By Mobile Richard <mobile.Richard@mailcity.com>
Uploaded February 2000
Summary: The conclusion to the author's popular series; can Clark regain the trust of his parents and Lois and establish Superman as a respected figure in Metropolis?
This is the third and final installment of Life in a Different World. Parts 1 and 2 should be read first.
I'd like to thank all those who commented on Parts 1 and 2. Your feedback is what encouraged me to continue. I'd also like to thank my editors, not only those who worked on the LIADW series, but on all my previous stories. You guys are great!
All standard disclaimers apply. All characters in this story (except those of my own creation) are the property of DC Comics, Warner Bros and December 3rd Productions Ltd; no infringement of any property rights are intended by their use. Please do not distribute this story without my consent.
As always, comments are welcome at email@example.com
"Help! He-lp!!!! The cries intruding on Clark's consciousness roused him from a deep sleep. Reluctantly shaking himself awake, he tumbled out of bed and stumbled toward his closet, reaching for his Suit with something less than super-speed. "Help!! Can anybody hear me?! Help! H E L P!!!!"
Clark rubbed a weary hand over the back of his neck. "I'm coming, I'm coming," he grumbled, wondering if it was possible to fly with his eyes closed.
Making his way to the source of the cries, which turned out to be a store called Lauren's Jewelry, he circled cautiously overhead, scoping out the situation. After determining that the calls were coming from a woman apparently trapped in a jewelry vault, he broke into the store and tapped on the door of the safe. Hearing him, the woman inside gasped, "Help! Get me out of here! I'm suffocating." Quickly Clark smashed his way into the vault, lifting the half-fainting woman into his arms. Carrying her from the stifling crypt, he laid her carefully on the floor. "I locked myself in the vault accidentally," the woman gasped. "The store isn't going to open … until noon today so I would have … suffocated if you hadn't come. Who—?" Her eyes widened when she saw who her rescuer was. "S-Superman?" she exclaimed, pushing up onto her elbows. Clark nodded. "But … I didn't think you were real! I thought you were one of Tiron's hoaxes!"
"I'm real," said Clark, gently assisting her to her feet.
"You're an alien?" She shrank back involuntarily. Clark nodded, keeping his face expressionless. He had experienced this reaction a lot since he had returned to his own universe.
Her gaze moved past him to fall on the vault "Look at that door!" she exclaimed, pursing her lips. "Couldn't you have gotten me out without smashing it???"
Clark sighed. Complaints about how the rescue was handled. Nothing new in that. "There wasn't time—" he began.
"And my front door, too!" said the woman angrily. "You've ruined it! Do you know how much these doors cost??"
"What a mess!" she said in disgust.
"Now, wait a minute, I was in a hurry and—"
"Couldn't you have just smashed the lock, instead of putting a hole in the door? Now I'll have to buy a whole new door and Tiron's the only game in town so it'll cost me a fortune! Are you working for Tiron—trying to drum up business for them?"
Clark drew in his breath sharply. "No, I'm not working for Tiron," he said shortly.
"Then why did you have to ruin my doors???"
"Would you rather be *dead*??" said Clark, his temper snapping.
"No, I *wouldn't* rather be dead!! Couldn't you have saved my life without smashing my property? You aliens may not need to worry about making a living, but we humans have to feed and clothe ourselves!"
"Well, congratulations!" said Clark sarcastically.
"H-how dare you speak to me like that!" the woman gasped, angered by his tone. "Who asked you to come here, anyway, you- you alien??"
"You did," Clark reminded her tightly, "I just saved your life … or have you forgotten?" He stood stiffly with arms folded across his chest.
"That doesn't give you the right to talk to me like that! Or to break down my doors!"
"ExCUSE me for wanting to help!" said Clark, spinning angrily on his heel.
"Couldn't you have just called the police???" the woman shouted at his retreating back.
Clark turned at her words. "You'd have *died* before they got here!" he shot at her. "Your alarm was shrieking for five minutes after I broke in, and there's *still* no sign of the police!"
Stymied, the woman ignored his argument, reaching for a broom to clear away the debris. "Why don't you just act like a normal person?" she grumbled.
"Maybe next time I *will*," Clark muttered. "I'll stay in bed and let you rescue yourself …" He scowled as he lifted into the air, intending to head for home again but changing direction when he heard a voice in the South side calling for help. Still angry from his last encounter, he was tempted to ignore the screams, but in the end he flew to the rescue, saving a young gang member from being thoroughly beaten by a group of youths from a competing gang. Having received a surly "mind your own business," from the intended victim, he flew home at super speed and dived headlong into his bed without bothering to undress. He was asleep even before his head had finished sliding underneath the pillows.
The jangling of the telephone disturbed his slumber several hours later. An arm snaked out from under the covers as Clark reached for the phone, trying to silence its strident ringing before it could awaken him fully. "'Lo," he mumbled into the mouthpiece.
"Clark!" Lois's piercing voice smote his sensitive eardrums.
Wincing, Clark held the receiver several inches from his head. "What, Lois?" he managed.
"I just wanted to let you know that I'll cover for you with Perry," she said, her penetrating voice chasing away the last remnants of sleep, "so you don't need to come in right away. You can probably use the rest."
"Thanks, Lois," he said drily, "for waking me up to tell me to go to sleep."
Lois didn't hear the irony in his voice. "You're welcome," she said with the bubbling laugh that always made his heart turn over, "what're partners for?"
Smiling in spite of himself, Clark hung up the phone, then sighed and rolled over, burying his face in his pillow. If he could have just five more minutes of sleep … He yawned.
Finding that sleep had fled, Clark got out of bed and went into the bathroom, leaning his hands on the counter and examining his face in the mirror. Funny, he didn't look any different. Strange how a guy could feel like he'd been run over by a truck and not have it show—
Wait a minute; he *had* been run over by a truck.
Hadn't he? Yeah, last night.
Or was it this morning? He guessed it depended on whether it had happened before or after twelve, and right now he couldn't work himself up to care on which side of midnight the incident had fallen. It didn't matter anyway, it hadn't really hurt, so it didn't offer an adequate explanation for him feeling so exhausted. He ran a weary hand through his hair. Must be Lois who was wearing him down … that woman packed more energy into her petite frame—! She was like a persistent little gnat. An annoying, tyrannous, exasperating, unrelenting, domineering …
Glancing in the mirror, he saw that his face had broken into a wide grin. Okay, so he didn't exactly *hate* the attention he was getting from her. And her confidence that he could do all the Superman stuff she wanted him to do was really kind of flattering.
He stepped into the shower and turned the faucet on full force, hoping that the blast of water would bring him to full alertness. He had a busy day ahead of him: not only was he going to have to carry on with his work as a journalist with the Daily Planet, but he was also going to have to continue as Superman—a job that wasn't likely to yield him anything except a boatload of trouble, he reminded himself grimly. He had been ready to quit last night, but somehow Lois had elicited his promise to continue.
"Somehow??" Your promise wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that Lois had her arms around you at the time, would it, Kent? Maybe that circumstance had a leetle bit to do with that rash promise, huh?
'Cause he would otherwise have told her in no uncertain terms that he had no intention of continuing that thankless job.
Or would he?
He sighed, bowing his head under the stream of water and letting it cascade over his back and shoulders. No, that wasn't right either. He couldn't stop being Superman. Not now … not since he had experienced the heady rush of exhilaration he got from performing rescue feats impossible for anyone else on Earth. Not when the power to save people from unbearable pain or even death lay solely in his hands.
Not that he was getting recognition for his actions. Far from drawing the praise and appreciation that had been his lot in the Other Universe, he was now greeted, more often than not, by fear, shock, and even horror.
Or ingratitude. Like the two rescues a few hours earlier. That was something the Other Superman didn't have to contend with— the lucky guy. Clark shook his head bitterly, sending the water flying.
But that didn't matter, he reminded himself; he wasn't doing the rescues for the praise. It was enough that he could hold up a collapsing bridge and save men, women, and children from falling to their deaths in the water below; that he could cool a raging fire and carry the victims to safety, sparing them from perishing painfully in the flames.
He stepped out of the shower and dragged a towel over his body.
So would he go on being Superman even if Lois weren't pushing him into it?
He didn't want to be the Superman that she was looking for.
He sighed as he selected a shirt from his closet.
Lois had plans for Superman, he knew. Big plans. And Clark didn't agree with them. He wanted to help the victims of accidents and crime within the limits of Metropolis, while Lois … Lois wanted him to take on the whole infrastructure of their society and rid the entire world of injustice and corruption. Clark just couldn't see the point in trying that. He had scant hope of succeeding in dethroning Metropolis's crime lords, and even if he did succeed, there were dozens of lesser crooks waiting to take their places. And as for ridding society of corruption—another of Lois's wild-eyed ideas, Clark reflected as he knotted his tie—they would have to remove half of the government—heck, *all* the government, at least in the upper echelons.
And this stuff with all those false alarms. Well-orchestrated mass fake cries for help, collapsing bridges and several other catastrophes that had looked suspiciously like sabotage. Sabotage that could potentially have killed untold numbers of innocent people. All of it indicating the influence of someone with enormous power and total disregard for human life.
A large corporation, maybe. Or the government. Maybe someone with connections to—Clark flinched—Greuel.
Greuel. Yeah, it could be someone connected to Greuel, and nope, he didn't want to have anything to do with trying to topple Greuel—it was a hopeless undertaking, especially without media assistance, and besides … he wanted to have *some* time for a life.
So Lois was just going to have to forget her pie-in-the-sky dreams.
He ran a comb through his hair, then glanced at his watch one more time, wondering if he had time to fly to France for croissants—no, he'd better not.
Time to go to work. Time to face Lois and tell her that Superman wasn't going to be taking on Tiron or Luthor or Greuel—he just didn't have time for it. He was going to limit himself to saving human lives in Metropolis, to rescuing people from fires, street crime, and natural disasters.
He'd tell her as soon as he got into the office. He was going to have to be firm with her. Yes, firm.
Clark winced when he stepped off the elevator and saw that Lois was looking at him. She had evidently been waiting for him; she must be planning to start badgering him right away. And he just didn't want to hear it right now. He had attended to three more Superman calls on the way to work, and he wasn't in the mood to discuss the expansion of Superman's role.
He groaned inwardly when she rushed over to his desk, barely concealing her impatience while she waited for him to hang up his jacket. "Hi, Clark," she said brightly. "Come see what I'm doing about the Superman media blackout."
Clark sighed and followed her over to her desk. "Lois, give it a rest," he said. "There's nothing you can do about the blackout."
"We *have* to do something about it!" Lois whispered fervently. "People *need* to see you. It gives them hope."
"How are people going to see me when radio, television, and newspapers are all banned from covering Superman? Big corporations control all the communications media."
"They don't control *all* the media, Clark."
"What are you going to do, Lois … stand on a soapbox in Town Square and shout through a megaphone?"
"No, smartie, I'm going to set up a web page on the Internet."
Clark stared at her. "A Superman web page …?" he said slowly, "It *might* work."
"It *will* work," said Lois firmly.
Clark bent over her desk to peer at her screen, but straightened again almost immediately. "It'll never work," he said gloomily.
"Somebody'll complain and your web page will get yanked."
"… so we'll take them to court," said Lois impatiently. Giving an exasperated sigh, she rolled a sheaf of papers and swatted Clark smartly on the arm. He looked at her in surprise. "What was that for?"
"For being so … so … dolorous."
"Dolorous? That's a good one, Lois. Did you have to look that one up?"
Lois ignored the sarcasm. "Look at this …" She showed him the Superman web page she was working on, distracting him from voicing more objections to her plans for Superman. "Jimmy did the graphics, and we're using some of the photos and video clips of Superman taken in the past few days. Look at this … I've written up some of the rescues you performed yesterday including all the false alarms you responded to and I'm dropping hints as to who's setting up the false alarms—do you think I'm too subtle? Do you think anyone will understand what I'm saying?"
"Too subtle!" exclaimed Clark, studying the screen. "Not!" He leaned over her desk and used her mouse to scroll down the page. "Lois, you can't print this—"
"Hey, hey, hey!" said Perry's voice behind them. Lois quickly closed the web page builder and opened her word processing program. "I need to see you two kids in my office." Perry turned his back and started for his office. Lois threw Clark a panicky "did he see the web page and is he going to be mad?" look. Clark shrugged. Perry looked over his shoulder at them. "That means *right now*," he said, "… not a year from next Tuesday."
Lois and Clark followed him into his office, noting with trepidation that he was motioning to them to shut the door. "I don't know what you two are up to," said Perry, "and I don't want to know. But I can tell you this—you can't build a Superman web page on Daily Planet equipment. And that includes your laptops." He held up his hand as Lois opened her mouth to speak. "It just so happens that I have here …" he pulled out a briefcase and snapped it open, "my old laptop, bought and paid for with my own money. She may not be much—but she'll still handle web pages and Internet surfing." He slapped it affectionately then handed it to Lois. "Take care of her," he said.
Lois looked at him in astonishment, temporarily bereft of speech.
"Now git on out of here. And make sure you get that web page off the Planet computer pronto."
"Okay," said Lois, recovering her voice and preparing to leave the room.
"Uh … and … oh …" Lois turned back to look at Perry. "Good luck you two. And be careful."
"We will, sir," said Clark. "Thanks."
Lois wasn't so surprised that she didn't notice this unprecedented politeness on Clark's part. The Other Clark had said "sir" and "miss" and "ma'am", but she hadn't known those words were even a part of this Clark's vocabulary until he returned from the other universe. He must have acquired the habit when he had substituted for Clark over there.
Lois returned to her desk and began downloading her web page from the PC to the laptop while Clark dashed out of the newsroom to respond to another Superman call. Lois thoughtfully watched him sprint for the elevators, glad that he didn't need to be prodded into rescuing people.
An hour later, after Clark had returned to the office, Lois rushed over to his desk and lowered her voice confidentially. "I have some new ideas for more splashy, headline-grabbing super feats."
Clark muttered something unintelligible.
"Still feeling bad after your rough night?" Lois asked sympathetically. Clark grunted. Lois moved behind his desk and put her hands on his shoulders. "Poor baby," she said, massaging gently. "Did you get any sleep at all?"
"Uhhhnn. Some," said Clark, leaning into her touch.
"So what Superman stories did you get the last time?" Lois asked. She folded her arms and rested them against Clark's back while he told her what he had been doing for the last hour. When he had finished, she nodded her approval. "Good," she said. "We're going to need some pictures, though."
"I can't take pictures while I'm—"
"I know," interrupted Lois. "*I'll* take them."
"How are you—?"
"I'll come with you on your next rescue," she said, patting his shoulder.
"You have an answer for everything," Clark grumbled.
"Of course," said Lois smugly. "Stick with me, Kent, and I'll fix you right up." Clark rolled his eyes, but didn't argue.
Clark wasn't too pleased, though, when after watching him in action a few times, Lois favored him with a commentary on his behavior throughout his rescues: his posture, his visage, and even his speech were remarked on with a critical tone. "Lois, I did the job—what more do you want?" he said petulantly.
"Superman should be stoic," said Lois. "He shouldn't show any emotion. You looked mad when you intervened in that fire- bombing."
"I *was* mad," responded Clark. "People could have been killed in that blast."
"But you shouldn't show it," said Lois. "Superman doesn't get mad … he's above it all. He stands with arms folded across his chest … like this … see, and …"
"You look like a Pekingese guarding a bone," said Clark critically. "And anyway, I really don't need any pointers on how to look like Superman. But …" he added hastily, seeing her brow darken, "thanks for trying to help."
"I'm not *trying* to *help*!" said Lois. "I'm *showing* you how to act like *Superman*."
"I don't want to act like *that* Superman, Lois," said Clark, nettled that she was comparing him to the Other Clark again. "I've seen tapes of him. He wraps up the suspects in parking meters, then stands around looking pompous while he pronounces a few lines of comic book dialog. I don't want to look—or act— like him."
Lois swelled up like a porcupine fish at this criticism of her hero. "He does *not* look pompous! He looks *noble*! You should be *glad* to emulate him—you couldn't ask for a better role model, Clark!"
Clark shrugged, annoyed. "If you say so, Lois …"
"Superman can't show any emotions, Clark, he just can't!" argued Lois, pressing her point spiritedly. "Don't you see?? He's not a brooding vigilante—he's an impartial enforcer of justice … he can't act out of anger, or malice, or spite. He can't look sinister or threatening. He's an immovable force for good!"
Clark rolled his eyes. "Really, Lois," he said in disgust. "How do you expect me to be this paragon? How could *anyone* be—"
"You don't have to *be* him," she rejoined, "you just have to*look* like him."
Clark scowled. "I don't see the point," he muttered.
"Just *try*," said Lois. She looked at his sulky face in exasperation. How could she get through to him? The poor innocent didn't know yet what he meant to Metropolis—to the whole world. "People want to see a hero," she began, then, inspiration striking, "besides, you don't want to look like 'Clark Kent,' do you? The angrier you look, the more 'human' expressions you get on your face, the more likely it is that people will recognize you." Seeing that her remark had hit home, she pressed forward. "When people look at Superman, you don't want them to see an impassioned, very human, vigilante; you want them to see an alien, someone sent from outer space to help keep the peace on this planet—"
"Okay, okay," Clark held up his hand. "You've made your point. I'll do it." I'll do my best to look and sound like that pompous windbag.
"Good," said Lois, who luckily couldn't hear his thoughts. Her face broke into a smile and she patted his arm. "Now … what are we doing for lunch?"
Any hopes Clark may have had that Lois's desire to lunch with him sprang from a preference for his company died when Lois whipped out Perry's laptop as soon as they had been seated. "We'll write up your Superman stories …" said Lois, "and then …" She bent her head over the keyboard, scarcely heeding the waitress when their sandwiches arrived.
Clark took a breath. Now was the time to tell Lois that he wasn't going to be the worldwide super hero she wanted. He hated to disappoint her, but …
"Lois …" he said.
"I can't … I don't think … that is, I'm not sure this is going to work."
"That's ridiculous," said Lois absently, still absorbed in the Superman stories. "Of course it'll work."
Clark sighed. "If you're so sure it'll work, will you tell me how I'm going to perform Superman duties night and day, provide stories for your web page, and still do my job here at the Planet? I haven't given a story to Perry in two days. If I don't get some good stories that *aren't* about Superman, I'll get fired."
"So?? Lois, in case you haven't noticed, I do have a few bills to pay! Like food and clothing. And don't forget rent—if I don't pay that, I'll be out in the street."
"So … move in with me."
Clark stared at her. There was no trace of irony in her face. "You can't mean that!"
"Yes, I can."
"Clark, this is big, really big, not just bigger than anything that's ever happened in our lifetime, but bigger than anything that's happened in the history of our civilization. Superman isn't just a super policeman, a law enforcement officer collaring criminals—he's a symbol of hope for a better world. Can't you see that?"
"Oh …" Clark paused as for the first time he began to understand the vision that had been driving Lois.
"So," she said, reaching out to place one hand on his shoulder, "when do you want to do it?"
"Move in with me."
The vision conjured by Lois's words left Clark momentarily speechless. "L-lois!!" he stammered finally. "I can't do that!"
Clark looked at her, looked into the deep brown eyes blazing with passion for her vision, and felt torn between resentment at what she was asking of him, and astonishment at her faith that he would do it. Felicitous as the thought of living with Lois was, he wasn't sure he wanted to move in with her as a business partner. "Well … I … you … we d-don't know … I haven't actually lost my job *yet* … and, besides, I don't *want* to lose it—"
"You won't lose it," said Lois with supreme confidence. "Not with me covering for you."
"You can do both my job and yours, huh, Lois?" Clark said sarcastically.
"Yes," she said smugly, "I can." She giggled at the expression on Clark's face.
Deciding not to argue that point, Clark returned to discussion of her previous suggestion. "Then I won't need to move in with you after all," he pointed out.
"Whether you lose your job or not, we can start saving money by not paying your rent. I'm sure we'll need the extra cash for *something*. Making Superman known to the whole world isn't going to be easy."
"Well …" said Clark, weakening. After all, it really wouldn't be so bad to move in with Lois, even on these terms. He'd have to give up his privacy, of course, without the compensation of having a relationship with her.
Clark glanced at her hopefully.
… she wants to …?
"I hope you'll be comfortable on the sofa," Lois added.
Nope, guess not.
Clark sighed. "I'll meet you at your place after work," he said.
Clark had to perform several more Superman rescues before he was able to return to the office. He was glad that Lois had elected to go to the courthouse to do some research rather than accompanying him on his next rescue missions; he didn't have to listen to the homily he was sure she would have delivered had she seen the way he handled them—the last one in particular. He knew she wouldn't have liked him losing his temper … but, hey, who wouldn't have been mad if they'd had to put up with the invective that had been hurled at him!
He was still fuming when he got back to the office. "Hey, CK, I got some great pics of Superman helping to untangle a 5-car pileup at the intersection of 26th and Mercury," whispered Jimmy, pulling Clark aside. "I'll tell ya all about it so you can put it on your web site."
"Did you hear the flak Superman got from some of the motorists?" Clark replied rather surlily.
"Yeah, I did, but … wait, how'd you know about that?" asked Jimmy in surprise.
Clark could have bitten his tongue. "Heard about it," he mumbled. "That guy Superman sure takes a lot of abuse," he added, to deflect Jimmy's attention from the fact that he knew something he shouldn't.
"Yeah, but not as much as he used to," said Jimmy.
"You mean … it used to be worse??" said Clark in surprise.
"Well … yeah, CK … doncha remember? When he first came to Metropolis people were beating him with sticks and throwing garbage at him!" Clark straightened, running the images conjured by Jimmy's information through his mind.
So life hadn't been as easy for the Other Superman as he'd thought … He'd have to get copies of footage taken of Superman while the Other Clark was in this universe. Maybe he could pick up some pointers on how the Other Clark handled hostility.
Taking the tapes into the conference room, Clark watched them several times, looking fervidly for clues to how the Other Clark worked his magic on people. He didn't know what it was about that Other guy, but people somehow seemed to put on their best behavior around him.
While running through the Superman tapes, he happened upon a newsroom video taken when the Other Clark was here: Pete's retirement party (they had a retirement party for old Pete??? — they *must* have been under the Other Kent's spell—unless they were all sick or something). He inserted the tape into the VCR, curious to see if his alternate self appeared in the tape. He had seen the Other Clark as Superman, but not as Clark Kent.
Yes, the Other Clark was featured in the tape. At his first appearance, Clark stared. It was himself … and yet not. Same features, but he looked different somehow. And the way people responded to him—talk about magic! Still, he couldn't put his finger on what the Other Clark did to get everyone to act so relaxed and happy. Except … that guy sure did smile a lot. Not as Superman, but as Clark Kent. *He* was going to have to try that himself.
At this opportune moment, Camilla, a middle-aged woman who worked downstairs, walked into the conference room. Maybe this would be a good time to try out that smile stuff. "Hi, Camilla," he said, beaming at her. She threw him a startled look, scuttling involuntarily sideways, then steadied herself with a hand on the door frame.
"Hello, Mr. Kent," she said after a second's hesitation. She gave him a small, frightened smile.
"Nice day," Clark continued, trying not to be daunted by her reaction.
Camilla looked at him doubtfully. "Yes," she said finally, showing all her teeth. She scurried from the room.
Sighing, Clark returned to reviewing the tapes. Watching his counterpart, Clark had the feeling that somehow the man in the tape would have been an easier person to know.
Clark had time to watch the videos twice more before he was called away again. He attended to the next rescue with alacrity, buoyed by the additional confidence he had gained from watching his predecessor at work, and by a rising excitement springing from the knowledge that he was going to move in with Lois. He had decided that, on the whole, he liked the idea. A lot.
In the end, though, it was Lois who moved out of her apartment and into Clark's, he having pointed out to her that Superman wouldn't be able to take off from her place unnoticed. So after some initial grumbling, Lois consented to give up her apartment and move in with him.
"This is the fastest move I've ever made," she remarked, surveying her belongings scattered about Clark's apartment.
"We're not done yet, Lois," Clark pointed out. "We still have to find room for all your clothes." He looked doubtfully at the heap piled on his bed. "Are you sure you *need* all that? I mean … come on … there are only 365 days in a year …"
Naturally Lois ignored the comment that so blatantly proclaimed the gender of the speaker, and continued with her unpacking. Watching her with his hands in his pockets, jumping back when she brushed away his attempts to help her, Clark continued to tease her with much secret enjoyment while she bustled around the apartment.
For her part, Lois was a little surprised to see this side of Clark. She hadn't expected him to be so much … fun … He almost reminded her of the Other Clark.
Later, though, when Clark had gone to attend to a Superman duty, Lois began to have second thoughts about her move. Pacing restlessly about the apartment, she mentally upbraided herself for her impetuosity. How could she have acted so rashly? Was she never going to learn? She had always been prone to jumping impulsively into situations without checking things out first, but this surpassed even her most irresponsible previous actions!
She remembered the time she had let Richie come into her apartment, and how he had subsequently tried to assault her. And the time the Other Clark Kent had come to her door. She had rushed out and threatened him with her knife—real smart, Lois. When she thought about how big and strong Clark appeared—and she hadn't even known about his super powers then—! Looking back on it later, she had realized that instead of trying to deal with him herself, she should have called her bodyguard service, and had them do the job for her. The fact that *that* particular incident had worked out all right was no thanks to her judgement!
But even her reckless action on that occasion paled in comparison to what she'd done today! What had she been thinking?? She had voluntarily moved into the apartment of the strongest man in the world—a man who she knew had problems with his temper. A man—no, an *alien*—who had nothing to fear from any penalty society could impose on him. She had no defenses against him—even a gun would offer no protection against him, and as for her knife—! Laughable!
She thought of calling her bodyguard service, but—what would she say to them: "Hi, I've just moved in with a man who scares me to death and I want you to protect me from him."
Lois shuddered. How could she have put herself into this situation? Was there any excuse for it?
Of course there was … there had to be!
She tried desperately to find justification for her actions, hoping to take comfort from finding a reason for having believed she would be safe.
Well … Clark had been acting so … *civilized* lately that maybe she could be excused for thinking it was safe …
Oh, get real, Lois! How can you move in with a man—*tell* a man that you're going to give up your apartment and move in with him—and then expect him to sleep on the sofa? *Any* man—not just the strongest man in the world? He'll be expecting the whole enchilada, not just the tortilla—you'd better go lock yourself in the bedroom, girl, and hope that the hint will be enough to keep him away …
But there was no lock on the bedroom door—and what protection would a lock provide against Superman, anyway?
Fully dressed, Lois jumped into bed and pulled the covers over her head.
But she couldn't sleep, and lay there tossing and turning while she berated herself for her imprudent—no, *idiotic*—behavior. She lay awake for what seemed hours, awaiting Clark's arrival with rapidly beating heart.
At last she heard sounds of activity in the outer rooms. A soft rap on the bedroom door startled her, and she lay quite still, holding her breath.
"Lois?" said Clark softly. "Are you awake?"
She didn't answer, and eventually she heard him moving about again. A few minutes later the delectable scent of duck with brown sauce was wafted gently to her nostrils, and she breathed a sigh of relief. He was eating dinner. Good. Maybe a full meal would relax him and he'd fall quickly asleep.
She shifted restlessly in the bed, hungry now. She hadn't had Chinese food in a long time, and what he was sating melled delightful. She wondered where he had picked it up this late—it was after 3 a.m. She sighed, rolling over onto her back, then stiffened as a crack of light appeared in the room, widening stealthily. *Kent was sneaking into her bedroom*!
She braced herself for the assault, then suddenly deciding that attacking him would be her best defense, that the element of surprise would increase her chances of success, she leaped from the bed, screeching at the top of her lungs as she snatched a weapon from the bedside stand. She was aware of the light from the outer room glinting on Clark's glasses as he turned his startled face towards her. "Lois, it's okay—it's just me. Sorry if I scared you—hey, what are you doing? Lois? Lois!!" He backed away rapidly, holding his hands up, palms outward in an appeasement gesture.
As Lois pursued Clark into the living room, he stumbled and tripped over her sofa, situated as it was in a place unfamiliar to him. He sprawled on his back on the floor, one arm in front of him in a reflexive gesture of self-defense. Looking up into Lois's panic-stricken eyes, he realized that it was *him* she was afraid of, not some unknown intruder. Seeing her fear, Clark fought his bitter hurt as the hopes and dreams he had been unconsciously building in the last few hours faded into the dark corners of the room.
Lois in panic at the sight of him! Fearing him, convinced that he was threatening her in some way! Another tragic misunderstanding. Was he never going to have her trust— *anyone's* trust?
Swallowing his disappointment, he desperately tried to collect his scattered thoughts and think of something that would calm Lois's fears. As recently as a day ago his pain and frustration would have caused him to react with embittered anger, but his memories of the example set by the Other Clark, whose actions in defusing the fears of panic-stricken crowds had been recorded on the tapes he had watched this afternoon, rose up to help him now, and gave him the self-assurance he needed to deal with the situation effectively.
Instead of nursing his hurt at Lois's unjustified fear of him, he sought to convince her that her terror was groundless. "It's okay, Lois, I'm not going to hurt you." He spoke in the deepest, most reassuring voice he could muster.
"You … you—!" Only half-persuaded, Lois refused to relax her combative stance.
"You're safe with me, Lois, I would never hurt you. Please believe me!" A note of unconscious longing crept into his voice unbidden. He knew that he didn't have her trust, but he yearned for it desperately. "Lois, I won't hurt you. You must know that!"
Lois gazed down at him, his entreaty striking some deep chord within her. More shaken by the pleading and tenderness in that deep voice than by her earlier fright, her knees weakened suddenly, and she stumbled and clutched at the sofa for support. To cover her discomfort, she launched an offensive, "What were you doing sneaking into my bedroom anyway, Kent?"
"Sneaking?" Clark looked at her in surprise. "I was trying not to wake you—I needed the laptop so I could write up my latest Superman stories."
"Oh …" Her vision of a rapacious seducer faded, leaving her feeling slightly foolish. Her arms fell to her sides as the tension left her body.
Judging the situation to be safe now, Clark hauled himself to his feet. "You thought I was 'sneaking' into the bedroom?" He looked at her in surprise, still hurt by her fear, but puzzled, too. "Why did you move in with me if you don't trust me, Lois?"
Not liking a question that she didn't have a defensible answer to, Lois of course ignored it.
"What did you attack me with, anyway? A …" Clark looked closely at her hand, "… a pen?" He raised an eyebrow, an incredulous smile tugging at his lips. "A *pen*, Lois?"
She backed away a step, looking embarrassed.
"Just what good did you think a pen would do against Superman?"
"I … um … well, the surprise …" Lois said, having the grace to blush.
Clark's eyes traveled down her body, taking note of her attire for the first time. "You were wearing your clothes in bed?" he said in surprise.
"I thought I might get … cold, or something," said Lois, meeting his eyes defiantly.
"But …" said Clark, relieved to see that the fear had left her eyes and she was facing him with her customary bravado, "… your *shoes*??"
"What's wrong with that?"
"You wore your shoes to *bed*??"
"Yes …" Lois drew in her breath sharply. "Clark, stop it! That's not funny!"
"I'm … sorry, Lois," gasped Clark, his tension dissolving into laughter. "It's just that … I didn't realize that your moving in with me would turn out to be so … enlivening." He moved toward the window and spun into the Superman suit.
"Wait … where are you going?" Lois crossed the room to stand at his side.
"Somebody's calling for help." He opened the window, preparing to take off, then turned back again, unable to resist temptation. "Um, Lois …" Lois didn't meet his eyes, didn't see the mischievous sparkle in them. Clark leaned forward, saying in a conspiratorial whisper, "If you think you're in danger from me crossing the line …" he whipped out a pencil, "use this." He extended it to her, eraser end first.
Lois looked at the pencil, then her eyes flew to his face, seeing the barely-restrained hilarity there. She drew in her breath sharply, then dealt him a resounding smack on the arm. Spinning on her heel, she stormed into the bedroom, slamming the door so hard it rattled. Laughter threatening to overset his equilibrium, Clark flew out on his rescue mission.
Clark was gone when Lois woke up in the morning, and having assumed he was out on a Superman call, she was surprised to find that he had preceded her to the office. He greeted her with a cup of coffee, which she received with a grunt. Observing that he was regarding her searchingly and (she thought) a little anxiously, she grudgingly offered him a muttered "G'morning." She wondered briefly how he managed to look so cheerful and refreshed when he had spent almost every minute of the past few days stopping gunfights, crawling through tunnels, searching through earthquaked debris, and doing who-knows-what else. He seemed to have some hidden reservoir of strength, springing perhaps from whatever secret thoughts were making his eyes sparkle so happily this morning.
She nodded briefly when, a few minutes later, he signaled that he was leaving to perform a Superman duty. After he left, she picked up the pictures of Superman she had asked Jimmy to get for them. Turning one photo over to mark the back, she was annoyed to find that her pen had run out of ink. Muttering under her breath, she rose and made her way to the supply room, swinging open the cupboard door and pulling out a pen. She heard a noise behind her, and whirled, her eyes widening involuntarily when she saw Clark looming over her. She drew in her breath to scream, then realizing that he hadn't *followed* her into the supply room, but was returning from his Superman call, she expelled her breath noisily.
Seeing her momentary panic, Clark fought back his disappointment. He had hoped that he had convinced her of her safety last night, but it seemed that she still had lingering doubts.
For several seconds they stared at each other, then, noticing the pen in her hand, Clark grabbed a handful of pens from the cabinet and offered them to her. "Maybe you'd better take a few more …" he said, leaning toward her and lowering his voice, "… just in case Superman gets out of line."
Resisting the urge to smack his arm again, Lois turned away, her lips turning up at the corners in spite of herself. Clark's teasing did more to convince her of her safety with him than any amount of protestations would have done, and she felt a wave of relief sweep over her as the last of her doubts evaporated.
When they entered the newsroom, she immediately became conscious of the curious stares being directed at them. "Clark …" she whispered when they put their heads together at her desk again, "Do you see the way everyone's looking at us? They're all going to think that you and I are … since we've moved in together, that we're … you know …"
Clark looked at her in surprise. "Sure they are! What else would they think, Lois?"
"You mean … you already thought of that?"
"Yeah," said Clark, amused. "You mean … you … *didn't*?"
Lois was furious. Kent had anticipated what people would think, and he hadn't warned her! Did he think to show her off to the newsroom as his latest "conquest?" She opened her mouth to tell him exactly what she thought of his sneaky, underhanded behavior when reason set in and Lois realized that if there was anyone who *didn't* need to augment his image of success with women, it was Clark Kent. She put the brakes on her steaming thoughts and instead of torpedoing him with a scathing remark she merely hissed, "Why didn't you say something?"
"I assumed you already thought of it and just didn't care," said Clark, looking at her quizzically.
"Of course I care," snapped Lois. "I just didn't … didn't …"
"Didn't think things through? Plunged headlong into the situation without checking it out first? Jumped into it without considering the consequences?"
Lois sucked in her breath. "Do you *always* plan for *everything* in *your* life?" she asked defensively.
"Do you *never* plan *anything* in yours?" countered Clark.
Lois looked up into his face, illuminated now with that warm smile, and suddenly felt a little dizzy. Finding herself unable to voice the annihilating remark that had sprung to her lips, but unwilling to concede him victory, she dismissed him haughtily, although a trifle breathlessly, with "Don't you have a story to file?"
Clark grinned amiably, and feeling no need to have the last word, sauntered back to his own desk, ducking his head to hide his exhilaration at how things were working out.
He had been in love with Lois for a long time, and ever since he had visited the other universe, ever since he had seen how much that Lois loved her Clark, he had known that *that* was exactly what he wanted for himself. Lois loving him … living with him … married to him …
He would never have guessed, though, that his vision would be realized so soon—at least in part. Lois had moved in with him. She was going to be there when he went to sleep at night, and she would still be there when he woke in the morning. A dream come true!
Well … almost. When he had pictured Lois in his bed, he had kinda thought that he'd be in it, too.
But at least it was a start—at least she didn't *hate* him any more. They were friends—sort of.
And he was going to keep it that way. The fear in Lois's eyes last night, and again this morning, was a sobering warning of how ephemeral his state of happiness was. If Lois was afraid of him, if she decided to move out again … NO! He just couldn't take that! To lose the one person more precious to him than anyone or anything in the world, to have his dream snatched away when it was just starting to be realized … that would be too crushing to bear. He was not going to let that happen!
So, no evocative glances, Kent. No provocative remarks. Not one word, not one look, not one touch that will make Lois uncomfortable. Even if you *think* she's coming on to you (like that day in the supply closet), you've gotta realize that she's *not*. So … hands off. It's going to be strictly business.
Clark flew eagerly back to the apartment after finishing up some Superman rescues that evening, excited at the thought of Lois waiting for him there. It had been years since he had lived with anyone. Not since he had left the Kents' … He winced and closed his mind against the painful recollections. He wasn't going to let the still-scalding memory of his last encounter with his foster mother spoil his enjoyment of the here and now. He didn't care what his foster parents thought of him anyway. Really.
His elation suffered a nosedive when he arrived at the apartment to find Lois busily engaged in rearranging their furniture. Watching her, he had the uneasy feeling that the turmoil he had experienced in being catapulted into a parallel universe was nothing compared to the upheaval he was going to encounter in having Lois Lane in his apartment. "What are you doing?" he asked.
"Come see," she said, beckoning him into the bedroom. "We can move your bureau out of here," she said briskly, "and that will leave room for mine."
"So where do we put mine?" asked Clark, leaning against the door jamb and folding his arms across his chest.
"What's this?" asked Lois, ignoring his question. She pulled a sheaf of papers from behind the bureau. "Oh."
"What?" said Clark, stepping up behind her and peering over her shoulder. Seeing the title, "How to Control Your Temper," he flushed as he realized that she had happened upon the material that Martha Kent from the other universe had sent back with him, material that he had flung across the room in a fit of temper the night his mother had been expecting the Other Clark for dinner. The papers had fallen behind the bureau to lie forgotten until now. "Some things the Other Mrs. Kent gave me," he mumbled.
"'Dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.' 'Healing Your Wounded Inner Chil—' Hey … what's this?" She began reading with rapt attention.
"I'll take it," said Clark in acute embarrassment. How could he have forgotten about that stuff? He reached to take it out of her grasp.
"Wait …" said Lois, twisting away from him while retaining her grip on the material. "… total hip replacement … acetabulum … cementless hip …"
"… total hip replacement!" echoed Clark, forgetting his embarrassment.
"My father would be interested in this!" said Lois, still clenching the papers in her hands. "They're not really doing things like this in the other universe, are they, Clark?"
"Wait!" said Clark. "What do you mean, 'total hip replacement'? What is that, Lois?"
Lois read aloud from some of the literature in her hand, "'In the last twenty years cementless prostheses were developed … Clark!" she said, lifting her eyes to gaze at him in wonder, "they've been doing total hip replacement surgery for the last forty years! They must be *decades* ahead of us in medical technology!"
"'Total hip replacement,'" repeated Clark in disbelief. "You mean, they *replace* a hip? How do they do that?"
"With a metal-backed plastic acetabulum—that's the socket, and a metal ball with a stem to replace the head of the femur—the thigh bone." Lois waved the documents excitedly in front of Clark's face. "Do you know what this means? My father has been wanting to do things like this for years, but there's never been any funding for experimentation. But now with Lex Corp providing research funds … and this has the complete specifications for the materials used … and …"
She took note of the expression on Clark's face for the first time. "Clark, who did you say gave this to you? The other Mrs. Kent? Your mother?"
"*His* mother," Clark corrected.
"Yes," Lois kept her eyes on his face. "Why did she give this to *you*?" she asked quietly.
"I … dunno," said Clark, avoiding her eyes. Feeling that her gaze was still on him, he amended his statement unwillingly. "My … father," he said. "He had an accident. He's never walked since."
"Don't tell me …" said Lois. "A broken pelvis."
Clark nodded, remembering the strange expression that had come over Martha's face when he told her about the accident. She started to tell him something, but they had been interrupted by a call for Superman, and he had left their universe shortly after that. They had never had a chance to talk again, but she had given him the papers when he left.
Lois studied the documents in front of her. "She gave these to you so our doctors could develop the technology! Oh, look who wrote this one: Dr. Sam Lane … that's my … my father's counterpart. He must do orthopedic work in the other universe, too. Clark … with this medical technology … my father might be able to help *your* father!"
"Yeah …" said Clark, a curious lack of inflection in his voice.
Lois looked searchingly at him. He was lounging against the bureau, seemingly at ease, but Lois could see that the hands in his pockets were balled into fists.
"Do you want to come with me …?" she said hesitantly. "While I take these to my father?"
Clark drew a somewhat shaky breath. "Nah … I have … some things I have to do." He turned and retreated into the kitchen. Lois watched his departing back thoughtfully. She slipped the papers into her briefcase, then walked across the apartment towards the door, jingling her keys loudly just in case Clark decided to change his mind about accompanying her. She took a last look at him as she opened the door. He was standing in the kitchen with his back to her.
Closing the door again, she crossed the room and came up behind him, laying a tentative hand on his shoulder. "Clark …" Edging around to face him, Lois peered up into his unhappy face. "Your parents … you don't ever see them?" He looked away, not answering. "Do you … maybe we could … talk …?" she said awkwardly. She noted with alarm that the haunted look that had only recently receded from his face, had settled back on it again.
Clark jerked away from her, shrugging her hand off his shoulder. "Nothin' to talk about," he said sullenly.
He spun into the Superman suit, and leaving in a gust of wind, left Lois gaping at an empty apartment.
The following weeks passed in a whir of activity. Clark was kept busy with his Superman responsibilities; the days and nights blurring together as he flew around the world helping the victims of disasters, returned to Metropolis to perform yet more rescue feats, and then wrote up the stories he had managed to gather. Many nights he would drop onto the sofa and fall immediately into a deep sleep, too tired even to eat.
Because of his busy schedule, Clark's expectations of seeing more of Lois didn't turn out exactly as he had hoped; at first, he saw her even less than he had before they moved in together. He didn't mind as much as he would have thought, though, for taking on the role of Superman had turned out to be enormously fulfilling. The rush of fierce satisfaction he got from helping people who needed him exhilarated him like nothing he had ever experienced before. He thrived on the knowledge that he could make this much difference in people's lives.
He was encouraged, too, by the change in his reception by the victims he rescued, and by the onlookers, too. The Other Superman had done some groundbreaking work in this area during his week in this universe, but the real progress had been made during the last few weeks. No longer did victims shrink from him in fear and repugnance, nor did he receive as many challenges from the criminal perpetrators. He was becoming accepted in Metropolis, as much a fixture as the police, and infinitely more trusted.
Lois's plan to make Superman a household word was thriving, too. Not only was the web site, which they updated with new Superman stories daily, one of the most-visited on the Internet, but similar sites were springing up all over the world. Many of the web sites were developed by people who saw Superman in action on a regular basis—firefighters, paramedics and other emergency personnel—while other sites were maintained by ordinary citizens motivated by the flicker of hope that Superman had inspired.
Many of the independent radio stations on the Internet, one form of media not under the control of the giant communications networks, had also begun broadcasting Superman stories.
As the weeks passed, the emergency calls for Superman in Metropolis gradually began to decrease, as whoever had been trying to wear him down with false alarms evidently gave up. Clark was then able to spend more time with Lois in the evenings, a change of events that he viewed with great satisfaction.
She seemed to have lost all fear of him, and had even become quite affectionate in a comradely sort of way. She was always reaching out to him and touching him, even hugging him, and if he had to hide his feelings for her under a disguise of teasing banter, well, that was the price he had to pay—was willing to pay—for having her feel free of constraint around him.
On one such night, he wrested the laptop from Lois, telling her that he had to write up some Superman stories and upload them to their web site. He didn't quite make it, though. Coming back into the room half an hour later, Lois saw that he had fallen asleep. She quietly removed the laptop from his relaxed grip. Then she lifted his feet onto the sofa—with some difficulty, for he was heavier than she had expected—removed his belt and shoes, and placed a pillow under his head.
Lois paused to evaluate her handiwork, an expression of tenderness stealing over her face. She had come to look forward to the quiet evenings when Clark would relax and let his guard down, becoming touchingly vulnerable and … yes, sweet.
She leaned forward now and gently swept the hair off his forehead, wincing at the sight of the scar. Poor Clark, what he must have gone through! She wished he would talk to her about it, but so far he had resisted all her attempts to broach the subject, retreating behind a mask of sullenness that was otherwise becoming rare in his behavior. She had no idea how to get him to open up to her … the role of confidante wasn't one she assumed easily. She'd have to remember to ask Lucy for pointers when her sister returned from Vienna.
Still musing, Lois touched Clark's scar lightly, reflecting on the trouble that it had caused them. Someone had noticed it and compared it to pictures of the Other Superman. Since the Other Superman did *not* have a scar, they had reached the conclusion that Superman was not invulnerable. A spate of bombings that were obviously targeting the Man of Steel had followed. Clark had emerged from them unscathed, of course, and the blatant attempts against Superman's life had eventually stopped. Speculation on the nature and cause of the scar had not ended with the bombings, however, and since Superman refused to discuss it, it remained a mystery to this day.
Smiling at the recollection, Lois spread a blanket over him and tiptoed away.
In the following weeks, Lois forgot her resolve to get Clark to open up to her in her preoccupation with the mass of problems that beset them. First their Internet Service Provider shut down their web site, refusing to give any explanation other than to say that their content was "inappropriate."
"Sometimes I feel like the whole world's against us," Clark remarked gloomily when Lois told him about it.
"It is," said Lois, without looking up from the screen.
Clark made an exasperated sound. "Thanks for that cheering remark," he said.
"What do you expect?" said Lois. "Of *course* the whole world hates us—we're trying to change things. And it's going to get worse." She added, "About our web site being shut down … we'll go to Earth Movers. They'll rent us some web space, and in the meantime, there are enough Superman web sites out there that we can keep the Superman momentum rolling. We already have a distribution list of five thousand sites that publish Superman stories—we'll send our stories to them so they can keep publishing for us."
One day shortly after that, Jimmy interrupted one of their colloquies in the conference room with the unwelcome news that XYS television studio had just filmed a movie about an extraterrestrial who came to Earth, ostensibly to do good, but in reality to spy out the Earth people's weaknesses in preparation for a coming invasion. "The-Powers-That-Be are trying to make everyone believe that Superman has some ulterior motive in what he's doing!" said Lois in frustration after Jimmy had left the room. She pointed to a publicity photo of the extra-terrestrial being brutally slain by the victorious humans. "It must be nice to have enough money to make movies that advance your political viewpoint," she went on, anger driving her to the point of tears.
"And you!" she whirled to face Clark. "You … Superman … doesn't help matters by dumping suspects into a pigpen, or stripping them of their clothes and making them stand naked in front of everyone while waiting for the police to arrive! We're not gaining Superman supporters *that* way!"
"They weren't 'naked,' Lois," Clark argued, shoving his hands into his pockets. "… not completely. And I didn't strip them. They had taken their clothes off when they went into the sewer system. I wouldn't let them put their clothes back on because I wanted to make an impression on them. You don't like it when I toss people up into the air, so—"
"Of course I don't! You could give somebody a heart attack!" she whispered furiously. They were in the conference room, but wanting to make sure that no one overheard their conversation, she kept her voice low. "Clark, we've discussed this before … Superman can't take petty revenge on criminal suspects—he just can't!"
"It's not revenge," Clark insisted. "Those guys have been tracking down the owners of Superman web sites and beating them up, burning their houses, killing their pets—and sometimes they even get nasty."
"You and I both know that these guys are Tiron's goons … sent to discourage Superman supporters. The police know it too; that's why they always take their time in responding. I wouldn't let those guys get dressed because the longer the police took to arrive, the longer the goons had to stand there without their clothes and be embarrassed in front of everyone. Once the police figure out that they're only hurting Tiron's people when they delay their response times, I'll bet they'll start responding a lot more quickly."
Lois sighed. "Well, that's not all you've done to give Superman a bad name!" she continued. "What did you mean by going around to shop owners and intimidating them into making donations to charity at Christmas time?"
"I didn't intimidate them!" said Clark hotly, whipping his hands out of his pockets and advancing a few paces. "I just *suggested* that they *consider* making contributions to some worthwhile charities!"
Lois put her hand up to her eyes, saying with the air of someone whose patience was close to exhaustion, "Do you have any idea how intimidating it is to have *Superman*, the strongest man in the world, 'suggest' that they give donations? Those people rely on you for protection, Clark! They took your 'suggestion' as a threat!"
A look of bitter hurt crossed Clark's face. "I didn't threaten them," he repeated.
Lois went up to him and gripped his shoulders gently. "Clark!" she said, "*I* know that." At her touch, Clark's scowl faded and his expression softened somewhat. Encouraged, Lois continued, "But to others who don't know you—" She stopped talking abruptly as Dolly from Accounting came into the conference room at that moment. The matronly woman drew back quickly when she saw whom she had interrupted.
"I'm sorry," she said in embarrassment, obviously believing that she had intruded on a passionate encounter. "I didn't mean to …" Her voice trailed off and she backed hastily out of the room. His hurt completely forgotten, Clark looked down into Lois's face as if expecting fireworks, and she didn't disappoint him.
"*Why* does everyone think that something is going on between us??" she said in great irritation. "What makes them think—" She broke off when she saw her partner's eyes light up with that teasing gleam that she was beginning to know so well.
"I dunno, Lois," he said solemnly. His face was all bland innocence, but his eyes were dancing. "What would give them a wild idea like that?"
Lois bit her lip. She longed to give Clark a scathing rejoinder, but she knew herself to be at a disadvantage here. It was her own reckless action in moving in with him that had given the newsroom the most cause for gossip, as they both knew well. So, much as her palm itched to smack his arm, she contented herself with giving him her most annihilating stare. Sometimes Kent seemed to enjoy her discomfiture over the gossip just a leetle too much!
Her gaze softened, though, as she looked up into his face and saw the affection in his eyes. It suddenly occurred to her how little resemblance he bore now to the Clark Kent she used to know. As he gazed warmly down at her, his expression changed subtly, and Lois felt inexplicably breathless as something undefinable flashed briefly in his eyes. His face changed again, though, before she could identify its meaning, and in a flash he was once more just her congenial friend.
Lois would have been surprised to know how much Clark shared her discomfort at the office gossip. For him, the pain came not from people believing what wasn't true, but from his ardent longing for it to be so.
His sensitive hearing of course picked up more than Lois's, and he had to suffer through not only the congratulatory remarks their bolder colleagues dared to make directly to them, but also the more bawdy speculations that were voiced only when he and Lois were believed to be out of hearing.
Several weeks later, Lois was awakened from a sound sleep by the ringing of the telephone. She dashed to pick it up, muttering imprecations under her breath in fear that the noise would waken Clark. A quick peek into the living room revealed that she needn't have worried—he was gone, called away on a Superman emergency no doubt.
She put the receiver to her ear, to be greeted by her sister's voice. "Lois! You *did* move! I could hardly believe it when Mother told me! I've never even heard you talk about this guy and suddenly you've moved in with him! When can I meet him?"
"Lucy, how was Vienna?"
"Fine. The usual. But tell me about Clark. After what Mother said about him I can hardly wait! She says he's the most engaging young man she's ever met, so sweet—"
"—*really* handsome, too. But it wasn't his *looks* that captured her heart, Mom said. It was his enchanting personality and—"
"*Enchanting??* *Really*, Lucy!"
"Mom's word, not mine. His enchanting personality—"
"She said that what impressed her most, though, was the way he treated you. She's never seen a man so much in love—"
"—that she would sell her soul and her entire gun collection to have a man look at her like that—"
"—and that he looks so sad sometimes that it just tears her heart out, but then he looks at *you* and his eyes light up and he starts smiling and—"
"No! No, no, no, NO!! Lucy, didn't Mother tell you that we're not dating? That our living together is just a business arrangement?"
A pause. "She *did* say that, but you're not fooling her, Lois."
"I'm *not* fooling her!"
"No. And you don't have to pretend with me, either. This is Lucy, remember? I want all the details: how'd you meet, how long have you been in love—"
"Lucy, I'm not 'fooling' mother, and I'm not trying to 'fool' you, either. Our living together is just a business arrangement while we're working on a project," said Lois, inwardly lamenting the chance that had led her mother into the restaurant where she and Clark were having lunch that day.
"You're not dating him? You mean you're not … you and he aren't …?"
Silence. Then: "I see. Doesn't that make it awkward when you *do* date? When you go out with someone else, I mean?"
"Uh … that hasn't really come up yet."
Lucy snorted. "Why am I not surprised? Lois, you really should get out more—what about him?"
"How do you handle it when *he* dates?"
"He—" Lois stopped. "That hasn't come up, either," she admitted.
"He's not dating anyone?" Lucy was surprised. "And you two have been living together for more than four months? Oh, I get it— he's gay."
"What?? No! No, he's not gay."
"Of course he is. He wouldn't live with you like that and—"
"No! Lucy, I know for a fact that he's *not*!"
Long silence. "Then Mother was right—he *is* in love with you."
"Of course he is! Lois, what man would give up dating and live with a woman like you two do unless he has hopes of something happening between you? He must *really* be tied up in knots over you, sis!"
"Lucy, he's *not*! How could I move in with him if he's in love with me?? I wouldn't do that to anyone! Clark doesn't care for me like that." She spent the next few minutes failing to convince Lucy of Clark's indifference. Finally, in a desperate attempt to persuade her sister, she said, "Lucy, what mother saw—what she *thought* she saw in Clark's behavior that day— that was just Clark being protective. He can be a little over- solicitous at times, especially since my apartment fire—"
"Oh, that's right, you were in Vienna when it happened. It was right after I moved out." Lois explained about the fire in her apartment, how her bodyguard service (and Superman) had decided that it was arson, and how Clark had subsequently refused to let her out of his sight.
It had caused them to have the single greatest disagreement in all the time they had been living together. In vain had she pointed out that the fire was just an attempt to frighten her— that whoever had set it would have seen that the apartment was empty. Nothing would shake Clark from his self-appointed task of bodyguard. He had hovered over her with an enveloping attention that she had found positively cloying, following her so closely that even their colleagues at the Daily Planet had noticed it, had started referring in snickering tones to "Lois's puppy dog." (That was only *one* of the comments Lois had overheard, and she shuddered to think of what else Clark, with his super-sensitive hearing, might have heard. Yet when she had seen the stubborn set of his jaw and the determined light in his eyes, she had known that no gossip, no matter how sneering, was going to deter him from his guardianship.)
"Oh, no," said Lucy now. "He's *possessive*? Stay away from him, Lois!"
"No! No, not *possessive*, Luce, *protective*!"
No, he wasn't possessive; nevertheless, his behavior had irritated her beyond measure. She had stormed and raved at him, aware of some feeling of surprise at his sudden intractability. Clark was so yielding in his personality so much of the time (not from any weakness of character, she realized belatedly, but from an innate sweetness of disposition that even his unhappy childhood had not completely spoiled), that she had been lulled into believing she could bend him to her inclination at will. This incident had proven how wrong she was.
In vain had she threatened, pleaded, and cajoled. In vain had she favored him with the most scathing comments she could devise—she actually felt a blush of shame now at the memory of some of the things she had said to him. She had known she was wounding him, she could see the hurt in his eyes, yet he had refused to budge from his position. When she had pointed out that whoever had torched her apartment was succeeding in his objective of scaring away Superman since Clark was too preoccupied with bodyguarding her to attend to his other responsibilities, he had replied that he "didn't care."
Finally, in a last-ditch attempt to persuade him, she had said that he couldn't be with her twenty-four hours a day, that he was going to have to leave her alone *some time*, and when that happened, she might, after having acquired the habit of believing that she was safe after long association with him, do something rash and get herself into trouble. And he wouldn't be there to rescue her.
*That* argument had hit home, and although she had hastily amended her statement to say that she *never* did anything 'rash,' that she of course always thought things through before she acted, somehow Clark had seemed much struck. He had backed off after wrenching a promise from her that she would use her bodyguard service when he wasn't around.
Now he no longer followed her—at least, not openly. And if she sometimes felt, when walking down the street, that someone was watching her, she had never actually *seen* him, even when she had turned suddenly to look behind her, or off to one side, or— yes—even up.
That series of events had marked a turning point in Clark's relations with his colleagues. Although he had always been popular with women of a certain age and persuasion, he hadn't been well-liked by others in the newsroom, except—and that only recently—Biff Kelly and Jimmy Olsen, both of whom had been treated warmly by the Other Clark. But public opinion had swung his way after the fire in Lois's former apartment had become common knowledge. Men and women nodded sagely, saying knowingly among themselves, "So that's why Kent's been following Lois around—he's protecting 'his' woman. Who can blame the guy?" (And *that* had set Lois's teeth on edge, too!)
"He watches over me," she explained to Lucy.
"Then he *is* in love with you!"
Lois sighed. Why was her sister being so stubborn? She guessed she couldn't really blame her, though, it's what the Daily Planet staff had come to believe. However, Lois *knew* that Clark had no romantic attachment to her.
Prior to his visit to the other universe, he had come on to her quite strongly on a number of occasions, but he hadn't made any romantic overtures since then. Maybe it was just that he had learned some manners in the other universe … yes, that must be it. He had previously come on to her because of some macho need to date as many women as he could, not because he felt any particular attraction to her. Lois knew this had to be true because in all the weeks they had been living together, he hadn't indicated by a single word or action that he was interested in her in an amorous way. She knew that he liked her as a friend. And that he valued her as a partner, both in the office and as co-conspirator for the advancement of Superman. But was he in love with her? No.
"No, Lucy, he's not in love with me. It's just that … I'm important to him … because of this … business arrangement …"
Lois had fathomed long ago that she was the only person who knew Clark for what he was … and accepted it. He was all alone, except for her. (Where did his parents fit into his life? She was *really* going to have to find out what was going on there!) She was the person helping him to achieve his potential as Superman, the person with whom he shared his hopes and plans for the future, the only person he confided in, could let down his guard with … no wonder he watched over her so carefully!
"What was that? What did you say, Lucy?"
"I have to go … I'm getting another call," said Lucy. "I'll call you and we'll have lunch. And end this 'business arrangement' with Clark as soon as you can … what on earth are you going to do when you want to date someone?"
"I don't want to date anyone, I just want to …" Lois stopped speaking when she realized that she was talking to a dead line. She was just as glad … she didn't know how she would have finished that sentence anyway.
Because she now considered Clark to be a friend, and because Lucy's comments had highlighted a concern that had been growing in the back of her mind, Lois decided that she would determine the source of the "sad" look in Clark's eyes, and, if it were humanly possible, find a way to allay that sadness. She guessed that it had something to do with his parents—why else would that bleak look come over his face if she even mentioned them?
Her attempts to broach the subject with him were not attended by success, however. His face would close down, his eyes shuttered, and he would gently but firmly steer the conversation into other channels.
"More problems, Clark," said Lois one evening when he had returned to their shared apartment. He walked over to the sofa and peered over Lois's shoulder at the portable computer resting in her lap.
"What is it?" he asked, taking a long swallow from the cream soda he had snagged from the refrigerator.
"Corporations—including the Daily Planet—are putting up firewalls to block employee access to Superman web pages, search engines are being rigged to *not* list Superman sites," Lois ticked them off on her fingers, "children's anti-obscenity firewalls like 'Morality Minder,' 'Decency Defender,' and Propriety Preserver' are blocking sites containing any mention of Superman, death threats that only *we* can see are appearing- -"
"Say that again?" said Clark, pausing in taking another swig of cream soda.
"And our web site's down again. No explanation given this time. They just keep saying that they don't know what the problem is."
"Maybe we should get our own server," said Clark, diverted by the problem Lois had last outlined. "But, Lois—what's this about death threats?" He seated himself next to her.
"Our own server? Won't that be expensive?"
"We can get a server for about twelve hundred dollars. We'll need a router, too, and a dedicated phone line, of course—but what death threats are you talking about?"
"Banner ads that say things like 'death to aliens and their supporters,' and 'death to nosy reporters.' The ads are targeting *us* … you and me, because I only see them when I access the Internet through our connection here at home; I don't see the ads when I connect through the Daily Planet—it sounds like you have the web page thing all solved. But what good will it do to have a web site if search engines won't point to us?"
"Yeah, they have the software to identify us and target us with their threats," said Clark, referring to the banner death threats. "Jimmy's working on a new search engine," he continued in answer to her question. "It should be finished by next week. It *will* point to Superman sites." He took another swallow of his cream soda. "We can't do anything about firewalls like 'Child Custodian' and the others you mentioned, but we're working on developing mirror sites that don't mention Superman by name. We'll call him 'caped crusader,' or something like that."
Lois stared at her partner. "Well …" she said. "It sounds like you have all the bases covered."
"Don't sound so surprised," said Clark, smiling down at her. "I *do* have some experience in this area, you know. I thought they might try something like this, and I've been trying to plan for all contingencies."
"Yes, but …" Lois's voice trailed off. She liked to think of herself as the brains of this operation, but Clark was constantly surprising her.
"About the death threats …" Clark continued, "I think you should make an effort to be *really* careful, Lois—"
"What do I need to worry about?" said Lois, snuggling up next to him on the sofa. "I have Superman to protect me!"
Clark obligingly draped an arm around her shoulders, but refused to be distracted. "Lois, I'm serious," he said soberly. "Superman can't protect you all the time. Your research has been exposing some dark corners that maybe would have been better left in the dark, and—"
"Oh, no, is Eeyore back again?" said Lois.
"Ee—what—? No—Lois! I'm not being pessimistic here! You've uncovered a possible link between a Senator who wants to be the next President of the United States, and Tiron Industries. There are some powerful groups that will stop at *nothing* to see that what you're trying to uncover stays buried. I think you should back down."
"I can't be*lieve* you said that!" exclaimed Lois, sitting up and pushing away from him. "You're not a coward!"
Clark flushed slightly. "I just don't want you to get hurt," he said stubbornly. "Tiron is rumored to have a lot of clout in the NIA, and that indicates connections to Greuel. I don't have to tell you what *that* means!" He leaned back, folding his arms across his chest while he looked at her significantly.
Rumored to be a secret chamber of tortures run jointly by the F.B.I., the CIA, and the U.S. Secret Police, Greuel's existence had never even been confirmed. Its name alone was enough to frighten any normal person into waking nightmares, and Clark's words gave Lois pause for a moment. But in the end, she tossed her head and said airily, "Then we're just going to have to dismantle Greuel."
Clark stared at her speechlessly. His mouth opened and closed several times, but not a sound came out. Finally he uttered a short laugh. "Sure!" he said. "And while we're at it we can wipe out poverty and world hunger, too!"
"Clark! It's not the same! Once we find Greuel—and with the best reporter … okay, the *two* best reporters in the city looking for it, we *will* find it—destroying it is completely within Superman's powers. Or have you forgotten that *you* are Superman?"
"No, I haven't forgotten, I—"
"Then what are you afraid of?"
The flush in Clark's face deepened at the taunt in Lois's voice. "Not 'afraid *of*'," he said shortly. "Afraid *for*. I'm afraid for *you*, Lois. Greuel may not be able to do anything to *me*, but you're not exactly invulnerable, you know."
"Oh." Silenced, Lois leaned back against him again, and after a moment's hesitation, Clark unfolded his arms and placed one of them over her shoulder. Lois was uncharacteristically quiet as she thought over what he had just said. She was secretly touched by his concern, although she was sure it was unnecessary. "Well," she said, brightening, "I'll just stay home while you tear the place apart."
Clark couldn't help laughing. Putting his free hand up to stroke her hair gently, he remarked drily, "You have a lot of confidence in me."
"Of course," said Lois, looking into his face and giving an affectionate, girlish giggle that left him with nothing to say. He was buoyed by her faith, even if it worried him that she might become careless due to her reliance on his rescue abilities.
For her part, Lois was wondering, and not for the first time, at the lack of self-confidence that the Man of Steel exhibited. This exchange reminded her that she had been planning to coax him into telling her more about his past. "Clark," she said after a minute, "When are you going to call your parents and tell them about the hip replacement? My father has already started to use the new techniques to perform surgery on people."
Clark stiffened. Removing his arm from Lois's shoulder, he turned away from her. "Not tonight," he mumbled.
"You've been saying that for weeks," she complained. "What's going on?"
"Nothing," he replied, his voice on edge.
"Clark …" said Lois. "What is it with you and your parents? Do you talk to them at all?"
There was a moment's silence, then under Lois's compelling gaze, Clark unwillingly admitted, "No."
"Why?" she asked softly. "Why won't you at least tell them about the hip surgery? Talk to me, Clark. Please."
Clark looked away, and for a minute Lois thought that he wasn't going to answer her. "They wouldn't be interested," he mumbled at last.
"Not interested!" Lois exclaimed. "Clark, really!"
"They don't want any help!" The words were torn from him. "Not from me! The last time I saw my m-mother—. She doesn't even want to see me!" He rose to his feet, shaking off the hand that Lois extended to detain him. Striding across the room, he turned and faced the window. Lois followed, standing behind him and placing a hand on his shoulder. Gripping him reassuringly, she moved around in front of him and looked up into his face.
"How do you know …?" Lois asked softly. "That she doesn't want to see you?"
At first Clark refused to look at her, but after taking several deep breaths, he met her eyes and began to speak in a tight, controlled voice. "I hadn't seen them for years—not since the accidents. Then … right after I returned from the other universe, Mom invited me for dinner. But when I got to the farm, it wasn't me she was expecting … she didn't want me …" his voice faltered. "She wanted *him*—the Other Clark. Mom wanted *him*."
He sucked in his breath sharply, clenching his hands into fists.
Why had he told her that? He wasn't going to tell her that, he wasn't going to tell anyone, not ever …
"Oh, Clark!" Lois sounded shaken. She squeezed his arms gently, gazing compassionately up at him. "I'm sorry …"
Clark swallowed. "It's okay," he said, trying to make light of it. "It doesn't matter; I hadn't seen them for years anyway."
"What happened with them?" asked Lois softly, taking his hands and rubbing her thumbs gently over them.
Clark didn't speak immediately, hunching his shoulders and rubbing his fingers distractedly through his hair. "I thought they would come for me," he said finally.
"Come for you …? You mean … when you were a child? After the Johnsons took you away from them?"
"Yeah. Mom—Mrs. Kent—said that they would get me back, and I believed her." Clark paused as he remembered that day long ago when Martha had kneeled beside him, her arms around him while she whispered that they would come for him, just wait, they'd get him back, she promised … "I clung to that hope for years," he said. "I used to fantasize about how it would happen. It's all I thought about."
"You anchored yourself to their memory," said Lois musingly, thinking about what Dr. Friskin had told her about abuse victims holding onto valued memories to help them survive their ordeals. "But they never came for you. They failed you. And in the end …"
"… in the end …" Clark echoed.
"… you rescued yourself."
"Yes." Clark looked at her. "That's exactly how I felt. I waited and waited to be with them again, and by the time it finally happened, it didn't mean as much to me. I *didn't need them* any more." He grimaced as he remembered the attitude of the rebellious adolescent he had once been. "Unfortunately," he continued, "I didn't lose any opportunity of letting them know that." He struggled for a way to phrase his next sentence.
"And for the rest of it …" he sighed. "I guess you could explain a lot of it just by saying that I was a teenager. I thought Mom and Dad were too old to know *anything*, so I didn't want to listen to them. I was starting to develop super powers, too, and I was trying to cope with *that*. I didn't know what was going on—some of my foster parents had called me a child of the devil—"
Lois smothered an exclamation.
"Yeah," said Clark, looking at her. "I didn't know *what* to think. So I kept quiet and tried to deal with it myself—"
"You didn't tell them about your super powers?" said Lois. "Mr. and Mrs. Kent?"
"No," said Clark, "and looking back on it, that led to a lot of misunderstandings, adding to the tension between us. Things were always happening—accidents, like the time I set the barn on fire. And I was always breaking things; I didn't mean to, but I'd get mad and—I was really having trouble controlling my powers, so when I lost my temper … things happened."
"And they didn't know about the trouble you were having controlling yourself, so they thought you were deliberately destroying things …"
"Yeah." Clark drew a shaky breath.
"And they never knew about your super powers at all?"
"Not until after Dad's accident …"
When Clark didn't resume speaking, but stared off into space, Lois squeezed his hand again. "What happened, Clark?"
"What? Oh, yeah. The accident. I don't know."
"You don't *know*? How can that be? Did you lose your temper— have a memory blackout afterward?"
"No. Yes, I *did* lose my temper." Clark swallowed. It was still difficult for him to talk about it even after all these years.
Wondering if Clark had pushed his father off the roof, Lois tried not to shrink away from him. "What happened?" she said aloud.
"I … I had been out all night … flying—but Mom and Dad didn't know that. I had just discovered that I could do it, and I would go out at night and fly around the country, going crazy 'cause I was so happy at the new world that had been opened up to me. Mom and Dad didn't know why I was out so much at night. They thought I was getting into some kind of trouble, or that it had something to do with girls, but … I didn't care much about girls. Not then."
He sighed. "So … when I got back in that morning, Mom was mad, and she sent me out to the barn to talk to Dad, who was working on the roof. I climbed up the ladder and we talked, or rather, *he* talked, and he was mad, too, and I lost my temper and told him that he and Mom didn't understand me, that they had never loved me, that they just wanted a slave to work on the farm for them, and then I … took off."
"Yes. Flew away." Clark strode away a few paces. "I've never spoken to him since."
"Waitwaitnowwaitaminute," said Lois. "I don't understand. He was on the barn roof, and you flew away, and that's it? How did he fall?"
"I don't know," Clark was pacing back and forth, his agitation showing in his actions as well as his voice. "I didn't see what happened. I've thought about it. Maybe Dad was startled when he saw me fly away, and he lost his balance … or maybe he thought I was falling and he tried to catch me. I don't know. I took off and never looked back and I didn't even know he had fallen."
Lois let out her breath noisily.
"When I got back later that afternoon, the farm was deserted. I didn't know where Mom and Dad had gone … and I didn't care, it just meant that I could do whatever I wanted, that they wouldn't be around to bother me. I took food from the refrigerator, and when I had eaten what I wanted, I took off again, went around the world, flew over China—it was dark over there."
Clark had stopped pacing and was staring off into the distance, re-living the memories. "I didn't see Mom again until the next day. I came home from my travels and walked into the house." He paused, breathing rapidly. "I'll never forget the look on Mom's face. She turned pale when she saw me. She hadn't expected me to come back. I didn't know it, but the sheriff had issued a warrant for my arrest."
"Oh, Clark, no!"
"Yes. They thought I'd pushed my father off the roof, you see. They were going to charge me with assault … maybe attempted murder."
Lois moaned. "But I don't understand, Clark … if you didn't push him … why didn't your father tell them what had happened? Why didn't he tell them that you didn't do it?"
"My dad hit his head when he fell. My mom found him lying there unconscious, and she called the Rescue Squad to take him to the hospital. He … doesn't … remember. Anything. The last thing he remembers about that day, is eating breakfast with Mom."
"Anyway … my mom told me all this, told me to get out before she called the sheriff." Clark swallowed. "I was really scared, Lois—my dad was hurt, and they thought I'd done it! And I didn't want to go to jail. If I'd wanted to escape, they wouldn't have been able to keep me, of course … but I didn't want to tell anyone—about me. I didn't want people to know. I didn't want everyone to call me 'child of the devil'—"
"Oh, Clark …"
"So I told her. I told my mom that I hadn't pushed my father off the roof and she didn't believe me. I had to tell her everything then. I told her about the powers: the heat vision and the invulnerability and the flying and … and I gave her a demonstration."
"And she …?" Lois held her breath.
"She *looked* at me."
Looked at you—how?? Like you were a 'child of the devil'??? "*Tell* me, Clark!"
"She looked at me with such *sympathy* and understanding … and she said 'you poor child, all this time you've been going through this all alone,' … and she reached for me and tried to hug me, and …" Clark turned to Lois, his voice full of anguish, "and I didn't want her to *pity* me, like I was some kind of *freak* or something, so I pushed her away, and I *didn't mean to do it*, Lois!"
Lois put her arms around him. Clark shook her off and strode to the other side of the room, where he halted, staring sightlessly at the wall. "She fell," he said in a flat monotone. "She was lying there on the kitchen floor, the breath knocked out of her, and I knew I had hurt her. And I couldn't stand it. Not again. Once more, I'd hurt someone. So I turned and left her there. I flew away and never came back. Not for years." He turned to Lois, his face tortured. "It was too much—the last straw. The years of hiding my secret, trying to control my powers, getting blamed for things I hadn't done on purpose … things I hadn't done *at *all** — and now this. Accused of assault. A warrant issued for my arrest. And then, when I told Mom, when I finally confided in someone, instead of rejecting me, she … was kind. So I left. I know that doesn't make any sense, but—"
"Yes, it does," Lois interrupted. "I understand; you could take the abuse, but not the kindness. That's what finally broke you."
"Yes. That's it exactly." Clark looked at her in surprise.
"And then …?" Lois prompted.
Clark sighed. "I traveled for awhile. I found out eventually that it was safe to come home, that the police weren't going to arrest me, but I didn't go home even then … I just couldn't face them. I transferred to a college in another state. I had help … a woman who had been a grad student when I was attending Kansas U. She had always seemed to like me … well, she had come on to me, although I wasn't really interested at the time … and … she didn't want me to actually live with her, but she helped me find a place to stay, and got me a job so I could pay the bills until I finished college."
"And you never saw your parents again?"
"I tried … once … I traveled for a few years after college, taking the occasional job with newspapers, and I started to wonder what had happened to them. I had grown up a little by then, and with the perspective of maturity, I was able to see things their way for the first time. I realized how all the 'accidents' my clumsiness had caused must have looked to them, and I took a hard look at my own behavior. I wasn't too happy with what I saw." He gave Lois a wry smile. "I had just been laid off from the Kansas City Press, and it seemed like a good time to go back and mend my fences with my—"
"The Kansas City Press? You were laid off? Why?"
"My editor told me it was because they had to cut back on expenses, but I always thought it was because of an article I had written hinting that Tiron Industries had pressured their employees into voting for Congressmen Welch—what is it? Why are you looking at me like that?"
"Nothing. So you went to see your parents?"
"Yes; I went back to the farm. Everything was as still as death and the place was really in a state of disrepair. I was shocked. I went into the house, surprising my mother in the kitchen. I really scared her, Lois—she turned white and kinda staggered back, putting out one hand like she was afraid I would knock her down again …" Clark winced. "And I knew then that she thought I had knocked her down on purpose the last time I saw her."
"Did you tell her??? Did you explain?"
"Well … I tried. And I tried to tell her that I wanted to help with the farm, too. Things didn't exactly go very well …" Clark grimaced. "I had hardly begun talking when she started telling me to stay away from her. That hurt. I guess I thought she should just *know* that I would never do anything deliberately to hurt her or Dad. So I lost my temper and started yelling that if she'd just *listen* to me—! I walked toward her and I guess she got *really* scared then, because she reached into a drawer and pulled out a little lead box."
"Yeah." Clark looked at her. "How'd you know about kryptonite …?"
"The Other Clark told me," Lois said briefly, not mentioning that Clark had told her about it because he was afraid for her safety—afraid that she might need it for protection from the Clark standing beside her now.
"Mom had known about kryptonite for years, had known that it made me feel sick. She and Dad had buried it once … as much as they had found … buried it inside a lead box, but I guess she must have dug it up again. Anyway, I started getting sick and I shouted at Mom to put it away, but she said to go away, to just leave them in peace. I managed to make it outside, and that's when I found out that kryptonite takes my powers away, because when I tried to take off, I realized that I couldn't fly.
'So I ran. And ran. And finally, when I was able, I flew. I never went back. Mom packed up my things, including the blanket and globe—"
"I'll tell you about it some time. She packed everything and sent it all to the Daily Planet after I started working there. That's the last time I saw her. Until that day when she invited me—him!—to dinner."
Lois was silent while she mulled over what Clark had told her. "And you've never tried to get in touch with them again … to get reconciled with them?" she asked finally.
"No, Lois!" Clark's face twisted. "How can I?? She isn't going to believe anything I say! She thinks I knocked her down on purpose! And Dad, too. My own parents! I would never do that. How could they think that of me?"
"Well, they'll go on thinking that unless you tell them otherwise," said Lois reasonably. She put her arms around Clark and hugged him tightly. "Come on," she said. "We'll get you back together with them, Clark. We'll find a way—"
"Yes, we will, Clark. We have to try. The Martha Kent of the other world is a kind woman, loving and forgiving—you said so yourself. I'll bet your mother is the same way." She ran her hands comfortingly over his back and shoulders.
"Lois, do you have any idea what it feels like to have your own mother attack you with the only thing on earth that can kill you?"
"No," said Lois, "I don't. But I'll bet she doesn't know that it can kill you. How did *you* find that out?"
Clark looked at her, an arrested expression on his face. "In the other universe … Lois and Jonathan and Martha told me … Before that, I knew it could make me sick … but I didn't know it could wound me fatally."
"But … Lois …"
"Clark, I just remembered something else. About the article on Tiron Industries that you wrote for the Kansas City Press. I *read* that article!"
"It focused my attention on Tiron for the first time. Until then, I had thought it was a garden-variety, shady business organization, but since your article, I felt like my eyes were opened—that the organization was probably crooked on a much greater scale than I had ever suspected. I think it started a lot of people thinking."
"Yeah. That's probably why I got fired."
"Didn't the offices of the Kansas City Press burn down around that time?"
"Yeah. About a week after I wrote the article. I read about it sitting in a hotel room in Maine, feeling sorry for myself. That's when I decided to visit Mom and Dad."
"Clark …" Lois continued carefully. "Is it possible … do you think that maybe … your mother could have read about that fire?"
"She couldn't have missed it, Lois! It made the national news!"
"Were you ever questioned about the fire?"
"No. I was in Maine, anyway, I told you. Why?"
"Clark, do you think it's possible …"
"Knowing your history …?"
"My … *history*?"
"Yes. You know."
"Know what? What are you saying, Lois?"
"Don't take this the wrong way, but do you think … do you think …?"
"Do you think your mother may have thought you had something to do with the fire?"
"The fi—! Lois! You don't think—?"
"Well, *do* you?"
"No!" exclaimed Clark, clapping a hand to his forehead. "No! I mean—she couldn't! Could she? People died in that fire! Including my editor!"
"The one who fired you." It wasn't a question.
"Yes! Oh. No, she couldn't think that I—" Clark moaned.
Lois touched his arm comfortingly. "If she *did* think that, we'll make sure she learns the truth," she said reassuringly.
It took several days of steady pressure from Lois before she was able to convince Clark to attempt a reconciliation with his parents. He yielded to her persuasion only after she promised to go with him and help him present his case.
"Ready?" she said, on the night they had chosen to try the reconciliation. She put her arms around his neck and jumped into his arms, smiling encouragingly up into his face.
Clark took a deep breath. "Okay."
He set her down a short distance from the farmhouse. "Come on," said Lois, grasping his hand and tugging gently.
Clark shook his head. "You'd better go in alone, Lois," he said, getting cold feet at the last minute.
Lois studied his face. "Okay," she said finally. She stood on tiptoe and kissed him gently on the cheek. "I'll see you soon."
Lois walked up to the farmhouse and rapped her knuckles sharply on the door. She heard the sound of someone moving around inside, then a woman she assumed to be Martha Kent opened the door. "Mrs. Kent?" said Lois. "Hi, I'm Lois Lane from the Daily Planet, I called you about your son. May I come in?"
Martha hesitated. "Yes," she said finally. She craned her neck to see around Lois. "Is he—?"
"He flew me here, but he's going to wait outside …" because he's afraid his mother will attack him with kryptonite, "and give us a chance to talk first." Okay, so he's not afraid of the kryptonite—he's afraid of the rejection.
"Come in," said Martha. She stepped aside to let Lois enter. "I'm afraid this is a waste of your time, Ms Lane; I don't have anything to say to Clark."
"I wish you'd hear me out first, Mrs. Kent." Lois followed Martha into the living room where she met the wheelchair- confined Jonathan. Seating herself, Lois began to tell the Kents about the Clark she knew. She told them what Clark had said about Jonathan's accident, and Martha's. She told them about the incident in the supply room, when Clark had broken Jimmy's arm. And last she told how Clark had changed over the years from the boy they had known, and particularly how he had changed during the last few months.
"He's doing so well now, Martha. Jonathan. Think of the good he's done for the world— the good he's still doing! Clark *deserves* another chance."
The room was silent. "I don't know, Lois," said Martha finally. "All this talk about 'accidents'—! You don't know him … you didn't see his face when he pushed me away …"
And you didn't see *his* face when he told me about that incident, thought Lois. Aloud, she said, "I think he just couldn't handle it, Martha. The kindness, after the years of abuse …" her voice trailed off.
"I sprained my wrist," said Martha. "From what you've just said, I'm lucky I didn't break my arm. Or worse …" she glanced at Jonathan.
"I-I'm sorry; I didn't know that," faltered Lois. "About your wrist. I don't think he did, either."
"Of course not," said Martha tartly. "He never bothered to come back."
"He's back now," Lois pointed out, holding her breath. Please, *please*, she thought.
Martha shook her head. "He's dangerous," she said flatly. "I don't know what game he's playing, but I don't want any part of it."
Lois watched with a sinking feeling the unrelenting expression settling on Martha's face.
Oh, no. Poor Clark.
Clark was standing in the middle of the field, too worried about what was going on in the farmhouse even to pace. On edge, he wished he had never let Lois talk him into coming. He was deliberately not eavesdropping on the conversation. What if Lois failed in her mission? It was just too painful to contemplate.
Would she fail, though? He thought back to the Martha Kent of the other universe. *She* had been kind and forgiving, understanding. He remembered the morning when she had told the Other Lois Lane that he should go into the office and substitute for his counterpart. She had trusted him! In spite of the terrible impression he had made on everyone in that universe, Martha had somehow had faith that he would pull himself out of his dark mood and be able to function in the office. The confused welter of feelings he had experienced as a result of that vote of confidence had warmed him for days.
Surely his own mother would be as understanding as the Other Martha! He hoped so, anyway. Without turning on his super hearing, Clark began to imagine the conversation going on in the farmhouse right now. Lois would explain the whole thing—she was good at that—and then his mother and father would look at each other and say, "Of course. We know Clark would *never* do anything deliberately to hurt us." And then Lois would come out and get him and he would go in to them and—
What should he do? Should he hug them? The other Martha Kent had hugged him, and *he* had hugged Jonathan, who hadn't seemed to mind, and—oh, yes, Jonathan had hugged him once, too, when he left. A smile touched his eyes at the memory. He hadn't known how to take it at the time, but on the whole, he had decided later that he liked it.
So this was the question: should he hug them? Martha—Mom! … probably. Dad … maybe. First he would—
Clark spun around, his eyes glowing in anticipation. One look at Lois's expression and his face fell. "They don't want to see me, do they?" he said quickly, trying not to heed the painful tightening in his chest. "Okay, we'll go home now …" he picked up Lois and rose swiftly into the air.
"Wait!! Clark!!!! Put me down! Go back! They'll see you; they said they want to see you!"
Clark landed with a thud, stumbling and almost dropping Lois. He mumbled an apology, then said eagerly, "They'll see me? I didn't think … I mean, you looked so serious—"
"I was trying to think of a way to prepare you for how ill your father looks," Lois explained.
Clark looked at her, the light dying from his eyes. "Not good, huh?" Lois shook her head. "Then he really needs me …" Clark gritted his teeth, and holding Lois firmly in his arms, he flew rapidly toward the house, slowing when he saw that Martha had come outside to wait for them. The older woman watched silently while Clark landed and carefully set Lois on her feet.
"Don't be surprised if she's a little suspicious," Lois murmured, trying to warn him.
Clark looked at his mother's feet, unable to meet her gaze. "Well, Clark," said Martha. Scarcely daring to breathe, Clark raised his eyes shyly to her face. He took one hesitating step toward her, then another. "Clark …" said Martha again, tentatively. Then again, after looking into his eyes, her voice breaking as she held out her arms to him. Clark stumbled forward to be wrapped in the warm, tearful embrace of his mother.
The Kents and Lois sat down to a serious conversation after a joyful and most satisfying reunion. Clark had shaken Jonathan's hand, then had bravely risked rejection and given him a brief hug, a gesture which seemed to touch the older man deeply.
Clark was shocked at Jonathan's appearance, especially in contrast to the hale and hearty Jonathan Kent of the alternate universe. Jonathan's condition made Clark more determined than ever to help his parents. "What do you think about coming to Metropolis?" he asked them. Receiving a blank look from the Kents, Clark glanced over at Lois. "You didn't tell them …?"
Lois shook her head. "I thought I'd let you do that," she said calmly.
Clark gave her a "Help me out on this one, I can't handle it myself" look, which Lois coolly disregarded. She wanted Clark to tell his parents about the hip replacement himself.
Seeing that he wasn't going to receive any assistance from her, Clark took a deep breath and plunged into the options for hip replacement surgery for Jonathan.
After much discussion, it was agreed that Jonathan and Martha would fly via commercial airline to Metropolis, where Jonathan would meet with Dr. Lane to discuss his case.
Several weeks later, Lois and Martha found themselves sitting anxiously in the visitors' waiting room while Dr. Lane performed surgery on Jonathan. Clark had left a few minutes previously to attend to a Superman call, after being assured by Lois that it would be hours before they would hear from the surgeons.
"His outbursts of temper are rare now," said Lois as the two women discussed the person they had in common, "and even when he does get mad, he doesn't lose control of himself and damage things. He told me that using his super powers every day seems to have given him much better control over them. And he's doing really well in other areas, too."
"Yes, you've done so much for him," said Martha. "I don't know how you talked him into being Superman, but—"
"He *wanted* to be Superman," Lois said honestly. "He just needed a little encouragement. Once he got started, he kept on going, and I think it would be impossible to stop him now. He drives himself day and night … I don't know how he can keep up the pace. It's really paid off, though, people can actually walk down the street at night without worrying about being mugged."
Martha stared at her in surprise. "He *wanted* to be Superman?"
"Yes, I think he's always wanted to do something to help people; he just didn't know how." Lois told Martha what she had learned of Clark's childhood behavior when he had been the champion of the school yard.
"I should have known …" said Martha, her eyes moistening. "As a boy, he was always rescuing salamanders and snakes and baby birds that had fallen from their nests, fawns that were lying hidden in the fields at haying time … he even tried to rescue mice from the barnyard cats. He always wanted to set them free somewhere."
Lois smiled. "Yes, that sounds like Clark." She had been annoyed with him on several occasions when he had taken the time to help find and retrieve lost animals—work which she felt was *not* a good use of Superman's time, as she hadn't hesitated to inform him!
Martha shook her head. "We should never have doubted him," she said sadly. "Things could have been so different if we had just known. I wonder what became of the girl you say he tried to help … Lana Lang."
"We tracked her down and found out she's living in Portland. She's doing okay; she's married and working as a public relations consultant. Her parents are fine, too. They finally managed to shake off Mrs. Lang's obsessed, would-be lover. Although from what I heard, they had a terrible time of it. For years, their stalker used his money and influence to have them socially ostracized, get them fired from jobs, and, as you know, have their little girl tormented.
'I think it was Lana Lang's fate as a child that created the last straw for Clark. He kept trying to defend her when she was picked on in school, but with even the teachers determined to make her a social outcast, he just didn't have a chance. He kept fighting for her, even stood up to the teachers when they tried to humiliate Lana in class. But it was no use. He appealed to his adoptive parents, the Johnsons, but they sided with Lana's teachers and everyone else in the community. When Clark realized that society, the whole world as he knew it, was determined to perpetuate an injustice, he just gave up. My-a therapist I consulted calls it 'learned helplessness,' a feeling of irresponsibility that results from frustration because of repeated failed attempts to make society responsive to your complaints. Clark was too young to understand that that's how society works … that the adults were complying with the stalker's demands because they wanted to hang onto his coattails."
Martha shook her head. "The things people will do for money …" she said sadly. "*We* found out just how much money will buy when we tried to fight the Johnsons without having it ourselves."
She began to tell Lois about the Johnsons. "They were very image-conscious," she said. "Always immaculately groomed. They always had the latest-model car, the most fashionable clothing. They did a lot of ostentatious entertaining in their elegant house … everything about them was always so picture-perfect. That's why they wanted Clark, I think. He was quite a handsome child, and the Johnsons believed that he would round out their image as the model family. They wanted to have Clark in the same way they wanted the most exotic flowers in the hothouse, or the most striking pets in the kennels. We didn't know this at the time, of course; we just knew that Clark was ours, and we weren't going to let anyone else have him. So we fought.
'It almost bankrupted us," she went on. "The Johnsons used every legal trick in the book. And they didn't stop at legal tricks. We began to have a run of bad luck … cows getting infected with rare diseases, crops getting fungus and rot problems. The Johnsons are well-connected … they know people in Washington, and they have ties to all the big agricultural conglomerates. Jonathan and I believed that they were using their connections with research labs to wage some kind of biological warfare against us. We would have lost our farm if my parents hadn't come to our rescue … which they were not very gracious about, either, by the way."
"I'm sorry," said Lois.
"We didn't *know* about the Johnsons, how cold and cruel they were. If we had known what they were doing to Clark, that they were *beating* him, we would have said to heck with the court system; we'd have just *taken* him and gone into hiding somewhere."
She was silent for a minute.
"When we finally got Clark back," Martha went on, "We just didn't know how to handle him. We've never had any children of our own and we weren't prepared to deal with an adolescent boy who didn't feel any particular ties to us, and had been mistreated as well." She paused. "Not that we knew he had been mistreated," she said. "Not *then*. We found out later. Much later, when it was too late."
"I think he felt more ties to you than you realize," said Lois softly. She told Martha what Clark had said to her about fantasizing that the Kents would rescue him from the Johnsons, a story that brought tears to Martha's eyes.
"If we'd known that, nothing would have stopped us from stealing him away …" she sighed. "Anyway, after we got him back, he made it clear that he didn't he need us any more. And accidents kept happening. Fires starting mysteriously, tools breaking … and of course we didn't know about the super powers he was developing. And then, worst of all, what he did to—Jonathan's accident …" She paused to collect her thoughts and then went on. "Around that same time our neighbors the Jensens were murdered and—"
"Yes. Brutally murdered. Butchered in their beds while they slept, by their adopted, teenaged son. So when Clark … we thought …"
"I … see …" said Lois.
"We thought he was like *him*," said Martha tearfully. "And now that I know what happened … what he's gone through, I want so badly to make it up to him, but I just don't know how."
"I think you're *already* making it up to him," said Lois softly, "just by being here for him *now*."
"I hope so," said Martha. "He's doing so much good for the world. Jonathan and I didn't believe it at first. We thought that he must be secretly working for Tiron or the government … that he wouldn't be doing all that Superman work without pay." She looked thoughtfully into the distance. "But he really is," she said thankfully. "He's giving more of himself than I would want to ask of any man. And it's all the more amazing now that I know just how badly he was treated before he was returned to us. He never would talk about his experiences with the Johnsons, and we always believed the bad reports we had received about him. Now that I know-" Martha choked, wiped her eyes, and went on. "Now that I know that he was treated as badly as the world could treat anyone, I can't help feeling how very lucky the world is that instead of lashing out and taking what he could from it, he's decided to use his super powers for good." She turned to Lois and smiled radiantly. "And we owe it all to you," she smiled.
Lois drew back slightly. "No … no, I'd like to take credit for Clark being Superman, Martha, but I couldn't have done anything if he hadn't wanted to help, if he hadn't *wanted* to be Superman." Martha's words had pricked at her conscience as it struck home for the first time how little credit she had given Clark initially in taking on the role of Superman.
When Lois had first dreamed of Clark's assuming the super hero persona, she had been absorbed in her vision of a better world. She hadn't, she realized now with shame, even considered what Clark's feelings might be in the matter. In all these weeks of living with him, even after seeing first-hand the impact being Superman had on his life—the late hours, the never-ending demands on his time, the emotional toll exacted—she had never paused to marvel at exactly how much she was asking of Clark Kent. The guy had given up his free time, his personal life, to become Superman. How could she have asked that of him so with so little regard for what *he* wanted?
Especially considering all that he had gone through as a child! She had been aware of his bad experiences—she had gone to the trouble of going to Kansas to check them out, in fact, but had found them to be a concern only to the extent that he wouldn't be able to overcome them and become Superman.
Recognition of her thoughtlessness those many months ago caused a blush to rise to her cheek, and she bowed her head, ducking Martha's gaze.
How could she have been so unconcerned with Clark's needs? Was she so caught up in her own dreams that she was indifferent to other people?
That reminded her of what Lucy had said to her last week when she finally got to meet Clark. Lucy had been thrilled. "Lois, he's everything Mother said he was—and more. A *great*-looking guy … and yet, what you notice most about him is how much he cares about people."
"How do *you* know that Clark 'cares' about people?'"
"Oh, Lois, you can see it in his eyes! And in the way he interacts with you, me, and everyone else I've seen him with. He's so attentive … always on the lookout for what he can do to help, always trying to make people feel good about themselves. Remember when Mother asked us if we wanted some of that dessert she'd baked, and you were going to refuse—don't tell me you weren't; I saw the look on your face, and Clark did too—and he motioned to you that you should go ahead and eat some, and he—"
"Okay, I get the point, Luce—"
"—ate it too, even though he *couldn't* have been hungry, not after the meal he'd just had at the Bull and Boar, and if he can eat mother's cooking and be *polite* about it, you know he's special, Lois—"
"Okay, *okay*! I *said* I get the point, Lucy! So he's attentive and doesn't like to hurt people's feelings! That doesn't mean he deserves a medal!"
"Well, I thought it was really nice of him to eat her cooking, that's all. And pretend that he *liked* it!"
"Um," Lois's voice was non-committal. The guy can eat bombs, Lucy; I think he can handle Mother's cooking.
"It's obvious he's a really sweet guy. I can see that."
"Really. What else can you 'see?'"
"That he's perfect for you. His personality complements yours beautifully: your energy and drive versus *his* caring and compassion—"
"Oh, so *I'm* *not* caring and compassionate??"
"Those are hardly your defining characteristics, Lois. No, don't get mad! We've talked about this before; remember when you came to me almost in tears because you had overheard some of your colleagues calling you heartless? … Well, do you?"
"Yes, I remember."
"Do you remember what I told you then?"
Lois sighed. "You said that I'm not heartless, but that I'm so focused on my goals that I sometimes forget to consider the feelings of the people around me."
"Exactly. You don't lack compassion, Lois, just as, I would guess, Clark doesn't lack drive. Each of you possesses both characteristics in good measure, it's just that one or the other characteristic predominates in your individual personalities. Like Yin and Yang. In every Yin there's a little bit of Yang, and in every—"
"—in every Yang there's a little bit of Yin," Lois finished with her. "Okay, I get it, Luce. But here's where you're wrong: I would *never* have called Clark caring and compassionate. A few months ago I would have called him the most selfish and self-absorbed man alive: sullen, petty, hedonistic …"
"'A few months ago?' He's changed, then?"
A pause. "Yes, Lucy, he's changed."
"What would you call him *now*, Lois?"
A longer pause. "Teasing, good-natured—*most* of the time, sweet …" Then, quietly, "… caring, compassionate …"
They were both silent for a few minutes, then Lois said slowly, "I guess … Clark was hurt by something bad that happened in his life once, and that made him react … in an embittered way. He locked away all his kinder impulses and started living only for his own pleasure. But he's different now.
"And you must have been able to see the good in him. Otherwise, why did you trust him enough to move in with him? Or did you just feel sorry for him? You see, Lois, *I* know that you're compassionate, even though sometimes you're so focused on your goals you won't allow your softer side to surface!"
"Uh … I guess you might say that I saw … Clark's potential." I saw the person he might have been … in the guise of the Clark who visited from another universe. "But … Lucy … don't get any ideas about Clark and me. We're friends, yes, but our living together is just what I've already told you—a business arrangement."
Thinking back on that conversation now, Lois realized that the demands she had put on Clark were illustrative of what Lucy had said about her; she had persuaded—no, *coerced* Clark into being Superman without any regard for how felt. Fortunately, Clark had happened to be of similar mind in this regard and had willingly acquiesced in her plans for him.
She felt a twinge of guilt when she remembered how she had undervalued and under-appreciated Clark's contributions in the beginning. At least, she thought with a sense of relief, after she had begun to see Clark as a friend, she had had the solicitude to help him become reconciled with his parents. Who also regretted their lack of understanding and appreciation of Clark in the past.
I'll make it up to you, Clark, she promised silently. Me and your parents.
Her thoughts were interrupted by an exclamation from one of the other visitors in the waiting room, whose attention had been caught by an LNN news report on the television. Broadcasting live from 57th street, the cameras showed a fire raging through the Grand Restaurant. "Look!" said Lois, clutching Martha's arm.
Superman had just made an appearance on the scene. Landing directly behind the news correspondent, so that his actions were caught on camera, he began using his cooling breath to put out the fire. The newscaster, who had been describing the scene rather dramatically, came to an awkward pause as Superman extinguished the last of the flames. He was forbidden to mention Superman on the air, and so was at a loss to explain what had just happened. "… er … it looks like the … er … fire … is out now … uh … and so … back to you, Dave?" he looked at the camera in appeal.
The two women collapsed against each other, laughing a trifle hysterically. "Clark does that on purpose," whispered Lois, wiping tears from her eyes. "He flies into the camera's range whenever they're broadcasting live. Viewers have been asking why he's never mentioned by any of the news media when he's so obviously *there*."
"Good strategy," Martha approved.
"Yes," Lois continued. "It was Clark's idea. I think he rather enjoys doing it, like a little kid sneaking onto a movie shoot and waving at his friends."
"And … you know what's really funny," Lois's shoulders were shaking and her words came out between gasps, " … about Clark flying in and doing all that rescue work on camera … is that some people persist in calling him an angel. They think … that the network personnel … can't see him … because they're not pure of heart!"
At that, Martha laughed so loudly that she received surprised stares from several other visitors in the waiting room. "Shhh," she said, looking up to spy Clark walking toward them. "Here he comes …"
When Clark joined them, he found himself immediately in Martha's tearful embrace. He put one arm around her, his other arm having been commandeered by Lois, who was clinging to it tightly. At first, a little bewildered by these attentions from the two women in his life, he looked rather like a dog that doesn't understand in the least why it's being praised, but his face soon showed that he didn't mind, not at all …
Lois, Martha, and Clark stayed to see Jonathan Kent wheeled into his room from the recovery room. In a low-voiced colloquy with the anxious family, Dr. Lane said that the operation had gone well, and he had high expectations for Jonathan's eventual recovery. Martha elected to spend the night on a cot in Jonathan's room, but when Clark tried to say that he would stay, too, Martha flatly refused to hear of it, nudging Lois and whispering in a voice that Clark could not have failed to hear, that Clark looked like he was dead on his feet, and she'd better take him home and see that he got some rest so Superman would be ready when he was needed again.
Between them they managed to persuade the reluctant Clark to go home. Clark clasped his father's hand briefly, promising to come and visit tomorrow, and then found himself enfolded in his mother's arms again. "We love you, honey," Martha whispered. Clark wanted to reply in kind, but found that he couldn't speak past the lump in his throat. Martha seemed to understand, though, patting his arm and saying that she'd see him tomorrow.
Lois and Clark were walking arm in arm from the hospital when Lois heard a voice that made her wince. "It's Mother," she said, tightening her grip on Clark's arm. Darn! She didn't want Clark to hear the embarrassing comments Ellen was certain to voice. It was bad enough that she had to put up with all the newsroom gossip about her supposed relationship with Clark, but it set her teeth on edge to fend off the misconception her family had about her relationship with her partner.
Forcing a smile, she turned to face her mother, who was accompanied by (horrors!) her father, Lucy, and a dark-haired young woman Lois was unacquainted with.
When introductions were performed, Lois learned that the young woman's name was Veronica Kipling, who had been commissioned by Luthor Industries to pull together an enterprise for displaying art and antiquities, something they called a "museum."
Lucy drew Lois aside while Ellen Lane and Veronica engaged in a discussion of what age an item had to be before it could be considered an antique, and Dr. Lane began giving Clark a detailed description of Jonathan's surgery. "Is your relationship with Clark still 'strictly business?'" whispered Lucy.
"We're not romantically involved, if that's what you mean," said Lois coolly, wondering why that question was starting to bother her so much. "Why?"
"It's a pity, since he's so perfect for you, but if you're not interested … well, I know someone else … Guess who's in Metropolis on temporary assignment? I'll give you a hint … you once said that if he was looking for someone to bear his children, you'd be in line to do it for him."
"I never said *that*, Lucy!" said Lois, her face flushing. "I phrased it a little differently, I think. And how do you *know* he's back in town?"
"Ellen in your Personnel office told me. It's just a temporary transfer while he covers the drop in Metropolis's crime rate, but if he likes it here he may change his mind and request a permanent transfer. And I think we both know someone who just might be able to get him to change his mind …" Lucy smiled knowingly at her sister.
"'Cover the drop in Metropolis's crime rate?" frowned Lois. "*I* could do that … if Perry would let me mention Superman."
"Ellen thinks there's a good chance he'll be partnered with you," said Lucy, winking. "If I were you, I'd end your 'business' relationship with Clark *right away*, so you can get back into circulation again … if you know what I mean … Oops, there's Johnny. Gotta run." Waving to her parents and the others, she walked rapidly to the waiting car. Lois turned back to see that her mother and Veronica had captured Clark, and to all appearances were completely enraptured by him.
Seeing Lois bearing down on them, Veronica cast a glance at Clark's face. One glimpse of his expression as he watched Lois coming toward them, and Veronica dropped his arm hastily, looking at Lois a little enviously.
"Lois, why don't you and your live-in come to dinner Friday night?" said Ellen in a low voice when her daughter had reached her side. "Jones was just sentenced to prison, so he won't be bothering your father again for awhile and we want to celebrate. Besides, we'd love to get to know your sweet boyfriend a little better."
"Kkkk," said Lois through her teeth. She had experienced an inexplicable surge of annoyance when she had seen the way Veronica was clinging to Clark's arm. "Mother-r-r," she hissed under her breath, "Clark is *not* my boyfriend! I've *told* you- -"
"Then maybe he should be," Ellen interrupted in a stage whisper. "You could do a lot worse, Lois. In fact, you couldn't do much better. I've never seen anyone—"
"Mother, *listen* to me!" begged Lois. "There is nothing between Clark and me! Except friendship, I mean. We don't have a spark of romantic attachment!" Squirming with embarrassment, she glanced at Clark to see if he'd overheard what her mother had said—he would be sure to tease her about it later. To her relief, he seemed to be concentrating on something else, his face having taken on the familiar expression that told her that Superman's help was needed somewhere.
She thought quickly. It was going to be awkward for him to disengage himself from this party unless he had some help. "Clark …" she said hurriedly, "you were going to pick up some ice cream for me, weren't you? You'd better hurry before the store closes."
"Uh … yeah," said Clark, starting to steal away.
"He doesn't need to go," objected Ellen. "If you want ice cream, Lois, Fudge Castle is right down the street."
"But … um … this is a special kind of ice cream," said Lois, wondering what Clark was hearing in the distance that made him look so downcast. "Marshmallow Grape." She shooed Clark away with her hand. "Go!" she said, "hurry … before the store closes!" Released, Clark waved to Veronica and the Lanes and jogged down the street.
Veronica clasped her hands together and looked soulfully after him. "He is *so* devoted to you, Lois," she said wistfully.
"Yes, I've never seen a young man so attentive, so anxious to please; he'd do anything for you, baby," said Ellen. "Did you see that, Sam? Sa-am??"
"Yes," said Sam, bored. "And no, I'm not going to run off in the middle of a conversation to buy *you* ice cream, Ellen. So don't think of asking me."
The next day at the Planet found Lois and Clark bending their heads together over her desk when Perry White interrupted them. "Lois … Clark … there's someone here I want you to meet. Although, Lois, I think you already know—"
"Claude!" said Lois, rising from her chair.
"The beautiful and talented Lois Lane," said Claude, taking the hand Lois offered and raising it to his lips. "It's wonderful to see you again, cherie."
Lois flushed. Preoccupied with formulating a coherent reply, she barely noticed when Perry was called away.
"As bewitching as ever," Claude continued. "I can see you're going to capture my heart all over again."
Lois couldn't help giggling at the extravagant praise. Then she remembered that Perry hadn't completed the introduction to her partner. "Claude, I'd like you to meet—" she turned, only to see that Clark had disappeared.
"A ghost," said Claude. "You want me to meet a ghost."
"No, my partner," said Lois, her smile fading. "He probably had to go meet a source or … something." She hoped that what Lucy had told her about Perry partnering them with Claude wasn't true—it could be awkward explaining Clark's frequent disappearances.
Clark was out of the newsroom for the rest of the week, having decided to take some time off to be with his parents. Perry partnered Lois with Claude on his big story, as Lucy had hinted he would, and in Clark's absence, also had Claude work with her on several other stories.
With Clark spending so much time at the hospital while still keeping up with Superman emergencies, which, along with false alarms had suddenly increased alarmingly, Lois saw very little of him. So she didn't observe the change in him right way. In fact, it wasn't until two weeks after Jonathan's surgery, the day that the great breakthrough came about, that she noticed anything at all.
She and Claude were working in the conference room one evening when Jimmy burst into the room. "Lois!" he said excitedly. "You have to come in here and see this! Come look at the T.V.!"
"What is it?" said Lois, glancing up in annoyance, only to find that she was speaking to Jimmy's retreating back. Muttering under her breath, she rose and followed him into the newsroom, beckoning to Claude as she went. "This better be good, Jim … my …" her voice trailed off as she stared at the television screen.
"… and the standoff has been resolved peacefully, thanks to Superman's timely intervention," the LNN correspondent was saying. "And here with us now to give us the insider's view, is the man … er … the humanoid himself. Superman, would you like to tell us what happened?" He held the microphone toward Clark, who began speaking clearly and dispassionately. After months of being Superman, he had the role down to perfection, and there was no trace of Clark Kent in his voice or posture.
After Clark had finished speaking, the news correspondent beckoned to a bleached blond of indeterminate age, who promptly stepped up and took Superman's arm. "And here to tell us about a super rescue of a different kind is Lauren Billen of Lauren's Jewelry, who was rescued by Superman several months ago."
"I knew that good luck had come to Metropolis the day Superman saved my life!" Lauren trilled. "I accidentally locked myself in my jewelry vault early one morning and I would have suffocated if the Blue Angel hadn't rescued me! We hit it off right away and we've been good friends ever since!" She smiled up into Clark's startled face.
As Lois watched, the correspondent completed the interview, then went on to give a rundown of Superman's activities in the past few months.
Lois turned away from the television. "Jimmy, is this for real?" she asked with her hand at her mouth.
"Yeah, it's real!" said Jimmy. "LNN's been running Superman stories for the last hour, and Jacko over at XYS tells me that *they're* going to be doing some Superman stories on the late news. The media blackout on Superman is over!"
"Finally!" Lois breathed thankfully. "Does this mean that *we'll* be covering Superman stories, too?"
"Lois!! CLARK!!" bellowed Perry, erupting from the elevator and striding toward Lois purposefully. "Get me the latest stories from your Superman web site! We're going to run 'em in the early morning edition of the paper! Olsen! If you don't git me some Superman pictures *pronto*, you'll be out in the street faster'n you can say 'Minute Waltz.' Lois, where are those Superman stories?"
"Coming, Chief," Lois sang out, scurrying for her laptop.
"Kent, you need to git out in the street and start interviewing some of the people who've been rescued by Superman … we'll run it as a sidebar along with our main story. The headline: 'Angel of Metropolis is Here to Stay.'" Perry's face had the widest grin Lois had ever seen. It faded almost immediately, however. "Kent, did you hear me?" he said irascibly, looking around him. "Where is that boy, anyway—he was supposed to be back from his vacation by the time I returned from my fishin' trip, and I haven't seen him yet."
"Uh … he's chasing down some leads …" began Lois. "Oh, here he is now, Perry!" She raced across the newsroom and flung herself headlong into the surprised Clark's arms. "It's over," she said joyfully. "The Superman blackout is over! We won!"
A smile lit up Clark's face. "I know." He lowered his voice, "… thanks to *you*."
"And *you*!" whispered Lois.
"Kent!" Perry bellowed, breaking up their embrace. Gaining their attention, he outlined Clark's assignment.
"Let's go!" said Lois, grabbing her purse.
"No, Lois, Clark can handle it alone. I want you to help Claude finish up the story on that white-slave ring. People are starting to ask why our police force is involved with that kind of thing."
"But—" said Lois.
"It's a pleasure working with you, Lois," said Claude, putting an arm around her. Looking up at Claude, Lois didn't see how Clark's face had darkened at his words, and when she turned, her partner was gone.
It was late when Lois was at last ready to go home. Claude had been called away, so she had finished up their article herself. Clark had never returned to the newsroom and she learned from Perry that he had called in his interviews with the people who had been rescued by Superman.
"Lois, first thing tomorrow I want you to begin an investigation into the police department; our readers have been calling in demanding to know why one extraterrestrial has been able to accomplish more in the way of making the city's streets safe than all the other policemen on the force."
"Okay, Clark and I will—"
"No, Kent's goin' to be workin' on more human interest stories about victims that Superman's rescued," said Perry. "He seems to have a handle on that touch-feely stuff. You can work with Claude on this one … it'll tie in with your story on the white-slave ring sponsored by the police."
"But, Perry, Clark's my partner!"
"Right now … Claude's your partner."
Perry held up his hand in a manner indicating he would brook no arguments. "Go home, Lois," he said with finality in his voice. "You and Claude can start on your new assignment tomorrow."
Lois nodded her head wearily. She was too tired to argue any more tonight; she'd have it out with Perry in the morning. She packed up her laptop and slung the strap over her shoulder. Seeing several parcels on Clark's desk, she went over and looked at them curiously. Brownies … and fudge. And a plate of cookies. What was all this? She examined the cards that had been left with the baked goods.
"Thinking of you …"
"Better times are coming …"
"Hold out for the Silver Lining."
How strange. It looks like the women in Personnel and Accounting think Clark needs consoling … I wonder why? Because of his father?
She chided herself for feeling a twinge of jealousy at the thought of anyone other than herself providing solace to Clark— it was selfish to expect to be his only source of comfort.
She gathered up the cards and baked goods, balancing them in one hand as she prepared to leave. Should she call her bodyguard service to escort her home? No. No need, now that Superman was patrolling the streets regularly.
She rode down the elevator to the parking garage, reflecting happily on how much Metropolis had changed since Superman had "arrived." And not just on the streets, either. The newsroom was safer, too, at least for Lois; she hadn't needed to pull a knife on anyone in months. This, however, was due not to Superman's influence, nor to the effort Cat had been putting into lobbying the legislators for laws against harassment, but to the simple fact that she and Clark were living together, and no one wanted to—in Richie's obnoxious words—"mess with Kent's woman." She had once seen Richie pull aside a cub reporter who had been looking at Lois with an unmistakable gleam in his eye, and tell him about Clark breaking Jimmy's arm. "Stay away from Lois," Richie had advised. "Kent's not the kind of guy you wanna have mad at you."
Lois wasn't too pleased that it had taken a presumed relationship with Clark to end the harassment in the newsroom— until she overheard Belinda use almost identical words when telling that ditzy new blond in the typing pool that Lois and Clark were an item. "Stay away from Clark," Belinda had said. "He's Lois's guy and you don't want to mess with Mad Dog Lane— she's not the kind of woman you want to have mad at you." Lois had needed to clap a hand over her mouth to keep from laughing out loud. But it was Belinda's next words that had utterly disarmed her. "I don't think you'd have any luck getting Clark away from Lois, anyway," she had added. "I've never seen a man look as happy as he has since he and Lois got together."
Lois had smiled, knowing it was true that Clark's behavior had changed dramatically. She smiled again now as she backed the Jeep out of her parking space. She was so happy for Clark. And for the world! Superman's debut had made a difference, just as she had dreamed it would. He had given people hope. By his example he had shown that one person can make a difference, and now people all over the world were starting to rebel against the violent, hopeless society that had been the only world they knew.
Things were definitely looking up. She was going to have to collar Clark and make him take enough time off from being Superman to go out to dinner and celebrate. Hmmm, "make him take time off," huh? Would she ever have believed, eight months ago, that she would have to "make" Clark stop working so he could enjoy himself?
She swung the Jeep into the parking space in front of Clark's apartment building, wondering if he had returned from patrolling yet. If so, she was going to have to insist that he take the rest of the night off so he could get some sleep. Superman had been working virtually non-stop for days.
Struggling to unlock the apartment door without dropping any of her burden, she almost fell into the room. She switched on the light … and gasped. Stifling a scream, she dropped everything and fumbled for her knife. Holding it in front of her, she advanced into the room, peering around her cautiously. Cardboard boxes were stacked throughout the living area and she was quick to notice that her belongings had been removed from the shelves she had been sharing with Clark. Her body relaxed fractionally and she dropped the knife to her side while she surveyed the contents of the boxes, her lips tightening as she realized that most of her things had been neatly packed away in the cartons strewn about the room.
There was no sign of Clark.
Leaving Clark's (slightly damaged) baked goods in the kitchen, she went slowly into the bedroom, where she was relieved to discover that at least her clothes were still in the closet.
A gust of wind sweeping through the apartment told her that the errant Clark had returned, and she went into the living room to greet him. He was still wearing the Superman outfit.
"Clark, why are all these boxes here?" she asked sharply. "Have you been packing up my things?"
"Yeah," he mumbled, not looking at her. He strode into the kitchen, where he picked up the cards from the women in Accounting and Personnel and examined them as if they held great interest for him.
"Why??" Lois said, following him into the kitchen.
"The media blackout's over," he threw over his shoulder. "You don't have to live with me any more. Your old apartment is still vacant—we can get it back tomorrow."
"So you just packed up *my things*??" said Lois, her temper flaring. "Without even asking me??"
"You didn't mind me packing up 'your things' before!" Clark shot at her. "When you moved in with me!"
Lois gasped. "We were working on the packing *together*! And it was a mutual decision in the first place. You didn't just arbitrarily pack up my belongings without asking me. I had a choice—"
"Yeah?" Clark interrupted hotly. "How much choice did *I* have in helping you pack? Or in having you move in with me in the first place? It *wasn't* a mutual decision and I didn't have a choice! Did you ever think about *that*??"
"You had *plenty* of choice!" Lois said furiously. "I don't remember twisting your arm! And you could have said something if you didn't want to do it! It's not the same thing as just … coming in here and … and … picking up my things and packing them into boxes without ever asking my permission—"
"Your permission?? I need permission to touch your stuff?? All this time you've been living here I've been touching it and you didn't say you didn't like it! Good thing you're leaving tomorrow … otherwise I might really contaminate it!" Clark wadded the well-wishers' cards into a ball and smacked his palm onto the counter. Keeping his face turned away from her, he strode angrily back into the living room. "You didn't mind using *my* stuff all this time," he added, choking. "I didn't tell *you* not to contaminate it!"
"Contaminate *your stuff*??" Lois burst out, angry tears in her eyes. "Well, if that's the way you feel, it *is* a good thing I'm leaving tomorrow!!"
"O-KAY!" shouted Clark, flinging open the window.
"Well, then … o-KAY!" echoed Lois as Clark launched himself from the apartment.
The rigidity left her body as soon as Clark had disappeared into the night, and she put a trembling hand up to her face.
How had their argument escalated so explosively? And how had she been sidetracked from the *real* issue of determining why Clark wanted her to move out of his apartment? Why *now*, when she had just realized how much she wanted to stay? How much she wanted to have him near her … to tempt her with that infectious smile and tease her with that affectionate light in his eyes, to give that deep, warm laugh that had the power to melt her inside … Lois shivered and attempted to shake off the feeling, angry with herself for loving him so much when he had just rejected her so summarily.
She made her way to the sofa, flopping down and putting her head in her hands.
Lois didn't know how long she had been sitting there when she heard a faint scratching sound at the door. Looking up in alarm, she saw the shadow of a man appear briefly at the door, then disappear.
She rose from the sofa, and walked slowly up the stairs. An envelope was lying on the floor. Evidently the man had slipped it under the door.
Brushing a stray tear from her face, Lois picked up the envelope and turned it over in her hands. It was a plain business envelope marked "Clark Kent."
Without hesitation, she tore it open and quickly read its contents:
"If you want to know something important about Superman, come to the Enterprizes warehouse on Dockside Street TONIGHT. DON'T BRING THE POLICE. Destroy this after reading."
Lois thoughtfully regarded the note, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear with her free hand. Should she try to get in touch with Clark? She paced a few restless steps while she considered the matter. No, she knew of no good way to do that— barring screaming for Superman at the top of her lungs. Not a good idea if she wanted to keep this low-key. She was just going to have to go to the Enterprizes warehouse by herself.
She parked the Jeep several blocks from the warehouse, locked it securely, then began striding briskly down the dark, silent street. Enterprizes warehouse was located in a run-down, nearly deserted section of town, and once again she had reason to be grateful that Superman had made such progress in cleaning up Metropolis—otherwise she would never have been able to risk traveling through this section of the city alone and on foot.
She hadn't gone more than half a block when a gust of wind sweeping past told her of the arrival of Superman. He landed slightly in front of her, although not directly in her path, then turned and began walking along with her when he saw that she wasn't going to stop. "What are you doing in this part of town, Lois?" he asked curtly.
"Investigating," she said shortly. She glanced at him, and seeing him clearly for the first time all evening, was shocked at the change in his face. She had never seen him look so bleak, so … so … desolate. Not even in the days before he became Superman. Her heart wrenched with compassion as she wondered what had happened to upset him so. "Clark, is your father okay?" she asked in sudden inspiration.
"Yeah, he's been doing physical therapy … at least … as far as I *know*, he's okay." He turned toward her quickly. "Why??" he asked in alarm, "have you heard …?"
Lois shook her head quickly. "No, I was just wondering why …" she faltered. Why you're so upset. Why you look like your whole world has just come crashing down around you.
"So … what are you doing here?" Clark asked before she could broach the subject again.
Swiftly she told him about the letter that someone had pushed under the door of their apartment, omitting the fact that it had been addressed to Clark
"So .. what are you doing here?" repeated Clark. His jaw was set in a hard line.
"I-I'm checking out something that may turn out to be a good lead," said Lois, lifting her chin at his disapproving tone. "Naturally."
"Naturally," said Clark, his voice tightening. "You come *alone* at three a.m. to a deserted part of town to check out what is obviously a trap—"
"Not 'obviously!'" Lois retorted. "It could be legit."
"'Legit,' Lois?? I don't *think* so! You've just found a few people who will talk about Greuel and the Secret Police on deep background, and you've not only been hinting at that fact on your web site, you've also been hinting that Tiron has ties to the Secret Police … that Tiron is a puppet master pulling Greuel's strings. Not only is that *dangerous*, but it might scare them off before we can gather any real evidence against them. Not too smart, Lois."
"I'm just trying to smoke them out," Lois defended herself, wondering if this was the reason Clark was so upset tonight.
"You're going to get yourself killed!" Clark said angrily.
Looking up into his unhappy face and recognizing that his harshness sprang out of concern for her, Lois felt her earlier anger melt away. She moved closer to him, encircling his arm with hers. "Not if you're around," she said roguishly. "You won't let that happen."
Clark relaxed his tense posture somewhat. "This is a trap, Lois … it's obvious," he said more mildly.
"Well, we'll never know unless I go and find out—"
"*I'll* go," Clark interrupted firmly. "I'm taking you home first."
Several minutes later Clark flew slowly over the warehouse with Lois in his arms.
In light of Clark's obvious concern for her, Lois had become convinced that it couldn't be true that Clark didn't want to live with her any more—there had to be a misunderstanding here somewhere. But now was not the time to resolve the conflict, and by tacit agreement Lois and Clark had put their quarrel aside while they checked out the lead/trap.
"What do you see?" asked Lois, realizing that Clark was x-raying the building below minutely.
"Nothing … much …" he said hesitantly. "One man is sitting alone near the main entrance. At the other end of the warehouse, there's a closet that has a file cabinet filled with papers. The rest of the building is empty."
"No suspicious-looking boxes concealing bombs? No armed men lying in wait to spring out of hiding and spray us with machine gun bullets?"
Clark shook his head. "No." He landed near the main entrance and set Lois gently on her feet.
"Let's go inside and check it out," said Lois, tugging at his sleeve impatiently.
Clark hung back, disquiet plain on his face. "I don't like it, Lois; I still think it looks like a trap."
"Maybe it is," said Lois. "So what? They're expecting Lois Lane or Clark Kent, and they're going to be getting … Superman. How can they hurt *Superman*?"
Lois swept past him and marched boldly up to the warehouse, Clark following more slowly. At the entrance, Lois turned and beckoned. "Come on, hurry," she said, "Or you'll get wet. It looks like it's going to storm."
Sighing in resignation, Clark flew to her side. He didn't change into Clark Kent, figuring that Lois was right … "they" would be less likely to try anything if "they" knew Superman was here.
The door of the warehouse was opened to them by the wizened little man Clark had observed earlier. "You brought Superman!" he exclaimed to Lois.
"Is that okay?" asked Lois.
"Yeah … it's great!"
Clark's eyes narrowed as he looked searchingly at him. The man seemed sincere in his satisfaction at seeing Superman. His alarms slightly allayed, Clark said, "Are you the one who slipped the letter under my—Clark Kent's door?"
"Slipped it under the door? He didn't talk to you? He must've chickened out then, and went home after he give you that note. That was Jeff, the other guard who works here. Wycom Industries has been storing documents in this warehouse for the last few months and they just cleared everything out yesterday—well, almost everything. When I was making the rounds this evening, I noticed Wycom had left a bunch of papers in a file cabinet in a closet. When I saw what the papers said, I told Jeff to sneak away to tell Mr. Kent about it. Both Jeff and I are big fans of yours, Mr. Superman. We like what you're doin' in Metropolis. And we like your web site, too, Ms Lane. Me 'n' Jeff look at it every day."
"What's in the papers?" asked Lois.
"A bunch of scientific stuff about Superman. What his powers are and a lotta stuff like that. I thought Mr. Kent should see 'em, Ms Lane. You and him puttin' out that web site and all."
"Can you show us where the papers are, sir?" asked Clark.
"Go down to the other end of the building." The guard pointed. "The papers are in a filing cabinet in a closet."
Lois started walking briskly in the direction the guard had pointed. "Lois, I think I should take you home …" Clark said in a low voice after he'd caught up to her.
"Oh, Clark, what's going to happen to me with *you* here?" said Lois impatiently.
They continued to the other end of the building, their footsteps echoing hollowly on the concrete floor. "There," said Clark, pointing to the closet.
Lois shouldered past him through the narrow entrance. She darted over to the filing cabinet and yanked open a drawer, pulling out a handful of folders. "You take these," she said, "and I'll go through the others."
She seated herself cross-legged on the floor and began to skim quickly through the files' contents, looking up a few minutes later when Clark grunted softly. "Find something?" she asked.
"Looks like it," he said.
Lois edged over beside him and peered at the documents he was examining. "What is it?"
"Statistics correlating my flight times for traveling specified distances after I've performed rescues. According to this, my response time decreases after each subsequent rescue. Especially at night."
"Oooh, I don't like the sound of that," said Lois.
"Neither do I," said Clark. "And the next part is even worse."
"What?" Forgetting their earlier quarrel, Lois wrapped her arm around Clark's shoulder and put her face close to his. "'Conclusion'," she read aloud, squinting at the paper, "'Superman is not invulnerable. His powers diminish after each super feat, and can be depleted over time, given that he's deprived of sunlight.'" She raised her head. "Ouch," she said. Her hand flew to her mouth. "Clark!! When was the last time you were exposed to the sun? All day yesterday you were helping the men at that collapsed coal mine, and the day before that you were in China, rescuing the flood victims—"
"And it was nighttime over there," finished Clark. "You know, I haven't seen the sun in over a week." He got to his feet, breaking Lois's hold on him reluctantly. "Let's get out of here," he suggested. "We can take these folders with us." He scooped them into his arm.
"H-how are you feeling now?" asked Lois rather nervously. "Do you still have all your powers? Maybe we'd better—" Lois's words were cut off as there was a rumbling sound, coincident with a shaking of the ground. "Er-earthquake?" she faltered.
"Explosion," Clark said grimly. "We'd better—" His words were cut off as the ceiling above them began to crumble. Clark leaped forward and snatched Lois into his arms, then hunched his shoulders and threw his body protectively over hers as a beam came crashing down from the ceiling above. Wincing as the timber struck him across his back, he draped his body over Lois's, shielding her as best he could from the falling debris. Wrapping his cape around her, he held her closely, stretching his body over her length.
Lois lay quite still in his arms as he flew them towards the entrance. The roar of sound engulfed her until it seemed to penetrate her very body. After a few seconds she became dimly aware that they had stopped flying, although Clark's body was still hunched over hers, sheltering her from the cataclysm in progress. Lois felt his body shudder with each successive thud as great pieces of the ceiling struck him.
"Clark, why aren't you flying? Get us out of here!" Lois shrieked into the cacophony of three stories of building toppling down around them.
"Lois, I can't! I—" The rest of his words were lost in the din, and Lois felt one of his arms drape protectively around her head, his hand pressing over her ear in an attempt to shut out the noise.
The meaning of Clark's words didn't register on Lois's consciousness at first. When it finally sank in, she found it a fact almost beyond comprehension. Clark couldn't fly! Panic threatened to overwhelm her when she considered the implications. Absorbing the shock of the debris falling after the explosion must have caused him to start losing his super powers, just as the studies they had found in the filing cabinet had predicted.
She wondered how long it would be before the rest of his superpowers faded, leaving him unable to withstand the impact of the devastation wrought by the bomb. When would he succumb to the pressure of tons of building material pounding down on them?
Poor Clark. He hadn't wanted to come tonight; he had suspected a trap from the beginning. It was only because of her that he was here at all. He should be at home, recouping his fading energy, not breathing his last while he attempted to shield her from the consequences of her own folly.
How fitting that she should die here with him.
Lois hid her face against his body, wishing … wishing that she had told him. She had never told him. And now it was too late.
The dust swirled around them, penetrating, choking, and Lois felt the room recede further and further into blackness and then she felt nothing.
"Lois! Lois, are you okay? Wake up! Come back to me, please, Lois, *please*."
Responding instinctively to the entreaty in that voice, Lois murmured, "I'm right here, Clark. I'm awake." She put out a hand blindly, making contact with his well-known face. Opening her eyes, she encountered a look such as she had never before seen in his eyes. "Cl-clark …" she gasped, staggered by the expression in those dark depths.
The naked fear in his eyes gave way to relief, then a wariness passed over his face and he laid her gently on the ground. Aware that he had been kneeling beside her, cradling her body, Lois looked around in bemusement. They had escaped from the maelstrom and were outside, across the street from the still-crumbling warehouse. "You got us out," Lois managed to choke out the words past her dry throat.
"Yes," said Clark, rising to his feet. "And now I need to see if there's anyone else who needs help."
"But …" said Lois. Clark's last words before she lost consciousness flooded into her memory, and she objected, "How can you do that if you've lost your super powers?" Noting that Clark was looking past her, she followed the direction of his eyes and saw that a police cruiser had pulled up and an officer was striding briskly towards them.
"What happened, Superman?" the policewoman asked.
"Explosion," Clark replied briefly. "Will you look after Ms Lane while I see if there are any other victims?"
"Sure, whatever," said the officer, approaching Lois.
"Superman … the guard inside the warehouse!" exclaimed Lois, clambering to her feet. "What happ—" Her words were cut off as the policewoman yanked her arm, twisting it up and behind her back while pressing a gun against her temple.
"Hold it right there, Superman," said the policewoman, speaking in a voice of deadly calm. "Make a move and she's dead."
"Call them," the policewoman said to someone behind her. "Tell them we have him and he's lost his super powers."
Lois stood frozen in place while the officer's partner made the phone call. She wondered dismally if the disasters of this day would ever end.
The wind was picking up, riffling her hair. Thunder rumbled nearby, all but drowning out the engines of a swarm of vehicles descending on them from all directions. Lois fixed her eyes on the faces of the men emerging from the cars. Not your average street thugs, but cold, dispassionate professionals. Paid killers.
Lois swallowed. Clark, I'm sorry.
"Good work, Ryan," said a voice behind her and to her left, and a well-dressed man strode into Lois's line of vision. "Keep a good grip on Lane."
"I got her," said Officer Ryan confidently. She twisted Lois's arm higher behind her back, wrenching an involuntary cry of pain from her. Clark's body jerked uncontrollably, but he stilled as he met Ryan's eyes. "That's right, Superman," said Ryan. "You move and your babe dies."
"*His* babe?" said the newcomer with interest.
"Yah. You shouldda seen the way he was holding her a minute ago, Mr. Phelps," said Ryan. "I'll bet her hunky boyfriend Clark Kent would be interested to know how she's taken up with an alien."
"Good," said Phelps, disregarding the latter half of her statement. "That'll make this easier." He turned to Clark. "You're coming with us, Superman," he said, raising his voice to be heard above the rising wind. "Or *she* dies."
Clark looked helplessly at Lois standing across the distance from him. "You have to promise to let her go!" he said fiercely, switching his gaze to Phelps. "Then I'll come with you."
"Where will they take him?" whispered Lois.
"Greuel, probably," said Ryan, an indifferent shrug in her voice.
"No …" the word was a moan.
"Shut up," said Ryan, pressing the pistol more tightly against her temple.
Clark's lips tightened. "Give me your word that she goes free," he said to Phelps.
Phelps hesitated, then nodded. "You have my word on that, Superman," he said in a resonating voice. He met Clark's eyes squarely. "She's no threat to us. Not with you out of the picture."
"You can't," Lois whispered.
But Clark was nodding his acquiescence. Phelps gestured to several of the men. "Go ahead, his powers are gone … or will be soon. In the meantime, he won't try anything as long as we have Lane." The men surrounded Clark and jerked his hands behind his back, securing them with handcuffs.
"No—!" said Lois. "You don't know what they'll do to you! You can't go, Superman!"
"It's all right, Lois," he said in a deep, reassuring voice. "I'll be all right."
"No—" she moaned again. She watched helplessly as a helicopter landed in the street, the wind from its approach hardly noticeable amid the tumult of the thunderstorm that was starting to approach them. Lois watched in a daze while the men hustled Clark inside, watched as the helicopter lifted off, flying away from the gathering storm. A jagged flash of lightning knifed through the sky, followed seconds later by a crash of thunder. The rare early-morning thunderstorm was sweeping through the city, the first drops of rain already beginning to fall. Lois wondered dully at the men who would risk flying when the storm was so near.
Minutes passed. The helicopter became a small speck in the sky and still no one moved.
Lois stood frozen in place, numb with shock at Clark's fate. Greuel! That legendary hell of horrors! The torture chamber run by the government, from which its captives never emerged alive except as broken shells of their former selves.
For decades Greuel's existence had been but a whisper, a tale told to frighten recalcitrant children into obedience. It was only recently, months after Superman's advent in Metropolis, that Lois, who had made it her mission to track down, expose and destroy Greuel, had found anyone at all willing to confirm the rumors, to help her crack the mystery that was Greuel.
Several terrified sources had recently dared to share with her their stomach-turning tales of the torment awaiting its ill- fated captives in the dark cells of the bastion's chambers. From these sources Lois had learned how the government police had been studying how to break people and bend them to their will.
How they had tortured victim after victim in order to learn the secrets of disintegrating the human personality.
And it was into this pit of interminable torment that Clark was willingly descending.
Clark. The man whose life had already held so much pain. The sensitive person who had been mistreated as a child, who had lost faith in humanity and in himself, and who had only recently fought his way back from his own private hell, was about to go into the place from which no one emerged unbroken.
How would that abused man ever survive the tortures they would put him through?
And he was going to Greuel because of her.
Because she had pushed him into taking on Tiron Industries and the whole corrupt infrastructure of their world. Because she had lured him here tonight, had insisted on checking out a situation which *he* had been convinced was a trap. And he had been right. But he had gone with her anyway, to look after her and protect her. And now he was the one paying for it. He was the one descending into death.
If he was lucky.
But it was more likely that he wouldn't die—that he would suffer a long, slow, tortured existence. Because they wanted to break him, to bend him to their will, to make him work for them and help to fulfill their dreams of world subjugation.
And they would know how to do it.
For years they had studied the best ways of destroying their victims in order to remold them into the automatons who would do their bidding.
They had systematically and without reservation or remorse used mental patients, prisoners, immigrant detainees, and ordinary citizens, people with terminal cancer who were already suffering untold mental and physical anguish, as guinea pigs in their quest for developing new techniques for producing physiological and emotional stress.
They knew how to devise the mental tortures that would destroy a man's soul, make him call into question and ultimately betray his innermost cherished ideals.
Knew how to undermine and obliterate a man's very identity, how to root out "incorrect" thoughts, to radically alter the man's thought processes and lead him to change his behavior, his beliefs, his self.
But whether they broke him or not, Clark would suffer; that was assured. Oh, how he would suffer.
Lois shut her eyes while silent tears ran down her face. Her captors were dragging her away, half-carrying her because she was too numb to walk.
At first she was barely conscious of the wind whipping through her hair. A violent thunderclap jarred her to awareness, and she stared in dull apathy at the jagged lightning that flashed through the sky.
Phelps was giving low-voiced instructions to Ryan. "Kill her and dump her body into the river," he said. Lois heard his words without emotion. She might have known that they wouldn't keep their word, she thought dully. Clark was giving up his life needlessly.
She felt no fear. She was going to die soon … but what did that matter now?
She was the lucky one; Clark couldn't expect a quick death …
Lightning rippled through the sky again and was followed almost immediately by an earth-shaking clap of thunder.
A thunderstorm. What was special about a thunderstorm?
Something nagged at the back of her mind.
Six months ago a violent storm had swept through Metropolis while she had stood in Roosevelt Park watching a super hero depart from her life forever. She drew a ragged breath. If only she could go back in time to that moment … how she would change things! She would treat Clark so much more kindly, right from the beginning. She would be understanding of his dark moods, more tolerant of his temper. She would not *taunt* him into being Superman, but would lead him gently.
And … she sobbed … she would not insist on leading him into a trap that could only result in horrible torment.
She wished she had told him she loved him, but now it was too late. Now he was going to die, or to wish to die; it was certain that he would wish for death long before that blessed moment finally arrived …
She choked as Ryan, no longer pressing the gun to her head, motioned her towards the car. "Get in," the police officer said briefly.
Lois looked one last time at the lightning ripping through the sky, and thought longingly of that other superhero, the one from the other universe. If only he were here now, all his powers intact, to help the man she loved … but he couldn't come, not unless both of them were flying vertically in a thunderstorm, and Clark couldn't fly now …
She said a quick, involuntary prayer.
The wind tore through the street, and Lois braced herself against it, closing her eyes against the gritty dust and soot from the wreckage of Enterprizes warehouse.
The pressure of Ryan's hand on her arm suddenly released, and she opened her eyes.
Ryan was lying on the ground, handcuffed, alongside the others, and a blue and red-clad man was gazing down at the immobilized forms in satisfaction. He turned to her. "Are you all right?" he asked.
Lois drew in her breath sharply and painfully. The Other Superman had come—and just in time! How … when Clark couldn't fly—?? Of course … the helicopter was flying, with her own Clark in it … that's what had done it. "Superman!!" she cried, running towards him. "You came! Oh, you *did* come … you did! Thank God!"
He put one arm around her reassuringly. "Of course I came," he said simply. "Are you okay?" he repeated his question.
"You have to get him out!" Lois gasped, disregarding his inquiry. She pulled back and grasped his arms, looking beseechingly up into his face. "They'll torture him—you have to save—" she choked. "—him! I know I used to think I was in love with you, but I've realized that it's him that I love. He's been through so much, and he's borne it so well, pulling himself together to make something of his life, overcoming his awful, awful background, and now he's in there and he'll never be able to take it … what they'll do to him … you have to get him out!" She sobbed.
"Who?" said Superman grimly, paler than Lois had ever seen him.
"Clark! They have him! You have to get him out!"
"Get *who* out??"
"Clark! You have to get him out!"
"Lois," he whispered, drawing her away from the prostrate captives. "You can't call me—"
"Hurry!" she moaned, clutching his shoulders and trying to shake him. "They'll do things to him … horrible things! You have to stop them!"
"Lois, who are you talking about?" said Superman, grasping her hands firmly and removing them from his arms.
"Clark!!" she cried. Why couldn't she get him to understand? "Clark's in there! They took him away in a helicopter! They're taking him to Greuel, where they'll torture him and hurt him and they can't do that! I love him! I love him, do you hear me?? You *have* to save him!"
A look of consternation crossed Superman's face. "Lois!" he said quickly, "Clark's okay! He's not in there, he's safe."
"No!" said Lois hysterically. "You don't understand! He's—oh." Her mouth dropped open. "Oh, yes, I see. If *you're* here, then *he* must be in the other universe." She drew a sobbing breath. "When can we get him back, please? I have something to tell him. You see, I l-love him, and I've never told him. So—"
"Lois!" said Superman in real alarm. "You're confused! The Other Superman went back to his universe months ago! Let me take you to the hospital."
"But *you're* the Other Supe—" Lois stopped, staring up at his rain-drenched face. She raised a hand and slowly pushed the hair back from his hairline, sucking in her breath when she saw the scar. "C-Clark??"
"Well … yeah, Lois!"
"But—your powers—they're gone! How did you—?"
"They're not gone," said Clark. Adding grimly, "… yet." He hadn't noticed any diminution of his powers, but if Greuel had been measuring his reaction times and had reported a declension, he'd take their word for it. He was going to have to monitor himself carefully from now on, especially during long periods of nonstop Superman activity in lack of sunlight.
"You were s-safe … the whole time …"
"Yes," said Clark. "I was safe. But you weren't. I had to pretend that I was powerless so they'd relax their hold on you enough that I could get you safely away. I—hey, what—?" He backed away a step as Lois landed a punch on his arm. "Lois, stop it; you'll hurt yourself!"
"You … tricked me … you—I—" she punched him again, then collapsed against his chest, crying rather desperately.
"Hey, take it easy," Clark whispered in an urgent undertone. "Please. Here come the police. The *honest* police." He supported her with one arm while Zymack, Henderson, and several uniformed policemen came over to talk to him. "Lois is a little distraught," he offered by way of explanation. Quickly he explained the circumstances that had led to his capture of the Tiron men and the two uniformed police officers.
"You want us to arrest Tiron employees?" asked Zymack, raising a skeptical brow.
"*I'll* protect you," promised Superman.
A long look passed between the two men, and finally Zymack nodded. "I hope so," he said gruffly. "I have a wife and two kids. And a dog. I don't want anything to happen to them. But you protected Betty Reed when she spoke out against the white- slave ring, so I guess you can protect me …" He moved away to join the uniformed policemen in making the arrests.
After telling the police officers where he had left the helicopter and its passengers, and assuring himself that all the arrests would proceed as they should, Clark lifted off with Lois still held securely in his grasp. She had wrapped her arms around his neck and was clinging as if her grasp were the only thing standing between herself and eternity.
He didn't take the time to retrieve her jeep, but took her straight back to the apartment.
Lois maintained a steadfast silence throughout their flight time, refusing to respond to any of his anxious questions—but she didn't let up her grip on him, either.
Once in the apartment Clark deposited her gently on the sofa, but when he straightened and tried to walk away, she refused to release her clutch on him. "I'm going to make you some tea … it'll make you feel better," he told her.
But she wouldn't let go of him, and in the end he sat on the sofa and drew her into his lap, cradling her gently in his arms. In spite of his concern for her, a look of happiness had settled over his face, for he at last understood what Lois had been saying when she thought he was the Other Superman.
Clark tried to disengage himself after several minutes, but still she wouldn't let go. "I'm just going to make that tea," he said, but she only hugged him more tightly. He carried her into the kitchen, holding her with one arm while he made the tea.
"Lois, you have to get into some dry clothes," he said finally. "The tea will be cool enough to drink by the time you've changed." He carried her into the bedroom and set her gently on her feet, then retreated back into the living room, where he changed out of his wet Superman costume, putting on a pair of jeans and a sleeveless sweatshirt.
When Lois returned to the room, she reseated herself on the sofa and took the cup from him without speaking at first. "I thought you were going to die," she whispered finally, staring down at her tea.
Clark slid over beside her and put an arm around her gingerly, careful not to spill her tea. "I'm sorry, Lois," he said apologetically. "I'm sorry I put you through all that. I didn't mean to scare you."
"I thought your powers were gone," she continued, not heeding him. Tears had started to flow again, spilling from her eyes and rolling down her cheeks.
"No, they're not gone," Clark said. He removed the cup from her grasp, setting it down where it wouldn't spill, then enfolded her gently in his arms.
Lois relaxed against him, then suddenly sat up and pushed him away, raising her eyes to glare at him. "You'd better *hope* that you haven't lost your powers," she announced, "because I am going to *kill* you."
Clark couldn't help laughing. "I'm glad you're feeling better," he told her.
"And," Lois added, "I didn't mean anything I said about loving you; I hate you!"
"Shh," Clark said gently. "I know." He cupped her chin with his palm, wiping a stray tear from her cheek with his thumb. "I don't blame you for being mad," he said. "It was an awful trick to play on someone you love."
"I *said* that I don't love you!" began Lois sharply, then paused as she worked out the meaning of his words. "'Someone you love?'" she echoed. You mean … you l-love me?" She stared at him with wide eyes.
"Always," he said simply.
She took a breath, then collapsed against his chest again. Clark cradled her in his arms and rocked her slowly, murmuring wordless endearments until she had recovered sufficiently to sit up. "I don't understand," she said, taking a deep breath. "Why did you tell me your powers were gone? That you couldn't fly?"
"Yes, you did," Lois insisted. "In the warehouse. You started to take us out of there, then you stopped near the entrance, and when I said to get us out of there you said that you couldn't fly."
Clark thought back. "I didn't say that I couldn't *fly*," he said finally. "I said that I couldn't leave … because I was shielding the guard from the falling debris. He was lying under a beam, hurt. If I'd left him there, he would have been killed by the collapsing ceiling." Clark paused, grimacing. "He died anyway," he added. "Just after you fainted. I took you out then, since there wasn't anything more I could do for him."
"So … you never lost your powers at all?"
"But … when Officer Ryan kidnaped me … why didn't you use your heat vision on the gun she had pressed against my head? I've seen you do that dozens of times …"
"Your head was in the way," said Clark. "*You* were between me and Officer Ryan. You made an effective shield for her since you two are about the same height and size. It was a lucky break for us that she overheard you saying that my powers were gone. Otherwise they probably would have taken you to Greuel, too, to use as hostage until my powers really *were* gone. So …" Clark shrugged, "I had to pretend that my powers were gone until I had a chance to get you away from them."
"Clark … I'm so sorry," said Lois.
Clark looked at her in surprise. "For what?"
"For everything. For making you be Superman and for not being more understanding and for nagging you to take on Tiron and Greuel. For insisting that we investigate tonight when you *knew* it was a trap. You were right about that. You were right about everything. We can't fight Greuel. It's enough that Superman saves people from natural disasters and fights street crime in Metropolis. That's all we can expect, and it's enough— "
"No, Lois," Clark interrupted. "I was wrong about a lot of things. If last night was a trap, the guard didn't know anything about it; his death proved that. And I was wrong when I said Superman shouldn't fight Greuel. *You* were right the whole time—"
"We can't let the government and Tiron get away with running a place like Greuel. We have to find it … and destroy it. And together we can do it, you and me."
"You and me …" echoed Lois. Sighing, she rested her head against Clark's shoulder. Suddenly she felt completely exhausted.
"It's late," Clark murmured. "You'd better get some sleep." Lois nodded wordlessly and Clark lifted her and carried her into the bedroom, where he turned back the covers and swept the sheets with his heat vision. He laid her gently on the bed, then straightened, spinning into his Superman suit.
"Where are you going?" asked Lois, sitting up in alarm.
"I have to go …" Clark made a motion with his hand.
"Clark, you can't! You haven't had any sleep for a week! You're going to lose your powers—"
"I have to …" Clark repeated. He threw her an apologetic look, then eased out of the bedroom. A gust of wind swept the apartment a fraction of a second later and overcome by exhaustion, Lois slid back into the bed, falling at once into a dreamless sleep.
The sound of Clark's voice woke Lois and she opened one bleary eye to see who he was talking to. The telephone. He was talking to the telephone. "C'ark, go inother room to talk," she mumbled. "Wanna sleep."
Clark set the receiver back in the cradle. He was standing next to the bed, the phone call having obviously interrupted him in shrugging into a dress shirt. "That was Perry," he said, buttoning the shirt over his bare chest. "He wants to know why you didn't call in the story of the Enterprizes warehouse explosion; he wants to know where *I* was while you were investigating last night; he wants more Superman stories; and he says he wants us in the newsroom in an hour or we're both fired."
"The story!" Lois shrieked. She leaped from the bed, her weariness forgotten. "I never called it in! I can't beLIEVE I forgot! Clark, if we've been scooped—"
"*We* were, but the Daily Planet wasn't," Clark said. "Ralph got the story and—"
"Yes. He was hanging around the police station last night waiting for something to break … and 'something' did. Our story." He finished buttoning his shirt cuffs and reached for the tie he had selected. "I'll go—"
"That tie doesn't go with the suit you're wearing," Lois interrupted.
Looking into the dresser mirror, Clark draped the tie around his neck and began to knot it. "Lois, I can dress myself," he said, half amused, half annoyed.
"Well," said Lois frankly, "you shouldn't. We'll go to Bamberger's tonight and pick out some new ties—"
"Lois, I don't need any more ties—"
The burr of the telephone interrupted their discussion. Clark picked up the receiver. "It's for you," he said briefly. He handed her the receiver, then continued dressing, his hand movements rather jerky as he finished knotting the tie.
"Hi, Claude," said Lois. "No, everything's all right; I just overslept, that's all. I'll be in as soon as I can." She hung up the phone. "Where are you going?"
"To the newsroom," said Clark.
"Wait … okay … I'll meet you there," called Lois to his retreating back.
Lois was kept busy all morning with the story she and Claude were working on, but she hoped to find time to be able to eat lunch with Clark. Clark seemed rather elusive that morning, though. At first Lois thought that his dual responsibilities were keeping him busy, but after awhile she began to suspect that he was avoiding her. When she finally cornered him at his desk, she noticed that he seemed to have withdrawn from her somehow, and there were shadows in his eyes that she didn't understand. She wondered if the death of the guard last night was bothering him, and then she remembered how Clark had been prepared to expel her from his apartment last night and she realized that there was still a misunderstanding of some kind that they needed to resolve. She redoubled her efforts to finish up her story so she could pull Clark aside to someplace private where they could talk.
By mid-afternoon she had given up … things were too chaotic today. Their conversation was just going to have to wait until evening. She headed for the vending machines to buy herself a cheese sandwich to eat at her desk, cursing silently when she dropped the coins and one rolled under the machine. She dropped onto the floor and began groping for the change.
"So … Kent and Lane are still together … you're gonna owe me big time," said a voice. Andy from Sports! Lois froze as he added, "I'm gonna be collecting from a *lot* of people!"
Richie snorted. "Today!" he said scornfully. "They're still together *today.* But just wait. It might not happen tomorrow … or the next day, but it'll happen. Lane's going to dump him publicly and then she and Claude will—"
"Double or nothing Lane and Kent are still together at the end of this week," said Andy.
"Done!" Richie agreed promptly. "Candy from a baby. I'm telling you, Lois and Claude are doing the deed now! They were doing it when he was in Metropolis the last time, and when he came back to town, they picked up right where they left off. In fact, I'm not sure they ever did leave off. I mean, Claude's been in this country a number of times in the last couple of years. I'll bet he and Lane have been at it every time he's been within a hundred miles of Metrop—" Richie stopped speaking, his mouth hanging open. Lois had shot to her feet, making her outraged face suddenly visible above the desks that had formerly blocked her from his sight. Seeing that incensed young woman charging toward him made him re-think whatever it was he had been planning to say, and he chose the better part of valor and beat a hasty retreat before Lois was able to reach him.
Lois turned toward Andy, but he too had vanished. Frustrated in her attempted assault, Lois slipped the coins into the vending machine, fuming as she retrieved her cheese sandwich. The nerve of those guys! Richie and Andy! And … she thought back to what Andy had said … they apparently weren't the only ones! The clerks in Accounting, the middle-aged women who had been taking such a motherly interest in Clark of late, had given Clark those sympathy cards … and come to think of it, some of them had been giving *her* the cold shoulder lately … The whole office must have been gossiping about her and Claude! Of all the ridiculous, stupid notions, this was the worst! It was completely off the wall!
Yes, she had been attracted to Claude. Once. A long time ago. But he had never been more than a gleam in her eye; they had never even gone out together! He had left town before anything had really started between them.
This was so disgusting! And embarrassing! If Clark had heard that outrageous claim—
She stopped in her tracks. Clark. With those super ears. Of course he had heard. He must have. And it sounded like the gossip was not only widespread, but had been going on for several weeks. And Clark had first withdrawn from her—when? When Claude came to town?
And last night, with the packing—. And this morning when Claude called—yes, that was it! That was the reason behind Clark's hitherto inexplicable moods!
The light of understanding breaking out over her face, Lois had to restrain herself from rushing to Clark's side. She forced herself to return sedately to her desk, then glanced over at him. He was sitting with his shoulders hunched as he bent his dark head over something he was reading intently. *Too* intently. Studying his posture, noting the tense set of his shoulders, Lois became convinced that he had heard Richie and Andy … and had been hurt by what they had said.
But … last night she had told Clark that she loved him. Yes, she had taken it back later, but that had been because she was upset. And he had seemed to understand that; he had even told her that *he* loved her.
But he hadn't kissed her … hadn't even tried. Why?
Did he think she had meant "comradely" love?
Didn't he understand that the love she felt for him wasn't *just* friends?
That she loved him more than anything or anyone she had ever known? That she wanted to live with him? That she wanted (oh, how she wanted!) to take him home and make love to him all day and all night and all the rest of her life?
She half-rose from her chair. "Lois," said a voice behind her.
Oh, no, not now!
"Claude," said Lois without turning around, "I need to—"
"Lois, mon petit chou," said Claude, placing a hand on her shoulder. "The story will get done. You worry too much, cherie."
Out of the corner of her eye Lois could see that Clark had risen and was walking away from his desk. He started up the steps.
No! He can't leave! Not while he's under the delusion that the ridiculous gossip is true! Not while he thinks I don't love him!
Lois pushed her chair back, getting a surprised grunt from Claude, and started for the steps. She had to stop Clark before he got out of the newsroom!
"Lois!!" bellowed Perry. "I need to see you in my office."
Lois turned and went reluctantly into Perry's office, barely listening while he read her the riot act for not calling in her story of the warehouse explosion last night. All she could think about was the urgent need to clear up this ridiculous misunderstanding with Clark. "Okay, Perry," she said absently in reply to his homily, too preoccupied with the exigency of finding Clark to care about her editor's mood.
Free of Perry's office, she ran up the stairs, stumbled at the top, and fell headlong toward Clark, who was standing beside the coffee machine talking to Jimmy. He hadn't been planning to leave the newsroom; he had only come up here to get a cup of coffee!
Lois sighed with relief, but she had a new problem to deal with now. She had lost her balance, and only Clark's quick reflexes saved her from falling. He caught her neatly, not even spilling the coffee he had just poured. Lois looked up into his brown eyes and seeing the hurt lurking there, opened her mouth to say the words that would put an end to the pain forever. To her horror, the phrase that issued from her lips was not at all the soothing reassurance she had intended: "Clark!" she hissed, "You idiot! How could you believe that trash about Claude and me??"
Clark gaped down at her, not sure what she meant, but as he seized on the association between "trash" and the gossip concerning Claude, dawning hope appeared in his eyes.
Realizing that her sentence was not the solace she had meant to give, but finding herself at an uncharacteristic loss for words, Lois raised her mouth and kissed him. And then a curious thing happened. She had thought that she had completely regained her balance after her near-fall, but now her knees buckled, and she swayed against Clark as a delicious and heavy languor swept over her body.
Caught by surprise at the intimate caress, and even more so by Lois's collapse against his chest, the man who could withstand a ton of debris crashing down on him lost his balance and fell back against the railing, putting one hand out to clutch at it instinctively. The railing snapped with a crack that gained the attention of everyone in the newsroom, and the cup of coffee fell from Clark's startled grasp, the mug bouncing as it hit the floor and spilled its contents.
Clark was dimly aware of Jimmy's grinning face, then the sights and sounds of the newsroom faded, and he was conscious only of Lois's arms around his neck, her lips moving across his cheek, her voice a strangled whisper saying "I love you," into his ear.
Super powers weren't necessary to hear the murmur of amused appreciation that rippled across the newsroom, nor were extraordinary ears needed to hear Andy's crow of triumph or Richie's cry of chagrin as he conceded defeat. Lois heard these sounds of her cohorts' interest quite well, and if she had been capable of smiling at that moment, her lips would certainly have been doing it. But they were otherwise engaged.