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By LastScorpion

Disclaimer: I don't own any of these characters. "Smallville" is the property of DC Comics, the WB, Gough & Millar, Tollin & Robbins, and possibly some other people I'm missing -- not me. Faith belongs to Joss Whedon or Mutant Enemy or the WB or UPN. This is all just for fun; please don't sue.

Sequel to all those weird domestic Clexis fics I keep doing, and "A Man's Got to Know his Limitations."

Many thanks to TeenyGozer, TheDieHard, and PepperJackCandy for beta-reading. Without them, this fic wouldn't make a lick of sense. All remaining problems are strictly my own.

The crash of reinforced, high-lead-content plate glass reverberated all through the LexCorp offices, located more than two hundred feet above the Metropolis city streets. Employees of less than two and a half years' standing had never heard anything of the kind; others instantly went on alert, reaching for weapons that most no longer carried. Lex Luthor leapt to his feet, startled. He retained the presence of mind to grab Mercy's raised revolver and get her to replace it in her lead-lined holster before Clark burst into the room.

Clark paid Mercy no attention at all, but he moved at only a fast Earth-normal around her. "Algeria!" he declared, handing Lex two blanket-wrapped babies and two wiggly toddlers.

"Algeria?" Lex asked, accepting possession of his children, but Clark was already on his way out. Lex tried to fob the babies off on Mercy so he could chase after Clark, but she was having none of it, and by the time he untangled Larry and Louis from around his knees, and made it out to the corridor with the broken window, Clark was long gone.

"But Lois is in Algeria," he protested to the open twentieth-story air.

Jon glared at him. Laura put her fingers in her mouth. Larry picked up a big piece of glass, and Lex bundled both babies into one arm and stooped and took it away from him.

"Mercy," Lex directed, "get this cleaned up, and let's find out what's going on in Algeria."

Mercy matter-of-factly summoned a cleaning crew, and Lex snagged Louis back from the brink of the broken window. He herded the elder two into the inner office, and by the time they got to Charity's desk, she had CNN on. The anchor was talking about a series of murders in California, but the crawl confirmed Lex's fears.

"Daily Planet foreign correspondent Lois Lane kidnapped in Algeria. Government sources confident her disappearance will be solved."

Lex found that he was sitting on the reception-area sofa. He didn't remember sitting down.

Larry and Mercy were staring at him with identical expressions of dubious concern. It was freaky. Laura and Jon were in his lap, also looking at him -- where was Louis? Climbing the ficus by the main entryway.

"Louis! Get down from there!" Lex yelled, and the startled child obeyed. Lex was always a little surprised when the kids did what he told them. "C'mere," he added, and Louis came over and joined them on the couch. Larry climbed up with them all as well, without being told.

Somehow, it was easier for Lex to think with his children all physically in contact with him like this. It was weird how he'd never known he needed this until he had it.

"Charity," he instructed, "get Pete Ross on the phone."

Jimmy was singularly uninformative. He described the men who'd assaulted him and Lois ten hours before, but it wasn't a lot to go on. He hadn't even seen which direction they went when they left, due to being unconscious at the time.

Clark really hated the way humans were so vulnerable to head injuries, but this time he almost had to be grateful, in a way. At least Jimmy didn't bother him with a lot of questions about how he'd gotten there so fast.

"I'm sorry, CK," the young man whispered, paler than ever behind his freckles. "There were a lot of them, and we couldn't get away. They beat me up, and left me there, and took Ms. Lane with them."

"It's okay, Jimmy," Clark said, probably unconvincingly. "You just rest. I'll find her." God, he had to.

Jimmy nodded a little, grimaced, and closed his eyes. Clark hated to leave him, but at least he should be safe there in the clean state-run hospital at Algiers, and that was a lot more than could be said for Lois.

Clark was grateful for the cover of darkness. This looked like a job for Superman.

"Yes, I realize exactly what time it is in Algeria. Mr. President, I'll be brief. This is Lex Luthor."

The name produced a satisfyingly stunned silence at the other end of the line.

Lex continued in the low, venomous voice he hadn't used for almost thirty months. "Roughly ten hours ago you allowed my wife to be taken captive in your country. It is not a coincidence that, since then, the Algerian dinar has declined ten percent in value on the world markets. Please keep in mind that I can do much worse."

Lex hung up without another word.

"Mercy," he said, staring out across Metropolis, "get there. Take the armed jet, and a good team, and get to Algiers. Let me know when you arrive."

"Yes, sir," she said, and vanished.

Now Clark knew where Lois had been when she was captured. He knew how long ago it had been. He knew the geography of this world by heart, and he knew Lois's skeleton. If she was still in one piece, and not behind lead, it was only a matter of time until he found her. Spiraling out from the place Jimmy had been found, Clark kept his vision on x-ray and wide-beam. He flew at a low enough altitude to avoid any trouble with aircraft. Night-birds and any possible bats would just have to take their chances.

He'd find her. (Unless she'd already been murdered and dismembered, or they somehow knew about him and had her stashed in a lead box, or she'd been taken by people who were more than they seemed -- magicians or extra-terrestrials or....)

He'd find her. He had to.

God only knew what Lex would do if he didn't.

When Lois woke up, she knew right away that she was in real trouble. The headache was pretty much par for the course, but the weird swimming feeling in her stomach and the horrible, painful brightness of the room's one pathetic little oil lamp implied that she might be really hurt this time.

She must have made a noise or something, because the goon who was watching her noticed immediately that she was awake. He yelled something, in a language she didn't understand, and got a reply from someone who was too far away for her to see. He came over and grabbed her shoulder and hauled her to her feet. That's when she noticed her hands were bound behind her with scratchy rope. Big black splotches swam before her eyes. She stumbled as the goon pulled her along, but his painful grip on her shoulder didn't let her fall, even when she threw up. He just laughed unpleasantly at her and continued to pull her along.

Yeah. She was in real trouble, all right.

Even so, there were things to find out. It wasn't like asking questions could make anything worse, was it?

"Who are you?" she demanded. No answer. "What do you want with me?" Okay, tactically a bad choice, Mrs. Luthor, but her jailer only laughed again. "What's going on?" she demanded desperately, just as they got to a large rough-hewn stone chamber, lit only by a big smoky fire burning in the middle of the packed-earth floor.

Two bearded men in robes were adding things to the fire - the smoke's thickness and smell changed with each addition. One of them said something to Lois's fatigues-clad captor. It probably meant, "Shut her up," because the goon casually backhanded her across the mouth, then gave her a little shove that sent her crashing to the floor.

Lois stayed down, cautiously probing for loosened teeth and keeping her eyes open for a way out. There didn't really seem to be one.

The dimly lit edges of the room were stacked with boxes, which might have concealed doorways, she supposed. It wasn't easy to concentrate on her captors' movements, and she found herself staring for long empty moments at the boxes, and missing entirely what the men might be doing. After one of those gaps, she realized that the crate that had her mesmerized bore a LexCorp logo, under its coating of grime and dust.

That couldn't be good.

Her battered brain might be making lousy connections, but Lois hearkened back to one of the last investigations she'd been working with Clark, years ago, before the Extra-Terror, before everything. It had involved LexCorp advanced munitions disappearing from the military's custody almost immediately after delivery. She and Clark had been working the angle that LexCorp had stolen them back somehow. She'd never asked Lex about it, at least not since Clark had tangled them all up together as an alien's ideal happy family. Her one shouted pre-Extra-Terror press conference question on the topic had been emphatically ignored.

It sure looked as if that set of weapons hadn't been one of Lex's under-the-counter acquisitions. Of course, he'd probably done the same thing without even being suspected plenty of times -- Hey! Not Lex's Fault! She was almost, a little bit, ashamed of herself for still thinking the worst of him as a kind of a default.

It was hard to stay alert in the murky atmosphere. Her guard sat on the floor three or four feet away, with his back to the stone wall and his rifle across his knees. He looked bored. The robed men, busy with their obscure fire ritual, ignored him.

After a while, two other rifle-toting men in fatigues came in, carrying yet another crate. This one didn't have any LexCorp markings. They watched the fire-rigmarole for a minute; then the younger of the two came over and sat down next to the first thug, greeting him in Arabic. Lois had studied Arabic.

"How are they doing?"

"Who can say?"

"What need did they have for this Western strumpet?"

"Again, who can say? Perhaps they will sacrifice her to their heathen gods."

"There is a great stir in the city. Her Western masters make many threats." For all his bravado while dragging and pushing a woman around, her guard sounded nervous.

"Their threats are nothing. When we achieve our goal, no one will remember them."

Lois had come to Algeria to report on the current regime's opening of the borders. There was a new openness; the tourist trade was supposed to be allowed to resume; out with the old in with the new, etc. She'd been hoping there would be some real news she could dig up along the way.

She really should be more careful what she wished for.

The robed men seemed to have come to some sort of stopping-point in their ritual. One began to tidy away all their weird little objects into a series of intricately-knotted leather bags, and the other went over and spoke to the older of the two new arrivals, who had been watching their ceremony attentively. Again, the language was one Lois had never heard. The chief gun-carrier gestured to the younger one, sitting next to Lois's guard. He got up and went to help him open the new crate that they'd brought.

They took out some sort of a gun. Lois had spent enough time in Superman's orbit to recognize lead when she saw it. The shaman or whatever exclaimed excitedly and incomprehensibly over the weapon. It hummed when he threw the awkward-looking switch on the top. When he fired it out the glassless window into the frigid desert night, Lois recognized the green color of the beam, too.


Kryptonite ray-gun.

It had been a real shit-hole of a day.

Not that Lex could say that. There were little ears, and little everything else, and he couldn't concentrate properly on what exactly he was going to do to the godsforsaken country of Algeria with all the crying and feeding and changing and putting-down-for-naps that kept going on!

At least Mercy and the team had gotten underway, and had finally arrived in Algiers and called in. They'd find her, them, her. Damn it!

The day had been bad enough. At least there was always business to do: LexCorp and Metropolis city government and elaborate plans to destroy the economy of Algeria if they didn't give him back Lois and Clark. The children were a distraction, an interruption, but he almost needed that. It would be so easy to descend into destruction, to just launch those vicious plans instead of giving Clark and Mercy and the Algerian president time to set the world right again.

It was surprising how many of the hard, business-like women in his office loved babies and were really good with them. At the end of the business day, though, they all left.

Pete called and updated him on the city business he'd skipped in favor of staying at LexCorp and monitoring the situation all day. He said not to worry; they both knew Clark would save the day.

Pete had never seen Clark near death. Pete's wife didn't run around the most dangerous parts of the world without giving a single God damned thought to her own safety. Pete was an idiot, a lucky idiot.

Lex didn't say any of that to him. Instead he thanked his Assistant Mayor for filling in so well, and Pete laughed and said that was what he was there for, and Lex very virtuously did not put out a hit on him after hanging up.

During her long and varied career, Lois had never had much patience with inactivity. Before she'd teamed up with Clark, she'd never been successful at a stakeout, for instance.

However, there was no denying that just staying still had its good points when you were suffering from a head injury, and your thuggish jailers showed no reluctance to clean your damn clock.

The two mystic chant guys got up and looked out the window. They seemed to be consulting with each other, in their weird language that Lois had never heard before. She lay still, just as she had fallen the last time they'd pushed her down, and hoped that somebody would say something soon in a language she could understand. Finally somebody did.

"Is this what we have been waiting for?" asked one clearly bored soldier to the group in general, when the robed cultists started gesturing intricately and singing gibberish in unison to the stars.

"What do you care? We have been paid already," answered the older-looking man, also in Arabic. "They are lunatics, but their money is good, and we would never have obtained the bomb without their help."

Bomb? Oh, shit.

The Sahara Desert could be a sacred and a peaceful place.

Superman used to go there, sometimes. When a bad night in Metropolis had gone on until three or four a.m., and there was no real point in going home to bed before getting up for work in the morning, sometimes he used to zip over to North Africa and spend a half-hour or so in the purest sunlight known to man.

He'd never spent much time there at night. Its darkness was a pure thing, too, punctuated by half of space's stars. The solitude, the stillness, the stars were almost enough to make Clark think that the situation wasn't so dire, that he'd find Lois soon and everything would be okay.

Then some sort of bright, evil, kryptonite-colored beam shot up into the night sky, maybe fifty miles to the west.


They wouldn't go to sleep. The smaller three wouldn't quit crying.

Lex was about ready to join them.

They'd never had a nanny -- the potential for disaster was just too damn high. Lex knew how to make people keep their mouths shut about what they'd seen, but even the smallest possible chance that his children might be exposed as aliens or freaks had always been much too large. Besides, Clark loved all the little details of caring for their offspring, and Lois handled them beautifully, too, and Carrie and Sherry Ross had always been available for babysitting when they really needed them, until they got accepted into college on two separate coasts, and damn it all to hell that was Pete's fault, too!

The babies cried and cried.

"Screw ethics!" Lex snarled to the only other member of the species homo sapiens present, "THIS is why I should have just let that damned alien Rest In Peace!"

Louis promptly burst into tears, like the rest.

Lex could have screamed in frustration, but Luthors don't. (Too bad the children had not yet internalized that notion.) He sucked at taking care of people. He'd always known it. Even if Lois and Clark ever returned -- WHEN Lois and Clark returned, they'd be lucky to not find the five of them DEAD!

Yeah, he thought with a shiver, that'd teach 'em to run off to Africa and never be seen again. Okay, that thought was not sane. He had to pull himself together. They were only babies. They were babies, and they were crying, and it had to STOP, in a sane and completely non-lethal way. They were babies, and they were Luthors (well, except for Laura technically, but she was Lois and Clark's and they were his, so she was his, too) and hadn't he read something somewhere once about crying babies and cars? Driving certainly always made him feel better.

The Mercedes had four child safety car seats installed. Of course, they weren't supposed to be used in the front passenger seat, but Larry was invulnerable anyway.

Lex gathered up his crying children (and how the fuck did Clark always manage to carry them all so damn easily?) and headed down to the garage.

The lunatics began stoking their fire again. Their song rose higher.

"Drag the woman forward," directed the chief guard. The other two brought her to him and forced her to kneel. They were close enough to the smoky, oddly-colored fire that Lois could feel its scorching heat on her face.

It was the first time one of her captors had deigned to say something to her. He prodded her with his gun barrel. "Call for help," he said in thickly-accented English.

Lois looked up at him with murder in her eyes. "Fuck off."

He clubbed her in the back with the gun-butt, possibly cracking a rib. It took everything she had to just grunt instead of screaming. "You are Lois Lane. Call out 'Superman help.'"

Lois laughed, a little gaspingly, but she was proud to be able to laugh at all. "Superman's dead, buddy. I'm Mrs. Lex Luthor now."

The guy hit her again. This time she wasn't able to keep from yelling, and there wasn't any doubt about her collarbone. It was definitely broken. She sprawled on the floor, and they left her there. "Superman help," he repeated.

Lois just breathed hard. She took what pleasure she could in the fact that the other two guards looked uneasy. They didn't seem the type to object to beating up a woman, so she hoped it was the words 'Mrs. Lex Luthor' that had made them nervous.

The head goon deliberately stood on her shoulder, the one with the broken collarbone, and lined up his gun-butt carefully. "I break your legs now. You say, 'Superman help.'"

She probably said it. It was hard to tell. The mercenaries dragged her back to her cell, but not until their robed buddies had started something that looked a hell of a lot (in Lois's admittedly limited experience) like a spell of summoning. Through the tears in her eyes, Lois made sure to observe everything that she could. She was a reporter. There was always the chance that she'd still get a chance to tell the tale.

The priests or cultists or wizards or whatever they were had formed their circle and quenched their fire with weird foul-smelling herbs while Lois had been having her discussion with the chief thug. As they dragged her out, she got the chance to see a thing, a creature, a man she was afraid she recognized, begin forming itself in the middle of the hazy glow the embers cast.

Shit, shit, shit.


Lex wasn't surprised, not really, when he found himself at his mother's grave.

The sun had been down for more than an hour. On a normal day, he would have walked upstairs from his LexCorp office, or driven the Mercedes over from City Hall and taken the private elevator up to the penthouse. Clark would have settled the farm for the night and tucked the children into their blankets, and rocketed them all into the city. Lex would walk in the door, and there would be Larry and Louis eating Cheerios in their high chairs while Clark nursed a freshly washed Jon and Laura to sleep in the rocking chair. Lois would breeze in a few minutes after Lex got home, with Chinese food and funny stories. The night would end with all three of them in the big bed, warm and at home in a way that Lex had never been before he'd had them. They'd love each other and sleep, and Lex would awaken in the morning (even if the night happened to bring bad dreams) centered and replenished, and utterly capable of facing anything that the world saw fit to throw at him the next day.

This cold marble monument, with Lillian's tall marker and Julian's tiny one, Lionel's headstone just visible far off across the cemetery, was the last place he'd felt at home before Smallville. Without Clark and Lois, it might be the only place he'd ever feel at home again.

The babies weren't wailing any more; that was something. Without Clark, he'd had to give them formula, which they seemed to hate. Laura hadn't even consumed a full ounce, and he was worried about her. There was more formula in his briefcase; he'd try again later, he guessed.

He sat on the steps in front of Mom's monument, two babies sniffling and hiccuping in his lap, and couldn't stand the thought that this might be it, forevermore. No Clark, no Lois, and these little kids that he was responsible for but in no way capable of making happy. "What am I going to do?" he whispered. No one answered.

Larry and Louis ran around for a while. He probably ought to call them back; it wasn't like an urban cemetery after dark was the perfect child safe environment. Sure enough, Louis tripped and fell on the marble steps, and came up howling with a bloody nose. Larry started bawling, too, apparently just in solidarity with his brother, and that set the babies off again. Lex swore, long and colorfully, and rushed to catch his eldest before he could crash into something else. He snagged the boy and struggled with him, trying to hold him still enough to see what the damage was and get the blood cleaned away with a wipe.

"Hold it right there!"

Lex snarled and looked up.

A dark-haired woman was pointing a crossbow at him? What the hell?

"Toss the case over here, nice and easy. And let the little kid go."

Splendid. Held up at his mother's tomb. This day just couldn't get any fucking better. Still, this woman had the drop on him. He'd have to play along, making sure only that his children weren't hurt, and then hunt down and destroy the thief later. He kicked his briefcase towards the interloper.

She stooped and picked it up without taking her eyes or her aim off of him, turned it upside down and dumped the contents. She stepped back so she could keep her attention on him while still seeing what had fallen out of the case.

"No knives...," she muttered. "Baby wipes, diapers, formula?" The woman lowered her aim a little. "What, you're just out for an evening stroll with the family?"

Knives? What the fuck? "What the fuck do you think you're doing here?" Lex challenged, the whole day's frustration plain in his voice. Louis chose this moment to rub his snot- and blood-covered face against Lex's pants leg. Lex looked at him in mingled fondness and disgust, and giving up the suit as lost, picked him up. Louis put his tired head on Lex's shoulder and continued to cry.

The woman gave one short snort of laughter. "Man. Sorry. Mosta' the time when you catch a guy in a zillion dollar suit with, you know, screaming babies in a graveyard at night, he's sacrificin' 'em to something gross. My mistake."

Jon and Laura, left lying on the cold stone step where Lex had set them, started really wailing, again. Lex turned his back on the armed woman at the sound (never a good idea), and went back to them. Larry followed him. He didn't really have enough hands for all of them; that had been part of the problem all damn day, and then suddenly somebody else picked up Laura, and a coarse Boston-accented voice said, "There, there, baby. Whatsamatter, huh? I didn't mean nothin' by it." The little girl quit crying, and her eyes got big. Larry, one hand in a death-grip in the fabric of Lex's trousers, stopped crying, too, and now Lex had hands enough to pick Jon up and try to get him to quiet down.

"Thank you," he said grudgingly to the woman, who had slung her weapon over her back.

"Least I could do," she answered, seeming just a little embarrassed. "So, what are you doing here? Wife outta town?"

Lex took a shaky breath in and released it. "Yes." He didn't know how much he could say without breaking down himself. That was not going to happen.

"Doesn't explain the cemetery in the dark bit."

Lex indicated their surroundings with an inclination of the head. "This is my mother's tomb."

The woman looked at it appraisingly, absent-mindedly jouncing Laura on her hip at the same time. "Nice," she said. She peered at the nameplate. "Lillian Luthor -- hey, you're the Mayor of Metropolis? Lex Luthor?"

Lex nodded.


"And what are you doing here, Miss...."

"Oh! Uh, Faith," the woman said, reaching out with her non-baby-holding hand to shake his. "Just passin' through, really."

Lex set Louis down (his nose had stopped bleeding) to shake hands, and then had to pick Louis back up again immediately when he howled. "Damn, damn, damn," Lex said softly.

Faith laughed again, quietly this time. "Here, you siddown again and we'll put the princess in your lap, and I'll bring all your baby crap back for you."

Ten minutes later, Louis was cleaned up, Larry was playing with Faith's leather hair-tie, Jonathan was asleep in Lex's lap, and Faith was feeding Laura a bottle.

"Would you like a job?" Lex asked.

The second hardest thing was not charging straight in as soon as he got there.

The hardest thing was not charging straight in when Lois yelled for him. They were breaking her legs, but she'd done her best to not call out, and he'd seen the kryptonite beam with his own eyes; it was an obvious trap, and she'd tried so hard not to spring it on him. He had to honor that.

Besides, doing anything else would almost certainly turn out to be a stupid idea; he knew that Lois was generally smarter than he was.

Sneaking into the bowels of the bad guys' lair, on the other hand, was easy. Finding the place where they were certain to bring Lois back to was easy too, and so was carefully knocking the guard unconscious and gathering his wounded partner into his arms.

"Lois. Thank God," Clark whispered, gently untying her arms. "Let's get you out of here."

She gasped painfully as her arms came free and said, "No. We can't. Clark, General Zod is here."

He blinked hard and set her down so he wouldn't drop her. "What?"

"Zod. That Kryptonian criminal from a few years back." Her pain-pinched forehead crunched further in thought. "Didn't you kill him?"

Clark was stunned. He licked his lips and said, "Yeah. I, I thought I did."

That had been a terrible time. He'd actually killed Zod, murdered him (even though he couldn't think of any other way to keep the world safe, it was still murder), and he'd felt so bad about it afterward that Superman had lost his mind. He'd started being a vigilante in the dead of night, beating people up -- worse than Batman! And he hadn't remembered any of it the next day, except as what might have been dreams. That was the closest he'd come, even considering his red Kryptonite abuses when he was a kid, to being the real menace to humanity that Lex had so often claimed he could be.

"Wasn't that what that whole crazy interstellar walkabout was about?" Lois asked.

Clark nodded mutely. All that was for nothing? All the angst, and fear, and small-time crooks getting beat up, and leaving the planet Earth and thinking he'd never be able to come back -- that was all to do again? "Zod?" Clark breathed.

Lois gave him a very small nod, flinched, and grimaced in pain.

He looked at her with the x-ray vision, and his heart broke. He had to hold together, though -- he wasn't the one who was hurt, after all. "Your skull's all right, but your collarbone and three ribs, and all the long bones of your legs... Oh, Lois. Let me get you out of here, and I'll come back alone and deal with Zod." Unfortunately, Clark had only barely been able to handle Zod the first time, and he'd been in considerably better shape then. Being dead and having babies seemed to take a lot out of a fellow.

"No," Lois repeated firmly. "Clark, they're doing magic. They've raised Zod from the dead somehow. They have a kryptonite ray-gun, a really crappy-looking one by the way, I don't think Lex made it, but look around." Lois craned her neck around just a tiny bit, wincing, and used just the fingers of her least-wounded hand to gesture at the boxes piled around them. "There are more of them upstairs, too. A lot of this is LexCorp stuff; I think it's the nukes and munitions that disappeared from the military a couple of years ago. Sleeping Beauty over there was talking about a bomb."

Clark turned his x-ray vision on the contents of the crates. Despite the obvious pain he could hear in her voice, and the fact that she really should be in a hospital, Lois kept talking. Clark knew her. She was coming up with a plan.

"They made me yell for Superman, and they captured me on purpose as Lois Lane, not Mrs. Luthor. They actually looked a little spooked when I mentioned Lex. This is a trap, a bad one, for Superman. They're totally ready for you."

"Okay, I'll take you home and we'll stay there. Let somebody else take care of...." Clark couldn't even finish the sentence, and Lois knew he couldn't.

"It's Zod. We can't leave. He's destroyed worlds before, just for kicks. And we can't just go on home and leave it to Lex...."

"Why not?" Clark interrupted.

"Lex vs. Zod, with nukes in the mix? You really think the world would survive?"

Clark sighed shakily. "No, I guess not." He'd heard sometimes, when Lex and he had both awakened with bad dreams (to which Lois seemed fortunately immune), about Lex's early certainty that he would destroy the world. He was so sure of it at such times, so resigned to the doom, and even grateful in retrospect for Superman's long enmity, that Clark had come to have a superstitious dread about it himself. Maybe it did make sense for Lois, even wounded as she was, to stay, and together they'd work this out. She was right; they couldn't risk letting Zod and his minions get away, not after what they'd done, not with the resources they now had.

"So here's my plan," Lois said.

This was probably the dumbest plan she'd ever come up with, even including that time she and Chloe impersonated strippers to try to get a story in college. If it worked, though, Lex would have no reason to destroy the world, and Zod would have no chance to.

It'd better work.

Okay, things she had to work with: 1) The nuclear bomb (and Clark said there was only one actual nuke, among all the other purloined weaponry) was down here with her. 2) Clark had only just tapped the guard, and he hadn't been seen. 3) The name 'Lex Luthor' struck fear into the hearts of a lot of unsavory types, worldwide, for very good reason.

She hoped the shock would last long enough for her to get her part of this done. If she held everything very still, she wasn't nauseated with the pain. She hoped Clark wouldn't get himself killed, 'cause he was her only ticket out of here as well.

Laughing Boy started to groan and come round. Show time.

"I told you my husband is Lex Luthor," Lois told him in Arabic. "You should have returned me unharmed, while you had that chance."

The goon groaned again and got up, rubbing his head.

"You'll regret the day you were ever born. You know what they say about him? It's all true, but it isn't complete -- not by half. You've had your hands on his woman. What do you think he'll do to you? The fact that you even regained consciousness at all shows that he wants more than just your quick death. Why, you'd be better off triggering that nuclear bomb over there than letting his Valkyries get their hands on you."

The goon glared at her, and her heart rose. It was working; she could tell. Her part would work. There was no fucking way she herself could get up and throw the switch on that goddam nuke, but she knew for a fact, now, that she could talk this nitwit into doing it for her.

Now it was all up to Clark.

It was easy to find a disguise. The criminals had left trucks parked outside their lair, and one contained a couple of white robes, such as men wear on their way to Mecca. Clark didn't let himself worry about stealing from them; if Lois's plan worked he'd be murdering them all presently, and that's the same as stealing all a man has and all he ever will have. He'd seen that movie with Lex, a million years ago in Smallville.

Lois and her plans. Lightning-fast mind, no time to worry about the consequences -- let that come later. Clark shook his head and changed clothes faster than the eye could see.

Keeping an eye on everything through the walls, he saw Lois talking to the guard. Poor guy. Poor soon-to-be dead guy, who deserved any horrible thing that ever happened to him, for what he'd done to Lois. As a man sows, so shall he reap. Two more guys with guns were doing some sort of an inventory of some stuff stacked on the other side of the building. The priests or madmen or whatever were bowing down and worshipping General Zod, who looked like he was just starting to get bored by their adoration. It would be good to know who these guys were and why they'd thought summoning Zod was a good idea, and how they'd done it, but here they were, without any time for that.

Clark sighed again, very briefly. He was moving so quickly that the guards and even Krypton's last super-criminal appeared to be standing still.

Show time.

Clark knew how to make it seem that he'd appeared out of nowhere. It was an old Superman trick, useful against bank robbers and muggers -- small-time crooks who just needed a sharp check and a stint in the penitentiary to make them fit for the second chance that every human on Earth deserved.

So he appeared in the criminals' large main room. The evidence of their magic was all over. Clark hated magic. This wasn't the time or the place for Superman, so Clark put on something else. General Zod knew way too much about Superman's capabilities and fighting techniques for him to fight him as himself. Clark needed every thread of an advantage that he could possibly get, and keeping Zod a little uncertain about what he was dealing with might mean the difference between life and death.

"I am Kandahar El," Clark declared in Kryptonian. He used a high, carrying voice, instead of the mumbly Clark Kent tenor or the warm Superman baritone. "You do not belong here."

Zod stood, shooing his supplicants away like chickens. "Superman," he said triumphantly.

Clark smirked at him. He knew smirking well; Lex had been his friend for more than twenty years.

"Superman and I had a little arrangement, due to certain circumstances we shared when we were young. But Superman is dead now. You are an interloper. Get off of my planet."

Don't let there have been a yellow sun in whatever Hell Zod's been spending all this time in. Let him go for the kryptonite weapon, instead of just jumping straight in for some hand-to-hand. Clark didn't let any of these thoughts show on his face. He tried to look cool, like Lex with a gun to his head, or Lois riding a hunch.

Oh, good. Zod yelled and grabbed at the awkward looking leaden box. He triggered the weapon without really aiming, and Clark dodged the beam with a look of casual disdain. He decided to hold off on the scornful laugh, until he needed it more.

"Who would have ever thought that the House of El would spawn two such worms!" Zod bellowed.

"Look who's talking," Clark murmured suggestively, flitting gracefully clear of the beam. He dodged and smirked, as casual and light as he could be. He had to make it look easy, and he had to keep it right here in this room. If Zod's attention wandered, and he started idly looking through the walls and floors and noticed what Lois was doing, they were dead. Clark also had to make sure that Zod kept that poorly-constructed kryptonite-and-lead device in his hands. It was the only chance they had of taking him out.

Most of all, though, he had to keep an eye and an ear on Lois and her conversation with the nervous guy in her cell. When he heard the switch, he'd have just as long as it took for the signal to start the reaction. A length of time no longer than a blink of an eye -- that was all he'd have to get Lois at least a couple of miles away from the explosion.

The whole thing meant Clark had to divide his attention into about half a dozen pieces, while striving to give the impression of lazily, elegantly, not paying serious attention to anything at all.

"Speaking of worms, General --" Clark made sure to put as much scorn as possible into the title, and laughed a tinkling little laugh as he managed to dodge the krypto-ray-blast. "Enlighten me, please. Was my old, um, friend REALLY so squeamish that he didn't put you in the ground? From all I heard at the time, I can hardly believe that even dear little Kal could have found it in his heart to leave you alive."

General Zod was becoming enraged, and it was adversely affecting his aim. That was a comfort. "You will die for mentioning that traitor to me!" And he'd bought the whole 'I'm not Superman' story. That was a comfort, too. "For banishing me and my servants to the depths of the Phantom Zone, where they were all destroyed in the upheaval, Kal-El deserves my undying enmity!" Zod shot at Clark again, and Clark swiftly drifted out of the beam's path.

"I'm a very peaceable fellow, myself. All my enemies are dead. Extraordinary how quiet a life one can lead after that happens. And awfully tiresome of Kal to bequeath me one of his. How'd you get out of the PZ, anyhow?"

Zod fired on Clark again. Nice to see what a lousy shot he was. Mercy would've popped Clark a dozen times by now, if he'd been parading himself in range of her pistol for this long. She probably would have started figuring out that it was some sort of a trick, too. Fortunately, Zod wasn't as sharp about things like that. He made the mistake that other villains had made before him, and started telling Clark his whole story.

"I lingered alone in the diminished Phantom Zone for many years!" Zod spat. "Superman's perfidy had left me there, without any resources other than those of my own mind." He blasted at Clark again, and Clark dodged, with a bored expression on his face. "I meditated and summoned all the ancient mental powers of my race, and at length I contacted the minds of others." Zod swept a flamboyant arm around to indicate the magic-users, crouched in respectful terror at the edges of the room, out of the way of the combat. Not that that would save them -- none of the humans would survive to see the morning, unless Lois's plan went horribly wrong. Clark couldn't think about that now. He had to concentrate on Zod.

"That's a lovely weapon, by the way," Clark sniped casually, lightly dodging the beam again. He worked hard to duplicate the tone of voice Lana had used when she came by to see Jon and Laura the first time, the dubious semi-sarcastic tone that meant 'Yes, I have seen cuter babies' while ostensibly saying 'What beautiful twins!' (It had been almost like old times, physically restraining Lois from committing assault that afternoon.)

"It was built to my specifications!" Zod declared proudly, apparently unaware that it was a piece of crap. "I had thought long and hard on Superman, on how I would destroy my worthless enemy once these, my new servants, had freed me from his unjust imprisonment! I whispered to them for years, across the dimensions, instructing them in how to free me, and explaining to them what weapon they must have ready for me when I returned! I was not going to let Kal-El stop me from my rightful rule again! This Earth of theirs has enough kryptonite, and enough of its containment material, that the Earthlings call 'lead', so that the construction of the weapon was a straightforward thing, once my servants had contracted with servants of their own."

Lois had been sure (or she'd sounded sure anyway) that the weapon would melt easily in any sort of a blast; she'd said it obviously wasn't a LexCorp product because it looked so dang shoddy, and odds were that it was as shoddy as it looked, built as it was by low-tech mystics using the specifications of a madman. Clark had a secret backup plan, not a very good one, that involved grabbing the weapon and tearing it apart with his hands, and shoving its kryptonite power source straight down Zod's throat.

No time, no time -- Lois's conversation was turning into yells, and the goon was hurting her again, but he had to stay here; okay, she was threatening him again, and she was awful darn convincing, and there it was! Clark knew the sound of a LexCorp nuclear bomb being switched on. He'd heard it before, once, and his freak brain never forgot anything.

Praying that Zod would be slow to figure out what was going on, and that the krypto-weapon wasn't any more resistant to extreme heat than it seemed, Clark shifted to superspeed, dashed down and grabbed Lois, and fled into the desert. He listened as hard as he could to what was going on behind them -- Zod wasn't reacting in time; that was good, but the bomb was proceeding through its trigger-sequence too dang fast. They weren't going to be far enough away. There wasn't time!

Clark curled himself around Lois's battered body and willed her safe with all he had. The shockwave passed over them, and the fire-front behind it -- too large, too close, for even Superman to hear it properly. He'd done this only once or twice before, by accident or luck; he wasn't any good at controlling it. His 'aura of invulnerability' (and that was a stupid phrase; he never used it out loud), which ordinarily extended just far enough out from his skin to protect the tight blue Superman suit, stretched, billowed, extended around the precious woman in his arms. It was awkward; he could feel it like a muscle ache, the kind he'd gotten just those few times that his 'gifts' had temporarily left him.

Keeping Lois safe was the only important thing right now. The floating, uncertain feeling of his force-field or whatever it was (keep her head covered!) rippled alarmingly in the forceful blasts that the nuke (and was it setting off all those other weapons, too?) created in the local atmosphere, and then something ripped!

Clark's back was suddenly on fire, literally he thought, and he held Lois in front of him with all the careful strength he could muster, shielding her from everything. Finally (and really it was less than a second; it just seemed to take so long because of his speeded up perceptions) the blast was over. Clark tried to keep flying, but he couldn't. He crashed to the glassed-over ground, still curled around and protecting Lois with everything he had left. He took off again immediately; they were still far too close to Ground Zero to stay there. They made it a mile or maybe even two before Clark crashed again. His 'aura' or whatever was back to normal again, or it felt like it was, but it was too dark and he was too depleted to heal up the burns on his back right away.

Clark got back up again. Lois moaned when he jarred her poor bones. He started walking north, towards Algiers.

It was almost nine, and his children were finally all asleep.

Lex sank wearily into the leather armchair in the penthouse's front room. "I never could have done it without you."

"Sure you coulda. I was glad to help, though. I always liked kids. And dogs."

With the immediate crisis over, Lex's worries returned to Lois and Clark. He turned on the TV -- CNN again. There was no point in calling Mercy. She'd report back as soon as there was the slightest news, good or bad.

"Would you like a drink or anything? Something to eat?" Lex asked, his eyes glued to the screen.

"Sure. Can I...?" Faith gestured at the bar.

"By all means. Help yourself." Lex wondered whether it was too early to harass the president of Algeria some more. He had several unpleasant surprises for the man all prepared to set in motion in the morning, and he decided to let it wait until then.

"Thanks." The rangy woman returned with a brimming glass of scotch and sprawled in the matching armchair across from the TV. She downed a healthy slug. "Good scotch," she said. "Smooth."

Lex smiled. "Thank you." He figured he'd better find out more about this woman, if he were going to hire her. "Where are you from?"

"Boston, natch, no secret about that." She laughed shortly, and drank again. "You know I was only kidding about taking that job, dontcha, Ace? I don't work for mayors anymore; just gets me in trouble."

"Then what are you doing here, if I may be so blunt?"

Faith finished the glass and stood, completely steady on her feet. "Nothin', I guess. Just givin' a guy a hand. You know what they say: you can always depend on the kindness of strangers."

Lex was pretty sure that wasn't the moral of 'Streetcar Named Desire.' Suddenly his attention was caught by the television again. Someone had said, "Algeria."

"Once again, we have unconfirmed reports of a nuclear explosion in the Sahara Desert, in southern Algeria. More details as they become available."

Lex didn't know how he got a glass in his hand. He drained it. "There. You'll be okay. What's the prob?" Faith -- he'd broken a cardinal rule, and drunk from a glass handed him by a stranger. He mutely held it out to her, and she filled it again.

Another glass of scotch, a deep breath, and he could speak again. "Algeria. My wife... She disappeared there yesterday. She's a reporter, for the Daily Planet. Nuclear explosion -- that'd be just like her. It was supposed to be a, almost a travel article, but she...." His eyes were dry, but he felt like he'd been hit with something big and heavy. What the fuck would he do if they were gone?

"That's rough," Faith told him.

He turned on her, threw the glass in a sudden rage. "No fucking kidding that's rough! You...!"

Faith had caught the glass one-handed, easily. She was looking at him with a calm, ready, but not completely unsympathetic expression, which acted like a bucket of cold water to the rising flames of his anger. He took a deep breath, which he hoped didn't sound as much like a sob as it felt, and got out his phone.

"Mercy? Lex. Did you hear?"

"Yessir. We're on our way right now."

"Find them," he said, and hung up before he could start begging.

Clark looked almost as bad as she felt. He didn't seem to be able to walk steady, and every step jarred her broken bones. Lois almost wished she could pass out, but she didn't want to leave Clark alone.

"Can't we stop? Aren't we far enough away?" she gasped. Lois could still see the glow from the nuke, though, over Clark's shoulder. She knew they probably weren't far enough yet.

"No." Clark's voice was just a ghost of its usual self.

They kept walking, each lost in a separate world of pain. Lois wasn't sure which way they were headed, and she didn't think Clark knew either, even though he was usually the guy with the flawless sense of direction. She tried to keep her observer's wits about her, but it was hard.

After what seemed like hours of painful jouncing, they came to something that seemed like a track in the endless sand and stone. It almost looked like some sort of a road.

"Clark, stop." Clark just kept mechanically walking onward. The glow behind them was hardly visible any more, and Lois didn't want Clark to cross this maybe-road and continue onward into the untracked wastes again. "Stop!" she commanded.

It wasn't very loud, but he stopped. He stood there, holding her and breathing hard. She was holding onto him as best she could with her least wounded arm, and she could feel that the back of his robe, or whatever the hell this thing was that he was wearing, was all burned and stuck to him with blood and stuff. It was the second scariest thing in the world, Clark all burned and bleeding like that. The only scarier thing had been Superman dead.

"Let's rest here for a while." It was such a relief for her bones to not be grinding against one another with his movements, that it almost felt good once he stopped.

"Uh," Clark said. She couldn't really see him in the moonless desert dark, far away from the radioactive glow of her assailants' erstwhile lair, but he sounded terrible. He took two big shuddery breaths, and then started dragging them forward again.

"Clark, no!" she repeated. He stopped again.

"Let's wait here. Rest. The sun has to rise sometime, and then you'll feel a lot better."

"The sun," he whispered.

"Yeah. Stay here." Lois made her voice as gentle as she could. "We'll wait for the sun."

Twenty minutes later a truck drove up.

Lex's phone rang. He woke up, and didn't know for a second where he was. He fumbled the phone out of his pocket, trying to figure out what was going on at the same time.

"Lex." The TV was still on, tuned to CNN. The dark-haired woman from the cemetery was asleep in the other leather armchair. The clock across the room said it was a little after midnight.

"Mercy. We got them. They're both alive."

Lex closed his eyes. "Thank God."

"ETA Algiers three hours, maybe four. They're pretty beat up, and the hospital there isn't bad, you wanna --"

"No!" Lex cut her off. "No. No hospital. Bring them straight home."

"Yessir. I'll call you again with our ETA Metro International when we get our clearance."

"Fine. And Mercy? Thank you."

They hung up. Faith was looking at him. "Find your wife?"

Lex nodded, limp with relief. Alive, alive, they're both alive! He almost felt dizzy.

"Glad to hear it," Faith said with a smile. She stood up and stretched. "I should probably get goin'. Thanks for the booze and the nap."

"Wait." Lex never liked to lose track of somebody useful. "Can I get your phone number?"

She laughed and looked embarrassed. "I don't actually have a phone. I used to! But it got stepped on by a Fyarl -- foreigner. Yeah. Those crazy illegal immigrants, y'know?"

"Easily remedied." Lex stepped into the study for a moment and returned with one of the spare cell phones he kept in his desk. He tossed it to Faith, who was looking strangely ill at ease, standing there in the middle of the room. "On me. I'll need you to have a working phone if I ever need you to babysit again," he smiled.

She caught it and said, "Thanks. Uh, look. I, uh... It really, really ain't my place to give anybody advice. But, as it turns out...."

Lex wanted to get started on the threats and manipulations he felt would be necessary to ensure the timely issuing of flight clearances to get his family back to Kansas as soon as possible. He also needed to get an easily blackmailed yet competent doctor here ASAP. "Just spit it out," he told Faith.

She laughed again and picked up her crossbow. "Well, I got a pretty high standard of evil for heads of municipal government. Stay good, Lex." Faith left.

Lois was asleep on the other side of the plane, strapped securely onto a gurney and hooked up to an IV. One of the bodyguards that Mercy had brought along turned out to be a paramedic, so Lois's arm was in a sling and her legs were set and splinted, and the medic had been waking her up and checking on her every hour. She'd be fine.

Clark wished he hadn't been closed up in a covered truck for the first three hours after the sun rose. He'd gotten barely enough light to have the LexCorp medic not declare him dead.

He wished even more that the armed LexCorp jet didn't have so darn much kryptonite in its fuselage. It was lighter than lead, and Lex had designed this plane mostly to be useful against Superman, but it still sucked. If Mercy and her team knew the truth about him, or if Lex hadn't ordered her to bring them straight back, he could have stayed in Algiers until the sun had healed him and then flown home himself.

Man, it hurt. And there was nothing to do but endure -- the price of having secrets. Still, Mercy had to suspect something, didn't she? She'd seen him at the Tower and then found him in the Sahara! There weren't any dummies working for Lex, and she was sharper than most. She had to know, right?

Jeeze. Well, let Lex or Lois figure out some good story to tell her. He was tired and sore, and the doggone kryptonite was making him want to barf.

It was a long flight, and it gave him time to think. He'd murdered half a dozen people, counting Zod. He wasn't sure if he should count Zod or not, since technically he'd already killed him once. The strange thing, the new thing, was that he didn't regret it nearly as much as he felt like he should. Those guys had kidnapped Lois, and they'd hurt her badly. They would have happily killed her. Clark realized he could kill without compunction, if it were for Lois, or Lex, or any of their children. It was a terrible thing to realize, and yet it made him feel very human.

Oh, thank God. They were landing in Kansas.

The medic came and got Lois's gurney bundled together. Before they could even get Lois rolled out of the hatchway, Lex squirmed into the plane with the babies in his arms, and Larry and Louis tagged along with him. Larry and the little ones were whining painfully, and Lex suddenly got a horrified expression on his face.

Clark closed his eyes. Yeah, genius, he thought. You couldn't de-kryptonite your doggone airplane in two years? Despite his queasiness, Clark chuckled. Everything would be fine.

They were home.

Note: That whole killed Zod, went nuts, interstellar walkabout thing actually happened to Superman in the comics along about 1988.