The old mine wasn't in very good condition, he thought, flashing Lois's mini-mag around to aid his enhanced eyesight. Here and there, he could see places where water oozed muddily down the walls. Several of the supports within his range of vision were rotten and one had collapsed amid a pile of dirt and rubble. Little slides of gravel and debris dotted the floor where parts of the wall and roof had given way. A puddle of water coated with yellow scum adorned a low spot in the uneven surface. If the loot was here, it had better be close to the entrance because he had no intention of allowing Lois to venture very far into this death trap, no matter what she said. He lowered his glasses. With any luck, he could find it quickly--assuming that no one else had come along in the years since it had presumably been hidden here and taken it.
It was surprisingly hard to see. This had evidently been a lead mine, very likely abandoned around the turn of the century and the lead content in the rocks seemed to be high enough to impede his x-ray vision somewhat. From up ahead, he could hear the faint rattle of falling gravel. Yikes! The place was on the verge of falling down, just as it was. He hoped the mere sound of his footsteps wouldn't trigger a collapse.
Slowly, making sure he checked every inch of the floor and walls, he began his exploration, and after all that, the end of his search was surprisingly anti-climactic.
There was a pair of very dirty, leather briefcases tucked into a crevice in the rock wall behind a pile of rocks, barely ten feet from the entrance. Clark examined them with a sense of satisfaction and relief. This was *it*, all right. The cases were packed tightly with hundred dollar bills and a large wad of tangled jewelry.
Mindful of sound, he drifted toward the spot, his feet barely off the surface of the ground. The less vibration in here at this point, the better, he told himself. The briefcases were wedged, one above the other, into a narrow fissure in the wall, and he had to wiggle them loose, setting off another small cascade of gravel that raised the hair on the back of his neck. It was just as well that Lois hadn't been able to come in here. He was well aware that if he'd tried to tell her that it was too dangerous, that wouldn't have stopped her for a minute.
Moving as silently as a ghost, he drifted back toward the entrance to the mine. As his feet touched ground, he became aware of the murmur of Lois's voice, speaking to someone outside the cave. Quickly and quietly, he set the briefcases down and lowered his glasses. It was highly unlikely that anyone would be out here at this time of day, he knew, unless it was someone who had somehow managed to follow them after all, and he kicked himself for letting down his guard, even for a moment. His super hearing hadn't picked up the advent of whoever had arrived while he had been treasure hunting. He focussed his x-ray vision on the scene outside the mine.
The lead content in the rock and soil was still impeding his vision, for the scene was foggy, but the picture formed slowly. Two men stood in the little clearing in front of the mine entrance, and on seeing them, several pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. One was George Lini. And the other, holding a small .32 pistol, and pointing it directly at Lois's face--
Nigel St. John.
Lois had never felt so helpless. St John smiled at her with his usual prim, slightly superior expression and George Lini glanced hungrily at the mine entrance. "I see you found it," he said. "I never would have managed on my own."
Lois didn't answer. With luck, Clark would realize something was wrong and not come charging out to her rescue. Not that she had a lot of faith in that. Clark would willingly walk into the gates of Hades for her and she knew it but maybe, just maybe, this time he'd use his head.
"I gather that Mr. Kent has gone in to locate the money," St. John said. "We'll wait for him for a few minutes, if you don't mind."
"Clark isn't here,' Lois said. "I hurt my foot, so he went on without me." She didn't have much hope that Luthor's former henchman would believe her, but she had to say something. If Clark only had some warning, he might be able to figure out a way to help her.
St. John raised an eyebrow. "You expect me to believe that this cave was not your destination, Miss Lane?"
Lois stared him straight in the face. "Yes, I expect you to believe me, because it's the truth. The map marked the second mine, not the first. I twisted my ankle, so Clark went ahead without me."
Luthor's former butler smiled dryly. "I always believed that Mr. Luthor made a grave error when he chose to fall in love with you. You've been nothing but trouble from the start. Have I ever told you how much I dislike and distrust you?"
"You never had to," Lois said. "The feeling is mutual."
"I'm sure it is." St. John glanced around the clearing. "Assuming you are telling the truth, the good Mr. Kent will come back for you. I think we'll wait. It's really a very long and uncomfortable walk, don't you agree, George?"
Lini hesitated. "Suppose he doesn't come back?" he asked.
"You obviously have no understanding of Mr. Kent," St. John said, with the irritating little smirk that Lois had come to loathe in the man. "Mr. Kent is sickeningly honest; a trait I have always found to be a dubious virtue at best, and is nauseatingly in love with Miss Lane. My former employer found it an amusing circumstance, to say the least, but in the end it was this woman who brought him down as well." He seated himself on another rock and appeared to relax, but the .32 never wavered from Lois's face.
Lois bit her lip and said nothing. Nothing she said would matter, anyway, and she was tired of the mocking smile on St. John's face. She glanced at George Lini. He seemed to be in two minds about whether to believe her or not, so the less she said, the better. She could only hope Clark had realized something was wrong and was trying to think of some way to save her. St. John couldn't have any intention of letting either of them go. If she was realistic, he probably had no intention of letting George Lini survive, either.
There was a sudden flash of red and blue, and Superman was standing between her and the .32.
"Well, well," he said. "Nigel St. John, I presume. Drop the gun."
The former spy looked startled for an instant, and then the faint, supercilious smile returned to his lips. "I should have mentioned, George," he said, "that Miss Lane has the unfortunate quality of attracting powerful men of all kinds. It's one of her most irritating traits. However, as with my former employer, it could prove unfortunate for Superman as well." He tossed the weapon to the ground with casual negligence. "Very well, Superman. What do you propose to do with us? Hunting buried treasure is hardly illegal, is it?" He rose to his feet producing an engraved cigarette case with a careless gesture and flipped it open. "Did you really believe I would lay a trap for Miss Lane and Mr. Kent without preparing for you as well?"
Appalled, Lois saw Superman stagger backwards. She sprang to her feet and grabbed for him, attempting to break his fall. Pain shot through her ankle and she felt something give. Helpless to prevent it, she tumbled to the ground with him.
"How very touching," St. John drawled. She looked up to see that he had retrieved the pistol. The smile had vanished from his face. "Come, George, help Miss Lane drag the Man of Steel into the mine. I think it's about time we eliminated the nuisance he represents once and for all."
"That's murder!" Lini protested. "I never wanted anyone to die over this!"
St. John's expression didn't change. "Surely, you realized that Miss Lane and Mr. Kent would have to die if we were to use what they found for us, George. Hurry, now. Mr. Kent could be back any minute."
Lois tried to get to her feet, but the instant she put weight on the injured ankle, it gave again and she fell to the ground, barely restraining a gasp of pain. St. John raised an eyebrow. "How inconvenient. George, I suppose it's up to you to do the honors."
"Do it!" The ex-spy's voice was sharp and the smile on his lips had vanished. "I have no time to lose!"
Lini didn't argue. Through the throbbing agony in her ankle, Lois saw fear in his face. He approached her and gripped Superman under the arms, beginning to drag him toward the mine entrance. St. John followed, holding the cigarette case carefully before him.
It had to be Kryptonite, Lois knew--probably the piece St. John had taken from Rollie Vale a little over a week before. She rolled to her hands and knees and began to crawl toward the edge of the clearing in a vain attempt to escape. If St. John killed her and left Superman here to die, there would be no chance for Clark, either, when he came back. She had to get away and bring back help.
"Oh, no, Miss Lane." St. John's voice stopped her in her tracks. "You wouldn't want to leave Superman to die alone now, would you? George, kindly help Miss Lane into the mine--and bring those briefcases back out with you. It seems that Mr. Kent has found what we were looking for after all. But, he will find that retreating into the mine was a very serious error."
Clark turned his head weakly. George Lini had dumped him on the rocky floor of the mine, perhaps fifteen feet back from the entrance, and the Kryptonite lay a little over five feet from him, glowing a pale, sickly green in the gloom. He struggled to move away from the poisonous materiel. Nigel St. John undoubtedly had seen the condition of the mine, and probably meant to collapse the thing on them. With his powers gone--as he could tell they now were--he wouldn't be able to help Lois. But if they could survive the cave-in of the tunnel and he could get away from the Kryptonite, his powers would come back eventually and he'd be able to get them out. But his strength was gone. He managed to roll over, putting a few more inches of space between himself and the green rock, and lay still for a moment, panting. A commotion at the entrance drew his attention, and he turned his head with great difficulty to see George Lini dragging a resisting Lois into the mine.
He lowered her to the floor and dodged the kick she aimed at his knee with her good foot. The man didn't look happy, Clark thought. It was obvious he didn't wish to do what he was doing, but his fear of St. John was greater than his courage. He glanced unhappily at Clark and turned to pick up the briefcases. St. John stood in the entrance, the muzzle of the .32 waving impartially between Lois and Lini.
"Very nice, George." St. John's mocking voice echoed eerily in the enclosed space of the mine. "Please bring them out into the open...thank you." He smiled without humor. "Now, kindly step back into the mine."
"*What*?" Lini turned to stare at him.
"You heard me. Surely, you didn't really expect me to accept ten percent of the proceeds when I could have it all. I'm afraid our business relationship is hereby terminated."
Lini seemed stunned for a second, then he turned slowly, watching his erstwhile partner as he edged toward the mine entrance. St. John smiled slightly, his gaze shifting involuntarily to the dusty, leather briefcases that lay on their sides on the ground. Lini moved without warning, leaping for St. John. He struck the other man waist high, and they went down together on the ground. The handgun exploded.
For a moment, Lois couldn't tell if either man had been hit. Behind her, she heard the rattle of gravel and winced. The ancient mine was on the verge of falling down. Superman was moving feebly, trying to crawl away from the Kryptonite and she rolled up to her hands and knees, starting to make her way across the rocky floor of the tunnel toward him. If she could get the stuff away from Superman, they might have a chance. If Clark would show up, it would certainly help but the only thing she could think of was that something must have happened to him. Clark was anything but a coward, and she knew without a doubt that he would be here if he could. Could he have had an accident somewhere in the mine?
A yell of fury from St. John made her turn her head. The former spy and George Lini were rolling on the rocky ground, locked in each other's arms, grunting and swearing. St. John still had the gun, and Lini was clawing for it. Both men were smeared liberally with blood. One of them had been hit, that was for sure, but obviously, the wound wasn't immediately disabling, for neither showed any sign of weakening.
Lois got her good foot under her. If she could get that gun, the situation would change immediately. She boosted herself onto her foot and tried to take a step toward the struggling men, but her bad ankle gave beneath her at once with a burst of pain and she went flat on her face.
There was the sharp thud of a blow, and the sounds of combat ceased abruptly. Lois twisted around and, to her dismay saw that St. John had the gun and George Lini was stretched on the ground. St. John got slowly to his knees, his face a mask of anger and Lois saw that a patch of red on the left leg of his slacks was slowly spreading. At least, he hadn't escaped untouched, she thought. The man met her eyes and she saw the emotionless mask of the perfect gentleman's gentleman settle back over his features, but his eyes still blazed fury. He got awkwardly to his feet, seized the other man by his arms and dragged him into the mine, dumping him beside Lois. Lini groaned faintly.
St. John looked expressionlessly down at his erstwhile partner for several seconds and then, without the slightest change of expression, kicked him viciously in the ribs. Without another word, he turned and exited the mine.
Lois had managed to scramble to her knees. She seized Lini by the arms and began to drag him slowly toward Superman. If St. John did what she fully expected him to do next, she didn't want to be caught in the mass of falling rock. What they were going to do after that, she wasn't sure, but maybe, if they survived, Superman could somehow help them--but only if she got the Kryptonite to a safe distance from him.
The first shot echoed through the mine, and the rattle of gravel answered it. Timbers creaked, and shifted. Another shot followed, and another. More and larger rocks fell, and she heard an ominous rumble. Then, what she had feared finally happened. Timbers groaned and there was a hair-raising tearing sound, then the rocks at the entrance of the mine gave way and crashed down in a massive collapse that seemed to go on forever.
"Lois! Lois!" The first thing she was aware of, besides the chaos of falling rock, was Superman's voice echoing eerily through the mine, followed by another rattle as more rock slid. It was breathy and filled with pain, but the note of near-panic was what made her raise her face from where she had buried it in George Lini's coat.
The entrance was completely blocked and dust filled the air. She could taste it, thick on her tongue. The only light in the closed little space was the pale, malignant green of the Kryptonite, its glow somewhat subdued by the coating of dust.
"Lois!" Superman's voice broke the feeling of stunned incomprehension. "Are you all right?"
The echoes made her cringe. This whole place was on the verge of falling down, and the sound of their voices could very well be the final straw.
"Yeah." She kept her voice as low as she could, and the single word was broken by a cough. The dust in her throat triggered a string of them. She managed to regain her breath at last and whispered, "Superman, are you okay?"
"Not exactly." Superman was coughing, too. Lois had never heard him so much as sneeze before. In the distance, there was the ominous sound of sliding gravel, magnified by the echoes. "Can you move?"
She coughed, harshly. "Yeah. I can't stand, though."
"Can you crawl over here?"
Of course; the Kryptonite! The stuff was poisonous to him, and was killing him as she was crouching here, talking to him.
Orienting herself by the brightest spot, she rolled to her hands and knees and began to make her way across the rough, rocky floor toward Superman. Where was Clark while all this had been happening, she wondered, trying to suppress her fear for his safety. If he could have come to her rescue, he would have; she had no doubt of that at all. So, where had he gone? What had happened to him?
The loose rock gouged into her hands and knees, the dust made her break into fits of coughing and her eyes were watering so she could barely see but she kept going until she had reached her goal. Quickly, she scooped it up. "What should I do with it?" she was going to say, but she broke into another spate of coughs.
"Can you throw it?" Superman's voice was harsh and punctuated by his own coughs. "There's a high lead content in the rocks, here. It you get it behind some of them, it should help block the radiation." He coughed again. "Your flashlight--" Another cough "Your flashlight--here."
In the pale, green light, she could see him holding out her mini-mag. Numbly, she took it. Now wasn't the time for questions, but how had Superman gotten her flashlight?
She switched it on, with her thumb. The haze of dust made it hard to see, but she could make out a jumbled pile of rocks on the far side of the mine, ten feet away. With care, she threw the Kryptonite toward it. Even if she missed, she reflected, just getting it away from Superman would help and she was going to crawl over there and bury the dangerous mineral under those rocks in a minute, anyway.
The green crystal landed behind the pile, and the glow was instantly diminished. Superman gave a faint sigh of relief. "That's better," he whispered.
"Did it help?" she asked. A cough wracked her again. He waited until she had recovered before he replied.
"I can still feel it, but it's an improvement."
"Stay here. I'm going to bury it." She rolled back onto her knees and began to make her way across the floor again. Somewhere, she heard the rattle as more rocks crumbled and collapsed, but she could only concentrate on one thing at a time. It took her a couple of minutes to reach the spot. She found a crack in the wall of the mine, shoved the deadly green stuff as far into it as she could and jammed rocks in after it, completely filling the opening. As a final touch, she piled several of the larger chunks of rock in front of the spot. Hopefully, it would be enough to shield Superman from the radiation.
When she had finished, she turned back, shining her light on him. For a second, her heart tried to leap into her mouth. He was lying still with his eyes closed. Then, she saw him breathing and relaxed slightly.
"Superman," she whispered. The echo of her whisper bounced around the confined space. He opened his eyes at her whisper and began to shove himself upright.
It took her a couple more minutes to retrace her path to him, but at last she made it and paused beside him to rest. Superman had managed to push himself to a sitting position and was leaning back against the wall of the mine, breathing hard. He nodded toward George Lini, who so far hadn't moved. "Is he all right?"
"He's breathing," she said, as softly as she could. Every time she heard the sounds of more displaced rock her hair wanted to stand on end. Superman didn't act as if he was in much better shape than she was. If the roof collapsed now, he would probably die right along with Lini and her. "How are you?"
He grimaced. "My powers are gone."
With difficulty, she kept herself from crying out in panic. She closed her eyes and tried to take a deep breath, only to break into a series of coughs.
Warm fingers touched hers and she felt cloth pushed into her hand. "Breathe through that," Superman's voice whispered. "It will help."
She opened her eyes and found that the cloth in her hand was a handkerchief. In fact, it was Clark's handkerchief. The CK in the corner, carefully embroidered by Martha Kent's hand, was unmistakable.
"Where--" she was beginning, when he put a finger across her lips.
"Keep your voice down," he whispered. "This place could go any minute."
She nodded. "Where did you get this? Where's Clark? Is he all right?" The intensity of her whisper made echoes bounce around the mine again. A little rain of gravel answered it.
Superman bit his lip and Lois felt her heart sink. "He's all right! Say he's all right, Superman!" Appalled, she felt the prickle of tears in her eyes and a sudden ache in her throat. Clark couldn't be hurt--or-- She couldn't even bring herself to think the word. "Please!"
He put a cautioning hand on her wrist to stem the flood of words. "Shh! He's all right, Lois. I promise."
The relief was almost overwhelming, and she felt the tears spill over. She wiped them away, fiercely trying to regain her self-control. "Where *is* he?"
"Here." The word was so low she wasn't sure she heard it correctly.
"He's here, Lois. *I'm* Clark."
Clark hadn't realized until he said it that he was going to tell her, but he couldn't let her think a second time that he was dead. He'd done that once and only realized afterwards what he'd put her through. He'd sworn to himself then that he'd never do such a thing again, and he wouldn't.
The color--what he could see of it through the dust and the smeared places caused by her tears, anyway--drained from her face and she was staring at him, wide-eyed. She opened her mouth a couple of times and closed it again, seeming to be at a loss for words. He figured he'd better seize the opportunity now. If Lini woke up, or she allowed her temper to get the better of her, he was done for.
"Lois, I'm sorry. I've never told anyone before and I was scared. I've been trying to figure out how to tell you for weeks--months, really. Every time, something would happen, or I'd chicken out--mostly chicken out, I'm afraid. But I've really wanted you to know for a long time."
She gulped and extended a hand to brush dust from his face. "Clark?" she whispered.
He nodded. "Just Clark. Are you mad?" he added, apprehensively.
"I'm thinking about it," she said. Her face changed. "You picked a great time to tell me! You idiot!" she said in a fierce whisper. "You *knew* Nigel St. John might have the Kryptonite he took from Rollie Vale last week and you came charging to the rescue in spite of it! Don't you have *any* sense?"
He ducked his head. "Not where you're concerned, I guess. Never have."
Somewhere behind them in the deep recesses of the mine, gravel slid. Lois flashed the light past him. "We'll discuss this later," she said, abruptly. "You're not off the hook yet, but it can wait until we figure out how to get out of here. You say your powers are gone? Will they come back?"
"Given time, probably," he said. "The problem is, we may not have the time."
"Yeah. And if they do, I'm not sure you could dig all that stuff away without collapsing this place on us anyway."
"Neither am I," he said. "Any ideas?"
As he spoke there was a sudden shower of small rocks and dust from above them. Lois flashed the light upward. Eight feet over their heads, a timber supporting the roof was cracked right across and sagging. As they looked, more debris sifted down.
"I've got one," Lois said. "I think we should get out of here--that thing is going to come down any minute."
He nodded. "You're right. Can you stand?"
"I don't think so."
Clark looked at her ankle. From what he could see of it, covered as it was by the sock and the leg of her jeans, it was swelling. He winced. That had to hurt! And Lois hadn't said a word.
"I'll get Lini," he said. "You crawl back into the mine."
"Can *you* stand?" she asked.
"I think so." In actuality, he wasn't so sure, but he couldn't leave the man here. Cautiously, he braced himself against the wall of the mine and boosted himself upright.
His head swam and his legs felt wobbly, but he was on his feet. With one hand on the wall for balance, he worked his way over to the older man and bent slowly to hook both hands under his shoulders.
Lois had crawled perhaps ten feet farther back into the mine, certainly not far enough to offer much safety, and turned to shine her light in his direction, providing him illumination. He said nothing, but it was obvious to him that she wasn't going to save herself at his expense. It was as much the counterbalance provided by Lini's weight as his own strength that kept him on his feet as he dragged the other man after him, deeper into the mineshaft. As he reached Lois, she rose to her hands and knees and followed him. Neither said a word.
The shaft narrowed somewhat as they proceeded and then widened slightly again. Water oozing down the wall formed a scummy puddle that he avoided. They had progressed some fifty feet more, when he lowered Lini's head and shoulders to the mine floor again and sank down beside him, leaning forward to rest his head on his knees. Lois shifted around to sit beside him and touched his shoulder. "Clar--Superman," she amended, quickly, "are you all right?"
"Just kind of wobbly," he said. "I'll be okay in a while."
"Then we're going to rest right here," Lois said. "Lean back and close your eyes."
He couldn't help smiling at the casual way she took charge, ordering him around without hesitation, but he obeyed. He heard a faint click and darkness closed down. It made sense, he realized. While they weren't moving, it was wiser for her to save her batteries. He opened his eyes and closed them again quickly. Pitch darkness was eerie, even though he could hear Lois breathing beside him and feel the warmth of her body right next to him.
From the direction they had come, there was a dull, crashing sound. The light came on suddenly. He could see it even through his closed eyelids, and he cautiously opened his eyes. What they had feared had happened. More of the roof had collapsed, leaving a pile of rock with broken timbers sticking from the pile. It wasn't as complete a collapse as the one that had sealed the mine entrance, but if they had been under it, it would have been quite as fatal.
George Lini moaned faintly and his eyelids fluttered.
Lois gently shook his shoulder. "Mr. Lini?"
The man blinked at her for a moment and then closed his eyes with a groan that turned into a cough.
"Pretty bad?" Lois asked.
"Could somebody shut off the anvil chorus?" Lini mumbled, faintly.
"Sorry," Clark said. He wasn't feeling particularly charitable at the moment.
Lini carefully didn't move his head. "He got away, I guess. I'm sorry. I didn't mean for anyone to be hurt." He coughed again.
"Then you picked a bad partner," Lois said. "Nigel St. John would doublecross his own grandmother. He did doublecross Lex Luthor. And you."
"I'm sorry," Lini repeated. "Where are we?"
"In the mine," Clark said. "St. John collapsed the entrance on us."
The old man opened his eyes cautiously. "Can we get out?"
"I don't know," Clark said, baldly. "If my powers come back in time, I'll try to get us out."
Lini closed his eyes again. "If you don't mind, I'll lie still for a while," he said. "I haven't been punched like that in years."
Clark had been looking around while Lini talked. At least here, the dust wasn't as bad and the mine supports looked a little more sturdy. "I think we're okay here for the time being," he said. "Just keep your voice down."
The other man nodded. Silence descended on the three of them and Lois clicked off her flashlight.
Clark closed his eyes as well, trying to ignore the utter blackness and the drip of water somewhere deeper in the mine. It was chilly in here, especially now that he was dressed in the thin spandex without his super powers to protect him. The silence lengthened.
He began to shiver. He pulled his cape around his shoulders and drew his knees up to his chest, but the light material made only a small difference.
"Superman, is that your teeth I hear chattering?" Lois's voice demanded suddenly.
"N-no," he replied.
The light came on again and Lois moved closer to him. Without a word, she removed her jacket and spread it over both of them.
"Lois, I can't take your jacket!" he protested.
"You're not. We're sharing it. Besides, I can't let you freeze to death. You're our only hope of getting out of here."
"She's right, Superman," Lini said. "I suggest you listen to Ms. Lane. She's always impressed me as a very intelligent woman. Far more intelligent than I, it seems."
Lois was holding his handkerchief over her mouth and nose against the dust still floating in the air but at this, she turned and surveyed him. "Mr. Lini, how on Earth did you get involved with Nigel St. John?"
The man sighed. "Billy Moran's money," he said. "I knew it was around here somewhere, but--"
"How did you know?" Lois asked.
Lini smiled a little, his eyes still closed. "Do you know how old I am, Ms. Lane?"
"Um--you're somewhere in your eighties," Lois said.
"That's right." Lini opened his eyes and gingerly rubbed his jaw where a colorful bruise had begun to form. "I was fourteen the night the money vanished--kind of Billy's gofer. Nobody noticed me much, but most of them liked me. Even Max."
"Max?" Lois asked.
"Uh huh. Max Rundell. Billy's bodyguard. He wasn't drunk that night--at least not until later. After he got back, I made sure he didn't know I'd seen him. But I listened real well a couple of nights later when he *was* drunk. People always talked to me, you know, even when they didn't talk to anybody else. He told me he'd hidden the map in Billy's mansion where no one would ever find it. He called it his 'retirement fund'. He didn't even remember he'd told me anything the next day."
"You were the other survivor," Lois said. "You robbed the safe."
The old man nodded slightly and coughed. "I was fourteen, Ms. Lane. A street kid. I didn't have any family except Billy and the others in the gang. What was I going to do? I did what I had to in order to survive."
"I guess I can understand that," Lois said. "But why Nigel St. John?"
"Debts. Bad investments. I needed the money. I was never able to find the map, you know. Nigel and I were acquainted from his days as Lex Luthor's right hand man and I knew he could solve the problem if anyone could. I promised him ten percent of the proceeds if he could help me find Max's 'retirement fund'. It was his idea to use you and your partner, Mr. Kent, to locate it. I suggested the fundraising idea to Bob Hartford, and recommended to him that he ask your editor for the two of you to report on it, but I swear I had no idea Nigel intended to kill you."
Against his will, Clark was beginning to believe the man. And in all truth, what he had done this weekend wasn't illegal. It was Nigel St. John who had violated the law. As for any crime he had committed as a fourteen-year-old kid--well, at the very least, short of murder, the statute of limitations had long since expired.
Lini began to push himself to a sitting position and Clark gave him a hand. To tell the truth, he was feeling better--in a normal human kind of way. Sitting close to Lois with the jacket spread over both of them had warmed him considerably, as well. How long his powers would be gone this time, however, was anybody's guess.
"Well," Lois said, "he's got the money, and we're not going to be able to stop him while we're stuck here. To tell you the truth, our odds don't look very good right now."
"That's certain," George Lini said. He fished in the pocket of his slacks and produced a white, linen handkerchief with which to cover his nose and mouth against the dust. "I know it doesn't help, but I'm sincerely sorry, Ms. Lane."
Sorry. Lini was right, it didn't help. She looked at Clark, huddled beside her in his Superman guise and figuratively shook her head. He'd said he was sorry he hadn't told her before, too, that he'd wanted her to know about him, and she believed him. It certainly answered a lot of questions--and if, by some unlikely chance, they survived this disaster, she intended for him to answer a lot more. At least she knew Clark was here with her and not hurt or dead somewhere, but she was worried about him all the same. He'd stopped shivering, anyway. What was it he'd said?--That he'd never had any sense about her. Could that mean what she thought it meant? And Nigel St. John had told Lini that Clark was "sickeningly honest and nauseatingly in love with Miss Lane". Although she wouldn't have chosen that way of describing it, could St. John be right? He'd also pointed out that Superman was attracted to her, and she'd been led at one time or another, to believe the same.
And Superman had come unhesitatingly to rescue her, in spite of the danger. No sense about her, he'd said. Oh, boy; this was going to take some real thinking. She'd wanted Superman when she thought he and Clark were two different people, and she'd been unwillingly attracted to Clark, even when she'd been afraid to let things go further for fear of destroying their friendship. The implications of this new knowledge were suddenly and shockingly clear. Clark--Superman--had been in love with her all along. He'd been telling the truth, last year, and then he'd lied when he took it back. Her partner was a lunkhead, all right, but she hadn't been much better. If they ever got out of here, she was going to have to approach this new situation very carefully.
He'd asked her if she was mad, she recalled, and she had to admit that she was--a little. At herself. For not seeing the obvious when it had been in front of her for nearly two years. For nearly marrying Lex Luthor, when the super man that Lucy had wanted for her was right there for the taking. For not realizing that the man who had become her best friend, in spite of her determined efforts to push him away, loved her, and probably had loved her (in spite of herself, she hastened to add) for a long time. He'd said so, hadn't he?
But, at least she'd had the sense to pull back, to not make the worst mistake it was possible for a woman to make. If she'd married Lex, knowing she wasn't in love with him, the situation might have been much worse. Although, considering where she was at the present time, she wasn't sure that was possible.
"You'd better turn off the flashlight, Lois," Superman said. "Those batteries won't last forever."
That was true. She clicked off the light and huddled tighter against Clark for warmth. Superman, she reminded herself. She had to think of him as Superman only, so as not to make an inadvertent slip in front of George Lini. All the other things she'd been thinking would have to wait for later, assuming there was a later.
She felt him slip an arm around her and pull her closer to him, probably for warmth. That spandex couldn't be all that warm, and this place was freezing! Without his super powers, he was undoubtedly cold. She put her arms around his chest and cuddled tightly against his side, trying to arrange the jacket so it covered as much of him as possible.
"How long does it ordinarily take your powers to come back after Kryptonite exposure, Superman?" Lini asked.
She felt him stir slightly. "I don't know. It's only happened to me a couple of times," he said, sounding slightly wary. "I hope it isn't long, but I have no way of knowing."
Of course--that time in Smallville when he'd gotten the paper cut. The night before, Clark had complained of allergies--but Superman didn't *get* allergies. Trask had been after Kryptonite. She hadn't seen any, but after the episode with Arianna Carlin and the Lois double, she'd discovered that it existed after all. There must have really been some in Smallville, and somehow Clark had run into it. But he'd said "a couple of times". When had the other time been?
"Mr. Lini," she said, "how did you and St. John find us?"
"Oh, that." Lini sounded uncomfortable. "He put a tracer in your purse."
"Oh." It made sense, she thought. It didn't matter, anyway. The purse was somewhere outside the mine. She must be slipping, though. The possibility of such a thing had never occurred to her. But, Clark had missed it, too, so it wasn't all her fault. It was a startling thought, though, to realize that even Superman made mistakes.
Of course he did, she reminded herself. Clark wasn't perfect by any means. It was going to take a while to fit together the two aspects of the guy, and realize that everything she remembered about both of them was all about just one man. Getting to know the real Clark was going to be an exciting adventure all by itself. If they survived.
That was a big if. At the thought, she clutched him a little tighter.
"Are you cold, Lois?" His voice sounded concerned.
"No. Just--" She wouldn't say the word, she told herself. Mad Dog Lane was never scared.
"Oh." His arm tightened a little, and she realized he understood. It didn't surprise her. Clark always understood her like no one else ever had.
There was a rattle of more sliding rock from the direction of the entrance. The collapse hadn't finished settling yet, she thought.
"I hope that stops soon," Lini said.
"The whole place is pretty unstable," Superman said. "Just about any sharp noise could set it off."
"Great. I guess it's a wonder it didn't collapse a long time ago," Lini said. "What were they mining, anyway? I never heard of any gold in these parts."
"They weren't after gold," Superman said. "This was a lead mine. It's probably at least a century old--maybe more."
"Oh," Lini said.
Silence once more, except for the faint drip of water from somewhere deeper in the mine.
"At least, the dust seems to be clearing," Lini said. "I shouldn't think it would settle this fast."
"Neither would I," Superman said. "I suppose there might be vents in here. If the shaft is deep, they'd need them."
"I think I feel a slight draft," Lini said, slowly. "There must be a vent nearby."
"Well, at least we won't die of suffocation," Lois said, a little sourly. "If we survive this, I'm never going to go near any mine again unless I know there's another way out."
Her words fell into a silence that could only be described as stunned.
"How do we know there *isn't* another way out?" Lini said. "Could there be another exit?"
"Maybe," Superman said. "I guess it couldn't hurt to look."
"Even if there isn't," Lois said, trying to suppress the sudden surge of hope, "we could hardly be much worse off. And your powers might come back in the meantime."
"Ms. Lane is right, as usual," Lini said. "If my vote counts for anything, I suggest we go look."
"Me, too," Lois said. She hesitated. "That is, if you can walk all right, Superman."
"I think so," he said. "I feel okay, now--just, no powers."
Lois snapped on her flashlight. "You'll need this," she said.
Superman gave her a startled look. "I'm not leaving you here!" he said.
"Look, let's be sensible," Lois said. "I can't walk. My ankle won't hold me. I think I might have broken it back there, when St. John brought out the Kryptonite. You're going to have to go without me. I'll be fine right here until you get back."
"No way," Superman said, and she was surprised to see the mulish look Clark got on his face sometimes when he was being stubborn. "I am *not* leaving you alone in this death trap and that's final."
She wasn't going to win this one. Once in a long while, Clark got an idea into his head and nothing anyone could say would make him change his mind. This was one of those rare times, and arguing wasn't going to get her anywhere; she could see that at once. She glared at him and he glared right back, refusing to let her intimidate him.
"Fine! Then, how are we going to manage?" she demanded.
"I'm going to carry you," he said, in a tone that brooked no argument.
"You can't carry me!"
"Why not?" he asked.
"Well--because you don't have your powers. I weigh too much!"
"Lois, just because I don't have my powers doesn't mean I'm not as strong as a normal human man. You're only about a hundred and ten pounds. You're not exactly heavy." He released her and got slowly to his feet. "Ready?"
"Oh, all right!" She pulled her jacket on and reached up. Superman gave her a careful hand to her one good foot, then stooped and lifted her in his arms.
"Am I too heavy?"
"You're fine." She could swear he had a smug look on his face. "You hold the light and Mr. Lini can follow right behind us."
George Lini had also risen. "Lead on, Superman."
The tunnel was a good deal longer than Clark had expected. The mine floor stayed fairly level, and the light of Lois's mini-mag continued to show the jagged walls stretching on ahead into darkness. He moved carefully, watching where he put his feet on the rough surface. Jagged chunks of fallen rock dotted their path and here and there, he could see small puddles of water--condensation, he thought, or maybe seepage from the local ground water. He had no intention of dropping his passenger because he hadn't been careful where he stepped.
They passed a place where water oozed muddily down one wall--rain runoff, he realized--and they carefully avoided the mine supports, which looked as if termites had been using them for lunch. That wasn't likely, he knew. The timbers were simply old and rotten. Here and there, small rockslides testified to the condition of the mine. He made his way carefully around the rubble, taking extra pains not to disturb anything or to make any unnecessary sound. Now and then, they could still hear the echoes as small slides of gravel and rock punctuated the near-silence. The collapse at the entrance had shaken things up, he thought, and hoped sincerely that they would settle down soon. The instability of the mine made him more nervous than he wanted either of his companions to know. His powers had shown no sign of returning yet, and Lois was growing heavier than she had first seemed. Not that he would have admitted it to her under any circumstances.
Then, so suddenly that it was shocking, the light of Lois's flashlight illuminated blank, rock wall.
For a moment of disappointment, Clark thought they had reached the end. Then, he saw that a tunnel crossed at the end in a rough T. Gently, he set Lois down on her good foot and held out his hand for the light. She gave it to him, maintaining her balance with one hand on the wall. He flashed the light down the tunnels.
The tunnel to the left went on for about thirty feet or so, only to be blocked by a rockslide that filled it nearly to the roof. The right fork continued on into darkness, considerably narrower and more irregular than the main tunnel had been.
"I guess we go right," Lois said.
"Let me take a look, first." Before the other two could protest, he moved on ahead into the passage, shining the light ahead of him. There was something different here, he thought as he moved slowly forward, a dead, musty feeling to the air. After perhaps twenty feet, he stopped. This wasn't the way; he couldn't say how he knew, but the feeling was strong. He turned and retraced his steps.
Lois and Lini were waiting patiently when he reached the T-crossing again.
"Well?" Lois demanded.
"Just a minute." The slightly fresher feel to the air around them was back, he thought. "Lois, shouldn't it be pretty stale and musty, this deep in the mine?"
She sniffed. "I'd think so. Come to think of it, the air here does seem fairly good. Why?"
"It feels dead down that way. Wait a minute." He licked a forefinger, held it up and had to firmly quell a surge of hope that tried to rise in his chest. It was probably just the vents that the miners must have put in here so they could breathe, he told himself but there was movement of air, all right.
"Mr. Lini, do you have a match?" he asked. If he remembered correctly, the older man smoked a pipe. He'd seen it at one of the charity functions he had attended as Clark Kent. With luck, Lini might have a book of matches in one of his pockets.
Lini rummaged in the pocket of his jacket and produced an engraved, silver cigarette lighter. "Will this do?"
"I think so. Light it and hold it up, would you?"
The man obeyed and for a moment, Clark shut off the mini-mag. This time they could all see what he already knew. The flame flickered.
The very slight breeze was coming from the area of the slide. Lini shut off the lighter and Clark clicked the flashlight back on. "Why don't you two sit down and let me check this out," he said. "The air is coming over the top of the slide. It's probably just another vent, but who knows..."
This rockslide must have happened years ago, he thought a few moments later, shining the little hand light over the pile. Everything had pretty much settled, unlike the mess back at the entrance. There was a space between the rocks on top and the roof--perhaps a few inches or so. Cautiously, he scrambled his way up the stairway of jumbled rock and examined the gap. The air was definitely coming from it. Shining his light through the hole, he could see perhaps three or four feet of stone, and darkness on the other side. The way unquestionably led through here.
Well, without his powers he certainly couldn't move a rockslide, but it was possible that he might be able to clear some room at the top--enough, anyway, for the three of them to squeeze their way through. It was fortunate, though, that none of them were fat. Carefully, he slid down the pile and returned to his companions.
"The air is coming through there," he said, without preliminary. "I think I can widen the gap so we may be able to squeeze through. Lois, could you hold the light for me?" He glanced at Lini. "How are you holding up, sir?"
Lini grinned slightly at the "sir". "I'll be fine. I walk two miles every day at home. Of course, it takes me longer than it used to."
Clark found that he was smiling at the mild jest. "Good. Both of you, find a place to sit out of the way of falling rocks while I see what I can do."
In the end, both sat on the floor. Lois took the light and aimed it at the top of the pile. "The batteries are getting low," she said. "Try not to take too long."
He nodded and scrambled carefully to the top of the eight-foot slide.
After studying it for a moment, he began with some of the smaller rocks that wedged in a somewhat larger one, prying them loose and letting them roll down the incline. When he thought he'd managed to dislodge enough of them, he tugged at the big one. It was solidly placed, but after a moment, he thought he felt it wiggle. Again, he set to work, prying more of the smaller pieces away from his goal.
Lois's light had definitely dimmed from its earlier brightness. The thought made him shudder. He had found a short time earlier that he didn't like total darkness, and worse, if it went out they wouldn't be able to see what they were doing. Lini's lighter wouldn't be much of a substitute, either. The lighter fluid wouldn't last long with such continuous use.
He pulled away a medium-sized chunk of stone, and a small slide of dirt and gravel answered him. Hoping he'd managed to clear away enough debris to loosen the bigger rock, he pried against it with his fingers, exclaiming slightly as he tore a nail. The rock was definitely looser and he exerted more strength.
It came free suddenly and rolled down the pile of rocks and dirt accompanied by a shower of pebbles and more dirt. "Look out!" Clark called.
The clatter of the rolling mini-boulder echoed through the tunnel and a shower of gravel down one wall made his hair stand on end, but nothing else happened and he managed to swallow his heart, which seemed to have crawled up into his throat. "Everybody okay?" he called softly.
"We're all right," Lini's voice said.
Clark paused to take a deep breath, marginally aware that he wasn't cold in the least, now. He wiped a layer of sweat from his forehead and turned back to his job. The rock and subsequent avalanche had created a space of perhaps a foot between the top of the slide and the roof. Heartened, but with even more caution, he began to tug at his next target, trying to pick stones that would dislodge others when they came free.
It was hard work, and drops of sweat ran down his face with the feeling of bugs crawling on his skin. He wiped it away absently with the back of his hand. He'd managed to tear most of the nails on both hands by now, but the progress he'd made was worth it. He was tugging in the last really large rock, when abruptly it gave. With the resistance suddenly gone, he slipped backward, and then jumped free as the whole pile began to crumble.
The slide didn't go far. When the clatter of falling rocks and sliding gravel ceased, he could see that a gap of at least three feet yawned at the top. Cautious of more loose rocks, he scrambled back up the pile to peer over the barricade.
A cool breeze, considerably stronger and fresh with the scent of the outer world, brushed his face. The darkness beyond was complete, but it was with a renewed feeling of hope that he scrambled down to join his companions.
Lois was already struggling to her foot as he reached them. "Are you all right?" she demanded.
"I'm fine. The tunnel goes on past the slide, but I can smell pine trees. Can you climb this thing with your ankle in that shape?"
"You bet I can," Lois said, a grim note of determination in her voice. "If you'll just give me a hand, I'll manage."
"Okay. Mr. Lini, you come after her and I'll help you as soon as she's through."
"You're the boss, Superman," Lini said.
Getting Lois over the rock pile wasn't easy, but she'd meant it when she'd told him she'd manage. As she squirmed through the gap he'd created, he heard her give a slight gasp of pain as she tried to brace her feet on the other side and inadvertently jarred her ankle, but she said nothing more, and he saw her scoot carefully down the incline of the ancient slide. George Lini came next and the older man was surprisingly agile as he negotiated the obstacle. Clark slid through after Lini, and a moment later they had reached the rocky floor of the mine once more. Without a word, Clark lifted Lois in his arms, and they started ahead.
Lois flashed the rapidly dimming light she held along the passage. It seemed to be the same as it had been, and it was possible that what they would find at the end of their journey was nothing but a vent, but it was with renewed hope that they forged ahead, guided by the pale circle of orange light.
All at once, the light flickered and went out, leaving them in total darkness. Clark heard something rustle, and then a faint click. He shielded his eyes against the sudden light. Lini was holding up his cigarette lighter, and after his eyes had recovered enough for him to look directly at it, Clark could see that the flame was dancing unsteadily. The breeze drifting through here was definitely stronger.
Suddenly, Lois gave an exclamation of exasperation. He stopped. "What's the matter?"
"I'm an idiot!" she said. "Put me down a second, Superman."
This had to be a momentous occasion, he thought. You didn't hear Lois Lane call herself an idiot more than once in a lifetime. He set her carefully on her good foot and braced her while she fumbled in the pocket of her jacket. With a gesture of triumph, she produced the tiny penlight that he had seen the night before in the empty bedroom of the Mystery Mansion. Lois, it seemed, believed in being prepared.
The penlight, of course, produced considerably less illumination than the mini-mag, but it was enough to see by. Again, Clark lifted her in his now aching arms and they moved cautiously on. The floor here was littered with more and larger rocks, and he saw one place where a runnel of water down the wall had formed a small lake. They had to edge by it, hugging the opposite wall, and ahead, one of the mine supports leaned across the passage at a crazy angle. Clark glanced upward at the sagging roof and winced.
Suddenly, he stopped. "Lois, turn off your light," he whispered.
She obeyed at once. They stood still, letting their eyes adjust to the darkness.
Only this time, the darkness wasn't complete. Far ahead, Clark could see a faint gleam of daylight.
It was a wonder, Clark thought later, that they hadn't managed to bring down the whole roof in their hurry to reach the place. The tunnel made a sudden, sharp left turn and they stopped, staring at the sight before them. The light was coming through an opening at the top of another pile of debris, twenty feet ahead. Only, this time, the gap was nearly two feet wide--more than enough to allow even him through--if he slid through carefully, flat on his back. Outside, he could hear the song of a mockingbird, proclaiming to one and all in the vicinity that this territory belonged to him.
"Come on!" Lois said, breaking the sudden silence of the two men. "Let's get out of this place!"
Clark had never been so glad to see the sun and the outside world. The air was chilly, but the sunshine was warm and welcoming. Images of sailors returning from months at sea, kneeling to kiss the land flashed through his mind, and for the first time, he knew how they felt although he refrained from a similar demonstration. Lois simply sat down on the ground in the middle of the somewhat overgrown clearing that adjoined the clogged mine entrance and lifted her face to the sun. George Lini sank down on a tree stump and wiped his dirty face with the now less-than-clean handkerchief.
"Do either of you have any idea where we are?" he asked.
Clark had already thought of that. "I think so. We're only a short distance from the road. As the crow flies, your Jeep is about a mile from here, Lois. That way." He pointed.
"You're not a crow," Lois said, dampeningly. "You can't even fly, right now."
He pressed his lips together to hide a grin. "Maybe not, but the sooner we get into town, the sooner we can call the police about St. John. Not to mention," he added pointedly, "the sooner we can get *you* to a doctor."
"And," Lini said, "there's the matter of your partner, Mr. Kent, who seems to have disappeared. I sincerely hope he hasn't run into Nigel."
"Clark can take care of himself," Lois said. "If he gets his hands on Nigel St. John, it won't be a contest."
"If he saw the cave-in," Clark said, "he'd know he couldn't rescue us all by himself. He might have gone for help."
"That's possible," Lini admitted. He glanced at Lois's ankle, which was now, Clark could see, about the size of a small watermelon. "Can you manage, Ms. Lane?"
Lois hesitated. "I can't walk," she said. "I'd probably better wait here until you can bring some help."
Clark shook his head. "We go together," he said. He flexed an arm. The ache in his muscles was beginning to diminish. "Do you think you can make it, if I help you?"
Lois sighed. "I suppose if I can't, you're going to carry me, right?"
He nodded. "I'm not going to leave you out here alone. Anything could happen to you."
"Superman, has anyone ever told you you're too noble for your own good?"
He felt his lips twitch. "A few. I never let name-calling influence me."
She stared at him for a long moment, then dissolved suddenly into laughter. He thought he detected a slightly hysterical edge, but that was understandable. When she finally managed to control herself, she made a gesture of surrender. "Okay, okay! You win! We go together."
"I'm glad that's settled." He reflected that she'd probably make him pay, later, but he would have to deal with that when it happened. Lois Lane, uninjured, could take care of herself fairly well. Lois Lane with a broken ankle was another story. Even if it wasn't broken, it might as well be, since it couldn't bear her weight.
"In that case," George Lini said, "I suppose we should get going. Perhaps I should warn you, we parked our car near your Jeep, Ms. Lane--but Superman probably already knew that."
Clark nodded. "St. John would have headed for it. We're going to need to keep an eye out for him. A man in good condition could have covered the distance by now, but St. John's not only overweight, he has a bullet in his leg. It might slow him down a bit."
"Really?" Lini's expression brightened. "I probably shouldn't say this, but I'm not particularly sorry."
The trip to the Jeep was a minor nightmare of its own, Lois reflected grimly, sometime later. She had an arm over each man's neck and they supported her weight without too much difficulty, but the route from the spot where they had emerged from the hillside was rough, heavily wooded and difficult to navigate, especially for someone with a bad ankle. If not for Clark's stubborn refusal to leave her behind, he probably could have covered the distance in half an hour or so. As it was, forty-five minutes later, Superman was lifting her carefully over the same stream that they had crossed on their way to the mine, albeit in a different location. They had chosen to cut through the forest in a nearly direct path to the Cherokee, but the way was considerably more difficult than the longer one had been. On the other hand, any route might have been almost as difficult for someone with a bad foot. She glanced at her partner's determined face and reflected that she had never seen Superman--or Clark, for that matter--sweat before, even during the Luthor-made heat wave that had struck Metropolis in the middle of November, the year he had come to Metropolis. The knowledge that he was really her partner was still new and almost unreal, but now that she knew the truth, she was starting to see Clark in everything Superman did, and wonder why no one else saw it. Of course, a good deal of it was undoubtedly a case of people seeing what they expected to see. No one expected to see Superman working as an ordinary journalist at a newspaper, even one as famous as the Daily Planet. A super-hero wasn't supposed to have a regular job or a boss--or pick up a paycheck and pay taxes, either, she thought with amusement, but Clark did all those things. She had begun to realize that he chose to be Clark Kent rather than Superman because that was what he preferred--to be like everyone else as much as possible. Superman was a--a thing he did. Clark was the real person behind the super-hero. Superman was simply a uniform he put on, like a fireman or a policeman, so he could do what he needed to do without the complications that would ensue if Clark Kent started lifting cars and foiling bank robberies.
Clark set her gently on her foot and pulled her arm over his shoulder again. "Doing all right?" he asked.
"Yeah." In reality, the ankle was aching almost unbearably, but she was darned if she was going to let him see it. He had enough to deal with right now. If the truth were to be known, she was glad that he hadn't taken her up on her offer to stay behind. Sitting alone in the wilderness wasn't something she could contemplate with any peace of mind. He probably knew it, too, she reflected, looking at his determined expression, although he'd never say so. She had begun to think that he knew her better than she knew herself, at least in some aspects. He was observing her now, and she saw him frown.
"I think I'd better let you sit down," he said, unexpectedly. "There's no rush."
"How far are we from Ms. Lane's Jeep?" Lini asked.
"Probably another fifteen minutes or so," Clark said. "I'd like you to wait here with Lois while I check the way ahead of us. If I can find an easier path, it will help."
Lini nodded. "All right."
Clark glanced around. "Is this okay, Lois?"
"This" was a tree stump, and at the moment it looked as comfortable as an armchair, the way her ankle felt. At her nod, he helped to lower her to the seat and straightened up. "Just rest for a few minutes, okay?"
To tell the truth, she was glad for the chance to sit. Clark--Superman, she reminded herself again--surveyed her closely. "I know your ankle hurts a lot more than you're letting on," he said, abruptly. "I wish--"
Lois grimaced. "It's all right, Superman," she said. "I know you're doing your best. Look, let's just hurry up and get back to the Jeep, okay?"
"Okay." He glanced at Lini. "I'll be back as fast as I can. Don't go anywhere."
Lini chuckled. "I don't know where we'd be going," he said. "Go ahead, Superman. Ms. Lane and I will be fine here for a few minutes."
He hesitated, then gave a nod. "Back in a minute."
Lois watched him vanish into the trees. Lini glanced around and settled himself on a fallen log. He sighed heavily and stretched out his legs. "I'm glad to get a chance to rest. How's your ankle, Ms. Lane?"
"It hurts," Lois said, briefly. "Don't tell him, though."
"I doubt I need to." Lini rubbed a knee. "I thought I was in pretty good shape for my age, too."
"You are," Lois said. "You probably don't do much hiking in rough country, though."
"I did until a couple of years ago," Lini said. "I gave it up after I slipped and hurt my back. Allison suggested I take up swimming for fitness instead. I still walk, though--just not in rough country."
Lois smiled. She had discovered that George Lini was quite a likable and interesting person. "Well, that's more than I can do, right now."
"Do you think it's broken?" Lini asked, surveying the swollen ankle critically.
"Maybe. I thought I felt something give when I tried to break Superman's fall."
Lini winced. "It makes my own leg hurt just looking at it. Superman's right--we need to get you to a doctor."
"I'll be all right," Lois said. "I broke this same ankle on a ski trip a couple of years ago. My editor carried me all the way down the mountain to the lodge." She grimaced. "Poor Perry. I gave him a hard time every step of the way, too."
Lini chuckled. "At least we don't have that far to go."
She glanced at her watch. It had only been a few minutes, although it seemed longer. "I hope Superman doesn't take long."
"So do I. I felt safer while he was here. Even without his powers, he's a very impressive young man."
"He's Superman," Lois said.
"Precisely," Lini said. "I'd never met him in person before, you know. In the beginning, the thought of a man with such tremendous abilities worried me. Very few persons can possess that kind of sheer, raw power and not be tempted to use it for selfish motives. Now that I've met him, however, those concerns are very comfortably laid to rest."
"I'm glad of that," she said.
Silence fell. Lois pulled her jacket more tightly around her and folded her arms. Here in the shade of the trees, it was considerably cooler than it had been in the open and now that she was no longer exercising, the air temperature was noticeably chilly.
"I know it's being repetitious, but I want to apologize again for this mess," Lini said, suddenly. "I didn't want anyone to be hurt. Nigel always seemed to be such a civilized person. I never dreamed that he was capable of violence."
"Don't blame yourself," Lois said. "Lex Luthor fooled me as thoroughly as St. John fooled you. I nearly *married* him--and he turned out to be a criminal. I don't suppose I'll ever quite forgive myself for making such a--an incredibly stupid mistake."
He nodded. "Luthor fooled a great many people, Ms. Lane. I suppose it's a reminder to us all not to take people so easily at face value. You'd think I'd have figured that out by this point in my life. Obviously, I still have more to learn."
Lois glanced at her watch. Superman had been gone for nearly fifteen minutes. She hoped he wouldn't be too much longer. The fact that Nigel St. John could very well be somewhere in these woods made her uneasy.
"How long has it been?" Lini asked. "I'm afraid my watch has stopped running. I must have broken it somehow, in the mine."
"Or when you were fighting St. John," Lois said. "It's been about fifteen minutes. I hope he hurries."
"So do I. I'm quite sure that if Nigel were to find us, he wouldn't hesitate to kill both of us." Lini shifted uneasily. "I must confess that I have no wish to oblige his desire to eliminate us. Allison would be very much distressed."
"How long have you and your wife been married?" Lois asked. She could hear only the forest sounds around them, but between the chill in the air and her concern over the whereabouts of Nigel St. John, she was beginning to shiver slightly.
"Sixty-three years," Lini said. "Since I was twenty. Allison's been the financial genius in our marriage, you know. We teamed up not long after Billy's gambling hall burned. She was seventeen--a pretty little thing, three years older than I was--one of the change girls at Billy's place. I'd had a crush on her since the first time I saw her. She was sick that night--probably the luckiest head cold anyone ever had." He grinned and shook his head. "After we got to be partners, she managed the finances for us and turned the nest egg I took from Billy's safe into our business. Smartest person I ever met, man or woman. If I'd left everything in her hands, I probably wouldn't have gotten into debt and this whole thing wouldn't have happened."
"Maybe you should tell her what the problem is and let her take over again," Lois suggested. "She might be able to help."
Lini chuckled. "You're probably right," he said. "She'll have my hide, of course, but she's always kept me in line. Talking her into marrying me was the smartest move I ever made in my whole life, bar none."
Allison Lini sounded like a hardheaded, practical woman, Lois thought. George Lini obviously thought the world of her. She'd met Allison at the occasional charity function and if she'd thought about her at all, had considered her a sweet, little, grandmotherly old lady. It was funny how someone you thought you'd figured out could surprise you so thoroughly--like Clark had. She shifted position on the tree stump for the fourth time, wondering where he was and wishing he'd come back. Silence fell again and the minutes ticked by.
A bird squawked suddenly in alarm and beat its way into the air in a precipitous retreat. Lois straightened up, instantly alert. Only the sounds of the forest met her ears and she was slowly beginning to relax when a faint rustling in the underbrush made her heart try to jump into her throat, but it was only Clark, at last. The bright colors of the Superman costume stood out against the brown and green of the forest undergrowth.
Carefully, he detached his cape from a thorny bush that seemed determined to acquire the garment and entered the little clearing.
"The Jeep is still parked there," he said without preliminary. "What worries me is, so is your car, Mr. Lini. St. John apparently hasn't arrived, yet."
Lini got to his feet. "I find that somewhat troubling," he said. "If he hasn't collapsed from blood loss, he could be anywhere."
"I was thinking about that," Superman agreed.
"Any sign of your powers coming back?" Lois asked, hopefully.
He shook his head. "I feel better, but in a normal way," he said. He held up a hand, where a thorn had left a long, shallow scratch across the palm. It occurred to her to realize then that, except for the time he'd gotten a paper cut in Smallville, she'd never actually seen Clark injured in any visible way. There had been the amnesia, of course, after Superman's attempt to stop the Nightfall asteroid, but.... Her thoughts ground to a halt. *That* was why no one had been able to find Superman for those terrifying hours. He'd been with her for most of the time, unaware that he was the man for whom everyone was desperately searching! And, the day after Johnny Corbin had beaten up Superman, Clark had shown up at the office acting as if he was in pain. Why hadn't she put two and two together before, she wondered. And she called herself an investigative reporter!
"Well," Lini said, "waiting around here isn't gaining us anything. I suppose we'd better get moving."
"I agree," Superman said. He crossed the short distance to Lois and glanced briefly at her ankle. "How's that feeling?"
"Okay," she lied.
He raised an eyebrow at her, but didn't comment. "Do you think you can make it a little farther? The road's only a short way, now."
She held up her arms. "Give me a little help and I'll be fine," she said. "Let's go."
Clark led the way through the brush and down a slight incline toward the road where he had parked the Jeep several lifetimes ago. At least, it seemed that way. So much had happened in the few hours since they had left it that it surprised him to realize it wasn't even noon yet, although the sun was definitely getting higher in the sky and the sunshine that had seemed so welcoming when they emerged from the mine was now becoming uncomfortably warm. Of course, the effort that he, Lois and Lini were putting in, trying to get his injured partner back to the Jeep, was probably a big part of it. He glanced unobtrusively at Lois's face and grimaced. He was certain she didn't want him to realize how much pain she was actually in, but the set expression of her mouth, and the way she grimaced slightly when her ankle was accidentally jarred told him the whole story. If only his powers would come back, it would solve a great many problems, but so far they showed no sign of doing so.
That wasn't quite true, though, he realized a moment later. His hearing was beginning to improve. He could hear Lois's heartbeat, loud and fast, unlike its usual steady rhythm.
Carefully, he turned his hearing outward, searching for other heartbeats. If Nigel St. John was in the vicinity, he wanted to know it.
The amount of noise in the forest environment always surprised him, especially now, with his super-hearing barely functioning. It was difficult to filter out the extraneous sounds. The alarm call of a blue jay almost deafened him, and the heartbeats of local wildlife sounded like drums. Slowly, one by one, he eliminated the ones that couldn't possibly be human. The incredibly fast heartbeats of birds and small animals were easily identified as such and excluded. Those belonging to deer and other, larger animals were somewhat more difficult to sort out. St John might very well be nearby. He wouldn't be completely sure they were safe until they were in the Jeep and on their way.
Near the road, the trees began to thin, and he gave a slight sigh of relief. Ahead, still partially obscured by the intervening trees, but gleaming silver in the sunshine, was the tiny form of Lois's Cherokee.
"I just thought of something," Lois said. "The car key is in my purse."
"Don't you have a spare?" Clark asked.
"That *was* the spare!"
"That's a Jeep Grand Cherokee, right?" Lini asked, seemingly unperturbed.
"Then don't worry. I'll get it started."
"But Clark and I locked the doors," Lois said, looking stricken. "I don't even have anything to pick the lock with!"
"Believe me, I'll get in," Clark said.
George Lini gave him an amused look. "Before you break any windows, Superman, let me see what I can do," he suggested. "I haven't forgotten everything I knew as a street kid."
"There's an alarm on it," Lois warned him.
"You can shut it off after I get the door open, can't you?" Lini asked.
"Not without the car key."
"Then *I'll* shut it off. All I need to do is get the hood open." He flicked a wink at her and Clark grinned. George Lini was certainly full of surprises, but, after all, just because a man was in his eighties, it didn't mean he'd forgotten all the experience of previous years--and he had a lot of years and a lot of experience to draw on.
The sight of the Jeep was heartening to all of them. Lini and Superman were able to speed up their pace, half-carrying Lois over the rough ground. As they drew closer and fewer trees blocked their view, the second car, a dark green Ford that probably belonged to St. John, became visible as well. It had been pulled onto the side of the road in the middle of a patch of dead grass. There was still no sign of St. John, but with all the noise around them and his hearing as unreliable as it currently was, he couldn't be certain the man wasn't around.
Lini voiced the concern a moment or two later.
"I hope Nigel isn't nearby," he said. "I've been watching for him, but my eyesight isn't what it once was."
"I didn't see any sign of him when I checked the first time," Clark said, "but the last thing I want to do is take Nigel St. John for granted."
"Any sign of your powers coming back, yet?" Lois asked.
He shrugged. "My hearing's getting better. Unfortunately, I can't control it very well, yet. Mostly, all I can hear is a lot of noise."
"Well, the best we can do is keep our eyes open," Lini said. "It's only a little way, now."
They moved forward through the thinning trees toward the silver Cherokee. Clark's every sense was alert for any indication of Nigel St. John's presence on this last, critical leg of their journey, but there was no sign of the man. He told himself that there was every chance that St. John had collapsed somewhere on the trip between the mine and the road, but in the back of his mind something was gnawing at him, telling him that it couldn't be this easy.
They pushed their way through a mass of tangled, scratchy undergrowth and paused to let Lois rest. Her cheeks were pink with effort and perspiration had made little clean lines in the dirt on her face. She wiped away the sweat that was running into her eyes, leaving smudges that made her resemble a raccoon. Clark was aware that he didn't look much better. His torn nails were encrusted with dirt from digging with his bare hands, and the sweat that dripped from his chin onto his uniform left grey spots on the spandex.
George Lini leaned against the bole of a tree and wiped his face. Clark lowered Lois to the ground and knelt to examine her ankle. If it wasn't broken, it was the worst sprain he'd ever seen, and Superman had seen more than a few injuries of all kinds. "I think there's a doctor in Lakeview," he said. "We should probably take you there right away, and then go on to the police."
"On the contrary, I don't think anyone should go to the police."
The cultured, faintly ironic voice almost made him start. Clark looked up to see Nigel St. John leaning against a sapling, the little .32 pointed directly at Lois.
Lois glanced up at the sound of St. John's voice with almost a feeling of resignation. The man was leaning against a tree, and she didn't think it was because he wished to appear casual. Although his expression was its usual, unreadable self, St. John looked a little the worse for wear. His usually neatly combed hair was mussed and tangled with small twigs and leaves, and what she could swear was a fragment of spider's web hung from one earlobe. His tan trench coat was torn in two places, stained with fresh earth and smeared with blood in several spots. The left leg of his slacks was soaked with blood and he had tied what appeared to be one of the sleeves torn from his shirt snugly around his thigh. Nigel St. John might have left them to die in the old lead mine, she thought, but his trip back to the cars apparently hadn't been any easier than their own.
The ex-spy was looking at them through narrowed eyes and when he spoke, she thought she detected a hint of strain in his voice.
"Superman, I've come to believe that you and this woman have more lives than a cat. No one should have been able to escape from that mine."
"Have you forgotten who you're talking to?" Lois replied, instantly. "This is Superman, remember? Once I got the Kryptonite away from him, it wasn't even a contest."
St. John threw her a look of intense dislike. "Don't lie to me, Miss Lane. I've been watching your approach for some time and I'm well aware that Superman has no super powers. Fortunately for you, I happen to need his services. It will keep you alive for a few more minutes." He jerked his head at George Lini. "Come over here, George. You and Superman are going to help Miss Lane to her feet again."
Lois allowed the men to boost her to her feet. Nigel St. John's urbane, slightly supercilious courtesy was perilously close to cracking, she thought, and now wasn't the time to anger him any further. She could see the expression on Clark's face and it wasn't very reassuring, either. There was a faint line between his heavy eyebrows and she could feel the tenseness in his body as he lifted her to her good foot. St. John said nothing, preferring to lean against the tree, covering her with his weapon but Lois thought the whole situation was poised on the edge of a very thin knife blade. Clark--Superman--was very close to losing his temper, which could be disastrous. She had never seen Clark really lose it, and Superman, in ordinary circumstances, couldn't afford to, but these circumstances weren't ordinary. She gripped his wrist with all her strength until he turned his head to meet her eyes.
Nothing was said, but the look that passed between them was communication enough. Clark relaxed slightly and turned to face St. John, giving him his best "superhero" look. Nigel St. John inclined his head.
"Very wise of you, Superman. I really don't want to kill you or Miss Lane prematurely, but I will, if necessary. Now, you will leave the lady to my former colleague and step over here. I have something for you to carry."
Sitting neatly side by side in the bushes were the briefcases, and next to them, Lois's purse. She frowned a little when she saw that. Why on Earth would St. John bring her purse along?
The former spy nodded at the bags. "I need those carried to the car. Miss Lane's Jeep will do nicely. I want you to walk ahead of me where I can keep an eye on you. Make the wrong move and she dies. Is that clear, Superman?"
Lois didn't even want to think about the rest of the trip to the car. George Lini did his best, but by the time they actually reached the vehicles, she felt as if she had been through the proverbial wringer. Her ankle was throbbing painfully to the point of making her slightly nauseated. Fortunately, St. John wasn't in much better condition, and was forced to proceed slowly, but he never took his weapon off of her. The man knew exactly how to control Superman, she thought, miserably. That was probably one reason Clark had been reluctant for anyone to know his real identity--as if she would be stupid enough to let anyone know. She was forced to acknowledge on the other hand, that when Superman had first appeared, the knowledge would have certainly provided a real temptation to her. Clark had been right not to tell her in the beginning, much as it galled her to admit the sordid truth. The fiasco with Lex Luthor had certainly been utterly mortifying, but it had also brought a certain humility that had not been part of her before. Clark had been right about Lex all along, and she'd been dreadfully, blindly wrong. If it hadn't been for Clark, Perry, Jimmy and Jack, who had determinedly tried to dig up the truth in spite of everything, Lex would have permanently destroyed the Daily Planet--despite her last minute refusal to say "I do".
Now, however, Nigel St. John had figured out that she meant a great deal to Superman, even if he didn't know the whole truth. Lex's former butler was no fool, but there had to be a way to get around him and his weapon, if she could only have a few moments to think. The pain in her leg made it hard to remember clearly. There was something about this situation that was wrong. The feeling tugged at the back of her mind, nagging at her. She was forgetting something important; something that she could use, if she could only recall what it was.
St. John nodded at Superman. "Take Miss Lane's keys out and unlock both front doors."
Slowly, he complied. The ex-spy smiled tightly. "Put the money in the back seat. Miss Lane is going to accompany me. George, help the lady to the door, please."
Superman opened his mouth to speak, but Lois forestalled him. "No, Superman. Do what he says."
The faintly ironic smile left St. John's face. "Do it, Superman, or I'll kill her where she stands and you, too."
Again, that feeling of wrongness hit her, the conviction that she was missing something. At the mine, something had happened that should give her important information, a small, otherwise insignificant fact that she could use...
Slowly, she allowed George Lini to help her to the door of her Jeep. Clark made a sudden, convulsive movement and St. John jerked up the weapon to cover him.
That was it. The little .32 was a five-shot revolver, designed to be slim and easily concealable. And at the mine, it had been fired four times. There was only one bullet left.
Unless he had been able to reload it. But if she allowed him to take her as a hostage, he would never let her go, alive.
"Now," St John was saying, "take off your belt and restrain her hands with it. Miss Lane, turn your back and put them behind you. Cross your wrists."
Lini hesitated. Lois took advantage of the slight cover afforded her by his body, bracing one hand against the Jeep's doorframe, ostensibly for balance. St. John was standing only a few feet away, the pistol aimed directly at her face. She had one chance and one chance only to pull this off, but it was better than being St. John's hostage. George Lini was fumbling with his belt. With her free hand, she shoved him backward, directly into Nigel St. John.
Probably the fact that the ex-spy was none-too-steady on his own feet was the only reason she wasn't killed, she acknowledged later. St. John staggered, both hands flying upward in a desperate attempt to keep his balance. Lois hurled herself at the two men, both hands grabbing for his flailing gun hand. The three of them tumbled to the ground and the pistol went off in the air.
St. John was no softy, even wounded as he was. He pushed George Lini aside and wrapped his left arm around Lois's neck, jamming the muzzle of his weapon against her temple. Plunging toward them, Superman came to a sudden stop.
"Nice try, Miss Lane." St. John was panting and there was a trickle of blood down his chin where his lip had split. "Superman, if you move, she's a dead woman."
Her ankle was on fire. Lois fixed her eyes on her partner's face. He was staring at her, obviously desperate to help and unwilling to risk her safety. "Superman--"
With a silent prayer to whomever, or Whomever, might be listening, she made her choice.
With all her strength, she squirmed frantically, wrenching at St John's imprisoning arm and bringing a fist down as hard as she could on his wounded leg. "The gun's empty! Get him!"
Nigel St. John howled in agony. Then Superman was on him.
Lois would never be able to describe the events of the next few seconds, except to say that whatever actually happened, it ended with the .32 lying in the bushes and George Lini sitting on Nigel St. John's head--and Superman was clasping her in his arms as if he never intended to let her go.
"Get off me!" St. John's urbane manner had deserted him along with his control of the situation. George Lini laughed shortly.
"Lie still, Nigel. I can make this a lot more uncomfortable, if I want to."
"Are you okay, Lois?" Superman released her slowly.
She nodded shakily. "More or less."
He got to his feet and bent to help her to her one good foot. "Do you mind if *I* put you in the Jeep?"
She shook her head. He lifted her gently and carried her to the vehicle. When she was seated safely in the passenger seat, he turned sideways to look at the two men on the ground. Lois saw him grin.
"Mr. Lini, about that belt--"
The retired CEO laughed. "Delighted, Superman. Absolutely delighted."
The next few hours were filled with excitement, most of which Lois fortunately missed. After George Lini had driven the Jeep carrying Nigel St. John, Superman, Lois and the briefcases into town and to the local office of the county sheriff, one of the deputies had transported her immediately to the town doctor. The doctor, a cheerful man who maintained a small office in town, performed the necessary emergency treatment on her ankle and handed her over to his office nurse for an almost as necessary bath. Lois took advantage of a bathroom sink, soap, washcloths and hand towels, as well as a small bottle of shampoo supplied by the sympathetic nurse and emerged feeling considerably better than she had expected. A short time later, she made a call to the Daily Planet with the preliminary story, leaving Perry, who happened to be in when she called, invoking Elvis and Memphis and informing her that he was sending a photographer immediately to document the incredible story in pictures. Lois hung up and leaned back in the armchair in the doctor's waiting room, feeling suddenly very tired.
"Lois?" A large hand was gently shaking her shoulder and she opened her eyes to see her partner smiling down at her. She yawned.
"Hi, Clark. Where did you come from?"
"Oh, Superman found me a couple of hours ago and flew me to town," he said. "I was trying to thumb a ride out on the highway. Do you have any idea how few cars use that road?"
She blinked at him, wondering for a moment if she had dreamed the whole thing. Then he winked at her and everything that had happened came flooding back. "He flew you here--you mean his powers...?"
"His powers are back," Clark confirmed. "He said to tell you how much he appreciates what you did, back there in the mine."
"He's welcome," Lois said. She glanced at her watch. "I guess I fell asleep. What time is it?"
"Nearly five in the afternoon," Clark said. "Mrs. Lini showed up about half an hour ago to pick up George, and from what I overheard, he was explaining everything to her. If she doesn't kill him, I have the feeling they're going to be all right."
"I'm glad of that," Lois said. "I liked him."
"So did I," Clark said. "How are *you* feeling?"
She flexed an arm. "All right. I've got a few sore spots here and there, but nothing too bad."
"That's good," Clark said. "I wondered if you wanted to drive back to the Mystery Mansion for a change of clothes before you talk to the sheriff? He just wanted to clear up a few points."
Lois grimaced. "I think I'd rather do it now. Then we can go get something to eat. I'm starving. And maybe we could talk--if you want to."
"If *I* want to?" He lifted an eyebrow. She nodded.
"I figured a lot of things out for myself while we were going through all that--but I do have a few questions." At his skeptical expression, she laughed. "Okay, I have a *lot* of questions, but I want to be able to ask them without being interrupted."
He nodded. "That's fair enough. But, Lois--"
She couldn't read his expression. "What?"
"I just wanted to say--I'm glad you know. I've wanted you to know for such a long time. I wish we hadn't had to go through all that, and I'm more sorry than you can imagine that you were hurt like this--but it forced my hand, and for that, I'm grateful."
"So am I." She spoiled the effect with another small yawn. "Let's go get this over with, shall we?"
Fortunately, the sheriff's questions were simple and straightforward. Fifteen minutes after Clark had carried her through the door of the station, she was finished. Clark, who had vanished while she was speaking to the man, reappeared like magic as the interview concluded and glanced at the officer, questioningly.
"Will you be needing her anymore, Sheriff MacPhearson?"
The man shook his head. "No. I think I have everything I need. The Metropolis police will be picking Mr. St. John up shortly. You realize they'll probably want to speak to you, though."
"No problem," Clark assured him. "They'll know where to find us."
"That's what the gentleman I spoke with said," MacPhearson remarked. "He didn't seem at all surprised when I mentioned your names. Do the two of you know an Inspector Henderson?"
Lois couldn't help but laugh. Clark nodded solemnly. "We certainly do. Bill Henderson and Lois go way back."
"Then, that was probably why he said what he did," the sheriff mused.
"What did he say?" Lois asked.
"Nothing important," MacPhearson replied, though Lois could swear he was trying not to grin. "Good day, Ms. Lane. I hope your ankle gets well fast."
One advantage to having a broken ankle, Lois decided on the way back to the Jeep, was the fact that her partner had to carry her everywhere, at least until they got back to civilization. Now that Clark's powers were back, the difference in the way he did it was obvious and the sensation was very pleasant. She had flown in Superman's arms a number of times but, although she'd wanted to snuggle up to him, she hadn't quite dared. Now, however, she chose to do so just a little, and she noticed that he wasn't objecting in the slightest--if anything, he held her a little closer than was absolutely necessary. It was reassuring, because in spite of the things she'd worked out in the small lifetime they'd spent in the ancient mine, she hadn't been entirely certain of herself.
Clark set her carefully in the passenger seat of the Cherokee. "Is your ankle comfortable?" he asked.
"It's fine," she said. "Doctor Bryant gave me some stuff to take for pain if it got too bad. I'll probably take some more of it tonight before I go to bed."
"Good idea," Clark said. He shut the door and walked around to the driver's side. "It looks to me like I'm going to be doing the driving for at least a little while, though. Unless," he added softly, "you'd like to go flying with me, instead."
It was the first direct reference he had made about his other self since she'd awakened. She gazed at him, slightly bemused, while he climbed matter-of-factly into the driver's seat and pulled the seat belt over his lap.
"I'd like to," she said, finally. "Clark, can I ask you a question?"
"Why me? You said you've never told anyone before. Why tell me, now?"
He had started to reach for the ignition, but at that he pulled his hand away from the key and laid his palm over hers. "I hope you know the answer," he said, quietly. "Lois, I made the biggest blunder of my life, the night I let you think I was dead. I didn't realize until afterwards what I'd done to you--but I swore to myself that I'd never hurt you like that again, no matter what I had to do."
She opened her mouth to speak, but he was continuing. "I thought that night, that Clark Kent's life was over," he said. "Everything I'd dreamed about was gone--my life, my job, my friends--and you. That was what hurt the most, and the worst of it was, it was the second time it had happened. I've nearly lost you twice, both times because I was completely stupid--and yet I was given one more chance. I wasn't going to do it again."
She stared at him, stunned. He blamed himself for *that*? "Clark, it wasn't your fault that I nearly married Lex!"
He shrugged. "Maybe not. But I knew you thought I--that Clark--was jealous of him. You were right, too," he added with a wry smile, "but that wasn't why I told you I didn't trust him. I knew what he was. If I had told you--as Superman--you might not have attributed it simply to jealousy." He squeezed her hand lightly. "I behaved stupidly because I was angry and hurt. If I'd used my head instead of my feelings, things might have been different."
"People do crazy things when they're in love," Lois said, very softly. "I'm glad to know that Superman is no different from anyone else when it comes to that. You lied to me, that day in front of the Daily Planet, didn't you?"
"The day you told me you didn't love me."
He dropped his gaze to their hands. "Yeah. I didn't want you to feel uncomfortable with me."
"You're too noble for your own good," Lois said, for the second time that day. "That's something you and I are going to have to work on. I was going to tell you that I thought I might be in love with you--that I wanted to try dating, to find out. I stopped my wedding because of you. I couldn't go through with it."
He seemed to be struck speechless. She pressed her advantage. "I'm not going to sit here and argue with you over who was the stupidest, Clark. We've both done some pretty dumb things. But do you think we can make up for it, now?"
He gulped. "Do you want to?"
"I'd sure like to try." She smiled, feeling suddenly as if a great weight of confusion had dissolved and left her free for the first time in months. "That is, if you don't mind dating a woman with a cast on her ankle."
"I'd want to date you if you were wearing a body cast," Clark said.
She burst out laughing. "You sure know how to flatter a girl, Kent. Now, how about something a little more substantial? I'm starving!"
He smiled suddenly, and his whole face lit up. "Right away! I was scouting out places to eat while you were talking to Sheriff MacPhearson. How about the Lakeview Sandwich Shoppe? It's right down the way, and the food looked pretty good. There's also the Burger Rebellion, two streets over, and Valerie's Vegecatessin..."
"Now, that's what I call a headline," Perry White said, happily. "Not to mention, it's a great advertisement for Bob Hartford's charity kickoff, even if the first one didn't go quite as planned. A genuine buried treasure!" He clapped Clark lightly on the back. "Consider this an official pat on the back for you and Lois, Clark."
"Thank you, sir," Clark said.
"Speaking of which, how is your partner?" Perry asked. "And *where* is she?"
"I'm supposed to pick her up at Metro General in a little while," Clark said. "Her doctor wanted to do a second set of x-rays before he put on the permanent cast. Her ankle really took a beating out there in the woods."
"Yeah," Perry said. "That's the same one she broke on the office ski trip, just before you joined the staff. She can't afford to do that too many more times." He chuckled. "So, what are you two going to do with the reward?"
"What reward?" Jimmy Olsen asked.
"The one that was offered by the First Bank of Metropolis for the return of the loot," Clark said. "It was still on the books, after all this time. Lois insisted they give half of it to George Lini, since we wouldn't have found it if it hadn't been for him. She donated the rest of it to the Coates Orphanage." He glanced at his watch. "I need to go pick her up, Chief. I'm taking her to lunch straight from the doctor's, and we'll be back about two."
The newsroom of the Daily Planet was fairly quiet and most of the frantic activity of the day had disappeared. Lois glanced up as her partner rounded a desk and dropped into his seat opposite her across the chessboard.
"That fax from Iberia should be here in a few minutes and then we can finally get out of here." He glanced at the chessboard. "Okay, your move."
She saw him smile warmly at her. He'd been planning on taking her to his place this evening for a home cooked meal and a video, since the weather had suddenly turned cold again after the relatively warm snap that had graced the weekend. Now, though, it would probably be a pizza from the local--or, considering who her dinner date was, not-so-local--takeout place. She frowned at the little black and white pieces on the board, contemplating her move. Clark's head came up suddenly. "Oh, oh."
Lois quirked an eyebrow at him "This would be one of those times you had to return a video, right?"
"There's a fire at the Metropolitan Building Penthouse. I better go." He got to his feet. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
"Go," she said. "I'll be here."
He was gone in a gust of air. She leaned back in her chair to wait, absently contemplating her move. But her thoughts were more on her amazing partner. She'd thought, until the events of this weekend, that these sudden departures to return a video or library book were his way of avoiding personal issues. The real reason was so different from any she had imagined that it was breathtaking.
Now she knew that, no matter how often he had to run away, he would always come back to her as long as she wanted him to. There were still things they had to work out, although they had had several long talks over the past three days, but she was already sure that she always would want him to come back. She had her doubts about whether she could be an equal partner to Superman, but he seemed to think that she already was. Maybe he was right. Time would tell.
"Hey, Lane! Where's Kent? He off returning a library book again?" That was Ralph, on his way toward the elevators. He'd remarked on Clark's faulty memory several times in the weeks since he'd been hired, but he'd also expressed envy at the ability of Lane and Kent to always be in the right place at the right time to land the big scoops. She laughed to herself.
If he only knew.