By Kaethel <Kaethel@wanadoo.fr> & Wendy Richards <email@example.com>
Submitted May 2003
Summary: A few hours before her wedding to Lex, Lois is trying to ease some of the tension preceding the big event by wandering around the corridors of her future home. But what she finds in a forgotten cellar might compromise her decision to marry her fiance…
This story was written and posted earlier this year, in honour of a very dear friend of ours, LabRat, on her birthday. We'd like to thank Kristen (minimunch3) for suggesting the idea on which we based this premise back on Zoomway's Message Boards last year (http://www.zoomway.net/cgi- bin/boards/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic;f=12;t=000431). Thanks also to all the readers who commented on this story when we posted it. Their enthusiasm and support is always very much appreciated, and encourages us to keep writing together. :) And last but not least, we would like to thank Julie Gibson for editing our story for the Archive.
We hope you enjoy The Prisoner as much as we enjoyed writing it! Feedback is, as usual, extremely welcome. :)
Wendy and Kaethel :)
Clark was lying on his side, curled up in a ball in the centre of his jail. Every move sent shooting pain through his muscles; every breath tore his lungs apart. How much time had passed since Luthor's last visit? Minutes? Hours? Days, maybe? Darkness had claimed and released him several times already, but the pain was always the same when he woke from the state of semi-consciousness. The dizzying glow of the Kryptonite gave the cellar an even bleaker atmosphere, and he longed for the end of his suffering.
Death would come; he knew that now, and accepting it had become easier than struggling for life. Luthor had made his plans very clear; if the Kryptonite didn't suffice, the axe hanging over the stairs would finish the job. And Lois would be married to a monster.
Lois. For a short moment, physical pain subsided as Clark thought about his vibrant partner and what they'd shared for almost a whole year. She'd kept him fighting for a long time, but he knew now that even if he got out of here alive, it would be too late to prevent Lois from doing something irreparable.
And the last time he'd seen her… He forced the thought to falter, in vain. Her last memory of him would be the bitterness and jealousy he'd displayed during her engagement to Luthor. She was going to marry a man he hated, and their friendship would be forgotten even more quickly than it had bloomed.
If only he hadn't been so stupidly proud! If only he hadn't rejected her when she'd confessed her love to his alter ego! He could have told her the truth and trusted her to love him for who he was and not just for what he was. And maybe they would be together now. He'd given up on her too quickly. He was paying the hard price now.
He should fight against the pain, try one more time to break the steel bars holding him prisoner. He rose to his knees, and his upper body swayed in sync with the room around him. Instinctively, his hand reached for the nearest bar for support. The hollow scream that followed resonated in the empty cellar.
As he collapsed to the ground, his last thought was for the woman he loved and the precious time he had wasted… His eyes blurred, and he finally gave in to the enticing pull of unconsciousness.
Lois pulled at her wedding gown with jerky movements. What had started as a stroll to relax from the tension threatening to overwhelm her was turning into a very boring walk in a maze of corridors. No way around it; she was lost. How did Lex manage to find his way around LexCorp? She doubted that she would ever be able to walk around without a map, even after years of living in this building.
She hadn't dared try to open the doors spanning the corridor. The discreet but nonetheless visible lights of the security system were enough warning that pressing any handle would set the sirens howling and attract the attention of the whole building. She didn't want that now; she needed to be alone with herself, probably for the last time in her life.
She was getting married. And while the thought should fill her with happiness and excitement at the prospect, she was trying hard to escape a fate that she'd chosen for herself. Lex was right for her. He loved her, and she l… liked him. He was a pleasant, cultivated and charming companion. Just because Clark hated him, there was no reason at all that she should start believing her former partner's nonsense.
Lex was nothing Clark had accused him of being. She'd thought that Clark would at least try to be fair, but instead he'd kept accusing her of being blind, as if she was missing an important detail that would make her see Lex the way her partner saw him. It was impossible. It was her job to look beyond the exterior that people liked to display and dig up buried secrets. She couldn't claim that Lex wasn't an open book, but she believed he was honest. And she was certainly not hiding herself from the truth and avoiding searching for flaws in her fiance!
She stopped her march and eyed one of the closed doors.
No. She didn't *need* to see what was in those numerous rooms. LexCorp was the largest company in Metropolis. It made sense that Lex would have a high-tech security system to protect his… storage rooms.
There was nothing wrong about securing storage rooms.
He'd managed to make her paranoid. "Gee, thank you, Clark." She hadn't spoken loudly, but she tensed anyway as she heard her voice in the silence of the corridor. Annoyed with herself, she gave a challenging glare to the nearest door. She'd prove him that there was nothing about Lex that could compromise her liking of him.
She studied the digital panel thoughtfully. It wasn't the type of thing that ever scared her in investigations. Even the most expensive security system had flaws. She was tempted to try a code, but how would she explain her actions if it set the alarm off? Lex would certainly not appreciate her snooping around his stuff.
Since when did she care?
She shook her head to get rid of the thought. Whatever. It wasn't a good idea, period. There were subtler ways to open that door. Her gaze rested on the panel under the digits. It was probably hiding the electric system powering the whole thing. Too bad she didn't have a nail file; this once, her carefully manicured nails would have to do.
She worked on it for a while, careful not to touch the digits above. A broken nail and a few swear-words later, her efforts were awarded when a piece of plastic fell to the cemented floor. Cheap material. So much for expensive systems.
But now wasn't the time to rejoice in premature victory. Jimmy had taught her everything she knew about deactivating security systems. If she remembered correctly, if she unplugged the red wi… no, the black one. Oh, for Pete's sake! She hadn't reached her position as the head reporter of what used to be the greatest newspaper in the city without taking risks. Grateful that Clark wasn't there to accuse her of recklessness, she chose one at random, pulled, and winced as she waited for the verdict.
The door opened on a flight of stairs, and she released the breath she'd been holding. She walked carefully down the wooden steps. The room below wasn't in complete darkness, but it wasn't lit either, as if the light came from a greenish glow of…
There was a cage. She wouldn't have believed it if it hadn't been there, right at the bottom of the stairs. It was green and glowing, luminous in the darkness of the cellar-like room she'd stumbled into. And in the pale light of the glowing bars she could see a flash of red.
Red. A particular shade of red she recognised.
It couldn't be… could it?
Her heart in her mouth, she ran down the stairs and over to the cage. And then, falling to her knees, she saw that she'd been right.
"Superman?" she whispered, taking in the man who lay crumpled on the floor. The proud Superhero she'd admired — and loved — for so long, the man she'd last seen in her apartment when he'd insulted and rejected her cruelly, was a prisoner in this cage.
Questions whirled in her head. Whose cage? This room was in Lex's building. Had *he* done this? Could he possibly have done this? Was Clark right after all?
*How* could anyone keep Superman prisoner?
And… and he was so still… his face was contorted in agony. His eyes were open, staring unseeingly upwards.
*Was he dead*??
<No… no, he can't be! He can't be!> Lois screamed inwardly.
"No… no… not Superman…" A lump swelling in her throat as the tears which had threatened all morning finally started to fall, Lois reached for the door of the cage and rattled it. Hard.
It didn't budge. It was firmly locked.
She tried again, tears now falling freely. She had to get in there — she had to rescue him! Even if he was… dead… she still needed to hold him, to touch him. To reassure herself that there was nothing she could do for him. And… to kiss him goodbye…
Frustrated, grief-stricken, she kept shaking the bars. The lock was strong, and she had nothing which she could use to pick it.
Then a low moan from the floor made her heart leap. She whirled around, to see that Superman had moved very slightly; his head was turned partially towards her, and she could actually see his chest moving faintly.
"You… have to… torture me further…" The words emerged in a jerky hiss, as if even speaking was painful for the man in agony on the floor.
*She*? Torture him?
"Just… go, Luth…or…"
*Luthor*? Then it was Lex who'd done this!
"Superman!" she called urgently. "Superman, it's me. Lois. How can I get you out of here?"
There was a pause. Then a hesitant hiss, "Lo…isss?"
"It's me. Help me — I don't know how to get you out! Don't you have your powers?"
"Kryp…tonite," he mumbled. "Key… Luthor left key… on wine cask…"
Lois spun around, looking for the cask; directly behind her, and clearly within sight of the man in the cage, were three casks, and on top of one of them a large key rested. So Superman's torture had been even worse: imprisoned, close to death, and yet able to see the means of his release… just unable to get to it.
Lex was a monster!
And… Kryptonite? It really existed? She'd always assumed that Trask had been delusional, that the mysterious rock he'd been convinced could kill Superman had been an invention of his conspiracy-theorist mind. When she and Clark had named it, she'd thought it was all a joke. And now… it was real. And, by the look of things, it really could kill Superman.
Her hand shaking, she fitted the key in the lock and turned it. The door swung open.
Superman tried to raise one hand towards her, but it fell limply to the ground. She could see by the unfocused glaze in his eyes that he was close to unconsciousness, probably not for the first time. She had to get him out of there!
Hurrying to his side, she rested the back of her hand against his forehead. It was damp and sticky. His hand, when she touched it, felt clammy. This was bad.
About to catch hold of his shoulders and drag him out, Lois hesitated. Dropping to her knees beside him, she bent over him. Time was of the essence, she knew — but if he survived, she would never get the opportunity again. She knew that. He would never let her.
Gently, she covered his lips with her own, taking one final kiss from the man she loved.
The lips in his dream were soft and sensual, the kiss one of the sweetest he had ever experienced. They tasted and smelt of Lois; her indefinable essence and uniqueness.
That was why he had to be dreaming. After all, she was getting married. She was probably saying her vows right at this moment… marrying another man. Marrying Lex Luthor. His murderer.
Yes, he was dreaming. Or dead…
Hands gripped his shoulders as those lips left his — he groaned in protest at their removal. Even his dreams were disappointing him now. But then, a dying man didn't get many choices.
"I'm sorry, Mom, Dad…" he murmured through dry, cracked lips.
"Superman?" It was Lois's voice, the one he thought he'd heard in his dream. She was still here; she hadn't left him. Now, if only this dream could last until he finally slipped into dark unconsciousness — he could lie here and imagine that she really was holding his hand in hers, that she really was speaking to him, touching him. Loving him.
"You have parents?" Her surprised tone made Clark frown. Of course he had parents — she'd met them! But speaking was too painful, required too much effort. And anyway, this was a dream, so there wasn't much point.
"Come on," she said, with what sounded like some effort. "We have to get you out of here!"
Her intentions became clear to him when he felt the cold floor slide under his body. He wanted to help her but felt too weak to do more than let himself be dragged out of the hell in which he'd been locked for too long.
He heard her hiss and swear behind him, but the buzzing in his ears increased and blocked the meaning of her words. The room was spinning again, and he felt nauseous. He was tempted to beg her to leave him there, but no word escaped his mouth. Even if they had, he doubted she would have listened anyway, and so he closed his eyes, willing the ordeal to be over at last.
When he opened his eyes again, he was propped up against a wine cask and, though still feverish and dizzy, at least the pain seemed to have subsided a little.
He heard a voice somewhere above him. She was out of breath. "This won't do. I'll never manage to drag you out of here at this speed."
"You know," she hissed, "with that body of yours, no-one would ever suspect that you weigh a *ton*!"
Lois had come for him.
"Not to mention we need to find a way to get you out of the building without attracting anyone's attention."
Lois was trying to save him.
"Can you move?"
He shook his head. Moving? When his surroundings stopped their wavy movement, maybe he could think about it.
"Superman!" Lois knelt in front of him, and a warm hand clasped his cold one. "Superman, you need to help me. I can't do it without you."
It would never work. He'd barely spoken a word since she'd found him, and even getting him out of the cage hadn't been enough for the effects of the Kryptonite to wear off. She tugged at his hand. "Superman, wake up!" The hand limply fell back against his thigh when she let it go.
"Superman, can you hear me?"
And Lex could arrive any minute, she was temped to add.
If she'd ever suspected… Clark had warned her, but she'd never wanted to listen. And if it hadn't been for the challenge of proving that he was wrong and she was right… She didn't dare think of the consequences. There would be time for it later; right now, all that mattered was to get Superman out of here before they were found.
She was about to hiss his name again when a pair of dark eyes fixed her. He was immobile, but he'd raised his head towards her and didn't stop watching her. She almost squirmed under the intensity of his gaze.
"Superman, you're awake!"
His voice was calm when he spoke, but the coldness wasn't disguised. "So… you married him."
A bucket of cold water wouldn't have got him out of the fog better than seeing Lois in her wedding dress. The physical pain suddenly seemed ridiculous compared with what the confirmation of Lois's decision did to his heart.
She'd married Luthor. She'd actually gone through with the wedding, stood at the altar with him, and married the man.
And so before he knew what he was doing, he was broaching the subject with her, as if it would change anything to the truth.
<Oh, Lois, how could you?>
<How could you do that to yourself?>
<How could you do that to… me?>
She stood before him, rigid and challenging, and he half- expected her to cross her arms and give in to her anger. She had no right to be angry. She knew how he felt about Luthor, and most of all she knew how he felt about her. She could accuse him of being jealous, of not granting her the happiness she deserved. How could she even think she would be happy with Luthor?
She opened her mouth to speak, and he closed his eyes, bracing himself for the rant.
"Superman! What a… surprise!"
The voice was pleasant, but the harsh planes of the face stepping out of the shadows denied all sign of friendliness.
Clark turned to Lois upon hearing her gasp, and was taken aback by the look of sheer terror that flickered in her eyes. It only lasted for a second, but she hadn't been able to hide it quickly enough. He'd never seen her so frightened before, and although she'd managed to compose herself, she couldn't fool him.
Why was she scared? he thought uncharitably. She'd married the man. Certainly she wasn't worried about him finding her in his wine cellar. As his wife, she had a right to wander around, didn't she?
He squashed the thought almost as quickly as it had intruded his mind. Lois had probably just realised that her husband wouldn't tolerate certain things, and that these things included the snooping into his personal business.
Luthor nodded to his bride, acknowledging her with a smile. "Lois. So that's where you were. I've been looking for you, my dear."
"So have I," she replied dryly, and Clark admired the confidence she displayed.
But Luthor ignored her and turned towards him again. "Superman, I'm hurt. I thought the accommodation would suit you."
"Luthor… You monster!" Clark rasped, trying to keep Luthor's attention directed away from Lois. Just because she'd been idiotic enough to marry the man, that didn't mean that he wanted to see her suffer.
"Superman, Superman… What ingratitude! When all I was trying to do was give you a little peace and quiet!" Lex said, his tone light. Clark wondered who he was trying to fool. But then, Lois had been blind to his faults all the way along — why should anything change now?
"You were trying to kill me!" Clark said, his voice stronger now that he was out of the cage and several feet from it.
Luthor ignored him, turning to Lois. "Can you believe this?" he said, sounding mildly irritated. "The man's obviously deranged. That's why I had him down here, you know. For his own protection, and that of other people. A contact of mine found him last night — he seemed to have gone quite mad. He was actually attacking an innocent citizen. Anyway, fortunately the boffins at LexLabs coincidentally discovered a substance which tranquilises Superman, and using that we were able to get him here. It's very concerning, actually. Can you imagine what he could do to people if he were allowed to go free in his current condition?"
"Oh, is that what the cell's made of?" Lois asked, sounding interested. Clark frowned and squinted up at her. What was she doing?
"Yes; it's coated with the substance. It's just a little bit radioactive; that's why it glows," Luthor explained. "Completely harmless to humans, of course."
"I see," Lois said thoughtfully, moving away from Clark and towards the cage. "It's certainly ingenious, Lex. How did you manage to coat the bars with it? At least, I assume that the bars aren't entirely made of this… substance, whatever it is?"
"I believe it's called Kryptonite, my dear," Luthor said, walking towards her. Clark watched the two of them, puzzled. He wasn't sure just how much Lois knew about what was going on; he had vague, dreamlike memories of her talking to him and him telling her that Luthor had imprisoned him, but he wasn't convinced that they were real. Whose side was Lois on? Was she really as completely taken in by Luthor as she appeared? Would she actually betray *Superman* to him?
And as for Luthor himself, the man was no fool. If Lois really was playing some elaborate game to try to establish her innocence in the scenario Luthor had walked in upon, would he believe her? Clark wouldn't bet on it.
Lois was standing in the doorway of the cage now; Clark could see her clearly in the light from the open doorway. She was fingering the bars, and he felt himself wince and cringe inwardly as he watched her, imagining what even the faintest touch of the toxic, abhorrent substance would do to his own fingers.
She smiled up at Luthor, moving away from the cage door as Luthor moved nearer to her, and Clark felt pain course through him again. "I thought Kryptonite was a rock… some sort of meteor?" she said questioningly. "How did you manage to get it like this?"
"Oh, the scientists managed to crush it and make a paste from it. It's a little like a very viscous paint. It wasn't difficult, or so I'm told."
"You're a genius, did you know that?" Lois said, shaking her head as if in admiration. Clark pulled a face and looked away.
When he glanced back again, somehow unable to ignore the two of them even though watching Lois with *him* was agonising, Luthor was stroking one of the cage bars. "Even if I do say so myself, it was rather a brilliant idea," he said smoothly. "After all, as much as we all admire the good that Superman does, the man does need a rest occasionally. That's plain now — we've seen the consequences of not letting that happen. Would you believe, my dear, that the man even threatened me!"
"That's terrible!" Lois exclaimed, sounding shocked.
"Oh, I was perfectly safe," Luthor said reassuringly. "The Kryptonite, as I said, acts as a tranquilliser."
Lois stepped towards Luthor and, to Clark's horror, reached up and put her arms around his neck and hugged him. "I'm so glad!" she exclaimed.
Then things happened very quickly. Clark saw Lois's knee come up, even encumbered as it was with her frothy wedding dress. Luthor gave a guttural moan, and then Lois shoved his shoulders hard. As he fell backwards into the cage, Lois pulled the door sharply to, then locked it. She dropped the key down inside the neckline of her dress, then hurried away.
"Lois! Lois, what are you doing?" Luthor protested, scrambling to his knees and rushing over to grab the bars. "Come back here at once! Open this door!"
"Not on your life!" Lois yelled. "Come on, Superman — we're getting out of here!"
He'd been tricked like a beginner!
Lex paced back and forth before the door of the cage he'd had built for his worst enemy. The *locked* door. And he was inside a jail that had brought him almost to one of his biggest victories.
Nigel had been right, after all. Giving in to his fascination for Lois Lane had been his worst mistake. He'd isolated her from the disturbing influence of her friends and colleagues, drawn her to him when she needed his comfort, offered her power and wealth… and she'd still eluded him at the last minute.
He'd been so sure that he'd succeeded, that she'd well and truly fallen in love with him, enough to deny her former attachment to the idiotic do-gooder. Self-confidence could be quite an enemy. So certain of his success he had been that he'd failed to be careful of what she claimed and how she behaved.
Not that he'd ever entirely trusted her. Trust was, after all, far too dangerous these days. People turned you over for the sake of a few million dollars… or even the call of their conscience. And when he'd seen her standing there, in front of a free Superman, he'd been sure that she had something to do the situation. Surely the superhero couldn't have got out of the cage by himself, as weak as he was.
Lois, though, had been more skilful than he'd expected. She'd manoeuvred around his anger and surprise, flattering his ego and astonishing him so much by her curiosity about his getting rid of Superman that he'd wanted to believe her.
What a fool he'd been!
And his foolishness had led him to be locked in his own cage, like a complete, utter rookie.
He shook his head and his lips quirked in a small smile. Lois had won this time, yes. Lois, and her damned flying boyfriend. But he'd wipe that arrogance off their faces soon enough. There was nothing they could prove, or at least nothing that a good lawyer couldn't skirt around.
This little incident, as humiliating as it was, would be only a glitch in his business a few months from now.
When Clark woke, his head was throbbing and his limbs aching. It wasn't a sensation he was familiar with, but it reminded him of what his college mates had called a hangover. The thought seemed out of line with his situation. Whatever had happened to make him feel so dizzy and weak, alcohol hadn't played a part in it.
He blinked a few times and ignored the tingling feeling in his eyes when they adjusted to the bright light inundating the room. He was on a bed, in a room that wasn't his, and he was…
He came to full wakefulness in the space of a second, swinging his achy legs to the side of the bed, and breathing in relief the blue spandex of his tights testified that he was dressed from the waist down.
So he was here as Superman.
And he was feeling weaker than he'd ever felt.
Kryptonite. It was the one and only answer.
Lois. Of course, Lois. In his state of half-slumber, he hadn't realised that he was in her apartment. But what was he doing at her place, as Superman, and without powers? He reached for the quilt in a subconscious gesture and covered his chest.
Her eyes briefly flicked to his torso, then back to his face. "I made breakfast."
He tried not to look frightened and focused on what was important instead. "How long have I slept?" <What am I doing here?>
She winced. "You haven't done more than growl for an occasional glass of water since yesterday."
He thrust his arms into the sleeves of his costume, holding back a wince against the strain it put on his muscles. "Kryptonite?"
She seemed puzzled for a second. "I'm not sure how your body works, Superman… if it's a poison that can be eliminated naturally, or something else. You refused to be taken to a hospital yesterday."
He nodded. The fewer people who knew about his vulnerability to the deadly rock, the better. And he remembered from his first encounter with Kryptonite that recovery was slow but steady. "What happened?" he finally asked. Bits and pieces mingled in his foggy mind and he couldn't reconstitute the full story of what had got him near Kryptonite.
Lois lowered her head, and he saw her heave a deep breath before she spoke. She explained everything. How she'd found him locked in a cage whose bars were glowing with a strange green light, how she'd freed him from his jail, how Lex had arrived before they could escape, and finally the way she had trapped him in his jail.
She kept her eyes to the floor throughout her story, and paused only when she was done.
He didn't know what to make of her attitude. Everything was clear in his head now; her explanation had jogged up every memory of yesterday's event. But one thing remained both mysterious and painfully certain: chances were that Lois was already married to Luthor. She'd probably taken advantage of the crowd at whatever wedding reception was planned to make an escape, God knew how. But whatever reason had been for her visit to the wine cellar, she was wed to a monster.
He glanced at her left hand and was slightly relieved not to find a ring there. At least she'd taken it off her finger when she'd found out who Luthor really was. But it was too late.
He'd lost her.
If only he'd handled things differently, he thought miserably. It was all crystal-clear now: the way he'd behaved as Superman, the things he'd said to her, had sent her running into Luthor's arms. It had to be what had done it. After all, hadn't she told him, as Clark, that she hadn't made up her mind about Luthor's proposal, that she needed to speak to someone else — Superman — first? Hadn't she told Superman that she had some decisions to make? And that she was in love with him?
And he'd rejected that love — cruelly. He hadn't even had the kindness to let her down as gently as she'd let him — Clark — down in the park. Though her rejection then had been followed, of course, by her request for him to contact Superman, and he'd have had to be stupid not to know why she'd wanted his alter ego. That had hurt. His sense of self-worth as Clark had been injured, and he'd wanted to strike back.
Well, he'd struck back. And as a result, the woman he loved was married to the one man he called enemy. The man who had tried to kill him — and who had almost succeeded.
"Superman?" Lois said, sounding concerned. "Are you still in pain?"
He shook his head. "Not really."
"Well, come and have breakfast," she urged him. "Well, that's if it's still warm… I mean, I cooked eggs and… and made waffles. You know, the sort that go into a toaster… well, I can't exactly burn those, can I? I burn most things in the kitchen, you see. But maybe Clark's told you that…"
Clark recognised the classic signs of nervous Lois, and he stood and reached out to touch her lightly on her arm. "Lois. It's okay, really. I appreciate your cooking breakfast, and even if it's gone cold I can take care of that."
"You… can?" She gave him a puzzled look.
"Well, I should be able to." He gestured to his eyes. "Heat vision. Comes in handy sometimes." As long as his powers had returned sufficiently to allow him to do it, of course — and since he was still suffering aches and pains, there was no guarantee of that. Oh well, he could try anyway, he supposed, smiling wryly to himself.
"I guess…" Again, the nervousness was there in her voice, and he wondered why. Was she unhappy about having him here in her apartment after what he'd said to her that dreadful night?
Or… was she afraid that her *husband* was going to come looking for her? Worried about what would happen if Luthor found Superman in her apartment? Scared that Luthor would punish her in some way for wrecking his plans and for humiliating him?
Luthor… He had to do something about that man, and not just to protect Lois, either. But first, he had to reassure Lois that he wouldn't let anything happen to her.
In the kitchen, he let her pour him coffee while he applied his own patented heating method to the food. To his delight and relief, it worked. His powers were returning! Even though they had before, after his previous exposure to Kryptonite, he hadn't dared take it for granted.
Once they were both sitting, he took a deep breath and said, "Lois, what about your husband?"
She stared at him, the piece of waffle on her fork falling back to her plate as her hand seemed to lose its grasp on the silverware. "My… husband?"
What was Superman talking about? Was he still sick? He was delirious — he had to be! Why else would he…
But then she took a sharp breath as she remembered. Just before Lex had arrived in the cellar and scared the life out of her because she hadn't known how she was going to talk her way out of things and still rescue Superman, he'd said to her…
<So… you married him.>
She'd been wearing her wedding dress, of course. And he'd thought it was after the wedding, not before it.
"Superman, no!" she said immediately. "I didn't marry him! The wedding hadn't started when I found you… I'd gone for a walk because…"
She hesitated, then decided that she might as well tell him, even though he'd made it clear that he had no interest in her personally. After all, who else could she tell? Not Clark — her ex-partner had made it clear that he was also a former friend. She'd called Clark dozens of times over the past almost twenty-four hours, leaving messages on his machine each time, and he hadn't returned a single one of her calls. She knew that he hadn't turned up to the wedding; Perry and Jimmy had told her afterwards that they hadn't seen him since the previous day. He'd worked with them, they'd told her, in gathering evidence against her fiance, but he hadn't been there for their last couple of meetings.
The partner she'd realised too late that she cared for had walked away without a backward glance.
"Because…?" Superman prompted.
Lois ducked her head, staring down at the breakfast she no longer wanted to eat. "Because… I'd been having second thoughts about marrying Lex. I knew I didn't love him, but when I accepted his proposal that didn't seem to matter. I mean, I liked him and we seemed to have a lot of interests in common. And the man I'd thought I loved… well, he didn't want me."
"Me," Superman said, sounding almost ashamed.
Lois nodded, not looking at him.
"Wait a minute…" Superman said, sounding surprised — and, she thought, almost chagrined. "*Thought* you loved?"
Lois bit her lip. She hadn't meant to let that slip… But, on the other hand, maybe it wasn't such a bad idea. After all, if Superman thought she was still crazily in love with him, wouldn't it affect the way he treated her? Even though she'd been badly hurt after he'd left her that night, she'd admitted afterwards that in a way she might have deserved what he'd said — especially if he'd seen what she was doing as pitting him against Lex, a man she now knew he'd viewed as being far from admirable.
During the period of her engagement, during which she'd been virtually cut off from all her friends, she'd had time to think long and hard about what really mattered to her. And she'd come to some surprising conclusions, conclusions she'd been in denial about for far too long.
Yes, she should tell Superman. After all, who else could she tell? Not her mother; Ellen Lane was virtually refusing to speak to her, after what she'd seen as the total humiliation of waiting outside the temporary chapel for a daughter who'd failed to turn up — and a groom who'd absented himself as well. The subsequent arrest of the man who'd almost become her son-in-law had added to her mother's embarrassment, and Lois's complete disappearance hadn't helped.
"I was wrong, Superman," she said quietly. "I… thought I was in love with you. And… and I am very attracted to you. But you were right. I… I really don't know you. And I guess it's hard to have a real relationship with someone you only see occasionally. I mean, we've talked more this morning than we have all of the other times I've seen you put together. So… well, I guess what I'm saying is that I came to my senses. About a lot of things."
"I'm glad," Superman said softly, and his hand covered hers, gently squeezing. "I care about you, Lois — a lot. And I owe you my life. But you're right — we can't have that kind of relationship. Apart from anything else, you'd be in too much danger. I'd like it if we could stay friends, though."
Lois nodded. "I'd like that too. I… I guess I don't have too many friends left at the moment."
She saw the surprise on Superman's face. "Of course you do, Lois! You have lots of friends!"
She shook her head. "I never had that many — and I realised over the last day or so that I'd pushed most of them away because of my relationship with Lex. Perry and Jimmy and Jack might have come through for me — though I think they did it for the paper, not for me — but Clark —"
"Clark?" Superman interrupted, his tone startled.
"Clark's… I don't know where he is. He's still not speaking to me, though. I really blew it with him," she said sadly. "And… oh, god, this is so ironic, and I probably deserve it after the way I treated him, but… Oh, Superman, I'm in love with him!"
She sniffed, and a tear fell, unbidden, onto her plate.
She was in love with Clark.
She was in love with… *him*. Him!
He wanted to shout, rush to her at once and hold her tightly to himself, tell her who he was and that her feelings were reciprocated, lift her off the ground and whirl around in a dance before he joined his lips for a kiss…
He remained seated at the table and stared at his hands.
Lois, his beautiful Lois, had confessed to Superman that she was in love with Clark… and that she was hurt that he'd turned his back on her. And even though she tried to conceal her tears, he couldn't ignore them. Yet he felt unable to stand up and wrap his arms around her. What sort of comfort could he offer when he was the cause of her sorrow?
He looked up at her, guilt-stricken, and was about to offer an apology and an explanation when she spoke again.
"You must think I'm unstable, going from one man to another like that. Declaring my love to you, almost marrying another one, and finally realising that I love a third one. Oh no, don't try to spare me," she added when he shook his head mutely. "I sound shallow even to myself."
"You're not shallow."
"And yet you claimed I was."
He hadn't! He most certainly hadn't claimed she was shallow! Thought it, maybe… for a few hours. But he'd blamed himself for even letting the idea tempt him.
"When I confessed my feelings," she explained, and he could see that she was more exasperated than upset now.
"I meant what I said." He knew that he sounded defensive, but he couldn't help it. "I shouldn't have been that blunt, though."
"The meaning was the same, Superman." Tears had been replaced by a glint of pent-up anger. "Blunt or not, you wouldn't believe that my feelings for you were genuine."
Okay. He had indeed said that. "And I was right."
"A moot point!"
He rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Lois, you're so…"
She fixed him with quirked eyebrows. "So what?" she prompted defiantly when he trailed off. "Right? Correct? Accurate? Spot on?"
"And you're so aggravating, Clark!"
He gasped. She knew. How did she know? How *could* she know? And when had she discovered who he really was?
"Superman, I meant Superman," she corrected hurriedly, apparently oblivious to the sweat pearling on his forehead. "Gee, sometimes you sound so like him that it's hard to know who I'm talking to."
A slip of the tongue? Could it really be just that? Or was she trying to cover up an unintentional revelation? Could she know about his secret and be keeping her knowledge to herself? And why?
He realised that she was fixing him intently, and squirmed under her inquiring gaze. Something was dawning in her eyes, and he held back a wince as he anticipated the upcoming explosion.
It didn't come.
But when she finally spoke, the strained calmness of her voice made every muscle in his body tense.
It was amazing how equally annoying Clark and Superman could be. No wonder she'd called him by her best friend's name, when he was making the same type of patronising comment that could come right out of Clark's mouth. He'd gasped loudly, and she had been jolted out of the tirade that she'd prepared so carefully.
But as she corrected her mistake with a blush, feeling self-conscious at having spoken to Superman so carelessly, she frowned upon the raw fear on his face. It was an expression that was so out of place for a man who challenged the greatest dangers on a daily basis. But calling him Clark had made his face so pale that she'd wondered if he wasn't about to faint. She'd been ready to blame it on the Kryptonite, but his quick recovery had coincided with her correction, and suddenly the wheels were turning in her mind, faster for her to stop a disturbing memory from entering her mind.
<I'm sorry, Mom, Dad…>
<You have parents?>
He hadn't replied. He'd drifted back to unconsciousness, and she'd promptly forgotten about the incongruous revelation. Until now. Until an idea that seemed so utterly farfetched that anyone would laugh about it if she voiced it aloud formed at the back of her mind.
<Lois, there are things you don't know about me. Things you may never know.>
<I have been in love with you for a long time.>
<If you were an ordinary man, leading an ordinary life, I could love you just the same!>
<I wish I could believe you. But under the circumstances, I don't see how I can.>
God. Oh, God… It couldn't be! It *could* not be!
She blinked, willing the dreadful fantasy which she already knew was the truth to go away. But the man sitting at her breakfast table, the angle of his jaw so very familiar, his hair ruffled and his brown eyes gentle, wasn't only the superhero who had swept her off her feet with a dream-like flight on the first day of his arrival.
He wasn't only the man she'd looked up to, the man who had made her believe that there was hope in this world, the man who had brought that very same hope with every rescue he performed.
Why hadn't he told her? Why had he let her make such a fool of herself, so many times?
In the unsure expression now plastered on his face, an expression which looked incongruous on the visage of the man in the blue and red costume and yet was so typically Clark, she could also see a man whom she'd treated with contempt and superiority and yet who hadn't turned his back on her like anyone else would have, a man who had opened her heart to friendship and… and love.
Now that she'd spoken, he looked panicky. As if he was about to turn and run any second. As if he was terrified that she was going to scream at him, or rant and rave, or tear him limb from limb.
And, she had to admit, these would have been distinct possibilities — had she not seen the look on his face, and had she not just forcibly confronted her attitude towards Clark in both his guises.
If he had deceived her, she hadn't exactly behaved perfectly either, had she?
She'd been so appallingly shallow. She'd rejected the best friend she'd ever had, the man she'd realised, too late, that she was in love with, in favour of a caped Superhero she barely knew, and then in favour of a man she'd discovered too late was a master criminal.
"Lois, I… uh…I… I'm not really sure what to…" Clark said, clearly fumbling for words. She glanced up at him again; his expression was miserable and in his awkward gaze she could see that he expected her to be angry.
How well he knew her! That was her all over, wasn't it: quick to anger, jumping to conclusions on, sometimes, quite flimsy evidence. Always convinced that she was right and that disagreements or misunderstandings were someone else's fault. Oh yes, she'd learned a number of lessons about herself over the past day — well, really over the past few weeks.
She'd been so angry at Clark and the others for abandoning her. Yet she'd never stopped to think *why* they'd walked away; why they didn't keep in touch and why they didn't want to come to her wedding. Finding out that Clark had been right about Lex all along, and that Perry and Jimmy and Jack had felt the same way, had been one of the factors causing her to reassess her behaviour, but not the only one.
It had finally dawned on her what a lousy friend she'd been to everyone. She'd been the one who had walked away, not everyone else. She'd abandoned them. She'd made it clear by her actions — going to work at LNN, getting engaged to Lex Luthor — that she'd moved on. She hadn't made any attempt to find out what any of the Planet's former news team were up to, or even whether they were okay. She'd made a couple of half-hearted attempts to stay in touch with Clark, that was true — but she'd completely failed to appreciate the depth of his pain. Jack, typically blunt, had pointed that out to her the previous evening when, Superman fast asleep in her apartment, she'd called the young former gofer, who was staying at Perry's Metropolis home with Jimmy.
She'd hurt Clark, Jack had said harshly. So why couldn't she just leave him alone so that he could get over it? Move on, start a new life and forget her?
It was no wonder that he wasn't expecting anything other than coldness or anger from her.
And, now that she thought about it, it was no wonder that he hadn't told her before.
Why should he? Considering the way she'd treated him as Clark, and the way she'd fawned over Superman, it was a wonder that he'd even wanted to be her friend. And, now that she knew the true identity of the man she'd thrown herself at in this very apartment mere weeks earlier, it was no wonder that Clark had been desperately hurt… no wonder that Superman had spoken so coldly and insultingly.
She needed to be a better friend than she had been in the past. She *could* be a better friend.
Getting to her feet, she crossed to stand beside Clark, who was now gazing down at the table and his unfinished breakfast. He gave her a quick glance from under his lashes, and she gained the impression that he wished he could simply fly off without a word.
What an indictment of her own behaviour!
"Clark," she said softly, putting her hand on his shoulder. "We need to talk."
He sighed deeply. "I guess we do. Uhh…" He got to his feet and turned to face her, his expression solemn. "How did you figure it out?"
Lois shrugged, giving him a wry smile. "I guess I finally remembered that I am an investigative reporter."
"Ah." Clark smiled slightly, but his tone was still unhappy as he continued. "You never really did try very hard to investigate me, did you? I know I've made so many mistakes, slip-ups, over the past year — there were lots of times that I was terrified you'd figure it out."
"Don't remind me!" she said ruefully. "The story of a lifetime was right under my nose all along, and I missed it."
Too late, she saw the sudden alarm on Clark's face. Hastily, she grabbed at his arm. "Clark, no! I wouldn't…! Well, I might have in the beginning, but not now! I know what it would mean for you," she assured him quickly. "Your secret is safe with me."
"Thank you, Lois," he said quietly. "Uh… I guess I have a lot of explaining to do. And that you want to yell at me…"
"Clark, I don't," she said, interrupting.
Lois shook her head. "I think I understand why you didn't tell me before. And a lot of other things, too. I haven't exactly been the kind of friend to you that you've been to me, Clark. And that makes me pretty ashamed."
Suddenly his hands were on her shoulders and he was looking down at her, a familiar, warm expression in his eyes. "Lois, you've been a great friend to me in ways you don't even realise. There wouldn't even be a Superman if it wasn't for you. Don't ever sell yourself short!"
Clark shook his head, his eyes now dancing with amusement. "No way. But I'll tell you all about that later. Right now…" He hesitated, biting his lip, and his expression became unsure again. "You said something a while back… Lois, did you mean it? You… love… me?"
What had she done to him? A memory flashed into her mind, from their first week working together. They'd been working late one night, and there'd been a moment when the atmosphere had been thick with sexual tension. He'd given her a steady, openly admiring look, and she'd known that he was on the point of turning the conversation even more personal — or maybe even trying to kiss her. And then a day or two later he'd actually asked her out. On both occasions she'd slapped him down pretty thoroughly, but he'd certainly shown confidence in his approaches to her.
Now, though, he was acting as if he expected to be rejected. As if he couldn't believe that she could possibly love him.
What had she done to him? Just what sort of person had Lois Lane become?
"Yes, I love you, Clark," she said quietly. "More than I ever knew I could love anyone. I know I don't deserve you, but is there any hope that you might love me back?"
She was asking him to love her back! Clark thought his heart would burst with joy. Finally, finally, he'd got what he'd been pining for all these months. Loving Lois from afar, knowing that she didn't return his feelings, had been sheer torture. And now, a few hours after he'd thought he had lost her for good, seen her married to another man, she was closer to him than she'd ever been before.
She loved him.
He closed his eyes and savoured the moment, wishing that he could commit every detail of it to memory. He wanted to remember all his life this precise second, when everything had changed for Lois and him.
"Any hope, Lois?" he said huskily, his joy barely restrained. "Don't you remember what I told you six weeks ago?"
She lowered her head and flinched. "I wouldn't blame you for changing your mind."
He reached for her hand. "There are some things that can never change. That will never change. The way I love you is like that, Lois," he assured her softly. "My love is forever. Because… because it just is. I've loved you since the first day I saw you. And I've hoped, longed that some day you'd feel the same about me."
"But that's just it, Clark. You're so sure that you love me, that you will *always* love me. And me, I'm so unstable that I can't even rely on my own common sense to be sure that my feelings for you are as real as yours for me."
He could tell from the way she looked at him and the slight tremor in the words rushing out of her mouth that her fears couldn't be soothed in a heartbeat. He wanted forever with Lois, but it would probably take time for her to see that her problems with relationships in the past weren't her own fault. She needed time. And he wouldn't give up. Someday, very soon, he vowed silently, she would be more confident, and whatever she decided about them, she wouldn't regret it. Squeezing her hand gently, he took half a step closer to her.
"I'm not going to propose," he said as he gently tugged her into the circle of his arms. Then he added with a wink, "Not yet anyway."
She smiled, but her body didn't relax against his. "Good. I think I won't want to talk about marriage for some time after yesterday. Speaking of which," she hurried on before he could reply, "Lex is under arrest. Perry and Jimmy brought every single piece of evidence they had against him to the police. I think we won't hear from him for a while. Thanks to you."
"They told me you'd pretty much organised the investigation."
"That's not exactly true. Lois…"
"Some reporter I am, huh? You were right all along, Clark. I should have investigated Lex as soon as I first met him. The Planet would still be there if I'd looked a little beyond the exterior and —"
He reached up to cradle her face in his palms. "Lois," he said softly. "Stop talking."
Listening to her, he had suspected that she would gladly talk for ever about the details of Luthor's arrest, if it would save her from an intimate conversation with him. That was his Lois, all right — so afraid of her own emotions, of taking a chance, that she hid behind things which didn't matter.
But this time he was determined not to let her.
It wasn't as if he'd be imposing his will on her, after all, he reasoned: she'd just told him that she loved him too.
So maybe this was the moment to act a little more decisively… the way he wished he'd acted that day in the park.
He kissed her, his lips covering hers tentatively, but quickly becoming confident. She received his kiss passively…
Maybe she didn't love him after all? The thought came into his mind with the force of a flood of iced water, and he almost let go of her.
Maybe she just didn't want him the way he wanted her?
But then she clung to him, and he had his answer. Her arms came up to slide around his neck, her fingers tangling in his hair. And suddenly, with a soft moan, her lips parted beneath his, and she was kissing him back with a passion and intensity he'd only dreamed of.
Her hands slid down his chest and pushed him back against the counter, catching him off guard. Deliciously trapped by her slender body, he let her explore him with gentle, unhurried movements. Their kiss ended on a mutual sigh, and they kept their arms around each other as they cooled down.
Frustration and relief battled in Clark's mind as he tried to control the erratic beating of his heart. Kissing Lois went beyond anything he'd let himself fantasise about. He wasn't sure he could have stopped the encounter at that if she hadn't ceased the torturing caress of her lips against his.
She yawned against the side of his neck, and he remembered that she hadn't mentioned getting any sleep last night. She had probably stayed by his side all night, catering to his every mumbled wish.
"Lois, you need to rest. I won't even ask if you managed to get any sleep since yesterday."
"A little. Enough to wonder what went through my mind when I bought those sofas of mine."
He chuckled, remembering the few nights he had spent at Lois's apartment. Floating had seemed less of a risk than breaking his back against the uncomfortable cushions of her loveseats.
"Go to bed, then. I should go home." He didn't want to. He wanted to stay with her and never let her go. He wanted to hold her and kiss her again. He tightened his arms around her.
She raised her head from his shoulder and looked him in the eye, but didn't pull away. "It would be more… reasonable," she said, though he heard the reluctance in her words.
"And we're going to be reasonable." He willed himself to be firm, but knew that he was failing when she grinned and playfully kissed the side of his mouth.
"You know, reasonable isn't something I'm very good at."
"And you've spent the past year corrupting me."
"Did I succeed?"
"Oh! Masterfully." He grew serious again. "Lois, don't take this the wrong way, but would you let me stay? Not for what you think, but just to hold you?"
She didn't answer him immediately, and he feared that he'd said the wrong thing, that he'd scared her, that he'd already lost her. He dropped his arms from her waist. "Lois, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. I guess I can't —"
"Clark, I want you to stay."
"— control my feelings for you and I guess that the past few weeks made me even more aware of how empty my life would be if I lost you… What?"
"I want you to stay," she repeated.
"You want me to stay?"
"Please. If you want to, that is. I know it's not exactly fair to you, but —"
He cupped her cheek and smiled tenderly at her. "Lois, I don't feel ready to take such a big step either. Even if part of me wants to throw caution to the wind."
She covered his hand with her own and dropped a kiss on his palm. "Me too. But it feels right. Loving you feels right."
Together, hand in hand, they moved back into the bedroom. They paused beside the bed, just a little awkward, though even that felt right to Clark. After all, he knew instinctively that sharing a bed with a man wasn't something Lois did very often either.
She disappeared into the bathroom, leaving him to change into the oversized T-shirt she'd found for him; ten minutes later, they were lying side by side in her large bed. The distance between them was perhaps a few inches, but even that was far too great. Clark slid towards Lois, tugging her gently into his arms; she responded by snuggling up to him and resting her head on this chest.
"Mmm… this is nice," she murmured, her voice sleepy but happy.
"Nice doesn't begin to describe it," Clark assured her, dropping a kiss on her forehead.
"Better than Lex's hospitality, huh?" Lois teased, but then she fell abruptly silent. No doubt remembering what a narrow escape she'd had, Clark reflected. It had to have been a shock for her to discover just what her fiance was capable of. But at least she'd found out before it was too late. If she'd already married him… well, it didn't bear thinking of.
He'd had a narrow escape himself — just twenty-four hours earlier, he'd been huddled in that cage waiting to die. And now, now he was lying in the arms of the woman he loved.
All his dreams come true.
And, he thought, gazing down at the woman he adored, who was now fast asleep, there was even better to come.
The rest of their lives — together.