tapes of private phone calls. That's more her usual style." He turned, then followed after his colleagues, saying as he went, "We'll make sure that she doesn't bother you again."
Lois looked at Clark, eyes wide with concern. "We've got to get you out of here," she said adamantly. "Okay, so no harm was done this time, but what about next time?"
Alvarez sighed. "I wish it was that simple, Ms Lane, but as you can see, Superman still is far from being his normal self." He glanced across at Clark, seeking confirmation of that fact.
"He's right, Lois," said Clark ruefully. "Normal for me is being able to fly. This…" he waved both hands inwards towards himself, "is most definitely… not normal. I don't want to stay here, but…" He looked at Alvarez. "What choices, realistically, do I have?"
"On purely medical grounds, I would be happier if we could keep you in overnight for observation," said Alvarez, "but, given the security problems, I'm no longer sure that's wise. You say that you're getting stronger. That's no doubt a good sign, but…" He shrugged.
Lois said, "Dr Alvarez, you've said yourself that there isn't really very much you can do for Superman. So why make him stay, if he doesn't want to?"
Alvarez sighed. "Because he's still not fit, even by human standards." To Clark, he said, "Where would you go, if we released you? You can't fly off to whatever lair it is you go to. Do you even have someone at home who'll look after you, if you leave here?"
"I'll be fine," said Superman, avoiding the question.
"Yes," said Lois. "He does. At least, I think he does," she added doubtfully. She hoped that he did; she hoped that he would accept her help, at least until his parents arrived.
Alvarez closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose for a moment, then he evidently reached a decision because he said, "Very well. Superman, you have my permission to leave."
"Great!" said Lois.
Alvarez failed to acknowledge her outburst, his thoughts already drifting to the next problem that they needed to address. "All we have to do now is figure out how we're going to get you past the crowds."
"Oh," said Lois, "you don't need worry about that! I've got it covered."
The two men said in chorus, "You have?"
"Yeah." Sounding smug, Lois said, "I realised earlier on that that was going to be a problem, and not just for Superman. I had to come in as myself this evening, too, to make sure that I could get past security, but I didn't have any intention of braving the crowds, going out. So I picked up some disguises on my way here. One for you, Superman, for whenever you were going to leave. And one for me, for this evening."
"Disguises?" asked Clark sounding slightly wary.
"You know," said Lois, with a mischievous glint in her eye. "Street clothes. Sort of like a… what would you call it… A secret identity!"
"Uh, Lois… I'm not sure that's such a good idea…" said Clark, sounding decidedly dubious.
Oblivious to his protestations she babbled on. "Oh, yes. And a moustache. Did I mention the moustache? Oh, and you owe me for some new sweats and a pair of sneakers." Lois rummaged around inside her bag and pulled out several items of clothing, lying them on his bed for his perusal.
"I'm really not sure about this…"
"I'll give you ten minutes to change, then I'll come back and give you a hand with the moustache," said Lois, ignoring him. Then, picking up the bag, she headed out of the door, knowing that Alvarez and Clark were staring after her in consternation. She smiled, feeling their eyes glued to her back.
Fifteen minutes later, dressed in his new clothes, Clark still wasn't confident about the course of action upon which they were about to embark. True, he spent most of his time in street clothes, and the concept of wearing a disguise was no longer new. But this was subtly different because, while nobody expected a reporter to be a Superhero, and that was, in large measure why nobody noticed him in his normal guise, he knew that, for the moment at least, everyone's attention was focused on Superman. People didn't keep their eyes peeled for Clark Kent; Superman was an entirely different matter, however. The chances of his being caught out seemed to have been magnified ten- fold, and he felt curiously exposed.
The seconds ticked past, and another five minutes crept by. Rubbing a hand through his hair, he wondered what had become of Lois. She'd said that she would be gone for ten minutes, but now twice that length of time had passed.
The sound of footsteps made him look around. A small and slightly built man stood framed in the doorway; his ragged moustache was in need of trimming and his overly long hair brushed against his collar. As the stranger walked uninvited into his room Clark stood up warily, and said coldly, "Yes? What do you want?"
The man's mouth split into a white smile, and he said, "Don't you recognise me?"
"Lois?!" Clark's surprise was absolute, and he decided that if his own disguise could ever be half as effective he would be happy. For the first time, since she'd mentioned her escape plan, he found his confidence start to build.
"Good, eh?" she said, sounding, Clark decided, deservedly pleased with herself.
"Very," he agreed.
"Now," she said, getting down to business, "let's sort out the rest of your costume. Then we can be on our way."
"Okay," he agreed.
Alvarez insisted on wheeling Clark towards the hospital exit. At a distance of some twenty paces short of the door, Clark refused to be taken any further, saying that he didn't want to obviously be a patient when the crowds caught sight of them; Alvarez halted the chair and allowed Clark to stand. He and Lois both thanked the doctor for all his assistance and, looking at each other for support, they continued their exit on foot.
They were half-way towards the taxi rank when Clark felt his strength beginning to ebb once more. Lois, walking next to him, seemed to sense his difficulty, and wordlessly she wrapped her arm around his waist and said, "Lean on me."
Heedless of how the sight of two men, arms wrapped around each other, might look to the spectators, they continued on their way to the taxi rank.
Clark clambered into the cab first, crawled across the back seat, and sagged against the far door, relying on her to get them away from the hospital while he did his best to rally his diminishing energy reserves. Climbing in after Clark, Lois gave the order to go to her apartment.
Clark let his eyes drift closed and lost track of his surroundings and, when they stopped, Lois had to shake him awake. He blinked a few times to reorient himself as he waited on the sidewalk while she paid the fare, balefully considering the steps up to her front door. At the moment, the way he felt, they looked as daunting as the Matterhorn.
As the taxi pulled away from the kerb, Lois grabbed hold of his arm and said, "Come on, Clark. We can't hang around here."
"What?" he said.
"Look, I know you're tired. And I'm sorry to have to do this, but… It's cents to a dollar that our friendly driver will go back to the hospital and sell information to someone, telling them where he dropped us. So, we've got to get out of here before the media shows up. Okay?"
"Okay," said Clark, realising, even through his haze of fatigue, that Lois was making sense.
She guided him a few yards down the block then said, "Get in the jeep."
He nodded, grateful to have the chance to sit down again. Only as Lois slipped the vehicle into drive did Clark think to ask, "Where are we going now?"
"Your place," she said.
He closed his eyes and left her to drive in silence.
Later on, when he thought back to their journey, he found that it had taken on the hues of a dream. He could remember only snatches: Lois encouraging him, asking him where he kept his spare key, chivvying him up the steps…
It was only after an indeterminate period spent sitting on his sofa, his head tilted back against the cushions, and his ragged breathing easing back to something approaching normality, that he began to recover his wits.
Leaving Clark to drink some tea she had prepared, Lois finally took the shower she'd been craving for so many hours, washed off the traces of her disguise, and changed into a clean set of clothes.
When she emerged again from the bathroom she sat down next to him. "How are you doing?" she asked.
"Better," he said. "I think I feel… better."
She looked at him critically, then announced, "Well, your eyes look brighter than they did before, and you've got back some of your colour."
"Thank you," he said softly. "I couldn't have got here on my own."
Lois ducked her head, looking unaccountably embarrassed by his gratitude.
Something in the quality of her silence spurred him into continuing. "Lois, you were brilliant! If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed it possible."
"What, that I was brilliant? What's so hard to believe about that?" she asked.
"No, no. That you could make such a convincing man! I mean you…" Clark shook his head. "Let's put it this way. You don't look like a guy now."
Lois smiled slightly coquettishly. "Don't I?"
Clark shook his head. Was it his imagination, or was Lois flirting with him? If he'd had more energy, he would have tried to find out, but instead he yawned cavernously. Belatedly clamping a hand over his mouth, he blushed and muttered, "Sorry," with embarrassment.
Lois rolled her eyes. "So that's the kind of effect I have on you, eh? I put you to sleep!"
"No, Lois! I-"
"Joke, Clark!" she said. "C'mon. Let's get you to bed."
"What about my folks? I need to be up when-"
"No. You need to sleep. I'll let them in."
Too tired to argue, Clark merely said, "Thanks." He allowed Lois to help him into his room where he collapsed, fully clothed, onto the bed. Within seconds he was asleep.
Lois smiled indulgently at the exhausted man. Then, after a few minutes of silent and appreciative contemplation, she leaned over to pull his shoes off, trying to make him more comfortable. Then, deciding that anything else could wait until morning, she left him in peace.
As she regained the living room, Lois glanced across at his clock and saw that she had a couple of hours before Clark's parents were likely to arrive. She found a blanket and curled up on his couch.
It seemed as though only seconds had passed when the sound of knocking slowly pulled Lois out of a deep slumber. Through the lace covered windows, she could make out two silhouettes on the other side of Clark's front door.
His parents, she realised, had arrived at last.
Lois reached across and switched on the lamp nearest her and pushed the blanket she'd been using off to one side. Then she padded to the door, unlocked it, and pulled it open.
The older couple stared at her with open curiosity on their faces, a curiosity which was, no doubt, reflected on her own.
"Mr and Mrs Kent?" she asked, though there really wasn't any doubt about it.
The woman's face suddenly creased into a smile as she nodded. "And you are… Lois?"
Lois nodded an affirmative.
"Is he here?" Martha asked.
"Yeah. He's asleep in the bedroom." Lois stood back to let them pass. Jonathan carefully placed their suitcases down just inside the door. He and Martha paused at the top the steps, taking stock of their surroundings, and it occurred to Lois that they possibly hadn't visited the apartment before. Helpfully she pointed and said, "It's through there."
"Thank you, dear," said Martha who, unable to resist, proceeded to tiptoe in the direction that Lois had indicated, disappearing into the gloom of the apartment.
Martha reappeared moments later, apparently reassured by whatever she'd seen. She looked at Jonathan and said, "He seems to be resting peacefully, anyway."
Lois felt awkward acting as hostess to a couple she'd never met before in a home that wasn't her own, but on the grounds that she probably knew her way around Clark's kitchen marginally better than they did, she said, "Can I get you some tea?"
Martha and Jonathan accepted gratefully. Jonathan made himself as comfortable as the dining chairs permitted, and Martha leaned up against the kitchen counters, watching without comment as Lois put tea leaves into a cold pot, and poured boiling water over them.
"So, how are *you*, Lois?" Martha asked.
"Me?" asked Lois, the older woman's concern for her taking her by surprise.
Martha smiled faintly. "Yes, you. After all, you were kidnapped, locked up, and if I understand correctly, left to watch someone die."
Put like that, Lois decided, she had every reason to be *not* all right, but, other than feeling physically exhausted, she actually felt pretty good. Better, in fact, than she had done in weeks; that, she knew, was because, the appalling circumstances notwithstanding, she'd been able to spend all day with Clark, in spirit if not in actual fact. No longer was their separation clawing at her insides, tearing her apart from within.
Pouring the tea that hadn't stewed properly, she said, "I'm fine, Mrs Kent. Really."
"Martha," corrected Martha gently. "You're sure about that?"
"Yes," said Lois.
Martha and Lois carried the three mugs over to the table and sat down with Jonathan. He looked at Lois and said, "We want to thank you."
"What for?" said Lois.
"For thinking of us. For phoning. For looking after Clark," Jonathan said.
"Oh," said Lois blushing slightly, embarrassed that she'd asked the question. "You're welcome."
Martha was looking at Lois speculatively and, apparently unable to resist, she said, "I assume that the two of you managed to sort out your differences?"
Lois wondered why she didn't find the personal question intrusive; maybe it had something to do with their shared secret, or maybe it was simply that Martha was completely disarming. In any event, Lois found herself answering. "Not quite yet, but I think maybe we're getting there," she said.
"Good," answered Martha.
Lois said wryly, "There's nothing like a life or death situation to knock some sense into a person's head."
Jonathan took her comment as his cue to ask, "What really happened?"
"I told you," said Lois.
"We know what you told us earlier. And we saw the news, but…" Jonathan trailed off.
Martha said gently, coaxingly, "You only gave us the abbreviated version. I guess… we want to know the whole story."
Lois took a deep breath and exhaled noisily. Then she nodded jerkily. It was only fair, she supposed, that they should know. They had come a long way to check up on Clark. Making them wait for him to wake up and tell them himself would be unnecessarily cruel.
As she spoke, she watched them, taking careful note of the way they listened carefully to what she told them, so different to her own parents who were too wrapped up in themselves to ever truly *hear* anything she said. Encouraged by their interest and concern, she found herself telling them more than she had intended, omitting only the most intimate aspects of the conversations she had shared with Clark. She watched as Clark's parents reached for one another, silently drawing strength from each other as she spoke of the horror that Bureau 39 had instigated, and she was awed by the obvious love they shared.
Unable to return home, lest the media were there, and having relinquished the couch to Jonathan, Lois ended up spending the night on a surprisingly comfortable makeshift mattress of cushions.
For a long time, Lois lay with her eyes open, staring into the blackness, thinking about the Kents. She remembered the times she'd heard Clark talk about his parents, the love he felt palpable in his words. That evening, she'd seen that the reverse was also true; his parents loved their son.
She had wondered how Clark, despite his obvious fears, had found the courage to become Superman. Now, she suspected, she had found at least part of the answer. Jonathan and Martha's compassionate strength was so like his own, she thought. Perhaps nature had played its part in defining his character, but nurture definitely seemed to have played a major role here, too.
Then her thoughts turned back to herself. She'd now seen, from all sides, the closeness the Kent family shared. Listening to the slow soft breathing of Martha, lying a few feet to her left, and the deep sonorous rumble of Jonathan's snores, she found herself envying Clark once again. Her own family had never been so close; her principal memories of growing up were of shouting, arguments and avoidance.
Lois, native of Earth and Metropolis, found herself longing for just a fraction of the kind of love Clark shared with his parents, and craved the sense of belonging it would engender. Clark, she thought, might be the extra-terrestrial, but she knew more than a thing or two about alienation, herself.
Lois woke up and yawned. When she turned over, she was surprised to see that Martha and Jonathan's bedding was already folded away. The sound of soft voices from next door alerted her to the fact that Clark, too, was awake. She rolled into a sitting position, stretched, ran a hand through her hair and sat up.
Lois hovered on the threshold of the bedroom, soaking up the tableau that greeted her eyes. All her longings of the night before returned as she saw Martha and Jonathan sitting on the edges of Clark's bed, holding his hands, their eyes suspiciously bright as they smiled at him.
At that moment, Martha looked up, and catching sight of Lois, her face split into a wide smile. "Come on in!" she said.
Jonathan looked up, and he, too, smiled at her. Then Clark twisted around, and the expression on his face was also one of welcome.
"I didn't mean to intrude," she said, stepping into the room, but still maintaining her distance from the group.
"You're not intruding," offered Jonathan.
"Of course you're not," agreed Martha.
Clark's "Come here" cleared away the last of her reluctance to approach.
Clark shifted slightly, creating a space for her next to his left shoulder. "Thanks," she muttered, perching on the edge of the mattress.
Lois automatically looked down at her wrist, but, realising that it was bare, she glanced around at the others and asked, "What time is it?"
"Around six thirty," said Clark, looking towards his alarm clock. "By the way, in case you're wondering, your watch is in my desk. I'll give it back to you later."
"My watch?" asked Lois. "I thought I'd lost it. How did you get it?"
"It was in with the note Bureau 39 sent, saying that Superman had to go to the warehouse," he replied. "That was how I knew it wasn't just a trick or a joke."
"Oh," she said. "I thought the strap had broken." She frowned, then, as another aspect of Clark's conversation reached her, she said, "'Later'? You're planning on going into work today?"
"Well, yeah," he said. "Superman may be officially on the sick list, but Clark Kent isn't."
Martha looked at him doubtfully. "You sure you're up to it?" she asked.
Clark nodded. "I think so, yeah."
Lois tilted her head to one side, then said thoughtfully, "I guess you know how you're feeling. And you do look a lot better than you did last night."
"Yeah," he agreed. "I feel better, too. I'm still not feeling… quite myself, but…" He shrugged.
"By the way, if Perry asks, you were at the hospital all last night, covering the Superman story."
Clark shot her a glance. "You covered for me?"
"Yes. I meant to mention it yesterday, but it slipped my mind, what with everything else that was going on. Then, by the time I did remember, you'd fallen asleep. If… if you like, I could give you a hand with it, this morning," she offered diffidently.
"Thanks," said Clark gratefully. "That'd be great. I guess I owe you one."
"Guess you do," she agreed.
"We all do," said Jonathan warmly, reaching over to pat Lois's arm.
Lois looked alternately at each of the Kents in turn. The sincerity in their eyes touched Lois deeply, and something unspoken passed between the four of them.
A sense of belonging.
Lois drove with both hands on the steering wheel and her mind on automatic as she navigated her way through the familiar streets and traffic signals back to her own apartment. She had told Clark that she wanted to drop her car off at home and, journalists permitting, change into something more appropriate for work.
Clark had offered to come with her, but she had declined, saying that he should spend more time with his parents. He'd nodded, accepting her argument at face value, and said that he would get a cab into the office and meet her in the newsroom.
Now Lois wondered whether she should have stayed closer to him, keeping a wary eye on him in case he couldn't cope with the demands of the working day. She sighed. She wasn't his full time protector, she argued with herself. His parents were there for him, and she would see him soon enough.
Meanwhile it felt good to take some time on her own just to think and to try to come to grips with the events of the last few days.
It had only been sixty hours since she'd walked in on the intruders in her apartment, less than thirty six hours since she'd been kidnapped, and only twenty two hours since Clark had come barrelling into the cell, trying to rescue her. How could so much have happened in so short a space of time? she asked herself. It had taken days of skirting around each other and of reluctantly sharing confidences to originally build their friendship, yet the rebuilding seemed to have occurred of its own volition. They hadn't talked, but they were speaking to each other once again, teasing each other — though Lois was realistic enough to suspect that this was as much a distancing tactic as a sign of genuine affection — and exchanging opinions almost as if the few painful weeks of emotional separation had not taken place.
But, she thought, they had. She couldn't just ignore that fact. And yet… when she tried to find the embers of the defensive anger she had harnessed, she discovered that she could not, and that it was no longer possessed of any power to harm her or to harm him.
It was Clark, she thought with a strange sense of wonder as she slowed, signalled, and turned right, who had made this possible. It had to be. Being angry was a gift she had cultivated since childhood, and, until Clark, nobody had ever been able to breach her defences. Clark, however, had done so, on several occasions now, and apparently without any effort on his part. There was something between them, she thought fancifully, something bigger than either of them. She could neither name nor define it adequately; the best that she could say was that it was a power that was bigger than either of them. It was a gift that, if they could use it wisely, could only be a force for happiness. It was… love.
But Lois had been in love before, and it had never been like this. She had always had control over her decisions and had retained the ability to let her head act over her heart. With Clark, though, it was her heart that had taken control, and that change of balance was, Lois found, both curiously exhilarating and terrifying.
The balance, at present, however, was tipped in favour of terrifying. She still didn't *know* what he was thinking. Yes, he'd said in the cell that he loved her, and that gave her cause for optimism, but she could trace back through all his earlier actions the thread of his love, and, even then he had pushed her away from him. No matter that she understood why he had done it, no matter that she had accepted his reasoning, she still feared the thought that he might do something similar once again, emotions notwithstanding.
And yet, hadn't she promised herself, that she would settle for loving him, even if they couldn't have a professional relationship? She nodded to herself, knowing finally, without a shadow of a doubt, that she would accept whatever role he would let her have in his life. Now what she had to do was find out what that role might be.
Until that time, she would just try enjoy whatever it was they now had.
For now, though, her journey was ending and she had to get on with the day.
Lois met up with Clark again in the foyer of the Planet building where she found him waiting for the elevator. He looked up from the morning edition, smiled a greeting, and said to her, "I was reading your article. It's powerful stuff. So much emotion. I can feel your desperation." The bell pinged and the doors opened as he looked at her speculatively. "Was it really that bad?" he asked.
Lois gave him a look that was a curious blend of disbelief and irritation as they stepped aboard. "What kind of question is that! Of course it was that bad, Clark! Actually, it was worse… Superman… The rock…" She shook her head, frustrated at the way her sentence had fragmented into nonsense. "I wish I hadn't had to mention the rock," Lois said, "but I couldn't *not* write about it. I mean, Perry knew all about it, and all the other papers had picked up on it. Okay, so they didn't know anything about it, but they knew it existed. I mean, the police knew that much. I'm sorry. I couldn't see any way to keep it quiet."
"It's okay, Lois," Clark said. "I wish it wasn't public knowledge. I mean, I don't like people knowing that there is something out there that can hurt me-"
"Hurt you!" interrupted Lois indignantly. "It didn't just *hurt* you, Clark! It almost killed you! I… I really thought for a while…" She trailed off, determinedly fighting back tears. She viciously pressed the button for their floor and grabbed the couple of seconds that the action afforded her to recover herself.
"I know," he admitted softly. "I'm sorry that you had to go through that."
This time it was Lois's turn to say, "It's okay," but the slight tremor in her voice was a clear indication to both of them that it wasn't and that it would take her a while longer to come to terms with the memories.
Returning to the previous subject, Clark said, "I don't see what else you could have done, either. About the rock, I mean."
"At least," she said, "I managed to avoid saying that it was here. As far as anyone else is concerned, it got lost sometime during the rescue. I haven't talked to Perry about it, but I expect I can convince him not to let on that we know where it is, at least until the test results are in."
"Test results?" asked Clark, his eyebrows crawling up his forehead.
"Yeah. Oh, I guess I didn't tell you about this, did I?"
"No," he said, "but with everything that was going on last night, and with me falling asleep on you, I can't say I'm altogether surprised."
"Okay," she said. "It's like this. Perry brought the stuff back here. I needed a good excuse to get it out of the building before you came in to work, so I persuaded Perry to pass it on to someone at STAR Labs."
"Smart move!" said Clark appreciatively. "You think of everything!"
Smiling coyly, Lois said, "I try."
The elevator bell sounded and the doors swung open. They had arrived in the newsroom, and they had a job to do.
Clark's head jerked up as he heard his name being whispered across the room.
"I don't believe it!" Eduardo was saying. "Lois and Clark? Sitting together? They're not only talking to each other again, but they're also working together!"
"You don't know the half of it," Ralph replied. "They arrived together this morning, too."
"Arrived? You don't think they're… you know… do you?"
"What do you think?" There was a leer in Ralph's voice.
With the skill borne of long practice, Clark tuned out their words; he seldom chose to eavesdrop on anyone, and he was doubly reluctant to do so when he was the chosen topic of conversation. Back when he'd been a teenager, still coming to terms with his developing powers, he'd overheard too many things that had dented his confidence and which had made him question his friendships with others.
In any case, he didn't need to hear the rest of his conversation to know what it was about. The muted chuckles and surreptitious gestures towards Lois and himself made it all too obvious. A warm glow crept up his cheeks. Clark leaned in towards Lois's ear and said, "They're talking about us," and nodded his head in the direction of Eduardo and Ralph.
Lois absentmindedly said, "So? Let them talk." Then, as the implications of his words reached her, she gasped and exclaimed sotto voce, "You can hear them? Your powers are back?"
Clark said, "Well, that one is." He straightened in his seat and fiddled with his glasses for a moment, then whispered, "X-ray vision; telescopic vision… All present and correct!" He levitated half an inch out of his chair, confident that no-one would notice. "Flying… Almost there!"
Lois jumped out of her chair. She wrapped her arms around him and said, "Congratulations, Clark!" The grin on her face was more than matched by the one on his own.
As he brought his arms around her to close his side of the embrace, he chuckled.
"What?" demanded Lois, easing back in his arms to look in his face.
"Eduardo and Ralph… Now that they've really got something to talk about, they're lost for words!"
Lois suddenly appeared to realise where she was, what she was doing, and how it must look. Shocked at the loss of her professional decorum, she jumped backwards, landing back in her own chair, and glanced around.
The stunned silence in the newsroom gave way to a jabber of speculation and astonishment.
For once, Clark decided that he didn't mind overhearing what was being said.
"Lois!" Perry's voice dragged Lois's attention away from her screen. She turned her head towards his office in time to hear him say, "In here! Now!"
"I'll be back in a minute," she said to Clark as she got up.
Perry looked up from his desk and said, "Now, I won't even begin to ask what's going on between you and Kent, though I have to admit to being surprised that you two are talking again."
Lois simply looked at him, letting him know that, just as he wasn't going to ask for the information he so clearly wanted, she wasn't going to volunteer it.
Perry sighed. "You've got an appointment at 3.30 with a Dr Klein down at STAR Labs. About the you know what. Okay?"
Lois beamed at him. "Thanks, Chief!" and was gone.
Back at her desk, she sat down beside Clark once again and said, "I've got an appointment this afternoon with Dr Klein about that green rock. You want to come?"
Clark frowned and said, "Do you think that's a good idea? I mean, you know what it does to me."
"I thought of that," she said. "I'll phone on ahead and say that Superman wants to come. I mean, he's got a perfectly good excuse for being interested."
Clark nodded with a dawning understanding of the way her mind was working. "And, since everyone already knows that thing is poisonous to Superman, this Dr Klein'll be at pains to keep it away from me." A smile spread across his face. "I like the way you think! Yes, thank you. I'd like to come."
Initially Clark put the appreciative surprise evinced by the security guard who was manning the STAR Labs reception counter down to the unprecedented arrival of the spandex-clad Superhero. However, the way the guard's bespectacled eyes caressed Lois's body told him otherwise.
Clark watched with well-concealed amusement as Lois crossed her arms over her breasts, thus impeding the guard's appreciation of her assets. She said crisply, "Lois Lane. Daily Planet. I believe Dr Klein is expecting me."
Switching his gaze with obvious reluctance towards a ledger on his desk, the guard said, "Yeah. Go ahead. Two floors up. Third door on the left." Then, belatedly noticing Clark himself, he said, "Yeah? What can I do for you, Superman?"
Clark smiled faintly, gestured towards Lois's departing back, and said, "I'm with her."
The guard shrugged, feigning disinterest and allowing Clark on his way, but just as Clark turned a corner, he was sure he heard him mutter, "Lucky dog!" Clark suppressed a laugh; he couldn't find it in himself to disagree with the guard's assessment of the situation.
Dr Klein's lab was a bright room, full of scientific paraphernalia, but oddly devoid of any contents that would give a hint of its occupant's personality. However, it quickly became apparent that the scientist was an affable individual. Whatever he lacked in the way of social graces, he more than made up for in terms of his genuine friendliness and, as they were to discover, his generosity of spirit.
"Ms Lane," said Dr Klein, "and… Superman! Come in! Come in! This is…" He frowned slightly. "Well, to be honest, I'm not entirely sure what this is. An honour? A surprise?"
Clark raised his eyebrows as Lois visibly reined in her impatience and said, "Dr Klein, you said you had some information about a certain green rock?"
"Ah, yes. The rock. Of course, geology isn't my specialism, but I did my best with it and, well, to be frank, it was quite, quite fascinating!"
"Uh, huh," grunted Lois. "Would you care to tell us why?"
"First of all," he said, "it's a meteorite."
"A meteorite?" asked Clark, speaking for the first time.
"Uh, huh. Most definitely not of earthly origin. Emits radiation. I'm speculating here, Superman, but I would assume that your collapse was due to radiation poisoning."
Clark nodded. That made sense, he thought. It did, after all, tie in with what the Bureau's soldier had told Lois. "It seems as though it only affects me, and not humans," he observed.
Clark became aware of Lois's eyes on him as she asked, "You think the things are related, Dr Klein? I mean, Superman's being Kryptonian and this rock coming from space?"
Dr Klein nodded with enthusiasm. "This is, as I said, all speculation, but, yes, I would say that it seems probable. I would guess that this meteorite got carried along in the wake of your ship, Superman. Maybe you even brought it with you, all the way from Krypton. Meteorites are, almost by definition, extremely rare. And to encounter one that affects you — the odds of such a coincidence are surely, well, astronomical." He shrugged sheepishly at the pun.
A meteorite, thought Clark, possibly from his home planet, and it had the power to kill him. When he'd decided to find out about his origins, he had never envisaged anything like this. He sighed, then with determination pushed all the questions that came crowding in on him aside. There would be plenty of time to consider the implications of Dr Klein's revelation later.
"What else did you find out?" asked Clark.
"Not a great deal," admitted Klein. "To be frank, the test results make very little sense. In fact, the first time I ran the tests, I thought the equipment was faulty, but…" He grimaced. "I've run them three times now, and I keep getting the same results."
"And?" prompted Lois, impatient at Klein's prevarication.
"And it is made of periodic element 126!"
"So?" asked Lois, clearly none the wiser.
Clark thought back to his high-school chemistry and frowned as he fished for the knowledge that evaded his attempts at retrieval.
"Ms Lane!" cried Dr Klein. "There is no periodic element 126!" He picked up a copy of a periodic table that had been lying on his desk. "Look," he said.
"It's okay," said Lois hastily, fending off the threat of an impromptu chemistry lesson. "I'll take your word for it."
"You mean," said Clark, his frown deepening, "no one has discovered the element before?"
"More than that," said Klein. "There are a couple of elements no-one has ever found, but chemists have at least predicted their existence. But no-one has ever even *predicted* the existence of element 126. That's why this meteorite is so, so, remarkable!"
Lois, clearly losing interest in theory, evidently decided that it was time to focus on more practical issues. "Remarkable or not," she said, "we've got to decide what to do with it. Where is it now?"
"In our vault," said Dr Klein. "It's quite safe, I assure you."
Clark said, concern tingeing his words, "Does anyone beside yourself know that it's there?"
Dr Klein raised his eyebrows. "No. No, I'm quite sure they don't. I mean, anyone who goes in there will see that there is a box covered in radiation warnings, but that's as far as it goes."
"And… could you keep it that way?" asked Clark. "I mean… it's a source of some concern to me that it doesn't, well, fall into the wrong hands."
Dr Klein gave an exaggerated nod and said, "I can see how it would be, yes. Well, I don't think you need to worry, Superman. Our security is top-notch, you know. It has to be. We keep all sorts here. Deadly viruses. Bacteria that could ravage the Earth. Chemicals… You name it, we've probably got it."
Lois said, trying, and failing, not to sound too appalled at the thought, "And that's all in your vault?!"
"Right, Ms Lane."
"What if this stuff ever gets out? I mean, what if there is some sort of freak disaster, and all your viruses and bacteria get loose into the environment?"
"Then that would, indeed, be a disaster. But the odds against it happening… Well, it won't happen."
"That," said Lois, "is what they said about the Titanic sinking. Remind me never to buy real estate in this neighbourhood!"
Clark was relieved to note that Dr Klein didn't take offence at Lois's implied criticism. It wasn't that he actually disagreed with her concerns. Rather it was that he wanted a favour, and he didn't want Lois's words to jeopardise his chances of Dr Klein's co-operation. "And would you be prepared to keep the meteorite here? At least until I can think of something more permanent to do with it?"
Dr Klein nodded. "It would be my pleasure, Superman. Rest assured: it'll be perfectly safe with us."
"Thank you," he said.
"I'm sorry," said Lois softly as they stepped out of the STAR Labs building onto the forecourt. "It hardly seems fair, does it?"
"Hm?" said Clark. "What did you say Lois?"
"I said, it hardly seems fair. You've found out so little about Krypton. We lost the ship, and now you've found this… this meteorite thing, which almost certainly came from the same place you did, and we find it can kill you. The only piece of home you've found, and it's poison."
"I have the globe," Clark reminded her.
"Okay," conceded Lois. "But besides the globe."
Clark sighed. "Well, it's certainly… ironic," he said. Then, letting a fragment of his pain show through, he said, "No, you're right. It doesn't seem fair." He shifted the conversation fractionally, moving it onto more neutral ground. "So, what are we going to tell people?"
Lois frowned. "Tell people?"
"Yeah. I mean, this is news, right?"
She stared at him, astonishment and exasperation warring on her face. "You," she said, "are amazing!"
"Yeah. And before you ask, no, that's not a compliment. Do you remember, right back when all this started, you came to my apartment practically begging that nothing of a personal nature about you got into the paper?"
"Then how… why… can you possibly want this made public?"
"Put like that," Clark said, "it does sound rather stupid."
Lois crossed her arms and stared at him with a look that left him in no doubt that she agreed with that assessment of things.
"But," Clark continued, "the rock exists. People know that."
"That's true," said Lois. "But they don't need to know anything more than that. No-one knows we have it, and I'm pretty certain Dr Klein won't mention it, so…"
"All right," said Clark. "Say that I like the way you're thinking… What do we tell Perry?"
"I say," said Lois, drawing out the syllables slowly as she thought, "that we tell him the truth."
"The truth?" queried Clark.
"Yeah. We tell him that Dr Klein's test results didn't make any sense, which they didn't. The mystery stays intact, and there's no real story to write."
Clark nodded. "Sounds good to me."
"Yeah. It's a pity, though," she said.
"Why?" he asked.
"I'd have liked to have given it a name," she said. "It sounds stupid just to call it 'the rock' or 'the meteorite'."
"There's nothing to stop you naming it, you know," suggested Clark. "Not if you really want to."
"Okay," said Lois brightening. Her brow furrowed as she said, "How about, I don't know, kryptonium? After all, Dr Klein said it might have come from Krypton."
"Wait a minute," said Clark. "It's a meteorite, right? So how about kryptonite?"
Lois rolled her eyes at Clark's suggested correction, but she had to admit that it had a nice ring to it. "All right," she said. "Kryptonite."
As soon as they had ended their discussion about the kryptonite, Clark had cocked his head to one side, apologised and taken off in response to the sound of sirens to the east of the city, leaving Lois to make her own way back to the Planet.
She and Clark still had not had their talk, but she was beginning to wonder whether it wasn't now more of a formality than a necessity. While she knew that they still needed to clear the air, once and for all in order to clarify how things stood between them, it was increasingly obvious that Clark was easy in her company, just as she was in his. Somehow, just by being together, they had managed to rediscover the camaraderie they had shared before.
It was strange, she thought, how easily that had happened. The process had occurred of its own volition, without deliberate action being taken on either side. Perhaps it was part and parcel of the process that had drawn them together in the first place, part of the reason why, despite all her efforts to the contrary, she had been unable to resist her attraction to Clark Kent.
She smiled to herself. Before Clark, she would have scoffed at the idea that anyone could be irresistible. Now, though, she decided that the idea wasn't so ridiculous after all. If he had been anyone else, she didn't think that she would have let go of her anger at having her faith in him so cavalierly shaken. But then, if he had been anyone else, she wouldn't have placed such a great degree of faith in him in the first place. Nor would she have felt so angry at herself for letting him down.
She had clung to her anger at her own actions, reflecting it back at him, punishing him for what she saw as being her own mistakes and for all the mistakes she thought she'd make in the future, not just in terms of betraying his secret, but in terms of conducting a relationship more generally. She had shut herself off from his advances, rebuilding the prickly armour she had worn when they had first met.
He should, she thought, have been angry with her at the way she had deliberately steeled herself against his earlier overtures at reconciliation. But he wasn't.
He should think her unworthy of his trust, but he didn't. The way he had relied on her, letting her take the lead in looking after his interests while he was in the hospital, the way he had, yes, *trusted* her, suggested to her that he no longer doubted her ability to safeguard his secret. Nor did he doubt her ability to make reasoned decisions for both of them. He had stopped fearing the consequences of her actions. Once again, his actions spoke louder than words ever could. He trusted her, and that trust gave her the strength to think that maybe, just maybe, she ought to trust herself, too.
With that barrier cast aside, there only remained three issues to be resolved. First, there remained the fact that he had broken up their partnership without consulting her; he had to see that that lack of discussion was wrong. That was, she admitted to herself, merely a matter of pride on her part; she'd accepted a long time ago his reasons for doing it, and had, as a result, forgiven him almost immediately afterwards. It had been herself she could not forgive.
Second, since he obviously now *did* trust her, would he rethink the decision that he had made? She hoped so, but even if he didn't, she knew that she would abide by his decision. She would not allow it to drive them apart again.
Third, and most important of all, where were they going to go from here, not on a professional level, but on a purely personal one?
Clark, having returned from his rescue — a warehouse fire — and having written up the story, sat at his desk, his chin cupped in his hand, and watched Lois as she tidied her desk, carried her mug over to the sink to wash it up, and began to assemble her belongings.
He'd been so wrong about her, he thought. For too long he had only allowed himself to see the dangers inherent in her habit of acting first and only thinking about the ramifications of her decisions later. He had never allowed himself to consider the possibility that her instincts were generally the correct ones; no matter that she relied overly much on intuition and hunches, they seemed to work in her favour. In the last couple of days they had worked in his favour, too.
If he hadn't already seen that he had been wrong-headed in the way he had been treating her, he knew that her recent behaviour would have forced him to re-evaluate his attitudes. If he had ever doubted her — and to his shame, he had to admit that he had — he no longer entertained those doubts. After these most recent events, he knew that working with Lois was most unlikely ever to endanger him. She was more likely to safeguard him than to put him in jeopardy.
He loved her. He'd admitted that weeks ago, if only to himself. Even during the time that they hadn't been talking to one another, he had still felt the strange attraction that bound him to her. After a day and a half spent in close proximity to her, that feeling was magnified a hundred-fold.
But he realised that it wasn't enough to simply love her; he needed to work out *how* to love her. He needed to learn how to make decisions with her, and not for her. He needed to learn how to conduct a relationship between equal partners, one in which they could work together, and not in conflict.
He knew beyond a shadow a doubt that these were lessons that he wanted to learn. The question was, would she allow him the privilege of doing so? He thought so, but the only way he could find that out was to talk to her. He had put off the conversation for long enough.
He watched as Lois shrugged into her coat, getting ready to leave for the day. He stood, picked up his jacket, and walked over to her. She was slinging her bag over her shoulder when he asked, "Can I walk you home?"
Lois and Clark walked back to her apartment at a leisurely pace. "I'm sorry," said Clark. "I've been stupid." He shook his head.
*So,* she thought, *this is it… Here comes the talk we've managed to avoid for the last twenty four hours.* Now that the moment had arrived, though, the prospect suddenly didn't seem quite so dreadful anymore. Maybe they hadn't *said* anything yet, but the events of the last forty eight hours had brought them close once again. The rift between them was already almost closed; this, she hoped, would simply complete the process.
She stopped, causing Clark to halt beside her and turn to look at her face. She watched him silently, and, so far as the word could ever be used in respect of Lois Lane, she was watching him patiently, too.
"I never really told you why I became Superman, did I?" he said.
"No," agreed Lois. "But I think I can guess. You wanted to help. But you didn't want people to know about who you really are. And, after everything that's happened recently, I can't say that I blame you."
"You're right," he said. "That's pretty much it. I wanted a normal life. I couldn't have that if the world knew that it was Clark Kent putting out fires, rescuing cats from trees, or stopping bank robbers."
Lois nodded. Knowing Clark as she now did, she thought she could understand that about him, although she could see that nothing in his life had ever really been normal. But then, she guessed, when he said normal he didn't mean average. What he wanted, his parents notwithstanding, was stability and security. A home of his own. A place to put down roots.
"But," he was saying, dragging her thoughts back to the conversation, "deciding to become Superman was only the beginning. What I didn't realise at the time was that there is a world of difference between becoming Superman and being him."
"Clark?" asked Lois, telling him in that single syllable that she needed a better explanation than the one he had offered.
"What I'm trying to say," Clark said, "is that I'm still figuring out how to be Superman."
"You told me that once before. And I'll tell you what I told you then, too; you're doing a good job, Clark," she said.
He shook his head, a gentle denial. "Perhaps," he said. "Most of the time, anyway. But I've also made mistakes. I said I might. But what I didn't expect was that most of those mistakes would be to do with the way I've treated you. I've been arrogant. And I'm sorry. And…"
Without thinking she took his left hand in her right and laced her fingers through his, giving him silent encouragement. He glanced at her, evidently surprised by her action, but he didn't pull away; she had a feeling that he rather liked it. "And?" she asked.
In a rush, he said, "And I was wrong to tell Perry that I didn't want to work with you."
Lois didn't answer; she just looked at him doubtfully.
"I've learned an awful lot since I came to Metropolis," he said.
"Yeah?" prompted Lois, uncertain where he was going to take the conversation.
"Mm. I've learned a little about my roots. I've learned that I'm not as invulnerable as I thought; I have limits." He chuckled self- deprecatingly. "I guess that was a good lesson in humility. I've learned how it feels to be sick.
"I've also learned that… I have an awful lot left to learn. About relationships, and how to get them right. About myself. And about you.
"But Lois, there is one thing above all that I've learned. That is, whatever happens in the future, I want you there, with me. I know that I was wrong, about a lot of things. I know that I've treated you really badly. I said I wasn't blaming you for what happened that day in the hangar, but I know now that-"
"Clark, wait. You weren't-"
"No, Lois. Listen to me. I heard what you said in the cell. I heard you say that you were sorry about that day in the park, and that I'd been right. But I wasn't! I can see that now. And you've got to see that, too."
"Lois," said Clark, and his voice was thick with sincerity, "It took me a long time to understand this, but, if I hadn't had to choose between you and Trask — if you'd both been within reach, I would have saved you both.
"That night, in my apartment, what was tearing me apart wasn't that I'd been exposed. It was that I'd let Trask die. Do you understand?"
"I…" Lois floundered, unsure what it was that Clark was trying to tell her.
"It was only afterwards — after we'd written the story — that I began to worry about keeping the secret, and I thought, because you'd done something foolhardy, that was why I'd revealed myself to Trask."
"But that *was* why-"
"No, Lois." Clark placed his hands lightly on her shoulders. "Look at me. Listen. It wasn't your fault because I would have revealed myself to Trask anyway, if it would have saved a life. Any life. And I would do it again, whether you were there or not."
"But I was stupid and reckless and…"
Clark could see that, having convinced herself of the rightness of his decision, Lois was having a hard time letting go of that acceptance. "Yes," he admitted. "You were. But what about me, yesterday? You warned me to stay away from the warehouse, but I went straight in anyhow. Some people might call that reckless and stupid, too."
"You only did it because I was there. You were trying to save me."
"And Perry ended up having to save us both."
"True," said Lois. "At least you'd had the sense to come up with a back-up plan."
"Yeah," he said, momentarily sounding smug. "That was rather good, wasn't it?"
"Oh, you!" she said, suddenly laughing.
More seriously, Clark said, "Who was it who managed to smuggle me out of the hospital? And whose idea was it to give the kryptonite to someone we could trust? Who found a good excuse for getting it out of the office before I got back to work? You know, at the rate we're going, you're going to end up saving me at least as often as I save you."
"You're not actually keeping score, are you?" she asked, sounding shocked.
"No, of course not! Lois, I think… No. I *know* I love you. And mistakes and misunderstandings aside, I can't think of a single reason why we shouldn't be together unless…"
Lois suddenly found herself remembering the conversation they'd had the last time they'd worked late at the Planet. "Don't laugh, Lois," Clark had said, "but I want permanence. When I find someone I want to be with, it will be because I love her. I want it to be… forever." She hadn't laughed; she'd cried instead as he'd touched a nerve, expressing a desire for something that she had not believed in. And now? she wondered. What did she believe in now? Perhaps, she decided, it didn't matter what she believed. Clark believed in forever, and, more than that, whether he'd intended it to or not, his declaration showed that he wanted to spend that forever with her. And, she discovered, she wanted it, too. Her past history made her cautious; it would take her a while longer before she could willingly accept that dreams really could come true. Meanwhile, his belief would be enough for both of them.
"Unless?" she asked gently.
"Unless you can. Think of a reason, I mean. I've been an idiot. I admit it. And if you can forgive me, I… But I'll understand if you can't."
"Oh, Clark…" Lois was smiling now, a rare open smile with no hint of irony or cynicism to it. This was the real woman he was seeing, not a hardened caricature designed to intimidate the world. "We've *both* been idiots. Let's face it. Neither of us has much experience with relationships."
"You're better at it than you think, Lois. You went out of your way to help me. And you phoned my folks. That was certainly thoughtful."
"All true," agreed Lois. "But neither of us thought to talk out our problems with the other. Or, at least, when you eventually tried, I wouldn't listen. It took you almost dying to knock some sense into this thick head of mine."
Suddenly, somehow, they were looking into each other's eyes and their words ceased to matter. Nothing existed in the world except the matching pools of brown. Lois felt the now familiar pull of attraction, and found herself lifting her free hand to touch his cheek.
He leaned in to her caress, then, somehow, they were moving closer together, their heads twisting as they moved in the natural ballet of love. Their lips met. She moved to her wrap her arm around his neck, pulling him towards her. Then she felt him shift in her embrace, and his arms moved around her.
Their mouths separated, but neither of them felt any desire to relinquish their hold on the other, or to have the other relinquish their hold on them. They laid their chins on each other's shoulders and, in a duet, sighed contentedly.
She laughed silently to herself. Either the silence echoed in his super ears, or he felt the rumbling of her chest against his because he said, "What's so funny?"
"Oh, nothing." She could hear the smile in her voice, and knew that he must have done so, too. "I was just wondering why we've been fighting this so hard."
"Pardon?" he asked.
"Ever since Perry introduced us, we've both felt an attraction, but… I wouldn't admit it, and then you… These last few weeks… I've been so miserable. Just think of all the time we've wasted!"
"I've been miserable, too," he admitted. "And it wasn't until yesterday that I knew you were feeling at least a little of the way I did. I thought you were still mad at me."
"I stopped being mad a long time ago, Clark. I was hurt. And embarrassed."
"And now? Are you still hurt?"
"No," she said, realising that it was true. "Not anymore."
"No, not that, either."
Through some tacit agreement, they stood up. They caught hold of one another's hands again, allowing that contact to keep alive the flames fanned by their earlier embrace, and in companionable silence they strolled on to Lois's apartment. As they reached the door, she said, "Do you want to come up? At least for a little while?"
She was delighted when he said yes.
They still had a lot to learn, about his past, about themselves, about friendship, partnership and love, but at least now they knew that they would learn it all together.
Lois could feel the warmth of Clark's body against her back and his soft breath against her left ear as he leaned over her shoulder to read her screen. Only a few days earlier she would have been made uneasy by his closeness, but now she smiled to herself as she was reminded of the accord they had reached the previous night. They had sorted things out at last.
"That should read 'a spokesperson for the Metropolis PD'," said Clark, pointing at a phrase on the monitor.
"Would you mind not editing my copy?" she said, but her tone was tolerant, more amused than angry.
"Our copy," corrected Clark lightly.
"Our copy," she agreed.
"The Metropolis PD is not a person-"
Lois lifted her arms in mock surrender. "Okay, okay," she said. "A spokesperson." She tapped at the keyboard, looked pointedly at him, and said, "Happy now?"
Deliberately misinterpreting her meaning, he looked at her fondly, his lips twitching, and said, "Very."
At that moment, their conversation was interrupted by someone saying, "Ms Lane?"
Lois and Clark turned around as one. "Professor Meekle!" exclaimed Lois. "And… General Newcomb! You know each other? Yes, of course you do. I saw a photo." Lois shook her head, determinedly leaving babble-mode behind. She rapidly introduced Clark to the professor, whom he hadn't met before, then asked, "What can we do for you gentlemen?"
"Rather," said Meekle, "ask what we can do for you." He puffed his chest out and looked very pleased with himself.
"All right," said Lois, deciding to humour him, "what can you do for us?"
Newcomb's self-satisfaction was more muted than Meekle's but was there, nonetheless. "It's about a certain rock. One about which the news reports have been rather vague, Ms Lane," said Newcomb.
"You know something about it?" Lois asked eagerly.
Newcomb nodded. "Reg, here, has fewer contacts in the Bureau than I do, so after you visited him the other day, he came to see me. It took a little time, but I eventually managed to get some information."
"So, what can you tell us?"
"Not, I'm afraid, a huge amount," replied Newcomb. "However, my sources tell me that it was found on the farm of one Wayne Irig, resident of Smallville, Kansas. Not far away, as it happens, from the site where a tiny spacecraft bearing a version of Superman's shield was found back in the 1960s."
"So… What? You think the two are connected somehow?" Lois asked. Without thinking, she found herself reaching for Clark's hand, knowing how much the information would mean to him.
Meekle's shrug was more of a wriggle. "Seems likely," he said.
"How did Bureau 39 get their hands on it?" she asked.
"It seems that this Irig sent a sample to the labs in Wichita for analysis. The Bureau picked it up from there," said Newcomb.
"Does the lab or the Bureau have any more of it?" she asked.
"I don't think so," said Newcomb. "And no-one seems to know what's happened to the piece that they *did* have."
Lois did her best to look innocent and was relieved when neither of her visitors asked her if she happened to know where it was now.
Meekle said, "I guess we just have to hope that there isn't anymore of that stuff out there, eh?"
Lois suddenly felt a flash of alarm. "You don't think that's likely, do you?" she asked.
"Hard to say. But I wouldn't want to be in Irig's shoes when the Bureau decides to follow up that particular lead," said Newcomb. "Still, that's not likely for a few days at least. Thanks to all those arrests, the agency is in utter chaos."
Then, making sure that she'd got the message, Meekle said, "Plenty of time for you to warn him, don't you think, Ms Lane?"
She nodded faintly, making a mental note to ask Clark about the man who must be some sort of neighbour to his parents.
Just as the two men moved to leave, Newcomb put his hand into his breast pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. Holding it out to Lois, he said, "This is for you." Lois reached to take it, but Newcomb pulled it away while he continued to speak. "Maybe it'll help make up for what happened the last time I gave you information."
Lois didn't reply, but Newcomb must have read her expression as a question because he elaborated, saying, "I know what you must have thought. You must have wondered if I'd set you up deliberately, sending you in the direction of that airforce base and into Trask's trap." He shook his head. "I assure you that I didn't, and," he held out the paper again, this time allowing Lois to take it, "maybe this will go some way to convince you of my good intentions."
"What is it?" Lois asked.
"An address," he answered. "Go there, and I think you'll find what you were looking for."
"You mean…" Lois couldn't bring herself to finish the sentence.
Meekle finished it for her, nodding his head enthusiastically and rubbing his hands with glee. "UFOs, Ms Lane! UFOs!"
Somewhat faintly, Lois said, "Thank you. Both of you. Very much!"
"You're welcome," they said, and drifted off together towards the elevator, debating which bar they should visit on their way home.
Lois smiled, reflecting that Meekle really had come out of his shell since Trask had died. Then she looked at the paper once more, and her smile expanded into a grin.
She turned to face Clark, and the joy on his face mirrored her own.
In that instant she knew that they would go and find the ship. Together they would finish what she'd started.