A/N: Grab a tall drink and settle in, folks. This one’s a long one!
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Lois’ eyelids flickered open and shut, the green glow beginning to sear a red shadow onto her retinas. It was getting very difficult to keep her eyes open. She fought with every fiber of her being any lapse into unconsciousness, but it would be so easy to succumb…
Her sense of time was totally shot. Not only did she have no idea how long she had been out on the airplane, but now she had absolutely no idea how long she had been sitting there in the dark. She didn’t even have a ticking clock to measure the time by. All she was aware of was the steady dehydration in her body and loss of strength in her limbs.
Clark… she thought weakly, it’s not fair that I might lose you just when we’re finally getting our lives together… Her eyes began to flutter closed again. Why did it take us so many years finally to get it right?
Her head slumped into the leather headrest of the armchair as she lost the battle for consciousness to a swirl of dreams, snatches of conversation and memories…
The first time Lois ever laid eyes on him, it was as Clark. Some hayseed mama’s boy slumped against the opposite wall of Perry’s office, trying to move in on her territory – not that he stood a chance…
“Are there any more at home like you?"
“Not really, no...”
It was so easy to dismiss him – what a laughable first impression he had made. But even now, her subconscious mind was bringing out all the clues she had once missed…
“Really, Lois. Supposing that man had shot you? Is it worth risking your life over ten dollars, two credit cards, a hairbrush, and a lipstick? I mean...”
“How did you know that?”
“You just described the exact contents of my purse.”
She’d always had a million snappy retorts for him, brushed him aside with grace on her way to tweeze a few answers from the president. In fact, no man could avoid her facile tongue, until…
“Easy now, Miss. I’ve got you.”
“You’ve got me? Who’s got you?”
Tongue-tied and awestruck, she had watched him leave, rising into the air like a thing of beauty. Her fantasies had started right then and there. With clear understanding, her mind's eye could see through Clark's pretended disbelief about the abilities of her rescuer to detect his interest in knowing what she really thought of him.
The romantic interview on her balcony… their first flight… Lois was feeling so over the moon that she hardly remembered the dinner with Clark afterward, even at the most expensive place in town. She wondered what he had thought of her then…
Sometime between then and Superman’s first encounter with Lex Luthor, he had truly separated into two completely different men for Lois. He might have been content to save her life over and over again until the end of time with nothing but a worshipful gaze in return, but somehow something changed…
The memories began to course through her even faster – she had replayed her recovered memories from Niagara to the fateful kiss at the Planet a thousand and one times during this last week – but even so, everything in the past five years flew across her vision with blinding speed, pausing only briefly on the milestones. Superman’s disappearance. Clark’s seeming like an afterthought. Meeting Richard. Jason’s birth. Their joys over his development and worries over his health. The airplane rescue, and Superman’s teasing repetition of his words to her about the safety of air travel. The ordeal on the Gertrude…
Almost like a movie running in slow motion, her mind paused on the look of wicked avarice on Luthor’s face as he processed the notion that Jason might be Superman’s son—
Suddenly, the piano crashed through the walls of her mind like a subliminal anvil, obliterating Luthor’s terrifying visage, with its chilling, serpentine smile. She found herself sealed in the galley with Jason, his small hand slowly reaching toward the handle. At any moment, the door would burst open, Richard on the other side…
The door was kicked open, flying right off its hinges into a nearby wall. Clark, in one of his ridiculous oversized suits and glasses, rushed into the room, taking both of them into his strong arms. Memory blended into the dream, and she sighed in relief that her protector, her love, was here to save them.
As they clung to each other, a sound filled her ears in the dream. Footsteps… drawing ever closer, inexorable. Thud. Thud. Thud. Clark’s head snapped up toward the sound; Jason’s eyes grew wide with terror. Clark brought them to their feet, muscles tensing in preparation for flight. Thud. Thud. Thud.
Lex Luthor slid into the doorway, the green glow of the pure kryptonite in his hand reflecting in his cold, lifeless eyes, making them look like nothing more than reptilian slits… Clark slowly began to sink to his knees, head bowed and a shaking Jason soon joined him, as Luthor stalked ever closer with the deadly mineral… Thud. Thud. Thud.
All at once, Lois snapped awake fully from her nightmare, shivering with the realization that the sound she was hearing was real. Someone was pounding on the heavy door, with enough force that she could hear it even through the soundproofing.
Was it…? It must be… Clark! She wanted to shout, I’m in here, save me! But then her terrified mind added, still overwhelmed by the dream she had just experienced, Be careful! There’s kryptonite! Get the door open and get out of its range! But the gag and the soundproofed room made any warning impossible.
The pounding suddenly stopped. A quiet beeping sound emanated from a metal plate to the side of the doorway, and then the door popped open with a click. In a blur of color and a rush of wind, the lights blazed to life again, and she found herself enclosed in the circle of Clark’s arms. The door shut behind him in the backdraft.
“Oh, thank God,” he breathed, burying his lips in her hair. He held her that way for a few moments, seeming to drink in her smell and feel.
Lois couldn’t resist sinking into him, feeling safe for an instant before she snapped back to life. All her muscles tensed. Clark! The kryptonite…! she shouted mentally.
He released her with great reluctance, and pulled back, saying, “I’ll have you out of these in no time.” As he snapped her bonds like sewing thread, she realized for once that the broad ‘S’ on his uniform was not inspiring her with wild hope and sure faith… but was instead filling her with sheer terror – for him.
The gag came off with an effortless flick of his wrist. “Superman…” she croaked out in warning, but she hardly had time to breathe before his lips caught hers firmly in a breathtaking kiss.
The kiss felt more potent than they had yet shared. She was overwhelmed, her senses reeling beyond thought. His large, powerful hands drew her torso forward to meld against his, and she automatically wrapped her now-unfettered arms around his neck. A warm sensation started uncoiling deep inside her pelvis, and it flooded her limbs, sending her mind tumbling along a wave of memories of other kisses shared. But none could compare to the intensity of this, as they clung to each other, completely blocking out the world around them…
The kryptonite! shouted Lois’ saner side, and she broke contact, drawing in a gasping breath. “We’ve got to get out of here! There’s…”
But Lois could see by his gaze toward the crates that he had already noted its presence. “...kryptonite. I felt a sharp twinge when I first entered the room, but seeing you there, still alive…” He shut his eyes and let out a noisy breath, sweat beginning to gleam on his face. “It looks to me like it’s some of the detritus from New Krypton that fell away as I lifted it into space. Not the pure form that Luthor stabbed me with. It should be okay…” He visibly steadied himself, exhaling again and releasing her. Then Clark shot a glance at the closed door, and seemed to observe the absence of a handle for the first time. His brows drew together in consternation.
Following his fixed stare, Lois commented, “Mitchener used a remote control to open the door… Can’t you just… tear it off or something?”
“I could…” he began, and then a touch of wry humor entered his voice, “…if you don’t mind exploding into a million pieces.”
“What?” she asked, her heart leaping to her throat.
He nodded gravely, serious again. “As I was studying the control mechanism, I saw wires leading into the lead-lined wall. Wires of the type used to activate a bomb. It could be just a silent alarm… I can’t be sure, because the lead is blocking my X-ray vision, but I wouldn’t want to test it in this enclosed space.” He walked over to the metal control plate beside the door, and seemed to scan it.
“A bomb wouldn’t hurt you, though. Couldn’t you just cover me with your cape…?”
“And destroy any evidence in the process? Mitchener was a lot cleverer than I gave him credit for. Why do you think he grabbed you?”
“I don't know, but I think this whole business with L & V is much more far-reaching than we ever suspected.”
Clark responded, “He made an error in judgment then, probably…"
He had mentioned Luthor only moments ago, but it was just then that she realized he didn’t know her suspicions yet… “Luthor! I think they’re working together.”
Clark’s eyes, already squinting a little as he concentrated, narrowed further. “I should have known.” He sighed. “Are you sure?” He kept his back to her as he resumed his scan.
She started to walk toward him. “Someone was here, and it looked like they’d fled the scene very quickly. No car in the driveway, dirty dishes left out, unmade bed…” She ticked off the clues on her fingers. “Mitchener was very upset, but the final straw seemed to be the opera music…”
Clark finished his scan, and shook his head. “It’s wired from this side as well.” He put a weary hand to his forehead. Lois noted with concern that his face seemed paler than it had a moment ago, his movements somehow slower and more deliberate, as though they took real effort. Was the kryptonite, even in its weaker form, beginning to affect him more strongly now? “Opera?”
Lois closed the remaining space between them, wrapping an arm around his waist to lead him farther away from the crates. “Something Italian, I think. He seemed very annoyed by it, and stopped the music.” As they passed the CD player, Clark halted, touching the pause button, and the voice boomed out again. She could now hear that there were two voices, one lower and commanding, the other higher and arrogant sounding:
Pentiti, scellerato! – No, vecchio infatuato!
Pentiti! – No!... No!...
Si! – No! – Si, si! – No, no!
Ah, tempo più non v’è!
A grim smile turned up the corners of Clark’s mouth. “No wonder he was upset… this is definitely a message from Luthor.” He paused the music again, and leaned heavily against the bookcase.
“You recognize it?” Lois didn’t know why she was surprised; he seemed to be full of surprises these days.
“Not all farmboys listen to country music, you know…” he kidded her gently, his blue eyes warm with affection. “I grew to enjoy opera during my early travels. And I can tune into radio frequencies at will. But even without knowing that this comes from the hellfire scene in Don Giovanni…” He blushed faintly despite his ever more pallid features. “I am fluent in most world languages – comes with the eidetic memory.”
“What was the message?” she asked curiously, helping him to sit on the floor at the farthest spot on the opposite wall from the crates of poison.
“It’s a scene between Don Giovanni – Don Juan – and the statue of the commander he murdered to hide one of his affairs,” Clark replied, as he was lowering himself, slowly and painfully, to the floor “The statue comes to life, takes his hand and commands him to repent…” His eyes traveled upward as he recited the lyrics in translation, “‘Repent, miscreant!’ ‘No, you driveling dotard!’... They argue for a few lines… ‘Ah, the time has run out!’… and in the next section, the statue drags Don Giovanni down to Hell.”
“What a bastard…” Lois shook her head, smiling grimly at Luthor’s slippery wit. “I think Mitchener believed he was a full partner in this scheme… but as usual he’s the only one left with dirty hands here.”
“And with a reminder of his damnation from a gloating Luthor to boot.” Clark’s words ended in a low groan – the kryptonite had weakened him more than she would have thought possible in such a short time.
She gently mopped his brow with her sleeve. “Are you all right? I’m sure we’ll figure out something… Does anyone know where you went?” She swallowed. “Does Richard know?”
“Yes... Don't worry. He'll be nearly here in the plane by now. He was only going to explain the situation to the police, first.” He moved his hand to cover hers where it was now resting on his shoulder. Then he winced, and curled in on himself. “But he won’t know the door code – I used infrared vision to determine the most frequently-pressed keys… and used my super-speed to try all of the permutations…” His eyes turned sadder as he tried to apologize, “Lois, I'm sorry. I should never have let that door fall shut. I'm afraid that my judgment where you are concerned is not the best ...”
“It’ll be fine, don’t worry, love,” she tried to assure him, trying to hold her rampant fear and desperation in check for his sake. Lois could see that the only thing keeping him coherent was their conversation. As tired and weak as she was, she knew she had to be the strong one this time. “Tell me how you found me,” she cajoled, stroking his hair with one hand.
He coughed, and smiled faintly as he saw through her ploy. “When I got back to the Planet after finishing my flyovers, it was about 5:00pm. Your desk was empty, and so was Richard’s, but that didn’t seem odd to me. I figured you had gone to pick up Jason, and just hadn’t returned yet. You might have even gone together, to tell him about the separation…”
Lois’ hand stopped its caresses for a moment, and she looked away, a pang of unease in her stomach. Jason still has no idea about how his life is going to be turned upside-down… She deliberately put aside that thought, telling herself, Let’s get through this crisis before worrying about the next… “Go on.”
“When Richard returned alone with Jason, I thought it was strange… I pulled Jimmy aside. ‘Off on a lead, Clark. You know how Miss Lane is – better than anyone, I bet…’ he insinuated – but then Perry suddenly ordered him into his office before I could find out what he meant by that…”
“He knows about us.” She could feel Clark tense. At the alarm in his eyes, she added quickly. “About our relationship and the break-up. Nothing else, I swear.”
He relaxed slightly, and continued. “About this time, Jason bounded over to me, Richard following at a distance. I gave Jason a quick hug, but I could tell that it bothered Richard, so I just asked the little guy how his day went while I waited to see if his… father… would join us.”
And thus begins the first of many awkward family moments, Lois thought sardonically.
“I gathered up my courage and asked Richard where you were. He said that you hadn't told him exactly where you were headed – only that it had to do with the story we're working on.” Clark looked up at her earnestly, then. “I’ll tell you this much, he was remarkably calm about it… although he was beginning to be very tense. He must have been holding himself tightly in-check around Jason. But Jason picked up on it anyway.”
“The munchkin’s always been insightful,” she put in.
“He looked between the two of us, and asked, ‘Is Mommy okay?’ We both assured him that you were fine and that you’d be back soon. Richard took him into his office to color, and I started to type up the first of the ‘Superman interviews’ about the buildings of Metropolis for Perry…” His face darkened as he continued. “The problem is worse than we feared, Lois. I noticed evidence of eroded foundations, and weakened support structures in several other prominent buildings around town, two built by that Ottman Enterprises, and the rest… four or so others by L & V Construction.”
Lois inhaled sharply. “I have reason to believe it might have been a deliberate plan… when I suggested it, Mitchener almost lost it. If Luthor’s disappearance hadn’t thrown him for such a loop… I think I’m lucky to be alive.”
His weakened voice shook with horror. “But why would Mitchener… even under Luthor’s influence… plan something like this deliberately?”
“That I still don’t know…”
Clark clenched his fists in frustration. “I can't believe that while I was searching for him the world over, he was hiding just a couple hundred miles from Metropolis.” He cleared his throat. “Anyway… an hour passed, then two. I finished the article, turned it in with both our names on it. There was nothing more to do without you being there… Jason was getting antsy, Richard more and more annoyed. Even you usually check in every couple of hours. I had already found your car still in the Planet parking garage… So I took out my cell phone, and dialed your number. It rang through to your voice mail. I left a short message. Then I listened for your voice… your heartbeat…” Clark swallowed and squeezed her hand. “It just… wasn’t there.”
“Oh, Clark…” she sympathized, squeezing back.
“It was like my stomach dropped out and hit the floor. I was in Richard’s office before I realized it… I might have used super-speed, I don’t even know. He was not happy to see me, but something changed when he saw my face. ‘It’s Lois, isn’t it?’ he verified.
“‘She’s not answering her phone… and…’ I lowered my voice, for Richard’s benefit, since he doesn’t know that Jason knows about me, ‘…I can’t hear her… at all.’” Clark started to shake, trembling with the effort to stay conscious, and he slid down involuntarily, unable to hold himself upright any longer, until his head was resting in her lap.
He took a deep breath before continuing. “‘Not even with…’ He pointed to his ear. All I could do was numbly shake my head. Then a thought struck me suddenly.
“I asked him, ‘Could you please call Lois’ cell? And keep trying and letting it ring? I have an idea.’”
“‘But you said she wasn’t answering. And if you can’t even hear her…’”
“‘Please,’ I begged him. He did it, even though he was clearly confused by my request. As soon as I heard the sound, I ran for the stairwell. When I was out of sight, I shot into the air. Thank God you haven’t changed that ringtone, Lois. I found the phone, and your purse, on the side of the freeway.”
“So that’s where it went…” Mitchener must have dumped it out of the window on the way to the airstrip.
“Yes, but you were nowhere to be found, and there was no other evidence anywhere. The only thing I could do was return to the Planet.” He shifted uncomfortably, and she moved to place his head on her chest, closer to the beating heart he had worried about so much. “When I returned, purse in hand, Richard knew what I had feared since listening for you. Something was terribly wrong.”
Lois kept quiet, rubbing a hand along his back below the wide cape.
“We emptied your purse out onto the desk. The recorder was missing, but your wallet untouched. Then we found your notes.”
“The notes!” she exclaimed a tiny bit too loudly. Mitchener must not have searched my purse, or else my handwriting made the information indecipherable.
“Yes,” he smiled, “your badly misspelled, coffee-stained, chicken-scratch notes. At first it looked like nothing but a list of names… with the words ‘friend,’ ‘help,’ ‘bankruptcy,’ ‘prison,’ and ‘L.L.’ None of it rang any bells with me about our research…”
“I got a call this afternoon… very enlightening…”
“Richard and I puzzled at it a while, and then Richard asked, ‘What could the connection be between all these names?’ I looked again at the title: ‘Mich. frend Laidan.’”
“I think that ‘Mich’ must be ‘Mitchener’… perhaps these are all friends of his?’ Richard immediately went online, and I dashed over to your computer. Luckily, your password was still ‘imalwaysaround’…”
She poked him teasingly in the side. “Excuse me for having other issues to deal with lately.”
That drew a small laugh out of him. She took it as a good sign. As serious as this situation was, she had to keep his mind off of the kryptonite as much as she could.
“It took me several minutes of searching, but I found the Pi Kappa Alpha photo saved on your hard drive. By the time it was printing, Richard had a list of possibilities on his screen as well. He told me, ‘The only one I can’t find a connection with Mitchener is Robby…’ and suddenly the name Chase Robinson in the caption of the photo struck a chord in my memory.”
“‘Try Chase Robinson,’ I told him. The moment the screen brought up the article on Mitchener’s exclusive deal with his company, I was out of the office again, speeding to City Hall.
“I was only in the building for a few seconds before I knew for a fact that you had been there. I’ve always loved the scent of your favorite shampoo. The trail led to Mitchener’s office and out to the garage. But I couldn’t figure out what had happened… I considered trying to get the security tapes… but it would be so time consuming! And too many hours had already passed.”
Lois sighed. “I’m not sure you would have seen anything helpful, anyway. He kept the gun close at my back the whole time, and he never told me where we were going.”
“Just then, Richard called and asked me what I’d found. I told him you had been there, but were now gone. He said he’d found some interesting information.”
The farther into the retelling he got, the more amazed Lois was at the way the two men had worked together to find her, putting aside their differences for her sake. Most women are lucky if they have the love of one good man their entire lives, she marveled. Somehow, I managed to find two of them… She wiped some more sweat from Clark’s forehead, and sent out a silent plea to Richard, wherever he was now, Please get here soon…
Clark’s voice was become fainter now. “I must have looked a wreck with all my recent
comings and goings, not to mention that I was half out of my mind with anxiety over your safety. But Richard never brought it up, never threw your danger in my face. By now, Jason was a quiet bundle in the corner of the room, rocking slightly back and forth with worry. Richard and I kept trying to reassure him that everything would be fine, but… Finally, Richard took him on his lap and just held him.” At that last detail, Clark got a far away look in his eye.
“Oh, my poor baby…” she murmured, meaning both of them.
“But we finally had a breakthrough. Richard remembered I had talked to him about the hidden pilot’s license in Mitchener’s office. He had pulled up a list of private airstrips and cross-referenced it with all Mitchener family holdings,” Clark said, a touch of amazement in his voice. “He had it narrowed down to several possible locations. While he worked to try to narrow the list further, I did a super-scan of the archives… and I ran across a write-up in the Style section of the Planet back in the 1930s. The Mitcheners had a resort cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains… and it was on Richard’s list. Somehow I knew this was it.” He coughed again, and this time she noticed with dawning horror that a few flecks of blood dotted the corners of his mouth.
But he plowed on with his story, and telling it seemed to give him renewed strength. “Richard volunteered to fly me here – there’s a lake within walking distance – just in case it was a trap for me. I knew he was right that it could very well be a trap, but I felt time was of the essence. I didn’t know whether a second could mean the difference between life and death for you…” He licked pale, bloodless lips. “He vowed to follow in the plane, just in case. ‘I’ll find someone to watch Jason… he doesn’t need to get caught in the middle again. Go find her, Clark.’”
He was almost whispering as he finished. “When I got here, and discovered a portion of the house I couldn’t see into, I knew I had found you. I left a brief voicemail for Richard, opened the door, and… there you were.” He closed his eyes, smiling faintly with relief.
“Just hang on, Clark. Hang on,” she pleaded. Where are you, Richard? she added despairingly.
Just then, the beeps she had heard before Clark’s entrance sounded from the control plate beside the door. Lois turned toward the opening doorway and flinched in fear.
Leveling his pistol at the two of them, hair and eyes completely wild, was the deputy mayor.
Next: Chapter 34: Deep