By Debby Stark [Debby@swcp.com]
March 10, 1996
Summary: As Lois prepares to move in next door to Clark, they discuss marriage and the fact that he is Superman. On a visit to Smallville, Lois gets to meet some of Clark's childhood friends.
(All recognizable characters below belong to Warner Brothers and/or DC Comics and the situations they are placed in are meant only to compliment the work of the original owners. Everything they can't claim prior ownership to, I claim for my own.) This continues the Dawning "saga" mainly because the words "let it go" didn't mean anything to me. While I was in the midst of writing, the French government announced they would stop testing nuclear weapons. I did not, however, cut out what I had already written on the not unlikely chance that they'll change their minds. Previous "episodes" of this opus can be found at ftp.swcp.com pub/users/dstark or be acquired from the author in email or attached txt form or in the fanfic archive.
The fury of the storm had passed, leaving in its wake a steady, refreshing shower. The barn was solid, strong, and the roof way above the loft showed no signs of leaking.
What a metaphor, Lois Lane thought, but an appropriate one, because she realized that she had just waltzed into a refreshing battle of wills with the strongest man on earth. As she looked down on Clark Kent, who was regarding her with what he must have thought was his most stubborn expression, she knew she had already won, the worst of the storm was over. He was hers, lock, stock and superpowers and all stowed away in her heart. He just didn't know yet that he was safely housed there. Or, if he did suspect, it looked like he was far from ready to acknowledge that she had won this struggle.
She understood that, and she knew she couldn't wave her victory in his face like a… a red cape and expect him to capitulate. If she made it worse by prodding him to face reality (which a different woman would have done two years previously), he might come up with some stinging retort or spur-of-the-moment witticism--if he didn't flee again altogether. The old Lois would have thought that a further indication of her brilliant victory.
But not me, she thought, not *this* Lois. He had been doing his duty all along, goading her to break out of her shell. Though there were times his technique hadn't been gentle or wise (he was not his mother after all), it wouldn't do to repay him by making him feel trapped. To avoid that, he would probably retreat strategically to formulate a new plan, not let things flow naturally, and who knew how long that creative process would take?
Hey, she thought at him, half-way wishing he were psychic, you're not alone any more…
Come to think of it, neither am I. And I'm going to see to it that neither of us hides under shells or retreats or feels trapped ever again.
At the moment, though, only one of them had seen as much as she had. She had seen that in his numerous attempts to tell her about himself, the most obvious thing he hoped she would do was take time to think about it, to think it through. She had foreseen this somehow, she realized now, forced herself to calm down, be very patient, and take all the time she needed to get to really know this guy sulking under her. It had been a marvelous thing.
He had only the smallest clue about that though, and what made it harder for him was that he'd had such a short time to adjust to the news. Surely he deserved and shouldn't hesitate to take a lot more time to get over his own surprise and confusion about things not working out quite his way (though it wasn't *so* bad, was it?).
If he decided to take some time, he might very well come to the natural understanding of the depths of her feelings for him and that she was aware of his feelings for her. It would be best, of course, if he didn't think about it too much, just letting the realization flow and blossom and bloom wildly, but she was wary of asking for too much at the moment.
In any event, it was important for him to conclude that he was full and equal in their improved partnership even if she had been the one to boot it up to this new level. It was clear that he didn't feel any of that now, despite--no, among other things because of his out-of-the-blue proposal. It was probably what he had planned to ask her all along, just in not this way. It had become obvious to her that he had wanted to come clean about everything first, to play fair by telling her his secrets, though probably just after softening her up with a romantic dinner. If he had factored in the possibility of scrambling to regain his feet, it was most likely in the context of dealing with an old-fashioned, furios Lois threatening to reject him.
But she was far, far from angry. She knew she could have made it easy for him, telling him they were perfectly even, that she saw him as her other half almost. He excelled in things she had never imagined and more than filled the gaps in her dream and real life. If she did this, though, he'd probably always have his doubts, particularly if he thought she assumed he was too thick to figure it out, to sense it on his own. And he wasn't, not really.
Which didn't mean that she couldn't help him understand, she just had to be more subtle than she had to admit she'd been in the last five minutes.
So she sat up straight again to give him some breathing room. She calmed the superior smile that had come way too easily and tried to make it just a pleased one. He looked a bit suspicious of all this, but that was good; he may have felt cornered but he wasn't backing off. Martha's comment about him escaping to the far side of the moon came to mind. It would not do to push this fellow too hard since he wasn't able to hide in the suit and behind the self-imposed constraints he put on with it.
"Well," Lois said, "nothing's set in stone yet. Your landlord may take an instant disliking to me. People sometimes do."
Given the opening to soften up and lecture her on the evils of self-deprecation, instead he said dryly, "Then bribe him."
This man, who had once tossed her in a garbage dumpster ("for her own good"), knew her pretty well now. That made him both dangerous and desirable since it seemed that few people had ever tried to be friends with her and to woo her for anything but selfish motives.
Since he did know her so well (except for the secret she had kept), she knew she couldn't retaliate or retreat, and that she definitely better not sound like she was trying to kiss up to him, though she wasn't exactly sure how to employ sweet talk without it being obvious. The truth would have to do for now. "I'm already planning to offer to pay for all the repairs for a token reduction in the rent. I know I'll probably have to absorb it--if I want the apartment after I see it, that is."
"That will probably work, it worked for me."
"And if it doesn't or I hate the place, I can keep looking."
"There are a lot of hovels around Metropolis that need cleaning up--I mean, since you seem to be in the mood to tackle one."
You're not a hovel, Clark.
"I do want to create a place of my own." I want to create you for my own, and me for you, and us for us… I'm sounding like one of my novels, she thought. "If it has to be from scratch," and it doesn't, you're already predisposed, "I'm up to the challenge. But you'll help me a little, won't you?" She smiled hopefully with the question but then she wondered if that came off as weak, so she added, "I can already paint walls, that's easy. I helped lay bricks once on an undercover assignment, and I can move furniture, even heavy pieces, but I'm not good at plumbing or electrical wiring."
"I've done that, I've helped build several houses. I better help you, especially if you wind up living right next to me. I've promised to help keep the neighborhood respectable."
And yourself, too, hmm? I won't strain your sensibilities, Clark, just stretch to include me again. "I can be respectable. After all, I don't plan to put up any," she wrote it in the air, "'I'm here now, bad guys, come get me' signs."
"Good idea. The neighborhood watch committee would pay you a visit to discuss that."
"And they're tough?"
"They can be."
"Are you on the committee?"
"I was last year, but I only went on one case and then I just watched."
She could imagine him offering to provide diplomatic thoughts or even news coverage, but not muscles since he wasn't by nature aggressive. His size would imply that he was though, and he could stand back and *imply* quite effectively, supporting the committee members who would do all the talking.
"Maybe they'll let me join some committees once I get established."
"Sure, you can try."
Lois's conversation monitor said that this one had reached an end and if it went further it would fall over the Cliff of Boredom into the Valley of Suspicion of Too-Sweet Motives. "I feel better about this already, I was a *little* concerned about what you would think…"
She noticed that with this admission his combative expression softened to being simply slightly wary. She was beginning to sense just how far she could go in that direction and that it was time to head for the high ground again. "I want to start moving in by next Saturday. If I take the place earlier, I'll break out my bedroll and sleep there and it will be like home so I won't have to bother you. It will be exciting, like… like camping out in the wilderness!"
He traded a good bit of the wariness for a doubtful look. "But you don't like camping out."
"And how would *you* know?"
He raised his eyebrows, surprised, and sat up at last, as though to give more strength to whatever flimsy argument he had. He replied in the same tone she had used: "Because *you've* told me."
"I never said that--When?"
"Last year on March 14th, when Laurie announced she was going to Yellowstone for her vacation. You told me you wouldn't get caught dead in the wilderness unless it was part of a good story, and even then you'd get Perry to send me instead. Then you advised her to take along flares in case she got lost and bear repellant because you heard the park is crawling with 'those nasty creatures.'"
"I was just joking. Bears are okay in their place, which is on a high mountain away from me, and signal flares are really a good idea, *even* in the city. I have some in my jeep."
"Then when Jimmy and Tad decided to drive to California for their vacation this year, you cautioned them in detail, gave them those clippings about tourists found robbed and dumped in Death Valley, and you slipped them a lot of money so they could fly all the way."
"Round trip *first class*--but they gave it all back and they drove anyway and brought me that T-shirt with a Gila monster on it looking mean because Gila monsters can't urinate--which I don't believe for a minute--like I wasn't supposed to realize it was a joke at my expense," she snorted. "So they didn't listen to me, either, no one does."
"I was going to say nobody but you."
"And then you--"
"Thank you, Mr. Memory! You've made your point!"
Why didn't he look the least bit triumphant then? How could he do that? *No* killer instinct at *all*? You do need me, Clark.
He said mildly, "Just don't try to tell me you like something when I know you really don't."
"Okay, then I won't tell you I like gorillas."
"That's fine, I know you have no intention of hunting them to extinction."
"Right. And some of your musical tastes are really *way* out."
"So don't play any of that music while you're at my place."
"I won't. And while I do like staying there, I don't want to be a bother unless it's part of a plan, and, believe me, I did *not* plan to be evicted."
"I believe you. You've always seemed to enjoy your privacy, but you're no bother since…" he looked at his hands and spread them, "I'm here and you're… well, you will be there again tomorrow…"
She simply nodded, not wasting an innocent expression even though he looked up again in time to have seen one.
Not getting the facial response he must have expected (her giving herself away), he continued, "And it's okay if you touch things, I don't really mind. You were careful before, and you weren't a bother then either…" He paused again, now obviously beginning to wonder if she had known his truths as long ago as that.
It was too early for him to be getting that close. If he insisted on worrying about it, then maybe it was a good idea to let him think she was playing a game, that she wanted to keep him guessing about when had she found out. If that didn't work and he still needed distracting, she figured she could always dazzle him with sexual innuendo.
She maneuvered to appear to try to head him off at the pass. "You were such a gentleman and I was so manic. I think that's when it really struck me that you're my best friend and that you've meant a lot to me for so long…" or, she told herself, it certainly should have struck me then. Their at-work relationship had been good since the end of last year when her father had been ill. But on a personal level that relationship had been stuck at sibling-like. She could have sworn she had been comfortable with that as well as with the occasional sweet kiss upon casual date attempts. They hadn't called them dates then, either; he had also, as far as she could tell, been a little leery about even trying. If while on the job, the stress level was high and death seemed near, they had engaged in a bit of ear nibbling and too-brief discussions about their personal futures. They'd seemed to be so… in sync, from their mild times together to ones that required him to rescue them both. Why hadn't she seen this guy for what he really was to her before?
I'm babbling, she thought. But then again, it looks like he can tell I've sidetracked myself. Let's use it. "And your bed was so comfortable, I sleep like a log in it, and I have every night since Wednesday. You know, it's like an anniversary, since the last time it was Wednesday, too…"
"Technically it was--"
"*Don't* say it."
Fast on the uptake, he closed his mouth before the words "Thursday morning" tumbled out. At least he had the common decency to look like he realized he was about to sound like Mr. Spock and that neither of them needed that. She supposed, though, that just because he had managed to sit up it was still too early to expect him to do an about face and feel romantic and pretend along with her.
She eased the conversation elsewhere. "Okay, so when you're helping me fix up my new place, you're not to do anything out of the ordinary, you understand? Unless I'm about to fall off a ladder or electrocute myself or something like that."
"Whatever you say. It'll be your hovel."
"Exactly. And when it's all done and beautiful, I can invite you for dinner and I can bake those cookies, too, for dessert. I'm going to make more time for doing that kind of thing, I really *don't* have to be in the office until I'm about to drop dead."
As though taking a cue from the idea of dessert, her stomach churned almost audibly. It was quite audible to some. She noticed that he glanced down in that direction, raised his eyebrows, caught himself, looked back at her and just about almost smiled. "Speaking of dropping dead," she said casually, as though she had planned the whole thing right down to the decibel level, "I'm still starving." She folded her legs under herself and rolled to her knees.
"You're thinking of food at a time like this?"
"I sure am! It's almost dinner time back in Metropolis, and I don't consider two bites of sandwich to be enough lunch for either of us--and don't say you're not hungry. I refuse to eat alone while I'm in a barn."
He sighed as though he enjoyed sounding exasperated. "I am a little. I'll go get it."
But before he could move, she planted her hands firmly on his shoulders. He stopped, though obviously of his own volition and not because she was leaning into it.
"*I* can get it. I saw where you put the bag in the storeroom. Besides…" we're this close and you don't look like you want to kiss me yet, so why stay? "I want to stretch out, and wouldn't you like to relax for a few minutes without me hovering over you?"
He looked almost insulted. "I'm perfectly all right, Lois."
Yeah, she thought, for a fellow who looks like he's been run over by a powerful locomotive… "I'm glad to hear that." She hovered a touch closer and thought at him: try kissing me to prove it… nope. "But I really do want to stretch. It'll only take a minute, I'm not going anywhere else…" Not like *some* people who disappeared at inopportune moments to save train loads of orphans, puppies and Nobel laureates.
He pursed his lips in that cute I-don't-like-this-but-I- can't-think-of-a-good-counter-argument way of his and she felt him give a bit under the pressure. In acceptance of his decision she stopped pushing. She hoped he noticed that she resisted patting him on the cheek like she might have if she were a thoughtless, domineering person.
She rose to her feet, grabbed the end of the ladder, swung into position and climbed down rapidly but carefully. She wondered if he was x-ray watching her every move. If so, or if he couldn't help it, that was all right for now. She was sure he was being careful about it, and he'd be embarrassed if he x-rayed too far, not that she would have minded that either.
But he'd get over feeling he had to keep an eye on her to avoid the next thing she threw at him. She didn't plan to throw anything more, though, not until he was rested up, on the road to mental stability, and back in Metropolis, assuming he didn't return with her on Sunday. She suddenly hoped he wouldn't decide to do that; he not only needed time to adjust to all these new ideas--she wanted him to miss her.
She reached the floor of the barn and noticed that the horses were watching her. This startled her briefly and she stopped to watch them for any signs of dangerous movements. They simply stood there and observed her right back, and she began to relax, shaking her head at herself for having been fearful. They were large and powerful, careless of the storm-- *both* storms--that had swept past overhead. At the same time they were calm and somehow encouraging. They got along perfectly well with each other, that was so marvelous. She bet they knew exactly what was going on, too, with all the humans and human-looking people around here. Animals seemed to be able to do, according to the glimpses of The Nature Channel she'd gotten while channel surfing. In their own lives they didn't futz around but got right down to it after some genetically engineered courtship ritual, and often it was the female who made the major decisions, wasn't it? But a lot of animals mated for life, too, didn't they? She wondered if gorillas did.
On her visit here more than a month earlier, Jonathan had helped her mount and ride Robby, and they'd taken a brief turn around the paddock. It had been frightening and she had gritted her teeth and kept smiling. But in the end the nonchalant way the horse had reacted toward her, as though he were perfectly willing to let her work out her fears, had been comforting and made her want to try it again some time. Maybe she could suggest taking another ride while she was here. After all, if for any reason Robby got rowdy, while Jonathan had relied on a gentle voice to control the animal, Clark could also deal with the horse physically. That would be something to see: "Clark, bring that horse over here…"
She paused there by the stall. Neither of the immense animals looked the least bit rowdy, and the nanny goat standing in the corner eating hay looked brainlessly content. Acting on inspiration and since it had felt good the last time, Lois reached over the gate, hoping to touch either Robby's or Flora's nose and feel warm breath on her hand. I'm not afraid of you two, I'm not *all* city girl.
As Flora took a step forward and was stretching toward her, Lois felt something that made a squealing sound skitter over her right foot. Considering where she was, and that a piece of straw wouldn't have made such an impression though her tennis shoe, that straw didn't sound like that anyhow, and who knew what weird things were lurking in this strange temple dedicated to agrarian practices--she gasped involuntarily and jumped back.
Right into Clark, who kept her from tripping over her own feet in her haste to escape.
"Lois, what's wrong? What is it?"
God, you're fast. "I don't know…" She pushed her hair back reflexively, turned to get out of his arms but then grabbed one, his left, realized she was unconsciously using him as a shield and that she didn't mean to, but, hell, he was built like a tank, he'd practically grown up this barn, and he better know what was going on around here.
She pointed out where she had been standing. "It was there, but…" She peered into the darkness "it's gone now, it moved fast--and I'll be all right, it was probably nothing. It was probably just a mouse or a rat or a snake or something that took a short cut over my foot. I realize these things happen on farms all the time, every day, probably twice on Saturdays…"
"No, they don't. And it wouldn't be a snake or a rat…" He knelt to get a better look as though he couldn't x-ray the whole darn planet to find what had assaulted her. "Roscoe takes care of them."
"Roscoe? That mild-mannered dog?"
Clark glanced up at her. "He was raised by the same people who raised me, what do you expect?"
I expect you not to be quite so serious giving me a statement like that. "Oh, well… I'm glad you don't chase snakes and rats."
His expression, which had after all become ever so slightly amused at himself, headed toward somber again. He looked back down. "Except of course I do in a manner of speaking…"
She felt like somehow he was drowning, she had adroitly thrown a rope to him, he had reached for it--and missed. Now she floundered. "As a reporter, certainly, but… why does that sound like you didn't expect to do that, to chase human snakes and rats, when you decided to go public?"
"I guess because…" he shrugged, "I didn't." He looked up at her again briefly. "I imagined myself saving people from accidents and floods and earthquakes, that kind of thing. I'd already done a lot of that, discretely, so I knew I'd probably be pretty good at it. I just never thought I'd be… swallowing bombs or wrestling with robotmen or… or doing even more bizarre things as a journalist, like pretending to be a bartender or tracking down billionaire criminals."
She thought she heard him sigh. He wasn't proud of that? She would have been, she thought--or rather she was proud now: she did all those things, too, the journalist things. Since he was a lot like her in tracking down a story (she'd practically trained him after all), and since he had to know he had helped so many people, maybe that wasn't it. There was definitely something deep going on here, something he needed to talk about--to her.
But this wasn't quite the time for it. "So, does Maggie take care of the mice? Where is she then? Why isn't she on the job?"
"She's mostly a house cat. Mom's looking for a good barn cat who won't bother the… oh, here's what probably ran over your foot…" He reached into darkness at floor level and pulled out one of the little chicks.
"*That's* what scared me half to death?"
"It didn't *sound* like a chicken."
"Sometimes they don't."
"They don't? I didn't know that… I'm sorry for the false alarm, I'm just not very good at this farm stuff."
"No one has asked you to be," he said, not looking up at her but not needing to as he comforted the little bird. "You're good at city stuff."
True. She decided she wanted a better look at what hadn't turned out to be a cobra, and so she knelt there beside Clark. The little yellow chick had the beginnings of white feathers; its cuteness was wearing off as it was becoming an ordinary barnyard animal. But it still was so small and saying pio-pio-pio and trembling in his hands… "Oh, it's frightened…"
"He's cold and lost…" Clark paused, looked at her and said in a way that was surely meant to leave no doubt: "And that's *not* a metaphor for *me*."
"Did I say it was?" Though of course it was the perfect metaphor and he knew it. What he probably didn't know was: "It's a good metaphor for me…" which she wondered why she was admitting.
"No, it's not either. Just because I said it wasn't for me, that doesn't mean it's yours by default."
"I know, but I…" This time she was the one who felt the need to look away. "I just happen to be about the coldest person I know, and, frankly, I've been lost a few more times than I care to remember."
"And *I* disagree," he said firmly, and when she looked again, his eyes drew hers irresistibly. "You're *not* cold. You're just about the warmest person I know, and you're rarely lost."
His voice and eyes were those of a sincere best friend, just what she needed right now, she realized… It would have been nice to hear or see in them the desire to kiss her to enforce the opinion but wasn't quite time for that yet, either. Ten days earlier he wouldn't have hesitated. Soon, she was sure, he'd feel that way again.
He seemed to catch himself, as though remembering that he was supposed to be hurt, and he looked back at the bird, paused, and said: "Here, you hold him."
"You, and he's a him and he'll be a rooster someday unless he catches pneumonia."
"But you're warm--"
"You are, too. Stick your hands out here."
"Clark, I don't really need this experience--"
"You're *not* going to say you're chicken, are you?"
How dare--"I'm not afraid of anything, he just doesn't need…" Yes, he does, girl--this *could* be some kind of test this guy doesn't realize he's giving you. "Oh, all right, I can do this." She offered her hands.
The chick's feet felt like agitated spiders, but Clark helped corral the animal in her cupped hands until it calmed, only peeped occasionally, and then cuddled into their warm embrace. As it could have been preliminary to a make-up kiss, she wouldn't have minded this lasting longer. The chick was the only thing coming between them. "Does he have a home or do I take him back to the city, buy him a black leather jacket and find him a job in the newsroom?"
"Like… crowing when the Chief's in a bad mood?"
"Exactly, and he'll work for chicken feed, too, less than Jimmy."
Clark smiled a little; Lois felt a surge of victory--but told herself not to rejoice yet. He said, "You can put him in the coop over there and I'll get our lunch."
"Okay, coop, over there…"
He stood up with her and then let her hold the chick close all by herself. She felt courageous. He said, "The gate should be open." He looked through the dim light in the direction he had previously indicated. "It is open and the hen is in there and the rest of the chicks. Put him in there, too, and close the gate. Check the chicken wire fence while you're at it, it could be loose. We don't want the fox getting near there again."
"Fox?" She'd never seen a live fox before except in a zoo.
"A fox is why we don't have a rooster any more. The rooster went for a walk and the fox escorted him to dinner. The fox's dinner."
"But what about Roscoe?"
"The fox was smarter than him."
"Me? I wasn't here, I was in… Venezuela."
"Oh, that oil well fire thing."
"Yeah. Look, I realize you really want to do this, I'll-- "
"No, *I* can do it. I'm perfectly capable of it."
"Does he have a name?"
"The chick? No, I don't think so."
"He needs a name." She looked down at it. She bet it had absolutely no idea what was going on. "How about 'Clark, Jr,' hmm?"
She could imagine the chick's possible namesake rolling his eyes. "How about if I just go get our lunch?"
"Take your time. I think after I tuck little Clark Jr. in- -Do you have a middle name?"
"I bet you do. Henry? Cecil? Randolph?"
"No, not even close"
"I'll find out. I'll tuck him in and then I can bale some hay, and while I'm at it I'll milk a cow, any cow who happens to be standing around."
"Fine. You do that," and he turned away, apparently happy to let her figure out what she had been saying.
Well, she thought, I know your middle already name *and* I know there's no cow here… but I know there's someone who's smiling because he thinks I don't know. Now, how the hell do I fix a chicken coop when I don't know what one looks like?
She turned toward where he said the coop was and eased that way, letting her eyes adjust. In a moment she saw what he meant, a sturdy indoor-outdoor type construction. In it the hen waited and, Lois assumed, the chick's siblings were hiding in the wooden shelter. The hen wouldn't have been here otherwise probably; she had opted to guarded the bulk of her babies. I would have, Lois thought. She tried to put the found chick down, but it hopped out of her hands, landed in some straw and fluttered away unharmed to hide with the other little ones.
"Well, thank you, too…" she told its back, almost added *Jerome,* and, in deference to the wary hen, closed the coop gate carefully. "No rooster to keep you warm, eh, girl? Happens to the best of us…" though maybe that would change soon for one of them. She gave this indoor part of the coop a once-over glance but didn't see any loose wire and doubted the hen, who could have flown out probably, had wire cutters under her wing. With a fox around she should have a machine gun. "You be careful, now," she warned the big bird. "If you're not good and the fox doesn't get you, you can still become chicken soup in an instant, you know."
The hen looked dubious.
"Not today," Clark said as he returned.
"I hope not," Lois whispered to him, "I wouldn't want to find out I was eating her."
"She's a prize winner, and Mom has a hard time slaughtering any of them. Actually, I do, too. Dad usually has to do it, so that's one chicken who will probably die of old age."
"And the fox?"
"Dad has rigged up some alarms and Roscoe is sleeping out here again tonight."
"Oh, good, maybe he'll keep the chicks warm because it's a lot cooler than it was. Are there little electric blankets and sun lamps in there for the chicks so Roscoe won't smother them?"
"Just about. The coop's heated. Are *you* cold? I mean, physically?"
"A little, but it's warm enough up in the loft," and, who knows, you may feel like warming me up eventually.
"Yes, it is."
"It's comfortable, too, and it's private, just in case… tourists stumble through. Unless…" well, there was always the chance, "unless you don't want to."
"No, it's okay…"
Lois felt suddenly like taking a swing at Clark and his pitiful-little-me attitude with… She spotted a stack of folded-up chicken-feed bags. With one of those. She restrained herself. No one has called to save his day for him like Martha had for her. But if he suggests going home with you, she told herself, turn him down flat, that will serve him right. "Well, if you really don't want to, I understand. After all, I turned up out of the blue and wrecked your entire happy life--"
"No, you *haven't* wrecked my 'entire happy life'--"
"And maybe you had something else planned--"
"What were you going to do with the rest of the afternoon before you saw me? More work? Hang out in the hammock?" She waved a hand in emphasis. "Did you have *any*thing else planned?"
"Well, I was thinking about going to England…"
"England? Why England?"
"It's, ah…" He looked away as though thinking about how much he should tell her. Ohmygosh, what if he had a girlfriend there, too? Well, she thought, frowning at him and ready to jump down his throat and throttle his tonsils, he better *not* have! He looked back at her. "It's a UFO thing and you weren't interested in that before…"
A UFO thing? Was *that* all? Whew! Why, she wondered, do I still have these stupid doubts when he's been working so hard all this time to get my undivided attention? Just because she was used to men who stole her stories and ran away, or tricked her and tried to possess her body and soul…
UFOs were much easier to deal with. She threw out her hands. "Of *course* I wasn't interested before! And now I remember--you said you might go there on vacation, but you…" wait a minute, don't give it away, "well, *Superman* was about to go to court and all you could think about that night was flying saucers and *not* helping him."
"And now you know why."
"Yes, because you wanted to relax, you had a plan-- and it worked and I'm glad it did. But if it hadn't, I would have visited you in jail and taken cookies to you. Each one would have a little piece of file that you could collect and weld together and use to escape. If the guards found out, maybe they'd throw me in the next cell and we could… call Clark to rescue us."
"But jail wasn't…" He stopped himself as he saw through the little diversion and earned a gold star. "Lois, I *wanted* to share my plan with you. I was going to tell you everything Thursday morning because I… well…" He sighed as though helpless with the memory. "I needed a hug. But like always, something else came up."
"Something else nearly sank, you saved that ship full of people. You couldn't waste time after that trying to find me or you might have been late to court and lost by default or been thrown in jail for contempt. That's exactly the way they work."
"I don't think I would have gone to jail…"
No, he had made the right choice and shown everyone that the American system of justice worked. But if he had considered disappointing millions just to find and talk to her… "It's nice to know that you were thinking of telling me…"
"I probably should have told you the night before, but it was just too…"
"Unromantic, and I was going overboard trying to get us to the Law Library when a walk in the park would have been much nicer."
"Well, yes, but you didn't go overboard… No, actually, you did, but it was because you were worried and you cared and things were so frenetic that I couldn't tell you then… and maybe you couldn't tell me that you already knew…?"
Clark, if you just don't hand me any more chickens and we can both get cozy and reassure each other about this whole thing… She took a step toward him and looked up into his eyes. "You mean did I know about you and…" She couldn't resist; she lightly drew an S over his chest.
He retreated a touch, but not necessarily, she hoped, because he didn't want her to do it. Maybe he was ticklish there or just oversensitive at the moment. Otherwise he seemed capable only of raising his eyebrows in a pleading *tell me* manner…
But while she thought she could have kept advancing, cornered him and forced him to submit, she didn't, it wasn't part of the flow. Did he wanted so badly to know how she had found out because he thought he could prevent it happening again with someone he didn't love? Maybe, but she was sure he wasn't truly suffering for lack of knowledge, and, if anything, seeking the answer was keeping him here.
So she patted his t-shirt back into shape and as she did so she said, "I've been thinking a lot about our relationship, and that was one of the things I thought about. Your trying to relax the night before the hearing makes a lot of sense now…" and don't you remember refusing to listen, and what I said about us laughing at this some day? True, we're not laughing now, "but whether or not I knew then doesn't matter."
"You *did* know…"
"Know what? Oh, that? I don't recall, it's not important to me any more. What's important is… what I know now." She capped that with a nod of supreme certainty. "Do you think the food's still okay and it hasn't spoiled or anything? Will you taste test it for me?"
"Lois…" He shook his head. "It hasn't had time to spoil, but if it has, you're getting ptomaine on your own."
"Thanks a *lot*--Oh, but you wouldn't know the difference, would you…"
"I know rotten food when taste it, yech," he stuck out his tongue briefly, "but whether or not it's just ready for the compost heap or it's really dangerous, I don't know if I could tell," he said, and it sounded like he really didn't want to admit to it as it was just another thing that made him different. He didn't appreciate being healthier than anyone else on Earth? But then he made his case worse by adding, "After all, I've eaten things in Asia that… you don't want to know about."
"Then don't tell me.
"But I'm sure this food's okay, it's cool in the storeroom."
"So let's go where it's warmer."
Since she didn't seem to want him to do anything out of the ordinary (for some reason Clark felt grateful for that), he waited to follow her while she climbed the ladder. As he touched the first rung she turned and suggested he toss the lunch bag up to her so his hands would be free. He said he didn't want to because the bag was heavier than it looked due to the bottles of water. She shrugged, "Whatever you say," but when he'd gotten several rungs up with the help of a bit of float to keep his balance, she reached down wordlessly and he handed her the bag. Doing so then made sense. When he set foot in the loft he saw she had settled on the blanket in the same place as before, waiting for him. He sat down across from and facing her.
His feelings, he sighed to himself, were typically all mixed up. He longed to hug her because she knew, he could share everything with her now, it was such a relief. His ever- present underlying sense of loneliness was retreating rapidly. But at the same time he felt better keeping his distance because he had no idea exactly how much she knew and what it was he had already unwittingly shared with her, and that made him nervous and, conversely, feeling even more isolated.
He wasn't sure why this was. There wasn't anything wrong with her knowing. What's more, from what little she had said that he could make sense of--and that hadn't made him feel like ducking--she was partial toward him as himself. She wasn't trying to play up to him and via him reach the blue-suit- wearing person she had once been in lust with. This seemed to indicate that she thought he, Clark, was at least the dominant person of the two.
His folks used to be the only ones he could totally depended on, but over this last year he had become certain that Lois was also genuinely trustworthy. there was really no more question of it. So it wasn't that, either.
Hey, she'd even had her hands on some Kryptonite quite recently but hadn't used it ("if you react to this, you *are* Superman!"). So either she didn't feel any need to do that, she had not known the truth then, or if she had a nefarious plot, it didn't require Kryptonite. In any case, if she wanted to entrap him, she could do so using her own native intelligence, that was more than obvious. Yet he didn't feel quite trapped now.
She opened the bag, pulled out the bottles of water and then the two half-sandwiches he'd hastily wrapped together earlier. She unwrapped these and split them, one for each hand. "Hmm, I wonder which was mine…"
She couldn't tell by the bite size? He took a close look from afar. "That one," he pointed, "has traces of lipstick." Trying for a little levity wouldn't hurt, especially since he could hardly help but say "and I don't wear that shade."
She smiled--at the thought of the Man of Steel wearing make-up? He *hoped* not--and handed him the unlipsticked half. She said, "I'm wearing hardly any, it's just protection from the sun."
It was a fact that Kansas was higher in altitude than Metropolis and what with the ozone layer fluctuating as it did these days… way to go, Kent, just try babbling about *that*. She'll think you're a real nut case and leave faster than she got here. He decided to say simply: "Good idea."
They ate quietly for what seemed like an hour but was only about 45 seconds, until, feeling pressed--not by her, he realized, though her presence was certainly partly responsible-- he decided to say, "You make good sandwiches, I think you're a fine chef."
Their eyes met and for some reason she looked uncomfortable. He wondered, What did I say now?
"Clark, to be honest with you, I… I didn't make any of this." She waved at the bag. "Your mother fixed it all ahead of time. I guess she's psychic."
Oh? But that clicked as being the truth. He looked the sandwich more closely. It was constructed in the way his mom usually did them. She skimped on the Miracle Whip because of the artificial ingredients and then loaded on the lettuce and the other roughage, though she could have convinced Lois to do the same for health reasons.
Yet for Lois to have admitted to this little thing when she could have let it pass and basked in the glory? That was something special. "Ah, yes, sometimes she is psychic," and, on the down side, he thought--why do I have to find a down side?--sometimes she doesn't feel like cluing me in on critical things she's psyched out, either.
I'm sandwiched in between them…
And it tickles.
"But it's easy to make sandwiches," Lois said pleasantly. "I make them all the time at home."
"Then I'm sure you're good at that."
"We all have to start somewhere." She took a bite.
"Yep… How long has she known that you know?"
"Your mother?" she said around the bite.
"You didn't tell anyone else…"
She shook her head. "Um-um."
"I didn't think you had, it was just the way you asked that…"
Now she nodded as though she understood and wasn't hurt by the near accusation. She took her time chewing, swallowed and said, "Well, what you like to do in your spare time isn't anyone else's business, is it? I know that's odd for an investigative reporter to say, but we don't work for a sleazy tabloid and I have to draw the line somewhere… I just needed someone to talk to and she's been there for me," she smiled, pleased, but it turned just a touch sad. "The more I think about it, though, I bet she's needed someone to talk to a *lot* longer than I have. At least now that I've found out and she found out I found out, she's had someone to talk to." Her smile broadened again. "Me."
It had never occurred to him that his folks and particularly his mom might want to share the secret, that it could be a burden. They had never let on and would probably deny it to the end, and he couldn't imagine being so callous as to confront them about it. Mom had probably intuited that Lois knew and of course she'd want to talk to Lois to find out the extent of her knowledge. No doubt she'd psyched out right away that there was nothing to worry about, if she hadn't already suspected that long ago. Why she hadn't told him was another issue.
He took a bite of his sandwich half. As he ruminated over it, what little irritation he had at his mother for having held the secret for who knew how long began to melt away. After all, maybe Lois had asked her not to say anything.
"And," Lois continued, "I begged her not to tell you because I realized I needed time to think about it. She said she understood, so…"
Wow, Clark thought. Did I foresee her saying that or did she read my mind?
Okay, so Mom hadn't said a word and Lois had taken time--how much time?--to adjust to the idea. Well, that made sense, sort of. In a few moments he realized Lois was waiting for some comment, so he said, "I guess you asked about me…" which, he realized, was probably one of the main things bothering him. He didn't like to think they had been talking behind his back, that Lois might have quizzed mercilessly and he hadn't been any the wiser or able to protect the older woman.
"Yes, we talked about you, she's very proud of you, but I think we've talked even more about me. It was funny how she did that. Every time we talked I wound up pouring my heart out to her…"
Of course! Clark reprimanded himself for thinking his mom would cower defenselessly, or that Lois would assault her with probing questions. Loosen up, Kent!
"I've discovered a lot about myself recently… But that's been fun, too, more fun than it started out to be, and all this is going to get even better." She smiled to herself softly.
She certainly was smiling a lot. More fun? Discovering herself? With… me? Well, yes, probably that was what she meant, he hoped, and it was only fair since she knew so much about him now, a lot of it without his mother's help by the looks of it. Talk about discovery…
He tried to focus on his sandwich, wishing suddenly that she had made it after all. But it was good that she had come clean about that and all these other things. He could help her improve her cooking skills if she wanted to, though it would be perfectly okay with him if she eschewed the kitchen and he did all that kind of thing in… their own home, if-- *when* they got together, after they got all this worked out, which they could get down to doing if he weren't generally choked up and at a loss for sensible words…
He felt himself focus immediately and hoped he hadn't looked like his mind had been wandering. "Hmmm?"
"This may sound odd but… I'm more used to trying to talk heart-to-heart with you when you're wearing glasses."
"Oh? Oh, okay…" He assumed that was a request that he put them back on. No problem, and it was actually promising. It seemed to further confirm just who she preferred to see of the two people she clearly now knew him as. He pulled them out of where they hung in the collar of his shirt, but before he could put them on, she reached across and stayed his hand.
"Wait a minute. You wear them at work and around me, until right now, but you were just wearing those sunglasses in the truck. So do you wear these when you visit here with your parents?"
"Ah, not all the time, it…" It's important? "it depends…"
She nodded as though encouraging him to continue, so he added off the top of his head, "Everyone's used to seeing me in them and I'm used to wearing them. They… slow me down so I'll think first before doing anything… unusual."
"Ah, yeah, natural for me. But, anyway, I don't really think about it much anymore." There were just things one didn't think about after, what? 25 years?
She nodded like she understood, like there were things she didn't think about either. "And when you're alone at home, do you wear them then?"
"No, usually not." He had little to fear at home any more. "Why?"
"Because…" She sat back, looking at him speculatively, "maybe you shouldn't put them on, maybe I should get used to seeing you without them when you're wearing regular clothes."
Oh, great, she meant seeing *Superman* in regular clothes. He felt the strong desire to defend himself against… himself: "But if it's easier to have heart-to-heart talks…"
"You do want to talk?"
"Yes, I do. I guess maybe I haven't *acted* like it…"
"Not for the last half an hour--but I sneaked up and surprised you."
"That's putting it mildly."
She smiled in a comforting (as well as pleased with herself) manner. "I know, and I know you've been trying, we've *both* been trying to talk. If you feel comfortable wearing them," she said, totally neutral, "put them on."
"It doesn't matter to me." Though of course it made a big difference for some reason. "If *you're* more comfortable…"
She gave him a look that seemed to say she detected here a trend toward gridlock. She put down what was left of her sandwich, sat up on her knees and held out her hand. "Give them to me."
Oh, no, "Huh-uh, you'll just put them on me and pat my cheek again."
"I'm *not* going to patronize you, Clark. Hand them over."
"Only if you promise not to do that."
He hoped she didn't mean the irritated look, but he didn't feel like budging on this any more than he did on the no- sex-before-engagement declaration. That (hasty?) decision had been a matter of maintaining his self-respect (yeah, that was it). So was this one. She'd just have to accept it.
She sighed dramatically, in essence reassuring him that she was not angry. "All right, I promise. Give."
He gave. She took them respectfully--then reached for him with her left hand (when here he'd been wary of her cheek- patting right), and, because he didn't think to withdraw and despite himself enjoyed her touch, she was able to comb her hand through his hair, loosening it.
"That's better," she said. "Now you look like you but without glasses. The rain slicked your hair down a little and I was beginning to worry you were about to fly away." Then apparently satisfied with the adjustment, she sat back and simply looked at him.
He became self-conscious. It was a little like the first time he'd been in and then above a crowd while wearing the suit, but he had grown used to the stares in no time because such situations were never quite real and were easy to put in perspective as long as people didn't grab at him.
She wasn't staring, though, and she was the woman he loved. She was gazing at him like she enjoyed it and didn't want to set a time limit on it. But if she was having trouble telling the difference between him as he was and the person she had somehow discovered he masqueraded as… Unless she actually saw the slicked hair and the suit as a disguise, like he did…
She eased the intensity of her gaze before he could figure out a way to coax that information out of her. She looked down at the glasses, folded them and tucked them safely into the breast pocket of her fashionable shirt. Then she picked up her sandwich to finish it off. There she was, being serene again, as though she knew she could fix all the world's troubles in an instant for the asking.
He, on the other hand, found he could just about get out the words "I'm not going to fly away…"
"You'd better not, I'd find you."
He bet she would. "And probably beat the crap out of me."
She half smiled. Maybe she could picture that and easily, too. Could she have imagined beating the crap out of Superman? Somehow he doubted it.
She said, "That's right, and when I was satisfied, we'd have a nice long talk."
Talk… Oh, right, talk! But… "About…?"
"I mean," he continued quickly, "here we are and you know… *every*thing and we should be talking. But you're not upset about why I didn't tell you back on day one, so I can't ask why you didn't tell me you'd found out, so we're not talking about that. And you're not asking about how I can fly or what villain is next on my agenda or anything like that…"
"Oh, *that* kind of talk…" She picked up the bag, opened it, pulled out the other sandwich and began unwrapping it. He noted it was vegan tofu salad. He decided not to warn her because she might like it if she didn't know what was in it; his dad had been fooled that way. She took half of it and bit in, chewing without seeming to notice what she was eating. One bite swallowed without comment and a sip of water later, she said, "But that's not talking, that's an interview, most of it is, and the rest doesn't matter, I'm just not upset. Besides, I know why you didn't tell me as soon as you met me."
"Of course! What would you have said?" She affected a somewhat deeper voice: "'Hello, Ms. Lane. I'm fresh off the farm via Borneo and Tierra del Fuego, and I want to be a real journalist, and in my spare time," she took a breath, "I leap tall buildings, which is one reason I came to Metropolis because there aren't any tall buildings in Kansas.'" She took another breath, paused, and said in her normal voice: "I don't *think* so…"
"But… Lois, I hardly knew you."
"You didn't know me at all. There's no way you could have trusted me with that information. On top of that, I made it abundantly clear that I was totally unimpressed by you and would have been happy to push you *under* the first bus back to Kansas if I couldn't get you *on* it. I would have told you to take a flying leap *off* a building if you'd tried that pick-up line on me."
"You wouldn't have hesitated, but you were busy, too--"
"I was territorial and I was a snob."
Good grief, she remembered that stupid statement. "I'm sorry I said that…"
"Don't worry, I didn't take it seriously, what could a hick farmboy possibly know about real life? But you were right in a way."
"I was too judgmental." If she ever found out he had spied on her first date with Lex or at her acceptance of his proposal or any of the other times in between…
"Well, you were young and naive. Unsophisticated, too, innocent, totally unsuspecting--and *gullible*--"
"I get the *picture,* thank you, Ms. Memory."
"I bet you even thought I'd recognize you when I first saw you wearing your new suit there in shuttle."
"Well, actually, I did."
"It's probably a good thing I didn't, that I was overwhelmed by… events. You would have become front page news in a way you didn't want to be."
"Yeah…" Wow, she really had thought this out.
"But I'm glad I was blind then because we've both had a chance to change, to grow up some more, and I'm not upset about anything now--I *was* upset for a little while, but got over it. Besides, knowing," she smiled, "has been a kind of revenge."
"That's a… a natural reaction." Okay, then, when had she exercised some of that revenge on him? Nothing occurred to him immediately. He had not, for example, found his desk drawers full of shaving cream or any of his complicated batch files suddenly whistling Dixie. "Except I can't think of any revenge you've taken…"
"Then I did a good job of it, didn't I? But, Clark, I'm glad it's out in the open now, that's what's important to me… And I don't want to *interview* you because," she waved the new half sandwich with emphasis but carefully, so chunks of it wouldn't fall out, which was an inherent danger with such fillings, "this is definitely *not* a reporter-newsmaker kind of thing, no way. Two years ago it would have been, but now it's a girlfriend-boyfriend thing. I want to have long, heartfelt conversations with…" She paused, lowered the sandwich to hold in her lap, caught his eyes, and looked something halfway between warmly hopeful and nervously pleading, as though he might not accept or believe it when she said: "…with the person who… who means the most to me in the whole world now…"
As he had allowed himself to be distracted by her actions with the sandwich and then the drawing power of her deep, brown eyes, he was unable to avoid the fence post slipping up and whacking him again.
But this time it was padded with hearts and flowers and felt *so good* because Lois Lane, the woman of his dreams, gave every indication that she was talking about him, the real him who she had somehow psyched out. He could have, he realized, melted right through the floor and reformed in a pleasont swoon right in front of the horses. They would have said to each other that it was about time the boy got something right in his life.
The absolutely only thing that came to his mind to say though was: "You have to marry me, Lois…"
"Clark…!" Hadn't he been listening? She looked flustered, which worried him until he noticed that her eyes were merry. "I didn't say *no*, remember?"
"What you said was something… just…" untenable and too scary to contemplate, but how to tell her that without coming off like the utter virgin she'd eventually find out that he was at this unbelievably ancient age? He'd probably flunk that test drive, too, before she even got him out of the garage and he didn't want to submit to that--and he shouldn't have to, either, he told himself, when it came right down to it.
"What I should have *added* to that was that we haven't even had a successful start-to-finish *date* yet. Even Lex and I managed to have several of those--of course, he wasn't rushing off to save people. He was letting others do his dirty work and take the falls while he was making a fool of me."
"Lois, we've talked about that, I understand it now."
"And I'm glad."
"So we're not going to talk about that, about him."
"I don't want to talk about him ever again."
She almost smiled. "He was worse than the Slime Monster, huh?"
"Much worse. At least the Slime Monster had understandable motives."
"Like… hunger." She took another bite of sandwich and looked like she enjoyed it. "Okay… I think that you and I can have successful dates, too--*better* ones, *lots* of them and lots better, because there's still so much we don't know about each other. Besides, I want to be courted. I want daisies and nice walks in the park and snuggling up and… And I want to court you, too."
"Oh, well, you don't…" Wait, there was no reason he shouldn't enjoy the same treatment, was there? "I guess I'd like that, too." Maybe it meant she had been joking before about the sex test drive. And the date challenge, as part of genuine courting, was something he could initiate with right away-- easily! Charge in here, Kent! "Let's start tonight. I'll borrow dad's truck--but it's not very comfortable. You must have rented a car." His mom had probably been too busy to pick her up, and Lois would want control of her own transportation, just like she'd been in control a lot lately without his providing much interference. It pointed out how everything had been so normal since she had found out, whenever that was, and it was looking like longer than, say, a week and a half, a lot longer maybe.
"I rented a car," she said, "but I don't want to drive in the countryside at night. I might run into a cow or something. I know the truck ins't very comfortable but don't care--unless you're proposing we…?" she raised her eyebrows--hopefully?
He realized he felt himself almost looking shocked and snatched that back. "No, I'm *not* proposing that. I'm proposing that we go into town and see a movie and have a snack after and I'll bring you back here and we'll pretend it's your place and…"
"And we'll shake hands good night and you'll sleep on the porch." She nodded. "That will work."
"Not the porch--but not together, either."
"Sleep with you on our first date? Not me, *Mr.* Kent, I have certain standards… You know, this is comfortable here." She punched gently at the hay-padded blanket they were sitting on. "And there are no snakes or rats and the horses are quiet and it's warm. Maybe I'll sleep out here in the barn. I've never done something like that before voluntarily, and it's not like it's in the *wilderness* or anything…"
"Maybe…" Inspiration! "Maybe you'd rather just take a nap. Maybe around midnight you'd like to go to Paris for breakfast." That would be romantic. He pictured them sitting facing each other over a small table and fresh croissants.
It didn't take her long to figure out how they'd get there, though the ramifications of that part hit him at the same time. She could freeze or asphyxiate or both on such a long trip. Maybe his mother would loan Lois her arctic-expedition- weight jumpsuit and her Great Barrier Reef-tested scuba gear…
"Wow…" Lois sighed, no doubt imagining the Tour Eiffel, Notre Dame and eating croissants, too, in some little coffee shop within view of them both, while he had been thinking more along the lines of a hidden cafe in Montmartre and a stroll through The Tuileries. "Do you do that often?" she asked. "Go to Paris or places like that to eat?"
"Sometimes, but doing it alone isn't much fun, because I can't really get to know anybody since I've tried to settle down…" and not just fly off on a whim because he could. That hadn't been tops on the fun scale for years now.
She nodded, she understood. But now he wondered, if she took him up on the idea, what would that mean? That she wanted to do it with him? Or, thinking he'd be lonely, that she'd agree to despite the ramifications? Or, taking the ramifications into account, she wanted to go with Superman? After all, for such a trip he'd have to slow way down (even with her dressed to survive), increasing the risk of being seen. Add to that the French mess in the Pacific, why suggest Paris at all? Why, he asked himself, had he prompted dreamy thoughts of an exotic breakfast with Superman when being associated with that guy got her thrown off tall buildings? Way to go, Kent…
But she took an entirely different course. "I'd like to go to Paris sometime--I'd like to go everywhere sometime, because I'm sure we wouldn't do normal tourist things. But tonight I'd rather see Smallville and have fun where life is slow and comfortable. Then I'll turn in early. Jetlag, you know… no, you probably don't know."
"No…" But he bet it felt something like being overwhelmed yet again because it looked like she wanted to do exciting things with him, Superman need not apply. Good going, Kent. "And you've been experiencing a lot of stress from changing apartments and the load at work and coming here and…" *knowing*… "all that."
"Exactly. So I can relax now."
Because she was happy he knew she knew. That was important. He was beginning to feel a glimmer of hope that this could work, this could really work.
She continued, "Maybe tonight we'll meet some more of your friends. Those I've met already have all said some *very interesting* things about you," and she wiggled her eyebrows, teasing. Those friends he was sure she had met, like Rachel and the Dobsons, could only tell her things about himself, their childhood friend. She now knew more about him than they did. She knew more than practically anybody, and that was… that was great!
Of course, she could tell them a lot about Superman, an acquaintance he hadn't felt much like talking about when they'd asked, and now he'd have to sit beside her feigning interest…
No matter, he suddenly felt entirely capable of surviving it. "We'll look for some of them, though many are married and have children and they don't go out carousing at night. If we do get to talk to any, you'll find I was just a boring, nauseatingly happy kid."
"Happy I believe, but I *doubt* boring."
"Don't get your hopes up."
"My hopes are well in hand, don't worry."
Ah, right… "Okay. Can I pick you up at… 6?"
"Sure. What time is it now?"
"That should give me plenty of time to change since I don't expect this to be formal."
"There are no big dance clubs in town and we're between monthly festivals."
"It's a date."
"Yep… Gosh, a real date."
"A real one," she agreed.
"It sounds like… a plan."
"Sometimes a little planning can be a marvelous thing."
"And we *can* call it a date."
"I'm willing to take the chance. But if something happens and you have to disappear to take care of it, I'll understand. I've understood for a while now."
Wow… "For a while, huh?"
She nodded and smiled, giving no more clues, and then looked down at her sandwich. "This egg salad is good. The taste is a little different, but maybe that's because the eggs are country fresh and…" She paused, her eyes widened, she dropped the sandwich, and she exclaimed, "Ohmigod!" She covered her mouth as she paled.
"What? What is it?" What if it *were* ptomaine? He'd only been joking and now here she was, poisoned right in front of him!
She pointed downward weakly, not at the sandwich but at the floor of the loft and meaning beyond it because she uncovered her mouth enough to whimper: "I'm eating that chicken's eggs!"
Clark felt a rush of relief. Was *that* all? "No, no, you're not! You're eating tofu."
"Tofu?" she whispered.
"Homemade tofu. There are no animal products whatsoever in that sandwich."
She stared down at it. "Huh?"
"Assuming it's mom's regular recipe, that means no eggs and no milk and no animals died or gave body fluids, that kind of thing. Anyhow, it's a tofu salad, one of her specialties. Not everyone likes them if they know what's in them beforehand, so I didn't say anything… I guess I should have."
"None." Mom often sold the chicks to 4H'ers to raise, but most of those below in the barn would probably wind up on the dinner table; he decided not to mention that. "Even the mayonnaise won't have any eggs because she makes that, too, so I guess it's not legally mayo anyhow."
"To be sold legally as mayonnaise, it has to have… Look, don't worry. Here." He picked up the other half of the sandwich and bit in. It tasted normal; he liked the parsley and the hint of garlic. He swallowed, considered grabbing at his throat dramatically and making choking sounds, but rejected that because she might be fooled and then not appreciate his having a warped sense of humor. So he simply smiled. "See, nothing's happened to me, it didn't kill me."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "You…" Her frown lessened somewhat and she apparently decided not to give him what-for. Instead said cryptically: "You didn't burp."
"Oh, forget it." She grabbed up the remainder of her half and took a hearty bite of it and mouth-full mumbled, "There, I'm not afraid of anything."
"Then maybe you'll like real Asia after all."
"Just see if I don't…" She finished off the sandwich. "This really is okay, now that I know none of her babies are in it. Though, in the interest of being honest with you today, I warn you I'm not going to be asking your mother for this recipe."
"That's okay, and I'll try to warn you next time. You should have all the facts before you commit to… well, like between us."
"I know. Feel free to warn me about any farm things, and we'll keep working on the other."
"Like… talking about why you said I didn't burp?"
"Burp? Oh, *burp*. Okay, okay…" She'd relent on this one. "The first time I saw you wearing the suit, the very first thing you said to me was"--she switched to a deeper voice: "'Burp!'"
"'Burp!'?" He looked back over the scene in detail. "That wasn't a burp, that was a…" internal organ vibratory readjustment due to sudden physical displacement? "Okay, that was a burp. It was also…" This made him uncomfortable, but he could admit things like this to her now, couldn't he? "…dumb luck."
"Swallowing the bomb seemed to be the best thing to do at the time since it was about to go off."
Her jaw dropped momentarily but she recovered it liked the seasoned reporter she was. "You mean that was the *first* thing you thought of? And you didn't know if it would work? That you'd even *survive* it?"
"Not really, no, though I've never had any trouble with Dad's five-alarm chili. Mom and me are the only other people who can stomach it usually, and sometimes even she can't. His chili, I mean, not bombs. Some hot foods don't agree with her, they can give her gas. She'll tell you that herself. It's embarrassing sometimes, that she just up and tells people…"
Lois looked like she both couldn't believe it and yet couldn't believe anything else. "Clark…!"
"What? Oh, about the bomb. You know, that's exactly how Mom said it when I told them, but I didn't really have much time to think about it. I'd never seen bombs before except on TV or in museums, and I'd never dreamed anyone would do something that could kill hundreds of people. And, actually, it wasn't the first thing I thought of doing with it, but I couldn't break through the walls of the shuttle or put the thing in your purse…"
"I didn't have my purse with me."
"Well, there, you see?"
"No, I don't--how did it taste?"
He hadn't thought about that. "Oh… metallic, I guess." Like chicken, he almost added but decided not to because she wouldn't have appreciated that humor either. "Then helping with the launch, I had no idea I could lift that much, the ship and its cargo and the fuel tanks and everything, or if the toxic fumes from the aborted take off would hurt me, or any of that. I sure couldn't practice that kind of thing Well, I suppose I could have, by… lifting whales, but they're floppy and don't like being out of water. It makes them testy."
"You talk to whales, too…"
"No, not like Mr. Spock, if that's what you mean."
"Are they… nicer to talk to than gorillas?"
"They're different. They seem real… deep. Gorillas are pretty straight forward."
"Oh…" She looked a bit overwhelmed at the thought-- but then she frowned, suspicious. "You're just joking…"
"A little. Except gorillas do like to communicate. Given their circumstances they don't have a lot to say, but…"
"All right already. So you just… lifted the entire shuttle and everything in it right into space."
He nodded. "I was reasonably certain I could survive up there for a while without air and despite the extreme temperatures, but all the other…"
"You just… just did it then."
"Someone had to. All those people were really depending on the experiments, and you were watching--"
"From the pad because you asked them if I was a crew member and they found out I wasn't and they threw me off the ship. Nice job, Clark."
"That left me with only one story, finding out who the hell you thought you were and what the hell you planned to do. At least I had the best seat in the house."
"And I had you back at the Planet, working with me."
"Assuming you didn't get butterfingers and drop the whole thing first and crush yourself."
"I couldn't do that, that would have been really embarrassing, and I… I guess I…" well, there it was, the reason behind a lot of things, "I wanted to impress you."
She stared at him and then broke into laughter. "You did all that to impress *me*?" like that was impossible for anyone to want to do.
All right, so maybe his motives hadn't been entirely pure… "Yes--but don't worry, I know myself better now and, besides," he hoped he could keep his face straight, "I don't want to impress you any more."
"That explains a lot about your approach to the hero business for the first six months or so--"
"Wait a minute--"
"No, you wait. I know you didn't come to Earth with a training manual--did you?"
"Well, no, it was all just serendipitous. I had it on my mind, I'd known for a while I had to do something with all…" he spread his hands, "this, and then I got the idea of a disguise. Dad didn't think it was a very good one, he's been really cautious ever since I was little, but Mom…"
"I can imagine. She was enthusiastic."
"She always tries to be, but she was glad when I finally settled on a disguise I could live with, too. We worked all night on it, from just after dinner until right before the launch the next morning, which I didn't realize I'd be going to."
"She said you went through about a dozen different combinations."
"I wish I could have watched."
"Sure you do."
"Because I would have been laughing too much? I would have videotaped it, too, and sent it to that funny home video show."
"I wouldn't have minded winning a hundred thousand dollars…"
"They probably wouldn't have picked it. And you can forget about not impressing me because you still do, but now for an entirely different set of reasons."
"What? What reasons?"
"The muscles and the speed, those are useful, but your willingness plow through boxes of dusty paper to do research and your excellent housekeeping skills and guppy husbandry, those are things I *really* need."
He bet she thought she could get away with that. "I could tell you needed a housekeeper the first time I saw your apartment," as she had asked him to take her there from the spaceport."
"I had to change clothes--and you weren't supposed to be looking at my *apartment*."
"I didn't look beyond the front room, I promise."
"Too bad. It's not like I didn't entertain…" She pulled up the picnic bag and looked into it as she said almost to herself, "…casual thoughts of dragging you into the bedroom right then and there…"
"It was the cape, wasn't it? Women love capes."
She looked up and said breezily, "Capes can hide an awful lot, and I was starstruck, but you had other things on your mind, I could tell. You were being noble."
"I know," she replied, looking down at the bag again, "but I'm working on helping you be less noble when it comes to you and me. Now what's for dessert…" She began to mumble to herself.
Apartment? Less noble? Dessert? Sure, right! You better be glad I didn't figure that out, Lois, he thought; I would have fled in a second, you would have seen just how fast I can be…
She found "Some cookies. They look good but I'd rather save room for dessert in Smallville and I can eat these on the plane back tomorrow, okay?"
"Ah, sure, they're yours."
"Thanks. Now I think I'd like to go take a shower and get ready for tonight."
"And I better face the music with my folks and get it over with."
"I predict they'll both be very happy."
"You didn't tell my father, did you." She couldn't have, because no amount of begging would have kept his dad from warning him.
"No, not a word. I needed time and I thought he would have told you. I think he's very protective of you, but he already has enough to think about running this farm."
Wow, how thoughtful… but not unexpected, was it? While so much was overwhelming now, the new situation seemed at the same time warm and comfortably inviting, and even potentially funny. We'll laugh about all this one day, Lois, he thought. "Well, let's go try it."
"She's walking under her own power, she hasn't run away, that's a good sign."
"But they're not holding hands."
"His thumbs are hooked in his pockets, but his hands aren't *in* his pockets, that's a good sign, too."
"He looks preoccupied."
"Only a little. She looks bouncy. I've always thought that her bounce was a positive thing about her." Jonathan Kent drew back from the kitchen window; he had seen enough. Things were obviously going well between their son and Lois, and it was about time. "He was sure she'd… how'd he put it that once…--'massacre' him, but that bounce means she's already gotten over the surprise. That's because she loves him. She's strong, too, like you, I should have seen that a lot earlier."
"Thank you, dear, but…"
"But? No buts at all. Clark just didn't expect how well she's taking it." He smiled at her though she wasn't looking. She was still gazing out the window, a more thoughtfully than worried. "*We* should have expected this, you know. You still surprise me every now and then, so it's no wonder that he's surprised, too. Kent men just wind up being surprised a lot, I guess"
His bride of over thirty years looked at him and smiled now, no doubt convinced at last. She shook her head. "Oh, Jon…"
Sometimes she went with her emotions, Jonathan thought, so she could get confused about plain-as-day things. It often looked like Clark had gotten that from her side of the family. "He doesn't have much experience with women." Clark had definitely gotten that from him, and look what the boy had attracted, a woman a lot like Martha. It figured somehow. "Just look at the ridiculous things he's done and hasn't known how to fix properly." Like me again, he realized, though worse because of the superpowers. "But now he's waited until the right time and seen his chance and it's working out. He's learned that it's a good idea to be cautious and observant."
"I'm sure you're right, he has been a lot better about that. I'm glad you insisted that we talk to him about it when we did."
"We had to lay down the law."
"Yes, and it worked, but I think *this* is a little more complicated." Martha let the light curtain drop back into place but resumed looking in that direction, as though she had x-ray vision like Clark did.
If she had suddenly developed it, though, Jonathan was sure he wouldn't have been surprised. She was always coming up with something new. She was wrong about Clark this time though, there was nothing out of the ordinary in the way their son was acting. "It's bound to be more complicated than what you and I experienced because Clark's life is more complicated. For that matter, Lois is a complicated woman. But things will settle down. He's just… a little dazed because he's in love--we agree on that."
"Oh, he is definitely in love."
"And it looks like she's in love with him, too."
"Very much so."
"That has to be why she came out here on that weekend. She must have realized at last she was in love with him and needed the time to think about it, away from the city, out here where it's peaceful. With her record of being tricked into things, well, it was a good idea."
Martha looked at him. "I hadn't thought about it that way."
"I'll bet she nearly married Lex Luthor because she didn't take time to think it through and didn't believe Clark when he tried to convince her not to do it."
"Frankly, dear, I don't think he did a very good job of that."
Well, Clark was sometimes too easy going for his own good. But in his defense, Jonathan said, "It looks like she didn't love him then, either. They'd known each other for a year already but they still seemed to argue a lot of the time."
"All right, like we did, but we didn't take this long."
"And we didn't have any big secrets."
"Other than your record as a jail bird."
"Jon, I'm proud of that record!"
"And that collection of nude paintings in your portfolio…"
She smiled. "Now I *asked* you to pose for me…"
"I said I would--*after* we got married."
"You held that over my head, that wasn't fair!" But she patted his shoulder affectionately.
Sometimes he was just a little disappointed that she hadn't made him keep his promise to pose in the nude on a haystack in the barn. Then, as now, it could lead to more interesting activities. Hoping to inspire her to ask again was a good reason to stick to his diet.
They heard Clark and Lois set foot on the porch. "Oh, here they come."
"Don't say anything," he whispered.
"Me? I can keep quiet."
Sure she could; she probably wanted to grab Lois first thing and hug her. Martha had said that she and the girl hadn't had much time to talk when Lois had shown up this afternoon, but guessing why Lois had made this surprise visit as easy: she had wanted to talk to Clark and she knew that the city was too busy and that this was the place to do it. Flights certainly weren't hard to get.
Lois had to explain why she had up and moved without telling anyone, too. Clark would probably accept her explanation quickly; it had been obvious over the last several days that being angry at her had made Clark miserable. Jonathan bet Lois had a good excuse and already suspected what Clark's reaction would be, like… a marriage proposal? Clark would jump at the chance--after telling her the truth first and calming her down, that was the only way to do it. It all must have worked much better than anyone had expected.
Not surprisingly, Lois opened the door for herself, was first in, and announced: "Hi!" as though Perk were her middle name. It hadn't seemed so long ago that, when they first met her, "two left feet and both in her mouth" could have been her middle name. She was one of those persons who tried so hard but still didn't quite have a grasp of certain social niceties. Maybe that was one reason Clark had taken to her; she needed a calming influence sometimes, while sometimes he needed to be perked up.
Following her and closing the door behind them was Clark, who looked… tired? But their extended stay in the barn should have meant Clark was bouncing, too. Though father and son had worried together about such things because Clark wasn't human, Jonathan had hoped that there was nothing that would make it impossible for Clark to enjoy the sexual part of life as much as he clearly enjoyed nearly all the rest of it. But if there had been trouble in that area, that could explain a lot. Lois could be acting bouncy to try to cheer Clark up. Women did that kind of thing.
Martha and Lois immediately flung their arms around each other, so Jonathan gave Clark a brief hug, too. He'd have to take Clark aside, ask him if he'd had a "problem."
As Clark pulled away from the embrace gently, he said, "She knows, Dad…"
Then cheer up! We'll fix the other part, too, don't worry! "We figured that, son!" He laughed heartily. He patted and then squeezed Clark's shoulder, hard, to make an impression, to spread the good feelings. "I knew you'd find the right time to tell her. You know," he announced to the two women as well, "it's appropriate that it happened here on the farm, where almost everything else got started." And we can get you started, too, son, he would have whispered, I'm sure of it. Farms are the basis of all life: breeding, birthing, raising families…
But he noticed that rather than agreeing with the sentiment, Clark was exchanging glances with Lois. On the other side of the kitchen, Lois was standing arm in arm with Martha as though they were old friends; they both looked comfortable--and close mouthed. Martha was giving him a look that told Jonathan she might also sensed what might have been behind Clark's barely disguised down-cast attitude.
Clark looked at him. "Ah, she already knew, Dad."
"Knew? Knew what?"
"Knew the truth, knew about me, knew…" he looked helpless, "everything."
Helpless? She already knew…?
And Clark felt helpless because she had already known when he had tried to tell her?
So it wasn't anything that had happened in the barn. No, she must have told him that she knew, laughed at him maybe at his careful attempt, and now she was holding it over his head. To make things worse, Clark added: "And she's known for a while…"
"Oh?" Jonathan felt an old fear stir and threaten to grip his heart. He asked quietly: "How long has she known?"
Clark could only shrug. She hadn't told him, she was holding that over him, too. Images came to his mind of that madman Trask who attacked them all and then that clever Stride woman who had tried to expose Clark.
He looked at Lois, who certainly didn't *appear* to be a threatening person. Those were the worst kind, weren't they?
But, he told himself, this is *Lois*, the woman who, as soon as she'd laid eyes on him had pegged him as a cross dresser--and then been mortified. A few weeks ago, in an effort to make conversation, she had to asked how high knee-high to a grasshopper *really* was, as though he had studied such things simply because he was a farmer. But she had looked so sincere and again was trying so hard to play the good guest and be interested when she probably could have cared less about organic wheat. He had made up an answer, something about whether the grasshoppers were from Texas or Montana; the ones in Kansas were under good control. Droves of giant pheasants were leased out every spring to eat all the grasshoppers they could find, so she shouldn't worry about that at all. The one she'd seen was a goner, a refugee.
Now she looked small and apprehensive, with no sign of bounce. She took a careful breath and said, "It's all right, Jonathan." She released Martha and approached him almost cautiously, pausing just beyond arms reach.
Did she fear he would grab her and try to pin her down? He could hardly imagine doing that to anyone short of someone like Trask, who had been a disgrace to his uniform.
She licked her lips and continued, "It just means I've had time to think about it."
"I see…" She had know for some time. How long had Clark been in danger? Lois Lane was was an award winning reporter always looking for good stories and frequently finding them…
And about as frequently pulling Clark's Superman- suited fat out of the fire…
"And I realize how important he is to me…"
"Uh-huh…" Well, that was right, Clark was important to everyone, to the whole world. That was probably why he had come to Earth and why he'd decided to make the disguise despite all the dangers Jonathan had tried to warn him about. Clark simply hadn't realized there were people in the world who would try to take advantage of him, that they would even hate him and want him dead. But when he got an idea in his head he could be as stubborn as his mother.
"And I think I'm important to him--"
"You *are* important to me," Clark corrected immediately.
There went Clark's apprehensive look. Indeed, he seemed to relax a little, as though realizing something himself. Lois gave him a relieved little smile, like his statement meant the world to her.
It could very well have, Jonathan thought. Clark trusted this woman, that was plain to see. There did seem to be reason to: they were both here now, Clark hadn't rushed in to protect them. Lois didn't have a weapon of any kind or she would have used it by now. She'd had that little chunk of kryptonite, too, hadn't she? But she'd given it to him and not used it against him. Had she known then? It hadn't been that long ago.
Lois looked away from Clark and back to him. "I understand how his privacy--your privacy…" She seemed to look over her words carefully. "*our* privacy is so precious, too."
It occurred to him that he was glad that Lois had stopped bouncing, that she had settled down and was taking this very seriously. It was also a good thing that Martha wasn't trying to act as a go between. Jonathan didn't think he needed an interpreter here. His wife looked concerned, but that was only proper; this couldn't be laughed off or explained away with some textbook psychology.
"I just.. I just don't want to hurt *any*body."
Well, Jonathan thought, there was that, just who has she hurt here? Clark was the important one in this, and now he looked as though he were waiting for something, watching him, Jonathan. It was funny: Clark had been nervous about gaining Lois's approval, when it looked like she hadn't gotten angry at all. She hadn't published the news and hadn't lead an army of reporters here. No, she had come alone and confessed her knowledge. That took a lot of guts.
This could very well mean that it was just as she said, that she realized the importance of keeping Clark's secret and that she respected what was going on here. Those were the two most important things. Well, those things and love, and the love was obvious.
So what were they waiting for? His consent? Oh, my, and here he had been worrying that Clark was having some kind of sexual problem. Jonathan almost laughed at himself and then realized no one would have any idea why he was smiling. Well, he thought, maybe I should have pushed Clark to get on the ball before Lois figured it out herself. Clark obviously needed this sharp little woman. Jonathan decided to tell her, "I'm glad to hear you say that, Lois."
She smiled and blinked tearfully. Since he sensed it was a genuine and relieved expression, he added, "Welcome to the family!"
"Dank you," she sniffled. She stood still as he carefully engulfed her in an embrace. She returned it without hesitation, a lot stronger than she looked, another way she was like Martha, who he noticed gliding over to give smiling Clark a hug as well.
Oddly, Clark said, "Mom, you should have told me…" but he said it as though he didn't quite mean whatever that meant.
"Clark," Lois said as she pulled away a bit but still kept in comfortable, daughterly touch, "I made her swear on the head of our firstborn child that she wouldn't breathe a word to you *or* Jonathan."
Martha smiled, shook her head and said: "Lois…" in a way that made Jonathan suspect the young woman wasn't quite telling the truth. It was probably on Clark's behalf, she was feeling protective of him and had probably been feeling that all along.
However these two women were talking, whatever they were really saying, Clark didn't seem to have heard anything other than the words that had come out of Lois's mouth. "Our firstborn…?" He looked surprised then thrilled with the idea, as well he should.
"Lois, we don't know if that's possible," Jonathan said as delicately as he could. He was beginning to doubt that the two had found time to talk about that yet, let alone try anything. Given he would have a clearer mind before they tried it, Clark would probably insist on a long discussion first.
Martha smiled up at Clark and patted his chest. "But don't worry, honey, I just *know* you two will have lots of fun trying!"
Martha covered a grin and hugging him tighter.
"Well, Martha," Jonathan said, hoping to get Clark's goat now, too, mostly because it was so easy to do, "at least we know what they *weren't* doing out in the barn…"
Lois cracked up. She grabbed on to Jonathan as though in fear of collapsing, and he held her up easily. This young woman's joy was contagious. My goodness, where had she been hiding all this time?
Clark was trying unsuccessfully to look peeved. It occurred to Jonathan that Clark's understanding and acceptance of this unexpected turn of events this was probably the most important thing to take into consideration. He and Lois could work it out, though, it was time for that, while his parents could sit back at last and enjoy watching.
But Clark, who had a lot to understand, looked distant suddenly. Jonathan thought he heard his son mutter "Someone left the TV on…" Then he returned to this part of the world and said, mostly to his mother, "Ah, excuse me…"
There was more to this than a desire to save electricity. Clark headed out through the kitchen door and toward the front of the house. Jonathan made sure Lois could stand on her own two feet, entrusting her to Martha (they hugged each other again), then he followed Clark.
Yes, they had left the TV on in the living room. Martha had thought she heard the barn door open and they had gone out to see if the two were coming in now since the rain had stopped. Jonathan had just turned on CNN Headline News (LNN, CNN's cheesy competitor, was programmed out of this house). He had planned to catch the latest sports scores, then switch over to catch a Mark Russell special on PBS.
Clark was frowning at the news now. He mumbled, "No, too late," and stepped over to the coffee table a little more quickly than an ordinary person would, looked over it just as quickly, and from under a newspaper grabbed the remote. Jonathan wondered what a stranger who saw Clark doing these unusual things would think. He should be more careful, but then the only person here who would be surprised was Lois and she and Martha hadn't caught up yet, so Clark was safe… Except, of course, that the young woman already knew. This was going to take a little getting used to.
He shook his head at himself and decided that he better catch up. "What is it, son?"
Clark glanced at him. "Oh, I thought I heard something, Dad. Is it okay if I change the channel?"
"Sure, go ahead. What do you think you heard?"
"A report about the French nuclear tests, but I was too late…" He played with the remote and called up one of the Mexican stations and found a news report. He'd once said they often gave better details on international news than US stations did, but Jonathan's Spanish was too rusty to understand what the reporter was saying.
By now the womenfolk had arrived and were whispering, Martha saying something about what Clark had done earlier to stop the recent test and Lois nodding as though she were putting two and two together. Whatever they were talking about on TV, though, it didn't look like anything French.
Rather than stand back quietly watching, Lois walked up behind Clark and tried to snap the band of his jeans. "What is it, partner?"
Jonathan was completely surprised by the woman's action. How could she just… *do* that, knowing all she knew now?
He felt Martha intertwine her arm in his warmly. He looked down and saw her eyes sparkling. She'd seen a lot in that interaction--and then he saw it, too: the snap symbolized the beginning of a new family. He and Martha had done all the right things.
Clark was either too engrossed or used to such an assault from the woman. He didn't react other than pointing with his remote-holding hand at the TV. "Nobody wants the French government to test their nuclear bombs at all, let alone where they're doing it, in someone else's backyard. Everyone's down on them, the local population, a lot of French citizens, the UN, everyone, but they're doing it anyway. I slowed them down a few weeks ago but…"
"And you didn't write an exclusive about it?"
He shook his head. "I couldn't, I was doing it on my own, so Superman was about to give any interviews."
The topic being talked about on TV changed and a map of the South Pacific appeared on the screen behind the reporter. Clark said, "There, listen…"
Maybe Lois could understand Spanish. She said, "Diez horas? Ten hours for what?"
"They've got all their ships repaired or claim they have and they're moving them out of the area. They've rounded up all the protestors they can catch have given everyone else ten hours' warning to evacuate because they're starting the countdown at five hours. That was two hours ago. It's going to be a big test, I guess." He shook his head again and pursed his lips; both gestures reminded Jonathan of Martha upon hearing bad news about some cause she was active in. Fortunately, though, Clark could do something more about his concerns than ordinary people could. "The UN needs more time than that--Oh, look, Australia's sending some of their navy to intercede, but they need more than ten hours, too, that's not enough time for anything…" He sighed. "I've gotta go."
Lois looked surprised. "Clark…?"
"I've got to slow them down again so the Australians can get there first and argue with them, and then maybe I'll have to stop a war, but I don't think it will come to that. The French will be outgunned and everyone will keep boycotting French wine and cheese and tires and all that."
"Yes--oh, gosh, our date!" He looked striken.
While Lois looked relaxed. "It's all right."
Jonathan wondered, had Lois had heard this kind of thing before? Probably, but knowing why he had to leave helped her accept it now. That was encouraging.
"I'll try to be back by six, I have almost an hour, it'll only take me about five minutes to get there."
"Take whatever time you need. Just," and she shook her finger at him, "stay away from pretty French marines."
His worried look melted a bit. "And the male ones, too."
"Well, *you* started the rumor."
"Can *I* help it if you attract all kinds of people when you're in that superguy suit?"
What was it between them? There was *business* to be attended to! "Be careful, son, they might have figured it out, they could be expecting you this time."
Clark looked alert again. "Yeah, Dad, but I'll approach from the south, they won't expect that, and I've got some new ideas, too. You'd be surprised what can just… drop off a battleship into some incredibly deep trench."
"You probably don't need to do much, either. Do a little and they'll suspect more has gone wrong."
"Right, Mom, good idea." He was edging toward the staircase and apparently trying not to look like he was. He smiled apologetically at Lois. "I really will try to be back--"
She threw up her hands in a shooing manner. "Go! Now! Scram!"
Clark blurred upstairs and in a few seconds they heard his bedroom window open.
"We had to remove the screen when he started doing that," Martha told Lois in a matter-of-fact voice as the three turned to face each other.
Lois smiled, her hands on her hips now. "I guess I'll get used to it."
"We have," Jonathan nodded.
Lois shook her head now and sighed seriously. "As long as he doesn't do it to get out of diapering our firstborn…" But then she smiled again, which Jonathan was pleased to see. Maybe she didn't think children were possible, either, since she was joking about it, but that didn't mean they couldn't adopt. Clark would make a fine father--and he probably wouldn't hesitate to change diapers since he was invulnerable to almost everything. Jonathan considered mentioning this, how he had diapered Clark on quite a few occasions; Martha had fed the baby so well that his poop hadn't smelled much. The information would fit in with the spirit he was pleased to see Lois was displaying, and he wanted to see her laugh again and give her another hug, too.
But she was too perky to slow down for that, and what she said was a further good sign. "You know, I'd like to borrow your bathroom to clean up and get ready for our date!"
Since Martha immediately gave her permission, Jonathan could figure nothing better to do than stand back and smile with approval, curious about how Lois had told Clark she knew and about this date they had planned. But he could ask Clark later when things quieted down again and Clark needed someone to talk to, unless this turned out to be the end of his vacation here and the start of one somewhere else with that perky young woman. That was good, too: it meant Jonathan could relax and stop having to think up make-work jobs.
Lois took her time getting ready, not that there was much to do. She hadn't come prepared to look glamorous, and she didn't want to anyhow, dressing up had not been the reason for the trip.
But Clark didn't return by six. By that time she had gone back down to the living room and was wondering how to keep herself preoccupied while the Kents were eating their dinner. She refused to worry about Clark; he would be back.
Martha offered her another hug--was this woman relieved or what?--and a private encouraging word about Clark's usually being able to recover rapidly from emotional trauma. He had a lot to recover *for* now, didn't he? She also offered Lois a place at the table, a cup of hot tea and all the comforts of home. Lois enjoyed the hug and agreed about Clark being resilient despite the trial she had put him through. She had already seen signs of his bouncing back. She accepted the tea and half listened to Jonathan reminisce for a few moments about Clark. But she didn't feel like talking and began to hope they both understood her desire to step back from everything for a few minutes and wait for Clark.
How could Martha not understand? "You know," the older woman said, "if you borrow this sweater," which she plucked off the back of a chair there in the dining room, "I think you'll find it's still warm enough outside to sit on the porch."
That was a good idea, she might see Clark return. Lois put on the sweater. It fit nicely and smelled of Martha's light, flowery perfume, if it was that and not something that had rubbed off from the woman's garden.
The garden. Even though it was almost dark, Lois decided to walk out in that direction. It wasn't far: the big patch of cultivated vegetation was on the south side of the house within a few steps of the back door so fresh herbs and vegetables could be picked easily for immediate use.
The lack of light didn't matter, there probably, wasn't much left of the garden anyhow, Lois thought. Fall was rushing in. Though the day had been warm, the nights were getting cold here, too, like in Metropolis. These must be hardy plants out here, though all she could make out were their sleepy, gray outlines. She stuck to the central path, strolling slowly, her arms folded under her breasts. It was cool out here, but she found herself actually enjoying the sounds of the evening in the countryside as they waft through the clean, crisp air.
And, besides, she thought, whether or not he realizes it now, I'm going to have someone to keep me warm this winter…
That made her smile; things were flowing sweetly along.
She wondered about broccoli and thyme and pansies and all that, and if she could learn to grow them. She thought she'd rather have Martha show her how to do it than Clark. Maybe it was because she wanted to impress Clark with how fast she learned to do a good job at it, to make plants stand up, pay attention and thrive; to show, in a sense, that she could be a farmer, too, if she wanted to sometime.
I want to impress you now, too, kiddo, and least of all because of who you dress up as.
There was a momentary light breeze.
"I didn't think I'd find *you* out here," the breeze maker said.
She turned. "I thought I felt somebody trying to sneak up on me."
Clark, fully suited, settled down on the path. "I guess I'll have to start getting up even earlier in the morning to pull anything over on you."
You better not go to bed at all then, she thought but decided not to say, particularly when she wanted him to bed down with her eventually. "Does this mean… I'm smarter than the entire French Navy?"
"It means you could take the entire French Navy in your…" he paused.
French, sleep and her were probably words he didn't want to put together. "Yes?" she inquired innocently.
"It means… you definitely are smarter than the entire French Navy."
"When you set off explosions, they're more interesting, too."
"I see…" Well, if he was unintentionally stumbling into innuendo, she could express it in a more calculating manner. "You're welcome to rise and shine at anytime in the morning you want to, and wake me up, too…" She walked up within inches of him, close enough to feel his body warmth. She was glad to see he didn't show the first sign of flinching. Just as she had changed clothes and then come out here to get away, maybe his slipping off to save the world again had also allowed him to think about all this. That and wearing the suit now probably made him feel more at ease. "…as long as you've got something interesting on your mind."
"Well…" He then seemed to decide to convey that teasing wouldn't work because he was Superman, moral and upstanding and not to be swayed, stronger than base suggestions. "…you'll have to marry me first to find out, won't you?"
"No, not when I can find out sooner if you'll just… take off the flashy clothing…" or let me rip them off you. She reached up, touched him (again he didn't flinch), felt and then flicked what could have been a bit of seaweed off his S. "After all, it's not like I haven't seen a whole lot of you and I don't already know you can *fly*…"
She could just make out and then feel him moving to fold his arms before his chest--protectively? He would have pursed his lips, she was sure, to visually express his low opinion about such suggestive statements, but had he done that he wouldn't have been able to say: "And it looks like you're in no hurry to see any more or find out how well I can fly, either."
While she wondered just exactly what she would see, she already suspected just how well he could fly and what kind of exclusive flight school she would have to open. Mwa-ha-ha! she thought and barely kept from bursting out with it. Well, just let him think he could hold that over her head just because he was so tall and broad. "Come here, you."
He didn't move, didn't change his pose. "I'm right here, I can't get any closer."
"Sure you can."
She reached up and grabbed him by the neck with one hand. He loosened, perhaps automatically, but it was a good sign relationship-wise, and she was able to guide his lips to hers. It was a good thing, too, that one of them could see in the dark, she thought, or they might have bonked noses and wow, that would have hurt. But he was paying attention, which meant he was participating freely and it became apparent that he was willing to spend a bit of time doing this, looking for new cement to rebuild the path--or was it superhighway?-- between them. Sure, maybe it was hormones overriding his hesitation born of being surprised earlier, but then that deep, undeniable look he had given her there in the kitchen when confirming her importance… This kiss really meant a lot: maybe he'd accept it as a thank-you-for-surviving-and- bouncing-back-like-I-knew-you-would gift.
In time and the right time as not to make him realize how much time they were spending doing this and they really couldn't stay out here all night and mess up the carefully placed mulch, Lois reached up a bit further up and mussed his hair. He pulled away and grabbed that hand swiftly, carefully, but far too late.
"Hey, lady, do you know how long it takes me to get this hair disguise just right?"
She retrieved her hand and trailed both of them down his chest, leaned close again and took a grip on his funny yellow belt. She pulled on him and felt the buckle press into her navel. He was easy to move, seeming to float almost like balloon. Was she having that effect on him? That had interesting possibilities. She looked up and, she hoped, into his eyes. "An hour and a half?"
"Be sure not to wear it like that tonight. Wear it like-- "
He grabbed her darting hand easily this time. "Stop that!"
"You've liked me to do it before."
"I wasn't dressed like this… before," and he let her hand go on that: before he knew she knew. He was still touchy about it and didn't want to be so out of touch again. Yet she got the impression that the thought wasn't nearly so painful now, and that he had also successfully memorized all his lines about her stubborn attitude being the cause of their waiting to experience mutual explosions.
That was all right, she could use play with it, too, and sweeten things a bit. "You know, I'm glad that *kissing* doesn't seem to come under the heading 'not until after we're married, Ms. Lane.'"
"Well, of course it doesn't, I don't mind doing that, it's… different. You're just not allowed to mess with my… coiffure." He motioned and she guessed he was combing his fingers through his hair, but only, as she sensed him relax back down to earth, to become Clark again, which she preferred. "Actually," he continued, "when we're in public and I'm in this get up, we shouldn't be seen near each other anymore unless we can't avoid it."
"Like when we have to save each other from something terrible."
"Yes, like that."
"Because my boyfriend will get jealous."
"He'd beat you up."
"He'd kick my…"
The suit really did come with restrictions. "Oh, say it."
"That's right, and he would do just that because he'll be at my side practically every moment of the day unless he has to… pick up his drycleaning…" She took him by the belt and pulled him closer yet again. She became particularly conscious of what he was keeping below that belt, hidden away all this time, but hers when the time was right. He wasn't responding there though, not remotely like he had that surprising Sunday afternoon. She had assured herself of his sexual interest in her on top of everything else, and might very well have proceeded to make his present vow impossible if things had worked out better then. "But all that doesn't count here, does it?"
He said, "Ah, no…"
"*But!*…" he warned, obviously trying to grasp some control of the situation in a superhero manner, "we can't--I won't--all that comes under the heading and, besides, I'd rather get into more comfortable clothing."
"Oh, can I watch?"
Immediately: "No, you can't, you'd try to interrupt--"
"And I might not be able to stop you."
"Or… want to…"
"And we have a *date* think about."
He dislodged her hands carefully though she put up mock resistance as she searched for ticklely not-private bits about him. The millisecond she lost touch, he backed away and upward half a dozen feet. She resumed her previous posture, arms folded under breasts, as though cold without his proximity even as his warmth lingered. He seemed to hold out a hand and may have splayed his fingers. "Give me five minutes."
"Take ten, take 15--take a *shower,* you smell like the South Pacific."
She could barely make out in the darkness that he looked surprised, or maybe she imagined it because he said, "I do?" He probably then looked down at himself.
"A little. It's not bad, mind you, but I think it would be out of place in greater downtown Smallville…"
"Hey," brightly, "do you need help showering?"
"I haven't needed help since I was… six years old. You *do* just want me for my body."
"Hmm…" Press or withdraw? He didn't sound upset and he had, after all, returned and started all this. "Don't you want me for mine?"
Abashed and heroic: "No!"
"You mean I've put all this work into it for *nothing?*"
After a pause: "…no."
A-ha! "So? Do you or don't you?"
"Well…" as though playing the part of like the noble cowboy--kissing his horse and riding off into the sunset--did after all leave a lot to be desired, "…some."
"All right, more than 'some,' but *not* more than anything, not that at all, *never* that."
"Okay, I like that. Just so you know where I am, where I'm… keeping it," and he darn well better have an idea of what "it" was.
"Yeah, I'm well aware of that."
"I'm not going anywhere either."
"I'm glad, I would miss you, I *have* missed you… Oh, I brought this back for you…"
He made a strange chest-level hand motion, floated back down to ground level, and attempted to give her something she couldn't quite make out but it looked no larger than fist size.
She wasn't sure about this. After Clark had left and she had showered and come down, Jonathan warned her briefly about this very thing: Clark liked to bring souvenirs back from his trips abroad. Martha added that it had started as early as when he began to crawl. They'd find him under the dining room table with a doorstop hanging from his mouth and making choo-choo sounds like the baby books said he might. When he could walk, they laughed, he'd bring things in from outside: rocks, flowers--chicks? Lois asked. Oh, yes, just about anything he could carry. They thought it was endearing and encouraged his interest in the natural world (unless it was dangerous) until they realized too late that they had helped him on the road to collecting mania. He restrained himself these days, but he could still pull off surprises.
So now Lois hesitated. The way she had been acting, he could be getting even by presenting her with a frog or even another chicken. Or, worse, as Jonathan had said ominously, a shrunken head… "I can't see whatever it is, Clark…"
He withdrew it. "Well, you really have to see it, it's rare and I detoured to the Philippines on the way back to find one. I'll give it to you in the house."
"Fine." Were shrunken heads found in the Philippines? She couldn't remember. She doubted he'd intentionally mislead her about where he had gone because he wouldn't know that she suspected. She hoped she hadn't misread him and that he was in the mood for revenge. So she said: "Hurry up."
"Do you need any help getting back to the house?"
"No, I can see well enough to do that. Stop stalling and go."
"I'm not stalling."
"You sure are a--"
She chimed in "a bossy woman."
"Well, you *are*."
"And… I don't really mind."
That made her heart's temperature rise a few degrees and her knees feel a bit weak. She ordered herself not to show it. "Good! Go get ready!" and if you've brought me a shrunken head--*lose* it!
"All right, all right…"
She could hear him allow a smile he probably thought she couldn't see, but that particular little sigh of his gave him away. He glided back slowly, his lazy altitude and attitude also confirming that her take-charge nature didn't bother him much. So maybe even this guy who could be Superman at the drop of a hat--or, rather, his clothes--really did appreciate being bossed around some times, at least by someone who cared about him as much as she did. Not that he could escape it: she was just naturally bossy while he just was naturally… relaxed and cheerful. As he grew used to life on this heady new level and became his natural self again, his buoyancy would surely continue it's undeniable draw on her as it had for the last six weeks or so. Maybe then he'd begin to lay little traps of his own for her or, more likely, make a nest.
And, by God, Clark, I'll fall into every trap and set up house in that nest, just you see if I don't!
Despite the fact that he had adopted the disguise, had been given the heroic name (by that truly weird woman now safely ensconced downstairs in the living room) and he was able to do large-scale things the world pretty much needed doing every now and then, Clark thought one of the coolest things to do was look for souvenirs to bring home if he had time after the successful completion of a job. He had done the same thing--actually a lot more of it--when he'd been merely a tourist (or "scholar warrior," as his mom liked to put it mystically), but, hey, toting things home from one's travels was normal. And, way down deep inside, he told himself, Clark Kent was Mr. Normal.
He usually looked for something nice as a little gift, or something to add to one of his many neatly cataloged collections, or even just a newspaper or a pretty rock as a memento. His folks hadn't seemed to quite understand why he liked to do this, but they had given up calling him a packrat (his father's description) because he wasn't changing. Why should I? he had once wondered; *every*body collects things. I can just go farther afield than most.
He suspected, too, that his hobby was one of the few reasons they were happy he didn't live at home any more. He could, in an orderly manner, litter his own apartment with his collections. He had also discovered he had a hard time parting with things he really couldn't use or that didn't fit, like the unique transformation packs of playing cards from Belgium and Austria or that big stuffed green toad posed playing a violin or that housewarming gift from you-know-who: the Elvis kitchen timer complete with guitar and blue suede shoes that instead of dinging belted out "Don't Be Cruel". Despite the two break-ins he'd experienced, no one had noticed any of his real treasures: Jack had ignored the classic, pre-Anime Japanese comic books Clark had collected in Osaka, and Diana Stride hadn't shown the least interest in the drawer full of rare marbles his grandfather had given him. Everyone was a critic.
He showered and dried off, checked for beard growth (none appreciable), decided against powder or scent (not smelling like the South Pacific now was probably enough), combed his hair, and put on fresh clothes. When he looked in the mirror again, he figured he didn't look anymore like someone who had recently barely survived the biggest shock of his life.
No, he looked like a reasonably happy fellow, which was close to the truth. He could admit to himself now that he was still confused about all this, but he no longer felt hurt or frightened or whatever that totally justified reaction had been. The distance he had put between himself and Lois over the last hour had shown him at the very least that distance didn't cure anything. Departing had been difficult and coming home again exciting.
And her teasing reception of him in the garden had been wonderful. Well, most of it was, anyhow. Even though it was so tempting to just succumb and just anywhere, he wasn't giving an inch of his body away, he silently informed the framed picture of her on his dresser. In the picture she was holding the bear he'd won for her at the Corn Festival that first time she had visited. She looked so pleased. In the garden fifteen minutes ago she'd looked… amused? That was certainly the dominant emotion. She must have thought she was going to win this body battle thing and keep her secrets as well.
Well, she could laugh all she wanted, and tease and tickle, and think that he couldn't figure out when it was she had discovered the truth, but she'd find out quickly that he was resolute, resourceful and right about insisting she accept his proposal first. There were simply times when a man had to do what a man had to do… or, in this case, not do. He had to get certain things squared away between them first and that was all there was to it.
The first thing to square away was this mess their relationship had become--though "mess" felt like too harsh a word to describe it now. After all, it looked like she wanted to work on it as much as he did. She hadn't come, slapped him in the face with it, warned him to stay out of her life, and left. She had come, she was still here, and she was happy. What more could a guy want? A little more time to think about it, yes, but her desire for courtship was giving to that time. Maybe she needed more time, too, but now to adjust to his knowing she knew.
This was getting complicated again…
But look, it meant that he had another person to bring things home to, he thought as he turned from the mirror and caught sight of the gift lying on the bedside table, not next to his glasses, wherever they were. Hmm, better make sure that her new apartment had a spare room for souvenirs. He picked up the gift and carefully wrapped it in a handkerchief he took from a dresser drawer.
He hoped that the apartment she got would be the one next to his. That would be almost like living together but with separate rooms (and beds) that to which they could retreat if they somehow got tired of each other. He found that hard to imagine even though she was such a shocking woman and they saw each other all day at work already. Okay, he could admit, too, that he couldn't get enough of her. Maybe she couldn't get enough of him, either
Maybe if he went along on her visit to his landlord and put in his two cents on her behalf… No, she might not appreciate that, even if he went in the suit. Wearing the suit might make it worse. If she wants my help, he thought, she'll let me know. Probably.
But she could take care of it herself and wouldn't need his help to make a killer deal and wind up paying less rent than he did for more space. She just needed him to scrape paint and scrub floors… which he was going to do really fast, when she wasn't looking, despite her request that he do otherwise. She'd change her mind when she saw how much work renovating a living space could translate into. Getting the gritty part over with quickly meant more time for important things.
Wow, what a concept! No time like the present!
But he paused at the head of the stairs.
I'm going on a date.
Yes, that's right, she's the one.
Maybe that was another reason she had come, so they could have a *real date* where it was unlikely to be interrupted by crime running rampant in the streets. Even the interruption world politics had tried to present had come and gone, and here it was, the real thing, The Date, this was it…
I'm going on A Real Date at last.
Dressed like this. He looked down at himself. Like a farmboy.
This is not romantic.
He could hear her chatting with his folks below. His dad was beginning to tell her about how they had found what they thought was either a Russian or American baby that dark night in May of 1966. He had already reached the part where they'd been driving home from the movies and seen and heard the meteorite or satellite roar overhead and realized it was not only close but had crashed into Schuster's Field. They hadn't hesitated to see if it had caused any damage or started a fire.
Clark's mind raced ahead and foresaw his father getting sentimental and saying embarrassing things, particularly if Lois decided to probe for them. Considering how she had eased his fears earlier, what could she get out of him now? Why did parents *do* this to the children they claimed to love?
They had reminisced the same way the very first time they'd all had dinner together during the investigation of Wayne Irig's problems. They'd told her about his first day at school and how he'd cried his head off when his mom had tried to leave--just like a good half of the other kids in the same situation had done. He had quickly reminded his folks of that and how he'd gotten over it as soon as he'd realized that he wasn't among strangers. Lois claimed that on her first day of school she had organized all the kids into a union and threatened to strike unless milk and cookies were forthcoming by that afternoon. Since they did appear and nap time was provided, she was crowned princess of preschool. Clark hadn't believed a word of it, but it had earned her admiring looks from his parents who were suckers for such stories.
Then his mom had gone on to top herself by implying she thought he and Lois were sleeping together already and would like to continue doing so when Lois could hardly even remember his name in those days. If that awful Kryptonite mess hadn't developed so suddenly and preoccupied most of his time, he would have been constantly mortified that entire visit.
Yes, he sighed, I'm going on a date, dressed like this, in an old truck, planning to show a woman who grew up in Metropolis, maybe the biggest city in the entire world, the highlights of greater downtown Smallville. It was that or sit through his folks' tales about his youth and he bet that could easily last all night since they didn't have to hide anything anymore either and there was nowhere for him to hide…
Fortunately, Lois was not dressed as her usual fashion plate self, expecting a grand time. She wore a solid-color blouse, his mom's sweater over it, a dark skirt and sensible flat shoes. He fit with her then in his pale blue shirt, jeans and tennis shoes.
She looked him over the same way, he thought, that he had looked at her. She smiled. "Why do I feel like were going to the malt shop after a long day at high school?"
"Because that's how we're dressed."
"You both look just fine, honey."
"Thanks, Mom. Lois?" Wow, he thought, I'm actually going to ask her this… "My glasses?"
She pointed toward the mantle. "I'm told you put them up there sometimes."
Ah, yes. He'd checked all over his room and briefly feared he'd lost them in hyperspace until he recalled that she hadn't given them back after taking them there in the loft. Now they sat on the mantle, sparkling. He bet she'd cleaned them again. He wondered if she'd make a habit of doing that. It might be nice. He put them on, turned, and realized he was the center of their attention. His folks wore the kind of expressions probably worn by parents who saw their son at last taking steps toward making them grandparents. Now he'd have all the trouble they'd experience while they got to spoil their grandkids. Lois's expression was cat-like mild and said: entertain me.
This was not where he wanted to be. He focused on Lois. "Ready to go?"
"Lois told us you wanted to borrow the truck," his father said, "and she offered to leave her car keys with us in case we have an emergency."
So they'd already discussed it, and they hadn't told her that they could easily use mom's car. That was nice of them. "Good idea."
Lois, though, had not stood up and was not half way out the door. Instead she said: "I'm not ready yet."
She was sitting between his parents, to his father's right, and she turned to him and very lightly touched his knee. If it was suggestive, Clark thought, it was suggestive only of her budding connection to them now and how she was interested in whatever his father had been saying. This really was good, considering the man's almost scary protective reaction in the kitchen. Clark had rarely had the chance to feel that from either parent; more often he had been reminded of it only when something went terribly wrong for him while wearing the suit and that hadn't happened in quite a while.
Now, though, his dad's reaction and his mom's quiet approach to it earlier, plus everything else his mom must have gone through knowing that Lois knew… it gave him a better understanding of Lois's observation about them needing someone to talk so it was hard to deny them this chance.
"Okay," Lois said, "so you found this long ditch and you followed it and at the end found…?
"That the ditch hadn't been made by a meteorite *or* part of a satellite because the thing was intact and very solid looking."
"Was it very hot?"
"No, not too hot. We thought it was probably made of something like Teflon, gold or copper Teflon."
"It was turning blue," his mom added, "like it was cooling down."
"But it was still glowing, which was good since my flashlight batteries were low and there wasn't much of a moon. It was sort of almond shape."
"It just didn't look like a satellite at all. Satellites back then were round and had antennas sticking out of them."
"I see. Satellites were big in those days, weren't they? People followed the space program closely. That was right before the moon walks, I think…"
"That's right. They were just practicing sending men into space. Up," His father motioned with his hand, "a few orbits, and down again, into the ocean. They'd stopped sending monkeys, though when we first saw Clark…"
Uh-oh, it was starting. "Dad…"
"We watched all the launches and the coverage when we could, though our TV reception wasn't very good. They seemed to do all the launches early in the morning, and we were already up, so…"
Lois didn't turn him back to the monkey remark, thank goodness. "Did this strange thing have a door? How did you ever get it open?"
"Well, something did tell us to look inside. I had a crowbar in the truck, so I went back for it. I remember wishing I had my hunting rifle along at the time but I didn't. I also wished Martha hadn't followed me to see it, and then she stayed there when I went back for the crowbar, though I told her to stay away, to get back in the truck where it would be safer."
The woman who would never stay behind smiled. Lois may have seen it, but thank goodness she didn't say anything like "I wouldn't have stayed in a stupid truck, either!" Instead she followed up with: "So you used the crowbar to open it, huh?"
"No, I didn't need to. When I got back we moved closer and took a better look at the thing. That's when we saw the big door on top. It opened right up as we approached." He made a clam-opening motion with his hands. "It must have… sensed us somehow, looked us over, or maybe it looked at Martha while she was standing there waiting for me. At least, that's my theory. I've always thought it was a good thing we were just people and not man-eating tigers, but then the little baby we saw in there wouldn't have made much of a meal, he was so tiny."
"And he was wrapped in a soft, blue blanket," his mother added. "He was so darling and he had such wide eyes…!"
Uh-oh, this was it, Clark thought, he'd waited too long. He eased up carefully, acutely conscious that he was the only person standing, out of place, and, worse, the subject of their stories. "I think it's time to go, really…"
Lois turned to his mom. "Do you still have that blanket? I bet you kept everything you could."
"Oh, yes, we did. I'll show you sometime."
"We kept everything but the spaceship," his father said, "but that's another story."
"One *I* can tell you, *later*."
Lois was having an attack of selective hearing. "I'd love to see it all. I don't think my mother saved anything from when Lucy and I were babies, she probably doesn't even remember giving birth, I don't think it's one of those things you can schedule easily. You know what I've been wondering? Was Clark wearing like… galactic Pampers or had he held it all in or was--"
Whoa! Clark zipped to touch her shoulder, rather firmly, and when, interrupted, she looked up and blinked a "hmm?" he said, "Lois, it's Time to Go."
"Things close early in Smallville."
"Wow, even on Saturday night?"
"Even then--*especially* then."
"Not lately, son," his dad said helpfully. "You still have plenty of time."
"Maybe you'd like a cup of coffee before you go, dear. We can ground some of that special blend you brought home earlier this week, I saved it."
Had she known Lois would come? Clark wondered, and then realized she was trying sidetrack him.
"And, besides, this is so interesting, Clark!"
"I'm *sure* they'll be happy to tell you everything *some other time*…" like when I'm doing extended research at the South Pole and don't plan to return until I'm 112!
"Yes, we have a *lot* of stories to tell, Lois."
But Lois stood up. That was promising. She looked down at them. "We can talk in the morning, okay? Unless…" she looked up at him now, almost childlike in her enthusiasm, "unless you can think of something better to do…"
He didn't buy that look for a moment, yet what else could he say but: "I'm *sure* I can." He had no idea what they could do since for example there wouldn't be enough time for Paris, but that didn't matter at the moment.
"Okay, then, let's go--Oh, and that thing you said you brought? Maybe you can show that to me tomorrow or maybe some other time. I mean, I'm in *no hurry*…"
The cautious I'll-need-a-stiff-drink-before-I-see-it message in her voice made him immediately suspicious. A guy didn't have to be a brain surgeon to figure out what had happened. He looked at his parents. "Did they tell you I like to bring home shrunken heads?" Then he aimed a frown at his father, the more likely culprit. "Did you tell her that?"
His father blinked innocently. Yeah, it had been him all right.
Lois said, "I knew they didn't mean it…"
It was just one thing after another. It wasn't fair, they were ganging up on him. He looked her in the eye. "But you still believed them!"
"Well, you just went off to thwart the entire French Navy, what *else* was I to think?"
"Nothing, there's no connection, and besides, I hardly did anything to those people."
"What did you do, son?"
Yeah, let's talk about something important! The health of the biosphere and guarding human rights--not diapers and shrunken heads, good grief! "I found out how loose big propellers on battleships can be, Dad, how they can shear right off with hardly any help at all."
"Easy, was it?"
"It was a breeze. I also tore out chunks of two rudders so it looks like something with giant teeth took bites out of them."
His mom looked concerned. "What about fingerprints?"
"Gosh," he snapped his fingers and sighed at himself, "I *knew* there was something I was forgetting!"
In quick succession his mom, then his dad and in a moment Lois looked alarmed. But before they could claim he was too good hearted (and maybe just a touch simple minded…) to make a successful thief in the night, he said, "No, I was real careful about that. No heat vision, just poking and tearing."
Lois recovered the fastest. "So now they'll think they were attacked by monster sea serpents--or a South Pacific version of the Slime Monster?"
"They might think radiation from all their tests mutated a shark," his mother said righteously.
"That, too. As long as they don't think it was me. But that's all I did, one missing propeller and two bitten-into rudders. And the ships were far apart so maybe they'll think other ships were attacked in between and they'll stop everything to check."
"I'll have to watch the wires for what excuse they use for postponing the test again. I'll know what *really* happened," Lois said smugly, "even though I can't say anything about it."
"That's right," his father nodded, reinforcing the idea.
Dad, Clark thought, she can keep a secret, don't worry about *that*… Onward. "After I slowed them down, I still had time to look for something for you and I got this." He held up the handkerchief-wrapped gift.
She stared at it and stepped back just a touch. His parents stood up to watch--and offer their protection? Good grief! "It's *not* a shrunken head!"
As though to avoid looking at it, she flashed her alarm up at him. "But it's the right size!"
"No, it's not." Actually, it just about was.
She frowned at it again. "Well, it's not moving, so it's probably not a chicken…"
She stuck out one hand, the left, saving the other so she could still make a living afterward. He sighed, realized he had exaggerated the sound, and just gave her the gift.
She said, "It's light…" She uncovered it carefully. "Oh… it's a shell! Just a shell!"
"It's a volute," his mom guessed correctly. "That's not just any shell," though she had never been enchanted with his brief shell collecting hobby unless he brought home seaweed for the garden, too.
"Bring it over here under the light," his dad said as he adjusted one of the lamps. That allowed them to see that the shell was pink with smears of red and yellow. Clark turned away and scanned the big bookshelf. Hidden among the educational tomes was the almost worn out little guide book on shells that he had consulted frequently even though he had memorized it on first reading. He leafed through it and in a moment could point out to them the aulica volute. The book said it was rare. He was lucky, he thought, that it's former inhabitant had abandoned it and a new one hadn't taken up residence.
"It's shaped like a… a chili pepper," Lois decided as she gently turned it this way and that. "It's beautiful." She straightened to face him again. "It will be the first new thing in my new apartment, like a house warming gift. I can put it near Maxine so it will feel right at home."
That would work. "I'm glad shrunken heads were on back order then."
"Me, too. I like this *much* better." She took a quick step, put a bit of a bounce in it, and gave him a peck on the cheek. "Thank you. It's very sweet."
He felt briefly like he had been touched by flowers. How natural her gesture felt despite all that she knew! She had never given Superman just a peck on the cheek, she had always gone for it all as though she were uncertain of his interest and she'd had to throw herself into it. Now lately, for the six months or so--surely longer than she had known the whole story, surely--it seemed she had been passing on the suited fellow and been willing to give him, the real person, anything from a brief kiss to a passionate embrace. Maybe knowing now explained some of her lack of inhibitions in the garden--but the teasing made a big difference: she had never before teased him while he'd been in the suit…
Was this ever confusing…
Still, he found himself smiling, and saw that his parents were smiling, too. Indeed, the whole world had come to a stand still and was grinning like a fool… which was a bit much to take at the moment. "Ah, we should go…"
"Okay." She rewrapped the shell and placed it carefully on the lamp table. Then she faced him and held out her uninjured dominant hand.
How chock full of meaning that was! He took it carefully.
Next he noticed that his parents were still beaming and they had slipped their arms around each other. The room was quiet and warm, but he could almost hear dramatic theme music swelling to a crescendo, plus bird songs and the clear hint of spring breaking through a long, ice-bound winter before the credits began to roll.
This was almost too much. Some other time, he thought, he'd be able to enjoy all this like he had always imagined he would.
He moved toward the front door, on the way grabbing the keys to the truck off the little table by the coat rack. Lois followed along obediently, a pleased expression on her face. He wondered how long either of them could survive her acting so docile.
For a moment he was sure she'd read his mind again. She retrieved her hand, dived into her purse, pulled out the keys to her rental car, put them where the truck's keys had been, closed her purse, and offered her hand again, making him move positively to reappropriate it. Okay, if that was what she really wanted…
One last thing: "Don't wait up," he warned his parents, who were now linked closely arm in arm.
"Have fun!" his mother waved, twinkling. She knew more than he cared to admit. Maybe Dad would get it out of her.
This was the first time he could ever remember being a little glad to close the screen door behind him, between himself and his parents. Going out the door before he'd been facing the big world alone, but now things were different: Lois made the difference. It felt something like he'd been swinging comfortably on a trapeze for the longest time, then decided to let go (or the ropes had been cut) and, aiming for the next trapeze, he'd somehow hit it on the mark.
"Where are we going?"
"I remembered that the Smallville Smashers are playing the Wheatdale Wombats tonight. I'm sure we can still get tickets."
"Football? Well, if that's the biggest show in town… but with a name like the Wombats, I think the game should be won by default by the Smashers."
"Actually, they're the Wheatdale Wildcats, and the cross-county competition is fierce."
"So they're good?"
"Even when you were a Smasher years and years ago?"
"Yeah, and before that, too, back in the stone age with stone footballs, when my dad was a Smasher."
"Then I don't think I want to see the Kent family alma mater crash and burn, thanks anyway. Besides, hadn't we decided on the drive-in?"
"I don't think so."
"You didn't used to be wary of drive-ins."
"You and I have never been to a drive-in together and we won't go to one tonight either--don't say anything, you don't like Sylvester Stallone and he's at the Starlight Drive-in, the only drive-in within miles of here."
"But I wouldn't be watching *him*."
"I wouldn't be either--so we'll cruise downtown and see what's on at the Bijou. They usually have a new movie on Saturdays, but I didn't check to see what it would be."
"The Bijou, eh? That sounds so small town and rustic!"
They approached the truck on the passenger side and she slowed down. He took the hint and opened the door for her. She climbed in gracefully, as though she were wearing a beautiful evening gown and this were a particularly high-set limo. A guy could get used to this, he thought, opening doors for his girlfriend and covering puddles with his big red cape so she wouldn't get mud on her shoes…
But he warned himself not to get used to it, this was after all the ever-surprising Lois Lane he was dealing with. Or, considering all they'd been through in the last few hours, he hoped it was still her. Some of the surprises she had been throwing at him were so big it could very well have taken several maniacally happy Loises to plan them, to seem to be everywhere at once, surrounding and tickling him, and keeping him on his toes once he regained his feet.
He got in on the driver's side, started the truck, and noted that it sounded good but a little hollow. He checked the gauge and said, "We're low on gas."
"Oh? Think there's a chance we might run out entirely on some lonely country road?"
Yeah, I really have to be on my toes now. "Nope."
"Not that I won't use that excuse sometime later, and the drive-in one, too."
"After we're married."
That made her roll her eyes, so he added: "On alternate Tuesdays."
"I'll be *sure* to mark my calendar."
"Good idea. Buckle up."
He could hear the docility abandoning her and felt some relief. He didn't want her to feel unhappy, but "It's the law…" There should be a law, he thought; I should only have to deal with the real person I have a chance of keeping up with at times like these. Of course, she has to deal with the real me now, too--though she has been dealing with the real me and she's known it and… it tickles.
He pulled out onto the road and headed toward the highway. He became acutely aware of the worn shocks and the noise of loose things in the truck bed, of how "rustic" this really was. The rattling lessened after he eased on to the paved state road, but then he started wondering about other things, things that had never much affected him but that she might feel too easily. "Are you comfortable? Are you cold maybe? I can turn on the heater…"
"Where is it? I'm sure I can figure it out."
That was more like it. "It's right there," he waved, though she probably didn't see it in the bit of light provided by the dashboard instruments. "In the normal place in the middle there."
She probed around and found the radio in the center of the dash, there above the stick shift. The station his father liked listening to had gone off the air at dusk and was replaced by the ghost of an all-news station out of Chicago. Fortunately, before some emergency could be announced that he'd have trouble ignoring, she twisted the dial as though it might also regulate the heat and landed almost appropriately on a powerful Mexican music station. In a few more moments she found the heater controls below the radio and fiddled with them. The heater came on and the air took on a warm, dusty smell. She then turned off the radio and the light from the panel with it. "That's better," she said, sitting back.
"Be sure to speak up if I don't realize something, I mean, you know, that you're still cold or too hot or…"
"And maybe… I should speak up, too."
"Oh?" She leaned close. "Do speak up, talk to me."
"Okay. You know that… diaper thing you were getting into with my mom?"
"I seem to remember that, yes." She was almost smiling.
"You probably plan to follow up on it with her…"
"Unless you tell me. *Were* you wearing diapers?"
How could her eyes twinkle even in the dark? He wondered if his could. Twinkling didn't seem to be the kind of thing a person could tell about himself though. Or diaper fashion, either. "I can't tell you, I don't remember--"
Lois sat back. "Then she will."
"I'm sure she will, just… don't ask her again while I'm in the same… state, will you?"
"You mean it's embarrassing?"
"Yes, frankly, it is."
"Like when Lucy told you that my favorite song when I was in third grade was 'Do the Hokey Pokey' and you tried to get me to sing it and show you the steps there in the restaurant just because it was her birthday?"
"Yes, you did."
"I didn't think you *would*."
"Well, I had to, didn't I, with Lucy expecting me to and you looking all innocent--"
"I *used* to be innocent but you fixed *that*--"
"And I'm going to fix that *even more*--and you claiming that you'd never heard of the song before, it had never reached Kansas. You didn't think of how I'd react to that either, did you, bandit?"
He tried not to smile. She didn't seem hurt by the memory but more like she was enjoying accusing the perennially guileless farmboy of plotting an evil deed. She had only sung a few bars anyhow and hadn't gotten up and shown him the steps (right foot in, right foot out, what kind of dance was that?) but had done it while sitting down, briefly, he'd had to look fast. Lucy had gotten her to repeat the steps more enthusiastically as they'd left the fancy restaurant. He'd been surprised at what a few glasses of a moderately priced wine could do when here he'd thought Lois was one of those little bitty women who could drink burly dockworkers under the table and then steal their wallets. "No--"
"Like you didn't think I'd eat two desserts so you ordered me that second one so I'd refuse it and you could eat it."
"I paid for it, too--I paid for the whole meal!"
"Yeah, and it went right to your hips. And then you--"
"The diaper thing is *much* more embarrassing than *any* of that."
"It couldn't be."
"Well, it is."
"We'll see. Just look at it from my point of view--"
"You have a point of view on diapers?"
"Oh, I just stick my nose *every*where. You had a *much* more interesting childhood than I did--"
"I doubt that."
"Not once did my parents catch me doing anything out of the ordinary--"
"Not once? Not one teeny-weeny, hokey-pokey time?"
He began imagining Lois dressed in black leather, leading a gang of the worst of Metropolis's juvenile delinquents.
She said, "Nothing under the age of five counts."
"All right, I agree."
"Except for you."
"No, no, we play equal here or we don't play at all-- *bandit!*"
"No, *you're* the bandit, Bandit, and we're playing this game! Besides, I'm sure my mother doesn't remember anything and my father never cared, and Lucy was hardly born yet anyhow, so reminiscing in our family takes about ten minutes tops, and most of that is hemming and hawing, trying to think of things, and then we usually start fighting. You, on the other hand, *you* have great parents who have hundreds of scrap books filled with--"
"*Filled* with everything I could possibly want to know about you. I saw some of them, remember? The public ones, I guess. They probably have others, don't they?"
"They do. I'm sure your mother keeps close track of you, and your father does, too."
"I doubt it, but you can ask, I don't care, but you have to find my mother again first, and if you ask my father, whatever he says will probably be totally wrong."
"I will ask them, and Lucy, too. I'm sure they have lots of fond, *accurate* memories and cute pictures. I bet your mother even saved your baby clothes."
"No, Lucy got them. Oh! Your parents must have saved your baby clothes since they didn't have any other… Well, it could have been worse, you could have had an older sister and they could have passed all her clothes on to you."
He had, he thought, gotten over not having any siblings long, long ago. He hadn't needed any, really, having so many school friends. "I never thought of it like that, I guess there were some benefits. I don't think you'd like seeing me in a skirt anyhow."
"Yes, I would, a *mini* skirt, and bunny-feet pajamas, too."
"You're out of luck," though the suit was a little like bunny-feet pajamas, wasn't it? "You wore bunny-feet pajamas? Do you still?"
"Interested in finding out?"
"Yes--but not right away."
"Fine. Well, I'm going to use my keen investigative skills to find out about those diapers."
"You just do that, just laugh your head off."
"I will, bandit. I'll be in stitches, you'll have to ship me home."
"Via Tierra del Fuego since I'm familiar with that area."
"I need a vacation, that will do, so I'll ask about them first thing tomorrow, at the breakfast table."
"You can't--we're going to be busy tomorrow."
"Tell you and ruin the surprise?" especially, he thought, to me.
"Uh-huh…" she said again, sounding like she knew better--and this time sounding like his mother. Odd how that was.
They rode along quietly for a while, talked out, and he felt comfortable. It occurred to him that despite all the craziness, he really enjoyed the back and forth, the teasing, just saying almost anything that came to their minds. It was so… natural--and, hey, it could be even more natural now, with his not having to be constantly on guard because she knew and it didn't seem to make any difference!
And she was calling him "Bandit." Was it a nickname she was trying on him for size? It didn't make much sense, but did they always? He couldn't remember ever having had a nickname before other than "Farmboy," but that had been said by the very same woman in a derogatory manner. "Bandit" didn't seem much like a pet name, like "dear" or "darling." Bandit? Thief? What have I stolen from you? You've stolen a lot from me… Which, he realized, made him feel warm inside. Maybe bandit would be okay, he decided; he'd have to think of a really good name for her now. Maybe something would just occur to him.
Eventually she mumbled, "I wish the stick shift weren't right there."
He glanced over at her. She was looking down in the direction of the gizmo she had decided to complain about. His handed rested there. Not far to the left of that was his own personal stick shift. He almost shifted uncomfortably but stopped himself before giving her anything to raise an eyebrow about (and she would, wouldn't she?). She couldn't be referring to that… except given the topic of some of her recent conversations she might well have been trying to slip in a new double entendre. That part of him in question emailed (or was it Xmailed?) his brain, asking if he was contemplating intercourse because it needed time to get ready and a bit of coaxing would be nice, too, hmm?
He immediately informed it and the rest of his body that he had *no* intention of doing *any*thing remotely like that. He was, he told his libido, as cool as a cucumber… sort of--and not *that* vegetable really, though he couldn't think of an adequate substitute off the top of his head. He was, nonetheless, in complete control and for her he came up with something totally innocuous: "Well… there it is."
She looked up at him next, in the direction of his chin, unable to see much more than his outline probably because the widely space highway lights weren't helping any. At times he wondered what it would be like living full time with only the regular complement of human senses, but now he was glad that was all the senses she seemed to have.
Even if what she said often didn't make sense immediately. "The car I rented has bucket seats."
Stick shift, bucket seats… Ah! That meant she merely wanted to scoot over closer and the stick shift was in the way. If they'd taken her car and she had been driving, he couldn't have scooted either. "I see." If she had been driving he bet they would have run out of gas fast.
A distraction in the form of the exit for Smallville came up and he took it. He pointed out a lighted gas station at the end of the long off ramp and the beginning of the curve into Main Street. "I have to stop at Haney's to get some gas. Dad likes hers best and she's closed tomorrow."
"Okay. Do you need some money? I want to pay my share since I don't think you were going to do this before I showed up…" She reached for her small purse and prepared to open it.
That gave him the chance to say: "No, I can afford it, I'm not poor…" Actually, he thought… and then he decided to say with a little smile, "Actually, I feel truly wealthy now…"
He sneaked a glance at her as he turned in to the gas station and its lights brightened the interior of the truck's cab. She was just breaking out a smile as his meaning sunk in; it looked like some things took a few seconds for her to catch, too. Her twinkle was genuine and warm and, what was that? A touch relieved? Had she been entertaining doubts about how he felt? Well, she shouldn't! Did she think this surprise of hers had… knocked him out when he'd just been… caught off guard? Sure it had been unexpected, but hey, woman, you didn't call me *super* for nothing! Go, Kent!
He pulled up to one of the unleaded pumps, turned off the truck, unbuckled himself, and reached for the door handle, but he paused as he felt her tugging on his sleeve and heard her say, "Clark…"
He leaned back in her direction, hesitated, and observed that her eyes said "Now!" He reminded himself that he was heroic, and they indulged in a brief kiss. He then withdrew reluctantly and waited for, say, a pack of rabid elk to threaten New Brunswick. No such occurrence made itself immediately known, so he bowed again to her wishes and his own, and they exchanged another, longer kiss. Breaking this one off, he cupped her soft cheek in his palm and contemplated her eyes. She returned the gesture, stroking his cheek, but then she reached up and mussed his hair, and they both laughed.
At the station's window he gave Kate a twenty from the fifty dollars he had left to spend on this vacation. He'd gotten $100 from the money machine at the train station in Metropolis and had used the first half of it sparingly over the last week. His largest expenses so far had been the coffee he'd picked up in Sumatra and then the nights out with his friends. It was a good thing there were money machines here in Smallville since he could see using the rest of it easily tonight, especially if Lois was hungry.
"I heard your girl friend came to visit you, Clark," Kate said as she turned on the pump from her control panel. She looked at him but aimed her chin in the direction of the truck. "Is that her? She sure is pretty."
Clark turned and looked toward the truck. Lois had opened the window, maybe hoping that this time it would go all the way down, and she was looking out, over the pane, watching him. He turned back to Kate, who, like many women his mom's age here in town, had been a near-aunt to him for the longest time. It was no surprise that she would know about Lois's visit, though when she had found out was difficult to say since she slept during the day so she could work all night. He wondered briefly who else knew. "No, I just found that woman on the road."
"You and your friends always were good at rescuing homeless puppies and kittens. Do you get to do that much in Metropolis?"
"I try. The big city has more lost things that you can imagine, Kate."
"Oh, I know, I've been to Chicago!"
"Chicago's pretty big, too. I'm glad *you* didn't get lost."
"Well, I rushed right back here the first chance I got."
Like me, Clark thought, torn between two homes sometimes…
Kate informed him that pump number two was ready, and he went out, unhooked the nozzle, opened the gas tank cover there on the passenger side of the truck, stuck the nozzle in, and let it rip. Lois opened her door a bit, turned, still sitting, and leaned forward to watch this now. "I usually have someone else do that for me," she said as the pump headed toward and past $10 worth of gasoline.
He could see her being busy on her cell phone and just not having time to risk getting her clothes dirty checking the oil or the tires. "I guess that's easier."
"Looks like I can't pester you about getting your own car any more."
"You can still pester me, I might get one someday."
"What would you get?"
"Oh… A nice old truck like this one maybe," and he patted the side of its bed.
"To drive around Metropolis?"
"Sure! It wouldn't get stolen, would it?"
She leaned forward a bit more and looked at the side of the truck where farm-road mud was splashed and had almost dried. "Car thieves would feel sorry for you and leave money under the windshield wiper. Don't you have… higher ambitions?"
"Like… a Masarati?"
"Okay, yes, a Masarati. I guess if I could afford one…" The pump wound down and told him it had given him his money's worth, so he pulled out the nozzle, eased off the last drop of gasoline, put the gas cap back on, and returned the nozzle to its hook. "…I could afford the insurance, too. I'd have to enjoy of car like that really fast in Metropolis though."
He walked around, on his way checking the rear tires' air pressure (manually, with a little squeeze), felt nothing wrong, wiped his hands off on a rag from the back of the truck, and got in. She had settled back in, too. "Thieves would love it, you're right. Sometimes I worry about my jeep, so that's why I haven't gotten my rear bumper replaced. I don't like it all crunched up, but neither should thieves. And remember when the engine got shot up? I leave the repair bills for that on the back seat, plus a fake one that warns me about the whole thing being on its last legs."
"I wondered about that."
"It's worked so far. You learn these things in the big city."
"I'm glad I have a good teacher," one who would probably die out here in the country unless living here was all her idea. Good thing we don't retire for a while yet, Clark thought.
He pulled out onto Main again and headed downtown, which was only one long block away. "There's the Bijou." The marquis facing the plaza was plainly evident from the corner and the just-red light they rolled up to. Lois read what was showing and wrinkled her nose. "Do you remember what I said about 'Babe' after you dragged me to see it?"
"Something about being sure the star was bacon as soon as the filming was over."
"Right, but I'd rather see even that movie again tonight than anything by Tarantino, who I'm *not* in the mood for. I can't believe that any of his movies would turn up here in this bucolic setting!"
"Well, it will only be here a few days. Movies cycle through pretty rapidly."
"I hope that one does… And by the looks of the traffic," there were two free parking spaces right in front of the little theater, "no one else wants to see it, either. Good, it's way too violent. At least Babe was clever. Okay, now what?-- assuming anything else is open and that it's *not* a barbecue steak house."
No pork chops. "How about Maisie's? Since that's the regular hangout, we'll probably find people I know there."
"Regular hangout sounds good. We had one when I was at MetroU but it was torn down for an office building. We protested and I wrote investigative articles on the company for the UVoice, but they were legitimate so…"
"It was a good experience, wasn't it?"
"Sure, look on the bright side… Hey, I hope she has pies, I like her pies. Clark… if we meet some of your friends, is there anything you *don't* want me to ask them about?"
He glanced at her. She expected him to fall for that? Tell her something deep and meaningful--and see her quiz them about it first thing? "Like how often they saw me fly to the store to pick up something for Mom?"
"No, no, I mean it. I'm not trying to get something on you--I have plenty already, believe me. Us teasing back and forth," she indicated this with a hand motion, "is one thing, but I want to be careful around your friends."
"Just be yourself around my friends. I don't think you're going to say anything wrong. After all, you've known this long, *months*…"
"Ah-ha on *you*--I *could* be lying."
"No, you never lie." The light changed, a message surely. He smiled at himself. If she had known for months, that wasn't really so awful.
Because he could foresee that Maisie's small front parking lot would be packed, he decided he would pass that up and head around the corner to the back lot. "But don't worry about that, they'll ask a lot of questions about you. After all, they already know about everything there is to know about me. I was really just your average kid, a local boy who's managed to make it in the big city."
"Average, except for your one little spare-time job…"
"They'll probably ask *you* about that. Your reputation has preceded you."
"I'll try not to embarrass you by getting all dreamy…"
"I bet…" Maybe, he thought, he should give her something to watch out for in case it was referred to. "Now that I think about it, I was probably famous for a while for one thing.My dubious origin."
"Huh? Coming in a spaceship? No… Unless everyone in town saw it passing over head and then you turned up next, toddling down the street in a cosmic diaper and they… no…"
"No is right. I wasn't old enough to walk yet, and it brought me in from the west anyhow, though NORAD or some other secret outfit probably detected it, what with somebody digging up the ship and stealing it…" which, he realized, still bothered him a lot. He just needed one clue, one hint to follow up on, and he'd find it again--and put it in a safe place.
"I didn't know about that."
"The last time I saw it, it was in that warehouse with all the UFOs. People like Trask probably still have it and who knows where it is…" He sighed, then wished he hadn't gone on about it because now she would start thinking she could find it. He stole a glance at her; she looked no more than mildly interested in his statements, which meant she was in the process of filing the idea away for further thought at her leisure. Uh-oh… Well, he told himself, he'd deal with that later. "But nobody here saw it, so I was safe until Trask turned up and nobody believed him about anything anyway. Most people think I was one of Mom's cousin's mistakes, considering Mom wasn't born and raised here and nobody knew her, Dad just brought her home one day. She looked like a hippie, too, and they couldn't imagine what Dad saw in her."
"She's never mentioned that."
"There are pictures of her, I'll show you. She was something else. She even wore headbands and beads, and she saved all that stuff, too."
"More interesting than diapers, huh?"
"Absolutely! *Forget* diapers--look at those *beads!*"
"I can look at both."
"Well… Anyway, despite Dad's efforts to integrate her into the community, everyone kept her at a distance. I can imagine she tried not to let it bother her but…"
"It probably hurt a lot."
"Yeah, but then the Army wanted to purchase Mr. Knecht's land and build a munitions dump on it. It wasn't a good idea because it could hurt the ground water, but they weren't required to do any kind of environmental impact statements, and though jobs were promised, there wouldn't be many and it wouldn't have helped the economy much. So nobody wanted that kind of thing here, but nobody knew how to fight it, either. But when Mom heard about it, she came out swinging."
"Somehow that doesn't surprise me."
"It shouldn't. She had a lot of experience fighting injustice and all that--I can show you pictures of that, too. She even went to *jail* three times because she protested the war, can you believe it?"
Lois just nodded vigorously this time. He smiled, glad she was enjoying the story; his parents' antics always fascinated him. He pulled into the back lot and began looking for a parking place that would be easy to get the truck out of and saw one almost immediately. He pulled through so that when it was time to go he wouldn't have to back out but could go forward.
"Well, when she started organizing things--protests and letter writing campaigns and media coverage--and probably a little sabotage, too, for all I know--the Army didn't have a chance and they went somewhere else. After that, people around here decided that she was okay, she just had to be taught how to cook and sew."
"No…" He put on the brake and turned off the truck, thinking as he did that that it would be nice if she knew how to cook, if she felt confident in a kitchen, just for her own benefit. "Well, yes, if you want to learn more about that, but only for yourself."
"I think I do want to--and only for myself, and you if you want to help eat what I make. I didn't know any of that about her. Now I know where you get your tendency to take on armies and navies."
"And mad dog investigative reporters."
"You do like uphill battles. But considering what everyone must have thought about her--the sixties full of free love and sex orgies and drugs. She and your father must have, well, practiced at least the…"
He felt comfortable about turning toward her upon seeing the opportunity to tease. "The what?"
"Don't act innocent with me--the love and sex part of it, they probably did a lot of that, being practically newlyweds. How could anyone think that you were a… well…"
Even more innocently: "A bastard?"
"No, someone's *love child.*--Oh, wait, unless everyone knew your mom and dad couldn't…"
"They might have, knowledge like that gets around a small town, fast. Maybe they thought Dad had been exposed to something in Vietnam, though I don't think that Agent Orange was a big issue back then. More likely they thought Mom had smoked too much grass."
"Clark…" as though *she* were the prude. He could only shrug. She gave him a pitiless look then tried to get them back on her track. "Okay, so everyone thought that since they couldn't have kids of their own but here they came with one, you, it means that they were kind-hearted and took in an unwanted child."
"Exactly. It's what mom and dad let on to. Mom's side of the family thinks I was one of Dad's cousin's mistakes, which is okay, too. It explains why I don't look like either side of the family."
"So they turned up with you one day and everyone accepts it and they don't talk about it, I can see that. But still, there's the paperwork."
He nodded. "My pediatrician was in on the truth, what they could figure out of it. Mom thought I was a victim of an evil NASA experiment and Dad was sure it was the Russians, and nobody wanted me to go back to any of that. The doctor agreed I couldn't be in better hands so he used his connections and faked the birth certificate and some other things and didn't say a word. He died when I was six, so Trask never got to beat anything out of him."
"I'm glad about that. Did the doctor fake immunizations, too?"
"My skin didn't start to become invulnerable until I was about… three or four, I think. Inside I was pretty tough, probably as soon as I landed, so I could eat anything and not starve. You can ask Mom about that if you want, maybe instead of diapers?"
"As well as diapers, but I won't ask any of your friends about any of that unless they mention that you like to… eat frogs."
"Not me." He noted a Toyota pickup cruising the lot, recognized the driver and his wife, and decided he better warn Lois. "Oh, I know those two. I have the feeling we'll have a lot of people to talk to. Someone must have seen you driving through town and recognized you, or maybe my mother called somebody and mentioned that you're visiting."
"She knew we'd wind up being on talking terms and we'd come here…"
"Yeah, spooky, isn't it?"
"Sue Dobson could have called, too."
"Or Clyde, but they might have thought we were… arguing, as tight-assed as I was being."
She touched his hand--and then pinched it. "You weren't tight assed, you were *hurt*."
"Well, I'm getting over it," indeed he was recovering so rapidly, he thought, that he could hardly imagine having been so confused. Sure, there was still a lot to straighten out between them, but things looked great now.
"I'm glad--because it's my turn to be tight… lipped and smile sincerely and…" she sighed, "all that."
They looked at each other. She didn't look very comfortable despite the show she was putting on and the denials that weren't denials. He knew she didn't like crowds-- and she was probably imagining hundreds of people stacked up in there, like he had that many friends. She didn't mind such situations if she could turn them so that she was in charge or she could sneak in anonymously, spying, gathering information for a killer story.
But that wasn't possible, this wasn't a newspaper story but their own story. And here today had been rough on her, too, despite her acting like she thought she was on top at every moment.
"I'm sorry, maybe I should have run out of gas after all," he said, trying not to sound like he might be taking pity on her; he was sure she wouldn't tolerate that.
She took a deep breath. "No, it's all right, it really is, I should get to know some more of your friends, they're going to be everywhere we go," and she turned away immediately, opened her door, stepped out, and closed the door, hard. He looked over his glasses quickly and saw her grimace at herself. She had only meant to make a quick escape from the conversation, not accentuate anything with a slam. Clark had no idea what to do to make things easier for her--can I help it if I have friends everywhere? She has *sources* everywhere. He decided he wouldn't participate in any ganging up on her, which meant no indulging in teasing, and that he'd try to support her at every turn even if things became ridiculous.
He got out and went around to meet her at the back end of the truck. She was trying on various smiles now, and she said, calmly at first, "I don't suppose there's a small chance that something horrible will happen in… Guatemala that we'll *both* have to rush away to cover, will it? I mean, this is a *date*, for god's sake!"
"I have the feeling," he said slowly because it might help, "that this is one date that's going to work out."
"It would be…"
"And it's not even quite a date, really, since we won't be anonymous like we would be back in Metropolis."
"And that makes it better?"
"Well, the other difference is that I don't have anything to hide from you now."
"Oh?" Her eyes began to wander downward. "There's still a lot of you I have to uncover."
Now she was trying to change the subject and he wasn't falling for it. "That's not what I meant."
"I know, you meant we won't be tempting fate anymore, we can have the successful dates we want." She touched and then patted his chest. "But tonight I expect you to talk--you can do *all* the talking."
"Okay, I'll try. We'll talk farming. You be sure to look enchanted or they'll ask about Metropolis."
Farming, ha! Lois didn't believe for a moment that Clark would do all the talking. For one thing, as she had noticed about Jonathan, Clark was more of a listener than a talker; as often as not he'd grunt rather than prattle.
For another, he was right, his friends probably did know all there was to know about him, and despite what he said maybe they even suspected that other part but didn't pester him about it. Maybe he had done a few odd things as a child, but they probably didn't remember or didn't connect the childhood slips with Superman now. There seemed to be a cut off point for super mistakes, too; Martha had said that about half way through his 13th year Clark had come to the heavy conclusion that he had to keep everything unusual about himself secret, that there was no way he could ever just be entirely himself. Lois could see why: Clark was outgoing, a joiner, a helper, and he wouldn't want to risk being ostracized for his differences. He had sacrificed expressing part of himself in trade for being as normal and as human as he could be.
Well, good for him, it had apparently worked back then and was working now in Metropolis. It meant juggling two lives now, true, a full one and a cardboard one, but he was managing it. With her he could manage better and be his whole self, good for *her*.
Except that still left her--Lois Lane, vanquisher of world-class villains and conqueror (and best friend?) of a ticklish, no longer lonely Clark Kent--feeling like an injured zebra sensing the approach of a pack of blood-thirsty vultures…
Wait a minute--I'm not injured, I'm strolling right into their den! And Clark, darn him, would probably say vultures are part of Nature's Plan and they don't travel in packs or live in dens, so relax, Lois, we'll talk about *farming*…
Whoever's Plan they were and however they traveled and wherever they lived, she expected that the horde of his old pals would exude a deceptive air of home-spun friendliness, exemplifying the best that country charm had to offer, calmly awaiting the chance to sink their blood-covered talons into her very hide. But she wouldn't, she told herself, fall for it for a minute. She didn't want to be part of some hicktown crowd even for Clark. He better realize just how lucky he was to be getting this one night of indulgence out of her…
She and Clark entered the cafe. She didn't let him open the door for her but pushed it open for herself, charging right into the den of terror, getting the drop on them. The cafe seemed bigger than she remembered it, but then it was more crowded, too, and livelier and smokier than when she and Martha had stopped by that Sunday afternoon weeks ago to have some pie.
Maisie wasn't in evidence, but a young blond woman who looked a lot like her (a daughter?) waved over the heads of patrons at one of the bigger tables, shouted "Clark! Lois! In the meeting room!" and pointed toward the back.
A meeting room? Lois wondered. We need a whole meeting room?
And she knows me, I've been spotted. This is my last chance to escape.
She glanced at Clark on the off chance he was receiving some secret brainwave call for help that he'd have to rush off to fix so she could demand he take her with him or at least hand over the keys to the truck.
But no, he gave her an "Are you going to run away?" look instead, with a touch of "I'd understand, I really would, it's okay…"
She immediately stiffened her spine in a "Who, me?" reply and led the way again, past the red-leather booths and around the edge of the thick of the evening dinner crowd toward the meeting room. Arriving, she opened the sliding curtain in a stealthy manner and peeked in.
The "meeting room" was big enough for as many as 100 people, packed in ten by ten. Lois wondered if it was a hang out for the local Elks Club and if Jonathan were a member and if Clark would have been one if he lived here. She pictured them both in hats with antlers.
But there were only eight people now. They were sitting around two tables tables that had been pushed together to form a big one in the middle of the room.
They all looked like they were in their late 20s or early 30s, and most of them appeared to be linked up as couples. Were these the only people who would show up--and this really was plenty, wasn't it? It was surely *just* the right size for a Clark Kent Appreciation Society, which, she realized, she had just been appointed the president of in a strategic coup that hadn't been publicized yet. She wondered if she had to edit the newsletter, too…
Lois was pleased to see Sue and Clyde Dobson. She felt ambivalent about the presence of Sheriff Rachel Harris, apparent former girl friend of her fiance-to-be--*should* I have taken him up on his proposal? she wondered, then immediately told herself No! There was too much to work through between them before that, sex being the least of their issues. Rachel would just have to get over it, though the pretty blond was smiling pleasantly now.
Lois didn't recognize any of the others, from the fellow who was so burly he made Clark look like a weakling, to the slender red-headed woman who had a look in her eye upon seeing Clark a lot like the one that Rachel had given him at first sight at the Corn Festival. Why didn't I get Clark to talk more about his past, Lois wondered, so I'd have been better prepared for this? Who knows what rumors they've heard about me? God, I *hate* rumors…
Center court seats were pointed out for them to take. Lois didn't want to sit there but didn't protest. She made a terrific effort to memorize faces, names and facts as Clark introduced these eight people and the six more friends who trickled in over the coming half hour. Her memory was not something she usually had trouble with when it was this important; don't seize up on me now, brain, she warned it.
But, oddly, as they sat around the table and pie, ice cream, cake and some astoundingly good coffee started to appear before her and never seemed to stop, Lois felt herself begin to relax about the threat of a brain boycott and her less- than-stunning appearance. It even looked like none of these people would do anything to earn themselves a swift kick from someone who had learned to deliver them on the mean streets of a real city.
They greeted her politely and then just as politely ignored her while they actually talked about farming! No one tried to draw her into the conversation, one they obviously knew would make her uncomfortable. At least she hoped that's why it was.
It seemed that those with farm families, Clark among them (and he wasn't the only one who had come home to help), had gotten together on the previous weekend and firmed up harvest plans and gone at it, whatever "it" required, like threshing and canning. The Dobsons, the Clines and the Johnstons talked about how smoothly the farm work was going. Even the weather was cooperating. I guess that means, Lois thought, that I'll be able to buy bread and those little cornhusk doll refrigerator magnets this winter.
Even the nonfarmer people around the table contributed to the work. Rachel talked about traffic control and broken-down farm machinery cluttering the state roads. Pete Ross, a lawyer, updated everyone on the rumors of fraud against farmers in Lowell County, but he was keeping a watch out for it (what's he running for? Lois wondered). His wife, Lana, the redhead, was a science teacher, and she said her students were chomping at the bit to get out of school and help harvest, though it just might have been to get out of school.
Lois could sympathize… but since she had to be here, at least the food was good and watching Clark jump into the conversation was just short of fascinating. He could have been stopping volcanoes and dining in Bali but he seemed perfectly happy to be chewing the fat with these people.
As eight o'clock approached, when it looked like no more people were coming (at least another half dozen had been expected), the consensus was that the "big game" had worn them out and they had to get kids home. Too bad, everyone was having a roaring good time here.
And, Lois had to admit, she was having a good time, sort of, being largely left alone, sitting quietly with her hands in her lap when she wasn't employing them as she ate little bits of this and that to keep on some semblance of a diet here in Calorieville.
Of course that good feeling threatened to collapse as soon as Mike Bradley, the big ex-Midwestern football player now insurance salesman, shifted around mountainously, leaned forward almost half way across the table it seemed, and smiled at her. "So you're the one who's letting Pete off the hook for having stolen Lana away from Clark?"
"Don't listen to him, Lois," Lana advised; she was sitting next to Pete at the far end of the table. "I dumped Clark of my own accord."
"Oh… good, I'm…" not *good*. She looked at Clark. He was looking at Lana, surprised but equally amused. She looked back at Lana and tried: "I'm happy for you…?" Clark!
He glanced at her and gave her a "that's okay" gesture but said to Lana, "You didn't dump me, we weren't really a thing then, no more than… than Rachel and I were."
"We were quite a thing, Clark," Rachel said with an arched but playful eyebrow. "The senior prom meant a lot to me until you ditched me to save that guy from choking on that grape."
"Someone had to help Mr. Sheridan, everyone else was just standing around staring into space."
Elizabeth Johnston, a bulky blond woman (Lois bet it was all muscle though) sitting on Lois's right, leaned over and whispered: "Mr. Sheridan was the math teacher who believed A's were the divine right of gods and no one got more than a B- from him, ever."
"Not even Clark?" Lois whispered in return. "Even though he saved the man's life?"
"That didn't matter to Mr. Sheridan. Math was math."
"Well, it is, but…"
"Clark was up there, we all made good grades, but Clark was the only one who knew the Heimlich maneuver, or at least admitted to knowing it that night."
"He probably even knows Heimlich's first name," Pete said.
"Harry, Harry Heimlich. But no one else would go with me, Rachel--"
"Ha!" several women around the table said.
"No, you all had steady boyfriends, *remember?*"
"And you didn't?" Lois asked.
"Well, Pete and I broke up in eleventh grade; it was devastating."
Boos and hisses all around.
"*No!* I mean you didn't have a *steady,* a steady *girl*friend, *that's* what I meant." Try to be friendly, take a part in this boring conversation and what happens?
"No, I was sort of… between girl friends," he confided. "I never really went steady with anyone…" until you, he whispered.
Oh? That made her feel better.
She was surprised that no one at the table jumped on it though.
"After Clark and him broke up," Mark said, "Pete got eyes for Lana."
"Yes, I traded in the Boy Scout and got a bisexual…" Lana sighed happily.
Pete frowned at her. "That doesn't make any sense."
He ignored his wife's challenge and looked at Clark. "If you hadn't been everyone's best friend, you could have been somebody's steady--easily."
"Hey," Clark spread his hands, in one of which was the fork he was using to dabble with his third piece of apple pie. "What can I say?"
"Well, let's get this straight," Mary said. Her husband Mark made faces behind her back, as though begging the others to stop her before it was too late. "Clark and Lana were a thing for a while in eleventh grade but then they broke up during in football season because Lana was more into the science fair than the state championship."
"But I was interested in science, too."
"You were more interested in the paper, and Coach Cline had to beg you to play football, remember? Everyone knew about it, he wanted us to talk you into it.
"All he had to do was ask, but when he did and I did, I didn't have time for the science fair that year but I did the next year."
"It was too late for you to convince Lana of that by then. Pete pretended to be interested in newts--"
"Geckos," the Rosses corrected simultaneously. Interesting, Lois thought.
"Those things, whatever, you weren't really interested in them, Pete."
"True, but she knew that."
"We all knew that, but by then they were practically going steady anyhow."
Elizabeth took up the chronicle from there. "Clark and I hit it off for a little while because I like football okay, but I'm not interested in writing, which, Lois, was probably Clark's big passion. He'd play football and then work late nights at the newspaper instead of going to dances."
"Ah, I see."
"I went to dances, I just went looking for stories. I happen to have a lot of passions."
"You just didn't have a lot of girls."
Clark gave Mark a dirty look.
Lois thought "You don't have dates, you have interviews…" but in Clark's case it was probably due to a touch of shyness, or the heavy-duty appearance of his extra abilities, rather than being, in her case… too busy.
Bill at Elizabeth's side shook his head. "No, no, you and I were seeing each other, not you and Clark."
"Uh-huh," she said, "you and *Rachel* were a thing in the late fall until she had to transfer to Wheatdale…" A gasp went up; Rachel pretended not to notice it. "…and then you and I became a thing in the spring and remained a thing. Pete and Lana were back and forth a lot because he wasn't interested in… what was it this time?
"Building a small working nuclear power plant."
"I prefer solar energy."
"Well, I do, too, now," Lana said, "it makes more sense, but I don't think it would have helped me take second place in the nationals."
"Anyhow, Lois," Mary cut back in, "we didn't know whether to root for Pete or hope Lana would go after Clark again, since he collected rocks and geology was probably right up her alley."
"Canyon," Lana said, "or alluvial plain."
"But we *were* seeing each other then," Clark said, "just not seriously. Pete was preoccupied figuring out how to get to Yale, and you," to Lana, "were always grumbling how he would do this or not do that, and you grumbled about it at me. I began to feel like your brother. It didn't take me long to see that you were actually in love with him."
"Mr. Shoulder to Cry On," Mary diagnosed.
"If you'd pressed your advantage…" Lana looked at him in a meaningfully playful manner.
Before the redhead could do anything more playful or Rachel could bring up the senior prom like she looked ready to, Lois edged in with, "So it sounds like everyone here had a thing with everyone else. You all must have known each other a long time…" Listen to Lane at work, she thought, manipulating the interview…
They moved smoothly onto that topic and they dwelled on it for quite a while with expert prompting here and there. Lois learned that just about all of the people around the table had been friends since early childhood. Their mothers helped out in kindergarten and baby sat for each other, and the kids all went to the same schools and did the same after-school and seasonal activities like camping and scouts and 4H. For example, they had all acquired bicycles at about the same time and had been able to terrorize a wider range of the country.
Lois could imagine. "This sounds juicy." She leaned on her forearms, realizing she was opening up with the scent of… blood. Who's the vulture now? She smiled at herself for a moment until she noticed Clark was watching her. Uh-oh, be careful, girl, you didn't come to embarrass him.
Then again… they expect this, don't they? She could feel it. Odd how that was, but it was a good feeling, too, they wanted her to participate. So she asked, "What did you do? Did Clark get you all into big trouble? He always dives into one disaster after another back in Metropolis."
"*I* dive?" he said indignantly. "I used to lead a full, calm life--
"As a door stop," Pete slipped in.
Considering the tone of the man's voice, it occurred to Lois that Pete might have been one of Clark's closest confidants or even brother substitute for teenage boy type things. Clark probably hadn't confided *everything*, but certainly enough so the two men felt comfortable even now teasing and challenging each other like this.
"--before I met Lois, Pete, and I'll get you for that."
"You and what army and what navy?"
They gave each other well practiced dirty looks. Lois wondered how they'd battle this out. Marbles? What did country-boy best friends do to settle scores? Shuck corn or something? She mumbled "He can warm up on the French Navy…"
Clark glanced at her and half smiled.
"Clark dives into disasters now?" Lana frowned. "Our laid-back Clark? Door stop is right, or it used to be, though he was a door stop with a sense of justice."
"A boring sense," Mark added.
"He still has it," Lois said, "and sometimes I detect a bit of doorstoppishness, too."
"He wasn't exacty boring," Elizabeth said. "He was just trying to keep us out of trouble."
"And succeeding. Remember when we wanted to dynamite the rails and rob the train?" Gene asked. In an aside to Lois he explained: "Even though it just moved produce to market, we were *sure* it carried *gold,* too."
Clyde said, "But he convinced us that we wouldn't be done laying the dynamite--assuming we could find any--before we had to get home to dinner."
"Then," Rachel said, "when we switched our plan to robbing the Bank of Smallville--"
"Where they keep all the gold," Gene interjected.
"We were in, what? Third grade?"
"I think so."
"That's when we started planning. As we got older," Pete said, "our plans got more sophisticated."
"Lois, we needed the gold so we would be in gumballs and baseball cards forever," Rachel said. "But *Clark* talked us into things like… studying for the spelling bee instead. He claimed our lives would be richer for it."
Lois noted that Clark was havin a hard time keeping a straight face.
"I remember that well," Bob sighed: "Fifth grade, and we lost that year to Wheatdale."
Sue nodded: "Again."
"Ah-ha, Wheatdale," Lois said, sensing the common enemy as well as sensing that they were glad she sensed it.
"I'll never forgive you for that, Clark," Tim shook his head. "Do you know what those cards would have been worth now?"
Clark raised his eyebrows innocently. "Twenty years in the juvenile division of Leavenworth?"
"Just about," Rachel nodded.
"We would have gotten off early," Pete claimed, "since none of us had criminal records. Our records consisted of taking parts in school plays and the county fair and playing in the band, that kind of thing."
"It was a brilliant disguise," Elizabeth said.
"They didn't realize we were terrorists at heart," Sue explained. "Or wanted to be. We wanted adventure."
"Did Clark play in the band? What instrument?"
"Drum. I can't carry a tune."
"I've heard you whistle, you're a good whistler."
"He kept us clean as a whistle, too. If it weren't for Clark always coming up with some way of looking for the silver lining and keeping us out of horrible trouble, why…" Rachel sighed, "I might not have become interested in law enforcement because we'd have all that gold and I'd have invested my share wisely and been a very rich woman…"
"Good old Clark," Clyde smiled sadly; others chimed in along the same lines.
Clark looked airily amused--but he didn't look at Lois, she noticed, to express any opinion such as "I had to put on the suit, see? I'm just so noble," or to get hers: "I knew you were a trouble maker the moment I met you."
Then Clyde brightened. "Lois, can you see why, at the end of our senior year, we voted him most likely to understudy for Mr. Rogers?"
"It's right there in writing, have him show you the yearbook, there's practically a whole page on Clark alone."
"There's practically a whole page on *everyone.*" He looked at Lois. "We only had 64 people in our graduating class."
"Oh? There were 714 in mine."
Everyone around the table said "Wow…" They told Lois that Smallville High School had been and still was ranked academically among the top public high schools in plains states. The friends had placed in the 20s and 30s in their graduating classes. Clark had placed in the middle, 29th (interestingly, his present age). Lois wondered what that really meant, remembering that Martha had told her he had made sterling grades, except in physical education and, she now knew, math. That must have been four "B" grades came into play (with As for football playing?). Maybe his preoccupation with journalism had caused him to fall a little behind in unrelated classes.
So were these country bumpkins all terrifically bright? This representative sample certainly seemed to be; they probably could have given her Metropolis classmates a run for their money. Lois mumbled that she had been 11th in her class, but decided not to mention she had been bested by ten male students, most of whom had probably cheated… She simply didn't feel like expressing bitterness, real or imagined, about anything.
Instead she said, "I'd like to see you storm Hollywood, Clark."
"And be a himbo?" Sue asked. "Works for me."
"No," Clark aimed a thumb at Lois, "she just wants to get rid of me, she likes my desk better than her own."
"No, I don't, the light and the view are much better at my desk."
"I can't go to Hollywood because I could never understudy Mr. Rogers. He never gets sick, he's a vegetarian, and so I'd never get any on-air time."
"Well, kidnap him. We'll help. What are friends for?"
"Your singing voice is okay," Mary said, "No great shakes but okay."
"I don't sing. I *drum.*"
"Have you heard him sing, Lois?" Rachel asked.
"No, I didn't know he could. I'll make him show me."
"I bet he sings in the shower."
"I'll find out, I'll make a special effort *right away.*"
"But there's no real singing involved," Elizabeth tried to say seriously without breaking into giggles as the others were. "Tesa--my younger daughter--she adores Mr. Rogers. Clark'd just have to talk with a lilt in his voice, maybe…" carefully: "*warble* a little. He could pull that off."
"I'll make him practice."
"No, you won't."
"In the shower."
"I'll practice when I want to. In… Canada, somewhere in the icy north."
"Not while I'm in the shower you won't."
"I bet she will."
"Not unless she can dogsled. Aren't you allergic to dogs?"
"No, only chickens."
"Oh, look," Mary smiled, "they're arguing already, that's a good sign!"
"Clark, don't turn her down!" Pete warned. "Showering with a beautiful woman can be a real experience!"
Lois gave Elizabeth an inquiring look: "Doesn't Mr. Rogers wear sweaters?"
She and Mary, both mothers, said, "He does."
"Clark looks great in sweaters."
"We tried to tell him that, too," Clyde said, "but he'd just say he doesn't get cold and, for example, that Mark has a better voice. The same old arguments."
Deflecting, tell me about yourself arguments, Lois thought. Good practice for a budding journalist.
Sue said, "Does any one else remember this? We also voted him most likely to get a job as Assistant Librarian at the Library of Congress."
"I know," Lois said, "in the Research Section."
"That's probably where they keep the *X-Files!*" Gene pointed to the X-Files t-shirt he was wearing, crossing his heart as the "X" was. "Then he could share the information with *me*. You know, I think I saw Fox Mulder once! But Dana wasn't with him and I'd rather see her…"
"I don't think I'd be allowed to--"
"You could sneak a few things out on the side-- remember Watergate? Secrecy in government is totally undemocratic."
"I agree, but you want a Deep Throat when I want to be--I *am* Bernstein and Woodward," Clark said. "Or maybe Lois is Bernstein."
"If I'm going to be short and swarthy like Dustin Hoffman, I rather be Geraldo."
"Gosh," Gene said, worried, "don't break your nose in a fight!"
"Don't worry, *I* don't get hurt, *I* break noses.
Clark raised his eyebrows at her.
Gene asked, "Clark, do you let her do that?"
"Let her? No one lays a hand on her--"
"And not even me sometimes. Besides," Clark continued, "the FBI has all those files."
"Not all of them. The NSA has a lot, too, and the CIA and Bureau 39 and all those creepy people."
"Our tax dollars at work," Pete said.
"Okay, okay, believe me," Clark said, "being a librarian in any of those places would be unique, and living in Hollywood and singing and wearing nice sweaters would be a real experience, but…" he let them hang a moment, "…I've opted to make every effort to…" He looked at Lois. "…to marry the Queen of Metropolis."
"Oh, yeah?" She raised her eyebrows at him now, then looked around the table at those who were checking to see if she was royal material. "That's what my senior class voted me most likely to be." Or that was what Lucy had claimed that birthday-celebrating night and the wine had been so warming and the thought so funny that she hadn't contradicted it. She elbowed Clark lightly. "You're getting closer, buddy." She almost used the word "bandit," but wanted to save that for special occasions. She considered refocusing the conversation on the easier target by asking if Clark had also been voted most likely to pass unrecognized in a crowd just for wearing glasses…
"I am getting closer?"
Or voted most likely to approach asteroids head on at great speed…
"Little by little."
Or (the possibilities were endless, weren't they?) voted most likely to wear clashing primary colors to important civic events held in his honor…
"Closer?" Rachel asked, but her face didn't fall as Lois immediately assumed it would. The exgirlfriend said, "It sounds like you two aren't even engaged yet."
"No…" Clark sighed. "We've still got some things to work out."
"Well, get a move on!" everyone advised him and Lois for several minutes. Why, marriage was a joyous thing, a wonder to behold, and, if one worked it right, a way to save on taxes.
Clark looked like he was drinking it all up, even the taxes part. Let him, Lois thought; he knows my terms. But the universe must have thought she was being a difficult woman, for it caused an innocent woman, Sue, to ask: "Lois, does this mean you still have a thing with that Superman guy?"
Elizabeth said, "Is *that* what you two have to work out?"
"Hey, yeah, he'd be a big obstacle," Gene said. "Really big!"
The men (except Clark) all agreed on this, really big, but probably not *that* big--not below the belt anyhow. Probably. No one was sure. Clark didn't contribute to that part of the conversation either. Lois suspected she'd eventually find him to look like your average human male; she doubted he would have grown up so emotionally stable if he'd stood out for any unusual anatomical reasons.
Sue frowned. "I'd hate to see *him* get jealous of you--Don't you know karate, Clark? Didn't you tell us you learned some when you went to Japan?"
"No, it was akido, mostly, but I'm not worried, I can take him out," he snapped his fingers, "like that."
"He'll take *you* out," Pete advised, snapping right back, "To the *cleaners,* the cleaners in *Japan*."
"Look, Clark, if you ever need a lawyer, you know where to find me."
"Hiding under your desk at the thought. I don't need a lawyer, and Superman's not afraid of lawyers, believe me."
"I'll say," Rachel said, "not after that Slime Monster lawsuit. We watched that all day on TV."
Lois could see Clark almost say "You did?" as though he were surprised by the thought. Had he assumed the news would stay in Metropolis?
"Well," Pete said, "Since he's not afraid of lawyers or Slime Monsters, he'll wipe the floor with you when he finds out about you and lois…"
"No, he's not that kind of guy."
"You hope he's not."
"I *know* he's not. He's… he's gay."
Those around the table blinked collectively.
Lois decided not to jump to his defense, instead joining the others to stare at him.
He cleared his throat. "Well, there's a rumor…"
"But don't you know him?" Clyde asked. "Doesn't he hang around at your newspaper all the time? Aren't you friends--did he come on to you or something?"
"No--I said it was just a *rumor*."
Sue frowned. "He can't be gay--Lois, is Superman gay?"
"I don't *think* so…"
She noted that Clark looked at her but she didn't look back, keeping herself focused on her new friends, which was easy since most of the women were expressing various degrees of shock.
"We see him on the news all the time," Lana said, looking at Lois, "and Clark's mother told me once that you got the first interview with him. That's *got* to mean *some*thing…"
Had Clark told her that? Why? Had he wished he'd been able to give it to her? Maybe. "Actually, Clark got the first interview." She glanced at him. "You remember…"
He nodded. "It was serendipitous."
No, someone (Lois put odds on Lex now) had created all kinds of false emergencies and must have shaken Clark's confidence, considering he'd been in town as Superman only a week or two. He'd almost quit, hadn't he? But he'd gotten over it for some reason--a growing strength of self worth probably, or maybe realizing how much people really did need him even when he was late in rescuing them. Of course then he'd come back with that story about Superman declaring Metropolis his home and she'd been so jealous…
"It *means* he's not gay," Elizabeth insisted. "He can't be--What hope would there be for me?"
"There's me," said Nils, her husband, who was as well fed and blond as she was but who hadn't said a nonfarm-related word until now.
"Well, yes, dear, but still…"
The other women overlooked the hint of potential domestic turmoil ("Superman named in bitter divorce battle" Lois headlined it). Instead they pounced on Lois. They wanted The Naked Truth about the man who saved the world on a daily basis and, it seemed, was close to Lois or must have been since she wrote so many stories about him and they often turned up even in the local papers. So he *couldn't* be gay, could he? Yet here she was interested instead in their Clark…
Out of the corner of her eye, Lois noticed that Clark and the rest of the men at the table were rolling their eyes at the sudden almost hormonal interest the women showed in the new topic. Well, let them go find beer and football on TV if they didn't like this. *She* liked it. She realized that despite herself, she usually enjoyed the times she found herself cloistered with women of a like mind. If the way to get to that point was through Superman and if the men wanted to hang around eavesdropping and groaning, so be it! She got cozy.
It was true, Superman was taller and broader than their mutual friend here at her side…
Clark sat back, folded his arms protectively before his chest and put on the same I-have-to-listen-these-*women* face as the other men at the table, some of whom were assuming similar I'm-bored-already body positions.
Oddly, Lois thought, she found herself pleased that he could be so obstinately guy-like. Nonetheless, she ignored their veiled message and continued. This was the precisely right time to do some serious fishing to see if anyone here knew Clark's secret.
Superman's eyes were (and she said this on purpose) blue mostly--a girl could get lost in them and not really notice, but the women around the table understood completely. No one contradicted her or looked sharply at Clark to double check his eye color and then smile indulgently at ole dumb Lois.
Yet the asteroid-smashing, monster-bashing, always- dashing hero was… distant. Not cold, no, not that, just, umm, preoccupied. He could dance like Astaire and Travolta wrapped into one--in the air even--ohhh!--(no one smirked at Clark)--and that cape!---Ahh!--but would the lonely fellow sit still long enough to pour his heart out? Tell her his deepest secrets and greatest fears and fondest wishes?
She drew this out, looking at her coffee cup, playing with the handle listlessly, as though trying to think of times when the Heartthrob of Steel had entrusted her and only her with his innermost anguish.
(No one aimed a frown at Clark for treating this poor little woman so thoughtlessly. She wondered if he were thinking up ways to get revenge on her for this, but then she doubted thoughts like that had crossed his mind yet. They probably wouldn't either, he just wasn't that kind of person.)
She sighed, so sad, "…no."
The woman sighed right along with her, sympathetically, but also obviously wishing for their chance to get him to open up because they'd do a better job of it.
Clark was looking away a little, shaking his head at Pete or Clyde or Nils, who were looking just barely tolerant of this silly women stuff. It was a complete guy thing, Lois thought, with no hint of real secrets shared among them. Otherwise Clark was sitting almost rock still, containing himself like the others were. That was why it occurred to Lois that at her slightest touch, the fellow on her left would topple right over and have to scramble to get up off the floor and regain his composure. Hey, was this the way he felt when she'd been gushing over Superman centuries ago?
Lois continued sadly. A girl could get all dressed up and catch his eye easily--he had telescopic vision after all--but as soon as things looked the least bit promising, he'd have to rush off and save… Thailand. Forget being gay: at times, she admitted, she had wondered if he had any sexual drive at *all*…
Ohhhh! The women looked scandalized--and fascinated.
"I'm *sure* he does…" Clark said.
"There he goes again," Mary smiled, "defender of the underdog. Relax, Clark."
"You don't have *anything* to worry about," Elizabeth said.
"Not if Superman can't get it up," Pete smiled, too, though then the smile faltered. "Unless of course he knows *you* can and *that's* why he beats you up."
But Rachel was sure, "Superman wouldn't beat him up for that reason alone."
"He might," Lois said. "I've discovered that under Clark's mild exterior is a real tiger with *plenty* of sex drive."
The men (except Clark) snickered at first, until they noticed the women around the table were nodding in a knowing. Lois strongly suspected though--hell, she thought, she *knew* it was to make their men wonder, because the women had no idea about the true results of Clark sex drive. They had probably suspected a lot of him, but Lois was certain none had successfully plumbed those depths, that he had held strong against anything more than passionate kisses, which was fine with her.
She was also beginning to seriously wonder if Kryptonians were capable of blushing.
"Well…" he said, and to his credit he didn't argue but simply shrugged and looked pleased with himself.
"The big city has corrupted him," Clyde said almost disapprovingly. "That always happens."
"Well, I'm sure it hasn't corrupted Superman. He's a busy person," Gene said. "He doesn't have time for a love life, he has a lot to do."
"That's right," Clark nodded. "He's very busy, *all* the time. He has *no* life."
"Though he could probably handle a dozen women at a time…"
"I think the idea would appall him."
"A lot of people depend on him," Rachel said, "so it's a good thing he can do so much, more than just regular people."
"Well," Lois said, "Clark's no match for Superman in som ways, true, maybe a lot of ways. Lots and lots of ways…" She looked at him as everyone expected her to do, and he obligingly put on a face that gently informed her that she better get to the point and soon. She smiled a bit. "I mean, there's the strength thing and the flying, but…" She touched and then squeezed his right biceps since his arms were still folded. "…but Clark's…"
Everyone held their breaths.
"Clark is…" She looked to him as though begging for help with this one because she was stuck.
Everyone shifted their gazes to him expectantly.
He looked a little uncomfortable now, probably thinking that the glowing reference to his sexual prowess had been a set up when it had simply just happened that way. But she felt justified in making him feel a little embarrassed since he'd been looking at her from two different angles for so long. He probably hadn't laughed at her much, true, but surely he had some times. That was passed and funny now, she could laugh at herself for being so blind. It was more fun, though, to laugh secretly at him, particularly when he knew darn well she was.
She slipped her hand up to his shoulder and employed the other hand to grip his arm and really lean into the gesture, pleading for help.
He released his left hand and rubbed his face thoughtfully, a cover move. In a moment he had it: "I make a great omelette."
Lois sat back and smiled, obviously justified in her decision to go with this brilliant fellow for life. "That's true, he does, he makes *great* breakfasts."
"With broccoli and cheese even!"
"Oh, nothing!" Clark said, releasing his hands now and pointing at Lois. "*She* goes out and gets herself thrown off *cliffs* and *I* have to nurse her back to health so she can rush to the newsroom and write it up--and do *I* get so much as a byline? Nooo-ohooo…"
"Superman saves her and lets you clean up, I see," Pete nodded. "You're a pushover, Kent."
"That's okay, Clark, just because he can lift tall buildings--" skinny Gene started to say.
"And I bet he's *faster* than a speeding bullet, too," Lana winked at Lois.
Lois said demurely, "I'm sure I have *no* idea--"
"*I'm* sure he's not," Clark informed Lana.
And, indirectly, Lois, who said, "He hasn't slowed down enough for me to… ask."
Lana shook her head. "Too bad."
"If he can't slow down, Clark," Pete said, "he may beat you up for that, too."
"Especially if he *is* gay," Elizabeth sniffed. Nils regarded her through half closed eyelids until she elbowed him and he grinned.
"I have my doubts about this gay thing," Lois said, "because in our first one-on-one interview, he did seem to think it was critically important to tell me--what were his words? I think they were… 'Just like *I'm* a man, Lois, and *you're* a woman'…"
"Ohhhhh!" the woman sighed again.
The men looked embarrassed.
Clark squirmed microscopically.
"Of course, he may have just gotten off the interstellar boat from Mars and only recently found out about that kind of thing…"
"What did he do?" Nils asked. "Use his x-ray vision to check people out then?"
Clark frowned. "I'm sure he didn't do that."
"He's not that kind of guy--I'm sure they taught him to be polite on Mars--he's always been polite to you," he looked at Lois, "hasn't he?"
"He's a real gentleman most times."
"He did come on to you, didn't he, Clark?"
"No, Pete, he didn't. He hasn't… Yet."
"Oh, a gentleman and an alien for a lover!" Mary smiled. "He may have… let's say, *more* than we expect."
"Or less," Pete said.
"He's probably just a normal guy," Clark said.
Lois told herself she should have expected the conversation to swerve in this direction again; the fellows had settled it earlier, now it was the women's turn.
"But those tights! They're so… tight!" Elizabeth smiled. Nils put his hand on her shoulder.
"Yeah, there is that get up of his," Clyde said. "Maybe you're *right* about him being gay."
"He better not come around here dressed like that," Nils grunted.
"If he wears an earring, just one," Pete told Nils quietly, seriously, "that's a dead give away."
Mike raised his eyebrows. "Just one earring? I've seen guys bigger than him wearing earrings…"
"I guess it would have to be a clip on," Lana said drily as she punched Pete's shoulder.
"I've never seen an earring on that man," Rachel said, "and I read a lot of police publications and they usually have a pictures of him."
"Has he turned up in Playgirl yet?" Sue wondered.
"But, anyway," Lois broke in, fearing that she might just get to see Clark blush if this went any further and who knew what that would mean what with his alien physiology? "nothing much came of it, what with him being there one minute and gone the next all the time, so I dumped him for the third richest man in the world."
"Second," Clark muttered.
"Ahhh!" Everyone else said. They'd all heard about this. To think, Lois growled at herself, it had been national news; no wonder criminals had assumed for quite a while that she was the pushover in her and Clark's partnership. It had taken forever to regain her undercover investigative reporter status. The disguises she'd had to resort to had been outlandish… and fun.
"But he turned out to be practically an interstellar criminal," she continued, "and I didn't really love him, so after I saw the light," she shrugged, "I dumped him, too."
"Right out the window," Rachel said.
Lois thought it made sense for the sheriff to keep up with such things. "Almost. I would have thrown him out myself if I'd known what he was doing all along. But thanks to him, I realized that I'd had Clark all along. It took a little work, but I discovered that he can *cook*… and that he keeps a clean apartment, so what more could I want?"
Clark looked at her, speechless. Hey, kiddo, she thought at him, I wasn't fooling when I told you before how I felt about Lex.
Seeing his chance, Gene tried to get a word in: "So when *are* you two going to slow down and get married?-- You and Lois, I mean, Clark? Not her and Superman or anyone else, that would be silly, wouldn't it? Are you really thinking about that? Not being silly but getting married? That would be really neat…"
"Well, *I'd* like to get married and have about a dozen kids," Clark told him.
"Well, *I* wouldn't like to have a dozen kids," Lois poked him, then was glad that he predicted this and give a little. "But if we have any, Superman can babysit. He adores children."
"You mean you won't quit the Planet and stay home with our precious offspring?"
"On *your* salary? Are you kidding?"
"You don't know what my salary is," he smiled in an almost superior got-ya manner.
"Oh, yeah?" God, she thought, he danced right into this one… It's something we have to talk about, she reminded herself; she just hadn't imagined having to do so here.
But they didn't have to, this could become a tease. She pulled her purse from where it was hanging off the back of her chair and poked through it. When someone asked what she was looking for, she said "A pen…"
Gene immediately volunteered, "Here, I have one!"
She looked up to see him lean forward and pull a mechanical pencil out of a back pocket. He adjusted it with precision (he was, she recalled, an architect in the work-a-day world), and passed it over. In the process he brushed her fingers and blushed.
She told herself to smile at him, he couldn't help but be overwhelmed, could he? Ha-ha-ha! "Thanks!"
She looked over the table quickly and pulled a clean paper napkin from one of the randomly placed stacks of them. On it she wrote two figures, shielding her actions with her other hand. She noted she had the attention of the entire table full of people, especially Clark. She glanced up to see him frowning a bit with some apprehension, but not making a move to lower his glasses and cheat. He must have been remembering how easily she had broken into the Planet's Accounting Department computer last spring to find out if, as she suspected, some one from the Church Group was hacking it. She hadn't found any proof but the break in had been fun. He had hovered over her, watching nervously, but hadn't said a thing other than "We really shouldn't be doing this…" She had agreed, mostly, had only looked around briefly once inside, and left things as she had found them. He had probably kept mum about her exploit because her hunch had fallen through and he didn't want to see her any angrier. He still wasn't convinced that the Church Group was a front for one of the biggest organized crime syndicates in the world, having risen when Lex fell, when it was as plain as the Elvis pictures in Perry's office…
So now if he suspected she'd hacked into that computer again recently, not only would he be right, he'd deserve this for not believing the mountain of evidence she'd collected on the Church's nefarious activities.
She finished, gave the note to Clark, and said, "Of course, that's after taxes, the benefits and the Christmas fund contribution are taken out. Your net, which I circled, will probably be even smaller next year what with that big tax cut Congress passed for their friends, which none of us are. The amount below it is *my* take-home pay."
He looked at the bit of paper for a long, quiet, mild- mannered moment and then folded it and stuffed it in his shirt pocket. He picked up and sipped his coffee, put that down, tented his fingers, and announced to the table in a matter-of- fact tone: "I've just decided to quit my job and have the kids myself, give birth to every last one of them, so that she doesn't have to lose a *minute* of work." He looked at her. "I think we should consider overtime options for you, too…"
She grabbed his upper arm, pulled and told him so confidentially that everyone could hear: "No, you can't have the children, men are much too weak for that part. I'll have them. I know! I'll schedule it for my break time and go out in a corn field and give birth with Mother Nature as my midwife!"
The women at the table cheered and mentioned a goddess of grains.
The men at the table grumbled: "Wheat!"
"I have the feeling you'll take every drug they offer you…" Clark informed her quietly.
Lois ignored that crack. "But you are certainly welcome to take care of precious offspring, all dozen of them-- until they wear you out, that is, then I'll rescue you and you… you can take a nap."
The women tried to figure out how long an average guy (no mention of Superman) would last caring for even one child without the assistance of a whip and chair, their informed guesses ranging from hours to days at most. The men argued months and years, decades even, plus holding down a good- paying job *and* keeping their wives in bonbons; they were all supermen and could do it easily.
That turned into a general conversation on family life with some questions about the working relationship Lois and Clark enjoyed and poking gentle fun at the married couples at the table.
Ten-thirty crept up and people started commenting on the time, sounding like they thought the night nearly was over. Everyone had been working hard today, Lois thought, so she did her bit by mentioning she hadn't realized she would experience jet lag; that had to explain why she could hardly keep her eyes open. The gathering broke up shortly thereafter and everyone chipped in to pay for the food and leave a big tip.
As they trailed out of Maisie's, Lois's new friends made sure that she understood that she wasn't to sneak into town again even if she had some terrific reason that seemed to involve shaking Clark up and making him fly right. Lois wondered if that was a veiled reference to anything despite her having decided they didn't know The Truth. But Clark didn't seem surprised at the term so she just smiled and promised to announce her arrival next time, put an ad in the paper maybe, and, yes, stay long enough so they could all have a big picnic or a fine dinner--maybe at, oh, Thanksgiving or Christmas. She was immediately invited to several homes. Lois said she'd see how things were going by then between her and a certain quiet guy at her side who looked worn out, too, didn't he? She then surprised herself further by exchanging hugs with several people and shaking hands with all the rest.
As she and Clark headed alone, hand in hand toward the truck, she realized that having a picnic with all of these country folks in the spring, would be nice, very nice. "Picnics mean a lot… And a Thanksgiving feast next month, that would be nice, too."
"I agree… Lois, are you feeling okay?"
"As in did I survive this evening?"
"There was some doubt earlier…"
"Do you think Maisie puts Prozac in the coffee?"
"Then I'm fine." She moved closer and slipped her arm around his waist like she had become used to doing. Considering all he had been through today, all the grief she'd given him just to get him to wake up, she hoped he didn't mind. After all, everything he had done in the cafe might have been an act, maybe he had pretending they were close for the benefit of his friends and because he'd be polite to her if it killed him.
But then he hardly hesitated to put his arm gently over her shoulders and squeeze her just a touch closer. That made her feel even better on top of feeling so good already. This man really is resilient, girl, she reminded herself, *and* this is what he's always wanted, so revel in it! Why had she even wondered if he was acting? What I see is what I'm getting, she thought, everyone had confirmed that, they just had no idea how much she saw. "You're *not* going to Hollywood, Clark Kent."
"No way, I've never heard the call. But, you know? This is the second time in six weeks that someone has suggested I'm star material."
"Hollywood would eat you alive--who? Who suggested it? I'll get them."
"It was my agent, so actually he was talking about, well…"
"About *him*," she whispered.
"So forget it," though that explained how Clark had gotten the brief interview with Superman's agent two years earlier. "If you fly off to Hollywood anyhow and get lost in the crowd despite your flashy clothing, I'm going to come back here and have a picnic with all your old friends, and we'll reminisce about Clark Kent, Hollywood Reporter. Maybe I'll come earlier, for Thanksgiving--or *I'll* invite *them* to Metropolis! I want them all to come so I can give them a deluxe tour. They can all stay at my new apartment, too, so I can cook for them."
He frowned in disbelief at her. "Are you *sure* you feel all right?"
"Yes! Stop asking that! I haven't gone off the deep end, I'm just trying on a little domesticity for size--very little."
"Okay, okay… You might consider asking for Mom's help since she's good at planning parties."
"I'll come and get lessons even if you don't come with me."
"We'll visit a lot, together."
"You can" she made a lilting hand motion "me."
"I'll figure out a way to do it safely."
"*We'll* figure out a way."
"We're a team."
"Kent and Lane."
"Lane and Kent."
"It's the salary thing, isn't it?"
"No, Bandit, it's *this* thing," and poked and squeezed all at once. He squirmed a little and laughed more and she had it. "Does that tickle?" She touched him lightly on the same area of his ribs she had previously poked.
"No, not at all--"
"It does!" She tried it again, skittering her fingers across his ribs. "It does, too!"
He pulled away, laughing, really laughing. "Stop that!"
"A-ha!" She grabbed him by clutching two handfuls of shirt, but she didn't try tickling him again, instead turning it into a hug, keeping him close and not letting him put the truck or Hollywood or North America or anything else between them. She smiled up at him knowingly.
"Good grief," he said, "the next thing I know you'll be buying me sweaters…"
"There's an idea."
"Actually sweaters are okay."
"Will you sing to me in the shower, too?"
"*You'll* never know, not at this rate."
"What if I sneak in and listen by the door?"
"I wouldn't put it past you, you are pretty good at that kind of thing. I should never have given you a key."
"I don't need a key to get into your apartment *or* to break down your flimsy defenses."
"Good thing I don't have anything worth stealing--"
"You have *everything* worth stealing, and I'm in the process of casing your…" she rubbed against him suggestively.
"Don't say it," he whispered tersely, "we're in Smallville!"
"Then everyone here's a bastard from out of town, eh?"
"No!" He said, scandalized, but in a moment he relaxed a bit and tried resting his hands on her shoulders. "Oh, I should have seen that coming. You're good at that, too."
"I'm always good at everything--but at this rate you'll never know how good."
"True, what with your jetlag and all."
"I can get unjetlagged quickly, never fear."
"Of course I fear, I worry about your health. I'm going to take you straight home and put you right to bed."
"Get those dirty thoughts out of your mind, Ms. Lane, you're sleeping alone on the couch in the den, though you can borrow my teddy bear and Maggie, too, if you want. I need my own bed for my beauty sleep."
"That sounds… thrilling. You know, I'm beginning to suspect," she stood on tiptoes and whispered again, into his ear: "that maybe Superman *is* gay."
"You won't find out about that soon, either," he whispered in return.
"After all, he *is* an alien, he *might* be… multisexual."
"Well, he's *not.* He's an alien, yes, one with a sense of decorum. Now, you, human woman, get in the truck," he pointed in the direction of the cab, "like a nice person."
"But what if I'm not a nice person?"
"Somewhere there in your heart hiding behind a ventricle is a very nice person with a magnificent sense of propriety equal to my own--"
"Ha!" She resumed her hug. "Not quite, not tonight, Clark."
"And… And I hope to see more of it--in the future. Now let go of me and get in the truck."
"I love it when you get all masterful like this."
"You do? Then do as I command."
"I love it, yes, but obeying you is something else altogether."
He sighed. His chest heaving threatened to break her grip so she lowered her arms a bit, then a bit more as she realized where her hands could rest. He didn't seem to notice, which was odd because she would have noticed if his hands were on that part of her anatomy.
He said, "It sounds like we'll have to rewrite the wedding vows now, too…"
"We can write better ones--we *can* skip the vows and do this instead." She squeezed his buns, which was easy to do through the lived-in material of his jeans. She discovered to her pleasure that his buns were not buns of steel but in need of a knead. He got the message: his eyes widened, he smiled just a touch--parts of his mind did truly want this--and he almost commented. She moved quickly then, letting him go but only to transfer her arms to his shoulders and neck and coax him into what he surely preferred doing over arguing or trying to stop her from assaulting his rear end.
They shared a nice, warm, drawn-out kiss. Maybe, she thought, she should have assaulted him for a longer time sooner and gotten more of this. Them both knowing now was so good…
Then she realized that Clark's "friends" were watching, honking and aiming their headlights at them "playfully." She wondered if they were also getting ideas and if nine months from now there would be a little baby boom in Smallville. "I bet there will be a lot of little Lois's and Clark's around here then…"
"Never mind, you," you timid soul you. She released him and growled: "Let's go run out of gas somewhere, partner."
"Now. Get in that truck and drive."
Clark didn't want to park and neck, not really. It was tempting, true--it was *more* than tempting, it was one of those major life-time goal kind of things--but he wasn't giving in. It didn't seem to be the right way to cap off this exceptionally weird day and it could lead to things that he told himself he didn't want to do yet. When all this had calmed down and they'd talked about certain concerns he had and she had expressed her own worries (for surely she had *some* despite her all-new frisky attitude) and they got everything worked out and understood and she accepted his proposal, then, *then* would be the right time.
Besides, he was sure Lois had expended a lot of energy being nice at Maisie's even if she had eventually fallen into just being herself and having fun and covertly watching his friends for signs that they knew all about him, too. He didn't think they did; they'd never mentioned figuring it out anyway. Of course he only hung around with them anymore during vacations like this. If they suspected he was more closely connected to the distant phenomenon Superman than conveniently assigned reporter to meganewsmaker, they hadn't let on, especially Pete and Lana. So this had been a good night for being himself, too, for sitting next to Lois and watching her loosen up. She was so loose now that it was a wonder she could stand up, let alone grab him powerfully and try to bend him to her will. Maybe it *was* Prozac; could the drug do that in combination with caffeine?
He shook his head at himself. Stop that and face it, Kent: *you're* the one who should be on drugs, on caffeine or uppers or something, not in need of a time out, a little carton of milk and a nap.
But this sweet dance of re-acquaintance could resume tomorrow, after a good rest for both of them or maybe, for him alone, a sojourn in the clouds. Though he didn't feel lonely enough to need to do that any more.
And that was the thrill of it--but the too-much thrill of it at the moment. He admitted that, now that he was alone with her again, he wasn't sure what to do. He knew he wanted "to do" so much with her, this best friend who was aware of everything. It was all available now, every magic door had come unlocked, he had fallen--been pushed off the cliff and found out he could still fly and was joyfully overwhelmed.
And he didn't want to lose that feeling.
Then don't, he told himself.
The better solution was to keep it *and* move beyond it, to let it be part of him now but to see what more there was. A lot, no doubt, it could be endless. Fortunately there didn't seem to be any real hurry for him to get on with it, he could stay feeling just this way for a while longer as he worked on figured out what to do next.
So maybe it was a good thing that the drive home was quiet.
Lois turned on the heat again since it was at least ten degrees cooler than it had been, though with the rain there would be no frost tonight. Then she spent a lot of time leaning against the passenger door, staring out the window. He hoped she wasn't looking for an place to park.
But in a few minutes the explanation for her almost pressing her face against the glass became obvious as she turned her gaze upward and she said, "The clouds have all passed over, haven't they? There are billions and billions and billions of stars… I do like that about the countryside, you can see so much."
"Yes, you can."
He turned on to Kent Farm Road and waited for her to sit up straight, startled as she recognized where they were and their destination and begin to grumble about no necking opportunities. She did sit up but she didn't say anything. She folded her arms under her breasts, sinking her hands into the sleeves of the bulky sweater. She slumped back a bit and closed her eyes.
He drove around to the back of the house and through the yard. He parked the truck in its proper place, by his mom's car and under the overhang west of the barn, and turned it off. Lois didn't open her eyes, didn't move, didn't pop up and hop out. He didn't think she was asleep, the truck was probably too noisy for that. But in the event he was wrong or she just didn't feel like moving, he got out quietly and planned to open her door for her. By the time he reached it, though, she had "woken up" and was struggling with the handle. He tapped on the window; she stopped struggling and peered at him. He was sure she could see him in the reflected light from the yard. "Unlock it," he mouthed and pointed at the nub on her right.
"But I didn't lock it…" she mumbled as she pulled up the lock. The door opened easily after that. "I didn't lock it," she repeated as she jumped out, turned and shut the door firmly. He sensed that her temper was rising, which it had a tendency to when she was tired and didn't want to be. "This is the *countryside*, I'm supposed to be *safe* out here."
"You *are* safe out here. The lock's just broken."
"Then get it fixed. And if it's so safe, why the flood light?" She nodded at it.
Near the house was a pole and atop it was a light; it had detected the movement of their arrival and lit up the yard. It had not detected the fox, though; he reminded himself to check on the chickens to see if they were okay. "It's something that's saving Dad a lot on his insurance and it's run by solar electricity. It makes Roscoe feel safer, too."
"Roscoe…" She shook her head. "Oh, we should check the chickens, shouldn't we?"
Hey, maybe she had the makings of a farmer yet. "Good idea, but I can do it from here." He turned, took off his glasses, scanned the whole barn quickly, said "Everything looks okay, Roscoe's in there standing--lying guard," put his glasses back on and turned back to her.
"Good," she said. "I didn't want to go in there and see spiders."
"Spiders are okay, they eat other bugs."
"I'm *sure* they do."
She turned then and began walking away from the light, the house and the barn. She was heading toward the pastureland and eventually, if she kept going, the creek, unless she thought she could find the path to Kent's Hole at this time of night without so much as pulling a powerfull flashlight out of her small purse.
"Lois?" He caught up with her. He wondered about putting his arm around her shoulders, sharing some warmth, guiding her in the right direction, whatever "right" was. But she looked too busy for that so he put his hands in his pocket for the moment and warned himself against sounding preachy. "Where do you…" He caught himself: don't say it. "It's… It's dark out here, you know…"
"Clark, I've been in darker places than this before-- I've been in the dark for a long time but I'm not any more--" She stumbled on a clump of soil but caught herself quickly. "Arrgh, damn…" She slowed down then and watched her feet as the last light provided by the farm buildings disappeared and there was only star light.
There were crickets chirping slowly out here in the grass, and Clark could hear the frogs croaking about winter down by the creek. One couldn't hear this in the city. Maybe these sounds interested her like his tapes seemed to have; maybe that's why she had headed out here. It occurred to him that this might be her form of taking a time-out, of getting away into her own clouds for a little while, like she had in the garden earlier. She seemed to confirm this when she said: "You don't have to stay and guard me, you can go get your beauty sleep and I'll follow you in a few minutes. I'll be all right out here since there aren't any chickens to worry about."
For some reason it sounded worse than her just wanting a few minutes alone though. "Are you… Are you angry at me for not wanting to… well, you know… to make love to you right away?"
She paused there in the dark. Had the question surprised her? Had it been the wrong thing to say or had he just said it all wrong? Should he have employed a better, more romantic or even more vulgar euphemism? Should he have just forgotten his vow and taken her in his arms and…
She turned toward him. "Do I sound angry? I'm *not,* and not about that…" She shrugged and smiled a little, surely knowing he could see it. "I know you do want to do that…"
"It has crossed my mind about a million times since I met you…"
"I am glad to hear that. There were times when it's seemed inevitable, like it could happen right then, and I wasn't sure if I wanted it to… but then you didn't… press your advantage, and neither did I, and I wondered if it was *me*…"
"No, it's not *you*," he said hastily, surprised--and then not surprised about who she would blame in this. He told himself he should have foreseen this possibility because she usually took the world and all its troubles on her shoulders without a second thought. Well, she better let him share that now. "It's never been you stopping me, not in that way, and it's not that way now. I *want* to do it, there's nothing about you that makes me *not* want to, it's not a physical thing, not really--it is some but…" The physical component of it was a large part, plus the genetics, his own physiology and ignorance about so much--and this was *not* the place to talk about it. "It's not *you* physically, it's not you making me… I mean, we could do it right here, I guess," he kicked at the damp grass. "except… It's *me,* Lois, it's…"
"Things, yes. *Complicated* things. Very Complicated Things."
She nodded. "I think I understand, we have to talk about it."
"Well, I *know* I'm in no shape for a complicated discussion, I'm just too…" She seemed to shake herself, or tremble, or maybe it was the cold. "Here I am, really excited about what's happened today, a whole new life has opened up, we have so much to talk about, but…"
"But we have time, too…" Wow, we do, don't we? He could have smacked himself: what a simple realization! It made him feel better and it was so obvious. The idea had been assaulting him in various forms for the last fifteen minutes but he hadn't taken any of it to heart until now. "We have a *lot* of time to talk…" And not, he thought, just because I need it but because now we have it, we have all the time in the world.
"Umm… We can start tomorrow, but my flight leaves at one, so be sure to get up bright and early, I will--don't laugh, you just see if I'm not up with the chickens."
"I'm not going to place any bets."
"You'll lose if you bet against me. By the way, when do chickens get up?"
"When the rooster calls head count, except since we don't have a new rooster yet, the hen relies on her alarm clock."
"She'll probably get up around dawn. Are you sure you're not maybe a little cold?"
"No, no, no…" She turned away again and walked another few paces into the darkness, stopped, folded her arms more securely, taking advantage of all the warmth the sweater could enclose her in, and she looked up into the sky. The band of the Milky Way was clearly visible; he wondered how much of it she could perceive.
She said, "I love stars. Why do you think that is? We can hardly see them in the city, so it's not like I went up on the roof every night when I was a girl to try to see them or I had a telescope or anything, though I dearly wanted one…"
"You can get one now, can't you? We can use it together. It will give us something--something *else* to do at night."
She frowned at him. "But you don't--no, wait, to see the Nightfall Asteroid you did, didn't you?"
In what might have been the last story he'd ever write if he didn't succeed in destroying the asteroid, he had decided to add that little detail to his report on what Superman planned to do. "The observatory telescope helped."
"Okay, so we can get one for those rare nights that we need something *else* to do…" She smiled and looked up again, turning slowly, reminding him a little of the dance she'd done in the barn after they escaped the rain hours and hours ago. "I should have come again sooner to do this, and come with you, and not to chase down some story, and…" She sighed and looked at him again, levelly. Maybe looking up like that was making her dizzy or she was getting a crick in her neck. But no, she said, "I simply should have come and… seen more."
"Yeah, the city just doesn't…" That's not what she said though, "It isn't conducive to…" Not what she meant. He pulled his hands out of his pockets but wasn't sure what to do with them. "I guess, to seeing…" Except she'd seen, and she was a city woman and she hadn't had to look up to see him but somehow she had at last looked right at him and seen everything. She wasn't blind at all anymore and that was so wonderful.
She walked back to him, felt for and found his arm, trailed down it and took his hand. Her hand and its fingers, intertwined in his, felt real, substantial, and an anchor when she said simply, "I know."
"Thanks. I'm really, *really* glad you know…"
She squeezed his hand lightly. "And you know what else?"
There was more? "What?"
She turned again but kept hold of his hand. She looked up at the sky as though he should look, too, so he did. She whispered: "You're from the stars, Clark."
Huh? Well, yes, that was true, sort of, from a planet that had once orbited some star, all that went without saying…
Except that was not the kind of thing that lovers expected to talk about. It wasn't to be found in a Shakespearian sonnet or a Beatles tune or anyplace else because it was just plain crazy.
He felt the crushing need to say something off hand, to explain the incredibly unexplainable, to make light of the undeniable fact that his origin was probably the most unusual thing anyone had ever had to deal with in the entire history of the world. It critically affected their own personal history and he had to make that perfectly clear and yet not scary at all. He wanted to tell her that even he had trouble grasping all this, that by gosh he didn't want it to come between them, and was this ever difficult…
But before he could think of just the right way to state all that in fewer words, she squeezed his hand (which pulled him out of the tailspin) and continued, "Did you see that series Carl Sagan did on public TV years ago? About astronomy?"
"'Cosmos.' He was supposed to be travelling around the galaxy in a fancy space ship without a crew. Mom said it was metaphor for himself, for the individual in the universe. Dad just wondered if it ran on methane."
"Ah, yeah, that's the one. Well, I liked it, especially one thing he said. He said we're all star stuff, and I always thought that was the wildest, most wonderful thing." She leaned against him; she seemed to feel comfortable doing that and it felt fine for him, even when he had no idea what she was leading up to. "It means to me… that we're all star material, real stars, that even if you're from out of town, way, *way* out of town, we still have a lot in common."
"I see." It struck him as being right, too, that in his heart he could understand what she meant though an explanation for it other than a scientific one eluded him. "He's right. He's wrong about UFOs but he's right about that."
"We're all just recycling star stuff at every moment-- Yow!"
She immediately let him go, bent over and slapped at her right calf several times. "A mosquito just tried to recycle some of me!"
"It was probably only a fly."
"Yeah, right. Take those glasses off and make sure, *please*! It could have been… I don't know, not a chicken, it's too cold for chickens, just something worse than a mosquito."
Oh, yes, of course. He took them off and put them in his shirt pocket. "We would have heard something worse, and…" He looked around. "I don't see any mosquitos. They're probably all down by the creek where it's a little warmer and the frogs can eat them. Even if it was a mosquito, it would be a healthy one on this farm."
"Oh? Can you guarantee that it wasn't from out of town?"
"No, not without seeing some ID."
"And would you nurse me back to health if I came down with Yellow Fever?"
"Yes, of course."
"You'd bring me tea in bed and rub my back?"
"Oh…" She slumped against him. "I think I feel… faint…"
"I think you feel…" he helped her straighten up, "fine."
"But you don't want to feel and find out."
"Oh, but I do, star stuff," Bingo? Was that a nickname? Not quite… "just not right now tonight. *Now* it's time for you to go to bed." Since he had her hand and the determination not to let go, he pulled lightly and turned toward the house. "All by yourself with a cozy warm cat to cuddle up to if you want."
She didn't argue this time but worked on keeping up with him. He slowed down and cut over to a smooth path. Once there and on steadier legs, she bumped against him a few times in a calculating manner, so by the time they had returned to the yard and were crossing it toward the back porch, they were arm around waist, arm over shoulders. Their mutual positions felt entirely natural to him.
The back door was unlocked, Lois marveled that he didn't even hesitate to open it. Only the light over the stove was on in the kitchen but that was enough. They crept in.
"Do you think they're awake?"
"Sure, they're probably upstairs reading."
"Why don't you just look and see?"
"There's no reason to. I'd know if something were wrong but they're okay. They like their privacy as much as you like yours. Besides, there aren't any lights on in the living room, so they're not there. Let's check the den. Sometimes Dad stays up late surfing."
But the den was quiet, with one lamp turned on low. On the couch was Lois's overnight bag and a neat stack of sheets and blankets and on that a pillow. Lois smiled. "I'd rather unmake a bed with you, but making one together will do for now."
"Yep." He refused to wonder aloud why his Mom had assumed Lois would sleep here and not with him; he had planned to find these linens himself. He proceeded to open the couch into a bed (the back could be unlatched and laid flat), while Lois unfolded a sheet and then tossed one end of it to him. They made up the bed quickly. They worked together well in this, too, Clark noticed; it was nice but not unexpected really.
She asked, also not unexpectedy, "Are you going to stay and tuck me in?"
"I can come tuck *you* in…"
"No, you can't. You need to get right to bed if you're going to get up with the chickens."
"Okay, then I don't suppose I should bother to ask for a good-night-I-had-a-nice-date kiss…"
"No, that's for me to ask you for."
She brightened up but then added a touch of resistance. "Oh, and you think I'm just going to give you one?"
"Yes, I do, particularly since I'm not tight-assed any more."
"I certainly found out that you're not tight-ass--"
He swiftly silenced her lips with his and they indulged themselves until in a swift judo move she swept his feet out from under him and they landed together on the couch-bed.
"Excuse me, Clark, I tripped."
"Tripped. And you're still here."
And almost on top, too, wow… "Lois, *believe* me, I've *dreamed* about this… but" he pushed away, sitting up. "but we're not going to this right now."
"You can't blame a girl for trying…"
"I don't, not at all. I'm really flattered that you keep trying," and, for that matter, he didn't expect she'd stop any time soon. In fact, he rather hoped she wouldn't.
She pushed up to her elbows. "That Sunday seems so far away…"
"That Sunday we would not have gone much further, even if your mother hadn't dropped in."
"It's true. We didn't need an interruption because *I* would have interrupted us. Did you… did you know about me then, too?"
She looked a bit surprised that he had snuck that in, but wasn't so surprised as to divulge anything by mistake, darn. "Did you plan to tell me?"
That was no answer! "We agreed not to talk about serious stuff, remember? And that would have been *really* serious."
"She came anyway."
"She was concerned about your welfare. She's a nice woman."
"Keep that in mind because you'll be seeing a lot more of her. She'll probably try to plan our wedding, too, but I won't let her."
"Good." He stood. "I'll go rest up so I'll be strong enough to help you argue with her." He picked up the pillow and threatened to bash her with it. She looked defiantly amused, so he simply handed it to her instead. "Good night, Lois."
She hugged the pillow and sighed, closing her eyes. "This is all I get…"
He walked around to the door. "Good niiiight, Lois."
"I'll get you, Clark Kent."
"You already have most of me."
"I want *all* of you."
"We'll talk about that. Good night, Lois."
She turned rapidly and aimed the pillow. He ducked behind the door but looked through it, prepared to grab for the projectile before it could do any damage. Instead she hugged the pillow again and stuck her tongue out at the door. Then she whispered, "You can see me, you're peeking…"
He looked around the door. "'nite?"
"Will you be watching me as I sleep?"
"No, not unless you… start choking or something."
"That's *so* romantic…"
He savored the thought of watching her sleep while she wasn't recovering from a beating or they weren't on a stakeout or for some other pedestrian reason. "You know what to say to make me romantic, so sleep on it."
She growled, kept the whisper probably in deference to his parents as she said, "You won't let me!" and reared up on her knees, prepared to throw the pillow at him again. This time instead of just ducking, he pulled the door to and rushed for the stairs, not looking back. He didn't hear the pillow hitting anything, so she probably hadn't thrown it this time either.
Slowing down but still feeling a bit hyper, he was in bed within two minutes. In the hall he had noticed that the light was on in his folk's room; it was evident from under the door. Now he tuned in a bit and heard that their radio was on low; they were listening to the Saturday night classic 60s rock program from the university station. They were safe. He hoped they were anyhow. He imagined they were reading or maybe even… necking or whatever people that age were still able to do. If they were hurting themselves doing it, they'd surely let him know. So far they hadn't ever asked for help. Not, he admitted, he'd know exactly what to do…
As for Lois, knowing she was downstairs, moving around, getting ready for bed, turning in, falling asleep, her breathing smooth and rhythmic… Would she wake later and try to sneak up here? She better not…
He waited, wondering if he should lock his door, preparing a variety of arguments to dissuade her from pouncing on him and then to use to get her out of his bed and then some to explain to himself what he'd let her do…
She didn't show up.
He didn't sleep well. He tried, but there was just too much to think about and nothing to conclude other than: she knows, she came to tell me, she didn't run away screaming, she doesn't hate me for not having told her myself, she's my best friend, she doesn't seem to care about Superman… wow.
This could work.
If he could get some sleep.
At about two he decided to go out for a cloud float because, even if he couldn't sleep there due to the possibility of airplanes running into him, it would be relaxing, it always was. He wondered how he could share that experience with her.
Before heading out he turned on the radio, hit the preprogrammed button for the BBC, found they had stopped transmitting on that frequency and searched around through the 31 and 49 meter bands for another broadcast. He caught one just in time for the news and the report of an emergency he could help out with. That was good, that would take his mind off things for a while, since searching "the North Atlantic" for two boats in trouble would take some time and he wasn't sleepy anyhow.
He slipped into the first suit he pulled out of the back of the closet, noting it was his oldest, most threadbare one, and wondered what that meant. Nothing probably. It would be early morning in "the North Atlantic" but he doubted anyone would comment on the state of his attire. He eased the window open, stepped out, stood there in the air to close it again, and then lifted away from home.
He looked down and watched the house, the trees around it, the lot they stood on and the countryside around all fall away into the quiet night until home was small, toylike and peaceful. Everything I love is down there, he thought, safe and sound.
Am I tempting fate, thinking that?
No, this isn't Metropolis, this is the best place to be in the world. Nothing at all had happened in the hours between his turning in and now. Nothing felt wrong, and a quick check over the county assured him all was well, he wasn't needed here. Rachel and her people could deal with any emergencies (none of which would happen at Kent Orchards), this was a good time to do something helpful elsewhere. He headed east.
Hours later with the first hints of dawn over Kansas he returned. He was wearing only half the suit, the briefs, the belt and the tights, and he didn't care who saw him. He'd had to get rid of the shirt and stick the cape in hyperspace after swimming a hundred miles to get rid of the lingering oil smell. He would explain all this to his mom somehow, he wasn't worried about that now. He raised his window and practically tumbled into his room. He pulled the cape out of hyperspace, noticed briefly that it didn't smell of anything but the sea anymore, and rapidly shook it nearly dry. Then he tossed it over the back of the chair at the desk, removed and tossed the remainder of the suit there as well, and tossed himself on to the air an inch or so above bed, which he wasn't aware of not touching because by then he was asleep.
Until--he had to blear at the clock to make sure--7:30, when an irregularly spaced but insistent tapping woke him up. He laid there in bed, face down, clutching the pillow, trying to keep his eyes closed… and listened. Tap… tap… tap… There was an average of 10 seconds between each tap. They seemed to be hitting the northeast window, and not all taps hit it, some hit the wall outside the window.
Dracula is trying to get into my room, he thought. He had gone through a phase of being frightened of Dracula as a little kid and had eaten a lot of garlic on his mom's advice. As it was before anyone realized the increasing extent of his invulnerability, so maybe she had taken advantage of his fear to strengthen his immune system before winter. Whatever the reason, he hadn't gotten a cold since then.
If I don't invite him in, he'll go way…
Tap… tap… tap…
The boundary between asleep and awake threatened.
He could smell that breakfast was being crafted, or that it had been because he couldn't hear the sound of pots and pans and dishes rattling about.
No, I'm not hungry…
Tap… tap… tap…
I need *sleep*!
All right, all *right*!
He rolled over slowly, ordering his body not to stretch, not to be fooled. He was going to deal with this idiot tapping problem, stuff a blanket under the door to keep the smell of breakfast out, and then he'd hit the sack again.
Fortunately, the morning Autumn sun did not hit him in the eye as he opened the window. Unfortunately, because it didn't, he had no excuse not to see Lois standing down in the yard. She was wearing her hair ponytailed back, jeans and a t- shirt and over it his mom's baggy sweater again. She had a hand full of pebbles and a smile on her face. Why was she smiling?
He looked down at himself. Uh-oh. He pulled back in a little, though he was just about sure that the angle was too steep for her to have seen that much at first glance. He hoped. Sort of.
"Hey, chicken--*rooster!*" she shouted loud enough to be heard in Wichita. "Can you come out to play?"
"That beauty sleep thing didn't work, did it?"
Good grief… It was easy to look exasperated. "I was too busy to sleep."
"Thinking of me?" she asked coyly
"No!" though on other nights…
"You weren't? Maybe I should come up and give you a massage."
His body stirred at the thought. He ordered absolutely everything to stop thinking like that. "No, don't bother. I'll wake up in a couple of hours," and he started to pull back in.
"Hours. Good night, Lois."
He closed the window on her protest.
A thousand taps hit it all at once.
He didn't care. He fell into bed again, pulled the clean- smelling sheet over himself this time, and closed his eyes tightly, burrowing into his pillow.
He had forgotten to bar the door. There was a knock on it. "Son?"
Oh, please, just five more minutes?
"The horses need exercising."
Then get them Nautilus equipment…
"And there's an angry little woman out there looking for a horn to blow the house down with, I think…"
"Can I come in?"
I give up. "Sure, just a minute…"
Clark sat up and pulled a bed sheet around himself, tenting it, feeling somewhat like a Bedouin with a caravan load of sleepies still in his eyes. "Okay."
His father opened the door and glanced in, as though despite all evidence to the contrary Lois might be in here. Now the man looked at him there on the bed, probably trying to figure out what the heck was going on, why his son--that world-famous guy what's-his-name--was trying to hide under a bed sheet.
What's more, he had probably come to say something important but didn't know quite how to, so, realizing that being at a loss for words seemed to run in the male side of his family, Clark said, "You can sit down if you want…"
His father sat on a clear area at the end of the bed. In an attempt to look alive and alert, Clark let the sheet slip off his head and down more comfortably around his shoulders. "So, Dad…"
"On the news this morning they said France is planning to announce a moratorium on nuclear testing."
"Oh, that's good," Clark nodded. That was about all the enthusiasm he could muster; it really didn't do to throw a party for each triumph… except now there was one more person he could share it with and they could have personal parties… He smiled a little. "I'm glad to hear that."
"They might as well make the best of it, they weren't getting anywhere as it was."
"Well, Clark… We thought you and Lois might be… last night, this morning…" He added a meaningful raise of his eyebrows.
Might be doing… that? And the man looked… hopeful? "No, no, not until we've talked a lot of things out first, Dad, a *lot* of things. You know…" He and his father had talked about this fairly often, starting when he was 14, so he didn't have to rely on inaccurate information whispered among his friends, even if no one was sure, as the years passed, what information was correct when it came to somebody whose origin was a mystery.
"Oh, of course, that's for the best… Did she slip some kryptonite in here? Do you feel all right?"
"I'm all right, I'm just sleepy. I got back about an hour ago from helping out at something… stupid."
"Careless people again?"
"Yep," no partying for that.
"There was no mention of anything with you in it on the news as we were fixing breakfast."
"Oh, well, the guilty are probably embarrassed…" They were fixing…? "You've eaten already?"
"We sure have. We made enough noise to wake the dead, except for you… This thing with Lois and you, son, it's what everyone wanted, but…" He turned his hand over. Ah, so he was still a little uncertain and feeling protective.
Like *I* understand what's going on… You know, Kent, this was all supposed to make perfect sense after a quiet night of reflection…
"It's working out, Dad, just surprisingly," was about the best way to describe it.
"Very *very* surprisingly. But… I think it will work out okay, too."
"I feel…" There it was: "I feel good about it. It's strange but it's wonderful, too."
"Love does that, son."
"I guess it does. It's sure done a lot of crazy things."
"It should all settle down now."
"I hope so."
"Well, you know I'm here to talk to whenever you need to."
"Yeah, Dad, I really appreciate that." While his mother and, in her own way, Lois talked their heads off sometimes, and pulled things out of him that he never expected to say most of the time, talking with his father was always… just one guy to another. It was easier. The man just seemed to know. Grunts and a few spare words could speak volumes sometimes. "It's good to get things out in the open like this…"
His father cuffed him on the shoulder and smiled, obviously pleased. He stood then. "Well, Robby and Flora can wait a little while longer, but if Lois breaks anything, it's coming out of your allowance."
"You don't pay me that much."
"Then you'll have to get a second--no, third job, won't you? Or do something else about it. I suppose I should send her up to talk to you."
"Oh, no you don't, I'll get up…" He rubbed his face with both hands, trying to rub away the sleepiness.
"We had a nice talk over breakfast…" He stopped at the shelf by the door and picked up and inspected an old baseball glove. "Lois asked your mother if she had saved your baby clothes."
Clark paused midrub and looked at him. "Did they talk about diapers?"
"Hmm? Diapers? You mean like last night? Um… I don't recall. Frankly, son, I tuned most of that out after a few moments." He put the glove back. "It's a survival mechanism. You'll probably develop it, too. It'll keep you sane. I think your mother still has some of your baby clothes packed away somewhere. She may have some croissants left for your breakfast, too, but if she doesn't there's always cereal."
"Great. Whatever she has is fine. I'll be down in a jif."
"I'll warn her."
"Don't let Lois up here."
"I'll try, but if she wants to I may not be able to stop her. She's seems to be one of those irresitable forces."
"You don't know the half of it, Dad…"
His father smiled and opened the door, paused and looked back, an inquiring eyebrow raised.
So Clark added in a guy-to-guy whisper: "The thing is, I like it."
"That's perfectly all right, son. Your mother was the same way. She still is. And I like it, too."
His father closed the door behind him.
Clark sighed. He looked over himself: he'd gotten enough rest for now. He looked over his life: things looked pretty good.
Time to tackle the tiger again.
There were three croissants left. His mom said he could have them on the condition that he explained why he overslept to her and Lois, who moseyed in a few minutes after he had made his official appearance for that Sunday morning. He agreed to that and insisted on fixing his own breakfast. No one argued. His audience (minus his father, who was working on chores) sat to watch and listen.
There wasn't much to say. The BBC had reported that a cruise liner had struck an oil tanker somewhere in the North Atlantic. He dropped by a Coast Guard station south of Metropolis and had been given coordinates, found the accident and checked it out. The cruise liner wasn't very large but was full of passengers. It had somehow scraped by one of those great big oil tankers and they had become stuck together. The oil tanker had managed to stop after several miles. There was no oil spill because the tanker was headed back to the Middle East to pick up another load. There were no real injuries, either, only some panic. The crews of both ships didn't speak a common language under pressure, and the damage to the ships looked a lot than worse it was.
"Half my time was spent translating and trying to calm people down. Getting the ships apart was no real problem, except the captains thought they had to supervise everything. Maybe it was an insurance regulation. Then some ensign on the tanker thought I should know what kind of oil they had been carrying--despite the fact that they had off loaded it already--so he wanted to show me a sample but he tripped and spilled it on my sleeve," he indicated his left arm.
"Was it crude oil or refined?" his mom frowned. "Either way, it won't be easy to get out…"
"You won't have to get anything out. It was the oldest shirt I had, so when I was finished up there I took it off and took off the S and threw the shirt toward the sun." He sat down with his steaming breakfast and looked at Lois, who had sat quietly throughout the tale. "I think we can call that recycling star stuff."
"I think so. Will you want me to learn how to wash your suits?"
Not with that barely hidden squeamish tone in her voice. "No, no more than you'll expect me to wash your… delicate unmentionables. I'm just not very good at the sewing part yet, but you don't have to do that, either."
"You're getting better at it, dear."
"Maybe I could buy the material then?"
"No," his mom said, "that's all right, I found a place in Tulsa that sells it by the roll, no questions asked, and I have tons of it in the attic."
"Besides, Lois," Clark said, realizing he had to be careful in saying this, "I'd like to put a wider distance between you and anything to do with Superman. I don't enjoy being the reason you keep getting thrown off buildings and assaulted by villains who are after me."
"Clark, I was thrown off buildings and assaulted by villains long before you set foot in Metropolis. You don't have anything to worry about."
She was proud of that? "How many buildings and how many villains?"
"Too many for me to keep track of. I'm going to wash these last few dishes." She popped up and used the excuse to turn her back to him and start making a lot of noise.
Clark toyed with his scrambled eggs with a piece of croissant for a moment and then looked at his mom. She would have some terrific advice; Lois might listen to her, too.
She shrugged. "I'm staying out of this one," she said quietly but with a wink that indicated she thought they would have fun working it out. Clark couldn't imagine it would be fun at all. She rose then, picked up a wide-brimmed hat and her herb basket off the table by the door, and announced: "I'm going out to work in the garden."
"I'll come watch you in a minute," Lois called after her, but his mom, out the door already, didn't confirm she had heard.
Clark sighed. "Lois…"
"I want to learn what all those plants are."
"That's great, but--"
"Are you done with that plate yet?"
"Does it *look* like I'm done?"
She glanced over his shoulder and saw that he'd hardly finished the first croissant or a third of the scrambled eggs. "Ah, no."
"Then I'm not done. Lois, your relationship to Superman is one of the things we have to talk about and get settled and now's as good a time as any."
"Wow, I should have let you sleep in. Want some more orange juice?"
"Okay, so I take it you want me to stop seeing him, is that it?"
"First I'd like you to sit down…"
She did so, reluctantly it seemed, and across the table from him, just out of easy arms reach and facing him but concentrating on drying her hands with the dish towel. He waited politely but she spoke first. "Okay, I'm sitting. I might as well tell you: I can't stop seeing him, I'm madly in love with him, especially since I know now that there's a *real* man under the suit and not some cardboard cut out."
That was meant to side track him and it nearly did--it wasn't a bad thing to hear and more than likely it was the truth, all things considered--but he wasn't as off balance today as he had been yesterday. "That's not what I'm talking about--"
"And I'm *not* going to bid for that position that's opened up down in the Trends section. Even if I wanted it, Perry would have kittens *and* a stroke."
"So there's just no way I can stop seeing him because with what I do for a living, I'm *bound* to see him." She reached over, swiped his orange juice and took a sip of it.
He translated the act as a show of defiance and sign off of her terms on this matter. He decided to play it cool. "I have just one question."
"Is here any way I can stop you from interrupting me for one whole minute?"
"I haven't been interrupting you…"
"You have, and you've also been trying to distract me. The only good thing--"
He pointed at her with the remains of the first croissant. She closed her mouth, frowned and looked away for a moment.
"The only good thing about it is that I don't think you'd be interrupting *Superman* like this. You'd probably be hanging on my every word,"
"And moony-eyed, too? Why not throw that in?"
"And you'd be moony-eyed and sighing and fainting. You're not, so we have something to work with. We can have a real, meaningful conversation at last."
"We have real, meaningful conversations all the time."
"Not like this, this is the first time we can lay everything on the table."
"We did that yesterday, too."
"Yesterday I was… in less good shape than I am today. It was all those grapes."
"If you say so. But I'm not swooning because I don't see you as him, I see you as *you* with… with him attached, sort of like…" She rolled her hand and then had it, "like a shadow. You have to cast that shadow, and no matter how big that shadow appears, it would be nothing without you."
"Okay, that's fine," Clark replied, desperately trying to keep on topic. "And I appreciate that."
"So do I."
"That's great--but we still have this little problem of you being thrown off buildings and attacked by criminal master minds because practically everyone thinks you and Superman are really close."
"So I was thrown off once this year--"
"The first was way last spring, Clark, and it was one of those bungee jumping cranes!"
"And they just happened to forget to attach the bungee cord after they tied you up, didn't they?"
"But you caught me and we got a great story out of it."
"And I always worry that I won't be there the next time, and I'd like for there *not* to be a next time because your obituary could be that next great story."
"Well, I can't guarantee that…" she said quietly. He could see her concentrating on keeping her hand steady as she swirled the orange juice around, trying to hit the rim of the glass without spilling any of the liquid. She apparently tired of the game and she gave the juice back to him. Symbolically it wasn't quite a capitulation but more of a running out of good arguments for the moment.
"I know…" he said equally quietly and then quickly swallowed the piece of croissant heaped with scrambled eggs before it got any cooler. "I've gotten in trouble a few times for apparently knowing him, too…"
She looked up.
"I'm *trying* to be fair about this," he continued. "I certainly don't want you to give up being a reporter, I have no right to ask you to do that. But if you could just sort of… retire from being the world's Superman expert, or at least making it known that you are, I'd appreciate it."
"That gay thing will help."
"Yeah, I suppose it will."
"Maybe… we could have a falling out in public."
"That's a good idea, except I wouldn't use those exact words…"
"Public?--Oh, falling, right. I could let Marie Rose take my place. After all, you've rescued her quite a few times this year already."
"And I've made sure she's safe and I've left her as soon as I could. Which, I realize now, I… should probably have done to you every time. I shouldn't have encouraged you, but… but I couldn't help myself." Sure I could have, he thought; no, I couldn't. It would have been easy--it would have been impossible. He drank the rest of the orange juice and ate some more croissant and scrambled eggs and then continued, pleased that she had waited him out. "I know you'll argue that you threw yourself at me, but that doesn't excuse my actions. That's one reason I don't want anyone to take your place, they could get in just as much trouble. I'd have to save them all the time, and that would cut into my valuable time *courting you*."
It looked like she had been planning protest his pre- empting her previously planned protest, but that fizzled and she could only say: "Oh…"
"We talked about that yesterday right before we decided on the date."
"I remember…" and fondly by the looks of it. "Well, Clark, if you'll think back this past six months or so, I've been…" she looked for a word, "edging away, I guess, from… him…"
"And I haven't been gushy girlish or hoping to get a new story on… him because things have been quiet on the big villain front. I've enjoyed being with you since at least Christmas. That was a long time ago…" She seemed to pause and count the mouths. Almost three whole seasons. "You and I have done a lot of work without… him having to step in and save either of us. It's been boring but we've gotten some good stories without risking our lives as often. I see being thrown off of my old building as sort of a freak event, a… a one more time for old time's sake thing, okay? That's all it was."
Unfortunately there was a lot of truth in most of her observation. "Well…"
"'Well' nothing, they could have thrown *anyone* off. They had the set up all ready, they weren't going to abandoned it just because *I* didn't show up. True, they picked my building, but did they know for sure when I'd be there? I rarely get home in time to make dinner. What if they had a time limit?" She looked serious like James Richards must have. "'She comes by 7:00 or else…' or else they give up and go home? No, they'd throw someone else off, or maybe a whole lot of people, one at a time until you showed up to rescue them. Actually, *I* should be asking *you* to be more careful."
"Me? I *have* been more careful. I wasn't when I started doing it, I admit that, I made plenty of stupid mistakes, but I think I've gotten smarter."
"I think you have, too," she said gently, quite possibly regretting having brought that up, but he was sort of glad she had. It meant she didn't see him as infallible and hadn't put him on a pedestal or at least didn't see him up on one any more. "Sometimes you still do things that look a little…
"Not smart, I can face it."
"But they turn out okay almost every time now. Talk about *boring*…" But she smiled. "So let's say I stop all gushing about Superman, and you…?"
"Keep getting smarter? I like that compromise."
"Good. This is something we'll have to work into though, I can't just stop immediately, that will look suspicious."
"I know. I'll help you. I'll play the jealous boy friend."
"Sure you will."
"All right, maybe not that. It wouldn't do to antagonize someone who helps sell newspapers."
"If you did, Perry would drag us into his office and tell us about the time Elvis was ungrateful to the Colonel and we shouldn't let our love life affect our stories. Perry… Does Perry know?"
"About you and…?" Raised eyebrows, flight of hand, let's practice communicating telepathically here…
"Oh. 'Know', about that. I don't know. Sometimes I think he does and sometimes I think he doesn't. I've stopped worrying about it. As long as he doesn't get kidnapped and… cloned or something, well…"
"He was a great reporter and probably still could be if he wanted to be. Sometimes he acts like he wants to tear into a story himself instead of giving it to us. He could have figured it out."
"What led you to think he might have?" If she related it to a specific incident, it might indicate when she had found out.
"Oh, I don't know, just by what he's said sometimes, now that I've had time to think back over a lot of things."
She looked at Clark's plate and saw that it was dangerously close to empty. "I can scramble eggs pretty well. Want another half dozen?"
"Nah, I have chores to do. I have to exercise Flora and Robby. They get irritated if I wait too long and it's been long enough already this morning."
"Good, then I'll help you. I've ridden Robby."
"It's a little more complicated than that…"
She saw that exercising the horses meant helping them stretch out and letting them play with the one human-looking person who they couldn't easily overcome. The game nearly always consisted Flora distracting Clark while Robby sneaked up and tried to nose over the two-legged being. Sometimes it worked and Clark fell flat on the ground and the big horse nuzzled him further, and sometimes it didn't and the horse had fun trying and trying. Flora would try the same thing but more gently; she was more a shoulder nibbler. Horses, Clark had observed early on, did not have big repertoires. His dad reported that the horses weren't so lively in the morning when Clark wasn't at home but only acted at all dangerous when he was, so Clark figured that it was his job to work out that playfulness before they had to be harnessed up or employed in any other way.
Lois sat on the fence and watched him practically wrestle with the big animals. He was glad she stayed put and didn't emulate the foolish Roscoe, who nearly got stepped on several times but had a ball defying death without having the brains to realize it.
When the horses eventually lost interest in playing, Clark bridled them and helped Lois up on Flora and they went for a thirty-minute ride. It was long enough for Lois to brag about it if she wanted to but, he hoped, not long enough for her to get sore since she insisted she would have no trouble riding bareback. She concentrated on keeping her seat and they didn't talk much. At the end of the ride she was smiling grimly. He helped her off and watched her hobble back to the fence and the gate. Before she unlatched it, went through and closed it again, he turned away in case she wanted to pretend she had jumped the fence like a gazelle. When he had assured himself that the horses were comfortable and ready to graze in the pasture, he turned back. She was standing on the ground, arms resting on the top rung of the fence, looking over, watching him.
"So that's horses," she said after he had put away the bridles and was approaching her.
"That's horses." He decided to lean like she was but was more comfortable doing so because he was taller. "Any more questions?"
"Do you think they'll let me on the plane smelling like this?"
"I have no idea, I don't do planes very often. You can always tell them you're a cowgirl."
"That's cow*person*… and I think I now have my quota of horse sense for this year." She gazed out at the two animals. There was a touch of affection in her eyes. "Clark…" She turned the affection on him and didn't change the look at all. "Is there anything else you want to show me or talk about that we can only do here? That is, before I go inside and enjoy a nervous collapse from all this fresh air?"
He smiled. That was a good question, one he should have foreseen. "Well…" In an effort to come up with an idea, he let his eyes wander over the house, the barn, the paddock, the pasture, the forest in the distance, but then, closer, the apple orchard and the big tree there, one of the biggest on the farm. It had withstood storm after storm but was still as sturdy as it had been when his father and he had built his tree house in it years ago.
A-ha! "There is one thing you should see before you go. It's something that I don't want to take from here, especially back to Metropolis."
"Oh?" She perked up. "This is intriguing."
"Yes, it is." He began to climb the fence. "Let's go for a little walk."
"I have to *walk* there?"
He topped the fence and jumped down. "And climb a rope ladder, too, unless…" in deference to her bareback riding, "you'd like me to carry you."
"No, no, I can walk…" She took his offered hand and they headed toward the eastern orchard. "How far is it?"
"Not far. Walking's probably good for… stiffness. Is that what it is? I don't really know much about strained muscles…"
"You're fine at massaging them. Some night we're going to strain a lot of your muscles…"
"Ah…" wow. "Okay, as long as none of *yours* get strained."
"But I'll *want* you to strain a few of them."
"No, Lois, I don't think so…"
"Don't worry," she smiled merrily, "I'll show you what I mean."
He didn't feel merry. "That's going to be part of that serious talk…"
She just squeezed his hand, which seemed to indicate that she was quite willing to do that later on, no joking about it.
They walked quietly for a time, until, as she looked around for clues, she had it. "Oh, that wonderful big tree--your *tree house* has a rope ladder, doesn't it? Is that where you're taking me?"
They crossed a dirt road and walked into the orchard and he paused a few steps in front of the tree house tree. She didn't stop, going ahead to inspect the trunk of the tree and find the rope that, if pulled would release the rope ladder. "Why didn't you just attach a real ladder or nail… rungs into the tree trunk here?"
"A real ladder is too obvious and rungs aren't very secure."
"Oh. Can I pull the rope?"
She did so. The rope ladder unrolled down and the end of it hit the ground in front of her. She pulled on the rope again and saw how the ladder folded up on itself intricately. "That's clever."
"My dad thought of it. When my friends and I were up there, we could pull the ladder up and keep the world out."
"Did they come to visit often? It sounded last night like they did."
"They did. I also just sat up here when I needed to think. Sometimes I still do."
"Do you still use this old rope ladder?" She shook it. It made old-rope sounds.
She was doubtful about using it. He said, "I usually just pop right in."
"Pop not climb?"
"I think I'd like to pop, too."
They popped. Or, rather, rose. He held her hands and floated up with her as though they were standing in an elevator together. It made her grin, and he said, "Hey, this works. I always wondered."
"Of course it works, but I want to know if *this* still works." She slipped her hands up his arms, keeping contact (she'd already figured out that part), and they embraced for their first kiss of the day--a late one, he realized, but better late than never. Then she obligingly turned and pushed the door open so he could set her inside carefully and follow her in.
"This place used to be so big…" he said as he ducked in and had to stay squatting a bit.
"You used to be so small, we all were… Is what you want to show me in that box there? It looks familiar--No, don't tell me. I last saw it… among the pile of things that Jack took from your apartment, right?"
"That was a long time ago--you *have* gotten smarter since."
"Hanging around you has had its benefits. Make yourself at home. I'd serve tea but I don't have any utilities, let alone china to serve it in."
"You don't? That's all right…" She sat down Indian style in one corner and looked comfortable. She proved she was by switching to reporter mode immediately. "What's in the box?"
He sat down as well, trying to feel comfortable and wondering why he didn't because, after all, this was one of several things she had a right to know about and it was probably the least potentially embarrassing since he knew what would happen.
He pulled up the wooden treasure chest-shaped box between them and opened it like a book so they could both share first sight of its contents. "This is in it."
The Globe. It began to glow in a way that always felt welcoming.
She leaned forward and looked at it but restrained herself from reaching out to touch it. She did point at it. "I remember this! Su… you had it in that hidden repository of art treasures. You said you were glad to get it back and then you took it away, but you brought it here. Before that tou weren't keeping it for him because you are him, he is you, and it wasn't him who missed it and wanted it back, it was *you.*"
Clark wondered how she could rattle that off without confusing herself.
She continued, "No wonder you didn't seem to care about your other things and had a hard time explaining yourself."
"Right, and I finally figured out that here is probably the safest place for it, though things are getting better at home in Metropolis. Actually, I left this in my room in the house after I showed what it could do to Mom and Dad, and they put it up here."
"They climbed the rope?"
"No, I'm sure they used a ladder."
"Oh. Okay, so it came from Krypton, too, with you, in your spaceship."
"Yes. It's the only thing I have from my spaceship except for the original S emblem, the blankets and the… diapers or whatever."
She smiled at that but didn't take the opening--taking a touchier one. "But no spaceship…"
"Not yet--but I'm real close to finding it, I'm sure. That's not important." Still, a glance at her eyes told him that was not the way to have put it, that again he shouldn't have mentioned it at all if he didn't want her worrying about it on his behalf. The thing was probably simply lost somewhere in government a lock up with the revered Professor Jones's treasures confiscated during World War II, the 1947 Corona debris, gallons of mutilated cow blood, and everything else civilians weren't supposed to worry about. "What's *important* is that this is some kind of recording and projecting device and it's told me all I know about Krypton. It's not much, but it's a lot better than being in the dark like I was for so long."
She nodded encouragingly.
"After I recovered it from the ship, which was when I last saw the ship in the warehouse, I decided keep it in this." He patted the box. It looked like a family heirloom but he'd actually picked it up for a few dollars at a Costmart and then later, here at home, glued in some red velvet padding to protect the actually indestructible Globe. "I kept it in Metropolis because I wanted to examine it closely when I could find some spare time. Then early one morning it jumped the gun and woke me up by glowing, sort of like it's glowing now but much brighter, and it seemed to call to me, too. Back when I picked it up the very first time, it turned from a globe showing the Earth, like it is now, to this…" He concentrated on it briefly, telling it "Show me now…" and the familiar map of Earth changed to one of an alien group of landforms. "This is Krypton."
She was clearly impressed, and here she hadn't seen anything yet.
"After it warmed up that morning, it did something I'd never seen before except in science fiction movies: it projected a solid-looking three-D image, solid enough so that pictures could be taken of it, even flash pictures, which I don't think can be done of ordinary holograms."
"The Polaroid pictures I saw."
"Right. Remember the old man in that one? He looked like he was in his 40s or 50s--"
"That's not very old, Clark."
"Well, when you consider he claimed to be my father and I was just a baby, that's old. I think he should probably have been more like my age now--I mean, if it works, if aging works, worked like it does here. I still don't know anything about any of that…" There was so much he could only guess about, that he had only one person's experience to base anything on, his own.
"But there were other images, too. It looked like he was in a laboratory, and there was the image of a woman he said was my mother, but she was also his lab assistant, I guess. She was a lot younger, at least she looked like she was, and like she'd be the right age to have baby as old as I was…" There it was again, his total lack of knowledge about the depths of his heritage. What could still be hiding in the ship? "Ah… She didn't say a thing, he did all the talking. He said he'd appear like this five times and tell me things I needed to know."
"Only five times?"
"That sounded sort of short and final to me, too. I've figured out how to rerun them as a group, but that's all I've gotten out of it. I also discovered when it was first showing me its recordings that I didn't have to be holding it or even be anywhere near it. In fact, I missed seeing messages two, three and four directly the first time around, but wherever I happened to be, even flying, I saw them anyhow. I think it's because it's tuned to me. Unfortunately, the people who stole it could see the same things."
"Jack stole it."
"And he took those pictures and used them to fence the Globe for money so he and his brother could eat. He got rid of it within a day, it was the only thing of mine anyone would pay him for, I guess. I suspect Luthor was the one who bought it, because Jack said he saw two guys and only one talked and he had an English accent and did all the negotiating. He heard the same man when he was kidnapped, but they escaped before I broke into the vault and I couldn't go after them because of the bomb."
"So it was Nigel. That all makes sense. It means Lex could know more than we thought…"
"Well, I've thought about that, too, but Jack didn't tell him who he got the Globe from, me, and Luthor's not the kind of person who would wait this long to have taken advantage of the information. He's done worse things, but nothing that's indicated to me he's ever used the information from here. Besides, this thing hasn't said that much and no one but Mon and Dad and I have seen the part were the real clues are. So… Would you like to hear what my father says? He speaks English, but don't ask me how he does, he just does"
"This is a little overwhelming…"
"I've met your parents and they're a little overwhelming, too."
"Well, they are, but they're not half as fascinating as even one of your of sets parents--I know, I know, they're nice people. They're just not… intergalactic."
"Few people are, as far as I can tell, Slime Monsters aside--"
"You do think the Slime Monster was intergalactic? From outer space?"
"Lois, what I think and what we can prove and publish are two different things."
"You never said that!"
"You never asked."
She rolled her eyes heavenward, forcibly calmed herself, and said, "Okay… okay. We can talk about that later. Now, about your intergalactic parents…"
"But they weren't, didn't want to be, or couldn't be. They didn't save themselves…"
"Oh…" She turned a lot softer. She touched his left knee and leaned a little closer. "Clark, I'd like to hear what it says. I'm … honored that you want me to."
"Well, it's only right, you have the right to know."
She just smiled a little, encouragingly, and at the same time seemed to steel herself. Why? One moment she would charge into a burning building for a publishable quote and the next she was afraid of baby chickens.
But then, this was bigger than both those things, this was intergalactic.
Get *on* with it, Kent!
"Okay, I won't say anything more, you can just watch it straight through…" He began to concentrate on what he thought of as the start-up sequence.
"But you shouldn't hesitate to say anything."
"I don't want to influence you. not that I haven't already…"
"Well, what is it? Is it horrible?"
"No, not at all, it's just…" He felt the Globe begin to hum. "Here it goes…"
The sequence of five parts took just under five minutes to play out. She sat fascinated through it, and when it was over she sat back and looked into the middle distance for a few moments. He made a conscious effort not to say anything or make even the slightest body motion that could be interpreted as his being anxious to hear a positive opinion. He looked at the door and thought about oiling the hinges again though he had already done so earlier in the week. He inspected from a distance one of the corners that needed sweeping out because more dried leaves had collected there, and then he looked at the Globe again. He set it gently back in the box in front of himself and started tapping it absently until a moment later he realized that could be a dead giveaway and stopped.
Presently she said, "For some reason… I was expecting it would be longer, like a feature length movie with Dolby sound…"
"Yeah, that would have been nice. Maybe they spent all their money on lab equipment and couldn't afford a Globe with more memory."
She smiled at that. "It must have at least a few gigs and no sign of any card slots… The woman was pretty, very pretty. I wish she had spoken, I bet she had a lot to say. And he was… handsome… mature… the slight British accent was interesting, like in a movie where they need a wise-sounding person for a cameo. He looked intelligent like a scientist--but *not* an evil one… It's just… there is something…" She glanced at Clark, as though not sure if she should broach the subject.
He could do it. "Well, I've noticed that I don't look like either of them."
"That… That's true."
"It was one of the first things that occurred to me. I guess there's the chance that they also found me and adopted me because I'm not like them in other ways, too. They were adults but didn't have powers like mine or they would have rescued a lot of people or at least themselves, or maybe they could have stopped the planet from blowing up since they were scientists."
"Unless there's something about being here, on this planet, that influences that."
"That's my working theory. I think maybe they didn't realize this would happen to me, I'd turn into… this. They just knew Earth would be biologically compatible, that my first breath here wouldn't kill me. Mom and Dad and I think it's a combination of the size of Earth and the make-up of the atmosphere and the sun rays, all that…" an explanation which had always felt right. What had not felt quite right was… "But I still don't look like either of them."
She immediately looked concerned and started formulating solutions. "Maybe they… had a ritual where they… passed babies along and took turns raising them in the community or… they were part of a big group family. There must be hundreds of good explanations. Even then they clearly loved you, I could feel that. He said that people on Earth have the same ethical concepts as Krypton does, did, except, of course, we don't live by them. He was right, he was very smart. So that means to me that Krypton was a peaceful place. Group families are entirely possible on a nice world like that one… was."
"Like your mother, right! She was probably a wonderful, spiritual hippie, so it makes perfect sense that since you came from a culture like that, that Martha and Jonathan would find you."
"And Jonathan being in the military, and this… Jor-el building the rocket, it all fits, it's perfect, it really is."
"Sure, I guess so.."
She couldn't have believed a word of that.
Then again, it was a better explanation than anything he had come up with yet, and he had thought about it plenty of times and come to less pleasant conclusions. Too, her trying so hard to make him feel better did make him feel better. "It's plausible, given what you've seen is all I know, too…"
"And that woman, your mother, even if she doesn't look like you very much, and though she didn't say a word, the look in her eyes…" she sighed and smiled toward where the presentation had played out before them. Her own eyes went just slightly out of focus and her expression seemed to indicate that she was communing on a higher plane with the woman in the Globe in the way women do about baby things, for example. That was almost scary, Lois actually being able to do that, to slip right into it, but Clark found that it was fascinating, too.
She glided back. "And that cute little spaceship with cute little you in it? I'm sure I got a glance at it, you were standing right by it there in the warehouse, weren't you, before Trask interrupted us, but from what I saw it looked exactly like that, sort of gold and blue and short and stubby."
He doubted she'd more than a quick glimpse of it because he hadn't felt then like sharing anything about it. He had recovered it as she approached and tried to distract her-- just as Trask and his men had arrived. Yet she was right about the general shape and almost right about the color. "It seems to be a dull metallic blue when it's standing still, like on Krypton and then here, but when it was, when I was, when we were in outerspace, it's a gold color. I figure the trip through hyperspace might have affected that. Hyperspace is weird."
"Hyperspace. He used that term. It sounds like science fiction."
"Yeah, it's… we can talk about that later," like when she got around to asking him where he kept the suit. "But the critical part of this… film is that they knew they were sending me to the US, to Kansas specifically. Luthor never saw that, so my folks, my human folks are safe."
"But Trask found out--but he's dead, and Intergang and the Churches have threatened Diana Stride to within an inch of her life--don't argue with me about that, I *know* they have. My sources say she's too afraid to even ask anyone to pass the salt since the government denied her offer to turn state's evidence."
"Nobody ever believed her anyway."
"That's right--except me, a little…"
"We can talk about that later, too."
"Yes… All right, so the people of Krypton sent unmanned--that's sexist!--maybe *that's* why Lara didn't say anything--I'm glad you're *here* now, even if we are a backward planet. They sent… *robot-piloted* space probes everywhere for thousands of years and found the Earth and Kansas so your parents could target the middle of this continent." She made a slide-in, plowing, landing motion with parallel hands, mimicking what his dad had described finding in Schuster's Field. "But *nobody* on Krypton could build full- sized ships to save their population when they had a civilization that old and scientific?"
Clark could only shrug. "That's what it looks like. Maybe they never figured out how to recycle enough star stuff and they were running out of resources, or all the other Kryptonian scientists weren't interested in space travel. Maybe they were trying to find a way to keep the planet from blowing up so they wouldn't have to leave. But they failed, or I guess they did." That was a another of the many things about all this that he really didn't like to dwell on. "I've often wondered how somebody got a camera up there in space to take a picture of my little ship leaving and planet blowing up behind it and *then* put it in the Globe."
"Probably. It could also mean that the planet didn't really blow up."
"Like it was a false alarm? A cosmic practical joke? Someone would get in *big* trouble--and they would have come after you, I just know it."
"Yeah, so it probably did blow up, and maybe there were space ships built for other people, but as far as I know I'm the only one who landed here because I haven't met or sensed anyone or anything anyone else. I'm… it. Which is probably a good thing."
"Other kids might not have had the Kents."
"They might have wound up dead in an ocean or as lab experiments or even worse…"
She covered his knee again and squeezed to regather his attention. "But you didn't, you're here, and you're mine. We're it, we're a thing."
"Well," there was that… He smiled, it was time to do that, it felt a lot better than worrying. "I'm really glad about that."
"I am, too, I'm glad you…" she began to look a little tearful, "trust me and wanted to show me this…"
"Of course I trust you…" He took her hand and decided to try to get her to smile again. He wondered if he should start by gently brushing away her single escaped tear, if she would mind the gesture.
But she beat him to it, quickly using the back of her unpreoccupied hand. She sniffed and smiled self-consciously. Then she tried blinking back to normal, back into control of herself. That was Lois-normal, Clark thought; frisky one moment, guarded the next. More frisky than guarded though lately, and definitely more balanced between the two. He wondered why that was, other than that she was generally satisfied with things now. It would be nice to think he had some influence on her, but her personality was so strong and varied that he had his doubts about that.
She sniffed again and frowned and pointed. "Should it still be glowing like that? Will its batteries run out?"
"No, it hums right along on its own. I think it's solar powered, like I am. Like we all are, actually."
He touched the Globe. It glowed a bit more, but his touch also seemed somehow inadequate, the first time he'd ever felt that from the thing. Odd.
"Clark? May I touch it? I've been very good about that…"
She had been, hadn't she? It was surprising. He smiled. "Sure you can touch it, it's never hurt anyone as far as I know," though just how he'd stop it if it decided to bite her wasn't exactly clear. When he'd recovered it in the underground museum, it had been floating about, looking at things maybe, and he'd gotten the distinct impression it had been avoiding someone--Luthor probably--and waiting for him to reclaim it. It would probably just float away again if it felt churlish.
"Okay…" Still keeping contact with him, actually clutching his hand now--more excited than fearful, he thought-- she reached carefully with her left hand and touched the Globe. It pulsed brightly, causing her to withdraw in surprise, which surprised Clark, too, but then he was even more startled as a new apparition grew out of the small thing's storehouse of revelations.
It was Lara. She looked like an angel somehow. She turned just a bit, away from Clark and toward Lois, and her almost glowing brown eyes seemed to take on a tranquil, even happy mien as she said: "This is the one who is your heart's mate." Then she flowed her serene look back to him and said: "We are pleased you have found her, Kal-el." Her smile washed over him tenderly. The man who claimed to be his father came into the picture from her left and put his arm over her shoulder (in the same manner, Clark realized later, that he did with Lois). And they faded away yet again.
Or, rather, for Clark, it blurred away. He was stunned and his eyes felt hot with tears. He ignored, blinking through them, frowning. "Wait, wait a minute!" He grabbed up the Globe. It felt different, cooler. No, that wasn't right. He closed his eyes, licked his lips and concentrated on the rewind command. It seemed to work, that part was all right, he could feel the Globe move casually to obey, but there was something missing, too. There was something about feeling what he wanted the Globe to do that made it respond even as little as it usually did. But the new projection had been such an emotional surprise that he couldn't think calmly enough to reason with the device, let alone attempt to direct it. "It has to work, it *has* to… something's wrong…"
Huh? He looked up. Lois? Oh, of course, she was here, he wasn't alone--and it had felt for several long, horrible moments that he and the Globe had been all there was in the world.
But that wasn't so, he wasn't all alone any more. Even if this thing turns to dust next, he told himself, *I'm not alone…*
"Oh, Lois, ah…" He looked back at the useless thing in his hands. Where *was* I? he wondered. Good grief, it was just a movie, it wasn't real… "I'm sorry, I…"
"No, no, no…" Hand on his cheek, she coaxed him to look at her again and she kissed away his tears. It tickled softly and felt terrific--but he willed no more to show up because weeping definitely was not the thing to do. Look who's guarded now, he sighed.
"Umm," she said, "salty…"
That made him smile a little despite himself, particularly since she smiled, too, when she said, "I'm glad you're not wearing your glasses. You don't seem to like me taking them off you…"
"Yeah, well, I'll get used to it when we're… doing other things."
"Like taking off each other's… shoes."
Oh… Well, Kent, *you* started it this time. "Yeah…" He tried to smile the whole thing off. "I, ah, I got upset, I just want to see her again, that's all…"
"I'd like to see her again, too. It's probably the most wonderful thing I've ever seen in my life. And the look on *your* face… It means she's… she was… very happy for you, and that maybe I'm… I'm galactically… accepted."
"Like that credit card."
"Like that, accepted wherever I go, right…"
"Don't put yourself down, you *are* accepted, and I won't argue about it. If anyone's not accepted, it's me by this…" he indicated the Globe. "There's a problem, it's not responding. I don't know why, it always responded before. It was easy to learn, what there was to learn about working it--what it let me learn, but now it's just… not," and the difficulty, it's seeming rejection of him was threatening to renew his reaction the emotions he'd felt only shortly before and that wouldn't have been helpful at all. "I just want to see her again…"
"But things are different now than before."
He frowned. What…? Bingo. "Yeah, that's right, that's probably it."
She bingo'd it, too. "Then let's do this."
They cuddled up beside each other and it felt exactly like the right thing to do, even if it didn't work because the Globe had decided to take a mental vacation on Betelgeuse.
But it hadn't. Settled between them in a sort of mutual lap, it worked perfectly.
They ran through the brief revelation several times until Clark felt he could handle the experience more objectively (though the wash of feelings was still as strong and loving as ever) and they could even joke about it a bit.
"She sounds a little British, too," Lois observed.
"They probably picked up BBC World Service broadcasts. I listen to them all the time."
"Oh, it's genetic then."
"No, it just makes sense. The BBC was big back in the, oh, the 30s or even before that maybe. Maybe that's when the space probes reached here."
"That makes sense. I like her dress, and the S looks familiar."
"It could be the family crest, though why they'd need crests I don't know."
"It could be just a nice equivalent of jewelry, it doesn't have to mean anything. And did you notice how her eyes followed me like the Mona Lisa's…"
"Well, I like looking at you, too, because you are the real, galactically accepted thing."
"*We're* the real thing…" She took the Globe, put it carefully in its box, closed the box, eased it aside, got to her knees and faced him. Just as he wondered what she was up to, she wrapped her arms around his nec sensually and they enjoyed simply gazing into each other's eyes.
Now, he thought, had to be the right time to bring up a certain subject again. "You realize you don't have a choice, it's preordained and ruled by the stars: you'll have to marry me…"
"I realize…" her gaze drifted off to her right "Oh, my gosh, is *that* the time? Is it 11 already?!"
She'd caught sight of her watch. "It's 11:05, we've been busy, why?"
She released him and scrambled to her feet, almost forgetting to duck so she wouldn't hit her head on the tree branch that supported the roof. "I have to get ready to go! I refuse to get on that airplane smelling like the backside of a horse!"
"You smell like her back, not like her backside."
"It's the same thing."
"No, it's not, and besides you smell great."
"Clark! You're biased!"
"I certainly am--and you haven't answered my question."
"You didn't ask me a question, you made a statement, and you know my terms already."
That again? That was so… physical when this wonderful thing that was between them was cosmically spiritual. "Lois…"
"Clark, I love you dearly, but we're not ready. If I said yes right away, when would you court me--and when would I get to court you, huh?"
"Every alternate Tuesday?"
"Is this leap year?"
"I don't know! We can start courting each other when your vacation is up and you're back in Metropolis." She edged toward the door and opened it carefully.
"I can go back today."
"And leave your poor father up to his neck in work around here? Who would exercise the horses then and keep that silly dog out of trouble?"
"And *I* don't want you dogging my steps while I'm trying to find a new place to live *and* make a living. You're getting a paid vacation--*enjoy* it!"
"Will you wave if I fly over Metropolis on my way to… Marrakech?"
"If I happen to be outside and see you, yes, I will, as will thousands of others."
"I guess that will do. You'll call me when you need me, won't you? To help you move in?"
"Certainly I will. Now…" She looked out the door. "If you'll… No, I can jump and grab the ladder," and she sat down.
She did this slowly enough, though, that he could have trimmed his toenails before it was too late to say: "No, you can't…" He floated up, stretched out, eased over her and out the door, and settled down, "standing" in front of her.
"Then jump. I'll have a great view from here of you breaking your ankle."
"You'd let me?"
"No, not even if you insisted."
"Then I'll jump you…" and she did. He caught her with ease and they kissed all the slow way down until their feet touched the ground.
"Lois, you do smell a bit like a horse…"
"Shut up, bandit. Just for that you have to fly me to the house, too, unless someone's watching."
No one was visiting, thus no one was watching. He cradled and carried her back. She showered (she didn't invite him to help), packed quickly, hugged the older Kents good by for now, and drove him into Wichita with her in the rental car. They listened to the radio, assiduously avoiding all news broadcasts and talking of anything particularly important. At 12:45 she boarded her flight and at one it took off and he stood at the gate, watching it, sighing.
My gosh, he thought, she drops in, wrecks my entire life, lays out a better plan for it, puts it back on line again new and improved, and then flies away…
That was when he overheard someone's portable radio report that an earthquake had triggered a landslide in Bolivia and he decided to head back home, get a suit, and check the disaster out. Earthquakes are us, he thought.
But I'll survive mine, we'll survive ours.
This is going to work, this is really going to work.
To be continued…
The author wishes to thank Laurie and her mom, Rufus, Lynda L., Gorn, Debbie S., and Mel for their encouragement, assistance in finding typos and/or pointing out where things could be tweeked. All new typos are my own and copyrighted to boot.
email@example.com March 10, 1996 ??