By Debby Stark firstname.lastname@example.org
November 4, 1995
Summary: Superman goes to court to defend the way he handled the Slime Monster attack. Clark is *finally* ready to tell Lois his secret, but her apartment is abandoned. Is this the end of their relationship?
This continues the story started in Dawning and continued in Dawning 2-8. If you missed any of those (and they should be read in order), ask me, visit my ftp site (ftp.swcp.com/pub/users/dstark), or the fanfic index keeper. All recognizable characters mentioned below are the property of their respective owners. I refer below to a movie that probably most readers haven't seen; it is available on video.
Over the breakfast table in the Kent household dining room, Clark Kent gave his folks all the juicy details of the bank investigation: Lois Lane being thrown off the building to trap Superman; the string of attempted robberies that had lulled the bank into a false sense of security; he and his friends being caught in the big middle of the real things; and how he'd survived two close brushes with Kryptonite…!
But Martha and Jonathan Kent, while soaking all this up with rapt expressions, seemed just a bit more interested in how their son and Lois were getting along now.
"Yes, 'that,'" his mom said, a full-strength twinkle in her eyes.
He looked at his dad and saw he was twinkling, too. And here, Clark thought, I've been babbling like a kid about how exciting work's been… He sighed, making it deep and exaggerated. "I guess we're friends again…"
"Guess?" his father frowned. "Son, you have to be decisive about these things."
Decisive with Lois? Ha… Clark looked at his mom. "Was Dad decisive with you?" he asked even though he was sure he knew the answer.
But it wasn't the one he got. "Every step of the way." She touched Jonathan's arm lovingly. "You always knew what you wanted…"
"A farmer has to have a plan in mind or the whole operation will slide right down the drain faster than a whistle."
"Yes… That reminds me, you'll wash the dishes, won't you, dear?"
"Oh, I suppose so, it's my turn…" He looked at Clark. "Besides, she's going to paint the back porch today."
"I repaired an old sprayer I found at a yard sale. It works just fine now and it will save a lot of time."
"That was a good idea," Clark smiled, but an insight eased up and tickled: had the parts of the decisive path his father traveled down in courting his mother actually been measured and laid down by the gentler-looking half of the duo?
It wasn't impossible, his mom was a brilliant woman.
Then again, so was Lois in many ways. Odd about that, how the two women were similar. What if…
What if *Lois* were designing a path for them both to take, it would be just like her to think she could.
I should be alert for that possibility, he thought.
His mom leaned toward him. "Come on, now, tell us how last Sunday was and then Wednesday. The *whole* story this time, hmm?"
"Well…" He found himself smiling again as he admitted that things between Lois and himself had clicked right back into place and were somehow even better than before. Maybe getting mad at each other hadn't been *such* a bad thing. It hadn't ruined their relationship, but somehow strengthened it. Funny, wasn't it? "I don't *want* to get mad at her, or make her mad at me, but we seem to do a lot of that, and this time… well, it didn't kill us, we got some things out in the open, so I guess it was what we needed."
His mother nodded, her eyes warm. Yep, that was it.
Of course he still hadn't been able to tell Lois everything yet, the most recent lost chance being the night before in the vault when she had seemed ready to hear the news. But telling her wasn't quite so… terrifyingly urgent any more. It had to be done, yes, before things got any more serious between them. It probably would work out okay, too, since she wasn't mad anymore at the man-in-blue part of him for Wednesday night's disastrous-looking but successful plan.
But spending this evening vedging out in front of the TV, both of them determined not to draw any interruptions, appealed strongly.
"Sounds like you just need a breather, son," his father said as he sat back, a knowing look on his face, too.
"Yeah, maybe things will slow down for a few days. Lois needs some real rest without realizing she's getting it, though I don't know if I'll get any until my vacation because something's come up. You'll read about it…" He motioned at the Sunday Daily Planet he'd brought; it was lying on the antique chair next to the hutch. The headline Perry had written ("Superman's Super Suit Shocker") was below the fold so his folks hadn't seen it yet. "It's not a big thing, and I'm not very worried about it, but it could be time consuming."
"Well, spit it out, son."
"Oh, I'm just being sued, Dad."
Clark had expected his father's gasp and his mother's blinking double take, but he wondered briefly if he should have worded it a little more carefully. Then again, maybe the gravity of this new problem would make it easier for them to grant a little request he planned to make. He simply wanted them to hide the chunk of lead-foiled Kryptonite they hadn't yet noticed he'd placed near the flowery centerpiece. After all, they might need it sometime. He considered picking it up and playing with it but that would be too much.
"Well, it's not *me* being sued, it's Superman--I mean, it *is* me, but… well, you know what I mean. But I wrote it up, it's in today's edition. I've got bylines all over the front page today, isn't that great?"
Jonathan leaned forward, obviously refusing to be sidetracked, pinning his son with a concerned frown. Clark wondered just how his mother was able to go off on tangents and be assured of a following. When he, Clark, tried it, he usually turned around to see the person he intended to lead astray standing back on the path, tapping her foot, checking her watch, warning him that while they were partners, she was still in charge and he better get back over here right now…
"Son, you're being *sued?*"
"Well, yes, but I think it's going to be all right."
Naturally this required an in-depth explanation and assurances that they didn't need to rush to Metropolis, least of all to help Superman, who, he reminded them, they didn't know except as their son's casual friend. But that was why he was telling them all this, so they would have the facts if--okay, when sensational stories leaked beyond the boundaries of Metropolis. He hoped the news wouldn't make it that far, this really wasn't so important, and it certainly wouldn't become a case of the Defendant of Steel winding up in jail again, like during Luthor's heatwave.
The worst he thought could happen was that the court could eventually find against him. Superman might have to fly around for the next, oh, thirty years with a beggar's cup, collecting tips and donations because he refused to take from the Superman Foundation the multimillions that the plaintiffs might be awarded.
Explaining this took more time and more pancakes than he had planned. But because his parents also thought it was a stupid case that he'd win hands down, and it looked like he'd done all the right things in response as far as they could tell, and sure they'd hide the Kryptonite, no problem, he felt a lot better as he left Kansas at almost noon Metropolis time and flew toward the South Pacific.
There he secretly sabotaged fourteen French Navy vessels carrying marines intent on stopping, boarding and commandeering two rough-and-tumble Greenpeace ships. Those two he checked over but they didn't require any hidden repairs or other help. Due to his ignorance of the workings of complex nuclear devices, Clark kept well away from them, certain that they wouldn't be set off for the test until there were at least no French nationals in the waters around the test site. With his "help," though, there would be quite a few stranded boats in the area for at least a week, and then he'd come back and play with them some more, buying extra time for activists worldwide, which was only fair.
Heading back toward Metropolis, he did some other helpful deeds, letting his budding (he hoped it was budding) intuition lead him here and there over the globe. He got back home in time to head out again in regular clothes, do some chores, chat with neighbors, and then return to mull over his video collection for 6.5 seconds, looking for additional tapes to take along for the heavy-duty vegetating.
Lois opened the door and welcomed him with a smile just as he was about to knock at five p.m. sharp. She was dressed fashionably grubby, in shorts and an old burgundy- colored sweat shirt with a roughly scooped neckline and cut off sleeves. He'd settled on a T-shirt with the slogan "Happy Camper" he'd gotten out of an National Public Radio catalog, and stone washed jeans (which he had once washed in a stony Andean stream).
"Perfect!" was her verdict upon looking him over. She took the videos and nodded her approval of the first one, but frowned uncertainly at the second. "Monty Python…"
"Not too serious, is it? It has the Dead Parrot sketch *and* Confuse a Cat…"
"Ah, the Dead Parrot sketch, you *do* know how to sweet talk a girl. For my part, I dug out a Three Stooges compilation I forgot I had, how's that?"
"Perfect! I'm ready to vedge."
"Can you smell the popcorn?"
"And the butter. They smell great. I'm starving." Bending propellers a bit and punching nonlethal holes in touchy areas of battleship hulls really took it out of a guy, he thought.
"Well, I opened a new bag to make the first batch of popcorn, so we won't run out."
"Great. I like a woman who thinks ahead."
She grinned. "You'd be surprised…!"
Oh, no, I wouldn't, he almost said, hoping he was keeping all signs of his smug feeling off his face. I'm on to you. You can have fun planning things all you want, but you can't fool me, I'm making the decisions about my life. "Can I help in the kitchen?"
"No. Sit--Oh, you can turn on the TV and VCR if you want."
He did so, and she brought out a big bottle of soda, two glasses, and a big bowl of full of popcorn. When her back was turned to him as she opened and poured the soda, he picked up two of the videos, hers and one of his, held them behind his back, and, when she turned around again, he said "Choose one."
"A video? Oh, okay. Well, you're more expressive with your left hand for some reason, so you probably used it to pick up that Marx Brothers one I want to see."
She smiled, shook her head and pointed at his left side.
He looked because he hadn't noticed in particular. How about that, she was right. "Good guess--Good *reasoning.*"
He put the tape in the VCR, tossed her the remote and sat down beside her to her left. She had settled dead center of the couch, forcing him to squeeze into a corner. Sitting hip to hip with her felt okay though, it seemed like ages since they had been this kind of close. She started the tape, leaned forward, picked up the bowl of popcorn, balanced it on their laps between them, and they both dug in. She also put her bare feet up on the coffee table. She had once said: "What else can this piece of furniture be for? I don't subscribe to *that* many magazines…" He eased his sandals off and did the same. She wiggled her toes at him and he returned the gesture and grinned when she did.
"When was the last time we did this?" she wondered as Mrs. Rittenhouse's guests sung to Captain Spalding, newly carried on to the set by a half-dozen African-American extras.
"It seems like we used to do this all the time."
"Sing in big choruses with our friends?"
"No, this: sitting and watching TV."
"Oh, *this* this. It's been weeks and weeks, hasn't it? I think the last time was when I stayed at your place."
"Yeah… That was fun. You know, I still miss you…"
"Oh? And I… I didn't send you a thank you card, darn…"
"'Thank you card'? That's not what I…"
She gave him an urgent look.
He said, "What are you trying to tell me?"
"We weren't going to get serious," she whispered so the gods of misfortune wouldn't hear.
"Oh, yes, right, ah… Listen, here's the 'I must be going' song."
She listened. She smiled. "Your theme song-- whoops!" She covered her mouth with her hand and mumbled: "Sorry, my mistake."
"Well, it's *not* my theme song, not any more. I mean, I have a… a reason--"
She covered his mouth. Her hand smelled like the garlic powder she'd added to the popcorn butter. "Shh!" she warned, "That's certainly too serious!"
He hoped his eyes said "Thanks for stopping me!"
Apparently they did. She uncovered him slowly, watchful for misspoken syllables. He just smiled carefully, though he liked the way she was watching him, it almost made him tingle. She licked her lips, probably unaware of how suggestive it seemed to him, smiled, too, and nodded, no doubt assured that their peace had not been breached.
Then she leaned forward and up a bit and he met her lips half way for a brief, tingly garlic kiss. He hoped that was a little serious, though playful was okay, too.
"Yeah," he sighed, "we *really* haven't been doing enough of this lately…" and how truly content he felt that he himself--and not some blue-suited guy or some conniving billionaire or some slimy Frenchman or anyone else--was the object of her attention these days.
"You'll stay a week or two?" she asked.
"Oh, I'll stay the summer through."
"But please don't tell me…"
"That I must be going? Never!" Assuming a dirigible didn't crash into the building next door, that is. "You're stuck with me, ma'am."
"Umm!" She gave him a little growl of appreciation and promise, turned, sat back again and snuggled--then sat forward and complained: "Your arm is wrong, buddy."
"Sorry." He put his right arm up along the back of the couch; she snuggled properly under it and pulled it down into place as though it belonged there. Yes, this did feel very good.
They settled in to vegetate, eat popcorn, drink soda, and watch the rest of the movie without doing anything more serious than laughing, rewinding parts they didn't catch, and laughing some more.
After the movie it was a different story. She turned toward him. "That was a good one, Kent, you've been holding back on me."
"I was saving the best, I guess…"
"Well, sort of…" Nah, it looks like, he thought, I've been saving *me* for last…
And he wanted to be the best, the very best for her, but how?
"And I feel like we're only just starting. You've been terrific about everything over the last month or so--"
"You have been, too."
"Then we both deserve rewards, me for… being serene when I can and you for acting when the time was right."
I've been *trying* to find the right time… "Rewards?"
"To convince us to keep at it."
If only I could, he thought, right here and now, tell you that one last little thing… "I don't need much convincing."
"Neither do I," she smiled.
Did she have a tingly feeling building, too? They had experienced tingly moods together in situations like this, even though the last time had been a while ago, but it looked like neither of them had forgotten how it felt. What he hoped was his good sense suggested he ask: "You had something in mind?"
"You said you like a woman who thinks ahead…"
"As long as she looks exactly like you, as long as she *is* you."
When he smiled she planted a kiss on it and he didn't make her work to draw one like it out of him. "I guess the Stooges and Monty Python will have to wait," he said when that occurred to him.
"Yes." She used the remote to turned off the VCR and TV--then in turning back in a quick move she straddled his lap and looked at him, looking him over.
Wow, he thought, captivated by her eyes. This, he realized, was just what he wanted even though it wasn't something they'd done before. But he felt compelled to remind her: "Lois, I want to have some fun but are you sure about this? I mean, Wednesday was just--"
"Almost a whole week ago."
"Almost four days."
"That's almost a week."
"Whose counting? *I'm* not. Don't worry, I'm feeling just fine. Are *you* feeling fine?"
"Ah, never better…"
"Then let me do something here first."
In another surprising move, she grabbed the bottom of his T-shirt and proceeded to try to pull it up over his head.
"Lois! What *are* you doing?!"
"You have to ask?" she laughed. "Get your arms up, now!"
"No buts--unless…" she paused, "unless it's just the garlic speaking and I'm moving too fast…"
"Well…" Their eyes met. Was she truly concerned, he thought, and not wondering just why a guy his age was hesitating? Did she sense this was a little… well, face it, frightening--no, no, not *that*… *unexpected*--for one of them? She had seen him shirtless several times, but they hadn't at the same time been this close or ever mutually in this mood, though he had dreamed about. But she must have been concerned because it felt all right to say "No, you're not really, I'm just, you know… surprised."
"I know," she said gently. "Raise your arms."
He did so, rescuing his glasses before her maneuver could knock them off. She tossed the shirt aside like some rag.
Her pleased smile was welcome. "Much better!" She closed in again for another deeper, longer kiss, making him tingle more as she occupied her hands exploring his neck and broad shoulders. This part was all familiar and welcome. He also did a bit of discrete and gentlemanly exploring, gently stroking her back, and he heard himself say "Oh…" when she let him up for air. He realized his hands had paused where he would usually have felt her bra straps. There were none.
"Still feeling fine?" she whispered in his ear.
"I'm feeling… less than I expected…" he whispered in return.
The room was quiet as they just held each other and breathed together. He closed his eyes. He was glad she wasn't being particularly pushy and didn't expect him to be, that she wasn't moving too fast. He just wanted to enjoy this and all its implications without worrying if he could follow through to their mutual satisfaction.
She pulled away slowly, a very… *friendly* look on her face. "Do you want to… 'feel' better?"
"Ah…" Yes… No! *Wait!*
Good grief, he told himself: you're acting like a wide- eyed *kid*, Kent, and you're a *grown adult*…
In a passionate rendezvous with the woman of my dreams who I really don't want to make a bad impression on…
Unless, he thought, considering how she's sitting on me, she's already noticed and I'm making a *really* interesting impression right now…
Her encouraging expression didn't help much when, he told himself, a clear head was needed here.
--*What* am I thinking? he demanded of himself, glad he wasn't prone to blushing.
Affecting an airy manner was not quite the right thing to do in response to that look she was giving him, but it was the only solution that stepped forward and took over from analytical brainlock. "Well, sure."
She raised an eyebrow. "Sure? Then how would you like to do that?"
Back to square one…
I should have paid more attention in high school and college, should have gone out more, had more fun instead of chess club and classes and avoiding this kind of thing…
Just because if I get careless I can crush a person between my fingers doesn't mean…
Well, yes, actually, it does mean exactly that, the logical side of himself advised.
He told that side to pipe down, it wasn't helping matters any, particularly after its earlier "clear head" remark. "I'd like…" he decided to say carefully, "to ask what *you'd* like…"
Her raised eyebrows evened out, relaxed, and her expression warmed again.
Score one for the rank amateur!
"Clark, what *I'd* like you to do is take hold of this," the edge of her short-sleeved sweat shirt, "and take this thing off me, slowly."
"Oh." Was *that* all? Well, *that* was simple…
Except that he could foresee that, as the rest of his body was trying to tell him, it would be one of the most exciting things he'd ever done in his life unless he lost his world-famous control and made a utter fool of himself.
She raised her arms and he grasped the edge of her shirt and worked it up and off her slowly, wondering why she thought that speed had been important to mention. But, giving himself credit, he figured that out quickly enough.
The perfume of her warm body poured over him and his control called for the check, it was leaving. She moaned, too, and the thrill that caused him didn't make self government any easier. He could have sworn he was sweating or blushing or both, or definitely *should* have been, especially when she whispered "Hurry, hurry!"
Ohmigosh, this could be it--no, it can't be it--can it? An orgasm? He'd read books and seen a few risque movies in dorm rooms after midnight, and women didn't have such things this fast, he told himself. It takes a lot more time for a woman and less time for… well, me, so *calm down*…
Except… except what now?
Slow down, he ordered his body and babbly brain, *just slow down.* You're not a human male, you have better control than any of them ever dreamed about--in theory, anyway, in just-made-up theory--and she knows what she wants, she'll tell me or make it obvious, and just hope it's *soon*…
He tossed the shirt aside, trying to make the move as careless as she had in getting rid of his shirt--and *not* look like he was totally captivated with this new aspect of her that she was presenting, face to, well, breasts… Instead he tried to widen his scope of attention. He noticed that she was lowering her arms again, slowly, her eyes were closed, and she was biting her lower lip.
That was odd, it didn't seem to fit in with the mood. "You're pale," he said--*That's* a stupid thing to say! "I mean, you're *face* is pale." The rest of her was marvelously tanned. Could he say that? Would she like to hear him say that? The pale meant something though… "Are you all right?--I mean, you *are*, you look great, wonderful--but something's not… ah…"
"Clark," she said, her voice strained, "…shut up."
Now there was an idea. "Okay. I will. Shut up, that is, not say anything more… ah…"
He noticed her hands were fists, her eyes were still closed, her face somewhat less pale.
"Something *is* wrong…" he whispered.
"I'm sorry… I shouldn't have moved like that…" She unclenched and rested her hands on his shoulders (this reminded him that he hadn't figured out the proper place to put his hands yet, whether on her or anywhere else). "…my back… wasn't ready…"
"Your back hurts?"
"Yes… Maybe four days wasn't enough…"
"Well, yesterday you knocked out that guard and then you crawled under the desk and you were going to jump on that woman…"
"Oh." That made sense maybe. He had no idea if he had adrenalin; probably the Kryptonian version. Right now he didn't need it. Right now, the pain on her face made her look totally unexciting but, conversely, in great need of him, or rather of his help. "Do you… do you want a massage? Can you lay down? I mean, on your… front? Face down?"
She blinked her eyes open, frowned, and thought about this for five long seconds. He made every effort to keep his eyes on her face lest she catch them straying to watch the movement of her breasts caused by the simple act of breathing. She might then think he didn't care about her health when he really did, a lot. "I guess," she said at last, "I'll trade a 'front' side massage for a back side one."
"I'll give you a rain check…" *believe* me.
She managed a smile. "Didn't Groucho say… 'if I say I like your body, will you hold it against me?'"
"Yes, something like that."
"Then you can say that later if you want and I'll do it, okay?"
"Only if you're feeling all right, *totally* all right."
They disengaged carefully. He tried to help without really quite touching her anywhere but her arms, and she stretched out slowly on the couch. Then she pushed up, wincing, and said, "Wait a minute… there's not… enough room here… The floor."
"The floor?" It was covered with a thick Navajo blanket.
"Move the coffee table."
"Oh, of course."
He moved it out of the way without spilling anything, and she laid down there were it had been. He took advantage of her being unable to see him do so to lift his glasses, inspect her muscle structure and determine that her problem probably was as expected from the strains gained Wednesday night. He rubbed his hands together briefly to warm them and proceeded to massage her back using some techniques he had picked up in visits to China. He had only used them once, on his mother when she had strained her back several years earlier due to a fall off the barn; fortunately she had landed in a haystack while Lois had landed in his arms. "Tell me I if do *anything* that's uncomfortable…"
"Ummm… Your hands are strong…"
Don't remind me. "Does it hurt?"
"No. Press a little harder right… there… ahh…"
"There" was a triggerpoint, he could feel the knot of it. He pressed a bit harder, working on it until the muscle loosened up and he could move on. After a soothing three minutes of this in which she proved she could take a lot more pressure than he had expected, she mumbled that if he didn't mind the fragrance, she had some baby lotion in the bedroom on the vanity. He retrieved it, its use did make things easier and that fragrance brought pleasant childhood memories. In time she had a blissful smile on her relaxed face.
Seeing that, he thought, was an acceptable consolation prize. After all, if they had gotten any further with the… other thing, she might not have been smiling for long; laughing was more likely.
A few minutes later she asked where he had learned to do this, and he said, "Shanghai and, oh, my mom walks on my dad's back sometimes."
Eyes closed still, Lois grinned ruefully. "Maybe I can walk on *your* back."
"Maybe…" That could be a lot of fun. His dad always seemed to like it and cold feet wouldn't be a problem.
"Maybe when you're done."
"Umm… and to think I paid someone $50 to do this… last Friday night… umm… when I only had to go to your place… kick that freeloader… Superman out, and… umm… lie down and point you at my… back."
"That would have been something to see. A warm up for Saturday night's fight. Would you have come dressed in seven veils?"
"Uggh… I'll have you know I still have that costume."
"I'll have to get you some ostrich plumes to go with it."
"Delightful," she sighed. She was quiet for a while then, until eventually she said, "I want to roll over now…"
For a "front" massage? he wondered, of two minds about the prospect. He didn't hesitate this time to warn her, "Be careful…"
While she moved, he distracted himself by finding her shirt and when she was on her back, he blanketed her with the piece of clothing. She smiled as though it wasn't quite what she had in mind. He felt blanketed himself, stifled--and yet relieved. It had been such a close call… There'd be more calls like this surely, calls he would answer--*after* he told her everything.
She looked at him sleepily. "That felt good, Clark, you're so sweet…"
"Yeah, that's me all right…"
"Aww, you don't want to be sweet?"
"Actually… no, not all the time, but it goes with the territory."
"The mild mannered territory."
"As in boring?"
"Like *I* didn't know better?"
"Oh?" Like she'd find out at this rate?
"Clark, you're my best friend, and the first boyfriend I've ever felt truly comfortable with, and you'd *never* take advantage of me…"
"Never," especially since she was lying there practically helpless.
"But maybe…" She ran her fingertips up his right side, tingling. He leaned forward a bit so she didn't have to stretch to keep in contact (being thoughtful has its virtues, too, he reflected). "Maybe I can convince you that it's okay…"
"…and we can personally find out more about that spicy side of your territory."
"Shhh…" She touched his upper arm, coaxing him closer, and he gave her a light kiss. She massaged his neck and kept him from easing away again. "Don't go, I'm not going to bite you, not right away…"
Good grief, reality: she'd break her teeth if she tried that. "Lois, you almost strained your back again."
"I know. We'll strain yours now instead."
"Well…" Was that *such* a bad idea? Guys were supposed to make the major moves anyhow, particularly spicy guys. He'd have control of the matter, too, maybe complete control, and he could keep her from injuring herself and them from going further than he felt comfortable about trying. "If we take it easy."
"Whatever you say."
As he leaned forward to kiss her again in a gentle, nonstraining manner, she ran her hand down his left arm, somehow took his left wrist, and guided his hand to a strategic area under the cover-up shirt.
He knew exactly what he had been given to hold and was pleasantly surprised at how… cup-able it was.
She then whispered, "Now the other one…"
Wait a minute, wait a minute, I didn't plan it to happen this way…
His memory was crystal clear about the last time he'd done something like this. A class mate had lured him, an innocent freshman with more on his mind than their mutual history class, to her car to exchange notes in the dark and, as she put it when she got him there, to do some groping. Because she was beautiful, apparently liked him and was the very first one to hint at wanting to go that far and *maybe* further with him of all people, he'd thrown to the wind what little caution he had entertained about the matter. In a move too much like Lois was proposing now, he'd squeezed passionately--and she had yelped. He had panicked and fallen back. The young woman had laughed, said he shouldn't worry, he was stronger than he looked, didn't he play football or something, and she wanted more of the same and she'd show him how to be a little more careful.
But, badly shaken because he simply couldn't remember what exactly he had done in the heat of the moment, he feared he couldn't be more careful. He had made some excuse, gathered his books and fled. Minutes later he was alone in some Canadian wilderness and hours after his arrival he had calmed down and worked it all out, coming to some heavy conclusions. He had promised the universe to never do anything like that to anyone ever again. It was just too risky too touch someone he admired and respected with the same hands that could effortlessly stop a charging bull.. and for all he knew his bizarre alien mind might be that of a sex maniac from Mars and it was best for everyone concerned if he kept himself under strict control.
But, he reminded himself, that was ten years ago, he had a much better understanding of his strength now and he was reasonably certain that Kryptonians had sex drives comparable to the average human. Most importantly, the Kents hadn't raised a pervert.
Too, this was Lois, the woman he'd dreamed about and who he kissed quite a few times, until recently most often while he was in the suit. She had risked those fervent exchanges and survived quite nicely, thank you, though she had no idea she was kissing the same fellow in him. The massage had loosened her up back; this activity, kept gentle, probably wouldn't hurt her; she wanted this, too, obviously, and with him and not with someone else; and it wasn't like they were going to progress to… well, *that*…
Kent, stop thinking about it and *act*!
So 2.5 seconds after her request, he moved his right hand carefully to comply.
She smiled. That made him tingle, too, and decide, as she eased her hands behind his neck and coaxed him toward her again, that it was time to nibble her ear. She had once told him he was good at that. Actually, this had been about three months earlier and she had mumbled, "Hey, you're pretty good at that…" and after 45 seconds of her nibbling his, too, "Really we should… ah… try to get out of here…" What with the flood waters rising and their feet shackled to the floor of the log cabin, for some reason they'd felt it necessary to mutually distract each other as death loomed. After she pointed out their situation again, he had reached down into the murk and found that the chains had been "loosened" by the water.
But before he could engage in nibbling under far better circumstances, she said, "Oh, these are about to fall off." She moved her hands up a few inches to take his glasses. "You don't need them with me…" But she paused. "If you don't mind…"
He hesitated to pull away and especially to remove his otherwise preoccupied hands to stop her. How had he gotten in this situation?
But could *this* be the time, even though he hadn't planned it? Everything seemed so… right. If she did recognize him as also being that other guy, all things considered she might be in the mood to listen and understand why he was being *so careful,* and they could work together and… Yes, this was the time. "It's all right," he whispered.
She smiled as though she were ready for anything, which was incredibly comforting.
There was a sound at the door.
They both froze, her in mid pluck, him in midsurrender to it.
The sound was that of someone furtively using a key.
He immediately noticed that his body temperature dropped a figurative ten degrees. He straightened a bit, glanced toward the door, removed his left hand from that comfortable place she and then he had wanted it, and repositioned his glasses. So much for spicing up his life. "Lucy?" he whispered to Lois because he was unable to look through the door for himself.
"It better *not* be, I told her we'd be busy--my gosh, maybe it's the landlord!"
"On Sunday afternoon?"
"No one's said anything about Wednesday night yet," she said tersely. "Maybe he's bringing the bill." She grasped at the couch, grabbed one of the arms, and pulled herself up. He watched her but she seemed to have no trouble. The shirt fell away, and she glanced down a moment. "Oh, well, we'll startle him," she said, almost matter of factly. "It'll serve him right."
Clark stared, dragged his eyes away, met hers (which looked a touch too merry considering the gravity of the situation, he thought later), and he frowned. "Lois…!"
She rolled her eyes and repositioned the shirt to take into account what he realized was his own prudishness. But she smiled a bit, too, now, and said, "Okay, then, go scare him away--and don't act sweet or he'll walk right over your *front side* and leave tire treads."
Scare, sweet, walk, tire treads? Fortunately, she didn't look angry with him; he wasn't sure what he would have done had that been the case.
Whoever it was had been stopped by the two chains. They pulled the door closed again and proceeded to knock loudly. Clark prepared himself to look the part of the indignant and then mean boyfriend if necessary, unchained the door and opened it.
It was Ellen Lane, Lois's mother.
Thoughts about being the angry, protective boyfriend flew right out of Clark's head. "Oh, hello, Mrs. Lane, we were just--"
"Mr. Kent? What are you…" The petite, gray-haired woman, dressed in a business suit and high heels and carrying a brief case and over-night bag, looked at his face, at his chest, and then she looked around him. "Lois? Lois!"
Lois's eyes were wide. She almost dropped the shirt again, but then held it up to cover even more. "Mother! What are *you* doing here?!"
Mrs. Lane pushed by Clark as though he were an ineffective doorstop. "What am *I* doing here? You were nearly killed last week! I'm sorry I wasn't here sooner!"
"But you didn't have to--"
"Of course I did! I want to be here for you!" She dropped her luggage on the nearest chair, rushed to the couch where she grabbed up an afghan. She insisted that Lois sit up on the couch and then sat down next to her and draped the multicolored blanket over her daughter's shoulders. "My poor baby girl…"
"I'm not your 'baby girl'--you didn't *call*--"
"I wasn't sure I could get a flight and I knew you'd be disappointed, but then something opened up. I don't have to be in San Francisco until Tuesday morning, so I can spend some time here with you and make sure you're all right and not…" She looked at Clark and the look shot daggers. "under a lot of *stress*…"
Clark had no idea how to defend himself.
"Mother, I'm *not* under *stress,* Clark and I were just… watching videos."
"I can see that," her mother said drily.
"Well, we *were*!"
"Ah, Lois, maybe I better," he motioned toward the door, "be going…"
The look she gave him said "coward!" but it changed quickly to wait I *can* fix this! He hoped she could but it looked like the time for that, if there had been one, had vanished only seconds after Mrs. Lane had rushed into the room.
Ellen Lane stood up and looked almost angry and definitely protective. "That's a good idea, Mr. Kent. My daughter needs to *rest*."
Well, I can't argue with that, Clark thought. "Rest is good--"
"But it is, your back--"
"My back is *fine*."
He knew better. He was disappointed and he would have told her that, but her mother was right, sort of. He spied his shirt, plucked it up, thought about pulling it on, wondered if that would indicate he thought that they, two consenting adults, had been doing something wrong rather than just maybe careless, decided not to pull it on, and he shrugged at Lois. "I'll see you at work tomorrow--"
"She may not go in," Mrs. Lane informed him.
"And you need a good meal, too," she smiled at Lois as though she saw a definite need for some old-fashioned mothering in the situation. "Not…" she glanced around and caught sight of the popcorn bowl, the bottom of which had a layer of brown, half-popped kernels. "…snack food."
"Lois, we can talk later--"
"Clark, you *don't* have to go, really, I'm sure mother--"
"Good night, Mr. Kent. Should I see you to the door?"
He both wanted to help Lois argue (actually, he thought, he would have sat down and reasoned with the woman) and not come between her and her mother since they got so little chance to interact. "No, ma'am."
"Oh, all right," Lois sighed. "I'll call you later…"
Lois watched the door shut behind Clark. Then she fell back, threw her arms over her eyes, stopped because it hurt, and tried to refuse to hear her mother moving around her apartment. The woman was a neat nut who thought everything had to be arranged just so and of course she knew the best ways to do it. That was how she ran her life and advised successful financial institutions. Now, Lois growled, she's thrown out my boyfriend just as he was melting in my hands, and she's flitting around fixing things that aren't even broken!
She sat up and pulled on her shirt and waited until her mother passed by again. "Mother!"
On the next pass, Mrs. Lane found a chair. She perched there. "You look a little pale, dear…"
"Mother, I *wish* you had called from the airport. I would have found you a comfortable hotel to stay in and--"
"There are no vacant rooms in town, dear, due to that awful monster you had here last month and all the damage it caused."
"Oh, well, still--"
"This is such a dangerous city to live in any more, despite that nice Superman fellow, when you could make a perfectly fine living in Paris or Milan or even Tokyo--"
"Mother, *Clark's* not in any of those places, he's here, and I *like* it here!"
"Because of him?"
"Lately, *yes*! He's not the only reason, but he's one of the best!" And why am I telling *you* this?
"Oh, I see. Yes, I should have called, I'm sorry I didn't."
Lois closed her eyes. How could she have an argument with the woman if she was going to be contrite and agreeable? She sighed. "Well, it's done now…"
"And I've chased him away…"
Lois just looked at her.
"But he'll be back, I could see that in his eyes."
My mother, Lois thought, the world's expert on men… She looked away. At least I've broken *that* genetic jinx…
That thought made her smile a little. She looked at the door. "Yes, he'll be back…" and not just for his tapes and not necessarily to take up where they'd been interrupted. Oh, it had been fun helping him agree that they spend the evening passionately, and she was sure they would have done so after some endearing fumbling on his part. She knew he was overconscious of, even restrained by his strength, but she'd also seen him holding Vanessa and cracking eggs and doing all kinds of things that required the lightest of touches. She had no doubt that they could work things out and have a lot of fun doing so.
But she also knew that he had come originally simply to be with her because that was enough for him. How sweetly genuine he was…
And knowing him as well as she did now, she also knew why despite his clear disappointment he had bowed out: so that she could have some "quality time" with her mother. He cared a lot about that, family, friends, happiness, comfort… Maybe he was right, and she should take the opportunity thrust upon her by fate.
"Come on, mother, let's call Lucy and make some real dinner."
"Clark, you weren't home when I called."
"I'm sorry, I was… busy."
Lois had heard about it, thousands trapped in a major hotel fire in the Virgin Islands. She wanted to hug him for having done a good job saving them, but she couldn't do so given her supposed state of ignorance and their present situation, a chance meeting in the hallway near the water fountain with people coming and going.
"That's okay, you just missed out on my mother trying to apologize for kicking you out."
"Lois, you should never threaten little old gray-haired ladies with bodily harm."
"Oh, I didn't lay a hand on her. No, Lucy came over and we had something to eat and we sat around and had a nice long chat about…" about men, mostly, and it had come down to contrasting unnamed guys like Sam Lane and Clark Kent. It had been a much better night than she expected, and she had briefly regretted not taking the day off and spending it with her mother. "…about all kinds of things, like… like babies."
The look on his face said that he remembered every nuance of what they had done the evening before, with imagination supplying the potentially baby-making actions they had missed out on. His look was far more fascinated than worried, that was interesting. Did he think a lot about having children with someone--with *her*? Was that possible? Did she want that?
Trying would be fun anyway.
She pulled herself back and supplied the missing word that changed things: "*Fish* babies."
"And it was a good thing we talked about that, too, because she had four babies last night, isn't that wonderful?"
"You're a grandmother? Congratulations!"
They hugged each other. Co-workers stopped, stared and hurried away to tell others, looking back when they dared. Let them, Lois thought, they'd never know bliss like this!
"There were at least 15 or 20 in the tank when I left this morning. They move so fast, they just dart around, and you can't see their little fins, and they're so cute!"
He nodded. "Real charmers."
"I *can't* get other fish to eat them," she sighed. His arms felt comforting then, and he didn't move them, either, smart man. "But I can see how the charm will wear off quickly if I have too many in the tank…"
"It will be a while before you have to deal with that. But now this calls for a celebration. Let's do something tonight."
Their eyes met. She smiled. He smiled, too. The world faded away. "What do you suggest?" she whispered, fully intending him to understand that they should continue what had been interrupted the night before because she'd send her mother to a movie.
"The Green Room at the Hyatt?"
Oh? Well, that wasn't a bad idea, either. Still, "Clark, I was joking when I said that before, and we'd need reservations," while he didn't need reservations to pass through *her* door…
"Well, then, something like that. We haven't eaten out at a nice place in a long time, and we haven't done anything we could call a…" he whispered in her ear, "a date, girlfriend."
"Since you put it that way, I'll help you think of a nice place," and by gosh she was going to kiss him now, too, growing crowds or no.
Before she could accomplish this, though, Perry brushed passed them and cleared his throat. "Sorry, kids, budget meeting in two minutes--Oh, but, wait." He turned, finger in the air, indicating a change of plans and they should be alert and ready to move, and, oh, stop hugging each other, there, that's good. "You two busy tonight?"
"Well, we're working on it," Clark said.
Lois sensed an opportunity. "We haven't decided yet." Something brief and then a long, intense time--at Clark's house, yes! Mother wouldn't *dare* bother them there and he'd feel more comfortable in that setting.
"Oh, good. I know this is last minute, but Alice got this invitation," he pulled a square white envelope out of his vest pocket, "to some charity ball, but after Saturday night she wants to keep me to herself for a while, if you know what I mean…" He raised his eyebrows playfully.
Attagirl, Alice, Lois thought, rein him in a bit. She plucked the invitation from Perry's hand and opened it. "Ah-ha! The Ballroom at the Hyatt!"
"Close enough," Clark smiled.
"And the price is right," Perry agreed, "free because you're press and they want the attention. Dress well and make contacts--Oh, and you can skip this budget meeting, I'd only be telling you to follow up on the bank job and…" sadly, "the Diaries, and when you're not doing that, get the public's opinion on the Superman lawsuit. Now, scoot."
Follow the bank job or lawsuit? They were supposed to be conflicted about what to choose? She looked at Clark and he looked at her. They said simultaneously, "You take the bank, I'll take…"
He paused politely, and then probably realized he shouldn't have because she raced right through the gap, "Clark, you had him Friday night, it's *my* turn."
"I can't help that you were out getting a massage and that you hate research--"
"He's *mine* today!"
"Oh, yeah? You've got to *find* him first!"
"I bet I *can!*"
"I bet you *can't*!"
Perry put his fingers to his mouth and split the air with a whistle. In its wake, silence reigned. Half a dozen staffers rushed in to see what was going on, and Jimmy readied his camera. Perry turned and frowned at them. They scattered.
Lois folded her arms under her breasts and put on her "I'm unimpressed by all this because I'm right and I refuse to budge" expression. Clark looked less certain, as though he knew he'd fallen behind in this already. What was worse, he argued. "Chief, Lois and I are too close to this. All of us are likely to be subpoenaed or something any moment, we're just not the right ones to follow up on this bank story."
"And I'm really tired of seeing the insides of police stations and the DA's office."
Perry nodded a little, like those were *good* arguments. Lois couldn't believe it.
"And my vacation starts next Saturday and if the Green Meadows police think I'm available, I won't be able to help my folks on the farm and they need me desperately."
"And Laura, for example, loves banks, and she and Raul saved us all, they're looking for this kind of assignment now, I'm *sure*."
"Well, that's your best argument. If you'd cut out all the whining and said that first, son," he pointed at Clark, "you and Lois would have been out of here five minute ago looking for what few friends Superman has."
"What few friends…?"
"He's *joking*!" Lois hooked his elbow and pulled. "Come on! Thanks, Chief!"
Before their editor could change his mind, they collected their notepads and rushed for the elevator, catching it just in time. They startled someone in a supplies department uniform who stared at them, the light of recognition overtaking his face.
Lois ignored the kid; she was used to being recognized by everyone in the building. "Clark, that was *some* performance…"
"Well, I've been sort of… confused after last night. I didn't even use my best excuse."
"That I have to rent a tux."
"Yeah, right…" Then something occurred to her. "Maybe I better get my hair done."
"There, see? And you thought the bank follow up was more important."
"No, *Superman's* the one to catch."
"And, you know something? I'm getting a little suspicious of the way he seems to like hanging out with you…"
"What do you mean by that--"
"Oh, nothing, nothing at all. Considering how he gets around I'm sure you're not the only guy he's seeing and that he doesn't realize *your* interest in him is purely professional…"
"Lois, are you trying to say he's…" clearly shocked, he couldn't even whisper it.
"The way that man kisses? *Completely* different from you. No, no, relax, Clark, *you're* a straight arrow, you have nothing to fear."
The elevator door opened, they exited into the main lobby, and Lois glanced back discretely to see the wide-eyed clerk still staring at them. More rumors, good. She had been looking for the chance to see what role the supplies department played in the mill. She noted the time and wondered what the tale would turn into when she heard it again in a few days from, say, Jimmy or Karyn the Food Editor. It would definitely knock her and Clark's tentative affair off the front page for a while.
They visited the lawyers for the plaintiff and heard the same uninformative, we're-going-to-win-this-easily statement that the other reporters did there in the office's crowded lobby.
One of the lawyers recognized Clark and took him aside to try to pry out of him clues about Superman's state of mind. Lois tagged along and Clark didn't say anything to stop her despite the lawyer's warning look. She did not, though, feel that her presence prevented the man from answering a few more questions than he asked, and, good for him, Clark didn't give away anything. She would rather have grilled Selig, but, despite being the lead attorney in the case, the woman wasn't talking to the press at this time.
Next they inspected the massive damage to the flattened Metropolis Megamall west of town. Even though it has been a month since the damage had occurred, paperwork had delayed the start of rebuilding. Contractors were now swarming all over the site, giant machinery had been moved in, and Lois could almost see the dollar signs floating over the area, much as the Slime Monster had on that strange Wednesday evening.
They tried to interview some of the laborers, but guards followed them and shooed them away before they could get many publishable quotes.
On their return to downtown Metropolis, they visited several popular watering holes to obtain opinions from those who knew about the case of the Megamall vs. Superman. The results had to make Clark happy, Lois reflected, because almost to a person, those who had an opinion thought it was one of the stupidest things they'd heard of and they wanted to be on the jury. Clark, ever Mr. Fair Play, pointed out several times that no jury would be involved in this and that Thursday's court date was only a hearing on the merits before a judge; if the judge thought the case against Superman was sound, it would go ahead.
Those who understood these ramifications were less positive in their assessments. They said they thought the case would breeze through the preliminaries, get messy and bogged down, and lawyers would have everything tied up for years and years. Many of the professional people thought that Selig, Miller, Powers and Burgess were the best attorneys to hire in complicated cases like this. Too bad they weren't on Superman's side, poor guy: he didn't stand a chance…
"I should have stuck with the bank follow up," Clark sighed as they returned to the office around three. "This has really been a depressing day…"
She patted him on the back, glad that they were alone for a moment in the elevator and she didn't have to think of some way to warn him about appearing to be so involved in the case because it might look suspicious. She said, "Don't let it worry you," though it was a little late to be handing out such advice, she thought.
She had tried several times to point out what tenuous humor she could find in the whole thing, but her attempts had fallen flat as he had only managed polite smiles. He'd picked at his lunch and let a pained look creep onto his face when their waitress, who they interviewed briefly, had wondered if Superman had a defense fund. Lois thought that it was a good idea but she didn't say so. When the woman had gone away, Clark had quietly told Lois that Superman had mentioned on, oh, Sunday night, it was, yeah, in practically a flyby on his way to… Afghanistan for an hour or so, that he still had no plans to hire a lawyer. "He--I mean, we--well, I'm… beginning to wonder if… his arguing his own case is really such a wise idea but it's probably the best thing…"
Lois hadn't known what to say, other than to point out that he was obviously of two minds about it, but she didn't.
Now back in the newsroom she went over to his desk and for a moment watched him sort through and concentrate on reading his phone messages.
"When we can get hold of Superman," she said when she intuited that it was a good time to interrupt and, besides, she didn't want to wait any longer, "I'm sure *we* can help him get a good lawyer."
"Well, maybe if Thursday does turn out to be just a preliminary round, that's probably a good idea. Oh, look, Will called. 'I have everything under control, Laura and Raul are here'…" he paused to read ahead and then sighed. "'Pourhamidi and Jerrigan escaped some time before 10 am head count--'"
"What?!" She grabbed the note. That was exactly what it said. "That's incredible! We should have been informed about this."
"We were out--"
"We should have been called or heard about it on the radio--maybe we--Laura and Raul, I mean, maybe they got an exclusive!"
"I hope so. You know, maybe Lex *was* involved. Maybe he got them to agree to a truce and then he sprang them."
"Only if they did manage to steal something he wanted--to switch it out and no one realizes and he needs them free to give it to him!"
"He could have planted more people in the bank and in the Green Meadows Police Department."
"The Elvis Diaries could be…"
They stared at each other. She felt a tingle indicating another story… but it faltered seriously as he said, "Do we really care?"
She looked over her feelings. The tingle had a sour note, and she had to admit, "Not right at the moment, no…"
"And I don't think we're in any personal danger from any of them…"
He would worry about that. Just another thing. "We didn't foil their plan, we just got in the way. They're probably laughing because *we* still have to deal with the police."
"So let's let Laura and Raul think up all the implications."
"And if they don't think of them, Will's probably got it covered already, and we have this lawsuit thing to solve…" *We* do, Clark, you and me, you're *not* alone. "It's much more important."
"It's certainly enough to worry about. I don't want to get any more involved than I have to in the bank's problems."
"It's a mess."
"And I *need* my vacation, Lois."
"I know…" She realized she had never thought of Superman needing a vacation, but that it was perfectly reasonable for Clark to claim his two weeks every year and a mental health day off now and then as well because he hardly ever got sick and now she knew why. "We've both been working hard. It will be good to get away tonight on someone else's dime… My gosh, I need to call Mother--and get my hair done! I'm busy already!"
He was, too. He rented his usual tuxedo across the street at the Metropolis Men's Store, and then she dropped him at his home on the roundabout way to her emergency appointment. They exchanged a brief kiss, and as she drove away, she turned on her radio to listen for reports of some crisis that might draw him because she was sure he would trudge through his apartment and fly out the back window to look for something to do to keep his mind off his problems. He wouldn't allow a convoluted law suit to keep him from doing his level best to help people. A judge ordering him not to use his powers hadn't stopped him, this certainly wouldn't. She wished she could help, but even if he had known she knew, that wouldn't have changed a thing for Superman.
Dancing helped. He looked marvelous when he arrived in the cab to pick her up, and his admiration of her black dress and lightly curled hair did her a world of good. His mood was much improved as well. One of the all-news cable channels had reported his rescuing a troop of boy scouts in the Rockies and unbeaching some whales in Hawaii, well away from his problems here. Those accomplishments would make anybody smile and he did, a lot, enjoying the stress-free evening of schmoozing as much as she did.
Almost stress-free: he had to slip away at about 10 pm and return as Superman to stop an armed robbery making a mess of the hotel's large kitchen, through which the villains tried to escape. Police arrived quickly and he didn't stay to explain the obvious. He surely, though, heard the round of applause given to him by those who witnessed the exciting events.
When he returned as himself, Lois played her role. "You just *disappeared,* Clark!"
"Yeah, well, nature called--but I interviewed two maids and a bellhop who saw everything."
"You did? How? And when?"
"I did; I asked the right questions quickly; and just now. Here's my notes…" He pulled out a small notepad and showed her his neat scribbles. He had this cover-up act down pat, didn't he, she thought, and there had been enough time for him to get the interviews as well. Very clever these Kryptonians.
"Well, I talked to the Mayor and her husband about it and got an appointment to lunch tomorrow with the Chief of Police."
"That's great, you moved fast, too."
"But," she whispered the secret part, "I plan to ask him if Fynk has a criminal record."
"I see. That could be… helpful. Let's find a phone and call all this story in."
The dancing, the music, the food, the adventure, the applause… he was beginning to sound like cheerful Clark again, and she realized how much she preferred that.
They found a phone, both talked to Mrs. O'Shea, and 20 minutes later were told to get more information and phone that in, too. "Hi-ho, hi-ho," Lois sighed. But it was nice to simply be a bystander in this instead of smack in the big middle.
Tuesday, as Lois lunched with the Chief of Police, Clark was able to get away for a regular hour's worth of noon patrol. To his immense relief, he discovered that everyone with whom he came in contact said they were on his side, and the more he heard that, the more he saw that it was exactly what he needed to hear.
He thought he had heard the very worst that morning: the plaintiff's lawyers had called a news conference to counter what they described as the unseeming antics of the so-called "Man of Steel" to gain the sympathy of a citizenry that did not have all the facts about the case against him. The attorneys were gathering new evidence every day, and indeed they were considering adding to their case a claim by several people injured while doing repairs at the crushed Megamall.
The members of the press questioned them avidly, but answers had been skillfully crafted ahead of time and the reporters were put in their places almost without knowing it. Karl Kingston, courthouse reporter for the Metropolis Star, summed it up the next day in a manner that would have pleased the plaintiff: it came down to a recognition that, yes, while Superman had done some wonderful things for the world, he had to learn to be more thoughtful of innocent people's property rights. If a lawsuit was what it took to make it clear to the man, so be it. In the meantime, the fellow should look into getting comprehensive no-fault insurance… Clark had kept Lois from whacking the man when they overheard him mumbling the phrases to himself after the press conference.
The event was televised but apparently few people Superman encountered during his noon patrol had seen it. As he did his usual helpful things around the city and the surrounding country side--stopping a run-away garbage truck, finding a lost child, assisting an elderly couple, averting a construction accident--people not only simply thanked him, they grabbed his hand and pumped it and some offered him gifts, like food--cookies, sodapop, candy, tea, coffee, sandwiches. He refused it all politely, patting his stomach, "It's not on my diet, but thanks." If he accepted one gift, he figured he'd have to accept them all and he couldn't hang around eating. At the very least they beamed at him, gave him thumbs up, and informed him that they were pulling for him. Despite Perry's dire prediction during that morning's budget meeting, no one fell down in front of him screaming about being injured or otherwise faked an actionable cause. He realized that this didn't mean there weren't people who had contemplated it, just that he wasn't drawing them to himself. At the moment anyhow. And maybe, just maybe, he wouldn't. He ordered himself to Think Positive, Kent!
Back in the newsroom at two, Lois reported that the Chief of Police said that the Mayor wanted to hold a rally for Superman, but…
"That's a bit much," Clark said, more alarmed than pleased by the idea. This little thing was turning into such a *big* thing… though of course he'd written the original story. But he hadn't asked for the problem, and somebody else would have written the story and maybe not have given it such an even-handed treatment.
"Oh, the Chief said the Mayor agreed. She knows the City can't really afford it and the crowds would be impossible to handle. After all, the whole city would turn out."
Not the *whole* city surely… bad guys could take advantage of the crowd, and some citizens might very well agree with the plaintiff after they saw the coverage on the evening TV news. But what was worse, "People could get hurt, that happens in big crowds."
"Exactly, so instead of sitting humbly in some uncomfortable chair being praised up one side and down the other, Superman would have to catch pickpockets and deliver babies and sort out traffic jams."
"Yeah." He didn't think being praised up one side and down the other was fun either; that wasn't what he wanted, wasn't the reason he had put on the suit in the first place. If he wanted something up one of his sides and down the other with long stops at stations in between, it was a person, and that person was Lois. He wished he could dwell on that thought instead.
"I think she's going to make some kind of announcement, though, if the preliminary hearing doesn't go well."
"I guess that's all right," though it could signal to all the people who were thinking of bringing lawsuits to rush to court, Superman was vulnerable…
"I guess he's stuck with it. Oh, and I asked the Chief about Fynk, but he didn't have anything on the guy, so he really must not have a criminal record since we couldn't find one either."
"Superman wouldn't use it anyway."
"Then Superman wouldn't have his head on straight. What are you doing tonight?"
"Ah, nothing?" other than hiding under my bed, you mean? No, no, *think positive…*
"Good. Come to my place at seven and we'll plan out a strategy to help him win this case. I've got a lawyer friend, his secretary and a PI they know all coming over."
Newsroom colleagues who had quietly turned and cocked their ears upon hearing her question turned away again as the boring part rolled off her tongue.
She leaned toward him and gave him The Eye Mark II, the "Do you really think you can get out of this?" version.
"Okay, seven it is."
Her friends were on video. They were Perry Mason, Della Street and Paul Drake, and they defended wide-eyed, clearly innocent young men accused of horrendous acts of mischief and murder. Lois said she'd always been a Perry Mason groupie, which was news to Clark, and that she had nearly all the books and videos. These particular episodes, she swore, were among her favorites. Although the stories were clever and Clark only figured out the true villain ahead of time in one of them, he didn't see how he, or, rather, Superman, could use similar theatrics to expose a villain since his was a civil not criminal case. The Megamall's insurance simply wasn't paying off, so its owner had told his lawyers to find someone who could pay, and that might turn out to be the one who looked like he'd killed the Slime Monster.
Still, it was her thought that counted, and her enthusiasm was endearing as she pointed out all the nuances of the cases on the screen. Maybe she really was a groupie.
He promised that, yes, he'd pass the information on to Superman if he saw him first, but the fellow seemed to be avoiding the press.
Well, she said, he *should* be out there manipulating that very press, even if it confirmed the "unseemly antics" accusation. Who cared what those lawyers thought anyway-- and *don't,* she warned, argue with me about fairness, *they're* not acting fair, are they?--*are* they?
He didn't argue. She was right, even if the whole system said it was fair and that was why there were courts and laws and justice and… God, he thought, I sound boring even to myself…
She made popcorn again and explained that her mother wouldn't break in on them because the woman was most definitely in a plane heading toward in San Francisco. He realized that she was imparting this information as purely that, information, and that it didn't imply they might tonight engage in anything potentially heart stopping even if he could rest up after it the next day. She didn't pull any of his clothing off nor suggest he do the same to her, though in between programs or as the tapes rewound, they practiced a bit of lip tasting. During the programs they sat back, his arm over her shoulder or vice versa if she was sitting up pointing out things, and concentrated on the narratives.
It was an interesting not physically strenuous evening, he thanked her for it, and she told him to go home and *relax* for his day off.
"Lois? Am I interrupting anything? I know it's late…"
"No, not at all. Clark left five minutes ago, your timing's great."
"Well, that's a relief. I only have a minute or two. I tried to call Sunday and yesterday, but I only got your machine. I'm sorry I hung up without identifying myself."
"But Clark might have been here and wondered, you were right to do that. My mother visited Sunday and then Clark and I went to a charity thing last night. Tonight we were here and we watched some videos that I think will help with the lawsuit--you know about that, don't you? Did he tell you?"
"Oh, yes, he told us on Sunday…"
"He was more nervous about it than he let on, I just know it. I'm glad he has you to talk to, but…"
"But we haven't talked much and I'm sure he's worried--I mean, *I'd* be worried, and he can't tell me everything and even if I knew officially, there's not much I could do."
"Yes. And from what I can tell, he hasn't done anything beyond filing the papers. He's just waiting and that doesn't seem like a very good strategy to me."
"Umm, sometimes he doesn't seem to understand the concept of presenting a moving target, does he? Still, he's not the kind of person who would blitz the media buying ads proclaiming his innocence."
"He'd consider it a waste of money that could help some charity. But surely he could give interviews about it."
"Yes, and make it clear that he understands how serious this is and he's going to fight it, that they can't take advantage of his easy-going nature. Believe me, Martha, I'm working on him. I've suggested several times that Superman should get a good lawyer, and he has agreed that he probably will after the Thursday hearing."
"It would be nice for him to have one to argue his case now, but he doesn't. A lot of lawyers have called the Planet volunteering their services, and some of them have to be sincere and know what they're doing, and Clark knows about them, everyone does, but he seems to be sure he can handle the preliminaries himself. I guess maybe he can, there's probably not much to them, he just goes in and says he's not guilty or something and the judge sets some more dates."
"Do you know anything about the judge?"
"You mean old 'Hanging Judge Booker'?--hey, I'm just kidding. Strict but fair, they say. Known for handling long cases with extreme impartiality. I guess she's okay, I don't really follow that kind of thing to be honest with you. But, listen, I have a plan I'll spring on him tomorrow night, it's even more brilliant than tonight's plan. I'm sure we can find some obscure laws he can cite in court that will win the case right away. I'll call him with it after we hang up."
"Oh, that sounds good. Tell me--Wait--Just a minute, Jon! I'm on the phone!… He needs some help carrying things. Call and tell me if your plan works, okay?"
"You've got it. We'll make him understand how important this is and he better start taking it seriously, *believe* me."
"I'm glad you're there for him."
"Me, too. See you!"
"You're going to a *what* tomorrow night?!"
"A MUFON meeting. You know, that UFO group--"
"I *know*--but you *can't*--"
"--be thinking about *UFOs* at a time like *this*!"
"A time like what?"
"You're--You know, Superman's in big trouble and *you're* thinking about *UFOs*?"
"Well, no, they're not the only thing on my mind, but they're more fun to think about than… someone else's troubles."
"Like you're taking a day off from it or something?"
"What? What's wrong with doing that? I can't think about it 100% of my time or I'll go crazy!"
"All right, all right, relax, don't--"
"--I *am* relaxed."
"--say that… My God, UFOs…"
"Well, I'd think you'd be interested. After all, a lot of members of the group probably agree with you that the Slime Monster was from outer space."
"Where it should have stayed."
"Yeah, but it didn't. So I take it you don't want to go."
"They didn't talk it to death already? Do you *have* to go?"
"No, they were slimed out of their last meeting so they haven't talked about it. And I don't have to go but I want to because it's fun. You don't have to go, I know you don't care--"
"Are they meeting at their usual place?"
"Yes, it was cleaned up--"
"Then I'll be there. We can do something afterward. I mean, Clark, the hearing's the *very next day*!"
"Well, get some sleep."
"I will, I was on my way to bed. You get some sleep, too, you sound awfully tense."
"*I* sound…? I guess I do, don't I?"
"Yes. Relax, won't you? I know you care, and I do, too, but *I'm* trying to relax…"
"Okay, okay, maybe you're, well, right, it's not like *you* were on trial, is it?"
"It's not a trial, it's--"
"I know, I know. Good night, Clark."
"Sweet dreams, Lois."
Wednesday was a bad day. This wasn't due to the sporadic Autumn rain, nor did anything almost fatal threaten the peace, unless being extremely bored could prove terminal.
As Lois was working up an agenda to keep herself busy on this nearly Clark-free day, she received a call from Metropolis Police, asking her to be at headquarters at 9 a.m. sharp. They wanted her to pick out James Richards from a line up. This, she had thought, was a good thing. She was rarely invited to visit: she usually had to force her way in for interviews or talk her way out of trumped-up charges. She left early, planning to corner and pump Inspector Henderson for information she could give Raul and Laura, and then interview every person who might have knowledge of Judge Booker's frame of mind.
But they saw her coming and assigned a Ms. Farrell, PR Specialist, to "comfort" her during this time of reliving the hell she had survived the previous week. Lois tried to get rid of the young woman but she stuck like glue. Then Lois tried to be nice, the kid was only doing her job, but as noon crept nearer, she felt her famous composure decomposing. Before leaving the newsroom, she had called Clark and asked via his machine that he meet her for lunch. She had to call again and inform the machine that she had to cancel, the ever-efficient Metro PD hadn't held the line up yet and who knew when Richard's lawyers would let that happen?
12:15. Lois said, "Him, Number Three. Can I leave now?" She was given another cup of coffee and more paperwork.
Perry picked her up at one and they headed for Green Meadows for similar activities. The Police Department there, as though to make up for *somehow* having lost two major prisoners, requestioned the witnesses in excruciating detail about Saturday evening. As 4:30 neared and Lois was starving (though the coffee was better here), she said "I've had enough!" grabbed an unprotesting Perry, and they left. What topped everything was that no one tried to stop them.
They picked up some fast food on the way back to Metropolis, and listened to the car radio to try to catch up on the day's events. The only thing that interested Lois was that Superman had reportedly rescued some overenthusiastic researchers set upon by exasperated penguins. "Great, no penguins were harmed, that's wonderful--but why isn't he working on his case?!"
"Interviews, photo opportunities, doing an end run or whatever that's called, but *nooo*, he has to go to South *Pooooole*…"
Perry pulled up in front of her building. "Lois, I'm sure he's thinking about it--"
"Oh, nothing, forget I said that. He should have given me an exclusive, I guess I'm upset about that."
"Well, I wish you'd gotten one, too, but it's all happened so fast and he's only talked to Clark, and as little as that was at least we've kept the coup. Listen: you just take your day off tomorrow and skip the preliminary hearing. Take a drive in the country, get some fresh air, read a good book, go shopping: have some *fun.* Remember, you're going to be working twice as hard when Clark's on vacation."
"Vacation!? How can he take a vacation at a time like this?"
"Lois, get some rest. That's an order."
She gave him a narrow look, which bounced off, and kept herself from slamming his door, wondering if he knew he was lucky to escape with his life.
She showered, pulled on some comfortable clothing and arrived at the west side branch of the Metropolis Electric Company, which had an auditorium in which MUFON meetings were held. The local UFO research group used to meet in Molly Flynn's spare room at her new-age book store, but membership had soared when people realized that some UFO fanatics were right about life in outer space, particularly the kind that wore a red cape. Clark had become interested in the group and, now that she thought about it, she could see why: Martha had explained that they still knew little about where he came from, and there was always the chance that the eclectic group might come up with information he could use.
She found a parking space several rows away from the entrance and sprinted for the door through a sprinkle, hoping she wouldn't need her umbrella by the end of the meeting. She could, though, send Clark out for the Jeep; he'd like doing that, it would put him in a pliable mood if he wasn't in one already.
She signed in and paid her five dollars. "It's only two dollars for members," she was informed by a plump older woman wearing a T-shirt sporting an expressionless bug-eyed, egg-headed alien.
Uh-huh, Lois thought. It was a good thing Clark didn't come from *that* planet… "I'll think about it."
"Would you like a copy of our newsletter? It's only a dollar…"
Newsletter? "Do your members write for it? Are there any articles by Clark Kent?"
The woman didn't know but the name sounded familiar. Lois bought samples of all the back issues available, giving the woman a twenty and telling her to keep the change as a donation. She then began looking for Clark and formulating a plan to whisk him out of here before he realized it.
She had been to two MUFON meetings over the last year or so. The first one because she'd gotten confirmation that Superman had said he'd try to attend (that was back when she had been in girlish lust and kept fanatical track of his comings and goings). He had appeared, briefly, and answered a few questions, and from then on, according to Clark, attendance at meetings had soared. The second meeting Lois had gone to was to hear a talk by a famous French UFO researcher. She had figured that his presence might draw the mysterious Man of Steel to ask questions, but no such luck. Clark had asked several though and soaked up the answers like a dry sponge in the desert.
Molly had mentioned that before and after the meetings the group often broke down into subgroups. "I've seen Clark in every group at one time or another and that's rare; people usually have one or two interests and ignore or even degrade the rest."
"Well, he's a rare one all right," Lois recalled having yawned, but that was, what, centuries ago when she didn't know any better. She herself had been drawn during her second meeting to the government conspiracy subgroup, thinking they might know of new Bureau 39 activities. But the members (among them level-headed people like an accountant and an electrical engineer) treated her with caution. She hadn't gotten a rise out of them even after saying she'd witnessed the death of Jason Trask. They informed her that he had quickly been replaced by someone even more secretive but not so obsessed with Superman, didn't she know that? She hadn't. They proceeded to keep her at a distance, and so she had decided in turn to ignore them.
Petty, girl, petty…
Clark, not dressed in some God-awful UFO T-shirt, thank goodness, was talking about crops or something agricultural sounding with a group of people, several of whom had British accents. They were passing around pictures they had taken of the latest "formations." Had funky farmers been doing unusual things with haystacks in the bucolic English countryside?
Too bad, someone said, that Superman hadn't had a chance to investigate them. He's a busy guy, someone else said, especially now. We're going to talk about that tonight, a third person said.
"Good," Lois said as she made her entry into the group by taking Clark's arm. "I'm glad I came then. Sure, flying saucers and little green men are an interesting diversion, but the people of Metropolis should be taking this lawsuit *very seriously.*"
The conversation came to a screeching halt and they all looked at her, even Clark. Several moments of uncomfortable silence followed. What did I say wrong? she wondered. These people can't be serious, UFOs are not more important than the very fate of Superman's legal standing in the community!
Clark dearly wanted to say "Lois, give it a rest, *please?*" He wondered if she'd thought of anything else all day long. He had been entertaining the hope (silly me, he thought) that she had busied herself with some new story that he could pick up on the next afternoon and they could work on together Friday. Her obsession with the lawsuit was all out of proportion when there really was nothing anyone could do to hurry along the legal process. Other than cheat, that was, by tuning in on the plaintiff's private sessions with his lawyers, or sneaking into the attorneys' offices and destroying paperwork. or finding out sordid details of everyone's pasts and using them. These "helpful" ideas he had heard from friends and people in the street over the past several days. No, Thursday he'd state his case and let the chips fall where they would and try to get on with life, part of it as Clark, part of it as Superman, part of it as a defendant trying to work things out so everyone was happy.
But now, of course, Lois had made a near fatal faux pas: she had denigrated the views and beliefs of these nice people right in their own community.
The look on her face though said that she didn't realize what she had done, so a rescue was called for. "Lois, let me show you something." He asked Jenny if he could see the snapshots again. "My friend doesn't know anything about crop circles, so she doesn't realize their importance."
Ah! the group said collectively, understanding immediately that the tense newcomer was merely unenlightened. They surrounded her and, as Clark held the pictures, informed her of their origin (the heart of Wiltshire) and explained what they showed. The swirls in the crops were impossible to reproduce overnight by human machinations in a field that had been heavily watched on a 24-hour basis. The balls of light, the proud photographer proclaimed, had *not* been flares set off by the pesky military or sparklers held by hoaxers hiding in the crops, and they were not flaws in the emulsion. No, there had been 14 witnesses and a third of them had been clergy, rounded out by farmers, retired military officers, and herself, a cardiac surgeon. She went on about the sounds they had heard, the agitation of the livestock in neighboring fields, and the odd feelings inspired by simply walking inside the formations the next morning.
"Wow," Lois said, as though she found it fascinating; maybe she did. She respectfully returned the photos that had been taken from Clarks hands and stacked in hers as they were explained. "Those are really.. unique! Thank you for showing them to me." She smiled, waited for the conversation go elsewhere, mainly off her, and took Clark's arm again. She tried to turn him aside. "I have to talk to you for a moment…"
"About this? You know, I'm thinking of taking some of my vacation time and visiting England, maybe I can get there before the season ends this year," or at the very least make yet another attempt to be floating over Wiltshire at just the right time…
"No, Clark, about you know what."
"Oh, well…" So she'd been faking it. Darn. But, he reminded himself, the Big Fight had shown him that they simply didn't have everything in common and that was life. "I'm sorry, Lois, but I'm doing *this* right now."
Jenny touched his shoulder and began telling him about cheap air fares; Frank said he thought there was still time to see crop circles forming in Canada; Ruth thought Australia's crop circle season would be starting soon, that was the place to visit next.
"Clark…" Lois muttered behind him. "Really…"
He pointedly ignored her. She had heard what he preferred to be talking about and the Big Fight should have taught her the same lesson. Besides, no one had held a gun to her head and made her come tonight.
The district chair shouted for attention and said the meeting really should get started. Everyone looked for seats. Lois pointed out two near the exit, which he accepted. Her next ploy was to whisper about mysterious goings on at MetroU Law School and they really should check them out *right now*. He whispered in return: "I was there Friday night and it was truly boring. It can fend for itself, I don't want to go back."
"You were there already?"
"For three hours. Now, shhh."
She fumed through most of the meeting, except for the brief discussion of the group's favorite alien's current problems and the decision to start a petition to the governor demanding his pardon. As though they expected him to lose, too, Clark sighed. The vote in favor was overwhelming, so it was the thought that counted though probably the governor couldn't do anything about a civil case. He saw Lois frown; she must have wanted to vote but, hey, she could have become a member that very night, it was easy. She snuck her hand up though when Farah, the group's resident Superman expert, asked for volunteers to picket the courthouse on Thursday afternoon. "Well," Lois whispered, "It's part of covering the story. You'll be there, won't you?"
"Wouldn't miss it," unless someone in Siberia stubbed a toe and called for help.
The main presentation, which Lois nearly snored through, was on the Slime Monster. Clark had to admit that she could be right about this one, they already knew a lot of the details and recalling them through slides and videos was not exciting. He did, though, find the wrap up interesting: a county veterinary school instructor and an assistant coroner with Metro PD speculated on the possible causes of the Monster's death. It could be of potential use in his case, backing up a paragraph in one of his legal replies that pointed out that he may not actually have been responsible for the Monster's demise. Another good reason for having come tonight, he told himself.
The official part of the meeting ended. Clark bought another soda from the snack committee and proceeded to schmooze with this group and that, catching up on the latest cattle mutilation reports, releases of secret government documents, crashed saucer revelations from 1947 forward, Bigfoot and Loch Ness sightings, and other topics covered by the nebulous term "UFO." Lois remained seated, reading back issues of the Metropolis UFO News (to which he contributed now and then, mostly book reviews). She was currently perusing an article on "our tall, blond alien friends from the Pleides." She was also trying her best, he saw, to make every motion tell him how impatient she was to get the real show on the road. That just made him linger longer than he might have, until almost 11, when the District Chair announced that he had to lock up, would people please help put away the chairs?
Outside it was sprinkling again lightly, as it had been at 7, but Lois marched right out into it without a thought. Clark strolled after her. He wondered if she would have let him get the Jeep if there had been a downpour instead. Quite possibly.
Then again, she didn't look very happy; maybe she would have preferred to let him walk home.
"The Law Library's probably closed by now," she huffed as she forced her way through confused drivers and out of the parking lot.
"Good. I still wouldn't have gone, and I don't think you'd find it much fun, either."
"I didn't want to go to have *fun*!"
"I know why you wanted to go--"
"Then we should have gone."
"No, not we, if anyone you, and you didn't need my help."
"But you know all the ramifications--you typed up the paperwork."
"True, but today--"
"I know, you didn't want to think about it."
"Oh, Clark, you're hopeless!"
"Huh? What *are* you talking about? Just because I'm not giving myself an ulcer over this problem? *Lois*…"
"*Clark*… Did you see him at all today?"
"I didn't see him. I wish I had. I would have told him about the message Judge Booker sent early this morning. Perry told me about it this afternoon."
"A message? To the Planet? To Perry?"
"She thought Perry would know how to get in touch with Superman and gave him a private message, that's all."
"Oh, *no,* *you're* not interested, *remember*?"
It was just like her to think he was going to beg to be told. "True, I'm not. It probably wasn't important anyway."
"It depends on who you are, I guess. It was just a suggestion about where he should go to get into the courtroom so he won't be besieged by reporters."
Ullp. "I bet *you'll* be there." He could look for her and, bingo, get in unbesieged except by one, who he might be able to sneak around when she wasn't looking.
"No, Perry told me to skip the preliminary hearing and I might just do that. I certainly don't need to get an *ulcer* over it."
"Oh…" In that case it looked like he'd have to slip into the office some time tonight and see if Perry had left the original message, assuming it was on paper, in his desk…
"But *you* could watch that back door, there's supposed to be one open on the loading dock on the east end of the building, between 8:45 and 9."
Calm down, Kent… "You think I'd do that? Besiege him?"
"That's what I've taught you to do for a good story."
"It's not so much good as it's… it's *there*, and, really…"
"I know…" She sighed and then let it turn into a frown that indicated she wanted to think about something. She pulled onto the Crosstown and headed east and then north. He decided to look out the window at the skyline of Metropolis, The City of the Future, The City Where Time Waits for No One, The City that Rose from the Slime, and, what was the latest one?… Ah, oh, yes, the City Where Supermen Fear to Tread, at least according to the editorial in this afternoon's Metropolis Star. He was glad he hadn't tried to get a job there when he'd first moved to town.
Several long, quiet minutes later, Lois cleared her throat. He turned and noticed that she composed her face and she looked quiet, in control and as though she expected to be listened to. She said calmly: "Clark, I think we should get something straight, that we should be honest with each other, it would probably make things easier."
He could see it coming, another attempt to drag him down a path. Well, she wasn't getting him on this one, either. "Easier?" as in easier for her to make him do what she wanted?
"There's something I probably should have told you a while ago, something I found out but… things have been happening and, well, I've been taking advantage of it, using it, and maybe that wasn't the wisest thing to do although it's been fun, a lot of fun, and I've learned things I'd never *dreamed* of…"
Yeah, right. "Is this about the Slime Monster?"
She closed her mouth, licked her lips, thought about it a moment more, then said, "Well, it's related--"
"Then I *don't* want to hear about it."
"Lois, before you say anything more, pull over and let me out, and you can talk to yourself all you want and no one will argue with you. I refuse to talk about *anything* related to that poor creature tonight, got it?"
She sighed again and shook her head, but for some reason smiled a bit, too, he was sure he saw that. "All right…"
Strange, but still he said "Good," because being firm about it felt just that, good. He had forced her to listen to him for a change (which she might actually have appreciated, that could be the reason for the smile), and, to top that, tricked out of her the information in the Judge's message. Two for two. Now to wrap it up: "Can we just drive on in peace? Just take me home and then go home yourself and get some rest."
"Okay… Perry said that, too."
"Well, he was right."
"You know, someday we're going to laugh about all this."
"You're mad at me, aren't you?"
"A little…--but this is *not* a fight."
"No, it's a friendly disagreement about priorities."
"And I happen to be right and you happen to be…" she glanced at him and surely saw that he was refusing to rise to the bait, "…in need of your vacation."
"Your darn tootin."
She broke into a real smile. "What was that?"
"That's what my Grandmother Kent used to say," he explained, thinking of the strict-looking old woman who had made the best macaroons in the entire world especially for him because he, at six years of age, liked to sit on her kitchen counter and listen to her when no other grandchild had time for her. "It always made me laugh even when I shouldn't have, when she was being serious."
"I see. Maybe I've been too serious…"
"No," he sighed, "That's all right…" Was it? Here he'd been ignoring her insistence all evening long and told her he didn't want to hear anymore, and now it was "all right" when it was too late and he couldn't explain why he felt like he did and share his uncertainty?
Boy, Kent, your timing is *really* something.
"No, that's *not* all right. I've been bugging you. you of all people about it and that hasn't been very helpful…"
"That you've wanted to help, that's all right, it's just that…" Wait, stop, think about this a moment…
"It's just that it's one of those things he doesn't want to share again, it seems, or he would be working on it with us."
"It's not that, it's more like there's not really anything more that can be done at the moment."
"You mean he could still ask for help?"
It occurred to him that she really did simply want to help. So why was he being combative about this? Was there some degree of… jealousy in his own reactions?
I'm jealous of myself? Nah…
But still… "Yes, he could, I guess."
"Maybe… Do you think then maybe tomorrow he'll ask you, or maybe *me* for a little help?"
"Ah…" Oh, Lois, if you *only* knew, if we weren't speeding down this highway but sitting in some calm, quiet, out-of-the-way place, preferably after a nice dinner, with nobody interrupting us for five minutes straight, just five pure minutes… "Yes, I think… he'll probably knock on your window or something like that…"
"Good. I'll be there or I can be, you know, on a moment's notice."
"And you'll be there to help, too, I know it."
"Yeah, right there…"
She smiled warmly and then concentrated on driving. He thought it interesting how the highway lights strobed in and out of the car as though trying to point out a woman of mercurial moods when this was not a fickle woman, not really, she was a *passionate* woman.
She pulled off the Crosstown and on to Sinibaldi.
"Clark, I've been thinking about your vacation and how I still have about a million years of time coming. I want you to take me on a comprehensive tour of Smallville sometime. Martha showed me the shopping highlights, but you can show me the places you and your friends had fun together. We can go to Wichita and see that cafe where your parents hung out when they were young. Martha told me about that."
"Well, sure, we can do that, if it's still there."
"It's a date then."
"It's beginning to look like we'll have to leave town to have a date, doesn't it?"
"We'll get it right sometime, somewhere, *soon,* I just know it."
"Maybe…" go for it, "Maybe tomorrow night, if you're not busy."
"I don't have anything planned, but let's see how things go with the… that *other* thing, the one in the morning."
"Okay." Yes, there it was, tomorrow night, the perfect time. He'd definitely tell her then, tell her all, get her help and ideas. At least he could be sure that she probably wouldn't get very upset because he'd look so desperate by then.
She pulled up before his apartment, set the brake and turned to smile at him.
My turn again, he realized, and a good thing. "Lois, I want to tell you that…" not *that* now, but lay some groundwork, Kent, start building that path, "in case you didn't know it, you're my best friend in Metropolis, in the world even, in more ways than one, more than a girlfriend-boyfriend thing, and I'm… I'm really happy about that."
"Oh, Clark…" That warm look again…
It made his heart do funny, merry little things. He told it to calm down. "And I'm sorry if you still think I'm hopeless…" but you won't for long…
"No, that was just…" she looked away, looked for words, met his eyes again, and she shrugged… "Well, sometimes you *are* just hopeless, but I don't think I could stand you if you were totally confident about everything in life. Where would I fit in then?"
Wow. "You worry about that?"
"I used to, but I don't any more."
"Oh, good, because you… well, you really do fit better than anyone I've ever known," whatever all that meant exactly. "Except my folks."
"That's different, and I love them, too."
"I'm glad." This all seemed so favorable, and he was saying the right things, the pleased look on her face confirmed that and made him feel more confident. "So, even though I'm still hopeless apparently… do you want a kiss?"
"Umm, do penguins have feathers?"
"Well, actually, yes, they do."
"I thought so."
He confidently assumed the go-ahead, and he was right.
Superman arrived at the Metropolis Court House at 8:55 am Thursday morning. Avoiding the front of the big building and the seething mass of humanity and media there, he had taken the suggested obscure back way in and met no one but a security guard, who gave every evidence of expecting him and didn't ask for any identification. There were no besieging reporters, no Jimmy taking pictures, no Perry waving a banner. But most of all there was no Lois.
Clark was more disappointed than relieved. Now he wouldn't get to put into effect the slight change of plans he had decided upon. He had given it plenty of thought during the sleepless night full of regular patrol, work originally intended to keep his mind off this whole hearing thing.
He had decided that upon finding her waiting for him there by the back door he would take her aside, say float her up to the roof, and in a few seconds whisper the truth in her ear or maybe kiss her in a special way or something else totally romantic. A beautiful, serene look would brighten her face as she enlightened to the amazing connection between the guy in blue in front of her and the fellow she had been getting along with so well lately. She would understand everything in an instant because that was about all the time they'd have. Then he'd admit to being so glad to see her and they should have talked a lot sooner but things just kept getting in the way. She'd understand that, too, give him an encouraging hug, which he really needed, and tell him to be careful and not let on because she'd put superglue on the opposing councils' chairs so the first time they jumped up to protest something, their pants would rip open and their whole world would see their case for what it really was.
Nah, he thought now, none of that would have worked.
Well, the hug would have worked, and the glue part might have, and he felt in need of a good laugh. For here it was, within minutes of everything being laid on the line at the moment of truth, and other cliches that seemed to fit the stressful situation.
Representing himself was the right thing to do, he told himself yet again, because he had somehow brought all this about, had been open to it, and he should take full responsibility for that openness and not fall back on seeking help… at least for this first part of the lawsuit, unless his strategy worked and this turned out to be the last part as well.
His strategy was simple, too simple maybe, but he thought that the worst that could be said about it was that he was asking the court for mercy. That wasn't what it was, really, and wasn't the way he planned to play it if he got the chance to play, but that was how he realized it might sound. If it didn't sound too much like that, maybe no other disgruntled people would try suing him again, at least without a better reason. One Law Library book had said such strategies often worked, but a different, equally literate law book advised against them at all costs.
At the moment, though, the strategy was the best one he could think of, and he didn't like thinking about it too much.
Most of all, he didn't like not being able to share it with anyone, but there was no use making his folks more nervous than they already were. The night before that had left a rah-rah-sic'em! message on his machine. It had made him laugh but hadn't been any more helpful than Lois's Perry Mason tapes. Too, he'd heard the hesitation in their voices, the strained laughter… and there wasn't a thing he could do but look forward to taking his vacation and being with them again and at least act like he believed it would work out all right eventually.
The anxious, talkative security guard led him down several hallways, pointing out this office and that as belonging to people whose names Clark didn't recognize. But of course they recognized him, or, rather, the suit when they came out to stare and smile and wave tentatively and then, the women mostly, giggle at each other and make the usual comments about his physique when surely they thought he couldn't hear. Fortunately, everyone was otherwise polite and no one besieged him.
And there's the canteen, his guide said, did he want a cup of coffee? No, thank you (eating was the last thing on his mind). The machine actually made a pretty good cup though the man said he usually brought a thermos full from home, and they sometimes had sweet rolls, but he hadn't seen any this morning so delivery was late or he was sure Superman could have had one if he wanted, for free even, you don't look like you carry a wallet, do you?
"No, I don't," Superman smiled politely. Clark thought hyperspace would see money as a cosmic joke, so he hadn't even tried to put his wallet in there without it being wrapped in with the rest of his normal clothing.
The guard ushered Superman through a back door into what he said was the largest courtroom available and even then it probably wouldn't hold the huge crowd that wanted to get in with all their cameras and lights. The judge wasn't happy about this, the guard whispered as they stood in the door and looked at the big chamber that had large windows on one side and a lot of dark wooden furnishings like, Clark thought, a courtroom one could see on any TV program.
The judge was calling it a "g-ded circus," the man continued, carefully refraining from repeating the curse in front of the Man of Steel. But he also said he was pretty sure that she probably realized it wasn't Superman's fault.
"Thank you," Superman told him. "Where do I sit?"
The guard motioned and a uniformed middle-aged woman who had been watching them came over. She was the Chief Bailiff and she was no more amused about this than the woman in the Court Clerk's office had been last Saturday. The difference was, this woman was carrying a gun and she looked like she'd use it if pressed too far.
Superman did not press.
She asked, "Where's your lawyer?"
"I'm representing myself, ma'am."
"Uh-huh…" she nodded, her expression saying she'd seen stupider moves in the courtroom but not often. "All right, you're going to sit over here…"
The crowd--there must have been at least 200 people but they surged so much Clark couldn't get an accurate count from floor level--caught sight of him. A hush fell over half of them while the other half found new voices to shout in his direction. He did not encourage them, not wanting to be responsible for the Chief Bailiff maybe pulling out her gun and shooting into the air to scare them silent, so he mostly ignored them, they were on their own.
Except he looked briefly for Lois. There was no way she was going to stay home and rest on her day off, though there was the fact that she had not intercepted his entry into the courthouse. Okay, that was thoughtful. Maybe she was looking around out front in the crowd for him, Clark, which made sense: he had called in to Mrs. O'Shea the afternoon before to say that he'd collect crowd reaction outside the courthouse because he didn't think he could get in without a pass. Being a friend of Superman's wasn't enough--though apparently being Superman's agent was, because he saw that Murray had a good seat about five rows back. The man waved, smiled, gave him a thumbs up and mouthed out "I'm here if you need me!"
Superman nodded in recognition, hoping it conveyed a "I don't think I will, thanks."
But then, as he was about to turn away from the gallery, he saw Lois. She was squeezing into the courtroom on the heels of a half dozen more security guards. She was dressed in a conservative brown outfit and no one else seemed to notice her as she melted into the crowd and somehow--not somehow, no somehows for Lois, Lois was a pro--find a seat. It would probably be in just the place she wanted so she'd have a great view but then be among the first out the door to call in the results from the closest pay phone upon which she'd surreptitiously hung an "out of order" sign since everyone's cell phones would have been confiscated at the door.
He wished that instead of being up here it had been some other schmuck, and that he and Lois could be figuring out how to get the best angle on the story.
Instead through the night he had been Superman, and he had spent most of the previous two hours putting out a fire on a cruise ship and, until tugboats could take over, towing it toward port, the nearest one being in Puerto Rico. That had turned out all right but getting back to Metropolis on time had been a close thing and it had kept him from putting into action the now-aborted little plan to share all this with her. Sorry, Lois. Someday you'll understand. Probably. He hoped.
The Chief Bailiff showed him to a highly polished mahogany table and he settled into one of the chairs behind it. The table was absolutely clear until a clerk brought a tray on which was an icy pitcher of water and several plastic-wrapped glasses. He stared at Superman a moment, said nothing but obviously ached to, and then rushed away.
Clark wasn't thirsty. He wasn't, he realized, sighing quietly, much of anything. He wasn't much interested, he wasn't much excited, he wasn't much nervous.
And he didn't much care.
But he knew what it was as he sat there examining his lack of feelings. It was his normal reaction to the closeness of his vacation. He always felt himself sort of shutting down and withdrawing from city life as what had become his regularly scheduled two-week fall escape neared. At the office they called it "Clark-on-the-farm days," or "Clark returning to his roots." Anticipating all that time not having to dress up in a suit and tie or in the Superman suit (unless there was some emergency or this stupid lawsuit demanded he return to town), being himself with his folks for two whole weeks always had a nice feel to it. Rough times just did that. Add to it his original innocent desire to keep this court thing simple, and, voila, something that might have been mistaken for apathy settled over him like a wet blanket. Maybe that's what Lois had sensed. Interesting.
Someone off behind him to his left began cursing her video camera tripod in Japanese; someone one else complained in French about the bright lights being aimed in the wrong direction; and people who apparently thought the guards wouldn't see them began shouting questions at him in English with a variety of accents, but that didn't last long.
The complainant and his team of lawyers descended upon the table on the other side of the open area in front of the bench and began to spread out papers. Powers and Burgess pointedly glared at the respondent when they weren't mumbling among themselves, but Selig gave them a single look and they calmed that down immediately. The complainant, a frazzle- haired man in his 40s, sat back and pinned a fierce frown on the defendant, whose self-admitted near indifference made it easy to keep a calm (though not mild-mannered) visage.
Clark tried not to listen to the opposing attorneys, the sense that someone had to play fair here insisting it be part of his simple plan, but apparently Selig had that covered as well because what little conversation that could be heard by anybody, particularly the reporters straining for juicy tidbits, was totally unrevealing.
Instead Clark sat back, folded his arms before his chest, crossed his legs at his ankles, and closed his eyes. He wondered if he was becoming bored now. It was another sign of impending vacation: he wanted to be home driving his father's combine or exercising the horses or helping the neighbors or playing with the dog or sitting in his Fortress catching up on his reading. Anything. Soon. In less than three days…
Unless something bad happened here and he wound up in jail, and breaking out probably wasn't a viable option. But why come out when he'd probably have his own cell and it would be quiet, unless another monster came along and then maybe he'd wait until they begged him to *do* something and then he'd think up a lot of paperwork for everyone to sign…
The Court Clerk announced the arrival of Judge Booker. Everyone stood to honor the small Asian woman who was draped in black and who walked in and up to the big chair behind the bench. Cameras flashed and videocamera lights glared; people dropped things and yelled at other people not to step on them. The Judge gave the room full of people a narrow look and aimed a particularly fierce frown at the photographers who had rushed forward past the guards toward her to get her picture. They scrambled away again. Among them had been Jimmy, good for him, and he grinned at Superman and didn't take his picture, which, while thoughtful, wasn't a good idea, Clark reflected. A picture of Superman standing up to his problems and looking serious would probably have been publishable.
The Judge sat down and the Clerk said "Be seated."
Judge Booker proceeded to outline certain rules of decorum she expected to be followed in her courtroom and if anyone questioned them, they were welcome to do so from outside the courthouse or inside a jail cell, it would be her choice. There were no questions.
Further, she said, seconds after someone turned a bright strobe on her, all artificial lights brought in to the courtroom that were not the property of the City of Metropolis were banned for the duration of this hearing and those in possession of them had three minutes to dismantle them or lose possession of them.
Reporters groaned and within three minute the light level in the room dimmed to a normal one. Clark hoped that Jimmy had brought high-speed film for this turn of events.
The Judge asked the Clerk to begin reviewing the paperwork. This took a near sleep-inducing ten minutes, with only about 15 seconds of panic for the defendant as Superman's dozen pages of replies and motions were apparently missing and Clark hadn't thought to bring copies. But they were found and put to one side and the complainant's paperwork, a one-half-inch-thick preliminary tome, not including attachments or exhibits, was seen to and also admitted formally into the procedures.
Apparently satisfied with all this, the Judge then asked that complainant Mitchell Fynk, owner, manager and representative of Metropolis Megamall and all the stores therein and its parking lot, to make his opening remarks. He was also asked to keep it to five minutes if at all possible.
Ms. Selig rose, and in 2 minutes, 35 seconds made a concise statement of the facts as the plaintiff saw them. Clark noticed that she spoke calmly and didn't imply anything to get hysterical about; he wondered if she was leaving that to one of her teammates.
Judge Booker nodded when Selig was finished, thanked her, looked at the defendant and said the same offer and rules applied to him.
Superman rose, said "I have no opening statement, ma'am. Ms. Selig covered the facts of the case adequately," and he sat down again.
A surprised murmur rose behind him, but he didn't listen to it. Well, not much. It was difficult not to overhear the reactions that ranged from shock at his lack of direct attack to certainty that he had a trick up his tight blue sleeve. He didn't hear anything from Lois, but she tended only to mumble to him, Clark, at times like this. The team of lawyers for the Plaintiff looked equally divided in opinion about his tactics.
He didn't care.
The Judge advised the plaintiff to proceed to his opening presentation and to try to keep it under half an hour.
Mr. Miller made the presentation. He was a lawyer's lawyer, everyone agreed, and he explained the details of the case in a flashy, professional and tight 45 minutes. He used videos and big glossy color pictures, the former being displayed on a large-screen TV and the latter passed to Superman and then on to the Judge. He asked to enter these as exhibits. Superman had no objections other than to point out a flipped negative for one of the pictures of the remains of the Slime Monster. That did not however alter the fact that it was indeed a picture of part of the dead Monster draped over the entrance to the Sears store. Miller frowned at the picture, shook his head, mumbled audibly that he wanted all the evidence to be accurate, thanked Superman for noticing, and withdrew the submission.
Miller called upon three witnesses. Two were customers who told tales of woe at not being able to finish transactions at two shops because they had been evacuated. The third was a clerk in a fashionable shop who said that customers who had been planning to make purchases had been kept from doing so by that same evacuation order. He also confirmed that the sight of the Slime Monster slowly settling over the Megamall later that afternoon had been frightening for them all.
The extent of Superman's cross-examination was to ask two questions of the first witness: when was the evacuation ordered? Four p.m, she thought. Did you leave the Mall at that time? Yes, sir. The two other witnesses answered "yes" when he asked them if they agreed about the four o'clock time and if they had left the Mall then as well. He further asked the clerk when the actual settling of the Slime Monster had taken place to the best of his recollection. About 5:30, or when he would normally have ended his shift, sir, he said. He added that the Monster had been in the area since 3 maybe, or so he had been told; he hadn't gone out to see it for himself because it had been a busy day, they were having a special promotion at the store, though it all had sounded exciting and he'd watched the round up on TV that night.
Superman thanked each one for coming, said he had no further questions and he sat down again and waited for the next witness until all three of them were done. The plaintiff redirected several questions about the time and the rush the witnesses had felt due to evacuation. Superman asked no questions upon his second chance to cross. The witnesses were telling the truth as they saw it and simply represented people who frequented or worked in the shops that had been destroyed when the Slime Monster died all over the property. Everyone had been right to be alarmed and nervous about the prospect and then, if they felt safe, excited about what had happened.
The press gallery was growing alarmed, nervous and/or excited about what they could only guess were Superman's tactics, but Clark didn't care. For his part, he reflected that his cross examination was rather like how Perry Mason had handled a similar situation, which had turned out to be a distraction. How had Lois known, or was it a lucky guess?
Mr. Miller proceeded to sum up their preliminary case on behalf of Mr. Fynk with a stinging indictment of the respondent for criminal carelessness in not having made it perfectly clear to the Slime Monster that it should have died elsewhere.
"Preferably on a mall across town," Karl Kingston muttered from somewhere in back.
The Judge frowned down the stifled laughter. She nodded to Superman. "Your preliminary response? Please try to keep it to half an hour," though her tone of voice indicated that since the complainant had gone over and though she wasn't happy about it, he had permission to do the same.
Superman stood up. "I don't need that much time, Your Honor. The counselors for the plaintiff have presented the correct basic facts of the case and knowledgeable witnesses and striking exhibits," and he'd had no doubt that would happen. It must have been hell deciding to take the case even though he and Lois had discovered the law firm was on retainer and obligated to do so. The truth at all costs was what they had to uphold, and their arguments couldn't be specious. "The Slime Monster did fall where it did as it died and it frightened a lot of people and a lot of damage was done. I wish the creature had been able to live out its life back wherever it came from, but it didn't. As I stated in my written response to the plaintiff's questions, I do not know why it died. As I understand it, scientists are still speculating about that." He actually leaned toward the theory that he had distracted and then worn it out somewhat, and, keeping it busy in the daylight, it had then dehydrated and sunburned to death, poor thing. But he couldn't say that.
"In summary, I knew of no way to stop what wound up happening, and that I am pleased that I have found no evidence and none has been presented that anyone was injured during the evacuation of the Mall or the subsequent settling of the Slime Monster on it. That's all I can say in my defense at this time.
"That being the case, I hereby ask the Court to end these proceedings and make a judgement as soon as possible. I ask that it please be in my favor due to this being a frivolous suit and a waste of the court's time. I ask also, please…"
An uproar had begun before he started his last paragraph, but the Judge gaveled everyone into silence as the respondent waited quietly. The Judge also sharply informed the noisier of Fynk's counselors: "He has the right to ask for this…!"
Selig, who had reacted calmly and said nothing, nodded, turned toward her colleagues, and looked like she might very well slap some of them into shape. They grumbled but quieted down quickly.
The Judge cast an unrelenting gaze out over the audience as though seeking someone to throw in jail for contempt. She found no volunteers. She gave them time to make a false move as she sorted through the papers stacked in front of her, letting the tension grow and a lesson be taken from this. Eventually she said in a noncommittal manner: "The respondent will continue, please."
"Thank you. I ask also that all court costs be paid by the plaintiff, and that if Your Honor decides to impose a fine due to the frivolity, any proceeds from that which might conceivably come to me be split between the Metropolis Children's Fund and the Metropolis Orphanage and Foundling Home. The Orphanage was severely… slimed and the Sisters of Charity need rebuilding funds. I would also like to point out that they are not suing me. That's all I wish to say, Your Honor," and he sat down.
The public gallery paused and then cheered. He could picture them kissing his feet and eating out of his hands. They'd do tricks if he wanted, peel grapes, fetch newspapers. If the Judge found against him, he could borrow his choice of hats and pass it on the spot, pay any fine and give the rest to his charities of the moment. The judgement would be something else, but the emotions expressed in the room made him feel considerably better, though he looked straight ahead and kept a serene, emotion-free face through it all. (He did feel for the eight reporters who were cited for contempt because of their careless use of camera flashes and for "assaulting" the bailiffs who held them back, but that was not exactly his problem.)
The Judge looked exasperated but let the roar wear itself out for a few minutes before meaning it when she gaveled. Relative peace (if one didn't count the mumbly undercurrent) soon reigned again.
Judge Booker asked for a response from the complainant. Both Mr. Powers and Mr. Burgess took on this task and did so for another thirty minutes. It was likely, Clark thought, that Selig had foreseen his defense tactic and prepared for it. For example, when a further witness was proposed and that they had to go get her, she was close by, the Judge raised an eyebrow at this happening during, in effect, closing arguments, Selig herself pointed out that the defendant wanted to cut off debate without addressing all the issues. She expected though that the testimony would be short. The Judge asked for Superman's input on this and he said presenting more witnesses was an understandable move and he did not protest. The Judge, while commenting that this was unusual, let the plaintiff proceed. Clark wondered if he should brace himself for this, but debating the wisdom of pouring himself a drink of water was more stimulating.
While everyone waited for the witness, the counselors pointed out that Fynk's tenants were losing money every minute, that countless employees were experiencing extreme hardships, and that the city had lost a steady source of tax revenue from local shoppers and indeed those who traveled from all over the nation to visit the many attractions once offered by the now flattened Megamall.
They presented visual evidence that Superman had been able to steer the Monster on three different occasions on that Wednesday, but when the Judge quietly asked, as the rules evidently allowed her to, "Steer it? Away from something? From what?" Burgess admitted that it was away from the Metropolis Hospital Complex, the Zoo, and Eastside High School where an emergency center had been set up. But, Powers pointed out, it was nonetheless apparently possible for the Monster to be steered and the defendant should have done so more efficiently.
Burgess and Powers also brought up the well- reported (by Lois, Clark knew) desire of the Pentagon to bring military power to bear against the Slime Monster. They called in a witness (her close availability more proof of Selig's forethought) who had been a scientific advisor for the generals at the planning meeting that Superman had been invited to attend. She said that the respondent had given the very clear impression that he knew how to deal with the Slime Monster and that the military men in time had decided to acquiesce to his insistence.
In his cross, for Clark realized he had to make one, he asked the witness if she recalled what weapons the Pentagon had proposed to use, a proposal made in both her and his presence. She said she thought that was classified information. When Superman pointed out that he didn't have security clearance of any kind (Clark figured it was something to do with a search of his alien background being impossible) and yet they had told him, the Judge cleared it up by asking the witness if she had been specifically sworn to secrecy about this. No. Then she should answer the question. The use of tactical nuclear weapons had been proposed, ma'am.
The audience held its collective breaths.
Superman asked if the effects of their use on the civilian population had been discussed. Yes… Were there casualty and injury projections from the use of these weapons? Yes… Did she recall the numbers? 10,000 deaths, 100,000 injured, but the Monster probably wouldn't survive. And had the witness heard the current death toll blamed on the Monster's visit? Yes, 14, with about 200 injuries.
Superman said "Thank you," and sat down.
Fynk's lawyers redirected the witness to speak of the less dangerous weapons proposed for use, and the clever maneuver the scientist and military had been planning. It involved luring the Monster out over ocean, where the use of dangerous weapons would least effect the city.
Clark had been hoping not to have to ask any more questions but couldn't let this go by, either. "Your Honor, I am going to reference a report I read but don't actually have a copy of it hand, though I can get on in about five minutes if you wish. I am hoping that the witness has seen it. It's a report by Professor Hamilton and his colleagues at Metropolis University on the observation that the Slime Monster appeared to draw relief and strength from its plunge into the waters at the entrance to Hobbs Bay at approximately 10:45 a.m. that Wednesday, which was shortly before the Pentagon called the meeting that I attended. I was, by the way, not invited; I suspect they couldn't reach me but they probably tired. I saw them gathering and just showed up. I had just noticed the effect of the water on the Monster and pointed it out to those at the meeting." He turned to the witness. "Do you recall my doing this, ma'am?"
The witness nodded and added that she had read the report and it made sense after the fact.
"At the time though," he asked, "not knowing this, did those in authority still wish to proceed with there use of tactical nuclear weapons against the Monster the next time it was out over the bay?"
When the Judge nodded in apparent understanding of his argument (and maybe the reason he had lured the Monster inland, away from the water), Superman said. "I have nothing further, thank you."
The Judge had a few questions though, asking what other plans had been proposed. They all concerned trying to lure the Monster elsewhere or at least further skyward and using different kinds of weapons on it.
After the witness was dismissed, Fynk's lawyers summed by saying that it was clear that Superman's personal arsenal of weapons had failed. He had nonetheless lead the main governmental agency charged with protecting the nation's interests to believe that he could take care of the situation and they should stand down and not deal with it immediately as they saw fit. The results, drawn out over the long afternoon of that day, unfortunately showed otherwise, as they, the plaintiff's lawyers, would elaborate upon further in subsequent proceedings but they realized their time was up for this morning, thank you, Your Honor.
When they were done, the Judge looked at Superman and raised her penciled-in eyebrows. He rose, said, "I have nothing to add in my defense," and sat down again.
The crowd behind him roared.
The Judge sighed audibly, gave everyone a displeased look, and stood up, looming despite her size.
The roar was bitten back.
She straightened her papers for a coolly calculated 30 seconds and finally said, "I have one question of the respondent…" She looked at him over her glasses.
Pin drop time again.
Superman stood up respectfully.
She asked: "Do you have any funds of your own?"
Good thing she wasn't asking this of the guy who wears the ties, Clark thought. What little I have in that bank account at the moment is a joke. "No, Your Honor." He wondered about adding that he didn't feel destitute or in need of charity, or if that might sound like he sponged off of friends, but she didn't indicate that she wanted to know that much.
Selig rose, that action alone indicating she wished to object.
The judge nodded at her. "Counselor?"
"I would like to point out that the respondent has done a number of commercial endorsements and has been paid for them, and that he maintains a publicity agency."
The Judge raised a (surprised?) eyebrow at that and looked at Superman again.
Clark had wondered if this would come up and he had a finely honed little speech: "I have made appearances for nonprofit organizations, and it is true that my image has been licensed in an attempt to avoid its commercial misuse. My agent"--who must have foreseen the issue and that was why he had come--"deals with this, and he and his secretary receive a commission which covers their salaries, benefits, and office overhead. He sometimes also employs two copyright lawyers who work on contingency. All the profits from the sales of products and any awards the lawyers obtain go to charities, not to me."
He had considered adding that he didn't see any of the money either, but then that wouldn't have been true. He had twice asked Murray Brown for money from petty cash. When pressed for something to write down in the account book, Superman had explained "a lot of birthday presents." The amounts were paid back over time, in cash and with interest, and that could have been pointed out if necessary.
The first time he had visited Murray to borrow money from the Superman Foundation was when the Planet had temporarily shut down after Luthor blew up the building. After three months Clark had needed help with the rent and utility payments and to loan some to Jimmy, and he hadn't wanted to ask the Union for it because there were members who needed those funds more than he did.
The second time was repay Lois after her Jeep had been impounded because she had parked it in a "Never, Ever Park Here!" zone when rushing after the ambulance taking Superman to the hospital seeking a cure for Diana Stride- induced Kryptonite poisoning. She had intended to actually be in the ambulance, but the attendants had found her nervous style of "helping" to be so downright interfering that they had stopped the ambulance and removed her from some 20 yards from his front door and she'd been forced to use her own wheels. He had been too weak to protest, which had doubled his feelings of guilt. What a terrible day that had been.
Several days later, early in the morning, he had taped an envelope full of cash to the inside of her open kitchen window. He had included a simple thank-you card and a note that explained he hoped it would be enough to cover the fine and the damages towing had caused. If her insurance rates went up due to the problem, he wanted to know about that, too. Later that morning at work Lois had been angry that Superman thought he needed to repay her and worry about insurance after all he'd done for her and the world--and pleased about the innocently charming gesture. She'd asked Clark's opinion about it but hadn't, he thought, really wanted to know; she seemed to settle on and somehow pull off being simultaneously annoyed and delighted.
"All right," the Judge said, "I'll take that into consideration as well. I'm recessing this court for at least ten minutes so that I can review the presentations and look over the paperwork." She was holding both his response and the armload of papers provided by the complainant. Trees died for that, Clark thought. "Everyone please keep your seats, I shall rule when I return."
More bailiffs appeared to keep the crowd under control. Fynk's lawyers conferred furiously among themselves, though Selig, Clark noticed, watched Superman in a speculative manner.
As there was nothing new to any of this (particularly that one lawyer's expression), Clark sat back and resumed his restful pose, eyes closed. In a few moments, his incredibly fine selective hearing sorted through the noise around him and gave him the sound of the Judge laughing out loud, possibly near the point of tears, in her private chambers.
He decided to assume not that she was looking forward to a long, comfortable, retirement-fund-building case and book and movie-of-the-week deals afterward, but that it was an indication of her favoring his case. He allowed himself a very small smile, one that he hoped did not tempt fate by being at all visible on otherwise his serene visage.
The respondent was found not liable. His actions had not been shown to be malicious nor did the Judge see that a case could be made for that in the future. Indeed, except perhaps his dealings with the military, which weren't a matter for her court, nearly everything the respondent had done on that Wednesday was covered under the state's obscure new good Samaritan law, which the plaintiff could have cited. As a courtesy to Selig's otherwise exemplary business practices, she went on to say that she had considered asking the plaintiff and respondent into her chambers to suggest that the former withdraw the lawsuit. She believed that the respondent would have accepted this--but also that his gesture might have been seen as a conciliatory one, leaving him open to other, more pernicious actions. No, Mr. Fynk's case would instead be used as an example of what could go wrong when unwarranted legal proceedings tied up the court's precious time.
She charged the complainant with all court costs and added a fine of $10,000 for the frivolity of his case. She warned that she would add $10,000 for every new suit brought before her that was related to this matter because some other disgruntled citizen of Metropolis might think it a good idea to try the same thing. If she had her way, woe be it unto those people. She expected the other judges would follow her example. She added in the end that the fine would be used as requested by the respondent.
The complainant quickly rose and apologized to the court, saying "I *may* have been wrong…" but he frowned at Selig, who contemplated him from under lowered eyelids. (Lois later said Fynk was in big trouble from that moment on, the whole courtroom knew it, though apparently Superman didn't realize it or he would have saved the… gentleman.) Fynk further said with a tear in his eye that he would be glad to pay all costs and add another $10,000 to the fund for the orphanage. He would later claim in an interview published in the Metropolis Star that the whole thing had been his lawyers' idea, but Lois discovered that Selig had wanted to go after the insurance company owned by the man's brother-in-law and the lawyer now predicted that a grand jury would be convened to investigate Fynk.
The mob of reporters and photographers did what they were famous and feared for, mobbing, and got countless pictures of Superman shaking hands with Fynk and the opposing attorneys, all forgiven as usual, on Superman's part anyhow. Superman was, as everyone knew, not one to hold grudges, which, Clark heard someone in the crowd say, had made the lawsuit inevitable; the Man of Steel should cultivate a thoroughly unamused frown for the next time a legal action threatened.
The Chief Bailiff extricated and escorted Superman to the secret exit. He thanked her, gave autographs to her and the office staff that had followed them at a respectful distance, said at last he had to be going, stepped outside, and there was Lois.
Of all that had happened in the last two hours or so, this made him really uncomfortable. After all, his overwhelmingly good reason for taking her aside and telling her everything had just evaporated, things were back to "normal," and he could pursue the problem as himself. Why stick around while wearing what suddenly felt like uncomfortable, almost unreal clothing?
But he couldn't just nod and rush off. He managed an "Oh, hello. You look well…"
"I'm totally recovered and I feel great--And don't worry, I didn't want to bother you, I just wanted to tell you I've already phoned in the story and given them all the details and said you did a good job."
"It looks like you, ah,… well, had a plan."
Uh-oh, he thought, I *should* have rushed away. This was certainly no time to rub anything in.
Still, he had his pride. "Yes, actually, I did," though he'd never admit the military witness angle had given him a brief scare.
She smiled and didn't look rolling-eyes incredulous like she thought his plan's success had been a "first time for everything" kind of thing. So maybe she had been impressed.
Buoyed by both that thought and his natural tendency to be lighter than air at times, he figuratively and literally tiptoed forward another step. As there was a crowd trying to listen in on the other side of the solid metal door to the loading dock, he said quietly: "I meant to tell you about my idea this morning, but I got back into town late and…" you weren't here? Right, blame it on her "I didn't see you."
"We were both busy."
"Yes…" He took another floaty-step forward and could have touched her and realized he would as soon as she indicated she wanted that. The calm, attentive, friendly look in her big brown eyes seemed to say that could be any moment. "Lois, we have to talk…" and now, he told himself, was suddenly as good a time as any, though the location could be improved upon, because:
"There he is!"
Reporters and photographers began pouring around both ends of the building and they were screaming at him in a multitude of languages.
"Take me with you," she whispered urgently, her eyes now full of "come on, what are you waiting for?"
"Good idea." The roof might be the place--no, a quick stop there, an adjustment to make her comfortable while he carried her, and then out into the peaceful countryside.
Except there was the sound of gunshots that tickled his ears, made him hesitate and frown. "Wait, there's gunfire…" He tried to triangulate it but the alley, echoes and converging shouting people made it difficult. "It's west of here but I'm not sure where, the buildings are distorting the sound. It's obviously an armed robbery and--"
"You have to check it out, so take me with you," and she looked like she'd jump right into his arms if he held them out.
No way! "Lois, after last Wednesday, I don't *think* so." She could beat her way out of the crowd of her colleagues easily because they didn't expect it, but taking her with him into a scene full of speeding bullets and who knew what else was out of the question.
"I'm sorry." He lifted off and glided away about ten yards then shifted to turbo, wishing he didn't have to see her exasperated expression, though he was glad when she muttered: "Well, maybe *Clark* will find out what it is" because that was a good idea. So Clark hadn't gotten and wouldn't get to the courthouse instead he'd been caught in the inevitable traffic jam and saw…
A typical bank robbery, one attempted no doubt because the robbers knew that Superman and most of the Metropolis police force would be stuck in the Courthouse half a mile away. Instead, Superman captured the fleeing get-away car, held the suspects for the police, and received a round of applause from everyone (but the suspects). They wished him well with the case; they hadn't heard the outcome yet. He wondered as he flew away what the general reaction would be like then.
He doubled back, changed clothes in an alley and returned to the crime scene to gather facts and interviews. Jimmy turned up to take pictures, and they both made it to the Daily Planet only moments before Lois did. She looked bouncy and unruffled, and in a moment he realized that he felt pretty good himself despite all the morning's ups and downs.
The newsroom was in the uproar it usually experienced when a big story was breaking here in Metropolis. Perry, at the top of his form, was merrily handing out assignments right and left. Lois and Clark hardly got to look at their desks and computer terminals before they were out the door again, on separate paths, gathering more information and opinions. Clark wondered when they'd have time to write up anything at this rate or if the junior reporters Perry passed their notes on to could make sense them.
He could deal with all that, but he was unhappy that he and Lois couldn't work together on this. She agreed, almost throwing her pen at Perry's back when he assigned her to cover the business district and Clark to talk to the patrons at the Zoo. But the first time he had to change into Superman to deal with a near mugging, Clark was glad he didn't have to make up an excuse to leave Lois behind again.
In the early afternoon, after grabbing something to eat and calling in his bits and pieces of interviews, he gave up trying to be Clark and took off on patrol. He feared that, with everyone having tuned in to radio or TV to catch the noon news, there were going to be a lot of jobs for Superman. Why was his little triumph a green light for people he didn't even know to celebrate? It didn't make sense. *He* felt like celebrating, but he hadn't even had time to call his folks, though he was sure they had watched CNN's coverage; that network had wedged a camera into the courtroom and a satellite truck outside.
More, though, Clark wanted to celebrate with Lois even if she didn't realize that's what she was part of. A nice lunch somewhere quiet, and then taking the chance to make (whisper it) that date for tonight.
As it was, he didn't get back to the newsroom until about 5, leaving the police to deal with normal rush-hour problems. Lois was sitting at her computer terminal but turned toward her desk, looking through her Rolodex. He knew she preferred to distract herself by thoughtfully manipulating the cards to simply pressing a few keys to pull up the same information on screen.
She didn't notice him enter but did notice his stopping, leaning over, pointing at something on the paper on which she was jotting notes (another thing she preferred to do if she had time) and frowning as though he were going to comment on some miswritten fact. He whispered: "Busy tonight?"
"Yes, and you're busy, too. The Metropolis Hot Air Society is having a balloon glow in Lefkowitz Park and Perry wants us to cover it." She smiled briefly. "Together."
"Could be worse," Clark said, "he could have given us the Metropolis Mud Wrestling Marathon so we'd get ideas…" He sat down at his terminal and turned on the screen. "But balloon glows are nice." Balloonists used any excuse to get together and show off.
"I think they're going to try to form a big S, but whether it will be red or not…" She paused, apparently trying to picture that; Clark couldn't easily, hot air balloons came in too many colors. "Oh, well, it's for charity, inspired by this morning…" She chewed on her pencil, frowned at her screen, flipped through some of her papers, and returned to her story. She stopped herself, blinked, looked at him and asked: "Does that sound all right with you? Going, I mean?"
Sure, since they had to go anyhow. It was not nearly as good as spending the evening in a quiet little restaurant, but better than a sharp stick in the eye, as his father might say. Not that it applied to him, Clark, personally, but he understood the sentiment.
They worked until six, when Mrs. O'Shea shooed them out. They split up, went home, changed clothes and Lois picked him up as dark was falling. She said that she hoped he didn't want to hear the radio news because You Know Who's victory was being celebrated all over it. No one had cornered him for an interview yet and he was being described as typically modest and not seeking the limelight.
"Well, why should he? And I don't understand why everyone's celebrating. The justice system worked like it's supposed to. It shouldn't be a cause for… for people getting drunk and acting stupid."
"True, but there's more to it than that. It reminds people that the Slime Monster is dead for good--even though we don't know where it came from or if it had a big brother, but that particular one won't be bothering us again and the city was saved."
She had a point. "There is that…"
"Besides, *we* know he won't show up at any of those events, they're right about his… being modest. He's probably off somewhere sleeping on a cloud, and I wouldn't blame him, if he's anything as tired as I am…"
"Uh-huh." Cloud sleeping? He hadn't tried that, but then it could be dangerous, particularly if he was hit by a jet going 600 mph…
"He probably is."
"And you sound beat, too."
"I do?" He looked back over his actions and reactions since the hearing and sighed. Relieved did describe it to a T, and he wasn't handling victory very well, either. "I guess I do, and I am. I probably sound… crabby, too, I'm sorry…"
"One might get the impression you're not happy about what happened this morning."
It was a good thing friends could point out things like that even if they didn't realize they were doing so. "No, I'm ecstatic, I'm *ebullient.*"
"The big word for today."
"Mr. Thesaurus strikes again. But as for celebrating, I'm not going to… well, I guess I am, I'm going to this balloon glow thing, but if Perry hadn't ordered us to…"
"You would have stayed home and knitted a slipcover for your couch?" she asked, shading toward her Clark-you're- hopeless tone of voice.
"No, I would have invited you to Antonio's for a candle-lit dinner and a good bottle of wine, followed by walking you home through Centennial Park, slowly, so we could enjoy what little stargazing is possible in this city."
She raised her eyebrows, clearly surprised. "Oh…" She dropped all signs of thinking him almost beyond recovery and gave him a brief, sheepish smile that turned into a pleased one. He hoped his expression, had she been able to see it in the dark, said that he'd been intent on making a serious effort. She said, "There's still time after the glow, though I'd like to put on something nicer than this…" She indicated her warm, casual clothing.
"No, I didn't make reservations after you told me about this balloon thing…" Antonio liked a little advance warning, even just an hour and he'd fit his good friend Clark in, but it now was too late. Besides, he had the sinking feeling that Superman would be needed tonight and not to make personal appearances with the Mayor or be toasted with champagne, either. It was a good thing Lois had driven in case he had to abandon her. "Maybe we can just enjoy tonight doing this."
"Antonio's would have been perfect…" she sighed, "But you tried, I know that and I appreciate it, I really do. Let *me* try, it's my turn again."
"We're taking turns? You mean after Sunday and the videos and the… Well, then Tuesday?"
"Those were my turn, and Wednesday with the UFO meeting, that was yours, so it's my turn again."
"Your math is a little…"
She looked at him.
He said, "Ah, okay, what's your idea?"
She smiled. "How's this for tomorrow night: the film club at MetroU is showing Fellini's Ginger and Fred at the SUB and I've been dying to see it again. It's long but it's romantic and funny, and I know enough Italian, and you do, too, probably, so when the subtitles aren't quite right it won't matter. It starts at 7 and gets out at 9:30, I think, and we can have dinner, too."
"Antonio's, yes, perfect with Fellini. We'll start your vacation off right," and she patted his closer knee for emphasis.
"I appreciate that." He found his crabby feelings dissipating rapidly. "And that, too…" He smiled at her wayward hand and considered covering it warmly with his own, but she was after all driving. Then he thought, what the heck, and covered it lightly.
She smiled slyly in return and inched her hand out from under his, and over and inwardly a bit, tantalizingly. Before he had to wonder about stopping her, she had to retrieve it to make a complicated steering maneuver as they entered the grounds of the park.
Whew, Clark thought, this could have gotten dangerous.
Hmm, and it still could… *That* would be some celebration!
They parked and joined a stream of people walking toward the soccer field where they found three balloons inflated, three half inflated, another three ready to be laid out for inflation, and three more still packed up awaiting their turn. They just might be able to form an oddly colored "S" with that many balloons, Clark thought. He decided to say so, adding "It would be kind of crooked…"
Lois looked at him sideways, said "Talk about crooked!" and for some reason she tried to tickle him, but his back wasn't ticklish there. She said, "That didn't work, did it, hmm…"
"Nope, it's no good, I'm not ticklish," which his folks would have been surprised to hear considering the giggly kid they'd had on their hands from day one.
"Well, don't think I'm giving up my quest."
"I didn't know you had a quest."
"That makes my job easier, doesn't it?"
"Ah… Where are *you* ticklish?"
"That's for me to know and you to find out. I want one of those hats."
"You have to be a launch director for that, you'd have to take a course."
Some members of the Hot Air Society were wearing black striped shirts and matching striped zebra-head-shaped hats. These people policed the area, keeping spectators from stepping on the balloons or poking fingers into the fans that blew the hot air into the envelopes. They directed balloon take offs and offered guidance and assistance to the pilots. Clark could see where Lois would like that part.
There were also people collecting money for the Metropolis Children's Fund, and other people selling refreshments and souvenirs. He refused to give a second look (and for the first one he'd rolled his eyes) at the obviously hastily designed "I saw Superman kick ass twice!" T-shirt, but Lois wasn't so squeamish. She didn't like the art work, the drawings didn't look like either the Monster or the Man of Steel, though the resemblance to the uptight Fynk was a close one. But she didn't buy, so Clark thanked her obliquely by getting them both hotdogs. He experienced mixed feelings when she couldn't quite decide if she liked another T-shirt with a more flattering picture proclaiming "Stud of Steel takes the Court." "Where would I wear it?" she sighed. She bought them sodas instead.
They overheard people wondering if Superman would turn up, if he would have time out from all the other celebrations around the city, because this was the best one. Clark had to agree about that: no drunks, no loud music, no real traffic jams around the park, just lots of interesting people intent on having good, clean fun. Here was where he wanted to be, trying to find out why the woman he loved wanted to discover his ticklish spots.
They became busy investigating the woven wicker gondolas and talking to pilots and crew members in a totally unreporter-like fashion. Lois flirted a bit and was allowed into two different gondolas. Three female pilots offered Clark, who hadn't knowingly flirted, the same privilege in their balloons, but he didn't take any of them up on it. He and Lois also helped inflate a balloon by grabbing an edge as instructed and waving it to help the hot air penetrate their part, and once the inflation was well underway, they helped by shouting encouragement and cheering along with everyone else.
Eventually, Clark realized he hadn't smiled so much in days, not since Monday and the charity ball and Lois looking stunning. But she hadn't laughed out loud then, either, or tried to sneak in tickles or nearly spilled her drink on herself like she did tonight.
About an hour later, when all the balloons were finally inflated, the glow officially began. While watching from the ground was okay, and mandatory for most, and the crowd's excitement and appreciation were tangible here, this was a spectacle better witnessed from the air. That probably explained the helicopter hovering way overhead. Its occupants had a great view of the multi-colored globes, lighted from within by the propane burners in a radio-synchronized manner. Clark thought that the helicopter's position was potentially dangerous and probably illegal. But since the balloonists didn't plan to lift off, instead encouraging eager spectators to grasp on to the gondolas to help keep the balloons grounded if the wind rose (one thing Clark knew he could do particularly well), maybe it was safe enough.
People not helping the balloonists began migrating to the edge of the field for a better overall view, and Lois and Clark followed the example, stopping near a row of pickup trucks. Balloonists preferred to use pickups to transport their balloons and gondolas and to chasing after them once the balloons were up. But chase crews wouldn't be needed tonight, otherwise Lois would have figured a way to get them into one so they could go careening down the freeway in the open back of a truck, risking pneumonia and bugs in the face and having a blast rescuing their balloon and drinking champagne afterward, what there was left of it after first-time hot-air balloon passengers were doused.
Lois commented that she found the roar of the propane jets stimulating in this setting, it made her shiver. Clark had noted that the air temperature was lower away from the balloons and the excitement, so he put his arm around her shoulders, a natural kind of move anymore, and she leaned into him.
But she also wished the helicopter would go away, its constant noise was too much. Clark looked at it way up there in the dark. At least the pilot had finally turned off the spotlight, that had been really annoying and nearly a job for Superman if the Policeman of Steel were one to hand out tickets for people being pure nuisances.
As he looked at the helicopter he felt a tingle.
Not now… Maybe it's nothing. Confirm it. "Lois, does it sound… funny to you…?"
"Sound funny? The helicopter? No, it's just irritating being up there…" She tightened her hold on him and began drawing a nearly ticklish line slowly down his t-shirted chest, as though she had mapped out quadrants on his body and was exploring each one and wouldn't get to certain ones until… later.
Distract me, please! he thought.
Then he thought: wait a minute, not *here*…
"Oh, well, it's, ah, probably nothing," he said, taking her hand gently before she got too far down right out here in public even though there was no one in the immediate area and it was dark and noisy and no one would hear them laughing and other couples were necking and…
"So you hear something funny…" she said, a question surely meant to divert him because she was probably intent on getting her hand back to continue doing who knew what.
Not that he didn't want to find out what she wanted to do, but now there was that helicopter to worry about. "Yeah, something a little funny." Maybe if she were looking down, looking for a new tickle try site, he could lower his glasses enough and quickly scope out the craft's condition and find out there was no problem.
He let her go but kept his arm before his chest to keep her from exploring right there for the moment. Maybe she'd try his back again…
But she looked up at the helicopter, too. "Funny like in potential engine failure funny? That's not funny, Clark."
"No, it isn't." And there it was again, a definite sputtery sound. "He hasn't moved, either. I wonder if he's reserving fuel or something…"
"Well, somebody should get him to move, it's dangerous for him to be there. Maybe the launch directors don't realize what's going on--maybe one of us should find the police and complain."
"The launch directors have radios, I'll grab one of them. You find the police, they'll have the real authority."
"We'll meet back where I parked, in case this turns into a story we should go after."
"Ah, I might go get something more to eat first…" That could explain his being away more time than getting a policeman would require.
She blinked. "You're thinking of food at a time like… Well, all right, if you're still hungry."
"A little, but I'll look for the police first. I'll…" He motioned back between the pickups and into the darkness. "I'll go this way."
"Good idea," and she rushed off toward the balloons and the launch directors, into the midst of more trouble if the helicopter started ejecting bits of itself.
He watched her for a moment, looked up at the helicopter again and heard it continue to sputter. Definitely bad news. He slipped into that interpickup darkness, blurred into the suit, zipped away up and to the south, and headed back toward the make-shift balloon field within seconds, visible this time to anyone looking in that direction.
The sight of the internally lighted globes below was beautiful. Clark thought: Lois, next time we'll wrap you in my cape and I'll bring you up here and you can try tickling me all you want… but he had to concentrate on the helicopter instead. He hovered in front of it, just outside of the propeller wash, and the pilot caught sight of him.
The man was panicking but trying not to. He looked up for a moment, double and then triple took at Superman, and cried out "Help!"
He had three passengers, all of whom were aiming cameras out and downward and either unconcerned or unaware of what was going on (possibly due to the helicopter's inherent noise) until one of them pointed at Superman and all the cameras turned on him. Clark wondered how they could see him, if there was enough light from the field below, but then the passengers were all Asian, perhaps Japanese, and they would have the latest technology. Too bad they didn't have the latest technology to loan their pilot.
Within seconds of Superman's arrival, the helicopter's engine sputtered to a stop and the stress caused a propeller to break off and head toward a housing project. Clark raced after and grabbed it, then returned to the helicopter. He darted under it before it had fallen more than a dozen yards, and caught as gently as he could, trying to avoid a jerky stop for its seatbelted passengers. He balanced it on a shoulder and when he was certain of his hold, he secured the propeller into the landing struts, and then he could use both hands to support the helicopter body. If a stiff wind came up or there was much drag, he could sink his fingers into the metal and improve his hold, but in the end that wasn't necessary.
Where now with it? There seemed to be no danger of it exploding like they did sometimes on TV and the movies, so there was probably time to find a safe place for it. The nearest airport was a medium-sized one several miles to the north, so he headed in that direction, avoiding flying over populated areas in case anything more dropped off the helicopter. He could hear the pilot and passengers trying to calm each other, the pilot in English, the passengers in Japanese. It wasn't working well but at the moment there was nothing diplomatic Superman could do to help.
They came to terms up there and soon one of the passengers, held securely by the other two, poked over the side with a video camera and strobe and began taping Superman in action. At least that indicated they had calmed down, and, as a fellow reporter, Clark admired their audacity. He smiled at them when it occurred to him that he should do so, that eventually millions would be watching the footage. Hands across the ocean and all that. He was glad, too, that over the last hour his mood had lightened so much, thanks in large part to Lois's innocent prodding (or tickling mostly). Otherwise the man's dangerous action would have irritated him and he would have warned the fellow to return to the safety of the cockpit. But, hey, he looked like he was having fun, so why spoil it?
As Superman placed the dead helicopter near the main office at the airport, authorities rushed out and, not surprisingly, informed him that this was illegal, no one had filed a flight plan, pieces of the helicopter were littering the tarmac… Superman said nothing, folded his arms before his chest in a polite manner, and looked at the pilot, who was just rising from kissing the ground. The airport authorities turned on him instead, which was proper.
Clark did though figure he should try to help the Japanese passengers. They had regained their land legs quickly and immediately besieged him, but Clark felt up to it now. This, he realized, could turn out to be his first official interview since the hearing. It had certainly taken a long time to calm down, hadn't it? Another good reason he needed that vacation.
They wanted pictures with him, each one in turn, shaking hands, bowing, smiling, personal pictures, followed by several group shots with them standing tall--each about a head shorter than Superman--business like and unsmiling but proud. Then they begged to interview him for their national TV network. When he acquiesced, they hustled him inside the airport and found an unoccupied lobby, commandeered it, and set up their cameras. Superman stood by passively until the chief reporter introduced himself formally to the camera and in excited, I'm-sharing-a-secret-with-you-tones, explained precisely where he and the audience were. Followed by the camera, he strolled over to the Guest of Steel and began the surprise interview. Superman answered questions in their own language for about ten minutes, saying enough, he hoped, to make their trip worthwhile. After the interview wrapped up, they were all grins and more bows, and they invited him to dinner but he refused politely, he had to be on his way.
Outside, as he lifted off into the darkness beyond which the reporters' strobe couldn't reach (they'd wanted a dramatic finish to their interview and he'd said sure, why not?), he saw Lois screech up in her jeep, jump out, and begin to track down the story by cornering the much chastened and heavily fined pilot.
That complicated things. Should he go back and talk to her, give her a more complete story on the hearing, including his philosophical thoughts now that he was feeling serene about it--or pretend he hadn't seen her? The more he hung around her, the more it seemed likely that villains would use her to trap him. She was safer being seen in the company of Clark, though Clark might not have been safer with her since she drew her own trouble, but he could deal with that. Odds were good she hadn't seen him, though she would know he'd been here. Also, talking to her would extend her stay and make her explanation to Clark for her absence a touchier one ("Oh, I just felt like going after the story without you, sorry…") and he didn't want her to worry about that. Going now, he could patrol the city, looking for trouble for, say, a half an hour, enough time to allow her to call in the story and for them both to get back to the park. His choice of what to do was obvious.
She returned to the empty parking lot at nearly 11. He would have been justifiably angry about this incredible length of time, but he couldn't bring himself to be because he had returned late, too, at about 10:45, due to a glut of drunk drivers, fireworks accidents, and other idiotic things celebrants were doing or having done to them. It was a good thing it was a school night or things could have been worse.
Lois jumped out of the Jeep, gave him a big hug, opened the passenger-side door for him, and said breathlessly as she drove them away, "Oh, Clark, I'm sorry I'm so late!" She explained that first she had *tried* to find him when she had decided to follow Superman and the helicopter, but he was nowhere to be seen. Locating a policeman must have been harder than either of them had expected, huh? Too bad there wasn't a Dunkin Donuts nearby--"Oh, I don't mean that, really… by the look on your face you agree though, don't you?"--Then, in interviewing the helicopter's passengers, they had recognized her and turned the tables and made her the subject of a series of questions she hadn't expected about her relationship with Superman. "All I told them was that we're just friends, and I don't see him much any more unless I need rescuing or he does."
Huh? Me need rescuing? Hardly ever now!
After escaping them ("They wanted to take me out to dinner, but I said no, I'd eaten already, the hotdog and all. Superman didn't take them up on it either though, but they said they didn't know what he liked to eat or how much anyhow. They wanted to watch him do it, they admitted that, like they'd tape every move, like he only eats with his fingers, you know, or *through* them, like they're straws, slurping things up through his fingers, yech, when he's a perfectly civilized person…") she'd found her jeep boxed in and had to track down people to move their vehicles so she could leave.
Before she could do so, she discovered that the Japanese had followed her. They looked soulful and lost because their van was back at their hotel, so she'd given them a lift to the Holiday Inn where they were staying. "The midtown one, and you know where that is, miles from here, and that's why I'm late… I didn't get to talk to Superman, he left just before I got there. He's probably out pulling people's fat from the fire even as we speak. Or I speak, since you haven't gotten a word in."
"That's okay." Dare he say how much fun it was listening to her? "It's late, he's probably… resting."
"I hope so, I hope things have calmed down. He probably hasn't gotten any chance to celebrate like *we* have…" She glanced at him.
He nodded. "Umm."
She looked back at the road. It was quiet between them for a minute. She tried launching a real conversation. "I hope you found something to do, like helping repack balloons."
"Oh, I kept myself busy."
"I'm glad you don't sound angry at me for abandoning you."
"Well, I figured you had a good reason." It wasn't like he hadn't done it to her more times than he liked to recall.
"Clark… you're so sweet and understanding when I… I just leave you standing there wondering what's going on…"
Their eyes met. She smiled, apparently at his surprised look. It was unlikely that she would mistake it for a forgiving one when there was nothing to forgive, he probably would have rushed after the story, too, had he been her. He wondered if she'd go for his knee again as a form of apology and decided to keep it within reach just in case.
But when she didn't make a move in that direction, he decided to say: "Lois, I think maybe we both need some sleep."
"That's a good idea. I'm exhausted. We'll rest up for tomorrow!"
Tomorrow. He tried to think it with an "!" attached, but he realized that, as soon as he'd advised her of their need for sleep, it was a slip of the tongue that revealed a deeper truth about himself. He felt worn out. Oh, he could have saved a train load of people on a moment's notice, no problem there. It wasn't a physical but emotional. Tonight indulging in sleep would be delicious. Tomorrow evening would be a fine time for talking (he'd lay it all out for her if it killed him…). Then vacation would be marvelous because he'd know she would be thinking about everything. She would come to terms with it-- she'd have to, he wouldn't be there to be yelled at and there was no way she'd share it with anyone, she'd know the importance of keeping this secret. She'd then probably develop a laundry list of ramifications, complaints and, he hoped, ideas to present him with upon his return. Rested, he'd be ready for them, ready for anything, and everything would work fine that way.
Lois awoke Friday morning with the definite feeling that she was leading a charmed life. She rarely got this feeling; more often the feeling was one of pervasive paranoia. It was good for goading her into getting those tough stories and making life hell for miscreants and the competition, but it wasn't good for her physical health. She craved an overall feeling of well being when she had time to give it some thought. She definitely liked feeling charmed when no big news stories were looming, when the big story was instead in her personal life.
She looked through her clothes closet and considered dressing to kill, but since her prey was bumbling along steadily toward her lair--and not the dinner table there but, oh, bed and breakfast--it wasn't necessary. Dressing relaxed was better, it would lure him faster because he'd feel more at ease.
She laughed at herself. She was well aware that she would never have entertained thoughts like these (realistic thoughts, anyway) about Superman, but his being Clark, well, that made a world of difference. Clark was Clark, she knew that now, he was Clark with Something Extra. The Extra meant among other things that he could move faster to take the bait--bait she had no doubt about her desire to offer now. And he had no choice in the matter, did he?
She was sure he'd have agreed with the inevitability of the process. Look at how he'd handled the hearing. He'd seen the inevitable in that, stopped worrying for the most part, and let it take its course, perhaps unconsciously relying on his innate goodness and innocence to carry the day. Somehow, despite all odds and common sense about these things, it had worked. He had prepared what he could for it and then stayed out of its way. Superman had prevailed with truth, justice and honesty, and set a good example for the common man.
Except for the truth and honesty part, and she didn't care about the common man at the moment, that's how this thing between them was working, too. It came down to it being of no consequence how much either of them prepared for it and tried to make it happen (though dressing relaxed and having good dinners were both nice), it was simply going to happen at the right time, because of or despite their efforts, and there was justice in there somewhere.
Tonight, she thought, could be that right time. After all, right times needed some help in happening and she'd helped and there it was. He surely saw it as his chance again and it would happen, it felt exactly right.
Yes, life was charmed.
She decided to have breakfast at her uncle's newly opened downtown branch, Mike's Breakfast Nook, open 6 am to 2 pm, only two blocks from the Planet. Delicious, and she got a discount! She made it to the newsroom with two minutes to spare and 20 minutes before Clark did, but she figured the wire would say soon enough what only she would know had made him late. It must have been something far away but not a strenuous deed because he looked rested. Also, nicely, his smile upon seeing her was natural and without a trace of it being something he had to remind himself to do; she had detected that at times over the last week when there had been so much to worry about.
She wondered if he'd had any chance to talk to his parents. He might have gotten in a quick call the evening before or this morning maybe. They were farmers, nearly retired, yes, but they woke early. Clark, soon you can share all those feelings with me, and not have to bottle them up inside when you can't phone your folks or fly off to see them.
Perry sent them out to check on a routine police call and a lead he had gotten from one of his well cultivated sources. Nothing exciting panned out, though Lois thought she saw a potential story to look into while Clark was gone--if after tonight he felt like going. Maybe he'd want to stick around, maybe he'd vacation at *her* place and nursemaid Maxine while she, Lois, couldn't be there, umm, making breakfast in bed with him.
At the water cooler early in the afternoon they confirmed meeting at the Student Union Building at 6:45 for the movie. They had tried to make reservations at Antonio's for an early dinner, but when Clark discovered the restaurant was closed for the week due to a death in the family. Instead they agreed they could have popcorn during the movie and something nice to eat afterward.
At about 2:30, Perry strolled casually up to their desks, one of those looks in his eye, and began to ask off- handedly if "you kids are busy tonight, because I have here…"
She and Clark exchanged glances--and Clark took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, immediately stood up and walked Perry back up to his office. He quietly explained things with the assistance of a few gestures of that expressive left hand of his, and in moments Perry was smiling, nodding and tucking some tickets back into his vest pocket. When Clark returned, a serene but triumphant look on his face (and was she glad to see that!), he whispered, "Raul and Laura are fighting at the moment and they can use the tickets to that concert better than we can."
"A country music jamboree of some kind."
"Oh, right, absolutely right, good thinking."
He smiled, obviously pleased with himself. She returned it in a warm, congratulatory manner. Sure, in some respects he was the fly to her spider, but now he was the prince of planners and she liked that a lot, too.
Late into the afternoon, around 4:30, after Lois noticed that Clark had checked the clock on the wall over the elevator for the umpteenth time--eager to get out of here, wasn't he?--The Cupcake attacked. She realized she should have known it was coming and watched for the furtive preparations, but she was as surprised by it as Clark was.
She got the first inkling of something about to happen when staffers desked around them began to sneak away singly toward the lunch room. Marilyn touched her arm and motioned at her to follow, but Lois waved her off, almost as deep in research as Clark was. Lois now wished she had become part of the attack team, but then she would have had to abandon her ringside seat.
She saw the staffers form a wedge and flow in the direction of Clark's desk. They pulled up short and someone tittered "Oh, Clah-ark…" He put his finger on what he was reading as though not to lose his place, glanced up, and gave them a much-appreciated classic doubletake. Jimmy was ejected toward him. Clark sat back, looked appropriately stricken and shook his head, "Oh, no, no, no…"
Despite always claiming to hate being the one who delivered the "gift" simply because he was the youngest, the photographer couldn't keep from grinning as he presented it, dished up and on a doily, to Clark.
Clark continued to shake his head. "No, no, not The Cupcake, not this, please, *no*…"
"Sorry, CK…" Jimmy stage whispered and slunk away, but he stopped soon enough and turned to watch.
"What have I done to deserve this?" Clark moaned.
Saved the world on a couple dozen occasions, Lois thought, and written some really good stories about it and let people cry on your shoulder and stayed late to help others without recompense and smiled at people's lame jokes and generally been an all-around nonjudgmental friend to those in need of just that, and everyone will miss you while you're gone.
To the generic birthday song tune staffers started singing on-the-spot made-up songs about farm life, slopping pigs and picking corn--"That's *wheat*!" Clark groaned, "*Wheat*!" because if he'd told them once, he'd told them a million times, though Lois knew his father grew some organic corn, too.
Mrs. O'Shea, the unrepentant but usually closeted smoker on the staff, glided by, paused and found a stub of candle on the wax covered, nearly ten-month-old Cupcake. She found it by probing with a pencil because no one actually touched the thing if at all possible. She lighted the blackened wick as Clark looked on with the perfect uncomfortable little boy look on his face.
The staff started counting down from ten, slowly. The rule was that the recipient had to wait until they hit zero to blow out the candle. If the candle went out first, too bad, the recipient was obliged to eat the thing, the whole thing, unless they had really good excuse, like being pregnant, which didn't help Clark at all.
The other traditional part of this was worse. The countdown was slowed further until the recipient could prove his or her prowess with poetry. They were nearly all seasoned journalists, it should be easy, right? Ames, an intern turned part-time staff member, had started it back in February with her Couplets to a Cupcake. She had stood (one couldn't get farther than arms' length from The Cupcake) and proclaimed:
O beauteous Cupcake
Sugar covered and waxed,
I'm so glad to see you--
but wish you'd been faxed!
She'd gone on for six more stanzas, but the new tradition had been initiated (with the proviso that only one stanza was necessary). Lois had thought it was a blast until The Cupcake, which never appeared for pedestrian things like birthdays and anniversaries, was brought out when her black- market baby story was nominated for a Kerth in April. She had nearly panicked and run from the room, choking back a sob for help from Superman--though he'd been right there, hiding behind Clark and he'd grinned like a fool at her plight. Well, now he knew how it felt!
To her dismay, Lois had found herself reverting to childhood as she grabbed her brain and tried to wring poetry out of it. She was appalled to hear herself say:
There once was a Cupcake named Sue… Oh, no! But everyone had cheered her on because she was committed to whatever she started with.
Who made people feel like they'd screw…
dup--and get me in trouble,
worse than… the… Hubble,
And… wish I'd… stayed home with the flu! She'd nearly had a heart attack (her clutching at her heart had been caught on video tape just as Clark was now being taped), but she had actually been satisfied with her resourcefulness in the face of adversity.
Now as everyone counted in an agonizingly slow manner, she recalled how back around the first of the year in celebration of Renate's thesis being accepted for publication, Laurie had made cupcakes. Renate had loved them, but she ate two over the course of the day and had to beg off the third and very last one, which someone had decorated with a candle found on the floor in a corner of the lunchroom. Perry had chuckled. "Well, the solution's obvious, we keep it for the next person." Thus a new Daily Planet tradition had been born--and grown all out of proportion. The Cupcake was usually kept in a plastic container decorated with monster stick-ons in the refrigerator in the lunchroom.
Clark was not in a good position. The bit of candle sticking out of the side of the wax-covered lump was flickering uncertainly and the countdown was only at eight. But he was well aware, Lois thought, that they hadn't enjoyed this ritual since before the Slime Monster attack. If he had asked her, she would have pointed out that his bad luck meant the newsroom really was returning to the swing of things and, look, poor Superman wouldn't ever receive The Cupcake, only a great guy like Clark could.
Clark stood up and cleared his throat, loosened his tie, licked his lips, took a careful breath (he's wasting time, Lois thought, but then he's probably the only one who actually could eat the thing and not get sick…), and addressed The Cupcake.
O wonderful Cupcake,
you arrive unannounced,
Reminding me of when
my paycheck bounced.
Then he looked up at everyone.
That's it? Lois thought. He certainly looked like he hoped that had passed muster.
Then she thought: What did I expect? A Poet of Steel?
After a moment's hesitation, his colleagues began to applaud and cheer: that would do. The breeze of their actions caused the little flame to gutter but there was nothing Clark could do about it. He closed his eyes as the countdown hit a slow, drawn-out TWOOOOO and the flame calmed. Was he influencing it somehow psychically? Lois doubted it; he would have used such abilities plenty of times before now and saved lots of trouble. He opened his eyes and sat down again as though his knees weak, and sat back but couldn't push away from his desk because The Cupcake was a bomb equivalent and he was shackled to it.
The crowd intoned the EEEE in ZEEEE-roh. Clark leaned forward and took a deep breath, the kind he probably only used to put out forest fires, Lois thought.
As the last of the OOOOh filled the room and the flame jumped about and threatened to die on its own, Clark put it out with the lightest of puffs and then collapsed back, winning the local equivalent of an Emmy for best dramatic performance when under attack by The Cupcake this month. The "gift," picked up with oven mits and placed in its Tupperware container, was hustled away before it could turn any more rancid.
Clark proceeded to survive the help of his colleagues, who straightened up his desk, arranged his computer files and program manager, attempted to change his password and delete "unwanted" documents, and generally, they assured him, try to make things worth his returning to in two weeks. "Oh, I'll just rush right back," he assured them as he watched someone dumping a box of paperclips into his file drawer "so he'd always be able to find one."
Lois did her part, promising she'd remember to water his plant at least once. His pained expression, tinted with pleasure at all the attention, didn't change upon hearing her assurances.
Then, at 4:50, under a strict warning from Perry that he expected a full day's work from everyone, no exceptions, for a full day's pay, Clark was tossed into the elevator. He was told to have fun with all those sheep down on the farm eating corn and pitching hay and square dancing and all that, they were jealous of him, being stuck here in the city with running water, indoor toilets, electricity, cable TV, and crime to keep things interesting.
He managed to smile as the elevator door closed and his vacation officially started. It was the kind of smile that said he was having trouble not laughing out loud despite the fact that someone had put on his head a straw hat with attached sunglasses and bandanna and given him a battered, over-the- shoulder-type purple leather purse, both from the disguise closet, and plastic bag stuffed with shredded copy to get rid of on his way out, please, have fun!
Yes, Lois smiled as she leaned back against her desk, contemplating the closed elevator door. That was one person who was feeling *much* better about things. She could see why he hadn't put on the suit and attended any of the previous night's ceremonies: they would have been no where as fun as these last twenty minutes.
Tonight, she smiled, having him to herself for hours on end, could not go anything but very well!
Ames hurried by her, stopped, did a 180 and came back to look at Lois's face and then the elevator door. "Hot date, huh?"
Lois just smiled.
"Wow… You know something? I'm glad it's with Clark and not, well, Superman, you know?" The young, red- haired woman came closer and whispered, girl to girl, "I hear that some guys from… outer space are, ah…"
Ah, the Monday rumor comes full circle, Lois thought. "Are what?" she asked, making sure a serious, somewhat worried expression was on her face.
"They're… bisexual maybe?"
"And maybe sort of… leaning a different… way than you'd expect a guy who looks like him to?"
The young woman nodded seriously, hating to be the bearer of bad news--but pleased to be the first to tell Lois. "Well, just be careful. I'm glad you've got Clark."
"Though he could be more… wild at some times, like…" She nodded in the direction of the lunch room, where they could see the candy machine and Jimmy looking at it, probably considering what to have for dinner.
"I suppose so," Lois smiled. "Thanks for the warning."
"Oh, *any* time!"
As 6:40 loomed and she finally spotted a parking space two blocks from the SUB, Lois reminded herself that tonight was going to go very well, it didn't have a choice, they were going to celebrate, Clark was going to get everything out into the open, and their relationship would skyrocket.
As she got out of the Jeep and locked the door, she informed the solid cloud cover that rain tonight was not an option. A sprinkle or two while she and Clark were enjoying the movie would be fine, but no more until tomorrow maybe. Nothing was going to interfere with this night's inevitable ending.
She sprinted for the SUB's main entrance, glad she had decided upon flat heels in her attempt to dress up a bit for this informal date. She had chosen a pretty but not overwhelming ensemble with a matching jacket against the cool air, though as the night deepened he could easily be coaxed to warm her up.
She saw him waiting near the main doors, in the open plaza area outside the SUB, ignoring the light sprinkle that had started and the breeze that was shimmering through the containerized trees here. He was dressed in dark colors, which she hoped didn't mean anything unconscious because he looked gorgeous when he smiled. Blue, red and yellow did nothing for him in comparison to this black shirt and dark brown jacket, black slacks--how could he get away with it? Mr. and Ms. Fashion Plate, she thought as she slowed down, walked up, smiled and said, "Hello, sailor!"
"Hello yourself," he replied, returning the smile.
"I'm almost late again, I'm sorry."
"I knew you'd make it." He dipped into one of his pockets. "I already bought the tickets, see?"
"Oh, Clark." She felt misty eyed. "I don't know anyone else who would wait for me if they didn't have to…"
"Well, you're quite a patient person yourself, but you might want to reserve your praise because *you're* buying the snacks, and *I* haven't eaten yet."
"You're starving? You had a chance to eat The Cupcake, but *noooo*…"
"And spoil it for the next person? Not *me*…"
"Okay, okay, Mr. Thoughtful, let's go in before we get wet."
They loaded up on the bizarre healthy fare offered by the SUB's Classic Film Society: Italian ices, British candy bars, and blue corn tortilla chips for example--all expensive but she and Clark were worth it. Then they found seats in the small, dimly lit theater. She questioned him closely for a few moments, making absolutely certain that he hadn't seen the film before. He swore he hadn't, saying he had seen only Fellini's Satyricon, and he admitted that it had just about totally baffled him.
Somehow Lois was not surprised. "We'll have to start renting a more… eclectic kind of movie then. No, make that 'film.' No more Natural Geographic nature specials for you."
"Does that mean we'll cut back on the multimillion dollar-grossing love stories for all time, too?"
"But I *liked* Sleepless in Seattle…"
"Four times? Twice in one sitting?"
"I've never asked you to watch it four times, and that time I wanted to watch it again, you had to leave half way through it the second for some reason…" She knew now he'd evidently heard a car accident two blocks away. "Of course you'll have to give up Speed."
"And I can see you'll be tossing out Free Willy…"
"I'll free *your*--"
"Oh, you think so?"
They exchanged scandalized looks and then smiles and blue corn chips, saying nothing more on that particular subject, though she was 100 percent certain she could have gotten a rise out of him had they been alone and she had pursued the topic.
The movie began and ran a little over two hours. They hunkered down in the surprisingly comfortable seats, put their feet up carefully on the seat backs in front of them (the showing was not well attended and no ushers were in evidence) and whispered observations about the film to each other. She argued with a few of his translations, feeling that she was right because she was placing the phrases in context rather than depending on some mental Italian-English dictionary. He didn't argue much and seemed to catch the film's deeper messages. He also freely shared his larger vanilla Italian ice when her tiny chocolate ran out much too quickly.
They left the SUB hand in hand at 9:30. Outside it was the kind of dark that only a thick cloud cover could engender and the air was still, moist and uncertain. There were puddles everywhere and silent lightning in the distance. Lois thanked the rain for having taken a breather, but she was sure it hadn't let up for good.
So it was natural for him to ask, "Which way is your Jeep?"
"Off in that direction somewhere," she motioned vaguely to the east.
"Then let's head off in that direction somewhere."
"We can look for someplace to eat on the way, too." University Boulevard was lined with shops and restaurants and most of them would be open on a Friday night.
"Somewhere fancy or a traveling hotdog salesman?"
"Somewhere inside with not too many customers and a quiet corner and nice music and good food so you'll remember this wonderful first evening of your vacation."
"Oh, I'm going to remember it all right…" and he eased his arm up over her shoulders and squeezed lightly.
She didn't ease but definitely put her arm around his waist and squeezed in return. Little did he know she understood *exactly* the secret message he was trying to convey… and she was glad. It was getting so difficult not to just grab him and tell him herself. Flow, girl, flow…
They strolled along University, checking out the delis, coffee houses, and full-fledged restaurants, which were all noisy, crowded, and not conducive to a deep, heartfelt conversation. They were passing some hole in the wall called John's Tavern as the rain started again in earnest. "Let's try this place," Clark motioned.
"It's a bar, Clark."
"You want me to take you to a bar?" She could imagine garish neon lights, cigarette smoke and peanut shells everywhere, sleazy women sizing Clark up, sleazy men leering at her…
"You take me? We've been to bars before--"
"Oh, come on, it looks quiet enough, let's check it out." He reached for the door. "I don't want to get rain soaked, we've done that already."
John's Tavern was dark and smoke-free. There was a cozy, well decorated bar and an efficient-looking man working behind it, but most of the patrons were sitting at tables eating sandwiches and drinking calm-looking drinks. There were no drunks reeling about puking on the floor, and no suggestively clad women winking at Clark. The place was less than half full and Lois spotted several empty booths in the back right away.
"This is looks okay," Clark whispered. "I wonder if the food's any good."
This, Lois thought, coming from the fellow who Martha had said could probably thrive on carpet tacks and shoelaces if that was all there was in the house…
"We don't have to eat really, we just have to talk." But that was too blunt. She added: "About the movie. Let's see if we can get that booth over there in the corner."
The booths in the back, John-behind-the-bar said, were reserved for a party of regulars he expected to come in after the basketball game with State. He took a better look at Lois and Clark though and nodded sagely (uh-oh, Lois thought, a philosopher barkeeper…). He smiled like a matchmaker. "Look, it's almost ten now. If they don't show up by, oh, 10:30, you can have that booth way back in the corner. Would you like drinks while you wait? Or sandwiches?"
Lois and Clark looked at each other and then glanced back toward the door. It was raining steadily now. They looked at John: here was the first person who had actually solicited their patronage. They could do a lot worse. They decided on wine and John smiled appreciatively.
They picked a small table more than half way back near a wall and beyond murmur-overhearing distance of the other patrons, all of whom looked intent on their own conversations anyhow. The table was just big enough, if they moved to one side the candle-in-a-cup, to lean on their elbows and comfortably gaze into each other's eyes, which Lois hoped to do a lot of.
"Okay," she said after they were settled and John had served them two small goblets of wine accompanied by some bit of philosophy about it that Lois forgot as soon as he had gone. "You laughed and you cried at all the right places, but what did you *really* think about the movie?"
"Oh, it was funny and endearing. Amelia reminded me a lot of you…"
Lois smiled. "Well, Pippo didn't quite remind me of *you*."
"I hope not. I don't foresee becoming a washed-up has-been who's wasted his life and whose claim to fame now is on-the-spot sexually loaded doggerels…"
He certainly didn't have to worry about the doggerels, she thought, considering his lame Cupcake poetry, which, while saving him had hardly been worth the videotape it was now memorialized on.
"Were they as funny in Italian as they were translated?"
He made a face and smiled. "They were worse!… Okay, I saw Pippo as more a dreamer than a doer. *She* was the doer."
"Motherhood, grandmotherhood, running a small business… She probably contributed a lot more to their relationship when they were a dance team than he would admit."
"Yeah, maybe that's why they didn't just face it and get married. They already saw each other night and day, but he might have felt unconsciously that his manhood was in question since he wasn't running the whole act. He didn't…" Clark met her eyes and said softly, "realize how much he depended on her and how he could have shared things…"
Oh, yes! "He kept his distance though, kept his guard up…" she replied in the same almost breathless manner.
"Umm…" Clark looked down at his wine again.
She regained her voice; things suddenly felt like they were moving a bit too fast and needed leveling out. "But she seemed to know how much she depended on him. Look how happy she was when she saw him at last. Even though she was angry at him and he was a mess, he'd been there all the time."
He nodded. "That's when you cuddled up, during that scene."
She recalled appropriating his left arm and sharing the warmth she felt at the sight of Amelia recognizing Pippo. "You noticed…"
"I'm glad it wasn't a horror movie, you might have cut off my circulation."
He smiled as though, she thought, he had seen the edge come a little closer than he was ready for, too. "No, I'm joking, it was great. The smile on her face, the look in her eyes, she'd…" He sampled the wine again, as Lois did. "She looked like she'd forgive him for just about anything…"
"Like not telling her that he had arrived…" or like you not telling me, not being able to tell me, but you *want* to, I know that. "She got mad at him later on though," like I know you think I'm going to…
"Because he was acting like a child, but she was a strong woman, she kept her temper while he was making a fool of himself with his rhymes."
"Still, he was a deep and complex character."
"While she was steady as a rock."
"They do sound a little like us…"
"When you consider who and what they were surrounded by they looked completely sane in comparison. Especially Amelia." He shook his head. "Dwarfs, transvestites, famous people and famous people impersonators… one of your favorite movies, huh?"
"What can I say, it reminds me of the newsroom."
John drifted ask if they'd like something to eat. He recommended the nachos, made with real white cheese, real sour cream, black beans and plenty of spicy guacamole…
Lois said, "Umm, that sounds good," more to get rid of him than because she was hungry. Now where were we… "Did you think that one impersonator looked like Reagan? I didn't, and it does date the movie."
"Well, maybe he looked like Italy's idea of the tall, virile cowboy type."
"And all the ugly scenes of Rome, they weren't what I expected when I saw it I first time. The steaming trashbags in front of the billboards that promised luxury if you just spent a little more money. I don't know if I want to go to Rome if it looks like, well, Metropolis."
"Those parts look like any big city, and you wouldn't go there if you were a tourist. I didn't see any of that the first time I visited."
"You'll have to tell me about that."
"Oh, I just did all the tourist-on-a-budget stuff. The second time, when I was 23, I saw more, things I'd like to share with you. Actually, I'd like to share a lot, well, everything with you…"
She leaned closer. "I want you to, I want to know you're not hiding any… teep-tap from me, and I don't want you to turn into anything like Pippo…"
"But I wouldn't mind you turning out someday to be a little like Amelia…"
"As long as we stop teep-tapping around each other and teep-tap together…"
"Like now, yes…"
Their conversation hit placid waters and they enjoyed the warm looks on each other's faces, the wine, and the nachos that arrived with a flourish. He even fed her a crispy chip loaded with guacamole and it was somehow quite romantic.
But although Lois was enjoying immensely the "like now," she found herself serenely calling for another inspiration to get things moving further along in the right direction. It would come, she was sure of it, but… there was no need to rush things and make either of them nervous or jumpy.
Time softly ticked away. They saw each others' hands and that they were unoccupied and close and could be closer, touching, and by gosh, Lois thought, if he didn't move his to cover hers warmly. Maybe he was inspired…
"Lois… I'm glad we're doing this tonight…"
"And the movie, it was great…"
"And this place, it could be… our place."
"Uh-huh…" Are we hitting a rut here, Clark? Come on, man… She turned her hands over to hold his in return, taking, she realized, a more active, encouraging role. "Our place…"
"And you don't know what it means to me, that we're seeing each other like this…"
Clark, I know how you want me to see you, believe me, and, remember, we went through this at your place *weeks* ago…
Hold on, girl, don't rush him…
Don't listen to that inspiration that just popped into your head, you have to let him get this out his way or he'll always wonder.
She spied John floating by again. If he stopped to give them winking advice (which was what Perry was for) or even a free bottle of wine (which wouldn't loosen Clark's tongue any quicker), she'd ask Clark to hold that thought, excuse herself, and kill the tavern owner with her bare hands.
She saw the reason behind her antsy attitude clearly: this situation was much too tenuous. He was rambling even though he didn't realize it and a Waldecker-like incident was surely waiting in the wings to interrupt him. Her inspiration was there, and it wouldn't have occurred to her if it didn't mean it could be useful. She had to get him up to the critical point, remove them to some truly private place, and be as receptive as possible to his confession. Then she could act startled, confused, hurt and finally accepting of everything; it should only take five minutes max. "Seeing…" she whispered.
She noticed and then tried to ignore the entry of the people who must have been those John expected. It didn't matter, it only meant that she and Clark wouldn't get the booth. They wouldn't need one in a few moments as she helped him work the verbal foreplay into the open.
There were at least a dozen students fresh out of the big basketball game, and they were wet, noisy and exuberant. MetroU had won again. John quickly handed out pitchers of beer and big bowls of pretzels and promised more, they should feel free to indulge, their usual tables were awaiting them. He turned up the quietly jazzy music and almost all the other patrons began to get into the mood, standing and congratulating the newcomers.
Clark, on the other hand, looked intent and single minded. "Seeing you," he said, "like this, just you and me, it's wonderful."
Shake up time, she thought. As much as she enjoyed his affirmations and that look in his deep brown eyes, they really had to get on the ball here.
"Oh, Clark, how *can* you see me? Your glasses are all smudged." She dislodged her hands from his and plucked his glasses off his face before he had the slightest inkling of what she was doing. She picked up a napkin and began carefully wiping the lenses. They were made of glass and unlikely, Martha had said, to melt quickly if he forgot in an emergency and heat visioned through them.
As she worked on the cleaning, Lois made a concerted effort not to look at Clark directly, though out of the corner of her eye, she saw a stunned, apprehensive expression on his face, a face that did not look that much like Superman's since, for one thing, that fellow rarely looked uncertain or out of control. She further doubted that anyone in the room was noticing them anyway because they weren't part of the avid crowd surging slowly toward the booths in back, absorbed in talking about the big game.
"But Amelia was sort of blind, too, wasn't she? She could see what Pippo had become but she preferred to remember what he had been even when he falling down drunk. Eventually she saw that and she insisted on the need to rehearse, but things kept getting in the way, and his anarchist leanings didn't help… Still, it turned out all right, they danced beautifully together…" She checked the glasses against the dim light from an overhead fake-stained-glass fixture. They sparkled, and she felt that she was sparkling, too. "And it worked out in the end, in a way, like but we knew it would. It's not the way I want us to work out, but it's was a good case in point."
She looked at him again and smiled warmly in line with her part of the conversation. His expression hadn't changed in the few seconds her work had taken. She wasn't surprised; she had metaphorically shoved him forward and he hadn't regained enough balance to be able to pick up the teep- tap on this all-new level.
She was sure that poking his glasses back on his face would help so he could hide behind them again. Peek-a-boo, I see you, she thought, but I won't tell, you've known all along you can trust me…
He moved his hands up quickly to adjust the glasses, and his left hand covered hers, just almost, as she kept her hand there to pat his cheek. "There, now you look just…" Oh, say it! "…just super!"
Clark sat back, and then realized what he'd done, pulled away from her as though she were The Cupcake, but it wasn't funny and there were no rules or traditions to consult if he called a time out.
If he could find his voice.
This, he thought somewhere way in the back of his mind, must be what it's like to be whacked between the eyes with a fence post and really feel it.
No, she *can't* know.
She looked dreamy again, but not at him. She started saying something about the movie's music, how she'd noticed the first time that the superficial melodies representing the TV show and modern life were used to contrast the romantic Rogers/Astaire music the two had danced to when they were much younger. One was for the electronic age, the other was for a time before TV was even dreamed of, when dreams were made for dancers…
He had no idea what she was talking about.
She *can't* know, I haven't told her.
But she could have figured it out.
No, there's no way. She would have confronted him with it immediately, but she hadn't, so she couldn't know.
Unless maybe she had and something different was happening.
He had to find out.
He leaned forward. He noticed her lips were still moving. He tuned in. She was still talking about the movie, though she was in no apparent need for him to jump in somewhere and… oh, confirm that a cow really could have 18 udders or if it had just been special effects. He didn't know what to say. He hadn't thought it likely when he first saw the scene and he didn't think so now.
*What* am I thinking???
About *cow udders* when he had to figure out how to ask her if she *knew* without coming right out and asking her if she… knew.
But he realized that somehow that was precisely what he had to do. "Lois…"
She paused and glanced at him with a look that either said a) I've just poleaxed you, haven't I, buddy? or z) welcome back, friend, where were you for a minute there? He couldn't tell which one it was more likely to be. She said: "Hmm?"
When he looked back over the situation later, widened his scope and remembered what had been going on in the rest of the room, he saw how he hadn't been paying enough attention and there was really no excuse for it.
The dozen or more MetroU fans were reasonably well behaved and they would have been of no concern. But according to the shouting and movement Clark remembered, some State fans must have bumbled into the tavern. State had lost badly to MetroU, as they usually did, and the Staters weren't in a jovial mood. They weren't in a mood to fight, he gave them that much credit, but steam was let off in the form of heated words and some shoving until John came out from behind the bar and put a stop to it.
Not in quite enough time though. A shove lead to a stumble, and someone trying to catch someone else and, considering the crowd, the stumble became a trip for another person and it all became dominos.
Just as Clark leaned forward to Lois and caught her attention and mysterious eyes, someone plowed into their table, knocked it abruptly sideways and spilled a full stein of beer all over it and Clark in particular.
He heard himself "Ahhh!" in surprise and anguish and pull out of the way too late, but he did not, fortunately, fly back or superspeed it or anything else revealing.
People full of apologies converged on their table immediately and tried to help clean up but only seemed to make things worse. Lois, standing now as he was, was several thicknesses of people away and for some reason was smiling as though this were all some inevitable joke. Maybe it was a joke, a big joke on him for trying to find one perfect little night somewhere in life.
"It's all right, it's all right," he tried to assure those helping him (and assure himself, he thought later) even though his shirt and jacket front and parts of his slacks were beer soaked. "Lois! I want to go home and change…" he said through the people around him.
She nodded, she understood.
She'd been so understanding lately…
It didn't mean anything--it didn't mean *that*, it couldn't, she'd been understanding for a long time, since New Year's--unless that meant…
--No, it didn't mean *that* either! She couldn't have known since *then*!
It meant was that he had to pay up and get them out of here.
--Hey, taking this up with her on his home turf wasn't a bad idea. He began to pull out his wallet but several patrons who seemed to feel that they were responsible for the mess interpreted his gesture correctly and informed him that they would pay for everything, he shouldn't worry, he and the beautiful woman should sit down again and keep having fun. They pulled the table back into place and another candle was found for it, and someone shouted for a new order of nachos for the couple.
It was at that time, that moment, as someone's hand was pushing his wallet back into his pocket for him, that he heard a tiny "thwap" and he recognized it as the sound of an explosion some distance away.
Oh, no, not now… but it figures, he sighed; when it rains it pours.
The next sound from without was a "TWAMM!" that could be heard by everyone just as he shouted "Get down!" He had detected even in here the hum of a slight build up of air pressure over the intervening seconds between the explosion and this shockwave, and, sure enough, that air pressure momentarily being much greater outside, the front window of the tavern shattered and blew in.
None of the tavern's patrons were near the window, and because the lights went out as the shockwave hit, no one, Clark was sure, saw him employ a superpuff to slow the dangerous glass projectiles. He turned to look for Lois but she was ducking with other people, protected. He ducked then, too, and tried to appear fearful and confused. He had, he thought sourly, the confused part down pat already.
As a tentative calm returned, people began picking themselves up and wondering what had happened. John quickly instructed them to take still-lighted candles from the tables and head through the dark toward the back door, he would lead the way.
Lois, of course, pushed through the crowd in the wrong direction and collided with Clark to hug him, but he said, "Lois, you'll get beer on your nice--"
"I don't care, Clark, I don't care what you're wearing."
"What was it? What was the explosion?"
How should I know?
She thinks I know.
"I don't know, but I bet it was the undergraduate science lab. They had that fire last Saturday, it could be connected. We'd better get out of here."
There were no more immediately audible explosions, though Clark detected suspicious sounds coming vaguely from the direction of the main science lab building across the street and west about a quarter mile down University Boulevard. He'd have to think up some excuse to get away and go check it out in the suit. Fire officials were probably dashing to the scene already, but they could need help, there could be a lot of injured people, and maybe more explosions and who knew what.
The alley was dark, but it had stopped raining. The patrons from the Tavern and other establishments along this side of University began milling about, uncertain what to do next, if it was safe to look for their cars, and then to drive on the streets weren't lighted.
Clark was sure none of that would stop Lois, but he could use her usual gung-ho attitude at the moment. "You parked near here, right?"
"Half a block down that way."
The opposite direction from the source of the explosions, good. "How about this: you use your cell phone-- it's in your jeep, right?"
"Right. I'll call the Planet and see if we can get some photographers down here so I can coordinate them."
"Exactly. I'll see if there's anything I can do around here."
"You're on your vacation."
"Well…" Superman never rests… "It's not midnight yet…"
She sounded… compassionate, something he both wanted to wallow in because it meant she cared--and didn't want to hear because it meant she *knew*.
He heard himself ask. "Will you be okay? Do you want me to go with you?" Maybe she was afraid of going out alone, maybe she didn't want to be separated from him. Or, worse, maybe she wanted to catch him changing into the suit, like she'd tried to do unsuccessfully several times after Diana Stride had piqued her interest and suspicion the year before.
Starting that mess all over again would be the worst thing in the world.
"No, I'll be okay. I just want you to know…" She slipped her arms around him, again ignoring the beer cologne. He found his own arms naturally draping around her. "I want you to know," she said secretly, "that whatever happens, I love you."
Wow, that tingled… He held her for a moment and whispered, "I love you, too…" whatever's going on now between us, "I love you very much."
She pushed away from him gently, to hand-holding distance. "I'll go call now. You be careful. If it is the science labs, they could have a lot of strange things there."
Like Kryptonite, huh? Chunks of it for study? He doubted that the undergrad lab would have any. That was probably not what she meant, by that or anything else… "Slime Monster samples," he ventured.
"Yech, trying to raise it from the dead," she shook her head.
"Well, maybe not, maybe somebody's still just blew up."
"Be careful anyhow," she said, lingering, finger tips still in his hands.
She nodded, giving him a long, warm look; then she broke contact, turned and rushed away.
Despite all the people in the area, it was easy to find a dark corner to jump out of. He changed his clothes midair and looked down to catch sight of Lois heading toward her Jeep. He glanced ahead of her and saw that her path was clear and her Jeep was untouched. There was little explosion-caused damage beyond a certain point and in the larger perspective that was comforting. She'd have no trouble, he didn't have to worry about her safety for a little while anyhow.
A column of smoke was rising from the Advanced Applied Science Building's wing dedicated to the Lex Luthor Nuclear and Chemical Studies Institute. It figures, Clark thought. MetroU neighbors had tried to stop the creation of the institute and as a last resort picketed the building expansion. But that had been during Luthor's reign, before Clark had moved to town, and thugs broke up the protest and the police had looked the other way because the neighbors didn't have all the right permits. The current effort to remove Luthor's name from the building was of little consolation. Dangerous toxic materials were still stored there, but with genuine care, everyone had been assured. Environmentalists continued to point out that undergrads being encouraged to work with those same materials was not comforting. Now it looked like they could be right.
Clark didn't care about the political history of the building at the moment. The first job was to work with fire fighters and investigators converging on the scene to prevent more explosions and at the same time assist injured people.
He didn't feel free to leave the rain-dampened no- longer-smoldering site until after two a.m. They had found three bodies in the rubble, but Superman thought he detected the hint of formaldehyde about them and an investigator speculated that they were cadavers awaiting a gruesome experiment. On a better note, only 10 people were injured either on-site or in the surrounding area, and only three of them required hospitalization.
The escape of toxic materials was a worry, but not to Clark personally, and during his work there he didn't feel any Kryptonite, which probably would have been labeled "green rock found in Kansas." By the time he glided away, the contaminated part of the lab had been cordoned off and the Dean of Science and the Fire Chief thought it could be cleaned up.
While reporters had been almost everywhere on the scene, he had spotted Lois only a few times early in the operation. In none of those times did she appear to be getting into trouble nor did he tingle to that happening, though, for example, it had been a close call with Marie Rose and an overheated tank of unidentified chemicals.
As he left, Clark flew over where Lois had parked and her Jeep was gone. He cruised by her condo next but she wasn't there either. Odds were then that she was in the newsroom, filing the story for the morning edition. She'd find he had called in some details about the extent of the fire and probably hear from Mrs. O'Shea that they weren't going to pay him extra for working into his vacation because he hadn't been asked to do so. The woman mentioning that and then saying his information was good had almost made him laugh.
It was probably the funniest thing to happen over the last four hours, he thought, more jokes on him, he should have expected it. He'd made a heroic effort to tuck away his personal life while handling the fire, and now that he could head home at last it rose up to meet him again full force. He shoved it aside once more though, definitely not in the mood to deal with it.
He slipped into the dark patio, through his bedroom window and out of the suit. He had taken off the cape early on after the first time it had caught fire. The rest of the suit was dirty, and it smelled of smoke and chemicals, but it was salvageable. He shoved it into hyperspace and checked that a good spare was there. He didn't have time to do repairs now but would over the next two weeks. Mom, get your sewing machine ready--and no, you go paint another porch because I'll do it, *I'll* take care of it…
I'll take care of my life.
She can't know.
Ergo, she doesn't know.
It was as simple as that.
No, it wasn't simple at all.
I *need* this vacation…
He tried to wash away his doubts in a steamy shower but that didn't work, his misgivings were too deeply seated. Keep busy, he decided, so he washed his still-beer-wet regular clothes. It was odd: other than being there or not, things just didn't change in hyperspace. He had put his clothes in still wet and that's how they came out, still smelling just splashed. When he finished cleaning them, he put them on hangers and hung them on the shower curtain rod over a newspaper to catch the drips and there they could stay for the next two weeks.
He finally forced himself to lie down because he knew he needed some sleep to sort things out, but obtaining any was impossible what with his confused dreams being full of fortune cookie advice. He fell out of them back on to his bed at about 4:45, which gave him 45 minutes to dress, eat something, anything, give his apartment a final clean up, and get to the train station for his train heading west.
He had tried to slow down and make the human act of travelling by train part of his last two vacations, but both times he'd been so angry at something Lois had done (one time justifiably, one time overreacting) that he'd skipped it and flown home to get away as fast as possible. Now taking the train and its near 24-hours of enforced inactivity was a wonderful idea. Sitting there in a quiet world of his own watching the scenery roll by and the night change to dawn and day and then evening again until it was Sunday morning was another exactly-what-he-needed-to-do-type thing.
Short, of course, of simply confronting Lois with some carefully calculated questions, discovering if she really did know and, if not, telling her right then and there. Assuming Metropolis didn't fall into a sinkhole just as the words were leaving his mouth.
But he hadn't had time to calculate anything let alone the critical questions that could determine his whole future, and this was one situation that begged for a carefully worked out plan formulated after getting some real rest.
Come on, Kent, face it, you don't want to face it.
--No, no, no, that's not it at all, I'm… I'm *preparing*.
And *I* deserve some rest, too…
He bid adieu to his cozy little home. It had been lively those two evenings she had stayed over, then seemed to turn stale. It had only recently regained that comfortable whole feeling it used to have. Now it was too quiet all over again and he didn't want to be here any more.
As he hefted his traveling bag and laptop computer in its case and reached for the doorknob, something bugged him hard. He looked back. The apartment was dark and orderly.
Except for the blinking light on his answering machine.
How could I have missed this?
He remembered removing a T-shirt from on top of it in the whirlwind cleanup but nothing else about it. Maybe he had glanced at the machine when the warning light had been between blinks. Whatever. It was probably his folks. He'd had no time to call them on Thursday, and Friday morning he'd been busy in Pakistan and had rushed to work. Friday evening before meeting Lois at the SUB, he'd only been able to talk to their machine, and he told them he still planned to take the train unless some emergency came up; they knew to check news broadcasts. Otherwise, they shouldn't worry, things were going well.
Little did I know how things were *really* going, he sighed.
She can't know.
She's smart enough to have figured it out.
And I convinced her otherwise last year.
This year's different.
And she's different, very different.
But not so different that she wouldn't give me a piece of her mind about it instantly, and she hasn't so she doesn't know, end of argument--please!
He zipped down the steps back into his living room, hit the tape rewind button and waited because the tape was full.
What if Lois had tried to call? I should have called her as soon as I got out of the shower, he told himself--and woken her if she had finally gotten home and was asleep already? Right, *that* would have been thoughtful since she probably didn't really know the truth and would wonder why he was calling that early in the morning. Or if she was in the newsroom, would she have felt free to talk if the night crew could listen in?
His machine reported: two wrong numbers, with profuse apologies. Clark told them as though they were listening: "That's all right."
His dad was next and feeling talkative, but his message boiled down to saying he'd pick Clark up in Newton at 5:30 a.m. They had a two weeks full of work ahead of them and "I hope you're raring to go, son." Clark said, "Oh, I'm raring, Dad…"
Next was a computerized voice soliciting his very important opinion about the appearance of his home and how much better it would look with new vinyl siding. He fast forwarded to the next message, which was an unapologetic drunk who insisted on talking to "Julia," saying he would wait and sing until she came to the phone and explained herself. Clark fast forwarded to the point where either the drunk ran out of tunes or someone needed the phone more and released the line so Clark could hear:
"Hi, it's me."
Clark realized he'd caught his breath at the sound of her voice and that the room was deathly still for a moment. He almost said, "Hi," but was glad he didn't and doubly glad she wasn't present to hear the squeak that would have come out of his mouth.
"I guess you're not home yet--Well, that's crazy, of course you're not home, you would have answered the phone.
"Mrs. O'Shea gave me the information you called in. She said it was first rate as usual and I agree, but you're not going to get any overtime for covering the explosion, can you believe that? I bet we can contest it, talk Perry into overruling her on her day off. You be sure to take your time when you come in on Monday--I mean, in two weeks from Monday. That sure is a long time from now…
"I'm calling from work, maybe you can tell. It's quiet at the moment, it's almost two, but I'm about to go home. Somebody's already put a big box of files on your desk, I wonder what Perry has planned for me to do tomorrow. No, I mean today. Ah… I'm going to miss you, you know that? And not just because you can go through a box like that and find what we need faster than anyone I've ever seen, either.
"About last night. I think it was an almost completely successful date. I know you didn't get to walk me home through the park and I didn't get to kiss you at your door step or anything like that, but--and, oh, don't worry, no one can hear me, it's just between you and me… but, you know, tonight's about the closest we've gotten to doing all that without *some*one thinking they had to set us up. It's not our fault that some lamebrain tried to build a nuclear reactor for extra credit. That's what they told me. I wonder what you found out…"
"The same thing and I doubt it, too."
Lois, we have to talk, and not about our mutual suspicions but about…
but about what we know…
Except, of course, it never works, I have the world's worst timing.
"I wish we'd gotten to talk more… about the movie. I wanted to know if you think like I do that Amelia and Pippo will get together, if he'll see the light and what he's missing, and if she'll climb out of her rut and… Well, maybe I can rent it and we can watch it again. Actually, I should just buy it.
"But I really called to tell you that I had a great time tonight and I'm sorry that idiot spilled beer on you but you took it so well like you usually do. I would have killed him…
"You know what? I almost always have a good time with you and I've figured out why. It's because, well, you're the one, you're the only one for" click.
…the only one for click?
He turned away from the nothing in particular he had been contemplating and frowned at the machine. In an instant he had popped the tape to check it. It was resting on the leader, the tape had run out. He almost cursed but that wouldn't have solved anything.
Calling her would solve it.
*Darnit,* I can't, she needs her sleep, she's been up all night…
Distracting himself, he quickly removed the anti-erase tabs, found a pencil and wrote the date on the label, and placed the tape in a blank spot in his tape library file. He knew he'd never forget her words but having her voice right there, rambling on, leading up to something of heavy significance maybe…
If I weren't a fool, he told himself bluntly, I'd fly over there and demand that she repeat what she had said…
Which if he hadn't still been feeling the awesome sting left by that fencepost she'd slammed smack dab between his eyes, he might very well have done.
I'm not ready for it to be like this…
It's *not* like *this* anything, there's nothing for it to be *like,* I'm overreacting.
I simply need a little rest, he informed his street- lighted reflection in the glass paneling of his front door as he closed and locked it at last. After that I can deal with the whole thing calmly and credibly…
He had 15 minutes to catch his train. He gave up any thought of taking a bus downtown and flew to the railroad station, glad that the city was still asleep, and glad to leave it and all its problems behind.
Except they were the problems every big city had and would keep having whether he was there or not. But it was Metropolis, his home. Maybe, he thought, he could make some time between the chores his father had lined up to do a little patrolling and keep an eye out for his friends and associates… Yeah, that would work, he could do that.
Resting and getting in some well coordinated thought on the train was harder than he expected it would be. First, wanting to be alone, he realized quickly that he certainly shouldn't have traveled in coach. He'd been in a far better state of mind when he'd bought the ticket, thinking it would be nice to talk to people who hadn't the slightest idea that he was a reporter. He could easily reveal little about himself while encouraging people to open up by simply acting interested. This way he could gather color for that novel he'd probably write some day.
But of course he was in a solitary frame of mind and coach class was packed. The aisle seat he got heading out of Metropolis on the long journey toward Chicago was broken, the footrest didn't work. There was little chance of getting a window seat that would allow him to turn away. Every time one opened up at a stop, a passenger closer than he was would rush to claim it before he could gather his belongings and contest the move. Almost eight hours later the couple to his left detrained in Cleveland and he appropriated the freed-up window seat, having to tell someone with a broken foot that, "Yes, I'm afraid it's taken already." She took the seat he vacated, which made more sense anyway, it meant she had easy access to the aisle and for some reason she was up and down a lot visiting friends all over the train.
All through the trip, young kids approached and stared at him until he acknowledge them with a "Hi" and usually then they'd run away giggling like they had a secret. Sometimes they climbed up and sat quietly at his side when the seat beside him was vacant. Sometimes they leaned against him and fell sleep and a few snored and made other funny little sounds, and he tried not to disturb them. The good thing about this is that when such a child was asleep, adults didn't bug him. Eventually a parent would come along and claim the child, some more than once. He shrugged and couldn't explain it, but no one accused him of luring the kids even when the parent said that little so-and-so was usually so shy of strangers.
If it wasn't kids, it was little old ladies zeroing in on him and filling his ear. He was also the subject of flirting by at least a half dozen women between the ages of 15 and 45 before anyone even caught sight of Lake Erie. He didn't reciprocate and wondered if he gave any of them the impression that he was gay. He didn't worry about that though; there was only one woman's impression that concerned him and maybe too much.
In the meantime, he tried valiantly to distance himself from all the attention. Appearing to be in meditative thought was like hanging an "Open" sign about his neck though. Acting riveted to the book he'd brought along and was reading at a slow human pace (it was a collection of essays about the formation of the universe, black holes, space travel and extraterrestrial life) or attempting to simply nap worked only a little better. The more he tried to look unapproachable, it seemed, the more people felt free to bother him.
"Bother"? I *really* need this vacation…
But as night approached and the train swept around the tip of Lake Michigan and passengers began to remark upon glimpses of the Chicago skyline at dusk, he had accumulated enough thinking time here and there to take a tentative stab at what was going on between him and Lois.
In essence: there was nothing more going on now than there had been going on when he greeted her at the SUB or when they'd seen the balloons or when they had danced Monday night or any time earlier than that.
It really was that simple: they were best friends, and things were getting increasingly warm between them in other ways, too, and that was very good. The guy in blue had nothing to do with it, she wasn't interested in him that way any more. He, Clark, was panicking for no reason. He should forget his worries and *enjoy this vacation.* Oh, and find some postcards to send to her. Mom would have stamps, she always did.
He'd gone over their last nine months' worth of interactions on the extremely off chance that her unverified knowledge of The Truth went back that far (which was almost too incredible to contemplate). He had looked for every hint that she might know and every phrase that indicated the opposite. He filed them in pro and con columns and the con won out hands down, though, to be honest with himself, he admitted to being more analytical of the hints in favor than of the statements that indicated obvious cluelessness.
For example, did that certain look she gave him during dinner just before Will had turned up when she said "I can see where maybe you've been omitting saying certain things," count more or less than the times that she rolled her eyes at him and proclaimed "You're no fun!"? One would think the first statement counted more until one realized that a) everyone omitted saying certain things, she certainly did (about her novel, for example), b) candlelight did change the appearance people's faces, and c) there was no way in the world she'd think Superman was "no fun."
To be fair, he counted that kind of thing as equal and they canceled each other out.
He recalled 54 whimsical statements that admittedly had double entendre potential, but twice as many ordinary ones that clearly indicated she didn't think of him as anything more than a regular guy who happened to be a good friend. And now, of course, boyfriend with hints (there was that word again) after Sunday of becoming her lover…
Wow… It was the first time he'd though of it like that.
He went back as far as the previous Christmas because an argument could be made that her change in attitude over the months since then had been brought about by Secret Knowledge. But he was sure what it really was: the pragmatic Ms. Lane had suffered the Holidays from Hell.
The week before Christmas, her father had fallen ill with something easily treatable, but before having it taken care of he'd made life hard on his daughters by constantly calling them to complain about everything. What with her already poor experience with the man whose approval she had always sought, Clark knew Lois hadn't found this easy to take. At the same time Lucy was having a fling with some wastrel who was mooching off her, Lois just knew it, and the girl wouldn't take any advice about him. And then two day before Christmas came news that Ellen Lane's plane had almost crashed into the Alps, but that had been prevented by Superman. "He's the one good thing in my life…" Lois had sighed there in the office after a half hour on the phone and then reporting what her mother said had happened that morning. "Oh, and, ah, you, too, Clark, you're okay, really, believe me, a close second…"
He'd nodded, he understood.
I always understand…
Except when it's a little something that sort of effects the ragged course of my entire wretched life…
So it was that the week before and the week after Christmas Lois had barely contained herself from growling at people. She couldn't effectively growl at those she loved and it wouldn't have done to growl at people at work, so she kept it bottled up inside most times. Everyone knew she was in a bad mood and they wisely kept their distance. Many of them were glad, Clark overheard, when she didn't show up for the Christmas Party; most of them didn't know she had to be at her father's side in the hospital. She'd always been such a party pooper, one of the newer staff members claimed and few had contradicted her…
Clark had taken Christmas cookies and stayed with Lois and Lucy in the waiting room at the hospital until the expected good news had come from surgery. Then he had visited her later that day, on the eve of Christmas Eve (not closer to Christmas because he was off to Smallville to visit his great aunt Millie and see her for what, as it turned out, was her last winter in this life).
He had taken the opportunity to give Lois his gift for her, a Swiss music box. At first the gesture hadn't worked as he had hoped, hadn't made her smile at the odd selection of love tunes. She'd felt bad because she hadn't had any time to shop what with everything that was happening. When he assured her that was all right, her friendship was the best gift in the world, she poured all out her troubles to him and cried on his shoulder. He had stayed as long as he could and left only when she looked like she felt a little better. In the week following, her accountant experienced an office fire, the IRS wanted to talk to her, and the apartment above hers had a broken water pipe and the resulting leak made half of her apartment unlivable for several days.
It was no wonder that she had gotten a little drunk at the New Year's Eve party. But something strange and wonderful had occurred to her (maybe, Clark thought, Molly had loaned her a book about redesigning one's fate) and she had taken full responsibility for what was happening in her life. She had gone out alone on the Chief's balcony, bleared at the cold, distant stars, and vowed to be nicer to her friends, who weren't to blame for anything that had happened recently.
She had proceeded to make tentative stabs at rejoining the regular work-a-day world and been greeted positively at almost every turn, particularly by Clark (who had fortuitously found himself in the right places at the right times). Her parents went back to their normal relationship with her, which meant they left her alone. Lucy kicked out the wastrel and met a wealthy, published poet. The IRS gave her a fat refund check. Positive reinforcement paid off and she'd become nothing short of marvelous over the months.
In all that there was no reason to think that she had known that he, Clark, was also Superman. Finding out in the midst of her troubles, she would have confronted him with it and yelled at him that it was just another way the world was showing her how stupid she was for letting the hack from Smallville mislead her all this time.
Since then, though, with her new and improved attitude over the intervening months, she might not have screamed and thrown things at him upon his telling her or if she had discovered The Truth on her own. But there was No Way she would just drift along as though it didn't mean anything. She was a wonderful person but she wasn't a saint. After all, saints didn't win Pulitzers or even Kerths, though he figured there were probably times when it took a saint to put up with him. Just like mom does, he thought…
The glasses and the "look just super" thing? There was probably nothing to that after all. He had turned her innocent act of kindness into a bizarre coincidence simply because he had seen his chance to ease into telling her all and for a moment it looked like she had beaten him to the punch. What was more, she obviously hadn't seen his resemblance to Superman because of the poor lighting in the tavern and her preoccupation with the movie. She would have said not "You look just super" but, unencumbered by pheromones this time, "You look just like Superman!" He could have nodded and said quietly, "Let's go somewhere else and talk about it."
They could have gone to his place, he could have told her more details and answered all her questions, and she would have had someplace to storm out of if she needed to. And if she hadn't needed to, who knows what might have happened? It still could…
And the explosion? Well, that just went with the territory; he should, he told himself, have expected it. Every time he tried to tell her, he bombed. Great material for his autobiography someday. If he had calmed down about the glasses thing sooner (say, three seconds after it had happened) and looked at her carefully, quietly, and she'd stopped talking and actually seen him… he might have been clear headed enough to help clean up after the explosion faster and then met with her for a very early morning cup of tea and conscious clearing and truth telling and, if she accepted it and maybe, just maybe asked him to stay, they could have taken up what had been interrupted on Sunday.
And you thought Pippo was a dreamer, Kent. Your world is filled with many if onlys lately…
It *will* happen, he thought. Eventually. After I rest up and am raring to go again…
He had a four-hour layover in Chicago and, feeling better about his understanding of life in general and that he was at last on vacation in particular, he decided to take advantage of it. He stowed his belongings in a rental locker and went on a walk through the downtown area, doing pure tourist things like going up in the Sears Tower to the observation port, strolling down Michigan Avenue, eating a great dinner, eavesdropping on a radio news report and hearing of no situations that needed his unique talents, and picking up a bag of almost fresh bagels for his folks.
The trains that ran west out of Chicago were more spacious and he snagged a good seat with a working foot rest and next to a window even though he didn't feel like turning away from the world any more. Still, it was nice to stretch out and eventually fall asleep, thinking not about Lois and their eccentric relationship but about the Chicago-style pizza he'd indulged in.
When Jon called to say that the train was on time and he saw Clark in one of the windows, Martha wasn't sure if this was a good or a bad sign. Clark's Friday message on their machine sounded light-hearted and promising, but Lois's call on Saturday put a new complexion on the whole thing. She had called early in the morning, leaving a quick "Hi, I'm just calling to say… Hi!" message on the machine. She had probably put it that way in case Clark was there to overhear it. Martha had made herself busy around the house that afternoon and, sure enough, Lois tried again at about three. She didn't have much time to talk, she was on her way out the door to do something Perry had requested. What she said was quick and cryptic, and Martha wished she had taped it so that she could review it.
"He came within range and I darted him. He thinks he's escaped but it's only a matter of time before he falls and I'll be there!"
Or something like that.
Martha came to the conclusion that Lois couldn't contain herself any more and had let on to Clark that she knew and, rather than talking to her about it, he had fled. Lois hadn't sounded particularly surprised. It was no doubt more complicated than that--and frightening to Clark. Fleeing, he would probably be a wreck and all worn out from worry. It was a wonder he hadn't flown home…
Unless he'd spent the time on the trip thinking about it, another complication in the story. Poor Lois didn't understand yet what Clark's thinking through complicated issues could mean sometimes.
She had herself to blame for some of that, she thought. Almost a year earlier, after that Diana Stride woman's nearly killing him, she and Jonathan had sat Clark down and insisted in no uncertain terms that he shift his superbrain into gear before doing things as Superman that could result in them having to drop everything to rescue him. His reaction told her he hadn't realized what he had been doing, he was deeply apologetic, and he promised he'd try a lot harder to be more thoughtful. It seemed sometimes now that he'd gone overboard in that direction.
Which was why she was confused when she saw the truck pull up and her men get out and walk toward the porch, pausing only briefly to drink in the fragrance of the breakfast she was preparing and look at each other as though they were the luckiest guys in the world. Clark was a bit disheveled from the journey; 24 hours on a train and an hour more in the truck could do that. But he was otherwise smiling and talkative. He gave no signs of being darted by anything, let alone some heavy hint from Lois that would have told him more than he wanted to know about his relationship with her.
Martha didn't ask about any of this; there was simply no way to do so. She served up breakfast and sat down with them to listen to Clark's insider report on the hearing. They told him about the impressions they'd gained from CNN's gavel to gavel coverage and how he had looked so quietly noble (and, yes, a bit bored and removed from the proceedings) and how had handled everything with the serious grace of a winner. That made him smile self consciously. The pre- and post- hearing analysis by all the networks went from tons of speculation, to scrambling for pundits who could point out could-a-been-betters in both sides' strategies and trying to stretch their coverage to fill the entire day because the ratings were so high, better even than those projected for that walk on the President was rumored to be planning on that TV show "Home Improvement."
Of course all the interest the media had in Superman's problems worried Clark, as in "Why would people waste time on that when there are so many more important things going on in the world?" His parents didn't even try to explain how invaluable, how precious people thought he was in that get up and how, as a genuine hero, his welfare was important to everyone.
In deference to his uneasiness about it, one look from her warned Jon against making more than a passing reference to the topic being discussed to distraction on all the tabloid talk shows as well, both on radio and tv. Clark the reporter should have understood it, but Clark the humanitarian was probably right about it being overblown. Clark, the kid they'd raised from diapers to hero costume, was mostly embarrassed at the attention even if it didn't apply to him directly--but he was also pleased with winning. She wished he could have been pleased together with Lois.
She finally got her chance to ask about the young woman during a lull after Clark's second serving of bacon, scrambled eggs and hash browns ("storing up energy for all the work Dad has planned").
"The last time I saw her was Friday night. We stopped in a tavern after a movie we saw--oh, a Fellini, Mom, Ginger and Fred. It was Lois's idea, and it was a good one."
Martha had seen that film and translated "Lois's idea" into being subtle hint dropping rather than just a good evening watch. She wondered what other hints Lois had given Clark that evening and probably all this last week…
"I was going to ease us out of there and take her home, to her home, and tell her everything so she would have time to think about it while I'm on vacation, so naturally someone spilled beer on me and then someone else tried to blow up half the MetroU campus, probably by accident. I had to help with that and it took hours and when I finally got away, I didn't want to bother her at 2 am. I don't think she's really over what happened a week ago Wednesday and she still needs to rest up from it. I guess that sort of sounds like I'm mothering her…"
"No, it's a sensible precaution, son," Jonathan said. "You can't be too careful."
"Yeah… Well, she was at work writing up the explosion story anyhow and we would have crossed paths…" He sighed. "Figures, doesn't it?"
And? Martha almost asked. Was that all?
She watched him finish off his coffee and say no more. He had said plenty, yes, but his rambling through it indicated to her that he was leaving something out, something she wondered if he had come to terms with and dismissed already.
Lois, you may have darted him, but you don't realize that he can be incredibly invulnerable to the obvious and can think himself right out of trouble a lot better than he used to.
Jon stood up and inadvertently cut off the leading questions she was formulating: "Well, you can think about all that later. If you ask me, it's time to get your mind off it and let it rest for a while. Want to change clothes or go as you are?"
Clark looked down at himself. It wasn't, Martha thought, like he was going to sweat, but he decided to change into a T-shirt, grubby jeans, tennis shoes and his baseball cap and went out with his father to enjoy a relaxing vacation by getting started on the wheat harvest.
Martha watched over the next several days as Clark settled into the routine of community life. The Kents and the neighboring farmers helped one another from fence building to horse shoeing to gathering, preparing and storing or taking to market the variety of harvestable crops grown in the area. She could understand why Clark came home to do this, she knew that it was hard to find such neighborliness in the big city. Everyone treated him like a long-lost son who had found his way home and not like someone who had moved away and was only visiting.
They asked him about life in Metropolis and how he and that Superman guy were getting along, and they told him how they all read his articles when they made it into the local paper, but after the newness of him being home wore off, he blended right in. She felt warm and comfortable when in the evenings her family gathered around her generation's fireplace equivalent, the TV, or they listened to music and read. Clark also spent some time repairing his suits and cutting out and sewing up new ones with her help. On Tuesday evening he borrowed the truck and drove into town to hang out with old friends and hit the high spots of Smallville before they all closed at 10. To an outsider observing him, Clark probably would have looked like he was having fun slowing down and relaxing.
And Lois? He mentioned her now and then but much less than Martha expected, when that woman was obviously on his mind. Jon didn't have a clue about this, either, odd, and he had mentioned it himself in bed Monday night. Twice Martha had walked in on Clark using the phone, waiting, listening, only to see him put it down, turn, realize she was there, shrug, and say, "Oh, she's not home." How many times had he tried and gotten nowhere and why wasn't he just flying off to Metropolis to try it in person?
Martha noticed, too, that when the chores permitted listening, Clark took along a portable radio. If they were watching TV, he'd beg their pardon and check out CNN's Headline News if the regular program could be easily interrupted. It wasn't hard for him to find reasons to slip into the suit and rush away for a few hours. There was always some unfolding criminal activity to thwart, some accident to prevent from getting worse, or something to help repair after a natural disaster. As though he needed one, his primary excuse for going out as Superman more than he had before on vacation was a fine one: the hearing had been stressful and villains might think he was contemplating taking some time off (with no connection whatsoever to Clark Kent's absence from work). So it was incumbent upon Superman to show that he never rested, he was always around somewhere. It was also another clue that something still bothered him about the life he said he was comfortable leaving behind for two whole weeks.
Martha thought that odds were good he was putting in a good bit of time in Metropolis, checking on Lois from afar, designing some all-new sure-fire plan…
It was Thursday morning at 8:30 Metropolis time. Clark had begged off attending a tour of the new acreage Mr. Dobson had converted to more organic vineyards. He had already promised his Saturday (world-shaking emergencies permitting) to driving one of the big trucks into which the harvester would funnel fresh-plucked grapes. The harvester would be driven by his dad and Mr. Dobson, who had a broken leg and would sit next to dad and they'd talk about old times and Vietnam. The tour sounded interesting, but hanging around with 4H kids who everyone hoped would stay in agriculture as they matured, well, good for them but not for him, Clark Kent, investigative journalist. A morning patrol around the world was a much better idea.
In looking over his vacation so far, Clark thought he was doing a good job parcelling out his time between vacation activities and being Superman. 90/10 maybe. He was putting in just enough appearances in various part of the world as the guy in blue and doing enough typical things to make the news at least once a day.
But today, Lois's day off, was a day for making personal news. Sunday evening he had… all right, call it what it was, worked up his courage and phoned her. Five times since then her number had either been busy (she hated call waiting and refused to get it installed) or he got her machine and he hadn't felt like talking to it; after all, it could run out of tape at a critical moment. He had been more successful in his several fly-throughs of Metropolis over the last three days. He'd caught sight of her twice: once she was avidly questioning a sweating politician on the steps of City Hall, and the second she was talking on her cell phone, her pace hardly slowed by being caught in a traffic jam on the crosstown, a quarter mile from a car/tour bus accident he helped sort out.
Other times, like Tuesday evening before driving into Smallville, he missed her entirely. She wasn't at home (which looked a mess, as though she were rearranging her furniture) or at the office, and he couldn't think of even one place she might just be hanging out. Lois's world, when he thought about it, seemed to consisted mostly of working, attending her martial arts classes to work off tension (but not this Tuesday night), and squirreling herself away at home. In total it didn't seem to him to be much fun, but she must have liked it or she wouldn't have done it. He hadn't felt panicked about not seeing her, though, she wasn't in danger, so maybe she was out having some fun after all.
This morning would be different. Metropolis was overcast and below the clouds the skies would be cool, misty and concealing. He hovered at about 25,000 feet in the sunlight, determined precisely where her building was, and then began slipping down through the gray. The plan was for her to wake up, put on a robe, stumble out to her kitchen looking for the rich Sumatran coffee she would smell, and find that he had made it. He'd be in the suit (and dry, it wouldn't do to look rain soaked) and she'd double take him and say "What are *you* doing here? Clark--who's my *boyfriend* you know--he *could* become jealous and warn you away from me…"
And he'd smile and say, "No, Clark would understand."
"Oh, yeah? You don't know him like *I* do." (That glasses/super thing not withstanding… he pushed the doubt aside, it had all been a simple misunderstanding.) "He could try to beat you up and you're not to hurt him, do you understand?"
"Oh, I wouldn't lay a hand on him, but I *do* know him, Lois, I know him very well--"
"I made that up about you being gay and hanging around too much with Clark. You didn't find out about that, did you?" And she'd look embarrassed but he'd forgive her in a nanosecond.
"I did hear about it, but it doesn't bother me because…"
Hey, because if people began to think Superman might be gay or, better, asexual and uninterested in anyone and Lois in particular, and that Lois was more interested in Clark, they might stop kidnapping her and throwing her off buildings and… brilliant!
"Well, frankly, my dear," he'd say suavely, "*I'm* Clark," and he'd stand up, twirl and be Clark in farm clothes, clothes calculated to make her laugh and relax. And then they'd sit down and have that long talk at last.
Now this would work, he was sure of it. It was right to approach her this way, like he had considered doing just before and just after the hearing. It wasn't right to say "Lois, I'm Superman," because actually he was mostly Clark, 90/10 and all that.
Feeling good about this, he dropped into the foggy damp city and paused at the eighteenth-story level of her building--where it looked like he had miscalculated and was on the wrong side. This an odd mistake to make. He looked around. No, there was the ocean (her place had a great view she paid extra for, she said), and over there the parking garage undergoing repairs.
He hovered closer to the building, saw what was wrong immediately and shook his head at himself: the window he usually entered by was closed and the curtain was drawn. This made sense, it was about 45 degrees out here. She'd appreciate the coffee even more now. He bet she'd planned to spend the day inside if she had been following weather reports.
He approached his window and pushed at it gently but it didn't give.
It was locked.
As the curtains weren't made of lead and neither was the window, he looked through but only into the living room as not to disturb her privacy too much in case she were awake and traipsing around in the altogether. If she were, he'd withdraw until she were decent (more decent than Sunday anyhow, though if things worked out maybe they could both get indecent together today…) and then he'd knock. She'd unlock the window, and he'd present her with the coffee and wow her with a little geography lesson. While she made the coffee drinkable, she'd probably bring up Clark's possible jealousy and they'd take it from there.
The room was empty.
Completely, totally empty. Not a stick of furniture, no fish tank, no paintings, no dried flower arrangements, no full book cases, no lighted Kerth awards case, no TV, no VCR, no coffee table. Wall-to-wall carpeting and the curtains, yes, but those had probably come with the apartment. He extended his x-ray vision to the other rooms and was greeted--no, appalled by the same sight: the absence of any sign that Lois Lane still lived here.
He backed away from the building so quickly that he was a mile out over the ocean before he pulled himself out of the retreat, hovered and thought: she's moved and she didn't tell me?
He frowned at himself. There was no question of it, those were the facts that had hit him between the eyes again. She had moved--she was gone--and she hadn't told him, hadn't called him, hadn't anything.
Wait! Something could be wrong, terribly wrong.
But moving everything out of her apartment as well as Lois herself would take time and others would have heard about it and Perry would have called him right off and told him to get his tail back to town and help solve the mystery. So there probably wasn't foul play involved, not of the criminal type.
Where could she be then… The Planet.
He zipped in that direction, slowed down to a nonchalant cruise by as though nothing were wrong, and scanned the building. Some of the vast variety of materials in its construction confounded his x-ray vision, so he concentrated on the parking lot under the building first and caught sight of the easy target, her Jeep. That meant she was likely in the building.
Then he saw her, in the conference room, on the phone, talking or perhaps yelling at someone. She looked perfectly normal even in the mere glimpse he got. Too bad there was no way he could overhear what she was saying or lip read in the glance without stopping to concentrate to do so, and that would have drawn curious stares. All he had wanted to know was if she was in one piece and healthy and apparently she was.
Which left him with the sour thought that what she was doing was obviously not his business. I'm on vacation anyway, I shouldn't even be here, and she didn't tell me she was going to move, and so what the heck does that make me to her, huh?
A fellow who can withdraw gracefully when it's obvious that something is fundamentally not right in a relationship, maybe that was what all the bad timing meant, his secret wasn't something she was meant to know…
He sped out of the city and found people to help in India and then South Africa, and eventually felt calm--actually he decided he was resigned enough about it to head back to sunny Smallville and home. There he pulled from hyperspace and gave his mom the coffee he had been going to make for Lois and went upstairs to change into more comfortable clothing.
His mother followed him up. "Lunch is almost ready."
"I'm sorry, Mom, I'm not hungry…" He tossed his boots in the general direction of his closet and wadded up the suit--little good *this* does me--and threw it on the bed. In deference to his mother's sensibilities (she had just arrived in the doorway and was looking discretely elsewhere), he whirled into work cloths. "Thanks anyway."
"It doesn't sound like something pie and ice cream will help this time…"
He frowned at the suit and by way of it himself. I'm not to blame here, I'm right to be upset… He picked up the suit again and looked for two hangers.
"Clark, even for you you're too quiet…"
"It's nothing, Mom…"
"Well… that's just it, it's nothing. I went to Metropolis and by Lois's place and was going to…" He sighed at the suit in hands and the hangers he had found where he had left them that morning and began working the former on to the latter. "Well, you know…"
"Tell her. Thursday's her day off, isn't it?"
"Yep. The perfect day to come clean and be honest with her."
"I would think so."
"But I was wrong because she's moved out."
He could hear his mom blink. "Say that again?"
"Her apartment was empty, there was no evidence of her even having lived there except some furniture impressions on the carpet. There was no evidence of a struggle, and no evidence of where she had moved to, no Dear Superman note on the window, no Dear Clark note on the door, no nothing. I know I was looking on the right floor, too, because that Mr. Johnson is on the same floor and I saw the secret compartment where he keeps his guns. I think he's all right so I'm not worried about that, I'm not a policeman. I flew by my place, too, and there was no note on my door, either. I found her at the Planet. Her Jeep was okay, there wasn't a bomb in it, for example, and she wasn't surrounded by armed guards, everything looked perfectly normal."
"Did you talk to her?"
"Barge into the newsroom and question her? No. And I've been trying to call her all week at home but that hasn't worked either."
"She didn't tell you she was moving?"
"Mom…" You're not listening…
"I'm sorry, honey, I'm as surprised as you are."
"Well, I don't think *anything* can surprise me any more…" That was it, wasn't it, he felt numb. He stared at the suit, trying to think of what to do with it next other than stand there holding it like it was a big blue rag that couldn't clean worth a darn.
"Wait a minute…" His mom turned and vanished down the hall but returned in a moment. She held out the portable phone they kept in their bedroom and smiled one of those warm, reassuring, here's-a-solution smiles of her. "You said she's at work, call her there."
"Oh, right. 'Hello, Lois, this is Clark. I was flying by your apartment this morning and I happened to notice you had moved out. Is there *something* you forgot to mention to me- -you remember me, *your boyfriend?*' No, Mom, unless you can think of a better way to ask it, that won't work."
"Well, you could call her to chat…"
"No, Mr. Franklin's cracking down on personal calls and I have the feeling this would be a really long one. Besides, *she*" he motioned to the east, "should have called *me*," he pointed at himself in case the little blond-haired woman he loved dearly hadn't quite caught on yet, "and when it comes right down to it, that's all there is to it."
His mother nodded slowly. "I've been talking to her--"
"Ah, yes, occasionally. After she came that weekend, we've chatted."
"Oh, of course…" People were drawn to talk to his mom like they were to him, it seemed, but she handled it better. Lois would be no different, except for the part about talking to him apparently. "And she didn't tell you either…"
"Her last call was rushed, she only had time for a.. 'how are you, I'm fine, say hi to Clark for me,' that kind of thing…"
Clark noticed that his mom's heart beat was a little faster than cruising speed, which was odd, but then she was confused about all this, too.
She said, "Maybe there's something to that, her being in a rush."
"She's usually in a rush. When did you talk to her?"
She said it like she thought he was going to ask her for more details but if such details could solve the problem she'd tell him. Anyway, it had probably just more girl talk like Dad had described them indulging in when Lois had come that weekend. The main thing was, "Then she's had four days to get unrushed or write me a Dear John letter or send me her new address on one of those little Post Office cards or something…"
He reached down into the closet and straightened up his boots and realized he was stalling. He knew his mom wanted this to work out between him and Lois as much as he did, but it just wasn't going to happen, not at this rate and with only one of them, him, trying to make the relationship real. Here he had only one little surprise up his sleeve and he had been trying every way he knew to present it to her, while every time he turned around Lois seemed to have pulled another surprise out of her version of hyperspace.
There was only so much even a guy with his stamina could take.
"So it's probably a good thing I haven't been able to tell her everything because I had no idea that something like this could ever happen…" If there were such things as guardian angels, maybe he had one who had kept messing up things until this happened and he saw the light.
"Oh, Clark, no…"
"It's all right, mom, I'm not going to worry about it any more," which was a lot easier said than done. But if there was a good explanation for this, Lois could just pull it out of hyperspace, too, and it better be a good one presented on a silver platter, because he wasn't going to search for it. He was planting his feet on the ground and not budging.
His mother looked like she was trying to think up some new conciliatory move to suggest, but there was no reason for him to make one because he hadn't done anything wrong. So before she could say anything, he asked, "Where's Dad?"
At Swain's Orchard with a crew, probably having lunch. Clark decided to immerse himself in that and, still not hungry, he said she didn't have to make him a lunch, thanks. On his way out she snagged him and gave him an understanding kiss and a heart-felt hug. He returned the hug though if asked he would have admitted he didn't know what part of this big mess was understandable. Understanding something, anything about this would have been nice.
He also thought about the radio he had been taking along every day but decided as he hit the road on foot, trudging along, that he could leave it behind. Superman needed a vacation now, so as of this moment, his time with the world was being officially cut in half and to even less than that if he could get away with it. Disasters would make themselves known to him, they always did, and earthquake victims, say, would obviously need him more than some fickle reporter ever had.
He told himself Saturday morning as he drove the big truck beside the grape harvester that he shouldn't have thought about earthquakes even if the example fit his personal situation.
He had been in Smallville with his high school buddies on Friday night. After MST3King the latest Sylvester Stallone movie at the drive-in they had moved on to Maisey's place. There Clark had overheard the radio way back of the kitchen and the news of a 6.2 earthquake in Alaska. This fell under the things-would-make-themselves-known-if-Superman-were- needed clause. He excused himself, saying he had to get some fresh air because they had only been able to find seats in the smoking section and he was feeling lung cancer fast approaching. Pete had said, "Sure, and it's a long-distance call to Metropolis, do you have enough change?"
He'd laughed and didn't disabuse them of the impression, saying that he could cover it, thanks, he had lived in the big city long enough to acquire plastic money. Though he had mentioned Lois, he hadn't realized he had talked enough about her over the week to give them the idea that he might be having problems with her. He'd been trying not to think of Lois at all, when it looked like his simply being here, far away from the woman who was terrorizing his heart, told his friends that there was something wrong back in River City…
The earthquake had shaken Juneau but there hadn't been enough injuries or damage to require his form of assistance. He took the time on the way back to enjoy the crisp, cold air and the crystal clear skies of the wilderness and wonder who he'd ever be able to share such sights with. He had returned to his friends, admitted that she hadn't answered, twice, that's why it took so long. They laughed it off, and he determined to enjoy the rest of the night. He'd gotten home after midnight and tried to delve into a book, but he had fallen asleep before getting a quarter of the way through. Boring could be good.
He was wide awake now, concentrating on this chore. He'd brought along a radio in the form of heavy-duty earphones with an antenna. They would appear to anyone observing him to be blocking out some of the sound of the farm machinery, but he didn't notice that noise. He had tuned into KU's classical station that covered this area thanks to the repeater outside of Smallville. The music was lively, Strauss, Sousa and the like, and suitable for his current work. He hummed along with it as he kept a steady pace. The big truck's bed was approaching half full of grapes. In another two rows or so he'd have to warn his dad and Mr. Dobson in the harvester that it was time to let Clyde Jr. to pull in behind and replace him so he could take the grapes to the processing barn.
They only had the remainder of this large field to go. His dad had said he should take the rest of the afternoon off when they were done and pretend he actually was on vacation and not a full-time farm hand. But Clark was sure he could find something useful to do and not just sit around contemplating his navel… Hmm, maybe it was time for another trip to China… or later in the afternoon, he could zip over to England and watch for crop circlers.
The two in the harvester called him first: the cell phone blinked at him. He could hear the ring, too, but a human would have needed the visual cue. He pulled down his earphones, resting them about his neck, and picked up the phone. "Yep?"
"Clark, Clyde thinks he hears something wrong with the engine of this contraption and he wants to take a look at it when we hit the end of this row."
That meant they'd finish this row, turn half way around, and stop. Everyone could get out and stretch their legs if they had to. He didn't. "Gotcha, Dad."
He put the phone down, pulled his earphones back up and watched his route between the truck-wide-spaced fences that supported the vines. Mr. Dobson blended these big, sweet grapes with more traditional wine grapes to tone down the sugar content a bit. Then he bottled them for, oddly enough, a delicious grape juice that he sold to organic markets as far away as Denver and Chicago, some of the same outlets that took Kent Farms bulk grains. A nice business to be in. Boring as heck but a great way to save America, and if I live long enough to retire, Clark thought, maybe I should do something like this if there are any farms left.
Clark was guiding the truck to the left of the harvester and they were all heading north. It was late in the morning, the sun was overhead, and there were clouds far on the horizon. Mr. Dobson had been grateful that the Kents had volunteered to help because his broken leg was screaming that it was going to rain buckets and he and Clyde Jr. had to harvest as many grapes as possible before then.
Rain this afternoon? Maybe. Clark detected the slowly changing air pressure and humidity, and those clouds looked like they were headed this way big time. England or--no *and* China it was. England first, then a few hours later it would be late morning in China. He could find little gifts for his folks in both places.
He looked up and saw his mom driving west on the road that bordered the north side of this field. Odd. This was private land and anyway not a typical route to take from home on the way to anywhere like the highway and Smallville. Maybe she had delivered some lunch, but if that was the case why was she leaving? Had she signaled his dad that there was now a basket of food on the side of the road? Unlikely; whatever the container was it could get dusty or bugs could find it before the slow moving harvester could get there. It was more likely she would take lunch to the processing barn because all the harvesters would turn up there eventually. There it was, maybe his back had been to the road and he hadn't seen her arrival and she had been visiting with Sue Dobson for a while. Simple.
As they neared the end of the row Clark could see more.
His mother had left something at the side of the road after all, and not just something but someone: it was Lois stepping to the side, looking way down the road at the truck and him.
In his surprise Clark nearly lost control of the truck but regained it before doing any damage to vines or losing any grapes. He quickly lowered his fashionably cool wraparound sunglasses and glanced after his mother. He saw reflected in her car's outside rearview mirror that she was smiling.
What the heck about? There was *nothing* to smile about here.
He pulled down the earphones again and grabbed up the phone, punching in the number, barely restraining himself, careful not to break anything, and shouting, uselessly: "Dad!"
In a moment: "Clark? Clyde's decided there's nothing wrong with the engine after all, that it's his hearing aide. Needs a new battery. We're not going to stop unless you've got a full load and it's a little early--"
"No, Dad, we have to stop, don't you see her?"
"You mean Lois? I like those cut-offs she's wearing but she should have brought that hat of hers, and she's going to get dusty when she runs along side you and--"
"All right, son, we can pause for a few moments, I don't want her to get heatstroke…"
"Thanks," Clark grumbled at the phone and put it down. This was not a time for making jokes. His dad knew all the ramifications he and his mom shared everything. Actually, it looked like she'd told him the gritty details of his new problems with Lois as soon as she'd had the chance, maybe even by phone. The hug and stand-firm peptalk he had received Thursday evening before dinner told him so much.
Standing firm? Then why am I stopping for her?
Because I want to?--No way!
Too late now.
They reached the end of the row two minutes later and the harvester stopped dumping grapes and began its ponderous turn. When the big machine pulled to a stop, Clark stopped, too, and signaled "All right, come on…" to Lois.
She ignored him. She was holding a brown paper sack. She approached the cab of the harvester with some trepidation; that was understandable, it was a noisy monstrosity. There she opened the bag and pulled out four cans of soda held together by a six-part set of plastic rings. His dad shouted something at her but Clark didn't zero in to listen; it was no doubt a thanks for the cold drinks.
She then turned toward him and the truck, giving a wide berth to the harvester, though while walking between it and the truck she paused to take a look and see how the body of the harvester fit over the vines and tongs could reach through and shake them until the grapes fell into the gathering devices.
She tried the door of the truck and then knocked on the window; he could just see her hand doing so. The door wasn't locked, but sometimes it stuck funny. Clark reached way over, turned the inside handle, pushed the door open for her, and sat back and watched as she scrambled in.
He decided that because she had turned up totally unexpectedly and he wasn't in the mood to see her ever again (really) and he didn't feel like talking and something told him that she probably felt like doing just that, well, he'd let her. Maybe she'd wear herself out and fall asleep and he could escape to merry olde England.
"Whew! Surprised to see me? I'm surprised to see me, too. Last weekend I thought about coming and then, bang, despite everything it all came together and here I am. When your mother said you were picking grapes I didn't imagine anything like this. I imagined you in a great big barrel thing with your jeans rolled up to your knees and grape-stained ankles and you'd be singing Italian grape stomping songs with all your friends from around here." She turned and looked back through the window behind the seat at the grapes piling up there, glistening in the warm sun. "Wow… Will I still get to see you do that? Stomp and sing?"
Good grief. "No."
"Oh. Then maybe I can do it. Maybe they only let the delicate feet of country maidens touch the grapes. I realize I'm not a country maiden but I brought along my country maiden dress, you remember that one, and I have a pretty good singing voice, so maybe they'll let me help…?"
He tore his eyes away from her and shook his head. He did not want to talk about grapes. He reminded himself he didn't want to talk at all, least of all to her. He thought: I'm totally comfortable and justified with my funk and it's going to take a lot to pull me out of it and she's not even trying.
But of course she doesn't know that I know and she does look like she's trying to have fun and maybe that's the only reason she came…
This is such a mess.
"Well, to tell you the truth, I thought things were going to be a little bit more exciting around here. A grape crushing jamboree would have been something to see. I was going to take pictures and tell everyone back in the newsroom how great you look in shorts, but I should have known better as soon as I saw your hat…"
He was wearing a Batman Forever cap featuring The Riddler's question mark. Clyde Jr., who hadn't wanted him to get sunburned, had insisted he wear it. The hat was at once incredibly appropriate and undeniably stupid.
The harvester shifted into gear. Clark flashed his lights at them in acknowledgment and shifted into gear as well.
"Wow, it's *loud*!" Lois exclaimed, covering her ears.
As mad as he was at her, Clark couldn't see where her becoming deaf would do anyone any good. He pulled off the earphones, turned off the radio in them, and handed them to her because they might help. She looked surprised at the offer, said thanks, fit them into place, took them off, discovered quickly how to adjust them, then tried them again, smiling. "That's better… Can you hear me?"
He simply nodded. I hear you and *I'm* listening even though I don't seem to think I will…
He noted now that she was squinting in his direction, maybe due to the bright landscape visible through the open window on his left. She asked: "This truck's windows aren't tinted, are they? You'd think they would be, with people using it out here in the sun all day long."
The truck was more than 30 years old and most parts had worn out, some more than once, and been replaced already. It didn't have seatbelts or an air conditioner either, what would she think of that? She'd just have to hold on and sweat. Tinted windows were another thing poor farmers (growing richer now yes) could do without. Clyde was driving the newer truck, but Clark hadn't minded the challenge presented by this cranky old beauty. At least he could understand it, it was logical.
He took off and handed over his sunglasses. She poked them on. "They're not prescription…"
He shook his head and thought, I'm dropping clues everywhere…
She smiled, reached for the rear-view mirror, stopped herself, and turned to him instead. "How do I look?"
He glanced at her. She was always getting hold of his glasses, wasn't she? "Do you want to borrow my hat, too?" Just strip me naked, will you?
She frowned, uncertain. Oh, she couldn't hear him. He touched the bill of his cap and along with a questioning expression mouthed out "Do you want this, too?"
"Your hat? Do I want that hat? No, no thanks." She looked ahead at what was going on, then looked down at her feet where she had dropped the bag. She picked it up, opened it, reached in and pulled out a sweating can of soda, presenting it to him. "Want one?"
He shook his head. Actually, he did want one, but he'd had about enough give and take for the moment.
"Okay." She opened it, took a careful sip because it was full and bubbly, said "Yum, that's good," and then sat back and looked at the more comfortably filtered world around herself. She started to roll down the window there on her side but apparently realized it was better to be a little hot than battered by bits and pieces of ejected vine that had gotten into the harvester.
About twenty one-sided (her's) chatty minutes and a row and a half later, Clark turned and checked his load. Then he called the harvester and, via it, Clyde Jr. to say that he thought he should take the load in and CJ should take his place. As had happened all morning, this change off worked smoothly, the only difference being CJ widening his eyes at Lois as he drove down the row one over. He whistled. "How come *I* never found anything like her in this field?" he shouted over the noise as he turned off and pulled in behind Clark.
Clark shrugged and smiled a little; it was expected of him. He briefly considered telling CJ, "I'm just lucky, I guess," but he wasn't sure what if any kind of luck was involved in this strange turn of events, so he said nothing more than what was necessary to make the change off.
As they left the field behind, Lois took off the earphones and held them in her lap, looking at them. "This is a radio, that's clever… You certainly are quiet, but of course it was so noisy…"
He nodded, and then wondered if she could discern it due to the truck's worn out shock absorbers, so he said, "Yes."
"Where are we going now?"
"To turn the grapes into juice. Do you want to watch or should I drop you off somewhere?" Like the bus station or the airport maybe or… he sighed. Kent, stop this. She doesn't know you know, doesn't know you're totally within your rights to be pissed. Give her a chance, maybe that's why she's here… though why she simply didn't call…
"I'll go with you. I've never seen grapes turned into juice. That could be interesting. I brought my camera. Maybe we could do a feature on it."
"The Christian Science Monitor was out here yesterday and early this morning."
"They're going to beat us to the punch?"
Clark tried just nodding.
"That's not fair! These people are *your* friends… Did they get pictures of you in rolled up jeans stomping on the grapes?" She leaned forward. "I can't see your ankles. Are you sure they're not grape stained? I really want to see you do that, it would give *our* feature a distinctive… stamp…"
"No, no stomping, no stamping."
She could be as silly as she wanted to be but she was not going to goad him.
"That's no fun…" She may have sighed; he wasn't looking at her. She opened her window now and though she could only get it down half way, it was enough to allow a breeze to tousle her hair and cool her. She looked like she appreciated it and didn't mind the dusty road; she almost looked like she was having fun despite what she said.
"Look at those clouds. Do you think it will rain?"
He wanted to shrug but told himself to *try* to be polite. "It might."
"I didn't think to bring an umbrella… That's a big building, isn't it? It really stands out…"
The processing barn was a large white metal building that had plenty of room for the machines that handled the grapes and other products Mr. Dobson bottled for himself and others. It also had storage room for boxes of bottles, preprinted labels for the labeling machine, and other supplies. Clark pulled in and backed up to the desteming machine, guided by Sue Dobson's hand signals.
"Wow," Lois said, "right in the right place, I guess, huh?"
There was nothing he could say to confirm the obvious. He opened the door.
"Wait!" She pulled off his sunglasses. "You need these, don't you? I just remembered I brought my own."
What? All this time she had been looking right at him and she hadn't said a thing? Was she blind or… or maybe it didn't matter and… Don't worry about it, Kent; if you could get ulcers over this you'd have a truck load already.
He accepted the sunglasses, put them on, for a moment watched her poke through her fanny pack, then he left her to her own devices.
Sue passed him the rake and together they went to the back of the truck and opened the rear end panel. Grapes immediately started pouring slowly into the trough of the destemer. He climbed up on the side of the truck and began pushing more grapes toward the machine that Sue started up. Lois climbed up on the other side of the truck and saw what he was doing. She didn't offer to help, but she may have thought it required special talent. At least she didn't ask if he was going to roll up his pants, hop in and start stomping and singing.
She climbed down and next inspected the destemer. She introduced herself to Sue, who smiled and said "So *you're* the one! We've heard a lot about you."
Lois looked a little worried. "Oh?"
"Small town gossip, but don't worry, it's all good!" and she turned the smile toward Clark as though trying to communicate that she approved of her school chum's taste, but no doubt thinking that Clark hadn't couldn't heard a word of this because she added, "And since none of us could snare him, from what I hear, I'm glad it was you."
Sue proceeded to show Lois how that machine worked and how the residue from it and the deseeder and eventually the juicer was gathered for composting. The filtered juice went through this pipe and that hose and wound up in a heating vat like this one here into which she dipped a little cup: here, have a taste. The pasteurized juice was then poured into nifty bottles like these that ran through this machine over here which capped them as well. The heated liquid not only sterilized the bottles but forced a vacuum and held the lid on tight, and that machine stuck on the labels. Here, have a bottle, on the house!
Lois looked tickled. She asked about the Christian Science Monitor and was told that the Chicago Sun and the Denver Post had been out last year and done stories and the farm's sales had increased tremendously. Congratulations! Lois said. Little did she know, Clark thought, that he had pitched the same story to Perry well ahead of the other two big papers, but Perry had hesitated, telling him to just enjoy his vacation instead.
Clark finished pushing this load of grapes into the destemer, closed up the back end of the truck, rinsed off the rake and put it aside, pulled the truck away and parked it beside the building where he rinsed out the back with a hose there.
By now, almost two, CJ was rambling toward them with the last of that field's grapes in his newer but somehow less satisfactory truck (it didn't have a discernable personality yet, just suspension problems), and Clark helped him go through the same unloading process. Clark was glad to see the harvester eventually chug up the road just as Sue and CJ, watching over the bottling, began asking leading questions of the charismatic city woman about the local boy made good.
Lois did not say anything embarrassing Clark would have to explain later. She did though stand close and bump against him now and then. He couldn't bring himself to reciprocate, but he did manage to fake a reasonably pleased expression. Clyde didn't seem to notice, but Sue gave him one of those knowing-woman-type looks, great…
He introduced Lois to Mr. Dobson and the latter smiled and with his knobby, calloused hand gently shook her smooth one. Clark noticed that she didn't flinch at all; he would have been surprised if she had though. She doesn't flinch much, he thought.
"Why, aren't you a pretty little thing?" Mr. Dobson said, then he grimaced as he stepped forward and put a little weight on his broken limb. "This leg's killing me! We're going to have a gully washer, I swear. Let's all go inside and have a nice glass of fresh juice!"
"I'll take you up on that, Clyde," Jonathan said, "but," he stage whispered, "I think these two probably want be alone…"
Everyone looked at Lois and Clark.
It was four against one, Clark thought. He would have liked some of that grape juice about now.
Then it became five against one. Lois was smiling like being alone with him was an excellent idea and it occurred to him that he better try to emulate her.
His dad said: "You two take the car and go on ahead. CJ can get me home just fine. Their new ATV has pontoons in case that gully washer hits."
The Dobsons chuckled about that and led him toward the house and, they promised, air conditioning and a comfortable chair and time to catch up on baseball scores. As they parted, though, Clark overheard Sue mumble to CJ: "Looks like Clark didn't expect her. They must be having a lovers' spat…"
But CJ, who had degrees in Agriculture and Economics and was no dummy, shook his head and put in two cents to cover the male viewpoint: "Nah, she's so emotional he just looks calm in comparison. I'd act the same way if I were him."
"Then you'd look uncomfortable."
"Not uncomfortable, *calm*…"
They trailed away and Clark stopped listening. I don't need this, he thought. Next it will be headline news in the Smallville Journal.
"So we're going back to your house," Lois said, neither a statement nor a question, typical.
"Yes." First he retrieved his radio out of the truck and left the cap there. Then he pointed out his dad's car and was going to open the door for her, but she stepped a little faster and did it herself. When he got in on the driver's side, she said, "You just left the keys in the ignition?"
It was obvious. "Yes."
"It's that trust-your-neighbor-in-the-country-thing, huh? I couldn't have done it in my place…"
There she was, on the verge of admitting she had moved! How to take advantage of it, how to follow up? Maybe everything in her apartment had been stolen! That would explain it!
…but it wouldn't explain her not calling to cry on his shoulder even long distance.
There was no easy way to follow up, he decided, the chance was lost. It figured.
"I bet people don't even lock their back doors at night either," she continued.
"Some do, some don't…"
"Oh… I see. Right."
He started the car, pulled out and headed toward home. She watched the fields roll by. She commented on the grade of the state road and what significance its number had in a numerological sense. She noticed the clouds and said she didn't have the chance to see very many thunderheads and they sure lived up to their names, didn't they? As the Kent farmstead came into view, she wondered if Maggie the Cat had gotten his tongue.
"You become the thoughtful, quiet farmer type when you're out here? I didn't know that."
"Well, just quiet then? You clam up? Wait, there are no clams in Kansas, I'm *sure* of that…"
"No…" I just become one terribly hurt person whose one-time *girlfriend* didn't have the common courtesy to…
She looked down and played with the pull toy on the zipper of her fanny pack. "Well, honestly, Clark, I realize that I just dropped in totally unannounced and I'm probably the last person you expected to see and you've got farming on your mind and you don't want to think about life back in Metropolis, but I thought you'd be a *little* happy to see me…"
"I'm…" totally useless when it comes to this, I'm a clam in Kansas. "I'm… just hungry."
"Oh, *that* explains it, doesn't it?" she asked cheerfully. It sounded a little more cheerful than sarcastic, anyway. "I'm hungry, too. My stomach says it's almost five o'clock, the food on the plane was abysmal, and that grape juice was good."
Stop clamming up, Kent. "I thought I… or we, if you want, could have some lunch, and then I'll take a walk," to England, "and maybe you could take a nap or catch your plane back or… something…"
"My flight out is tomorrow afternoon."
"Oh." Great… Well, he thought, he could find 24 hours worth of something to do in China easily enough.
"And I'm not tired."
"That's nice." Then Dad could put her to work, that was the solution! The Dobsons had those drip irrigation lines to reconfigure, she could help with that.
"So I think I'll invite myself along on your walk, *if* you don't mind. I need some exercise!" She pointed. "See? I'm wearing my walking shoes."
He didn't want to look at her legs, not for any length of time anyhow. "Okay…" He could always lose her, maybe in the barn where she'd probably fall for the latest batch of chicks…
"Besides, it will give us a chance to talk."
Talk? At a time like this? When all she could do was make jokes and be totally oblivious to the fact that he knew everything for the simple reason that she didn't know he knew?
You're thinking too much again, Kent, you'll make yourself dizzy at this rate and that's never been a pleasant sensation.
Come on, fess up, you want to talk, don't you? "Yeah…"
No time like the present, as his dad would surely have said. His dad, though, had never faced a problem like this, had never failed to share things with his mom, had never left her in the dark about things for long, and entirely vice versa. His parents had the perfect marriage.
Okay, so maybe it skips a generation, starting with his generation because of all the other complications…
"Neither of us will be interrupted by *any*thing out here in the bucolic countryside."
"You'll talk, won't you? Or will it be 20 questions and I have to ask them? You know how I hate simple yes or no answers, I want *details.*"
"I'll talk." Of course, you may wish I hadn't, you may wish you hadn't come…
He pulled into the yard and parked the car in its usual protected place by the barn. His mom was waiting on the back porch and she was smiling. She must think we've made up, Clark thought. It was an impression no doubt reinforced by Lois's smile as she almost bounced out of the car and toward the house. He, on the other hand, felt like trudging. He didn't feel smiling, either, but he couldn't help the little one his mom inspired when she gave him a brief hug.
Then she pulled away and looked at him. "Oh, my, you're all dusty, aren't you?"
"I was expecting him to smell like grapes but he doesn't," Lois said.
"You do smell a little agricultural though." His mom patted him on his shoulder. "We should be glad you weren't helping Mr. Moller muck out his stables."
Lois made a face, said "Euwww!" but then smiled.
His mom directed him toward the door into the kitchen and indicated that he should keep going. "Hit the shower, Jack. Lois can wash up down here and help me make a picnic lunch for you both."
"That's a wonderful idea!"
"I have fresh bread for sandwiches, too."
"Yum! We can take it to Kent's Hole, can't we?"
"No, it's going to rain."
"Clark," his mom said, "that's hours from now."
Minutes was more like it. "But--"
"Go take that shower, now. Go!"
He realized he wouldn't win this one until the weather backed him up. "Okay, okay…" He tried to give her an "I don't want to do this, mom" look, but it fizzled, she didn't see it. Maybe it was the sunglasses. He took them of and glanced at his mom and then at Lois, who just smiled in the same way she had about the prospect of the picnic, not seeing anything either.
Women. Earth women.
And what other kind have you met?
True, and look where it's gotten me…
He wondered what Cleveland was like this time of year.
Lois watched saggy-shouldered Clark leave and when she heard his steps on the stairs she looked at Martha, made a "whew!" face and shook her hand sideways, loose wristed. She began to say "You sure were right!" but Martha lifted a "shhh…" finger to her lips, picked up a stenopad from the counter, opened it, and handed it to her. Lois noted that while the woman's hand writing had an artistic slant, it was just short of illegible. She wondered if Jonathan wrote in block letters and Clark had compromised between the two.
She read: "He won't eavesdrop on purpose but he may overhear anyhow."
Lois nodded. Martha had predicted all this, interesting. She had said that Clark would most likely be closed mouthed and tense after he got over his surprise at seeing her because he was hurt about "something." Lois had guessed right away what that "something" was and explained all that had happened over the last week as Martha drove her from this house to Dobson's Vineyards. Martha had smiled, explained a few things, too, and said "Go get him, girl!"
Lois pulled the pen out of the spiral wire at the top of the notepad and began to write her reply.
They heard the shower come on overhead. It sounded like he was moving at a normal, human-like speed, so that probably gave them plenty of time to write-talk while creating the picnic goodies.
Martha said, "We have a lot of things to make sandwiches out of."
"Great! How can I help?"
"First, wash your hands."
"Okay." She finished writing "CK so steamed, LL almost afraid to touch him."
Martha read it, smiled and nodded, sighing. "You'll need a dozen pot holders," she whispered then began to compose her return response as Lois washed her hands in the sink in the attached half bathroom. She patted her face with a cool washcloth. That felt good. Maybe if it rained the temperature would drop. She hadn't brought any warm clothes though, but then she could easily borrow a sweater. She pulled her comb from her fanny pack, ran it through her hair, and liked what she saw in the mirror. She saw a winner.
Martha handed her the notepad again. "After 12 PH's cool him, you know how 2 heat him up again properly.
Lois nodded and mimed "Big hug."
Lois smiled. She jotted down quickly: "It's been so hard not to say anything…" She did though say: "Ah, where is the bread? Does it need to be sliced?"
"No, just fixed up with good things in between…" She opened the refrigerator, pulled out a large bag, pointed and mouthed out "Your lunch."
"Good, good…" She finished writing and handed over her note, which said: "But I have a plan!"
Martha smiled at this and gave Lois a thumbs up. She then pulled off the sheet of paper, folded it twice, and gave it to Lois. "For your scrap book," she whispered.
When Clark returned to the kitchen he found the women sitting at the table enjoying iced tea. A glass full was awaiting him; Lois pointed at it. "For you. Two heaping sugars."
"Thanks." Now that was thoughtful, maybe she *was* trying. It tasted good, too.
There was a brown bag on the little table by the door, the picnic lunch probably. He had heard them making it. His ears had strayed though he had tried to stop them, and he had been rewarded by overhearing a stimulating conversation comparing real mayonnaise to Miracle Whip. Mom made mayonnaise all the time, while Lois's mom had developed a certain talent for opening jars. He liked both tastes, depending on what the condiment was used on.
They looked up at him expectantly. Lois smiled. Well, he looked a bit more like the Clark she expected to see, didn't he? Regular glasses and clean clothes like those he'd wear relaxing at home. It seemed they were waiting for him to make the first real move because upon his entry their chat about the latest scandal for the British royal family petered out. Okay.
He finished the iced tea, put down the glass, walked over and opened the screen door. "Come on," he said, "let's go and get back before it starts to storm." he figured they had 30 minutes maximum to "enjoy themselves" and then he could find something else to do if she had just come here to bubble and not explain herself.
Lois looked at his mom; some strange message passed between them in a twinkling. So they hadn't only been talking about making sandwiches--hey, maybe his mom had found out why Lois had moved! In that case he should slow down and give her a chance to sneak him aside and tell him what she had discovered.
Lois bounced up. "A country thunderstorm? I'd like to see that." She picked up the picnic bag. "I'd like to see a tornado, too--as long as no one's hurt and no damage is done except maybe a cow gets a ride but it's not hurt, either, and we get some good pictures of everything."
"That's always possible," his mom laughed. "You remember where the storm shelter is, I showed that to you."
"I remember, you use it for storage, too. But," she somehow weaved her fingers of her right hand in to the fingers of his left, "I think we'll be safe."
"We'll be okay," he heard himself say. That had a lot of wishful meanings, didn't it? Too many maybe. He had been pushed his case too hard over the last weeks and that was probably one reason it had all failed. He eased his hand out of hers and hooked his thumb in his pocket. He was going to stop pushing and definitely not going to give her any false impressions.
But she didn't seem to notice, instead looking down to adjust her hold on the bag. He looked over her head at his mom and tried to express the complicated questions: "Well? Did you find out…?"
If she caught it, she didn't understand. She just looked pleasantly mom-like and hopeful that he would get it all straightened out somehow. "Have fun you two, and take your time."
Time. Time to talk. He sighed, "Sure, Mom."
"Thanks, Martha! Come on, Clark, let's hit the trail!"
Kent's Hole wasn't far but it seemed like it was a million miles away because he was waiting for her to make a statement he could jump on--no, *work with*. Here she was being so pleasant, so innocent, and she had traveled so far for some reason. Maybe, just maybe she just didn't realize how much what she had done--or hadn't done had effected him.
But rather than inadvertently open things up right away for that talk, she accepted his offer to carry the bag and began asking questions about things she saw along the way toward the creek. For example, she pointed at a black dot soaring in the sky. "Oh, is that a hawk?--No, don't tell me, your father said there was a way to identify those birds, something about their wings… It's an eagle…?"
"Is that your final guess?"
"No, not if it's wrong…"
That figured. "Can you hear it?"
"I can hear… cawing. Oh, it's a crow. That's sort of ordinary, isn't it…"
"Ordinary's not bad."
"I didn't say that it was. I like ordinary sometimes, but," she smiled, "I like extraordinary more, usually."
Yeah, this was Lois he was talking to, seeker of the extraordinary…
As she ran out of questions, she began picking path- side flowers. When she had a good handful, she concentrated on weaving them into an intricate wreath but despite her peptalk to the foliage, her handiwork almost immediately fell apart when she held it up to show him. She laughed, picked more of the late-fall beauties, and kept trying to make the colorful mess of green, purple and yellow into something that it apparently didn't want to be.
"How *do* they make these things stay together…"
"They use wire and string usually."
"But that's cheating! I'm sure we wouldn't have done that in Girl Scouts, or we wouldn't have if everyone hadn't gotten mumps instead that week."
His friends had all gotten mumps, too, when they were all around ten. His mother had kept him home a week to protect him, just in case, but that was before they realized knew he couldn't catch mums any more than he could catch a cold. "You probably would have picked longer-stemmed flowers, those weave better."
"Long stemmed like this?" She held up one of the rarer (for this time of year) purple-flowering alfalfas. "I'd stick it in your lapel but you're not wearing one. Maybe behind your ear…"
He pulled back, that would be way too close considering how he felt. "No…"
"Party pooper…" She tossed the remaining flowers back into the field here on the edge of the forested area, commanded them to compost, and then sped ahead to take the lead on the way to Kent's Hole. "I sat out here several times," she explained as the nest-like clearing came into view. "It's so peaceful. Imagine me, a city girl, liking all this natural solitude. Your mother said you come out here sometimes, so that made it easier for me."
The way she looked at him when she said that, as though she really valued his opinion, made his heart ache. How can I be angry at you?
Because I can't forget that one recent little incident which I'm totally right to be angry about…
He sat down and opened the bag.
"I liked sitting in that spot, too," she said. She was still standing.
"Oh." He began to rise again. "Do you want to--"
"No, no, no, I can sit right here," in front of him, with enough space between them to place a table and a little candle and a basket of special nachos… or in this case the picnic bag. "Your mother said you also sit a lot in that tree house. She said Jonathan built it for you when you were little so you'd have a place to be yourself. That's so nice…"
"Yeah. Did you…?"
"Check it out for myself? With that 'no girlz aloud' sign?"
"CJ and Pete, another one of my friends, they put that on when we were about 12 and hated girls."
"You don't still hate girls, do you? Would you an exception to the rule?"
For her? Well… "Maybe. What kind of sandwiches did you make?"
"Oh, I don't remember, I'm going to pretend to be surprised. Sometimes I like surprises. Your not being overjoyed to see me has been a surprise, for example…"
I am… was seething and you don't even know why… "Lois…"
She leaned forward a bit, listening. "Yes?"
Her look was too expectant somehow, and it was scary and not quite right… And she wanted him to go first. He'd gone first so much lately though and, he thought, look where it had gotten him. No, it was her turn.
He tore his eyes away from her, realized he couldn't just leave her hanging, and asked "Are you comfortable?"
"Comfortable? Oh, yes, very."
"Good." He pulled out of the bag the two bottles of water and the first sandwich, and opened it a little. "Roast beef. Do you want this one?"
She sat back. This was not what she had expected him to say. Fine, the ball was still in her court. "Half of it, I guess, we can share. I like to share…"
"Right on. Here's another hint: *talk* to me, Clark, I can feel the electricity in the air already."
"That's the pressure dropping and ozone. I told you the storm was coming."
"*You're* the one who's had something deep and personal to tell me for quite awhile, aren't you?"
"And we've been interrupted time and again by bombs and mothers and helicopters and just everything, I realize that. But none of that is here…"
"True, but it's just… complicated…"
"*Life*'s complicated. It wouldn't be any fun if it weren't now and then. We've been trying to have a serious talk for centuries, it seems, so if there really is something you want to tell me, now seems to be a wonderful time…"
He took a bite of the sandwich, needing the strength. Miracle Whip. Appropriate somehow. She had a point. His revelation to her was more important than her telling him why she had moved. But there was a possible explanation: she had figured he was holding back things back from her and so she was doing the same to get even… No, that wasn't right, that wasn't the way she was dealing with problems lately.
He finished the first bite and washed it down with spring water, and waited until she took a bite of her sandwich half. "You mean, you want to know if it's something other than…"
She leaned forward a bit again, her ears almost perking up.
He couldn't say that truth, not yet. The other truth was easier, the one that maybe would lay the foundation for the big one. "…other than that I'm madly in love with you and I'm just sort of… tied up in knots and upset about… certain things?"
Well, he thought, you *said* you like surprises sometimes.
She chewed slowly, swallowed, sipped water, cleared her throat, and said: "Wow…" She smiled a little. "That's not quite what I expected to hear--I'm *happy* I did, I'm *ebullient*… It makes the trip worth it, it's very sweet…"
"Yeah, well…" There he was, being sweet again… He looked down at his half sandwich and took another bite. His mad love, he realized, was being crowded by a lot of other things at the moment.
She may have guessed that. "But there's something else, 'certain things'…"
He mulled over this bite, too.
She waited; she didn't take another bite, she wanted to be ready for any surprise and that was probably good.
"Lois…" How do I put this without revealing anything, to coax her to lay something on the line as well… "You haven't… been home lately, have you?"
She blinked again. Obviously this wasn't the surprise she was ready for either. Well, good. He hadn't been ready for it on Thursday.
She took a bite and as she chewed she looked like she was thinking things over. So it was that bad…
The wind rose and the trees overhead began to sway with it as she said finally, "Clark, I thought I could breeze through your being on vacation, you know, get a lot of work done, do things I've been putting off, but Monday life got hectic beyond belief, I thought it was all falling apart…"
"Don't sound like that…"
"Like… Like I think that if your life was falling apart you should have called me?"
"Did you think I wouldn't have dropped everything to help you? Was it so bad that you couldn't even talk to me about it?"
"Talk? *Us talk?*"
Her unwarranted touch of sarcasm was answered immediately by a crackle of lightning that boomed into close thunder. She cringed and looked up, shocked. "I didn't mean it like that!" She looked at him next. "I really didn't!"
"It doesn't matter." He plucked the sandwich out of her hand, put it with his and began to rewrap them in the plastic wrap. "Come on…"
"It *can't* rain!" She shouted at the sky again: "Give us a break! We have to talk!"
"That's *exactly* why it's going to rain--"
"You mean you want to go back?"
"That's the idea--"
"No, no, no, Clark! Even if the ground opened up right under my knees, I wouldn't move until--"
Her vow was drowned out by another boom and the trees beginning to roar. She caught her breath, her eyes widened as the reality of the situation occurred to her, and she scrambled. "Where's the cap for my water?"
He found it and gave it to her, grumbling "If you'd just listened to me…"
"Why should I, Clark? You're so…" she shoved the bottle at him, "*depressing* sometimes!"
"Oh, yeah? But I was right!"
"I don't care!"
He threw the things back into the bag and rose. "Then you can just stay here and talk to yourself and the trees, too!"
She jumped to her feet, seething. "Clark!"
It started to rain, hard, but the trees sheltered them for the moment. As soon as she said, "I'm *not* staying here without you--" he grasped her hand and pulled, carefully but in no uncertain terms, and headed for home.
They got about 20 feet before she yanked her hand out of his. He turned to see that she had mounted the stump left from one of the trees he and his father had cut down last spring to cure for firewood this winter. She had her hands on her hips, the wind whipped her clothing and hair, and she didn't look exactly pleased.
Now was not the time for her to throw a fit. "Lois!"
"Clark, come here!"
He rolled his eyes. She pointed at precisely where she wanted him, right there in front of her. She was trying to look serious but having to push her hair out of her face, uselessly, didn't help her case much. Until she said her piece or he picked her up bodily, he knew that there was nothing he could do to convince her to move on her own. He paced back and looked up; she was about half a head higher. "Lois, what *do* you want?" other than to take the high ground, he thought, which isn't such a good idea with all this lightning.
"I want you!"
"Me? I'm right here!"
"Yes! I *know* that and I love you madly, too! Now is it Superman who still hasn't figured that out," she pulled his glasses off his face, "Or you, Clark?"
Thunder, and then the rain broke though in fat, furious drops.
The fence post loomed again, but he ducked it this time, covering his surprise and confusion with a frown, one actually aimed (when he thought about it later) entirely at himself. "I knew it, I knew you knew!"
He felt her hand on his shoulder, it kept him from turning away from her, which he didn't realize he was doing. He turned back fast. "*Now* what?" What could be worse than her confirming everything he had talked himself out of believing, all his worst fears--and at the very same time his deepest desires?
"I've enjoyed communing with nature enough for now and I know you can fly, so let's get out of here for real!"
"Oh." Of course.
Not a bad idea for a woman who couldn't tell the difference between him and the guy in blue.
What *am* I thinking?
Stop, just *stop thinking.*
He plucked her off the stump and warned "Protect your head."
She hugged him. "I'm glad you don't feel you have to change into the Superman suit."
"When we're in the middle of nowhere? Besides, it's back in the closet." He wouldn't risk keeping one to hyperspace while he was on vacation.
"In Metropolis!? But you might need it!"
"No, it's here, in the farm house, upstairs, in my bedroom."
"Well, I'm glad *you're* not in the closet anymore."
"What do you mean by--"
"Clark! We're getting *really wet* here!"
He gave her what he hoped was an unappreciative look for making all the crazy statements and then trying to fault him for the argument. She just hugged tighter. He turned with her and began to weave through the trees, fast. He might have taken her above them, but that would have gotten them both soaked more quickly and increased their chances of being lightning struck. He avoided brushing against limbs when he could and what he couldn't avoid he took with his shoulders so she wasn't scratched. He noticed though that while she was holding on tightly, she was also smiling…
They broke out of the woods and because it was closer, he decided to head through the downpour for the barn. He looked across the pasture toward the house and could hardly see it in the distance, so he called up a combination of x- ray and telescopic visions to check if it was weathering the storm okay.
He saw that CJ was roaring away in his pontoon-less ATV, rounding the corner of the house and out of sight, just missing his slim chance of seeing anything startling. His dad was scampering for the porch and he reached it safely. His mom was standing there awaiting him, holding a sweater for him to put on. Then Clark saw his mom nudge his dad and point. His dad squinted into the rain and his jaw dropped. His mom just smiled serenely.
The fence post between the eyes threatened again: *she's* known that Lois knows?
A few puzzle pieces fell into place. He didn't like this game.
He had hoped the big barn doors back here would be open so he could have just swooped right in but no. He set Lois down before the regular back door into the barn and they both reached to open it quickly. She rushed in. "Whoa!" she exclaimed as she patted herself, squishing. "What a ride!"
That was one way to describe it.
She looked at him. "You're soaked worse than me! Can you, oh, spin and dry off or something?"
"No, I'll just… steam dry."
"And you were already steaming…"
She looked him up and down, trying to think of something clever to say probably; she'd certainly already said enough shocking things for one lifetime. She apparently decided upon something neither clever nor shocking: "You're angry, huh?"
"Listen, the Clark I know hardly ever gets angry at anyone for any reason…"
"I'm not angry."
"But you can be, you know. You can just let it all out and get it out of your system…"
"You'll feel much better then, believe me."
"I'm *not* angry. I'm *hurt*."
"Yeah, oh." He looked at her, prepared to let her see how hurt he was, but instead he saw that she looked bedraggled and she was sniffing, though it was cold sniffing, not tear sniffing. He didn't want either of those things, so he decided to say, "You're all wet, I could heat you up or…"
"Oh?" She smiled slyly, but quickly turned it gentle. "Somehow I don't really think you're ready to give me a big, warm hug yet."
"Actually, I'm not very cold, maybe because it was so exciting!"
A gust of wind slammed at the door behind Clark. As he turned to close it securely, Lois said, "Let's go on into the barn, okay? Maybe it's… quieter unless there's a tornado."
"But you wanted excitement."
"Certain kinds of excitement, yes."
Like the excitement of giving a person a heart attack?
"There won't be a tornado, it doesn't feel like a tornado storm."
"You've felt them before?"
"Well, it's *loud* enough for one, isn't it? And now it looks cold, too, brrr!"
He knew then that he had to do something to warm her up without getting too close at the moment.
It was quieter on into the barn. Robby and Flora, the draft horses, were taking the weather calmly. His father's pride and joy, they had comfortable, well appointed stalls and each other to talk to, though they perked up when they spotted Clark. They liked to exercise with him, and he owed them an afternoon's worth; he let them get away with a lot and they all liked to play tug of war. Clark borrowed one of their clean blankets and offered it to Lois.
She took it, trading it for his glasses. She unfolded it, held it open, smiled at the Kent Farms logo, said "This is nice!" and wrapped herself in it.
He looked at the glasses, which had once been trainers then become protection and a disguise, sighed, folded them and stuck them to hang in the neck of his shirt.
"Don't look so sad, Clark, I think you look great in glasses."
"But they're not really… me."
"Well, you can be whatever you want--Oh, look, little chickens! How darling!"
The horses had companion goats and the chickens, and the storm was making the little animals uneasy, but they calmed somewhat at the sight of the people. Chickens at least were easy to talk about. "There should be six chicks."
She knelt down to get a better look, but most of them ran for cover and the hen was wary and probably sensed she could buffalo Lois without much difficulty.
Maybe Lois sensed this, too; she stood up again. "Lucy had a little chick she was a kid, you know, for Easter? But some neighbor boy ran over it with his tricycle and mangled it. I had nightmares for weeks…"
Clark stared at her. "And you called *me* depressing?"
She shrugged. "Okay, you're right. If I call you that again, just whisper 'monster chicken on a tricycle' in my ear and I'll apologize immediately."
Clark could only nod.
She turned and walked slowly into the large area where the wheat combine usually sat in front of the fancy plow the horses were often harnessed up to, but the machine it was on loan to Mr. Melaragni for the weekend and Dad didn't let just anyone borrow the plow.
"This is romantic…" She sighed and smiled there in the soft, gray light that the sheltered windows translated from the storm outside.
She turned back to him, putting a little twirl on the blanket. "So, sue me, *I* think it's romantic. It's safe and it's quiet, mostly, and we're here together and we can *talk*. Just think," she said, swaying as though she were dancing to music that was inaudible to people who couldn't dream, "here I am, alone in the beautiful countryside in a rustic barn in a wonderful thunderstorm with the stormy man I love…" She paused, looked at him and smiled, stormy herself. "Wanna neck?"
Did she have *no* sense of propriety? "No!"
"Okay, okay, then let's just talk. I've been longing to. You have no idea how hard it's been…" She held the edges of the blanket just so and was able to fold her arms under her breasts. She said with what he interpreted as a hit-me-with-it look: "I suppose the first question should be… when did you find out?"
"*That's* your first question?"
Rather than become defensive, she simply said: "Yes."
"When did I find out that you knew? When you took my glasses last Friday and then patted me on the cheek. Real subtle, Lois."
"*I* thought so," and she began swaying again.
She was always hearing music… then again, he did, too, sometimes.
Circus clown music at the moment. "Except I talked myself out of believing it."
"I figured that's what you'd done. You wouldn't have had the chance to if we'd had time to talk."
"But you did a great job at the University, no one was hurt badly, and those bodies you found? They were all cadavers. Gruesome, huh? They've launched an investigation into that, like it was Lex's idea maybe."
"I don't think so, that's not his style."
"I agree, but I'm looking into it… Clark, after I went in to the office with the story, I called to invite you over to my place regardless of the time and I told you didn't have to wear anything, anything *special* anyhow, but…"
Another puzzle piece dropped into the picture. "So that was what you said…"
"What's wrong? Cat got your *ear,* too?"
"*No,* my answering machine ran out of tape."
She looked surprised now. Why? Couldn't Superman have bad days? Sure he could, lots of times, and he, Clark, could have even worse days.
"That explains it," she said almost to herself. "I thought the idea had scared you and you had run away."
"Run away, *me*?"
She did not burst out laughing though she did arch an eyebrow.
So he amended it. "Well, I did, sort of… but it was almost 5:30 when I heard the message, what there was of it, and it wasn't even light out yet, and I figured you hadn't been asleep long and I didn't want to wake you…"
She nodded as though she expected these excuses and accepted them, too. Then she began to look upward and around. The storm had quieted a little and no ominous lightning struck nearby warning him to exchange his story for an even more truthful one. She said, "I understand…"
"Um-hmm. You were being polite."
"Clark, you're the politest person I know, despite how I've tried my best to knock that right out of you and warp you into one hell of a heartless killer reporter…" But she smiled, and he found he was doing so for a moment, too. "So I understand. You were being too polite or your own good."
That wasn't something to smile about. "Well…"
"I suppose that next you want to know how I found out…"
"You're a brilliant woman, Lois, it was only a matter of time. I'm just glad it wasn't like last year…"
"Me, too. I wasn't a very nice person then."
"But you are now… How long?"
"How long have you known?"
"Oh, I was under the impression there for a moment that it didn't matter to you."
"Well, it doesn't, but if you could find out," and if you tell me when you discovered it, I can figure out just what I did wrong, "maybe somebody else could figure it out the same way…?"
"No, I don't think so, I'll never let them. Let's just say I've known for long enough to discover a lot about you, a whole lot." She looked up at the hay loft now. "How high does the creek rise?"
Huh? Up to my neck, he thought…
How much *does* she know?
This is awful… and thrilling…
She knows some unknown amount about me, even beyond the blue-suited guy bit, and yet here she is anyhow…
What had she asked? "Ah, not as high as that. It doesn't come up here at all when it breaches its banks."
"Let's pretend like it's going to." She pulled off the blanket, folded it narrow, draped it over her shoulder like a serape, and began to climb one of the ladders up to the loft.
"Clark, we have a lot to talk about," she looked back from half way up, "but I want to do it up here." She looked ahead again, took two more rungs easily but somehow slipped on the third.
He immediately floated up to support her.
She didn't require his help though. She smiled. "I'm glad you're on you're toes… or off of them at the moment."
What had this been, a test? Great, that was all he needed. He withdrew a bit and floated up behind her as she finished her climb. "Oh, it's warmer up here."
"It's the heat from the horses."
"Horse heat, huh? Maybe that's the smell, too, but it's not bad at all." She opened and spread the blanket out on some of the ever-present hay from broken bales. "This is going to be nice. Come here and sit."
He sighed as he shook his head. "You certainly are a bossy woman…"
"Well then, you can stand or fly around or whatever you want and I'll sit. As long as we talk."
Things grew quiet between them. She sat there expectantly, like she could wait forever and do so just looking at him. He was simply standing there, no longer floating, there was nothing to look at… But after a minute he realized she really wasn't going to say anything more, that he had to start this for real now. It was just that he had no… plans for this. "All right, how did you find out and when?"
"Well, I wish I could say it was a brilliant deduction on my part but it wasn't, and I've known for enough time to see things about you that I realize I like and the more I've discovered, the more I've wanted to find out about you and grab you and confess and ask a million questions…"
There it was, it was the suit, the power, the exotic extraordinariness of him, all bringing out the reporter in her, and guy he really was didn't matter at all…
"Surprisingly, though," she continued, turning a hand over in a gesture that said she couldn't quite understand it herself but it was undeniably true, "it has really very little to do with Superman. I know you can do all that, that you want to help people in every way you can and one way is to put on the super suit and rush off, and I want to help you do that, but… but for some reason… well, for lots of reasons, I've become just…" she shrugged, "incredibly attracted to the man who lets kids fall asleep in his lap and who makes good omelettes even though they have strange ingredients and who doesn't quite understand Fellini and whose musical tastes are way out there and who talks to gorillas…"
His knees seemed to feel weak (in a warm sort of way) and he had to sit down beside her. It took him a moment to ask: "Really?"
"Really. And I'm glad I took the time to find out things like that. Maybe I would have anyway, but who knows?"
"Not me, I… I didn't know…"
"I know, and that's perfectly okay. I know things have been hard on you, but it's really been just… wonderful for me personally. Now, if you're not *ebullient* about all this…"
"Oh, that's even better. We're definitely starting off on the right foot."
He looked at her, just looked. She soaked it right up. She also bumped against him and stayed there and looked, so satisfied that he could almost see canary feathers on her lips. He felt the idea of a smile saying "come on, try me on for size," but he pretended he didn't hear it. He looked down at his hands. "There's only… one thing, Lois…"
"Just one? What?"
"It's… On Thursday, two days ago? I was going to stop by your place, I was, you know…" He couldn't quite say it in front of her though; it was so hard to think of her actually knowing, much harder than he ever imagined it, and now to realize that she'd known for a long time… He tried a hand motion.
"Is 'flying' the word you're looking for?"
"Yes… I was going to make coffee, special coffee, and make sure you were comfortable and I was going to tell you everything--and I've been *trying* to tell you…"
"I've tried 23 times since the first of April--You know that, too, already?"
"Um-hmm. I realized it and then I thought about it, and it means that you do trust me, which is very important in a relationship. It made me feel very happy."
"And it still does."
"That's great… except…"
"Yeah…" What he had seen, or not seen on was still stuck in the dream, like a thorn maybe, though he wasn't sure how that felt.
"And I didn't call you."
"Well, you called and asked me to come over and I guess you didn't hear the warning about the tape running out…"
"Not a beep out of the thing. We'll have to get you a new answering machine, a welcome home present."
"You don't have to do that. After all, I didn't show up and maybe you thought I wasn't acting like a boyfriend should…"
"You don't have to make excuses for me, I wasn't really surprised that you didn't come and I honestly was very busy the next few days."
"You thought your life was falling apart."
"Yes, but I should have called you about it, and I would have, I thought about it, but then I decided to visit instead, as soon as I could, so maybe we could do something like this--well, maybe not *just* like this," she waved her hand, meaning them sitting here in the hay, "but something like this. And it seemed to be the right thing to do, to come instead of call, because if I'd called, maybe you wouldn't have been here."
"I don't know…"
"So it was a flow thing for me, and thinking about it was the only thing that flowed for me all the time while I was getting evicted, which can scramble a person's thought processes out the kazoo."
Her comfortable, serene expression didn't change. "Um-hmm."
"You were *evicted*?" That explained everything-- and nothing. "They can't do that to you! You're the best tenant they ever had!"
She grabbed and hugged him, almost pinning his arms, as though in waving his hands about she thought he was preparing to fly off on a crusade to defend her honor. He would have done so had she asked, but quite evidently she didn't want him to even think of leaving.
"Clark, Clark, Clark…" she said soothingly.
She let him go carefully. "Most tenants don't have friends who leave bullet holes in the lobby and most tenants aren't thrown out of their windows or off the roof on the average of once a year."
"That *wasn't* your fault, none of it's been, not really."
"Technically… And there was some worry about Superman visiting me so much…"
"Oh, bringing trouble with him, with me…"
"That was the idea, I'm afraid."
"Well, he won't be doing *that* any more, I won't, seeing that it looks like soon everyone's going to think that he's, I'm… well, gay…"
"Who cares what other people think about that kind of thing? And it won't get out the Planet's doors and no one will believe it. Besides, I sort of prefer you knocking on my door and dressed in less colorful clothing. If I'm not ready I can ask you to wait, which I can't if you're standing in the window…"
"You don't have to worry about the window thing any more unless it's an emergency--and we'll get your door back, too, first thing--Tomorrow, I can help you with that tomorrow, if you want."
"No, no, it's all right. Management presented me with a very tight case. I confronted them on Monday when I got the news. They had the notice hand delivered to the newsroom, so I had to take off time to deal with it. Then I talked to the Tenants' Association Board that evening, but they weren't any help. I think it was the bullet holes and tenants being shot at, they weren't happy about the repairs taking so long, and there was some little thing about me not being very neighborly, as though *they* ever were…
"So Tuesday I talked to management again and struck a really terrific bargain. They agreed to give me back all my deposit and pay for all my moving expenses and furniture storage for six months, so I took them up on it and agreed to be out by Wednesday evening if they could get their act together. Surprisingly they did, and I was out like I said I'd be. They gave me the boxes and Lucy helped me pack on Wednesday and the moving people moved everything. She was as furious at them as you are, by the way, but really I'm… happy." She leaned against him as though seeking support and he sat rock steady. "I hadn't realized how uncomfortable I was living there…" She smiled. "But now I feel free."
"Free? Like living on the street? Where are you staying? There are no vacancies in Metropolis because of the Monster damage and that big comic book convention that's in town and who knows what else is going on."
She sat up and looked bubbly. "Oh, don't worry, Maxine and her babies and I and some of my clothing and my computer found this *charming* little walk up in a lovely, quiet neighborhood with nice people who welcomed me with open arms, and, best of all, I already had keys to the place!"
He looked at her. She was smiling serenely.
She had moved into his place.
He looked away.
There was too much, there really was too much going on. He sighed. He closed his eyes and rubbed them. Why did he feel so totally… enveloped all of a sudden? It was warm and inviting--and yet it was scary at the very same time. "You won't… You won't touch anything, will you?"
"What? Not touch…? Well, I'm not only going to *touch* everything, I'm going to touch it *twice*, once in the morning before I go to work and then as soon as I get home--I mean, back--no, *home*, it's home for now. *And* I'm going to leave pantyhose drying in the bathroom, like you left your nice suit there, but I moved it."
"And I'm going to put the toilet seat down and squeeze the toothpaste in the middle and leave dirty dishes in the sink overnight… but not for long. I'm talking with your landlord on Monday afternoon about renting the place next to yours, the one that's been empty for so long? I can fix it up and if you're a *very* good neighbor maybe I'll ask him to put a door in our mutual wall so I can… come borrow some sugar every now and then."
"You're going to cook, too?"
"You're darn tootin. I'm a very good cook."
As he looked at her it occurred to him that her statements were loaded with double entendres, that she was not intending just to cook but to cook for him and maybe *with* him, or maybe cook him and eat him up and…
No, she couldn't…
Well, she could…
He didn't want to.
--Well, not right away, not before he could make some sense of all this…
And that didn't look like it was going to be easy at all or happen any time soon.
This was all too much, there was too much happening. He felt overwhelmed and tired. He sighed and laid back carefully as not to startle her too much, even though he felt plenty startled himself. "Lois…"
"Are you all right?" There was genuine concern in her voice, that was nice.
It made it a lot easier to say: "I'm beat. You win."
"Already?" He felt her move; she was placing her hand on his other side so she could lean over him comfortably. "This was simpler than I thought it would be."
"You haven't won everything, you've just won for the moment."
"The skirmish but not the battle."
"That's all right, you're worth fighting for."
He opened his eyes he saw that the passing storm had left brighter skies. Light fell through the big dusty window up here in the loft, and her face seemed to glow as she looked down at him with a compassionate expression. She was more angel than devil, she had to be… There was one way to find out.
"Marry me, Lois."
She blinked. Ha, he thought, I've surprised you at last!
"Trying to score a direct hit, huh?"
"You could say that."
"Yes, marry me."
"Without a test drive first?"
He blinked. "'Test drive'?"
"You betcha. I wouldn't buy a car without one, why should I enter into a marriage without a test drive, too? This doesn't mean I test drove Lex. He wanted to, but I… didn't, it just didn't appeal to me, that should have been my first clue. But *you*…"
He was beginning to see that being even more closely associated with this woman meant the very real possibility that "fence-post-whack" occurrences would become commonplace. Dad, you were right, women just don't fight fairly… "Uh-huh, no, you just want me for my body."
She leaned closer. "I don't expect to get you without it…"
"Marry me first."
"Then at least *say* you will, say yes. It's a very simple word. I even know where to get a ring right away."
"Do you have a pocket in your cape?" She pulled down his shirt a few inches; he watched her finger, fascinated by the move. "No, no suit." She left her hand there. He didn't know what to do about it except not tell her to remove it.
"And no pockets, either. My mom's been saving my Grandmother Kent's antique ring for me. She told me before she died that she knew I would need it some day."
"Oh, Clark, that's so sweet… and so tempting."
"Then say yes."
"I don't know… Even if I say yes, you might not give me the test drive."
"I said I would and that's quite a compromise really…"
"I'll have to think about it first."
This wasn't a battle, this was cat and mouse and he didn't like being the mouse. "Think all you want. I have to think about it, too, you know." He looked away, up at the ceiling. "I might change my mind. Maybe you should forget I said anything at all."
"Oh, no, I'm not going to forget that, it's the best invitation I've had in a long time."
"Okay, it's the best one I've ever had--I know that's not what you meant but that's what *I* meant… and it's the most honest invitation, too." She caressed his cheek softly, the same cheek she'd patted more than a week ago. He looked back and saw that her smile was similar.
She had plans, didn't she? Too bad, "Don't get any ideas…"
"Who, moi?" She rested her hand on his shoulder now.
"Yes, you, as long as you live with me at my place or next door or out in the gutter or wherever, I warn you: until you've accepted my proposal, we're going to have a purely platonic relationship."
"We'll see--You'll see nothing--nothing *more*, until then."
He smiled, too, in just as superior a manner--and he hoped she didn't think that she was on top at the moment. Even though she was, in more ways than one possibly. Even though it was after all, he sighed to himself as he tried to overlook the warm tingle the idea was causing him, just where she liked to be.
The author thanks: Laurie, Debbie, Kathy, Marie, Kay and Gorn for their proofing and/or thoughtful tips, though I take final responsibility for any typos added after they looked at it.
Note: "Teep-tap" was the Italian subtitle translation for tap dancing.