By Debby Stark [firstname.lastname@example.org]
July 7, 1996
Summary: Clark reflects on his past and fate, which sent him to Metropolis and put him squarely in the path of Lois Lane.
(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", which should definitely be read in order because you'll be lost otherwise :). Previous "episodes" can be found at ftp.swcp.com pub/users/dstark in PKZipped txt; the L&C fanfic list in regular txt; at ftp.cs.uofs.edu /pub/sidbury in WordPerfect 5.1 (DOS) format; or from the author as multi-part email. However you get them, I like feedback to help me to continue to develop the story.
Clark Kent was sitting on the staircase, three steps up, smiling at the phone he had just used. He could hear his folks working in the kitchen, cleaning up after a hearty dinner, trying not to eavesdrop, but he didn't mind that they had probably overheard his side of the brief conversation. He enjoyed being close to them at times like this, sharing his delight and knowing that they were pleased for him.
He figured he had just about always known important things about those two most-loved ones, like their general location and state of well being. This was no strain because most times the couple enjoyed a quiet life, easily dealing with the usual challenges of running a small farm in their early retirement years. They also seemed to take in stride the unusual challenges presented by a son with a dangerous part-time job and what to Clark seemed to be more than his share of personal life problems. But life for them was calm, and panicky moments were rare.
Even those moments were often comical upon reflection. For instance, one day Robby apparently concluded that Jonathan Kent, who was grumbling about property taxes, wasn't paying full attention to the job at hand, a thorough currying earned after a difficult pulling contest and then a long ride home in a tight trailer. So the draft horse had gently stepped on the man's foot and refused to move. About 35 seconds after his father had started yelling at and pounding on the animal, who was pointedly looking elsewhere, Clark had shown up, delayed because he'd had to rush to the Planet's fifth-floor supply closet and head out through its window, not even taking time to change his clothes.
He had not, however, been needed because the upset man insisted he was uninjured (Clark checked; there were no broken bones in his father's foot). "Don't touch him!" The older Kent warned, and it was clear he was angry at himself, not at the horse. "He's trying to tell me something and he'll just keep doing it until I figure it out…"
The horse had given Clark an immanently patient look that seemed to say "He's getting his priorities straight," Robby first, the rest of life second. The horse then snorted, shifted his weight slightly, and freed the man. Point made, for now. Clark had thrown up his hands and dashed back to work.
It was little things like that which had prompted Clark to come to the pleasant conclusion that he had some kind of deeply embedded, maybe even sort of psychic connection with his parents.
At a less intense, less personal level, he had always felt protective of his friends, too, starting well before he had developed special abilities or even much size or muscle.
On the playground he'd leap in to break up the occasional scuffles regardless of the capacity or number of the combatants and particularly when the match was uneven. Then, after the dust settled, he'd try to mediate. His mom once claimed she was just about getting used to repairing torn clothing acquired from his *not* fighting. He would more often move with equal abandon to help slower classmates with arithmetic, reading or other school work, often sacrificing his free time without a second thought.
All this was natural; Clark could not imagine any other way to approach life, and he had tried a few times. For example, he and his friends had daydreamed about being filthy rich with servants to wait on them hand and foot in big houses in Kansas City, or being cunning thieves and living well off ill-gotten gains (from, say, robbing trains full of gold). All this was fun to plan on lazy summer afternoons, but as viable life goals, nobody ever mentioned these ideas to the counselors on career days in high school.
At age 18 as his abilities were maturing, Clark had concurrently redeveloped the strong desire to travel. Years earlier New Zealander Trevor MacFarlane had planted the seed of desire in him, but school and other mundane concerns of life had overshadowed all that. When the time was right, the idea had bloomed full force and Clark took to the open road and sky at every opportunity. This ranged from enjoying jaunts to St. Louis or Denver when there was no work to be done on the farm or for school, to investigating some whole continent for summer vacation as his confidence grew.
Once when he had been about to take off to explore the mountains around Oaxaca, Mexico, he overheard his dad whisper to his mom that he, Clark, was looking for someone in his yearning to travel. Clark had glanced back at them. The way Mom squeezed his dad's hand in return immediately made Clark think that they both believed he was lonely.
That was odd. He rarely had that feeling, life was just too good. He had them, that was a lot, even tremendous. He also had dozens of friends, though he had decided several years earlier that it was safer for all concerned if they didn't find out all there really was to know about him. That was okay, and besides, it looked like nearly everyone he met had hidden talents, too.
After he had given it some thought, he figured his parents probably meant he was looking for someone like himself, someone who could lift tractors and fly. But they were wrong, he was just traveling to see and learn more than Kansas could provide and, if luck dictated, to help those who needed it. If he found anyone else who could do what he could do, it would be a bonus.
For there was some kind balance coming into play here: he had all these strange abilities that, true, set him apart from everyone else sometimes--well, maybe most times--but then from the looks of it, the world had an obvious need for somebody with his abilities. He might as well use them where he could, even though his main desire had become to observe the unceasing wonders of life and translate what he saw into interesting stories for people to read. So what if he couldn't go anywhere without eventually running into some situation that demanded the use of his extra talents on the sly? There was nothing wrong with that as long as he was careful. His dad's frog dissection metaphors couldn't be ignored, but he didn't worry much about that possibility.
His travels and attending college meant an increased interaction with people. He discovered that there was an endless variety of ways to enjoy life--and an almost equal number of ways that people reacted to the trials to which life exposed them. Observing all this pointed out to Clark how comparatively uncomplicated his own life had been. Sure, he had unexplained abilities, but he wasn't the object of some powerful person's dislike, wasn't an unwed mother, wasn't crippled and confined to a wheelchair--wasn't suffering at all in the grand scheme of things. Indeed, he wondered after one particularly intense discussion in Philosophy 201, why *was* he here? Only to watch?
No, surely not…
It was about this time that, given the challenges he did face, he began to speculate if he had degrees of awareness of problems other than his own that he could help resolve. After all, maybe he didn't have that many problems so there would be room in his life to help others. That would be okay, too.
Most dilemmas that he was in the right place at the right time to deal with were easy to fix though. They usually ranged from opening stuck windows (a practice in restraint) to facing down bullies. For the latter, his being a well proportioned six feet tall and willing to quietly stand up for himself and anyone who needed him diffused most situations quickly.
The biggest challenges were those that required immediate responses, like heart attacks and auto accidents, usually the result of things people did to themselves in working out their karma (his travels through India had brought this idea to mind). It more and more looked like it was *his* karma to be close by and able to help.
Interestingly, the scope of his (karma-induced?) feeling "right- time, right-place-ness" seemed to widen during his later college years as he began to hear of the occasional natural disaster that insisted it required his talents but at the same time was conveniently located in some night-enshrouded or back-of-nowhere locale. Fortunately all this rarely interfered with his studies, and he could do his homework and write articles for the university paper in a few minutes before class or deadline if he had to. It was like he was practicing for something, an interesting feeling.
After graduating and when the life of a traveler grew routine and being a news wire stringer wasn't pulling in enough money, he decided to try to settle down and get a steadier job. His parents and friends questioned why he decided to try Metropolis when Kansas City was friendlier, centrally located, and had a better newspaper. Clark agreed with them, but the much bigger Metropolis offered the best chance for him to build a career using his journalistic training-- and, besides, the KC Star wasn't hiring. Also, for an inveterate people watcher, Clark knew that he would find a wider mix of them in Metropolis than anywhere else in the world.
"Mix" was an understatement, his dad said, "mixed up and cockeyed and darn crazy" was a better description. Clark hoped this wasn't true, but almost as soon as he had arrived in the city, breathing its fetid, news-saturated air, he found that the people he met were at the very least fascinating. From the elegant wealthy to the hard-working common person, they were all going somewhere and doing something. They were busy all the time. They just didn't know how interesting they were and that they all had stories to tell, and that he, Clark Kent, a man with a fresh approach, was the one who could help them do that.
While trying to figure out just how to go about doing this, Clark also noticed that many of the city's inhabitants, his target subjects and audience, experienced problems dimensions larger than people he had observed anywhere else. There were the normal, constant stream of accidents caused by the general careless rush of life in a big city; he'd seen this in London, Mexico City and Tokyo as well. But unlike in those places, here there was an astounding amount of criminal activity, of people preying upon people without the least compunction or sign of remorse.
Until setting foot in Metropolis, Clark had accepted crime as being something best dealt with by skilled local law enforcement. He had witnessed small-time crimes and criminals (like youthful pickpockets on a bus in Milan or the guide who stranded a clutch of Dutch tourists in the dunes miles from Cairo), and he had once inadvertently tramped into the edges of a multifamily range war in Argentina. In these cases and others, local authorities usually turned up and took over, ignoring him because he had learned he could often pass for a native if he had to: his vaguely Asian, vaguely European air seemed to confuse people into simply accepting him. Otherwise, he had learned he was good at fading into the background after being helpful. Rare were the times he had been asked for his papers, so his and his mom's forgery efforts were never questioned.
But like most everyone else, Clark thought, he saw *violent* crime--bombs, evil scientists, mass murderers--depicted only on TV. It was scary, distasteful--and somewhere else, never competing for his attention.
Until now. Crime was no stranger to Metropolis. It pervaded the city, and Clark observed that many inhabitants seemed to have the uneasy feeling that something bad was about to happen and to happen to them in particular. A lot of people in Metropolis were, he thought, plainly paranoid. It could be something small, like finding icy shower water in the morning after a night of bad dreams, to an event so blatant as to be beyond the abilities of not only of the police but maybe even the FBI and the Marines.
Indeed, within days of having gotten off the bus in the main city plaza, Clark was practically slapped in the face by the brutal murder of Dr. Platt. The man had trusted and confided in him--and had been murdered in cold blood. This had so unsettled Clark that he had begun to blame himself for not realizing something would happen.
It wasn't that death was a foreign concept: one brought up on a farm accepted death's sweet necessity in the design of life. Clark had also walked through slums all over the world and seen death in a bundle of rags. Yet there was usually a kind of quiet dignity and something to learn in both those circumstances.
But nothing had prepared him for discovering Dr. Platt's body and hearing the casual, callous comments by the police detectives.
What was wrong here? This was *not* suicide but a horrible crime done to an honorable man! Why were they blowing it off? And, more importantly, how could his ability to help behind the scenes be of any use to fix this awful problem?
The basic question returned to haunt him: Why *was* he here? Only to watch? It was as though he had run in to an insurmountable wall in his increasing ability and desire to help people. Was this it?
No, this looked like where the overwhelming Lois Lane came in. She'd blanched at the sight of Dr. Platt's crisped body--and then recovered at superspeed and resolved to round up the murderers and save the whole shuttle program as an afterthought. What's more, it was okay if Clark, rank amateur, helped her as long as he didn't get in the way.
Her certainty of the rightness of *their* cause and *their* ability to unravel the mystery had lifted his spirits when he'd strongly questioned the very idea that he was cut out to be an investigative journalist. Despite what Mr. White seemed to believe him capable of, Clark didn't think that exploring the depths of the criminal mind was exciting. He preferred writing the positive, life-is-interesting features he had become known for among a small audience.
But then, Lois didn't work in features (she probably didn't even read "fluff"), Lois needed his help, and Lois was just so special…
She was among the most intelligent and sexiest people he had ever met, and he just knew, practically as soon as he had met her, that somewhere down deep inside she was as warm and loving as his own dear mother. Her compassionate reaction to his targetless anger over Dr. Platt's death just further proved him right about the person she really was. It didn't matter to his heart that she had made no attempt to hide her immediate distaste for the very ground he walked on, or that she put him in his place for his school boy treatment of her at Lex Luthor's ball or his out-of-line display of jealousy of the billionaire. To imply that her interest in that man was other than a purely journalistic… and even if it was, it was her life and not his to judge.
…though he couldn't *not* worry about her, the way she danced along the edge of disaster, pulling bouquets of roses from the snapping jaws of certain death when she could just as easily lose an arm or worse…
Fortunately, as he had learned more about Luthor, Clark could justify his instant, uncharacteristic misgivings. The man really had been bad news all the time, though there had been no solid proof of this until almost too late and Lois might have had to seek an annulment. He realized now that his inability to challenge Luthor effectively could be explained by his own ingrained tendency to see the good in everyone--and to not realizing that the cunning man had probably sold any sterling qualities he might once have possessed to the highest bidder back in kindergarten.
But that was quite a few lessons ago, and now everyone knew the truth about Luthor. Clark didn't know where the man was hiding out at this time. The federal authorities were searching for him, which was only right since they had most recently misplaced him. Luthor's name was bandied about now and again--Clark himself had speculated about his involvement in the Bank of Green Meadows caper, for example--but the villain was keeping a snake-belly low profile lately. He was most likely indulging in complex financial dealings that Clark would have admitted were beyond his ken. It could have been worse: Lex could have been an evil scientist or a shady lawyer or both…
Clark put all that aside; there were much nicer things to think about on this quiet, late Thursday evening.
There was the thought of how well Lois was transitioning in his loved-ones locator database. From his first days on the job at the Planet, he had known when she or Jimmy or Perry were in extreme danger and he had usually been able to find them in the nick of time if not sooner. The less danger Lois was in though, like when she was trying to talk herself out of some minor crisis, the harder it was to locate her; often he would come in too late to save whomever she had to beat up.
But in among the events surrounding her near-wedding to Lex-- which *she* had summarily terminated!--Diana Stride's nearly fatal attack, Lois's trying to prove Stride right and then being convinced that she wasn't, and a lot more, Lois had started falling out of love with Superman and become more interested in Clark. She began to see him again as someone other than a rival, like she had started to before Luthor's all-out assault to gain her favor. She then slowly invited Clark back into her small ensemble of acquaintances, and eventually her microscopic circle of truly close friends.
Spurred by this incentive, his sixth sense about her had begun to evolve, too. He grew more aware of her moods, first when there was a sense of personal urgency involved and she demanded someone to talk to, to hear her out and not interrupt. Eventually, he could sense when she was simply relaxed and hoping he was looking for some laughs, too. He wasn't always sure precisely what was going on, and neither sometimes was she, it seemed. But even this sibling-like relationship felt so good most times that he rarely questioned it.
With the boyfriend/girlfriend thing confirmed weeks earlier and now realizing that she knew, *she really knew*--had she known then when they'd agreed about their boyfriend/girlfriend status? Did it matter? Wasn't it the natural course of things anyhow? Maybe… He hoped so, because life was changing again and there was no trouble or sense of urgency involved at all. Within the last few days, too, he had begun to feel that if he wanted to find her, no matter what mental state she was in, he could do so. He could turn, sniff the slightest breeze or hear her heart beat a thousand miles away or *something,* and know that flying in a straight line he'd find her quickly. Before her Saturday visit and their Sunday treehouse talk, he could have found her, true, but he might have zigzagged for a bit first and maybe he'd be upset because she had moved or been kidnaped or who knew what and he hadn't foreseen it or she refused to think it important enough to explain.
Now things seemed stable in that warm, comfortable part of his near-conscious. It was a knowledge that impetuously proclaimed itself ready to withstand any test. He didn't want there to be tests, though, tests could mean--most likely would mean--that she was in trouble. He just wanted to sit back and enjoy the feeling of Kent and Lane in love. Lane and Kent in love. It sounded great either way.
And that's it, he thought, it's love, I'm totally in love, this is *meant* to be--and she knows it, too! That's why she's acted a little wacko all this time, whatever length of time she's known. Hmm, there's probably a clue in there somewhere.
She's not used to love being the real thing--she's *said* so several times.
But she thinks *I'm* the real thing!
It's *so* wonderful!
…and it was also more than a little annoying.
She'd laid down the law: when I need you, I'll call you. She had meant "need him to help her move" because she hadn't meant she planned to need Superman, she never planned that. During this second week of his vacation there had been no indication, by phone call or psychically, that she needed a superguy either. Which wasn't something to complain about, really…
Now it was Thursday evening. He had switched off the phone and was holding it loosely in both hands. He had found himself sitting on this very staircase a lot lately, it seemed. From this position he could see out into the living room, which was dark and quiet. He'd be leaving it all behind again soon, heading away from this wonderful shelter and back into the wonder-filled world he was making for himself.
And I'm going to share it with Lois…
The thought prompted a happy sigh.
His folks were in the kitchen finishing up the dishes, a long, drawn-out process tonight. They were obviously staying as far out of earshot as they could muster. Clark smiled about that. He'd have to signal an all clear without letting them know he was on to them.
As for what he could tell them when they pumped him for information… there wasn't much. Lois had called briefly to give him his instructions: "Tomorrow, 3 p.m., Metropolis time."
So it would be somewhat more than five days between seeing her plane off at the airport in Wichita to when he was officially allowed to see her again. The time period wouldn't wind up being remembered as five days of pure, gut-wrenching agony only because Clark had kept himself busy.
On Monday he had resumed helping out around the farm and with general community harvest activities. He would whenever feasible do his chores at high speed; his folks didn't seem to notice whereas when he was younger and he had shown bursts of "enthusiasm," they had insisted that he slow down and take care. They probably figured he was old enough now to be fast *and* conscientious. They probably also understood that he was antsy. They didn't bug him about it, waiting for him to open up on his own. He realized he would rather, by just a little bit, have been talking to Lois.
He spent several evenings with his friends and enjoyed their gentle ribbing, their glowing assessments of Lois (particularly from Lana), their relief that it looked like he might be getting married and it was about time for a nice, quiet guy like him, wasn't it? Maybe she'd like to retire here, hey? Clark had no idea; frankly he wasn't sure either of them would make it safely to old age, though he had every intention of guaranteeing that she did.
When none of these obligations were sufficient to distract him, he'd slip on the suit and go looking for trouble. He didn't like to think of it that way, but that was usually how it happened if it didn't come looking for him. Trouble beckoned, he'd help prevent it or ameliorate the results if he could, and then he'd move on.
He naturally found the usual amount of trouble in Metropolis, and Wednesday proved to be a good day to put in a noon-time patrol appearance. It also provided a little test of his new relationship with Lois.
He dropped in on a grocery story robbery and, before any shoppers were harmed, he rounded up the machine-gun-toting robbers who were dressed as masked cowboys. The shoppers cheered; someone called him a blue-light special; the store manager and clerks wanted to kiss his feet and rename the ten-items-or-less rapid checkout stand after him. He turned the robbers over to the police amassed around the building, smiled and nodded at the shoppers, and stayed well out of the way of the manager and clerks.
Then Superman agreed to answer few questions because it felt like the thing to do. The media and through them world had a right to know what on his agenda, though he always tried not to even hint that he had a real life, that he did anything other than cruise around the world 24 hours a day, searching for situations to help out with.
Maybe it was right, too, because he hadn't originally seen that Lois was among the pack. Maybe they had both known--*known*--that the other would turn up here.
She elbowed her way to the front, threatening injury to her colleagues with her usual zeal, so she could ask two simple questions that any of the brighter members of the press corps might have thought up. He answered them briefly and did not favor her over any other. She didn't look particularly concerned about this (and a few colleagues covertly checked her reaction). Instead she concentrated on scribbling in her notepad. He knew those notes would be barely decipherable to any but herself, and, with concentration, him or maybe Perry if Jimmy helped.
She seemed to be just managing not to giggle. She kept raising her eyebrows and blinking her eyes in a bland, barely-interested-in- anything-but-the-story manner. This reminded him of her reaction when she had come by his ratty hotel room to pick him up that first time, and he'd thoughtlessly answered the door without pulling on his shirt first. Now he was too aware that *he* was having trouble keeping a straight face, too. The thought of that first encounter and how she had seen a lot of him then and was seeing so much more of him now--of the *real* him--didn't help him keep his composure. The only thing he had to cling to was his long practice looking benevolently removed from the fray while wearing the suit.
As he ended the impromptu news conference and flew away, he overheard Karl Kingston asking Lois about that old rumor that had resurfaced recently, that Superman was bisexual. It made sense, Supes being the even-handed fellow that he was, share the wealth and all… Clark then heard Marie Rose laughing and flavoring it with the hint that she knew better, *much* better… He tuned out just after Lois claimed that it was all a surprise to her, but, frankly, as she hadn't been that interested lately, for all she knew maybe there was some truth to it.
On the Sunday evening after leaving Smallville, Lois called to inform Clark that she had arrived home safely. According to caller ID, she was using his phone. It was great that she considered his place to be home, using that word in a casual manner.
She made absolutely no reference to secret identities, though she didn't hesitate to slip in some light sexual innuendoes that made him chuckle and try to match her, something he realized he wanted to practice more and in person.
He got the impression, too, that she had some concern that they were being overheard and wondered briefly what she had been doing at work. He didn't ask, though, because he was sure she wouldn't tell him and badgering her over the phone never worked. He couldn't detect any evidence of electronic devices on the line, but if she was right, the perpetrators would simply grow bored listening to two people vocally pressing the new boundaries of their budding romantic relationship. The idea made him feel warm and cozy inside yet again. The whole thing was still so overwhelming that he might as well, he thought, just give up and let himself feel this good *all* the time.
Further on the home front, she reported that just before calling him she had contacted his landlord and set up a walk-through inspection of the apartment next door first thing Monday morning. Clark told her he was surprised that she had even been able to locate the fellow. She said the man must have seen her coming, feared her wrath, and put himself immediately at her beck and call, wise fellow. "That's the kind of neighbor you may be getting, do you still want that?"
Clark said he thought he was up to the challenge.
She called from work on Monday afternoon to report that the apartment was, to put it charitably, a pit, but she hadn't seen any bugs larger than a few spiders, and not any mice or rats or even scary baby chickens. The rooms were laid out marvelously, and there was at least three times as much floor space as his place was squeezed into, not counting the basement. "You have basement access?" he marveled.
"All I have is a little crawl space in the attic."
"I went up your spiral staircase and saw it."
"It's only big enough to put a few boxes of books…"
"Poor baby, maybe I'll make some room for you if you're good."
The only thing the apartment didn't have was a view, but she thought seeing the container garden in the courtyard was okay. The landlord had used that and Clark's quiet neighborliness as selling points, did he realize that? There was a staircase up to the roof and one down to the basement, though the steps looked in need of repair, but she could "do that easily." The roof looked like a good place to spread a towel in the summer and work on her tan. He allowed as that sounded like a good idea and he might very well join her. She said "Umm!"
So, given that the positives outweighed the negatives, she'd decided to take the apartment. The landlord--"Call me Hank"--had said she could have it as soon as the deposit check cleared. But she wanted it quicker than that so she had given him cash, gotten a receipt, and they had started to plan how he would clean things up. "He said something about needing a lot of time but--can you believe it?--I batted my eyes at him and he decided he could start right away. It's a good thing because I didn't think that breaking his arm would be the right way to start our business relationship."
"But the Neighborhood Association would probably have held a bake sale to raise money for your bail."
"Would you have contributed something? What?"
"Probably something with a lot of chocolate…"
"Ummm… There will always be chocolate at my place for you…" she whispered.
That almost made him blush (which he never allowed Superman do), but he gave in and let it happen now since he was alone, lounging in the den.
Lois called again on Tuesday, after her martial arts class, with an update. Her new apartment was now bare of the junk that Hank had been storing there. He promised to sand and seal those marvelous wooden floors on Wednesday. She planned to shop for paint and cleaning supplies on Thursday. She had measured the walls by eye; did Clark have any advice on how much paint she should get? He gave her his thoughts. If she bought too much, well, she'd have extra for touch ups. Villains might descend on her apartment and she'd need the paint to cover the scuff marks from her having tossed them against the walls.
"You'd sit back and watch, too, wouldn't you?"
"And enjoy it immensely."
"Of course I could turn on you next…"
"You want that."
"I do, a lot--just after certain things, after we talk."
"And you know what else."
"And *you* know what else, too."
On Wednesday Clark had seen her during the press conference and she had looked well. He had caught glimpses of her here and there throughout the week but had kept away since he hadn't felt her to be in need him. He had every intention of making it clear to the world that Superman didn't think Lois Lane was any more special to him than anyone else was.
Thursday evening she called with a progress report. Her new apartment's floors were now in good shape. She was going to have some of her furniture, including her bed, moved in on Friday morning so she could sleep there that night. She would be covering everything with plastic sheets during the day since she also planned to start cleaning the place herself and painting on Friday, which she had already told Perry she was taking off, and Saturday, too. The world could just come to a screeching halt and wait for her to take notice of it again while she enjoyed a well deserved three-day weekend. It had survived her taking the unprecedented two-day one the weekend before, hadn't it?
"Yes, and I did, too."
"I'm proud of you. Now the question is, can you tear yourself away from slopping the neighbor's pigs a few days early and come back to Metropolis?"
"I can come right now--"
"No, no, *tomorrow,* 3 o'clock sharp--3 *p.m.* and no sooner-- but if you're late for a good reason, I'll understand--Oh, Lucy and her friends are pulling up, they want to see what's happening. They call themselves Thumbers."
"Don't ask me why, I haven't figured out how to slip that question into a casual conversation yet. I mean, maybe it's something I should know and not something that's just… obvious. Lucy met one of them at her new job temping at Star Labs, and that one introduced her to the others. I think Laurie at work is one of them, too. Metropolis is such a small town, isn't it? Lucy told me they're forming a madrigal singing group and they want to headline at comedy clubs at night. She said they're… how'd she put it… politically progressive, bitingly feminist, and if those approaches don't work, they have a line up of lusting-after-Superman songs."
"Well, it is--don't you want me to sing lusting songs?"
"Ah, not after--you *used* to, in effect--"
"I know--and I was good at it, too, wasn't I?"
"No question, you still are--*were,* I mean--"
"I know what you mean, and you know who I'm considering singing those songs for now…"
"Uh-huh. You'd sing--*drum* for me, wouldn't you?"
"Good. Well, Lucy enjoys hanging around with those women, it's giving her something to do. She has a good voice, too."
"It runs in your family, I bet. *She's* never lusted after Superman though."
"Little *you* know."
"Okay, okay--Something tells me *you* have a part in this."
"They want me to be honorary chairperson. I told them I might like being their queen, but they said they already have one."
"Good, then you don't have to--"
"But they said as the chairperson I can sometimes appear on the stage in the event they're forced to sing supersongs."
Forced? "Did you… decline? You're busy moving and all, and considering--"
"Considering I'm some regular joe's girl friend now?
"*Well,* I said I'd think about it. I could quit the Planet and go on the road, you know, my singing voice is okay."
"--Oh, they're knocking on the door--See you!"
Click (with hints of giggle).
Clark sighed at the phone, exasperated, but then he smiled. He didn't know whether to believe her or not (he had heard the knock on his door in the far-away city), but he sure was glad she was teasing him. She wouldn't have teased Superman. Swooned on him, or even hit him and yelled at him because he could take it, but not teased him, not before whenever it was she found out…
Because she sees *me*, not him any more…
Jonathan Kent walked in from the dining area, which was to the left of the foot of the staircase. He was drying his hands with a dishtowel. He raised his eyebrows at Clark. "You look happy."
"I *am* happy. Do you two need any help in there?" He pointed with the phone toward the kitchen. "You're taking so long…"
"No, no, we're finished now. The meat loaf stuck on the bottom of the roaster and since I won't fork over the cash to get her a new one, she made me wash it and she stood over me while I did it."
"Oh, I see."
"She didn't say a word either."
Clark just nodded. Mom hadn't said a word about a lot of things, things that he didn't know quite how to ask her about without it sounding like he was asking. Why he couldn't bring himself to just simply ask he wasn't sure, but it was probably because they were about things he should already have figured out. Mom was like that sometimes, holding all the answers and not offering any of them, but she usually had good reasons. Like Dad had told him once: some things were not meant for mortal men to know… except women seemed to know all those things by heart.
His dad sighed and concluded: "I'm going to get us a new one."
"Sounds like a good idea."
The man proceeded to simply stand there, somehow still finding damp spots to dry on his burly arms up to his elbows. Eventually he said, "Ah, well, son…" He stole a glance at Clark. "Was that… Lois again?"
"Well, of course, it was, Jonathan," Martha Kent said as she pushed gently by him. "Who else would he look like he wished he'd spent an hour on the phone with instead of--what was it? Five minutes this time?"
"Almost," Clark said. He scooted over so his mom could sit beside him and look at him like she expected the full story. Hey, was this fair? He was supposed to spill his guts at every turn but *she* wouldn't tell *him* anything…
He didn't really mind this arrangement though.
She had been incredibly patient with him all week long. She had also been quietly plying him with good food, understanding smiles and comforting hugs. Yet she hadn't divulged to him or his father when and how Lois had found out who Superman really was. Had she taken to heart what Lois had said, that she'd threatened their first-born grandchild if Mom told him anything?
It struck Clark suddenly: wow, Lois might have considered, however briefly, having children!
Nah, Lois probably hadn't made any threat, it had probably just been a tease, but still, to tease about children… Did she ever think about having kids? Maybe just now and then? And maybe favorably?
Dad could be right about this, too, that it was part of the complicated secret games women played to test the men they loved. Look, not all women were enamored of children. That wasn't bad, per se. Lois might feel uncomfortable about the thought but feel it okay to talk to his mom about it and then it had been the first thing she had thought of to use in the tease. Lois feeling free to discuss such things with the other best woman in Clark's world was truly great.
"She just called to give me instructions. I'm to be back in Metropolis tomorrow, at 3 p.m. sharp, disasters permitting. She needs help moving furniture."
"Now, she needs you for more than that…"
"I'll probably inspect the plumbing, too."
"And check out the electrical wiring."
"I'm going to bill her for every bit it."
"The midafternoon train gets into Metropolis Union Station about two, doesn't it…" His dad frowned, calculating, ignoring the back and forth; then he nodded. "That would give you time to get home and changed, if you'd started yesterday which you could say you did if you need to. Maybe she thought of that."
"She's clever," Clark agreed, "and she's on *my side,* so maybe I'll give her a discount."
"She's always been on your side, honey."
"Not always, Mom, we've had some tenuous moments… well, days, and a few weeks once or twice, but we haven't been at each other's throats for like that for a long time, not since… late last fall, when she was mad at me for three days and I still don't know why--but I *know* she didn't know everything then."
"You're right, she didn't."
Clark looked at her, raising his eyebrows. "I thought you weren't supposed to tell me."
"I'm not telling you anything, you're telling me. There's a difference."
"What's the boy supposed to do, keep guessing?"
"No…" His mom nearly grinned at his dad.
"Dad, it's okay," Clark said in his best though rarely used insuring-domestic-tranquillity tone of voice. He wondered how flat such an attempt would fall if he tried it the next time he was invited to a gathering of more than two members of the Lane family. "I'll figure it out. It's not *that* important…" Which was easy to *say*… Actually, it was easier to say now than it had been last Sunday when his mom had claimed that his abandoned puppy look wouldn't sway her one bit, he was not breaking her heart. Things were much calmer now. "What's important is…" How to put this…
As he paused, he noticed that both parents had instantly hitched a ride on the wagon of his words. He glanced at his mom, who sat back again almost imperceptibly, and then at his dad, who rocked back on his heels a bit. The enormity of what had gone on over the last six days or so seemed crystal clear suddenly. "I guess we should have talked about this sooner, all three of us together, since it's a… a family thing, it's not just me anymore…"
His mom patted his knee, which substituted for reminding him verbally that it had never been just him alone. "Were you ready to talk?"
"There's a right time for everything, you know, son."
"I know, but… maybe I haven't been ready, or maybe I have--I don't know. I've really wanted to talk to *her,* to see her face, for her to see mine--to sit down and have some long, meaningful conversations, more than just on the phone, though the phone has been okay, better than writing letters and email, but she didn't want me around this week so…" He spread his hands. Her desire not to see him had brought what had begun to look like the chance for a whirlwind romance to a screeching halt.
His mom's expression turned to one that seemed inadvertently to say "Oh, boy…"
He saw it as his turn to hang on unspoken words, to ask, "What?" He leaned forward to catch her eye again. "What did I do?"
"What do you think you did?"
"'Think'? I followed her wishes. She was busy worrying all last week--about working alone, losing her apartment, moving, figuring out how to sneak up on me… which was all right, now that I've gotten used to the idea." It was, wasn't it, it was so *all right* that the thought nearly floored him happily again… I've got to get a grip, he told himself. Later sometime. Maybe next year. "Anyhow, this week she's still had to" he began to count it off, "work her regular job and add to that decide on the apartment and arrange for fixing it up, and moving in…" He ran out of fingers, touching his thumb. "And there's something going on with Lucy. So even if I weren't on vacation she'd probably warn me to stay out of the way."
His dad nodded knowingly. "There are times a woman wants you to chase after her and times when she doesn't, and I think this was one time you were right to wait."
"Yes, I think I was, too."
"I agree, this time you played it right, honey," his mom said, now giving him a one-armed hug.
*This time,* eh? "I'm glad neither of you said I managed not to botch it up again…"
"Because I have in the past, I know that, I've had to rush off and… and save things. I don't regret doing that, don't get me wrong…"
They clearly didn't.
"…but I do regret the times I've left Lois in midsentence. I regret lying to her once she began to think of me as more than a rival…" He sighed, then felt his mood bounce upward again. "Okay, that's in the past. She understands that. She even told me she understood why I didn't tell her everything right away, as soon as I met her. Maybe she understands all of it now, I wouldn't be surprised--well, maybe I'd be a little surprised… Actually," he shrugged helplessly, "I'm constantly surprised when I think about it… but not so much any more, I'm…" He made a smooth, flat-hand motion, "leveling out, I think, and what she knows, what she does with it…" He noticed his mom nodding in an encouraging manner, "it's okay, it doesn't worry me, *that's* the part I'm leveling out on. The thought of her knowing everything hasn't really *bothered* me for a while now. It's just all coming together, it's going to work, and I don't feel worried about the big picture any more."
His mom said gently, "Maybe you needed this week away from her, too."
"Yeah, that could be it. It doesn't *feel* like it's been what I needed, but it has definitely given me a chance to think."
"Absence makes the heart grow fonder," his dad added.
"It sure has. It's fonder than ever… Want to know something that could be funny?"
They leaned forward, which he appreciated because he was too well aware that sometimes they had to strain to laugh at the jokes he thought up or brought home but couldn't deliver right. "Okay, I've been thinking about this. We're--Lois and I and everybody--we're in the newsroom and it's busy or we're in a budget meeting, and I hear The Call--you know, help, help, save me--or something urgent is announced over the intercom or Jimmy rushes in with some bulletin, and maybe nobody else realizes how important it is, or if they do, they think 'yeah, yeah, Superman'll fix that, let's get back to work,' but *Lois* is there…?"
"And she helps you think of an excuse to get away?"
"Exactly. She's very clever, there's no doubt about it, and I think now that she understands--she understood about the South Pacific thing--when I flew by the Planet on Tuesday afternoon, I looked in and saw she had the shell on her desk, I should have mentioned that to you… Anyhow, she could enjoy doing that, and she can keep a straight face, she did on Wednesday and for as long as she's known, too, it looks like."
"She does seem to enjoy being in on secrets," his father observed.
"Right. So I think that's going to be fun, and for my part I'll try not to have to leave when things are… important between us, because that could get old *real* fast even if she *says* she understands…"
His mom tugged on his ear lightly. "Maybe at *those* times your hearing will turn off."
His father chuckled. "Maybe she'll be nibbling on his ear then."
"Whispering sweet nothings."
Clark smiled. "Maybe *I'll* be doing some nibbling and whispering and…" He paused, wondering where this was going, realizing these had once been the only people in the world he could talk to with this depth, "and maybe certain other things will turn off, too, and we'll… Well, we're going to talk about that first, we're going to get it all totally talked out. After all, it's just physical and it can be dealt with, she'll understand, probably…"
He noticed his father was looking elsewhere and mother had another "oh boy" look, just a small one. "All right, am I thinking too much again?"
"Oh, honey, I don't know. If you were your father, I'd say yes, you are."
"But you're not me, you're special, and a little caution can go a long way in a special case."
"She does want to go a long way--I mean, considering the direction she's trying to push me--I mean… you know, it's not that I don't *appreciate* it and not that I don't want to go there myself, too…"
He saw that his parents had more than enough clues.
He cleared his throat unnecessarily. "But I think if there's anything she doesn't seem to understand, it's that. I do *not* want to hurt her. I have to be careful, *very* careful. And there are some other things, too, they're hard to describe--they're hard to think about, because I don't have any… I just have the Globe, and that's not much help, though I'm glad she's seen it and that it opened up more when she touched it… Maybe tomorrow we can talk about it while we're working on her apartment. There should be plenty of chances since she'll want to be in charge of everything and…" he smiled, "and in charge of me, but I don't mind that for some things."
That earned him a warm, you're-catching-on smile from his dad. His mom gave him another big hug and said, "There's a name for that…"
"Sharing? Like I share being in charge of me with her and she shares letting me move her furniture?"
"Clark… if you give her a bill, I'll send her a chart of where you're most ticklish."
"You will? That's not much of a threat, mom…"
"It's the best I can come up with on the spur of the moment."
"Oh… Well, in that case I won't bill her because I'd rather she find those places on her own. Do a little…" He raised his eyebrows, "*exploring*…"
They were word hanging again.
"You know, maybe we'll do a little *mutual* exploring…"
They hung closer.
Too close. He realized what he had been saying and shifted a bit uncomfortably. "I think I'll go… harvest some apples or something, okay?" and he stood up, ready to escape through the narrowest gap.
His father for one didn't move. "At 8:30 at night?"
"Then I'll… catch some cattle wrestlers."
"Uh-huh," his mom said.
"In Montana--or maybe Argentina."
"It's still night there, too."
"Well, while you're at it then, bring back a quart of milk."
"Make it ice cream, go by way of the North Pole."
"That could be better than a cold shower."
"No, no, I think I'll just go for a simple little walk to look at the stars and enjoy them while I can, without a cloud of pollution between me and them…"
On Friday morning, his parents booted Clark out of the house almost as soon as he finished breakfast. He had been sitting there trying to convince his father to give him something new to do (he had already exercised the horses) or a tip about some neighbor, any neighbor who still might possibly need a little help. His mother leaned on the table, hands supporting herself, and looked him in the eye. "That's it, Clark. Out."
"Go make yourself useful to the world until 3 o'clock Metropolis time."
"Can I pack first?"
She allowed for that, giving him ten minutes.
All his clothes were clean and folded, ready to be layered carefully into his bag. She stood at the foot of his bed and watched him, prepared to supervise if he slacked off, but otherwise they didn't talk. He muttered to himself about being denied the only real home he'd ever known, about being totally unappreciated. About facing the cold, cruel world and trying to set things straight. About dealing with a crazy woman who was *completely* unpredictable… About whether he should stick both the bag and the computer or one or the other or either of them in hyperspace now, or leave them here and at 1:45 or so local time, return, store this luggage in hyperspace and only have to think about it on the way directly to Metropolis. It was better if he didn't have to think too long about things staying where he put them in the "might-will-be" area of the universe.
His mom had no opinion. She had once called hyperspace all sleight of hand anyhow. "Just as long as you're out of here and sleeping in your own bed--or at least *somewhere* in Metropolis tonight."
He gave her a scandalized look (she just raised her eyebrows lazily), and then he rolled his eyes and smiled, shaking his head. Parents… who deserved a superhug and got one despite and because of everything.
He did a normal six and a half hours or so of Superman-style work, cruising around the world performing helpful deeds, saving lives, easing suffering, stopping bad guys, spreading cheer. People were at the very least glad to see him and returned his smile upon being rescued or helped, unless they were up no good, in which case they scowled at his pleasant expression. Nothing titanic or even particularly reportable happened though.
At about 2:30 Metropolis time, he put his next plan into action. He zipped back to Kent Farm and found his traveling bag and laptop computer awaiting him on the shady front porch. His parents weren't home; maybe they had gone out to lunch. But as the weather was good and crime was practically nonexistent out here, his things had been perfectly safe. He stuffed them into hyperspace and headed for Metropolis and home.
He alighted quietly behind Mr. Cheung's grocery store there on the corner of Sinibaldi and Clinton. In the dark area between the trash compactor and a big pile of empty soda pop and bread racks, he grabbed his real clothing out of hyperspace. He spun out of the suit and into the clothes at approximately the same time, and then reached back into hyperspace to trade the suit for his bag and computer. They had survived the trip intact as he had been sure they would. Entertaining a sense of "sureness" was, he figured, the most important thing about dealing with hyperspace and it's endless potential even half a second forward in the time line. Assuming time ran in a straight line was also helpful even though he had heard good arguments against it.
There was a bus stop in front of the store. Anyone who knew and noticed him would likely think he had returned to the neighborhood using one of the frequent city buses, had stopped to pick up some groceries, storing them in his bag, and then used the side exit. That was an integral part of the plan.
But no one noticed him as he walked out of the shadows and hit the sidewalk, heading south toward home. That was okay, too.
He wondered briefly if he might be able to just *know* whether or not Lois was in her new apartment, but before he could test that idea, he saw her jeep parked halfway down the street, on this east side. It was in front of the high, one-story apartment house he now shared with Mrs. Wallace, who didn't have a car, on the south side and with the love of his life on the north side. I'm in the middle, surrounded by women again, he thought. Lois and Cat; Lois and Toni; Lois and Mayson; and now the best combination, Lois and Mom. He didn't want any more combinations.
He walked past "her place" without looking up or slowing. It was only 2:37, he wasn't needed yet. He didn't want to even glance in that direction and maybe spoil surprises in the making. If she hadn't been in the midst of building something new for herself to share with him in her own time, though, he was sure she would have been watching for him and welcomed him. But this way, he assured himself, was going to be more fun.
His other senses kicked in unbidden. He felt a slight breeze as he walked by. That told him that at least her front door, which like his own had a little front porch, was open and there was probably a door or windows open in the back, thus allowing the breeze. He could smell a mix of cleaning agents and paint. He could hear without trying that she had a radio turned on to the MetroU station and their Jazz Hour, which was really four hours until local and then NPR news at five. He also heard what he assumed was her moving around, walking, bumping, dropping or causing something to fall, and saying "damn…" but not in a serious or I'm-hurt manner, just some little household accident.
Household? She's moving in, he thought, she's really moving in!
He smiled as he bounced up the steps to his front door and opened the screen.
The main door was locked. Oh, yeah. He dug out his keys and used them.
He hesitated. What he saw next could conceivably cast a pall on his mood. He peered around the door cautiously, not sure suddenly what he would or wanted to see, imagining a tornado having hit or a completely robbed and cleaned-out living space. He had given her free reign after all. Well, there was no she'd been acting like a slob, leaving beer cans and potato chip crumbs everywhere like a certain somebody who lived here did when Jimmy and Yusef or any of the other guys from work came over to watch a game with him. But she'd been so busy she might not have noticed the weather or a clean-sweeping burglary…
Little had changed about his home since he had last been in it almost two weeks earlier. As he stepped inside onto his landing, he scanned the room. His mismatched but comfortable furniture was nearly all in the same place he had left it, with the exception of the big old rocker, but that had only been scooted closer to the TV. His video and audio collections were somewhat out of order, but that was no problem. Tapes weren't scattered about, no equipment was left on, no liquid had been spilled in anything. Hey, he could do that just fine…
Thinking of liquid, he noticed that Maxine the fish and her small fry children were now residing in a large glass mayonnaise jar that was sitting on the kitchen island-counter-table. It was nice to know Lois had thought that up.
Clark dumped his bags on the couch. Lois had moved some of the pillows; he could imagine her or maybe Lucy or those women stretching out here, reading, watching TV. The idea of strangers relaxing here didn't bother him since at least Lois knew them.
He walked up to the fish jar and peered in. "Hi, gals and guys…"
Covered by a square of cheese cloth held in place with a rubber band, the jar was three-fourths full of water and half of that was taken up by aquatic plants anchored in a floor of colorful rock chips. He counted 18 guppies, 17 of them still small fry, and four red snails. The container would be a tight one if they stayed in it much longer, but they didn't seem to mind; maybe they figured it was a motel and they were on vacation, too. Several of the fish considered him blandly, evidently very little on their minds other than hyperdimensional quantum physics perhaps (unlike dolphins, who he understood preferred spending casual time remote viewing things like the ruins on the Moon).
He straightened. He could just hear the radio from next door. It didn't sound loud enough to warrant his being aware of it, so he pulled back on his hearing a bit. He wondered if Lois would be a noisy neighbor and how he could complain if it turned out she liked to throw big parties into the wee hours and entertain strange, marijuana-smoking, green-haired friends. Stranger friends than himself, obviously. Lois, throw parties? Nah…
The kitchen looked okay. There were dishes in the rack; they were dry. Maybe she had fixed some lunch for herself. The counters were clear and clean. He checked the refrigerator. He expected to see the dry goods he kept stored there (the sunflower seeds, the oats, the flour), but there were also three containers of store-brand fruit-flavored yogurt, a nearly empty pint of skim milk, half a bottle of Gatorade, an open bag of prepeeled baby carrots, a nearly full sealed-closed bag of semisweet chocolate chips, half a loaf of whole-wheat bread, a jar of peanutbutter with grape jelly swirled through it, two whole tomatoes in a bowl, and a block of cheddar cheese in one of his plastic containers. In the freezer section, there were some frozen waffles and a small tub of chocolate ice cream. Nothing out of the ordinary for Lois Lane, though maybe a bit more healthy fare than he would have predicted. Nice.
The bedroom was the next thing he checked. Here the scent of her was most evident in her work-a-day-world perfume. Light and flowery, expensive, and often capable of distracting and even pacifying any unruly male subjects of ruthless interviews. No hint of the headier fragrance she used for patently impossible-to-get interrogations or her infrequent wild nights out on the town. Hadn't she been having any fun like that in the last two weeks?
There were no pieces of clothing lying about in the way he occasionally decorated the room when he was dog tired. The bed was made up neatly, the pillow fluffed, though she had left it propped up against the ornate-looking, garage-sale, bronze spray-painted headboard. Maybe she had sat there reading or writing, using her laptop computer, which was now closed up and sitting on the dresser, trailing its black power cord off the side.
The monotony presented by Ms. Goodhousekeeping was broken by a single pair of panty hose tossed over the shower curtain rod. Not exactly a hanging offense. He refrained from touching them.
The once beer-stained clothes he had left hanging there were gone. He found the jacket and slacks in his closet, looking none the worse for the wear. There he also found several of her outfits (four dresses, several skirts, matching blouses, a light coat). On the floor were shoes he could never get his feet into and certainly wouldn't try. He was glad he didn't have the mad desire to wear women's clothing.
Her things took up so little space that he wished he had known ahead of time and been able to offer her more room so she could spread out if she wanted to. It was like she was here but not quite here, like she was testing deeper waters than she had ventured into back when the Slime Monster's tentacle had blocked her from entering that apartment.
So far she was passing.
He wanted a tougher (but not dangerous) test than this for them both to breeze through with flying colors since they both seemed to be grasping the concept with ease.
He checked his internal clock and glanced at the alarm clock by his bed to double check, to see that he was indeed on Metropolis time after his having buzzed around the world and all 24 time zones several times that day.
He sighed. 2:55, right on the nose. If he had been hungry, eating would have given him something to do, but a grateful family in Costa Rica had offered and he had accepted a small meal of beans and corn tortillas only an hour earlier, and the chilies were still a warm, pleasant memory.
He glanced through the window. The garden looked fine. Mrs. Wallace had been entrusted with its care, not that it took much more than watering and harvesting the cool-loving greens this time of year, something the elderly woman could handle easily.
Four minutes. He checked his mail, which was piled on the coffee table. Ads mostly, plus two bills (electric and phone), a credit card notice telling him he'd paid off his last balance, and three letters from old friends.
Three minutes. He decided he wasn't dressed appropriately to help clean up a grungy apartment, so he changed into a T-shirt, cut-offs and beat-up tennis shoes. Because of the spicy meal, he also brushed his teeth. He checked his appearance in the mirror there in the bedroom. I look okay, he told himself, I look like someone rested, ready, willing and able to help out, to do whatever she asks.
He smiled at himself: I look like a glutton for punishment.
But she already knows I am… and that's just fine.
Two minutes. He headed for the front of his apartment, up the steps and half way through the door--and paused, realizing suddenly that something was missing and that for once he knew what it was: he didn't have a house-warming gift for her.
There was no time to think of a place to fly to--like Mexico City's giant La Merced market--let alone what to get there--what did she need?--negotiate a price, and get back in time.
Wine? Yes, a bottle of wine was always a good gift, but he had only two bottles in his rack and both were opened, one of them from the Will Waldecker-interrupted evening. Had she known then? It didn't matter--at least it certainly doesn't matter now, he told himself, worry about that later.
He glanced around the living room until he saw his traveling bag still lying there on the couch. What… It had been one weight when he had brought it down from his bedroom back on the farm, and then hadn't it been a bit heavier upon his hastily retrieving it? Odd. Or maybe not…
He zipped down to the bag, opened it, and saw in it nestled in among his T-shirts and folded socks a gift-wrapped package about the size of three fists. Attached to it was a tag that said "Lois, happy new apartment!" neatly penned in a fair imitation of his handwriting. He raised his glasses, checked the contents--indeed, the contents were from Sumatra--smiled and whispered, "Thanks, Mom!"
Ten seconds later he was knocking on Lois's screen door. The main door was now closed. This had to be in anticipation of his arrival; it was nice that she seemed to depend on him to not cheat and x-ray viewing everything first. It was more like Christmas that way, and helping Lois feel she had things under control was no crime.
The upper half of her door was made of divided glass panes, clean now, but there was a new, heavy curtain on the other side. He sensed her moving up to the door, then saw her ease the curtain back minutely and peek out.
He leaned forward, raised eyebrows and said quietly: "Krypton calling…"
Before he could see her reaction or she could see much of his "friendly salesman" smile, the curtain snapped back into place. He straightened up, calmed the smile lest he come across as overwhelming or, worse, silly, and rocked back on his heels, turning a bit to glance over the neighborhood. Lois's Jeep was gone, interesting. A teenage girl waved as she sped by on a 10-speed; he nodded hello. At the far end of the block there was a noisy group of kids heading toward the park. Four doors down, Mrs. Bourget was sweeping her porch, surreptitiously doing her part for the neighborhood watch. Two weeks earlier the trees had been only beginning to think of turning yellow. Now most of them had put on at least half a final coat of colors. Soon he would be able to collect more composting materials. Life was good!
Lois, I'll have to take you on a tour of the neighborhood. We can take nice walks in the evening like Mom and Dad do around the farm…
She opened her door. He turned back. "Hi."
"Look at you…" She leaned in the door frame, the door open just enough to allow this, and looked him up and down.
He hoped she liked what she saw. "I'm ready to work."
She smiled a little, that was good. "I see that."
She was dressed in similar clothing, in worn-looking jeans (though "worn" possibly by design while his had been worked worn) and an oversized shirt blouse with rolled up sleeves; it was half unbuttoned, revealing a dark blue camisole. A blue bandanna covered most of her hair, though a strand or two of bangs were slipping free. Bangs?
"Ah…" he said. It didn't look like she was willing to make the move to let him in--and she darn well knew she looked that way. Maybe she needed--or expected a bribe. He held up the package. "Welcome to the neighborhood."
"Oh?" She straightened, letting the main door go. It promptly began a slow swing open, which must have irritated her, he thought. She'd want it to stay put or, better, swing closed. Not in *this* neighborhood. Surely she'd get used to it.
When she didn't open the screen door, though, he said, "It's not another shell *or* a shrunken head."
"The shell was beautiful, but I don't ever want to see a shrunken head unless Perry orders me to and I'll make *you* look first."
"You think I'd want to?"
"No, I wouldn't, though I have seen a few in museums. So…" He lifted the package a little more into view, "Do you want this?"
"Yes! What a silly question…" She opened the screen door, accepted the gift, glanced at the note--would she be fooled by the handwriting? Had she seen his mother's before? He hoped not; he decided to admit to the unintended deception at the first opportunity.
She smiled. "Do you know what's in it? Should I open it now?"
"Of course I know what's in it! I bought it for *you*." That was the truth; it just so happened he'd bought it some nine days earlier so that she could wake up smelling it, but that hadn't worked. Things were working now. "You can open it any time you want."
"Okay, maybe when it's less dusty in here." She turned away to her left, put the package down on something--he glanced and saw a kitchen-type chair, then she turned back and opened the screen door more widely this time. "Bribe--*house warming gift* accepted, thank you. *Now* you can come in."
He took the handle, pulled the door open the rest of the way and entered. She stepped back, on to a landing that looked a lot like the one in his apartment but more spacious. It even had a door to what he assumed was a coat closet. She waved her hand, presenting the living room. It was sunken as his was, but had easily twice the floor space. The floor, where it wasn't covered by tarps and newspapers, was a rich, dark brown wood of some kind. The walls were a combination of matching wood, rusty red brick, and paintable surfaces here and there. There was some furniture, sturdy chairs for standing on, and her couch, which was covered but the shape gave it away.
"Wow, this is big, a lot bigger than I thought. I glanced in a few times before, when there was the odd noise, but all I saw was boxes and old furniture, not this much space."
"That's one reason I like it, the space. I mean, I might decide to throw a party one day and this place has enough room for that."
"Unlike my little place…"
"But your little place is nice and cozy--you've even had some oversized parties in it, so I like it, too," and she nodded to reinforce the idea.
But he suddenly didn't want to talk about living space. There was right now too little space between them to continue ignoring. "And you have a smudge."
"A smudge? Where?" She looked down at herself. "Oh, on my…" She began to feel about her face, which wouldn't help matters as her hands were dusty and paint stained.
"Wait, hold it a minute, I'll get it."
He steeled himself--this was daring beyond measure, some part of him commented calmly--faced her, cupped her right cheek gently and ran a soft thumb just under her eye, apparently "getting" an otherwise nonexistent smudge. She closed her eyes for this, as he'd hoped. He leaned forward and touched her lips with his. He felt her smile and open her lips a bit, first for a pleased little laugh and then to engage and encourage him. What's more, she pushed his hand aside, slipped her arms up and around his neck, and pulled him even closer. He embraced her tenderly and they indulged each other for some unclocked amount of time.
They parted somewhat when one of them needed another breath of air and both took the chance to chuckle.
Her scarf had slipped during the close hello process. He decided to continue to be daring. "This is coming loose…" It would be interesting to try to tie it back into place; he bet she'd let him.
He eased the bandanna off her hair and blinked. She smiled when he said, "You cut it!"
"Yes! What do you think?" She pulled arm's length away, shook head and ran her fingers through her hair to fluff it, turned like a fashion model, and then looked him right in the eye, demanding an honest opinion.
"I like it," was the first thing that came to mind. "It's… not green, it's feathery and it falls right into place and looks like it's easy to take care of."
"That's exactly it, Mr. Clark of Metropolis."
"That's funny, I did briefly consider becoming a hairdresser…"
"Well, ballet lessons called louder, but football really shouted."
"Hmm… whispered sweet nothings."
She raised her eyebrows almost up under her bangs, the look still a knowing one. "The most seductive call of all."
"Absolutely. You know, while I miss the obvious now and then, I don't think it wasn't cut like this on Wednesday."
"No, I had it done Thursday morning, right before I went shopping for supplies. It's the look of the new Lois Lane."
"New? I hope the old one's not entirely gone…"
"That old frump? This one is new and *improved.*"
"But the old Lois wasn't a frump, she was sterling! Can you get better than that?"
"Of course I can--and you can, too! I mean, you're getting *me*…"
"Eventually, if you're good. After all, I'm nearly perfect. Still, there's always room for improvement in everyone, and I have plenty of room now."
"You sure do."
"I'll share, Bandit."
"Like I need improving, you…" he still hadn't thought up a good nickname for her, now when he was desperate for one. "You frump, you?"
"Ah-ha!" She seemed to know *that* wouldn't stick. "Yes, that tells me you need a *lot* of improving and I think we should start working on you *soon*."
"We'll talk about it." They'd talked too much already. "Let me get a closer look at the new Lois Lane who isn't a frump any more."
She smiled again and sashayed right up. "And I want a closer look at you, too…" She took hold of the waist band of his cut offs and he decided not to notice. "You know, I'm glad you weren't the cable guy…" she purred.
He raised an eyebrow. "Cable? In this neighborhood?"
"I know, I know… I'm expecting a phony salesman to come along and offer to put me on his list for a small fee."
"He would be a phony, MetroCable is afraid to come out here."
"Well, it's their loss because I'm thinking of getting a satellite dish anyhow."
"One of those little digital ones with a hundred channels? Those look interesting."
"Interesting if you like pabulum. No, I want a…" Her hands inched closer to his snap and zipper but she kept looking at his face. "…12-foot one like your… parents have and every descrambler on the market so I can get all the feeds and all the news before it's news…"
He looked down. Her hands were betraying her apparent interest in making some surprising personal news between them. She wasn't working very hard at it though, giving him leeway, perhaps awaiting a go-ahead signal.
He appreciated that, and he dearly wanted to give it, but better sense (he hoped it was better sense) won out and he unpried her hands and eased back. "Wait, wait. You're not putting a 12-foot dish in *my* garden." He pointed east in case she had conveniently forgotten in which direction it was along with forgetting it was out there. "I'd have no room for any garden then."
"*Don't* call me Shirley."
"Shut up. I'm going to put it on the *roof*," she pointed upward, apparently in case *he* had forgotten where it was, "because of the full southern exposure."
"Oh. Well, that's okay, that makes more sense. I'll help you make sure the roof can support it."
"I'm sure you will because obviously you want access to all my channels…"
Good thing I've had some practice with this, he told himself. "Oh, yeah? And whose channel are you trying to pull in now?"
She grinned and took his waist band again. "Guess, Bandit!"
"And if I guess right will you marry me… Sugar?"
She almost made a face. "'Sugar'?"
"Sugar's not good?"
"Not for right now."
"It's… not the equal of 'Bandit', is it?"
"No, not nearly--but it's *nice*, and I don't want you to stop trying because I think it's… sweet."
"Ha… I just don't have a lot of experience in thinking up nicknames."
"That's okay, I don't mind you not having a good reason to until now."
"You're the first one I've really wanted to… do that for."
Her eyes sparkled. "I'm glad about *that.*"
"And I *will* think of something appropriate."
"I know. Until then, you'll definitely get a smudge." Now she trailed her hands up to reach for his face.
He didn't move to stop her though he couldn't help but look amused. "With those hands I won't be surprised…"
She silenced him with her mouth and proceeded to take certain no-less-than-PG-rated liberties for another indeterminate amount of time.
He swore he'd never go on vacation without her again.
He heard something happen behind him but couldn't place what it indicated and didn't much care anyhow.
"Woo-woo! And I thought *Lois* was moving in fast!"
Lois's left hand was raking through Clark's coiffeur and her right was fooling with his glasses. She might pull them off and he might let her, and then he might consider pulling something off of her and she might let him…
She put an immediate stop to all this. She let him go and quickly composed herself with the skill of a well-rehearsed actress.
It was just about all Clark could do to catch his breath.
Lois looked around him as he turned toward the front door. She said, "Hi, Jimmy, you got back quickly."
"Yeah, well, it was only nails." He held up a brown bag that Clark guessed weighed some exact amount like 14.75 ounces. Lois must have sent Jimmy on the errand only minutes before three. "The House Club was packed, even at this time of day," the young man complained, "but the 10-items-or-less line was fast. I hope they're the right kind," he said as he came down the steps.
"I'm sure they are, what's a nail between friends? Just put them over there." She waved in the direction of a paint-stained TV tray upon which was a hammer, an assortment of screwdrivers, and a quarter of a roll of colorful paper towels.
Lois and Clark took advantage of their young friend's not looking to cool their jets a bit more. Clark hooked his thumbs in his pockets, glad he had pockets (which was one of the big problems with the suit), and Lois retrieved her bandanna from the floor and retied it into place. She winked at Clark.
He realized suddenly that he was feeling and looking upset about the interruption, but things weren't really *that* bad, were they? No, not at all. He shook his head at himself and sighed. Lois noticed this and smiled contagiously. Suddenly it was even okay that Jimmy had inadvertently sneaked up on them. The story of what their friend had witnessed would no doubt be buzzing through the newsroom by the time he, Clark, returned from vacation, but that was okay, too. It was beginning to look like there was a right time for certain things to be known.
"Did you have a good time way out in Kansas, CK?" Jimmy asked as he approached again.
"It was fine, but I'm glad to be back, too."
"Yeah, I could see that when I walked in the door. All that… farm stuff must be tough and lonely."
"It's… certainly different from the city."
"All work and no play, huh? I don't get out in the country much, there are more girls here in the city anyway. You know what, Lois? I bet *you're* glad CK's back, too, what with…" he winked broadly, trying to hide it from Clark but not turning away quite enough, "*Superman* hanging around here making a pest of himself…"
"Jimmy, it's not that, you and I both know that he doesn't have to prove to me that he's not gay…"
Clark's jaw dropped, partly involuntarily. He recovered it quickly to say, "Superman's *gay*?"
Jimmy almost grinned, obviously pleased to be in on the tease and that Clark was so easily fooled. He tried to look deadly serious. "Well, that's what *I've* heard lately. It must be because," he cuffed Clark on the shoulder, "he's got serious competition!"
"There's no competition between us that I've heard about."
"Well, he's heard about it, obviously. Good thing he's never come on to me," Jimmy said and then he glanced sideways, uncertainly, at Clark.
"Don't look at *me*!"
Jimmy inspected his grubby tennis shoes while trying to hide that grin.
"Superman is as straight as they come," Clark said firmly.
"As straight as… Mr. Rogers?" Lois asked sweetly.
"Ah, well, I don't know, Mr. Rogers is an ordained minister…" Clark wondered just how many times he was going to get caught in this scenario. Probably until Lois got bored of it or was sure that everyone had gotten the message, whatever that was, and thought of a new game.
"Superman is probably straighter than God, actually," Jimmy informed them. "He sure hasn't hesitated to kiss you plenty of times, Lois--Superman, I mean, not God--"
"God just asks for my advice."
"And you charge for office calls."
"You bet I do, He can afford it."
"But *Superman* doesn't charge," Clark said quietly, hoping it would carry more weight that way. "He does everything for free."
Lois gave him a "and what did you intend to charge me for?" look. Plumbing and carpentry work, he thought.
She said, "So you're saying Superman's better than God?"
"That's not what I said--"
"Superman's better than me then?"
"Well, now that you bring it up--"
"Ah, hey, guys?" Jimmy jumped in to the rescue. "Lois? Hasn't it ever felt like Superman wanted to… you know… do more than just kiss you?"
"I'm sure he has. I'm sure that even though he's an alien from outer space he's just the same as any other guy."
"Who falls for you as soon as he sees you," Jimmy smiled as though he were a proud younger brother.
"Well, what can I say?"
"*But*," Clark inserted, "he has his duty and his… sacred oaths and democracy to protect and justice to fight for and… and all that."
"Small children watch his every move," Lois supplied helpfully.
"And teenagers see him as a role model," Jimmy nodded.
"I hope so."
"And older women lust after him," Lois added.
They do? Oh, yeah, if what she'd said about Lucy's new friends was any measure. "*Every* day." I should charge for that somehow maybe, he thought. Murray would love it, he could figure out how to collect the fees, and the proceeds could go to battered-women's shelters… Nah, it probably wouldn't work. While he planned to see Murray tomorrow morning--Clark had called in for the latest news on Wednesday, agreed they needed to conduct some business, and set up a meeting at the usual time and place--he knew he could never mention the crazy idea. Anyhow, that kind of charity was already benefiting from the Superman Foundation.
"So it's an image thing," Jimmy guessed.
"Yes--even though he's a shy kind of guy."
"Shy, right," Lois nodded. "That's it exactly, as shy as they come."
"But he's been hanging out around here, huh?"
"Well, you know how it is, homeless puppies always home in on me…"
"*I* still think he's jealous, CK," Jimmy said. "What with Lois moving in right here *next to you*…"
"Jealous? I don't know. He knows there's a housing shortage and it's more likely that… Lois, did you con Superman into helping you move?"
"Me? Con anybody?"
"You conned me."
"She definitely conned me, she *requisitioned* me--and the Chief okayed it!" Jimmy shook his head.
"You're taking a sick day--a mental health day. Be happy to get out of that stuffy, chemical-laden dark room."
"And into this dusty, paint-fume filled--"
"*Well,* Superman better stop hanging around you, Lois. I won't have him attracting bad guys--you already do enough of that for you and him *and* me."
"Yeah," Jimmy added. "And me, too. The paint-fumes probably scare him though, since he's environmentally correct."
"If they don't," she told Jimmy, "and he shows his face around here again, Clark will kick his butt right back out the window."
"Kicking him through the door will be easier, I just need somebody to hold it open for me--"
"You'd do that?" Jimmy's eyes widened in anticipation. "Kick his butt?"
"Just see if I don't, drop kicks are my specialty." Enough of this. "Okay, Lois, do I get to see the rest of this wood-and-mud-daub ivory palace or do I have to bribe you some more?"
"Whoa!" Jimmy grinned. "And I don't have my camera…!"
"You don't?" not a good idea for a news photographer.
"Well, I have a little one in my gym bag." He pointed it out; it was up on the landing near the coat-closet door. "I have fast film, too. *One* of you will be moving fast…" as though he was sure just who would really be drop kicked if a face-to-face challenge occurred.
"Me, keep your eye on me, I kick fast. Lois, do I get a personal tour or is it self guided?"
It was a group tour. Not only did Jimmy tag along, but before they got more than a few steps, there was a knock on the screen door. It was Molly Flynn, come to help clean up and bringing a bribe as well, a shoebox full of vegan carob chip cookies. Lois let her in and passed the cookies around immediately, though Clark noticed she didn't take one for herself.
"Vegan?" she wondered during midpass, trying them out on her two volunteers first.
"No eggs," Molly said with a smile. "No chickens in any form were sacrificed to please our unhealthy craving for refined sugar and dead animal parts."
Lois paused and looked at Clark. They grinned simultaneously. Lois tried unsuccessfully to control it (Clark didn't), but she didn't explain the reason behind their shared expressions, either. Clark followed her lead and let their two friends wonder. How soon would the description of this exchange become part of the Planet's rumor tear sheet? Who cared? As long as she wanted to keep private her second visit to Smallville in two months, he'd play along. It was nicer playing on her team than against her or, worse, being the football.
Lois tried one of the cookies then, smiled, "These *are* good!" and she held on to the box as she took her entourage around her new apartment in the making.
Clark and Molly ooh'ed and ahh'ed at all the right places. The kitchen was a large area with a centered work space ("I'm planning on become a gourmet chef," Lois claimed), and the major appliances, while grimy, all worked. She had already tested the stove, she said, boiling water for tea that morning ("Wow," Jimmy said, "Good start!"). Clark almost applauded Lois's restraint in not giving the young man a good slap; she must have been in a great mood.
The water, she said, tasted a little… old, not as good as it did in Clark's place or probably at Mrs. Wallace's since the old woman still going strong. Lois had brought a special filter just in case, and she wanted Clark to check out the plumbing structures if he would, please. They looked older than Mrs. Wallace, frankly. Okay, he said, no problem. He didn't mention that he thought he should check for corroding pipes and heavy metal traces and the like, he'd just sneak a check of that in.
She continued, asking him if he also think of ways to improve the look of the cabinets, if they should be stripped, sanded, varnished and sealed, or it would be easier to just replace everything. Okay, he nodded. She added that he should watch out for spiders, too, she'd seen several… Gotcha, he said, plumbing, carpentry and spiders.
That earned him a smile. He was almost glad he didn't ask if she wanted him to bake a cake, too.
Jimmy quickly said he'd help, looking like he hoped to make up for his wisecrack about boiling water, except he'd let Clark deal with the spiders, that sounded like a farm-guy kind of thing.
The door to the back squeaked a little; Lois said she had oil for it somewhere, or Clark probably did. I do, he said.
Molly thought the garden was precious. Jimmy wondered if the satellite dish would squash the squash ("Is that squash?" "No, it's a miniature tea rose bush") or if the shadow cast would make it dark enough to grow mushrooms. Lois told them that no plants would suffer to help fulfill her addiction to the news; the dish was going on the roof. They all looked in that direction and she said she'd show them that next.
Inside again, she opened a door to reveal a staircase up, a staircase down, and another door across a very short hall. "Roof up, basement down, and Clark's apartment is over there."
"Oh!" Molly and Jimmy said in unison.
"The landlord's lost the key," Clark lied mildly.
"But I can pick locks if necessary," Lois informed him.
"It may not be necessary…" Clark told her.
Clark was sure their friends already knew Lois had a key to his apartment. How many other keys she had was ripe for speculation.
Lois said the staircases were only slightly unstable, but she would show them all was well by going up first. Clark, the largest of the quartet, trailed behind to catch anyone who might fall. He hardly touched the steps as not to strain them, but at the same time didn't detect any danger.
Other than the second cinderblock utility room on the far south end of the roof where the other stairs up to here exited, most of the area that they surveyed when they arrived was frankly boring. The flat surface was adorned only with pipes coming up from the kitchens and bathrooms below and the tight wooden trap door one reached from inside via the decorative spiral staircase in his own apartment (the landlord had been proud of that for reasons Clark could not understand).
Lois pointed out that there was nothing at all to prevent a satellite dish from being placed up here, plus maybe a barbecue and some lawn-type furniture and maybe some plants in containers, too. The surface and underlying structure looked sturdy, Clark thought after a quick glance into it when his back was turned to the others. He had once considered the planter idea, but had not had enough time to try it. He and Lois together, that was a whole other story--a nicer, longer, more detailed one. A novel, one of epic proportions maybe.
He wandered toward the south end. Just beyond the small utility room, the view from up here was surprisingly good now that the taller trees were losing their leaves. Even though this was only a tall, one-story building, standing here one could enjoy a nice panorama of much of the skyline of downtown Metropolis in this early evening's light. What wasn't visible was hidden by a huge brick building that advertised itself as "The L. Luthor Moving and Storage Co." It was almost half a mile south of the neighborhood and beside the busy cross-town expressway that headed away east.
Clark heard Lois advise Molly and Jimmy to take it easy going back down the stairs, that she would round up Clark, who looked like he was daydreaming of the countryside again. He heard her tiptoeing up behind him, heard her calm her breath and try not to make a sound. This definitely wasn't the same as *knowing,* which needed more testing.
He didn't expect her to give up tiptoeing and say out loud, "That's where I'm storing my furniture." She pointed at the big brick building.
"I know, I know, I'd rather store my things in a pile on the street with a 'take me' sign on it, but then I would have had to move everything myself." She shrugged. "Of course somebody else owns the business now. I guess they can't afford to paint their name on the building. It's a wonder they have any business at all when you think about it."
"I'd rather not think about Lex Luthor."
"Me neither, but they're what my ex-landlords would pay for. Maybe the new owners are their cousins or something."
"Is there a story in that?"
"In ordinary, run-of-the-mill nepotism? Not that I can see, not unless… they lose my furniture or their building burns down, and now that I've said that, it won't happen."
"You're probably right."
"I'm always right. I've asked them to deliver the rest of my things tomorrow afternoon. I should be cleaned up enough by then. Will you help me move Maxine and her kids back into their tank?"
"Of course. That jar was a good idea."
"Lucy found it. She plans to come over around five, so expect her, too, and maybe some other people."
"Lois Lane presents Metropolis Union Station, huh?"
"Only for a little while and I'm going to be the perfect hostess."
"And you have the perfect excuse to direct the surging masses."
"Yes. I think they also want to see your reaction to me muscle-ing my way in here right next to you."
He wondered briefly why she was worried about that, why she needed reassurance. Was she having second thoughts? He hoped not. "You're not muscle-ing, everybody has to be somewhere, and I'm glad you chose to be here. Very glad."
She smiled a little, caught. "Me, too… It seems like some people have been pushing us and pushing us, even people we don't know…"
"I've felt that, too. I *want* this, but I don't like to be… manipulated."
"Exactly. Still, we've done it *our* way."
"Your way mostly…"
"No, *our* way."
He just raised his eyebrows.
She looked defensive. "All right, I pushed us a little--but *you*," she pointed at him, "you *were* trying. If you hadn't been and I hadn't realized it, maybe I wouldn't have pushed. I needed the incentive, and you know how pushy I can be with the slightest incentive."
"Me, the original pushy woman--and you love it. We both want this, that's our way."
Why did that make sense? "All right, *our* way."
She smiled, content. Our way, he thought, was her being content. When she was content and squarely on his side, like now, it invariably made him feel that life was just wonderful. He matched her smile.
She let her contented gaze drift south, as though resting from the effort of straightening him out.
He looked back that way as well. Kansas was far to the west of here but he wasn't daydreaming of the countryside, he wasn't daydreaming at all. Something occurred to him. He walked forward and looked over this south edge of the building, into the alley that, conveniently, Mrs. Wallace did not have a window onto. It wasn't something a little old woman should be subjected to anyhow; let her contemplate the calm container garden or watch kids playing on the sidewalks in front of the apartment house.
He recalled his mom pushing him off this roof about two years earlier to try to help him remember he could fly. It hadn't worked, he'd fallen into the dumpster. A sterling moment… that had dropped him in the right place and time to remember everything when Lois had happened along, searching for him so they could huddle together against what looked like the impending end of the world. The expression on her face…
Now she came right up beside him, took his waist band (she really liked doing that, didn't she?), and said, "Don't fall."
"Not this time."
She looked over, using him as an anchor now, saw what he was looking at (the half-full dumpster), and smiled. "I remember that…"
He put his arm over her shoulders. "Did Mom mention anything about that?"
"No, that's another thing to talk about." She withdrew from the ledge and pulled him back with her. "And I do want to talk. I want to spend hours and hours and hours just… communicating with you, like we did back on the farm."
He found both his arms around her. "Good, I really like to talk to you."
She snuggled. "If you missed me half as much as I missed you this week…"
"More, lots more, ten times more, and it got worse as it went on. I'm glad we got to talk some, even if it was just…"
"Our telephone bills will put us in the poor house."
"As long as we're together…"
"In a room--a cell by ourselves."
"A little tiny cell."
"Heavy, lead-lined curtains," he smiled, "just in case you-know- who is hanging around."
"Do you think he might be convinced to break us out and help us hide?"
"That boy scout?"
"He's for truth and justice…" She frowned. "Except he might help us hide in the wilderness, yech."
"Bears and bugs and quicksand, yech."
"Okay, no break out."
"So if he bothers us, you'll kick his…"
He nodded. "Leave it to me."
"I will. This I'll leave to you, too."
A kiss… until they heard something crash distantly, obviously from down within Lois's apartment.
"We can't leave them alone for a moment…"
"Tonight we can have dinner together."
"I don't know, I don't think so. I warned you, I have the feeling it will get busy around here."
"After that then."
"Okay. Is it a… date?"
"It's a rendezvous."
"That sounds exotic."
"We can be exotic," he smiled. He had, he realized, always wanted to be exotic with someone and not all alone. "I want to take you to exotic places."
"As long as they're not in the wilderness."
"Not even a little? Not even if I protect you from… wild chickens?"
She sighed. "We'll see how well you do first against the wilds of one big-time messy apartment."
"I'll do fine. Let's clean it up, fast."
"No, not fast, carefully," and she took his hand and lead him back to the stairs, not allowing him to straggle.
She resumed the tour. Her new bedroom was large, which was easy to see since there was no bed in it. "I was going to have it delivered today but I decided on the couch instead," she explained. "I can sleep on that tonight because I want to wash the woodwork and paint this room, *then* move the bed in here."
Everyone agreed that made incredible sense. The room had a big skylight window that Lois said she was still thinking about how to cover. Molly suggested hanging roll-up art over them. She further marveled and Lois beamed about the palatial, walk-in clothes closet. Jimmy and Clark shrugged at each other; closets were closets: stuff things in them, close the door tight, push if you have to.
The next room, her bathroom, had a large, old, practically mint condition tub with claw feet. Lois said the landlord had apparently not seen its value since he had stored old magazines in it. Jimmy had never seen anything like it, though Clark had, in Nebraska in the home of one of his father's aunts.
Lois tapped his arm. The plumbing here should be looked at, too, hmm?
He began to wonder about this, if she was taking him just a little bit for granted… but those thoughts fled when, in showing them her basement (emphasis on the *her*), she took his hand again. The landlord's junk had been removed from this area, but it hadn't been cleaned. The place was dank, dark even with the bare 50-watt light bulb turned on, and spiderwebby in the places that weren't deep in shadow. The furnace that was big enough for all three of the building's apartments seemed to loom dangerously, and its pipes and vents were right out of a monster movie. Lois didn't step foot on the floor and kept everyone behind her up on the staircase.
The place gave her a little scare, he thought. Not a nice thought since she was living right overhead. Molly and Jimmy were not rushing to explore foreboding corners either. While he didn't feel inclined at the moment to show them everything was just scary and nothing more, it did look like an eventual job for… "I'll help clean this place up," he assured her, assuming with some certainty that was the real reason she had taken his hand.
She squeezed. Right on. So much for moaning about being taken for granted, he sighed at himself, if I keep volunteering for it. He made it "worse" by adding, "I'll make sure the furnace still works, too, what with winter coming…"
She brightened. "It must work okay, or Mrs. Wallace and you would have frozen before this in the winter."
Her upward rebound mood continued as she explained her idea of turning the area into a rec room/guest room, maybe getting a big-screen TV or a big freezer or a pool table or all of those things, there was a lot of room for whatever she wanted. Jimmy voted for the TV and the pool table for starters.
She took them back up stairs and explained that she and Jimmy had already started working on the living room. "We still have a lot to do in here. You two," she nodded at Clark and Molly, "can help us or pick your own room to start on."
Molly chose to help in the living room, maybe they would get it finished tonight, whatever Lois decided "finished" was. Clark said he'd start investigating behind the scenes in the kitchen. Lois turned up the radio a bit so Clark could listen if he wanted to even if he were, as she put it, crammed under the sink. He thanked her from the bottom of his heart. She smiled as though she knew she was doing him a big favor.
Jimmy wound up migrating between the two areas, helping wherever he could and eventually settling down to watch and assist Clark. The young man claimed he thought it was a good thing to know how to clean out under sinks, turn water off and on, open up pipes and look in them without fainting at the grunge people were drinking, decide what new parts were needed, make lists, visit the Home Club for the umpteenth time using Lois's Jeep, stand in line, get receipts for Lois to turn over to the landlord, and then install the new parts, like pipes and faucets, and the deluxe water filter she had bought separately that didn't really fit but Lois absolutely insisted upon having. "I need to learn to do all this in case I get married some day," Jimmy said.
"Marriage is more than this…" or, Clark didn't add, I hope it is.
"Well, I know it's more than dirty hands and… I mean, what if I don't want to listen to women talk about…" he looked carefully in the direction of the living room and then almost whispered, "curtains and paint chips? I can say, 'Honey, I have to go change the washers in the faucets in the sink.' That's a great excuse, huh? Better than 'I'm going out with the guys.' It'll be like building up credit and she won't realize it."
"She'll love you for it." Lois better love and credit me for this…
"So, in case I can't stay, is it the same for bathroom sinks?"
"You're not going to stay so I can show you them, too?"
"Ah, well… I guess I will, I don't want to run out of excuses."
As predicted, Lucy turned up about six. So did Laurie from work, and even Perry dropped by briefly about 7, saying he'd try to come again Saturday morning--was 10 all right?--and bring Alice, too, because she wanted to see what Lois had in mind to do with her cozy new bungalow.
All three were pleased to see Clark again and asked him about his vacation and life on the farm--and what he thought about Lois moving in right next door, *of all things*… Clark was happy they were pleased to see him, though none of them offered a hug or even a hand shake since he was dirty from the kitchen work. He said he'd had a good time on vacation. He added that Lois's eviction problem had been a shocker but the bigger surprise was that she had chosen this place to live. It really was something all right.
They looked like they saw right through this mild mannered reaction and no doubt suspected Lois had more plans than that up her blue plaid sleeve.
At about 7, Jimmy discretely mentioned that he was starving to death even though the little loaf of brick-heavy banana bread that Angela had just turned up with looked delicious (it also looked like *dessert*, he said).
Everyone agreed that a break for dinner was long overdue since most of the snacks had run out. They started to wash up, complementing Clark and Jimmy on the new faucets in the kitchen except they should clean up the mess, please, and not leave the tools lying about even if they were Clark's and he could do what he wanted with them. He and Jimmy shrugged at each other. Clark noticed that the area smelled a bit of the work of changing out old plumbing, too, but the odor of cleaning solvents and paint overwhelmed that for less sensitive noses.
As for a meal they could share, since no one wanted to worry about appearances, were there any good restaurants in this neighborhood that offered order-out? Clark suggested several places and provided menus for them, which he retrieved from where he kept a stash of them stored in his kitchen behind the bread box. A consensus was obtained and Lois used her cell phone to call in an order for pizzas.
The pizzas, salad and cheese cake arrived just before eight. Lucy said she bet they'd smell good if the apartment didn't smell like paint. Clark went back to his place and got his fan, installing it in a kitchen window and pointing it outward to help encourage fresh air to enter the front of the house. "It cleared out the gasoline fumes," he reminded Lois when she looked skeptical. While he did this, tables were made out of the unopened boxes dotting Lois's front room and he returned to be ordered to sit on a folded up blanket and not on the hard, dusty floor. He didn't argue.
Lois said she had some paper plates and plastic utensils around here somewhere… Clark went back to his apartment and rounded up enough real, recyclable dinnerware for everyone to use. Lois was, however, able to provide napkins and supervision of the distribution of the food she had paid for in thanks for their help. She ordered him to sit down again and *not* to get up, he'd done enough, then checked the radio for some dinner-eating-with-friends-in-her-new- apartment music. She settled on light classical.
The food was good. The friends were surprised that any place in this neighborhood, with it's "iffy" (they said politely) reputation could offer such a feast. They should have ordered more. "I'll order more," Lois said, "but I'll expect another six hours' work out of you…" Jimmy and Lucy groaned, but Lois ignored them and looked at Clark.
Did she expect him to groan, too? Nope, he was in it for the long haul. "Greek food next time? Nick's has great food."
"Actually, his daughter runs the place now, but her name is Susan."
"That doesn't sound Greek."
"So? I'll take a humus plate with an extra order of dolmas for lunch tomorrow in trade for cleaning up the basement."
The others asked for lunches from restaurants serving Mexican, Japanese and a Big-Bite Wheeler-Dealer Meals (they stared at Jimmy; he shrugged "Hey, I'm still a *kid*!") for tackling various parts of the rest of the apartment until Lois complained that she should have been taking notes. "I'll remember," Clark smiled at her. She gave him a narrow look.
The conversation turned to what people had done at work that day until Lois warned Laurie, Jimmy and Angela, "No details about the Planet! Clark's still on vacation!"
"What? What's been happening? Did Mr. Stern give everyone raises? Was I volunteered to chair the Christmas Party committee again? Did the Kyle Griffin escape again and trick everyone in Accounting into thinking they'd been turned into bud vases while he looted our pension funds?"
"No, no, no…"
"Gaw, CK, that vacation really warped you!"
Clark smiled, nodded at Jimmy and finished off his first piece of pizza.
"Not the *Christmas Party* committee…" Laurie said, a warning in her voice. Lois cut her short with a sharp look. Laurie had to choke back any further words; she covered her mouth but smiled anyhow.
"We're going to talk about the *weather* now," Lois informed them sternly, just as the music on the radio, a cheerful piece by Vivaldi, lead into a brief rundown of the news highlights, which everyone automatically quieted to listen to.
Dateline, central Africa, West Bougainvillea: UN troops were being overrun and some held hostage in a brazen attempt by a small disgruntled faction in the multistate war to break the truce the UN and Superman had engineered several weeks before. In Washington, the House banking pension loan scandal daycare continued unabated…
Molly shook her head. "Some people just like to argue. In Africa, in Europe, here in this country. It's bad karma all the way around…"
"And it's so stupid!" Laurie said. "You'd think with the rains they've been having over there recently everyone would be insanely happy…"
The two women nodded at each other, sisters at heart. Lois just shook her head, probably because it sounded like business as usual in the vast scope of human existence.
Clark wished it weren't so. Bad karma was right, he sighed to himself as he felt a rain-wet blanket being figuratively thrown over any chance of talking with Lois this evening.
Then he pulled himself up short. No, he told himself sternly, that's wrong: there's no reason to think I'm paying off bad karma, not considering all these great things that have happened recently. This is just one of those things.
"I'm sure Superman's on the way to help them out," Lucy said. "In Africa, I mean, not Washington. No one can help them."
"He's always there to help when you need him," Jimmy nodded firmly and then smiled at Angela. "*Always*."
Angela looked impressed at Jimmy's certainty. No doubt he had regaled her with stories of his interactions with the famous fellow.
Maybe it was a good thing, Clark thought, that he hadn't yet come up with a casual way to suggest that Lois and he find somewhere quiet so they could simply chat and enjoy each other's company for a while. It would be a lot easier to think of an excuse to make an exit alone since obviously he should check out this latest turn in events half a world away.
He looked at Lois.
But she was already trying to catch his eye. "Clark, did you ever call your folks and tell them you got home safely?"
She gave him a raised eyebrow: answer me, it's a perfectly reasonable question.
Even more reasonable considering all that she knew. He almost laughed, recalling his speculation of the night before. He wanted to shout: I can play this!
Part of the game was showing great restraint such that it was obvious only to the other player. "Ah, no, I forgot. I was too busy thinking about helping you…"
As hoped, everyone smiled. Again they were exactly right in what they thought about what was going on, they just had no idea of the depth…
"Well, I know how your mother likes to chat…"
She did? How often had she and mom "chatted" since Lois had found out? Later…
"Right, I'll probably be on the phone a long time. She'll want to tell me all the latest Smallville gossip." He rose from his comfortable place on the floor, looked around, saw a box that was lined with a heavy-duty plastic trash bag and tossed his napkin into it. One piece of pizza and half a can of soda was all he'd managed. It would do. But would even a long phone call cover the time he'd need to be away? "You know, I think I'll take a shower and get cleaned up, too."
The friends began to take stock of their own appearances and plan to do the same thing. Clark could see the evening begin to wind down. He hoped he wasn't the reason, that he'd simply been the catalyst and that Lois had foreseen this possibility. While the evening had taken on something of a party air, what had preceded it had been hard work and people were tired.
Lois stood up, too. "Well, don't *everyone* go away because I can't eat all this food by myself. I expect you all to have seconds and thirds. And you," she pointed at Clark, "wait up, I'll see you to your door."
Friends exchanged glances, stayed put, took seconds, smiled at each other again, and made no move to hinder either Lois or Clark in their quest for a moment's privacy.
They left by way of her back door and, once out of sight, rushed into his kitchen, and closed the door behind them. He turned on a light and immediately told her, "I'm glad you came, but I can't stay and chat and I really wanted to."
"I know, I did, too, but if I didn't come, I'd miss seeing you change. It occurred to me last Sunday evening that I haven't seen that yet--"
"So that's not how you found out."
She blinked, thought a moment, and said, "That's right. I think you're more careful than that."
"You're successful--but not tonight. I want to see it because it's been bugging me all week."
"You should have said something."
"You would have come and done it?"
"Sure, it's easy."
"Then I should have said something. If you had flown in, I could have seen you change from Superman to you for the first time. I would have preferred that, but I can settle for it being this way." She leaned back against the counter to the right of the sink, folded her arms under her breasts, and said, "So," she unfolded an arm and waved a hand in an encouraging manner, "go ahead. What do you do first?"
She was just standing there prepared to simply watch? And she would have preferred it the other way around, to see him shuck Superman to become himself?
That meant a lot!
Ah… "There's no 'first'… Well, there is something first." He went into his living room, turned on the radio low and then a light near one window but made sure that window's curtain was drawn closed.
"To make it look like you'll be here," she said as he returned.
"I'll turn them off later, if you're away past… ten, okay?"
He paused. The game was bigger than he'd imagined. "That would be great, thanks. I don't want to be gone that long, but…"
"Hey, it's Africa, that's far away and it's a war. Okay, so *now* what do you do first?"
"Nothing in particular, I just… do it."
"Oh? All at once?" There was the hint of normal Lois Lane skepticism in her voice, and hearing that pleased him for some reason. "So everything is first?"
"It can't be very complicated then…"
"It isn't. Well, one thing about it is complicated, and I can't really explain it. It's the hyperspace part. You remember me mentioning that before…"
"You think your ship traveled through it."
"Right. Now I keep my clothes there--in hyperspace, not the ship, unless I'm sure I'm going to be home or on the farm, then I keep my clothes in the closet."
"Uh-huh…" now pull my other leg…
Not her leg… "It works like this…" He reached into hyperspace and pulled out the suit and cape, which earlier in the afternoon he had folded neatly around the boots and then fixed the belt around that. He had never lost this bundle of clothing "forward in time." This was probably because clothing was the easiest thing to think about (he had to wear it) and thus keep track of. On the other hand, sometimes small things like a pen or spare change might get stuffed into a pocket that happened to wind up on the outside of a bundle of regular clothes; these things had been known to fall out and wind up some time that he couldn't find them. He figured someone occasionally received an unexpected windfall that way. Never had never lost his glasses though. Odd how all that worked out.
He noticed his arm and hand blurred a bit with the speed, a sight he had gotten used to and usually ignored now. But he never lost feeling, one of the things that he had feared at first when experimenting with the idea. His fingers usually tingled a bit when they touched whatever he put forward, but other than that the process didn't feel unpleasant or dangerous.
Lois's jaw dropped momentarily. "Huh? What was *that?*"
"It was… I guess I shouldn't have said 'it works like this' because I don't know how it works, I just know how to take advantage of it. I don't think even Star Labs could explain it if I had time to describe it to them, but I don't. They'd probably want to keep me for a week to write equations and I'm no scientist."
"If you could explain it…"
"It's got to do with hyperdimensional physics and statistics, that much I'm sure of."
"As in lies, damn lies and…?"
"Sort of. Oh, and add a dose wish fulfillment, too."
"Wish fulfillment I know about lately, but the rest… I'll let it pass, you're in a hurry. Now what do you do?"
He looked at the bundle and then back at her, hefting it a bit. "I put these things on."
"Oh--Oh! Do you want me to…?" She made a circular motion with her hand: turn around?
"Well, I have always wanted to show you this, maybe as much as you've wanted to see it, I just thought we'd have more time…" Then it occurred to him that saying "show you this" could apply equally well to a bedroom-type activities and the changing clothes meaning out of them and into nothing.
She said, "We'll have more time, we'll both see to it."
"Yes. We will, I *want* to…"
She nodded, she knew, she straightened. "I'll just…" and she began to turn.
"You don't necessarily have to do that…"
He could almost see the Oh? on her face. As she turned back, clearly curious, he put his glasses on the kitchen island work area and took a glance through the wall and into her apartment. He saw no one at all on the other side trying to overhear their conversation. He and Lois had been talking quietly and the fan in Lois's window made a racket, so there was no danger from that direction, and no one was in the dark courtyard garden. He was pleased that everyone had granted them this privacy.
As Lois was passing the half-way point in her turn back, he removed his regular clothes and tossed them over the stool that he'd sat on weeks earlier while watching her start to make cookies. Then he pulled on the suit and boots, fitted the cape into place using the discretely hidden Velcro strips, and came to a passive, arms-folded, Superman-type pose before her.
All this took nearly 2 seconds and only because he slowed down a bit.
Her eyes widened, and she fell back against the counter, her hand covering her heart, astonishment undisguised on her face. "Wow!"
He both reveled in her reaction--she was smiling a little now, too, as though it had been a marvelous trick--and feared for her because of it: her smile had a tenuous edge to it. He wanted to surprise her pleasantly, not make her nervous. "You see," he said as offhandedly as he could, "you didn't have to turn."
"I only had to blink!"
"And your hair even goes back--it had to be the friction."
"That mostly, and this." He ran his fingers through it once, briefly, and it stayed back like usual but not so painted-on looking like it could appear at times like this.
"And your other clothes…" but as she looked around she saw them.
"I usually fold them up and put them where I keep the suit."
"Oh, of course. So you don't wear the suit under your clothes."
"Are you kidding? Actually, I did for a while, in the winter, when I'd be naturally wearing bulkier clothes anyhow, but where do I put the boots?"
"Exactly. I used to try to hide my clothes. For a day or two I used a gym bag, then I tried a brief case so things would get less wrinkled. Neither of those ideas worked very well. I'd put my street clothes in there when I needed to put the suit on, then I'd put the bag or the brief case on a roof or some place else hard to reach--"
"I remember that briefcase! I thought it was a… an affectation. You know, country boy trying to look like a city businessman…"
He could remember her skeptical expression. "That's another reason I gave that up, but the main one was I was always afraid the bag or the briefcase would fall off the roof in a gust of wind or someone would find where I had hidden it, and I'd never get my things back."
She smiled sympathetically. Yes, Superman had mundane problems, too, lots of them, just like everyone else…
"I thought someone *had* stolen it when you stopped using it but I didn't want to say anything. I just thought it was funny…" she hesitated but too late, she was committed, "that the big city had, well, taught you a lesson…"
"In a way you were right."
She looked uncomfortable. The old Lois had entertained those snide thoughts. The new and improved one… he hoped she would have thought something similar, too, but in addition have tried to help him out. There were, after all, times when a healthy sense of skepticism came in handy, he knew that. His "problem" was that he was generally a happy fellow and had never quite figured out how to develop a cynical attitude that would last for any useful period of time. Early on such a thing might have kept him out of the numerous traps he optimistically blundered into… Then again, he wouldn't have been the fellow he was today, either.
She collected herself quickly and said, "So, okay, you save time and worry by keeping the suit in…"
"Hyperspace, I've got that now, it's all clear."
"I'm glad." Her naturally falling into asking questions indicated to him that she was recovering from the surprise.
"And the friction doesn't burn your clothes at all?"
"It did at first. After I thought up the idea and realized I had to move fast, it took me a weekend of hard practice, mostly back on the farm out in a field, to get the hang of it. Then I moved inside and practiced in tighter spaces."
She smiled slyly. "Did any one just *happen* to videotape any of this?"
Wait a minute, this was *not* something she was going to sink her pearly white teeth into, not if he could help it. He looked downright silly on quite a bit of that tape. "Good for our great, great, grandchildren--maybe," he said sternly, "and *not* before that."
"Did you accidently…" she twirled her right index finger, "into Martha's clothes maybe?"
"No! She's too small anyhow--"
"No! There's something more important about all this…" Like what? *Anything* was more important, like…
"What's more important is… I want you to know I can go slower."
"Lots slower." He nodded, hoping she would catch on. "Lots and lots slower…"
She caught on. "I see, except you conveniently don't have time to show me--and I'm not blaming you, it's Africa, that will happen."
"I'll show you sometime, *after* you…" he rolled his hand, sure she could read it saying "stop the silliness and accept my proposal."
She said in the same tone of voice "After *you*…" and her own hand replied: "stop acting like a frightened rabbit and show me your stuff."
Like that would be anytime soon. "Right," he said.
Like, her expression said, she knew when that would be. "Right."
"I think we understand each other."
"Perfectly. I see no impasse at all."
"None whatsoever." And I'm standing here, he thought, Superfellow, saying all this with a straight face.
"Except I do see that you better go fast now. Africa is far, far away…"
"Oh, yeah…" He had to watch out; such conversations could become convoluted and distract him from important jobs. He doubted that getting off a few minutes late would make much difference in this case though, considering all the time it had probably taken for the news to reach the media. He stepped forward, to her left, and reached for the door.
She watched him, frowned, and said: "Wait!"
"Wait? Why?--Oh, it's safe, I go this way all the time. Everyone in your place is either in the living room or the bathroom, I hope they stay longer and you have some fun. Mrs. Wallace, she usually watches TV…" He pictured the old woman; he remembered what night it was. "Darn! I forgot the X-Files is on and it's not a rerun and I didn't set my machine!"
"Well, my folks will get it, they always do. They met those two once, did you know that? I met them then, too."
"It was on the farm. I'll tell you about it some time. But," he smiled, "I can borrow their tape, no problem."
She grabbed his belt. She had that look in her eyes. "Kiss me, you fool!"
She had called him "Clark" *and* "fool," both despite the fact that he was wearing the suit! He forgot the XFiles, grinned at her orders, and gladly gave her what she demanded. She didn't mess with his coiffure.
In a few moments she pushed him away. "Now go, Bandit."
"Yes, ma'am… Tiger."
"Not Tiger? But it's perfect!"
"Yes--and it's trite, too."
"Neither of us is trite, Clark. You'll think of something, I have faith in you."
"Then I better not try 'Pumpkin' next."
Before she could say "Go!" he stopped hesitating, stepped out quietly and flew away, forcibly setting his mind on his destination and the unpleasant job ahead. Within 20 minutes he was cloistered with the UN forces commander for the area, being told the latest news. They worked up a quick plan, and he proceeded to rescue the entrapped UN soldiers, round up the hostage takers and turn them over to local authorities, destroy ammunition and bunkers, restore the UN flag, and generally help everyone in that corner of West Bougainvillea feel better about life again.
But he frequently visited that gratified little corner of his mind in which he had stored the look of Lois's new short hair cut and how it framed her face; the way her brown eyes had reflected her surprise and then a touch of thrill--with no fear at all!--at witnessing him change so fast; the scent of the basil, olive oil and mozzarella on her breath… and perhaps most pleasantly, the husky insistence in her voice upon calling him a fool and demanding that he succumb to their baser instincts for just a moment…
He returned home some four and a half hours later. The task had taken that long because of UN protocols, the desire of the relieved citizenry to see him, and his effort to help them refocus on the UN troops but even more on themselves. After all, they were ultimately responsible for grasping hold of their own lives, keeping the peace and seeing that the dictates of the truce were carried out.
He wished briefly that someone could have carried him out.
He was tired. An hour earlier the realization had finally dawned on him that he had just spent an incredibly long day, maybe one of the longest of his life. Fortunately it hadn't been filled with serious events. "Serious" could describe the longer time period after his first painful, draining exposure to Kryptonite. Some good had come during those 36 hours, like experiencing pure humanness (a character builder, he'd told himself afterward) and being a regular guy for a warming-up Lois. The warming up hadn't lasted due to Luthor's unrelenting amorous attentions, but things had been good for a while. If he wanted to dwell on a miserable experience, Clark told himself, look at the night and most of the day he'd spent trapped in Luthor's kryptonite cage before Lois had nearly married the villain.
In comparison, life over the last nearly almost 24 hours had been at least 90 percent terrific. Five percent of the day was nonwonderful because it happened while he was in the suit, cleaning up messes. Upon his arrival in West Bougainvillea, he was told that the standoff with the dissident army had started several hours earlier when they had ambushed a bus, killing two UN soldiers and several citizens. Bad news, but at least his dallying with Lois hadn't affected anything. Too, he couldn't save everyone, he realized that now and he tried not to let such things bother him.
The other five percent of the day that was not terrific in contrast then didn't look so bad. Yes, he'd had to work on all that kitchen plumbing and the bathroom was yet to be touched and he'd promised to tackle the basement. He'd had to stand in line for twenty minutes at the Home Club, twice, and pay for things with his own money since, despite her insistence that it was easy, he had refused to try to pass himself off as Lois and use her picture ID credit card. Then he had spent another twenty minutes total trying to get into and out of the megastore's parking lot traffic jam, no flying allowed.
But this time had given him plenty of chances to chat with Jimmy about sports and how they had both lost money in the last pool they had mutually participated in at work. He also caught up with the latest about Jimmy's love life (Angela was still number one), which led to being able to weasel out of the young man important office gossip and news. This way Clark discovered that, not being there to nominate someone else, he had been volunteered to coordinate the Thanksgiving potluck. It could have been worse: the logistics of preparing for last year's Christmas Party had been a nightmare. Everyone wanted either to bring chocolate cake or dinner rolls and many didn't agree with the concept of first signed up-first choose what to bring. Not enough people had wanted to help with decorations but everyone wanted to sing Christmas carols, just not the same ones at the same time. And every villain in Metropolis and the surrounding countryside had entertained no good cheer toward anyone, so Superman had been extra busy.
Thanksgiving, fortunately, wasn't so big and he'd already put in for and been guaranteed the Friday after it as a vacation day. It would probably work out because guess who wasn't getting out of helping him come November? Nothing short of a case of the plague was would exempt Lois Lane from seeing herself drafted as his assistant. There was a price to be paid for what that devious woman knew now…
Putting all that into proper perspective, though, the remaining 90 percent of the day had been just about as perfect as a day could be.
So why did he feel exhausted--*pleasantly* exhausted, yes, but exhausted nonetheless?
He had no idea, but there was one obvious remedy.
It didn't seem to include kissing Lois goodnight. Her apartment was dark. She was definitely in there, he was sure of it. She was in the front room, he thought, sleeping on the couch. He could almost hear her breathing but mostly relied on it being logical (the couch was the only bed available in her place) and also that he didn't feel that she was having any problems.
Her back windows were still open, but the smell of paint and cleaning solvents was much decreased, probably because no one was painting or cleaning at 1:15 a.m. Add to that a pleasant breeze off the ocean out of the east. He'd forgotten how nice that could smell here in the city.
He bet Lois was tired, too, from all the supervising as well as tarp spreading, old paint scraping, brick scrubbing, box toting, and other work she had thrown herself into with characteristic abandon. It would not be a good idea to wake her just to say he was back, would she like to chat? She'd probably throw something at him, and it wouldn't be herself.
So he eased into his apartment by way of the back door, glad she hadn't locked up after she left. He glanced toward the front of his apartment and saw that the front door was secure; he had forgotten to do that. She had turned off the lights and the radio, and his apartment was dark and quiet except for the street light casting yellowish squares through front windows, his VCR keeping time a minute fast, and his refrigerator humming along to itself.
Refrigerator… I'm hungry, he realized. Not a good thing to be at the moment. He'd had no time to grocery shop; he might have been able to fit it in if Africa hadn't taken so long. Then on the way back he'd spotted the sail boat with its mast broken during an unexpected squall; he had helped it to port in the Azores. He couldn't stop close to home because Mr. Cheung's grocery store closed at 11. The 24-hour Bag'n'Bargain about a mile away over on Hickerson, as often as the clerks had seen odd things this early in the morning, probably would have been in a minor panic if he'd stopped in for essentials while wearing the suit, having been distracted and left his regular clothes in the kitchen. Now home, he felt the heavy desire to stay put and not go out again unless there was an emergency.
Maybe Lois could spare some carrot sticks and yogurt…
No, she had spared some pizza. Under a napkin with a "CK" roughed onto it with a ball-point pen, the letters surrounded by a shield shape, she had placed two hefty wedges of pizza heaped with sun-dried tomatoes, basil, pinones and mozzarella. This was the best pizza of the three large ones they had ordered in his opinion, and he was glad he had recommended it. The pieces were staying fresh in a large, resealable plastic bag, and she had added a can of ginger ale, and what was that in the small opaque plastic container… cheese cake with cherry sauce topping!
One way to his heart, he realized ruefully, was definitely through his stomach. He smiled, muttered, "Lois, I love you…" told himself he should be saying this to the woman herself at every opportunity, pulled dinner out and arranged it on his table. He then zipped into his bedroom and out of the suit, which he put to soak with Woolite in the bathroom sink. He jumped into a pair of boxer shorts for comfort, returned to the kitchen and grabbed a fork for the cake. From a neat pile of magazines beside his couch he took an old issue of National Geographic for his mind, and as he ate he read an article about cowboy life in present-day Wyoming.
I have to take you to the Tetons, Lois. There are so many marvelous things to show you and a little wilderness will *not* hurt you one bit…
But no moonlit trips to enjoy snowy vistas tonight, we need our sleep.
He tried to eat and read at a leisurely pace, finishing off the meal and a second article, one explaining the development of rice paddies in Thailand, in about 15 minutes. He put the bag and the cheesecake container in the sink to be washed in the morning at a decent hour and headed for bed, stopping only long enough to finish washing the suit and to hang it up over the bathtub. He thought about moving the suit aside then and taking a quick shower, but the dust of the desert north of West Bougainvillea, into which some of the combatants had tried to escape, had been washed off by the ocean mists in the choppy North Atlantic. He didn't care if he smelled like all that. He didn't plan to entertain any guests before daylight, his eyes were heavy, his stomach was full, and the bed demanded his undivided attention. He succumbed without further hesitation, falling asleep buried in his pillow, a light, refreshing breeze wafting in from the open window to his left.
Sometime during the remainder of the night, Sparky, Mrs. Wallace's cat, came for a visit. The friendly little guy usually stayed only long enough to drape himself over Clark's ankles or nestled in the crook formed by Clark's knees, checking him out. The cat seemed to like to stay within easy jump of the window in case something happened outside that required a cat's superb judgment and supervision. Sparky rarely stretched out along Clark's back, on the side opposite the window and not touching, but this, Clark's unperturbed TSR warning system figured, was one of those curve balls cats liked to throw at people to keep them on their toes. At least Sparky wasn't like Maggie, who thought co-opting bed pillows was a divine right. This little cat had also put on some weight, but winter was coming, he was probably growing a new coat. Maybe the winter would be a hard one this year.
No matter; Clark slipped deeper into sleep, his unconscious expecting Sparky not to stay for more than half an hour before leaving to resume his watch over Mrs. Wallace.
Dawn began to break ever so slightly through the window and a robin decided to screech about it. Such pretty birds, such awful voices. Clark woke enough to think about rolling over and facing away from the window so he could get some more sleep. It was just past six and he didn't have to be at Murray's until 7:30. He could get up at 7, shower, grab some carrot sticks, leave a note for Lois, put on the now-clean suit, arrive at Murray's on time, escape from there by 8:30 or so probably, grocery shop on the way home, start inspecting Lois's bathroom, hope that Jimmy would show up to help… Yeah, that would all work.
Sparky was still there. "Sparky" had grown a good four feet longer and put on another 95 pounds or so.
Clark fell back, pulling up just in time from a hard landing because he had employed a partial float in the roll over move. He wanted to shout "Lois!" but stopped himself even though her audacity demanded such a reaction.
She was asleep. Her heart rate and breathing were steady. Her eyes gave a little jump with REM sleep, she licked her lips briefly, she muttered something that sounded like "boxed elephant." She was using her right arm for her pillow. Her hair was tossed and she wore no trace of makeup. She might have been in fetal position at one time but had relaxed out of that. She was, totally contrary to what he would have dryly imagined for such a scenario, completely, even overly clothed.
She was wearing what she had worn during the day, plus a sweater, a light woolly cap, and her socks. Her feet were entangled up past her ankles in the sheet at the far end of the bed.
It was a sure thing that she had not invaded his bedroom to demand a sexual encounter, but it wasn't otherwise clear why she was here.
Unless… she was cold.
But she had her own place and a comfortable couch and… no heat? He hadn't thought to check out the furnace for possible use tonight. Upon reflection, though, he was sure it was in working order because Mrs. Wallace would have had the heat on by now. He rarely turned it on for his own apartment unless he knew his folks were going to visit and it was seasonably cool, in which case he'd uncover and clean out the floor vents. Maybe Lois didn't know how to do that.
Then again, her place would smell like all the chemicals that had been used during the day. That and the reek of the furnace burning dust in a closed-up apartment might have made it hard to sleep and she'd decided not to try it. As he had earlier seen her that windows were open, and since she probably had packed away all her blankets, she could have gotten cold sleeping under a tarp.
Poor Lois, no choices.
Well, no, not really "poor Lois" and she'd had plenty of choices. She could have wakened him, asked if had a spare blanket and camped out on his couch or kicked him out of his warm bed and he could have taken the couch. It would have been easy, not so darn presumptuous, and he had several spare blankets, one of which he could find for her now, wrap her in it--and kick *her* butt out…
He lifted out of the bed silently, twisted and touched down on the floor at the end of the bed, and tiptoed to the closet, rising a bit to pull out one of the folded blankets stored in a plastic bag on an upper shelf. He unfolded it and fit it over her gently, rejecting at the last moment the idea of mummifying her in it and dumping her on the couch.
I'm such a sucker, he thought.
She sniffed, shifted slightly, and drew up her legs a bit. He took advantage of this to tuck the blanket around her feet more securely. He then stood back, looking at her, hands on his hips, pursing his lips then unpursing them because this was a lot funnier, or something like that, than it was exasperating. She still looked uncomfortable. He wondered if she was still suffering any aches and pains from being beat up weeks ago. He hoped not. He had several spare pillows, too, stored in the same manner as the blankets. Should he try to slip one under her head so she wouldn't get a stiff neck? Yeah, might as well.
You owe me for this, Lois, and just see if I don't try to collect…
He pulled a pillow out, fluffed it silently, noted that it smelled clean and cool, bent over and whispered in her ear, "Lois…?"
Sniff, shift, snuggle, "…nrk…?"
This from the woman who once had advised him on the best way to "sleep."
Almost two weeks after he had started at the Planet, on that joyous afternoon that he received his first paycheck and a pat on the back from Perry White himself, Lois had found a happy Clark Kent at the photocopier, making a copy of the check for his scrap book and one to send to his folks. She had seen him drop his money for the copies in the old coffee can, so she wasn't here to make sure he did that. Did she need some personal copies of something? He had some extra dimes and would be finished in a moment…
He didn't know yet that she didn't make personal copies and if they looked like they were for her own personal use, that was a mistaken impression on the part of the beholder. Her life was the Planet so any "personal" copies eventually went toward something that would be published and win praise and awards.
She watched him make his two copies and stick them in his desk, then took him aside and into the conference room. She closed the door, pulled the shades, and faced him.
She had, she said, decided to set him straight on a number of things since it looked like Perry had totally lost his mind and the greatest paper in the world and its best investigative reporter really were stuck with the kid from Kansas.
The kid shrugged and smiled pleasantly. Yes, it did look like that.
If he hoped to remain anywhere in her vicinity and continue contributing to her efforts to enlighten the world, Clark Kent had better use that check as a downpayment on several nice suits and good-fitting shirts. *Tailored* suits, too, not off the rack from Sears or, worse, the Smallville Feed Store. (Penney's of Wichita, he almost said.) Use of a subtle after shave would be good idea since he didn't seem to wear any cologne at all. The glasses would do for now, but he should consider lighter frames for certain types of interviews; she'd clue him in on which ones.
And what was this, not carrying a note pad and taking notes when questioning witnesses? What did he have, a photographic memory?--Oh, don't answer, it didn't matter. If he had one, he should stick it back in the dark room right now and get a pad of paper: people expected it, it was part of the image.
After she got through dissecting and rearranging his appearance, she started on reforming his act.
Take bad guys. There were a number of ways to handle them when they caught you. First, if there's no imminent danger to public safety or yourself, *don't* escape as soon as you can, you'll learn nothing that way. Get the story, get some quotes, don't commit yourself to their cause but don't be openly skeptical. Learn everything you can about them, collect clues, get the news, *then* escape.
One way to buy time was to simply fall asleep, especially if they caught you in a traumatic manner, you've been with them for a while, and you're tied up anyway. Then you're due a little nap. Act nervous, afraid, make them think they hold all the cards, and sleep like you're exhausted. Sleep like an angel and they won't believe it for a minute, and they'll probably kill you because you'll have irritated them instead of making them feel superior. Stroke their egos, listen hard, take plenty of mental notes--a note pad usually wasn't necessary in this case--escape, and get the story on the wire--fast and *first.*
If he found himself stuck in such a situation, he shouldn't hesitate to ask for her assistance at any point; she'd talk him through it if she couldn't get him out bodily. After all, if he messed up, it would reflect poorly on her, his mentor, but especially the paper and she would *not* tolerate that.
He had absorbed all this advice without question or taking the innuendo necessarily as unkind pokes at his amateur status. Hey, he could mess up, he had in the past and no doubt he would again; that was the way to learn things. He could not afford to mess up as the new "Superman," but so far, about five days into that part-time job, he'd been doing quite well.
Too, he knew she wasn't perfect either and she had never said she was, but she was darn good, that she would have told anyone. Lois Lane was not humble, it didn't pay. Her record supported her right to pass out advice, everyone in the newsroom and all her peers outside of it thought she was the greatest, and, of course, Clark was madly in love with her despite her warning.
The only place her record was apparently giving her no help at all was in her dealings with Superman. As of the afternoon of setting Clark Kent on the right road, she'd had two encounters with that headline grabber already, one of them in the Messenger, but surely she hadn't wanted to fall asleep during either of them.
Now though, despite all she knew… she was sleeping.
That afternoon in the Planet's conference room seemed like a life time ago, not just a few years and a Kerth for him and another for her. He'd taken a lot of her advice or tried to, except about faking sleep to spy, the concept of which she really didn't seem to have a good grasp of. He was sure he'd know if she was faking it and he was certain she wasn't doing so now.
"Lois, I have a pillow for you…"
"Uh," sniff, shift, one eye open, shut again. "Dezt.. uh…"
To wake up to this every morning, he thought…
…I could get used it.
"Lift your head a little…"
She did, though it appeared to be a strain. Maybe her neck was still bothering her; he told himself he'd have to try to keep an eye on her when back working on her apartment.
He quickly eased the pillow into place. She clutched at it, and sighed, a little smile playing about her lips momentarily. Then a touch of frown. "…whaztime…"
"Yes, it is." Well, for a little while longer anyhow.
What? He looked down at her. She seemed to be waiting though she hadn't changed her position. It was all attitude. Waiting…
For him to get back in the bed.
Oh, no, there was only so far he would play along with this. She had snuck in on him, one point for her. He hadn't foreseen it, hadn't realized it was even happening. What did that say for his *knowing* about her? Not much… except of course she hadn't been in danger, just uncomfortable, scheming and too quiet.
She tightened her grip on the pillow and drew up her knees further, apparently dismissing him and relishing the warmth of the blanket, as though his earlier proximity hadn't provided enough. Or maybe it was just that she now was on her own in the heating department and she unconsciously missed him.
Whichever, she did not look sexy nor like she planned to pounce on him if he did decide to lie back down in his very own bed. She particularly did not look like she was ready to drag him into the bed and ravish him if he hesitated much longer.
Nope, she was in the process of falling right back to sleep while he was standing there trying to decide his next move.
And he preferred to be there, horizontal, in the place he'd vacated a few moments earlier, because he knew he could use another 45 minutes of shut eye. Not that it would be possible to sleep but at least he could try.
A man had to do what a man had to do… in this case, sleep.
Next to the woman of his dreams, true, but she was in no shape to notice because she was in dreamland already. She even began to snore a little. He wondered if she would reach the sonic heights his father could. "It's because he won't stop drinking milk," his mom had explained years ago when something like a moose mating call had wakened six-year-old Clark. He had rushed into his parents' bedroom, fearing for the man's life, and Mom had showed him Dad was fine. Maybe the cheese on the pizza was affecting Lois now; some other time he'd rock her to more peaceful sleep. After all, she hadn't snored during the night after being beaten up and thrown off her building. She hadn't faked that sleep, either.
It took about four seconds to convince himself that she was harmless for the moment. He walked around and slid back into his place, this time facing her squarely, propped up on an elbow, ready to talk her out of any attack.
She didn't make a single false move, not even one.
Which left mentioning a few important things up to him. "Lois?"
"I have to get up at 7."
"I'll try not to make a lot of noise, but some will be unavoidable."
"You see, I have to meet with my agent at 7:30."
"I can tell you about it later."
"This means you'll have to get breakfast on your own."
"The pizza and cheesecake you left for me? They were great."
"And you're great, too, thank you."
"So, ah… you'll be okay?"
She replied by snuggling deeper within the blanket, pulling an edge up over her ear. A few locks of hair and half of one eye were about all of her that was visible, and that eye was firmly shut.
In a few moments, as her breathing relaxed even more and her sleep deepened, her left hand, grasping the blanket, relaxed and dropped down a few inches to lay before her on the bed sheet.
He looked at it. He looked at her. How much of him could she have seen had their positions been reversed, as though he would dream of sneaking into her bed… Actually, he reminded himself, he *had* dreamed of just that plenty of times since he had met her. The imaginary Lois had welcomed him gladly and they'd had a fantastic time for hours… He wasn't sure if that was possible in real life, but it was fun to think about.
Be that as it may, what if he had snuck into her boudoir, say, tonight, and cuddled up for warmth and fallen asleep and she were watching him?
She'd probably see nothing, human night vision being what it was, poor without the aid of a flashlight.
He preferred it the way it was now. He didn't think he wanted to be watched. Not at the moment anyhow. Later on, when he was sure she wasn't thinking, "Wow, I've got *Superstud* in the sack" but just thinking of him as himself, and they'd talked it out and she understood and was willing to go ahead and try certain… things and see if they or rather he worked out like the average human male and if he could give her everything else she probably wanted…
Without that to worry about, things now were okay. It was good to know that this innocent, vulnerable looking little woman felt comfortable being here, that she trusted him not to take advantage of her… Or knew he wouldn't. What if he had been human, just good ole Clark, regular, albeit inexperienced guy--no, a regular guy probably would have had some experience by now. Might he have attempted a few risky moves? Tried to coax her into something amorous and daring to show he had a normal, healthy libido?
My libido *is* normal and healthy.
The rest of me is…
No, that's normal, too, just… different.
There was that little problem of *how* different and Jor-el in the Globe not being in the mood to tell him yet, if at all…
Besides, right now she was probably relying on the super boy scout to at most provide some warmth and otherwise leave her alone so she could get some much-needed rest.
Or not. There could have been some third or fourth alternative.
What *did* she want?
Who could tell?
Not me, he sighed as quietly as he could as he drew useless circles in the sheet in front of him.
It left him wondering just what it was *he* wanted?
Not much really.
Simple happiness--and he reminded himself he had been doing well finding that lately, very well over all. This physical thing was only a little obstacle that they'd overcome easily probably. Soon. Very soon. Well, after she stopped messing around and got serious and they talked.
Okay, so the happiness was there. A bit more security would be nice, but being granted a full-time confident feeling about the future didn't seem to be in the karma cards, not at this point in his life. There was too much to do, too much trouble to deal with; the world had big problems, some of which he could help alleviate whether he was carrying a notepad or wearing the suit, and the world wasn't about to let him forget it.
Did she realize that? Could she grasp the enormity of it? He found it hard enough to. Another shadow cast over their relationship, something more that had to be talked through…
This is *depressing,* he told himself. *Stop* it!
We don't have to deal with it now.
Right now there was something obvious, simple and secure he could do. It was something that no one would protest, something that he could do whether he was Superman or Regularguy, and it would feel so good that it would help him enjoy the sleep of the virtuous--okay, being virtuous was boring but boring was restful, and resting for another, umm, 30 minutes or so was an inviting idea.
Especially right here, right now, when he craved a nice, uncomplicated moment with the woman he loved who had sunk so deeply into sleep that she apparently didn't need to snore anymore.
He covered her hand gently with his.
She didn't move other than there was a slight flicker of her visible eyelid.
He stroked her knuckles with his thumb.
She sighed, turned her hand over part way and took his softly, quite possibly unconsciously.
Maybe she was dreaming of him.
He hoped so.
He leaned forward, brushed her forehead with a kiss, whispered "I love you, Lois," laid back on his pillow, closed his eyes, and tried to sleep.
Murray had four new pictures for Superman to okay for the charity calendar they had talked about during their last business meeting. Four of the previous pictures had come with too many copyright strings attached and the charity couldn't afford to negotiate for them. Superman said he thought the new pictures were fine. Bev was out on vacation and could not be queried. Murray was, as he put it, struggling along without her. "The phone is driving me crazy. Crazier." He presented some suggested text to go in the calendar, a "Statement from Superman" about the charity. Superman read the brochures and financial statements describing the charity, several positive and negative editorials Murray had dug up, thought about them all for a moment, and rewrote the statement. Murray looked pleased about this. Clark thought "Uh-oh…"
The Big-Bite franchises in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, as well as those in Wellington and Christchurch, were proposing a new line of Superman-toy-with-meal giveaways. Last year's line had done well and the charities down under were happy. Murray suggested a go and Superman agreed.
Big Bite USA was in a big fight with Mickey D's and Meal-o-Rama for a similar deal here in North America, but they couldn't agree on who would get what and Murray said he didn't think the giveaway merchandise any of them were proposing did his client justice. Also, the percentage that would go the charities wasn't near the minimum amount that Superman wanted to see in such deals. "Besides," Murray said, his sense of dignity offended, "they all still use a lot of Styrofoam and their recycling programs are jokes!"
So all that was still on the back burner, but fortunately the millions of fans had other trinkets to purchase, and there were hundreds of ideas for new ones. For example, Murray smiled as he pulled up a box from behind his desk, just look at these great caps! Bills in the front to shade tired eyes and red capes in the back to shade vulnerable necks! The S was well sewn and wouldn't come off-- they used superglue, ha-ha-ha!--and the whole thing was, get this, Made in America! "What's more, with the ozone holes acting the way they are, coming and going, opening and closing, who knows what's next? People want protection! These are perfect and millions can be ready by next spring!"
Superman sat back. He didn't want there to be holes in the ozone, assuming they weren't something that had occurred naturally since the dawn of time and technology was only just now able to detect them. The general consensus among scientists though said otherwise, that the holes were being eaten by chemicals introduced unnaturally by human activities. If Superman couldn't stop the holes or the hole makers, he certainly shouldn't take commercial advantage of the resulting ecological catastrophe.
Yet hats would be needed…
What *am* I thinking? he wondered.
The hats were put on the "maybe" pile.
"Sure, I understand, we have time. Now, about the book deal, the statement you wrote is a real winner! Just think what you could do tackling an entire *chapter*!"
Superman escaped by 8:30, as Clark had hoped. He put in a patrol of the city and the surrounding countryside and expanded that to the state in general until he had calmed down from again having to hold back any normal, gaping-mouth, dropped-jaw-astonished reaction to some of the ideas Murray could come up with. Today's weren't any more crazy than usual, really, and actually fewer in number than normal, and, surprisingly none of them full of sexual or bathroom innuendo. So why did today's encounter bug him like they always did?
It must be the lack of sleep, Clark figured at last. And finding Lois in his bed *causing* a lack of sleep, and then not being able to eat breakfast with her. She had slept through his taking a shower and hadn't shown up to watch him change into the suit. He'd been as quiet as he could be as not wake her and now, he chided himself, he was disappointed that he'd been successful. The most she had done was roll over and take possession of his warm spot after he had gotten up at 7:10.
I should be glad, he thought, that she feels so comfortable in my bed. After all, someday soon she might discover good reasons not to feel that way…
Shortly after nine he dropped down behind Cheung's grocery store, a potentially dangerous act for a Saturday morning, but he moved quickly. Two seconds later he walked out of the shadows as himself. He visited the money machine in front of the store and pulled $40 out of savings, wondering if that was enough since he'd probably have to pay for the bathroom makeover supplies, too. Well, there's more money where that comes from, he thought. He proceeded to enter the store and browse through the aisles. He picked up this and that, poking through the produce and choosing some. He had no idea what the next meal he would be preparing might be and if it would be for more than himself. He disliked being caught without the makings of at least a nice snack for guests.
Mr. Cheung accommodated local backyard growers when he could so there were a lot of tomatoes, zucchini, carrots and onion, much of it organically grown. Clark figured he could always make a big salad. Life was beginning to look like that, all tossed together with some karmic equivalent of spicy Italian dressing--and the occasional challenging chunk of white iceberg lettuce core that shouldn't have gotten in the bowl in the first place.
He stopped and chided himself for dawdling. He quickly picked up the last thing on his mental list, a loaf of whole-wheat bread with sunflower seeds on top, and headed for the check out line. This was the right thing to do because while the line he chose was moderately long, it moved quickly. He left the store with two bags full and an tentative explanation for his hesitation to just get going: I don't want this vacation to end, it's been way too interesting.
As he walked toward his apartment, people he passed waved and welcomed him home. Several stopped him to chat briefly and ask about Lois and when he thought would be a good time for them to drop by for a visit. Sunday, he suggested; she'd probably have things more together by then, though Thursday, her day off, would be even better.
He noted extra cars along the street. He recognized all the vehicles owned by his neighbors, those who didn't have off-street parking, but there were four more cars and a fifth in the process of parking further on down Clinton. He could hear unfamiliar voices in Lois's apartment as he passed and wondered how many people Lois would have to supervise today. He had no doubt she could do so and maybe even looked forward to it as her new place could use a lot of help. When she didn't need them any more, she'd probably kindly suggest that everyone but him get the heck out. Then they'd have time to talk at last, lots of time, and she'd probably enjoy it, just the two of them two. He didn't fool himself about her capacity to withstand a long siege by would-be helpers, but he did expect her to be able to fake it as long as things didn't turn crazy.
Recalling that his front door was probably still locked from the night before, he balanced both bags in one arm as he went up the steps. He pulled his keys out, opened the screen door, unlocked the main door and pushed it opened with his foot. He paused in midstep on to his landing.
Something wasn't right.
Don't pause, Lois would advise, act like normal, let them think they're sneaking up on you when you're really sneaking up on them…
It couldn't be a burglar, it was probably someone from next door since his back door was wide open and one of the last of the year's flies was making lazy circles in his kitchen area.
…Unless whoever was trying to sneak was *pretending* to be from next door, taking advantage of the back-alley access and Clark had walked right into the middle of a robbery with his arms full and unable to lower his glasses.
He went down the steps at a normal pace, or he hoped it was normal because it was just one of those things a person did and rarely noticed. He crossed the room and approached the kitchen island table. He wondered if he should hum or whistle, or if that would be too casual.
Come out, come out, wherever you are…
As he was about to set the bags down on the table, a woman jumped up from hiding on the other side of the it. She was of medium build, was perhaps a few years older than him, and looked like a normal person anyone might pass on the street except that she had a dangerous expression on her face. She was wielding his classic heavy wooden rolling pin, passed on to him from his Grandmother Clark's estate and usually kept in vertical position in the rack on the wall by the stove. The woman whose hands it was in now looked quite prepared to bash his head in with it.
"Don't move!" she growled. "Not even a muscle!"
He straightened away back from her, still holding on to the bags, and did freeze when it occurred to him that if he didn't she might damage one of his favorite kitchen utensils in the act of trying to stop him.
Another woman darted out of the broom closet and, barely hiding something behind her back, rushed around behind him. In a moment he felt something with a hard, blunt tip jab into his right shoulder blade, then reposition itself more centrally. Had he been wearing the suit under his clothing, the object would have landed on the cape's yellow S.
"I've got a gun!" hissed the second woman, who was otherwise as normal looking as the first one. "And you're trespassing!"
"Trespassing? But I live here!"
Really putting her heart into it, the first woman snarled, "Do you have any ID--ID that's not *forged*?!"
Before he could retort "Do *you*?" the second woman poked him again with the "gun," which was no doubt the handle of his whisk broom. It certainly wasn't painful but it had the potential of becoming really irritating. "Yeah," she said, "who *are* you?"
"No, you're *not*!" The first woman frowned, waving the rolling pin in a menacing manner. "You don't look at *all* like Superman!"
Poke: "And not from this angle, either!"
Huh? "I've never said I did--"
First woman: "Where's that ID?"
"In my pocket. You told me not to move or you'd--"
"No, you don't! You're not fooling *us* with that innocent act!" She looked around him at her friend. "We should tie him up and call the police!"
"Yeah," poke, "and frisk him, too!"
"We'll need help."
"Not to *frisk* him."
"No, to tie him up."
Good grief, Clark thought. "If I promise to cooperate will you not tie me up?"
They groaned. "Where have we heard *that* before!"
But it usually works on TV, Clark thought.
Just then, another unfamiliar woman appeared at the back door. Her eyes popped. "What's wrong?"
The rolling pin woman said, "Burglar, caught him in the act. Says he's Clark Kent--Ha!"
The woman behind him said, "Ha is right! He doesn't look a thing like Superman, Superman has muscles on muscles on muscles!"
"He's taller than this guy, too." The first woman waved the rolling pin as though it would be no effort to reach his head with it. "And more upstanding--more noble!"
The new woman said, "Well, Clark Kent can write. Give him a piece of paper and let him write something."
"It's not him." Poke. "Superman would never be intimidated by us."
"But he's not Superman."
"No, I'm not."
"I mean, Clark Kent *looks* like Superman, or they say he does, except I missed that broadcast and no one I know got it on tape because they were all watching Roseanne or some movie, and I don't care about journalists anyway, and I don't read the Planet except the Sunday edition,"
"You don't?" he had more stories in the weekday editions than the Sunday one…
"*And* I can't find that picture of him everyone says is somewhere on the internet."
"I'm on the internet?" He'd never thought to look…
"I've got that picture somewhere," Rolling-pin woman said, "I'll email it to you, it's the only one I've ever seen of him, and I looked everywhere after that Diana Stride thing. I missed it, too."
"Shut up, you!" Poke. "Send it to me, Barb."
"I will, but it's a waste of time, Clark Kent doesn't look like this guy, anyway. He has longer hair and he looks sort of nerdy and he really doesn't look like Superman, either."
Long hair? Maybe it was the picture of him that had run in the "New Faces at the Planet" on page 8 of Section D, or, as Lois said, dismissively, "hidden somewhere in the back pages on one of the least-read days of the week," Tuesday. "Something to please the new employees. I bet you'll send a copy to your parents, won't you? Well, nobody'll ever see it, which is a good thing if you want to remain an *investigative reporter*…" But somebody had seen it *and* posted it to the internet somewhere. The Planet had a home page, didn't it? The Stride mess had encouraged these people to check him out then, but why? Convincing Lois that Stride was wrong had been hard enough--were there others out in the world trying to discover if Superman was hiding out as a human?
"And if he was Superman, which is stupid, why would he want to pretend to be human when he could be king, he still wouldn't be intimidated by us and why would he come *here*, and, besides, nobody looks like him anyhow, he's unique, so, well, you know…"
Then again, Clark thought, maybe he didn't have that much to worry about.
Rolling-pin Barb managed to blink her eyes back to unglazed. "Yeah. Okay, so we're going to tie him up and call the police and let *them* straighten this out. Bebe, go get help."
"Okay--Wait, you'll need help here tying him up, though he's not *that* big."
"Whatever. But *I* get to frisk him." Poke, "You! Do you have any duct tape?"
Huh? "If I'm a burglar, how am I supposed to know that?"
"Ah-ha! You admit it!"
"No, I'm not admitting anything!" This was ridiculous! Like he would tell them how to tie him up. "And I don't have any duct tape, I--"
"Yeah, his eyes get all shifty when he lies."
"They do not!" though Lois had early on warned him to give up trying to bluff his way out of anything, he just wasn't good at it, she could see right through him. She said his face was too honest for his own good (*no* mention of shifty eyes at all), and she didn't want him to get in trouble.
Little did she know he'd wind up here, uncertain whether to be angry at the intrusion into his own home--or to ask if he could sit down so he wouldn't fall on the floor, laughing out loud. He decided that upon the next dig of the whisk broom handle, he'd turn aside and it would slide off his back. Any human could do that. Not just any human could then kick the weapon out of the woman's hand, but he'd do so anyhow because it would be fun. Then he'd put the bags of groceries on the couch and turn to catch the rolling pin woman. No doubt she would have jumped on the table to assist her friend and might slip and hurt herself or accidentally knock Maxine's jar home off. If that "Bebe" women ran for help, maybe she'd bring Lois.
If *Lois* decided to play along and tie him up (it could happen), that would be okay. He wouldn't have to work on the bathroom plumbing then and she would have her hands full soothing his hurt feelings because all he'd have to do was work up a good pout. He thought he could manage that better than shifty eyes.
But a few tense seconds later, before he had to put the plan into action or anyone found that new roll of duct tape on an upper shelf in the broom closet, Laurie appeared at his back door, behind Bebe.
Laurie, intent on other things, looked startled. Bebe turned and tried to explain, creating yet another version of reality that made the "burglar" sound like a potential mad bomber after the entire staff of the Daily Planet and Laurie should do something about it right now since Laurie was the manager of the whole newsroom, huh?
Laurie stared at Clark, obviously not believing what he'd gotten himself into this time. She knew almost every gritty detail about the messes all the Planet's reporters barely survived because she frequently signed off on the expense reports, particularly those Perry couldn't bear to look at. She might as well have been the newsroom manager, considering how she was able to hold things together sometimes.
"Help!" Clark said, mildly as not to panic anyone. "Save me!"
His friend rolled her eyes and pointed at the first woman. "Barb, put that down right now--carefully! It looks like an antique."
"It is," Clark peeped. "Be careful with it."
"Huh? You mean--You mean he's *really* for *real*?"
"Yes, he's really for real."
"He lives here?"
"And he knows Superman, too?"
"Yes, but so do I, a lot of people know Superman, I've *told* you that."
"But he doesn't look like…"
"He does a little."
"Maybe…" Barb looked at him, then tore her eyes away from his and his I-told-you-so expression. "Maybe… his nose?"
"His hair's not steely black though…"
"No, it isn't."
Clark knew his hair had a brownish tinge, which wasn't evident when it was slicked back for the disguise.
"So I guess I don't need this now, huh?" Barb smiled a little, looked around the kitchen, and hung the rolling pin back up where she must have snatched it as soon as she'd heard him at the door. "Okay…"
"Good girl," Laurie said dryly. She frowned at the second woman, who had stopped digging into Clark's back but only just. "Gina! I'm appalled! Put that whisk broom down! You could hurt somebody! You, the most serious, level-headed woman I *thought* I knew!"
The last bit of pressure from the broom handle disappeared. Gina played with the whisk broom nervously. "Well, we came in to find some paper towels and *he* just *broke in*--"
"I *didn't* break in--"
"We didn't hear a key being used!" Barb told Laurie.
"Well, I did," Gina admitted, "but I didn't recognize it, I thought he was breaking the lock."
"Clark wouldn't break into *any*place."
"But there was that time recently--"
"Clark, please," Laurie waved her hand at him, "don't help. You two," she pointed, "I bet neither of you were even listening, you just jumped to the wrong conclusion!"
"But it *is* a quiet lock…"
"Don't make *excuses* for them, Clark! And put those groceries down right now before your arms drop off."
He looked at the bags. Oh. He put them on the table as he had originally intended to do.
"Laurie, let the man make excuses for us if he wants to!" Gina said, then whisper tersely, "Otherwise he might call the cops on us!"
"No, I won't…"
Laurie shook her head. "No, he won't, not Clark."
"Besides, no harm's been done. I don't think any of my frozen food has softened up, for example." He had only bought frozen cherry juice. It was still okay, and he was going to thaw it out for Sunday breakfast anyhow.
He noted Barb creep close to the table and peek into the closer bag. She saw him noting this and crept back again, trying to smile innocently.
"And," he continued, feeling more and more complacent about the whole thing since he'd only been startled and it had been a good exercise, a real welcome home from some of the obviously more paranoid citizens of Metropolis, "I suppose I should be pleased that people who I don't even know want to protect my property."
"Yeah, that's all we were doing, really!" Bebe nodded. "Or, that's what *they* were doing, but I'll vouch for them--not that you know me from… Eve, but, well…"
"You're Laurie's friends, and Lucy's, too," Clark said.
They nodded, relieved, assuring him that Laurie knew them all practically since birth and that the nice young woman, who was Lois Lane's sister--and he knew Lois, didn't he?--Lucy was over in Lois's apartment right this very moment and she'd vouch for them, too.
"That's okay, I believe you." These were three of the women Lois said were forming some kind of act that included lusting after Superman songs. Great…
Actually, yes, great: as closely as they had observed Superman, on television, on the Internet, wherever, except for Laurie, who couldn't be part of the act… could she? Level-headed Laurie had a wild side?… None of them saw him standing right here in T-shirt, jeans and generic running shoes. No one ever expected to see Superman standing taller than life in anything less than the suit. Which was just fine.
More people, all women, began to appear in the courtyard and at his back door, wondering what was happening. Laurie introduced the five newcomers, and warned that she understood more were coming, but probably people he knew from the office, no doubt to inspect Lois's new abode.
These friends, upon hearing his name, agreed with Gina, who now came around to take a better look at Clark and shake her head: as nice as Clark was--and good looking, too, they added--Diana Stride must have been on drugs because he just didn't resemble Superman that much, sorry.
Clark said, "I'm devastated," and hoped his tone of voice would put an end to the discussion. It did, at least where he personally was involved.
These women, all of whom seemed to be his or Lois's ages or older, were wearing comfortable, paint spattered clothing. He was to gather that they were almost all professional women, about half of them were married, and all had interesting lives. He thought that it was nice of them to take time out to be here working on a Saturday, considering they were only friends of friends and owed Lois nothing… unless maybe they were interested in what she knew about Superman. That was no crime, but Lois would have thrown them out if that was all they wanted. Maybe instead she was making them work for crumbs, or maybe they had accepted the crumbs over the week and decided to stay and help because they had grown to like Lois. Lois was quite likable when she allowed herself to be.
After the newly arrived women had been filled in on the now- resolved problem, they set about trying to make amends by putting Clark's groceries away. They had, they claimed, been in here before visiting Lois, he sure had a nice apartment, and they knew where everything went, he should relax.
He tried to. He watched and memorized their actions. They were careful though, and it took them only a few minutes, during which time they tried to tell jokes and lighten up the atmosphere to erase any lingering ill feelings the three protective women might have caused. This was unnecessary as Clark didn't feel upset any more, they were clearly trying to make amends, some of the jokes (especially the political ones) were funny, and they didn't compare him to Superman again.
Barb folded the second grocery bag and stuck it where he kept them in the broom closet, Christine and Vicki remarked upon his collection of foreign-language cookbooks, and Beth told them that Molly Flynn had taught her how to say "nutmeg" in Tibetan. Before they could think up a half-dozen one-liners about this and men with neat kitchens, Lois turned up.
She arrived with a complaint: she had been standing on tiptoe painting the kitchen ceiling while Lucy was in the living room sawing God knew what or why. But it hadn't taken Lois long to realize that it was still too quiet, that everyone of her *helpers* was in here partying with Clark. It wasn't that she was worried about doing most of the work all alone, but standing unaided on that ladder wasn't a good idea because the instructions on the ladder itself warned against that and *she* always followed instructions…
Helpers began to shuffle toward the back door.
"And you!" she pointed at Clark with a paint-stained finger. "Did you eat any breakfast before you rushed off this morning?"
The helpers paused and looked at Lois and then Clark and back again, like watching tennis.
He wondered if they assuming he and Lois had slept together.
Well, he thought, so what if they assumed that? So what if they were almost right, too? They'd be right eventually. If anything, the idea would certainly distance him even further from Superman, who they probably thought wouldn't dream of doing that kind of thing, though they surely wished for the chance to lure him out of his majestic celibacy. A lot of women seemed to want to do that, according to what he overheard now and then. He couldn't quite understand it and tried not to dwell on the scenario.
He admitted, "I had some carrots…"
She frowned as though she couldn't believe it. "That wasn't breakfast! Oh, I'll make you some pancakes…" she had to think of everything for everybody…
"That sounds good!" Roey, the youngest of the helpful women, claimed with a big smile as she rubbed her expressive hands together.
She was grabbed by her friends, who had even more expressive hands, and in moments Lois and Clark were alone in his apartment.
"Whew!" Lois sighed. She pulled off her scarf, sat down on the nearest chair, and shook her head. "It's not even ten o'clock yet and I'm already exhausted and this close," measured between index finger and thumb "to moving to Tibet!"
"That's nothing. You almost had to post bail for me."
"I'm just joking." He decided this was no time to try out the new nickname he'd just thought up for her, Cinderella, or to point out that Tibet had a lot of countryside she'd probably not take kindly to. Maybe if she talked about it… He said, "You look like you might be on the verge of murdering someone before you move to Tibet, too."
"Me?" She touched hand to breast. "Easy-going, kind-hearted little me?"
"Oh, sorry, I'm new here…" He went around the table and opened the refrigerator. The fresh groceries in it were neatly arranged. That made him smile.
"What's this about jail? You were being… It wasn't because of…"
When he didn't hear her finish either sentence, he glanced at her. He saw her wave her hand in their secret code sign.
"No, it wasn't him, it was me and three of those… unusual women. I'm sure you'll hear about it when you get back to work." He looked back into the refrigerator. The yogurt was gone. "I see what you had for breakfast."
"I had granola and yogurt, very healthy, and I'm perfectly capable of making pancakes for you--"
"I'm sure you are," he held up his hand: stop. "But no. Don't get up, you're doing enough. We can make them tomorrow morning when we have more time. Maybe I'll come knocking on your door and wake *you* up."
"Ha-ha-ha…" she said in an I-got-you manner, but then it faltered a bit. "Aum, I don't remember much about last night. Only being so cold and my place smelling so bad…"
He glanced over again in time to see that she was watching him, but it was a natural expression, topped by a sigh which made her look even more tired.
She was covering… or maybe not.
Let's say she's not, he decided; let's say it wasn't a devious plan and what she claims is mostly true. "I thought that was it." Let's say I really believe that one hundred percent.
He did believe she'd fallen asleep despite herself and probably right away. She hadn't been as devious as she'd hoped to be, that was for sure.
She smiled, looking less tired now. He appreciated how she responded to his reassurances and he didn't think that part was an act, not entirely.
"I didn't want to wake you. I stayed up last night trying to catch the news, in here." She motioned toward the living room. "You have a working TV after all. But they only had 30 seconds about it and no pictures. It sounded just like every other war. There is a picture in the paper but it's not very good. I went home and listened to my radio, but I fell asleep until I woke up absolutely freezing."
He closed the refrigerator door. "You know, you can feel free to wake me up next time and simply ask for a blanket…"
"I know, but you got in so late, I was sure you'd be exhausted… you do get exhausted, you looked exhausted…"
"Sure I get exhausted. Yesterday was an exhausting days in a lot of ways."
"Well, there, you see? You earned your sleep, I couldn't wake you up, that would have been rude and I'm *not* rude."
She was right on in that assessment, even though she didn't seem sure of it. "I know…" and he hoped his expression conveyed his certain of that.
Maybe it did; she seemed to relax a bit and want to confess more. "I took up as little space as I could but the next thing I knew I was wrapped up in that nice, soft blanket and you were gone. I remember something about an agent…?"
"Yeah, Murray Brown, you know him."
"Oh, him." Her shoulders slumped. "He's disgusting."
"No, he's not. Once you get to know him he's a nice fellow."
"Maybe I should get to know him then. I can go with you next time."
He decided to look for something to graze on in one of the cabinets over the counter. "I don't think so."
"Can I if I think up a good reason?"
"We'll see." But he still thought "No," that was inviting her too close to Superman. He didn't want to be seen holding her eight stories above the ground while waiting for Murray to open the window. To top that, the man might try to convince her that she needed an agent or that she might want to consider ghosting a book by Superman. "I think I'll have some granola, too, if there's any left…" He pulled the small, colorful box off the shelf to his left of the sink and shook it. There was at least half a box. He opened it and dug in. Nuts and dates, honey and oats, yum. "All those women in there…" He motioned toward her apartment; now was another chance to get her to talk, to relieve some the stress. "Are they doing a good job?"
"You'll find out. Most of them showed up about eight with Lucy, and so far they haven't broken anything. Every one of them has a strong back, too, Clark, I noticed that when I first met them on Thursday, so if they want to help, I refuse to count gift horses before they go to the dentist."
"Oh? You *always*… look gift horses in the mouth."
"Well, that, too, but not *always*."
"You check their teeth and then their legs and the condition of their hooves and how they're shoed, and you demand to see proof of their bloodlines and you take a good look at their stalls and you personally time them on the track and--"
He closed his mouth, then opened it to eat another hand full of granola, and after that said, "Sorry."
"I'm really trying to go with the flow here."
He restrained himself from commenting, which probably said more than if he had made a comment.
She frowned indignantly. "I've been going with it for longer than you realize!"
Distraction time: "You're giving me hints now?"
Caught. "No, I'm just telling you that I realize everything is going very well, I'm just having a hard time accepting it, and, yes, that was a hint."
"Thanks. I'll figure your mystery out, just see if I don't."
"I'm not holding my breath…"
He gave her a "thanks for *that!* look but then smiled because she was probably right.
She raised an eyebrow. "You're feeling good, aren't you?"
His smile became a full-fledged grin. He thought that being in her proximity was a large part of it. This wasn't helping her, though, other than he was, he figured, giving her a target she should feel free to explode at. He was sure he could take it, in spades. "Lois, I feel excellent. I think I'm getting used to… to your knowing, and I like it. It's all I've wanted for a long time, and even though it's a little…" frightening? Hearing that wouldn't help her, "different from what I expected, I still feel terrific. I've had a vacation unlike any other in my entire life."
"Is that a 'yes'?"
"That is definitely a 'yes'."
"Well, buddy, It's going to keep being unlike any other because I'm not letting you out of looking at the plumbing in the bathroom."
Oh, she'd read that into it. Maybe in a way that was good. "I didn't really think you were."
"And I know you'll be overjoyed to keep your appointment with cleaning up the basement, too."
Even upholding the most cheerful attitude in his quest to help Lois find tranquility had it's limitations. "Heh…"
"You don't have to do it alone though, that is, if Jimmy turns up. He called and said he had an unexpected photo assignment."
She was reveling in this, wasn't she? "Oh."
"No, really. The Mayor's doing something, cutting a ribbon or proclaiming something open."
"Superman was expected to attend…"
"The buzz is, though, they couldn't contact him."
"Oh…" and he rather liked the Mayor.
"But since it was purely political, no one in the know thinks he will show up anyhow."
"Ah, good." He finished his "breakfast" and tossed the empty box into the cardboard recycling container near the back door. "I didn't think I'd be getting an appointment secretary in the Lois Lane Deluxe Package, but…"
"You lucked out."
"Yep. Except for some reason…" maybe the direct approach would work better, "you don't look like *you* feel lucky…"
"I don't? Me, the most easy-going, kind-hearted, luckiest woman in the world?" she said around a false yawn.
"You. Talk to me, we have a minute surely."
"Don't call me… Oh, it's nothing…"
"Lois, forget that I said I'm new here. Tell me all about it, tell me how you feel. We really can talk now."
"Okay, okay… I guess I'm just waiting for the other shoe to drop." She leaned forward a bit, weaved her hands together, bounced them a moment, sighed, looked a little smaller than she usually did. "Everything's going so well considering the problems I had *last* week. I have a place to live and you're back now… I guess I just have a little problem accepting good fortune when it comes up and slaps me in the face."
"It's not good fortune and it hasn't slapped you--it *is* good, but it's what you worked for. You thought it out and planned it and you're having fun, I hope…"
"I am, I am…"
"If it gets to be…" not "too much," that wouldn't be the right way to put it… "boring, if you'd rather be doing something else, I know this woman named Lisa, she's a jane of all trades, and she renovated Mrs. Wallace's apartment last spring. It looks great now, so I'm sure she could help you."
"I'm sure it does and I'm sure she can…" Lois straightened up again, away, it seemed, from feeling like confessing deep thoughts, "but I can fix up my own place *just fine.* I'll *also* be glad when I can sit down in my own cozy living room and put my feet up on my own genuine maple coffee table and sip a wonderful cup of exotic Sumatran coffee provided by my best friend who's on his way over to visit me so we can watch our fish having the time of their lives."
"I'm going to get you some fish, too, and they can live with Maxine."
"Okay, I like that."
"And I'll put on some nice music and turn the lights down low… That's all I want and it's *not* much to ask for."
"It certainly isn't." Yet it sounded like she was slipping back toward stress again. Time to offer a broad shoulder. "You'll let me know if you just happen to hear that other shoe fall, won't you?"
"You bet your sweet chumpy," she informed him in a no-more- questions manner. Then she stood up and tried to aim herself at the back door, turning experimentally in that direction. She apparently couldn't get her legs into gear, or maybe she wasn't really ready to go yet, but he couldn't see that there was any reason for her to hurry back into the fray. "You know, don't you…" she said as she turned back toward him, "that I'm not above using you as often as I can."
He nodded. "Yeah, I know…" though if he and all those people hadn't volunteered, he bet she would have tried to do it all by herself. She always seemed to wait until she was at the very end of her rope, the very last possible thread, before she screamed for help. He didn't foresee that changing until she realized people just liked to help because they could and that she didn't have to "use" them or fear that they would run away as soon as they could.
Maybe he could help her understand that, use some subtle influence, but he wasn't sure just how he'd do that. Ideas would come. He was the perfect person to show her fun things about life. After all, she had helped him immensely, it was time to return the favor, over and over again if need be.
Might as well get started. "Well, time's a'wasting. Race you for the monkey wrench?"
"Ha! *Now* he's in the mood! Not this morning, Bandit, I have a paint brush."
While Lois didn't have a headache she inadvertently passed out a few. First, though, she agreed to stop standing on the ladder to paint the kitchen ceiling and instead use the paint roller on an extension. That considerably lessened her chances of breaking her neck and giving Clark a headache with worry. Beyond that, he stayed out of her way with any more unasked for suggestions because after she accepted the ladder one with reasonably good grace, she switched to her Boss mode and cracked the whip.
The new helpers eventually reasoned out loud and for her benefit that Lois had the perfect right to make her nest look like she wanted it to, whatever that way was. She agreed and politely advised them to lift the mop and tote the bail with a little more alacrity, please.
They also figured, obviously (and not out loud but Clark saw it anyhow), that there might have been a few too many of them in the same room with her at any one time. They split up and wandered about the apartment, finding other things to do--cleaning, painting, applying shelf paper, rearranging what little furniture there was, using bits of paper to draw up floor plan ideas--running across that nice person Clark who they could help.
Clark found himself wondering several times if he should take Lois aside and imply strongly that she should cool it, that these people knew by now that she was better at everything than they were and that she wanted her house--and by extension her life--to be perfect, but were trying to help. Even if she took it wrongly and yelled at him, that was okay. It might have helped in the long run because she would be less likely to let off her currently barely- contained steam at the others.
He was willing to chance this (after all, she'd called him a fool already and might be willing to call him worse names despite knowing about his other self), but he saw no good opportunities. In the meantime he welcomed all visitors and whatever knowledge they had or pretended to have about plumbing, though many made themselves scarce when "icky" things happened, which occurs when plumbing is worked on.
The bathroom's fixtures were cosmetically okay but things would work a lot better for a lot longer with new faucets, toilet parts and a number of water-saving devices. When he announced he had to visit the Home Club to purchase these things, it occurred to him that this would be a good thing to drag Lois away to do with him. But several women quickly offered him a ride and they wound up all (minus Lois) piling into Molly's van, which was painted like a field of sunflowers. They dawdled at the Home Club when, ironically, this time he wanted to get back. For example, Barb pointed out a book on turning basements into rec rooms (like her own, where she kept her big screen TV, and Lois wanted one of those, didn't she?), so Clark bought it and found a booklet with advice on care and maintenance of home furnace systems. Patti-Jo wanted Clark's advice on the gardening tools since she liked his container garden and the garden center was having a big close-out sale, while Vicki asked him about larger tools for landscape work. Wasn't it lucky you could take the man out of Kansas but not Kansas out of the man…
About an hour later they were crowding into the bathroom again. When the majority of the women realized they all wouldn't fit, that Clark needed to actually turn around occasionally, they rejoined Lois's army but on their own terms. They insisted that lunch time was drawing nigh. They dived into Clark's menu collection, ordered from several places including the Greek food Clark wanted, and dashed away to pick up their orders. Time passed; Lois started painting the trim in the hallway between the living room and the bedroom and debating with herself about watersealing the frame around her back door. Clark noted she was talking to herself a lot lately. She was definitely going with him the next time he had to run an errand, unless it was in the suit and maybe then he'd still think of a way.
When the helpers returned, a lunch break was declared by Christine, who could do this because she had been declared Queen, apparently some time before Lois had asked for the title. Clark didn't inquire why quiet-looking school system media librarian was called that other than "Queen Christine" rhymed and it turned out that she was the fastest with the quips. He discovered this because the women decided to begin practicing their act, refurbishing old jokes and thinking up new ones on the spot. Clark had fun listening and they appreciated the one liners he was able to slip in. But as the afternoon wore on, he was glad to finish in the bathroom and leave its final clean up to a team of the jokers.
He was glad to finish, too, because at about the same time women broke out a variety of lusting-after-Superman songs for Lois's judgment and approval or rewrite. He was able to escape to the cool, quiet basement. Jimmy, who had turned up in time to eat leftovers, joined him after the first song. He groaned about it and how women thinking about that kind of thing ("What *is* this with size and shape and… and eye color anyway? It's *character* that's important!"). Then he put on his headphones and pitched in to help clean up the basement. Clark concentrated on what Jimmy was listening to as a distraction even though he didn't care much for heavy metal or punk rock. It definitely beat overhearing the unmitigated silliness from upstairs.
They swept out the entire area, captured and released a few spiders, wiped down the walls, and inspected the old paint job. The big room was in better shape under all the dust than Clark had expected. A little paint here and there, a new light switch and lighting fixtures (the electrical wiring looked okay), some nice rugs on the floor, maybe some interesting ceiling tiles, and Lois could begin to use the place as she wished. A big-screen TV in combination with the satellite dish would be great. If the furnace failed, he knew just who she could cuddle up with until he figured out how to fix it.
Clark was able to concentrate on all this until about four, when he felt an ominous presence. Using the excuse of a crick in his back, whatever that was, and needing a stretch, he excused himself in the middle of showing Jimmy how the furnace's pilot light appeared to work.
Jimmy nodded, obviously pleased he could stop trying to look more interested in what he was being shown than in the tinny music buzzing out of the earphones slung waiting around his neck. He stood up at the same time and dusted his hands together. "Whew, what a day this has been!"
Clark noted that his friend had somehow managed to cover himself with dust and grime without actually having done very much strenuous work. He had been a great help and good company, just more relaxed about it than his appearance warranted. What an interesting talent to have, Clark sighed. He didn't look down at himself; he knew it would take more than his average shower to help him feel clean again. Sinking into a hot tub in Fairbanks sounded good at the moment…
Clark eased past Perry next. The man had shown up about half an hour earlier, late due to guiding an unexpected story through the normal channels at the Planet. He had hung around upstairs briefly and then come down to see what "the men" were doing and how he could help. "Those women are the craziest darn thing I've seen in a long time. I'm surprised you two aren't up there enjoying it…"
Clark had hmmed his way out of replying.
Jimmy had said, "Chief! They're treating Superman like a *sex object!"
Perry had chuckled. "They're just healthy young women, I'm sure Superman has heard worse than what they're singing…"
He had a point, Clark realized, there were a lot worse things in life. A Superman a bit more removed from it all would find some of the lyrics hilarious no doubt.
Now he noticed that his boss, in contrast to himself and Jimmy, while dressed to help out and claiming that he wanted to, had managed not to even get his hands dirty. He had, though, pointed out things about the furnace, often poking his arm between Jimmy and Clark so he could touch this piece or that control switch. He had also related a string of amusing stories about his and Alice's first home and the wonderful adventures they had in mortgage-land, dealing with contractors in building an addition on to the house, and how he had planted a big garden complete with a goldfish pond without knowing the first thing about doing all that.
Clark began to think that renting was a blessing, even if he wound up doing a lot of the work himself.
When he stepped out into the clear, he caught his breath, looked toward the staircase and up on the landing he saw Lois.
Something was wrong. She looked frazzled, more frazzled than he could recall ever having seen her, and he'd seen her really frazzled over the last almost three years. Her clothes and scarf were disheveled, one shoe was missing, there were brown paint stains on one arm but none on the other, and a swipe of grease of some kind decorated one of her cheeks. Worse, her eyes were reddening and it wasn't because she was about to burst out laughing, though he had heard her doing a lot of that earlier in the afternoon, a nice sound that had cheered him up as well. Maybe she was slowly getting used to the crowds.
But this frazzle called for close questioning. He rushed up the stairs, just managing to keep it at human speed. He stopped at the next-to-the-top step so he could face her more squarely. "What is it, what's wrong?"
"Ohhhh," she said in a manner that reminded him of someone.
He expanded his senses, hoping he hadn't contained himself too long and let something important pass unnoticed (though Lois being here meant whatever it wasn't couldn't be too bad). He expected to hear the friends working upstairs but he heard no one. "Where is everyone?"
"They're up on the roof…"
It occurred to him now that she sounded like Mary Tyler Moore's "Mary Richards" in her exhausted the-world-is-crumbling-around-me and I-have-to-deliver-the-news mode. This wasn't good. He said carefully, "The roof?"
"Yes, and I was up there just a moment ago, too…"
"You were? Why?" Maybe it was cooler up there; it was overcast, with cooler weather predicted. Maybe she had decided to paint it, too, or carpet it with Astroturf. Maybe it was something simple, like they had seen a flying saucer.
"To watch the fire…"
"Fire? What fire?"
He inevitably began to hear fire engine sirens now.
"Well, it was just smoke at first, but now it's a fire. Molly went up on the roof to smudge the building, this building, because the signs in the heavens are right or something, I don't understand all that…"
"I understand about smudging, it's supposed to be a Native American practice. She saw a fire when she was up there?"
"She saw the smoke. She came down and told us. I went and looked and of course it's a raging fire, what else could it be?"
He took her upper arms gently. "Lois… tell me. *Where* is the fire?"
"In that building…"
"What building?" though he had the funny feeling that he already knew.
"Oh, just the one that they've stolen my furniture out of…"
This was not quite what he thought he knew. "Pardon?"
She shrugged, the expression saying that this was the way the world treated Lois Lane when things were going too well and here she'd been so good and survived the tons of people massed and heaving throughout her new little home without letting them have a *real* earful even once… "They were supposed to deliver my furniture by two. At three I called. 'It's on the way,' they said, 'we're a little behind, don't worry, ma'am!' Ha!" She actually smiled, but she didn't look amused. "Ha, I say! My furniture wasn't on the way here--it's on its way to Canada, to Alaska--to some family in Russia! *Strangers* are going to get all my furniture! *AND* my Kerths! And now they're burning down that building so I'll never find out the truth and I won't be able to track them down to the ends of the earth!"
She grabbed Clark by his T-shirt collar and, when that apparently wasn't secure enough, by his shoulders, and tried to dig her fingers in and shake him until his teeth rattled. Even though this wasn't possible, she didn't seem to notice. She stared him right in the eye. "I need Superman, and I need him--NOW!"
Clark eased her hands off, held them carefully and said in his most soothing manner: "I'll find him."
Jimmy and Perry were standing at the foot of the steps, watching.
"Lois, honey, are you all right?"
She growled down at her boss: "No, I'm not!"
Clark turned to look at them. "I have to, ah, go find Superman-- somehow--though he probably already knows about the fire--"
"Oh, I can help!" Jimmy claimed, nodding vigorously. "I got my signal watch back from Star Labs a few days ago!" He held up his left wrist to point out the sleek apparatus. "It just needed a new battery, but they had to send to *China* for it!"
Use that ear-splitting thing? No, thanks! "I don't think so, Jim. Save it for real emergencies." He studiously avoided looking at Lois while he said that.
"If it's a fire, son," Perry told the young man, "I think you have pictures to take…"
Lois's voice was cracking just a bit. "Clark?"
As though he could forget her plight. "I'm on my way." He began to ease past her. "You just relax, it'll be okay."
"Tell Superman to find my rocking chair."
"It was my grandmother's"
He saw that Jimmy was headed at a trudge up the stairs, with Perry close on his heels. The latter was an excellent soother, the former would help him, Clark, find a few moments to use to escape.
Lois gripped his shirt again. "And my scrap books."
"I can't replace them."
"I know…" He was just about out the door and into the kitchen.
"And my… Clark?"
"Lois, I'm out of here, really…"
"I will--*Superman* will be careful." He smiled as confidently as he could, "Don't worry."
"I won't, I know…"
She knows, he smiled. She knows.
This will be a breeze.
Commercial for Kodak Film (the one with the UFO behind the photographer's father) Commercial for cucumber-scented body lotion.
Preview of next episode: rerun of Dawning 3: Some Days in the Life…
Commercial for small car that looks like a miniversion of a luxury car and has the illusion of nearly the same interior space if the occupants are less than 5'10" tall. Commercial featuring Gabrielle Reece wrapped in a volleyball net and nothing else.
To be continued…
The author wishes to thank Laurie F., Lynda L., Margaret B., Susan S., Elaine ?., and all the other people who may recognized themselves in the above.