Chapter Seventeen: One Step Forward….

You did it, Oliver. You kept your promise – you saved her.

He still couldn't quite believe it. After all those long months spent apart, dreaming of this moment but fearing it might never come, here they were, reunited once more. It didn't seem real, and as he stared down at Chloe he half expected to wake up at any moment and find it was all a dream. She was sleeping now, and as he watched her it was as if the months of terror and despair just melted away. She looked just as she'd looked all those times he'd woken up beside her, before this nightmare began; so beautiful it almost took his breath away. Was it too much to hope that now, after all they had suffered, they would be able to recapture some of the magic of those days when their love for each other had been untainted by Luthor's ruthless desire for revenge? He hardly dared to hope that his dreams of their life together would at last become reality…

Four hours had passed since they had returned to Oliver's base. Chloe had fallen asleep the moment her head hit the pillow, exhausted by a combination of the drugs that had been used to sedate her and the exhilaration of escape. Once they'd left the cell in which she'd been held it had been remarkably easy to make their way to the perimeter of the facility, helped no doubt by some well-timed explosions courtesy of his teammates. Roy had been waiting to meet them, and together they had slipped away unseen. It had been a textbook operation, save for one thing:

AC was still missing.

Oliver could still hear the sound of his two friends fighting each other as he carried Chloe down that corridor. Clark, of course, was no longer a friend; his mind warped by Lex's drugs, he had been turned into a weapon of terrifying power. As he'd faced off against Clark in the cell he'd hoped that something of the gentle, warm hearted man he'd come to know and love remained, that maybe Luthor's drugs might have been less effective against someone who was, after all, not human. He was wrong. No trace of the old Clark was left; the person who now occupied his body was cold, a machine who would not hesitate to hurt or kill. To think that he was now under Lex's control – just the thought sent a shudder down Oliver's spine. He could only hope that AC had somehow made it out alive, but with every hour that passed that seemed less and less likely. AC was powerful, but in a straight fight with Clark Oliver knew who he'd put his money on. The grim reality was that his friend had almost certainly been captured – or worse.

Silently, Oliver got to his feet. He paused, waiting to see if his movement had disturbed Chloe. Satisfied that she was still asleep, he turned and slowly made his way out of the room.

Closing the door behind him, Oliver strode down the corridor in the direction of the large, open plan area that acted as his base's center of operations. On entering he found Roy staring at a bank of screens, watching for any sign of AC.

"Anything?" asked Oliver, joining Roy at the control desk.

"Nothing," replied Roy. "His com link is still down. I've tried everything - satellite tracking, local surveillance systems, the works. I can't find him, Oliver – it's as if he disappeared off the face of the earth."

Oliver sighed. "Keep trying," he said. "If anyone can make it out of there, it's AC."

"How's Chloe?"

"She's okay – she's still sleeping, but she's okay."

There was a pause. Roy could sense Oliver's relief at having Chloe back at last, but the concern he felt for AC was etched all over his face. It was as if they had taken one step forward, only then to take two steps back; not only was AC missing, but they now had to deal with the problem of Clark Kent working for Lex. Roy knew all about Clark's background, and about his superhuman strength. As an ally he would have made success against Lex all but certain, but now he was working for the other side that longed for victory had just got a whole lot harder.

"Oliver, Clark Kent," he began, looking up at the other man. "If he's as strong as you say he is, what are we going to do?"

Oliver did not reply, his eyes remaining fixed on the screens in front of him. He appeared lost in thought, the furrows in his brow deepening as he pondered some as yet unspoken dilemma…..

"There is a way to stop Clark," he said at last, breaking the silence. He spoke cautiously, almost as if he were thinking out loud. "There's a meteor rock, Kryptonite – if Clark's exposed to it he loses all his powers."

Roy's spirits lifted a little. "This rock – where do we find it? I've never heard of it before."

"That's just it – I don't know," said Oliver. "The rock is extremely rare. Last time I looked, there were only two known fragments on public display – one in London, the other in Tokyo. Now Lex knows we know about Clark, my guess is he'll take steps to acquire those samples – he won't want to leave any loose ends that could threaten his control over Clark."

"In other words, we're screwed."

Oliver forced a smile. "It's not over yet, Roy – though I gotta tell you, we're in serious trouble."

"Lex has some Kryptonite."

Both men turned, startled by the sound of a female voice.


Oliver's heart leapt at the sight of his lover, who stood framed in the doorway that led to the sleeping quarters. She looked frail, but otherwise okay, even managing to smile weakly at the reaction of the two men.

Oliver rushed towards her. He moved just in time; she began to sway slightly, as if she might fall. Then his powerful arms enveloped her, steadying her and pulling her close. He was her protector once more, and nothing – no-one – would come between them again.

"Why are you out of bed?" he asked, gently admonishing her but at the same time glad to see her up and about once more. "You need rest, Chloe – we can take care of Clark."

"He's evil, Oliver," said Chloe, her fear almost palpable. "Lex has changed him – made him a monster!"

"Sshhh," said Oliver, pulling her head against his chest and trying to calm her. "It's okay, yeah? You're safe now – no one's gonna hurt you."

Gently, he kissed her on the crown of her head. He could feel her heart pumping in her chest, sense her anxiety at the thought of Clark. What had happened to her in that prison? What had Lex and Clark done to her?

"You need to get Lex's kryptonite," continued Chloe, lifting her head and staring up at him. She spoke quietly, but with a great sense of urgency, as if even the slightest delay could lead to disaster. "He keeps it at his facility in Foxville – I overheard him talking to one of his scientists about it once. You need to get it, Oliver – it's our only chance!"

"We will, Chloe, we will – I promise!" replied Oliver, again trying to reassure her. "Now I want you to go back to bed and rest. I need my Watchtower fully fit, yeah? Roy and I will handle this – everything's under control."

"Hey bro, what about me?"

As one, all three turned towards the sound of a familiar voice. AC stood in the doorway at the far side of the room, grinning broadly.

"What the…?" said Oliver, not quite believing what he was seeing.

"You thought they'd got me? Dude, you should know better by now – no one takes the Aquaman!" said AC, walking towards them with a swagger born of a man who had once again cheated fate. He seemed relaxed, brim full of confidence, but his appearance told another story. His costume was ripped and torn, and blood oozed from cuts to his arms and a deep gash to his chest.

"How did you escape Clark?" asked Oliver, his amazement turning to relief.

"It was hard, bro – seriously hard," replied AC, mention of their former teammate causing his face to darken a shade. "He beat me up pretty bad, but I managed to make it to the river – Clark might be strong, but once I got to the water he was nowhere."

"Were you followed?"

"No way – I made sure of that. That's why I've been out of contact for so long – didn't want to get in touch until I was sure I'd shaken them off."

There was a slight pause, the two men staring at each other. Both knew how the other was feeling, their relief tempered with the knowledge that in Clark they now faced an enemy more powerful than they'd ever faced before. But that could wait – now they could just be thankful that they'd all made it back in one piece.

They embraced, hugging tightly and slapping each other on the back.

"It's good to have you back," said Oliver.

"Good to be back, dude."

"I've got a fix on Lex's facility at Foxville," said Roy, staring at one of the computer screens lined up in front of him. "Security looks tight – maybe even tighter than Facility 51."

Chloe and the two men joined him, all four looking up at the satellite image of what they now knew was to be their next target.

"Guess I'd better change my suit," quipped AC, glancing down at his torn tunic. "Don't want Lex thinking I don't care."

"We'll move in six hours," said Oliver. "Once we've got our hands on one of those meteor rocks then we go after Clark."

"Be careful, Oliver," whispered Chloe, clutching his arm tightly. "If I lose you again…."

"You won't," interrupted Oliver, taking her head in his hands and staring deep into her eyes. "We're going to get that kryptonite and then we're going to get Clark and make him better, do you hear? It's going to be okay, Chloe – I promise, everything's going to be okay."

Oliver spoke with such certainty he almost convinced himself, but as he kissed Chloe on the lips he knew that success was very far from certain. This time they'd been lucky, but luck couldn't last forever. Deep down a voice was telling him that next time would be different:

Next time Lex and Clark would be ready for them.

Did you think I'd given up?

It's come close, I have to say - life has been so crazy recently, finding any time to write has been almost impossible. Sorry this chapter is so short, but I thought I had better get something out there, otherwise the story was going to die. Big twists- HUGE twists - lie ahead - I've just got to find the time to write them!

If you are still reading, thank you - your patience is appreciated! Please do post a review if you can - feedback is the incentive I need to get writing again!