By Christy2 <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted June 2001
Summary: A devious enemy of Superman makes Clark a danger to everyone he meets — literally! And that includes Clark's fiancee, Lois…
"Somebody help! The bridge is going to collapse!" The frightened voice made Clark Kent jerk his head up suddenly, earning a few skeptical looks from his Daily Planet colleagues. Clark looked over at his partner and fiancee, Lois Lane. She raised her eyebrows questioningly, and made a quick hand motion under the table. Clark nodded furtively.
"Clark has to…"
Lois and Clark started at the same time. Perry slowly looked over at the two of them expectantly.
"Any particular reason why you two are disrupting my staff meeting?" he drawled.
"Yes, actually," Clark answered, standing up. "I…uh…"
"Doctor's appointment," Lois filled in.
"Right," he said as he turned to the door, then as an afterthought, coughed for good measure. He walked briskly through the bullpen of the Daily Planet until he got to the stairwell. Then he zoomed up and up over the stairs until he came to the roof, where he spun into his suit and took off with a sonic boom in the direction of the cries for help.
He sped through the air over Metropolis, following the screams, which were originating from the New Troy suspended bridge. He hovered in the air, watching in horror as the normally proudly standing structure leaned dangerously to the leeward side. Thankfully, all the travelers had made it to the other side of the bridge by now, so he wouldn't have to worry about them.
His eyes widened as he saw the reason for the bridge's unsteadiness. Two of the huge cables that helped support it were gone. There was no clue that they had ever even existed. They were just…gone. Impossible.
Clark flew higher into the air so he could better grasp the situation. To his even greater bewilderment, upon x-raying the gray water underneath the bridge, Clark found the huge cables spread to their full length at the bottom of the river. This was just too weird. Shaking his head sadly and doubting his sanity, he dove down and into the water. The most important thing now was to fix the problem before anyone got hurt. He could figure out how it had happened later.
He wrapped his arms around one end of one of the cables and heaved upwards. A huge rumbling sound filled his ears as the cable moved from its accepted grave on the bottom of the river. He exploded out of the water with his heavy burden and surveyed the situation. He was no engineer, so he wasn't exactly sure how the bridge actually fit together. He quickly came to the decision that he could weld the cable into the bridge with his heat vision for the time being, until the real deal could repair the damage. That thought in mind, he hauled the cable up and up. Screams were still coming from the sidelines with each lurch the bridge took. Clark could imagine that the citizens were as frightened and confused as he was.
As he set to his task, Clark couldn't help but notice a strange feeling, one that he hadn't felt before. At first, he couldn't put his finger on what it was exactly, but as he sent furtive glances over his shoulder every few minutes, he realized shamefully that it was paranoia. It felt like he was being watched.
<Of course you're being watched! > the sane part of his mind argued against him. There were a hundred, if not more, people watching him from the ground. But even as Clark told himself that, he couldn't quite give an explanation for the way he felt right now.
Suddenly, Clark was in the air over Metropolis, zooming over the tall skyscrapers. He stopped himself in midair, and looked around his surroundings with incredulity. How in the world…?
Remembering his previous engagement, he flew towards the New Troy Bridge. It stood as it always did, in completion, with the normal noonday amount of traffic. What was going on? Was Clark going insane? It sure seemed that way. He slowly turned in the air and found himself on the roof of the Daily Planet.
No, this was *definitely* not right. Not even he could move that fast. Especially when he hadn't meant to. He stood still, afraid to move for fear that he might find himself in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean or somewhere worse.
"You dealt with that terrifically, though I'm sure I could have done better," a jovial voice called out from behind Clark. Clark whirled around, and was taken aback by the figure he saw behind him. The figure that was *floating*, with its legs crossed and its hands clasped in front of it.
It had dark, curly hair, and the dark green clothes it wore reminded Clark of one of Santa's elves. Clark watched the figure as it floated up and down with a mixed look of anger and amusement.
The creature unfolded its legs and stretched them out in front of him, then landed on the ground softly. He held out his hand to Clark in a friendly gesture.
"Mxyzptlk. Well, Mr. Mxyzptlk," he corrected. "But you already know me, so why the need for introductions?"
"I think if I knew you, I would remem… hey!" Clark jerked his hand back from Myxzptlk's. He had shaken it, but then something like an electric shock, or what Clark thought an electric shock would feel like, had gone through Clark's hand and up his body. It tingled, and for a moment, Clark felt his whole body shudder. He looked up angrily at the creature, who was smiling savagely.
"What are you?" Clark asked, still shaking his hand slightly to rid it of the tickling sensation that seemingly ran through his veins.
"Oh, come on, Supes! I'm hurt. You don't know who I am?"
"No, I don't. And I don't think I'd care to either."
Mxyzptlk pulled an enormous watch out of his pocket. He studied it for a moment before groaning loudly. "Sorry, my mistake. I arrived a few years too early. Oh well, no matter." He stuck the watch back into his back pocket. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to leave the 5th dimension? No wonder there was some confusion about *when* I actually wanted to arrive."
"Hold on, 5th dimension?" Clark echoed, still very confused. This whole conversation wasn't really happening, was it?
"Yes, dearest Clark, I'm Mxyzptlk, imp from the 5th dimension," the creature said patiently, as if teaching a child something. Clark faltered when he noticed that Mxyzptlk had called him Clark, and not Superman.
Mxyzptlk rolled his eyes at Clark. "And yes, I know you and Clark Kent are one and the same person. But I really don't care. It's kind of a long story. How about I just show you instead of trying to explain everything?"
Before Clark could protest, the imp grabbed his hand. Suddenly, they were floating directly above a huge Christmas tree. Clark realized he wasn't floating on his own accord: he couldn't move. He moved his finger experimentally, but nothing happened. It was as if he had been paralyzed; he was completely without control.
"Day 1." Clark noticed that Mxyzptlk was floating beside him when the nasty little creature spoke.
"What did you do to me?" Clark demanded, trying desperately to free himself of the invisible hold that had been put on his limbs.
Ignoring Clark, Mxyzptlk continued. "It's Christmas Eve. You go out to do your Boy Scout doings, and when you're done, you come back to the Daily Planet." Images floated through Clark's head. A bank robbery. A man falling off a building. The Daily Planet elevator.
"Enter: me. See, I don't really…like you. At all. You're much too good for my taste. So here was my plan. Take away tomorrow. If there were no tomorrow, there would be no hope for tomorrow. Right? And everyone would fall into despair, and look up to me to help them. A foolproof plan. But you just had to be there, didn't you? Always messing up other people's plans. I needed to get rid of you, too, because you're a sickening beacon of hope, and if the humans still had you to turn to, they would never lose their hope. So I tried to get rid of you, but you very unfairly condemned me back to the 5th dimension. And that's pretty much where we now are."
Clark didn't exactly remember the events, but it did seem as if he recognized them from somewhere. It was as if he was watching a movie that he had seen long ago, and was now watching it on fast forward. He saw himself, Lois, his parents, and everyone else moving at unnatural speeds at Mxyzptlk went on to explain their actions. Several times he noticed the wedding ring on both his and Lois' hands, but they weren't married yet. When he was certain his brain would explode from all this baffling information, he found himself suddenly back on the roof of the Daily Planet, with control of his body again.
"So, let me get this straight. You've been here before, but in the future. And Lois and I sent you back to the 5th dimension. I think I'm following the main idea. But I'm still confused…why are you here now?" Clark asked very slowly. He noticed that the tingling in his hand was back again, and he shook it slightly, trying to rid it of the uncomfortable feeling.
"I thought I had made myself clear! I don't like you! And I want to rule this world."
"And how are you going to do that? I won't let you do anything," Clark said, folding his arms across his chest.
"Easy. I already have you."
"Have me? What are you talking about?" Clark was afraid of where this conversation was leading. Mxyzptlk just grinned wickedly and changed the subject.
"Did you like the job I did on the bridge? I give it an A+."
"You did that?" Clark asked incredulously. Maybe he was underestimating this little demon.
"Oh, don't you worry your pretty little head. I put everything back to normal."
"But what if someone had gotten hurt?" Clark shook his head. He was fighting a losing battle. And he was still utterly confused. He would love to get his hands on the little creature and wring its scrawny little neck until he got some answers.
Mxyzptlk suddenly giggled. Clark narrowed his eyes at the imp, who was again floating in the air. "Oh, it's nothing against you, Clark. It's just…well, wouldn't you just love to get your hands on me right now?"
Clark looked at the imp suspiciously. Could he read minds as well as everything else?
"Because if you did," the imp continued, "well, I would just say that it would be trouble for you to get your hands on anything at the moment." Before Clark could even begin to answer, Mxyzptlk suddenly disappeared with a poof of smoke. Just like that. Gone.
Clark looked around his surroundings in perplexity. *Now* what did he do? He turned to head back down the stairs and get Lois' opinion on everything when he heard a cry for help. With a sigh, he lifted into the air. He would have to wait until later to sift through all his thoughts and try to figure out what exactly had just happened to him.
Superman looked grimly at the woman preparing to leap from the ledge nine stories high. He floated slowly down towards her and then hovered a foot in front of her. Her eyes that had been clenched in fear now opened and sent Superman a wide-eyed look of terror mixed with relief.
"Superman!" she cried. "I…I don't think I want to do this anymore," the young woman said, continuously sending furtive glances to the busy Metropolian sidewalk below. She couldn't have been older than 25, Clark decided. Her knuckles were white from the strength she was using to clutch the stone wall behind her. "I don't think I can turn around though, so can you please help me get down?"
Clark floated closer to her and gave her a gentle smile. "Of course. And I'm glad you decided not to jump. Believe me, your life is worth living."
She nodded. "I think I figured that out." Clark smiled again, feeling good that with all that had gone wrong that day, at least he could save a life. He put one arm under the woman's arms and one under her legs, waited until she had a tight hold around his neck, then started floating slowly towards the ground.
Unexpectedly, Clark felt the woman suddenly tense in his arms, and then she dropped her hold on his neck. He stopped and hovered in the air, wondering what could possibly be wrong. Suddenly, without warning, she let out a cry of agony. Clark looked down at her, confused, and saw that tears had begun to stream down her face.
"What is it? What's wrong?" Clark asked anxiously. The woman didn't answer; she tried to roll out of Clark's grasp, but he caught her before she could. Had she decided she was suicidal after all?
Clark realized she would probably be safer on the ground, so he floated quickly to the sidewalk. People around them stopped and watched in amazement as Superman laid the screaming, crying, writhing woman on the sidewalk.
The young woman said something, but her voice was so marred by her crying that even Superman couldn't make out what she said.
"What is it?" he asked, leaning closer to her.
"It…hurts. So bad," she gasped out.
"What hurts?" When she didn't answer, he said, "I'll take you to a hospital." At her nod of consent, he placed his arm under her head again. She exhaled a sharp burst of air and moaned in agony.
Something was seriously wrong with the girl, Clark decided, but he didn't know what it was. She needed to get to a hospital quickly. He placed his other arm under her knees and lifted her up into his arms.
"No!" she cried in pain, and Clark faltered. Was he holding her wrong? Was something wrong with her neck or back that would make this position hurt? He placed her back on the ground and looked up at the crowd of people milling around.
"Someone call an ambulance!" he said tersely, and several people pulled out a cell phone at his commanding tone. The woman lay on the ground, still twisting from the pain. Clark waited anxiously for the sound of the sirens. Couldn't anything go right today?
He lay a hand on the woman's arm comfortingly.
"Your touch…hurts!" Those three words echoed in his head for a very long time after the woman gasped them out. He jerked his hand back. How could he be hurting her? He was just…touching her. No grip, no pressure.
But when he looked, he found four dark red marks on her arm, all in a row. As if someone had branded their fingers into her skin. He jumped back very quickly, but then the world seemed to slow down. He looked down at the woman on the ground. He looked around at the crowd, who was now staring at him with accusing eyes. He looked down at his hands.
"What did you do to her?" A presumptuous voice broke through to Clark's mind. He looked down at the angry man standing beside him with a deer-in-the-headlights look. What *had* he done to her?
"I-I don't know…I mean, nothing…" Clark said quickly, unable to tear his eyes away from the woman on the ground. Her eyes were closed, and she was quiet except for an occasional moan. Clark could guess that she had fainted, but he was too frightened to get close enough to be sure.
Finally, the wail of sirens filled Clark's ears. He sighed with relief. Someone would be here to help. He stood back as the ambulance parked beside the scene. Four paramedics immediately jumped out, one carrying a stretcher. A fifth man, the driver, walked over to Clark.
"What happened, Superman?" the man asked. Clark faltered. What could he tell the man? What did he even know?
"She was on the ledge," he distractedly pointed upwards. "And she decided that she didn't want to jump. So I brought her down to the ground, but she started screaming. I don't know what's wrong, or what happened, but she fainted after a short time. I tried to bring her to the hospital, but she said," Clark paused, "I was hurting her."
The man didn't seem to notice Clark's discomfort. He just nodded. "Something could be wrong with her back, do you think?" Clark nodded numbly.
<And she also has my hand print on her arm, > Clark thought to himself miserably. He floated up in the air, watching as the ambulance drove away. He needed to get away. Think. His head was so cluttered with the different events of the day that he couldn't even being to sort through them. He rose up, higher and higher above the city, without even realizing it.
But was he overreacting? There could be a hundred reasons why the girl had said she was hurt. Maybe she really had hurt her back. Or maybe… she had epilepsy. Or maybe…
And those marks on her arms were probably already there. Clark, in his panicked state, had just imagined that they were shaped like his fingers.
There were hundreds of reasons to explain why she had been hurt. Thousands, really. Hundreds of thousands.
But, as much as he tried to deny it, he knew there was the one chance that, somehow, he had hurt her. That somehow, he had sent an innocent girl, who had just realized she wanted to live, to the hospital.
Clark came back down to float over the city, and then landed on top of the Daily Planet glove. He sat and pulled his knees up to his chest then dropped his head to let his chin rest on his knees. He couldn't believe that there was even a chance that he had hurt someone. He, *Superman*, of whom millions of people all over the world depended on and trusted. How he wished with all his heart that he wasn't responsible.
He sighed as he realized he needed to go to the hospital where the girl had been taken. He needed to be sure that it wasn't his fault.
Lois Lane glanced anxiously at her watch for the umpteenth time. It was still 5:02.
She was really starting to worry. In the past three hours, she had gone from anxious to nervous, nervous to worried, worried to angry, angry to really angry, and really angry to really worried. And Clark still hadn't shown up.
She had checked the TV several times already to see if Superman was being kept away by some emergency, to no avail, but she stood up to check again. Why hadn't he called her? The only answer that her now paranoid mind could conjure was that he had been hurt or captured and he was now lying somewhere dying and she had no idea where or how he was.
That *better* be the reason he hadn't gotten in touch with her, she thought, because if he had gotten her so worried over nothing, well, she would personally shove a piece of kryptonite-
Lois spun around and threw her arms out to her fiance, all previous negative thoughts forgotten in her relief.
Her arms found nothing but empty space. Clark had stepped back from her reach. She glared at him for a minute before her gaze softened. He looked more…drained than she had every seen him. That was the only way that she could think of to describe him. His eyes were dark, darker than normal, and tired. His lips were turned down into a distressed frown. His hair was ruffled, and it contrasted severely with his pale skin.
"Oh God Clark! What happened? Are you OK? Are you hurt?"
"I-I'm fine," Clark stuttered, his voice weary. "Really."
Lois stepped forward again to wrap her arms around him for comfort, but he flinched away from her. He stepped back, but his sad gaze never wavered from her face.
His behavior was especially upsetting to Lois because their relationship normally consisted of a lot of touching, and not to let her even give him a hug was seriously abnormal and extremely disconcerting.
They stood silently for a few moments, then without making an attempt to move forward, Lois asked simply, "What's wrong?"
Clark took in a long, slow breath and then let it out even slower. Something had happened to him, that was clearly evident, but… how bad had it been? Lois knew Clark normally tried to mask his emotions and act outwardly fearless, but she also knew that inside, he could be very sensitive.
"Maybe we should go somewhere quieter," Clark suggested softly, nodding towards the conference room. Lois understood. The Daily Planet newsroom, even late in the afternoon, was loud and busy. Not the sort of place someone would want to pour his or her heart out.
"It's almost time to go home anyway, so let me just go tell Perry we're leaving, OK? Then we can go grab something to eat or something." Clark nodded and sank down into the chair at Lois' desk.
Lois walked towards Perry's office slowly, fighting the temptation to turn around and see Clark's sorrowful expression again. Being truthful with herself, she realized that his behavior was scaring her.
Lois stuck her head in the door of Perry's office and found that he wasn't in. She shrugged to herself and stepped back, closing the door. She took a deep breath, preparing herself to face Clark again. Then she turned, and gasped. She realized with horror that the reason Perry wasn't in his office was because he was out in the newsroom. And seemingly having a hearty chat with Clark.
She didn't yet know what was wrong with Clark, but she had a feeling that he wasn't up to a tete-a-tete with their editor. Perry looked up and caught Lois' eye.
"Lois! I was just asking your fiance here about his lo-ong doctor's appointment." He turned to Clark. "You don't look very good, Son. Why don't you two go home for the evening and get some rest. I expect you back in here tomorrow morning to write on the King murder story though, all right?"
Clark's back was turned towards her, but Lois could guess by his tense and still shoulders that he wasn't enjoying this encounter at all. Lois nodded towards Perry. "Don't worry, I'll take care of him." She prepared to wrap her arms around Clark's neck, but he swiveled his head around and shot her a warning look, and she held back, feeling very put down. Perry sauntered away towards his office, and Clark stood up, heading towards the elevator. Lois rolled her eyes at his back in frustration, then grabbed her jacket off the back of her chair and followed him.
They entered the elevator and stood silently for a full three seconds before Lois suddenly pulled the emergency stop button and whirled around to face Clark.
"OK, buddy, spill it. What happened today? Why are you being so distant and stubborn and…and pale?" Clark averted his eyes from Lois' inquiring gaze, staring down at the floor instead.
"I'll tell you, Lois. I promise. I'm just…really tired. Can we wait till we get home?" Lois stood silently for a moment, watching the defeated Clark, before she conceded.
"Fine. But you will tell me." The last sentence was said more as a statement than a question.
"Yes, I will."
Lois turned and pushed the emergency stop button in, and the elevator moved down to the lobby.
Clark sank down onto his couch, mug of oolong tea in hand. He was exhausted, which was mildly surprising to him since he hadn't done anything too incredibly "super" that day. But he was tired, and Lois' investigative instincts weren't helping matters. He knew she was trying her hardest not to push him, and he loved her for that, but it was against her nature not to be curious.
Lois sat down beside him, but stayed awkwardly distant. It pained Clark to see Lois so worried for him. He hadn't meant to give off such a depressed air, but it could hardly be helped. The trip to the hospital hadn't done much to soothe his guilt. If anything, it had made it worse.
He sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. What he wouldn't give to just sleep away all his trepidation. But he couldn't, yet, because he owed Lois an explanation. The last thing he wanted at a time like this was for her to be angry with him.
So he opened his eyes and sat up, resting the mug of tea on his knee. He looked up into Lois' apprehensive eyes, then began to unravel his day, beginning with the mysterious bridge collapse and on to the strange little imp from the 5th dimension. Not to Clark's surprise, Lois had a hard time believing him as he told her about Mxyzptlk.
"Hold on. You were fixing a bridge that had very mysteriously been damaged, and suddenly a gnome, from another dimension, brought you to the roof of the Daily Planet, and then took you to the future, where we were married-"
Clark cut her off. "You're making this sound way too complicated," he said with a slight laugh, the first Lois had heard since he had returned. "I know it sounds unbelievable, but it's true."
"Well, what did he say to you? And what were his motives? Was he here to help you, or…what?"
Clark leaned back against the couch again with a sigh. "I don't know. And that's part of what's so frustrating. But I'm sure he wasn't here to help, because he very bluntly said that he didn't like me."
"I'm not sure. Something I, or we, did in the future. This is all as mind- boggling for me as it is for you." Clark stifled a yawn and leaned forward again, rubbing his eyes to wake himself up.
Lois took this all in as calmly as possible. At least things between Clark and she had returned to normal. For a while, she had been afraid that he had been angry with her, the way he kept jerking away. But here they were, albeit the circumstances, sitting on Clark's couch for another possible late-nighter.
Or not, she reasoned, as she watched Clark take another break in his story to stretch. It was normally Lois who grew tired first, for the obvious reason that Clark had super-endurance. But she knew he had had a long day, and he probably was looking forward to a long sleep too.
She reached over to put a comforting hand on his knee, but he stopped her with a sharp, "Lois!"
She leaned back to her side of the couch, startled and hurt. Clark removed his glasses and set them on the table, then clasped his hands tightly around his mug of tea, staring into the liquid intently.
"I'm sorry. But there's more, Lois. Something else happened."
At Lois' urging, Clark reluctantly related to her the incident with the girl. How he had saved her, only to find that he had possibly caused her more pain. He didn't tell her, however, how that in turn had caused him more pain than he would have liked to admit. He tried to tell her with as little emotion as possible. He wasn't sure why, but he didn't want her to know how much this was eating him up inside.
"So that's why you've acted reserved. You're afraid. Afraid that you're going to hurt someone. Me."
Clark didn't meet her eyes.
"Clark, I'm sure there's some other explanation for whatever happened to that girl. Don't beat yourself up when you don't even have proof that you did anything to her!"
"But the doctors couldn't find anything wrong with her. They had thought that it was maybe a seizure or something, but they couldn't find anything wrong with her. Just that something had caused her so much pain that she'd fainted."
"Well, I for one am not going to believe that doctors know everything. Don't obsess over this; we'll get to the bottom of it, just like we do everything else."
Clark managed a weak smile. "All right," he conceded, then he stood up. I know it's early, but I'm beat. I would offer to fly you home, but…"
"Of course I understand. I have the Jeep anyway. I'll call you in the morning, see if you're up to going to work, okay?"
Clark nodded, then followed her up the steps to the door. Without thinking, he leaned forward to kiss her. Realizing what he was doing, he froze. They stood unmoving for a few seconds before Clark leaned back and forced a smile. He brought up his hand and curled his fingers down in a small wave. Lois too forced a smile.
"I'll see you tomorrow," Clark said, trying his hardest to hide the pain in his voice.
"Yeah. Tomorrow," Lois echoed as she stepped out the door. She stole one more quick glance at Clark before hurrying out to her Jeep. How she hoped that nothing was really wrong with Clark, because she didn't think she could stand it.
Clark shut the door behind Lois and turned around, leaning against the door and breathing heavily. That was hard, harder than he had imagined it would be. How much longer could he do this, not knowing if one touch, one kiss, could hurt his soon-to-be wife as much as it had hurt the girl?
He undressed quickly, then collapsed into his bed. As tired as he was, he couldn't coax himself into sleep. The day's events kept flashing through his head. It was like a nightmare replaying itself over and over.
The little imp, what was his name, Mixerpiddle? Something like that. He was definitely the weirdest thing that had occurred during the day. Clark would have to try to find him, and get some answers as to what he wanted.
And then there was the girl and the trip to the hospital. Clark had decided to visit her as Clark instead of Superman. Superman would have been treated on a higher level than a normal person would, and frankly, Clark had felt no higher than anyone else. Anyway, he hadn't wanted to see the girl; he just wanted to know if the doctors had found out what was wrong with her.
So he had gone, and even managed to talk to the girl's doctor. He found out that her name was Erica Angel, and she was a 23-year-old undergraduate at Metropolis U. She was also diabetic, and the doctor had said that it was possible she fainted because of low blood sugar, but after testing, it was clear that her blood sugar was at a normal level. The doctor then said that it could have been a seizure, but that was unlikely because Erica had a good health record.
Clark remembered the doctor's words clearly: "Of course, there are other possible explanations for Erica to have lost consciousness, but they're all either rare, or they wouldn't apply to her. She's a healthy girl. My belief is that maybe it was fright that caused her to faint. Perhaps she was afraid of heights? However, I don't suppose that would justify her choosing to leap from a building."
Clark had just stood, nodding at the appropriate times, but not really listening. He already knew what had happened, just not how. He had somehow hurt the girl. That was why the doctors could find no explanation: there was none.
He had declined the doctor's offer to see Erica; she wouldn't know him anyway. There wasn't much reassurance in the hospital visit at all, because she still hadn't woken when Clark had arrived. He left with the doctor's promise to call if he found anything else. But Clark knew he wouldn't. Because there was nothing to find out.
The darkness of night finally claimed Clark, and he drifted off into a sound, yet troubled, sleep.
Lois woke early the next morning after a night of restless sleep. Her anxiousness to see Clark, and maybe to try to prove that the night before had been nothing more than a bad dream, spurred her to prepare for work very quickly. She was out the door and on the way to Clark's apartment within half an hour of her original awakening.
She parked the Jeep across the street from Clark's apartment and sat for a few moments, watching his door. Inside, she could see that it was dark and quiet, and she was tempted to let him sleep. She should have at least called first.
But she knew that they needed to get the low-down on that elf, and Clark would probably want to check on the girl in the hospital. Besides that, Lois had to write up a story for Perry. It would be a long day.
Lois let herself in to Clark's apartment quietly, being careful not to make too much noise. She heard no sound coming from the house until she walked further in. The soft sound of Clark's steady breathing confirmed that he was in fact still asleep. Lois smiled as she walked towards his bed. He was floating a few inches off the mattress, and his blanket was wrapped tightly around him.
She stood unmoving for several minutes, doing nothing but watching her soon-to- be husband sleep. Knowing that she, Lois Lane, was lucky enough to be marrying him still sent a shiver of pleasure through her body each time she thought of it.
But if she was so lucky, why did this have to happen? Even if Clark's worries turned out to be nothing, they were both still getting hurt. Things always seemed to happen to them. Why couldn't they just be left alone to plan their wedding in peace?
Lois was broke out of her reverie by movement from Clark's bed. He had floated back down to his mattress and awoken. He smiled at Lois sleepily. She sat down on the edge of his bed.
"Morning," she greeted, catching herself just in time when she almost leaned down to kiss him. She had to admit to herself, she was halfway just humoring Clark by going along with his story. It *was* kind of hard to believe. An imp? Come on. But hey, she was engaged to a flying man. Stranger things had happened.
He mumbled a greeting back and blinked lazily at her. She glanced at her watch.
"Do you feel up to going to work? Because Perry expects us to write the story up on the Marion King murder story, and I thought you might want to try to figure out what happened yesterday."
Clark lay silent for a moment. Lois waited patiently. This would be hard for him, she knew. To think that he might hurt people just by touching them would tear him apart. He sat up with a slow sigh. "I was hoping I would wake up and it would all be a dream."
Lois turned so that they faced each other, then she took a deep breath. "Do you think that you could be overreacting? Just a little? Because I think that maybe you…we could be stretching this to more than-"
"Lois," Clark said, cutting her off mid-babble. "I know what I saw. I saw a bridge suddenly repair itself. I saw some eerie being that knew what happened in the future. I saw a healthy young woman suddenly faint with no explanation. I don't know how, or exactly what, happened yesterday, but I don't want to risk you or anyone else. Please, trust me."
"I do trust you, Clark. You know that. But what you saw isn't necessarily what happened. Maybe it was some sort of an illusion. So I think we need to investigate further, see what really happened yesterday."
"I think so too, Lois, but what if what I saw happen… really happened? What if I hurt someone?"
"How can you be so sure?"
"Well, we could test it." Before Clark understood what she meant, she was reaching for his face.
Then suddenly, he was gone.
There was a whoosh of air that swept through the apartment, and then Clark was standing before her, dressed in a black suit, ready to leave for work. He solemnly watched her for a few seconds.
"I'll go to the Planet, and we'll try to prove my theory wrong, but Lois, I won't do anything that could possibly harm you."
"Clark…" Lois started, but didn't know what to say. What *could* she say?
"Let's just go to work. We have a lot to do," Clark said, smiling weakly at Lois.
<Okay, Kent. I'll let you ignore this for now> Lois thought stubbornly. She stood up and followed Clark out of his apartment.
The elevator bell rang, signaling that it had reached its destination. Clark inhaled several long, slow breaths, trying to calm his rapidly beating heart. He longed to reach for Lois' hand. He may have been the strongest man in the world, but at that moment, he would have given up all his powers for a bit of Lois' strength and love.
But he couldn't, not until he figured all this out. He looked over at Lois. She gave him a brave smile, and he tried to return it. But it was difficult, because he was frightened. There were few times in his life when he had felt real fear, been truly scared. But this was one of those rare moments.
If his speculations were correct, then he was dangerous wherever he went and whatever he did. One pat on the back, one handshake, one…kiss. They could be lethal.
The elevator door opened, breaking apart his thoughts. Clark faltered as the onslaught of voices and newsroom sounds met his ears. There were so many people, everywhere. So many helpless, innocent people. They were all familiar to him, and none would refrain from giving him a friendly greeting as they did everyday. He shouldn't have come to work; he had known it all along.
Lois met his spooked eyes and smiled gently. She hated that she couldn't hug him, couldn't hold his hand. All she could do was smile. As if it was doing Clark a lot of good. She felt like a grinning idiot.
She leaned forward towards his ear. "Come on, Clark. You're just calling more attention to yourself."
"I can't do this, Lois."
"Yes you can. You've done it a thousand times." With that, she stepped out of the elevator. Luckily, no one had been looking their way, or else they would have seen Clark's hesitation stepping out of the elevator, even after Lois had. But finally, Lois sensed Clark behind her, and she turned around. He was there, and the elevator doors had closed. She felt a small sense of victory having completed this test, however minuscule it was. As they walked towards their desks, Lois spoke in a voice so low that she was sure Clark was the only one that could hear her.
"All we have to do is go to our desks, sit down, and stay at our computers for the rest of the day. I'll get anything you need; you just work on finding out about Erica and the imp. I'll write the story that Perry expects from us."
She turned her head slightly and saw Clark nod. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, boisterous Jimmy appeared.
"Hey CK! The Chief got 3 tickets to the Metropolis-Orlando baseball game next Saturday! You wanna go? It's supposed to be a heck of a game."
Lois rolled her eyes heavenward and then turned around, preparing to fill in for Clark whatever he couldn't.
To her astonishment, Clark was smiling widely at Jimmy, looking as Clark-ish as ever. "That sounds great, Jimmy. We don't have anything to do that night, do we, Lois?"
Lois was gaping at him, completely taken off-guard by his sudden change in mood. She half-expected Clark to throw his arm across her shoulders as he so-often did. "I…I don't think so, but I'll have to check our schedule, I guess…"
"Great!" Jimmy said, but he was interrupted by a call for assistance from across the room. He looked apologetically at Lois and Clark. "I'll catch you later," he said, then dashed away.
Lois looked over at Clark, her eyebrows nearly at her hairline. Clark shrugged almost ashamedly. "I'm trying to act normal."
Lois nodded slowly. They made their way to their desks and settled down for a long, slow, and hopefully eventless, day at the Planet.
Clark was finally starting to relax. The day was over halfway through and he had made it without too much mishap. He had had one close call earlier with Perry, but Lois had successfully, though a bit suspiciously, managed to intercept a friendly pat on the shoulder.
He had had one call for Superman, but it too had been safely executed. It had been a car robbery, and Clark had only had to stop the car and wait the few minutes it had taken the police to arrive.
He wasn't exactly feeling good, but he was content for the moment. He and Lois, instead of having to deal with a lot of unnecessary questioning from Jimmy, had decided to do their own research. So Clark had been on his computer all day long, harmless to those that could be hurt.
Lois appeared at his desk, holding a can of soda.
"Thought you might like some caffeine, even though I'm not sure if it has any effect on you anyway," Lois said, handing him the can. She leaned over the computer to peer at his screen. "So, what have you found out?"
"Not much, actually. You'd be surprised how little factual information there is on the Internet about imps, or anything of that sort. But I still have other places to check, so I'm not losing hope yet. I wish I knew how to contact this Mxy-guy, or know if he's even still here. Mmmmm, thank you," he said, referring to his soda. He sat thoughtfully for a moment.
"Actually, I'm beginning to wonder if he was ever here. I mean, maybe I was hallucinating or something. But if he wasn't here, than I don't know any other explanation for why I can't touch anyone without hurting them. Speaking of which, Erica Angel was released not long after I left the hospital. They wouldn't give me any details over the phone, but from the bit they said, I concluded that the doctors had made no firm decision on what really happened to her." He shot Lois a despondent look. "I told you I did it. There's no other explanation."
"That's not what it means, it just means that they…aren't entirely conclusive. Yet."
Clark started to argue, but decided against it. He knew what had happened, but it was just a waste of energy trying to persuade Lois to think differently than she did. And after all, she was only doing it for Clark. "Well, what about you? Did you finish the story Perry wanted us to write?"
"Yeah, I just sent it to him. It's kind of a strange story though. You know how Marion King was a prominent member of the Board of Directors upstairs?" She motioned with her hand towards the ceiling, referring to the group of people who ran the Daily Planet's sales and other business transactions. Clark nodded. The two had worked on this story the week before.
"And they never found out who killed him, did they?" Clark asked. Lois shook her head.
"No, and no one could think of any motive either. He was just a nice, rich, old man. It bugs me though-"
"Hey Lois, CK, check out the monitors," Jimmy suddenly appeared at their sides, breaking off their conversation and pointing towards the television mounted on the wall. Clark looked towards the screen, his annoyance at being disrupted melting away into concern. Normally, the only time he or Lois would be alerted of a television program was when there was a breaking news bulletin, and those normally turned out to be trouble.
The camera was giving an aerial view of the highway outside of Metropolis. Clark took a double take when he realized what it was. There were at least 30 cars in one huge wreck. It was right around a bend in the road, so cars going 70 mph didn't realize what was happening until they had hit it themselves.
Clark shot Lois an uneasy look. There was a strong possibility that there were injured people out there. They needed Superman. But could Superman do anything?
Lois sidled over next to Clark where no one else could hear them. "They need you, Clark. You have to go. Just forget about this thing for now. Please?"
Clark was torn. They did need him, he knew that. But he couldn't help but think that all he would cause was more distress.
"Clark, they're saying the ambulances are having a hard time getting to the people in the most need."
Clark faltered for one more moment, then he took off towards the elevator, pulling at his tie.
Only moments later, Superman was flying over the highway. He was relieved to find that several police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks had already arrived at the scene, and were trying to figure out who needed help the most.
He hovered in the air overhead for several moments. He needed to be smart about this; he couldn't just go diving in there in his regular manner, because his regular manner was dangerous right now.
"Superman!" Clark jerked his head down to see one of the cops calling his name. He took in a deep breath, then flew down towards the mass of rescuers and uninjured people who were milling around.
"Who needs help the most?" Clark asked, crossing his arms across his chest and speaking in his most Superman-like voice. He stayed floating several feet off the ground so he could talk to the group at one time, and so that he didn't have to risk anyone touching him.
"Superman, there are several cars in the center that we can't reach, and that seem to be completely crushed together."
Clark nodded towards the man who had spoken, then flew a few feet over the wrecked cars, x-raying down through the tops of the cars as he went. He decided that instead of taking his chances on actually picking someone up and flying them to the hospital, he could just pick up the cars and carry them back to the paramedics, then let them take care of them.
This decided, he swept down and effortlessly lifted up an old gray Sedan, its occupant an unconscious elderly man. Clark didn't take the time to check for what type of injuries the man had suffered, instead deciding that he would be of more help just freeing as many people from the wreck as quickly as he could.
He set the car down carefully, trying not to cause too much movement to the man.
"Thank you, Superman," Clark heard the paramedic's voice behind him as others rushed forward to help the man in the car. Then suddenly, he felt the paramedic's hand on his shoulder. He wrenched his body forward away from the man's touch, even as he heard and felt the man shudder.
A heavy thud filled his ears as the paramedic fell to the ground behind him. This wasn't happening. It couldn't be happening. He was unwilling to turn around, to see another person he had hurt.
But it really had happened; he couldn't just ignore that. The people around him, the cops and other paramedics, had all frozen when they heard the man's cry of pain. Clark shut his eyes tightly against their stares, and then he slowly turned around and opened them.
He was a young man, probably Clark's age. He lay on his back on the ground, unmoving. His chest rose in jerky, erratic movements. Clark almost broke apart in front of all those people as his world came crashing down on him. So it was true. His fears, they were true.
He suddenly took off, flying so fast that he didn't even hear the shouts from the ground below him. He flew as fast as he dared, trying to blow away his anger and fear. Why did this have to happen to him? He was supposed to get married! All he wanted was to have a normal life, or as close to normal as he could get. But now…
He landed in the empty Arctic, reasoning that this was as close to how his heart felt at the moment. He hit his knees and let his face fall into the soft blanket of snow. He lay motionless for some time. All he could think was 'why.' Why was this happening? Why couldn't he stop it? Why were innocent people getting hurt? Why, just when he thought things were going to be okay, did life have to be so unfair?
Lois had always thought of Clark as a very strong person, inside and out. This weaker side of him was a stranger to her, and a frightening one at that. He wasn't normally the one to just break down, so Lois didn't really know how to deal with it. And he wasn't letting her try to comfort him; he just burrowed down under his heavy guard and wouldn't let her through.
For instance, instead of coming to her for comfort, he had disappeared again. The newscasters at the scene of the wreck had said that Superman had arrived, but only minutes later he had left for no apparent reason, and he hadn't come back. The rescuers had been forced to try to help the injured people as best they could, though they all said it would have been much easier with Superman's help.
So instead of coming to her for help, he had gone off to who-knows-where.
It annoyed Lois to think that he didn't have enough trust in her to share all his feelings, but her heart also leaped out for him, to know that he was dealing with this all alone. She still didn't even know exactly what he was dealing with, but she was sure she could help him if he wanted her too. From personal experience, she knew that it wasn't easy to deal with things alone, after all, she had had to do just that until Clark had come along. She just wished that he understood that she was here to help him.
She knew that he wasn't used to needing comfort, since he was usually the one offering it to others. That was one of the traits Lois loved about Clark, he had always been there to comfort her. Even back when she hadn't been exactly friendly with him, he had been there for her. She just wanted to do the same for him now, when he needed it the most.
She sighed loudly as she pushed her chair back from her desk. He hadn't checked in with her, so he was probably off in some secluded place, like the top of a mountain or something. She had to admit, it was certainly easy for him to just get away from everything whenever he wanted to.
Another day had nearly passed, and Lois had made no progress as to what had happened to Clark the day before. She still had no idea who, or exactly what, this Mxypickle guy was. She was beginning to think the Fates were against her and Clark actually having a normal life. Or even a normal week.
The phone rang at her desk, interrupting her thoughts. She reached for the receiver.
"Lois Lane," she answered, her weariness evident in her voice.
"Clark!" Again, Lois felt that sense of peace at knowing Clark was safe. Funny, normally she didn't have to worry about him.
"I'm just calling to let you know that I'm home." Fatigue dripped from his voice.
"Yes." Silence. "And I love you."
"Clark…can I come over? Do you want me to?" Lois twirled the phone cord, feeling as nervous as if she had just asked him out on their first date. What if he was going to push her away from him now? She didn't think she would be able to stand that.
"Yeah." Lois could hear Clark let out a breath from the other side of the phone, and she wondered if she didn't do the same.
"Okay, I'll be there soon."
"Do you want me to bring dinner?" Lois turned off her computer, then shuffled through her papers, preparing what she needed to take home.
"I'll cook something here."
"Okay, don't go anywhere."
"I love you."
"Love you too."
Lois hung up the phone, then stood up from her desk. She hoped this night would go better than the previous one. Perhaps Clark would be in a better mood. But no, he would probably be the same. Depressed, quiet, withdrawn. Not Clark at all. She sighed as she headed towards the elevator. This wasn't going to be easy.
Mxyzptlk floated on his stomach high over Metropolis. He giggled aloud. This was just way too easy. Okay, yeah, so he had made a few mistakes actually arriving in the 3rd dimension. His plan would still proceed perfectly. Why wouldn't it? It was so simple it was laughable. If he wanted to rule the 3rd dimension, he didn't have to go through as much trouble as he had the last time that he tried. Sure, that plan had been ingenious too, he had to give himself that, but this one was ingenious *and* simple. It didn't get much better than that.
He laughed jubilantly as he pulled his watch from his pocket. Now all he had to do was wait, and the world would be his.
Far below in the streets of Metropolis, a figure ducked behind a van parked on the side of the road. He glanced from the woman walking down the sidewalk down to the newspaper he held in his hand. The setting sun distorted his vision, but he was still able to compare them. So this was the woman he was after. He glanced up again, then narrowed his eyes. She was gone.
It wouldn't take a lot to find her again, of course; he only needed a phone book to find where she lived. It was only one more inconvenience. He folded the newspaper up and tucked it inside his jacket, then stepped out from behind the van. He shrank back as a silver Jeep Grand Cherokee pulled out from a nearby parking space, but then he stepped up onto the sidewalk and hurried away.
Clark stood up from the couch as he heard footsteps coming towards his door. He was incredibly relieved that Lois had arrived, because the silence of his apartment was ready to tear him apart. He reached the door almost before she had time to knock, and he ushered her in quickly. Her sweet scent hit his nostrils as she entered the apartment. How he wished he could just touch her, just kiss her once. A feeling of longing passed over him, but he pushed it away, deep down inside him. He needed to stay calm and controlled, or he wouldn't make it through the night.
He followed her down the steps into the living room. "I made a pizza for dinner, it should be just about done." He passed her and headed towards the oven. Lois watched with amusement as he pulled out the pan with his bare hands.
"It's perfect, as all your cooking is. I want to know why you are such a marvelous chef, and I can barely boil an egg," Lois complained good-naturedly, sitting down at the table.
"Well, you've never had time to learn how to cook, so I figure the sole reason I was sent to Earth was to cook dinner for you. I hope you like it." He handed her a large slice of pizza, then pulled two cans of cream soda out of the refrigerator. Loaded with dinner, they headed into the living room.
Had Clark not been worried about how he was going to get on with his life living with the guilt of injuring two innocent people, or about whether he was ever going to be able to take back the curse that had been cast upon him, or if he was ever going to be able to kiss Lois again, it could have seemed like a normal evening.
Clark sat on one end of the couch, and Lois sat on the other. It pained him that they couldn't cuddle up together as they should have been able to, but he knew this was as good as it was going to get. They sat in companionable silence for a few moments, each lost in their own thoughts as they chomped on their pizza, until Clark finally spoke.
"I suppose you want to know where I was all day."
Lois shifted her legs so that she was half-lying on the couch, but still not touching Clark. "The question has been running through my mind."
So Clark told her about the wreck, and how he had injured another person. Another strong, healthy, young, perfectly happy person. He told her where he had disappeared to for the rest of the day: the Arctic. He told her everything he had felt and thought as best as he could remember. She sat silently, letting him talk, and he realized that it felt okay to be transferring some of the weight from his shoulders to hers.
When he had related the events up until the point that he had called her, and Lois had had time to soak them it all in, Clark slouched down into the couch. He removed his glasses and placed them on the coffee table. Then he looked over at Lois.
"Have you heard what happened after I left the wreck?" he asked quietly, not entirely sure he wanted to know.
Lois answered just as quietly. "There were two fatalities. Six people are in critical condition, and they might not make it past tonight." She paused. "If the paramedics had been able to reach them, they would be in much better shape."
A long silence stretched between them. "So it's my fault they died," Clark finally said in a monotone voice.
"No, Clark, it's not your fault. I didn't mean that."
"Right," he said. "Did you find any more information about the imp?" he asked, deciding to change the subject.
Lois hesitated for a moment, as if she wanted to say more on their previous conversation, then decided against it. "No, I don't know where to look now."
"I was thinking…maybe we, or I, could try to contact him. Do you think that's a…safe thing to do?"
Lois looked at him doubtfully. "I don't know. What if he's dangerous? We have no idea what he can do."
"You're right, we should probably do more research first before we decide to do anything. So…now what?"
He wasn't really sure if he was asking about the investigation, or their lives. He knew both were thoroughly confusing him.
"There are a lot of things we haven't done yet. We could ask Dr. Klein to look you over and run some tests, see if he can find anything that's changed you."
"I already know there's something that's changed me. I can't make physical contact with anyone. I don't need a rocket scientist to tell me that."
Lois glared at him for a moment. "I just thought it would be a good idea-"
"I know. I'm sorry," Clark apologized. "I think my fuses are a little short right now."
"That's understandable, I guess," Lois said. The silence stretched between them, each of them watching the other, until Clark suddenly leaned forward.
"I want to just…touch you. So much. This is worse than Tim and Amber Lake's cages, because now you're so close, but I just…can't."
"Clark…I love you, and no matter what happens-"
"You can't say that, Lois! If we don't figure this out we can't have a future. You have to see that."
"I do see that. But I don't believe it."
The urge to reach out and wrap his arms around her was so strong that Clark was nearly shaking. He gripped the edge of the couch tightly with both hands.
"Lois, I…" he started, his voice husky. But he couldn't think of anything to say.
The alarm clock finally went off, its annoying beeping filling the previously silent apartment. Clark heaved a sigh of relief. After lying awake for so long, he had begun to wonder if morning would ever come. In fact, he wasn't completely sure he had ever slept at all. The whole night had just been a twisting nightmare. Clark was so tired, and so lonely. After Lois had left the night before, he had been convinced that since he was so tired, he would be able to sleep and escape reality, at least for a few hours. But he couldn't even do that.
Clark rolled, very slowly, towards the edge of his bed. He cut off his alarm, and silence again filled the room. Today was going to be a very long day. The last thing he wanted to do was go into work, but he didn't think it would be a good idea to call in sick. There was too much to be done. Then again, he could probably work better at home on his laptop. That way, he wouldn't have to worry so much about other people, and he would be able to concentrate better. He reached for his phone. He needed Lois' expert advice on what to do.
Lois agreed that Clark should work from home. She popped two pieces of bread into the toaster, the telephone wedged firmly between her shoulder and ear. Clark's rationalizing was good, she knew he would get a lot more done when he didn't have to constantly worry about other people's health.
However, she hoped that he wasn't going to start distancing himself from the outside world. If they didn't find some type of cure to this disease, or curse, would Clark ever go back to work? Would he even leave his house? Lois didn't think of Clark as one who would ever reach the point of just mulling around all day in a depressed state, but she knew it happened to some people. And Clark definitely had reason to do so. She shivered despite the warm summer sun that poured in through her kitchen window. If this was frightening to her, she could hardly imagine how scared Clark must be.
She mentally shook her head, clearing her thoughts, and returned to the matter at hand. Okay, so Clark could stay home that day, but she would take him out somewhere later, if only to dinner. He needed to keep contact with the outside world. She felt slightly strange at making decisions for Clark, but she wasn't about to let him allow his life to crumble. And, it sent a shiver of pleasure down her spine at thinking that this was what being married would be like. Making decisions for the benefit of the other. Taking care of the other.
"Okay, so you're going to stay home. Are you going to keep researching Mix…Mixer…" She stumbled over the strange name.
"I think it was Mixelpiddick, or something. And yes, I'm going to find out everything I can on him. If there's anything *to* find out," Clark replied dejectedly over the phone.
"There's got to be something out there, somewhere," Lois said firmly. "Meanwhile, I'll go into work and write up something to keep Perry happy." She took a bite of her toast. "I'll call you later and see what you've found out, okay?"
"All right. I love you."
"Love you too," Lois hung up her phone. Her thoughts were grim as she prepared to leave for the Planet. She and Clark needed to get to the bottom of this quickly, because Lois didn't know how long she would be able to listen to the desolation in Clark's voice.
The shot rang out and echoed through the empty warehouse, but no one was around to hear. The man smiled crookedly to himself and pocketed the gun inside his trenchcoat. Perhaps he could get used to these villainous acts. He stared down at the body on the cement ground for a moment, then stepped over it disdainfully.
He slipped out through a small door on the side of the building, the mid- afternoon sun such a contrast to the darkness of the warehouse that he felt nearly blinded. Before stepping out onto the sidewalk, he pulled his hat down firmly on his head so as not to draw attention to himself. He still wasn't familiar with the Suicide Slums area of Metropolis, even though he had spent quite a bit of time there lately. In fact, he had never even imagined he would step one foot onto its soil. But here he was, becoming a regular with the homeless.
However, he thought cheerfully, he would only have to come back here one more time. He pulled a small sheet of paper from inside his jacket. He read through the three names; one already had an 'X' through it. Uncapping a pen that he found in his pocket, he put another 'X' through the second name. There was only one left. Lois Lane. She would be the easiest of all.
Clark had the sudden urge to pound on his keyboard. Instead, he pushed the laptop from his knees and inhaled slowly. There was nothing out there, on the whole World Wide Web, about Mixerpiddle. Or whatever it called itself. How did he expect to find anything if he didn't even know how to spell the name? He did get some search results for imps, but all that came up was fiction stories. Nothing that could give him any hard information.
But could he really expect to get hard facts? How many people could possibly know everything about a mythical creature?
Clark stood slowly, deciding he needed a break. His knees wobbled a bit as he put his weight on them, and he reached for the sofa for balance.
"Whoa," he said aloud to the silent house. He must have been sitting down for way too long. He took a few unsteady steps forward before he could continue on normally.
He entered the kitchen, bright from the late afternoon sunlight. Despite the time of day, he headed for his coffeepot. He had already made the coffee earlier that morning, so there was no work required.
He reached for the handle on the side of the coffeepot, and lifted it off the counter. To his horror, his hand shook dangerously with the weight. He dropped it back onto the counter and reached desperately behind him for a chair. He found one and fell into the seat.
He clasped his hands and held them tightly together. What was wrong with him? Since when was a pot of coffee too heavy for him? He was Superman!
Hands still clasped together, he dropped his elbows on the table and watched a drop of cold coffee run down his arm. Maybe he was making too big of a deal of everything. There just hadn't been much circulation in his arms that day, since he had mostly been lounging on the couch with a computer in his lap. That was why he had dropped the coffeepot.
Or maybe he was going insane.
No, it couldn't be the latter. He was thinking clearly, and was very aware of what was going on around him. He just needed to get a hold of himself. Mechanically, he stood up and returned to the coffeepot. Concentrating, he again wrapped his hand around the handle, and picked it up. Steadily, he poured coffee into his mug, then set the pot back down.
There. He had control of himself. He warmed the coffee up with his heat vision, then took a sip. He was fine.
He had been concentrating so hard on controlling himself that the ring of the telephone completely took him by surprise. He jumped, and half of his cup of coffee splashed out onto his shirt. He muttered a mild curse word and stood still, considering whether he should clean up the coffee or answer the phone, and wondering when he had become so spastic. At least the hot coffee that was now seeping through his T-shirt couldn't burn him.
Finally, after three more insistent rings, he stumbled over to the phone, still carrying his coffee. "Hello?" he answered.
"Hi." It was Lois. "How are you doing?"
"Fine," Clark answered, albeit a bit grumpily. He eyed his mug of coffee suspiciously before taking another sip.
"You sure?" Lois asked anxiously.
"How are you doing?" Clark asked, disregarding her question. There was a small pause.
"I'm fine…" Lois answered slowly.
"I still didn't find anything about the imp," Clark told her despondently.
"Oh. Well, there's big news over here at the Planet."
"Yeah?" Clark asked, his curiosity sparked in spite of his mood.
"Yeah. Another Suit upstairs was murdered this afternoon. That's two Daily Planet employees in two weeks."
"Coincidence? Or is someone after the Daily Planet?"
"The police are running tests now on the bullets used, but they're not hopeful they'll be able to find out who murdered them. Both bodies were found in an old warehouse in Suicide Slums. The police went back to investigate more on the first murder, and when they arrived, they found another body."
"Weird," Clark said.
"Yeah," Lois agreed. There was another pause, and Clark took another sip of coffee. "How about we go out to dinner tonight? We could go get a bite to eat, maybe see a movie, we haven't really been out together in a long time." Lois said this in such a rush that Clark had to go back and think about what she'd said.
"Lois, I don't know…" Clark started.
"Look Clark, I know it upsets you to think that you can hurt people, but I really want to go out to dinner and there's no way I'm going without a date, and since I'm engaged to you, you're the first person I thought to call and ask out."
Now it was Clark's time to be silent. He didn't know exactly why Lois wanted him to get out of the house, but he knew that was what her true intentions were. So… Would he go and make Lois happy and perhaps have a good time after such a morose day, but run the risk of hurting another person? Or would he stay home and do nothing, but run no chance of hurting anyone else?
How could he refuse his fiancee's plea? Anyway, he didn't feel like staying home; every minute alone pushed him farther and farther away from his normal self.
Lois was coming to pick him up in a few hours. Clark was really grateful that she was being so supportive of him; he had begun to see after the incident in the kitchen that perhaps he was being a bit unreasonable about everything. Lois seemed so calm, so collected, so in charge, but here he was, breaking down over a pot of coffee. He would have to be sure to act more cheerful when she came to pick him up.
But it was hard for him to act calm or collected, because he felt anything but those. How was he supposed to act cheerful and suave when his life was careening wildly out of his grasp? For the first time in his life, he felt truly alone. Yes, he had Lois, and he was frightened to think what shape he would be in if she weren't here, but how could he keep her love in his condition? If they didn't find a cure, he knew that eventually Lois would drift away from him. She would always love him, he knew that, but he couldn't help but think it would turn into nothing more than pity. She would feel sorry for him: a man with superhuman powers who was confined into his apartment for as long as he lived, which could be a while, since he couldn't get sick or injured. So here he was, a man destined to be alone for an eternity, and no way to escape life.
Wait, what was he thinking? He wasn't really wishing that he would die sooner than he was supposed to, was he? He needed to get a grip, quickly. What he needed to do was figure out how to cure this. He needed to find the imp, but he wasn't sure if that was possible. What if it had just come for one day and then left Clark here on Earth with no solution? So he needed a more plausible solution. He had considered going to see Doctor Klein, but he had dismissed that idea after some thought. What would the frazzled scientist be able to do for Clark? He couldn't help but think there was no cure for magic.
He walked back into his living room, but then switched directions and headed into his bedroom with the notion of changing his coffee-stained T-shirt for a slightly less odorous one. However, the telephone by his bed caught his eye. He hadn't talked to his parents for days, so they knew nothing of his condition. He should probably call them, but truthfully, he wasn't in the mood to explain everything that had happened all over again. They would ask a lot of questions, and he was just too tired to answer them all.
Still, he felt guilty about leaving them in the dark about it. And so, he sat on the edge of his bed and picked up the phone. He began to dial their phone number, but he faltered mid-way when his superhearing suddenly kicked in. He paused, listening. A girl was shouting for help. Without thinking, he slammed the phone down. In a whirlwind, he zoomed towards his closet, grabbed a Suit, and spun into it. But then he just stood there dumbly in the middle of his bedroom. What was he doing? He couldn't save anyone in his state.
But the cries became more insistent, and some force outside of his rational thinking urged him towards the window. He could at least go and see what was wrong. Maybe he could call an ambulance if it was needed.
And so, from his window he followed the voice towards the center of the city. It led him to an alley between two apartment buildings. He stopped in the air, attempting to stay high enough off the ground so he wouldn't be spotted. If someone saw him at the scene, but then he couldn't save the girl, there would be unwanted attention drawn to him.
He searched the alley with his aerial view, not automatically seeing the girl. But upon closer inspection, he discovered what he had hoped he wouldn't. A young girl, maybe sixteen at most, was pinned against the brick wall of the alley by a much larger and older man. His heart dropped when he realized that she had by now stopped struggling and screaming. Now she was just weeping silently.
He felt so stupid! Why had he come out like this? He couldn't do anything to stop the man without causing him, and possibly the girl, pain. He should have just stayed at home for all the good he was doing.
But it was too late now, because he had come out. He thought quickly, deciding he needed to take a different approach to this. He scanned the street. There! About a block or two down from the alley was a parked police car. He could just tell the cop what was happening, and then *he* could handle it. Clark could still be of some help.
He landed in a different alley closer to the squad car and spun back into his regular clothes. He winced when he saw he was still wearing his white coffee- stained T-shirt and large sweatpants, but he would just have to just ignore that for now. He jogged over to the police car, but then to his disappointment, he found that the car was empty. He jerked his head up, searching the busy sidewalk around him. He spotted the cop sitting at an outdoor caf‚, sipping some juice. Holding back a growl of frustration, Clark headed briskly towards the policeman. Dodging carefully around the people on the bustling sidewalk, he finally made it to the cop, who was facing away from him.
"Officer!" he exclaimed, dropping his hands onto the table to get the cop's attention. The policeman turned his head to look at Clark. He raised his eyebrows at Clark and gave him a skeptical look. His gaze was drawn to the large liquid stain on the front of Clark's shirt.
"What can I do for you, Son?" he asked, wearily running a hand through his graying hair. Clark shifted his weight from one foot to the other impatiently.
"In an alley a couple of blocks down there's a man attacking a girl," Clark said breathlessly, not from really being out of breath but from anxiety. The cop gave Clark one more speculative glance, then he stood up from his table.
"All right. Two blocks down?" Clark nodded.
"It'd probably be faster to run then to try to park again down there," Clark advised. The officer gave Clark another long look and Clark groaned inwardly. Just because he didn't look in top condition didn't mean he wasn't sane!
Finally though, the cop nodded. He started to walk past Clark, and hesitated for only a moment when he was directly beside Clark. He turned his head in the slightest of movements and sniffed the air. Clark was afraid his mouth was going to drop straight down in astonishment. The man thought he was drunk! Clark shot a very disapproving look at the cop's back as he started down the road. At the rate that man was going, Clark could have stopped a volcanic eruption halfway around the world! Clark sucked in a long breath, then headed down the street. He spun back into his Suit and took to the air again, determined to keep a watchful eye on that cop.
To his relief, by the time he had made it into the air, he found that the police officer had the man handcuffed already. Still, his heart tore at the sight of the poor girl on the ground. She was leaning up against the wall, a light blanket around her shoulders and her head in her hands.
He knew it would have saved her a lot of pain had Superman been there. But Superman wasn't. He shook his head slightly and flew back towards his apartment.
Lois hung up the phone, then studied the Post-It note that she had written down significant information on. The inspector that she had just spoken with said that, at the scene of the last murder, the police hadn't been able to find any information on who the murderer was. They didn't find any fingerprints anywhere on or around the body, and the bullet had come from a common semi-automatic pistol, which was owned by a quarter of the population of Metropolis. There had been no witnesses, since most that lived in Suicide Slums stayed out of other's business.
So there were no clues as to who was the murderer. It bothered Lois that both of the men who had been murdered worked for the Daily Planet, but she couldn't quite decide whether she felt that that was coincidence or not. However, the police were pretty confident that the two murders were connected somehow. So, either the murderer had something against the Daily Planet, or… well, Lois didn't think it was just a coincidence. The murderer must have had some personal vendetta against the Planet's employees.
The clock on her computer read 5:49. She wondered briefly where the day had gone. However, she had told Clark she would be there in a few hours, and that had been three hours ago. She had nothing else to do at the Planet anyway. The investigation seemed at a dead end, and Lois would let the police try to break the case. She had more important things to deal with, like Clark's condition.
She stood up, went to Perry's office, and told him she was leaving. He reminded her to tell Clark to get well soon, and Lois promised she would. If only that would fix everything.
She rode the elevator down to the parking garage and climbed into her Jeep. She would go home first and change, then go pick up Clark. Driving towards her apartment, she noticed something out of the ordinary. Was it just her, or did that black Camaro seem to be following her? She locked her doors.
She turned down the road that led to her apartment, and narrowed her eyes when the driver of the Camaro followed her actions. Slightly spooked now, she turned down another road away from her home. The sports car followed her. She decided that it would be a much better idea to get off these side roads and back onto the main one. Instead of going to her apartment, she headed straight to Clark's. Even though he wasn't his normal self, she knew she would be much safer with him than alone.
To her relief, when she parked in front of Clark's apartment the Camaro drove past. She clambered out of the Jeep and briskly walked up to the door. It took Clark a few moments to get to the door, but to Lois it seemed like hours. When he finally did open it, she rushed in past him and waited for him to close the door.
"What's wrong?" he asked, concerned.
"Someone was following me," Lois said. She felt a hundred times safer now that she was with Clark. She noticed that he had showered and was dressed in jeans and a black Polo shirt.
"Who was it?" Clark asked, now even more troubled than he had been before.
"I'm not sure. I forgot to get the license plate number," Lois admitted.
"That's understandable," he said. Lois watched him as he walked down the steps and towards the kitchen. Did he look different from his normal appearance? She didn't think so. He seemed like normal Clark. Maybe he was feeling better, or maybe he found something about a cure… No, she shouldn't get her hopes up. She was sure that Clark would have called her if anything had changed.
"So are you ready to go to dinner?" she called, plopping down onto his couch. He looked back towards her.
"Are you sure you want to? Someone was just chasing you-"
"Clark, worse things have happened. I'm fine. I think you're just trying to back out of it."
He was silent for a long moment, and Lois was afraid she had said something wrong. Clark was awfully fragile lately. But finally, he answered.
"Maybe you're right, I'm a little apprehensive about going out like this. But if you want me to, I will," he said, his dark, deep eyes looking into hers.
"I do," she replied, feeling like the bad guy for making him do this, even though she knew it was momentous that he did.
"All right," he answered softly. "Do you want to stop by your apartment so you can change into more comfortable clothes?"
Lois nodded, relieved that he wasn't making a big deal about this. She would have really felt villainous if he had. But she was so proud of him for being brave. She was beginning to see that his Superman spirit never left him, even in the darkest moments.
He made a U-turn when he came to the end of the street and parked a slight way away from the apartment that Lois had just entered, trying to stay out of sight. So what if he was being a bit conspicuous? He knew what he was doing. After all, he had plenty of practice. He pulled out his pocket-sized binoculars when he saw movement at the door, and closed in on Lois and the man she was with. He guessed that the man was Clark Kent, Lois's partner. The dark hair and glasses gave him away, matching the pictures the man had seen.
He leaned back into his seat. There were two choices. He could a) kill them both now or b) wait until Lois was alone again. He was a bit reluctant to go with A, because technically Clark Kent wasn't part of his plan, and if he murdered him, then it would be in cold blood. He wasn't a ruthless killer, just a man who liked to do his work thoroughly.
However, he was getting a bit tired of waiting for Lois. She was always just out of his grasp, for one reason or another, and he was anxious to get on with the rest of his plan. Even so, he would have felt a bit guilty if one more person died. So, sighing, he pulled away from the curb and drove off down the street.
Lois was beginning to grow a bit fidgety as she drove away from her apartment. Yes, she felt a bit more comfortable now that she had changed clothes, but Clark had said hardly a word since they left his apartment. She felt constantly on edge and at a loss of words. What if she said something wrong and upset Clark even more than he all ready was?
<It's your fault that we're even out to begin with.>
She scolded herself immediately after thinking this, because she and the annoying voice in her head both knew that it was for Clark's good that she had made him leave his apartment.
She just didn't know what to do. She had never been good in awkward situations, because she was normally the one that caused them. But this was different. This was Clark, for heaven's sake! She never felt awkward with him, but maybe that was because they were always completely open and honest and trusting with each other. Now it seemed as if instead of Lois and Clark, there was Clark, and then there was Lois.
The only thing she could think of to do to comfort him was give him a hug and tell him everything was going to be all right, but she couldn't do either. Maybe it wouldn't be all right. Maybe, after all they'd been through together, this would be the end.
Wait, what was she doing? She was Lois Lane, the world's best reporter! She wasn't the type to just give up. And she wouldn't let Clark either. She looked over at him. He was staring out the window at the passing city landscape. She couldn't even begin to guess what he could be thinking.
She cleared her throat and started in her best light-hearted voice, "So, Italian or Mexican?"
Clark blinked a few times at her sudden break in the silence, but he recovered quickly. Okay, they could pretend nothing was wrong. They could hide from reality.
"Whatever you want, you choose," he said.
"Well, Tony's is closer to the movie theater, so we'll do Italy tonight. Sound good?"
"Sounds wonderful," Clark said, though not completely truthfully. No, what sounded wonderful was curling up on his bed and never getting up. But that certainly wasn't an option tonight, and he was going to be cheerful. No matter what, he would have fun.
Actually, he had been dangerously close to falling asleep. The mesmerizing lights outside the window had lulled him into some strange stage in between consciousness and slumber. He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. In order to be cheerful, he needed to be awake. And he was cheerful.
Since it was right at dinnertime, they had to wait for a while to get a table. Much to Clark's discomfiture, the silence that separated them was almost welcome. It wasn't that he didn't enjoy being with Lois, it was just that, lately, he was finding her curious nature a bit annoying. She was always asking him questions and pressuring him into pouring his heart out. So what if it felt good to let someone else take some of the weight off his shoulders? He would rather do that on his own time than to have her constantly badgering him to tell her his feelings.
The confusing thing was, at the same time that he had these feelings, he also wanted to wrap her in his arms and never let go. When…*if* they ever found a cure, he would never keep his hands off her again. He almost smiled at this thought.
He watched her, her slim form leaning up against the brick wall of the restaurant. The street light illuminated her face that was turned slightly away from him. He could tell that she was more than a bit perturbed at having to wait in line to get into the restaurant. She was staring stonily into the restaurant, and her left hand was on her hip. Her engagement ring caught the light from the street lamp and shimmered whenever she moved her hand, and Clark's heart leapt. How could he even think of them getting married at a time like this? It was crazy, thinking that maybe things would work out. Their luck had to run out at some point.
Their name was finally called, and Clark followed Lois into the restaurant. There were people everywhere. Clark could hear his own heart pounding wildly. This was a stupid idea. He followed Lois through the mass of people, stupid, darting through the crowd, stupid, stupid. They were showed to a table in the middle of the large room, but before Lois sat down, Clark interjected himself in between her and the waiter.
"Don't you have anything, oh, I don't know, out of the way?" he said in his best innocent voice, shooting a sultry glance towards Lois, then looking back at the waiter. Clark could almost feel Lois's barely contained laughter. He laughed sheepishly, and the waiter, a bored looking teenager, rolled his eyes at them. Then he put on a mock jovial voice and said,
"Sure! Right this way, please." They reached their new table, a booth in the darkened part of the restaurant. Lois and Clark slid into seats opposite each other, and the young waiter informed them he would be back soon with their drinks.
Clark looked across at Lois, and she giggled when they met eyes. This was the Clark she knew, the joking, loving Clark. If only he would come to stay.
"I had to get away from all those people somehow," he said, reddening.
But at least he was here for now, and Lois was convinced that she had made the right decision to take Clark out. She knew it would do them both good to get some air and think about other things for a while. She picked up her menu and studied it for a moment, and noticed that Clark did the same. Even though they didn't speak, Lois didn't feel the same taut atmosphere that had been strung between them recently. She took this as the perfect opportunity to breach a possibly touchy subject.
"Clark, I was thinking, have you thought about maybe wearing gloves or something? Because then, you wouldn't have to worry about touching people, because they couldn't touch you anyway." The look he gave her when she said this wasn't entirely clear to her; it wasn't anger exactly, but it wasn't content either.
"I've already thought of that, but my aura extends several millimeters from my skin, so gloves wouldn't do any good." He took in a deep breath before he continued. "Anyway, I wouldn't want to risk testing it."
Lois wanted to reach across the table and wring his neck. His it-would-be-too- much-trouble-and-I-don't-really-care-anyway attitude was ready to drive her insane. Couldn't he see that what they needed here was hope and optimism and confidence? She took a deep breath to calm herself. One of them needed to stay in their right mind.
"Well, have you thought any more about calling Doc-"
"Can we not talk about this?" Clark snapped at her, and Lois stopped mid- sentence. It took a minute for her to recover from his unexpected attack, but then she looked across the table at him, daring him to meet her eyes. He was staring at the wall with a stormy expression on his face.
<Talk about mood swings> Lois thought stonily. Fine, if he was going to act banefully, she wasn't going to exert any effort trying to make him enjoy himself. She stared daggers through her menu, fuming.
"So, have you decided what you're going to get?" Clark asked her, seemingly unaffected by his rude outburst. Lois continued to glare at the menu, curious as to just where he found the nerve to act as if nothing had happened.
"Yeah, I think so," she answered in a high, controlled voice. They said nothing else to each other until the waiter returned with their drinks.
Clark took his drink and sipped on it glumly. He hadn't meant to lash out at Lois like that, and he really had no excuse. It had been completely uncalled for, and he had regretted it immediately. She was only trying to help, and he loved her for doing that. Here she was, suffering with him, *for* him, and all he could do was act selfishly. He needed to apologize quickly before things heated up even more, but the waiter had returned to take their orders, so it would have to wait for a few moments.
Clark gave the waiter his order, and Lois followed with hers. Clark winced at her dejected voice, and mentally slapped himself again for being so self- absorbed.
The young waiter returned moments after leaving and faced Lois. "We're out of rigatoni. What would you rather have?" Clark shook his head slightly. Not what she needed at the moment.
"You're *out* of rigatoni? How can you be *out*? Isn't this an Italian restaurant? Where I can get Italian food?"
<Don't make a scene. Please don't make a scene. > Clark thought desperately, staring down at his folded hands in his lap. The last, the *very* last, thing he wanted was for her to draw attention to them.
"Lois." He interrupted her rant with a low, earnest plead.
She stopped, taken off-guard by the seriousness in his voice. She glanced at him, and at the look on his face, she let her words hang. After what seemed like several long moments of them looking into the other's eyes, Lois finally turned back to the waiter. She gave him an almost-apologetic look and placed a new order.
When the teen left, Lois turned back to Clark. "I'm sorry. I'm really, really sorry."
"No, I should be the one apologizing. Really. I snapped at you for no reason, and I'm sorry."
"Things seem a little tense now, don't they?" Lois asked, knowing it was true but needing reassurance for why she had gone into a rant over her dinner, or lack thereof.
Clark blew out a breath. "Yeah, I guess they do."
"Well, I'm sorry. This is all just so hard to deal with."
Too many 'sorries.' "I definitely know what you mean. I guess we need to just calm down, and at least *try* to deal with this in the best way we know how."
"Investigate," Lois finished for him, smiling slightly. She dipped her finger in her wine and idly stirred it a few times. At least Clark was sounding normal again. For a moment there, she had thought he had lost it. And if Clark stopped being Clark, what would be left of Lois?
Clark swung open the door, then turned around to watch Lois drive away. The smile that adorned his face felt almost foreign, since his muscles weren't used to it. But it felt good, extremely good. After dinner, he and Lois had gone to the movies, and while Clark couldn't remember the plot or the characters, he could remember smiling when Lois had begun crying during a particularly mushy scene. He remembered how Lois had playfully yet ferociously hogged the popcorn the whole time, and he remembered the slow car ride home, when they hadn't talked and yet communicated more than they had in days.
For the first time in what seemed like forever, he felt content.
He sighed happily and stepped into his dark apartment. Floating down the steps into his living room, he shed his jacket and threw it across the back of his sofa, then followed with kicking off his shoes. They flew across the air until they hit the wall and fell to the ground with a clunk. He floated towards the couch and landed softly, leaning back and closing his eyes with his arms folded behind his head. He wished that Lois could have come in with him, but she had rationalized that neither of them had had much sleep lately, and Clark had conceded that it was late. So she had left, after making him promise that he would show up for work the next morning. There hadn't been too much of an argument there, because Clark was almost looking forward to spending a regular workday with Lois.
A strange noise jerked Clark out of his reverie, and he sat up, listening for it again. It had sounded like…chimes.
There it was again, a sound like high-pitched bells. He stood up from the sofa, his curiosity piqued. Subconsciously tiptoeing across his living room, he headed towards the kitchen, where the sound appeared to be originating from.
The streetlights from outside cast an eerie blue glow across his kitchen floor, and he scanned the room quickly. The large kitchen window was cracked, so he strode across the floor to close it. The sounds must have come from outside; after all, he lived in Metropolis. Strange sounds were of the norm.
He stood at the window for several minutes, gazing out at the city. Even though the normal hustle and bustle of the city had quieted down for the night, the excited spirit of Metropolis still hung in the air. People moved from one place to another at their own pace, without being distracted by the lives of others. Life was running smoothly as it always did, with or without Clark. In the cool magic of the night, he could see that no matter what happened, Life rolled on its way, and nothing anybody did would change that. And being the sneaky thing it was, Life could take a huge dive for the better or the worse. Maybe Clark was just rolling with the punches, and after a while, he could learn enough to raise his defenses.
Suddenly, ice cold hands clamped down on his shoulders and he literally jumped out of his reverie. Before he could even realize what was happening, or register the feeling of human contact, he was turned around.
"Lois!" he yelped. "Oh God, Lois. Where'd you come from?" Her face was mere inches from his and her hands clasped down on his shoulders. He reached up and wrapped his hands around her petite wrists. "How is this possible?" She didn't answer, instead, she just smiled impishly at him. She removed her hands from his shoulders and moved them up to his cheeks, then leaned forward and planted a quick but passionate kiss on his lips. Clark nearly melted. He didn't care how or why this was happening, he was just in complete rapture at being able to touch her, feel her after so long of an absence.
Then suddenly, she was no longer in his arms. Again, before he was able to process exactly where she had gone, he felt a tapping on his shoulder. He whirled around and found the imp standing before him.
"Just kidding," it said, grinning wickedly. "She's not really here. None of that really happened." The imp laughed a high-pitched evil laugh that made Clark want to clamp his hands over his ears. Clark suddenly felt very weak and shaky, and he reached for one of the kitchen chairs for support. This wasn't happening. Lois had been there! In his arms! He had felt her, felt her delicate body against his, felt her kiss.
"Don't look so stunned, Clarkie-pie. I was just being the friendly imp I normally am, giving you something that you won't have for a lo-o-ng time." He reached up and gave Clark's cheek a light slap. A deep, sudden rage billowed up inside Clark and he lunged forward at the imp, but it had dodged out of the way, even faster than Clark's super-speed. Clark grasped empty space, and twirled around in frustration to find the imp floating in the air. Clark crossed his arms across his chest and gritted his teeth.
"What are you doing here, elf?" he demanded, trying to sound controlled and stern, even though inside he was boiling. *This* was the thing that had caused the hell that Clark was living in. His fury surged as he fought the desire to charge at the imp again. Instead, he clenched his fists at his sides and stared through fiery eyes at the creature.
"There's no need for such brutality, Clark!" The imp said, sounding shocked. "And please, call me Mxyzptlk," he continued disdainfully. Clark filed this information away for future use, memorizing the name. "Now, why am I here? Well, I just wanted to check up on you. Oh wait," he giggled devilishly, "that's a lie. Actually, I wanted to see your face after 'Lois' kissed you. My tricks get better all the time!"
Clark closed his eyes for a few seconds, desperately trying to hold on to sanity. He needed to get information from Mxyzptlk, not become psychotic. And he needed Lois back in his arms. Oh, how he needed her.
"Why did you do this to me?" Clark demanded.
"I thought I made that clear at our last rendezvous. I don't like your insane everlasting goodness or the way you think you have to help everyone and stop the bad guys, and I *especially* don't like how you banished me from this world." He leaned closer until his face was only inches away from Clark's. "You really made me angry, Clark, and I don't have much understanding or forgiveness. There's just no time for it. But I'm sure you understand that, you used to be a busy guy. What with being a reporter and a superhero, oh, and you were engaged, too…" He let his words hang purposefully.
"What are you talking about?" Clark countered in a low, dangerous voice. "Nothing you do will stop me from being any of those things."
"That's what you say now, Clarkie. But wait a few weeks, when you're too scared to even leave your bed, and then see what you think." Mxyzptlk backed up. "I'm not going to stay around forever, I have places to go and people to see."
"What do you want from me?"
Mxyzptlk crossed his legs Indian-style in mid-air and put one hand under his chin in a thinking pose. "Now that you mention it, I guess there's really nothing else I want from you. After all, I can do *anything* I want in this universe now, since you're out of the way."
"I'm not out of the way yet, imp, and if you think you're going to get away with *anything* at all, you've got the wrong idea. I'm going to find a way out of this, and when I do, I definitely wouldn't want to be in your place."
"Oh, I'm *so* scared, Clarkie! Don't flatter yourself though, you're not going to find a solution. I've taken precautions this time." Mxyzptlk extracted his huge pocket watch from his thin green jacket. "I'm off, because like I said, I have people to see. Great-grandchildren of someone who banished me before, you understand. Well, ta."
And he was gone. Clark stared at the space that Mxyzptlk had just occupied. Suddenly, with a cry of fury, Clark drove his arm through the brick wall of his apartment. Then, his chest heaving and breath raggedly escaping through his open mouth, he collapsed onto the cool linoleum of his kitchen floor. He pulled his legs up to his chest and let his forehead hit his knees. And for the first time in his memory, Clark began to cry.
Lois fought the urge to slam the phone down in her mother's ear, but being the collected person she was, she instead set it down calmly, then broke a pencil in two. How *dare* that woman call at a time like this and demand to know what color scheme Lois wanted her wedding to have! What a joke! The way things were going, Lois didn't even know if there would be a wedding!
That last thought brought tears to the backs of Lois's eyes, and she fought them away mentally. There was no time for self-pity. Anyway, there would be a wedding. Of course there would be a wedding.
She realized that she might have been a bit harsh on her mother, after all, she didn't even know what was going on. And Lois would be excited about planning her wedding if so many things weren't in the way. She guiltily moved her hand to the phone to call her mother back, but she stopped it halfway and turned to her computer. She would apologize later, when she was actually ready to continue on with the wedding plans. When she was sure they would need wedding plans.
She angrily thrust this thought away.
Lois pulled up the search engine on her computer and typed in 'imps'. When she received the same worthless matches she had seen for the past two hours, she typed in 'magical creatures'. Again, that was a no-go. A few days ago, she had been wary about letting anyone else know what was going on. Now, however, she was sure that Jimmy would be able to help them better than they could help themselves.
She glared towards the elevator. She needed to have Clark's consent before she even let out a word about what he was going through, but she didn't know where he was. She had been *sure* that Clark would arrive at work that morning, as he had promised. He had seemed so much happier the night before that Lois was positive he had been telling the truth when he said he would meet her at the Planet.
The elevator doors opened, and Lois held her breath expectantly. She let it out in an exasperated growl when Ben and Liz from accounting stepped out. Not Clark.
She picked up her phone and pressed the speed dial for Clark's apartment. It rang four times, then the answering machine clicked on. Lois left a hurried message for him to call her back, then replaced the phone on its holder. Where could he be? Normally, she would have just figured he was out as Superman, but that didn't seem likely considering the circumstances. So where was he?
"Lois!" Perry barked from behind her. Lois reflexively closed her Internet browser before turning around. "Clark still sick? I thought he was feeling better."
Lois faltered. Should she continue the lie, or…make up a new one? There didn't seem to be any other choice.
"Yeah," she answered breezily. "He said he might feel well enough to come in later though." That sounded plausible, and Perry seemed to buy it.
"Well, tell him to call me next time and let me know when he's not going to show up. I'm still his boss," he said gruffly, then softened his tone. "Let him know we're all thinkin' of him."
Lois smiled. "I will, Chief."
Perry picked up his gruff tone again. "Anyway, there's a robbery goin' down on West Main. Get down there now." He walked away, muttering about what a slow news day it was.
<If you only knew, > Lois thought ruefully.
"Sure, Chief," Lois said instead, standing up from her desk. She grabbed her keys. This would be the perfect time to see if Clark was on Superman duty.
Jimmy jogged towards her, his camera around his neck. "The chief told me to come with you." Lois nodded, but frowned slightly. Would Jimmy tagging along conflict with her talking to Clark? Probably not. She hoped not.
"Ready?" Jimmy asked. Lois nodded, grabbing her notepad. She hoped with fierceness that Clark was at this robbery, because if he wasn't, something must have happened to him between the time that she dropped him off at his apartment the night before and now. And in his fragile state, she thought with dismay, there were pretty good odds that something could have happened.
The ringing of the phone awakened Clark from his restless sleep. He mistook the clanging for his alarm and reached towards his bedside, then he realized that his alarm wasn't going off. By the time his sleep-filled mind calculated all this information, the phone had stopped ringing and he had missed the call.
He rolled over sleepily, and the events from the night before flooded his mind. He had seen the extremes of good and bad, from being on top of the world with Lois to being lower than pocket lint with Mxyzptlk.
He was in his bed, and for just a moment he thought that his meeting with Mxyzptlk had just been a dream. Then he realized he was still wearing his khaki slacks and his white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and he could feel the hard trail of dried tears on his cheeks. He must have somehow dragged himself into bed after Mxyzptlk left.
The meeting seemed like a dream, or more so a nightmare. Clark shuddered and shifted so his knees were now drawn up nearly to his chest. At first, when Mxyzptlk had just arrived in his apartment, Clark had been almost excited. He had thought that maybe Mxyzptlk would give Clark some kind of a clue as to how to get rid of the curse. But instead, the little demon had practically vanquished any hope that Clark may have had about returning to normal.
His alarm clock really did go off this time, and he slowly leaned across the bed and clapped his hand down on it to stop the clanging. He didn't make any move to get up though, because he didn't see any point. Why should he even waste the energy going to work when he wouldn't be able to accomplish anything? It was only a matter of time before something happened that gave more innocent people pain. He had known all this from the beginning, but the imp's appearance the night before only resulted in rubbing salt in the wounding truth. Clark couldn't hide from it; the only way to be sure that no one was injured was to stay in isolation.
Isolation. The word sounded so lonely. So… final. And he knew, in his head, that sulking around his apartment was just what Mxyzptlk wanted him to do; but in his heart, he knew that he just couldn't, *wouldn't*, chance putting others in danger. In the same way, his heart was yearning for Lois, but his head knew that being with her only raised the chances of her getting hurt. The distance between his head and his heart had never seemed greater.
He sank back into his bed, pulling his comforter over him. At least he could escape from the harsh reality by sleeping, if only for a short time. He had gotten so little sleep the night before that he was tired enough not to really care about what happened now. He was so drained, whether it was emotionally or physically, that he could slip back into the protective covers of sleep easily.
A siren suddenly screamed through downtown Metropolis, awakening Clark's enhanced hearing. The piercing whine roughly jerked him back into unveiled reality, where there was no dark curtain to shield him from the trepidation of life. He tensed and held his breath, listening carefully to be sure that everything was okay. Not that he could do anything whatever the crisis was; the way things were, Superman was useless.
The sirens finally quieted, and Clark let out the breath he had been holding. There had been a robbery, and the Metropolis Police Department had been able to handle it. He was thankful that there hadn't been a more serious emergency, but he knew that one day there would be. What would he do then? He shut his eyes again, waiting for sleep to once again claim him, but it didn't. There was no escaping the severe, yet completely accurate truth.
"Thank you," Lois said to the inspector, pleased with the professionalism she was holding despite her circumstances. She swung her purse over her shoulder and stuffed her notepad into one of the pockets, then headed back towards Jimmy. He was shooting pictures of the elegant jewelry store that had been burglarized. Lois came up behind him and yanked on his sleeve to get his attention.
"Come on, Jimmy. There's nothing else here," she said, glancing towards the sky. No Superman. No Clark.
"Pretty wack stuff, huh? Triple-time burglars caught in the act with no help from Superman." Lois looked at him sideways and noticed him gazing upwards in much the same way she had just done. "Wonder where the big guy is? I haven't seen him in a few days, have you?"
Lois grunted indeterminately. It wasn't good that other people were beginning to notice Superman's absence. Pretty soon, people would start asking why he wasn't ever seen anymore, and Lois didn't know what explanation Clark would give then, if any. She quickened her pace. *She* was beginning to wonder where Superman was.
"Why the rush?" Jimmy called, hurrying to stay with Lois. Lois didn't pause.
"We have to get back to the Planet and write the story up," she said, unlocking her Jeep and slipping in behind the wheel. That was true, of course; the robbery story needed to be written for the evening edition, but that wasn't why she was in such a hurry. She wanted to find Clark, and the only way to do that would be to drop Jimmy off at the Planet and then go to his apartment. If Clark wasn't there, then Lois didn't know where she would look. That was the trouble with trying to find someone who could fly; they could be anywhere when they wanted to get away.
Once Lois and Jimmy were steadily heading back towards the Daily Planet, Lois turned to Jimmy. She had decided that, even without Clark's consent, drastic measures needed to be taken. Superman hadn't even shown his face at the robbery, so either Clark was away at another rescue, or he had decided he wasn't going to come out anymore.
"Jimmy, when we get back to the Planet, I need you to do some research for me."
Jimmy looked a bit glum at this, he had thought that Lois might let him help write up the robbery story since Clark wasn't there. "Research on what?"
"Imps. Anything you can find out about imps, fantasy creatures, whatever."
Jimmy gave her an amused look. "Imps? What are you doing, writing a comic?"
Lois rolled her eyes. "Work with me here, okay? Just do it."
"Alright," Jimmy answered, still sounding a bit skeptical.
The rest of the short drive back to the Planet was filled with only a bit of small talk. Lois was too engulfed in her worry for Clark to really be aware of the outside world at the moment, and it was all she could do to pay attention to driving. There were hundreds of questions flying through her mind. Where was Clark? Why wasn't he answering his phone? Where did that teenager that pulled out in front of her learn how to drive? Would Clark be mad that she had let Jimmy know about the imp? How many more red lights could she possibly get stopped by before making it to the Planet? Where was Clark?
She finally pulled into the parking garage under the Planet, and she hurried to the elevator, very anxious to get this story done with. She needed to see Clark.
Jimmy was almost in as big a hurry as she was, and when she questioned this, he replied that he wanted to get his film developed quickly and see how the pictures had turned out. Lois smiled at this; she knew how excited she was when she knew she had done a good job. Well, maybe 'excited' was too light a word. More like 'aflame'.
They rode the elevator up to the newsroom, and immediately after stepping out, Lois heard her name bellowed from across the room. Perry was storming from his office towards her, and she cringed slightly. An enraged Perry was not a nice Perry, and from the look on his face, she could tell he was upset. She squared her shoulders and tilted her head up as he headed towards her. She wouldn't go down without a fight.
"Where've you been?" Perry barked, coming to stand before Lois and Jimmy with his hands making wild animated motions.
"At the robbery," Lois said slowly. Something major must have happened between the time she left and the time she returned to exasperate her boss this much.
"Let Jimmy write up the robbery; we have much bigger news." With that, he turned and headed back in the direction of his office. Lois looked over at Jimmy and shrugged. He appeared a bit bewildered over the whole thing, so Lois just slapped her notepad into his hand then followed Perry to his office. She was now very anxious to know what the 'much bigger news' was.
She found Perry behind a closed door pacing back and forth across the floor. She couldn't recall ever see him pace so, and it made her quite nervous. He looked up as she entered. "Where's Clark?"
Lois hesitated, taken back. "He's…sick, remember?"
Perry waved his hand in the air off-handedly. "Oh, right. Have you seen the news?" Lois shook her head.
Perry stopped pacing and stood in front of Lois. "You won't believe it comin' from me, but something insane has happened." Lois let her eyebrows raise in a questioning look. "The mayor of Metropolis and the sheriff of Smallville switched places!"
Lois pulled a face. "Switched places? Why would they do that?"
"I don't mean switched places. I mean… *switched places*! Suddenly without any explanation at all, the sheriff was here, in Metropolis, and the mayor was in Smallville!"
Lois stared at him blankly, shaking her head in confusion. "Wha…What do you mean?" Of course, she thought she knew what he meant, but if what she was thinking and what he was saying were the same thing, then Lois obviously wasn't as sane as she prided herself on being.
Perry seemed to have missed her question in his tirade though, since he didn't slow down. "No one knows *how* it happened, and it's all being kept very hush- hush. But Lois, do you have any idea what kinda story this would make? Was it a hallucination? A hologram? Or somethin' else? I want you to find out *exactly* what happened with those two people quickly and efficiently, and don't you dare get scooped."
Lois was obviously not sharing Perry's enthusiasm, since she was doing nothing more than staring bleakly at the floor. Only one explanation came to her head. It was the imp. The same one that had taken away Clark from her. He was doing something, maybe playing games with them. Why else would he have picked the sheriff of Smallville? If it hadn't been for Clark, Lois would never even have heard of Smallville, Kansas. There was definitely something very strange going on.
Perry looked at her expectantly. He could almost see the wheels turning in her head. She was clearly upset over this, and he could understand why. He was sure upset! "You have an idea of what happened already, don't you?"
Lois looked up. Maybe she was jumping too fast. Was there really an imp? Or was it just something from Clark's imagination? Lois didn't doubt that something had happened to him, but he did act horribly different than he used to. So maybe he had just imagined the imp. If someone had told her a week earlier that she would even be *considering* a fantasy creature from the fifth dimension was behind this, she would have knocked them off their feet. She wasn't the kind of person to believe in magic, because everything had a reason and a way behind it.
However, she admitted that she now definitely needed to talk to Clark before she did anything else. She turned to leave Perry's office.
"Where're you going?" he asked curiously. He knew that look, it meant that Mad Dog Lane was on a mission. He smiled. He loved that look.
"I'll be back later," Lois said as she stepped out of his office, not directly answering his question. She grabbed her purse off her desk and headed back towards the elevator. Now she could only pray that Clark was all right.
Lois parked her Jeep across from Clark's apartment. She had tried calling him on her cell phone on the way over, but again there had been no answer. Lois was sufficiently worried now. She sat in the Jeep for a few minutes, glaring out at the pouring rain that had begun falling only minutes earlier. However, her anticipation for seeing Clark won over her fear of getting soaked, so she swung the car door open and sprinted for his porch. She made it to his door and stood under the overhang, and immediately knocked loudly. After several minutes went by with no answer, she knocked again. He didn't come to the door. Lois pulled the key that Clark had entrusted her with several weeks ago from her purse. As she thrust the key in the lock, she was almost afraid of what she might find. What if Clark was lying unconscious on the floor or something? She shook this thought away and pushed the door open.
The apartment was quiet and dark. Was he even here? Lois hoped with desperation that he was, because she had no idea where to look if he wasn't. She kicked off her wet shoes at the door, then proceeded down the steps into his living room. With a sigh of relief, she heard his deep breathing coming from his bedroom. He was lying on the mattress of his bed with the blanket covering half his body, sound asleep. Lois frowned when she saw that he was still wearing his clothes from the night before. Even his glasses still sat crooked on his nose.
Lois checked her watch. It was nearly 1:00 in the afternoon. She had *never* known Clark to sleep in this late. She leaned forward and pulled the glasses away from his head, then watched him blink sleepily a few times. His eyes snapped open as he realized that someone else was in the room with him.
"Lois!" he exclaimed in surprise.
"I thought you were coming to work," Lois snapped accusingly.
"Yeah. I was. But something happened," he replied, sitting up on his elbow.
Lois walked towards his kitchen in search of a glass of ice water. "Like what?" she called behind her back. She looked around the kitchen. The same dishes sat in the sink, undisturbed since the day before. At Clark's always-neat apartment, this was an odd occurrence. "You haven't been out of bed all morning, have you?" She heard his footsteps behind her.
"No," he confessed. Lois turned around and caught him raking a hand through his sleep-tousled hair.
"Why not?" Lois asked.
"I was really tired," he said, then realized that wouldn't be good enough. "And like I said, something happened last night."
"What would that be?" Lois questioned again. She knew she was sounding a bit harsh, but it annoyed her that she had been so worried about Clark when he had been here, safely asleep. She took a towel that Clark offered her and attempted to dry her rain-soaked hair.
Clark sat down in one of his kitchen chairs. He decided that it would be a lot easier just to tell Lois everything that had happened rather than try to make up lies. "The imp, Mxyzptlk, came here last night."
"Oh Clark!" Lois exclaimed with sympathy. She felt horrible now for being annoyed at Clark, who knew what the imp had done to him! She sat down beside him, towel in hand. "What did he do?"
Clark held back saying anything for a few moments. What would she think if he told her that Mxyzptlk had created an illusion of her?
She would probably be scared. This Mxyzptlk was turning out to be far more powerful than Clark had first imagined. Lois would be afraid when she found out that the imp could create an illusion so much like herself that even Clark had been confused. Then again, she needed to know what they were up against. What the world was up against.
So, very hesitantly, he told her what happened in his kitchen the night before as best he could. He had been so wrapped up in his anger and disbelief that the exact things that had been said were a bit hazy to him. But he told the key points and most important information. He didn't, however, tell her about his breakdown afterwards, for two reasons.
First, he didn't want her to think of him as weak. That would just upset her more than he already had. He could tell by the look on her face that just knowing the imp was really and truly on Earth spooked her, and letting her know that Clark had crumbled underneath Mxyzptlk would only cause more panic.
The other reason was that Clark was ashamed. He was a grown man, a grown *super* man. He shouldn't have cried, no matter the state of affairs. It was very embarrassing, now that he thought about it. He had never been a fragile person, but then he had gone and blubbered all over his kitchen floor like a child. He was angry with himself, as well as with the imp.
Lois shifted uncomfortably in her chair. What did she do now? She tried to pull herself away from the situation and look at it rationally. Here she was, in the kitchen of the most powerful man in the world who she was also engaged to. This man, by some strange and evil twist of fate, was condemned to a life of misery. And she had to figure out how not only change fate by switching things back to normal, she also had to cheer this man up. And, she thought grimly, giving him a cookie and a pat on the back just wouldn't do it. She was going to suggest they take a walk outside, until she looked out at the rain pattering against window.
Clark caught her gaze and followed it. "The weather is quite appropriate, don't you think?" The torrential downpour was gone now, leaving in its wake a misty sprinkle of rain. Clark watched the droplets hit his window. "I've always hated days like this, ever since I was a kid. Everything's just so dismal and gray. I think the lack of sunlight is what puts me in such a depressed mood, you know? I depend on the sun, and when it's gone, it's like I'm missing something." He looked back at Lois, realizing she was watching him intently.
He smiled wistfully at her. "Of course, that was all before I met you. Now, even these dark days are bright. The sun is always shining. The sky is a blue that I've never seen before." He dropped his gaze quickly, pulling himself up. He realized that he had been on the verge of doing something stupid, like kiss her. He needed to get a hold of himself here. He couldn't forget that things weren't like they used to be. They were different now, and would always be. He cupped his chin in his palm and leaned on the table, then finally allowed himself to look up at Lois again.
Lois tried to say something, well, anything, to break the awkward silence that followed Clark's emission, but she choked on her words. It was times like this that reminded her of how lonely her life had been before Clark. And how horribly desolate it would be if she lost him. A renewed sense of determination flowed through her. They *would* win.
"Oh! I nearly forgot to tell you! Something very strange happened this morning," Lois said suddenly, breaking the mood.
"Another murder?" Clark asked, frowning. He was a bit fearful of hearing the answer.
Lois shook her head. "Even weirder. Out of nowhere, the sheriff of Smallville appeared in the mayor's office. And the mayor suddenly found herself driving the sheriff's car down Smallville's Main Street. Too weird, huh?" she said with a grin at Clark's perplexed look.
"You mean, they suddenly just switched places?" Clark asked.
"Exactly. No clues as to how they did, either. Just suddenly, boom, they took a one-way trip across the country."
Clark noticed that old spark in Lois's eyes. "You know how it happened, don't you?"
"I have a hunch," Lois admitted. "I think it was the imp. I think he's trying to get your attention."
Clark let out a breath and ran a hand through his hair. "Well, he's got it."
Lois studied Clark carefully. She hadn't overlooked the flash of pain that had crossed Clark's face when she'd mentioned the imp, but she figured this was as safe a time as any to bring up the subject, since he seemed to be opening up for her. "Clark, last night, did you ask the imp *what* he did to you exactly?"
Clark turned to her suddenly, a feeling of shame running through him. "I wasn't really thinking clearly. I should have asked, I guess I was just so confused about everything…" He rambled off quickly, then let his words hang.
Lois almost reached over to place her hand over his comfortingly, but caught herself. Clark, however, noticed the gesture. He looked at her blankly, which in turn caused a twang of sadness to run through her.
"Clark, believe me, it's not your fault that your mind was on other things last night. You had plenty of other stuff to think about than the hard facts. Hey, can you imagine what *I* would have been like?" she said with a bark of laughter.
Clark gave her a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "A wreck."
Lois looked at him in mock horror, but couldn't keep up the charade for very long. "Exactly. So just be happy you're not me." She wasn't very good at comforting. She had almost made Clark feel more worse than better. Things needed to get back to normal soon, she thought for the millionth time.
"So. Now what do we do?" Clark asked.
"We need to talk to the mayor or sheriff. Perry didn't say whether they had returned to their proper places yet, so whichever one is here, we talk to."
"You talk to," Clark corrected, a serious expression locked on his face. "I'm not leaving the house. It's too dangerous."
One moment she wanted to give him a hug, the next she wanted to scream. "Since when has walking down the street been too dangerous for you?" she flung at him.
"Since I became a walking King Midas," he shot back. They sat glaring at the other for several moments before Lois sat back with a flustered laugh.
"This isn't getting us anywhere," she said. "So…you stay here. And I'll go see what I can find out."
"Maybe I can find the imp," Clark said as Lois began to stand up.
"How?" Lois questioned, sitting back down.
"Call him?" Clark suggested, shrugging. "He seems to know everything. Maybe he would hear if I just call his name."
"Clark, wait," Lois said. Sure, he seemed better, but she had known Clark long enough to recognize when he masked his emotions so others wouldn't see how he was really feeling, or when he hid them down so far that even he didn't know. She didn't think he was ready for another encounter with this creature, if it had been as bad as Clark had described.
"What?" Clark said, looking slightly annoyed.
"It's just…are you ready to see him again? The imp?"
Clark didn't answer right away. He stared out the window at the calming rain. "I don't know. It had been such a surprise last night…I think if I was prepared to deal with him, then it would be all right. Anyway, we need some answers. The end result of returning to normal would definitely make up for anything bad that happens now."
Lois smiled uncertainly. "Well, if you're sure. You're right, we *do* need answers. What do you think we should ask him?"
"Well, we need to ask what he did exactly."
Lois nodded. "And it would be nice to know how the curse can be broken."
Clark smiled sadly. "I don't think he's going to tell us that."
"Yeah, I get that feeling."
"We could ask him what he is exactly, and what's he planning on doing here."
"Oh!" Lois exclaimed, suddenly remembering something. "I asked Jimmy to get us everything he could on imps."
"You told Jimmy about me?" Clark asked, paling.
"What? No! I just told him we need some information. I didn't say why. I wouldn't do that," Lois huffed, feeling put down that Clark even thought she would break his trust like that.
"Sorry," Clark said, smiling apologetically. "I guess I overreacted. I hope he finds some information we can use, because I haven't been having any luck." He switched the subject suddenly. "Do you think we should try calling Mxyzptlk now?"
Lois nodded, deciding to let his sudden change in topic slide, for now. Anyway, she was strangely excited to meet the imp. She felt a bit apprehensive… okay, scared about actually seeing him, but that tingle of excitement that always followed danger boosted her adrenaline. She had never believed in magic, and meeting it face to face would be unusually exhilarating. The underlying fear was still there, and it would only take a slight push for that fear to surface, but they needed answers. Going to the source was the only way to get what they needed.
Clark stood up, and looked down at Lois. She stood too.
"Imp?" Clark said loudly, feeling slightly dumb yelling into his kitchen. They stood in silence, waiting for anything to happen. Finally, Lois spoke in a stage whisper.
"Maybe we should try using a Ouija board." Clark laughed nervously. Still, nothing happened.
"Mxyzptlk?" he called again, this time using the imp's name. Several seconds passed. Then, out of nowhere, a sudden and intense flash of light filled the apartment. A rumbling sound like thunder followed, and Clark was nearly knocked off his feet by the vibrations. Lois yelped in surprise.
"Lois? Are you all right?" Clark yelled over the noise. The flash of light left a dense blue haze that was impenetrable even to Clark's eyes, and he couldn't see where Lois was.
Lois leaned against table for support. The fog was so thick that she couldn't see anything at all. The thundering noise died down, and Lois was able to release her hands from her ears. She hadn't even realized she'd been holding them. "Clark?" she asked, her voice shaking slightly. "What's going on?"
"I'm not sure," he answered, his own voice unsteady. "Don't move, you might accidentally bump into me. I'm going to try to get rid of all this smoke." He sucked in a long, deep breath. The fog's density decreased until all that was left was a hazy mist of blue sprinkling through the air. Clark hurried over to his balcony and opened the doors, then blew the foreign smoke out of his lungs. He coughed slightly, trying to clear his body of the strange, magical fog.
He turned around to find Lois staring down at his kitchen table. He followed her gaze. Engraved in the wood were the words:
NOT WHILE YOUR GIRLFRIENDS THERE
Lois and Clark exchanged a long glance. Clark shook his head, running his hand over the enchased tabletop. "Well, Lois, maybe you should lea-"
"Don't even think about. You're not coming within 10 miles of that imp alone."
"He must be nearby, if he was able to get here that fast." Clark traced the letters on the table. "There must have been an easier and less destructive way for him to tell us what he needed to without ruining my table."
Lois pointed out the last eight letters. "At least now we know his name."
"Yeah, I guess that might be useful," Clark conceded. He gave his table one more sorrowful glance.
"It's almost 2:30 already," Lois said, glancing at her watch. "I should probably be leaving if I want to catch up with the mayor or sheriff today. Are you going to be okay here by yourself?"
"Of course I am," Clark said. "Don't worry about me. Just go and get as much information as you can."
Lois walked towards the door, but when she got to the steps, she turned around to face Clark again.
"You'd do anything for me, right?" she asked.
The corners of Clark's mouth tweaked upwards. "Lois, for you, I would walk through fire without flinching."
Lois rolled her eyes good-naturedly. "Cute, Kent. But really…please promise me you won't do anything dumb until we know what happened with the sheriff and mayor, okay?"
"Funny, I'm the one that's usually telling you to be careful," Clark said.
"Are you going to promise?"
"Thank you," Lois said as she pulled on her shoes.
"Your turn," Clark said.
"My turn for what?" Lois asked, fighting with the laces on her shoe.
"Your turn to promise. This imp guy is dangerous, and I don't want him mad at you. Promise you won't do anything dangerous."
"And what are you going to do if I get in trouble; fly out and save me?" Lois regretted the question even before it was out of her mouth. She had really meant it as a joke, but it had come out sounding horribly mean and very cheap. She forced herself to look over at Clark. "Clark, I'm sorry, I didn't mean…"
"It's okay, Lois," Clark cut her off, forcing a laugh. "I know I'm not in much shape to do anything right now. That's why you have to take care of yourself."
"Clark, really, I didn't mean anything-"
"I know, Lois! Now stop worrying about me, you've got work to do."
Lois, feeling terribly guilty, backed up towards the door. What else could she say? She was so stupid for not thinking before she spoke. The last thing Clark needed was to be hurt even more, and that's just what she had done. She always managed to royally screw things up. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
She watched Clark open the door for her. "I'll be here when you get back," he said, but he didn't meet her eyes.
"Okay," Lois squeaked. She scooted around him and stepped out towards the warm sprinkle of rain. She turned around to see Clark one more time, but he was already closing the door. She clenched her teeth together in anger at herself, then turned and fled to her Jeep.
Clark shut the door behind Lois. When he was sure he was no longer in her hearing range, he took in a long, shuddering breath. Things had been going fine for a while, better than Clark could have hoped for, but Lois's comment had roughly jerked him back into reality. He didn't blame Lois. After all, it wasn't her fault he was incapacitated. But the horror of knowing that he couldn't be there to help Lois if she needed him, couldn't be there for *anyone*, gave him a frightening sense of helplessness.
He staggered across the floor of his living room and fell onto the couch. He had been with Lois for no more than two hours and in that short time, he had nearly caused several disasters. He had almost kissed her, for one. If he hadn't caught himself, then Lois would be suffering now. Maybe even more than suffering. He shuddered at the thought.
Then, at one point Lois had reached for his hand. When she realized what she had almost done and pulled away, Clark had felt an almost unstoppable urge to pull her back to him. He just wanted to hold her, and be comforted in knowing that everything would work out. That would have been enough. Then again, if he was given the chance to hold her, he didn't know if he would ever be able to let go.
Clark rolled off the couch and stumbled towards his closet, then realized that he still had his clothes on from the night before. He slowly stripped himself of his outer clothing, leaving only the red, yellow, and blue uniform. Stepping over to his balcony, he opened the doors and lifted up straight into the sky. He flew above the tall buildings, up and through the clouds, and didn't stop until he broke through into the sunlight. Once above the bleak and dirty earth, he allowed himself to float in the sky, soaking in the blessed sunlight.
Just when he had thought he had found his place in life, when he had finally begun to fit it, life had to give him a reminder that he wasn't like everyone else. He was, and always would be, an oddity. Whenever things were going smoothly, he wasn't allowed to forget that things were different for him. But that was just the way it was, and there was nothing he could do to change that.
He stretched out, getting drunk on the sun's rays. At some point in his life, he had convinced himself that running away from his problems was easier than dealing with them. While that wouldn't help any in the long run, at least there were times like this when he could just fly away from everything. Sometimes, though not very often, being different was good.
Lois wearily climbed the steps of the courthouse. She was really not in the mood to deal with the cranky female politician who was the mayor of Metropolis. What she was in the mood for was going home and soaking in the bath, and then cuddling up on the couch with Clark, some popcorn, and a stack of Mel Gibson movies. She sighed. She wouldn't be able to do any of those things until she found out what had really happened that morning. And she wouldn't be able to do that until she talked to the mayor.
"Afternoon, Ms. Lane. What can I do for you?" the mayor's secretary asked as Lois walked into the lobby. Lois could see the exhausted look in the elderly woman's eyes, but she could also tell that the secretary was attempting to act as if nothing was wrong. Lois suspected that they were still keeping things very low and away from the media. And if she didn't know that something was wrong, she doubted she would have suspected anything. The lobby was nearly empty, with only a few people milling around and talking quietly. However, Lois had no clue what was going on behind all those closed doors. If only Clark were with her.
"I need to speak with the mayor," Lois said. She had visited the mayor's office on assignment enough to know that the secretary could probably be persuaded into doing what she asked. It would just take a bit of patience.
"She's busy, she asked not to be disturbed today. Perhaps I could give her a message to call you?"
Lois glanced around at the other people in the lobby, then leaned forward and spoke in a hushed tone. "Look, I know what happened today with the mayor and Smallville. I'm not going to print anything I learn, I just really need to talk to her." This was true; if they wanted to keep things hush-hush, Lois could cope as long as she learned answers for Clark.
Lois could almost watch the secretary's face pale. "I'm not sure what you're talking about…" she fumbled. Lois was about to reply when the door behind the secretary's desk opened. Lois craned her neck to see over the woman's bushy hair. Out from the room stepped a young man, barely older than Lois, in a dark brown uniform. The badges over his chest and across his shoulders caught Lois's eye, and she grinned triumphantly. They identified him as the sheriff of Smallville.
A line of distraught businessmen and women were trailing him, all looking horribly worried. He, too, had creased lines on his forehead, though they were partially hidden by his parted blonde hair.
The secretary looked at Lois with troubled eyes. "Ms. Lane, I don't think-"
The sheriff's head snapped up, and he looked around the room for the first time. "Excuse me, did I hear right? Ms. Lane? Lois Lane?"
Lois was caught off-guard at his sudden proclamation, but she quickly composed herself. Maybe this was the chance she needed to have a one-on-one conversation with the imp's victim. "Yes, I'm Lois Lane."
"Thank God!" the sheriff exclaimed in his soft southern accent, rushing towards her. Lois leaned back unintentionally; she was confused at the sheriff's friendliness to her. She was sure she had never seen him. He had broad shoulders, dark blonde hair, and bright blue eyes that shone against his suntanned skin. One thing she had to give to Kansas, she thought wryly, was that it produced men that weren't too hard to look at.
"I'm Ryan Hall, and I'm so glad that I've found you without even having to look. I'm surrounded by all these strangers who won't tell me anything that's goin' on-"
Lois cut him off, still utterly confused. "Mr. Hall…Sheriff, I'm sorry, but you must have me mistaken for someone else. I don't believe we've ever met, which makes me a stranger too, just like them…"
"Excuse me, Sheriff." A woman who Lois didn't recognize came up behind them. "Please don't confer with anyone about this, especially the press." She gave Lois a pointed look.
"Oh no, no, no, you don't understand," Lois cut in desperately, her previous wariness dropping away. She grabbed the sheriff's arm. She needed to talk to this guy; she wasn't going to let him slip through her fingers just like that. "Ryan and I go way back, I'm just so glad to see him in town under these…unusual circumstances."
"Well I'm sorry, Ms. Lane, we just don't have time for this-"
"Ladies, please!" Ryan cut in smoothly, grinning. He turned to Lois. "You're Clark Kent's fiancee, aren't you?"
"Yes," Lois said, almost pouting. So much for her cover.
"I knew it! I was sure I had heard that he was getting married to you. Clark and I grew up together, and I was hoping I could find him here."
<Oh yeah,> Lois thought <It's Smallville. Everyone knows everyone.>
"There's just so much I'm confused about, and I thought that being with someone I knew would make things easier. Can you take me to him?"
"Now, Sheriff Hall-" the woman began.
"Yes!" Lois interrupted. "Yes, let's go now."
"Sheriff…" the woman started again.
"Don't worry, Miss. I have my plane ticket, and it doesn't appear that you need me for anything else." He gave the woman a look, and Lois nearly laughed out loud. It was the same look that Clark gave women when he needed to use some persuasion. It seemed to work for this guy too, because the woman melted.
"Well, okay, but don't talk with anyone else about this until we contact you."
Lois led him out the door and down the long flight of steps, incredibly pleased with her accomplishment. That had been easier than she had expected it to be. Now she could get any information she needed, and she didn't even have to deal with the mayor.
"Thank you, Ms. Lane, for allowing me to come with you. This morning gave me a terrible fright and I haven't been able to talk to anyone sane since."
Lois strode down the sidewalk, and when she was sure they were far enough away from the building, she turned around to face Ryan.
"Look, I'm sorry, but you can't see Clark. He's out of town on assignment, so…you can't see him," she fumbled, hoping that her lies never crossed anywhere.
The sheriff narrowed his eyes at her. "Then why am I with you?"
"I just really need to know what you went through this morning. I won't print anything you tell me if you don't want me to, but it's just really, really important that I learn what happened. So please, will you?"
She could still see the dubiousness in Ryan's eyes, which wasn't unexpected. After all, a complete stranger was asking him to share some possibly horrible experiences. But she didn't have time for niceties. She needed to get help for Clark, and if as a result this Smallville law-enforcer thought she was prying…well, it didn't really matter. Most people thought that already anyway.
"Please, just let me ask you a few questions."
"Okay. A few questions would be all right, I suppose. My plane doesn't leave for two hours, so I have nothing else to do."
"Great!" Lois led him over to a small park that consisted mostly of a big empty field with cement paved through the center of it. She thought quickly, prioritizing all her questions. She would ask the most important things first; time was of the essence. She had a lot of questions and not much time.
"So, what were you doing when you came here?" she asked, switching on her investigative reporter mode.
"I was driving my car towards town; it was around 10:00."
Lois noted that that was the same time the mayor had disappeared, so somehow the time difference hadn't had any effect on when the two were transported.
"Okay. So…what happened, exactly? What did you feel?"
"Not much, actually. There was a huge cloud of smoke-"
He was suddenly caught off, but Lois didn't exactly know why. She was too busy trying to breathe. The same smoke that had filled Clark's apartment earlier that morning had suddenly billowed up out of the ground underneath the bench. It had overtaken Lois, and now she was caught in it. She coughed viciously, realizing that the smoke had fought away the air and she couldn't get any oxygen. She backed away from the bench towards fresh air, but stopped when the smoke suddenly dissipated.
"Oh no," she whispered hoarsely. Her eyes were fixed on the park bench. The *empty* park bench. She turned around several times, searching the field and the walk, but there was no one in sight. The sheriff had disappeared.
Narrowing his eyes towards the general direction of Metropolis, Mxyzptlk rose up in the air. Who would have thought that a mere mortal could have ruined his plan? It had been done, and he wasn't at all happy about it.
The sheriff wasn't supposed to meet up with Lois Lane, and he definitely wasn't supposed to tell her about Mxyzptlk. That wasn't in the plan at all. The sheriff was supposed to find Clark Kent, and then Clark was supposed to cause physical harm to the sheriff. Besides just being a fun way of terrorizing poor innocent souls, switching the mayor and the sheriff had been a tendril of the bigger web that Mxyzptlk was weaving. His whole purpose of being in the third dimension was to make SuperDuper suffer. Considering what a puny creature the guy was, Mxyzptlk hadn't counted on having to waste this much energy.
Growling to himself, he grew even angrier knowing that he had had to waste more of his talent on making the sheriff inaccessible to Lois's prying mind. The imp had been in a hurry, so he hadn't actually paid attention to where he condemned the sheriff. He just hoped it was somewhere that was dark, wet, and dreary. And on the other side of the world.
He took a deep breath. He just needed to put this incident behind him; the sheriff had been nothing more than a pawn in his game, and could easily be sacrificed if it meant gaining more leverage in the long run. Now he knew he needed to stop being so subtle with his plans. He could become as direct and frank as he needed to if it got Kent's attention.
"…and so…I have no idea what to do now." Clark sat down heavily on his parents' couch, holding his head in his hands. He looked up pleadingly at his parents, hoping they had the power to fix everything, as they once had.
He wasn't sure why he had come to Smallville, but once he had risen into the sky some force had pulled him towards his homeland. It had taken quite some time and repetition to explain everything to the elder Kents, and it had left Clark feeling both tired and dejected. Going over and over the things he had been through in the past few days was more than just wearying. It was scary.
Martha watched her son carefully as he cradled his head in his hands. Not for the first time, she wondered why things happened the way they did. Before that day, she hadn't heard from Clark in a few weeks. However, she had just blamed that on his busy life as a reporter, a superhero, and a man in love. She had never expected anything like this!
Clark's retelling of his encounters with the imp and the curse had filled Martha with a deep sadness. And had she not been the adoptive mother of a superpowered extraterrestrial, she probably wouldn't have believed everything she had been told. But if she had learned anything over the past thirty years, it was that anything was possible.
She reached out to grasp Jonathan's hand and looked up at him. They shared a glance that shared all of their feelings — anxiety, distress, sadness. Martha knew her husband must have been as scared and confused as she was. How were they supposed to help their boy if they didn't really have any idea what he was going through?
Clark looked up at them with such pleading in his eyes that Martha wanted to cry out. He was looking to them, to her, for help, and she couldn't do anything for him. This caused a great feeling of helplessness to well up inside of her.
"How's Lois?" she asked, hoping that it was a safe subject. So far, Clark hadn't mentioned her.
"Lois is… fine, I think. She's being amazingly supportive. I don't know what I would do if she weren't here."
Martha breathed a sigh of relief. She had been so happy when Clark had met and fallen in love with Lois, and she knew he was very fortunate to have her now. However, considering how hard he was taking this now, she wondered how Clark would be handling this if Lois weren't there for him. The very idea scared her.
Clark stood up. "I should probably be getting back to Metropolis now; I probably shouldn't have stayed away for so long. I…I'll keep you posted, okay? I'll call or…something."
Martha tried to smile courageously at him. "Okay, honey. And don't worry, everything will be okay."
Clark gave her a half-smile. "Maybe." Then, knowing she wouldn't be satisfied with that, he said, "I know." With that, he turned towards the door and flew out and up into the sky.
Martha and Jonathan held each other for a long moment, staring out at the point in the sky that their son had disappeared into. Martha slowly turned and burrowed her head against Jonathan's broad chest. There were a thousand things either of them could have said, but the only sound was the echoing silence.
Clark flew leisurely back towards Metropolis, not really anxious to return to his dark, silent apartment. As long as he stayed up in the sky, he was safe. But once he returned to earth, to reality, everything would turn against him again.
He again silently thanked whatever forces had acted upon him at his birth to allow him the ability to fly. It gave him such freedom. And even after all this time, it was hard for him to take a joy flight like this without feeling giddy.
The outskirts of Metropolis began to appear below Clark, and he grimaced. He knew, in his head, that he couldn't continue to run from this problem. What a horrible life he would lead if he did. But it was still hard to force himself to swoop lower over the city and prepare to land in his apartment.
He left the protection of the setting sun and landed on his balcony. Through his glass doors he could see Lois inside, pacing in her usual fretting-Lois manner. When she caught sight of him, she stopped her dizzying step and strode over to the door.
As she flung open the door, Clark noticed that she was visibly trying to calm down. She probably didn't want to launch into a complete rant on him, and he couldn't say that he would have liked her to.
"Clark! Where were you?" she demanded, though in a much lighter tone than normal.
"I was visiting my parents," he answered, stepping past her into his living room. In one quick spin across his apartment, he was dressed in his normal clothes. When he came to stand in front of Lois again, he could tell that she was still agitated.
"What's wrong?" he asked with concern.
Lois didn't pause. "I saw the sheriff; he was really here. But, now he's not."
"Did he go back to Smallville?" Clark asked.
"No. I mean, maybe. I don't know. I was talking to him, and then he disappeared in a puff of smoke. I don't…I don't know what happened. He was telling me how he had appeared here, but then he disappeared before he could tell me how he appeared. And I don't know where he went, and I think it was my fault because I was making him talk. I think the imp…killed him, or something, because he was talking to me." Her words had grown faster and higher until she was near tears.
Clark moved closer to her, wishing he could reach up and cradle her head in his hand, and hold her, kiss her… He shook his head, reminding himself that he couldn't even think about these things lest he forget he was incapacitated. Still…Lois needed comforting. She was shaken and distressed. She had probably been alone with her own thoughts for too long, making things worse than they were. Clark knew a lot about that.
"Lois, Lois, I'm sure the sheriff is fine. Mxyzptlk probably just got bored and returned him to Smallville."
Lois sniffled, and then laughed. "It's amazing how quickly we've become comfortable talking about this imp and his magical attributes."
Clark joined in on her laughter, thankful for the slack in the tense atmosphere. "Nearly as quickly as you adjusted to having a flying boyfriend."
Clark feared he had said something wrong when Lois's face fell. "Oh, Clark," she sighed.
Clark stepped toward her, confused. "What is it?"
"What if…we don't get this cured?" Lois looked up at Clark, feeling horrible to have actually said those words. But they needed to discuss this, and the only way they could was to bring it out in the open. She could read the pain easily on Clark's face as he fell down onto the couch, and she felt even worse. Why did she have to keep messing things up?
"I…I don't know. I guess…" he started, but didn't continue speaking. Was she breaking up with him? Calling off the engagement? How could he have been so dumb to think that things had been normal?
"I'm sorry, Clark. That was a terrible thing to say," she said, sinking down beside him onto the couch.
Clark watched her sit. "Maybe so, but it's the truth. I knew that you wouldn't be happy staying with me like this since it began. I just… I guess I didn't think you would be…leaving this soon."
Lois stared at him, appalled. "Clark! You know I would *never* leave you, and I will always be happy with you, no matter what. I was just trying to discuss options. I mean, what are you going to tell Perry? You quit? You're moving? You died? You can't just stop living." She was angry now. "Clark, you're insane. Why would you even think I would leave you like that?"
Clark held up his hands innocently and managed a short laugh. "Okay, okay, I'm sorry. It's just the way you said it…I thought…"
"Well, what *are* you going to tell Perry?" Lois questioned again. "You've missed three days of work now, and you don't even have a real excuse."
"I don't know," Clark answered. "I guess I haven't really thought too much about the future. I'm still hoping we might find a cure."
"We *will* find a cure, Clark," Lois said with determination. "But in the mean time, we need to think of an excuse for you."
"I guess the best thing is just to use my vacation time, and hope we don't make any plans later in the year."
"I hate to do that, but I can't think of anything else to do. We could forge a doctor's letter and say you are too sick to come into work, but then you would have people wanting to come see you, and that wouldn't be good at all."
"Do you think we should make up an excuse for Superman too? People might begin to wonder why he hasn't been seen lately," Clark reasoned.
"I think they'll just have to mind their own business. You're always doing so much for everybody; they should be able to live for a while without prying into your secrets."
"I just…feel bad, I guess, not helping anyone."
Lois smiled. "That's just because you're such a nice guy." She felt a lot better than she had when she had first arrived at Clark's empty apartment. True, they hadn't really discussed the sheriff's disappearance, but maybe there were more important things right now. Like just being with each other. Holding on to whatever normalcy was left. Forgetting about the bad things in life for just a little while. She grinned over at him.
"I'm about to pull a Whitney Houston on you," she said.
"You're going to do what?" Clark asked, perplexed. Ignoring him, she continued.
"I will always love you. No matter what happens. And I will always be here for you."
Clark smiled too. "I know. And I will always love you. I do more and more each day. And," he continued, his eyes twinkling for the first time in days, "I will always be your Kevin Costner. So if you ever need a bodyguard…"
"I'll keep you in mind."
Clark was nearly propelled forward towards Lois in some crazy reaction to being so close to her and feeling so much love. He stood quickly and turned away, embarrassed that he had ruined the moment and worse, nearly let his emotions take over him. He had to stop doing that, or he was going to cause something terrible to happen.
From the couch, Lois said quietly, "I know what you're feeling, Clark." Clark closed his eyes. Why did Lois have to be so perfect? The love he felt towards her was indescribable, and it almost made him angry. If she weren't so perfect and he wasn't so in love with her, living without human contact could have been bearable. But as it was, he knew he couldn't live like this. He couldn't live day after endless day, seeing her, but never able to show her how much love he felt.
This was beginning to seriously annoy him. The longer it took for him to capture Lois Lane, the slower he wanted to make her death. The woman was never alone long enough for him to lure her, she was always with the partnership of her brawny boyfriend. And when she was alone, it was always in a public place. He had never thought that a simple murder would be this frustrating.
When he captured her, she would suffer for making him wait like this.
He considered just scratching the part of his plan that involved Lois Lane, after all, she wasn't directly involved with it. However, he knew he would feel a lot more secure with her out of the way. He had no doubt that she would be able to foil his plan sooner or later, and probably sooner. Besides, she was a terrible annoyance to him, always mucking around in others' business. He had a passionate spot for those who were violated by nosy newspaper people, after all, he himself had been.
Not much longer now, and he would get her. She would know what it was like to be violated. And then she would die.
Lois appeared at the Planet the next day earlier than normal, simply because she had been too agitated to stay home any longer. She couldn't think of a reason for being so on edge, but after several long hours of sitting and talking with Clark, and then a few nerve-wracking hours lying in bed, she had practically been awake all night.
She sipped her caffeine-loaded coffee as she sat down at her desk and booted up her computer. She didn't know what she was going to work on today; maybe Perry would just give her some little article to write up and then… what would she do then? She felt so empty. There was really nothing she could think of that she wanted to do. She vaguely wondered if this was how she had felt before Clark had entered her life, but then decided that at least then she didn't know what she was missing. Now, it was just as if there was a big hole inside her. Was that how she was going to feel for the rest of her life?
She viciously shook herself out of her thoughts. It was too dangerous just sitting and thinking, because that only drove her farther into sorrow. No, she needed to stay upbeat and … peppy. She took another sip of her caffeine.
"Lois?" a gruff but soft voice said from behind her. She nearly dropped her coffee with surprise as she was jolted away from her thoughts about not thinking. She turned around and found Perry standing behind her, a concerned expression on his face.
"Hi, Perry," she said, disappointed to find that her voice came out like a squeak.
He pulled a chair towards her desk and sat down. The newsroom was still practically empty because of the early hour, and so Lois figured that Perry wasn't worried about his appearance.
"Honey, are you okay?" he asked. The concern in his voice scared Lois. Did she really appear that wrecked?
"I'm fine, Perry," she answered, laughing. But she stilled when she noticed he wasn't joining with her laughter.
"How's Clark?" he asked.
"Clark? Clark's fine. I mean, he's not fine. He's sick. He's at home."
"You would tell me if something was really wrong, wouldn't you?"
"Of course!" Lois was suddenly feeling very pressured. Why couldn't Clark be here to help her? "Chief, he's fine. Just sick. That's all."
"It's been three days, Lois," Perry stated.
"He has a fever!" Lois said defensively.
"Okay," Perry said, not wanting to argue. "I'm just worried, is all. Has he seen a doctor?"
"Um… I think he might be going today maybe," Lois said quickly.
"Okay," Perry said again, looking away. He had never been any good with emotional issues, but this was important. "Are you sure you're okay? You seem a little out of it. You were staring at Clark's desk for about ten minutes without moving."
Lois looked up, startled. "I was?"
Perry chuckled at her expression. "I just don't want to see you hurtin', that's all. But if you're sure you're okay…"
"I am," Lois reassured him again.
"All right, then." He stood up, taking on his Editor-in-Chief mode again. "What do you have for me today?"
Before Lois could answer, the elevator bell dinged and took her attention. Jimmy stepped out into the newsroom, and his eyes searched the bullpen until he saw Lois.
"Lois!" he called, jogging towards them. "Did you see this?" He held up that morning's edition of the Metropolis Star.
She snatched the paper away from him and read the headline aloud. "SUPERMAN = SUPERSNOB?" She looked up at Perry and Jimmy before continuing to read the article. It went on to tell about Clark's sudden disappearance at the car wreck a few days before, then it told how Superman had been seen flying over Metropolis but hadn't performed any rescues in four days.
"'We all respect Superman and how much he's done for the city, but has he finally decided he's too good for us?'" Lois read the last sentence aloud, her anger blazing. "What trash!" She threw the newspaper at Jimmy and turned away from the two men. She picked up a pencil and idly doodled on a Post-It note, but stopped when she realized her hand was trembling.
She was so angry with the stupid Star reporters! Why couldn't they act like normal human beings and respect other people's feelings? Clark was going to be angry. And hurt. She decided right then that he couldn't see this. If he did, he might do something drastic that would only cause him more pain.
Perry touched her shoulder lightly. He didn't know exactly what was going on, but whatever it was, it was tearing Lois apart. He had known Superman's real identity for quite some time, and that was why it had surprised him that Clark was taking so much time off. And now that Superman wasn't performing many rescues, he knew that something must be seriously wrong. Whatever it was, it was affecting Lois too. Instead of her normal Mad-Dog personality, she seemed more like a Scared-Rabbit.
"Can I write a counter-attack, Chief?" Lois asked meekly. "With examples of all Superman's done?" She sighed. "This is a bunch of trash, Perry," she repeated.
"I know it is, Lois, but then, that's what the Star normally writes. Of course you can write the article. I'll expect it on my desk in time for the evening edition. And Lois," he continued, "tell Clark he can take off as much time as he needs. I hope everything works out all right." With that, he walked off towards his office.
"Thanks, Perry," Lois said quietly to his retreating form. Jimmy had disappeared several minutes ago, but he returned to her desk after Perry left. He swung a chair up to her desk and sat down on it backwards.
"Pretty bad stuff," he commented, referring to the newspaper article. Lois blew out a breath.
"You could say that again."
"Hey, I got some information about…what you wanted me to find," he said mysteriously as someone walked by the desk.
"Imps?" Lois asked, suddenly very interested.
"Yeah," he said.
"Well, what did you find out? And where did you find it? I looked everywhere in the Planet's research *and* all over the Internet."
Jimmy looked a bit sheepish, and he shifted in the chair. "Well, actually I got it from a message board. I just asked my…um, friends online, and they…well, anyway, I got a lot of information."
Lois regarded him with a puzzled expression, which made him shift again in his chair. "So what did your friends tell you?" she asked, knowing it was making him feel uncomfortable.
"They…" Jimmy took a deep breath, starting over cleanly. "Imps are little demons." Lois nodded her agreement. "They've been around for a very long time. In the Middle Ages, they played practical jokes on people, and because of that they were banished to another dimension. Sometimes, they come back here to continue playing jokes."
Lois listened silently. This didn't really tell her much. In fact, she already knew most of that, like the fact that imps played practical joke. She just didn't think what he did to Clark was funny at all. It was much closer to hellish.
"How do you get rid of them?" Lois asked Jimmy, who in turn looked at her humorously.
"May I ask why?"
"No, actually. Come on, Jimmy, this is important."
"You have to get them to say their name backwards."
<But I can barely say it forwards!> Lois thought, but at Jimmy's large grin she realized she had said it out loud.
"What?" he asked, laughing. "Are you being haunted by a fantasy creature, Lois?"
"Look," Lois said, ignoring him. She reached for her Post-It notes. She thought back to the earlier day, trying to remember how the imp had spelled his name on the table. She wrote it down as best she could remember and handed it to Jimmy. "Go ask your buddies if they've ever heard of this name. Please?"
"Okay, Lois. Whatever you say." He took the paper and headed back to his desk.
Lois turned back to her desk. Get him to say his name backwards? How in the world would they do that?
Clark flew back in the direction of Metropolis. He was covered from head to toe with mud and grime, so he stopped over the middle of the Atlantic. He swept down towards the ocean and dived down into the choppy waves, letting the salt water cleanse him. There had been a volcanic eruption in Italy, so Superman had flown over and stopped the lava from reaching the city by freezing it, then dumping the frozen lava into the ocean. He had left before anyone could talk to him, so all in all he felt as if he had accomplished something. He had actually saved thousands of lives, instead of endangering them.
He dipped in and out of the water, enjoying the feel of the cool water on his wearied body. Out here, in the middle of the ocean, it was hard to remember how dangerous he was. While he swam, he was just part of the water, a very minuscule part. It was a lot like flying.
He lifted up out of the water and hovered in the air for a few moments, allowing the wind to dry him off. Then he took off again for the city. Stopping the lava left him with a cheerful feeling. He felt as if he had returned to normal, and even though it wasn't true, he could pretend it was when he was out here in the middle of nowhere. There was no harm in it. He floated up into the clouds, then above them towards the sun. He was in no hurry to return home, since he wouldn't see Lois again until that evening.
The thought of Lois reminded him of the previous night. She had stayed at his apartment until nearly midnight. They had fixed a delicious dinner of rigatoni, since Lois had been deprived it that night at the restaurant. Actually, Clark had fixed it and Lois watched, but it had turned out better that way anyway.
After eating, they sat down — on different couches — and talked, with the television on in the background. Clark had insisted that they didn't get too close, because he was scared of how little self-control he seemed to have. Lois had grudgingly agreed, knowing it was a good idea but still not happy about it. Then again, Clark wasn't happy about it either.
Presently, he found himself back in Metropolis. He flew over the Daily Planet and stopped to x-ray the building. He looked down through the floors until he found the newsroom, then he scanned the area for Lois. She was no where to be seen. Disappointed, he flew back up away from the ground and to his apartment.
Landing on the balcony and stepping into the silent kitchen, he realized there was nothing like coming home to an empty house.
Lois LAN'd her Superman story to Perry, then leaned back in her chair. She wasn't very satisfied with the article, but that was because her heart hadn't really been in writing it. That wasn't, of course, saying that she felt any less supportive of Superman, after all, she was definitely his biggest fan. She just had her mind on other things. Like her future.
So far, she had come up with exactly no plan whatsoever to get the imp to say his name backwards. She had thought of the obvious things, like using a mirror, but she had a hunch that it wouldn't be that simple. This was assuming that the imp knew they would be encouraging him to say the name, which she was sure he did.
She doodled on a piece of paper at her desk, writing out the letters backwards. When she was done, she studied the word. K-L-T-P-Z-Y-X-M. Kltpzyxm. She sighed. This would be very interesting.
Somehow, she and Clark had managed to make him say it in the future. If only she knew how, then she might be more prepared in handling this. As it was, though, she had no ideas at all. She crumpled the paper up and reached for the phone.
Clark stepped out of his shower and headed towards his bedroom for some sweatpants. He froze midstep, however, when he experienced the same paranoid feeling he had felt that day at the bridge. As if he was being watched. Not a feeling he liked when he was clad only in a towel.
He quickly reached for his sweats and pulled them on, then he glanced uneasily around his apartment. Suddenly, though, the phone rang, and Clark jumped out of his state of paranoia. He chuckled to himself as he reached for the phone by his bed. He was really letting this get to him.
"Hello?" he answered, sitting on the edge of his mattress.
"Hi." Lois's warm voice came through the receiver.
"Hi," Clark echoed, smiling.
"Good job on the volcano this morning," Lois said.
"Thanks. It felt so good to actually be doing something again."
"At least it got you out of the house." She paused for a moment, then continued. "Guess what? Good news. Jimmy found the way to get rid of Mix-the- piddle."
"Really?" Clark asked, nearly jumping up from the bed with excitement. Lois laughed through the phone.
"Yeah. We have to get him to say his name backwards."
Clark stopped to think about this for a moment. He felt confused, just as he normally did when it came to this imp.
"Why backwards?" he questioned.
"I don't know, but it sure wouldn't hurt to try anything. I just can't think of any way to get him to say it."
"Yeah," Clark agreed. "It must be pretty tricky."
"We'll figure something out. In the mean time, how are you doing?"
"I'm okay. Diverting the lava this morning was very soothing to me."
"Well, I guess we all have our odd little pleasures, Clark," Lois said, laughing at his comment. Sobering, she continued. "So, you're fine by yourself?"
"Of course, Lois," Clark answered quickly. "Don't worry about me, just concentrate on work."
Lois nearly told him about her Superman article, but if she had told him that, he would have to have known about the Metropolis Star's article. She definitely didn't want him knowing that. So instead, she just replied, "All right. Well, I better go. I'm going to try to think of some way to beat this imp guy."
"Yeah, me too," Clark agreed. They hung up soon after, and Clark replaced the receiver. As he stood, he was filled with a rush of adrenaline mixed with fear. He was going to have to call the imp again, and this time, he was going to get rid of him. Then everything would go back to normal.
At this thought, Clark stilled and sat back down on his bed. What happened if the imp was sent back to the fifth dimension, but Clark wasn't cured? If Mxyzptlk left, there would be no one to help him, and he would be stuck like this forever. Clark shivered. Was it worth it? He knew how powerful the imp was, after all, he had seen him do several amazing and appalling things. The sheriff was still missing. Who knew what else Mxyzptlk planned on doing?
No, Clark would have to send him back, even if it meant ruining his own life. He couldn't risk putting others in danger for his sake. He stood again and headed towards his kitchen, where the name 'Mxyzptlk' was imprinted on his table. Clark sat down in a chair, grabbing a notebook of paper and a pencil on the way. He opened the notebook to a clean page, and set the pencil down beside it.
Clark knew this would have to be done very carefully, and he would have to remain completely cool-headed the entire time. He could do it, though, he knew he could. He just had to continuously remind himself of why he had to see the imp again. For himself. For the world. For Lois. He took a deep breath.
Then he let it out shakily. He didn't want to see the imp again. He realized he was scared of it. Never before had he met an adversary so untouchable and so powerful. He took in another deep breath. His fear gave even more reason why he had to do this. The faster he did, the faster this whole thing would be over.
"Mix-" His voice was shaky, so he cleared his throat and started over. "Mxyzptlk."
There was a flash of light, and then Mxyzptlk appeared in front of Clark, floating in the air with a mocking smile on his face. Clark pushed down the fear bubbling up inside of him. He briefly wondered when he had become so much of a coward.
"You called?" Mxyzptlk asked, his tone dripping with a pixilated arrogance that sent chills down Clark's spine.
"I needed to talk to you," Clark said, pleased that his voice held more strength than he felt.
Clark should have talked to Lois first. They should have discussed this. What did he think he was accomplishing by trying to do this alone? For heaven's sake, he was so tense his hands were nearly shaking. However, it was too late; the imp was here, laughing at his face.
"First of all, tell me what you did to me," he said.
The imp sighed dramatically. "Come on, do you really have to get all superhero on me? I'll tell you, but please, drop the King of the World facade."
Clark gritted his teeth. "Just tell me."
"Well, all right. It's really quite simple. I gave you a kind of…how can I put this in simple terms…energy transfer. Yes, that sounds right. It's actually a wonderfully clever plan. See, what happens is this: Whenever you touch another human, their energy…well, their life force, is transferred to you. It doesn't have any effect on you, because you already have such sickening super life force that you don't notice when you gain more. However, for the person you touch… they're just not going to be as lucky. You suck their energy away, and if given enough time, you would eventually take away all their life."
Clark forced himself not to appear as stunned as he felt. He didn't really know what he had expected to hear, but when Mxyzptlk put things in such blunt terms as he just had, it made Clark feel like a murderer.
"That's why those nice, healthy people that *you* touched were suddenly knocked unconscious. They just didn't have enough strength left to live. I can't imagine it would be a pleasant experience. And it's all your fault."
Clark's fear was soon melting away to anger. He refused to let himself feel guilty over this. It wasn't his fault, it was Mxyzptlk's fault! He was the one who put the curse on Clark to begin with.
So, trying his hardest to ignore the imp, Clark picked up the pencil and using his super-speed, wrote down a few sentences summarizing in very simple terms what Mxyzptlk had just said. However, right in the middle of the small paragraph he carefully wrote 'Kltpzyxm'.
<Please work> he begged as he finished writing. He looked up at the imp with his most innocent expression. Mxyzptlk regarded him suspiciously.
"What did you just write there?"
"What? Oh, this? I was just making notes on what you said. Here, take a look." Clark casually handed him the notebook.
Mxyzptlk snatched the notebook away from him. Giving Clark one more suspicious glance, he began to read aloud. Clark crossed his fingers under the table, while inside his head he continuously repeated "Please work."
"'Energy transfers from people to me. Has no effect on me; however, the victim is left lifeless. They Kltpzy-' " He stopped mid-word and looked up from the paper, the recognition in his eyes changing to fire. He threw the notebook against the wall.
"That wasn't very nice at all! In fact, it was very, very rude! How could you try to trick me like that?"
Clark's heart sunk as he realized he had just used up his chance. He should have thought more about how to go about tricking the imp, because it would be much harder doing it a second time, he knew.
"You know what?" The imp had begun talking again, and his rant reminded Clark of the ones Lois used to throw, except with a much more sinister undertone. "I don't think you understand how much more powerful I am than even you! I think… I think I spent way too much time building up my Frequent Dimensional Traveler Miles to come to the 3rd dimension just for you! I've decided that I want to rule this world."
"Yeah? Why do you think anyone would listen to you?" Clark asked, knowing he was pushing his luck, but maybe he just wasn't thinking too clearly.
Mxyzptlk's eyes glittered dangerously. "Because the people of this planet aren't going to have anyone else to turn to. Their hero, Superman, will have disappeared, and they'll be so scared that they'll turn to me for help."
"I don't think Superman's going anywhere," Clark shot back.
"Maybe so, but still, he's not going to be out there, with the people."
The imp laughed maniacally, and then, suddenly, quick flashes of images rushed through Clark's head. He gasped and tried to shut his eyes against the pictures, but that only made them clearer. Gruesome pictures of Lois, broken and bloodied, flooded his mind. They were horrible, and more frightening than anything he'd ever seen.
When he opened his eyes again, the intensity of the visuals died down until they were only memories of something terrible.
"That's why Superman's not going to be out helping. Because Superman's got a girlfriend, and if Superman makes me mad, she's going to be gone."
Clark felt a deep rage well up inside of him, and he leaped up out of his chair. "You leave Lois out of this, or I swear I'll-"
The imp laughed lightly. "You swear you'll what? All your powers can't do anything against me, so you'll have no choice but to go along with my plans! Isn't it wonderful?"
Clark could think of several adjectives to describe the imp, but none of them were remotely close to 'wonderful'.
"And don't even think about trying to make me say…my name backwards again, or else you'll be sorry."
There was another flash of light, and he was gone.
Clark waited several long moments before letting out a deep breath. He stood slowly from the table and mechanically walked towards his notebook that now lay on the ground against the wall. He picked it up and flipped through the pages until he got back to his 'notes'. So it hadn't worked. The imp hadn't fallen for Clark's plan and was still running free around the world. Clark was still cursed. He was still alone.
He quickly shredded the entire notebook using his superspeed, then threw the pieces into his trashcan. What a lousy plan that had been. He had executed it on the spur of the moment without even thinking first, and it had backfired horribly. He should have seen it coming.
"Oh well," he said aloud to himself. At least he had found out what Mxyzptlk had actually done to him. Not that it made him feel any better. It was just something else that drove the truth in deeper.
"As if the truth isn't already screaming at me in the face." He made his way into the living room and flopped down onto the couch, sighing. He grabbed the remote control and clicked on the TV, aimlessly flipping through the channels. As he could have guessed, there was nothing on that interested him. Even a repeat of the previous night's baseball game didn't catch his attention.
He sighed again and turned the television off. What he needed was something that cheered him up. He longingly thought of Lois, but tried to slay those thoughts quickly. She was at work, where she belonged, and she didn't want to constantly be bothered by him. Anyway, the more he saw her, the more pain he felt. He couldn't hold her, couldn't kiss her, couldn't be comforted by the knowledge that they would always be together in each other's arms. So as much as he hated to admit it, the thought of Lois didn't cheer him up — it tormented him.
Still, he didn't much like the idea of staring at the blank TV screen for the rest of the day.
"Help! Somebody! Help!"
Clark clamped his hands over his ears as his superhearing unexpectedly kicked in, flooding his head with a barrage of frantic cries for help. He desperately tried to shut it off, but each time he did, whole new cries awakened it again.
He finally picked out the word 'fire' somewhere amidst the voices that ricocheted around his head.
"No, no, no!" he yelled, barely able to pick out his voice from the din of screams that only he could hear. He couldn't be Superman now! Not when there were helpless people around! But then, he couldn't *not* be Superman either. He managed to pry his hands away from his ears long enough to strip himself of his normal clothes, and he hesitated for only a second before he took off out his window.
He followed the cries for help to a tall industrial building in downtown Metropolis. Flames had already engulfed several of the lowest floors of the skyscraper and were steadily moving upwards. He quickly assessed the situation, realizing that there could quite possibly be hundreds of people still inside the building, since the fire blocked their exit. He scanned each floor, and found several different clumps of people, all searching for a way out.
He flew downwards and immediately blew out a long, powerful gust of icy breath. It vanquished a section of the flames for a moment, but almost immediately they sprang back. He repeated his previous act over again with more force, and this time, the breath overtook the fire. He continued this until the only reminder of the fire was the blackened framework of the building.
He shot into the building and stopped when he came to a group of people that were huddled together near a window, struggling to breathe through the smoke.
"Come on," he instructed, making sure he kept his distance from them. "The fire's out, you can get to the ground now. Be careful to watch your step, some of the floor is damaged."
"Thank you, Superman!" one man said as they all took off towards the street. He held out his hand to shake Superman's, but Clark just stepped back and nodded towards the man, smiling as best he could. The man looked at him a bit oddly, but then he followed the rest of the people down and outside.
Superman repeated his rescue act over and over until the building was clear. He followed the last group of people outside, and as he stepped out through the smoldered door, a loud cheer rose up from the crowd. He couldn't help grinning, but as the newspaper and TV reporters rushed up to him, he floated quickly upwards. He couldn't risk talking to any of them, because he might accidentally bump into someone.
As he rose higher, he caught sight of one particular reporter down on the sidewalk. Their eyes met, and they both smiled. Lois mouthed "Good job," and Clark nodded slightly, still smiling. Then, he took off in a burst of speed towards the clouds.
Lois watched Superman raise into the cloud with a swell of pride. She turned to the Metropolis Star reporter that stood beside her and raised her chin. "Still think he's a snob?"
Superman waited until he was out of eyesight of the city below, then he zoomed forwards, twirling in the air happily. He had forgotten how *good* it actually felt to help people. He had managed to put out the fire and save all the people without too much awkwardness. It felt great.
He swooped back down towards the city and skimmed over the tall buildings, making his way around the perimeter of the city.
He flew over the Daily Planet building and x-rayed down through the floors to see Lois back at her desk and engrossed in work. She was typing furiously away at her keyboard, and every few minutes she would turn to her notes to check for accuracy. Clark smiled, but then reluctantly continued on over the city.
He wanted to go talk to Lois, but he knew he should let her work. She was most likely writing on the fire story, and maybe when she was done Perry would have something else for her to do. Clark hoped so; this curse thing didn't appear to be passing over, and Lois needed to get used to working without a partner.
He still wasn't sure what he was going to tell Perry, but eventually he knew he would have to come up with some excuse. People would start getting suspicious if Clark didn't give a reason for his long, and probably permanent, absence.
As Clark returned from his thoughts to the present, he noticed the post office underneath him. He changed direction, heading downwards. Superman hadn't picked up his mail in a long time, and he had nothing else to do to use up the rest of his day. He landed on the sidewalk then headed quickly into the post office, not wanting to be out in the open for too long.
"Superman!" the clerk behind the desk exclaimed. "Good to see you. Your mail's piling up back here."
Clark smiled at him, then grinned even wider when he saw the four bulging bags that were presented to him.
"Thank you," Clark said, clutching two bags under each arm.
"No problem, Superman," the clerk said.
Clark nodded farewell to him, then turned and shot back out into the sky.
He now headed back towards his apartment, bags of mail in tow. He landed on his balcony, then walked into his living room and dumped the bags on his couch. Before sitting, he walked to his refrigerator and grabbed a cream soda, and then he pulled a bag of popcorn from his cabinet. With a few short bursts of heat vision, he had a steaming bag of freshly popped popcorn. He grinned crookedly to himself, then carried his snacks back into his living room. Crashing down onto the couch, he pulled one of the bags of fan mail towards him. He quickly supersped through the letters, but then decided to slow down and enjoy himself a bit. After all, enjoyment was hard to come by these days.
The return address on one of the first letters out of the bag caught his eye. It was from an Erica Angel. The name was familiar to him, but he couldn't quite remember where he had heard it until he opened the letter. As he skimmed over the first few sentences, recognition hit. Erica Angel was the woman that he had hurt right after his first encounter with Mxyzptlk. That seemed like such a long time ago, and yet the memory of the concurrence was still fresh in his mind.
He returned to the top of the letter and read through it more carefully.
Hi. I'm not sure if you remember me, or ever knew who I was, but my name is Erica Angel. I was the girl who was jumping off the ledge of my apartment, but you saved me. If you recall, something happened to me that day after you had helped me off the ledge. The doctors still haven't found out what happened, and I don't know either. That doesn't really matter though, because I'm doing perfectly fine now. I hope you receive this letter, because I was writing to you to thank you for helping me off the ledge. Whatever happened that day, I'm just glad you were there to help me get down.
Clark gently set the letter on the table in front of him. So he *hadn't* actually killed the girl. He had been praying that was true, but he had never been sure. Now it felt as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He didn't feel so much like a murderer now. Yes, she had been hurt, but whatever it was, it wasn't permanent. And she wasn't angry with him. Then again, she didn't know that he was the one that had hurt her.
Mxyzptlk had called it an energy transfer. So maybe the peoples' energy had been transferred to Clark, but then they just needed a bit of time to return to good health. However, the imp had also said that the longer Clark made contact with someone, the more energy he took until they finally just died. So he was a potential killer. That thought frightened him.
He leaned back against the couch, this new information from Erica still making its course around his mind. He was now interested in looking into what had happened to the paramedic that had been injured, too. He could probably get Lois to look in the Daily Planet's resources for him and find that out fairly easily. He again contemplated calling her, but then he remembered that earlier that day he had deduced that he shouldn't be bugging her constantly. He decided then that he would limit himself to one phone call per day, no matter how much he wanted to talk to her. She needed to get used to working alone, and he needed to get used to *being* alone.
Lois put the finishing touches on her fire story and, with a click of the mouse, it was on its way towards Perry's desk. She pushed herself back away from the computer and glanced at her desktop clock. She groaned when she saw that it was earlier than she had thought it to be. At least it was Friday. She and Clark would have the whole weekend together. Slow news days had always annoyed her, but they had become much more bearable since Clark became her partner. She glanced over at his empty desk, and had anyone been watching her, they would have seen the sad smile that fluttered across her lips.
She had never, in all her life, felt as content and downright privileged as she did now, with Clark. A few years ago, if someone had told her that she would be engaged to a Kansas-raised farmboy who silhouetted in spandex several times a day, she would have demanded their straitjacket size so she could admit them into the nearest mental institution. But now, she couldn't imagine *not* being engaged to Clark. He was her constant, her stronghold, but most of all, her love. Losing him was…well, completely out of the picture. He meant more to her than anything else in the world, and to return him to normal she would do anything.
That was why, she reminded herself again, she had to find a way to get rid of this stupid imp. Then everything would go back to normal, just as they had been a mere week ago.
She froze suddenly. What if — she could barely bring herself to think this — things *didn't* go back to normal when, or if, they condemned this imp back to the 5th dimension? Then Clark would be stuck like this forever. She would never again feel that thrill she got every time they touched, and she would never again feel the exciting spark of electricity from his kiss. They would never be able to get married, or ever make love.
She suddenly felt a wave of fury course through her directed at the imp, wherever he was. Why did he come here right when things were going right? She and Clark had finally realized they wanted and needed each other. Or at least, she had finally realized she needed Clark. She knew he had loved her ever since they first met, and just thinking that made a thrill of pleasure run through her. To feel such bounteous and unyielding love from someone was an absolutely amazing feeling, and one that she hadn't known existed until she met Clark.
She mentally cursed herself for waiting so long to discover that she and Clark were meant for each other. If only she had been so sure about Clark as he was about her when they had first met. Then they could have been together this whole time, instead of wasting three years of lives. Now, it was beginning to look as if they could never be together. Maybe that was just fate getting revenge on Lois for all the times she had tested it. Maybe things just weren't meant to work out for her. Maybe she was doomed to live in this life of almost- but-never-complete bliss forever.
But that was stupid. She scolded herself for even beginning down that path. She didn't even think she believed in fate. Well, that wasn't true either. She had always thought that somehow some magical force had brought Clark and her together. However, she didn't really know if that was her real brain thinking, or the hopeful fantasy part of her that had always dreamed of a perfect life, with a perfect family and perfect surroundings. Either way, she had thought that she had indeed created her perfect life. She had the perfect job, the perfect friends, and the perfect man. She knew she still had all that…as long as she and Clark defeated the imp. With a renewed sense of determination, she turned back to her computer. She could almost feel Clark's hand on her shoulder and his breath on her ear as she typed furiously at her computer. They *would* beat this thing. She wasn't ready to give up her fantasy just yet.
Clark had just sealed up the last envelope of his return letters when the telephone rang. He let it ring several times, unknowing whether or not he should answer it. If it was someone from the Planet, then he might have to give an explanation for why he wasn't there. He wasn't really in the mood to put on a happy face and pretend he was okay. And he also just wasn't in the mood for talking on the phone.
Then again, if it were Lois, she would be angry that he didn't pick up the phone. She might even be worried that something was wrong with him. He didn't want to cause her anymore worry than she already had. He reached for the phone.
However, still he hesitated, his hand hovering over the receiver. He had promised himself he would only talk to Lois on the phone once a day and he had already used up this day's call. He couldn't talk to Lois, and if it wasn't Lois, he didn't want to talk anyway. He pulled his hand back towards him and let the phone stop ringing on its own.
Lois would probably be angry with him for not answering, but he would just tell her about his new policy of only bothering her once per day. She would probably come to his apartment that night anyway. And if she didn't… well, there was that much less chance she would be in danger.
He curled up into a ball on the couch and lay there for an undeterminable amount of time.
By the time Saturday night was slowly melding into Sunday morning, Lois was clearly worried and distressed. She didn't know when or what happened, but Clark had changed profusely. He had been upset during this whole ordeal, but she had never seen him as dull and unresponsive as he was now acting. Lois sat on the couch beside Clark. The apartment was completely dark, except for the light of the TV that illuminated Clark's face with a bright blue glow. He feebly flipped through the channels, stopping at every station to blankly stare at the program, and then he went to the next one.
Lois had come by the night before after work and Clark had been fine, which made his behavior even more disturbing. He had shown her the letter from Erica Angel that gave proof he hadn't killed the girl, and that made Lois feel good for Clark. It must have really been tearing him up inside, not knowing if he had caused the death of the girl or not.
He had also, albeit a bit more hesitantly, told her of his encounter with Mxyzptlk. She had been less supportive with him about that. At first, she couldn't believe that he had taken such as risk as trying to banish the imp by himself. He himself had told her that they shouldn't make the imp mad, and he had gone and done that exact thing. However, she soon understood that he had seen the opportunity, and taken it. She knew she would have done the same thing, so she really didn't have the right to argue with him about that either.
She left Friday feeling better knowing that Clark was feeling better. However, when she came over on Saturday, she feared that something horrible must have happened to him. She had come over to coax him outside for a walk, just to get him outside. Instead, she had found him sprawled out on the couch, his empty eyes staring at the TV in much the same way as he was doing right now. He had flat out refused to go outside. Feeling discouraged but not prepared to give up, Lois then ordered a pizza for the two of them to share. That hadn't worked well either. Clark had eaten a meager slice of pizza, and then only with much caution.
He had clammed up too. He was practically ignoring Lois, which hurt her, and when she tried to urge him into conversation, he gave a few grumbling words, and that was that. He wouldn't tell her what was wrong.
Now, as Lois watched, Clark fell for the dreaded act of aimless channel surfing, except he was paying no attention to what he was doing. His normally bright eyes that shone with the knowledge and amusement that he held within were now dull and shallow, giving them a hollow look that was almost frightening. It tore Lois's heart to see him like this, especially when she didn't know what was wrong with him. She couldn't even offer him any comfort by holding him as she normally could. It gave her such a feeling of helplessness that she felt on the verge of tears.
"I've always hated this guy," Clark commented suddenly, his words shaking Lois out her thoughts. It took her a few minutes to realize that he was referring to the man on television. He had stopped on the Weather Channel and was watching as a newscaster stated the high and low temperatures in the country that day.
"Oh? Why?" Lois asked. If he was going to talk, she was going to egg him on.
"He always says 'party cloudy' instead of 'partly sunny'," Clark answered, then continued on to the next channel. Lois couldn't begin to know what he was thinking at that moment. He was acting so out of character, so…alien, that she couldn't even guess at what was going through his mind. If only he wouldn't burrow down inside himself instead of letting her help him.
Her temper flared for a moment. If he wasn't so damn noble, she could help him! She knew that whatever she could say would be more helpful than letting him hole in on himself and convince himself that he was guilty for whatever he had done. She normally found that he obsessed over things, but *this* was taking it to the extreme. She looked over at him. She shook her head slightly to herself as her gaze shifted to his eyes again. They were so sad, so different than they were supposed to be.
He suddenly powered off the TV. She watched him questionably as he turned to her.
"It's late, you should be getting home," he said bluntly. Lois was taken aback for a moment. That had almost been rude. Clark was never rude. Never. Especially not to her.
"Okay…" she answered slowly, standing and turning towards the door.
"Lois…" Clark called from behind her, with something like regret evident in his voice. She turned her head to face him. He was standing in the middle of his living room, his chin down but his eyes meeting hers. Lois could have put money down that he had never gotten dressed that whole day, and his hair was rumpled from lying for so long. He had removed his glasses, and Lois watched as he reached up to rub the bridge of his nose. The familiar gesture sent Lois's heart fluttering; perhaps all was not lost.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "It's just… well, I'm just sorry. I hope…"
Lois waited for several long moments for him to continue, and the silence stretched between them until it was as taut as a strained rubber band. He sighed loudly, and Lois took that as a clue that he wasn't going to continue.
"Clark…I'm really worried. You'll tell me what's wrong, won't you?"
He took in a breath, and Lois hurried to continue before he could refuse. "Not tonight, I know. But later, when things aren't so…fresh."
Clark nodded slowly, but didn't speak.
"Okay," Lois could say nothing more, because a lump was forming in her throat that threatened to mar her words. "Goodnight, Clark."
"Goodnight, Lois," Clark replied in his own strained voice. Lois hesitated for another moment, torn by the sight of Clark standing alone, defeated, but then she opened the door and stepped out into the warm summer night. She made it to her Jeep before the first tears began to fall, and by the time she was on the road, she was wiping the tears furiously away from her eyes in order to see clearly. Whatever was wrong with Clark, it seemed to be contagious.
Clark flew down and landed beside Perry White. The air around them swirled in a hellish purple and black mist, and Clark had to squint through the fog in order to see his boss clearly.
"What seems to be the trouble, Mr. White?" he asked in his best Superman voice, crossing his arms over his chest.
"People are dying," the Editor-in-Chief answered. Clark nodded knowingly; these things happened sometimes.
"What can I do about it?" Superman asked.
"I don't think there's anything you can do," Perry answered matter-of-factly. Superman pursed his lips, but again nodded.
"I'm sorry," he apologized. Suddenly, Perry was replaced by hundreds of screaming people rushing towards Superman. They were crowding around him, reaching for him. Clark tried to ward them off, or fly upward and away, but it was no use. They finally reached him, and at the same moment they fell. Almost in unison, they all fell to the ground, their limp bodies strewn at his feet.
Everyone except for Lois.
Clark floated above the bodies towards her, and he stretched out his hands towards her, to take her in his arms. But she backed away from him with a sadness in her eyes that tore at Clark's heartstrings.
"Lois…" he begged in a strangled voice, willing her to come to him.
"No, Superman. Look what you did," she said accusingly, gesturing towards the bodies strewn across the ground.
"Lois…" he repeated, and suddenly all he saw was her face, mere inches away from his. Then she, too, fell to the ground; her eyes still open and staring at him with the same accusing sadness.
Clark sat up with a start, his chest heaving erratically with his gasping breath. He immediately reached upwards to wipe his sweat-soaked hair off his forehead, leaning on the other arm for support. He moved his gaze towards his bedside alarm clock; it was 4:32 AM. He shut his eyes for a moment, willing the image of Lois staring up at him to disappear from his mind, and slowly it did. He exhaled deeply. He had known the nightmares would come eventually. Especially after Friday night.
He shuddered and fell back onto his pillow, angry that his mind had unwillingly resurfaced this particular happening. However, he was wide-awake now, and he subconsciously returned to that night.
Lois had just left his apartment. They had had fun, much to Clark's surprise. He had actually been afraid she would be angry with him for not speaking to her the entire day. She *was* angry when he told her that he had spoken with Mxyzptlk without alerting her first, but she had soon conceded that he had done the right thing. Clark had even embarrassed himself by commenting on what her tight tank top was doing to him. All in all, it had been a normal, fun night.
Then she had left. Clark had been preparing for bed when suddenly a cry for help had urged him to leave his apartment and head out into the night. He now cursed himself for being so stupid. He should have just admitted to himself that he was in no state to do rescues. But his contentment had led him to be cocky, sure that he could overcome any ordeal. How wrong he had been.
It had been nothing more than a mugging. Two intoxicated teenagers were holding a young woman up against an alley wall, one clumsily holding a gun towards her. Superman had landed behind them, then sternly ordered the two boys to drop the gun and let the woman go. Even in their drunken state they had known better than to ignore Superman, but they had still challenged him.
Lying in his bed, Clark tried to close his mind against the next scene. However, his subconscious ignored him and reeled the memories out.
One of the boys had held the gun up to Superman, and in return had gotten only a laugh out of Clark. If only he hadn't been so impudent. The other boy, without the gun, had lunged at Superman. His hands had landed on the 'S' on Superman's chest before Clark could react. The boy had cried out in pain, and the anguished cry still echoed in Clark's ears. In a daze, Clark had only been able to stare down at the boy as he fell to the ground, twisting around in pain.
While Clark was in a state of near shock, he suddenly felt the other boy leap onto his back, attempting to push him over. Clark had cried out in dissent at the same time as the second boy cried out with suffering. Except the second boy didn't fall to the ground as the first one had. His arms were rigid, locked around Clark's neck. Clark could still smell the alcohol on the boy's breath.
It had taken Clark a moment to realize that the boy couldn't let go, thinking that he acted somehow like an electric shock. So he finally reached up and pried the boy's hands away from his neck and turned around to see him fall onto the pavement, unconscious.
Clark could only stand gaping down at what he had just done.
Out of the corner of his eye he had seen the girl stepping towards him.
"No!" Clark had cried out with fear. "Please… don't come near me."
The young woman hesitated, and Clark finally lifted his eyes to her. "Please, just go home." She had run off then, and Clark had been left alone, standing in between two bodies. In that moment, he had felt more lost and confused than any other moment in his entire life. How had that happened? How had he just hurt and possibly killed the two boys?
He knelt down beside his first attacker and watched closely as the kid's chest rose and fell in irregular movements. As erratic as the movements were, Clark could only be thankful there *was* movement. Still in a crouch, he moved over to the second teenager. Even with his super-vision, he didn't see the boy's chest rise. With a sense of doomed anticipation, he initiated his super- hearing. He heard no heartbeat, no breath.
"Oh God," he murmured in a hoarse whisper. He fell backwards onto the pavement in a state of shock. He had done it. He had killed someone.
Stunned, he sat for several moments in a delirium. His senses dulled until all he was aware of was the presence of the two bodies beside him. And all the while, the words kept running through his mind. He had killed someone. *He* had killed someone.
After what seemed like an eternity but what was really only a few minutes, some part of him rationalized that he should call an ambulance. Running on automatic, he had stood and robotically walked to a nearby payphone. It was late at night, so fortunately the streets were nearly deserted.
It took him several seconds to find his voice after his 911 call was answered, but when he did, he managed to stutter out the location of the two bodies. Then he walked back to them. The first boy, the one that still lived, had begun to stir. But the second one still lay motionless.
As he stood there, his vision began to blur around the edges, and he shook himself roughly. Superman couldn't very well be found crying. With this thought, he prepared to lift up into the sky. Why did Superman have to be found at all? He didn't want to be here when the ambulance arrived. He could almost see the paramedics accusing him of killing the teenager. Giving one last look to the two bodies, he lifted up into the air, and soon after a sonic boom broke the silence of the night.
Clark now lay in bed, his eyes growing suspiciously watery. It had only been a day. One day ago, he had murdered someone. And he was hiding. No one knew that he was guilty of killing the boy, no one but him. He felt a pang of guilt so strong it felt almost like a punch. He had killed someone, and yet he was still walking free, unpunished. He was ready to call the police at that very moment and turn himself in.
Lois didn't even know. He had been too ashamed to tell her. There had been plenty of opportunity; after all, she had sat with him for several hours last night. And yet he had shied away from the truth, instead hiding under his protective shell. What a coward he was.
She must have been worried about him, but he hadn't even been able to muster up the ability to act normal for her benefit. He had gone through the day in a daze, and he wasn't quite sure if he could recall exactly what he had actually done. The only thing he knew was that he had killed someone. Because of him, a teenage boy had lost his life. It made Clark sick.
He stared up at the dark ceiling. When had his life come to this? Or more importantly, *why* had his life come to this? He had tried all his life to do good, to help people, and now all he could do was cause harm. He had never wanted this to happen.
He rolled over onto his stomach and lay with his head smothered into his pillow. Was he really doomed to an eternity of this?
Sunday morning dawned incredibly too bright and cheery for Lois. The sunlight streaming in through her bedroom windows hit her eyes and slowly woke her up. The previous day's happenings rudely flooded back into her mind, forcing her awake faster than she would have liked. Her fear and worry for Clark was the blanketing emotion above all others. She needed to face him today, and somehow force him to open up for her. It had never been this hard before.
She yawned and threw her legs over the side of the bed, stretching sleepily. She wasn't looking forward to seeing Clark so depressed again; it did nothing for her mood. However, she needed to bring him back to normal so they could come up with a plan to get rid of the imp. It couldn't possibly be too hard, and when they put their heads together, they would surely think of something. However, Clark had to be an active participant in the putting together of the heads. So, with a sigh, she dressed and prepared to take off for Clark's apartment.
Someone was knocking on his head. No, not on his head, on wood. Someone was knocking on wood.
These were the first thoughts that awakened Clark from his troubled sleep. He realized that someone was indeed knocking on wood, the wood of his door. He was terribly tempted to just let them continue knocking. However, the knocking stopped soon after and Clark heard the click of a key in the door. He rose up on his elbow just as the door was opening.
"Clark?" Lois's voice called out to him, and he let out a deep sigh. He just now thought to check the time; it was a little after eight o'clock.
"I'm in bed," he grumbled loud enough that Lois could hear him.
"So get up," Lois said as she appeared in Clark's line of vision. "We have a lot to do today."
Clark raised a questioning eyebrow. "Oh? Like what?"
Lois sat on the corner of his bed. "Like…you're going to tell me why you were so sulky and apathetic yesterday."
Clark eyed her suspiciously. "I still am."
Lois sighed. "Clark…"
"Wait," he interrupted. "I think I need to tell you what happened, and then… I have to go to the police."
"The police? What are you talking about?"
Clark sat up and clasped his hands in front of him. Then restlessly, he ran one hand through his sleep-mussed hair. "I…I have to tell you this. I mean, I want to tell you this. But…"
"Clark, it can't be as bad as you're making it."
He looked at her with such seriousness that Lois shifted nervously.
"I killed someone."
Lois unintentionally drew in a sharp breath. Immediately she was aware of why Clark had been so withdrawn the day before. But…could it be true?
"What happened?" she asked gently, wishing she could reach over and grasp his hand. It killed her to see him like this and not even be able to offer him any comfort.
"I've thought about this a lot, and I realized that I need to just tell you what happened, and then turn myself in. There's no way around this."
Lois tried to sit patiently and let him explain, but didn't he know even if he *had* killed someone, he couldn't go anywhere while he was cursed? Not that she would let him turn himself in anyway. It wasn't his fault that he couldn't touch anyone, it was the imp's. So if he killed someone, it would be more the imp's fault than his own.
"On Friday night, after you left, I heard a cry for help. I thought…well, I didn't think. But I guess I figured I would be able to help. Two teenagers were attacking a girl. So…I landed behind them, and told them to give me their gun. But they were drunk…" Clark paused, obviously trying to wade through his thoughts, and something clicked in the back of Lois's mind. However, she let Clark finish.
"Then they lunged at me, and I couldn't stop them, and one of them… I *killed* him, Lois! He wasn't even thinking straight because he was drunk, and I killed him!"
"Where was the mugging?" Lois asked thoughtfully.
Clark ran a hand through his hair, something that Lois noticed he was doing a lot of lately. "Over off Olympic Avenue. Why?"
"That was you?"
Clark sent her an angry glance.
"I'm surprised, with all the TV you've been watching…" she continued slowly, thinking aloud. "The boys didn't die, Clark."
Clark looked hopefully towards her. "What? They didn't? How do you know?"
"It was on the news yesterday! An anonymous person called 911, and when the ambulance came, one of the boys was experiencing Sudden Cardiac Arrest. But the paramedics restored his breathing with a defibrillator, and he woke up last night. The other boy was already awake by the time the ambulance got there. They didn't know what happened to either of them. I should have known…"
"So…he's alive?" Clark asked slowly, clearly still shocked. "I didn't kill him?"
Lois shook her head. Now she knew what had been bothering him so much the day before, and she had been able to help. She watched with satisfaction as a huge grin erupted on his face — the first she had seen in a long time.
"I didn't kill him! This is great! I'm not a murderer!" he yelped, and Lois feared that he would float up off the mattress.
He suddenly reached forward, arms outstretched to envelop her in a hug. She tensed, afraid he wouldn't catch himself in time, but she didn't have time to jump away. He did catch himself though, and Lois watched as he faltered and slowly let his arms drop. To her surprise, his cheeks flushed with embarrassment.
"I'm sorry," he apologized, his eyes not meeting her own. "I guess I was just a little excited."
"Clark, don't apologize! This isn't your fault. Which is all the more reason we need to get rid of…what's-his-name as soon as possible."
"Yeah, I know," he said quietly. "It's just…this is really hard. Not being able to touch you. Or anyone. Even though that guy didn't die, he was still hurt very badly. And I'm still responsible. And…I almost touched you."
"Clark, I trust you. You would never hurt me." Lois stated truthfully, then she decided they definitely needed a lift. "Anyway, you sitting there without a shirt on isn't helping to restrain *me* either."
Clark smiled slyly. He sat up straighter and stretched his arms up in the air so that the muscles across his chest and arms fluctuated invitingly. Then he asked innocently, "Really?"
Unable to hit him, she had to settle for slapping the mattress beside him. "Egomaniac," she muttered playfully.
Among the dense branches of a tree outside of Clark's apartment sat a rather out of place fellow. A robin nimbly hopped down a branch towards the intruder, and was off-handily zapped with a burst of magic. Seconds later, a very confused egg rolled off the branch and fell down to the ground.
Mxyzptlk sighed as he watched the little animal turned breakfast food fall to the street below and crack open. Then he returned his attention back to the matter at hand. He knew he couldn't directly kill anyone with his magic. That was one of those fine print rules in the back of his manual. Still, it had been fun watching Mr. Goody Two Boots stress over his position in the almost-murder. Now he knew that he would have to follow up on his promise that he was going to rule the world.
He sat up straighter in the tree. So… no more playing around. Too bad — it had been fun playing all those jokes. It was what he was best at, after all. Then, as an idea formed in his head, he brightened. Just because he was taking over the world, it didn't mean he couldn't have any more fun. Giggling to himself, he suddenly disappeared in a puff of smoke.
"Well, maybe he's just not planning on doing anything else. He's been here for over a week and the only real disaster was the mix-up with the sheriff and the mayor. And even that was only meant to get my attention."
"But you yourself said that on Friday he threatened to take over the world." Lois stopped to sip the coffee that Clark had just presented to her. "Not that he could do it anyway."
"I don't know, Lois. I don't think we should underestimate him. I mean, look what he's already done." He motioned to himself as he sat in the chair across from her. He scooted the chair up and leaned across the table, cupping his own mug of coffee between his hands.
Lois shot him a moody glance. "I refuse to believe that that little imp has enough power to take over the world."
Clark shrugged. "Either way, we should get rid of him A-S-A-P."
"I definitely agree with that."
"Any ideas on how to do that? I already tried to have him read his name backwards. That didn't work."
"Well, what is he really doing here? What does he want? Maybe we can use that against him?"
"To take over the world?" Clark offered dryly. "But we've already established that."
Lois was about to add her input when she suddenly saw Clark's head snap into attention. She recognized the look. He was hearing a cry for help.
"What is it?" she asked, but Clark silenced her by holding up a finger in a 'hold on' motion. Moments later, his eyes refocused on her.
"Something *very* strange is going on." He jumped up and in a flash he flew across his apartment. A mere second later, Superman stood before her, looking incredibly anxious.
Lois stood up. "Clark, be careful. Don't do anything you'll regret."
At first, a flash of annoyance crossed his face, but then he relented, nodding.
"I won't." He leaned forward as if to kiss her, but he caught himself quickly. Instead, their eyes met for one moment, and then he was gone out the window.
Superman flew out towards the Atlantic Ocean, hurried and yet apprehensive. Maybe his super-hearing was defective, but if it wasn't then indeed something very strange was going on.
He was grimly made aware that his super-hearing wasn't faulty. Out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean were nearly one hundred people literally standing on the ocean water, looks of pure terror written across their faces.
Had Clark not been aware of the imp that lurked in Metropolis, he would have been quite perplexed by the sight. However, with the knowledge of Mxyzptlk, he was just angry. Not only was the imp ruining his life, but he was also ruining the lives of all these people.
He watched as the choppy waves tripped the people repeatedly. They would fall over, but when they hit the water, they didn't go under. Clark thought that it must have been like falling onto a waterbed. At least he hoped that was what it felt like, because anything else must have been painful.
Above the ocean and the people floated a very satisfied Mxyzptlk. He was spouting some speech about how the humans were to bow before him, but the people were paying no attention. They were too busy fearing for their lives.
Clark felt a horrible pang of guilt when an elderly woman caught sight of him. She screamed with relief, and immediately all heads were turned towards him. They began yelling his name, and he shrank back slightly. Up in the air, he was in no danger of hurting the people. But up in the air, he couldn't rescue them either. He knew it could take hours for the Coast Guard or Navy to reach their position in the middle of the Atlantic, but there was nothing he could do.
His attention was sucked to Mxyzptlk, who had also caught sight of him. Mxyzptlk looked mildly surprised to see him there, but his expression quickly changed from surprise to anger.
"You! What do you think you're doing here? You've interrupted my speech!"
Clark angrily crossed his arms over his chest. "Why are you bringing all these people into this? I thought this was between you and me."
"Yes…" he said slowly. "That was true in the beginning. But now I've changed my mind. I already told you: I want to take over the world."
"You can't do that! These people are too terrified to listen to you. You're not impressing them, you're frightening them!"
Mxyzptlk shrugged. "All the better. You obviously don't know much about world conquest. The mortals will be so scared they'll have nothing else to do except bow to me."
Clark shook his head with incredulity and turned back to the people. They were still yelling for him. He felt horrible for not being able to help them, and this pushed him to feel tense and panicked. How could he return all these people to safety without being able to touch them? He turned back to Mxyzptlk.
"Put them back. Wherever they came from, put them back."
"No, see, the glory of this is that I don't have to. In fact, at any moment I could return the water to normal and let them all drown."
Clark narrowed his eyes in spite of his paling face. "You wouldn't dare."
"Wouldn't I? And there's nothing you could do to stop me. Didn't we make an agreement of some sort?"
Suddenly, the grotesque images of Lois that Mxyzptlk had put in Clark's head before re-emerged. Clark clamped his hands against his head and shut his eyes, willing the horrible images to disappear. They were visuals of Lois that were so deformed that he wanted to cry out. They were shocking, violating pictures that made Clark's chest constrict with emotional pain.
"Stop!" he cried to Mxyzptlk, his eyes still shut. To his intense relief, the pictures slowly died away, leaving Clark with a nauseous feeling in his stomach. He cautiously opened his eyes. His vision was blurred by tears for only a moment before he lunged at Mxyzptlk in a blind rage, momentarily forgetting that the creature was far faster than even he was.
"Jeez, Supie! What a temper! I was just reminding you of the agreement. You leave me alone, I leave your girlfriend alone."
"I don't make agreements with imps," Clark said through clenched teeth. He pointed down towards the people in the water. "Put…them…back."
Clark suddenly felt a strange tingling sensation rush over him, and he blinked. When he reopened his eyes, he found himself in the air amongst the canopy of thick trees. He growled in frustration and lifted up into the air to determine his location.
Clark was beginning to realize just how dangerous an enemy this imp was. He could do anything he wanted to anyone, and as far as Clark could tell, he had no weaknesses and no restraints.
Clark soon deduced that he was in one of the Brazilian rain forests. Shaking his head, he zoomed back to his previous location over the ocean. Neither the imp nor the group of people were anywhere to be seen. And to his relief, as far as he could see with his x-ray vision, there were no bodies floating underwater. He wondered briefly if he was at the same spot that he had been before; after all, the ocean was a vast place. He really had no way of knowing other than by memory. Troubled, he slowly flew back towards the East Coast of the United States, scanning the water carefully as he went. The familiar feeling of guilt settled over him again as he neared the mainland with no sight of the people. He sighed heavily. Could things get any worse?
Lois flipped through the news channels on Clark's TV, searching for any Superman coverage. He didn't appear to be helping anywhere. There was, however, a very strange story that most stations were broadcasting. About an hour earlier, there had been nearly one hundred reported people missing all over the country. The strange thing was that they had all been said to have just disappeared. Just like that, they were gone. People were saying that it was the apocalypse.
Lois watched, intrigued, as a clip off of a home video tape showed a child suddenly vanishing from his birthday party in Louisiana. One moment he was sitting in the chair, and the next he was just gone. Lois knew that the tape could have just been edited, but that seemed unlikely since there were so many other reports just like it.
She chewed on her lower lip as she contemplated what was going on. She had the strange feeling that things were not as they seemed, and that the imp was behind all this. That was her first thought, but it led to several other questions. What had he done with the people? Why had he taken them? Where was Clark?
This was big news. She was surprised that Perry hadn't contacted her yet; when something this big was going on, he normally called her in a frenzy, demanding her presence.
As if by some telepathic power, her beeper suddenly went off from her pocket. She rolled over, reached into her pocket, and pulled out her beeper. As she had guessed, it was Perry. She reached for Clark's cordless phone and quickly dialed the number for Perry's office.
"Perry White," a gruff voice answered the phone. Lois could hear the racket of newsroom sounds in the background.
"You paged?" Lois said, muting the volume on the TV.
"Lois! Have you seen the news?"
"Yeah. Does anyone know what's going on?" she queried innocently. She knew only too well what was happening, but she couldn't tell Perry that. This was the kind of dilemma that gnawed at the reporter in her: she knew the unanswerable reason for something, yet she could tell no one.
"No, do you?" Perry asked, recognizing the fake naivete in her voice.
"I wish," Lois lied. She almost thought she would rather not know about the imp. At least then she wouldn't feel as if it were her responsibility to put things right again.
"Can you get over here? We could really use you."
Lois glanced at the TV screen again, hoping for a glimpse of blue tights. However, there was no sign of Superman anywhere. She sighed. "Yeah, I'll be there in a few." She hung up the phone.
"Clark, where are you?" she asked the empty apartment. She snuggled down inside the light blanket of Clark's that she had thrown over herself. She inhaled the scent of him, her mind floating back to times when they had lain together on this same couch with this same blanket, times when they had been free to cuddle and kiss and hold each other.
Pushing away her thoughts of longing, she threw the blanket off and stood up. She collected her purse and her keys and left Clark's apartment, heading down to the street below.
Lois arrived at the Planet about ten minutes later. She was surprised to see how busy it seemed. Just days earlier she had been complaining about slow news days, and now, on a Sunday, there was more going on then any normal day.
Lois made her way to Perry's office and waited a few moments for him to finish a heated telephone conversation. When he was done, he slammed down the phone. He looked up a noticed Lois in the room with him.
"Can you believe the nerve of some people?" he exclaimed. He sat down in his leather chair. "That was the mayor's assistant. It seems that they're worried that since the mayor's already disappeared once this week, she might disappear again with this people."
"What do they want you to do about it?" Lois asked.
"I don't even know! I reckon they just want the paper on the case. Maybe I should be flattered that they called me instead of the police. But I think…well, I'm not going to tell you what I think. You might repeat it and I'd be in a lot of trouble."
Lois laughed. That was probably true. She sat down in the plump chair across from Perry's desk. "Does anyone have any leads yet? Has anyone else disappeared?"
"No and yes. More people have been reported to have disappeared, but no one has any clue how they did. Personally, I think it's all just a scam for attention."
"Yeah," Lois agreed noncommittally. She wished she could tell Perry about the imp, but that would betray Clark's trust. She would at least have to talk to Clark about it first, then maybe they could tell Perry. Not that she suspected he would believe them anyway. Even she had had a hard time believing Clark until she had seen the imp's magic with her own eyes.
"How's Clark?" Perry asked, seemingly reading her mind. "He ready to come back to work yet?"
Lois squirmed nervously in her seat. Why had Clark left her to make all his excuses? She knew that he hadn't done it on purpose, but she just didn't know what to tell Perry. This was one of the times that she almost regretted knowing Clark's secret.
Perry noticed with curiosity Lois's panicked look. There was obviously something wrong with Clark, but his being Superman certainly narrowed down the options. He could be injured, but if that was the case, then it must be a serious injury, because with super-healing abilities he should have been fine by now. If he were injured, it would explain Lois's sullen behavior while he had been absent. She hadn't made it obvious of course, she was too careful for that. She was still keeping up her tough investigative reporter act, and was still writing her award-winning stories. Still, there had been times when Perry had caught her just staring off into space, or at her partner's desk, for long moments. And the spirit that burned inside her had all but sputtered out. It was as if the Lois Lane he knew and cared for as if she was his own daughter was as absent as Clark. In her place was a replica that, to the casual observer, had everything Lois had. But when Perry looked deeper, he could see on the inside that she had changed. Inside she was as sad as a little girl who had lost her best friend.
This thought disturbed Perry immensely. She couldn't be lying to him, could she? He hated to even think that she really *had* lost her best friend. That would mean that Clark was… well, that just couldn't be true.
Suddenly, Perry remembered the fire from several days before. Superman had been there, so he must still be around, and most likely he wasn't even injured. Now Perry was more confused than ever. If Clark wasn't injured, then Perry couldn't think of an explanation for his absence.
Lois tried without success to think of an excuse. It had been too long for Perry to still believe Clark was sick, unless she told him that he was dying of some rare disease. Somehow though, that didn't sit well with her. "He…he…he's having personal problems, Chief," she said lamely. She wasn't sure if Perry would expect her to elaborate on that, but it was all she could think of on the spur of the moment. Anyway, it was mostly true.
Perry regarded her silently. She seemed very nervous, and he wouldn't have doubted that she was lying to him. However, it almost made sense. If nothing was wrong with Clark physically, perhaps there was something wrong with him mentally. If Perry had to see the things Superman did, he would have cracked long ago. Clark was a strong man, inside and out, but everyone deserved a little breakdown sometimes. After all, if Elvis had done it, so could Superman.
Perry considered prodding Lois further to answer some of his questions, but he decided against it. It really wasn't his business, and Lois probably wouldn't tell him the truth anyway.
"Okay, honey," Perry said gently, trying to calm her deer in the headlights look. "Just tell him we're thinking about him."
"Thanks, Perry," Lois squeaked.
"Now," Perry began, "go out there and find all you can on these disappearances. Whether they're just rag material or not, we're not going to get scooped."
Lois nodded and stood, then hurried back out into the newsroom. Perry shook his head thoughtfully and returned to his work.
"Lois!" Lois looked up to see Jimmy pulling a chair up to her desk. "Where's CK?"
<Oh no, not another one! > Lois thought desperately.
"I was just wondering where he was, because he missed an awesome game last night!"
Lois's mind was a blank. "Game? What game?"
"Remember, the baseball game that I had tickets to? CK said he wanted to go, but he was never at work, so I figured he changed his mind."
"Oh, yeah, I remember. Clark's just not up to going out much. He's still not feeling well," Lois said, hoping it sounded reasonable.
Jimmy nodded. "He's doing okay, though, right? I'm kinda getting worried. In fact, I was thinking about coming to visit him tonight-"
"No!" Lois said suddenly, then realized she sounded much too forceful. "I mean, no, Clark doesn't really want visitors. He's afraid his…disease is contagious." She was just digging herself deeper and deeper!
Jimmy looked a bit put down. "Oh. Well, can you just tell him that we're all hoping he gets better?"
"Yes, of course," Lois said sincerely.
"Thanks." He glanced at her computer and noticed she was working on the disappearances. "It's pretty wack, isn't it?" he snapped his fingers, "just like that, these people are gone. I wish I knew how they were doing it!"
"I wish I knew where they've gone." Silently, Lois wished that Clark would come back. He would know exactly what happened. It was a shame they couldn't print any of it, because it would make an intriguing story. Somehow, though, Lois couldn't see Perry allowing them to write a story about an imp. She doubted the name 'Mxyzptlk' would get past the editors anyway.
"Jimmy!" Lois and Jimmy both looked up as Perry yelled across the newsroom. Jimmy gave Lois a half smile.
"The Chief's bellowing. I better go." With that, he dashed off.
Lois let out a breath. She turned back to her computer and again checked the LNN site for updates on Superman, but there was still no sign of the superhero. She knew there was no reason to worry, he was just out looking for the people, that was all. Even so, there was that ball of worry in the pit of her stomach that wouldn't go away.
The phone suddenly rang, breaking through her thoughts.
"Lois Lane," she answered professionally.
"Ms. Lane," an unknown voice responded. "I have information for you."
"I can't tell you over the phone. It's too dangerous. But it's very important."
"Sir, we're very busy right now. I'm afraid that unless you can give me more details…"
"All I can tell you is that it is very important. And I have plenty of other interested people."
Lois bit her lip softly. She really had no idea what this could be about, unless it was some bozo pretending he had information on the disappearances. But as much as she hated to do it, the threat to go to another resource was just too dangerous, in Lois's opinion.
"Okay," she said. "Where do you want me to meet you?"
"The factory on Old Victory Boulevard."
"That factory's deserted," Lois stated.
"Hurry, if you want your information." There was a click, and the line went dead.
Clark was stumped. He had searched Metropolis from top to bottom, and still there was no sign of Mxyzptlk or his hostages. He wanted to believe that Mxyzptlk had just returned all the people to their homes, but somehow that didn't seem the imp's style. No, as horrible as it was, the little devil had probably done something far worse. Clark just couldn't imagine what that was.
He had also noticed that the media had gotten involved with the disappearances at some point, and it was now the biggest story out there. Newspapers, television, and tabloids: they were all going crazy over this. That was probably exactly what Mxyzptlk wanted. He wanted attention, and he was getting it. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on the point of view, no one had come up with the explanation that the imp had been causing all this. This wasn't to say that there weren't some extreme explanations; they ranged all the way from God to the devil.
During one of Clark's scans over the city, he noticed that Lois had returned to the Planet. Perry probably called her and demanded her story on his desk pronto. Clark smiled slightly at that thought. With his life so crazy, it was nice to have those normal things to fall back on.
He wondered if Lois had come to the conclusion that this was all Mxyzptlk's doing. Probably. After all, she was the most brilliant woman in the world. And he also figured that it was killing her not to tell anyone about Mxyzptlk. She wouldn't though, and Clark was sure of that. How wonderful it was to have such a perfect woman engaged to him. Never would she do anything that would endanger their trust in each other.
He took one last critical search over the city, and again came up with nothing. It occurred to him that Mxyzptlk could easily have taken the people out of Metropolis, but Clark couldn't just scour the whole world. There really was nothing else he could do, so he flew slowly back to his apartment. It was late afternoon now, and the sun was inching its way to its nest behind the horizon. Clark stood on his balcony for a few minutes, watching the huge ball of fire that gave him life. Then he suddenly turned away from it, his cape snapping with the quick movement.
For the first time in his life, the sun angered him. If it weren't for the sun, he wouldn't have these powers. He wouldn't be responsible for these missing people and the future of the world. In fact, the imp would never have been after him in the first place, and he and Lois would be working on their wedding plans right now instead of trying to banish an imp. They would be together at this very moment.
Not that he regretted having his powers. He would never want to erase all the good that Superman had done, and he didn't think he would be willing to give up flying. But at times like these, he just wished that he were an ordinary man.
Lois parked her Jeep about a block away from her designated meeting point. She sat in the driver's seat for several moments, staring down the street towards the deserted warehouse. She generally hated this part of town. The dreary emptiness of the Southside always made her feel uneasy. Not that that would stop her from meeting a source. It just left her with a void in the pit of her stomach.
She wondered for a moment why all her sources had to live in this part of the city. She hoped this particular source, whoever he was, wasn't too critical about how professional she was. She was dressed in normal, everyday clothes, consisting of a blue tank top and petite jeans. However, she decided that this guy would just have to cope. It was a Sunday, after all. She wasn't even supposed to be working.
Soon, the heat from the summer afternoon became too much inside the confined spaces of the Jeep, so pushing her purse far under her seat to keep away any prying eyes, she stepped out of the car. There weren't very many people around, and the ones that were never looked up to meet her eyes. On one side of the street was a nightclub, and on the other was an old gas station.
When she had been a little girl, the Southside had been as alive and busy as downtown Metropolis was now, so she couldn't help but see it as a ghost town. She had been here many times before, this was where most of her sources lived, after all, but it still gave her a creepy feeling walking down these deserted streets.
The warehouse was a huge, looming building that just begged to be torn down. Lois couldn't remember what it was used for in its day, but now it was only useful for housing rats and taking up a lot of space. There was something about the building that roused some old piece of information in the back of her mind, but she couldn't recall what it was. It couldn't have been too important, if she couldn't even remember it.
She wondered what she was doing out here anyway. She had more than enough problems to worry about without having a new lead to chase. However, it was too late to back out now. She was already here, and so was the source no doubt. So, leaving her uncertainties behind, she walked around the side of the warehouse, searching for an entrance.
She came upon a thick, metal door. Dusty footprints led towards it, so she figured it must be the entryway that her source had used. She turned the knob and the door creaked open on its rusted hinges uninvitingly. She cautiously stepped inside to find herself in a huge cavernous room. Dust lay collected on the small windows, sending only a meager, eerie light into the warehouse. The floor was blanketed in dust, except for the dozens of sets of footprints that appeared very recent.
"Hello?" she called out, and her voice echoed back and forth in the hollow room.
"Ms. Lane," a low, gravely voice rumbled behind her. She turned around and found herself nose-to-nose with the barrel of a gun. Horribly surprised, she jumped back
"Ms. Lane, thank you for coming. You've made it much easier, coming to me instead of me chasing you." Lois's eyes finally focused behind the gun. A tall, lanky man stared straight at her, sending chills through her already frozen spine.
Lois tried to sort out all the thoughts running through her mind. She was dumb; she should have suspected something. But no, she hadn't even paid attention when her subconscious told her that something was weird about this building. But now, with a gun aimed at her forehead, she remembered. This was the same warehouse that the two Daily Planet employees had been found dead in. And now, it appeared as if there would be another.
<Stay calm, Lois. Stay collected.>
"You're pretty confident, returning to the scene of your previous crimes," she stated, her voice dangerously teetering on the line between composed and hysterical.
The man shrugged. "It doesn't appear as if I have anything to worry about. You are here, and you knew about the murders. No one will suspect me."
"Who are you?" she asked, keeping her tone steady.
"Who am I?" the man echoed thoughtfully. Lois tore her eyes away from the gun long enough to look him over. He was several inches taller than she was, probably forty-ish, with a receding hairline and small, pointed eyes. He wore a long trench coat that dusted the ground where he walked and that probably concealed numerous other weapons. His main attribute, however, was that he was steadily aiming the barrel of a handgun at Lois.
"Oh yes, that's right," he continued. "I have to explain my entire sinister plan before I kill you, don't I? I'm sorry, I'm quite new at all this. My name is Russell Van Houten, former board member for the lovely Daily Planet. It's the greatest newspaper and the world, and yet… the most horrible. I was fired five years ago. My former boss, Derek Bennett, and I had a personal problem." He never let his aim falter, but his voice rose as he continued. "Do you have any idea how much I hated him? I had the perfect life, a good job, good pay, and enough time left at the end of the day to spend with my family. But he took all that away from me."
He lowered his voice to a fierce whisper. "He had an affair with my wife, Ms. Lane. When he found out that I knew, he fired me. And he had the power; all he had to do was say the word, and I could no longer come back. After that, my wife left me. I've lived the last five years alone and angry, but I will no more. Now…now *you* will suffer."
"Why me? I don't even know you," Lois said. During his rant, she had ever so slightly inched towards the door. She was only a few feet away, if she could somehow make a run for it… But no, she wasn't that fast. The man would have a bullet in her head before she took a step.
"Do you even have to ask? You're a reporter. You expose people's private lives daily without giving it a thought. That's-" His voice had rose to a shout, and he lowered it before continuing, "That's exactly what they did to me. I did nothing wrong, ever. Yet, I had to suffer. I lost everything I worked for. So, you could call this revenge. I call it fighting for justice. And, I'll feel much better inside once you're dead."
"And the other two men? What did they do?" Lois asked, keeping her voice steady. Inside, though, she was screaming. Where was Clark?
"They were Bennett's accomplices, his friends. They knew exactly what was going on, and they didn't try to stop him."
Why did these things always happen to her? Why couldn't life let her be for just a little while? Where was Clark?
He was always there for her, always had been and always would be. But he could have been anywhere in the world at that moment, searching for the missing people. Not that she blamed him. In fact, she was incredibly proud of him. He never gave up.
That thought spurred her on, and she quickly devised a plan. It was a bit desperate, but she could think of nothing else to do. There were no people around anywhere, so she had to rely on herself.
In one fluid movement, she raised her leg and kicked the man's arm. The gun flew from his hand, but before she could dive for it, a fist connected hard with her head. Her vision swam for a second and she fought for control of her senses, but by the time her eyes focused again, she could already hear the foreboding click of the trigger being cocked.
She knew it was over now. She just wished that Clark were here with her. She wished that they could have lived the life they had always dreamed about. She wished she could see him one last time. She wished she could say goodbye.
Clark was beginning to get anxious. Lois wasn't at her apartment, she wasn't at the Planet, and she wasn't answering her cell phone. No one at work knew where she was. It had been several hours since Clark had seen her in the newsroom. He had just got off the phone with Jimmy and found that Lois had left about an hour before, but she hadn't told anyone where she was going.
Clark knew he was probably just worrying over nothing. She was probably just out somewhere, shopping, meeting a source, something. She probably had her cell phone turned off, or the battery had run out. There was nothing wrong, of course. Why should there be?
Even as he tried to convince himself of these things, the small flame of fear inside him refused to be quenched. He wasn't sure what left him feeling so uneasy, but he decided it would be better to go with his instincts and search for Lois, instead of lying around his apartment all night worrying. After all, it couldn't hurt.
He spun into his Superman suit and glided towards his balcony. By now, the sun was nearly hidden behind the horizon, and it lit the western sky up with brilliant shades of oranges, reds, and purples. The setting sun troubled Clark; the darker it was, the harder it would be to find Lois. However, he ascended into the sky, willing himself to go in the right direction. He called out to her in his head, yearning for a response. To his distress, there wasn't even the hint of an answer.
He sped straight up into the sky and flew towards the outskirts of the city. He would circle around Metropolis until he found her. He knew he was his worry was driving him, but he let it. It would just be that much better when he found her stuck in traffic somewhere, and he would be able to laugh about this.
He flew over the suburbs first, scanning the streets for her Jeep. He made a tighter circle each time around the city, next skimming over upper Metropolis. He was growing increasingly worried with each sweep. Where was she? He had to keep telling himself that if she were indeed in trouble, she would call him. Unless, of course, she were unconscious somewhere, or…
All his senses were suddenly magnified a million times as the cry resonated through his head. It was Lois, she was calling him! She was in trouble!
He was suddenly moving so fast that he was barely visible. He allowed that one cry to lead him to her.
She had one chance. One chance before it was all over.
"Superman! Help!" she cried out into the warehouse. Her scream bounced around the room until it alighted upon her ears again, and the whole world was silent for one second. One insanely long second. Her eyes met the man's, and then she tightly clenched them shut, prepared for her death.
Three shots were fired.
Superman crashed through the window. In the single most horrible second of his life, he realized that he was *not* faster than a speeding bullet.
Three bullets hit their target.
The world crashed down.
It was more painful than anything she ever had imagined. More painful than she could even conceive. Her whole world exploded in an immense flame of boiling agony. She didn't know when she collapsed onto the floor, but she soon realized that she was lying down.
"Lois." A voice came from millions of miles away, but she wanted to hear it. There was something about the voice that she needed to hear. She pushed her way through the haze that was slowly seeping into her mind and forced her eyes open.
The most beautiful pair of brown eyes greeted her, encouraging her to come back with them. She knew those eyes. Even as tears seeped around the edges, she recognized them.
"Clark," she attempted, but her tongue was too heavy to actually pronounce the word.
"Lois, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. Don't leave. Please don't leave. I love you."
His voice was fading away now. She smiled at him.
"I love you too," she said, her words tripping over themselves.
"No, Lois! Lois, honey, I'm so sorry. Don't die. Please don't."
She couldn't talk anymore, but it pained her to see Clark so distressed. But then, the pain faded away too. As her thoughts clouded over, a pleasurable light feeling passed over her. She wanted to tell Clark that the pain was gone now. Now they could live forever. But she couldn't even see him anymore. She couldn't see him… couldn't hear him…
"Lois," Clark choked, his throat constricted by a huge impassable lump. He watched in horror as her eyes softly closed, and then her heartbeat stopped. Clark felt an almost physical pain as part of his soul died with her.
"No!" he cried. "No, no, no. Lois, come back!" But he knew she was gone, he had known even before her heartbeat stopped. She couldn't have survived three shots in the chest at point-blank range. His chin fell to his chest as tears fell freely from his eyes. She wasn't gone. It wasn't possible. She couldn't be. He lifted his head slowly and was met with the same horrible picture. She lay on the cold concrete floor, her legs splayed out underneath her. One arm rested across her blue tank top, which was now brutally marred by a grisly red stain.
If only he had come a nanosecond earlier. She wouldn't be dead. If he hadn't hesitated for so long at his apartment, he would have found her. She wouldn't now have three bullets in her chest.
He tore his eyes away from her still face for one moment to look for the killer. There was no one else in the factory. Clark was sure he had seen someone else in the room when he had burst in, but he hadn't stopped long enough to actually see who it was. Whoever it was, he was long gone by now. A rage billowed up inside Clark, and he nearly jumped up at that very moment to go chase down Lois's murderer. He had never before felt such a strong need to end somebody's life. However, as much as he wanted the killer to die, he didn't want to leave Lois. He turned back to her and felt his chest constrict tightly again.
"Lois," he gasped again, reaching up to stroke her cheek. He hesitated for a moment, staring at his hand. He couldn't touch anyone, that was very clear. But… would it make a difference now if he touched her or not?
Slowly, softly, his hand made contact with her soft skin. And nothing happened. She lay still, making no movement.
"Oh God," he choked, his tears now falling in even more force. If nothing happened when he touched her, then she really was… it couldn't be true. It *couldn't*. He ran his hand slowly down her cheek. Why had he been such a jerk in the previous week? They could have been spending all that time together. But now… now it was too late. There would never been any more-
His thoughts were suddenly shattered as his brain exploded. It was such a sudden attack that he couldn't even register where it had come from. Pain that began in his head quickly spread down throughout his whole body, and he was frozen in agony. It was so intense that he couldn't even cry out. And it was overwhelming him.
He was already on his knees, but he began to tip over against his will, unable to hold himself up any longer. He tried to pull himself away from Lois's body so he wouldn't fall on her, but he realized he couldn't. It was as if some outside force was holding his hand against Lois's cheek, and he couldn't break away. And the pain… it was unbearable. It felt as if someone was drowning him in a pool of kryptonite. Except, it wasn't like the waves of pain that kryptonite brought him; instead, it was just an endless ball of fire that was swallowing him.
Soon, the force pulling him towards the ground grew greater than the force that held he and Lois together, and so he collapsed onto the concrete beside her. His head slammed against the floor, but he didn't notice. He wanted to crawl away, to escape from the unwavering pain that filled his body. But he couldn't move. It was as if his limbs had been shut down. He was no longer in control of anything except his thoughts, and even those were beginning to fade.
In one last attempt at control, he shifted his head so that he could see Lois. His eyes clouded over, and he blinked fiercely, determined to see her once more. His vision cleared again for barely a second, but he was able to get one last look of her. She lay beside him, where she belonged. His last thought was that at least they would die together, but then the fire inside him erupted in a tidal wave of pain and he slipped into darkness.
Something wasn't right. Instead of her bed, she was lying on a very hard surface. She was very cold, and there was no source of warmth anywhere. Wait, that wasn't true. Her leg was warm, because something heavy was lying across it. She attempted to open her eyes, but they absolutely refused to open. It was more than being just tired; it was like having a massive migraine.
She pulled her hand up to her face to rub her eyes, but the limb felt odd, foreign. Something was definitely not right. Unable to make it to her face, her hand fell limply to her chest. She lay unmoving for several seconds before she felt something under her hand. Something warm and sticky.
This pushed her to finally open her eyes. At first, she saw nothing and she blinked a few times to clear her vision. She found herself looking upwards at dark maze of pipes. That wasn't what her ceiling looked like. And her bed didn't feel like a rock, either, so she obviously wasn't in her room.
She shifted her head to one side to get a better look at her surroundings. It was dark, wherever she was, but there were sources of light. Windows sent dusty streams of light from outside across the floor. One such ray illuminated a wall about fifteen feet away from her that was lined with old wooden crates. Empty and broken beer bottles littered the floor along with a heavy layer of dust. There was something familiar about her surroundings, but she couldn't quite remember what it was.
A lock of her thick brown hair fell over her eyes, and she reached up with one hand to push it away, pleased that her appendages were once again working. But when she looked at her hand, she saw with horror that it was covered with a red, sticky substance that was unmistakably blood. She half-screamed, half-yelped, as much as her hoarse voice box would allow her. She jumped up into a sitting position. As she did so, her chest cramped horribly, tightening until it was too painful to move at all.
Her memory rudely flooded back into her mind when she saw that her shirt was covered in blood and had three small holes in the fabric. She had come to this abandoned factory to talk to a source, but it had been a trap. The man, Russell Van Houten, had held a gun on her. By the looks of her shirt, he had obviously shot her, though she didn't remember it. But then why was she still alive? There was no doubt in her mind that she was alive; dead people didn't feel pain. But… how had she lived?
She glanced around and saw a large mass lying very close to her. Her breath caught in her throat and formed a lump as, even in the dark, she caught a glimpse of bright red. Her heart picked up its beat as she rolled over onto her hands and knees. Ignoring her cramped muscles, she crawled the short distance to the body. She already knew who it was, but she didn't want to believe it.
He was lying on his stomach, his cape spread out over him. Lois tentatively reached out her hand toward him, aware that it could very possibly hurt her to touch him. But…he was lying there so still, and in the darkness of the warehouse she couldn't see any up and down movements that indicated he was breathing. So, she very lightly set her hand on his shoulder. Nothing happened.
With a feeling of dread, she gently pulled on his shoulder until he rolled over onto his back.
"Oh God. Clark," she whispered, her voice thick with emotion. His face was a pasty white, his lips pale pink. His dark hair contrasted with the rest of his face, and a few locks that had come undone from the gel fell across his forehead. He was lying so still… Lois placed her hand over the 'S' on his chest to feel for a heartbeat. To her immense relief, there was one, but it was faint and slow.
She glanced back up at his face. His eyes were closed, and she ran her hand across his forehead. What had happened to him? It must have been kryptonite, and that thought caused Lois to freeze. If it was kryptonite, it must still be somewhere nearby, otherwise, he would have already awoken.
She glanced around, but she saw no foreboding green glow. She was still too weak to search the entire warehouse, which made her feel incredibly helpless. She turned back to Clark.
"Clark, please wake up," she whispered. She scooted closer to him and sat with her legs crossed and pressed against his body. It felt wonderful to be able to touch him again, but it worried her that she could. Something must have happened in the time she had been unconscious, or at least she hoped something had. Maybe she only was allowed to touch him because he was not going to live for much longer.
"Oh Clark," she sniffled, now on the verge of tears. He couldn't die. She wouldn't let him. She reached up to his face and stroked his face with the back of her hand. She ran her finger over his lips and felt a short, sharp breath against her skin.
She pulled her hand back to her lap and cradled one of his hands in between her two. She closed her eyes for a moment, praying that he would wake up, that he would live.
A sudden gasping sound suddenly broke the immense silence of the huge warehouse, and Lois jumped. She realized that it was Clark, breathing heavily. She felt helplessly useless, unaware of what to do to help him, but luckily the rasping breaths died down until he was just puffing for air. Lois realized that her heart was racing, and tears started to slip from her eyes. What was she going to do? She couldn't make it out of the warehouse, and Clark most assuredly couldn't.
"Please come back to me, Clark," Lois whispered through her tears, holding his hand tightly. "I love you, please come back."
Clark awoke to the feeling of something — soft, warm, pleasurable — running through his hair and down his neck, and then back again. This helped to soothe the immense pain in his head. Because he knew that when he opened his eyes the pain would probably override the pleasure, he considered just keeping his eyes closed. But then he heard a sound that he hated more than anything in the world: the sound of Lois crying.
He attempted to lift his eyelids open, but they felt so heavy that he feared he didn't have the strength. And the throbbing in his head had only worsened with the more consciousness he gained. He groaned weakly.
The sobbing stopped short. "Clark? Clark, honey, are you awake?"
He opened his mouth to speak but the only sound he could conjure was a hoarse moan.
"Oh Clark! Oh Clark, wake up." He wanted to, because he really hated hearing Lois cry. But something didn't seem right. Why was Lois here? He had seen her get shot, he had seen her die. Yet she was here with him. The only explanation he could think of was they were both dead, which would frankly be fine with him. He hated to even think about living without Lois, and it appeared as if he wouldn't have to. However, the logic in that didn't seem right either; his head was just throbbing too painfully to think straight.
He forced his eyes open, and at first all he could see was a swirling mass of gray. Luckily, there were no lights around him, which he knew would only cause his head to hurt worse. The dizzying swirls slowed down and merged together until he was seeing a true picture, and one that sent his heart soaring. Lois was there with him, whether they were alive or not.
"Lois?" he questioned. His voice came out sounding muffled and foreign, but at least he had been able to form a word this time. He desperately needed water to soothe his parched throat, but even more so he needed to comfort Lois. Her eyes were red and swollen from crying, and her eyes were still watery.
"Clark! You *are* alive! I thought… I mean… you were lying there so still…"
"Shhhhh," Clark soothed, though he knew he probably sounded more blubbery than soothing. He attempted to push himself up on one elbow, but he was too weak. He leaned unsteadily on his side for a few seconds before he fell back onto the cement, his head spinning dangerously. "Whoa," he mumbled, holding his hand up to his head to stop the dizziness.
He felt Lois's hand on his face, and he reached for it, holding it tightly. "How are you alive?" he asked, opening his eyes again.
"I don't know. I got shot," she pointed to the huge red splotch on her shirt, "but I'm still here. I don't understand it. What happened after I…"
Clark didn't let her finish her sentence. He didn't want to hear the word. "I came. I was too slow. I couldn't stop the bullet in time, and you had to…"
Lois cut him off. "I'm still here. Everything's okay. You weren't too slow." She ran her thumb over the back of his hand. "What happened next?" she urged.
"Well, you… you stopped breathing. And I was able to touch you, so I knew you must have been…" He stopped mid-sentence. He held their clasped hands up so he could see them. Their eyes met.
"We're touching," Clark said simply.
Lois nodded. "We are. What does that mean?"
Clark just shook his head. He stretched his other arm up so he could cradle Lois's cheek with his hand. "It's amazing," he whispered, his voice husky with emotion. "I missed it so much." Lois pursed her lips, apparently to keep from crying again, then she leaned down slowly. Their eyes met for a moment before her lips brushed across his.
He shuddered as all the emotions he had had to contain for the past week exploded with their contact. Their lips met again, and Clark moved his hand up to encircle her neck. The hunger-driven kiss deepened, all their repressed passions unfolding. Clark moved his lips rhythmically across hers, fulfilling the terrible emptiness he had felt since they had been apart. He memorized her taste, her scent, everything that sent his heart soaring, in case this should turn out to just be a dream.
He hadn't forgotten what it was like, he would never forget, but holding her, touching her, kissing her renewed his senses in a way he hadn't thought possible. His future was no longer an endless road of darkness and depression, instead, it was a wonderful life illuminated with love and excitement, one that he had forgotten existed. The rays of sunlight were slowly breaking through the clouds of oblivion.
He was the first to reluctantly break away as his lungs deflated. His head had been pounding all along, and now it was on the verge of explosion. He fell back onto the ground, breathless. He lay for several seconds, lapping in air. After a moment, he looked back up at Lois and smiled.
"Sorry," he whispered. "I forgot that I have to breathe." He was rewarded with a small laugh from Lois. She kissed his forehead gently, and he closed his eyes for a moment, reveling in just being close to her.
"Are you as confused about this as I am?" Lois asked softly. "Why are we allowed to make contact now?"
"I don't know, but I don't think I'm going to question it." He ran the back of his hand down the side of Lois's face. He pulled their clasped hands up to his lips and lightly kissed the back of Lois's hand. "I'm so sorry," he said suddenly.
"What for? Wait, don't answer. We'll have plenty of time to talk after all this is over. Right now, we need to just get out of here, okay?"
"Yeah, okay," Clark agreed. "I guess this isn't exactly the best place for pouring my heart out."
"Right," Lois nodded. She sat up on her knees, glancing around the dark building. "Do you think you can walk? The Jeep's parked a couple blocks away."
"I'm not sure," Clark confessed. "But I can try."
Lois nodded. She pushed herself up so that she was standing. The cramps in her chest stabbed at her as she moved unsteadily towards the door, but she did her best to ignore them.
She pulled open the heavy metal door and felt the warm fresh summer air brush over her. She turned back to Clark. He was pushing himself up onto his elbows, a look of suffering etched across his face. Lois's heart leapt at the sight of him in pain, and she hurried back over to him. She silently thanked the heavens that she was strong enough to walk; she didn't know what they would do if she wasn't.
"Let me help you," Lois said as she hovered anxiously over Clark.
He was struggling to sit up, but it felt as if he was just sapped of all his strength. His arms were too weak to push him up, so he gladly welcomed Lois's steadying hands on his shoulders. He grasped her arms tightly and allowed her to pull him into a sitting position. Even that minimal amount of effort, however, left him gasping for air, and he leaned against her for support.
"I don't think I can make it," he gasped, sucking in precious gulps of air.
"Well, you're not staying here, so you've got to," Lois encouraged. "I suppose I can go to the Jeep and bring it here, but I'm scared to leave you alone."
"I'll be fine, don't worry about me," Clark answered, sending her a reassuring, albeit a bit forced, grin. "I think I can handle sitting on the floor."
"Okay, but Clark, don't do too much moving around until I get back."
"Yes, Ma'am." Lois eased him back onto the floor. She felt guilty leaving him alone like this, but she also knew that it would be much more sensible for her to bring the Jeep around to the door instead of practically carrying Superman down the street. Talk about gathering unwanted attention.
She slipped out the door onto the sidewalk. She didn't have a watch on, but she guessed it was around eight o'clock. Twilight had set in, casting eerie shadows over the streets. If she had been nervous during the afternoon, then she was truly fearful now. She was alone, walking down a dark street with a conspicuous red stain on her shirt. What was more, her fiance lay utterly helpless on the floor of an old abandoned warehouse. She quickened her step.
She made it to the Jeep within several minutes without any mishap. She climbed into the driver's side, sank down into the comfortable leather seat, and closed her eyes, all her weariness suddenly surfacing. She wanted nothing more than to go home and sleep for the rest of the year. Thankful that she hadn't misplaced her keys in all the madness of the last few hours, she sat up and started the engine. She was spurred on by the knowledge that the sooner she drove to the warehouse and retrieved Clark, the sooner they could go home and meet the end of this nightmare.
There were very few other cars out on the wide road. Actually, there were hardly any people out at all, and the ones that were out hurried down the sidewalk, their eyes directed downwards. They, like Lois, knew better than to stay out late in this part of the city.
Lois drove up to the side of the warehouse directly outside the entrance. She kept the headlights on to offer some light, even though she was wary leaving the keys in the car. She then slid out of the car and quickly made her way back into the warehouse. She found Clark a few feet closer to the door than he had been when she left, but he was curled up on his hands and knees with his cape billowed out over him. He didn't look up when Lois entered, and this filled her with a sense of dread.
She crouched down beside him and gently placed her hand on his shoulder. He jumped at her touch and slowly raised his head. His eyes were red and watery, and he blinked several times to clear his vision.
"I'm sorry," he murmured, though Lois didn't know why. She helped push him up into a sitting position again, and he wrapped his arms around her neck for strength. "My head… it's never hurt like this. I couldn't even," he paused for a moment, drawing in a sharp breath, "I couldn't even hear you come in. This is so embarrassing."
"Oh Clark," Lois said soothingly, hugging him tightly against her. "We'll be home in a few minutes, and all of this will be over."
"Okay," he whispered.
"Okay. Now, I've parked the Jeep right outside the door, but we've got to get from here to there. Do you think you can make it?"
Clark nodded. Lois knew he was trying his hardest to be strong, and her heart leapt out for him.
She surveyed the situation. Clark obviously couldn't walk on his own, and Lois surely couldn't carry him. She let go of him and saw him sway slightly, but he managed to stay upright. She watched with distress as he cradled his head in his hands and moaned softly. This renewed her determination, and she decided the easiest way to move would be to just help him along as best she could.
She wrapped both her arms under his arms so that they were facing each other and hefted upwards. She struggled under his dense Kryptonian molecules, and felt as he fought for footing. Her chest constricted as all this extra force took its toll on her, but she bit her lip against the pain. Clark's health was much more important than hers was.
"Are you doing okay?" Lois asked, her voice breathless.
"Uhh…" Clark started, his heavy breaths coming out quickly against her face.
"Okay, okay. We're standing up. Let's just… just move a few steps, okay? Then we'll stop." Lois had never been in this kind of situation before, and she felt terribly helpless. She had no idea what was wrong with him, and so she surely had no idea if she was helping or hurting him.
They awkwardly waddled towards the door. Lois was practically pulling him along, though he stumbled half-heartily over his feet. They made it to the door, and Lois stopped for a moment.
"Do you want to rest?"
Clark shook his head. "Let's…just go…to the car," he gasped in between breaths.
"Okay," Lois agreed. Somehow, they managed to get to the passenger side of the Jeep, only tripping over the uneven pavement once. Lois yanked open the car door and guided Clark in. He leaned back against the headrest and shut his eyes, and Lois hurried over to the other side of the Jeep, now very anxious to get home.
The ride home seemed to last for an eternity. Clark lay still on the leather seats of the Grand Cherokee. Thankfully, his headache had died down slightly, changing from the angry jackhammering to a dull roar; it was still very evident, but it wasn't placing a damper on his brain.
Those several minutes inside the warehouse alone, when Lois had gone to retrieve the Jeep, had been hell. He hadn't been sure he was going to be able to hold on to consciousness much longer as he lay on the cold concrete floor in silence. Now though, the headache had seceded slightly. He grasped Lois's hand between the seats, gathering comfort from their contact.
After what seemed like hours, Lois gently halted the Jeep. Clark raised his eyelids and saw his apartment building within his limited view. He turned his gaze to Lois.
"I'll help you inside, okay?" she offered.
"Okay, but I'm feeling a lot better now. I can probably make it on my own."
Lois rolled her eyes. "Yeah, whatever you say. I'm going to help you anyway."
Clark gave her a crooked smile. "Sounds good to me." He pushed open the car door and heard Lois do the same. She appeared beside him, holding out her arms. He sighed slightly to himself. As much as he had wanted to be in Lois's arms again, he hadn't wanted her to be holding him up in the process.
He hated the feeling of helplessness. He had always been the one in charge, always been the one who helped people, instead of people helping him. When he was the one who needed help, it made him feel small, useless. He wondered vaguely if other people felt the same way when Superman saved the day. Though he doubted they felt it as strong as he did, they probably did feel slightly purposeless when he came on the scene. These were thoughts for another day, though. Right now, he needed to concentrate on getting into his apartment and into bed.
He twisted sideways so he could dislodge his big red boots from the floorboard. He unsteadily set his feet on the pavement, then, clutching Lois for support, he lifted off the seat. They stood still for a moment, and when there was no sign of immediate disaster, Clark tentatively stepped forward.
Giving Lois a confident grin, he said, "I told you. I'm much better now."
"You've taken one step, Clark," Lois pointed out, never lessening her grip around his waist.
They managed to make it to the porch without much trouble, but the steps proved to be a bigger challenge than they had accounted for. The small flight of stairs might as well have been a mountain.
"I guess you're just going to have to go on without me," Clark said, smiling dryly as another attempt at stepping up failed.
"What, and sacrifice you to the porch gods? I don't think so. Do you have your powers?"
"I…think so. Whatever it was that did this to me, it wasn't kryptonite." He fell silent in concentration, willing himself to move upwards. Slowly, he felt his feet lift off the ground.
"Okay, you got it. Now, move forward," Lois coached, letting her grip on his waist all. He floated unsteadily for a moment.
"This is almost as hard as walking," he commented. When he tried to move up over the steps, he lurched forward and nearly tumbled to the ground. He clasped the porch railing and continued forward until he landed on the firm ground of the stoop. Lois strode up the stairs with him and met him at the top.
"That wasn't so bad," Clark said, smiling shakily. Lois again resumed her position with her arm around his waist and Clark threw his arm over her shoulders and pulled her closer to him; now that he felt semi-well again, he could appreciate being with Lois again.
Lois one-handedly unlocked the door and pushed it open. Clark wanted nothing more than to fall into bed and rest his tired body, but the silence and darkness of the apartment loomed in front of him. He subconsciously held Lois closer.
"Well…" Lois started. "Would you like me to help you-"
Clark cut her off. "Stay with me. I don't think I can be alone."
"Okay," Lois complied happily. "Now that we're finally back together, I don't want to leave."
Wordlessly, they entered the apartment. As Lois helped him to the archway that led to his bedroom, Clark again thanked the heavens for her. He might be sick, but even if he never recovered, he knew that Lois would be there with him until the very end. Feeling such love warmed him to his soul. So many things that he didn't understand had happened that night, but somehow, he and Lois had made it. *Together,* they had made it.
He allowed Lois to sit him on the edge of his bed, and when she strode away to his closet, he glanced over at his digital clock. It was well after midnight. He wasn't sure how long he had been out of it in the warehouse, but it had obviously been for quite some time.
Lois returned about five minutes later. She had changed out of her bloodstained clothes and was now dressed in one of his T-shirts that fell nearly to her knees. She carried a bundle of clothes with her.
"I figured you probably wouldn't want to sleep in that," she said, running her finger across the 'S'. She handed the clothes to him; they were a T-shirt and boxers. "Do you…um, need some help putting them on?" she asked, shifting slightly at her words. She knew that Clark was hurt and tired, they both were, but she couldn't help the sensual turn her thoughts made.
"Ah… as much as I've dreamed about you undressing me, I think I can handle it this time," Clark replied, laughing nervously. She watched as his cheeks flushed red, and she immediately turned away, knowing hers were too. She left him to his own devices, heading towards the kitchen for a glass of water. After allowing Clark plenty of time to undress and redress, she returned. Clark lay on the bed, his head propped up by one elbow and the blanket pulled up halfway over his body, leaving only his naked torso uncovered. Lois averted her eyes quickly and handed him the glass of water. She idly wondered why he hadn't worn the T-shirt she had brought him, but then realized that he didn't normally sleep with one on. Her eyes found their way back to his chest, and then wandered down to the blanket that covered the bottom of his body. She immediately chastised herself. Her emotions were running rampant since she and Clark had been reunited after so much time apart, but this wasn't the time to be thinking any unwholesome thoughts.
She cleared her throat. "Well, we're both tired, so I'll go make up the couch now…" She started to turn away.
"Lois." Clark's pleading tone caused her to turn back to him. She watched as he flung back the blanket on one side of the bed. "When I said stay with me, I meant… *stay*."
Lois felt her pulse quicken, and then hoped that Clark hadn't noticed. He looked up at her with those puppy-dog eyes that she could never resist.
"Clark… I don't know…" she started. She knew for a fact that her passion was stronger than her willpower at the moment, and getting in bed with him would only encourage it.
"I just want to be with you, Lois. Just want to hold you," he said, his voice thick with the same emotion Lois was feeling. Absolute, interminable love.
"Okay," Lois squeaked, unable to resist. Not that she really wanted to. She had dreamed about sleeping in Clark's arms, among other things. She stepped forward, and then climbed into the bed beside him. He immediately wrapped his arm around her waist, and she snuggled up against his chest. She lay her head on his outstretched arm. She breathed in deeply, captivated by his scent and the feel of his breath on her neck. How had she lived for more than a week without this?
"I love you, Clark," she whispered.
"I love you too," he replied. She felt his lips on her shoulders, on her neck, softly caressing her with gentle movements. She closed her eyes and turned her head sideways to kiss the palm of his hand.
"Nothing I've ever done has felt this *right* before," Lois said softly. Clark didn't respond, but she felt him sigh against the nape of her neck. She frowned; that hadn't exactly been the response she had been hoping for. She rolled over so that she was facing Clark. In the darkness of the room, she could just barely make out his fretful gaze upon her. She placed one hand on his nude chest.
"What is it?" she asked.
Clark let out a deep breath, then removed his hand from her waist and moved it up to her face. He toyed with the locks of hair that fell across her forehead. "I need to apologize," he started.
"Clark, we need to get some sleep. We can sort everything out later."
Clark shook his head slightly. "No, I need to say this now. When I heard you screaming for help, it was as if my whole world crashed down. Somehow, I *knew* that you weren't okay, and when you called my name, everything I had hoped against came true. Then… then in the warehouse, I was too slow." His voice choked with emotion, and he paused for a moment. "I was too slow to stop the bullets. Never before had I felt so… so completely worthless. I hadn't been able to stop the bullets, and you paid the price for my mistakes."
Lois started to protest, but Clark silenced her with a gentle finger across her lips. "When I saw you lying there, so still, it felt like… like a part of me, my soul, was just ripped away. Your heartbeat stopped, and I wished mine had too. Then… I thought how horrible I was this last week. We could have been spending time together, but instead, I was selfish and fell in on myself. I thought you were dead tonight, Lois, and I had wasted all that time. Even in those few moments when I thought I was never going to see you again, I was already thinking how I wouldn't be able to go on without you. It may sound selfish, but I never want to live without you. Without you, I'm nothing."
He stopped, trying to make sense of all his thoughts. There was just so much he needed to tell her.
"I've always known that life is a fragile thing, and one small push can topple it. But I guess before today I've never really thought about just how fine that line between life and death is. I learned to never take anything for granted, and to cherish every moment I have with the woman I love. You never know how many more you're going to have."
He closed his eyes then, his emotion causing tears to prick the back of his eyes. He felt Lois's small hand on his cheek.
"Clark, I… I just want to say thank you. For everything you've ever done. For tonight, and for every single day that we're together. You've saved me, in more ways than one. Sure, you've saved me from danger more times than I can remember, but… you also saved me emotionally. It may just be the late hour and my tiredness talking, but I think that if I'd never met you, and if you hadn't fought for me, I would be a horrible person today. Before you came to the Planet, I was close, very close, to just forgetting about my life. But then you came, and everything changed. So thank you. Oh, and another thing," she looked up at him with mock severity, "if I *ever* hear you saying it was *your* fault that I got shot again, I'll…"
"Yes…?" Clark prompted, a soft smile playing across his lips.
"Well, let's just say you don't mess with Mad Dog Lane."
"Of course not. I wouldn't dare," Clark replied, a true grin erupting on his face for the first time that night.
As much as he wanted to lie in bed and talk with Lois forever, he could feel the weariness pulling at him, coaxing him to fall into sleep. He couldn't remember the last time he had felt this tired, but he knew it was because of what he had gone through that night. Not caring to fight the unseen forces that pulled his eyelids down, he settled down onto his pillow. Lois snuggled up against him, and he gladly rested his arm across her waist. He turned his head downwards so that their foreheads touched.
"You're right," he whispered. "This feels like the only thing I've done correctly in a long time."
Lois lay awake long after Clark's slow, deep breaths filled the silence, indicating that he was asleep. She was tired — being dead really took it out of her. But her mind just wouldn't slow down long enough for her to fall asleep. She knew that something very strange had happened earlier that night, perhaps even something supernatural. She was alive and well after being shot three times in the chest; the normally invulnerable Superman lay beside her, too tired to stay awake; the imp's curse had somehow been lifted so that she and Clark could once again hold each other. She knew that somehow all these things were connected, but she couldn't figure out how.
She thought back over the past week. It had mostly been horrible, working and living without Clark. She was truly dependent on him, she now knew. Just as he had said, without him, she was nothing. They had made it, though. She had known they would. They had had to suffer, but here they were, together, as they were meant to be. She rolled over so that she was facing Clark. His face looked surprisingly calm and peaceful in spite of what he had been through that night. His dark eyes were sheltered by his lids, closed softly in his sleep, and his lips were parted slightly, drawing in deep breaths.
She lay her ear against his chest, allowing his slow, steady heartbeat to soothe her. Though she hadn't told him earlier, when she had awoken in the warehouse to find him lying motionless on the floor, she had been terrified. He was hardly ever hurt, so when he was, she knew it was because of something serious. And when he hadn't woken up, she had been truly afraid that he might never wake. These disturbing thoughts made her curl even closer to him, and in response he tightened his arm around her in his sleep. She hated to even think about him leaving her.
She loved him so much. Once upon a time, she would have scoffed at the idea of there being this much love in the whole world. But now, all her love, all the world's love, was for Clark. He was so caring, so gentle, so wonderful, so… good-looking, and he just had such a goodness about him that made him the most perfect man in the world. She knew that that goodness was part of the reason why not being able to touch people had hurt him so much. Outwardly, he was strong, tough, and brave. He was Superman. Inwardly, he was all these things; but he was also a sensitive, compassionate, and naive Middle-American farmboy. Perhaps this was why he had broken down. Lois knew that he thought himself different from everyone else, and he was, but that he always wanted to fit in. Not being able to make human contact had just isolated him more.
But now, he would have to worry no more. Somehow, he had been cured, and now everything was fine.
Except, everything *wasn't* fine. There was still a dangerous supernatural being on the loose. Unless… unless somehow he had been banished from this world without the help of Lane and Kent. That could explain why Clark no longer was cursed. But that didn't seem quite right. For one reason, no one else even knew the imp was on the earth, so how would he have been banished? For another, things just never were that easy.
This imp had caused Clark a lot of unwanted emotional pain. Because of Mxy- Whatever, Clark had hurt four different people, which in turn, hurt Clark four times. Lois thought back over the people. There had been the first girl, Erica Angel, the paramedic at the car wreck, and the two boys from that night. What did they have in common? They were all just normal people. Innocent, healthy people.
"Clark," Lois whispered suddenly. He stirred slightly, but didn't wake.
"Clark," she repeated a bit more loudly, thumping him softly in the chest. This aroused his attention, and he very unwillingly opened his eyes.
"'m sleepin'," he murmured, closing his eyes again. Lois smiled.
"I know you're sleeping, but wake up. I need to tell you something."
He growled and opened one eye. When he realized that Lois was lying beside him in his arms, he smiled and pulled her closer, looking down at her with his melting brown eyes. "You shoulda just told me I was going to wake up in heaven."
Lois laughed. "You sure know how to flatter a girl." She sobered quickly though, her face taking on a thoughtful look. "I was thinking…You know the four people that you… touched… and they were…" she said haltingly, not knowing exactly how to say her thoughts.
Clark narrowed his eyes slightly, not at Lois, but at the reminder of what he had done. "Yeah?"
"Well, you know they were all perfectly healthy people." She winced when she saw the flash of pain cross Clark's face. She quickly continued. "I was thinking… did you touch me after I got shot?"
He was silent for a moment, thinking back. "Yes, I think so. Just for a few seconds, because that's when it started hurting."
Lois sat up excitedly, startling Clark. "That's what I thought! I was hurt, well, dead even, and you touched me. Maybe it was a reverse of what happened with the other people. You touched them and took their energy, but you touched *me* and gave me your energy!" she finished confidently.
Clark regarded this information thoughtfully, slowly sitting up with Lois. He wobbled for a moment, but firmly planted his hand on the bed for strength. "That could very possibly be true, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions. Mxyzptlk said that there was no reversal."
"Did he say there was no reversal, or did he say you wouldn't find one?" Lois countered.
Clark shrugged. "Either way, there's still so much we need answered. Like, will the curse just come right back when I get my energy back? Can I touch everyone, or just you? Is Mxyzptlk still here?"
Lois thrust her chin up indignantly. "Well, at least I thought of a better reason than any I've heard from you."
Clark placed his hands on her shoulders and squeezed gently. "No, Lois, it's really good reasoning. I'm just still so confused. Besides…" He smiled at her. "I'm glad that I can at least hold and sleep with you."
Lois eyed him with mock suspicion. "Who else do you want to sleep with?"
"Well, right now I would be happy enough to get any sleep at all."
Lois faked offense. "Fine, next time I get breaking information that could possibly return our lives to normal, I'll just let you lie there like a snoring log."
"I don't snore!" Clark exclaimed defensively.
"Really? What do they call it on your planet?"
Clark growled playfully and leaned forward to envelop her in a hug. He pulled her back down with him onto the bed. He leaned back on his elbow, watching her compose herself, before leaning forward and pressing his lips against hers in a quick moment of passion. When he broke off, he found Lois smiling at him.
"You know, it's really hard to win an argument when you do that."
"Oh?" Clark asked innocently.
"*Don't* give me those puppy-dog eyes. You know I can never resist them."
"Do you really want to?"
Lois pretended to think for a moment, and Clark leaned forward again, placing his hand behind her neck and pulling her forward. Their lips met again, and this time they lingered. Lois responded to him as her hand went up to the back of his neck and dove into his hair. He felt her moan slightly against his mouth, and the sound drove him wild. He rolled over onto his back, pulling her with him, feeling her against his bare skin, running his hands over her T- shirted back.
Her scent, her taste, the feel of her body was intoxicating. The feel of her tongue against his and her moans and caresses were driving him crazy with passion. He was lightheaded from the intensity of the kiss.
Suddenly, to his alarm, breathing became harder and harder until he finally had to break away from Lois, struggling for breath. His muscles were straining, and soon they were too tired to hold him up.
Hold him up?
He and Lois crashed onto the bed, falling several feet from the ceiling. Clark held onto her tightly to his chest so that she wouldn't be injured. Between gasps for air, he wondered how they had gotten up onto the ceiling. Actually, the 'how' was obvious, the 'why' was a bit stranger.
He froze when he saw Lois's shoulders shaking. Her face was buried against him, but she was making muffled noises. God, what had he done?
"Lois?" he said softly, willing her not to be hurt. He didn't think he would be able to stand it if she were hurt.
When she looked up, Clark was completely taken aback. Her face held a huge grin, and her eyes were closed. Her body was wracked with silent laughter. Finally, she drew in a deep breath. Then she was laughing out loud, harder than Clark had heard her in a long time.
"Clark!" she gasped out between laughter. "We were *floating*! And then…you fell! Did you do that on purpose?"
Clark shook his head, joining in on her laughter. "No, sometimes I float unintentionally when I feel… passionate about something." He paused for a moment, waiting for her to calm herself. "I thought you were hurt, Lois!"
She lay her head down on his chest, her ear over his heart. Her hair fell over him, and he felt something stir inside of him again. He quickly quenched it though, the dizziness that still swept over him after floating told him that all was not right.
Lois looked up at him with amusement. "Clark, your heart is racing."
He laughed nervously. Truthfully, the amount of strain that had pulled him down when he had been floating spooked him. Normally, flying came as naturally to him as breathing did. He had never fallen unintentionally.
Lois noticed the worried expression on his face. "What's wrong?" she asked with concern.
"Nothing," he answered quickly. Lois didn't seem convinced.
"Okay," he conceded. "It was just a little scary."
"Kissing me was scary?" Lois asked incredulously.
"No, no, no," Clark reassured quickly. "When I was floating, it was as if I was being pulled back down to the bed. I didn't mean to fall. And it kind of hurt."
"I'm sorry," Lois apologized, blushing slightly. "I guess that was partly my fault, I mean, you floating, because you said you floated when you were passionate, and I guess-"
Clark grinned and cut her off mid-babble. "Well, if you're judging it on how passionate you made me, then yeah, it was your fault."
Lois placed a soft kiss on his lips. She then glanced at his bedside clock and groaned when she saw the glowing green digital numbers. "It's four o'clock. Should we try to go back to sleep?"
"I guess so," Clark said. He rolled over so that Lois was lying on the bed, instead of him. He kissed her ear softly. "Goodnight, Lois."
Lois woke to an empty bed bathed in the brightness of an early summer morning. She frowned slightly, but then a sweet aroma hit her nostrils and the corners of her mouth quickly turned up. She had hoped to wake up with Clark beside her, but waking up to the smell of a hot breakfast was almost as good. She rolled off the bed and padded on bare feet to the kitchen. She ran a hand through her hair in an attempt to smooth away the crinkles, but she decided she probably wasn't doing much good. Clark wouldn't care anyway.
She entered Clark's kitchen, and he turned around with a goofy grin on his face. "Good morning," he said cheerfully.
"Morning," Lois replied, a bit less jovially. She was not one to be cheerful the moment she woke up. She sank down into one of the chairs, glancing with amusement at the table that was still engraved from the imp's magic.
"How are you feeling?" Clark asked as he joined her at the table, setting an assortment of delicious looking breakfast foods in front of them.
"I'm fine. A little sore, maybe, but fine. I assume you're feeling better too, if you were able to make all this."
"Yeah, I'm feeling a lot better," he said, stuffing a forkful of eggs into his mouth.
"I would have felt better if I hadn't woken up to an empty bed," Lois said, a bit grudgingly.
Clark smiled. "Sorry, but you looked so tired. I've only been up for about an hour anyway. And I figured you'd rather have breakfast than me."
"Well, you *do* cook wonderful meals," Lois said lightheartedly through a mouthful of sausage.
They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes before Clark spoke again.
"I want to fly out to Smallville this morning. I know we have more important things to do, like find Mxyzptlk, but I need to go and see my parents. I know they were worried about me, but I kinda ignored them this week. Just like I ignored you."
"Clark, I think your parents will understand that you haven't exactly been yourself lately."
"I know. But I would just feel better if I went to see them. It'll only take a few hours."
"Are you sure you're feeling well enough to fly halfway across the country?"
"Yeah, I think so. Like I said, I'm feeling a lot better."
Lois nibbled on her toast thoughtfully. "Okay, but let me come with you."
Clark smiled. "I was hoping you would offer."
By the time the rolling hills and wide plains of the Midwest came into view, Clark was beginning to grow tired. He had felt much better when he woke up earlier that morning, but he had obviously not gained all of his strength back.
Before leaving Metropolis, he had taken Lois home to shower and dress in comfortable clothes. They had called in sick at work that morning, much to Perry's, and Lois's, disapproval. Lois had wanted to write up the story exposing Russell Van Houten's two, and attempted third, murders, but Clark had argued that they should wait until they caught Van Houten first. To which Lois argued that maybe Superman should go find him at that very moment to prevent anything more from happening. Clark promised that they would be back within a few hours and then he would search the city from top to bottom. Lois had had to settle with his promise.
Now, he held her firmly against him, with her arms secured tightly around his neck. At the beginning of the flight, Lois had kept her face towards him to protect it from the wind, but now she turned outwards, gazing at the scenery that unfolded before them.
Though he felt uncomfortable because of his lack of endurance, he still enjoyed the flight. The farther west they flew, the lower the sun dropped behind them. This turned the sky into a beautiful mixture of pinks and blues.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Lois said, voicing Clark's thoughts. He nodded. The scenery made the flight pleasant in spite of his aching muscles. Of course, holding Lois in his arms again didn't hurt either.
The Kents' farm finally came into view. Clark gratefully landed in the front yard and set Lois down beside him. He spun into his normal clothes, at the same time ridding himself of his pesky cramped muscles.
"You okay?" Lois asked, recognizing the discomfort on his face.
"Yeah, just a little sore. Let's go inside." Hanging his arm loosely around her shoulders, they headed through the yard to the front porch.
The sun was still rising in Smallville, but Clark knew his parents would be up. After all, they were farmers. Rising with the sun was in their blood.
Just as he had suspected, the farmhouse was already busy. He and Lois entered the kitchen to the crackling of bacon being fried. Martha was turned towards the stove and didn't hear them enter.
"Hi Mom," Clark said, coming up behind her. She jumped a bit in surprise, but then she turned around, her face alighted with joy.
"Clark! Lois!" she exclaimed. Clark hugged her gently and she set a quick kiss on his cheek. Then she moved on to Lois, hugging her around the shoulders as well.
Suddenly, Martha looked back at Clark, her face blanketed with question and concern. "Honey, I thought that imp being wouldn't allow you to touch anyone?"
Clark smiled slightly. His mother was nothing if not direct. "Yeah, Mom, he wouldn't. But we broke the curse last night."
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lois life her eyebrows at his explanation, since she had been the one to come up with it.
"Oh, Clark, that's great! So you got rid of the imp thing?"
"Well, not exactly. At least, I don't *think* we did. It's kind of confusing. But the important thing is, I'm not going to hurt anyone anymore."
The hinges creaked as the side door opened behind them and Lois and Clark turned around to see Jonathan entering. He carried the scent of hay and the outdoors in with him as he moved towards them.
"Clark, I hadn't expected to see you so soon! And it's great to see you too, Lois," he added. Clark quickly retold all that he knew to his father, who was equally jovial that things were semi-normal again.
"Lois, Clark, you've got to sit down and let me feed you," Martha said, gently guiding them towards the kitchen table.
"Thanks, Mom, but we've already eaten."
"Son, you can't come down here without having a home-cooked meal," Jonathan teased, easing himself into a chair at the kitchen table.
"Clark's cooking is almost as good as a home-cooked meal anyway," Lois said, wrapping her arms around Clark's shoulders.
"Well, I learned from the best," Clark said defensively, sending his mother a grin.
Suddenly, their casual chat was interrupted by a loud rumbling, which was followed by a poof of smoke.
"Oh God," Lois murmured, recognizing this as a sign of the imp's entrance. Jonathan jumped up and moved towards Martha, and Clark quickly moved to stand in front of all three of them. Mxyzptlk appeared in the center of the kitchen.
"Howdy, folks," he said, moving towards them. Clark thought quickly. He had expected Mxyzptlk to be angry with him. Was it possible that he didn't know that Clark had broken the curse? Clark decided it would be best to pretend that nothing had changed from the way Mxyzptlk had left him. He turned around and gave Lois a look that he hoped conveyed his plan. She nodded ever so slightly, and backed a step away to make sure she didn't knock into him. She bumped Martha and Jonathan back too, seemingly accidentally.
"May I?" Mxyzptlk asked, reaching for a piece of sausage that was laid on the kitchen table. He stuffed it into his mouth and sighed dreamily. "I love three-dimensional food. It's just so… tasty and filling."
"What are you doing here?" Clark demanded, speaking in his harshest Superman tone.
Mxyzptlk rolled his eyes. "Surely you don't think I would leave you alone after you broke the curse? I didn't really think you would be able to break it, since you're such a Superwimp, always so cautious about other people. But you did, and I wanted to give you my congratulations."
Something turned inside of Clark. So Mxyzptlk knew. Would an angry imp be worse than the normal annoying imp?
Clark didn't know what to say, but he stepped forward. "How was it broken?"
"I'm surprised you haven't figured it out yet. The reverse process happened when you touched a mortal without their normal life force. It's actually a lot more complicated than that, but it's nothing that any of you would understand. In short, you just switched around your life force." He paused, a bit of anger seeping out within his annoying voice. "I truly didn't think you would figure out the reverse process, but I suppose I underestimated you. After all, you *are* Superman, the only three-dimensional being that's capable of clever thinking."
It was just as Lois had thought. The curse really had been broken the night before, after Lois had been shot. Clark felt Lois grasp his arm, obviously ready to lunge at the imp. He hoped she had enough sense to stay away.
"So, now what to do?" Mxyzptlk asked to no one in particular. "I could kill any one of you, but I won't rise to World Conqueror by killing everyone, now will I?"
"What did you do with the people that you held in the ocean?" Clark asked, suddenly remembering the event of the previous day.
"I moved them. Burped them out of time."
"What?" Lois suddenly spoke up. "Burped them out of time?"
Mxyzptlk narrowed his eyes at her. "Yes, that's what I said. They're somewhere now, floating around in a time vortex."
"But… they'll die!" Lois exclaimed, drawing the information from her limited knowledge on time travel.
"I'll file that along with 'Things I Don't Care About.' I got the message across that I wanted to; what else did I need with them?"
Clark turned around to shush Lois before she could reply. Didn't she realize that was a rhetorical question?
"Now," Mxyzptlk continued, tossing another sausage link into his mouth, "I've tried restraining you twice, Clarkie, in my normal creative way. To ensure that you don't stop me from what I deserve, I'm going to have to go about it in a more conventional way."
Without warning, a sudden flash of light filled the room, the magical brightness momentarily blinding Clark. He heard Lois yelp with fright and her hold on his arm dropped.
"Lois!" he cried. If the imp had done anything to her…
The light slowly faded away, and in its place stood the normal, dim farmhouse kitchen. He turned slowly and found Lois standing inches away from him, her hands rubbing at her eyes. His heart fluttered with the massive relief knowing that she was still here. Thank God nothing had happened to her.
"Martha!" Clark heard his father exclaim. In his contentment that Lois was all right, he hadn't thought to check on his parents. Now, his light heart leapt up into his throat and he turned around to find that his mother had disappeared.
"Mom!" he cried out, spinning around, searching for her. She had disappeared, along with Mxyzptlk.
This was all his fault. If only he hadn't been so struck on coming to Smallville, then he wouldn't have lured Mxyzptlk to follow. His mom would still be here, safe. As it was, Clark had no idea what Mxyzptlk had done, or was planning to do, to her.
"Imp!" he called out angrily. Rage wasn't an emotion that Clark normally felt, but right now, something like it bubbled up inside of him. He was sick and tired of having the imp control his life.
A resonating voice suddenly boomed down. "I warned you. If you try to stop any more of my activities, your mom will die. And there's nothing you can do to get her back!" A howling laughter rang out shrilly, then faded away, leaving the kitchen eerily silent.
Jonathan was standing stunned, staring down at the place were only seconds earlier Martha had stood beside him. Clark placed a comforting hand on his shoulder and squeezed gently.
"We'll get her back, Dad. The imp's not going to get away with anything else."
Lois clutched Clark's arm tightly, and if Clark weren't invulnerable, her death grip would have cut off the circulation in his arm. She was obviously as angry as he was.
"We've *got* to get rid of him," she growled, seething.
Clark sighed his agreement. If only there were an easy way to do so.
"Dad," he said, turning to his father again. "Why don't you come back to Metropolis with us for a while, until we get rid of the imp and get Mom back."
Jonathan agreed by nodding. He still seemed quite shocked, but then it wasn't every day he was met with an evil magical being in his own kitchen. Clark helped him pack what things he would need for a few days stay, and helped him ready the farm for the absence. Then, taking one trip to fly Lois back and the next to fly Jonathan, they were back in Metropolis.
Lois stared sullenly into the dark recesses of her can of cream soda. This was a nightmare. Just when they thought things were looking up, something horrible like this had to happen. Mxyzptlk had her soon-to-be mother-in-law in his slimy clutches, and until they found a way to get rid of him, he held the whole Earth at his mercy. So now, more than ever, she and Clark had to think of a way to banish the imp back to its home.
Clark eased down beside her on the couch and laid a hand over her knee reassuringly. "So, any ideas yet?" he asked.
Lois shook her head glumly.
"Well, I was thinking about why Mxyzptlk is here. To take over the world, as he said. But before that, he came because he wanted revenge against me. He hates me." He paused, knowing Lois would shun his idea. "So maybe, if I left he would go back to his dimension."
Lois's head shot up. "If you left? If you left what?"
"Clark! You can't leave! Where would you go?"
Clark shrugged, but she was already continuing. "Anyway, if you did leave, do you actually think that he would just go away? Of course not! He would take that as a sign of surrender and continue on with his plan. And then the only person -well, one of the only people — who can stop complete world domination would abandon everyone! Honestly, Clark, what kind of a plan is that?" she huffed, the mere idea riling her.
Clark winced at her words. "I'm sorry, I guess I deserved that. I guess I hadn't thought that I would be abandoning everyone."
Lois gave him a 'Duh' look, then took a swig of her cream soda. She visibly calmed down and leaned back against the sofa. "Where's your dad?" she asked.
"He went out for a walk. I tried to talk him out of it, but he wanted to go. I guess this is all pretty hard for him. It's pretty hard for all of us." He lay back against the armrest of his couch, and Lois settled down in the crook of his arm, her head against his chest.
"Yeah, it is. This is scary, Clark. I keep thinking that I might wake up and find out it's last Monday, and that none of this ever happened."
Clark gently kissed the top of her head. "It does almost seem like a dream — or a nightmare — doesn't it? I mean, who would have thought we could be on an imp's hit list? But, we'll get rid of him and get things back to normal, just like we always do. And then, we'll get married and live happily ever after."
Lois barked out a laugh. "I can just see us settling down in the suburbs in a tidy little house, white picket fence, 2.4 kids…"
"It does seem a little out there, doesn't it?" Clark agreed, laughing. They settled into a comfortable silence then, content with this moment of peace.
Lois growled inwardly as they lay together. Though she loved the feeling of Clark's body against hers, especially after she thought they would never be able to lie like this again, it still left her with a helpless feeling. She could be doing something, bringing the end of Mxyzptlk, if only she could think of they way to do it. There had to be something she was missing, the answer to the imp's downfall. It skirted around her mind seconds ahead of her thinking, and this frustrated her to no end.
She concentrated on the big picture, knowing that would lead her in the right direction. Clark had said that the imp hated him. His main objective in the third dimension was to make Clark suffer.
"Clark," Lois suddenly said as the very barest plan formed inside her head. "The imp hates you. He's here to get revenge. Maybe we can use that against him."
"You have a plan," Clark stated. "I knew I loved you for something, your ideas," he paused and kissed her forehead, "and your body."
Lois laughed. "Thanks, Romeo. But, I think I do have a plan. It might be hard to pull off, but…"
"That's too dangerous! Lois, I can't let you do that for me, you know there's too much risk involved!"
"Clark, you lunkhead, I'm not going to do it for you, I'm doing it for the whole planet. Anyway, you're going to help."
"I know, but Lois, there's got to be another way that doesn't involve you."
"It's too late for that, Clark. I'm already in way over my head, what do I have to lose?"
"Everything! It's my fault he's here to begin with, so I don't think it should be your duty to get rid of him."
"Clark, you can't blame yourself for something you did in the future."
Clark shook his head sadly in defeat, knowing there was no way he was going to talk Lois out of this now.
"Do you think it'll work?" he asked.
Lois laughed triumphantly. "I knew you'd see it my way! Of course it'll work. It has to."
Clark stood, pulling Lois up with him. "Well then, what are we waiting for? Let's get rid of this imp so we can get married."
Lois giggled girlishly. "Sounds like a plan."
In spite of his lighthearted tone, Clark's stomach churned at the thought of Lois pursuing the imp alone without him to protect her. Her plan was a good one and could very possibly work. And he knew that she was quite capable of taking care of herself so he probably had nothing to worry about, but the problem was, he did worry, and he wasn't sure if he would be able to just stand back and allow Lois to risk her life for him.
However, he knew that he wouldn't be able to pull off this plan, so they would just have to hope that Mxyzptlk didn't catch on. If he did, then they would be in big trouble, because Clark didn't think the imp would enjoy being tricked. The worm of fear rose again in him. If Mxyzptlk did anything to Lois, Clark would never forgive himself.
There was something else to think of as well. If they did manage to banish Mxyzptlk back to the fifth dimension, would his mother and all the other people that the imp held in the time vortex return to Earth, or would they be lost forever?
"Okay," Lois said, taking charge and breaking Clark's thoughts, "I'll need you to drop me off at my apartment so I can get ready. You'll be able to do your part in superspeed so that no one will see you, right?" At Clark's nod, she continued, "If things go as they should, we should be back here in time for lunch, imp-free. And I'll expect some of your wonderful cooking when we return."
Clark laughed slightly at her determination. The thought of getting his life back was very pleasing, but he was careful to mask his excitement. With his luck, things would probably only get worse.
Lois bounced back and forth from one high-heeled shoe to the other. She ordered herself to relax, but it was very difficult. She felt horribly exposed outfitted in her skimpy red velvet dress, but she kept repeating to herself, over and over, that this was for Clark. It was for Clark. When this was all over, she knew they would be able to share a laugh about what she was about to do.
She had only been standing on the sidewalk for a few minutes, but people had already begun to gather, gasping and pointing at the words painted on the huge brick wall behind her. Perfect. The crowd was reacting just as well as if she had planned it herself. However, she knew the imp would have to show up soon, before the authorities did, or the whole plan would be ruined.
"Mxyzptlk!" she called into the air, quietly enough as not to attract too much attention from the crowd. As if on cue, the imp suddenly appeared in front of Lois. This earned a collective gasp from the crowd. Inwardly, Lois smiled with triumph.
"You!" Mxyzptlk shrieked, pointing one scrawny finger at her. "What's going on? Why are all these people here?" His eyes were pointed at her, and he hadn't yet noticed the words painted on the bricks.
This was it. Her big moment. She pasted on a sultry smile and then stepped nimbly towards the imp.
"Mxy," she greeted, her voice low with emotion. She was gagging inside, but she knew this was a big part of the plan. <It's for Clark. For Clark, > she chanted silently.
For the first time, Mxyzptlk allowed his eyes to wander from her face down to her form-fitting dress that ended inches above her knees. One impish eyebrow rose slightly. "Yes?" he asked slowly.
"It occurred to me," Lois said in a girlish tone, "that I might be on the wrong side." She paused for a moment, praying that the crowd wasn't close enough to hear their conversation. Luckily, they all seemed a bit apprehensive about the strange man that had suddenly appeared from thin air and that now floated inches off the ground. She moved closer to him.
"I'm done with Superman. You're the stronger man, and I'm not going to go down with that," <Forgive me,> "dirty alien." She grasped the folds of Mxyzptlk's dark jacket and pulled him towards her, careful not to actually touch the imp. The thought of actually making contact with his slimy skin almost made her shudder.
Her act seemed to do the trick, though. Now both of Mxyzptlk's eyebrows were respectively high. "So you… you agree with me?"
"Oh yeah," she answered in her most seductive voice. "In fact…" she began to continue, but a familiar WOOSH-THUMP was heard behind them. Lois turned slowly and saw Clark striding towards them. A look of anger blanketed his face, and Lois smiled ever so slightly at him. So far, so good.
He didn't speak until he was close enough that the crowd wouldn't hear. "Lois, what's going on?" he asked, the hurt evident in his voice. He could have a successful career in Hollywood, Lois thought with satisfaction.
"Oh, Superman, I'm so glad you're here," she replied. She felt the imp's eyes on them, trying to discover what was going on. She swallowed her nervousness. "I made something for Mxyzptlk, and I wanted you to be here to see it as well." She removed her hands from Mxyzptlk's lapel and surreptitiously wiped them on the velvet of her dress, then motioned towards the wall. Both Clark's and Mxyzptlk's eyes followed her hands until they were looking at the tall brick wall behind them.
"Lois…" Clark began, his voice torn. Mxyzptlk interrupted him, though, floating up and down excitedly.
"Ooh, wow, this is great! How'd you do this? It's perfect!" he shrieked, and continued muttering as he floated up higher to get a better view of the wall. Lois noticed with satisfaction that Clark had done a good job. Painted all over the bricks were dozens upon dozens of insults, all directed towards Superman.
"Now or never," Lois whispered so low that she was sure that only Clark's superhearing could pick up her words. She turned towards him and he nodded, a grim expression on his face.
He floated upwards, and Lois watched the two most powerful beings on the earth, one the epitome of good, and the other of evil, as they conversed. They were about fifteen feet off the ground, and Lois couldn't hear their words. Her plan was working so far. After Clark had dropped her off at his apartment, he had acquired gallons of black paint — easy to remove, of course — then had painted as many insults as he could think of on the public wall. Lois read some of the ones closer to the ground, and grinned when she saw "Superman is a lunkhead." There were some much worse, and Lois cringed at just reading those words in the same sentence as her fiance's name. The idea was to make Mxyzptlk see Clark suffer, since that was what he supposedly wanted. The crowd watching only helped in the plan.
Lois held her breath as she heard Mxyzptlk begin to read aloud from the wall.
"Look at this!" Mxyzptlk crowed happily. "Did your girlfriend actually paint all this up here?"
Clark shrugged, hoping he held the appearance of helplessness. Things had been working out so far; to his distaste, Mxyzptlk had obviously fallen for Lois's act. His graffiti had worked perfectly, and the imp was excited, just as Lois had suspected he would be. But Clark could hear the very distant drone of sirens headed in this direction, and he figured that someone in the crowd below had alerted the police, either because of the writing on the wall or because of Mxyzptlk. Either way, the police were slowly but surely making their way towards them. There wasn't enough time for Mxyzptlk's gloating.
Mxyzptlk was indeed reading the wall with sparkling eyes, but not out loud. Unfortunately, That was the key to their entire plan. If he read too far down in his head without saying the words aloud, everything would be ruined. But how could Clark convince him to say the words aloud?
"Read it to us!" Lois suddenly called from below in a singsong voice. Clark glanced down at her, as did Mxyzptlk. Clark noticed the dirty looks that the crowd below gave Lois, all of them obviously on Superman's side, but he also noticed the way Mxyzptlk's eyes lit up when she made that request.
"Read it out loud!" Mxyzptlk repeated, as if trying out the idea. "Of course! That woman's a genius," he added to Clark. "Too bad she ditched you," he said tauntingly.
Clark pasted a look of distress on his face, but he held his breath in anticipation. <Come on now, read it!> he urged silently.
And the imp did. "Superman…" he started, then stopped to clear his throat and send a contemptuous look towards Clark. "…is dumb!" He again stopped to laugh hysterically, and Clark almost couldn't stop his eyes from rolling. <Get on with it!>
"Superman is stupid…is dull…is repulsive…is boring…is sickening…is hideous…" Clark flinched at a slightly more offensive insult, but watched with satisfaction at Mxyzptlk's delight.
"This is simply ingenious! Superman is senseless…is revolting…is odoriferous… is horrid…" By now, Mxyzptlk's voice had risen with his excitement and he was nearly shouting out as he read. Clark secretly crossed his fingers behind his back. Just a few more now…
"…is dirty…is diseased…is insipid…" He was shouting the words out for all to hear now, completely caught up in the moment. For the first time, Clark allowed himself a small smile of triumph.
"…is insane…is foul…is unstable… is Kltpzyxm!"
Clark sucked in a quick breath at the same time that Mxyzptlk froze in horror. He turned an open-mouthed face towards Clark.
"No! That's not fair! You tricked me! You can't do that! No!" And in a poof of smoke, he was gone, just as quickly as he had appeared.
Clark hovered unmoving for approximately two seconds, momentarily frozen by how fast it had all happened, and then he zoomed down and scooped Lois up into his arms. He flew as fast as he dared with Lois holding onto him up and up until they were well above the city and the earth. Once there, he allowed himself to shout with victory.
"We did it!" he exclaimed. Lois laughed loudly and hugged him tightly around his neck.
"He's gone!" she agreed happily. Their lips found each other's quickly, their kiss emotionally driven, one that exhibited their immense relief at finally being free of the horrid imp. They broke apart after a moment, happy to just hold each other. Lois buried her head against Clark's shoulder, sighing with contentment. Tears of joy welled up in her eyes; now that it was over she allowed her resistance to break. It was over. There was no more imp hovering in the background, waiting to destroy them. Now everything could return to normal.
Lois pulled back so that she was facing him. She brought her arm up between them and cupped his cheek in her hand, running her fingers over his ear. She grinned. "You know, it's too bad you didn't let him finish reading the rest of the wall. I was kinda hoping he would get to 'Superman is chumpy.'"
Clark laughed almost sheepishly. "Well, I was running out of words, so I had to use some of yours for inspiration."
Lois feigned insult. "It's not my word! Consult your Webster. It's right there between 'chum' and 'chunk'."
Clark chuckled and moved his own hand up to her face. He pushed a few strands of her short hair back behind her ear, and then let his large hand cradle her smaller jaw. He brushed away a few of her stray tears with his thumb. His eyes met hers, and he was immediately lost in those deep, soulful orbs. They leaned forward almost simultaneously until their lips touched again. This kiss was much gentler, the hungriness gone. After all, they knew now that they had each other again, forever.
Clark broke away first, though he didn't move away. Her quick, excited breaths hit his lips and he longed to fly away with her right then and never come back down. "Lois…" he started, his voice low and rough with emotion.
She looked up to him, the love in his eyes reflecting all that she felt. Then suddenly, to her disappointment, his eyes took on a different, far-away look. He stared off into space, literally, then he cringed and looked back down at her.
"Sounds like things are getting pretty nasty down there. The police showed up, and they're trying to clear the sidewalk so that they can clean the wall. But it seems like a whole bunch of people suddenly just appeared out of nowhere in the middle of the street. I would assume they're all the ones that Mxyzptlk took into the time vortex."
"So that means your mom's down there," Lois reasoned.
Clark smiled. "I guess I should go help get things sorted out. And I need to clean the wall."
"You are *such* a boy scout!" Lois exclaimed good-naturedly. Clark shrugged.
"We," he paused to kiss her lightly on the lips, "can continue this later."
"Promise?" Lois asked.
"Would I lie to you?"
Lois shook her head, and Clark floated them back down through the clouds towards Metropolis. She clutched him tightly around the neck, never wanting to let go. She felt a sort of possessiveness that she hadn't before. After all they'd been through, they deserved at least some time together, uninterrupted, and she felt a brief flash of anger at the character of Superman. That ended quickly, however — Superman was a part of Clark, just as she was. She knew that very well. Though she would rather have him all for herself, she was so proud of him that he could go and be Superman after all this. She leaned her head against the 'S' on his chest.
"I love you, Clark," Lois whispered, barely making a noise over the sound of the rushing wind that surrounded them as they descended towards the earth. She wasn't even sure he had heard her, but then Clark's voice was right beside her, his lips brushing against her ear as he whispered back.
"And I love you, Lois."
Clark looked hopefully around at the crowd of people that was slowly dissipating. He had just flown all over the country more times than he wished to remember, returning Mxyzptlk's previous hostages to their homes. Now, it appeared as if the only people left were curious Metropolitans, and even they were wondering off now. He went over the mental checklist in his mind again: All one hundred people were back in their homes, even Smallville's sheriff that the imp had banished what seemed so long ago, though realistically it had only been a few days. And the tall brick wall that Clark had so openly defaced was now as clean, or cleaner, than it had been previously.
Now there was only one matter of business to see to. Clark walked towards the two women — one with dark hair, one with light — that stood out of the way, talking together quietly. Confined in his Superman persona, he couldn't act as blithely as he wanted to. So instead, he walked up behind him and placed one covert hand on each woman's shoulder.
"Now, Mrs. Kent, Ms. Lane." His eyes twinkled. "To where may I escort you?"
"Oh, stop that, Superman," Martha said, lightly slapping her son's hand. No one was watching them now since the excitement had died down, but Clark still glanced around anxiously after his mother's friendly gesture.
"Mom…" he muttered very quietly. "You don't know me."
Martha nodded mysteriously and then shared an amused look with Lois. Lois then turned back to Clark.
"Can you please take us home?" she asked, batting her own pair of puppy dog eyes.
"Gratefully," he answered.
Clark landed softly inside the window of Lois's apartment. Lois glanced up from the magazine she was reading when she heard the familiar sound of his feet thumping against the floor.
In a whirl, Clark spun into his normal clothes. He smiled almost shyly as he sat down on the couch beside Lois. Lois moved into a sitting position to allow him more room, and she threw her magazine onto the coffee table.
"My parents are at my apartment. They're going to stay in Metropolis till tomorrow, but they wanted to go to bed early tonight."
"How's your mom doing?" Lois asked, concerned.
"She said she doesn't remember being in the time vortex, but she's really tired. Mxyzptlk said that he 'burped' them out of time, so I guess that's why she doesn't remember."
"That's probably a good thing. I can't imagine being stuck in a time vortex is a memory you'd like to have."
"Yeah, you're probably right. I'm just glad she's okay." He laughed slightly. "Dad hadn't even returned from his walk by the time I got Mom home."
"I wish we could have thought of that plan earlier, before things got out of hand."
"Well, it's fine. No one got seriously hurt; everything's okay now."
"Are you sure?" Lois asked cautiously. "I mean, because you were really hurting. It was different than I'd ever seen you. You just acted… I don't know, defeated, I guess. Are you sure everything's okay now?" She spoke in cautious tones; she didn't want to anger Clark, or in the least, embarrass him.
"Yeah, I'm really fine now. I guess I did act a little extreme, but I really did feel… defeated. I mean, I've never really been up against such an impossible situation, and that's what the curse felt like. Impossible. But really, I'm fine now. Maybe I'm even better than I was before."
"How so?" Lois asked. She scooted closer to him and rested her head on his shoulder, and he instinctively wrapped his arm around her.
"Well, I learned to never take time for granted. I thought I was never going to be able to hold you like this again. And so I'm never going to waste moments like this one, because holding you is more important than anything else in the world."
Lois smiled and nuzzled down against him. "So what you're saying is we should do this more often."
They sat in companionable silence for a while. The normal city sounds floated in through the open window, but other than that, the world was quiet.
Clark stretched the arm that wasn't around Lois out in front of him. He flexed his hand, his fingers outstretched and palm facing outward. "It's amazing," he said slowly, "in a terrifying way. With this one hand, I had the power to kill millions of people. With just this hand, I was the most dangerous thing on earth."
Lois stretched out her own arm and clasped her hand over his. She pulled it back to her and lightly kissed his knuckles. "That's right, Clark, you did. But with this one hand, you also have the power to save the world everyday. And you use that power to help people. That's what makes you so special."
Clark sat for a moment, thinking over what she said. "Wow. You have this eerie way of making me feel great about myself."
Lois tilted her chin up so that she was looking up into his dark eyes.
"That's what I'm here for." Their lips were centimeters apart.
"You know what else makes me feel great?" Clark asked, his voice husky with emotion.
"Mmm?" Lois asked, a bit distracted by his hot breaths against her lips.
"This," he whispered, then captured her lips with his. A moan that originated in Lois's throat quickly turned into a laugh.
Clark pulled away slightly so that their lips still held the briefest bit of contact. "What?" he asked as she grinned.
"Well," Lois began, curling her arm up around his neck, "it makes me feel great too." She closed her mouth over Clark's again, and he laughed into her throat. As they fell back onto the couch, he thought that maybe he would keep his promise, and never let her go.
Many thanks go to Tricia, Wendy, Merry, Irene, and everyone else on Zoomway's boards that posted feedback. As I've said before, without your uragement, I never would had finished this story.