By CC Aiken <AikFree@aol.com>
Submitted: March, 2004
Summary: The biggest secret in the world: that Superman is Clark Kent. But would Lois and Clark keep that secret at any cost? Even at the price of Lois's life?
Thank you to Labrat and Lynn. Two BRs who improved the story enormously. Labrat, for the push to make this 'more,' as in forty pages more. And Lynn, for her insistence there be a return to Metropolis. I disagreed with them both rather vehemently. And it turns out, they were dead right. And thanks, too, to the readers of the LC Fanfic Mbs, whose response to this was such a pleasure for me.
Lastly, to Wendy. Thank you for the semi-colons and full stops. They dress the piece up so nicely. And for going the extra mile with this when you didn't have to. I so appreciate it.
All feedback, good and bad and in between, is most welcome.
They pulled her towards the center of the room, the only sounds her heels scraping along the floor and the steady hum of the cameras. No one moved, no one blinked.
Once under the lights, Lois was pushed to her knees, one hand shoving her head roughly down towards the floor.
"I'm ok," Lois said steadily, and Clark knew that was for him. She showed absolutely no fear.
He stepped away from Jimmy, who sent him a silent, mournful look. He stepped over Perry, who, though breathing evenly, was obviously still in great pain.
"Go get 'em, son," he gasped out between blue lips.
"Thanks, Chief," Clark answered tightly.
His deliberate movements had caught the attention of their captors. "Hey!" one of them yelled threateningly. "Back against the wall, four- eyes…"
"Kent's moving!" another voice called.
He never broke stride. "Let her go!" he snapped, pushing those who rushed him aside like the miniscule nuisances they were.
"Grab him!" barked the leader. "Shoot him if you have to!"
"Lois," Clark called from behind the wall of armed men who had converged on him. "It's time, honey."
"It doesn't have to be," she returned firmly, looking up as far as the hand on her head allowed. An exchange which he knew sounded like gibberish to everyone else. "They're just trying to force things…they don't mean it, Clark."
"No?" the thug who had hold of the back of her collar asked incredulously. "What would it look like if we did mean it?!"
"Superman," the leader called; the cameras turned as one in his direction. "Just so there's no mistake, the wait is over. You've won. You aren't coming. We get that." He made a slight bow to the cameras. "Nice to see a man set his principles and then stick to them, no matter how…messy." He raised his voice, smiled a smile devoid of anything but pure malice. "But Lois Lane is about to die. Right here, right now, in front of her husband and hundreds of witnesses. Luckily, if you miss it live, we'll have it on tape…"
Clark's eyes locked with hers.
"They mean it," he told her.
Lois nodded, drew in a deep breath and yelled the cry that had made her internationally famous over the years.
*Twenty-Four hours earlier 6:00 PM*
"You do know that when I asked for your help with the zipper-" She met the dancing eyes of her husband in the bureau mirror. "-I was talking about up, not down?"
"Are you completely…sure…about…that…Lois?" he asked between kisses, softly layering them about her neck and shoulders. "Exactly…how…married to that idea are you?"
"We'll be…late…later than we are already." Despite her words, she closed her eyes and leaned back against him, wordlessly encouraging his hands to roam.
They were already in motion.
"How…many…of these things…have we…attended, anyway?" Clark asked somewhat breathlessly after a time.
"I'm counting this as seven," Lois answered slowly, thoughtfully, which wasn't an easy thing to do. She forced herself to take a step away from him. Two more steps when he followed.
"And you think that seven is the magic number?" he asked with some amusement, letting her escape. "If Perry doesn't retire after this retirement party, I'm not coming to number eight."
"You know how he is." Lois sighed. "He swears he's finished, but then the next big story comes along…"
"Or the next incompetent replacement." Clark supplied. "Other than you," he added quickly at her pointed glare.
"I don't want that job, Clark," she replied with a scowl.
"I know, I know." He held his hands up in surrender, motioning for her to come back so he could zip her up. "But you are the only person I see Perry really, truly stepping aside for."
"This new editor is supposed to be very good," she whispered against the side of his neck, as he bent around her to finish his task. "And…after almost thirty years, Clark, I've been thinking of doing something…different."
"Leave the Daily Planet?" She had his full attention now, his hands tightening in surprise on her shoulders. "You're kidding."
"You're the foreign correspondent now and Jimmy is upstairs. Perry is leaving, again, and well, the thrill of the chase…" Her voice trailed away, and she laughed when she took in his wide-mouthed stare. "What?"
"I just…can't believe what I think I'm hearing you say," he stammered. "You're…bored with investigative journalism? The thrill is…gone?"
"Not gone, necessarily, but you and I have just about covered everything, Clark. I don't know…maybe it's just with this party tonight. Perry leaving again…"
"Perry," he informed her grimly, "will be back in two weeks. I'll bet you."
"What are the stakes?" She smiled softly.
His eyes rolled up and down her, long and slow. "Well…" He drew out the pause. "Maybe we could think of something…interesting."
"You think. I'm starting the car." She lunged to avoid his grasp and darted from the room.
She didn't quite make it down the stairs. They settled for being fashionably late.
"What the…? Why…? Why on earth is Perry's party being held here?!" Clark rounded on her as soon as they were alone in the elevator.
"This is a big deal. The mayor and the governor want everyone to see that this place has been restored, turned into an educational and cultural highpoint of Metropolis. Re-baptised, so to speak. It's good for tourism, and besides, everyone wants to see it, anyway."
"And Perry agreed to this?" he asked incredulously. "And you didn't tell me because…?"
"Because I wanted you to come. And because Perry had no choice. This is a chance for the city to show off what it's done here, and Perry's party is a good excuse for its first official state function."
"The entire place is lined in lead," he reported gloomily.
"So take the night off, Superman," she whispered. "Be like the rest of us short-sighted people."
"If Lex Luthor could see us now…" he began, jumping when her hands found their way underneath the shirt of his tuxedo. "Lois," he hissed.
"You pawed me all evening," she defended herself with a grin.
"At home," he retorted. "In private!"
"If Lex Luthor could see us now…?" She rose on her tip-toes to pull his mouth to hers.
"He'd eat his heart out," he finished against her lips. "He'd kill himself deader than he already is."
"Now you're getting into the swing of things," she answered as the doors slid open to reveal what was once Lex Luthor's "ark" under Metropolis, now highly polished and decorated with the city's most beautiful and important people.
"I'm going to order the reddest wine they've got." He winked at her, taking her coat and handing it to the hovering attendant. "And I'm going to spill it on the carpet completely by accident."
"I'll take a glass of that, too," she agreed, sliding her hand into his. "But first there's Perry and Alice. Let's go on over."
They were headed towards the bar when things got weird.
What sounded like a series of explosions — one following so quickly on top of the other it was hard to know where it started — echoed through the ballroom, leaving all attendees, especially those with super hearing, momentarily deafened and stunned. Heavy smoke, startled voices, and screams filled the air. It took Clark an extra second to move. With one hand on her back, he maneuvered Lois towards the bar. He would push her behind it, duck down, change…
He had his other hand on the knot of his tie when he ran past the first camera. The media had all turned out, not just for Perry, but for the chance to show the very curious citizens of Metropolis and the world what the inside of Luthor's stronghold looked like. He took a quick inventory. Dozens of cameras were rolling, some pointed their way. Not at them, but at the armed men who were emerging from various places around the room.
"Move it," one of them said to Clark, pointing his weapon at him, and motioning for Lois to follow.
His heart sank. He had hesitated and lost his moment. In hoping to hide Lois, to hide himself so Superman could show up, he had jogged them right into the guy's path.
"Who are you?" Lois demanded, ignoring her husband's cautioning hand on her arm. "What is the meaning of this?"
"You'll find out," their escort replied politely. "Away from the walls, please." He raised his voice to include everyone in their vicinity. "Let's huddle up."
Clark wrapped a protective arm around Lois, pulling her along in a show of cooperation. He tipped his head, letting his glasses slide down his nose, and did a quick scan of their captors. Several of them, easy to spot now, as they were armed to the teeth.
"Where did they come from?" she hissed at him.
"They're all over, dressed like everyone else, press badges," he replied in shorthand.
"How did they sneak past security?" she exclaimed.
"How do they ever?" He shrugged.
"You might have been right about skipping this party," she replied wearily.
"We'll get out of this, honey," he promised her. "I know guys who know guys…"
"And I have an 'in' with Superman," she whispered. They shared a silent grin.
Later, much later, they would realize how stupid they had sounded. Years of near misses had made them a touch arrogant, somewhat blase. In close to three decades together, they had squeezed out of so many tight jams, they had forgotten that often they had simply been lucky. And that luck, like everything else, eventually runs out.
"I'll need the cameras over here," the apparent ringleader directed. He was dressed just as all the men in the place were. In his tuxedo, tall and fair-haired, there was nothing on the surface to indicate he was any different from the other party-goers, but for the cold gleam in his eye, the pleased look on his face. "I have some comments to make, and it's important that your authorities hear me."
A team of eager reporters nearly trampled him in their hurry to be first.
"Don't they know this is for real?" remarked the man next to them scornfully. To most everyone at the party he was James Olsen, award- winning and much-accomplished photo journalist. To a handful, he would always be 'Jimmy.'
"They want the story," Lois said, moving to greet him with a kiss on the cheek, as if this sort of thing happened every day. And really, it practically did.
"We are reasonable people," the leader began, speaking loudly into the wall of microphones that had been thrust in front of him. "But if our goal isn't met within a reasonable amount of time," he continued coolly, "people will die. Painfully…one by one." A few of the cameras pulled back a bit; some of the microphones fell from the wall. The whispers of the party guests stopped.
"Oh, please," Lois groaned. "Painfully, one by one. Who writes his stuff?"
"So many villains, honey," Clark muttered. "It's hard to be original."
"And Superman…" The speaker paused and peered into the closest lens, measuring his words. "The elevator is rigged. If you try to enter the shaft…everyone dies."
"There he goes again," Lois complained.
"And there is no way in or out, except by the hallway outside…"
"I vote we take the hallway." This from Jimmy.
"The doors are reinforced, and well guarded, as you can see." His eyes cut towards the overly grand main entrance to the ballroom. Ornate and elaborately decorated — with guns and cameras now. "There is no sneaking in…"
The mood changed a bit. A resigned moan sounded from the group.
"…no covert saving the day for the Man of Steel." He was looking very pleased now. "We're too far underground for you to dig, not without us hearing you coming. And if we do…everyone dies."
"I think I'm seeing a theme here," Clark breathed.
At the man's gesture, his small army of soldiers raised their weapons as one and shot the overhead chandelier to shards. Crystal and glass rained down on all the guests. Clark tensed. He noted the cameras again, and held still with great effort, aware that Lois had tightened her grip on him, planted her feet.
"No," she said.
He watched the bullets ricochet around the room. Too fast for human eyes. Most embedded harmlessly into the ceiling and the walls. One came to a halt only after tearing the arm off one of Luthor's treasured sculptures. Good, he thought, idly.
"The clock is ticking," their speaker finished. "If we get what we want in due time…if no one tries to play hero…then everybody stays safe."
With that he turned away and for the first time faced the now very alert assembly.
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen of Metropolis. Forgive the intrusion, I must beg you. It isn't personal and hopefully it won't last long, but I'll just reiterate the importance of doing as I and my men say. That way everyone goes home, sleeps in their own bed tonight, right?" He made eye contact with various faces here and there around the room. It was non-threatening and casual, but enough for Clark to see that he was looking, taking note of his hostages, studying their size, shape, conditioning. All done very quickly.
"He's smart," Lois muttered, audible only to him.
Clark nodded, never taking his eyes off their speaker. "The cameras, Lois," he mumbled. "If I could…short them out. Hit them with…" He made a show of slowly pushing his glasses down the bridge of his nose.
"Too many of them. Witnesses," Lois addressed the floor, studying her shoes. "Should have worn the flats," she sighed regretfully. "This will be so much harder…"
"Blow them over?" he asked through a clenched jaw.
"A strong wind in here? Below ground? A give away," she coughed.
"Let's have the women along this wall." The leader was gesturing to the far side of the ballroom. His gaze, having landed on the team of Lane and Kent, evidently deciding for him this was a wise course of action. "And the men over here. Again, everybody cooperates and no one gets hurt."
Clark tightened his grip on Lois' hand, steeling himself to step away from her. As the other couples began parting reluctantly, their eyes met and held for a long moment.
"Don't do anything stupid," they blurted at the same time.
"I mean it," they sounded in unison again.
"Break it up, you two," snarled a voice in their direction.
Clark stole a swift kiss from Lois, whispering as they parted, "I love you. I'll think of -"
"No," she overrode him earnestly. "Too risky. Let the police-"
Two men shoved them apart and they moved away.
Lois never took her eyes off him as she walked towards her wall, so she knew the exact instant he felt the kryptonite. As he passed the huge double doors, looking, she knew, for a way out, he paused for half a heartbeat. A familiar hunch came into his posture, and the strain showed clearly on his face, before he straightened up and continued walking.
His eyes sought hers immediately.
"Kryptonite?" She mouthed the dreaded word to him, her stomach dropping at his grim- faced nod.
It was worse than they thought.
On considerably shakier legs, Lois moved to join Alice and the other woman from the Planet. She took her time, even affected a slight limp, just in case anyone was looking at her and considering for a moment that the middle-aged woman with the world-wide reputation was on the verge of swinging into action. She wasn't the young and daring twenty- something of years past, but she had stayed in shape. Stayed fit and ready for anything. If she wasn't as reckless as she had once been, that was because she had only gotten smarter. Learned to use a bit of finesse over bluster. Still not exactly checking the water level, just checking to be sure there was, indeed, water.
Her looks belied her age. She had her own theories on this. Living in his aura, pressed up against him for so many years, maybe some of that super stuff had rubbed off. Or maybe it was just that she was happy and it showed.
Lois counted as many of the gunmen and cameras as she was able in her short walk, weighing the odds. That he wouldn't be noticed. That he might step away for a second, move at superspeed, knock the lights out. She craned her neck back, on the pretense of working out the kinks, rubbing one shoulder absently, while counting the overhead fixtures. Hundreds upon hundreds. How ridiculously overdone. How Lex. Don't use one where ten will do. And don't ever use ten, use ten thousand.
To this day, all these years of marriage later, the name Lex Luthor was burned into her mind, into her memory. Clark had loved so much of the bad stuff away. But that part — the part where the sickest man in a city of millions had pulled out a ring and said "will you" and she had said, "yes" — that part was still with her. Always would be. A reminder of how bad things could be, how stupidly a person could mess up. How she should never take it for granted, because it could have all turned out so differently.
But if the words Lex Luthor were stamped into her head, unwelcome syllables that haunted her, there was another just as toxic in their company. Kryptonite.
Just the word made her sick to her stomach. She had heard it enough over the years, and not just out of the mouths of the bad guys. Funny how casually it rolled off the tongues of even the good guys. Wasn't it interesting that Superman, the most powerful being on the planet, could be rendered so helpless by a rock? When the news was slow, that old chestnut was brought out and roasted by various talking heads on the Sunday morning programs. Maybe a scientist to describe the elements of kryptonite, what made it unique, what made it deadly. Maybe a military analyst who would gravely detail the security surrounding the only known remaining pieces of it. Always way, way too much detail. As if anyone motivated enough to find it needed any helpful hints. Or maybe a medical expert to describe precisely how it would shut down Superman's system, exactly how long it would take, how incredibly painful it would be.
"Wouldn't be able to draw a deep breath, would you say?" an anchor would ask, brow furled in concern, tone filled with foreboding.
"Not enough to get what he needed," the expert would declare regretfully, flatly.
Clark had few secrets from the world now. Not like in the beginning, when how Superman worked and what made him vulnerable was so carefully guarded. By her, initially. Even before she knew who he was and how her life would be linked to his, she had been purposeful in protecting him. With a few exceptions, most of the press had followed suit. They'd known a good thing, the real thing, when they'd seen it. No one had wanted to jeopardize that. Doctor Klein at STAR labs had set the bar for confidentiality when it came to Clark's physical abilities and limitations. His work was eventually shared with a very small circle of scientists, whose knowledge of Superman's physiology had certainly saved his life on more than one occasion, and whose dedication to keeping Superman healthy and safe meant they would rather die than reveal what they knew. Some had.
But some time ago all of that started to change. And the unblinking glare of the spotlight had begun to show some cracks in Superman's persona. There was a seam in his cape, one reporter had noted once, that hadn't been there before. He must carry something, then. A phone, a pager, a watch, maybe?
It had been a pager. That had started with her first pregnancy. STAR labs had invented it — the signal could reach him anywhere. And Martha had sewn a nearly invisible pocket for it. Nearly invisible.
As far as observations went, it wasn't momentous. It was just the small start, the drip. That one day was a steady trickle, that the next day was a gentle flow, that some day would be a river… Nothing too far out of bounds or too explosive. Just one thing that followed the next thing, which served to make Superman less mysterious, more knowable.
At first Clark had kind of liked it. He'd never said so, but she had suspected. He wasn't so different from everyone. Even wearing the cape. Even holding a 747 over his head. He was a guy with a seam, with a pager, with…a life. He wasn't only the glossy color cut-out of magazines and movies. He was…a man.
But Lois had seen it for what it was, had seen it from that first morning, that first talk show that sought to demystify the superhero. The one that had spelled out the dangers of kryptonite, which had frightened their oldest, just old enough to understand, so terribly for weeks. If you take away the mystery, the aura, if you make Superman just a guy with muscles, then the ideal is lost. The higher purpose, the selfless sacrifice, the amazing feats — maybe not so amazing after they've been televised hundreds of times. And you get dangerously close to…Clark Kent. And the things he held most dear. She knew she was at the top of that list. Their children. Their life. Everything.
She hated it sometimes, that he was so good he couldn't see what was happening. That he was pleased with Superman's gradual blending into the landscape, the fabric of Metropolis and of the world. Even the blue and the red seemed less flashy, especially compared to what was passing for fashion these days.
But she wouldn't change a thing about him. Wouldn't burst his bubble by sharing her theories or wishing him savvier. Because when it came right down to it, it was what she loved about him, and always had. His love of others, of his home, his city. His simple appreciation, every day, of belonging. Of the two of them, she was definitely still the alien, still looking from the outside in, still with the cynical, questioning style, which made her a really good living.
"A distraction," she voiced quietly, just as her hands joined with Alice's. She turned her head towards him, and saw his eyes staring hard at her. He was standing with Perry and Jimmy and a few others. His broad shoulders took much of the room in their huddle, though he was holding himself in as well as he could. By his posture she could tell he was only making a show of listening to what was being said. By the look on his face, she knew, too, that he had heard her.
"I could…faint." She smiled sweetly at Alice, grateful all at once that her friend was now rather hard of hearing.
Clark didn't move, but his darkened brow said it all. <No.>
"A seizure?" She squeezed Alice's hand, moving to take the chair next to hers. "I'm diabetic, maybe, or hypoglycemic, or…claustrophobic?"
He didn't have to say anything. She could almost hear his words in the way his hand moved across his forehead, started to worry with his hair, which had gone gray at the temples only recently. He even forgot to keep his shoulders in, squaring them and nearly knocking Jimmy out of the circle in the process. <Claustrophobic?! In this place?>
She chuckled softly, and despite the situation, he smiled at her. A small smile, mostly in his eyes, but for her. "Ok," she sighed. "We wait and see."
He moved to put his arm around Jimmy, an obvious apology for the hard knock moment before. He bent his head back towards Perry cordially; nodding his response, listening now to whatever the Chief was telling him. Could be about when Elvis was held hostage in Vegas. Could be how this time he was really going to stay retired, that this was a sign…
"I love you, Clark Kent," she spoke as loudly as she dared, certain that the voices and movement around her wouldn't give her away.
His head came up again, his eyes back to hers. He looked at her a long time; nodded. She nodded back.
For a hostage situation, it was pretty boring. The men with the guns were polite, suggesting everyone find a seat and make themselves comfortable. No reason to let the rest of the food and wine go to waste.
The first few hours seemed like an odd sort of dinner party. In fact, Clark flashed back to some of the dances he attended as a teenager. Girls and boys all dressed up and pointedly avoiding going anywhere near each other.
Lois was eating and chatting, at last. Some of the worry gone from her face, now. At one point she even threw back her head and laughed, deep in an animated conversation with their colleagues. For Lois, he thought wryly, this was almost just another dinner, probably more fun than the last one. She knew about the kryptonite, but she didn't know what he did.
That he shouldn't have been able to feel it.
He couldn't feel it now, from where he was sitting, but next to those doors the kryptonite that obviously lay in wait for Superman had been unmistakable. But the doors, like the rest of the over-sized room, were lined in lead…
After dessert things got uncomfortable. It was almost too bad the band hadn't made it down in time. They would have been a nice distraction.
"Like on the Titanic, CK?" Jimmy asked him when he had voiced that thought aloud.
"Don't jinx us, son," Perry had ordered.
So comfortable and almost normal that it was weird. There was no other word for it. They sat. They drank. Those at their table toasted Perry.
"Will you really go now, Chief?" Jimmy had asked. "Because this makes such a great story. You know, it's too bad you won't be assigning it out to anyone tomorrow morning…"
"It's yours, Kent." Perry had winked.
"Oh, man!" Jimmy complained. "I have it half-written in my head, and CK is foreign affairs. You don't want it, do you, Clark? Tell him."
"Not until I know how it ends," he answered grimly. "Until these guys play their hand, we have no idea what we're in for."
"Can we meet with the man of the hour?" The thug in charge hadn't given them his name, so they had taken to calling him the Cat.
"It's that same sort of sleek, predatory look that reminds me of her," one of the sports writers had noted with a hint of longing in his voice.
"Yeah," sighed another wistfully. "I still miss her."
The so-nicknamed Cat raked his eyes over the group. "Perry White, are you here?"
"What do you want?" Perry asked belligerently. "We've been sitting here for hours. You haven't even named your demands, aren't taking calls from the outside. What kind of outfit you runnin' here, anyway?"
"Perry," Clark cautioned, nudging him not too gently under the table. "Don't -"
"We're getting to that," their host answered smoothly, a tad smugly. "Care to have a look?" He gestured to Perry directly, as one of the armed men came to draw the older man away from the group and in front of the still running television cameras.
"He sure loves those cameras, doesn't he?" Jimmy complained.
"Another thing I miss about Cat," said a mournful voice.
The Cat was holding a paper of some sort in front of the Chief, who squinted at it, before reaching into his pocket for his glasses.
Clark lowered his own glasses as discreetly as he could, trying to get a look at whatever they were showing to Perry. A map, maybe? A diagram? It was some sort of blueprint and it was complicated. But the Chief had evidently seen enough to understand it. He certainly looked shaken. And convinced. After some sober conversation, which Clark strained and failed to overhear — even after shushing his dining companions — due to the acoustics that drowned everything in a sea of murmurs, Perry stepped up to the microphones.
"Superman," Perry began in a soft, controlled voice, staring hard into the camera.
Clark felt the hair on the back of his neck rise.
"Your presence is requested at my…retirement party." This said with some emotion. It was obvious the words did not come easily. "If you don't come…the guests will be…hurt…until you do."
As he spoke Perry raised his gaze slowly and deliberately, just over the bank of cameras, over the shoulders of the camera operators. He looked like he was taking in the room. But his eyes went straight to their table, straight to Clark.
"Do what you have to," he finished firmly. "But…be careful."
Clark inclined his head, almost imperceptibly, in acknowledgment. He noticed that at the gesture his boss relaxed almost immediately and looked away.
It had never been spoken of between the two of them, but Clark had known for some time that Perry White had his number. He had come to realize, over the years, that the Chief was just a bit too gracious about his leaving abruptly, his unexplained absences that could last for days, and finally his willingness to take on the job as foreign correspondent and be "away" from his wife and family for weeks. The travel vouchers that were a routine part of his job, as well as the itineraries and flight numbers required for the bean counters at the Planet, never found their way to his desk. Instead, he'd learned only after asking, Perry signed off on everything, personally.
Perry was moving briskly away from the cameras and armed men. He strode towards their table, with just a backwards glance of longing at Alice.
She and Lois were still sitting together, along with the other women on staff at the Planet and various dignitaries. To a member, they looked completely calm. Except for Lois. Clark recognized the frustrated energy simmering just beneath the surface, could practically see her mind racing even as she sat there. But as long as she stayed cooperative, didn't try anything…What was he thinking? He'd been married to her nearly twenty-five years, had been her partner for longer still. He really ought to know better by now…
"Some party," Clark heard Perry mutter, before he saw his boss clutch at his heart and glide noiselessly to the floor.
"We need a doctor!" Jimmy shouted, moving almost as quickly as he did towards their struggling mentor.
"Get back! Get back!" one of the gun-wielders shouted. Jimmy ignored him, and Clark moved to stand between the gun and his two friends on the floor.
"Easy, Jimmy," he cautioned him, kneeling beside Perry, already listening to the erratic beating of Perry's heart. "We don't want to set these guys off. Deep breaths, Chief," he soothed.
"The old ticker hasn't been…the same…" Perry panted, "…since the…last retirement…party."
"You've got to stop having these things, then," Jimmy informed him grimly. "I'm sick of renting the same tux."
Perry smiled, though ashen-faced. "You were good to come. To all of…them…but then, you boys have always been like family. I should have told you that more -"
"No!" Clark and Jimmy spoke as one.
"No saying goodbye, Chief," Clark stated firmly. He lowered his glasses and peered closely. "You have an enlarged heart," he blurted, stunned by what he was seeing.
"Congestive heart failure," Perry supplied. "That's not as serious as it sounds. I take some medication, is all. But this feels…worse."
"CK?" Jimmy questioned softly. "You take it easy, too. I mean, I just heard you. Who knows who else might have."
Clark barely had time to register his surprise. He was still blinking in the face of Jimmy's frank stare when one of their captors stormed over to them.
"Break this up," he ordered.
"This man needs a doctor," Clark answered in his best Superman voice. And then to Perry, "A heart attack, you think?"
"When we get what we came for, everyone goes home. Until then, stand back."
"What did you come for?" Jimmy asked in exasperation, not moving from his position on the floor. "Who are you? What do you want? Why are you asking Superman to come? Isn't that inviting trouble?"
Their captor's only answer was pointed silence, a mocking smile.
"Maybe you could let the…" Clark paused and tried to find the right word, one that wouldn't offend Perry. "…older guests leave? Maybe some of the women? Keep a group of us behind for leverage?"
"Nobody's leaving until we get what we want," was the brusque reply.
"And that is…?" Clark prompted.
"Superman," ground out a shaky Perry. "This is all just for Superman. They have a new form of…kryptonite and they're eager to test it…more potent, more lethal…"
"That's enough from you, old man," snarled their keeper. "Though I guess it doesn't do any harm for anyone in here to know."
"Why go to these extremes to get to Superman?" asked Clark, genuinely perplexed. "Why keep all these people hostage? Why not just go off and commit a crime somewhere, wait for him to show up, or -"
"Clark!" Jimmy cut him off. "Shut up, ok? These guys obviously don't need any ideas." Jimmy's eyes bored into his, clearly taking his measure, urging him to pipe down, to think. The two of them had been in situations like this before. This was just one more. He drew a very deliberate breath in, watching Jimmy's hard stare soften. "Let me," his friend muttered to him. And then, "Who do you work for?" Jimmy demanded of their hovering chaperone.
"Various criminal interests," was the prompt reply. "It's common knowledge Superman has a weakness for the Daily Planet, for the legendary Mr. White, for reporters James Olsen, Lois Lane, and Clark Kent." He waved his hand to them as if in greeting. "And when the venue was moved here -" His gesture encompassed the whole of the room. "- a place lined with lead, deep enough underground so he can't just zip through a window or door or wall, we knew the time to test the new stuff had come."
"And when he comes?" Clark asked, feeling Jimmy's hand on his arm.
"He dies in a hail of gunfire. So weakened by the kryptonite before he gets in that it's just a matter of time and bullets."
"You want to kill Superman," Clark said flatly. "This is a trap and all these people are the bait."
"You've got the right of it. And he seems to be taking his time, so having his good friend Perry White ask for him is a little insurance. Hard to resist the pleas of an old man. A sickly one, at that," he taunted. "If that doesn't work, maybe we leak the news that we have kryptonite, then if he doesn't come, it will look like he's saving his own skin. You're with the media, you should know, public opinion goes a long way. After a while we start killing people, and it's on his head. That won't play well," he finished airily.
"That won't work! Superman has done more for this city, more for this planet -" Jimmy sputtered.
"Jim," Clark placed a firm hand on his friend's shoulder. "Now you shut up, ok? This kind of blackmail has been tried before," he finished.
"Right. And it works, too," was the reply. "Anyone here remember the last time he didn't show up for a hostage situation?" He waited for their answer. "That's because there wasn't a last time. He always comes, only sometimes so quickly he's hard to see. That's not possible for him here."
"They say he has few weaknesses," he continued, "but we've got them all covered in one place. Kryptonite and his closest friends. If he doesn't come, he'll have the blood of the lot of you on his hands. And if he does, we get it all on camera. Lots of cameras, actually. The world gets to see him die. And we'll be the ones who have done what no one else could do," he voiced with rich satisfaction. "Clean and simple. That's the beauty of it. A new era in Metropolis starts today."
"Which you'll be enjoying from jail," Jimmy replied bitterly. "Even if this works. What stops the police from putting you away for a couple of lifetimes?"
"Well, that's a bit naive, isn't it?" their captor scoffed. "We'll be heroes in certain circles. To a lot of people. Influential people. So, don't worry about us, ok?" he finished with a laugh.
"Who do you work for…exactly?" Clark asked through narrowed eyes. "This sounds vaguely…familiar."
"Yeah?" he laughed. "Well, maybe it should sound familiar. We're an off-shoot of the old Luthor Corp. Remember that? The non-legitimate branch of it, so to speak. Some of us are well-versed in our founder's methodology. Some of us miss the old bastard and the way he ruled the city. Time to take it back, and this is step one."
"Luthor," Clark spat. "Dead, but never really dead."
"And Superman will join him before this is over."
"I can get in touch with him," Clark began. "If you let me out to call him…"
"We know who you are, Mr Kent. Know all about your direct line to Superman. But he watches the news, doesn't he? With all these cameras, all these reporters, all these famous people, how could he miss this? We're broadcasting live worldwide."
"What if he isn't able to come?" Jimmy asked belligerently. "Have you stopped to consider that? What if he's on the other side of the world holding up a bridge? Are you really going to shoot all of these people?"
"Maybe just the…older guests first. Then the women. Leave a group behind to be…witnesses." He gave a chilly smile. "Feel better, old man," he pronounced, before moving away and joining the group he came with.
"I don't know what you're thinking, CK," Jimmy ventured, moving to ease Perry's head into his lap. "But I hope it's that you'll let the police take care of it."
"This place is barricaded." Perry spoke grimly. They showed me the floor plan. The explosions were set off in all the tunnels, all the entrances…collapsed. The hallway is the only way in and out. The police can't figure out…how to get in.
"What else did they tell you?" Clark whispered urgently. "I tried to listen, but couldn't catch it."
Perry hesitated. Closed his eyes. Clark recognized he was stalling. Not just hurting, not just ill, but unwilling to say more.
"Perry." He used the sternest voice he dared. "I have to know everything."
"Lois is first," Perry answered, looking him dead in the eye. "Apparently, they announced that to the outside media hours ago, thinking to reach Superman…expected it to work…right away. If he doesn't come…in front of the cameras, in front of everyone, she'll be -"
"Dammit," Clark groaned, rocking back on his heels, seeking her out in the crowd once more. She and Alice were pale-faced, watching them. He realized his expression was scaring them, making them think Perry was worse than he was. He waved, gave the ok sign. "After all this time," he ground out. "Married to me all these years, and still a target. Still the first one in a hostage situation that everyone looks for, everyone aims for. Lois Lane hasn't been seen with Superman in a decade! But do they care? No. Can't we ever get past the whole 'Superman's Lover' thing? It drives me crazy -"
"Quiet over there!" they were hailed. "Break it up."
"CK," Jimmy said softly as they moved Perry to lean against the wall, "you're starting to worry me. We've been in situations like this before. You know the police are right outside. They don't need Superman for everything. Let them come up with something."
"If they make a move towards Lois," he breathed, not taking his eyes off her. "All bets are off."
"Wait it out, son," Perry gasped. "Just…wait. Let someone else be the hero."
"I hate this," he ground out. "I really hate this."
"Where are the kids?" Jimmy asked suddenly. "What if they…?"
"No," Clark answered grimly. "Absolutely not." He hadn't even considered them. A new fear took form, twisting in his gut. If they heard, if they knew he and Lois were in here…
"They're all traveling, anyway," he remembered aloud. "The twins are in some country whose name I can never remember. They're 'seeing the world' before heading to college, they swear." Despite the situation, he smiled. "And Jonathan is on a ship somewhere in the Arctic, doing what, we haven't quite figured out. It's related to his course work, but Lois despairs of him. His dad saves the world, he saves the whales. Says this family suffers a massive Messiah complex. Anyway -" He brought himself back to the present. "- they check back in Sundays, so as long as they don't see this…" He grew silent at the possibilities, almost too horrible to ponder.
"But with three of them," Jimmy whispered. "And nobody expecting them —"
"No," he returned tersely. "They don't even have secret identities, not until they're old enough to be sure that's the kind of life they want. And besides, they are forbidden -"
Jimmy's soft chuckle cut him off, joined by Perry's, too.
"These are Lois' kids we're talking about, right?" Perry asked.
"Forbidden," Jimmy repeated. "That's a good one, CK."
"Tell us another one, son," Perry agreed. "Takes my mind off the pain."
"They're laughing, Alice," Lois stated loudly. "Perry must still be ok."
"Thank God," her companion breathed gratefully. "I was really starting to hate this retirement party even more than the last."
The Chief seemed a bit more comfortable, able to doze off. But he had to get Perry out of here. Had to get Lois out of here. Get them all out of here.
During the long night they had been split up into groups of five and lined up against the wall. The "buddy system." They were responsible for their group; if anyone set a toe out of line, the warning had gone, all five would pay the consequences.
Their names had been taken and their images broadcast on television. Restroom breaks were done together, all five of them, accompanied by two armed escorts and a camera or two for insurance and a touch of humiliation. If they didn't all come out together, they were told, the shooting would start.
It just seemed impossible.
Clark eyed his companions once more. Jimmy and Perry weren't a problem. But the two others? He couldn't see how he could get away. Or where he would go if he did. The room was heavily guarded from all corners. Covered by multiple camera angles. If they were deliberately trying to lock him up, they couldn't have done a better job.
With a weary sigh, he again lowered his glasses, and backtracked to where he had left off. He had looked over every square inch of the cavernous ballroom twice already. And every square-inch of it was lead- lined and impenetrable. Once more he checked underneath the fine carpet, behind the bar, into the dim reaches of every corner. Again he idly counted the number of weapons each man held. There were some plants in the crowd, as well. Clever. They weren't standing with the others, and weren't showing their own weapons, but were sprinkled throughout the guests. Five on the women's side and five on his. These guys had covered their bases.
He leaned his head back against the wall and through barely opened eyes x-rayed every crack in the ceiling again. Still nothing. Not that he had really been expecting there to be, and if there had been, he had no idea how he would get up and out without being noticed.
Maybe there was no other way in and out. He had been hoping their captors had missed something, that in the years since the lay-out of the ark had become public the police had kept a secret or two to themselves. An empty hope.
The police had been moving outside the main doors for hours now. It was a risky endeavor even with Superman. All these people lined up, no other way in or out. They knock down the doors and the shooting starts. How many bullets could he catch? From how many angles? And how many cameras would see him doing it?
But with one ear tuned into Perry's breathing, he asked himself again, how long could he afford to do nothing? And how long were these guys willing to do the same? Other than the kryptonite threat and killing people, they didn't seem to have a back-up plan. They weren't wired, weren't communicating with anyone on the outside…
They wanted Superman. And maybe the plan really was that simple. Maybe it was why they showed no interest in negotiations. Why there didn't seem to be an escape plan for their keepers. Because there wasn't anything to negotiate and there was no escape plan. If that was the case, he almost had to admire them for their single-mindedness. Apparently, it was the Man of Steel or…nothing. And they were willing to risk themselves to get him.
After a time he sat up, made a show of yawning, and sought out Lois. <Have you figured a way out, because I'm clueless?> he thought to her. Her faced softened, her eyebrows raised. She couldn't read his mind, but she didn't have to. She shrugged her shoulders, sighed a sigh that was audible to him above all other sounds. No. Lois didn't know either.
He was pushing his frames back into place when his eyes caught something he had missed. Behind a woven tapestry that could only be described as splendid, there was an outline, faint but definitely there and definitely man-made. Four even straight lines. A door? A passage- way? An exit?
Leave it to Luthor. The s.o.b. didn't miss a trick. And in so doing, he'd saved them.
He was smiling at her. And not just a 'don't worry, we'll figure it out smile' or his patented 'we'll get through this' smile. But rather a hopeful sort of smile, a smile of…satisfaction.
She realized that was exactly what it was the instant she thought it.
"You found something," she gasped aloud, looking quickly to either side of her. Thankfully, her group was mostly dozing.
"Sorry, dear?" Alice murmured before drifting off again.
She let out a relieved breath. Thank God. Ok. She raised her eyebrows. <What and where?>
He inclined his head towards his left, pointing with his eyes.
She followed where he led. The restroom door? She wrinkled her brow, giving her head a slight shake. <In there? Don't try it, it's impossible.>
He frowned at her. Inclined his head again, this time stretching slowly and in so doing pointing with a quick finger to a section of the wall not far from the restroom door. Over it hung a beautiful, no doubt unbelievably expensive, tapestry.
"The tapestry?" she coughed softly, and was rewarded with that smile again, a light in his eyes.
She smiled back. They were in business now. Obviously there was something hidden just beyond it. And wasn't that just like Lex? She was tempted to think well of him for just a moment. Lex Luthor's paranoia, his need to know something no one else did, had apparently been built into the ballroom. Of course it had. And maybe, just maybe, it had given Superman exactly what he needed. If Lex wasn't long dead, the very idea would kill him.
"What do you need?" She didn't cover that statement, just kept it soft for the benefit of eyes and ears around her.
His eyes trailed towards the camera operator who was lounging nearest their target, to the armed man beside him, who was fighting to keep the bored expressions off his face as he watched the endlessly unchanging scene.
She nodded. He needed them to look the other way. It would only take an instant. She noted that Jimmy was tensed and ready. He had moved one of the chairs over towards them, under the pretense of leaning back against it. With his jacket hung over it, it blocked the view of Clark on the floor. It wasn't great and it wouldn't last long, but it was the best chance they'd had so far. If Jimmy was going to try to cover Clark's absence, then she was the distraction. That he was willing to risk this, risk her, told her everything she needed to know about the situation. She knew he and Perry had conferred after Perry had spoken to the leader and collapsed. Clearly he knew something she didn't. And it was enough for him to take the chance.
"Whenever I'm ready?" she hissed between clenched teeth.
His smile faded. A hard determination shone from behind his glasses. Though he didn't move an inch, she had the distinct impression that he was gathering himself, readying for the brief window of opportunity. It was Superman's face. She couldn't imagine how all the women sitting facing him didn't see it, too.
"Go," she said quietly as she hopped to her feet and stomped noisily towards her mark. "I have to get out of here," she started, letting her voice climb the octaves towards hysterical. "I can't stand it any more."
She heard the footsteps at her back, felt rather than saw them approaching her. She quickened her pace, wouldn't do any good to be caught before she got there.
"Please," she pronounced desperately to the gunman leaning against the tapestry. "Get me out of here. I've got to go…" She grabbed him by the arm and pulled him off balance for just an instant before he righted himself. He looked amused more than anything.
"Please?" she cried again, letting her eyes fill with tears. "Just help me…just let me out." She was providing a nice show for the camera. Out of the corner of her eye she caught Clark streak by, almost, but not quite, faster than she could follow.
She swooned. A carefully placed foot on his instep and a neat little twist brought the armed man down with her. They hit the floor with a clatter. There was a slight gust of air as the tapestry swayed. He was in.
She let them drag her back, sobbing, to her place. Heard them both threatening and consoling. Stay here, don't move again, you'll be ok, just watch yourself, lady. She kept her head down to hide her smile. It had worked.
It wasn't a passage-way.
It wasn't much of anything really. Just a sliding panel that hid a space smaller than a phone booth. It was obviously not for coming and going, but for observing. That complicated things, but it would have to do in a pinch.
He strained to hear Lois' heartbeat. It was racing, but fine. He held still and listened as she was ushered away. It sounded like they were leaving her alone.
He let himself breathe. Ok. His hand went to his tie…
The guns first. There were a lot of them, but once he got moving, one burst of superspeed and he'd have them. If they got off a few shots, he just had to hope he'd catch the bullets before they took out any by- standers.
He'd already noted the wires and cords trailing from the dozens of microphones and cameras. They would make easy work of tying the men up. And if, in the process, he disabled more than a few of the media's instruments, so be it. It would make it easier, as it would just be a matter of time before the question was asked: where had Superman come from? How had he gotten in?
He had no idea how he was going to answer that now. Without a hidden entrance…well, he'd get to that, or Lois would. She'd probably already worked it out.
He pocketed his glasses, felt the walls to check exactly how much space he had. Hardly enough to turn around…
What if he came back later and slammed a hole in the wall behind him? Would that be believable? How closely would they examine it to see if he could have gotten in that way? They didn't have any reason to doubt him… He pushed as hard as he dared on the wall behind him, the ceiling about him, just in case. There was no give, no secret latch.
As far as the kryptonite went, he'd just stay in the ballroom, let the authorities dispose of it before he left. Maybe check out the elevator shaft, see if they'd rigged it to explode. He could disable it, fly up and be out in no time. If not, he'd wait. There was enough lead here, thankfully. If they kept the doors closed, he ought to be fine.
Perry's words "more potent, more lethal" ran through his mind, but he shut them off. He already knew it would be bad. He'd felt it through the lead. Just how bad it would be…only one way to find out…
There was only so much Jimmy could do to cover him, but the fact that Clark Kent would be missing during all of this didn't really bother him. In a room full of people, he could easily be overlooked. He'd made that his life's practice, anyway, he grinned ruefully to himself. It would serve him well in this instance. Besides, once Superman arrived, who would be looking for him?
He sucked in his breath, making himself as small as he could and was just moving into the spin when the panel swung wide open.
He was looking down the barrel of a large weapon and blinking into the bright lights of the camera peering over the gunman's shoulder.
"Kent's here!" called a rough voice. So much for being invisible in a crowd. His eyes went to Jimmy. He was down on the ground next to the overturned chair, his lip bloody.
"Out with you," the man in front of him growled. "Unless you want me to splatter your brains all over in there.
He was almost desperate enough to dare him to do it. They would struggle, he could get possession of the gun. Make it look real for the cameras…
But he couldn't reach them all before the others opened fire. If they turned on him, there was no telling how many innocents might be brought down, what hell he would have provoked.
He replaced his glasses, and taking a deep breath, stepped from behind the panel and back into the room.
He met Lois' commiserating glance across the ballroom with an apologetic one of his own.
"You had to try," she returned from behind the hands she held to her face, a not so put-on expression of fear. "But they saw you were missing right away, noticed the tapestry was still moving… If you had changed, they would have known…"
It was going to have to be the police then. He'd worked with them closely over the years, and although none of them came close to the late Inspector Henderson, in his estimation, he still respected them, knew most of them by name from the higher-ups to the beat cops. They would work it out. He just had to be patient.
Superman was grounded.
"Care to tell us just what you were doing in there, Mr Kent?" The Cat stood from his place in the center of the room and sauntered towards him. "And how you found that place?"
Clark reached slowly into his pocket, ignoring the guns which trained on him as he did so, and pulled out his pager.
"I was calling him," he stated.
An excited sort of murmur went up from all corners. Over the years it had become an accepted thing, that Clark Kent was the person who was most able to locate the superhero. There was a camp that firmly believed them to be brothers…or something else. He didn't spend too much time on that, but was grateful that their steps to remove Lois Lane from Superman's orbit had been, for the most part, successful. Once they had started having children, it had been her idea to make it look as if Superman had lost interest in her completely. And she in him.
But in Clark Kent, it was well known, Superman still had a friend. A reliable one. Someone, who for the most part everyone agreed, though it had never been confirmed, had some sort of direct call line to him.
"Call him now!" the leader challenged him. "Tell him his audience grows tired of the wait."
"There's no answer," he returned evenly.
"What kind of device is that? That has to be used in secret? Superman has an unlisted number, I presume?" The Cat was approaching more quickly now. The media trailing along behind him like an obedient pack of dogs. "I take it that's from STAR labs? I think we're all going to need to have a look at that…part of the legend, isn't it?"
When they were a step away, Clark crushed the pager casually in his fist. It was just a pager, nothing fancy. But his captors didn't need to know that. If they thought it was a hi-tech device for signaling Superman, that was one thing. But if they found he had sneaked behind the panel under the guise of using an instrument almost every member of the room almost certainly had on them, there would be questions. "Oops," he said, as it slipped from his hands. It hit the floor in pieces. "STAR labs doesn't make them like they used to," he offered by way of apology. "Too bad."
"You'll pay for that, Kent," came a low growl behind him.
"How did you know that space was there?" the Cat asked again.
"I knew Luthor," he answered truthfully. "Something is always there. I thought you studied him."
"And you just wanted some privacy to call Superman?" he asked skeptically. "Why didn't you just tell me you had that thing? I would have asked you to use it hours ago. We wouldn't all still be sitting here."
"I keep Superman's secrets," he answered easily. "You shouldn't have started this. You can still let everyone go. At least let Perry go. Let the women go…"
"Shoot him," the man pronounced carelessly. "Just in the leg. And spread out and search, there might be more hidden panels and we don't want any nasty surprises."
"If you shoot me, you've crossed a line you can't uncross," Clark said quickly. "Right now you're just holding hostages, but if you start firing -"
"Would you like me to pick someone else, perhaps, Mr Kent? Maybe you're too important to shoot since you're Superman's minion -"
"No!" Clark shouted. "No…no shooting, ok?" He raised his palms in surrender. "What if I just sit back down?" He hated the simper in his voice, but it needed to be there.
The Cat gave him a long, measuring look, evidently liking what he saw. Clark allowed himself to be shoved back towards the other hostages. "Thank you," he whimpered for good measure.
The rest of Luthor's centuries-old tapestries were ripped down unceremoniously. No other secret doors were revealed.
"You almost gave *me* a heart attack this time, CK," rasped Jimmy as soon as he joined them. "Er…sorry, Chief."
"Fine…son, just glad…I already had…mine," Perry joked weakly.
"Your mouth, Jim -" Clark started.
"Forget it." Jimmy waved him off. "Not a second after you left, some guy wants to know why you're allowed to use the restroom alone. They were on you quick. You missed by inches, I'd say. I just got this trying to step in the way."
"I think we're pretty stuck," murmured Clark, leaning back down towards Perry. "I'm so sorry. I want to get you out of here. I just don't see how."
"If you'd been exposed…for me…I'd never forgive myself," Perry answered sternly. "Now you just sit. Stop calling attention to yourself…and that's…an order."
"Yes, sir." He smiled and sank to the floor beside Perry.
"Yeah," Jimmy agreed, sitting down to join them. "You piss these guys off and they just go ahead and shoot you, then what?"
"Been there, done that," Clark sighed. "I fall. Hopefully not belatedly, like last time."
The three shared a chuckle.
"Man, that was so long ago," groaned Jimmy. "I never put that together…you jerk!"
"Let's not do this, Jim, ok?" Clark pleaded. "You have no idea how many *years* it took Lois to stop bringing stuff like that up to me. 'And another thing,'" he mimicked, "'there I was certain it was all over and confessing my deepest secrets while you just *sat* there pretending to be tied up, lapping up every word…'"
"How else were you supposed…to…get…to…know…her?" Perry breathed.
"Exactly, Chief!" Clark grinned. "That was the only time she ever gave me the time of day when I wasn't…you know." He traced the letter S on his chest.
He couldn't believe how good it felt. Talking to Perry and Jimmy this way. Two men who were like family to him. Who knew, had obviously known for sometime, but been respectful enough not to let on. One day, he thought, he'd asked them both when they had figured it out, what had been the giveaway. For now, though, there was comfort in being with them, knowing that they knew the full score — what was really happening.
That they were waiting. Waiting along with hundreds of others.
Waiting for a man who wasn't coming.
"Are they ok, dear?" Alice asked her rather anxiously.
"Oh, yeah," Lois returned sardonically. "Look at the three of them. I swear they're enjoying this more than the last half dozen retirement parties combined."
"Well, it isn't often we all get together like this, is it?" Alice returned smartly.
"No," Lois laughed. "I guess this is just what we all needed. A nice, low key hostage situation."
"Still," Alice replied thoughtfully. "It's a shame our boy didn't make it inside the hidden panel in time."
Lois studied the woman next to her for a handful of minutes. "It sure is," she finally agreed.
"He'll sit still now?" Alice persisted. "Let the police do their job?"
"I don't see any other way," Lois sighed. "I sure wish I did."
The long morning had passed into afternoon. The floor of the ballroom wasn't as plush as she would have liked it, but Lois managed to grab a bit of sleep. Almost everyone did. She had finally drifted off, lulled by the steady conversations around her. Almost all of it about Superman. Where he might be, when he might come…if he was coming at all…
Lois looked over to where her husband was not sleeping. He was next to Perry, monitoring him closely, she knew. Beneath the heavy lids, the carefully quiet exterior, he was alert. Watching and waiting. She had felt his disappointment when their keepers hadn't shut the lights out so people could sleep better. She had suggested that only to be laughed at. Under the cover of darkness their problems would have been solved. The continual roll-calls, the groups of five they were forced into, were making her feel claustrophobic for real now.
Clark was disabling cameras, shorting them out with quick bursts of heat. He'd been at for a while. It was hazardous work; the cameras were so many and always moving. One of the cameramen had suffered a burn. It hadn't been serious, but enough to shake Clark.
"You couldn't help that," she said into the pillow of her jacket on the floor. "A small price to pay."
The police should have broken down the doors hours ago. Perhaps they'd gotten a bit too dependent on Superman, in hostage situations like this one, over the years. It was so much easier to ensure no one got hurt if you could send the invulnerable man in first.
More than once, Clark had made the offer to go and call him, assuring their captors that Superman always responded to him, no matter where he might be. That he didn't need the signaling device, if they'd just let him outside… He had practically pleaded as Perry's breathing had become more labored. He'd been rebuffed.
They made do with the leftovers from last night's dinner.
Afternoon was turning into early evening. Perry was weakening. Cameras were still rolling and their captors still watching. Time was running out, Lois knew that. Something was going to have to give and give soon.
She went over it all again as she had dozens of time during the long night and the morning just passed. She still couldn't find the solution, the escape hatch. The thing they'd overlooked that could end this. Helpless. Useless. And if it was this bad for her, what must it be doing to him?
The reporters…the witnesses…hundreds of nervous, watchful eyes…the cameras, always the cameras…
Their captors couldn't stay away from them, making her wish fondly for the days when criminals actually tried to hide their faces, when there was some shame in being caught. They thought they were so clever, so menacing. When all that they really were was heavily armed and lucky, so unbelievably lucky, and they had no idea.
They'd caught Superman.
And not just Superman, she thought ruefully, as she started to rise. They'd caught Lois Lane, as well. Throughout the day the leader had called reporters over, one by one, "granting" them interviews. She had been repeatedly ignored or overlooked, she couldn't decide which. Maybe she just needed to start there. Get a chance to talk to the man in charge, to at least get his name. Maybe pry something useful out of him. It couldn't hurt. And if she could take a look around as she went, that was even better. It was unlikely she might find something Clark had missed, but it might stop her from climbing the walls…
Nothing dangerous or reckless. Maybe just an unescorted trip to the restroom and the chance to stop by the center table and request an interview. She'd be careful, not just for her sake, but for Clark's. He needed protecting. Above all, these guys couldn't know who they had.
On the pretense of stretching sore muscles, actually not that much of a pretense, Lois rose slowly to her feet, taking care to walk quietly around her still-sleeping colleagues.
Clark's eyes followed her, bright and alert now, full of unspoken questions.
"I need to use the ladies room," Lois ventured to the first armed man she came across. "It's been hours. Some of us aren't as young as we used to be."
"Still lookin' good, though, honey." He leered at her.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Clark go tense. Like a snake coiling. She shook her head vigorously, keeping a cool smile on her lips. "Just let me go, ok?"
"You'll need an escort," was the reply. "And I wouldn't mind being that…for you."
Clark had risen to his knees. She heard Perry's groggy, questioning murmur. Maybe Clark thought he was watching the Chief, but clearly Perry was watching him right back.
"Listen to me," Lois hissed urgently, "the ladies room right now, or I swear, you'll be really sorry. I know it sounds like an empty threat, but trust me…"
"What?" He failed to take the hint. "Superman will be mad if he finds out I toyed with you? Good, maybe he'll turn up then. We're all tired of waiting, aren't we?" His raised voice was waking those sleeping, bringing the attention of the room on them. He pulled Lois along with him, approaching the leader.
"What if this is the wrong approach, sir?" Her escort spoke respectfully, his diffident tone offset by the bruising grip he had on her arm. "What if instead of guns and threats, we just…make nice with Lois Lane? Think he'd stay away from that?"
Clark was on his feet and moving.
"No!" Lois shouted. She knew everyone thought she was addressing the man who held her. But one other person knew differently.
He stopped. Ready, but willing to give her a chance to work it out without his help. She knew that he trusted her; he'd been with her like this before. She did a fast read of the men surrounding her and the drawn, pale face of one of her acquaintances, the latest reporter currently questioning the ring-leader.
"I haven't had a chance to speak with you." She addressed him firmly. "If you haven't talked to the Daily Planet, you've been wasting your breath." She tossed an apologetic glance towards the woman whose highly respected publication she had just dismissed.
"You'll get your turn, Lois Lane. Trust me," the man at the table offered smoothly. "I've been…saving you, for greater things."
A quick retreat seemed in order. "Ok, then." She plastered a pleased look on her face. "I'll just go back and wait. It's fine. Everything's ok." Again, that last part was not for the men who held her. "I'm sitting back down now."
She pulled herself out of the vise-like grip, careful not to flinch. And with just a fast, reassuring glance over her shoulder and into the eyes of her anguished husband, she moved to join her group.
"It was a stupid idea," she muttered, not just to herself. "I don't know what I thought I could do. I just wanted to move. Get a look around. Just…something." She was back beside Alice now, who, being too old to sleep well on the floor, had spent a very uncomfortable night in one of the chairs.
She didn't need to be psychic to know what he was thinking.
"I know. But I am being careful. Give me some credit for that? And now I get a chance to talk to him."
Alice smiled at her. "It just amazes me how he can hear you, hon," she commented sweetly.
They both watched as Clark's eyes widen. "Apparently, we don't have as many secrets as we thought, Farmboy," she stated into Alice's knowing grin.
"And I'm not the deaf old woman you take me for," Alice returned robustly. "Being thought hard of hearing has served me well, though. The Elvis stories? Much easier to take in pantomime. But you keep my secret, I'll keep yours."
Lois sank into the chair next to her friend. "It's a deal," she agreed.
Clark was still fixed to the same spot, in his listening pose, obviously soaking up their every word. She knew he needed reassurance. "I'll talk to him," she repeated. "Who knows? We might get something we can work with."
Alice squeezed her hand, but the haunted expression didn't leave Clark's eyes.
"Be careful, Lois," he called to her, pulling the attention of the on- lookers, the cameras, and the men with the guns off her and squarely onto him.
He'd done that on purpose, she knew.
They hadn't noticed him standing there when they were discussing his wife. All eyes had been on what was playing out in the center of the ballroom.
Lois was back in the crowd on her side. He did a quick head count yet again. Close to one hundred women. Not all of them holding up so well. Some crying openly. Although they couldn't have heard everything that had been said to Lois, the general idea had been hard to miss. Some were clearly physically uncomfortable. There was a reason why formal wear wasn't meant to be lived in. Lois, of course, despite the scare, looked fresh as always. Probably making her mental list of questions to ask when she got the chance. If they gave her that chance.
If they so much as looked her way again…
"CK?" Jimmy's voice was at his back. He realized belatedly that it had been there since he'd left the wall. "Can you at least make it look like I can budge you an inch?" it finished in exasperation. "Are you even in there…?"
With an effort, Clark let himself relax, sway backwards to the balls of his feet. He felt Jimmy's hands on his arm, tugging a bit desperately.
The guy who had put the fingerprints on Lois had turned towards him when he'd called out to her. Jimmy had obviously noticed, though he hadn't.
For the first time their eyes met. "You got something you want to say there, buddy?" the man asked, propping his weapon up against the table in a show of casualness, and moving towards him with a swagger in his step.
"Don't touch my wife," he answered simply, softly.
"So that's just for Superman, is it?" He turned just enough, projected just enough, to make sure the room could hear him. "The big man touches her all he wants to, doesn't he? Guess you're kind of tired of sharing."
"Don't," Jimmy swore behind him. "Don't take the bait. Just don't. The police will have a plan by now." He pulled Clark slowly and steadily back towards their huddle. "They will have given up on finding Superman." Jimmy kept up a steady barrage of words. "The kryptonite is probably disposed of. They're trying to figure out how to bust in without hurting anyone. The lay-out is easy to read, it's been on camera from every angle. They're planning. We're waiting. Nobody's doing anything stupid…"
His friend's words, the worry in his voice, Perry's glare, weak but pointed, Lois's look of abject sympathy and concern…the guy who had put down the gun obviously spoiling for a fight…all of it worked. It pulled him back off the precipice. He was so close, so close to giving up, to jumping in, to putting an end to this once and for all.
Lois was marked, their first target. Even if Perry hadn't told him, he'd know it now. If these guys, clearly bored and weary of the wait, lost patience or were just looking for something to do to pass the time…if they were serious about having studied Lex Luthor, then they would go for Lois soon. Their only hope was that Jimmy was right. The police would be here before it came to that. He just needed to stay calm. Rein it in.
"If they lay a hand on her, Jim, if they so much as breathe in her direction…" he finally managed, trembling from the effort to remain in control, to look harmless and properly cowed.
"Lois can take care of herself," Jimmy assured him. "There's time."
She was dozing when they came for her.
"Time for your interview, Ms Lane." One of the many gunmen pointed her towards the center table with the barrel of his rifle.
"Last but not least," she replied irritably, hoping to her feet and walking rapidly towards her target.
She was past small-talk. She wasn't even seated before she fired off her first questions.
"Who are you? What's your name? And why aren't you negotiating?"
"Names are unimportant," he replied smoothly. "But I am a student of the master, if that helps at all."
"The master?" She frowned at him, thrown a bit off stride.
"You knew him." He was clearly amused. "And as for negotiating, how do you know I'm not?"
"No phones call, no one taking messages in or out. Just you sitting here talking endlessly and the rest of us…just sitting!"
"Getting bored, Ms Lane?" he taunted her. "Wishing something would happen?"
She didn't like the gleam in his eye. She'd seen something very like it more than a few times in her years. She backed off a bit.
"It's been almost twenty-four hours. Where are the police?" she asked softly. "If you are negotiating with them, where are they? Shouldn't they be outside the doors?"
"They should be and are," he admitted, inclining his head towards the entrance. "They've been busy combing this place for the kryptonite. Their sensors tell them that it's here, but apparently they're having a bit of trouble locating it. And those doors can't be broken down, not without serious explosives. We didn't add that feature," he added at her suspicious look. "Our architect, Mr Luthor, did. But that means they can't just kick them down and storm in. Besides, where would the challenge in that be? And how many people, for that matter, could we kill before they stopped us?" He yawned and stretched elaborately, giving Lois the vivid impression she was the fly to his spider,
"And they have been issuing appeals for hours. This is their latest list of demands." He pulled a slip of paper from his pocket and flipped it casually onto the table. "'Let the elderly guests go, the infirm Perry White,'" he quoted from memory. "That heart attack made the headlines this morning," he added briskly. "'Let the women leave. Let an unarmed officer enter the premises'…etcetera, etcetera," he finished in disgust, thrusting the page at her. "And still absolutely no mention of Superman. Why do you think that is?"
"How are you getting this?" she demanded. "I've been watching your every -" At his sudden interested look she changed tact quickly. "I mean, you haven't taken any calls…" She let her voice trail away, coating it in uncertainty for good measure.
He pulled a small television from his breast pocket. "I get my news just like everyone else," he replied. "You old print reporters are such dinosaurs. No one reads anymore; you know that, right?"
He set the tiny device down between them. "Not only is Superman not on the list -" He leaned forward, setting his elbows on the table. "- apparently he isn't anywhere. Curious, don't you think? That no one knows his whereabouts. Reports from the outside say he has been repeatedly called. If he's not coming because of policy…"
"Superman has a policy against blackmail," she stated flatly. "It's well known. You aren't the first guy to grab a few people and demand he show up and dance." She hadn't tried to keep the bitterness from her voice.
"No?" He raised a brow at her, smiling a smile she didn't understand but certainly didn't like. "And where were you in all of this?"
"What do you mean?" she asked warily.
"I mean, did they ever grab you and then demand he come…dance." The menace in the tone was unmistakable now.
"Of course," she sputtered, not sure when or why or how things had gotten so off track. "All the time." He knew who she was, right? That years ago, despite her vehement protests, the Oxford English Dictionary had recognized the word 'Loised,' to be held as bait.
"And did they ever threaten to kill you?"
She swallowed. "Yes," she answered simply, meeting his cold eyes with a hard stare of her own. "None of this is very original. Or helpful."
"In your expert opinion, Lois Lane, is Superman not coming?" he asked evenly.
"The sooner you get that into your head the better," she retorted, standing abruptly and neatly sidestepping the goon at her back. In quick strides she headed back towards her group, feeling an overwhelming need for the relative safety of numbers.
"Not so fast," he ordered softly just in her ear. He was right behind her, having moved to join her. "You're the ace up my sleeve, Ms. Lane, and it's time I played you." At a signal that was obviously prearranged, the two men on either side of her lunged for her, taking hold of her arms. The table at which they had been sitting was overturned and quickly shoved out of the way, leaving the center of the room bare and uncluttered, but for the omnipresent cameras and the one surviving chandelier which hung above it.
She had fallen a few feet short of her goal, the chair next to Alice. She watched the horror on her friend's face as she was dragged away.
He saw them grab his wife. He stood up slowly, pushing aside the hands that reached for him. His friends, his co-workers, they meant well, but they didn't know.
They pulled her towards the center of the room, the only sounds her heels scraping along the floor and the steady hum of the cameras. The crowd was frozen. No one moved, no one blinked.
He started jostling the people in his path out of the way.
Once under the lights, Lois was pushed to her knees, one hand shoving her head roughly down towards the floor.
"I'm ok," Lois said steadily, and he knew that was for him. She showed absolutely no fear.
He walked past Jimmy, who sent him a silent, mournful look. He stepped around Perry's makeshift bed. Though breathing evenly, he was obviously still in great pain.
"Go get 'em, son," he gasped out between blue lips.
"Thanks, Chief," Clark answered tightly.
His deliberate movements had now caught the attention of their captors. "Hey!" one of them yelled threateningly "Back against the wall, four- eyes…"
"Kent's moving!" another voice called.
He never broke stride. "Let her go!" he snapped, pushing those who rushed him aside like the miniscule nuisances they were.
"Grab him!" barked the leader. "Shoot him if you have to!"
"Lois," Clark called from behind the wall of armed men who had converged on him. "It's time, honey."
"It doesn't have to be," she returned firmly, looking up as far as the hand on her head allowed. An exchange which he knew sounded like gibberish to everyone else. "They're just trying to force things…they don't mean it, Clark."
"No?" the thug who had hold of the back of her collar asked incredulously. "What would it look like if we did mean it?!"
"Superman," the leader called, the cameras turned as one in his direction. "Just so there's no mistake, the wait is over. You've won. You aren't coming. We get that." He made a slight bow to the cameras. "Nice to see a man set his principles and then stick to them, no matter how…messy." He raised his voice, smiled a smile devoid of anything but pure malice. "But Lois Lane is about to die. Right here, right now, in front of her husband and hundreds of witnesses. Luckily, if you miss it live, we'll have it on tape…"
Clark's eyes locked with hers.
"They mean it," he told her.
Lois nodded, drew in a deep breath and yelled the cry that had made her internationally famous over the years.
She had done it for him.
Knowing how difficult it would be for him to do it himself.
To take the final step. To rip their lives asunder.
To open them up to God knew what; when the world saw him, saw them, for what they really were.
"Thank you," he mouthed to her, warmed by her tear-filled nod of acknowledgment.
Thank God this moment, which was inevitable and always had been, whether or not he'd ever taken on the persona of Superman, had been delayed this long. Long enough for him to meet her, to love her, to have her love him. To have raised a family. To have seen his parents into their graves contented late into their years.
Thank God he'd had as long as he had as Clark Kent, a man he loved. A man he loved being. A man he would miss.
But a man whose time was over.
He spun. The cameras rolled. There were shouts and exclamations from all corners of the ballroom before a profound quiet fell.
"I love you," Lois whispered as all hell broke loose.
It was over in minutes. The bad guys were routed, guns mangled, the doors ripped open and the police let inside. Perry was hurried onto the stretcher that had been waiting. And Clark Kent was well and truly gone.
Now that the lead doors were opened, he could feel the excruciating tug of the kryptonite's presence.
Lois was at his side in a blur. "Before you can't, Clark, find it, tell me where it is, so I can get it," she begged him.
He used the last of his strength, before his powers failed completely, to x-ray as far into the foyer as he could. The whole of it seemed aglow with the shade of green he hated most. "There's a lot of it," he managed. "Looks like it's been…painted on," he finished.
"Painted on? Does it cover the walls all over?" Lois asked incredulously, turning to examine what he was seeing. "Liquid kryptonite?"
"Yes, under the paint," he spoke between clenched teeth. "A lot, Lois," he repeated. "Never seen…felt…anything…like it."
"Can you get up the elevator shaft? It's blocked, but maybe you could just fly through it?"
"No," he gasped. "No way. I can't…move."
"Then we're getting you out of here," she vowed. "Lean on me. We are walking down that hall as fast as we can and out of this building and -"
"Where, Lois?" He stopped her with his question. "Where on earth do we go from here?"
"Away," she answered simply. "Away, as soon as we're able."
He never knew how she did it, though later she would tell him she'd had a lot of help. The police force, Jimmy, the other hostages. All had formed a human circle around him, leading him out through the crush of reporters, through the chaos of the scene. He was glad he could barely remember it. It came in flashes. The sight of his boots trudging down that long, painful hallway. His care not to touch the walls, to keep the boots moving one in front of the other. Lois' arms around him, her words of encouragement. Jimmy on the other side, still calling him CK, which for some reason had made him cry. And above it all, the constant murmurs of 'Clark Kent' and 'Superman'. Two names he had never been comfortable hearing in the same breath, ever.
By the time he woke up, it was all over.
"Hi, sleepyhead," she greeted him softly. "Better?"
He was naked in a very soft bed, lying next to his very beautiful wife.
"You have to ask?' he smiled at her.
"Well, I've been next to you for quite a while now, and you just haven't seemed…interested." She snuggled against him, and under the covers he could feel that she was as undressed as he was.
"Just give me a minute, baby," he whispered, already reaching for her.
He held her close, threading his fingers in her hair, and opening his senses to her sweet scent, her warmth, the very rightness of her. "Kiss me, Clark," she demanded quietly. He obliged gladly. Bringing his hands up to frame that beloved face, to better see her, to drink her in. Their lips met once briefly, before they came back together with more energy, more urgency. He felt…at home. Peaceful. Complete.
"Make love to me, Clark," Lois spoke again.
"Bossy," he complained into her open mouth. "A guy just wakes up and he's subjected to…"
"Shut up," she groaned against his neck.
They melted together effortlessly. Their ease with one another born of long practice. Of many mornings and evenings of slow, sleepy loving, when their goal hadn't been to bang the headboard or set the night on fire, but to be joined. One body. For a time.
"I love you, Lois," he ssid after a time, his voice cracking, surprising them both with the emotion in it.
He felt her answering tears on the side of her face. He licked one gently off the shell of her outer ear.
"I love you, too, Clark Kent, always."
He went still. Clark Kent… Oh…dear God.
As if she knew exactly when he put it all together, when he realized they were making love in a different world, a different reality, Lois pulled him closer still. As if trying to protect him, keep him safe. "It's ok," she soothed. "Don't stop, Clark. I need you."
He felt like he'd run a race. Despite the sweetness of his surroundings, his heart started to pound, he could feel the sweat begin its slow trickle down his back.
"Oh, Lois…" He didn't know what else to say. There wasn't anything really. He buried his face into her hair, breathing deeply, trembling all over.
Lois held him tightly, but didn't speak.
Slowly he returned his lips to hers, letting himself fall into her dark, concerned gaze. He wiped her tears with gentle fingers. He was still her husband. She was still Lois. They were here…wherever here was…together, one body.
"I love you," he said again, this time much stronger. "I love you, Lois."
"You're mine," Lois sighed in answer. "All mine, Clark Kent."
And he was. If he was never Clark Kent anywhere else but here, in bed with his wife, he would be ok. They would be ok. They had to be.
That was his last conscious thought as he lost himself in loving Lois. When he next woke she was gone, and for the first time he was aware of the sound of the pounding surf and the brightness of the rising sun outside the window.
"A deserted island?" he greeted her. "Isn't this a bit cliche?"
She turned to meet him, dropping the book from her lap and raising her face for a kiss. "You know you've been in bed for three days?" she answered back. "That kryptonite really took it out of you."
"I remember it was very strong," he replied thoughtfully, sinking down onto the sand next to her. "Where are we?"
"We are nowhere," she grinned at him. "We are…lost. Marooned."
"I like the sound of that," he sighed, tilting his face up to sun.
"Take your clothes off," Lois suggested.
He turned his head, cocked a brow. "Again? What is it with you, woman?"
"The sun, you idiot. No one else is here. Give yourself a recharge." She went back to her book.
He stole a furtive glance around.
"Don't trust me?" she teased.
"Don't want my picture in all the papers…" His voice trailed away. "Oh, god, Lois…"
She put the book down and studied him quietly, with the same long stare he had turned on her. "What do you want to know?" she finally asked.
"How…bad is it?" he managed, pulling off the t-shirt he had just donned. It was followed by his shorts, under which he wore nothing.
"I didn't really have time to pack…everything." Lois smiled at his naked cheeks.
"So I noticed," he replied mildly. "Though now I'm wondering if that was accidental or not."
He stretched out on the warm sand, soaking in the sun's energy from above and below.
"Do you want to see?" she asked. "The papers? LNN hasn't returned to regular programming yet. I'm sure there's a bedraggled news anchor struggling to make it sound new and fresh even as we speak."
"Not yet," he said from behind closed eyes. "I take it…we're pretty much…stuck, though?"
"Yes," she said simply. "It was caught live on camera, honey. I've seen it. STAR labs examined it from a hundred different angles, trying, for your sake, to discredit it, or fabricate a believable flaw with it, but it wasn't just one camera. And there were about two hundred people there."
"Got it," he answered, reaching his hand out to take hers. "Sorry -"
"Don't," she cut him off curtly, showing her first real emotion since they'd shared the bed together. "I yelled for you. We did this together."
"Thank God for that, Lois," he sighed.
"Just sleep some more," she offered. "We are here as long as we want to be. Alone as two people can be. I called in every favor ever owed you…so you aren't to worry."
"Perry?" he asked fearfully, unable to say more.
"Recovering nicely. He was in better shape than you were for a while there."
"And the kids?" he asked in a low voice.
"They've been by, said not to wake you. They'll be ok, Clark. We'll figure it out. Just rest. I'm here."
"Thanks, sweetheart," he whispered, squeezing the hand that held his.
"If anyone deserves early retirement, it's you," he heard her answer before drifting off.
Funny, all that time he'd thought he was at Perry's retirement party. As it had turned out, it had been his own.
When he woke up again, the sun had moved across the sky and was beginning its dive into the sea.
He fumbled for his shirt and shorts, pulling them on, but not leaving his spot. Lois had gone, but an arrow drawn in the sand pointed the way back to the house.
He tried a bit of levitation. Nothing. Tried to reach out and hear her heartbeat. It was quiet. It would come back, he knew. He was older and it took a bit longer now, and the stuff he'd been exposed to was definitely stronger than the last few pieces, but still…it would come.
And when it did?
Clark shifted, pulling his knees up to his chest and resting his forearms on them. He had no idea. When he could fly again, when he could save the day again…then what?
For a time, he simply sat and listened to the waves hit the shore, the seagulls laughing over a shared joke. The sky darkened and a chill swept up the beach. He didn't move. Behind him the lights came on inside the house. He turned and studied it for the first time. It was breathtaking. Gorgeous. Somehow Lois had managed to hide them away in paradise.
It could be worse. Much worse. And he wouldn't regret it. He couldn't. He'd had no choice.
For the first time in so long he couldn't remember, he bowed his head, buried his face in his hands and cried. Not for Lois or for one of their kids. Not for the life he'd left or the one that had been thrust on him as he slept. Not for anyone or anything else. But for himself. For Clark Kent. He cried for Clark Kent until he was empty. And he cried some more after that.
He should dig a hole, he thought idly. Dig a hole right here on this beach, plan a memorial and bury Clark Kent of Smallville, Kansas. He was gone. Only Superman remained.
He felt her arms slip around his neck, cradle his head against her soft breasts. He leaned back into her but didn't speak, didn't open his eyes.
She stayed with him until the blackness swallowed them. Until they were both shivering from the cold.
"Come inside, Clark," she finally whispered in a voice as broken as he'd ever heard from her.
She'd used his name. He knew that was on purpose. What he needed.
He rose slowly to his feet, with her helping him up like he was an invalid. He felt like one. Like someone who'd been gravely ill and had survived, just barely. He turned and faced the house, squinting into the lights that poured from every window.
"Whose is it?" he faltered.
"It belongs to the U.N. Nice, huh? Apparently our world's leaders need an extravagant, out of the way place to figure out the details of running the planet."
"And they…loaned it to us?"
"To you. And you deserve that and more. It's fully stocked, and as you can imagine it has the best of everything. And the staff are gone. It's just us. For as long as you need."
"I…want…to go back to bed," he voiced as they started up the path, her arms around him.
"I'll tuck you in," she soothed.
"And…you'll stay," he demanded softly. "I want…need…to be with you."
"You couldn't keep me away." Lois smiled at him, letting out her breath. "I worried," she continued in a rush. "Worried that when you really woke up, you might…shut me out."
"I can't do this without you, Lois." He turned towards her in the light of the entranceway. "I have no idea how to do this at all, but without you…I wouldn't have a prayer."
"We'll go to bed." She tugged him towards the staircase. "And tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that, we'll get to work on what comes next."
He followed her up the stairs, back into the room he'd woken in only that morning.
A different man with a whole new life.
Today made it a week, Lois thought as she watched the sun rise once more. Funny how a week could make all the difference. Last Friday she'd rushed into work, preoccupied with the details of a story she couldn't even remember now. She'd dashed home on her lunch break to study her closet, to contemplate what to wear to Perry's supposedly final Final Retirement Party.
Clark had been there. He'd finished a rescue and had needed a quick shower. They had lingered in the bedroom for awhile — just chatting about nothing, both pleased to have found one another so unexpectedly on a busy day.
He hadn't wanted to go to that party. He'd had other ideas… She'd insisted.
Lois rolled slowly and carefully out from under the heavy weight of his arm. He had kept her wrapped up against him when he had fallen asleep. For three days they had slept and made love and little else.
Her stomach began a low, rumbled protest of her lack of consideration.
Once out from under him, she moved off the bed quickly, grabbed her robe, and tiptoed to the stairs. From the doorway she turned and studied him. The covers had slipped to his waist, his broad back and bare arms glowed a dusky bronze in the slanted light of the window shades. The ceiling fan turned a lazy circle, raising one lock of hair off his forehead, before dropping it again. He wouldn't wake. His body was still compensating. And his spirit was, too. It had only been a week. No need to worry yet.
She moved down the long series of landings that led from their bedroom to the kitchen in the back. Coffee, she thought to herself. Breakfast, then maybe another walk on the beach. She glanced at the windowsill over the sink. Every inch of it was covered in the shells she had collected in the last few days. Too many, really. She wouldn't pick any up today, she'd just admire them. It was a new hobby — a pastime. But she wondered if she'd ever see a seashell again, ever vacation at the beach again, and not feel completely…hollow inside.
Shivering in the early morning air conditioning, Lois moved towards the speaker phone. As soon as she approached it, it connected and a polite, computerized voice asked, "Number?"
She hesitated. It had been a week. A really long week.
"James Olsen," she whispered. Not that there was any need to whisper. "Metropolis, New Troy, the Daily Planet." There was an immediate click and whirl, then a low, soft ringing tone. Telephones hadn't had bells for decades, but still we all like the ringing tone, she thought idly. There was still time to hang up.
His voiced boomed into the room.
"Volume down," Lois stammered.
"Hello?" came the voice again, a tad confused, a tad impatient.
She cleared her throat; she hadn't really used her voice in a while. Not unless it was to say, "ooohhh" and "yessss" and "that's good, like that."
She brushed her hair from her suddenly flushed face. <You're losing it, Lois.>
"Jimmy?" she faltered at last. "It's me."
"Hang on, please." She heard the sounds of chairs scraping, doors opening, Jimmy calling out that he'd be right back, he had to take this. All of it muffled, and all happening upstairs at the Daily Planet. A place she could see so clearly in her mind's eye. And yet it felt light years away…a whole other world.
"Lois, thank God," Jimmy breathed after a time. "Thank God. How are you?"
"Ok," she answered, wiping a tear from her chin, not sure when it had gotten there. She halted, couldn't say any more.
"And CK?" Jimmy persisted. "Is he…?"
"Sleeping, but improving," she replied, clearing her throat, again. "Perry?"
"Much better. Probably going home next week."
There was a moment of silence.
"You know where I'm standing right now?" Jimmy's teasing voice bounced off the tiles of the stark white kitchen, warming it immeasurably.
"Where?" She smiled, despite herself, moved towards the coffee maker. It was just coffee and conversation with Jimmy, like most of the mornings of her life.
"In the executive coat closet," he whispered.
Her laugh sounded loud, unfamiliar in the room. She hadn't done that since…
"Jimmy, why on earth are you hiding in the closet?" she managed.
"I have no idea," he replied. "I was in a meeting, heard your voice. I'd been hoping…Besides, you should see some of these coats, Lois." The derision in his voice came through loud and clear. "Cost more than my first car."
"That's not saying too much," she returned, moving towards the pantry.
Another silence. This one much more comfortable.
"Where we are," she offered carefully, "we don't need coats."
"No kidding," Jimmy replied wistfully. "It's snowing here. And not the pretty postcard kind of snow. Wet, sludgy…"
"I'd trade with you," she blurted before she could think better of it.
"I know," Jimmy said sadly. "I hate this, Lois. Hate this for both of you. Wish I could…I don't know…do something."
"You have," she choked tearfully. "I saw the article, Jimmy. It was wonderful."
She was weeping now and she didn't try to hide that from him. She had been soaking up Clark's heart ache for a week. As she wanted to — as she intended to do, for as long as he needed. But it was starting to overwhelm her. If she didn't shed some of it soon, she'd reach saturation point. She already had, actually.
"Go on and cry," Jimmy answered quietly. "I have a feeling you haven't let yourself."
"I haven't. He needs me."
"Go on then. Look, there's an overstuffed chair in the executive coat closet, can you believe that? Some of these guys are so old they get winded taking off their ridiculously expensive coats. They can just stretch out here…oh man, an ash tray, Lois! That can't be safe…and a stash of cigars…this whole place could go up in flames. Ok, I'm sitting, I'm gonna light one of these babies up and you cry, ok?"
Her sob became a wet sort of laugh.
"Lois? The crying? I'm here, very comfortable, and your own personal wailing wall, let's have it," he chided.
"Jimmy, I love you."
She'd never said that before, not in decades of friendship. She knew that he knew. He was like the brother she'd never had. No, that wasn't right. He was the brother she did have.
"Whatever," he murmured. "I'm puffing away and I thought I was going to get some tears."
"I'm going to go now," she said. "And smoking is a filthy habit. I'll…call you later."
"Please do." All teasing was gone from his voice now. "And Lois? I love you. Love you both. Take care."
"Who were you talking to?"
He had snuck up behind her. She spun around, forcing down a crazy surge of guilt. It was just casual conversation with Jimmy, a tie to the outside world, but she didn't want him to think that he wasn't enough for her. That his company wasn't all she needed. He had given up everything for her. To save her. Again.
"Hey, look who's up?" she greeted him. "Want to eat? Take a walk on the beach?"
He moved slowly away from her. Looking out the window, he fingered the seashells absently.
"I was just…checking in with Jimmy," she answered. "He…sends his love, and says Perry will be home next week."
"Great," he replied, lifting one of the larger shells for closer inspection. "Nice collection," he ventured, a question in his voice.
He knew her too well. Knew what the shells meant. Not decorations and not keepsakes. But rather, small testimonies to her state of mind. That she was going stir crazy, trying to kill the time.
"Thanks," she responded too cheerfully. "I'm finished, though. They'll overrun the house."
"It's a lot of house," he answered, still with his back to her. "I think it would take you a while to fill it up."
"We've only used the kitchen and the bedroom," she teased. "Are you suggesting we…move on to a different room? Do some exploring?"
"I want to see them."
"The newspapers, Lois." He turned towards her now, meeting her eyes.
"Are you sure?" Her heart started to pound in her chest. <Not yet>, it hammered out, <not yet, not yet…>
"Where are you keeping them?" he asked softly.
"I'm not hiding them," she returned heatedly, with more vigor than she'd intended.
"So where are they, honey?" He bent down and caught her eye again. "I need to see."
"In the oven," she whispered.
"But you're not hiding them," he teased her gently.
"Right. I was just…filing them."
"Makes perfect sense," he agreed, moving around her towards the oven.
"Let me," she spoke in a rush. "I have…a system…you'll mess it up."
He stood to the side with a smirk on his face.
"And wipe that smirk off your face," she ordered.
His features smoothed to an unreadable mask. Unreadable to anyone but her. "Better?"
"Ok. This will look bad, but just bear with me. I've been practicing this for a week now. Sit."
When he was seated at the kitchen table, she wrestled the first stack out. It was rather impressive.
"Wow," he said in a shaky voice.
"Are you sure?" She halted, peering at him from behind the stack that reached to her nose. "What if we wait a bit longer?"
"Lois," he prompted. His tone said it all. He moved to help her, but her expression forced him back down. Smart man.
"Take the one off the top," she ordered, as she thumped the lot of it down onto the table.
It was the Daily Planet, and it was dated the day after. The headline 'Superman is Clark Kent' put it simply and, most importantly, got the names in the right order. Superman was Clark Kent in disguise, not vice-versa. A distinction no other publication had managed to grasp. Jimmy's article took the entire front page. It was thoughtful, factual, and ended with the thanks and support of a grateful staff and city.
Perry's editorial was just inside. He had dictated it from his hospital bed, even as they were wheeling him down the hall towards surgery. He had insisted. It was more emotional, a plea to leave the Kents alone, to let the man who had literally saved the world more than once have what he most wanted — a normal life.
The pictures on the front were of Clark at a recent Planet gathering. He was smiling, enjoying himself, was surrounded by friends and co- workers. Next to it was a picture of Superman holding a child he had pulled from the wreckage of a multi-car pile-up. His face was grim, pained, but still kind.
"That's not bad," Clark finally said. "Really, really not bad…as far as worst nightmare scenarios go."
He smiled at her. The first genuine smile she'd seen from him. It changed the feel of the room. Good, this was good. This was working.
He reached for the next one.
"I put them in order." She began the speech that had circled in her thoughts the last few days. "The best ones, the good ones are on top. I wanted you to see that it's not all bad. In fact, some of it is really nice. And not just by our friends and our paper, but papers all over the world." She paused. His hand had stilled on top of the stack.
She continued carefully. "The further down you read, should you choose to, the more…sensational it becomes. A bit more…gleeful, really. I wish there was another word. I tried to think of one for days. But there isn't one. This is big and juicy and you know how some of our partners in the media feel about a big -"
"- scandal," he stated.
"There is nothing scandalous about you being Superman!" she retorted, veering off her planned remarks. "And it is just…stupid…for anyone to imply that you should be…ashamed of…anything. You…you knocked Nightfall from the sky! They should be throwing themselves at your feet, knocking themselves out with gratitude…what are you doing?"
He had pulled the bottom-most paper out from underneath. "Mom always said yank the band-aid off quickly," he replied.
"You never wore a band-aid a day in your life," she protested, reaching for the paper in his hand.
He held her off easily. It was the National Whisper. On the front page was the headline 'SuperRace' and underneath were the baby pictures, all taken from the hospital, of their three kids. Names and birthdates printed below.
He felt the air leave his lungs.
He'd spent the last week in bed with his wife, holding on to her for dear life, smothering her in his self-pity, and his kids — his babies — were on the frontlines, out there somewhere, having to deal with what he'd done.
He shoved back from the table, aware that Lois was talking. Knowing he should stop and reassure her. Hold her and tell her he just needed a minute. He stormed to the door. He wore nothing but his sleep shorts, but it didn't matter. In under a second he was above the clouds. He tested his speed. He had plenty of it. A week lying around, inside the house, under the sun had given him back all he needed. He pushed the limits. Not as fast as he used to be, but still pretty good. He didn't navigate, he just flew. Hard, fast, furiously. Letting the wind blow the images and words from his brain. He circled the planet, never looking down, losing track of time. Disappearing into the atmosphere.
When he was sweating, shaking, and gasping for breath, he landed. Throwing himself into the water, letting himself plummet in a giant splash. He swam to the shore. Lois had left all the lights on again. They poured out onto the beach. A welcome. Forgiveness. He pulled himself slowly from the water, putting one foot in front of the other, walking towards his current home, towards his wife. Filled once again with a desperate need for her. A craving to have her with him. To feel her heart against his. So intent was he that he nearly tripped over the man sitting quietly in the sand.
"Hi, Dad," his son greeted him. "Mom said you'd be back soon."
Clark scooped him up like he hadn't since he was a small child. "You…" he declared, "are a sight for sore eyes."
"Ooof," his son replied, good-naturedly slapping him on the back. After a long moment he added, "Dad, the breathing thing."
Clark let him go, but kept his arm around him.
"How are you?" he asked earnestly. It sounded lame to his ears, but they had to start somewhere.
"Oh, you know." Jonathan shrugged. "Same old, same old. And you? Anything interesting happen this week?"
"Apparently I'm world famous," Clark answered. "As are you…and your sisters. And…I'm so sorry."
"I have orders from Mom to punch you in the mouth if you apologize," was the swift reply. "And maybe I don't have all of your powers yet, but I'm thinking I could set you back a step."
"This means I'm forgiven?" Clark stopped their progress back to the house, turning to better see the face of the man he loved most in the world. Sometimes in his son, he could imagine he saw the light of another Jonathan Kent looking out. That his own father's quiet wisdom and fierce protectiveness were regarding him frankly through the portal of his grandson's eyes. He knew it was fanciful. There was no blood between son and grandfather, but he wondered about it sometimes. There had been so much else between them. There was him.
"We always knew this might happen, you always told us. And we wouldn't trade you for anything," his son answered seriously, his solemn expression holding for an extra pause. "I hope I got that right." He quirked at smile at him. "Mom wrote it for me."
Clark laughed. His first real laugh in his new lifetime. "Let's go in. I walked out on a speech she'd been preparing, and I imagine I'll need to answer for that."
"It's much worse than that," his son whispered conspiratorially. "The girls are here. They're all in the kitchen. They're…making you dinner."
"Is it too late to fly away?" he asked weakly, halting in his tracks.
"You didn't exactly hide the sonic boom, Dad. Heard you coming from miles out. They know."
"I am kind of hungry," he conceded, as Jonathan pulled him forward. His son had taken his hand. Was in fact holding his hand in a way he hadn't since the third grade, when he'd gravely pronounced that hand holding would no longer be allowed, that he was eight years old, for crying out loud. Clark gave the hand in his a grateful squeeze.
They had all come. They were circling the wagons. The first counsel of war in the post Secret Identity Age was underway.
"Good," Jonathan replied, before letting go and jogging towards the welcoming lights, "you can eat my share."
"This is really…delicious," her husband remarked carefully.
Served him right. Delicious? Should have added more pepper.
"That's nice," she smiled at him sweetly. "The girls worked hard."
"Oh, god," came Marta's voice. "They're doing it…"
"They've had a hard week," Lara defended them.
"What are we doing?" Clark asked suspiciously.
"The polite thing," Jonathan pronounced, not looking up from the plate he was studiously picking over.
"It's called manners," Clark scolded without heat.
"There's frozen pizza," Lois muttered to her son, who sat just beside her.
His head came up, a hopeful look in his eye. "Now you're talking." He sprinted from the room.
"Um…" Clark began slowly. "There is…?"
"There is what, honey?" she asked nicely, avoiding meeting her girls' amused glances.
"Pizza?" he asked wistfully.
"Were you eavesdropping?"
"Oh, god," moaned Marta.
"I'll get you some," Lara piped up, only to rethink the matter at a glimpse of her mom. "Or…not."
"I take it I'm not being coddled anymore." Clark twinkled at her.
Twinkling. Ok, twinkling is good.
"Is that true, Mom?" Jonathan returned with a fully burned pizza on his plate. "No more coddling Dad? Is the love-in over?"
"Oh…god," prayed Marta.
"Jonathan!" gasped Lara, turning a shade that nearly matched her father's.
"Oh…god," Clark echoed weakly.
"Yep, that's pretty much what it sounded like every time I flew over. Try to pay a visit to your old man, raise his spirits, and you find him already in a pretty good mood -"
"Jonathan." Lois frowned, not quite able to pull off the stern mom face. "You are killing your father. Look at him."
"I should have…lingered under the kryptonite," Clark groaned.
"It's very healing," Lara offered into the awkward silence. "I mean…" It was her turn to squirm as her father's alarmed stare landed heavily on her. "I read that," she clarified quickly. "It's a good stress response…affirming," she stumbled to a halt.
What was it that the peacemakers got, Lois thought, not for the first time, as she took in her dark-eyed daughter. It wasn't the earth, that went to the meek. She felt a twinge of resentment at that. What would the meek do with it? But the peacemakers…? She really needed to look that up.
"Well, we know all about that, don't we?" Jonathan choked out around a heavy mouthful. "Superman has a bad day, and you know, best to stay late at the library."
"Or at a friend's house," agreed Marta darkly.
"Remember the Chilean mudslide of 2015?" asked Lara, joining in.
"Oh, god," Marta sighed. "All those poor people. That took a whole weekend."
"Wait…" Clark interjected. "Just…wait…how did…? When did…?" He gave up, looked to Lois. She shrugged.
"Dad, we grew up in a small townhouse. We all have superhearing…what did you think?" Jonathan asked, still managing to down an impressive slice of pizza in the process.
"I…I…guess I never. It's just that… I never…"
"Didn't you ever hear Grandma and Grandpa as a kid?" Jonathan asked seriously, though he didn't stop chewing.
"Oh…god!!" declared Marta.
"It's probably time to call this meeting to order," Lois pronounced, at last taking pity on her husband. "Before your dad loses the will to live."
His desperate look of gratitude went a long way towards assuaging her frustration with him. Work on a speech all that time. Plan every nuance, visual aids, each sentiment to the letter. And what do you get? Two minutes of intense attention and a husband who flies out the door. Just maybe he would learn something from this little encounter. That, or she'd make him eat the dessert.
The time for coddling was over, though, that much was right.
They laid down a few rules. Not all of them accepted happily.
Avoid the media at all costs. That wasn't as difficult as it sounded. Jonathan had been living on a ship in the middle of the Arctic for six months talking to the same twenty people. He didn't anticipate being found and interviewed there. If he was, he could leave rather easily. The girls were still on their 'world tour,' as they put it. Retracing their dad's footsteps across the globe from when he was their age. Their sight-seeing was pretty remote, and therefore pretty safe. If they ran across any trouble, they could leave…easily.
What worked in their favor was that there were no recent pictures of them available. Lois had always been somewhat militant about that. The investigative team of Lois Lane and Clark Kent had plenty of enemies and security measures had been in place since the kids started day care. A computer search turned up nothing — save Jonathan's high school basketball team photo. Even enhanced, his grainy features were hard to read. There wasn't anything on Lara and Marta that wasn't at least five years old.
Their names. No, they didn't want to change them. They were important names, family names. They were their names. They meant to keep them.
"But you girls want to go to college," Clark had protested. "And we'd only change your names on paper. Give you a chance at something normal. Jonathan, I know it's too late for you now, but later, after you graduate -"
"After I graduate, Dad -" Jonathan had answered, "- I'm still going to have to figure out how to live in the world as Superman's son. I'd rather do it now, surrounded by people I trust."
"We can't hide forever," Lara had pointed out reasonably. "The secret identity thing won't work. Not for long. We'd be exposed sooner or later."
"Later is better than sooner," Lois had asserted.
"I don't want to live with that fear." Marta had surprised them with the conviction in her voice. "Always wondering when or how or where it all falls apart. I love you, Dad, but I don't want to live like you did — like we all have — not anymore."
"Ditto," Jonathan had affirmed.
"Yes," Lara had agreed. "Not that it wasn't good for you, and for us, too. But now that it's over…it's over."
He and Lois, not missing the looks the kids had shared among them, knew they'd lost on that point.
A compromise then. No registering at hotels, hostels, or camp sites as Kent. Whenever or wherever it could be avoided, don't give the name. Ever. If they didn't want to, if they chose not to, they didn't have to lie, especially if asked outright. But never volunteer it.
"For how long?" Marta had asked. "When do we get to be…us?"
They didn't know. It was hard to judge what the next few weeks, months, even years might be like.
"If they can't find us, they'll get tired of the chase eventually." Jonathan's reasoning.
"We'll be old news after a while." Lara's hopeful guesswork.
He and Lois — years of experience in the business — knew differently.
"We should just be normal," Marta had grumbled. "Normal as this family possibly can be."
"And careful," Clark had followed up. "If any of you ever find yourself in a situation you aren't sure of, call me."
"What? 'Help, Superman?'"
"Help, Dad," Clark had said. "Your mom and I have more experience at this."
"Not at this, you don't," Lara had put it plainly, moving across the room to sit beside him, to soften the delivery of what she would have known was a hard blow. "That's the whole point. None of us knows what to expect. What will change, how we'll do out there. You don't either. If you did -"
"We wouldn't be hiding out here," Clark had finished for her, knowing his daughter was too kind to say it herself.
"We aren't hiding," Lois had snapped. "We're…resting. The kryptonite -"
She stopped, a shadow of alarm passing over her face. "They'll know our kids are susceptible to it," she whispered, her eyes seeking Clark's.
A heavy silence had fallen on the room.
"We don't know that for sure, Mom," Jonathan had offered robustly.
And they didn't. When they were children, at each of their check-ups, Dr Klein had asked. Could he expose them? Just a small amount. Just so they would know. They were half-Kryptonian and there was no telling how their unique bodies might process the toxic rock. But they needed to know. It needed to be on record.
And each time Clark had looked at his kids under the bright lights of the examination table, against the stark white plastic cloth that covered it, and said no. He acknowledged that Bernie had an excellent point. They would need to know. Someday. But not today. Not this early. Not when they were so small. Not when they were…miracles. His only biological ties to the planet. He and his kids all that was left of an entire race, a world of people erased. He just couldn't. Not yet.
Bernie had rightly argued that it was like giving infants vaccinations. Sure it was uncomfortable at the time, maybe for a day or two after, but in the end if that spared you whooping cough, it was for the better.
Again Clark had acknowledged his point. But nobody knew the pain of kryptonite like he did. He could describe it until he was blue in the face, but he couldn't convey it. And he hadn't come up against it until he was a young man. As a child…there was no telling. He couldn't inflict pain on them intentionally. He couldn't. Couldn't let that box be brought out and opened while his kids sat, silent and trusting. Hurting, solely because of who their father was.
Lois, who had seen the effects of kryptonite on him more than a dozen times at that point, had agreed completely. "If they decide they want to wear a cape," she'd asserted. "If they're going to be flying crime fighters, that's one thing. Until then, though, forget it."
And they had.
"The ultimate revenge against Superman," Clark had barely managed. "If somebody takes it into their head to find out…to have some leverage. Those old Luthor Corp guys thought they had me where they wanted me based on my friendship with the Daily Planet's reporters and a long ago rumored affair with your mom. Imagine if they had known about you. And now the world does…"
"Dad," Lara had begun, tears in her eyes for him, he knew, and not for herself. "If they can't find us. If they don't know what we look like -"
"I want you to stay here," Clark had ordered.
"When things get less crazy, we'll call STAR labs and run those tests," Lois had proposed. "The whole complex is being watched too closely now. And the message on their website asks for patience while they run a particularly sensitive, possibly dangerous series of experiments."
It was code. That meant for Superman, for whatever reason, to stay away. To wait until contacted or more than likely to just wait until the lab signaled the all-clear by taking the warning down. Often they'd never learned what prompted a warning. Sometimes they had and wished they hadn't.
"Stay until then," Clark had said.
Not surprisingly, the kids had felt differently.
"I have a job. My course work." This from Jonathan.
"I won't be held hostage." This from Marta.
"Trust us." Lara's appeal.
That had been the hardest part of all. They couldn't keep them. They couldn't force them. They would have to let them go and just…trust them.
"Wear your pagers at all times," Lois had ordered, recognizing a lost cause when she saw one.
"Be careful, please," Clark asked softly, knowing he had said it once already, recognizing the answering glint in Marta's eye, so similar to the glint that came into the eye of a certain other woman he knew, mostly when he was only trying to be helpful.
"Be smart. Use your vision, use your hearing," Lois had added. "When in doubt, fly. Everyone knows you can, so that makes it easier."
They had all agreed. Sundays would still be family meeting days. They would call if help was needed. But their parents weren't to worry. It was a big world out there, and they were just three members of it.
With the confidence of youth, they left the island.
Despite her worries for them, Lois watched them fly away with a twinge of envy.
She and Clark were strolling hand in hand down their beach, the kids disappearing into the night sky.
"We have to get you off this island, don't we?" he asked gently, wrapping his arms around her, pulling her into his embrace. "Before you lose your mind?"
He knew. He always knew.
She didn't pretend to misunderstand him.
"I was thinking of swimming for it," she confessed. "I'm still in pretty good shape -"
"Great shape," he interrupted her.
"And if I could make into the international shipping lanes, flag down a cargo ship…"
"At least you haven't given it too much thought, Lois," he laughed.
"I'm with you, Flyboy. Whatever happens."
"I know," he answered simply, gratefully.
They moved forward again. Fingers loosely intertwined.
"It's nice here," he ventured, after a while.
"It's snowing in Metropolis," she answered thoughtlessly.
He halted. "Not yet, ok, Lois?"
"Of course not yet," she returned stoutly. "Not ever if you don't want to…"
"I really don't know," he stated bluntly. "Do you?"
"I not only don't know, underneath it all, Clark, I don't care. We're here, still us, still together. That's what matters."
"Earlier today, with the newspapers…"
"It isn't. I'm sorry."
"Was that the worst of it?" he persisted.
"I figured because it was the bottom of the stack…" He winced, let the words trail away.
"That's the worst of it in print," she agreed.
"Right." He nodded. "Of course."
They lingered for a while, breathing in the cool breezes, listening to the tumbling surf.
"Think they'll be ok?" he ventured, after a while. "I hated for them to go."
"I don't know," she answered. "Jonathan said everyone on the ship was pretty great to him. When the news reached them, they offered to take him to the nearest port."
"Which wasn't actually necessary." Clark smiled.
"He says it will be easier now. No more claiming long salt water showers, or that he walks in his sleep, or that he'd been reading in the lifeboat. He can come and go without worrying they'll think he's gone overboard."
"He can pick up the stranded whales," Clark offered. "Save everyone a lot of time."
"He'll figure it out. We all will," she stated, hoping it was true. No. It was true. It had to be. Things didn't have to be bad, just different.
"And the girls," Clark added. "I won't have to worry about their dates trying anything."
He looked a tad too satisfied.
"But what if they want their dates to try?" she scolded. "They'll want that one day. Actually, I worry about that most of all. For all three of them. You had me before I knew. They won't get that same chance…to just be themselves, loved for who they are."
"I don't know, Lois. I know what you're saying. But when I was with you, in the beginning, you didn't really know me. You knew who I showed you. Who I thought Clark Kent was, or rather, who I wished he was. Just a simple guy from Kansas, uncomplicated, open…madly in love." He smiled at her in the moonlight. "That slowed us down. Things between us didn't turn real until you knew. In fact, it might have cost us in the long run. If I had said something sooner, maybe…"
"Lex Luthor wouldn't have happened," she filled in.
"I don't know," he admitted. "What do you think?"
"That we were pioneers. The first Kryptonian-Earthling pairing. There were bound to be a few mistakes." She rose to her toes, planting a soft kiss on his lips. "And we can't really spare the kids their mistakes. We can just offer -"
"Guidance, support, love," he sighed. "We sound just like my parents."
"So we must be on the right track."
They turned, arms draped casually around each other, and headed back towards the lights of the house.
"What's the worst then?" he finally asked.
She was ready. "On eBay, if you type in Clark Kent, instead of the usual handful of old articles, magazine pieces, or profiles, you get to choose from an ever-growing number of interesting items."
"A Smallville Highschool Yearbook. Used college textbooks with your notes in the margin. Your work with the Borneo Gazette. The mattress you slept on at that hole-in-the-wall hotel when you first came to Metropolis…"
"The Apollo," he said. "And I didn't really sleep directly on it, it was lumpy."
"Today I took a quick look, just to see what else…"
"Go ahead, honey," he told her firmly.
"The 'Kent Farm' sign from your Mom and Dad's. The one that hung over the driveway. Stolen and up for sale, along with some of your mom's…artwork, and pieces of the barn, your tree house…"
"Poor Wayne," he gasped. "There are probably people crawling all over that property. I should have thought of that…"
"He's been on TV, defending you, defending the Kent place. He's a local hero now." She grinned. "And one cranky old man. Smallville residents are definitely getting their fifteen minutes of fame."
"Who else?" he asked with interest.
"Ohhhh," he drew out. "How'd she look?"
She swatted him. "She looks rightly contrite is how she looks! She let you get away and look what she missed out on."
"All of this," he agreed, spreading his hands to encompass the house, the palm trees, the waves. "A really beautiful exile."
"It's a retreat," she corrected him. "There's a difference. Whenever you're ready, Clark…"
"What, Lois? And I'm not arguing. I'm just curious. Whenever I'm ready, then…what?"
"I haven't actually worked out the answer to that," she admitted reluctantly.
"So we'll get to work," he vowed. "You know what we'll do? We'll go inside and sit in the library. How does that sound? We haven't tried that room yet. I'll light a fire, raid the wine cellar. We'll put our heads together. Lane and Kent back on the job."
He was saying all the right things. Everything she needed to hear. But she hesitated.
"I haven't told you everything. Did you want to hear…more?"
He regarded her thoughtfully for a long minute. "Is it ok if I say no? Not today?"
"Yes," she blew out a relieved breath.
"And is it ok, too, if I have one of those frozen pizzas?"
That was a bit tougher to answer, but after some debating, she decided it probably was.
They were mere steps away from the door, when his hands shifted, sliding from her shoulders, down around her waist. Her feet left the ground in a rush, as he pulled her into the shelter of his body, keeping her close for warmth, as they hurtled into the sky.
"Where to?" he breathed in her ear.
"Surprise me," she answered gratefully.
She was asleep in his arms before they returned home. They had flown for hours, a haphazard journey across the globe, with no particular destination. They hadn't touched down and explored anywhere, as they often did. Both had pretended they weren't interested, but he knew that for him, and for Lois no doubt, as well, they just weren't ready to risk being seen.
He tried to picture it. Landing in Metropolis. Walking into their townhouse. Clark Kent and Lois Lane. He couldn't imagine it. It was like an equation that no longer worked, the variables had all changed and the answer was different now. Not the way it had always been. He just didn't know how to work the new equation.
He laid her gently on the bed, removing her shoes and covering her. He studied her for a time, not really able to put words or even cohesive thoughts to the swell in his heart when he looked at her.
"What are we going to do, Lois?" he whispered into the darkness, to his sleeping wife.
He moved downstairs and wandered the house. For the first time really taking in the opulence and the extent of it. Room upon room upon room. He read the titles on the spines of every book in the library. Tried the billiards table. Entered the series of conference rooms and resisted the urge to snoop through the locked up files. What must be contained in there?
He chuckled softly. Lois' influence. The desire to know what was behind the closed door.
He found the media center at the very top of the house. Small and dimly lit, like a cave. A huge screen dominating the wall. Banks of plush sofas. He studied the television.
"On," he said.
He sat down.
He stuck to the sports channels. They seemed safe enough. After a while of pretending he wasn't going to, he voiced a command.
"Subject search," he sounded out carefully.
The screen went black, the words "Name Subject" flashed back at him in a shade of green reminiscent of kryptonite. The similarity of it, the omen, almost stopped him.
"Clark Kent," he finally said, leaning forward and placing his elbows on his knees. "Previous seven days."
There was a long delay. The words "Searching…Found…Playing" lighting up one by one. A countdown. To his knowing. To the end of blissful ignorance.
It wasn't too late. He could turn the whole blasted thing off. Wait for morning, wait for Lois. Wait…until time traveled backwards.
The ballroom sprang into view, filling the screen. He drew in a sharp breath, drawing far back into the sofa behind him. "Mute," he ordered. He would just watch for now.
He saw Lois on the floor, then the camera's view swerved wildly, moving from her image to his. He watched himself approaching, saw the dark fury on his face. Noted for the first time all the guns that had been pointed on him as he moved. In the moment he hadn't really noticed them.
Lucky, he thought, that they hadn't just start shooting. Bullets bounced off him, but everyone else…
He leaned forward again, drawn in by the drama playing out before him. Lois telling him they weren't serious. He smiled at that. Just like her. Head down, gun at her neck and still fighting.
He watched his own face, and recognized the moment when he knew what he was going to do. What he had to do. He never took his eyes off the screen as the figure on it blurred to the human eye and Superman arrived in the flash of colors. Quite a contrast, from the simple black and white tuxedo to the bold primary colors.
So why did he feel like everything had gone the opposite way? That in that moment his life had moved from Technicolor to black and white?
Superman made quick work of mopping up the scene. Just before he reached for the ballroom doors, Clark pronounced, "Skip ahead."
He was surprised at how sturdy his voice sounded. He didn't need to watch the moment the kryptonite had leached into his bones, though.
The television complied. The next scene was him in the hallway. The part he didn't really remember. He especially didn't remember the scene up top. It was bedlam. Thousands of people jammed the streets. Even with the sound off, he imagined he could hear their voices. There were still more people pouring in, traffic was gridlocked all around the area. Some, no doubt having just watched what had happened on their own televisions, were eager to be a part of the scene where history was being made.
The media helicopters were like a swarm. He hadn't heard them at the time, but they jostled for attention. Flying dangerously low, ruffling the hair of everyone in the crowd. The police held everyone off as best they could. Barriers, dogs, nightsticks. He watched with a feeling of complete detachment as he saw himself being loaded, unconscious now, into the back of an armored van. The STAR labs insignia subtle but distinguishable. They had probably been out there the whole time, fully realizing what it meant that Clark Kent was in that ballroom. Lois was scrambling in with him. Perry, looking gray but conscious, was taken into the ambulance just beside the van. Jimmy and Alice on either side of him.
So that was it.
"Stop," he ordered. The images stopped. The black screen returned.
He drew in a deep breath. This would be a good place to leave it for the night. Go to bed…
"Skip ahead," he whispered, not able to keep the dread out of his voice. Rip the bandage off quickly, he told himself. Rip it all off.
It was a playback. Interesting. Definitely being shown on a news show, one with a panel of talking heads. He recognized them. Some he liked, some…well…he guessed they were just doing their jobs.
The spin in slow-motion, broken down point by point.
He stood up.
This was interesting. After several years he understood the principles of it, but he'd never seen it. He took a step closer to the screen. Watching closely. The turn. He always went left. He guessed it would work if he went right, but left seemed more natural. The tuxedo jacket came off, disappeared. The tie and glasses already gone on his first revolution.
He had a horrible thought. They wouldn't show…surely they wouldn't show…well, not on television. Families watching.
They did. It was a circular strip-tease that for less than a blink of an eye showed…all of him. Less than the blink of an eye — or as long as you wanted if you stopped the image, looked at it again and again, as the hosts of the program did, just before the suit came on. Then, tights, briefs, boots in a single turn. Once more around for harness, cape, top. Superman.
He sat down heavily.
Exposed. As exposed as a person could be. Not just who he was, but…everything.
"Volume up," he choked out, knowing better. <Rip the band-aid, rip the band-aid>
"Well," pronounced the woman of the panel. "I think that answers a question women all over the world have had for decades. Yes, ladies, the suit comes off. And underneath it, he's really…super."
He made a moaning sound. An animal sound. It escaped his lips before he knew it. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut. "Skip forward," he groaned shakily. "Three days."
So maybe he didn't need to see every bit of the coverage of the aftermath. He'd just drop in every few days, see how it was playing. See if he was still naked for the world to see.
Same panel. Same cheerful talking-heads. Lois had described some of the coverage as gleeful. And why shouldn't it be? This was meaty stuff. No searching for words on this story. No sitting and trying to make it sound more important than it was just to fill the air time.
A reporter stood, bundled up against the elements, microphone in hand, in front of the Daily Planet building, the globe over her shoulder. Underneath her, her name and the words 'Give Back the Pulitzer?'
The panel in the studio all looked appropriately thoughtful. "Volume up," he hissed again, letting their voices intrude even more into the cave.
'- Daily Planet claims no wrongdoing by the legendary investigative team, but the Pulitzer committee is in meetings now…'
'One does have to wonder. They have such an astonishing record of achievements…'
'Stories that no one else could get…'
'Couldn't hurt for a reporter to have x-ray vision, superhearing…'
'Is that ethical? It can't be, can it?'
'Cheating? It seems like cheating. Their colleagues didn't stand a chance against them…'
So this was the worst of it. What Lois hadn't told him yet.
She had no doubt sat right here, seen this unfold. Three days after. His first day out of bed. He had fallen asleep on the beach. She had gone inside. To this? And she hadn't…killed anyone?
He searched the room carefully for what he might have missed before. Shattered glass, splintered wood. She must have thrown something, must have broken more than a few sticks of furniture…Nothing was apparent.
His wife, the world's most ferocious reporter had watched her naked husband on display, seen her children's baby pictures in the paper, and this. The casual dismantling of her life's work.
"Off," he barked, fighting the need to fling open the window and work off some adrenaline.
Instead he navigated the long way back to their bedroom, back to Lois.
They couldn't stay here. They needed to get back and start defending themselves. Wayne and Perry and Jimmy didn't have to be his champions anymore. He was well, he was able, and he had a few things he'd like to get off his chest.
He would call a press conference. Wouldn't have any problem finding enough people to attend. He'd hold right it in front of the Planet. Tell them exactly what he thought of giving back the Pulitzer. Lane and Kent cheated? Were unfair to their colleagues? How many times had they both risked their lives? He'd look that up. How many criminals sat behind bars, how many lives saved? He'd look that up, too. They wanted a story and he'd give them one.
Yes, he had all the enhanced abilities that helped them when they were in the right place. But they hadn't been in all those right places by accident. Lois had taken them there, time and time again. She always found the hot spot, the crux of the case, the point at which things were going to blow right open, and in finding it, she had invariably jumped in, head first.
They had won the Pulitzer because they deserved it. Because she deserved it.
They could take everything else. They could sell off Clark Kent's childhood, show him unclothed for the world to see. But they weren't taking this from Lois. Not if he had anything to say about it.
And afterwards, they would figure out where they wanted to live. Maybe an island like this part time. Maybe the mountains. Closing up the townhouse was a simple matter. And he would write that book he'd always dreamed about. Probably wouldn't have any trouble finding a willing publisher. And Lois would…
He paused in mid-stride. What would Lois do? What kind of life was she left with? He wasn't the only one who was Superman. He was the face and the name, but she was every bit as much a part of the superhero as he was. They needed to figure it out, sooner rather than later. They needed to do…something, just something.
That night in their bedroom before…before the party, she had mentioned that the thrill of the chase was gone, that thirty years of following leads and writing stories had gotten stale. That she had thought about doing something… different.
Well, she'd gotten that all right. In spades. Time to figure out what sort of form different was going to take.
The phone was chiming when he entered the kitchen. He paused, noting the time on the clock. Not even daybreak. The kids.
With his heart in his throat he activated the receiver. "Everything ok?"
There was a distant, static-filled hush, followed by a few clicks which indicated the call was secure.
"Hello?" Clark persisted. "Jon -"
"I'm trying to reach Superman, please," interrupted a refined, authoritative voice.
"Who's calling?" Clark asked warily, taking an unconscious step backward.
He shouldn't have answered. When he was ready, and only then on his own terms, was he interested in talking. "Secretary Thatcher Horton," was the brisk reply. "I need to speak with Super…er…Clark Kent as soon as possible."
He knew the man well, though he had never met him. Thatcher Horton worked with the UN and was a big proponent of using Superman when and wherever needed, damn the political consequences. If it was easier, if it was less dangerous, he voted to send him, no matter how sensitive the situation, or how offended one side might be over the other. Thornton was a pragmatist, not a politician. At the end of the day, if it saved lives, he called for the superhero. Often without anyone else in authority knowing about it.
It had been Secretary Horton who had very matter-of-factly dropped the keys to this house into Lois' hands that night at STAR labs, telling her he knew an excellent place to get lost and if the doctors gave the ok, they could be there by morning.
He and Clark had had several conversations over the years, exactly like this one. Horton knew that the Daily Planet reporter could reach the Man of Steel at any hour. Now he knew why.
"It's…me, Thatch," Clark answered slowly, gathering his resolve. "What's going on?"
"Are you well?" the voice changed immediately, the formality giving way to something closer to friendly.
"Well enough," he responded somewhat truthfully. "What's happening?"
"Another sub," Thatch answered quickly. "It's not very deep, but the waters are too rough for any of our submersibles to get the claw locked on. Twenty-five sailors, not too far from where you are."
"How long have they been down?"
"Thirty-what?" He ran a hand over his face, listening to the ocean outside, no longer the soothing murmur of waves, but suddenly sounding quite treacherous. He imagined he could hear the voices underneath the surf… The claustrophobia…Twenty-five sailors, all about Jonathan's age… "What took you so long?" he breathed at last.
There was a pause, and Clark knew his faceless friend was weighing his response. "Of course we tried it repeatedly ourselves," was the careful reply. "And…I wasn't sure you were still…in the business."
Was he? He'd been certain of it when he'd woken up from the kryptonite poisoning. He was finished for good. Retired. The world would just have to figure it out without him. He had given all a man could, and more. He had left it all out there, and now he was going to just enjoy what he had. A life of quiet, hard-earned retreat.
But then again, maybe it was the opposite. Maybe he was in the business full time now. He could fly to the rescue round the clock now, no longer hampered by deadlines and keeping up appearances and living Clark Kent's life.
He didn't know. That was what it came down to.
"It's remote," Thatch offered into the silence. "No media. We don't want anyone to know: the funding on this sub has been cut more than once. You know how it goes. We lose this, the program is over…"
"Send the coordinates." He closed his eyes, already picturing what needed to be done. He'd need an air tank. It wouldn't be too much trouble. Swim down and attach the claw, help steady the sub as it came up. Then he could be off and away… He could do this.
"Give me about a half hour, ok?" he asked the secretary. "I need to talk to…someone."
"Of course," was the quick reply. Now he knew exactly who Superman's someone was. "And thank you…um…Mr Kent."
"It's Clark," he sighed quietly. "We've spoken often, so we should be…on a first name basis."
"Thank you, Clark."
"Thank you," Clark returned, "for the accommodations."
"Don't mention it," was the short reply. "Um…Clark, while I have you here, you should know…"
"What?" he asked with some trepidation. Dear God, what else was there to know?
"You're on the payroll now. Officially. I don't know what your plans are, but finances shouldn't be a factor, ok? You work for the UN and you have for years. We'll continue donating to the Superman Foundation, of course, but we've opened an account for you."
He was momentarily at a loss. "I…don't expect or…want," he began stiffly. "I mean…"
"Any idea what a salvage crew costs, Clark? Or how much the military funerals of twenty-five good men would run us?"
"I don't charge," he protested hotly. "Superman isn't…for hire."
"No, but Clark Kent is a man with bills to pay," Horton stated flatly. "And apparently he's been a loyal employee for close to twenty years. That entitles you to benefits, salary, a pension, and privileges to certain safe houses around the world. Say no all you want to if it makes you feel better, but this is just the way it is."
"You went to bat for me," Clark said. "You must have, Thatch. So…I'll think about it."
"And call me when the sub is up, ok?"
Before he could open his mouth to reply, the phone clicked off. Images of sailors and rough waters filled the room, draining away the words 'pension,' and 'benefits,' and 'payroll,' along with the voice who had introduced them.
He stood in the same spot for some time, listening to the seas, picturing the men under them, counting Lois' shells, and trying to convince himself it wasn't all just a dream. A horrible nightmare. A parallel universe.
That Clark Kent wasn't really going to fly to his first rescue.
After a long minute he moved towards the stairs, towards Lois, towards…the beginning of that something different.
The Suit was in the closet. Lois had taken it off him when they'd arrived. That must have been some wrestling match, he mused. Him, heavy-limbed and unconscious, yet still no match for one small woman's determination.
He didn't spin into it, but stepped into it slowly. Like he had in the beginning, the first time he tried it on, the first months he was figuring it out. Before he'd learned to whisk it on and off almost thoughtlessly. When he used to worry about losing a shoe, his tie, or worst of all, his glasses.
He thought about the glasses. All the spare pairs. Two in his desk at the Planet, even though as foreign correspondent he had rarely worked there. Two upstairs at the townhouse. One downstairs in the desk drawer right by the front door. Just in case anyone came unexpectedly…The spare pair zipped into the lining of the cape. So many.
He did the math as he pulled the boots on. Counting the pair he'd always worn…seven in all. Lois maybe had a point about his obsessive compulsions, he smiled wryly. But so much had been at stake. Every time he bought and stashed another pair, he had pushed the fear away. This fear away.
He stood up fully, studying himself in the darkness in the mirror over the dresser. Superman. Known to billions.
"Clark Kent," he spoke aloud, as if introducing himself to the man in the mirror. And maybe he was. Putting his name to the icon. The way he would be seen from now on.
"Something wrong?" Lois' groggy voice came from behind him.
"A submarine in trouble," he whispered, moving to sit beside her. "It won't take long, honey."
"'kay," she slurred. "Good luck."
He waited, smiling despite himself.
She didn't disappoint. "What?" She came awake, tossing the covers back as she sat bolt upright.
"Secretary Horton called. Twenty-five sailors, but it isn't down very deep. No media," he added.
"Are you ready?" she answered quietly, taking in the bold S for the first time, fingering the cape.
"I don't know that I have a choice." He lowered his head to bury it in her hair. "Hold me for just a sec, ok?" he ordered bluntly.
She wrapped her arms around him, letting him slide her onto his lap.
"You know you're still you, right?" Lois coached. "Who you are and what you can do — that hasn't changed."
"I'm just going down to get the coordinates," he forced out matter-of- factly. "And then I'm going. When I get back, Lois, we have to talk. I know about the Pulitzer."
She didn't answer and despite his words, he didn't move.
"Go," she finally said firmly.
He tightened his grip on her, breathing deeply, trying to stop the shakes.
"Go and don't screw it up," she threatened in a low voice. "And pick me up something good for breakfast while you're out."
"I love you, Lois," he only just choked.
"Go," she insisted, pulling away from him and flinging open the balcony door. "I want to watch."
In a blink he was back upstairs, coordinates in hand.
"And your breakfast order?" He smiled gamely.
"Bagel, loaded. From a New York deli, I think."
He flinched, but just a bit. He'd been hoping for something a bit more exotic, off the beaten path…
"Ok," he agreed. "You watching?"
She smiled and sat down on the bed.
"Show me what you can do, big boy," she cooed.
With a laugh he rose into the air.
"Not bad," she yawned politely.
He spun himself slowly horizontal to the floor, raising one fist over his head for good show.
"Seen that," she commented in a bored tone, studying her nails.
He was outside in a blur, hot dogging just a bit as he went. He slowed down only long enough to hear her call, "I love you, and I don't want pumpernickel."
She watched him fly away, his blue gradually fading into the morning sky, his red cape keeping him visible to her eyes until he was a mere speck.
She sank back into the mattress, her heart pounding.
He had been called and he had gone. And she had sent him off. Just like always. She had literally pushed him out of the window, out of the nest. He had been going anyway, but he had needed that from her. Needed her to push him. To be strong enough to do it for them both.
Maybe for Superman everything was essentially unchanged. His mission was clear: save what needs saving. But for Clark Kent, for her, for all of them, it wasn't so simple and, really, it never had been
Would the world know and appreciate that now? That after the horror, after the storm, after he had immersed himself in the traumas of strangers, Superman flew home in need of arms strong enough to hold him together. To kids who needed him to be a dad. To a life of his own. That he trembled, that he grieved the things he had to see. And then did it all again as soon as the next cry was raised?
That he had missed birthday parties and Little League games, anniversaries and funerals. And he had done so for people he would never know. Leaving her and his family to do without him, because if he didn't do what he could, he wouldn't be able to live with himself.
Would they look at Clark Kent, and if she was being honest, at Lois Lane, as well, and finally say thank you? For their sacrifices? For their hard work? For taking on the world's problems as their very own?
They could have their Pulitzer, Lois thought again. She was only sorry Clark had to hear it from someone other than her. She'd been saving that morsel of information, knowing he would beat himself up with it, for her sake. And she wouldn't have that. In fact, she wouldn't have their Pulitzer. She would insist that they take it. She knew they had won it fairly. But if there was going to be doubt, it would only be right for them to take it back. And as long as they were doing that, they probably ought to release every criminal mastermind, crooked politician, and mad scientist Lane and Kent had "cheated" to catch. If they were setting things right, they couldn't pick and choose.
And maybe having that Pulitzer back would make them feel better when the next plane started to dive, when the next tidal wave hit the shore, when he…when they…were needed.
What it all came down to was really quite simple. She had him, and she didn't need anything else.
And besides, she could win another one whenever she felt like it.
She'd take a swim, she decided, hopping to her feet. And drive the thoughts from her brain.
And wait for him…because that was what she did.
Clark stood outside the deli longer than he had good reason to.
Ridiculous, he chided himself. He had pulled up a submarine today, or rather helped the crane which did so. Buying a bagel was easy compared to that, right?
Again he lowered his glasses and examined the line inside. Maybe just a few minutes more. It was still early; many New Yorkers on their way to work were stopping by, placing impatient orders, and sweeping out again.
Obviously the people working behind the counter were rushed. No need to add to their stress. He'd just wait…to be polite. And then go in and grab that bagel in the corner of the case. He eyed it again. It had Lois' name on it. She would probably like it toasted, but he would do that back at the house. That way it would be…toastier. By the time he flew it back to her, even if it would be under a minute, still, it could get soggy. You couldn't be too careful about these things.
The door swung open again, and again he turned his back quickly, not really seeing the words of the newspaper he held in a death grip.
He was shaking. Oh god. He couldn't do it. She would understand. He could just fly home and call it a day. A good day. He'd saved twenty- five lives. And yes, he hadn't stuck around to shake any hands or even to hear the thank yous. And granted, he had swooped down and taken the air tanks that were waiting on deck of the rescue ship at superspeed. But he had been in a hurry. Those men had been down a long time, and maybe it took a claustrophobe such as himself to appreciate the value of every extra minute. So, he had saved the day…he had! He'd plunged into the sea, they'd known he was there then, he hadn't hidden the splash. He'd attached the claw and given it a firm yank, just to let those above know they'd landed a big fish, staying down long enough to see the submarine rise. Then he had shot straight up, deposited the tanks and come straight here. Because Lois was hungry, and he wanted to get her breakfast right away…
Of course that had been forty minutes ago, but still…
She'd sent him here on purpose. He knew that. It was a challenge in the form of a breakfast request. The No Pumpernickel Are You Brave Enough to be Seen by the World Yet Challenge.
How bad could it be? He let himself focus on the paper in front of him. He was only on page three. He wasn't naked. The words, when he let them filter into his reeling thoughts, were not bad. They were actually kind of…nice. He took a serious of deep breaths. Ok, ok. This was it. There were laws against loitering and was that how he wanted to make his debut in public? 'Clark Superman Kent Stalls In Front of Deli.' "I was waiting to buy my wife a bagel," he was heard to whine as he was led away…
Get in, get out. Home to Lois in under a minute…
He folded his paper, trying to slow the pounding of his heart. He reached for the door. The instant his hand connected he paused.
With trembling fingers he took off his glasses. They were useless now anyway. He was who he was. No more hiding. That part of his life was over. Really over. He needed to get that in his head once and for all.
He slid the glasses into his pocket, checking once again that he did, indeed, have his wallet. That it wasn't at the bottom of the sea. That he wouldn't get up there to pay and find it missing. And he entered.
The line was about ten people deep. He was tempted to do what everyone else was doing, bury himself in the paper again. But there had to be a first time. And he could be home in under a minute. Could walk on the beach with Lois. There was a library full of movies he hadn't seen. Would be great on that television, that was for sure. They could swim, he would cook tonight…
"Whatareyouhaving?" barked the tiny woman behind the counter. So tiny he had to lean forward and peer over the display to make eye contact with her. He smiled. Good, he thought. Eye contact is good.
She scowled. "I haven't got all day, good-lookin'"
He blinked. "Um…sorry. That one." He pointed. She looked. Lois' bagel was gone. Gone! Who took Lois' bagel? How had he let that happen? Oh god. Oh god…
Apparently insensitive to the panic building in her customer, the woman scooped up the bagel closest to where his finger still indicated. "Whatdoyawantonit?"
"Everything," he choked out weakly.
'Clark Superman Kent Faints in Deli' "Somebody took Lois' bagel!" he was heard to cry.
"Toasted?" she snapped.
He cast a quick glance around. People on their phones, watching the tiny televisions in their booth, doing their work, reading their magazines…ignoring him completely.
"Yes," he said firmly. "Toasted."
He leaned up against the counter and waited. He smiled to himself, he couldn't help it. He remembered as a young man lifting that first space ship into orbit. If you had told him then that *this* was what would make him feel really accomplished, he would have…run screaming back to Krypton, he guessed.
He tipped her generously. She almost smiled at him when she saw the amount he put into the jar. He made a point of reading her name tag. Myrtle.
"Myrtle," he wanted to say, "I'll never forget you. I'm a newborn, you see, and yours is the first face outside in the new world that I've ever seen…and it's beautiful."
Of course he didn't. Maybe next time.
He paid and made his way to the door, a bubble of joy rising up inside of him. He'd done it. He had faced it. He'd survived.
He was steps away from the exit when he noticed the patrons of the small table in the back staring at him, hard.
'But it looks just like…'
'Dude, you really think Superman is going to come in here in jeans and a sweatshirt and have a cup of coffee? You're dreaming…'
'If it's him, he looks…different…'
'It's not him. He looks too old to be him anyway…'
Clark flinched, and then stopped when he was nearly out the door. He turned enough to get a good look at them, for them to get a good look at him. They didn't avert their eyes or pretend they weren't discussing him, they way some people did when caught looking. They stared at him frankly. Mouths open, jaws slack.
He smiled and waved. "Nice morning," he commented in his best superhero voice.
He was in the alley and up in the sky in seconds, but not before he heard them squeal.
"Dude, that was *so* him!"
He made sure the sonic boom was loud enough to reach Myrtle.
She was doing a slow backstroke through the water, enjoying the sun on her face when a shadow loomed over her.
"You're blocking my light," she sighed, opening her eyes to see the superhero hovering over her, a brilliant blue cloud against the sky.
"Your breakfast is served." He held up a small white bag and waved it temptingly.
"Any problems?" she asked quickly.
"The sub came up fine."
"And…the other thing?"
"What other thing?" he asked in all innocence.
She held her arms up and he picked her up obligingly, flying them slowly back to the shore.
"You were pretty far out here," he commented. "Sure you could have made it back yourself?"
"Maybe I wasn't heading back," she answered lightly. "Maybe I was making for those international shipping lanes."
"Good thing I came when I did," he pronounced, setting her down on the sand, already drying her with his vision.
His cape came off and he laid it between them. "This is my kind of service," Lois said around a mouthful of bagel.
"Why you married me," he agreed as he lowered himself next to her.
For a time they said nothing, enjoying the quiet, the company.
"I did it, Lois." He felt a little silly, but knew she would understand.
"I want to hear the gory details."
"Clark Superman Kent walked into a bustling deli in New York City and asked a woman named Myrtle for a toasted bagel with everything…and he lived."
She threw her arms around him. "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for Kryptonians everywhere."
"Listen to us," he laughed. "Could you ever have imagined this conversation?"
"Things have definitely gotten interesting," Lois agreed, snuggling into him.
"I think it's time," he ventured after a while.
"Are you sure?" She sat up and scrutinized his expression carefully.
"Yeah." He took her face in his hands and kissed her softly for a long minute. "Let's go home."
The Daily Planet.
Lois couldn't remember ever feeling so glad to see it. Had she really thought she could give this up?
She had, actually, and not all that long ago.
And she still could if she needed to, she reminded herself. The world was a big place, after all. But this building was home, more than any other she had known.
She and Clark had approached on foot, telling each other they felt like the exercise, but really putting it off — delaying that walk through those familiar doors and into the lobby, hitting the button on the elevator, and waiting for it to open onto the bullpen…
They had made it down the sidewalks of the city of millions unnoticed. In the days since their return, Clark had gotten more daring about venturing out. Discovering, to his astonishment, that being without the glasses worked almost like the disguise in reverse. His bespectacled face had graced every paper, telecast, and magazine world wide for weeks. As had Superman's familiar visage. But the combination of the two, the man with Clark's hair and style of dressing, and Superman's face…well, for the most part he slipped under the radar.
That wouldn't last. But until a few pictures were taken and the new him, the real him, was prominently seen, it allowed him a degree of anonymity they had been sure was gone forever. Not a few blocks into their slow walk, gun shots had sounded. He had tensed, grabbed hold of her arm and given her an agonized glance. "Wait here?" he'd offered faintly.
She'd said no. She could do this. She had sent him on his way, almost wishing she could be there when the Metropolis PD realized Superman was back in town. And the criminals, too. But she had her own Everest to climb.
And there it was. The globe filled her with such gratitude she nearly cried. It hadn't been that long since she'd seen it. And yet it had been a lifetime ago.
It was, of course, completely surrounded by the members of the press. She had to admire their persistence. You would think that after weeks of absolutely nothing — save the supposed appearance in New York City, which had been relegated to the equivalent of an Elvis sighting by the mainstream media, and a rumor, completely denied by everyone in authority to know, of a submarine rescue — they would have packed it in and headed home.
But then, she thought with a sigh, they were there, too. At their home. On their first night back, Clark had flown high over the townhouse, high enough so he couldn't be spotted. He'd returned to report that he couldn't count the number of trucks, cables, microphones, and beautifully groomed men and women who covered their front walk, their tiny back garden, blocking in all of their neighbors.
They would never live there again, of that she was certain. The suite at STAR labs, used by Superman for years whenever necessary, was unknown to the press. The facility itself, long since given up as an uninteresting place to stake-out, offered them what they needed for now. A home base, some privacy, and the company of those who had known them both long enough to be unimpressed by them.
When she was just across the street, Lois paused for a minute, pretending she was catching her breath. She glanced at the roof longingly. Maybe she should have asked him to drop her off there first…
No. It, too, was covered in reporters. That made sense. It was Clark Kent's personal landing strip. Not too hard to figure out when you thought about it. They obviously had.
Steeling herself with a deep breath and raising her chin, she started across. <Rip the band-aid, rip the band-aid.>
She saw the moment they noticed her, the moment they realized who she was. The entire body of them seemed to turn as one, to move as one, neatly swallowing her up, and making the door, through the haze of flashing lights, seem miles away. Edmund Hillary without oxygen, she thought wryly.
"Excuse me," she began, cool but firm. "Let me by, please."
She knew most of them. Had spent most of her life on the other side with them, the one with the notebook and the shouted questions, the headline she would kill to get.
In front of her the doors swung open, unnoticed by all else, as she, alone, was the focus of their laser-like attention. Despite the lights dancing in front of her eyes, and the crush of bodies, she recognized the square shoulders in the doorway.
"Please let my wife through," he said quietly. But that was all it took.
The crowd parted as he waded in, reaching his hand out to her. "Sorry I was delayed," he said simply. "Perry's waiting."
He drew her towards him, wrapping an arm around her, easily maneuvering them back to the doors.
A hush had fallen. Even dressed in his casual clothes, standing among people he had worked with for decades, in few words, Clark Kent had somehow calmed the frenzy.
"Will you take some questions?" a lone voice sang out, immediately joined by a chorus of assent. "Will you? Will you? Will you? Just a few…? Just this one…?"
They shared a long, pregnant look. They knew at some point they would have to call a press conference. A task they both dreaded. But now, rather impromptu? Maybe this could work just as well.
He raised his eyebrows at her in question. He'd stay if she wanted. They could do this here, get it over with. Or if not, she knew, he'd plow them both through and inside. It was up to her.
"Ok," Lois said evenly. "I have a few minutes. Go ahead."
The press drew its collective breath, as if scarcely believing its luck. That moment of silence, though, was quickly stamped out by the onslaught of questions.
When she heard one she could answer succinctly, she did so. "No, I didn't know. Not right away. He didn't tell me. He was worried about this very thing."
"When I got to know her, when she knew me. When I knew she was…who I wanted to marry, that was the time." Clark sounded a bit flustered, but then, this wasn't his best subject.
"I think I took it well," Lois filled in. "I mean, as well as could be expected." She purposefully avoided meeting his gaze. <It is not funny> she thought to him pointedly.
He looked away, tried to hide his dancing eyes.
"Smallville, Kansas, that's right. Jonathan and Martha Kent. They saved me, raised me. The residents of that town deserve a break, though, please print that…"
"I'm glad you asked," she began, good and warmed up now. "About that Pulitzer. They can take it and shove -"
"- We're glad to have it," he cut her off quickly. "And appreciate that the committee had some questions about it, but in the end, we're happy they decided to stick to their original decision. It was a difficult series, we worked hard, and Lois was almost killed -"
A knowing snicker went up from the press.
"- again," he couldn't seem to help adding smartly.
"At least we finally know how she's lived so long," a voice called out.
Their shared laughter- shared by everybody but her- broke the ice. To her surprise, she felt him relax as his hand slipped into hers. They were doing this. The unimaginable. The unthinkable.
He had bowed his head, nodding and listening to the questions, sorting through them as they flew, fast and furious. At some, the corners of his eyes crinkled, showing his amusement. At others, his brow darkened, furrowed. Too close to home. But his thumb continued to gently stroke her knuckle as he held her hand in his, conveying to her everything his words and expressions did not.
He was ok.
Her thoughts were drawn back to the broken man on the beach, whose sobs had reached her inside the house on his first night awake in his new lifetime. How she had approached him utterly fearful that she would not be able to comfort him, that there was no way to comfort him, that he would never recover, that…they would never recover. And here they were, a few weeks later, his hand in hers, his thumb absently rubbing slow, soothing circles, entirely unconscious on his part, but she knew. They had made it. They were…fine.
All at once she couldn't stifle a glorious smile, though it had to look crazy to those who were closely scrutinizing her. His eyes, which had traveled the assembly back and forth a few times, lit on her briefly. He did a quick double-take, reading her face, and the smile he gave back answered her own perfectly. Look at us, it said. This can work.
Before she could get too comfortable, a question of a different sort made itself heard.
"What went wrong?"
"I…think I went out on that limb one time too many," she answered, surprised and chagrined to hear the catch in her voice, her emotions, tightly bottled for so long, suddenly spilling all over the place.
"You were pushed out there," Clark declared, shooting her a look with a question of his own in it. "Through no fault of yours, other than your association with Super…me."
His hand now squeezed hers tightly, imparting strength.
"I think it was a mix of circumstances," he continued when he saw she couldn't. "Not really any one thing. And not really anything we hadn't faced before, but this time, for whatever reason…" He shrugged. "I wouldn't do it differently."
"No regrets, then?" This from one of the Daily Planet's own, an acquaintance for years whose sympathetic voice rose above the others.
"None," Clark returned firmly.
"One," Lois answered at the same time.
Clark's was not the only searching gaze which turned towards her. She took a deep breath.
"That it was Lex Luthor's place that did us in," she stated, not really sure what had prompted her to confess what had taken up lodging in the back of her mind since the night of Perry's party. "He would have…loved that. That Superman's cape had to come out in front of everyone because that room was impenetrable…because some followers of Lex's managed to trap him…because I was the pawn…again."
Into the deep silence that followed, Clark spoke, turning directly to face her, effectively dismissing their audience. "You never told me that."
"If you hadn't thought of it, Clark -" She wiped an irritatingly disobedient tear from her cheek. "- I wasn't going to bring it up."
"Oh, I thought of it." He smiled gently. "Just a bit…differently."
"How differently?" whispered an unseen reporter, simultaneously breaking both the enraptured silence and the tension, drawing chuckles all around.
He never took his eyes off her. "Lex Luthor always dismissed Clark Kent so completely," he began. "He tested, tortured, tried to kill Superman. But the next day I could stand in the same room with him and he wouldn't spare me a glance. I was nothing to him. A piece of furniture…"
"Go on," she prompted, before anyone else could.
"So, that I could…do what I do…in the heart of his old empire, so to speak…Well, I know he wasn't there, but still…if it had to be anywhere, why not there? For the first time in my life, I got to be me, all of me, in the house of the man who hated me most."
He had the grace to look embarrassed. He leaned in, ignoring the microphones that followed. "And I got to keep the girl," he whispered.
"How is it that you still surprise me?" she muttered for his ears only.
"Can't have you getting bored and swimming off…"
He winked, straightening and starting to move them towards the door. They were nearly there and feeling good when the inevitable stopped them cold.
"What can you tell us about your kids?"
Lois drew in a sharp breath, her eyes stabbing at the one who had asked.
"Off limits," Clark barked before she had her mouth open to retort. A hush fell, and the convivial atmosphere dissolved completely. "Absolutely off-limits. Leave them alone." There was just enough menace in his tone to leave them with no doubt who they were speaking to. "I don't want to hear from them that they've been bothered," he threatened tightly. Visibly steadying himself, he continued, "Please. If you've appreciated any of the work I've done, that Lois and I have done, honor that request."
"Can you just tell us if they have your powers?" a hardy soul in the back called into the charged stillness.
"They are the perfect blend of both of us," Lois answered through narrowed eyes. "That should scare you away, if you're smart. Anything else?" she challenged.
"Jut one last thing," Clark said. "I've haven't read all of the coverage, so maybe I missed it, but I haven't seen a retraction, a paragraph, or just one line to the effect that Lois Lane and Superman obviously never had an affair."
A handful of their colleagues looked a tad bit uncomfortable.
"There has only ever been one affair — our love affair — since the beginning. I wouldn't mind seeing that mentioned." The satisfaction in his voice was hard to miss.
He bent close to her once more, pressing his lips against her ear. "Now that they're properly shamed and we're officially back in business, do you want to go inside and let Perry meet his new foreign correspondent?"
"I thought you were kidding!" she exclaimed. "Perry's really here?"
"What did I tell you?" he returned smugly, offering an apologetic glance to a young cameraman he'd nearly stepped on as they moved. "Two weeks, I said. Two weeks and he'd be back."
"And you were almost on the money," she conceded with a laugh. "Sorry," she tossed over her shoulder to a woman whose microphone she had dislodged in the process.
"He's eager for you to get started. Has your first assignment. Goodbye, thanks a lot," he called cheerfully, shutting the door in their faces.
"Security?" he asked mildly, keeping one heavy foot in front of the doors. When two grinning uniformed men came to replace it, he stepped aside. "Call if you need help," he offered.
They walked into the elevator. He stepped in and presented the panel of buttons she could have navigated in her sleep, and sometimes had. "Take us up, Ms Lane?"
"Same old, same old," she replied briskly, laughing when his arms came tight around her and her feet left the floor.
"Ok, everybody has theirs?"
All heads nodded the affirmative.
"And we've got our hole?"
"Make him go deeper, Dad," Marta suggested.
"Hey, you get in here and dig then," Jonathan protested, his head and shoulders popping out of the sand. "This is the right spot?"
"It is," Lois confirmed. "The exact right spot."
She and Clark exchanged a long look, remembering.
"So, how does this work? Who goes?" Jimmy asked. In his coat and tie he looked distinctly out of place on their beach. The invitation to the informal ceremony had been a surprise, but he had jumped at it willingly, straight off the roof of the Daily Planet.
"Maybe we all go together?" Clark suggested, eyeing the kids. "That way nobody fights," he added with a smile.
Marta and Lara groaned.
"Shouldn't we have a few words first, somebody say something?" Perry's voice was a bit weaker than usual, but he had declared himself fit and able to fly. Clark hadn't been sure about asking him, but once he had the idea for this gathering, he knew the circle wouldn't be complete without his former boss.
"Um…yeah," Clark agreed. "We should. Any ideas?"
"You're the writers," Lara prompted.
"Ok, I'll go," Lois pronounced stepping forward, holding hers up in her hand for all to see. "The first time I saw them, I didn't really look." She turned to Clark. "Are these the very ones?"
"Yes," he said. "Those had to be yours, Lois."
"Well…" She eyed them closely with a tender smile she tried and failed to hide. "I guess you could argue that not only did I not really look at them, but for a long time I never really looked at what was behind them either."
"You can say that again," Clark muttered with feeling.
"But on second impression," she continued sweetly, though she threw him a glare. "I found them to be…oversized and kind of…dorky. There, how's that?"
"Almost made me cry," offered Jimmy.
"Sweet, Mom," Jonathan agreed.
"Oversized and dorky sort of sums it all up," Marta agreed whole- heartedly.
"Who's next?" Lois asked.
"I'll just say that the first time I saw them," Jimmy rejoined, pulling his from his pocket and turning them over in his palms thoughtfully. "I figured the guy behind them wouldn't last a week. And I was glad. I mean, he was nice and all, but all the hot interns were looking at him. I was sort of hoping he'd take these things and go."
"Nice, Jim. You're all heart." Clark grinned.
"I call 'em like I see 'em, CK." Jimmy shrugged.
"I always liked the way the light reflected off them," Lara began hesitantly, holding hers out so that they danced in the firelight, and steadfastly ignoring the groans of her brother and sister. "When I was in bed at night and was scared and I would call, Dad would stick his head in the doorway and the streetlight outside the window would shine on them. And even though I couldn't see his eyes, I always knew when I saw those…"
"…headlights," Jonathan supplied.
"Right," Lara laughed. "When those headlights came round the corner, the monsters fled. And I knew…I was safe."
"Ditto," Mara mumbled.
"Yeah, I'll go with that," Jonathan added.
"Thanks, guys," Clark managed.
"First time I saw them, the face behind them was eager for a job," Perry began quietly. "And the frames were so…unassuming; I almost hated to put the man who wore them with my most talented reporter. Figured she'd have him for breakfast. And well…I'll always be glad that…I was pretty much right."
"Completely right, Chief," Clark answered fervently. "Is that everyone?"
"You," Lois said.
"Ok." He cleared his throat, holding the pair in his hands out to join the others. "The first time I put them on, I felt…normal. I knew it was because I wanted to be like everyone else. So, I needed to look…what was it? Oversized and dorky, unassuming, and comforting, and yet at the same time be admired by hot interns…oww!" he yelped at Lois' sharp elbow." He paused before continuing. "But they kept the world from seeing me."
"Kept me from seeing you," Lois interjected, not without a trace of bitterness.
"I will *never* get that as long as I live," Marta pronounced.
"But look what they brought me," Clark said. "Look at this circle. Because I wore them, because they gave me the security of being…a part of things, I went out into the world and I got…all of you."
"And when they're gone, we'll still be here," Lois noted.
"And I don't need them anymore," he finished.
"On three?" his wife asked him, moving to stand beside him, taking his free hand in hers.
The small group grew closer. "One," said Clark, taking a deep breath.
"Two," said Marta and Lara.
"Three!" they all shouted.
Seven pairs of glasses were thrown into the hole in the sand. The hole that he had thought of digging himself, on that first night he had fully awakened to his new life. The hole he had wanted to throw Clark Kent into, because he had been certain only Superman remained.
There had been one pair of glasses for every person present. Every person who knew him and loved him for who he really was, the person that he still was, even if that meant the world knew it, too.
The past was over. Gone, and now buried. But from where he was standing, arm around his wife, watching his kids trying to out shovel each other as Perry and Jimmy looked on, laughing, the future looked really…good.