By Jude Williams <email@example.com>
Rated: PG — 13
Submitted: October, 2002.
Summary: Linda King puts up a new hurdle for Lois and Clark as they search for romantic bliss on an alternate route from the episode "Whine WHine Whine" to "Ultrawoman." Clark becomes a contestant in the Metropolis Super Hero Pageant, and several non-L&C celebrities make guest appearances.
Feedback: Courteous constructive criticism is welcome at the above mentioned e-mail address.
This story came about because I was tired of writing stories with unhappiness and angst in them and just wanted to lighten up a little. It began with my asking the question, "What if the telephone call Clark received at the beginning of ATAI was not from Jason Mazic. What if there were no Jace Mazic at all? Who would have been calling and why?" What follows is the answer I came up with.
From the end of WWW to Ultrawoman, Lois made an odyssey that not only revealed a lot she didn't know about Clark and Superman, but also revealed some things she didn't know about herself. What happens in "It's a Thing He Does At Parties" is another way she might have taken to get where she was going. In it you will read some dialogue and situations that may seem familiar from L&C episodes. I make no claim to have created them, but only use them as points along the way for Folcs to recognize and enjoy from a different perspective.
Likewise I intend no infringement on the characters from the Lois and Clark series. They belong to D.C. Comics and Warner Brothers; I have borrowed them briefly to have a little fun with them. Also you will find herein several real life celebrities appearing under pseudonyms. I mean no slander in my portrayals of them. It's all for fun. There is one macabre portrayal of a notorious fictional character, who, I readily acknowledge, belongs to someone else, but he has become so entrenched in American pop culture, that I was compelled to borrow him. Again no infringement on the author's rights is intended.
WARNING: This story contains satire ridiculing human foibles and follies through parody and exaggeration. The purpose is to provoke amusement. The human targets include well-known persons as well as some folcs who like to speculate about the beautiful and the famous. The celebrity depictions should not be read as validation and dissemination of gossip nor as portrayals of those persons as they actually are. The dialogue and actions of the celebrity characters in the story do not describe those real people in real situations. These characters, their words, and their actions are fictitious and should be read as outrageous parodies and grotesque exaggerations. They are not real. As I stated previously, it's all for fun.
All characters and events that I have created for this story belong to me and may not be used by anyone else without my permission. This story may not be uploaded or copied to any other website without my permission.
My thanks go to my beta readers, Gerry Anklewicz and Anne Carlson who helped me keep the story honest. Gerry, especially, encouraged me to attempt the humor.
I have used the following symbols as shorthand: words between * * are to be emphasized. Words between < > represent unspoken thoughts.
"Here he is, folks. Our very own Superman."
Perry's voice boomed as he turned, smiling broadly, and gestured toward Clark Kent.
The young man following Lois Lane through the doorway of the Daily Planet conference room stopped in mid-stride, heartbeat stumbling, complexion paling. He looked around the room, shock and fear in his eyes. <His secret was out! They knew.> The secret identity, the meek fa‡ade, the hiding from Lois — all swept away with a few words. How did they discover the truth about him?
The room, or his brain, seemed to be filled with a fog, through which he could see, dimly, the familiar faces of the Daily Planet staff. They displayed their usual variation of smiles, boredom, sidebar conversations and obsequious attention that characterized every early morning staff meeting. But they didn't show surprise or even the admiration that Superman's appearance normally provoked. There was one face among them that seemed not to belong — a vaguely familiar woman. But his mind was incapable of identifying her.
What was going on? And what must Lois be thinking? He hadn't told her yet. She would be furious with him. How could he explain? Would she let him explain? Would she ever speak to him again? Just when his dreams about his fascinating and desirable partner seemed to be coming true, this had to happen.
He still couldn't quite believe that last night had not been another fantasy. After a bitter fight over his frequent disappearances, she had left a note for him with an imperative "Forget it!" written in her bold script, and when he tried to phone her, the line was busy. Later that night, as Superman waited outside her apartment building, he saw her on the front stoop, talking with Dan Scardino, the DEA agent who had been trying to shove him aside. Then he watched them go inside together.
In the aftermath, he decided that he would have to leave Metropolis. He couldn't stay and be witness to her throwing herself away on Scardino. He was packing his possessions when she came knocking on his door. At first he thought she had come to tell him, as gently as she could, that she and Scardino were a couple now, but she still wanted to be friends with him, just as she wanted to be friends with Superman. Then, wonder of wonders, the words he heard were that she had dumped Scardino and chosen him. Almost before he understood what she was saying, they were in each other's arms, and he was in paradise.
They had spent the rest of the evening holding each other and kissing and grinning like idiots. Through all of the soft talking and whispering between tender kisses that would heat up and then cool when one or the other of them would back away until reason intervened — neither of them quite yet willing to venture beyond the beckoning threshold of sexual intimacy — through all of that, he had never said that he loved her. And he didn't remember that she had exactly said it to him. But she must have realized what his feelings for her were, and he thought he knew how she felt about him. After all, she had made the first move, hadn't she?
When, at last, she had reluctantly gone back to her apartment, he had been so elated that he couldn't stay cooped up. He sought the skies, turning somersaults and executing barrel rolls over Metropolis, creating some havoc and a little panic among the air flight controllers at Metropolis International. He was skywriting an imaginary "Lois loves me" when his super hearing picked up the excited radio communiqu‚s between ground and air.
Flying by the control tower, he made a sheepish apology, then darted west, reaching the Indian Ocean, where he cavorted with porpoises and dolphins for a while, and, continuing on, caught up with the edge of darkness. Covered by the star-sparkled black velvet folds of a gentle night, he floated along, stretched out comfortably on his back, hands behind his head, enraptured with thoughts of Lois and the future he envisioned for them. Finally, he arrived back in Metropolis just as the sun began to burn at the rim of the horizon.
As he showered, he kept repeating to himself: "I wasn't dreaming; I wasn't dreaming". His dreams had become reality; he and Lois would be more than just partners, more than friends. They were on the verge of…he became aware that he was shaving…with his laser vision. Clark Kent did not have laser vision. Superman had laser vision. Of course, Clark Kent was Superman…but Lois didn't know that. She didn't know because he hadn't told her. He wanted her to love him, Clark; have a relationship with him, Clark; someday marry him, Clark…and he was keeping secrets from her. Not secrets, *the* secret. It was the most important secret of his life and carried the weight of a million ordinary secrets. If he wanted a real, open and loving relationship — one that would last for the rest of their lives… He knew what he had to do.
They were planning to have breakfast together. He would just go early, tell her the truth and hope she would forgive him before they were both eligible for Social Security.
He had approached her door with trepidation and, while waiting in her sitting room, had tried out several ways he might tell her. When he saw her advancing into the room, he wanted to take her in his arms, sprinkle kisses over her lovely face and just ignore what he had come to do; but he managed to stay focused on his task. He was in the middle of "Lois, I'm Super -" when the phone rang. It was Perry telling the two of them to get to the Planet 'faster than a tick jumpin' on a houn' dog.'
When Perry talked like that, everyone at the Planet understood that anything else had to be put on hold. It meant get there or get gone. So they left the rest of Clark's declaration unspoken and unchallenged in the rush to answer their editor's summons, and, now, here Clark was, caught like a possum in a dead tree.
"Here he is. Here's our Superman."
<What must Lois be thinking?> his inner voice repeated. Looking down at her, he saw an angry scowl on her face. But she wasn't looking at him. She was looking at the unknown woman he had noticed earlier.
From far away, Perry's voice continued. "Lois, Clark. You remember Linda King."
Clark heard Lois mutter, " Who could forget a bad case of poison ivy." Lois seemed to be angry with Linda, not with him. Hadn't she heard what Perry said? Did she loathe Linda so much, that she had just let the announcement pass over her head?
"Now boys and girls, you all remember that Linda worked for Preston Carpenter over at The Star, and that her book about how she, Clark and Lois brought him down was made into a smash hit movie."
Clark heard more muttering, "Smash. That's the word I was looking for." He was looking at Lois and was astonished that she could speak those words with her jaw clenched and without moving her lips. She must have studied ventriloquism.
"Linda's here now, on assignment for IN Weekly's Trends for the Trendsetters section, to cover Metropolis's version of the hottest new attraction at Summer Festivals — Superhero Pageants. She dropped by here to say hello and got me all excited about the whole idea.
More muttering. "Yeah, she's good at getting guys all excited."
"Well, uh, Linda, honey, why don't you fill everybody in."
"Honey! He's supposed to call me honey, not that -."
Clark cut off Lois's mumble by clutching her arm just above the elbow and dragging her into the room, a few steps to the right of the doorway. She didn't look at him. Not a good sign. She had to be mad at him, but why wasn't she looking at him?
"Perry, that's so sweet of you," Linda said, gazing warmly at him. Then turning to the room, she went on, "Cla-ark! You're still tied to Lois? I was sure you'd have moved up, by now."
Lois stiffened and started forward, opening her mouth to retort aloud this time. Clark grabbed her arm again and spoke before she could.
"It's good to see you again, Linda. Yep, we're still partners," said Clark, putting a brotherly arm around Lois. "You can't improve on the best," he said brightly, squeezing Lois's shoulder.
Lois came in right behind him. "Yes, that's right, Linda, we're still partners. And I see you haven't changed one little bit. No improvement at all."
"Why thank you, Lois," Linda said, semi-sweetly, and went on. "As you all may know, Super Hero pageants have been held all over the country this summer. Gotham City had a Batman Pageant, Gateway City, California, a Wonder Woman Pageant and in The Big Apple, a Spider Man Pageant. They have all been enormously successful, but IN wants to feature the pageant for the greatest Super Hero of them all, Metropolis's own Superman. The Superman Pageant will be in the spotlight at the Metropolis Summer Festival this year, and I managed to persuade Perry…"
Mutter. "Of course you did."
"…that the Daily Planet should enter someone as a contestant."
<Oh, no,> thought Clark, apprehensively.
"And," Perry broke in, " the big boys upstairs agreed with her. They think it'll make great copy for one of the Planet's reporters to be on the scene as a participant, and I have to agree with them. Linda even suggested the perfect person."
<Oh, no!> Everyone looked at Clark. Jimmy came over and punched him on the arm, saying, "You're the man, CK!"
"I, ah, I don't, uh," Clark stuttered.
"And we'll be working closely together again. Won't that be fun," added Linda, a come-hither note in her voice.
Now Lois *was* looking at him, and the look wasn't an affectionate one.
Linda King came over to him and ran her hand down his arm. "I think you'll look just gorgeous in that Superman costume."
Clark was horrified by the thought. Lois's eyes opened wider but were no friendlier. Wearing a seductive smile, Linda followed through with, "Maybe you could even get Superman to lend you one of his."
<Not on your life,> thought Clark.
Lois growled, "Wear one of Superman's actual suits? Hah! You'd have to call him Saggyman."
She was mad at him all right. But that was the least of his worries, right now. He was going to have to put on a costume and pretend to be Superman in front of hundreds of people! It had been hard getting used to the tights when he first became Superman, but at least, he was able to hide behind the fa‡ade of a Super personality. People weren't really seeing him. They were seeing Superman. But now they would see Clark Kent in ways he had taken great pains to avoid. It would be impossible to keep the world from recognizing the truth about him. It would be obvious right from the start. Everyone would know immediately that he, Clark Kent, was the real Superman. He had to get out of this.
"P…Pe…Perry, I don't really think I'm the guy to do this. I mean, Superman and I are friends. I just wouldn't feel right trying to fill his suit…"
"Snork!" The sound came from slightly to his left.
"Cla-a-a-r-k." Linda was now draping herself over him. Lois's eyes were shooting mortar rounds at the both of them. "I think you'd just be great."
Mutter. "Bimbo, tramp, slut." Mutter.
Perry explained. "You won't really be taking his place. The pageant winner will be crowned Super Metro Man, and his costume will have an M instead of an S on the front. Super Metro Man will be a symbol of the city and act as a good will ambassador, welcoming visitors and dignitaries, attending civic functions, and generally filling in as a celebrity for Superman when he's busy. You know so much about him, more than anyone else. You can bring something to the contest that no one else can."
"Contest?" Clark asked. This new word filled him with terror. "What kind of contest?"
"Oh, you know, the usual," Linda replied. "Dance routines, individual talent acts, interview questions. The Superman costume eliminates the need for a swimsuit competition, so it's been replaced with a muscle flexing demonstration."
<Oh…my…god!> He wasn't going to be a part of this cheap exploitation of male…of a man's… He couldn't do it.
"No!" At the shouted word, the occupants of the room turned their eyes to him. "I mean…I'm sure there's a better stand-in for Superman than me. I'm not very good at…you really need to find someone who could win. Perry, I'm afraid I'm gonna just have to say—"
Perry broke in. "Clark, you aren't going to say no, are you?"
"Yes, Clark. Are you going to say no?" There was no question from the way Lois looked at him that she was demanding just that.
"I, uh, I don't really feel—"
Perry interrupted again, "Because you do look an awful lot like him. Diana Stride, a world class television journalist — is that an oxymoron? — tried to prove you were Superman's alter ego. Well, we all know how that turned out. But you do look enough like him that people were starting to believe it could be true. It took that joint press conference with Superman to prove she was wrong. You're a natural. Besides, it's the assignment of a lifetime. Why would you say no? Do you have a good reason why you wouldn't want an assignment that would put you on the front page and the Daily Planet way ahead of every other paper?
There was silence as Clark thought desperately. What could he say? He was just no good at thinking up excuses. Returning a video or getting his teeth cleaned wouldn't work this time. Lois was great at that kind of thing, but she didn't know he was Superman and would be in danger of exposing more than his physique. And she was mad at him.
Jimmy jumped in. "Yeah, C.K., think of the perks. Every babe in Metropolis'll be hanging all over those guys, win or lose. You wouldn't see me saying no if they asked me to…" Jimmy's voice faded when he noticed Clark's warning expression and Lois's angry scowl.
Having received no answer, reasonable or unreasonable, to his question, Perry continued. "Any way, we all voted on this, and it was unanimous. Evabody here agrees that you're our man. You're not going to let the Planet down, are you, son ?"
Clark looked around helplessly. "Well, I wouldn't want to let the Planet down, but there must be somebody else…"
Linda King read the inevitable and smiled triumphantly. Lois's eyes no longer looked angry, just disappointed. Without another word, she turned and hurried out of the room. Clark attempted to follow, but Perry, Linda, Jimmy and his co-workers surrounded him, all talking at once and giving him a Super headache.
Lois went straight to her desk from the conference room and began flipping through her phone file. When she found what she was looking for, she punched furiously at the numbers on her telephone keypad, although it was difficult to see because of the tears forming in her eyes. She was angry with Linda King, just for being there, and with Perry for falling for Linda's so completely obvious wiles. But most of all she was disappointed with Clark.
The guy she thought was so special wasn't. <Just let some brazen bimbo, tramp, slut crawl all over him, and he turns into a spineless blob of play dough just like every other man — panting for the creature to demonstrate her manual dexterity and mold him into whatever she wants. Well, it's a good thing one reporter around here is impervious to her designs. Lois Lane would ->
Someone on the other end of the line answered, and Lois began a quiet, intense conversation with an information source, shooting questions rapidly and making notes about the answers.
As soon as he could work his way out of Linda's grasp and away from the crowd around him, Clark sped from the conference room toward Lois's desk. She was turned half toward him, talking on the telephone. As he came into her view, she deliberately turned her back, making her disinterest in him very clear. Clark, noting the stiff set of her shoulders and spine, slowed, hesitated, and diverted his path to his own desk. He sat, opening his mail, while keeping an eye on Lois so that when she finished her call, he could try again.
She placed the instrument in its cradle, and he quickly rose going over to the coffee station in hopes that a cup of her favorite brew, fixed just the way she liked it, would help ease things between them. As he approached her, he saw that she was on the phone again. He placed the coffee on the desk in front of her and smiled ingratiatingly when she looked up at him. She responded by picking up the cup, saluting him with it, holding it high above the wastebasket, and pouring its contents into the receptacle. Then she turned her back to him again.
Not a good time to talk. Okay, maybe later. He backed away and returned to his desk.
No sooner had he sat down than Perry came out of the conference room with Linda King. Walking her to the elevator, he saw her aboard, then returned, passing by Lois and saying, "Come into my office for a minute, Lois. I have an assignment for you."
Obviously an assignment without Clark since he hadn't been invited along. She rose eagerly and hurried after Perry, briefly meeting Clark's eyes, then raising her nose into the air as she proceeded.
"Come in and close the door, darlin'," the editor said as she came through the doorway.
<Oh, oh, this must be a good one,> she thought as she followed instructions and crossed the intervening space to stand before the authoritative desk. "What is it, Perry? Do you want me to check up on Linda King? Discover what she's really after? Find out why she wants to spend two weeks doing a story about our Super Hero Pageant when she could have covered the one in California in a couple of days? I knew you weren't actually falling for that glandular gloss she secretes."
"Now, Lois, honey. I know you and Linda haven't exactly gotten along in the past, but you have to get over that. While this pageant thing is going on, you'll be seeing a lot of her, and she can be a valuable source for your story."
"I knew it! What's it all about, Perry? Some kind of scam Linda's pulling with the pageant organizers? Cover for a drug cartel? Weapons smuggling for terrorists?"
Perry listened to her patiently before saying, "Lois, I want you to take Clark to the costume shop and get him outfitted in a Superman suit. He doesn't act like he's very enthusiastic about doing this, so he's gonna need someone to ride herd on him and see that he does it right. I don't want him slacking off, deliberately trying to lose just because he's friends with Superman. It'd be a great coup for the Daily Planet to have one of our reporters recognized everywhere as Super Metro Man. And we'd sell a helluva lot of newspapers with his by-line on the front page."
Her mouth dropped open. Did she hear him correctly? She began a loud protest.
"Perry, you want me to baby sit that amateur-hour Superman, so he can win and have an automatic front page by-line just by looking gorg…<No, no, don't go there>,uh, just by flexing a few musc…<Uh uh, bad visual>, ah, just for standing around pretending to be Superman? He gets a regular front-page by-line for that while the rest of us have to work our buns off to get an occasional page one hit? I thought I was the top reporter around here, not a day-care provider."
"Well, it's gonna require some nighttime work too, Lois, but that's not the point. The point is, there's a story here for you. Clark will be too close to it, so you'll get front page space for your observations of the pageant and your interviews with the contestants, and Clark'll be your prime source."
"That sounds like touchy-feely fluff, Perry. I don't do touchy-feely fluff. I do cutting-edge, hard news, not fluff!"
"Well for the present, Lois, you'll do touchy-feely fluff…unless, of course, you'd prefer to cover dog shows and PTA meetings?"
She was battered and defeated, but still unbowed. "All right, Perry. You're the boss. But I won't forget this. You owe me big! Just don't let it ever be said that Lois Lane doesn't know how to follow orders." And throwing open the office door, she stomped over to Clark's desk.
"Lois?" He looked up warily, seeing a very unfriendly visage.
"Come on, Metro Man wannabe. Let's go turn you into a winner."
Slowly assimilating her words, he watched her march away and get on the elevator. He didn't know where she was going, but he understood that she wanted him along, and he grabbed his jacket, hurrying after her. He could ask questions later. Right now, he sensed the ice jam breaking, and he didn't want to miss the boat.
She was behind the wheel of her Jeep, motor running, when he caught up to her in the parking garage. Sliding into the vehicle, he looked at her expectantly, but she kept her eyes straight ahead, shifting them only to maneuver the car. The silence grew louder as they raced through the streets toward an unspoken destination that he desperately hoped would not be a hospital.
Arriving at a row of neighborhood shops, she parked, and they departed from the vehicle to stand on the sidewalk. Curiosity heightened, Clark was looking at the storefronts trying to figure out why they had come to this place, when he saw "Mr. Norman Blackwell, Costumer to the Stars" lettered discreetly in gold leaf on one corner of a display window. Inside Clark could see window dummies dressed in garments from various historical time periods. Lois was already opening the door. "Oh, no," he groaned softly.
When the door opened, a small bell jangled, and, as they stepped inside, a doleful man approached them, rubbing his hands together. His skeletal frame was clothed all in black, and Lois thought he looked like a modern day Ichabod Crane.
He approached them, asking in sepulchral tones, "May I help you with something? For a costume ball? A lovely Empire gown in white for the lady, like this one perhaps?" He gestured toward a mannequin.
Clark blinked. He was reminded of an undertaker discussing a choice of clothing for the deceased. But then he caught his breath, as the words sank in. He had a sudden flash of Lois in the garment under scrutiny. He saw her, instead of the mannequin, wearing the pale silk dress, very low cut, clinging bodice barely covering her breasts, above the high-waisted, slim skirt softly falling over her hips to her ankles. It was perfect with her tanned, glowing skin and dark hair. He slowly emptied his lungs in a long sigh and thought how fickle history was. If Lois had been Josephine, Napoleon would never have left her to go fight silly battles.
Lois's attention was on the lugubrious shopkeeper. "Mr. Blackwell?" At his nod, she continued. "I'm Lois Lane and this is Clark Kent. We're from the Daily Planet, and Mr. Kent — Clark — is the paper's entrant in the Super Hero Pageant at this year's Summer Festival. He needs a Superman costume."
"Oh, yes," the man sneered. "Such a tacky ensemble. Superman should have consulted me when he chose his uniform. Something in black or an understated blue with a lighter shade for the cape would have been more appropriate. Monochrome for the body would have been so tasteful. All those primary colors are just too garish."
"Yes. Well I'm sure that if Superman had known you were available for consultation, he would have been here, uh, faster than a speeding bullet," said Lois encouragingly. "Be that as it may, Mr. Kent needs a garish Superman costume for the pageant."
Blackwell harrumphed, measured Clark with his eyes and went into the back room of the shop.
Speaking pettishly, Clark turned to his companion. "Lois, who told you to get a suit for me. I'm not interested in parading around in tights and a cape for the world to gawk at. I'm going to tell Perry that I'm not available."
"You think it's my choice to spend my time getting you decked out for Linda King to drool over?" she shot back. "And good luck saying no to Perry, because he has it all figured out that you're going to win and write lots of page one articles on the thrill of being Super Metro Man. If you don't at least try, Clark, you'll be covering sewer board meetings and celebrity PR junkets for the next year. Although, I don't know why I should care. It'd serve you right."
"Lois, I thought we…last night you…"
"That was last night. This is business."
"Okay, forget last night. As a partner and a friend, you've got to help me figure out how to get out of this. I can't do it."
"Come on, Clark. How hard can it be? You stand around in a Superman suit; you dance and sing a little, flex a little muscle, say your greatest wish is for world peace, and they crown you Super Metro Man. If you're afraid of looking a little anemic in the tights, we can always stuff you."
"Lois, I'm not worried abou…sing?"
"Yes, Clark, there's always an official pageant song that all the gir…uh contestants sing like in a chorus. And then they all do a little dance before the finalists are announced."
Clark slumped into a nearby chair and put his head in his hands. "O-o-o-h n-o-o-o."
Lois eyed him with curiosity. Why was he acting this way? It could be a little embarrassing, but it wasn't the end of the world. You'd think he was facing a death sentence.
At this moment, Mr. Blackwell returned with a red, yellow and blue garment slung over his arm and carrying a pair of boots. "All right, Mr. Kent, let's get into the dressing room and fit this hideous creation. If you must wear it, we can at least make it fit you properly."
"No, no! I'll just try it on first, Mr. Blackwell, and come back out here. Maybe it won't need any fitting," and he shot into the dressing room.
"You wish," he heard Lois say under her breath.
In the tiny changing room, Clark looked at the clothing in his hands and thought of the absurdity of the situation. He had to take off a suit, put on one just like it, and pretend to be his alter ego. Why not just wear the original? But for all he knew, the fake suit might have some slight difference from the real one. He couldn't take any chances when he went into the other room. He just hoped that neither of the people out there would see the truth.
He had about as much space as in a telephone booth, but he managed a spin fluttering the curtain covering the doorway. Well, his regular clothes were gone, but he still had on the real suit. Would another spin replace it with the ersatz one? And would it go wherever his regular clothes went? He spun again. The suit on the chair had disappeared, so he must be wearing it, and the real suit had gone to wherever it went. He pulled back the curtain and returned to the main shop room.
Lois thought he had come back quickly, and she supposed the strange fluttering of the curtain had been because of his haste. She became aware that he perfectly filled in the contours of a knock-off of the most famous suit in the world.
She saw his chest first. Her eyes widened and they slowly descended to his waist and beyond until they reached the boots, at which point, they began the return trip, lingering at certain vista points. Her jaw had gradually dropped open as her gaze had traveled, and when she finished, she closed it, swallowing hard.
If he'd been able to blush, he would have turned carmine. It was one thing to stand before the world…and Lois…as Superman. The suit wasn't an embarrassment then. But to display himself, Clark, in the second skin of the body suit…well, he wanted to hide himself with his hands and bolt out of sight.
She whispered, "Wow," and decided to check out the territory one more time — just to be sure no fitting was needed, of course. <O-o-o-h, y-e-e-esss,> she growled inwardly. <Definitely no fitting needed.>
"Lois?" The word was slightly strangled.
There was no answer. Lois had reached the boots and reversed directions again, dawdling here and there.
"Lo-is!" Now the sound was filled with anguish.
"What?" She jerked her eyes away from their target and looked up into his face. She could see he was miserable. <Distraction needed.> Distraction for Clark…and for her.
"Clark, you're wearing your glasses," she said briskly. "Superman doesn't wear glasses, and your hair can't be soft like that. It has to be slicked back."
"I can take care of that," said Blackwell as he scooped the glasses off Clark's nose, and slapped some gooey stuff on his head. He quickly ran a comb back through the reporter's hair, and the transformation was complete. But standing behind Clark, Blackwell, more concerned about the fit of the suit, hardly looked at the superhero. Wiping the goo from his hands with a towel that he then threw on a chair, the costumer began fiddling with the drape of the cape and never saw what Lois saw.
Clark looked fearfully at Lois. How could she not see it? What would she say?
Lois stared through narrowed eyes at a Clark who had suddenly morphed into Superman right in front of her.
<It couldn't be! No, that was ridiculous. He just looked a lot like Superman that was all. > They'd been through this before when Diana Stride had tried to expose Superman for that sensational news show, Top Copy. Clark and the super hero had proved her expos‚ was a lie. But there had been something strange about the way Superman had looked, floating in front of the face of the Daily Planet building. He had looked…kind of…out of focus…
"Clark, cross your arms over your chest and look stern. You know what I mean, like when Superman is lecturing the bad guys."
<Lecturing? He lectured the bad guys? > And if he followed her demand, she'd have to recognize him, wouldn't she?
Well, either she'd recognize him or she wouldn't. He didn't see any way out of it. He folded his arms and looked stern.
Lois's heart fluttered. It wasn't just a resemblance. It was real. <Clark is Superman!> She looked him up and down one more time. There was no doubt about it. She'd given Superman the surreptitious once-over too many times. Clark fit Superman's mold in every way…*every* way. She had expected a resemblance; Clark was pretty well built. But no one was a match for Superman. Except, Clark was.
<Wow! Double wow!>
How did she feel about this? Clark had been deceiving her, and because of his deception she had made a fool of herself over Superman. She should be really, really mad, but she was still in shock with the revelation. She'd have to figure everything out later. Right this minute, she needed to do something, say something. Well, last night Clark had made it pretty clear that he was hers, and if he was, she didn't want anyone else, specifically Linda King, ogling him in that suit the way she just had. And, he had asked her to help him.
Lois heard her calm voice say, "That won't do. It's too small. We need one several sizes larger."
It was Clark's turn to gape. What was she talking about? This suit fit just like the ones at home. A larger size would probably wrinkle or at least sag a little.
Mr. Blackwell was indignant. "What do you mean 'too small'? It's a perfect fit." He concentrated only on the suit, never looking at Clark's face, never seeing the total representation that Lois saw. "Anything larger would be a droopy disaster. I can't allow him to wear something from this shop that would fit that badly. Have you no sense of style? I have a reputation to maintain."
"Mr. Blackwell. Norman," she purred, her smile deceptively friendly as she spoke. "I'm the customer here, and I really don't care about your reputation. I say it's too small, and unless you want to miss out on a rather substantial sale, you'll give me what I want. Otherwise you might find your reputation smeared all over tomorrow's edition of the Daily Planet." Blackwell scurried away to the back room again.
While Blackwell was gone, Clark put his glasses on, scooped up the towel from the chair and rubbed it over his hair, saying, "This stuff is awful. I don't think I need it anyway, and I have to have my glasses, Lois, or I won't be able to move around without stumbling."
Until five minutes ago, she would have accepted his statement unquestioningly. She was appalled at her gullibility. He was out and out lying to her. She thought Superman couldn't lie. Maybe 'couldn't' wasn't the word. Maybe it should be 'didn't' unless things got inconvenient. She could work up a really good mad at him. But not yet. They had too much to worry about.
When Blackwell returned, Lois motioned for Clark to try on the new suit. When he came out of the dressing room, she looked him over. The difference was amazing. He had wrinkles, he had droops, and his muscles appeared to have shrunk. Now he was an ordinary guy trying to look like Superman in an ill-fitting costume. He was, in fact, Saggyman.
"That's pretty good. That'll work. All right. Mr. Blackwell, we'll take it." In an imperious aside, she said, "Get dressed, Clark," as though he wouldn't know what to do himself.
While Clark dressed, he wondered why Lois had opted for the baggy suit, when she had been so obviously taken with the snug-fitting one. Could she be trying to help him? If so, why? She'd been mad at him and hadn't been willing to help. Why had she changed her mind? If she had recognized him, she'd really be mad, and help would be out of the question. Why would she do this? It was as though she didn't *want* him to win.
And then it hit him. She had just told him why. Perry wanted him to win so he could write front-page articles about what it was like being Super Metro Man. Front page articles with his byline and not Lois's. She would have to compete for page one space with all the other reporters, while he would have it handed to him with practically no effort on his part. She was protecting her territory as top banana. He had thought she'd lost her Mad Dog Lane approach to reporting rivalry where he was concerned. They had become friends, and now, after last night, he'd been sure they were on their way to being more. But the ghost of Claude still hovered. She wasn't going to repeat her mistake and let a relationship get in the way of her career again. What had she just said? "This is business."
While she was, unwittingly, helping him, he still had a chance to tell her the truth, himself, and to make her see that she didn't need to worry about him using her to gain an advantage and grab page one space that she deserved. Getting it this way would be too dangerous, anyway. Looking in the mirror now, he was pretty sure that the odds against anybody thinking he was the real Superman had turned in his favor.
Lois paid for the costume with her credit card, carefully tucking the receipt into her purse to be turned in for reimbursement back at the Planet comptroller's office. She accomplished these routine tasks automatically as her brain seethed with thoughts and emotions she wasn't sure she understood.
<Clark is Superman.> No matter how many times she told herself that, it remained startling and unbelievable. How could she not have figured it out before? And why hadn't he told her?
She reflected back on this morning and what he had said in her apartment. "Lois, I'm Super". Perry's call had interrupted, and ensuing events had completely distracted them both. He had tried to tell her, but fate, manipulated by Linda King, had stopped him.
She recalled Perry's greeting when they arrived at the conference room. "Here he is, our own Superman." No wonder he had looked so startled and, yes, scared. She had thought he was distracted by Linda King, but he'd had something much more important on his mind. And afterwards, he had tried to approach her, but she had ignored him and refused to talk to him.
She'd completely misunderstood when he had asked her to help him get out of the pageant. Of course, he wanted out. He was afraid the world would recognize him, the way she just had.
She wasn't sure how she felt about his trickery, but she didn't have time to work that out now. He needed her help, and she wasn't going to let him down. She would have to throw up a lot of camouflage to keep Linda King off the track, but she would manage. The saggy suit was a good start.
Right now, they had to get out of here so she could tell him what she had learned from her phone calls about Linda King and the pageant. But she wouldn't tell him what she'd discovered about him. Not yet. She needed more time to get used to that.
In the week and a half before the pageant, Clark and Lois spent their time getting ready for the event. Perry had channeled them away from investigative reporting to concentrate on the priority of making sure Clark would win the title of Super Metro Man.
The two were together for long hours selecting a wardrobe at the Planet's expense and searching for Clark's apparently well-hidden talent. But Lois insisted they remain strictly professional. She wasn't ready to add the complication of their personal relationship to the situation. Not yet.
"It's too bad it's the middle of summer, Clark. You'd look really good in a tweed jacket and dark slacks for the interview, but it's too hot. We've got to find something cool and tasteful that flatters your, ah, frame and will leave a good impression on the judges." She was sorting through a rack of jackets at Cool Guys, the favorite haberdashery for young Metropolis men.
"I thought the interview was about how intelligent and thoughtful the candidates are and how well they can express themselves, not how they look. That's what the brochure says."
She managed to suppress a snicker. "That's what the brochures always say, Clark. Trust me. The bottom line is how much the judges like the way you look."
"Oh, really. And you would know that from the experience of competing in several pageants?"
"Of course not!" she replied indignantly. "But I covered a few in my cub reporter days. And yesterday, I interviewed the representative from Showtime Magic, the outfit that's putting on this extravaganza. You're gonna love him. But that's beside the point. We've got to come up with something for you that's tasteful but sexy."
"You think I'm sexy in tweed?" he asked while mentally reviewing his wardrobe.
"We're not talking about my opinion of what you wear. We're not talking about you, Clark. We're talking about you, contestant. Stay with the program."
"Well, how about you, Lois and me, Clark, talk about us and your opinion of me personally over dinner tonight. Maybe we could—"
She interrupted. "We don't have time for that now, Clark. Our news assignments for the next year are on the line here, and it's not a part of my career plan to get on a first name basis with poodles and basset hounds. Let's just concentrate on getting you a sharp ensemble."
He sighed. "We could always consult Mr. Blackwell."
"No way. I'm sure we'll find something here at Cool Guys. In fact, what do you think of this?" she asked pulling out a lightweight camel blazer.
He turned instead to a navy blue one with gold buttons, and they teamed it with cream-colored slacks in a silk-linen blend. He insisted that he had a nice shirt that matched the pants and that he really didn't need any more ties.
Next, they went to a tux shop and selected a traditional white tie and black tails for the opening night finale, and, then, finally, had to face up to the problem of his talent. He played no musical instrument. She rejected singing after he demonstrated his difficulty in carrying a tune by himself. He did have a talent for drawing but she couldn't quite figure out how to use that.
They were standing in front of a sports shop in the mall, when a couple of kids Clark knew from his neighborhood stopped to say hello. Clark asked how the playground basketball league was going, and one of the boys, answered, "It's okay, Clark, but we miss having you coach us. And some of the new guys don't believe what you can do with a basketball. Mickey Jordan, here," he went on, pointing his thumb at his tall companion, "says nobody can do that."
"Oh, yeah?" Clark replied, going to a nearby display of basketballs just inside the shop entryway. Picking up one, he said, "Watch." He began to manipulate the ball in a fast drill, dribbling between his legs, bouncing it from one hand to the other behind his back, spinning it on one finger and rolling it down the opposite arm to be picked up by that index finger and spun in the opposite direction. He dropped it, bounced it off his heel over his head and caught it behind his back, bouncing it back between his legs, catching it with his heel again and directing it into his hand. It was a fast and complex routine that he did while half whistling a kind of monotone 'Sweet Georgia Brown' in double time. When he had finished, he looked over at the boys and asked, "What do you think now, Mickey?"
Watching his skillful movements, Lois realized that they had found his talent. All they had to do was pick out an outfit for him to wear. She envisioned black tight fitting bicycle shorts and tank top with black and red basketball shoes. The whistling left something to be desired, and he might go dry-mouthed at the moment of truth. She'd get a looped tape of the tune, so they could just play it as long as needed.
Saying goodbye to the boys, they went into the sports shop to purchase the talent costume. When Clark tried on the bicycle shorts, he refused to wear them in the pageant, and Lois settled for looser fitting gym trunks. Just seeing him in the bicycle shorts had been enough to remind her that the audience would probably be almost all women. She wasn't interested in displaying any more of her partner to the female population of Metropolis than was absolutely required. There were some things about Clark Kent she wanted to keep for herself. Then there was the problem of the bimbo, tramp, slut's continuing attentions. Further encouragement, she didn't need.
They left the mall, dropping their purchases at Clark's apartment on their way back to the Planet. While they weren't covering new in-depth investigations, they were still reporting on breaking news and putting in time writing fillers and giving a local angle to the wire stories that occupied a lot of any newspaper's white space.
Days hurried by, and as the Superman Super Hero Pageant opening night approached, they worked out a basketball act with eye-popping manipulations that ended with a backward slam-dunk into the net of a portable basketball goal that would be set up on the stage. They timed every move so that it worked perfectly with the music, and Clark was supposed to practice it for an hour each day. Lois insisted that he spend another hour every day working out at a gym and a third hour running and skipping rope in preparation for the dance movements the contestants were required to be a part of. She frequently supervised him, so he actually followed through when she was around, even though Superman didn't really need to.
He especially enjoyed the gym work when she would put on her exercise clothes and work out with him. They would ride side-by-side on the training bikes, with her talking, at the same speed as the bikes, about their most recent stories or the latest city hall scandal. After he had finished with the weights, he would spot her as she lifted them. Looking down at the movement of her pecs made him forget what he was supposed to be doing, so that, once or twice, he had to do a super move to keep a bar from falling on her.
It was becoming more and more difficult for him to repress the sexual desire being so close to Lois generated. The one night they had released their emotions had opened the floodgates of his feelings for her. He wanted to hold her, kiss her, caress her lithe body, explore the miracle of being in love. Was she having those feelings, too? Then why did she keep him at arm's length? Why wouldn't she let him kiss her? He had tasted ambrosia and he wanted more. These thoughts colored every minute with her, but so far, he didn't think they had affected their camaraderie as partners.
She wanted to help him with his interview, but he insisted he could manage that all by himself, unless she wanted to come over to his apartment and discuss it in depth. But having reveled in the tandem movements of their bodies so close, almost touching, she thought <Not yet, not yet> and remembered pressing matters elsewhere.
Things were going smoothly between them and they were enjoying themselves, although neither would admit it. Under ordinary circumstances, this might have been a kind of romantic dating ritual in their flowering relationship. They were almost able to forget the approaching crisis, but there was always an underlying tension from the looming disaster. Even though they were always aware of what might happen, neither spoke about it. They just wanted to be happy together. But romance had to wait.
The fly in the ointment, or as Lois thought of her, the snake in the grass, was Linda King, who kept trying to insinuate herself into their daily routine, slithering up to Clark at the gym, asking if his friend, Superman, was helping him prepare for the pageant. She showed up at the Planet during the final days to influence Clark, purportedly on behalf of Showtime Magic, to ask Superman to attend the final night of the pageant and crown Super Metro Man.
"I don't think he would want to do that, Linda", Clark told her. "I'm not sure he approves of this whole thing. And Metropolis criminals keep him pretty busy, you know."
Actually, the summer had been unusually quiet, and the police had handled almost everything without his help, but he had become very wary of Linda, and he wasn't going to tell her that. He hadn't trusted her since the day he and Lois had picked up his Superman costume, and Lois had told him everything she had found out from a few telephone calls to IN Weekly, the Metropolis Summer Festival office, and Showtime Magic Enterprises.
"Clark, we have to be careful around Linda King. She's up to no good, and we can't trust her."
They were driving back to the Planet from Norman Blackwell's shop, and her annoyance with Linda made her usual weaving in and out between cars a little faster and more heart stopping as she cut closer corners and challenged stoplights. He was buckled in but as they careened through the streets, he frequently reached to steady himself with the safety handle above the door.
"Ugh!" He was thrown against the door as she made a sudden movement into another lane. "Lois, what makes you think Linda isn't here for the reason she says she is? She hasn't given us any reason to mistrust her."
"You mean in the last five minutes? So far, since she's been here, she's manipulated Perry into putting you in a spot, taken her usual pot shots at me, and practically seduced you in front of the entire office staff. Is that enough or should I go back into our mutual history?" She abruptly turned into an alley to avoid a line of cars stopped at a red light.
"Hunhh." He grabbed the bar over the door to keep from toppling into her. He took a deep breath and replied. "Okay, so you don't like her, but where's your proof that she's up to something underhanded?"
She jammed on the brakes to prevent running up the back of a garbage truck just exiting the alley. Clark rocked forward; then he lurched against the door as she made a quick swerve to the side, to get around the vehicle.
"I checked out her story, Clark. According to an old source at IN Magazine, they would have been satisfied to cover the Wonder Woman Super Hero Pageant right there in California, but Linda insisted it had to be the Superman pageant. And she persuaded the editor/publisher to hold space for the story and make arrangements for a rush prep for print so it could make the issue right after the pageant. He's a man, of course. Just her meat. According to the Summer Festival office they weren't that interested in adding the pageant to their activities this year, especially at the last minute, because they already had a pretty full schedule, but she called them and insisted that the magazine story would showcase the city and be great PR for the festival for next year. And Showtime Magic thought she was a pain in the neck, but she hooked up with Hughie Short, who, coincidentally, is now the pageant director, and convinced him that putting on a spectacle in Metropolis would be great for him, personally and publicity wise. So do you still think she's here on an innocent assignment, or do you agree she's after something, and what do you think it is?"
She had maneuvered the Jeep in perfect coordination with the beat of her explanation and arrived at the parking garage, pulling into her designated spot. She turned off the key just as she looked directly at Clark to ask the final question.
He'd had no answer, but they had continued to speculate and take notice of Linda's activities in the ensuing days, as she kept bothering him about Superman. Now here she was again.
"But Clark," she pouted. "It would make my story so much better. Couldn't you help me out here and persuade him to participate?" She was hanging on to him, looking into his face and batting her eyelashes. He had never found Linda's flirting particularly enticing, and he knew Lois was watching.
"Linda, I, ah…"
"What he's trying to say Linda," said a charming Lois voice, "actually, what he's already said, is no, he won't ask Superman. Which part of that do you not understand?"
"Lois," Linda said in fake surprise. "I didn't see you. Slow news week for you? I haven't seen your byline for quite a while."
"Well, be sure to read the Planet tomorrow, because my series on the Superman Super Hero Pageant is starting with an interview with Hughie Short, the pageant director. Oh, but, of course, you knew he was in charge. In fact, I believe you know him quite well, don't you, dear? Isn't the usual phrase, 'great and good friends'? How convenient for you." Taking Linda's arm she steered her away from Clark. "It's been fun chatting like this. Clark can't help you out, but I will. Let me see you to the elevator," and she hustled Linda up the bullpen ramp and on her way.
When she came back down the ramp, Clark said, "Whew! I don't want to get caught in the middle of that fencing match. A guy could get cut to ribbons."
"Don't worry, Clark. I intend to keep that barracuda away from you as much as possible. I don't like the way she's always trying to devour you."
"And is that important to you, Lois?" Clark asked innocently. His eyes reached for hers and connected. As he stared into the black depths of her gaze, his face became serious and compelling. Drawn by the power of his intensity, she felt herself dropping into magical pools of unfathomable promise. <No! Too much, too much. Not yet.> She shifted her eyes away and broke the spell.
"I'll tell you later," she said snippily.
Back sitting at her desk, doing one last check of tomorrow's copy, she suddenly turned to Clark, saying, "Is it just me, or is she obsessively interested in getting Superman personally involved in this show?"
Clark stood and came over to sit on the corner of her desk. "No, I don't think it's just you. She's got an agenda that revolves around Superman, and we need to find out what it is." After thinking for a moment, he said, "Let's review what we know. She breaks a big story and leaves here to write a screenplay about it in Hollywood. Then she goes to work for IN Weekly."
Lois jumped in. "Months pass and suddenly she comes back to Metropolis with this Superman obsession…I don't get it."
"Something must have happened that we don't know about. Didn't your source mention anything…?"
Lois sat thinking for a moment. Suddenly alert, she exclaimed, "Clark, Diana Stride's big story! Do you think Linda saw that broadcast and believes that Superman does have another identity?" She had to be careful how she put this. She didn't want him to know she knew who was who and what was what. "Someone besides you, of course, since you and Superman proved that. But someone else and she thinks she can find out who it is? You don't suppose she thinks she can coax Superman out, hypnotize him with her cheap allure, and finish what Diana started? Could that be what's behind all this?"
Clark didn't like what he heard, but when they looked at each other, something clicked between them. They nodded simultaneously. "It makes sense," he said.
"That's gotta be it, Clark. If Superman does have a secret identity, she'd have the story of the century, a sure Pulitzer. She doesn't care that it would damage Superman's life irreparably, not to mention the lives of people who are close to him. She wouldn't think twice about the ruin she'd leave in her wake."
"I think you're right, Lois. That has to be why she's here, why she keeps bothering me about Superman." He paused and caught Lois's eye. "Would you care, Lois, if Superman was exposed? He'd probably have to leave Metropolis and only come back to help out in emergencies."
She felt a chill. That was a circumstance she hadn't considered. If Superman were exposed, Clark would be, too. And if Superman had to leave, so would Clark. "Of course, I care, Clark. Metropolis needs Superman." <And I need Clark!> "Not just for the crime fighting he does, but for the inspiration and example he gives to all of us." <Not to mention the inspiration and support Clark gives to me.>
"Yes, Superman is important…to… Metropolis." Clark looked at Lois thoughtfully for a moment, then continued, "Fortunately, he's impervious to the kind of thing Linda seems to specialize in, but I'll have to be, uh, I'll have to warn him so he can take extra precautions with her."
He thought Lois looked at him strangely when she replied, "Yes, you'd better do that."
Lois's not knowing the truth about him was making him more and more uncomfortable. It just wasn't right. She deserved the truth, but it wasn't the right time or place to tell her.
There hadn't been a right time or place since that morning in her apartment. He wanted to speed up this whole thing and get the pageant over with so he could find an opportunity to be alone again with the woman he loved. She deserved so much more than she was getting from him, and that had to change. Tomorrow, Friday, everything would begin to wind down, and after Saturday night, they could get back to what was important.
As pageant day approached, Clark's anxieties — about not telling Lois the truth, about having his true identity revealed, about exposing parts of his anatomy he'd just as soon keep under wraps — pressed more and more on him. He wished for any kind of criminal outbreak to take his mind off what was coming.
Martha and Jonathan had immediately made plans to fly to Metropolis when Clark told them about the predicament he was in, and they arrived on Thursday morning to help in any way they could, especially to lend their support during the agony of the pageant.
"Clark, what on earth were you thinking? How could you let yourself get roped into this? Don't you realize how dangerous this is?" Martha scolded.
Jonathan echoed Martha's fretful voice. "Son, you can't play with your life this way! You'll wind up in a government laboratory being—"
"I know Dad, 'being dissected like a frog.' Don't you think I've thought about all that?"
"Then why are you still here?" asked Jonathan.
"Because there's been a change in my life that I haven't told you about, yet, and leaving isn't that easy now."
Martha looked carefully at her son's face and said, "Clark, have you and Lois…?"
Clark smiled faintly at her. "Is that a mother thing, or is it just a special knack you have of knowing what I'm about to tell you? You're right. Lois and I have become…are trying to become more than just partners to each other. The night before Perry sprang this on me, we…well, let's just say that we both agreed that we care for each other and we're ready to take the next step."
"Does she know about Superman?" Martha asked.
"I tried to tell her the next morning, but Perry called, and before I knew it, I was stuck in this silly pageant thing, and I haven't had a chance to…we really haven't had any quiet personal time since then. I can't just casually say, 'Oh, by the way, Lois, I'm Superman.' I don't think she'd take that very well." A smiling Martha nodded in agreement. "And, well, there just hasn't been a good time to tell her properly."
"So what's been going on that you haven't found the time?" Jonathan said.
"When we're not working at the Planet, we've been getting ready for the pageant. Lois helped me with my talent act, and we've been working out together at the gym…and she helped me with my wardrobe. I have to dress like Superman, you know."
"Clark!" His parents spoke simultaneously.
"When I first tried a costume on, it fit just like the one you made, Mom, and I could tell Lois liked it from the way she looked. But then she did a funny thing. She said it was too small, and that I needed a larger one. You should see what we ended up with. She helped without realizing it. Here I'll show you."
With that he spun into the droopy suit, and stood before Martha and Jonathan.
Martha looked at him and collapsed in a gale of laughter. Jonathan's face bore a broad smile.
"See what I mean? I don't think anyone will see me as the real Superman when I'm wearing this."
Martha recovered to say, "And Lois did this, even though she doesn't know you're …who you are?"
"That's right, Mom."
"You don't think she figured it out when she saw you in the suit that fit?" Jonathan asked.
"Well, at first, I thought she might have, but she hasn't said anything, and I don't think Lois would keep quiet about something like that. She'd be too mad."
Martha looked thoughtful for a moment and then smiled a Cheshire grin. "What time do you have to be at the rehearsal tomorrow?"
"Ten o'clock. Why?"
"Let's invite Lois over for blueberry pancakes beforehand. You'll need to fortify yourself for the day's trauma. I assume she's picking you up?"
"Yes. I'll give her a call."
That night, when Superman went for a spin around Metropolis, everything was quiet. Apparently even the criminals were stuck in a lull, waiting for the blockbuster event to take place.
Returning to his apartment, Clark was careful not to wake his parents in the bedroom, as he dropped on the couch to get some sleep. But he couldn't shake his worries. He'd been having recurring dreams for almost two weeks. Some were about his pageant fears, but the one that repeated itself most was of Lois as a contestant vying for the title of Miss Galaxy. He saw her strutting in a barely-there string bikini that lifted him a foot off the cushions he was lying on. Next she was demonstrating gymnastics in a sleeveless leotard that covered only her torso and dramatically emphasized her physical assets. And then she was undulating down the runway in that white gown he'd seen at Mr. Blackwell's shop; only this version had a slit up the side exposing one long leg to the top of her thigh. He would wake in a sudden panic when, in her interview, she suddenly became Linda King shouting that her greatest wish was to win a Pulitzer for revealing to the world that Clark Kent and Superman were one and the same.
If this would just all be over, he was going to get Lois alone, tell her everything and hope they could get close to that intimacy threshold again. He was feeling less and less reluctant about crossing it, as he spent every day with her, getting to know her in ways other than as his reporting partner.
Lois, too, was restless the night before the pageant opening. For days she had been debating with herself about her feelings toward Clark/Superman. She was mad at him for not telling her who he really was. He was a worm…worse than a worm…he was slime…not just any slime. Slug slime. Slug slime from a slug that crawled out of the Metropolis Waste treatment overflow swamp all the way uptown to the Daily Planet. A long ugly trail of sewer slug slime needing the biggest, heaviest, roughest street sweeper Metropolis owned to scour it away. A giant Brillo pad.
But then she thought about how frightened he'd looked when he thought everyone would find out he was Superman. How much he needed her to help him preserve his secret through this crisis, even though he didn't know she knew who he was. How he'd kept trying to get her to talk about their relationship. The way he looked at her when he didn't think she was noticing. And how really good he looked in the white tie and black tails, and the black exercise shorts, and especially the suit. Well, not the suit they'd ended up getting. It bagged just enough to be almost laughable, but it would protect him from being recognized, because if anybody saw him the way she had in that first snug-fitting costume, it would all be over. Clark Kent would have to disappear, and she didn't want that, not until they'd had a chance to…not until she told him…not until they'd figured out their relationship and where it was going.
She just wanted this whole thing to be over so she could get Clark alone somewhere, and they could talk. Just a little more time to get used to the Superman thing was all she needed, and then maybe they could get close to that intimacy threshold again.
The more she was with him, knowing that he was Superman, the more confused she became. She wanted to explore various approaches to the threshold with him, and yes, she believed she was feeling less reluctant about crossing it. But was she having those feelings about Clark, or because she knew Clark was Superman? She had fallen in love with Clark and given up her fantasy of Superman. Now she had to reconcile her feelings for two men who were the same…weren't they? Was she supposed to be in love with both of them? She wished she had someone she could talk to about it. She needed time…
When Clark had called to say that Martha and Jonathan had arrived and wanted her to come over early the next morning for blueberry pancakes, she was surprised to find that she felt relieved. It was only then that she realized what tension she had felt in walking the fine line between doing what Perry had ordered her to do and doing what she wanted to do — protect Clark. Now his parents would be there to share some of that responsibility.
Friday morning came without an earthquake destroying Metropolis and canceling the pageant. Lois crawled from her tumbled bed and prepared to look her best for Clark's parents and the pageant bystanders, especially Linda King.
Arriving at Clark's, she found Martha busy with breakfast, as Jonathan talked with Clark about the day's activities. After saying hello to the two men, Lois went into the kitchen to see if she could help.
"Martha, hi. I'm glad you've come. Clark's pretty nervous about all this."
"Lois, it's nice to see you too. Yes, Clark's told us all about what he's been doing for the last two weeks, and how you've been helping him. He said Perry wants to be sure he'll win."
"Oh, well, you know Perry. He thinks if Clark wins, it'll sell a lot of newspapers." Lois didn't want to get into too much detail about the ways she'd been helping Clark. "What can I do to help *you*?" She looked around. "How about if I set the table."
Martha was watching her carefully, taking in her nervous manner, and attempts to divert the topic of conversation. "Thank you, dear. That would be nice. Clark said you've been working out together at the gym and that you helped him with finding a talent."
Lois took the plates down from the cupboard and set them on the table, avoiding Martha's eyes. "Yes, well, he has to be in good shape for the contests. Is there juice in the fridge?" Still not looking at Martha, she opened the refrigerator and found a jug of orange juice.
"I'm sure figuring out his talent was difficult. And choosing a wardrobe couldn't have been easy."
Lois finished putting silverware on the table and began searching for napkins. "Oh, it was pretty standard stuff."
Martha was turning bacon and sausage in a skillet as she said casually, "Clark showed us the Superman costume you picked out."
"Aha! Found 'em!" Lois said, taking the napkins from a drawer, folding them and placing them on the table.
Martha turned and called out, "Clark, I don't think you have any Maple syrup. Would you and Jonathan go to the market on the corner and get some?"
"Sure, Mom," answered Clark. "It'll just take a second."
"See if they have the kind we like — MacDonald's dark amber. It's Canadian."
"We'll look for it, Martha," Jonathan chimed in.
Lois finished filling the juice glasses and put the orange juice back in the refrigerator. As she was about to close the door, she spotted an almost full bottle of Maple syrup in the back. "Martha, I found some. Clark -" she said loudly.
Martha interrupted whispering, "No Lois, let them go. We need to talk."
"Lois, did you need something?" Clark queried.
Staring at Martha, Lois answered, "Nnnno-o-o, just…you can use my car if you want."
"That's okay, it's not far. Dad wants to stretch his legs, anyway. We'll be right back."
The door to the apartment closed behind the two men, leaving Lois and Martha staring at each other.
"That Superman suit is much too big, Lois. In fact, it's laughable. Did you really think you were helping Clark win by putting him in that?"
"Why, Martha, I don't know what you mean?" Lois answered evasively. "He looks perfect in that suit."
"Lois, he modeled it for us. It's perfect if you don't want him to look very much like Superman. Is that why you chose it?"
"Why wouldn't I want him to look like Superman? Why wouldn't I want him to win? Perry will have me on the library board beat if he doesn't."
Martha watched Lois who was unnecessarily rearranging plates and table implements, avoiding her gaze. Carefully weighing her next words, she finally said, "You figured it out, didn't you?"
"You know what I mean. When you saw him in the suit that fit, you figured it out."
"Martha, I really don't have any idea what you're talking about."
"Lois, look at me! I know you know. I know you're trying to help him so that people won't recognize who he is, and I love you for that. Putting him in that saggy suit was pure genius. But why didn't you tell him?"
Lois gave up her pretense. "Don't you think he should tell me? He tried once but we were interrupted. I think he wants to tell me himself, and to tell you the truth, with all of this going on, I don't think either of us is ready to confront that now. I haven't figured out how I feel about it. I need some time to get used to it, and Clark is upset by this Superman carnival. "
"But Clark said that you two had…"
"Yes, well, sort of. It's all so complicated."
Martha was distracted for a moment with removing bacon and sausage from the skillet; then taking Lois's arm she moved her to the couch. "He loves you, you know. I don't know how long he's known it, but Jonathan and I knew the first time he told us about you. He'd never talked about any girl that way before. But if you aren't sure about how you feel about him…"
"I was very sure about my feelings for Clark…but he lied to me…and getting used to the idea that whenever I thought I was talking to Superman, I was really talking to Clark…and this whole pageant thing…it's just too much all at once."
"So your feelings for Clark have changed because he's Superman?" Martha shook her head in concern. "I'd hoped that wouldn't happen. That's what he's always been afraid of, you know — that if people knew who he really was they would think of him as an alien and treat him differently. That he would always be an outsider and alone."
"Oh, no Martha, no," protested Lois with tears in her eyes. "I could never think of him that way. I love him. That's why I'm helping him. I just need some time."
"Then tell him that you love him. And make him tell you. You can get through this silly pageant and anything else as long as you hold on to each other. Loving one another is the important thing. You can work out the little details later."
Smiling wanly through her tears, Lois nodded. "Thank you, Martha," she whispered.
Martha and Lois were hugging each other as the door opened and Jonathan and Clark came in with the Maple syrup.
Clark strode into the Kennedy Center Auditorium curious to see if anyone he knew was also a participant, but before he had a really good look, one of the pageant assistants snatched him away to fit his costume for the muscle display event. Hughie Short had decided, in the interest of fairness, that the contestants' apparel would be identical so that clothing would not distract from what should be the focus of the display.
In a corner backstage, someone handed Clark a black knit garment about the size of two dinner napkins. He shook it out to full size and stood speechless with dismay. Behind him, he heard a voice that he recognized.
"Clock. Vat to you tink of dis idea off vearing feightliftehs uni fohms? I tink dey vit fery nizely, myself."
Clark turned to see Harold Schnerzenberger, Metropolis's perennial contender for Mr. Universe, whose body building dedication was renowned around the world. A sometime actor in carefully chosen action roles, he had recently been appointed by the President to head the National Council for Fitness.
Schnerzenberger was wearing the two-napkin suit and posturing in different muscle poses before a full-length mirror. Clark stood aghast at the idea of having to display himself the way Mr. Muscle was.
Over Harold's shoulder Clark could see Lois, who had followed him backstage. From her vantage, she had a view of both the front and back of the body builder. Clark didn't like the look on her face or the interest of her gaze. "Lois, could I speak with you for a moment?"
"Vat's de mattuh, Clock? Afrait ov de combedition?" Schnerzenberger sneered, displaying an assurance of superiority.
"What competition?" Clark shot back with a lot more confidence than he felt.
"Sure, Clark. What do you want to talk to me about?" The emotions he was feeling were plain on his face, and Lois recognized his distress. She touched his arm, saying, "Come on. Let's get some air."
As they walked away a chortled, "Girly baby," drifted after them. Lois grabbed Clark's arm, as he started to turn around, and urged him along to the exit door. They stepped out onto a sunny tarmac teeming with deliverymen and stagehands.
Glancing around, she directed Clark to an out-of-the-way corner of the building. Placing her hand on his chest, she asked, "What is it, Clark?"
"Lois, you've got to get me out of this. I can't wear this thing,'" he gestured with the costume in his hand, "in front of thousands of people gawking at my…at me. Do you know what I'd look like?"
<Mmmm, I'd buy a ticket to see that.> was the thought that leaped into her brain, but she didn't like the idea of everyone else ogling him like that anymore than he did. However, if Perry wanted him to compete, he had to wear that thing.
Clark went on. "I'd feel dirty and violated. You understand that don't you?"
"Well, Harold didn't seem to mind wearing it. I didn't think it looked so awful on him."
"I noticed what you thought about the way he looked, and that's exactly what I'm talking about. Dirty and violated."
She reddened slightly as she ducked her head, looking away and smoothing her hair. "So I appreciate the way a man is built." She defiantly returned her gaze to his. "Most women do. That's why they'll fill this auditorium tonight."
"Will they all salivate the way you were? I don't want to be the object of that kind of…of…" He searched for a word. "Lasciviousness!"
"Lasciviousness? You've been reading a thesaurus again, haven't you? Do you mean you object to being stared at the way you and Jimmy were staring at the women in the Miss Universe contest on TV the other night? Do you mean you don't want the kind of remarks made about you that the two of you were making? I guess you have a double standard just like all the other guys." Chin jutting out, she pushed her finger aggressively against him.
"This is different, Lois."
"It always is."
"Look, the other night was…it didn't mean anything. It was something that just kind of got started and ran away with us. We were just…like…trying to top each other, the way guys do. It was a game. The contestants weren't real people."
"Oh, I see. They were just objects for you to ridicule."
He realized he had said the wrong thing. He tried to backtrack. "No, no. You know I don't think of women that way. We were looking at figures on a screen; they weren't real, not like somebody we actually know."
"So if it had been your sister, or me, you wouldn't have said those things. But because they were strangers that made it okay?" She was gathering steam.
"I don't have a sister, and you would never participate in a beauty pageant, so there's no way to answer that. Look, we're getting sidetracked here. Just help me get out of this. We can fight later."
She exhaled and stepped back. "I don't want to fight with you, Clark." She knew she was getting carried away. They needed to focus on the present. Later, would bring what it would bring. She took a deep, calming breath and continued, "But I don't see how you can get out of this, unless you want to resign from the Planet. If you walk away from competing, Perry will never understand, and our names will be at the top of the list for every rotten assignment on the board. I don't know how long it would take us to get out of his doghouse. You're just going to have to suck it up and do this. Let's just get it over with."
"Our, we, us? You're not going to be up on that stage."
"No, not in actuality, but I'll be with you in spirit, all the way." She patted his arm in a comforting manner.
"Don't patronize me, Lois. You may be with me in spirit, but it's my body they'll be eyeballing, and me they'll be laughing at in that saggy suit."
"Clark, if I could be up there with you, I would. Whatever one of us does, the other backs them up, okay? We're still partners, you know."
"Is that all we are, Lois? Just partners?"
"We need to talk about that." She paused, thinking. "Go inside and try on that costume. If you don't like the way it fits, see if you can get one that's just a little roomy. If that can work once, it might work twice. After your rehearsals are over, we can grab some takeout and go to my place. We need to get some things out in the open — things you need to tell me, things I need to tell you. Then maybe we can relax a little before tonight."
He was trying to sort out what she meant about how getting a roomier size worked once, when, for the first time since the whole nightmare began, she put her arms around him and gave him a light kiss. Promptly forgetting her remark, he tried to embrace her and extend the kiss, but she stepped away from the circle of his arms and hurried to the auditorium door. He had no choice but to follow.
Inside they made their way back to the assistant assigning costumes, and Clark requested a larger size to try on. Harold Schnerzenberger had disappeared, but Lois noticed other contestants were gathering for the rehearsal. She groaned inwardly, as she recognized someone she knew.
"Yo, Lo! Long time, no see. Where ya been hanging?"
Fiorello Fallone was a figure from Lois's past that she'd hoped she'd never see again. He had been a fighter out of Menken's gym, one of Allie Dinello's attempts to turn a sow's ear into a silk fight-purse, but he'd never made it in the ring. He had attempted a lot of other venues for celebrity, the most successful being in action movies that needed a lot of muscle, little talk and no brainpower. He continued. "Hey, yera realbabe now.Whooda thoughta shrimplikeyou could getso goodlookin'." His voice was low and he spoke in a swift monotone, slurring his words and making it difficult for the un-initiated to understand him. No one would ever accuse him of having taken elocution lessons.
"Oh, thank you, Fly. How sweet of you to say so." Lois knew Fallone wouldn't recognize the sarcasm. "Are you here as one of the contestants?"
"Contestants? There'snocontest. S'alreadydecided. Yerlookn'at SUPERMETROMAN. RIGHT. HERE. ME!"
His shouts attracted the attention of people all over the room, including Clark who eyed the pair with curiosity.
"What gives you the edge, Fallone?" It was really hard to suppress her dislike for the man, but she was doing her best to treat it as an interview. "There are some pretty sharp guys here, including Harold Schnerzenberger."
"Schnerzenberger, Chickenburger. Hec'nbe onabun witcheese. He's still. dead. meat. Da resta deseguys er patherticlosers. Hey. Listendoll. AfterIwin, come aroun'. I'llshowya agoodtime."
She flinched, but answered in a cajoling manner. "Oh, well, thank you Fly, but you won't have time for little me when you're Super Metro Man."
"Yerright. There'llbe plentya dames hangin'roun'. Prollybuilt better'nyou too. Don'tsweatit,babe. Maybe one ada losers'll takeya. Seeya later."
As Fallone shuffled away, Clark came over to Lois. "Are there any muscle-bound neanderthals in Metropolis you don't know? When did you and Fly Fallone get to be such good friends?"
She rolled her eyes. "Never! I can't stand the jerk."
"Well he seemed to think you're pretty close. Where did you meet him?"
"Remember Menken's gym and Allie Dinello. When I was a kid, I hung around helping Allie. Fallone was the leader of a litter of very macho pigs that wallowed there. I was so skinny they didn't even think about me as a girl. I was just some gofer for them to boss around."
Clark was looking at Lois trying to imagine anyone not knowing that she was a girl. Lois spotted him from the corner of her eye. "Stop that, Clark."
"Hey, you're getting your share of viewing here! Anyway, I don't believe anyone could ever forget you're a girl."
She smiled smugly. "Just so long as you don't." They made eye contact. He felt himself pulled toward her, and he extended his hand to make the contact physical. She backed away, and from far off, she heard her shaken voice saying, "A-as I was saying, they thought I was just another gofer and paid no attention to me." Her breath became even again. "They just went right ahead with their profanity and obscene stories as though I wasn't there. Is that some kind of male bonding thing? Guys have to see who can swear the worst or tell the story that demeans women the most? I can tell you I didn't miss him or his friends a bit when I got outta there."
"Sounds like a terrible experience for a kid. But you seem to have hung on to an appreciation for porcine contours."
"It was awful, Clark, but if you think you're going to embarrass me into ignoring pulchritude when I see it, you can just run off and snuffle in the mud with the rest of the swine."
"Now who's been reading a thesaurus," he accused. As she was about to reply, the stage manager called the contestants for rehearsal. Clark went to the stage; Lois sat in the auditorium. She watched for a while as the men were lined up and shown how to enter and where to walk. It was quite boring, and while she would have liked to wait around to hear the singing practice, she decided to go in search of something more interesting for the next installment of her series on the selection of Super Metro Man.
In the executive suite on the top floor of the building, Hughie Short was sitting behind the desk talking with an angry woman, wearing worn jeans and a dragon T-shirt, who was confronting him. "Take it easy, Sheri. I'm giving you a great opportunity."
"You listen to me, Hughie. You got me here because I thought we were going to shoot another Electronic Hut commercial. Now you tell me you want me to be a judge in a Superman contest? I don't do Superman any more, Hughie. I thought you understood that."
Short adjusted his glasses and shifted his wiry frame in the chair. Sheri Thrasher might appear to be petite and fragile, but when she wanted to, she could stand a lot taller than her five foot six and even intimidate an ex- football player as big as he was.
"Sheri, it's great publicity, and lord knows you can use some right now. The networks didn't exactly jump all over your sitcom pitch, and all those off-the-map movies you make are still looking for a distributor. You can pick up a nice piece of change for a couple of nights of waving at the crowd and smiling at a camera that's sending that gorgeous face out to a billion people. Then we'll do our commercial. What more could you want?"
"To stay the hell away from anything involving the name Superman. Do you have any idea how hard it is to get people to think of me as an actress instead of a babe in distress?"
"Hey, it's built in popularity, so milk it instead of ignoring it. It could be a great gig for you, and who knows what might come out of it. C'mon, you'll love it."
She thought for a moment, then asked shrewdly, "How many judges are there?"
"Just two. You and a guy, so you'll really be the center of attention. A billion people. All over the world."
She regarded him suspiciously. "Who's the guy? You're not trying to team me up with Keane Blaine again, are you? We've had an agreement. No more appearances together, especially one associated with Superman!"
"Would I do that to you? It's some fancy pants doctor who likes to cook. He's older than I am. Now I ask you, who're they gonna look at, you or some old guy in an apron. Think of it. Paparazzi chasing you again. Another guest appearance on Leno. Maybe you'll get another magazine cover. Maybe even IN Weekly." He watched her slyly. She was wavering. "That'd be great, wouldn't it? And I know for a fact that several movie producers, A-list movie producers, are gonna be here." That sold it.
"Okay Hughie, but if Keane shows up, you're dead!"
"I thought you two had a thing for each other."
"'Had', Hughie, 'had'. I haven't seen him since the series was canned. We have different lives now. I made that mistake a long time ago."
"So how are you and darling Don getting along?"
She spoke as though repeating a catechism. "For the record, I have a beautiful daughter, I love my husband very much, and we're a very happy family. Now where am I staying?"
He gave her a keycard for a suite at the Metropolis Lexor and called the limousine service. "The limo is already downstairs waiting. See you back here tonight. Look glamorous."
She gave him a scathing look and went out the door, pushing on her sunglasses so she wouldn't be recognized.
As soon as she left, Linda King came from an adjacent room and stood looking through a glass window that offered a vista of the activities taking place on the stage below. "That's quite a collection of Metropolis muscle down there."
Hughie Short got up to stand beside her. "Yes, we have Harold and Fly and you managed to get Clark Kent here. But you don't have Superman, yet. How can we expose his true identity, if he isn't here?"
"Oh, he's here. I told you. Clark Kent is Superman, and when he's selected as Super Metro Man, we'll expose him."
"Well you'd better have a lot more evidence than you have now. If you don't catch him in the act of changing from one to the other and get it on film, your whole plan is microwave toast."
"Don't worry, Hughie dear, I'll get it, and Lois Lane won't stop me. She thinks she's a better reporter than I am, but she doesn't even know what's going on right under her nose."
At that moment it so happened, Lois Lane's nose was poking through a crack in the door that Sheri Thrasher had left slightly ajar, and Lois's ears picked up every word that was being said. She struggled to suppress an indignant snort at Linda's final remark, then hurried away as Linda began kissing Hughie to distract him from their conversation. "Don't fret about it, Hughie. Everything will be all right. I guarantee it. And I always deliver." Linda's hands, as well as her mouth, were busy, and Hughie forgot about anything else except what Linda was doing to him.
Lois didn't want to watch a demonstration of the depths to which Linda would sink to get her way, and she could hear music so she hurried downstairs to the auditorium.
The men on the stage might have muscle, but they, apparently, lacked grace and, in some cases, rhythm. The choreographer, who had been trying to teach them some elementary dance moves, finally threw up his hands and worked out a simple march that required no more than putting one foot down in front of the other in time to the pageant theme song.
Next the music director handed out the words to the song and had the orchestra play it through several times until the group could speak the words at the right places with the note changes. Finally they tried an actual sing-along. Lois thought it was pretty awful. Some of the contestants were actually going to sing as their talent, but most of them, like Clark and Harold, badly needed help hitting the notes. On the other hand, Fly, while his words were unintelligible, had a pleasant and tuneful baritone. The music director, having worked the pageant circuit for years, wisely had a male chorus waiting in the wings.
While they were vocalizing, Lois headed out to the car to get her laptop and call in a part of her story to the Planet. She would finish it at the end of the evening and relay it for Saturday's paper. Before she left she caught Clark's eye and mouthed for him to meet her outside when he was finished.
A disgruntled Clark ran down the steps and found the jeep, with Lois in it, waiting for him. "That opening musical number is embarrassingly terrible," he complained. "Most of the guys are about as musical as I am, and that song would still be bad even if we could sing it. Fly loves it. He can sing and move like a natural. Harold's voice is pretty bad, but he has a plodding sense of rhythm. Lois, why is it that some people can carry a tune and others can't? I love music. I sing in the shower all the time, but I can't seem to catch on to that pageant song. I'm going to make a fool of myself in front of the whole world!"
Lois put the car in gear and drove away as she said, "Don't worry about it. You have many other qualities that more than make up for your lack of musical skill. When you want music, I'll sing to you." She patted his hand comfortingly.
"You're patronizing me again. Where's that support you were talking about, Partner."
"I'm not patronizing you. I meant every word. You're very accomplished in other areas, and believe me, I'd rather you have those than a great musical talent."
She slid her eyes sideways. "Later, Clark. Later." Silence settled in until she said, "Let's get some food. What do you want? Pizza, Thai, Chinese?" He made no reply. "Mexican?" she prodded.
"I don't really care," he mumbled listlessly. "I'm not very hungry."
This time she looked directly at him. He looked unhappy and disheartened. His hands kept clutching and stretching the weightlifter's suit he had brought with him.
"Okay," she said. "How about if I make dinner. The Creative Cook at the paper had an interesting recipe last night for fried chicken that looked pretty easy. It uses flour, cream soda and balsamic vinegar to make a batter. We can stop at the market-"
"No!" As she had expected, he interrupted her with desperation in his voice and a frantic look in his eye. "Pizza sounds great." Pause. "You…you're probably tired from today. I don't want you to have to go to any trouble. And we don't have a lot of time before I have to go back."
Hiding her smile, she said, "You're right. We need to talk, and you need to get some rest. Pizza it is."
They ate the pizza while sitting on the couch watching the news. After clearing the dishes, she sat him down again, gave him a glass of wine and waited expectantly for him to speak. He drummed his fingers on the couch, fiddled with his wine glass, picked up a magazine and discarded it, examined a CD lying on the coffee table,
"Clark!" She stopped him from rearranging the couch pillows. "Was there something you were going to tell me last time you were here?"
He stood up and walked away and then walked back. She was looking at him with great, beautiful expectant eyes. How was he going to say this? Once he told her, she'd probably be so mad she would pre-empt the suspense of the pageant and announce to the world, herself, that he was Superman. He wondered just how much deception his partner would overlook.
"Are you going to tell me or not?" She waited. His brain was in turmoil. "Lois, I…I…" What was the best way to say it? He was tongue-tied.
She sighed. "Okay, I'll tell you. You're Superman." Her manner was offhand, but the words hit him like A-bombs.
"Lois? You know?" He waited for an explosion, fallout. She just looked steadily at him.
"When did you figure it out? Why aren't you mad? You're going to torture me now and kill me later, aren't you?"
She smiled. "How could I not have figured it out when you put on that Superman costume at Blackwell's shop? I know I've been blind for a pretty long time, but I'm not stupid. Don't you understand that's why I had him give you the saggy suit? Once you put that on, you didn't look very much like Superman any more."
"You knew and you still wanted to help me? Why?"
"That's why I wanted us to talk. I thought you wanted to tell me that you were Superman-"
"I did." He hung his head.
"And I wanted to tell you that I love you. I'm not happy that you kept that secret from me, but in a way, I'm glad you did because I think it would have been harder for me to fall in love with Clark if I'd known he was Superman."
"Yes. I might not have looked past the suit and noticed you and how important you are to me. I might not have seen that the real you is much more endearing and lovable than a god-like superhero." She paused and then added wistfully, " I might not have discovered how wonderful you are."
"You think I'm wonderful?" He looked at her in pleased surprise.
"Of course I do, you lunkhead. I'm in love with you."
"You sure have a funny way of showing it sometimes."
"What do you expect? If I let you know all my secrets you'd get bored with me and run away…as if you didn't already do enough of that. I have to keep you in line some way."
"Believe me, getting bored isn't even a possibility. But why didn't you tell me that you knew?"
"For the same reason you didn't tell me that you're Superman. Things have just been too crazy, and the circumstances didn't seem right. I probably wouldn't be telling you now, except that Martha helped me see how badly you needed my love to help you through tonight and tomorrow."
They had been gradually moving toward each other, and Clark slipped an arm around her waist. She placed both hands on his chest and looked up at him, uncertainly. Then slowly, little by little, first one hand and then the other made its way up and around his neck until they joined. Her head tilted as his lowered, and their lips hesitantly sought each other. The first kiss was light and unsure. Then he swept her into his arms, releasing all the love and passion he had been holding in check. She responded, clasping him to her, surrendering her defenses and allowing him to know all she felt for him, thinking, <Why do you need to sing when you can kiss like this?>
They stood against each other, losing themselves in the emotional turmoil their longing had unleashed. He felt her warmth and softness, and he wanted to become one with her, to hide from the pageant and all its attendant worry, forget the world's perils, and be safe forever — with her.
Their kiss deepened, and Lois felt herself gradually slipping away. Self-determination and will no longer existed. She was caught in a maelstrom she could neither understand nor control. She had hated Claude for seducing her, pretending to love her and making it impossible for her to say no to him. But now she knew that he hadn't seduced her. She had allowed him to take her; she could have stopped him had she chosen to. He had simply led her into doing what she wanted to do. She understood that now because this was what it was really like to be helpless against the tumultuous storm of a consuming love. This was seduction in its purest form — a force so inevitable that there was no possibility of resistance. She and Clark were being swept into a whirlwind from which there was no escape, and she couldn't imagine a better fate than to be caught in inexorable passion with him.
They were on the conch with no memory of how they came there, bodies touching, tongues introducing themselves, hands exploring.
She felt Clark's lips trailing butterfly kisses down the side of her neck, touching off shivers of pleasure she didn't want to stop. She unbuttoned his shirt, and, pushing her hands across his bare chest, grasped the garment and pulled it off his shoulders, away from his body.
Where they touched, heat scorched through clothing, suffusing skin, bare or covered, through capillaries and nerves, prickling and tingling, turning curiosity into want, want to desire, desire to need.
His hands were gentle, softly moving across her like a barely heard whisper, light, almost indiscernible. <Touch me,> she thought. <Oh, god, please touch me.> She strained upward, wanting to feel his mouth again, to feel those feathery kisses across her bare skin. "Take me to bed, Clark," she whispered. "Make love to me."
He raised her in his arms and the two of them floated into the bedroom where he placed her gently on the bed. His mouth dropped on hers in a long, heated kiss. At first his lips were puckered as he drew on hers, sucking them into his, then his mouth began to relax and open, his tongue pushing to enter her tongue's dwelling.
She lay, head back, eyes half closed, unable to reason, only feel. She wanted to cry. There had never been such a feeling in the world. It couldn't have existed until now, or no one would ever do anything but this.
She thought she would go insane if he did not ease the yearning that was becoming unbearable. Her body was vibrating like a piano played by a master. She didn't want the playing to end. She wanted it to escalate to a crescendo of heart stopping ecstasy.
<Is this happening?> she thought. <Can this be real?> No man had ever been able to make her feel this way. How many women had Clark done this to? She wanted to sit up, to stop him, to demand to know how and where he had learned these touches that were driving her wild, but her stomach muscles were too weak, everything in her boneless body focused on the delicious feel of his mouth and his hands.
"Don't stop, Clark," she begged. "Oh, god, don't stop."
"Lois," he asked hoarsely. "Are you sure? It's risky; I don't have any protection."
"I want you Clark," she pleaded. "You don't need to protect me. I take care of myself."
He fleetingly wondered why she would always be protected, but then forgot everything except that she was beneath him, waiting for him, wanting him.
Looking down at her, he began to lose himself, letting the sensation of touching her wash over him. The room, the light, the air swirled around them in a tornado of color and sound. In a juncture that shattered molecules and called forth the aurora borealis, they became one. There was no heaven or earth, no yesterday or tomorrow, only here, this moment, and the two of them melded into one.
Afterwards, lying together, silent, unwilling to leave the new world they had created, they held each other, continuing to touch and caress, lips and hands expressing what they could not yet say. Finally, breathing became measured, hearts beat steadily, and the real world came back into focus. It was time for words again.
He kissed her temple as he held her possessively. He whispered, "Lois, I love you…always and forever."
"And I love you, Clark. More than I ever thought I could love anyone."
Silence ruled again as they breathed in the words that had been spoken, allowing the life-force they conveyed to co- mingle with the life-force each inherently possessed. They were irretrievably altered by what had passed between them, changelings who could never return to the past and be the creatures they had previously been. The avowing words, and the exchanging of their love had set their fates and yoked their destinies. While neither yet realized it, they would, henceforth and eternally, be one.
"I was beginning to think I'd never hear you say that. I've loved you for so long. I didn't expect this to happen."
She slipped an arm over him and rested her head on his chest. "Neither did I, but I'm glad it did. I wish we could stay like this forever."
He looked down at her. "So do I. In fact…there's something I want to ask you."
She stiffened. "Clark -."
"I've dreamed about it…this for months, and now that I have a real chance-."
She sat up abruptly. "Clark, stop!"
"Stop. Don't ask me."
He sat up repeating her words in surprise and irritation. "Don't ask you?"
"Please, don't ask me."
"How can you say 'don't ask me'? You don't know what I'm going to ask."
"No, I don't, but if it's what I think it is, I don't want you to ask me, but the only way I'll know for sure is if you ask me and if you ask me it'll be too late, you'll have asked me and I'll have to give you an answer, and I'm not ready to answer you yet." She gasped for breath.
"You're not ready? You're ready to jump in bed with me and give me the most fantastic time I've ever had, but you're not ready to answer my propo-"
"Don't say it! And since you mentioned it, do you think there's something wrong with my wanting to make love with the man I'm crazy about? Or have you had so many women, I'm just one more notch in your belt?"
"You're crazy about me? Then why don't you want me to…so many women?"
"Don't deny it. You had to have had a lot of practice to make me feel so…I've never experienced anything like that in… You heard me."
"It was that good, huh? I wasn't sure I could do it."
"Wasn't sure? You call that being unsure? You're skirting the truth, again, Kent. Just how many…much practice have you had?" she demanded.
"Well, since you brought it up, what do you have going that you have wear protection all the time?"
"With all that experience you should know more about women than that. I take the pill to regulate, uh, some female problems, but don't think you can change the subject. Answer my question."
"Lois, you don't know how great it makes me feel to know that I was able to-"
"Answer the question, Kent!"
He raised his hand, palm out, as though he was giving testimony in a court of law. "Everything I know I learned from books not experience, and that's the truth, I swear."
"What are you saying?" She was startled by his declaration.
"I'm saying that I've never…been…physically intimate with anyone until now…you."
"Omigod!" she gasped.
"Because I'm not from here. Because I have a secret identity, and I didn't want to share the most intimate experience beings can share with just anyone. That person had to know about me, and I had to know that I would want to stay with her always. When I found you-"
"Omigod, omigod." She looked around frantically, panic in her eyes, and saw the clock on the bedside stand. "Omigod, look at the time! We've got to get you back to the auditorium, and we haven't picked up your costumes yet and I have to take a shower and dress and how are your parents going to get there?" She was out of bed and fleeing to the bathroom before he could stop her.
"It's okay, Lois." He called out. "While you're showering, I'll pick up my clothes and I'll probably be back here before you've finished dressing. My folks can take a cab. They have reserved seats and don't have to be there until just before 8:00."
He heard the shower running. This was not going the way he had hoped. But maybe it was a good thing that he hadn't asked her. Better to wait and see if anyone put two and two together tonight and came up with 'Clark Kent is Superman'. He spun into the suit and left through the window.
Carrying a clothes box containing costumes for the talent and muscle flexing contests, Lois was hurrying up the auditorium steps to meet Clark when she heard a voice just to her left. She turned and was at first blinded by the sun's final blaze as it slipped below the cityscape. She raised a hand to block its glare and came face to face with a slightly pudgy, mid-sized man, thinning hair combed straight back from a balding forehead. He seemed to emerge from the fiery inferno of the setting sun.
The man's cold, dead eyes glinted with pleasurable recognition as he said, in a soft, slightly nasal voice, "Is this Lois? Well, hello, Lo-issss. How very unexpected to see you again. Are you here at the behest of Perry White, reporting on this exploitative ritual for the good old D…P…? Surely this can't be your idea of Pulitzer winning material? Or have you finally succumbed to the banality of the Philistines — giving up, giving in, writing to fulfill the devouring curiosity of the celebrity sucking common folk?" His drawl was filled with the aggressive sarcasm he sometimes alternated with the gentler tone he usually took with her.
"Dr. Lister?" She felt an icy shudder make its way down her spine. "What a surprise. I haven't seen you since our interview two years ago."
"It's so nice to see you again, Lo-issss. I was very disappointed when I didn't hear from you after we'd become such good friends. I've missed our little chats. You weren't avoiding me were you?"
There was just a faint smile on his face; a smile that she knew indicated that this meeting pleased him. His reptilian gaze chilled her. "Avoiding you? Of course, not. Why would I avoid you? That would be rude, and I know how much you dislike rudeness, Doctor. But why are *you* here? This isn't the kind of thing I'd think would interest you."
"We did come to know each other rather well, didn't we? Quite right. This spectacle to entertain and pacify the plebian cattle doesn't interest me, but when the organizers asked me to be a judge, I decided the emolument is worth a few hours of my time. If you remember, I have some rather expensive tastes. The opera at La Scala promises to be brilliant this season, and I'd like to replenish my meat locker with some rare and costly victuals. Also there's the added lure of extending my connections, meeting new people, finding different contacts who can stock my larder. One should always be willing to try new things, don't you think?" His smile broadened.
He was the only person she had ever met who babbled more than she did, but she had the eerie impression that his babbling had an undertone of menace. One of these days, she and Clark should probably look more closely into Lister's background. Or maybe not, her unnerved intuition warned.
She replied, "That sounds really nice for you, Doctor. It's been so good to see you again, and I know we'll be seeing more of each other during the pageant, but right now, I have a story to cover. See you later." And she hurried up the steps toward the entrance. She wanted to be inside the building with Clark where it was safe.
"Okey-dokey," he called after her. "I'll look forward to it. Ta-ta."
When she reached Clark who was waiting at the entryway, he asked, "Who was that?"
"Emmanuel Lister," she replied. "You've heard of him, haven't you?" When Clark shook his head no, she explained as they hurried inside and backstage to the dressing rooms. "He's that psychiatrist who's a celebrity chef. You know, he concocts exotic culinary fare with unusual flavors. He never gives interviews, but for some inexplicable reason, he let me interview him. Instead of treating me with contempt and disdain like he does all the other reporters — mankind in general, actually — he was courteous and respectful. In his odd way, I think he considers me a friend."
"So why do I get the idea that's not a good thing?"
"He gives me the creeps." She shuddered slightly. "There's probably no reason for it, but I just feel uncomfortable around him. That's why I didn't keep in touch afterwards even though he said he would teach me to cook." She smiled wryly. "I probably should have taken him up on it. You wouldn't get so flustered when I offer to make dinner."
"Yeah, if you only knew how to cook, I'd fall in love with you." He grinned at her as he opened the door to a dressing room. Glancing in, he saw several partially undressed men, and he blocked Lois's entrance. "Maybe you should wait out here. I don't want you embarrassing the guys with your leering." She tried to hit his arm, but he was too quick, closing the door, depositing his clothing, and returning to her in the hallway.
"Cut it out with the wisecracks, Kent!" She did hit him and then shook her hand from the impact, and muttered, "I gotta remember not to do that so hard."
"Sorry, Lois. I know you have no interest in well-built men in various stages of undress. I just wasn't thinking."
"That was the old me, Clark, before I saw you…before we…what am I saying. That's still me, even if we did…um…don't you think you should be getting ready?"
He tried to hide a smile, enjoying her discomfiture, then said soberly, "In a minute. I have something I want to say."
She reacted nervously. "Clark, shouldn't we wait to talk later, after we see how the evening goes. We have so much riding on what happens tonight."
"That's why I have to say this, now." He put his hand on her cheek. "I love you, Lois Lane, no matter what happens tonight or tomorrow or next week. Nothing will change that. What we shared a little while ago was the best experience of my life, and I want to keep sharing with you for as long as we live. But right now we have to get back to reality and take care of this pageant business. When it's all over, we'll work out what we're going to do about us. I can wait."
One part of her wanted to melt in his arms <Not yet.>; another wanted to run away. "Yes, good idea! We'll work all that out later. Now go get dressed. Oh, and Clark, don't slick back your hair, just comb it naturally…and wear your glasses…and slump, slouch, shrink if you can; if they laugh at the saggy suit, just remember that they don't laugh at Superman, and don't forget to smile a lot, big, big smiles. Superman never smiles. And don't worry abou-"
He stopped her with a kiss, then went back into the dressing room. She followed his departure with anxious eyes. When the door closed behind him, she turned to observe the activities of stagehands and pageant assistants finishing last minute preparations for the great superhero pageant.
Lois was circulating, asking questions, when she saw Sheri Thrasher enter through a stage door and start toward one of the dressing rooms. She quickly decided to take advantage of the opportunity to find out if the beautiful star was going to keep the contest honest, or if she was only going to carry out Hughie Short's instructions.
"Ms. Thrasher!" she called. "Lois Lane of the Daily Planet. I'd like to ask you a couple of questions about your participation tonight."
The celebrity stopped her progress to the dressing room, and turned a frequently downloaded smile on Lois. "The Daily Planet…the world's greatest newspaper. And Lois Lane, the Planet's greatest reporter. Of course, I'll be delighted to answer your questions."
It was a well-polished act, but Lois wasn't taken in, and she had no time for subtlety. "Tell me, Ms. Thrasher, why did you decide to participate in a Superman show, when you've been distancing yourself from your previous association with the superhero television series?" Investigative Journalism 101 — get the interviewee on the defensive, shake her composure, and make her less careful about her answers.
Thrasher's smile turned steely. "As you know, I've made a series of Electronic Hut commercials with Hughie Short. He asked me to do this as a favor. Hughie's a good friend; I wanted to help."
<Okay, try a little feint to the heart.> "Is it true that you agreed because Keane Blaine is also a judge and that you and he will be giving joint interviews during intermissions?"
Red splotches of anger began to blemish the actress's usually perfect beauty. "No, that is not true! I don't know anything about Keane Blaine, and I've been assured by Hughie Short that he will not be a part of this entertainment."
"So you *are* trying to avoid him. Does that have anything to do with rumors that the two of you fell in love when you were shooting the Superman series?"
"I have a beautiful daughter, I love my husband very much, and we are a happy family. I don't answer questions about rumors, especially one as ridiculous as that one."
<Time to go for the K.O.> "Then maybe you'll respond to this one. There's a rumor around the press corps that Hughie Short has already decided who the winner of this pageant will be, and he asked you to be a judge because he can get you to vote for whomever he chooses. True or false, Ms. Thrasher?"
Sheri Thrasher forgot her press demeanor, and scowled. The thundercloud visible on her face would not have been her choice for telecasting to billions. "Look, Lane. Whatever Hughie Short says, I didn't come here to be his little puppet. I don't know who's going to be Super Metro Man, but my vote will go to the guy who impresses me the most, not to some shill of Short's. Now, if you'll excuse me, this interview is over." And she stalked away to the waiting room.
Lois watched the woman disappear into the judges' anteroom, and then saw Clark emerge from the contestants' dressing room wearing the saggy suit. As per her instructions, his hair looked natural, and he was wearing his glasses. With her objective reporter's eye, she saw an ordinary guy trying to look like Superman and not quite pulling it off. She hoped the crowd would see it that way and wouldn't laugh too much at the suit.
She claimed his attention. "Clark. I just talked with Sheri Thrasher. I think I managed to put a hitch in Linda's well laid, in every sense of the phrase, plans. She's not likely to go along with any of Hughie Short's suggestions about who should win this thing."
"Do I want to know how you did that?"
She was indignant. "I was perfectly professional and well behaved."
"Uh-huh. Well, whatever you did, thank you." Then he turned all the way around and asked, "What do you think?"
She leaned in close and whispered, "Well, to me you look scrumptiously sexy, but I don't think the audience or the judges will be coming from the same place I am." She gave him a quick little smile and touched his cheek with her hand. Then she backed away and walked around him, looking him up and down. She was fighting a giggle as she took in the sags and droops.
"Lois, could you at least try not to enjoy this so much?"
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry, it's just that…you want to look funny not heroic, don't you? And you do look funny. If the audience laughs, that's a good thing. Just try to be normal."
"I keep telling myself that, but it's not easy to act normal while everyone's laughing at you."
She put a comforting hand on his chest. "I know it's going to be really hard for you. I meant what I said, Clark. I may not actually be on that stage next to you, but I'm with you every step of the way. I love you because you're strong and patient and can put up with a lot. You're in a dangerous situation here, but it's also a very funny one. Superman doesn't laugh, but Clark has a wonderful sense of humor — another reason I love you. Hang on to that humor. If the crowd laughs, you can laugh with them. They don't know what the real joke is, but you do."
He gazed at her with love and gratitude. "I'm glad you know the truth, Lois. I think it's possible that later I may even come to think of today as the happiest day of my life." He took her hands and held them, looking deep into her eyes.
A pageant assistant knocked on the dressing room door. "Five minutes. Places everybody." The door opened and contestants spilled out to line up in the way that they had been instructed.
Clark raised Lois's hands to his lips and kissed each one in turn. Then he took his place in the line. She watched him, her heart turning over. Their moment was broken by
"Clock! Vere dit you get det zoot? Couldn't you vind fun small enough? Com to de chym. I show you how to get muscle." Harold Schnerzenberger and several others laughed loudly. It had begun.
Leaving the backstage area, Lois made her way to the rear of the auditorium. She wanted to get a feel for what the crowd was like before things got started. The hundreds who had come to witness this extravaganza were a diverse throng. There were families — mom, pop, and kiddies — come to celebrate their idol — the epitome of truth, justice and the American way. There were women's groups out on the town, come to cheer, whistle, stomp and ogle. A gay men's club, wearing T-shirts proclaiming their identity, were checking out the body builders from Harold Schnerzenberger's gym. There were drunks and there were teetotalers; clerics and grifters; beauties and beasts. They were, to a reporter's jaundiced eye, a typical entertainment-event crowd. Lois could sense a lead paragraph for her story forming in her mind.
"Good try with that loose-fitting costume, Lois. But it won't work." Linda King was standing next to her.
"I don't know what you're talking about, Linda. What pipe dream are you hallucinating now?" Lois kept the jab light and unconcerned.
"You can't fool me, dear. I believe Clark Kent is Superman, and I'll prove it to the world before this pageant is over."
"I'd be careful if I were you, *dear*. You don't want anyone overhearing that lunacy. People will know how desperate you are to win a Pulitzer."
"We'll see who's desperate when I expose Clark to the world as the alter ego of Superman."
"I wouldn't count on it. You can't absolutely prove what isn't true, and it'll be pretty hard for the world to believe he's Superman if he doesn't win this contest."
"I don't think that's going to be a problem. He's going to win, all right."
The house lights began to dim. "Gotta go, Linda. Let me know when you decide to make your move. Maybe I can keep you from making a fool of yourself."
Lois had to return to the stage wing so that Clark could see her every time he faced in that direction. She wanted him to have visible proof that she was there for him. Heading for the door to backstage, she wished she felt more confident about Linda's not finding any proof.
As the lights went down, the audience's conversational hum quieted. The pit orchestra began to play a rousing medley of heroic marches replete with trumpet fanfares, brass flourishes and drum rolls. The crowd responded with an occasional smattering of applause as they recognized favorites among the selections by Handel, Mendelssohn, Prokofieff, Meyerbeer, Walton, Clarke, C.P.E. Bach, Rimsky- Korsakov, John Williams, and John Phillip Sousa. There were occasional whistles and cheers, and for particular crowd- pleasers, clapping in time with the music. They clearly believed the publicity slogan, "Metropolis is a summer festival", and were entering into the spirit of this, the centerpiece of the season.
When the final chord of the music had resonated, and the enthusiastic applause was waning, a spotlight beamed to one side of the stage apron, and a tall, self-assured man standing in its circle began to speak. "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I'm Hughie Short, and this…is…the. Metropolis. Super Metro Man. Pageant." He accentuated the words with stops at key points, heightening the excitement. As he uttered the last word, another spotlight lit up a curtain at the rear of the stage. Emblazoned on it was the Super Metro Man logo featuring a look alike Superman except that, instead of an S, there was an M on his chest. Over his head were the words, 'Super' and underneath him, 'Metro Man'.
The crowd roared its approval for several minutes. Short waved his hand to quiet them. "Metropolis is fortunate to be the home of Superman, the greatest super hero on earth, and tonight we want to pay tribute to him. But we're also here to offer a little help to the man who's always there for us. We're going to choose someone who can shoulder the burden of some of those civic duties that Superman takes on so willingly. Those ribbon cuttings and hospital openings, those welcoming speeches and award presentations. Super Metro Man will be a different kind of hero, but one we can respect and admire because we know he'll be easing the load for our *super* hero. We have assembled a strong group of contestants to vie for the honor of representing Superman and Metropolis. So, ladies and gentlemen, without further delay…" The orchestra began a dramatic drum roll. "Meet your candidates for Super Metro Man!"
The trumpet fanfare from Also Sprach Zarathustra sounded as thousands held their breaths in anticipation, and with the last trumpet note, the curtain parted, the orchestra began to play, and a muster of muscle men in Superman costumes marched onto the stage in single file. The spectators erupted with applause, cheers and whistles.
The men formed a single line across the stage and stood waiting for the noise to die. Then, augmented by an off- stage men's chorus, they began to sing:
"Name the Superhero, who is greater than them all, "Speeding to the rescue each and every time we call, "With only just a single bound, he leaps great buildings tall. "Who is the greatest hero of them all?"
While they sang this verse, they formed five lines of five men and enacted complex geometric patterns, each line rotating around its end line axis, moving in columns peeling off right and left, marking time with the heavy thuds of their feet, one thud for each beat of the music.
The agilities displayed by the participants in this Busby Berkeley-inspired routine varied widely and painfully. Some poor fellows simply had no sense of rhythm or music and managed to keep in step by watching and counting with moving lips. A few were actually dancers and their graceful movements drew the attention of the assembly away from the stumblers. Cody Cantrell was not a dancer but the natural grace and rhythm that made him a great quarterback and a star of the Metropolis Tigers drew the admiration of many of his fans. They chanted his name in approval. Co-dy, Co-dy.
The five lines formed into two and began an X crossing pattern as they sang the next verse.
"Who catches every criminal as soon as he appears? "Who modestly acknowledges our gratitude and cheers "Then flies away to save the day the next time he appears? "Who is the greatest hero of them all?"
Harold Schnerzenberger was Teutonic not agile. He set each foot down with the ordered precision of a soldier executing a close order drill. He lifted his knees slightly higher than everyone else in a pronounced marching beat and looked neither to right nor left but maintained a rigid military posture.
"Who rights each wrong defending Truth and Justice? "Against the foes of freedom, who's our buttress?"
Clark was miserable and embarrassed. <This song is terrible. How can they sing these words with a straight face? Oh, lord, just let this be over!> He found himself facing Lois in the wings. She nodded encouragingly, then pantomimed pulling her face into a wide smile. He was puzzled for a second before he remembered he was supposed to smile a lot. He pushed his lips into a grinning grimace as his line turned away from that side of the stage.
Clark forced himself to walk, slouching and slumping, with complete self-composure. He wasn't going to be a little tin soldier like Harold, and he refused to play to the crowd like Fly Fallone, who was bobbing and weaving, flashing his teeth in a big grin, pointing and waving to an audience that, in turn, regaled him with approval.
The two lines broke and the twenty-five men paired up and formed three squares with the odd man facing the audience from center stage. The pairs executed a stamping do-si-do in each square as they sang the last verse.
"Tonight Metropolis salutes its favorite he-man, "Who's here to help us to become the very best we can, "He is our number one, the leader of the hero clan."
The squares turned into two lines, the shorter one in front, and faced the audience.
"Superma-a-a-a-an. "Superma-a-a-a-an. "He is the greatest hero of them all."
The men in the front line dropped to one knee and they all threw their arms wide as they shouted
The audience erupted. They were immediately on their feet, clapping and cheering, many calling over and over, "SU PER MAN; SU PER MAN."
Lois heard them in disbelief. She was sure that what she had just witnessed was the most dreadful attempt at show biz she had ever seen. <It must be true,> she thought. <There's no accounting for taste.> Her eyes had never left Clark who was now standing, grimly waiting as Hughie Short prepared to introduce the contestants individually. She saw Clark's head drop slightly as he looked down and drew a deep breath. <I'm with you, Clark. You can do this. I love you. Don't lose heart now.> She believed the words were a thought, but she realized she had whispered them, when he turned his head and looked straight at her, a faint smile on his face. "Ladies and Gentlemen, meet the individual contestants for Super Metro Man."
As Hughie Short pronounced each name and his sponsor, the man stepped forward for a brief moment alone in the spotlight. There was light applause for familiar heroes: Cody Cantrell; Edgar Cortez, the Metropolis Monarchs' muscular designated hitter; Evgeny Kuliakin, the dancer; Harold Schnerzenberger; Fly Fallone.
Then it was Clark's turn.
When he stepped forward — bespectacled, wrinkled and droopy — there was an audible gasp from some; others snickered. An occasional guffaw was quickly suppressed. Lois's heart turned over as she saw him jerk slightly at each sound. <Oh, Clark. Try to laugh with them. Please…> Then she saw him lift his head to stand at ease. He smiled that incredible ingenuous smile, a man unafraid and open to the world. <What you see is what you get. Go ahead, Linda, try to prove differently.>
He was focusing on one particular spot, and looking out, Lois saw his parents smiling, nodding and giving him thumbs up. She realized with a shock that Superman might be the strongest man in the world, physically, but Clark's psyche needed his support group — his family and the woman who loved him. Suddenly she perceived her lover and their relationship from a totally new perspective. After seeing his performance under this incredible stress and remembering what he had told her about his lovemaking experience, or lack thereof, she understood how much she still had to learn about Clark Kent. He was the real hero, not that impervious Champion of Truth and Justice. Clark might be a little different in some ways, but he was also a guy who had problems and fears to overcome like everybody else trying to live a regular life. For Lois, it was a horizon-expanding epiphany.
When the introductions were over, the orchestra played again, and the contestants marched offstage as the concealed men's chorus repeated the Superman song.
When the last man had departed, Hughie Short said, " Our candidates are now going backstage to prepare for the talent contest. While we're waiting, I'll take this opportunity to introduce our celebrity judges. This beautiful lady ought to know Superman better than anyone. For four years, she was the Man of Steel's beloved wife, Leila, on that hit television show, Krypton Never Dies. For the past two years, she's been my companion in those popular Electronic Hut commercials. Ladies and gentlemen, the lovely and talented Sheri Thrasher." Just before she stepped into the spotlight, Sheri gave Hughie an angry glare, then assumed her public persona with a big smile and a wave to the crowd as she took her place beside him.
Hughie waited for the clapping to die down and continued. "And along with her, we are privileged to have that erudite psychiatrist and creative chef, Emmanuel Lister." The doctor strolled onto the stage, his face wearing a sneer for the crowd. They greeted him with adulation as though his disdain made him even more worthy of their worship.
Hughie Short received a wave from a stage assistant and turned back to the audience. "I understand the first contestant is ready for the talent review, so if our judges will now return to the judges' table, let the fun begin."
And so it started. The acts varied from awful to not bad to pretty good. Cody Cantrell did rope tricks; Edgar Cortez juggled; Gerald Crackenthorpe, representing Gatesway Internet Software, performed magic tricks that didn't work. Harold Schnerzenberger threw knives and hatchets at a terrified attendant from his gym. Clark's basketball antics were greeted with cheers. Fly Fallone sang a romantic ballad surprisingly well. But Evgeny Kuliakin was declared the winner for singing and dancing with an umbrella in an imaginary rainstorm.
The evening was half gone, and even Clark was having a good time. So far, no one had risen in the audience and pointed at him, yelling, "I know who you are. You're the real Superman."
Then it was time for the interviews. They went smoothly, and, to Lois's disappointment, no one had inadvertently made a fool of himself, although Harold Schnerzenberger and Fly Fallone were almost unintelligible — Harold because of his accent and Fly because of his slurring. If either of them were named Super Metro Man he would have to have a speech coach. She thought Clark was way above everyone else in his poised and articulate responses to the questions, and she was afraid that he had made too great an impression on the judges. But there was no way to know since no interview winner would be named. There would be a second interview on the following night that would probably greatly influence the judges' final decision.
The final event of the evening was the muscle-flexing contest. When Clark came out of the dressing room in his two-napkin costume, Lois was waiting for him.
"Lois, look at me. No, on second thought, don't. I don't think I could take your leering, right now."
It was the first time she had seen him in the body-builders suit, and she was happily surprised to see that it fit him just like the Superman suit. "Clark, it's perfect. It sags and droops just where it needs to. All you have to do is remember not to make too much muscle in the different poses."
He regarded her skeptically. "Lois, how blind do you think people are? How long do you think we can fool them? I don't think I can get away with this one."
"Please, who are you talking to? People can be fooled for as long as you stay within their expectations. Nobody expects Superman to wear glasses or have puny biceps. I know you better than almost anyone, and I had to practically have a house fall on me to see the resemblance. This is just a little sleight of hand. We can get away with it as long as you keep on slouching and don't make too much muscle. You'll see."
Sometimes whistling in the dark works. There were more snickers and a few outbursts of laughter, but Clark was not a serious competitor in the muscle-flexing demonstration. Harold Schnerzenberger was the easy winner.
The evening concluded with the candidates appearing together onstage wearing white tie and black tails, posing in staged clusters and singing the Superman song for one last time. Lois thought if she heard it once more, she'd throw up, but the musical director had mercifully chosen to close the evening with a single rendition.
She idly watched the contestants moving around the stage and thought, <What did they used to call those things? Penguin suits?> She was amusing herself trying to figure out which of the men most resembled the flippered creatures when Clark, walking around the stage, turned to face her, and her breath stopped. He looked incredible! She thought, <Eat your heart out, Fred Astaire.> The starched white shirtfront and winged collar perfectly contrasted with his tanned face. The black tailcoat draped elegantly over his lean, muscular torso, and the trousers were just snug enough, where they divided to loosely define his legs to his ankles. His black hair and dark eyes completed and complemented an ensemble that presented him as so deliciously gorgeous she was hot and tingly in all kinds of embarrassing places. The female members of the audience were showing their appreciation for all of the participants, but Lois could see only one, and she hated any woman in the room who might be thinking the same thoughts about him that she was. She'd never be able to think of it as a penguin suit again. From now on, for her, it would be a Clark suit.
Finally, the music and marching ended and the first night was over. Clark had escaped disaster, and she had discovered a whole new appreciation for him.
While waiting for Clark, Lois noticed Sheri Thrasher and Dr. Lister going over their notes and exchanging views of the evening's proceedings. Thrasher's animated articulation was in contrast with Lister's cold responses. He was remote, studying her like a scientist looking through a microscope.
Without warning, the stage door crashed open, and a perfectly groomed man, his good looks just beginning to blur, stomped in. He looked around the immediate area and shouted, "Sheri!"
The actress looked up, startled. Frowning slightly, she said, "I'm sorry about this interruption, Doctor. My husband sometimes forgets there are other people in the world. Please excuse me for a moment." Getting up from her chair, she hurried over to the man.
"Don, what are you doing here?" She showed alarm. "Has something happened to Dana?"
"She's fine as far as I know, but you wouldn't know, would you? You're off promoting your career." His voice was loud and angry.
"Be quiet. That's a reporter over there." She nodded her head in Lois's direction. "You don't want to create a scene in front of her, do you? And why are you here?"
"Checking up on my cheating wife, of course. You agreed to stay away from Superman—"
She interrupted. "No! I agreed to stay away from Keane Blaine. I decided for myself to stay away from Superman because I thought it was keeping me from moving on with my career. As for cheating, you know more about that than I do. I've kept my agreement. Have you kept yours?"
"Your career is all that matters, isn't it? Your glorious career. Well, what about my career?"
"I wouldn't call 37 failed TV series a career. As for the big screen…what's the name of that movie you've been shooting? 'Vampires of the Internet Meet Voodoo Ghouls from Mars?'
"At least I get leads in big screen films instead of cameos. Don't change the subject. I know you're here to see Keane Blaine. You just can't stay away from him."
"I made a promise not to see him, and you promised to be faithful. Unlike you, I keep my word."
He grabbed her arm and pulled her close. "Don't lie to me. Why else would you be here?"
"Let go. You're hurting me."
"Not until you tell me the truth!"
Lister had been slowly making his way from the judges' table toward the battling couple. Now he stepped forward and spoke quietly.
"I believe the lady asked you to release her. Do be a polite fellow and stop manhandling her."
Don Penny glared at the older man. "Get lost! This is none of your business."
"Don't be abusive," Lister replied. "Uncivil behaviour is so unbecoming. Let the lady go." The last sentence carried an air of menace.
"Up yours," Penny replied and tightened his grip on his wife.
She winced. "Ow!"
Lister's hand shot out and enclosed the wrist that was clutching Sheri Thrasher's arm. His other hand found a nerve behind the elbow, and Don Penny's arm was temporarily disabled. The belligerent actor released Sheri's wrist. "That's a good boy," murmured the doctor.
"Thank you for your help, Doctor. You're very gallant," Thrasher said. She turned to the man confronting her. "I'm here because Hughie Short called me to film a new commercial. He asked me to do this and persuaded me that it would be advantageous to my career. And yes, my career is important. I have a daughter to support, and one of us has to provide for her. Now get out of here and let me get on with it."
His departing words were, "You're a liar and a slut, and any deal we had is off."
She watched him go, blinking tears from her eyes, and quickly wiped away their traces before anyone could see. "I apologize for his behaviour, Doctor. If you don't mind, I'd like a moment to calm down."
Lister glanced at the open stage door and said, "Why don't we postpone the rest of our discussion until tomorrow. I'm sure you will feel better then."
"You're probably right." They returned to the table to retrieve their belongings.
"You go ahead, Ms. Thrasher. I have a few things to finish here. Good night, and may the rest of your evening be a pleasant one."
"Good night, Doctor." She was almost to the door, when Hughie Short appeared. She stopped to speak with him.
Lois couldn't hear what they were saying, but it was not a polite conversation. She saw an angry Sheri Thrasher shake her finger in Hughie Short's face and flounce away to a limousine visible through the open stage door. Short shrugged his shoulders and, with a grin, headed for the stairs and his office.
"How very rude. That young woman is extremely volatile. However…her anger is well earned by her husband and perhaps by that butter-wouldn't-melt-in-my-mouth pageant host. I believe I could get it to melt and add a little flavor to the banality of his presentation."
Lois jumped. "Dr. Lister! I didn't see you there."
"Yes, your mind is inside the dressing room there, isn't it? I watched you in distress over the performance of that young man — what is his name? Clark Kent? Is that mild, drab fellow the object of your affections…your inamorata? Really, dear Lois, you disappoint me. I had imbued you with so much more intelligence and taste. You should prefer someone worthier, more flamboyant…spicier." He elongated the final word, hissing the sibilants, breathily drawing out the vowels and softening the 'r' — 's-s-spi-is-s-se-e- uh-uh-h-h-h'.
Once again her intuition was flashing a warning. 'Don't let Lister become displeased with me'. "Oh, no, you misunderstand, Doctor. Clark is my work partner at the Planet, and he's part of my assignment here. Perry ordered me to do whatever I could to help him win the title of Super Metro Man."
"I see. And if you fail, would that jeopardize your status at the D.P. Would you like me to vote for him, to sponsor him, influence my fellow judge? I could, I believe, persuade her to select him, even though it is quite ludicrous to suppose he could resemble Superman."
Her heart cheered. If Clark was fooling Lister, he was fooling everyone.
"No! Thank you. I wouldn't want him to get a swelled head. It'll be okay. Perry will forget the whole thing in a day or two when the next big story breaks." She felt as though she were walking on a tightrope stretched over razor blades. Trying to keep Lister in good humor was bad, but she had forgotten about Perry. He would be in one of his worst hound dog moods after seeing Clark in that saggy suit. She would have to go in to the Planet tomorrow morning and pacify him.
"I had a visit from someone presenting herself as a friend of yours, a Linda King? I find it hard to believe that such a person is someone you would call friend."
"Linda King is no friend of mine, Dr. Lister. Whatever she wants from you, watch out. She's a snake in the grass."
"I see. She tried to persuade me to support Clark Kent…but you don't want Kent to win. I think she doesn't like you very much…I thought she was rather overbearing, too…lacking in taste and grace, so to speak. Perhaps she needs some mentoring…I'll consider that for later." He turned away in speculation. "If you'll excuse me, I must run. Ta ta, my dear."
Dr. Lister strolled out the stage door to his waiting limousine. Lois breathed in relief, and turned to greet Clark as he came through the dressing room door.
For the first time in days, he seemed relaxed, and his eyes were clear of anxious shadows. "Hi," he said quietly, and smiled. She smiled in return, and, taking his arm, led him out the door to the waiting jeep.
"One down, and one to go, Lois," he commented with relief as they drove through the darkened streets. "I didn't think that droopy suit could do it, but it actually worked. I'm beginning to believe I might even get by the Superman look-alike poses."
"You stood up under everything really well, Clark. I mean…I thought you were…super." She turned a brief, shy smile in his direction and then returned her attention to her driving. "I really admired the way you endured all those laughs."
"I remembered what you told me — to laugh with them but at the joke they didn't know about. That really helped. And so did seeing you in the wings and Mom and Dad in the audience. Being Superman is a snap compared to what Clark went through tonight."
"Yeah", she said softly. "Clark is a pretty terrific guy."
He wanted to touch her, but she was driving in her usual fast and loose fashion, and he couldn't take the chance of distracting her. He wouldn't be hurt if they had an accident, but she could be.
They came to a cross street with a four-way stop. A turn of the car to the right led to Clark's apartment, a turn left to Lois's. She stopped and shifted to face him. He put a hand on her arm. "Lois?"
"I have to finish my story and send it to the Planet…then…" She took a deep breath and whispered, "Stay with me tonight, Clark?"
He moved next to her to take her in his arms. "I want to. You know I want to. But I haven't seen my parents much today. I need to spend some time with them, tell them about us. They know we're in love, but they don't know about this afternoon — how far we've come in our relationship. I want to tell them…that is, if it's okay with you. And I should take a turn around the city. It's been too quiet for too long."
"I guess that's what it's like to be in love with Superman. I have to wait until he finishes with his chores." She showed a little smile at her joke. "But I'm in love with Clark, not Superman. I realize that more and more. I could get pretty jealous of the time he takes for his alter ego. Lucky for you I'm the patient type."
"Yeah, I noticed that," he said wryly. "What about Mom and Dad. Is it okay if I tell them we're…? I don't have to, but I think they'd be as happy as I am about it."
"Is it okay with me? How do you discuss your sex life with your parents? I can't imagine telling my parents something like that. I'm sure they wouldn't say, 'We're happy for you, Lois." I know you're a close family, but what would you say? How would you say it?"
He laughed. "Very carefully. No, you're right. I hadn't thought about that. Maybe I'll just say that we've become really, really close. That sounds pretty lame, doesn't it? My Mom'll probably figure it out just by looking at me and seeing how happy I am about it…us."
"Are you happy about it?"
"I didn't make that clear? Then let me ask you—"
"No, stop!" She interjected loudly. "I told you, don't ask. Not yet. Tell your folks whatever you want; it's okay, but I'm not ready for that yet!"
He heard the nervous voice and felt her pull away from him. He pulled her back. "Lois, it's okay. I said I could wait, and I will. But I'm going to keep trying to ask you." He held her tight for a minute and kissed her. "I'll get out now and patrol the city before I go home. You finish your story, get it off to Perry and get a good night's rest. I have a feeling that tomorrow is going to be pretty intense."
"Yeah, and I need to see Perry tomorrow to be sure he's not blowing a fuse about the saggy suit. I'm sure he watched the telecast, and he won't be pleased. Any ideas, partner?"
"I wish. You're much better at handling him than I am."
"What's your schedule for tomorrow? Can we get together before the pageant?" she asked hopefully.
"I don't think so. We have another day of rehearsals, and Superman needs to be a little more visible in the city or things could get out of hand." He suddenly lifted his head in a familiar way. "Lois—"
"I know," she replied regretfully. "Go! I'll see you tomorrow night." She kissed him lightly, and he opened the car door to get out. "Clark? Be careful. Remember I love you."
She heard, "Me too," and then he was gone.
When Lois poked her head into Perry's office the next morning, the signs were not good. Perry was yelling into the phone at someone in the layout department: "I don't care what your deadline problems are. If I tell you I'll get back to you on somethin' then you just hold your horses 'til I do, and don't be callin' me every five minutes. I was gettin' a newspaper on the streets when you were still in diapers. I know how much time I have." He slammed the receiver into its cradle and turned his glare on Lois.
"And you! Get yourself in here and explain to me how you could put Clark up on that stage wearing those loose drawers? I told you to make him a winner not a laughingstock." He threw a pencil across the room in her general direction.
"Uh, Perry…that's why I'm here…to explain. I knew you'd be puzzled, and I didn't want you to worry—"
He interrupted her. "Worry? This isn't worry, Lois. Worry is when I can't find my Elvis photo album. This is mad, and getting madder. Don't you try to lather me up with any of your soft soap. And don't lie to me."
"Perry, you know I would never lie to you."
He smiled knowingly at her. "Of course you wouldn't…most of the time…unless you were trying to get away with something you didn't want me to know about…" His voice thundered, "WHICH IS MOST OF THE TIME." She blanched; he paused and continued calmly, "All right, honey. What's goin' on? I'm through yellin' for the moment."
"Perry, you gave me a pretty tough assignment." She shrugged and put out her hands to each side in a helpless gesture. "Make Clark look like Superman?" Then she looked straight at him with sincerity in her gaze. "I could only do so much with what I had to work with. I mean, there wasn't time to put him on a bodybuilding program. A suit that sags a little is the best I could do. We just needed more time than we had." She was selling as hard as she could just hoped he was buying.
"There's something' you're not tellin' me darlin'. But I'm used to that." He smiled his 'don't push me too far' smile, and went on. "All right, I'll wait and see what happens tonight. I promised Alice I'd take her to the performance. So far we've been outselling all the other papers because of your reports from the pageant. Just don't let me down with this last one. Now get out there and help in the newsroom. With Clark not here, we need somebody good workin' on re-writes." He waived his hand in dismissal and returned to the front-page layout.
Lois spent most of the morning writing copy based on reports of Superman's exploits around the city the previous night. After a few quiet days, Metropolis criminals were at work again. By mid-afternoon, she decided she should see what was happening at the pageant site and left, leaving word for Perry that she would see him tonight.
She was wandering around the auditorium, when she ran into Linda King who had a video cameraman in tow. "Linda! What happened to the rehearsal? Where did everybody go?"
"Late as usual, Lois. The rehearsal was over an hour ago. The contestants have all gone."
"Then what are you doing here with a camera man?"
Linda smiled. "Just getting ready for my big expos‚. Crime is on the loose in the city again today, and Superman will certainly have to go to the rescue somewhere tonight. And when he does, I'll get Clark Kent as Superman on tape."
Lois's stomach lurched with fear, but she covered her fright with a laugh. "Really, Linda, you could have had that at any time during the opening song last night."
"You know what I mean. I've found the place Superman will have to use to keep from being seen when he flies away, and when he returns, I'll catch him on video, landing and walking back into the auditorium as Clark Kent. He won't be able to deny it, and I'll have scooped every journalist in the world with the story of the century. The best reporter wins again, and you lose…again. When will you learn that I'm just too good for you?" She chortled triumphantly.
Lois kept her voice steady and her tone amused. "Superman wouldn't be caught within a mile of this place. He thinks the whole thing is embarrassing. Try all you want to, Linda. All you're gonna catch Clark in is that, as you put it, loose-fitting costume. I can't figure out why you're so dead sure Clark is Superman. He looks a little like him in the face, but you can see for yourself that the rest of him just doesn't measure up. I hope you haven't told anybody about your plan. Diana Stride thought Clark was Superman, and she ended up in jail. You might find yourself laughed out of journalism."
"I'll be the last one laughing, Lois, and she who laughs last… Come on, Bert, I'll show you where to set up." They walked toward the stage-left area and disappeared behind some curtains.
With panic rising in her chest, Lois ran for the exit and her jeep. She had to find Clark and tell him this latest development. In the car she rang his apartment with her cell phone, but there was no answer. He was probably out patrolling the city. She would just have to go over there and wait for him.
When Lois knocked on Clark's door, Jonathan answered. "Lois, what a nice surprise. We were sorry we didn't get to see you after last night."
"Jonathan, I tried to call, but no one answered, and I need to get hold of Clark."
Martha poked her head around the corner from the bedroom. "Hi, Lois. We were at the market and just got back. Is something wrong?"
"Martha, yes. Linda King is planning to trap Clark tonight and videotape him as Superman. I need to warn him."
"Calm down, honey. This isn't the first time Clark's had to watch out for somebody trying to expose him. We'll figure something out."
"That's right, Lois," Jonathan said. "He's out patrolling the city, but he should be back pretty soon. You just sit down and relax."
Martha looked at Lois carefully. "You look tired and frazzled. Have you had lunch?"
"I…I think so. I don't really remember. I'm too upset to eat."
"Jonathan, get Lois some tea and, I think there's half a chicken salad sandwich left in there. You'll feel a lot better honey, after you put something in your stomach." Martha led Lois by the arm to the couch, and they sat down together. "There's something here I want to show you. When you were in Smallville, you saw a few pictures of Clark when he was young, but you haven't seen these." She picked up an album from the coffee table and began pointing to photographs of Clark when he was a baby.
Before Lois knew what was happening she had relaxed, eaten a sandwich and drunk a cup of tea. After forty-five minutes had passed and Clark hadn't returned, Martha sent her home with the album to get some rest.
It was a hot afternoon and Lois's air conditioning was on the blink again. She threw a light wrapper over her bra and panties and stretched out on her bed. After looking at pictures in the album for a while, she gradually sank deeper into her pillows as the warmth of the afternoon combined with her relaxed drowsiness pushed her into a quiet sleep.
Superman, returning from his patrol of the city, flew by to check on Lois and, seeing her open window, decided to stop in and catch up on her day. As he entered, he called her name, "Lois?" but there was no answer. He stood quietly and heard her heart beating steadily. She must be in the bedroom. He would just take a quick look and then leave.
He stood in the open doorway, and his breath stopped as he saw her.
She was lying on her back, arms outstretched. The wrapper she was wearing had fallen away to reveal her body clad in flesh colored lace. The sight of her, revealed yet not revealed, mesmerized him. Remembrance of the previous afternoon overtook him, and he could feel his physical excitement mounting.
Her slightly parted lips called to him to taste their sweetness, to cover them with his own, drawing forth her essence, demanding that her unyielding spirit yield to him.
She stirred and moaned his name, "Clark." He knew he should leave, but he was Lot's wife, changed into an inanimate object for looking at what he should not. She began moving restlessly, searching, seeking. Suddenly her eyes opened and she looked straight at him. Her lips curved in a half smile as her eyes lit with recognition. She threw open her arms, and he was inanimate no more.
He crossed the room and was with her. They were together, kissing, touching; feeling desire, desperate and delicious, overtake them. "I was dreaming," she gasped. "Dreaming you were watching me, wanting me. I could feel your hands, your mouth. And then there you were."
Their need, born of the anxiety and tension of the past twenty-four hours, drew them together. Slowly they coaxed embers into flame, added fuel until the blaze roared again, and they found unity in passion's fire.
For the several hours until the pageant, they gave solace to one another. Lois forgot about Linda King as they made love, dozed, and made love again. But they could not hold the world at bay forever, and all too soon, their afternoon delight had to come to an end.
Apprehensive about Linda King, Lois didn't really want to let Clark go into the auditorium alone, but he, insisting she couldn't hang on his hip for the whole evening, refused to wait with her while she parked the jeep. As far as Linda was concerned, they were hoping that there would be no emergency for Superman to attend to. If it happened, he would try to avoid the video camera. When she arrived backstage, Clark was in the dressing room changing for the opening number.
Lois went to search behind the stage-left curtains for Linda King's stakeout. She saw a sign above a single pair of drawn drapes, and looking behind them, she saw a door that opened out to a small terrace. This had to be the place. It was the perfect getaway spot for Superman if he had to rush to the rescue somewhere.
Returning to where she started, she saw Linda King and Hughie Short whispering heatedly, but before she could sidle over to hear the conversation, a stagehand called five minutes and the contestants were lining up for the opening number. Clark waved a hello and then was gone into the shadows behind the curtains.
This evening's focus would shift from Superman to the selection of Super Metro Man, and the opening song would become his theme wherever he went. Instead of their Superman suits, the contestants would be wearing the white ties and black tails they had ended the evening with the night before.
Lois took her place in the wings at stage-right, and peeked into the audience. Jonathan and Martha were in the same seats as the night before. A few rows behind them she spotted Perry and Alice. <Oh, Lord, please, get us safely through this evening.> Then the house lights dimmed, and the orchestra played.
The same musical overture received the same response from the audience. Hughie Short made, if not the same, a similar introduction. The one exception was a broad hint that there would be a surprise guest at the end of the festivities. Then the spot hit the curtain, the fanfare sounded and the boys in black and white entered singing. Tonight they carried canes and punctuated the song's rhythm with occasional taps, which sometimes lost their synchronization and sounded like a machine gun salute.
Lois hadn't heard the new song nor seen the dance routine. She harbored a hope that both would be an improvement over the previous night's presentation. She was positive there was no place to go but up.
The choreography was similar to the initial routine but a little less complicated because the music was lighter and more rollicking. It was meant for light tripping, but the participants tripped in the same old way. Lois would have put her hands over her eyes to avoid watching, but she had to keep her eyes open wide and smile encouragingly for Clark. Then the words of the song assaulted her brain.
"He is the people's choice to substitute for Superman. "He may not fly up in the sky; "He's still a stand up guy. "Because he's standing in for Superman."
There must be something wrong with her hearing. This song couldn't possibly be worse than the Superman Superhero song.
"He represents our civic pride in ev'ry way he can. "We see him here, we see him there, "We see him everywhere. "Because he's standing in for Superman."
Clark was facing her from the stage, but he wouldn't look at her. He kept his head down in embarrassment. Most of the other contestants seemed not to be aware of the awfulness of what they were singing. Harold Schnerzenberger, apparently because of the lilting melody, had relaxed and was as close to jiving as his ramrod posture would allow. He smiled and waved to the crowd. Fly Fallone was moving his feet in a triple-time dance, giving his fans cheerful smirks as he held his hands over his head in a boxer's victory clasp.
"He cuts ribbons and makes speeches "As integrity he teaches, "But he never overreaches "When he's wearing those tight breeches."
Lois's mouth dropped open. Forget civic pride. Taste was now the big question. But to her surprise, the crowd greeted that last line with applause and guffaws. <The place must be loaded with Austin Powers fans.>
"He's courteous and patient and respects his fellow man. "He meets and greets effete elite "In ballrooms and in streets, "We chose him as our Super Metro Man."
"He is our Super Me tro Ma-a-a-n!"
At last it was over. Lois was aghast, Clark miserable and the audience was ecstatic. But Lois would bet that they'd have the same reaction to three apes banging cymbals and playing drums. Their mood could not be disturbed by sense or sensibility.
All of the contestants were to be interviewed again. As they were waiting, Lois reminded Clark not to be so smooth with his answers. He was up first, and this time he appeared to be nervous, stuttering and unsure of his answers. When he finished, Lois grabbed him and dragged him off to show him the exit and terrace she had discovered.
"Clark, what are we gonna do to stop this. You could be called away at any time, and she'll be waiting for you with her cameraman."
He looked around. "She said, 'I'll show you where to set up'? Then maybe…" Using his X-ray vision he spotted a video camera hidden behind a prop box. "Yeah, it makes sense she would use a separate camera. She'd take no chance the footage could get mixed up with the professional tape for TV."
Lois reached to pick up their find, but Clark stopped her. "Don't touch it, Lois."
"What's the big deal about fingerprints?"
"They're hard evidence that you touched the camera."
"Well, fingerprints will be pretty much moot, if we don't do something to screw up that camera."
"You forget who you're talking to. I don't need to touch it to screw it up."
"Right. I'm still getting used to the idea that Clark Kent is," she whispered, "you-know-who." She smiled. "So what are you going to do to it?"
"Something really simple and undetectable as long as they don't check the tape or exchange it before they use it. We'll still have to be concerned about that possibility, but I think Linda will be in too much of a hurry to bother about it."
"Okay, okay, so tell me."
"Every tape has a switch that can be set to prevent erasure. It works by mechanically opening a hole in the back of the cassette. I'm not going to touch the switch . I'm going to melt the plastic covering the hole so that it's open but the switch is unmoved. It'll be like a faulty tape."
"So…how does that help?"
"The guy will operate the camera, the tape will move through it, but nothing will record. He won't know what's happening until he finishes and discovers all he has is a blank tape."
She hugged him gleefully. "You are the best."
"Well, I try," he replied in mock modesty. Then he lowered his glasses and accomplished the deed.
Next they tried the exit door and explored the terrace. It was small and there was absolutely no place to hide. Anyone videotaping from the open door would record everything that happened there. While they were looking around, Clark suddenly raised his head in a familiar listening posture and exclaimed, "Lois! There's a big pile- up on the Interstate. I have to go. Cover for me?"
"Always. But you need to be back in forty-five minutes or you'll miss the next contest segment, and I don't know if I can think of a plausible reason for you not being here for that."
"I'll be back." And he was gone.
Everything was quiet. She decided to stay on the terrace to avoid any questions about where Clark might be. If Linda were around to tape when he came back, she'd pretend to be on the terrace making out with Clark. The whole scheme was tenuous, and they'd need a lot of luck for it to work. If Linda showed up too soon, there would be two witnesses to Superman's return, even if they had no videotape.
About twenty minutes later, Lois heard noises on the other side of the door. "Get that camera ready, Bert. He could be here at any moment. The police scanner said he left the accident site to the emergency team to clean up."
"Let me just check the tape to be—"
"We don't have time for that. You checked it before, didn't you?" At his nod, she finished, "Then open that curtain and let's get out on that terrace!"
There was a sudden "Whoosh" and Superman was standing in front of Lois. She whispered, "Linda!" pointing toward the still unopened door. "Can you spin into the saggy suit?"
He smiled and did as she asked. Lois unbuttoned a couple of buttons on her blouse and pulled it askew. Pushing her fingers through Clark's slicked-back hair, she tousled it while she kissed him with feverish fervor just as the door opened and camera lights played over them. Linda King shouted, "Gotcha!"
Lois broke off the kiss and turned a glare on Linda. "What are you, some kind of pervert? That tape shows up on some raunchy website, and you'll spend the rest of your life working to pay off the damage award from my lawsuit."
Linda laughed. "You think so? Bert and I both heard Superman fly down to this terrace. We have you and Superman in each other's arms on-camera. When he has to go inside for the Superman look-alike contest, we'll have him on tape every step of the way. No one will be able to deny that Clark Kent is Superman."
Lois stepped away from Clark's embrace. "You *heard* Superman? Not good enough, Linda. The real Superman did fly by here, but he didn't land. Clark and I've been out here, uh…interfacing for the last half hour. Take another look. What you have on tape is Clark in his Superhero contest suit. He may look a little like him, but he isn't Superman. You don't have proof of anything."
Clark added. "You should listen to Lois."
"He's not Superman."
"A passing resemblance maybe…"
"It's a thing he does at parties."
Linda shouted, "But we have you on tape."
Clark smiled. "That's right, Linda. You have *me* on tape. He took Lois's arm. "Come on, Lois. I have to get back for the Superman look-alike poses."
"Wait a second Clark. There's something I've gotta do first."
Lois looked at Linda and said, "Be sure to video tape this, Linda. I want you to be able to watch it over and over." Then turning to Clark, she put her arms around his neck and possessively commanded, "Clark, kiss me."
He swept her into a long, passionate embrace that left her shaken when he finally released her. She murmured to him, "M-m-m-m Clark, you can roll that film *every* night at eleven." He grinned smugly and tried to kiss her again. But she hadn't forgotten what she was up to.
Turning to her rival, she taunted, "Who's the winner, now, Linda. I'm the one who's laughing last."
She and Clark walked away as Linda said angrily, "You won't laugh for long. Replay that tape, Bert!" followed by "A-a- a-a-r-r-r-gh!" and language that they quickly closed the door on.
"What do you think?" Lois asked. "Did we torpedo her little scheme?"
"Sounds like it to me," he replied, draping an arm over her shoulders, as they returned to the stage-wing area to wait for his call.
Clark feared the Superman look-alike segment most of all. He was required to stand next to a life-size photograph of Superman and assume the familiar Superman position — arms crossed, stern facial visage — until the judges were through with their comparison. He had to hope that the tousled hair, glasses and saggy suit would continue to fake everyone out.
As usual, Lois had last minute instructions. "Here, put your glasses on. When you cross your arms, relax your biceps so you're not making any muscle. Don't tuck your chin and don't look stern. Just look like you always do — like a farm boy fresh off the turnip truck. They'll never think you look like Superman."
"Golly, gee whiz, thanks…I think."
"You know what I mean. Just do it."
She was right. The judges kept him standing there about half the time as most of the others. No winner was announced, just as there was no winner for the interviews. These two contests would be decisive in the final selection.
After the last contestant completed his ordeal with the Superman photo, the orchestra played a medley of show tunes while the judges conferred. Then Hughie Short took the spotlight again while the audience and contestants waited in anticipation.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm pleased to announce the five finalists for the title of Super Metro Man."
The spotlight hit the curtain with the logo, the fanfare sounded, and Hughie spoke the names in alphabetical order.
"Cody Cantrell!" Cantrell stepped onto the stage and into the spotlight. The applause and yells that started, never really stopped as each finalist was named in turn.
Hoping Clark had been eliminated, Lois held her breath and crossed her fingers.
<O god, he was still in it.>
The applause that had risen and receded in waves as Hughie announced each name, now roared to a thundering cascade.
Lois stood helplessly as Clark endured the acclaim that seemed to go on forever. He was wearing that bewildered, uncertain smile that made her want to hold his head against her breast and stroke his temples. The other finalists were laughing, interacting with the audience and celebrating their achievement.
Finally Hughie managed to get everybody quiet. "I know you want to cheer for your favorite, but we need to move along with the show, so we can come to the final selection. Each of our finalists will repeat each of the competitions, but, with the exception of the interviews, they will perform them simultaneously so that we, and the judges, can get a really good comparison."
He turned and spoke to the contestants. "Good luck to you all. Let the final competitions begin!"
When Hughie left the stage, he went looking for Linda King. The competitors prepared to begin their final run at the title beginning with the muscle-flexing event.
Lois watched what seemed to her to be agonizingly slow presentations. The one thing in Clark's favor was that he was now being compared with four other competitors, not Superman. To her, there was no question who the best guy was, but she had inside knowledge and a prejudiced eye.
As the stage business dragged on, she saw Hughie and Linda go through the stage door. Hughie was not happy, and Linda was pleading. Hughie came back a few minutes later, alone. Lois smiled. It didn't look as though there was going to be any startling expos‚.
Finally, the contestants completed all of the requirements. The judges consulted and handed Hughie Short the names of the contestants in reverse order, with the fourth runner-up listed first. He stood in the familiar spotlight, the crowd quieted instantly, and he began speaking.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the judges have reached their final conclusion. I hold, here in my hand, the name of the first Super Metro Man. But before I announce his name, let's bring all the contestants back on stage and congratulate them for creating a great show and for being the great contestants they are."
From both wings, while the orchestra played the abominable Super Metro Man song, the twenty-five men came on stage wearing their Superman costumes. The five finalists stood together in the center under the Super Metro Man logo. The audience stood on its feet, cheering and clapping.
Hughie allowed just a brief outburst and then waved them quiet. "And now what you've all been waiting for…"
The orchestra played a short fanfare pitched lower than normal.
"The fourth runner-up…CLARK KENT!"
Lois was stunned. It was over! Clark hadn't even made it into the top three. Linda could make all the accusations she wanted to. Without the videotape and with Clark placing out of the running, she'd be committing professional suicide to say anything.
Clark was safe. Lois wanted to laugh, she wanted to cry, she wanted to rush on stage and hold him. But most of all, she wanted to get him to herself…alone and away from any worries, for an uninterrupted couple of days. Perry had promised them two whole days off after the pageant was over. A week would be better, but she thought she could make him forget this whole nightmare pretty fast. And he'd probably be willing to return the favor.
She hadn't been paying too much attention, but she realized that Hughie had continued his announcement. The orchestra repeated the short fanfare a tone higher.
"Third runner-up: HAROLD SCHNERZENBERGER!"
The fact that Harold was blond and had such a heavy accent had been a detriment to him. Still, he sneered at Clark when his moment was over and the next runner-up was announced. "I still peat you, girly zhrimp. You fer lucky to mek it dis var. I see you at de chym. Ve vork out dogedder, you get more bopular vit girls…or guys. Vatefer."
The orchestra's fanfares continued to ascend the scale as each runner-up was named.
"Second runner-up: EDGAR CORTEZ!"
"First runner-up:" Hughie paused. Whatever name he read would also reveal the name of the winner. "CODY CANTRELL!"
The applause was deafening. Whistles and cheers escaped from the excited on-lookers. There were a few catcalls too from Cantrell's fans, disappointed that he had not won.
Now the orchestra blared out the Also Sprach Zarathustra fanfare again.
"And here he is, the new SUPER METRO MAN: FIORELLO FALLONE!"
The clapping and cheering continued for several minutes as Fallone took a turn to the end of the runway, acknowledging the applause, greeting his fans, pointing to individuals and applauding them in return.
After Fly returned to center-stage, Hughie walked over to stand beside him and Velcro a Super Metro Man logo to the winner's chest, covering the big red 'S'. He turned to the audience to speak again.
"And now for the special surprise I promised. Here to crown our Super Metro Man is television's own super hero, KEENE BLAINE, who played Superman in that great series, Krypton Never Dies."
The applause had died as Hughie was speaking, and when Keane Blaine strode onto the stage, screams and shrieks erupted from most of the girls, women, and gay men in the audience. He waved and postured for them, increasing their adoration.
Lois watching all this from the wings, quickly checked out Sheri Thrasher's reaction. The actress rose from her chair at the judges' table, visibly angry and upset, glaring helplessly at Hughie Short and Keane Blaine in turn. Lister tried to comfort her, but she shook him off, sat down again and began to weep quietly. Lister looked from her to the stage and back again, and his lips pressed grimly together.
Lois hoped Hughie wouldn't call Sheri to the stage because, while it could turn into a bigger story than the selection of Super Metro Man, and even though her reporter's instincts had kicked in, she was struck with sympathy for the actress. She knew what it was like to be in a relationship with a rat. Maybe Thrasher had two rats in her life. Lois had seen her talking with one of them and hoped Sheri could manage to avoid meeting Keane Blaine face-to- face.
Lois was curious about what had happened between these famous personalities to cause so much pain, but television celebrities and show business were two beats that she intended to avoid from now on.
At last it was all over. With the crowning, the hoop-la subsided, the audience departed, along with most of the contestants. Lois was once again waiting for Clark who was later than everyone else because he had been talking with his parents while Lois finished her story and phoned it in to the night editor at the Planet. While bringing the jeep around to the stage door she idly speculated how much it would cost the city in speech therapy to turn Fly Fallone into an intelligible speaker. When she re-entered she saw Dr. Lister talking with Linda King and Hughie Short, and thought she heard him inviting them for dinner.
Clark was finally ready, and they went out to the jeep. Sheri Thrasher was getting into her limo, which was just in front of them. Lois followed it toward the exit. Suddenly a man's figure appeared in the limo headlights, waving it to a halt. The door opened and Keane Blaine slipped into the back seat.
"What was that all about?" Clark questioned.
"I think that's something we don't need to know," Lois answered.
"What! Tenacious reporter Lois Lane doesn't want to expose the dark secret of the limousine?" he teased.
"Odd, isn't it? Exposing secrets doesn't have quite the satisfaction it used to. Some secrets, at least very personal ones, should be left alone." Her mouth curved slightly in a sad smile. Maybe Keane Blaine wasn't one of the rats. "Let's just call this a sisterhood thing, and let it go at that."
She maneuvered her way past the car in front, and onto the arterial street. As she drove, she asked hopefully, "So what do you want to do now, Mister Fourth Runner-up?"
He released a long, relaxed breath. "My folks went straight to the airport, and I have nothing to do for two days." He paused, looked at her, and asked in his most na‹ve off-the- turnip-truck voice, "Did you have something in mind?"
She laughed. "Your place or mine?"
Summer was over, the Superhero Pageant in the past. Perry's displeasure had waned and was finally forgotten when Lois and Clark broke a story that exposed the hideous hobbies of Dr. Emmanuel Lister. The doctor was on the run and sought by every U.S. law enforcement agency and Interpol. No one had seen or heard from him in weeks. He seemed to have dropped off the map into oblivion. Clark had kept trying to ask Lois the question and waited patiently as she kept avoiding the subject. Now fall was in the air and new investigations were on the horizon.
"Lois, Clark, in my office, now!" Perry barked as he crossed the newsroom floor on the way to his private domain.
Jumping up to follow, Lois and Clark exchanged looks and smiled. As they joined one another, Lois said, "It's good to be back in the Chief's good graces again."
"Yep," replied Clark. "There's nothing sweeter than the way he yells at you when you're at the top of his A-list." He opened the door and placed his hand on the small of her back to indicate that she should go in first. She gave him a quick smile and preceded him to the front of Perry's desk.
"What's up, Chief?"
Perry looked up at the two of them. He had been studying a letter in his hand, and now gestured at them with it. "I want to talk with you about a couple of things. First, Lois, I know you've been worrying about what coulda happened to Linda King when she disappeared after the Super Metro Man pageant, especially since she was last seen goin' off with Dr. Lister. Well, you can stop worrying. She's turned up."
Lois and Clark looked at each other and spoke in unison, "Dead or alive?"
"Very much alive. Seems she was up on Mackinac Island helping Fly Fallone work on his oral problems, but he's back in Metropolis now, and she's in California. She and Hughie Short had quite a falling out when she failed to produce the real Superman for the pageant. That kinda cut short Hughie's career in the pageant business, and he's gone back to being a color commentator on Sunday afternoon football. Rumor has it that Linda's gonna work on a movie script about beauty pageants for some Hollywood star. Anyway, she's not gonna be around here to bother anybody. Which reminds me…"
Lois had grabbed Clark's arm as Perry was speaking, and now she smiled happily at her lover who put his hand over hers and squeezed.
"Before I go on. Tell me, how are things going between the two of you?" Perry asked shrewdly.
The reporters looked at each other, and Clark said, "What do you mean?"
"Judas Priest, don't be coy with me. You may be able to pull the wool over everybody else's eyes, but this is me you're talkin' to. I didn't get to be Editor-in-Chief because I can yodel. I'm paid to know everything that goes on around here, and I know you're dating. It looks to me like you're fallin' in love, but I don't want your relationship interfering with the two of you getting the job done when I assign you something. Okay?"
"Of course not, Chief," Lois said.
Clark piggybacked with "Right, Chief."
"Well, I'm glad to hear you say that because, after that Super Hero fiasco, I want to be sure that you two can complete your work the way you're told to."
"No problem, Chief, " said Clark.
"Just like always," added Lois.
The two men turned and stared at her.
"What?" she questioned, innocently.
Perry responded. "I'd like a little more assurance than that, Lois, honey. I know you always start out tryin' to do what I tell you, but you seem to get off the freeway and onto one a those blue highways, and before I know it you've gone and ended up someplace else."
"You're usually satisfied with what I come back with, aren't you Perry. I mean, I may be a little unorthodox sometimes, but that's just the sign of a good reporter, right?"
He bowed to her cheerful confidence and said, "Just tell me you'll do your best to stay on track."
"Of course. Just like always."
Clark suppressed a smile. Whatever Perry wanted them to do, those blue lines on the roadmap would never stop beckoning to Lois.
Perry shook his head and gave up. It was the best he was going to get. "All right. I guess that'll have to do. Now here's the assignment I wanted to talk to you about. The Metropolis Summer Festival folks are already planning their Super Hero pageant for next year. Seems, they want to select a new Metro Man annually, and they want to know if the Daily Planet is going to enter a contestant again. So I'm putting you two on notice now, that Clark will be our candidate. That gives you almost a year to work out whatever problems you had this time. We want to be sure Clark wins this one."
Clark couldn't believe what he was hearing. Perry wanted him to go through that whole thing again? No way! It was over and he was out of it. Never, never again. Period. He opened his mouth, but Lois was there before him.
"We'll get on it, Chief. Don't worry about a thing. Clark and I can handle it."
"Good. Now get out of here and finish your assignments for the day."
"All finished and in your mailbox, Chief." Lois was out the door and on her way to get her purse.
"Mine, too, Perry." Clark followed her swiftly.
"Lois, are you crazy? What are you talking about? How can you agree to go through that whole awful thing again? And without even talking to me about it!" He followed her up the bullpen ramp to the elevators.
"Don't worry, Clark. It'll work out just fine, this time. I have it all figured out. You'll never have to compete." She stepped into the elevator and pushed the button.
"How are you going to do that? This better not be another one of your schemes that backfires all over me."
"My schemes don't backfire."
He looked at her doubtfully. She pressed the button again and, tilting her head to one side, regarded him with a serious expression, as though gauging his worth. Suddenly her head straightened, and she flashed a radiant smile, saying, "You know that question you keep trying to ask me?"
He nodded, at first, suspicious; then he grinned vacuously as he succumbed to her glow.
"Married men aren't eligible for the contest."
The elevator door closed, and he stood staring at it, slowly realizing what she had said. He was through the stairway exit and on his way to the main floor before anyone noticed. When Lois arrived at ground level, he stepped into the enclosure before she could step out. Punching the express button for the roof, he took her in his arms and, with a kiss, stopped her from speaking. She had already said what he'd been waiting to hear.
1. My gratitude to author Thomas Harris for creating Hannibal Lecter. I intend no disrespect to the author's creativity or infringement upon his rights. While I have read the three Lecter novels, my portrayal here is primarily based on the brilliant screen interpretation by Sir Anothony Hopkins.
2. In the Super Metro Man song, the lines 'We see him here, we see him there, We see him everywhere,' are homage to The Scarlet Pimpernel, Sir Percy Blakeney, one of my favorite romantic characters. A man of the 18th century, Sir Percy had no super powers, but he did have a secret identity, and he sometimes hid it behind bad poetry.
3. For Clark's 'talent', I am indebted to the great Harlem Globetrotters who have entertained millions exhibiting their basketball skills to the tune of 'Sweet Georgia Brown'.
4. Evgeny Kuliakin, dancin' and singin' in the rain, is my tribute to Gene Kelly doing the same in (IMO) the best and funniest musical Hollywood ever produced.
5. The reference to three apes playing drums and cymbals is a nod to The Nairobi Trio created by the comedy genius, Ernie Kovacs. Like Lois, the TV network suits thought the humor was too off-the-wall. IMO, it's one of the two funniest comedy sketches ever televised.
6. The term 'blue highways' is from the book of the same name, a cult classic by William Least Heat Moon. It details his experiences on the less traveled roads designated in blue on U.S. roadmaps.
Courteous constructive criticism is welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org