By Irene Dutch <email@example.com>
and Wendy Richards <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted September 2000
Summary: In this adaptation of several first season episodes, Lois knows and Clark knows she knows. This awareness brings a different perspective to the events which follow, as both Lois and Clark begin a process of reassessment, not just about their changing relationship but also about themselves.
I would like to thank my wonderful co-author, Wendy Richards, for her valuable contribution to this story. I was absolutely thrilled when she agreed to write this with me as I've been her devoted fan since I discovered fan-fiction.
Wendy is gracious, intelligent, sensitive and helpful as well as being a fantastic writer. When we suddenly had the opportunity to meet face to face, I was worried. I wondered how this vibrant person would be once I met her in person. Would I be disappointed? How could she be as great as she appears in her emails? It just couldn't be possible, could it? Of course, the answer is a resounding 'yes'! Wendy really is exactly how she presents herself to be in her emails - intelligent, articulate and knowledgeable. Above all, she's an incredibly nice person.
As far as who wrote what in this story, there are many sections where neither one of us is sure anymore. I will say that I would take about a week to send Wendy the same amount of words that she could produce in an hour or two! I've never met anyone who can write so quickly and so well at the same time.
Writing this with Wendy was an absolute romp. It had to be one of the most enjoyable experiences in writing that I've had.
Thanks again, Wendy. I'm glad you said 'yes' when I asked you to do this with me. I could have written this story on my own, but there is no way that I could have done it justice.
Ummm… stop, you're making me blush, Irene!!
*I've* been a fan of Irene's since she posted 'Firestorm' on the fanfic list, and I was delighted to be asked to edit it for the Archive. She is a wonderful writer who has produced some wonderfully ingenious and WAFFy premises. And I want to thank her very much for sharing her idea and her story with me. Thanks to this collaboration, we have become good friends. (And when we finally did meet, in August of this year, I was delighted to find that she is as nice in person as she is in email).
When Irene suggested this collaboration *I* was immensely flattered that she trusted me to work with her on *her* idea with the same degree of commitment and love as she would herself. It is a great premise, I still think so, and I'm very pleased with what we did with it together.
As Irene says, there are places where we're no longer sure who wrote what. I'm amazed at that, but it proves that we were right to collaborate, and Irene has been wonderful to work with: good-humoured, talented and creative. I have collaborated before, on academic writing, but fiction is very different so I wasn't sure how this would work out. But if anyone would like to guess which of us wrote which sections, I'd love to see whether you can get it right!
Okay, mutual gushing session over; this is a long ride too, so buckle in, guys!
Thanks go to Sarah Wood for her excellent transcripts of "Strange Visitor from Another Planet" and "I'm looking Through You." Early parts of this story rely heavily, with Sarah's permission, on these well-written transcripts. With her gracious permission, we have begged, borrowed, stolen, twisted, and blended her words with ours in the early parts of the story. In other parts of the story we were fortunate enough to be able to use the original scripts from IGACOY, GGGOH and MOSB; many thanks to Margaret who made these available on her website.
Finally, many thanks to Carol Malo for her final editing for the archive. We are both very grateful to you, Carol, for your attention to detail.
All standard disclaimers apply.
Please send feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
"Climbing to ten thousand, levelling off at zero, seven, zero, mark three," the pilot said into his headphones. Lois and Clark were seated near the rear of the small plane, which was devoid of the standard passenger accommodations. Trask and his men were for the most part busy with their plans, leaving the two alone. Lois had spent some time wondering just why Trask hoped Superman would come to save the two reporters, and didn't like any of the possibilities she had come up with. At length her mind had drifted in other directions, and the grimness of their situation had begun to weigh rather heavily on her.
"It's a romance novel," she suddenly told Clark morosely, staring off into nothingness.
"My novel. It's about a woman that dies without ever finding her true love." There was a mournful note to her voice.
"That's not going to happen to you, Lois," Clark assured her, instinctively knowing that the story she was writing was based on her own feelings. Although he knew why she'd said it, and he had to agree with her. They were held at gunpoint in a small aircraft, thousands of feet up, and he had a bad feeling about this madman's intentions. Just how he was going to get them out of this without revealing himself as Superman he had no idea.
"Oh yeah? Check it out, Clark, those guys look serious." Her voice held a note he had never imagined hearing from Lois: something akin to defeat.
"Okay, I told you, now you tell me," she demanded.
"Tell you what?" he asked, marvelling at her out-of-the-blue questions and comments.
"What really happened between you and Cat the other night. Not that I care," she added quickly. "It's just probably the best secret you've got going. If we get out of this, you have got to raise your standards," she told him. Clark opened his mouth to object, to set the record straight, but Trask interrupted the moment.
"I assume the two of you are familiar with the scientific method?"
"Advance a theory, submit it to a test," Clark obliged warily.
"My theory is that at least one of you knows how to contact this alien creature Superman. Probably by some form of telepathic communication."
"Well, how do you plan to test it?" Lois spoke up.
"If you suddenly became airborne at, say, twenty thousand feet, without a parachute, I assume you will focus all your energies on contacting Superman."
"And what if this theory of yours is wrong?" Clark asked, trying to work out just how serious this man was. Did he really mean to throw them both out of the aircraft?
"Pushing back the frontiers of science is not without risk," Trask said lightly. At a gesture, one of his men yanked open the door on the side of the plane, letting in a blast of howling wind.
"And what happens if Superman does show up?" Lois asked desperately over the noise.
"Does the worm need to know whether the fish is going to be fried or char-broiled?" Trask asked with a laugh. He gestured, and two of his men grabbed Lois.
"Wait, wait!" Clark protested frantically. "Leave Lois! Take me!"
"No! It's okay, I'll go!" she shouted.
"Lois, you don't understand!" he argued, not quite sure what he would have said to her in any case.
She ignored him, turning to Trask. "I think I'm entitled to one last request."
"Within reason," he grudgingly allowed.
"I want to kiss Clark good-bye," she said, turning to her fellow reporter. He looked at her in astonishment. Her eyes were wide with fear, but she was too brave to cower. For a moment the seriousness of the situation they were in was forgotten, as she moved closer to him and he gazed into her eyes. He had thought — well, he had hoped — that her brusque nature and caustic words had hidden a secret attraction to him, that she also felt the unnameable connection that drew him towards her. When she had told him about her experience with Claude, the reporter who had stolen her story and abused her trust in him — perhaps her trust in all men — he'd realised that she had built up barriers around her heart to protect herself, to prevent people from getting close to her. She was afraid of being vulnerable, but it looked as though now, facing possible death, she had the courage to open herself to him.
Her lips touched his, full and soft and sweeter than he had imagined, and her gentle hands cupped his face. It was like being lifted away from all earthly concerns into a world filled only with the smell of her perfume, the feel of her fingers sliding around his neck into his hair to pull him closer, the taste of her on his lips. He was no longer aware of the plane, of Trask, of danger. Lois Lane filled his senses and his being. He slipped a hand to the back of her head, in her silky, wind-blown hair, losing himself in the sensations flooding his body. She ended the kiss and moved her lips over to his ear, whispering, "You take the one on the left."
The unexpected words didn't quite sink in until Lois launched herself at Jason Trask with a total disregard for the fact that he was well armed and trained in fighting. She sent him reeling with a vicious right cross. Quickly, Clark followed her plan, but the odds against them were too heavy. Lois was overpowered by other men. One of the men was about to shoot at her, but Trask stopped him. "No, she's mine!" he shouted, not wanting to lose his bait. The man instead turned his aim towards Clark and shot.
"No!" Lois cried out, horrified. Clark looked down at himself, astonished; the bullet had bounced off harmlessly. Trask wasted no time, shoving Lois out of the plane.
"Clark!" he heard her shriek as she fell.
"Lois!" He panicked, not knowing what to do, and the only thing he could think of was to jump out after her. "Lois!" he yelled as he fell, trying to see where she was. He had to find her, catch her before she fell to her death — he couldn't let her…
"Superman, if you can hear me, drop what you're doing and get over here now!" Lois was still shouting at the top of her voice, feeling the whipping wind created by her descent. That had to be good — she was still alive, at least. "Superman, help!" he heard her wail; glancing upwards, he saw that he was now hidden from the plane by clouds. Swiftly, purposefully, he started to tear at his clothes.
"Superman, Superman, Superman," Lois chanted as her eyes searched the sky for any sign of her hero. She watched the plane as it continued on its way. As she watched it, the figure of a man tumbled out of it. <Oh no, not Clark too!> she thought despairingly.
At first his movements didn't register with her — they just looked like her own panic-stricken gestures. But then, as she watched, they became more purposeful, more measured. Her thoughts whirled in her head as she tumbled through the air, frantic and in a panic. It took her a few precious seconds to understand what she was seeing so high above her. <Clark? Superman? He's Superman? *Clark*?>
"Superman, Superman, Superman," she continued to chant as her thoughts darted here and there, unable to grasp what she had just seen.
Superman swooped down to her, and caught her masterfully in his arms.
<He can't be> she thought to herself. <I imagined it. I didn't see what I thought I did. It was the shock — getting thrown out of a plane can do that to a girl>
"You really do read minds!" she gasped as she wrapped her arms tightly around Superman, clutching at him for dear life.
"Not really," he replied, seeming amused at the thought. "But I do have good hearing."
Clark swept downwards, not speaking, carrying his precious burden gently, close to his heart. That kiss on board the plane had been unbelievable; it had roused passions in him which he hadn't known himself capable of feeling. Her scent, the feel of her had been all around him, and for a brief moment he had even forgotten where they were, what was happening to them.
But Lois clearly hadn't, and the kiss, it seemed, had been merely a ruse — though in that case, why had shemade it quite so passionate? Not that he was complaining, though; maybe it was an indication that her feelings for him were not as she pretended. Perhaps he ought to ask her out again — after all, the first time he'd asked, she had actually accepted before she'd remembered about her dinner date with Luthor. He'd messed up there too: if he hadn't accused her of using her body to get the interview, she might have been more friendly towards him after that.
Lois, for her part, was clinging to the Super-hero and still trying to convince herself that she hadn't seen what she thought she had. Yet that had definitely been Clark tumbling from the plane. It had definitely been his hands pulling at his tie. She had definitely seen the sun glinting off his spectacles. And she had seen a flash of red as he'd pulled open his shirt. There was no other explanation, was there?
Wait a minute… just before she had been thrown out of the plane, she had kissed Clark — as a ruse, no more, she reminded herself emphatically. And he — well, he had a crush on her, didn't he? — had held her very tightly as he had kissed her back. She had inhaled his scent, the cologne he wore…
She brought her face closer to Superman's neck. Same scent.
He *was* Clark!
The… the *fink*! Making her believe that he was someone else — making her chase all over Metropolis in search of him!
She was about to thump his arm and demand an explanation, when she was struck by a thought. Wouldn't it be so much better *not* to tell him what she knew? At least, not until she was ready. Mr. Clark 'Superman' Kent was clearly getting a lot of enjoyment out of fooling everyone; well, she could get some enjoyment of her own. And in the meantime, she could do some more investigating, now that she had a lead which no one else in town had.
This would be one *heck* of a story — a guaranteed Pulitzer, she thought as he finally set her on her feet in front of the Planet. So the longer he remained in ignorance of her knowledge, the better, perhaps.
So, if that was her game plan, she'd better seem concerned for Clark. Composing her features, she raised her gaze to Superman's. "Clark, they still have him, he may be hurt!" she exclaimed in an anxious tone.
He gave her a reassuring smile — how fake is that, she wondered cynically. "Don't worry, I'll go back for him. You'll be all right?" His eyes were concerned, but suddenly her attention was caught by something heading straight for him, out of the sky. Her eyes widened in horror, her anger at his deception forgotten.
Superman saw the fear in her eyes, and prompted, "Lois?" She simply pointed, unable to speak. He turned, and saw a large missile headed directly towards him. Checking first to ensure that Lois wasn't going to collapse, he took off swiftly to deal with it.
Lois staggered into the Planet newsroom, her hair a mess, her clothes awry and one shoe missing. She was in shock; the sight of the explosion in mid-air shortly after Superman had flown off to deal with the missile had left her barely capable of thinking straight. Suddenly all the events of the past half-hour seemed to overwhelm her, and she felt unsteady. Suddenly Clark's deceit didn't seem to matter so much, with the fear that he might be dead hanging over her.
Perry hurried up to her. "Lois, what happened?"
In a strangely detached voice, she replied, "Before or after we were thrown out of the airplane?"
"Airplane?" Perry gasped, barely able to comprehend what Lois was saying.
Lois clutched at the editor's arm: perhaps he'd heard some news. "Superman, is he all right?"
"Well, we don't know, we're trying to track down some witnesses. Now do you know what happened to —?"
But Lois was no longer listening; she was suddenly shaken out of her stupor by the sight of a familiar figure emerging from the elevator. "Clark! Oh, you're alive!" she exclaimed joyfully. She launched herself in the newcomer's direction, to be caught eagerly in his arms. She stroked his hair in her relief and delightat his safe return.
Clark held Lois tightly to him, murmuring happily, "Seems so." She really must care about him after all, he thought. Perhaps that kiss on the plane wasn't entirely acting? He was tempted to kiss her again, but felt shy in front of the newsroom staff.
She broke away from him briefly to call to the newsroom at large, "Hey, everybody! Clark's alive! And if Clark's alive," she continued eagerly, turning back to stare at her new colleague, "that means Superman's alive!"
On the surface, her tone was relieved, exultant; some of the Planet's other colleagues raised their eyebrows in a long-suffering way, already a little bit fed up with Lois's apparent crush on Superman. But, as she continued to stare at Clark, her expression was challenging, pointed. As he had held her, she had remembered again the way he had deceived her. Without uttering the words, she taunted him, <Isn't he?>
Clark, who had inwardly groaned at the mention of his _alter ego_, caught Lois's expression and wondered at its significance. Was she trying to tell him something? No… no, she couldn't be! he convinced himself. How could she possibly have found out, after all? Only that morning, she had commented in extremely unflattering terms on the 'differences' between himself and Superman. And a short while earlier, when he had landed with her outside the Planet, she had reminded him to go back for Clark. No, she couldn't have discovered his secret, he reassured himself. He must have been imagining that glare. Yes, he had to have — she was ignoring him now, turning back towards her desk, calling out excitedly again. Something about this story getting bigger every second.
Clark stood stock still, his joy evaporating. He had been mistaken. She was so dazzled by the heroic figure who had rescued her that it was no surprise she could hardly see the man standing before her. For one brief moment he regretted having created a costume, having flown Lois in his arms into the newsroom. Then he let out a sigh. He'd make her see him, if it took the rest of his life.
"All right, move in!"
The SWAT team swept into the warehouse on Bessolo Boulevard with precision, weapons ready for whatever might await them, spreading out to take control of the area. "All clear!" one reported.
Lois and Clark were allowed in, with Jimmy to take pictures of all the spaceships they had found, and Perry to witness the amazing contents of the building. They stopped abruptly.
Everything had gone.
"It was all here, Perry," Lois said desperately as they looked around the huge, empty warehouse. "Tell him!" she urged Clark.
"UFOs, unidentified flying objects, only they were all identified. Bagged, tagged, processed, right here!" she insisted.
"UFOs?" Perry asked gently.
"Yes! Don't you see? It's a cover-up, big time, that's what's going on!"
"Okay," Perry agreed, trying to calm her.
"This story could be bigger than Superman," Clark added.
Lois spun on her heel to face Clark. "Bigger than Superman…" she murmured, echoing his words. Yeah, right! It was incredible how quickly she had forgotten who was *really* standing right next to her. She marvelled again at the depth and complexity of Superman's disguise. If she didn't know any better, she would really have believed that Clark was just a regular guy! And what did he mean, bigger than Superman? Hah! This was a big story, but it sure wasn't bigger than the exclusive that she planned to write! Bigger than Superman? Yeah, right!
In the line of fire of Lois's steely gaze, Clark never felt more like squirming. They hadn't known each other long, but her reactions seemed… off to him, ever since the plane… the kiss on the plane. Could it have been the kiss? Could Lois actually be starting to see him as a real person?
Lois focused on the job at hand and turned back to Perry. "What we have got here is Cosmic Watergate. I'm going to get back and start writing this right now," she stated vehemently.
"Oh, now just hold on. Now look, this is where I've got to get off this bus you're driving," Perry said, applying the brakes to Lois's mad rush at the story.
"We know what we saw," Lois pointed out angrily.
"Now, you two are the best. You tell me something, I believe you. I can't let you write it though," the editor insisted.
"Well, sure you can! Clark and I can corroborate each other!"
"Not when you're talking UFOs!" Perry pointed out reasonably. "Lois, your physical evidence is gone, Trask is missing, Thompson's dead, General Newcombe says he never even heard of you. We print this, we're going to look like the National Whisper. You two could kiss your careers goodbye, and take the paper along with you. I just can't let that happen. Sorry."
"I believe you," Jimmy said, in an obvious attempt to reassure her, before following Perry out the door.
"Lois…" Clark didn't know what to say to lift her spirits. She was really disheartened.
"Do you realise what we have lost here, Clark?" she asked, bitterly. For one brief moment, it didn't matter that she had the inside track on the biggest story of the year, heck, of the century! What mattered was that she had lost a big story, and those jerks who had dared to toss her, to toss Lois Lane out of a plane, were going to get away with it! Clark looked around the empty warehouse, remembering the feel of the special emblem under his fingers, the hope of answers to some questions that had plagued him all his life. He still had the globe, but the ship itself, and anything inside of it, was gone. What good was a map of his home planet without any other information about it, about his people… about *him*! The spaceship that had brought him to Earth was one of the few ties that bound him to a planet and a people he couldn't remember, and that he now had so many questions about. It had been within his grasp, and now it was gone.
Would he ever find it again? Did it hold any answers for him? Or only clues to a mystery? Would he ever know why he had been sent into space when only a helpless baby? Would he ever know what the planet Krypton was like? Were there others like him somewhere on Earth, or was he truly alone?
Would he ever know?
Did he realise what they had lost here? His voice was forlorn as he answered Lois's rhetorical question. "Yeah, I do."
Lois watched him surreptitiously as she pondered what had happened. She was taken aback by the sad tone to his voice. What did he have to be so upset about? In the great scheme of his life, and of his mission, losing a story couldn't matter to him that much. It wasn't like he really needed to work, did he? As a reporter? No, that had been a stroke of brilliance on his part posing as one. What better way was there for an alien to find out about Earth and its people?
Lois sat in the newsroom, apparently focused on work to the exclusion of all else in an attempt to discourage anyone from interrupting her. She wanted to think about Superman and Clark and get things straight in her mind, but she also wanted to be alone first. Sighing, she buckled down and focused on the preliminary planning for her next story — or at least, her next 'assigned by Perry' story. With any luck, by the time she'd finished that, her colleagues would leave, and she would have the solitude she so desired.
She had made a momentous discovery that day: the greatest, most significant discovery since Superman had first appeared — and she had been the first to see him then, too! There were so many implications, the first being that he was now indisputably *her* story again. Forget all the reporters in Metropolis rushing around like headless chickens trying to catch sight of the Super-hero — *she* would never have to do that again! She would always know where he was — hell, she even knew where he lived!
To think a Super-hero, from another planet, lived in a run-down apartment in a seedy area of town — no one would believe it, of course. Again, it was the perfect disguise. Who on earth would suspect that Clark Kent, from Smallville of all places, wasreally the Man of Steel in disguise? Oh, what an effective deception. He had fooled them all — including Perry White, who for all his Southern drawl and Elvis fixation was no fool. Even she had been fooled by him, had been deceived into thinking that he was no more than a country hick, a gauche boy who wasn't worth her interest.
For an instant, she remembered the very first time she had seen him — as Superman, rather than in disguise. Had he laughed at her disconcertion, her failure to recognise him as her unwanted junior partner? Was he laughing at her still?
She brushed those thoughts aside. She couldn't afford to allow personal feelings to get in her way here, although should the time come when she told Superman that she knew his secret, she might well give him a piece of her mind. Or… would she? She sighed; she just couldn't help this attraction she had to him. After all, he was *gorgeous*… and the way it had felt to be in his arms, flying with him, the way he had smiled at her before flying away from the Planet that day… If there was any possibility that he might return her feelings, then wouldn't she jump at that chance? But he was also Clark Kent — the man she'd christened Mr. Greenjeans. How did she feel about that? Although if it was just a disguise, it hardly mattered, did it?
<The story, Lois. Concentrate on the story!> she told herself firmly. Superman is the story here. Who he really is, where he came from, what he does when he isn't saving people… where he goes. <I *know* where he goes!> And what a story that would be — the syndication rights, the TV slots, the awards. This could be that Pulitzer-winning story she'd been waiting for. The inside scoop on Superman!
But she needed more than she had so far. Sure, exposing Clark Kent as the Man of Steel would be one hell of a story, but where did Superman come from? Who was he really — human or alien? Some sort of cyborg? — maybe she would have to speak to her father, she thought reluctantly. He would know if the technology existed to build a cyborg of Superman's abilities.
<I hope he isn't a cyborg…> she thought instinctively.
Clark drifted in the skies above Metropolis, trying to come to terms with the events of the day. Leaving aside Lois — if he could ever leave Lois aside — he had found his spaceship and discovered where he had come from. But in the same day he had lost the craft again. The only means he had found, in the twenty-seven years of his life, of finding out about his origins and why he had ended up on Earth — and it had gone. Vanished. And he had no way of finding out where it had been moved. He had already searched Metropolis from the skies looking for Trask, to no avail. He grimaced bleakly; he would just have to resign himself to its loss.
He would talk to his parents about it later, he thought; right now, the loss was too recent and his feelings were too raw. Briefly, he contemplated going home, but somehow the thought of his new apartment, which he had been very pleased with only a few days previously when he had done it up, seemed bare and unwelcoming.
He wished that he could go and talk to Lois. If he could only tell her the truth; tell her what had really been in that warehouse and what it meant to him… He needed the comfort she could offer, but he couldn't afford to take it. The price of gaining her comfort would be revealing his secret to her, and that was just not a good idea. The way she fawned over Superman, hero-worshipped him while at the same time ignoring Clark… it was unbearable sometimes. Heaven only knew how she would behave towards him if he ever told her he was Superman. Would she suddenly decide that he was worth knowing after all? And would that only be because of his super-powers?
And she was a top investigative journalist, after all. Despite her crush on Superman, she also wanted the big story, the one which would gain her that Pulitzer. Revealing Superman's biggest secret would get her that, all right. So it was entirely possible that it just wasn't safe to trust her with his identity.
Yes, Lois was a journalist… and she wanted a story about Superman. An interview with Superman… perhaps he would go and talk to her after all.
Lois sat with her feet up on her desk, throwing chocolate malt balls in the air and trying to catch them in her mouth. As she had hoped, she was now alone in the newsroom and, having finished her other story, her thoughts had wandered again to Superman — no, to the man who pretended to be Clark Kent. How had he chosen that disguise? Was he really from Smallville? The people he called his parents — Jonathan and Martha Kent, weren't they? Who were they really? Were they Super beings as well? Where was he now? The bomb on board the Messenger, the explosion in the Carlin Building, and the missile had all been unable to hurt him… Was he invulnerable to everything?
How did he get here? Where was he from? When would she see him again, as himself? How could she best use her newfound knowledge to get the story of the century? Would he allow her to get… closer… to him? She frowned. Clark had appeared to find her attractive, when they had first met. There had been that late-night session when he had gone out for Chinese food — it was no wonder it had been so good, she recognised. It had probably been from China! But their eyes had met, and there had been that expression in his… And only that day, when she had kissed him goodbye as a ruse, it had been evident that he had welcomed the kiss, had wanted to prolong it. Perhaps he did find her attractive…
<Superman likes me!> she thought involuntarily, gleefully, her hope that she might have a chance with him resurfacing.
Concentrate on the real task at hand, she reminded herself. Get the story! By whatever means is necessary.
A slight rustling sound caught her attention, and the malt ball she had been about to catch in her mouth fell to the floor. It was him — Superman! As himself — in the suit and cape. She gaped at him, wondering why he had come to the Planet dressed like that. She was the only one around… it had to be…
He spoke in a deep, assured voice. "I hear you've been looking for me."
Oh, confident! she thought. Got to throw him off track… "All my life," she murmured, trying to make her voice sound like a teenager with a crush. He seemed not particularly surprised by the reply, and perhaps even a little gratified. <Yeah, you'd like to think that was the case, wouldn't you?> she thought cynically.
She lowered her feet from the desk and favoured him with a more confident smile. "Everyone's looking for you," she assured him. <And no-one's found you, except for me>
"I know, and I know that you almost died because of that," she heard him reply, concern evident in his voice.
"Well it did make that bungee jump I did last year seem pretty tame," she said, making light of the situation. <Lois Lane is *not* a helpless bimbo! I thrive on dangerous situations, and if you think otherwise you'll soon learn the truth! Just because I don't have super-powers…>
But he was speaking again. "I'm going to find that man and stop him. That's a promise, Lois."
She deliberately allowed a thrilled smile to creep slowly over her face, lighting her eyes. "You know my name." She looked him straight in the eyes. "But I don't know yours." <Get out of that one!>
"'Superman' seems to have caught on," was his evasive answer.
She grinned, a little self-consciously, for it had been her moniker and he was adopting it — although it certainly meant that he was hiding something. "Where are you from?" she asked, taking advantage of his seeming willingness to talk. "I mean, you're not from Kansas, that's for sure," she joked. <Now here's another hint that I'm on to you — but then, you never could imagine that I'd see through your disguise, Mr. Greenjeans, would you?> she thought with satisfaction.
He didn't. Instead, he smiled. "I'm from another planet. A place called Krypton."
He really was an alien! "Do you mind if I write some of this down?" she asked quickly, thinking that if this was meant to be an interview she should at least go through the motions of taking notes. Not that this would form the basis of her *real* story!
She quickly got out a notebook, glancing back at him. Remembering his admission of being from another planet, she began awkwardly as she remembered her fear that he might have been a cyborg, or unlike a human male in other respects. "Um… You seem, uh, to have all the… parts of a man," she murmured, giggling in embarrassment as she glanced at his strong physique.
He seemed amused by her question, and he responded instinctively to her. "Oh, I am a man, Lois. Just like you're a woman."
She flushed. Why was he flirting with her? But then, she had already established that he found her attractive; and she knew that she found him attractive as well. Momentarily, she felt a little off balance by his sheer presence, and found herself forgetting that she knew his secret. "I'm really glad you're here," she said, trying to remind herself what she was doing, "but, um, *why* are you here?"
The brevity of his response surprised her. "To help," he pronounced.
"To help?" Lois repeated. She could just imagine Perry's southern accent deepening, laden with sarcasm, as he gave her his opinion of such an inadequate statement in no uncertain terms — replete, no doubt, with a long speech about one of Elvis's famous quotes. "I need a little bit more of a quote than that," she explained to the superhero standing before her. "Something like, 'I have not yet begun to fight!' or 'Damn the torpedoes!', something like that. I mean, if you said 'I am here to fight for truth!' or 'justice'…"
"Well, truth, and justice, that sounds good," he agreed after a moment's thought. "You can use that."
She flashed him a brilliant smile and scribbled it down, while thinking to herself that Superman had disguised himself as a reporter — not just any reporter, but someone who thought he was good enough to work with *her,* and yet he couldn't even supply a decent quote for the best story in town!
Clark watched her, glad that he had taken the opportunity to come to see her. It had served a few purposes: to start with, it had certainly taken his mind off the disappearance of his ship, and it had also allowed him another glimpse of this fascinating, maddening, beautiful woman. It was too bad that she was only interested in Superman, not in the real person, Clark Kent. It had felt good to be able to tell her where he was from: he'd done so proudly, letting the name of his home world roll off his tongue. For the first time in his life he knew the answer to that question, and it gave him a sense of inner peace, of having roots. But at the same time, remembering Lois's careless reference to Kansas… little did she know!
As he wondered what else he could say to her, in the distance he heard a woman's voice crying, "Help!" Lois saw him tilt his head to one side, listening to something although there was nothing she could hear. "What is it?" she asked him.
"Someone's in trouble."
"This is a job for Superman, right?" she suggested with a smile.
Clark knew it was foolish to treat her in a special way, that if she harboured romantic fantasies about the superhero she wouldn't spare a glance for the ordinary guy she worked with… but he was powerless to stop himself. "I'll be seeing you," he promised, giving her a long, meaningful look before floating up and out the window.
<Yes, and I'll be seeing *you*> she thought <long before you realise it, Superman!>
Lois was never more relieved to reach the safety of her apartment than she was that evening. She had some pretty intense thinking ahead of her still, and she had found the newsroom just too distracting.
After locking the door, and putting away her coat, she crossed to the couch and sat down. She rummaged in her purse, and triumphantly retrieved her notepad, a pen and two Double Fudge Crunch bars. Brain food!
<Okay, Lois> she said to herself, <let's start by writing down everything you remember>
She drew a vertical line down the middle of the page and headed her two columns simply. One read "Superman", the other "Clark".
She paused, and tapped her pen lightly against her teeth. <All right, girl> she thought, <let's be logical and start with what you know. Keep the guesses for later>
Hmph! What stood out the most in her mind right then and there was the trick he had played on her. It wasn't often that Lois Lane was fooled but he, and of course, Godzilla had done it! What a rotten, stinking thing to do! It sure didn't seem like a superhero thing to do! Getting even was wrong, wasn't it? Even if you were getting even with a person who had stolen your story, and Eduardo's lead, and Jimmy's idea… she faltered. She had been obsessed… But it had been really important… It was the story of the century… She had been completely out of line, hadn't she? Maybe she needed to backtrack and start at the beginning. She didn't much like thinking about her behaviour after 'Superman's' first appearance.
She thought about the first time she met Clark. He hadn't looked like much sitting in Perry's office. Okay, if she were going to be honest with herself, he had been kind of cute the way he had stood up when she entered. What had she learned about him in that brief encounter? What was the gist of their first meeting? She pondered for a long moment, and then finally wrote down one word in the second column. 'Gentleman.'
What had she learned about him when they worked on the Messenger story together? He had a sense of humour. She flushed as she remembered his quick rejoinder to her 'top banana' comment. "You like to be on top. Got it."
'Funny,' she wrote next.
Hmm, what had happened after that? Oh, right, they had gone to see Dr. Platt. He had understood everything that Dr. Platt was trying to explain to them.
'Smart' went on the list too.
And then Lois hadn't felt very comfortable when Clark had seemed to admire Dr. Baines. Could she have been jealous, she asked herself. Of Clark? No. If she had known he was really Superman, it would have made sense to be jealous, but of Clark? She forced the thought back out of her head. He had admired Dr. Baines, though, and yet he also seemed to have feelings for Lois. What did that say about Clark? Her pen and notepad were forgotten as she found herself dwelling on Clark, his possible feelings for Lois and his possible feelings for Dr. Baines, the righteous anger he had shown at the lack of respect the cop had shown to Dr. Platt's corpse, his discomfort at Cat's advances on him, his flirtatiousness at Lex's ball, his jealousy of Lex.
<Clark is attracted to me> she thought, <I mean, Superman. Superman's attracted to me!> She sprang to her feet in an excess of nervous energy and paced back and forth. An errant thought brought her to a halt. <Clark saved that worker down the manhole. The guy said that it was Clark who saved him, and it really was. He was filthy. His clothes were filthy. Why didn't he have his suit on?
Why hadn't he been prepared? Didn't he wear it all the time, or maybe… he didn't have the suit then> Lois remembered suggesting that Clark bring a change of clothes to work. <Did I give him the idea? Me?> She sat back down on the couch. Oh, and what about when Superman had seemed to disappear for a while? Clark had seemed so depressed. He must have stopped saving people when Monique Kahn had said he was being tested. Her words to Clark about Metropolis needing Superman had new meaning now that she knew she had been talking to Superman all along. He had listened to her. 'Superman' had reappeared shortly after that. He obviously did value her opinion. She snorted. <I already wrote down 'smart'!>
But he hadn't seemed so smart when he had come barrelling through the doors at EPRAD! She giggled. In retrospect, it was really funny although it hadn't seemed so at the time. She had been furious with him.
Oh, no! She had told him things when they were chained together that she had never told anyone before. Why had she done that? She flushed in embarrassment. She had told him all about Claude! He had been sweet though — non-judgmental and understanding. What had he said to her? Oh, yes. "When you're in love with somebody, it doesn't matter how smart you are, or how many rules you set for yourself, you're still vulnerable." Vulnerable? Vulnerable to her attack… if she wrote her exclusive? <Lane, get a grip, girl! This is business> She couldn't take her personal feelings into consideration. But he had saved her life, and Jimmy's life too. A missing link to the chain that bound them? What a coincidence!
And he had saved her life twice more. Once by swallowing a bomb, and just today, by catching her when she had been thrown off the plane. Three times in less than two weeks! Maybe she did owe him for that. Maybe she shouldn't write the story. It was hard to decide. Maybe the best course of action might be to find out more about Clark… Superman, she pointed out to herself. Clark was really Superman. Why was she having such a hard time remembering who was the alter ego and who was the original? Anyway, her decision was made. She was going to get to know him better, in both his guises and see what happened.
She got up from the couch and headed to the bedroom. It was really late, she was tired and she was more than ready for her bed. She stopped dead in her tracks. <Oh, no! Did I really say that Clark was the before, and Superman the after? Did I really tell him that his eyes were dull, insipid, mud-brown? And did I really call him a Greek God to his face? How am I going to face him tomorrow? What am I going to say? Oooh, this is all so frustrating!>
Lois's worries about facing Superman the next day were temporarily laid to rest when she attended the ceremony welcoming him to Metropolis. She felt safely anonymous and well hidden in the midst of the raucous crowd.
As the Super-hero slowly glided down to the ground, Lois watched as the excited onlookers around her pushed and shoved their way close to him, trying to touch him, or shake his hand. She forced her way back, out of the melee and watched, smugly amused. <If they only knew> she thought.
She listened attentively as first Lex and then the deputy mayor mouthed appropriate platitudes, watching Superman intently the whole time. Funny, he looked a little uncomfortable, and very self-conscious. She smirked to herself for a moment. It seemed to her that anyone willing to dress the way he did should be beyond feeling self-conscious. The Spandex certainly didn't leave… anything to the imagination, did it? She eyed him appreciatively once again as he stepped up to the microphone.
"Uh… I… You've all made me feel very welcome here," he blurted out. "Thank you."
That was it? That was all he planned on saying? This verbal awkwardness didn't match with his innate self confidence. He hadn't sounded like the competent Super-hero. He had sounded more like the farm boy from… where was it again?… oh, right, Smallville.
Feeling more than a little bit confused, Lois watched Superman as he hurriedly evaded his eager fans. She was having a lot of trouble reconciling the hero and the hack. She needed to go back to the Planet and spend some time with the alter ego.
Lois and Clark sat side by side in the conference room waiting for the daily staff meeting to start. Lois felt a bit… awkward and off-balance and, uncharacteristically for her, kept her mouth shut.
Clark too was silent. He couldn't stop thinking about the festivities earlier in the day — all those screaming people eager to get a piece of him. They all looked at him, but none of them, not one, saw him for the person he truly was. He was grateful to the Suit, really, he was. But he had never envisioned that the Super-hero he had created would start to take on this life of its own. It would be so easy to put the Suit on, go out in the world and see what the world handed him — adulation, power, money, women. He flushed, thinking of the screaming crowd of teenage girls who had pursued him into the alley. But none of that would mean anything. It wouldn't really be aimed at him — at who he really was. None of it would be earned. No. He had different goals than that, and anything good in his life, he wanted to earn himself. Respect, both for who he was and what he did with his life; money — oh, not some inordinate amount but a decent salary in exchange for hard work; and, not women, but one woman — one woman who shared all his secrets and yet loved him, respected him and supported him. Was that too much to ask? He had a horrible feeling that it could be.
He sat, thinking, brooding, not focused on the people or the room around him. Cat threw herself into his lap with a jolt, wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him over-enthusiastically. "Morning, hot cakes," she purred as she got back off his lap.
Clark glared at Cat as he roughly wiped her lipstick from his mouth. Here was another person who didn't see him for who he truly was. She saw him as a man with a capital M, as a… as a trophy or as… prey. This was new to him, and he didn't like it.
Lois watched in irritation as Cat made her play for Clark. She was quick to notice Clark's annoyance. "What's the matter, Cat? Left your professionalism at home?"
Clark shot Lois a grateful glance. At least she was starting to see that there was nothing between him and Cat. As if he would be interested in someone like her!
"Okay, kids. Let's get started." Perry looked briefly around the room. "Clark?"
"Right here, Sir."
"Oh, Kent. I didn't see you. I take it you and Lois are on that 'Superman gets the Key to the City' story?"
"Yeah, on it," Lois replied off-handedly.
This little exchange with Perry didn't help to bolster Clark's ego. Sitting right in front of the man, and Perry didn't even notice him in the room. Obviously, 'Clark Kent' didn't exactly form a strong presence in a room like 'Superman' did! He mentally shook himself, trying to shake this sombre mood. Picking up on Lois's lack of excitement, he turned to her and lightly said, "What's the matter, Lois? Bored with Superman already?"
"Um, no. Not at all. Just… keeping my distance, maintaining my professionalism." Lois shot a pointed glance at Cat. "Unlike some I could mention — or maybe I just work in a different profession from someone else in this room."
Cat took advantage of Perry's back being turned to pull a face at Lois, sticking out her tongue. "At least I know what to do with a man," she murmured throatily, and Lois flushed, ducking her head down to stare at her notes.
Clark grinned in amusement. His amusement fled quickly, however, as he glanced out the window and noticed a small plane in trouble. Black smoke poured from it as it headed rapidly towards the ground.
Lois's every sense was completely attuned to Superman sitting beside her. She was more aware of him than of anything else in the room. She felt him shift in agitation. Glancing quickly at him out of the corner of her eye, she noticed that his attention was no longer in the small conference room. Following the angle of his gaze, she saw the small plane outside the window. He needed to leave! Right now!
"Look!" Lois stood up and pointed, drawing everyone's attention to the drama unfolding right outside. "Come on, Kent. Perry, we're on it. Clark, you take the stairs; I'll take the elevator. One of us should make it outside fast enough."
Clark didn't waste any time talking but ran for the stairs. Lois followed behind and stopped at the elevator. As she watched him disappear down the stairs, or maybe up the stairs, she thought to herself <That's one you owe me, Superman>
Lois emerged from the building in time to see Superman land the small plane in the street. He darted into the cockpit and emerged with one person gently cradled in his arms. An Emergency Services vehicle arrived, and Superman turned the injured pilot over to the medical response team. He shot straight up in the air and rapidly disappeared from sight.
Only a short moment later, Clark also emerged from the Planet building, and ran, huffing and puffing, to Lois's side. He surveyed the scene proudly. That had gone smoothly. "I guess I missed all the action."
"Guess so." Lois almost choked on her words but managed to restrain herself. She too was pleased at how well her prevarication had worked out. She turned to re-enter the Planet building only to have Clark rush to her side to hold the door for her. He had such old-fashioned manners. The Kryptonese? Kryptench? Kryptonian, yes that worked, the Kryptonian who had scouted ahead and done the preliminary research on Earth must have arrived quite a few years ago. Not many men of her generation were so courtly.
They were both silent in the elevator on the way up. On re-entering the conference room, Lois held up her notebook. "Don't worry, Perry. I got everything right here, and I'll write it up as soon as this meeting's over."
"Good, Lois. Okay, everyone, let's get back at it. Uh, where was I?" Perry looked down at his notes.
"Teacher's Pet," Cat hissed.
Perry looked up sharply. "Cat, now, anything new on Councilman Addis' arrest last night?"
"I'm on my way to the house of ill repute to interview the, uh, 'lady' in question," Cat answered.
"Aren't those also known as Cat Houses?" Lois asked with a smirk.
"Lois made a joke!" Cat retorted, her claws out in defence.
Clark grinned. Perhaps he should take a lesson from Lois in how to deal with Cat and her unusual sense of humour.
"Hey, anybody get a load of today's National Whisper?" Jimmy asked in amusement.
Lois took the paper from him as Perry admonished him. "Oh, come on, Jimmy! Don't bring that trash in here. Sorry excuse for a newspaper."
Jimmy defended his choice of reading material. "Chief, it's really smooth. This invisible guy breaks into the safe of the city's most notorious slum lord, takes the cash, and then he hands it out to the tenants in one of his buildings."
Lois grimaced as she pointed to a different article on the cover. "Did you happen to notice the headline right next to it? 'Benjamin Franklin is Alive and Well and Living in My Electric Blender.'"
Perry threw the tabloid in the trash. "Aw, come on kids, come on. Let's settle down now. All right. Let's see. Friaz, are you doing a follow-up on the escape of that armed robber from the state penitentiary, um, what's his name …?"
"Barnes. Big man-hunt started last night. They think he may be headed for Metropolis. These wanted posters go up today." Friaz handed out samples to his colleagues.
Lois exited the conference room ahead of Clark and the others, anxious to get down to work. Her way was blocked, however, by a man in a very loud checkered jacket and even louder tie, who demanded her attention. She was less than interested to discover that he was the manager of a talent agency and that he wanted to represent Superman, and was even more underwhelmed to realise that he expected her to help find the Man of Steel. Her disgust at the idea was obvious from her expression as she prepared to tell the man, who had introduced himself as Murray Brown, to get lost. <See, Superman, there's another favour you owe me> she noted. <If I'd chosen to tell this money-grubbing leech that you're only over there…>
Her thought processes were interrupted by Jimmy calling to her from his position by the banks of television monitors. "Lois, CK! Check this out!"
She glanced back at the talent agent, contemplating giving him a piece of her mind for his presumption, but then decided he wasn't worth it. Ignoring him, she walked off to see what had caught Jimmy's attention. He was listening with rapt attention to Linda Montoya's report.
"If you're not seeing what I'm not seeing, then you may be witnessing a miracle. Captured earlier today on home video, a catering truck loaded with fancy treats for a political fund-raiser was hijacked by an invisible man." The video showed the driver of the truck being flung from his seat onto the pavement, although there was no sign of anyone else. The apparently driverless truck then drove off. Yes, an invisible man. That truck ended up at the Fourth Street Shelter in downtown Metropolis…"
As Lois listened in disbelief, a short middle-aged woman crept up to her. "Excuse me, Ms. Lane?"
Lois didn't even glance around. "One second." She continued listening to the report.
"… where homeless families feasted on goose liver pate and cold lobster salad… many thanks to the invisible man. No one as yet has any clue to this unexplained phenomenon. Is it real? Is it an illusion? We'll all just have to wait and see. Up next…"
Lois turned to the woman waiting to speak with her. "Yes, can I help you?"
Her visitor replied, "You spoke at my women's group last October. 'The Weaker Sex: Fact Or Fiction?' It was a terrific speech."
Lois smiled. It was always good to receive positive feedback, and she enjoyed being seen as a positive role-model for other, less successful, women. "Well thank you, I'm really glad that you liked it." She began to walk away, considering the discussion to be at an end.
The woman and Clark both followed her. "I need to speak to you about my husband, he's disappeared," the sweet-faced woman said. Lois rolled her eyes. Clark looked concerned, immediately wanting to help. Superman really was a Boy Scout, wasn't he? Lois mused wryly.
"Uh, first floor, try missing persons," she suggested dismissively. "No, no! He's really disappeared!" The two reporters both stared at her. "I'm the invisible man's wife," the woman explained.
Clark raised his eyebrows, unsure how to take this. He turned to Lois to see what her response was.
Lois was incredulous! She covered up her annoyance at being bothered by loonies, and smiled politely. "Ah, could you just wait over there for just a moment? Jimmy?" She guided the woman towards Jimmy with a gentle push.
Unlike Lois, Clark was intrigued, and it surprised him that she wasn't going to follow up on the woman's story. "Come on, let's talk to her," he urged.
"Why are you so interested in this?"
"I'm fascinated by the paranormal." She rolled her eyes. "Ugh! Why doesn't that surprise me?" <Why indeed? I suppose since he's an alien from outer space, nothing else could seem too weird for him>
"Oh come on!" he said persuasively. She gave in and linked her arm through his to lead him toward the woman.
"Who knows. Maybe she'll introduce us to Casper the Friendly Ghost," she joked. Clark laughed.
This was one *weird* story, if it even was a story and not just a waste of time, Lois mused later. She and Clark had duly spoken to Helene Morris, and afterwards had accompanied the woman to her home in one of Metropolis's suburbs. Helene had shown them the laboratory in the basement where her husband worked, protesting in the face of Lois's continued scepticism, "But I'm telling you the truth, my husband is invisible!"
The laboratory was crowded with all manner of scientific equipment and supplies, complete with unidentifiable liquids bubbling through spiralling glass tubes. Nothing, however, to add any credence to this woman's fantastic claims. "So, what makes you think that your husband is invisible?" Lois asked as she looked around, not believing it for a moment.
"Because I saw him… or rather, I didn't see him, leave," Mrs. Morris replied confusingly.
"When is the last time you *did* see him?" Clark asked sympathetically, trying to make some sense of the situation. Lois, who by now was getting bored, idly picked up a wedding picture. Helene and Alan Morris looked like an ordinary suburban couple. It was barely credible that they should invent a crazy claim to have discovered invisibility.
"In the flesh?" Helene asked. Clark nodded. "Monday a week ago, I think."
"You don't remember?" Lois asked. This was getting crazier all the time! She felt some sympathy for the woman, but she really didn't seem to be all there.
"Well to be perfectly honest, we don't see much of each other anyway. For the past several years he's practically lived down here. He'd come upstairs late, and I'd just leave his dinner in the oven on warm. You know how it is." While Helene tried to explain her disintegrating marriage, Clark began to wander around, looking at all of the equipment and experiments in the lab, letting Lois take charge of the interview.
"So, you and your husband were having marital difficulties?" Lois clarified, thinking that this explained his 'disappearance.' <Why are we wasting our time on some jerk who probably left his wife for another woman!> she asked herself.
"No, not really. I mean, we never fought, we just sort of stopped talking to one another. Slipped into a pattern. I guess he just lost interest in me. We've been married twenty-something years."
"What happened the night that he left?"
"Well, he hadn't touched his dinner so I came down here looking for him and… well, he wasn't here, but then that door suddenly opened and I heard him say, 'Goodbye, Helene, see you around.' And then he walked out." Her voice grew tearful. "The door closed behind him." She began to cry in earnest, and Lois hesitatingly stepped forward to put her arms around the woman in an awkward hug for a moment.
"What is it that you would like us to do?" she asked Helene, her impatience disappearing as she began to feel sorry for the woman.
"I want you to write an article about him. I want you to find out if he's ever coming home. I want you to tell him that I miss him." She sobbed miserably.
On leaving the house, Lois had still been unconvinced that there was a story there. She shook her head and commented, "Poor woman. Her husband's probably got something going on the side, he walks out on her, she thinks he's turned invisible."
"Well how do you know he isn't?" Clark challenged. She stared at him. Was Superman some sort of idiot?
"Are you serious? We're talking about a figment of somebody's overactive imagination."
"Does everything in life have to have a perfectly reasonable explanation?" Clark retorted.
"Everything," she told him with a superior smile.
"All grounded in clear scientific reason?" he asked.
"Of course," she replied confidently, not seeing that she was being set up for a fall.
"No magic left in the universe?"
"There's no werewolves or vampires loose in the city either," she assured him sarcastically.
"What about Superman?" Clark asked triumphantly, playing his trump card.
"There's a man living somewhere in Metropolis who *flies,* Lois!" Clark reminded her, enjoying himself. It wasn't easy to score a point off Lois, but that made it all the sweeter when he did.
<Yes, Superman, and I know who you are> Lois reflected smugly. But she wasn't about to concede his point, and she swiftly found a distraction. "Oh no, not him again!" she exclaimed, seeing a plane in the sky. It was sky-writing a message: 'Superman, call M. Brown, 555-I-REP-YOU.'
"Who?" Clark asked, confused for a moment. He knew she couldn't be talking about *Superman*! He followed her gaze upwards.
"He is unbelievable!" Lois exclaimed. "Well, he's persistent," Clark said with a shrug, somewhat amused.
"He is a smarmy, money-grabbing opportunist! They all are! Everyone wants a piece of Superman. Keys to the city, telethons, benefits… What's next, a guest shot on A.M. Metropolis?" She sighed heavily as she gazed at the words Superman couldn't help but see. "When is this all going to end?"
"Are you worried this is all going to go to Superman's head?"
"No. I'm worried he'll forget about me," she retorted sarcastically. But she wondered, all the same, whether the attention and adulation would affect the Super-hero. Would he decide to throw off the Clark Kent disguise? And if so, perhaps she needed to get to work on her story as soon as possible, and *not* waste any more time on ridiculous wild-goose-chases such as non-existent invisible men!
That very much reflected her viewpoint when they had arrived back at the Planet; Jimmy had immediately cornered them to ask how the interview had gone.
"Dead end," Lois informed him.
"I don't think so," he replied, gesturing at the television. Helene was speaking to a group of reporters from the front of her house.
"He worked very hard to make himself invisible," she was saying, "and I guess he finally figured out how. He was in that laboratory day and night. All I really want to say is… Alan, if you're listening, please come home."
"Her nosy next door neighbour sold the story to the wire services," Jimmy said.
"It doesn't matter, there's no story anyway," Lois stated firmly. "There is no such thing as an invisible man." She walked off, leaving Clark to shake his head at her stubbornness.
But she was forced to change her tune later when she and Clark were sent to the scene of a robbery in a jewellery store. As was her usual practice, she demanded information from the police officer in charge of the investigation, only to be told that there was no evidence, nor any witnesses.
"Has everyone in the city lost their mind? There is no such thing as an invisible man!" Lois exclaimed impatiently.
"At what point are you going to start believing in this, Lois?" Clark asked her, getting exasperated.
"When I don't see it with my own two eyes," she returned with a smirk. Just then a police officer handed her a message. She thanked him and read it in surprise. Helene Morris wanted to meet with them! She briefly showed it to Clark, then led the way out of the store.
At the Morris house, the laboratory was a mess. There had clearly been a break-in, and items had been smashed and thrown everywhere. However, what amazed Lois was that Helene Morris was now claiming that *another* invisible man had caused the damage. Was she seriously expecting two reporters from the top newspaper in Metropolis to believe that there were *two* invisible men, Lois wondered? Although, she thought disgustedly, she had clearly succeeded in convincing Superman/Kent. Just how gullible was that man?
On the way back to the Planet, Lois tried to persuade Clark to her own point of view, suggesting that it probably had been Alan Morris who had injured Helene and done the damage. Clark was sceptical, arguing that Helene's husband hadn't sounded like the violent type.
"Fine, we write the story," she agreed at last. "But admit it, Helene could be wrong. After all, nobody really knows anybody," she said cynically, folding the visor back up and putting her lipstick back in her satchel.
"That's not true," Clark protested.
"We like to think we do, but we all wear disguises, don't you?" she taunted him. <Well, you and I both know the answer to that one, don't we?> Lois couldn't help but ponder, was she using her knowledge of Superman's secret identity against him? No, no, no! She dismissed the thought as quickly as she could. This was business.
"Well —" he began uncomfortably.
But Lois had no intention of pushing for an answer, and she continued. "I mean in order to let somebody really know you, you have to let them see you as you really are. So —" she continued at a rapid-fire rate. "So as soon as you let them see you as you really are they wind up using it against you."
Finally Clark managed to get a word in edgeways. "But marriage is about sharing everything you have, even when you don't feel like it."
"So is divorce; ask my mother," Lois retorted with finality, then stared moodily out the windshield. That brought the exchange to a sudden halt, and for a moment the only sound was the swish of the windshield wipers.
Clark couldn't comprehend such a cynical view of marriage. His parents had a partnership, and he hoped with all his heart that he would be so lucky as to find what his parents had: someone who could make him feel complete, who could accept him for what he was and love him with all the compassion, humour, and understanding that his parents gave one another. What had Lois' family life been like that she had such a diametrically opposing vision?
"So where are we off to?" he asked.
"Home. I have to get dressed."
"Uh-huh," she confirmed with a smug smile.
"You," she said cheerfully, looking at him to see what his reaction was.
Clark's eyebrows quirked. "What?"
Lois giggled. "Okay, not a hot date. But I thought you might like to accompany me to the Charity Auction. It's an annual event. Cat's going to cover it for the gossip column, but I'm going, too, to cover Superman's appearance on the auction block. And who knows, Clark? Maybe next year, after you've become better known, you might volunteer to be uh, sold also."
Wicked thoughts ran like quicksilver through Lois's mind at the possibility of purchasing a date with Superman at the bargain price that Clark would bring. She flushed slightly. Could she help it if she found Superman attractive in both his guises? <But remember, Lane> she reminded herself for the umpteenth time that day, <this is business. It doesn't matter how nice he is, or how much a gentleman, or how attractive, or muscular, or sensual, or well-defined, or sexy,or …> Lois forced the litany of Superman's many attributes out of her head. Damn. She was having to work harder and harder at maintaining the right attitude here. <It's a story, Lois. It's a great story. Nothing matters but the story>
Clark couldn't help but notice Lois's complexion redden a bit, and her breathing speed up somewhat. Her physical reaction coupled with the invitation to accompany her this evening couldn't help but give him hope that she was starting to find him attractive.
Clark and Lois stood on the sidelines watching the 'beautiful people' of Metropolis mingle. Hors d'oeuvres were plentiful; champagne flowed, and the rich and famous postured fatuously for each other. Clark was having a great deal of trouble keeping a straight face as Lois told him snippets of useless, yet highly amusing information about many of the guests. He was disconcerted when he saw Lex Luthor pass by. And he wasn't pleased when Lois didn't have anything negative to say about the tycoon. Clark didn't feel ready to share his knowledge as to Lex's true nature with Lois however. He didn't have proof, or at least, Clark Kent didn't have proof. And he couldn't share Superman's knowledge with her without sharing a different kind of secret. He didn't feel ready for that. He snorted with disgust as Lex took his place on the 'auction block.' He wasn't impressed when Lex shared his status as the 'third richest man in the world' with the crowd. Clark glanced sideways at Lois and was pleased that she evinced no interest in bidding on Luthor.
He took a second look. She really did look lovely tonight. Her simple black dress was more elegant than all the designer gowns in the room. Or maybe it was the fact that she was wearing it. Clark had the feeling that Lois would make a potato sack look like an attractive garment.
As the bidding continued for Luthor, Cat Grant oozed over to stand pointedly between Clark and Lois. Lois did a double-take when she saw what Cat was almost wearing. "Couldn't you afford a whole dress?"
Cat glanced pointedly at Clark. "Less is more, darling…" She surveyed Lois coolly from head to toe. "…sometimes."
Lois flushed in embarrassment. Clark had been enjoying the repartee until he became aware that it was time for Superman to make his appearance. He excused himself hastily and hurried out of the room.
Lois was amazed when literally only seconds later, Superman appeared on the balcony. How fast could he move, she wondered in amazement. She watched intently as Superman faltered when the spotlight was turned on him. He looked ill at ease with the attention, and for one moment, Lois's heart went out to him. She also didn't miss the unspoken animosity between Superman and Lex Luthor. They positively glared at each other when they passed. <Superman's acting jealous. Is he jealous? Of me? But then why would Lex act the same way?>
Lois had every intention of watching the auction coolly and calmly until a blonde got into a bidding war with Cat. "Whatthe heck are you doing, Cat?" she hissed.
"You're not bidding, Lois. Didn't want to lose to me?"
"Hah. Just not as hard up for a date."
Up on the stage, Clark felt a laugh bubble out of his throat. In the nick of time, he turned it into a cough. <Good one, Lois>
Lois smiled smugly at Cat's chagrin when both she and the blonde were outbid. Fifty thousand dollars! Lois was proud of Superman for raising that kind of money. Proud like she would have been of any of her friends who had achieved something momentous. Her smile faded as she watched Superman surrounded by fawning sycophants. There was something very depressing about watching the men hang on his every word, and the women hang on him, period.
She turned away, and moved to the bar. What made her think that he had feelings for her? There were so many people in the world, women in the world who could offer more. Why would he want to be with her? She glanced back at the crowd surrounding Superman. Look at him. Look at how well he fit in. She sighed and sipped her wine, suddenly feeling very alone.
"Hello, Lois. A pleasure to see you." Lex looked very handsome and dashing tonight.
"And you, Lex. I'm sorry that I had to cancel our lunch. It's just that Superman was such a big draw."
Luthor glanced in wry amusement at the crowd that still surrounded Superman. "Yes, and apparently not only for you. I thought you might like to reschedule."
Lois looked at Superman again. He looked so comfortable. She felt like such a fool. She turned back to Lex. At least he seemed genuinely interested in her. She didn't feel like he had a hidden agenda. "Yes, Lex. I'd like that very much."
He smiled warmly at her. "So would I."
After Lex had sauntered off, Lois sat back down at the bar and sighed again.
Clark moved out onto the balcony, relieved that he had divested himself of most of the hangers-on. He was anxious to get back to Lois. She was worth more than any of them. He did manage to be polite to the brunette who had "purchased" him. As she disappeared back inside, a couple of things seemed to happen simultaneously. Clark started to take off, and Murray Brown reappeared like the proverbial bad penny, and accosted him. Didn't the guy know how to take no for an answer? Clark couldn't help but be amused as the loud man in the garish suit proceeded to answer the question. He obviously had no idea what 'no' meant. At least he had an advantage in that he was able to take off and escape the agent's clutches. Clark wondered how many others weren't that lucky.
Clark re-entered the charity auction and found Lois sitting alone at the bar, sipping champagne. "I thought you would have bid on Superman," he said with a grin.
Lois glared ferociously at him. <I bet you would have liked that! You want me to fawn all over you, just like everyone else does, don't you? Why else would you have made such a fuss over me, and flirted with me?> "Frankly, Clark, I don't find Superman all that attractive," she spat out angrily.
Clark slipped onto the bar stool beside her. "You don't?" He wasn't sure if this was a good thing or a bad thing. He didn't want her to obsess over the Super-hero any more but for her to not find him attractive… That didn't bode well.
"No, I don't," Lois snarled. "I mean, I thought Superman had standards, but he obviously doesn't if he feels comfortable with… with all these phoneys, and with all this crass materialism." Lois gestured vigorously around the room, nearly falling off her bar stool.
Clark reached out and steadied her. "I don't know about that, Lois. Maybe Superman just wanted to be polite. Maybe he was grateful for the opportunity to help raise money. I, uh, I don't exactly know the guy, but he strikes me as having better values than just being interested in money."
"Hah! Why would someone not be interested in money?"
"Well, if Superman was only interested in money, or power, or prestige, don't you think we would have already seen signs of it? I mean, he wouldn't be helping people and not asking for something in return." Clark smiled at her. "And he wouldn't eat bombs, or catch people when they're tossed out of planes — unless he wanted to, of course."
All of Lois's anger drained away, as she acknowledged the truth of his words. He was right. There was something else on her mind though, something that, the haziness caused by the excess of champagne aside, she knew she *needed* to know the truth about. "You know, Clark, I had the feeling that, that Superman might be um, interested in me. But then I looked around tonight, at all the beautiful women who made such a fuss over him, and… oh, maybe it was stupid of me to think that he cared." Her voice trailed off. She waited with bated breath for his response.
"Did you ever think that maybe Superman was afraid to reveal himself? His… true feelings?" Clark responded softly.
"Really?" she murmured as she lifted her eyes to his, her voice very slightly slurred, "Do you think so?"
"Well…" He faltered under the weight of her gaze. "If I had… feelings for someone special… like you, I would be afraid too."
She felt like she was drowning in those gorgeous deep, rich brown eyes of his. Lois could feel the blood rush to her head, her face heating up. "You shouldn't be afraid."
His eyes widened.
Lois hastily backtracked. "I mean, if you did feel that way about someone special, which you don't, or at least if you do, I don't know who you feel that way for, because you haven't told me, although why you should feel like you have to tell me, I don't know…"
Clark started to laugh. "Uh, Lois, exactly how much champagne did you drink tonight?"
Lois grinned in spite of herself, her good spirits magically restored. "I'm not going to dignify your question with a response, Clark… but maybe I shouldn't drive home."
"Come on, I'll put you in a cab." He helped her get down from her bar stool.
The following day at work, the plot seemed to thicken. "Another robbery last night," Jimmy reported to Lois in the newsroom as he passed by her, carrying an empty box towards the elevator.
"The invisible man?" she asked, following him eagerly. This 'invisible man' story was getting more and more intriguing! How had someone — Alan Morris, if it was him — managed to fool everyone into thinking that he was invisible?
"You got it, House of Rare Coins. Owner's in the hospital; crushed windpipe."
"Where're you going?"
"I got to go to the Hall of Records to pick up some stuff for Clark. I'll catch you later." Jimmy dashed into the elevator.
Just then Clark came in, carrying his coat over one arm and some files in his hand. He had just returned from STAR Labs, where he had taken the silvery scrap of material from Alan Morris' lab to be analyzed. They swapped notes on their investigations so far: Lois had visited Morris's employer, but discovered that the place was so impersonal that Morris's boss barely knew who he was. STAR Labs had told Clark that the material was a type of fibre optic, which was designed to reflect visible light as ultraviolet.
"Come again?" Lois demanded.
Clark grinned. "Ultra violet light is an invisible part of the spectrum," he explained.
"Are you saying that it's possible for somebody to be invisible?"
"Think of it as the next stage of stealth technology," Clark explained. "If you wore a suit made out of this kind of material you could appear invisible."
Lois smiled triumphantly. "Well that makes sense! The appearance of invisibility is completely different from *real* invisibility," she argued with some semblance of logic.
"You know, Lois, it must be tough being right all the time," he said, giving up in amusement.
"Yes, it is." She laughed and bounded back to her desk. Clark followed with a smile, enjoying seeing her so happy after her misery the night before.
However, the rest of the day was not so profitable, and by the end of the day Lois was only too glad to pack up and go home, especially when the latest in a long line of fake invisible men turned up. She sighed in exasperation and appeared not to hear Clark when he called 'goodnight' to her.
It was a stereotypical dark and stormy night. Perhaps the chaotic sound of the thunder accounted for the tenor of Clark's nightmare. It wasn't a nice way to wake up, with visions of Lois, Cat, Perry and Jimmy zooming around the Daily Planet newsroom, all wearing variations of his suit. Clark lay on his bed, staring pensively at the ceiling. It wasn't fair that his alter ego was starting to take over his dreams as well as his waking hours. Clark sighed, thinking of all the people who wanted a piece of Superman — his date from the charity auction, Murray Brown, the persistent talent agent, the rich and famous who fussed over him, those women, who like Cat could only see the external, Lois. He paused. Somehow Lois was different from the rest. She cared about Superman. Look how she had defended him from Murray Brown. What he would give to have Lois see him for who he really was, to see all of him. He groaned. Judging from her comments last night at the Charity Auction, she did still have feelings for Superman that she didn't have for him, Clark. Why else would she have been so upset, thinking Superman didn't care for her? Clark rolled onto his side, closing his eyes once again. Would he ever be able to reveal himself to Lois? He was afraid that it would never be possible.
It had been a relief to Clark when Lois called him in a tizzy. His apartment had never seemed so claustrophobic as it had in the wake of his nightmare. He focused on what Alan Morris was saying, about how he only wanted to help those less fortunate and that the current spate of crimes must have been committed by a second invisible man. Somehow Clark couldn't even bring himself to question the meek and mild little man's words.
Lois was acutely conscious of Clark, of Superman sitting beside her. Self-consciously, she tugged her robe a little tighter around her body. She felt so dowdy, so unattractive. How could she have possibly thought that Superman might be interested in her? As Alan continued speaking about his life, as he described how he became more and more invisible over time, Lois could almost sense her partner becoming more and more despondent. <He must be thinking of all those people who only want what they can get from him — like Murray Brown. That would make a great sidebar to my story> Lois was supremely unconscious of the irony inherent in her private thoughts.
Alan offered Lois the hood to his suit to try on. She placed it on her head, turned on the switch, and judging from Clark's reaction, partially disappeared from view. Clark still looked somewhat depressed, and wanting inexplicably to lighten his mood, Lois joked, "I told you it wouldn't work." She was pleased when both men chuckled.
To Alan's credit, he did get very upset when he found out that someone had broken into his home. Lois quickly reassured him that Helene was okay and hadn't been injured.
"Will you help me stop whoever's doing these things?" Alan asked plaintively.
"Well, it's not going to be easy. Invisibility is an incredible advantage," Clark responded.
<Did that mean Superman wasn't going to be on the job?> Lois was swept with a surge of unreasoning anger. She decided to goad him. "And the person who could really help, Superman, is probably off signing a deal to star in his own television series by now."
"Superman on TV?" <Good Lord! He'd never let that happen. What a horrible thought!> "I don't think so! Look, Alan, maybe you'd better stay at my place until this whole thing is resolved."
"Well, I'll see you guys in the morning." Lois got up to lead them to the door. Her robe slipped open, revealing a pair of Superman pyjamas.
Clark groaned in disgust. "Lois, not you too."
Lois looked down at herself. What had possessed her to put *these* on tonight! It was bad enough that she couldn't get *him* off her mind. She flushed as she realised that Clark, Superman might read something into her choice of intimate apparel.
"Good night, Clark." Lois firmly closed the door behind them, sank down to the floor and rested her head in her hands. <Why am I having such a hard time with this? It's a story. And Clark is not a real person. How could he be? Superman is> She shook her head in disgust at herself. <But Clark is such a nice guy!> The thought came to her out of nowhere. <Hah, Lane! Remember. Nice guys finish last. You've been taught that lesson enough times> Lois got up slowly and headed back to bed.
After getting Alan settled down for the night, Clark had headed to the familiar comforts of home. At the moment he didn't feel very comfortable as he surveyed the mound of Superman paraphernalia that covered the kitchen table.
"Can you believe this stuff? It's all over Metropolis." Clark was incensed.
"And not just Metropolis, but at gas stations, and Harley even has a section at the feed store," his dad helpfully pointed out.
"Although I do think the doll is cute." Martha couldn't help making this observation.
"Mom, they're buying and selling Superman on street corners! Lois has a pair of Superman pyjamas!" The words burst out of Clark as if under pressure.
"You saw Lois in her pyjamas?" Martha asked in amazement.
"No! Well… yes, but it was an accident, when her robe came undone," Clark replied defensively. "The point is," Clark continued, trying to make his parents see the problem, "they're selling Superman off like a piece of meat!" Why couldn't his parents understand? He felt as if his identity, his life, just wasn't his own any more.
"Fifty thousand dollars to help blind children, there's nothing wrong with that!" his mother pointed out reasonably.
"Mom, I know it's for a good cause, and I want to help, but… Superman has become this superstar, and I don't know if he can keep it up."
"What do you mean 'he'? You speak as though Superman were someone else! You are Superman, Clark!"
Clark looked at her helplessly. How could he make her understand? How could he tell her, and tell his father, that the only people in the world who knew him, really knew him, were sitting in this room with him. It helped, oh, it helped so much that his parents were there for him, but he wanted more. He needed more. "I guess I just feel like I'm losing myself to the man in the red, yellow, and blue suit."
His father gripped his shoulder supportively. "Son, it's the man beneath the suit that we care about."
His dad's words were meant to be reassuring but somehow, they didn't make him feel better.
The Jack-in-the-box finished playing, and the little Superman figure popped out of it. Clark sighed in frustration.
It had started out as a very frustrating day. In the morning at the Daily Planet newsroom, most of the staff had been gathered in front of the television set, watching Linda Montoya's breaking story.
"The city is gripped with fear this morning after last night's breakout at the Metropolis Penitentiary. The invisible man freed an entire cell block of some of the nation's most vicious criminals. The Police Commissioner is urging the people of Metropolis to remain calm, but he has ordered a 10:00 p.m. curfew for tonight. He is also urging all citizens to lock their doors and windows securely."
"Great shades of Elvis!" Perry exclaimed. "An army of invisible criminals!"
"Something even Superman can't fight," Lois added, turning away in depression. What could he do in the face of men even he couldn't see?
Clark stared after her and sighed, wondering what to do.
Later, they had searched the files in search of any clues to the identity of the invisible thief, and Lois was feeling frustrated as they each took an armful of folders back to their desks. "This is impossible. Even after eliminating all the armed robbers still in jail or accounted for somewhere else there're still over a hundred suspects!" <Come on, Superman!> she thought in frustration, conscious of the man standing beside her. <Use your powers — do something! We need to find this invisible man so we can prove Alan's innocence!>
Clark, who Lois was beginning to realise also counted patience among his attributes, said calmly, "Let's go over it again. First of all he robbed a jewellery store, then he robs a rare coin store."
"Jewels, collectors items, precious metals," Lois guessed.
"Yeah, but not all precious metals."
Lois checked the list of items stolen from the jewellery store. "Gold rings, diamond stone, gold chains, gold brooch…" A pattern was beginning to emerge here…
"Gold!" Clark said triumphantly. "He steals gold!"
"Jimmy!" Lois hollered, an excited gleam in her eyes. She had them!
"Golden Boy Barnes and his gang all went down for the last job they pulled," Jimmy reported. The desk before him was covered with newspaper clippings he had dug up on Henry Barnes's arrest and trial. "Several of them were in the bust-out they had the other day."
"We got 'em!" Lois said triumphantly.
"Yeah, but how do we find them?" Clark asked.
"Well he's bound to strike again," Jimmy said.
"I know exactly where," Lois said confidently as she spied a particular clipping. She held it up and showed them. It was the article Jimmy had found about Barnes's arrest. The headline read, "Robbery At The Metropolis Gold Repository Foiled — Golden Boy Barnes and His Gang to Serve Time."
That night Lois and Clark went together to Clark's apartment to tell Alan Morris the happy news, that they knew the identity of the dangerous thief using his suit, but he was fast asleep on the sofa. "Sh," Clark warned, putting a finger against his lips as he quietly closed the door behind them. "Poor guy hasn't slept in a week," he murmured sympathetically as they came down the stairs.
"We'll let him be then, wait a while. I don't know if he can help, anyway."
"I'll make some tea," Clark suggested. When it was ready, they took their cups out onto the balcony so as not to disturb Alan.
"Nice," she said, after having a sip. She stole a glance at him. How Linda Montoya and the rest of Metropolis's finest would envy her if they knew that she was alone with Superman, drinking tea with him on the balcony of his apartment! It was dark; there were stars in the sky above and they were alone apart from Alan asleep in the next room. The atmosphere was cloaked with intimacy. "Lapsang souchong," he told her. "My mother used to make me tea and raisin scones when I was feeling bad. Years later I had them for tea at the London Savoy, but they never tasted as good."
She smiled along with him, wondering at this glimpse into his personal life. His mother… was this on Krypton? Or was he referring to Martha Kent — was she really his mother? Just for an instant, she was tempted to tell him what she knew. How would he react? Would he be alarmed, guard his privacy jealously, or would he confide in her?
She decided to drop the subtlest of hints. "When I was a kid, Lucy and I used to play this game. We'd ask each other, what would you rather be able to do, fly or be invisible."
"And you chose…?" he prompted.
She sighed. "Invisible. I wished I could walk through all those closed doors. I guess I still do."
"And what do you think you'd find there, behind all those closed doors?"
"Hmm, I don't know. Something different… wonderful… something I don't have, can't have." She smiled wistfully, then issued the challenge. "So what about you?"
"What?" he asked, lost in her wistful words.
"Invisible or fly?" she asked, and laughed. <Come on, Flyboy! Superman! You must have *some* clue that I know!>
"Fly," he said with certainty.
"Really?" <Of course — I never expected anything else!>
She turned to him, a deliberately friendly smile on her face, as she prepared to drop yet another subtle hint. "You know, I never thought I would say this, Clark, but you and I have something in common."
"What's that?" he asked, daring to hope.
"Superman," she said on a sigh. "You want to fly like him, and I want to fly with him." She gazed dreamily up into the sky and leaned her head against Clark's shoulder, sighing. <Now, if you really wanted to, Superman, you could just tell me the truth now, and take me flying up there, into the stars…> On the other hand, she reminded herself more prosaically, what chance her story if she did tell Clark? She wasn't ready to write it yet, and once he knew he was bound to make it difficult for her. And after all, it was the story which was important… wasn't it?
And yet… the more she got to know this man, the more she *wanted* to know him, to have him think of her as a friend — and how could she expose her friend? Especially as once she'd done it, he would probably never speak to her again.
Clark could only gaze up at the sky with her, the yearning in his heart so clear to see on his face and in his warm brown eyes, if only she would look at him. Superman, Superman, Superman… it was always his alter ego. He didn't stand a chance with Lois; even now, in the intimate atmosphere of the starry night, she was standing with her head on his shoulder… and she was thinking about the man in the Spandex. Of course, he knew very well that he could simply tell her the truth, and he briefly wondered how she would react if he just scooped her up in his arms and flew off with her.
Of course, he wouldn't do that, he knew. It was a bad idea… a very bad idea.
A beam of early morning sunlight shone relentlessly on Lois's face until she had no choice but to wake up. As she looked blearily to the side of her, she noted that Alan was still sleeping peacefully on the couch. Blech! Her mouth tasted awful, stale and gummy, and her back was stiff from her uncomfortable position on the floor. A small sound alerted her. She turned her head to survey the rest of Clark's apartment.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you. I ran into Clark at the court house, and he said…" Clark felt guilty as he saw how disoriented and confused Lois looked.
It was a shock to Lois's system to have to play-act first thing in the morning. She prevaricated as best she could. "Clark? Did he leave? What's he doing at the court house?"
"The Hall of Records. He said something about researching the past activities of Barnes' gang. He said you could use my help."
Lois frantically tried to straighten her clothing, and rearrange her hair. She felt completely off-balance. She had shown Superman her worst side before, but that had been before she knew his secret. She flushed angrily as she reminded herself of what exactly she had looked like when she had returned from the dump with Godzilla in hand. Forcing the angry, insecure feelings back down inside her for the moment, she plastered on a smile. "Oh, we can."
Clark returned her smile, automatically, without having to think about it. She was so beautiful, even first thing in the morning. What he would give to wake up and see her beside him every day. He felt guilty though. He should have moved her to his bed and slept on the floor himself. Mom and Dad would have been ashamed. They had brought him up to be more gentlemanly than that. "I saw you at the auction, Lois."
"You did? I didn't think you noticed. I thought that I was just another face in the crowd."
"You will always be special to me, Lois." He reached out and gently touched her cheek.
"I will?" Lois felt her anger melt away and vanish when he touched her.
"You're the first woman who ever…" Clark stopped himself. What was he doing? He wanted her to see Clark as a worthy person, not Superman. "…interviewed me," he continued lamely.
<Clark… I mean, Superman is afraid to express his feelings. He does care for me> Lois thought in wonder. She gazed tenderly into his eyes until she felt she was losing herself, drowning in unfamiliar emotions. <I can't help it. I care for him too> At that moment in time, it didn't matter to Lois that he had deceived her, or played a trick on her, or confused her completely.
"I can't believe my eyes. Is that really Superman?" Alan's words shattered the spell that had kept Lois and Superman motionless. They both couldn't help but smile at his genuine delight at seeing the Super-hero in person.
"Good morning, Alan. I need some information from you."
"Anything," he replied eagerly.
The phone rang and Clark automatically answered it. "Hello?" He glanced at Lois. Oh, this was awkward! "Oh yes, Clark… It's Clark Kent… Yes, they're both here. Yeah, they're fine. Okay, I'll tell them. Thank you." Boy, would he ever have a lot of explaining to do to his very puzzled mother after that conversation!
Lois couldn't help but chuckle inside. It must have been a wrong number. She couldn't help but picture the reaction of whoever had been on the other end of the call. They must have thought they were talking to a crazy person!
Clark then proceeded to quiz Alan about his invention. Continuing to play along with the whole secret identity thing, Lois filled him in about the Barnes gang. They continued discussing the problem of making invisible light visible again when Clark had a thought. He turned to move to the balcony.
"Where are you going?" Lois asked.
"To turn on the lights!"
As she watched him fly away, Lois realised that Superman must have figured out a plan of action. <It would have been nice if he had filled us in on what he was going to do!> Lois turned back to the couch, and eyed the spare invisible suit. She had no intention of sitting calmly at home waiting for her big, strong, Super, man to fly off and save the day!
Alan took one look at the expression on her face, and realised exactly what she was thinking. "Oh no, not without me you don't!" he insisted.
"Do you have a spare?"
"Sure! One size fits all," he replied as he scurried after her.
Lois glared defiantly at Barnes with Alan cowering behind her. It had been such a *good* plan! If only she and Alan hadn't been quite so noisy when they had spied on the gang.
"This should work out perfectly. I can just see tomorrow's headline. 'Invisible Man Found Dead, Along with Hostages, Daily Planet Star Reporter.'" Barnes grinned triumphantly as he turned to leave the bank vault. "Oh by the way, did you know this room is airtight? With the door shut, I'd guess there's about two minutes air here so if I were you, I'd say my prayers."
"I'll say one for you, but it won't help," Lois replied defiantly, trying valiantly to hide her fear.
"I'll be seeing you," Barnes said with a laugh as he slammed the door. Lois rushed to it, but it was firmly closed. There was no way out.
"Danger is my business," Lois muttered to herself in disgust. Her thoughts turned to the one man who could save them. Where had he gone in such a hurry? She was flooded with irrational anger. If only he had told them his plan. If only she had told him that she knew his secret. She wasn't being fair to Superman, but she didn't feel like being fair. If they had been able to talk openly, she wouldn't be in this predicament. Oh, if she could only get out of this, she would clear the air, she promised herself recklessly.
Clark arrived at Fort Metropolis carefully cradling the bag of chemicals he had obtained from Jackson Phosphorus. He could see the police below him, exchanging gun fire with unknown targets. He grinned to himself. 'Unmasking' these guys was going to be fun!
As Clark sprinkled the phosphorus down onto the ground below, Barnes and his gang slowly became visible. Most of the criminals quickly gave up but Barnes made a dash for it. He didn't get too far though. Clark had to laugh at the expression on Barnes' face when he fired at Clark only to see his bullets bounce off the Super-hero's chest! And it was fun grabbing the gun and twisting it into a piece of junk that would never hurt anyone again. Sometimes being a Super-hero was definitely worth it!
After turning Barnes over to Detective Burke, he asked, "Where's Lois Lane?"
"Lois? Is she here?" the detective responded.
Oh, oh! There was no way that Lois would have sat home waiting. She had to be here. He listened hard, tuning in to a thin thread of sound.
Inside the vault, Lois knew that it was only a matter of time before she succumbed to the lack of oxygen. "Superman… where are you?" she gasped. As if in answer to her question, the Super-hero came crashing through the wall of the vault.
She was so pale! Clark hurried to her side, his arms automatically going around her in support. Was she all right? He felt helpless, and worried.
Lois felt better as she drew fresh air into her lungs. He had come! And she had nearly died. As this realisation sank in, her legs started to wobble. Slipping her arms around his neck, she slumped gratefully against Superman, thankful for his support.
Clark scooped her gently into his arms and tenderly carried her out of the vault. Moving to a different location didn't make a difference to the highly charged atmosphere, and the connection between them. He had never felt this way about anyone before in his whole life.
As they emerged into the sunshine, Lois was able to make herself focus on her work. "How did you know how to make them visible?"
Clark came back to himself with a start. "Fluorescent light. In a fluorescent light bulb, invisible light becomes visible when passing it through a coating of phosphorus." He carefully set Lois to her feet.
"That's the fourth time you've saved my life," Lois murmured softly, still resting her hand on his chest.
"Glad to be of service." He smiled as he prepared to take off.
"Supe! You were terrific!"
Lois groaned as she realised it was Murray Brown interrupting them.
Clark couldn't help but smile as he listened to the enthusiastic agent spell things out. "…Now I'm talking movies, I'm talking mini-series, I'm talking music videos, comic books, action figures! But you call all the shots. Quality control, that's Murray Brown's middle name. If you don't like it, kid, we don't do it. Now how could you turn down a deal like that?"
"I can't," Clark replied, pleased with himself. He had finally figured out a partial solution to the problem of everyone wanting to cash in on his name.
"You can't?" Lois couldn't believe it. She was disgusted. Had she heard him right? How could he do this?
"But all proceeds go to charity," Clark pointed out with a grin.
Lois sighed in relief.
"Great touch!" Murray gushed.
Clark turned in mid air to take off when something Lois had said ran through his mind again. What had she meant? "Actually, Ms. Lane, there's something more I'd like to discuss with you. Would you mind flying with me?"
"Are you kidding? I'd love to!" The idea of soaring through the sky in Superman's arms put colour in her cheeks and a sparkle in her eye.
Clark scooped her up into his arms, and took off once again.
"That doesn't include my commission, right?" Lois started to giggle as she heard the pushy talent agent's last plaintive question.
Clark grinned at her. They flew in silence for a few minutes. "Uh, Ms. Lane, you said I saved your life four times. I can only think of three."
<Oh, right, Lane. Moment of truth here!> "You did save me four times. Today of course," Clark nodded in agreement, "the other day when Trask threw me from the plane…"
"And I ate that bomb on the shuttle," Clark pointed out. "But what else did you mean?"
Lois looked at him anxiously. It took a major effort to force her words out of her throat but she persisted. "You saved both Jimmy and me at EPRAD…" Her voice trailed off.
Clark looked at her in shock. "You know!"
"Yes, Superman, or Clark or whatever your name is, I do know."
"How? How did you figure it out?"
Lois couldn't help but laugh at the expression of shock on his face. "I could tell you that it was obvious to a reporter of my calibre, but to tell you the truth, it was an accident. I saw Trask throw you from the plane. And I saw Clark Kent suddenly transform himself into Superman. You know, I have to hand it to you, Superman, disguising yourself as some farm boy from the middle of nowhere was a stroke of genius."
Relieved that the truth was finally out in the open, Lois ignored the shocked and irritated tone of his voice as she rushed to share her thoughts with Superman.
"You know, the glasses are a great touch. They give Clark Kent just the right 'don't notice me' look! You sure had me completely fooled." Lois smiled happily. "What a great story!"
Clark couldn't believe what he was hearing. She thought he, Clark Kent was the disguise? And that Superman was real? He was aghast as the meaning of her final statement sunk in. "A great story? Lois, this is my life!"
Lois was taken aback by Superman's sudden anger. "I know, Superman. I didn't mean…"
"You'd be hurting people I care about! I can't let you do this!"
Lois twisted in his arms to look him in the eye. <I don't care if he is a Super-hero! If he thinks he can get between Lois Lane and a story, he's got another think coming!> "Unless you plan on dropping me, Superman, you can't stop me! Once I'm ready to write it, this expose should win me a Pulitzer!"
Clark stopped in mid-air, in shock at her words. A little of his anger drained away, leaving him feeling very helpless and panicky. "No, Lois, of course I would never drop you, but please, can we talk about this?"
Lois forced herself to calm down. Suspended in mid-air might not be the best place to have this kind of conversation. "Okay, Superman. We can talk about it. But I'd like to suggest that we file this story first, if that's okay with you."
Clark nodded, turning in the direction of the Planet. Maybe it would give him a chance to collect his thoughts and marshal his arguments. She couldn't write this story, she just couldn't.
A few hours later, back at the newsroom, Lois finished going over their story. She took the pages over to Clark. "I think we should lead with this," she informed him, handing them to him and perching on the edge of his desk. She hadn't spoken about the other matter since they'd got back to the Planet, and he'd realised that she wouldn't until she was ready. So he just had to be patient, difficult though that was in the circumstances. Was she really going to expose him to the world? But he was determined not to be the one to raise the subject; he would act as if they'd never had that conversation and see how long she could avoid the subject. Just as long as she kept her word and *did* discuss it with him first…
Clark scanned the articles quickly, and his eyebrows went up. She had done a very good job, and he was impressed. He smiled up at her. "Nice work!"
She beamed, pleased by the compliment. Then her face took on a teasing look. "You know, Clark, not that I'm one of those people that revel in saying 'I told you so'…"
"Uh-huh," he said with a grin, not believing that for a second and letting her know it.
"But I hope you learned your lesson. There's no such thing as an invisible man," she reiterated, a smug expression on her face as she walked back to her desk.
Clark gazed after her, his smile fading. He thought of her passionate responses to him when he wore the costume, her warmth and humour, the glow that brightened her eyes when she gazed at Superman. Why couldn't she understand that the hero she admired was no less a hero as Clark Kent? Why did she persist in believing that Superman, the outfit, the cape, the powers, was all there was to him? And what was she going to do about his secret, anyway?
That now-familiar yearning sensation made him ache inside again. "Yes there is, Lois," he said softly, watching her get back to work with a wistful expression on his face. "Yes there is."
Lois's head jerked up. Had she heard him correctly? What had he meant? What did that yearning note in his voice mean? "Superman…?" she whispered, knowing he would hear her.
Clark met her gaze, and his lips twisted. Even now, in the newsroom when they were working together on a story, she still saw him as Superman, couldn't use his real name. He stood up and walked slowly over to her desk. "You want to know what I meant, Lois?"
She stared at him, seeing the pain and need in his eyes. "Yes, I do," she murmured, knowing it to be true.
His expression was sceptical. "Is this part of your… investigation? More material for your story?"
Something in his expression was compelling her to meet his gaze. "No. I really do want to know — you seemed so sad, Sup… Clark," she amended, seeing his quick frown.
He appeared to make a decision. "Then come with me," he said abruptly, turning away before she could reply. She had to hurry to catch up with him; he was already half-way up the ramp leading to the stairwell.
"Where are we going?" she asked breathlessly as she followed him up the stairs.
"The roof," he told her briefly. Not very informative, she thought, as she trailed along behind him. But once up on the roof he stepped away from her, gesturing to her to give him some space. Then, to her shock and amazement, he began to spin. A kaleidoscope of colour met her as she watched him: grey and white and silver to begin with, then red, blue and yellow. As he came to a halt, he was dressed as Superman. He held out a hand to her.
"What… now?" she asked tentatively. This was a side of Superman she hadn't seen so far; as Clark he was usually pretty easygoing, and as Superman he was strong but kind. Now, he seemed cold and distant, uncommunicative.
"We're going somewhere we can talk," he replied firmly. "I don't want to have this conversation in public."
"Flying?" she asked him, excited despite herself.
Nodding, he scooped her up in his strong arms, balancing her against his hard, broad chest before beginning to drift upwards. She clutched at him, wrapping her arms around his neck to steady herself. "Where are you taking me?" she yelped as the wind began to rush past.
But she realised the answer to her question very quickly; they were flying in the direction of Clark's apartment. In a matter of minutes he had gently touched down on the balcony at the rear of the apartment and was lowering her to the ground. "Come on in," he invited, his tone marginally more friendly than it had been back at the Planet.
The balcony, where only a couple of days earlier they had stood drinking tea, led back into the kitchen; Superman gestured for Lois to precede him, but when she glanced back at him once she was in the kitchen she saw that he was now dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, and Clark's glasses.
She gasped. "You've got to let me know how you do that!"
He raised an eyebrow sceptically at her. "It depends why you want to know."
She glared at him. "Look, Superman… Clark, whatever your name is, I wish you'd stop acting like everything you say to me is going to end up on the front page of the Planet!"
His sceptical expression clearly said, "Isn't it?"
"It is *not*!" she insisted angrily. "Look, have I printed one thing so far apart from what you told me I could?"
He visibly inhaled deeply, then shook his head. "You're right, you haven't. But you told me, when I asked you, that you were planning a full expose when the time was right."
Lois lowered her gaze, remembering that she had indeed told him that, despite the fact that she'd already known she was having second thoughts. "Yes, I know I did. But think about it, Su… Clark, if I'd still been going to do that, why would I have told you I knew? You're not exactly someone I'd want to get on the wrong side of, are you?"
But that seemed to be the wrong thing to say as well, Lois quickly realised; his expression turned dark and forbidding again, and his fists clenched. "Why — what the he… just what do you think I'd do to you?" he demanded furiously.
Lois took an involuntary step backwards, which she noticed only seemed to infuriate him further judging by the tiny muscle which jerked near his jaw. "Look, all I meant was that… well, you are the most powerful man alive, after all. I'm not suggesting you'd hurt me in any way, but if you didn't want me to talk, you could make sure I didn't…"
Clark sighed heavily; this was going from bad to worse. Just what did she think of him? In an effort to give himself time to calm down, he strode to the fridge. "Want something to drink?" he asked abruptly.
"Got any cream soda?" Lois asked, relieved that he seemed to be changing the subject.
He shook his head. "Coke or root beer."
"Diet?" she asked hopefully. He shook his head again. "Oh yeah, you wouldn't need it, would you?" she rationalized aloud. "Okay, Coke then."
Carrying a couple of cans, Clark led the way into his living area and indicated the sofa to Lois; he sat opposite on the armchair. Handing her one of the cans, he spoke quietly.
"Look, there are a few things I'd like to get straight. First off, can you please call me Clark? I'd prefer Superman when I'm in the Suit, obviously, but Clark is my name — that's who I am."
Lois nodded, assimilating what he had said. So Clark was his name… but since when? He was from Krypton — was it a Kryptonian name? Or was it an assumed name, given that his parents' surname was Kent and therefore he must have adopted that, unless they were also from Krypton?
"Second, I don't know how anything I've said or done has led you to believe that I would use violence of any sort against you to stop you publishing your story about me. That is *not* the way I do things. I thought my behaviour had made that pretty clear by now." His expression as he spoke was again forbidding, with no hint of the friendliness or concern he had exhibited earlier when he had rescued her from the vault.
"No… I mean, I guess I knew that," Lois said awkwardly. "I just… I don't know how important this is to you, keeping the secret, I mean."
"It's very important," he replied, the softness of his voice driving the point home with more emphasis than a forceful reply would have done. "But if you wrote the story, Clark Kent would simply leave Metropolis, and Superman would never be seen again. I would just start again somewhere else, the other side of the world perhaps, maybe even with a different name…" He shrugged. "I've done it before, I can do it again."
Lois's jaw dropped; she hadn't expected that. "Look, I really don't want to drive you away. You're doing a terrific job here, you must know that. Metropolis needs you — and you've just been voted Man of the Year! You must see how much you're wanted here!"
"How much Superman's wanted, you mean," he countered, a cynical twist to his mouth.
"But I don't understand… you *are* Superman!" Lois protested.
"No, I'm not," he insisted quietly. "That's what you don't understand — that's what I meant by the invisible man thing. I'm Clark Kent, but ever since I invented Superman I've felt that I'm steadily being taken over by him, until one day I won't even exist any more. Superman will have won."
Shaking her head slowly as she tried to assimilate what he was saying to her, Lois objected, "But *you* are Superman. You're talking as if there's two of you!"
"Sometimes it feels that way," he murmured, so quietly she could barely hear him. "Look, I was Clark first — I've always been Clark. I created Superman so that I could use my powers to do good, while still having a normal life as Clark." He paused, and Lois frantically tried to assimilate what he was telling her. What did he mean, he'd always been Clark? *Was* it a Kryptonian name — or had he been on Earth longer than anyone suspected?
But he was continuing, explaining what was worrying him. "I don't mind Superman getting attention from the media — I'm a reporter, I should know what to expect. What I didn't expect or want was that Superman would be turned into some sort of celebrity! I hate all the posters, the toys, the clothing…"
Remembering her Superman pyjamas, Lois flushed. He glanced at her, and she realised that he was also remembering.
"I suppose I was probably naive to think that Superman could just fly in, do the rescue, give one or two journalists a quote, then fly away again and that would be it." He paused, then caught her gaze again, giving her a direct stare. "But tell me, Lois, was it too much to ask that people would just accept Superman for what he seemedto be? Why does everyone want a piece of him?" The question seemed genuine, as if he really wanted her opinion.
Lois leaned forward in her seat, her expression serious. "Look, you must realise that you're the biggest story in town. It's not just a question of reporting on your latest rescue, it's bigger than that. Everyone wants to know where you're from, why you're here, how come you can do the things you do, what you want, what you're going to do next, and where you go when you're not out saving people. Then the tabloids and the cheap TV shows want to know about your love life, and your sex life, and whether you look like a human in every way…" She trailed off as she noticed he was beginning to blush. <Superman blushes!> she realised in amazement.
He sighed. "I guess you're right. And Jason Trask is probably not the only person who suspects I'm only part of an alien invasion which is going to take over Earth… I'm not, and I hope my behaviour has convinced people of that."
Lois nodded. "I've never thought that anyway. But you see why people are interested?"
His gesture was impatient. "Of course I do. But all the merchandise, the hounding, the rewards for 'kiss and tell' stories… I hate it, Lois."
Her expression was wry as she took in what he was saying. She couldn't imagine what it would be like to have that happen to her. Suddenly, she reached a decision.
"Look, Clark, I can't do anything about the cheap toys, though that deal you reached with the Brown guy might help you there. But what I could do is work with you to write some stories to answer a few of the questions, and maybe put people off track in other areas."
Clark stared at her. "You mean you'd write something which isn't true?"
She grimaced; that was what she had said, but she always prided herself on searching for and printing the truth. "Not exactly — just that we wouldn't tell the whole truth. I mean, I already know things about you…" no, she realised, and corrected herself, "about Superman, I mean, which I haven't printed."
Clark noticed her correction, and his heart lifted. She was beginning to see the distinction between himself and the Man of Steel at last — and she realised that he, Clark, was the real person. He smiled warmly at her, his eyes thanking her. "You do, of course. And… I guess, from what you've just said, that you're not going to."
Lois shook her head. "I think I'd almost decided not to write the story about you being Superman even before we had this talk, Clark. I guess… well, I think I was coming to realise that maybe there was a greater good to protect, something more important than the people's right to know. And now that I understand you a little more, I know it would be wrong to print it."
Clark leaned forward and gripped her hand with his, squeezing briefly. Their eyes met again, and the warmth and gratitude in his surprised her. Suddenly, for the first time since she had worked out that Clark Kent and Superman were one and the same, her heart as well as her mind recognised the man in front of her as both the Super-hero and her Planet partner. The attraction she had felt for Superman began to grow within her again, and something was compelling her to lean forward further, to press her lips to his, to beg him to take her in his arms…
Abruptly she broke the eye contact, taking a long sip of her Coke in order to moisten her suddenly dry mouth. In a deliberate attempt to break the intimacy of the mood, she spoke crisply. "But don't assume, Clark Kent, that that means I'm going to ignore who you are! You've got a lot of abilities which would really put us ahead of the competition, you know."
Clark was disappointed when she pulled away from him; he had felt that in that brief moment when their hands were clasped and they were gazing into each other's eyes there had been a silent declaration of friendship… and perhaps something more. But he accepted her lead, and smiled at her again. "You want me to cheat to get the story?" he teased, then added as another thought occurred to him, "Does that mean you want to carry on partnering me? I thought I was just a hack from Nowheresville!"
Lois flushed slightly; she was well aware that her initial summing up of Clark Kent had been mistaken. Quite apart from his Super identity, he was far more intelligent, and a better reporter, than she had given him credit for. Sure, he was relatively inexperienced still, and lacked a harder edge to his work, but that could be taught. He had a quick brain and was good at putting complicated
pieces together; he was also very adept at getting interviewees to talk. There was just something about him: that quiet, confiding manner, that sympathetic tone of voice, his good looks and charming smile; it encouraged people to open up. Yes, even without the added advantages of his Super-powers, she might well have been persuaded to keep him as a partner.
She threw him a challenging stare. "Just remember you're the junior partner, Kent, okay?"
Later that evening, Lois sat at the table in her apartment, her lap-top computer open in front of her, adding to the file she'd started on Superman — no, Clark, she reminded herself. Just because she'd promised him she wouldn't write the story didn't mean that she couldn't continue to compile notes for her own benefit!
She felt chagrined that shortly after he had teased her about her reference to him as a 'hack from Nowheresville,' he had been called away on an emergency. One minute he had been about to offer her another drink, then the next he was staring off into the distance somewhere, before turning back to her and saying abruptly, "I'm sorry, Lois — I have to go. Someone's in trouble." He had escorted her to the door first, still the gentleman, before closing it behind her; immediately afterwards she had heard a rushing sound, then a sonic boom from just behind the apartment building.
Okay, she supposed that he had to go and help if someone needed him, but she wished that she'd just managed to ask a few more questions first! For instance, she still had no idea when he'd actually arrived on Earth. At first, she had assumed that Superman had only just arrived; then once she'd realised that Superman and Clark were the same person, she had wondered whether Superman had been on Earth for longer than anyone suspected, but in disguise. The way Clark had talked, of always having been Clark, of having created Superman so that he could continue to have a normal life… all that seemed to suggest that he was no recent arrival. And he had on other occasions talked about growing up in Smallville, with the Kents.
So that question remained to be answered, as did the question of what he was doing on Earth anyway. He was from Krypton — where *was* Krypton, anyway — so why was he here? Was he the only Kryptonian on Earth? And what else could he do? She knew, so far, that he was strong, that he seemed to be invulnerable, that he had super-hearing — and also apparently could see through things. *And* he could fly. What other fantastic powers did he possess? Could he read minds? Presumably not, since he hadn't known she was aware of his secret.
And what were his intentions? Okay, he had put up a reasonably convincing argument that *Clark,* rather than Superman, was the real person; but why would a powerful Super-hero want to live his life as an averagely-paid reporter? Living in a loft apartment in a crummy part of town? If Superman wanted, he could be as rich as… as Lex Luthor!
But then… she reconsidered that thought based on her knowledge of him so far. Superman only seemed to be interested in helping people, and in doing good. If he was corruptible, he hadn't shown it so far. He had, after all, turned down all the offers Murray Brown had thrown his way, until he'd seen that agreeing to the deal presented him with an opportunity both to control what merchandising was done and where the money went. And… Clark didn't seem to be particularly interested in material things. He lived the way he could afford. No short-cuts to fast riches as Clark Kent either, although if he chose to, by using his powers in secret, he could certainly make a much more comfortable life for himself.
So was Superman really content living as Clark Kent, ex-farm boy, reporter? It seemed so.
So many questions, she thought; but would Clark answer them? He knew now that she wasn't going to expose him, so he had no reason not to. And he must realise the favour she had done him by offering to use their temporary partnership to control what got written about Superman. He owed her, for heaven's sake!
She sat back in her chair, mulling over what she now knew about Clark Kent/Superman. He was still an enigma in so many ways; so many of the conclusions she had jumped to after learning his secret were being challenged. Remembering the story they had worked on together, she frowned suddenly. It was no wonder Clark had been so sympathetic to Alan Morris's predicament. What was it the man had said? 'I became so invisible in my own life…'
Clark had told her that *he* felt invisible, that since he had invented Superman he had felt as if he, the *real* Clark, was being submerged under the hero-worship of his own creation. Her thoughts drifted back to that moment at the Planet, his expression when she had taunted him with her assertion that there was no such thing as an invisible man. She hadn't understood his reference to himself then, not until he had taken her to his home and explained it. But now she wondered whether he had also been making a more personal point, aimed at her. Was he also suggesting that her own behaviour, her automatic assumption that Clark, not Superman, was the disguise, had hurt him? That in her focus on the Super-hero, he felt that she had been overlooking the man? Acting as if he didn't really exist?
She grimaced. It would make sense, she thought. And he had been very pointed in asking her to call him Clark. The thing was, the story had been Superman… She stopped abruptly. The story! Had Clark been trying to suggest, in some subtle way, that she seemed to be forgetting that he was a person, not just a story? It was possible, she supposed. And he *was* a person, a… well, okay, a Kryptonian if not a human; he was certainly someone with feelings. Perhaps it was time she tried to get to know him as a person, not just a story.
"Clark, what do you mean, someone knows you're Superman?" Jonathan Kent's agitation was clear as he faced his son across the kitchen table in the family farmhouse.
"She knows, Dad!" Clark tried to explain.
"She…?" Martha enquired, excited despite her anxiety. "Is this Lois?"
"Yeah," Clark confirmed. "She — "
"Lois knows you're Superman? Does that mean you're… dating?"
"Martha!" Jonathan interrupted his wife. "This is serious — our boy could be in trouble!" He turned back to Clark. "But how did she find out? We thought your disguise was pretty good."
Clark shrugged helplessly. "It wasn't the disguise, Dad, it was me. She says she saw me change from Clark into Superman. But I couldn't help it — she'd just been pushed out of a plane and I had to go after her, and I didn't have time to find somewhere safe to change."
Jonathan heaved an anxious sigh. "What are you going to do, Clark?"
He returned his parents' stares, deep in thought and more worried than he was daring to admit. "I'm not sure. She says she isn't going to tell anyone, and I think I believe her. Oh, I know she's a reporter — well, I am too — but she says I can trust her." He sighed heavily. "I don't know. I hope I can… but everything I've heard about Lois tells me that she's entirely motivated by her desire to get the story and be the best. And this one would be a major scoop."
"Apart from whether or not she writes the story, how do you feel about her knowing, Clark?" Martha asked her son, her voice soft, concerned.
"I don't know, Mom," Clark replied honestly. "There was something about Lois which drew me to her the second I met her, but… well, Lois is… unpredictable. She's dedicated to herjob. From what I can see, she doesn't seem to have much of a personal life, and other people at the Planet told me she doesn't seem to date. Her last boyfriend was… oh, three or four years ago. I don't know whether she has many friends outside work either. She's close to Perry — Jimmy told me he's a bit like a father-figure to her. And she seems to like Jimmy, sort of. But she's a workaholic who doesn't seem to be very good at personal relationships…"
"Poor girl," Martha interrupted. "She must have had a very unhappy childhood, Clark."
Clark frowned, surprised at his mother's analysis of Lois's personality. Could she be right? Could that explain the hard shell Lois seemed to have constructed around her, her reluctance to allow herself to care about anyone or anything? Though that wasn't strictly true, he reflected thoughtfully. She did seem to have some interest in Superman which went beyond 'the story,' or a desire to find out about the man under the Suit. It was hard to recognise sometimes, but it was as if she had a crush on him… which only seemed to manifest itself when he was in the Suit, not when he was Clark Kent. Was she disappointed now that she knew Superman was really Clark Kent?
"Maybe," he replied with a shrug. "I don't actually know that much about her, Mom. She's a very private person. But like I said, I hope I can trust her. She sounded as if she meant it, when we talked earlier. And I think it might actually help to have someone else around who knows — I mean, the day before yesterday she created a diversion to let me get away and save someone…" He trailed off, realising that he was really not sure how he felt about Lois's knowledge. It did feel as if she held a lot of power over him now, and he didn't think he liked that one bit. Sure, he did feel a little better now that she had given him her word that she wasn't going to use the information. But since he was still trying to figure Lois Lane out it wasn't altogether comfortable knowing that she knew so much about him. Her initial behaviour once she'd told him that she knew hadn't been reassuring, either: her insistence on believing that Superman, not Clark, was the real person and her assumption that he would make use of his powers in ways he certainly considered to be unethical.
As he flew home later, he resolved to be extremely wary around Ms Lois Lane for the foreseeable future. Just because he had fallen in love with her the instant he saw her, he mused gloomily, didn't necessarily mean that she could be trusted. He'd do well to try to keep her at arm's length.
A little over a week later, Clark found himself coming to understand his partner much better. It had all started in a fairly routine way, except that Perry surprised both himself and Lois — and the entire newsroom, it seemed — by declaring them to be permanent partners. He gathered that Lois wasn't too pleased about this development from snippets of conversation he had happened to hear between the editor and Lois on the subject.
Perry had been arguing that they would make a great team: Lois the battle-scarred veteran, and Clark the hungry, exciting new talent. Lois's reply hadn't been especially encouraging: apart from insisting that she wasn't exactly a veteran, she had suggested that Clark was hardly exciting. You're taking this covering up for me a little too seriously, Clark had thought wryly.
Perry had continued to press his point. "Your tenacity, his tact… There's chemistry there, Lois!" At her protests, he had continued, "Partnership — it's like marriage. It takes patience and understanding and a willingness to be supportive." As Lois had favoured him with a grimace, he had added, "Fake it."
Unable to resist rubbing things in with Lois, Clark had greeted her with a "Howdy, partner!" He and Jimmy had then teased her about the ordering of their names: whether it should be Kent and Lane, or Lane and Kent.
"Either way, it'll never work," Lois had grunted before informing Clark that Perry had a story for them.
Clark was actually very satisfied about this partnership development, for a number of reasons. First, he was well aware that Lois was the
Planet's star reporter. She had already won three Kerth awards for investigative journalism, and was considered to be the most talented journalist in Metropolis. To be partnered with her would be an excellent training for him, and would give him the stimulus to produce the best work he was capable of. Second, the fact that Perry would consider partnering him with Lois suggested that the editor thought that he had promise; the decision showed considerable faith in his abilities, Clark was aware. But third, and in many ways most important, was the fact that Lois knew that he moonlighted as Superman. If he had to have a partner, far better that that partner should be someone he could trust, and who would be able to cover for him when he had to deal with an emergency.
And he knew that Lois would cover for him; she had already done so on a number of occasions. He knew now that her intervention when that plane was in trouble had been deliberate, and since then she had created diversions on one or two occasions when he had needed to leave in a hurry. She was much better at thinking on her feet than he was; he was well aware that some of his own excuses had been pretty lame.
Could he trust her? Well, so far she had been discreet. They hadn't had any further discussions on the subject of his other identity since that evening at his apartment when they had come to the understanding that she would not write her proposed article. Oh, there had been the odd barbed remark meant only for his ears, just to let him know that she hadn't forgotten, he assumed. And only two days ago, when he had arrived at the Planet late because he'd been helping minimise the effects of a minor earthquake in the next state, she had sidled up to his desk to tell him that she had told Perry he was meeting a source. As he'd stammered his thanks, she had murmured, "I figure that's an exclusive interview you owe me."
Taken aback, he had muttered, "If you want. Later — not here."
He had eventually given her that interview over a sandwich lunch at a quiet diner Lois knew, and so she'd ended up with another front-page story about Superman. Oh well, he had thought, at least if she writes it, it'll be accurate… But he still felt uncomfortable around Lois in some ways. He was by now pretty sure that she didn't intend to go public with her knowledge, but she was treating him very differently now that he knew she knew. As Clark she was still frequently impatient with him, continuing to make her trademark sarcastic comments. Okay, he hadn't expected that the knowledge of his secret identity would make her change completely towards him overnight — and if it had, he would have taken it as a sign that Lois was incredibly shallow, that she had suddenly decided that she liked Clark just because he was Superman's alter ego. But even still, he'd expected that she might be a little nicer. After all, when Superman had first appeared in Metropolis she had trudged from one end of the city to the other looking for him — not just for the story, but because, Clark had suspected, that she was somehow personally interested in the Super-hero. Now that she knew that her hero was simply a greenhorn reporter in disguise, had all her admiration for Superman vanished? He didn't know. And he wasn't sure how to handle it, or even why it should matter to him. All that should matter, surely, was that she would keep his secret?
Recalling himself to the present, Clark concentrated on Perry's briefing about their new story. The investigation itself was right up Clark's street, he thought: being a huge sports fan, a boxing story seemed exciting to him. But he was unprepared for Lois's reaction. She seemed not just uninterested, but actually hostile. He was further taken aback when she threw Perry a challenging stare and said accusingly, "This wouldn't have anything to do with my… *connections,* would it?"
"Connections?" Clark asked blankly.
But Perry and Lois ignored him, taking little pot-shots at each other. "Oh, that's right, how is your father?" Perry enquired in a falsely sympathetic tone.
Lois glared at him. Still trying to find out what was going on, Clark asked, "Your father's a fighter?"
Again, his enquiry was ignored, and as Perry continued to bait her, Lois turned to him and said impatiently, "Come on, Clark."
At the gym, Clark had at first been too keen to show off his own sporting knowledge to realise that Lois knew much more than he did, and it was some minutes before the penny finally dropped.
"Dr Sam Lane is your father?"
Lois's response wasn't particularly encouraging; Clark wondered whether it was just because she considered her private life to be private and didn't appreciate colleagues enquiring into it. He realised not too long afterwards that there was more to it. Outside the gym, they actually met Lois's father, and as Clark watched the interplay between father and daughter he noticed that Lois's manner was extremely offhand. Her father tried to invite her to have dinner with him and she made excuses about being busy, but the subtext was clear. She didn't want to meet him or spend time with him.
As they returned to the Planet, Clark remembered his mother's words of a week ago. Had Lois had an unhappy childhood? But even if she had, she was unlikely to talk to him about it, wasn't she? But on the other hand, the encounter had clearly upset her. He decided to stick around, if possible, and try to show by his behaviour that he was willing to listen, should she want to talk. Apart from his concern for her, he half-thought that if he showed her that he was willing to be her friend, she might relax her suspicious attitude somewhat and she would be easier to work with as a partner.
His opportunity came sooner than he'd imagined. Late that night both he and Lois were working late in the newsroom, and after some time and a number of glances in his direction, she gave him a baleful glare, asking why he was still there. He shrugged and replied that he was working.
"You're waiting for me to talk about it," she retorted. "To open up. You see, this is exactly why I hate partnerships!"
"Why?" he enquired mildly.
"Because your partner is always there for you, whether you want them or not. Because you're partners you share your troubles. But I don't feel like sharing!" she announced tartly.
Clark raised his eyebrows at her, his expression clearly saying 'I didn't say anything.'
"Okay, so I didn't get along with my father. Big deal."
"No big deal," Clark agreed, amused.
She glared at him. "Haven't you ever met anyone who's so wrapped up in their work that they don't have time for anyone or anything?"
A large penny dropped in Clark's brain. This was the explanation; why she was so off-hand with her father, and possibly even why she put up so many barriers preventing people from getting close to her. But he resolved to be cautious; he was pretty sure that she didn't actually intend to confide in him, and she might well clam up if she was aware of how much he had understood. So he deliberately threw her a sceptical glance. "Is this a trick question?" he asked innocently, grinning at her.
"Okay, okay, but at least I don't have kids," she retorted, stung.
"A lot of parents are workaholics," Clark pointed out, softly.
"Well, the ones that I knew at least tried to spend some quality time with their kids. My dad just came home to criticize. 'Daddy — I got 98% on this test!' 'Well, that's good, Lois, that leaves two points for improvement!'"
Clark was shocked; how could any parent treat their child like that? It was no wonder Lois was so driven, so determined to achieve the best that she could do in her career. She was still trying to prove to the father whose approval she had never gained as a child that she was worth something. Not that she would admit that — no doubt she would deny it vigorously were he to suggest it. He wished that there was something he could say whichwould erase all the hurt she had suffered — still suffered — but he felt helpless.
The mood was broken then by the sound of the telephone ringing.
Clark had never seen Lois so upset. She was devastated at the death of her old family friend, and in addition, she felt guilty that she had not been able to prevent his murder. Clark felt bad as well: he had initially wanted to accompany Lois to the rendezvous, but she had clearly wanted to go alone. In an attempt to show her that he didn't have to be the kind of stifling partner who insisted on accompanying her everywhere, he had agreed that Ally would probably feel more comfortable confiding in someone he knew. But, Clark thought, he *should* have followed her as Superman. Then he might have been able to save the man's life.
Perhaps Lois thought so too? He couldn't tell. If she did, then that might explain some of her attitude towards him; but on the other hand, they worked together! If she blamed Superman, she could tell him, surely? She wasn't slow to speak her mind about other things. But he would do what he could to help her prove that the hit-and-run was murder. After she had confronted her father and he had refused to tell her anything about what was really going on, Clark agreed to help Lois break into Sam Lane's office.
It turned out that behind it all was a straightforward scam, involving cyborg technology. They managed to get the proof they needed, including photographs, but as Lois was writing it all up Clark had a sudden thought. They could be putting Lois's father's life in danger by printing the story. He pointed this out to Lois, unsure of how she would react. Given her feelings towards her father, would she want to go ahead anyway?
But she decided to take his advice, and they produced a story which was a whitewash. Defending it to Perry was no easy task, however, as it was clear that the old newsman smelt a rat. Both reporters insisted that this was all there was, however, Clark stubbornly telling Perry that "I go with my partner, Chief." Lois didn't look at him as he said it, but somehow he felt her silent gratitude.
Not that it made Perry's revenge easier on either of them; they were in the doghouse and no mistake. Clark was given a story on the police academy, and Lois was assigned a piece on the auto show. When she protested, Perry gave her a lecture about how easy it was for a reporter's confidence to be rattled the first time they blew a big story; the fact that Lois had been to see her father and had told him that she had pulled the story to protect him, and he had told her to write it anyway, was small comfort against the humiliation of Perry's open disdain.
As Lois exited Perry's office, Clark threw her a wry smile. "I guess we're not partners any more," he said regretfully.
"Guess not," she agreed. "I'm sorry, Clark, really," she added; he sensed that she meant it. He wasn't sure, though, whether the regret was for Clark or for Superman; on the surface, it almost seemed as if she was regretful for *him.* He still couldn't figure out her attitude towards Superman.
"It's just as well," he replied, smiling in an attempt to make her feel better about the situation.
"Yeah, you're right, it's just as well," she agreed, turning away from him. "You don't want to be partnered with a hypocritical reporter who talks a good game but backs down the minute things hit too close to home."
He had followed her, and caught her eye. "Yes, I do." He smiled again in silent reassurance, and she gave him a half-smile in return.
Whatever crisis of confidence Lois had experienced, by the following day she had recovered completely. She called Clark early in the morning and asked him to accompany her downtown. Curious, he went, and was amazed to see that they were meeting her father. Not only that, but Sam Lane handed over a tape recorder. He had helped Lois in a sting operation to catch the people behind the scam. With a wistful smile at his daughter, Sam insisted that she was to write her story— the whole story, including the one she hadn't written before.
As Clark watched, Lois embraced her father. He stood back, anxious not to interrupt what was clearly an emotional moment for both of them, and as Lois rejoined him he gave her a brief sympathetic glance but remained discreetly silent, indicating his support instead by a brief touch to her shoulder as they walked away.
He wasn't foolish enough to imagine that her deep-rooted insecurities, the depth of resentment she felt for her father, and her lack of faith in herself could possibly be cured by one brief hug. But he did dare to hope that Lois might have begun the path towards recovery.
Back at the Planet, Clark enjoyed what came next. He grinned to himself as Perry approached Lois to ask for the auto-show piece. He grinned more broadly as she informed the editor that she hadn't written it, but had been working on something else instead.
Typically, Perry began a lecture. "Assignments aren't optional at the Daily Planet! We write what we are assigned to write, not…" His voice trailed off as he began to take in what he was reading. "What is this? Oh boy…!" He grinned broadly. "That'll be the day Lois Lane'll back down off a story!"
Perry continued in similar vein, claiming to have known all along that Lois had no intention of chickening out of writing the real story and calling on the entire newsroom to forget anything they might have been thinking.
To Clark's amazement and delight, Lois gestured across at him, making it clear to Perry that the story had been his work as well. As Perry thanked him, Clark took great pleasure in handing over his story on the police academy as well, and grinned as Lois scowled briefly at him. She wasn't really annoyed, however; for the first time since they had proven that the Messenger had been sabotaged, she threw him a genuine smile, which he returned. And he had a sense that she was smiling at *Clark,* not Superman.
As Perry continued to laud their investigative skills, announcing that "Lane and Kent are the greatest writing team since Woodward and Bernstein," Clark caught Lois's eye again and grinned broadly at her. She grinned back, and his heart swelled.
Lois yawned and stretched; it had been a very long day, and given that the big fight was that night, it wasn't over yet. It had been a tough couple of days, made worse by the aftermath of Ally's death and being unable to prove that it was murder. Her father's attitude, his initial refusal to support her in her attempt to find out who was behind the hit-and-run, made matters even worse.
And yet she had allowed Clark to talk her out of implicating her father, and therefore also out of writing the story. She wasn't sure why she had gone along with his argument; it had been a darned good story too, exposing corruption and the use of cyborg technology to fix fights. Could have won her an award too, though now that she had written the story it still might… no, it could win *them.* Lane and Kent. She had to remember that she had a partner now.
And not just any partner, she reminded herself. Clark Kent. Superman.
She frowned slightly. All the reasons why she had always wanted to work alone in the past came back to her: independence, not being held back by someone whose intelligence or dedication to work was less than hers, the freedom from any obligation to a colleague — and the ability to maintain her privacy. Clark had certainly conformed to the stereotype there, in the oh-so clever way he had managed to persuade her to tell him about her relationship with her father. Pretending not to be interested, but hanging around at the Planet until everyone else had gone; maintaining that apparently casual, I'm-not-really-interested attitude as she had impatiently recounted her father's pattern of behaviour, his jokey-sarcastic reference to her own workaholic tendencies — none of that had fooled her. He had been trying to show what a good listener he was, what a good friend he would be as well as a partner.
Hah! He'd been watching too many cop shows. Starsky and Hutch. Cagney and Lacey. Well, he'd just have to learn that their relationship was more like Morse and Lewis. She would give the orders, he would do as he was told. And she would never evince any interest in his private life, and he would refrain from asking about hers.
Except that… there was one aspect of his private life which Lois found fascinating.
He was Superman; an alien from another planet, from what little he had told her. And although at first, when she had discovered that her partner was in reality Superman… no, Superman was in reality her partner, she reminded herself; that was what he had insisted to be the case. When she had first discovered that Superman was Clark she had been more interested in investigating him, in finding out how he ticked. But as time went by, and they continued to work closely together, she was learning that there was a lot more than she had anticipated in having Superman as her partner.
For one thing, her life would rarely be in any serious danger from now on. He had already saved her from an unpleasant death on four occasions — and it seemed like he would keep on doing so if necessary. He hadn't exactly seemed to mind that he'd had to save her so often. So did that mean that she could take more risks in search of a story than before, knowing that Clark would be with her and looking out for her? Or that, even if she was on her own, all she needed to do was to shout, "Help, Superman!" This was an interesting possibility which she had mused over a few days previously.
But the last day or two had shown her something else. Clark Kent was an extremely useful person to have around on some of Lois's less… legal ventures. Such as when you're breaking into your father's office, she mused ironically. She was pretty sure that he'd used his super-powers when she'd been unable to break the lock. He could read through the contents of files at super-speed — very useful when time is short and they might be discovered at any second. His super-hearing could alert them to someone coming, in time to allow them to hide — and his quick reactions, and ability to float, could find them somewhere to hide in time. His X-ray vision allowed him to see through walls and other solid objects; without it they would never have found the robot arms.
The strange thing was, though, that he seemed reluctant to use his powers openly in front of her, despite the fact that they both knew that she knew about him. He was a strange one, Clark Kent. There were times when he would reveal a flash of humour, a streak of intelligence, or a depth of caring which made her think that he could be a very special person to get to know. But at other times she was convinced that he didn't really trust her, and that disinclination to use his abilities when she was around simply added to that conviction. He never talked about himself, although a couple of times she had made overtures in that direction. He was still an enigma to her: she knew he was an alien from another planet, but how had he come to Earth? Why? And when? Where did his powers come from? How did he *feel* about being from another planet?
And why didn't he trust her?
And how could she open up to him knowing he was deliberately keeping so much of himself from her? She would have to be on her guard around him, even though she was fast discovering that this complex man, Clark Kent from Krypton by way of Kansas, was intriguing, dependable in a way that no-one she had ever known before had been, and a very attractive man. Man…? Alien — but like no alien any movie producer had ever envisaged.
Still, having Superman as a partner couldn't help but give them a major advantage over the opposition, she reflected. As long as Clark didn't get all moral about their behaviour; he had shown a few scruples in the beginning as she had announced her intention of searching her father's office. But, interestingly, he had been quite persuadable.
But… There was one big 'but' associated with being partnered with Superman. How on earth could she compete with someone with his abilities? His Super-hearing, his strength, his X-ray vision, all those powers he had which made investigating so easy for him. There was no way she could match him in those areas.
You aren't competing with him — he's your partner, a tiny voice protested. But Lois brushed it away; of course she was in competition with Clark. The world of journalism was like that: dog eat dog, every person for themselves. And as usual, it was harder for women to be taken seriously than it was for men; she was reminded of that every time they went to do an interview, for heaven's sake! Everyone automatically assumed that Clark was the senior partner and that she was his assistant, or worse still, his secretary.
So how could she hold her own, let alone maintain her edge, while working with Superman?
Lois was more than pleased with the published version of their story. Perry hadn't pulled any punches as far as publicity was concerned. She was still very concerned about her father, and what would happen to him as a result of his role in this affair, but she reminded herself, he was amply able to look out for himself. After all, that was the attitude he had always had about her life, she rationalized to herself.
The afternoon was tense, and grew tenser still as it got closer and closer to the time for the street fight. Lois's reporter's instincts were screaming at her that there was more going on. Clark seemed on edge too, as if he was sharing her feelings.
Finally, the time arrived for Lois and Clark to cover the now defunct street fight and they sauntered towards the elevator.
They planned on interviewing the average "man on the street" as well as the suspended boxers if they could. Lois was particularly hoping for an interview with Tommy Garrison. She snickered to herself as she remembered Clark climbing into the ring with the fighter, and being subjected to his taunts. The boxer had to be the most obnoxious guy she had met recently, but also one of the luckiest. It was particularly funny as he had had no idea that he was actually sparring with Superman. Lois had to admit, much as she would have enjoyed watching Clark clean Garrison's clock, it had been educational watching Clark move around, deflecting all of the boxer's barbs. He had been so careful, even of this ignoramus who didn't deserve the special treatment. Lois wasn't sure she would have had the patience to deal with an idiot like that so well. In fact, she knew she didn't have the patience. Sometimes her partner really was the world's biggest boy scout!
The elevator dinged. The couple emerged into the lobby of the Planet building only to be confronted by Lex Luthor. Lois was pleased when he came to the defence of her father. Lex really was a very kind man at times. She was sure that her father would jump at the chance to work at Lex Labs. Mencken emerged from the shadows. Lois was alarmed when he ordered her to accompany him, but she figured Clark would spring into action and disarm the man. It was not a nice feeling to discover she was wrong as Mencken dragged her out the door!
Clark felt helpless, as if his hands were tied as the criminal disappeared with his partner. If only Lex weren't here! He and Lex looked at each other. "I'll go for help!" They blinked as they both said exactly the same thing simultaneously.
Clark and Lex turned and ran in opposite directions. Clark landed in the alley behind the Planet just as Mencken and Lois exited the building. As he started to move forward to make his move, he was ambushed by three of the suspended boxers. It cost him a precious few minutes to dispose of them. Those enhanced punches hurt! At least they didn't do any real damage. Clark turned away from the last of the boxers, launched himself towards Lois, and was just in time to see Lex shoot Mencken. He landed heavily beside the billionaire. "You saved me!"
Clark was disconcerted to see Lois rush past him to Lex.
Luthor looked even more smug than usual. "Well, I know you can't be everywhere at once, Superman, but I'm glad one of us got here on time."
Lois turned to Clark in time to see the effect Lex's words had on Clark. His face fell. He looked positively stricken with guilt.
At that moment, Garrison took over the microphone in the boxing ring. His taunts, and tirades were clearly audible to the three people standing in the alley behind the Planet.
Clark smiled wryly. "I think I'm being paged." He turned to leave.
"Wait!" Lois turned back to Lex. "Thank you, Lex. I owe you one. But I need to go with Superman. I have to get this story." Lois lifted herself onto her tiptoes and pressed a kiss gently on his cheek. He smiled, pleased, and shot an arrogant glance in Clark's general direction. Lois ran to Clark's side. "Can I get a lift, Superman?" she asked lightly. Wordlessly he scooped her up into his arms and launched them into the air. It was a short flight to the boxing ring, barely long enough for her to realise that Clark was being very quiet, and somehow seemed depressed. Lois quickly clambered out of the ring, and settled at the side of the ring to watch.
Garrison sucker-punched the Super-hero, knocking him to the ground. Lois couldn't hear what the little white-haired old lady asked him as he fell in front of her, but Clark must have been okay as he was quick to get back on his feet. Lois gasped as he made no move to defend himself, instead letting Garrison land three very solid blows to his face. They had no effect on him, but Garrison looked like he was in pain. Lois couldn't tell for sure, but she thought he might have actually broken his hands on Superman.
Couldn't happen to a nicer guy, she smirked. Clark pulled his fist back. Lois gasped in shock. He wouldn't! Would he? She breathed a sigh of relief when he pulled his punch, instead gently flicking his finger against Garrison's forehead. The boxer fell to the ground, completely unconscious. Superman disappeared, only to reappear as Clark at her side.
Lex pushed his way through the crowd to Lois. He informed her that he had offered to testify on her father's behalf as a character witness, and that the D.A. had decided not to press charges. The information got him another smile of gratitude from Lois, and a spontaneous hug too. He beamed fatuously at Clark, glad to have scored over both the Super-hero and the… the 'giblet' from Kansas. He left, well-content with his role in the farce that had just played out. It was true; his scheme to produce an army of "Super" men hadn't worked out, but he had turned that setback into an asset. After all, when life hands you lemons, you should make, hmmm, lemonade was too plebeian… you should make lemon chicken pasta with truffles and serve it with a delicately bouqueted Pouilly Fouisse. Lex chuckled again as he replayed the look on Superman's face when he arrived too late. Oh, this was a delicious moment, a true milestone on the road leading to Superman's eventual downfall.
A little of the wind would have been taken out of Lex's sails if he had seen the look on Lois's face as she regarded her despondent partner. They were once again in the elevator at the Planet, heading back to file another great story.
"What is it, Clark?" she asked in concern, as she laid her hand on his arm.
The elevator doors opened and Clark set off for his desk without saying another word. Lois tried to concentrate on the details of her story, but it was hard going. Every time she looked up, she caught sight of Clark working at his desk, and, well, she wasn't an expert on body language, but even she could see that something had upset him… badly.
Perry emerged from his office to congratulate them on another fine story. He asked Clark if he were going to join them in another poker game that evening.
"I have other plans, Chief."
Lois glanced at Clark in concern. He sounded so forlorn. It didn't take much for her to make up her mind too.
"Actually, Chief, I can't make it either tonight. I have other plans too."
"Lois! You never missed a game… all these years… is everything all right?" Perry was aghast.
Lois smiled reassuringly. "Everything's fine, Chief. But these things happen. I'm busy tonight."
After Perry moved away, still in shock, Lois turned to Clark. She wasn't sure why, but something in his forlorn expression had appealed to her, had made her want to know what was bothering him. Sometimes Superman wasn't so invulnerable after all, she mused thoughtfully, approaching his desk. "Okay, buster. I don't know what you have planned tonight… but you're going to have company."
Clark shook his head. "No, Lois. I think I want to be alone."
"Well, Clark, I'm not giving you the option. You're upset and I want to know what's going on. You were there for me when I was upset by my Dad, and I'm going to be there for you. I know I'm not as diplomatic as you are, but you're stuck with me anyway," Lois said, fiercely.
Clark had to laugh. Just listening to Lois helped lighten his mood. He looked her in the eyes, and said seriously, "I like being 'stuck' with you, Lois."
Lois was the first to look away, taken aback at his remark. This was the first time since their heart to heart at his apartment that he'd given the slightest sign that he *liked* her, as opposed to just putting up with her as a partner; she'd even begun to suspect that he wanted her as a partner not, as she'd originally suspected, so that he could gain from her experience, but so that he could keep a close watch on the one person in Metropolis who knew his secret. She glanced down shyly and said, softly, "I like being 'stuck' with you too, Clark. I know I'm not very good at being a friend, but you sure look like you need one tonight. Let me help, okay?" She looked back up at him solemnly, having surprised herself by her offer.
"Okay, Lois. Maybe you're right and I do need to talk. Thank you." He reached out and gently cupped her cheek.
Clark didn't seem to want to talk on the way to Lois's apartment. She forced herself to respect his wishes, although the effort stretched her patience thin.
Clark sat down heavily on the couch, while Lois disappeared into the kitchen. She emerged a moment later with a handful of restaurant brochures. "What do you feel like, Clark? Pizza or Chinese?" At his blank look, she regarded the brochures dubiously. "I might have a Thai menu here, or if you're in the mood for Sushi I can call that Japanese place around the corner."
"Oh! Uh, whatever you want is fine with me, Lois." He looked up at her briefly only to return his attention to his clasped hands.
"I guess I'll order Chinese then, Clark, although it won't be as great as that Chinese food you got for me just after we met. It was really great. How was I to know you actually got it from China…?" As she caught sight of the forlorn expression on his face, her voice trailed off. "Oh, Clark. You need to tell me what's wrong."
"It's okay, Lois. I'll get over it. It's nothing to worry about."
He wasn't going to get away with shutting her out any longer. Placing her hands on her hips, Lois addressed him firmly, "Clark Kent, it is something to worry about. I demand you tell me the problem."
Clark sprang to his feet, anger visible on his face. "You demand? What gives you the right to demand anything from me?"
"What gives me the right?" Lois shrieked at the top of her lungs. "You're my best friend and I care about you. I'm being sensitive here!" And if you knew me better, Clark Kent, you'd know that I don't do sensitive very easily… why won't you let me in?
Clark blinked in response to the vehemence of her statement. "I'm your best friend?" he asked quietly, dubiously.
Lois sighed. She glanced up at him shyly: why did he find it so hard to believe? On the other hand, she remembered wryly, it wasn't that long ago that Lucy had made similar cynical remarks about her lack of a social life, her lack of real friends. Maybe she just didn't know how to 'do' friends any more; maybe that was why Clark was so sceptical. How did friends behave? Was she doing something wrong? "Yes, you are, Clark," she said hesitantly. "I… well, I feel I can talk to you, sometimes, and tell you things, personal things. And I — well, maybe I don't show it, but I do care about you, Clark. We're partners. Whatever affects me, affects you and vice versa. And something is sure affecting you right now."
Clark sat back down and sighed heavily. Lois sat down beside him, dropped the take-out menus in a heap, and took his hand in hers.
"Clark, I'm here and I'm your friend. Like I just said, I can tell you things. It really helps that you listen. I want to help you the same way."
As she watched him, he seemed to be trying to make up his mind about something; he seemed to be at once uncertain and cynical, but there was a strange look of hope in his eyes which gave her reason to believe that she might be getting through to him. At length he spoke.
"Lois, I'm sorry if I seem to be doubting your intentions here. I don't mean to push you away or make you think I don't trust you. But… I haven't had a best friend for years, not since I started to, you know, change, and get strong. It was too risky — I could never take the chance of someone finding out."
"But then I found out," she ventured carefully, seeing where his caution came from.
"Yes, you did. And I have to admit, Lois, that scared me. I mean, how did I know whether I could trust you? The first thing you said was what a great story it would make. Okay, I know that once we talked you told me you wouldn't write the story, and since then you've been really great — not only have you kept it all to yourself, but you've made it easier for me to get away at times. And I *do* appreciate that, believe me." He gave her a wry smile, which encouraged her a little. Superman really had so little reason to trust anyone, she realised with a shock.
"Clark, I would like us to be friends, really. And I'd like to think you feel you can talk to me sometimes — you know, about the things that bother you. I know it can't be easy, being… well, different."
He shook his head with a sigh. "It's not — but I don't want to talk about that right now. Maybe some other time, and that's not a brush-off, I promise you." His tone was sincere, and she believed him. He turned fully towards her then, and she felt the power of his gaze on her: those compelling, beautiful brown eyes, which now had a warmth in them which she realised she hadn't seen since the early days when Superman had been nice to her. He smiled then, giving her a flash of perfect white teeth. "I'll warn you, I might be out of practice at this 'best friend' thing. But I'm willing to give it a try, if you want to."
She smiled back at him, feeling suddenly that they had taken a huge step forwards in their relationship. "And you think I'm not out of practice?"
He laughed and squeezed her hand gently. His mood turning serious again, he continued, "Lois, you could have been killed today. I didn't get there in time to stop Mencken."
So that was what had been worrying him; she'd guessed right before. Her Super-powered partner was very concerned for her safety. "But, Clark, I'm fine. Good as new. You don't have to keep worrying about it."
"It is a worry, Lois. What if someday I'm too late? What if I make a mistake and someone gets hurt? What if," his voice dropped into a husky whisper, "you get hurt?"
"What if the sun doesn't rise? Or what if horses could fly? I'm not trying to make light of your fears, Clark, but you can't do everything. I don't care how fast you are, you can't be everywhere. You can't be everything to everyone either. You're just one man. A very strong, very fast man, but just one man. And you have to accept that I've been doing this job a lot longer than you have. I know what I'm doing, and I've managed to stay ahead of danger so far."
Clark sighed loudly. "Yeah?" he challenged sceptically. "I don't want to rub it in, but you did tell me only a week ago that I'd saved your life four times since we met." He sighed again. "I guess you're right, Lois, but it doesn't stop me wanting to be there for you. And the bottom line is, today I wasn't. Today I didn't get there in time."
"No, you didn't. At least Lex did though. Can you believe that guy? First he saves my life, then he gets the charges dropped against my father, and then he even gave Dad a job! Pretty nice, right?"
Lois turned to Clark with a smile and saw his expression turn stormy. Was he jealous of Lex again? True, Lex was a lot… smoother than Clark Kent, and wealthier, and he was good looking and charming… but Clark was a nice guy with an exciting secret side to him that he shared with her. And she had just asked him to be her friend — and he had to know that she didn't do that very often.
"Lois, I don't think you should see Lex Luthor by yourself!" he said emphatically.
Her anger flared. "Are you telling me who I can, and cannot see?"
"What? No. Just… he's not a nice guy, Lois."
"You're jealous of him."
"Jealous? Of that lousy piece of work? No. The man's a criminal, Lois, but you can't see it. He's pulled the wool over your eyes like he has the rest of Metropolis."
Lois jumped to her feet, placed her hands on her hips and faced him. "Where's your proof?"
Clark stood up and folded his arms over his chest, in what she immediately recognised was his Superman stance. "Remember when my powers were being tested? I confronted him and he practically admitted to me that he was behind all those tests."
That wasn't proof! But… on the other hand, would Superman lie? This was Superman she was talking to, after all — in the heat of the moment she'd forgotten that Clark Kent was no ordinary Planet reporter. And if Superman was suspicious of Lex Luthor, should she not believe him? She sighed inwardly; what should she do? Proof. She needed proof.
Meeting his gaze again, she asked more calmly this time, "He 'practically' admitted? Did he admit it or not, Clark?"
"No-o-o," he conceded. "But I know he did it, just like I know he was behind the problems at EPRAD. He planted that bomb on the space shuttle — you know, the one I swallowed thereby saving your life," he finished triumphantly.
Ooh, that did it — he hadn't needed to rub it in. Jabbing her index finger at his chest, Lois spat her words out defiantly. "Listen to me, Mr. Clark 'Superman' Kent. You saved my life, yes, then and again since then. But no one, I repeat, no one has the right to tell me who I can see or can't see. No one can live my life for me but me. If you have proof about Lex, fine, than I'll believe you. But until then, I'm going to be grateful to him, and treat him like a friend. Exactly the way, may I point out, that he is treating me! All right?"
"Fine! Get into bed with the devil. See if I care! And incidentally, you can't consider me much of a friend if you don't trust my word!" Clark stormed to the window and launched himself into the air. He could hear Lois shrieking after him. "That is so unfair! You know I can't fly!"
In spite of himself, he laughed. That was so, so Lois! She always had to have the last word. He circled the city ten times at superspeed and then literally only seconds later was back in front of the window facing her. Forcing himself to remain calm, and not trusting himself to look her in the eyes, he addressed her left ear. "I'll get you proof, Lois. I'm just asking you to be careful in the meantime."
Lois was taken aback by this sudden mood swing. "Fine. I'll be careful. Did you want to come back inside for dinner now?" she asked uncomfortably.
"No, I think I better…" His head lifted in that familiar way.
"What do you hear?"
"Sirens. Lots of them. And I smell smoke." He turned his head, this way and that looking off into the distance. "Fire, a big one, in West River. I have to go."
Clark turned around without another word and darted away. Lois very pointedly did not watch him leave.
Lois's anger had a chance to cool over the next day. She saw plenty of Superman on TV and in person as she covered the multiple cases of arson. But Clark was nowhere to be seen. At least he had the sense to call Perry periodically and feed him details of Superman's activities. Lois shook her head. Would she ever get used to the fact that her colleague, her partner moonlighted in tights? The whole thing boggled the mind. And, of course, the fact that the fires were keeping him busy had prevented them from talking privately again, which she regretted. She was sorry now that she'd reacted so violently to his suspicions about Lex. She had no idea, after all, whether Lex Luthor was on the up-and-up or not. And Clark — as Superman — had had many more opportunities to observe the man, to get close to him, than she had. Perhaps she should have been calmer, taken him more seriously, instead of yelling at him like a shrew. On the other hand, he might be Superman, and she might have told him she wanted to be his friend, but he still didn't have any right to tell her what to do. Still, she would have felt happier if they had managed to talk more.
Her ringing phone interrupted her train of thoughts. Any of her colleagues watching would have recognized the gleam in her eyes. Lois had a lead.
"…so you see, Perry, it looks like this club might have something to do with the arson attacks," Lois finished.
Perry had listened to her explanation in silence; then he fixed Lois with a hard stare. "And what does Kent think?"
Lois shrugged. "Dunno, Chief, I haven't talked to him about it."
"Lois, what the heck are you playing at?" the editor exploded. "Kent's your partner!"
"I know, Chief, but he's been busy the last few days — covering Superman," Lois brushed aside the objection. "Look, I know we're partners, but there are just times when one or other of us can do better on our own. Like Clark and his Superman exclusives."
"Now you're talking!" the editor agreed. "Just wish I knew how Kent manages to get so close to that guy. You know, maybe I ought to ask the boy just that — I sure hope he's not holding out on me. If there's a story there I want it for the Planet."
Lois thought quickly, anxious not to cause trouble for Clark. "I don't think there's anything there, Chief. As far as I know, they're just friends, kind of. They hit it off the first time Clark interviewed him, and Superman seems to prefer to talk to him rather than any other reporter." She deliberately made her voice sound chagrined. "Clark returns the favour by not talking about their friendship, I think. It sounds a pretty fair deal to me."
The editor looked thoughtful, then nodded. "I guess so, since it means the Planet stays ahead of the game as a result." He paused, then returned his attention to Lois. "Now don't think I've forgotten this scheme of yours. I'm not best pleased about it — it sounds dangerous to me. But if you can get a way into this Metro Club, you can do the investigation."
"I knew you'd see it my way, Chief!" Lois exclaimed. "And I'm already in."
"Yeah, I auditioned for the chorus line-up. I got the part — starting tomorrow."
Perry sat back in his seat and stared in disbelief at his star reporter — no, one of his two star reporters, he reminded himself. She was incredible! "Well, now, Lois, that's mighty enterprising of you. But I want you to promise me something before you go any further with this."
"I'll be careful, Chief, I promise," Lois assured him.
"That's not what I was going to say," Perry interjected. "I want you to tell Kent about this. Look, I know it's your lead, and I respect that. But he's your partner, and you need to respect *that.* You tell him, soon as you see him — and that better be before you start at the Metro Club."
"Okay, okay," Lois grumbled, but as she exited the editor's office she was grinning from ear to ear. This was a fantastic lead! Her source had assured her that the word on the street was the arson gang was being paid by someone at that club — and that the gang organisation which was rumoured to operate from the club had the motive.
So much for Clark and all his Superman exclusives, Lois thought exultantly. This story would be hers, and she would get it completely fairly. No tricks, no use of Super identity, unlike Clark and his front-page stories of late. And, if her source was right, this could be an award-winner. *Her* award.
"Hi, Lois." Clark's voice was soft as she opened the door of her apartment to him. "I got your message last night."
"You must have been out late," she replied, a note of sympathy in her voice. "I called at midnight."
"Yeah — well, that last fire was pretty nasty. I was there for nearly four hours," he explained.
She studied him carefully. "Are you okay, Clark? You must be pretty worn out."
He gave her a wry smile; it was nice to have someone who was concerned about him. Of course, his parents were; he had spent twenty minutes on the phone with them before coming over to Lois's place. They had been worried that he was wearing himself out and tearing himself apart over lives he hadn't been able to save. But he pushed that from his mind and answered Lois's question. "Yeah, I'm okay. I don't need to sleep, you know I can go without for several days at a time if I need to."
She touched his arm, a silent gesture which communicated her support and concern for him. He smiled warmly at her, then changed the subject. "So — you said there's something you want to talk about?"
She smiled. "Well, I've hardly seen you lately, and there was no guarantee you'd be at the Planet this morning…" She allowed the sentence to trail off.
"Actually, I am going in today — I felt I needed to show my face to Perry. And so far there hasn't been another fire…" He shrugged.
"Great. Let's get some breakfast on the way, and I can fill you in."
They talked — argued, Lois conceded — over breakfast, but as they entered the Planet premises they were no closer to agreement. Clark lightened the atmosphere a little by engaging in some fun with a persistent smoker who ignored the no-smoking signs; each time the man tried to light up his fresh cigarette, Clark extinguished the flame with his Super-breath. Lois couldn't figure what was going on at first, but then she glanced at Clark to see if he'd noticed the man's difficulties and she noticed his innocent expression and the amusement dancing in his eyes.
As they exited the elevator, however, Clark returned to the topic at hand. "It's too dangerous."
"Not for me," Lois protested.
He threw her a look of irritated concern. "Lois, those guys aren't just club owners, they're gangsters."
Equally irritated, Lois glared at him. "Look, it's very simple. The Metro gang controls West River. West River's on fire. I'm going to find out why." She took a sip of coffee as she spoke, then grimaced; it was cold.
Clark attracted the editor's attention as he walked by. "Chief, please, talk some sense into her, would you?" The editor threw Clark a long-suffering look. "Ever tried to milk a steer, son?" Turning to Lois, Perry asked, "What's the problem today?"
Still irritated, Lois explained, "The problem is Clark here would rather give up a scoop on the West River fires than let me take a few little chances." She placed her undrunk coffee on the edge of her desk. Clark reached for Lois's coffee-cup and surreptitiously raised his glasses, giving it a quick blast of heat vision. He was amused when, after she drank from it again a moment later, she didn't appear to notice the difference.
"A scoop, huh?" Perry enquired with a grin.
"A sure thing," Lois reminded him. "I told you about it…"
But the editor's attention had switched back to Clark. "Well, Kent, it's always been my policy to stand behind my reporters and their methods one thousand percent. Why, if you opened up that window, said you could fly, I'd back you up. I'd miss you, but I'd back you up."
Clark did a double-take, but quickly managed to cover up; he avoided looking at Lois. But she seemed to be intent on the editor.
"Thanks, Chief," she said quickly; edging behind Perry's back then, she winked at Clark, who rolled his eyes at her. Couldn't she see he was having enough trouble trying not to give himself away as it was?
"Doesn't mean you shouldn't be careful, Lois," Perry reminded her.
As she assured them she would, Perry reminded Clark that he'd been scheduled for a press conference that morning, covering Lex Luthor's proposals for developing the south side of Metropolis. Clark grimaced, unwilling to leave and allow Lois to go through with this crazy idea on her own. He glared at her. "You should've discussed this with me before you took it on," he told her as soon as Perry had left them. She knew he was Superman, after all — wouldn't she see that she needed him to look out for her safety? Or was her knowledge making her complacent — did she somehow think that she was indestructible now because all she had to do was call and he'd be there? Because if so, he needed to make sure that she understood that it wasn't as simple as that. He might be fast, but he couldn't turn back time, and if he was too late there would be nothing he could do to help her.
But that, of course, was the wrong thing to say to Lois. "Why would I do that, Clark?" she enquired in a dangerous tone.
He ignored it, hoping that she would see sense. "Because we're a team."
Smiling as if she knew she held the trump card, Lois replied, "But sometimes players have to wait on the bench while other players carry the ball."
Sighing, Clark replied, "You're in over your head."
But Lois wasn't finished with him yet. "If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the story," she said tartly. "Besides, I am first and foremost a professional and I certainly wouldn't do anything to compromise my personal safety or the integrity of my work."
Oh no? he thought grimly. And just what were you doing when I found you with Toni Baines, or in the vault with Alan Morris?
He was about to ask her to come into the conference room so that they could talk privately, when Jimmy came hurrying up, carrying a garment bag. "Lois, here it is," he called. "The dry cleaner had a hell of a time with the feathers."
"Feathers?" Clark repeated incredulously. As he stared, Jimmy opened the garment bag and pulled out Lois's outfit, which presumably she would be expected to wear on stage at the Metro Club. A skimpy chicken costume.
Clark wasn't enjoying the press conference. For one thing, he didn't particularly appreciate seeing Lex Luthor boast about yet another major project which would add to his vast fortunes at someone else's expense; what about all those whose homes or businesses stood in the way of Luthor's West River expansion plans, he mused. He wasn't particularly amused when Luthor made a joke at Superman's expense when another reporter referred to Superman's seeming inability to keep up with the number of fires in the West River district.
But Luthor was just a minor irritation, Clark knew; although he still wanted to get Lois the proof she needed of the billionaire's true nature, that wasn't the main thing on his mind at present. What he was really worried about — or rather, who — was Lois.
It still bothered him that he had been too late to save her from Mencken. It still worried him that perhaps, one day, he might be too late and there might be no-one else around to save her. He half-suspected that, now that Lois knew Superman was really Clark and that Clark would always do his utmost to protect her, she might now be taking greater risks than she would have done when the remedy of calling 'Help, Superman!' had not been an option. He didn't know whether that was true or not; what he did know was that he sometimes lay awake at nights, or flew for miles, just worrying about her safety.
Why did she matter so much to him? He considered that question as he made his way back to the Planet to write up the story. Oh, he knew that, the instant he'd seen her, he had felt like he'd been hit by a ton of bricks. But they had been through a lot since then; she had discovered his secret, and for a short time she had caused him real worry by suggesting that she would expose him to the world. Then he had convinced her not to, and gradually they had come to understand one another better. Meeting her father had certainly taught him a few things about the prickly, stubborn woman who was his partner. Then… she had knocked him for six by telling him that he was her best friend.
He hadn't been sure what to make of that declaration, he knew. Heck, he hadn't even been sure that he trusted her up to that point… and if he was honest with himself, he still didn't entirely trust her. Her reluctance to listen to him about Lex Luthor added to his scepticism, he acknowledged; as he'd accused her, how could she claim to be his friend and yet not believe him?
They should have talked more, he thought as he joined the mass of reporters filing out of Luthor's penthouse suite. There was too much unresolved between them: that strange declaration of friendship from her, which had come straight out of left field for him given her very reserved attitude towards him at work, which itself had followed her initial declaration that she intended to expose him to the world. All of a sudden he was expected to believe that he was her best friend? And he was expected to return the compliment?
It wasn't as if he was averse to having Lois as his friend — far from it. It was what he'd wanted from the moment he'd met her, but her dismissive attitude to Clark Kent had made that seem an unlikely prospect. But the couple of occasions on which she'd dropped her guard had let him glimpse another side to Lois, a softer, more vulnerable person who aroused his sympathy as well as his yearning. But the biggest question still in his mind was… could he trust her? Oh, not to keep his secret, since she'd already proved her intention to do that. Could he trust her to treat him with respect, to be the kind of friend he really needed, to be there for him when he was hurting, or lonely, or feeling the weight of being the only one of his kind, whatever his 'kind' really was? He didn't know. But he was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, he resolved suddenly. Once the mystery of these fires had been solved, they would talk again, and he'd see if they could reach an understanding.
Like he'd told her, he was out of practice at being anyone's best friend. But he wanted to be Lois's, and one thing a best friend would do, he convinced himself, was to protect his friend. Prevent her from getting killed. In whatever way he could.
That afternoon, Lois, dressed as a cocktail waitress, learned the fine art of serving customers drinks. Ruefully, she admitted to herself that she had never realised how much there was to it. "…and if you hold your tray like this, you'll always have one hand free for protection," her new colleague Toots was saying.
"Protection?" queried Lois, puzzled.
"Eyes ain't the only things that wander in this joint," Toots enlightened her. A group of well-dressed men went through to the back room. "So, when you're not on stage," Toots continued, "you're out here takin' orders, got it? Now I better get in there with somethin' to wet their whistles or I'll be back slingin' hash at the truck stop."
She tried to take the tray back from Lois, who had been getting in some practice at holding it. But Lois resisted. "Let me. I could use the practice."
Toots protested at this. "They tip big."
"There's a twenty in it for you." Lois nearly lost her balance as Toots let go of the tray. Not that she minded; here was her way to find out what was really going on. Far easier than she'd thought it would be, too.
As she walked into the back room a few minutes later, Lois glanced around surreptitiously. What a set-up — half a dozen men in suits, and only one woman. Must be Toni Taylor, she thought, then focused on her cover. "Thirsty, boys?"
"Over here, gorgeous," one man invited; this was Johnny Taylor, Lois remembered. It had been he who had hired her after she had deliberately flashed her legs and midriff at him. He took a drink from her tray, at the same time patting her rear. Her instinctive response was to protest, but she remembered her cover just in time and carried on serving drinks. Her position allowed her to listen in on what was happening, and it made interesting listening.
Toni apparently wanted to discuss the fires, but Johnny seemed determined not to; what was even more apparent was that there was considerable tension between these two. As far as Lois was aware, they were siblings, and some of the quarrel did appear to be very personal. It was also sexist; it was clear that Johnny felt that Toni, being female, should shut up and let him get on with things. One piece of information took Lois very much by surprise: Toni Taylor had an MBA, and not only that, it seemed that she wanted to take the business down a legitimate route. She was challenging Johnny, accusing him of running the business down the drain by refusing to change. This was turning into some story!
Suddenly Johnny pulled a gun and fired several shots into the wall above Toni's head. Lois — and all the men — dived for cover. It was only afterwards that Lois realised Toni hadn't moved.
Maybe this was getting a little more risky than she had expected, Lois considered as she headed back to the bar.
Clark arrived outside the Metro Club that evening with no small amount of trepidation. It wasn't that he was concerned about his ability to pull off his disguise: he had no worries on that score. He was concerned, however, about Lois's reaction once she realised that he had come along to keep an eye on her. *He* knew he was acting from the best of motives, but he knew that Lois, being the prickly, independent woman she was, might well resent it.
Oh well, he would deal with her reaction when it happened. For now, he had to befriend the barman and try to get himself an 'in' to the club.
Disguised as a recently-sacked seaman determined to get drunk as quickly as possible, Clark managed to get chatting to the bartender, but the man wasn't particularly forthcoming. Then it happened; Lois spotted him. He had been leaning against the wall next to a curtained doorway, and suddenly a hand grabbed his arm and dragged him behind the curtain.
"What are you doing here?" a furious Lois hissed.
"I came to see the show," he fudged, hoping — though knowing it to be impossible — that she would just accept his response.
"You'll ruin everything," she protested furiously.
Unable to resist, he looked her up and down, taking in the terry-cloth robe she wore which, he presumed, hid her chicken costume. "Looks like you're real close to the story."
That was the wrong thing to say: she couldn't resist proving him wrong. "For your information, I spent the entire afternoon with the leader of the Metros in his inner sanctum."
"Wearing this?" he enquired tauntingly, staring at her apparel. A feather poked out from under the flap of her robe.
She stuffed it back furiously. "And who are you supposed to be? Popeye the Sailor?" she demanded.
A voice from backstage called, "Five minutes."
"I'm here to back you up," Clark pointed out, trying to calm her down.
Wrong thing to say, again, it seemed. "I don't need back-up," she retorted furiously.
"I think you do," Clark argued. "How'd you get so close to this guy, anyway?"
She threw him a pitying look. "He's a man. I'm a woman. You want me to draw you a diagram?"
The voice from backstage called again, "Places! That means you, sweet thing."
"What have you found out?" Clark asked urgently.
Impatiently, Lois replied, "Johnny and his sister don't exactly see eye to eye. There's some kind of power struggle going on. Now fly."
Clark raised an eyebrow at her. Was that intended as a double entendre? "And miss your debut? I think I'll stick around," he teased.
"Clark, you'll stick out like a sore thumb!" she protested.
He grinned at her. "Thanks for worrying, but… I think you're on." He paused deliberately before adding, "Sweet thing."
As Lois danced onto the stage in her yellow chicken costume, she was seething. How *dare* Clark Kent muscle in on her story? What gave him the right to assume that she needed protection, and that he was the one to provide it? He was not her guardian; just because he had saved her life a few times didn't mean that he owned it.
And how *dared* he call her 'sweet thing'? She has having to put up with enough sexual harassment and offensive remarks around here as it was, without Clark 'Superman' Kent getting in on the act. She would have a few words to say to him about that later.
And as for him sitting over there on that bar-stool, *laughing* at her, enjoying the sight of her in this *ridiculous* outfit…
He looked very different dressed like that, she realised. The cap, the messy hair and the goatee beard really made him appear like a dangerous ruffian. What was it about this man — was he a master of disguise or something? As Superman, no-one would recognise him as Clark Kent; but as this sailor no-one would ever think he could be Superman.
As her act progressed, she suddenly noticed that Clark's presence had attracted the attention of Toni Taylor. Lois watched the proceedings with no small sense of satisfaction: her partner was about to get himself tossed out on his ear.
But then the doors burst open. Four figures, dressed in metallic suits with matching hoods and masks lined up facing the table where Johnny sat. Lois gasped as one by one, they pulled out small, automatic weapons. People screamed and dived for cover. Johnny made a run for the office door, but as he ran, they aimed and fired. But instead of bullets, small pellets of flame were expelled from the guns.
Everyone else was getting out of the place as quickly as they could, screaming and panicking. Even in the midst of her own concern for her safety, Lois instinctively shot a glance over to where her partner had been sitting, forgetting in the heat of the moment the reason why he wouldn't be in any danger. She saw a blur of movement, and realised that Clark had rushed over and tackled Johnny to the ground, taking all the fire-power on himself. He was Superman… but would he be safe in the face of the ferocious strength of those flame-throwers?
It seemed that he would, but she couldn't believe he'd taken that risk, using his powers in the open like that. But she quickly realised that fires had begun all over the club, which probably meant that no-one other than herself had realised what he had done. Chaos had broken out, since several gang members had started shooting back at the invaders, who turned and ran.
Then she saw Clark's attention switch to something else, and she followed his gaze. Toni Taylor was trapped at the bar by flames. As Lois watched, he ran through the flames to pick her up, then set her down out of harm's way.
Lois hurried to Clark's side as he urged everyone out of the building; she saw him hang back, and she deliberately crept up to stand behind him. He was obviously unaware that she was there or, she realised, he would have insisted that she leave as well. What she saw him do next astonished her. He inhaled deeply, taking in the smoke to his lungs; then, she realised, he must have used his Super-breath again, this time with more magnitude. The small fires were extinguished before they had time to do much more damage. She marvelled again at the incredible abilities this man had. And despite her earlier annoyance at his appearance in the club, she was now very glad he'd been there. Without him, there would certainly have been deaths this evening.
Turning back to look at him, she saw him catch his breath, then look over at the far wall. She followed his gaze, and saw the word 'TOASTERS' burned into the wall; it was still smoking.
She caught Clark's arm. "Are you okay? Wow — that was some thing you just did!" He nodded at her, throwing her a quick smile which contained, she noticed, relief that she was safe. "Who were those guys?" she asked, baffled.
He nodded towards the word on the wall. "I think we've just been introduced to theToasters."
In the newsroom the following afternoon, Clark was eating a cold chicken lunch and simultaneously typing at his computer as Lois rushed in. She wore a trench coat held tightly around her, but as Clark glanced at her he noticed that her cocktail waitress fishnets and spiked heels were visible from the knee down.
Seemingly unaware of the view she was presenting him, she asked breathlessly, "You haven't sent our Toaster article down to copy yet, have you?"
Clark raised an eyebrow. "Just putting the finishing touches on it now," he explained, then couldn't resist. He picked up a piece of his chicken and offered it to her. "Drumstick?"
He grinned as Lois seethed. "I swear, if you breathe one word…" she muttered. Enjoying her response, he enquired pointedly, "You were saying something about the article?"
She focused on business. "Yeah. Stop the presses. The Metros just had a big meeting. Johnny's out and his sister Toni has taken over." She threw off her coat and booted up her computer. "If we hurry we can make it into the afternoon edition."
Clark had taken a sharp intake of breath as he noticed the skimpy black outfit she wore, but then he realised that other people in the newsroom were staring at her. Thinking he should alert her, since she had clearly forgotten what she was wearing, he tried to attract her attention; that's what a best friend would do, he figured. "Uh, Lois?"
"Clark, I'm on a deadline here!" she fended him off. Before he could say anything else to her, Jimmy came past and did a double-take. "Professional, but naughty. I like it."
Lois flushed, realising what she'd done; she grabbed her coat and wrapped it around her again as Clark focused on their story. "So I guess if Johnny's out, so's your plan," he suggested.
She glared at him. "Don't be ridiculous, I'm perfectly placed."
He paused, then offered, "I may be, too."
"What are you talking about?" she demanded.
"Toni asked me to meet her at the club this afternoon," he explained. He would have told her more, reminded her that he had saved Toni Taylor's life last night, which might just give him an 'in' to the club, but Lois's incredulous "For what?!" made him change his mind.
Remembering her taunt from the previous evening, he drawled, "I'm a man, she's a woman. You want me to draw you a diagram?"
She pulled a face at him as Perry approached, asking how the undercover work was going. She assured him it was going just fine.
With a completely straight face, Perry replied, "Good. Didn't think you'd chicken out on me."
He and Clark burst out laughing; all Lois could do was glare at them. But once Perry had gone, she leaned closer to Clark. "Just what is your game here, Kent?"
He frowned, surprised. "My game, Lois? I don't know what you're talking about!"
"Oh, don't play the innocent with me!" she threw at him angrily. "You're muscling in on my story! And I know why you're doing it, too…"
He interrupted her then, saying with exaggerated patience, "I'm getting myself a way in because I'm worried that you might get *hurt,* Lois!"
"I told you, I've been looking after myself since long before you came on the scene, Kent! I don't need your 'protection' — and I know what you're up to. You think you can use *my* lead and get yourself a story by getting into the Club and *cheating*!"
What was she talking about? He stared blankly at her. "Cheating?"
"Yeah! Using your… powers," she added in a whisper — he was grateful for that much. "At least I know I can get the story through good old-fashioned investigative skills."
He couldn't believe that she'd said that, but he wasn't going to get into an argument now about the rights and wrongs of using his powers in their investigations. She hadn't exactly been unhappy with his use of them when they'd been working on the cyborg case, after all. He focused on what, to him, was the central issue here, and tried to make her see sense. Deliberately keeping his voice calm, although he wanted to take her by the shoulders and shake her, heasked her, "What's so wrong with accepting my help?"
Her eyes flashed fury at him again. "This is *my* story!"
He shook his head in disbelief, turning away. "Oh — so you'd rather risk getting killed than share a byline for once?" he said sarcastically as he pretended to turn his attention to something on his computer screen. He did not want to continue this conversation; somehow that discussion in which she'd told him he was her best friend seemed aeons ago.
He heard her grunt in annoyance. "That is *so* petty! I've been sharing bylines with you for the past few weeks!"
He didn't respond, and after a few moments he was conscious of her stalking off. Good, he thought sourly. Lois Lane was not someone in whose company he wanted to be right now… not that this revelation of her real attitude towards him would prevent him looking out for her safety, he realised with grim determination. Okay, maybe she wasn't his friend after all… but he still cared about her, and felt responsible for her.
Clark's plan to infiltrate himself into the Metro Club worked even better than he had hoped. Not only was he the new bartender, but he had Toni's trust. He was perfectly placed to gather information. That might help to mollify Lois, although frankly, he doubted it. Right now, he didn't care if Lois calmed down or not. She was in danger. He hadn't been there for her once; it wasn't going to happen again. He had heard Toni discussing Lois's story, and he knew that she was looking to discover who had leaked information to the Planet. Lois was in very real danger. What did it take to make her aware of that? At least, in his new persona as 'Charlie King,' bartender, he could keep an eye on Lois!
He didn't hear any other information worth noting before he left to go get cleaned up. Toni was mainly concerned with finding a replacement for the singer who had just quit. Thank heavens Toni didn't like the help to look scruffy. Clark didn't think he'd be able to stand his fake beard for too much longer. It kept tickling his nose.
Later that evening, Lois ambled casually into the club. She paused at the bar to order a soda, hoping to obtain information from the bartender. Much to her chagrin, she was confronted with Clark, smugly smiling at her. Her eyes widened as she took in his appearance. Gone was the scruffy fake beard and the unkempt hairstyle; now he wore a very expensive-looking tuxedo. He wouldn't have looked out of place among any of the city's top socialites. And… she had to admit he was *incredibly* handsome dressed like that. Not that he was in any way bad-looking normally, but this — well, it just took her breath away.
"What are you doing here?" she hissed between clenched teeth, trying to shove her thoughts about her partner's appearance out of her mind. He'd been serious about going undercover, then… she was furious. He really was trying to steal her story! No doubt he was planning to use his powers to eavesdrop and get all the information he needed that way, and then it would be his scoop, not hers.
But this is Superman you're talking about! a little voice inside her protested. Superman would never be that petty!
No, it's not Superman, Lois insisted to herself. Superman doesn't exist — he's just a suit made of Spandex. Clark Kent does exist, and when he's not flying around rescuing people he's muscling in on my story and trying to tell me what to do. And this is why I should have been wary about being partnered with him — he's *always* going to have the edge on me!
His smile broadened even further as she glared at him. "My job. You're looking at the Metro Club's newest bartender. Like my tux? It's Italian."
"What did you do, fly to Rome?" Lois couldn't believe the nerve of the man. And there was *no* way she was going to tell him what she thought of his clothes!
He chuckled and winked at her, adding fuel to her angry fire. Lois was further incensed when Toni approached the bar, and promptly assumed a proprietary air towards Clark, no,'Charlie.' Then Toni dismissed her, dismissed Lois Lane as if she were no more than… than a lowly cocktail singer. Oh well, at least her disguise was still working! Clark added insult to injury when he swatted her on the rear end. Oh, he was going to have a lot of explaining to do later! Not only was he muscling in on her story, but he was also behaving like one of the customers Toots had warned her about — disguise or not, there was no excuse for that.
Clark kept trying to get Toni to open up to him, but he didn't have much success. She seemed quite happy to flirt with him, and seemed to enjoy his company, but she obviously wasn't ready to trust him. Toni finally excused herself to go meet a guest, which gave Clark time to look about him more closely.
He was still concerned about Lois, and he had now calmed down since their earlier argument. He wished they'd had a chance to talk this through: they were supposed to be a team, and they would be far more effective if she would actually discuss tactics with him! But besides that, there was another reason why he regretted their fight. Lois was the only person in Metropolis who knew about him, and despite her prickly nature and her reluctance to trust him, there had been a few times when she really had seemed to understand what he was going through. If they hadn't fought, if she hadn't been so suspicious of him, if they really had become friends… it would have been so good to have her on his side.
But they'd fought, and he had been hurt by her accusations. Okay, perhaps he could have handled it a little better: talked to her first before simply appearing in the club the night before. But couldn't she understand that he was trying to prevent her from getting herself killed?
He sighed as his gaze followed Toni Taylor across the crowded bar. His guess a week or so ago that finding out that Superman was actually Clark Kent had caused Lois to lose her respect for the Super-hero seemed to have been proved correct. Instead of treating Clark Kent with the respect she'd had for Superman, she now treated him with the lack of respect she'd had for Clark right from the start.
Whatever his feelings for Lois, that didn't bode well for their relationship in the future. With a sinking heart, he considered the possibility that perhaps he should consider moving on, after all.
His thoughts were quickly pushed to the back of his mind when he noticed that Toni Taylor was meeting Lex Luthor. He did his best to hide his astonishment, since he had no wish for anyone else to notice his interest in the goings-on in the club. Concentrating hard, Clark prepared to eavesdrop on their conversation.
Ow! Clark felt like his eardrums were bleeding! The drumbeat had been very loud announcing the start of the evening's entertainment.
The stage curtains opened, the spotlight shone onto a sultry figure, and Clark's jaw dropped as Lois faced her audience. He had time for one worried glance at Lex when all thoughts fled from his head as she started to sing. Her voice was beautiful, controlled passion. Why hadn't she told him she could sing? Listening to her sing, all smoke and honey, he felt as if he were floating. He literally had to look down to make sure he wasn't!
Lois faltered as she saw Lex in the crowd. He did look appreciative, though. Clark's words about him rose out of her mind to haunt her, but she forced them back down again. Lex wouldn't hurt her, surely? She could almost believe, watching him, that he really had feelings for her. No, she wouldn't worry about him. Lois brought her number to a close and acknowledged the applause of the crowd. She blushed when Lex tossed her a rose from his lapel and then floated from the stage. It was nice to be applauded like that. And who had been clapping for her? Lex had but not her partner, not…
Lois looked around the hallway. Luckily it was deserted so no one had heard them call each other by their real names. But chances were it wouldn't remain deserted long. Lois quickly dragged Clark into the supply closet.
"Did you see him?" Clark whispered hoarsely.
"Of course I saw him."
"Get out of here now. Don't even stop to get your things!" Clark was frantic. He had to get Lois out of there, and he had to get her out of there now! Couldn't she see the danger she was in?
Lois, on the other hand, was very annoyed. Did her partner actually have the audacity to tell her what to do *again*? Or was this another elaborate ruse to get her out of the way so that the story became his, and his alone? "Clark, Lex Luthor is a friend of mine. He would never do anything to hurt me and he's way too smart to let anything slip."
"I don't trust him! What's he doing here anyway?"
"I know you don't trust him, Clark! But I do. And I'll ask him next time I see him."
"Next time? There won't be a next time. I'm telling you, Lois, the man is bad news and I want you to stay away from…" His voice trailed off as he spotted something behind Lois. Bullet holes in the wall of the closet. So that's how she had been…
"So this is how you spied on the meetings." Clark was full of admiration for Lois's resourcefulness. She used every advantage she could and then some to get her stories.
Lois's anger made her even more sarcastic than normal. "If you're a good boy maybe I'll teach you some more of my tricks, but right now I've got to get ready for my next number."
The door flew open. Toni confronted the two reporters. "Interesting place for a bartender. Run out of olives?"
Clark thought fast. He could only think of one thing to do, and he prayed that Lois would forgive him… someday.
"Here she is. Your leak. Lois Lane, reporter for the Daily Planet."
Lois stared at Clark in disbelief. Even though she'd been telling herself all day that he was trying to push her out so that he could get the story, something inside her had never quite believed it. Despite her sceptical thoughts earlier, she had known that the man he really was, the person who disguised himself as Superman, wouldn't do anything so underhand. But yet here he had just betrayed her, and on the flimsiest of pretexts, from what she could see. If Lex Luthor had tried to make trouble, she could have dealt with it — and from Lex's response to her singing, she had a strong suspicion that he had no intention of blowing her cover.
Unlike her no-good, story-pinching *ex*-partner!
She had another fear to contend with, which was the question of what Toni Taylor intended to do about her. Had Clark 'Superman' Kent thought about that when he'd blown her cover to the leader of the Metros? What if the woman pulled a gun on her right now? Would he blow his own cover — reveal himself as Superman — by stopping the bullet for her? She glared at him again, seeing the steely determination in his face as he held her gripped by the arm. Somehow she recognised something in his expression which told her that he wouldn't allow any harm to come to her, though quite how he intended to achieve that she had no idea.
Finally Toni Taylor told Clark to throw her out, standing back to ensure that he did as he was instructed, and Lois heaved a sigh of relief. Okay, she was off the story, thanks to Kent, but she was escaping unhurt.
Lois did not appreciate the view of the alley from her upside down position over Clark's shoulder. She managed to restrain herself to whispers so she wouldn't blow his cover, although it would serve him right if she did. It was only the fact that this was such an important story that kept the lid on her temper. But oh boy, would she tell Kent exactly what she thought of him once they got into work the next day! And then she would go straight to Perry and tell him that she wanted rid of him. No way was she going to work with another ambitious, double-crossing male who wanted to get ahead by stealing her story.
Clark approached the dumpsters and looked back. The bouncer was watching the action with interest. He cursed to himself. He had hoped to have a minute with Lois to *try* and calm her down, to persuade herthat he'd had no option but to blow her cover to save his own and their investigation. Instead he would have to make this look good.
Unbidden, the memory of their argument came into his mind: Lois accusing him of cheating to get a story, of trying to take over her story in order to get his name on a byline. That *had* hurt, as had the knowledge that once again she simply didn't trust him. Without stopping to consider the wisdom of his actions, he quickly x-rayed the dumpsters, patting her backside simultaneously, and approached the one full of rotten food. Lois shrieked, "No!" as he dropped her in. Hah! He'd like to see Lois Lane, intrepid reporter sneak back into the club smelling like yesterday's lasagne! At least this would, hopefully, keep her safe, maybe even until tomorrow. He walked back towards the bouncer, but his Super-hearing picked up a strange sound. He turned just in time to catch a head of rotting lettuce and deflect it into a trash can. Oh, oh! It looked like she wasn't as appreciative of his reasoning as he was.
The bouncer grinned. "I guess we won't be hearing from her no more."
"Speak for yourself," Clark muttered under his breath.
Later that night, back in his apartment, Clark was in a reflective mood as he put the kettle on. He hadn't made any more progress with Toni, and unfortunately Lex had left shortly after he had… thrown Lois out. Oh boy! She was going to be mad!
And on reflection, he regretted his actions. Oh, he didn't regret blowing her cover — he still believed that he'd had no choice but to do that. But he shouldn't have played the macho role to the extent he had. Okay, he'd been in character as Charlie King, and he'd reasoned that King the out-of-work sailor might well treat women like that — and it certainly would do his reputation among the staff of the Metro Club no harm. But *he* had always had contempt for men who treated women as sex objects, and he was angry with himself for having yielded to the temptation to extract his revenge on Lois like that. However badly she had behaved to him, she hadn't deserved that, and he knew he needed to apologise for it. It had been so stupid, as well — he was sure there had to have been other ways of throwing her out which would have been less humiliating for her, and which would have been equally convincing in the eyes of the watching bouncer.
His apartment door slammed open, and Clark found himself confronted with a garbage-stained Lois Lane. Oh, yes. She was mad, all right! He sighed: he would simply have to wait until she calmed down — ran out of diatribe, more like, and then try to talk to her. He would apologise first, since he owed it to her, but then he needed to convince her that he *had* been thinking of her safety. The story came a very poor second place to that, and he had to make her see that.
He couldn't help but be impressed with her mastery of the insult. He had done a lot of travelling but she had an expertise that was rare. Despite his need to apologise and talk to her, he found himself becoming amused. He couldn't help it, but she looked so adorable with her eyes flashing that he found himself reacting completely inappropriately — again. After baiting her for a moment by offering her tea — a calming herbal blend, and by complimenting her singing while she was haranguing him, he thought he'd better pull back and start talking, start explaining his actions. He had barely made a start at rationalizing his behaviour, and he could see that she wasn't buying his arguments, when a knock sounded on the door. Clark x-rayed the door to see Toni, carrying a bag of groceries.
He sighed inwardly — just what he didn't need right now. He and Lois needed to talk, alone, uninterrupted, to sort out this business and the business of their working relationship; the question of whether they had a friendship at all was something he brushed aside for now. No matter how drawn he was to her, given her behaviour over the last few days she certainly wasn't acting like a friend. But thanks to his behaviour earlier he couldn't afford to take the moral high ground either.
Her sharp questioning tone pricked Clark's pride. Did she think he didn't date? Okay, he didn't, but she didn't have to know that. Was he not allowed to have company over?
"I guess… my dinner date," he prevaricated, unable to help himself.
His dinner date? Her anger reached its flashpoint and she exploded, "Oh, I get it! You don't need to draw me a diagram. I cuddle up to three-day-old fish heads while you play footsie with the mafia princess." She glared at him angrily.
Toni knocked on the door again.
"Oh, I get it. You're jealous," Clark said smugly, reacting to her accusations.
"Jealous? Are you out of your mind?"
The wrong thing to say again, he sighed heavily. They needed to start sorting things out, not making them worse! But he was suddenly reminded of the precariousness of their position. "Lois, she can't see you here. You've got to hide." He pushed her behind a wall near his staircase and quickly whispered instructions. "I'll find some way to distract her and then you sneak out."
He headed quickly to the door and invited Toni in. She offered to repay his assistance with a home-cooked meal, and he led her to the kitchen. Clark's mind was working overtime. How was he going to distract her long enough for Lois to sneak out? Only one thing occurred to him, and he promptly swept Toni up into a passionate clinch. As he caught sight of the shocked, upset and dumbstruck expression on Lois's face, he winced. Maybe he should have tried harder to think of something else. He maintained the embrace until Lois was safely out the door and then breathed a silent sigh of relief. She was gone; she was safe.
But, as the door closed silently behind her and he turned his attention to Toni, he wondered just why the sight of him kissing the Metro Club owner — ruse or not — should bother Lois so much.
Lois stormed into her apartment, slamming her door behind her. Who did he think he was? She threw her filthy clothes off with abandon as she stormed through the apartment. It wasn't long until she was standing in her housecoat at her kitchen counter eating ice cream directly from the carton. Who does he think he is, she asked herself again. Jealous? He accused her, Lois Lane, of being jealous?
"I am jealous," she wailed into the ice cream carton. But that didn't make sense… she was *furious* with Clark! He had behaved just like Claude — used her, stolen her story, and treated her like dirt into the bargain. She wasn't going to forgive that in a hurry!
A knock on the door startled her. She headed to it, to open it. If that was Clark, she was going to give him a piece of her…
Lex Luthor stood there, smiling at her. He looked debonair and suave leaning against her door frame.
"Let's do it."
"I beg your pardon?"
"A song request." Lex smiled warmly at her. "Let's do it. Let's fall in love," he warbled tunefully.
"I think my singing days are over."
Lex complimented her singing, Lois asked him in, and the whole time she couldn't stop wondering what he was doing at her apartment. Oh, God! Her clothes. Lois scooped up the filthy clothes, looked at them in bemusement, and finally, frantically, hid them in the freezer.
Lois felt as if she were watching from outside her own body as Lex flirted with her. She couldn't help but respond to his charm. However, when he explained that he had gone to meet Toni Taylor at her request and that he didn't trust Toni, bells and whistles went off in Lois's mind. Hmmm, he sounded a bit like he was protesting too much. Lois was fully aware that there were two possibilities here. One, he was genuinely concerned about her welfare and he was in her apartment to warn her about Toni, or two, he was white-washing his own involvement in the problems in West River. Damn Clark for putting these nasty suspicions in her head. Lex was probably just concerned, but still…
Lois continued talking to Lex for a few more minutes, trying to keep the conversation light. She was relieved when he left. She had some planning to do. If she hurried, she could get changed and get back to Clark's before Toni left. And her partner was sure going to hear a mouthful if Toni stayed overnight!! Oh, lord! Was is possible he was really serious about Toni? But why did she care? she reminded herself savagely. Her only interest was the story, and following Toni Taylor once she left Clark's apartment was going to get her that. If Clark Kent chose to ignore Ms Taylor's obvious guilt, then that was his problem! She would get the story despite his interference.
Lois eyed the beady-eyed rodent distastefully. She glanced away from the rather large rat, and could just make out the Toaster who was guarding Toni. Why did these things happen to her? Most people go their whole life without being stuck on top of a crate in a warehouse — with a rat no less… or trapped in a vault… or thrown from a plane… or… <Oh! Get a grip, girl!> It was even more frustrating now that she had overheard the Toasters' plan to burn West River. The only bright spot in this whole thing was Toni's frustration at having her stooges turn on her. Hah! Lois had known she was a crook. Take that, Clark Kent! You're not so good at judging people after all. And how you could *kiss* her… and at the same time have the *gall* to warn me off Lex Luthor!
But what about Lex, she wondered nervously. Could Clark be right after all? Was he a crook? Why was he really being entertained by the leader of the Metros? Suddenly she wasn't quite so sure that he was on the up and up.
As for Clark… what had possessed him to behave in the way he had? She had thought he was her friend — only a few days earlier, she had taken what, for her, was an enormous leap of faith and had practically dragged him back to her apartment and done what she had never done for another human being. She had offered herself as a confidant, and had told him — uninvited, without knowing how he felt about her — that she considered him to be her best friend. He had seemed touched and grateful at the time, and had told her that he felt the same.
But tonight he had shown by his behaviour that he had no respect for her whatsoever. Okay, perhaps she could dismiss the 'sweet thing' comment as a joke, but he had swatted her behind — *twice* — and had stolen her story from her in the most appalling way possible. He had betrayed her real identity to the Metros boss, thus ensuring that she had no chance of finishing her investigation. His behaviour ranked right up there alongside Claude's, she considered. Some friend!
She frowned then; her conscience was nagging her to recognise that this interpretation of Clark's behaviour was at odds with what she knew of his character. The Clark Kent she had come to know over the past weeks — both as reporter and Superman — possessed a highly-developed sense of ethics. That man would not steal anyone's story, surely. She remembered how, even after she had stolen *his* story in his second week at the Planet, he had shared his information with her. So would he have acted purely from such selfish motives?
She had to admit that it was unlikely. Clark just wasn't like that.
Things Clark had said to her about the Metros investigation came back to her.
<It's too dangerous>
<You're in over your head>
<I'm here to back you up>
And, after Lex had appeared in the club, <Get out of here now. Don't even stop to get your things!>
It made sense now. His actions had been motivated purely from concern for her safety, not to steal her story from under her nose — but what gave him the right to assume that she was his responsibility? He was her friend, not her father. And she'd had enough of a domineering male in her life trying to tell her what she could and couldn't do. All right, after the boxing investigation she and her father had reached a tentative truce, but there were a lot of unresolved issues there still. And one of them was her father's continual insistence that he knew what was best for her.
Now Clark was trying to do the same. And he presumably thought that because he was a big strong male, and she was a frail, defenceless female, he had the right to do it. Although — that wasn't strictly true either, she recognised. Clark did have an advantage that other men didn't have — he was Superman. So he was invulnerable and therefore situations involving guns and arsonists and gangsters didn't exactly hold a lot of danger for him; while for her they represented potentially life-threatening situations.
So he thought that because he was Superman he had the right to protect her. She stilled as she remembered Clark's depression after he had failed to rescue her from Mencken. For a while, Lois had actually believed that his reaction had been more a consequence of it being Lex who had rescued her, given Clark's opinion of Luthor. But she realised that it was far more likely that his depression had genuinely been borne out of thoughts of what could have happened to her had neither of them rescued her.
He cared about her… and his conscience would suffer if anything happened to her. Yes, that explained it. She had accused him wrongly, she realised, suddenly regretting her harsh words to him at the Planet the previous afternoon. She owed him an apology for that, she conceded, and if she managed to get out of there alive, she would…
But his motives still didn't explain his patronising swipes at her rear — didn't he *know* how that had made her feel? Didn't he understand just how he had humiliated her? Nor did it excuse his blowing her cover like that. She could understand his desire to protect her, though he would have to understand that she was an adult. She was actually capable of taking care of herself — she had been doing it for long enough before he had arrived on the scene. And she was qualified in self-defence — perhaps she should demonstrate her Tae Kwon Do on him sometime.
She smiled involuntarily as she mused on the improbability of Lois Lane being able to deck Superman with a martial arts move. Still, it worked against ordinary mortals, and that was what mattered.
She would have to talk to Clark, to explain how his behaviour made her feel, she reflected. He had to be made to understand that friends needed to respect each other, assuming that they were still friends, that was. His treatment of her had not shown any such respect, although she hoped that it was more likely to be ignorance rather than genuine disrespect which lay behind it.
There still remained, though, the nagging sense of inadequacy which Clark brought out in her. Sure, she was a three-times Kerth Award winner, but what did that count for against someone with his advantages? He didn't need her as a partner, and she felt sure that once he'd got to know the city better, built up his own network of contacts and snitches, he'd move on, work solo, and leave her behind him. And no matter how good she was from now on, she wouldn't be able to compete with his extra abilities.
So she would lose him as a partner… and possibly as anything else too, once he'd got to a point where he didn't need her any more.
Lois went back to watching the rat while she waited for her chance to get away.
Early the next morning, Lois had cause to bless the rodent. It proved to be a great distraction for the Toaster, enabling Lois to make her escape. It wasn't long until she was at Clark's apartment. Much as she wanted to mix it up with him right away, she forced herself to remain calm and fill him in on what she had learned. Now wasn't the time to tell him how she felt about his behaviour, she recognised. Clark promptly disappeared into his bedroom and reappeared in his Suit. Even before he could leave, they could see smoke and flames rising over Metropolis.
"I'm going to the police station. They need to know what they're up against. I'll meet you back at the Planet."
He nodded and headed for his balcony. The sight of him in his Suit, in such close proximity to her, brought back to her the way she had responded to Superman when the Man of Steel had first appeared: not the hero-worship, but what she had said to Clark about the Super-hero. Superman was someone for the city to look up to, not necessarily for what he did, but for what he was capable of doing, what he represented. She grimaced. This man was no Claude. She had been wrong to see him in those terms, and despite his actions at the club last night, he was someone she should respect. They needed to talk, she thought. But later. Now, he had more important things to do.
"Oh, and Clark?"
He turned back to her, his expression wary; they'd both been stepping on eggshells around each other, simply focusing on the story.
"Be careful." Her voice was softer than it had been for some time in conversation with him.
His eyes widened, and he gave her a crooked smile. "Thanks, Lois."
It didn't take Clark long to deal with the Toasters. It was almost anti-climactic how quickly he had taken them into custody. It had been a little harder harnessing a storm and moving it towards Metropolis, but he knew he couldn't deal with all the fires by himself. The rain did the job a lot quicker and more efficiently than he could have. With its help, he was done with the conflagration fairly quickly. Now came the hardest job of all — confronting Toni. She had really fooled him. He had believed that she was going to turn things around and become legitimate, and Lois's evidence to the contrary had seriously disillusioned him. Not that he'd had any romantic inclinations where Toni was concerned, of course, but he had admired her courage and her determination to do the right thing. It was going to be hard to turn her over to the police, but it had to be done.
And then there was the other matter of outstanding business: Lois. They badly needed to talk, and he hoped that she was now ready to listen to him. He'd seen the fury in her eyes when she'd arrived at his apartment after her all-night incarceration — why hadn't she found some way to call him? he'd wondered in annoyance. This was exactly the kind of thing he'd been worrying about! But the concerned note in her voice when she'd wished him luck had told him that she might have calmed down a little.
A tiny voice inside him asked why he was the one doing all the running where Lois Lane was concerned. She was a shrew, after all; a termagant who had no time for men in her life — had no time for anyone in her life except herself and her career. But again he reminded himself that it wasn't like that. She knew about him, so he needed to keep a watchful eye on her or move away from Metropolis. He cared about her safety. And he knew that the public persona Lois showed to the world was not the real Lois. And one day he hoped that she would trust him enough to let him see that real Lois.
For now, he would try to talk to her, get her to see that she'd been wrong about his motives; he didn't expect an apology, he thought ruefully, knowing Lois; but then, he didn't care about that. Apologies weren't what was important; rebuilding whatever tentative friendship they'd had before the Metros investigation was.
Later, Lois sat at her desk receiving Perry and Jimmy's accolades. It was only fair. It was a great story, and another outstanding exclusive for the Planet. The two men left, leaving Lois alone with her thoughts for a moment. It wasn't long before Clark arrived and filled her in on Toni's arrest. They talked idly for a few moments and then Lois excused herself. She had spent some more time that morning, in the few spare moments she'd had available, thinking about Clark's behaviour and what she needed to say to him, and now she knew exactly what she had to do to make him understand. She had thought and wondered how to get her point across, and she finally had a plan. It was fortunate that Cat was alone in the coffee area although Lois wouldn't have let the presence of others stop her.
"Clark, I want you to listen to this," she muttered under her breath as she made her way towards the gossip columnist. She could see him jump out of the corner of her eye so she knew he had heard her.
Lois approached Cat with apparent diffidence.
"Cat, I've been wondering about something. Can I ask you something personal, as a friend?"
"Hah! You and I, friends?"
"No, seriously, Cat. I know we don't always get along, but… you're basically a nice person, and I think we respect each other… sort of… most of the time, okay, some of the time, and…"
"Oh, spare me, Lois. Go ahead and ask whatever it is but don't pretend to be someone you're not!"
Lois grinned at her for a second and then asked, "Cat, why do you pursue men who don't want you to? Like Clark or like that guy in Accounting — you know, the one whose wife just had twins."
"Seriously?" At Lois's nod, Cat continued, "Well, I don't know how to explain it, but… I know that if they just gave in, they would enjoy themselves with me. It's no big deal."
"But you're pushing them into something they aren't comfortable with."
"They should be comfortable. I just help them… make up their minds."
"Because you know what's best for them?"
"Exactly," Cat purred huskily.
"So, if they say they don't want to be with you, they're wrong because you know better."
"You've got it! By God, Lane, you can be taught!"
Lois just smiled at her, prepared her coffee and moved back to Clark's side. "So, Clark, shall we talk?"
He gazed at her, his brown eyes thoughtful. "I think we'd better. Uh, I don't want to talk here. Can I, uh, fly you home?"
Lois smiled quickly at him. "I thought you'd never ask! I'll get my coat."
By an unspoken agreement, Lois and Clark were both silent on the flight to Lois's apartment. When they arrived, Lois headed into the kitchen to put the kettle on, and Clark spun out of his Suit and into his street clothes. They occupied themselves for a few minutes making tea and preparing it to their own individual taste, but finally the moment of truth arrived. Lois gestured to the couch, Clark sat down, and Lois seated herself beside him.
Clark was silent for a long moment. Lois waited patiently, hoping he would have figured out what she wanted him to understand.
"Lois, I'm sorry." He looked helplessly at his clasped hands, seeming to be unable to meet her eyes. "I was wrong. I was just like Cat, forcing you into something against your will. I horned in on your lead without your permission. I assumed that I had the right to decide what was best for you." He glanced up suddenly, his deep brown eyes staring directly at her. "I understand the point you were making there, but I want to tell you that if we hadn't been interrupted last night I'd have told you then that I was sorry for the way I behaved. Can you accept that, and that I am sorry?"
"Maybe," she told him; it wasn't strictly true since, given that she thought she had worked out his motives, she could accept that he had intended no malice. But she needed to ensure that he understood exactly why what he'd done was wrong. She sighed, and gazed at him until he raised his head to meet her eyes. "But I want to know what you were thinking, Clark. Do you realise you invaded my territory, smacked me on the butt as if I was some sort of floozy and you were no better than any of those pigs at the club? You blew my cover, and then threw me into a dumpster! I think it's a bit much to expect me to just say, 'Oh, well, it's okay, we got the story after all,' don't you?"
He winced. "How come it sounds so much worse when you repeat what I did back to me?"
"Because it was worse. It was a lot worse than you thought. Clark, you humiliated me," she informed him, seeing him wince yet again at her words. "Was it just for the story?" she asked, already knowing that wasn't the case but needing him to say the words.
"No! No! Lois, that's not it!" he interrupted, his expression showing his distress that she could think that. He immediately gazed down at his hands again. "Lois, I… I'm hurt that you thought that, you know. I thought you'd know me better than that - not just me as Superman, but me as *Clark.* I know you had a bad experience in the past with someone who stole your story, but what have I ever done to make you think I'd do that?" His dark gaze met hers again, his expression solemnly questioning, and she realised that she really had hurt him with her accusations. So they'd both been at fault, she thought.
"Then why, Clark? I really want to understand because as it stands right now, after what you did to me last night I don't think I would be comfortable working with you again." She'd intended her words to shock, but now that they were having this conversation she was beginning to realise just how much his behaviour really had humiliated her. The memory of how she had felt when he had grabbed her and slung her over his shoulder in that horrible way intruded into her consciousness as she watched the expressions fly across her partner's face.
Clark's head shot up in shock at her words. He hadn't realised how serious this was. "Lois," he began, picking and choosing his words carefully, "I didn't mean it that way. I wasn't trying to… steal your lead. You must know I wouldn't do that. I was… I was worried about you. You could have been hurt if I wasn't there to protect you." He ran his fingers through his hair in agitation. "I wasn't there for you before with Mencken; I didn't want that to happen again."
Lois's expression softened as his words provided the proof that she had been correct in her interpretation of his motives. "Oh, Clark, honestly. You're obsessing!" she told him. She sighed, closing her eyes briefly. He had to be brought to realise that he did not have the right to make those sort of decisions for her. "Listen to me now," she continued. "I went undercover long before you came along. I've been in a lot of dicey situations and I've always landed on my feet. I know how to look after myself, and I can tell you, if you weren't Superman I'd show you exactly what I can do. I'll be darned if I'm going to let you wrap me in cotton wool just because we're friends. Because I can tell you the quickest way to end this friendship is to treat me like a five year old. That's how you made me feel!"
He grimaced, raising his head to meet her gaze again. "Lois, I'm sorry if I made you feel that way. It's just… hard. You are my friend, and I do care for you. I guess I didn't… think things through to see how you'd interpret my actions, but I promise you that I only did what I did to protect you. You have to realise that… that because I'm Superman, situations like that just aren't dangerous for me. They are for you, and I… need to know that you won't get hurt. I had to be where I could keep an eye on you, and I had to get you out of there safely once it was obvious your cover could be blown."
"But *you* blew it," she reminded him. "Even if your motives were good — and I accept that they were, Clark, you don't have the right to make that decision for me. And you may be Superman, but you're not my father. Or my boss."
His eyes flashed briefly as she finished, but he said nothing; it was clear to Lois that, while he might be willing to apologise for the effect of his actions and how she'd interpreted them, he still didn't actually feel that he had been wrong to want to protect her.
And in a way… he wasn't wrong. Friends should look out for one another. But there was a difference between looking out for one another and trying to take control of someone else's life. Clark had seemed to understand the point she was making with Cat, and Lois guessed that next time — assuming there was a next time — Clark would be more subtle in his actions, but he wouldn't stop thinking that he knew best what she should and shouldn't do.
She smiled wryly and decided to continue that particular argument another time. But there was something else he needed to understand.
"Clark, why did you smack my butt?"
Clark faltered under the weight of her gaze. "I thought… I was playing a part, you know, 'Charlie King,' I thought… it was the way a guy like that would act, and I knew I was being watched." He hesitated, then seemed to read her thoughts. "You said I treated you like some floozy… and I guess you're right. I treated you like an object, a sex object. I *hate* it when Cat does that to me, and I turned around and did the same thing to you, didn't I?" He gazed at her, and seemed to see silent confirmation of his suggestion in her eyes. He grimaced. "I didn't think at the time how that would appear to you. I guess I should be ashamed of myself." He inhaled deeply, then caught her gaze again. "Lois, I need you to know that if Toni hadn't interrupted us last night I would have said all this then."
"The only thing that kept me from decking you was knowing that I would probably break my hand if I tried!"
Clark smiled wryly at her feeble joke. It had served to clear the air however.
"Okay, why did you throw me into the dumpster?" she asked; that had really added insult to injury since it had seemed an unnecessarily mean act in addition to his throwing her over his shoulder and swiping her rear. It had felt even worse knowing that it was Superman treating her like that.
He grimaced again. "I was trying to keep you from sneaking back into the Club. If you were filthy, and smelly, it would just make it that much harder."
Making decisions for her again… without a moment's thought about how his treatment of her actually felt. That hurt. She glared at him. "Well, Clark, I just figured you were expressing your feelings for me, and I didn't like thinking that you thought of me with contempt." Despite her intentions, and her valiant attempts to stay calm, Lois's voice broke and her eyes shone suspiciously.
Clark was horrified and it showed in his expression. It had clearly never occurred to him that she might interpret his behaviour in that way, although she had already told him how humiliated she'd felt. "Oh, Lois." He closed his eyes and shook his head for a moment. "I'm so sorry I made you feel like that. But you *know* I don't think of you that way." He leaned towards her and gently wiped away an errant tear from her cheek. "You are the most stubborn, tenacious, brilliant woman I've ever met. You know how much I respect you — you're a brilliant reporter, and I still feel honoured to be your partner. Every day we work together I'm more impressed by you — like how you managed to get the inside scoop on the Metros. I'm proud to be your friend — that is, if you can ever trust me again."
Lois pulled away from his touch; for some reason, although she had determined earlier that his motives, if flawed, had not been malicious and that she would forgive him, she suddenly seemed unable to push from her mind the image of him carrying her out of the club like a sack of potatoes. "I don't know, Clark," she said heavily. "You're going to have to earn my trust. You pushed me aside, treated me with contempt, and acted as if what I wanted didn't matter to you. You want to be my friend? Don't ever do that again."
"I won't, Lois." They gazed at each other for a long moment. Lois could feel that he was sincere in this at least, but only time would tell if he could avoid trying to make decisions for her in future. He didn't seem to realise that his disrespect of her went beyond his manhandling of her.
Clark finally looked away. He felt disgust for the way his actions had made Lois feel. He had always despised men who had no respect for the women in their lives, who treated them as sex objects or creatures to be pushed around — but Lois was telling him that this was exactly how he had treated her. The road to Hell certainly did start with good intentions. Well, he would certainly never make that mistake again, he resolved; he just hoped that she could forgive him and accept his friendship again.
He stood up. "I'd better go. Thanks for listening, though, Lois — I wouldn't have blamed you if you'd gone straight to Perry and told him you wanted to break up our partnership."
Lois nodded and walked him to the door, not responding to his final remark. "I'll see you tomorrow, Clark."
When Lois heard the regretful, sad tones to his voice, part of her yearned to tell him he was forgiven. But it was too soon. Her pride insisted on making him wait for his absolution. And okay, maybe it was small-minded of her, but so what? She felt entitled to be small-minded right now.
But what if you lose all chance of his friendship as a result? she asked herself miserably. Her face fell; she should have thought of that while he'd still been there. Clark Kent's friendship was something worth having, she was still convinced of that.
But she still felt that this incident wasn't over yet. And anyway, he might have apologized; he might have understood some of what she'd said to him, but he had not accepted her point about his over-protective attitude. If she forgave him right now, he would assume that he had the right to carry on policing her activities, though he would probably do it with a little more sensitivity. He needed to understand that she wanted him to accept that she was an equal partner in their relationship — in many ways she should be considered the senior partner anyway, she reminded herself. She had been in the job far longer than he had, and regardless of his years of international travel and work experience, she was the more experienced journalist.
But he had assured her that he respected her, she remembered. That was good, surely? But what had he said…? <You're a brilliant reporter, and I still feel honoured to be your partner> He had complimented her work — which was actually very reassuring, she realised, as she remembered her fears of seeming inadequate working next to Superman. Perhaps she did have skills he lacked? Maybe she'd been over-pessimistic in her assessment of her abilities next to his. She felt reassured suddenly; he'd sounded perfectly sincere in what he'd said. If that was the case, then perhaps he wouldn't be ready to dump her once he'd properly found his feet in Metropolis.
But… had she hoped for something more from him? Unbidden, as the image of Clark kissing Toni Taylor returned to her, a question came into her mind: did Clark see her as an attractive woman, or was he more interested in her as a purely platonic friend? A partner he admired?
Where had that thought come from? She wasn't thinking of Clark *that* way… didn't want him to think of *her* that way. No, it would be dangerous. Their tentative friendship, although rocky at the moment, *extremely* rocky right now, she guessed, was too important to her. No, she didn't want him to think of her that way at all. Did she?
But more images sprang to mind: Lex Luthor telling her she was beautiful when she'd had dinner with him, the appreciative look in his eyes when he'd seen her on stage the evening she'd sang at the club; Lex throwing her the rose; Lex coming to her apartment, almost as if he'd known she needed comfort and reassurance. Lex praising her singing. But she now knew that it wasn't Lex she wanted to be the one to comfort her, to be her friend or perhaps more.
But Clark had never complimented her, made her feel beautiful and attractive, as Lex did… although there had been that moment, late at night in the newsroom as they finished their Chinese meal — the way he'd looked at her… But that had been when he'd first known her; now they'd been working together for a couple of months, he clearly didn't see her in that light any more.
And of course, there had been his relationship, whatever it had been, with Toni Taylor. She felt a further pang as she recalled that kiss; for an instant as she had watched, she had wished *she'd* been the woman in Clark's arms, being kissed so passionately. Although… it was possible that it had merely been a ruse to allow her to escape. And hadn't she, only minutes before the mob boss's arrival, suggested sardonically to Clark that he could have pretended to have been sharing a moment of fleeting passion with her as an explanation for why they had been found together in that backstage corridor. It was possible that he'd remembered what she'd said and decided to use her suggestion as a means of distracting Toni Taylor.
Lois frowned as she remembered that Clark had said very little after she'd told him the truth about Toni, and even less after her arrest. How had he really felt about her? Had he really been interested in her? Flattered, perhaps, by her interest in him? Or had he just been using her to get to the story?
It hardly mattered now, she supposed. Toni was going to prison, and Clark wouldn't want anything to do with her now.
But there was still the question of their friendship, and the fact that its future was still unresolved. She knew that Clark was waiting for her to make the next move; they still needed to have a long talk. She'd got her point across about his sexist behaviour, and he'd apologised for that, and she'd also spoken her mind about his over-protective attitude. She hadn't, she realised, apologised to *him* for misjudging him, and although she suspected that he knew she no longer thought he'd been out to steal her story, she hadn't told him so.
Don't leave it too long before talking to him properly, the little voice inside said. And you have to be honest with him about how you feel — you owe him that.
Clark ducked around the corner into an alley as soon as he exited Lois's building; after the conversation they'd just had, he didn't feel like going back to his apartment. He needed to think, and he did that best while flying.
It seemed that he'd really screwed up this time, and in doing so he'd hurt and offended the one person, apart from his parents, he least wanted to hurt. He could no longer deny that Lois was very special to him; he hoped that he'd managed to show her that, and he hoped that they could salvage their embryo friendship from this mess. He had told her how much he admired and respected her. He could only hope that she would accept that, and would put it behind her.
He was disgusted with himself for the way he'd manhandled her; he'd barely paused to think about what he was doing at the time, he knew. All he'd been aware of was the need to be convincing, and since he'd noticed the bouncer swiping the rear of one of the waitresses earlier, he had imitated that action. It had completely slipped his mind that he was actually dealing with his partner — *senior* partner — and that such behaviour, even under cover, was completely inappropriate. And in doing so, of course, he'd put himself in the wrong where she was concerned, whereas before it had been Lois who had misjudged him and behaved badly to him.
But okay. She had told him how she felt about that, and he'd apologized, and somehow he suspected that that particular incident was now past history as far as Lois was concerned. His intuition told him that what was really bothering her now, and what he would have to work hard to overcome, was her suspicion that he didn't respect her. He would have to work hard to show her just how much he respected her: as a partner, as a friend, as a woman.
He sighed. The answer was obvious. He needed a woman's input on this one.
The familiar sound of her son's arrival brought a smile to Martha Kent's face, and she called out to her husband, who was upstairs mending a shelf in the bathroom. "Jonathan! Clark's here!"
She turned to smile at Clark as he strode into the kitchen with his cape swishing behind him; he swept her into a hug before breaking away to greet his father.
Later, as the three Kents sat around the kitchen table and Clark finished off the last piece of blueberry pie, Martha exchanged glances with her husband as the story related by her son came to an end.
She reached out to pat Clark's hand. "So, honey, you're worried that Lois might decide not to forgive you for your behaviour?"
"Yeah, I guess," he mumbled. "But, Mom, I've told her I'm sorry, that I won't treat her like… well, that I'd never be so sexist towards her again. I've told her how much I admire her. And I've assured her that I only had her best interests at heart — I needed to ensure her safety."
Martha raised her eyebrows at him. "And have you promised that you won't be so high-handed again?"
"High-handed?" Clark's voice indicated that he was offended at his mother's suggestion. "I wasn't — "
"You weren't acting high-handed towards her, Clark?" Martha enquired. "Are you sure about that? What did Lois say about you deciding for her what she should and shouldn't do?"
Clark shifted in his seat, clearly a little uncomfortable. "Well, okay, I guess I need to be more… well, more diplomatic in future about protecting her."
"No, you do not, Clark Jerome Kent!" Martha exclaimed. "What you need to do is to demonstrate that you trust that young woman to live her own life! Who appointed you her guardian anyway? She certainly didn't, by the sound of things."
"But… she gets into dangerous situations all the time — I've already saved her life at least four times!" Clark protested.
"Yes, and if I know you, Clark, you'll go on saving her life," Martha replied, more gently this time. "But just because you've saved her life, that doesn't give you the right to dictate to her, or even to try to influence things behind the scenes. That's one sure way to make her resent you, you know, honey."
"Your mother's right, Clark," Jonathan Kent intervened. "Lois Lane sounds like a very resourceful and determined young lady to me. And she won't thank you for interfering — any more than your mother would."
Clark grimaced; some of what his parents were saying made sense all right, but he still felt that they were overlooking one major point. "Mom, Dad — the point is that Lois is human, vulnerable; she can be hurt. She could be killed, just like that!" He snapped his fingers to illustrate his argument. "And you know what I'm like. Nothing can hurt me — nothing at all. We don't even know if I'll ever die. How can I just stand back and let her expose herself to danger?"
Martha stared insistently at her son, forcing him to return her gaze. "Because you care about her, Clark. Because you respect her. And because you would never want to control her."
"But she doesn't respect me!" he threw back. "You know, Mom, there are times when I wonder why I care what she thinks of me."
His mother smiled back. "Do you? Do you really want me to make you answer that?"
He smiled ruefully. "I guess not. But, I mean, I know she's intelligent, and attractive, and lots of other things… but there's times she makes me feel like I'm six inches high." He sighed; he'd already been through that debate with himself. He knew why he wanted to persevere with Lois: because there was just something about her…
"Clark, has it occurred to you that she might feel threatened by you?" Martha asked him suddenly.
Clark did a double-take. "Threatened? What do you mean…? She *knows* I'd never harm her!"
"I don't mean in the physical sense, honey," Martha explained. "Look, you told me yourself Lois hasn't had an easy time of it getting to where she is in her career. Then you come along, and suddenly you're getting Superman scoops all over the city — outscooping her all the time. And then she finds out just *why* you get those scoops, and next thing you're partnered with her. She has to be worrying about how she could keep up with you professionally."
That made sense, he realised suddenly. One thing he'd figured out about Lois early on was that beneath the hard exterior she showed the world she was a mass of insecurities. And naturally his advent would have added to those feelings of inadequacy. And then he'd started telling her how to do her job…!
He gazed back at his mother, finally beginning to realise what he had done to Lois. No wonder she'd said he'd made her feel like a five year old.
He inhaled deeply, then stood up. "I guess I have some thinking to do — some reassessment," he said softly.
"You do that, son," Jonathan advised him quietly.
"And Clark?" Martha called just before he could open the door to leave. "Bring Lois here to meet us soon, you hear? The more I hear about her, the more I like her. And I think it might help her, too, to meet people who understand about you."
After a restless night in which her dreams were plagued by images of Clark kissing Toni Taylor and herself being wined, dined and proposed to by Lex Luthor, Lois dragged herself out of bed to face the new day. She was aware that things were still unresolved between herself and Clark, and despite her unhappiness that he hadn't yet understood that he couldn't run her life for her she wanted to sort things out as soon as possible.
Yawning and rubbing her eyes, she padded through to the living-room, on her way to the kitchen to make coffee. Her eye was caught by a flash of colour on the coffee-table, and she crossed to the table to see what it was.
A vivid orange orchid, with fresh dew-drops still on the petals, lay on the table.
Lois gasped; that certainly wasn't from any flower-shop. A note lay beside it, though she already knew it had to be Clark who'd left the orchid. The flapping curtains by the opened window were also a dead giveaway. After all, who else could fly to Africa or South America or wherever orchids came from, just to bring it back to her?
She opened the note and read its contents.
"I just want to tell you again that I'm sorry. And I understand now what you meant about my respecting you — I know I have no right to decide what's best for you. I know I have to trust you to look after yourself, and I promise to try in future.
"Your friend, I hope,
Lois smiled, tears springing to her eyes at the same time. He said he'd try; okay, that was a start. And it seemed that her friendship did mean a lot to him — that was no casual gesture. He wouldn't have done that if all he'd wanted was her partnership at work.
Her mind made up, she headed for the phone. They could talk over breakfast, and start their friendship on a new footing.
When Clark called around to her apartment a short while later, Lois was surprised to see that he was carrying a paper bag from which came some enticing scents, and two large covered takeaway cups from a nearby coffee outlet.
"I thought, if you don't mind, that we'd eat breakfast here," he explained as she let him in. "I… wasn't sure I wanted to have this conversation where we could be overheard."
This was unexpected, but she supposed it was a reasonable enough request. The last thing they wanted was for her to make an indiscreet remark about his Superman activities and have someone at the next table overhear — and possibly run to some tabloid with the scoop. "Sure, Clark — but I could have made coffee here."
Placing the breakfast items on her kitchen worktop, he shrugged. "I didn't want to put you to any trouble. And anyway, I know you like double-strength mocha, so…"
He'd learned her tastes in coffee? Lois was taken aback; most of the times he'd seen her drink coffee had been at the Planet, so he knew she took her filter coffee with low-fat milk and artificial sweetener. But he'd been thoughtful enough to figure out her favourite specialist type? She let it pass, though, and pounced on the bag. "What's this?"
"Just some pastries," he answered, shrugging again.
Pulling them out of the bag, she almost screamed in delight at the sight of the apricot and almond croissants, _pains au chocolat_ and cinnamon pastries which she found. "Where did you get these, Clark?" she demanded. "They're still warm — and I'd know it if there was a French bakery within walking distance from here!"
He shuffled a little, giving her an embarrassed smile, and he held his hand in front of him, flattened with the palm downwards, and made a swooping gesture. "They're from a French bakery, yeah, but… nowhere near here."
The penny dropped: he'd actually flown to France! "Umm… thanks, Clark, that's very thoughtful," she told him as she busied herself with getting plates and laying her small dining table, setting the pastries in the centre. She was about to reach for her coffee when he stopped her.
"Hold on — let me check it's hot enough." To her surprise, he lifted the plastic lid, held his hand over the top briefly to check the temperature, then with his free hand he lifted his glasses and stared down into the cup. After a moment or two, he handed it to her. "There — careful, it's very hot now."
Okay, so what had he just done? Clark — Superman — had just heated it for her with his heat vision! "Umm… thanks — have you done that before?" she asked him, suddenly remembering an unexplained incident in the newsroom a few days earlier.
He grinned briefly, then nodded. As he took a seat opposite her, though, she noticed that he was looking nervous, and she put it down to their discussion the previous afternoon. She'd left him not knowing whether she could forgive her high-handedness; it seemed that despite her phone call thanking him for the orchid and inviting him to have breakfast with her, he was still unsure of his place in her life.
"Clark…" she began, finding that she wanted to reassure him. "Look, about yesterday, I was angry and I do feel that I had a right to be, but… well, I do want you as a friend, so let's put it behind us and move on, okay?"
He nodded, but she could sense that he had more on his mind. After taking a sip of coffee — hers was still too hot to touch, and she could see the steam emerging from his, but she supposed it didn't have the same effect on him — he gazed directly at her. "Lois, I know I went too far at the club, and I know I'm being over-protective. I can't promise to stop being concerned about you, though. I told you after the Mencken incident how I get scared that one day I'll arrive too late and someone I care about will be dead…"
He grimaced, then continued. "Okay, I know you can look after yourself, but please remember that in the first week I knew you I saved your life twice." He sighed, then added, "It's not just you, Lois. I care about a lot of people, but my folks and Perry and Jimmy, just to name a few, don't get into life and death situations the way you do. And I'd kind of like to hang on to my partner."
Lois had felt abashed enough to remain silent after he'd reminded her of those first few times he'd saved her life. But they'd had this discussion about his over-protectiveness the previous day, and his assumption that he could decide what was right for her, and she wasn't going to let this pass. "Clark, I accept that you… care, and I'm grateful, okay? But that doesn't mean you have the right to make decisions for me."
He held up his hand. "I know. And I've learnt my lesson on that, okay? But, you know, Lois, while I've made some mistakes over the last week or so, you have too. And that's what I wanted to talk about."
She stared at him. What did he mean by saying that *she* had made mistakes? She had only been doing her job, acting like a good investigative reporter — a *great* investigative reporter! Clark had no right… She halted her thoughts, fixed him with a hard stare, and demanded, "What are you talking about?"
"Lois, you accused me of trying to muscle in on your story, and of using my powers to cheat to get a story. I'd hoped you knew me better than that." His voice was low, and his expression sad rather than condemnatory; it was that as much as his words which convinced her that he was sincere.
And she had accused him of those things; and if she had really stopped to think about it, she would have known that this man would not have behaved like that. She'd already told herself that he was no Claude. That being so…
She raised her gaze to his again. "You're right, Clark, I shouldn't have thought that of you. Others, maybe, but… not you."
He smiled briefly. "I'm glad you can see that, Lois. You know, I've been wondering, ever since you… found out… about me, just how you see me."
She frowned. "I'm not sure what you mean, Clark."
"Do you see me as Superman disguised as Clark Kent, or as Clark Kent, the hack from Nowheresville, who somehow has Super powers?"
Now that was a difficult one. She took several sips of her coffee in order to buy herself some time, but one thought suddenly hit her. "I forgot I'd called you that," she mumbled indistinctly.
He shrugged. "I've been called worse, Lois, and it was kind of funny at the time."
"Yeah, but… but… you're not! And — it was kind of funny, you say?" She glared at him. "Oh, that'd be right, you were laughing at us — at me — all along, knowing what we didn't know about you!"
"Lois!" He stretched out his hand across the table to her, covering hers briefly with it. "I never laughed at you. Believe me, I was too glad to be accepted as just a normal guy!"
Just a normal guy… he really did seem to have some hang-ups about who he was, she thought, but she stored that one away for later.
"Okay, your question," she said matter-of-factly. "I don't know, is the answer. I guess as… as Clark Kent, who is Superman."
He nodded, as if that was what he'd been expecting. "Yeah, I thought so. And, you know, I should be glad that's the case because I *want* to be accepted as Clark, not as some freak from outer space. But… Lois, please don't be offended, but do you remember the way you first behaved towards Superman? Before you worked out who he — I — was?"
Lois hesitated; she knew what he was getting at, but she wasn't sure she wanted to admit it. He allowed the silence to continue for several seconds, then continued. "When you first met Superman, you thought he was a hero. Now, I don't want hero-worship from you, Lois, but you did believe that he had integrity, didn't you?"
She nodded, beginning to see where this was going and a little unsure that she could defend her actions.
"Well, if the Superman you knew first had gone undercover with you last week, would you have doubted his intentions?"
That was easy to defend. "No, but the Superman I knew first wouldn't have thrown me in a dumpster!"
He sighed slightly. "Yeah, I know — but Clark Kent did. And I guess maybe that means I really am splitting myself in two," he added wryly. "I used to wonder how people could look at Superman and not know he was me — you figuring it out confirmed that for me — but I guess the two sides of me do have their differences." He ran his hand roughly through his dark hair, then gazed straight at her again, his brown eyes compelling her to return his stare. "So… you wouldn't have suspected Superman of trying to steal your story. What if Superman — the Superman you knew at the beginning — had come to you and said he was suspicious of Lex Luthor?"
That was a more difficult one, and Lois knew it. In his subtle way, Clark was pointing out that she had refused to trust him, and she could see that he was right. "Clark… you haven't given me any proof, not even a shred of evidence other than purely circumstantial stuff!"
"But if it had been Superman who told you…?"
<It was Superman… dressed as Clark> she reminded herself, but made herself consider Clark's precise question. If, in that first week, Superman had voiced his suspicions…?
She had to be honest with herself, and in doing so, with Clark. "You're right, Clark. If you had come to me in that first week, I'd have listened. And I'd have done some investigating."
"But because you know Superman's just a farmboy from Kansas…?"
"By way of Krypton," she quipped, trying to avoid the uncomfortable conclusion of Clark's argument.
"Well, I didn't know that until I found the globe in Bureau 39's warehouse," he pointed out. "Remind me to show it to you sometime." His expression reminded her that she had avoided the real issue.
"So, I guess what you're saying is that when I found out that Superman is you, I… started to see him differently. Instead of treating Clark Kent like Superman, I started treating Superman like I did Clark Kent," she admitted.
He nodded. "And, you know, Lois, that's what I want! I don't want hero-worship, or adulation, or anything like that. All I've ever wanted is to belong. I want friends, and maybe a family of my own one day. And… I know we've had a few ups and downs, but I think you and I could be friends. You're the only person apart from my parents who knows the truth about me. But… if we're going to be friends, you have to trust me."
He removed his glasses suddenly, laying them on the table and rubbing the bridge of his nose in what she suspected was a nervous gesture; she couldn't imagine that it was sore in any way. He then raised his head and looked straight at her across the table. Suddenly she was faced with those deep brown eyes, the eyes she'd thought she would recognise anywhere; the same deep, concerned eyes she'd seen when she first met Superman on board the Prometheus's passenger transport, those same eyes she'd seen at very close quarters when he'd flown her back to the Planet. The eyes of the man she'd felt she could trust with absolutely anything.
And she hadn't trusted him; in fact, she'd accused him of making things up and trying to steal her story. Clark was right; he had made mistakes, but so had she.
"I guess you're not the only one who's out of practice with having a best friend," she told him shakily.
He reached for her hand again, squeezing gently. "We'll have to learn together."
Their next story started out to be a routine one — odd, but routine. A group of children had broken out of the Beckworth State School. Sad, but not hugely newsworthy. However they promptly took over all the television stations in Metropolis. Not only that, but they replaced all the money in all the ATM's with Metropoly money. At this point, Lois and Clark couldn't help but realise that this story was rapidly leaving behind its 'not newsworthy' label. It wasn't too hard for Lois and Clark to trace the children's abnormal mental status to Dr. Carlton. With a little judicious help from Superman, they discovered that the children had been experimented on and had been given a drug called Mentamide 5. Clark even managed to steal a slide showing a cross-section of the drug. Lois was pleased. Once he got past his ethics, he had real promise as a partner!
But in a later twist, Clark suggested to Lois that he suspected Lex Luthor of funding the experimentation on the children. Lois mulled that over in her head for a while. On one hand, it was ridiculous to suspect a man like Lex Luthor of criminal activity, and yet, on the other hand… She couldn't forget her vague suspicions that he had protested too much with the whole Toni Taylor fiasco. It would be nice to know either way, wouldn't it? Even if it meant that the man who admired her, and complimented her extravagantly was a criminal? Did she really want to know that? She shook her head, dismissing her errant thoughts. Of course she wanted to know.
When, a little later, one of the children was holding Lex hostage and Clark, as Superman, went to rescue him, she let him go and waited outside the room, still debating whether Clark's suspicions were simply down to jealousy of the billionaire's achievements, or whether Lex really wasn't as above board as he seemed. Her heart ached for Clark, though, when she heard him explain to Phillip that being special, and being different wasn't all that great.
"Normal is boring," she heard Phillip say.
"Different is worse. I know. Different is never quite fitting in. Never quite blending. Different is wishing you weren't."
Lex scoffed openly at Clark, which made Lois irritated with the billionaire. Couldn't he hear the pain in Clark's voice? How could he totally discount Clark's experience like that? Although Lois didn't hear anything blatantly incriminating coming out of Lex's mouth, she bristled indignantly at his arrogant attitude. One thing gave her pause — Lex seemed to have a great deal of knowledge about Dr. Carlton's new formula — Mentamide 6. But, to give Lex the benefit of the doubt, there were other ways that he could have obtained that information. Lois just didn't know what to think. She couldn't hear everything which was said inside the room, but she concluded that she had probably heard enough to make her doubts about Luthor seem well-founded.
While Phillip and the other children, and Lex were all busy with the proper authorities, Superman disappeared, Clark reappeared, and he promptly stuck to her like glue as they interviewed Lex and the children. Lois was partially amused, and partially irritated. It seemed likely that he just didn't want her spending any time alone with Lex. To be truthful, she wasn't interested in spending time alone with Lex. She wanted to think over her new impressions of the man. Criminal? Possibly, but she still wasn't sure. But arrogant? Yes. Conceited? Yes. Insensitive to others? Definitely yes. She had seen a not terribly attractive side of Lex, and she had to admit, it bothered her. She needed time to think. Over the next few days, Lois spent a lot of her free time thinking about the two men in her life. Lex hadn't said anything, but she sensed that it was no idle interest he felt for her. But what did she feel for him? She was flattered by his interest in her. He was one of the most powerful men in Metropolis, possibly even in the world, and he seemed to have feelings for her. It was a very heady sensation.
The man had a huge amount of charm also. He was suave, debonair and always seemed to know the right thing to say. Lois did find him physically attractive. He always dressed in the height of fashion, and wore immaculately tailored clothes. His eyes sparkled, and had an extra gleam of appreciation in them when he saw her. But was that enough to base a relationship on? Lois didn't think so. And then, when she added in her vague feelings of discomfort, of there being something more for Lex to hide, she felt even more uncomfortable.
She *should* trust Clark on this one, she accepted finally. She knew him well enough, as both himself and in his Super-hero guise, to know that he wouldn't level accusations lightly. He clearly had good grounds to believe that Lex Luthor was a big-time criminal. And if Clark believed it, then she would go along with his theory. And if they combined their resources — her contacts and investigative skills, and his special abilities — then Lane and Kent together should be able to find out the truth. And wouldn't that be one hell of an exclusive if they were right!
Shrugging aside her thoughts about Luthor now that she'd made her decision, she turned to brooding about her feelings for Clark. He literally was the most powerful person in the world. She was getting tired of having to remind herself that he was her best friend and nothing more. But how could she possibly compete with the women who constantly threw themselves at him in his guise of Superman? She still winced when she remembered all the women who had fussed and fawned over him at the charity auction. He was now her best friend, and she trusted him as a friend, but could she trust him in other ways? He had acted interested in her, but then, he had seemed to have feelings for Toni Taylor too. And he had acted flattered by Dr. Baines' interest in him too. Lois must have misread his feelings. He wasn't interested, and that was that.
And wouldn't it be a lot safer if Lois kept him at arm's length? Her thoughts went round and round in a circle, but a couple of things were crystal clear to Lois. Clark could have practically any woman in the world fall at his feet if he so desired. Why would he want her? And just because he was her friend, it didn't mean she could trust him romantically. No. Clark was her best friend, and nothing more. It took a fair amount of time, but Lois did come to some conclusions. The first one was to not see Lex on a social basis anymore. Criminal or not, he wasn't the man for her. His lack of compassion for Clark had shown her that. The second conclusion she made surprised her. She had been running away from anyone who might want any kind of a commitment from her, scared of the intimacy, scared of having a relationship. Dealing with Amy hadn't been too bad. Perhaps it was time for Lois to be a little more open to the idea of getting closer to someone… romantically. Maybe. If the time was right.
As Clark drew the rental car to a halt at the level crossing, Lois stared around her curiously. So this was Smallville; or almost, anyway. This narrow road through the Kansas countryside led right there, and Clark had assured her that it was the best road in. She turned her head to steal a surreptitious glance across at Clark; he was smiling as, clearly, he anticipated with pleasure his return to his home town.
When Clark had told her that he'd like her to come to Smallville with him and meet his parents, Lois had had mixed feelings. A part of her had felt flattered that Clark felt she was so important to him that he wanted his family to meet her; but her own upbringing had left her with a deep suspicion of family environments. Still, she supposed, it would be fascinating meeting the elder Kents since they had always known that Clark was different. They would be able to give her a unique insight into this visitor from outer space who was her partner and best friend, but to the rest of Metropolis was Superman.
She had finally managed to ask him more about his origins, and had been shocked to realise just how little he knew; no wonder his interest in the story on adoptive children seeking their birth parents had been so intense. So she now knew that Jonathan and Martha Kent were exactly what they claimed to be: ordinary farming folk from Kansas, rather than yet more Kryptonians in disguise. Not that she would have had a problem with it had they been, Lois knew — while Clark was certainly Kryptonian, in every way except his Super-powers he was just like any ordinary man. Or… she corrected herself, there was something about him which made him far better than any other man she had ever known, a sense of honesty and decency and loyalty. Was that something to do with being Kryptonian, she wondered, or was it just… Clark?
To cover up her confusion, and almost perversely, to avoid letting Clark see how genuinely pleased she was that he wanted her with him, she began to twit him about his country upbringing.
He turned to her and gave her a lazy smile. "You can joke, but take away Middle America and what have you got?"
She pretended to look cynical. "Art, music, theatre…"
"…Crime, drugs, poverty," he finished for her.
She sighed and glanced again at the level crossing. "How long is this going to take?"
He grinned, as she'd known he would. "It takes as long as it takes," he told her with an exaggerated sigh.
Unable to resist, Lois retorted, "I didn't realize Zen was popular in the country."
He gave her a pitying smile. "It always takes people from the city a while to decompress." He paused then, and the impish grin which curved about his lips ought to have given her a clue. "Fortunately for you, this weekend Smallville's holding the annual Corn Festival."
She threw him a limpid gaze. "This is a good thing?"
He laughed. "Sure. We'll see the Corn Queen Pageant. The Husk-Off. The Corn-O-Rama. Popcorn, creamed corn, corn-on-the-cob. We're in luck."
Dryly, she murmured, "Be still, my heart."
It hadn't been planned that they would arrive in Smallville in this manner; Clark's original suggestion had been that they would visit his parents' farm for dinner some weekend. He hadn't specified the mode of transport, but the twinkling in his eyes had suggested that she might expect to be travelling without the aid of any artificial or mechanical inventions. However, they had been overtaken by events; a story had dropped right into Clark's lap. His parents had called him about some strange goings-on on the property of their neighbour, Wayne Irig. Irig had found something on his land and had sent it for analysis; the place was now, according to Jonathan Kent, surrounded by EPA officers and Irig was nowhere to be seen.
Clark had sold the story to Perry as a decent guy, a farmer, getting thrown off his property by the Feds who then start tearing his place up with bulldozers. Perry had liked it, seeing it as an example of private property rights versus the public good. So he had suggested that Lane and Kent cover it: a combination of Lois's sharp investigative skills and Clark's local knowledge. So they had flown to Wichita and were now completing the final leg of their journey to Smallville.
Lois still had mixed feelings about the trip, but she supposed that if they were there investigating a story it would make things easier. No attempting to define the nature of their relationship to curious friends and neighbours of Clark's. No need to feel obligated to stay around the house and do the domestic thing with Clark's mother. And something to do if she got bored.
As the crossing finally reopened, Lois stole another glance at Clark; he seemed quite relaxed at the wheel of the car despite the fact that he'd been driving for about four hours. His jacket was thrown across the back seat, and he wore a blue shirt and one of his usual brightly-patterned ties. She frowned as a sudden thought occurred to her.
"Clark — how come you flew commercial today?"
He raised an eyebrow as he steered the car forward.
"Well… *you* don't need to fly Delta. You could just… you know, on your own…"
He grinned. "Sure I could. And I usually do, you know that by now. But — well, we're on a story here and it would've looked weird if my expenses claim wasn't what it should be."
But Lois still wasn't satisfied. "You could just have picked up the tickets and not used them. I mean, the flight took six hours. How long does it take you?"
"On my own, if I'm not carrying anything, about two minutes. And that's when I take it a little slower."
She shook her head in disbelief, trying to take it all in. "That's… wow. You really are… incredible."
Clark grinned. "I'm glad you think so, Ms. Lane."
"And… if you are carrying something? Some… one?"
He considered for a moment. "I have to travel more slowly when I'm carrying someone, otherwise they'd be vaporised. So — possibly ten or fifteen minutes. Slower still if you want to sightsee on the way." He shot her a quick glance, affording her a glimpse of white teeth as he smiled again. "I haven't really taken you flying since you… well, since you told me you knew. I don't count rescues, or times I just flew you home."
"No, you haven't," she replied slowly. "Why is that, Clark? Don't you do… pleasure flights?"
That brought a reluctant smile to his lips. "Sure. If you want to. I guess the reason I haven't suggested it so far, though, is that I've been — well, trying to encourage you to see me as Clark, not Superman. Sure, the real Clark has super-powers, but I wanted you to get to know the real person, rather than focus on what I can do."
Lois was silent for a moment or two, then she mused aloud, "Well, I guess I'll get to see the real person while we're here, won't I?"
An hour or so later, Clark drove the car into Main Street, Smallville, and was fortunate enough to find a parking space near the open space where the main Festival activities were under way. It had been a frustrating afternoon so far; they had gone straight to Wayne Irig's property only to find the entire area fenced off with Keep Off signs and EPA tape. A very efficient woman had stalled any attempt at obtaining information: she stuck rigidly to the story that this was an ecological risk assessment and that Wayne Irig had been relocated for the duration of the investigation. She denied all knowledge of precisely where he had been relocated.
So Clark had suggested that they spend some time at the Corn Festival instead; they could catch up with the story later. And anyway, he suggested, it was possible that some of the townsfolk might have an idea of where Irig had gone. It was one of the features of small towns, he explained with a deliberately irritating grin. Seeing Lois's mildly sardonic expression, he threw her a questioning look.
She glanced at him through lowered lashes. "I feel like Dorothy. Shouldn't a tornado be flying me off to Oz pretty soon?"
Grinning again — he seemed to grin a lot in Lois's company these days, Clark reflected — he retorted, "Bad metaphor, Lois. Dorothy *wanted* to get back to Kansas."
Never one to admit defeat, Lois flung back, "Technicality."
His attention was distracted suddenly by the sight of an attractive young woman in Sheriff's uniform, and he hurried across to greet his childhood friend.
Lois, left standing, watched the old friends' reunion and was shocked at the emotion which coursed through her. Jealousy? No… no, it couldn't be, she insisted. He *is* just a friend. But… she grimaced as she realised that she would dearly love the freedom to be able to hug Clark with the same familiarity which this woman enjoyed. The sheriff was pretty too, blonde and shapely — no wonder Clark seemed to be enjoying it so much.
She caught a snippet of their conversation, and realised that they must have been old flames. Maybe… maybe they still were — she could be his Smallville girlfriend. Maybe he planned to come back and marry her once he'd proved he could make his way in the big city. Unsure why she was doing it, she walked up to Clark and deliberately stood close to him, forcing the two of them to acknowledge her.
Clark showed no embarrassment whatsoever as he introduced her to Rachel Harris. But then, why should he, she acknowledged. She was simply his partner and friend; there was nothing romantic between them. She found herself actually letting Rachel know that their relationship was businesslike; a part of her sensed that the other woman seemed to be insecure about Clark's feelings for her. Lois found that she didn't want Clark's girlfriend, if that was who Rachel was, to believe that Clark might be seeing someone behind her back. She wasn't sure why she was feeling so sisterly all of a sudden, but… she admitted that it was guilt. Guilt that for a moment she'd wished that Clark was more than a friend to *her,* that she had tried to insinuate that subtle message by coming to stand close to Clark.
After Rachel had hurried off in answer to a call on her radio, the two continued to wander around, Lois making the occasional smart remark about country customs. She desperately wanted to ask Clark about Rachel, but felt nervous; this 'best friends' thing was still new to her and she wasn't sure whether that kind of question was allowed. Part of her, additionally, wasn't sure she wanted to hear the answer.
Far from growing irritated, her comments merely seemed to amuse Clark. "You know, Lois, what you can't stand is how normal it is here," he challenged her.
Unable to resist, she threw back at him, "Normal? I've heard about small towns." She gestured provocatively towards the barbeque and the tall middle-aged man grilling corn-cobs behind it. "See Mister Regular Joe flipping burgers? I'll bet he's really a cross-dresser."
Before Clark could react, he heard an excited voice call his name; he immediately turned and held out his arms. "Mom!"
Lois saw a petite blonde woman, her expression warm and welcoming, run towards her partner. So this was Clark's mother; Lois wasn't sure what she'd been expecting, but this lively woman wasn't it.
Releasing her son, Martha Kent turned to Clark's companion. "You must be Lois."
A little nervously, Lois replied, "That's me. Hi… Mrs. Kent."
"Martha, please. Well, you sure are pretty." She turned to Clark. "It's okay if I tell her that, isn't it?"
Clark grinned again. "I don't know. Ask Lois."
A little embarrassed, Lois smiled awkwardly. "Thanks. Martha." No, this was *definitely* not what she'd expected to find in Clark's mother.
Martha suggested that they get some food at the barbeque, but Clark resisted. Casting Lois a sidelong glance, he drawled, "I don't know, Mom. Lois thinks the cook might be a cross-dresser."
Lois gasped at Clark's audacity in repeating her comment, then wished she could sink into the ground as Martha spoke again, laughing. "Honey, that's Clark's father! And I can't get him to buy me a dress, let alone one for himself."
Desperately trying to cover up her embarrassment, Lois turned to greet Jonathan Kent. This was more what she'd been expecting, she thought: this large mountain of a man looked like a Kansas farmer somehow. He smiled warmly at her. "I feel like I know you already, Lois."
She frowned slightly, puzzled and a little nervous. "Why do you feel like you know me?"
Enjoying the opportunity to tease his son, Jonathan replied, "Because Clark can't stop talking about you. How good looking you are…"
"Dad!" Clark protested, now the one to feel embarrassed.
"And what a good writer," Martha continued, as Clark continued to avoid Lois's gaze.
Lois wasn't actually unhappy at this revelation, she realised. If Clark had spoken about her in such terms to his parents, then clearly she did mean a lot to him. Okay, he had told her that she was his best friend, but her previous experiences with men had taught her that they frequently said things that they didn't mean. But Clark seemed to be very close to his parents — he had hugged his mother openly, in front of the whole town. And he had shown a surprising — but quite gratifying — ability to blush when teased about what he'd said about herself to his parents.
Lois found herself looking forward to an opportunity to talk alone with Martha Kent.
Lois realised, shortly after arriving at the Kents' farmhouse that night, that her capacity to be embarrassed hadn't been exhausted when Martha turned to smile at her and commented, "Now, you're in Clark's room. Clark can take the couch. Unless…" she paused, "…you two are…"
Quickly, Lois interjected, "No! We're not…" Surely Clark had explained the situation, she thought frantically. Maybe she should have stayed in a hotel after all…
At the same time, Clark also flushed and rejected his mother's suggestion. Both of them missed the impish grin Martha Kent shot her husband.
Both senior Kents headed towards the kitchen, and Clark turned back to face Lois. "Not exactly what you had in mind, huh?"
She grimaced. "Let's see. So far I've been given a glimpse of ritual crop worship, been treated as your girlfriend, and insulted your parents. No, I couldn't have planned this."
He smiled warmly at her. "You're having a better time than you want to admit, Lois. Come on. Let's go outside and look at the stars. That'll make you feel better."
She glowered at him in mock-disdain. "Metropolis has stars." But the idea sounded tempting, all the same. To stroll in the moonlight with Clark… even if he was just her best friend, and there was nothing romantic between them, it would be fun.
Before Clark could take Lois outside, however, his parents came back in. Martha smiled at Lois and beckoned her to follow. "You boys go ahead and make up the couch. I'll show Lois her room."
Upstairs, Martha led the way into a large room, furnished with a pine bed, wardrobe and desk, and decorated with sports trophies and other school and college souvenirs. It wasn't quite what Lois had expected, somehow, but she felt as if she was being given a glimpse of Clark's childhood. Martha laid some towels on the bed, then turned to regard Lois thoughtfully. The attention was disconcerting; but then Martha smiled warmly.
"Do you know, I've waited twenty-seven years to be able to talk to someone about my boy," she said in what sounded like relief as she sat on the bed and invited Lois to join her.
Lois stared at Martha; while she had hoped to be able to talk to Clark's parents about him, she hadn't quite managed to work out how she would begin any such discussion. And knowing that Clark had super-hearing had also made her nervous in case he decided to monitor any conversations she had with his parents in his absence. "Ummm… he is pretty amazing," was all she could manage.
"Oh, he's that all right," Martha assured her. "He's also the most kind-hearted, loving and sensitive man any woman could hope to meet. And despite being… *different,* he's always wanted to be accepted just for who he is."
Lois nodded; that was what Clark had been trying to tell her in the car on the way to Smallville. "I think I understand that, Martha," she murmured softly. "And you don't have to be afraid that I'll ever tell anyone his — your — secret."
"I know that, honey," Martha assured her, squeezing Lois's hand before getting to her feet. "I'll leave you to settle in now — just come on down whenever you're ready and I'll get you a hot drink."
Left alone, Lois stilled for a moment as she acknowledged that she *liked* Clark's parents. They were so normal, so loving, and clearly so proud of their son. Martha seemed wonderfully open and welcoming, kind and understanding, completely unlike Ellen Lane who, even though she was almost completely off alcohol these days, was still brittle and neurotic. Lois got the impression, in addition, that Martha was a highly intelligent, intuitive woman; it would clearly be a mistake to assume that she was simply a farmer's wife.
And Jonathan Kent… so far he had given the impression of being quieter than his wife, but clearly devoted to her. That he also loved Clark very much was apparent; the two men had hugged once Jonathan had been able to step away from the barbeque, and Lois, unused to seeing such physical demonstrations of affection between men, had found tears momentarily pricking at her eyes at the sight.
Once she'd got over her initial shock, she had also been amused and very envious at the way in which all three Kents teased each other. While it was clear that Clark had been embarrassed at his parents' reference to things he'd told them about Lois, it was a… a *happy* embarrassment, she'd realised, not an uncomfortable one. And when Martha had caught her eye towards the end of that exchange, Lois had seen the impish twinkle and had suspected that Martha had switched the focus to Clark in order to give Lois time to recover from her own discomfort over her crass remarks about cross-dressers.
Yes, she liked Clark's parents. They were… normal people. Nice people.
For a moment, Lois wondered what her childhood would have been like had she had parents like the Kents.
Then she wondered what would have become of Clark had the Kents not found him and adopted him.
Clark had accompanied his father out to the barn in response to Jonathan's urgent signalling. Once outside, Jonathan explained that the operation on Wayne Irig's land was a cover-up. "They're not looking for pesticides up the road, Clark," he said quietly. "Wayne Irig found a rock on his property last week. He sent a sample of it on to Wichita for analysis. Then the Feds showed up."
Clark frowned. "It doesn't make any sense. Why go to all that trouble for a rock?"
Jonathan studied his son thoughtfully. "Because the preliminary report said it was some kind of meteorite. Wayne thought it might be worth money. He gave it to me for safekeeping after the government types started pushing him around." He shifted a few items until a large box was revealed; Clark moved forward curiously to see what it concealed.
As his father lifted the lid, Clark was briefly aware of a bright green glow, until nausea and a sharp pain overtook him, sensations he had never before felt in his life. He staggered backwards, unable to believe that this was happening to him, suffering ever-increasing agony. His head was spinning and he ached all over, sharp, darting pains shooting through him.
Jonathan didn't seem to notice, continuing to explain why he had wanted Clark involved. "I figure since it was found a few miles from where we found you that it was probably related."
Desperately trying to get his father's attention, Clark gasped, "Dad, I feel kind of strange." He almost collapsed, his legs becoming unable to hold him up, at the last moment leaning against the barn wall for support. Waves of pain were coursing over him until he could barely focus, barely see what was happening. And he was frightened. What was happening to him?
Finally realising that something was wrong, Jonathan turned to his son and stared in horror. It took him a few moments to realise that the closer he held the glowing green meteorite to Clark, the worse Clark looked. Eventually, he made the connection. "My God, do you think it's this thing?"
Barely conscious by this stage, Clark managed a weak nod. Jonathan hurriedly closed down the lid of the box and yelled for Martha to help his son inside.
In the kitchen, Clark collapsed into a chair at the table; Martha felt his forehead and exclaimed that he was burning up. She stuck a thermometer into his mouth, but within seconds it exploded as his body heat sent the mercury off the scale. Jonathan, feeling the weight of guilt, fetched his son a jug of water.
Clark smiled weakly at Martha. "Don't get scared, Mom. My body doesn't work like other people's."
Jonathan caught Clark's eye. "How do you feel? That's the important thing."
Clark was still feeling awful, but had no intention of telling his parents that. "Better… I think I feel better." Inwardly, he grimaced. He didn't feel better at all, but worse than the pain — which admittedly was receding — was the fear that something was seriously wrong. He hadn't been able to sense his powers at all since his parents had half-dragged, half-carried him back to the house.
"You think?" Jonathan asked, worried. "Don't you know?"
Martha, who understood her husband's worry and guilt, attempted to calm him down. "He's never been sick before, Jonathan! It's a new experience." She spoke soothingly, though inwardly she was still very worried.
Just then, they heard footsteps on the stairs. All three Kents froze, accustomed to keeping Clark's true nature a secret from anyone other than themselves. But Martha remembered; Lois knew, so it was safe. They could talk in front of her. She glanced reassuringly at Clark, only to see him staring back at her fixedly.
"She can't know anything about this," he muttered.
<Why?> Martha wondered. <She knows; she understands. And she won't tell anyone>
But it was Clark's business as to whether he wanted Lois told or not. If he wanted to keep this to himself for the time being, it was not her business to interfere. Clark was her son; she would support him in whatever he wanted.
After an awkward but brief discussion, Lois returned upstairs and Clark reached for the jug to pour himself a glass of water. His hand shook as he tried to raise the jug, but it was beyond him. Defeated, he set it back down on the table.
He raised his gaze to his parents' faces. "I lifted a rocket into orbit before. Now I can't even lift this." His voice was bitter, revealing his fear and sense of loss.
Trying to comfort her son, and hiding the real fear she felt, Martha replied reassuringly, "Don't worry about it. You'll bounce back."
But will I? he wondered doubtfully. What if I don't?
Clark barely slept that night; he kept reliving those few minutes in the barn when he had been in such excruciating pain. The pain had gone now, but his powers had completely disappeared. He was also still as weak as a kitten; he had been forced to accept his father's help in order to get from the kitchen table to the couch.
His decision not to tell Lois what had occurred had been made on the spur of the moment. Of course he knew that she knew of his powers; he was well aware that she would tell no-one about this latest development. But he knew Lois: she would be looking for answers, and he just didn't have those answers right now. He didn't even want to hear the questions. He didn't want her worrying about him, either.
Nor, he admitted to himself, did he want her feeling sorry for him. He wasn't sure, he realised, how Lois would now react to him as plain Clark Kent, without Super-powers. He remembered only too clearly his first couple of weeks at the Planet, when Lois had barely noticed him. She had very quickly started fawning over Superman, however. And while she now openly acknowledged Clark Kent as her bestfriend, Clark couldn't be sure how much of that was directed at him and how much at what he could do.
That, he knew, was why he rarely gave her demonstrations of his Super-powers, other than when it was necessary. He would use his powers in front of her in an emergency, such as when the Metro Club had caught fire; he would also occasionally allow her to see him using his Super or X-ray vision when it would speed up an investigation. But, as she had pointed out that afternoon, he had never taken her flying just for fun, although if he was honest with himself he longed to do just that.
But now, for however long it lasted, he was no more and no less than Clark Kent, farm boy from Kansas. No powers, nothing extraordinary about him whatsoever. And he just wasn't sure that he wanted Lois to see him that way any more.
The following morning, as they headed across to the Irig property again to challenge the EPA agent about why Smallville wasn't on the EPA's current work schedule, Lois sat beside Clark deep in thought. This visit to his parents' home wasn't turning out as she'd expected. She'd thought, given that his parents knew about what he could do, that at home he would have been washing dishes at Super-speed, working out in the farmyard with his father carrying heavy weights around with ease, repairing fences at Super-speed and other such things. But there had been none of that. The only difference had been that at breakfast he had not been wearing his glasses.
That in itself was a bit of a novelty for Lois, she realised. Even though he'd told her fairly soon after she revealed her true knowledge of him that he didn't really need to wear glasses, he had always worn them when alone with her. He looked very different without them, she had realised that morning in surprise. Of course, she'd reminded herself, he should: Superman doesn't wear glasses, and Clark normally doesn't look much like Superman. Yet she'd come to the conclusion that Clark without glasses didn't look much like Superman either. It was the hair, she'd decided, and possibly the clothes as well. And maybe the fact that people didn't *expect* to see Superman in a mild-mannered reporter working the City beat.
Today Clark was wearing faded jeans which moulded themselves to his powerful thighs as if they had been painted on; over them he wore a blue denim shirt and a soft camel-coloured casual jacket. Although she had seen him in casual clothes before, this was somehow different; this was the Clark who belonged in Smallville, and it was quite a revelation. It was very hard to look at him now and picture her partner from the Planet; this man looked as if he'd never seen a suit and tie in his life. And, to her surprise, she liked it, despite the fact that she had never been particularly attracted to men who dressed over-casually.
Attracted…? Again, she pulled herself up. This was happening too often, she told herself sharply. Clark was a *friend.* She liked him a lot. But that didn't mean there was anything more to it. Or that there should be anything more to it. She was too busy for a relationship now, anyway. And if she did want a man in her life, it wouldn't be Clark. It would be someone more… more sophisticated. Not someone whose idea of fun was a Corn-o-Rama!
Someone like… Her mind shied away from the name which drifted into her thoughts. She had still not resolved the question of whether Lex was all he appeared to be. Clark insisted the man was evil, a criminal mastermind who had yet to be caught. And he had even supplied her with some… *possible* evidence. Nothing concrete, nothing which Perry would even run past the lawyers let alone stand up in court. But… the seeds of doubt had been sown.
She pushed Lex from her mind and tried to concentrate on Clark and the day ahead. Apart from Clark's failure to act like a Super-powered human being around his folks' home, Lois was also convinced that there was something wrong with him this morning. He had been very quiet over breakfast, and she'd gained the impression that there was something he and his parents were deliberately not discussing in front of her. When she'd asked Clark directly whether he was all right, he'd muttered something about being tired and had then abruptly changed the subject. Even Martha hadn't been as open and friendly as she had been the previous evening; Lois, who had been hoping for another few minutes' private chat about what it had been like for the family as Clark's powers developed, had been disappointed.
In the car Clark hadn't spoken much either, other than to ask Lois what Jimmy had managed to find out overnight. She filled him in on the discrepancy over the EPA woman's claim and the document Jimmy had faxed, but other than that he didn't invite any conversation. By the time they reached the Irig farm, Lois was beginning to wonder if he'd regretted bringing her to Smallville.
They didn't get far with Ms Sherman either; she produced what she said was a *newer* version of the EPS list, and a number of other documents giving them authorization to run tests on the property. She still claimed to be unable to tell them where Irig was. Frustrated, Lois suggested they head off to City Hall to check out the history of the Irig property.
By lunchtime they were no further forward, and Lois thought Clark looked as fed up as she did. He did make an effort at being hospitable, though, and suggested a local diner for lunch. As they waited for their food, Clark continued to scribble down thoughts; suddenly she heard him yelp in pain.
Her head shot up, and she saw him hold his index finger aloft. There was a speck of blood on it.
She raised her gaze to his face, seeing his look of horror but initially failing to understand it. "What's wrong? Haven't you ever had a paper cut bef…" Her voice trailed off, and she clapped her hand to her mouth. "No, of course you haven't!" she exclaimed in horror. "Clark — what's wrong?" He was *Superman* — he couldn't be hurt, couldn't bleed! What had happened to him? — was this why he'd been so quiet all morning?
He glanced around anxiously, waving her to keep silent. "Not here, Lois."
She grimaced, wanting to know more but recognising his need for secrecy. Seeing him continue to stare at the cut as if not knowing what to do, she leaned across the table and said softly, "Put it in your mouth and suck it."
His gaze shot up and he stared at her. A little impatiently, she reached across and grabbed his hand, bringing it up towards her face before opening her mouth and sucking on his finger.
He blinked, then stared at her again, eyes wide. Her gaze met his, and for a long moment they simply stared at each other.
Suddenly, Lois realised the erotic overtones of what she was doing, and she abruptly sat back and dropped his hand. He swallowed awkwardly and was about to speak, but Lois's cell phone rang, interrupting the moment.
It was Wayne Irig; after a rather unsatisfactory conversation with him, Clark — who had taken over once they'd realised who the caller was — hung up, shaking his head. Neither of them was convinced by his story that he was in Salt Lake City calling from a payphone. But Lois, for once pushing work into second place, murmured quietly to Clark, "Hurry up and eat. We're getting out of here and you are going to tell me what the heck is wrong with you."
*** A short time later Clark drew the car to a halt in a parking area at the edge of a small wood. "This is probably the best place — we're unlikely to run into anyone else here," he commented as he cut the engine. "Want to walk?"
As they strolled into the trees, Lois shot Clark a sharp glance. Now, with the insight she had since seeing him bleed, she could see that he looked tired and drawn. He'd looked like that at breakfast as well, but she hadn't really noticed. There were dark shadows under his eyes, and his stubble looked uneven, as if he'd had trouble shaving. His heat vision mustn't have been working, she realised.
Unable to wait any longer, Lois touched Clark's arm. "What's happened to you?"
He grimaced, then sighed heavily before answering. "I'm not really sure, Lois. My dad had something — this green rock. And as soon as I saw it, I felt really sick. I'm pretty sure if I'd been around it for much longer it could have killed me. And my powers have been gone ever since."
"Whoa — hold on a minute there!" Lois exclaimed. "What green rock? And when did this happen?" And why hadn't he told her sooner? — but she would come to that.
"I don't really understand all of it myself," he told her. "But the thing is, it's connected with what's going on at the Irig place. Wayne came to Dad about a week ago with this rock in a heavy chest — he'd found it on his property, and he sent a sample for analysis. Next thing, his place was crawling with government agents. So he left the rest of it with Dad for safe keeping." Clark paused; Lois glared at him.
"Clark — how could you not tell me any of this? This is a big story! You knew they weren't checking for pesticides on that farm, and you didn't tell me? We're supposed to be partners, you know!" Her eyes flashed fire at him.
Clark sighed again; he'd been afraid that Lois would react like this if — when — he told her. She was right: they were partners and they were working together on a story. But would she understand that this was his life, and his safety, they were talking about? This green rock, whatever it was, was poisonous to him.
But he'd underestimated Lois, he realised as soon as she spoke again. She touched his arm lightly and said, "Clark, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have blown up at you like that. I forgot the most important thing here, that you got hurt." She smiled apologetically at him. "Tell me what happened, please."
He nodded; she needed to know regardless of his fears about how she might react. "Like I said, I just felt this intense pain. I could barely stand, and the longer I was there, in the barn with it, the worse it got. It wasn't until Dad closed the lid of the chest down that the pain began to recede."
"So once this… rock, whatever it is, was shut away it stopped having an effect on you?" she reasoned.
Clark considered; it seemed that way, although it was difficult to remember given the amount of pain he'd been suffering. "Yeah. At least, I think so." He hesitated for a moment, thinking, then spoke again, almost thinking aloud. "That chest… Dad said it was heavy, that it seemed to be lined with lead — I think the lead was to protect whatever Wayne had in it originally. I wonder if it was the lead which stopped the thing from affecting me before Dad opened the chest? I already know that some of my powers don't work through lead."
"And once your parents got you back inside the house?"
He shrugged. "I was pretty weak — you know when you came downstairs last night?" She nodded. "Well, just after you went back up I tried to pour myself some water and I couldn't even lift the jug." His grimace made his feelings on the subject clear. "So you see, I'm just your typical weakling at the moment. More frail than most humans."
Lois had been gazing at him sympathetically as he was speaking, but as he made his final statement he had slid his gaze away from hers. She surprised him now by grabbing hold of his arm in a firm grip — Clark thought he might even have a bruise as a result — and speaking fiercely.
"Clark Kent, don't you dare start feeling sorry for yourself! The first time we talked after I told you I knew you were Superman you told me you needed me to see you as Clark, not Superman. You wanted to be liked for who you are, not what you do. Now, it seems to me as if you're saying that if you can't be Superman you're worthless."
He stared at her, amazed at her words, and he saw the emotions blazing in her face. She meant every word she said, and she was determined that he would also believe it.
He sighed. "You're right, Lois. I do work very hard to be accepted as a normal person. I guess…" He hesitated, unsure of how to explain himself so that she wouldn't be angry. "I suppose, once you knew, I thought you chose the Clark with Super-powers to be your friend. I wasn't sure how you'd react to me as just a normal person."
His head jerked back in surprise as the palm of her hand came up, stopping just before it made contact with his face; he was unable to tell from her expression whether she had really intended to slap him, or merely to shock him into realising what he had said. "Are you accusing me of being shallow, Clark?" she demanded angrily. "Unable to separate the man from the Super-powers?" Her anger seemed to disappear as quickly as it had flared. "Clark," her voice was softer, "it's *you* I want as my best friend. You: the person who jokes with me, brings me coffee in the morning, edits my copy, and — yeah, even the person who worries about me. There's no Super-powers in any of that."
Clark was silent, drinking in her words. Lois was sincere, there was no doubt about that. And she was right; their friendship, at least since they had had their second talk on the subject, was based on ordinary, everyday things. Hadn't she even pointed out to him yesterday that he hadn't taken her flying, as a pleasure-trip at any rate, since she'd found out about him? He'd been anxious for her to get to know him, to accept him, as Clark, not Superman. And she seemed to want to be with Clark; she had never, until her comment about going flying the previous day in the car, even suggested that she wanted Superman rather than Clark as her friend.
He took her shoulders lightly in his large hands and drew her towards him. "You seem like you can pack a pretty hard punch, you know, Lois — maybe I shouldn't worry about you so much after all." He smiled at her to show that he was teasing. "You're right, you know. I shouldn't have assumed what your reaction would be, and I was completely wrong. I'm sorry."
"That's okay," she told him softly.
He bent and touched his forehead to hers briefly. Releasing her then, and drawing her arm loosely through his, he led the way along the narrow path deeper into the wood. "Anyway, Lois, the situation is that I don't have any powers any more. I'm not sure they're not gone for good."
But she shook her head. "How can you know that, Clark? You can't have Super-powers for most of your life and then have them disappear overnight. I don't know what that rock-thing was, but how could it just take away your powers?"
Clark shrugged; he still didn't understand it himself. "The only thing which made sense to us was that the rock could be a meteorite. Dad said it was found not far from Schuster's Field, which is where they found me. Which means that it could have come from Krypton as well. And Mom said that it looked like it was poisonous to me. Only me — no-one else was affected by it."
"So you've finally found something which can hurt you," Lois said softly. "We've got to destroy this stuff — and make sure there's no more lying around."
"Yeah," Clark agreed. He did feel better discussing this with Lois; in this calm autumn afternoon his thoughts of the previous night seemed completely crazy, Of course it had been the right thing to tell her; of course she understood. She was his best friend, after all. And even though he was still without his powers, he felt less helpless than he had half an hour previously.
She stopped walking and turned towards him suddenly. "Do you feel better today than you did last night?"
Clark frowned; what was she getting at? "Yeah, I do. Less weak, I guess, though I still don't have any powers."
"Yeah, but you're stronger," she told him firmly. "So you're getting better, and maybe back to normal." She studied him thoughtfully. "Any Super-vision?"
He slipped off his glasses and concentrated on the trees ahead, intending to use his X-ray vision. Nothing. "Nope."
"Well, the fact that you're stronger must mean something," she argued.
"Yeah, but only human strength," Clark pointed out, wishing that Lois would drop the subject of his Super-powers. He was trying to accustom himself to their loss, and it wasn't easy. "Look," he added suddenly, "let's go back to the Festival. I'll show you there."
As they strolled into the Festival ground again they ran into Jonathan and Martha. Lois noticed Martha give Clark a quick, concerned glance and she suddenly realised that the older woman's apparently distracted air that morning had been motivated entirely by worry about her son.
Jonathan noticed that Lois's arm was tucked through Clark's, though, and he gave the younger couple an amused smile. Clark refused to let go of Lois, however, and suggested that all four get some coffee.
Sitting at a picnic table a few minutes later, Clark quietly informed his parents that he'd told Lois what had happened to him. Martha beamed at Lois, but addressed her remarks to Clark. "I told you that you should tell her. She is supposed to be your best friend, after all."
Jonathan turned a very concerned face to Lois. "What do you think we should do? It's been almost a day now."
"We should get him to a doctor," Martha interjected.
Clark grimaced. "Mom, what's a doctor going to do? I'm fine now. Fine… but normal."
"Normal for Earth," Martha retorted.
"But this is Earth," Clark pointed out. "Normal could be good."
Lois's gaze flicked from one to the other as if watching a tennis match; she could see Martha's fear and worry and her wish to do something about the situation, but it was equally obvious to Lois that Clark was also worried. Except that he was hiding his fear by trying to pretend that he didn't care, that being 'normal' was what he wanted.
But she knew, or she was pretty sure, that wasn't the case. She had seen Clark in action as Superman; she had heard him talk about what he could do, and she had talked with him about his need to help. How would he feel, in future, if he saw an emergency which, if he still had his super-powers, he could have prevented? Given the way he'd reacted earlier when he'd been bleeding, how on earth would he cope with being vulnerable? She laid a hand on his arm in a comforting gesture; he turned to her with a grateful smile and covered her hand with his.
Jonathan also interrupted the mother-son exchange. "You're both jumping the gun. You can't go all your life with powers and then, poof, they just disappear."
Clark raised an eyebrow at this, then got to his feet. "Come on over here," he urged. "This is why I wanted to come back here — you need to see this, Lois."
She followed with the elder Kents, wondering what this was about. Clark stopped in front of the Test Your Strength machine and paid his dollar. Swinging the hammer, he brought it down on the plate; but the level only went up about two-thirds of the way. Turning, he threw an 'I told you so' look at his parents and strode away, declining the stall-holder's offer of another try.
Lois caught up with him, taking his arm again. He turned and smiled down at her. "I know you mean well, Lois, but I'm just not Super-powered any more," he murmured softly. "I don't know if I ever will be again."
Wanting to distract him but wondering how best to achieve that, Lois noticed that they were just passing a clothes stall she'd noticed the previous day. She indicated a russet-brown patterned dress on one of the mannequins, in a flattering but casual style. "Do you like that?" she asked him.
Surprised, Clark studied the dress. "Yeah. Sure, it's nice."
"Okay — wait for me," she told him. Puzzled, Clark waited as she hurried over to the stall-holder and then disappeared into a nearby trailer. His attention was distracted then by Rachel Harris, who seemed to be on duty at the fair again.
A few minutes later, Lois emerged from the trailer wearing the brown dress, but noticed Clark in conversation with Rachel. Again, she felt the same sinking feeling as she had the day before, but then Clark noticed her and the look of delight and appreciation on his face as he noticed her apparel made her purchase worth it. She sashayed up to him and slipped her hand through his arm again.
"What's this for?" he murmured, the teasing note in his voice not entirely hiding his admiration.
She shrugged, at the same time smiling shyly. "Oh, you know, when in Smallville…"
They moved on, and shortly afterwards arrived by the dance area. A country-rock band was playing, and a line-dance was in progress. Lois stopped and threw Clark a mock-challenging glance. "Give it a whirl?"
He did a double-take, staring at her in amazement. "You're kidding?"
She dragged him towards the dancers. "No, I'm not kidding. I like to dance. If you promise never to breathe one word about this to anybody at the Planet."
"Promise!" he laughed, allowing her to position him in the line and beginning to join in the steps. It wasn't very long before he noticed that Lois was actually pretty good at this. "You actually know how to do this?" he asked her, surprised.
Her response surprised him even more. "Last year I had a girlfriend convince me it was a great way to meet guys," she told him, laughing.
Guys? She went line-dancing to meet men? If he'd known that… he could have signed up for the same classes weeks ago. He grinned at her. "Is it?"
She threw him an ironic glance from under raised eyebrows. "Define 'guys.'"
<Oh… so she didn't meet anyone> Clark didn't even try to analyse why that made him so pleased; it wasn't as if he'd even known her last year. He just concentrated on the moment, enjoying watching Lois as the movements of the dance caused her to spin and whirl about, enjoying even more the movements which allowed him to hold her slender waist.
All too soon it was over, but Lois caught Clark's hand and dragged him back through the fairground, stopping at the Test Your Strength stall again. She paid for him, and, laughing, he complied. Hitting the target as hard as he could, the level went higher this time. Suddenly, he began to believe that even without Super-powers he could do it, and he paid the stall-holder for another turn. He got even closer, and as Lois watched, her fingers crossed for him, he took one last turn.
This one made it; the level went all the way up to Superman and the bell rang. Lois hugged him in congratulation, but then noticed that the stall-holder was waiting for them to choose their prize. It was apparently a choice between a Superman figure and a teddy-bear.
Lois glanced at Clark, who gestured to her to choose. She was at first tempted to choose the Superman doll, as a tribute to Clark. But then she remembered their first serious conversation after she'd told him she knew he was Superman. He had been very upset about the way in which his creation was being commercialized; he'd really hated it, and it had made him feel as if he was losing control over his life. Deliberately, she reached out and took the teddy-bear from the stall-holder.
Turning back to Clark, she didn't fail to see the surprise and approval in his eyes.
Later, back at the farmhouse, Lois noticed that all three Kents seemed to be much more relaxed. Of course, everyone was still concerned about Clark and the loss of his powers, but now that Lois also knew what was going on, all four of them were able to discuss the subject openly. Clark explained about Wayne Irig's phone call and his and Lois's suspicion that Irig was probably nowhere near Salt Lake City.
"So where do you think he is?" Jonathan asked, concerned about his friend.
"We don't know for sure," Lois answered, "but first thing tomorrow we're going to check out that EPA station again. See if we can sneak in and find out what's really going on."
"Too bad I don't have my powers," Clark interjected despondently. "Then it'd be easy — I could just fly over and X-ray their tents, or Super-hear what they're saying."
Lois raised her eyebrows at him. "Well, welcome to the world of good old-fashioned investigating, Kent! You'll just have to learn how to do it from the expert, won't you?"
The two older Kents exchanged amused glances as their son and his guest continued to tease each other in a good-natured manner for the next few minutes. Martha eventually got to her feet and started to collect up the crockery, nudging Jonathan to join her. A few minutes later, Clark belatedly noticed that he and Lois were alone.
He touched her arm lightly. "You know, I wanted to take you for a walk last night — if I hadn't been sick I would have suggested it. You want to go now?"
"Where to?" she asked sceptically. "I don't want to seem unappreciative, Clark, but a muddy farmyard isn't quite my thing, you know!"
He grinned. "I could always point out that you could borrow Mom's boots. But…" He paused for effect, enjoying the grimace on his partner's face, then added, "Actually, I was thinking of a little further out. Just a mile or so up the road, there's this really great walk through the trees and up onto the ridge above Rocky Cove. On a night like this, when the sky's clear and the stars are out, it's beautiful."
"Sounds great," Lois agreed. "Let me get my coat."
They took Jonathan's truck — so that Lois could get the authentic farmyard experience, Clark insisted — and drove up to the edge of the woods. They walked side by side in companionable silence at first, until Lois tripped over a tree-root. Clark caught her arm before she fell, holding her until she steadied.
"Thanks — I'm finding it a bit hard to see my way," she explained.
"Hah! That's because you're too used to the city — street lamps everywhere. You can't cope when you only have the moon and the stars for light," Clark teased. "Here — take my arm."
She slipped her arm through his and they continued on. After a few more minutes, Lois raised the question which had been on her mind for a couple of hours. "Clark — when you hit the top of that test-your-strength thing, was that your powers coming back?"
He glanced down at her, and in the faint light she saw the glimmer of a rueful smile. "Nope — that was all me, I think. Just learning how to use normal human muscular strength, I guess. I've become too reliant on my powers over the years — I've forgotten how normal men do it."
<Normal…> Lois remembered that Clark had used that word earlier, and she frowned. "Clark — it really bothers you that you're not like everyone else, doesn't it?" she challenged.
He threw her a sharp glance. "Lois, I *am* like everyone else now." His words were terse, indicating that he didn't want to discuss it.
But Lois had no intention of dropping the subject. She had seen that Clark had been hurting, for most of the day, over the loss of a large part of who he was, and his barbed references to 'normal' suggested to her that there was something important at stake here. "Clark — even without your powers, you're not like everyone else. Don't you realise that? I tried to tell you that this afternoon, too!"
He stopped dead, whirling around to face her and dropping her arm at the same time. "You mean because I'm an alien from outer space? A little green man from Mars?"
"No, I don't mean that!" she retorted. "Clark… I've watched you over the past month or so, ever since I found out the truth about you. What makes you different isn't what you can do, or where you come from, it's what's inside you!"
He stared at her, calmer now, but clearly not understanding.
"Clark, what makes you the person you are is that you care! You can't bear to see another person suffering, and you can't see a tragedy without wanting to help. I saw you earlier, when the TV news was on, tearing up inside when that story about the Turkish earthquake came on, because you couldn't do anything to help! Even without your powers — "
"I'll get used to not having them," he insisted stubbornly.
"Clark, that's not the point," Lois repeated quietly but insistently. "I think your powers will come back, but even if they don't, you're still a better person than anyone else I have ever known. You have such a concept of goodness, a need to do what's right — and I know a lot of that comes from Jonathan and Martha, but I also think a lot of it is what's inside you. I've no idea what Kryptonians are like, but you're a pretty good advertisement for them, you know." At this final remark, she stepped forward and placed her hands lightly on his chest to emphasise the point.
Clark covered her hands with his own, then raised one to his lips, kissing it lightly to re-emphasise his gratitude. "Lois… thank you," he said huskily. He stood in silence for several moments, still holding her hands against him, then asked, "So you think not normal is… okay?"
She grinned at him. "Clark, for you, not normal is pretty great! And I wouldn't want you any other way."
"Thank you," he said again, then bent his head and kissed the top of her head briefly. The gesture might have been fleeting, but the moon emerged from behind a cloud as he drew back, and Lois saw the naked emotion in his eyes. She knew that she'd been right; his alien origins, and being considered 'different,' did bother him.
And his gesture touched her, more than she could have said. Trying to hide her own reaction to his kiss, she smiled up at him. "You know, for an alien you're pretty good-looking, Spaceman."
He seemed shocked for a moment, then as he stared at her he clearly saw the humour in her expression, for he laughed softly. "You think so?"
"Yeah, I do," she assured him, reaching up with her hand to flick back an errant lock of hair which had fallen over his forehead. "Not bad at all, as it happens." <No> she realised suddenly, <he's pretty great-looking. How could I have forgotten that? It was one of the first things I noticed about Superman…>
He seemed to take her remark as a tremendous compliment; he blushed, swallowed, then turned a slightly troubled face to hers. "I kind of wondered, you know… I mean, I have had a couple of girlfriends, but nothing really serious — I mean, not the kind of relationship where I felt I had to tell anyone about… um, me…"
Lois inhaled sharply; what exactly was he telling her here? Did he mean he'd never… no, surely not. No, he just meant that he'd never contemplated marriage, because surely it would only be if he was considering marriage with someone that he'd tell them about being Kryptonian — being Superman? Trying to push aside her thoughts, she concentrated on what she thought Clark was asking. "You mean… you want to know whether an Earth woman would find you being from Krypton a turn-off?"
He nodded, his expression suggesting that the thought did bother him.
A little embarrassed herself, Lois shrugged. "I can't answer for anyone else, Clark, but… um, from what I've seen of you so far you, um, look pretty much like any ordinary man…"
He blushed. "Umm… well, yeah, I am, uh, pretty normal in that respect," he stammered.
"Well, okay, so there'd be no problem there. And, well, I can't see how any woman who got to know you could have a problem with your being… not from Earth." <I don't have a problem with it…> Lois realised. What she did have a problem with, she realised suddenly, was the thought of Clark with another woman, kissing her, touching her…
<This is crazy!> she told herself. <He's my best friend! That's all!>
Clark seemed equally anxious to change the subject, however, to Lois's gratitude; he gestured ahead and suggested that they walk on. She gravitated close to him again, her shoulder accidentally bumping against his arm as they walked; instantly, his arm came around her shoulders, pulling her lightly against him. His voice rumbled from somewhere above her head, "That's better — you won't fall over anything now."
It felt good to walk with Clark's arm around her, Lois realised; even though right now he was no more or no less than Clark Kent, the man she'd thought he was when they first met. With a sudden flash of inspiration, she recognised that the person she had become so close to over the past few weeks *was* Clark. Superman had seemed to fade into the background, somehow, although she'd always been aware of the things Clark was capable of doing. The man she worked alongside, shared occasional breakfasts with, watched movies with sometimes, was Clark. Even without the Super-powers, he was still Clark. She had told him that this afternoon, but she was aware that some of her words had been said more as a morale booster for him. Now, she knew she'd meant every word.
Except that without powers, Clark would still need to help, and would feel guilty every time something happened which, previously, he would have been able to prevent. Lois silently resolved to do everything within her power to track down this mysterious green rock and find out how its effect on her best friend could be reversed.
As if he had read her thoughts, Clark spoke again. "Lois — what makes you say you think the loss of my powers is just temporary?"
She considered for a moment, arranging her instinctive thoughts on the subject. "It's like your father said earlier, Clark — you can't go all your life with powers, and then lose them permanently just like that. Normal for you *is* Super-powered. And whatever that stuff is, I'd be amazed if it could just take away something which is such a part of you. I guess I'm wondering whether this is like sort of an allergic reaction, something which will wear off once you've got over being exposed to that green rock-thing."
"It's a meteorite," Clark pointed out abstractedly. He was silent for a moment or two, then he turned to look down at her. "You know, you might be right. Maybe not an allergy, but a virus? Something which weakens me a lot at first, and then gradually wears off? I do feel a lot better today than I did last night, and…" he hesitated, then continued, "I know I told you that it was all me this evening hitting that thing, and that's true. But I had a lot more strength this evening than I did earlier today. It may only be human strength, but I'm still getting stronger."
"Well, that's great, Clark!" Lois assured him, reaching across to pat his free arm. "You'll see, your powers will be back in no time."
They emerged from the woods then to the clearing Clark had mentioned, and stood for a while just looking down on the cove beneath. Clark didn't move his arm from around Lois's shoulders, and she made no effort to move away from him; in fact, she looped her own arm around his waist as they stood together. It was just more comfortable that way, she assured herself.
The moon disappeared behind another wispy cloud, and Lois glanced upwards at her companion's profile. She could just about see the glint of his spectacle-frames; although he hadn't worn them around the house earlier, he had put them on just before leaving. He'd pointed out, when she had thrown him a questioning look, that he couldn't allow anyone else to see him without them.
They seemed to have reached a new level of understanding, she thought, but she was still hurt by his behaviour earlier. It probably made sense to clear the air… "Clark, I really wish you'd confided in me earlier about what happened to you," she said softly.
He turned his head and looked down at her again. "Lois… I didn't want to worry you. Really. I thought last night that my powers would probably be back by this morning. And… okay, like I told you earlier, I… well, I got it wrong. I made some assumptions about you, and I'm sorry." His voice was soft, apologetic.
"Clark, I'm not trying to wring another apology out of you," Lois told him quietly. "I just… needed you to know that when I realised that you hadn't told me, I was hurt. I mean, I'm supposed to be your best friend, and I *worry* about you, you know?"
He started visibly. "Lois… you worry about *me*? But — I mean, you know I can look after myself… or I could," he added in a resigned tone.
"Of *course* I worry about you!" she retorted. "Just because you had Super-powers — and will have them again — doesn't mean that you don't have fears, or get depressed, or anything like that. And… well, if we're supposed to be best friends, I guess I thought you'd talk to me about anything like that." She hung her head, unwilling to allow Clark to see just how hurt she was. And in any case, she reflected silently, it was just possible that he'd been right. Maybe she *had* been shallow — after all, she'd initially pursued him just to get the story about Superman, and if she was completely honest with herself, she hadn't exactly shown any interest in Clark before she'd found out that he was Superman. Had his accusation hurt so much because there had actually been a ring of truth in it? Well, if there had, she silently vowed, she would make very sure that he never had grounds to suspect it again.
He was silent for a moment, then when he spoke, his voice was little more than a whisper. She had to strain to hear him. "Lois… oh God, I'm sorry. I told you I'd never had a best friend before, that I mightn't know how to behave… and now I've shut you out, and hurt you."
She touched his arm with her free one, wondering if perhaps she should be the one apologising. But apologies had never really come easily to her since her father had drummed it into her, years ago, that the only philosophy to live by was 'never explain, never apologise.' Though she suspected that he'd been wrong about that, as with so many things. And anyway, she didn't want to drag up that issue again now. "Clark — it's okay. Just — don't do it again, please?"
"No. I won't," he promised. "Um… Lois?" he asked suddenly.
"I don't want to drag up old arguments, but if you do worry about me, can't you understand it when I worry about you too?"
She shot him a glance; it was obvious what he was referring to. His over-protectiveness when she was doing something he considered dangerous. "Clark… I've got to be able to do my job," she pointed out, but her tone was gentle.
"I know you do," he replied huskily. "But you know what I've always had nightmares about? Arriving somewhere just too late to save someone I care about. And after the Mencken incident… Lois, several times after that I woke in the night after dreaming that I got there too late, and seeing your broken, bleeding body…" He broke off, shuddering.
Shocked to the core, Lois wrapped her arms around him, holding him tightly. This Kryptonian really did care — he had such a soft heart. Why hadn't he told her before about his nightmares? It might have made her view his actions rather differently.
He pulled away from her embrace after a few moments, his eyes suspiciously bright. "Come on, best friend, I think it's time we headed home." Looping his arm around her shoulders again, he led the way back along the path.
Lois again snuggled close to him, taking both warmth and companionship from the larger, muscular body so close to hers. She had learnt a lot about Clark that evening; that he had an even more sensitive centre than she had imagined, and also that he was very insecure about himself. Both factors, she realised, endeared him to her even more. And he seemed to care about her too, even more than she'd believed. The thought of him having nightmares about her violent death was… unsettling. She wasn't sure why, or what it meant for their relationship. But clearly, for Clark, being best friends meant that there was some sort of… bond… between them. She was very special to him. And… if she was honest with herself, he was pretty special to her too.
Why had he imagined that Lois wouldn't understand, Clark asked himself as he lay on his parents' couch in the darkness later that night. He had been completely wrong in his suspicion that she might treat him differently once she knew about his lack of Super-powers. She had not only understood his feelings about the loss of his powers, but she had also managed to put into perspective so many of his fears about himself, his alien nature, and his attractiveness to women. Not that he wanted just any woman to find him attractive; he wanted Lois…
What was he saying? Lois was his friend; his best friend. They had a very good and close relationship, but they had had to work very hard to get to that point and he didn't want to do anything to put that at risk. Okay, he had fallen pretty hard for Lois the very first time he'd seen her, but since then he'd come to understand that she wasn't interested in a relationship. And from what he understood of her past, he wasn't surprised. First her father had made it clear that she had never lived up to his expectations of her — and Clark had subsequently discovered that Sam Lane had actually wanted a boy, and that Lois was well aware of that fact. Therefore she had lived all her life with the knowledge that she had been a disappointment to her father from the day or her birth. And then there had been the ex-colleague who had seduced a younger Lois and then stolen her story, dumping her in the process; Clark had subsequently found out more about Claude from someone else at the Planet. Lois was certainly better off without him, but there was no disputing that the man had seriously damaged her self-confidence and her ability to trust.
Well, Lois was his best friend, and there was no way he would push her for anything more than that. Not unless she made it very clear that she wanted it too. And there was certainly no sign of that happening; so he would just be her friend. As she was his, he reminded himself; she had been a true friend to him that day. If he did recover his powers, as she seemed convinced he would, he would take her flying. She seemed to want that, and suddenly the thought of drifting through the clouds with Lois in his arms was very tempting.
"Good morning, honey!"
Martha's cheerful voice greeted Lois as she wandered into the kitchen the following morning. The men were nowhere to be seen; Lois realised that she must have been obvious about looking around, for Martha explained that they were out feeding the livestock.
"Oh… I thought they might have been doing the milking or something," Lois answered, trying to sound vaguely knowledgeable about farm life.
Martha laughed aloud. "Good heavens, no, honey! That gets done before six." Pouring some coffee, she invited Lois to sit at the table. "Anyway, I'm glad it's just you and me, Lois. I was hoping for the chance to talk to you."
"About Clark?" Lois asked as she accepted a plate of waffles.
"Yes," Martha confirmed. "I wanted to tell you how grateful I am to you — I don't know what you said to him yesterday, and again last night, but he's much more confident about getting his powers back now. I've never seen him so depressed as he was yesterday morning, and I know it was you who helped him."
Lois shrugged. "I just told it like it was, Martha. Maybe he listens to me because I'm new in his life — I don't know. But he'll be fine, I'm sure of it."
"He listens to you because he cares about you, Lois," Martha told her. "Clark's always been very transparent as far as Jonathan and I are concerned, and from the first time he mentioned you it was obvious that you were someone special to him. I know he was a little unsure after you guessed his secret, but he very quickly decided that you wouldn't betray him."
"Never," Lois promised.
"I know, honey," Martha replied, patting Lois's hand. "I can see that you care for Clark too."
"He's… oh, I don't know, Martha," Lois told the older woman uncertainly. "He's just such a kind, caring person — even without the Super-powers I'd have been drawn to him. And anyway, I haven't seen much of his powers over the past few weeks. Once I got used to the idea, he's just been Clark to me."
"That's what he wants to be, honey," Martha said softly. "It's the only identity he's ever known. He probably told you that his father and I found him in a little capsule in a field near here?" Lois nodded. "Well, we never knew where he came from — we thought he could have been some secret government project or a Russian experiment, for all we knew. It wasn't until he found that globe with his space capsule, about a month ago, that he knew he was really from Krypton."
"Yes, he told me about that," Lois said softly. "I can hardly imagine what it must have been like for him, just not knowing what he was."
"Especially when he started developing powers," Martha added dryly. "When he realised he could hear things from long distances, and see through solid structures, it was pretty terrifying for him. And the first time he accidentally set fire to something with his heat vision… Jonathan and I were convinced he had to be some sort of genetic experiment then. And Clark just wanted to be normal." She sighed, remembering. "By the time he discovered he could fly, he'd begun to find some of his powers useful, and he liked having them. But he was always worried about being *different* — he hated it, and he was convinced that if people knew what he was really like he'd be ostracized." She paused for a moment, then added, "I don't think Jonathan helped much, constantly warning Clark to be careful or he'd be put in a laboratory and dissected like a frog. We worry about him, you know, but we never wanted to stop him having a proper life."
"I don't think anyone could dissect him, Martha," Lois reassured Clark's mother. "At least under normal circumstances, anyway. Once he has his powers back he'll be invulnerable again."
"I'm so glad he has you, Lois," Martha said sincerely. "Clark's always had friends, but in large groups rather than special friends he can confide in. He's always been a bit of a loner. Even his college girlfriend always used to complain that he kept her at a bit of a distance."
"Was that Rachel?" Lois asked, still unaccountably jealous of the local sheriff.
"Lord, no!" Martha laughed. "Clark took her to their senior prom, that's all. He was dating Lana Lang at the time, but Lana was sick and Rachel didn't have a date… so they went together. I think Rachel had a bit of a crush on Clark, but he never saw her as anything other than a friend."
"Lana Lang? What happened to her?"
"Oh, they broke up just after Clark finished his freshman year at Midwest U," Martha replied dismissively. "I never thought it had any future anyway; it was obvious he wasn't in love with her. I think she was hoping they'd get married, though."
"That's a long time ago…" Lois murmured. "He's had other relationships since, though?"
Martha laughed. "Well, he doesn't tell us everything, you know, honey! But I think if there'd been anyone special he would have told us, and brought her home to meet us, too. Clark's very traditional in that respect." She paused, then met Lois's gaze, a gleam in her eyes. "You know, Lois, you're the first woman he's brought home since he left for college."
Lois was shocked — just what was Martha trying to imply? "But… Martha, we work together! We're just friends, that's all. And I'm only here now because we're on assignment."
"But he was going to bring you anyway," Martha pointed out. Then, laughing at the disconcerted expression on Lois's face, the older woman stood up and indicated her intention of getting on with some chores.
Left alone for a few moments before the men returned, Lois pondered Martha's last words. Just what did she mean to Clark? And, more importantly, what did he mean to her?
"Clark, I really don't think you should be here," Lois protested as Clark drew the rental car to a halt by the rear boundary of Wayne Irig's property. The large tents erected by the EPA team were visible just beyond the trees.
"What — do you really think I'd let you come alone?" Clark retorted, giving Lois a baleful glare. "Even without my powers, I'm still pretty strong, you know. And there is no *way* I would let you go alone — who knows what sort of trouble you'd get into?"
"What sort of trouble the little woman would get into, without her big, strong, macho male here to protect her, you mean?" Lois replied in a dangerous tone. "Clark, remember I was looking out for myself long before you flew into town. And in case you've forgotten, buster, the reason you shouldn't be here is what got you into this state in the first place!"
Clark gave her a blank look. Lois raised an eyebrow impatiently at him.
"Clark, that green meteorite thing! It was found on this property, and after your friend Irig sent it for testing these EPA guys, or whoever they are, turned up. And I don't for one minute believe they're really EPA, I'll tell you that for nothing. If they're here looking for more of that green stuff, chances are they have some of it with them." She glared at him. "You told me you thought it could kill you!"
Clark was about to protest that he could look after himself, but then he took a second look at Lois. She was really worried about him; she was actually shaking, though she was trying to hide it. He was stunned; he'd never had anyone who cared that much about him before, other than his parents, of course. But Lois was really frightened that he might be seriously hurt.
He reached out and touched her hand. "Lois — I'll be careful, okay?"
She turned wide, frightened brown eyes to his face. "Clark, I want you to stay with the car. Please?"
He hesitated. How could he let her go alone? On the other hand, she was right — if there was more of that green meteorite around, then he was in serious trouble. He sighed heavily, then gripped her by the shoulders.
"Lois, I don't like this. But I guess you could be right. Okay, I'll stay here, but I want you to stay in sight of the car the whole time, and if you run into trouble I want you to yell for me. Okay?"
"Promise me that, Lois, or I'll tie myself to your side and we'll both go in there."
Grudgingly, she promised.
"You just need to try to see what's inside that tent. If there's anything suspicious, we go see Rachel," Clark insisted.
Hoping fervently that he'd done the right thing, he watched her glide soundlessly through the trees onto the Irig property.
He might be Superman, but Clark was certainly an idiot sometimes, Lois reflected as she inched her way carefully through the small area of woodland and closer to the tents. Surely he could see that it would have made her task impossible if he had come into contact with any more of that green stuff? It was far safer for him to stay where he was, and let her do the investigating.
She glanced back as she reached the edge of the trees, realising that if she went much further Clark wouldn't be able to see her any more. The thought made her hesitate for a moment, but then she told herself that they needed to know what these people were up to. And how would she be able to find that out if she cowered under the trees all day? She took a few more steps forward, and out of Clark's sight.
Suddenly there was a rustling sound, and Lois found herself surrounded by armed men in camouflage gear. As they grabbed her, she exclaimed angrily, "Who do you guys work for? Do you know who I am? What are you looking for?"
A man strolled casually out of the nearby tent. "So many questions for someone in such a precarious position," he drawled, coming to a halt in front of Lois.
She stared at him, instantly recognising him; it was hardly surprising, since the last time she had seen him he had pushed her out of an aeroplane. This development certainly confirmed her guess that this was no harmless EPA operation. "Trask?! What are you doing in Smallville?"
"I was wondering the same about you," the Bureau 39 agent replied sarcastically.
Sticking to her cover story, Lois retorted, "My newspaper sent me to investigate an EPA clean-up." She was careful to give the impression that she was there alone; given Trask's desire to kill Superman, she didn't want anyone finding Clark. She hoped desperately that Trask had no idea about the meteorite's effect on Superman.
But Trask threw her a scornful glance. "You're not here because of your environmental virtue any more than I am. You know it and I know it."
Ignoring the challenge, Lois demanded, "What have you done with Wayne Irig?"
Trask smiled slightly. "I let him go." He paused, and at Lois's sceptical glare, added, "Small town ties mean a lot. Anyone else would have given up their contact in a minute. This man took sodium pentothal and a couple of broken fingers and he still didn't talk. Then it came to me. Let him go."
Lois was about to challenge Trask, sceptical about his statement, but her attention was caught by the woman emerging from the tent. It was Ms Sherman, the woman who had skilfully prevented them from entering the site twice before. Lifting her chin in a challenging gesture, Lois taunted Trask. "You're not as clever as you think. I knew she was a fake all along."
With a sceptical look, Trask replied, "Really? How?"
"Too competent to work for the government," she tossed back. Facing the woman, she added, "Sherman, how'd you get into this?"
Trask interrupted before the woman could reply. "You are starting to annoy me." He turned to his agents. "Get her inside," he rapped.
Still taunting Sherman, Lois yelled, "Did they recruit you? Did you think you were getting into government work?"
"Shut up!" Trask rapped, but Lois ignored him, focusing on Sherman. She was hoping to appeal to the woman's better nature; something told her that Agent Sherman was not as committed to the 'cause' as was Trask.
"Instead, you're a thug," Lois continued. "Is that what you went to college for? To be a thug?"
Inside the tent, Lois was pushed, still struggling, into a chair and her hands bound behind her back. Trask, his hands on his hips, faced her, his expression now fixed in a fake smile. "I'm going to make you a deal, Ms. Lane. I'm trusting that your fortunate escape last time has put some sense in your head. Give up the alien and I'll let you live."
Lois glared at him, determined to protect Clark whatever happened to her. "What makes you think I could do that if I wanted to?"
"Well, you might not be able to, but your friend Mr. Kent might. Where is Mr. Kent, by the way?" Trask enquired.
Lois fixed him with a level gaze, her voice calm. "How should I know? I'm not his keeper. He's probably in the newsroom at the Planet for all I care."
"And you're in his home town alone? Somehow I doubt that, Ms. Lane," Trask replied sarcastically. "Now, just listen to me, Ms. Lane. Superman came to Smallville around the time Mr. Kent was born. There has to be a connection. Tell me and you live."
Clark glanced at his watch again, getting more and more agitated. He had *asked* Lois not to go out of his sight, but of course she had done it anyway. And now he had no idea where she was, and he was sure that she'd been gone far too long. He cursed himself for having agreed to her argument that he should stay behind.
How he wished he had his powers back! Then he could use his Super-hearing to track her down; even better, he could use his X-ray and telescopic vision to see exactly what she was doing and whether she needed his help.
What was he thinking? If he'd had his powers, there would have been no need for any of this. He could simply have X-rayed the tents and then got out of there.
What the hell was she doing?
A cold fear began to settle itself inside his stomach, and he began to stride forward. He didn't care whether there was any more of that meteorite beyond those trees; there was no way he was going to sit on the sidelines any longer while Lois could be in danger.
Lois continued to stare at Trask, hoping that she was succeeding in keeping her expression calm, innocent. "There's nothing to tell. I'm learning all this for the first time now."
Trask slammed the palm of his hand on the table, clearly losing his temper. He glared at Lois. "I'm trying to save humanity from an alien invader!"
"You have no proof of that," Lois shouted back.
"There's another possibility," Trask mused aloud. "Perhaps the alien has taken over your mind, infused you with its power."
Lois allowed her lip to curl in sardonic amusement. "Nobody's infused me with power. Nobody's taken over my mind."
Just then, Agent Sherman entered the tent and whispered to Trask; Lois could just about hear her tell him that Wayne Irig seemed to be heading towards the Kent property. Her heart sank; she'd hoped that Irig would have had the sense to head out of state until he'd been sure that his kidnappers had left Smallville. Instead, he was going to bring trouble right to Clark's doorstep.
Hearing the news, Trask looked very thoughtful. He stroked his chin and turned back to Lois. "This is very interesting. Now, I'll ask you again — where is your friend Clark Kent?"
"I don't know!" Lois lied.
Trask went to stand directly in front of her and held his gun to her forehead. "I don't believe you, Ms. Lane. Now, if you want to continue living, I suggest you tell me where Kent is. Now!"
"Let her go, Trask," a hard, cold voice came from the entrance. "If it's me you want, I'm here."
Crouching behind the first tent, Clark wished for about the hundredth time that his powers would return. He knew that Lois had to be about here somewhere, but he had no idea where she was. There was no sign; and if there were any agents around, they were in the tents. Which could be a good thing or a bad thing, he reflected.
He had a bad feeling about this. He had been as sceptical as Lois about the supposed EPA operation, and there was certainly no sign of any digging going on. And some of the Jeeps looked as if they were reinforced — why would environmental protection agents need armoured cars?
Then he suddenly heard Lois's raised voice, insisting, "I don't know!"
Then another voice came, one which chilled him to the bone. "I don't believe you, Ms. Lane. Now, if you want to continue living, I suggest you tell me where Kent is. Now!"
Jason Trask. The madman from Bureau 39 who'd wanted to kill Superman. And he had Lois.
<I *knew* I shouldn't have listened to her!> Clark told himself in desperation. He hurried to the entrance of the tent, pausing in horror at the sight which greeted him. Lois tied to a chair, a gun held to her forehead. She was scared, he could tell, but she was bravely trying to hide her fear as she kept insisting that she had no idea where Clark was.
A split second before he spoke, she looked over and caught sight of him; for an instant, horror flashed into her eyes and he could see her desperately pleading with him to leave before he was seen. But there was no way on earth that he would leave her at the mercy of a crazed lunatic like Trask. He couldn't live with himself if he had that on his conscience. He only hoped that Trask wouldn't just decide to kill her anyway once he had what he wanted.
He straightened, faced Trask with an icy glare, and spoke. "Let her go, Trask. If it's me you want, I'm here."
"Clark, no!" Lois yelled, horrified. Why couldn't he just have stayed where he was? <And then what would have happened?> a little voice taunted her. <You'd have been killed. Trask meant it — that was obvious. Were you willing to die to protect Clark?>
<Well, what's the point in both of us dying?> she retorted silently. <There's no way Trask's going to let me go free>
<Oh, Clark, why did you have to blunder into this?>
Trask had suddenly become galvanized. He thrust his gun back into his waistband, ordering his staff to grab Clark. "Put him in the van with me. Make sure the phone lines are cut at the Kent house. I'll take two men with me. The rest of you break camp. Meet at Delta rendezvous at 1800."
"What about me?" Agent Sherman demanded.
Trask eyed her with contempt. "What about you? You'll stay and help move the operation. And keep an eye on Lane here." He turned to the rest of his agents. "Let's go."
Clark, now being held by three muscular camouflage-clad men, twisted his head to stare at Lois. He tried to reassure her, sending with his eyes a message that he would get her out of this; he'd be back to rescue her as soon as possible.
But how was he going to do that, a little voice taunted him, when he had no idea how he was going to get himself out of this mess?
White-faced, Lois watched Clark being bundled away; she hoped desperately that Trask hadn't made the link between Clark's 'birth' in 1966 and Superman's arrival. How did Trask know when Superman had arrived on Earth, anyway, and that he'd landed in Smallville? If Trask knew that, and if by some chance he had found out that Clark was adopted, it was surely only one small leap of logic to work out that Superman was Clark.
And if Trask had the meteorite, and if he had any inkling of what it could do, then Clark was in real trouble.
Of course, he was in real trouble anyway. It looked as if Trask was willing to kill if he couldn't get the information he wanted, and in his present state Clark was as vulnerable as any human. Even worse, it looked as if Trask was headed for the Kent farm, and so it wasn't just Clark who was in danger: it was his parents as well.
She turned her head, to see Sherman sitting at a desk several feet away. Hoping that her earlier taunting of the woman might have had some impact, Lois threw Sherman a challenging stare. "I know exactly what's going on. I know that if Trask hasn't killed somebody yet, he's about to. And that'll make you an accessory to murder."
She saw the conflicting emotions cross Sherman's face: doubt, fear, outright suspicion. Then the agent got to her feet and hurried over, beginning to untie Lois.
"You're right. Trask is a madman," Sherman muttered.
"You just now figured this out?"
"No," Sherman retorted. "But I've just decided I'm not a thug. Look, he has your friend's parents. He's going to make it look like a fire burned the place down."
Lois stared, horrified. "And Clark?" She was desperately hoping that she was wrong about the extent of Trask's knowledge — or guesswork — about Superman.
"Trask has other plans for him," Sherman said quickly.
"Trask thinks he knows how to find Superman," Sherman replied, and Lois's heart sank. "He thinks some rock they found here can kill him," the agent added.
<Oh God, he knows what it can do!> Desperately trying to damp down the fear, Lois thought frantically. She fumbled through her purse, and finally found her cell phone. Glancing up at Sherman again, she demanded, "Can it?"
"I doubt it. But Trask thinks it can. And he's a killer," Sherman retorted. She gestured towards the phone. "That thing work out here?"
Nodding, Lois began to dial.
Inside Trask's van, Clark's hands and feet were bound with steel shackles, which were then tied to a hook in the roof. He was forced to sit uncomfortably on the floor as the van bounced along, all the time anxiously wondering where he was being taken and what was happening to Lois. His one comfort was that Trask had left Lois behind, and in the charge of the woman, Sherman. Whatever else he thought of that particular agent, Clark didn't think she was a killer. Which meant that if by some lucky chance he managed to get out of this alive, there was a chance that he could rescue Lois.
That was, of course, if she didn't rescue herself first, he thought with a reluctant grin. Knowing Lois, that was entirely possible.
If she did, though, he hoped she would have the sense to call for help instead of coming after him herself. He hoped… but with Lois, he suspected that she had a tendency to act first and think later.
Just then the van drew sharply to a halt, causing him to bump his shoulder painfully against its side. A moment later, the rear door was pulled open and Trask leaned inside.
"Your situation grows desperate, Mr. Kent," the agent drawled. "I now have your parents. What I want is Superman. You wish to save them, you'll tell me what I want to know. A trade."
His parents… Initially, Clark was tempted to doubt Trask's claim, but then he strained to look beyond the Bureau 39 chief. He recognised what he could see of their location: it was his parents' farm. An ice-cold hand seemed to settle itself around his heart and squeeze; he had never felt so fearful in his life before.
How could he let his parents die?
What was it Trask wanted, anyway? Was there any way he could satisfy the man?
Superman. That was it; that was who Trask was after. He wanted to kill the man he saw as a dangerous alien. And he wanted Clark to tell him where he could find Superman.
How could Clark justify protecting himself at the expense of his parents' lives? He couldn't. That was the simple answer. He sighed heavily, then turned his gaze to meet Trask's, his voice heavy.
"You have to promise you'll let them go." But could he really trust Trask, a little voice demanded.
What choice did he have? he retorted silently.
Trask gave him a bland stare. "Oh, I do. I absolutely give you my word."
Clark hesitated, again frantically trying to think of another way out of the situation. There was none. All of his father's warnings came back to him, but he pushed them aside. His parents' lives were at stake here, and he would do anything to save them. He raised his head and stared at Trask again. "I'm Superman," he said reluctantly.
But Trask stared back at him in sceptical disbelief. "Are you now?" He produced his gun and aimed it at Clark.
Knowing that without his powers he faced almost certain death, Clark tried to cower away. "No, Trask!" he cried. <No…! Mom, Dad… Lois… No, not like this!>
As he watched in dreaded anticipation, realising that his confession had only bought his own and his parents' death, Trask pulled the trigger. But, to Clark's shock, no bullet emerged. Feeling as if he'd just been given a reprieve on the edge of the scaffold, Clark allowed himself to breathe again.
But Trask's expression was now sardonic. His lip curling, he addressed Clark. "That was real fear. Superman doesn't fear guns." He smiled. "Nice try. But I want the real thing."
As the agent jumped away and slammed the doors shut, Clark's heart sank again. He'd survived, but what was happening to his parents? What murderous plot had Trask dreamed up to try to get them to reveal Superman's whereabouts? He knew his parents well; they wouldn't betray him, even at the expense of their own lives.
But how could he help them, trussed up and helpless as he was? He strained at his chains, desperately hoping for even a little of his Super-strength to return so that he could free himself.
Nothing happened. Lois was wrong, he thought despairingly. Superman's gone for ever, and his parents were probably already dead.
<Oh, come *on*!> Lois pleaded silently as she waited for the idiot desk-clerk at the sheriff's office to patch her through to Rachel Harris. Didn't the woman realise that people's lives were at stake here? Why was she being kept holding?
Suddenly there was a crackling, and she could hear the desk-clerk's voice again. "I've got a woman on the line. She's talking about UFO'S, kidnappings, something about Wayne Irig and the Daily Planet and Superman. I think it's a crank."
"Crank? Crank? I am *not* a crank! Put me through!" Lois demanded, but although she could hear the operator, no-one could hear her.
But, to her relief, she heard Sheriff Harris's husky voice respond. "Put her through. Go ahead, Lois."
"Sheriff?" Lois spoke quickly, desperately trying to communicate the sense of urgency. "You've got to get to the home of Jonathan and Martha Kent right away. I think their lives are in danger."
"Copy that," Sheriff Harris replied. "But we're on our way to the Irig property to check out the trouble there first."
<No!> "Forget it!" Lois insisted quickly. "That's where I am. Everybody else is gone. Get to the Kents.' Now!" <Please! Just get there!>
There was a pause, then another crackly voice came over the phone. "Lois, it's Jimmy."
Jimmy? What on earth was he doing in Smallville? Not that it mattered, Lois realised quickly; if he was there, then at least she had someone who would take her seriously. Heaven only knew what these country sheriffs learned in their training: Lois wasn't convinced that Rachel Harris really understood the danger Clark and his parents were in.
"Jimmy!" she exclaimed, thinking quickly at the same time. She had to convince Jimmy that this was serious and that the sheriff needed to go straight to the Kents' place with reinforcements, but without giving away Clark's secret. She also wanted to let Clark know that help was on the way. But how…
She remembered a brief exchange in the newsroom before Perry had given them the Smallville assignment. Jimmy had turned up with a new watch which, he'd said, he'd got from Star Labs. This watch emitted a high-pitched signal which, Jimmy claimed, Superman would be able to hear. He had activated it then, and Lois had glanced quickly at Clark. He had been wincing, trying to hide the evident pain it was causing to his ear-drums. She had quickly insisted that Jimmy turn off the watch, informing him that Superman was a Super-hero, not a dog.
"Jimmy, do you have your signal watch with you?" she asked urgently.
"Listen, I don't know exactly what's going on, but Superman's in danger, too," she barked out. "Use it! We have to warn him."
She cut the connection then and, ignoring Sherman, ran out of the tent and hurried back to where they'd left the car. <Clark, please be all right> she muttered to herself over and over as she gunned the engine and backed the car onto the main road, accelerating sharply and hoping that she remembered the way back to the farm.
Still sitting on the floor of Trask's van, Clark was almost giving up hope. Every so often, he tugged desperately at his chains, praying for his powers to return, to allow him to escape and go to the rescue of his parents.
He had heard no sounds since Trask had slammed the door, though he was aware that meant nothing. The man could have his parents anywhere on the property. And the thought of what that madman might be doing to them caused his blood to run cold. Were they even still alive?
And what had happened to Lois?
It was all his fault, he thought with a silent groan. He was the one Trask was after. If he had never created Superman, then Trask would never have had a target to pursue. The man was irrational; he believed in UFOs and invading aliens from outer space. Okay, there *was* life on other planets; Clark himself was living proof of that. But he had not invaded Earth, and certainly had no wish to take over any of the governments on the planet, legitimate or otherwise. All he'd wanted to do, as Superman, had been to help. Why couldn't Trask have accepted that?
And if Trask was, in whatever way, an employee of the government, then how many other people were there in government who were suspicious of Superman?
Not that any of that mattered right now. Conspiracy theorists were everywhere, and while most of the time they were harmless, this time one of them was running amok. He was putting the lives of innocent people at risk to feed his Superman fantasy. And there was nothing Clark could do about it.
He hung his head, ashamed that his parents, the kindest and most generous people he could ever have hoped to be adopted by, were going to be killed for their selfless act in sheltering him.
Suddenly, he felt as if his eardrums were being split in two. A high-pitched, piercing sound came out of nowhere, shattering the silence. But it wasn't any sound; it was a Super-sonic sound which… only Superman could hear.
"I'm back!" he muttered exultantly. His powers had returned — and not before time.
He flexed his muscles against the chains which held him. In less than a second, the manacles around his ankles shattered, and he then focused his strength on the chains which bound his wrists to the ceiling of the van. They broke, and he quickly ripped the handcuffs from his wrists. Lois had been right, he thought as he dived for the door of the van, bursting through it.
The sight which met his eyes appalled him. Trask had laid a trail of petrol leading to the shed, and as Clark stared across he could see his parents and Wayne Irig tied up together, helpless and frightened. Reacting with split-second decisiveness, he bent towards the line of fire and inhaled the flames with his super-breath. At Super-speed, he then hurried away from the shed and blew the flames up into the sky, where they extinguished harmlessly.
Ignoring Trask, he hurried into the shed, noting with relief that his parents didn't seem to be harmed in any way. Wayne Irig, who was sitting with his back to the door, had clearly experienced some brutality at the hands of Trask or his men, and Clark vowed to ensure that the Bureau 39 chief paid for that. He began to pull at the ropes binding his mother, at the same time whispering to his father, "Superman's back!"
But before he could free any of the three, Martha yelled out a warning. "Clark! Behind you!"
He turned: Trask was approaching. Deciding that freeing his parents and their friend could wait until later, he moved to the doorway, intending to ensure that Trask got no further. Leaving the shed, he confronted Trask.
"Don't take another step," he ordered, in his trademark Superman voice. Not that maintaining the secret mattered at this stage, Clark thought: even if Trask hadn't believed his earlier confession, the man now had no choice but to believe that Superman stood before him.
Trask stood, his posture challenging. "Fighting words, Mr. Kent. Or should I call you Superman?" He paused. "A secret identity. Very clever."
The man was very foolish, Clark thought, as he strode towards Trask, closing the gap between the two. If he knew Clark was Superman, he also knew what Clark could do. Surely Trask knew he'd never be able to escape now? Why was he still so confident?
"You're going to prison," Clark said coldly. "For murder, kidnapping, for abuse of power."
Trask smiled. "But I'll tell everyone your secret."
For a split second, Clark was forced to consider this; then he decided that it was irrelevant. Trask needed to be stopped, and he was the only one who could do it. And anyway, where was the man's proof? It was his word against Clark's and that of his family. He was sure he would be able to come up with some defence. Lois would help…
"I don't care," he retorted confidently. "This ends now, Trask."
Later, Clark thought that he should have been warned by the smug expression on Trask's face, by the complete refusal of the man to show any fear. Instead, Trask appeared to smirk at him as he replied, "Agreed. But the question is, for whom?"
Time to bring this to an end, Clark decided, and he ran at Super-speed to stand in front of Trask, preparatory to grabbing hold of the man and incapacitating him. But something was very wrong; he saw Trask smile again and in that same instant he felt the same agonising pain he'd felt two evenings ago in the barn. Trask produced the green rock which he'd been hiding behind his back, grinning now in triumph as Clark recoiled with searing pain.
Clark staggered back, his knees beginning to buckle. He had been too cocky, too ready to think that he had the situation under control. He should have listened to Lois; she had warned him that Trask was likely to have more of the meteorite. Though… he thought this was probably the piece which Wayne Irig had given his dad. Not that it mattered now. The effect was the same. It was killing him.
He collapsed on the ground, fighting for breath.
Trask stood towering over him; all Clark could do was stare up at his tormentor. He tried to speak, but even that seemed to be too much effort. Trask turned away, then suddenly spun back around and aimed a kick at Clark, sending him sprawling across the dirt.
"You think you're better than we humans, don't you?" he taunted. "Flying around, oh-so-perfect and superior. But those days are over, aren't they?"
"You're… wrong," Clark gasped painfully, each word torture.
Unable to resist the temptation, Trask held the green rock close to Clark, as if it were a weapon. Which, against Superman, it was, Clark thought.
"No. You're wrong," Trask retorted. "It's over, and I've won. This little piece of home is going to be the death of you, Superman."
<Yes… I'm dying. It's all over. Mom, Dad, I'm sorry…> Clark stared up at Trask, barely able to drag a hand in front of his face to protect his eyes from the glow of the rock. He could feel his remaining strength, his life-force, simply draining away. <Oh, Lois, I hope you're safe at least… I can't bear to think I've caused your death too…>
There was a faint sound in the distance; at first Clark thought it was just a ringing in his ears, but he realised that it was actually the sound of sirens just as Trask placed the green rock on the ground beside him. The police? The sheriff? Clark wondered desperately. At least his parents might survive, in that case.
"Unfortunately, I won't be able to stay for the services," the agent drawled, moving away towards his van.
Dragging up what few resources of strength he had left, and fighting against the pain at the same time, Clark forced himself to reach out and grab the meteorite. It stung and burned his hand, and in some deep recess of his consciousness he wondered whether the pain was what humans felt when they came into contact with fire. Desperately summoning his strength, he threw the meteorite towards the nearby pond.
His efforts were successful; the meteorite crashed against another rock which projected above the waterline. To his amazement, it exploded into a myriad of small pieces which sparkled as they dissipated into the wind and the pond.
Turning back to Clark, Trask drawled, "Oh, very brave. And very foolish." He pulled out his gun again. "Now, let's see. Who should go first? You, or the human traitors who have sheltered you all these years?"
<No! I can't let you kill them…!>
His powers completely gone again, Clark dragged himself painfully up from the ground and charged at Trask like an enraged bull. He had another slim chance to save himself and the lives of those he loved, and he was going to make sure that he didn't mess up this time. He might be weak, but he was angry and desperate. He was fighting for the lives of the people he loved most in the world, and that determination lent him extra strength.
He managed to knock Trask off his feet, but the effort drained him. The agent simply smirked at him and gasped, "You're right, Superman. I don't need a gun."
Getting to his feet again, Trask advanced on Clark and in a lightning display of martial arts sent him sprawling back to the ground. Again fighting for his life, Clark grabbed Trask's boot and used it to drag him to the ground with him.
Already weakened by the meteorite, Clark was forced to battle with the pain he was still experiencing, drawing on resources he wasn't even aware he had. Trask, although older than him, was fit, strong and in good health. How could he ever imagine that he could defeat Trask in hand-to-hand combat? At best, all he could hope for was to detain the man until the police arrived.
Where were they? It had to be at least a full minute since he'd heard the sirens.
Trask fought dirty, and at times was close to getting the better of Clark, but the younger man was fighting for his life and the safety of his parents. Struggling to make his body obey his commands, Clark thought despairingly of his lost Super-powers. If it hadn't been for that damned green rock, he could have Trask neatly tied up by now. But as it was… the powerless Clark Kent was no match for the rogue Bureau 39 agent.
But as that thought crossed his mind, some words of Lois's came back to him.
<It seems to me as if you're saying that if you can't be Superman you're worthless>
<Even without your powers… you're still a better person than anyone else I have ever known>
He *could* do it, he realised. With a sudden renewed burst of energy, he charged at Trask again. They both tumbled into the pond.
"Come on, come on!" Lois yelled at herself, accelerating the car down yet another lane as she hoped that she hadn't taken a wrong turning anywhere. <Clark, be all right… Clark, be all right…> She kept repeating the words silently to herself as if they were some kind of mantra, as if by virtue of her repeating them he might be safe.
Trask was a madman. He should be locked up in an asylum somewhere, not let loose to plan vicious and unprovoked attacks on innocent people just because he has a UFO-phobia, Lois muttered to herself. Once she got back to the Planet, she determined, she would write an article exposing the government money which was being wasted to fund Trask's activities. Then we'll see whether the US people want their tax dollars being spent on finding ways to kill Superman, she fumed. Superman was a hero; everyone loved him. Many people in Metropolis by now owed their lives or those of loved ones to him. He had single-handedly saved the Space Programme. There was no way the general public would sanction attacks on their hero.
<Clark, be all right… be all right…> As the cold fear grew inside her, Lois suddenly realised that she didn't know what she would do if Clark were dead.
At last, the entrance to the Kent property was up ahead. She swung the car at full speed through the open five-barred gate, realising as she did so that the Sheriff's car, which had come from another direction, was ahead of her. Back-up, she thought, her dread at what might await her growing with every second.
The two men flailed about in the pond, each trying to get the better of the other, but suddenly Trask made a mistake which allowed Clark to gain the upper hand. Trask had his back to a large rock, and Clark seized him by the shoulders. For a long moment, Clark battled with the temptation to slam the older man back against the rock; he could smash Trask's skull in a split second.
He was vaguely aware that the sirens had grown louder now; it seemed that the arrival of the police was imminent. He barely noticed the van racing off, its occupants not waiting for Trask.
All he was conscious of was the man he held prisoner; the man who had almost killed him, who had been about to burn his parents to death, who would have shot Lois without a qualm. He held that man's life in his hands.
"Go ahead, kill me," Trask spat at him. "I would have killed you."
The words shattered the red rage in Clark's mind; he threw the man away from him in disgust. "That's not how I work," he said contemptuously.
He strode out of the water, as several vehicles arrived in quick succession. He was barely able to register the occupants, merely feeling a vague thankfulness that help had finally arrived. A tree was ahead of him and he staggered to it gratefully, his reserves of strength now gone. He fought for consciousness, but suddenly he heard Lois scream his name, her voice terrified.
He turned, and almost as if in slow motion he saw Trask emerging from the water, pulling a gun from his boot. The man took aim; Clark, knowing that he was too weak to avoid the bullet, closed his eyes. So close… and yet so far. At least he'd saved his parents, and Lois was alive and well.
He heard the shot, but wondered why he felt no pain. This can't be what it's like to die, he thought, bemused.
He opened his eyes, confused, and was amazed to see Trask fall backwards into the water. His gaze shot over to the sheriff's car, and he saw Rachel Harris lower her weapon, looking at it in disbelief. Had she ever had to kill anyone before? he wondered regretfully. Was she going to suffer mental torment for saving his life?
But suddenly Lois was running to him, tears streaming down her face. As he wrapped his arms tightly around her and they held each other up, he heard her whisper his name over and over. Her hands cupped his face as she drank in the sight of him. Her eyes, glistening with tears, told him how relieved she was to see him alive.
<Oh, my friend, my love, my foolishness caused you pain too!> he chastised himself, and in a gesture of apology and relief he lowered his forehead to hers.
As Lois had finally reached the top of the entrance road, her heart had leaped to see Clark dragging himself slowly, painfully, but obviously *alive,* out of the pond. He was safe! Of course, she didn't yet know whether his parents were alive, and she desperately hoped they were; she couldn't bear the thought of Clark's pain should anything have happened to them.
She threw herself out of the car, only then noticing that Jimmy and Rachel, along with a fewlocal deputies were also there. It crossed her mind to wonder just what Jimmy was doing in Smallville, but on the other hand, if his presence had helped to get Sheriff Harris on the case sooner then she could only be grateful.
Her gaze swung back to Clark, now about to collapse against a convenient tree; he looked exhausted. But as she was about to hurry towards him, a noise behind him attracted her attention. Trask was there, and was aiming a gun at her partner.
She screamed. It seemed there was no way for Clark to avoid Trask's bullet; clearly his Super-powers had not returned, and he was far too exhausted to throw himself out of range. Tears coursing down her cheeks, she cursed the cruel fates which had brought her back just in time to see Clark killed.
The shot rang out, but as she stared she saw the Bureau 39 agent fall backwards and sink under the water. Then she realised: it hadn't been his gun which had fired. Lois's head swung around, taking in the fact that it was Rachel Harris who had fired. <Thank God! And thank you, Rachel!>
Lois threw herself towards Clark; his arms opened to enfold her. They embraced, her clothes quickly becoming soaked through contact with the wet denim of his garments. She didn't care; nor did she care that his hair, which she stroked in grateful relief, was also soaking.
He touched his forehead to hers, and she caressed his face, both of them oblivious to the remains of the drama being played out around them.
Suddenly, she became aware that she was actually trying to hold Clark up; his knees seemed to be giving way. She glanced around and saw Jimmy standing nearby, taking photographs of Trask's body being dragged from the lake.
"Jimmy! Help me!"
"What do you want, Lois?" The photographer hurried over.
"Help me get him into the house," she gasped. "He's exhausted."
Between them, they half-led, half-dragged Clark into the farmhouse kitchen, letting him slump into a chair. "He needs to get a shower and out of those wet clothes," Jimmy pointed out.
Lois hesitated; she had no idea whether Clark was wearing any part of his Superman outfit under his clothes, and so she had no intention of allowing Jimmy to undress him. But just then, Martha came hurrying into the kitchen. She saw Lois first, and rushed to her.
"Lois! Is Clark all right? All Rachel said was that she'd seen you and this young man take him into the house."
Clark raised his head slightly. "I'm okay, Mom. Just worn out. Are you and Dad…?"
"We're fine, son," Martha assured him. "One of Rachel's deputies just untied us. Your dad and Wayne are talking to Rachel — they'll have to go into town to make statements later."
Lois quickly made the introductions, but she realised that Clark's parents probably didn't want strangers around at the moment. She suggested, pulling rank in order to do so, that Jimmy should go back into town with one of the sheriff's vehicles and see what further information he could obtain.
"You want *me* to do the interviews?" he asked incredulously.
Lois thought quickly. "Well, Clark can't do anything right now, and I think I should talk to the Kents to find out exactly what happened here. I only got here just after you did, remember? You go to the sheriff's office and wait until they release a statement."
Jimmy shrugged, clearly wondering why Lois was giving him a responsible task for a chance, but took himself off. Martha glanced quickly at Lois after he'd gone; the older woman was silent, but Lois could see the gratitude and approval in her eyes.
"Help me get upstairs, Mom," Clark asked then. "I need a shower, and I'm not sure I could make it on my own."
Left alone in the kitchen, Lois made herself useful by making coffee. But images and emotions kept intruding into her mind: Clark staggering out of the pond, Trask aiming at him, the sound of the gunshot, her dreadful fear that it had been Clark who'd been shot, then the huge relief as she'd seen him still standing; then their embrace.
She hadn't thought twice about running to his side, or holding him close to her. She had whispered his name over and over as if he were someone very precious to her. She had caressed his face as if trying to commit it to memory. She had, for a split second as he'd lowered his head to hers, thought that he had been going to kiss her. And in that instant, she had realised that she would welcome his kiss.
But he hadn't kissed her. Which must mean that he didn't want to kiss her; that he didn't think of her in that way at all. If he hadn't wanted to kiss her in a moment when they were clinging to each other out of shock and relief, overcome with emotion that each was safe, then it was obvious that he just wasn't interested in her in that way. Despite all she'd thought in the beginning about Superman being attracted to her, he didn't see her as anything other than a close friend
And why should he? she asked herself silently. Why should any decent man, let alone a wonderful, special Super man like Clark Kent, be interested in her? Her own father had made it clear how unlovable she was. The only men she had been involved with had shown her that they thought she was only good enough to use and then discard when she had served her purpose. Why should Clark want her? He had as good as told her, the previous evening, that he wasn't interested; he had actually asked her whether she thought other women would find him attractive. Like he needed to ask! But it was very clear that he hadn't been considering *her* as a possible romantic partner.
But… why was she agonising over this anyway? Clark was her best friend. That was all there was to their relationship, and that was all she wanted. Anything else would complicate things too much, and it would destroy their friendship. So it was just as well Clark wasn't interested.
She would just have to make sure that she kept their relationship on a friendly level from now on. This visit to Smallville had put her in danger of forgetting her real place in Clark's life, especially with Martha's obvious penchant for matchmaking and hinting at happy endings. Jimmy's arrival in Smallville could be very fortuitous, she considered. It would certainly be a means of ensuring that she and Clark weren't alone for much of the remainder of their visit.
Clark walked slowly down the stairs some time later; although the pain caused by the meteorite had now disappeared, he still felt as weak as a kitten. His ribs also ached from the kicking Trask had given him, and he knew he had several bruises on his face from the agent's fists.
There were voices in the kitchen, but to his relief he recognised them as his parents and Lois. He just wasn't in the mood to face anyone else just yet, although he knew that Rachel would want a statement from him. He also vaguely remembered seeing Jimmy Olsen in the yard earlier, though he had absolutely no idea why the newsroom gopher and wannabe photographer would be in Smallville.
His father jumped up as Clark entered the kitchen and hurried to help him; grateful for the assistance, Clark didn't protest but allowed Jonathan to lead him to a seat. He accepted coffee and a slice of pie, then gazed at the faces of the three people dearest to him in the world. All three, to his relief, looked unhurt.
His mom took his hand. "Clark? Are you sure you're okay?"
He forced himself to smile, although the effort hurt. His jaw ached. "Yeah, I'm fine. Just a few bruises, but they'll go."
"No powers?" Jonathan asked anxiously.
Clark shook his head. "I don't know if you saw, but Trask had that meteorite. He would have left it beside me, to kill me, but I managed to throw it into the pond."
"The pond?" Jonathan was alarmed. "It's still there?" He stood up, as if he was going to drag the pond right that second, to find the meteorite.
"It's okay, Dad, it shattered into pieces. And when I was in there I couldn't feel anything, so it must have been okay," Clark reassured his father.
A thought struck him then. "Wayne — he was with you two. How much does he know?"
His parents exchanged glances, then Martha said, "He had his back to the door the whole time — he couldn't have seen a thing. And we heard very little of what was going on. I only know about what happened from Lois."
Jonathan added, thoughtfully, "I've known Wayne for years, Clark. He's a very private person. And he never gossips. If he did figure out anything about you, he'll never tell anyone. He probably won't even tell us he knows."
Clark nodded. "I know I was prepared to tell Trask — I was prepared to let him tell the world, if need be. But now that's no longer necessary, I'd like to keep the secret of who Superman is."
Lois met his gaze. "You don't have to worry about Jimmy, or Rachel Harris — they got there only just ahead of me, and nothing happened then which could have given you away."
He nodded. "And my bruises and weak state can only help. No-one would suspect me of being Superman right now."
Getting to his feet, he raised an eyebrow at Lois. "Feel like driving me into town? I need to give a statement, and we really should find out what Jimmy's doing here." He also wanted to be alone with Lois, to have a chance to tell her how happy he was that she was safe. He wanted to tell her how scared he'd been when he'd thought he was going to die and that his parents would be killed as well, but he didn't want to say that in front of his parents. They would be too upset; but Lois would understand.
He waited while she collected her bag, then followed her out to the car.
Lois felt Clark's eyes on her as she started the engine, but she refused to meet his gaze. <Keep it impersonal, Lane> she told herself. <You can't afford to let him see that you might have imagined he could feel more for you…>
She forced herself to concentrate on driving, knowing that Clark wouldn't distract her if he thought she needed all her attention. For a moment or two she thought he was going to speak, but then she felt, rather than saw, him sit back in his seat, and he remained silent for most of the journey into town.
As she was driving along the main street, he broke the silence to direct her to the Sheriff's office and the best place to park. Once she'd cut the engine, though, his hand touched her arm lightly.
"Lois." His voice was soft, implicitly asking her to look at him.
She turned. He was watching her in faint puzzlement from behind his glasses. "Clark?"
"I… wanted to say 'thank you,'" he replied quietly.
"For what?" She was taken aback, not understanding why he should be thanking her.
"For what you tried to do for me, telling Trask you didn't know where I was. He could have killed you, you know." His brown eyes were suddenly very dark indeed as he gazed at her.
Lois swallowed. "Yes, I know, but I thought what Trask might do if he did manage to get hold of you could be far worse."
He sighed quietly. "Lois, I'm grateful for what you did, but, you know, I value your life. I don't want you laying it on the line for me."
"You laid yours on the line for your parents, and their neighbour!" Lois retorted; her words were more of a guess than based on actual knowledge, since Clark had been quite vague about what had happened before she'd turned up at the Kent property. She had assumed he hadn't wanted his parents to know what had happened.
"That's different," he said quietly. "It was me Trask wanted all along. If I hadn't given myself up, he would have carried on kidnapping and killing people until he finally flushed me out." He paused, continuing to gaze at Lois, throwing her into confusion by the intensity of the emotion in his eyes. "But you also saved my life later. If you hadn't yelled when you did… Rachel wouldn't have been able to draw her gun in time."
"I'm just glad I saw him in time," Lois whispered. "I wouldn't have wanted to lose my best friend." <Yes, remind yourself that's who he is> she instructed her wayward emotions. <The only reason he's looking at you like that is that he's in an emotional state himself after what happened>
Clark started to reach out with his hand, intending to touch her face, but he hesitated. She had described him as her 'best friend' again, and it had seemed as if she'd chosen the words deliberately. Was she trying to remind him just what his place in her life was? For an instant, as he'd held her after Rachel had shot Trask, he'd thought he could see a look in her eyes, an expression which spoke of more than friendship. Had that simply been the heat of the moment, or the product of his imagination? The latter was perfectly possible, given his state of near-physical collapse at the time.
He reached for the car door. "Let's go see Rachel and Jimmy."
It was finally finished; Lois stretched and leaned back in her chair, stiff from several hours' typing. Clark had approved the final version of the Smallville story, and she had just sent it to Perry. Since Jimmy had been in the car with them on the journey from the airport, they had needed to commandeer the conference room to discuss what could be included and what needed to be left out, once they'd arrived at the Planet. However they had managed to come up with a story which was close to the truth, but which left out enough to protect Clark and his parents, and most important, would also satisfy Perry.
Lois, glancing at her partner, silently congratulated herself on having managed to avoid being alone with him since that moment in the car the previous afternoon. Jimmy had latched onto them once they'd entered the sheriff's office, and Clark — against his inclination, Lois could see — had invited the younger man back to the farm for dinner. Martha Kent, once she understood that Jimmy was intending to book into a motel, instantly invited him to stay at the farm. "Not that we can offer you a bedroom, I'm afraid," she had explained. "It'll be the other sofa. But it's comfortable, and I can promise you a good breakfast."
Over dinner, Jimmy had explained that the reports Lois and Clark had phoned back to the Planet had convinced Perry that he needed a photographer out in Smallville, and that Jimmy had pleaded to be allowed to go. Clark had grimaced, remembering the flashes he'd noticed earlier; he didn't particularly want to end up on the front page of the Planet as himself.
Perry interrupted Lois's musings, emerging from his office abruptly and calling to the staff. "Listen to this — this is incredible!"
He read aloud: "And, in the end, Jason Trask's obsession caused him to search for a mystical rock he alone imbued with destructive powers, and to confuse one reporter with the target of his fixation, Superman. He came to see this strange visitor from another planet where he was not, and to see enemies where there were none. It was an obsession that for Jason Trask would prove fatal." He paused, and laid the paper down to face Lois.
"I been in the newspaper business thirty-five years, and this is the damndest story I ever saw."
Lois grimaced, gazing back at her editor and taking the opportunity to lay another false trail. "You should have been there. Here's a man so far around the bend that he starts beating on Clark to get at Superman."
Perry swung around to stare at Clark. "Now, Kent, I usually tell my reporters to stay out of their stories, don't get involved. But as long as you fought a nutcase like Trask, well…" He paused, and offered Clark his hand. "I'm just glad you came out on top."
Accepting the hand, Clark smiled. "Thanks."
Perry frowned, addressing Clark again. "Sure you don't want to share the by-line on this one?"
Clark shook his head; he'd already had that conversation with Lois. The further away he stayed officially from this story, the better he'd like it. "Uh-uh," he replied. "I'm too close to it. I want Lois to tell it the way she sees it."
Perry swung back to Lois. "Well, then, Lois, I just got one note for you. This rock that Trask convinced himself was going to hurt Superman. What's it called?"
Taken aback, Lois stared at him. "Called? You want a name? Nobody can even find it. Even the sample Irig sent to the lab disappeared. I'm not sure it existed anywhere but Trask's mind." Oh, she was well aware that it had existed, but she and Clark had agreed that it would be better all around if they cast doubt on that fact, as well as on its supposed effect on Superman.
But Perry wasn't to be satisfied so easily. "Even so, this copy'd sing a lot sweeter if you gave it a name."
Lois looked helplessly at Clark. What the heck did they know about what it should be called? She thought quickly. "Trask thought it was from the planet Krypton… I don't know — Kryptonium?"
"Okay by me," Perry shrugged.
Clark strolled over, looking thoughtful. "Wait. It's a meteorite. What about… Kryptonite?"
Perry raised his eyebrows and handed the copy back to Lois, heading back to his office. "You two fight it out," he suggested.
Lois bumped Clark's shoulder teasingly. "You're always editing my copy."
He raised his eyebrow at her. "Next time, you fight the bad guy and I'll write the story," he suggested ironically.
Recognising that he was right, Lois capitulated. "Okay. Kryptonite."
Jimmy joined them. "So, C.K., now that you won 'The Big Thrill in Smallville,' how are you feeling?"
Clark seemed to consider before answering, then replied in a manner which seemed to Lois to be very deliberate. "I'm feeling… Super."
As Jimmy strolled off, Lois caught Clark's arm and tugged him back to her desk, ostensibly to show him something on her screen. As he bent his head close to hers, she murmured eagerly, "Did you mean that?"
He nodded. "Yep. I woke up this morning and my powers were just about back."
She glared at him. "And you didn't tell me? I've been worried sick about you, Kent!"
He glanced about carefully before replying. "Lois, I haven't exactly had a chance. Jimmy's been with us all day, apart from when we were in the conference room, and even that was only for a few minutes."
But he was pleased; she had been worried about him? That had to be good. He smiled.
Lois sat staring blankly at her TV screen, wondering if she'd done the wrong thing earlier in sending Clark away. She had offered him a ride home from the Planet, since his luggage was still in her Jeep, and on the way out of the parking garage he'd suggested that he could get takeout — from Shanghai, he'd offered — and they could have a quiet evening in together. But, still wary after discovering that her feelings for her partner and best friend were in danger of becoming too warm for her own good, she had pleaded tiredness.
Now, of course, she wasn't remotely tired, there was nothing worth watching on TV, and she really wanted company. Not just anyone's company… Clark's. Her thoughts were still haunted by that moment she'd seen Trask point his gun at Clark and take aim. If she allowed herself to dwell on that moment for longer than a couple of minutes, her imagination provided her with a picture of Clark sprawled on his stomach, a deep red stain spreading out over his pale blue denim shirt.
She swallowed. Clark was fine! Trask had been killed instead, and Clark had even regained his powers. Nothing bad had happened to either of them, in the end.
As she tried to force herself to show an interest in the current LNN report, she was distracted by a tapping at her window. At her… window?
Puzzled, she crossed to the large casement window; the flapping of red fabric outside answered her unspoken question, and she slid the casement up. Clark had obviously decided to ignore her excuse of being tired.
He floated nearer and spoke. "Lois — do you mind if I come in?"
She stood back, inviting him in. Even though she had seen Clark in action as Superman any number of times, it was still a very impressive sight. Seemingly weightless, he drifted into the room and floated gently to the floor, his cape swirling behind him.
"I didn't expect to see you tonight, Clark," she said awkwardly. "Were you… was there trouble somewhere?"
"A pile-up on the freeway — I helped to get some of the injured out," he explained, then grinned. "Gave Angela a quote for the Planet,too. Suits me — I don't want people wondering why Lane and Kent get so many of the Superman exclusives." He hesitated, then added, "As for why I'm here — well, if you're not too tired, I remembered I owe you a flight."
Surprised, Lois stared at him. "A flight?"
"Yeah. Remember you asked me why I hadn't taken you flying for pleasure?"
"Oh. Yes," she replied slowly. Part of her was thrilled at the thought of flying with Clark, but another part was nervous in case she gave him any hint of how she was beginning to feel about him. That was a bad idea; in fact, feeling that way at all was a very bad idea.
He held out his hand towards her. "Come on," he said persuasively. "You know I won't drop you. Don't you want to see the Metropolis skyline by night?"
She was tempted; very tempted. He had told her he'd take her flying, and she really wanted to experience it again. On the previous occasions when she'd been flying in his arms she'd either been too shocked, or the journey had been too short, for her to appreciate the experience properly.
He saw her indecision and came closer to her. "Lois… please come. I want to take you." He touched her arm lightly, his brown eyes gazing down at her. Without glasses, his eyes seemed deeper somehow, more soulful. She smiled up at him.
"Yes, Clark, I'd love to."
"Wrap up warmly," he suggested. "It's cold out there, and it'll be windy."
It was an incredible experience, being scooped up into his arms and then feeling him float upwards and carry her out of the window of her apartment. Although she'd flown with him from the Planet to both his and her apartments on occasion, those had been short journeys in any case. This was subtly different. He drifted upwards slowly, allowing her time to get used to the sensation of flying and to watch the lights of the city below them.
Then he flew higher, faster, and they were out over Hobbs Bay gazing down at the Hobbs River as it flowed out to sea. A murmured explanation, and he was flying over the Atlantic. Now, their only light come from the stars, and the dark sea rolled majestically below them.
"Clark… it's incredible," she murmured. She felt his low chuckle in her ear.
He dipped his head to her. "Want to go somewhere we can land?"
She nodded, and some minutes later he was dropping lightly on a grassy surface. She had no idea where they were other than that they seemed to be on a mountain-top somewhere. She gave him an enquiring glance, and he smiled. "South-west coast of Ireland. We're on top of Carrantuohill, the highest peak in Ireland, if my sense of direction was working."
She gasped. "You flew us across the Atlantic in that time?"
"About half an hour or so — yeah," he confirmed.
A thought struck her. "How come I wasn't vaporised, or at least wind-burned by the speed?"
He grinned. "Remind me to tell you about my aura some time." At her questioning look, his expression grew more serious. "I don't really know how it works, and my 'aura' is only what I've called it myself. I just noticed that when I hold things very close to me — like within a few millimetres or so of my body — they're protected. So it protects you."
Lois was amazed; it seemed that everything she learned about this mysterious but incredible man who was not only her partner but the most sought-after man in Metropolis made him more of a miracle. And put him further out of her reach, she mused soberly. Whatever Martha Kent might have hinted to Lois about her adopted son's feelings couldn't possibly have been any more than wishful thinking. There was no way that Clark Kent, Superman, would ever see Lois Lane as anyone more than a friend.
Doing her best to put such thoughts out of her head, she smiled at Clark. "So, was there something you wanted to talk about? Since you brought me here, I mean."
He nodded. "Yeah — I just couldn't seem to get you alone after all that craziness yesterday at the farm. I wanted to thank you for what you did, Lois. You were just… incredible. I owe you my life."
Awkwardly she tried to deny his statement. "Clark, I just happened to see Trask's gun in time. It could have been anyone — Rachel might even had already seen him aim at you. All I did was call out."
"Lois, you did a lot more than that," Clark insisted soberly. "You were willing to risk your life for me when Trask caught you first. I heard you, remember? Then you managed to talk your way out of captivity and contact Rachel — she would never have gone to my folks' place if you hadn't been able to call her."
Lois shrugged, a little embarrassed now that it was her turn to receive thanks for a change. "Clark, I only did what you would have done in similar circumstances — and don't forget, you've saved my life a number of times so far anyway. Consider this one small payback."
He nodded distractedly, leading Lois to suspect that her actions the previous day were not the real issue. That was confirmed when he advanced towards her, his dark brown eyes gazing seriously at her. "Lois, I also wanted to thank you for everything you said to me while my powers were gone. I know I was thinking and acting kind of irrationally, and you really helped to set me straight. You believed all along that it was only temporary, and your belief gave me the courage to keep fighting when Trask had me prisoner in his van while he was torturing my parents. If I hadn't had the memory of you telling me my powers would return, I think I might have given up trying." He paused, reaching out one hand to trace Lois's hair with a couple of fingertips, the gesture butterfly-soft. "You helped me to put my powers in proper perspective as well — I was saying some crazy things. You helped me to see that I can be someone worthwhile with or without powers. That really helped me, Lois."
A lump beginning to form in her throat, Lois murmured, "Clark, you *are* a very special person. The things you can do — sure, they're important and you've helped a lot of people with them — but even if you had no special abilities you'd still be helping people somehow."
"And what about you, Lois?" he asked abruptly, apparently inconsequentially.
"What about me?" She was confused; what did he mean? The darkness meant she was unable to see the expression on his face clearly.
"Lois, something happened after Trask was killed yesterday. You went distant on me. Tell me," he asked urgently. "Is it something I did?"
She stared at him, unable to answer. What could she say? Of course she had acted to create a little distance between them; she'd had to for the sake of her sanity. For in that instant when she'd held him after thinking he was about to be shot dead, she had realised that she was in serious danger of losing her heart to her best friend, a man who could never be more than a friend to her. She had *needed* to establish a distance, to spare herself further hurt.
Clark spoke again, his voice a ragged whisper. "Lois… please tell me. Did I do something… say something? What is it?"
She had to come up with something convincing. "Clark — it's nothing. I promise. It's just… well, I had one heck of a shock, remember. I thought I was going to see you shot dead right in front of me. If I was quiet, it's because I was trying to come to terms with it."
Clark stood watching her, his stance suggesting that he was considering her response.
"Clark, I *care* about you! Of course I was upset that you almost got killed! But I'm over that now, and everything's okay. So you don't need to worry."
He took another step closer to her, so close that she could now feel his breath on her cheek. "Are you sure, Lois? Because I really care about you too. You're pretty special to me. And I…" He hesitated, and because he was so close she was now able to see the tension in his jaw, the faint twitching of his eye. "I'd hate to lose your friendship," he finished on a whisper.
Lois shook her head. "Clark, you're my best friend. Nothing could change that."
He seemed to inhale deeply as if in relief, then he quietly suggested that it was time he took her home.
A little over a week later, Lois was congratulating herself on managing to bury her dangerous feelings for her partner. Their friendship had become even stronger during the past few days: they were still working closely together, and had taken to spending the occasional off-duty evening together as well. The pattern which was emerging for these evenings was for Clark to bring take-out from some far-flung place which they would eat while watching a video. He had promised that one evening he would cook for her, but so far that hadn't happened.
He had also begun to talk to her about his longing to know more about his origins. He deeply regretted that all he knew about himself was that he was from Krypton; he had no idea where Krypton was, or why it was that he had a conviction, deep within him, that the planet no longer existed. He longed to know how, and why, he had ended up on Earth, and who his birth parents were; one scenario he particularly dreaded, though, was the thought that he might have been the product of some laboratory experiment. He told her that before he'd found the globe and learned from it where he'd come from, he and his parents had been convinced that that was the most likely scenario.
Lois tried to reassure him that, even if he never found out any more than he already knew, it didn't make any difference to the man he was. She pointed out that her own upbringing was hardly the best example of happy families; she told him that she had wondered on numerous occasions during her teenage years whether she would have been happier if she'd been adopted. And he *had* been adopted, by a truly wonderful couple. Lois really envied Clark his parents. He had seemed to accept her arguments, but Lois remembered the time he'd been working on the story about adoptive children seeking their birth parents, and she realised that she could now understand his passion for the topic at the time.
It was now into December, and the city was experiencing a very unseasonal heat wave. Temperatures were regularly up in the nineties and above, more than twenty degrees above the average for the time of year, and since this weather was completely unexpected people just seemed unable to cope. The stores sold out of desk fans, air-conditioning broke down, the city's power supplies seemed unable to meet demand. Tempers grew fractious, and the water-cooler conversation broke down into petty squabbles as bottles of water ran out faster than the newsroom staff would have wished.
Lois envied Clark in this sort of weather: he'd told her that he seemed not to notice variations in temperature, and she knew that he was equally happy in the Arctic Circle as in equatorial climes. When everyone else around them was dissolving in pools of sweat, he was perfectly cool in his usual business suit; though she did feel obliged to suggest to him that he should at least *pretend* to be hot, in order to avoid suspicion.
By the time the temperature reached one hundred and six, media interest in the cause of the heat wave was increasing. A press conference was called, and Perry sent Lois and Clark to cover it. Lois was grumbling because they couldn't find a cab which wasn't overheating and so they had to walk; Clark, as ever, wasn't remotely affected by the heat, which caused her to grumble even more and express a bad-tempered hope that the venue had air-conditioning.
A room full of hot and bad-tempered reporters is a guarantee of an equally bad-tempered press conference, and so it was. The three people on the platform were inundated with questions from their increasingly sceptical audience. When it was Lois's turn, she honed in on the question of power supplies.
"Mr. Mayor, between the brownouts and the blackouts, there doesn't seem to be enough electricity to power the air conditioners, let alone the traffic lights. What's the city doing about it?"
Mayor Berkowitz was instantly on the defensive, protesting, "There's absolutely no need to worry about the power supply, it is completely under…" He broke off as the lights wentoff suddenly. The assembled representatives of the Fourth Estate instantly started shouting questions, even though the lights flickered back on within seconds, although not as strongly as before. Suddenly Lex Luthor stepped up to the podium. He waited for the hubbub to cease before speaking, then announced that the LexCorps Power Plant was ready to go online.
Clark instantly challenged him. "Isn't that the nuclear facility that's still pending approval from the utility commission?"
Luthor, seemingly anticipating the question, brushed it aside as he stated blandly that the required approval was being granted precisely at that moment. Clark pressed the issue, referring to concerns about the environmental impact statement, but Luthor waved away his objection, insisting that the statement had been re-evaluated by a panel of top scientists. "Metropolis needs power. I have it to give," he added magnanimously. "The plant will be operational as soon as humanly possible."
Although she sympathised with Clark's concerns about the environmental issues stemming from the LexCorps plant, Lois could see that they would get nowhere pursuing that issue. She tried another tack. "Another source of energy is helpful, but it's not going to solve the problem. Where's the heat coming from?"
Mayor Berkowitz turned to Dr. Sayer, a physicist who was with him on the platform. Wiping his brow with a handkerchief as he spoke, the physicist said a little awkwardly, "We've been studying all meteorological phenomena in the area, the jet stream, the ozone layer, even sun spots, but all patterns have been consistently normal over a specific control period."
<And what does all that gobbledegook mean?> Lois asked silently, but she honed in on the final part of the man's statement. "Are you saying there's no explanation?"
"There are no firm answers…" the scientist admitted.
Lois interrupted him, her voice rising in her agitation. "But why only Metropolis? It's twelve degrees in New York, there's eight inches of snow in Chicago and we're having a run on sunblock."
"We're trying everything we can," the physicist replied wearily. "There is a theory but…"
As he trailed off again, Lois jumped on his hesitation. "But what?"
"Well, it hasn't exactly been proved," the scientist hedged.
"We have a right to know what's causing this extreme condition!" Lois demanded.
"Not what, who," Dr. Sayer answered, to the obvious consternation of everyone present.
Before anyone else could jump in, Lois continued the attack. "You think one person is responsible for this?"
"Yes, I do," Dr. Sayer acknowledged..
With the gut feeling that she had just obtained another scoop, Lois asked her final question. "Dr. Sayer, on behalf of the citizens of Metropolis, I demand to know who's causing the heat."
Dr. Sayer's answer was spoken into the complete silence of a roomful of reporters all anxious not to miss the naming of the guilty party. "Superman."
There was instant pandemonium, made worse by a colleague of Dr. Sayer's who tried to insist that the research was not conclusive and that it couldn't be proven that Superman was responsible. But Clark was no longer listening. He stood in the centre of the room, completely stunned as he took in the information that his presence was being blamed for the continuing hot weather and consequent environmental problems. He felt Lois touch his arm, but barely managed to respond to her gesture. He became aware that the press conference was ending, and that his partner was trying to lead him out of the room, but he was barely able to respond to her encouragement.
"Clark — it *can't* be true!" she exclaimed once they were back on the pavement and heading towards the Planet.
He glanced at her briefly, then away. "Who knows? It could be. We need to look at that guy Sayer's evidence. Until we've seen it I'm drawing no conclusions."
Lois stared at her partner and friend. He couldn't possibly be entertaining the belief that he was somehow responsible for the hot weather, could he? But she realised that itwas quite possible that he might. Clark knew so little about himself and his origins that it seemed he would accept some half-baked theory over his own instincts. She knew that it was pointless arguing with him there and then; she would simply have to investigate the matter herself.
Lois glumly looked around the newsroom, assessing the mood of her colleagues. She was worried about Clark; he hadn't said a word since they had made it back to the newsroom. He hadn't moved from his desk but just sat, staring off into space.
Eduardo was intently studying some satellite thermal maps of Metropolis. "Superman affecting our weather. Huh. It's intriguing, I'll say that."
"Mystery novels are intriguing. This is libel!" Jimmy responded heatedly as he loaded his camera.
"Slander," Lois corrected automatically. She looked over at Clark. On the plus side, he didn't seem to have noticed Eduardo's comment. On the minus side, he was definitely brooding again. He did that a lot. If he could only bring himself to talk his problems over with her, he would be better off in the end. Hadn't he figured that out for himself yet?
Lois couldn't help but feel as though Clark were shutting her out again — just like he had in Smallville. He had tried to hide his feelings from her then; was he trying to do the same now? Didn't he trust her? Or was it something else?
Cat sashayed in wearing a skimpy bikini. Jimmy and Eduardo looked up from their tasks much to Lois's disgust. Thankfully, Clark remained oblivious. She got even more worried though when he remained oblivious when Perry came into the newsroom wearing shorts. When Perry and Eduardo started discussing Sayer's theory, Lois waited anxiously for Clark to participate in the conversation. <Come on, Clark> she silently urged, <please, speak up for yourself>
Friaz showed Perry his maps of Metropolis. "These are weather maps of Greater Metropolis taken on successive days. Cool followed by hot. Each of the hot days correlates to some super effort by Superman."
When Clark showed no sign of defending himself, Lois couldn't keep quiet. "Coincidence."
"Maybe. But most physicists do think Superman's power is solar induced," Eduardo rebutted.
Jimmy pointed out, "So lots of things are solar powered. Why blame Superman?"
Clark finally joined in the conversation at this point. "No one knows how strong his powers are or how much energy it takes to re-charge him. Superman could be drawing the sun's rays down to Metropolis like a giant heat funnel and not even know it."
Perry responded, "But Superman's been here for months. I don't see any reason for Metropolis to start cooking now."
Jimmy answered, "Yeah, but we had a really hot summer. Now it's winter, and it's still hot."
Lois couldn't sit still and listen to this. "Whose side are you on?"
"You have to admit, Lois, it could be possible," Cat said, contributing her two cents to the conversation.
Lois shot her a disgusted look. "You joining the Sisters of Mercy Convent is more likely."
"Lois, I understand how you feel," Perry said sympathetically. "Heck, we all like Superman but we've got to keep an open mind here."
"You can't print something like this." Lois turned to Clark in desperation, silently urging him to defend himself. "Tell him."
Everyone turned to Clark, waiting for his response. After what seemed like an eternity, Clark said slowly, "Like you said, the public has a right to know."
"Clark!" Lois exclaimed angrily. She couldn't believe what she was hearing. It sounded like he had already made his mind up that he was to blame.
Ignoring the rest of the newsroom, Clark slowly raised his eyes to her and addressed Lois directly, "If it wasn't Superman, we wouldn't even be thinking twice about it."
The phone rang, and Perry answered it, breaking the tension in the newsroom. He got off the phone to announce that there had been an explosion in a warehouse trapping some workers.
Clark was quick to respond. "I'll go."
Lois was anxious to follow him and talk this through. Why did he seem to be subscribing to this half-baked theory? She had to talk to him, had to make him see that the heat wave wasn't his fault, couldn't be his fault. She had to be there for him. She needed to be there for him. She got up, grabbed her notepad and pen, only to have Perry stop her.
"Headline: 'Super Feat Equals Super Heat.' Afternoon edition," Perry ordered.
Lois opened her mouth to argue with him but he was too quick, wagging a finger in her face, silencing her. He couldn't silence her thoughts, though.
Clark flew quickly to the burning warehouse, competently freed the trapped workers, then prevented the fire from spreading. He worked on autopilot, all the time wondering if he might be harming the ecosystem by helping. He didn't know what to think. Could it be possible?
This current crisis, coming out of the blue like it had, only served to emphasise all over again how different he was. Clark shook his head in despair. For a time he had felt like he could actually have a normal life, be a normal guy, maybe even have a relationship with… someone. No, not with someone, with Lois. He wanted a relationship with Lois, he admitted to himself. He always had, from the moment he had met her in Perry's office when she had stormed in and interrupted his job interview.
The cloud of gloom and depression weighed even more heavily on him than ever. He wanted to be with Lois who didn't think of him in that way and even if she did, he wasn't a normal guy, couldn't even pretend to be a normal guy and… Oh, what was the use? He had to face facts; he didn't fit in. He could never fit in. He'd been a fool to think that he ever could. He didn't deserve to fit in; he was too different, he thought bitterly.
This whole thing was getting more and more surreal, Lois thought to herself moodily. It kept getting hotter, the court had issued an injunction against Superman enjoining him from using his Super-powers, and then, without a moment's hesitation, he had used his powers to prevent a hostage taking situation under the appalled eyes of the judge herself. He had then been fingerprinted, photographed and incarcerated like any common criminal while he waited for his next court appearance.
Lois sighed as she continued to review the depressing litany of everything that had gone wrong today. The worst thing of all was that Clark didn't seem to be doing anything to help himself. He hadn't reviewed the scientific data, he hadn't looked for a second opinion, and most unforgivable of all, he hadn't asked her for help. He just seemed to have given up. She couldn't even find the time to talk to him about it; things had been so hectic at the courthouse and around the Planet.
At least when the judge had released Superman to the Daily Planet, Superman had been quick enough to volunteer Clark into looking after him. Lois snorted at the thought. It was true — there really was no-one better to do it, she wryly admitted to herself. Well, okay, she would have been better to look after him, but Perry hadn't seen it that way. Neither had Cat. But she was Superman's best friend even if no one knew that but Clark and Lois. She couldn't help but worry about him. He needed her help, and he was too depressed to ask her for it. They needed to talk. Maybe a good meal would help get through to him. Lois decided to pick up some groceries and head over to his apartment.
How hard could it be to make a decent pasta salad anyway?
Exasperated, Clark watched Lois bustle about his tiny kitchen, as she rummaged in his cupboards and unpacked a huge bag of groceries. It amazed him that he had no trouble sharing this space with his mom AND his dad, but that tiny, petite Lois was completely overwhelming in the confined quarters.
"Lois, I'm not hungry," Clark said for the third time.
"I'm trying to do something nice here, Clark. I want to fix you a decent meal."
"Lois, thanks for coming over, but I just want to be alone."
"Nonsense," Lois replied briskly, trying to lighten his mood. "You need company. You need to know that someone… cares." Her voice broke on the last word as her fears for him came to the forefront.
Clark reached out to her and turned her around to face him. "You care?"
Still held loosely in his arms, Lois looked deep into Clark's eyes and lost herself in the question buried deep within. "Of course I care, Clark," she said softly. "I always have. You're my best friend and maybe…"
A news bulletin on the radio interrupted.
"…high speed Metro train has lost its brakes. Passengers in the main terminal are being evacuated, but there are over three hundred people at risk on the train."
Lois stepped back, breaking the loose hold that Clark had on her, struggling to rein in her rampant emotions. "I'm sorry, Clark, but dinner's going to have to wait. I've got to go."
Clark smiled grimly at her. "That's all right. I do, too."
Lois watched in shock as he did a quick spin-change and then strode to the window and threw it open.
"Clark, wait! What are you doing?" Lois ran after him and grabbed his arm.
"I'm going to stop the train."
"Clark, no, please. You can't," Lois pleaded.
"I have to, Lois. You know it, too."
Lois looked at Clark. She could see the steely determination in his face, the thinly veiled impatience in his bearing, the eagerness to jump into action so he could help in every taut line of his body. Strangely calm, she recognised that for Clark, there was no other decision that he could make. He couldn't ignore a call for help from anyone. It was normally his biggest strength but right now, it was his greatest weakness. But, even though this rescue would have a huge negative impact for him, even though the ramifications were incredibly serious, Lois couldn't bring herself to protest any further. If he were to heed her protests and stay away, it would kill something in him — she could see that.
"Yes, I guess I do know it, Clark. You'd better go. I'll meet you there."
He smiled gently at her, reached out and cupped her face in his palm in a gentle caress and then disappeared into the night.
Lois looked around the dishevelled kitchen, sighed heavily and then grabbed her purse before heading out the door. She couldn't help but worry about what this rescue was going to mean to Clark and to Superman in the long term.
In the short term, it seemed to mean that the temperature was only going to increase again causing tempers all over the city to fray even more. City officials were calling on Superman to surrender himself to their authority by noon.
Clark listened to what the officials were saying. He listened to what the citizens of Metropolis were saying. His heart breaking, he made his decision. He knew what he had to do. He had no other choice.
He thought about talking this over with his mom and dad, or with Lois. But what could they say that would make a difference?
Lois. More than anything or anyone, even more than his parents, he didn't want to leave Lois. He yearned to fly to the Planet, scoop her into his arms and fly off somewhere, anywhere, with her. But how could he do that? How could he expect her to lose her career and her identity and shackle herself to someone like him? Someone different. Someone she could never have a normal life with. And, if his presence was harming Metropolis as it seemed that it was, then being with him was definitely not good for her health. Every second with her could be doing her immeasurable harm.
No, it was true. He had no other choice.
Lois and Jimmy were frantically collating and reviewing as much scientific data as they could. Lois was getting increasingly desperate as the hours counted down until noon. She couldn't help it but kept looking at the clock every few minutes and then scanning the newsroom for Clark. As the morning passed, she realised that he wasn't going to show up and help, that he was just giving up.
In a last ditch effort, she directed Jimmy to cross reference as much of the data as he could.
As he disappeared into the research room, she quickly picked up her phone and dialed.
"Hi. I'm not in right now…"
She slammed down the phone when she heard her partner's answering machine kick in once again.
She looked up to see her boss heading towards her, obviously on the warpath.
"Lois, get up from your desk and get to the courthouse."
"What's going on?" Lois asked as she scrambled to her feet.
"Superman's ready to turn himself in."
For a long moment, Lois stood frozen in one place. She felt sick inside. How could Clark have just given up like that? Why hadn't he fought this? Why hadn't he helped her fight this? Why, oh why, had he shut her out? Why, oh why, hadn't he asked for her help?
Perry's voice broke into her agonised thoughts. "Come on, Lois. I'm running a newsroom with everybody missing in action. Even Kent's got heat stroke so it's you or no one."
"I'm on it, Perry." Lois grabbed her purse and her notepad and started to head out.
"Now what, Chief?"
"You tell Superman I'm pulling for him."
Lois could feel hot tears pricking at her eyes. Her voice broke as she answered her boss, "I will, Chief. I will."
Clark exited the courthouse and reluctantly faced the crowd. He winced as he saw Lois arrive. He had hoped to finish this without having to face her, without having to see her disappointment. This had been a hard enough decision for him to have to make; he didn't want it to be made harder by her presence. He didn't want to leave Metropolis, no, more importantly, he didn't want to leave Lois. But he couldn't be selfish. He couldn't put his own wants and desires over the wants and desires of the citizens of the city. No, he had to sacrifice his life. He had no other choice. But that didn't make this easy.
Clark moved to the waiting microphone and made his statement.
"When I first came to Metropolis, I said I came 'to help.' That's still how I feel. But I'm going to have to find another place and another way. I have agreed to voluntarily leave Metropolis within twenty-four hours. I believe it's the best way to put all your fears to rest. I will miss everyone. Thank you."
In the ensuing silence, Clark began to move down the stairs. Lois pushed herself through the throng of people to face him.
"You can't leave." Her eyes shone with unshed tears.
"I don't have a choice." Clark watched as one lone tear overflowed and slowly rolled down her cheek. He hated himself for causing her such pain. Why, oh why did he have to be so different from everyone? Why couldn't he be normal and have a normal life?
"They can't be right," Lois said softly, desperately trying to reach him, trying to make him hear her.
Clark just looked her in the eyes, aching to reach out to her and wipe away her tears but knowing that he didn't have the right to touch her. He silently turned away and continued on his solitary path down the stairs.
Lois watched him go, her heart breaking.
Much later, Lois sat at her desk in the empty newsroom, surrounded by physics textbooks. Her eyes were getting harder and harder to keep open as the fine print blurred more and more. Maybe she could just shut her eyes for a minute, and that would…
She awoke to the sound of drawers being opened and closed. Looking up, she watched in shock as Clark started to clean out his desk.
"Where've you been?" Tired as she was, Lois couldn't prevent herself from snapping at him. She had tried to phone him repeatedly only to hear his answering machine kick in each time.
Clark turned around, shocked at her presence. He had been so depressed and downhearted, he hadn't even sensed that she was in the newsroom. "Lois…" His voice trailed off as he realised he had no idea what to say to her. Turning back to his desk, he continued putting his property into a box.
Lois got up from her desk, grabbed a random armful of books and moved to his side. "I've been trying to find something, anything to help Superman."
"It's late, Lois. Why don't you go home?" Clark didn't look at her as he spoke.
"Because there's no time. Here, you take these…"
"I'm leaving, Lois," Clark interrupted. "I'm leaving Metropolis for good."
"I have to." He turned to face her. "What choice do I have?"
Lois reached a shaking hand out behind her, blindly located Clark's chair and pulled it closer. Stunned, she sat down.
"I never expected this, Clark. You didn't even try. You just gave up. How could you, Clark? How could you just quit? How can you do this to Metropolis? How can you do this to me?" Lois looked up at him, her anguish plainly written on her face.
"If Metropolis could do something like this to someone who was doing the right thing, I guess Metropolis doesn't really need me." Turning away from her, he moved in one quick stride to the window and looked down at the lights of the city. The tense lines of his large body reflected the turmoil inside him.
"I need you." Lois's words fell into the emotionally charged silence. In a flash, he was back at her side.
He pulled her out of the chair to face him once again. "You don't need me, Lois. You don't need a partner. You never did."
"Oh, Clark, you were going to leave without saying goodbye," Lois half sobbed.
Clark took a sealed envelope out of his pocket and handed it to her. "This will explain everything."
Angrily, she thrust it back at him. "I'm not going to read it. That's not how you say goodbye to your best friend — in a letter."
"Yes, it is, when it's the only way to get through something so… painful." Clark pulled her into his arms. "Lois, oh, Lois, I'm going to miss you." He looked down at her tearful face and gently kissed her. Her arms slid tightly around him as she leaned into the kiss, intensifying it. He pulled away, a shocked expression on his face, only to feel Lois's hands on each side of his face, tugging his mouth back to hers. After a long, sensual moment, conscious only of the feel of Lois in his arms, and her mouth warm and responsive under his, he wrenched himself away. "Lois, this is hard enough. Please, don't make it more difficult."
Lois eyed him as he stood before her, breathing hard. The kiss — that wonderful, passionate, intense kiss — had shown her the truth about her feelings. She had been fooling herself for too long. But this was not the right time or place to deal with that. It would have to wait. "I want to make it difficult, Clark. I want to make it impossible for you to leave. I want you to stay and fight. I don't want you to just give up. Please, Clark, help me. I need you, and I need your help. Clark, you just can't say no to me. You just can't." Her eyes searched his face desperately, looking for any sign that he might cooperate with her.
Clark didn't stand a chance at the pleading expression on her face. She was right. He couldn't say no to her. Despite his misgivings, he could give her no other answer. "All right."
"You'll stay?" she said, her face lighting up.
"I'll stay till noon tomorrow. That's the twenty-four hours that I committed to at the courthouse. I can't — I won't stay any longer than that. I won't break my word." His expression was firm. Lois had no doubt that he meant what he said.
Her lips shaking, she made a weak attempt to break the tension. "Clark, you're not too bad at this job, but you're in luck. You just so happen to be partnered with a great reporter." She looked at her watch. "Okay, we've got fourteen hours left to get this figured out. Plenty of time for us to save Superman, don't you think?"
Clark couldn't help but smile. "You think pretty highly of yourself, Lois."
"Yes, I do. Don't you?" She grinned, still a little shaky but getting more in control of herself every second.
His smile faded as he lost himself in her eyes. "Yes, I do, too."
Lois was mesmerized by the look in his eyes. With an effort, she turned away. "Come on, partner. Let's get to work." She looked back over her shoulder at him. "But first, put your stuff away. You're not going anywhere." Heading back to her desk, she continued, "I think we need a second opinion. There's a new scientist at STAR Labs that I hear is pretty good. Then, we need to compare not only timing of 'Super' activity to the heat fluctuations but also location of 'super' activity. After that…"
It had been hectic but the last few hours had also been very satisfying. Lois was very pleased with herself, smug that she had been proven correct in her assumptions that everyone had been wrong about Superman. Yes, with Superman back in the sky and Clark back at his desk, all was right with Metropolis and with the Planet, but all was not right between the two of them. They had some things to settle between them. She couldn't stand the unsettled feelings any longer. She wanted to know… no, she needed to know if there could possibly be anything more between them than friendship. In the moment that he had kissed her, she had finally been able to fully admit to herself that she wanted more from him. Now she just needed to figure out if he felt the same way. Could the Super-powered man who was sometimes so unsure of himself, really look twice, in a romantic way, at a pretty ordinary woman with more than her share of hang-ups? She didn't know; but there was only one way of finding out.
And there was something else. This incident had shown her that she'd been foolish to think herself inadequate as a reporter next to Clark. Okay, he had all his extra abilities which certainly helped them while in pursuit of a story — but he never used them to benefit him at her expense, and she knew now that he never would — but she had something else, a fierce determination, a sense of 'street-smart' intelligence and a refusal to give up in a crisis, all of which made her truly a match for Superman. It had been her efforts rather than his which had solved this mystery and rescued Superman; and of course, as Clark had reminded her after the Trask affair in Smallville, she had mainly been responsible for saving the day then too. No, she had no need to feel that she didn't measure up next to her Super-powered partner, and that made her feel much better about herself.
Another issue to think over had been Lex Luthor's whole attitude when Superman had been cleared of having caused the heat wave. There had been something false about his reaction to everything. It had raised Lois's suspicions, making her more willing to give credence to Clark's feelings about the man. It had no bearing as to how she felt about him, however. The heat wave had more than made it clear who was important in her life and who wasn't. Lex Luthor most certainly was not.
She made a last few minor corrections to her story before sending it to Perry. Looking over at Clark, she was relieved to see that he was just finished with his sidebar also.
"Are you ready to walk me home, partner?" she asked, intentionally keeping her voice light.
He smiled, walked over and leaned down. Pitching his voice low so he couldn't be overheard, he said, "I have a better idea. Why don't I take you flying first?"
"I'd love that," Lois murmured as she smiled up at him in anticipation. This would only be the second time he had ever taken her 'social' flying. The thrill of it had most definitely not worn off yet. Lois didn't see how it ever could.
A few minutes later, Lois was soaring high above the cloud cover, nestled safely in Clark's arms, her arms lightly wrapped around his neck. Her heart overflowing with sheer joie de vivre, she turned her eyes to Clark, a big grin on her face. When her eyes met his, she was startled to find that he was watching her intently. Her grin faded and her eyes dropped down to his chest, away from the weight of his regard. Focusing on the 'S' symbol on his suit, Lois reached out and gently traced it with her finger.
"I didn't think I'd be seeing this any more, Clark." Her voice shook slightly.
"I know," he admitted. "Lois, I don't know how to thank you. I owe everything to you." He hugged her a little more tightly. "You saved me."
"And how many times have you saved me?"
He smiled gently at her. "I don't keep count, Lois."
"Neither do I." She laid her head on his shoulder and they flew in silence for a few minutes, each lost in thought.
"Clark, why did you give up?" Lois asked finally. "You were so quick to believe that scientist. Why didn't you ask more questions?"
"I don't know, Lois. Dr. Sayer seemed to know what he was talking about…" Clark fell silent, not able to verbalise how much he had felt responsible for the problem with the weather.
"Is it because you're different?" Lois asked, tentatively. She felt Clark flinch at her last word.
"What do you mean?" he asked, defensively.
It was Lois's turn to try and express a difficult concept. "Clark, sometimes you act as though being 'super' is a bad thing. I just wondered if you were quick to believe him because, well, because you are different from other people."
"Maybe. I don't know," he said, dismissively.
Lois studied him for a moment. His tone indicated that he wasn't happy with the direction the conversation was going; the animated expression had faded from his face. It was if Clark had just closed down and withdrawn himself from her. She had no intention of letting him get away with it.
"Why is it such a horrible thing for you to be 'super'?"
His eyes never wavered from the horizon. "It's not."
"You act like it," she pointed out, helpfully.
"No, I don't."
"When we were in Smallville," she said slowly, searching for the right words, "you said that 'normal is good.' You've always said, right from the moment I found out about you, that you wanted me to like you for Clark, not for the super powers. I'm no shrink, but it seems to me that you don't like being 'Super,' that you want to be normal." She searched his face for a reaction. Not seeing one, she continued, "I think that because you don't like having these powers, because you don't like being different, that you were, uh, predisposed to believe anyone who said anything negative about them."
He gaped at her for a moment, then looked away. "Nice theory, Lois, but don't give up your day job."
Lois sighed. She reached up tentatively, stroking the little muscle that jumped and danced under the skin just above the line of his jaw. "Clark, you're not really very poker-faced, you know. As soon as this starts to twitch, I know I've hit pretty close to home. Do you think we could land somewhere? I really want to talk this out with you." She waved her free arm at the vast expanse of sky. "All this is pretty distracting when I'm trying to have a serious conversation."
Clark smiled in spite of himself. He scanned the area below. "Sure, Lois. We can land."
Only seconds later, they had touched down. Lois looked around in amazement. They were standing in a grassy meadow, surrounded by white-tipped mountains. "Uh, Clark, where exactly are we? I feel like I've wandered into the middle of 'The Sound of Music.'"
"Well, I can understand that. We are in Switzerland after all." He couldn't keep from grinning briefly at the shocked expression on her face. "We're in the French section, near Neuchatel. If we were to walk down that trail there," he said as he pointed, "we'd end up in the middle of town right by the Suchard chocolate factory. Do you want to go visit the plant? They conduct tours with lots of free samples," he offered, hopefully.
"No, not right now, Clark. Maybe later." <Chocolate? Ooh, he's not fighting fair right now> The thought of Swiss chocolate was momentarily enough to distract Lois from her goal of an uninterrupted conversation with Clark. She ruthlessly thrust that thought out of her head before turning back to Clark and focusing on him. He was standing in front of her in his very distracting Superman uniform, his arms folded in front of his chest, pointedly looking at everything but her.
"Clark, would you mind doing that spin-changy thing of yours?" Lois asked, a bit intimidated by his Super-hero stance in spite of herself.
He did look at her then. With a quizzical expression on his face, he took a step back away from her and blurred. A second later, the more familiar, bespectacled visage of Clark Kent, reporter, was looking at her. He still had his arms folded across his chest but somehow the stance was not as intimidating. <It must be the 'suit'> Lois told herself. <It's all those well-defined muscles. I take one look and my brain freezes up>
"Clark, seeing as how you weren't exactly sharing your thought processes with me, I've been wracking my brain, trying to figure out just what's been going on inside that thick noggin of yours." Only a heroic effort would have kept the sarcastic tones from Lois's voice. She didn't bother exerting herself. "I came up with two scenarios. One, either you don't trust me and all that stuff you said to me in Smallville was just so much gobbledegook," she held her hand up to stop him as he started to protest, "or there's something about being 'Super' that really bothers you. Which is it?"
His eyes were wide and shocked. "Lois, of course I trust you. You're my best friend. I've told you things that I've never shared with anyone else. You know that." At her slight nod acknowledging his words, he continued, "I guess it's the second scenario."
Lois took a step forward and laid a gentle hand on his arm. "Clark, as long as I've known about this side of you, I've been able to see how much you enjoy using your powers to help others. I've watched how you react. It's the joy of being of service that means something to you, not the adulation or the fame or any of the hoopla that accompanies you being Superman. So, what is it that you don't like about being Superman?"
Clark looked down at Lois's dear, beloved face turned up to his and felt his heart turn over in his chest. He ached to wrap his arms around her in a warm embrace and forever shelter her from all harm. But he didn't have the right to do that. He took a step back, her
hand falling off his arm. He made a half turn, unwilling to completely remove her from his line of sight, but unable to face her directly. "You're right, Lois. I love helping people. Creating Superman was the best thing I've ever done. I think… I think if I had gone on much longer, not able to assist people when they needed it, not able to respond to their cries for help, or even worse, to their screams, then I would have… lost myself. I don't think I would have liked the person that I would have become." He sent her a quick, sideways glance only to look away again immediately. "I have you to thank for that. You were the one to give me the idea in the first place. And you've been more supportive of me than I deserve. Being Superman has been a gift. I love being Superman. But in some ways, it's becoming harder and harder to be Clark Kent." He fell silent.
"What do you mean?" Lois asked, softly. She yearned to move to him and wrap her arms around him, but, intuitively she knew that if she made any move towards him, he would clam up and slough this thing off, whatever this thing was, and would never refer to it again. She waited with bated breath for his answer.
"Clark Kent… as Clark Kent I look like a pretty normal guy, wouldn't you say?"
Lois nodded in answer to the question.
"But I'm not normal, Lois. I'll never be normal. Oh, sure, I can have a job like a normal guy. I can play poker with Perry, just like a normal guy, or hang with Jimmy, or go see a movie with you, just like a normal guy. But, being that I'm not normal, there are things I can't have, things that mean more to me than anything else in the world…" Clark turned completely away from her, his shoulders slumped and his eyes focused on the ground.
Lois had to strain her ears to hear the last sentence as his voice trailed away to nothing. She took a step towards him. "What, Clark? What are the things that you can't have?"
He took a deep breath and then exhaled before answering her. "I can't have a family, Lois," he said quietly. "How could I ask y… a woman to share my secret? How could I ask anyone to tie themselves to me when I don't know if I can… be there for them? I don't even know if I can make love to a woman, let alone whether I can father a child."
Lois's eyes widened at this admission but she said nothing, waiting for him to continue.
"Okay, so this time I was wrong, and my powers didn't hurt anyone. But what about next time? I couldn't live with myself if something about me hurt my parents, or you, Lois," he finished in a soft whisper. "I don't want to ever hurt you." He paused for a long moment, took another deep breath and finished, "So, like I said, I'm not normal. And because I'm not, there are things that I will never have."
Shocked beyond words by the depth of Clark's pain, Lois worked on reining in her whirling emotions. So this was what he had been brooding about. This was what had made him seem so tentative and so vulnerable at times. She remembered hearing the pain in his voice when Superman had told Phillip and Lex about being different. But the whole incident with the Mentamide kids had been so long ago. She hadn't realised that he had been brooding about this for so long, or so intensely. Feigning a nonchalance she didn't feel, Lois forced words out past the lump in her throat. "You know what your problem is, Clark Kent?"
"You keep too much to yourself. You should be more like me, more open, share what you're feeling."
Clark's jaw dropped. "Like you… But you're not… I should be like you?"
"That's what I said. I'm glad that for once you're listening to me. Okay," she continued briskly, "I just want to say that you're being pretty silly."
"Silly!" Clark exclaimed, incensed by the word.
"Yes, silly. I mean, look at this whole thing with the weather. If you had just come to me instead of brooding about it like a… like a sulky teenager," Lois had to repress a giggle at the shocked expression that greeted that comparison, "then we would have had this whole thing solved a lot sooner. Right?"
"Well, yeah, but …"
"It was the same thing in Smallville, Clark," Lois interrupted. "Once you told me about the Kryptonite and what it had done to you, you felt better and we were able to solve that too, weren't we?"
Wide-eyed, Clark nodded, obviously too shocked to attempt to argue with her.
"So, first things first. Remember I told you about that new scientist at STAR Labs? I've heard he's really good. I bet he could run all sorts of tests on you and help you figure out all the things you need to know about your Super-powers. I have a hard time believing that you could ever hurt anyone, but I guess after all that's happened, you need to be convinced of that too."
Lois paused for a moment and surveyed Clark. She was glad to see that he didn't look depressed any more. Even the stunned expression on his face was an improvement from that. It would have been easy for her to stop at this point, but she just couldn't do that. She wanted to know, she needed to know his feelings for her.
Turning to look around the meadow, she spied a large boulder nearby. Tugging Clark along behind her by the sleeve, she said, "Come on, Clark. I want to sit down."
She sat down on the hard rock, patted the spot beside her, then waited for him to seat himself before continuing, "Clark, am I normal?"
"What do you mean?" he asked, puzzled by the non sequitur.
"Am I a normal woman?"
Clark didn't see the point to this question but he answered it anyway. "Of course you are. You're, well, Lois, you're human, not like me."
"So, in your experience, how many human women get thrown out of planes, nearly blown up, tied up, taken hostage, or locked in a vault on a regular basis?"
His lips twitching in amusement, Clark shook his head. "Um, now that I think about it, I guess you are in a category of your own."
"So are you, Clark. Just like me. Is that really so bad?"
His expression darkened again but before he could turn away, Lois reached out to cup his face in her hand. "Clark, when you kissed me, I felt something. I know you felt it too."
Clark's eyes dropped for a moment then looking up, he said, "Yes, I did."
"So why haven't you said anything to me about it?"
He looked down and shook his head. "I don't have the right to say anything about it."
"Making decisions for me again, are you, Kent?"
He looked up, shocked. "No, of course not. I… I learned that lesson, Lois."
Her heart beating a mile a minute, Lois took a deep breath and continued, "I know you did, Clark. No, you're just not saying anything because you feel what I'm feeling."
"Scared, very scared." She looked at him, waiting, but when he didn't say anything in response, she took a deep breath. "Okay, I guess it's up to me to say the scary words then. Clark, I want you to go out with me."
"You do? Really? That's… that's great. But …"
"Clark, if we care for each other, really care for each other, we can handle anything together."
"But what if…?"
Lois clamped her hand over his mouth, stopping him from continuing. "Clark, would you do me a favour?"
Her hand still covering his mouth, his eyes wide and startled, he looked at her incredulously and nodded.
"Would you please stop talking and just kiss me?" Lois took her hand away from his mouth.
He stared at her for such a long moment that Lois was afraid her heart would stop from the tension. Then, before she even knew it, she was clasped warmly in his arms, his lips pressed firmly against hers. They kissed, desperately and passionately, until Lois had to pull her mouth off his to catch her breath.
"Wow!" she exclaimed.
"I know. That was…" he replied.
Lois laid her head on Clark's chest, listening to his racing heartbeat. His arms tightened about her. "Lois, I'm scared. What if this doesn't work out between us?"
Lois looked up at him. "We'll always be best friends."
He smiled down at her. "Yes, Lois, we will." He paused for a moment, obviously thinking hard. "But what if that scientist finds something that…"
"Clark," Lois interrupted.
"You're obsessing again."
Lois sat up straight and framed his face with her hands. "You need to always remember this, Clark Kent. We deal with problems as a team. We can tackle anything as long as we're together. You got that?"
"Yes, Lois." His lips quirked in amusement.
"Now, here's the deal. This rock is not very comfortable. I want to head back to Metropolis. You're invited for take-out. How about we get that great Chinese again? Where did you get it? Beijing? I can't remember. But first, we're going to head into town and go on that tour you told me about. I want some Swiss chocolate…"
Faced with all these directions, Clark said the only thing that a prudent man should at a time like this. "Yes, Lois."
Lois stopped her prattling for a moment and looked at him archly. "You know, Clark, you surprise me. I always thought you were a pretty smart guy, but…"
"Oh, nothing, it's just that a smart guy would have kissed me again by…"
Their arms wrapped tightly around each other, Lois and Clark kissed fervently. Neither one of them was aware exactly when they left the bounds of the earth. They had other important things to concern them.