By Yvonne Connell <Yvonne@yconnell.fsnet.co.uk>
Submitted May 1999
Summary: One of Lois and Clark's worst nightmares may be about to come true, but who could be behind it all and why? And how will they cope with the pressure and turn the situation around?
I felt like I was almost taking on more than I could cope with as I wrote this story. The subject matter was so vast, there were times when I thought I could never cover all the aspects of the story that I wanted to. Even now, I'm sure that I didn't - but I wanted to finish it before the next millenium, so I sacrificed total rigour in favour of concentrating on the bits I enjoyed writing most. If you find yourself thinking 'but what about…' as you read this, I can only apologise and hope it doesn't stop you enjoying the story. As with all my stories so far, this one is set sometime after Lois and Clark are married.
A huge thanks to my editors, Becky, Wendy and Dee. This is the first time I've had the help of editors whilst writing a story, and it was great! I would urge anyone who is writing to find themselves an editor, as they can help you in so many ways. They see things you don't because you're too close to the story, they keep your grammar and punctuation on the straight and narrow, and best of all, they cheer you on when you're flagging. Thanks, guys!
Comments, either good, bad or ugly, are most welcome (and you can do it publicly or privately, I don't mind which).
The elevator doors opened and Clark stepped out into the Daily Planet's newsroom. As he walked down the ramp to his desk, Jimmy bounced up to him with a broad grin on his face.
"Hi, CK! Or should that be, Super-CK?"
Clark stared at him in shock, momentarily lost for words.
"S-sorry?" he stammered eventually.
"So what does Metropolis look like from up there in the clouds?"
But Jimmy had sailed away before he could respond to the young man's startling question. He made his way to his desk in a daze, wondering if Jimmy really had figured out his secret. Before he had time to dwell too much on that worrying thought, Perry appeared round the corner of his desk.
"Superman! You and Lois. In my office. Five minutes. With everything you've got on the mayor's story. OK?"
"Perry?" Clark was dumbfounded. What on earth was going on?
"You got a problem with that, son?"
"Noooo." Just the fact that you're calling me Superman.
"Fine. Don't be late."
Perry stalked off in the direction of his office. Clark got up and walked over to the coffee machine, where Ralph was practising his clumsy chat-up lines on a couple of secretaries from Circulation. When Clark reached them, one of the women broke off the conversation to wave her mug in front of him.
"Heat this up for me, would you, Superman?"
Clark was so confused, he obligingly took the mug from her and warmed it up with his heat vision. When he looked up again, it seemed as if the whole newsroom staff were crowded around him.
"Why are you all calling me Superman?" he asked the assembled throng.
"That's your name, isn't it?" replied Ralph with a laugh.
"Come on, Clark, you didn't really think we didn't know about Superman, did you?" added Jimmy.
"Yeah, it was getting embarrassing, trying to keep up the charade for you and Lois. Jimmy was best - he had the puzzled look down pat, didn't you, Jimmy?"
"I guess so, although Perry's deadpan faces had me in stitches sometimes."
They were all laughing now, as Clark looked from person to person, desperately trying to understand what had gone so wrong…
Lois shook his shoulder as hard as she could to try and rouse him from his dream. He'd been muttering in his sleep for ages now, and it was finally beginning to drive her crazy, as well as making her just a little concerned for him. Waking up a Superman was like trying to wake the dead on Valium, she thought as she pummelled his shoulder and arm in a largely futile attempt to make an impression on his subconscious.
"But I'm not Superman," he suddenly said very clearly in the midst of his incomprehensible ramblings.
"Clark?" She shook him a little more tentatively, and his eyes opened to look at her fuzzily.
"I'm not Superman," he repeated, still caught up in the false reality of his dream.
"I think if you look in the closet downstairs you'll find that you are, honey. Bad dream?" She started to play fondly with his hair. "You were tossing and turning for ages before you woke up."
"I was? I'm sorry if I kept you awake."
"Well, I have to say, it was a little like trying to sleep next to a mini-tornado. A talking one at that. But I forgive you. What was it about?"
"The dream? It was really weird. Everyone knew I was Superman, except you and I didn't know that they knew. It was like they'd always known, and they were just playing along with us." He stopped and frowned at the memory. "I hope this isn't like the last bad dream I had."
"You mean the one where you were being buried alive?"
"No, the one where I lost you through a time portal. That one came true."
Lois propped herself up on one elbow and looked down at her husband's anxious face. She could see that the effects of the dream were still swirling around his mind, clouding his judgement and making him see danger where none existed.
"Clark, believe me, no-one who shouldn't knows you're Superman, and there's no big conspiracy to make fools of you and me. If there was, I'd know about it - it's my job."
"Even if the joke was on you?"
"Even then. Trust me, all this will seem crazy in the morning." She snuggled up close to him. "Let's get some sleep."
The elevator doors opened and Clark stepped out into the Daily Planet's newsroom. As he walked down the ramp to his desk…everything was completely normal. No-one rushed up to him and asked him to heat their coffee, or called him anything other than his given name. Sighing in relief, he settled down at his computer to check his email. While he was waiting for it to boot up, he allowed himself a chuckle at his own expense - Lois was right, last night's dream was blatantly ridiculous when you examined it in the cold light of day. Ralph interrupted his thoughts with a sharp rap on his desk.
"Scuttlebutt says you and Lois are nominated for best reporter in the Kerths again. How does it feel to be going up against the little wife, Clark?"
I don't know, how does it feel to be the world's most socially inept journalist, Clark wanted to say. Instead, he said, "I wouldn't let Lois hear you describe her like that, if I were you."
Clark sighed. The guy really had no idea of his own failings. "Never mind."
He started to busy himself with his email in an attempt to shake the man off.
"So what do you think?" repeated Ralph, oblivious of Clark's subtlety.
"May the best man, or woman, win." He looked over at Perry's office. "Sorry, Ralph, I think Perry wants me."
He got up and walked away before Ralph could object. Striding confidently towards his editor's office, he racked his brains for something sensible to say to Perry when he got there.
Perry looked up in surprise at the interruption.
"Clark! How did you know I wanted to talk to you?"
"Ah, well, I…" He gestured vaguely outside in Ralph's direction.
"Ha! Running away again, were we? The boy's got a lot to learn, but my gut tells me there's a good reporter in there somewhere. He's already pulled in some good stuff."
"I guess so, Chief," agreed Clark reluctantly.
"So. I meant to wait until you were both together, but, well heck, I just couldn't keep it to myself any longer. You and Lois have a joint nomination for best reporter in the Kerths."
"Joint? You mean both of us, together?"
"Yes. It's pretty unprecedented, to have a joint nomination, especially in this category, but I guess the selection panel finally saw sense and realised that even though you are a team, you work and write as one. Congratulations." He offered his hand out to Clark, who took it hesitantly at first, and then with more confidence as the news sunk in.
"Thanks, Perry! I can't wait to tell Lois."
Perry withdrew his hand with a wince.
"Careful with that grip of yours, son."
Clark grimaced his apology.
"When will Lois get back from the dentist?"
"Soon, I hope. It was just a check-up," replied Clark.
"Dentists always say that, and then they drill half your teeth away."
"Not if you're Lois, they don't."
Perry laughed. "I guess not!"
Lois was elaborately nonchalant about the news, which meant she was secretly thrilled, as Clark knew she would be. Next came the dress debate - was she prepared to extend the nonchalant attitude towards her attire, and wear a dress she already owned, or was it her duty as a representative of the Daily Planet to make sure she looked her very best and buy a new one? In the end, they embarked on a shopping trip to find Clark a new tie (one that wouldn't cause epileptic fits, said Lois) which just happened to take them past some of the more desirable dress shops.
While Clark was waiting for Lois to emerge from the changing rooms for the tenth time, he noticed a couple of ladies affording him more attention than the clothes around about them. First one would gaze at him until he caught her eye, and then when he turned away again, the other would stare at him through slightly narrowed eyes, as if trying to see him in a different light. He wrestled with his conscience for a while then gave in and tuned in to their conversation.
"It's definitely him, I tell you! You can tell by the nose."
"Are you going to ask him?"
"No. I don't have to, I know I'm right."
"Well, I am."
Clark studied the carpet while fiddling with the coat Lois had left with him, turning in what he hoped was a suitably surprised manner when a strident female voice enquired, "Excuse me, are you Clark Kent?"
"Oh! Yes, I am."
"And are you…are you…do you always wear those glasses?"
Slightly bemused, Clark answered, "Blind as a bat without them, I'm afraid."
"Right. Fine. Thank you."
The woman strode back to her friend, where he heard her say, "You were right. It's him."
"And is he-"
"I didn't ask him."
"Oh, big, bold Bertha, asks the question we already knew the answer to, and misses out the really big one."
"Can we just drop it?"
They disappeared out of the shop still arguing with each other. Meanwhile, Lois had emerged in another outfit for his consideration, although as far as he was concerned, she would look good in a trash bag.
"That's the one," he said.
"You just like it because it's burgundy," protested Lois.
"I like it because it goes in and out in all the right places. And it's burgundy."
"But is it really me?" She looked down at herself.
"Lois, it is completely you. In fact, it was made for you. I'm surprised they didn't drag you off the street and insist you wear it right away, it's so you. Let's buy it."
"You're getting bored, aren't you?"
"No, in fact, it's quite entertaining out here."
"What do you mean?"
"I'll tell you later. Are we buying this dress or what?"
"You like it?"
"I like it so much, I'll wear it if you don't."
"Careful, I might hold you to that."
"Just buy the dress, Lois."
When Clark told Lois about the strange encounter in the dress shop, she laughed and told him it was the price of fame. Clark said the last thing he wanted was for his image to be famous - the more well-known his face became, the more likely it was that someone would spot similarities between him and Superman. Lois told him he had picked the wrong profession if he wanted anonymity, and he had to agree with her. The trouble was, although he didn't admit this to Lois, he had begun to feel as though quite a few other people were looking a little too closely at him lately. He was trying to tell himself he was suffering from a touch of paranoia following his dream, but he was still uneasy.
The following day, Clark was at his desk again, checking his email. A lot of it was good-luck messages for the Kerth Award ceremony to be held in two weeks' time, and he spent some time answering the well-wishers. However, one message entitled 'You don't know me' caught his eye, and with his curiosity piqued, he skipped over the more familiar names to open it. Immediately his heart lurched when the word 'superman' jumped off the screen at him, and it started thumping when he read the full text of the message:
'Hi, Clark. You don't know me, but I work down in Marketing - you know, the ones who dream up all those free offers? Anyway, I got this letter today, and you'll probably think I'm crazy, but I just had to check it out. Are you really Superman? Because that's what this letter says, and my friend Jenny says the pictures are really good. So we thought we'd ask you, I hope you don't mind. All the best, Molly Smith. PS I'm not really crazy.'
Clark stared at the screen, his mind racing as he processed all the implications of the message. Someone walked behind him, and he hastily thumbed the off-button on his monitor, knocking over a cup of coffee in his panic. Coffee splashed, dripped and oozed everywhere, threatening to flood the pile of papers on his desk. Glancing quickly around to make sure no-one was looking, he froze the puddles and drips with his breath and then brushed the whole lot into the trash.
Now what? He needed to get hold of the letter and find out what else Molly knew, but he didn't relish the idea of confronting her himself. Lois would have to do it. He shuddered when he thought of how many people Molly might have told.
"Someone walk over your grave?" Lois dumped a fresh coffee on his desk.
"That's what they say, isn't it, when you shiver like that? Someone walked over your grave. Although what they mean by that, I have no idea. I mean, how could someone walk over your grave when you're still alive? And why you should shiver because someone walked over it, even if they could, beats me also. Of course, I guess it would be pretty scary if you did have a grave when you thought you were still alive, so maybe you would shiver. But can a dead person shiver? What do you think?"
She took a sip of her own coffee while eyeing him over the brim of the cup. Clark had drifted back to the problem in hand half-way through her monologue, and was only aware that she had stopped, not of what she had said. He looked up at her expectant face, and could only manage another, "Sorry?"
"Clark, you didn't listen to a word I said, did you?"
"And you seem to be stuck on that one word. What's the matter?"
He looked around again to make sure no-one was nearby.
"This." He turned his monitor on again, and Lois pulled a chair up to sit down and read the message. He re-read it with her, but it didn't get any better the second time around.
"Oh, my god."
"We have to get that letter and talk to this Molly. And you better delete that message - and delete it from her PC somehow. I just hope the message doesn't stay lurking in the system somewhere for someone else to find."
"I could ask Jimmy. Do you think you could go and find Molly? I don't think I should meet her myself."
"Yes, I think you're right. But we've got to find a way of hushing her up, so she doesn't gossip to any more of her friends."
They fell silent while they pondered the problem.
They both jumped at Jimmy's sudden pronouncement. Clark dived across to switch the monitor off again, narrowly missing the second coffee cup, while Lois looked up guiltily at their young colleague.
"The traffic riding in today was murder, don't you think?"
"Jimmy, don't creep up on us like that! We could have been working on very sensitive material," said Lois in exasperation.
"Sorry, I thought I was being my usual boisterous but likeable self."
"Well, you weren't."
"Boisterous or likeable?"
"Work it out yourself. Jimmy, Clark and I are actually working on something confidential, so if you wouldn't mind?"
"Discretion is my middle name."
They waited until Jimmy was out of earshot before continuing.
"How about if I say I was playing a joke on you?" suggested Lois.
"What do you mean?"
"I sent the letter to her to wind you up. Because…because you're always denying that you're anything like Superman? No, no, forget it, that's too near the truth."
"I don't think we should tell her anything. We'll just end up getting in deeper and deeper. Why don't we just tell the truth and say we haven't a clue where the letter came from or why someone would send it?"
"Because she'll go blabbing to all her friends about it. You know how fast rumours spread around here…I know! We'll say that you're very embarrassed about it and you'd really appreciate it if she kept it to herself."
"I guess that's kind of the truth."
"Yes, and if we're very lucky, she'll have a crush on you so she'll take pity on you. Maybe you wouldn't want Superman to hear about it either…"
"Mmmm…I think that's the best we're going to come up with. I'll talk to Jimmy about the email while you go and tackle Molly."
They reconvened an hour later. Clark confirmed that the email was gone forever, especially since Lois had 'accidentally' deleted Molly's original by leaning on her keyboard. Lois had found that Molly was a junior secretary in Marketing, even younger than Jimmy, and had only been with the Planet for a few months. The girl had been quite embarrassed when Clark's wife had appeared in front of her, which told Lois that she did indeed have a small crush on him. Lois had adopted a 'big sister' approach, and persuaded the girl that Clark would be mortified, and possibly a little angry, if the comparison with Superman became common knowledge.
"Lois! I don't want her to think I'm an ogre," Clark protested.
"What would you prefer? One girl slightly in awe of you, or the whole world knowing you're…" She made the 'flying' signal with her hand.
Clark had to concede that point. Lois had also found Molly's friend - another junior secretary - and repeated the story to her. Finally, she had managed to get the letter itself away from Molly by explaining that she wanted to show it to Clark.
"She wrote something on it, I think," said Lois, handing the sheet to Clark.
Clark opened it up and immediately spotted the hand-written message in the top left-hand corner. It said, 'I'm really sorry if I upset you in any way. Yours forever, Molly."
There was a little heart drawn into the loop at the bottom of the 'y' of 'Molly'. Clark winced and showed it to Lois, who smiled.
"I think your secret's safe with her," she said.
"Yes, but not with whoever did this," he countered.
His heart sank when he looked at the rest of the letter. At the top, there was a picture of Clark next to one of Superman. The pictures had been quite carefully chosen so that both showed a similar profile, and Clark's glasses had been air-brushed away, which left only hair-style and attire to distinguish the two images. The text said simply that Clark Kent was Superman, pointed out that the two had never been seen in public together, and said that positive proof of the claim would be provided in the near future. Clark was pondering the accuracy of the assertion that they had never been seen together, when he was brought up short by his editor.
"I hope that's the final draft of your piece on the mayor's re-election campaign, because if it's not, the front page is going to look mighty bleak. 'Lane and Kent Quit After Brief But Stunning Career.'" Perry outlined the headline in mid-air with his hands.
Clark screwed up the letter in his hand and threw it in the trash with a breezy lack of caution.
"Almost there, Chief! Just a couple more changes, don't you think, Lois?"
He turned to his partner, who had followed the letter's path into the trashcan and was now staring intently at it. When she didn't respond immediately, Clark re-prompted, "Lois?"
She looked up with wide eyes at Clark.
"Uh, yes, it's compete rubbish. Not true at all," she said with conviction.
"Ah honey, I don't think we thought it was that bad. There was just that bit at the end - the bit about the mayor's daughter?" Clark glared at her, willing her to pick up his lead.
"That's what I meant. The daughter bit. No good at all. We'll have to change that."
"Well, people, you've got 10 minutes. And that's 10 Perry-minutes, not 10 Perry-but-we-need-more-time-minutes, OK?"
"OK, Chief," replied Clark.
Lois waited until Perry was out of sight, and then scrambled frantically in the trashcan to retrieve the letter. She couldn't find it.
"Got it?" asked Clark.
"No!" she hissed. "Why did you have to throw it in here?"
"I knew exactly where it was until you started rummaging around in there."
"Well, be my guest!"
Clark bent over to conduct a super-search, while Lois stood nonchalantly in front of him to hide the blur of his movements.
"OK," he said, and straightened up. Lois went back to her own desk.
For the rest of the day, they carefully skirted the subject uppermost in their minds, and it wasn't until after dinner that Clark reached around to the back pocket of his pants to pull out the letter. He spread it out on the table and stared at it.
"Photocopied, I'd say. Standard paper you can buy at any office supply store, and the fonts are as common as the paper."
"And those pictures could have come from anywhere - the Planet, any number of glossy magazines, the Internet…any super-clues?" suggested Lois.
Clark pushed his glasses down his nose and scanned both sides of the sheet.
"None that this superman can detect," he reported, replacing the glasses.
"OK, so that leaves us with motive."
"And who knows about me?" added Clark.
"No-one who would do this."
"So maybe someone's just guessing."
"Pretty accurate guessing - I wish they could guess the lottery numbers for me," remarked Lois.
"Yeah. But I don't see what else it could be."
"Well, let's say they are guessing. Why?"
"For the hell of it? Because they don't like me? Because they're nuts? All of the above?" Clark burst out of his chair and started pacing up and down as he spoke. "Lois, this is scary. Someone knows, or thinks they know I'm Superman, and we have no idea who they are, how many people they might have told, and why they're even doing this. I don't have any idea how to even start dealing with this."
Lois watched him pacing, his pent-up frustration and anxiety expressing itself in the way his arms flailed around as he talked.
"You start by not over-reacting - Clark, what's got into you? I'm usually the one who goes off the deep end, not you."
"You're not the one whose life is about to be torn apart," he retorted.
"Sorry?" said Lois icily.
"I said, you're not the one-" He stopped pacing as he realised what he had just said. "Oh god, Lois, what am I saying? Of course your life would be affected just as badly as mine." He crouched down beside her chair and put his arm around her shoulders. "That was unforgivable. I'm sorry."
"Yes, well, don't let it happen again," she replied. "Clark, it's only one letter. Let's not get ourselves wound up over it before we know if we even need to bother."
He kissed her lightly on the cheek. "You're right. I guess what with the dream and then that thing in the shop, I'm a little over-anxious. Let's think about something else."
He leaned in for a more leisurely kiss. "Oh, I don't know. Got any ideas?"
She returned the favour. "One."
"Come upstairs and I'll show you."
The following day, they barely made it through the elevator doors before Jimmy was bounding up to them.
"Perry wants to see you in his office right away. And by the look on his face, I'd say it's not to tell you that you've been nominated for another Kerth."
They glanced at each other in puzzlement, neither aware of any serious transgressions which would incur Perry's wrath. With clear consciences, they strode into their editor's office.
"Shut the door," said Perry abruptly, his head still bowed over the page he was reading. After a moment, he stood up and went around the office closing the blinds, while Lois and Clark sank uneasily down onto a couple of chairs, waiting to hear the bad news. He came back to his desk, reached inside a drawer, pulled out a sheet of paper and placed it in front of them.
"I received it in the mail this morning."
For a second, the world stood still for Clark. His mind went blank, all sound ceased, and there was just him and the anonymous letter Molly had received on the desk. Then everything came rushing back, and he was aware of his heart thudding in his chest, the silence in Perry's office, the background noise from the newsroom, Lois' own heart thumping almost as loud as his own, the vague rumble from the presses below. He looked up at Perry, positive that the blind panic he was feeling was written all over his face, despite his efforts to project only mild surprise.
"Before you say anything, let me tell you that I know you're not Superman." Perry gazed at him steadily, his expression unreadable.
Clark could only nod slightly.
"But while I know that, plenty of other people won't be so sure. So you'd better have some watertight proof ready, because I'm not the only one who's received one of these letters today."
"Chief, it's not that easy-"
They began together, but Perry silenced both of them with a hand.
"I'm going to give you half-an-hour's peace and quiet in this office to figure things out, but I doubt I'll be able to hold the outside world off for longer than that. You have my total support on this, but it won't be long before I get pressure from the top brass to make a statement. I've assigned Edwards to the story-"
"Perry! This is our-" started Lois.
"-because the Planet is not a forum for individuals to write their own defences in. We have to maintain some kind of impartiality in this thing - we'll have an opinion, don't get me wrong, but it will be the Planet's, not yours or Clark's. So Edwards will write the story, and you'll do the research. We'll supply proof that Clark and Superman are two different people, but the main part of our coverage will be on why someone would spread these rumours about Clark. OK?"
"I still say we should write the story," said Lois. "Edwards is a good writer, but he'll never be able to get inside the story like we can."
"And it will just slow things down if we have to keep explaining things to him before they get written," added Clark.
The last thing either of them wanted was a stranger getting involved in their story, especially when they were going to have to massage a few facts to present things the way they needed them to be.
"People, as long as I'm this side of the desk, Edwards is writing the story. No arguments. So get thinking about what you want him to say, because I want something in the late edition. And to answer your earlier question, at least five other people at the Planet got letters, my next-door neighbour got one and so did the shoe-shine guy outside."
As he got up to leave, he added, "One more thing. The press are going to be all over you very soon, so you might want to consider working at home for a few days. Jimmy has a couple of laptops waiting for you if you do."
He walked out and closed the door. Clark looked at Lois.
"He knows," he said.
"You think so? I wasn't so sure."
"Lois, he knows. Did you see the way he looked at me when he said he knew I wasn't Superman? I'm telling you, he knows."
"Maybe. Anyway, it doesn't really matter, does it? He's on our side, whatever he knows."
"Yes, thank goodness. We're lucky to have him."
"And each other." Lois reached over for Clark's hand, and he pulled her into his lap to hug her close.
"This is going to be tough," he said into her hair.
"We're going to be OK, though, aren't we?"
"Sure. We can handle this. We have two ace reporters, brains, good looks and Superman on our team. How can we fail?"
"That's what I thought."
Clark was quiet for a second, and then ventured, "Who's the brains and who's the good looks?"
"I'm the brains, of course."
"Well, thank you. I think."
They held each other for a long time, both clinging to a last few minutes of tranquillity before the media storm erupted. Finally, they pulled apart and began to discuss their immediate plans. They decided to take up Perry's offer of working from home, even if it meant that their house ended up turning into a mini-fortress. It somehow seemed easier to limit the number of places where they were likely to be pursued by the media, and it also might give the rest of the Planet's staff the chance of some peace and quiet to get on with their jobs. Clark rang his parents to warn them of the impending upheaval, whereupon Jonathan immediately offered to come to Metropolis to lend support. Clark thought it was better if they all kept things as normal as possible, rather than give the press anything extra to write about, so eventually they all agreed that the older Kents would stay in Smallville at least for the next few days.
Emerging from Perry's office was the first in a series of difficult encounters for the couple. Clark felt as though every eye in the newsroom was centred on them as they hurried across to the elevators. The elevator took forever to arrive, and then when it did, it decanted Ralph, who grinned and said, "Hey, Kent, where's the cape?"
Clark pushed past him, 'accidentally' knocking the man's shoulder as he passed. Lois watched him reel and stumble down the ramp as the elevator doors closed, then turned to Clark.
"That wasn't so clever. Now he'll be talking all day about how strong you were when you knocked into him."
"I know. The guy just has this knack of bringing out the worst in me. I'm sorry."
"Yes, well, it raises an important point. You've got to be extra careful from now on - no sneaky super-powers when you think no-one's looking, for instance. You'll just have to drink cold coffee like the rest of us."
By the time they reached their house, a small crowd of reporters had already gathered in the street. They had agreed in the car not to say anything until they had worked out some basic tactics, but it was harder than they had expected to remain silent when faced with a barrage of probing, accusatory questions. Lois' patience snapped and she whirled at the top of the stairs to confront the pack, but Clark yanked her inside and slammed the door shut. The phone was already ringing, so he strode over to it, said "We're not home," to whoever was on the other end, replaced the receiver and pulled the cord out from the wall.
"Clark! What if someone genuine needs to contact us?"
"I borrowed Jimmy's cell-phone."
"Oh, boy, this should be interesting."
"I know. We'll have to arrange some sort of code with the people we want to talk to…maybe use a different name when we answer the phone so that Jimmy's friends don't find out we've got his phone."
"I hope his social life doesn't take too much of a beating because of this."
"The rest will do him good."
Clark rang first his parents and then Perry to set up a system which they could all use to establish safe communications while Lois made a big pot of coffee and brought in a plate of double fudge crunch bars and Ding-Dongs. When Clark raised his eyebrows at the pile of chocolate-laden junk food, Lois explained succinctly, "Comfort food."
They settled down in front of the provisions to discuss the Planet's initial response to the accusations. Clark suggested they make a list of proof for and against, which took them all of 10 seconds.
Proof that he is
They look similar
They are hardly ever seen together
Superman appeared in Metropolis at roughly the same time that Clark arrived
Proof that he's not
They've been seen together at two press conferences
Lois sighed deeply.
"Is that really all we can come up with for the 'not'?"
"It's a pretty good 'not'. I'd say that one 'not' is worth all those others put together," countered Clark.
"Maybe. I just hope Edwards can make something more out of it."
They turned their attention again to the question of who might want to expose Clark as Superman. Lists were made of Clark's old adversaries and hypotheses drawn up to explain motive, but nothing seemed convincing enough to pursue further. Half-heartedly, Clark began researching who was still in jail and who was out, but the task felt pointless, and after a couple of phone calls, he tossed his pencil and pad on the table in disgust and got up to pace around.
He was starting to realise just how difficult the situation was. Not only did they have to contend with the media circus, but he was also worried about how it was going to affect his Superman activities. Now that they were stuck in the house, how was he going to answer a call for help without his departure being seen? The last thing he wanted was for Superman to be noticed leaving their home. And then there was that last line in the letter. Positive proof of the fact that he was Superman would be provided in the near future, it had said. What form was the proof going to take, and when was it going to happen? Would Lois be in danger? Would his parents? It seemed as if everything was spiralling out of his control.
He walked over to the front door and took a look through to the outside to see what the press were up to. Hanging around interviewing each other, by the look of it. Funny how a few of them were looking up at the top of the house…his hearing suddenly picked up a noise from upstairs and he ran up to their bedroom just in time to find someone climbing in through the window. He grabbed the intruder by the arm and pulled him the rest of the way into the room.
"Can I help you?" he asked in a deliberately calm voice.
"I was just-" the man started.
"-Just breaking and entering? Don't you know that's illegal?"
"Oh, come on, Kent. Don't tell me you've never done anything like that?"
"What have you got there, Clark?" Lois had arrived upstairs and was leaning up against the doorjamb.
"Someone who thinks he's in a James Bond movie, I think. Perhaps you'd like to leave, now? The way you came in?" Clark pushed the man back towards the window.
"Uh, no, the front door's fine. Maybe you could show me where you keep the Superman suits on the way downstairs."
Clark ignored the suggestion and steered the reporter down the stairs towards the door. As he opened the door to eject the unwelcome visitor, the man turned and said, "Just answer me this. Are you Superman?"
Clark pushed him out and closed the door.
"How many more like that are we going to get?" he asked as he came back inside and slumped down on the sofa.
"More than we'd like, I expect. But Clark, you have a question to answer."
"What do you mean?"
"Are you Superman?"
He looked at her and pulled a face.
"Well, are you?"
"Lois, you know the answer to that question."
"Sure, I do. But do you? Clark, people are going to start asking you that all the time, and you have to be ready with an answer. So what are you going to say?"
"Nothing." He picked up a cushion and started playing with the tassels.
"You saw before how difficult it was to keep quiet. You'll have to say something sooner or later."
He fiddled some more with the cushion, pushing it into different shapes and then tossing it up so that it spun around in mid-air.
"Repeat after me," began Lois. "No, I'm not Super-"
"I can't!" he exploded, giving the cushion a final punch before hugging it to his chest. "Lois, I can't lie to people. It's against everything I stand for, you know that."
"You've been lying to them almost all your adult life, Clark. Why stop now?"
"I never lied. I just didn't tell them certain things."
"Like you didn't tell me certain things."
Clark's head shot around to look at her in alarm. Surely she'd got over that by now, he thought.
"It's OK, I forgave you for that a long time ago. What I meant was, we're talking semantics here. Whether you mislead people, or tell them something directly, it amounts to the same thing. You're leading them to believe something other than the truth."
"Maybe, but I still don't think it's the same as an outright denial."
"Clark, are you listening to me? All right, what about all those excuses you make when you have to leave in a hurry - you don't seem to have a problem lying then."
"I always make sure I actually do what I say I'm going to do as well as make the save."
"Oh yes? Like the Cheese of the Month delivery?"
He wrapped his arms even tighter around the cushion in a defensive gesture.
"Well, mostly. But anyway, I don't think it matters whether I deny being Superman or not - people will read what they want into whatever I say. So I'm not going to say anything."
"Fine! Do you mind if I issue the odd denial, or do your complicated morals extend to me as well?"
Clark shrugged his shoulders in exasperation. "Deny all you like. Just don't be surprised if they twist your words."
"Clark, I'm in the business - I think I can cope. And in case you're worried that I'll tarnish my halo, not that I think I qualify for one, I'll say that my husband isn't Superman, which strictly speaking is true, because I married Clark Kent, not Superman."
"Now who's talking semantics?"
"Oh, shut up and go make us some lunch." Lois picked up a cushion and threw it at him, whereupon he grabbed his own cushion and lobbed it back at her. She managed to intercept it before it hit her and batted it over to him, but the unfortunate article had taken all the beating it could stand, and stuffing flew everywhere as it burst open.
"That's what I love about you, Lois. The way you bring out the mature adult in me."
"You gather stuffing, I'll get lunch."
The next few days were miserable for the embattled couple. Although they had managed to make their home a relative haven of peace, whenever they left the house to go shopping for food or any other domestic errand, they had to negotiate the media pack camped out in the street. They had given a couple of interviews to the more reputable newspapers and TV stations, but mostly they were trying to avoid comment of any kind. Jonathan and Martha had received their share of attention, and even Perry and Jimmy had been stopped at the entrance to the Planet to give their versions of the story.
Despite their early misgivings, Edwards was doing a pretty good job of balancing the increasing tide of public speculation with solid, factual articles plugging their side of the story. He was even managing to do it without sounding too biased, although his trump cards - the two press conferences - had been weakened by rumours that the conferences had been rigged using doubles and hologram trickery.
"I can't believe they're saying we cheated at those press conferences!" complained Lois when she first heard this news.
"Well, we did, actually," countered Clark.
"Not the second time around, we didn't. You were real, not a double like they're claiming."
Clark sucked in air through his teeth.
"I may have been real, but Superman was from another universe. Face it, Lois, they're right. We cheated."
"OK, but not like they mean."
"We are *not* going there again!"
"OK. So we agree to differ?"
"You agree, I'll differ."
Meanwhile, Clark was having to come up with increasingly inventive ways of exiting their house to attend to people in trouble. He had even rummaged down in their cellar to see if he could find some way of escaping into the sewers, but unfortunately (or fortunately from Lois' point of view) he would have had to drill rather a long tunnel to the nearest sewer, and he hadn't been sure what the effect on their house and the surrounding area might have been. His spirits finally plummeted to an all-time low when on one occasion he nearly didn't reach a little girl who was drowning in a fish pond, all because he had to delay his departure to escape notice. He returned to Lois with the firmly-held opinion that he should move out to a hotel for a few days, so that he could do his job properly. Lois talked him out of the plan, but only after a long session that started with Lois offering sympathy and Oolong tea and ended with them shouting at each other.
By the end of the week, they were both exhausted from endless discussions and arguments with each other and the press. The only information they had managed to gather about the letters was that whoever was sending them out was gradually working through the population of Metropolis - each day a new set of people received the letter through the post, so that more and more people were talking about it. Perry came round with a takeout meal from their favourite Chinese restaurant to try to cheer them up, but he ended up being infected with their low mood and left just as depressed as they were. Things seemed as if they couldn't get any worse, and then Lois remembered something.
"What, honey?" asked Clark absently. He was flicking through the TV channels, trying to find something to distract himself from his own misery. Sports would do fine, he thought. Any sport. Even mud-wrestling.
"I know when and where this so-called 'proof' is going to happen."
Lois grabbed the remote from him and switched the TV off.
"Listen to me! If you wanted to prove to the world that Clark Kent was Superman, and reach the most people you could at once, you'd choose a big media event, wouldn't you?"
"So this person is going for the Kerths. There'll be plenty of press coverage - nothing but press, in fact - and we're up for an award, so they know we'll be there. If we win the award, it'll be even better for him or her."
Clark stared at Lois in dawning comprehension.
"Maybe we better not go," he said.
"No, I think we should. It'll be the best chance we've got to smoke this person out. Besides, I've already bought the dress."
"Lois, don't you think that's a bit dangerous? He/she exposes me, then the whole world knows I'm Superman. What then?"
"Then we find out who it is and expose them."
"That's great, but in the meantime what do I do? Retire?"
"No, then we prove that you're not Superman."
"We'll think of something."
"Well, maybe this person's so-called proof won't be that good. So we expose them, disprove their theory, and live happily ever after."
Clark rolled his eyes at her.
"OK, so maybe I'm taking a risk. But what else do you suggest we do - just lie down and let them trample all over us? I'm tired of defending all the time, Clark. I want to go on the attack."
"Sounds like I'm the one who's going to get attacked."
"Don't worry, I'll save you."
"Aren't I the one who's supposed to say that?"
Clark continued to have reservations, but he had to sympathise with Lois' desire to take action. He was weary of staying cooped up in their house, and whatever happened, at least the Kerths would provide a welcome night out. The one precaution they decided to take was for Clark to leave the Superman suit behind for the night, just in case someone tried to jump him and rip his shirt open.
The days leading up to the awards were just as frustrating and fruitless as the previous week, although they were becoming more adept at dealing with the media attention they received wherever they went. Clark somehow managed to maintain a non-committal silence when asked directly about whether he was Superman or not, and Lois got better at controlling her temper when she felt that the reporters were intruding too vigorously into their private lives. All this made the barrage of press outside the award ceremony itself a little easier to cope with, and it was with high spirits that they finally made it inside to greet Perry and Jimmy.
"Lois! You look so se…stunning!" Jimmy decided just in time that his first choice of adjective might not be wholly appropriate.
"Why, thank you, Jimmy. You don't look so bad yourself."
"This? Oh, yeah, well, my dad said it was time I started to smarten up my image."
"Well, you made a good start," said Clark.
"How's it going, Clark? You looked like old media star pros out there," asked Perry.
"Practice makes perfect, Chief," replied Clark with a touch of irony.
"I guess so."
"Ah, Chief," Clark was fiddling with the knot in his tie, "I just remembered I didn't lock the car. Excuse me." He dashed off towards the door.
Lois saw him go, and broke off her conversation with Jimmy to run after him. She caught up with him as he was pushing back through the throng of people outside.
He half turned to look at her, his eyes revealing a mind already focused on the crisis he had been called to.
"Where are you going?" she asked him.
"The car." The last word was spoken through gritted teeth.
Lois pulled up very close to him and said softly in his ear, "Leave it to the authorities. You can't go now, you're not dressed for it."
He made to pull away from her, but she held on to him. He leaned forward to whisper fiercely, "I can't just ignore this! People could get hurt."
"Clark, no. You made a choice, now stick to it."
His face was a mass of agonised indecision, and for a moment she thought she was going to lose the battle, but at last he relented and followed her back into the building. His contribution to the ensuing conversation was minimal though, as he continued to be preoccupied by the unwelcome decision he had been forced to take. He was straining to track the progress of the crisis, a fire downtown, using his superhearing, so that the voices around him became only a background murmur. He was just beginning to tune in sufficiently to work out that the fire department had arrived, when he was abruptly brought back to his current surroundings by a heavy hand on his shoulder.
"Clark, are you still with us?" asked Perry.
"Chief!" He shook himself mentally. "Sorry, I was miles away."
"Look, son, I know you're worried about what's going to happen tonight, but try to put that to one side and let yourself have a good time."
"I'll certainly try, Perry."
"Good! Come on, let's find our seats."
"And now we come to the award which in many ways is at the heart of our business - the Kerth Award for Best Reporter. Here to read the nominations and present the award is five-time winner and now best-selling author, Mike Newman!"
"Yes, but how many people have actually read the book?" whispered Lois to Clark, a little too loud for his liking. He hushed her with a glare as he joined in the clapping with the rest of the audience.
"The nominations for Best Reporter are: Bill Redford, for his series on the homeless of Metropolis, Catherine James, for her work on the London affair, and finally, the reporting team of Lois Lane and Clark Kent, for their expose of Senator Booth. And the winner is…" He fumbled with the envelope in what Lois considered a clumsy attempt to draw out the excitement, then took his time reading the card before continuing, "This reads longer than one of my novels!"
A half-hearted laugh spread around the impatient audience.
"Seriously, folks, the winners are Lois Lane and Clark Kent. Congratulations, guys!"
Lois and Clark leapt up and hurried up to the stage to accept the award. As they switched places with Mike Newman behind the podium, Lois said out of the corner of her mouth to Clark, "Only one trophy? I thought we'd get one each!"
Clark nearly burst into a fit of giggles as Lois moved smoothly into their acceptance speech.
"Thanks, Mike. You really had us on the edge of our seats for a second there!"
"Pity my books don't have the same effect," replied the journalist-turned-author on a mike off-stage. There was another titter from the audience before Clark took over.
"Writing a story is a team effort, not-," he faltered for a split second before continuing,"-not just involving Lois and me, but for-" He gasped and put a hand on the podium to steady himself.
Lois snaked an arm around his waist to lend him support, whispering, "What is it?"
He made another attempt to continue. "But for everyone at the Daily Planet. So we…we'd like…we…" He stopped and put his other hand on the podium to hold himself upright, whilst drops of sweat gathered on his forehead and his breathing became laboured. He was vaguely aware of Lois gripping him tightly around the waist, and the audience murmuring in the background, but mostly he was aware of a familiar agony creeping through his body.
There was a loud whistle from the house PA system, and then a new voice cut in.
"As Mr Kent appears to be having some difficulty continuing, permit me to take over and introduce you to the attractive young lady who has just walked on stage."
All eyes turned to gaze at the tall, dark-haired woman who had appeared on the other side of the stage. Her hair was piled up into a bun with a large but stylish black pin the size of a knitting needle apparently holding the whole lot in place. She was wearing very high strappy black sandals, and her dress was a figure-hugging sheath made of what appeared to be fine white fur with black spots.
The voice continued, "You will notice that she is holding a beautiful green rock - show the ladies and gentlemen the kryptonite, Cruella."
Cruella walked to the front of the stage, displaying the large chunk of kryptonite on the palm of her hand, while Lois thought to herself, Cruella?
"Yes, I'm afraid her name really is Cruella," said the disembodied voice. "Now, please note that as Cruella brings the kryptonite closer to Mr Kent, he becomes even more distressed."
And sure enough, as the woman walked towards Lois and Clark, he loosened his grip on the podium and crumpled to the floor. Lois rushed at Cruella, all the time wondering where on earth security had got to. Her collision with the woman told her that she was no match for Cruella, and she was left sprawling on the floor while Cruella reached Clark and manhandled him into a sitting position against the podium like a rag doll.
"Why does Mr Kent faint in the presence of kryptonite, I hear you ask? Why, because he is Superman, of course. And Cruella will now provide the final proof before your very eyes."
Cruella yanked Clark's glasses off and ripped open his shirt.
"And there you have it, the famous blue suit, worn under Mr Kent's street clothes in case…Oh. I see Mr Kent is one step ahead of me, and has decided not to wear the suit today. No matter, I think my point is made with the kryptonite. Clark Kent, ace reporter and doting husband, is in fact Superman, your friendly neighbourhood alien. Puts a whole new slant on the word honesty, don't you think? I leave you with that thought while I make my escape."
Lois made another attempt to pull Cruella away from Clark, but only succeeded in getting a handful of black and white fur.
"Somebody do something!" she shouted desperately.
Somehow, her cry for help galvanised everyone into action, and soon the stage was crowded with people. Cruella was dragged away by several burly stage-hands, while Lois and Clark were surrounded by members of the audience, Kerth Award staff, the stage manager and photographers who seemed to have materialised out of thin air. Amongst the melee, Lois did her best to care for Clark, who was obviously still in great pain although barely conscious. She pulled her jacket off, fashioned it into a pillow and eased it behind his head, all the while scanning frantically around the forest of legs and feet to locate the kryptonite.
She was about to ask for help to move him away from the scene when Jimmy hunkered down on the floor beside her and asked, "What can I do to help, Lois?"
"I need to get him away from all this and back home."
"He looks awful sick. Shouldn't he be in the hospital?"
"He-he just forgot to take his medication," she explained, inventing wildly. "He'll be fine once I get him home."
"Lois! Clark never mentioned he was sick."
"He's not - I mean he is - I mean it's nothing serious, it's just something that flares up very occasionally. Jimmy, can you help me carry him out of here?"
Jimmy looked doubtful. "Hold on, I think I saw the Chief a second ago - I'll ask him to help us." He stood up and scanned around for Perry.
While Jimmy was locating Perry, Lois searched inside Clark's jacket for the spare pair of glasses he usually kept there. She popped them on him just before Jimmy and Perry reappeared at her level and began to lift Clark up.
"The stage manager says we can use his office," said Perry.
The three of them managed to beat a path through the growing crowd to the office at the back, where Jimmy and Perry eased Clark down onto a chair while Lois forced the door shut against the pressing tide of onlookers.
"Thank god!" she exclaimed into the sudden quiet of the room. She rushed over to Clark, who was stirring a little from his faint.
"It's OK, Clark honey, I'm here."
She glanced around for another chair, and both Jimmy and Perry nearly collided as they grabbed for the nearest one in their haste to help her out. Smiling faintly, she said, "Thanks, guys," before sitting down and leaning over to take Clark's hand in hers. His eyes fluttered and opened at her touch, and he turned slowly to look fuzzily at her. She gave him her warmest smile.
"You fainted on the stage, honey. You must have forgotten your medication," Lois explained, hoping he would catch on.
"My medication?" he frowned in confusion.
"You know, for that thing you sometimes get."
"Oh. Yes, that thing," he agreed, clearly still puzzled by her explanation.
"He's still a bit out of it," Lois told Perry and Jimmy, who were watching the exchange curiously. She rummaged in her purse and pulled out her car keys. Holding them out to Jimmy, she asked, "Could you get the car out of the parking lot and bring it round to the stage door, please?"
"Don't wreck it," she added with a smile to show she didn't mean what she said.
"Me, Lois? I'm the best driver in Metropolis," he protested as he opened the door, forgetting about the crowd on the other side. As they tried to push inside, Perry leapt forward and grabbed the nearest one by the collar.
"Now look here, you miserable crowd of vultures! There's nothing to see here, just a sick man and his wife trying to care for him, so y'all go away and find someone else to hound. There'll be plenty of time later to answer your questions. And let the boy through, he's just trying to help."
The crowd pulled back a little at his words, and Jimmy took the opportunity to squeeze through them, keeping his eyes resolutely forwards on the door he was aiming for.
Perry continued, "The next time I open this door, I don't want to see any of you there. Some of you should know better, like you, Jefferson." Perry pointed an accusatory finger at a man in the middle of the crowd. "Wasn't it you who wrote that article about media harassment?"
"That was dif-," started the man, but Perry ignored him, pushed his captive back into the crowd and slammed the door shut, barely missing the nose of a tall lady near the front.
"Thanks, Perry," said Lois.
"They won't all go, but maybe some of the hangers-on and the ones with consciences will."
Clark spotted a water cooler in a corner of the room and stood up to help himself to some, but promptly crashed back down into his chair as a wave of dizziness and nausea overtook him. Perry put a hand on his shoulder.
"I'll get it, son."
He fetched the water and handed it to Clark, who took it gratefully and began to sip cautiously. Perry leaned over and studied his reporter.
"You sure gave us all a fright there, son. Are you positive you shouldn't go to the hospital? You don't look all that great to me."
"I just need to rest some, Perry. But thanks for asking."
The truth was, he really felt pretty horrible. He wasn't sure if it was the tension leading up to the awards, or the suddenness of the attack, but he felt a whole lot worse than he usually did. Maybe it was the size of the piece of kryptonite - it had to be one of the biggest he had seen since that first encounter in his father's workshop. Whatever it was, he just wished he could magic himself and Lois back home, into bed and away from this nightmare. Kind and well-meaning though Perry and Jimmy were, he was aware of the unspoken questions in their minds, and he didn't feel up to coping with the pressure of that, as well as keeping up the Clark-only persona. He just wanted to be himself.
"We'll be home soon, honey, don't worry," said Lois.
He smiled wanly. "How do you always know what I'm thinking?"
"They teach you it at school. They say, 'Girls, a good wife always knows what her husband is thinking, so you must learn to be psychic.' So we did."
"So that's what you were doing while we were making shelves in woodshop."
"That, and a whole lot more. Here." She pulled her chair up close to his, put her arm around his shoulders and drew him to her so that he was using her shoulder as a pillow. "Better?"
"I'm glad you went to a good school, Lois," he answered as he closed his eyes and tried to relax into her soft embrace. Lois felt his forehead with her other hand, noting that it felt hotter than usual. Where was Jimmy?
"I wonder what happened to the ceremony," remarked Lois to Perry.
"I think they abandoned it. I reckon by the time the fuss had died down on stage, they would have been running too late to carry on."
"I hope someone rescued our trophy."
"I'm sure one of the award staff will have picked it up."
They fell silent for a time, both having lost interest in small-talk. At last, Jimmy returned from his mission.
"It's parked just outside the door, so all you have to do is walk out and get in," he said, handing the keys back to Lois.
"Do you want a blanket to hide Clark's head?" he offered.
"Jimmy, he's sick, not a criminal!" exploded Perry.
"I just thought it might help," muttered Jimmy, subdued by Perry's scathing words.
"Jimmy, it was a kind thought, but we'll manage fine as we are," placated Lois. "Clark, honey?"
"Mmmm?" He opened his eyes and straightened up in his chair.
"You up to a short walk?"
"What's it like out there, Jimmy?" asked Perry.
"Not too bad. I think most people got bored waiting and went home."
"Let's get this show on the road, then."
Clark stood up carefully, and Jimmy and Perry stood on either side of him for support and to repel any over-zealous reporters. Lois went ahead of them to clear a path, and in this fashion, they made it to the Jeep without serious incident. A couple of die-hards shot questions at Clark and Lois, but gave in when it was clear that no answers would be forthcoming. Both Jimmy and Perry offered to ride home with them, but Lois declined the offer, thinking on the whole that it would be more restful for Clark if they were alone for a time.
"You know, we could go to a hotel for the night if you'd like. It might be quieter," suggested Lois as they drove home.
"The thought had crossed my mind too, but I want to go home. I want to be in our house, in our bed, drinking our Oolong tea."
"I'm glad you do, because I do too. I just hope the press pack hasn't grown too much since tonight's episode."
They were in luck. As Lois drew up outside their house, there were only a couple more reporters than usual loitering in the street. Clark sighed.
"I never thought I'd regret buying a house with a staircase outside."
Lois looked over at him. He looked completely miserable.
"Poor honey, you're feeling really rough, aren't you?"
He nodded slightly, closing his eyes as he did so.
"Well, let's see what I can do about that rabble, at least." She unbuckled her seatbelt, got out of the car and marched up to the journalists.
"As you probably all know by now, my husband isn't very well. He could do with some support walking up these stairs, so which one of you big strong guys is going to help him?" She waited while they shuffled their feet awkwardly and did nothing. "Or are you all too scared to be different, to show you might actually care about something?" When they still didn't move, she grabbed the arm of the nearest one. "Come on, Ed, you'll do."
It was a gamble, but it paid off. The reporter came willingly around to Clark's side of the Jeep, and dutifully helped him up the staircase. The rest of the pack kept a respectful distance, and thus Lois and Clark made it into their house without being asked another unwelcome question.
Once safely inside with the door closed, Clark nearly fainted again with relief at finally escaping the public eye. Lois caught him just in time, saying, "Whoa, Clark! Just one more staircase to go, and then you can let go."
So Clark reached inside himself to find the inner reserves necessary to conquer the final challenge of this eventful day, and made it into their bedroom more or less under his own steam. But that was it. He had nothing left to give. He lay down on their bed, and let Lois undress him, pull the bedclothes over him, bathe his hot forehead, and feed him sips of Oolong tea until he lay back and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
"Don't worry, Martha, he'll bounce back. I'll keep him at home today, then tomorrow I can always take him to see Dr Klein if he's still not right. But I'm sure he'll be fine, it was just the shock and the amount of kryptonite he was exposed to…yes, I'll tell him. You and Jonathan take care now…bye."
Clark opened his eyes to see Lois sitting cross-legged on the bed, fully clothed and just shutting up the cell-phone following the end of her conversation with his mother.
"Morning," she said when she saw he was awake.
"How are you feeling?"
"Not too sure…ask me again when I've woken up properly. What did my mom say?"
"Don't over-exert yourself."
He smiled ruefully. "That's my mom."
"Want some breakfast?"
He hesitated. Breakfast sounded good, but Lois' breakfast? He wasn't sure that in his present fragile state he could withstand the challenge. She saw his hesitation and punched him playfully on the arm.
"Don't worry, I ordered in."
"I didn't mean-"
"Yes, you did. Don't you remember, I'm psychic? Now, stay there and I'll bring it to you."
She hopped off the bed and disappeared downstairs before he could protest. Now that he was more fully awake, he was aware of a certain need. He didn't want to spoil her treat for him, so he leapt out of bed as quickly as he could manage, dashed to the bathroom, and was just pulling the bedclothes up around himself again when Lois reappeared carrying a tray laden down with breakfast goodies. Laying the tray on his lap, she leaned over and put her face close to his.
"You cheated," she accused sternly.
"What?" Clark was all innocence.
"You got up. That's not allowed." She leaned in closer still and kissed him. After a moment, Clark pulled away.
"Not even for emergencies?" He kissed her back, and this time it was Lois' turn to pull away.
"As long as they're not super-emergencies, I guess."
"Then I definitely didn't break the rules. Supermen never do, you know. It's in the handbook."
"There's a handbook?"
"Oh, yes. But it's not finished yet, I'm still writing it."
"When will it be finished?"
"Well, it's a lifetime's work." He kissed her again. "And I'm still learning lots."
"But you're definitely-" They kissed again. "-improving."
"I have a good teacher."
"And right now, teacher says eat your breakfast."
Lois reached up abruptly to lay her hand on his forehead. It still felt a little warm to her, and she said so.
"That's just my naturally radiant character," explained Clark.
"Yeah. And I'm Peter Pan."
She decided to let him off the hook for the time being though, instead commanding him again to eat. She resumed her cross-legged position on top of the bed beside him, but within striking distance of the breakfast tray.
"So. I have a theory about last night's mystery voice," she began, munching on a croissant.
"So have I."
"I think it was Tempus."
"I know it didn't sound much like him, b-…you do?"
"Yes, I think he was disguising his voice. But the inflection was his, and the whole style of the thing was his."
"But what's his motive?"
"Exactly. Why would he suddenly decide to expose me now, when he's known all along who I am?"
"Maybe we should be asking why he hasn't done it before, rather than why he's doing it now."
"I guess he's tried killing me. He's tried losing me in a time vortex, and then there was that time you told me about where he exposed my alternate self in the other universe. That kind of back-fired on him, but maybe he thinks it'll be different this time…in a different universe."
"I don't see why."
"Because we're not armed to the hilt like they were in that other universe? Because Superman already exists in this universe? Because I'm married to you? I don't know, Lois, none of this makes any sense to me. I really can't see what he's up to this time at all."
Neither could Lois, but they continued to bat ideas around for a while, until Lois looked down at the breakfast tray and noticed that Clark hadn't eaten very much. She put a hand on his arm and looked into his eyes.
"How are you, really?" she asked.
"Just tired. Tired, and I guess a little achy. You'd think I might get used to it, but I don't - every time it's just as bad as the last. And just as painful." He lifted the tray from his lap. "Time to get up."
"You don't have to, you know. You can laze around in bed just as long as you like, and I can attend to your every need."
"Now there's an offer," he said, waggling his eyebrows suggestively. "Every need?"
"Hmmm, very tempting. But actually I think I'll feel better if I get dressed and get up properly - kind of shake everything around a little."
"OK, but don't forget, most offers have an expiration date."
"Don't worry, I'm sure I'll be taking it up long before it expires."
When Clark came downstairs, he decided he might as well find out how bad things had got in the media, so he worked his way through the TV news channels. Most stations were carrying the story of his 'exposure' as their top story, and all of them were taking the evidence presented as final proof of what everyone had been talking about for days. There were interviews with eye-witnesses, experts of all descriptions, graphics and tables showing Superman's activities around the city, and lots of items where media personalities were interviewing each other, which Clark found slightly ridiculous. His heart lifted a little when he found a couple of interviews with eye-witnesses who took a sympathetic attitude to his collapse at the awards, expressing concern for his health and well-being. At least some people were more interested in the man behind the scandal than the scandal itself. His thoughts were interrupted by Jimmy's cell-phone ringing.
"Clark! Glad to hear your voice. How are you, son?"
It was Perry, calling to check on his health. Clark assured him that he was much better, and that he and Lois were already back on the story. Perry had more bad news about the media, however, saying that the phones hadn't stopped ringing at the Daily Planet since he arrived.
"They're demanding a statement from you, Clark."
"Chief, I haven't got anything to say! Except, I-I'm who I say I am."
"I'll hold them off just as long as I can, but you're going to have to come up with something better than that soon."
"I'm not sure that I can."
"Well, keep on it. I'll talk to you later."
He leaned back on the sofa and closed his eyes, turning over ideas in his mind. There were a couple that he was toying with, but he wasn't sure what Lois would think of them, or even how workable they were. He'd have to give them an airing and see how they stood up to scrutiny.
Lois came in from the kitchen carrying a bowl full of his favourite nibbles, and laid them on the coffee table in front of him. He opened one eye, saw what she had done and smiled wryly.
"Still trying to fatten me up, are we?" he asked.
"Just making sure you keep your strength up for later. Who was that on the phone?"
He closed both eyes again and sank a little lower in his seat.
"Perry. He wants me to come up with a statement for the media."
"Oh, really? Well, he and everyone else are just going to have to wait until we're good and ready. We're not going to issue some knee-jerk reaction just for the gutter press to twist and mangle into whatever it is they actually want to print."
"Agreed, but we can't keep them hanging on forever." He paused, marshalling his thoughts. "Actions speak louder than words, wouldn't you agree?"
"Well, yes…I'm not going to like this, am I?"
He opened his eyes to look at her. She was wearing one of her wary, 'what's he going to come up with now' expressions.
"Maybe, maybe not. What if I went out in the suit today? People will be thinking I'm still sick from the kryptonite so they won't be expecting to see Superman today." Now that he'd said it out loud, it didn't sound like such a good idea after all - he could hear her objections even before she said anything.
"And just what are you going to do today dressed as Superman? Leap tall buildings, bend steel with your bare hands? You should see yourself, Clark - I never saw someone who looked less super right now."
"I could probably manage a little laser vision…"
"And give yourself a headache on top of everything else. If people are thinking the way you expect, then you can bet your bottom dollar that someone will be just waiting to force a more difficult test of your abilities than that."
He held up his hands in defence. "OK, OK, so it was a little weak."
"Weak? I've heard Ralph come up with better ideas!"
The phone rang again, and Clark leaned over to answer it.
Lois watched while his expression changed from mild enquiry to thunderstruck.
"How did you-," he began angrily, and then was silent while he listened to the caller. After a couple of minutes, he slammed the phone down on the table and shot out of his seat to begin pacing up and down like a caged animal.
"Clark? Who was it?" asked Lois anxiously.
"I don't know. Probably Tempus."
"What did he say?"
Instead of answering, he strode up to their secret compartment and opened it to gaze at his Superman suits. Reaching up, he grabbed one off the rail.
"Honey, what are you doing?" She rushed over to him and put her hands over his. "We just agreed you can't go out."
"That was before Tempus set up a head-on collision between two trains."
"Oh, no! We should phone someone-"
"Not enough time."
He broke away from her and made as if to take off into flight. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts, he gave up and stood dejected in the middle of the room, shoulders slumped in defeat with the useless suit dangling from one hand. Meanwhile, Lois had hurried back over to the phone and picked it up to dial.
"There's no point, Lois," he stated flatly.
"We have to try!"
"What are you going to tell them? That two trains are going to crash, somewhere in Metropolis?"
She looked at him, confused by what he was saying.
"He didn't tell me where it's going to happen." He paused and stared at her as his words sank in. "If I could fly, I'd find them right away. As it is…" He screwed the suit up into a ball and threw it at the wall. Lois was taken aback by his rare display of temper and stared back at him in shock.
"Hello, Metropolis Transit Authority. How may we help you?" Lois jumped as the phone squawked at her.
"Oh! Hello. I have to tell you about a crash-"
"If you're calling about the collision over in Gable Heights, we already know about it. The emergency vehicles are already on the scene. If you have relatives or friends you need to check up on-"
"No…are there many hurt?"
"It's too early to say, I'm afraid. We think there are quite a few trapped in the wreckage, but no fatalities so far. Now, miss, our phones are very busy right now-"
"Oh, yes, I'm sorry. Bye."
There was sudden quiet in the room as the realisation of what had just happened hit both of them. Lois watched Clark as he walked over to the scrumpled-up suit on the floor, picked it up and gazed at the 'S' logo on the front. He muttered something inaudible and abruptly bolted upstairs.
"Clark-," she called after him, but he was oblivious to her.
She slumped down on the sofa, still holding the phone. She couldn't believe that Tempus had deliberately arranged the crash, put innocent people in danger, just to pursue his own warped plans. She had come across some cold-hearted criminals in her career as a journalist, but this man was truly amoral. Lex was ruthless and cruel, but at least he could display love, even if it was only a twisted, misguided love. Tempus didn't care about anyone but himself, had no passion, no interests other than the destruction of Utopia. His only weakness was his arrogance and the sometimes over-elaborate nature of his plans. They would get him, she thought, they would stop him this time, but then would he reappear again…and again? Always there in the background, ready to attack their way of living.
And now she had to put Clark back together again. She would always do her best for him, but she was running short of energy herself. The constant battle with the media, the strain of maintaining an outward shell of tough capability, having to come up with more and more imaginative ways of keeping their secret, were all taking their toll on her, and she wasn't sure how much longer she could carry on like this. Something had to give, something had to go their way.
The phone in her hand rang, and she answered furiously.
"Tempus, you sick bastard! If you're ringing to gloat-"
"Lois? Is that you?" Jonathan's calm, measured tones, interrupted her.
"Jonathan! I'm sorry. I thought you were someone else."
"Obviously. Lois, we saw the news reports-"
"It's on the news?"
"I'm afraid so. Are you all right?"
"We will be…Clark's a little upset right now…" Suddenly, her emotions got the better of her and she couldn't continue.
"I-I…" She was sobbing now, she couldn't stop herself. She heard Jonathan say, "Martha, she's crying."
Then Martha was on the phone.
"Lois, honey, don't cry. You'll see, everything will work out. We'll find a way to beat this evil person, and everyone will go back to thinking that Clark and Superman are two separate people."
"I know, Martha," she squeaked through her tears. "It's just all so much…and now this…I try to be strong, I *am* strong, but…"
"I know, dear, I know," said Martha soothingly. "Would you like us to come to Metropolis? We can fight this together, you, me, Jonathan and Clark."
"I'm not sure…"
"Four against one, *and* Superman on our team? How can we lose?"
Lois smiled a little despite her tears. "That's what I said."
"Good! We'll be there just as soon as we can. You keep being strong, now."
"Is Clark there?"
"He's upstairs. He-he ran away from me."
"Can I talk to him - maybe you could take the phone up to him?"
Lois walked upstairs to find Clark lying face down on their bed.
"It's your mom."
He rolled over to face her with sad, red-rimmed eyes and reached out for the phone. Lois sat down on the edge of the bed near him.
"Clark, this wasn't your fault."
"I know that, Mom."
"So stop blaming yourself for it."
"No buts. The man responsible for this is a despicable, sick person who should be locked up forever, and you are just an excuse for him to do these things. If it wasn't you, he would find some other cause to hang his evil ways on. So no self-recrimination, Clark."
"Those people…" Thinking about the people hurt in the crash brought fresh tears to his eyes. Lois lay down beside him and rubbed her hand up and down his arm, smoothing away the hurt.
"Remember what your father and I always tell you: you can't be everywhere at once and you can't save everybody. A train crash like this could have happened while you were off dealing with another disaster, and you wouldn't have been able to rescue everyone. In a way, this is no different. You weren't able to go to their rescue because you weren't available, isn't that true?"
"I guess so."
"So, I want you to tell me it wasn't your fault."
"Mom, that's silly."
"I'm not putting this phone down until you say it."
"Clark, I mean this! Tell me."
"It wasn't my fault," he muttered into the phone.
"Once more with conviction."
"It wasn't my fault," he said a little louder.
"And one more time for those of us with normal hearing?"
"It wasn't my fault," he said in a normal voice.
"Thank you. Now, you look after Lois, because she needs your support right now."
"Your father and I will be there just as soon as-"
"Mom, you don't have to come rushing over for this. We'll manage."
"Clark, we're your parents. Helping our son and his wife is what we do - we want to come…what Jonathan?" There was a pause whilst she listened to her husband. "Your father says he's looking forward to some of your chocolate mousse. Although don't make it too rich, honey, you know how it gives me -"
"Yes, Mom, I know." Clark didn't need graphic detail. "One light chocolate mousse will be waiting for you on arrival."
"Can I have a last word with Lois?"
Lois took the phone back and smiled wryly at Martha's parting words.
"I promise I won't. Bye."
"What did she say?" asked Clark.
"'Don't eat all the chocolate mousse before we get there.' As if I would!"
Tempus turned off the TV in his hotel room and sighed deeply with satisfaction. They made such wonderfully violent movies in this time period that at times he felt he could stay here forever. The only thing missing was the comfort of his own time - here he was, living in the most luxurious hotel in Metropolis, and he still had to fiddle with mechanical devices to adapt the living space to his own requirements. This morning, he had stood shivering under the shower for five minutes until he remembered he had to switch the taps on, adjust the device so that the water was coming out of the showerhead, and then find the correct temperature. And when he was finished, there was no way to deal with the excess water on the floor other than mopping it up manually with a towel, and he was damned if he would stoop to that. The whole business was really extremely distasteful.
On the other hand, Tempus was very pleased with the way things were going with his plan. When he had first hatched the idea of exposing Clark Kent as Superman, the simple elegance of the idea had amused him greatly. Tell the world about Superman, and stand back to watch as the superhero's private life crumbled around him until he was an emotional wreck. Tempus didn't really understand emotional support systems, but he'd had the help of a sophisticated computer program which could predict future behaviour based on current circumstances and events. The program had been intended as a game, but Tempus had 'persuaded' its programmer to adapt it to his own ends.
The program had predicted that if Clark Kent were to lose his private life, then he would also lose his ability to lead a normal, human existence. He would become alienated (literally, Tempus had chuckled when he first read the results), and at the same time, Lois would find the strain of constantly being in the limelight as Superman's wife too exacting, and their marriage would begin to crumble. The program suggested two possible outcomes from that point: either the marriage would break up and Clark would be so distressed that he would give up his activities as Superman, or Clark would give up being Superman in order to regain his marriage to Lois. Either way, Superman would cease to exist, and Utopia would be destroyed.
Best of all, the plan was legal. Well, mostly. All he was doing was telling the truth, with the help of a simple mass mailing campaign, a few hints to the press, and a large chunk of kryptonite. His eyes strayed subconsciously to the lead-lined case in the corner which contained the wondrous substance, as he thought about how he had obtained it. Even that was near perfect. The organisation he had stolen it from (OK, so that wasn't quite legal) hadn't wanted anyone to know that it possessed kryptonite, so there wasn't going to be a police investigation into the crime. What's more, since he stole it ten years ahead of this time period, it wasn't even missing yet. And that idiotic Cruella woman had never met him, so he was safe there as well. He really had quite a talent for this, he thought, as a self-satisfied smile played over his face.
The train crash had been an added bonus. He had been looking for a way to stage the disaster, when he had spotted a weakness in the signalling system. Half an hour spent studying timetables, a small tweak on a computer, and everything was set. Then afterwards, a few anonymous calls to the media, suggesting that Superman hadn't appeared because he was still weak from the kryptonite poisoning of the previous night, and suddenly another nail in the private life of Superman was driven home.
What next? Well, he still had the kryptonite…
"Clark, that was wonderful!" Martha exclaimed.
"Not too rich?" Clark asked.
"Just right. Now, you and Lois take it easy while we clear up and take care of the dishes."
"Martha, we couldn't - you must be tired after all that travelling," protested Lois.
"Nonsense. Come on, Jonathan."
Martha grabbed her husband's hand to pull him up from his chair, rousing him from his fantasy of second helpings of the delicious dessert. Clark read his father's mind.
"Sorry, Dad, I only made enough for single helpings - it's the only way to stop Lois eating it all day long." His eyes twinkled at Lois to take the sting out of his words.
"Are you saying I have no self-restraint?" said Lois indignantly.
"Depends? What does that mean?"
Martha and Jonathan slipped out into the kitchen while the younger couple continued their mock battle.
"What do you think?" Jonathan asked Martha once they were out of hearing range.
"I think they both need an early night, is what I think. Clark is exhausted, and Lois isn't far behind."
"Yes, did you notice how they both kept dropping and knocking things over?"
"I was seriously concerned for the carpet when the chocolate mousse came out."
Jonathan chuckled. "So was I, Martha, so was I."
By the time they returned to the living room, Lois and Clark were slumped together on one of the sofas with their eyes closed. Martha leaned over them and put a hand on each of their knees.
"Hey, you two!"
Lois blinked her eyes open woozily. "Oh, Martha, I'm sorry. Would you like coffee, or tea perhaps? Jonathan, what about you?"
"Lois, don't worry. Why don't you and Clark go on up to bed - we can take care of ourselves."
"Are you sure?" Bed sounded very tempting.
"Yes, go on."
Lois put her arm around the still-dozing Clark and squeezed gently.
"Hey, spaceman. Time for bed."
She stood up and, clasping his hands in hers, pulled him up slowly from the sofa.
"Is it time for bed?" he asked in a sleep-filled voice.
"Goodnight, Clark," said Martha.
"'Night, Mom," he said as Lois led him upstairs.
The next day they held a council of war, or so Jonathan described it. Now that they knew who was behind the attacks, they had to find demonstrable proof that Tempus was responsible for everything, and also prove that he had a motive for accusing Clark. Lois thought the motive was easy: both Clark and Superman had been instrumental in Tempus' downfall when he had tried to seize control of the presidency. Clark was more sceptical - surely they had to explain why Tempus would pick this particular method to get back at them both. That was the point, argued Lois: his claims had an adverse effect on both men at the same time. Martha and Jonathan agreed, and Clark was eventually won over by their arguments.
Clark drifted away from the conversation as the other three discussed ways of tracing Tempus. All this talk of proof was all very well, but there was another kind of proof that was still more urgent to him. He was getting heartily sick of the almost naked feeling he had while the world thought he was Superman. He had hidden away behind the Clark Kent persona for so long that the thought of having to face the world as his true self, his superpowers as obvious as his human weaknesses, filled him with a kind of dread. It was ironic, he thought, that he had spent his whole life wanting to be a normal person, and when the reality of it stared him in the face, he was afraid of it. There had been times when he had lost himself in his dual personalities, and if it hadn't been for his parents and Lois being there to pull him back, he wasn't sure if he would always have been able to sort out who he truly was. Which persona would he present to the world if this mess was never resolved? Maybe he would have to invent another mask to hide behind.
And then, as he stood back from everything, it suddenly struck him how he had managed to affect the lives of so many with his artifice. Here were three people gathered together with the sole purpose of maintaining his deception; outside there were crowds of reporters hanging on his every word and action; at the Planet his friends and colleagues were beleaguered by the press storm he had caused; and then there were countless thousands waiting to find out if their hero was a liar. All this because he had decided to create a myth to serve his own ends.
He heard his name, and jerked his eyes up to find all three looking at him expectantly.
"Sorry?" he asked.
"What do you think?" repeated Jonathan.
"I-I'm sorry, I was miles away. Think about what?"
He really looked as though the weight of the world was upon his shoulders, Martha thought as Jonathan repeated their latest idea. Sometimes she wished his sense of responsibility could take second place to his sense of self-preservation. No matter how many times he was told that things were not always his fault, that he couldn't protect the whole world, she knew that he could never completely come to terms with this. The only time he came near to putting himself first was in his protection of Lois. For the safety and happiness of his wife, he would do anything, and while he might not recognise this as self-preservation, Martha knew that in a way it was. He needed Lois: it was that simple.
"I had an idea last night about proving myself," announced Clark into a brief lull in the conversation.
"Clark, we're talking about catching Tempus here, not proving you're two people," said Lois a little tetchily.
"I know, but just hear me out. What if I could show that I was vulnerable like everyone else - I mean, *not* like Superman?"
"I don't like where this is going…" Lois pushed back from the table and crossed her arms in front of her.
"See, I could expose myself to kryptonite, and then we could somehow stage a little accident - maybe I could cut my finger on something-"
"No! Don't be crazy, Clark. Everyone already knows that kryptonite weakens you-"
"But they don't know it makes me vulnerable to injury."
"I think you'll find that they would make that leap of logic fairly quickly. Let's concentrate on fighting Tempus, shall we? Now, Jonathan, I think you're right about Cruella…sorry, Clark, are we boring you?"
Clark had left the table to sit with his back to them on one of the sofas. Martha laid her hand over Lois', saying, "I'll talk to him, sweetie."
She got up to join Clark on the sofa, while Lois threw her hands up in the air in despair.
"Does anyone here want to stop Tempus? Here we all are, doing our best to stop the guy ruining Clark's life, but is he interested? Apparently not!"
"Lois, why don't you and I go into the kitchen and make some fresh coffee?" suggested Jonathan.
"I don't need coffee, I need ideas to stop Tempus!"
"You're right, of course, but maybe we all need a short break. Come on, I'll show you why Martha never lets me make the coffee at home."
"Oh, I get it. This is the heart-to-heart chat. One takes Clark, the other takes Lois, and we all patch things up together."
"If you say so, Lois. I just want to make coffee."
"OK, OK, I'll play along. For now. Show me your coffee-making prowess."
They both rose and walked into the kitchen, Jonathan casting a backward long-suffering glance in Martha's direction as they went. She smiled faintly, and turned her attention back to the magazine she had picked up and was pretending to read.
After a couple of minutes, Clark broke the silence with a sigh. "All right, you can say it."
"Say what, sweetie?" asked Martha, still with her head in the magazine.
"I'm not being fair to Lois."
"I wasn't going to say that, honey."
"It's just, I know it's important to stop Tempus, but I think it's even more important to prove that I'm not Superman. I can't move, I can't make saves properly, I can't do anything while the whole world thinks I'm him. It's like I'm paralysed."
"Clark, who are you?"
"Mom! Don't go all metaphysical on me now. Lois already tried that."
"She probably had good reason to. What I mean is, I think this whole business is forcing you to answer some difficult questions about yourself, even though you might not realise it. You've gone your whole life hiding yourself away, and most of your adult life acting the part of two people, and now you're wondering what's going to happen if you can't keep on doing that."
She had his attention now.
"It's scary, isn't it?" she continued.
He nodded his reply.
"It's like I'm being exposed… not as in, Clark Kent is Superman, but-but *really* exposed. Like someone peeled away the layers and found the real me inside."
"Clark, what you have to realise is, a lot of people show different aspects of their personality to different people. They don't go through life being exactly the same person to everyone they meet - they moderate their behaviour according to circumstances. Of course, they're the same person deep down, and that's what's important."
"Are you saying we all go around wearing masks, pretending we're different people than we really are?"
"No, it's much more subtle than that. We're the same person, it's just that different parts of that person leak out at different times. Of course, some people take it to extremes…we call those people politicians."
Clark laughed. He seldom heard his mom make a satirical joke like that.
"That's better. I haven't heard that laugh for days," said Martha.
"I guess things have been getting pretty serious around here," agreed Clark.
"And that's why we're here. To share the load, and help you both solve this problem."
"Maybe what we need to do is split into two teams. One team fights Tempus, the other finds ways to stop people thinking I'm Superman."
"Well…let's find those coffee makers and see what they think."
Lois followed Jonathan into the kitchen and leaned up against a counter while he went through his coffee-making ritual.
"The important thing, you see, is to warm the pot first - just the same as if you were making tea. And you want to make sure the water is just shy of boiling point, otherwise you burn the coffee."
"So why, if you've got all this expertise, doesn't Martha let you make the coffee?" asked Lois.
"She says I take too long."
"I can see why she might say that."
"You're measuring that coffee out as if it were grains of gold."
"I just like to do things right," said Jonathan defensively.
"That's what Clark says when I tell him he's being too nit-picky."
"Well, I guess he learned that from me."
"I'm sure he didn't pick up his stubbornness from you, though. That's all his own invention."
"I'm not so sure…you'd have to speak to Martha on that one."
"It's just, he's so fixated on proving he's not Superman, he's losing sight of the bigger picture."
"And that would be?"
"We should be concentrating on discrediting Tempus. That way, all our problems get solved at once."
"You think so?"
"Of course! If everyone can see that Tempus is evil and determined to hurt Clark and Superman, then they'll stop believing his stories."
Jonathan was silent while he tended to his coffee-making.
"OK, so I'm simplifying things a little," said Lois, "but in principle I'm right. We have to go after Tempus. He must be stopped. I hate the way he's getting away with it all right now."
"Just like Clark hates everyone thinking he's Superman?"
"How do you do it? I come in here to watch you make coffee, and I end up baring my soul and seeing things from Clark's point of view."
"I'm just making coffee here, Lois. Just making coffee."
"Huh! I guess what we need to do is split into two teams - the 'chase Tempus' team, and the 'Clark isn't Superman' team."
"Sounds good. We should-"
Martha and Clark walked in, interrupting the conversation. Clark walked over to Lois and hugged her close. Words were not necessary. Martha began taking out cups and milk for the coffee, immediately speeding up Jonathan's laborious process.
"We had an idea," said Clark, pulling back slightly from Lois.
"So did we," replied Lois.
"We thought we should split-"
"-into two teams-"
"-one goes after Tempus-"
"-and the other proves you're not Superman."
They smiled at each other.
"Gee, that was hard. I thought for a minute there that I was never going to persuade you," joked Clark.
"Yeah, well remember this, farmboy." Lois put a warning hand on his chest. "I won't always be such a pushover, so make the most of it."
"Oh, I will, I will," said Clark, leaning in to kiss her again.
After some discussion, they agreed that Clark and Jonathan would concentrate on ways to re-establish the split between Superman and Clark, whilst Lois and Martha would work on chasing Tempus. Lois was secretly a little worried about the hare-brained schemes the two men might dream up, but at the same time, she was pleased to have Martha on her team. The older woman was as sharp as a pin, and definitely had that little bit of iron in her soul necessary to fight a tough criminal like Tempus.
Having put the 'prove I'm not invulnerable' idea on hold, Clark's next idea was to make use of his mother's hologram machine again. Jonathan thought this was an excellent plan, so after a chorus of 'be careful' from everyone, Clark made a quick flight to Smallville to collect the device. The two of them fiddled with it for a while until they were happy working it, and then they started brainstorming schemes to exploit its potential. They quickly realised that its use was in fact fairly limited, as the hologram couldn't interact with anyone, and finally settled on a variation of the press conference idea Clark had used first time around.
Meanwhile, Martha and Lois had come up with several avenues of investigation to pursue. They could find out what Cruella knew about Tempus, they could investigate the train crash, and they could try to find out where Tempus might have obtained his large sample of kryptonite. After a few phone calls, and calling in the odd favour, Lois had managed to arrange to visit Cruella in police custody. Leaving the men to prepare for their hologram performance, the two women travelled downtown to interview the only living lead to Tempus they had.
Lois tried to warn Martha about what conditions would be like in the police cells, but as usual, Martha's life experiences were broader than she would have ever expected of a farmer's wife, and it turned out that Martha had spent time in police custody herself, during the peace demonstrations she had taken part in during her youth. Even more surprisingly, Martha held her own during the interview, asking just as many questions as Lois did, without letting the foul language emanating from their interviewee put her off her stride at all.
The interview yielded only one small snippet of information. Cruella had never met the man who promised to pay her handsomely for her stunt at the Kerth Awards - the initial contact had been by phone, and she had picked up an advance payment and the kryptonite from a trashcan in the dockyard area.
The next obvious step in their investigation was to visit the trashcan to see if they could find any clues, but Lois was less than enthusiastic about taking Martha to such a rough part of the city. She would have been far happier with Clark, or with no-one at all, but Martha refused point-blank to be dropped off back at the townhouse.
"Lois, I'm not made of porcelain. And I would never forgive myself if I let you go alone and something happened to you. So let's just go there and get this over with as quickly as we can."
Nevertheless, she clung to Lois as they made their way on foot around the dark and dingy streets near the docks. Every so often they would pass a huddled-up form sitting or lying in a shop doorway, and a couple of times they had to cross the street to avoid the weaving figure of a drunk threatening to collide with them. They even came across a colonnade in front of an old dilapidated building which had been turned into a kind of cardboard tent-like structure. There were pieces of cardboard tied between the columns to create walls, and rags strewn over the top for the roof. A scrawny dog barked at them from behind the cardboard, making them hurry past even faster.
As they got nearer to the corner where the trashcan was supposed to be situated, the street became more crowded with sad, rag-clad figures, some of them carrying plastic cups of steaming liquid. They rounded the corner, to find a van parked near the trashcan, with a couple of better-dressed men dispensing drinks and cookies from the back. Lois walked up to one of the men.
"Do you come here often?" she asked.
"Isn't that supposed to be my line?" asked the man, amused.
"What she meant was, are you often in this neighbourhood handing out hot drinks?" said Martha.
"Yes, this is pretty much our area. We try to come here two or three times a week."
"You know the people here quite well, then?"
"We have our regulars, yes. Do you mind telling me what you're asking all this for?"
"We're investigative journalists-" began Lois.
"-and we think someone might have used that trashcan as a drop-off point," finished Martha.
"Are you for real? I thought people only did that stuff in the movies."
"I know, it sounds a little off-the-wall, but believe me, this kind of thing really does go on," assured Lois.
"So we were wondering, have you seen anyone around lately who didn't fit in?" asked Martha.
"You mean, apart from you two ladies?"
Lois smiled without humour.
"It would have been last week, probably," prompted Martha.
"Well, let me see now…there was that Russian guy looking for his spy satellite, and then there was that Arab with the Kalashnikov, but the really odd one out was the little green man with the big bulging eyes-"
"OK, you made your point," said Lois impatiently.
"This is a forgotten world, around here. No-one comes here by choice, only those who have nowhere else to go. Want some coffee?" He offered up a polystyrene cup to them.
"No, thanks. We'll just take a look around the trashcan and then we'll be out of your hair."
As they walked up to the trashcan, Martha leaned even closer to Lois.
"Bad choice of words, Lois, the man was bald."
"I know." Lois looked at her mischievously.
Lois stalked her way around the trashcan, then stopped and sighed deeply.
"OK, do you want to do the honours or shall I?"
"What do you mean?"
She took a deep breath, held it and leaned into the can. After rummaging around for a couple of minutes, she let out a grunt of disgust and stood up.
"Boy, how I love this part of my job," she said, holding her hands well away from her body. Martha wrinkled her nose in distaste.
"Was that really necessary?"
"Well, the trouble is, you don't know the answer to that question until you've tried. In this case, unfortunately, no."
"Here, let me try."
Much to Lois' amusement, Martha dived in straightaway with enthusiasm.
"Hey, you! Get out of my trashcan!"
Lois turned in the direction of the new voice, while Martha popped back up from her digging. A surprisingly young man, with long ratty hair and wearing an ankle-length greatcoat which had seen better days, was approaching them with an angry, possessive expression on his thin face.
"That's mine, that is. Everyone knows that trash is mine. Give me what you found," he demanded, holding out his hand.
The two women backed away slightly, but managed to hold on to their courage enough not to turn and run.
"Oh, we're so sorry, we didn't know," said Martha placatingly. "We don't want to steal your trash."
"Although I'm sure it's very nice trash," added Lois. Martha gave her an incredulous glance, but nodded in agreement.
"We didn't take anything. See." Both women held their empty hands out for the young man to observe.
"Humph! People are always trying to take my trash," he mumbled, more calm now that it was obvious they hadn't invaded his personal lucky dip.
"Oh?" Lois' investigative antennae were suddenly twitching. "Anyone else recently?"
"There was this funny guy, talked all fancy - even more than you. He was in my trash, but he gave me money so I let him go."
He looked at them expectantly, but Lois wasn't ready to give in easily. She fished around in her purse and pulled out a newspaper cutting showing Tempus' picture from when he was trying to take over the presidency.
"Did he look like that?"
Lois rolled her eyes and produced a dollar bill. The young man made to grab it, but she held it away from him and looked at him with raised eyebrows.
"OK, yes, he looked like that." Lois let him take the dollar.
"Would you be prepared to say that again, maybe in a court of law?"
"You're kidding me, lady. Why would I want to do that?"
"Because of your strong sense of moral justice?"
"Because this guy is a scumbag who tried to take over our country and is now trying to destroy Superman."
"For Superman, maybe. He's OK, that guy."
"Well, good. What's your name?"
Lois started to walk away, Martha following in tow.
"Fred Price!" he called after them. Lois turned around.
"And how do we find you again, Mr Fred Price?"
"Come by my office anytime," he gestured broadly around the surroundings.
Jonathan and Clark were struggling to figure out just the right kind of staging for their hologram stunt. They had got as far as deciding that Clark would go outside to talk to the reporters still hanging around there, and Superman would make some sort of appearance at the same time. Jonathan had suggested jokingly that Clark could go out with a tray of coffee, tea and cookies to offer them, and Clark thought that might not be such a bad idea. Unfortunately, there weren't actually very many reporters outside now, and what they really needed was someone from a respected newspaper like the Planet to witness their little play. Clark was toying with the idea of contacting Jimmy, but he was having difficulty squaring this with his conscience. He didn't like to feel that he was manipulating people, especially his friends, to report the news as he wanted it reported.
The other problem to sort out was just what sort of role Superman would play in all this. Without Martha's expertise, they weren't sure that they could make him talk at all, so eventually they settled on a simple 'fly-by' with a wave at Clark in passing. They practised this for a while then Clark took a deep breath and picked up the phone to call Jimmy. He asked his young friend to come by on the pretext of picking up some research material for Edwards, explaining that their email seemed to have developed a temporary glitch.
"What temporary glitch?" asked Jonathan as Clark put the phone down.
"This," replied Clark, and deleted the program from his laptop.
"Clark, are you sure you're not getting too good at this deception business?" Jonathan commented.
Clark winced. "Dad, you know I don't like doing this. I'd give anything to be out chasing down the real news, or saving people's lives, but the fact is, I can't do any of those things until this mess is resolved. So I've had to learn to be a little ruthless, a little single-minded. Don't worry, it won't last."
Jonathan knew that some of it would stay with his son, however. He had watched him grow up from an innocent, wide-eyed child into a fine, caring young man who struggled to maintain his ideals in a cynical world. Some of that cynicism had inevitably worn off on Clark, especially since he had assumed his Superman persona and come into close contact with so much tragedy and cruelty. Perhaps it made him a stronger person, but it also made him a less carefree, light-hearted person.
Jimmy duly arrived and Clark handed him a couple of diskettes. The young photographer then offered to fix the errant email program, and after a few furious clicks of the mouse, declared, "Clark, you deleted it!"
"I did?" Clark was all innocence.
"Yes. You should know better than to delete program files."
"I guess my mouse slipped."
"Lucky for you I brought the install disks with me. This time I'll make it read-only so you can't do it again."
"Oh…thanks, Jimmy." That's a shame, he thought, I might have wanted to try that again.
Jimmy restored the program, and spent a well-meaning but irritating few minutes showing Clark where all the program files were kept so that he couldn't make any similar mistakes in the future.
"So, Jimmy! Do you have your camera with you?" asked Jonathan.
"Why?" Jonathan panicked. "Because…"
"-because Dad was wondering what sort of camera professional photojournalists used, weren't you, Dad?"
"Yes, that's right. Can I see it?"
Jimmy, glowing with pride at being called a professional photojournalist, pulled out his camera and began to show it to Jonathan. Clark slipped away into the kitchen, and came back a few seconds later carrying a tray laden with mugs of coffee and cookies.
"I was just about to feed our permanent welcoming party," he gestured at the door with his elbow. "Care to join me?"
Jimmy was amused. "You always do this?"
"No, we're trying something new - 'Love thy press pack.'"
He opened the front door, glancing back at Jimmy to invite him outside with him, noting as he did so that Jimmy still had his camera open.
"Gentlemen!" As they moved around to look at him, he realised something. "And lady." He smiled apologetically at the single woman. "I feel we know each other so well now, we're almost like family. So, since it's chilly out here, I thought you might appreciate some hot coffee."
The small group looked bemused as he walked down the steps and proffered the tray to them. When he reached the woman, she picked up a mug.
"Thanks, Kent. It's freezing out here."
"You could, of course, go home." He held up his free hand quickly in defence. "Sorry, that wasn't fair - you're only doing your job. Any more takers?"
Come on, Dad, now would be good, he was thinking as he handed out more coffees. I can't keep this going for much longer.
"How about cookies? My mom made these - they're very good."
He picked one up himself and started munching.
"Mmmm." Now, Dad, now!
"Hey, what's that?" piped up Jimmy.
All eyes turned to the red dot streaking towards them. At last, thought Clark. As 'Superman' started to fly down the street, Clark waved.
"Hi, Superman!" he called.
'Superman' turned and waved back, hovered for a second…Clark heard Jimmy's camera click…and then he shot away again. The woman regarded Clark cynically.
"That was mighty convenient, Kent."
Clark smiled and shrugged. "Just doing my job." He turned and walked back into the house.
The family gathered together later in the day to compare notes. They met in the kitchen, where Martha and Clark were preparing dinner, while Jonathan and Lois hovered from one leaning spot to another, trying to stay out of the way. After being shooed away for the umpteenth time, Jonathan gave in and moved over to sit at the table. Lois adopted her favourite loitering spot beside the fridge, and continued her narrative. Once they had found their possible eye-witness, Martha and Lois had paid Dr Klein a visit to see if they could dig up anything about where Tempus might have obtained his kryptonite. Dr Klein was emphatic that none had gone missing from STAR Labs, and as far as he knew, there were no other repositories - legitimate ones, anyway - anywhere else. They borrowed one of his computers to conduct a search around the Internet for any clues, but drew a blank there also. At that point, they had given up, although Lois had plans to track down Bobby Bigmouth and find out if there were any illegitimate sources around.
Clark reported on the ruse with the hologram machine, and was fairly confident that there would be some reportage the following day on the Superman sighting.
"They were all pretty cynical about the timing, so I guess they won't be too kind to us, but they also won't be able to deny the evidence. Maybe it will be enough to make a few people think. Hand me that big knife, would you, Mom?"
"What do you think Perry will do?" asked Martha, passing over the implement.
"He'll tell Jimmy off for not getting a better picture, and then he'll assign Edwards to write the story anyway. Clark, aren't you going to cut all that fat off?" said Lois.
"You need some for flavour. Edwards will write a story biased in our favour-"
"-and then Perry will edit it into something more balanced. I swear I've put on pounds since being married to you Clark - your cooking will be the death of me."
"I could say something now, but I won't." He ducked as she threw an oven mitt at him. "Hey!"
"Just trim that fat, buster."
He put his knife down and advanced on her with an onion.
"OK, no backseat cooks here." He put the onion on the counter beside her and pointed at it. "Chop."
"Rings or chunks?"
"You can make a scale model of the Washington Monument, for all I care. Just chop."
Lois chopped her onion and then went into the dining room to set the table. Something caught the corner of Lois' eye as she was working, but when she glanced up, there was nothing to see. She turned back to the cutlery on the table, but again, something moved at the periphery of her eyesight and she had to look to see what it was. This time, she could just make out a faint shimmering effect over by the front door. As she watched, the effect intensified, until it was as if she was looking at an upright sheet of wavy glass hovering in mid-air. She sidled into the kitchen, keeping her eye on the effect all the while, and announced, "Uh, guys. You might want to come out here. Something…unusual is happening."
Puzzled, the other three followed her out into the living room, where the wavy effect appeared to have gained a dark, indistinct shape in its centre. As they watched, a hand pushed out of the effect, followed by the rest of a shortish, dapper man dressed in a sober business suit. Once he had emerged, the peculiar effect behind him dissipated and the room was restored to its usual appearance. For a moment, everyone was frozen in place as they absorbed the enormity of what had just happened. The man moved towards them hesitantly.
"I'm sorry to intrude in such a dramatic manner. I hope I didn't startle you too much?"
Clark recovered first.
"…Andrus," Lois finished for him.
"You remembered. That's good, it saves having to explain everything again."
Jonathan stepped forward, still staring in amazement at the living, breathing person who had appeared from nowhere into his son's living room.
"Ah, we-my wife and I," he gestured at Martha, "could do with an explanation."
"Oh, yes, of course. I apologise. My name is Andrus, and I'm from the future."
"I see," said Jonathan, clearly not seeing at all.
"I believe you may have met an acquaintance of mine, Mr Wells?"
"I thought he was from our past," Martha objected, finding her voice for the first time.
"Yes, but now also from your future. We travel through time, you see, so that the concepts of past and future become a little, well, complicated."
"I can see how they would. Mr Andrus, forgive me, but what are you doing in my son's living room?" asked Martha, adjusting more rapidly than her husband to the bizarre situation.
"Plain 'Andrus' will do fine. We abandoned titles a long time ago, when the distinctions between gender became too blurred to be worth acknowledging."
Clark and Lois exchanged wide-eyed glances.
"To answer your question, though, I am here to apprehend a particularly vicious criminal of our times-"
"Tempus," interrupted Lois.
"Correct. I regret that I haven't been able to arrive sooner than this, but he sabotaged my timepiece, making it impossible to reach your time before now. You must tell me what he has done so far, and then we can make plans to reverse any damage he has caused."
"Any damage!" Clark repeated derisively. "He's only gone and told the whole world that I'm Superman!"
"Clark!" exclaimed Jonathan and Martha together, horrified that he would so forget himself that he would tell a complete stranger his secret. Clark shot a look at them, suddenly realising that they didn't know as much as he and Lois.
"It's all right, Mom and Dad. He knows. They all know in the future."
While they absorbed this information, Lois decided to defuse some of the tension in the room by making everyone sit down and offering drinks. When she reached Andrus, he declined, explaining that he preferred to remain as 'uncontaminated' as possible.
"He's heard about your cooking, Lois," remarked Clark softly.
"Oh, no! I didn't mean-" began Andrus.
"That's OK, Andrus." Lois glared at Clark. "That was just my husband's not particularly subtle attempt at humour. I knew what you meant."
While Lois prepared drinks, Clark related events up to the present day.
"What we really need is another Superman," he summed up glumly.
"Yes, you do, don't you." Andrus looked away for a second, and then back, as if coming to a decision. "I may be able to help you there."
"Don't tell me - everyone is a Superman in the future?" Jonathan went for the most outlandish suggestion that sprang to mind - after all, things were taking a pretty weird direction already.
"No, that would be ridiculous!" exclaimed Andrus. Jonathan pulled an 'excuse me for being stupid' face for Martha's eyes only. Martha elbowed him in the ribs.
"Let me see," Andrus continued, "are you familiar with the theory of parallel universes?"
"Well, yes, as a matter of fact, we are. Except it's not just theory with us." Jonathan was smug now, safe in the knowledge that this was a topic he knew more about than Andrus.
"Oh, you've been there?"
"Not personally, no…"
"Are you saying you can travel to parallel universes as well as travel through time?" Lois wanted to cut straight to the point, now she knew where Andrus was headed.
"Precisely. I can fetch the parallel Superman and bring him back here. Although I have to tell you, it's not something I enjoy doing - parallel universe travel always makes me somewhat queasy. I believe it has to do with the atoms in each universe being slightly out of alignment with each other, although why time travel doesn't affect me the same way is frankly quite baffling."
"What about your chase after Tempus - shouldn't you be concentrating on that?" asked Clark.
"Probably. But I think that catching Tempus will be a lot easier if I have an extra Superman who doesn't have to protect his identity to help me. Wouldn't you agree?"
"I'm a little biased…"
"How soon can you get started?" asked Lois.
"Lois, he only just got here!" Clark was embarrassed by his wife's typically direct manner.
"No, she's right. The sooner the better, especially since visits to parallel universes are a little unpredictable - sometimes the time elapsed in this universe is very short indeed, but sometimes the visit happens in real time." He stood up, reached a hand inside his jacket and produced a small flat rectangle of white plastic. After fiddling with some black buttons on one side, he looked up and smiled reassuringly at the worried faces regarding him.
"Don't worry, I'm sure that as soon as I find him, the other Superman will want to come to your aid right away."
Lois thought about commenting on the 'as soon as I find him' part of his statement, but decided, somewhat uncharacteristically, that it wouldn't be fair to criticise when he was obviously doing everything within his power to help them.
He patted his pockets, brought out a packet of Lifesavers and popped one in his mouth.
"It helps to settle me during transition," he explained.
Clark stood up and held out his hand.
"Thank you, once again, for coming to our rescue. I hope your journey isn't too unpleasant."
They shook hands, and then the other three stood and offered their best wishes for a safe journey and a speedy return. Andrus pressed a final button on his device, and this time, there was no wavy effect. He merely vanished.
All four stood blinking at the spot where Andrus had been standing.
"Um, there *was* a man from the future in our living room, wasn't there?" asked Lois. "Tell me I'm not going crazy."
"Not unless I am too," replied Clark.
"And we are as well," added Martha.
"Oh, good. More tea, anyone?"
The following day, Andrus still hadn't returned, so rather than hang around doing nothing, Martha and Lois elected to go out in search of Bobby Bigmouth, leaving Clark and Jonathan at home once again. Clark was similarly unenthusiastic about remaining idle, especially as he was beginning to feel very trapped inside the house, and so after the women had left, abruptly announced that he was embarking on a food-shopping expedition. Jonathan declined to accompany him, preferring to stay and experiment some more with the hologram machine. Besides, he pointed out, someone should stay behind in case Andrus turned up with the other Superman.
Clark trundled up and down the aisles of the supermarket with his trolley, glad to be doing something undemanding and pleasantly normal for a change. He spent a wonderfully mindless ten minutes dithering over the cookie section - should he go safe and buy Lois' favourites, or should he try those new ones which looked like they had really big chunks of gooey chocolate in them? What the heck, let's live a little, he thought eventually, and took both. Next were the herbal teas. Whilst he enjoyed creating his own blends, it was also fun to try some of the wackier ready-made ones, so he picked up a couple more of these and hoped they would be able to squeeze the additional packs into their already bulging cupboards.
As he happily carried the bags out and over to the Jeep, his path was suddenly blocked by a white van, and he was hit with the familiar symptoms of kryptonite poisoning. The bags slipped from his hands as all his strength flooded out of him, and then he was being pushed roughly inside the van, the door slammed and locked behind him.
The pain was intense but just about manageable as he fumbled around in the dark, trying to organise his limbs into a more comfortable position while the vehicle bumped and bounced him around as it moved. His hand settled on a sharp lump of something, and he shouted out at the burning sensation the kryptonite made on his bare flesh. Snatching his hand away in shock, he scrabbled as quickly as he could to the other end of the van, and huddled there in the corner, breathing heavily and wrapping his arms around himself against the pain.
At last, he felt the van come to a halt and the engine noise stopped. The door opened, and he squinted out into the light at his captor.
"Mr Kent! How nice of you to come."
"There didn't seem to be much choice, Tempus," gasped Clark.
"Oh, there are always choices. Especially in Utopia, where there are so many choices you always end up picking the same thing just because it's easier that way. Now, if you would just step out of the van, we'll move onto the next stage in my amusing little game." He made a sweeping, inviting motion with his hand and bowed slightly.
"Can't or won't?"
"Take your pick."
"Well, then let me help you." Tempus reached in, grabbed the arm that Clark was leaning on so that he lost his balance, and yanked him forward until he was toppling out the back of the van. He just managed to avoid hurting himself as he fell, but still ended up in an ungainly heap on the ground. Tempus stepped quickly into the van to retrieve the small lump of kryptonite Clark had encountered previously.
"Waste not, want not," he remarked as he put it in his inside pocket. Reaching down, he tried to manhandle Clark upright and propel him towards the back of a pickup truck parked very close by, but Clark was too heavy for him. Dropping his prisoner, he sighed and moved a few feet away.
"You're just too darn heavy, Mr Man of Steel. You'll have to do it yourself."
Now that the kryptonite was further away from him, Clark was able to sit upright and stare at Tempus defiantly.
"I don't think so."
"But I do," replied Tempus, producing a gun from inside his jacket and pointing it at Clark.
Clark shook his head. "You'll just have to shoot me, Tempus."
"OK," shrugged Tempus and squeezed the trigger.
Clark screamed as the bullet tore through his hand and he fell to the ground clutching the injured limb in agony. Through his pain and shock, he was truly frightened now. The man was clearly insane and would do anything on the slightest whim, even if it meant destroying his own plans.
"My god, I shot somebody, I actually shot somebody! You know, it's so easy, once you try it. But then, I always knew I had a latent talent for violence - I just needed the right opportunity to let it blossom." Tempus allowed himself a self-satisifed smirk before regarding his victim dispassionately.
"You see, Clark, it really doesn't matter if I kill you now, or I go ahead with my original plan. The end result is the same: Superman ceases to exist and Utopia is destroyed. It's just so much more fun following my plan. Although, I have to admit I brought you here because things were running a little too slowly for me. You really have a collection of dumb souls here in Metropolis - they take such a painfully long time to cotton on to an idea, even when it's staring them in the face. How we ever advanced beyond this stage beats me."
Clark couldn't retaliate, he was still in too much pain. Instead, he tried to calm himself down, taking in breaths as deep as he could manage in order to control the agony emanating from his damaged hand.
"So what will it be, Clark? Shall I kill you now - and I think I probably could now, having cut my teeth, so to speak, on your hand - or would you rather take a chance on life?"
Clark reflected that crazy though he was, Tempus had made a good point. While he co-operated with Tempus, he was alive and there was the hope of escape or rescue, whereas if he resisted, it looked as if he was in grave danger of swiftly losing his life. Standing up and walking over to the truck was not an option in his current state, so, ignoring the indignity and humiliation of the situation, he crawled. It wasn't easy, with one useless, pain-filled hand, and the rest of his body weak and shaky from the continued exposure to kryptonite, but he did it. He did it for Lois, for his parents, for Jimmy and Perry.
When he reached the back of the truck, he managed to pull himself up so that he was leaning forward against the tailgate, but could do no more until Tempus jumped into the truck and pulled him up first by his arm and then his belt. He almost blacked out as he lay face down, gasping for breath and feeling as though his hand would explode with pain, but then Tempus prodded him in the ribs with a toe to remind him that the ordeal wasn't over yet.
"Oh, come on, Clark, you can't be finished yet, you're Superman! And I've prepared this nice, comfortable chair for you to sit in. Here, let me help you."
Tempus put a hand under Clark's uninjured arm and pulled him up towards the wooden upright chair which was bolted to the bottom of the truck. Somehow, Clark ended up sitting in the chair, and then Tempus proceeded to tie him to it, around his chest so that he couldn't fall forward, around his ankles, and finally his arms were yanked behind his back and tied together. The pain which this manoeuvre induced was finally too much for Clark, and he fainted.
"He should be back by now."
Lois stalked restlessly around their living room, while Jonathan and Martha sat on the sofa anxiously holding hands and following her movements with their eyes.
Jonathan tried a new explanation. "Perhaps he got caught up in a difficult rescue." He turned on the TV and started flicking through the channels to find some news.
Lois looked out the front window for the umpteenth time.
"We don't know that for sure," said Martha.
Lois crossed back to where she could see the TV.
"The reporters have disappeared from outside. Something's happening. Here, let me do it."
She more or less snatched the TV remote from Jonathan and swiftly found the news. All three were immediately transfixed by the scene portrayed on the screen. Martha clutched at Jonathan, while Lois felt tears prick her eyes.
"Is-is that near the Planet?" quavered Martha.
Lois' voice was unnaturally calm. "Yes, it's just a couple of blocks away." She dashed the heel of her hand over her eyes. "I think if we head for the Planet, we'll get there at the same time as the truck. It's moving quite slowly."
She picked up her purse and hurried to the door.
Martha's cry stopped her, and she waited while the other two grabbed coats, turned off the TV and made sure they had house and car keys. The three ran down to the Jeep, piled inside and then Lois drove at breakneck speed towards the Daily Planet. As they drew closer, it was clear that the spectacle moving through the streets of Metropolis was pulling quite a crowd, so that eventually they had to park the Jeep and push as fast as they could through the throng. Lois was correct, and as they reached the Planet, the truck was just coming around the corner.
There were signs plastered all around the outside of the truck saying: "Non-super attempts to rescue Mr Kent will detonate the bomb."
In the middle of the truck, Clark was tied to a chair with a small black box attached to the back of it. The black box had a digital clock counting down minutes and seconds, and Tempus was shouting over a loudspeaker, "Clark Kent is in danger, but his close friend Superman isn't here to rescue him. Why? Because Clark Kent *is* Superman. Try shouting Help Superman, and he won't come, because he's already here!"
A few onlookers were half-heartedly doing as Tempus suggested, but more were simply staring at the outrageous sight in front of them. Lois' temper flared as she watched Clark try valiantly to sit upright in the chair and hide the distress he was so obviously in. She elbowed her way to the front of the crowd and stood a little way in front of the truck. The crowd gasped at the obvious danger she had put herself in, but the vehicle stopped before it hit her, and she looked up into the cab.
"Tempus! Let him go. What has he ever done to hurt you?"
"Well, what do we have here? Ah yes, Mrs Superman, Lois Lane, meddlesome reporter and right-hand girl to our superhero. What has he done to hurt me? Let me see now…ruined my life? Spoiled my fun? Made my life hell?!"
"All he's done is expose you for what you are - an evil, amoral criminal with no respect for your fellow human being."
"Amoral. Now that's an interesting choice of word for someone living a lie. Why do you keep denying that Clark Kent is Superman, when he so obviously is? These people think they've seen two men, when all they saw was a double and a simple hologram. Listen, Metropolis: try asking to shake hands with both of them next time they try that trick on you and see how far you get."
"All right…if Clark is Superman, why hasn't he escaped?"
"Why, you moron, because I have a large piece of kryptonite nearby."
"Don't you think that might be why Superman isn't here - because he can sense the kryptonite and can't come close enough?"
"Nice try, Lois, but if Clark isn't Superman, why would I need kryptonite to stop him from escaping?"
Lois kicked herself mentally. She had argued herself into a corner and worse still, done it in full view of the public. She tried a different tack.
"Because you're crazy. Anyone who was sane wouldn't be pulling this stunt at all. You belong in a hospital for the criminally insane, which is where you'll be when Superman catches up with you."
"Oh, a hollow threat, I think, dear Lois. Now, if you'll step away, I'll be on my way."
He revved the engine, and began to move forward so that Lois was forced to move to the side. She had to watch as the truck drove off, then making her face as emotionless as she could, she tore through the crowds into the relative peace of the Daily Planet building. Jonathan and Martha hurried inside after her.
"I have to…" She blundered past them into the ladies restrooms, desperate to find a private space to herself. She walked into the first cubicle she came to, locked the door, sat down and put her face in her hands. Finally, she let herself succumb to silent sobs of hurt, anger, frustration and fear. The confrontation with Tempus had been terrible, and she hadn't done the slightest bit of good for Clark, she'd probably made things worse. She heard someone enter the restrooms…probably Martha, come to be nice to her. She didn't need nice, if she got nice she would dissolve into floods of tears, and that wouldn't help Clark any. Come on, Lois, pull yourself together, she told herself, where's the famous spunk? Somewhere back where she and Clark were fighting this thing together, she answered herself. Somewhere in a puddle on the sidewalk. She sat quietly for a minute, then stood up…OK, you can do this, Lois.
Sure enough, Martha was waiting outside for her. One look told Martha that Lois couldn't handle sympathy, so she tried a neutral, "OK?" …which elicited a nod and a shaky smile, and linking her arm around Lois', led the younger woman back outside to where Jonathan was waiting anxiously.
"Lois-," he began gently, but Lois interrupted him, suddenly all business-like.
"Did you notice the police car that started following the truck?"
Jonathan was wary of the sudden change. "Yes…"
"So he'll have to stop and get out sometime, and then they'll have him. I think we should go down to the police station and wait there."
Without waiting for more of an agreement from her in-laws, she strode outside again in search of the Jeep. Martha and Jonathan once again followed in her wake.
At the police station, Inspector Henderson was looking harassed. He wouldn't say anything until he had taken the three of them into his office and closed the door.
"Well?" demanded Lois.
"We lost them. Lois, I'm sorry."
"Sorry? You're sorry? How can you lose a pickup truck travelling at low speed in the middle of Metropolis? Are your officers all blind, or just extremely stupid?"
She glared at him, while Jonathan and Martha managed to look anxious and apologetic at the same time.
"Lois, I'm as angry as you are, but they said the truck just disappeared in front of them."
"Hmph!" She stomped over to the desk and leaned up against it with her arms crossed.
"Maybe that's exactly what happened. With Tempus, anything could be possible," suggested Martha. All their rushing around after Lois was beginning to tire her out, so she sank down onto one of Inspector Henderson's chairs. Jonathan noticed his wife's weariness and moved beside her to put a protective hand on her shoulder. Martha smiled wanly up at him and squeezed his hand.
"What now?" asked Jonathan.
"We wait," replied Henderson.
Lois was scathing. "That's the best you can come up with?"
"What else do you suggest we do?"
"Keep searching. Ask questions. Investigate. Isn't that what you do?"
"Lois, I've got people out all over the city doing just that. The best thing you can do is go home, and be ready for Clark when we find him."
"Yes, let's go home," agreed Jonathan. "Martha's tired - we're all tired, and we can't do anything here. I'm sure Clark would want you to rest up some."
Lois looked at Henderson searchingly. "You'll call as soon as you get anything?"
"Yes, of course."
"OK, let's go."
The object of their concern was currently stumbling along a deserted sidewalk in the Hobbs Bay area of the city. Tempus had finally set him free, and although it would have been a fine opportunity to round on his captor and put an end to the whole mess, the continued exposure to kryptonite, plus the wound in his hand, meant that he was barely able to remain conscious, let alone put up any kind of fight. So now he was trying to get himself back home, which wasn't easy in an area where there were no people, no houses, no cabs and no pay phones - at least none that he could find. He knew that if he could manage to walk a few blocks north, he would be back in more civilised surroundings, but that once-simple task was now a near-impossible one.
He was terribly weak, and every twenty paces or so would be overcome with dizziness, so that he had to lean against a wall, or sometimes even sit down on the sidewalk for a few minutes. His hand throbbed a little less painfully when he cradled it in his other arm, but then that arm would get tired and he would have to let his hand hang by his side, when it would throb so much he thought it would explode.
It was during one of his rest periods that he happened to look up and notice a couple of houses across the street sandwiched between a row of dingy shops. His heart lifted, and when he felt able to stand up again, he tidied himself up as best he could and walked across to the first one. There was no doorbell, so he knocked as hard as he could on the door.
There were lights on inside, but either no-one was in, or they were ignoring him. He knocked again. Still no answer. Letting out a small cry of distress, he gave up and struggled around to the second house. Please, please be in…he chanted it to himself like a mantra as he approached the door. This time there was a doorbell. He pressed it for a good long time before letting go and resuming his inward chant.
It was an old voice, a woman's voice.
"Please, do you have a phone?"
"I-I've been mugged and I need to call my wife to come and pick me up. Please." Please let me in, he thought.
"How do I know you won't mug me?"
Because I'm Superman? The thought drifted through his mind.
"Can you see me?"
Now what? He put his good hand up against the door to steady himself as another wave of dizziness threatened to overwhelm him. After what seemed like an eternity, the voice was back again.
"OK, you don't look like you're in a fit state to mug me."
The door opened, and he was confronted with a spry old woman examining him with narrowed eyes.
"You'd better come in before you fall over."
He followed her into her small sitting room and collapsed onto a settee without even asking permission. When things had stopped spinning around, he looked up at his saviour, who was standing, hands on hips with an expression that was softening from outright mistrust to something a little more sympathetic.
"Sorry. I was a little dizzy."
"I'm not surprised, with that gunshot wound in your hand."
"Look son, you live in a place like this, you know a gunshot wound when you see one. You want me to call the cops?"
"No, but thanks. I'll do all that when I get home."
"Funny how people who get shot never want to call the cops."
"It-it's not what you think it is. I just want to get home first. Can I borrow your phone? I'll be as quick as I can."
She walked over to a small table, picked up the phone and deposited it in his lap.
"Go on, make your call."
He picked up the receiver and began to dial.
Lois sat hunched forward on the sofa, biting her nails nervously while she stared at the carpet.
"Did you see his hands?" she said, as much to herself as to the other two in the room. "The blood…maybe we should call Dr Klein, ask him to come over now. Or he could go over to STAR Labs and wait there, get things ready for Clark. Yes, that would be better, then he'll have everything he needs at hand. I think I've got his home number somewhere…"
"Lois, what about Clark's secret?"
Martha spoke gently from the other sofa, where she and Jonathan were sitting huddled close together.
"Yes, the secret. That would be a problem. It would look odd-"
She was cut short by the phone ringing. Her heart gave a thump and started working overtime as she grabbed the receiver.
"Lois, it's Clark."
"Oh, thank God! Where are you?"
She heard him ask someone the address of where he was.
"I'm at 2504 Ship Row. It's a house in Hobbs Bay. Can you come and pick me up?"
"Of course I can, sweetheart! Are you safe where you are?"
"Yes, there's a very kind lady here taking care of me."
"You always fall on your feet, don't you? Is she pretty?"
"I…" There was a big lump in his throat stopping him from continuing.
"Oh, Clark, it's all right, everything's all right now. I'll be there just as soon as I can. You just hang on, OK?"
Lois replaced the receiver and sat still for a moment. His voice had sounded so small, so lost. But the worst was over now - soon Clark would be back home and the nightmare would be over. She picked up the phone again to let the police know he had been found.
By the time Clark heard the welcome sound of Lois' Jeep drawing up outside, he and the old lady, whose name was Amy White, had introduced themselves. To Clark's surprise, Amy didn't own a TV, and so was unaware of recent events, although she knew about the controversy regarding his identity. Having now met him, she said it confirmed her belief that he didn't look one bit like Superman, and anyway, Superman was invulnerable to bullets. Clark refrained from enlightening her. He was just glad he didn't have to defend himself yet again.
The doorbell rang, and seconds later Lois was walking into the room. Suddenly the world was a much gentler, brighter place for Clark as she sat beside him on the sofa and laid a carefully placed arm around his shoulders.
"Ready to come home?" she said softly into his ear. He nodded, and they stood together. Just as he felt himself begin to wobble, his father was there, holding and supporting him, solid as a rock. As they began to make their way out to the Jeep, Clark remembered his manners.
"Amy, thank you for everything - you've been so kind. I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't let me in."
"That's all right," said Amy, smiling. "Just tell Superman he owes me a favour for helping his friend."
"I'm sure Superman will want to pay you a visit sometime soon and thank you himself," said Lois, glancing over at Clark. "Thank you for looking after my husband."
"You just take good care of him, young lady."
"I certainly will."
Outside, Martha was hovering anxiously by the Jeep. She felt a small tug of relief when she saw her son emerge from the house, but it was tinged with sadness when she could see how badly he was hurting. Forcing herself to be practical, she helped install him in the back of the Jeep, being careful not to jar his fragile hand. The other two clambered in, and Lois set off, driving much more slowly than she had on the outward journey, wanting to avoid any more knocks and bumps to Clark.
Something was bothering Martha.
"Clark, let me see your hand."
She prised it gently away from the protective custody of his other hand and examined it front and back. Clark couldn't stop himself wincing as she turned it over.
"I'm sorry, honey." She reached up and stroked his cheek briefly. "This needs a doctor."
"Mom, it'll be fine." He pulled it back to cradle again.
"There could be broken bones in there, plus there's the risk of infection. No, we've got to get you to a doctor - Lois, did you say you had Dr Klein's home phone number?"
"Yes, it's in my address book in my purse."
"Mom, I'm not wearing the suit."
"You could change into the suit when you get home, and then Dr Klein could come around to the house," suggested Jonathan from the front of the Jeep.
"Jonathan, he'll need to x-ray it," objected Martha.
"Well, then we go back to the house, Clark gets changed, and then we go on to STAR Labs. How about that, Clark?"
Clark was silent.
"Clark?" repeated Jonathan.
He was still quiet, but Lois spoke up for him.
"I don't think Clark feels up to all that, do you honey?"
"No." Clark spoke very softly.
Lois stopped the car.
"What are you doing?" asked Martha.
"You're right about Clark needing to see a doctor, so I'm phoning one."
"Dr Klei - Hello? Dr Klein? It's Lois. I'm sorry to wake you up in the middle of the night, but Superman really needs your help…OK…Yes…I'm sorry?…What do you mean?…Oh. All right. We'll see you there."
Lois stared at her cell-phone.
"Lois?" Martha prompted.
"What did he say?"
"Um, he said 'bring him around to STAR Labs, and don't bother to make him change into the suit.'"
"Well, I guess that settles the argument," said Jonathan in an up-beat voice.
"Hmmm." Dr Klein was studying an x-ray. "I don't see any breaks, but there are a couple of cracks, here and here, do you see?"
Lois was peering over his shoulder.
"Kind of. So what does that mean?"
"Well, when Sup-I mean Clark's accelerated healing process kicks in, of course, they will mend pretty quickly. But it's important that we make sure that they heal in the correct position, and that they don't get any worse, so we need to immobilise the hand for now. I can't use a cast because of the open wound, so bandages, a sling and a little care on Clark's part will have to do."
They turned back to Clark, who was lying on an examination table in Dr Klein's lab, Martha and Jonathan sitting either side of him.
"How does that sound?" Dr Klein asked Clark.
"OK, I guess."
"What about the kryptonite?" Lois wanted the full picture.
"Despite the very lengthy exposure time, I don't detect any lasting damage. Nothing a good rest won't cure. The main thing is to take good care of that hand until your powers come back again, which I'm guessing won't be for a couple of days at least."
When they had arrived at STAR Labs, everyone had been brimming over with questions for Dr Klein, but found themselves oddly reticent to voice any of them when faced with the man himself. Somehow, they wanted to know all the answers, but at the same time, maybe they didn't want to know any answers, so nothing was said. Thankfully, Dr Klein was in apologetic mode. Incredibly, he apologised for not telling them sooner that he knew of Clark's identity - and he made it clear that his knowledge pre-dated the current scandal. He said that he had meant to tell them, but could never quite find the right moment.
"Tell me about it," muttered Clark at that point.
Once Dr Klein had explained himself, the air was clear and they were all able to get on with the business of dealing with Clark's injuries.
Dr Klein bandaged Clark's hand and set him up with a sling to support it. Martha watched carefully while he did this, and volunteered to change the bandages as needed in the future. The doctor regretted not being able to offer Clark any pain relief or anything to ward off infection, but he was hoping at least that Clark's alien biology wouldn't hold much attraction for earth's bugs and viruses.
While Jonathan and Martha helped Clark back to the Jeep, Dr Klein had a quick word with Lois.
"You know I'll have to report the gunshot wound?"
"Report all you like. It's Clark that got shot."
"Yes, but how do I explain why I ended up treating him?"
"Oh, I see what you mean. How about this: you called us to see if there was any news of Clark just after he phoned, and so offered to treat his hand?"
"I guess that's not too far from the truth. I was actually awake reading, and I was thinking about Clark. I might have phoned. Oh my, I hope I can bring this off."
"You'll be fine. Just keep thinking Clark and not Superman."
"Talking of whom, make sure he gets plenty of rest, Lois. He's lost blood, he has a fever, and he's in pain. So no excitement, and definitely no super-stunts until he can x-ray that hand himself and then fly over here and tell me the results. All right?"
"I'll try, Dr Klein, but you know what he's like - as soon as he's fit to walk, he'll be wanting to take on the world again."
"Well then we'll just have to hope the world is a quiet place for the next few days."
"I'll second that."
By the time they arrived back home again, Clark was fast asleep, leaning against his mother's shoulder. Lois twisted around in her seat to talk to Martha.
"Did you leave any lights on?" She kept her voice deliberately low-key.
"No - Jonathan?"
"No, I'm sure I checked they were all off."
"So who turned them back on again?" asked Lois.
"Maybe we should call the police," suggested Jonathan.
"I have a better idea," Lois said, pulling out her cell-phone again and dialling. "Someone's answering."
"Lois, you're not-"
"Hello, who is this, and what are you doing in my house? Andrus! Well, you had us worried there for a while. Is…he is? That's great, we're coming in now."
"What's going on?" Clark's voice was full of sleep.
"Come on, let's get you inside."
Together they helped him out of the Jeep and up into the house, where he immediately found out what all the commotion had been about. He was relieved, of course, that Andrus had arrived back with the other Superman, but nevertheless he was still unsettled by coming face to face with his doppelganger, especially in his current vulnerable and dishevelled state. He held out his good hand.
"It's good to see you again," he offered, trying to be cordial despite his reservations, and despite the black spots beginning to dance in front of his eyes.
"I'm only sorry we always meet under difficult circumstances like this," his double replied, clasping his hand in greeting.
"I-I know…" He stopped as a high-pitched singing sound joined the dancing dots. The room was tipping away from him, and then he was being held up by two very strong hands. For a moment, he tried to focus on the other man, but it was no good and he felt himself sagging forward. Someone said, "Oh, Clark!"
His mom, he thought, and then there was a sudden movement and he was being cradled in the other Clark's arms. No, he thought woozily, I don't like this. I don't like being helpless in this man's arms. But he was powerless to stop it, and besides, a large part of him was feeling so ill that he was grateful for the help. He heard Lois say, "You better take him upstairs."
Sound washed away for a while, and then he was aware of being laid gently onto their bed. Please go now, he thought, I only want Lois now. Manners, though, remember your manners.
"Thanks," he managed.
"I can manage from here. Thanks for…" That was Lois, sounding embarrassed.
Now there was only Lois, pulling his shoes off, unfastening his clothes, with gentle instructions to move this way or that a little…there was the sound of scissors…
"What are you doing?" he mumbled, confused.
"It's only a shirt, Clark."
"I can't get the cuff past the bandages."
Oh. Have to buy a new one…bet they don't have the same colour anymore…
By the time Lois had finished undressing Clark, he was asleep. She leaned across and kissed him tenderly on the forehead.
"Sleep well, my love."
She sat on the side of the bed for a while, making sure he was settled in well for the night. She was a little worried about his hand, and how to ensure he didn't hurt it while he slept. There didn't seem to be any way for her to protect it, so she would have to hope his instincts would make him take care of it even in sleep. A knock on the open door interrupted her reverie.
"How's my baby?" whispered Martha.
Martha beckoned to Lois to join her outside in the hall.
"I've set up Andrus and Superman in the other bedroom - I hope that's OK?"
"Absolutely fine, Martha. And thanks."
"And Jonathan's locked up, so we're all off to bed. See you in the morning."
"You mean later today, don't you?"
"I guess you're right, honey. 'Night."
Lois awoke with a start. It took her a moment to register the reason why her senses were suddenly on edge, why her heart was thumping in her chest. It was the familiar 'woosh,' the sound of Clark taking off into the night. Yet her husband was next to her in bed…it must have been the visiting Superman. Was he off on a rescue, she wondered, or simply flying for its own sake? She'd have to tell him to be more careful about his take-offs and landings from their house. Turning over towards Clark, she became aware that he wasn't sleeping easily anymore, he was restless, breathing quickly and clammy with sweat. She put a hand on his forehead to soothe him - God, he felt so hot.
"Shhhh," she said softly. "It's all right, honey. Shhhh."
As she stroked his arm and chest and whispered gentle words to him, he began to calm until his breathing was deep and steady again. Probably dreaming about his ordeal in the chair, she thought. Before her mind started to dwell too much on the terrible day, she forced herself to think forward to happier times, and eventually managed to send herself back to sleep.
The two guests plus Martha and Jonathan were sitting around the table eating breakfast by the time Lois surfaced and wandered downstairs. She had left Clark still sleeping, and hoped he would stay that way for some time to come. He needed a long, healing sleep to mend the trauma of the previous day. Collecting a mug of coffee and a slice of toast, she joined them at the table, where Andrus was relating his search for Superman.
"So I'm sorry we didn't get here sooner, but you can understand why now, I hope," he finished.
"What happened?" asked Lois.
"I was in the middle of digging out survivors from an avalanche in Switzerland," explained Superman. "It took Andrus a while to locate me, and when he did, I knew there were still three people trapped, so I couldn't come with him immediately."
"And then," continued Andrus, "as I explained before, because inter- universe travel doesn't always work well with time travel, we actually arrived here just as your avalanche was starting, and-"
"And I just automatically took off again for Switzerland. I'm sorry." Superman looked at Lois with the same agonized indecision he must have felt at the time.
"Clark would have done the same thing. Did you manage to save everyone?" She regretted asking the moment the words were out of her mouth. She would have read the signs with Clark, but she hadn't learnt this man's body language so well yet.
"No." Just the single word was offered. This was a man used to bottling up his emotions, finding solutions to his personal problems and dealing with inner demons on his own. The barrier was up. She reached over and put her hand over his.
"I'm sorry," she said simply, and was rewarded with a small smile.
Changing the subject, she continued, "I thought I heard you take off last night?"
"Yes, there was a call for help. I couldn't ignore it."
"What was it?"
"Someone being mugged. I stopped it before anyone got hurt and took the mugger to the police."
"Well done, son," said Jonathan warmly.
"Yes, thanks for taking care of our Metropolis," added Martha.
"You should remember to be a little quieter next time, though. We can't afford for Superman to be seen or heard taking off from this house," said Lois.
"If you go straight upwards, I find it doesn't make so much noise," said Clark, walking into the kitchen.
"Clark! You didn't have to come downstairs - I would have brought breakfast up to you," said Martha.
"I heard you all talking and I didn't want to miss anything."
There weren't enough seats for everyone, so Jonathan stood up.
"Here, son, have my chair."
"Thanks, Dad," said Clark, sinking gratefully down onto the chair. He had managed to pull on his dressing gown, and somehow fix up the sling again, but the effort of all that together with the effort of coming downstairs had taken more out of him than he would have expected. Martha put a mug of coffee in front of him and some toast on a plate. He picked up a knife and tried to spread butter on the toast, but the task was impossible with only one hand.
"Here, sweetie." Martha took the knife from him, spread the butter and cut the toast in half.
"Thanks." He picked up the toast and nibbled unenthusiastically.
"How are you, Clark?" asked Andrus.
"Better. Just don't ask me to lift any satellites into orbit today. I was thinking though, it's time to hold that press conference now that you're here." He looked at Superman.
"I guess so-," started Superman uncertainly.
"Clark, you're not well enough to be holding press conferences yet. Give it a day or two," interrupted Lois sharply.
"It's just standing in front of a microphone and saying a few words - I think I can manage that. Besides, won't the contrast be even sharper if I look a little worse-for-wear?"
"Maybe, but you're not doing it. Dr Klein said you've got to rest, and I intend to see that you do just that."
"Can't you see how important it is to me to get this cleared up? We can do it just outside here - all I have to do is walk outside the front door."
"Read my lips. N. O. No."
"Dad, you tell her."
"Don't drag your Dad into this. Clark, I don't care if I have to tie you to that chair-" She stopped, but it was already too late. Her words hung in the air, the sudden silence following their argument heavy with the shock and embarrassment of the five people around the table.
She heard Martha mutter a fierce, "Lois!", while Superman and Andrus averted their gazes to a distant point somewhere on the floor.
"Oh, honey! I'm so sorry!" She reached out a hand to touch his, but he pulled away. He looked as if someone had thrown a glass of cold water in his face, and he was suddenly much paler than when he had first come into the kitchen.
"It's OK," he said, with a quick glance over at her. He drank some of his coffee and played around with the remains of his toast on the plate.
"No, it isn't, honey. I should never have said that. I don't know why I said it. Please forgive me."
"It's OK," he said again.
There was a long silence while everyone struggled to think of some way of breaking the heavy atmosphere, and then Jonathan cleared his throat.
"So tell me, Andrus, how was the journey this time? I hope the Lifesavers did the trick?"
"Oh, yes, much better, than you."
They lapsed into silence again. Martha stood up.
"Jonathan, you want to help me with these dirty dishes?"
She started clearing away the breakfast things, and suddenly everyone was talking at the same time, all now over-compensating for the awkward hiatus. Lois looked pleadingly over at Clark as she rose to help Martha and Jonathan. He gave her a quick humourless smile before letting his eyes fall back down to the table.
"I think I'll go back to bed for a few hours."
"Lois, I told you, I'm OK. I'm just a little tired, is all."
He retreated from the kitchen. Lois wanted to follow him, but Jonathan stopped her.
"I think he needs to be on his own for a little while."
Clark lay back down on top of the bed, not bothering to take his dressing gown or the sling off. He was glad to be horizontal again after the climb back upstairs, especially since his hand had started to throb again in pulses which went all the way up his forearm. Lois didn't get it at all. It wasn't her fault he had acted the way he did, people said stuff like that all the time. It was him, he was the one who was being stupid. That one chance remark had brought back all the fear and humiliation of the previous day, and he had thought he was stronger than that.
He was just closing his eyes when there was a knock at the door.
"Can I come in?"
He tensed. It was his alter ego.
His reflection in the Suit walked in and hovered uncertainly beside the bed.
"Are you feeling any better?"
"Some." He wasn't going to say more, but something made him add, "My hand still hurts quite a bit."
"I-I wish I could say I know how you feel, but I've never been shot."
"Well, we're not supposed to, are we? Get shot, I mean."
"No." Superman sat down gingerly on the very edge of the bed. "I wanted to ask you something."
"Go ahead." What's coming now, Clark wondered in some trepidation.
"Would you mind if I borrowed one of your suits? I didn't have a chance to change before I left Switzerland, and I'd been wearing this one for a while before that, so…"
"Oh, sure! Use as many as you want. We can wash yours before you leave again."
He got up to go, but Clark suddenly saw how ill at ease the man was and felt he had to offer more.
"Hold on," he said. "I don't know what to call you."
"Superman, I guess."
"That's all right in public, but it's a little impersonal for us here."
The other man thought for a second and then smiled.
"How about Clark2? Kind of a pun on me being the second Clark, and too as in 'also'?"
"OK, that's neat. Will you tell the others?"
"All right. You know, you don't look very comfortable there. Wouldn't you rather be under the covers?"
Clark hadn't bothered much when he had lain down, and was lying on top of the unmade bed with his head only just touching a pillow. The sling was also preventing him from finding a comfortable position for his bandaged hand.
"I guess so."
"Here, let me help."
Clark sat up slowly and swung his legs over the edge of the bed so that Clark2 could pull the covers right down. Together they eased the sling off, Clark supporting his arm while Clark2 undid the knot at the back. Next came the dressing gown, and then Clark lay down again, making sure he was further up the bed this time. Clark2 pulled up the covers, and even plumped up Clark's pillow for him.
"Ever thought of a career as a nurse?" teased Clark.
"Thanks, but two careers is enough for me."
They gazed at each other in a moment of shared understanding.
"It's not easy, is it?" said Clark.
"No, but it must be harder for you than it is for me."
"You have to be two people whereas I only have to be one."
"Yes, but it must be pretty hard to be that one person. I mean, don't you find that being a reporter conflicts with being a superhero?"
"Actually, I've pretty much given up the reporter job. I write articles, commentaries, that kind of thing, for the Planet and a few magazines."
"So you've had to compromise in a pretty big way."
"Maybe, but the new editor's talking about giving me my own column, and I get to have my own say a lot more now that I'm not a staff writer, so there are compensations. Plus I have a lot of freedom."
"Freedom comes at a price, though."
"What do you mean?"
"How do you get on with Lana these days?"
"Oh. Well, we kind of patched things up so that we're talking again. I mean, we're not together, never will be, but at least she doesn't hate me anymore. And I'm not alone, if that's what you're thinking. There's a guy I used to know in college working for the Chinatown Daily-"
"Not Chen Chow?"
"Yes, how did you - oh, parallel universes. Of course. Anyway, we meet up for a beer or a football game every once in a while. And Alice and Perry invite me round for dinner pretty regularly."
Sounds pretty lonely to me, thought Clark, but didn't say anything. Instead, he commented, "Actually, sometimes I think it's three."
"I have to be three people: Superman, Clark, and me."
"But aren't you Clark?"
"Well, yes, but then there's Clark the reporter and normal human being, and there's Clark the alien."
"But you don't still think of yourself like that do you - I mean as an alien?"
"No. Not really. I've had a long time to come to terms with that, so no, I don't think of myself as alien. I mean, I am an alien, but I've adjusted to it pretty well, so most of the time when I'm Clark I don't think about it."
"Except when someone like Tempus throws it back in your face?"
"Yes, or you over-use a power in an unguarded moment."
Clark2 nodded vigorously.
"Been there, done that."
"The fact that we have to control our powers keeps reminding us that we're alien. I mean, the control is usually second nature these days, but sometimes…And then, there's the glasses. Do you still wear yours?"
"Yes, it kind of makes people treat me more…normally, I guess, if I'm wearing them."
"See, that's what I mean about being three people. If I want to be me, truly me, then I don't wear glasses. But Clark the reporter wears glasses."
"But that's just surface stuff. You're the same person underneath the glasses."
"Not really. Clark the reporter doesn't have superpowers-"
"Except when he uses them in an investigation."
"OK, maybe. But Clark the reporter doesn't have two sets of parents-"
"But he is adopted."
"And Clark the reporter doesn't have to go to a special doctor when he's hurt."
He turned his head away. He'd blurted it out even before he was aware that he was going to say it.
"That bothers you?"
Clark was quiet while he tried to focus his thoughts. It didn't really bother him…
"It's Lois. I worry about Lois. What if we ever manage to have kids? We only have one person who could look after Lois when she was pregnant, only one person who could take care of the children if they got sick."
"That's one more than your parents had."
"I guess. But I'm sure she gets scared for me too, knowing he's the only one she can take me to when I'm sick."
"And it's one more than I have."
Clark was brought up short by that remark. He turned back to face his friend.
"You're right. I'm sorry." He hesitated for a second before continuing. "So you never found your Lois?"
It was Clark2's turn to look away.
"But you've searched?"
Clark2 gave a humourless laugh.
"Oh, yes, I've searched."
"So you've pretty much given up?"
"You want to talk about it?"
"Not really. Look, maybe you should get some rest. It's about time I did a few patrols of the city anyway."
"We'll talk more later, though?"
Clark lay in bed thinking about their discussion. He had quickly moved from harbouring a slight unease about Clark2's presence to enjoying his company tremendously. It reminded him of how he had felt when he had met his clone. It was like finding the brother he never had. Granted, in the case of his clone, it was like dealing with a very irritating, badly-behaved younger brother, but he had felt the same kinship he was feeling now for Clark2. They shared a common experience, and suddenly, there was so much he wanted to talk about with his newly-found friend. He smiled as he closed his eyes and shifted his bandaged hand carefully to try a new position alongside his body instead of resting on his stomach. It didn't improve the throbbing in his hand much, but at least it gave his shoulder and upper arm muscles a rest from supporting it.
Some time later, he heard the bedroom door open.
"He's asleep, you'll have to come back later," said his mother softly.
He opened his eyes and called out, "No, it's OK, I'm awake. Come on in."
He pulled himself up a bit in the bed, wondering who his visitor could be. When Inspector Henderson walked in, his heart sank and he immediately regretted admitting that he wasn't asleep. He liked Henderson and had a lot of respect for the man, but he didn't look forward to re-living yesterday's events. Nevertheless, this was an important task, and he did his best to remain impassive as Henderson drew the story out of him. Now he knew how other victims felt. At least he was able to explain the disappearing truck to Henderson - Tempus had simply shifted them forward in time roughly ten minutes. He wasn't sure if that made him ten minutes younger than he should have been, or whether he had aged those ten minutes very rapidly, or if everyone else was ten minutes older…
"Hmmm? Oh, yes…so do you have any leads?"
"We found the two vehicles he used, but nothing much to tell us where he might be hiding out. We also got a phone call from a hotel chambermaid saying one of their guests looked exactly like Tempus, but he'd gotten away by the time we arrived. This is the same guy who tried to become President?"
"Well, don't worry, we'll get him. He's obviously a complete nut. And I've posted one of my men outside until he's safely behind bars."
Oh, great, thought Clark. Now it's even harder for Supermen to come and go as they please.
"You really don't have to do that, Henderson. I'm sure he won't come after me again."
"Maybe, but I'm not taking any risks. By the way, your press friends outside have moved on - I made it clear that I wasn't going to put up with a crowd of people milling around outside your front door while you were under police protection."
"Oh." Not all bad then.
"You could thank me."
Henderson left, leaving Clark to ponder the merits of living under police protection.
Downstairs, everyone was discussing what to do next. They agreed that a press conference would have to wait until Clark was fully rested from his ordeal, and in the meantime, Andrus was anxious to catch up with Tempus before the police did. He wanted to take Tempus back to his own time period where he belonged, and before he did any more damage to timelines. Unfortunately, no-one was at all sure where to start looking. Lois had already asked Inspector Henderson about the vehicles again, but although he could trace the owners, the trail ran dry at that point. Both vehicles had simply been stolen one night from where they were parked, and no-one had seen either incident.
Eventually, Clark2 decided to attempt a search, concentrating on abandoned warehouses and other neglected parts of the city, on the assumption that now that Tempus could be recognised, he would be hiding out somewhere beyond the public gaze. It was a forlorn hope that such a search would be successful, but the general consensus was that any attempt was better than none at all.
This left the two older Kents, Lois and Andrus with not much to do but worry about the two Clarks. Lois opened up her laptop and began to write some copy for Edwards about the previous day and was soon lost in thought while Martha and Jonathan tried to entertain a very ill at ease Andrus. Jonathan finally nailed down in his mind the thing which had been bothering him since he first met Andrus.
"Tell me, Andrus. Did anyone ever tell you that you look just like the priest from MASH?"
"Mash?" Andrus was confused. He prided himself on being something of an expert on twentieth century terminology, and he was sure that 'mash' was something one did to potatoes.
"Yes, you know, the TV series. About the Korean war. Mobile Army Surgical Hospital."
"I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I really don't know what you're talking about."
"He means you look a lot like the actor who played a priest in a long-running TV series," explained Martha, suddenly realising what Jonathan was getting at.
"Oh! No, I didn't know that. Although, I do come from a long line of thespians."
"Perhaps you're a descendant of this actor," suggested Jonathan.
"It's certainly possible."
Later on in the day, Martha went upstairs with a tray of bandages and antiseptic to tend to Clark's hand. He was sitting up in bed staring intently at a wall when she entered his bedroom.
"Anything?" she asked, setting the tray down on the bed beside him.
"Nothing except a mild headache. It looks like my superpowers are well and truly gone for now." He emphasised the word 'gone' with a sweep of his good hand.
"I'm sure they'll come back soon, honey. In the meantime, let's take a look at that hand."
She undid the outer bandages carefully, peeling the last inner covering off as gently as she possibly could. Clark leaned over gingerly to peer at his hand with her. It looked ugly, but he tried to tell himself that wounds usually looked bad even after the healing process had begun. However, despite her gentle touch, he couldn't stop himself drawing his breath in sharply as she cleaned around the edges of the wound.
"I'm sorry, sweetie," she said, still concentrating on his hand.
"It's OK." Clark decided on balance that it was better not to watch, and turned his head away to study the pattern on the back of Lois' bathrobe instead. It was a relief when his mom started to wrap the hand back up in its supporting bandage.
"You know, Clark, you really haven't told us very much about yesterday yet."
"I told Henderson all about it."
"Yes, honey, I'm sure you gave him all the facts. But have you talked to Lois about it?"
"She needs you to, you know. She needs you to tell her all about it, let her share the experience with you."
"I know. It's just so fresh…so raw, I guess. I don't want to scare her."
"I think she'll be more scared if you don't talk to her about it."
Clark was silent for a moment. Martha continued to wind bandages around his hand, letting the silence grow so that he was forced to fill it.
"I'm scared I'll get upset if I tell her, and then that will upset her."
It was said in a rush, as if he thought that if he said it fast enough, it wouldn't be heard. Martha paused and looked up into his eyes.
"Oh, Clark. Don't you see, that's exactly what she needs? She needs to see what you really feel, not a brave facade. You mustn't think you can protect her by hiding your emotions from her."
"Honey, it's true that you two have a very open and honest relationship. But you do the same with Lois as you used to with your father and me - you used to come home from school pretending the other kids hadn't been making fun of you. You did it to protect us, but we knew anyway. All we could see was our little boy trying to hide his emotions away and not letting us help him."
"Of course. We'd have been pretty poor parents if we hadn't. So you just think about that when you talk to Lois." Martha patted the bandaged hand softly. "This is all done. Can I do anything else for you?"
"Actually, I think I'll get up now. I feel a lot better since this morning." Except for my hand, which is now throbbing ten times worse than before Mom re-bandaged it, he thought. Still, no pain, no gain, he told himself.
"Do you want me to send Lois up to help you get dressed?" Martha gazed at him with an open, enquiring look which spoke volumes.
"Yes, please." He returned the look with equal understanding.
Lois was glad of the opportunity to escape the tense atmosphere downstairs. Also, writing copy was all very well, but she had actually been on the point of going out to examine Tempus' trucks herself, just so she could be doing something active. Sitting around waiting just wasn't her style. So it was with a light heart that she walked into their bedroom.
"Hi, honey. Your mom said you needed some help dressing." She started rummaging in drawers. "What do you want to wear?"
"Sweats, I guess. It's about the only thing that will stretch around this bandage."
Lois dug out clothes for him and helped him pull them on, carefully stretching the cuff of his sleeve to fit over his hand. As she made him stand while she pulled up his pants, a corner of his mouth turned upward.
"This is what you might call 'a first' for us."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, you're usually going in the opposite direction."
"Oh, I see." She cocked an eyebrow at him. "That could be remedied…"
She started pulling the pants down again, but he stopped her with his good hand.
"On the other hand, we could talk," he said.
"We could do both," she countered.
"We could, but then we'd both be distracted and I wouldn't say what I need to say." He sat down on the bed and patted the mattress next to him to invite her to sit next to him. After a moment's hesitation, she complied, and he wrapped his arm around her.
"I want to tell you about yesterday."
Oh, that kind of talk, she thought.
"OK," she replied, looking up into his eyes with what she hoped was a relaxed and understanding expression.
His eyes slid away from hers as he continued, "Lois, I've never been so scared in my life as I was yesterday. I really thought he was going to kill me."
"What happened?" she asked.
"He was crazy. He dragged me to the ground like - like a rag doll and then he pulled a gun on me. People have done that before, but I never think they're really going to use it. Maybe it's stupid, but I've always thought it takes an awful lot for someone to actually pull the trigger. But Tempus just shot me like I was a piece of meat, or something that had just crawled out from under a stone."
"Clark," Lois whispered in sympathetic horror.
"And then he made me crawl on my hands and knees over to the pickup truck."
Lois pulled even closer to him as he relived the nightmare.
"That was hard, because of my hand. I had to kind of shuffle my good hand across the ground, holding the other one in mid-air below me…God, it hurt so much…I kept thinking, maybe he'll get bored and shoot me again, and then you'd be on your own, and Mom and Dad would probably never get over it…Dad's not as strong as he used to be, you know…"
He stopped and swallowed hard, staring at a distant point on the carpet.
"I'm sorry, I promised myself I wouldn't get upset…"
"It's OK, honey. What happened then?" Lois wanted everything, she wanted the whole story out in the open so that they could deal with it together.
"I managed to pull myself upright against the truck, and he helped pull me over the tailgate. I should have tried to run when I was standing, but I didn't."
"He would have shot you if you did."
"I don't know that for sure. Maybe I could have knocked him over…grabbed the gun from him."
"Clark, you were shot, losing blood, weak and dizzy from kryptonite exposure. You weren't going to get away. You did the right thing - you kept yourself alive."
"Not maybe, definitely. I'm glad you did what you did - I got you back, didn't I?"
"OK. So then what?"
"He manhandled me into that chair, and tied me to it. I must have passed out then, because the next thing I remember is waking up in the chair while the truck was driving around outside. I could sense the crowds staring, although I couldn't really see them. Everything was blurred, and there was pain everywhere, from the kryptonite as well as in my hand. I wasn't sure if people could see the kryptonite, so I was trying not to show how much it was hurting me…I don't suppose that worked too well."
Lois thought back to the picture in her mind's eye of her husband trying valiantly to sit upright, and suddenly understood the special agony he had been going through. She held him close as a couple of quiet sniffles escaped from him despite his best efforts to suppress his emotions.
"Honey, it must have been terrible," she sympathised.
"I heard you arguing-" He tried to continue, but the words got stuck in his throat.
"You heard me arguing with Tempus?"
"It didn't do any good, I'm afraid. In fact, I think I made things worse, not better. I was trying to argue that Superman wasn't around because of the kryptonite, but of course he said that was precisely why he had the kryptonite, to keep you, Superman, at bay. I'm sorry."
"You did your best."
"Well, this time my best wasn't good enough. So what happened after that?"
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly before starting again.
"He drove…he drove down to Hobbs Bay. There was a weird bit when he activated his 'time' piece and everything around about kind of flipped out and back again. I realised later that he was probably shaking off the police. Anyway, we got to this deserted street and he untied me and more or less pushed me off the back of the truck. I nearly blacked out again then. Maybe it was relief at finally getting away from him, or maybe it was because I caught my hand as I fell. I don't know. Anyway, when I got things straightened out again, I stood up and started to walk back up to downtown. The rest you know."
Not quite, thought Lois. He's missed out the bit between being dumped and us picking him up, but maybe this is enough for now. The rest will come with time. She pulled his head down onto her shoulder and enveloped him in her arms, wanting him to feel her closeness as much as possible. They stayed like that for a long time, until his breathing was back under control and he was ready to pull away from her.
"Mom and Dad will be wondering where we've got to," he said.
"Let me fix your sling back up first."
He let her re-tie the sling around the back of his neck, and they walked downstairs to join the older couple in the living room.
Clark2 returned after a fruitless search for a hurried and late dinner and then rushed back out to try again, leaving the Kent family and Andrus to spend the evening discussing ways to track down Tempus. Andrus revealed that he could trace Tempus if he activated his 'time' piece, since it left a signature which could be locked on to, but before they could get too excited about this news, he also told them that he'd had his scanner on constantly since they had arrived, with no result.
"Shouldn't Clark2 be carrying the scanner with him?" asked Lois.
Clark looked over at Andrus for confirmation.
"I'm guessing he knows what to listen for anyway?"
"Yes, I demonstrated the sound it emits when it detects the signature to him earlier."
"So this way we'll know at the same time as Clark2," said Lois, nodding her understanding.
"I thought it might be helpful," explained Andrus.
"Where is it?" asked Jonathan curiously.
Andrus rolled up his sleeve and held up his forearm for all to see. They leaned forward and stared.
"Forgive me if I'm being stupid, but I can't see anything," said Martha, puzzled.
"You're not supposed to. It's buried subcutaneously. You see, we learned from our previous mistakes with Tempus - never carry anything he can steal from you."
"Wow!" said Jonathan.
Clark raised his eyebrows appreciatively.
Lois yawned. "Sorry. I think it's my bedtime."
Her yawn set the others off, and one by one, everyone retired to bed except Clark. Lois turned back to him with one foot on the stairs.
"You coming up?"
"In a minute. You go on."
"What's the matter?" Lois came back into the room towards him.
"Nothing. It's OK, I'll be up soon."
She leant over to kiss him on the cheek.
"Don't be long."
He flashed a brief smile at her.
Lois knew when to give up. He was pre-occupied about something, but she wasn't going to get much out of him right now, and it wouldn't do any good to drag him upstairs against his will, so she left him to his thoughts. She could always come down later if he didn't appear upstairs.
Clark sat under the pool of light from a single reading lamp, idly fiddling with the tassels on another cushion. His mind was reaching out into the night, towards his newly-found brother. He imagined him skimming over the buildings of Metropolis, dipping down into side streets to take a closer look when something caught his eye, then swooping back up to resume the scanning from side to side. He had done it himself a thousand times, and he knew how compulsive it became. The longer it took and the less you found, the harder you searched, pressing ever further into your abilities. You flew faster, intensified those x-ray beams as much as you could, concentrated so hard you nearly knocked over TV aerials, even startled the occasional bat as you swerved to miss it. When you thought you'd covered the whole city, you started again, using a different pattern of passes across the streets. Yet the city was so vast, the hiding places so many, that you knew you were attempting the impossible. No-one, even a Superman, could possibly cover every inch of a city like Metropolis.
The patio doors rattled ever so slightly, and Clark tensed for a second before Clark2 stepped through into the room. He stopped abruptly when he saw Clark sitting on the sofa and the two men gazed at each other.
"No luck," stated Clark.
"No," agreed Clark2.
"It was impossible anyway."
"I had to try."
Clark2 stalked around the room, avoiding coming too close to Clark's sofa.
"I think…" He faltered and looked at Clark again.
Clark2 laughed slightly in embarrassment.
"It's silly really, but-"
"No, it's not. I felt it too." Clark gazed steadily up at Clark2.
"You could sense me with you."
"Didn't you know? Kryptonians are telepathic."
"I knew about it before, of course, because of the New Kryptonians-"
"Who?" Clark2 was staring in bewilderment at Clark now.
"You don't know that either? Jeez, you certainly have a lot to learn."
"Sounds like it." Clark2 sank down onto the sofa opposite Clark. "Tell me."
"OK. Kryptonians are telepathic, but I'd kind of forgotten all about that until tonight, when I could sense you flying over the city. It was weird, really, like being in two places at the same time."
"If it was weird for you, it was even weirder for me. At least you knew what was happening. All I knew was I had this other…being…riding along with me, and it wasn't until you mentioned Lois that I knew it was you."
"Mentioned, thought, felt…I don't know. Someone was thinking Lois, and it wasn't me. So how does this work - can you tell everything I'm thinking?"
"No, it's just a general…sense of you. How about you?"
"Same thing. Maybe we could get better if we practised though."
"Maybe." Clark looked pensive.
"I wonder if it would work across universes?"
"I doubt it. I mean, it hasn't so far."
"Yes, but we didn't know then that we could do it. Come on, you think of something and I'll see if I can tell what you're thinking."
Clark grimaced. "I'm not sure…"
"Not sure what?"
"Whether we should."
Clark shrugged his shoulders and pulled a face again. The two were silent for a moment, then Clark2 looked up.
"It doesn't feel right, does it?"
"Kind of like cheating. No-one else can do it, so why should we?"
"Yes. Stupid isn't it? We've got all these other powers we use - why shouldn't we do this as well?"
"Because it's covert. Everything else we do is wide open-"
Clark looked at his friend wryly.
"Well, mostly. We move fast, we use strength that no-one else possesses, we see things no-one else can, but it's all pretty obvious what we're doing. This would be silent and unseen."
"I think it's enough that we can sense each other. Anything else is a little scary," said Clark.
"Yes…so what about New Kryptonians?"
"You don't want to know about them," said Lois.
Both men turned in surprise as she came down the stairs.
"They're a horrible, self-centred bunch of people with some very strange customs," she continued.
"Lois!" Clark was a little hurt that she should describe his people in such harsh terms.
"OK, they're not all bad. Zara and Ching turned out all right."
"Will someone tell me what you're talking about?" protested Clark2.
"No. I'm taking this one to bed. Come on." She pulled Clark up by his good hand. "He can tell you tomorrow."
"I want to know now!" protested Clark2.
Clark yawned. "She's right - it'll keep. We could both do with some sleep."
"How am I supposed to sleep now?"
Lois reached out to put a friendly arm around his shoulders, but he ducked away. There was an awkward moment as each realised the implications of his reaction, then Lois said quietly, "Sorry."
"I-I'll sleep down here tonight - I don't want to wake up Andrus." Clark2 withdrew back to one of the sofas and sat down.
"Are you sure?" asked Lois.
"Yes, I'll be fine. Goodnight."
Lois and Clark walked upstairs, reluctantly leaving their lonely friend to his uncomfortable bed.
"So what was that about sensing?" asked Lois as they settled down into their bed together.
"We can…read each other. I was with him while he was flying over the city tonight - I could sense where he was, what he was doing."
"Clark, that's great!"
"Yes, it's pretty amazing, isn't it."
"You don't sound that excited about it."
"It's just weird, that's all. It takes some getting used to."
"Yes, I guess it would. Like you've suddenly grown an extra limb or something."
"That's it exactly!"
"Yeah, well, what did I tell you? We wives can read husbands' minds, Kryptonian or no Kryptonian."
"So you think I'm an open book, do you?"
"Pretty much, yes."
"Oh, I think you'll find I've got a few pages still to turn."
"Mmmm, where shall I start?"
"Anywhere you like, just be prepared for a few surprises."
"Oooh, sounds like my kind of book…"
Lois reached up to kiss Clark, but stopped abruptly and pulled back a little.
"He wouldn't be…'sensing' you now, would he?"
"Well, I'm sorry, but I'm new to this thing too."
"Lois, trust me, he - and I - respect each other's privacy. That channel is closed, shut down, locked and barred with steel shutters. No entry." He emphasised his point with a sweep of his flattened hand.
"OK, OK, you made your point. I just had to check."
"This is just you and me. Now, are you going to turn the page, or what?"
"All right. Let me see…page 1…shows promise…"
The phone beside the bed woke Lois up and she reached out a fumbling hand to pick it up.
"Right. Well, I was just calling back to confirm the time of the press conference - it was 10.30am, wasn't it?"
"Press conference?" Lois felt her hackles rising.
"Yes, the Superman/Clark Kent conference. 10.30 - right?"
"I wouldn't know," she replied icily.
"Oh. Could I speak to Mr Kent then?"
"He's not here."
"Oh. Maybe I'll call later."
"Maybe you will."
Lois slammed the phone down before waiting for an answer. She threw the bedclothes aside, grabbed her bathrobe and stormed downstairs into the kitchen, where she found Clark just about to pick up the phone.
"Morning, Lois," he said breezily.
"'Morning, Lois'? Is that all you've got to say? Not, 'Morning, Lois, I arranged the press conference behind your back while you were still asleep'? Not, 'Morning, Lois, I decided not to bother consulting you, my wife, about this important decision'? Just, 'Morning, Lois.'"
"Yes, 'Oh.'" She glared at him, her eyes blazing.
"Honey, I'm sorry. I was going to tell you just as soon as I could. How did you find out, anyway?"
"It doesn't matter. Why didn't you wait for me?"
"It's all my fault," interrupted Clark2. "I suggested we get started early, so we could get as many people there as we could. I persuaded Clark to start phoning the newspapers and media. So you should be angry at me, not him."
"Thank you, but I can be angry at both of you just as easily. Where is it, anyway?"
"Outside the Daily Planet, at 10.30am. Clark2 is going to fly me over there."
"You've thought of everything, haven't you?"
"No." Clark was beginning to become angrily defensive now. He knew he should have consulted Lois before going ahead, but now he thought she was overreacting. "We haven't thought of everything, we've just done the best we can. Maybe you'd like to listen to what we've got and make helpful suggestions, instead of sniping."
"Oh, I'm sure I couldn't possibly improve on the work of the Kryptonian brotherhood."
"What?" Clark screwed up his face in a mixture of puzzlement and incredulity.
"Well, it's the perfect team, isn't it. Two perfect men working in perfect harmony."
"Lois, are you jealous?"
"No. Yes. No." She flopped down on one of the chairs. The two Clarks exchanged glances, then Clark2 slipped out of the room while Clark sat next to Lois.
"Honey, I'm really, really sorry I didn't wait for you before doing this. I don't know what I was thinking. I never want to shut you out from anything I do - you're the most important person in my life."
"It's just, I've got used to having you all to myself, and now I have to share you."
"Yes, you know - with him."
"Lois, you don't have to share me. You have every part of me, 100% me, undiluted. What I have with Clark2…well, that's different. For the first time, I have a brother, someone who feels like I do, experiences life like I do, and it's all new and exciting for me. Maybe that's why I did what I did - I got carried away in the excitement of it all. But I promise it will never happen again."
"What if we find another dimension with a third Clark?"
Clark smiled. "Not even then. Promise. If I end up with ten brothers, you'll still be the most important thing to me."
"I guess like with me and Lucy."
It was Lois' turn to smile.
"Not really. Times are, I think Lucy comes from a different planet than me."
"At least she doesn't keep borrowing your suits," Clark said with a twinkle in his eye.
"Lucy wouldn't wear a suit if her life depended on it. Anything else in my wardrobe, yes; suits, no. But at least Clark2 won't bring back your clothes in a mess, with one heel missing and beer stains all down the front of your favourite top, and then complain that the skirt was too tight anyway and why did I ever think her boyfriend would like those earrings in the first place!"
"Oh, you wouldn't like them either. They came from my punk phase-"
"You, a punk?"
"It was mercifully brief. I gave it up when I ran out of safety pins."
Clark chuckled. "I'd love to see you in leather and safety pins."
"Well, dream on, Clark, because hell will freeze over before I spend two hours dying my hair bright orange and trying to shape it into a Mohican again. Tell me about this conference instead."
Clark explained their plans to her, and then had to repeat them when the rest of the household appeared in the kitchen. Martha and Jonathan were immediately concerned for both Clarks' safety; they were worried that Tempus would make another attempt on either or both of their lives. Lois had been worried about this from the very first mention of press conferences, but had recognised that it was a calculated risk they had to take, whereas the older couple weren't so confident. Clark2 tried to reassure them as best he could that he could protect Clark, although everyone knew this was a vain promise when there was kryptonite around. Clark insisted that it was the best way they had of smoking Tempus out into the open, and putting an end to all their misery in one sweep. Andrus lent his weight to the argument, pointing out that the longer he and Tempus were intruding in this time period, the more likely it was that all their futures would be damaged beyond repair.
At last, everyone was convinced that the event was a necessary evil, and all but the two Clarks set off to get there in plenty of time. Clark sat down on a sofa and glanced at his watch. There were still 20 minutes to go until they needed to fly over to the Planet, and Clark2 was sitting at the far end of the room, lost in his own thoughts, so he decided to spend the time resting and reviewing what he planned to say to the media. He was feeling much better today - his hand had stopped its continual throbbing, and he no longer felt weak and shaky. His powers were still completely absent, and he had noticed that he was getting tired easily, but these were minor things compared to how he had felt the previous day. All he had to do was get through this press conference, and then he could relax for the rest of the day and life would return to normal.
"Aren't you forgetting Tempus?" asked Clark2 from the other side of the room.
"You said, 'all we have to do is get through the press conference and then everything will be back to normal.'"
"No, I didn't. I didn't say anything…oh. Oh, my god. Were you trying to read my thoughts?"
"No! I was just sitting here, thinking about what Tempus might try, and then I heard you say…what you just said."
"Thought," corrected Clark.
"Thought," repeated Clark2.
"I guess we don't need to practise after all."
"No, but we might have to practise the opposite - not listening to each other's thoughts."
"Yes, like our other powers, we have to learn to control it. But this could be useful."
"Well, I'm not sure exactly, but it might help us when Tempus comes after us."
"Talking of who, we should get going."
Clark looked at his watch again. It was time. He checked that the house was locked up, and then the two of them walked out to the patio. Clark2 lifted Clark into his arms and launched them upwards into the sky. It was a strange sensation for Clark, flying through the air under someone else's power. In a way, it was great to be up there again - it seemed like a very long time since he had last escaped from the confines of the streets and buildings of Metropolis - but he couldn't help feeling slightly disabled, cut off from the free and easy sensation he had when he was the one in control.
Clark2 also found the situation a little unnerving. He had carried people before, of course, but this person was special. This person could actually notice the nuances of his flying technique, knew what was easy and what was difficult, and above all, this person was the closest thing he had to family. He was also injured, albeit in a much less serious way than before, and this made him a precious and ever so slightly fragile cargo.
So it was with mutual relief that they came in to land just behind the podium which had been set up for them outside the Planet. Superman released Clark from his arms, and they stepped up to the microphones. Clark began.
"In case anyone is still in any doubt as to my identity, Superman has very kindly agreed to host this press conference with me. Some of you may wonder why we haven't done this before now, but the reason is simple: neither of us believes in lending credence to the type of public smear campaign which both of us have been subjected to during the past few weeks. However, now there is a criminal at large, who needs to be stopped before he hurts any more innocent bystanders."
"Let me say now," he paused to give emphasis to his next words, looking out over his audience towards Lois, "that we do not intend to hold further conferences together. Superman has his own life to lead, and I have mine, with my wife Lois Lane."
Superman continued, "A few weeks ago, a criminal named Tempus began to send out letters to you all about my friend Clark, stating that he and I were in fact the same person. As you can plainly see, there are two of us." He heard a titter ripple through the assembled crowd and allowed himself a slight smile. "Tempus then used an accomplice to viciously attack my friend at an award ceremony, and compounded his crimes by staging a train crash to supposedly prove his claim. The train crash was a pointless, meaningless, vicious attack on innocent people, and I very much regret not being able to attend the emergency. At the time, I was dealing with an avalanche in Switzerland, and although I have excellent hearing, even I cannot detect cries for help from halfway across the globe."
Clark took over the microphone again, whilst Superman scanned the crowds in case Tempus was hiding amongst them. "Although there is as yet no direct evidence of Tempus' involvement in the train crash, we expect to be able to provide this in the near future."
Someone in the crowd shouted out, "What evidence?"
"Transcripts and analysis of phone calls he made to me and various press organisations." Clark took a deep breath before continuing. "His final act of savagery was to kidnap me, shoot me, and parade me through the streets of Metropolis in an attempt to once again prove that I'm not who I say I am." He stopped. He had intended to say more, but his emotions were closer to the surface than he had expected them to be at this point.
Superman put a supportive hand on his shoulder and took up the story for him.
"Tempus claimed that I didn't come to Clark's help because essentially, I don't exist." That produced another chuckle around the crowd. "Once again, I was still in Switzerland, and so was unaware of the danger he was in. Although, even if I had been here, the fact that kryptonite was very nearby would have made it hard for me to take effective action."
Clark had found Lois in the crowd, and was able to pick up his narrative by talking directly to her.
"Tempus dumped me in an abandoned street, and I had to find my own way home, despite my injured arm and the rough handling I had suffered at his hands. It was only through the very kind help of a lady named Amy, and my wonderful, brave, caring wife that I managed to reach safety again."
Lois felt her eyes filling with tears as her husband publicly affirmed his love and admiration for her. She dashed them away with the heel of her hand as he continued, "Despite the stresses and strains of these past few weeks, I am pleased to say that Superman and I remain close friends…"
As he listened to Clark wrap up their speech, Superman's eye was suddenly caught by something glinting in the sunlight from an upper-story window across the street. He barely had time to register the fact that his x-ray vision had cut in and identified Tempus holding a long, barrel-shaped object, before his whole world seemed to slow down so that he could count out the ensuing sequence of events one at a time.
First, his right arm shot out and pushed Clark to the ground behind the podium. He heard his friend cry out and knew that he had landed on his injured hand. Next, he saw Lois shoot out of the crowd towards them, shouting, "Claaaaark," as she pushed through the press of people.
Then he saw the bullet hurtling towards him and put out a hand to catch it. Clark screamed, "Kryptonite!" in his head, and he snatched his hand away again. The sound of the shot reached him as he sped towards the one person still in the path of the bullet and pulled her and himself to the ground. He bellowed out "Everyone stay down!" as loud as he could, as he kept his eyes fixed on the window opposite in case another bullet came their way. Sure enough, the gun fired for a second time, but he was just able to shift himself and his terrified charge out of the bullet's path before it could do any damage. Everything was still for a hair's breadth of time, and then his perception shifted again and things resumed their normal rate of progress.
Once he was sure the danger had passed, he was up again immediately and after a swift check to make sure the woman he had saved was all right, he dashed back to Clark and crouched beside him on the ground. Lois was there too, talking to her husband in a panic-filled voice, asking him if he was OK. Clark was lying curled in a protective ball around his hand, his eyes screwed up in pain. He looked past Lois to Clark2, and managed to grind out, "Get him."
"Just get him."
He hovered uncertainly for a split second then he made his decision and launched up into the air, his cape billowing out behind him as he flew towards the building where he had seen Tempus.
By the time he reached the window, he knew that Tempus had activated his 'time' piece and was gone. He hovered outside the window, thinking hard about what to do next. He tried to put himself into Tempus' shoes. The man had come here with the sole intention of killing either or both of the Supermen, and had failed. He had run out of ammunition, but he was probably frustrated by his failure and still ready to kill. What would he do, where would he go? If he still had any kryptonite left, he would probably fetch that and then come after them again. Clark2 flashed through the possibilities in his mind, sifting and discarding ideas, until he had his answer. He pulled out of his hover and flew swiftly to his destination.
When the pain in his hand subsided to a level which allowed normal thought processes to resume, Clark rolled over and pulled himself into a sitting position, cradling his arm in his lap. He glanced over at Lois, who was crouching beside him with a hand on his back to help support him. Her face was a picture of concern - he hadn't managed to say anything more after his instructions to Clark2 while he rode out the blaze of pain from his hand, and he could tell that she was scared.
"Sorry." He flashed a quick smile, hoping it didn't look too much like a grimace. "It's OK. I just needed a minute or two. I'm all right, really."
"No bullet holes?"
"Not new ones, anyway," he replied wryly.
"Clark, honey! Are you all right?" Martha and Jonathan had just managed to push through the confused and milling crowd to reach their spot behind the podium.
"I think he landed on his hand," explained Lois, as Clark nodded in confirmation.
Both parents bobbed down beside them, wanting visual and tactile evidence that their son really was all right. Jonathan put a hand on his shoulder.
"Why don't we find some peace and quiet inside the Daily Planet?"
"I think I should talk to these people first."
"You don't have to do that, son."
"It won't take long." He started to struggle to his feet, so Jonathan gave in and helped him up and over to the microphones, where he stood quietly for a second, marshalling his thoughts.
"As you will have guessed," he started, and then waited until people realised he was addressing them and turned towards him again.
"As you will have guessed," he repeated, "the shot was fired by Tempus. Superman is on his trail now, and I am confident that he'll catch up with this vicious and dangerous criminal very soon. As you can see, I'm fine, and now that the excitement is over, I think we should all go home - there's nothing more to see here." Suddenly he stopped and stared straight ahead, his eyes glazing over as he lost his focus on the crowd. There was silence for a minute whilst people waited for him to continue, but then when he didn't, they started to murmur to each other.
"Clark!" whispered Lois urgently to him. He didn't respond, so she quickly leant over to the microphones.
"My husband is obviously very tired. I'm going to take him home, and I suggest you do the same. Leave the streets clear for the police and Superman to chase down Tempus. You'll learn more at home by watching the TV or listening to the radio than you will by staying here."
Clark looked as though he'd gone into some sort of trance, but as she started to pull him away from the microphone and the podium, he came back to life a little, and with Jonathan's help, she managed to steer him inside the Planet building and into the lift. Martha followed closely behind, frantic with worry at what was happening to her son.
"Clark, tell me what's happening," said Lois.
"You were doing a good impression of a zombie."
"It was Clark2. He was warning us not to come home."
"He thinks Tempus will be there."
"But what's Clark2 going to do? If Tempus has more kryptonite, then he'll be helpless."
Clark gazed at her, his face showing clearly the anguish he felt by knowing that his friend was probably in danger, and that he was powerless to do anything about it. The lift doors opened, breaking the intensity of the moment, and they all made straight for the conference room for some privacy. Clark instantly sagged down onto a chair and closed his eyes. Pain was still coming up in waves from his hand, and he was fairly certain something was amiss with it, but he couldn't be bothered to find out what.
"We should at least get the police around there," said Jonathan.
"What do we tell them, Dad?" objected Clark with his eyes still closed. "We think that a time-traveller may be about to appear in our house and attack Superman with some kryptonite?"
"You don't have to mention the time-travel."
"It's still too thin to get the police out." He pushed himself wearily out of the chair again. "We'd better go. Is the car parked downstairs, Lois?"
"Yes, but you're not going anywhere."
"No, he's not," said Tempus.
He entered the room with his gun trained on Clark.
"Nothing clever this time, Clark. Just a nice straightforward shot with a nice, ordinary bullet and poof! You're gone."
He lifted the gun to sight down the barrel at his target.
"What about you, Tempus?" Blind panic made Clark blurt out the first thing which came into his head, anything to distract the man, put him off his stride, stop the bullet… "You shoot me, but then you'll never get away from here. You've picked too public a place this time."
"Wrong, Clark! I'm a time-traveller - aren't you forgetting? I just disappear." He emphasised his words by twirling the gun around airily. He saw Lois twitch in the beginnings of a lunge towards him and quickly retrained the gun on Clark. "I wouldn't do that, dearest Lois. My finger doesn't have so far to travel to squeeze this trigger as you do to reach me."
"What will you do when you've killed Clark? You'll be bored, there won't be anything to play for anymore. Where's the sport in that?" tried Lois desperately.
"Oh, there's always that other Superman. Besides, Utopia won't exist, so there will be plenty of 'sport', as you so eloquently put it. Now, enough chit chat. Bye, Clark."
The gun fired.
"Nooooo!" screamed Lois.
But Clark was still standing in front of his chair. Tempus was held in a firm armlock of steel, and Superman was holding up the bullet for all to see.
"You might want to keep this as a souvenir," he suggested.
Lois dashed over to embrace Clark, who folded quietly back down onto the chair in a state of shock.
"No thanks," Clark managed in a shaky voice. "I'd just as soon forget the whole thing."
"I'll take this gentleman back over to the house for Andrus to deal with. See you there?"
"Yes. Thanks." It wasn't much for a life saved, but it would have to suffice for now.
Clark2 launched off with his captive, while Jonathan and Martha joined in the communal hug with Lois and Clark. Two close shaves in such a short space of time left all of them nearly senseless with relief, and it was quite some time before they were able to pull away from each other. Martha was the first one to turn practical.
"Clark, we should get that hand checked out with Dr Klein before we go home. Did you land with your full weight on it?"
"Pretty much so, yes."
She winced for him.
"How does it feel?"
"Sore. Very sore." Clark was done with hiding his suffering for now; he was too exhausted and mentally drained.
"Should we call him, make sure he's there?" asked Jonathan.
"Jonathan, Dr Klein practically lives at STAR Labs. But I guess it would be polite," said Lois.
She made the call, and fifteen minutes later, they were all back in Dr Klein's lab, feeling as though they were reliving the scene from just a couple of days previously. When Dr Klein was told what had happened, he was quite horrified and kept repeating, "Oh, my!" at each pause in the story. He rallied quickly once his attention was focused on his patient, however, and an X-ray revealed bad news. The hairline fractures were now full-blown breaks, which explained Clark's pain, but he also had good news.
"None of the bones are where they shouldn't be, and we can treat this with a rigid cast now that the wound has healed sufficiently. It won't be very long before your super-healing kicks in either, will it, Clark?"
"How do you know?" asked Clark, who had a similar hunch but couldn't explain why.
"I think I'm developing a sixth sense for it. Or maybe it's something in the structure of the bones under X-ray. Whatever. I'd say half a day, a day at most, and that hand will be knitted together again."
"That's great!" exclaimed Jonathan.
"Let's go home," said Martha.
By the time they got home, Andrus had already taken Tempus away to be dealt with in his own time period, and Clark2 was sitting on a sofa looking pensive. As soon as everyone was brought up-to-date with the latest news, he turned to Clark.
"Can we talk?"
"Sure. Uh, how about the kitchen?"
Clark cast a backward glance in apology at his parents and Lois as he followed Clark2 into the kitchen. Martha mouthed "It's OK" and ushered him forward with her hands. Lois just shrugged.
"Want some coffee?" asked Clark2 when Clark came into the kitchen.
"Yes, I guess…" Clark recognised the avoidance tactics - after all, he was pretty good at them himself.
It wasn't until Clark2 had his back safely turned on Clark, pouring coffee into mugs, that he was able to say what was on his mind.
"I made a terrible mistake today, and you nearly died because of it."
"That's obvious, isn't it? I wasted time coming here to find Tempus, when I should have been at the Planet."
"How were you supposed to know that?"
"Any fool could see that Tempus would want a quick kill after his recent near-miss, and you were bound to take cover in the Daily Planet since it was so close."
"If any fool could see that, why didn't I see it, or Lois, or my parents? Are you saying that we're all fools?"
"No…" The answer came reluctantly.
"OK, so maybe it's like I said - no-one could know what Tempus was going to do next. You made an educated guess, but it was wrong. Next time you might be right. The important thing is - you saved my life. For which I will never be able to thank you enough, and hope in the best way possible that I never have to return the favour."
Clark2 turned at last and carried the two mugs of coffee over to the table before meeting Clark's eyes.
"Making tough decisions comes with the territory - you should know that," continued Clark.
"Doesn't make it any easier, though," objected Clark2, his gaze sliding away from Clark's scrutiny.
"I know. Believe me, I know. But you have to get past that, or you'll never survive." Clark laughed self-consciously. "I can't believe I'm saying all this. It's usually Lois who's giving me the pep talk."
"She's good at that…," said Clark2, remembering a time before, when they had talked late into the night…he shoved the memory away. That was dangerous territory.
Clark looked up sharply at him, as if sensing something. Clark2 studied his coffee, sure that his feelings must be written clearly all over his face…not that he was altogether sure exactly what those feelings were. He snatched a glance upwards to find Clark looking at him curiously and shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He felt somehow guilty, although he didn't understand why…god, life was so much more straightforward when he just had to worry about keeping Lana happy and hiding his powers.
Clark wasn't sure of his own feelings either. Jealousy? Surely not. He trusted Clark2 implicitly…but there was something about the words he had just uttered, a longing, a void which needed filling. Clark noticed that he was beginning to reach out to the mind of his double, to probe and find answers to questions, and pulled back sharply. Not a good idea, and a complete violation of another's privacy.
Both men sat frozen in silence, a sudden awkwardness filling the air where before there had been harmony and accord.
A knock on the door broke the spell.
"Sorry, guys," apologised Lois. "Can I come in?"
"Uh, sure, we're all done here," said Clark.
"I'll go upstairs and sort my stuff out," said Clark2, brushing quickly past Lois on his way out.
"You're not going?" exclaimed Lois.
"Like Clark said, we're all done here. My job is finished."
"That doesn't mean you have to leave," objected Clark.
"At least stick around until Clark's powers are back," added Lois.
He hesitated at the door. Despite the recent coolness, it was tempting - a legitimate excuse to stay a little longer around these wonderful people.
Lois could see him wavering and piled on the pressure.
"After all, it's too soon to say whether the press conference worked or not. A few rescues while Clark is obviously somewhere else would really nail things down, and in the meantime we can check out the media reports."
"And I still have to tell you about those New Kryptonians," said Clark.
Clark2's heart leapt. He'd forgotten about that…and there was probably so much more this man could tell him about himself. But as he looked from Clark to Lois, and saw how close they were, how Clark had his hand resting lightly on Lois' shoulder in that casual, easy manner which couples in love had, he knew that he couldn't stay…couldn't bear to stay.
"It's really kind of you both, but I'm sure the press conference worked just fine, and Clark will be back to full strength very soon." He held his hand out in an expansive gesture to emphasise his point. "You don't really need me, but my Metropolis does. I-I don't really belong here. But thank you for making me feel so welcome."
"Thank you for putting my life back together again," replied Clark.
"I should say goodbye to your folks."
They followed him out into the living room, where he made his farewells to Martha and Jonathan. Martha refused to let him get away with a handshake, and pulled him into a close hug.
"I hope you find your Lois," she said quietly in his ear.
He halted in his embrace and pulled away from her in amazement.
"How did you…?"
"A mother knows, sweetie, a mother knows."
"God, you're wonderful," he said, hugging her again even closer. It was a long minute before they separated and Clark2 repeated his earlier words.
"I should sort my stuff out upstairs."
He turned and jogged easily up the stairs to his bedroom.
Downstairs, Lois looked at Clark.
"Aren't you going to help him?"
"Lois, he hasn't *got* any stuff to sort out."
Clark walked into the bedroom to find Clark2 stripping the bed and folding the bedclothes into a neat pile.
"You don't need to do that. Lois will throw the whole lot in the washing machine anyway," he remarked.
"I like to leave things tidy."
"Yeah, I guess I…you would."
"So…I wanted to tell you…I mean I wondered if you would…tell Lois that I-I'm sorry…sorry if I was a little…distant."
"I'm sure she understands."
"No, I mean, maybe she does…it's just that I don't love her-no! Sorry! I don't mean that. I mean-"
"You mean, you feel attracted to her, but you know it's not really her that you want to be with. It's *your* Lois, the one you've never even met."
"Yes! It's crazy, isn't it?"
"No, I don't think it's crazy at all. And I think Lois does understand that, and understands why you have to take care not to get too close."
"Definitely. I know how I would feel if Lois had been taken away from me, even if it had only been the day after we first met. It would kill me - not literally - but probably a little every day."
Clark2 couldn't respond to that; it was too painfully close to the truth. He changed the subject instead.
"You'll have to tell me about the New Kryptonians another time."
"I guess so…how are you getting back?" Clark suddenly realised that with Andrus gone, his devices were gone too.
"Ah…Andrus left me a kind of one-way ticket back to my universe. It's one of his travelling devices programmed for a single use only. It seems like he doesn't want us visiting each other without his supervision."
"Well, I guess it would be a little strange if we could universe-hop at will in the twentieth century."
They gazed at each other for a minute, and then Clark2 held his hand out.
Clark ignored the hand, much as his mother had, grabbing his friend into a warm embrace instead.
"I'll miss you."
"Me too. Look after Lois."
"I will. You keep searching for yours."
They released each other. Clark2 pulled out the device and pressed a couple of buttons.
"Keep dodging those kryptonite bullets," he grinned and waved, before disappearing as abruptly as Andrus had before him.
Lois looked up as Clark came down the stairs.
"He's gone, hasn't he?"
"Will he be back sometime?"
"Who knows?" he said.
"You OK, honey?"
"Sure. Why wouldn't I be?"
"Oh, I don't know…come here." She walked up to him and wrapped her arms around him. "Shall we take a look at the news and see if the plan worked?"
They watched the TV news and were pleased to see lots of positive coverage of their conference. Fortunately the dramatic events at the end of the conference hadn't completely overshadowed the important message they had wanted to convey, and some commentators even expressed surprise that there had ever been any doubt about Superman's and Clark's identities. Lois scoffed at this; at least one of the commentators had managed to make a complete 180 degree turn from their previous report without even batting an eyelid.
By lunchtime the following day, it was obvious that Metropolis' opinion had swayed dramatically back in their favour. Clark and Lois returned to the newsroom at the Daily Planet to cheers and a round of applause from the staff. Perry cracked open a bottle of champagne, and was the genial boss for all of 10 minutes before yelling at everyone to get back to work.
"We've still got a newspaper to get out, people. Lois and Clark, I want the best, biggest darned 'We're Back' article you like. I want the lowdown on this Tempus character, and I want to know why the police haven't caught him yet. You got that?"
Lois and Clark grinned, said, "Yes, Chief," and grabbed the nearly-empty champagne bottle before retreating to their desks.
"How do we do that?" asked Clark. The one thing which had been bothering him was the fact that they couldn't tell the police not to bother searching for Tempus.
"By lying?" suggested Lois mischievously.
Clark slowly picked up the bottle by the neck, got up and tilted it threateningly above her head. Lois held her hands up in defence.
"OK, OK! We don't lie. We just leave stuff out."
"There's going to be some pretty big holes."
"Ah, that's where our skills as Kerth-calibre journalists come in."
"You mean we waffle?"
"Exactly. Very stylishly."
Clark's powers had been returning gradually, and later that day he was able to do what Dr Klein had requested of him a few days previously. He x-rayed his hand and flew over to STAR Labs where he cut the plaster off himself and presented the result to the doctor. Dr Klein confirmed that the bones were completely healed, but warned that the hand might be a little achy or stiff for a few days. Otherwise, after a quick general health-check, he pronounced Clark fully restored to super-fitness.
Martha and Jonathan went home to Smallville, happy in the knowledge that their son's life had returned to normal, or at least as normal as things ever got for him. In fact, it was Martha who pointed out that Clark couldn't suddenly appear in public with a perfectly-healed hand, when everyone had clearly seen how badly it had been hurt. Clark had to pay Dr Klein another visit and have him construct a dummy cast for appearances' sake - one that he could remove when he was out of the public eye. Clark hated the deception, but had to concede that it was a necessary evil.
A couple of nights later, Lois turned over in her sleep to snuggle closer to Clark, only to find empty space where he should have been. She was well-used to his sudden absences in the middle of the night, but a faint noise from downstairs suggested that he wasn't actually out on a rescue, so she dragged herself up to full consciousness and padded downstairs to find out what was up.
He was sitting in semi-darkness on one of their sofas, with a half-empty glass of milk on the table in front of him. She noticed he was alternately massaging his recently-healed hand with the other one and then flexing it in mid-air as if to exercise it. This was nothing new; he had developed this habit during odd moments over the past couple of days, but he usually did it while he was doing something else, like watching TV. Tonight he was just staring blankly.
When he sensed her presence, he stopped and looked up at her.
"Is it still stiff?" she asked.
"A little." He reached over for his milk and drank some.
"Has the ache gone away?"
"It's getting better, though?"
"Sometimes an ache is a good thing, you know? Reminds you of what happened, what you had…"
"I know, honey, I know." She sat down beside him on the sofa and took his sore hand in hers to stroke it. "I wonder what he's doing now."
"Sleeping, I hope. Unlike me."
"Honey, my guess is if you're not sleeping, then neither is he."
"I miss him, Lois. I really miss him."
"So do I. But I guess you miss him a whole lot more than me. You were very close - closer than brothers, even."
Clark nodded sadly.
"So it's OK to feel sad, to feel a little lonely," she continued. "It's only natural."
"It's like something's missing. Something that was with me all the time is suddenly gone…like it's been silenced. That's what it is…for a time I could hear, and now I'm deaf again."
"Was it like this when the New Kryptonians left?"
"No. There wasn't the closeness that he and I had. Sure, I could communicate with them telepathically, but that was more like a channel opening and closing as needed, not a constant presence…"
He lapsed into silence whilst staring into space again. Lois moved her hand up to tousle his hair and let him brood quietly for a time.
Suddenly he stiffened and cocked his head on one side.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Someone's in trouble." He moved to get up, but she stayed him with a hand against his chest.
"You don't have to go. Let the police handle this one."
"No, I'd better go. The police won't get there in time."
He spun into the suit. Lois jumped off the sofa and quickly pulled his head down so she could kiss him.
"Be careful, honey," she told him.
A blur of red and blue, and he was gone.
Lois sank back down onto the sofa. He would push all this to the back of his mind while he carried out his super-duties, but she knew it would surface again. Next time they talked about it, the feelings would be a little less intense, and then the time after that, until it was a fading scar on his subconscious. That was how they helped each other, how their partnership made each stronger than one alone…
She thought of Clark2. How would he deal with the loneliness? By throwing himself into his work, she supposed, just as Clark probably did before he had her. At least Clark2 didn't have to hide his true self away at the same time, so he could be honest about his feelings to his friends and work colleagues. Perry was a pretty good confidant when he diluted his Southern eccentricities enough, and Clark2 had mentioned a college friend a couple of times…
"Keep safe, Superman," she said quietly into the darkness.
And was it her imagination, or did someone reply,
"I will, Lois, I will"?