A/N: Okay...I was going to wait a few days to kickstart this, but...yeah...apparently I'm not going to.

So, now the ubiquitous "I own none of these characters and am making no profit" disclaimer. And now for a little author's warning. This story is darker than my previous ones, and will probably involve some strong language, etc. So, if you're looking for fluff...you might wait it out until I begin posting the YoaR sequel. ;)

The Murder of Clark Kent

Chapter 1: The Light that Changes Everything

The clock on the dashboard read 4:52, and Clark's hand paused as his fingers brushed against the ignition key. With a quick glance around, he wondered at a sudden certainty that there was something ominous in the air, but nothing seemed peculiar or out of place. With a quick shake of his head, Clark killed the engine and threw open the door to his truck; his imagination was playing tricks on him.

Stepping down from the cab, he slipped the keys into his pocket and gave another quick glance around. Though he told himself it was nothing, he still couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong. He didn't know why; there was nothing about this morning that seemed markedly different from any other. Still, if he was the type to believe in such things, he would say that the eerie stillness in the air could only be some sort of bad omen. The world was quiet – no dog barking in the distance broke the silence; he didn't even have the familiar chirping of crickets to give him comfort. It was as if the world itself was holding its breath in anticipation, though Clark had no idea what it was waiting for.

Then again, he also had no idea what he was doing, coming out here at a time that any reasonable person would be home in bed. Of course, he wasn't with any reasonable person; he was with Lois Lane. "Hey, Smallville, you forget how to walk or something? Let me help; you just keep putting one foot in front of the other until you either run into something or I tell you to stop." Her voice broke into his thoughts, and he turned to catch the flash of a smile in the faint light that had just barely begun to spill over the horizon. Clearly she wasn't troubled by the same sense of foreboding.

"Very funny, Lois. I was just wondering if there was a particular reason you wanted me to drive you out here – to the middle of nowhere, I might point out – at a time that you're usually not even conscious. Or is this just another of your whims?" he asked, trying to sound churlish in an attempt to hide his anxiety as he shoved his hands into his pockets and glowered in her direction. Barely a half hour had passed since he'd gotten the cryptic phone call that had dragged him out of bed and across town. If it wasn't for the irrational anxiety that was currently prickling at the edges of his consciousness, he wouldn't have minded having his slumber interrupted by such a summons – though of course he would still make sure to pretend he did; it wouldn't be a good idea to admit to his companion that he actually he enjoyed accompanying her on her adventures.

Lois laughed and stepped around the truck to link her arm through his. Leaning close, she grinned and murmured, "Maybe I just thought you'd be intrigued by the novelty of seeing me awake before noon. Now, come on. I don't think we have much time."

Clark's brows rose as she dragged him forward a few feet, heading towards the front door to the decrepit building that was the only structure around for miles. "Until what?" he asked, giving the monstrosity of concrete and metal in front of him a dubious look. A solitary, worn-down security lamp cast a small pool of light that was almost depressing in its inadequacy. In fact, Clark's opinion of the building in front of him was far from improved by the added illumination. It had probably been a warehouse or a factory, once upon a time, but several eons might have passed since then.

"Lois, until what?" he repeated, but when it became clear she wasn't going to answer him, he dug in his heels so that she jerked to a stop by his side. After a couple minutes of ineffectual tugging, she glared up at him through the fringe of her light brown bangs. "I'm not going anywhere until you tell me what's going on," he said, unflinchingly meeting her gaze. If his odd anxiety wasn't completely unfounded, then Lois would likely find herself in danger (as usual) before too long, and Clark knew he'd have a better chance at protecting her if he had some kind of idea what to expect inside the building.

Blowing out her breath in an exasperated sigh, Lois glanced around anxiously and then stepped close to him. In a low murmur, she explained, "Okay, look. I didn't really want to tell you about this because I knew you wouldn't be happy about it. In fact, I figured you'd try to stop me if you knew." Clark tried to hide his sudden flash of alarm. That didn't bode well. "We're here because Peter Williams contacted me and told me he wanted to meet me here this morning, but he's sure there are people after him, so I don't have much time before he goes back into hiding."

"The guy who used to work for LuthorCorp but was fired because they said he was mentally unstable?" Clark demanded, suddenly feeling like his irrational anxiety wasn't entirely unwarranted, particularly in light of the contact's obvious paranoia. "Lois, this isn't a good idea. You have no idea who this guy is; for all you know, he could be dangerous!"

"Why, Clark, I had no idea you worried so much about me," Lois said lightly, her teasing tone designed to diffuse the tension between the two of them and failing miserably.

"More than you know," he retorted, looking at her in concern. It had certainly taken a long time for the two of them to come to terms with their friendship, but, now that they had, he found that she'd given him more cause for concern in the course of one year than Lana – or anyone else – had done in the entire time he'd known them. Lois was, quite simply, too daring for her own good; she almost never looked before she leaped, and he was beginning to think the only "duck" in her vocabulary was the type to be found floating around in ponds.

Her eyes turned serious as she entreated, "I appreciate your concern, but I have to do this. Don't you understand? I finally have a shot at getting a real story published! This could be my chance to get into respectable journalism; do you think I want to write stories about aliens for the rest of my life?"

Clark wasn't entirely convinced that this was the best idea. "I thought you were trying to find a way to bring Lex Luthor down, not help him out." Not that trying to bring down any member of the Luthor family wasn't dangerous enough in its own right, but Clark had to pick his battles and for the moment, that meant choosing the potential long-term threat over the immediate one.

Lois huffed. "First of all, if the Luthors were so easily caught with their hands in the cookie jar, they'd have been thrown in jail a long time ago. I'm working on exposing Lex as the murderous, underhanded slime that he is, but it's going to take time. And it doesn't help that nobody's going to take me seriously or give me any of the answers I need when I work for a paper like the Inquisitor.

"And besides, while I might not be Lex's biggest fan, this string of so-called "accidents" at the Luthor facilities has cost the corporation billions. That's a lot of people's jobs on the line, if the person behind the sabotage isn't discovered and stopped."

Clark sighed. She made a lot of sense (and he hated when she made sense), but he tried to look out for her safety one last time, anyway. "And meeting with this guy is that important? You couldn't finish your story any other way?"

Scowling, Lois shook her head. "No, and believe me, I've tried. I've been following this story for the past month, and I've been getting nowhere. Every lead I've followed so far has dried up, and I'm running out of brilliant ideas. But this guy is supposed to have actual proof that the recent string of failures at LuthorCorp was more than just bad luck. I need this, Clark."

Something in her eyes seemed to give her cause to think she was getting through to him, because she rested her hand on his chest and said comfortingly, "I'm not an idiot, I know how dangerous this could be. But I didn't come completely unprepared, after all. I brought you, didn't I?"

"Wh-what do you mean?" he demanded, breaking out in a cold sweat. She couldn't possibly know about him and his abilities. Could she?

Rolling her eyes, Lois huffed, "I don't know how you do it, farmboy, but you always manage to be in the right place at the right time." She almost sounded irritated about this tendency of his, but, then again, he knew she hated to admit to the number of times he'd saved her life. That the two of them had become pretty good friends over the past couple of years clearly didn't make it any easier for her to admit that she actually needed help – even rescuing – once and a while.

Frowning, Clark let the subject drop and looked away, his gaze sweeping across the empty fields surrounding them. Okay, so maybe the man they'd come to meet was unstable; maybe, according to the rumors of his behavior, he was potentially dangerous. Still, Clark had no doubt that, if he refused to accompany Lois on this interview, she would return later by herself, and then there would be nobody around to protect her. "Five minutes," he capitulated grudgingly.

With narrowed eyes, she crossed her arms in front of her chest and tried to renegotiate. "Fifteen." When he shook his head firmly, she snapped, "You know, I could always come back later."

"Okay, fine. Then ten. But, seriously, Lois. You have to be careful."

"I always am!" she assured him, even though that couldn't be further from the truth.

Clark groaned and, as was probably inevitable, capitulated. Following Lois's lead, he approached the doors to the warehouse cautiously. When he'd tried to use his x-ray vision to see inside, it hadn't worked – there had to either be lead in the walls or, more likely, the interior of the warehouse had been painted in lead-based paint – so he had no idea what they were getting themselves into.

In front of him, Lois grabbed on to the handle to the wide double doors and gave it a sharp yank, but it didn't quite give. Frowning, she tried again. Still, it didn't open; years of disuse and disrepair had obviously taken their toll, and she cursed under her breath.

"Here, let me try," Clark said, preempting her suggestion that they look for a window to crawl through. If there was going to be trouble, he'd learned it was best to have a quick exit route available, and that meant not trying to squeeze through a narrow opening. Before she could protest, he grabbed hold of the handle and yanked. The door pulled open with a protesting screech of metal against metal, and the two of them scooted inside. However, when Clark saw the irritated look Lois through him out of the corner of his eye, he shrugged and said, "You loosened it up for me, I guess."

"Yeah. Right," she replied flatly before turning her attention back to the interior of the room. It was dark and dusty, and even Clark's superior vision couldn't penetrate too far into the shadowy recesses of the room. Tilting his head back, he managed to make out rickety metal catwalk lining the circumference of the room – he supposed there were doors up there that had presumably lead to storage areas, once upon a time – but it was empty now. "Mr. Williams?" Lois called, her voice echoing in the vast space. "It's Lois Lane! You called me a couple hours ago?"

There was no answer, so they made their way further inside. The warehouse wasn't completely empty. Strewn across the floor were the remnants of the business that had once existed here – broken tables, abandoned wooden crates, empty metallic barrels, and twisted bits of metal. Everything was quiet, however; there was certainly no evidence of Lois's contact.

"You sure he said to meet you here?" Clark asked in confusion as he looked around. It was possible, he supposed, that Lois had the address wrong.

Sounding as perplexed as he felt, she replied, "Yeah. He was pretty emphatic about it, in fact. He said there was something here he needed to show me. I don't understand why he…" Her voice trailed off as she pulled a flashlight out of her bag and switched it on, sweeping it in a wide arc around the area. When it illuminated their surroundings, Clark noted with interest that not everything in the abandoned warehouse looked old and decrepit. Some of the crates looked newer than the others; apparently, somebody still had some use for the old building.

Together, they made their way slowly towards the center of the room. It wasn't long, however, before Clark realized something was seriously wrong. His blood felt like it was on fire, and he was struck by that old, familiar weakness that could only mean one thing: green meteor rocks were somewhere nearby. With a pained gasp, he staggered slightly to the left until he ran into the side of an oversized crate.

"Clark! Are you okay?" Lois cried as she shot to his side and searched his face worriedly.

Swallowing heavily, Clark forced his body erect. After the initial shock of the exposure, he discovered that, while painful, it wasn't debilitating, which meant the meteor rock was close but not within the immediate proximity. If he was careful, he could hide his weakness from Lois, at least for a few moments. Of course, his ability to protect her would be seriously compromised, unless he could find a way to convince her it was time to leave. "I-I'm fine," he managed to gasp as he forced himself to straighten. "I just…I think there must be…fumes or something," he lied. "I'm just not feeling very well, all of a sudden."

Her brow furled in concern, Lois swept his hair back and pressed the flat of her hand against his forehead. "You do feel hot; I wonder if you might be coming down with something." Then, after searching his face worriedly for a moment, she nibbled on her lower lip and threw a quick look over her shoulder. "Okay, well…it looks like maybe we missed him. Let me just have one last quick look around, and then we'll go."

Clark felt a cold sweat break out on his forehead as he staggered after her, trying to hide how much every step forward intensified his agony. Since it became clear that he was only succeeding in moving closer to the meteor rocks that were the source of his distress, he finally had to concede defeat and staggered to a halt after only a few feet; he didn't dare move forward any further or the pain really would become debilitating.

As it happened, however, he didn't need to go much further to find the object of their search. Immediately in front of him, Lois stumbled to a halt and gasped, staring at something in the gloomy interior of the warehouse. With gritted teeth, Clark edged closer to her until he could see what had stopped the incomparable – and usually unflappable – Lois Lane in her tracks.

When Clark moved forward, he noticed that the tiny light in Lois's hand was no longer the sole source of light in the room. A tiny lantern, the type he used to take when he went camping with his dad years before, rested on its side on the floor at her feet, its weak light barely illuminating the figure lying on the ground nearby. It was a man, laying face-down on the floor, his limbs splayed out at odd angles. Though it was hard to see much in the unsteady light of Lois's flashlight (the jerkiness of the beam lead Clark to suspect her hand was trembling slightly) as it swept over the body, it didn't take much imagination to suppose the man was dead. He was simply too still, his body contorted at an unnatural angle as he lay sprawled out on the floor with the boneless grace that the living could never quite manage.

"Lois, we should get out of here," Clark said in a pained voice as he wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her tight against him. She was still staring at the corpse with wide eyes, and she looked like she'd been stunned into immobility.

"W-wait," she replied in a choked voice, and he saw her swallow heavily a couple of times before she turned to face him. "We should make sure he's…Before we go, we should at least make sure he's…"

He knew what she was thinking, even if she couldn't quite manage to say it out loud, but there wasn't a doubt in his mind that her hope was in vain. The man in front of them wasn't wounded, he wasn't incapacitated, and he wasn't unconscious. He was dead. However, Clark understood that Lois had never been the type to take anything on faith, even something as glaringly obvious as this. She always had to check things out for herself.

Clark wished he could move to her side as she crouched and reached towards the corpse with trembling fingers, but as it was, his proximity to the meteor rocks made him feel like he was boiling alive from the inside out. Glancing around, he couldn't see the faint telltale green glow of Kryptonite, and he didn't dare make any movement that might bring him even closer to its hiding place. However, what Lois discovered clearly confirmed what he already knew, because she looked up at him and shook her head mournfully. "We're too late," she murmured.

"Lois, I'm sorry," he said honestly as she rose to her feet. "Come on; we should call the –"

"Wait. He's…he's still warm," Lois murmured, frowning down at the body. Then, as comprehension struck, she grabbed his arm urgently, but Clark was a step ahead of her.

As he grabbed her hand and pulled her backwards, further from both the corpse and, hopefully, the Kryptonite, Clark threw a glance over his shoulder, his eyes searched the darkness for any sign of movement. He didn't see anything, but…wait… There was movement beyond their tiny circle of light; on the catwalk on the other side of the room, the dim light streaming in from the narrow windows reflected off something metallic. It was the barrel of a gun, and it was pointed their way.

"NO!" Clark cried, reaching forward. Though his body still felt like it was on fire, he managed to get his arms around Lois's waist, spinning her to the side and throwing her to the ground, as the shot rang out. The flashlight clattered to the floor, she followed immediately after it, and as she landed, he flung himself on top of her, acting as a human shield.

Clark's breath was coming in ragged gasps when he fell on top of her. He almost hadn't seen the gunman in time; if he'd delayed even a second longer… But, no, he looked down at the woman beneath him and breathed a sigh of relief. Their faces were inches apart; he could feel the soft brush of her ragged breath against his cheek, could just make out every fleck of gold and every ounce of fear in her wide hazel eyes in the dim light – but she was alive. "Oh, my God," she breathed, arching her neck to look around the protection of his body. "Clark! What –?"

"Are you okay?" he demanded fiercely, pulling her gaze back to his. In a moment, they could worry about the man still shrouded by darkness, but for now, he had to know that she wasn't hurt.

"I-I'm fine," she assured him, her eyes searching his face. "You?"

"I'm fine." Raising up slightly on his elbows, Clark twisted to the side, shifting his weight off of her so he could look around, desperately searching for the nearest exit. He didn't have any idea where the gunman was, and with the meteor rocks nearby, he lacked the ability to keep Lois safe. Whatever else happened, he had to get her out of here alive.

He was so busy concentrating on his task, it took a moment for Lois's gasp to register. Turning to look at her, he saw the red discoloration on her formerly pristine tank top and blouse, but the full implications of what it meant didn't immediately sink in. "Wh-What –?" she stammered in confusion. At first, he thought she'd been injured; it wasn't until he looked down and saw the stain quickly spreading across the front of his t-shirt that he realized he was wrong.

Lois wasn't the one who'd been shot.

It was strange, he thought as he touched his fingers to the growing wet stain on his shirt. Shouldn't he feel something? Surely he shouldn't be this numb. He'd taken a bullet to the chest; he should be screaming in pain by now. But even the familiar burning of meteor rock exposure had faded. He didn't feel anything. He was just…numb.

In incomprehension, he pulled his hand away to stare at the sticky red liquid on his fingertips. "Lois –?" he began softly, meeting her eyes, and in that second, the strange numbness was gone, to be replaced by searing agony that stole his breath away.

"Clark!" Lois cried – or at least she thought she did – as she scrambled next to him and wrapped her arms protectively around his chest, supporting his weight as his body sagged against her. "No, no, please, no!" She barely understood the words that were coming out of her mouth; she hardly recognized her voice as her own.

She had to think. All that time she'd spent on military bases, all that training she'd picked up over the years, she knew she'd learned what to do for a gunshot wound. Except this wasn't just any other training session, and it wasn't any other victim. This was Clark and he'd been shot, and she couldn't seem to pull herself together. Her world no longer allowed room for logical thought. There was simply the terror that robbed her of her ability to think. There was fear, and blood, and the sound of Clark's labored gasps as he fought for air.

Then her hand was captured in his, and at the feeling of flesh against flesh, her gaze flew to his. His eyes – those eyes so beautiful a blue it had been known to take her breath away – were clouded in pain, and suddenly instinct took over and she knew just what to do. A quick glance over her shoulder revealed nothing but shadows; she had no idea where the shooter was or what he was doing. Though it seemed like an eternity had passed since the loud crack of the shot being fired, in actuality, it had been mere seconds; she had to get Clark behind some cover, before the shooter fired again. "It's okay, Clark," she murmured to him, her voice sounding tense and strained as she shifted his weight against her body. "I'm going to get us out of here; you're going to be okay." She'd meant to provide comfort, but the words sounded more like a prayer than a promise.

Staying low to the ground, she threw her weight backwards, trying to pull Clark behind a nearby crate, but he moved barely an inch. He was just too heavy, and though he tried to help, his scrambling legs couldn't seem to find much purchase. "Come on; please, come on," she sobbed, trying again. Inch by arduous inch, she dragged him precious three feet to cover.

A small pool of blood smeared on the ground was the path Lois followed back to her flashlight, which had gone out when it fell to the ground. As quickly as she could, Lois lunged toward it and grabbed it in one shaking fist, fumbling with the switch to turn it on. Rewarded for her efforts with a dim beam of light, Lois almost cried out in relief and hastened back to Clark's side.

Crouching over him, Lois held her breath as she assessed his injury, though it was hard to see much in the unsteady light. Was the bulb really flickering that badly, or was it the force of her trembling that caused the beam to jerk so drastically that she could barely discern what was right in front of her eyes? One gunshot wound to the chest – entrance wound in the back, roughly two inches from his right shoulder. Exit wound in the front, close to his heart. Too close to his heart. His skin was pale, his lips tinged blue; she knew what she was going to find before she even pressed her ear to his chest – that distinctive rattle indicative of a collapsed lung.

His chest was filling up with air, and there wasn't much Lois could do about it. She was hardly a doctor – she wasn't even really a field medic – but what little she had picked up over the years was little good to her now, since she lacked the requisite supplies to deal with the situation. She didn't even really have time, since the sniper was still out there somewhere and she had no idea how long it would be before he found them both.

Of course, thinking of the difficulties she faced did little to diminish the simple fact that she had to get Clark to a hospital immediately. As soon she realized how little time he had left if she didn't do something fast, her hands began to shake so violently that the flashlight became next to useless, so she tossed it aside. Very gently, she laid Clark on his back and tore off the button-up blouse she was wearing over her tank top. She had to apply pressure to his wound; he was losing blood too quickly, and as long as she was careful to avoid letting the cloth get sucked inside the hole, it would forestall some of the air that was seeping into his chest cavity – air that would eventually fill the room his good lung needed to function, causing him to slowly suffocate to death. If he didn't bleed out first.

Worse then both the blood and influx of air, however, was that Clark was losing consciousness. Lois grabbed his hand in a fierce grip and leaned closer to his face, forcing him to meet her eyes. "Clark! Stay with me Clark! Come on, honey, you have to stay with me," she hissed urgently.

Her words must have penetrated, because he offered her a weak smile and mumbled, "Lois…you just…call me…honey?"

"Yes," she sobbed as she felt the strength draining out of him by the second. "I'll call you anything you want me to, just stay with me, okay? I'm going to get you out of here, but you have to stay with me. Can you do that for me? Just don't close your eyes and don't try to talk."

He squeezed her fingers, but his grip was so weak in hers, she barely felt it. His blue eyes seemed to be having trouble focusing, and when he tried to speak she could barely make out the words. "Not…good with…uncomfortable silences," he mumbled, and his eyes fluttered shut.

"No…no…come on, Clark, don't leave me like this! I know you're stronger than this; please, open your eyes! I can't lose you, not now!" she cried, wanting to shake him, but she couldn't remove the pressure she was placing on his wound. Instead, she released his hand and stroked her palm across his damp forehead, down his cheek, to his shoulder. Clutching it tightly, she whimpered through the tears that had started to fall, "P-please Clark, just o-open your eyes. You c-can do this, I kn-know it. J-just don't leave m-me now. I n-need yo-"

Lois's passionate entreaty broke off when a hand came down from behind her and grabbed on a fistful of her hair, pulling her unceremoniously to her feet. She let out a soft cry and a gasp, her eyes watering from the pain as the man accosting her used the hold he had on her hair to yank her head backwards at a painful angle, then he wrapped an unyielding arm around her neck and squeezed.

"Well, well, well, what do we have here?" he demanded in her ear as she gasped for breath and clawed ineffectually at the vice that was cutting off her air. She felt her legs flailing, and she tried to kick backwards to make contact with her attacker's legs, but whoever he was, he knew what he was doing. He was taller than she was and was holding her high enough off the ground that she had to stand on the balls of her feet to find purchase; she simply didn't have the leverage it required to do any major damage. The way he was holding her prevented her from snapping her head back to make contact with his face, and when she managed to get enough presence of mind to stop wasting her efforts in clawing at his arm (as it clearly wasn't doing any good) and tried to elbow him instead, her blows were shrugged off as if they were no more significant that mosquito bites.

She was running out of options faster than she was running out of air, and with the darkness creeping along the edges of her vision, she knew she didn't have much time before she was completely out of both. In a desperate move, Lois grabbed on to the arm around her neck with her left hand and reached up to her attacker's face with her right, raking her fingernails desperately against his skin as soon as she made contact.

That got his attention. He let out a cry of pain and screamed, "You stupid little bitch!" Though she'd been hoping her actions might have prompted him to lighten the grip he had around her neck, he clenched her even tighter and used his free hand to land a few painful blows against her side, instead.

The darkness was creeping in faster now; she didn't have long before she lost consciousness entirely. But she'd managed to hurt him, and if she got him angry enough, she figured he'd want to retaliate more effectually than he could right now. He'd want to beat her with his bare hands, she knew, and to do that, he'd have to release the grip he had around his neck.

Knowing she had only seconds left, Lois tried to rake his face with her nails again, but this time, he was anticipating the move. As he grabbed on to her offending hand and squeezed, he released the grip he had around her neck, as she'd expected. Lois dropped to the ground heavily, but she barely had enough time to fill her lungs with one torturous gulp of air when her attacker twisted the hand he had in his grip behind her back, cruelly yanking it between her shoulder blades with enough force that she felt her right shoulder dislocate.

Lois would have cried out in pain, but there wasn't enough oxygen in her burning lungs to let out more than a tiny yelp, almost a squeak. With gritted teeth, she tried to steel herself against the throbbing agony of her dislocated shoulder; as her father had taught her, sometimes a little pain had to be tolerated until the fight was over, if it meant getting away from her enemy. And she had to get away. When her attacker had hauled her to her feet, she'd dropped the shirt she'd been pressing against Clark's wound to the ground. With nothing staunching the blood or slowing the seepage of air into his chest cavity, she knew he was losing valuable time, and he couldn't possibly have much left.

That was when Lois made a critical mistake. She shot a desperate glance down at the man sprawled out at her feet, and through the tears that were clouding her own vision, she saw his eyes flutter open and try to focus on her. "Clark," she whimpered, unable to do anything more than that, and she saw as realization of her plight crossed his pained features. His face contorted with fury, and she saw him try to sit up and reach out to her, but he was clearly too weak.

Paralyzed with the need to return to his side, Lois had lost valuable time. The sharp yank her attacker gave suddenly to her wounded arm, causing her to whimper anew as fire spread from her shoulder outwards, was somewhat expected. What she didn't expect was the second attacker, materializing out of the shadows and bringing one fist against her face with enough force to snap her head to the side, stealing what remained of her consciousness.

"…not going to be happy," she heard one of them say as consciousness returned slowly.

As she tried to force her eyes open, she heard the other reply, "He wanted me to clean up his mess, didn't he? It's not my fault these two stuck their noses where they didn't belong."

"Whaddya suppose they were doing there?" the first asked from her left, and Lois wished she could see his face. She wondered if he looked as twitchy and anxious as he sounded.

"Maybe old warehouses turn her on; how the hell should I know? The boss can ask her himself when we take her to him." That brought her to in a hurry, though she was careful not to make any noise that would alert her attackers that she was conscious once more. The situation couldn't get much worse, and she didn't want to play her hand until she had some sort of plan. It was clear the two of them worked for someone else, they were going to take her to him, and she had no idea how far away from Clark that journey would take her. One thing was for sure: she doubted they were transporting her for the pleasure of having her company for tea. She had to get away, and fast, before a .45 to the side of the head was her parting gift.

Cracking her eyes open a bit, Lois realized that someone – presumably her primary attacker – had slung her over his shoulder and carried her outside, likely taking her to a vehicle of some sort. Her ribs were sore, as if they were bruised by being struck repeatedly in the last few minutes, but she ignored the throbbeing and tried to concentrate on her surroundings instead. While she tried to get her bearings, she heard him say, "Everything set?"

"Yeah, got it right here," Twitchy replied. "You sure you just want to leave that guy in there like that?"

"He'll be dead soon anyway," the man behind her replied scornfully. Lois wanted to scream, to cry, to kill with her bare hands. She knew they were talking about Clark, and they clearly couldn't care less that her best friend was losing precious life by the second.

Before she could betray herself by making a noise or beating against the mountain's back with her fists, she heard the unmistakable sound of a car door opening and felt the man carrying her shift his weight. Readjusting the hold he had on her, he began to lower her to the ground – presumably as a precursor to loading her into the vehicle – and she finally had her opening. Lois did her best to remain limp for as long as possible, but as soon as she felt the ground under her toes, her eyes flew open and she looked up into her attacker's startled face for a brief second.

In the moment she allowed herself, she got a brief impression of dark eyes and too-bleached-blonde hair, and she saw four parallel scratches down his right cheek – her gift to him. She also saw a faint scar, white against his tanned skin, running in a curve that began at the corner of his left eyebrow and ended just beneath his cheekbone. She didn't waste much time on details, however, since she could see the surprise slowly drain from his expression. If she waited any longer, her only chance at escape would be gone.

He was still holding her at eye level, so Lois whipped her head forward, bringing her temple hard against his nose. She heard the satisfying cracking sound that meant she'd broken something, and he released his hold on her as he let out a sharp cry, his head snapping back.

This time, Lois was ready. Her legs were unsteady beneath her, her lungs still tight enough to make every breath an effort, but she tried to ignore the pain as she staggered forward. Though she knew the smarter move would be to veer to the right and try to lose her attackers among the trees that surrounded the back of the property, she headed straight for the door to the warehouse instead. Nothing was more important right now than getting to Clark. He was mortally injured; his chances of survival decreased with every second she lost.

She ran as fast as she could, but she knew it wasn't going to be fast enough. Her previous exertions had taken their toll. If her attackers really wanted her, they'd have no problem catching up to her, and she harbored no illusions about what Scar would do to her if he got his hands on her again. To her mild amazement, however, they didn't seem to be in pursuit. She heard Twitchy yell something after her and Scar bark something at him, but neither man came after her.

Lois was less than a yard from the door, under the flickering light of the old security lamp, when the warehouse exploded. At first, she couldn't comprehend what had happened. It was as if, in her mind, the light itself lifted her off her feet. Glass exploded all around her, hungry flames reached out to embrace her, and a heat so intense it seared what little oxygen she had in her lungs away as it slammed into her, and still, all her poor, broken mind could focus on at first was how it was curious that she could be so affected by mere light.

Consciousness was once again fleeting, and she knew that battle would be lost even before she hit the ground. She might not survive the landing, she knew, and even if she did, there was going to be no way for her to escape the rubble as it fell around her or the flames when they finally caught up to her. No, she was going to burn to ash with no one the wiser, no one to mourn her, along with the rest of the broken-down and forgotten debris in the warehouse. Just like Clark.

"Clark," she murmured desperately, though she knew there was nothing that could be done for him any longer as she felt the light toss her aside like a discarded ragdoll, an angel fallen from grace.

Her last thought, that her mind was playing tricks on her, making her imagine a large figure blocking out the heat and light of the flames, wrapping her in strong arms tucked protectively around her, slipped away, along with her consciousness.