By Wendy Richards <email@example.com>
Submitted: February 2001
Summary: Just what will Clark do to save the woman he loves? In this Faustian tale, a devilish enemy tests the Man of Steel's ethics against his love for Lois.
Author's introduction: Readers will recognise the start of this story as being the scene in ATAI in which Superman re-awakens Lois from her frozen state of suspended animation. Things go a little differently this time, and from here on canon is altered. I'm not going to give away spoilers, but I would simply urge readers to remember my reputation when it comes to the safety of our principal characters.
As ever, I want to thank several people here: first, the denizens of Zoom's message board, who faithfully post comments as a story is posted and who, in the course of this story, were extremely encouraging and supportive. You guys are wonderful! Most of all, I want to thank my ever-helpful beta-readers, Irene, Yvonne and Kaethel. As ever, you gave me exactly what I needed: criticism and helpful suggestions, praise and encouragement, and supportive advice. I couldn't ask for better beta-readers, nor for a nicer cheerleader than Anne Ciotola. :)
Comments are very welcome, as always, at the address below. And I do not have the rights to any of the characters in this story: as ever, they are the property of DC Comics and Warner Brothers. I am simply borrowing them for a while; you can have them back now! <g>
Clark pressed his lips to Lois's mouth once again and breathed, then lifted his head a few inches, checking for any sign of respiratory action.
There was still none.
"Breathe, Lois! Breathe!" he pleaded in an agonised whisper, again checking her body temperature; while it had been warm, it was now getting cooler by the second. "Come back to me, Lois! You have to come back to me!" The prospect that she might not was too unbearable to contemplate…
Distraught, he renewed the heart massage he'd started a short time ago, only to feel a hand tugging at his arm.
"Clark — Clark, it's no good. She's gone," his mother told him softly, close to tears herself. "Come on, honey, you have to stop torturing yourself like this!"
"She can't be," Clark retorted, not even looking at his mother. "I won't let her!" His mother was wrong. She had to be! Lois was going to be *fine*! He just had to keep going, keep breathing for her… Shaking off Martha's arm, he resumed the artificial respiration he'd been performing, increasingly desperately, for the last half-hour.
"Clark." This time it was Jonathan. He turned to look at his father, seeing the grief and agony on the older man's face, telling him what he now knew was the awful truth. "Clark, you have to accept it. She's dead."
He crumpled. He just couldn't hold himself up any longer, and he folded into a weeping heap on the cold stone floor.
He should never have let her persuade him. But he'd only had less than half an hour before that maniac Mazik killed his parents. He hadn't known what to do. And when Lois had told him she'd had an idea and wanted Superman, it had seemed as if a tiny ray of hope had lit up inside him. Until he'd got to her apartment and realised what she wanted him to do…
"Freeze you?" he had exclaimed in total horror.
She'd nodded, and explained how she knew he could do it, and how it could work: Mazik and anyone else would see that she was dead and he could free his parents. It had been a crazy, dangerous, foolhardy plan. If he hadn't already been panic-stricken over his parents' safety, he would never have considered it for a second. He knew all the risks, what it could do to Lois: rupturing her arteries, brain damage. He'd known it could kill her.
But she'd insisted, staring at him with those wide brown eyes shimmering with tears. "You don't know what he's going through. He needs me," she'd protested.
He *had* known, only too well, what 'Clark' was going through. <Lois, *I* need *you*, now!> he cried silently, weeping. <Don't leave me, Lois…>
Still trying to persuade him, she'd added, "And I have never needed you more than I do right now."
She'd been so determined, using every word, every gesture at her command to persuade him. In the end, he'd given in, against every instinct warning him that this was too dangerous even to attempt. He'd agreed to freeze her. And her almost final words to him… oh, he should have stopped the craziness then! It was as if Lois herself had known what would happen.
"If… anything… h-h-happens — tell Clark that I love him."
He'd wished, many times, that his secret identity wasn't a barrier between them; never had he wished it more than at that moment. He'd wanted to sweep her into his arms, tell her that he loved her too, so very much, and that he never wanted to lose her. That, no matter how much he loved his parents, how much the pain of losing them would hurt, losing her would hurt far more.
But, because he'd been there in the Suit, and he'd made such a *mess* of trying to tell her the day before, he hadn't been able to do any of that. He'd had to stand there, as Superman, and simply tell her that Clark knew.
Oh, he knew. He'd known as soon as she'd made it clear she was willing to risk her life for his parents, because she knew he was hurting. His well-being meant more to her than her own, he'd realised, and all his questions about whether Lois really loved him as he did her had been answered.
And he hadn't even been able to tell her that he loved her too, because he'd been separated from her by a Spandex suit and two years of secrets and lies.
Lois was dead. And she'd died without ever knowing that the partner she was in love with and the Super-hero she'd yearned for were one and the same. He'd been going to tell her the previous morning, but then he'd allowed Mazik's threats to destroy his nerve. Now, he bitterly regretted his failure to tell her, because she'd died without knowing.
She'd died without hearing him tell her that he loved her.
"Clark, we can't stay here." His father's anxious voice broke through Clark's misery and he struggled to his feet to meet his parents' worried expressions.
He nodded, looking around for the exit; the door was standing open. Mazik had obviously made his escape in a hurry after killing Nigel St John. Quickly, he made a decision and turned back to his parents.
"Go," he instructed them abruptly, knowing his voice sounded cold but unable to help it, or even care. "There's an alley outside, and it leads to a main street — you can get a cab from there back to your hotel. I'll see you both later."
Martha frowned, concerned. "But, Clark, what are you going to do? And what about Lois? You'll need to see the police, and don't you want our help?"
No… he didn't want anything, anyone, right now, only Lois…
He shook his head dismissively. "I'm going to take Lois now. I just want to be alone for a while, that's all. I'll see you later." Clark knew that his parents felt shut out by his words, but he didn't care. The love of his life was dead, and nothing mattered any more.
He waited until the sound of their footsteps had receded beyond even his Super-hearing, and then bent to scoop up Lois into his arms. She was so light, so frail, so cold… in death, she was still beautiful, but the vibrancy had all gone out of her. He'd closed her eyes so he didn't have to see their lifeless, dull upward stare; he almost wished he could cover her face too, because her still mask of death was a silent reproach to him.
*He* had done this. *He* had killed Lois, his best friend, the only woman he could ever love.
It was all he could do to get himself airborne; he flew high because he could barely see straight, and so he was flying very slowly. The last thing he wanted was someone on the streets below or in a skyscraper to see Superman carrying the stiff body of a woman.
Where should he take her? That, of course, depended on what he was going to do. And so far he had absolutely no idea what he was going to do.
He knew what he *ought* to do: he should take Lois to the nearest hospital, so that she could be declared dead and an autopsy arranged. He should go and find Jason Mazik, so that the man could be arrested and charged with murder, attempted murder and blackmail. And he should turn himself in to the police.
He, Clark, was guilty of the jewellery-store robbery. He, Superman, was guilty of murder. It would be easy enough to say that Superman was responsible for both. Although Jason Mazik knew that Superman was Clark Kent, and so it probably wouldn't matter which of them was charged with what; the world would soon know anyway.
He should care about that, but he didn't. Even the knowledge that someone else could use his parents to get to Superman didn't concern him right now. Not that he could carry on being Superman after this. If it wasn't for Superman, his parents would never have been kidnapped and Lois would still be alive. If it wasn't for his Super abilities, he'd never have been able to do that to Lois.
Without his Super-powers, he could not have killed her.
Clark hadn't consciously directed his flight in any way, but he suddenly realised that he was close to his apartment. In a burst of Super-speed he dropped to his balcony and then strode inside to lay Lois on the bed. Throwing himself down beside her, he pulled her cold, stiff body to him and held her tightly, new tears streaming down his cheeks as he buried his face in her hair.
"Lois… oh, god, Lois, I love you so much… why did you leave me? I can't go on without you… please come back to me, don't leave me, stay with me… stay with me, stay with me…" he murmured incoherently, over and over, as he held her unresponsive body, shaking her a little as if, somehow, the movement might wake her up.
Soon, he knew, he would have to get up and do the right thing. He probably didn't have much time; his parents wouldn't wait for him to come to them at the hotel. He knew them well enough to know that. They wouldn't leave him alone, given what had happened. They would come over, and insist on coming in, and insist on talking to him, making him talk about what had happened, about what he'd done to Lois, and about what they should do now.
They would urge him to call Lois's parents, Perry, to tell them what had happened, that Lois was dead. But what could he tell them? Could he really tell Sam and Ellen Lane that he had murdered their daughter? Could he — as Clark or as Superman — look Perry in the eye and tell him about the gamble he had taken with the life of Perry's favourite reporter? Lois had been like a daughter to Perry White.
Better to turn himself in to the police, and let them deal with informing people.
But then, Lois's family and her dearest friends would hear about her death from strangers. He didn't want that either.
But how could he, her murderer, tell them what he'd done?
There was a huge, Lois-sized hole inside him, he thought bleakly as he continued to hold her body close to him. He felt as if someone had reached inside him and torn out his heart, leaving him bleeding and in agony. Not even his worst encounter with Kryptonite had hurt as much as this did. He wanted to die, too.
Raising himself a little, he bent to kiss her lips reverently, deeply; almost as if he believed that, in kissing her lifeless, unresponsive lips, he could end his own life too. So, too, the distant thought occurred to him, had Juliet kissed Romeo; except that her lover had taken poison and Juliet had hoped to find some trace of the deadly fluid on his lips. He briefly wondered where the Kryptonite his father had thrown through the grating had gone; he needed it now.
There was nothing left to live for, if Lois was dead.
Oh, he could go on, but as a shadow of what he used to be. If he wasn't in prison, he'd have to leave Metropolis; there was no way he could stay here without Lois. Superman would disappear, permanently. And Clark Kent would… He didn't know what Clark Kent would do.
He laid his head against Lois's breast and closed his eyes in despair, giant shuddering sobs overwhelming him.
"Mr Kent! Mr Ke-ent!"
An annoying voice was calling him; Clark ignored it completely. The man would soon give up and go away.
Unless it was the police, he thought with an abrupt shock. Could they have caught up with him already? But how would they know where to come? They would be looking for Superman, surely? Unless his parents…? No, his parents would never give away his secret.
About to turn around to find out what was going on, Clark heard the man's voice again. "Oh, Claaarkieee!" his visitor called, in a sing-song voice.
*No-one* called him Clarkie!
Furious, both at the liberty his unwanted visitor had taken with his name, and at the man's presumption in disturbing him at this moment, Clark flung himself off the bed and turned to glare at the intruder, who had somehow managed to break into his apartment and had had the audacity, the *nerve*, to invade his bedroom.
His angry gaze fell upon a short man with a short, dark goatee beard and eyes Clark instinctively did not trust. He was dressed in a strange multi-coloured outfit, with high, wide boots which seemed far more suited to early eighteenth-century England than twentieth-century Metropolis.
And, as his brain tried to process the garish sight in front of him and failed to come up with an answer, Clark realised something else.
He was still wearing his Superman suit.
And his unwanted visitor had called him by his real name.
This man, who looked as if he'd escaped from a comic strip, *knew* that Clark Kent was Superman.
"Who are you? What do you want?" Clark demanded raggedly, moving so that he blocked Lois's body from the man's line of vision.
"Now, now, Clark, that's not very friendly to someone who only wants to help you!" the man chided.
"Help?" he echoed hoarsely. "How on earth could you help me?"
"More easily than you think, Clarkie. Let me see…" The man paused, and, so it appeared to Clark, pretended to consider. He placed two index fingers in front of pursed lips, closed his eyes and tilted his head slowly from side to side, as if demonstrating that he was pondering, cartoon-style. Clark watched him in disbelief, barely resisting the temptation to seize him and throw him bodily off the balcony.
Then his visitor opened his eyes again, his posture returning to normal. "Of course I can help you. We both know what your problem is."
"You know nothing about me!" Clark gritted out furiously, realising as he spoke that it was a lie. Of course this man knew something about him — he knew his dual identity! And that reminded him that he had to tread very carefully, at least until he'd decided what to do about Lois and the police…
"Oh, come on, Clark, there's no need to lie to *me*!" the man protested. "I know everything about you. I know you're an alien, where you're from, who brought you up — how are Jonathan and Martha, by the way? Recovered from their ordeal?" He grinned, and Clark fumed helplessly.
"Not talking to me? How rude! Oh, well," the man continued. "I'll just have to keep the conversation going. Hmm. Where were we? Oh, yes. I was telling you that I know what it is you want most in the world right now."
"No, you weren't," Clark snapped. "You were telling me that you know everything about me — and you still haven't told me how! — and that you know what my 'problem' is." He took a furious breath. "Well, in that case, you also know that I can kill you with just the squeeze of one hand. And don't think I wouldn't. I've killed once today already — "
He broke off abruptly, wondering what had made him admit that. *Why* had he said it? Still, it didn't matter, since he was going to turn himself in to the police anyway.
But his visitor merely smiled. "You could try, Clarkie, but I think you might find it a little difficult."
"*Don't call me Clarkie*!" Clark almost yelled.
"Oh, don't like that, do you?" The man paused, an irritating grin on his face. "You know, since I've come all this way from the fifth dimension to do you a favour, you might be a little nicer to me," he added petulantly.
"From *where*?" Clark demanded, his lip curling scornfully.
"You mean you haven't heard of the fifth dimension?" his visitor asked incredulously. "Well, never mind. Why don't we make ourselves comfortable and then we can discuss how we can help each other."
"Why should I do anything for you?" Clark retorted.
"Uh-uh, Clarkie-baby!" the man chided. "Better be nice to me, if you want your dearest wish granted!"
Instinctively, Clark glanced behind him to where Lois's body lay still on the bed. But this was crazy, he told himself quickly. There was no way this man could know what had happened, and even if by some freak chance he did, Lois was *dead*. No-one could bring her back to life. It was too late.
"Come on, let's make ourselves comfortable," the irritating visitor said. He waved a hand in Clark's direction, and… Clark didn't know what had happened, but he thought incredulously that he'd actually seen a puff of smoke. But when he glanced down in the direction where it had appeared to come from, he could only see his own shoes.
Wait a minute… *shoes*?
But he was wearing the Suit!
No, he wasn't, he realised with a shock. He was in the charcoal business suit he'd been wearing at the Planet before flying to Lois's apartment. But *how*…?
He stared accusatively at his visitor, only for his glare to freeze on his face as he noticed the man's posture. He was sitting, cross-legged… on thin air.
"Why so surprised, Supes?" the man enquired, clearly highly amused. "You can do it, so why can't I?"
Just who was that man? Clark would have suspected that he might be Kryptonian, except that that wouldn't explain what had happened with his clothes. Even Super-speed wouldn't be fast enough to fool him. "I asked you before — who are you?"
"Oh, did I forget to introduce myself? I am Mr Mxyzptlk," he announced grandly.
"Am I supposed to know you?" Clark asked rudely; he knew that he was behaving very badly, but in the circumstances he had no wish to be polite to anyone — especially not someone who was trespassing in his apartment and being rude to *him*. He wanted to get rid of this guy — Mxispiklik or whatever his name was — and get on with what he had to do. Dealing with Lois's death. Taking her to the hospital. Going to the police. Turning himself in.
"Oh, you've never met me before," Mxyzptlk answered. "But I know you, better even than you know yourself, Clark."
"What do you want with me?" he asked wearily.
"I told you — I've come to do you a favour," the man answered brightly. "Now, since you're clearly not feeling very talkative, let me guess for myself. If I offered to give you your dearest wish, what would that be? Hmmm. Riches beyond imagination? No; you could obtain those any time you wanted with those powers of yours, Supey-boy. Hmmm. The most beautiful women in the world, to be your sex-slaves?"
Clark flinched at that, and lunged in the direction of Mxyzptlk; to his amazement, the man floated out of his reach.
"Well, I guess not," Mxyzptlk continued, as if nothing had happened. "Women just fall at your feet, don't they? At least, when you're wearing that flashy outfit. I'm sure you could scoop half-a-dozen of them up in your cape any time you wanted. No, it's not that. Hmmm…" He paused, and then grinned. "Okay. So it's not money or women. Or power either, I guess. Let me think… Yes! Your dearest wish is to have Lois Lane alive again," he pronounced.
Clark stared in hopeless disbelief. How did this Mxyk… Mxypit… Mxy-whoever even know about Lois? And why was he trying to torture Clark by suggesting that he could offer him his 'dearest wish'? Was this some sort of additional punishment for what he'd done? As if he could ever forgive himself anyway!
Suddenly, he was overcome with fury. Launching himself towards Mxyzptlk, he tried to grab the man between both fists… only to find himself grabbing air. He overbalanced, and had to float himself back to his feet.
A distant raucous laugh made him look up; the man was sitting cross-legged at the top of the arch between his bedroom and living-room, grinning at him.
He floated down then, and, to Clark's horror, sat on the end of the bed, at Lois's feet. "Come on, Clark," he said, before Clark could say a word. "Let's cut to the chase. I have a deal to offer you."
"A… deal?" Clark repeated hoarsely.
"A deal. You want Lois alive again — and, I have to admit, it's a shame to see her like this." He reached out and stroked Lois's ankle; again, Clark wanted to wring the life out of the annoying, insensitive little creep. He was barely restraining himself from blasting the guy to kingdom come with one megawatt-strike of his heat vision; in his head, he was muttering, "Get your filthy hand *off* her!" But he didn't dare speak, just in case this imp from hell did something far worse.
"So, this is what I'm offering," Mxyzptlk continued. "I'll give you Lois back."
"Give her… back?" Images flashed into Clark's mind: Lois sitting at her desk at the Planet, swinging around in her seat to grin at him as she finished a big story; Lois arriving at his apartment in a rush because she'd just had a *brilliant* idea she wanted them to investigate; Lois on his arm as they returned from their first date; that first real, earth-shattering kiss; that kiss in his apartment, only a few days earlier, when they'd both agreed to stop running from each other; Lois in her apartment, telling Superman she loved Clark. Lois, just being… Lois. The woman he loved, and couldn't live without.
He wanted her back, and this *monster* was torturing him by making him yearn all the more for something he knew he couldn't have.
"Yes! Resurrect her, rejuvenate her, bring her back to life, however you want to put it, Clarkie. You'll get your girlfriend back."
"Don't be ridiculous!" Clark exclaimed in fury. "You can't do that!"
"No? Watch!" Suddenly the man gestured at a book which lay on Clark's nightstand. It picked itself up and walked across to the far side of the stand, then lay back down again. "And this!" Mxyzptlk pronounced, making a grandiose gesture and suddenly plucking a huge bouquet of roses from thin air, passing them to Clark.
"Feel! They're real! Totally genuine!"
"What… are… you?" Clark stammered barely coherently.
"I'm as alien as you are, Supey!" came the reply. "But I don't come from another planet — I come from another dimension! I guess you could call me an imp. I have powers, too, but they're not like yours. People in this dimension call them… magic. And I can do anything I want!" he announced.
"You can… really… bring Lois back to life?" Clark asked hoarsely.
"Sure I can!"
"Then… please…" A new lump in his throat, Clark found himself begging. "I love her so much, I just can't tell you… I can't go on without her. I need her."
"Well, of course, Clark! Just as soon as you promise to fulfil your side of the bargain!" Mxyzptlk replied expansively.
*His* side of the bargain…? Clark began to feel worried about what he was letting himself in for. He wanted Lois back — but at any price? What price would he be willing to pay?
He couldn't figure out what Mxy-thingy might want anyway. The guy seemed to have even more powers than he did himself, so how could Superman help him in any way? Just what did he want?
And just how badly did he — Clark — want Lois back, anyway? Enough to… to conduct some sort of Faustian bargain with some guy with supernatural powers, about whom he didn't know the first thing and who he had no idea whether he could trust?
"Okay, tell me what you want," he said roughly. "I'm not agreeing to anything yet, though."
"Sure, take as much time as you want," the imp said expansively. "Hey, go right ahead, take poor Lois to the hospital, call her parents, turn yourself in to the police, go to her funeral — hey, even wait until you get sent to prison if you want! All you have to do, when you've made up your mind, is call me."
Clark took a shuddering breath. Oh, he was sneaky, all right. He knew exactly what buttons to push, reminding him of everything which lay ahead of him. "What — do — you — want?" he demanded, enunciating each word separately, an indicator of his frustration.
"Oh, simple, Clarkie-baby!" Mxyzptlk answered. "I'm not asking you to do anything which will cause you the least bit of trouble. In fact, I don't want you to do anything at all!" he announced, smiling happily.
"What does that mean?"
"Oh, it's just that I quite like this world of yours, Supie-baby," Mxyzptlk said brightly. "And I'm sure you can understand that — you came here from another planet yourself. I want to stay here and play for a while. So, basically, I don't want you using those little powers of yours to do anything to stop me. That's all!"
He was definitely being offered a Faustian bargain. That was clear — after all, just who was this maniac? What exactly was he proposing to do? Obviously things Superman wouldn't approve of, otherwise why bother with any of this?
On the other hand, he could have Lois back… alive, with him, in his life, working with him, loving him…
Again, Clark allowed his gaze to rest on Lois's body, lying on his bed. She looked so peaceful; he could have believed she was just asleep, if he didn't know the horrible truth. She was dead. He had killed her.
And now, he was being offered a chance to have her alive again… how could he turn that down?
<Because> he reminded himself firmly, <Superman doesn't make deals with criminals — or even potential criminals. And you have to face the consequences of what you did>
"Well, it seems to me, Clark, that you *obviously* don't love Lois as much as you thought," Mxyzptlk commented, getting to his feet. "And, as such, I'm wasting my time here. You don't want to accept the favour I'm offering you. And, you know, I didn't even have to offer it. With Superman in jail, or banished, or whatever they do to you, I can do what I want!"
Something about his demeanour made Clark suspect that his visitor was about to leave; he made up his mind suddenly.
"Wait! I want to… Let me ask you a couple of questions first!"
"Questions, schmestions. What do you want to know?"
"What are you intending to do that you don't want Superman interfering with?" Clark asked pointedly.
"Oh…" Suddenly Mxyzptlk was smiling again, and it was a smile Clark didn't trust. "Nothing at all unpleasant. I just want to have some fun, Clarkie — can't you understand that? It's not as if I'm a major villain, or someone with a vendetta against you — heck, I won't even threaten to expose your secret identity! I just want to play, that's all. And I'll leave you alone as long as you leave me alone."
Clark swallowed again. "And you'll… bring Lois back to life?"
"Sure! Just say the word!"
Could he do this? He still strongly suspected that his visitor was up to more harm than he was pretending. What if the imp turned out to be evil through and through? What if he went on the rampage, on a killing spree? What if…? He could do magic! What if he used his supernatural powers to harm people?
What if he never saw Lois alive again?
Again, his gaze was drawn to her; he moved closer and reached down to touch her face. It was cold to the touch; that, even more than his intellectual awareness, reminded him that the appearance of sleep was deceptive. She was dead.
"You've got to promise me that you won't kill anyone!" he exclaimed suddenly, surprising himself; without realising it, he'd made up his mind.
Mxyzptlk's mouth formed a big, round O. "Me? Clark, you wound me! I don't *kill* people! I might play with their lives a little, but nothing too terrible. That's just not what I do! You know, you really should work on being a little more trusting. That and the hospitality thing. Otherwise, you're a pretty nice person, I guess."
Clark rolled his eyes, but otherwise ignored the irritating comments. Again, his glance flicked between Lois and Mxyzptlk; then he sighed. His heart still felt as if it had been ripped out of him. His life was no longer worth living because he'd lost the most important part of it. There was no alternative…
"Okay. You bring her back to life, and I'll leave you alone."
"Breathe, Lois! Breathe! Come back to me, Lois!"
Clark straightened, looking down at Lois as she lay flat and unmoving on the slab in Mazik's hideout. He was worried; he'd thawed her almost a minute ago and she still wasn't breathing. He'd tried artificial respiration, and he'd called to her, pleading with her to wake up and not leave him.
Somewhere, in the back of his mind, there was a horrible memory — a dream? — in which she *hadn't* woken up. She'd died on him. And there hadn't been a damned thing he could do to save her. He could remember only too clearly the despair he'd felt, the feeling that he wanted to end his own life. The feeling that he would do *anything*, sell his soul if necessary, to bring her back to him.
No. That was a dream — a nightmare. Lois was going to wake up. She had to!
He bent and breathed into her mouth again. Then, suddenly, she coughed, and he helped her to sit up. He saw the wonder and relief in her gaze, saw the instant she noticed his parents standing just behind him and realised the significance of their presence, and then saw her gaze return to him.
"I heard you… calling me…" she managed to say, breathless and weak as she was. Clark gathered her to himself, remembering too late that he was there as Superman and she still didn't know he was Clark. Still, Superman was entitled to have been worried about her, wasn't he?
"We'd better get out of here, Superman," his father said from behind him. He was right; Jason Mazik might have escaped, but he could just as easily come back to check that his victims had indeed expired, or to deal with St John's body.
Nodding, Clark scooped Lois up into his arms.
"Where are you going to take her?" his mother asked. "You need to see a doctor, Lois, honey."
Clark debated with himself briefly; he could certainly take her to her own apartment, but in a way he'd prefer to take her to his. Then Clark could come to find her there, and… well, maybe there was a chance they could talk.
"Clark's place," he answered. "I'll have to go and find Mazik, though…"
"That's okay, we'll get a cab on over there and take care of her until you get a chance to let Clark know what's happening, Superman." His parents were great at keeping his secret, Clark thought as he carried Lois out of the building, quickly taking off once outside.
Within minutes he was carrying her into his apartment; he'd flown slowly out of care for her, not wanting to jolt her more than was necessary. She'd clung to him, resting her head on his shoulder, but hadn't spoken. As he laid her on his bed, hurriedly pulling a blanket over her, she reached for his hand.
"Thank you," she told him softly.
"You don't need to…" He swallowed, trying to regain composure, as the memory of everything she'd done for him, including putting her life on the line, came back to him. "I'm just glad you're okay. Umm… the Kents will be here any minute, but I have to go and get hold of Jason Mazik before he does any more harm. I… I'll see you soon, Lois."
"Clark, wait a minute." Her words shook him rigid, and he stared at her, uncomprehending. Why had she called him Clark? Did she know?
But she sat up and smiled at him. "Here — sit down for a minute." He obeyed slowly, his mind racing.
"I know who you are, Clark. I… realised earlier, when you touched me." Stretching out a hand, she caressed his face in exactly the same way he'd done to her earlier that afternoon. And, he now remembered, as he'd done the previous evening, after he'd robbed the jewellery store.
"Are you mad, Lois?" he asked her, in little more than a whisper.
She shook her head. "You were trying to tell me. I know that now — like yesterday morning, when you asked me to have breakfast with you. I even remember you starting to tell me — you said, 'Lois, I'm Super — ' and then the phone rang. If Jason Mazik hadn't started messing around with your mind, you'd have told me yesterday."
"Yeah, but I should have told you long ago," he admitted, reaching for her hand and squeezing it within his.
She gave him a wry smile. "I guess it would have been nice if you had, but I can understand why you didn't. If I'm right, you've been hiding this all your life?"
He nodded. "Ever since I started developing the powers, Lois. But I should have told you — when I was shot, when we started dating, maybe right back when Lex Luthor asked you to marry him. It probably looks like I didn't trust you, and yet it wasn't that at all."
"I know," she replied, her voice a little hoarse. "It was because I was still kind of moony-eyed over Superman, wasn't it? I can't really blame you for that, I guess."
Clark took a shuddering breath and gazed down at his partner, his best friend… his girlfriend. "Oh, Lois, have you any idea just how much I love you?"
She looked back at him and he could see the emotion shimmering in her eyes. "I think I have a pretty good idea, Clark. Earlier — when you'd just had Mazik's phone call — you put my safety over your parents' lives. If I hadn't already known, that would have told me how much you loved me."
Clark stared down at her, longing to pull her into his arms and kiss her senseless. But it wasn't a good time; not now, not when his parents were going to arrive any moment, not when he had to fly off and capture Jason Mazik and talk to the police. He inhaled deeply, giving Lois a regretful look. "I have to go now. But I will be back later, okay? I think we need to talk."
"I'll look forward to it," she told him, smiling happily, her gaze never leaving his face.
"Just one thing," he added quickly as he turned to go. "My folks… you can tell them you know, but be gentle with them, please! I don't want them to have a heart attack!"
"Don't you trust me, Clark?" she asked, mock-innocently. And gave him that *look* — the one which made him want to kiss her so thoroughly that neither of them would be able to stand.
"I *have* to go," he groaned, and hurried from the room before she tempted him to stay.
Flying towards Jason Mazik's headquarters, Clark was hard pressed to keep his mind on the task ahead of him — ensuring that Mazik was not able to tell the world his secret, and turning him in to the police. Instead, his mind was full of Lois: sheer relief that she was alive, delight that she knew his secret, joy that she'd taken it so calmly and accepted his reasons why he hadn't told her sooner.
Lois knew he was Superman. And she loved him. He was going to find it hard to behave sternly with Mazik, because he just couldn't stop smiling.
But then he remembered that, if Mazik had had his way, Lois would be dead. And so would his parents, most probably — Clark had no faith whatsoever in Mazik's promise that he'd release the Kents once Superman turned up with Lois Lane's dead body. That memory wiped the smile from his face, turning it to cold fury.
He dealt with Mazik swiftly, removing the man's proof and handing him over to the police without further delay, then turned to fly back to his apartment and to Lois. His parents would be there, but they would understand that he and Lois needed to talk, and they wouldn't stay long. They had a lot to talk about. She loved him, and he knew how much he loved her — and the day's events had shown him exactly how much. He could so easily have lost her, and he was determined, as a result, not to waste any more time.
Lois could so easily have died. Oh, he would never have agreed to Mazik's demand to kill her — how could he willingly kill the woman who meant more to him than anything? — but her suggestion that he freeze her could have gone disastrously wrong. For several seconds, back in Mazik's hideout, he'd thought it all had gone wrong: Lois just didn't seem to be waking. She hadn't responded to any of his attempts to bring her back to consciousness.
And then, just as he'd begun to fear the worst, as his heart had been slowly turning to a block of ice, she'd opened her eyes and spoken to him.
Clark had never before felt such a sense of incredible relief. She was *alive*!
And yet, as he came closer to his apartment, something was nagging in the back of his mind. Something was tellinghim that she *had* died. That when she'd woken up he'd been given a second chance. No — a payment. Lois's life for…
He shook his head, trying to rid his mind of the unwelcome image of Lois, dead, lying on his bed as he argued with a ridiculous-looking man — a man who had called him 'Clarkie', had known his secret, and had insisted that he could work magic. No. That was just preposterous. It couldn't have happened.
It hadn't happened. It was a bad dream, that was all.
No. He hadn't really agreed to a bargain. A non-interference pact for Lois's life? It just hadn't happened. It was obviously just a nightmare; he'd probably had a second or two of delirium while trying to bring Lois back to consciousness.
He should forget all about it, and focus on his forthcoming conversation with Lois.
Clark's parents were very kind, showing great concern for her state of health and thanking her profusely for what she'd done to help Clark secure their safety. Martha called a doctor immediately, despite Lois's protestations that she was fine; she felt vindicated when the doctor pronounced her perfectly well.
She explained to the Kents that she knew Clark's secret, and was prepared for shock and dismay, but to her delight Martha came and hugged her immediately. "It was about time he told you."
"If Clark trusts you, then of course we trust you," Jonathan added warmly. "And after what you did for us today, how could we doubt you?"
Lois smiled, feeling almost as if she was being welcomed into the family; that wasn't really a new experience with the Kents, since Martha at least had treated her almost as a daughter for around a year now. She forebore to tell them that she'd worked out Clark's dual identity herself; it was up to Clark if he wanted to explain that, and she suspected that his parents were pleased that he'd made the decision to be honest with her about himself. And anyway, as she'd said to Clark earlier, she knew that he *had* been about to tell her, but he'd been interrupted by something which he'd — correctly — decided was more important.
A sound on the balcony then heralded Clark's return, and she instantly turned to watch for him, needing to see him again, to remind herself that her two best friends were really the same man. It had cost her so much to relinquish Superman the other week; finding out that he was really Clark had actually been a relief, since she hadn't been able to understand how she could have been in love with the two of them at the same time.
He strode through the arch into the kitchen, still in the Suit, looking concerned; the concern vanished as soon as his gaze rested on her, and she felt warmed by the strength of the love she could see in his expression.
"Lois! Are you sure you shouldn't be resting still?" he demanded, hurrying to her.
"Clark, I'm fine!" she assured him, half-laughing as she grabbed hold of his hands.
He drew her to her feet and swept her into his arms; she hugged him and pressed herself close to him as the sudden realisation of how close they'd come to losing each other that day flooded through her. His embrace was strong and, she thought, held a sense of overwhelming joy and relief. Because there were no more lies between them, or because she was safe and well? she wondered. Or perhaps both?
Clark released her after a while, and stepped back to spin into his casual Clark clothes; she stared in wonder as the whirling dervish which he'd become slowed to reveal the partner and best friend — and, yes, boyfriend — whom she loved so much. As he smiled at her then, she shook her head in amazement, asking herself just why she'd never noticed that both Clark and Superman had the same beautiful smile. She should have seen that.
All four occupants of the room then sat; Clark kept Lois close beside him, a situation about which she had no complaints, while he filled them in on Mazik's comeuppance and arrest. It was a relief to know that the man was no longer a threat to their safety, or to Clark's privacy.
After some time, Martha got to her feet. "Come on, Jonathan, we need to leave these two alone to get on with their work," she announced.
"Work?" Her husband gave her a puzzled look.
"Of course! They've got a story to write! — and didn't you say you left the Planet without explaining anything to Perry White?" Martha added, directing her question to Clark.
"I didn't exactly have time!" Clark protested. "And, yes, we have a story to write — " He checked his watch. "If I call Perry now and warn him, he might just be able to squeak it into the afternoon edition, unless he'd prefer to keep it for the morning."
A series of quick hugs later, Lois and Clark were alone. Lois looked longingly at her partner; she needed to be taken into his arms and held, which in a way surprised her: she was highly independent by nature, and in the past had despised men who wanted to cling. So why she should be behaving like a needy girlfriend, she had no idea.
But, as if he'd been able to read her mind, Clark closed the door and took three swift steps to her side; in under a heartbeat she was enfolded tightly in his arms, his head resting on top of hers. "Lois… ah, Lois," he murmured with a shuddering sigh.
She wrapped her arms around him, welcoming the warmth and strength of his body against hers, needing to feel him close to her; his presence and the force of his love for her was somehow a reaffirmation of life, after she'd come so close to death. She'd known that she was staring death in the face, when she'd asked Superman — no, Clark — to freeze her, and even if she hadn't known exactly what risks she was taking, he'd told her in detail. At the time, none of that had mattered; the only important thing was to ensure that Clark's parents were safe.
For Clark. Because he was hurting so much, and she'd wanted to take away his pain. Because she loved him.
His hand cupped her chin then, tilting her face up to him; the agony in his expression as he gazed down at her was almost unbearable. She reached up to caress his face tenderly. "What is it, Clark?"
She saw him swallow. "Lois… you nearly died. You came so close. And if I'd lost you… I don't know what I'd have done without you."
"But I didn't die," she told him softly. "I'm okay, Clark. I'm completely fine — no adverse consequences at all. We did the right thing."
He cupped her face between both hands. "Lois, doing what I did… freezing you — that was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. I… I had to tell you to close your eyes, because if you'd been watching me I'd have fallen apart." He broke off, lowering his head to touch his forehead to hers briefly. "Then you did look at me again, just as… as I was blowing my Super-breath at you. That made it even worse. I had to carry you, fly with you, and you were so still and — " He broke off, and Lois guessed that he hadn't been able to bring himself to say the word 'dead'. Closing his eyes briefly, he resumed speaking. "And you were staring up at me the whole time."
"Clark." Keeping her voice calm, she demanded his attention and got it. "I'm *fine*. Your parents are alive. And Mazik's going to be in prison soon. We're safe. And I love you."
"And I love you." He moved then, dipping his head and capturing her lips with his own, taking the initiative in much the same way as she had a week or so ago when she'd told him that it was time they stopped running from each other. His kiss was hungry, desperately needy, and she wrapped her arms around his neck, burying her fingers in his hair, as she parted her lips beneath his questing mouth, allowing him access.
They'd kissed many times before, many times passionately too. But this kiss was different. There was something akin to desperation in Clark's exploration of her mouth; there was little technique in evidence, not that Lois objected in any way, and his every caress felt as if he had been starved of her for too long.
She had to pull away from him after a while. "Sorry," she gasped, breathing heavily. "But I can't hold my breath as long as you can, Superman!"
His mouth curved into a smile which she recognised was involuntary. "Sorry — I should have thought."
"Hey, I'm not complaining! You have no idea what kissing you does to me," she confessed.
Clark raised an eyebrow and his expression grew wry. "I think I have a pretty good idea, if it's anything like what it does to me."
Instinctively, Lois looked downwards, but before she could get a proper look, Clark had turned away.
"Lois!" He sounded shocked, and she laughed with delight. His reaction was so innocent, in a way, which told her a lot about her Super-hero boyfriend. It seemed that the naive farmboy was far more the real Clark than the Super-powered alien from Krypton.
Suddenly, she wanted to see whether the farmboy would lose that innocent look in the throes of passion.
Since that evening when they'd finally admitted how they felt about each other, they hadn't gone further than kissing. But now, having come so close to death, Lois wanted more. The thought that she could have died without ever knowing what it was like to make love with the man she loved more than anything in the world appalled her.
She reached out to tug at his arm, and he turned back to her, his expression a mixture of embarrassment and desire.
"Clark." Her voice emerged as a husky whisper, and she tried again. "Clark, I want you."
His hands reached for hers and held them. "You have me, Lois. Always."
"No, I *want* you. I want to make love with you," she explained.
The deer-in-the-headlights expression she got in response to that was so endearing; Lois found herself wondering all the more about the extent of Clark's sexual experience. He'd never behaved as if he was inexperienced: he was certainly very quick with suggestive banter as a rule, and given his obvious attractiveness she'd simply assumed that he had to have had sexual relationships. But he *was* charmingly naive at times; he was one of the very few men she knew who had the ability to blush.
So… could he be a v-?
Lois could hardly articulate the word, even to herself. In the world in which she moved, it was rare for adult women to be sexually inexperienced; it was unheard of for men. And if any of the men at the Planet had even suspected that Clark was inexperienced, he'd never have heard the end of the teasing. Jimmy got a tough enough time as it was — only the previous week, she'd heard Ralph jokingly offering to pay for professional 'relief', since Jimmy clearly seemed unable to get laid on his own. And Jimmy had gone up several notches in her estimation when he'd told Ralph to get lost.
It made sense, in a way, that Clark might not have slept with anyone. He was, after all, Superman; and she knew that his secret was very important to him. She also knew, because his parents had told her, that he'd never told anyone else that secret — other than Jason Trask, but that had been in very different circumstances. She knew Clark well enough to know that making love would, for him, be a very special intimacy, not one which he could take lightly. So she couldn't somehow imagine him making love to a woman without being completely honest with her.
But he was speaking to her. "Lois… oh, I want it too, believe me. But we don't want to rush into anything…"
Yes, definitely nervousness, she decided. Gripping his hands more tightly, she looked directly at him and replied, "Clark, I almost died today. And I don't want to die without knowing how it could be between us…"
"I will not let that happen…" he whispered, his voice sounding raw. "I can't let you go, Lois — if you asked me to do anything like that again, I couldn't do it."
"Clark, let's make love," she urged, reaching up to kiss him again. He returned the kiss with equal hunger before breaking away to bury his face in her hair. "I don't want to wait," she insisted.
He heaved a ragged sigh. "I want to. But, Lois, I want us to talk first — and we can't do that now. We have a story to write."
She wound her fingers through his silky hair. "You're right. We do. But it can wait a while, can't it?"
His answering laugh held little humour, more a note of frustrated yearning. "Not as long as I'd need it to wait. Lois, I've waited this long — I don't want to rush our first time."
Knowing he was right, but not wanting to give in just yet, Lois countered, "But it's hardly going to be the only time. We can take all the time we need later… it's just that now I need you…"
His lips trailed across her face, from her earlobe to the corner of her mouth. "And I need you, Lois. I discovered today how lost I'd feel, how empty my life would be without you in it. I couldn't bear to lose you," he murmured huskily. "And I want us to make love, if you want it too. But… I want to talk first. And I have to call Perry and we need to write that story even before we do that."
Yielding to a shuddering sigh of her own, Lois closed her eyes and let her head fall against his shoulder. "Okay, okay, I guess you're right. The story. But later, Clark, we're going to have that talk."
Clark dragged himself out of Lois's embrace with difficulty, though part of him couldn't help feeling relieved. His physical desire for her had been very obvious over the past while, and her swift glance downwards at his groin a few minutes ago had made him very conscious that she was aware of it.
He shouldn't be embarrassed that his girlfriend knew how much he wanted to make love to her. But he couldn't help it.
And, of course, it was that very embarrassment which was part of what had prevented him from moving to advance their relationship over the past week or so — that, and the fact that Lois hadn't known he was Superman. He had never done this before. And he was well aware that Lois had.
What if he disappointed her? What if he made a fool of himself? What if…
What if he just wasn't capable of satisfying her?
But there was no point agonising over that now, he told himself firmly, deliberately forcing his body back under rigid control. They had work to do, and he had a phone call to make.
No matter how delirious Lois's kisses made him, no matter how much his body was screaming for him to drag her off to the bedroom, they had *work* to do. Now.
Ignoring the little voice which told him that he was being a coward by putting off the issue, he strode to the phone and called Perry, filling the editor in briefly on the Mazik developments and agreeing a deadline for the submission of their story.
On ending the call, he discovered that Lois had already booted up his laptop and was opening his word processing software. Laying his hand caressingly on her shoulder, he said, "Mind if I take over here? I can do this quicker on my own."
She shrugged and slid the laptop along the table; Clark sat and began to type at Super-speed, carefully writing the story in his head as he typed, making sure to include nothing which could compromise Superman in any way or give Mazik an opportunity to challenge the detail. After a minute or two, he felt Lois's gaze on him; glancing at her, he saw that she was staring in amused disbelief. Meeting her gaze, he winked.
"You… I've worked alongside you for almost two years, and you could do this all along, and you let me sit for hours typing stories sometimes!" she exclaimed.
"Oh, you mean my function should be to save you effort?" he teased.
"Now that I know what you can do, sure!" She sat back in her chair and fixed him with a determined gaze. "The hard part is doing the research and getting our proof. I can dictate a story far faster than I can type it."
"And so I should type it for you?" Clark found that he couldn't keep up his act of being offended for long, and he grinned at her. "Well, we'll see. Now that I don't have to hide my labour-saving abilities from you, I'm sure we can take advantage of some Super-speed techniques. But for now…" He pushed the laptop towards her. "See what you think of that."
She scanned the story, the quick smile she gave him at the end telling him she approved, if he hadn't already guessed that from her failure to make any changes. It took a matter of minutes to connect to the Planet's network and email the story to Perry, and then their time was their own; Clark had told the editor they wouldn't be in for the remainder of the day. Now, they could talk.
He stood and spun into the Suit, holding out his arms to Lois. "Come fly with me?"
"You're not going to fly me to the moon?" she enquired, giving him a teasing glance from under her lashes.
Clark understood the reference, and grinned. "I probably could, you know, as long as we got you an oxygen tank."
Laughing, she allowed him to scoop her up. "So where are you taking me, Superman?" His alter ego's name was said with a tender note.
"Somewhere we can talk properly, without being overheard," he explained as he walked out towards his balcony with Lois in his arms.
"But we can do that here," she protested, her lips grazing his chin in what he knew was an entirely deliberate manner.
Clark sighed heavily. "No, we can't. If we stay here, I won't be able to concentrate enough to talk, and you know that, Lois." His tone was tinged with barely-suppressed longing, and he felt sorely tempted to put off their talk until later, and just to lay her down on his bed instead of walking straight past it to the door leading out to the terrace. But they needed to have that talk. Later… maybe later, they could take advantage of his bed, since Lois seemed to want it as much as he did.
Flying with Superman had always been exciting, whether it was a short flight out of necessity to take her somewhere she needed to be, or whether he'd invited her to take a pleasure flight with him. But no previous flight, no matter how closely or how protectively the Super-hero had held her in his arms, compared to this.
Superman, her friend, the hero who — despite his obvious feelings for her — had always kept himself at a distance — was in reality her best friend and boyfriend, Clark. No wonder she'd always thought Superman looked at her as if he wanted so much more than he'd asked for. No wonder he'd always looked torn whenever she'd asked him for more than he'd been prepared to give. And no wonder she'd felt as if she was in love with two men at the same time.
She should, she supposed, be angry with Clark for his lengthy deception. And it had been tempting, when she'd recovered fully after Clark had left, to plan an angry confrontation. But there seemed to be too many reasons not to fight with him over it. After all, they'd both just been through a horrible experience. She'd almost died. And, since she'd been fortunate enough to come through it safely, it was almost as if they'd been given a second chance.
So why waste that chance by holding grudges?
After all, as she'd told Clark, she knew he'd intended to tell her. Sure, he should have told her sooner — like when they'd started dating, for instance. But, in a way, she could understand why he hadn't. She knew her partner pretty well after all this time. And Clark was a pretty insecure guy when it came to his personal life, and she could easily imagine that he'd wanted to know that she wanted him for himself, not for his Super-powers.
There were specific things she did resent, if she allowed herself to dwell on them; times when Clark had used Superman to say things he wouldn't tell her as Clark, for example, times when he'd let her confide in him as Clark about Superman, and so on. And one or two other things besides… But none of that mattered next to the joy and relief of being alive, and being with the man she loved.
That, of course, was very unlike the Lois Lane she knew, and she suspected that Clark was expecting her to get mad; this was probably why he'd insisted on this 'talk'. But she was determined to show him that the only thing which mattered to her now was their love for each other. She had no intention of spoiling that by fighting with him. She could do nice. Sure, she could. And she could do forgiving, too.
Because she loved Clark.
She'd willingly, though not without a great deal of soul-searching and considerable pain, given up Superman for Clark only a week since. At the time, she'd thought that Superman had looked strangely hurt; he'd begun to protest, had started to say, "But I need — " before cutting himself off. She'd felt torn, at the time: having waited so long for Superman to declare himself, had he just decided to do so at the point at which she'd finally decided to relinquish him? Yet now she understood. Clark had thought she was going to Dan, she'd realised once she'd got to his apartment and found him packing. Clearly Clark, as Superman, had thought the same thing.
How many times had she hurt Clark by her careless rejection of him in favour of his alter ego, her failure to see through his disguise to the man beneath?
But they had come a long way from the days when Lois had tended to dismiss Clark casually while swooning over Superman, and she was glad she'd grown out of that. And, while she wished Clark had told her the truth about himself sooner, she was glad that the day's events had happened while she still thought Clark and Superman were two different men. While she deeply regretted that Clark had been caused pain by the danger to her life — and, of course, she wished that he and his parents hadn't had to suffer, Clark now had to know how much she loved him; for himself, not because he was Superman.
And she loved Clark more than ever now. His actions that day had shown her how deep his feelings for her ran, as if she'd been in any doubt. His panicked fear in the conference room, when he'd told her to get away, out of Mazik and St John's reach, his appalled reaction in her apartment when she'd asked him to freeze her as a way out of the situation, the emotion in his face when she'd asked 'Superman' to tell Clark that she loved him, the desperate love blazing in his eyes when he'd touched her, and the deep need in his voice when she'd heard him, through the mists, plead with her to come back to him. And she loved him, equally desperately. She wanted him, too; that plea for him to make love with her might have been spur-of-the-moment, the result of her thoughts about how close they'd come to losing each other, but she yearned to make love with him.
Lovemaking with Clark was something she'd found herself thinking about off and on over the past six months; often unexpectedly, occasionally unwelcome, the images had set her heart racing and left her breathless as she imagined how her best friend would be in bed. Would he be tender and reverent as he touched and caressed her? Would he let his lively sense of humour take over and tease and laugh his way to ecstasy with her? Or would the fire she'd glimpsed once or twice in his expression come to the fore to make him devour her with blazing, consuming passion?
It had never occurred to her before now that he might be inexperienced. And that possibility made her feel strangely privileged: after all, Clark was an incredible, wonderful man — even without the knowledge that he was also Superman, she'd come to see just how special he was. But now, knowing that he was also the Super-hero to whom many people in Metropolis and beyond owed their lives — and over whom so many women sighed and dreamed — the possibility that she could be his first lover gave Lois an immense sense of awe.
But right now, he wanted to talk. That was a little frustrating: Lois couldn't imagine what could be more important than spending time together getting to know each other more intimately; even if he didn't want to make love straight away, it would be wonderful just to explore and touch each other. She could spend hours just touching him, running her fingers over his body, getting to know the smooth planes of his skin, the muscularity of his torso and arms, the whipcord strength of every limb, and his staggering male beauty. She was well aware that he was equally fascinated with her body.
But, she reminded herself, dragging her gaze away from the point where the edge of his Suit met bare flesh at his neck, he wanted to *talk*. So they would talk.
He was landing, she realised; looking around, she discovered that they were somewhere lush and green, in a wide open space with rolling hills in the background and deep blue water nearby. A lake, and open countryside, with a narrow road winding its way through the wilderness somewhere in the distance.
"Where are we?"
He grinned, showing a flash of white, straight teeth. "In one of the loneliest parts of the Lake District, in England. It's beautiful here, and I thought you'd like to see it." Setting her on the ground, he stepped back and spun; in under a second, he stood in front of her wearing the casual clothes he'd worn back at his apartment. Extending a hand to her, he invited, "Let's walk."
It was beautiful, Lois thought, and walking with Clark along the well-trodden path leading to the lake was very romantic. He'd been right to bring her here, she thought, edging closer to him; he reciprocated by dropping her hand and looping his arm around her shoulders instead. She wrapped her arm around his waist, loving the feel of his body so close to hers.
"So what do you want to talk about?" she asked, after a while.
His arm tightened around her fractionally. "Me being Superman." He paused, then continued, "I know it had to be a shock for you. And I guess you probably have dozens of questions — and, now that the initial surprise has worn off, you probably want to yell at me and call me all sorts of names. So I figured we might as well come here and talk it all out."
"Well…" she began, deliberately drawing it out, pleased that she'd guessed right about his motives for bringing her here. "You *were* a rat some of the time, you know! Especially when Superman kept telling me what a great guy Clark was!"
She was looking at him as she spoke, and his blush in response was entirely endearing and totally unexpected. "What can I say, Lois?" he asked helplessly after a moment or two. "I was so completely in love with you — I was getting desperate, hoping that you might notice me as more than a friend…" He shrugged. "So I took advantage of Superman a little. You want to hold that against me?" he enquired lightly, but she could hear the note of anxiety underneath.
"I'd rather hold you against me," she quipped, pressing closer still to him; she heard his chuckle as he bent to drop a kiss on the top of her head.
"I know I should be mad at you. I should be yelling at you and calling you a liar and threatening never to speak to you again," she told him ruefully. "But… well, I was thinking about that, and about what happened today. And, you know, maybe it's something to do with almost dying, but all of that just seems less important compared to us being together."
She shrugged lightly, her gesture an acknowledgement that this wasn't usual behaviour for Lois Lane. "I guess you had your reasons for not telling me, though I can tell you that I expect you to grovel for that, and for all your pathetic excuses, and for letting me think you were running away from me!"
"You want me to grovel, I'll grovel," he told her. "You just name the time and the place."
"Oh, you bet I will," she teased him. "And I'll make you take me flying every day until I think you've earned my full forgiveness! But you're right, I do have questions," she added then, more soberly. "I mean, I'm having to reassess everything I thought I knew about Superman. I thought he — you — well, whoever, came to Earth more or less around the same time as the Prometheus transport, but I *know* you grew up in Smallville. Martha even showed me your baby pictures!"
"I remember," Clark muttered with a strangled groan. "Okay, let me tell you the whole story…"
Lois listened in fascination as Clark related the tale of his discovery by Jonathan and Martha, his upbringing, and the gradual development of his powers, culminating in the day he'd discovered he could fly. He skimmed briefly over the time he'd spent travelling the world, since she'd heard about most of that before; now, however, she saw his journeying in a different light. Clearly he'd made use of his ability to fly as a means of moving around — and, finally, she understood why he'd been able to settle in Metropolis, viewing the city as his home after only a very short while there. In Metropolis, he'd created Superman; he no longer had to worry about being discovered in the act while using his powers surreptitiously. For the first time, he had a means of doing what he could to help in a way which didn't put himself or his family in danger.
She said as much to him, and was then taken aback by his quick grin and head-shake in rejection of her supposition. "No, it wasn't Superman which kept me in Metropolis, Lois," he added. "By the time I invented Superman, I already knew I wanted to stay."
"What, then?" she asked. "The Planet?"
That earned her another amused smile, and he gave her a quick hug with the arm slung around her shoulders. "Come on, Lois, you have to know. It was *you* — the day I met you, I knew the time had come to stop travelling. Okay, I already hoped that Metropolis might be the place I was looking for, and I wanted to work at the Planet more than anything — but then you came rushing into Perry's office and suddenly I didn't know whether I was on the Earth or the moon. All I could do was stare at you. And when I wrote that piece about the theatre, I didn't know who I was trying to impress more: Perry or you."
"And I deliberately stood there pretending not to be impressed, while inside I was seething, madly jealous that some guy could walk in off the street and string words together in such a wonderfully evocative way, far better than anything I could have done," Lois confessed wryly.
"I *knew* you liked it really!" Clark crowed, and she thumped him with her free hand.
"I hated it," she retorted.
"Because it was good," he returned — correctly, of course, though she wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of admitting it.
"You know, Clark, you've frequently accused me of needing to be good at everything," she reminded him. "But here, you want to be a better reporter than me, and at the same time you're Superman, which already means that you're stronger, faster, more powerful and better at *everything* than anyone else! You might give us poor ordinary mortals a chance at something!"
She'd only been teasing, but Lois was unprepared for Clark's reaction. He dropped his arm from around her and stopped in his tracks. "Do I do that?" he demanded, aghast. "Do you really think I'm that much of a perfectionist?"
"Clark, I was kidding!" she exclaimed. "But… well, I guess, now that you mention it, you do tend to set kind of high standards for yourself. Not that it's a bad thing, but now I know you're Superman I guess maybe a part of me is wondering how I can compete with that — with *you*. I'm never going to be good enough," she finished, a little sadly.
Clark shook his head, bewildered. "But I don't want to compete with you, Lois! We're partners — at least, if reporting's what you're talking about. You're still way ahead of me in awards, but I don't want to win any more awards unless I win them with you. And in everything else… Lois, don't you know how I feel about you? I want us to be together, a partnership, not in competition with each other. I love you. I thought you knew that." He ran his hand through his hair, mute appeal in his brown eyes.
"I know you love me, Clark. And I love you too. But — well, I was kind of used to thinking of my boyfriend as an ordinary guy. A pretty terrific ordinary guy, true, but not a Super-hero. And now… well, you are a Super-hero."
"Is that a problem?" The question was hesitant, his expression worried. "Lois, I can't help being who I am. I *am* different — an alien. But I'm still the guy who became your best friend. And you're still the only person who ever treated Superman like a person, a friend, instead of some miraculous saviour who just appeared when he was needed and then disappeared again afterwards."
Clark was right: she had, once she'd got over her initial hero-worship, treated Superman as a friend of hers. Okay, she'd still tended to swoon over him a little, put him on a pedestal, but at the same time she'd responded to him as a man, not as a flying alien.
Alien… Clark had used that word to describe himself.
Was that how he thought of himself?
Or… maybe it was how others forced him to think of himself. After all, as he'd just told her, he hadn't even known of his true origins until less than two years ago. It hadn't been until he'd found his globe at that Bureau 39 warehouse that he'd known he was from another planet.
Lois reached out to take both his hands in hers, shaking them slightly to make him look at her. "Clark, I don't care where you're from! You — or Superman — being from another planet never bothered me one bit! Like you said, I saw Superman as a man, first and foremost — right from the moment I first saw him. And that hasn't changed now that I know you're him. I suppose… well, it's just that I wonder whether I could ever be enough for you, that's all," she finished awkwardly.
He shook his head in denial of her words. "Lois, you are all I could ever want, and more. You're all I've wanted since the day we met. And I love you more than I could ever put into words." He paused, and squeezed her hands encouragingly. "I just needed to know that you were okay with me being Superman as well as Clark, before I asked you — "
He halted abruptly, and Lois looked at him quizzically. "Ask me what?"
"This." He released her hands suddenly, and dropped to one knee in front of her. "I don't have a ring, Lois, because I thought you'd probably prefer to pick out your own — that is, if you say…" He trailed off, shook his head, muttered, "I'm making such a mess of this! And I rehearsed it often enough! Lois — " He gazed up at her, his tone deepening. "Will you marry me?"
Lois caught her breath; the proposal, at this moment, was so unexpected. She'd actually expected something of the kind the previous morning, when Clark had asked her to have breakfast with him because he had 'something important' to discuss with her. Now, though, she knew that he'd actually intended to tell her then about his dual identity.
Marrying Clark was a very appealing prospect; she'd already decided that if Clark did propose, she'd accept. Marrying Superman was another matter entirely. Could she cope with being married to a man who was effectively at the beck and call of the entire world? She was very well aware of her mother's increasing irritation and anger with the way her father's dedication to his job had kept him away from his family — although, she reminded herself, his *job* hadn't been the only thing keeping him away. But Clark, as Superman, would never be able to commit to being present for special occasions. She would be sharing her husband with the whole world.
On the other hand, she loved Clark more than she'd ever believed she could love anyone. And in him, she knew that she had a man who would never lie to her, never betray her.
So what if she had to put up with him constantly running off on her? At least now she knew where he'd be going.
And who else other than Clark would put up with *her* dedication to her job?
But what it ultimately came down to was the fact that she loved Clark. And he loved her. And she wanted to be with him, so very much.
She smiled down at him, reaching down to wrap her arms around his neck, hugging him.
"Yes, Clark, I'll marry you."
Later, Clark flew back to Metropolis with Lois held close against his chest. This had been a day full of emotion, in one way or another, and he was well aware that it was one he wouldn't recover from any time soon. He'd begun the day knowing that his parents' lives were in danger; he'd been distraught and desperate. Then there had been that threat against Lois's life, and the battle with his conscience and his love for her until he'd agreed to freeze her; and then, once he'd defeated the power which Kryptonite had over him and got himself and his parents out of their prison, there had been the agonising moments when he'd believed that his actions had killed Lois.
And now, she'd just made him the happiest man alive by agreeing to become his wife.
They'd both agreed that they wanted the wedding to be as soon as possible. Neither saw any point in waiting: Lois insisted that, while a huge white wedding would certainly please her mother, it would drive *her* crazy. Clark, now that his relationship with Lois had got to this point, just wanted to be married and living together all the time. So he'd suggested a wedding in Smallville, in about a month, and, to his delight, Lois had agreed to that.
They would be married in about a month's time.
Clark felt as if he wanted to soar up into the clouds and perform somersaults, to shoot upwards as fast as he could, to the edge of the Earth's atmosphere, and then plummet down again as if he was on a Super-powered rollercoaster. But, with this precious cargo in his arms, he wouldn't do anything like that. Instead, he would take her home — to her apartment, if she preferred; she was probably tired — and make plans to take her shopping for a ring the following day. They could fly to London or Paris or Hong Kong or wherever she wanted.
"My place or yours?" he enquired, bending his head towards his passenger. "I mean, do you just want to go home now?"
"Home?" Lois sounded incredulous. "Clark, we've just got engaged, and you're planning to just drop me off at my doorstep? Or I guess you'd leave me at my windowsill, but you know what I mean."
"Lois, I want whatever you want," he assured her quickly.
"Your place, then. We have some unfinished business," she informed him.
"My place. Sure. If that's what you want." Clark concentrated on the journey ahead, wondering what on earth Lois meant by 'unfinished business'. Knowing his partner and girl — no, *fiancee*, it could be anything from wanting to chew him out over some misdemeanour to telling him that he hadn't kissed her thoroughly enough for her liking. Either was very possible.
But he hoped it was the latter…
Minutes later, he landed softly on his balcony and, lowering Lois to her feet, led her through the door into his bedroom and on towards the arch leading to the kitchen. But she stopped, forcing him to stop as well.
"Lois? Is there something you want?" he asked, puzzled.
"You." She advanced on him, wrapping her arms around his neck and raising her mouth to be kissed. Clark wasn't averse to this form of activity at all, and covered her lips with his, indulging himself in the manner of which, up until a couple of months ago, he had only dreamed.
It took several moments for him to realise that the murmur of pleasure was actually coming from Lois, not himself. Raising his head and gazing down at her dreamy expression, he teased, "You like that?"
"Too much to let you get away with stopping," she muttered, tugging him down to her again.
But Clark resisted, tilting his head to one side as he studied her beautiful face. "Why don't we go into the next room and get comfortable on the couch while we do this?"
"Uh-huh," she said with a firm shake of her head. "We are not leaving this room, Clark. We're right where I want us to be."
Suddenly her plans for him — the unfinished business she'd referred to — was all completely clear.
She wanted them to make love.
And he was still nervous at the prospect — but he wanted her, too, so badly.
"Clark, you didn't want us to do this earlier because you said we had to write the story and then you wanted us to talk," she reminded him. "Well, the story's written. And we've talked. And we're engaged. You're not going to say you want to wait until we're married, are you?"
*Had* he wanted to wait until he was married? Clark had never thought about the prospect of having sex in that light, although he had always known that he wanted to be in a serious relationship with a woman he loved, and with whom he could be entirely honest about himself, before entering into this deepest intimacy of all. But he *was* in a serious relationship. He *was* with a woman he loved, very deeply indeed. And he'd just told her everything about himself. She knew he was Superman, knew he was an alien from Krypton, and loved him regardless.
So what was stopping him?
Nothing, except nervousness.
He smiled awkwardly at his fiancee. "No, not that. I want to make love with you, Lois. I want to show you with every breath of my body, every touch of my hands, how much I love you. But… there's something you need to know about me, first."
"Something else?" she queried, still keeping her arms tightly locked around his neck. "You mean you being Superman isn't your most deeply-held secret after all?"
Her teasing helped to relax him a little. He smiled slightly, self-deprecatingly, at her. "Well, I guess it's not as important as that, no. But… Lois, the reason I'm a little scared about the prospect of making love with you is that… I've never done it before." The final words came out in a rush, and he eyed her cautiously.
"I… wondered," she replied softly. "You know, I wish I'd waited. My… other relationships are things I kind of prefer to forget ever happened."
Although she didn't spell it out, Clark could tell that Lois found it painful to remember her previous lovers. He knew about one: the infamous Claude, whom he'd frequently wished was still around so that he could teach the guy a lesson in good behaviour that he'd never forget. And although Lois had never gone into details, he had a pretty good suspicion that her first lover was someone she'd met in college, and that the relationship hadn't lasted long before going horribly wrong.
Federal disasters. That was how she had once described all the relationships she'd ever had — that, he knew, included her engagement and near-marriage to Lex Luthor.
This was going to be interesting, he thought wryly; there was himself, the virgin, and Lois, the survivor of a series of disastrous relationships.
On the other hand, there they were, two people deeply in love for the first time in their lives. What else mattered besides that?
"Lois… look at it this way," he murmured, lowering his head to nuzzle at her throat. "I'll be your first non-federal disaster."
She gave an emotional laugh, clutching him to her. "Oh, Clark! You really do say the sweetest things sometimes — it's no wonder I love you so much."
He allowed his lips to trail across her jaw and then to her mouth, kissing her deeply, enfolding her body in his arms and cradling her against him, feeling a deep longing for her building up inside him. He wanted to make love with her; he was also *in* love with her, and, for him, the two things were completely inseparable.
On the point of scooping her up into his arms to carry her to his bed, he paused as he felt her fingers tugging at the neckline of his Suit. "Lois? What are you doing?"
"Told you I'd find out how this Suit comes off one of these days," she retorted with a grin.
Clark laughed, and proceeded to show her how.
"This was the most perfect wedding day I could have asked for," Lois declared as Clark lowered her onto the king-sized bed in their honeymoon chalet in the Caribbean.
"It was?" Clark countered, adding with a growl, "It's not over yet, wife!"
Lois giggled. "I should hope not!"
She lay watching her new husband as he divested himself of the smart shirt he'd worn as part of his 'going-away' outfit. Although she'd practically moved into Clark's apartment in the month since his proposal and their first lovemaking, she still couldn't get enough of simply staring at him. She loved his body, every inch of it, whether she was just studying it or exploring it with her hands and her mouth.
He was so strong, quite literally the strongest man in the world. And yet he could be so gentle, in his caresses and in the way he held her. He seemed capable of lying beside her for hours just stroking the tip of one finger up and down her body, gazing at her as he did so; and that action, of course, had the power to drive her completely crazy.
He had the most intense concentration of anyone she'd ever met. On the first time they'd made love, she'd felt bathed in warmth, embraced in the soft glow of his love for her as they'd undressed each other. Without the barrier of his glasses, his eyes had appeared darker and more eloquent than ever; she'd felt dazed by the passion in his gaze as he'd watched her. He'd spoken occasionally, his voice a soft husky murmur as he'd admired her or told her how much what they were doing was affecting him and how much he loved her.
And she'd sensed, without him telling her so, how much of what they were doing together was a complete gift of trust from him to her.
Clark had never made love before, mainly because he was always conscious of his differences. Not that he was different in a physical sense; he looked and felt completely human. But he was alien, regardless, and he possessed powers the like of which no human had ever seen before. And that meant that he had to be careful about being intimate, with his secrets as well as his body. And he had trusted her enough to let her in on his secret as well as make her one with him.
And she had also lowered her barriers entirely with him, in a way she had never before done with any man. Making love with Clark for the first time had been an incredibly special experience, mainly because, for the first time, she gave over control of her body, of herself, to another person. In the past, those couple of experiences she tried so hard to forget, she'd always held something back; perhaps, she now suspected, because the men involved were not worthy of her trust.
Surely, she thought, they were destined to be together. And yet it was remarkable that they had met at all; after all, he was from another planet. He might never have come to Earth in the first place. And once he had, he'd been brought up in Smallville, Kansas: what if he'd never come to Metropolis?
But he had, and had come into her orbit both as Clark and as Superman. How more fortunate could she have been?
Could *they* have been, she amended, reminding herself of what Clark had never ceased to assure her since that night: he also considered himself incredibly lucky to have found her.
And now, they were married. It had been a hectic month; despite both of them making it very clear that they wanted a small, *quiet* wedding, neither had been able to control the double-act of Ellen Lane and Martha Kent as they had planned their respective offspring's nuptials. The church, the flowers, Lois's dress, Clark's suit, the bridesmaid's and best man's outfit, the menu for the reception; every little detail had been discussed in more depth than Lois had ever imagined could happen. Just *how* could it possibly take two days to decide on the precise shade of cream for the name-cards on the tables?
But none of that had mattered in the end. Their wedding had been everything either of them had dreamed of; the moment when the officiating minister had pronounced them husband and wife had been incredibly moving for both of them. Lois had been looking directly at Clark at the time, and had seen the tiny muscle in his jaw twitching, a sure sign that he was overcome with emotion. And when they'd moved closer in order to kiss, she'd seen moisture sparkling in the corner of his eyes, behind his glasses. Although, after they'd kissed, Clark had raised his left hand — the one now bearing her ring — and brushed a stray tear from her cheek, so they were even.
And, at the end of a wonderful day, Clark had flown them to the Caribbean location they'd chosen to spend the next week. Alone. Together. And, by mutual agreement, without the third partner in their relationship: Superman was having a week off.
Lois reached up to tug her new husband down onto the bed beside her, determined not to waste one minute of this precious time.
"Hey, CK! How was the Caribbean?" Jimmy yelled across the newsroom as Clark exited the elevator on their first morning back at work.
Clark grinned. "Just perfect, Jimmy."
His young friend came hurrying over, glancing around as if looking for someone; then he added conspiratorially, "And Lois? Not got you all tied to her apron-strings yet, then, I take it?"
Clark laughed disbelievingly. "Jimmy, Lois doesn't even *have* an apron. But just let me warn you, pal," he added, looping his arm around Jimmy's neck and steering the younger man back across the newsroom, "Lois wouldn't react too well if she heard you saying anything like that."
"Why d'you think I checked to make sure she wasn't anywhere around first?" Jimmy grinned and leaned against Clark's desk. "So, come on, CK — how was it? Man to man!"
"Man to man?" Clark raised an eyebrow in amusement. "All I can say, Jimmy, is that I entirely recommend marriage."
His friend looked disappointed. "Come on, CK! Lois isn't anywhere around, so you can talk freely. Tell me all about it. You know what they say about the cool ones who give off that don't-touch-me air, don't you?!"
*That* was not a subject Clark was prepared to discuss, with Jimmy or with anyone else except Lois. Although he conceded silently that, of course, Jimmy was right. Lois in bed was an amazingly exciting lover, active, frequently willing to experiment, and passionately sensual. Their love life over the past five weeks had been far in excess of anything he'd imagined in his wildest dreams.
Smiling at Jimmy, he shrugged and replied, "Jimmy, when you fall in love, you'll understand why that's not something I want to talk about. All I am willing to tell you is that I'm happier than I've ever been in my life."
A movement caught his attention then: Lois emerging from the elevator. She'd wanted to stop off at the bank on the way in, and had insisted that he didn't need to wait for her. He'd *wanted* to wait for her; for the past nine days they hadn't been apart for longer than about five minutes at a time, and this twenty-minute separation could have been avoided. Still, she was here now.
He turned to smile at her, Jimmy completely forgotten.
Later that afternoon, as they sat together at Lois's desk writing up an interview from the morning, Clark's attention was caught by the TV screens, which were showing some very weird scenes indeed.
It was very strange. People were walking around one of Metropolis's largest shopping malls… on *stilts*! The stilts were attached to people's shoes, and so weren't all that simple to get rid of, short of removing footwear. Many older people couldn't cope with their stilts and were falling over, while kids were running up and down with the greatest of ease. Mothers with small children were giving up entirely and just sitting down on the ground, unable to go any further. Discarded footwear, stilts still attached, littered the floor.
It seemed that the presence of TV news cameras was entirely coincidental: the team had been there to film a small news item about the opening of a new store. And they'd been right on the scene to catch and broadcast this.
"I have to go," Clark muttered to Lois. "Even if I can't do anything, I could find out what's causing it."
"Yeah, well, if there's a story in it…" she replied with a grin. "See you later, honey." Before he could run off, she'd grabbed his tie, pulling him towards her for a swift and hard kiss.
At the mall, no-one seemed to know what was going on. The security guards were running around in their socks, sliding on the highly-polished floor and desperately trying to avoid tumbling adults and kids who were running amok. Clark had to steady a couple of middle-aged shoppers before he was able to find someone in a position of authority.
"No-one knows what's going on, Superman!" the mall manager exclaimed, clearly frustrated. "This just happened — one second everyone was doing their shopping as normal, and then the next, everyone's on these things! If it didn't sound so off-the-wall, I'd say it was some kind of magic!"
The word resonated with Clark for some reason, yet he couldn't figure out why. Something was telling him that he'd encountered some form of magic recently, and yet he really had no idea where, or why he seemed to be having this very hazy flash of memory.
There was no such thing as magic, of course there wasn't. All it involved was trickery and sleight of hand. *He* knew that — even the best illusionists in the world couldn't fool his Super senses. If this was some large-scale illusion, then all these people had to be in on it. No magician could pull this kind of stunt without collusion.
<But what if it's real?> a little voice whispered to him.
It can't be real! he insisted.
<But *look* at it! Look at what's happened! *This* is no illusion>
He turned back to the manager. "I really have no idea what's happened here, or how to stop it. But if there's anything I can do to help anyone in trouble…?"
"Well, yeah, if you don't mind, Superman," the manager answered, his tone sounding even more harassed. "There's a lady in my office with what the mall first-aider thinks could be a broken ankle. But because of the crowds and the TV cameras, the ambulance we called is stuck in traffic a mile away. Could you take her…?"
"Sure. Show me where," Clark quickly agreed, and busied himself ferrying the woman — whose ankle was indeed broken — to the waiting ambulance. On his way back to the mall, however, he was suddenly confronted by an apparition, floating in front of him in the air.
The apparition wore a brightly-coloured outfit in several clashing primary colours, large wide boots, and sported a dark goatee beard. And although Clark couldn't remember ever encountering him before, the man looked… strangely familiar.
"Who are you?" he demanded, ignoring all the obvious questions, such as 'what are you doing up *here*?' 'How come you can fly?'
"Clarkie, you wound me!" the strange apparition complained. "You don't *remember* me? And after all I did for you!"
"Don't call me — " Before he could finish his instruction, Clark stopped abruptly as he remembered where and in what circumstances he had previously ordered this man not to call him Clarkie.
Everything came flooding back to him. It hadn't been a bad dream at all. Nor had the images which had haunted his nightmares occasionally over the past few weeks been completely imaginary.
Lois *had* died when he'd frozen her.
He had brought her dead body back to his apartment. Had laid it on his bed while he'd tried to become accustomed to the appalling knowledge that the love of his life was gone, and that *he* had killed her. He'd been ready to take her to the hospital and turn himself in to the police when…
When this man — Mxyzptlk — had appeared, and had offered him a bargain.
Lois's life in return for a guarantee of non-interference from Superman.
Magic. Mxyzptlk could work magic — *real* magic.
He had brought Lois back to life — no, he had sent time into reverse, somehow, and on the second time around Lois had woken up. She'd been fine. Safe and well — *that* time.
"The stilts!" Clark exclaimed then. "That was you!"
Mxyzptlk bowed. "It was indeed. And wasn't it hilarious? I thought those old people falling over was the killer, really. I haven't had so much fun in centuries!"
Aghast, Clark stared at him. "You did that for a *joke*? Don't you realise that people got hurt? I've just had to fly an old woman to an ambulance because she'd broken her ankle!"
"Aw, lighten up, Supes!" Mxyzptlk retorted. "Have some fun for a change! Or, if you insist on being a boring old stuffed shirt, leave me alone to enjoy myself. That *was* the deal, might I remind you?"
The deal. Without which Lois would be dead. Yes, Clark remembered that all right.
"Look, you promised me that it would just be fun. You never said that people would get hurt!"
"Hurt? No-one would have been hurt if they'd used the stilts properly," Mxyzptlk scoffed.
Clark sighed. "It's not that simple where people are concerned. People got *hurt* today!"
"It was no biggie!" Mxyzptlk announced.
Clark begged to differ. Then, as something else occurred to him, he demanded, "Anyway, why now? That was over a month ago! Why come back *now*?"
Mxyzptlk shrugged. "I was biding my time — that's part of the fun," he said loftily, then… vanished.
Clark, staring at the empty space, was left reeling.
Lois had died. And this… *imp* had brought her back to life. And he'd agreed, in return, to this *crazy* deal.
Just *what* had he committed himself to doing?
And *what*, if anything, was he going to say to Lois?
Later, as Clark flew back to the Daily Planet newsroom, he decided that the one thing he was *not* going to tell Lois was the truth.
After Mxyzptlk had disappeared, Clark had hurried back to the shopping mall, determined to ensure that, even if he couldn't stop the appalling imp's nasty trick, no-one else should get hurt as a result. But just as he'd arrived and was striding through the mall, there was a blinding flash of bright light. It just lasted a second, but when it had gone, everyone was back to normal. The stilts had disappeared, and instead hundreds of bewildered people were staring at each other, trying to work out whether what they thought had happened actually *had* happened.
Clark could imagine how they felt. For them, it must have seemed like something out of a kid's fantasy cartoon. *Flash!* you're all on stilts. *Flash!* you're back to normal. They would all, he knew, be looking at each other, not knowing whether to hope that no-one else had been through the experience — in which case they could tell themselves that they'd imagined it — or whether to hope that everyone remembered it, in which case they *weren't* going mad!
Clark, however, didn't have that luxury. He knew it had happened. And he also knew that it was all his fault.
If he had never accepted that… that *devil's* bargain, then that imp from the fifth dimension, or wherever it was he'd claimed to be from, wouldn't be in a position to wreak havoc on the city, and none of this would have happened.
But Lois would be dead…
But what gave him the right to put Lois's life — and, by extension, his happiness — above the safety of his fellow citizens? No, not even that: his own self-interest. That was what he had chosen. Sure, his own self-interest happened to coincide with Lois being alive, but his principal motivation at the time had been *himself*.
His selfishness had given this dangerous lunatic licence to do whatever he wanted.
Lois looked up as her husband emerged from the stairwell. She'd seen the remainder of the LNN coverage of the incident at the mall, and was still completely mystified by what had gone on. The newscaster had commented that neither the police nor the mall management had a clue about what had happened, or how it had happened. It was like something out of a Disney movie, she thought. But things like that just didn't happen in real life!
Still, perhaps Clark knew what was going on.
She waited until he was beside her before asking softly, "So, what was that all about?"
"Huh?" For a moment, Lois could have sworn that Clark looked… panicked. But she couldn't understand why that would be the case. "All what, honey?" he asked, bending to kiss her.
But she pulled away after a couple of moments. "All that stuff at the mall, Clark! You're distracting me here, and we need to concentrate on the story."
"Story?" Now her husband was definitely looking shifty. "There is no story, Lois. It was just…" He paused, and now he was avoiding her eyes. "Just someone playing a prank, that's all," he finished dismissively.
"A *prank*?" Lois exclaimed. "Clark, people were stumbling around on stilts! How could anyone have done that as a prank? — how could anyone have managed it? I know Kyle Griffin managed to pull off some crazy stunts, but this one's even beyond him," she exclaimed, then paused. *Was* it? Wasn't this just the kind of thing Griffin might have done, if he could find a way? It would make the perfect distraction…
"Clark," she said then, all businesslike, "did anything else happen while you were at the mall?"
This time he definitely looked panicked. He swallowed a couple of times, then stared at a point above her head. "Anything else? Like what, Lois?"
Frowning as she wondered what on earth was wrong — and just what her husband was trying to hide from her — Lois explained. "I don't know — a jewellery store theft, bank robbery, something like that."
Lois stared at her husband for a long moment. She knew he was hiding something, but she had no idea what it might be; and the middle of the newsroom was not the place to try to make him tell her. She could get him to come into the conference room with her, but she was pretty sure that if she suggested it, he'd refuse.
No; this was one she'd just have to figure out on her own. But she'd make sure that Clark understood, later, that she didn't appreciate him keeping secrets from her. Not any more.
He'd got away with it; at least, he hoped he had. Lois suspected something, that was obvious, but she hadn't pushed it, seeming to accept his answers at face value. He wasn't sure whether she'd recognised just how evasive he was being. Lois Lane hadn't gained the reputation of being Metropolis's best investigative reporter by being slow on the uptake; her incredible leaps of intuition still astounded him, and more often than not her hunches were correct.
But at the same time, she'd worked beside Superman for two years without realising just who her partner was. She'd also become the best friend — and even girlfriend — of the Super-hero without figuring it out. So Lois Lane wasn't infallible. And, if he was lucky, he could prevent her finding out about this.
There was just no way on Earth that he wanted Lois to find out what he'd done.
He had absolutely no idea what her opinion would be on the subject. It was just possible that she might approve: after all, if he hadn't taken Mxyzptlk's bargain, she'd be dead. On the other hand, Lois did rate Superman's ethics very highly indeed. He still remembered that injured, disillusioned look she'd given him the day she'd discovered that Superman had, by implication, lied to her. He was well aware that he'd tumbled from his pedestal that day, so far as Lois was concerned.
In some ways, that had pleased him; after all, no matter how hard anyone tried — even Superman — no-one was perfect. Superman did tend to have a somewhat higher standard of ethics than most people, which had been a conscious decision on Clark's part. But in this case, Superman's ethics were compromised.
It was no good telling himself that he'd done the deal as Clark. His obligation was clear: as Superman *or* as Clark, he could not interfere in anything Mxyzptlk wanted to do.
And that was something Lois would definitely *not* approve of. Even though she now knew that Superman was very much an ordinary guy, she still set high standards for the Super-hero. She wouldn't endorse what he'd done, Clark suspected.
He didn't want Lois to find out about this; no way.
But, at the same time as he felt relief that she had let the subject drop, at least for now, he felt guilty. He loved Lois. Lois was his *wife*. She was the one person in the world he should be totally open with.
And yet she was the last person in the world he could confide in about what was going on.
She would hate to find out that he was keeping things from her, and especially something this serious.
Clark was used to feeling guilty about not telling the truth to people he cared about. But this felt different — it *was* different. And yet there was nothing he could do about it; he would simply have to cope with his feelings. After all, he reminded himself once again, if he hadn't made that deal, Lois would be dead.
He sighed heavily and loaded the document containing his current article. If he was lucky, Mxyzptlk wouldn't do anything so very terrible, and he'd soon get bored and go back to wherever it was he came from.
*If* he was lucky.
But Clark had a sinking feeling that he wasn't going to be lucky.
Lois's own investigations hadn't given her any answers. Kyle Griffin was still in a maximum-security prison, and his father was in a medium-security prison far upstate. And the telephone calls she'd made to the mall and to the local police precinct had elicited the response that no-one who'd actually been there had any clue whatsoever what might have caused what had happened.
And Clark's behaviour had continued to be strange. He'd refused to write up the story with her, first telling her that he was too busy finishing up the bank robbery story Perry had assigned him earlier that day, and then, when she'd pointed out quietly that he could finish that story in five minutes flat with a little Super-speed typing, as long as she stood in front of him and blocked people's view, he'd said abruptly that he didn't think there was anything worth writing about in the mall incident anyway.
Yes, Clark was definitely hiding something. But she'd decided that it would be better to wait until they were home that evening; then they could discuss it in private, amicably, like a newly-married couple in love ought to share their secrets. This just wasn't like Clark. Okay, he'd hid the fact that he was Superman from her for two years, but that was different; that was a secret he'd had to keep, and even though she was hurt that he hadn't confided in her sooner, she'd been able to understand his reasons, and had forgiven him for it. Just as he'd forgiven her for the many times she'd been abrupt or dismissive with Clark, while fawning over Superman.
Clark was quiet in the car on the way home, but as soon as they walked into his apartment — which they now shared — he turned to smile at her. "So, we got a free evening, honey! What would you like to do?" he asked, in a voice which seemed strangely over-cheerful.
"Well, I was thinking we could talk about — " she began, but Clark cut across her.
"Well, see, if there's nothing you'd prefer to do, I was thinking we could go and take a look at some places."
"Places?" Lois knew she shouldn't let Clark get away with changing the subject, but she had no idea what he meant.
"Yeah — you know, we agreed that we need a bigger apartment, or maybe even a house. This place isn't really large enough for the two of us."
"And you want to go looking tonight," Lois answered flatly. That was it: he was definitely avoiding talking to her.
"Well, yeah, why not?!" he answered enthusiastically. "See, I got details of these really great places. And you know how fast quality real estate sells in Metropolis, so I figured the sooner we go take a look the better."
He was right there, Lois knew, but she was also very well aware that Clark's real motivation for looking at houses had nothing to do with the reasoning he'd just given her.
But did she really want to push him to explain right now? She sighed inwardly as she concluded that she didn't. They were just married, after all. Only just back from their honeymoon. And the last thing she wanted was to provoke some massive fight, which she was pretty sure would result from any attempt by her to force the issue. She knew how stubborn Clark could be when he didn't want to discuss something.
And she also knew her own temper. If she pushed it, and Clark refused to talk, she'd probably get mad and would push him even further, and he'd react by flying off or something, and she'd be left feeling even more furious with him. Which was not what she wanted to happen when they'd been married less than two weeks.
No. Far better to wait, and to broach the subject some time later, when he was in a better mood. Or better still, to try to find out what was going on herself.
Once they got started viewing a couple of larger apartments and a small town house, both of them enjoyed looking around and imagining what it would be like to live in each place. Clark's Super-abilities came in very handy indeed, since he was able to X-ray around looking for damp or dry rot or other warning signals. The town house was ruled out by him very quickly, once he noticed a significant amount of damp in the cellar, and some quite serious cracks in the internal walls which had been covered up with wallpaper.
Lois, unfortunately, liked the house a lot; she emerged smiling happily at Clark, and he could tell that she was about to tell him that she could just imagine living there. He forestalled her with a raised hand.
"Sorry, honey, that one's out of the question," he said softly.
She looked crestfallen. "It is?"
He nodded, hands stuffed into his trouser pockets. "Damp. And subsidence. Even if we could fix it, it'd cost too much, and it's likely we wouldn't get a mortgage to buy it anyway."
Lois stared at him for a moment before tilting an imaginary pair of glasses; he nodded again. She grimaced, then muttered, "I guess I should be grateful."
Clark reached out, looping one arm around her waist. "Come on, honey, don't let it bother you. We'll find the perfect place, I promise you."
For the first time that evening, she relaxed against him, wrapping both arms around him and hugging him tightly. "I love you, Clark Kent," she murmured.
"I love you too, Lois Lane," he answered, holding her to him and bending to kiss her thoroughly.
He *hated* lying to Lois. After she'd figured out that he was Superman, he'd congratulated himself on the fact that he'd never have to lie to her again. No more secrets, he'd thought.
No more secrets.
How sure he'd been in his own conceit!
No lies — well, except for one pretty major lie. And now, several little ones to go along with it. In hiding from her the bargain he'd made with that imp Mxyzptlk, he'd also had to lie to her about the mall incident, and he'd had to be evasive in answer to other questions.
He knew she was suspicious. Her behaviour ever since had confirmed it, and he'd known very well that she'd been about to ask him what was going on once they'd got home. Which was why he'd been very relieved that he'd had the foresight to arrange these viewings. At least it meant that she'd been distracted, and if he was very lucky, once they got home she might decide that she was too tired to raise the subject. Or he might get called out on a Superman emergency.
At the same time, Clark felt sick inside. They'd been married less than two weeks, and already he was keeping secrets from his wife.
A combination of a call for Superman, and Clark's subsequent arrival home in a romantic mood, prevented Lois pursuing the question of the mall incident any further that evening. However, the following morning she woke up with a burst of inspiration.
Not much more than two months before, Superman — and Clark, now that she came to think of it — had been behaving very oddly for a period of two or three days. This had been explained, eventually, by the effect of a new form of Kryptonite, which was red in colour. This type of Kryptonite seemed to make Superman apathetic, uninterested in stopping crime or helping people. It had made Clark uninterested in his job, in contrast to his normal dedication.
Could Clark's strange behaviour the previous day be explained by his having come into contact with red Kryptonite?
He wasn't there — must have been called out as Superman — so she couldn't ask him immediately. Instead, as she got out of bed and headed for the shower, she thought the possibility through.
On each occasion he'd been affected, the previous time, he'd behaved completely out of character. He'd let criminals go. He'd allowed Perry to be kidnapped. He'd ignored *her* in favour of some bimbo. As Clark, he'd been cynical and lazy. He'd wanted to abandon their hugely important assignment — finding Perry — and go to the movies. The last thing he'd wanted to do, in either guise, had been to talk about what was happening to him.
Just as, the previous day, he hadn't wanted to discuss whatever had happened at the mall — and, although he'd helped by flying one injured victim to medical help, he hadn't returned immediately. Instead, by the time he'd got back to the mall, according to witnesses and the TV crew which had been there, the strange incident had already been over.
And Clark had definitely been in a weird mood for the remainder of the day.
When he'd been affected by red Kryptonite before, once the effect had worn off he'd been completely back to normal and considerably ashamed of his behaviour, and totally baffled as to its cause. But that was before he'd known of the existence of this variant of the meteorite. Was it possible that he knew what had happened to him and hadn't wanted to tell her? But that didn't make sense: why would Clark not tell her? He'd need her help in finding out who had the meteorite and what their motive was.
Perhaps he simply hadn't realised what had caused his behaviour. In which case, she needed to broach the subject with him.
Padding back into the bedroom to get dressed, she suddenly became aware of a whooshing sound out on the balcony. Clark was back.
He strolled into the bedroom a moment later, dressed as Superman, and immediately crossed to stand in front of her.
"Morning, honey," he murmured, bending to kiss her thoroughly. "Sorry I had to go out."
"Me too. I missed waking up with you," she told him softly, wrapping her arms around him.
He hugged her close for several moments before standing back and spinning into his work clothes, minus the jacket.
Lois pulled a face at him. "Not fair! You get dressed in under a second, and it take me ages to get ready!"
Clark laughed, amused, then winked at her. "Just stay exactly where you are, okay?"
Giving him a puzzled look, she did. Then she was surrounded by a mini-whirlwind; yet, surprisingly, she didn't feel any loss of balance or dizziness. Instead, under a minute later, the world around her steadied once more and she discovered that she was fully dressed. *And* he'd dried her hair and styled it — that had to have been the sudden burst of warmth she'd felt. He'd used heat vision on it.
"You are just incredible!" she told him.
He grinned in satisfaction, bending to kiss the back of her neck and nuzzle at her ear. "Well, isn't that why you married me?" he teased. "Come on," he added, straightening. "Let's get breakfast."
Over breakfast, Lois decided it was time to raise the possibility she'd been mulling over. "Clark… about yesterday," she began.
He looked distinctly wary. "What about yesterday? Lois, I told you, there's nothing to say."
He was obviously in denial about what had happened, she decided. "Clark, I've been wondering — could you have come into contact with red Kryptonite?"
For a moment, he was still, watching her from extremely startled eyes. Then he asked, dismissively, "What on earth makes you think that?"
"Clark, the way you've been behaving since you got back from the mall makes me think that!" she threw at him impatiently. "Come on — I mean, something really weird happened there, and yet you've shown no curiosity whatsoever! That's not like you. And you didn't want to discuss it. In fact, you avoided discussing it. And it's my guess that Superman could have done more to help than he did. All that screams red Kryptonite to me."
While she'd been speaking, Clark's expression had altered from scepticism to anger. As she finished, he got up from the table, flinging himself away from it in a furious movement before turning to glare intimidatingly down at her. She stared at him disbelievingly; just what had got into the Clark she knew and loved?
"So you think 'something weird' happened, do you?" he threw at her angrily. "And you think whatever it is you imagine I've done since is 'not like me', huh? And that automatically 'screams' red Kryptonite to you?" He made little quotation movements with his fingers as he spoke, emphasising certain words. "Just what gives you the right to diagnose me like that?" he demanded.
Appalled, Lois could only stare back at him. "I'm your *wife*, that's what gives me the right!"
"Does it?" He glared at her again before turning away. "It gives you the right to care, Lois, but it doesn't give you the right to decide what's wrong with me, always assuming that there's anything wrong at all!"
He sighed and ran one hand through his hair, before turning to face a still stunned Lois. "*You* thought it was red Kryptonite. I know I'm an alien, but do you know just how *patronising* you're being by suggesting that any time I behave a little differently to the way you'd like me to behave, it has to have something to do with me being Kryptonian?"
"Patronising? But, Clark — " Lois began to protest.
"Yes, *patronising*! Just as patronising as you'd accuse me of being if I dared to suggest that any time you got mad it had to be PMS. Lois, there is *nothing* wrong with me. Anything you think you've noticed is a figment of your over-active imagination. So can we please drop this?" he finished, and immediately vanished into the bedroom.
Lois remained in her seat, realising after a moment that she was physically shaking. She'd never imagined that Clark could speak to her like that. In a way, she thought, he'd just given her a taste of what her own temper could sound like, but nothing could have been further from mild-mannered Clark's normal behaviour.
Oh, he did have a temper; she'd seen glimpses of it once or twice. The day of Perry's retirement party a year earlier, when he'd told her to get in bed with the devil, for instance. And again a couple of weeks later, when he'd scornfully told her to *investigate* her fiance. And perhaps once or twice in the interim.
Clark was only driven to anger when he was truly at the end of his tether, though. At least, that was what she'd always thought. Yet his demeanour this morning had given no indication that he was tense or upset. And yet he'd just completely flown off the handle with her. His *wife*. The woman he claimed to love more than anything in the world.
<Maybe we rushed into marriage too quickly>
Lois caught her breath, shocked. Where had that thought come from?
She *loved* Clark. She knew he loved her. They were meant to be together. And being married was what they'd both wanted. There'd been no need to wait.
But, she reminded herself, how well had she really known Clark before they'd married? Oh, she'd *thought* she knew him. But that was before she'd discovered that the farmboy from Kansas was also the Super-hero from Krypton. That was one heck of an adjustment to make in her perception of him.
The Clark she'd known had been a facade, not the real Clark at all. She'd known a man who could barely open a peanut butter jar on his own and who, she'd imagined, had a fear of intimacy. A gentle, mostly reliable, normal guy from Middle America. The Clark she was married to was an alien — and, she could now see, who was troubled by that aspect of his heritage. This Clark was used to hiding what he could do, though he no longer hid from her. He had so many powers which he could use surreptitiously any time he wanted — and she suspected that he did sometimes.
Now that he'd finally allowed her to see all of him, was he regretting sharing all his secrets with her?
Was he regretting having *married* her?
In the bedroom, Clark slowly pulled on his jacket, all the while mentally cursing himself for that scene in the kitchen. He should never have spoken to Lois like that. He knew that what he said, as well as his tone of voice, would have upset her — angered her as well, no doubt.
They'd been married less than two weeks, and already he was doing his level best to make her regret her decision.
She'd only been trying to help. And she was quite right: of *course* he'd been behaving strangely, as Superman and as Clark. And of course she would have noticed. Who knew either of them better than Lois? And who had more right to know what was going on than Lois — his wife?
And of course he couldn't tell her what was wrong. But surely he could have handled the situation better than that?
He was a fool. A total, utter, crassly stupid *idiot*. And he owed Lois an enormous apology, always assuming that she was willing to accept it.
He sighed and went to stare out of the large picture window. Things that day seemed to be going from bad to worse.
It had been bad enough when sirens and the screech of brakes had called him out of their bed earlier: he'd discovered that a number of major signposts out near Hobb's Bay had been altered, and that a main route into the city had been directing drivers towards one of the dock's loading areas. Other 'diversions' were sending commuters the wrong way down one-way streets and into parking lots. Chaos had ensued, and in the middle of it all there had been several accidents, though thankfully nothing serious.
Superman had helped the police readjust the signs, and had simply acquiesced to the suggestion that it must have been teenagers indulging in a prank. He didn't believe it, though. This had Mxyzptlk's handiwork all over it. The wretched little imp was reminding him that he wasn't going to go quietly.
Now, Clark was dreading the little hobgoblin's next trick.
First, though, he had some major fence-mending to do with Lois. Engaging his X-ray vision, he looked through to the kitchen. She was still sitting at the table, her expression bleak, devastated. She looked as if she wanted to be anywhere but where she was.
Sighing, and hoping that she would listen to him, he headed back to the kitchen to grovel.
Lois dragged herself to her feet, thinking that it was time to get ready for work. If Clark wasn't ready to talk now, this would just have to wait until that evening, much as she hated leaving this unresolved for now. If he was still in the bedroom, and hadn't flown off somewhere, she'd just have to be polite but distant as she put on her make-up.
But just as she headed for the arch leading to the bedroom, Clark emerged. His expression was stricken, the look in his eyes deeply apologetic.
"Lois… Lois, I'm so sorry," he exclaimed as soon as he saw her. "I shouldn't have said those things to you. Can you forgive me?"
It was a relief to find that Clark wasn't still angry; it was so unusual for him to show any sign of annoyance, and she was still baffled as to what had made him react in the way he had. But she had no wish to prolong the argument. Reaching for his hands, she said, "Of course. I'm sorry too if you thought I was pushing too much. I'm just worried about you, Clark."
"I know," he answered softly, pulling her into his arms. "I know you are, and I know it's because you love me, like I love you. And you *do* have the right to wonder if something's wrong, of course you do. But, honey, I'm fine, I promise. I know I was a bit quiet yesterday, but everything's all right," he assured her.
Lois wrapped her arms around her husband, wondering why, when his assurances sounded so convincing, something was telling her that everything wasn't really all right.
He *hated* lying to Lois. But there was absolutely nothing he could do about it, Clark decided later that day. However, he couldn't see it getting any easier. One of the first things he'd noticed about Lois was her tenaciousness — well, apart from her great body, of course, he added with a rueful inward grin. Her tenaciousness, and her high degree of intelligence.
So she'd figured out that he was hiding something — well, not that *that* would have been at all difficult for her to work out, he added wryly. He was one of the world's worst liars — it was amazing that he'd managed to keep Superman's identity secret from anyone, let alone Lois.
She also knew that what he was hiding had something to do with the mall incident — and she'd somehow found out that he didn't go straight back there to help. In a way, he could see how that had led her to the conclusion that there had been red Kryptonite somewhere around, and for a moment he regretted having so comprehensively denied that possibility. It could have provided a convenient excuse…
But no. That would have been a mistake. For one thing, he would simply have been compounding one lie with another, which was the last thing he needed to do at this point. And for another, Lois would never leave it there. She'd want to find the Kryptonite and destroy it, and she also wouldn't rest until she'd found out who was behind it and what they wanted with Superman.
Because that was Lois all over. And that was one of the many things he loved about her: her unswerving loyalty to those she considered dear to her.
And another thing he loved her for was the fact that she, in some ways more than he, had made Superman what he was today. Lois had named his creation. She had given him what had in some ways become his trademark line: that he stood for truth and justice.
He — Superman, as well as Clark — was lying to Lois.
Lois had set some very high standards for Superman. And even though, as he'd recalled the previous day, she'd had to adjust some of those when she'd discovered that her hero *did* have the capacity to deceive her, he felt that she'd accepted his deceit in that instance, since it was for the purpose of protecting himself. And she'd colluded in that deception later, by not revealing how Resplendent Man had obtained his powers.
She would be very disappointed to learn that Superman had compromised his ethics like this; that he had agreed to give free rein to this gremlin from wherever it was to create any kind of havoc he wanted. That was not the sort of thing Superman did, whatever the reason.
Clark strongly suspected that Lois would have told him to refuse the bargain, even at the sacrifice of her life. In fact, he mused bleakly, he knew that was what she would have done. After all, she'd already shown that she was willing to sacrifice herself because of her love for him — she'd done it on the same day as he'd made the bargain. She'd accepted the risks entailed in his freezing of her. She'd known that she could die. And yet she'd still gone ahead with it.
Yes, Lois would have told him to refuse. And so, he now felt that, besides compromising his own ethics as Clark and Superman, he'd let Lois down. She would be disappointed in him in both incarnations if she knew.
For an instant, it occurred to him that matters would be easier if she didn't know that Clark was Superman. She wouldn't have been able to ask him about the mall incident. He could have ensured that Superman stayed out of her way until she'd either forgotten about it or given up trying to find out what had happened.
But he quickly dismissed that thought. Even if it were possible, he had no desire to return to the days when Lois didn't know his secret. Already he'd discovered so many benefits to her knowing. No more silly excuses. No more lies. Someone he could confide in, even in ways he couldn't talk to his parents. And someone who was able, and willing, to cover for him. And, most important of all, a helper and supporter for Superman when he needed it.
Except for now, when he needed it most.
To Clark's relief, the remainder of that day passed without incident — at least, without anything which could be attributable to Mxyzptlk. Superman was called out a couple of times, and on each occasion he went out, heart in his mouth, dreading finding out what that hobgoblin from hell had done this time. But both times the emergencies were purely of human origin: an armed robbery, and a plane about to crash due to instrument failure. However, Clark didn't leave the airport, where he'd landed the plane, until he'd checked out the instruments himself and discovered the cause of the failure. He sighed with relief when he discovered that a cable had burned out.
At least, not this time.
On leaving the Planet that evening, he was pleased to learn that Lois was taking their house-hunting seriously enough to have made several appointments for them that evening. Apart from the fact that he too wanted to move somewhere which was *theirs* rather than *his*, an evening spent looking around apartments and houses for sale meant that Lois wouldn't have much opportunity to continue quizzing him about the mall incident or his own behaviour.
They looked at three small houses and two apartments that evening, and one of the houses, an old brownstone on Hyperion Avenue, seemed absolutely perfect. They exited with the real estate agent, having spent almost an hour looking around the house in the minutest detail possible, thanked the agent, then looked at each other. All tension, whether within or between them, was forgotten as they each met the other's gaze, smiling happily. No words were necessary; they both knew that this was where they wanted to live.
Clark nudged Lois and guided her swiftly into an alley just around the corner, then spun into his Super-suit; they'd left the Jeep behind that evening, since the agent had been escorting them around the properties they were viewing. Lois grinned broadly as he scooped her up into his arms and flew them home.
Back at the apartment, they immediately sat at the table, Clark's laptop between them, so they could check their finances and see whether they could afford an offer close to the asking price. In between discussing monthly repayments and salary expectations and the level of offer which might be acceptable to the vendor, neither could resist occasional comments on just how perfect the house was.
"Clark, it really is just what we need!" Lois exclaimed happily, and he felt warm inside for the first time in a couple of days on seeing the delighted glow of her expression. When Lois looked at him like that, he could almost allow himself to forget the appalling predicament he was in.
He reached across to take her hand, squeezing it. "Even more than you know," he informed her with a grin. "What you don't know is it has a secret compartment."
"A what?" she demanded, incredulous, as he'd known she would.
Still smiling, he explained. "Downstairs, in the living-room, there's a hidden compartment behind the wall. I saw it as I was looking around." He fingered his glasses lightly, their private signal for his use of Super-vision. "I have no idea what the original owners used it for, but it's just perfect for hiding my Suits."
"Even better!" she exclaimed. "And did you notice the back yard?"
He winked at her. "Do you think I wouldn't have?"
"I guess not," she said, her mouth turning down at the corners. "Have you any idea how frustrating it can be sometimes, being married to Mr I-see-it-all-I-hear-it-all?"
Clark tightened his grasp on her hand. "Is it really that bad?" he asked anxiously.
But she grinned. "Only sometimes. The rest of the time it's pretty okay, really."
"Just okay?" he challenged.
"Well…" she drawled, then grinned. "Okay, more than okay. But, you know," she added then, giving him an impish look, "I think I might need a reminder of just how *really* great it is being married to you…"
Clark instantly got to his feet and slowly advanced towards her. "I think that can be arranged…" Scooping her into his arms, he floated them both into the bedroom.
Later, as Lois slept, Clark lay awake, staring up at the ceiling.
He knew he ought to be blissfully happy. He'd been married for almost two weeks to the woman of his dreams. They'd just found the perfect house to live in, and they were going to make their offer on it the following morning. He had a job he loved, great friends, and a life he thoroughly enjoyed. He even had abilities beyond the wildest imaginings of other men, and his alter ego, Superman, was the most admired man in the world.
And yet, because of the actions of a bored gremlin from some other dimension, his life was falling apart.
He was lying to his wife, the one person in the world he never wanted to deceive. He was compromising his ethics and failing to do his duty to the citizens of Metropolis, who trusted him. He had told the police and mall staff that he had no idea who or what had caused the stilts incident. He had silently, and therefore implicitly, agreed with the police officer who had blamed teenagers for the altering of the street signs. He *knew* Mxyzptlk was on the rampage, and he wasn't doing a darned thing to stop him.
Why? Because he'd given his word?
But, Clark told himself frustratedly, when he'd given his word he'd had no idea that the imp from hell was going to do things which would *hurt* people! People could have been killed this morning, he reminded himself furiously. There had been several incidents as drivers in front, realising that they'd hit dead ends, had stopped, and other drivers behind had crashed into them.
That hadn't been a harmless prank, any more than the mall incident had been.
But then, he told himself furiously, had he really been so naive as to believe that Mxyzptlk had only harmless pranks in mind? Would someone like him, who seemed to be able to work all kinds of magic, have gone to the trouble of neutralising Superman if all he'd wanted to do was indulge in some completely harmless jokes?
And that, too, told Clark that any hopes he'd harboured that Mxyzptlk might decide in the near future that he was bored and would stop were futile. Again, why go to the trouble of neutralising Superman if he was going to restrict himself to a couple of days' fun?
Clark sighed, then glanced warily at Lois, hoping he hadn't woken her. She still slept soundly, to his relief.
He wished there was someone he could discuss this with. Lois would be the obvious choice, except that it was *her* life he'd bargained with. And he already knew how she would feel about that.
He'd always talked to his parents, of course. And, as an image of them floated in front of his mind, a large part of him longed to fly out to Smallville right now and lay his heart bare to them.
He could visualise the scene now: his parents, sitting around the kitchen table and reaching across to cover his hand comfortingly. His mother putting a glass of buttermilk and a slice of home-made pie, laden with cream, in front of him. His father giving him an encouraging smile. And he himself starting to speak, telling them…
Telling them *what*?
That he had done something of which he was thoroughly ashamed, and yet which, if he had the chance to go back and change things, he would do again in a heartbeat?
Sure, they'd sympathise. They might even understand. But he also knew that they would disapprove of what he'd done. And, what was even more depressing, they couldn't offer him any solution anyway.
So he wouldn't tell his parents about this. He couldn't. In any case, he reminded himself bleakly, he was married now. The person he should be confiding in was his wife.
His wife — the person he was actually keeping secrets from.
Clark pushed away this renewed and unwelcome reminder, and tried instead to make himself focus on what he should do about Mxyzptlk. What could he do? He'd given his word, and he didn't break his promises. But this was a very unusual case, he pointed out to his conscience. And a far greater wrong was being committed by his failure to break his promise.
So, what if he told Mxyzptlk that he was reneging on the deal? Or, better still, just did it? Caught the little beggar as he was beginning his next act of insanity, prevented it, and told the twisted little goblin that, from then on, Superman would be pulling out all stops to end his little tricks before they'd even started?
Mxyzptlk was counting on Clark keeping his side of the deal. So what could he do if Clark did call it off?
A light snuffle from the sleeping figure to his left reminded him just what Mxyzptlk could do, if he saw fit.
But he wouldn't, surely? Whatever else that imp would consider reasonable, for some reason Clark didn't think that murder was part of his repertoire.
Maybe he should call Mxyzptlk's bluff, and see what happened.
Lois wasn't foolish enough to assume that, just because everything had been fine between her and Clark the previous evening, everything was really all right. She knew there was something he still wasn't telling her; that very uncharacteristic outburst of his the previous morning was a clear tell-tale signal. Clark rarely lost his temper. So, when he did lose it, there had to be a reason — and she didn't think that her question about red Kryptonite, and the implication that there had to be something chemically wrong with him, was sufficient for a reaction of that nature.
So, if it wasn't her question which had angered him, what had? she mused as she attempted to dredge up some degree of interest in the incredibly boring piece Perry had asked her to write on the city's proposed new incinerator site. Clark was out interviewing a couple of company directors about their CEO's arrest for fraud, a much more interesting story and one far more worthy of her talents than *this* one, she'd thought irately, but Perry had insisted. Only one person was needed for the interviews, and the directors had only agreed on condition that Clark Kent was the reporter concerned.
Why had Clark lost his temper so dramatically? Her refusal to drop the subject of the mall incident and her insistence on finding out what had actually happened? It looked as if that was it. He'd been evasive on that topic all along.
Which suggested that there was something he wasn't telling her — that he didn't want to tell her.
There had been things in the past which Superman hadn't wanted her to know — the way in which William Waldecker had obtained his powers, for instance. Clark had been deliberately obstructive then, both as Clark and as Superman. But, in the end, he had trusted her with the knowledge, and she'd shown — as she had when she'd discovered that he really was vulnerable to Kryptonite — that she was willing and able to protect certain secrets. She'd never written about Kryptonite, until its existence and effects had become common knowledge anyway. No-one else had found out from her, to this day, that Super-powers could be transferred.
And she was now in on the biggest secret of them all: Superman's real identity. So what reason would there be for Superman to hold back information from her?
And for her partner to hold out on her was, she felt, disloyal, both to herself and to the Planet. If there was something newsworthy, it should be reported. Okay, Clark hadn't been at the mall as himself. But he'd been there as Superman, and he'd frequently reported stories as Clark which he knew about through having been at the incidents as Superman. There would have been nothing new in Clark and Lois writing about the stilts incident, therefore.
But she wasn't talking about Superman, or her reporting partner, here. She was talking about her *husband*. That was what really hurt: her husband, the man she loved, the man she'd married less than two weeks earlier, was keeping secrets from her. And that hurt.
She'd been hurt before when Superman, the hero she had looked up to and regarded as a paragon of all the virtues, had turned out to be flawed. Lois expected lies and deceit from other people; that was simply the way life worked. However, she'd never expected Superman to lie to her.
But she'd got over that. It had taught her a lesson: that perfection was something she couldn't expect from anyone, not even Superman. And it had helped her to see the Super-hero as a person, rather than as a hero on a pedestal. After that, she knew they'd become closer, and he'd actually started to ask for her help from time to time. And he had come to trust her more.
Even finding out that Superman was actually Clark hadn't in any way altered her view of the Man of Steel. As she'd once told Clark, he possessed a lot of the qualities for which she admired Superman: honesty, decency, a sense of justice and fairness. So finding out that Superman was really an ordinary guy after all had even made her respect him more — and, of course, realising that he was in love with her and wanted to marry her was a bonus.
She'd thought, though, that once that final secret was revealed there would be no more deceit between her and Clark. He knew he could trust her. He was well aware that she would guard his secret and his safety — with her life, if necessary. So why would he feel he needed to hide anything from her?
That was what hurt — that he clearly didn't believe it necessary to tell her the truth. She didn't care about what had really happened at the mall; that wasn't important. What was important here was that the man she had married didn't think honesty was an essential part of their relationship.
And yet Clark had always been someone she'd have considered basically honest and decent. He'd actually told her, once, that he had only ever lied to her about one thing; she now knew that he'd been referring to the little deceits he'd had to practice to maintain his Superman persona.
So why was he lying to her now?
Was it possible, she wondered, gazing into the middle distance, that he just thought she wasn't entitled to know about things he did as Superman? That, since she was married to Clark, Superman wasn't part of their relationship?
She didn't know. But, if that was how he felt, then clearly the two of them had very different views about what marriage — *their* marriage — entailed.
On the other hand, didn't his behaviour seem more defensive than angry?
She really wasn't sure about that: with Clark, when he got defensive, he could react with anger. It was another distancing trick, just like some she'd practiced herself in the past. If his behaviour sprang from defensiveness, what could explain that? And why would he be defensive with her?
That, too, suggested that he didn't share her view of marriage.
But she wasn't going to jump to conclusions. Instead, she would observe how Clark behaved over the next while. Would he talk to her about things he did as Superman? And if there were more indications that he was keeping things from her… well, she would have to have it out with him, one way or another. She couldn't just ignore it if he did that — it would mean that she'd be settling for less than a full, open and honest relationship, and that would do neither of them any good.
Although, she considered wryly, taking a quick and cautious glance around in case Perry was lurking anywhere nearby and wondering why no work appeared to be getting done at her desk at the moment, she was a fine one to talk about being 'open' and 'honest'. She'd find any excuse to avoid talking about her feelings, in the past; that was 'distancing' too, as Dr Friskin had told her. She'd provoke an argument rather than discuss the reason she was upset. She would change the subject abruptly in order to avoid confronting an issue which was causing her anxiety.
The main cause of much of her previous heart-searching was now removed, however, in that she'd resolved her feelings about Clark and Superman and was married to Clark. And being open and honest should be a simple matter with someone she loved. So… maybe what she needed to do now, as soon as he got back, was simply to *tell* Clark how his failure to communicate with her was making her feel.
Or maybe… maybe she should just wait and see what would happen.
That thought took her by surprise. Frowning, Lois told herself that she couldn't just avoid the issue. Apart from anything else, that just wasn't how she operated. Where had Mad Dog Lane gone? The old Lois Lane would never have put up with this kind of behaviour from a boyfriend.
The old Lois Lane hadn't been married, she accepted silently.
Marriage was different. Marriage wasn't something you walked out of just because you were having a bad day. Oh, maybe marriage wasn't for life — well, her parents had certainly proven that, although Clark's parents were a good advertisement for a long and happy marriage. But she'd always wanted to do better than her parents' example. She hated failing at anything, and divorce certainly meant failure.
She recoiled at the word.
<I didn't mean it like that!> she protested silently to herself. In general, divorce was A Bad Thing, and to be avoided if at all possible. She and Clark were happy — of course they were! It was just this little thing — this tiny little problem, that he wouldn't talk to her about something which was obviously bothering him. That didn't mean there was anything wrong in their marriage.
<If he'd been just your boyfriend, you'd have yelled at him and refused to speak to him until he apologised and told you all about it> her inner voice pointed out. <You might even have dumped him — after all, if he doesn't trust you, what's the point of being with him?>
But she was *married* to Clark. That implied a heck of a lot more commitment than a mere relationship, Lois reminded herself. And anyway, refusing to talk to someone, or dumping them, just because they wouldn't do something she wanted was childish. She had to grow up in that respect sometime, and it looked like now was the time.
All the same, just because she was married didn't mean she had to accept being ignored or shut out by her husband. She might have promised to love and honour Clark, but that didn't mean she had to become his doormat.
Though the Clark she'd known had never behaved as if he wanted her to be anything like that. She'd always thought he respected and admiredher abilities in every way. He'd made it clear that he valued her opinions and advice, both as Clark and as Superman. And he'd even, eventually, told her the truth and asked for her help when Jason Mazik had kidnapped his parents.
So why was he shutting her out now? Was it really because he thought Superman was none of her business? And yet, during those few weeks before their wedding, he had occasionally talked to her about things he'd been involved in as Superman, and a couple of times had actually come to her to give her the exclusive story for the Planet — because, he'd explained, he didn't want Clark Kent to be too closely associated with the Super-hero. So he *had* treated her as an equal partner in that respect; he'd certainly given her the impression that Superman was as much her business as his.
But they hadn't been married then… Had marriage somehow made a difference to his views on the subject?
Oh, she was thinking around in circles, and not getting anywhere, Lois realised frustratedly. She really needed to talk to someone. But who could she talk to? None of her normal confidantes were really suitable — she couldn't talk to Perry, or Jimmy. Not when she and Clark had only been married such a short time. It would reflect badly on both Clark and herself.
Martha? she wondered. Could she talk to Clark's mother about Clark?
It wouldn't be the first time. But it seemed disloyal, somehow, in the circumstances. Effectively, she would be telling Clark's mother that her son was a lousy husband. And that would be a horrible thing to do to him.
Gritting her teeth, Lois started to pound her keyboard relentlessly, putting all of her frustration into the *unbelievably* tedious story Perry had given her. Maybe that evening at home, provided nothing happened to require her husband's attention elsewhere, she and Clark would have a proper talk. This time, she wouldn't let him get angry and she'd make sure he answered her questions and reassured her about her place in his life.
She hoped, anyway.
Making his way back to the Planet on foot and by subway from his interviews, Clark was musing bitterly on fate and ill-gotten imps. So far that day he hadn't seen or heard anything which could be attributable to Mxyzptlk, but that didn't stop him worrying. Every time he overheard a police broadcast, or caught a news item about some trouble somewhere, his heart almost seized in panic at the thought that it could be Mxyzptlk.
This worrying was doing him no good, he knew that. It was just as well that his Kryptonian physiology meant that he didn't need a lot of sleep, otherwise he'd be completely exhausted. He'd barely slept since the imp's return. And he was finding it difficult to concentrate on his work: twice during the interview he'd just conducted, his interviewee had had to repeat something because he hadn't been paying full attention.
He had to do something about this situation — take the initiative, rather than waiting and reacting to each event as it happened. But it was difficult to know what to do, or how to do it, when he didn't even know where Mxyzptlk was, or how to get hold of him. And even though he suspected that it might work, he had no wish to stand on top of somewhere like the Planet building and yell for the self-absorbed little gremlin to show himself.
He could try to get Mxyzptlk's attention through some other means, perhaps. If he could come up with a way of getting a suitable reference into the Planet — something subtle, but which would be obvious to his fifth-dimensional tormentor. A reference to Faust, perhaps, or deals done under false pretences, in a story connected with Superman. That might work.
It might also lead Lois to ask questions, though, he realised. Unless he was very subtle indeed, or found the perfect angle with which to use the reference, she'd want to know what on earth he was up to.
He'd never imagined that he could find himself wishing Lois was less intelligent than she was. And he hated himself for doing it.
He knew what his parents would tell him to do. Talk to Lois. Explain it all to her, and find a solution together.
Oh, sure. Explain to his wife that she'd *died*, and that he'd sold his soul to bring her back to life? Okay, well, so he hadn't sold his soul, exactly, but it felt like it sometimes. He'd certainly sold his ethics.
Even without the knowledge that Lois would disapprove of what he'd done, he couldn't face telling her.
Just then, he turned the corner which brought him directly opposite the Planet building. A crowd of people stood on the street outside the newspaper offices, staring, some were giggling uncontrollably. Clark hurried across the street, trying to work out what all the commotion was about.
"What's going on?" he demanded of a woman standing by the fire hydrant.
"Look!" she commanded, pointing upwards.
Clark followed the direction of her hand, and saw what she meant. On the globe which was suspended above the Planet entrance, the words DAILY PLANET had been altered to read DREARILY BLAND.
The text style was exactly the same. Only the words were different.
Frowning, he turned to the woman again. "When did this happen?"
"Beats me," she replied. "I just heard everyone laughing and came over to take a look. Guess it's some sort of a publicity stunt — I'd think it's an April Fool's joke only it's June!" she added, beginning to laugh hysterically.
It wasn't a publicity stunt, Clark was sure of it. It had to be Mxyzptlk.
He took a couple of steps backwards, away from the crowd, then discreetly ducked into a side-street. Having checked that no-one was around, he then shot directly upwards, spinning into the Suit as he went; a second later, he was drifting downwards in front of the Planet.
Mxyzptlk was nowhere in sight; he'd checked that as he'd flown over. Swiftly, faster than anyone's eyes could follow, he pulled the letters down from the globe and rearranged them. Those which didn't belong in the DAILY PLANET text he bent, shaped and otherwise altered until the original lettering was restored; then he used his heat vision to reaffix the letters to the globe.
As he finished, cheers rang out below, and he glanced around. Several Planet staffers were there watching him. Another shout distracted him before he could take in who was there, and he turned to see someone — a Star reporter, he quickly realised — who shouted to him, "Should have left it the way it was, Superman! At least it was telling the truth!"
Clark ignored him. Having finished his task, he began to float upwards again, wanting to get out of there and to go in search of Mxyzptlk; only to have his escape halted by a voice he knew very well indeed.
"Superman! Have you got a minute?"
It was Lois. If he faked an emergency now, she'd want to know what it was. And she'd probably even check the news wires, given how suspicious she'd been about his silence over the mall incident. Resigned, he drifted downwards. "What can I do for you, Ms Lane?"
"Just a couple of questions, Superman, please," she answered, quickly taking several steps away from the other Planet staff gathered outside. "What on earth happened?" she asked, in a much quieter tone.
"I don't know for sure," he told her. At least that wasn't a lie, Clark thought wryly. He didn't *know* it was Mxyzptlk; he only suspected it.
That was a mistake. Lois raised her eyebrows at him and replied, "So who do you think did it? And how? Why?"
"How, I don't know," Clark answered honestly. "Why — a practical joke, I guess. And who…? I couldn't say." Again, he knew his answer was Jesuitical in its avoidance of lying while not actually telling the truth, but he didn't know what else to say to Lois.
"It's got to be some sort of stunt by a competitor," Lois mused aloud. "Though I didn't see any TV cameras filming it. All the same, if this is on the front page of this evening's Star I'll know who's behind it!"
Clark didn't answer. He didn't trust himself to speak.
"Didn't you see anything up there?" Lois asked, puzzled. "Any signs at all of how it had been done? Where did the original letters go? There has to be *something* to give us a clue — well, you, I guess, since you're the one with the Super-vision. Didn't you notice *anything*?"
If Lois didn't know he was Superman, he could say something fairly non-committal and get away with it, Clark thought. As it was, she would pursue the matter until he gave her an answer she could accept.
He was fortunate. Just then his Super-hearing kicked in; someone was in trouble half-way across the city. Giving Lois an apologetic smile, he said, "I gotta go. Someone needs me."
"Oh!" She looked disappointed. "Go, then. We'll talk later."
He stepped away from her and swooped upwards; in the same moment, she said in a tone which was clearly audible, for the benefit of their colleagues and others standing nearby, "Thanks for your time, Superman!"
Clark waved, for the benefit of those below, then flew off at Super-speed, anxious to get to where he was needed. However, at the same time he was well aware that, once again, he'd merely postponed an awkward conversation with Lois.
Lois was still puzzling over the mysterious practical joker when a kind of sixth sense made her turn her head in the direction of the stairwell entrance. It was Clark, his hand straightening his tie in that movement which was so familiar to her, but which until recently she'd thought was some sort of nervous fiddling.
She'd have to tell him about that. It probably wasn't such a good idea to let people see him pulling at his tie as he did one of his disappearing acts, or returned from one.
He came straight over to her, bending to drop a kiss on her lips. "Hey, honey, I missed you," he murmured as he straightened.
"Missed you too," she teased him, but at the same time she was watching him closely, wondering whether he would tell her anything about what had called him away. Would she have to ask? And if she did, would he tell her?
He perched on the edge of her desk, facing her workstation, apparently interested in the story on her monitor. But, speaking in an undertone, he said, "Attempted suicide."
"What? The thing you flew off to help with?" she asked, remembering to keep her own voice lower than a murmur.
"Yeah. Some kid — sixteen, would you believe? — about to jump off his school roof. Some teachers were trying to talk him down, and the police were on their way, but one of the kids had the sense to yell for me."
Lois had seen Superman in suicide situations before, and she knew his usual modis operandi; with or without their consent, he usually took them out of danger before trying to talk to them. He'd tried doing it the other way around once, and the jumper had… jumped. So now he simply scooped them up and got them somewhere safe.
"So you flew him down?"
Clark nodded, glancing back at her screen and making it look as if he was referring to something on it. "Yeah. He was furious at first, but I flew him around in a circuit before landing and I think the experience made him forget to be mad at me."
Lois grinned in spite of the seriousness of the situation. "Does *everyone* love flying with you?"
He smiled at that, his eyes crinkling at the corners. "I don't remember you ever complaining about flying with me, honey," he teased. She reached for his hand, and his fingers curled around hers.
"Anyway," he added, "when I got the kid on the ground, I found out that he'd just failed all his exams and his girlfriend had dumped him. That's why he'd done it. I don't know whether he really meant to jump, or whether he was just hoping to make the girl feel guilty and come back to him."
"And did she?" Lois asked, shaking her head at the thought of the waste of a life over such relatively insignificant problems.
Clark shrugged. "She was there, I think — he kept looking over at a group of girls standing together, and one of them kept giving him a defiant stare. I… um, well, I'd worked out by then that he's a Superman fan. So I took him aside and talked to him for a couple of minutes — told him what I think of suicide, that he's got his whole life ahead of him, and that I'd be very angry and disappointed if he tried it again."
"You think he will?" Lois asked, concerned.
Clark shook his head. "I don't know for sure, but my instinct tells me he'll be okay. He went off with the student counsellor and a couple of police officers, and that's when I left."
"Is this going to appear in the Planet?" Lois asked softly. It wasn't that she wanted to worsen some poor kid's humiliation by writing up the story; she just suspected that her soft-hearted, caring husband had some issues which he needed to work through, and she knew, from issues related to Superman rescues which Clark had covered for the Planet in the past, that writing an article frequently helped him in such circumstances.
He smiled briefly again. "Not directly. But I want to suggest a series of articles on teenage suicides."
"Sounds like a great idea," Lois agreed. "With lots of case studies, research and calling for proper preventative action?"
"Of course," he agreed, his fingers tightening around hers again. "You and me together — we'll do a great job."
He stood then, adding, "Better get back and write up those interviews before Perry starts yelling. I've already been away too long." Just as he started to stroll off, he turned back briefly and remarked, as if as an afterthought, "You know, Lois, you should say 'the people who', not 'the people that'." Giving her a wink, he continued on his way.
"Always editing my copy…" Lois muttered through gritted teeth, but made the change he'd recommended.
The conversation had left her feeling very confused, however. Clark had, willingly, without being prompted, told her all about something he'd just done as Superman. And he'd done it entirely naturally, just as if it was the kind of thing he'd expect to discuss with her as a matter of routine. Just as, she suspected, he had talked to his parents about his Superman activities ever since he'd invented the character.
That wasn't the behaviour of someone who felt that Superman was none of her business. That, conversely, had been exactly the behaviour she'd come to expect from Clark once they were together and she knew his secret. It had been the way he'd behaved in the few weeks before their wedding.
So, whatever was stopping him from being open with her, it wasn't a reluctance to talk to her about Superman.
That was a relief, certainly. But it still didn't explain his secrecy on the subject of the still-unexplained mall incident, or why he'd lost his temper so uncharacteristically with her the previous morning. However, it certainly meant that her worst fears had been proven wrong, which made Lois feel very, very relieved indeed.
She loved Clark more than she'd ever thought she could love anyone. If he'd treated her as carelessly, as callously, as the men who'd hurt her before, she suspected she'd never recover from it.
Shortly after finishing work that evening, Clark went out on a Superman patrol; his real reason for going, though, wasn't simply to keep an eye open for crime in the city. He was looking for Mxyzptlk.
The imp's prank earlier that day had been harmless, sure. But Clark had interpreted it as a challenge, and he was very sure that was the way he'd been intended to see it. Why pick the Daily Planet's sign rather than that of any other organisation? The tiresome little goblin could have attacked the Lexor Hotel, for instance, which had a very high and extremely visible sign. The Metropolis Light and Power Company sign surely provided endless scope for word-play. But Mxyzptlk had chosen the Planet. So he'd been sending a message to Clark.
Just what that message was, Clark had no idea. He'd found himself wondering on and off during the afternoon whether Mxyzptlk could read minds; if so, then it was possible that he knew Clark was considering calling his bluff.
Considering? He was going to do it.
What choice did he have? He couldn't allow that evil-minded trouble-maker to go on causing havoc indefinitely. And Superman couldn't stand by while he got up to his tricks, either. Sooner or later, Superman's inaction would be noticed.
In fact, Clark reminded himself, he hadn't exactly stood inactive. He'd helped to pick up the pieces at the mall, and he'd undone the damage to the Planet's sign. He'd also corrected the route signs the previous day. So he'd already come close to breaking his side of the bargain anyway. Therefore, telling Mxyzptlk that he intended to stop him doing anything else wasn't a major change of attitude.
Now, he only needed to find the guy. Which, unless he was prepared to fly around yelling Mxyzptlk's name, wasn't an easy task.
As he returned to the apartment an hour later, Clark tried to ignore the uncomfortable thought that the reason he refused to attract Mxyzptlk's attention by calling the man was because he didn't want take the risk of calling his bluff.
Much to Lois's chagrin, she didn't get much time alone with Clark that evening. He returned from his patrol bearing some of her favourite Chinese food, which she now knew came direct from Canton, and they spent the time over dinner discussing how to approach the feature on suicides which Clark had obtained Perry's permission to write, and sharing their delight that their offer on the house had been accepted. She'd planned that after dinner they would sit and cuddle together on the sofa with a bottle of wine to celebrate their success in securing their dream home, and that she would gently lead up to the topic of his strange behaviour.
His manner over dinner strengthened her resolve that they needed to talk. Although Clark joined in the conversation, she could tell that there was definitely something on his mind; his smiles didn't reach his eyes as frequently as usual, and he seemed distracted at times. Again, she couldn't help feeling shut out.
Was it possible that *he* was regretting their marriage? she asked herself in horror as he cleared the dinner dishes away at Super-speed.
She had no idea whether that was a likely explanation. Clark still certainly seemed to love making love with her every bit as much as he had the first time. But marriage was about far more than lovemaking. Was he feeling claustrophobic as a result of living with her full-time? She remembered that he'd told her, about a year and a half ago, that he'd never lived with anyone full-time before. Nor had she, of course, and she had to admit, at least to herself, that even with a man she loved as much as Clark, a man who, most of the time, was extremely easygoing and affectionate, sharing living space took some getting used to.
So, could it just be teething problems?
All the more reason to discuss whatever was going on inside his head, she decided, and was about to suggest that they go and sit down. But before she could say a word, Clark's head tilted to one side in his now-familiar 'listening' mode.
"Sorry, honey, I have to go," he said hurriedly. "The heavy rain upstate has caused a bridge to collapse." He paused to spin into the Suit, then called to her as he strode swiftly towards the balcony door, "Don't wait up. I could be gone several hours."
Another lost opportunity, Lois thought glumly as she took her glass of wine and went to watch the news coverage on LNN. That was the closest she was likely to get to her husband for the next couple of hours, it seemed.
Early the following morning, Lois was awakened from slumber by the whooshing sound of her husband leaving the apartment. Another Superman emergency, no doubt. He hadn't arrived home until after one in the morning last night, which had put paid to any attempt at a proper discussion.
Getting out of bed, she pulled on her robe and padded into the living-room to turn on the TV; that might give her a clue as to his destination.
A completely implausible scenario confronted her. TV cameras showed stretches of railway track, but instead of the usual commuter routes, the track formed a massive figure-of-eight around what was clearly Centennial Park. It was as if someone had built a model railway overnight, but on a gigantic scale, using real trains, real track — and, she realised, as she looked on in appalled horror, real people as both passengers and obstacles.
The track ran over the pathways and grassy areas where people strolled, passed the time, or strode through on their way to work. Trains hurtled around at what was clearly considerable speed, their horns blaring as pedestrians leapt, terrified, out of their path. And, most alarming of all, someone — a young woman — was tied to a section of track, while several bystanders desperately tried to free her before the approaching train reached her.
As Lois watched, aghast, she found herself chanting Superman's name under her breath over and over, just praying that Clark would get there and rescue the woman in time.
Suddenly, there was a whoosh, and the TV camera panned wide to catch the Super-hero as he came in to land. Seconds later, the young woman was free and in his arms, clearly shuddering as Clark attempted to calm her.
As if the rescue had released her from whatever had kept her transfixed, staring at the TV, Lois leapt to her feet and ran for the bedroom. Two minutes later, she was dressed and had her notebook in hand; a shower could wait for later. She was on her way to Centennial Park to get the story for herself.
Clark handed the still-shaking woman over to a couple of police officers and turned back to survey the scenes of confusion and chaos around him. No-one seemed to know what to do, which was hardly surprising; he barely knew where to start himself. Terrified people were running in every direction, screaming in panic as new sections of track appeared, creating sidings and additional complications to the original figure-of-eight pattern. And new trains, with drivers who looked just as panicked as everyone else, clearly unable to do anything about the situation. He could hear one driver yelling that his brakes weren't working.
And, floating in the air above the park, apparently invisible to everyone except Superman, sitting cross-legged with what looked like a remote-control device in his hands, was Mxyzptlk.
That callous, interfering, *hell-born* imp was controlling everything, grinning as he surveyed the scenes of chaos which he'd caused. People had almost *died*, and it looked as if Mxyzptlk was having the time of his life.
Clark felt bile well up inside his throat; he'd never before felt so angry with anyone. He'd certainly come across villains whose methods and actions he'd despised, and they'd made him angry. But this evil gnome had powers far beyond the wildest dreams of anyone he'd encountered before, and he had no scruples whatsoever.
Furious, Clark focused his gaze upwards, and destroyed the remote control device with one fierce blast of heat vision.
"Naughty Supie!" Mxyzptlk pronounced, wagging his finger in Clark's direction. And suddenly a new device was in his hands, and the trains continued to rush around, changing tracks and barely avoiding collisions as they did so.
Suppressing his anger temporarily, Clark flew around the park for several seconds, grabbing people trapped between the tracks and taking them to safety. Then he shot upwards and hovered in front of Mxyzptlk, glowering furiously at the imp.
"This is going too far!" he announced firmly, but not so loud that he could be heard by those below. "People could *die*! Don't you care about that?"
"Aw, lighten up, Clarkie-baby," Mxyzptlk said impatiently. He waved his hand imperiously, and suddenly one of the tracks raised itself about thirty feet off the ground, turning it into the equivalent of a roller-coaster. A train was on that section of track, and the screams of its occupants grew even more terrified as they saw what was ahead.
At Super-speed, Clark flew down and scooped up the locomotive and its carriages, placing the train on a clear stretch of ground. Then he shot upwards again, and for the second time fried the remote-control.
"This ends here!" he announced angrily, glaring at the imp. He was sorely tempted to direct his heat vision at the imp himself, but he just couldn't do it. Superman never killed, and he couldn't start now. No matter how furious Mxyzptlk made him, no matter how great a threat he posed to ordinary citizens, killing him was not the answer.
"Oh, but I haven't finished playing yet!" the imp protested. "You're such a spoil-sport, Supie!"
"Your *playing* is getting people hurt, putting lives at risk," Clark announced coldly, deliberately restraining his temper; cool determination had more impact than out-of-control anger. "And you told me that you wouldn't dream of killing anyone. I'd never have agreed otherwise — you know that!"
"Oh?" Mxyzptlk challenged. "So there is a limit to your love for Lois-baby, after all, huh?"
Clark flinched; was this a subtle threat? But he couldn't allow Mxyzptlk to rattle him. He'd made his decision, and he intended to follow it through. Summoning up his fiercest Superman glare, he stared straight at the little monster. "Our deal's off."
As he spoke, he lunged for the imp. But his hands encountered empty air.
Laughter came from above him. "Did you really think you could catch me that easily, Clarkie?"
He looked up; Mxyzptlk was now sitting cross-legged several feet higher. At Super-speed, he darted upwards and made another grab. But the imp was gone before he could close his grip.
"You'll never catch me!" Mxyzptlk announced, laughing hysterically.
"Maybe not. But from now on I'm going to be on your tail. I'll stop all your little games even before they start," Clark declared with chilly resolution, barely managing to suppress his blazing anger at the imp's childish taunts. "Let's see how long it takes before you get bored trying to outwit me."
"You really think you can scare me off, Superman?" Mxyzptlk demanded. "You've just seen for yourself how easy it is to catch me — NOT!" He roared with laughter again.
Frowning coldly at the imp, whose maniacal laughter was now driving him to the point of madness, Clark made himself remain coldly calm. And he felt the need to point something out. "You'd never have come to me in the first place if you hadn't wanted to do a deal with Superman. So clearly there is something I can do to stop you. And I'll certainly be stopping your tricks from now on!"
Mxyzptlk made several tutting noises, then rolled over onto his stomach, propping his head up on his elbows. "You really think you can just walk away from our deal, don't you, Clarkie? Have you forgotten what I can do?"
No, he hadn't. But Clark, holding firmly to his conviction that Mxyzptlk wouldn't deliberately kill Lois, was prepared to call the imp's bluff.
"I don't care," he announced icily. "The deal's off."
He'd expected a temper tantrum in response. But suddenly there was a flash, and a dazed Clark found himself floating above his own apartment. And he realised that he could hear voices from within… one angry female voice, which he knew very well, and one cool, calculating, smooth-as-a-snake-in-the-grass voice, which he also knew but had hoped never to hear again.
In the next instant, he activated his X-ray vision. In the apartment, in the *bedroom*, Lois was sitting in a defensive posture on the bed, dressed only in her nightgown. She was angrily ordering the other occupant of the room to leave.
And at the same time, Lex Luthor, dressed in a silk paisley-patterned dressing gown, was approaching the bed, a lascivious sneer on his face.
Clark was about to fly down and bodily remove the intruder, but he couldn't move. None of his limbs seemed capable of obeying his instructions. He felt as if he was trussed up like a chicken — he was certainly floating under his own powers, but that was all. No other part of his body would respond to any instruction he gave it. Even his heat vision refused to respond, regardless of the fact that he was already using Super-vision to see through the walls of the apartment.
And, as he watched, frozen with horror, Luthor reached the bed and stretched out a hand towards Lois.
Lois's own position shifted; Clark recognised her posture now as readying herself to strike. Her self-defence classes, he realised, would help her to a degree. But he suspected that Lex Luthor was no stranger to Oriental fighting methods; the criminal ex-head of LexCorp could overpower Lois within minutes. Clark's blood ran cold, and he made yet another effort to persuade his body to respond. It didn't work. He could only stay exactly where he was and watch, helpless, as Lex Luthor prepared to assault, perhaps even rape, his wife.
His rational brain reasserted itself then, albeit with some difficulty. This had to be Mxyzptlk's work. And it was no doubt some sort of punishment for his temerity in telling the malicious little hobgoblin that he was rejecting their bargain.
"Mxyzptlk! Where are you?" he demanded, infuriated.
In an instant, the imp was floating beside him. "Don't like what you see, Clarkie?" With a snap of his fingers, the scene Mxyzptlk had created was gone, and they were once again floating above the park, where the trains were gradually beginning to slow down.
"Consider that a warning, Supes," Mxyzptlk announced with a mocking laugh. "I gave you your woman back when we first met. You chose to accept the deal. No-one forced you. So, if you want to back out now, if you want to be free to do anything to stop me enjoying myself, then you have to give up what you gained, too. That's fair, isn't it?" Mxyzptlk winked exaggeratedly.
Anger dissipated, and instead Clark was gripped by cold, paralysing fear.
Mxyzptlk meant Lois — Lois *would* die if Clark rejected the bargain, he realised with dawning horror. Whether this appalling monster meant that he would simply send Clark back in time to the point at which Lois had died, or whether Lois would now meet with some sort of accident, Clark had no idea.
Either way, it was unthinkable.
"So, this is the new deal," the imp continued. "You want me to stop what I'm doing, and leave your world. Well, okay, if you really insist, I'll do that, but if I do, Lo-lo dies. How's that?"
It was unthinkable.
Clark simply stared at the troublemaker, unable to formulate a single word.
"Oh, don't worry, Supie-baby, you don't have to decide right now," Mxyzptlk told him, grinning again. "You can have some time to think about it. I'll see you tomorrow morning, and you can give me your decision then. Hasta la vista, baby!"
And with that, the imp had vanished.
When she arrived at the park, Lois had to fight her way past several police officers who were intent on preventing anyone from getting inside. Flashing her press pass got her the officers' attention, but they still didn't appear willing to let her pass. So she used diversionary tactics, pretending that she could see someone trying to slip past the police cordon behind them, and as the officers turned around to see, she ran past, hurrying around behind some bushes to get out of sight before they realised her ruse and came after her.
Confronted with the reality of what she'd seen on television, Lois could only stare, appalled. These were *real* trains, every bit as big, powerful, menacing and loud as at the Metropolis AMTRAK station. And each train was full of screaming, panicking passengers. And, as fresh track kept appearing out of *nowhere*, more terrified people were trying to get out of the way.
The police were desperately trying to shepherd people out of the park, but due to the way the tracks were multiplying, and people's sheer panicked responses, it was by no means an easy task. For some reason, the trains kept hurtling around the tracks, which puzzled Lois: each had a driver, so why weren't the drivers trying to stop them? Unless they couldn't…
How on *earth* could this have happened? And where were the trains and track coming from? Where were they getting their *power supply* from?
It was almost like… Magic.
Magic? But that couldn't be so. There was no such thing as magic — not really. Sure, there were illusionists, and some of those were even pretty good. But Lois couldn't imagine that even illusionists like Penn and Teller, or David Copperfield, could do something like this. Not in broad daylight, in the middle of the city, with passers-by everywhere. They would need the complicity of too many people. And the police and the council would never have granted a permit, on the grounds of risk to public safety.
And anyway, no illusionist, no matter how good, could simply conjure up track and trains from thin air just like that.
But what other explanation could there be? There was no normal or logical explanation, at least not one that Lois could come up with.
Which left… some sort of illogical or super-normal explanation.
But not even Superman could do something like this, even flying around and putting things in place at Super-speed, Lois thought. And Clark wouldn't, anyway.
There was no such thing as magic! she reminded herself scathingly.
<But what else can explain this? What else could explain the mall incident?>
Mass hypnosis? But that would mean that she'd been hypnotised too… but that wasn't impossible, she considered. After all, even *Clark* had been hypnotised, the previous year. And he'd been made to behave in a manner totally contrary to his belief system, something hypnosis was not supposed to be capable of achieving. If someone could do that, could they not pull off something like this too?
Could it be hypnosis? But how could everyone here have been hypnotised? And surely it wouldn't work over TV, and yet she'd watched the televised scenes of chaos, and seen exactly what she was seeing now. How could any hypnotist, however skilled, pull that off? She wasn't sure that it was possible.
Which left the paranormal or supernatural, as she'd considered before.
The paranormal? Ghosts?
Lois shook herself mentally — who believed in ghosts? She certainly didn't! But then, Clark had taught her over the past couple of years that it wasn't sensible to dismiss apparently obvious explanations out of hand, simply because they were illogical. After all, Superman was, to all intents and purposes, illogical; yet he existed. *Clark* could fly, could bend steel with his bare hands and could light fires with his eyes.
<And not only *real* fires> she found herself thinking with a secret smile.
But could this possibly be the work of some sort of evil spirits? That seemed even more far-fetched than the other possible explanation: that it was more than an illusion; that it was some kind of enchantment.
As the implications of her conclusion sank in, something else occurred to Lois. Could Clark have known about this? Known that there was no explanation for what had happened, other than the super-natural? And, if so, was that why he'd refused to talk about it? Fear that she'd tell him he was crazy?
Well, if he was crazy, then so was she. Because, sceptic as she was, even she'd had to admit, now, that the only explanation for what they were seeing was magic.
Shaking her head, as if to push from her mind for the moment the realisation that the highly practical Lois Lane had accepted that magic could exist, she looked around for Superman. He'd been there when she'd pushed her way into the park; she'd seen him scoop up and take to safety a couple of hapless people who'd suddenly found themselves in the path of an apparently runaway train.
He must have done something else since then, since one train was standing, stationary, on a bare stretch of ground, and passengers and a visibly shaking driver were being helped away by police and emergency workers. But Superman himself was nowhere in sight.
Maybe he'd been called away to another emergency, Lois thought. But that didn't seem likely — after all, people's lives were being put in danger right *here*. She knew Superman — she knew her husband — and there was no way he'd fly off when he was desperately needed.
Then she noticed that the train in her direct line of vision was slowing down. Quickly searching out the other trains which she could see, she realised that they were all slowing; then there was a screech of locomotive brakes, and, one by one, those she could see came to a halt. Sighs of relief were audible from all around her, and the police and paramedics began to rush forward to assist people in alighting from the trains.
Then she heard a familiar sound: the whoosh and sonic boom of Superman's arrival. As she watched, he flew straight down and began to assist in ferrying people away from the tracks, before being stopped by a couple of senior police officers and engaged in what looked like an animated discussion. Lois wished she was close enough to hear what was being said — although, of course, she could just ask Clark later. For the moment, she could busy herself with getting some eye-witness interviews.
There was no shortage of people willing to be interviewed for the Daily Planet, and Lois found herself surrounded by bystanders, people who'd been passengers on one of the trains, a driver, and a couple of people who'd narrowly escaped serious injury when a section of track had materialised out of nowhere and settled precisely where they'd been standing seconds earlier. Listening to all the stories, Lois thought that it was a miracle that no-one had been killed. In fact, the only people in need of medical treatment seemed to be suffering from shock or from minor injuries such as a sprained ankle gained while running out of the way.
No-one had any explanation for what had happened, of course. The driver insisted that he'd been following his usual routine, driving his train along his normal busy commuter route, when suddenly there had been a blinding flash of light and the locomotive had been hurtling around the park at a dangerous speed, and none of his controls would work.
A blinding flash of light… that sounded like magic.
And the driver didn't sound like someone who'd been possessed by any kind of evil spirit, Lois had to conclude. He'd been unable to control his train, but had been aware of his own reactions and surroundings the entire time. Surely, if there was such a thing as ghostly possession, the possessed individual would either remember something about the alien presence, or would have a strange gap in his memory?
So… maybe it really was magic. There certainly seemed to be no logical explanation; the police were every bit as baffled as everyone else.
As she listened, asked questions and scribbled hurriedly, Lois was constantly aware of Clark working in the background, moving train carriages and track out of the way, talking to the emergency service workers present, and generally doing anything required of Superman.
And then, suddenly, the trains and track were gone. Vanished. As if they'd never been there in the first place.
Disbelieving shouts echoed all around the park; people stared, pointed, and yelled at each other, as if trying to ensure that none of them had imagined what had just happened. Lois even pinched herself surreptitiously to check that she wasn't dreaming. But she knew it had really happened — there had really been half-a-dozen trains, and several miles of track, in Centennial Park, and in a split second they had disappeared.
So, either she and half of Metropolis was going mad, or there really was some sort of supernatural power at work in the city.
Shortly after the trains disappeared — yet another crass reminder to him of Mxyzptlk's abilities, Clark thought with a cynical twist to his mouth — Superman made his excuses to the police officer in charge at the scene, and left. There was nothing more he could do here, after all; no matter how responsible he felt for what had happened, Superman's abilities weren't required any more.
He didn't want to go straight to the Planet. After that last encounter with Mxyzptlk, and the ultimatum he'd been given, Clark simply couldn't face trying to pretend that everything was normal. Even worse, he couldn't bear to face Lois.
How could he look his wife in the eye, knowing that he had to make a choice between ending her life and allowing Mxyzptlk to carry on threatening the lives and safety of everyone in Metropolis?
Clark had wanted to stop Mxyzptlk. He'd decided that he had to call the wretched hobgoblin's bluff. And, having done so, he now had his original choice all over again: his ethics — and the safety of his fellow citizens — or Lois's life.
Yet, this time around, losing Lois seemed even more unthinkable than before.
He'd been in love with Lois before, and that hour when she'd been dead and he'd grieved for her had been agonizing. He'd felt, then, that he wanted to die too; that a life without Lois in it was simply unbearable.
He couldn't lose her again.
Now, he was married to her. They were a couple very much in love with each other; they were buying a house together; they made love together every night. Until Mxyzptlk had returned and started playing his callous tricks, Clark had been happier than he'd ever felt in his life before.
How could he resign himself to losing Lois now?
How could he let himself be responsible for her death, a second time?
Even if Mxyzptlk intended to wipe out everything which had happened in the past six weeks by returning him to the point at which Lois had failed to wake up after he'd frozen her, Clark couldn't see the situation as anything other than one in which *he* would have killed his wife, the woman he loved more than life itself.
It was an impossible situation. He couldn't sacrifice Lois. How could he live without the woman who was the other half of him?
And yet he couldn't allow Mxyzptlk to carry on behaving as he was, either.
Was he going to put his own selfish interests over what was right once again?
But it wasn't just his own selfish interests, he reminded himself. In a way, that was what it had been the first time, when he'd accepted Mxyzptlk's bargain. Lois had been dead at that point, and he'd chosen to sacrifice his ethics in order to get her back. This time, she was *alive*, and if he put right the wrong he'd done previously by accepting Mxyzptlk's bargain, she would die. A lovely, vibrant, intelligent woman, loved by her family and friends, would die, through no fault of her own.
How could he say the words which would lead to her death?
He'd seen Lois in Centennial Park, in the thick of the situation, as usual, getting interviews and impressions of the scene; by now, he imagined, she was on her way to the Planet to write up the story. Lois was a brilliant reporter, and he knew she would do justice to what she'd seen, even if she didn't know how to explain it.
And, of course, he realised with a sense of resignation, she would be waiting for him to arrive in the newsroom so that she could get Superman's opinion of what had happened. Which, of course, he couldn't tell her, because he couldn't tell her the truth, and nor would he lie to her. So that meant that another awkward confrontation lay ahead of him. Not that he could blame Lois in the slightest. She was the best reporter around. This was a great story. And he — Superman — had been at the scene, so naturally she'd want to talk to him about it; and she had every right to expect that he would give her the full story.
Only he wouldn't; and he knew she'd be hurt and angry. Just as she'd been when he'd refused to talk to her about the mall incident.
Hurt and angry, though, was better than being dead.
Clark sighed intensely and changed his course, heading somewhat skakily for the mountains to the north of the city. He wasn't going into work just yet, he decided: he needed some time alone to consider what he was going to do.
Lois looked at her watch again for about the hundredth time since arriving at work that morning. It was now almost two pm, and there was still no sign of Clark.
She'd called their home phone several times. Clark's cellphone was set to voicemail. He wasn't responding to his pager. And there had been nothing on the news wires concerning Superman since the trains in the park.
She'd run out of excuses for Perry, who was now barely restraining his annoyance at the failure of one of his top reporters to turn up for work. She was annoyed at Clark herself now; if he wanted her to cover for him, he should at least have the courtesy and common sense to let her know where he was and when he was likely to be back.
But then, Clark had been behaving very strangely for several days now. And she had no idea what to make of it: it seemed as if one minute he was loving and romantic and just the Clark she'd always known, and the next he was cold and remote and barely approachable. She could almost believe that there were two of them. Except that, the last time there had been two Supermen — when Superman had been cloned — she'd known the difference as soon as the clone had kissed her. Even the uncommunicative Clark was definitely *her* Clark.
Finally, she reached for her desk phone again, this time dialling a longer number. It was answered within a few rings.
"Martha? Hi, it's Lois," she began, only to be cut off by her mother-in-law's delighted greeting.
"Hi, Lois! I was just telling Jonathan that we should call you two kids later. We want to know when Clark's bringing you over for supper next — we haven't seen you since the wedding!"
Lois swallowed; ordinarily, she would enjoy the prospect of a visit to the Kent farmhouse, but not at the moment; not with Clark behaving the way he was. She stalled, therefore. "I'll have to talk to Clark about that. But, Martha, is he there?" As soon as the words left her mouth, though, she realised that he wasn't. If he had been in Smallville, Martha wouldn't have talked about phoning the two of them later.
Her mother-in-law's tone turned puzzled. "No — we haven't seen him since the wedding, like I said. Why — is he missing? Is there anything on the news?"
"I don't know," Lois answered frustratedly. "I haven't seen him since this morning, but there's been nothing Superman-related since about nine am," she explained softly, ensuring she wasn't overheard. "And I've tried to call his cellphone lots of times, but it's switched off."
"Well, maybe he got called away to something overseas," Martha suggested, her tone upbeat. "I'm sure it's nothing to worry about."
Maybe… but Lois couldn't get rid of the nagging sensation within her that there *was* something wrong. Just what it was, though, she had no idea. Ending the conversation with a promise that they would both call again later, she hung up and began to go through the possibilities in her head.
He could have gone to some emergency overseas which required Superman's assistance, but which hadn't been picked up by US news agencies. She could check out some international news websites to see whether there was any mention of him.
He could be lying in excruciating pain somewhere, having encountered Kryptonite. He could have been taken prisoner by someone who wanted him out of the way. He could be dying. And unless his body was dumped somewhere, she would never know what had happened to him — and even then, she could never claim him as her husband.
<Don't think about that!> she told herself. It was far too soon to be imagining that Clark could be in danger.
But what if he was? And he needed her help, and she wasn't even looking for him?
But even if she went to look for him, she hadn't the first idea of where to start. The last time she'd seen him, he'd been flying away from Centennial Park; she'd been a little annoyed at him for that, since she was pretty sure that he'd seen her there. Although they hadn't actually exchanged glances, she'd thought she had felt his gaze on her at one point while she was interviewing a train driver. But, shortly after the trains had disappeared, he'd taken off without coming across to talk to her.
Oh, she understood the need to be very circumspect in public, to protect his secret. But there would have been nothing unusual in Superman talking briefly to Lois Lane, reporter for the Daily Planet, giving her a couple of quotes for her article. Oh, sure, she could get those quotes any time — or so she'd thought, but it was already too late for the evening edition. But that wasn't the point. He'd ignored her, which had hurt.
Sitting at her desk, unable to work, was doing her no good at all, Lois decided, and she jumped up, grabbing her bag, and turned to head for the elevator. Even if she had to drive around Metropolis for hours, looking for Clark and calling his name, she'd do it; it would take her mind off these irrational, and yet very real, fears that something dreadful had happened to him.
As she neared the elevator, the doors opened… and Clark strolled out.
Clark, dressed in his charcoal suit, hair immaculately dressed, looking as unconcerned as if he'd just arrived at the beginning of a normal working day. A perfectly *healthy-looking* Clark, what was more.
Lois glared at him, her anxiety now turning to anger. "Where have you *been*?" she hissed at him. "Have you any idea how worried I've been, the excuses I've had to make to Perry, the things I've been imagining…?"
He caught her arm, steering her towards the conference room; she noticed then that, while outwardly he appeared completely normal, the little tic in his jaw was throbbing and he seemed to be under some strain. "Not here, Lois!" he muttered.
What did he think, that she was going to blurt out his secret in the middle of the newsroom? Annoyed, she glared at him. "If I was paranoid, I'd think you didn't trust me!"
He was gritting his teeth, she could tell; that infuriated her still more, since — as far as she could see — Clark had no reason or right whatsoever to be angry with her. *He* was the one who'd left her kicking her heels all morning without a word as to his whereabouts, making her worry herself sick over him…
"I *do* trust you," he gritted out in an undertone. "But you're not used to all the secrecy yet — I know that, so I just wanted to remind you." His final words were said in a softer tone, and Lois found some of her anger dissipating as she looked at the man she loved.
"We need to talk," she told him, opening the conference room door.
Of course Lois was upset, Clark told himself as he followed her into the conference room. He should have expected it. He hadn't told her where he was going, and he'd bet their next award that she'd been checking all the news wires on and off all morning, trying to find out where he was.
<Their next award…> That was assuming, of course, that they had a future.
He'd spent hours thinking himself around in circles, thousands of feet up above the city, but it always came down to the same choice: Lois, or the rest of Metropolis. Possibly even more than the rest of Metropolis, he'd considered, since what was stopping Mxyzptlk from spreading his wings wider still? For his next little trick, he could turn the Beltway around Washington DC into a skating rink, or even find a nuclear missile and bareback-ride it along the San Andreas Fault.
And, under the terms of their present deal, Clark could do nothing to stop him.
Oh, he could pick up the pieces afterwards, but by then so much damage would have been done. He could, it seemed, intervene to minimise the damage, as far as that was possible; so far, the imp hadn't objected to that. But he couldn't *stop* Mxyzptlk.
If he did, then Lois would die.
Mxyzptlk had made that perfectly clear that morning. Lois would die, and Mxyzptlk would probably carry on as before — although Clark would then have nothing to prevent him doing everything within his powers to put a stop to the hobgoblin from hell's activities.
So he'd had to think very seriously about Mxyzptlk's new 'offer': either Clark left him alone and Lois would live, or he could sacrifice Lois's life once again and Mxyzptlk would leave. At least, he hoped so. That was always assuming the wretched goblin could be trusted.
But, even setting aside his own desperate need for Lois in his life, his conviction that, without her, his life would have been stripped of every essential he needed in order to carry on, *what right did he have to bargain with her life*?
<Every bit as much right as you did six weeks ago> he'd told himself bitterly.
Lois had died when he'd frozen her. He should have done what was right: accepted her death, and lived with his grief and guilt. He should not have made a stupid, reckless Faustian bargain with an evil, magical imp from nowhere, about whom he knew nothing.
The right thing to do *then* had been to accept her death. But he was having a hard time accepting that the right thing to do now was to put things back the way they should have been. Because, by doing that, he wouldn't simply be accepting the fact of someone's death, but actually *bringing about* her death. He would be ensuring, by his actions, that the vivacious, intelligent, loving woman who shared his bed and his work and his life would *die*.
Clark gazed at Lois as she turned to face him. He wanted to run to her, to enfold her in his arms and assure her that he would never let any harm come to her — as he'd done once before, he remembered, when Kyle Griffin, the Prankster, had been after her. He was Superman — of course he should be able to protect his wife!
But he couldn't take the steps which would bring him closer to her. How could he, when he was contemplating a course of action which would kill her?
Guilt made him drop his gaze from her challenging one.
"So, where were you?" she asked him; he could hear the hurt, together with irritation, in her tone.
"Out." The bald response was, of course, of little use to Lois, and she threw him an incredulous look.
"You going to tell Perry that? He's been asking me where you were all morning. Last time he mentioned you, it was to ask whether you'd decided to work part-time."
"I'll talk to Perry," Clark said immediately; he was sure that he could come up with something vaguely plausible for their editor. He could even, if necessary, offer a Superman interview on the subject of the trains in Centennial Park — although, on second thoughts, he decided, that would be bound to upset Lois. She'd want to know why he hadn't offered it to Kent *and* Lane. And she'd be right to be upset.
Lois stared at him again, and he knew she expected more of an explanation. And in normal circumstances, of course he'd give it to her. But this wasn't normal… He sighed heavily. "Lois, I'm sorry I worried you. I just needed… to get away for a couple of hours. I had some thinking to do," he told her quietly. "But do you mind if we leave it at that? You'd better fill me in on what we're supposed to be working on today."
Her eyes widened, but she quickly composed herself. "I've been working on the train thing, of course," she told him. "And I was waiting for you to get here so you could tell me what you think about what happened — but it's too late, we've missed deadline." She was annoyed about that, too, he could see, and it was very obvious that she wanted to push for more of an explanation than he'd so far offered. He could see her emotions visibly warring with each other; her desire for a convincing explanation was clearly conflicting with her wish not to escalate this into a major argument. Which, of course, he wanted to avoid as well.
Of course they'd missed deadline, and that was his fault. Trying to make peace, as well as moving the conversation on to a less dangerous topic, he said lightly, "Okay, so we write it up for the morning edition instead. Let's face it, no-one else is going to have an exclusive interview with Superman, are they?"
"I guess not," Lois agreed. "Okay, you want to do this here, or at our desks?"
Did he need to discuss what they would say with her, or was he simply intending to type up the story and let her read it through afterwards? That was the implication of her question, and he knew that the choice mattered: Lois was feeling ignored, shut out from his Superman activities. But, while he didn't want to make her feel like that, he couldn't do anything about it for the moment.
Or not much anyway. "We'd better work in here," he suggested.
The easy part was telling her about Superman's actions that morning: how he'd rescued the woman, moved people out of the path of the rapidly-spreading track and moved one entire train. The more difficult part was when she introduced the subject of what had caused it.
He gave her a helpless look, hoping that she'd interpret it as total cluelessness. But, instead, she gave him a weak smile. "Clark, don't think I've gone totally crazy. But when I was watching it all this morning, it occurred to me that the only thing which could explain all that is… magic."
"Magic," Clark echoed hollowly. She knew.
Somehow, Lois knew what was going on. He sat, rigid, waiting for her to mention Mxyzptlk and his bargain.
"I know, I know, it's crazy," she continued. "But, honestly, it's the only thing that makes sense. Well, that is, if you assume that magic makes sense at all, which I'm not sure it does, but… well, anyway, if it *was* magic, then that could explain the stilts at the mall as well, couldn't it? And the Drearily Bland thing with the Planet logo yesterday. And…"
"Hey, slow down!" Clark interrupted, hoping that he was hiding the relief he felt at realising that she *didn't* know about Mxyzptlk. "Yeah, you may be right. I know, the idea of real magic is kind of off the wall, but, like you said, there is no other rational explanation, is there? Thing is, you think Perry will buy it?"
"I don't see why not," Lois answered. "LNN mentioned the M-word a few times earlier, though they didn't seem to know whether they were serious or not."
He could handle talking about magic in the abstract, Clark decided, and he made himself relax as they worked on the story together. While it wasn't helping him come any closer to the decision he needed to make, the sheer normality of working with Lois seemed to help calm his shattered nerves.
For the time being, anyway.
Until the following morning, when he would have to choose between sacrificing his love or sacrificing his ethics all over again.
There was definitely something wrong, Lois was convinced of it. Although Clark had remained at the Planet for the rest of the working day, and they'd worked together with the same easy teamwork as always, he'd been uncommunicative about anything other than work. His manner to her was as it had been before he'd ever asked her out, except that even the gentle, teasing flirting they'd indulged in all the time then was missing. It had been like working with someone who was professional in every way, but no more than that; a colleague who wasn't even a friend, let alone a husband.
Where had her loving, adoring husband disappeared to?
She really didn't know what to make of Clark's behaviour. It wasn't just a case of him excluding her from his life: after all, he'd come back to the Planet yesterday and told her about the boy who'd threatened suicide. He'd even talked to her about the trains in the park that morning, telling her how he had, as Superman, planned what he needed to do. No, it was more than simply not telling her about particular aspects of his life.
It seemed to have to do with her place in his life… possibly their marriage. Was he regretting tying himself to her? He certainly seemed to be distancing himself from her. He hadn't once kissed her today, so far. They hadn't made love last night. Okay, he'd had to go out as Superman, but even before that he'd seemed distracted, distant.
Had he fallen out of love with her?
No. She was over-reacting, surely. Clark obviously had something on his mind, and she needed to be sympathetic and understanding. She *would* be, as soon as they got home.
But, back at the apartment, Clark was even more uncommunicative. When she asked about dinner, he simply grunted and told her he wasn't hungry, then, at her look of surprise, added that his Kryptonian physiology meant that he didn't need to eat. He offered to fly out for some take-out for her, but somehow Lois couldn't help but wonder whether his eagerness to make the offer implied a sudden urge to be away from her presence.
In the end, he cooked for her, but he didn't sit with her while she ate. Instead, he took his laptop into the living area and worked, though she had no idea what he was working on. All she could hear was the sound of Super-speed typing, interspersed with occasional irritated mutters as the keyboard bleeped protests of its inability to keep up with the pace of Clark's input.
Maybe he felt he needed to make up for being absent most of the working day, Lois told herself. Perhaps he had some Superman stuff he wanted to write up as a Clark Kent — or even a Lane and Kent — article.
But if that was the case, why wasn't he telling her about it? And why not sit at the kitchen table with her, keeping her company?
He clearly wasn't going to make the first move to talk — to talk properly, that was. So, unless she wanted this silence to stretch until bedtime, it was up to her to go to him and ask what was troubling him. Awkwardly, she wandered into the living-room, standing for a moment watching him.
Clark glanced up. "Did you want something, Lois?" His expression was definitely wary.
"Yeah. I wanted to talk." He didn't move, so she went around him to the space at the end of the couch, and sat down. "Clark, what's going on here? Is there something bothering you?"
There was definitely a flash of alarm in his eyes, before he controlled his reactions and assumed a cool, almost expressionless demeanour. "What makes you think that, Lois?"
Frustrated, she shook her head. "What makes me…? How about the way you've practically ignored me all day, the way you wouldn't tell me where you went this morning — " She halted momentarily, realising that she'd just focused on herself instead of Clark, when she was now pretty sure that there was something really wrong with Clark himself. "And the way you've looked when you thought no-one was watching, as if your best friend's just died."
That made him flinch, and she stared at him again. What had she just said? *Had* someone died? But surely he'd have told her?
He inhaled deeply, and reached out a hand to grip hers. "Oh, Lois…" The words became a long sigh, and his gaze, although not directed at her, was very unhappy.
"Clark, please talk to me!" Lois urged. "Whatever it is, we can work it through together, you know we can."
He shook his head slowly. "I'm sorry, I just can't."
Now she was really worried. But, even if he couldn't talk to her, there was one way they always communicated…
She slid along the couch, closer to him, and took his face between her palms, bringing his head down to hers, then kissed him. He remained still for a long moment as she caressed his lips with hers; then, as she deepened the kiss, he suddenly pushed her away roughly.
"I'm sorry, Lois. I love you, but I just can't do it." The words sounded as if they'd been torn from him.
He didn't wait for her reaction, simply getting to his feet and striding through the apartment. Before she'd even recovered from the shock of being rejected by her own husband, Lois heard the sonic boom of his take-off from their balcony.
She collapsed on the sofa in tears.
He'd had to leave, no matter how it would no doubt have looked to Lois.
How could he possibly stay and kiss her, hold her, make love with her, let her do all those things to him, when what he was contemplating, what he'd already done, was a complete betrayal of her?
He was bargaining with Lois's *life*. How could he even look at her without feeling guilty?
There was no way he could allow himself to stay and pretend that there was nothing wrong, that he deserved to have Lois in his arms, kissing him, cuddling him, making love with him. He didn't deserve that — he had no right to be with her.
He had betrayed her in the most appalling way possible: he was almost without doubt going to have to kill her.
*Kill* her. That was what he'd be doing when… if he accepted Mxyzptlk's second bargain. And he could see no other way around it.
<Lois… I love you…> he cried silently as he flew north, towards the Arctic and his private place of retreat.
Now, she knew exactly what was wrong with Clark, Lois thought, finally dragging herself from her slumped position on the couch. He didn't love her, or want her, any more.
He couldn't have made it any more clear. By pushing her away when she'd tried to kiss him, caress him, he'd shown her precisely what his feelings for her were.
<But he said he loved me…> her inner voice pointed out. Yeah, she acknowledged; but he'd walked out — flown off — immediately afterwards.
<You're a reporter, Lois. You can figure it out, surely> she told herself, walking slowly into the kitchen to make herself coffee. Sure; she could work out why her husband of less than two weeks seemed to want to spend less and less time in her company, why he barely talked to her, and why he'd just been repulsed by her attempt to kiss him.
He'd fallen out of love with her. Or, maybe, he'd never really loved her in the first place.
No, that was ridiculous, she told herself furiously. Of course Clark loved her. He'd put her life above that of his parents, only a couple of months earlier. He'd been hurt and jealous when she'd been seeing Dan Scardino; he'd even come to her to tell her that seeing her with Dan upset him.
He loved her. She knew he did.
There was no way that Clark could have spent that blissful week with her on honeymoon if he wasn't — hadn't been — in love with her.
But that was then. This was now.
And Clark was Kryptonian, as he'd so effectively reminded her earlier — who, least of all him, knew how his emotional loyalty worked?
Okay, so she didn't think he was fickle. The way he'd looked at her just before he'd run out had told her that; his expression had been agonised, as had his words. But supposing Kryptonians just had a very different approach to mating? Perhaps Clark's true nature was more inclined to a sort of courtly love, worshipping the object of his desire from afar. He *did* love her, but not in the way humans loved, and, having tried marriage, he'd realised that it wasn't the kind of relationship he could live with. That was possible, wasn't it?
They *had* made a mistake by rushing into marriage too soon. Clearly Clark knew this, but he didn't know how to tell her. He probably didn't want to hurt her.
But didn't he know that, by *not* telling her what was going on, he was hurting her far more?
Memories intruded then, memories she'd sworn to herself she would never revisit again. Memories of another relationship in which she'd invested a lot of emotion, with a man who'd walked away without a second glance once he'd got what he wanted from her.
Were all men — even Super men — that capricious?
Choking back tears, Lois resolved to wait up until Clark came home. He would, sooner or later. Then neither of them would go to bed until they'd talked this whole thing out once and for all, and decided what they were going to do.
It was very late when he flew back into the apartment, but the lights were still on. Clark's heart sank; he just couldn't face talking to Lois right now, having to come up with an explanation for running out on her. He did need to talk to her, he knew that; he'd been fooling himself that he could somehow keep all this Mxyzptlk stuff from her. But he didn't want to tell her tonight; he was too tired, too stressed, and too heartsick.
Warily, he X-rayed through the wall into the living area of the apartment; then he smiled wryly. She'd fallen asleep on the couch.
Gently, he scooped her up into his arms and carried her to their bed. She didn't wake. Once he'd undressed her and covered her up, he silently removed his own clothes, then slipped into bed beside her.
One more night sleeping beside her, he told himself, quashing his guilty conscience. He could have just one night, before he told her everything and then did what he had to do, couldn't he?
He'd done it. Finally, done what he'd known all along was the right thing to do. He'd told Mxyzptlk to undo their original bargain, return everything to the way it had been, and to keep his word and leave.
And now, he was flying back to his — their — apartment.
What would happen? Would Lois still be there? Or would Mxyzptlk wipe out the past six weeks, as if they'd never happened? Would he fly into his apartment and find her dead body on his bed, as it had been that dreadful day when he'd first met the imp?
If that was what was going to happen, Clark hoped desperately that his memories of the past six weeks would also disappear. At least that way, while he wouldn't remember how wonderful it had felt to have Lois as his wife, it wouldn't be quite as painful to lose her again.
He landed on his balcony and made himself walk into the apartment. In the bedroom, he paused and stared incredulously. Lois's things still littered the room, as they had for the past couple of weeks since she'd moved in.
Time hadn't gone into reverse.
"Lois…?" he began tentatively, walking through into the main part of the apartment.
Then he halted, his breath catching in his throat and his blood running cold.
She was there, in a heap on the floor. Not moving, her eyes open and staring unseeingly upwards. He finally forced himself to walk over to her and crouch down beside her, but he didn't need to examine her to confirm what he already knew, had known as soon as he'd seen her.
She was dead.
Clark sat up suddenly in bed, his heart thumping and tears streaming down his face.
Then he became conscious of soft breathing next to him.
She was alive. It had all been a dream.
He breathed a shuddering sigh and simply gazed at her for several long minutes. Then he got out of bed and dressed silently in his Suit. It was time to see Mxyzptlk, and he finally knew just what he was going to say to the imp. He'd made up his mind the previous evening, but this nightmare had decided him once and for all. He was going to do the right thing, at last.
"Goodbye, Lois," he whispered, bending to kiss her forehead, taking care not to wake her up. He should talk to her, tell her what he was about to do, but he couldn't bear the thought of her reaction. And anyway, it would all be over soon enough…
He stood and gazed down at her for a long moment, before whispering, a lump in his throat, "I love you, so very much…"
Lois awakened suddenly, not knowing what had woken her up but aware that something had jerked her from sleep. The clock by her bedside informed her that it was not yet seven am, which meant she shouldn't have to get up yet. Turning to ascertain whether her husband was awake, she then realised what had woken her.
Clark was gone.
And yet he had slept beside her; there was still an indentation in his pillow, and she stretched a hand across. His side of the bed was still warm.
He could have been called out as Superman, of course, but Lois wasn't sure that she believed that. He'd run out on her the previous evening, not returning until very late; she remembered checking her watch and noticing that it was after one and he still wasn't home. He must have put her to bed, she realised. And now, he'd left the apartment before she was awake.
He was definitely avoiding her, because he didn't want to confront the issue of their marriage. Well, perhaps it was time that she took the initiative, she decided. If he wouldn't talk to her, tell her that he wanted out, then she needed to take direct action to set him free.
She rolled out of bed and, pulling on a robe, dragged down a large suitcase from the top of the wardrobe. It was time to start packing.
When he'd reached the deserted stretch of barren mountainside where he'd sat the previous day, Clark landed and inhaled deeply. Then, not bothering to raise his voice, he said, "Okay, Mxyzptlk, I'm ready to talk."
With an unnecessary flash, Mxyzptlk appeared in front of him, floating cross-legged in the air. "Clarkie! You've made up your mind, then?" he demanded, grinning like a Cheshire cat.
He really *hated* being called 'Clarkie', Clark reflected. But that wasn't important now. The only thing which mattered was getting rid of this misbegotten hellion. "Yes, I've decided," he said. "But before I tell you, I have a couple of questions."
Mxyzptlk waved his hand in a flamboyant gesture. "Feel free!"
Forcing himself to relax just a little of the tension which had gripped him as soon as he'd touched down on the mountain, Clark said tautly, "Once we agree — once we've made a deal, you'll disappear immediately, right? You'll leave this world and not come back?"
"You cut me to the heart, Supes!" Mxyzptlk groaned exaggeratedly. "Anyone would think you wanted to be rid of me!"
Oh, how he wished that this tiresome little runt would drop the bad jokes! "Answer the question, please," Clark snapped.
"Oh, okay, if you insist," the imp grumbled. "Yes. I told you. If that's the bargain you choose, I'm outta here. Vamoosed." He snapped his fingers. "Just like that."
Always assuming he could trust the little monster to keep his word…
Clark inhaled heavily. "Okay. In that case, I'm ready to give you my answer."
"I'm all ears, Clarkie-baby! So, you decided you really don't love Lo-lo all that much after all?" the imp taunted.
If only the misbegotten hobgoblin knew… "That's none of your business," Clark retorted, barely restraining his anger. About to give Mxyzptlk his answer, he found himself hesitating. *Could* he trust the imp?
He'd kept his word before, brought Lois back to life…
But he *hadn't* kept his word about not harming people. That woman the other morning could have been killed!
So… could he trust Mxyzptlk? If he gave the imp the answer he'd planned, would he really go away and never come back? If he double-crossed Clark, played him for a fool, then the sacrifice would have all been for nothing…
Clark took a shuddering sigh. What choice did he have?
"Okay. This is the deal," he said jerkily. "You're leaving. Now. And in return…" He halted momentarily, then added, "In return, you take me instead of Lois. My life for you leaving here and never coming back."
Mxyzptlk performed a triple flip somersault in the air before standing, hands on hips, to face Clark. "*You*? You want me to kill Superman?"
"I don't *want* you to kill anyone! But the terms of your deal were… anyway, I don't want Lois harmed. So I'm offering myself instead," Clark repeated.
He was taken aback when Mxyzptlk collapsed in hysterical laughter. "You? The great and powerful Superman, offering himself as a sacrifice instead of an insignificant little woman?!"
Mxyzptlk was just trying to rile him, Clark told himself, and he refused to rise to the taunt. "You heard me. That's my offer."
"And you think I'll accept it?" the imp asked, smirking.
"Why not?" Clark demanded. "This way, as you just pointed out, you manage to get rid of Superman, instead of one reporter."
"That would be assuming that I was interested in getting rid of you in the first place, Clarkie," Mxyzptlk retorted with a grin. "And hey, I told you, I'm not like that. I just want to have fun," he concluded with a pout.
For some reason, Clark thought bleakly, he wasn't laughing.
"Anyway," Mxyzptlk continued, "I can't kill people. That's one of the Rules, Clarkie. I can have fun, I can play little jokes and tricks, but I can't actually kill anyone. So I can't kill you, even if you are beginning to bore me!"
"You almost killed that woman yesterday!" Clark snapped.
"Naah!" Mxyzptlk scoffed. "Sure, I gave her a fright. But even if you hadn't swooped down in all your finery in the nick of time, Supie-babes, she would have been okay. I was just going to let her go, before you got in the way," the imp muttered, pouting again.
Sceptical, Clark confined his reaction to the mere lift of one eyebrow. He just wished Mxyzptlk would get on and give him a proper answer to his proposal; it couldn't be that difficult, surely?
"So..?" he prompted.
"Told you, Clarkie, no can do! All I can do is reset things to the way they were! So I leave, and your Lo-lo goes back to being a corpse, that's all." Mxyzptlk shrugged exaggeratedly. "So — it's me or your pretty wife. Make your choice!"
Clark felt a cold hand wedge itself around his heart. He'd thought he had it all worked out; he could save Lois, and get rid of Mxyzptlk, thus salving his guilty conscience in all respects in one move. The only flaw, of course, had been the prospect of his own death… but better him than Lois, he'd decided.
And now… he was back where he'd started from.
He still had to decide between losing Lois and sacrificing his ethics to allow Mxyzptlk to continue his rampage unhindered.
"I have to think about it," he announced coldly, quelling the sick feeling in his stomach with difficulty.
"But that's what you were supposed to be doing yesterday," Mxyzptlk protested.
"I know. And I need more time," Clark stated firmly.
Mxyzptlk shrugged. "If you insist, Clarkie. But in the meantime, I'm just going to carry on having fun. Just giving you fair warning."
"Yeah, I thought you would," Clark muttered.
"Well, just give me a call whenever you finally make up your mind," the imp carolled. "I don't mind — take as long as you like! I'm enjoying this!"
And with that, he disappeared, and Clark was left reeling.
He took off slowly, drifting aimlessly above the mountains. What was he supposed to do now? Despite knowing what was the right thing to do, that he should have told Mxyzptlk to set things back to the way they were the day Lois had died, he'd been unable to make the decision which would kill Lois again. He'd been so sure that Mxyzptlk would accept his offer; now, he felt dead inside.
There was nothing for it, he decided after a few minutes. He would have to tell Lois everything, beg her forgiveness, and ask her what she thought he should do. He should probably have done that before now, he acknowledged, but the thought of telling Lois about the bargaining he'd been doing with her life had seemed impossible. Now, though, he had no choice — in fact, he now realised that he'd had no choice all along. This affected Lois every bit as much as it did him — far more, in fact — and he'd had no right to keep the truth from her.
He'd actually reached that conclusion the night before, he reminded himself, and yet he'd left her without telling her the truth, without letting her know that she might never see him again… that was yet another betrayal, he realised with a pang. He should have told her, wakened her, talked to her properly — how would she have felt if she'd woken up, found him missing, and later heard reports that Superman was dead? She would have been hurt beyond bearing, especially if she'd ever found out that he knew what was coming and didn't tell her, didn't discuss it with her.
He should have told her about this days ago.
So he needed to go home and talk to her. Checking his watch, he thought she'd probably still be at the apartment, getting ready for work, so he put on a burst of Super-speed and, with a heavy heart, flew back home. Just how he was going to tell Lois the whole story he had no idea; he certainly knew that he wasn't looking forward to it, or to what he strongly suspected would be Lois's recommendation. He knew what she'd tell him he had to do.
But he was completely unprepared for the sight which met his gaze when he walked through the balcony door into the bedroom. Lois was closing one suitcase, while another — already packed — stood by the arch leading to the main room of the apartment.
She was leaving him!
On top of the Mxyzptlk issue, this was too much for him to bear. He'd obviously driven her away by his behaviour.
Stifling a choking sob, he leaned against the bedroom wall and slid to the floor, staring helplessly at his wife, who was about to end their marriage.
"Lois… oh, god, Lois, no!" he muttered, dragging a shaking hand over his eyes before burying his face behind his knees so that he didn't have to see her walk out of his life.
Clark's return had taken Lois by surprise, though his appalled reaction to the sight of her packing wasn't entirely unexpected. She knew that he cared for her, after all, and she suspected that he'd be horrified to realise that he'd hurt her or driven her away. But she was almost convinced that moving out was the best course of action; if living together was making them both unhappy, then she shouldn't stay.
And yet… Clark seemed more than just upset. He seemed to be more distressed than she'd ever seen him before.
That wasn't what she'd expected at all. Her analysis of their situation had led her to the conclusion that his feelings for her had to be far less deep than hers for him. His behaviour the previous evening — refusing to eat with her, and that careless explanation that he didn't need to eat because he was Kryptonian, for example. Why had he never told her that before? She'd never noticed Clark turning down food before. And then the way he'd rejected her when she'd tried to kiss him… that had *hurt*.
So how could he possibly be distressed or even surprised now?
But he was. He seemed to be devastated.
They needed to talk, she thought yet again. And maybe now Clark would be willing to talk, instead of making yet another excuse not to be with her. Maybe this time he'd actually be honest with her about what was wrong.
Lois grimaced; it looked as if she would have to make the first move again, take the risk of being rejected a second time. She crossed the room and laid her hand on her husband's shoulder.
"Clark? Clark, talk to me," she said softly. "You can't be too surprised, surely?"
He raised his head, and she was shocked to see his reddened eyes. "I didn't realise how much I must have hurt you… I've driven you away, haven't I?" Even the voice didn't sound like Clark; he was clearly on the edge of some sort of breakdown. Obviously he really hadn't expected her to leave, and it was hurting him far more than she'd imagined.
Could she have been wrong about his feelings for her?
"Clark… you've been so distant the last couple of days, and then last night, when you pushed me away… I didn't know what to think, except that you didn't love me any more," Lois confessed awkwardly, now close to tears herself. She loved Clark so much; walking out on their marriage had seemed unthinkable, but she hadn't thought there was any other option.
He gave a long, shuddering sigh before meeting her gaze again. "I know I have, Lois, and I'm so sorry. But it had *nothing* to do with my feelings for you. I love you. I've always loved you. The day we married was the happiest day of my life, and I feel so proud to be your husband. Please believe me," he pleaded, his hands reaching for hers and gripping them tightly, trying to pull her down to him.
His words, spoken hesitantly and in an uneven voice, sounded so sincere that Lois found herself completely confused. "Then… what…?" she asked, semi-coherently, crouching down beside him.
Clark swallowed and looked away again, but then sighed and turned back to face her. His expression still revealed deep pain, and Lois involuntarily moved closer to him, offering him comfort. "Something… happened, a few days ago," he told her. "I've been trying to figure out what to do ever since, and I've hardly been able to think about anything else."
This had to be serious, Lois thought, noting the tone of Clark's voice and what she was now sure was fear in his expression. She refrained from asking the obvious question; somehow she suspected he was about to answer it anyway.
And he did. "I know I should have told you about it, but it wasn't easy. And I hoped that I could sort it all out without ever having to worry you about it. Anyway, believe it or not, the reason I came back here now was to tell you all about it. And then…"
"And then you found me packing to leave you," Lois finished softly. "Clark, I love you. I never wanted to leave. But I couldn't… I didn't know what was going on, and it really looked to me as if you didn't love me any more, especially after yesterday…"
"I do love you," he insisted again, then reached up for her, tugging her head down to his and kissing her, deeply and with an emotional passion which overwhelmed her. Kissing him back, she wrapped her arms around him, noting how he held her close to him, cradling her as if he was somehow drawing strength from her closeness.
Drawing away from him at last, Lois stroked his face with her fingertips. "We need to talk, Clark. I'll call Perry and tell him we're taking some personal time this morning, okay?"
Getting to his feet, Clark nodded. "Thanks. And you're right, this will take time." He grimaced, then indicated the bathroom. "I'll just… be right back."
Lois nodded, half-wondering whether he wanted to get away from her and the intense atmosphere so that he could recover his composure; although he was certainly sensitive to other people's feelings, the Clark she knew was rarely, if ever, emotional. Of course, he couldn't afford to be; not considering the things he encountered as Superman. She heard the shower running a moment later, and turned away to call Perry.
He hadn't anticipated that, Clark thought bleakly as he showered, at human speed this morning. And yet it should have occurred to him that Lois would be puzzling over his behaviour — that, in particular, she would have been hurt badly by his rejection of her the previous evening.
He had behaved appallingly, and there was no way that Lois could have known that his actions were motivated exclusively by guilt. How could she have realised that, being eaten up inside by the conviction that he'd betrayed her, he couldn't allow himself the luxury of being close to her? He would have been a hypocrite.
And, in a way, he was still being a hypocrite; he'd just told Lois that he loved her, given her the impression that all was well with their relationship and that his problem — about which he had yet to tell her — wasn't connected with the two of them. That certainly wasn't true. Whatever the outcome of their discussion, whether she decided to forgive him or not, the fact remained that he still had to make a choice between Lois's life and Superman's ethics.
And, since Lois should not have been alive in the first place, he knew very well what that choice *should* be.
He'd known it all day yesterday, which was why he hadn't been able to face being around Lois. How could he look her in the eye when he was about to consent to her death?
But he should have told her about this days ago, and he was well aware that she would be furious with him for not doing so. This was *her* life — she deserved to have some say in the matter! And, he realised suddenly, how could he have been so arrogant as to fly off to give Mxyzptlk an answer without consulting Lois? Even though he'd decided to offer himself as the sacrifice instead, Lois should have had a say in the matter.
This time, though, she would have a say. He would give Mxyzptlk no answer at all until Lois gave him permission to do so. That was fair; no, it was *right* that Lois should have the right to approve their decision.
Even if Mxyzptlk got even worse in the meantime…
Well, if that happened, he would simply have to deal with it, in the same way as he'd coped with the train incident.
He dried himself quickly and returned to the bedroom, where Lois was starting to unpack her cases. Clark's first reaction was relief, but then he frowned slightly and walked over to place a restraining hand on her arm.
"Leave that for now, honey," he advised quietly. "Let's talk first. And if you still want to stay with me after hearing what I have to tell you, I'll unpack them later."
"This sounds pretty serious," Lois answered, giving him a concerned look. "But then, I suppose it'd have to be to put you in the kind of mood you've been in the last couple of days."
Clark nodded, his expression sombre. "It's… serious, all right, Lois."
She gazed at him anxiously for a long moment, then said, "I'll make some coffee while you get dressed," then turned and left the room.
Clark dressed quickly in jeans and a T-shirt and was in the kitchen before Lois had filled the filter jug; unobtrusively, he took over the task from her before preparing a light breakfast. She glanced at him, then said quietly, "I'm not hungry. And I know you can't be, so…"
He winced, then reached for her, hugging her closely. "I'm sorry," he said heavily. "I guess that hurt. I… it's just one of those little differences about me I hadn't got around to mentioning — it didn't seem important before…"
"Before you used it as an excuse to avoid being with me?" she challenged, and he winced again. "Well, it sounded like you were deliberately reminding me that you're from another planet — that you're not human. As if you wanted me to be disgusted by you!"
Clark sighed, hating himself for having made her feel like that. "No, I'd never want that, Lois, believe me! I just… oh, you have to know what's going on. Then maybe you can understand why I just couldn't let myself be anywhere near you…"
She pulled away from him. "Clark, just what is going on?"
This was the Lois he knew: the indomitable, nobody-keeps-me-from-a-story, fiery woman he'd married. And he suspected that, if he hadn't seen much of that Lois over the past few days, it was probably his fault. She'd been treading on eggshells around him, that much was obvious. The old Lois would have ranted and raved and insisted that he talk to her: she'd certainly made her displeasure clear when they'd been dating and he'd kept running off to be Superman. Then, she'd started seeing Scardino, and been cool to him when he'd refused to explain his disappearances.
But they were married now; clearly she'd felt that the old Clark-handling strategies were no longer appropriate. Or something like that. In fact, he had no idea what she'd thought, he mused; because he hadn't stopped to ask.
"Come and sit down," he urged, piling the coffee and breakfast things onto a tray. "This will take a while, so we might as well get comfortable…"
Lois was beginning to get very worried again. She'd felt the lightness of immense relief that their marriage wasn't falling apart after all, which had stopped her from wondering very seriously about what was bothering Clark. But, going by his expression and what he'd just said about not allowing himself to be anywhere near her, this was big. This was very big.
Was he ill? Something contagious…? but then he'd never have allowed himself to share their bed, and he wouldn't have hugged her, or kissed her.
"It's bad, isn't it?" she said as soon as they were seated.
He nodded, his expression grim. "I have no idea how I'm going to tell you this, so I guess I'll just… well, pick a starting point and take it from there. And, Lois, please believe me, I never wanted you to need to know about this. I thought I could deal with it, sort it out so you never needed to know…"
"Clark, just tell me, please!" Lois cut across Clark's hesitant and not-very-informative speech. "You're making me more worried the more you drag this out."
He sighed and grimaced. "Well, you're right to be worried. Okay," he added after inhaling deeply again. "All these weird things that have been happening lately — the stilts, the traffic signs, the Planet logo, the trains — remember you suggested yesterday that you thought they were connected?"
Lois nodded. Magic, she'd suggested, unable to come up with any other explanation.
"You said the only thing you could think of was magic, right?" Clark echoed her thoughts. "You were right. It is magic."
"Really? And you knew -!" She stared at him incredulously; she was right. He had been keeping things from her.
"Yes, I've known all along, since after I flew that woman to the ambulance after the mall incident," he said heavily. "Well, okay, I guess I've known longer, but I didn't remember. I thought it was all a dream…"
"Clark, you're not making any sense!" Lois protested. "What was a dream? What have you known?"
"Mxyzptlk," Clark answered bafflingly, then sighed again. "He's who's behind the magic. He's an… an imp from the fifth dimension, he told me. And probably some kind of immortal creature, too, since he's lived for centuries. Anyway, he can do just about anything he wants — cause things to appear and disappear with a click of his fingers, make inanimate objects move, put people's lives in danger, bring people back to life…" He trailed off, and it occurred to Lois that he was trying to hide some deep pain.
The being Clark had described sounded fantastical, the stuff of comic-books or evil fairy-tales. And yet she knew her husband was telling the truth — of course he was. And after all, she reminded herself, why was it so impossible to believe in the existence of some sort of evil sorcerer, such as this Mix-is-pickle or whatever his name was, when she herself was married to a being from another planet?
No, it wasn't impossible. But there was clearly a lot more to this story: for instance, why was Clark so obviously torn apart inside?
"How do you know all this?" she asked carefully; she could see that Clark was barely managing to hold onto his composure, and she didn't want to cause more stress for him.
"It was the day I froze you," he said tonelessly, not looking in her direction. "We knew it was dangerous… Lois, you died!" he added, his voice ragged with pain. He looked up then, and the naked agony on his face shocked her. How could he have been suffering this much pain, and never told her?
But his words just didn't make sense… "Clark… what do you mean, I died? I'm here!"
He shook his head. "You didn't wake up," he told her, the strain evident in his voice. "I kept trying… heart massage, artificial respiration, I warmed you again and again with my heat vision, desperately hoping… I was pleading, begging you to wake up, but you didn't… and eventually my parents made me accept that you were dead. It was — it was the worst moment of my life, Lois," he finished, his voice cracking.
Lois heard Clark's words, but at first she was unable to process them. She was alive; she was sitting in the living-room of their apartment, eating breakfast, talking to her husband… she couldn't have died! She stretched out a hand to touch Clark's thigh; yes, that was definitely solid muscle and bone. She could feel it. So she wasn't a ghost… and anyway, she *knew* she wasn't a ghost! They'd got married… apart from the last couple of nights, she and Clark had made love every night, and sometimes more frequently, since they'd become engaged. And ghosts couldn't make love…
But he'd just told her that she was dead!
So… how could she be dead, and yet still be sitting here with him, carrying on a rat… no, whatever else this conversation was, it definitely was not *rational*, she told herself. This just didn't make sense. She wasn't dead!
Then something else Clark had said — together with the look on his face as he'd said it — came back to her.
He'd been talking about this mystical imp who could work magic, the one who'd been causing all the trouble. And he'd said… "bring people back to life…"
Lois caught her breath as the implication struck her. Had this Mixie-pickle, or whatever his name was, brought *her* back to life?
And, if so, what had Clark had to do in return?
For he had done something, she knew that. There was no reason why this sorcerer should have cared whether one reporter lived or died, for one thing. And, for another, Clark having made some sort of deal, or given something up, or whatever, in return for *her* being brought back to life could explain his demeanour now. Clearly, whatever it was he had done, the chickens were now coming home to roost in a big way.
And her biggest question right now was, exactly what had Clark promised? Judging by his behaviour, it was clearly something he regretted — deeply regretted. And yet it had bought her life…
"Lois… are you okay?" Clark's concerned voice penetrated her agitated thoughts. Focusing on him again, she could see that he was trying to put aside his own torment to concentrate on her.
"Yeah… yeah, I'm okay," she managed to say, in a voice which she knew wasn't entirely steady. "Just… just figuring out how I can have died and yet be here now," she added, on a half-hysterical laugh.
"I… uh, can explain that," Clark ventured.
Lois nodded. "I think I've guessed most of it. This Mix-pick or whatever his name is offered to bring me back to life, and in return you had to promise him something. So, what was it?" she asked, not without some trepidation.
Clark grimaced again before answering. Then he said, almost defensively, "You have to understand, I was devastated, Lois! I love you so much… and you'd died, and it was all my fault. I'd killed you! I -"
"No, you hadn't!" Lois interrupted furiously. "I *told* you to freeze me. In fact, I remember pleading with you. You didn't want to do it, and I made you. It *wasn't* your fault! So if that… that voodoo peddler told you it was -"
"He didn't, Lois," Clark answered quietly. "He didn't need to. Okay, look, I know you pleaded with me to do it. But I knew it was dangerous. I knew what could happen. I said no. But I let you persuade me. And… Lois, you know that I can be as stubborn as you when I'm convinced that something's the right thing to do. I *knew* it was risky. And I still did it."
"Because it was the only chance we had to save your parents!" Lois protested. "And, if you must, then let's agree that we both share the responsibility equally. If I died — well, since I did die, it was as much my fault. I knew the risks — you made it all very clear to me. And I still insisted that I wanted you to go ahead. You didn't kill me, Clark!"
For the first time since they'd begun talking, he reached for her, taking her hands in his and gripping them tightly. "Either way… you died, Lois. And… and I took his damned Faustian bargain, which is why we're now in this diabolical mess," he added, sounding weary and defeated.
A *Faustian* bargain? What did Clark mean by that? Just what had he promised? Lois began to feel cold again as she mentally debated the possibilities.
"What did he want from you, Clark?" she asked anxiously, searching his expression.
"I had to promise not to stop him," he told her bleakly. "Whatever he did, I had to let him, not get in his way. *Superman* couldn't interfere. And he knows Superman is me, so I can't interfere as Clark either."
"Whatever he did?" Lois echoed incredulously. "Clark, how could you have agreed to something like that?"
"I didn't!" he protested. "Not… not exactly like that. What I mean is, he said he wanted to… 'have fun'," he explained, emphasising his final words. "And I asked what he meant by that, just what he didn't want Superman interfering with. And… oh, he insisted that he wasn't some sort of evil villain, that all he wanted was to enjoy himself. I… oh, Lois…" he sighed, and trailed off, dropping her hands and raking his roughly through his hair.
And Clark had believed that? He'd given his word to some weird magician he knew nothing about, and promised that Superman would leave the guy alone? Lois found that almost impossible to believe.
But, on the other hand, she could understand how it had come about. Clark loved her — and now, having seen his reaction to discovering her on the point of leaving him, seeing his haunted, agonised expression as he'd told her of his fruitless efforts at reviving her, she had no doubt at all about the strength of his love for her, as well as his conviction that he was responsible for what had happened. So he *would* have been devastated at her death. And it was very understandable that he would have clutched at any straw, however dubious, to get her back.
Wouldn't she, if it had been Clark who'd died?
A memory from almost a year ago resurrected itself in her mind, but she pushed it aside. This was different.
This was different, wasn't it? She and Clark hadn't been dating at that time. She hadn't been in love with him then…
Of course she'd been in love with him then. And she would have done anything to get him back — sold her soul to the devil, if that was what it would have taken.
And that, she supposed, pushing those painful memories away again, was what Clark had done. And he'd done it to get her back.
*She* was alive because Clark had promised this Mixie-tip person that he'd leave him alone. And people had been terrified out of their minds the previous morning in Centennial Park — some people had come close to being killed — because Clark had agreed to the bargain in order to get her back.
She reached for him, wrapping her arms tightly around him to hold him close, as much a reaffirmation that she was alive and they had each other as it was a gesture of comfort. He returned the embrace, hugging her for a long moment before drawing back, while still holding her.
"Are you okay, Lois? I know this had to be a shock," he asked, concern written all over his face as his gaze searched her own. "I never wanted you to know about what happened — "
"But, Clark, this was weeks ago!" Lois exclaimed, suddenly finding her voice. "And you've been hiding this all that time…"
He shook his head quickly. "I don't know what Mxyzptlk did, but I didn't remember anything about what happened until the day of the stilts thing. I had some really weird images in the back of my mind, but they seemed kind of nightmarish, so I figured I was just remembering some really terrible dream. I mean, I dreamed about that day a lot afterwards — I really thought I'd lost you, and in my dreams, a few times, I did. So I thought that I'd dreamed it all, I guess."
"Or Mixie-person made you think you had," Lois suggested thoughtfully. "You didn't remember it when I did wake up and you flew me back to your apartment, did you?"
Clark shook his head again. "No — except that when I flew off to get Mazik, I know I felt that there was something I'd forgotten. I guess you're right and it was all Mxyzptlk's doing. That way, he was able to bide his time and wait until it was the most effective time to strike."
"But, if he can work all this magic," Lois began slowly, "why does he care about neutralising Superman? What can you do? *Could* you stop him, if you weren't constrained by your promise?"
"I've asked myself that, too — why he bothered, I mean," Clark replied, and Lois could see that he was gradually dragging himself out of his despondent state and becoming again the intelligent, competent reporter and Super-hero she knew him to be. "I *can't* actually stop him — I may be fast, but he's faster. He can disappear, and reappear somewhere else, quicker than I can grab him. He can do just about anything he wants — and he can even make me see illusions if he wants to."
"Illusions?" Now Lois was puzzled. She listened in appalled disbelief as Clark told her about seeing Lex Luthor about to rape her in their bedroom, and his own state of apparent paralysis, helpless to do anything.
"I came to the conclusion quite quickly that it *was* just an illusion," Clark added. "It didn't really happen; he was just making me believe it was happening."
"But he could make it happen, if he wanted," Lois mused aloud.
"I'm sure he could," Clark agreed, "but that's not what —" He broke off abruptly, and she stared at him.
Now he was being evasive. "Not… ah, nothing."
"Clark?" He'd told her this much; surely he understood how important it was that he tell her everything? Even if she couldn't help — which she doubted, at least if she knew the truth she wouldn't have to jump to conclusions of her own again. "What *is* his agenda? Why does he want Superman to leave him alone?"
"I don't know," Clark said, sighing. "I wish I did — even though I've threatened to put a stop to his little games, I'm still not sure what I can do. Which is why… oh, Lois," he added suddenly, his voice ragged again. "He offered me another bargain yesterday. I told him I'd had enough, that I wasn't going to keep to our agreement any more and that I was going to stop him, by whatever means I could."
"Good, Clark!" Lois exclaimed. "Of course that's what you should tell him! Okay, I know you promised, but any promise extracted under duress is hardly binding."
"It wasn't extracted under duress," Clark replied quietly, but insistently. "I promised freely. And he did live up to his side of the bargain."
"By bringing me back to life, sure," Lois agreed. "But he's gone too far in his notion of 'fun'," she insisted. "So you're entitled to break your promise, Clark!"
He moved his hand to cup her jaw, the gesture a caress, though at the same time he turned her face so that she was looking directly at him. "Lois, you're not thinking," he said gently. "If I break my side of the bargain, what can he do? What hold does he have over me?"
Of course. She should have seen it before — *stupid*! If Clark broke his word, she would die again. *That* was the hold this evil warlock had over her husband. She felt cold inside once more at the thought that her life hung by the thread of a devil's bargain.
"Oh, Clark!" she groaned, staring at him, horrified. "So your hands were tied… But, wait!" she added quickly, apprehensively. "You said you told him the deal was off…" Was Clark saying, she wondered incredulously, that he'd told this imp to kill her?
"No, no, no!" he exclaimed instantly, clearly understanding her fears. "I didn't *know* then that's what he'd do. I told him the deal was off, and he told me that in that case I'd lose you again, and he'd still carry on doing what he wanted." Clark's expression was tortured; he seemed to have aged in the past half-hour.
"While you'd then be free to stop him," Lois added tonelessly.
Releasing her, Clark got to his feet and began to pace the room restlessly. "Lois, I can't lose you! And… how could I do that to you? But… this guy, we…"
"We don't know what he's capable of," Lois finished soberly. "Okay, he says he won't kill, but he came damned close!"
Clark nodded; she saw him swallow and inhale deeply, obviously trying to compose himself again.
"So," she began, trying to move the discussion on a little, "you said he offered a new bargain?" Now she had to halt and swallow; her throat felt oddly dry. "What was that?"
Clark turned back to face her, his expression haunted. "He'd undo the first bargain. He'd go, get out of this universe altogether… and you'd be dead again. That… he offered me that yesterday, and I've been racking my brains ever since trying to work out what to do."
She could see his anguish, and now she understood his withdrawn manner the previous day — and, no doubt, his disappearance for much of the day. Thinking things over, if she knew Clark. And now, of course, her suspicion that he was in some mental torment the previous evening was explained.
"You've been working out whether to… get rid of this Mxy-person, even if it means that I have to die," she said hollowly, barely able to take this in. *Clark* effectively held her life in his hands; if he said the word, she would be dead! And, much though she wished he had confided in her sooner, in a way now she almost wished she knew nothing about the situation; that way, if death had to come, it would be entirely unexpected and she'd probably never even know what had happened.
At the same time, she couldn't help asking herself a different question: how could Clark not accept this new bargain? For all sorts of reasons.
First, clearly she shouldn't be alive in the first place. If she had died when he'd frozen her, then she should be dead and buried by now, not here, married to Clark. And she suspected that Clark was as well aware of that as she was.
It was gradually dawning on her that she'd been living on borrowed time for the past six weeks. Everything they'd done together in that time — getting engaged, making love, getting married — none of that should have happened. It *shouldn't* have happened… her whole life over the past six weeks was a complete fraud. And in the blink of an eye, or the wave of a hand, if this devil saw fit, none of it *would* have happened. She'd be dead again, as if this time with Clark had never happened.
She stole a cautious, fearful glance at her husband — would he miss her? But then she told herself not to be so melodramatic. Of course he would. It was patently obvious from his entire demeanour that the last thing he wanted was her death. And yet he had little choice, *because* he'd effectively stolen this time they'd had together. She shouldn't be alive.
Second, as they'd just agreed, there was no telling what the conscienceless imp might do next. How could Clark — and she — put the life of one person over the safety of the whole of Metropolis; even if it was her own life they were talking about?
And third… no, wait!
Lois stopped her thoughts dead in their tracks and stared at Clark again. "You… you were discussing with this Mxy-person, making decisions… about my *life*… and you didn't tell me?"
She knew her voice sounded cold, different, as if it didn't belong to her, but that was irrelevant. In all of this so far, she'd held on to one constant: her husband, Clark. The knowledge that he loved her, needed her, hadmade a huge sacrifice for her… all of that was important. But most important of all was the fact that she and Clark were *partners.* They shared everything. They told each other everything — okay, he hadn't told her about Superman for a very long time, but that was different. He told her everything else. They worked things out jointly. They were a *team*.
And he'd been plotting and planning schemes which, to her, were a question of life and death, and he *hadn't even mentioned it to her*, much less asked her opinion.
Clark's voice seemed to come from very far away as he replied, "I'm… sorry — but, Lois, how could I tell you? Tell you that you should have been *dead*? That you're only alive because… because I sold my soul to that hell-born gnome? That I have to decide between my ethics and your life?" He swallowed, and she saw on his expression something of the conflicting emotions he had to have been experiencing. "How could I tell you that?"
"How could you not?!" she flung at him, fear suddenly replaced by anger. "This concerns me, Clark, in case you hadn't noticed! It's *my* life you've been bargaining with!"
He seemed to crumple, and in an untidy motion he sat down on the large armchair. "I *know* that, Lois! And… that's been tearing me apart too — feeling guilty because I've been conspiring to play God with your life. But…" He broke off suddenly and gazed at her again; this time he looked resigned. "But this morning I tried to change the bargain. I… I knew I was wrong to do that to you, so I told Mxyzptlk that he could have me instead of you if he agreed to leave."
He obviously had more to say, but Lois interrupted him before he could recommence speaking. Throwing him a horror-struck glance, she exclaimed, "Are you telling me that you — *this morning* you told him you'd die to save me?"
Clark nodded dumbly; Lois wondered what he was expecting her response to be. Gratitude for his sacrifice? Dismay at the thought of losing him?
She got up abruptly and marched to the other end of the room; bile was rising again in her throat and she needed to calm herself at least a little before she spoke. Then, without turning, she said, strenuously trying not to lose control of herself, "How dare you make a decision like that without *talking* to me? You think that it's your decision to make? You know, I'd understand better if you decided to let *me* die without consulting me, since you made that bargain in the first place and you'd just be setting things back to the way they should be. But *your* life is different! Don't you understand that, Clark?" she added more quietly, turning to face him; he was staring at her now, looking stricken.
"Clark, I'm your *wife*. I love you! Didn't it occur to you that I might want to have some say in whether or not I lose my husband?" she choked out, finally giving way to her emotions. Oh, of course she was touched to the very heart that he would give his life for her — but then, wouldn't she do just that for him? Of course she would. She already had…
He made a move to come to her, but she stepped backwards; shocked, he froze. "I had no say in whether I lost you, before," he said hoarsely. "You were just… dead… And I never wanted to have to go through that again…"
"So it's okay for me to go through it instead?" she flung at him, incredulous. "You want me to find you dead instead? And — just so I know what to expect — will it be Superman or Clark Kent who's found dead? Because, you know, if you could arrange for it to be Clark Kent it would be better, because then we can *actually* manage to have a proper funeral and I can bury my *husband*, instead of having to pretend that Superman's just a friend and that I haven't lost the… the only man I ever… ever…"
She finally gave up trying to speak, the lump in her throat too great to allow her to continue.
"Lois!" Clark's voice was coming from somewhere much closer now. His arms closed around her; it was too much effort to resist, so she simply stood, unmoving, and allowed him to hold her. "Lois, he refused anyway. So… so you're not going to lose me. I swear it."
<But he'll lose me instead> a little voice pointed out, but she squashed it for the moment. Not yet. We'll find a way around that, like we always do, she told herself.
She raised her head and looked at her husband. "Clark, I just can't believe you did that without talking to me. Have you any idea how much that *hurts*? If he'd accepted, what then? What was I supposed to think when you didn't come home? How did you think I'd feel about living without you?" Lois knew that her tone was accusatory, but in the circumstances she felt it was justified.
"About the same way I'd feel about living without you," Clark answered quietly. "And… I already know how that feels."
"So you wanted me to go through it instead?" Lois flung at him, pulling away from his arms. "And anyway, have you forgotten that I already know how that feels?"
"Huh?" That seemed to take him aback: he frowned, puzzled.
"How it feels to know that you're dead. That I have to live my life without you in it," she explained, a definite edge to her voice.
Clark still looked puzzled; then her meaning slowly dawned on him. "When I was shot…" he said slowly. "And you didn't know I was Superman, so you thought I was dead…"
"Yeah," Lois said coldly. "You let me think, for the worst twenty-four hours of my life, that you were dead. And you weren't. All the time, you were alive. Where were you? Lurking in Smallville?"
He flinched at that. "Some of the time. Then I came back to Metropolis — as Superman — to try to sort out some of the mess, and along the way I figured out how to resurrect myself without revealing my secret to the world."
A part of Lois's brain told her that Clark's brief, factual explanation probably concealed a lot of trauma; there had to be a lot about that time he wasn't telling her yet. But she didn't want to get into that; not now. "You know, I realised that same day I figured out you were Superman what you'd done to me then. And I could have been furious with you — you have *no* idea how much you hurt me then, do you? But I decided to drop it — there wasn't a lot of point in resurrecting that, not then, not after what we'd just been through. At least, that's what I thought."
"But you've raised it now," Clark said quietly. "Lois, I knew you were upset. I was your… we were best friends then. That had to be hard. And I saw how you reacted in the gambling den. But I couldn't… what could I have told you? That I was Superman? But Superman didn't have a normal life and Clark Kent was officially dead, so where was the point?"
Lois shrugged; there *would* have been a point, and she felt sure that Clark would figure it out for himself in time, but she didn't want to get into all that right now: the fact that she'd loved him then — which he clearly wasn't aware of; the fact that just knowing he was alive would have spared her a lot of pain, even if he wasn't free to be in her life in the way he had been as Clark Kent, Planet reporter. And the whole issue of trust: mutual trust, between two people who'd been as close as two friends could possibly be.
"That's not important now," she told him stiffly. "I just wanted to remind you that I do know what it's like to lose you. And I don't want to go through that again."
"And *I* know what it's like to lose *you*," Clark said softly. "You think I want to repeat it? That's one reason why I offered myself instead, Lois, but the main reason was because I don't have the right to — as you said, to bargain with your life. You have a right to your life — you deserve to have a long and brilliant career and… and anything else you might want to do with your life. So I tried to leave you out of it entirely." He sighed, and then added, running a hand through his thick, dark hair, "Of course, there was another reason — this situation is entirely my fault. I froze you. You died. And I took the bargain — I pleaded with Mxyzptlk to bring you back to life. There was no reason why you should have to pay the consequences for that — so I was going to."
"But I accepted the consequences when I asked you to freeze me!" Lois objected. "I knew what it could lead to. And it did. I'd already *accepted* that I could die, Clark, and so had you! That's an entirely different matter to you running off and deciding to make some stupid noble sacrifice, without even talking to me!"
He sighed and shook his head. "Yes, I should have talked to you, Lois. I know that now. I knew it even before I came back here and found you — " Packing to leave, Lois knew, was the unspoken phrase. Clark grimaced, then continued, "I made a mistake — okay, I made a lot of mistakes. And I apologise for not telling you about this sooner. I just didn't know what to do, Lois. And it was tearing me apart… and I was just hoping to find a way out without you ever having to know what had happened to you, what I did." He sounded very weary, like a defeated man who knew there was no hope left.
Turning away then, he said, "I think I should go out for a while. We're not getting anywhere here, and I don't want to fight with you any more."
The sadness in her husband's voice forced Lois to put aside her own hurt that he hadn't told her so many important things, and the cold feeling which had been growing inside her ever since he'd told her that she should be dead. Clark was suffering here; she'd known that all along, and his entire demeanour screamed it aloud. He'd had to bear the agony of knowing she was dead in the first place and believing that he'd killed her — and she knew exactly how that must have felt — and then he'd had to battle between his love for her and his conscience when he'd been offered that bargain. She couldn't blame him for accepting it, even though part of her was appalled that Clark — who was *Superman* in his spare time, and had some very high standards about what Superman would or would not do — should even have considered it.
*She* would have considered it. To get Clark back, she'd have jumped at it.
And now, Clark was suffering the consequences of his desperate bargain. And, knowing Clark as she did, she guessed that he was blaming himself for everything Mxyzptlk did.
Cursing herself for focusing on far less important things, she hurried to Clark and caught his arm. "Don't, Clark. Don't go. We have to talk about this, decide what to do." Her voice was gentle, persuasive, and she reached up to caress his face as he turned to her.
"I don't want to fight any more, and that's all we're doing," he told her, his brown eyes troubled.
"I know, and we won't," Lois assured him. "The most important thing here is to figure out what we're going to do — not argue about whose fault it is or who's suffered the most."
He seemed to relax, the stiff posture of his body vanishing as he nodded. "You're right. Let's get some fresh coffee, then we'll talk properly."
<The most important thing here is to figure out what we're going to do>
As he filled the coffee machine for the second time that morning, Clark realised how badly he'd needed to hear Lois say that to him. He should have told her sooner, he castigated himself again. Then the two of them could have been working together to do something several days ago, and he wouldn't have had to go through all this agony.
And nor would Lois. Remembering the way she'd looked when he'd arrived home unexpectedly, the way she'd asked whether he could really be surprised that she was packing to leave him, he was instantly reminded of what his behaviour had done to her. She'd clearly thought he didn't love her. And his actions, the previous evening in particular, had given her little reason to think anything else.
Although now she was scared. He knew that, though she hadn't told him; he could see the fear in her eyes, the apprehension about what was going to happen to her. And, much as he wanted to reassure her that she wasn't going to die — as he'd done many times before, as Clark and as Superman, this time he just couldn't do it. He couldn't give her those sort of guarantees, when he didn't know himself what would happen.
He loved Lois, and he didn't want to lose her. But she was as aware as he was that they were living on borrowed time.
Still… He should have told her sooner, for all sorts of reasons, and not just because what his silence had led her to think. It had devastated him to realise that she'd believed he didn't love her.
"Lois, I'm sorry I didn't tell you what was really on my mind. I… know what it made you think," he told her, gazing at her as she rinsed the cups they'd used earlier. The simple domestic tasks they were both performing seemed incongruous in the light of what was going on, but, he supposed, they were both getting a breathing space.
She turned, and he could see the shadows he'd put in her eyes. "Clark, I thought you didn't love me any more," she told him, her voice rough with remembered pain.
"I *do* love you," he insisted fiercely. "Enough that I can't imagine going on without you. If you left… if you died…" He halted briefly; there were times when his invulnerability was a definite disadvantage, since he didn't have options which were open to other people. Sighing, he added, "I'd want to find some Kryptonite, or… or fly into the sun until I couldn't go any further. Without you… there's just nothing."
Which meant that there was no way that he could tell Mxyzptlk to undo the first bargain and get out of this world, Clark thought dully. He couldn't bear to lose Lois. And that misbegotten hellion knew it.
Lois had dropped the cup she was washing; suddenly she was sliding her arms around him. "Clark, you wouldn't. You'd go on as best you could. You'd be the best damned reporter the Planet has ever had — you'd go on and win a Pulitzer, and you'd do it for *us* — for you and me. And you'd be Superman to the best of your abilities, because people need you. That's what you'd do, because it's the right thing to do."
She was probably right, but her words made Clark catch his breath. "Lois… you sound like… like you're saying… goodbye. I won't accept his bargain… I can't!" he told her, agonised again.
She reached up and lightly brushed his hair away from his forehead. "You'll just let him carry on doing whatever he wants instead, hmm?"
Clark pulled a face. "How bad can it get?" Not as bad as losing Lois would be, he argued with himself. Never as bad as that.
"We don't know how bad it can get," Lois agreed. "But we do know a couple of things. One, you can't just carry on picking up the pieces after him indefinitely. I know you, Clark. You're going to find it harder and harder not to intervene and stop him." Releasing him, she moved back and began to pace in a manner he was very familiar with. "Two, people are going to *notice* that Superman's not doing much to stop these things happen. And you don't lie as Superman, so what are you going to say when people ask you questions about what's happening? What's that going to do for Superman's ethics and his reputation, and how will you feel about that?"
She paused, obviously to allow time for that to sink in, but continued pacing around the kitchen. Halting abruptly after a few moments, she stared directly at him then. "And this imp or goblin or whatever he is isn't going to be satisfied with being ignored by you, is he?!
Clark frowned. "What do you mean? He wants me to leave him alone!"
"That's what he says," Lois agreed. "I don't believe him. He's goading you."
"Clark, think about it. He's having fun, but my guess is that the 'fun' comes from making you angry and tormenting you. He doesn't care about little tricks like rearranging a few letters — he only did that to remind *you* that he was still around and that he could do anything he wants. So if you ignore him completely, that'll only make him more and more determined to get your attention — so he'll start getting more outrageous, doing more things to make you mad. Until you finally confront him."
He knew Lois was right. It all made sense — of *course* Mxyzptlk's greatest interest lay in tormenting him and wrecking his life.
<Why me?> he thought in frustration; but he knew why. Because he was Superman, the most powerful being in this world. It clearly amused Mxyzptlk to have someone as powerful as Superman at his mercy.
She was right — which was, of course, another reason why he should have told her about this before. He'd always known that Lois's input would be invaluable, and it was already proving to be so. And she was leading him back to the inexorable conclusion that he *had* to tell Mxyzptlk that he'd accept the second bargain. Lois's life for Mxyzptlk's disappearance. Putting right the wrong he'd done in the first place.
But he *couldn't* lose Lois again! And nor could he play God with her life, as he'd told her earlier. And how could she so calmly tell him to do it?
Gazing disbelievingly at her, he said helplessly, "Lois, you don't mean that *you* think I should…?"
Dropping her gaze from his, she said quietly, "We both know that it's the right thing to do." Before he could protest, she added, sounding fiercely determined, "But we've never given up on anything that easily, Clark! There has to be another way out of this, and we'll find it. I know we will."
Her resolve encouraged him, even though he was by no means convinced that what she argued was possible. "But — as you just said — we can't delay indefinitely."
"No." Now she looked fiercely determined; as well she might, Clark mused bleakly: she was a woman fighting for her life, after all. "We'll give ourselves three days to find an alternative solution. And then, if we can't, you have to go and tell him you accept the deal."
They had three days in which to figure out how to get rid of Mxyzptlk and save Lois's life. And, while Clark was well aware that, between them, he and Lois could achieve some pretty amazing things, he suspected that miracles were just a little beyond their reach.
And, he feared, nothing short of a miracle was going to get them out of this.
But he wasn't going to allow Lois to see his pessimism. She had enough to deal with in coping with her own fears, without having to bear the burden of his as well. He took a deep breath and gave her a resolute smile. "I won't be telling Mxyzptlk anything of the kind, honey. Like you said, we're going to beat him — together."
"Together," she echoed.
That struck a chord in him, and he nodded. "And I promise you now that I'll never again assume that I have the right to make decisions affecting the two of us. We're a team, and we tell each other everything," he vowed.
Lois looked slightly sceptical, though. "Does that include Superman?" she asked him.
"Superman?" Clark queried, not understanding what she meant.
"Yes, Superman," Lois repeated. "Clark, there are three people in this marriage, not two. And if you're going to shut me out of Superman's activities, I want to know."
That thought had never even occurred to Clark, and he stared at Lois in amazement. "I *want* to tell you about Superman's activities," he insisted. "One of the best things about you knowing is that I *can* talk to you about that."
Lois nodded. "I thought I was wrong, but I needed to know," she told him, mystifyingly. He wondered what she meant for a moment, but then realised that, in all his efforts to avoid talking to her about Mxyzptlk, he must have given her cause to believe that he didn't want to discuss his Superman activities with her. And nothing could be further from the truth.
That didn't matter now, though. Something else was far more important…
He crossed to where Lois stood and cupped her face in his hands, his fingers sliding into her hair in a loving caress. She raised her gaze to his and gave him a questioning look. "Clark…?"
"Just putting right a mistake I made last night," he murmured huskily, before lowering his head and brushing his lips lightly across hers. "I never want you to think I don't want you again," he whispered, before nibbling gently at the corner of her mouth. "I never should have hurt you by pushing you away," he told her, before claiming a sweet kiss.
Lois wrapped her arms around his neck, stepping closer and pressing her body against his. "No, you shouldn't," she murmured against his mouth.
"And I'll never do it again," he promised, then took her mouth in a blazing, passionate kiss which took the breath away from both of them.
Some time later, Lois disentangled herself from Clark's arms and glanced at her watch. They'd been kissing and cuddling on the couch for over half an hour, she realised with surprise; while she didn't regret for a second the time spent reassuring each other about their mutual love and need for each other, there was work to be done and it was time they got started.
Clark gave a grunt of protest, tugging her back towards him, but she shook her head. "We need to get busy, Clark."
"You're right," he acknowledged reluctantly. "I'd better get changed — we are going into work, right?"
"Right." Lois glanced down at her own clothes — the first items which had come to hand when she'd dragged herself out of bed — and followed Clark into the bedroom. She found him standing by the bed, staring at her packed cases, looking troubled.
"I'll unpack those later," she said softly, understanding the reason for his reaction; being confronted with the unwelcome reminder that she'd been about to leave him, as well as his feeling, no doubt, that they hadn't really resolved that issue.
"You're sure?" he asked, turning to her, his expression serious.
She wrapped her hands around his arm, pressing close to him. "I love you, Clark. The only thing wrong was that I thought *you* didn't love *me*. I know that's not true now."
He pressed a hard kiss on her lips, then became a miniature whirlwind. For several seconds there was a blur of activity, then suddenly Clark was standing in front of her again, the bed was empty, and the cases were back on top of the closet.
"Remind me to put you in charge of all our spring-cleaning!" Lois teased, before moving to select an outfit suitable for the office.
Ten minutes later, they strolled hand-in-hand out of the apartment and down to the Jeep, Clark in a silver-grey suit with tie patterned in a swirl of reds and yellows, and Lois wearing a skirt and jacket in rust-brown, a favourite of Clark's. "I feel as if we're making some kind of statement today," Lois remarked as they climbed into the car.
Clark glanced at her and smiled. "We are. You and me together can take on the world — and win," he replied. "No doubt about it."
Lois squeezed Clark's hand; she could make a pretty good guess at how much his outward show of optimism was costing him. She was very sure that, inwardly, Clark was even more pessimistic than she was about their prospects for finding a way to stop Mxyzptlk; but, on the other hand, as she'd told him, they had no other choice. They had to trust in their ability to find a way; otherwise they might as well give up right now and she would die.
And she didn't want to die.
She had too much to live for; too many things she wanted to accomplish. Not just in relation to her career, although that Pulitzer was still the prize she coveted. Her personal life was now more important, however. Clark was the most precious thing in her life, and she wanted to enjoy a long and happy life with him.
That, though, was only going to happen if they beat that devil's sidekick, Mxyzptlk. It wasn't going to be easy; but then, she was probably going into this with the strongest motivation she'd ever had in her life before.
"So, honey, how are we going to do this?" Clark's question interrupted her musings, and she turned to look at him. He was concentrating on driving, but she could see that his attention was also on her. "The problem I have is that I promised not to interfere to stop him, as Clark or as Superman. And it's not that I'd let a promise like that stop me from doing anything I could to figure out how we get rid of him — I'm just worried that he'd interpret anything I do as breaking my promise."
"Hmmm." Lois was busy going over a number of options in her brain. "What exactly did you promise?"
He was silent for several seconds. Then he said slowly, "It's hard to remember, because I was kind of in a state at the time. But now I think about it, he said… yeah, that was it. 'I don't want you using those little powers of yours to do anything to stop me'."
"Well, that's okay then!" Lois exclaimed. "You won't be using your powers. We'll be using our combined intelligence. You didn't promise not to do that!"
Clark drummed his fingertips on the steering-wheel before responding. "Problem is, when I talked to him while he was playing trains, he said something different. More or less, what he said then was 'if you want to be free to do anything to stop me having fun' — something like that. He said 'do anything' — I guess that includes what we're planning," he finished, grimacing.
"Oh, so he can change the terms of the bargain, and you can't?" Lois muttered cynically. "Clark, we can work around that. You don't have to do anything, if you think it's a problem — I can do what we need to do."
"What do you have in mind?" he asked.
She shrugged. "We start the way we approach any new investigation. Work out what we already know about our target, and then research him thoroughly until we know what he has for breakfast. Then we plan our strategy."
"Research, plan," Clark echoed. "Uh-huh. I can cope with that." He glanced at her quickly again before returning his attention to the road ahead. "I can cope with anything except doing nothing."
And that remark told Lois a lot more about how frustrated and helpless her husband had obviously felt over the past few days, watching Mxyzptlk in action and unable to do anything to stop him. But that was going to change, she resolved. Now, Lane and Kent were on the case, and nothing was going to stop them finding a way to get rid of that evil imp for good.
They had to. Her life depended on it, and she wasn't ready to curl up and die just yet. She had far too much living yet to do. She and Clark had only been married less than two weeks. Clark had shown, in those few moments in the kitchen, how desperate he felt at the prospect of her death, and she really didn't like to think of what he would do without her. That scared her.
For Clark's sake, as much as for her own, they had to find a solution.
Perry caught them as soon as they exited the elevator. "I'm glad you two got here at last," he fired at them, sounding very irritated. "We got a major news story breaking, and half my newsroom staff stuck across town in the gridlock!"
"What's going on?" Clark asked quickly, wondering whether he was going to have to make another quick exit.
"Darned if I know!" Perry exclaimed, clearly frustrated. "We got reports in of a problem the other side of the city — some trucks barricading the 108," he added; Clark recognised the highway as one of the major arteries into and out of the city from the north. "I sent Myerson and Eduardo over there an hour ago, but they called me a while back to say they were stuck in traffic. Apparently half the city's stuck in traffic!"
"What do you want us to do?" Lois asked quickly. "You want us to get over there and find out what's going on?"
"What, and have you two sitting in a traffic jam too? You've got to be kidding! No, find out as much as you can from here, and if we're lucky Myerson will get the story on the scene."
Clark hesitated, wanting to get away to check this out. But Perry's impatient glare made him grab Lois's arm and pull her to his desk. "What do you think?" she hissed at him.
"I think we need to check this out first. I'll take a look at the news websites; you call the traffic department."
Ten minutes later, they turned simultaneously to look at each other. "So, what did you get?" Clark asked Lois.
"Apart from the runaround?" she said sarcastically. "The traffic department says the cause of the snarl-up is the trucks on 108. But no-one knows why they're there. The drivers are nowhere in sight, and although police drivers have been brought in to move them out of the way, they can't start the engines. They're calling in mechanics to take a look. And in the meantime nothing's moving in any direction."
Clark nodded; he'd gathered much of that from the LNN website. "And it seems the trucks are parked in exactly the worst possible place — it's a major junction, and they're blocking several arteries. So nothing's moving."
"What do you think?" Lois asked; he could already see what her conclusion was.
"Sounds like Mxyzptlk to me," he muttered. "Can you cover for me so I can get over there?"
"Cover for you?" Lois demanded incredulously, though keeping her voice low. "I'm coming with you!"
About to object, Clark paused to consider. He had been shutting Lois out too much lately, and this was one small way in which he could make up for it. She wouldn't be in any danger. And, for a change, someone other than Clark Kent could write up a Superman story. He smiled. "Okay, but you figure out a way we can get out from under Perry's eagle eye!"
"Leave it to me," Lois murmured, then got up and strolled casually towards the Editor-in-Chief's office, then knocked. As she went inside, Clark activated his Super-hearing, curious as to her intentions.
"Hey, Chief, Clark and I think we've got a lead on what's going on. Someone at the traffic division's agreed to talk to us, but he wants us to get over there. He might be able to give us some aerial photographs."
Clark could hear the frustration in the editor's voice as he replied. "Okay, if you think it's worth the effort. But don't you and Clark get lost too! I need you two back here ASAP!".
"We'll be back," Lois promised, then exited the office; Clark could see the grin which curved her lips as she approached him.
"Aerial photographs?" he asked as she drew nearer.
"Sure!" Reaching inside her desk, Lois withdrew a small camera. "You provide the 'aerial', I'll take the photographs!" she told him, winking.
Just as he was about to hurry her out of the building, though, she caught sight of Jimmy and beckoned him over, giving him some swift instructions. "Jimmy, I need you to do some research for me on folklore and mythology."
The young researcher did a double-take. "Uh, Lois… did I hear that right?"
"You did. Folklore and mythology. Especially imps from…" She turned to Clark, a questioning look on her face. "The fifth dimension, was that what Superman said?"
Accepting her cover story gratefully, Clark confirmed her recollection. "Yeah. And the one he's interested in is called Mxyzptlk. I'm not sure how that's spelt, though, so you might have to do some guesswork." Grabbing some paper and a pen, he began to write. "I know it's pronounced like this — Mix-yiz-pit-lik — but it's probably not spelt anything like that."
Jimmy raised his eyebrows as he accepted the paper. "Ooo-kay, if you guys say so. Uh… do I take it the Chief shouldn't find out anything about this?"
"You take it right," Lois told him sternly.
Holding up his hands in an 'I-surrender' gesture, Jimmy began to back away. "About what? Were we talking about something?" he joked.
"Jimmy, we appreciate this," Clark said quickly.
His colleague winked. "Consider it… well, I won't say 'done', because I don't think this is going to be easy, but — it's in hand!"
Flying over the junction on 108 a few minutes later, Clark swooped low so that he could assess the situation, and Lois could get her photographs. Then he dropped Lois off in a side-street, leaving her to conduct some interviews at the scene, and he hurried over to speak to the police officer in charge.
A few minutes later, he'd had his suspicions confirmed: the trucks were definitely immobilised, and in such a way that no-one could work out why they wouldn't start. Clark's own scanning of the vehicles' engines provided no clue, but he didn't need one. With a few trucks, Mxyzptlk had managed to paralyse much of the city.
After conferring again with the senior police officer as to the best place to put the trucks, Clark began the task of lifting them and flying them, one by one, over to the side-streets behind the highway which had been identified for him. His task was made more difficult by the media and curiosity-seekers who thronged around watching as he worked; afraid that someone would get crushed by several tons of articulated truck, he asked the police to order everyone back behind a cordon. Lois, he noticed, was already staying well back, though he could tell that she was aware of his every move as she talked to bystanders.
Ten minutes later, the trucks were gone and traffic began to move again, though more chaos almost occurred when drivers tried to pull out of all roads at once, ignoring the traffic signals — which had, in any case, been uselessly changing from red to green to orange and back again the whole time. A couple of traffic cops, attempting to encourage orderly movement, almost got run down; Clark saved them just in time. So he took over, concluding that few drivers would attempt to disobey Superman.
Finally, he was free to return to the Planet. Having seen Lois walk onto a road off the highway a few minutes earlier, he assumed that she was waiting for him in a side-street; his assumption was correct. Seconds later, they were airborne and on their way back to work.
Perry was looking thunderous as they emerged from the elevator. "Thought I told you I needed you back here!"
"You did, Perry, but I didn't think you'd want us to pass up Superman's offer to take us out to the barricade scene," Lois answered smoothly. She held up the camera. "I have aerial shots of the trucks and traffic piled up in every direction, as well as pictures of Superman flying the trucks out of the way. And I have interviews with the police, a number of drivers, local business people — and with Superman."
With *Superman*? Clark raised an eyebrow slightly at Lois, although he supposed that, if Superman was supposed to have flown the two of them out there, it was reasonable also to assume that they'd asked him some questions.
It satisfied Perry, anyway: the editor grunted, adding, "Well, get the story on my desk ASAP. We might even make the afternoon edition, if you get it to me quick enough."
"I'll start writing — you get that film down to Photography," Clark suggested, and as Lois hurried off he began to write up what was suitable for public consumption. That meant, of course, that he was unable to give any indication of what had caused the blockade in the first place, or how the trucks seemed to have been immobilised. He stuck to the police's comment: that no-one had any idea, and no person or organisation had so far claimed responsibility for the incident, which had cost the city's economy tens of thousands of dollars. But, thankfully, no-one had been hurt, he reflected; considering the heated tempers among drivers stuck at the scene for up to a couple of hours, that was almost a miracle.
Once Lois returned, she composed her eyewitness and interviews article, Clark typing to save time, and they sent both stories to Perry. Then Lois gave him a direct look. "Well? You think it was him?"
"Can't think of another explanation," Clark answered. "At least it wasn't as bad as the trains yesterday, though."
"He's still keeping you on your toes — reminding you of what he can do."
Clark sighed. "I know. I sure hope we can find out a way to get rid of him!"
Any more conversation was prevented by the arrival of Perry. "Good work, you two. But now, I want you to get working on the real story."
"Uhh… the real story, Perry?" Clark queried.
"Yeah. Some pretty weird things have been happening in Metropolis the last few days. And no-one's got any explanation for any of them. I don't buy that — people don't suddenly find themselves walking on stilts for no reason, and trains don't just appear out of nowhere in Centennial Park. Those truck this morning reminds me of the chaos just the other day when dozens of traffic signs got mysteriously changed, too. And I still haven't had a satisfactory explanation of how the Planet logo got desecrated two days ago. So, since you two are my best reporters, and you're friends with Superman , I figured you should find out what's going on so the Planet can explain it instead of just reporting it like everyone else."
"Some speech, Chief. But what if we can't get any further with this than anyone else?" Lois asked.
"I refuse to believe that no-one can come up with an explanation, Lois. So you two can consider yourself assigned to this until further notice, okay?"
"Sure, Chief," Clark agreed, though he was well aware that they were unlikely to come up with anything he would be willing to print in the pages of the Planet.
"That was fortunate!" Lois hissed at Clark, once Perry had wandered off.
"Fortunate? Lois, you know we can't print the truth about this!"
"Of course we can't. But Perry assigning us this story gives us all the time and opportunity we want to do our research, doesn't it?" Lois pointed out; once again, Clark acknowledged she was right.
"Okay, I know I should have told you sooner," he murmured, smiling ruefully at her. "Now, all I want is for us to find a way out of this."
Lois's expression turned bleak. "Me too, Clark — me too."
By the end of the afternoon, Lois was tired and frustrated; although she'd spent all afternoon looking up everything she could think of pertaining to imps and magical spells, she'd got precisely nowhere. Clark, who had been called out a couple of times on Superman emergencies — thankfully, it seemed, not of Mxyzptlk's doing — was being relentlessly cheerful, assuring her that they had plenty of time yet and that they *would* find a way to best him.
At one point, Lois caught herself thinking that it was easy for Clark to say that; it wasn't his life on the line, after all. But that wasn't fair, she very quickly reminded herself. She could see how hard this all was for Clark. He might be doing a good job of hiding it in public, but she could still see the shadows in his eyes when he talked to her, and the way he kept reaching out to touch her, as if to reassure himself that she was still there, alive, with him.
What would Clark do if they couldn't get rid of Mxyzptlk and she had to die again?
How would he survive without her?
She knew Clark; no matter what she said to him, or what Martha and Jonathan said, he would blame himself. Which reminded her, she should try to talk to Clark's parents, tell them what was going on — maybe not immediately, but if it looked as if they were going to have to give in and allow Mxyzptlk to make her dead again. Clark was going to need all the support and love they could offer.
<And what about you? Doesn't the thought that you could die bother you?>
Of course it did. Lois was only too well aware that she was focusing on Clark in part as a means of preventing herself from dwelling on her own circumstances. She couldn't allow herself to think about it, because it scared her too much. She didn't want to die. She dreaded the possibility that it might happen. It was like having the Sword of Damocles hanging over her; three days in which to find a way to save her life. And they hadn't a clue where to begin.
They had to find a way around this. They *had* to. There was no way that she wanted to spend the next three days counting the hours which remained of her life. She couldn't cope with that.
"Come on, honey, let's go home." Clark's voice interrupted her thoughts, and she glanced across at him.
Stretching, she groaned. "I guess you're right. But where the *hell* is Jimmy? We need to know if he's found out anything…"
"I know." Suddenly Clark was standing behind her, massaging her shoulders; she felt a brief flash of warmth, and guessed that he was using heat vision on her. "We didn't exactly give him a lot to go on, Lois. It has to be kind of like looking for a needle in a haystack. Leave it for tonight and we'll talk to him tomorrow."
"Okay. If you get tacos from Guadalajara again," Lois bargained, and allowed Clark to steer her towards the elevator.
Not long after they'd eaten, Clark was called out again; left alone, Lois was feeling too anxious to simply watch the news on TV. Instead, she got Clark's laptop, intending to connect to the Internet and try a few more searches. But once the operating system had loaded, a new folder icon caught her eye.
Frowning, she clicked on it, wondering why Clark had a folder with that name stored on his computer. The folder contained two files, both, she noticed, with the same date-stamp — the previous evening. The times indicated that Clark had created the files while she'd been eating — when he'd told her he didn't need to eat and had stayed in the living room.
She clicked on the file labelled 'Official' and started to read. Very quickly, it became apparent that it was a will; Clark had itemised carefully everything of value that he owned, either alone or jointly with her, and willed them all to her. His 'Superman memorabilia', as he'd listed it, should be preserved carefully, and perhaps at some future date given to a museum.
Still puzzling over why Clark should have drafted his will last night, and why he'd since made no attempt to get it at least witnessed, Lois opened the other file, which was labelled 'Private'. That turned out to be a letter. She scanned it, catching her breath very quickly. It was now clear why Clark had done this — he'd obviously decided yesterday to offer himself in her stead. It hadn't been a spur-of-the-moment decision this morning. And this letter had been his way of saying goodbye, had Mxyzptlk accepted his offer; he would have known that she'd have checked over his laptop for personal stuff before returning it to the Planet.
If you're reading this, it probably means that I'm dead. And that should also mean that you're alive, which makes everything worthwhile.
I'm writing this to explain everything to you, because it's only fair that you should know. No-one else can know the truth about what happened — well, except for my parents, if you want to tell them.
Six weeks ago, I lost the only woman I'd ever loved. That day I froze you, I killed you. It doesn't matter that you asked me to do it, that we did it to save my parents, that they'd have died if I hadn't done what you asked. I killed you.
Anyway, this weird guy, whose name I can't even spell, appeared out of nowhere and offered me a deal. Your life in exchange for a non-interference pact from me. And I agreed. What can I say? I love you so much; I couldn't bear the thought of life without you. And so I compromised my ethics, and I got you back.
The past six weeks — well, until a few days ago — were the most wonderful time of my life. You loved me as much as I love you. You wanted to marry me! And we made love, and we got married, and we were so happy. I just can't put into words how happy being with you has made me.
But then this imp, magician, hobgoblin from hell, or whatever he is, came to capitalise on his bargain. All those weird stunts over the past few days — they were his doing. And he'll carry on doing them unless I stop him, and I promised not to stop him. He says the only way he'll stop is if I give up what I gained too.
Lois, I can't be responsible for your death a second time. You have a wonderful life ahead of you. You're brilliant, beautiful, talented, the best reporter this city has ever seen. I want you to be able to fulfil your potential, to have the life you could have. So that's why I'm going to tell Mxyzptlk to end my life instead, as my side of the bargain. I only hope he'll accept.
Lois, I can't find the words to tell you how much I love you, or how sorry I am that I've been shutting you out these past few days. I didn't tell you what was going on because I couldn't — I just didn't know what to say. But I have to tell you now. I can only hope that you'll forgive me in time.
Remember me, Lois, but don't grieve. Just remember that I love you — I'll always love you.
Tears streaming down her cheeks, Lois stared at the words on the screen; they danced and blurred before her moisture-filled eyes as the enormity of what Clark had tried to do for her sank in. He'd told her that morning, of course, but she'd been angry with him then, furious that he'd gone off and done such a crazy thing without even asking her what she wanted. Now, the fact that he'd been willing to die so that she could live just made her realise how much Clark loved her, how unselfish and generous he had been.
"Lois? Honey, what's wrong?"
Startled by Clark's unexpected reappearance, she looked up from the laptop to see him, in his Superman outfit, striding into the kitchen. "I was flying past the apartment on my way to do a patrol, and I looked in and saw you… what is it?" His tone was very concerned.
Lois tried to shut down the screen, but Clark got there before her and saw what she'd been reading. "Oh. You found that," he muttered. "I meant to hide those."
"Clark." Lois reached up and stroked his face, almost needing the assurance that he was here, and that he was real. "Thank you. Your letter is beautiful."
He smiled wryly. "I don't think you'd be saying that if Mxyzptlk had accepted my offer. You'd be cursing me for not discussing it with you first."
"Probably. Doesn't mean I can't think it's a beautiful letter, though," she muttered stubbornly, dabbing at her tears with an already-sodden handkerchief.
"Let me." Gently, Clark dried her eyes with the edge of his cape. Then he reached past her to the laptop, his hand poised over the mouse. "I'll just delete these, okay?"
Her hand moved quickly to cover his. "No, don't. I know we don't know what's going to happen yet, but… I want to keep that letter, Clark."
Seeming surprised, he nodded. "Okay. Now — I think we should have an early night," he added softly, wrapping his arms around her.
Lois frowned. "I'm not tired, Clark."
"Who said anything about sleeping?" he retorted. "I think I have some more making up to do…" With that, he swung her up effortlessly into his arms and carried her through to the bedroom.
Making up had been nice… very nice, Lois mused sleepily several hours later as she listened to the soft sound of Clark's breathing. He'd fallen asleep about twenty minutes earlier with her cuddled against his chest, and she — although close to sleep herself — was just savouring this time alone with the man she loved.
It might, after all, be one of her last opportunities to be alone with him.
If they didn't succeed in finding a way to get rid of Mxyzptlk, she had about two days to live, after all. Therefore, she decided, squashing down the horror which threatened to overwhelm her at the thought of what could soon be her death, she needed to make the most of it.
Of course, they'd be spending most of their time trying to best that imp, but there would still be moments like this, when she was held close in Clark's arms, when she could focus on how much she loved him and how great they were together. They had been, and they would be again — now that he was no longer hiding things from her, once again she felt totally loved by her husband.
He was scared, too, of course, although he tried hard to hide it. For her sake, she knew, he was being as upbeat as possible about their chances. That was good some of the time, Lois felt, but she was determined to make him sit down and have one honest conversation with her before it was too late.
She had to stop thinking about that. They *would* find a way to stop Mxyzptlk and save her. They had to.
They hadn't found anything, and the three days were up… with tears in her eyes, Lois was telling him that he had to call Mxyzptlk and accept the bargain. That wretched imp had been doing his best to infuriate them over the past couple of days, almost driving Clark beyond the point of endurance, but all the time there had been the hope… a faint hope, but nevertheless, that they would find a way out.
And they hadn't…
And now he had to say goodbye to his wife, the woman he loved more than anything in the universe. And Clark wished he could be the one who was dying. He couldn't live without Lois.
She kissed him hard, and then surprised him by calling out for the imp herself. And, of course, he appeared instantly, as if he'd been waiting.
"You accept, then?" he said, smirking.
"We accept," Lois replied firmly. "You put things back the way they were. Make me dead again, and you get out of there."
<Nooo!!!> Clark cried, but no-one heard him. Instead there was a blinding flash, and once he was able to see again Mxyzptlk was gone, and he was standing in his bedroom looking down on Lois's still, pale body.
Just as he had six weeks before. The day he'd frozen her…
"Lois!" he screamed, agonised.
"Clark? Clark, what is it?"
Shaking, sweating, he opened his eyes and looked at Lois, lying next to him.
"Bad dream," he muttered.
She wrapped her arms around him. "Mxyzptlk?"
"Yeah," he answered, not wanting to tell her the whole; he suspected that she understood anyway.
"We'll find a way," she insisted once again.
"Yeah. We have to."
They had to — everything of value to him rested on it.
"Jimmy! That research job I gave you yesterday — did you get anywhere?" Lois demanded, having halted Jimmy's progress across the newsroom.
He shrugged. "Well, it's not easy, Lois. I feel like I'm looking for a needle in a haystack, you know? You didn't give me a lot to go on."
"This is important, Jimmy!"
"Maybe, but I do have a *job* to do as well, remember? And I'm trying my best," the young man protested. "But I'm not an expert in mythology or folklore, so it's not simple. I didn't even know where to start looking."
"Well… try, please," Lois urged. But as Jimmy walked off, something occurred to her. He'd said *he* wasn't an expert in mythology; but what if they asked someone who was?
Less than a minute later, she was searching university networks for nationally-known experts on mythology and folklore; ten minutes later, she had her man — or woman, in this case. Professor Beatrice Newman, at the University of Raleigh in North Carolina. Hoping that the professor was at her desk, Lois placed a call.
Clark ran his hand through his hair for about the twentieth time in the past half-hour. He'd been searching all the websites he could come up with, looking for anything at all about imps, goblins, magic and the fifth dimension, but with no success at all. And he only hoped that Mxyzptlk wouldn't decide that this violated his promise; he stole a swift glance at Lois, engaged in animated discussion on the telephone.
As if she'd felt his gaze on hers, she ended her call and immediately came over to him. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she said, "Clark… how about taking a trip down to North Carolina?"
"You mean…?" He made their hand-signal for flying. "But why Carolina?"
"Because there's an expert on folklore at the University of Raleigh. And we've got an appointment with her in… ooh, an hour." She grinned impishly.
An academic expert — what a brilliant idea! Clark smiled, despite his earlier gloom. "But how did you explain our ability to get there that quickly?"
"Pretended I was calling from the next town," Lois explained with a wink. "Oh, and I barred Caller ID before dialling, so she won't know where I was calling from."
"And we're in North Carolina because…?" Clark prompted.
"I don't know! You can make up one excuse, surely?"
"I thought you thought all my excuses were terrible," he reminded her with a grin. "Didn't you promise to take care of my excuses for me in future?"
"Oh, if you insist! Just get us there, okay?"
Laughing softly, Clark closed down his browser, first clearing the cache and history files; he didn't want anyone else seeing what he was looking up. "Okay, come on. Stairwell, then up to the roof, all right?"
"And to think you once told me to try to stay off the roofs of tall buildings," Lois murmured sotto voce; Clark grinned again at that, but sobered instantly as he reminded himself that her quicksilver humour was one of the many things he would miss about this wonderful, brilliant, gorgeous and witty woman he'd been lucky enough to marry.
Professor Newman frowned slightly as Clark finished his description of Mxyzptlk; he'd been careful to avoid giving away any impression that he'd actually *met* any such creature as he was describing, but at the same time ensuring that he said enough to enable the academic to recognise the type — if there was an identified type. The pessimistic side of him couldn't help thinking that it was highly unlikely that anything like Mxyzptlk would have been recorded or documented in this world.
"Well, this is certainly a very intriguing account," Professor Newman commented. "And, you know, the traits you describe are quite common among the various types of fairy-folk which practice magic and which have mischievous, naughty characteristics."
"Fairy-folk?" Lois queried; Clark, glancing at her, thought she was doing a great job of *not* sounding sceptical. Of course, she'd accepted that Mxyzptlk existed, so perhaps she was overcoming her scepticism about the supernatural as a whole.
"Yes — leprechauns, gnomes, goblins, imps. All of these have some magical powers, though they possess them to a greater or lesser extent. Some have constraints on what they can use these powers for; others can do anything they like. Leprechauns grant wishes, as you know, but they don't do so willingly. If you catch one, he is obliged to grant you your wish, whatever it is — but you have to be very careful, since it can often come with a sting in the tail."
Clark could now almost feel the scepticism radiating from Lois, and he could barely suppress a smile. Before she could intervene, he asked, "What about other creatures? Imps?"
"Well, they too practice magic, Mr Kent. In fact, they love to do it — they positively enjoy showing off their abilities."
"Showing off?" Lois queried. "That sounds… well, kind of vain."
"Oh, definitely," Professor Newman confirmed. "They tend to be very conscious of their vanity — in fact, they're commonly susceptible to flattery, which has frequently been their downfall."
That was interesting, Clark thought, filing that information away for future reference. But there was more he wanted to know. "Can they do anything they like?"
Professor Newman frowned briefly. "There are some things they are not permitted to do — such as actually killing someone. That is beyond the limits of their powers."
"They can't?" Clark queried, wanting confirmation on this point. It was what Mxyzptlk had told him, after all.
"Not deliberately, and not permanently. They can create the appearance of death, but that's not the same thing at all," the professor explained. "The other interesting thing about imps, though, is… oh, let me look it up."
She got up and went across to a bookshelf on the other side of the room, almost unerringly finding a large volume. After flicking through several pages — during which time Clark tried to restrain himself from snatching the book from her so that he could read it at Super-speed — she looked up again. "Here it is! The spells imps create come from their own magical powers, but their magic requires its own power source. Kind of like Superman's powered by the sun, I guess."
"I guess," Clark echoed, wondering what this meant.
"So what's their power source?" Lois asked quickly, and he instantly saw the significance. If they could cut Mxyzptlk off from his power source, then they could beat him.
"It's within them," the professor explained. "Which means, I guess, that they need time to recuperate between spells and tricks — if they try to do too many at once, they'll run out of power."
Could they possibly trick Mxyzptlk into working too much magic? Clark wondered. Maybe he could taunt the guy. Keep challenging him, making him prove his abilities. And then get him so tired that Clark *could* catch him?
And… then what?
He couldn't kill Mxyzptlk. That was impossible. But if he didn't… then Lois would die.
"So, okay," Lois was saying. "It would be possible to defeat an imp like that if you made him exhaust himself, is that right?"
"Well, sure," the professor said. "But there is a simpler way."
"There is?" Lois and Clark said simultaneously.
"Oh, didn't I say? According to the mythology, in order to send him back to his own dimension, you have to get him to say his own name backwards. That forces him out of this world completely — that's one spell he has no control over. That's the quickest way to beat an imp such as the one you describe. He's gone, and he can't come back for a very long time."
Get him to say his name backwards…
It wouldn't be easy, but Clark couldn't imagine that it would be impossible either. Smiling across at the professor, he said, "Thank you, you've been very helpful."
"You're welcome," she said pleasantly. "But, you know, you never said what you're doing in North Carolina in the first place — and why is the Daily Planet interested in imps and folklore?"
Clark gave Lois a slightly helpless look; ducking out of the professor's line of sight, she stuck her tongue out at him.
"Oh, we're on vacation," she explained airily. "And Clark's always been interested in strange beings from other worlds — haven't you, Clark? — and he had this book as a kid, about this really weird imp, and he just couldn't resist the opportunity to find out a little more. And, you know, since this is so interesting, we might even persuade our editor to run a feature in the Saturday edition some time soon. If he agrees, we'll be in touch."
Clark ushered Lois out of the professor's office before she committed them to a photo-spread. Once outside, though, he turned to his wife, catching in her expression the same exultant gleam he knew was in his own.
"We've got him!" she exclaimed softly.
"Yeah… now all we have to do is figure out how we're going to get him to say his name backwards," Clark replied, grinning.
"Awww, no problem! We'll think of something," Lois said optimistically. "Now, take me somewhere nice for lunch before we have to get back to Metropolis. I want some authentic Southern pork barbeque."
"Huh?" Clark stared at her, puzzled.
"North Carolina specialty. Don't you know anything, Clark?" She thumped him — lightly — in the chest and walked past him.
Lois finished licking her fingers after a delicious, but too filling, lunch and raised one eyebrow in Clark's direction. "So… we get him to say his name backwards."
"Yeah. Though that sounds as if it'll be easier said than done." Clark paused, frowning. "I'm not even sure I know what his name is backwards."
"Well, you can say it forwards, can't you?" she asked him. "Mixie… what?"
"Mix-yiz-pitel-lik," Clark pronounced slowly.
"So that should be something like kil-letip-zyx-im," Lois cautiously suggested.
"Sounds about right," Clark agreed. "Hmmm… Kill-tip-zix-im. Okay, now all we have to do is figure out a way to make him say it!"
"Well, let's think about this," Lois mused aloud. "If that's the only way to get rid of him, he'll know about it, and he'll be wary of any attempt to make him say it."
"Yes, though he doesn't know we know," Clark pointed out.
"I wouldn't be so sure about that," Lois replied slowly. "You did say that he seems to get around a lot, and he seemed to know what was going on sometimes."
"So you mean he could know we've been here, found this stuff out?" Clark sounded alarmed now. "I… you know I promised not to try to stop him. If he thinks that's what I'm doing, he could kill you now, without waiting for my answer!"
"You're not trying to stop him," Lois said thoughtfully. "You're helping me, and I'm trying to stop him."
"Splitting hairs," Clark objected, but he sighed and got to his feet. "We need to get back. And maybe… I don't know," he muttered, frowning.
He shrugged. "I just wonder whether I could make use of what Professor Newman said about him being his own energy source. And flattering him."
"Oh? That sounds good," Lois said, interested. "How?"
"I'll tell you on the way back," he promised.
Back in Metropolis, Clark discovered — not at all to his surprise — that Mxyzptlk had been busy in their absence. What did surprise him, and caused him considerable alarm, was that the imp was playing right on Clark's doorstep.
When he and Lois walked into the newsroom, they found that everyone in sight was fumbling around the bullpen as if unable to see. Staffers staggered by with arms held out in front of them to feel for objects in their path. People were colliding and cursing each other, and at least two people were nursing some injury.
Raising his voice in order to be heard over the confusion, Clark asked, "Chief, what's going on here?"
"That you, Clark?" Perry sounded confused, but relieved. "Find someone to fix the lights, would you? Can't think what's happened to that emergency generator…"
"Fix the lights?" Clark exclaimed, glancing at Lois. "There's nothing wrong with the lights!"
"Mxyzptlk," Lois murmured; he grimaced and agreed.
"This is deliberate, too. The fact that he's doing this *here*," Clark muttered angrily, before moving at Super-speed to catch Carol from Stocks and Shares, who had just stumbled against the steps leading to the elevator. "Okay, I got you. Come on, why don't you sit down over here? That's a lot safer, isn't it?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Clark saw Lois guiding another staffer to a seat; he gestured to her to continue, indicating that he was leaving. Ducking into the stairwell, he looked up and growled furiously, "I'll see you on the roof, Mxyzptlk!"
"Mr Mxyzptlk," the imp said cantankerously. Clark glanced up again and saw his nemesis hovering above the stairwell; he flew upwards and out onto the roof, knowing Mxyzptlk would follow him.
"Right — first, you undo whatever you did to those people down there. They're getting hurt!" Clark demanded.
"Uh-uh, Clarkie! Have you forgotten how it works?" the imp taunted. "I do the tricks. You don't do anything to stop me. And I mean *anything*. No little trips to find out how to get rid of me. Oh yes, I know where you've been," Mxyzptlk continued.
Swallowing the panic which threatened to sweep him at that disclosure, Clark forced himself to smile slowly. "Oh, you do? Well, you see, I was curious about you. Wanted to know more about what you could do."
"If you wanted to know *that*, Clarkie, all you had to do was ask!" Mxyzptlk told him grumpily. "Not go sneaking around behind my back like that!"
"Well, I just didn't want to make a nuisance of myself," Clark explained self-deprecatingly. "I mean, I'm really fascinated by your abilities. You've worked some really cool tricks over the past few days, and… well, I'm just in awe of what you can do."
Mxyzptlk beamed, sitting straight up in mid-air and gazing directly at Clark. "You are? Well… aw shucks, it's just a few little tricks. But I was really proud of those trains, you know."
"Oh, that was pretty spectacular," Clark agreed, straight-faced. "That trick just now, as well — how did you convince all those people that they couldn't see? Hypnotism?"
The imp shook his head, grinning secretively. "Now, that's what you humans — or Kryptonians — would think. No, this is pure magic. They're all blind. I did it with just a snap of my fingers — like that!" he pronounced, clicking his fingers again.
"So you can undo it just as easily?" Clark asked, pretending idle curiosity.
"Sure! Just watch — I know you can," Mxyzptlk boasted.
Clark lowered his glasses and stared down into the newsroom, where most of the staff were now sitting, looking dazed and helpless; a click came from behind him, and suddenly people were jumping to their feet, rubbing their eyes and looking around them in disbelief. Well, that one had worked, he told himself with relief.
"That's certainly impressive," Clark said, turning to smile at his nemesis. "So, what else can you do? I know you can make things appear and disappear, and you can move huge objects anywhere you want. What if…" He pretended to think for a moment, then suggested, "What if you wanted to make it night, now, in the middle of the afternoon?"
"Simple!" Mxyzptlk announced, then clapped his hands. Suddenly, the sky above turned black, lightened only by a scattering of stars. The sound of alarmed car-horns below alerted Clark to the realisation that this was dangerous, so he quickly clapped admiringly.
"Yeah, that's remarkable! And you can undo it again just as easily?"
"Child's play," the imp scoffed; instantly, it was day again. That would certainly make for some strange news headlines, Clark mused, but if it helped him to achieve his aim…
"Well, I can fly around the world in under a minute," he said thoughtfully. "Can you beat that? I mean actually *flying*, not just appearing and disappearing."
"Are you implying that I *can't*, Supes?" Mxyzptlk demanded, not looking very pleased.
"Oh, not at all!" Clark insisted. "I just wondered, that's all. I mean, you can do so many other things… I was curious about whether you're good at that as well."
"Race you!" the imp announced, instantly setting off. Clark caught up with him almost instantly, and kept pace with the imp the whole way, just allowing Mxyzptlk to edge ahead as they approached Metropolis on their return. His opponent touched down under a second ahead of Clark.
"I won!!" he exclaimed, clearly delighted with himself.
Clark pretended to be out of breath; puffing a little, he said, "You… sure did. That was… darned fast. I might as well go and hang up my boots."
"Aw, you wouldn't want to do that, Superman," Mxyzptlk said, though he was smirking widely.
"Well, why not? I mean, who needs Superman when you're around, Mr Mxyzptlk?" Clark said, deliberately making himself sound humble, in awe of the imp.
Mxyzptlk puffed out his chest. "Well, I *am* pretty impressive, you know."
"Oh, I know," Clark agreed. "You know, I really don't understand why you keep yourself hidden. If the world knew about you, I'm very sure they'd go crazy about you. They'd think you're far better than Superman — I know you'd get far more fan mail and invitations to go on TV and attend glitzy parties than I ever got."
"You do?" The imp was looking very interested.
"Sure!" Clark emphasised. "In no time they'd even be erecting statues to you. In fact…" He frowned briefly, knowing that the imp's curiosity would make him demand to know what Clark had been about to say.
"In fact, what?" Mxyzptlk demanded.
"In fact, I can even visualise the statue right now," Clark continued, looking thoughtful. "At least, I *think* I can — you know, you standing straight and tall and proud, with one hand pressed against your breast, and a strong, determined expression on your face — like all those statues of war heroes and great Presidents."
As he'd expected, Mxyzptlk immediately adopted a pose such as Clark had described. Clark gazed approvingly at him. "Yes… oh, yes, that's perfect," he announced. "Pity you can't see it, though. But… you know, if you could *make* a statue…?"
Again, as he'd expected, Mxyzptlk took the hint, and suddenly a statue appeared on the roof. Taller than the imp, and standing proudly on a marble base, the statue actually bore little resemblance to Clark's companion. But then, that was hardly a surprise.
"Oh yes, that's just perfect," Clark agreed. "I can just see that in Centennial Park — right by the fountain, in fact. But…" He paused, frowning. "You know, it's missing something."
"An inscription," Clark pronounced. "I could write one for you, if you like. You'll have to tell me how to spell your name, though. If you know how to spell it — I mean, it's kind of a difficult name to say. I have no idea how it's spelt!"
"Course I can spell it!" Mxyzptlk looked offended now. "M-X-Y-Z-P-T-L-K. Mxyzptlk. Okay?"
"Sure! I didn't mean to suggest that… I'm sure you can even spell it backwards!" Clark said hesitantly, pretending embarrassment.
"Are you kidding? K-L-T-P-Z-Y-X-M. Kltpz — " Suddenly the imp clamped his hand over his mouth, an expression of horror on his face.
Clark's heart sank. He'd been so close…
Mxyzptlk glared at him. "You traitor!" he yelled. "And have you forgotten your promise?"
His best bet was to pretend ignorance. "I don't know what the problem is. Did I do something wrong?"
Mxyzptlk frowned sceptically. "I don't know if I believe you or not. But, just in case, Supie-baby, I suggest you think about one thing. If you do get rid of me without my agreement, just what do you think happens to all my spells? Specifically, *one* spell which I worked because you asked me to!"
And with that, the imp disappeared, leaving a dumbstruck Clark to ponder his parting shot.
Lois was beginning to wonder where Clark was. The spell had been lifted some time ago; at least, she'd assumed that was what had happened. Suddenly everyone had been able to see again; they'd jumped up, rubbing their eyes and exclaiming in confusion. She'd told Perry that Clark had gone to find out what had happened; that was vague enough, she assumed, to cover whatever explanation Clark decided to offer when he did return.
Then the elevator opened and he hurried across to her. "Everything okay here?"
"Yeah, fine, except Perry's really on the warpath now. He's figured out that it wasn't a power failure, and wants us to finish our investigation pronto," she explained quickly. "But what happened with you? Did you see him?"
"Yeah, and I *almost* got him, too!" Clark muttered frustratedly. "I was *this* close — then he figured out what I was up to and vanished!"
"Oh no! You mean you nearly had him saying his name backwards?"
"Yeah," Clark confirmed, sighing. "But he gave me a warning — and there's something I need to check out too," he added, turning towards his own desk.
"I'll tell you later," he said, almost abruptly, and began to dial. Lois couldn't hear much of the conversation, but his first words made it clear that he was talking to Professor Newman. She frowned, wondering what this was about. Clark's manner, and posture, suggested that it was something serious.
When he replaced the receiver, he sat apparently staring into space for a long moment. Lois, unable to control herself any longer, went over and placed her hand on his shoulder. "Clark? What is it?"
"I had to check out something Mxyzptlk told me, Lois," he said quietly. "And Professor Newman confirmed it. If we banish him, all his spells disappear with him."
Lois frowned. "But we want that, don't we?"
"*All* his spells, Lois?" Clark turned his pain-filled gaze to her.
Her breath caught as she realised what he was saying to her. "Then we can't win," she whispered, sagging against his desk.
Clark caught her and held her against him, pulling her half-onto his lap. "We can stick to the terms of the original bargain," he murmured against her cheek. "That way nothing can happen to you. You know you're the most important thing in my life, Lois. I won't let anything happen to you!"
But she pulled away slightly, so that she could look at him properly. "Clark, we both know you can't do that," she told him sadly. "We have to get rid of him. Look at today! Apart from the fact that someone could have been hurt, he's struck close to home again. And that has to be deliberate. Who knows what he could do next time?"
His grip on her tightened, but he didn't speak. Instead, he raised his free hand to bring her face closer to his, and he kissed her tenderly. It almost felt like a farewell.
Lois was right; they couldn't win. He'd thought they'd found a way out of their dilemma, only for that solution to turn to dust as well. If Mxyzptlk was forced out, Lois would still die.
Why would nothing work out for them? All they wanted was to be together, happily married, maybe even planning a family. To carry on working together as reporters. To win a couple of awards, perhaps, as partners. Just to have a normal life, like anyone else.
But, instead, they got a steady stream of criminals and madmen and evil imps from another dimension coming after them and trying to destroy their lives.
From the solitude of the Planet's basement morgue, where he'd gone to look up a fictitious old story about mysterious happenings — invented as an excuse to get him out of the newsroom and away from curious glances — Clark leaned against the wall and groaned in despair.
Was it him?
Was it all his fault? It was true that Jason Mazik would never have come after him if he hadn't been Superman. Sure, Nigel St John had clearly borne a grudge against Lois, but that might never have come to anything without the additional lure of Mazik's inside information. He'd only been forced into the position of having to freeze Lois because he was Superman — an alien from outer space.
And as for Mxyzptlk… well, again, the imp had only made the bargain with him because he was Superman.
What he'd feared all his life seemed to be coming true. He was a danger to everyone who knew him, because of who he was.
He should never have let Lois get involved with him; never asked her to marry him, he thought bleakly.
Then, as the thought of what Lois would say to him struck him, he smiled wryly. He hadn't *let* her get involved with him at all. He'd pursued her, pretty determinedly in fact. And Lois was an intelligent adult capable of making her own decisions. She had become involved with him because she wanted to; because she loved him. And she wouldn't take kindly to him trying to suggest that it would be better for her if they'd never become romantically involved.
They were a partnership, in every way which mattered. And they would deal with this together, as they should have been doing all along.
Pulling himself to his feet again, Clark abandoned the pretence of a search and headed back upstairs, still no closer to finding a solution, but oddly strengthened in spirit.
"Haven't you two got a story for me yet?" Perry asked irritably as they left that evening.
"Sorry, Chief," Lois answered quickly, before Clark could. "Nothing to report so far. I mean, they're all such weird happenings — how the heck would you explain them? Magic?"
"I print that on the front page of the Planet, we'll be a laughing-stock faster than flies land on a T-bone!" the editor grunted, looking irritated.
"Exactly, Perry," Lois answered smartly. "So now you know why we haven't got anything to give you yet. Because so far the only remotely credible explanation we have is some kind of magic — and I promise you, I don't want to see my byline under a story claiming that there's some sort of magician at work in Metropolis either!"
"Okay, but I want something I *can* print, and soon! The electrician confirmed that there was no power outage this afternoon, so I don't know what the Sam Hill happened, but it wasn't anything *normal*. And I want to know what it was, y'hear? And I want it stopped."
"We hear you, Perry," Clark answered gently. "We're doing everything we can."
In the Jeep on the way home, Lois touched Clark's arm. "We have to do this, Clark. Make him say his name backwards."
She saw his hands turn white where they gripped the steering-wheel. "Lois… I can't lose you. I just can't!" he ground out, his expression taut.
"We don't *know* that's what will happen," Lois said; she was having difficulty keeping her own voice from breaking.
"That's what Mxyzptlk said — and Professor Newman confirmed it. Mxyzptlk meant you — that's why he said it. He told me to think about what would happen to his spells if we got rid of him — specifically *one* spell. He meant you, Lois."
Lois knew he was right; there was no point trying to think positive about this any longer. "Okay. So that's what's going to happen," she said heavily, after a long pause. "I'm not exactly ecstatic about it either, Clark, but we have no choice. You have to do this. It's this or accept his bargain."
"I'm not accepting any more murky bargains from that imp!" Clark exclaimed angrily. His expression softened as he turned to look at Lois. "I'm sorry, honey. I know that if I hadn't taken his bargain in the first place we'd never have had this time together. And I love you, Lois, so much… these last weeks with you have been the happiest of my life."
Except for the days after Mxyzptlk came back, Lois knew were the unspoken words.
"And I love you, Clark. I never knew it was possible to be so in love, and so happy," she told him, this time making no effort to halt the tears which slid down her cheeks. "But if this is where it has to end… let's do it soon, Clark, please!"
He gave her an agonised look as he slid the Jeep into a parking space in front of their apartment. "Lois, no!"
"We don't have a choice, Clark. I don't want to die, any more than you want me to. But if it's one person's life against the safety of thousands, maybe millions, of people, what choice do we have?"
"I know," he whispered, sounding tormented.
"So I want to do it quickly. Please, Clark. I can't take much more of this. And if we wait… I'll only be counting the hours, and I'm already hating that."
He cut the engine, then reached across to take her hand. "Me too, honey. But I don't know if I can let you go…" As she raised her gaze to meet his, she saw that Clark had tears in his eyes as well.
"Let's go in," she whispered. "We can say goodbye to each other properly, and then… do what we have to do."
It was after midnight, and they'd been in bed for several hours, alternately talking and making love. They'd kissed away each other's tears more times than Clark wanted to remember. And they'd reminisced about their relationship, right from the day Clark had walked into the Planet looking for a job.
Lois had gone through a phase of being angry with herself, saying that if she hadn't been so stupid and stubborn she would have seen the good in Clark long before, and grabbed him for herself instead of wasting so much time being nasty to him and mooning over Superman. "And I dated Lex Luthor! I almost got married to Lex Luthor! And as if that wasn't bad enough, I dated *Dan Scardino* instead of you!" she'd cried bitterly.
"Lois, I was stupid too," he'd reminded her. "Who encouraged you as Superman? Who didn't have the courage to tell you the truth when you wanted to know whether you should marry Luthor or not? And who lied and said I didn't love you, outside the Planet that day? And how about all the times I ran off and didn't even have the courtesy to give you a proper explanation? I let you think I didn't care about you, or that I was scared of commitment."
"Lois, we took the time we did because we needed to take it," he told her softly as they lay together in the dark room. "I wish we could have more time together too, but I made a mistake and now we have to pay for it." He pulled her closer to him, as if to carve the impression of her body against him, to remember her in the long, lonely days ahead without her.
"Clark, be happy," Lois said suddenly. "Please. I can cope with… with dying, but I can't cope with thinking of you miserable. Please, try to be happy, for me."
Be happy? Without Lois? The two concepts were irreconcilable. Without Lois, he had no reason for living. He would simply be existing, alone and broken-hearted.
He'd been alone before, but this would be different. Before Lois, he'd always had the secret hope that one day he'd find someone he could love, someone he could share all his secrets with. Now, he knew that he'd found the one woman he could truly be himself with, with whom he could share everything about himself. And she was about to be ripped from him.
And, having known Lois and lost her, he could never be happy again.
But he couldn't tell her that. She had enough to cope with, as it was. So he hugged her instead, and murmured, "I'll try."
He couldn't imagine what Lois was thinking. How could anyone feel when they knew their death was imminent? And Lois was so young… she had so much to live for…
He wanted to call a halt to this, tell Lois that Mxyzptlk could do what he wanted. They could leave Metropolis, leave America, and start again somewhere else, away from all this. They would be together, and safe.
But even as the idea began to form itself in his mind, he knew that it wouldn't work. Lois was right: Mxyzptlk seemed to get some sort of enjoyment out of taunting Clark, and he'd carry on doing that, no matter where they ran to. They couldn't escape him.
Almost as if she'd guessed his thoughts, Lois said, "We have no choice, Clark. He'd never leave us alone."
Clark sighed deeply. "I know." They lay together in silence for several minutes.
"I want to do it. Now." Lois's soft-voiced statement took him by surprise, and it was a moment or two before he realised what she meant.
"Now? See Mxyzptlk? Try to… get rid of him, now?!" He twisted around so that he could look at her. He was appalled, but Lois seemed calm, if a little pale.
"Yes, now. I told you on the way home, I can't take any more of this waiting. If we're going to do it — and I don't see any other way around it — I want to do it now."
"But… we don't know *what* we're going to do!" Clark protested. He had no idea how they were going to get that hobgoblin to say his name backwards.
"I have an idea," Lois said quietly. "And you should stay out of this, Clark. That way he can't say *you're* the one trying to get rid of him."
Did that matter? Clark wondered, then reminded himself that it did. If Mxyzptlk decided that Clark had broken their bargain, Lois would die and the imp would still be around, free to wreak whatever havoc he wanted. He sighed, then gave her the assurance she wanted. "Okay. You're in charge. But, Lois…"
"I love you," he said emotionally.
"And I love you."
In a swift movement, Clark rolled her over so that she was lying prone on top of him. Cradling her face in his hands, he drew her down to him and kissed her. Deeply, longingly, with every yearning in his heart, he told her silently how much he loved her and how much he would miss her, and how sorry he was that his actions had brought her to this.
After endless moments, but too soon, Lois broke off the kiss. She gazed down at Clark, and he could see the sadness and yearning in her eyes. But, after a moment, she moved off him and got out of bed, then started to pull on her clothes. "Come on, Clark, we need to get dressed."
"I know." He inhaled deeply, then swung out of bed and dressed at human speed; this wasn't an occasion on which he wanted to hurry. As Lois finished dressing and turned to head towards the arch, he reached out and caught her by the shoulder. "Come here."
"Just… a hug," he answered, pulling her into his arms.
He was only delaying the inevitable, he knew. But he couldn't bear to let Lois go just yet; just one more minute, a few more seconds to hold her in his arms before Mxyzptlk tore her from him forever.
He felt her shudder against him; tilting her head, he saw fresh tears in her eyes, and he brushed them away. She smiled weakly at him. "You're crying too, Clark."
"Oh… uh, I guess that's why you look kind of blurred," he told her, his voice giving way.
She reached up to kiss him; sweet, but too brief. "Come on, Clark — let's get this over with."
He followed her into the living-room, wondering what her plan was. She led him to sit on the couch, joining him; clutching his hand tightly in her own, she suddenly yelled, "Hey you! Mixed Pickle, or whatever your name is! I want a word with you!"
Clark frowned; would Mxyzptlk actually show up for her?
But he did; there was a brief flash, and suddenly the imp was there, standing in the middle of the living-room with his hands on his hips. "You called? And the name's Mister Mxyzptlk, by the way!"
"Whatever," Lois said carelessly. "And, yes, I called. I've got pretty fed up with the way you're messing with my life, and I'm telling you to quit right now!"
"Oh, you are, are you?" Mxyzptlk taunted. "And just how are you going to make me do that?"
"Simple. I've already told Clark the deal's off. You gave him a bargain, right? My life in exchange for you disappearing. Right — we accept. Now vamoose!"
"Are you sure about that, Lois-baby?" Now Mxyzptlk looked amazed, and Clark could understand it. He had no idea what Lois was up to, but her voluntary suggestion that she was willing to die to get rid of the imp — even though he knew that was what they'd agreed — would surprise anyone. But he hoped she wasn't serious about that bargain; he had no intention of letting Mxyzptlk get his way in respect of that. If Lois had to die, he wanted it to happen as a consequence of them beating Mxyzptlk at his own game, not through becoming his supplicants again.
"You're darned right I'm sure!" Lois snapped. "I'd rather be dead than have to owe my life to a meddling nuisance like you, Mix Spit!"
Clark still had no idea what Lois was up to, but he suspected that she was deliberately getting the imp's name wrong. Quite why, he couldn't figure out.
"Mister Mxyzptlk!" the imp retorted angrily.
"Are you sure it isn't Kltpzyxm?" Lois asked, mock-innocently. Clark frowned; why was she giving him any hints that they knew the significance of the imp's name backwards?
"How dare -? If you think you're going to trick me again — " Mxyzptlk fumed, his face beginning to turn red.
"Okay, what *is* your name?" Lois asked scathingly.
"Kltpzyxm!" she retorted.
"Mxyzptlk!" the imp shouted, stamping his foot.
"Kltpzyxm!" Lois threw at him, taunting him.
"Mxyzptlk!" This time, the imp floated several feet into the air and looked threateningly down at Lois.
She ignored his expression. "Kltpzyxm!" she answered, grinning.
The imp was now furious. "Mxyzptlk!" he yelled, irate. Clark thought he was beginning to look like a small child unable to get his own way; any moment now tears of frustration would appear, he thought.
"Mxyzptlk!" the imp insisted, his face contorted with fury.
Clark saw Lois grin very slightly. "Mxyzptlk!" she repeated insistently.
The imp's face grew even redder. "KLTPZYXM!!" he screamed.
He inhaled sharply, a horrified expression creeping over his face as he realised what he'd done. Then there was a flash of white light, and, amid curses, Mxyzptlk vanished.
"We did it!" Lois exclaimed, turning to Clark. He reached for her, to pull her into his arms…
…but she seemed farther away from him suddenly; he found himself reaching across a vast expanse of space. Swirling mists surrounded them; purple and yellow and green and black, all tumbling over one another like an abstract painting. He couldn't see her any more…
"Lois!" he yelled, frantic to find her.
"Cla…arrr…" Her voice came from very far away, and trailed off before the syllable was completed.
He tried to run to her, but, despite all his powers, the mists were too thick. He felt as if he was running on a treadmill; no matter how fast he moved, he remained on the same spot. The mist was getting darker and darker now, the colours all blending together until only an indistinct grey remained.
Then, he knew he was all alone. Lois had gone, torn from him by the end of Mxyzptlk's spells. He collapsed on the floor, sobbing in despair, and everything went black.
"Breathe, Lois! Breathe!" Clark pleaded, bending close to her prone body. "Come back to me, Lois, please come back to me…"
But somewhere, in the dark recesses of his mind, Clark was aware that he knew she wasn't going to wake up. And he also knew why. Something to do with bargains and spells and magical…
He shook himself. Magic? He had to have been hallucinating.
And Lois was going to wake up. She had to. He needed her.
His parents were safe, thanks to Lois's generous, daring act. Nigel St John was dead. And, while Jason Mazik had escaped, he wouldn't be hard to find, especially since he no doubt thought Superman was dead, along with the other witnesses to his crimes.
But none of that mattered, if Lois was de-
Clark refused to articulate the word, even in his mind. Bending down to her again, intending to breathe yet more of his own air into her lungs, he pleaded in a broken voice, "Lois! Please… don't leave me…"
Suddenly, she moved. Just a faint movement, but he felt it. She tried to lift her head, coughed faintly, then gasped, "I heard you… calling me…"
"Lois!" Immediately, almost faint with relief, he slid his hand beneath her head to support her. "Don't try to move. You're still very weak."
She clutched at his hand, and he curled his fingers around hers reassuringly. At the back of his mind, though, Clark had a nagging sense that this was not what was supposed to be happening. He couldn't figure out why he should feel that way, though, and he didn't want to question it. Lois was alive, and that was all that mattered.
Careful to maintain his Superman persona, he told his parents that he was taking Lois back to 'Clark's' apartment, and would then go to deal with Jason Mazik. Clark would join his parents and Lois at his apartment as soon as possible.
Scooping Lois up into his arms, still relieved beyond imagining that she was safe, he took off and headed in the direction of Clinton Street with his precious cargo.
As he ran up the steps of his apartment building half an hour later, Clark recognised that he was feeling a sense of deja-vu, on top of the nagging feeling that Lois should not have been all right. He had no idea why he should have either notion, and tried hard to push them out of his mind. Lois was alive, and that was all that mattered.
Her gaze flew to his as soon as he entered the apartment; they didn't even need to hug, because the long look they exchanged itself felt like an embrace. She'd told Superman that she loved Clark, Clark remembered in that instant. He'd known that already, of course, because she'd shown it so clearly in her actions. But he had to look down at his feet, once they broke off eye contact, to check that he wasn't floating; everything he'd ever wanted seemed to be coming true all at once.
His parents left not long afterwards to go back to their hotel. Clark was grateful for their tact, since it was clear that they could see that their son and his girlfriend wanted to be alone. He hugged them and promised to see them later.
Then he and Lois were alone.
In the next second, she was in his arms, and they were kissing passionately, hungrily, the kisses interspersed with barely articulate phrases.
"…thought I'd never hold you like this again…"
"…love you so much…"
"…don't ever put me through that again…"
"…so happy everything's okay…"
"…knew I had to come back to you…"
Lois was clinging to him as tightly as he was to her, and their kisses grew deeper and more passionate as he moulded her body to his. It fit against his as if it was made for him, his subconscious told him; that was why their lovemaking was so fantastic…
Again, Clark experienced a sense of deja-vu. Yet he'd never made love, with Lois or with *anyone*, in his life!
And he wouldn't; not until Lois knew everything about him. Reluctantly, he ended their kisses and stepped away from her.
"Lois, we need to talk," he said huskily. "There are things I have to tell you…"
She stared at him for a long moment, a puzzled, distant expression on her face; then she crossed to the couch and sat down. He joined her, about to lead up to his confession about Superman, but she reached up to touch his face, then spoke first.
"Clark, while I was frozen, I had this really weird dream. I mean, it had to be a dream, it was far too fantastical for anything else. But one thing I remember really clearly is that you were Superman. And we were married…"
She trailed off, eyes widening, as Clark nodded. "That's what I was just going to tell you, Lois. I am Superman."
She nodded, as if she already knew it and his confession had just confirmed it. "I remember," she told him. "I think I knew, just before you froze me, but I knew in my dream, too. And you know what's really weird? I wasn't even mad at you for deceiving me all this time! And we were married, and…"
Married! Yes, now he knew; he remembered it too. They *had* been married. That was why he had memories — becoming more vivid by the second — of making love with Lois, of kissing and stroking every inch of her delectable body…
She moved closer to him, her fingers still touching his face; he covered them with his hand. "Clark, there was more — I remember something about a bargain, and magic, and… and you'd agreed not to stop him in return for my life…"
"And we had to find out how to get rid of him, even if it meant that you died again," Clark finished slowly. Now *he* was aware of vague, dream-like memories, too; all the deja vu made sense, as did his conviction that Lois wasn't supposed to wake up.
"Mxyzptlk," Lois said, staring at him with a dazed expression.
"We got rid of him, and everything went misty, and I couldn't find you… and then I was trying to wake you up in Mazik's hideout!" Clark exclaimed. "I knew it felt like I'd done it before!"
Lois caught her breath. "We both had the same dream, Clark Or… was it real?"
"I don't know," he answered, trying to piece together the hazy remnants of memory. If they both had the same memories, that suggested it was real, but everything was so fuzzy… "It would be too weird for us both to have had the same dream, Lois — maybe it was real."
She clutched at his hand. "If it was real, then — I was supposed to be dead, Clark! Why am I alive?" She pinched herself suddenly. "This isn't a dream now, is it? Or another of Mxyzptlk's little tricks?"
"I don't know," Clark said slowly. "I *think* it's real…"
Lois looked around the room. "Mxyzptlk! Show yourself!"
Nothing happened. Clark let out a breath he hadn't been aware of holding, and in one movement tugged Lois onto his lap. She wrapped her arms around his neck and rested her head against his.
"No Mxyzptlk. But then I don't understand it," she whispered. "We got rid of him. Things reverted back to before his involvement. So… why am I alive?"
Suddenly, Clark knew. Exultant, he exclaimed, "Before his involvement, Lois! Things went back to the way they were before he interfered in the first place! And if you were dead, I should be in the bedroom, crying over your dead body. That's what I was doing the first time he appeared. I remember *that* clearly enough. And yet we went back to me trying to wake you up in Mazik's lair!"
Lois pulled back to stare at Clark. "You mean… I was only dead in the first place because of him? *He* killed me?"
"No, no," Clark put in quickly. "Do you remember that professor? Didn't she say he can't kill? But — "
"But he can create the appearance of death," Lois finished for him. "Clark, I was never dead in the first place!"
He groaned. "So if I'd only had the strength to tell him to get lost that first time, you would have been all right and none of that would have happened. You wouldn't have had to go through all that pain and worry…"
"Hey!" She leaned forward and kissed him. "It wasn't all bad, Clark. I have a feeling that there were parts I enjoyed very much…" Trailing off, she gave him a wicked grin.
A rush of heat flooded him. "Me too," he murmured, claiming her lips again.
A long time later, Clark pulled back and gazed at Lois. "I love you, you know that, don't you?"
Lois nodded. "I love you too, Clark. And — you know I loved you before I knew you were Superman?"
He shook his head, dismissing her words. "I know. I never doubted it. And anyway, I wouldn't want you to love Clark and hate Superman!"
"Like Mayson," Lois said reflectively. "That would have been tough, if you and she…" She trailed off, and Clark could see embarrassment in her expression; clearly she'd remembered the circumstances of Mayson's death and his own distant behaviour at that time.
He squeezed her hands gently. "Lois, I liked Mayson. She was a nice person, and good to be with sometimes. But she wasn't you. That's one of the reasons I was so… withdrawn after she was killed. I felt guilty, because I couldn't feel about her the way she felt about me. I was in love with you, and she would only ever have been second best. She knew that." He sighed, then added, "You probably guessed some of that at the time — I don't know. But the other reason is that I didn't save her. If I'd heard that timer sooner… if I'd been a bit faster…"
Lois leaned closer to him. "If you hadn't been kissing me…"
He nodded. "I did think that, yes. Which was why I found it so hard, after, to let myself be close to you. And you were hurt, and shut out, and when Scardino came along…"
"I used him to try to make you jealous," Lois confessed. "I was never serious about Dan. I think maybe I tried to fool myself that I could be, but there was never anything there. I only wanted you, and I couldn't understand why you kept running away."
"And I didn't have the guts to tell you," Clark finished. "I wish I had. I should have told you months ago."
"Like when you were shot?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.
Clark grimaced. "That sounds kind of familiar… did we fight about that in our dream, too?" As they'd been talking, the events brought about by the imp's spells seemed to have faded even further into the dim recesses of his memory, and now it was almost impossible to remember even the haziest details.
Lois frowned too. "Did we? I can't… remember. Isn't that weird, Clark? I can barely remember anything now."
"Isn't that what happens to dreams?" he mused. "When you wake up, you can recall them almost as clearly as if it was a movie you'd just watched. Then half an hour later the dream's completely gone. Can't remember a thing."
"Sounds plausible," Lois agreed. "But we know it happened."
"Yes." Clark gazed directly at Lois. "And I want it again. Oh, not the magic stuff. Us. I want us to be together, like we were then."
"Like… married?" Lois said tentatively.
"Yes." He straightened, then took a deep breath. "Lois, I was going to ask you this anyway — once I'd told you about Superman. Will you marry me?"
<Again> he added silently.
She caught her breath. "Clark…" Biting her lip, she gazed at him for a long moment, causing his heart to slow. Was she going to refuse him?
But then her hands tightened around his. "Yes. Clark, I'll marry you. But — I don't know why, but something's telling me that rushing into marriage wouldn't be a good idea. So let's think about maybe six months' time — is that okay?" she asked anxiously.
They needed time to become accustomed to being a couple. Neither of them had ever had a long relationship before — while Lois had been engaged before, she hadn't dated Luthor for very long beforehand. So there would be a lot of adjustment required on the part of both of them. Lois also needed time to get used to him being Superman — and he needed to get used to her being in on the secret. Yes, she was right; a long-ish engagement was probably a good idea.
"Sure. Six months sounds great to me," he assured her.
She smiled. Then, freeing one of her hands, she placed it against his chest; he loved the sensation of her warm palm pressing against him, and he wanted to undo his shirt so that she was touching his flesh. "Clark…?" she began, giving him a look from under her lowered lashes that he knew very well.
"Well… just because we're not getting married for six months, that doesn't have to mean that we wait to… do anything else, does it?" she murmured in a sultry voice.
Clark felt his temperature rise swiftly. "Ummm… not if you don't want to. I mean, I'd be… well, not *happy*, exactly, but if you wanted to wait, I'd be fine with it. But if you don't…?"
"Clark!" she interrupted impatiently. "What do you think I want?"
He stopped thinking, and just looked at her; took in the way she was looking at him, the gently caressing movements her hand was making against his chest, the way she was wriggling on his lap. Her pulse rate had increased, too. And she was breathing more shallowly.
He smiled then, slowly, and rose to his feet with Lois still held against him. He knew what she wanted. And he wanted it too.
"You know that I may never let you go again?" he growled softly as he headed towards the bedroom.
"I'm counting on it," she told him, laughing.