By Crystal Wimmer <JCWimmer@aol.com>
Submitted: July 2001
Summary: The author's alternate take on "Stop the Presses," with the characters as she would have written them in the episode.
I'll be honest with you, FoLCs… I never liked Stop the Presses. To me, Clark's jealousy and lack of support were entirely out of character. With that in mind, I decided to try this using the Clark I know and love, rather than the one imposed by this episode. Yes, Clark does have a history of being a bit childish, but I think he'd be a little more understanding in this particular situation. So, if he were — if he made the choice to be supportive, rather than critical — how might the episode have been changed?
The first part of this will look awfully familiar… I've taken it almost directly from the script, with a few interpretations thrown in. Bear with me, though… I have modified quite a lot as the story progresses.
Lois and Clark left the elevator briskly. She shifted a cup of coffee to her opposite hand and glanced at her husband as they continued their conversation. "Well, who was the last person to see Eric Press before he disappeared?"
Clark glanced down at the notes in his hand before answering. "His parents," he told her. "Sunday night."
Lois allowed the information to blend with what she already knew about the case. "That eliminates kidnapping," she thought aloud. "They would've gotten a ransom demand by now." She considered a moment more before asking, "The police don't have any leads?"
Clark shook his head. "No. Something tells me computer hackers aren't exactly a high priority for them."
Lois shook her head in aggravation. She knew that the Metropolis Police Department was overworked, but that didn't excuse some of the prioritization that they had been using since their staff became so low. Every person had value, and they deserved to be searched for regardless of city budget restraints.
She saw Jimmy stepping down into the bullpen, and called out quickly. "Jimmy, hang on!"
Glancing over his shoulder, the made an immediate about face and tucked the material he was delivering under one arm as he approached the Kents.
"Jimmy, you're a cyber-guy. Ever hear of Eric Press?"
Jimmy's face immediately changed from one of inquiry to one of delight. He never minded talking about his computer interests. "Eric Press, are you kidding? He's like the Michael Jordan of Hackers. Last year, he tapped into the Pentagon's mainframe, pulled off the totally coolest prank! It was…" His voice paused as he took in the clear disapproval of his friends. "Childish," he finally continued. "Really immature. Frankly, I was appalled…"
Clark shook his head and focused his mind back on the matter at hand. "See, if you can break into the Pentagon's computer, he can break into anyone's."
"And that kind of access can be pretty valuable, especially in the wrong hands," she agreed.
Her thoughts were interrupted as Ralph slithered his way through the newsroom. Lois instinctively stepped a bit closer to her husband, still unable to forgive the man for his advances while Clark had been away, and uncomfortable with his presence.
"Hey, Ralph," Jimmy called out.
Lois resisted the urge to muzzle her friend. She couldn't blame him for being friendly, nor did she have any desire to explain to him why she couldn't stand one particularly slimy member of the Planet's reporting staff, but that didn't mean she wanted him near her.
"Hey, hear what happened?" Ralph said with a typical leer. Oh great, gossip. It was just what she needed to hear when she should be concentrating on a story.
"Perry got promoted," he continued, his expression suggestive.
"Get out!" Jimmy said with a smile.
"Swear to God," Ralph elaborated. "Corporate job. He's upstairs right now getting his stripes."
"You're kidding!" Lois added, at the moment allowing her excitement for her editor and mentor to overcome her abhorrence of the messenger. "When did all this happen?"
"This afternoon," Ralph answered, moving slightly closer to Lois. "Right after they let Old Man Rosen go. Circulation problems, apparently."
"Heart?" Jimmy asked with concern.
"No. Subscriptions. They're down eight percent," Ralph answered with more enjoyment than he had a right to. Ralph did love his gossip. Lois cringed again.
"Hey, well good for Perry," Clark interrupted. Lois marveled at how good he was at steering conversation away from the inappropriate. "He really deserves it."
"Yeah, but who's going to replace him?" she asked with concern. "He's the best editor there is."
"Scuttlebutt is, it's gonna be one of you two," Ralph put in, his voice vaguely conspiratorial.
"One of… us?" Clark asked, doubt clear in his voice. Lois had to agree with his skepticism.
"Uh-huh," Ralph confirmed.
"But we're not even department heads," Lois wondered aloud. "How is that possible?"
"Believe me, I've been asking myself the same…" Ralph must have caught Lois' glare, because he seemed to change his mind about continuing that train of thought. "I mean, I think either one of you would make an excellent choice," he corrected. "Sure be interesting on the marriage, though."
"I'm gonna go see what I can find out about this," Jimmy muttered. Thankfully as he left Ralph followed, and Lois unconsciously relaxed her stance. She really hated that man.
Clark's voice stunned her back into the moment, and away from errant thoughts of locking Ralph in a closet only to leave him there to rot.
"Wow is right," she agreed. "What're we going to do?"
"Do about what?" her husband asked in confusion.
"About what Ralph said," she clarified. "What if one of us does get the job over the other? How are we going to handle it?"
Clark's expression clearly stated that he didn't see a problem. "Aren't we jumping the gun here? I mean, maybe they'll pick somebody else."
"Or maybe not," Lois thought aloud. She might not like Ralph, but he did have an unerring tendency to be in the right place at the right time for gossip. The man was worse than Cat Grant. "I just wouldn't want it to affect our relationship, that's all. We've been through enough."
"Hey," Clark interrupted, his expression soft. "Look, if it'll make you feel any better, I'll take myself out of the running right now. It's not that important to me…"
"No, no," Lois pleaded. "I wouldn't want you to do that, especially since you'd make such a great editor." She meant it. He had a head for details, and a mind that was able to organize things almost unconsciously. She could imagine him detailing schedules, managing deadlines, and keeping the Planet on top of the news community.
"Me?" Clark asked, his expression puzzled. "What about you? You're the one with all the Kerth awards. You deserve it."
Lois grinned at his praise, blushing a bit. She loved it when he pointed out her accomplishments. Hell, she loved it when anyone recognized the hard work and dedication she'd put into her career. He was right, she was very good at what she did. She grinned up at him and used made a mockery of modesty. "I don't know… what does deserve really mean? At his matching grin she sobered slightly. "Let's make a pact. No matter what, we're going to be okay. Okay?"
Clark looked down at her and she could see the love in his eyes, the understanding of her concerns, and the tolerance for her need to be reassured. "No matter what," he told her softly.
She smiled as his lips descended and met hers. For just a moment, she lost herself in the sensation of his kiss, the magic that was always there just for her. She shifted closer, feeling his arms surround her.
Abruptly, Clark's grip released as the elevator doors opened and Perry exited to the shouts and cheers of the City Room. Lois moved out of the circle of her husband's embrace to greet the man who she still felt was her father, regardless of who had participated in her creation. She tried to balance her joy for him with her own excitement of what his promotion might mean for her, along with her natural concerns regarding the changes that were already in motion. She wanted the editorial position. She really wanted it, and felt that she could do a terrific job. All she needed was the chance to prove it.
"Lois, Clark…" Perry called out, moving towards them with intent.
Clark stepped forward and grabbed Perry's hand in a firm handshake. "Hey, Perry, we just heard."
"We're so happy for you," Lois added, moving in to hug her mentor. He'd given her every chance in this business, and made her career a possibility. He'd also given her faith in the male of the species, even when she'd doubted that she'd ever find anyone for herself.
Perry returned her hug, his grip enthusiastic. "Thanks," he said. "I uh… everything's happening so fast! My head's spinning like an old forty-five."
Jimmy laughed at the expression. "I'll bet!" Lois had to wonder if the younger man even knew what a forty-five was. After all, he'd grown up in the age of cassettes and compact disks. He leaned forward just then and added mischievously, "What's a forty-five?"
"Very funny," Perry said with a grin. "Look, I've got to get back upstairs. Still trying to figure out what the hell my new job is." The comment was met by laughter, and then he continued. "But we gotta keep the presses running, and you all need an editor to do that. Now, this is just temporary, mind you, until we all have a chance to sit down and make sense of things."
Lois and Clark exchanged anxious looks as their former editor continued. "That said, it was a difficult decision to make… one of the most difficult I've ever had to make, actually. So, anyway, without further ado, the new Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Planet is…"
Lois held her breath as Perry spoke. Yes, she had more experience at the Planet, but Clark's experience had been editorial, albeit as an editor of the Smallville Press. As Perry's attention focused on her, she became so excited that she almost hyperventilated.
"Lois," Perry concluded, his smile both proud and happy.
"Yes!" Lois called out, before realizing how that attitude could be misconstrued. I mean, wow," she corrected. She spared a glance at her husband, who was both applauding with the rest of the newsroom and smiling at her with approval. She could do this, she decided. She could really do this.
Clark followed his wife, who was following Perry, into the Editor's office. The former editor was talking a mile a minute, briefing Lois on the essentials of the job. Clark couldn't help but be amused at the expression on Lois' face. She really hadn't had any idea of what she was getting into. He had known, however, both the demands on the job and that he couldn't have possibly managed it and still accomplished his "second" job. It had been one of the reasons he'd offered to decline even the consideration of promotion, second only to his wife's legendary competitive nature. She wanted it more than he did, therefore she should have it.
Perry grabbed a half-filled box and began to toss in a few items from his desk. His personal phone book, day planner, and several items of Elvis memorabilia disappeared into the cardboard confines.
"Printing'll tell you they need copy by eight to make deadline," Perry was saying, "but don't be afraid to switch out your lead up 'til ten-fifteen if you have to…"
"Right," Lois mumbled, adding this instruction to the growing list in her notebook.
"And don't let the sales people bully you around, either," Perry told her firmly. "Remind 'em we're a newspaper, not a bus bench. Ditto for Classifieds…"
"Okay," Lois agreed, making another note.
"Oh, and watch your overtime sheets," he added. "Especially with the Art Departments, or the bean counters'll swallow you up faster than the King could down a T-bone."
"Got it," Lois said as she completed a note and then looked up. "I think."
"You're gonna be a terrific editor," Perry reassured her. "I know you will."
Lois smiled softly at the praise. "I'd better," she said softly. "I've learned from the best."
They looked at one another for a moment, and Clark fought the urge to leave the room and give them some privacy. He knew how much Perry meant to his wife, the role he'd played in her career and her life, and he knew this moment must be very special for both of them. Perry's expression was the same that his father's had been on the day Clark had graduated high school… pride flowing off him in waves.
He saw that Lois' eyes were looking damp, so he leaned in and placed her nameplate on the large desk, right next to Perry's. He knew she hated to cry, felt it was silly, and he could see that she was teetering on the edge of tears.
"Ta-da!" he said grandly.
Perry reached for his own nameplate and tossed it into the box. "I'll just get this out of the way."
Lois glanced around the office, and finally met her husband's eyes. She was positively glowing, but he could see the uncertainty there as well. He wished that she had the confidence in herself that he had always felt. She could face down an armed killer for a story, so she could easily do this.
"My wife," he said fondly. "The boss."
Lois grinned at that. "I can't believe this is really happening," she admitted.
"Listen," Perry interrupted. "Are you two going to be all right with this? I mean, I don't want to ruffle any feathers…"
"Don't worry," Lois assured him. "We've already talked about it. We're fine, really."
"Okay," Perry conceded, but he didn't sound certain. "You're sure?"
"Positive," Clark added. "Besides, I'm kinda looking forward to sleeping with the boss."
Perry grinned and reached down for the box. "All right, I'm outta here. C'mon Clark, let's let the lady get to work."
Clark flashed Lois an encouraging smile, and then followed Perry out of the office, closing the door behind them. He peeked back through the glass to see Lois standing alone by the desk, her excitement as obvious as her uncertainty. She eased herself down into the large leather chair, and he heard her take a deep breath and calm her racing heart. Just as she had leaned back and propped her feet up on the desk, Clark saw a group of bodies descend on her like a flock of seagulls to the ocean.
"Which story am I on?" "I thought I had column one?" "Can I take the afternoon off?" The voices seemed to blend into one another until even Clark's super-hearing couldn't distinguish them. Over the din, he heard Lois' heart rate increase, then heard her voice as she instructed them to slow down and she would answer them one at a time.
She was going to do fine, Clark realized. With a smile on his face, he turned to follow Perry's retreating form to the elevator.
"I'll be back and forth, picking up stuff, checking on Lois, you know. I'll be around," Perry told Clark as they stepped up to the closed elevator doors and the younger man reached for the button.
"Okay," Clark answered, sounding unconcerned.
"Listen Clark," Perry began carefully. "I want you to know that if I could've, I would've picked both Lois and you to run the deal, but the problem was, it's really just a one-person job."
"It's okay, Chief," Clark assured him. Still, Perry wasn't convinced.
"I mean, right down the line, you two were neck and neck in every category. It came down to who had more experience, that's the only way I could make my decision."
"Believe me," Clark said with a smile. "You've made the right choice."
Perry finally nodded, fairly sure he'd explained himself. Of course, he could have told Clark that he knew about his moonlighting in tights, or that he was afraid Superman wouldn't be able to give the dedication to the job that was absolutely necessary, but he didn't bring that up. Lois and Clark had both worked so hard to conceal their secret that he had no desire to spoil their illusion. He wouldn't mention it until the couple brought it up to him. Then, of course, he'd be more than willing to let them know how he'd figured it out long before.
"All right," Perry said, even as the elevator doors opened. He stepped into the small space, his box held firmly in his arms. He gave a last glance to the newsroom, his newsroom, and then looked back at Clark. "Hard to believe that after thirty years in the newsroom, I won't be hanging my hat here anymore."
Clark gave him an understanding look, and it was almost too understanding for his present nostalgia. He shifted his eyes down to his nameplate even as the doors were closing. It wasn't his anymore, he realized. He'd given it to Lois, and now it would be hers. Slowly, a smile curved his lips. He had trained her, so in a way it would remain his after all. He just hoped that he liked his new job as much as he'd loved the old one.
Clark stood before the elevator for a moment, wondering at the look that had been on Perry's face. The man loved his job, and Clark had to wonder if he realized that in taking the new one he would be leaving the old one.
His musings were interrupted as Jimmy came up behind him and spoke with some urgency. "Hey, C.K., you're okay, right? I mean, with Lois and everything?"
Clark swallowed a sigh, and spoke his thoughts aloud. "Why's everyone asking me that? Of course!"
"Good," Jimmy said swiftly, "'Cause I need your help. See that girl by the vending machines?"
Clark took a moment to refocus his attention. Apparently, Jimmy's agitation hadn't been regarding Lois' new position after all. He followed Jimmy's glance, and took in the pretty young woman that the photographer was indicating.
Clark smiled at Darlene, one of the newer copy-girls at the Planet. She was young, and had a bright smile and beautiful eyes. She was waving sweetly at them. Jimmy returned her smile and wave, but he didn't look like his heart was in it.
"Darlene. She works in Research," Jimmy told him. "We went out once — I didn't want to go out twice — and now every time I turn around, there she is." He looked up at Clark with a seriously worried expression. "Ever see Fatal Attraction?"
Clark tried to suppress a grin, but wasn't entirely successful. Jimmy was a great friend, but he did have a tendency to think the world revolved around him. It was a common flaw of youth, and Clark knew that he would outgrow it, but it was still rather amusing. "C'mon, her?" he asked, the grin once more slipping through his efforts to take Jimmy seriously. "She looks so sweet."
"No," Jimmy said adamantly. "There's something seriously wrong with her. I got dead roses delivered to my place, okay? Do me a favor. Make it look like you're ordering me to do something. Maybe she'll give up and go away."
Clark was about to try once more to reassure Jimmy, but the shrill tone of a fire alarm invaded his hearing. Immediately he began to triangulate the position of the alarm by it's pitch and intensity, and his response to Jimmy was absent at best. "Uh, I gotta go. Sorry." Tugging at his tie, he didn't wait for a response as he headed for the stairwell.
Jimmy was left standing by himself next to the elevator. On a flash of inspiration he called out, "Yeah, yeah, okay. I'll get right on that for you, Mr. Kent." He forced another smile at Darlene, and then took off in the opposite direction.
Superman landed with more speed than grace in front of Star Labs. There were dozens of people running from the Advanced Strategies Labs, scrambling across the street heedless of the darkness around them. He couldn't blame them as he smelled the noxious smoke that was billowing from the open doorway. He grabbed one of the researchers as he ran past to ask what was going on.
"Superman," the man breathed, and then coughed once more. "Thank God!"
"What happened?" he asked briskly. The sooner he had his answers, the sooner he could handle the situation in an informed manner.
"Our computers have gone haywire!" the man said frantically. "They opened all the safety valves on the nitrogen tanks. People are still inside, Superman," the man pleaded. "It could blow any second."
In a blink, he decided the no nitrogen meant no cooling, and the researcher was indeed right about the ramifications of the situation. In a blur, he moved towards the building. The world seemed to slow around him as he located two semi-conscious scientists in the smoke and moved instantly towards them. He slowed himself minutely so that he wouldn't snap their spines as he lifted them into his arms, and then he dashed for the most direct exit. On the second floor, the straight line didn't lead to the door, but rather a window. He took the direct path, deposited his charges carefully, and then headed back into the building to search for more survivors.
Ethan Press touched a couple of buttons on the computer and then glanced at the monitors before him. Superman's strengths and weaknesses were clearly delineated on the right side of the monitor, while the left contained an anatomical diagram that illustrated the findings.
At twenty-three, Ethan was one of the richest men in Metropolis. He liked to spend that money, too. He didn't mind paying for the best in technology. Yes, he enjoyed his money, and the wealth had done him good, as his plush surroundings indicated. From the outside, his lab appeared to be a standard motor home, but the inside was packed with comfortable furniture and state-of-the-art technology.
Ethan also liked to have a good time. Rather than working, or even supervising others as they worked, he chose to find solutions to what he felt were problems. That was what he was working on now. He glanced to his right, at the live video feed that showed him what was happening at Star Labs.
"Look at Superman. What a show off! I hate him," he muttered to himself, even as an evil smile crept over his face. "I wish I could blow him up. Oh… wait," he said gleefully. "I am going to blow him up. That's why we're here, right Eric?"
Over his left shoulder, Ethan grinned at his less-than-willing companion. Bound and gagged, Eric Press struggled against his bonds. Though only nineteen, the kid was a miracle when it came to computers, and that was exactly what he needed. Unfortunately, the kid couldn't be bought, so he'd been stolen instead. Even at that, Ethan didn't pay him very much attention, instead turning back to his monitor.
"All right, Blueboy," Ethan mumbled. "Let's see how invulnerable you really are!"
He moved his hand back to the keyboard and tapped a single key.
Superman felt the explosion before he saw the flash. His sensitive hearing picked up the high-pitched sound of glass hitting concrete, and his body absorbed the blast of heat that engulfed him. He spared a grateful thought that he'd already cleared out the survivors before going back in to try and remedy the situation with the nitrogen tanks.
He was stumbling by the time he reached the doorway, dark smoke surrounding him and making his enhanced vision a necessity. As he left the gutted building, he saw several bystanders that had been tossed to the ground by the explosion, and he hoped that none had been critically injured. Truth be told, he didn't really feel up to flying at the moment.
"Woah, are you okay?"
The man speaking to him was the researcher he had singled-out earlier that day.
"Yeah," he answered, feeling the sun restore his body's energy even as he stood there. "Good thing nobody else was in there, though."
The researcher nodded, and Superman took a moment more to regain his strength before walking towards the survivors to see if anyone had been hurt badly enough to require transport to the hospital.
Ethan watched the infrared depiction of Superman on the right side of his monitor. He frantically tried to enter information on the keyboard, but his mind was faster than his hands.
"I can't tell if the blast affected him," he muttered. He tried again, tapping more keys in rapid succession. "Man, I don't know how to work this stuff! You're the computer wiz," he accused. "You do it!" Ethan reached over and absently removed the gag from his prisoner's mouth.
"You kidnapped me, Ethan!" Eric shouted accusingly.
"So…? I'm your brother! You can't kidnap your brother!"
"I always used to tie you up when we were kids," Ethan reasoned. "What's the difference?"
"The difference is you're forcing me to help you kill Superman!" the younger boy argued.
"Need I remind you, little brother, that he silenced the single greatest voice who ever spoke, our childhood hero — Lex Luthor?
Eric sighed as he glanced at his insane brother. After years of making excuses, he just didn't have it in him any longer. Desperately, he tried reason. "Ethan, Lex died like a year ago. You're just getting around to this now?"
"It's taken that long to find Superman's Achilles Heel," Ethan explained. "The chink in his impenetrable armor. And now, thanks to you, we know what it is."
"Wait a minute!" Eric demanded. "I only hacked into STAR Labs' computer as a prank!"
"Nevertheless, you got Superman's confidential medical files and, with them, we know the key to his powers lies in his vast energy reserves." Ethan stumbled a moment, his effort to remember obvious. "How'd you put it? He's like one big battery, right?" Eric silently chastised himself for attempting to share any information with his brother. "Yeah," he admitted. "But…"
"So," Ethan continued with a grin, in his most reasonable tone. "All we have to do is figure out a way to drain that battery, and make him vulnerable." Ethan's voice trailed off, his words not directed at his brother, but taking on a sinister tone. "Then, after he's dead, we won't be remembered just some spoiled rich kids. We'll go down in history like Brutus, Booth, and Oswald before us. The names Ethan and Eric Press will live in infamy!"
Eric finally spoke his greatest fear aloud, realizing that it was indeed reality. "You're sick."
Ethan shrugged. "I take after Dad's side," he reasoned.
"You don't have a chance, Ethan. Even a blast that big hardly put a dent in Superman's bioelectric aura."
"Ah, so it did affect him," Ethan realized with glee.
"Barely," Eric admitted, once more trying to reason with his brother and distract him from what he knew as a particularly bad idea. "Look… It dipped for like a nanosecond. It's gonna take a radical force to really drain him. And, even then, you're gonna need an incredibly powerful weapon to take advantage of it before he rejuvenates."
The screen before them rewound under Eric's control and the bright red aura briefly turned blue. Eric froze the image at that point, showing how minute the change had been, and how impractical it would be to attempt to exploit it.
Ethan tossed his arm around his brother with a rare affection. "No problem," he decided. "You tapped into the Pentagon once, you can do it again."
Clark unlocked the front door to the townhouse and moved into the living room. Lois nearly ran over him, one arm into her coat, as she frantically moved towards the door.
"Where are you going?" Clark asked in confusion.
"I have to get down to the office," Lois explained. "Tomorrow's lead just fell through. Sorry about tonight…"
A flash passed through his mind of the date they'd planned. It was just dinner and a movie, his cooking and her choice of VCR tape, but he'd really been looking forward to it. "Oh, I understand," he said with a small smile.
Lois paused as she moved through the doorway and considered him for a moment. "You look a little pale," she stated. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I just got blown up, no big deal." The look of concern she gave him caused him to regret his sarcasm. She hadn't known, he realized. She couldn't have known. "I'm fine, really," he assured her. "Go."
Lois paused a moment more. "We'll talk more about it when I get back," she promised.
Lois gave him a quick kiss, and moved out the door. "Bye."
Clark stood there a moment, and then opened the door and rushed after her. When he touched her arm, she spun around in surprise. "You're not okay?" she asked, her voice nearly frantic. "I knew you looked so pale," she began, but he stopped her with a finger to her lips.
"I'm fine," he told her again. "In fact, I'll prove it to you. How about a lift to the Planet."
"No, Clark. You're tired. You got blown up," she said with a small smile. "You should rest."
"I will rest," he said with a grin. "With you. Let me go spin, and then I'll fly you to work. I have a dozen things I should have done before I left anyway. I'm only half way through my research on that nitrogen leak, and I could use the time to play catch-up."
"You're behind?" she asked skeptically.
"I was trying to get home to my wife," he admitted, placing a hand against her face, gently tracing her cheekbone with his thumb. "We had this hot date planned."
"I'm so sorry, Clark," she told him again.
"So make it up to me," he offered, his grin open and loving. "Let me take you to work."
Lois finally gave in, grinning. "I'd like that," she told him.
"Me too," he agreed.
Clark sighed as the elevator opened on the City Room, and stepped out. Thankfully, he ran almost immediately into Jimmy, the one person he wanted to see. "Jimmy, can you do something for me?"
The look on Jimmy's face was priceless, and if he'd been less distracted by his own story he might have pursued it. "Anything," the younger man said with relief in his voice. "Name it."
Clark followed Jimmy's gaze to Darlene and had to smile. The kid just didn't give up when it came to paranoia. He was reminded of the movie he'd watched the night before, the VCR procured from an upper floor and set up in Lois' office. "You think everything's a conspiracy, Hippy," the heroine had said. The reply had been point blank. "Everything is."
Dragging his attention back to the story, he focused back on Jimmy. "I need you to get a list of Eric Press' last outgoing calls from his modem line as soon as possible."
Jimmy's tone remained grateful. "Gladly."
Clark shook his head and he watched Jimmy walk away, casting a last nervous glance at him as he passed by the lovely little lady in question. Jimmy jumped as Darlene opened the manila envelope she was carrying, panic flitting over his features. Clark had to grin.
He had spent time working the night before, as he'd told Lois he needed to, but as the night began to drag he'd moved himself into Lois' office with a bag of microwave popcorn and a movie he'd snagged from the only rental place that was still open down the street. Lois had seemed annoyed for the first few minutes, but aside from answering questions and then waiting to answer more, she really wasn't able to do very much. Her answers were urgent, and she did have to be there, but having a video running didn't disrupt the situation very much. Eventually, she had pulled her chair up next to his and gratefully nibbled popcorn in between crises. It hadn't been the ideal date, but it had been better than nothing.
Clark stopped by his desk and saw the note on his day planner that there would be an early staff meeting that morning. Rather than waiting for Perry's ten o'clock time, she'd moved the meeting up to nine so that she'd have a little more time before the noon deadline that dictated the afternoon edition.
He tapped the note in an unconscious manner and checked his watch. It was half past nine, and he had plenty of time to fix them both a couple of coffee and steal a kiss or two before the meeting.
"Annie, how's that subway hijacking story coming?" Lois fired out.
"Fine," Annie answered quickly. "Snagged an interview with the suspect. I'm meeting him at three. Shouldn't have any trouble making deadline."
Lois nodded and made a note on her clipboard. "Okay, good."
Clark slipped into the room as quietly as possible, sharing a quick smile with his wife. Coffee had been sidetracked when sirens outside had begun screaming, but he was fairly sure that Lois would forgive him when she received his report of the fire and Superman's rescue efforts.
Easing back into his chair, Clark enjoyed the sight of his wife at her most intent. Pacing the front of the conference room, she was working the staff like a pro. He seriously wished that Perry could be here to see this. While the rest of the staff munched their breakfast, pastries and bagels that Lois had ordered from a local bakery, she was commanding the room.
"Harry, your Metro lead?"
Harry looked up at her to answer. "The O'Connor murder," he said swiftly. "Got a tip the wife's gonna confess. I oughta have a copy for you by six."
"Perfect," she replied with a small smile. Clark didn't think anyone else caught the mild uncertainty in her expression, but he certainly did. He knew her that well. She wanted so much to be a success in this job, and unfortunately that was as dependent on the staff as it was on her. While she could badger and harass with the best of them, Lois couldn't control the news of the day. Clark knew that lack of control was bothering her, and was glad to see that she was holding it well in check. He caught a look of doubt on her face as she continued, "Ralph?"
"I think we're talking column one," he bragged shamelessly. Somehow, Clark really didn't think so. The man couldn't find a story if it was handed to him on a silver platter, and his sources were worse than unreliable. "Everything I've got says the mayor's definitely having a affair with that call girl."
Lois all but rolled her eyes. "Sounds more like a tabloid page one to me, though."
"Agreed, except for Hizzonor's pillow talk apparently spills the beans on some major corruption. I'm just waiting for my source to confirm it."
Lois nodded, her expression both doubtful and surprised. "That's great, keep me posted." Clark was so busy admiring the way she'd tolerated Ralph's response that he nearly missed the question she directed at him.
"Oh, Clark… are you any further along on that missing hacker story?"
He was initially surprised that she questioned him. After all, she knew he'd worked on the research the night before. She'd watched him do it. Still, he supposed she couldn't single him out without taking flack from the rest of the staff.
"Further along…?" he questioned, not sure what answer she was looking for.
"I mean, do you have any new leads?"
Of course, he realized. She didn't know what had kept him away from the office earlier that morning. It was a legitimate question. "Uh, well, nothing concrete, but I think I'm getting close. The lab explosion looks like it was caused by somebody tapping into their computers. It could've been him."
Lois nodded eagerly. "Can you prove a connection?"
"Not yet," Clark admitted. "But I've got Jimmy following up on something that might."
"Okay, good… Um, could I talk to you outside? Just take a sec." Then, she turned to face the staff, "Be right back."
As they moved outside, Lois closed the door. Clark looked at her, confusion clear on his face and some irritation evident. She'd embarrassed him, and what was worse was that she wasn't making much sense. How could she treat him as she did everyone else and then single him out in the next breath? The staff was peering at them through the window, and he felt decidedly uncomfortable under her critical gaze. "Lois, what's going on?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, if I didn't know any better, I'd say you were trying to kill my story in there…" He looked at her a moment more, the guilty expression and the way she wouldn't meet his gaze. "Wait a minute, you are killing my story!"
"Clark, I'm sorry, but I don't have a choice. You don't know the pressure I'm under to generate good stories."
"Lois, listen to me. It takes time to build good stories. You know that better than anyone…"
He was interrupted as Carly stuck her head out the door. "Excuse me, Ms. Lane, but Copy Department's on line two-five."
"I'll be right there," she said swiftly.
Once Carly's face had disappeared behind the door, Clark resumed his point. "You thought there was a story there when we were working on it," he reminded her.
"That was when I only had one story to worry about, now I've got fifty!"
Carly's head popped out the door once again. Clark was really getting sick of her. "They said it's really important…"
"Let's talk about this later…" she said, dismissal clear in her voice. "In the meantime, I'm gonna team you up with Ralph on the mayor story, okay?"
"No," he answered honestly. When she began to follow Carly through the doorway, he reached out and took her arm, preventing her from moving. "I'll work with Ralph," he told her, "but I can easily do two things at once. Right now you're handling ten! I'll let you know if anything else comes up on it."
Lois looked as though she was going to argue, but Carly tugged her through the doorway before she had the chance. Maybe the girl wasn't so bad after all.
Just as Clark was beginning to feel a bit of relief in the situation, he glanced over and caught Ralph in his vision, waving at him. The sleazy reporter must have heard Clark's concession to work with him, and he was going to milk it. Great — just what he needed — a leech to keep an eye on him while he tried to juggle one more thing.
He and Lois were definitely going to have to talk.
Carly followed Lois into her office, a Planet day planner in one hand and a pencil in the other. "You've got an editorial at five," she said briskly. "The printer's union rep at five- thirty, and Phil needs you to approve an orthopedic chair for him."
"Orthopedic chair?" Lois asked, exasperated.
Carly just shook her head and grinned, then headed for the door. "Copy Department," she said once more over her shoulder.
Lois groaned and moved towards her desk. She was almost halfway there when Clark walked into her office. "Lois…"
"One sec," she called out. The look on his face was almost enough to make her reconsider: hurt, angry, and just a little sad. Still, she had a job to do, and the job had to come first.
She picked up the receiver and gave Clark a guilty smile. "Hello… I mean, Lane here." She stood there for a moment, listening to the ramble of the person on the line. God, she hated to be rushed. "No, I don't know what my lead is yet," she answered. "Better prep the subway story as backup, okay?" She listened a moment more, then thanked him and hung up. Perry was right, you had to keep on Copy all the time, or they would try to run over you.
Putting the phone down, she gazed past Clark's shoulder and wondered aloud, "Did I eat lunch?"
"Lois, you've got to slow down a little. Delegate. Trust me, you can only go at superspeed for so long."
Lois had to grin at that. If anyone knew it, that he did. "I know, I know," she muttered as she sat down to begin work on one more story that had landed on her desk while she'd been at her last meeting. "It's just that I want to do a good job, you know. I mean, Perry's put a lot of faith in me and I really don't want to blow it."
Clark eased around the desk and took her hand. "You won't blow it, honey," he told her softly. "It's not your style. As for lunch, I picked up a chicken salad sandwich when I went out, light mayonnaise. It's in the fridge with your name on it."
Lois gave a grateful smile, squeezing his hand in return. "Thanks," she told him softly.
"Part of my job," he answered, gently kissing her hand. "Along with babysitting Ralph and saving the world."
"I know he's green, Clark…" she began. How did she explain that she had no choice but to give him credence? She loathed the man, but if his sources — by some miracle — actually panned out, they would have one hell of a front page.
"He's a sleaze," Clark corrected. "And he can't be trusted. I know that, too. I'll keep an eye on him."
"Clark, you're the best reporter here. I can't afford not to have you on what might be our best story. Besides, Perry used to mix us up all the time and you never objected to him."
"He never paired me with Ralph," Clark reminded her, but there was enough humor in his voice that she knew he understood.
"I need your support," she said softly.
"You have it," he answered. "One hundred and ten percent, and you know it. But, I need yours too. I'll work with Ralph, but I can't drop the kidnapping story. There's something there, and I feel it. It won't interfere, but it's something I have to do."
Lois thought about arguing, but she knew he was right. If anyone could find the connection, it was Clark. She'd back him on this, even if she did it silently. She gave a nod, and she knew she'd made the right decision when his face softened and his eyes closed in relief. God, had she really been that bad?
"Hey, no currying favor with the boss lady," Ralph said, sticking his head through the open door. Why hadn't she thought to close it, lock it, and eat the key?
"What is it, Ralph?" she asked, irritation clear in her voice.
"Copy and Distribution are in the conference room," he said. "You wanted to meet with them?"
"Oh, right. Sorry, I forgot." She stood and began to walk around Clark to head to the conference room.
"Honey?" he asked softly. "Do you want me to take care of dinner?"
"I'll just eat that sandwich," she told him with a smile.
"Okay. I'll let my folks know you're working late."
"Oh, right," she wanted to hit herself in the head. How could she have forgotten? "No," she finally said. "I'll figure something out. I'll make it out of here." She gave Clark's arm a pat as she headed for the door, wondering how on earth she was going to get everything done in order to have dinner at a reasonable time."
She eased past Ralph, making sure that they made no contact, and then through the doorway. As she moved away she heard the grin in Ralph's voice as he said, "Put 'er there, partner."
She didn't have to turn around to know that Clark had taken the offered hand. Her husband really was super.
The Colonel clutched the gray metal briefcase close to his body, doing his best to conceal it. The dim lighting of the alley worked to his advantage. As he approached the partially obscured figure before him, he drew himself up to his full height. "You Press?" he asked.
"That's me," came the cocky reply.
As he approached, he saw that his "buyer" was little more than a teenager, blond and rather silly looking. He glanced around furtively to see if anyone was watching or if this might be a setup. God, the last thing he needed was to get caught. Granted, selling military secrets to the highest bidder might be considered treason, but it was better than watching his little girl go hungry. Besides, the military hadn't done jack- shit for him in years. They lost more benefits with every passing year, and a man had to provide for his family. He could die for his country, but he couldn't afford his house payment and still put food on the table. No, he didn't owe the government anything, least of all his loyalty.
"You're the one that contacted me?" he asked, skepticism clear in his voice. This kid was too young to be a terrorist, and far too clean cut.
"Actually, that was my brother," the kid answered. "He's the one with the high level… access."
The Colonel dismissed the man's explanations. He really didn't care. He just wanted this over and done so he could get the hell out of here. "Whatever," he snapped. "Just so we're clear; we're not having this conversation, this weapon doesn't exist, and I'm not really here."
The kid smiled. "I understand."
He knelt and released the catches on the case. Slowly, he removed the weapon and raised it for display. Similar to a bazooka in shape, the weapon was the most powerful in United States history. "What you're looking at is the most deadly weapon on Earth, the Quantum Disbander, a new and improved version of the Quantum Disruptor. It's lighter and more energy conscious than its predecessor, yet still more than capable of long-range target annihilation." The speech was practiced, given on multiple occasions to multiple funding groups and Military Approval committees. The kid looked suitably impressed. How in hell did that kid have enough money for this, brother or no?
The kid just stood there and smiled. "Cool."
"A lightning blast of supercharged particles blasts the selected target," he continued his speech, "Departiculizing its molecular structure until it… disappears. Forever."
The kid looked serious now, and stepped closer. "May I?" he asked.
The Colonel had his reservations about handing over the weapon to a kid that should be at a malt shop somewhere with his girl instead of sneaking around back alleys buying government secrets. Still, this is what he had come for. This was what would pay off the house and leave enough left over for Marie to go to college. This was what would take care of all those expenses he'd incurred when cancer had decimated his life, and taken away his wife.
"Mind if I ask what you're going to use it for?" he asked. Okay, so he was feeling guilty. He might not care for the government, but he had no desire to send a psycho out there to take out a school.
"Actually, I'm testing to see exactly how much force it requires to drain Superman's super reserves which would, according to my theory, render him vulnerable, which would then, in turn, create a brief window of opportunity for me to be able to kill him." The kid looked up at him, finished with his inspection of the weapon, and added, "And, from everything you've described, this weapon sounds like it'll do just the trick."
No, he thought. This was a psycho. He'd just handed the most powerful weapon on Earth to someone who wanted to kill the most genuinely good person in the world. He wanted to take it back. He wanted for this night never to have happened, for it all to be a horrible dream.
As he prepared to take a step forward to try and retrieve the weapon, he heard the kid's voice again. "Oops, I forgot. You're not really here."
He saw the energy beam come towards him. The ball of electricity it him, and systematically broke him apart into a billion bits, falling to the ground like fairy dust.
Oh God, Marie, I'm sorry.
He never saw the satisfied expression on Ethan Press's face, nor did he hear the awestruck words, "Totally cool!"
Clark was in the process of laying down place settings when Lois burst out of the kitchen with both hands full of steaming hot packaged entrees. She cut open one packet, and dumped it into a plate on the dining table. She had an apron over her business suit, and she looked as tense and rushed as she had the entire day.
"I can't believe how late I am," she muttered. "Think they'll realize it's frozen?" She glanced up at Clark, and he carefully schooled his features into neutrality. "Of course they will," she answered herself. "I cooked it."
"Hey, were you supposed to pick up the dry cleaning or was I?"
Lois looked up at him, her brown eyes huge and apologetic. "Oops."
He was saved from a reply when the doorbell buzzed. Before either of them could turn, the telephone began to ring. Lois looked at him, panic clear in her features. Well, he decided, this was one decision he could make for her. "You get the phone, I'll get the door."
Clark shook his head on the way to the door, trying desperately not to laugh. The last couple days had been entirely too hectic. As he opened the door, his parents looked up at him with smiles that he needed desperately.
"Hope we're not late," Jonathan said as he offered Clark a bottle of wine.
"No, you're fine. Come on in." His mother engulfed him in a much-needed hug, and he did his best not to cling. He missed them so much some days, and this had definitely been one of them. "Lois is on the phone," he explained.
Lois walked into the room with the cordless phone in one hand. His mother waved to her and smiled, and Lois did her best to return it. Poor Lois. She was so tired. As much as he knew he couldn't take the editorial position for her, he wished he could do something to lighten the load.
"We've got to get the Evening Edition out there somehow! Can't we rent a truck?"
His mother looked at him with a grin. "What, is she running the paper now?" she joked. Clark didn't really find the situation humorous anymore.
"Actually, yeah," he admitted, somewhat embarrassed that he hadn't called them to give them the news. "Temporarily, anyway. Perry got promoted. Lois is the new editor."
"That's great!" Jonathan exclaimed. Then, looking at Clark's expression and Lois' frazzled movements as she argued with the telephone, he asked, "Isn't it?"
"Oh, yeah," Clark answered, his voice carefully void of any judgment, any anger, and any joy. His voice, in fact, was completely empty.
Martha grinned over at Lois, and whispered a fervent, "Congratulations."
Lois smiled back, but her mind was clearly on the phone call. "Yes, fine," she was saying. "Just do it… Yes, you've got my approval. Bye."
She hung up the phone and crossed to the table where Clark had seated his parents for the meal. "Sorry, delivery truck broke down."
"We're so happy for you, Lois," Jonathan said, his voice genuinely congratulatory. Clark felt a moment of guilt that his feelings weren't so benevolent at the moment.
"Thanks," Lois said with a grin. "It's exciting. Let's eat!" Clark noted that her voice wasn't as excited as her words. In fact, her fatigue was becoming more prevalent than any other emotion. He hadn't noticed before she slowed herself down just how tired she looked.
Her eyes were puffy, and the circles under them were dark. Her hands had a fine tremor, and he wondered if she'd ever managed to eat the sandwich he'd bought her for lunch. Somehow, he didn't think so. Before he could ask her how she really was doing, the phone rang again. Lois dropped the spoon into the entr,e she'd just begun to serve and grimaced.
"Sorry," she said, her voice more tired than it had been before. "Just start…"
"Do you want me to get it?" he asked.
"Why bother," she said, and at least then her grin was real, if a bit frustrated. She crossed the room to pick up the receiver. "Lane here… I see, how long will it take…"
His observation of his wife was interrupted as his father spoke. "Look son, if this is a bad time we could…"
"No, no," Clark corrected. "It's just… it's a little… crazy, that's all."
Lois' yell cut across his words. "Forget it! It's not worth the overtime…" Clark felt a little bit sorry for the person on the receiving end of Lois' wrath — almost as sorry as he felt for himself.
"Well, that's to be expected," Martha said as she patted her son's arm. Moms always had the right words. "It's perfectly understandable."
"I told them no more calls. Martha?" She offered the dish of food, stroganoff Clark thought, to his mother.
"Mmm, this looks delicious," his mom exclaimed. Yeah, right. It looked like a mound of pasty brown goo, and that was an optimistic estimate of it's flavor. "Did you make it?"
Lois didn't get a chance to answer. The phone was ringing again. Lois avoided Clark's eyes as she stood and walked back to the phone. "I'd better get that," she said softly. Too softly.
"I guess it's your turn to watch her take off on a moment's notice, huh?" Jonathan joked. Clark wasn't smiling.
"It's going to take her awhile to figure things out, you know," she offered. Her hand found it's way to his arm, that famous "mom" comfort again, and he took a deep breath.
"I know, it's just that…"
He was interrupted as Lois hurried back and sat down at the table. She picked up her fork, exclaiming, "I'm back, let's eat!"
Just as things were calming down, and Clark discovered that the goo didn't taste nearly as bad as it looked, he heard the police call. Lowering his head, he began to rise from the table.
"What is it, son?" his father asked with concern.
"A bridge collapsed," he explained. "I'd better…"
"Of course," Martha said quickly. "Go!"
"I'm sorry," he said softly, loosening his tie and heading towards the glass doors at superspeed.
Lois looked up with a sheepish smile as the phone rang again. "Excuse me," she said again, and with a look of shame she crossed to the phone once more.
Martha looked over to her husband, and then down at the cooling food on her plate. With a genuinely amused grin she suggested, "let's eat."
Lois crossed the City Room to fill up her coffee cup. As she approached, she heard several of her friends laughing and joking. Looking for something to break up the monotony of her silent office, she stepped towards them. "Morning guys," she said brightly. "What's so funny?"
She was totally unprepared for their response. The laughter halted, guilty expressions appeared, and everyone had an excuse to be somewhere else.
"Nothing, Ms. Lane," Candy finally answered. As she moved to rejoin her friends, she added, "Just having some coffee."
Lois sighed, finding herself alone by the coffee pot. Was the joke about her, she wondered? She had never joked about Perry, but that was because she admired and respected him. Were they just afraid she was there to reprimand them? Perry had certainly done that enough, sending them all scrambling back to their desks with a roar of, "This is no way to run a newsroom!"
"Everyone's gonna look at you differently now that you're the boss, Lois," Perry said as he stepped up from behind her as though conjured from her thoughts. "Even though you're the same person you were yesterday.
She smiled faintly, and reached over for another Daily Planet mug, offering it to Perry.
"Don't mind if I do," he smiled.
Lois filled his cup, and then her own, before turning back to him. "Don't they have coffee upstairs?" she asked gently.
"Aw, all they've got is that fancy designer espresso junk," he told her. "Tastes like sludge." He took a sip of the coffee Lois had handed him and sighed in contentment. "Ahh, nothing like the taste of good ol' newsroom java."
Lois smiled and began walking towards Perry's office… her office… the office. God, would she ever get used to this?
"How's it going?" he asked her softly. "You doing okay?"
She started to lie — to give him her standard peppy response. Something stopped her. Maybe it was the genuine concern in his eyes, or just the familiarity of her old boss that she'd never lied to unless it was to get a story, and even then she'd apologized later.
"Let's just say I had no idea how much stuff you juggled every day," she said sheepishly. "You made it look so easy."
Perry shook his head in denial. "You didn't see me when I first started," he reminded her. "I was running around here like a roof rooster."
"Glad to hear that," Lois admitted sheepishly. If only she knew what a roof rooster was.
"Oh, hell yeah," Perry elaborated. "It's a ton of responsibility, you get squeezed from every angle, and it all rests on your shoulders." He looked at Lois pointedly. "That's the worst part. The job can be very isolating at times." He walked towards the office door, but paused before leaving. "Give yourself some time, Lois," he said softly. "You've got the brass to do this job. I wouldn't've picked you if you didn't."
Lois smiled as Perry left, grateful for his encouragement. He might never know how much she had needed it at precisely that moment. As he moved to close the door, she had an errant thought and called out to him.
"How're you doing with your new job?" she asked. "Do you like it?"
He shrugged, and gave her a look that she couldn't place. "It's nine to five, more money, less hours," he said. "What's not to like." He smiled again, but this time his heart didn't seem to be in it. "I, uh, better get back…"
Lois watched him go, concern written on her features. Perry didn't seem any happier than she was, and that surprised her. Promotions were supposed to be a good thing, weren't they? More money, more respect, and the potential to move up even further.
Shaking her head at the unpredictability of life in general, she glanced around the newsroom, surveying the reporters in the manner that Perry had always used. Inevitably, her eyes traveled to her own desk, and then to Clark's. He was standing there, facing off Ralph it appeared, and his eyes locked with hers for just a moment.
She hated teaming him with Ralph — knew that he hated it as well — but she had no other way to cover the potential story without having it sloppily done. Ralph couldn't handle a real story, and even if the story had credence he'd probably get them all sued by making something up. No, she'd had to put Clark with him, if for no other reason than the inscrutable ethics that her husband possessed.
His eyes met hers for a moment, but he didn't smile. He didn't frown either. Somehow, he just looked at her, and the only thing she saw in those beautiful chocolate eyes was pure longing. She must be tired, or in need of bifocals, she reasoned. Why on Earth would Clark be longing for anything?
"Here's what I got on the mayor," Ralph said as he plunked the box down in front of Clark. "Just to get you up to speed… Interview notes, corroborating witnesses, the works." He held out a bagel that was missing a few bites. "Want some?"
Clark's stomach rolled and he glared at the offending bread. "No thanks," he replied, using every bit of manners his parents had ever taught him to keep from stepping away from the repulsive reporter.
"Suit yourself," Ralph replied with a shrug. "Lemme know when you're caught up." He made a show of making himself comfortable on the edge of Lois' desk, settling in for the duration.
Clark had no intent to allow him to park himself for that long. A superspeed glance through the file revealed more inconsistencies than he could count, so he chose the most obvious one to point out.
"I notice some of the witnesses' testimonies seem to contradict each other," he said, making the comment sound casual rather than accusatory. Again, his mother's insistence on appropriate manners was coming into play.
Apparently Ralph's mother hadn't bothered with the same instruction. "Especially the interview with the call girl," he elaborated. "It almost reads like she's setting him up."
"Well, yeah," Ralph admitted. "But… you read that stuff already?"
"Speed reading classes," Clark improvised. "I thought you said you had incriminating photographs?"
Fate seemed to be smiling on Ralph as the phone on his desk began to ring. "That's probably my source now," Ralph said, the lie clear in his voice. "Uh, you better let me talk to him alone. You know, he trusts me. Just sit back, watch a real pro go to work here." He gave Clark a thumbs- up, and then spoke into the receiver. "Ralph here… Yeah, I've been waiting for your call. Whadya got…? Uh-huh… Uh- huh… Interesting…"
Clark didn't buy any of it. He concentrated a moment, hearing an agitated woman on the asking why he never called, and whether or not he knew what his father had done.
Disgusted, but not really surprised, Clark focused his hearing on another sound in the background. An alarm was blaring at the rocket test site, and he knew that was where he needed to be.
Reaching up to his tie, Clark headed for the elevator. Halfway there, Ralph's voice stopped him. "Just a second," he said into the phone. Then, to Clark, "Hey, where're you going?"
"I, uh — Left my wallet in the car. Be right back." He took two more steps and then he couldn't resist any longer. Calling back over his shoulder, he added, "Say 'hi' to your mom for me."
"Yeah, sure, oh…" Ralph broke off, probably wondering how Clark could have known. "… kay."
Jimmy stepped into Lois' office with a stack of printouts in his hand. She seemed to be buried in paperwork, but she spared a smile for him when he walked in.
"Lois, seen C.K. around?" he asked. "I've got the phone records he asked me for."
"Phone records?" she asked curiously.
"Yeah, you know, on the hacker story he's working on."
Lois jumped as Carly added another stack of paperwork to the mound already covering her desk. "I'd forgotten he was still working on that," she admitted. "Just leave it here and I'll give it to him when he comes in."
"You're the boss," Jimmy said with a grin, depositing the additional papers on an already teetering pile.
Superman landed amidst chaos. The high- security subsidiary of what had formerly been a part of LexCorp's Science and Avionics Division. The fire alarm was screeching, warning lights were flashing everywhere, and technicians were running from the horizontally mounted rocket engine in the center that was currently firing at full throttle.
Only two technicians had remained at the computer, trying desperately to override whatever had gone so horribly wrong. "Forget it," Clark heard one say to the other. "Let's get out of here!"
"What's wrong?" he called out urgently. It was enough to get the technicians' attention, even over the roar of the engine.
"We can't shut it down!" One man answered. "The computer's actually forcing the engine to overheat!"
Another computer fiasco, he thought frantically. This had to be related to the missing hacker. There were just too many incidences for this to be coincidence. Still, he had more urgent matters to deal with at this precise instant.
"Can you cut off the fuel supply?" he asked quickly, going over the most obvious solutions in his head.
"The only way is to fuse the internal pump," the technician called out. "Superman, we've got a nuclear warhead in the silo. If this thing explodes…"
"I understand," he yelled quickly. "Go!"
The technicians left in a blur of speed that rivaled Superman on a good day. He was far to busy to notice, however. He had more important things to deal with.
Ethan sat at before the monitor in his motor home, holding the Disbander before him as though it were a child. Truthfully, he was holding it with far more affection than a child, because he really didn't like children. They were loud, and they smelled bad, and they always tried to take away his things. Once Superman was out of the way, perhaps he would work on ridding the world of children as well.
"All right," he muttered to his brother, who he liked only little more than most children. "The moment it blows, we crash through the gate and zap him."
On the monitor, only Superman's legs were visible, pushing his body through the rocket blast.
"What's he doing?" Ethan wondered aloud. This man simply would not do the expected, and it was making him very, very testy.
He watched as Superman disappeared into the exhaust port and apparently did something. The rocket flame immediately shut off. As the alarms wound down, Ethan watched Superman step away from the rocket and turn instinctively towards the sun.
"How'd he do that?" Ethan asked his brother, shock evident on his face. "He wasn't supposed to be able to do that!"
Eric looked at the monitor and pointed out the bar graph on the monitor. "Yeah, but look how much it drained him."
As Ethan looked, he realized that the infrared depiction was indeed Showing where the graph had dipped into the red, while now it was glowing in an irritating blue. With a look of pure glee, Ethan moved swiftly to the wheel of the motor home. "All right," he declared triumphantly. "That's it!"
"Wait…" Eric cautioned.
Glancing back at the monitor, Ethan gasped as the bar graph quickly pulsated back up into the yellow range, and then into the green. "How is that possible?" he asked with irritation.
"The sun recharges him," Eric explained. "It's the source of his powers."
"So, wait," Ethan thought aloud. "If we drain his reserves and keep him out of the sun, that's our window of opportunity to kill him?"
Eric shook his head, realizing that this was more than a theoretical discussion. Ethan fully intended to kill Superman. "Stop saying we and us, Ethan. What am I doing?" he asked himself. Then, moving swiftly, "I'm outta here."
Before he made it to the door, he realized that Ethan had aimed the Disbander directly at him. He stopped, then turned to face his brother. "Come on… you wouldn't kill your own brother, would you?" he asked, his voice a long way from certain.
"No?" Ethan inquired. "Remember Sunday School? Cain and Abel?" He grinned evilly, and then told him, "I always liked Abel." He turned the weapon over, flipped the power switch, and then pointed it at Eric once more. "Sit down."
Eric wasted no time. He sat. "This sucks."
"Jimmy, how you doing on those phone records?" Clark asked as the younger man passed by him.
"Finished, C.K.," he called out, not slowing. "I left them in Lois' office."
Clark nodded and stood to go ask his wife about the records, and also to update her on his new findings. He didn't see Jimmy step into the elevator, or Darlene jam her arm in the elevator to reopen the doors and get in next to Jimmy. He didn't see Jimmy avoid the pretty girl's glance, or her hand going into a pocket as though she was reaching for a gun. He didn't see Jimmy's relief as Darlene pulled a lipstick from her pocket and ran it across smiling lips. Clark did not hear Jimmy when he softly whispered, "This is nuts."
Clark was busy trying to decide how Lois was going to take the news that Metropolis had almost been annihilated by a nuclear accident, compliments of whoever had been hacking into Metropolis' computers. His guess was Eric Press, but he didn't have any hard proof. It wasn't a story yet, but it was getting there, and getting there quickly. Now he just needed to put the pieces together before this prankster destroyed the city.
He found her admiring her first masthead. LOIS LANE, EDITOR-IN- CHIEF, it read, and he couldn't help but be distracted as he watched his wife's smile appear. He was proud of her, whatever the chaos that the job had wreaked on their lives. She deserved this.
"Got a minute, Lois?" he asked with a grin.
"Sure, yeah… Just checking typesetting." She tucked the incriminating paper into the drawer and faced him. "What can I do for you?"
He grinned once more. "Don't ask what you can't deliver," he joked, and was pleased to see a faint blush find its way to her cheeks. It wasn't much, but it was more prominent than the one he'd seen when she was admiring her own name.
"I'll deliver," she promised. "Maybe not right at the moment, but I'll deliver."
"I'll just bet," he agreed, this time flashing a full smile. He wasn't oblivious to what that smile did to her, and with the time they'd spent apart he wasn't above using any weapon at his disposal.
There was a reason he was here. "Seriously, I need to grab those phone numbers."
"Mmm," she mumbled, reaching behind her to the chair that had taken up residence in the back corner of the office. "I stuck them over here so they wouldn't get approved and returned before you saw them," she admitted. "I'm not sure if I'm coming or going."
"I know the feeling," he admitted. "Superman just kept a rocket from setting off a nuclear weapon. Getting that close to being blown up can throw off your whole day."
Lois looked around quickly to see if anyone was paying attention. Thankfully, everyone in the City Room seemed otherwise occupied. "Is Superman okay?" she asked urgently.
"A little dusty, but otherwise fine," he assured her. "It's noting he's not used to." Clark gave a soft laugh before adding, "It's amazing what a person can get used to."
Lois looked at the mounds of work surrounding her. "I certainly hope so," she said a bit desperately.
"I can imagine," he agreed. "Is it getting any easier?"
"Let's see," she said thoughtfully. "It started out as impossible and now it's down to highly unlikely. Do you think that's an improvement?"
"I think you're doing great," he told her, taking the files she offered.
"I didn't feel great at dinner last night," she admitted. "I'm sorry this job keeps following me home. Your parents must hate me."
"My parents love you," he assured her. "The same way I do." He reached back and closed the door to her office, then made his way around the desk to kneel in front of her.
"Lois," he began. "We knew this wouldn't be easy. We made a pact, remember? We're going to be okay. It's just going to take some time for us to get used to this."
She nodded, but she didn't look convinced. Clark reached forward and rested his forehead against hers for a moment, closing his eyes and just absorbing her presence. "God, I've missed you," he said softly. "Honey, if anyone knows about running out on your home life, it's me. You've put up with it for months. Okay, so now it's my turn. I'll deal with it."
"You don't mind?" she asked softly.
"Of course I mind," he told her, but the smile was back. "I miss my partner. Ralph's an idiot at the best of times, and a hazard the rest. I don't dare tell him anything about a real investigation for fear he'll botch it beyond saving. I'm back to making stupid excuses every time Superman's needed, and the man has taken over your desk." He glanced up at her, giving his most pained expression. "I look at the desk out of habit, and I see him, so yeah, I mind."
Lois giggled softly, a sweet sound from such a hardened professional. Clark loved that he could give her this, even when he only passed her occasionally at work.
"We'll be okay," she said softly. "We'll make it okay."
"Yeah, we will."
Carly chose that moment to pop her head into the office, closed door or not. "Lois, Distribution is still having a fit about that truck being out, and the guys upstairs don't want to approve a second rental without a written okay from you."
Lois sighed, and then looked up towards the heavens even as the door closed once more. "I couldn't manage without her," she said, referring to the ever-efficient secretary that structured her every breath. "But I really hate her."
"I know," Clark said with a grin. He placed a soft kiss on her lips, then a second one when she responded so sweetly to the first, and then he stood. "I need to get to work," he admitted. "This stuff just doesn't come together without that mind of yours."
Lois looked at the barrage of paperwork that was even now obscuring the entire top of her desk. "I really wish I could help," she told him, and he believed her. She preferred rapid thinking and dangerous stakeouts to paperwork any day of the week.
"Beware of paper cuts," he threw over his shoulder as he shut the door on his way out. Even without super hearing he could have recognized the sound of a book hitting the door two seconds after he closed it.
Clark reentered consciousness to the sound of a blaring alarm clock. With more restraint than he would have liked, he leaned over and shut off the device. In his younger years, he would have pulverized it, but since he'd been married he had found that mornings weren't as bad as had been when he slept alone.
Rolling over carefully, he moved to wrap his arm around his sleeping wife.
There was no one there.
He opened his eyes, focused on her side of the bed, and realized that she hadn't come to bed at all. Not only was her side of the bed empty, but the covers were still smooth and tucked in.
She hadn't come to bed.
Confusion warred with fear in his mind and heart. Was she okay? Had she gone back to the Planet? Had she ever made it home from the Planet? God, he never should have laid down without her! He had just been so tired, so worn from the encounters with explosions and renegade rockets, that he'd been unable to stay awake. Even Superman needed some rest, and he'd spent the previous night at the Planet, with Lois, and hadn't been able to recover. Yesterday had been worse, at least physically, and he'd actually needed the sleep. Still, Lois was his priority, and he should have made sure she was safe first!
As something at the back edges of his mind finally registered, he calmed himself down. A heartbeat. Her heartbeat. She was in the house. A quick scan with x-ray vision confirmed that she was downstairs, and her slow and regular pulse assured him that she was sleeping.
The backwash of fear was anger, or at the very least irritation. He grabbed his robe from the bathroom and was still tying it as he moved down the stairway, consciously forcing himself not to stomp. What had she been thinking? There was no reason on Earth for her to spend the night on the couch and leave him alone in their bed. Their marriage bed! Even on the nights that he was out saving the world, if he made it back to the house he came to bed. Even if it was only for a few minutes; even if it was only to let her know that he was okay.
As he rounded the turn in the stairway, he finally got a look at his sleeping wife. All anger, all worry, and most everything else immediately faded from his mind.
Lois was laying on the couch, sound asleep and nearly buried under half a dozen printouts. She was still sitting up, her head fallen back to rest on the back of the couch. She looked absolutely awful.
Clark walked towards her slowly, shaking his head in frustration. All she'd needed to do was ask for help. She didn't have to do this alone! He was here, there were dozens of capable employees at the Planet, and her job was more than one woman could ever hope to accomplish. Hell, Perry had been doing it for twenty years and still spent twelve hours a day to manage it! She couldn't keep this up.
Her face was relaxed in sleep, the frown and worry lines less evident. The circles under her eyes were still there though, so he didn't imagine she'd been asleep for long. He glanced over the printout in her hands — its timestamp just after two a.m. — and realized the she couldn't have been out for more than an hour or two by simple logistics.
It was a careful task to extricate the papers from her grip, and then to lift her into his arms without waking her, but once he had done that he sighed as she snuggled herself into the curve of his body and nuzzled her face into his neck.
"Oh Lois," he whispered. "What am I going to do with you?"
She didn't answer him, thankfully. She remained in a blissful sleep. Knowing that was the best thing for her, Clark hovered his way up to their room and settled her into his side of the bed. It was just because those covers were pulled back, he reasoned, not because he loved to watch her snuggle down deeply into his pillow and sigh in contentment. It wasn't because he wanted her to be where he had been, or even to help him resist the temptation to crawl back into the warm nest with her. It was just convenience, he assured himself.
Clark grabbed his toothbrush from their bathroom, then walked downstairs to the small half-bath to clean himself up. He didn't want to wake her with the shower.
Clark managed to get himself cleaned up in record time, and even though he would have loved a hot shower he didn't feel like he was missing out on much. Once he was out, he shrugged his robe on and moved into the kitchen. He used the blueberries that they'd bought for his parents' visit — the fruit salad had never come to pass — and made a very quick batch of blueberry pancakes. A glare at the pan brought it to the right temperature, and he was able to get breakfast done in a reasonable period of time.
When he had a plate filled with the steaming, fragrant pancakes, he grabbed the little plastic bear that held Lois' honey and set it next to the plate on the edge of the counter. He didn't have to leave a note there… if Lois knew anything, it was how to warm food in the microwave, despite her general lack of culinary skills.
It took him only a few more minutes to dress in his business suit and choose a tie, even though he moved at regular speed and with as much stealth as possible. Lois slept on, oblivious to his movement. When Clark was ready to leave, he carefully disconnected both telephones so that Lois wouldn't be awakened, and pulled the shade down to block out the morning light that would soon come streaming into their room. He kissed her on the forehead, smiled when she murmured sleepily, and then left for work.
His last thought as he left their townhouse was that she was going to be furious that she was late for work.
He could live with that.
As Lois entered the Planet newsroom, certain guilt was written all over her features, she was amazed that everything seemed to be in full swing even without her presence. She passed by her husband's desk, hoping to catch him, but he wasn't there. She caught a glimpse of the picture he kept there, and lifted it to look at her own smiling face as she surrendered to her husband's embrace. The picture had been taken back when they were trying to act normal, sneaking away for a vacation and the time alone that they desperately needed. It was a souvenir of a time when everything was right with her world, just before everything had crashed down and their work had caught up with them. That seemed to happen a lot.
Her memories were abruptly disturbed as Ralph plopped a large brown box down on her desk with a distinctive clunk. "Morning, boss," he said in a cheerful voice. "Hope you don't mind me taking your old desk. Gotta be close to Kent now, you know."
Lois watched, vaguely stunned, as a bowling trophy was given a place of honor in her personal space. No, it wasn't her space. Her space was an isolated office with glass walls and a desk full of paperwork. The desk next to her husband's now belonged to Ralph. "Oh… sure. No problem," she told him softly, her mind not really on what she was saying.
"Whoop, I'd better go," Ralph declared. "Don't want to get a late start and keep my new partner waiting."
Lois bristled at his implication, but she didn't say a word. He was right. She was late. If that happened to be the fault of her husband, then that really wasn't the issue. She was halfway to Perry's office — her office — whatever, when she walked back and picked up the picture she'd returned to Clark's desk.
He'd made her blueberry pancakes.
With a sigh, she walked into the office and cleared a small place for the picture. Having moved one stack of paperwork, she decided she might as well start on it, so she grabbed a red pen and set to work. She was only an hour late after all, although she'd planned to come in an hour or two early, so she could make up the time.
Lois looked up into her mother-in-law's smiling face and had to return the grin. "Martha, hi! What a surprise." She laid down her pen, and then paused. "What're you doing down here?"
"I just happened to be in the neighborhood," she said sweetly. "Thought maybe I could buy you a cup of coffee."
Lois returned the smile. She really had lucked out when she'd married into Clark's family. "Thanks, I'd love to," she said with regret. "But I was late getting in, and I was behind before that. I really can't leave right now…"
When Martha grinned again, Lois knew where Clark had found that expression. "That's what I figured," Martha admitted, the smile widening. She entered the office fully to reveal a brown paper bag. Setting it on the corner of the desk, she reached inside and pulled out two cups of Starbucks coffee and offered one to Lois. "Sugar, no cream, right?"
Lois met her mother-in-law's grin gratefully. "Thanks, Mom."
Clark tugged on a clean sport coat over his clean shirt and took another glance at the trash bag. Another suit to the cleaners — and even then he didn't know if it was salvageable. Lois was not going to be happy. This time, he couldn't blame the suit's loss on Superman, but rather a very irritating truck driver and a particularly muddy puddle.
A knock at the door caught him off guard. Normally, neither of them were home during the day, so he couldn't imagine who would be coming by. He tugged the door open, not even bothering to glance through it first, and met his father's smiling face.
"Dad…? What're you doing here?"
"I called the office," Jonathan admitted as he stepped into the townhouse. Clark moved back to allow him access. "They said you were here." He proudly displayed a white Dunkin' Donuts bag with a grin. "Plain cake donuts, right?"
Clark couldn't help but match his father's smile.
"You look like you're buried," Martha said with a grin as she pulled a seat up to the immense desk. "How will you get through all this?"
Lois surveyed the work before her and glanced at the clock once more. She only had two hours to deadline, and at least four stories to choose and clean up. "I have no idea," she admitted.
"Lemme guess," Martha requested. "Can't sleep, can't concentrate, got a knot in your stomach…"
"… The size of an anvil," Jonathan suggested. "And you're constantly fighting the urge to do it all for her, because you know she's in over her head. But, you can't do it because it's her job and not yours. Am I getting warm here?"
"More like white-hot," Clark admitted. "I can't believe how hard this is. I mean, we can do anything together, but I barely see her anymore. I know she wants to do it all herself, but even Perry delegated some of it. It still destroyed his marriage. I don't want to fall into that trap."
Jonathan nodded his understanding. "Sometimes you have to give the person you love some room to grow," he said softly. "It's not easy. You've gotten used to making all your decisions together — and that's a good thing — but you're married, not joined at the hip."
"I just worry about her, dad. She's not 'super'. She can't keep this up."
"Did I ever tell you about the time I bought a new truck…" Jonathan began.
"I couldn't believe he did it," Martha added with a grin. "I mean, we'd only been married a few weeks, and we didn't have very much money. But he was still used to making his own decisions and he thought it was too good a deal to pass up."
"Don't you have to make some of your own decisions in a marriage?" Lois asked softly. "I mean, we're two different people, raised two different ways. We compliment one another — and we do have a lot in common — but we don't have to share a brain."
"You're right," Martha said. "But, do you know why he bought the truck?" she asked suddenly.
Lois didn't see how it could matter, but she asked anyway. "Why?"
"He was worried about me," Martha told him with a soft smile. "I was still working at the diner in town, especially that first winter when money was so tight, and he was terrified the car would give out on me or get bogged down in the snow." She began absently flipping through some of the papers at the edge of Lois' desk. "We didn't have cell phones back then, and he was too busy with work to be with me for the trip to and from work." Martha looked up and locked eyes with Lois. "It was his way of taking care of me. He didn't ask permission, because love gave him that permission."
"Why do I think you didn't feel that way at first?" Lois asked quietly.
"Because I was furious," Martha admitted with a laugh. "All that money on something we could do without. But Jonathan told me it was all about choices. He chose to keep me safe, and after that I had to choose how to feel about it… whether to be angry, or to be grateful."
"You made the right choice," Lois told her.
"I've always thought so," Martha grinned once more, holding up one of the papers she'd been glancing at. "This one looks pretty good," she suggested. "Interesting, and it doesn't have many grammar errors."
Lois took the paper from Martha and glanced over it. She was right; it was a good story. The spelling and grammar were acceptable, the form correct, and the size just about right for the space she was looking to fill. "Thanks," she said with a grin.
Martha shrugged. "Did I tell you that I spent a couple of years as class mom for Clark's class? Oh, I didn't do a lot, but the teacher loved to have me grade papers, especially the essays. I got to be pretty handy with a red pen."
Lois raised her eyebrows, and realized she faced a choice. She could accept help from someone who was offering it with genuine interest, or she could forge alone until she finally fell on her butt.
With a sheepish smile — because accepting help went against everything Lois believed in — she passed the red pen to Martha.
"…I had the best of intentions, Clark. But I missed one of the steps. I didn't tell her what I was doing it for." Jonathan laughed as he took another bite from his donut and then finished his story. "We didn't speak for five days. I really thought she might leave me." He leaned forward then, fear still evident in his expression after more than thirty years. "I had a choice to make, Clark. I could hang on to my pride, or I could explain what I was doing, and why."
"You chose to tell her," Clark thought aloud.
Jonathan shrugged. "She had a point. She thought she could keep herself safe, and that she could be responsible for herself. Me… I saw us as a team, even that early in the marriage. I guess I'm a little old fashioned that way, but it didn't make sense for her to try to do it alone."
"How'd Mom feel about it?" Clark asked.
"Well, she didn't exactly agree, but she did understand. She's a reasonable woman when she's given a chance."
"The problem is, I don't have any idea how she'll take it." He sat down and gave a derisive laugh. "I don't know much the last few days. I can't put the pieces together, and she's not there to help me. I know she's under a lot of pressure, and I need to be supportive, but I just want to ask her to slow down and be my partner again."
"You've gotten used to batting ideas around with her," Jonathan said. "It makes sense that you'd be out-of-practice in doing it for yourself. You just need to find someone to pick up the slack."
"Like Ralph?" Clark said sarcastically. "I don't think so."
"He can't be the only reporter in the place," Jonathan suggested. "You like Jimmy, and I know you've worked with Hank and that other guy… What was his name?"
"Evan," Clark said thoughtfully. "Hank and Evan work in the National News section."
"You might check with them," he suggested. "The worst they can do is turn you down. Or, you can do it all yourself." He looked at his son with a small smile. "It's your choice."
Lois looked around and the diminished piles around her. "I miss Clark," she said softly. "He could edit at superspeed."
Martha looked up from what she was working on, and then removed the red pen from where she had been holding it in her teeth. "Have you told him that?"
Lois shrugged. "I don't like to admit that I can't do it alone," she said softly. "Especially when he's more qualified for this job than I am."
"Perry chose you," Martha reminded her. "That should tell you something."
Lois shrugged. "It tells me that I had more seniority," she admitted. "But I've never edited. I'm really not even that good at it. Clark's always going over my copy before I send it to Perry."
"So, you're afraid to ask him for help because he can do the job?" Martha asked in confusion. "Or is it because you need to prove that you can?"
Lois thought a moment before answering. "Maybe both," she admitted. "I really wanted this job — the recognition and the prestige — but I miss Clark, and I miss the big stories, and I hate having to ask for help."
"It's part of the job, Lois. Do you think Perry did all of this himself, or did he hire the best people to depend on?"
Lois didn't answer, but she did start to think about it.
"You have to give yourselves some time," Martha told her. "This is a big change for you two…"
"… You can't expect to figure this out overnight," Jonathan reminded his son. "But you can do it."
"I guess…" Clark said doubtfully.
Jonathan leaned forward and waited until he had his son's full attention. "You can't do it if you don't talk to each other," he said softly. "And with everything you two've been through, you oughta know that better than anybody."
Clark finally gave a small smile and nodded. "You're right."
"You're right," Lois conceded. Then, looking at the empty cup on her desk — a desk that held considerably fewer piles than it had before — she added, "Thanks for the coffee… and, the help.
Martha grinned, but then her voice became tight with emotion. "You know, I've always wanted the best for my son, and now I want the best for my daughter, too."
Lois' smile crumpled slightly as tears came to her eyes. It really was nice to have someone to talk to. Clark might not be here, and she might not have the job down pat, but she knew she had the support of everyone around her. If that many people honestly believed that she could do the job, then they couldn't all be wrong.
Lois put her arms around Martha and accepted the hug that was always there for her, and the acceptance that went with it. Somehow, she was sure everything was going to work out okay.
Clark exited the elevator with Ralph, who was talking a mile a minute about something that Clark couldn't care less about. He really had to talk to Lois soon. Ralph's monologue finally came to an end as Clark split away to head for his wife's office.
Her head came up just as he approached the doorway, almost as though she were the one with super senses. He smiled softly as he met her eyes, mouthed a silent "I love you," and then moved into the office behind Jimmy and Kevin.
Clark actually liked Kevin. He was young, but his energy was sensible and he wasn't over-eager.
"… I'm not saying the bridge collapse isn't news, it's just not column one, that's all," Lois was explaining.
"Personally, I'd go with the subway story. I mean, It's local news, and we are a commuter paper…" Jimmy added as he filled Lois' cup with coffee from the pot he'd brought in. "'Course, nobody asked me."
Kevin looked over at Lois, who had focused her attention on Clark as he entered. "Lois…?"
"Hmm? Uh, the subway?" She thought a minute, then continued. "No, it was all over last night's TV news. It's ancient history already. What else do we have?"
As the men argued over what was the best idea, Lois focused her attention once more on Clark. "Anything?" she mouthed to him.
He shrugged, and she finally just stood up and walked over to him while the men wrestled with ideas.
"Hey, you," she said softly. "Thanks for the pancakes."
"Anything on the kidnapping or the computer incidents?"
He shrugged again. "Maybe," he admitted, but I can't quite pin it down. Can I borrow Kevin for a few minutes?"
Lois looked startled. "What about Ralph?" she asked, some humor slipping into her voice.
"I think he's ready to work on his own," Clark suggested a little too seriously. "How about we send him to meet a source of mine."
"Source?" she asked.
"Yeah, source. Poor guy hides out in the sewers. Tough to find, though," he said with a sly grin. "Might take him all day to do it, if the source can be found at all."
Lois grinned widely. "Main and fiftieth?" she asked, trying to keep the laughter out of her voice so she didn't disrupt the heated discussion occurring over her desk.
"Right under the sewage processing plant," he agreed. "Lucky Mel likes to hide out there."
"Lucky Mel?" she asked.
"You'd like him," Clark told her. "He's evasive, but worth the effort."
The gleam in Clark's eye was almost enough to set Lois off in a fit of giggles, but she managed to restrain herself. "Kev," she called out over the discussion. "I need you to back Clark on something. Jimmy, I need to you deliver a message to Ralph."
"Ms. Lane?" Kevin called out softly.
Lois pulled her attention from the typeset before her and smiled at the reporter. He was a good worker. "Didn't I send you off with Clark?" she asked in confusion.
"Yeah. He had to take off and do something, so he sent me back here with a message. We think we found a way to connect the kidnapping with the computer accidents."
Lois stood up, hoping this really was a message from Clark, rather than just wishful thinking on the part of a desperate editor. "How's that?" she asked as she walked towards Kevin.
"Eric Press called STAR Labs' confidential modem line from his computer the day before he disappeared," Kevin told her.
"I don't understand."
"I don't either, really," Kevin admitted. "But Clark has Jimmy trying to get into Press' home computer to find out what he wanted from STAR Labs."
Before he'd finished his sentence, the photographer in question squeezed around him and through the doorway. "Hey, Lois. I checked the recently downloaded programs that Clark wanted to know about," he began. Kevin nodded for him to continue, letting him know silently that he'd already filled their boss in on the situation.
"What did you get, Jimmy?" she asked urgently, not even trying to keep the worry out of her voice.
Superman had set down into another bout of chaos at the Weapons Center. The running technicians, screaming alarms, and warning lights all gave him the distinct feeling of d,j. vu.
He hadn't really wanted to leave Kevin to follow up on his suspicions, but he'd learned long ago that when alarms were sounding, Superman was desperately needed. Kevin was a good kid, and Clark knew that he would bring Lois up to date on what they'd found. Meanwhile, Jimmy was tackling the research end of the investigation, and he was fairly sure it would all work out. Clark was reminded that while he could do it all alone, it was a lot easier to have help along the way.
Ethan Press smiled at action on the monitor before him. "This looks like a job for Superman to me! Now remember, Eric, our timing must be very precise. The window of opportunity…"
Ethan's voice trailed off as he caught movement from the corner of his eye. Eric was headed out of the motor home. Ethan reached over and yanked this brother back inside even as he slammed the door shut.
"I thought we discussed this already, Eric," he began.
"Wait," the younger man interrupted. "Ethan, I can explain…"
Ethan didn't wait for an explanation. He tossed his brother's form onto the floor of the motor home with a decisive thump, and instantly pounced on top of him to pin Eric's arms and legs.
"No, Ethan," Eric called out as his brother moved into the familiar position. "Not the typewriter!"
"'Fraid so," Ethan informed him as he began to mime speed- typing on Eric's face while making typewriter sounds.
Eric turned his head from side to side in a futile attempt to escape. "No!" he called out. "Not the carriage return!"
"Ding!" Ethan sang as he smacked his brother upside the head, as though he were indeed hitting an old-fashioned carriage return.
"Ouch!" Eric cried out. "Knock it off!" Eric wriggled his arms free and managed to shove Ethan off him, then scrambled away.
Ethan pushed himself immediately to his feet, but was surprised to find Eric was already standing in front of him and pointing the Disbander towards him at point blank range.
"I've had it, Ethan," Eric said loudly. "I'm tired of you beating me up and telling me what to do. No more!"
"C'mon Eric," Ethan cajoled. "Just put that down…"
Eric brandished the weapon excitedly. "I swear to God, Ethan. I'll shoot you. I will!"
Ethan smiled. "Really?" he inquired. "Okay, go ahead. Shoot." He put his hands up in the traditional stickup position. "I dare you."
"Don't tempt me," Eric muttered.
"Oh, but that's exactly what I want to do," Ethan admitted. "Tempt you. See what you're made of. See if you've got the Press Family Spine, or if you're still just the weak runt of the litter I could've snuffed out in your crib any number of times." He took a step closer to the armed man. "C'mon. Be a man," he taunted. "Pull the trigger. Chicken."
A look of regret crossed Eric's face as he carefully aimed the weapon. "Good-bye, Ethan," he said softly.
To Ethan's utter surprise — and delight — Eric pulled the trigger.
Eric tried to fire it again and again, but still nothing. He looked down at the weapon in panic, and then looked back up at his brother. Ethan was smiling widely, holding a plug-in micro- chip with his fingers.
"I disarmed it," Ethan explained. "You know, just in case." With that, he jerked the weapon from his brother's hands. "No, no, don't feel bad, Eric. You point was, nevertheless, made. You turned an emotional corner; it was cathartic. You stood up to me. You rose to the challenge. You've graduated to be my equal." He swung an arm around his brother and hugged him with pride in his voice. "Try that again, little brother," he explained. "And I'll rip you to shreds and turn you into shark bait."
Ethan released his brother, and then turned back to the monitor. "Now," he said with finality. "Let's go kill Superman, shall we?"
"He has Superman's medical records," Jimmy said urgently. "All Dr. Klein's classified files on how his powers work."
Lois looked at Jimmy in shock. "Why would he want that?" she asked ominously.
Jimmy shrugged, but his urgency didn't diminish. "I don't know," he admitted. "But it can't be good for Superman, that's for sure."
Lois jerked her eyes to Jimmy's as she though aloud. "The lab explosion… The rocket… What if those were all test to see if…" She glanced at Jimmy's shocked expression, then the matching one on Kevin's face, as her fears were confirmed.
"Oh my God," she said dramatically. "Clark was right all along…"
Lois grabbed her purse and headed for the door to her office without preamble. As she squeezed between Jimmy and Kevin, she was digging for her keys to the jeep. "Where's Clark?" she asked urgently.
"I'm not sure," Kevin admitted. "He just said something about the Rocket center or something, I don't know…"
But Lois did. "Clark," she whispered softly, bolting towards the elevator.
"Superman, it's happening again," the technician called out frantically.
Clark heard the scream even over the din of the alarms, and turned to face the person yelling at him.
"Only this time it's the nuclear warhead!" he added as he pointed towards the building. "In the silo!"
Clark suddenly knew why the scene was even more chaotic than it had been previously. "All right," he concluded. "I'll fly it into space."
The technician shook his head emphatically. "Wait, no! It's pressure sensitive. As soon as you hit the stratosphere, she'll blow!"
Clark thought a moment more. If he couldn't take it up, he'd have to take it down. "Where do you put your nuclear waste?" he asked quickly. Containment facilities were built to the stringent standards. Built to house nuclear waste for the hundreds of years necessary for it to lose its deadly characteristics, the concrete walls were several feet think, radiation-absorbing material formed the lining, and hopefully it would have enough strength to withstand an internal nuclear blast.
"In the silo," the technician told him. "There's a mile deep well. If it's all the same to you," the man added, "I'd like to run for my life now!"
As the technician took off, Clark wondered how a man so intelligent could be such an idiot. If he wasn't able to contain it, this blast would take out everything for ten miles in any direction, and poison the air and water for another hundred. There would be no running from this, only stopping it.
Clark entered the concrete silo to see the rocket sitting ominously on its pad, pointing up at the sky visible through open hatch doors. Maybe it would explode at the stratosphere, he thought, but that very well might be worse. The last thing that they needed was a radiation-poisoned atmosphere that would kill every living thing around the world, rather than just here on the East Coast.
A computerized voice counted off the liftoff sequence even as Clark examined the nitrogen tanks that were spewing coolant out of their hoses. He moved around the cloud of nitrogen, using super vision to locate the vault-sized well hatch. He worked his way over to the hatch and spun the wheel to open it, and then he moved towards the rocket.
It took some careful maneuvering, as well as all his considerable strength, to remove the rocket from its launching platform. Once that was done, he flew the rocket carefully into the tunnel, making sure that despite his speed he didn't touch it into the walls of the cavern. As the world slowed around him, he negotiated the deadly projectile far into the underground chamber.
He delivered the rocket to the end of the cavern, and then sped back out to the silo, slamming the hatch closed. He had seen the light before he felt the wave of heat that seemed to move through him and up towards the surface. He pressed all his weight against the closed hatch, forcing it to remain closed against the explosion even as the silo rumbled around him. And he said a silent prayer that the hatch he had closed would be strong enough to withstand the blast.
Oh God, he thought suddenly. If it didn't, Lois would die. His parents would die. It had to hold. This had to work. He pressed his body closer to the metal hatch that separated all of Metropolis from certain death.
Clark was so intent on his task that he didn't notice the darkening of the silo. Finally feeling the vibration end, he pulled back enough to see the hatch doors at the top of the silo closing, only to plunge the silo into total darkness until the emergency lights flashed on.
It must be a safety feature, Clark thought as he gazed around the concrete space that was lit with only the red glare of the lights. Still, the light was enough that he saw the figure of a man without the assistance of his super vision.
"See, Eric," the man said as he brandished what appeared to be a high-tech weapon. "Didn't I tell you that he'd save the day?" The man faced him, a slightly off-center grin on his face, as he spoke clearly. "Superheroes are so predicable."
Perhaps it was the fatigue from his mental and emotional task of holding the explosion at bay, or perhaps it was simply the lack of sunlight above him, but Clark began to feel slightly uneasy. Crossing his arms in front of him, taking up the characteristic Superman pose, he faced stood before the man with the weapon even as his gaze traveled to a younger, less confident form.
"Eric?" he asked. "As in Eric Press?"
"I swear, Superman," the man exclaimed. "I never wanted anything to do with this."
"Oh, stop groveling. Anyway, you're wasting your mea culpas on him; he won't be around long enough to exonerate you. To wit…"
The man who had spoken turned the weapon towards him and fired, blasting him with a bolt of electricity that enveloped him and then began to slowly tear him apart. He grimaced as the pain ripped through his body, but as soon as the blast stopped his body seemed to come together back into its original form. He felt dazed then, off balance, but he was still alive.
"Totally cool," his shooter said with a grin. "I wonder if there's a video game in it…" The man aimed the weapon a second time. "Now, let's see if you can handle a second blast."
Just before the weapon fired, Clark shot a small beam of heat vision at the nearest red emergency light. It wasn't much, but it was all the energy he had. The room fell into darkness, and he threw himself to the side.
Clark watched as a beam of energy lit up the darkened silo, dissipating into nothingness.
"Did you hit him?" the youngest man, Eric Press if Clark's unanswered question was correct, called out into the room. His voice echoed wildly in the confined, darkened space. Clark spared a thought that concrete walls shouldn't echo, and realized how depleted his reserves of energy must be if his mind was wandering this badly.
"I don't know," the shooter called out, bringing Clark back to the moment. "I think so."
Clark used what little x-ray vision he had to see them straining to find him. Eric panicked as a shadow seemed to move, and called out frantically, "Over there!"
The shooter fired again.
Lois pulled the Cherokee to a stop in front of the Rocket Center and jumped out frantically. "Clark…" she yelled.
Her head swung sideways as a muffled blast seemed to come from inside the structure. She ran towards it and tried to lift the roll-top entrance to the silo. As another blast seemed to shake the walls of the building, she struggled with the door with more urgency. She had to get it open. She had to! Something told her that her Clark was in there, and she had to get to him somehow.
Ethan and Eric moved cautiously around the silo. They couldn't see anything, nor could they hear anything besides an inconsistent rattling of the main silo door.
"I think I got him," Ethan said hopefully.
"You sure?" Eric didn't sound as optimistic.
Suddenly, Superman dropped down from directly above them, arms folded, and a very angry expression on his face.
Ethan's gulp was audible. "Nope."
Superman grabbed the Disbander and flung it out of Ethan's hands. It slammed into the wall of the silo, clattering as it fell to the ground.
"Looks live you boys've got a lot… of explaining… to do." Superman staggered slightly, reeling from the force he'd been hit with. He sagged against a pillar, drained.
"Well, well look at this, Eric," Ethan said with a smile. "It worked after all." He turned to Superman before continuing. "I'll give you credit, though, Supes. Nuked at point blank range, took all those blasts… and look at you, you're still kicking… barely."
Ethan moved cautiously toward the fallen Superhero. "'Course, the bad news is that your super reserves are all but tapped out, and it's not exactly sunny in here, is it?"
Eric cut across his brother's words. "Ethan, c'mon, we can't let Superman die!"
"Sure we can," Ethan corrected with a shrug. "And the best part of it is: we get to watch!"
Ethan moved towards the weapon that Superman had taken away from him as he continued. "Amazing, isn't it? Of all the villains who've wanted you dead, I'm going to get the one to pull it off — a spoiled dilettante with too much time on my hands." He looked over at Superman with a final smile. "Lex would be so proud."
Superman's eyes left Ethan long enough to send a beam of heat towards the switch to the silo doors. Sparks flew in every direction as the room became more light. Above them, the silo hatch moved to open, flooding the room with sunshine
"Oh, no," Ethan muttered softly.
Superman moved in superspeed, wrapping a pipe around the brothers to immobilize them, and then he came to a stop in front of their bound bodies. "Oh, yes," he told them firmly.
All heads turned towards a loud revving sound, then Lois' jeep came blasting through the roll-top door and slid to a stop. Lois jumped out of the jeep, her expression concerned, frightened, excited, and probably a few other things as well.
"Lois, what are you doing here?" Superman asked, shock clear in his voice.
"I came to," she began, and then she looked around. "Save you?"
"Does this mean you're caught up at work?" he asked with clear affection.
Lois nodded, and then her face became serious. "Are you okay?"
Superman looked at her for a moment before answering, then finally said, "Now I am."
As they shared a smile, Eric glared at his brother. "Great, wait'll Dad finds out about this. He's gonna kill us!"
Lois Lane smiled as she read the advance copy of tomorrow's Daily Planet. Above the brilliant photo of Superman escorting Ethan and Eric Press out of the bunker, the headline read, "SUPERMAN STOPS THE PRESSES." There was a subhead below that announcing, "BROTHERS CHARGED WITH MURDER, ESPIONAGE." The by- line read: By Clark Kent and Kevin Reynolds.
Jimmy looked over her shoulder, a smile on his face.
"Looks like a lead story to me," Lois admitted.
"So, no corrections?" Jimmy asked, his eyes flashing up to hers.
"Wait, shouldn't the by-line have Lois' name on it too? She did put together some of the pieces."
Lois shook her head. "No," she said firmly. "Kevin backed you up on this one. I may have put two and two together, but he's the one that found out we were working with twos in the first place."
Clark glanced sideways to Kevin, who was staring at the ground and trying desperately not to blush. He wasn't terribly successful. "I think it was kind of a team effort," he said, his voice quiet but clear.
"That's how we do things at a Major Metropolitan Newspaper, Kevin," she said in her best imitation of Perry White. "We all work together, and we get it done. No one can do it alone." Then, glancing at Clark she added, "Not even me."
Handing the page back to Jimmy, she nodded her approval. "Let's get this down there by deadline," she told him firmly. He grinned at her, then rushed to comply.
"Uh-oh," Kevin said carefully. "I'm gonna go make myself scarce." He slipped out of the room before Lois could see what he was talking about. Even at that, she smelled the intrusion before she saw him.
Ralph entered her office slowly. His feet squished, his clothes were filthy, and what little was left of his hair was plastered around his face. "I had a little trouble finding your source, Kent," he said as he brushed at his ruined plaid jacket. "Apparently he knew that the sewage plant made their dump right at the time I was scheduled to meet with him." Ralph looked over at Lois, who had given Jimmy the message that had sent him to wallow in the sewers for the better part of four hours. "Imagine that," he said sarcastically.
"These things happen, Ralph," Clark told him with a falsely regretful look. "It's all a part of looking for a story."
"The legwork of reporting," Lois agreed, trying unsuccessfully to keep a straight face.
"Yeah," Ralph said, but it didn't sound like agreement.
"Y'know, Ralph," Clark said thoughtfully. "You really should keep a spare set of clothes in your locker." He looked over at Lois and winked. "It's what I do."
Ralph glared once more as he turned his back and squished out of the office.
Clark managed to reach over and shut the door before he and Lois dissolved into peals of laughter.
"I can't believe you did that," Clark said as he tried to bring himself under control.
"I got the idea from you," she admitted. "At least he didn't spend the entire night at the Metropolis Sewage Reclamation Facility. I thought those mosquito bites would never heal up."
"You didn't wear pantyhose for a week," he remembered aloud, his expression softening.
"Hey, it was your life lesson," she told him. "You can be just as devious as I am. Besides, you're the one that suggested I get him out of your way. You even picked the place, so you can't blame me."
He looked at her solemnly for a moment, and then they both burst out laughing once more. "He really deserved it," Clark decided.
"The sewers aren't as slimy as he is," Lois agreed, and once more they were laughing.
"Hey, am I interrupting something?" Perry asked as he ducked his head in the door.
"Not a thing, Chief," Clark said with a grin.
"What are you doing down here?" Lois asked in delight.
"I just thought I'd stop by, see how things were going…" He looked away for a moment as his voice trailed off. "God, I love the smell of ink in the morning."
Lois and Clark just smiled. It didn't matter if it wasn't morning, or if the office had Lois' things instead of Perry's, he was still the Chief, and this was still his place.
"Look, Perry…" Lois began.
"Now, Lois…" Perry said at the same time.
The laughed a moment, deferred to one another, and then Lois said, "Please. Go ahead."
"Aw, look, I won't beat around the bush here, Lois. Truth is, I miss the newsroom something awful. After thirty-some-odd years of being down here, I guess it's just become a part of me…"
"Perry…" Lois began again.
Perry's voice didn't halt. "Now, I don't want you to think I'm asking you to step aside, because I'm not. I'm just saying, spending the last coupla days upstairs with all them fancy suits, sipping lattes and taking lunches, is not my style."
"Chief, let Lois…"
"Now, what I'm proposing here is this…" he put in, railroading over Clark's objections as well. "Lois, you and I both run the paper together. Partners, Editors- in-Chief. What do you say?"
Lois looked a moment at Perry's hopeful face, and then she locked gazes with her husband. She smiled, he returned it, and then they both faced Perry.
"I say…" Lois told him, looking back over at Clark for support, "I've already got a partner, Perry."
Perry's face fell, but he forced a smile. "Okay, well, it was worth a shot…"
"You don't understand," she interrupted. "I don't want to be editor anymore."
"No," he told her. "I understand. It's… what?"
"I mean, you can have your old job back," Lois clarified, glancing once more to Clark for encouragement and approval, "If I can have mine back, too. I think I missed being a reporter as much as you missed being in the newsroom."
"You're sure about this?" Perry asked, excitement replacing the doubt in his voice.
"Deal!" Perry said enthusiastically. He thrust out his hand to shake Lois' hand, and then Clark's as well.
Ralph burst into the office, drawing the attention of all three people there by both his voice and his stench. "Lois, I gotta talk to you! I got this killer scoop, guaranteed headline. Even better than the mayor story…"
"What the Sam Hill…" Perry asked, his gaze flashing from a filthy Ralph to his two best reporters.
"Don't tell me, tell Perry," Lois instructed. "He's the editor." With that, Lois grabbed her nameplate in one hand, and her husband's hand with the other, and quickly exited the office with Clark close behind.
"What…" Ralph said, looking dazed. After a moment, he turned back to Perry at full throttle. "Perry, swear to God, you're really gonna love this…"
Perry rolled his eyes heavenward as he sat down behind his desk and made a quick mental list of what had to be done. He didn't even bother listening as Ralph droned on, because he'd heard it all before.
Lois set her nameplate on her desk, and then glanced over at Clark's desk and the nameplate that matched hers. "Can we go home and talk?" she asked.
Clark followed her gaze to the nameplates, his and hers, on matching desks, as it should be. "Sure," he said softly.
He picked up his coat, and moved to follow his wife, who had done the same. With his hand at the small of her back, an unconsciously protective gesture, they moved towards the elevator.
"Hey, C.K., check it out," Jimmy said when the elevator doors opened and he moved out towards his friends. "Looks like Darlene wasn't out to get me after all."
He gestured to the vending machines where Darlene was talking with one of the copy boys, his arm around her shoulders.
"Guess I was a little paranoid, huh?" he admitted.
"I think you've seen too many movies," Clark agreed.
Jimmy laughed lightly as he watched them step into the elevator he'd just exited. "Good night, guys."
The doors closed and Jimmy began to cross the newsroom. He passed by Darlene and the boy that was apparently her new boyfriend as they moved towards the elevator.
"Don't forget to lock your doors at night," Darlene recommended as she passed him.
Jimmy turned to look, but she and her companion were already in the elevator with the doors closing. His face fell as he was left staring at the elevator doors.
Lois leaned on the banister railing, looking up at the night sky. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been home before midnight. Had really only been a few days? Clark was next to her, leaning backwards against the rail and smiling softly as he watched her. God, she had missed this.
"Kinda scary, huh?" she asked him. "How quickly things can seem to fall apart."
"I don't know," he offered, taking her hand. "I think we did okay, all things considered."
She smiled at him, and then lowered her eyes. "I really wasn't ready for it, Clark," she admitted. "I thought I could manage it, but it was so…"
"Huge?" he supplied.
"Yeah," she agreed. "I was afraid that if I asked for help it would be seen as a weakness, so I just kept getting deeper and deeper into it."
"You would have pulled it together," he assured her. "It was a big change in a short time, and you really didn't give yourself the benefit of the doubt."
"Maybe," she admitted, begrudgingly. "But I'm glad we don't have to find out. That job destroyed Perry's marriage. I don't want to risk ours."
"We would have been fine," Clark said as he eased her into his arms. "As long as we keep talking to each other, keeping one another in mind, there isn't much that can tear us down."
"I missed you," she told him softly, placing a gentle kiss on his lips.
"Mmm," he purred. "I missed you, too. Things just didn't come together without you being there."
"That's why we make a great team," she told him. "I think, and you do."
"Kevin was a decent thinker, too. In a few years he'll make a hell of a reporter."
"Yeah," she agreed. "I'm sorry I gave you someone to babysit instead of someone to work with. I don't know what I was thinking." She closed her eyes and rested her head against his chest. "I even wanted to take you off the story," she added.
"You were looking out for the paper," he acknowledged.
"I should have been looking out for you."
"Isn't that what you're doing now?" he asked with a smile as his hands crept up her back.
"Does this mean things can get back to normal?" she asked hopefully.
"Yeah, I think it does," Clark said between small kisses that he placed on her cheek, her nose, the base of her throat.
"Mmmm," she moaned. "Right there." His hands had moved up to rub her back, strong fingers gently kneading the knots that days of tension had caused.
"Anybody watching?" he asked softly, his words a mere breath in her ear.
Lois reluctantly lifted her head, glancing around, and then laid it back on his shoulder. "No," she told him. "Why?"
He kissed her then, really kissed her, and then lifted her into his arms. Before she realized his intention, he swept her inside at superspeed, the door slamming shut behind them.
The night eased down over Metropolis, a city that was once more able to go on about its business because a Superhero and a tenacious reporter were willing to watch out for them… and willing to watch out for themselves.
Author's notes: After a bit of research, I wound up back at the Pilot script. Yes, Clark was the editor of the Smallville Press, not the Borneo tte, at least according to the script. Thanks to everyone on IRC for helping me figure that out!