By Debby Stark [email@example.com]
July 9, 1995
Summary: Lois thinks that Clark may be ready to tell her about his secret identity. Meanwhile, Clark, Lois and Jimmy work on a follow-up to the corruption story.
This continues the story started in Dawning and continued in Dawning II, 3, 4 and 5. If you missed any of those (and all this really should be read in order), ask me, visit ftp://ftp.swcp.com/pub/users/dstark, or ask the fanfic index for them. All recognizable characters mentioned below are the property of their respective owners, but the ideas are mine, *all mine!*
Tuesday morning, Clark Kent almost missed his second budget meeting in a row, but Lois Lane saw him rush in from the elevator with seconds to spare and head for his desk, glance over it and grab up a pen and note pad. When he turned toward the conference room and saw her standing there outside the door, he smiled as if she were the best thing he'd seen in ages.
That made her tingle a little; he really did have good taste--but she beat-down that too-smug thought. Then she felt doubly glad that she had hesitated to enter and claim a good seat.
Her first reason for lingering had been Raul Velasquez. She had decided to let him get a chair and, as had become his habit, reserve one next to him for her. Then she would enter and fail to see or hear him, or remember he was also a resident of this time continuum. She would find a chair on the opposite side of the table, maybe one near Perry, who still frightened a lot of the staff, or preferably sitting next to Clark, who had not yet turned up as she had formulated this plan.
I'm a coward, she thought, I should just *tell* Raul…
Well, she'd tried.
Tell him more forcefully then, so he'll believe you. *Chica linda* my foot…
But there was something holding her back from whacking a hefty dose of sense into that fellow reporter, and she wasn't quite sure what it was.
"I'm sorry I'm late," Clark said quietly as he approached and glanced into the meeting room. It was half full of muttering, leaderless staffers. He sighed but he sounded relieved, too, as though life was changing for the better. He said, "It's been just one thing after another."
"That's all right, I understand."
And she did. More than anyone else, she thought, she knew that the last 36 hours had been hectic for him.
She had stayed with him at police headquarters after the attempted firebombing of his home. They had given their story to several varieties of police officials, chatted with three of Clark's neighbors who had come to see that the accused stayed in jail, and tried numerous times to interview the malcontents. By 6 p.m. Lois and Clark had gathered enough information to take in to the Daily Planet to write a story about it. She had composed it because he said he felt too close to the whole thing even though he agreed that his expose that had probably triggered the attempt. She wondered if he felt guilty, if he worried that the neighborhood might have burned down if he hadn't been home.
Well, she thought, he better not be worrying about might-have- beens, he simply couldn't be everywhere at once, though it was obvious now how often he tried to be, even when it meant leaving in midsentence.
So to help him out of his slump she had insisted he edit her work. He had looked appropriately surprised but hadn't made any cracks about the request. He fixed the spell-checker-fooling typos she had planted, suggested one paragraph was a bit harsh and said a second didn't have any backing, but overall he gave his approval to what there was to write about the story. The accused duo hadn't said a word to anyone but their lawyer, a woman neither Lois nor Clark had recognized, and none of the three had wanted to talk to any representatives of the press. The police were having trouble confirming their real identities, and bail had been denied.
They took our warning about Intergang to heart, Lois thought. She also thought that maybe Black and Jaxon were their real names, and she had every intention of tracking down them and their lawyer. She had told Clark as much and he hadn't argued like she expected, but shrugged and said, "Okay, be careful."
"Of course! I'll talk to Bobby Bigmouth tomorrow."
"Ah, do you want me to chip in for some… chocolate eclairs for him?"
"No, I'll make the Planet pay for them."
Clark had smiled at that but said no more.
That's when it had occurred to her that he might have been in shock. Not big shock, no, he looked alert enough, but a tired, I-don't- care-at-the-moment shock. Not, say, like her own screaming-somebody- will-pay-for-this angry shock at seeing that tentacle draped over her apartment building, not Clark. She wondered if he was thinking of leaving the investigation up to the police, figuring they'd identify the two soon enough. Maybe he thought the well publicized failure to "punish" him and then Superman being his guardian angel would discourage more tries. But could he remain blase about finding out who was behind the criminal action?
No, his apathy would likely disappear after some peace and quiet, she had told herself. He probably just wanted to go home and assure himself everything was okay.
Then she felt bad about having pushed him. There must have been only a few things he felt secure about in life, he'd almost been bombed out of one of them, and here she was, insisting he look for her typos.
So she laid aside making any suggestion that the night was still early. His idea of adjourning until Wednesday evening and including dinner was just fine. This mess would all be a memory by then.
It had been nearly 7 when Mrs. O'Shea had accepted their story and Lois could take Clark home. Too bad he doesn't drink, Lois had thought while they had headed back to his quiet, unassuming apartment building. He could have used a brandy to help him sleep, if such things effected him at all. He claimed not to be hungry, though he made an attempt to offer her whatever she'd like if she wanted to come in to a place that probably smelled like a filling station. She had let him off the hook as gently as she could and then had insisted that he call her if he wanted to talk about anything, for just any reason. He'd smiled, said sure, and he seemed to appreciate the hug she gave him. It was times like these, she told herself, that people needed a lot of hugging. No one but his parents had been able to do it and they hadn't been there for him every time…
Well, I'll fix *that,* she had reminded herself. Soon, very soon…
The next day she had wondered if he had gotten any sleep, because even Superman could use a breather. She had no doubt that Clark had been visited by neighbors to see if he was all right. Then a radio report the next morning had him busy from around 11 p.m. until well after midnight rescuing three of five miners from a cave-in in West Virginia. Two had been discovered dead, how depressing.
Had he found the time to call his folks Sunday evening before they read about the arson attempt and got all worried? *I* should have called them, she thought, disgusted with herself. But then they knew they could call her if they couldn't reach him. When no call came, that was all right, too. They had survived Clark giving them bigger worries, like the time the asteroid threatened the earth and no one knew where Superman had gone after he breaking it into more manageable pieces, when he was right there all along, hurt and as confused as everybody else. No wonder they had rushed into town.
She had forgotten about that one. There were so many incidents in her relationship with Clark that made *sense* now…
Too bad he hadn't felt like sharing any of them with her, but she could just almost understand the pressure he was under… and see how carefully she'd have to work on him to accept her as a confidant.
And try not to think of him as a jerk for not already realizing her trustworthiness and coming clean with her.
This time she didn't chastise herself for that thought. If she couldn't find some humor in this, she'd likely try strangling him the next time he gave her one of those astonished little looks that said "Gosh, Lois, you noticed me!" as though it hadn't yet occurred to him that she might even like him…
And when he wasn't a jerk, he was just so infuriating sometimes… and then endearingly guileless, trying to save the world on the one hand and be an essentially regular guy with plenty of regular guy faults to overcome on the other.
Except she couldn't imagine herself falling for just a regular guy and he had to be shown that, too…
Monday morning she had hardly seen him except for his rushing in and out of the office several times to confer with Perry and check his pile of messages. She had been tempted more than once to stick out her foot and trip him, and finally got his attention around 1:30 by throwing a paper clip at him.
When he had looked up from his Rolodex, surprised, she had asked, "What are you doing for lunch?"
"You know, the midday repast? It's late but I'm sure we can find food somewhere in this city."
"Oh, that. I'm… working through it, I guess."
"Can I help?"
"Help?" his expression had seemed to say, like the idea of asking for some was new in the world. Who could he have picked that up from? He sat down to think about it, catch his breath maybe, and then he jotted down a list of names of companies. He asked her to find out what she could about them, a computer database search and outlines would be fine. He could do any city records searches ("I know you hate doing those") if she found anything that might require that. Naturally, they were all building contractors based in and around Metropolis--and totally boring when she would rather have been probing an Intergang connection, or maybe even Lex Luthor's interest. His most recent resurfacing had been in that attempt to steal the Etruscan gold exhibit from the Metropolis History Museum. She'd ruined a perfectly good dress hanging on to the back of the runaway security van though someone had rescued her on the fly-by as her grip was about to fail.
But when Raul had mosied by later that afternoon with one of those too-friendly looks on his admittedly sweet face, she could claim a genuine excuse for having absolutely no time to talk to him in the foreseeable future, maybe not even for the next several lifetimes. She was planning on getting lost in Records at the Court House, she said, though she didn't put it quite that way for fear of his gallantly offering to accompany, protect and gently guide her along…
Talk about jerks! Clark, Raul makes you look like… well, she had shaken her head at herself, you *are* him, but still…
She had made copious notes about the companies, left them on Clark's desk, and saw they were gone the next morning. On her own desk she had found a long-stemmed daisy with a note saying "Thanks!" and a scrupulously drawn smiley face. The remainder of Monday had been Clarkless, and he didn't call that night, not to bring her up to date or even to chat. She did receive several calls from her neighbors, who were gung-ho about forming a vertical neighborhood watch, but she didn't want to deal with that. She didn't feel endangered, and the antimanagement conversations they tried to draw her into didn't attract her. If it had been some other building and some other person's problem, then maybe she would have felt her justice-seeking investigative juices stir.
She had to admit that she simply didn't care very much about her neighbors. It was a live-and-let-live sort of thing: don't play your stereo too loudly and I won't put superglue in your door lock. Besides, the disputes some of the more vociferous tenants were having with management seemed to be simmering on the back burner and didn't involve her directly anyhow. There were more important things going on in life. She had curled up in one of her comfortable designer chairs with a pad of paper on which to make notes for her novel because it was calling for revisions. But she wound up gazing at plump Maxine swimming sedately around her large, otherwise unoccupied tank (if one didn't count the five red snails and Lois didn't).
She had watched the news before going to bed and saw that Superman was helping out at a railroad tanker car derailment in Ohio. When do you find any time to *sleep,* Clark, let alone call me?
So she understood why he looked a little tired when, despite all that, he asked almost hopefully, "Were you waiting for me?"
"Yes," she smiled, but there simply was no time for a pleasant chat to reinforce the idea that she was indeed waiting for him, in more ways than one, but that she could be incredibly patient when called upon to display that virtue. Patience, she would have argued, was one of her strong points. "Come on, I think we can still get two chairs together."
As she had hoped, two were free on the far side of the table, and since she entered first, Clark wound up sitting between Raul and her, possibly forestalling any approach by the smitten young man. Not that she wanted Clark to do anything, but if Raul thought he might, being as large as Clark was and Raul not knowing him well…
Moments later, Laura Sidbury snagged the seat Raul had saved, but he didn't notice the move, his soulful eyes filled with the woman with whom he claimed to be falling in love. Laura said "Hi," distracting him, and he smiled at her, pleasantly distant.
Lois tried to listen to the room's general chatter and catch gossipy tidbits, but that wound down quickly as Perry entered, worked his way through and commandeered his usual chair. He straightened the papers he had brought along in a come-on, let's-get-moving manner as more staffers rushed in and found places to sit. There were chairs left over though today, no one had to stand. Perry was pulling reporters, assistants and photographers off the various Slime Monster-related stories and returning them to more regular news, so they didn't necessarily have to be here. She intended herself to be among those, starting this morning.
She was thinking about how to help Perry believe that reassigning her would be his own idea, only half listening to his review of the news highlights for the day, when she heard the word "Superman." She glanced secretly in Clark's direction as Perry said his sources had finally confirmed Dick's claim that Superman had helped the UN deliver food to the starving capital of West Bougainvillea on Sunday; the reporter could now go with the story. Hmm, Lois thought, that could explain the Spiderman t-shirt Clark had worn Sunday afternoon: he had been too tired to think of how it would appear. Still, he had looked cheerful and wide awake. Maybe he did simply like the shirt.
As she knew he rarely deal with international news for the paper, Clark didn't need any particular visible reaction to the UN story. What did you expect? she asked herself, that he'd claim "Yeah, I did it, it was nothing" and offer to sign autographs? Like Martha had practically come right out and said, and Lois had figured out for herself on one of her sit-and-thinks at Kent's Hole: down deep inside, Clark was who he was and wanted to be; Superman just happened to be how he used his special abilities to help people, and he was doing that a lot lately-- to the point of exhaustion again?
If you fall asleep right here, Clark, Lois thought, how am I going to hold you down? She considered grasping his hand, but not only would that startle him, it would look decidedly odd. She didn't care about the rumor mill (indeed, she'd started some rumors just to observe their evolution), but she wondered now how conscious Clark was about such things--if he realized them at all. He probably didn't want to draw attention to himself unless he was prepared for it. So she didn't touch him, but she considered discretely prodding him if it looked like he was about to nod off.
Perry started around the table, asking for updates and progress reports, giving encouraging smiles or stop-messing-around tilts of the eyebrow, and handing out new assignments. When he got to Raul, he complemented the reporter's wrap up of the neighborhood saga in Monday's edition.
"I couldn't have done so well without the wonderful assistance of Ms. Lois Lane," he claimed--no, Lois thought, cooed. How silly…
She noticed that two staffers hid smiles behind their hands; most, including Clark, were smart enough to keep straight faces.
"That's all well and good--"
"What is the next assignment you have for us?"
Nearly everyone at the table perked up at the "us" part of Raul's gallant question. Most of them glanced quickly at Lois (but not Clark, who was concentrating on his notepad and something that looked like Chinese). She set a mild-mannered expression on her face. Thanks, Clark, for teaching me that; I guess I need you, too.
Perry didn't nibble at the bait. "Laura's heard that the Bank of Metropolis is trying another take over round. Smaller banks this time, community banks."
Laura leaned forward. She was a pretty young woman who had an MBA and enjoyed reading the Wall Street Journal almost as much as she did busting criminal business activities. She nodded at Perry and looked at Raul. "The BoM has its eyes on the People's Bank of Rinconcito, which has done a good job providing for its community, and I need to know what the locals think about the possibility that the biggest bank in town might try to swallow it up."
"But I know nothing about banking," Raul said, casting eye cries for help at Lois, who hoped he realized she was ignoring him utterly and he should grab instead for the life preserver Laura was offering.
"That's all right," Laura said. "I know the banks and you know the people. That's what I need."
"So you'll be working together on this," Perry said in a "that's final" tone, but a tone that didn't indicate to Lois that he was about to launch into an Elvis metaphor, Raul hadn't pushed him that far. Perry turned to the next staff member. "Now, Duane, about this weasel story--"
"But Lois and I were…"
Perry silenced Raul with a stern paternal look. Close, Lois thought, but still no Elvis.
Lois would never argue that Raul didn't learn some things fast. The young man cleared his throat and said in a small voice, "I will be pleased to work with the intelligent Ms. Sidbury…"
Laura smiled. Lois doubted she had any designs on Raul, but one never knew. Laura was single and rumor had it that she was a tiger in her private life, but a discrete, picky tiger who probably wanted Raul for nothing more than his considerable knowledge of El Rinconcito. Lois wished them both well, glad to have Raul off her hands at last because he'd probably fall for Laura next.
Then she noticed that Clark was looking at her secretly--and that he looked away, all innocence, but she'd caught that twinkle in his eye. He was feeling all right, she thought; and he probably wouldn't fall asleep, which made her feel more secure. She was sure he still needed her copious help in many ways, but not at the moment to keep big secrets under wraps.
Perry continued around the table and confirmed what Lois had suspected, the news biz was returning to its normal level of turmoil. He even made only one reference to Elvis, and that was of the mild "Great shades…" variety when Victor McCoy mentioned the rumor that some of Lex Luthor's associates had been seen in the elegantly restored Green Meadows subdivision south of Metropolis. Perry reminded Vic that while the rumor was interesting, more than just rumors were needed for a publishable story. Get pictures, he said, or witnesses so that Falcone could sketch out what they had seen.
When he reached Clark, Perry smiled and said, "What did I tell you?"
"They're swarming out of the woodwork, just like you said."
Contractors of dubious repute, Lois thought.
Perry nodded. "It looks like you're going to need some help."
"Lois helped me yesterday and…" He looked at her, eyebrows raised.
Ah! He's been thinking about this, too! She snagged the ball and raced down the field with it. "…and Clark will need another hand with a stick in it to beat the story into shape. I still want to see if Singher got his bombers from Intergang." She had mentioned this at yesterday's budget meeting, too, but Perry had eased her off of it in favor of awaiting Clark's input. Lois hadn't pressed because Jaxon and Black were still not talking; her computer search on them had turned up a big, fat zero; and their lawyer had no associations to be suspicious of. So there was nowhere to go on it yet, not that she could admit to Perry, anyhow. Gad, she thought, what if they were run-of-the-mill hoods Singher had picked up off the street? Where was the story in that?
"That really was something," Perry shook his head and then smiled. "Pulling a poorly thought out stunt like that. Intergang--*if* they're involved," and he shook his finger gently at no one in particular who happened to look like Lois "*if*--why, they must be dredging the bottom of the barrel for leadership. But it figures, considering how many of their management team we've put in jail…"
Appreciative laughter filled the room. Many of the reporters around the table had helped reveal the inner workings of the once-mysterious crime syndicate.
"The DA thinks he may be on to them again, too," Clark said. "I found out late yesterday afternoon that he wants me and several of my neighbors in his office first thing tomorrow morning. I don't see getting away all day."
Tomorrow? Lois thought. Wednesday? His day off? The day before the evening dinner and cookie baking and who knew what?
Lois was almost certain she had figured out the "what." She had thought it odd that he had pointed out two things: that they could talk that evening and that the next day was her day off and she could relax. Why would he worry about her relaxing--other than it was something a friend would think about--he'd never worried about it out loud before if only because she couldn't be forced to relax and he knew that. But now he had mentioned it. Why would he think of that, unless he thought she'd be tense, upset, and what could make her tense and upset about a simple chat at dinner?
Unless, of course, he didn't plan it to be simple, that he thought that something about the time was right--moreover that *she was ready*--and he was going to tell her the truth about himself, tell her all, and he believed she'd need her day off to think about it…
If she hadn't been in a big hot bath full of slippery bubbles when the idea had occurred to her Sunday evening, she would have jumped up and shouted hallelujah!
Perry said, "Dawis wants a coup so bad he can taste it."
"He didn't put it that way. He sounded *quite* concerned and wants to be *extremely* thorough."
"Well, of course he'd say all that in front of an audience and particularly in front of a good reporter. God, I love election year! It looks like we can pull Dan in on this, too."
Dan Gibbons perked up. "Well, you know, he announced last month that he's going to crack down hard on terrorism. Remember Mr. Stern's editorial? 'Dawis Dumps on Crime'? And how Dawis called terrorism 'the scourge of today's major American cities'?"
Lois noticed that she wasn't the only one at the table to smile at this. The presence of their own Superman pretty much precluded run-of- the-mill terrorism any more.
"That's another point," Perry nodded. "Mr. Stern likes Dawis."
"True, and he's an okay DA," Dan continued, "Except, of course, he's forgotten that Metropolis hasn't been scourged for quite a while. The Slime Monster was terrible, yes, but it wasn't a terrorist; I didn't get that feeling from it, anyhow. It *was* way too big for Dawis to tackle, bring down or even explain. And I haven't been able to come up with any more than Lois has about anyone in city government trying to find out who… imported the thing in here, either, if anyone did."
"Actually," Lois cut in, "Betty Reed--she's a detective with Metropolice--she called me yesterday morning, after the budget meeting. She read my Sunday sidebar and she's interested in finding Councilman Smith now. I gave her what I didn't put in print, and I know she'll keep in touch."
"That's good," Perry said. "If *she* decides there was an outer space connection, *we* can mention that angle." He looked pleased but then he could, Lois thought, he'd boxed up her options. Betty was highly unlikely to think "outer space" even though Lois had dropped hints (like star maps and the space station's position) right and left. But until she, Lois, got real proof of the supposition, she'd have to sit on it. Perry continued, "So we have several fronts to report this story on. It's a sad thing you had to be the only victim of terrorism that the DA could find in the last month, Clark, but it looks like you have an in and I want you to stay with it."
"I'll take a lot of notes."
"Good. With Lois's help, you and she can probably wrap up the contractors story by tomorrow as well." Then he turned to the next reporter and the meeting ended within ten minutes.
Back at their desks, Lois and Clark made quick plans to get on the road. Lois said she would drive since she was part of his story now.
Clark protested. "But the bus is so *exciting*--"
"Take the bus wearing these heels?" She pointed. "You've got to be kidding."
He looked down at her fashionable feet. "Those are nice, but I like those walking shoes you have, too."
"They're in the car," she whispered. "I'll put them on if we go to any construction sites."
"We probably will. I took two complete tours yesterday but had to beg off a third one because the thrill was just too much for me."
And, according to what Lois had heard, he'd had to be Superman for some typical emergency. "I thought you loved that stuff."
"About as much as you do. It was all right when I was on to something fresh, but all these contractors who are calling us are trying to prove how honest they are and, frankly, it's boring now because by and large the *are* honest."
"Well, we can get bored together, and cover twice the ground in half the time. I can catch up with you today and wrap it up tomorrow while you're busy with the DA, okay?"
"I think that's the only way to approach it."
She liked it when he agreed with her. He was much better at being agreeable than she was, she admitted, though it wasn't *that* much of a strain for her to try to be. If she could just get the nuances straight…
She retrieved her purse and matched his step walking toward the elevator. "Where first?"
"Hey, I usually ask that…" but he smiled. As they awaited the elevator, he pulled out a neat sheaf of papers from his jacket pocket. She recognized that the top sheets were her notes with his own small, neat annotations.
"I think we can just see a sampling of them. Elizabeth Parker at Parker's Construction down on South Elm was eager to talk and she had a good sales pitch. We can drop in on her first."
"I remember her, she started up and runs the company herself. I thought that was nice. I hope she isn't a criminal."
"The angle that she's a woman running the company is one we can write about if we decide to."
"Then it's a good thing I'm going with you: she may prefer to talk to another woman about the business," and, she thought, to Clark about, say, dinner, but she knew he wouldn't let such advances get far. He'd act polite, make no commitments, promise nothing, maybe even pretend (if he was pretending) that he didn't understand any subtle flirting. Of course, it would be nice if he turned such proposals down flat, saying his girlfriend would get upset. Without that excuse to fall back on, Clark had proven to be wishy-washy in the past. Maybe now, though, the wishy would wash right out and she'd get to witness it.
The elevator door opened, the elevator was empty. Oh, good, she thought as she entered first and turned and smiled at Clark, who returned it as though he also thought that their next few moments alone could be long, meaningful ones.
But then she saw Jimmy rushing toward them, waving. Clark caught the door before it could close again. Jimmy slid in.
Clark asked. "Got a big assignment?"
"Sure do! Perry wants me to go with you. It was that or take pictures of bank buildings and people talking about them. One building looks just like the next one to me, but maybe the buildings you two will look at will be more interesting. Maybe they'll be in the middle of knocking one down or blowing one up or…"
Jimmy babbled on, displaying a finite architectural acumen. Lois thought it a not-too-clever cover for spying on them and maybe Perry's aiding and abetting him in the assignment. She looked at Clark. He was looking at her. They sighed in unison, which, she reflected, proved he really had been thinking what she was.
In Lois's Jeep, Jimmy sprawled out on the back seat and then sat up and changed his topic to trying to interest Clark in the many pockets in his new photographer's vest.
Better you than me on this one, pal, Lois thought as she made it clear she preferred to concentrate on driving. She noticed via her rearview mirror that Jimmy kept glancing down between the front seats to see if either of them were reaching for the other's hand to hold. Surely Clark saw that, too. With all the attention, she doubted that he would make that move. He'd bravely confront the Slime Monster or Lex Luthor, or both on the same bill, but showing such a more-than-friendly gesture before a big-eyed, bigger-mouthed audience was a bit much even for the gentleman of steel. Which, when she thought about it, was endearing.
As they headed south toward's Parker's Construction, though, he made it clear that his mind had been working over time. "Lois, does Jimmy sound a little hoarse to you?"
"Ah? Yes, he does…"
"Hoarse?" Jimmy asked, his voice clear and strong. "Like… a farm horse?"
"No, like a coming-down-with-a-cold-and-straining-your-throat hoarse."
Lois nodded. "He could use something to drink."
"And eat, too, to keep up his strength."
"Oh, yeah!" Jimmy brightened. He hawked and cleared his throat dramatically. "*That* kind of hoarse! I've been feeling a little weak lately, ohhhh…"
Clark went through his pockets, gathered together some money, and handed it over to Jimmy, who had collapsed back and was straining to look pale. Lois pulled into a convenience store in the next block. She and Clark both assured the young man that he should take his time. Jimmy rushed away into the store.
Lois shook her head at him, then looked at Clark. "Clever."
Clark turned to her. "Thanks. I just need a minute or two to talk to you."
"Exactly. Dan and Perry were probably right about the DA wanting to crack down on terrorism and me being the only terroree he can find, so to speak. I have no idea when I'll be able to escape that meeting, and then there's a regular neighborhood association meeting that night, too. I'd forgotten about it, and I really should attend if I can because of what happened."
"I understand." She looked down, saw his right hand and that he raised it to meet hers half way. That felt good. "You have great neighbors. I didn't realize you were so involved with them. I used to think your life was more like mine, mostly taken up with the Planet-- and of course your parents…" "Yeah, well…" he said, humble but probably not realizing it.
What else could he say, she asked herself. Even if one didn't count the tight blue suit and what he did in it, Clark had a full, complex life. He's *much* more interesting than Superman--No, that wasn't the way to put it. It was more that his Superman side was beginning to… dim in comparison with the real person.
And now, too, he was noticing that she was noticing, which explained why sometimes he looked surprised--and confused maybe, since he must have become accustomed to her practically ignoring him.
You're being too hard on yourself, girl, she told herself; I bet he wouldn't agree with any of that. Unless cornered, threatened and ordered to tell the truth and not be so polite…
Yet, despite all this, he was still romantically inclined toward her… Which was so sweet that somebody here in this car, she thought, needed a good wise-up smack.
"I guess I wouldn't want to miss that meeting either."
"You can come if you want, but you've probably had your fill of that kind of thing…"
"Oh, I don't know. This one I can just sit back and watch. I won't have to be a reporter unless we decide there's something newsworthy. I know you don't need another friend there, you have plenty, but--"
"But you're a special friend--who doesn't *have* to come…"
He was so concerned that she'd be bored to tears, but the word "special" was what sat up and waved. "Okay, I won't *promise* I'll come, but just in case, where is it being held?"
In the Merkle Avenue Unitarian Church community room at seven, and he added that the North Metropolis Tibetan Buddhist Society would meet there the next night if she'd like to attend that, too.
"Oh? You think I'm interested in Buddhism?"
"Considering your martial arts practice and your… your sense of serenity lately…"
He'd noticed "Serenity?" she said, whatever that was, and not all the blatant faux pas?
"Or equanimity--and this is *not* a complaint."
"I'm not taking it that way." No, it was a confirmation that she was heading in the right direction after all and could relax just as she had been demanding of herself that she do. That natural flow she'd assured Martha that she would work with, the subtlety and grace… as nonsensical as all that had seemed of late when things backfired…
But he had seen something in the way she was and labeled it serenity--and, she told herself, a serene person notices more! He thinks that's why I'm acting this way, he'll get used to me noticing him and he won't be surprised anymore… Serenity rules! Work on it!
"Actually," she said quietly, making sure the smile she added looked natural. It felt natural… "I'm flattered that you've noticed. Lucy wrote to me about a self-discovery class she took at Molly's place and gave me all the lurid details," which was mostly true, though her sister had mentioned it in part of a long e-mail message and not in depth. Lois had also thought it a yawn at the time. "I've been trying to practice some of the principles."
"It's made a difference, little things don't seem set you off any more. Big things…"
"Like Slime Monster tentacles smothering my condo…"
"But that was understandable and you were tired, and even then you got over it quickly. And before that, like… when that fellow commandeered the tank, escaped from prison and kidnapped you after shooting up your engine," and he motioned toward the front of her jeep. "You were incredibly calm throughout all that."
The admiration in his voice was impossible to miss even though, as she recalled, he had witnessed most of the event as well as rescued her while being Superman, and Clark shouldn't have known how she had reacted through that. No doubt sometimes he got confused with what he was and was not supposed to have seen. She herself had shrugged off the adventure, all in a day's work, when reporting on it to her friends and the world. In private she had been plenty mad, particularly when her insurance company had balked at paying for the engine work. She had needed a few hugs herself then.
It also occurred to her that the kidnapping had happened in June. He thinks I've been serene since then? Or maybe even *before* that? Have I? What did he say… there in the kitchen when he was looking for the wok… something about keeping my promises since the first of the year, getting better at that… He thinks… Oh my gosh, she thought. After that prison escapee mess had calmed down, he had invited her to dinner at his place the following Saturday night but she had declined the offer--politely!--because of having already committed to spending the weekend with Lucy.
Has he been trying to tell me the truth about himself for some time now and things just keep getting in the way?
She realized her mind was wandering. She let the light of recognition come to her eyes, as though the memory of the kidnapping had escaped her temporarily. "Oh, yes, I remember that. You looked for me everywhere."
"When you were practically right under our noses."
In the basement of a deli down the street from the Daily Planet building. At least she hadn't starved during her day-long captivity. "It's amazing the things one suddenly realizes that have been right there all along. Self discovery is a wonderful thing, Clark," as were certain other forms of discovery--like slap-a-girl-in-the-face-with- the-truth forms of discovery--which he didn't have to know about at the moment.
"It's made it easier to talk to you, too--not that we've had much *chance*…" He nodded toward the convenience store and Jimmy bursting through the door and rushing toward them.
"Umm," Lois said. "Well, I'll pay for the next snack stop."
Jimmy held a large, capped and strawed cup of soda in one hand and a brown paper bag in the other. He put the bag on the roof, opened the driver's side back door, grabbed the bag, tossed it inside, followed it himself, closed the door, and said "Whew! I got some Double Fudge *Mint* Crunch bars, Lois! Want one?"
"Mint? Are you sure?" she asked as she started up the Jeep again and began to pull out of the parking lot.
He confirmed it and handed the left-over change and two candy bars to Clark, who pocketed the former and put the latter in the storage container between the front bucket seats. "They're mint, all right," he said.
"That's a good omen, they're hard to find. Maybe we can come back here…" to ditch Jimmy again. But work beckoned. "Clark. What are we getting into at this Parker place?"
He outlined it briefly: "We'll identify ourselves, they'll be glad to meet us and happy at our expose of Singher, who everyone else in the industry thought was a criminal--though oddly no one thought to throw him out of their business association. They, on the other hand, give a fair day's work for a fair day's pay and would we like to see some of it."
"Sounds like *real* fun…" Jimmy groaned and made a funny noise with his straw.
While Clark tried to calm him, asking what the pockets in the left- hand side of his vest held, Lois tuned them out, watched the road, and let her mind wander a bit. So, Wednesday night was out. She'd have to suggest changing it to Saturday night and remind him that they both had Sunday off, though he might think of it himself. Saturday was such a long time away… but it was beginning to look like he had an agenda of some kind so it might be a good idea to play along, to give him a chance to prove he wasn't really a jerk, just a victim of poor timing.
The visit to Parker's Construction went precisely as he had predicted. Also, Parker was pleased to talk to Lois, a sister in the world of big business. Clark stood aside as Lois collected details in the company's business office, and during the obligatory visit to the construction site he pointed out things for Jimmy to take pictures of. He acted, she thought, like he had tagged along for the learning experience, when in reality he had stopped doing that only a few months after he'd become her partner. Lois, who under torture might have admitted to knowing little about the construction business, noted the questions he quietly slipped in and his follow ups, and was sure she would use variations on them the next day when she was on her own. Parker eyed Clark appreciatively during his talkative periods, but, if the site she escorted them through in hard hats was any indication, she was a far too busy woman to pursue the interest.
They were on the road again by 11, heading toward the next business, Suki's Samarai Reconstructors and Kung Fu Dojo. "I can't believe that name," Lois said, "but they checked out okay with the Better Business Bureau."
"More local color."
"This is *so exciting…*" Jimmy yawned. "And it's wearing me out and it's nearly noon and--"
Lois pulled into the first supermarket they spotted and gave him a twenty. "Don't spend it all in one place."
"And don't fill up, we can have lunch after seeing this next place."
Seconds later they were alone. "You'd think he could do more than take pictures and eat…"
"He's just young," Clark said, then he asked, "Are you busy again Saturday night?"
Bingo! "No, unless I'm busy with you." Did that sound encouraging enough? If not, she told herself, add this: "I love it when you take the initiative sometimes, Clark."
He blinked. "You do?"
"Yes, it's hard to have to think of everything all the time. I mean, I may *look* like I enjoy being in charge--well, actually, I do, but sometimes it's nice to relax… So, we can have our Wednesday dinner Saturday night then?"
"I won't have much time to prepare anything, but I'd like to try it. 7 o'clock?"
"That's fine. Then we can both relax on Sunday and maybe have a picnic, hmm?"
"There's an idea. We'll see how things go Saturday."
He thinks I'll be in shock, probably thinks I'll run away, screaming into the night. I certainly might have before. "I'm sure things will go just fine. What are you thinking of making so I can bring wine."
"Hmm, cookies and wine…" but he smiled.
"*Dinner* and wine. We can make cookies some other time."
"Okay. How about pasta? I can put it together in the morning and then heat it up when I get home."
Yes, with that heat vision. No, he'd prefer the challenge of the old-fashioned oven. "That sounds good. Can I come early and make the salad? You know I'm good at that."
"Sure. You can set the table, too."
"Umm. So pasta. A white or light red wine I think…"
"Fine with me, I don't know anything about wines."
"You, Charlie the bartender versus the Toasters?"
"Oh, that. I memorized The Bartender's Guide for that job."
"Sure, and traveling all over the world was no help at all…"
"It wasn't, vineyards weren't high on my itinerary. In fact, they weren't on any of my itineraries. The only vineyard I know anything about is the one Mr. Dobson is nursing along back in Smallville, but I hear it's doing all right."
"Wine in Kansas?"
"Yeah, I know, weird… but exciting. More exciting than me in some ways."
"Oh?" to tickle him out a little more. "I don't believe it."
"I should warn you. I can be quite a boring guy, Lois, when I'm…" carefully "not on the job…"
The Superman job? she wondered. Probably, and an unpaid one at that. No doubt there were times he wished life were more safe and boring. "I have noticed you're a lot more domestic than I realized--but like it or not Perry and I have turned you into an investigative reporter and that's not boring--"
"No, it's 90 percent research--"
"And 10 percent terror, sometimes more, and you're stuck with it, even though you'd rather be writing, oh, fuzzy, heart-warming, human- interest stories like that theater one you surprised us with."
"There are certainly times I'd like to avoid the terror. You get into enough trouble for both of us."
"True, but it makes me wonder sometimes why I don't put you to sleep because I don't get drunk or zonked out on drugs,"
You can't, she thought.
"no fast cars, no fast… well, you're the fastest woman I know-- next to Cat, but…"
"Yes?" I'm *not* helping you on this one…
He didn't need it, he hardly missed a beat. He said simply: "I'm glad you're not like her."
"And I'm glad you put it that way. I wish it were Saturday evening already."
"Me, too… but I can use a few calm, pedestrian days in between. After this morning, things couldn't get much rougher…"
There was a lead in if she ever heard one. He was, she told herself, opening up, sharing with her. Insisting on Friday night that he do more of that had been a brilliant move--but *careful,* girl… "Did something happen? Is it why you were a little late this morning?"
"Well, my landlord knocked on my door at seven sharp--I didn't even know he got up that early--and politely informed me that I had until the end of the month to vacate."
That made her sit up. "WHAT!?!?"
"Yep." He looked so calm, no doubt just as he had looked upon getting the news. Calmly thunderstruck, probably. Had it been me, she thought, she'd have been screaming, she just knew it. He said, "I did consider giving you a call so you could come over and give him what for…"
"You should have! How dare he!? You're probably the best tenant he's ever had!" and she growled in what she hoped was the direction of his landlord's no doubt slimy pit of a home.
"Yes, well, maybe. Mrs. Wallace is probably a better tenant, seeing as she's never been broken into. After I got over the shock, I invited him in and showed him where the gasoline had spilled and how I'd cleaned up, there's no more smell or anything. Then I reminded him I signed a new year-long lease in July and according to it, I'm supposed to give him 60 business days' notice in writing by registered mail, and he's supposed to do the same, or all kinds of penalties come into play."
"Don't tell me you memorized your lease…"
"No, but I've read it. Haven't you read yours?"
"I'm not even sure where mine is… No, it's in my file cabinet-- that doesn't matter. Did he back down?"
"After I added that I still had the registered letters he sent me and Mrs. Wallace last spring telling us how he was going to fix up the place. He raised the rent on the basis of that, but the only replaced the rain gutter on the south side of the building. *I've* done more repairs this year alone than he has in the three years I've lived there." "And one of the repairs he was going to do was…"
They said in unison "Put screens on the windows."
He continued: "It was right there in writing, I offered to show him in case he'd forgotten. Then I pointed out that I'd have to report that he was evicting me to the neighborhood association--which is when I remembered about that meeting--and he's frightened of us because last year we made him clean up another building he owns in the area. He should have done it himself, he's making money on it now."
Who needed Superman when they had all those neighbors? "So that's when he backed down."
"Faster than a speeding bullet. We're great friends again, but his, ah, visit still made me late."
"And it had to be a strain, no wonder you looked tired."
That made him pause and give her one of those "you noticed?" looks, but she didn't feel like strangling him because he recovered quickly and smiled a little. It wouldn't do to strangle him after that. "Maybe I'll get some sleep tomorrow while the DA is droning on and on…"
"I don't think I want to go with you to that one."
"I should hope not, there's at least two more contractors to be visited."
"Well, it is, it's very important. Our readers are demanding to know all this…"
"I think they turn to the funny pages first, I do…"
"Me, too, most times…"
Jimmy returned with more junk food to share and they headed west this time. Suki's Samarai Reconstructors and Kung Fu Dojo was a storefront with windows painted off-white, a stylized circle of dragon and tiger on both windows and on the door, and evidence behind the long, one-story building, of construction supplies in a fenced-off yard.
Lois said, "It doesn't look very busy. Maybe they have classes in the evening."
"I'd like to learn kung fu," Jimmy said and he demonstrated a few fancy moves Lois thought he had probably seen on TV. "It would really impress Angela, and I could protect her if we went out on dangerous assignments together!"
"I'm sure they'll be glad to sign you right up," Clark said and he patted Jimmy's shoulder, obviously in hopes of calming the young man so they wouldn't make a poor impression when they entered the dojo.
As they approached the front door, they heard the sudden sounds of a fire engine careening in their direction. Lois had noticed it moments earlier but, like any long-time city resident, she had ignored it since she wasn't in her car and didn't have to wonder if she should pull over. She had another assignment anyway, and it was probably just a false alarm. They turned to watch the large white vehicle careen off of Baker Ave and pass them heading west, followed seconds later by two ambulances and the sounds of yet another fire engine.
"Smoke…" Clark said.
"Oh, there, I see it now," Lois pointed, for Jimmy's sake. There was a small, dark, billowing shape just showing over the western treetops.
"Well, West Metro High School is in that direction," Jimmy said. "I wonder if the students are ransacking the library again? Ha! It could be the food, too, we heard rumors about that when I was at Central Metro--"
"Jimmy!" Lois growled.
"Oh, sorry…" he cringed. "You don't want to hear about the rats, either, do you…"
This was, Lois thought, no time for levity. Clark would probably want to check this out in person. Indeed, he was trying to draw her attention. He was turned toward her, his mouth open, an excuse to disappear being formulated. "Lois--"
"Clark! This Suki's place, it's a natural for me to take, I'll know if they're a *real* dojo or not and if they know a claw hammer from… from Claude Raines. I can keep them busy while you call in to see if Perry has anyone covering that fire or if it's a false alarm or what."
He looked surprised and then as though he realized he shouldn't, that it was a perfectly reasonable suggestion. He closed his mouth then opened it again. "Ah, okay, that's a good idea."
"And I think I saw a phone booth right around the corner," she pointed, indicating the direction from which they had come.
"But don't you have a cell phone?" Jimmy asked.
"It's broken!" she snapped, then sighed at herself and touched Jimmy's shoulder. "I'm sorry, I keep forgetting to recharge the battery and I'm mad at *myself*--*okay?*" and it *better* be…
"Oh, yeah, sure!" and Jimmy nodded quickly.
"I don't recall seeing a phone booth back that way." Clark motioned vaguely. "But I'll… go check."
"Take your time. I know it's hard to get through to Perry, he might even be at lunch already…" which was why Perry had Laurie, Mrs. O'Shea or any number of others to make decisions or pass information along, but that didn't matter now.
"Ah, right…" and he gave her such a look, which she interpreted as him wondering why she hadn't instead insisted that they abandon questioning these silly contractors, all pile back into the jeep and chase after the fire trucks.
But it was only a brief look before he trotted off to find out that she had actually seen a dumpster and a stack of wooden pallets down that alley. Those would probably give him enough cover to change clothes.
He stopped at the corner, looked back at them and pointed into the alley. "There's no--"
"Well, just look for one!" Do I have to do the thinking for us *both*?
"Okay…" said as though he had decided that if his finding a telephone would keep her on the current investigation it was worth the search. Bright boy. If he had pretended that, yes, there was a telephone booth there and she had called him on it… now he could say he had looked high and low and regretted wasting the time, and they would return to the Planet and find, what luck, that Superman had saved the day.
"Lois, can't we go see if there's a fire?"
"No." She turned and grabbed the handle of the office door.
"But it's a *fire*, Lois! With really great pictures to take, I'm *sure* of it!"
"Jimmy, if you've seen one fire you've seen'em all--"
"But *Superman* could turn up!"
Seen one superhero, seen… "Jimmy, if Perry tells Clark we should cover it, I'll get us over there so fast Superman will wish he'd hitched a ride with us, okay?"
Jimmy's shoulders slumped. "Okay…"
"Don't be disappointed, this could be fun."
"Yeah, I *bet*…" Then he whispered as she opened the door, "I've heard of them, they have this act. They were supposed to show it live on TV a couple of months ago, but they got rained out, and then there was something wrong about the fang or wang or kang something of the building, so they brought in a wrecking ball instead. Boooring…"
"Maybe it was the feng shui. It's sort of a combination of, oh, astrology and building position. But if TV didn't get it, *you'll* get the great pictures everyone else missed, see?"
"Oh…" He brightened. "Hey, yeah!"
"And you're a good photographer, so relax and let *me* do all the talking."
Suki's front office was spartan. There were spindly palm plants on either side of the entry, an uncomfortable-looking bench and a small coffee table. On one wall was a Japanese painting of reeds and on the opposite wall were framed black-and-white photographs of masters and students, all in white gis, black belts and hardhats, standing in front of the remains of a brick building. Jimmy wandered over to look at them.
Before her, sitting at a nondescript metal desk, was an elderly Asian man wearing glasses and a well-worn white gi. He was consulting slips of paper and entering figures into a ledger. He also appeared to be totally unaware that he had customers despite the windchime that had rung merrily upon their entry. Lois stepped up to the desk. He failed to notice this except that he did adjust his glasses. She cleared her throat and said, "Sir?"
In one move he looked up, his eyes popped, he jumped back almost out of the chair, and turned to his left and screamed something that sounded like Japanese in the direction of a door in the wall behind him. It reminded her of the shouting she heard in busy Asian take-out food kitchens except it had an agitated edge.
By now Jimmy had rushed to her defense, which he seemed to interpret as standing somewhat behind her in case of attack from the rear. She told the man, "Sir, I didn't mean to startle you…"
He regarded her with suspicion.
Fortunately, within seconds a much younger man also dressed in a gi appeared through that door behind the desk. He said something in Japanese to the old man, who didn't seem at all appeased, then he smiled at Lois and Jimmy. "May we help you, ma'am, sir?" he asked in perhaps slightly New Jersey-accented English.
"I'm Lois Lane, I'm a reporter with the Daily Planet, and this is Jimmy Olsen, my photographer." She noted that the young man nodded but did not approach. She continued, "We're colleagues of Clark Kent, and he received word that you wished to talk about your company…"
"Ah, yes! I am glad that he could send you! I am Suki." He stepped right up and they shook hands. "I own Suki's Samarai Reconstructors and Kung Fu Dojo. This is my Uncle Tan…"
Uncle Tan said, "Pleased to meet you," in a voice deeper than his shout had indicated possible. He didn't look particularly pleased and he didn't move to shake hands, which Lois didn't regret.
"Yes…" she said, happy to concentrate on this Suki person instead. "So you do contracting *and* run a dojo?"
"Yes, we diversified last year. When times are slow in one we can concentrate on the other. We used to average one contracting job a month, usually publicity stunts for the builders, but they paid well just the same. Of course in the last two weeks that portion of our business has been very busy, but not too busy to show you around," he smiled, "and to show you that not all contractors are criminals."
"Oh, we never intended the public to think that, but they should be informed when there are fraudulent business people preying on their wallets and not caring about safety."
"I think so. You have an interesting angle on the business. I'd like to see your dojo."
"Certainly! I have to be on a job site at noon, but there's plenty of time to show you around here--and you might like to go to the site, too. Mr. Olsen, you may be interested to know that our hard style team will be there."
"Hard style? What's that mean? Like bricks, breaking bricks? And is there an easy style, like throwing bowls of… batter pudding?"
"But Ms. Lane," Suki chuckled, "humor is the essence of martial arts."
"Yeah, Lois!" Jimmy said smugly and then looked at the businessman. "And *she's* the martial artist, not me…"
Suki considered Lois with the interest of one artist for another, and she admitted that she had studied a little Tai Kwan Do and Tai Chi. Before Jimmy could proudly correct that to "a lot!" she dug her fingernails into his arm while apparently in the process of simply gathering his full attention. "Get out your flash in case Mr. Suki allows us to take pictures."
Suki shrugged and said there wasn't that much to see, all of today's students were out at the site, but he showed them around the dojo anyhow. Lois asked some questions about it, but it looked like a typical dojo, with mats and sparring equipment hung away on the walls between the mirrors, a well polished wooden floor, and a high ceiling that allowed for stick practice. Outside in the back, he showed them the fenced-in area where construction equipment was stored under cover. She took a peek here and there for appearance's sake and Jimmy snapped off a few pictures. This looked like nothing more or less than a small business doing well. Probably Clark would have thought of some good questions, but she could easily say, "About this site you keep mentioning…"
The man checked his watch. "Yes, we can go there now. Do you care to walk…" He noticed her shoes.
She suggested they go in her Jeep and talk on the way. Suki was agreeable. As they left, she tore a sheet from her notepad, wrote out the address of the site for Clark, and left it with Uncle Tan, who looked relieved that they would stop disturbing him.
"That's a good idea," Suki said after the office door had closed behind them. "Uncle Tan might pretend not to know any English and give Mr. Kent the run around. It wouldn't make a very good impression of our business, I'm afraid."
Lois wondered how many Asian languages Clark knew to try out on the fellow, but since he didn't need to deal with anyone else like his landlord today, the note would relieve him of that. "I expect your Uncle is a good bookkeeper though."
"No, he's average, but he *is* a good astrologer."
"Wow, I'm a Leo!" Jimmy said.
"Fascinating," Suki smiled. Lois gave Jimmy a "watch it!" look.
Lois and Suki talked on the drive to the site. The contractor admitted that so far all their construction business had been tear downs. He had two teams: the advance students studying the softer styles, like Aikido and Tai Chi, practiced their skills by probing out buildings, finding weak spots and meditating on further weakening them or projecting Chi into them. The second team was made up of those interested in the hard martial arts. "Younger people mostly. They enjoy kicking and shouting," Suki explained. "We make sure they're up to it and won't hurt themselves."
"I can appreciate that. And the Feng Shui aspect?"
"Ah, yes! Uncle's specialty." Uncle Tan examined each building they were contacted to tear down and advised about the day and time to do it. He also assisted architects in building construction so the resulting structures would sit in the most favorable manner.
"Jimmy," Lois said as they pulled up to the site, "Mr. Stern brought in a Feng Shui expert from Hong Kong before he rebuilt the Planet Building, you remember…" "Yeah, I remember that little guy. What does it do, bring good luck? It must work, we haven't been blown up or taken hostage or gassed or drugged or anything else in there since then."
"That's it precisely, Mr. Olsen. Now let me show you the part of the building we're going to tear down today and introduce you to my students."
Suki found hard hats for them and escorted them through the gate in the fence around what had once been the Metropolis Orphanage and Foundling Home. It had been severely damaged when its roof had caved in during one of the Slime Monster's numerous touchdowns around the city, but fortunately Superman and the Fire Department had evacuated everyone in time. Suki said they had been contracted to knock down one wing as part of a fund-raising effort.
There were three masters and 16 students in attendance, as well as the building's owners (a bevy of nuns) and, outside the fence, several of the Home's former employees, a large group of children waving flags and tooting on little horns, a number of dignitaries on their lunch breaks, and the regular passersby drawn by the excitement. Lois thought this was becoming a better assignment all the time since it looked like they were the only reporters in attendance, but with its obvious human- interest angle, it was more Clark's kind of story. Perhaps he'd get a chance to see some of it unfold. She began interviewing people and Jimmy started taking pictures.
At high noon the process began. Letting out blood-curdling screams, the students attacked the building at predetermined points using a variety of hard styles and the occasional hand-held weapon. Jimmy let out a whoop and ran through the dust and noise taking pictures. Lois noted that either masters or nuns had to grab him out of the way several times, but that it didn't daunt the young man, who was at last in his element. Every time she saw him tackling a job in such a manner, she felt there was hope for him and she determined to try to be nicer to him.
Several pages of notes, one wall down and a call for a break for green tea and meditative peace later, Lois noticed Clark standing outside the fence by the gate talking with the Home's volunteer coordinator. Too bad, Lois thought, she had already interviewed the woman. Lois went over to him, looking for a spare hard hat on the way but finding none, so he'd have to stay in the peanut gallery. When the woman went away, Lois walked up and said mock wistfully, "Looks like there's always something between us," and then she smiled through the chainlink fence.
"Yeah… and again you got the better part of the assignment."
"It has turned out to be more interesting than I thought it would be, no wonder you didn't want to share the big story."
"Ha. None of the other contractors are doing anything as wild as this--if Singher had been, he might have thrown karate choppers at my apartment instead. Then you could have fought them off between batches of cookies. *That* would have been fun to sit back and watch."
"Oh, Superman would have rescued me if I had… broken a fingernail, I just know it." (His expression, she noted, said "Oh, yeah?") "Of course," she added, "we would have had to share the cookies."
"No way, we'd tell him he… he needs to go on a diet," and Clark nodded as though that would do the trick.
"Right--about as much as *you* do."
She wondered how many other such ironic statements she had made over the last three years or so. It was definitely more fun to slip them in on purpose and see him react--with a moment of raised eyebrows in this case--as though he thought that after all this time she'd *never* figure it out. She didn't count her own follow up on Diana Stride's claims or that tacky hologram because she, Lois, hadn't been a particularly nice person during that investigation and Clark had-- understandably now--worked hard to keep his secret.
But that was old news that, she hoped, he didn't seem to take personally anymore. "Oh… Did you find a phone?"
"Um, finally. There was a fire, and Jimmy was right, it was at West Metro High, in the kitchen."
"Looks like he's psychic."
"I guess so. Perry said Kay was there on another assignment so she could cover it."
On this information alone, Lois couldn't determine if Clark had been told all this or had actually gone to the fire and seen Kay there. "I wonder if they got the fire out…"
"He said they did, that it was just scary. The students were evacuated and the ambulances stood by in case there was anything toxic. But it was put out quickly--apparently, I mean, that's the implication, Perry wasn't worried."
He'd gone. His explanation was too babbly. But she knew that under other circumstances she would have accepted it, and, besides, she wasn't going to ask Perry or anyone else about it if only because she and Jimmy had indeed kept the more interesting assignment. She wondered if, at close range, she would smell smoke in Clark's clothing.
At that point Suki arrived, Lois introduced Clark, and Suki found a hard hat for him. He asked if Clark had had any trouble with his Uncle Tan, but Clark said that he and the old man had chatted amicably once Clark had commented on the feng shui-correct layout and friendly but business-like furnishings of the office.
"He didn't want to talk to me and Jimmy at all," Lois grumbled despite herself; what was it about Clark that made people open up to him? She'd seen it time and again and no awe-inspiring blue suit had been involved.
"Well, since you were the lady dressed in the potato sack--"
"He said he thought brown wasn't your color--*I* said," he touched his own chest, "I think you looked nice. You look nice in everything." He said it with such sincerity. What's more, she noticed that Suki nodding enthusiastically as well. Oh, brother. Clark added, as though it would help, "If *you* wore potato sacks, soon everyone would be wearing them."
"I'm not mollified, but then he's not Calvin Klein, either."
Suki repeated the tour for Clark and showed Lois how the wall had fallen precisely as their plan had predicted. The two reporters watched the remainder of the demolition, continued getting interviews, and Jimmy took more pictures. At three the Daily Planet's representatives gathered outside the fence and decided to head back to the office via the first fast-food restaurant they saw. Lois and Clark sent Jimmy in for the standard fair and then talked quickly but, to Lois's regret, nothing memorable was said between them. He wondered vaguely about getting together after work, but it seemed an obligatory comment.
Maybe, she thought, he needed an excuse to get out of it. She reminded him that her martial arts class was tonight and that she wanted to go, she was feeling revved up after watching Suki's students destroy the building bare handed. Clark could come along and watch her practice if he wanted, but he recalled the last time he had attended one of her classes: the master had invited him to participate and thrown him several times. He said he had had enough of little old ladies doing that, thank you.
Lois thought she recalled reading something in one of his unexpurgated journals that might explain his qualms about confronting small older women, and added that to her list of things to pry out of him eventually. For now, she figured that he had something else planned, probably as Superman, or else he simply wanted to rest up before being sequestered with the DA.
Back in the office she and Jimmy planned a layout on Suki's Samarai Reconstructors to present to Perry, who in turn sent Clark out to investigate an attempted bank robbery in Green Meadows. Lois didn't see him again for more than 24 hours.
Wednesday was an irritating day for Lois. She woke to the realization that her period had snuck up on her because she had forgotten to keep track of it again. She swallowed a ton of vitamins and a hefty dose of ibuprofen to see herself through the coming hours. At least, she thought, for a change she could blame some of her emotional turmoil and what she saw as dull-wittedness on something physical. She dressed as light and freshly as possible and determined not to let her body's quirks slow her down.
As she drove in to work, she reflected on an idea she had entertained off and on over the years, that women should put their PMS and time-of-month frustrations to good use, to, say, fighting crime. After all, even Clark didn't let his Kryptonian physiology slow him down but instead used it to help when he could. Women could do the same. That's why men are frightened of us, darn them, she thought. Let *us* at the woes of the world for a few months and "human civilization" wouldn't be such an oxymoron…
She was humming "…in numbers too big to ignore…" and chuckling as she pulled into the parking structure.
At the Planet she was interested to hear that the kung fu layout was gaining praise for Jimmy and that her copy was cheered for complimenting Clark's work. That's a first, she thought; the little woman, supporting her men… then she reminded herself that actually it wasn't a first but it was rare, and that it was perfectly all right to be the junior partner on this one story. So it didn't irritate her; no, she told herself she'd get to work and compliment it some more today. *That's* the attitude, she thought; then she wondered just how long she could tolerate herself if she kept up this "Ms. Cheerful" act.
In her in box she found a printout of the draft of Clark's story on the attempted robbery of the Commerce Bank of Green Meadows. The version she had read in the morning Planet varied little from this one. The big difference was that in the top margin on the first page Clark had tidily written "L. Luthor?" Lois reread the article and shook her head. Clark, you have one possible, unconfirmed sighting of henchmen, Lex himself not having been seen for two months in a row (less even than Elvis), and a failed daylight bank robbery. This adds up to *him* being involved in this? I have ten times more evidence than this for the Slime Monster being from outer space, and you laugh your silly head off…
Well, no, he hasn't, he doesn't do that, but still…
But still something did tingle, some little something…
Maybe he felt that, too, maybe he'd finally picked up that ability from her.
He'd need more than this though to take the first step toward Perry's door to propose an in-depth investigation. Sorry, buddy, but that's my professional opinion. She stuck the report in her "Possibles" file and got back to work on the more certain yet more deadly boring contractors story.
As the morning wore on, the sight of Clark's neat-as-a-pin desk-- the computer covered, the papers in the horizontal file straight and color coded, the gilt frame on the new picture of his folks in Disneyland with some poor kid in a rodent costume--made her miss him even though she knew he deserved a day off. Not that he was getting one. A wire story had him, or rather Superman--no, *him* in Africa from midnight until around possibly six Metropolis time, helping the UN again with a second airlift of food and supplies for the now less- beleaguered people of some faraway place the name of which she couldn't pronounce today. She found no reports of his having been seen any time between 6 and 9 locally, so he'd probably gone to bed and then made it to the DA's office in the nick of time. She considered visiting him and waving and making faces through some glass window ("I'm out here and you're stuck in there, ha-ha!"), but in the budget meeting Perry assigned Dan to the courthouse, and Dan wasn't one to make faces. That left Lois with two more contractors to interview, but the idea of being stuck doing that wasn't irritating, either.
Raul was irritating. Minutes before she planned to leave to talk to Steve at Gallacci's Construction Company, Raul escaped from Laura and glided up to ask how "Lois, my love" was doing.
"Lois-your-love is not your love, Raul," she said, not looking at him, instead trying to concentrating on the contents of some file or another. "Get that *out* of your mind once and for all."
He leaned weakly against her desk and tossed kisses at her with his eyes, she could feel it. "I will *never* throw you out of my mind…"
She pulled her notebook out from under his hand; no doubt he hadn't noticed it or anything else important she was doing it. She looked up at him. "Raul, you're a fine reporter, but do me a favor: get lost."
"I am already lost…"
This was one of the reasons she liked Clark so much: while he wasn't demonstrative enough at times--though he was working on it valiantly--she couldn't see him going off the deep end like this. She slammed the notepad down, catching Raul's left-hand knuckles in the process as well as, she hoped, his attention. She was glad she was on pain-killing drugs or she could see that she might not have given him even that much warning. She kept her voice quiet and steady: "Listen to me: unless we're assigned to work together again--which I doubt--I don't want hear a *peep* out of you," as calmly as she could, "ever… again."
But apparently that wasn't quite the right way to put it because his pained expression turned dreamy again. "Such a fiery woman you are, Lois Lane! You can rest the flames of your passion in my--"
Laura tapped him on the back. "Time to go." He turned, straightened gallantly and said in considerate tones, "Yes, of course. Soon we will be finished with this wonderful banking assignment and then…" he tried to gaze upon Lois again.
But Laura stepped between them and said, "Wait for me by the elevator, okay?" and she smiled like a tiger who wasn't real hungry yet and he was lucky because she'd spit him out after a few chews.
He acquiesced and went away, probably satisfying himself with thoughts of being able to wrangle another assignment with Lois, who sighed and collapsed back into her chair.
Laura leaned forward and said secretively, "I know you don't need advice from *me*, of all people…"
Lois agreed but she didn't say that because she felt exhausted and Laura was a thoughtful person.
"…but if you were to ask me, I'd say that as much as he likes strong women--"
"But *you're* strong."
"But you're more… mature than me."
"And I respect you a lot…"
"Lois, I think he's only going to listen to someone about twice as big as you are and of his own gender, if you know what and who I mean…"
"You're right, I don't need your advice…" that sounded awful, Lois realized, even though Laura looked as though she expected the retort. Lois tried to smile, "But thanks for it anyway. It's one of those *ragged* days, if you know what *I* mean…"
Laura nodded; she had such days each month, too.
"If Raul says anything," Lois continued, "tell him I've been known to… to get brutally physical."
"No, he'd love hearing that. Of course, mace might do the trick…"
"No… He's not horrible, he's just…"
"Irritating sweet, I know."
"I'll think of something--and I'm not going to drag my friends into this," even if her best friend had inadvertently set it up.
"Okay," Laura winked, waved and was off.
Lois left soon, too, to visit the two remaining contractors. She gathered plenty of quotes and walking around the building sites was good exercise. By the time she returned to the office at three, she was feeling better physically but also tired, like she'd run a marathon and won it as well. She wrote what she considered a good, unbiased wrap up, LANed it to Perry, grabbed her purse and abandoned the office without a second thought about rewrites. She had lots of sick time saved up and she was taking some of it for the rest of the day. She went home, pulled off her dusty clothes, threw herself into her bed, and slept.
Until something in an unremembered dream woke her and she bleared at her clock. 6:55. Oh.
She stumbled out of bed and into the shower, which woke her totally because the water was only luke warm again. She blew dry and combed her hair into place--it looked all right, she was relieved to see--and searched her clothes closet for something appropriate to wear to Clark's meeting. She pulled out a quiet-pattered blouse, slacks, a bead necklace and matching earrings. She transferred what she'd need to a small purse, grabbed a can of soda to drink on the way, and was out of her apartment by 7:20.
Fifteen minutes later, having zipped down streets glistening with a rain now passed, she found the Unitarian Church only two blocks from Clark's apartment house, but there was no place to park. She wound up parking in front of his apartment and sprinting back to the church. She opened the main door quietly, heard meeting-type noises, sneaked down a hall toward a double door, one door of which was open to a well lighted area, and she looked in. She saw maybe one hundred people sitting on generic folding chairs in a large room. Their backs were to the door, their attention on someone she didn't recognize who was talking up front.
She also saw that Clark was off to her right, sitting in the back row with that Farber woman on his right, and that he was looking at her, Lois, as though he had kept the faith and been listening for her to arrive and would have done so patiently for another several hours. Oh, Clark, she thought, what am I going to do with you?
He smiled. She returned it.
I'm going to do a *lot*.
There was an empty seat to his left, though it might once have been occupied by Vanessa, who was sitting in Clark's lap. As Lois crept up to take the seat, she saw that the little girl was deep asleep and ragdoll-like in his arms. Lois could sympathize. "I'm sorry I'm late," she whispered, or rather mouthed it out, sure he could hear.
He whispered in return, more audibly: "I knew you'd come."
She could have hugged him for that simple statement. "Did I miss anything? Did I miss *you*?"
He shrugged and nodded. "But I have some new business, too."
"Oh, good." She leaned toward him, touching his shoulder, as though it were a mere byproduct of wanting to get a better look at Vanessa. The child was just darling. She was dressed in a long t-shirt, pale pink tights and no sign of shoes. Her head was back in the crook of his arm, her body relaxed with trust and careless like string.
Lois looked up and saw Jonesy was watching her. They exchanged smiles. Cody sat on Jonesy's right. He was sleepy but still awake enough to give Lois a calculating look. The boy was wearing a white T-shirt with a red and yellow S on it and further decorated with peel-off stickers depicting heroic-looking cartoon characters Lois didn't recognize. In a few moments she apparently passed some inspection, Cody looked away, curled up on his chair, his head on his mother's lap, and fell asleep.
Clark was wearing blue jeans and a pale blue T-shirt with a small, faded Planet logo up off-center left. Lois felt like she blended right in, which was a pleasant change. Next their hands found each other's. That made Lois feel warm and relaxed now as well, and glad she had nearly broken her neck to get here. She settled in, remained leaning against him (he didn't protest), and tried to catch the thread of the topic the man up front was guiding the group through.
But it didn't take long for her to realize it was totally uninteresting because she had heard it all before. Something about street repair on Sinibaldi a subcommittee had been pushing, and how, due to the Slime Monster attack, funds for normal city infrastructure work had been diverted and there was no telling now when they'd be available. Another subcommittee chair reported on the activities of the local elementary, middle and high schools, and yet one more chairperson talked about plans to get some public flower beds ready for the winter. Clark managed to look fascinated throughout, but whether he was employing a well cultivated reporter's "tell me more" expression or he was truly interested Lois couldn't tell. Sitting here doing this, though, had to be more fun than risking his life fighting crime.
She comforted herself with the happy thought that she had missed the reading of the minutes and the budget reports, and all this subcommittee business took only another 15 minutes anyhow. Then the chairwoman, a Mrs. Whitney, asked if there were any more reports. Some of the audience wiggled in their seats, looking around; Lois realized she wasn't the only one to feel relieved when the chair said "No? All right, and it looks like we have only one piece of really new business, and again, Clark?"
Clark looked a surprised, like he hadn't expected to be first. He began to stand then remembered he had Vanessa in his arms. He looked at Jonesy, whose lap was already occupied, then at Lois, but only briefly.
"I'll take her," Lois found herself saying.
"No, it's all right, I'll…"
Stand up there and try to look serious while holding a lightly snoring slip of a child? Really? "Clark…" she said in her best "come on, trust me" tone of voice.
Clark handed over her rival. Vanessa cuddled up immediately, stopped making the funny little noises her previous position had inspired, and, if anything, fell deeper asleep. Wow, Lois thought, this is easy.
Clark announced that he had learned just that afternoon that his employer, Mr. Franklin Stern, had been looking for ways to promote peace and brotherhood in Metropolis and had apparently seen it in action in their very own neighborhood Sunday afternoon. Some research had shown that neighbors pouring out to stop crime wasn't an isolated thing here, so he had decided to show his appreciation by sponsoring and paying entirely for a big block party.
Everyone in the room began talking at once. Clark looked down at Lois and said, "I really did just find out this afternoon, after the DA let me go. I would have told you, but you weren't in, so…"
The chatter died down quickly at Mrs. Whitney's insistence, and Clark continued, explaining that he'd only had time to contact Mr. Reed, the chair of the neighborhood events committee. An elderly man across the room stood up and said in a loud, clear voice, "I've already talked to someone from that Mr. Stern's office and as soon as we give the okay, it's all on, they'll work with my committee to get it going for Friday night."
There was some buzz about this being too soon, and Lois thought about the Metro Stars and Garters rained-out game having been reset for that night and how their tickets were still good. A block party could be more fun though and of course Clark would want to go. He would have to, actually, since his near tragedy had set the whole thing in motion.
"There's one thing about this that we want to consider," Clark edged in with. "I think there's going to be a political slant. I'm sure the District Attorney's going to turn up and shake hands and kiss babies and all that."
This caused some to laugh knowingly. The DA's in trouble, Lois thought.
This seemed to be the extent of Clark's knowledge of the proposal, and he sat down again and looked at her. "If they approve of it, you can come and be my guest, but I don't know if I'll be able to make it myself…"
"Oh, you've got something planned for Friday already?" which was a natural question.
Something Supermanish. It was becoming increasingly clear that he really wanted to tell her who he was masquerading as and stop having to make up credulity-straining stories. Come on, Saturday night! "I had something I've been putting off that I want to do," she said, "so I might not be able to attend, either. My mother tried to call me last Friday night and she said she'll try again this Friday night so I should… be there, you know…"
"Well, that's nice," he smiled. "Where is she nowadays?"
"Ah," pick a country, any country, "Belgium, I think, or maybe Switzerland. It's… that time of year…"
"Oh, I see," like that made incredible sense. "Do you want me to take her?"
Lois looked at the child. She had found herself rocking the girl a little and actually enjoying the experience. Jonesy had given her several approving looks already. "No, we're doing just fine."
Clark nodded and said sincerely, "You look like you are. You'll probably make a great mother--I mean, if you ever want to…"
Oh, he expected her to make some crack like "Well, *believe me,* not any time *soon,* I have a *career,* Clark!" Why get all starry eyed about it, though, when it was probably genetically impossible to have them with the one man--him--she'd even contemplate giving up part of her life for. But considering that he liked children (by default if nothing else; they certainly liked him, in his suit or out) and that he surely meant it as a compliment, Lois simply smiled and looked down at Vanessa again. All in all, though, she thought, I think I'd rather be an aunt: all the fun of spoiling the child and none of the woe of diapers and PTA meetings and loaning out the car.
The party idea was kicked around, several resolutions were made, passed or voted down, and eventually it was decided that the offer would be accepted, but the neighborhood events committee would take charge and the party would be moved to Sunday afternoon, which would give some lead time for planning and allow more children to attend. They'd hold it in the park across the street from the church so it could be moved inside if the weather turned unfavorable. If that Mr. Stern didn't like all this, too bad, they'd have it anyway, it was time for another party.
Lois was impressed that they had no second thoughts about standing up to one of the richest men in America and telling him what they would do with his money. "Well?" she whispered to Clark. "Do you have anything planned for Sunday?"
"Nope. Wanna go?"
"I wouldn't miss it, particularly after our dinner on Saturday."
"Oh, that, yeah… You can see how you feel."
"Clark, I *don't* expect to… to get food poisoning…"
He tried to smile. That wasn't what he meant, she knew it and that he couldn't explain, and knowing this was such fun. "No, of course not…" was all he could come up with, poor guy. The meeting broke up soon after that and Clark was taken away by several of his neighbors to be questioned about his near bombing and no doubt asked for his input on other topics of neighborhood interest. Jonesy lured Lois into a conversation, which was simple considering that Lois was still holding the snoozing Vanessa. It quickly became clear that the woman wanted to know more about her. Then, apparently satisfied with what she learned, she began to talk Clark up and hint that Lois should notice the wonderful things about that tall, broad- shouldered fellow over there giving his undivided attention to the talkative Mr. Reed.
Lois played along. The only uncomfortable thought she had during the chat was that she could think of no one but Perry and Lucy who might talk her up to Clark, while Clark had lots of relatives, neighbors and friends who wanted to see him happy and secure, who jumped at the chance to pry into his love life, and who were more than willing to drag her into their plans for him.
Soon Clark was able to free himself and return to Lois and Jonesy. At the same time, an elderly woman in a flower-print dress and depending on a walker to get around tottered up. Lois remembered her from Sunday, though Clark introduced her now.
"Oh, yes!" the woman smiled grandly. "You're that pretty young girl Clark's seeing, aren't you?"
"I hope so," with raised eyebrows at Clark.
"She's the one, Mrs. Wallace. We all walk home together, Lois."
For safety, she thought, though there wasn't much to endanger anyone in this neighborhood. Still, being escorted by a big guy like Clark must have made the two women and the children feel secure. "Then maybe we can get started, it must be past the kids' bed time all ready."
"Well past," Jonesy agreed as she roused Cody, who nearly fell off his chair. Clark bent down quickly, caught him and tickled him for a moment. Clark then took Vanessa, who allowed herself to be transferred without bothering to wake up. Other people, most of them Mrs. Wallace's peers, came along and on the sidewalk outside the church, Lois counted at least ten who also headed in the same direction.
They chatted amicably, mostly about the Sunday party and how their last one in June had gone. They asked Lois about Stern and his motives, and she said he'd be surprised at their initiative. She didn't add that she also thought that he would agree to what they wanted; let them find that out on their own, it would give them a feeling of more power. They all laughed at the DA possibly trying to turn it into a political event. He would be in for a surprise if he tried any campaigning, though at least half of those walking along rather liked the fellow. Lois wondered if Mr. Stern would eventually regret having dreamed up the idea.
They went a few blocks out of the way, dropping off people one by one, and eventually Lois and Clark wound up alone in front of his apartment. "Do you want to come in? I have… Well, I can make some tea or something…"
She wondered if he'd offer her a stronger refreshment if she weren't driving. As for the "or something," she didn't feel like getting into a complicated conversation or easing out of anything physical he might think he had to propose. Some other time of month maybe. She leaned back against her Jeep. "No, I was either in the office or breathing dust all day, but it's nice and cool out here. And I know you didn't have time to grocery shop."
"Oh, but I did. I got out just after two and called in what happened--not much. It looks like Dawis now believes Jaxon and Black are just small-time hoods. I don't think he's found any solid Intergang connections, but he's just about got them linked to Singher, who may have threatened to turn them over to Intergang if they talked, which could explain their silence. There's no proof that Singher's connected to Intergang either, though, anybody can make a threat like that. I called it all in and Perry told me what Mr. Stern wants to do, and I asked about you, but you were out."
"On a construction site, probably. Except for Suki's yesterday, boring doesn't begin to describe them, you were right about that. They were even more boring to interview than the Miss Metropolis contestants last year…" All those women, all those brains, with many of them having degrees in math, physics, business administration, and holding down solid jobs…
"Yeah, too bad I had to go, ah…"
Rescue someone or stop something. "Pick up your dry-cleaning, wasn't it?"
"Probably. I don't remember. Did I ever apologize for leaving you and Jimmy there surrounded by all that…"
"Naked flesh?" They had arrived in time for the swimsuit rehearsal. Jimmy had nearly had a heart attack, but he'd recovered quickly and matured incredibly for the duration of the shoot.
"No, I don't think so."
"Well, I'm sorry."
"I bet you are," but she smiled and shook her head.
He turned and leaned back against the Jeep, too. "Well, with whatever you wrote today, that should be it on the evil contractors story…"
"Ummm. It was a good one. I think Perry will submit it for a Kerth."
"Gosh, I hope so."
"Though our Slime Monster coverage was good."
"Yeah, it was, but everyone was doing that, so…"
They leaned for a while, looking at the front of Clark's apartment building. She noticed that he had left no lights on but he really didn't need them. They listened to the lived-in noises of the neighborhood, and felt the cool, moist breeze that indicated Fall was trying to slip into the city.
"We need another story to work on."
"There's that Lex-almost-robbed-the-bank one you tried to foist off on me."
"Yeah, well… Green Meadows is so well guarded, maybe he'd take that as a challenge."
"Not good enough, he's more careful than that even if he is a little crazy now."
"I know. It was just a feeling I had about it."
"But that's good. I…" oh, admit it, "I got a feeling, too, when I read what you wrote this morning."
"You did? A little tingle?"
He hadn't had tingles before? Surely… Maybe not. Just because he could fly like a bird didn't mean he could tingle like a seasoned reporter yet. Well, one more thing to help him out on. "But we need a lot more than a tingle."
"Something will come up, on that or something else."
"Or we'll dig it out."
"Pull it kicking and screaming into the cleansing light of day."
"Truth, justice and freedom of the press will be our bywords."
"No editing me without permission."
"Ah… Are you doing anything on your day off?"
"Sleeping in probably. I took a nap this afternoon, that's why I was late." Whoops, she thought; she was going to blame it on traffic.
"A nap? Do you feel all right?"
"Now I do, I just needed… a nap. We all do now and then, don't you?"
"Sure, I took one Sunday."
"Well, there, you see? And what do you do on your days off-- assuming you get to take them. Do you, oh, catch a flight down to the Amazon to count birds?" Sit on Mt. Everest and encourage the climbers? Hold your breath and explore the Mariana Trench?
"No, though that does sound interesting. Last week I went to the Zoo."
The Zoo, of course. It had become clear to everyone that during the Slime Monster attack he had made a special effort to keep the thing away from there. "That's a good idea. Maybe I'll do that."
"I like to visit the gorillas. The elephants are great to watch, too."
"Big and strong…" Taking the unintended hint, she edged over, touched his elbow and did some hinting of her own.
He put his arm around her shoulders. "Cold?"
"Not now." He really could radiate heat, couldn't he?
"Oh…" and he smiled, which won him her arm around his waist and a half hug. "Ah…" he continued, as though he thought he had to stay on the same track, while she wondered if he was supersensitive and thus really ticklish and if this was the right time to find out. "They're strong, but they're intelligent, too, and they like to watch us as long as they have plenty of room and a private place to go, and they feel protected."
"You know this for a fact…" Does he talk to the animals, too?
"Well, I just… feel it--*you* could feel it, too, anybody could if they tried, I'm sure," he insisted, as though he feared placing himself apart from everyone in regular life, too.
"Uh-huh…" But he might be right, maybe anybody could talk to the animals, anybody nutty… like anybody who talked to her pregnant fish.
"They have a great new bird house," he said, "with lots of tropical flowers and the birds are free to fly around in it so you have to watch out, and there's a rose garden near the duck pond. There's a bigger one in Lefkowitz Park, and Mr. Stern endowed a park full of them south of his property in Green Meadows. It has some rare British varieties."
"So you're suggesting I stop and smell the roses?"
"You like roses…"
"And I should get out and enjoy nature more, too, hmmm?"
"No, not if you don't want to. You might feel better sleeping all day, I don't know…" and he let it trail.
Oops, he's backing off, he probably thinks he's been too forward. Next thing we know he'll remember he has to tie his shoe and do it in Bangladesh. No way, buddy. She tightened her grip on his waist. "Well, maybe I *should* get out and smell the roses. I can go to the Zoo and soak up some sun, work on my tan. I loved the fresh air and the peace and quiet around Smallville. It will be a little noisier at the Zoo, but maybe I'll find out that elephants… sound like cows."
"They do sometimes. Big cows. Big smart cows. Sort of. But different."
"I bet it's because they pack their own trunks."
He smiled, "Yeah, there's that…"
He could always be counted upon to appreciate even her stupid jokes. "Okay, so tomorrow the Zoo maybe. Friday we find a new story. Saturday, dinner. Sunday, the block party. If Mr. Stern pays for everything, what will you be doing? I bet you usually take… homemade potato salad."
"Sometimes, but usually I'm in one of the border guard teams."
"Border guards? Here?"
"That's what someone called them. We don't really have borders and we don't really guard them, we just mingle and make sure there's no trouble. In all the block parties we've had, we've only ever had three homeless tumble in, and we wound up feeding them. We had a few gang members show up once last fall, but Mrs. Whitney had just taken another mediator course and she found out they were simply kids looking for adult supervision--that's what she *said.* She put them to work in trade for snacks and praise, and, oddly enough, it worked. We've had some lost kids and one sprained ankle, that kind of thing."
"So, no job for the police or even Superman."
"No, neither of those. The only police we have are off duty ones who actually live here, and one of them likes to man--ah, woman a barbecue and the other one brings paint and tattoos children's faces."
She just looked at him.
"It's all true."
"You live in a weird neighborhood, Clark."
"But it works for us."
"I know… I can't imagine it happening where I live. The management puts on big parties and advertises them with flyers, even at Christmas, and they always add that there were will be plenty of booze, which makes them worse. At least most of the people who attend only have to find the elevator to go home and they're in the party room on two so I don't have to hear them. I don't go to those parties very often, I don't feel…" comfortable with those people, she thought. She felt herself hug him again.
"Well, you can come to ours, the strongest drink they'll have is beer, the neighborhood events committee won't allow anything stronger than that."
"And will you guard my border?"
"If you'll guard mine."
"It's a deal."
"Seal it with a…?"
He stepped down into the impeccably clean gutter so that they were eye to eye, and they enjoyed sealing up certain promises until one of them noticed it had started to sprinkle, which signaled an end to the evening.
Lois slept in late Thursday morning. She got up only long enough to snatch the paper from where it leaned against her front door, grab something to eat and then rush back to bed as though she were a child and monsters might get her if she didn't keep the covers warm as long as possible.
After perusing the comics, she turned to the front page and started reading bits and pieces of serious news. She found a story that announced that Superman had flown off to West Bougainvillea again, having left Metropolis, she figured, shortly after they had parted the night before. He hadn't been in any hurry to go though, had he? If it hadn't been for the rain, who knows, they might still be there leaning back against the Jeep or, better. rating each other's kisses, no easy task since she was having to make a whole new scale for him. Did he have a long history of kissing women against whom he judged her? Nah, not Clark, not in the suit or out, and even when he did indulge, he often wound up kissing evil lips.
It seemed though, in reflection, that lately he had been chaste (suited and otherwise) and saving himself for her. Good boy.
Superman had helped the relief troops enter the capital under cover of darkness and made life miserable again for the combatants in the crazy civil war going on over there. Peace talks had finally been agreed to by the warring sides. Lois shook her head: they must have been running out of ammunition, what with it being taken away from them at an alarming rate. Good for Clark. Then, below that article she found the explanation for his hesitating to do anything with her on Friday evening: there was a small notice that mentioned Superman was expected at a UN function during which he would receive a medal for his on-going assistance in the African crisis. It didn't sound like a big thing, which she thought Clark probably preferred. As far as she knew, he didn't attend many such affairs though there easily could have been at least one a night, as much as he managed to do. No, he wanted a normal life: a simple thanks and smiles on children's faces and all that charming kiss-the- horse-and-ride-off-into-the-sunset stuff was enough for him. People need to celebrate sometimes, Clark, she thought. People like me. *We'll* celebrate…
She decided then that she didn't want to lie around all day but get out and explore some of the city that she hadn't seen lately, like the Metropolis Hills Golf Course. Sorry, Zoo, some other time. She dressed appropriately, relaxed yet stunning, pulled out her custom-made clubs and leaned them beside the front door and then went to her den to search through her desk for her membership card. She found it and in the search remembered that she had to make a reservation. Well, there'd be no trouble in that. It was still practically the middle of the week, the course would probably be deserted, and as soon as they heard her name, they'd bow down in welcome.
Over the phone she heard: "You have reached the Metropolis Hills Golf Course."
"We are closed until the damages sustained"
"during the August 14th activities of the so-called Slime Monster can be assessed. You may be interested to know that one of the Monster's byproducts is proving to enhance the course's landscape and greens in a safe and organic manner. We will reopen with new and improved facilities. All members will be alerted by mail--"
Lois hung up firmly, not slamming the phone down because it would make no difference to the answering machine. Monster poop, great, Clark would be thrilled. If she hadn't been all dressed up with no place to go she might have laughed.
Except, of course, she could go to the Zoo. It wasn't a *bad* destination, she told herself, it was just that she had worked herself up for a morning of golf and now this, something boring that Clark would find deep interest in.
What do we see in each other, Clark?
Who knows--but I'm *trying*…
She sighed, put away her clubs, changed into less expensive relaxing-in clothing, put on her Smallville cap, grabbed up a book and her novel notepad, threw them all in the designer backpack she found in the back of the top shelf of her closet, retrieved her Jeep, and headed for the Zoo. Well, if this turned out to be as sleep-inducing as watching ice cream melt, at least if he asked she could honestly say yes, she'd visited, it's a nice zoo and she'd go again some time. Like, in a decade or two.
Ice cream… She spotted a deli on the way, realized that a hand full of Fritos, an almost too-ripe pear, and a bit of toothpaste weren't a nourishing breakfast, and she pulled in. She left with a yummy big stuffed croissant, a container of delicious-smelling potato salad, a bottle of spring water, and double-sized fudge brownie. Hmm, she thought: she wouldn't have done anything like this had she gotten reservations at the golf course. No, it would have been cocktails, water cress sandwiches and polite chat while she waited her turn to tee up.
When she arrived at the Zoo, she pulled out the food, backpack, and the emergency blanket she kept in the Jeep and took all this with her. The ticket seller didn't give her a second glance. People must do this all the time, even Clark probably. Maybe he had brought a picnic lunch with him last Wednesday. Maybe that's something we can do together. If, on the other hand, she proposed a round of golf, assuming the course was open, he'd probably hear a runaway train in somewhere like Belgium.
She was given a map and she consulted it to locate the Gorillas. They weren't hard to find, being a premier attraction. She sat on one of the shaded benches in front of the grassy, natural-looking enclosure and saw the animals lazing about in the hazy late-morning sun. She ate her potato salad and drank some of the water. This wasn't much fun, watching them watch her back. Maybe Clark could talk to them, but she couldn't think of anything to say other than "Sorry you can't be back in the Congo or wherever you came from, but it's safer here," and she didn't say it aloud for fear of looking like a nut case.
The big male Silverback might have agreed. He rolled over now and continued to merely regard her, upside down, with sleepy brown eyes. Clark's eyes were brown like that, she thought, but more lively. Maybe if she got closer to the fence, which she didn't want to do, she'd see some match of intelligence as well. Or maybe she'd see it in the eyes of the two baby Gorillas who were crawling all over the male, who tolerated them with infinite patience. That was like Clark.
Of course, if intelligence had anything to do with it, what was so smart about scraping out a living instead of passing the time laying around poking through the grass… eating…--what was that? Yech, *bugs?* Eating *bugs* in the grass! Eeuew, yech! And then another ape came out of the cave door in the plaster-and-stone structure that formed the back-drop to the "cage." It shambled over a jungle gym, climbed up on it, and, without the least indication of contrition, stuck its rear end out into space and urinated right there for God, taxpayers and children to see and take pictures of.
Okay, Clark, you can have the Gorillas, they're all yours, thank you and good night.
The elephants were dusty and simply standing about contemplating who knew what (quantum physics, probably, she sighed). She gave up on them after a few minutes and headed for the rose garden. There she paused and smelled several specimens. The day's warmth brought out the fragrance, nice. If I ever get my dream house, she thought, I'm going to find out how to grow roses. Okay, okay, Clark probably knows how to do that, too, but I won't let him near them. There are things I have to be better at, or get better at, he can't be good at everything… He's not, she reminded herself, but still…
Next, the famous duck pond, and she could hear quacking and honking long before she saw it. Part of the pond formed a moat in front of a band shell, and to give an audience someplace to sit on warm evenings, there was an expanse of placid, well kept grass. All this was surrounded by tall-trunked trees which provided plenty of shade. To top that, there was no one else here but the ducks, geese, some sparrows, pigeons and squirrels.
This was the place. She spread out her blanket in the dappling shade near the pond, broke out the croissant and her book, and enjoyed lunch to the sounds of ducks and geese enjoying whatever they found to enjoy in the dark waters on the north side of the band shell. Some braved feathered souls approached to freeload off her and she tossed them a few crumbs, thinking next time she'd have to bring bread for them, if it was allowed. She put the brownie aside for a mid-afternoon snack and after reading a few chapters, decided to stretch out on her back. Reading that way didn't work very well, but that was the point, she realized, laughing at herself. She let the book fall across her stomach and watched the trees sway in the breeze and, far above them, the puffy clouds coasting by. There were few people and they passed through steadily, on their ways to the elephants or the lions. There was only the occasional shout of a child or the call of a parent--and absolutely no one showed any indication of wanting to bother her. She heard many animal sounds--tigers grunting, baby elephants squealing, seals barking--and somehow she felt they were telling each other it was time for their usual afternoon let's-bore-the-spectators nap. Far from boring, it was a terrific idea…
Lois breezed into the newsroom the next morning right on time and feeling like challenging the world to just try not giving her the best story it had--as long as it wasn't about who Clark was dressing up as in his spare time; that story didn't have to be told. Any other terrific story, though, watch out!
She noticed that he was at his desk, reading wire copy, the look on his face one of interest but not indicating that he was learning horrible news from somewhere. So he wouldn't mind his thoughts being interrupted as she beat him to the punch with a cheery "Good morning!"
That got his attention. "Good morning to you. My gosh, look at you…"
"Stunning, hey?" and she turned to show him the same two-toned gray suit she liked to wear when she was feeling lucky. More things had happened to them when she wore this skirt and jacket than any other clothing, it seemed, and since they needed a new story…
"I'll say. Buy a lucky lottery ticket?"
"No, I only play games I can *win,*" and little did he know what kind of game *he* was involved in, ha-ha-ha! "I'm going to have a great day today--like the one I had yesterday. No one tried to kidnap me, almost everything in my apartment worked fine most of the time, and I saw Sleepless in Seattle again and had a good cry."
He tossed his copy aside, leaned back, and endeavored to look envious. "The ingredients of a perfect day off."
"No, really!" She tossed her purse into her drawer and went over to lean against his desk, though she didn't feel like she wanted to stand still for that long. "I went to the Zoo after all and had a nice picnic there with the ducks, *and* I took a nap!"
"You don't know the half of it. I woke up thinking someone was watching me, standing right there with his beady eyes crawling all over my body…" *That* wiped the superior look off Clark's face fast. I bet he's wondering where he was at the time, she thought, and why the heck he wasn't there to protect me. She continued in a conspiratorial tone: "I rolled over as though I were still asleep and grabbed for my backpack and I had every intention of pulling out my mace, when… I saw these cute little grass-stained bare feet and I realized it was just a child, a little boy, and that's who was watching me."
"So you didn't mace him?"
"Clark, I should mace *you* for that crack… He and I talked for a little while. He was looking for some clown act that was supposed to be there, he said, I think, he was a little hard to understand. Some children just mumble, don't they? But we figured the clown was probably at the children's petting zoo, so when his mother found him--his name was Paul, I think--anyway, I went with them. The little animals were the *cutest* things… You probably know all about them, I mean, you grew up with goats and chickens and donkeys out the kazoo, but those kids had a ball. Speaking of farm animals, when I decided I wanted to see the movie, I tried to call you."
"I got your message, but I was… out."
"Ah, well…" it was just one of those things. "Was it busy around here? Did you miss me?"
"Not very busy, but we always miss you--I do, anyway."
"Oh, points for *you*, Mr. Kent."
"Points? But, no, I do miss you."
"I'm not asking for points…"
"Then I'll stop handing them out."
"You don't *have* to, if it makes you happy…"
"Yeah…" and she beat him to the grin. "Where was I? Oh, and Jimmy got another picture spread. Two in one week!" The headline in this morning's "Life in Metropolis" section had read "'Superman Helps Fund-raiser for Orphanage'…"
"Yeah, he's walking on air--Jimmy, I mean. He wrote the copy, too, and he says Mrs. O'Shea didn't edit it much."
There had only been a few paragraphs, but it was good experience. "I wonder how he found out about it. On Wednesday I didn't hear anything about that being planned, and I usually hear *every*thing when it comes to you know who," explain *that*.
"Well, on Tuesday, while we were at the Orphanage, do you remember that woman I was talking to outside the fence? Before I got in? She said they were trying to find a big act for a fund-raiser."
"And you said you could get Superman, like he'd… tap dance or pull rabbits from a hat or something?" She'd like to see that…
"No, he'd just appear and thrill the kids and anybody standing around who happened to have money and needed leaning on. She said you suggested several of the movie stars who are in town--"
"I told her she could use my name."
"I'm sure that would have helped, but she told me they had already called those people and they all had prior commitments or wanted too much security and certain photographers and bottled water and too many other conditions to meet. And for some reason they wanted it to be a quiet affair, so…"
"So no reporters like you?"
He shrugged. "Right, or you. I didn't say they had a good handle on how to get publicity, they're basically just a group of nuns after all…"
"But they allowed Jimmy to take the pictures."
"I suggested him, pointed him out, they thought he was cute and said okay, he found the church where it was held, and the rest is history."
"He got some good pictures," because you let those kids crawl all over you having the time of their lives. "It looked like a lot of fun… More fun than attending that Star Labs press conference, I bet."
"I just distilled the scientific mumbo-jumbo into English."
Three paragraphs of nothing that hadn't been guessed already. "They didn't happen to mention that the thing was from Alpha Centuri, did they?"
"No, though Marie Rose did ask--"
"Ask what? What were that… that *woman's* exact words?"
"Ah, she said 'There's a rumor that the--'"
"'--monster was a visitor from outer space. What are the political ramifications of that?'"
"That was exactly expression on the two scientists' faces. They huddled and finally said they had no comment."
"Oh… Well. Maybe that means they've been thinking it's from outer space, too."
"And maybe she really doesn't have anything."
"Okay, probably. She probably got everything she has from reading you."
"Right, but since I don't have much, and since they didn't say anything new…"
"I would have called you if they had."
"I know." She sighed. "Well, no use dwelling on that. What do we have for the budget meeting?"
"Nothing. Perry said we didn't have to attend, though he did suggest we might check out today's City Council meeting on accepting more bids for city repair work…"
"You didn't take him up on it, did you? Please say no…"
"Jeff volunteered to cover it. I said we might follow up on the near-robbery of the Commerce Bank." "That's more interesting… just."
"We've been invited to have cocktails while we tour their building and marvel at their security system next Thursday."
"Thrilling--and a long time from now."
"I agree." He stood up. "And, of course, you don't have to go, you can find your own story. Personally, I want to figure out why Lex sent obviously expendable henchmen on a daring frontal assault on a new high-security bank in plain daylight in a community with high taxes to pay good policemen when he had to know it would fail miserably."
"Maybe he expected the outcome because he hired them from Thugs-R- Us, where Singher got *his* henchmen."
"Could be…" but he smiled. "But until I figure out the answer or you drag up a good story, we walk the streets, looking for news."
"I'm sure we'll find something better than this flight of fancy you're entertaining about Lex."
Clark sighed dramatically. "So much for *that* tingle."
"It looks like your tingle is a lot stronger than mine about it-- although I think that my tingle about your new idea is stronger than yours ever was about my Smith-Slime Monster connection."
"Ah… right, I got no tingle at all about that. I don't even want to think about the Monster any more. Coming?"
He was raring to go. She wondered if he was thinking up some clever way to approach the bank/Lex story to convince her to go along with it, but she thought it unlikely. Clark seemed to act so rarely on whims that she doubted sometimes he ever had them. No, surely he did, look at the contractors story. Then again, look at his Superman suit… But she couldn't work with anyone who didn't have *some* imagination…
As the weather promised to be nice again today, and because they sometimes did attract interesting stories by simply walking the streets, going out was a fine idea.
Except for one little roadblock that appeared when the elevator doors open.
"Lois! What good fortune! Seeing you makes my whole day brighter than the sun!" Raul glided out of the elevator toward her, intent, no doubt, on clutching her hand and kissing it passionately. No, she reminded herself, he had hardly touched her except while escorting her across the street, and through doors and the like, touching her back then, as though she needed physical guidance and might faint at the prospect of challenging traffic.
Today she didn't feel like screaming "Get a life, clown!" No, she said, "Good morning," breezed right by him into the elevator, turned, produced a pleasant but totally uninviting smile for him, and then raised her eyebrows at Clark. "We'll take my Mercedes out to Shawler's Reservoir. We can probably rent some diving gear there, too, or along the way."
Clark stood there watching her lie like a pro--and Raul swallow it whole like a hungry dog--as though trying to figure out how he should be reacting. Well, he darn well better follow her whim on this if he knew what was good for him. The last thing she wanted was Raul chasing after them, though if he did, he'd chase the wrong car.
"Ah, yeah, that's right," Clark nodded. "And we don't want to forget the…" He snapped his fingers." The…"
"The radar tracking device."
"Yeah, that. We can get one…"
"On the way, in Midvale."
"And can we take fishing poles?"
"We're going to be *working*, Clark, we'll have no time to relax."
Raul pounced: "You will need help!" and he was so happy to be able to offer his assistance.
"No! This is a *two-person* operation, I already have my second person, and we don't have room for more than that."
"I'm sure we can cover this just fine, Raul, thanks," Clark said equitably. Then, to Lois, "But we shouldn't forget your… ah…" his hand motions said "help me with this…"
You have no imagination, Clark! "My pilot's license, of course, in case we need a helicopter--but I already have it in my purse," and she patted it. "Let's go."
"We're going to fly? But I get air sick! We'll have to stop first and get some…"
"Ginger ale, isn't that it? Or maybe Pepto? We'll get you some." Come *on,* Clark!
"Actually ginger powder in pills would be better--and I should call my parents, to tell them where I keep my will and about the insurance and--and the cat, someone will have to take care of my cat--" He looked at Raul.
No way! "Then, let's," she reached out and grabbed Clark's sleeve and pulled hard, "get going! The James Gang could be escaping with the treasure while you stand there vacillating because you're afraid of heights!"
He allowed himself to be pulled, good for him. When he was standing next to her in the elevator a moment later, he looked back out and said, "Buenos dias, Raul."
"Clark, I know you told me you have no claim on Lois Lane, but my heart yearns for her! Be careful with the gentle flower that she is! She pretends to be as tough as a nail but I have learned that--"
The elevator door closed.
Lois rolled her eyes and then noticed Clark was looking at her. He smiled a quick caught-me smile and then looked away and down to see if his shoes were still tied.
"Air sick…" she muttered.
"And no claim…"
"That's not what I told him."
"So you think you have one?"
"I didn't tell him that, either."
Oh? "Well, that doesn't matter." It did, but darned if she was going to pursue it right here and now. "I'm taking care of this," she said as calmly as she could muster.
"I didn't say anything, but--"
"But I could, I mean--"
"I mean, boyfriends are good for that."
"In some cases, yes, I suppose, but not this case. When I need your help, I'll say 'sic'em, Clark!' and you can do whatever it is that boyfriends think they have to do."
"You don't know?"
"Ah," caught, "no, actually, I never had to… Well, I was thinking of talking to him, reasoning with him, except he has such flowery language, I don't know if I can compete… without laughing first."
"Laughing because he thinks I'm a gentle flower?--Oh, it wouldn't work anyway, save your breath."
"He hasn't hurt you…"
"He's hardly touched me."
"Or showered you with gifts…"
"Other than the wine that night, and he took the bottle when he left, he's given me one solitary red rose."
Clark whistled appreciatively. "Well, I'm out, that beats a full hand of daisies."
"But I *liked* your daisy."
"Oh. Okay. So, ah, it looks like your standard 'don't fall for me, farm boy'--ah, barrio boy, I guess, that line didn't work on him…"
She looked at him hard.
And he finished it smoothly: "…either."
"I knew you'd fallen for me, right then, I *knew* it!" and she rolled her eyes again, though inside she felt vindicated.
"Sorry… No, I'm not sorry. It's life, there it is, I couldn't help it, I'm just a weakling."
"Yeah." But then he frowned and looked at her. "Where…"
"She shouldn't say things like that."
"But that's what mothers are for, Clark."
"You and Mom did talk about me…"
"A little. It's a farm, Clark, and I don't know anything about farms and they don't know any of my other friends, so what else did we have in common that could we talk about?"
"You make it sound like it was boring."
"Oh…" Like he wasn't sure what he was complaining about and there was nothing he could do about it anyhow. He tried to regain their original subject. "Well, I refuse to hit Raul or anything like that. If he had hurt you, that would be different, *very* different."
She could imagine, she told herself. But then she realized that she couldn't imagine it. She could only think of him demonstrating physical anger when he had the Superman suit on, and then she was unable to remember any specific examples. No, wait, during the Trask incident, she had arrived at the end of what had obviously been a knock-down, drag-out fight between Clark, and that nutcase. Clark had looked angry, yes, but more disgusted--and unaware that Trask was going to shoot him in the back. The madman had just about murdered his parents, too, quite enough justification for anger.
The problem Raul presented though… "You'll think of something-- *when* and *if* I tell you I need your help." Then again, he might take it on himself to speak to the love-smitten fellow; that would be interesting…
"I know: we could drop him in Shawler's Reservoir."
"From the helicopter."
"What am I saying, 'we'? *You'll* have to do it. I get queasy at certain altitudes, you know, I start to get dizzy and black out…"
I've created a monster. "I'm not going to comment on this any more."
"Okay… if there's any other way I can't help you, you'll be sure to let me know, won't you?"
The elevator door opened to the Daily Planet building's lobby and the two star reporters went out to find a story.
Three hours later Lois was glad they had stopped at the parking garage for her comfortable shoes because they had walked all the way to her Uncle Mike's restaurant without seeing hide nor hair of anything resembling a good story. One minor traffic accident with repentant drivers, one purse snatching by an idiot with a bum knee, and one possible pick-pocketing of an undercover police officer. What was this stupid villain kick the city was on all of a sudden? Was there no news to be had? "What do they expect us to start printing, anyway? The *Weekly* Planet?"
"As long as there's comics…"
"Shut up, Clark, or I'll tell the DA you recognized six Intergang members lounging around your neighborhood and you're withholding evidence."
He looked stricken. "You wouldn't…"
"I can see it now, 'Reporters Kill Each Other for a Story…'"
"No, no, no, 'Story Eludes Star Reporters"--no, "*Serene* Star Reporters; Ends Tragically When They Retire and Become Shepherds.'"
"Don't argue with me--you don't realize how important it is to your well-being that I'm happy."
"Oh, Ms. Shepherd?"
"Believe it, Fred."
"But, Ethel, you'd hate being a shepherd, sheep can be really dumb animals."
"Then we'll get some smart sheep dogs."
He'd shrugged, "Sure, that's an option. They cost a lot but--"
"Stop worrying about money, *I'll* support you--"
"I like the sound of that. I can stay home and watch soap operas and paint my toenails."
"You can have the babies, too.
"No, that's too much stress."
"How about if I stress this: let's *eat*."
They ate lunch at Mike's place and, when he could stop long enough to chat, they tried to pump him for information on underground happenings, but things had been going swimmingly for him and his neighborhood as well. Construction workers from nearby repair sites had discovered his restaurant and business was flourishing.
They took a cab back up town and spent the rest of the afternoon doing nominal rewrites and other run-of-the-mill newspaper work, as well as looking over their shoulders for Perry to emerge from his office and give them a "I've got something for you two" look. But it didn't happen.
Lois decided to take off an hour early, but Clark said he'd stick around. He wanted to ask Laura what she knew about the Commerce Bank of Green Meadows. "Well, you just keep working on that," Lois told him, "but if it turns out they're hiding Lex *and* aliens from outer space in their vault, don't come running to *me* begging for help…"
Surprisingly, Friday night Lois's mother did call and they had what Lois would tell Lucy was a "nice chat." Ellen Lane was making business contacts in Tokyo and expected to be in Hong Kong next. She left three numbers where she could be reached and then asked how Lois was doing. Lois didn't feel like talking about her growing relationship with Clark, realizing it was not a good sign that she felt uncomfortable talking to her own mother. It made her feel somewhat better that she couldn't say anything about the big secret, she couldn't tell anyone ever. It's a good thing I have Martha to talk to, she sighed. I'd have gone nuts trying to play this game all by myself…
Lois caught the ten o'clock news specifically to see if there was any coverage of the UN ceremony. She had to sit through a 60-second report on the peace talks that had gotten started with an argument about the size of the table. History repeats itself, she thought. Then they played a 15-second blurb of Superman graciously accepting a small, silvery medallion. Was that all? Cheapskates. Must have been the same slackards who had taken three months and four votes to decide to give him honorary Earth citizenship and that so-called universal passport. Compared to Friday, Saturday morning turned out to be exciting, perhaps promising a good remainder of the day as well. Perry burst out of his office, pointed at Lois, and told her to grab Jimmy and get down to the Rosenberg Hills Mall Metro Stop pronto and check out a report of an electrical fire. Clark rose to join her, but Perry told him to stay put: a breaking national story was expected any moment now and it would need his research talents, Lois could take care of the metro. The breaking story, as it turned out, never broke, to which Clark may have tingled because he was grumbling as Lois rushed away.
As she expected, though, he found some excuse to absent himself from the newsroom because Superman turned up just before she arrived on the scene. He helped remove endangered passengers, put out the small fire, clear the air of toxic fumes, and generally make it safe for Metro personnel to figure out what 10-cent part had failed this time. While Jimmy darted about taking pictures, Lois caught the guy in blue looking at her from a distance and she waved an obligatory "I'd like to interview you." But he was distracted by a Metro engineer, gave the uniformed woman his full attention, and then he jumped down into the emergency Metro entrance again to, Lois learned later, check on the possibility of another fire. There wasn't one, though, and eventually he flew away without following up with her.
He hadn't looked like he wanted to talk anyhow. Actually, he hadn't looked like he wanted to get near her. Wonder why… she smiled to herself as she and Jimmy drove back to the Planet. Of course, she admitted, she wasn't sure if she could have kept a straight face, which wouldn't have done considering all the onlookers and the seriousness of the situation. Still, things were working out just fine. She could see herself working up to being able to face right and question him like old times and he would be any the wiser. He could be uncomfortable, but she would be cool, flowing right along with the stream… She stopped at the first chance and bought donuts. Saturdays just demanded them, didn't they?
Back at the Planet she told Clark all about what she had seen, using the donuts and giving him a chocolate one with sprinkles as an excuse to get close enough to smell that, yes, there was the barest hint of smoke about him. It wasn't something people would easily notice. Maybe he relied on evidence like that to blow away as he jetted through the air.
He was interested in what she had found out about the fire from her interviews and had already compiled for her a database on the history of the building of that line of the Metro, but he came this close to yawning when she mentioned that the guy of steel hadn't said a word to her. He probably didn't have time, she said, and he nodded in casual agreement. He's probably out doing something heroic even as we speak, she said. Yep, probably, Clark said with an incredibly straight face. He could even be… having an early lunch, hmm? Maybe… I bet he's with a beautiful countess in Paris, she sighed dreamily, and he said, oh, I doubt that…
Well, she thought, he's used to hearing this, especially from me; nobody should ever think he couldn't act.
Once that story was wrapped up and Perry was pleased, Lois took off at noon and went shopping, though she already knew what she wanted to wear and that it was laid out on her bed. Shopping, she admitted, just kept her mind busier than it might have been. She didn't buy a thing, not even lunch. Well, nothing big: just one small ice cream cone and a nice bottle of wine.
As nervous as a girl on her first date with the star of the chess team who she'd been lusting after inexplicably for ages, Lois arrived twenty minutes early. She could justify this: he'd said she could make the salad and as good as agreed she could set the table, too, and all that would take time to do right. He'd understand, he always understood.
She checked her make up in her rearview mirror. She hadn't used much, relying on a clean, fresh look: she didn't want to be distracting. She'd curled her hair a bit and picked out a fairly quiet dress as well, deciding against the black, low-cut one she had chosen that morning. This one was knock out but not too knock out, not hit him over the head and have to pick him up afterwards. He'd even seen it before, but there was no telling if he'd remember it, what with the most recent time she'd worn it being to that embassy cocktail reception. The ambassador had been taken hostage and Clark had run off to… what had it been--oh, yes, to feed the meter so her Jeep wouldn't get towed.
Right: they'd taken a cab, but he'd run away before she could grab him, slap some sense into him, try not to think of him as a coward, and explain the plan she had thought up. Despite that blatant clue and her mad bout the year earlier thinking Diana Stride could have been right, she hadn't put two and two together when Superman had shown up. No, she had made him part of her plan and saved the ambassador.
Maybe it wasn't that he feared she couldn't take the truth so much as he thought she might refuse to believe it or even forget by the next day if he did tell her…
She laughed at herself.
Regardless of all that, she had a certain appearance to uphold even with Clark, but he still had to be alert enough to do the cooking and to talk about certain things sometime in there.
Taking a deep breath, she nodded at herself in the mirror, got out of the Jeep and went up the steps. She knocked. She waited. She thought she heard music from within, but it could have been her imagination.
She knocked again. The radio's on, she thought, that explained the music. He's heard some horrible news bulletin, he's flown off to fix things, and he's earning the undying thanks of thousands while he struggles mightily to
open the door.
"Oh, hi, you're early--not *much* and it's all right, really…" He stopped himself and actually looked at her. "Wow…"
If a simple cream-colored wrap with burgundy Chinese-like flowers around the hem line earned a "wow"… but not too big a wow; she had calculated correctly. "Well, my silk potato sack is at the cleaners, so…"
"Ah…--good, because you look just…" words failed him, apparently; an expressive hand had to do, but that helped him think of "Just marvelous."
She smiled. "I'm glad you like it."
He, on the other hand, was in a T-shirt and jeans. It looked like what he had worn Wednesday night. No Spiderman, thank goodness. So he wasn't ready yet, he'd been slaving away over the stove. This wasn't fair, she reflected, though if anyone was able to work a little harder to get what he wanted, Clark was. Or should be. From here on, she told herself, she'd give him all the chances that she could.
He remembered where they were, smiled hastily and said, "Come in, come in. Just put your things anywhere, make yourself at home."
"Thank you." She put her purse on the little table there by the door. This place almost was becoming a second home, wasn't it? And not a bad place to call home, either, just needing a woman's touch here and there: rent the next apartment over (he'd mentioned recently it had been vacant for months) and knock out the wall to double the space, pack away that black velvet painting of Elvis from Perry, stop using the Kerth award as a bookend…
As she stepped down into the living room, she was immediately engulfed in the scents of cooking. "It's my turn to say *wow.* It smells wonderful in here, Clark."
"Oh, it's probably the garlic, I'm sauteing some ingredients for the quiche."
"Quiche? But you said pasta."
"I changed my mind, I thought quiche would be less… accident prone."
She could see where it would be entirely possible for someone distracted to spill tomato sauce. "Oh, I see."
"And you brought wine, but it should go with quiche just fine."
"The crust is like pasta…"
"You don't think so though…"
"Lois, I don't know. I'm sure it will be fine, anything you picked out is fine with me."
"Oh. Okay." Perk up, he means it. "So real men do eat quiche."
"And make it, too, though anybody could if they tried…"
Clark, I know better than that. "But they don't try, that's the difference. So, can I set the table? I need somewhere to put this," and she held up the green, expensive-looking bottle of wine.
"Does it need to be chilled or…"
Maybe he really didn't know much about wines. "No, it can just sit and mind its manners."
"Okay, then you can put it, well…" He motioned off toward somewhere behind himself.
Then she saw it, the reason he hadn't said "You know where the silverware is." It was his only sizable table, its one leaf removed to shrink and make it cozier, covered with a white table cloth, candles, matching dinnerware and cutlery. It looked just… marvelous.
"I couldn't have done better myself," she whispered. As she put the wine down there, she thought how the setting seemed to welcome the addition. How did he make it do that? Was it careful planning or just luck? What was it telling her about this evening? She heard herself say "You're serious about this, aren't you…"
"Very." Their eyes locked for a long moment, and she read all kinds of things in his. If he wanted to sweep her off her feet at this very moment, she thought, and fly her away to some romantic place (more romantic than here, though here did have its charms), she wouldn't protest. What would he do if she grabbed him by his shoulders, rolled him over her hip in a judo move and pinned him on the couch? He would have melted in her hands, she was sure, that's what his eyes said. She thought she read that he both wanted to take charge of this and that he hoped for her compassion… She felt a natural, warm smile spread across her face totally unbidden.
He began to warm up as well--but then he blinked as the oven, only a few steps away in the kitchen, made a kind of sighing sound. "Ah, I left something on the stove."
"What? Can I help? I can still make the salad, can't I?"
"Sure, I saved that for you."
What he had left on the stove but off the flame was a frying pan with onions and maybe some garlic cooking. He had already mixed together some unrecognizable ingredients and they were standing by in the blender container.
"Oh, I interrupted all of… this."
"It's all right. Sometimes it's good for things to sit and…" he rolled his hands one over the other, "meld, sort of."
"Gather their juices?"
"Yeah. Does your mother ever say that about turkeys, too?"
"The very words."
"One almost wonders if they've met," he said and then he turned the blender on for a moment to, she thought, help along the melding of whatever was in there settling.
"I think it's in the book women get when they become mothers," she said off the top of her head when it was quiet again.
"I guess so…" Then it struck him. He looked back. "Book?"
"Book. Most men don't know about it, so don't tell. Women gather at the full moon at places like Shawler's Reservoir and grandmothers hand out the books…" hint, hint.
"Oh, *I see*…" he nodded, catching on at last. "You know, our mothers getting together could be dangerous…" he said as he turned to open the door to a small broom closet. "Especially considering all the things yours could tell me about you…"
"Well, don't hold our breath. We don't need their help…" Not my mother's help, anyhow, she thought. "Mine doesn't know much about me, and she can't make salads, which I'm *very good* at…"
"Okay, okay, that's enough hints. Here's an apron…"
She noticed as she put it on that it proclaimed "Kiss the chef."
"And…" from the refrigerator, "here are the ingredients, if you want to use them. If you can think of anything that's missing, just ask, I may have it somewhere."
In a big, cold bowl were two heads of lettuce, one green and round looking ("Butter Lettuce," he said) and the other dark and terribly healthy looking ("Green Leaf"), several cheerful tomatoes, some long green onions, a handful of parsley, some more green matter ("Arugula and Mizuna"), and, separately, packages of mushrooms and hulled sunflower seeds. To this he added a wooden bowl, large wooden spoon, and a sharp knife.
"I'm glad you had a chance to shop."
"Me, too, but I grew everything but the mushrooms and the sunflower seeds. Back there." He aimed a thumb at the back door. "You haven't seen my garden, I guess."
"No, it looks like there's a lot I haven't seen…" she sighed, and he could tack on to that all the extra meanings he could think of if he wished. Then she added: "You can show me later if you want. What are you going to do now? Watch me create a masterpiece?"
"No, I'm going to finish the main course, but it will only take a few minutes. Then I'm going to take a shower."
"I really did come early, didn't I…"
"A little, so take your time doing that."
"Okay." She leaned back against the island counter. "I'll watch you instead."
"This is really thrilling…" The onions finish sauteing and he spread them into a pie crust that he blithely informed her was made of mushrooms, bread crumbs and wheat germ. Over the onions he sprinkled shredded Swiss cheese, then the mix from the blender and topped all that with a shake of paprika. He slipped it into the oven and said, "There. That should take half an hour and another ten to set, which means if we take our time it should be ready after we eat your salad."
"Good timing. Did you think up the recipe yourself?"
"No, I got it from a book my mom has. Is that going to be enough for you to do?"
She looked at the ingredients still sitting there in the bowl on the counter. "Oh, yes, no problem, I'm just letting them… adjust to the idea."
"Okay. Well, I'll just be a few moments," and he headed for his bedroom.
He *could* be just a few moments, couldn't he? She wanted him in more presentable clothing--*not* the Superman suit--but he had a right to relax while getting ready. "Hey, *you* take your time," she told him. "Pretend I'm not even here, that I haven't even left my apartment yet."
He paused, looked back thoughtfully, and gave her a thumbs up. She smiled and returned it with the knife she had just picked up. He closed his door.
She sighed, "Whew!" and approached the construction of the salad. "If I can think of anything missing…" She shook her head: I couldn't have thought of half these ingredients. She put down the knife, went to the sink, turned on the water, washed her hands, glanced out the window over the sink for a moment, reminded herself that she had said "later," dried her hands on a hand towel hanging nearby, and returned to the countertop to confront the task. There she peeled, chopped and threw salad makings into the big wooden bowl. The unusable parts she set aside because he'd probably want to do something with them in the garden. Compost, wasn't it? Jonathan had shown her heaps of it on the farm and the big machine he used to turn the heaps over. It had been almost fascinating. She considered opening the wine and using one of the wine glasses, since salad making deserved a little help that way, but instead she decided to let him offer to open the bottle, assuming he had a corkscrew. He probably didn't need one, not if he were alone, but he'd better have one for when guests were present.
When she finished making enough salad for two, she hoped, if one had a particularly large appetite, she arranged and then rearranged the ingredients just so and put the unused ingredients back into the refrigerator. There she noticed he had the typical mix of fresh guy- type foods, one aluminum foil-covered dish she ordered herself not to check out (he could be glancing at her through the wall this very moment to see that she was okay), plus some unusual items with foreign labels. Well, that all made sense. Normal food, dessert, and then some of the unusual foods he had learned to like his travels, and Metropolis had numerous ethnic groceries. I want to go shopping with him, she thought suddenly and smiled at herself. Maybe if we don't scare each other to death tonight…
She hunted through two drawers (which she noticed were arranged somewhat like Martha's kitchen; by him or by her?) before finding a big wooden fork that matched the spoon. She laid them both in with the salad and took the whole thing to the table. Then she hunted around a bit more and found two bottles of salad dressing, a trivet for the table to protect the table cloth from the quiche pan, and, bravo, a fancy corkscrew. Maybe he had planned to do all that, but he had given no evidence of it and, since he couldn't think of everything, he couldn't mind that she had. She heard the shower turn off. About time.
She gave in to her curiosity, returned to the kitchen, determined to look out the window. But, to pay for the privilege, she quickly washed the blender container, spoons, bowl and measuring cup he had left soaking. She took off the apron, hung it in the closet he had taken it from, and then stretched over the sink to look out the window and get a glimpse of the "garden." It was almost too dark outside, but she could just make out containers with plants in them. There was nothing new about that, just something common a person could do if they wanted to carry tons of soil and hulking half wine barrels and heavy terra-cotta pots into an enclosed courtyard. She had a porch, she could do it, too, or hire someone to. She would have to move the porch furniture out of the way first, she reminded herself then tried to remember when she had last sat out there and read or sunned herself. Ages.
She wandered into the living room, sat on the couch, and picked up the first magazine she saw, Archaeology, with something Roman looking on the cover.
He came out about ten minutes later in the gray suit and black tie she had noticed that he liked to wear to special evening events they had been assigned to cover. His hair was combed back loosely but threatened to fall forward again (what with no air friction having forced it back), and his glasses sparkled. He looked so much more complex and real this way, and "Nice," she said, and she put the magazine back where she had found it and stood up.
"Thanks." He detoured a bit to look at the table. "The salad looks good."
She walked up beside him and leaned on one of the chairs. "I tried to balance all the lettuce and the tomatoes and the…" she pointed, "all that."
"I noticed. It's color coordinated. Good job."
Their eyes met again.
"Well, when the Planet goes weekly, I'll design fish tank interiors and you can make gourmet salads."
"You… took off the apron."
"I was thinking of kissing the chef."
Good boy! "But *you're* the chef. I thought it was a secret message to me."
"Oh, well," now his eyes sparkled, "maybe it *was*…"
She hoped her eyes said *Go for it!* "We could consider it an aperitif…" Apparently he agreed. Turning to her somewhat gingerly, she thought, he made the right first moves, taking her hands, interlacing his fingers in hers, and then preoccupying her lips for a few soft moments. This wasn't really the time for anything more than that, but she held on for a moment longer than necessary, enjoying the warmth of his hands.
"Music," he said.
There it was again. Just what did he hear when they kissed? What kind of fellow was this? Where have you *been,* Clark Kent? Waiting for my encouragement? Where have *I* been? Waiting to be hit over the head? "Hmmm?"
"Ah, I wanted to change the music…"
"Oh," though it was a good cover excuse. Raul would have run with it, darn him, but Clark's sincere efforts were much sweeter.
She had grown used to the music, maybe it was more of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra and its bounce had blended with salad making. But true, it wasn't romantic enough for dinner. She let him go.
He poked through his collection, changed to the CD player, placed several disks in the carousel, and turned the player on. He adjusted the volume so that it was barely audible, background. She thought she could identify the music, something classical, but not the composer. It didn't matter. "It will be a little bit of everything," he explained, "and all quiet."
"Absolutely none whatsoever. My landlord even came over on Thursday and installed those screens."
"Oh, yes, that's what looked different when I drove up. But he didn't put any on the kitchen window."
"Or on the one in the bedroom. I only need them on the street- facing ones, so nothing will… fly in unexpectedly."
But he could fly out the back easily if he didn't have to take out screens each time, yes.
"Would you like to turn out some of these lights while I see how the quiche is coming along and find some matches?"
She turned out all but two strategically placed lamps on either side of the room, leaving just enough light so that she wouldn't stumble around in the dark if, say, he had to leave suddenly. Indeed, she could see to jump up and insist upon going with him.
He did something with the quiche and then found the matches. At the table he lighted the long, white candles. Next as she watched, he pulled out one of the chairs and motioned elegantly.
Oh, of course. She sat and he helped her ease in. The last person to have done that for her was Lex. The last person to succeed, that was; Raul had tried it several times but she'd beat him to the punch each time. The same for Perry, though not for the same reasons. She hadn't thought to give anyone else, least of all Clark, a chance to before this. She simply hadn't wanted to even seem to be dependent on anyone.
He indicated she should serve herself first from the salad bowl while he picked up the wine bottle and looked it over. Then the corkscrew. She asked--because she had to say *something*--if she could serve him some salad as well. "Sure, thanks," he said without looking up. The corkscrew wasn't a brainless T-shaped thing but a complicated- looking mechanism. It fit over the top of the bottle and one had to work the screw in carefully and lever it out with the cork intact, and it all took some forethought. She'd used something similar twice, but she bit her tongue and said nothing, concentrating on arranging salad on the plates. If he wanted her help, he'd ask for it. Maybe.
As he peeled off the plastic covering the top of the bottle, he muttered, "The last time I used this opener it broke up the cork…"
"I hate when that happens, you wind up with little bits of cork floating in the wine," which is a delightful thought, girl.
"It just means that it wasn't a well made cork. That's almost always the case when that happens. But this is a good bottle of wine, so that shouldn't--that *won't* happen."
Shut up, Lois… but he wasn't thinking that, she was sure of it. At worst he was ignoring her, at best, feeling cheered on and confident. He looked somewhere in between.
He set the bottle down, positioned the screw just so, and began to ease it in. Superstrength wouldn't help here, not one bit. He got the screw in about an inch, grasped the levers, pulled them up, and the cork came out with a satisfying pop. They exchanged smiles, his triumphant, hers appreciative. He looked at the table setting for a moment and put the corkscrew on the trivet, which was not exactly what she had meant it for.
Forget that. She held up her glass and he filled it, twisting the bottle at the end so as not to lose a drop, and then did the same with his own glass. They each tried the wine, and he said, "Well, this was well worth the moment of panic."
"Umm… Sit down and try my salad. See if I should have panicked."
"Nah," he said as he took his chair. "No reason to panic."
He chose the honey mustard dressing and poured it liberally over the salad, and here she'd used the Italian sparingly. "I like how you cut the pieces small," he said.
"Do you ever get a piece of lettuce that's as big as a bedsheet? I never know what to do with those. That's why I cut them like this."
They sampled their salads. She found the flavors rich and hearty. "Everything tastes so good. What did you do? Give pep talks to all the plants?"
"That never hurts, that and seaweed emulsion."
"Pardon? Now I *know* I've been babbling. Seaweed?" She looked down at her plate.
"I like your babbling. Seaweed's full of minerals. You put it on the soil."
"Oh, okay, whew… You *like* my babbling?"
He thought about it and nodded. "Well, yes, most times. You don't do it very often, really, and it means you're thinking of something helpful, and it usually does turn out that way, or at least we get a good story in the end. And I won't tell you what I do with fish emulsion."
"'Fish emulsion'? As in…"
"Yech. Don't you dare say anything," though she realized she had started pushing a chunk of tomato around, "soaking up dressing," avoiding eating the thing.
He noticed. "I put the fish emulsion on the soil, too, don't worry. Remember, Native Americans showed settlers how to plant a fish with a few kernels of corn."
"And look what they got in return, the wrong end of the fish."
"It's not the same thing, we're not having fish or corn, and I don't use much actually. And if I spray it on the leaves, it's only on leaves we don't eat, like tomato or cucumber leaves."
"Cucumbers?" That's what was missing.
"Yeah, but I didn't have any today, Mrs. Wallace likes them so I grow them mostly for her."
"Oh, that's sweet." She pulled the chunk of tomato back over, speared and ate it, to show good faith. It still tasted fine, with nothing off or suspicious about it. "Well, I won't tell Maxine what you do to her relatives…"
He looked a touch relieved at the change of subject. "How is Maxine doing these days?"
"She's just swimming around," and she waved her fork back and forth slowly to illustrate.
"That sounds about right. Even a fish pregnancy takes time."
"Maybe she's just getting fat. I'm thinking of getting more fish again to keep her company. They can do aqua aerobics together in that beautiful tank."
"That's a good idea. If you get the right ones, they'll keep the guppy population in check, too."
"What? You mean I should get fish that will eat Maxine's babies?"
"Ah, well…" as though he realized he had somehow innocently waltzed right into an awful trap. His voice took on a careful professorial tone: "In the wild--"
"But she doesn't live in the wild!" Lois looked at her salad. She finished all but one last bit, but she wasn't hungry suddenly. She sat back from it. "She lives in my home, all safe and *protected*." She tried to look terribly upset but she wasn't really. Clark wouldn't say something like that unsupported. Then why am I doing this? Maybe I want to scare him--*maybe* don't want him to tell me? No… Still… It is scary… Maybe, she decided, she hadn't heard him correctly. "So you think I should get fish that will eat Maxine's babies…"
"Yes, but not *all* of them, only the slow, dumb ones. The smart ones will hide out in the foliage--"
"Then what will they eat while they're cowering there watching their siblings being devoured by these other fish you want me to get?"
"Lois, believe me," carefully (he looked so cute under stress, she thought, when the stress wasn't life threatening), "the smart ones will thrive and they have *no* emotional attachment to their siblings."
"Are you sure?"
Even if he wasn't, "Yes," firmly.
"When I was a kid I had a friend who felt the same way as you do. He tried to help every guppy survive and soon his little tank was brimming full of them. They hardly had room to swim and the tank was impossible to keep clean and he couldn't afford another one and his mother was all upset. He finally dumped all of them in the nearest stock pond and… and they had fast, exciting lives after that."
"Oh." She imagined snakes and frogs and wading birds hunting them, poor things.
"Now, I know you can afford a lot more tanks, but I don't think you want to spend all your free time being a guppy nanny."
"Even if Maxine only has, say, 20 babies--"
"And if only five of them are capable of reproducing--and I'm being very conservative--"
"That's not new."
"No. Right. And, ah, each of them has 20 babies only a few months later, and then Maxine also has another batch… Well, believe me, after a year, the numbers get astronomical, particularly if they only die of old age."
"I've heard of cases where some guppies drop more than one hundred in one pregnancy."
"But I've only thought of three names! Curly, Larry and Moe!"
"You know six of the Seven Dwarfs," as though he thought that would help. "That makes nine."
"But they're all *male* names. Curly and Moe can be female names. Twenty?"
He simply nodded. "She can't have twenty babies."
"Yes, she can. Easily. She might have a lot just to have company."
"It happened to you…"
"I learned to be ruthless."
"For that, yes. If I hadn't been, my dad would have been for me, he would have dumped half of them out."
"In a pond."
"Probably, and the best ones, too, or given them away for bait, because he wasn't keeping track of them like I was."
"He wouldn't have done that, he's a nice man."
"Sure he would have because he's a *practical* man, too, and I was trying to be like him, and I did that, I mean, I sold some of them for bait, the ones I didn't want to breed and sell."
"Well, you don't have to do that."
"I just have to get some awful cannibal fish…"
"There are pretty fish who eat regular fish food but are known to snack on baby fish. I had some of them, too, in a regular aquarium in the living room at home. They don't have it any more, but, well…"
"Okay," she sighed, "I guess I don't have any choice, you've convinced me."
"Good--I mean, I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings and all, especially *now*…"
"No, it's better to learn about it before I have to start looking for private schools for all of them--ha, schools of fish…"
He managed a smile, but he had said that *now* with such anguish…
As she ate the last of her salad, she realized it was distraction time again. "*And* you've just volunteered to help me buy new fish. I'll pick you up on Wednesday at lunch time and we can spend some of *your* day off shopping for fish--oh, and new t-shirts for you, too."
"Wednesday?" He sat back and rolled his eyes; he looked cute when he did that, too. "I can't plan for *Wednesday,* we haven't even gotten to the main course *tonight!*"
He sounded doubly anguished this time but she was 99% certain it was an act. There was a measure of relief in there, too, that this fishy argument had resolved itself positively. Why, she could hardly remember how it had gotten started. She smiled. "I'm ready for it when you are."
He gave her a ruthless I'm-having-a-hard-time-appreciating-all-this look. She thought it equally likely he was only just keeping up. "Well, *I'm* not ready. I want seconds of this salad."
It occurred to her that this fellow running to catch up now was the real Clark, not the self-sufficient one who impressed her in the kitchen and with this terrific table setting, not the one who dressed up special, not the one who served the wine with elan. No, the real Clark was the unselfconsious one who relaxed after surviving an argument, the one who wore the Spiderman T-shirt, the one who cuddled up with her to watch her "Lethal Weapon 2" for the third time or his "The Bear" for the second--and no more despite his suggestions; there was only so much wilderness pathos she could take before she started siding with that mountain lion.
He served himself, taking half of what remained. "Do you…"
Want the rest? No… "Yes, thank you," because he probably wouldn't want her sitting there watching him, and now she'd have a chance to try that honey mustard dressing.
In a few moments it seemed the calm between them was making him uncomfortable and he said, "Your babbling and my seaweed. That wasn't the best way to start this dinner…"
Equal shares of blame for the near argument, that was fair. "Well, we could talk about work," though it wasn't like they never argued about that.
"No, we talk enough about it."
"Or your neighbors…"
"Then we could talk about…"
She heard him take a careful breath: "Us, Lois." *Serious* was written all over his face. This was it, the essence of his commitment, the go-for-it-all try…
She wanted to shout "Yes!" but she grabbed herself back from the brink and toned it way down to a gentle, "Yes."
"Actually, I was thinking that would be more of a… main course conversation, or even dessert."
"We get dessert, too?"
"Yep, that's the best part, I hope."
Oh, how sweet, a double entendre that she wasn't supposed to catch.
"Maybe *I* could get the quiche then--"
"No," he pointed, "you're not getting up, you're staying right there, this *my* treat."
She hoped it would be, too.
She didn't move, instead smiling agreeably, and she didn't make any of the half dozen retorts that came trippingly to her tongue. She found herself hoping he felt he was taking control of all this again. I'm not going to rain on your parade any more, Clark, I promise, even if you make another well meaning idiotic remark…
The need to talk, though, was pounding on the door of their haphazardly crafted relationship, screaming for attention and recognition. Competing for that very attention, she realized, was the urgent need to flee. But she didn't sense that he was contemplating that. While she had distracted him from his serious plan for a moment, she was sure she had helped him refocus on what he wanted to do stronger than before, that the tense moments had been good for him and that he wasn't thinking of abandoning his quest.
No, she saw the vacillation about all this suddenly welling up in herself.
Do I want to be here? Do I want him to tell me? Do I want this game to progress?
Yes, no, yes, no…
Why can't *I* make a commitment that will work for once in my life?
Mercifully, they lapsed into a few minutes of quietly enjoying the salad and stealing glances at each other. But the glances became less stealthy, the desire to break out in big smiles at themselves harder to control… Yes, that fellow there trying to be serious was Clark again, the Clark who all the super powers in the world wouldn't help right now, the Clark she… desired. And then she knew she had to stay, could stay… and wanted to. There really was no other place to be than here. At this rate, he would have to kick her out if he wanted to get rid of her. *He* was certainly making every effort to stay right here and work through this. There was no radio--the recorded music was enchanting--no source of news distracted either of them, no sounds from without to draw his attention away, to force him to choose between what he obviously wanted to do here and what he might feel he had to do for the rest of the world. If he could put aside for this evening worrying about those unceasing demands and take care of the needs of his own heart this once, and that he was doing that for *her*…
"Hmmm?--Oh, I'm just… daydreaming."
Huh? Daydreaming? Here and now at a time like this? But he quickly covered his concerned look with an "I see," as though he did. Well, she thought, he's accepted thousands of my lame explanations already, and I've accepted his… He stood up and reached over. "You're done, so I'll take…" her empty plate and his as well and he went off to the kitchen with them.
"Do you need any help?"
"Not right now. Besides, it looks like I've already gotten some. Who washed all the pots and pans that were in here?"
"The… The magic elves."
"I hope the magic elves drop by for dessert, especially if… well, you know those chocolate chips you left here on Sunday? You'll have to buy more before you try making cookies here again, if you decide to…"
Because she might hate him for all kinds of silly reasons and never want to see him again? Forget *that*, kiddo… "Oh, chocolate, a chocolate dessert… all those elves are on closet diets."
"I locked them in the closet so I get their just desserts."
"So then you get seven little servings."
"That's dwarves. There weren't quite so many elves so the servings can be bigger."
"You'll let me know how many and how big."
The last word on this: "Yes."
He clattered around out there for a few moments more and then brought the quiche in.
"What a pretty plate. Is it an antique?"
"I guess so, my mom gave it to me and it belonged to her mother. It's part of this set. It's one of those family hand-me-down things."
And he was the only one they had to hand things down to, how endearing. She wondered if her mother had anything stashed away to give her some day. The blue garter belt for her fiasco wedding had been nice, but not useful like this, like she could pass along to her… whatever she had, if she ever had any… She pushed those thoughts away. "How did you get the quiche out of that pan in one piece?"
"I have my own magic elves."
"Well, that explains it." She couldn't imagine what superpower he might have used that she would not have detected at this close range. Maybe he really just knew how to do it. "It looks wonderful and smells better."
"Yeah, it did turn out all right. How much do you want?"
She indicated a nice-sized piece and he sliced it out for her. He cut a piece of equal size for himself and garnished both with sprigs of parsley. "I was thinking of fixing some fresh asparagus to go along with this, but I couldn't find any that I liked when I was shopping."
"You don't grow that, too?
"No, I only have so much room."
Oh, it takes room, how about that. "Well, this is a nice, light dinner, filling but we won't feel sleepy afterwards, and we can sit back and enjoy the music."
"And we can talk," he said, as though in having discovered the words to broach the touchy subject, he wanted to keep the idea in the headlines.
"Yes, we can talk…" She wondered if she should ask what he wanted to talk about, but that might come off as being pushy. Then again, "docile" wasn't exactly her middle name and he might grow suspicious if she said nothing…
He had settled back into his chair, replaced the napkin on his lap, and began watching her expectantly. Oh, of course. She tried the quiche. It was full of flavor and melted in her mouth. "Umm, it tastes as good as--*better* than it smells…"
He smiled proudly, tried his own and agreed. He refreshed both their glasses of wine and sipped his. "This does go with the quiche, you picked exactly right."
She'd give him, the wine expert, that one. "Thank you… I'm glad we're going to talk," she decided to say. "It seems that every time we've tried before, things have come up, we've both been interrupted."
"And *I've* had to leave unexpectedly, I'm really sorry about that, but…"
But she knew why now, and she didn't let him dangle. "But I have a lot to apologize for, too. I haven't always been the kind of person you'd want to talk to--or *listen* to since sometimes I don't give you much of a chance to say anything, I know that…"
"But you *are* the kind of person I want to talk to *and* listen to, I… I think you're fascinating, Lois."
Wow. Suggesting strongly that he speak up for himself was paying unexpected dividends. "I am? You do?"
"Yes, you are, and I do. Practically since I first saw you."
Here he was, saying what she most wanted to hear, no-farm-boy- don't-fall-for-me-jokes-allowed, an open, sincere look on his face, and she realized that she couldn't quite believe it. She believed he believed it, but, really, she knew better… "You're biased, Clark, you're *paid* to work with me…"
"And Perry ordered you to take me under your wing, you didn't have much choice."
"So we were *both* dragged into this."
"*I* never felt dragged, I've enjoyed it, mostly."
There it was. "'Mostly'…"
"Well, there are times I haven't been real thrilled at things you've done…"
"I can imagine…"
"And you probably haven't been real thrilled at things *I've* done." But all the good he had done--in the Superman suit, yes… and as Clark, he'd been learning the ropes and could be forgiven for a lot, but she had made some *big* mistakes. "Maybe… we ought to clear up this Lex thing."
The quick turn on to this bumpy side road surprise him. "Well, that was one of the least thrilling things you've done, true and… I don't know if I should say this, but I'm… I'm glad you didn't marry him. Even if he had turned out to be as honest as the day is long, it just wasn't right. That sounds self-serving, I know, because you loved him and everything was ruined for you…"
Wow, Lois thought, Martha had certainly pegged it… Rescue him. "Clark, the reason I didn't marry Lex was because I couldn't."
"Well, the groom jumping from the 22nd floor can do that to the best-laid wedding plans."
Sarcasm does not become you, Clark, she thought, even if I deserved that… "His jumping had nothing to do with it and the police arriving before that didn't, either. Now, you weren't there, you were… tied up somewhere else, I imagine," caged up was the better word, damn Lex… "So you didn't know I had decided everything before that."
He seemed to review what she had just said. He frowned. "Decided what? Before what?"
"Before I… well, just before. Clark, I decided I couldn't marry Lex and that was because *you* were on my mind when I was walking down the aisle."
His frown lapsed into an expected confused look, like she had slapped him with a wet fish. "Me?"
"You. Instead of thinking of my future husband and our lives together, I couldn't get *you* out of my mind."
"Well, that's…" What? she wondered as he looked for words. Great? Weird? Unheard of? Impossible? He never had this problem when composing a story. Of course, she doubted he had ever been accused of being the primary cause of the demise of a wedding ceremony. He settled back on: "Me?"
"All I could think of was all the great times we'd had together--up until Lex proposed, that is, but then… I realize you didn't know this, no one did, and I haven't told anyone, either," except Martha, but that had been like talking to a wiser side of herself, so this didn't quite count as a fib. "You couldn't know, and since you weren't there, you didn't hear me tell Lex that I couldn't say 'I do.' I don't think anybody heard me. That's when the police rushed in with Perry and that whole new mess got started."
"You were thinking of *me*?"
Gosh, she thought, he sounds like me… and like nobody in the world outside of his parents (and, apparently largely unbeknownst to him, Mayson and a few other shallow women) had ever entertained the possibility. "You. Not Claude, not my fish, not that nice guy who wears blue tights--*you*."
"But why didn't you…" He opened his hands as though to catch something.
"Tell you? Because… Well, I was going to, sort of…" She cut a little wedge of quiche to play with. "Remember that whole next week I took off to investigate everything Lex had done?"
"You were everywhere, you didn't sleep."
"I did a little… on Thursday, I think." But she'd ferreted out every last little detail of Lex's dastardly plan. "It doesn't matter." It really didn't now, did it? "After that, when we all got together at the old Planet building to watch them start tearing it down…"
But he had raced ahead. "And I told you I wanted to talk first." He sat back, shook his head, and looked disgusted with himself.
"But, Clark, remember I didn't let *you* talk anytime before that, and when you did get a word in, I didn't believe what you said about Lex or what he was doing or anything else. I wouldn't even listen. And when you told me you loved me, well, I… I wasn't prepared for that, I couldn't deal with it, I wasn't sure how I felt about you, not until it was almost too late…"
"And then I went and told you that I hadn't meant it…"
"But that's understandable--"
"No, it's not, it was a lie--when I retracted that, when I said I had been pretending, to keep you away from him, that was a lie. I mean, I *didn't* want you anywhere *near* him, but I didn't do such a hot job convincing you, obviously. I realize now there were better ways I could have done *that*…"
Like tell her while in the Superman suit, but she in turn had bungled that one over some stupid claim about accepting regular guys and then acting like she thought he was spying through her flimsy night gown when he was the last person in the world who would think of that.
"But I can't undo what's done--well, I can now… This is getting complicated…" He sat forward again, as though to tackle it head on. "I thought you weren't yourself, I thought you investigated Lex like you did because you were broken hearted, you know, like it was… an overreaction. I thought you were trying to find out everything about him because you wanted to prove to yourself that… that you hadn't been wrong in loving him…"
"That does sound like something I might do… But really I was so angry at him…"
"That sounds like you, too."
"But no one knew that, so everyone thought I was still in love with the man."
She mulled over her cooling quiche. "Well, I never really loved him. I was fascinated and flattered, and I thought it would be wonderful, but there was never any… music when we kissed--which we didn't do very much, really, he didn't… he pretended to be an expressive, emotionally complex person, but he wasn't…" Clark had him beat hands down in that respect, she thought. Lex had been false at every turn while at the moment, for example, Clark was wearing every emotion like one of Franklin Stern's loud Hawaiian shirts. "And there was definitely no thrill when he touched me…" and she found herself looking at Clark as she said that. You do thrill me…
He was hanging on her words--and seemed suddenly to realize it. Could he blush?
He pulled back a bit, self protectively, maybe wondering himself if he might be reddening a bit (he wasn't). "Well, maybe… it's a good thing it worked out like it did… except that we sort of…"
"And we've been dancing around each other and not telling each other the truth…"
"Me more than you…" he mumbled to his quiche.
"Pardon? But Clark, you're talking to an expert liar here, I lie to everybody, to myself most of all, five times a day, and ten on Sundays, before breakfast."
"But you lie to get a good story, not to *hurt* anybody…"
He thought that? How sweet… "And you're telling me *you've* been lying? To *hurt* people?"
He looked surprised. "Oh, no, to *keep* from hurting anyone."
"Oh?" To protect his parents, to protect his real life--to protect her? She couldn't quite understand that one. Telling her what he did in his spare time was *not* like telling the entire world… but if he thought there was that possibility, that her knowing might also endanger her, it explained a few things. "I can see where maybe you've been… omitting saying certain things, people do, *I* have been, too…" Come on, I'm making this as easy as I can for you, you deserve it.
"Omitting things, that's an understatement… Lois, there are things that I haven't told you… about myself…" He started playing around with his quiche now, too, "that you should know…" He seemed to realize what he was doing, put down his fork and looked up again "before our… relationship gets any…"
"Hotter, yes, that describes it…" He sighed. "Raul could have thought of a hundred ways to say all this *better*…"
It occurred to her that he had some of the same insecurities that she did. "Clark, I don't *care* about Raul, I only care about *you*."
"Oh, well, I'm glad about that, and I'm really enjoying all this, our relationship, and that it's getting hotter, that's what I want because I care about you, too, a *lot*, but… but it's not right that you don't… *know* certain things--about *me*… before it gets any hotter…" He reached for his glasses, either to straighten them out of nervous habit--
Or take them off?
She felt a thrill begin to build--but ordered herself to stay as totally calm appearing as possible, this was way too important a time to become all stupid…
"I've been wanting to tell you something for a long time…" and he looked at her with such sincerity.
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes????
Yes, he was definitely going to take them off. But he'd still look the same, just glasses-less. What would he say then? "Do you, ah, recognize something about me, Lois?" "No, you still look like good old Clark…" except he probably wouldn't be squinting. He'd look concerned and then say "Hold that thought," and he'd rush away (but not at superspeed) and wet his hair in the kitchen and finger comb it back and return and sit down and replace his napkin on his lap and say "Now?" She'd try to look pensive. "You look like you just came out of the shower…" "Well, then, how about this?" and he'd sit back and fold his arms across his chest and look as noble as he could, as though the cape were billowing out behind him as he stood atop the highest building in Metropolis looking for some crime wave to thwart or bus full of orphans to rescue. She'd frown and look thoughtful. "There is something… *familiar* about you…" she'd say. There was no way in the world she was going to run away or start screaming at him as he seemed to fear-- or else why would he be so nervous now? She definitely wasn't going to be anything but calm and collected about this. He was going to understand that she could take this, there was no reason to hesitate any longer. But he hesitated. He looked away slightly, as though listening… Then pushed his glasses back into place, reached for the candle on his left, pinched it out, and then blew out the one on his right.
"Someone's coming and *we're not here*…"
Talk about focused! "But there are still lights on in here," she whispered, "and the music, too."
"…oh." Now he noticed and surely considered how fast he could turn off all these things if only he'd said what he'd planned to say a little more quickly. Two more minutes would have done it…
She leaned forward secretively. "Who is it?" because clearly he had either recognized someone's car or their footsteps.
He didn't stop to wonder why she put it that way. He said, "Waldo."
"Waldo?" She didn't know any Waldos.
She heard someone taking the three steps up to his porch with measured deliberation. She met Clark's eyes: his look was almost desperate. Maybe the Waldo person would go away… unless he was a bill collector or the landlord coming back to try to kick Clark out again. Little did he know that he'd have a second far tougher person to deal with this time.
"Waldo" knocked on Clark's screen door. It sounded tentative. She had seen his landlord only once, almost three years ago when she had been trying to track down Superman and followed Clark because she thought he had a lead. She had followed him here, to this once-run down place and seen him talking to a balding, overweight man. It couldn't be that same man knocking now, no, he'd have a self-righteous, there's-a- clause-in-your-lease knock. Still, though, the lights were dim, what someone gone away might leave on, and the music was quiet, maybe overwhelmed by the ambient noise on the street side of the wall.
Another knock, a little louder.
"Persistent, isn't he?"
Clark nodded. "It's surprising when you think about it…"
She could hear some resignation in his voice; he can't believe this evening's effort is lost already…
They heard footsteps again, moving to their left, to the very window the dud firebomb had sailed through almost a week earlier. The filmy curtain there billowed sluggishly in a slow breeze.
"Clark? Clark? Are you in there?"
Lois recognized the Tennessee accent immediately and whispered, "'Waldo'? That's… William… whatever Waldocker!"
"William Wallace Webster Waldecker, and it's a long story, Lois."
She almost--just almost said "Get rid of him and save the long story for our grandchildren!" but grabbed that off her tongue before it got out because it might have given Clark a heart attack. Instead she said, "Well…?" and added a you-better-go-see-what-he-wants hand motion.
"I don't think it's going to be that easy…" he sighed. He got up, tossed his napkin on the table, and trudged over and up the steps to the double doors. He opened the one on the left (the other one was stuck shut for some reason, she had tried it once), but he didn't open it wide. "Hello, Waldo, what can I do for you?"
She could imagine the little fellow standing there all nervous and pleased. She heard him say in a confidential voice, "It's not 'Waldo' any more, Clark, it's 'Will' now."
"Okay, Will, what can I do for you?"
"Ah have a problem, Clark," he said in an accent thicker, Lois was sure, than any Perry had aspired to, "and you're the only one who kin hep me…"
Uh-oh, that was precisely the kind of statement to use on Clark if a person wanted to be assured his endless help. Clark simply could not say no even when it was the best thing to say. Oh, he'd hem and haw, but he'd wind up in the thick of it. I'm in love with a Boy Scout, she thought. She got up and before Clark had time to think of something to say--like "come right in and tell me *all* about it"--she was behind him, looking around him, wedging her way in to see the little fellow who for a brief time had been blessed with a carbon copy of Superman's powers.
He hadn't changed at all, other than his clothing looked better fitting and his hair had been cut by someone who knew how to do it well. His eyes brightened. "Why, Miss Lane! It certainly is nice to see *you* again!"
"Hello, Will, or is it Waldo now?" Maybe he was entertaining multiple personalities.
"Oh, no, I'm Will again. I was Waldo for a while, but it's a long story, I'm sure you don't want to hear it…"
Before Clark could say something equitable, Lois said, "Maybe some other time. Clark and I are having dinner right now, so…"
"Oh, I didn't know that."
"Well, of course you didn't, Will--"
"It's a good thing you live close." What was a few miles between friends? He lived over on the east side somewhere, in a ticky-tacky apartment complex. "I'm sure Clark can talk to you on *Monday*…"
"Oh, I don't live close any more, I don't even live in the city now. I have a little house on a few acres out in Green Hills."
House? Acres? Green Hills? Lois and Clark looked at each other in amazement. Green Hills was at least an hour's fast drive away, somewhat south of Green Meadows and at least twice as ritzy and expensive. There were no homes smaller than five bedrooms ("cottages") and acreage there was astronomically priced.
"It's such a nice place," Will continued dreamily. "Wanda Mae lives there with me and we have a housekeeper and someone to help me take care of her--"
"What happened?" Lois said, "Did you find a lucky lottery ticket?"
Clark looked at her. She gave him a look right back. So it was a good line worth stealing.
"No, no, nothing like that…" the small man said shyly.
Clark sighed quietly and tried to smile in an accommodating manner. "Come in, Will, you can't just stand out there…"
Yes, he could, Lois wanted to say. If only the little fellow weren't inadvertently broadcasting clues for her tingle antennas to home in on. Was Clark picking them up, too, or was it simply his innate polite nature that was making him do this?
He turned on another, brighter light and indicated that his unexpected guest should sit in the comfortable lounge chair while he and Lois took the couch. Will couldn't help but see the table setting and the cooling dinner there. "You can go ahead and eat--this is really a bad time for me to visit…"
"No, just go ahead and tell us your problem--"
"Wait, I want to know why you live in Green Hills now."
"Oh, well, Miss Lane--"
"Lois…" as though it were a privilege to say. "You remember that book I wrote?"
"Yes, of course, Clark helped you with it." He had claimed over those weeks that he'd done little but polish Will's English. "I was one of your proofreaders." She had searched through it to prove her point, that Clark had written it, but failed. At least now she understood why he had agreed to help in the writing, to protect himself and certain secrets as well as to ensure a good finished product.
"Well, it sold pretty well…"
"Five printings in hardback," Clark said, "and I understand the paperback rights are going to auction next month."
"Yes, isn't that a big surprise? I didn't think anybody'd buy it, I thought it would be remaindered, that's the word you used--but you were right, it wasn't. And then I had to do all those talk shows, and I got that little part on Roseanne, and my publisher is talking about selling it to the movies and Tom Cruise playing *me*, can you imagine that?"
"No!" Lois laughed, as though meaning the opposite. "Who will they get for Superman?--I know, Mel Gibson!"
"If they can raise the money--"
"And for you, Clark, Pauly Shore."
"Yeah, right. Pierce Brosnan maybe. For you…"
"Don't you dare."
He smiled as though he'd immediately thought of at least a dozen actresses known more for their acting ability than their physical attributes.
"And then," Will continued, "there's all the merchandise, the t-shirts and that little action doll and the suits for it, and the men's boxer shorts, those are new. None of that sells anything near as well as the Superman things, but that's okay. He gives all the money to charity."
Oh, that's right, Clark had written about that, Lois recalled; he'd gotten an exclusive interview, the rat. But then it explained why he wore old T-shirts.
"Now that I'm comfortable and I have a new job to supplement my income in case it ever runs out, I'm thinking of doing the same myself, giving what comes of it to charity. Then maybe I won't get silly requests any more. Do you know, someone wants to make Resplendent Man…" he leaned forward and whispered: "condoms!" He sat back, nodding gravely. "But I put my foot down when it came to *that*…"
"Good for you," Clark nodded firmly.
"Well, even though Superman carped and complained a lot, he taught me a lot, too, about propriety--that means doing the right thing--so I owe him a lot…"
"I'm sure he'll be pleased to hear that."
Lois said, "And Clark and I will tell him the next time we see him, if that's what your problem is, so…" so get out of here!
"Oh, no, that isn't it at all, Miss… Lois, and I don't want to bother Superman, he's so busy all the time, but I don't need to bother him, I have Clark. My problem's not something life threatening, no, my life's pretty happy right now. Things have settled down and I don't have to go on those TV shows any more if I don't want to, but even with all the money… Well, I got bored and I decided to go back to school."
"That's… wonderful," she said, and inside yelled at her tingle to calm down.
"What are you studying?"
"Oh, I already studied and passed all the tests. You know, I think having Superman's brain power when I had his other powers--even though I didn't *use* it very well at all, especially there at the end when I didn't know what to do when there was all that pressure--you know, cooperate with Gretchen or Wanda Mae and Miss… Lois would die and it was just all so confusing…"
"That *was* a hard choice," Clark said.
Really? Lois thought. When a little super speed or super freezing breath or heat vision or any number of things could have saved a *lot* of time and trouble down the line?
"Yeah…" Will sighed. "But, anyway, I think my brain got used to the idea of being smart even though I didn't use it very well."
"Maybe your neural paths were repatterned, and that didn't change when you lost the other powers."
"Yes, exactly, I got shown new ways, and I've just been wanting to learn things ever since."
"And you turned out to be a better writer than you dreamed, too."
"I didn't need Waldo, did I?"
"Okay, okay," Lois said, "What's the story behind Waldo?"
"Oh, that? Well, my father's oldest brother, Waldo Wilber Webster Waldecker, was a war hero! He saved six men in a foxhole in Korea. They all had food poisoning--he was a vegetarian so he didn't get sick--but he went out into the country side, under fire, and gathered herbs and made a medicine and the six men survived! So my mother, who absolutely adored Waldo almost as much as my father, she would call *me* Waldo sometimes when I was young, to encourage me, you know?"
"So you decided to take on that name again when you were writing."
"Well, I needed all the encouragement I could get… but my publisher didn't want that name on my book, so it was back to William W. W. Waldecker."
"But it's the truth," Clark said. "And it sounds better."
"Yeah, I think so, too."
"So what courses did you take?"
"I took correspondence courses, so I could stay home and take care of Wanda Mae and all my other business."
"What did you take, accounting?" that would make sense.
"Or computer repair?" Clark asked. "There's a big call for that."
Call? She laughed. "There's a big call for animal grooming, too, particularly in Green Meadows with all those poodles."
"And advertising--or graphic arts, Will's creative, he could do his own color separations then."
Will shook his head, and smiled. "No, no…"
"Well, that's silly, like he'd mismatch primary colors--"
"That's not silly, that's sensible--"
"Not when he can hire someone to do that--"
"Not if he wants to save money--"
"He's a *millionaire*, Clark--"
"So? He can't save money? Get a lucrative, long-lasting job-- like… like in real estate--a realtor?"
"How boring! Better a… a race car mechanic! They should teach *that* if they don't! That's exciting!"
"No, no, no…"
"Clark, your *mother* told me she drove race cars when she was a teenager--and *some* people don't worry about saving money--and they certainly don't worry about having a little *excitement* in life. Otherwise, he can take up… interior fishtank design!"
"Oh, yeah? And he can arrange gourmet salads on the side. What a rush!"
Will shook his head, his smile failing him. "No, no, no, no…"
"And he can learn how to plant brown rice gardens in shoe boxes while he babysits!"
"Or how to tactfully get rid of Latin lovers and their cheap wine!"
"No, no, no, no, no! Maybe it's a good thing I *did* stop by, you two were about to have a big fight anyway, weren't you?"
"No!" they said together. Then she found herself frowning at Clark, and, to her surprise, that he was frowning right back… but he blinked first for real this time, looking away, sighing at himself. He was, it occurred to her, probably regretting all this terribly, just as she almost was.
She took over because Clark didn't look like he wanted to say anything, like he thought he had to cool down. He called that hot? Unless he feared he'd melt his glasses or something, he couldn't think had been more than luke warm. Hot she could show him.
Later. The plan now became getting rid of the inadvertent intruder so she could hash all this out with the clown on the other end of the sofa.
No, he's not a clown, not *really*… They were both tense, that was the problem, it could be settled and worked out just fine.
She wouldn't have it any other way.
Or he'd have a real fight on his hands.
Period. She dragged her eyes away from Clark and turned to Will again. "All right, what correspondence course did you take?" and this better be good…
"Oh, well, you know, I had to find some trustworthy people to take care of Wanda Mae and the house, that was really important."
"I didn't want just anyone to look after her while I was away."
"I mean, she couldn't be tall and blond…"
"Or a mad scientist."
"But I had so much fun investigating the people who applied, looking into their backgrounds and all that…"
Oh, no, she saw it coming: "That after your writing experience, you decided to become an investigative reporter…" *Another* one? Just what Metropolis needed… "Do they teach that in correspondence courses now?" She asked Clark.
He shrugged, tired already. "Beats me…" like he didn't care, was still stinging from their exchange, and didn't want to talk to her.
Well, he still had a *lot* to learn about playing in the big leagues, about arguing to win and how to take a little constructive criticism…
But why the hell did I think I had to give any to him? she wondered.
Him of all people, like *he* needs it?
After all he tried to do tonight?
And this is the way we end up?
What was there to win in this now?
Good grief, what have we done?
I don't want to *fight* with you, Clark! I want to…
"No, no, Lois, that's not it!" Will smiled grandly with his secret. "I decided to become a--"
"Wait a minute!" Lois exclaimed, sitting up. "Hold that thought, Will."
Clark glanced at her, trying not to let any curiosity show, probably. Too late. She grabbed at his nearer shoulder, took a hand- full of his jacket, and yanked. As intended, caught off guard (as he often was, she reflected later) he swayed toward her and she pinned him with the roughest, hungriest kiss on his mouth she could muster. It was brief, all things considered, but the intensity of it pushed him back off balance and just about knocked his socks off.
"I'm not through with you!" she growled.
"…okay…" he peeped, almost breathless with the effort to put up some kind of struggle.
It hadn't worked, which was fine with her. She would not have the crabby grumpies from him, not tonight, not with the atmosphere tingled with too many stories, not if he deserved to express a little disappointment and even anger, not if she was wrong about what she had argued--not that she was--not any of that. Anyhow, she thought, she'd figure it all out later.
She resumed a composed and business-like attitude and looked at Will next. "You were saying?"
"Ah…" Will looked at Clark.
Clark appeared (she saw in a sideways glance) rather like he'd been hit by lightning and his glasses were steamed up. Good. He wasn't saying anything nor looking like he was contemplating it nor actually did he appear able to speak, which was just fine as there was nothing she wanted to hear him say at the moment. She could take care of things perfectly well. He may have been the guy of steel on the outside, but inside he was all marshmallow and he'd just experienced some toasting.
"Ah…" Will looked back at Lois. "Pardon, ma'am?"
"You were saying?"
"Ah? Oh, yes, all right, ah… The correspondence course I took?"
"Well, I decided to become a Private Investigator!" and he tried to regain some of the excitement he had expressed when he had originally tried to announce it to the two… lovebirds sitting (well, one was sitting, the other was recovering) before him.
Lois smiled, "Oh, well, that's a relief, I thought you were going to say--private investigator?"
Clark managed to sit the rest of the way up for that. "You, Will? A PI?" he coughed.
"Hard to believe, isn't it? But I'm perfect for the job."
Lois shook her head. "No one would ever suspect…"
"I know, that's why I'm perfect for it."
"But you can't just take a correspondence course…"
"No, of course not, Clark, that was like an introduction, the basics. I passed their tests, then I took the tests the Metropolis Police give, and I passed all them, too, they were easy. They didn't believe it, either. I'm even taking martial arts courses," he nodded, obviously pleased with himself.
"What? Not karate…"
"No, Lois, I know I'm not built right for that, even though having Superman's strength for a while got my muscles used to that idea, too, I think. No, I'm taking aikido, and I'm a brownbelt already."
"But that takes years!"
"I know, but I'm just zipping right through it. It's a wonder to me. My sensei doesn't believe it, either, so she keeps testing me. She had her 250-pound boyfriend attack me in class last week, but I didn't hurt him."
"Superman's powers again," Clark said.
"I guess so. Before I got them, I wasn't good for anything, everything I tried just fell right through to the ground and laid there like a dead dog on a back road on a summer day. I tried hard, and I had Wanda Mae to support, but nothing worked. I was going to commit suicide for the insurance money, but then, bam! lightning struck, in…" he glanced at Clark, "in more ways than one, so to speak…" Lois remembered that Clark had managed to keep that information out of the book, helping Will tell it in such a way that he didn't receive many questions about it, and if he did, he could claim ignorance, another thing people would believe about him. "I didn't use the powers very well when I had them, trying to make people pay for my services…"
"But you needed the money for Wanda Mae, that's understandable," Clark reminded him.
"Superman didn't think so…"
"Well, he can be a little…"
"Up tight?" Lois offered.
Clark looked at her. She almost added, 'self righteous,' but not only would that have been inaccurate, mostly, he said plainly, "You've made your *point*…"
"But," she smiled, softening everything, "that's what makes him so sweet and innocent."
"Ah, yeah…" as though he didn't see himself at all that way. Well, he probably didn't. Maybe, she thought, I should have said "lovable," just to see his reaction.
"And," Will added, obviously trying to distance himself a bit from any new fray, "I don't think he looks through walls at naked ladies, either…"
"I can't *imagine* him doing that," Lois said.
"He'd *never* do that," Clark confirmed.
Definitely innocent, Lois thought. She smiled at Will. "So you're a PI now, that must be… fun."
"Not very, I'm not getting very many jobs. Two divorce cases so far, but they're not fun at all, they're sad. I guess I was thinking it would be more like TV, you know, like Magnum PI? Even though I don't look at all like him."
"But right now I am working on a case that I think I need a little help on. I took a job as a night janitor at this place that has wonderful security but they're still having problems with some strange break-in attempts. You'd expect the attempts, the business they're in, but these are so odd, and I also think there's something real suspicious about what they're keeping there."
"If they have wonderful security," Lois said, "then the security company knows you're not really a janitor."
"Well, that's okay, I looked into them, too, they're all right, they're a company with a lot of experience."
"That doesn't mean they couldn't be *behind* all the trouble this place you're working at is having."
"Oh, I don't think that's the case at all, though I did wonder about that, so I'm keeping my eye on them, too."
"You haven't told us where you're doing this janitor work…" Clark said in a manner that made Lois think he'd been racing ahead again.
"Oh, yeah, that's right. Sometimes you just have to drag things out of me, don't you? Well, have you ever heard of the Commerce Bank of Green Meadows?"
To be continued
The author wishes to thank Laurie, Kathy, Mel and Marie for proofing.
Author note: in case you're wondering, I see the first season of L&C as canon, and pick what I like from the second season. I'm sorry this was so long but I cut what I could…