By Debby Stark firstname.lastname@example.org
April 17, 1995
Summary: Lois and Clark attend a softball game together, where they have a nice, long talk. Clark continues a story on possible city council corruption, and Lois joins him.
This continues the story started in Dawning and continued in Dawning II & 3. If you missed any of those (and they really should be read in order), ask me or the fanfic index keeper for them. All recognizable characters mentioned below are the property of their respective owners, but the ideas are mine, *all mine!*
Sometimes having an extremely accurate clock in one's head had its drawbacks other than realizing he had forgotten to reset it, too, when everyone else's mechanical time pieces fell back or jumped forward in autumn or spring. Clark Kent was well aware when six o'clock Friday evening arrived nervously, tiptoed by, and was now running away from him like a madman.
He had settled down on his porch at 5:50 because Lois Lane usually liked to get the jump on everything. In time, at least a half- dozen neighborhood kids wandered by, stopped to say hi, and apparently decided he needed company and took up positions on either side and in back of him. He had no idea why he attracted kids, but it beat sitting there all alone.
Among the topics they talked about was the Slime Monster (which the older kids said had frightened only the young kids, who in turn denied it vehemently) and the big softball game. It had been sold out and so would be on TV that night, and fortunately they didn't need cable to pick it up or umbrellas in case it rained. They laughed when Clark said he was going to that very game and that it better *not* rain because his umbrella was broken.
He smiled along with them and told himself he was having fun, that this was a great chance to catch up on neighborhood gossip and keep the kids out of trouble at the same time. He didn't think they gravitated to him for that, but he knew some of them had trouble talking to adults and saw him as largely harmless and yet willing to listen.
Too, he might as well be enjoying himself since he couldn't be doing anything else but wait for Lois, and he didn't mind doing that.
He decided he would continue to wait until, say, 6:30, when he'd be justified giving up on her actually coming. After all, she might have remembered at the last minute that she had a prior engagement with, well, say, Raul, and hadn't thought to call and cancel the game plan or arrange to return the tickets to him. Which meant that it was more likely than not that she also hadn't noticed that he, Clark, was really making an effort to make this as close to a date as it could be since it was already cursed by having been initiated in the Daily Planet building. For example, he hadn't already run off somewhere--to be Superman, admittedly, though he couldn't admit it to her, not yet, because he had not yet found nor made the right time to tell her. But soon, *soon*… He'd tuned down his superhearing, narrowed his vision, and wasn't even so much as going to sniff out trouble unless it was unavoidable despite all of this and particularly if she was there and decided to throw herself into investigating it.
The world could take care of itself for a while: Clark Kent was not going to let this chance go unexplored.
If she came.
And if she didn't, well…
You didn't come, I waited, I have witnesses, and *you're* the one who wanted to have an *important talk,* so I missed the game…
Not that he ever needed tickets or a date to enjoy a sporting event or a stage show, or to take off and discover a new favorite haunt in, say, Montreal or Montevideo.
Or need her to do it with.
But that wasn't the point.
He liked doing things with people.
He liked doing things with *her.*
One of the older boys punched him in the shoulder (he gave enough naturally so that the kid didn't hurt himself) and snickered, "Thinking about a *gur-rell*?"
The boy's peers laughed out loud about that and the look on Clark's face, which he didn't bother to try to disguise, though he certainly didn't consider it "dreamy" or "goofy." "Concerned," yes, definitely. It was some small comfort that eventually the kids would be facing heart-felt dilemmas, too, though not of the magnitude his always seemed to be, no one else's dilemmas could match them.
Lois, where are you?
Maybe, just for laughs, he'd excuse himself, suit up, slip out the back and look for her in the event she had been kidnapped by some villain new to the Metropolis scene and in need of publicity. He hoped she had dressed for struggling, being roughed up, saved and maybe a little lecture on keeping one's appointments and how poor-- are you still friends with Clark? No one *new* this week? Okay, then Clark, and how poor Clark was probably *worried sick…*
But, no, it didn't feel like she was in trouble. It was probably just a traffic problem and she was striving mightily to get here. She wasn't cruel, she wouldn't leave him out in the cold, she'd try to get here or tell him why she couldn't be.
Then why, he wondered, am I so… nervous? This isn't even a real date! No, she'd be here, they'd have a good time, and then, who knew what?
Probably nothing, certainly nothing like Thursday night a week ago, but a guy could dream.
So it was going to work out just fine.
He reminded himself that he could usually trust such feelings and nothing during the day had given him a hint that the evening's plans might turn sour. Actually the opposite was true, the day had gone smoothly, particularly after she had given him that look…
Earlier, at 3 o'clock that afternoon, he had picked up his pay check, which included all that overtime he'd put in a week ago Wednesday. If only they knew, he had sighed when he had looked at the deductions for federal, state and city taxes, Social Security, the Christmas Club, pension plan and union dues. At least he didn't have health insurance deductions on top of that. He had taken the check to the other side of the Daily Planet Building and the credit union office to deposit it into his account. The computers for the automatic deposit were down, still slimed apparently and low on someone's repair list, so he wasn't the only one to take no chances with his money: he had stood in line like everyone else. Fortunately, the line was short and the transaction quick. He withdrew some extra cash at the same time, enough, he hoped, to cover any contingencies that night as long as they didn't amount to much more than, say, an inexpensive, light dinner and a taxi as far as Lois's place if something prevented them taking her jeep.
Then he'd hoofed it several blocks to one of the city government office buildings where he met with Tom Takara, the Building Inspector. They stood at a photocopying machine and talked while Takara copied the just-finished preliminary report on the fire at City Hall. It was due to be officially released the following Monday, but, "Oh, look at that, I've made an extra copy. I'd hate to throw it out. I don't supposed *you'd* like one, would you?"
"I don't like to waste paper either. I think I could find a use for it."
As he took the report, Clark slipped a 9x12 clasp-sealed envelope to Takara, smiled, said he'd be in touch, and left, hoping the inspector would like the copy of Lois's official biography and a nice 5"x7" black-and-white photo of her looking beautifully business-like, a photo that, as far as Clark had been able to determine, had not been published. He hadn't been able to figure out a way to get her to autograph it though without explaining it was for a secret admirer, which she might not have appreciated. Some ten yards down the corridor, while awaiting the elevator, Clark heard Takara whistle and say "Wow…!"
After that, Clark had traveled across town to the offices of Ann Walthall, the Insurance Adjustor, and given her an equal amount of time (but no bribe) for yet another preliminary report, one which had no official release date and so no tricky business was involved. She gave him several new leads on cases similar to the Singher Construc- tion one, mentioning that she and the other adjusters were swamped, hint-hint. Two of her colleagues, both women, had stopped by to see who she was talking to and to stay and agree with her, they could use help in determining other frauds. So he promised to keep them informed of anything that he found that might affect their work, as long as it was within the bounds of journalistic ethics and all that, hinting in his own way that Walthall should feel free to continue to be a source if she wished. He also apologized to the colleagues: he couldn't do dinner with one that evening or lunch on Monday with the other. It was, he said, that ethics thing again…
Outside and down the street from Walthall's office, waiting for another bus, Clark had noticed a phone booth, discovered the phone in it worked, and used it to call Murray Brown, Superman's agent. The man was in his office and eager to talk to his star client. Clark minced no words (he had concluded early on that Superman was not a mincer) and told Murray he intended to be at the regular place at 7:30 the next morning to sign papers--and chat, hmm? Murray added, enthusiastically. Clark had also concluded that Superman was unlikely to indulge in much "chatting" with anyone outside his small circle of friends, and his agent didn't quite fit among those. So it was likely that Murray, who probably sensed all this and let it pass, had some terrific idea he had to outline carefully, in detail and in such a manner that even Superman couldn't miss the significance of the proposal and certainly wouldn't deny Murray the chance to go for it.
Ha, Clark thought, where have I heard that before? The Super Ice Cream Parlors with blueberry, strawberry and banana flavors a specialty.
The Super Hi-Protein Dog Food — "An all-American hero like you *has* to have a dog… you have one, don't you? I can get you one!"
Uh-uh, nope, out of the question.
The "Superman at the Beach" calendars with only a few teasing, semirevealing shots ("You know, without the cape, boots and, ah…? You get my drift. Not more than half--and *every* red-blooded women in America and Europe--hey, the *world* will line up to *buy* this, I guarantee it!").
Read my lips: *no way*.
But for every twenty nutty ideas, Murray often came up with a real gem--the library commercials, the Gorilla fund, the rainforest appeal, that kind of thing--along with some innocuous money-making merchandise like lunch boxes, dolls and wrapping paper. And Murray knew a big-gun lawyer who went after the unwholesome, image-damaging ripoffs--and who had won every case so far (without Superman even needing to testify), to the delight of a good number of charities. So Clark figured that the time spent practicing a patient look in Murray's office was generally worth it.
He said, "We'll see," implying that it "depended." His very arrival always "depended," usually on there being no emergencies to attend to. Murray had taken to listening to radio news to determine whether Superman would come as scheduled. Clark had missed a few appointments, but Murray had never once complained because nearly every time the reasons for Superman being late or not turning up generally meant "the kid" was out somewhere being heroic. That increased his client's value when handled properly--and Murray's commissions. He would, Murray promised, be waiting by the window (portable radio in hand).
On the buses home Clark relaxed, scanned the reports and began mentally adding the information to the drafts he had written up Thursday night and earlier that day, Friday. He was feeling good about this article, or maybe articles if Perry agreed.
Arriving home he changed into a comfortable T-shirt and jeans, smeared miso on some rice cakes for a dinner snack, made a glass of ice-breathed cold green tea, and listened absently to a bit of NPR news. Nothing was happening that he could do anything about or that otherwise demanded his personal attention and thus the cancellation of his not-date but definite get-together. He had managed by now to switch almost his entire attention to thinking about the endless possibilities presented by going to the softball game with Lois and being with her in a nonwork-related, virtually stress-free atmosphere.
If, of course, she came.
Which was looking iffier by the minute.
Lois zoomed up at 6:26 in her jeep, braked to a screeching halt as she ordered the passenger window to roll down, and motioned frantically "Get in, get in!"
The teen and near-teen boys among the crowd on his porch gaped at the tightly t-shirted, baseball-cap wearing woman behind the wheel of the dusty vehicle and muttered among themselves about Clark's unexpected prowess. Clark tried to ignore all that (really tried) and said nothing beyond excusing himself and advising them to get home soon.
Despite her sense of urgency, he waited for her to remotely unlock the door rather than reach in to fumble for it, opened the door, sunk into the seat, and closed the door again. He hoped she would take the leisure hint and not feel she needed to drive like a maniac to make up lost time.
Nope, she floored the gas pedal and they rocketed away while he looked for seatbelt parts. He was happy he wasn't prone to car sickness because it looked like it was going to be a wild ride.
"I'm sorry I'm late," she said as she checked the traffic and just made the first light, on Sinibaldi, before the oranging yellow turned completely red.
"Don't you…" She looked at his face then glanced down his body, stopping half way, making him wonder for a moment just what she was looking at. "You're not wearing a watch?"
His left hand was resting in his lap; "Oh," he thought.
She shook her head. "I can't *live* without one," and she held up her hand and thus wrist for a moment, indicating she was indeed wearing her watch, the one she had mislaid Tuesday evening. "Except I didn't wear one when I was in Smallville, once I started relaxing. But I'm back in the real world now…"
"Umm," all the way back. But that wouldn't be nice to say. He watched her for a moment, then something occurred to him. "Lois, you and Perry both wear your watches on your right wrists but you're right handed…"
Maybe it wasn't a bit odd, and maybe it was one of those things that wouldn't be so hot an idea to pursue. "It's interesting…"
"It's confusing, isn't it?" "A little."
"Good. You see, it puts me one up, but I don't mind *you* knowing."
"Ah, thanks…" He decided not to linger over that. "I like your hat." He hadn't seen the patch yet, having been preoccupied with her eyes and her logic, but he knew it would say something funny. There would be time to look at it later. Now he noted that she had pony- tailed her hair and pulled it through the back over the plastic adjuster, and that helped hold the hat on in the wind caused by the fast drive. Good idea.
"Well, I liked yours and your father's, that's why I got this one."
"It suits you. You dress up so much, it's always nice to see that you know how to relax, too."
She smiled, not taking her eyes off the road, and then she sighed. "Well, I wish I could *feel* relaxed--and been here sooner, but someone broke into several cars at the Planet's parking building and I had to check mine out thoroughly--you know, for bombs and signs of tampering and that kind of thing, because *you never know* what could be hiding right under your very nose…" She shifted smoothly into fourth gear. "But I didn't find anything unexpected. And then the traffic was worse than I thought it would be. Maybe you're right, riding the bus everywhere…"
"Want to pull over? We could--"
"No, no, no, I'm just… making conversation. I still think you should get a car."
"Are we going to have that discussion again?"
"Not unless you want to, I think we've already discussed it to a stand still."
"You're right." Even if he hadn't been able to fly he probably wouldn't have contemplated getting a car, if only because it was a matter of finances. He could have afforded one, but then adding the insurance, taxes, license, repairs, gas, parking fees, and then rarely actually being able to drive it to work because of traffic, well…
"Okay, okay… But I'm sorry you had to wait, you could have been doing something…" now she glanced at him, "a lot more important probably."
Like what that she'd have any idea about? "I have been putting off balancing my checkbook… Lois, I *didn't* mind waiting," not really. "And even if I had a car I'd still rather you pick me up because you're a better city driver than I am, and, besides, I was sure you'd come."
"Oh, okay, ah… Did you have a chance to eat?"
"Yes, but I bet you didn't."
"Oh, I'll load up on the popcorn and Crackerjack when we get there." As they had hit a steady flow of traffic, she leaned forward and looked up at the sky. Clouds were building in the west, making a pretty if ominous sunset scene. "But it might not be that long a game, darn it. I know, we'll park near the gate and close the jeep up tight so it'll turn into a broiler; that will keep it from raining."
"Good idea, except it probably won't stay hot once the sun goes down and I didn't bring an umbrella, that might influence the odds, too."
"I have an old one in the back, we could take it along."
"Did you use it last night?"
"No, Raul got me home just before the rain started. Then we sat around and talked about the story, and," she glanced at him, "surprise, surprise, he had a bottle of *wine* in his knapsack…"
Huh? Well… "What a coincidence," was the most noncommittal, spur-of-the-moment thing he could think to say.
"That's what I thought, too. It wasn't something expensive, just a nice little California label, but it did taste good, it hit the right spot--" She punched her horn, braked skillfully, maneuvered around a big Blazer full of double-parked teenagers, and zipped up to the next light, which was red. The teenagers sedately rolled up behind and started jeering at them. Clark turned, looking at them, considering his options. He couldn't do anything at the moment but hope that vocalizing was as far as they'd go, even though Lois could probably have taken them all on single handedly and not been winded nor lose her train of thought. Unless guns came into play…
Maybe, he thought as he turned back, he ought to distract her from possibly entertaining confrontational ideas, but the track to remind her she had been on wasn't the most pleasant one possible. "What did Raul pull out next? A cheese plate and a… a mariachi band?"
"No, Mr. Stereotyper, *you're* the only cheese-of-the-month guy I know, and he likes jazz and blues more--"
"How could you possibly know that?" What had they been doing when they were *supposed* to be working on their story?
"I'm a *reporter*, Clark, I can find these things out easily. If you *must* know," and she smiled a little, "he looked at my CDs last night and commented positively on my blues selection. Wednesday night--you were 'busy' that night, remember?--I saw him to his car and we planned what to do on Thursday. He turned on his radio and it was MetU and their free-form Jazz Hour and he didn't change it and it's always followed by Blues Through the Night, and *that's* how I know."
"Oh. That's logical, I guess."
"You bet it is. But wine was all he had, and then he didn't insist on staying and so he didn't try to get me drunk, which was all rather surprising."
"I never thought trying to do that kind of thing was a real good idea."
The light changed and they pulled out, awaited their chance and turned left; the car full of teenagers turned right. She glanced at him again, or she could simply have been checking her surroundings in that direction. "Well, it's never a good tactic to use on a woman who has a brain in her head, but I've been expecting *some*thing since he's been flirting like mad from the first minute Tuesday. I just wasn't expecting a stealth approach when every other--well, almost every other man has come on strong. It's… making me curious," and she smiled at nothing in particular that Clark could see.
But it didn't take x-ray vision or even eyes to see this: they'd gone through it before. She wanted reaction, she wanted him to question her about Raul, she wanted hair-tearing anguish, she wanted *jealousy,* it was obvious now even to him.
Moi, "mild-mannered" Clark Kent, jealous? he almost laughed out loud… But then he decided not to in the highly unlikely event that he was wrong and she kicked him out after she demanding to know why he had laughed in a superior tone.
Uh-oh, he thought, am I beginning to employ her kind of convoluted logic…?
No, not stable, even-handed Clark Kent. "But you've seen right through it," he said reasonably.
"Of course I have," she said in a worldly manner but then softened it. "Still it's… well, it's just so *sweet* and *gentle* and yet there's something so… Latin and intriguing about him…"
You believed Lex was sweet, too, Clark thought, and there was nothing "gentle" about his flirting; it had been more like 20,000 heavily decorated Indian elephants bearing gifts…
But Clark knew he could never say anything about that or the other intriguing fellows who he had witnessed catching Lois's eye since he had met her. She could have reminded him of the women who had taken a fancy to him, found *him* intriguing for some obscure reason, and whom he had not exactly beaten off. Actually, he thought, he hadn't known how to do that politely and sometimes things had dragged on and on, and it hadn't been easy…
None of that applied here anyhow: Raul probably didn't have an evil bone in his body and it was no doubt just a passing thing for her. "He's always struck me as being 'sweet.'"
"It's fun to watch him try."
Which rather implied she was in no hurry to discourage him when she could have done so easily.
Clark didn't know how to reply to that in a manner that wouldn't let on to any of the feelings she probably thought--hoped?--he was having about the whole matter. Though he wasn't having any, he would have sworn. For about three nanoseconds he considered mentioning Vanessa ("Did you know this 'woman' you think I'm seeing is only three years old?" "What?!" Screeching brakes, shattered glass, twisted metal, blood everywhere and none of it his…), but hequashed the idea due to the announcement's unpredictable consequences.
Instead, for some unknown reason the statement "I called you last night," came unbidden to his lips.
He waited for a further comment, perhaps one along the lines of "I wish I'd been home to talk to you…" but "I know" was it. She knew, a simple statement of fact. True, he hadn't said much in the call, nothing for her to actually react to, just some information passed on, but still she could have shown some enthusiasm.
She kept her eyes on the road and looked as though she had at last settled into driving, which he thought she generally found to be a relaxing pastime. At the same time it felt like she was watching him as closely as he was watching her. How could women do that?
He decided it was time to change the subject. As they queued up at the stop light before the expressway on ramp, he said, "You haven't told me about what you did in Smallville, we haven't had the time." He realized he might have added: you could have told me last night if you'd been home… but she would probably have countered with: Wednesday night I could have sent Raul packing and we could have talked about it then all we wanted…
"Oh, I didn't actually *do* much…" and she proceeded to give him the highlights. His mom picking her up at the Wichita airport, their eating dinner in town and then driving to Smallville. Her turning in surprisingly early because she'd been more tired than she had thought possible. It was no doubt due to be the clean, relaxing country air, she said. That was when she had started reading his scrapbooks. "You could write, Clark, you should have shown Perry some of that material when you went in asking for the job."
"I planned to, but…" Perry hadn't looked beyond the first piece, which had been calculated to impress the famous editor with its worldliness.
"I know, he didn't understand the Borneo Gazette essay." The light turned and she launched them up the expressway ramp, shifting expertly, pulling power from the engine as though it loved her for it. "I understand now why you put it in your portfolio, and it was good, technical writing, what I read of it, but it just wasn't the right thing. The one after it would have been, your trip into the jungle and those good pictures--but, when you think about it, it worked out all right because it forced you to get another story, to think on your feet, which Perry really likes."
Clark recalled pacing the walls of the decrepit hotel room, then going out to walk the streets of Metropolis. In trudging toward the downtown area, he had discovered an old theater about to be raised and realized that it was the very one that intriguingly attractive woman Lois Lane had declared was too pedestrian for a real reporter to write about.
He said, "I can see it got you where you are today."
"Well, I wish I could think on my feet all the time," she smiled, and then it turned a little regretful looking, "but I haven't figured out how to do that, and so I've been blind a lot, too…" She sighed and perked up as apparently another thought occurred to her. "Saturday morning I helped make pancakes! Can you believe it? Me in the kitchen with all those ingredients? I wish they made some kind of kitchen appliance that could do that for me, I could just load everything in and, bingo, pancakes!" Then she and his mom had gone for a nice walk, and when his dad had returned home from an auction, he had taken her on a comprehensive tour of the farm, more detailed than the one Clark had given her before the Irig affair had turned nasty. "Well, you may not know this, but I honestly wasn't very interested in farm life back then. Last weekend was different, it was fun," and Jonathan Kent had given her the full treatment. "He was a real gentleman. I mean, as much as a guy on a tractor can be, I suppose, when he has a city girl klutz on his hands…" After a fine dinner and helping clean up, she had turned in early yet again.
"Sunday morning I took another walk, then your mother took me on a drive through the countryside and we had lunch in Smallville and went shopping. That's when I got my hat. I liked wearing yours so much on Saturday I had to get one of my own," and she turned, oblivious to the traffic it seemed, to let him see and read the patch on the front.
He read it quickly, smiled and nodded so she could resume watching the road. He said, "I haven't seen that one before, it's funny. Did you take care of mine?"
"Oh, yes, it only fell off a few times and it only fell off once when I was on the tractor, but then I figured what to do with my hair, like this, and that kept it on even in the wind."
"It fell off when you were on the tractor? Did you run over it--"
"Clark, I wouldn't have been able to wear it then! I know that goat ate your mother's hat, so I can see that maybe worrying about hats runs in your family, but it's perfectly all right, don't worry."
"Did you get perfume on it?"
"No!" She tried to look exasperated. "I wasn't wearing any! I didn't even take any along."
"Oh. What about--"
"And no girl cooties, either."
"I wasn't going to say that."
"You were thinking it."
"You don't know what I was thinking."
"Yes, I do."
"Well, I wasn't going to say it."
"Your hat is perfectly fine," she said, pronouncing each word carefully. "You can wear it proudly to the next… Corn Festival."
"I'm skipping that this year, but I do plan to try to get to the Squash Jubilee."
"The what? Squash? Yech…"
"You don't like squash? I bet you like pumpkins…"
"Those are special, they aren't *really* squash, they don't even look like squash, and I know what squash looks like."
"Sure they're squash, and they make great pies."
"And I suppose you can make one for me, too."
"If you want."
She poured on the gas, passed two slower cars and dived at the last possible second into a space just large enough to accommodate the jeep so that they could take the off ramp onto Stadium Boulevard. Metropolis Sports Stadium loomed in the distance, beneath the dark, dramatic clouds overwhelming the horizon. "Squash Jubilee…"
"Yes, always late in October. Then there's Greens Days in November--"
"Greens? Isn't it too cold? Isn't Kansas neck deep in snow by then?"
"Not very often, but if it's too cold, the greens come from greenhouses."
"Well, people need vitamins and fiber and chlorophyll and all that, so…"
"Then there's Winterfest in December--"
"That makes sense."
"Carrot Carnival in January, and so on."
"Carrots? Now they really are frozen in the ground, *I* know that." "Yes, the ones that weren't harvested with the potatoes and onions and put in root cellars."
"Root cellars. I guess that makes up for the lack of big supermarkets in Smallville--You're making all that up, Clark Kent, I know you, you can stop pretending."
"Nope, I can show you the brochure from the Smallville Chamber of Commerce."
"You have it on you?"
"No, of course not."
"Ha! And I bet you can't find it when you get home, either…"
"I hope I can, I'm sure they only published a small run…"
"Ha ha ha…" She pushed their way into the best lane to enter the Stadium's round-about road and ignored someone who honked at her because they had been less decisive. "You love that kind of stuff, don't you?"
"Even you would agree that 'that kind of stuff' makes Metropolis look deadly dull by comparison."
"I noticed how Smallvillites like to party down, I guess you'll celebrate anything, it's a wild town."
"We clear the sleeping dogs off Main Street and stay up quite late, as late as *eight o'clock.*"
"Incredibly late. Where are you going to park?"
She let the serious question put an end to the ag lesson and told him they were heading toward the southeast lot because hardly anyone ever parked over there.
Except for this game. Even that lot, usually the last to fill, was packed, and of course Lois wanted to park close to a main entrance on that side of the stadium, as did hundreds of other people. She passed up empty spots because she would see a closer one on the next aisle but missed that because by the time they arrived it had been taken.
After the third try and sensing that this could turn into an all- night trend, Clark pointed at the next space they were approaching, six rows and some forty cars from the main southeast entrance, and said, "Take that one."
"Take that space."
"We can get closer--"
"Take That Space, or I'm getting out and walking and you can cruise around here to your heart's content all night long."
"All right, all right, Smallville's wild native son…" She pulled into the space. Someone behind her blasted his horn in frustration (just as she had done several times herself). That made her laugh "A-ha!" before she could get angry about missed possi- bilities, so her expression was a satisfied one when she looked at Clark. "There, I *told* you not to worry."
"I wasn't worried."
They got out, but Clark reached back in before locking his door, looked for the umbrella, didn't find it, and instead pulled out her jacket from the storage area in back.
"Oh, I won't need that," she claimed upon seeing it.
"You will if it rains, but I'll carry it if you don't want to."
"Okay, and you? You're not hiding a… a raincoat under those clothes."
Good point. He shrugged, "Getting a little wet never hurt me."
Rather than laugh that off she looked a bit surprised. Why? But then she said quickly what he had expected to hear, "Yeah, right," and added, "male ego…"
That was a good explanation, and to enforce her conclusion he said, "Huh?" as though it couldn't possibly be an ego thing.
She shook her head. "Well, if it gets cold, I'll… keep you warm."
"*That's* why I didn't bring a raincoat," he smiled.
"Clever boy…" and she held out her hand just as he was holding out his. They met half way. This was nice, Clark thought. Maybe it would rain, long and hard and cold, and she'd get stressed about that (which would be an okay kind of nonlife-threatened stress for her to experience under the circumstances) and they'd get stuck in some dry, softly lighted corner… with thousands of other disgruntled softball fans. Well, there was always after the game.
With her free hand she moved her fanny pack to the front of her waist to keep better track of it and pulled the tickets out as they approached a stream of people moving toward the main entrance. "Your mother has one of these purses. I thought it was a good idea, so I got one, too."
"She'll be pleased to hear that."
"She's such a wonderful woman. My mother could take lessons from her."
"Your mother's a fine person, too."
"Clark, you only met her once and only for 3 minutes, and then she ignored you for two of them."
"No, she was busy whistling down that cab, just like you do, I can see where you got that."
"I didn't get it from her."
"I got a good first impression of her. In fact, you're a lot like her."
"I am not!"
"But you are: she's busy all the time, you're busy all the time."
"I… I'm not busy now, am I?"
"That's because I'm holding you down."
She squeezed his hand; he returned it ever so gently.
She said, "Afraid I'll fly away?"
Why, he wondered, do we manage to start meaningful conversations at the most inopportune times, in the most awkward of places? He did not want to be talking about this in the middle of a parking lot, dodging loud, smelly cars and trying to blend in with thousands of restless people they didn't know and who might easily overhear everything. And then one of them would probably have a heart attack, and several would pull out guns and demand everyone's tickets, and a plane would crash into the stadium, and some little country would start World War III, and he, Clark Kent, would have to rush away.
Yet, one had to take the chances one was given sometimes, even the little ones. "Not fly… I'm afraid some day you'll go after a big story and won't come back," he said quietly.
"I know, you've been doing it since you were in diapers, and you're very good at it… but I still worry."
"Clark, you've done things that are a lot more dangerous than I have--I mean, in the course of your job and before that, when you traveled… and I'll admit that I didn't worry about you at first. Sometimes I wished you'd get lost or find a job with another paper or become a shepherd in Montana or something, but now…" As they joined the long ticket-holders line she gently bumped into him, though he could have sworn it was no accident, *and* she stayed close.
And since she did, he whispered, "And now?"
"Now I worry. I don't want to lose you, to break in a whole new partner or… for any other reason. But it's a low-level worry because in the last year or two you've become a lot more careful--and you've gotten the same good stories and you haven't been shot at so often or kidnapped or anything like that, which is fine with me."
Well, that was all nice to know… "But, *my* worry level hasn't diminished any. You still do the same crazy things you did when we first met." She had admitted it herself way back when they'd been investigating the space station troubles and wound up chained together in that hanger: throwing herself into her work was the only way she knew how to do it. We're a lot alike, he thought, and not for the first time.
But, unlike her, he had managed over the last two years or so to moderate his supersuited responses to panic situations. He no longer just threw himself into them as though he were totally invulnerable, only to wind up finding out otherwise, to his painful chagrin. It had been ages since a villain had been able to take him by surprise. Maybe that was reflected in his normal Clark reaction to stories, too, and that was what she had noticed. If only she'd catch on, copy him at least a little and realize that she didn't *have* to risk her life for a story. If only there were some way to help her relax without coming off as sounding possessive… But "You still get shot at and kidnapped and thrown off buildings and… all that."
"Not recently! When was the last… No, don't answer that."
August 5th, he might have told her, when an investigation had led her to some serial bank robbers who had surprised her and then tied her to the keg of dynamite meant also to open wide the vault in the Bank of Midvale. He had, of course, rescued her just in time and rounded up the bad guys at superspeed. She'd gotten a nice story out of it and laughed of everyone's concerns about her having risked so much.
She slipped her arm around his waist, which both surprised and pleased him--he was definitely not, he thought, invulnerable to this--and she smiled apologetically up at him. "No crazy things tonight, I promise." But before he could put his arm around her shoulders, throwing himself into the situation, protecting her from the growing crowd, she said, "Give me that," her jacket.
Oh. He handed it over. "The tickets?"
She gave them to him so she'd have both hands free to tie the jacket's sleeves around her waist. While she did this, he looked toward the entrance. There were 36 people ahead of them but the line was moving fast. Then he checked the tickets to see if they had assigned seats or if they were going to be part of a free for all. Nope, assigned. Expensive; had Perry paid for these?
"Look, we're sitting in northwest center seats."
She nodded, she already knew this; he recalled her having examined the tickets for authenticity as soon as he'd shown them to her on Thursday. "And in the shade. It's a long walk from here, but we can pick up snacks on the way."
"Okay, my treat since you drove."
"One wild, razzle-dazzle thing after another, I like that in a man."
If only you knew, he thought. "Don't get too excited. If you want one of those t-shirts," he pointed at a vendor loaded down with souvenirs for sale, "or even a balloon, you'll have to pay for it yourself because I didn't bring enough cash with me."
"Clark, don't give me that, you make plenty of money now and you need some new t-shirts. I like these little cartoon howling coyotes," she finger traced the parade of them across his chest (it almost tickled), "but we can do even better than this for you."
"I like this one, my mom got this for me when she went to that art seminar in Taos last year." But he agreed, he could use some more relaxing-in clothing. "I should go shopping more often, I guess, but I have no sales resistance so I have to be very careful."
"That explains that Ladies Home Journal on your coffee table…"
"Well…" It was Vanessa's cut-out-with-blunt-scissors magazine that she played with when she visited; he decided not to bring up that name though. "I'm not renewing my subscription no matter how hard they insist, although three more years for only $29.95 is a darn good deal…"
She almost elbowed him. "*And* it explains some of your ties…"
"I thought you liked my ties."
"The ones your mother hand paints, yes, but that one with the umbrellas and beachballs, for example…" and she almost shuttered for effect.
"Okay, then you can take me clothes shopping, Ms. Fashion Sense."
"It's a date--oh, I better not put it that way."
"How about if I make an appointment with you?"
"You're on, that should work."
In a few more steps they reached the main entrance, where Clark handed the tickets over to the man taking them, was given the stubs, and he gave one to Lois. "Don't lose that."
"I'll try. I know I promised not to do anything crazy, but if I can't help myself, you'll help me sneak back in, won't you?"
"Depends on the score and inning, who's up to bat, all that."
"Then I guess I'm going to have to burden myself down with the super-deluxe size of popcorn, the biggest soda they sell, *and* a couple of heavy candy bars, so much food that I won't be able to stagger to my feet."
Hmm, getting her fat *would* force her to relax and not get into so much trouble… "I hope they take plastic."
But he shouldn't have worried even a little, he thought as the line they followed blend into dense crowds, a pickpocket's heyday. They weren't going to get near the concession stand without a long wait ahead of them.
"What's wrong with these people?" Lois demanded upon surveying the horde almost obliterating all view of the food sellers. "Why haven't they already bought food and found their seats?"
"Maybe they were looking for better parking places, too."
She gave him an unappreciative look and then sighed. "Well, I have a spare Double-Fudge bar, we can share it--if you're nice."
"Me? I'm always nice. But I already ate, so you don't have to share."
"I *want* to share, take advantage of that." She grabbed his hand. "Come on, we'll find another concession stand on the way," and she began threading them through the crowd, heading northwest.
For such a little thing, he thought, she's terrific at barging through crowds.
The northwest side concession stand wasn't so busy and, apparently having forgotten her threat, she ordered only a big box of Crackerjack, a medium container of popcorn, and two medium sodas. He paid for them and insisted on carrying the sodas (allowing no clumsiness now, he wouldn't lose a drop even if the crowd closed in) in exchange for her finding the seats as she was more familiar with the layout of the building.
Their seats weren't front row or even first level, considering the prices, but were on the second level near an aisle, and the view was good. They were off to the right of home plate and no tall people were sitting in front of them, of particular concern to her. Shade would have been provided, had it not been for the increasing cloud cover, by a sheltered and windowed area behind them and under the third and highest level of seating.
"These are great seats!" she announced once they were settled in.
"Don't you usually sit closer?"
"Oh, I try to get down by the dugout if I can't get in it, but those seats were impossible to get and I really tried. I think I could have gotten into the press box, but I didn't want to get stuck in there with all those smoking neophytes. Where do you usually sit?"
"If Jimmy gets the tickets, it's the cheap seats out on the far edge of left field." He didn't add that he bought cheap-seat tickets, too, but then he could see and hear well from practically anywhere in the stadium.
"Well, don't let *him* get your tickets next time."
"Okay," here's a chance: "I'll tag along with you instead."
"It's a deal. Hungry?" She opened the popcorn and held it out. He gave her the diet soda she'd ordered and took some popcorn, noting its saltiness and the slightly off taste of the "butter." It wasn't dangerous for anyone, he hoped, just a bit too chemical for his more sensitive taste buds. She thought it tasted great, though, and she also liked the look and tenor of the crowd. All of them, she was sure, were real softball fans. It was her opinion that the Metrostars and Garters wouldn't have gotten off the ground if the team hadn't been able to draw crowds like this, and only excellent playing had done that. "Women's teams aren't given half the chances that even mediocre men's teams get," she informed him. "They have to fight for every toe hold and people are always trying to knock them off balance."
She babbled on knowledgeably about this and he grunted appro- priate agreement here and there. He actually did agree with most of what she had to say, though he hadn't been following the home team's progress, either politically or gamewise, in any detail. The closest he had gotten to knowing any of the people associated with the Metrostars was when their business manager had written Murray Brown to request that Superman do a commercial for the team. Superman had refused: the team was not, after all, a charity. Lois didn't know about that though, and he wondered briefly how she would react if she found out: "Superman could have done it easily, the spoilsport--but he is a *man* and they don't need *men* to help them…" and then she would probably launch into a detailed biography of the team's nearly all-female management. Which he didn't need to know about. Clark was glad that Murray was wise enough to hold his peace about a lot of things. One unforgivable slip with such a touchy client would not be good for business.
Clark noticed that the wind had picked up, though most would still probably consider it a refreshing breeze. He doubted that anyone else could detect the pressure dropping, the humidity rising, and a certain ozone-ish charge in the air. This did not bode well for a full game. Indeed, at 6:59, the rousing taped organ music petered out and the voice of an announcer came crackling over the broadcast system to welcome the fans but warn that the weather might not cooperate. The otherwise cheerful man outlined the complicated details of what ticket holders could expect if the game was rained out, this being a matter of the inning it was halted in, the score, the desires of the teams, etc.
"Stop talking and start playing," Lois muttered, reflecting the now uneasy mood of the crowd.
In answer to that, the show got on the road. The teams trotted out. The Metrostars and Garters naturally received more cheers, though the Coast City Cloudbursts, despite their unfortunate name, had supporters in the crowd as well. As team members were briefly introduced, Lois provided a running commentary of juicy details about the lives of many of them, drawing the rapt attention of those sitting in the immediate vicinity. Just as she was mentioning that catcher Cindy Rae was a mother with two young children, the man sitting in front of Lois turned around and looked at her. "Where did you *learn* all that, lady?"
She smiled almost smugly. "I'm a reporter, I know these things." With that she took off her hat, loosened and shook out her hair, and managed to look stunning as well as knowledgeable. Clark recognized the warm, fuzzy feeling he sometimes experienced when he was in a position like this, sitting next to her and she was deemed to be someone famous. But he doubted she had ever felt that way toward him without him being in the suit. Oh, well.
The man dragged his eyes off Lois and looked at the person on her left, a teenage girl with orange and green hair who had been hanging on Lois's every word, and then he looked at Clark. The man's expression said, "Does she belong to you, you lucky fellow?"
Clark said, "She's *the* sports authority as far as I'm concerned."
The man apparently decided that this was enough endorsement, the woman had beauty *and* brains (Lois rolled her eyes: "Men!"), and he turned back to whisper to the woman on his left, who in turn looked at Lois.
Lois ignored them and continued to give Clark the benefit of her knowledge of the team. She even knew some statistics for the Cloudbursts, but was plainly suspicious of the hype, though they were admittedly highly ranked in the standings.
As the introductions ended and the multitude were sufficiently primed, the infield lights burst on, and the game got underway. There was a low, distant rumble of thunder from the west that Clark wondered how many other people heard or felt.
The Cloudbursts won the coin toss and elected to take to the field first. This was done, Lois said, as a psychological thing: the home team usually took the field as a courtesy, but the Cloudbursts' pitcher, Suzy Flecher, probably wanted to get the jump on the Metrostars. She was said to be the best fast pitcher in the league and had even been courted by a number of all-male *baseball* teams, but she had turned them down flat. Lois was skeptical but had to admit that after three straight strike outs and lots of superior, bored smiles from members of the Cloudbursts, the Metrostars might have their work cut out for them. "Maybe she'll trip on the steps down into the dugout," she whispered angrily, "and break her leg."
"Lois!" Clark said quietly, though he wasn't really surprised.
"Well, maybe a muscle strain. A little adversity would build her character… Clark, don't look at me like that, I'm not perfect-- *and* I'm joking."
"I hope so…"
"You *know* so."
"Yeah, I'm teasing…"
She seemed to soften, and she patted his arm comfortingly. "I'll have to give you lessons… Think of it this way," she continued in the same private voice, "it's not like it's from my lips to God's ear. If that were so, I'd probably ask for a case of Double Fudge bars for us to munch on and that you… be turned into Superman."
"Oh, great, you'd get fat," which he really didn't want to see, "and nobody would be watching the game because Superman would be stuck signing autographs."
"Oh, I'd protect him. So you *are* interested in the game."
"I thought you weren't. You're acting sort of ambivalent…"
"Well, I think it's really going to rain."
"Oh…" and, oddly, she didn't launch into contradicting and trying to dissuade him from that opinion. Instead she edged closer. "Well," she said quietly, as not to alarm anyone, "let's think positive. Maybe it'll be a *short* rain."
It didn't feel like that either, it felt like it was going to storm, but he said, "I hope so--and I'll try to cheer up."
That made her smile again, all forgiven. Why do I let my mouth run off with me? he wondered. It would certainly be easier to earn those smiles in a more constructive manner…
The Cloudbursts got two women on base but were struck out before any points could be scored. As the teams were trading places, a burst of thunder from the west proved to be loud enough to be heard over some mild cheering for the announcement of the Cloudburst's star pitcher returning to the mound. They shouldn't call it that, Lois said; softball doesn't have pitching mounds, see? No mound; let's get our terminology straight, people…
A brief time out was called. "They're worried about lightening," Lois whispered so as not to startle anyone who might not be able to handle the news. Clark could have told her she was right because he decided to listen in a few moments on the conversation between the teams' managers and the umpire. But they decided that the game should continue.
After the first Metrostars batter managed to hit a single and get to first base, the team's hope, shortstop Sandy Schultz, came up to bat. Her arrival was heralded by the bulk of the crowd, but pitcher Flecher looked unimpressed. Her first pitch, a strike, made it look like her skepticism was well founded, but the next pitch was judged a ball. The two players looked hard at each other, and Lois whispered to Clark, "They're trying to psych each other out." She gripped his arm. "And they're doing a good job of it." He had to remind himself to react as though he were possibly in pain but enjoying it for her sake. He was definitely enjoying it.
After a calculated few moments of staring, Flecher pitched. Another ball. Schultz looked disgusted. "Don't let your guard down…" Lois warned between gritted teeth.
The next pitch, a strike. A collective groan from the audience. "So dramatic and we're only in the second inning…" Clark observed.
"Shut up," tersely. "If it's really going to rain they're giving us our money's worth, okay?"
"Okay, you're right" because that did make sense, and it *was* exciting. Relax, he ordered himself, have fun, and *clam up!*
Thunder accented the next pitch, which Schultz swung at, connected with and sent sailing toward the far left outfield and, fortunately, into no one's waiting mitt. The first batter, Jenny Baker, who had started running furiously as soon as Flecher had let go of the ball, made it home, but Schultz only got as far as second and was pinned there. She hardly looked winded.
The crowd went wild. Leading them, Lois jumped up cheered and then pulled on Clark, who had thought it was enough to clap and to do that sitting down, since it wasn't *that* big a deal this early in the game and Schultz's "get ready" signal to Baker had been clear (to him at least). But sensing Lois's insistence and determining not to disappoint her again, he stood right up to do his clapping and even cheered with the rest of the crowd.
Moments later, as the wild music that had burst on to heighten emotions began to gentle, everyone settled down again and the next batter came up. Clark noticed that the tumbling clouds had erased the last glimpse of the darkening fall sky. Two great banks of lights looming over the far right and left fields flickered to life, making the clouds appear even more tumultuous.
He wondered if he was the only one who noticed all this, as though he were back in Kansas, standing in a field with his father, learning how to read the sky.
"That's Reeta Palmer," Lois informed him, "She'll bring Sandy home, I guarantee it."
He asked himself why he was so preoccupied with the sky when there were much better things to look at, like at Lois. He found himself smiling, which she didn't notice. She was intent, concen- trating on what was happening on the field, probably wishing she were down there managing things. She'd do a great job, wouldn't she? How nice it was to see her totally engrossed in something not the least bit work related or life threatening. Add to that she was doing it with him, willingly, and gripping his arm again. Now her fingers moved up to intertwine in his. He hoped she wouldn't hurt herself doing this, though it felt just fine to him. We should have done this a *lot* earlier, he told himself. This was certainly one way to keep her from flying away.
Flecher had apparently heard of Palmer's prowess and, according to Lois's instant analysis, wavered between deciding whether to walk the batter or go for a strike out. Flecher went for the latter and was, despite Palmer's best effort, successful. Everyone groaned, Lois fell back and slumped in her seat (but didn't let go of his hand), and even the sky agreed, thundering.
The next batter hit a long one but it was snagged easily. Schultz just avoided being tagged out as she slid back to second. The wind picked up noticeably. "This does not look good," Clark decided to whisper carefully to Lois as several people in their area of the stands began to finger their umbrellas nervously.
"But Dyane Levatan's coming up to bat."
"Maybe we should go up and watch through the windows."
"Windows? No, it's okay. She doesn't have much experience with the team, but I hear she's really good. They got her from Boston, can you believe it?"
"That's not what I meant, and what's wrong with Boston?"
The crowd hushed. Wow, Clark thought.
Levatan swung at and connected with the first pitch, grounding it into left field. It would have been an easy-out on Schultz had the Cloudbursts' third base player not been startled by a flash of lightning and the almost immediate crack of thunder following it. Play resumed quickly, Schultz safe on third, and Levatan having made it to first unchallenged.
"The Cloudbursts keep making errors," Lois complained, "that's no way to play a game…"
Whistles were blown and the announcer declared that another time-out had been called. The field began to clear.
"Darn! Now what's wrong now?"
"You call this rain? It's just few drops!"
Umbrellas began popping up like mushrooms, blooming all over the stands. The heavy raindrops splattering uncertainly grew more con- fident and the wind began to rise. Clark stood up and pulled on Lois, lightly but leaving no doubt. "I think we better go inside," because that was really the only choice and a lot of other people were deciding the same thing and if he and Lois didn't move now…
"But…" She stood up reluctantly, just as the rain lost all pretense of shyness and began to build into a merry, gusty storm. "Whoa!" She grabbed on to him to as though to steady herself, which worked and was nice, but Clark noticed that the people behind her were lobbying frantically for her to get a move on, so he had to ease them both into the stream of fans flowing toward the exit. He toyed with the thought of picking her up, but she wouldn't have let him hear the end of how embarrassing that might be.
People started losing things to the wind. Umbrellas turned inside out and full grown men had to hold down their hair. Hats went flying, and, unfortunately, Lois had apparently forgotten about hers and it was among those escaping to previously unknown heights of freedom. She yelled at it, as though that might reverse its course, but it went sailing out over wall into the next lower tier of seats. "Damn!"
"I'll get it--"
"No, I can--"
"No." He turned her and gently but firmly propelled her into the flow of people moving upward and she had no chance to do anything but go with them toward the exit or be trampled. She glanced back frequently, clutching the unopened box of Crackerjack. She looked upset, but so did everyone else, that was life.
He turned sideways quickly and stepped back and down and to the side, into an empty row and waited until the last people straggled by a few moments later. He was by this time rain soaked but not otherwise uncomfortable. He noticed that Lois made it to the exit door safely, that she was sheltered there from the rain and wind, and there she had stopped and was watching him.
Her concern was marvelous, but it did prevent him from moving faster than a human might to retrieve the hat. The few other possible witnesses left in the stands were struggling to get to shelter and didn't have time to care about a nut cavorting in the storm. Too, at a distance illumination was poor because the large, artificial lights were having trouble penetrating the gusty storm. He was reasonably certain though as he went down the steps to the next lower level that it would be impossible for her to see him even if she stood on tiptoes.
At that point he took off his glasses, folded them and hung them safely inside the neck of his t-shirt. He would have tucked them into hyperspace but preferred to wrap them in with his clothing, which made them less prone to getting lost like his spare key had.
He scanned the area quickly and saw that the hat had come to rest under a seat five rows down and six seats over near the next aisle. He looked over the area again quickly, decided he really was alone enough, and zipped down to pick up the hat. On closer inspection, it looked undamaged and actually not even very wet.
As he straightened, another blast of wind hit the stadium and he heard the sound of groaning metal. He had heard this before but had chalked it up to the general adjustment the structure was making to the weather's assault. But this time it sounded different and it took only a moment pinpoint the source: the bank of lights high over far left field. Like those over right field, the lights were held up on long, massive pylons that should have been more flexible and given with the wind and survived it. But the left-field structure didn't look long for this world and as he watched the great lights began to sputter and spark dramatically. Then some internal safety switch was thrown perhaps, and they went out. The structure itself continued to groan and waver back and forth slowly and precariously. It was only a matter of time before it fell, seconds perhaps considering the wind, and Clark knew he couldn't just stand there and watch. There was also something nagging him about it anyhow, and he wanted a closer look. With the absence of light from the stricken structure and the deep shadows cast by the still sturdily standing lights off over right field and those back behind the stands, he felt as safe quickly changing into the suit where he stood as he might have hiding in a file cabinet room at the Planet. This he did in a twinkling, and then he jumped into the air at a blurring speed in case Lois was still watching and the loss of the lights had attracted curious gawkers to the windows.
He circled around and slowed down to appear to be coming in from a totally different direction, and he caught the lights just as the structure gave up, broke free and began to fall toward the parking lot. He wondered about the odds of Lois's jeep in particular getting hit and crushed had the fall been completed, but a simple geometric calculation told him she had parked too far out.
That was all very interesting, but still left him holding the bag. Repositioning and somehow repairing the structure was possible, he supposed, but he wasn't a qualified, licensed contractor. Also, that would make it more difficult to determine the cause of the structure's failure, particularly as he now recalled reading some- thing about it in one of the reports passed on by his source, Jonesy. There were no convenient nearby pastures to lay the totally broken off structure in and all the parking lots were still packed with cars and people racing to them. That left the sports field itself, a safe place as it was obvious that no one was going to play softball there again that night.
He laid the structure down carefully and gifted himself a few moments to x-ray and microscopically view the poles and where they had broken off. The week before the structure had been severely bent out of shape and several poles actually fractured when the Slime Monster had merrily bumbled into it, greeted it in space alien language, and then tried unsuccessfully to eat it when it hadn't replied. Since then someone had "repaired" the damage. Clark flew up and checked on parts of the structure still standing and confirmed that the whole thing had been mended with simple welds. Well, that was stupid. There was no way the structure could have long withstood even a lesser wind than the gale Metropolis was riding out now, and this kind of storm wasn't particularly unusual for this time of year. ZoomRay's Building Contractors had a lot of explaining to do.
Since he was already suited and it wouldn't take long, he hoped, he gave the city a quick once-over fly but saw that the storm was doing nothing that regular folks couldn't take care of. He zipped blindingly fast back to where he had changed into the suit, swirled into his regular cloths, tucked the cap under his T-shirt, wove his way out of the seats, put on his glasses, and ran up the steps. He figured this entire little adventure had taken less than five minutes, and he didn't see any problem in explaining even that length of missing time to Lois.
She was right there at the exit and looking relieved to see him coming out of the gloom.
"Oh, Clark, you're soaked!"
"Men! You always say that!"
"I'm sorry it took so--"
"Well, *don't* worry about the hat, it was a nice hat but I can get another one, and here you are all wet…"
He pulled the hat out from under his T-shirt and put on his best innocent face. "Do you want me to throw it back then?"
That stopped her. She stared at the misshapen thing and then grabbed it. "Don't you dare throw it back out there!" She worked with it briefly and it began to look like a hat again. She did not, though, try to impress him by putting it on, which was good because he wasn't certain he could have kept from laughing.
In a few moments, "There, that's good, almost like new." She took the unopened box of Crackerjack from under her arm, shoved it at Clark to hold, unbuckled her fanny pack, stuck the longer end of the belt through the hat's adjuster opening, buckled the belt again, and the hat hung there safe. Then she reclaimed the Crackerjack and aimed a warm look at him. "People who find lost things should ask if there is a reward."
"Oh, well… Since you took back the Crackerjack, a hug would be nice, but it wasn't that big a deal…"
"Not a big deal?! I lose my hat and you go out and get soaked and I'm supposed to--to shake your hand?"
No, what she gave him then and there felt exactly like a hug. He hoped the one he returned did, too.
"Umm, I guess you don't need my jacket, you're warm," she murmured.
You're pretty hot yourself, he almost said. Instead, he thought it wiser in the long run to whisper "Will you do this every time I get caught in the rain?"
She loosened her hold but only enough so she could look up comfortably, and she did look comfortable. "I just might…" she smiled. She disengaged a little more and ran both hands up his chest to put them around his neck. He dearly hoped he was reading these signal correctly, threw caution to the wind, and homed in carefully to indicate he wouldn't mind if this turned into a kiss.
She didn't mind, either, apparently, because it did, briefly, surprised to an untimely conclusion by close lightning and thunder-- and shrieks from the people he had totally forgotten were still standing around probably trying to decide what to do next and allowing themselves to be distracted by the unexpected romantic scenario.
Lois and Clark broke up self consciously.
Ah, where was I? he wondered.
"Crackerjack?" she asked.
"No." Oh, yes, the other thing, it was a C word, too. "Did you bring your camera?"
"Camera? Yes, always, it's right in here…" she indicated her fanny pack and then opened the main zipper and checked. "Why?--I know, for Superman, you saw him, too, you were… there--but he's gone now."
"Yeah, that's what took me so long. I want to get some pictures of the broken ends of those pylons," and he pointed through the exit; the field and the corpse of the lighting structure were barely visible.
"Oh, you want to take *my* camera out there in the pouring rain for *your* pictures…"
"I won't hug you for that."
"And you can wait until the rain stops, too."
Lightning, a close strike. The lights went out totally and thunder seemed to shake the stadium. She grabbed him, an uninten- tionally frightened hug, but maybe one meant to protect him as much as to seek protection. The remaining softball fans panicked and began scrambling for the stairs as the weak emergency lights came on. Clark could see that he and Lois were in no danger of being trampled and if the fans slowed down they would probably be all right, but he didn't see the need to mention any of that.
In a moment she gasped, struggling to get back on track, "Clark, you're *not* going out in that rain, I won't let you!"
"I don't care if it's the biggest story in the world, you're staying here with *me*."
"I'm not arguing with you."
"No, especially not now."
He could tell that she was reconsidering her position. She relaxed a little but again didn't let go. "Those broken lights aren't going to get up and walk away."
"I agree, I wasn't thinking."
"They're just fine down there, Superman put them there and…"
Apparently this was enough to convince her he wasn't going to rush right out there again. "I'm glad you're seeing the sense of my position," and she patted his chest gently.
"I think your position is a wonderful one."
"Clark, that's not what I meant."
"You don't know what I meant, I meant several things."
"Okay…" but her smile looked satisfied.
"Besides, Jimmy is probably still down in one of the locker rooms and he'll have a better camera than yours. We can send him out in the rain and he can take the pictures for me."
"That's a good idea--*Jimmy's* in the locker room? Did Perry give *him* the press passes?"
Ah, she had asked after them, too. "Him and Angela."
"Angela? Did Angela take Jimmy back? She was doing perfectly well without him--she's a stringer in sports now, did you know that? She's a good writer, maybe Perry gave *her* the passes and Jimmy was the only photographer who was free and she had to take him, though sports doesn't come under Perry's purview, but why he'd have the press passes…"
"It's a mystery to me," and it certainly wasn't worth figuring out and arguing about. "Maybe we should go find her and we'll find Jimmy with her. Do you have a flashlight?"
A penlight, one with a strong battery and plenty of light for her eyes. Using and controlling it would no doubt make her feel better about navigating around the darkened stadium. Too, she claimed to know the best route to the locker rooms and she was certain that she would be recognized and allowed through all doors without question.
They found the staircase, though first she aimed the light at the emergency elevator doors off to the left. "I hope no one is caught in there…" She approached the doors and pressed her ear against one.
He mimicked her (she flashed the light in his face to check this), but neither of them heard any calls for help, and he heard nothing more subtle than that. "Well, we can check again when we reach on the ground floor," she decided and he agreed, though in the subdued light of the stairwell he checked through the walls and discovered no stuck elevators to worry about.
As the stairs had cleared quickly, their trip down was without trouble with the possible exception of something he thought he better bring up and get over with. "Lois, after we find Jimmy and tell him what to do, we should try to find someone in management around here and talk to them about those lights that almost fell."
"That's a good idea. I know Mike Cherry, he'll talk to us if we can find him."
"And then when the rain slows down enough and we can get to your jeep, I'd like you to take me to the Planet and drop me off there, okay?"
"Drop you off? Not 'stay with you'?"
"Well, sure, you can stay, but it's just about my story, you remember, that boring old fraud against city government thing…"
"Boring? When it practically falls on us? Did that contractor you suspect fix the lights, too? Or *not* fix them?"
"No, it's another one, but it's connected, it's the same kind of thing, and I want to talk to them, tonight, get a statement if I can, and all my paperwork's back in my desk, so…" not that he needed to refer to it, he was 99 percent certain of his memory, but it would be nice to shuffle the hardcopy in the background of the telephone conversation.
"Oh, I see. Well, if it was my story and you had the car, I'd ask you to do the same thing--no, I'd probably demand it--I'd *probably* steal your keys if you hesitated and I'd go on my own. I mean, it's not like I haven't ever dropped everything to file a story, you know. You *might* have picked up that from me."
"Yeah, I might have…"
They reached the ground floor, where the lights were working and there were more people, these milling about, obviously waiting out the rain. Lois said, "This way… So let's do this: I'll take you and wait with you and make sure you get home okay. Maybe we can get something to eat in there somewhere."
Wow, that was so natural and thoughtful sounding… "That's a good idea."
"Now aren't you glad we didn't call this a date?"
Yeah, he thought, we might have gotten trapped in the elevator or something… which, on second thought, wouldn't have been so bad.
The first locker room they approached was being used by the Cloudbursts and the security guard, who Lois did not recognize, would not let either reporter in even after they flashed their press identification. The guard did condescend to ask if either Angela or Jimmy were in there, but the runner sent to inquire came back with no useful information. "Well!" Lois told the tall, bored guard, "thanks for nothing!" and she charged off down the hall, toward the east and next locker room. "Just see if I put *him* on my Christmas card list!"
"You don't send Christmas cards."
"Yes, I do! I send a few to special people."
"You didn't send *me* one."
"Clark, you don't live out of town! I always give everybody at work Christmas cards, personally hand delivered, before the Christmas Party, remember?"
"Well, that's not the same."
"Certainly it's the same, it's just… more economical," and she obviously geared up to give him a so-there look but saw that he was smiling. The "so there" turned into frustration trying to cover her own smile. "Stop that, Clark."
"Can't take a simple little tease, eh?"
"I can take them with the best of 'em, and yours are the simplest I've ever heard--there, there's the other locker room. Ah!"
She recognized the guard. He recognized her. Old home week. He let them pass without a whimper. They found Angela and Jimmy almost immediately. Angela was interviewing Sandy Schultz, and Jimmy was moving around taking pictures, none of them revealing, all of them of either bored or anxious players. The rain fell steadily just outside the hallway exit to the field and it seemed everyone felt trapped here. Clark wondered why they hadn't yet been given leave to go home, but maybe there was something in softball rules about that, a specific wait-out-the-rain period.
Lois converged on Angela and her interview, while Clark took Jimmy aside. "Did you see what happened to those lights?"
"Yeah, it was cool! Superman was really--wait, don't ask, I didn't get pictures of him, it all happened too fast and he was too far away."
"That's okay, I understand, I wasn't going to ask about that. I want you to--"
"You want me to go out there in that rain, don't you?" he whimpered.
Distant thunder underscored his fears, but the storm was rumbling away, the wind and rain slacking somewhat.
"No, you can wait until it stops if you want--"
"Good. It looks like you got caught in it, though, didn't you? Gawd, what a night…"
"I was going to get out on the field and get some great pictures, Angela thought it was a good idea, but now this…"
"Earth to Jimmy?"
"Last game of the season before playoffs and… Ah, yeah, Mission Control?"
"Listen: just get me pictures of the broken ends of the pylons that were holding the lights, get as close as you can, get detail. And if you can find a way to get up to where the structure was attached and take pictures of what's left up there, that would be great, too, but *don't* risk your life."
"Hey, I'm not a hero…" Jimmy glanced across the room where Lois was helping Angela by showing her how to ask probing questions; Schultz looked amused. Jimmy lowered his voice and moved closer to Clark. "I guess your date got sort of… washed out, didn't it?" and he looked relieved for some reason.
"No, it wasn't a date."
Jimmy brightened. "It wasn't?"
Clark looked at him carefully. "Why are you asking like that?"
"Like you were worried and then happy about it."
"Me, worried? Happy? Oh, I'm not! I'm not unhappy *or* happy! Or *anything!* Really! Not at all! Ah--I have to go check to see if I have the right film for the pictures you want--and new batteries for my flash--I remembered everything for shooting inside but outside-- who knows? I'll have those pictures for you as soon as I can! See you later, CK!" and he rushed off to dig into his camera bag and pretend to be totally engrossed in what he found there.
All his reporter's instincts told Clark he was not only entirely missing some story here, but those instincts he had picked up from Lois demanded that he grab Jimmy by the neck and shake the truth out him. The cooler instincts he had absorbed from his father and the sense of humor his mother had passed on kept him from acting rashly, indeed acting at all without more information. Maybe some Kryptonian instinct warned him that he didn't want to know anyhow… He decided instead it was safer to see what his partner was doing.
She was trying to discover if the game was going to be rescheduled, but Schultz had no idea; it hadn't been decided, she claimed, talk to management. Clark walked up, was introduced and he shook hands with Schultz, who looked at him appreciatively and then yawned.
Lois gave Angela a you're-doing-a-good-job, get-back-to-it type pat on the back and turned away from the star player and toward Clark. "Arrange things with Jimmy? Good. Let's go find Mike so you can talk to him and then we can get out of here."
Wow, thought Clark, she's remembered my agenda…
But the search for Cherry was fruitless (Clark groaned at himself). Actually, the man was reported to be cloistered with building maintenance and away from all contact with media types. There were several sports reporters waiting for a statement outside the Stadium business office doors and the guard posted there was even tougher than the one Lois and Clark had encountered at the door of the Cloudburst's locker room. Clark peeked through the wall and saw that the office was not in use. He figured that the officials might be out on the field and even less accessible. He then surveyed the gaggle of sports reporters, but Lois put what he was thinking into words: "They don't know what they're doing here, this is hard news, not sports, we're miles ahead of them."
He considered saying "'We,' keemosabe?" but caught himself in time. This had, for now, become a "we" thing, and at the moment that wasn't bad at all. He said instead, "Then it's time for Plan B."
"The Planet. We'll get this story in the morning edition and they won't know what hit them!"
They left the crowded area and headed toward the southeast park- ing lot. Once out of the sight of anyone who might have recognized them and rumor milled their activities, they found themselves holding hands. But that was threatened when she asked, "Hungry yet?"
"How about if I open the Crackerjack when we're in the car?" so she wouldn't let go now to work on opening the box herself.
"Okay, like a reward," and, as though to remind him of the one he had already received, she released his hand and slipped her arm around his waist. This was much nicer, he thought. He put his arm over her shoulders and they strolled along as though they were meant to walk that way. He began to feel a little giddy, and he wished they were in nicer surroundings, like a park, say, Yosemite, or better, crowd wise, the Serengeti or in the mountains northeast of Christchurch, New Zealand…
Because it probably wouldn't have been raining in any of those other places and maybe they could have a nice, long, meaningful talk…
There was a small crowd at the southeast exit. Lois let go of him but only to grab his hand and thread them through. He was beginning to wish she'd stop doing that and just once give him the chance to be the barge. She would be surprised. But she didn't get them both very far, stopping in the last possible the shelter before the dark wall of rain. The parking lot was about a quarter full, dotted over with vehicles sitting in pools of water reflecting the lot's lights and the constant, heavy sprinkle. On the horizon, heading away, was silent intercloud lightning. It was really rather pretty.
"Okay," he said, "since I'm already used to being wet, give me your keys and I'll get the jeep and drive it around and pick you up."
"Ah, no, you're almost dry…" she said absently, not looking at him as she pulled out her keys. "Wait here." She gave him the Crackerjack, stepped out into the rain, cleared the road, and trotted away in the direction of her car.
Why am I not surprised? Clark thought as he went after her, caught up, trotted along side her, and said nothing as they splashed toward the jeep. She unlocked his door first but let him open it as she went around and had hers unlocked just before he could reach over and do it. Everything's a contest with her, he reflected silently as he found and buckled together the seatbelt.
"What?" she said after she had settled in with a wet smush and as she was also buckling up but watching him as she was doing it.
"Clark," she said gently, looking great even though she was just this short of soaking wet, "talk to me."
"I didn't say anything." He was absolutely certain that he had not uttered a single relevant syllable.
"I know you didn't. You look like you're bursting to say *some*thing, but the way we work, *I'll* end up doing all the talking and *you'll* sit there like a lump on a log--and like you're *happy* to be one and that *can't* be true, and I won't learn a *thing* about you like how you feel and I'll have to find a crowbar to pry anything out of you and I don't know where one is so I won't get anywhere--So *talk* to me!"
He almost felt himself cringe. He wanted to talk, certainly, that was the gist of her command, but not about, well, stupid things…
Even with the sound of the rain dancing on the surface of the jeep, a strange silence seemed to reign, one he realized he had to do something about or she'd boot him out and he'd be lucky to see her again because she'd inform Perry she was taking on a new partner and Raul would do just fine.
No, no way.
That was reason enough to speak up.
Except, of course, he had no idea where to start.
Well, he had one. "Are you upset?"
"Not at the moment, but I can arrange to be real fast. Are *you* upset?"
She gave him a narrow look that spoke volumes. She didn't distract herself by playing with her hair, which was hanging almost in her eyes; she didn't start the car, she didn't turn on the heat; she did nothing but look at him. Through him maybe. This was serious.
He decided an amendment was needed. "Okay, a little."
Her tension eased a bit and she added a few ounces of encouraging smile. "Yes?"
"I wish… that we had taken a few moments to discuss what we were going to do before you rushed out into the rain."
"Oh. That we didn't bothers you…"
"Well, I can see that it's not quite the same thing as you pushing me up the stairs so you could get my hat because we were in the middle of the thunderstorm."
"No, that's not the same at all," well, actually it was, but he wasn't going to admit it to her.
"You probably even… saw where it landed."
"And if you hadn't been out there maybe you… wouldn't have seen the lights falling and connected it with your story."
"No, that's not part of it, that just happened."
"Okay, that doesn't count." She looked thoughtful for a moment. She also finger combed her hair back behind her ears, and decided to start the jeep. It roared to life compliantly, but she didn't turn on the heat; he thought he'd probably have to ask her to on his behalf so she wouldn't catch pneumonia. "So… it's not raining so hard now and we knew where I parked, so it didn't occur to you to wait there in the entrance so that I could drive up and get you so you wouldn't get all wet again and you could give *me* a reward because me running out here wasn't… wasn't very heroic…"
What? He reviewed that at least half a dozen ways in about 2.5 seconds. If anything he had been expecting a scolding because he hadn't accepted her running for the jeep as being equal to his getting the hat (and that would have been hard to argue). But this? Reward? Huh? "You *are* upset."
"No…" she reached over and turned on the heat.
That was Freudian, he thought. "Lois…"
She seemed to be refusing to look at him. "Okay, a little…" she said in a small voice.
"I have only one idea for a reward…"
Her eyes met his briefly then strayed down to the Crackerjack box he was still holding absently. "I don't think so…"
"Neither do I." He tossed the battered box into the back of the jeep, reached across her, took her far shoulder, met her lips as she turned toward him, and she accepted the reward graciously.
After a long moment she sat back with a nice little touch of reluctance and smiled, "If I run out in the rain again will you offer another reward?"
"I just might. More likely I'd bundle you up in blankets and make chicken soup for you."
"*That's* the man of action I've grown to love…" and she put on the windshield wipers and lights.
"I am? You have?"
She paused a moment, maybe reviewing things, too. "Could be… We'll need to have a nice, long, meaningful talk about that some day."
His heart barged in, seized control of his speech centers and ordered him to say: "Are you doing anything tomorrow night?"
Her smile disappeared; she gripped the steering wheel for a moment and then put the jeep into gear. "Yes, damn it…"
"We're wrapping up the series. All the neighborhoods are going back to their normal kind of griping and don't need any special reports any more. Saturday night is it and it's all meetings. It was interesting at first, but now it's boring, even the ones at my complex, which aren't getting anywhere anyhow… Well, ah…" She took her hand off the shift and touched his left for a moment. "Maybe… maybe you can see Vanessa… if you want…"
Like it was a trade? He looked away, out the window, and ran his right hand over his face and half way combed his hair into some kind of Clark-like style. He didn't know whether to confess about Vanessa right then--and there and make Lois feel guilty about working with Raul after all this closeness--or to let her continue to think she was being noble and generous. He could win or lose either way.
There could be a third solution. "I think I'll probably stay home and call my folks, or maybe go to a movie," or put on the suit and who knew what then?
"Maybe I can call you after…"
"Sure, that's all right…"
A mutually agreed-upon silence fell between them as she navigated out of the parking lot, joined a thin stream of cars on one of the side streets and queued up for a light. "I'll take Garfield Avenue downtown so we can look for someplace to get carry out."
"But you're doing all the work."
"That doesn't matter."
"It does, this is not easy driving."
"Then I shouldn't take my eyes of the road, so you can do the work of seeing and choosing."
He gave in and along the way chose eight different drive ups or quick stops, from traditional American junk to a new Mexican taqueria and even a Hungarian restaurant he glimpsed, but she hmmmed and hawwed until he suggested Ming's Chinese in the block they were approaching and she said "That sounds good. See? That was easy."
"Right, easy. I volunteer to choose again next time, too."
They pulled in, got out, splashed through the sprinkle, told the woman who greeted them just inside that they only wanted carry out and were given a menu to pour over. They ordered several things, and as an afterthought Clark asked for a pot of tea while they waited. They took a small table near the door and the tea was served within minutes. Clark was pleased that it was warm here and that he had insisted Lois put on the jacket though he wished he had done that earlier. The tea would warm her since he wasn't in quite the position to do so himself. She sat back and looked sleepy and comfortable. He took care of the tea, pouring some for her when it was dark enough and adding an entire packet of sugar to it.
"One's enough, it's too much."
"Another won't hurt you."
She sat up and rescued the little cup. "I don't want to get fat."
"At the rate you go, your getting fat is unlikely…"
"You probably meant that as a compliment…" and she sipped the tea carefully.
"Lois, it doesn't matter whether you get covered in cement or thrown out of an airplane or trapped in a sewer, or even caught in the rain, you always manage to look great. I've noticed that you just sort of… glow through it all… And if you're in any doubt, I mean that as a compliment."
She kept a straight face, just, as she contemplated her tea. "Now I'm really looking forward to having some long, personal talks with you…" She finished the tea. "Would you make me another one? The same sugar will be okay… I might have sounded critical of your t-shirt earlier…"
"Nah…" he said as he poured the tea.
"But you look… very nice in t-shirts, you don't look at *all* mild mannered…"
He glanced at her eyes as he opened a packet of sugar. They were brown, warm and appreciative. Gosh, he thought, she meant that as a compliment. Strangely, what came to his mind next was his mother once suggesting he needed a summer-time version of the suit, with short sleeves and cut-off tights… (he had started to groan; she had continued) and an Australian bush hat… and leather sandals maybe… But Mom had been kidding around with him, poking fun at his discom- fort which she had figured correctly was a humble cover for no small amount of well deserved (she insisted) pride after some super rescue or another.
Clark pulled himself back to the present when he realized he had ripped the sugar open and it had spilled on the table. "Oh, I'm sorry…" he said as he looked for a way to clean it up.
"It happens, they can wipe it up, don't worry…"
He stopped, sighed, and relaxed. She was right, it wasn't Times Beach or Chernobyl. He readjusted his glasses--someday maybe they would actually help him keep focused--and was successful with the next sugar. He replenished his own tea and used two bags of sugar. Give me strength, he thought, I'm just not very good at this…
The food came, rescuing him. They finished their tea, settled the bill (he paid for most of it), and headed out.
The rain had stopped by the time they entered the downtown area, but she dashed them into the Planet's parking building because, she said, despite of the threat of a burglar, or maybe because of it, it was safer to park there now than out in the street. She took part of the food to carry, but gave it back to him when they reached the newsroom so that she could rush off to the rest room to freshen up a bit. "Don't start without me!" she warned, got half way down the hall and then turned briefly. "I don't mean the food, you can start eating, but I want to help you with the other, okay?"
"Okay." He wondered about his own appearance again, but a glance at his reflection in the glass windows the snack machine told him he looked a little bedraggled but otherwise okay.
He put the plastic-bagged cartons on her desk and left them there. Opening and sorting through them would give her something to do. He went to his desk then and checked for messages but found none, and there were only a few pieces of mail that could wait for the next day. About half the regular night staff was in and he waved and nodded at those who looked up to see who had just arrived. Clark pulled out his story files, arranged them neatly and ready to go, sat down carelessly in his chair and put his feet up on his desk, crossing them at the ankles. Hmm, not at *all* mild mannered in t-shirts, eh?
Yusef wandered by and stopped. The dark, slightly overweight man usually covered the police beat. He gave Clark a careful look. "Did you get caught in the rain?"
"Yes. We were there when the big softball game got rained out."
"Oh, I heard about that, that's too bad. So you and *Lois* were…"
Huh? But of course, Yusef would always draw rumor mill material to himself. "Yes, but it's all right."
"Too bad about your date…"
"It wasn't a date."
"It wasn't? That's--interesting. But you're here and not out…?"
Out? Out where? "Something happened in the stadium that may fit into the story I'm working on. Lois is here, too, she's just in the ladies room."
"Oh, I see," as though he did.
Clark doubted it and he didn't feel like explaining further. "Things slow at headquarters?"
"No, they don't start picking up until around ten, actually. I'm going to have something to eat…" he glanced at the white containers and bags of food on Lois's desk; he could probably smell it; Clark made no move to offer to share. "And then I'm heading right over there."
"That sounds interesting." No, it sounded dull. So Clark decided to add, "Lois and I probably won't be here very long, either."
"Oh?" He brightened at that, not unlike Jimmy had earlier. "That's nice. The night's still young, enjoy it! Like a date maybe…?"
"I don't think so…" Jimmy had been fearful that it had been a date; Yusef was fearful that it might not be… why? Why did all these people care? Didn't they have lives of their own to live?
Clark drew himself up and realized his mother would have called this unexpressed attitude of his crabby and she would have been right. Lois and I have really got to talk, he thought; that was the only real, long-lasting solution to everything. Eventually, *eventually*--*soon* it would all mesh: the scenario, the atmosphere, the emotions, and he'd do it, they would both survive it, and that would be that.
"Oh… Well, here she comes. Did she get wet, too? She looks great…"
Lois said to Yusef, Hi! had the police caught Counselor Smith yet? She said Bye! when he said No, they weren't looking, and she dismissed him as he ambled away.
She then began to dig into the food, smiling. "This smells great! I could hardly stand it before in the car, waiting to eat, knowing it was right there…"
She had combed her hair and maybe readjusted her make-up, but he wasn't sure about that. She did, though, look truly great. He wondered if he should excuse himself and straighten up somehow, too, but he still didn't feel the need to. He wanted to start making calls, and as she had shown up, he was free to do so.
She said, "You ordered the…"
"The sweet and sour… yeah, that's it."
"Okay." She put it on his desk and added plastic utensils and a half-dozen napkins. "Can I do anything to help you?" "Not really…" He pulled out from the pile the file with thesuspects other than Bob Singher Construction and thumbed through the contents quickly for the bid information he recalled seeing on the stadium repair. There was a copy of the RFP dated and time stamped the Thursday afternoon after the Wednesday monster mess, and a memo, dated the next afternoon, announcing the acceptance of ZoomRay's Building Contractors bid on the work, with a few dry details of the bid such as the amount that would be paid and the time it was expected to be done. It had been a rush job, which could explain some aspects of the work's shoddiness. He looked through for more paperwork on this particular job, but, as he had feared, that was all he had. Actually, it was good he had that much, he reminded himself.
The memo listed ZoomRay's address and phone, but the phone number had been scratched out in pencil and another one with a different exchange written above it. The photocopy made the correction light but still legible. The change was interesting. Had they moved the company recently? Something to hide? He'd have to ask.
"Aren't you going to eat anything?
He looked up. Lois was watching him. That was odd, usually she didn't seem to notice what he was doing. She was sitting back in her chair, had opened a desk drawer to prop her feet up on, and a Styrofoam container of food was on her lap. She pointed with her fork at his unopened sweet and sour shrimp. "There's rice in that little container…" one of those white boxes with a metal handle; she had apparently placed it there next to the larger container sometime while he had been rooting through the file.
"Oh, okay." His stomach almost growled, wanting a few words with him about priorities here. Under other circumstances he might have told it to hush and reminded it of that comfortable two-week fast he had undertaken while hiking from Casablanca to Aswan when he was 21. But then he had doubled back and gone via the coast, sampling all kinds of the foods, on the way, and he certainly wasn't hiking now. He put the file aside, opened the shrimp, added rice, stirred them together, sampled the food, and decided "This is good."
"Eat a little first, Clark, you need your… strength."
Strength? Muscles? Was she still on the t-shirt kick? Well, a guy just had to learn to accept some things… He did as requested and ate about half of it in a sedate manner, responding to and making small talk, discovering that she was enjoying her meal and that he enjoyed watching her enjoy it. Yes, there were certain priorities here that overwhelmed the mundane world of work…
But the file continued to tickle him. He pretended to check the clock. "It's almost 9, I really better start calling around."
"Can I listen in? I can detect lies, you know…"
Huh? Well, maybe she could this time. But share the story, even this little bit of it, with her?
Yeah, go for it. She didn't look the least bit threatening. Which was a dangerous thing to fall for. "Okay, but don't say *any*thing."
"I'll be good."
"Not one word."
"Okay," I'm being overcautious, he told himself, when here she had been exemplary of late.
He decided to try the only number he had first, the new one replacing the scratched out one. And he got an answering machine that informed him that he had indeed reached ZoomRay's Building Con- tractors at their new temporary number, but hearing this message meant it was after hours and the caller was welcome to leave a message and ZoomRay would get right back to them in the morning. The length of the following beep indicated that only a few messages were queued up awaiting to be attended to, which could be a good sign: he might be the first to confront ZoomRay, even indirectly, with the bad news. On the other hand, he thought, the call might be treated as a warning and those in charge might flee…
"This is Clark Kent with the Daily Planet. I'm calling for Mr. Ray about a repair job that ZoomRay's did recently that has…" Lois was watching him intently; he decided to do something he might not have otherwise, to go for it, "…just tonight broken down with nearly disastrous consequences. I want to get a statement from a ZoomRay's spokesperson before we go to press--"
Clark was interrupted by the sound of a phone on the other end being fumbled with. He noted that Lois was giving him a smile and a thumbs up.
"Mr. Kent? This is Al Ray, I own ZoomRay's. Did you say 'disastrous'? Could you please explain that?"
Clark could picture the man working late in his office, cooking the books maybe, and trying to ignore the phone until the phrase had jarred him into action. So much for my personal biases, he thought.
"Yes, sir, Mr. Ray. A close friend" (Lois's lips twitched toward a smile) "and I were at Metro Stadium tonight when the storm moved in. The wind was intense and nearly blew over one of the big lighting structures they have out there--"
"Oh, my god! Was anyone hurt?"
The concern in his voice made the question sound genuine. Lois was listening intently, her hand over the speaker. She did not look rolling eyes skeptical.
"No, fortunately Superman happened by and kept it from falling into the parking lot which was still full of cars--"
"Thank God! Thank God! Thank God!"
Lois whispered "Genuine but too melodramatic."
Clark just nodded. "Sir--"
"I *told* them--*We* told them! The type of repair they requested would *not* hold in a strong wind, that left field lighting structure--it was that one, wasn't it? We knew it would fall like tooth picks."
"You told them this? Did you put it in writing?"
"You bet we did! We submitted the bid *and* a detailed amendment with suggestions on the *proper* kind of repair. We checked out the site first, of course, and suggested an entire replacement of at least two of the pylons. After all, the City people have been busy and odds were they didn't have time to do a detailed assessment like we did…" he caught his breath, apparently moving into his element now. "But those crazy fools didn't want to hear anything about that, they didn't even want to replace the pylon that monster gnawed on or the electrical work it played with or any of that…" and he sighed.
"Did they put that in writing, too?"
"In effect, yes. They signed the 'read and refused' line on our amendment. I don't understand that at all…"
Lois had sat bold upright and nearly dropped her food container. She waved at Clark and mouthed "Ask him--"
He pointed at her severely.
She gave him such a frown, but then she closed her mouth firmly ("See? I'm not going to say anything--but you darn well better!")
"Mr. Ray, I think this is all fascinating--"
"They insisted on welds! I couldn't believe it then and I can't now. We tried to argue with them, but the man at the top made it pretty clear that if we didn't want the job--and we were the lowest bidder though we still hoped to convince them to revise the repair order. It wouldn't have been a waste of taxpayers' money then. But he said either we did it or he'd find someone who would stop questioning the RFP. We wound up subcontracting it out to Brinx All-Weather, they're the best welders in the county, we use them a lot for tough jobs. We paid them more than we got paid for it and they did a good job, considering, but obviously that wasn't enough… You're sure no one was hurt?"
"Absolutely, I was there, I saw the whole thing," in more ways than one.
"Mr. Ray, could I come to your office tonight and get copies of your amendment and the other paperwork that backs up what you've just told me?"
"Well, you could, but my office was damaged when the monster dropped a bus on our main building, so I've been doing the clerical work out of my home. You called right at the end of X-Files…"
"Oh, I'm sorry…"
"No, it's a rerun from way back in the first season, I guess there's still people demanding to see those old cases."
"But I have the papers here, I can fax them to you if that would help…"
Lois was biting her lip but had calmed down considerably.
"That would be great," Clark said. He gave Ray the newsroom's fax number. "I'll be trying to get a statement from a city representa- tive, too, you understand…"
"Well, of course, but don't let them give you the run-around--You said you're Clark Kent? I read what you write now and then, you're okay. I'll fax the papers to you as soon as I can get them together. Maybe fifteen minutes?"
Clark told him that would just fine, apologized again for interrupting the man's evening, warned he might have to call back for clarification and further quotes, and said goodbye. That's when he allowed himself a grin, returned Lois's thumbs up, sat back, put his feet up again, and dug into the remainder of his meal. He felt really hungry now and wondered where Lois had put the vegetable fried rice order.
"Clark, I take it all back."
"Hmm? Take what back?"
"I told your mother I thought you had the makings of a good reporter, but I was wrong."
"You already *are* a good reporter."
"Oh, *now* you notice?"
"You're a good reporter when you put your mind to it and you've put your mind to this. I know these things."
Huh? "I guess I'll take that as a compliment."
"What I mean is… sometimes you seem to be content to tag along with me and help out and that's all fine when it's appropriate, that's what junior partners do--"
"When we work together, yes, face it, you're the junior partner. But you're doing just fine with this story and I'm proud of you."
"Oh, okay, *senior* partner…"
She didn't rise to the bit of bait but threw out another little stinger, "And even if you have trouble finding a story, do keep wearing those t-shirts…" She rose. "Do you mind if I go hover around the fax machine?"
"Not at all. Just try not to scream when the faxes come…"
"I'll restrain myself."
Clark finished his meal, including at least half of the vegetable fried rice, in thoughtful peace, then turned around to his computer, booted it up and started writing about the near disaster with the lights at the stadium, leaving room to plug in quotes from Ray's documentation and any reactions he could get from City and Stadium officials.
As he was finishing a quick first draft, the Assistant Editor, Mrs. O'Shea, rushed by, stopped and doubled back. "*You're* here?"
"Yes, ma'am. I'm writing something for the morning edition and you'll have it in half an hour or so, I think."
"Good. But weren't you and Lois…"
He heard the fax, which was on the other side of the newsroom near the small copier and the coffee machine, accept a call and begin to churn out paper.
"A soccer game…?"
"Oh, yes. Angela's covering that. Took Jimmy with her."
"Is the game over already?"
"Yes. It was rained out."
"It was? It's raining? I don't get out enough. So your date…"
"It wasn't a date."
"It wasn't? Damn…"
"Oh, nothing. You're not covering Angela's territory, are you?"
He distinctly heard Lois say, "Yes!" and repeat it several more times.
"No, not at all."
"Good. If it were Lois, I'd have a problem. For you I can just say 'No sports.'"
Ah, "Yes, ma'am."
She appeared to remember that she was carrying her coffee cup and immediately resumed her rush in the direction of the Mr. Megacoffee Machine.
Lois turned up. "This looks like all he sent," and she handed over a half dozen sheets of curly fax paper. "I wish they'd get the plain paper fax fixed, this is so hard to read…"
"It's not so bad…" The cover sheet had Clark's name on it, that was easy to read, as was the note from Al Ray that reiterated his promise to help all that he could. Lois came around, leaned on Clark (who had to anchor his chair so he wouldn't roll), massaged one of his shoulders distractingly, reached forward and thumbed through the papers to the fourth page. "Do you mind if I call Mr. Ray about this?" She pointed out Alloicius Smith's signature on the "read and refused" line. "Smith has to be the man at the top he argued with, and the time frame is right if Smith disappeared Friday afternoon because it looks like ZoomRay's was working fast."
"It was a rush job that the City wanted done by yesterday morning."
"Sure, to be able to please the masses with the softball game. I can call Mr. Ray and get his opinions of Smith and *maybe* some clue as to where Smith is hiding out now, assuming it's not on the dark side of the moon and there's only one person I know who can check *that* out for me…"
Yeah, maybe on a *real* slow day. "I'd prefer you to hold off on that call--"
"Yes, as in 'wait.' I'd like to read this first and ask him some questions if I have any, but before that I want to try to contact someone from the City and maybe your Mr. Cherry, if he's talking yet. Then after I talk to Ray you can ask your questions."
"Clark, he may be in bed by then!"
"Lois, I'm not budging on this one."
It was a standoff, and all the neck kneading in the world wouldn't change his mind though he didn't exactly mind her trying that tactic and he relaxed further to accommodate her.
She gave up on it about two seconds later and faced him. "All right, I have Mike Cherry's direct office number. I'll call him and see if he has a statement yet. Maybe he'll fax us one. Who are you going to call with the City?"
"I know a building inspector," though he thought it unlikely that Tom Takara had anything to do with Metropolis Sports Stadium. He found the man's card in his cardfile and turned it over for Takara's home number.
A girl of perhaps midschool age answered the phone politely, asked who was calling, and said she would find her father, please wait. The phone on the other end was put down and Clark overheard typical household sounds: a dishwasher maybe, television commercials, children arguing, a dog barking.
"Yes, Mr. Takara, I'm sorry to bother you at home."
"Oh, no bother, but you've discovered my secret, I guess."
"A married man with a healthy, I hope, interest in a famous female reporter?"
"Oh, that. It happens."
"Remember when Patrick Swayze was in town last year making that movie? My wife took vacation time to go down and watch. She was in two of the crowd scenes *and* she got his autograph."
"She also has this thing about Mel Gibson. Weird, huh?"
"Well, he is flashy… But I have a problem I'm hoping you can help me with…" Clark eased the conversation in the direction he preferred, outlining briefly what had happened at the Stadium. This was the first Takara had heard about it; he said the local station covering the game had reverted to commercials and a "Full House" rerun as soon as the game had been called and the storm started. Takara also said that he had nothing to do with the Stadium, that was Parks and Rec. He knew people Clark could call though, and went through the address book he said was kept near the phone, coming up with two likely names and numbers.
"Tell them I said you should call, they won't mind. Will this be in the paper tomorrow?"
"I hope so."
"And will, ah, Ms. Lane have a story in there, too?"
"I'm not sure." He sat back, glanced over at Lois and saw that she was growling at the phone. "She's trying to get one though." He finished the call with a few quick pleasantries and looked at Lois again.
She had hung up her phone with a bang. "I couldn't get through to a human being. I hate that! His answering machine claims that the storm did some unexpected damage, unspecified, and they're investi- gating it now. I left them a message and asked that they fax us an official statement about the damage--and I specified what damage I meant--*if* they have one, before we go to press. That sounds politer than I was, but I wasn't unpleasant. It was a close thing though…"
"I'm glad you controlled yourself, you don't want to make an enemy."
"I'm hoping he'll take it as a warning that the story might not be complimentary to Stadium management and act on it. After all, we have a good reputation and he doesn't. Are you going to call Al Ray back now?"
He hadn't had time yet to read what Ray had faxed, but he wanted to do so before talking to the leads Takara had given him. He picked up the fax and prepared to take his time reading because Lois was eagle eyeing him impatiently; too bad she couldn't think of something else to do because he could get through it a lot quicker.
She stood up. "I'm going to get a cup of coffee. Want one?"
Ah? "No, thanks…" He watched her choose the cup she wanted to use (the one with multiple trademarked images of a comic-bookish- style Superman flying all over it) and walk away. Wow, was she becoming a mind reader? That could be either dangerous or thrilling… He shook his head, checked his immediate surroundings, then speed read the remainder of the fax and made a few written notes about it. By the time Lois returned he was on the phone to the first of Takara's leads. But the phone rang and rang. The second lead was successful. The man he talked to confirmed having seen the damage at the Stadium; he had also watched Brinx All-Weather Construction fixing it. They had done a good job, the man said, considering that was not the kind of repair needed. Everyone had grumbled about it, especially Brinx. But what could a person do, what with the higher ups only willing to sanction so much? A waste of taxpayers' money…
Clark couldn't use the contact's name because he wasn't a city official, but "an unnamed city employee" could confirm Ray's story and clear Brinx as well, at least at this point. All that was missing was Smith's statement and it would most likely remain missing. Instead Clark knew he'd have to make an effort to get something from some city official. He called the mayor's office and got the night switchboard and the run-around. That was to be expected: the story wasn't so big as to pull the Mayor out of some party, and it had only happened a few hours earlier. More people would be talking about it and trying to explain it the next day--particularly after they read his article.
He heard the fax and went to check. It wasn't a statement from the stadium but a menu from a new restaurant a few blocks away. How did they get our number? he wondered. He put the fax on Laurie's desk because she decided on what was and was not posted on the menu bulletin board.
"I don't think I'm going to get any more tonight," he told Lois as he sat down at his desk again, "And I don't have any questions for Mr. Ray right now. Would you tell him that when you call him?" and he passed the number over. She gave him a most accommodating smile and restrained herself from snatching the paper right out of his hand.
He turned back to his computer to fill in the missing spots in his story, listening with half an ear to what Lois was asking Ray once she reached him and introduced herself as Clark Kent's partner (not senior partner, he noted). She was polite, warm and professional and drew the man into a detailed conversation but got little useful information, to Clark's way of thinking. He finished his story, LANed it to Mrs. O'Shea, gathered the supporting evidence, and started to make his way toward the woman's desk with it.
At that moment Jimmy and Angela entered the newsroom from the elevator. "Got the pictures, CK!"
"Great. When they're ready, give them to Mrs. O'Shea."
"Will do." He looked over the room and his voice turned nearly into a whisper. "Is that Lois?"
Clark checked. She was still on the phone. "It does look like her, yes."
"Does this mean…" Jimmy looked stricken, "you two might still be going out tonight?"
What *was* this with people? "Do you want to sit down? You look like you're going to faint…"
Angela grabbed Jimmy and just about shook him. "Don't worry about him, Mr. Kent, he's been babbling incoherently all evening."
"Oh." That meant the young man would probably be all right.
"And," she smiled, "I *like* that t-shirt!"
Angela dragged Jimmy away and Clark escaped in the other direc- tion. He found Mrs. O'Shea at her desk; she was already reading his story. He gave her the file of supporting material (the RFP, memo and faxes) and answered all her questions about evidence and reliability of witnesses. She said she would take care of choosing the pictures and any faxes from the Stadium. At the moment, the story did look fit to print for the morning edition, good work; go home and get some rest.
Rest? he thought as he walked back to his desk. Do I look sleepy? He didn't *feel* sleepy…
Lois was off the phone but staring at it, a combination of thoughtfulness and frustration. "I'm *this* close…" she sighed as she measured it between thumb and forefinger, "but it's just not coming together…"
"It's not an easy story, Lois, but you have a lot more than you did a week ago."
"Yeah, thanks to your plugging along…"
"You know what I mean. Slow and steady gets the job done and that kind of thing nobody ever believes really works."
"All the paperwork you came up with," she added then grunted as she reached into her purse drawer and pulled out her fanny pack. "Stuff I wouldn't have thought to look for…"
"Well, it was just there…"
"But mine isn't 'there' yet. Maybe if I sleep on it, I'll wake up and it will all have fallen together."
"Sometimes that works."
She stood up. "Are you ready to go home? You look tired, too."
He looked down at himself. "I do?"
"No, but I feel tired and I don't want to feel like I'm the only one who does…"
"Oh, okay, I'm exhausted then, totally beat," and he relaxed his shoulders more than he usually did, letting them slump. This was the total opposite of the way he tried to look in the suit, where he made every effort to affect a strong, upstanding, square-shouldered, straight-backed, boring pose.
"Then I'll take you home so you can get some rest."
He cleaned up his desk quickly, powered down his computer and was ready to go. In the elevator and walking through the parking garage he remembered to tell her he didn't think he would be in to the office until around 9 the next morning because he had an appointment.
"Oh, the dentist again?"
"No, just… business," which was about as close to the truth, that being the meeting with Murray, as he dared get. He didn't feel like making up some stupid excuse this time. "I'll miss the budget meeting," he said as she unlocked his door. He got in and reached across to unlock hers, which this time she didn't rush around to beat him to. "But I think I'll be talking to Perry a lot tomorrow anyhow."
"The big story on Sunday, hmm?" she asked as she started the jeep.
"Yep, it's time."
"Your parents will enjoy reading that."
"They save everything. They read yours, too."
"I know, they're so sweet. If you call them tomorrow and they ask after me, be sure to tell them I said hello and everything's going really well as far as I'm concerned."
That seemed to confirm she had enjoyed her brief vacation in the countryside. Maybe, he thought, he could convince her to take more time off, and take it with him. It was beginning to seem she wouldn't scoff at such an idea, if he planned it out and presented the idea in an appealing manner.
The drive to his place was a pleasantly quiet one. The traffic was light, the streets were calm, drivers were well behaved. The city's whole attitude seemed to be washed clean, benevolent and welcoming. The clouds were clearing, and clean, bright stars peeked through where there wasn't too much ambient light to overcome them. He felt drawn to go cruising just to be flying and not looking for trouble. He definitely did not feel tired. And maybe she could be convinced not to feel tired, either, and they could maybe find a little more personal "trouble" together. As she turned on to Clinton, he turned to her. "Lois--"
She was looking at him and said at the same moment "Clark--"
"Oh. Ladies first."
"Clark, that's so unpolitically correct!--But okay." She pulled up in front of his house, put the jeep in neutral, set the hand brake and turned to him. "Since we're both busy tomorrow--"
"I was thinking of this evening."
"The night's young, it's just gotten started…" even though it was almost ten, it was *Friday night*, and people could stay up later, some people, two he could think of immediately, one of them being him.
"But I really am tired…"
Oh, well, of course, she had been pushed around by him and rain soaked and frustrated about her story and all that… "I understand."
"Are you busy Sunday afternoon?"
That was unexpected. He reviewed his schedule. He had something super he wanted to do in Africa starting early on Metropolis's Sunday morning, but other than sit around and watch a TV football game on Sunday afternoon… "No, I don't have anything planned…"
"I know things can come up--for both of us, but in case noting does, I'd like to come over here to your place and bake something."
"Bake? You? Here?"
"Yes, I bake things all the time. Well, maybe not *all* the time, but I know how to turn on an oven--and before you ask, I'd like to do it here because the electricity keeps going out at my place and, besides, I can ask you for help if I need it. You don't have to do anything else, you can sit and watch, and" she leaned a little closer, "we can have a nice, long talk…"
"Consider yourself invited."
He almost proposed lunch, but the scheduling part of his mind reminded him that he might not be back in time for that. "Two would be good."
"Then it's a…" she obviously searched for the right word.
"We're not at the Planet."
But she looked around carefully, as though they were being watched, and then moved close, very close. "Okay," she whispered, with a smile, "it's a… date," and she made it clear that she thought they were too close not to seal it with a brief kiss.
Then she booted him out.
He stood watching her drive away. As she turned on to Sinibaldi Avenue, he saw that she had a sleepy smile on her face and that she yawned mightily.
She really *was* tired! The boot was a compliment because she knew he'd understand! But if she was that tired… He zipped up the steps and into his apartment. He checked things quickly as he headed for the bedroom but saw that nothing was out of place, has private little world was secure. He swirled into the suit and was out of his bedroom window in practically no time. He watched her drive home safely and that made it a perfect end to a just about perfect evening. Unless you liked softball, but he wasn't thinking about that kind of game at all.
[commercial break here]
To be continued…
[The author thanks Laurie, Mel, Kay, and Marie for proofreading. Note: Murray Brown was introduced in the episode "I'm Looking Through You" and then promptly forgotten.]