Hello, readers, this is your Voice of Doom. My brain is functionally fried by the day I had at work, and the fact that we're getting up BEFORE TEN A.M. (OMFG what were we thinking?!?!?) tomorrow. So please forgive the brevity of the intro.
This week's effort did wind up broken into two chapters. Here is the first. Read, review, enjoy. And thanks, as always, to our beta team and to you, our beloved readers.
ETA: And yes, my little junkies, there will be a second chapter posted later. Once we get home from Christmas shopping (company discount week and at 11 freakin' AM! On three hours sleep! Because both of the Authors have all the intelligence of a brain-damaged Chia pet!) and before we pass out again. Promise!
Lois pulled herself together, sniffling a little but strangely proud that she hadn’t burst into tears. "I’m sorry," she murmured before clearing her throat, brusquely rubbing her cheeks. "I’ve made a mess of everything. God, I’ve ruined their lives and both of yours…"
"Oh, come on now," Richard said, knowing that cajoling would be the only way to break her from this. "That’s pure melodrama there, Lois; it’s not all about you, you know."
"The twins are only upset because they don’t understand," Clark commented quietly. "And you sure didn’t ruin my life; you saved it."
"Didn’t ruin mine, either," Richard said bravely. "I mean, hell, fate has managed to screw with my life, but it’s not your fault and it isn’t ruined. If you wanted to ruin my life, you’d have to let me find out about all of this by catching you two in our bed. That would’ve ruined my life."
Lois and Clark both looked horror-struck by those words. His former fiancée express told him all he needed to know on her thoughts. After a moment, Clark said in a small, pained voice, "Richard, neither of us would ever…"
"I know," Richard said, holding up a hand to stop him. "I know that now. Weird though it is, you both care too much about me to hurt me like that. Freakish, isn’t it? That the guy who finally gets the woman I wanted so much turns out to be a damn good friend of mine? Strangest of all, I can’t manage to be mad at either of you."
Lois could hardly bear to look at him, her heart still wounded that he could think that of them. "I never meant to hurt you," she whispered.
"I know," Richard said soothingly, and stroked her cheek with the back of his hand, conscious of Clark’s presence. "It was just an example, Lois. It’s funny, now that I’ve lost you, I’m even more sure that you care about me than I was the last few months before we broke up. I guess love is blind – but ‘just friends’ can see clearly."
That got a weak chuckle from Lois. "Yeah, well, I wasn’t the best for you," she said, and there was a hint of sadness in her voice. "I’m glad we broke it off before I screwed up your life even more."
Richard looked at Clark then and scowled slightly. "I think she’s catching your guilt complex, ‘hero’. Didn’t we both just tell her she didn’t ruin our lives?" Turning his attention back to Lois, he nudged her arm with his elbow. "C’mon. I know what your problem is – not enough caffeine on the flight. Have some Starbucks and you’ll feel better."
"To go," Clark said, and they both looked at him. "We do need to talk, all three of us, and the airport coffee shop isn’t the best place to do it."
Stanford tapped the stack of papers on Luthor’s desk to align the edges perfectly. That fussy little habit was his way of dealing with anxiety, and he was fairly sure that Luthor knew exactly what it meant, but he couldn’t stop. The bald man waited patiently for him to finish arranging the reports, which he finally placed on Luthor’s desk.
Lex picked them up and glanced through them while Stanford sat there nervously wishing he had something he could do with his hands. Even twiddling a pen was better than just waiting for Lex to finish reading…
"Good progress on deciphering the language," Lex said. Stanford just nodded; a lot of the simpler information stored on the crystals was in English, but most of the technical stuff was in Kryptonian, which used an entirely different alphabet. There was no utility to simply translate the information they wanted; they had to actually learn the language itself. And that was turning out to be quite tedious; only a few members of the research team had any skill in linguistics, so any progress in that area was highly praised.
"Well done on the resonance tests," Lex muttered, paging through summaries. "And the replication studies are coming along rather slowly…"
"The replication team is complaining about the small sample they’ve been allotted," Stanford said. "I tried to explain to them that we simply don’t have enough crystals for destructive testing, but they’re tightly focused."
"And probably worried that I’ll be displeased by their lack of progress," Lex mused. "Tell them I’m willing to be patient – we have a full complement of crystals. Once we know precisely what’s stored on each of them, we’ll be able to commit several of the less-important crystals over to the replication testing team. What about applications?"
"If we can learn how the information was originally encoded, we’ll revolutionize the computer industry," Stanford said. The group seeking applications of the new technology were practically ecstatic, and he tried to make his own report more sober. "We could hold patents on computer monitors and television displays, cell phones, media recording and playback devices of all kinds. That’s just the process for encoding the crystals themselves – we don’t even understand half of the technical information we have access to. But even without the technology described, just knowing how to write such crystals would be extremely profitable. All of that is contingent on learning how all of this was actually done. And that seems to be the last thing the program is set up to show us."
"Reasonable, but annoying," Lex said. "Any progress in circumventing the protocols?"
"No," Stanford sighed in frustration. Certain sections of data were only accessible after they had finished with others. Apparently, the Kryptonians didn’t want their fabled Last Son to learn about any of the dangerous technology until he had proved he had the discipline to learn the language. Certainly they had been unable to access any of the files on weapons or space propulsion technology so far. And no one had managed to get around that system yet.
"I suppose we’ll have to find a few linguistics experts," Luthor mused. They discussed a few other things until Lex finally asked, "And these last pages … what’s this about disciplinary problems?"
This particular situation made Stanford’s gut ache, and he longed for the peace and quiet of his lab and a few Tums. "Well, one of the chemists we brought in got into a fight with a couple of the security guys."
"A chemist?" Lex’s eyebrows rose. "And why was he fighting with the security staff?"
"She," Stanford corrected. "Mercedes Graves. And I’m fairly certain the security people started the fight. Although they probably weren’t expecting one. Look at her profile."
Lex perused it, his expression growing more intrigued the more he read. "Very interesting. Leader in her field, convicted of illegally testing certain chemical compounds on human subjects without their knowledge or consent, blackballed by every major university and pharmaceuticals company in the United States… Very interesting. And this photograph is current?"
Stanford knew which one he was looking at. It showed a delicate-featured blonde, somewhere in her late twenties, quite pretty in an aloof way. "Yes, that shot’s accurate," he said. The security staff was still mostly culled from violent offenders recently released from prison and needing a job. A girl like Mercy seemed like a target to them.
"What was the outcome?" Lex asked.
"One of the two men is dead," Stanford reported. "The other will probably never walk again. She was unarmed, Mr. Luthor. Apparently she’s a highly-trained martial artist."
"Oh, now that is intriguing," Lex said absently. "What have you done with her?"
"She’s sequestered," Stanford said. "I didn’t know what you wanted to do about her…"
"Send her in," Lex said. "I need someone to oversee the security boys, someone who won’t get involved in all of the macho power-playing nonsense. If she can kill or maim two of them, they’ll have to respect her."
"Sir…" Stanford began, but Lex cut him off.
"Send her in," he said. "She’s captured my interest."
"Of course, Mr. Luthor," Stanford said.
Lois bit her bottom lip and glanced into the backseat of her car for what felt like the hundredth time. The two carriers sitting there weren’t moving … either the weasel and the lizard had gone to sleep, or her worst fear had come true, and one or both of them were out of the cage and getting ready to attack her.
The afternoon sun slanted through the windshield, making her wince. She had been up late the previous night, packing… And what fun that had been. The drive back from the airport yesterday had been incredibly awkward, just being in the relatively small car with Richard and Clark. They’d talked while they drove, filling Richard in on the twins’ emerging powers and their vanishing allergies. The conversation had gotten more serious as they discussed who would get Jason and Kala on which holidays, how to cope with the current situation, and how they would further reassure the twins that this change in their lives wasn’t as bad as it seemed.
Richard had been the first to bring up the office. He hadn’t said anything to anyone – not difficult, given the workload he’d taken on – but rumors were already flying. Several conversations had stopped abruptly when Richard walked into the room, a sure sign that he and Lois were being discussed. So far, he’d been absolutely silent on the topic of his former fiancée’s whereabouts, simply saying that she was out of town recuperating.
They’d started to plan what they would say to their coworkers – most of whom had no idea that Lois and Richard had broken up, much less that Lois and Clark were now an item – but got sidetracked when they arrived at the Riverside house. The first thing Lois saw walking through the doors was a stack of cardboard boxes, and she turned to Richard with surprise and hurt in her eyes.
Even now, a day later, Lois’ lips tightened at the memory. They hadn’t quite argued, but she and Richard both wanted the other to keep the house. Richard was adamant that she needed the space for the kids; Lois was just as insistent that Richard deserved the place in the suburbs with the convenient dock built just for his seaplane. In the end, Clark had ventured his own opinion, noting that neither of them seemed comfortable in the house anymore – and frankly, neither was he.
That gave Richard and Lois enough leeway to admit he was right – neither of them wanted to live with the ghosts of their past. Besides, Lois had always been a city girl; she’d moved to the ‘burbs only because Richard wanted to. He had mostly finished packing up and moving his belongings out; she agreed to do the same, leaving only the items necessary to live there day to day. Lois and the kids would live there while they found a realtor and put the house on the market.
Another brief debate had ensued over who would get the larger share of the equity in the house; Richard insisted that Lois take sixty percent, because she would need it more while searching for an apartment for herself and the twins. She, in turn, reminded him that he had put more money into the original down payment, and that she would also have Clark’s income to consider when apartment-hunting. Richard countered that he might very well have a second income, too, and Lana had more money than any of them. Clark had finally groaned in frustration and told them to split it fifty-fifty and please stop squabbling so politely!
In shared laughter, Richard had departed, hugging Lois once more and swatting Clark on the shoulder in a friendly manner. Lois had invited Clark to stay for dinner and to help her pack the heavier stuff, which he readily agreed to. He’d gone out for take-out while Lois fed the twins’ pets – the animals seemed agitated with their owners gone so long.
Seeing Captain Jack pressing his nose hard against the bars of his cage, then run in frantic circles, Lois had decided on her present course of action: bringing the pets to her mother’s house as a peace offering to the twins. She had decided, with input from Richard and Clark, to let the twins stay at Ella’s for now. Time was the best cure for them, and although it set a bad precedent to give them their way as Richard and Clark had, Lois doubted a situation like this would occur again. Jason had never shown such anger and defiance in the previous six years of his life, and she had no reason to think that he would decide ‘have a tantrum and run to Nana’s’ was a good tactic in the future. Even if he did, well, he got his determination from Lois herself – she could out-stubborn him and Kala both if necessary.
She parked at her mother’s house and got out of the car warily, alert for a darting black-furred ferret or the sudden lash of a green lizard tail. Gazeera and Captain Jack seemed to be resting quietly in their travel cages, but Lois took no chances, double-checking the latches before she carried them up to the front door.
Ella met her there, taking Captain Jack’s carrier. "Hello, sweetheart," she said, looking at Lois curiously.
"Hi, Momma," Lois replied, making her expression bland. She still hadn’t told her mother where she’d been the last few days; the last time they’d spoken before today had been a hurried phone call from the airport as Lois was on her way to Kansas. She didn’t know what to tell Ella; there seemed no easy way to explain her actions of late, especially not when Ella knew that the twins’ father was Superman, but didn’t know that Superman and Clark Kent were the same person.
Oh, this is going to be a huge headache,Lois thought, seeing the rest of her life as a series of half-truths and evasions to keep his secret. And to have to lie to her mother… Oh well, Lois, suck it up and deal. This is the price you have to pay for having your dream come true.
They set the cages down in the utility room, Lois quickly hooking up Gazeera’s heat lamp and daylight-simulating light bulb. Ella opened Captain Jack’s cage to give him some food, accidentally letting him out and yelping in surprise when he tried to run up the leg of her slacks and then decided to try squeezing under the door instead. "Get back here, you hairy little psycho," Lois growled, grabbing the ferret by the back of the neck and tossing him back into the travel cage.
Watching her, Ella arched an eyebrow and said, "The way you take care of pets is supposed to be an indication of your parenting skills. Congratulations, Lois, at least your children are still alive."
"My cat wasn’t insane," Lois muttered. "Elroy and I did perfectly fine for two years before my landlord found him. Now he’s living the fat life at Lucy’s."
"Don’t you mean the good life?" Ella asked mildly.
"No, the fat life," Lois said. "I know how to speak even if I can’t spell worth a … darn. The last time I saw my cat, Lucy was hand-feeding him salmon. Whenever he lays down, he just kinda spreads into a puddle of greasy tabby-striped fur."
Ella laughed, shaking her head. "I knew you should’ve named him Garfield."
Lois poked a bit of kale into Gazeera’s cage and stood up, facing her mother seriously. "Just how mad are they, Momma?" She asked the question knowing that she was dreading the answer.
The older woman sighed. "They’re barely speaking to me, and they didn’t say a word to Richard when he dropped them off. By the way, are you planning to tell me what exactly is going on? Richard gave me some story about the twins being upset because they found out he wouldn’t be living with you anymore. He also said he was the one who drove them over because they were angrier at you than at him." Ella crossed her arms and looked at Lois steadily, waiting for an explanation.
Unfortunately, Lois had no plans to give her one. "Well, that’s basically it," she said with a sigh, trying to be casual.
Ella’s white brow crept a little higher, but she knew her daughter and recognized the Lane stubbornness. "I suppose I can wait," she said after a moment of silence. "You do realize I’ll find out eventually, don’t you? I am your mother, and you’ve never kept a secret from me for long."
"Yes, mother," Lois muttered as she rolled her eyes. "I know, mother. Give me some time to get everything sorted out, mother."
"So, how long are Jason and Kala going to be staying with me?" Ella said. "The rest of the week?"
"Probably," was Lois’ somewhat embarrassed reply. "Unless they cool off and decide they want to come home before Thanksgiving."
"They’re your kids," Ella said. "I doubt it. But you are planning to be here for Thanksgiving, right?"
"Of course, Momma," Lois sighed. "Even if my own children aren’t talking to me, I’d come to see you and Lucy and Ron and their brood."
"That’s my girl," Ella said.
Lois had to summon all her courage to go and see the twins. Jason just glared at her, pouting, when she told him she’d brought Gazeera, but Kala brightened when Lois said she’d brought the weasel, too. Neither of them spoke to her, though Kala looked longingly at her mother, and they wouldn’t let go of each other’s hands, either. That disturbed Lois; she had only seen them cling to each other like that in moments of extreme stress. It pained her to think that her presence upset them so much, and she cut the visit short, heading home to finish packing. Clark would be there, probably with dinner, and his presence would soothe the ache in her heart at leaving the twins behind, however temporarily.
It had been a long and exhausting day, despite their having spent it together. Pushing back several fallen tendrils of hair, Lois armed sweat off her brow and grumbled as she surveyed their dawn-to-dusk project while moving to snatch up the last of the boxes from her study. Almost immediately, she started to list to the left and struggle to hold onto her burden, surprised at its weight. "Dammit. I knew I shouldn’t have packed this box so heavy…"
Clark reached around her and easily lifted the large box of books. In spite of feeling dusty and annoyed and tired and generally unattractive, his arm brushing hers made the hair at the nape of her neck rise. As had been the case ever since she had seen his eyes that night just over a week ago when she had gone into his arms on the front porch of his mother’s Kansas farmhouse, the attraction was now undeniably electric. Closing her eyes, Lois growled in frustration before sighing, wrapping her arms around her shoulders. She couldn’t help shivering just a little.
"Are you cold?" Clark asked solicitously, having noticed the gesture. "We can turn up the heat…" And realizing what he’d said, he blushed.
My God, how can he be so immune to it? Why isn’t it killing him like this? "No, I’m not cold, Kal-El. Far from it," she replied under her breath as she tried to look away and pin her attention on something else. Oh, that’s right. He’s made himself an expert at denial, whereas you’ve always been a glutton. Grow up, Lane.
"Then why…" Clark was saying, but stopped in mid-sentence when she turned a trying-to-be-furious glare on him, and took in the heat in her glance. "Sorry. I didn’t mean to … well. You know."
Lois sighed again, a mix of melancholy and amusement in her tone. "I know," she replied softly. Other than a few heated kisses stolen at the Kent farm while Mrs. Kent’s back had been turned and the twins were keeping her busy, they hadn’t been close to each other since that night in the hotel, just before Luthor trapped her on the yacht, and she had remembered all over again just how much she had missed him. Missed his arms around her badly enough for that faint contact to ignite her nerves and make her shiver with sudden craving a thousand times worse than quitting cigarettes.
He set the box down and came to her, pulling her close and wrapping her up in the warmth of his embrace. His cheek rested against her pulled-up hair, and Lois sighed and leaned against him, forgetting then that they had been packing and moving stuff around for the last several hours, forgetting the low ache in her back and the dust smeared on her forehead. For a moment, the entire world narrowed down to the two of them.
But when her heart began to beat faster, and she felt his breathing hasten, she pulled away gently. They had both been trying to be good, to not jump back into this as boldly as they had the first time, but she would never have dreamed it would be so difficult. "We said we were going to behave, and I promised you that I wouldn’t try to tempt you on it," Lois murmured with a clear tone of regret. "Besides, I’m absolutely filthy. I don’t know how you can even stand being that close."
"You are not filthy," he argued, trailing his fingertips down her spine. Unfortunately, it only made Lois aware of the sweat sticking her shirt to her back, and she made a disgusted noise as she pulled away. Even now, it bothered her to look even slightly unattractive around him.
"Yuck, I can’t stand this anymore," she groused, brushing bits of cardboard off her jeans and pulling down her ponytail. Shaking out the disarrayed locks, she made a face. "Okay, that’s it; I’m going for a shower. Enough moving stuff for one day. If I have to deal with myself a minute longer… Eww, gross."
Clark let her go only reluctantly. "I guess I’ll go, then."
She had turned and started toward the stairs when his words stopped her. It hadn’t even occurred to her that he wouldn’t stay with her, something she had somehow foolishly taken for granted. It had just felt so natural today to have him here. They had been starting to pack up the house for the last two days and he had gone home alone last night, despite her unspoken want of his presence. What had made her think tonight was any different? Nevertheless, her hazel eyes were hurt when she met his gaze again. "No, Kal-El … it’s not even dark yet. I mean, you haven’t been over here just as my personal box packer. Just because we’re done working doesn’t mean that I’m banishing you. I mean, we could…"
"Lois… I shouldn’t stay. Not here." Richard’s voice was in his mind, and this was Richard’s house.
Her dark brow furrowed. This house had seemed like home to her for the longest time, except for now. Without the twins… At least it gave Ella precious time with her grandchildren; Lex’s scheme had made her all the more in need of keeping them in her sight. The only problem was, it left Lois feeling more alone than she had been since their birth. Things were quiet. Too quiet.
Much as she hated to admit this weakness, Lois couldn’t stop herself. "Please … I didn’t sleep at all last night. The house seems so different when I’m the only one in it, so big – even Gazeera and Captain Jack are at my mom’s tonight. I think I’ve gotten out of the habit of being content alone." Her expression was faintly wheedling, "Please? Just stay with me for a little while longer? I’ll most likely only be up an hour or so more, after a day like today. And we said we wanted to get a start on the garage tomorrow. I’ll be sure to drop out if you’re here with me."
"Well…" The temptation was terrible, but Clark took a deep breath and reminded himself of Martha’s stern looks whenever they had been too familiar in her presence. "I’ll stay until you fall asleep, okay?"
Lois smiled brightly at him then, that rare open smile that made his heart ache just as strongly as it had in the old days, and kissed his cheek gently. "Thanks, love. I’ll be in and out before you know it. And you know I always feel safer with you around."
"Wonder why," he teased, and she smirked over her shoulder at him as she headed upstairs to shower, one sardonic eyebrow raised at him.
Clark paced the rooms, feeling out of place. Upstairs, water was running, and his mind treacherously presented him with images of Lois nude, her hair sleeked by the shower, water running down of the curves of shoulders, breasts, hips, thighs… He shook his head mutely, trying not to think about it. Stop it, he told himself sternly, moving through the darkened dining room; it had been one of the first rooms packed, a stack of boxes along one wall. Stop thinking like this. It’s only torturing the both of you. If you really love her, if this is more than lust – and we both know it is – we should be able to wait.
But most of him didn’t want to wait; most of his mind and heart wanted to simply head upstairs and let this exquisite tension between them have its natural end. Clark could envision it all too easily; Lois probably wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the doorway for more than a moment, and she would most likely welcome him with open arms, soaking his shirt with the hot water or just peeling it off…
In his pacing, his eye happened to chance on the edge of a silver picture frame sticking out of one of the boxes. Clark’s mouth turned down; he knew that the photo within the frame was of Richard. It had been one of the first packed, Lois trying to get Richard’s face off the walls before she began to imagine an accusatory expression. But it was now a reminder of why he shouldn’t be thinking like this, not now. Not here, in Richard’s house. Just stop it.
But oh, the thought of her, turning with that slow smile and reaching out to him, pulling him into the shower and kissing him hard, the sweet taste of her lips and her body pressed to his… No, I can’t think like this, I just need to quit before I do something insane...
Can I be dreaming once again?
I’m reaching helpless
You’re leading deeper
Through this maze
I’m not afraid
I’m lost in you
Everywhere I run
I’m finding something new
I’m lost in you
Something I can’t fight
I cannot escape
I can spend my whole life
Lost in you…