By Debby Stark
Summary: During his showdown with Lex Luthor, Clark receives unexpected help from … Superman? Help is on the way for Lois, but it may be too late for Punkin Kent. A continuation of the fanfic "I'll Second That," the full title is "The Long, Dazed Journey From the Night, or, Thanks for the Memories." This is the last of the author's five stories written to take the place of the episodes in the five-part arc.
This concludes my rewrite of the five episodes dealing with the "wedding" of Lois and Clark. My first four parts are available from me at Debby@swcp.com or ftp://ftp.swcp.com/pub/users/dstark Stories (as: ill.knot.pronounce.txt, double.entendre.txt, seconds.helping.txt, and ill.second.that.txt), I am still certain that my previous four parts could have been translated to the screen; the fifth, probably, too, but with more effort, particularly for the last half. In the long run, we might have had a more interesting, character-building time and wound up in about the same place but with no characters irretrievably damaged. All characters and situations originally seen on L&C:TNAS belong to their respective owners, but, borrowing them for this, I apply some of my own ideas)
[Review of previous three episodes: shots of the wedding, with emphasis on Clark's face so new viewers realize he knows Something Is Wrong. Shot in limo, Clark asking Clone if he can call her Punkin. Shots of Clone changing clothes, slurping frog, confronting Clark, saying "It's… time to go… to bed…" Clark in bed with her, touching her. Shot of Lois's face falling, tears beginning. Shots of how Lois escapes Luthor, blends into parade, says she doesn't want to remember, and strikes her head. Shot of Wanda proposing to go with Red. Shot of Lex testing Big Gun on "Harbert." Shots of Lex confronting Clark in the latter's apartment. Shot of Clark confronting Red and Bibbo, then, in the alley, Wanda and Lex. Shots of Star Labs being robbed, Punkin confronting Lex then talking to Klein and the Lanes. Shots of Clark and Henderson sneaking into Zoo, and Clark alone breaking into Lex's lair and finding confused Wanda. Shots of Punkin arriving to try to save the day. Shots of Punkin and then Wanda -> Lois collapsing, and Clark rushing to comfort the former and then the latter. Over this, terrific crashing sounds. Shots of Lex grabbing up the Big Gun and of Punkin saying "Oh, Superman!"]
[As new viewers gnash their teeth, berating themselves for not having watched previous episodes, we see… Opening credits/theme song and commercials. Over the following several paragraphs, more credits: guest stars played by the same actors or reasonable approximations; writer: Debby Stark; director: tentative - Sir Richard Attenborough for the scope/drama or Allison Anders for the emotion/humor - but the studio & network are pushing Danny Devito or Penny Marshall; a write-in counter-campaign is being considered]
The Long, Dazed Journey From the Night
or, Thanks for the Memories
Part 5 of my ReWrite of the Wedding Arc…
(wherein—warning—I finally diverge significantly from the original)
On this horrible night only seconds before Valentines Day, those thrown together by fate, plan, or misadventure into Lex Luthor's dank lair hidden under the Metropolis Zoo were having an astounding number of possibly insanity-inducing experiences.
Each event was vying madly for Clark Kent's undivided attention as he crouched low, at last enfolding in his powerful arms the love of his life, the unconscious Lois Lane.
Yet one terrifying thought muscled all the others out of the way and stood crystal clear, screaming at him: had Punkin Kent figured out his secret identity? Was she even now in her dying moments inadvertently revealing it for Lex Luthor to hear, revel in and use in some despicable manner sure to reign terror on all of Superman's friends and relatives?
Clark, clutching Lois closer to protect her from this, too, looked across the way at Punkin.
The Clone of Lois Lane (who looked more like Lois than Lois did at the moment) was still lying on the floor in her disheveled, travel-stained lab coat and pink tennis shoes. What great trials she must have gone through to get here, homing in on Clark somehow, stumbling through dangerous streets, breaking into the police- surrounded zoo, perhaps falling into the Snow Leopard Exhibit, pressing on through Reptile World, and surviving a final, treacherous trek past the infamously toxic Refreshment Row. What a woman!
Now she pushed herself up to her grimy elbows. Clark felt a rush of relief, first because she was able to move that far after all her exertions, and second because she was not looking at him, expecting him to rip out in a tight blue suit and save the day. No, her strained, grass-stained face was pointed in Luthor's direction.
This made no sense at all.
So what's new? Clark asked himself almost bitterly. He turned a little further, still shielding Lois, to see why Punkin was looking—and smiling—at his greatest enemy.
It could have been just a coincidence. Her attention could well have been drawn by the terrific sounds of destruction coming from the collapse of the roof over the far part of this large, fetid chamber. That was the location of the entry manhole through which Luthor expected a rescue-minded Superman to blunder. Luthor must have booby trapped the manhole cover with a bomb (people liked to do that kind of thing) or maybe he put one half way down the hole with a tripwire, but in any case the explosion had gone off prematurely.
So, just like Luthor, Punkin had been fooled. She must have overheard him, Clark, talking to the Lanes about his plans and reasoned that Superman would look here, too.
But as bright as she was, he sighed, she was hallucinating her hopes into the clouds of dust. Her vision, in better times probably sharper than human normal, was deteriorating as rapidly as the rest of her body. Too bad, Clark thought, that she had such a short time left and she wasn't spending it with friends but stuck here in the middle of a horrid delusion.
Not bad for Luthor however. Clark didn't care about that man's illusions or delusions at the moment.
Luthor was hefting the big gun and laughing maniacally at the cloud of dust caused by the falling debris. "Come to daddy, Supermoron!" he laughed. "Come get what you deserve!"
Clark hoped no animals at the Zoo above were alarmed or frightened; perhaps the rain he could just hear was damping out these horrific sounds.
On second thought, he hoped the dust would *spread* and the sound would continue, because he suddenly realized that in this mess was his cover. If he could somehow hold Lois comfortably in one arm and grab up Punkin in the other, he could rush both of them away to safety via his alternate entry while Luthor waited and waited and waited for enough dust to clear until he finally saw…
A form in the dust.
The dust was clearing, not spreading. As the last of the ceiling fell, pipes clanging, bricks settling, and rocks bouncing around on the ground, a tremendous figure unfolded. It shook itself off and began to rise and rise and rise, it seemed, until it stood fully and impossibly tall.
*Superman?* Clark thought.
It *can't* be…
It's… It's dust on my glasses…
Except (he squinted; there was not enough dust to make a difference; a mile of dust wouldn't have made a difference), well, but, ah…
But I don't I look like *that*…
"Oh, Superman!" Punkin gasped again.
"I'm glad you could find time in your busy schedule to attend my little soiree!" Luthor snickered. "You arrived *just* in time— to be sent to hell!"
As the dust continued to clear, the immense form became easier to see. It sure *looked* like Superman, or at the very least a startlingly fine imitation. Clark found himself hoping it wasn't yet another clone, another Luthor experiment gone wrong, but then he didn't know exactly *what* to hope it was.
Superman saw Luthor, and frowned, but otherwise his expression was difficult to gauge. Confused, probably, and that was a state it didn't sound like he enjoyed because when he said, "Pardon?" It came out a mix of query and demand.
"Tell me, freak," Luthor cried, "how it feels to *die!*"
He depressed the big gun's trigger, turning the device full blast on Superman…
…who still simply stood there, quite possibly trying to get his bearings and figure out what the heck was going on.
We have a lot in common, Clark thought.
Superman glowed. The glow grew and spread over his body.
He did not, however, turn into countless disassociated atoms as Lex had been guaranteed would happen. Neither did Superman look like it tickled nor that he thought it was something he cared to stand there and be the subject of. If anything, he looked even more irritated.
He also looked like someone a wise person should never wish to irritate.
Clark almost gulped. I don't look like that, either…
The light from the gun sputtered and flickered out, the batteries running dry.
"All right," Superman said, his voice brimming with authority, "your game's over and *you've* lost," and there seemed to be no one happier, in an almost warped sort of way, to inform the unfortunate player of this and the penalties he was about to pay.
My voice isn't that deep, Clark thought, then he reminded himself that for a while during his first few weeks as Superman he had tried to speak in a deeper tone to add to the disguise but in time gave it up because it was unnecessary.
There was a distance of at least 30 feet between Superman and Luthor, and Superman began to narrow it. Luthor roared in anguish and hauled off and threw the gun at Superman, who brushed it aside as though it were a crippled fly.
At this point, Clark noticed that the "S" on Superman's broad chest was a little crooked and off shape, his boots topped off higher than they should have, his "briefs" weren't so brief, his cape was less flowing and probably less of a nuisance, and he was wearing a utility belt.
Clark suddenly had an idea about who this person was. Those sartorial clues reminded him that Lois really didn't know how to sew but she'd had occasion recently to throw her heart into it and try. Perhaps she had also been guided by an unconscious desire to hide certain of Clark Kent's assets, at least when compared to the less discrete efforts of Martha Kent.
I'm almost out of it, Clark thought, to be on this silly tangent. I'm going nuts. It's been a long night already and I've only been here about ten minutes…
The belt, though, was the odd thing. It was not just a nondescript yellow leather (his mom had found another half dozen recently at a shop in Tulsa), but it was studded with little electronic-looking devices. These were colored yellow as well for the most part and didn't stand out.
Only a nut would notice them, Clark sighed. This really can't be happening…
There was a device on the belt that began to beep ultrasonically and Superman stopped immediately.
Luthor noticed this, but Clark thought he probably couldn't hear the sound. He might, however, have seen the little light blinking on top of that same device. Luthor said "Ah-ha!" and stepped forward a pace.
The device beeped louder and the light blinked more urgently.
Superman took a step back and the device calmed to the previous level.
"Clever!" Luthor laughed. "I didn't know you had it in you!" He pulled from his shirt a make-shift necklace. The stone hanging from the thin strip of leather was green and glowed dangerously. "You have a Kryptonite detector! I wonder how it works? No matter, I can see you don't wish to chat. Too bad your sudden increase in IQ didn't extend to expecting my little welcoming present in the manhole." He took off the necklace and dangled it playfully. "*Now* I've got you with something I *know* will work." He took one more step forward and Superman took a corresponding one back, his eyes pinned on the stone, his features beginning to pale somewhat.
Clark pursed his lips. Even he could feel the kryptonite lightly and Luthor was a good 20 feet away. Maybe he was more sensitive to that particular piece, having experienced it before. Maybe Superman would react differently… though it didn't look like it. Perhaps only his inexplicably severe attitude had carried him this far.
"Thinking about running away?" Luthor asked, as though he were truly concerned that Superman would miss something. "Are you going to leave your friends here," he nodded off to his right, "so I can torture them?"
For the first time since his arrival, Superman took his eyes off Luthor and looked in the direction the man indicated. He saw Punkin and that was enough. His eyes widened a little and he whispered, "Lois…!"
Clark could see what was coming if only he had been in several similar hopeless situations himself. Superman would not leave (he, Clark, certainly wouldn't have) and even if he didn't realize it, he was in desperate need of a distraction and a few moments of time. Clark considered making a wisecrack—several about crooked wigs, bad aims and expensive pop guns came to mind—but then Luthor might turn on him and use him as a shield; the Kryptonite would make him susceptible to torture and the villain would hold even more cards.
Suddenly, Inspector Henderson, having used Clark's secret entry, burst on to the scene. "Drop it, Luthor!" he ordered, his calm voice commanding. He backed the order with a heavy, authoritative police special aimed squarely at his target. "Drop it—now!"
Just as suddenly and almost at the same time, Asabi appeared in the entry way on the other side of the room. He had a nasty big knife which he immediately threw at Henderson.
Clark, unnoticed by anyone, dared a tiny burst of superbreath. In the nick of time this eased the knife off course so it missed Henderson by mere inches.
The Inspector got off a shot at Asabi before he dived for cover.
Luthor laughed and then waved the Kryptonite at Superman again.
Superman glowered at him as he backed up another step; he would be cornered in one more.
Asabi, unhurt because Henderson's shot had missed by inches as well, rushed up to his employer and hissed, "Sir, we should leave!"
"Leave? When I'm having so much fun?" He poked toward Superman again, apparently calculating how close he could get without forcing the clearly rankled and also sweating Man of Steel into a dead faint. "Where's your gun? Get it out!"
Asabi produced the semi-automatic gun he had used in rescuing Luthor on Saturday afternoon.
"Good! Keep that man," he indicated Henderson with a shake of his head, "covered! I have a very pleasant job to finish!"
Asabi sighed and began to do as ordered, sweeping the room with the gun, watching for Henderson to show his head.
Suddenly, a brave peep broke through the tension. "You mean, preposterous, old *sucker*!"
Surprised, Luthor turned with a start and saw who had challenged his supreme authority.
Punkin had attained an uncertain, trembling sitting position, apparently unaware of her own weakness because she had a fierce, determined expression on her face, one matched, Clark thought, and lately only rarely by the real Lois.
Luthor relaxed and smiled benevolently. "It will be my great pleasure to warm up first by putting you out of your misery!" He approached her, paused and swung back his right foot to kick her mightily.
"You're *pathetic*!" she told him and then stuck out her tongue at him, making no move at all to protect herself.
Superman bellowed "NO!" Through his pain and weakness, he pushed himself off the wall, shoved Asabi aside and collided with Luthor. He grasped and pulled the man around and away from Punkin before Luthor could touch her.
They fell together into a bank of electronic equipment that sputtered and shot off sparks, but didn't electrocute anyone. The giant-screen TV monitor did burst into life with the assault, and on it was an episode of Star Trek. Dr. McCoy was screaming something at Mr. Spock. The combatants tripped over the wires to the television though and it toppled over backwards, dying just as Spock was explaining himself to the red-faced McCoy.
Then Superman and Luthor stumbled into a pile of stolen computer parts boxes, tattered scientific journals and old TV dinner trays, and finally hit the floor, the battle not diminishing for a moment.
Clark looked around for a weapon, any weapon. A shoe? Lois's were too flimsy and too much to undo, his own were too hard to reach without disturbing her, and there was simply no time. A rock? None nearby were bigger than pebbles. A bed pillow? Again too far to reach and a joke as well.
Due to keeping a grip on the kryptonite, Luthor had the upper hand within seconds. He strengthened his fist with it and punched Superman in the jaw a final time. Superman, dazed and in great pain, was helpless as Luthor cackled triumphantly and stuffed the piece of Kryptonite down Superman's shirt to rest under the S. The sensor on Superman's belt emitted on a continuous, almost mournful tone. Superman laid there, his breathing ragged and shallow.
Luthor patted the S. "Wear this in good, preferably *short* health!"
Though almost paralyzed, Superman managed a seething look.
Luthor rose and spied among the mess they had fought through a tire iron. "How convenient!" he chuckled. He grabbed it up and stood over Superman. "Now to finish what I was so rudely interrupted from doing a year ago!"
He brought the long, wicked tool up in a slow, delicious arc, savoring every second of the move that would put an end a major cause of his problems and rapidly make him a hero to every dark element in every back alley of the seamy side of the world.
Clark had sickening visions of the Kryptonite cage and no doubt that Luthor would throw his foul heart into beating Superman to a pulp.
But then he realized that all along he did have a weapon, a way to at least delay the man so that his intended victim might have a second chance.
He laid Lois down in his lap gently but rapidly—she seemed to grasp at his shirt and this almost distracted him. He refocused on the problem at hand and pulled his flashlight out of his jacket pocket. He turned, considered for a lengthy one-hundredth of a second exactly where to throw it and how much to restrain himself, and picked the most important target.
His aim was true, his throw perfect, it couldn't be any other way for he had only this one chance.
The 9-inch-long, black, rubber-clad, all-weather flashlight windmilled through the air and bounced soundly off of Lex Luthor's head, just behind his right ear.
Luthor's wig went flying and the tire iron continued in the arc, up behind everyone and into the darkness, breaking things as it went.
He caught his head, yelped "Yeow!" and he reeled away to the Clark's left, almost out of sight.
This got rid of the immediate threat, Clark thought, but left Superman still in great pain and apparently unable to move. Perhaps Henderson…
Lois stirred again, distracting Clark. She moved her lips, saying something he simply couldn't make out—but maybe she'd repeat it! He whispered, "Lois?" She clutched at his shirt as though in reply, but then her hold weakened and dropped away. He plucked her up again and held her close.
Punkin muttered, "No, no, no, don't die, Superman, it's not fun…" She began crawling in his direction. "I'll save you…"
Asabi quickly surveyed the entire situation, fired a burst of bullets over Henderson's hiding place, abandoned his post and ran in rescue of his employer, firmly taking his arm. "We will leave now."
"But I want to *kill* him!" Luthor sobbed as he staggered to his feet.
"I know, but you will both live to do battle another day. I have one more piece of Kryptonite," he patted the small pocket on his tunic, "to keep him away until we have re-established ourselves."
"Another one?" Luthor said hoarsely. "Give it to me, I'll…" but he staggered and grabbed for his head.
"No. Come with me…" and he guided Luthor away quickly. They faded into the darkness.
Punkin reached the barely conscious Superman. "It's okay," she whispered, trying to smile, "you did okay…" She took hold of the leather cord, part of which was just evident at the top of Superman's shirt, and pulled out the Kryptonite. She blinked at it, realized weakly that she couldn't stay, and turned to crawl away somewhere, anywhere.
Henderson popped out of hiding and began to run after the escaping duo. In passing he flung a warning at Clark: "Good job— but stay down, they're still armed!" He then spied what Punkin was doing, skidded to a halt and said, "Here, put that in this!" He tossed the antique, lead-lined box at her. He resumed the chase, pulling out his radio and calling ahead with instructions for his people.
Punkin did as she had been told, her hands shaking. She licked her lips and concentrated. Her hands didn't seem to want to work very well. Clark saw that she was crying and hiccupping (like Lois did under similar terribly tense situations) and he dearly wished he could help, but there was no way.
The job took several long moments, but then it was done. After Punkin firmly closed the box and set it carefully aside, she turned back toward Superman, who was blinking his way back to full consciousness.
She sat over him, watching him in wonder. "Are you all right?" she whispered, her voice full of hope for him, completely unmindful of her own precarious plight.
He reached for her weakly. "Lois…"
"Oh, I'm not her, remember?" She touched his cheek fondly. "But that's okay… You know, you still look a *lot* like Clark…" She smiled and her fragile voice took on the hint of a tease, a last-gasp effort to coax the man to smile; that would surely mean he'd be all right soon. "But I don't know if you'd look good in… shorts with tall buildings on them… But maybe if Clark will give me some money, I can get you some…"
Superman did smile though he could have no idea what she was talking about. He sat up slowly, steadied himself, gathered her to him and enveloped her safely. He rested his cheek against her forehead and closed his eyes, tears in them. "Oh… whoever you are…"
Punkin, fading fast, returned the hug, relishing it. "Wow… Don't cry…"
While this was one of the most dramatic, pin-drop quiet, heart-warming and at the same time heart-wrenching scenes he'd ever witnessed… Clark realized *somebody* in here better start acknowledging reality. What's more, he could superhear the running steps of approaching people, no doubt police.
"Hey!" he called, his voice quiet but carrying.
Superman looked up. The signs of strain on his face, as well as the cuts and near bruises, were almost gone, and he was rapidly regaining his strength. A good thing; Clark thought, they would need it.
He frowned momentarily at Clark, but there was no anger in it. (Clark had the feeling he didn't want to see *this* Superman in a bad mood.) No, the frown was one of "Huh? What *now?* What do you want of me?—just ask!"
Clark did so: "Follow my lead!"
Superman hesitated—was he one who argued when being told what to do?—but quickly nodded, then returned his look to Punkin, at whom he smiled warmly in a way Clark could almost feel. She closed her eyes and rested her head against his shoulder. He stroked her face tenderly, easing her hair into some sort of order, kissing her forehead.
Betty Reed, disheveled, dirty and looking majorly pissed, rushed in from the exit Asabi, Luthor and Henderson had used moments earlier. "They got away!" she announced angrily to the SWAT team members who appeared in the entry way Clark had used or climbing down ropes through the big hole left from Superman's spectacular entrance. "There are *hundreds* of tunnels under here! We thought we had them all covered but they used one we didn't know about!" She kicked debris out of the way to work off some of her anger, and then parceled out the troops, some to follow Henderson, the rest to remain and search the lair for traps and clues.
Having sorted this out quickly, she cooled down a bit and lowered her sights to see first Clark and Lois. She rushed to them, knelt, and frowned at Lois, concerned. "We need to get her to a hospital, pronto!"
"Ah…" Clark had briefly entertained thoughts of taking Lois home, to his apartment or hers, it didn't matter (the farm would have been better but difficult to explain), nursing her back to health and waiting on her hand and foot. But, he reminded himself, he wasn't a doctor. "Yeah…"
"I thought something like this could happen, so I called an ambulance about half an hour ago. It should be here by now…" She rose then and went over to Superman and Punkin. She overlooked that Superman was just, well, sitting there amongst the cardboard boxes and old TV dinner trays and concentrated on the small woman he held securely. "She needs help, too, more than pronto by the looks of it."
"Yes," Superman said, all authority and to the point.
Yes! Clark thought. As he pulled off his black jacket quickly and fit it around Lois, he said, "Betty, I have an idea…"
Betty saw what he was doing, must have thought his actions were the idea, and grabbed one of the satin sheets off the bed and helped him blanket the unconscious woman in that as well. Then she rushed back to the bed, plucked off the second sheet, and helped Superman wrap Punkin in that and his cape.
"Thank you, ma'am," he told her, and she smiled almost shyly, perhaps not remembering, Clark thought as he observed them, the law-officer-to-crime-fighter tone of their conversation only a few nights earlier. Fortunately, she wasn't so star-struck as to miss the little lead box or fail to recognize its significance. She dropped it in her fannypack, safe.
The SWAT team members and newly arrived police officers who weren't searching through the rubble pretended not to be gawking at this vast spectacle that involved their hero, Superman. None of them offered to help, but there was little they could have done anyhow, so Clark, who found himself mostly ignored, was glad they stayed out of the way. Sounds of shouting people from the tunnels below betrayed the fact that more people added to the search for Luthor and Asabi weren't making its outcome any more fruitful.
Clark cradled Lois as gently as he could and stood with her. "I don't think there's time for an ambulance, Betty. Superman can drop me and Lois at the hospital and take Punkin to Star Labs!"
Betty turned to look at him and nodded. "That *will* be faster—but it's raining cats and dogs out there."
She didn't see Superman frown and so couldn't interpret it like Clark did: either there wasn't a Star Labs on Superman's version of Earth or Superman thought it really could rain cats and dogs here on this version, or both.
He apparently decided to ignore the metaphor. "Star Labs is a good idea," he said, keeping up his end of their private deal.
He floated to a stand. Punkin slumped, a well wrapped ragdoll in his arms despite his obvious efforts to comfort and animate her. His frown, now about this, deepened and was touched with anxiety. "*Right Now!*"
Clark met him half way. He noticed they were the same height, though Superman impressed him as being more rugged, even more time-worn and capable of taking on any challenges with a cool head—except possibly this one. "We'll touch arms here…" he told Superman as they met. It became sort of an elbow-to-arm, to each woman's outer shoulder and knee in contact kind of thing. "…and your aura will extend around me and we'll all lift together."
"That will work," Superman said as though he'd done this dozens of times already.
Of course it worked, Clark smiled to himself, it had to: it sounded so logical. How odd it was. Lois and her clone, neither looking much like the other, and Clark and this doppelganger, who didn't look alike either. I wish I could get a picture of this, Clark thought. Mom and Dad will never quite believe it…
Their audience gawked openly as Superman lifted the three out of the chamber through his much enlarged entry.
They floated silently through the cave, out the exit and into the dark, turbulent night. The aura idea actually did work in an unexpected way: their mutual protective natures cover the smaller persons in their arms so that neither of them got very wet despite the storm's best efforts. Clark noticed that the gentle part of the rain that did break through gently washed off some of Lois's garish makeup; that was good.
As they rose, gaining altitude, each man looked the other in the eye. They said simultaneously, "We *have* to talk."
Superman's statement was a bit more insistent, so Clark let him continue. "I have only a limited amount of time, three hours at most. Where's this Star Labs, what is it, and will it help this woman—this clone?"
Clark blinked. Superman could tell Punkin was a clone? How could he do that?
Star Labs was actually on the way to the same hospital that had treated Jimmy and Perry and neither were far. Clark pointed it out, explained its basic mission statement, and told Superman to have them summon a Dr. Bernard Klein, who had been studying and befriended Punkin.
"It's a long story."
Superman nodded. He'd heard many such stories in his time. "She can tell it to me then."
For appearances sake, Superman dropped Lois and Clark off at the emergency room exit. Betty had figured they would choose that very hospital and had radioed ahead, so administrative staff members were ready with the paperwork. They were having difficulty finding a doctor who wasn't busy or on break, they explained, but they assured Clark, who was still carrying Lois, that several skilled doctors had been paged and were no doubt on their way.
Clark ignored them for the moment, walked right through the emergency room and commandeered the first clean, unoccupied gurney that he could find. He laid Lois out on it, straightened her gently, grabbed a pillow and fit it under her knees to ease any strain on her back, and then moved to even up and cradle her head in his hands. He squinted through his glasses and the blinky spots caused by the lead in them and checked her skull for bad news.
There was none that he could tell, though she had obviously been rattled and would need an expert's opinion on any trauma she had suffered.
He was distracted when someone shoved a clipboard full of papers under his nose and someone else insisted on taking over the gurney and pushing it into an examining room. Doctor-like people began to arrive and coverage on the emergency patient. Clark relented, looked over and signed the paperwork. He answered questions, trying to explain what had happened and remember Lois's blood type and if she'd had any surgeries lately and if they'd been in this particular hospital and what her middle name was.
After a brief examination which Clark listened to but could understand little of, Lois was taken away to X-ray. He watched helplessly, his heart moaning "Don't go again!"
"You can wait out here, sir," the head nurse of the emergency room told him as she touched his arm, her manner brooking no discussion of the recommendation.
"Out here." She took his arm firmly now; she'd obviously had experience with this.
"Or in the parking lot or at home."
"What? I'll wait *here*." He unlocked his stance and allowed himself to be moved because it would be strange if she couldn't budge him, considering she quite possibly weighed as much as he did and may have known Aikido. "Except I want to be with her…" There was always the chance she didn't understand.
"I know, but there's probably someone you'd like to call about this, isn't there?"
"Ah… yeah." Mom, Dad, Lois's folks, Lucy, Perry, Jimmy, Mr. Stern, the world—she's *safe!*—but she's *not*—because *I'm* not with her! I should be, I *should* be…
He noticed several police officers had taken up discrete positions around the emergency room door. Were they usually stationed here? He could remember seeing some now and then when he had to rush accident victims to such places as this, but not so many. Was this Henderson's idea, to inform the world that Lois Lane was not to be disturbed? Clark hoped that was the case, that there were other police around the hospital as well. He had the feeling, though, that Luthor was already far away from the city, that Asabi had removed him to someplace deeply secret and safe, where wounds could be licked and new plans formulated.
The Head Nurse pointed out the bank of pay phones. "And when you're through there, sit in one of those nice, comfortable chairs and read one of those interesting magazines. You'll get the news of your friend's—"
"She's my *wife*!" Clark nearly snapped, in more senses of the word than he cared to admit.
"Your wife's," the woman corrected smoothly, "condition as soon as we do, I'll see to it myself." She smiled comfortingly, not really a mean person, just one who wanted order in this place when she could get it. "Now go makes those calls."
"Ah…" Clark found himself heading toward the pay phones and stopping at one of the semiprivate little cubbyholes. Only one other phone was in use and the caller was yelling quietly at someone about getting a ride somewhere and it would be at least $20 or maybe she was charging $20.
Whatever. He looked at the phone in front of him. He could not for the life of him for a moment remember how to use one, how to read and follow the instructions, or even if he had any change in his pockets or what numbers he could have sworn he knew by heart to call.
He realized he was totally emotionally exhausted and didn't really want to talk to anyone other than Lois, and that was uncompromisingly denied him.
He turned, saw an empty chair, and in a few seconds found himself sinking into it. I'm on autopilot, he thought.
The chair was clean and comfortable despite emergency room waiting room stereotypes. This place was also well kept up and fairly quiet due to the subdued, anxious attitudes of its variety of transient occupants. The noisy area was in the emergency room itself, but even it seemed tranquil for an early Sunday morning. Maybe hurt people were waiting until more doctors came back from their breaks and then it would get raucous.
Maybe everyone's out buying valentines, Clark sighed as he noted the decorations—lacy hearts, cherubs, cartoon characters hugging each other—posted around the waiting room.
I should do something.
I should do… *something*…
But he could think of nothing concrete and helpful, nothing.
I can do all these things… but I can't do anything.
Eleven minutes snailed by.
Lois's parents rushed into the Emergency Room, demanding to see their daughter and son-in-law. Clark, cursing himself for not having the presence of mind to at least call them, and he bolted out of his seat to meet them and take them aside. He tried to explain what had happened—he'd found Lois—she was dazed and confused—Superman had arrived—Luthor had nearly killed him with Kryptonite—but Punkin had saved him practically single handed— Henderson had chased after Luthor and Asabi—Superman had brought him and Lois here—"I *meant* to call you, I'm sorry, I just…"
"Clark, dear, you would have missed us!" Ellen told him. "Inspector Henderson called ahead and told us to meet him here."
"There he is!" Sam smiled. "With his authority and our medical credentials, we'll get in to see Lois immediately!"
No, they didn't. Henderson stood back and didn't even try. Clark went with them but couldn't think of anything helpful to say that he hadn't already tried.
They all wound up seven snail minutes later huddled in a corner of the waiting room. Clark collapsed into another chair, leaned back, closed his eyes and, since he couldn't take off his glasses to look through the walls, tried to superhear where Lois might be and what was happening to her. This failed. He did catch Henderson giving the Lanes a more accurate and detailed account of the events at Luthor's Lair. Gosh, Clark thought, he'd arrived early enough to hear Luthor ordering Wanda to shoot him and Lois refusing to do so. He'd heard Clark talk reasonably to Lois and then figured out where the thrown flashlight had come from and who'd thrown it.
I did all that?
For some reason it was hard to remember—maybe it was the mild reexposure to the Kryptonite, but in any case Clark couldn't quite see it as being important. The last hour, reported in Henderson's typical straightforward, almost emotion-free manner… Reported, Clark thought. I'll have to write all this up… Later… I can't… No, Lois can help me, together we can… later, later, later…
With his left hand he pushed his glasses up just a bit and rubbed his eyes, hard.
He was startled when Ellen Lane covered his untended right hand and squeezed it comfortingly. She leaned close. "You did a good job," she whispered, smiling. "If it hadn't been for you and all you've done, we wouldn't have had any hope at all…"
Huh? But I didn't… "Ah, well…" He felt his heart heave and he took a deep breath to comfort it. His chest seem to shake a little and now his vision blurred.
I'm falling apart…
I *can't*, Lois still needs me…
Ellen pulled a folded handkerchief from her purse and pressed it into his hand. "Take your time, it's all right, everything's going to be all right now…"
His mom would have said that, Clark realized.
Gosh, I have to call them…
"I bet you haven't even had time to call your parents yet, have you?" She dived into her purse again. "I have their number around here somewhere, I'll give them a call and bring them up to date."
"Ah…" but I should…
She pulled out a small, well worn address book. "You can talk to them when we find out Lois's condition. You'll have even better news for them then."
Yeah, there was that, "…okay."
She squeezed his hand again. "We *will* get good news, I just know it!"
"Heh…" He hoped no one had cloned this woman because her uncharacteristic positive attitude was a real crutch at the moment.
A hush suddenly came over the emergency room and it traveled into the waiting room. Clark, feeling in a little better control of himself now, looked up to try to figure out what was happening, if maybe he was needed in another guise, and he was surprised to see Superman was standing right in front of him.
I'll never get used to this, he thought.
Superman looked imposing and in charge of his fate.
I hope I look like that sometimes, Clark thought, it might prevent some of my problems… and attract others…
Superman glanced at Ellen, Sam and Henderson. "Pardon me, ma'am, sir, and sir."
Henderson simply nodded, which for him spoke volumes.
"Oh, of course!" Ellen smiled, looking like she felt girlish at the attention.
Sam smiled broadly, "Certainly! And thank you for helping Clark rescue our little Lois!"
"It was my pleasure."
"You're looking well, too!" Ellen added.
"Yes, helping you through that virus was *quite* some experience! In fact," Sam confided, "we were beginning to wonder if you and Clark were…" he hesitated.
Clark was glad he didn't say "one and the same" because of Lois's cuddly protective actions that awful day. Lois and he had discussed this and, as usual, come to an impasse.
"I'm feeling fine now," Superman said pleasantly; that answer could cover a lot of ignorance. He then looked at Clark, his expression more businesslike. "I need you back at Star Labs. It's time to talk—about Pumpkin."
"That's 'Punkin,'" Ellen amended gently. "I hope she's doing well…"
"Punkin," Superman corrected himself and smiled again. Clark got the impression his charitable expression was well practiced and reserved for adoring crowds from whom the man kept his distance whenever possible. "I'm sure she will recover completely."
"We're both fond of the girl," Sam added.
Superman nodded, understanding, and turned that same look on Clark with a different meaning.
Clark read it clearly. Superman expected his request to be considered a command and generate no arguments.
However, it couldn't have come at a worse time. For once, Clark was going to try to do what *he* wanted to do, even if he couldn't quite do it because of that nurse had forbidden it. He certainly couldn't press his case, even if it was by just sitting here, if he weren't even sitting here. "Well, I'm sorry, but I'm stay right here."
"It's going to take time, Clark," Sam told him, "these things always do. Give Superman a hand, he knows your sterling record— it's a chance *I* wouldn't pass up!"
Ellen gave her exhusband a narrow look and whispered, "Don't nag!" Then she turned a kind look on Clark. "We'll be here in case Lois needs anyone before you return and we'll call you, too, so don't worry about that…"
"Clark, you're the *only* one who can help me," Superman threw in dramatically.
Everyone in the waiting room (except Henderson) and those who were spying in from other areas said "Ohhh!"
Too bad. Clark realized that this was one time in his life that he had to be selfish. Punkin and indeed the rest of the world were low on his priority list, whereon the first ten positions were taken by Lois. "No, I—"
Superman put a firm hand on Clark's shoulder, sunk his fingers in a bit (he could sink them in only so far in this case) and pulled. "Yes, you *can* help me—now."
Clark stood as forcefully bid and was allowed a second to gain his balance. He looked down at the Lanes and said "I'll be back as soon as I can—" before he was super-rapidly reminded of the location of the exit.
Outside but within view of ambulance drivers, policemen and passersby, Superman picked Clark up and launched into the sky. Clark yelped and held on for dear life.
This had to be one of the strangest experiences in his life.
When they were several hundred feet up, well away from the hospital and its lights, Superman let him go so that Clark could fly on his own. "All right, all right, I understand why you had to do that, but I'm *not* happy about leaving Lois."
"And I understand your sentiments. As it is, my problem is more urgent than yours. Punkin is dying and *I'm* not happy about that."
"Neither am I, but there's nothing I can do."
"We can at least talk. I need more clues about her."
"Why? What can you do?"
"I don't know yet," Superman frowned, "but I'm as drawn by her as I was by your Lois so I can't do *nothing*."
Clark couldn't and didn't wish to argue with that.
They arrived quickly at Star Labs. When they came within a few hundred yards, Clark resumed his being-carried pose for the guards there to observe. Superman, with the barest touch of sneaky smile he couldn't hide, tried to carry him on into the labs until Clark insisted he really could walk, *thank you.* Superman put him down just outside the main entrance and then lead the way, tolerating no further interruptions even of his own making as he stalked through the halls. No one questioned this; the man had the air of a battleship. Clark had to appear to almost run to keep up.
Superman finally paused at the door outside Dr. Klein's lab. He looked at Clark. "I suspect you speak Hindu." He switched into the language. "Do you know if anyone else in this place speaks this language?"
Not here, Clark thought. Had Luthor's man Asabi been at his leisure and had the forethought to bug this place (and Henderson's brother-in-law not found it), Clark might have hesitated. "No, not that I know of, why?"
"I owe you some explanations, the language should be able to encompass the concepts I need to express, and it's a good idea for me to continue to be who everyone here thinks I am—you. However, if I told you what I wish to say in English…"
"I see. Good idea."
Superman just nodded, apparently quite accustomed to having good ideas. He pushed open the door into Dr. Klein's lab.
Dr. Klein was in the next room, which was quietly lighted. It had a bed around which were an array of electronic devices and in which was Punkin, laid out under a blanket, small, frail, possibly unconscious.
The doctor looked up, smiled to see both Superman and Clark Kent, and came out. "The IV enzyme drip has stabilized her for the moment," he whispered, "but it's just not going to do the trick this time…" He looked haggard from being up so long, working so hard, and worrying so much. "I don't know what else to do. We just don't know that much about clone technology, especially the advanced techniques used to make Punkin." His shoulders slumped. "It's as though Luthor engineered her to fail when it wasn't really necessary…"
Superman looked at Clark and said in Hindu, "Is this 'Luthor' the one I fought? Is he the scum on your life's pond?"
"Yes, that's him, but scum is innocent and peaceful. Luthor is more a toxic oil slick."
Superman nodded. "I have a few like him…" Back to English. "Doctor, have you begun to accumulate the information I asked for?"
"Hmmm? Oh! Yes, I started the program just after you left." He walked over to the PC on his desk and keyed in a few commands. "I've ordered a ream of paper to start printing it out for you… Lord knows what you'll be able to make of it," he muttered.
"I've asked for all the data he's accumulated in his study of Punkin's and the previous clones' physiologies," Superman explained to Clark.
Clark hated to say "Why?" yet again so refrained from doing so.
Superman told Dr. Klein, "You don't need to print it out, just display it if possible. I'll scroll through it and read it that way."
Dr. Klein considered him and this request, startled. "Well, of course, if you'd like to. I didn't think…"
Clark said gently, "I wasn't aware of his interest in anatomy and physiology either, Doctor."
Superman nodded. "I have a wide range of interests that the public doesn't know about. Is this the start of the data?"
"Yes, it is, it's sort of jumbled yet, I haven't had time to massage it into a form that makes much sense…"
"That's fine, I'll take over from here, thank you."
Dr. Klein evacuated his chair quickly. Superman arranged his cape and sat down before the computer. Clark noticed that the piece of blood-red cloth, being no more than knee length, was less a problem than the flowing one Mom always made. He'd have to discuss this with her.
"Clark and I will go check on Punkin's progress," Dr. Klein said, pointing in that direction, obviously hoping someone would protest and ask at least him to stay so that he could watch Superman in action. Even several lab assistants, suddenly having decided to work overtime, had managed to make their way into the area to watch and they eased a bit closer.
"Fine," Superman said. "But I need Clark to give me other details about Punkin's life."
"Oh," Dr. Klein said, his disappointment barely disguised. What was worse, Superman didn't relent. The doctor turned away, throwing a warning look at the lab assistants: they better stay out of the way, too, they weren't fooling him. They nodded nervously—but didn't leave, resuming refiling files and washing test tubes.
Clark sunk his hands into his pockets and said, in Hindu, "I don't know how Punkin was created, only who was responsible for it. As a person, she's bright and funny and full of wonder… She was trained to take Lois's place, to fool me until Luthor could get Lois out of the country and then who knows what he would have done to her…" He pursed his lips briefly at the thought. "But Punkin couldn't pull off her part of it. She didn't have enough training, but I think it also went against her basic nature and sense of fair play. She *is* a lot like Lois, just… younger, without Lois's lifetime of experiences."
"I see," Superman replied, also in Hindu. He refocused on the screen as he began to scroll through the massive amount of material about the make up of Punkin Kent and the earlier clones that the computer had gathered, masticated and begun to put into order. It looked like one massive alphanumeric string of data to Clark, who, while making "A"s in every science class he'd ever taken, hadn't concentrated on their content outside of class.
Superman assumed relaxed position. "It's been more than two years since I last saw Lois—"
Superman paused and glanced up. "Yes…?"
"It's only been a few weeks since she got back from your universe!" Lois had said the man was full of potential. Could his social skills have deteriorated in that length of time instead?
"Hmm…" Superman looked thoughtful. "Interesting. That could mean… no, I'll build up to it, I'll tell you a story. I… enjoy telling stories."
Why did he hesitate coming up with the word "enjoy"? Surely it had to be a universal thing for Clark Kents, Clark thought. "Me, too."
Superman nodded, returned his attention to the computer, wrote a quick macro to keep the screen scrolling at a sedate pace, and sat back to watch it with one part of his mind and talk to Clark with another. He folded his arms before his broad chest and began.
"I suspect she told you everything about what went into making me into Superman…"
"Yes, it sounded traumatic for you both."
"It was. It was traumatic for a lot of people—maybe even for the whole world: a being from outer space hiding among for years was not easy to take, then to think he wanted to fight crime.
"Crime ran rampant. I didn't understand it at first but came to the conclusion that it was a test of what I claimed to represent. Few people, let alone the criminals, could believe there someone, anyone—me—who dared challenge their basic, age-old reign of terror.
"But not only could I challenge that, I could dedicate my entire life to it because I had no other job. I couldn't be a journalist any more, what I loved being, because there was no way I could go under cover, interview anyone or even sit at my desk and just type up a story. There was no way people could treat me as they had before, and I couldn't expect them to. I was no longer someone they knew. I'd been fooling them all this time, too.
"I had no home life, either. My apartment was tracked down and ransacked within four hours of everyone finding out what I really was. After that, there was no more Clark Jonathan Kent…"
Clark blinked at the different middle name and wondered if his duplicates from other universe would have other middle names.
"Some of my things like a scrap book and one picture album were eventually returned to me, but they're just things now, except what I had left of the Kents, and the Langs kept some of those for me, so I…" He paused, touched the spacebar on the keyboard and looked up at Clark, who had by now perched on the edge of the desk, fascinated by what he was hearing, his own problems forgotten. "They're still alive here, aren't they? The Kents?" His voice was a whisper, an indication that he hardly dared hope to hear good news for once.
Clark pulled out his wallet and showed Superman the new picture he'd taken of his folks hugging each other, his mom's head resting just under his dad's chin; they were both holding Groucho glasses. "They're in good health. They were here for the wedding, but I got them out of town as soon as I could after that."
"Good, good thinking…" Superman looked long and hard at the picture, memorizing it, then he gave it back.
"I wish you had more time…" Clark said as he retrieved his wallet. Then he had another thought. He took out the picture. "Keep this. It's not much, I know, but…"
"Oh, ah… thanks…"
Clark still had Ellen's handkerchief, folded and unused, tucked away in a pocket. He pulled it out. "Protect it with this." He wondered about excusing himself, rushing home, gathering more mementos to pass along… but decided against it since they wouldn't have the same meaning to the man. Too bad there was no time to take him home to the farm, to let him meet the Kents and see how they were thriving.
"Oh, good idea…" Superman wrapped the picture carefully and stuck it in a pouch on his belt. He sighed but hardly audibly, as though this were really all nothing, of just general interest, totally unimportant in the grand scheme of life upon which he had to concentrate… He touched the space bar and resumed his story.
"Anyhow, I didn't have to worry about them, that's one good thing. The Langs weren't well known as being associated with me even though I had been planning to marry Lana. I really loved her, you know? I think she might have gotten used to it, maybe even had fun with it, helped me out and all that, if I could have… worn a mask or a something, if I could have stayed incognito… but I guess this suit was a prerequisite, with Lois, anyway, and I failed to think ahead, so even if Lana'd had no trouble at all accepting the idea, it was just too dangerous to try to make a life with her after it all broke open. I'm sorry Lois didn't get to meet her under better conditions… Did you have a Lana?"
"Yes, she's a teacher back in Smallville."
"That sounds like her, that's great to hear. Well, a few threats were directed at the Langs, but I… stopped them quickly. I wasn't graceful about it by the third one—so I made sure that word got around that certain people were *not* to be harmed, ever, because the next ones who tried it wouldn't survive to suffer the tender mercies of the law…"
Clark almost gulped. He could not imagine himself making such an awful decision or finding the words to confess what he'd done to his folks. It would be much worse than the way he'd felt admitting he'd hit Luthor out of pure anger.
Superman didn't fail to read Clark's expression. "Making the threat wasn't easy—I found it nearly impossible. But it had to be done. *Had* to be. I realized that I could not afford to be seen as a pushover. Once I realized that, it slowly became easier to do. After all, my friends being threatened merely because they knew me did make me very angry."
Clark found himself nodding, there was that aspect of it. "Then you would have killed Luthor…"
"Oh, yes. And you, in my position, without Kryptonite to save him?"
"I… I don't know."
"I understand, it's not a simple thing to think about. But I decided early on that I had to make it clear that anyone trying to use what friends I still had or any innocent people to force me into untenable positions would suffer the consequences. It was that or expect people to be threatened again and again and again because those making the threats could expect me to cave in."
Clark recalled the painful jewelry robbery incident. There should have been—probably had been a third, better solution. Talking to Lois, for example, admitting everything *then* and getting her help… but Superman didn't have… "You didn't have anyone to talk to about it…"
"True—but I didn't need anyone, the solution was obvious. Getting tough was the solution. The only other alternative I saw was to quit, but that was no alternative. I was needed, I saw that, too. I simply wasn't needed to be seen as soft, so I'm no longer soft."
Superman grunted and nodded, case made, discussion over. "Of course, I've never actually killed anyone…"
"But the villains don't know that and I haven't done anything to dispel the rumors about my fury unbound…"
"I'm glad," he said mildly. "Perry White won the Mayor's race hands down so he's been busy except he calls on me a lot, so that was about it with my close friends."
"Jimmy? James? He tried to get me an agent, actually a whole agency, but I turned him down. He's been promoting me and always says he has my best interests at heart. I suppose he does. However, he and I weren't friends before, not even drinking buddies, I didn't travel in his circles, so… I don't have any friends now, not close friends, I can't afford them, and they can't afford me. Also, I can't… believe them… Hmm, that's interesting…" He stopped the macro, scrolled back, reread something, shook his head, restarted the macro.
"Within the first six months of my being able to devote full time to it, world-wide reported crime levels dropped about five percent from the year before."
"In one sense, yes, it was, people could rest a little bit easier, but in another sense, it wasn't. I could see it, what was happening, there was a bad side, but no one else could see it and I couldn't express myself adequately to warn about it. It came to a head when the United Nations—do you have one of those, too? Okay. They wanted to give me a medal and they asked me to speak. I said, 'Keep your medal, but I'd like to address you.' They insisted on the presenting it to me so I gave it to a charity. The delegates were all over themselves to praise me, to kiss my… feet and invite me to live in their countries. Eventually they got around to actually listening to me. The whole thing was broadcast worldwide.
"You should understand that by that time, about six months into my being revealed, I thought I'd seen *everything* nasty that one human could do to another and I'd had it up to…" He paused.
Clark heard it, too.
Punkin adjusting her position. They both turned to look through the wall, Clark discretely lowering his glasses, but they saw that she was still asleep or unconscious.
Superman pursed his lips briefly, licked them and continued. "I was not happy. I was able to put a stop to some of it, but it was not stopping itself. I was… cleaning up the proverbial garbage, but people were still throwing it on the street without a second thought."
"Same here, hmm? So, given the chance to say what was on my mind, I let the world have it. I minced no words. My speech lasted about twenty minutes when they had blocked out two hours for me.
"I told them I had decided to prioritize my time. First, I'm against environmental degradation of any kind, including unjustified harm to wildlife, clear cutting of forests, toxic dumping—you name it, everyone knew what I was talking about. Then children were next on my list of concerns, all children. They deserve a nice world to grow up in despite what their parents seem to think. After that, helping out in the wake of natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, since as far as I know I can't stop them and maybe I shouldn't even try.
"I'd help prevent accidents—runaway trains, airplane malfunctions—but I wasn't going to stop there, we'd *all* work on finding out *why* they'd happen—and prevent them from happening again.
"Major criminals were going to start feeling more heat. I'd uphold justice, but up until then my being courteous and law abiding wasn't having much of an effect, and frankly I wasn't seeing enough reform in the complex number of legal systems around the world. Things were going to change, and I encouraged the UN to work on it, to be *united*… I figured that the bulk of the population would support that one.
"My final point was a restatement of the first one, but tougher, so I was sure it wouldn't go over well. I told the world that even devoting 24 hours a day, 7 days a week of my life to being Superman—and I was—I simply could not be everywhere and frankly I was getting tired of being relied on for everything— *everything.* There were wild, irrelevant requests for my services every day—Superman, I need help changing my tires. Superman, my house is facing the wrong direction, will you pick it up and turn it slightly toward the east. Superman, my children hate me, come talk to them for me…"
"I get those, too."
"Well, I try to help when I can…"
Superman looked not in the least judgmental of this confession. "Perhaps it works for you, but I advised people to start practicing individual responsibility."
Clark blinked. Superman nodded, perhaps thinking he agreed that it was obvious and yet presumptuous to ask that, when actually Clark had been reminded of his first encounter with Red Kryptonite and how… relaxed it had made him.
"This wasn't an alien concept, and simply stopping to think, realizing they were responsible for their own actions, everyone might wind up circumventing many of their problems. Besides, I wasn't their benevolent father. I would no longer rush to their aide, fix things, pat them on the head, and send them on their way. I'd help where I could, but that was going to have to include people helping themselves. After all, I'd already had several close calls with individuals and groups that wished me dead. If they succeed, or maybe when… I have no desire to leave behind a world of orphans…
"I was trying to say that I want to become redundant some day, but I didn't go that far. I ended my little speech with a 'Think about it, thank you and good night.' I did not stay for the reception afterwards."
"I bet that made headlines—the speech, I mean." Clark could almost see what Lois might write: 'Judge Superman exposes anal complex'… but then if the fellow had been blessed with a Lois to love—and nag—him, maybe he would have thought up third solution, something other than bluntly advising the world to grow up.
"Oh, I hit every part of the papers. The reception no-show was featured prominently in the social sections, and editorial cartoons characterized my suit and dreamed up new meanings for the S. The letters columns lambasted me for being an alien trying to tell humanity what to do and I was told what I could do with my opinions and how I could insert them into my person where the sun does not shine." He smiled humorlessly. "Even at the Daily Planet everyone avoided me when I stopped by for messages, which dwindled to almost none. I became a public enemy with the opinion makers until about a month later, when the asteroid was sighted."
"Headed right for earth."
"We had one of those not long after I started being…"
"Superman," Superman supplied, a certain look in his eye that told Clark he recognized Clark's lingering discomfort with the whole concept.
"Yeah… but I had trouble with it because it was…" Clark smiled with the sudden memory of how the look on Lois's face had brought him out of the amnesia, reminding him of *all* that he was and how fine that could be. Her smile had been just about "17 miles wide."
"Ours was about 15 and we had three weeks to react, more time than you did. Lois told me how you stopped it. It was a brave but irrational waste of time."
"I was advised to meet it with brute force, too, by some of the finest minds on Earth. They figured they had better talk to me—or at me. They told me what they thought were the structural weak points of the asteroid and the military demanded I take along bombs to plant on those points. I did listen to all the ideas—the UN invited me to several of the conferences and planning sessions. Everything sounded too sketchy and uncertain to me. I rejected all the advice, thought about it on my own, formulated a plan, and suggested it instead. Just consider this, I said, this is what I want to try.
"I was laughed at and called a well meaning fool—that was the nicest thing I was called—so I said okay, you know what you're doing, and I retired from the playing field."
"You mean seriously entertained the thought of just letting it happen? You took your ball and went home because they wouldn't play it your way?"
Superman considered this. "Yes, that's it. They claimed they not only already had a better ball but they owned the field and their moms would bring snacks. I didn't have a mom and they didn't consider I had any claim to the field. I just had a plan that wasn't very flashy, and, really, who was I to say that their plans would not work better and faster? I hoped they would, it would save a lot of wear and tear on me. I was already wearing the third suit I'd had to make and I'm not as good at sewing as Lois was. So if they could stop the asteroid, I was perfectly content to sit back and cheer."
"Maybe your technology is more advanced than ours. Our UN wasn't involved and the President didn't want to release the information until he could announce that I was going to take care of the problem."
"I see, while in my case many in the UN thought I might even have been responsible for the asteroid. Even the Daily Planet hinted that in editorials."
"Whoa…" No one had accused him of that about the Nightfall Asteroid. To think the world might believe its Superman was that dastardly… he clearly wasn't all that pleasant a person, but given the circumstances…
"They tried a new laser cannon and it vaporized a few inches of the front end of the asteroid but it took an hour. They tried it at different angles and added sound pulses, but that threatened to disrupt the ionosphere. Then they decided to attack with varying sizes of nuclear bomb-tipped rockets as well as bomb-carrying robots, which was a good way to deplete the nuclear stockpile if nothing else. Most missed, and those that hit made little impact and the robots didn't work right. Two of the missiles misfired and headed back toward earth and another threatened to blow up on the launch pad. I just *happened* to be sauntering along—"
"All right, I had trouble just sitting back and watching. It was the best show in town after all and I could have practically any seat I wanted. Billions were watching on TV, crime was at an all-time low, and even the weather around the world was fair. Believe me, I didn't like to see the attempts fail. I caught and disabled the two maverick missiles and stopped the one that would have destroyed the Russian space port and, who knows, maybe me along with it. Then a day or two later, when it didn't look like they had any more ideas, I dropped by the UN and asked if I could meet with someone at their convenience. I was detained and a general session was called immediately. Given the forum I gently asked permission to try my plan, would they mind voting on it? Not that they had much choice by now…"
Had he enjoyed the irony? Clark wondered. Lois might have snorted and called it a power trip… but she would have supported him from the first and never been cruel. "What did you do?"
"Something like what Lois told me you ended up doing—she was very proud of you… But while I had the entire thing to deal with, I was well rested and under little emotional stress."
"I trusted my plan. If it didn't work, I could still resort to brute force and heat vision break it into more manageable pieces."
"I didn't think of that."
"You might have, but your way did work in the end. I couldn't push something that size backwards, but I did take advantage of its spin. I offset it slightly, enough to ease it out of its orbit so that it headed above the plane of Earth's orbit as well as behind it, and then on toward the sun. This took several attempts because I had to replenish my air supply, and it was tiring, but it worked."
Clark looked back over the statistics for the Nightfall Asteroid and saw that the same trick might well have worked for him if he'd started earlier.
"After that, the tide of public opinion began to turn in my favor again—not that I don't realize why, being saved from certain death was an important factor. It also helped that my most ardent critics in the scientific community came out with a report that I wasn't to blame for the asteroid in the first place, that I hadn't taken an extended vacation to the asteroid belt and arranged for its visit to make myself look good. My speech to the UN was rerun, translated more accurately this time, while I just continued doing what I've been doing all along, which was what I had told them I would do.
"The reports of crime and preventable accidents have continued to decrease, but… not so much due to me now as due to the efforts of people all around the world. No armies, no police forces, just people taking self responsibility and realizing they don't have to be victims. Mr. Olson, my buddy again, said people needed a kick start and dreamed up an organization to promote that. I stay out of it, I don't endorse things. Perry White said that after all, there's more of 'us,' regular people, than there are of 'them,' the criminals—and politicians—and he's right… Of course, Indonesia has branded me a criminal for disabling their logging equipment, but… tough.
"With less money spent on fighting crime, more money is being put into education, health and science. There are proposals to revisit the Moon and try for Mars, too… Anyhow, things are becoming better. Earth—*my* Earth, is looking like it might become a nicer place to live in a few more years."
Clark noticed that through the hint of pride in the man's voice, there was also an sense of aloofness, a feeling the man was just an onlooker in all this… "And you? What about you?"
"Me…" He paused and then shrugged. "I built a nice little place in an ice shelf at the South Pole. I enjoy watching penguins." He half smiled again, but this time with a touch of humor at himself. "I have more time now, so I've taken up tinkering."
"Yes, my belt's one thing…" He touched the space bar on the keyboard, scrolled back, checked yet another piece of data, nodded and his smile became a little stronger. He didn't resume the scroll, but looked at the belt instead. "I made this Kryptonite detector," he pointed it out. "Your Luthor was right about it. It works off my aura and senses the Kryptonite before I do. There are still some major criminals on my world who try to use it against me. They usually wish they'd taken individual responsibility because they do pay the consequences…"
"It's a good idea. The detector, I mean."
"I know what you mean. You work with what you have here. This wasn't much use this time, obviously, but I wasn't expecting such a… welcome…"
"But you wore the suit."
"I do for public consumption. I thought I might have a public here. If I met you, I could pass myself off as your long-lost… hmm, slightly shaggier-haired brother. Otherwise, when I have free time by myself, I wear just anything. I can be myself then… Do you tinker?"
"No, I… I don't need to…" How could Clark explain that, after all, he did have a full, maybe too-full life?
"I see. You're busy with other things."
Clark nodded. "I was, ah, trying to get married."
"Oh… Well, don't fear, I have no desire to contest your plans."
"I wouldn't let you."
Superman's eyes belied a touch of twinkle and his mouth a little smile, as though he were pleased to hear the determination in Clark's voice. "Good. I admit that I did come in hopes of talking to Lois. I've missed her incredibly. I built a device that could pick up the trace from the dimension-spanning machine that Tempus used, and I tried to tune in to her in particular. There may have even been a psychic component since I was throwing myself into it. The trace was weak and the plan admittedly foolhardy, but I've been feeling lately that my world can probably get along without me in case I fail and wind up… killing myself."
Clark got the impression that Superman was at the point in his life where he didn't much care what happened if he wasn't successful in any part of this risky endeavor. He had no chance to think up an indirect questions about this, especially where Lois was concerned, because the man continued, "The bulk of my device is back in my fortress—"
"Ah, fortress?" a telling word if there ever was one.
"Yes. Being virtually impregnable by anyone but me lends it a certain air of…"
"Solitude." Thinking that anyone would ever need to isolate oneself so totally pained Clark's heart; to hide away hoping that peace of mind could be found in such a drastic manner… Yes, the fellow was obviously trying to escape.
"Don't psychoanalyze me, Kent," Superman said dryly. "I've already done it for you. I know my situation precisely and it's very simple. I can get away from everything there, I like it and I don't go crazy that way. I was even thinking of building something to levitate a cubic mile of the ice shelf, I have a prototype for much smaller objects, but… Well, I don't know about that now… Anyhow, my machine is there and this device," he waved vaguely at his belt, which device it was unclear, "will warn me when I have ten minutes and then at zero hour yank me back if I haven't activated it myself already."
"Okay… So you came to…?"
"Just to see Lois. But it looks like I also traveled in time. Perhaps my device not only followed her trace but homed in to when I was most needed."
"When there were the most number of her in one place and both were in trouble."
"And you were there to wallop Luthor with that stick."
"True. Working alone does have its drawbacks. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a little more to read…" He leaned forward, concentrating on the screen.
Clark realized that the story was over, that this was probably the most the man had said to anyone in ages, maybe since his UN speech. He saw, too, that he couldn't help decipher the biological data so he left Superman alone.
What the man had gone through! No wonder he came off as being so aloof and hardened…
No wonder I feel like he's older… he *is*…
Older, sadder, wiser…
And has he brought trouble despite what he says? He's used not only to receiving it but giving it… Lois probably wouldn't like this visiting version of Superman—but would he care? Would he try to take what he could get?
Clark approached Dr. Klein, who rose from Punkin's bedside. His expression warned of no change in the patient's outlook. "Has Superman thought of anything?"
"I don't know…"
"I hope he does."
"Me, too," and that its only, Clark thought, about Punkin and not Lois.
"And that language you were speaking with him? It wasn't Latin…"
"No, it just something that keeps the Metropolis Star at bay."
Dr. Klein said "Heh…" and smiled about his own inquisitiveness. "I guess I'll never make a good reporter…"
Clark just smiled, making no effort to encourage him to change jobs. He then took the man's place by Punkin but didn't sit down. He would rather have been sitting by Lois, and seeing this literally pale, even graying imitation of her didn't help.
Lois… He looked at the doctor and whispered. "Have there been *any* calls from the hospital?"
"No, but you haven't been here long. Believe me, I'd push Superman himself aside to tell you and he'd probably have you back at the hospital before you knew what hit you."
"Yeah, you're probably right…"
Their attention was immediately riveted upon her.
She stirred and turned her head slowly toward Clark and opened her eyes with difficulty. "Hi…"
He did sit down now; his knees just wouldn't quite hold him. "Hi… How are you feeling?"
"Oh, different… this is sort of… exciting…" and she tried to smile.
"You're taking a big step."
"Yeah… I tried to help you, it was kind of fun…"
"That was a lot of… fun." He took up her tiny hand and warmed it. She no longer felt at all clammy to him; he could hardly imagine ever having thought that about this innocent person, even if it was true at the time. "You did great."
"I wanted to help you. Is Superman okay? I like him, he's real nice, almost as nice as you…"
"I'm just fine, Punkin," Superman said from where he stood at the foot of the bed.
"Oh, good…" Punkin smiled at him, a real but at the same time painful-looking effort, one using what must have been a good portion of the last of her strength. However, then she looked at Clark and whispered, "I don't know if… he would like to wear shorts with towers on them…"
"I don't either," Clark whispered in return. Then he thought of a lonely man in an ice cave somewhere, a man who looked something like him, sitting on a milk bottle crate, staring at a shortwave radio in lieu of a TV, decked out in a T-shirt and cutoffs. "But he just might…"
"Clark?" said the man himself. "A word?"
"Okay. I'll be just a moment, Punkin."
"Oh," she smiled, as though she were merely slightly drunk, "I'm not going anywhere right now…"
Clark stood away from her reluctantly.
Superman escorted him outside the room again and Dr. Klein walked up as well. "I'm taking her with me," Superman announced.
"Oh, good!" Dr. Klein clapped his hands. "Perhaps you've discovered some strange jungle cure! There are thousands of plants in the Amazon alone that we have no idea what can do for us. This is wonderful!"
"Yes," Superman smiled; the expression, Clark noted, almost reached his eyes. "That's it exactly."
"No, I don't think that's it at all," Clark said quietly.
Dr. Klein stopped dancing. "Pardon?"
"I think that first Superman has to explain himself to me."
Superman looked at him. You're challenging me on this? his expression said.
"You're questioning what *Superman* is going to do?" Dr. Klein asked, incredulous.
"Yes, I am," and Clark tried to make his eye-level expression right back at Superman as hard and certain as he could muster. Fortunately, of late it was easy to feel protective in this way; looking mean at Luthor the morning before had been excellent practice. He could still feel the thrill of it and almost see where Superman might be able to use it from time to time… but not as a major part of my attitude, he thought.
The Superman he faced chose not to escalate the confrontation. "I'll give you the scoop and you can decide if my plan is a… viable one."
Clark acknowledged the compromise, "Okay," and they then both looked at Dr. Klein, who realized he was surplus for this, too, and he sidled away.
Superman switched into Hindu. "I want to take her because I am at least 80 percent certain that I can stop and maybe even reverse the process that's killing her."
"I realize that if she stays here she'll die—"
"Yes, 'soon,' I *know* that. Does this mean that you tinker with clones, too?" The man's insistence could indicate that dire possibility.
"No, but I know people who do. Clones of large animals are in an experimental stage on my world, but the UN is about to outlaw the process except for endangered species because of the concern that humans will be cloned for slave labor. Those clones are made in a slightly different manner than Punkin was, but I think I can overcome those differences given what I saw on that computer. I know people at Planetary Labs—my world's version of this place— who will help me—"
"Even though it's practically illegal?"
Superman shrugged it off. "My world owes me more favors than it will ever be able to repay."
Clark was shocked to hear this come out of the mouth of the man who looked so much like him…
Then again, given his circumstances, Superman was right, and he looked precisely like he knew it.
"Besides, Punkin is the clone of a woman long dead on my world—I found enough evidence of that to… satisfy me. She will be a new person. I think we can even complete her physically, which her original makers didn't care to do, apparently. She can be a perfectly functioning woman—or better. She's clearly more intelligent with a vast potential that has been barely touched."
"I've noticed that she's stronger than the average human and possibly faster, and she heals so rapidly she's practically invulnerable. Still, she'd get cold in the Antarctic."
"Outside, she would, but my place there is geothermally heated. It's big and well decorated. Part of it even looks a little like my old apartment, though I've tinkered a satellite hook up so I can watch TV from all over the world, which I couldn't afford before. World cup soccer, you see…"
"I have no idea if Punkin likes sports."
"So? She can do something else. Maybe she'll like to tinker."
"She might. I guess the only thing she can't do is, well, fly."
"Oh, that's no problem, we can probably put together something to solve that. I can also make her a suit to keep her warm when she goes out…" Thinking of this, plans obviously piling up, Superman smiled at them, the first genuine such expression, other than those at Punkin herself, that Clark could recall seeing on the man.
He found himself smiling, too. "I think she'd look great in a sort of violet body suit and mask and turqoisey blue cape…"
"You think so? That could work. *Sewing* even sounds like fun, and I haven't had any fun since…" He caught himself, erected his guard again, and his face became Spock-like. "I'll make some clothing while she's recovering, while we're making her back into Lois. She can go under cover when I can't. She can—"
"Wait! You're *not* making her into *any*thing!" Clark said flatly. "And *especially* not into Lois!"
"Oh? Lois made *me* into Superman." He indicated the suit. "Is it really so surprising that I've started thinking of this as making my own Lois?"
Clark opened his mouth to protest the man's audacity but, by gosh, that was exactly what Lois had done to him. She had given him an alternative—and then, with his acquiescence, she had taken over and charged ahead. She had suited him up without stopping to ponder the consequences or Tempus's reasons for kidnapping her or discussing it with Lana or even evidently considering the use of a simple mask, just thinking of her own and that world's need for a Superman. She had told Clark that his doppelganger said he claimed to "never feel so good about being me," but look at him now…
However, there were going to be no poorly thought-out charge- ahead actions here and now. "That's not the point. Punkin is her own person. Yes, she happens to look like Lois, and have Lois's genetic make up and maybe some of the same personality traits… but she is her own person."
Superman raised an eyebrow, Spock-surprised.
"She may not want to wear a suit or fly or go under cover or fight crime or *even* live in the Antarctic with you."
"Yes! And that's why *she's* the one who will decide where she goes, if she wants to go anywhere at all, not *you,*" and he poked a steel finger into Superman's steely chest.
Someone, a lab tech, gasped.
Superman raised his other eyebrow, a mild-mannered, inquiring look on his face. "And can I make my case to her, Mr. Kent?"
Clark recovered his finger. Another lab tech sighed with relief as Superman let him get away with it.
"It sounds like you're asking me for her hand. I'm not her father."
"No, but you're the best guardian angel she could have. Up to now, anyhow. *Do* you mind if I talk to her?"
"As long as you don't try to mislead her in any way."
"I would never do that."
Well, that was probably true. However, Superman's intense, impenetrable (and lonely?) attitude could lead to a different bad approach. "I won't let you talk down to her, either."
Superman nodded almost meekly and turned for the entry into Punkin's room.
There were more sounds of relief from the watching crowd. Clark glanced toward the other side of the lab and was astounded to count fourteen people having crept in to watch Superman in action.
They all looked like they thought he was absolutely crazy—and yet also very lucky that Superman hadn't taken exception to being so talked to, whatever had been said between the two men.
Clark had no idea how to explain himself or if he should say anything at all. It looked like his reputation was bouncing all over the place these days.
He just wanted this to be over with… He turned to follow Superman.
At Metropolis General Hospital, in the intensive care unit, Lois Lane lay in a high, comfortable bed (discounting the plastic pillow) in a darkened room. Her X-rays had come out negative for major damage, but the doctors wished to keep her under observation and keeping her in ICU for now meant fewer legal problems in the long run.
That was Sam Lane's diagnosis.
Ellen Lane ignored him as she scanned the chart. "She'll need a lot of bed rest to get over this."
"Which for her means, what? Sleeping in ten minutes and one less cup of coffee?"
"No, it means staying in bed an being waited on hand and foot— which reminds me, we should call Clark."
"You mean you won't ride herd on her?"
"Not when she has someone who would prefer to do it, and she'd prefer it, too."
Sam thought about this, nodded and smiled warmly.
"Mrs Lane?" the ICU's floor nurse approached them quietly. "Mr. Lane? Your daughter's awake. You can see her if you'd like for ten minutes, but remember, she's heavily sedated and whatever she says may not make much sense, even to herself."
"Oh, I know all about that," Ellen said as she gave the nurse the chart.
"She knows everything," Sam confided, passing over the X-rays. "The darn thing is, she's often right!"
Lois kept blinking but the scene didn't change. There was a dark, blank ceiling above her, and big curtained opening to her right and to her left was a lot of equipment that made her think of a hospital. For some reason this all seemed wrong, that instead there should have been a ceiling made of rock and brick, light provided by bare, dusty bulbs, and the equipment should have consisting largely of a big-screen TV.
This doesn't make any sense, she thought.
Then again, my life never has made much sense…
Where's my dress, I have a wedding to go to…
"Hello, honey!" Ellen Lane cooed as she crept into the room.
"Hi, Lois, how are you feeling?" Sam Lane asked pleasantly as he turned on a small lamp to Lois's right. "You're color's good…"
"Mother, Daddy? What happened to the… the piano?"
"Nothing, honey, the piano…" she looked at her husband.
"Is in the shop, it needed a tune up."
"Oh… But I don't want to sing…" She frowned a little at the ceiling. It was still there, looking like it did. "Where *am* I?"
"You're in the hospital and you're *doing just fine.* The chart said they had to wash make up off of your face. They did a good job because now you look just angelic."
—flash—seeing herself in a mirror, applying heavy red lipstick—a blond wig—a smoky-brown dress—someone who looked like her except tipsy and dressed in orange…
Sam touched her forehead lightly. "You remember how I'd do this when you were a little girl and you'd imitate Johnny Carson psychically reading the answers to those jokes? What was his name now?"
—flash—Red? No—Asabi? close, looked like…No—Bibbo? Uh- uh—Lex… *Lex?* Ah? Wanda? and… someone…
"Sam…" her mother warned. "It was Karnak and that was Lucy…"
"Oh, yes, well, it doesn't matter, she doesn't have a temperature."
—flash—a dank cave—a burning cigarette—a smoldering anger
Lois said, "Heh…"
"That's the spirit," her mother smiled again, so gently that Lois almost didn't recognize her.
But I *do* recognize you, Mother, I just can't seem to fit things together…
"We know you'll be bouncing right back,"
—flash—wrists shackled—kicking out—screaming—jumping— waving—running—falling—climbing… walking away… from? Someone?
Ellen cupped her cheek softly.
—flash—*Lex Luthor* doing this very thing—a crooked wig— someone else, some man doing the same thing to her but it wasn't her—her wearing a beautiful veil and long white gown—but, no, it wasn't her, either, and that man was cupping her cheeks, kissing her hungrily—she could almost feel it, taste it—but it *wasn't* her.
This was wrong, it was all wrong… "Ah…"
"Don't frown, honey, things are going to be wonderful now, no more problems…"
—flash—turning away from the Deacon for a moment—to sign something, yes—some paperwork—then struggling… and someone, that man who wasn't kissing *her*, he was in a bed with the person who wasn't her—but *should* have been…—the Deacon saying "we'd make up a better lie than this…"
The Deacon had Lex Luthor's face. "The Deacon was Lex," she heard herself whisper.
"Yes, that's what we think," Sam said, "but don't worry, he's miles and miles from here with the police and the FBI hot on his tail."
"If Clark weren't busy, I bet he'd be at the head of the pack."
—flash—*Clark*—*that* was the man! The man who kissed her— but it *wasn't* her—the man lying in bed with… with a woman— *another* woman and the woman *wasn't* her, and he… the man who… "Clark… busy…" The man who was supposed to… lose himself to… but hadn't… had just…
She felt something in her heart go *no…* "Oh, he's been *busy*…" someone who was probably her said distantly, putting the idea at such a remove that it might be more palatable… but it wasn't.
Her head wanted to spin. She closed her eyes and tried to reach for them but couldn't seem to find her hands. Her mother knew where one of them was, the one that didn't seem to have tubes attached to its arm. She found it and guided it. A long time later Lois finally felt it reach its destination and begin to explore. Her face felt puffy, her eyes were wet, and there was a bandage on her head, behind her ears. "I'm hurt…"
"You've had a rough time of it, honey."
—flash—waking to see Lex, to see the big TV and Clark enjoying himself, celebrating at his wedding, cavorting with someone who wasn't her. But she had escaped—yes! Escaped from Lex—from Clark, too, yes!—from everything that was so suddenly insane about her life to a fuzzy time where none of that must have bothered her for a while since she couldn't quite remember any of it…
It must have been a good time though.
Except if she hadn't felt so generally numb she was sure she'd feel blue about it.
"You're practically one big bruise, Lois," Sam informed her, his voice delicate even if the message wasn't, "but you'll be okay—Lanes heal fast—and you can get your life back on track in no time."
"On track, oh," that was it, the Kent express had run right over her and kept on going… "I'm on track all right…" But as soon as she could get untied from this bed, this trestle spanning the gulf between her trusty old life and the one proposed by that… that *man*, as soon as she could remember how to walk, she'd rush back to safety and set that trestle on fire…
"Just relax, it's the drugs talking. You've been drugged a lot lately…"
"Drugs? Oh, no, I just… know something… now… about…" she couldn't bring herself to say his name aloud, to even in that way give him power over her again.
"We *have* to call him, Sam! Lois," Her mom squeezed her hand, "he'd be here but Superman needed his help."
"Yeah… right… *Superman*…" She almost laughed except something told her the abrupt, dismissive move would hurt her not- quite-numb-enough head. I wish I were all numb, she thought. "Yeah, good old Superman, always… always there except when you need him very the most…" She felt her lower lip begin to tremble and bit it. He couldn't be allowed to have that anymore, either.
Except… there was something… something wrong…
"Oh, Lois… I know we all depend on Superman for a lot of things now and he *was* out looking for you…"
"We saw him searching."
Yeah, taking a little time out to rest between making laughs in that bed in Hawaii… "Oh, but he didn't find me…" except…
—flash—a parade, a big guy in blue far away, a kazoo…
"Yes, we know, but people needed him around the world. He put out a big fire in Mexico just yesterday."
"So that's what he told you…" but… yesterday?
"We saw that on the news."
"And we talked to him about an hour ago. He's looking a lot healthier than he did when he was flat out on his back on his deathbed a few weeks ago. He helped Clark rescue you, paying you both back. That Clark, he searched everywhere for you. He didn't let us in on all his plans, but…"
"Well, he couldn't, Sam. What if Luthor's henchmen had come after us like they did Perry White?"
"No, remember? Perry told us Luthor himself kidnapped him and held him hostage so Clark and Jimmy wouldn't follow him."
What? "Mother? Lex kidnapped Perry? I don't remember that…"
"Oh, it didn't last long, honey, and Clark rescued him, too, Perry is very proud of him. I *bet* he gets a raise."
"Clark's such a fine young man," Sam smiled. "To be honest with you, I wasn't sure about him. He's so… mild mannered. I was afraid he'd never be able to keep up with my little spitfire!"
"But Clark—*our* son-in-law!—was ahead of *everyone,* even the Secret Service!"
Clark, keep up, Perry, Secret Service—President! frog… President Frog?… No, ah… rescue, Lex… Lex? "*I* knew about Lex…"
"Well, dear, of course you did—Clark said Superman told him you punched Lex's lights out," Sam threw an imaginary punch, "right before you escaped him! Superman couldn't rescue you then because the President's blimp was about to crash and that could have killed a lot of people—I bet Lex Luthor had something to do with that, too! It was clever of you to go underground to hide from that *evil* villain!"
That's when he saw me, Lois thought, that's when she hit Lex— punched Lex's lights out
—flash, *Clark* hit him—punched his lights out, too, didn't he? No!—*Clark?* Clark, *hit* anyone? He would *never* do that… would he?
"I was *so angry* when I found out that Luthor had captured you again! Then he threatened to kill a lot of people if anyone tried to stop his escaping, so not even Clark could do anything."
—flash—Clark in a cave, standing below her, looking surprised, confused, saying "Don't shoot me, Lois, please."
"And then Luthor bought that terrible gun to kill Superman with—Jimmy Olson told us all about it. We were so worried!"
Lois's heart went *no…* again. She whispered, barely able to ask, "*Lex* tried to kill Superman…?"
"Yes, Inspector Henderson told us that it was a close thing but the gun didn't work on him."
"Instead, Clark used Superman to distract Luthor and his henchmen while he saved you and Punkin."
Lois's brain felt paralyzed suddenly. Each time the puzzle pieces started falling together, a figurative cat would jump up on the table and scatter everything again…
What was worse, the cat wore glasses like Clark's.
A disembodied voice announced: "Mr. and Mrs. Lane? I think the patient needs her rest…"
"Oh, of course. Ellen," Sam whispered, "we've overstayed our welcome…"
The woman began to rise. "Well, don't worry, honey, we'll be close by. The next face you see should be Clark's."
"No… wait…" Lois found and managed to hold on to her mother's hand, though it felt like the woman was supplying all the strength for this one. "One question… Clark… didn't go to Hawaii…"
"No, of course not, not without *you*."
"That was one question, Lois, dear."
"No, it *wasn't,* Daddy, that was a *statement!*"
He squeezed her shoulder. "Calm down, spitfire…"
"I *knew* that… I… Please, Mother, how…" what was the question? It was right there on the tip of her tongue. It was the question that would make so much clear, the one she should have asked as soon as she woke up whenever that was.
She moved a little, to try to see her mother more clearly. I *am* drugged, she thought, drugged, drugged, drugged. But the move still hurt, sending a warning from the bandaged area on the back of her head,
—and a flash: Clark reaching for her, saying "Okay, you can sing all you want, but you're going to the hospital first," but then Lex—
Clark hit him—just *hit* him! Clark would *never* do that… except he had. Clark never allowed himself to be so provoked… except…
"How did Clark know about Lex?"—no, *that* wasn't the right question either, darn! I won't have another chance…
"Well, I guess it was the logical next step from the clone…"
"No, Ellen, we heard about Lex escaping first."
"There at the reception—
"And then Clark realized that the imposter was probably a clone. The clues added up to that."
More puzzle pieces fell into place and no cat was in evidence. "He knew about an imposter…?"
"Of course, dear. He told us she didn't kiss like you."
"Sam, *I* think he knew well before that and kissing her there at the altar just clinched it for him. *Some* men are more *sensitive* than *other* men…"
"Well, in deference to keeping the peace, and since we're talking about *my* son-in-law… you may be right."
Lois tried to ignore the arguing—except they actually seemed to be agreeing about something for a change, this was momentous, and it was about something that sounded like… "He knew?" *at the altar*?
"Mr. and Mrs. Lane…?"
The disembodied voice belonged to someone who was dressed like and probably was a nurse and she stayed this time, watching them closely.
Lois felt each blurry parent give her at least one kiss and reassure her echoingly that they would be nearby. Then they were gone and the woman in white moved about adjusting things like bed linens, lights, curtains, air, electrodes taped to Lois's toes, IVs feeding things to her left arm, just about everything. Then she went away and it was quiet.
Puzzle pieces floated around in the darkness.
One piece came close enough to be caught.
She held it up, noticing that her hand and arm and body worked perfectly well now and were painfree, too, though each part seemed heading sedately away to distant corners of the planet.
They're going on vacation, she mused.
I think I'll go, too, except… there's this thing…
She turned the puzzle piece this way and that. It showed a variety of picture pieces, vaguely familiar pictures of scenes recently experienced, changing with each turn, but… no longer particularly important, until the shape of the piece became clear.
Clark's profile—hey, complete with glasses! It reminded her of those shadow profiles cut from black construction paper, pasted on lacy paper doilies and mounted in frames and put on walls in old people's kitchens. The Kents had them of Clark…
She could have sworn she now heard his voice hum a sleepy-time lullaby. He liked to hum when things were quiet and they were relaxing at his place or hers, reading, and he didn't seem to know he was doing it… She liked watching him on the sly…
There were little white words written across the profile. She tried to read them. They danced about a bit, then tired of that and enlarged and displayed themselves clearly, insisting she read them aloud.
Punkin, humming to herself one of the cheerful songs she recalled hearing over the sound system at the nice CostMart store, paused when she heard footsteps. She wasn't exactly sure that she could hear them though. It was sort of like the way the music wasn't quite easy to hear in her head. There was something funny going on with her ears that she'd never experience before. For one thing, they hurt a little. A lot of things hurt a little, and even though the bed felt comfortable, she couldn't seem to find a position that was restful. She had decided, however, not to tell Bernie or Clark because she didn't think they could do anything about it and it was best not to worry them.
But there was always Superman. Superman was special. He might be able to help because he could fly and lift very heavy things and burst through ceilings and he was Clark's friend…
She decided to open her eyes to see if anything had changed.
Oh, things *had* changed! It was him! Superman! She could tell even though he was far away because he was blue colored. "You're big," she told him. Would he mind if she said that? She hoped not. "You're *so* big…"
He came closer and became easier to see. That was funny, how things went from blurry to clear now.
He sat down. "I'm not so big, Punkin." He took her hand and held it warmly in his.
Wow… "Only Clark does it that like that…"
"Is it all right if I do it, too?"
"Yeah, it's nice. You have hands like his." Superman sure seemed a lot like Clark. That was nice, too.
"I know you're very fond of him."
"He's my best friend, even more than Daddy was."
Superman frowned a little. Maybe he didn't understand. She told him. "That's okay. You're my friend, too, I think, if you *want* to be…"
"I do want to be. After all, you saved my life."
"I did?" She tried to think how this would be… then remembered that he had been lying on the floor. "Oh! Oh, was it because of that green thing, that green rock? It was hurting you but it didn't hurt *me*."
"That's right. You helped me a lot by taking it away, that saved my life. Now I want to help you."
"You do? You don't have to, it's okay, I don't need any help…" She wondered if she could sit up, get up and walk around some, just to show she was okay, but she didn't much feel like it.
"But I think you do need some help, and I think I can help you. I think you're in pain and that you hurt."
He though that even though she hadn't said anything to anyone? Well, he was Superman, he would know these things… "Yeah… but," she whispered, "don't tell Clark, he'll get worried…"
"Well, Clark knows that I want to help you, but you have to decide if you want me to. You see, to help you, I'll have to take you away from here. You won't be able to come back, and you won't see anyone that you know ever again, though you may see people who look like them. It's hard to explain right now, but I can explain it more easily when you're feeling better."
"I have to go away?"
"Yes, with me, if you decide to."
"I won't see anyone again? Not Bernie?"
"No, not Bernie."
"Not Ellen or Sam? Or Lucy? or…"
"Not any of those people."
"Not…" she hardly dared say it. "Clark?"
She heard a noise and suddenly noticed that Clark was standing in the doorway. "If you go," he said, "you won't see me again, but you will have Superman, he'll be at your side."
He said the last part with such firmness that despite the confusing parts, Punkin felt a little easier about it. She considered Superman carefully. He was looking very serious and even worried. He looked a lot like *Clark* when Clark looked serious and worried.
"I'll explain it all to you," Superman said, "I won't keep anything from you, and I think you'll understand quickly."
"Well, if you go with me, it will be like Clark goes, too, because you look like him…"
Superman looked down at her hand, which seemed like a funny thing to do. "There's a reason for that…" He looked at her again. "It will be one of the first things I explain when you're feeling better. We'll have a lot of work to do, but after that, when you're feeling better, we can talk about a lot of things."
"Is this going to be like Clark said, like a big step?"
"It could be. If you decide to go with me, we'll stabilize your condition—that means help you stop feeling worse, and then work on strengthening you again so you won't feel like do now."
"Oh, you'll stop my DNA from deteriorating and my… enzyme structure from breaking down since it wasn't very stable to begin with?"
"Do you know how to reverse it since Dr. Herwood in Vienna— Bernie and I talked to him on the phone, but he didn't know what to do. He's an *expert* and he thought my gluons weren't sticky enough or something like that. I think I better learn French before I talk to him again… Just because he won some big prize, he didn't like arguing with me about it when I said he was silly."
Superman struggled to recover his jaw.
Clark cleared his throat (Punkin hoped he was okay) and muttered something about being patronizing.
Superman said, "Yes, that's it exactly. I have some ideas, and I know some people who can help me carry them out. You may benefit from them. My question is, do you want to go with me and try this, or do you wish to stay here?"
Punkin decided that Superman wasn't being so much serious and worried as being a little *afraid* and worried. Why would Superman ever be afraid unless there was a green rock around here and she couldn't imagine that Clark would ever let that happen.
Maybe he wasn't afraid *of* but afraid *for,* like Clark was afraid for her, wow… "Are you afraid for me?"
Superman looked a little bit surprised, and he actually *whispered,* "Yes."
"Being afraid isn't fun…"
His voice became stronger. "No, it's not."
"Do you like to have fun? *I* like to have fun."
"Yes, I do… like to have fun."
"There's nothing better—*I* think everyone should have all the fun they can in life."
"But I don't think… that you ever have very much fun at all…"
"If I go with you, after I feel better, I'm going to make *sure* you have fun, and *you* have to promise to *cooperate*."
"Punkin," Superman said sternly, patting her hand. "I have *a job*—"
It was like he was trying to pull away! Well, just because he was Superman didn't mean she'd let him!
"Having fun is going to be part of your *duty*!" Mr. Luthor would so mad that she was using his same words but for fun! "So you *have* to have fun."
Clark's voice interrupted calmly: "Punkin, don't gang up on Superman."
Superman *looked* at Clark and frowned but that was all he could do, poor Superman! Clark was right, it felt like she was a gang of people and Superman didn't know where she was hiding! Oh, this was fun! Punkin giggled—and coughed.
This startled her. She had never coughed before in her life that she could remember.
She coughed again almost immediately, a deeper, more painful sound borne of lungs that suddenly didn't want to fill all the way or exhale properly.
This was frightening. She tried to stop the coughs, but they seemed to be part of every breath now and kept coming and hurting so much. They made her sob with fear.
Superman plucked her up and held close and somehow that helped calm her lungs. She seemed to have no strength to return his hold though, and it felt like he needed holding as much as she did. She wanted to help him but she just couldn't think of a way.
She heard him say, "Punkin…"
That helped her remember what she had been asking him. It was just some little thing but it was important. "Promise…?"
"Yes, I do," he whispered, like it might hurt her ears, but instead it sounded very good. "I'll try…"
She smiled, hoping he saw it because she suddenly felt like falling asleep and sleeping felt wonderful and dark and peaceful.
In a ragged near panic, Superman pulled a blanket from the bed and around Punkin at high speed and then stood up with her. He looked at Clark, but Clark said it first: "You have to go."
"None. You need Punkin as much as she needs you, Lois just wouldn't be the same."
Superman frowned, but then it seemed to dawn on him. "You're right…"
You should try reading some simple Psych 101 books, Clark thought. Maybe if you'd had Mom… "It's all I needed to know."
"I'm glad you're happy," Superman said stiffly, yet he had to know, Clark thought, that his act was transparent.
"I'm happy. How can I help?"
"I have to get out of here." He calmed himself a bit, but his voice belied his concern. "I don't want to try this inside,"
Clark nodded, turned, zipped to the door, Superman on his heels. He motioned to Dr. Klein, who had been loitering across the lab making the assistance work for their pay, and now he came running.
Clark asked, "Where's the nearest window Superman can fly out?"
"A window? Well, there's a sliding door out into the patio, through there," he pointed at an exit, "and it faces south—just right for flying to the Amazon!"
Superman was out of the lab through that exit almost immediately, with the two men running to catch up.
Dr. Klein called, "Wait, wait, let me check her…" He touched Punkin's cheek and took her pulse. "It's stronger than I thought it would be. Her breathing is, too, I heard her cough, it sounded awful, and I thought…"
"Her vital signs are even for the moment. Her temperature hasn't dropped any more and her blood pressure is steady."
"You can *feel* all that?" But Dr. Klein rolled his eyes at himself. "Of *course* you can! And that explains it! Your aura is probably stabilizing her! Wherever you're taking her, I'd say she has a good chance of getting there without losing any ground."
"Except you will lose ground because of course you're flying."
"Doctor…" Clark said.
The device on Superman's belt began to beep. Superman asked, "The door?"
"Ah, yes!" Dr. Klein searched his pockets for his key.
Superman took advantage of the lull to look at Clark and say in Hindu, "I'll try to get word back to you, but I can't promise anything."
"That's all right, it's enough to think that this is the best chance she has for a better life," that indeed *both* of you have…
"Thanks. On my belt, the device farthest to my right, yellow, shield shaped…"
"I see it." Do you realize, Clark thought, that you're trusting me with this information? There's a lot of hope for you yet.
"Press the center of it twice, rapidly."
Clark did as asked, wondering if the thing was triggered by fingerprints and if theirs would be identical.
The beep the device made changed to a hum, ready.
"That gives us three minutes, probably enough time for me to get some altitude, in case anything goes…"
Clark saw that the man couldn't say it, not now, not with so much at stake. "I understand."
Superman gave him what would have become a long, heart-felt look had there been time. "I can think of only one thing to leave you with," he said, "and I don't know if it will come handy or if this will even happen to you, but… look, just…" He licked his lips and went for it, "just beware of aliens bearing… interesting news…"
Oh? "*Your* news has been interesting."
"But," he smiled, tired, relieved, a man who had seen so much and realized now that it had been a mere a glimpse… "But little brother, *I'm* not an alien."
Clark, feeling at home at last, too, with Lois safe, could only smile.
Holding his own form of Lois, one better suited to the work she had cut out for herself, Superman then looked away, stepped out through the door, and launched into the sky.
Dr. Klein, Clark, and the crowd from the lab rushed out to the patio to watch Superman leave. Clark stepped back out of the way, unnoticed, and looked over his glasses to follow Superman's progress more closely.
The figure in blue went up and up and up into the night… paused… looked down, at Punkin, then at the ground, and may have smiled… and they literally faded quietly from Clark's supersight.
"Wow," Dr. Klein said. "He went so fast he just disappeared…"
The crowd agreed as they filtered back into the lab: "He does that." "Every day." "Twice a day." "Before lunch even." "He's *super!*" "I'm glad he's *ours*!" "He's the best thing that ever happened to us!" "I named my dog after him!"
Dr. Klein, soon alone on the patio with Clark, "Yes, it's a good thing for Punkin that he's fast. I hope he lets us know if what he tries works. I'll miss her."
"I will, too," Clark said, "but I'm sure he'll have good news," I'll make up something, he thought. "Maybe she'll become an Amazon."
"That would be something to see! And the costume she'd get to wear! Whoa! Oh, and I forgot to give you this…" He dug into a pocket of his lab coat, pulled something out and handed it over.
Lois's engagement ring.
Oh, my… "Thanks, it's…" the last link broken, leaving behind feelings he could not explain. He paused to think about this but at the same time heard… a sigh? a grumbled word? a moan due to a stretch that hurt? "Lois…"
A distant phone rang. Dr. Klein turned to go back inside. "I'll get that, I bet it's about her—but it's cold out here, I better…" He reached to take the handle of the sliding door to close it once Clark was inside, but Clark was gone. "Clark? Huh! Well, maybe Superman rushed back and took him to Lois," he muttered as he locked the door. "Superman's thoughtful like that…" Then he decided not to worry about it as he realized that all the assistants had vanished and he could shut down the lab and go home.
Clark barely got slowed down enough to enter the emergency room at human speed. He rushed up to the desk and asked, almost demanded to know where his wife and her parents were, since the Lanes were not in the waiting area.
A sleepy clerk interrupted complaining to a companion about having to work at this off-shift hour again, checked the records and gave Clark directions to the wing and the floor that housed the ICU.
Intensive care? Clark thought as he headed that way. It's *that* a bad? It *can't* be! It just *can't*!
The directions he had been given were too vague, there were too many halls with the right colored lines painted on them unless being tired was making him colorblind, he sighed, and the elevator was way too slow… But eventually he found the ICU and had to consciously force himself to slow down yet again as he entered a large, dimly lighted visitors area. He noticed that several groups, made up of adults and children, had camped out all over the area even though there were signs explicitly warning against bringing in food and releasing unsupervised toddlers. The man behind the desk, reading the sports section of the early edition of the Sunday Daily Planet, apparently didn't notice the flagrant violations. Perhaps all the people were families of patients and they were from out of town and had nowhere else to go.
Clark heard a "Psst!"
Ellen Lane. She was in a group sitting under a silent TV mounted high on the wall of a cubby-hole corner. Clark noticed that Star Trek was on again, but this time Geordi was conferring with Worf, who, as always, did not look pleased. It reminded Clark of Superman.
The Lanes including Lucy rose, as did Perry White, Jimmy Olson—both of whom looked well though tired—and Dr. Joyce Friskin, why? and, last, a man of about his age who Clark didn't recognize.
It's too crowded in here, he thought.
Ellen motioned for him to follow them to a double door in a wall across the big waiting room. Clark threaded his way through family camp sites, trying not to step on sleeping children, bags of potato chips, or strewn-about newspapers.
The group awaiting him surrounded him and took him through a door into a wide hall area that on one side had a long counter-top behind which were nurses and clerks working, several desks, file cabinets and doors to offices. On the other side the wall featured large square openings into individual rooms, though nearly all the opening were covered by closed curtains. There were telltale monitoring devices on stands outside each room and they were all blinking and saying things that Clark couldn't decipher. This hall was also populated by doctors and staff sitting writing notes or dictating quietly, standing and chatting about sports, politics or other nonmedical topics, reading charts, or walking through with purposeful looks even this early in the morning. Here visitors would be out of place and closely monitored. However, no one seemed to notice the new clot of people in which Clark was the center.
"Where is she?" he asked as soon as he could, whispering, for this place seemed to demand that, too.
"Down that way, in 34C," Jimmy said, pointing west.
"Wait!" Sam grabbed one of his arms and Perry grabbed the other.
Only through the grace of having had been grabbed many times before did Clark automatically stop. "I have to see her—"
"Fine, but she's sleeping," Sam warned. "They've pumped her full of Elavil and she won't be making sense for a while even when she does wake up."
"I wish they hadn't done that," the stranger said. Dr. Friskin nodded in agreement.
"But she *needs* her rest," Perry warned. His face was flush, this set off by the small, white bandage on his right temple. "So, son, you have to be careful."
Drugs? Lois making no sense? Again? And worse, she *needs* her rest? Oh, no… "What did the doctors find?"
"That she's dehydrated," Sam said. "That's why they've set her up with an IV. She has lots of contusions and strains, and they've diagnosed her as having had several traumatic experiences, but of course we knew that already."
"From all reports she's also highly confused," Dr. Friskin said. "We're formulating a treatment plan for that now."
"I think she shows positive signs for a particular, rare form of amnesia I've made an intensive study of," the stranger said, his handsome visage overtaken by a frown of concern. "I've noted five and maybe six positive psychological markers out of ten I look for in such cases, and I'm relying solely on what I've heard and what the chart says. I'm sure that when I question the young woman, she'll show at least two more."
"Yeah," Jimmy said. "She couldn't have thought she was Wanda Detroit and not been a little wacko there for a while, what with Lex kidnapping her and all…"
Lucy stopped gasping and smacked Jimmy, hard. He fled for safety on Clark's other side.
"Exactly," the man said. He looked at Dr. Friskin. "I plan to factor family history and dynamics into my diagnosis as well."
Who *are* you? Clark wondered at the man.
No one thought to introduce him, however, and a way to ask didn't spring immediately to Clark's mind. However, that wasn't important at the moment. "Okay, all that happened to her, maybe even… amnesia, so is that why she's *here,* when…" I could take care of her at home…
"Here in ICU?" Ellen completed. "I think it's more of a precaution than anything. I bet once she's stable they'll move to a regular room. Maybe even by lunch time."
"I don't know about that," the stranger muttered and consulted with Dr. Friskin.
Clark ignored that and asked Ellen, "A regular room?—but that's *good*!"
"Yes, it is." She took his arm and turned him in the right direction and away from the others. She said almost confidentially, "Now you can go look at her, but approach *very quietly* and don't say a *word* or the head nurse will throw you right out."
"Yes, neither the head nurse nor Ms. Lane are to be disturbed in *any* way," the stranger behind him cautioned.
Maybe he was a doctor, Clark thought; he was wearing a white coat like Dr. Friskin and all the staff were, though his coat looked designer cut. Maybe he was a specialist and it was a good thing he was here. Clark just wished he weren't so pushy and condescending, that wasn't necessary.
Maybe, he thought, I'm being oversensitive when there are better things to concentrate on, like being sure Lois was as comfortable as possible. "Okay…"
Ellen whispered, "Quietly…"
He nodded. "Quietly…" and he felt like he could be very quiet indeed.
Ellen patted him on the back and gave him a light shove.
He crept in the direction of 34C. Some of the staff people working behind the long desk stopped, looked up and watched him.
He put a finger to his mouth and indicated shh… He felt a little giddy, like a kid sneaking past guard dogs who either liked children or liked to eat them, but he was going to be so quiet because this was so important…
She was indeed asleep. Her hair was limp, her face a little puffy and pale but clean, and she was dressed in some light paper thing and tucked in under a sheet and thin blanket, neither of which seemed sufficiently protective since it was oddly a little cool in here. An IV bottle was hanging to her left and its tube was taped into her limp arm. She moved her right hand upward, toward her face, but, trapped under the covers, it didn't make it. She half blinked and made a snivelly little sound something like the one he could have sworn he heard before. She might have been dreaming.
He hoped it was about something pleasant.
This was most definitely still her, he felt that without a doubt. No one had switched her out for anyone or anything else.
It will *not* happen again, Lois, not *ever* again…
He wanted to touch her, just sort of one little finger's worth of touch to her blanket-covered knee maybe… but he didn't set foot past the line demarcated by the curtain.
Huh? Ellen Lane again, motioning. The other joined in with come-back similar gestures.
But I want to camp out right here—there's no room in the waiting room—I *won't* be in the way!
She clutched her left hand then relaxed it. The machines hooked up to her showed sedate-looking signs.
He decided that she would indeed continue to sleep and that maybe she didn't need him right this very moment.
Reluctantly he rejoined their friends and relatives. Maybe they'd understand and help him stay. "Look, I just…" How to put this…
Sam said, "Come on, son, we don't need to hang around here." The tall, thin man put his arm over Clark's shoulder. "I gave them my pager number and we'll hear if anything happens while we're away."
"That's a good idea," the stranger said, a certain authority, perhaps taught in the later years of medical school, giving a critical edge to his quiet voice. "It's imperative that she get her rest and not be disturbed by the human equivalent of a *firecracker*…"
Huh? "We're going? I can't *go*!"
They hustled him out into the hall beyond the ICU, outside the waiting room. "We're not leaving the hospital," Ellen explained, "unless I can convince you to go home and wash up."
"You look a *little* like a roof somewhere fell on you."
"I think that's 'caved in' on him, Sam," Perry said.
"Add 'half-drowned rat' and you'll be more accurate," the stranger supplied.
"I do?" Clark looked down at himself. By gosh, he did. If Lois saw him like this… "Maybe I better change clothes, except…"
"I think she'll be out of it for several more hours, dear," Ellen said. "Go home. You know, we can ask the police to take you."
"*I* can take you, CK! My motorcycle's working okay—I was afraid that Luthor had stolen my gas cap for a while—talk about out of it!—but it was okay, just a little beat up, like me."
"No, Jimmy," Perry told him. He pulled out his car keys. "Borrow my car, just drive carefully. Clark, I even have my cellphone in there so we can call you if you're on the road and not at home."
Clark tried to smile about this.
Jimmy brightened enough for everyone. "Wow, I've never driven a Volvo!"
"What good ideas!" Ellen smiled. "Clark, wash up, change clothes, consider taking *a little nap*…"
"I'll stay with you, too, CK, so you don't have to worry."
"Have you called your parents, Clark?" Lucy asked. "I like them, and I bet their wondering what's happening."
"I couldn't get through," Ellen sighed. "I left a message on their machine though."
"They'll be up, won't they? It's nearly four—Don't farmers get up early anyhow?"
"Ah, yeah, sometimes, that's a good idea."
"An *excellent* idea!" Ellen gushed. She wasn't very good at it, Clark thought, no more than Lois was, even if she actually believed what she was gushing about. The female Lanes weren't cut out to be cheerleaders or even to be particularly subtle. She continued, "Then, *after your nap,* you can come back here and we'll have breakfast in the cafeteria."
"I'll make sure he does all that!" Jimmy nodded.
"Take your time, Clark," Perry advised warmly.
Dr. Friskin said, "I think the nap would be very helpful if you can try to take one, Clark."
"And do a *good* job of cleaning up," the stranger warned. "If you *must* to see her, I don't want her to be traumatized again. That will make my job all the more complicated and it won't help her either."
"Say hi to Martha for me!" Sam smiled.
Clark nodded, trying to take all these suggestions in the spirit they were intended regardless of who was saying what. Maybe accepting—or rather having Jimmy posted as his guard was even a good idea: going home alone and making the turnaround in, say, ten minutes, would be highly suspicious. A quick shower, fresh clothes, a chat with his parents—*no* nap, no time—having something to eat… This sounded like a plan. Lois… Lois would understand. If she woke before he returned, he was sure he'd know.
Clark's plans to make a rapid but human-speed turnaround and get back to the hospital were derailed almost immediately by a combination of factors. Finding Perry's car wasn't one of them. It was, oddly enough, precisely where he said he'd left it and fairly easy to find after a five-minute walk from the main hospital building. Jimmy let Clark in and got in himself, adjusted the seat—"The Chief's tall—he's taller than Superman, did you know that?"—and familiarized himself with the layout of the brakes and shift and how the radio worked. Clark sat back, closed his eyes, and tried to listen selectively.
Jimmy began relating his experiences in this very hospital. It was funny, he said, but he'd gotten the idea that Luthor had stolen his bike and was letting Wanda Detroit use it and she'd wrecked it since she was wearing high heels! Then he'd been sure that guy with the turban was selling parts of his bike to buy more frogs, even though they had all that money from not giving it to the rogue scientist who they had murdered. Fortunately, finally the police officer posted to guard his room had shared his donuts and informed him that his motorcycle was in the police parking lot, safe and sound. Whew!
When he was released from the hospital later that evening, he had gone to the Daily Planet and used its resources to find out more about that awful gun but had been unsuccessful. There was word that the police had an unidentified prime witness in jail but that they were going to turn him over to the NIA and Jimmy was sure he'd disappear as though he'd been shot by his own gun and no one would hear from him ever again. That was all right, nobody should be working on things to hurt Superman.
"It was sure a good thing it didn't work, huh? That Superman survived to help you save Wanda—I mean, Lois, huh? I wonder what happened to Punkin. She was sort of cute—not like Lois, Lois is *beautiful,* but, you know, cute. Maybe Superman's helping her, I bet that's it. I think that guy Dr. Friskin found to help Lois will do a good job, he's an expert, she says, and I like her, she says I'm just a growing young man with lots of ideas and Perry should listen to me more—well, she didn't say that exactly but I'm sure she would if she analyzed me—and what with Lois acting like she was, she *needs* an expert, everyone agrees. I mean, I saw some of the clothes they took off her—I didn't see her without any clothes—not that I wouldn't like to—I mean, if she wanted me to, like, if she decided to pose for some picture without any clothes— with only a few clothes—not that she'd do that, that wouldn't be a good idea since she likes to go undercover—ha-ha-ha! And *you* want to, too, with her, huh? Well, I mean… Ah, Clark? I don't have my keys to your place—not that I need them, I could break in—but I *wouldn't*, not without your permission, but if I had to do it now, I sure couldn't carry you in, so do you think you could, ah…"
Clark blinked his eyes open, forcing them to stay open. He realized he'd caught only snatches of the "conversation" and that Jimmy had actually said some important things but he couldn't remember what they were.
It was still dark out. but how long had it been? Twenty minutes? Somehow they had reached his home without his having noticed how Jimmy had done it. He couldn't let this happen again.
"No need to carry me," Clark announced as though he were wide awake and completely in control. "Or call for a stretcher," he tried to joke. He got out, climbed up his steps, pulled out his keys, unlocked the door and passed through it in almost one long move.
Jimmy rushed to follow him, advising him to slow down, "Lex Luthor's not going to be in there, I *guarantee* it!"
True, the apartment was dark and quiet.
Clark turned on the first lamp he passed so that Jimmy would be able to see. He then grabbed up his cell phone from where he'd tossed it forgotten on the couch the day before and hit the autodialer for his folks' number. At the same time he headed through the living room and toward his bedroom. He tossed a "Make yourself at home, Jim!" cheerfully over his shoulder, but noticed the young man following him closely. Clark stopped. Great, Jimmy was feeling protective… yet Clark couldn't sustain any more than a moment's irritation at his friend's actions. Look how it could have been, he told himself; look at Superman, without a true friend in the world, no one to pal around with, no one to argue with, no one to hug… Punkin *better* survive!
The phone rang far away in Kansas a good half dozen times before it was picked up, fumbled with, and answered by his father. "'lo?—That better be you, Clark."
"It is, Dad, I just—"
"Wait son. Martha, get the other one… Good, she's on, talk to us."
"You didn't have to do that, I just wanted to tell you that Lois is in the hospital, she's sort of out of it, she's resting, sleeping, but I think she'll be just fine, I don't have much news of her condition yet—"
"Clark saved her!" Jimmy shouted from behind Clark, almost scaring him.
Clark turned and looked at him, making a shocked face that he hoped warned "Don't *do* that!"
"Are you at home now? Is that Jimmy?" his mom asked. "Put him on."
"No, Mom, it's okay, he's exaggerating—"
Jimmy leaned forward into it: "He saved Superman, too!"
"That's not quite how it was—"
"Son, did you slug Lex Luthor again?"
"But I, ah, I did throw something at him."
"Did you hit him then?"
"Good for you! What did you throw, a sofa?"
"An ice cream truck."
"No, nothing like that."
"All right, I'm hungry, that chicken pot pie didn't fill me up…"
Jimmy threw out his hands dramatically, "And he saved Punkin and Inspector Henderson, too!"
"Put Jimmy on this instant."
"I don't think you can give us the full story right now, honey, but it's not your fault, I can hear that you're exhausted. Just put Jimmy on."
Clark sighed. Jimmy had probably heard the "full story" from the Lanes who had gotten it from Inspector Henderson. Little did they know… "My mom want to talk to you."
"Wow! Really?" He took the phone. "Hi!"
"Is he still standing there?" Clark heard his mother ask. "What was he told to do?"
Clark rolled his eyes.
"Mrs. Lane told him to take a shower, change clothes *and* take a nap, then we'd all meet back at the hospital and eat breakfast. I already had a snack, so I'm not hungry. I'm in charge here now."
"I'm sure you'll do a fine job. Do you mind some tips?"
Jimmy glowed. "Not at all, ma'am!"
"If Clark doesn't do what you ask, you just stare at him."
"Gosh, just… that?"
"Well, you can try suggesting what he should do if you want to…"
Jimmy lowered the phone and looked at his charge. "Clark, you should take that shower and change clothes and take a nap right now."
Good grief. "Jimmy, I don't really need…"
/stare, stare, stare/
"Ah…" Clark realized that he was too tired for this. "All right, the first two, anyhow…"
"Gosh, it works!"
But his mom warned, "It may not work completely. After you're sure he's lying down—"
"I'll tuck him in!"
"You can certainly try, but then you'll have to leave him alone. If he gets up before he should, you can go stare at him some more. An hour or two of napping should be enough unless you get a call from the hospital, but a longer nap would be better."
"Okay, I'll see that he does that. Do you want to know what happened now?"
"Is he still standing there?" Clark's dad asked.
/stare, stare, stare/
Escaping to the bedroom alone, Clark heard Jimmy say, "Not any more!" and his mom say, "Well, don't over use it, it will only work at special times like this. Are you sitting down? You sound excited…"
Trapped, for he couldn't head out the window; disliking this as there were *things to do;* resigned to it because maybe people were… right… and then seeing it as, well, yes, an opportunity, Clark considered his bed. He hadn't made it up from the morning before, when Luthor had broken in. Not a good memory, but the man's stunt had been one of several things to backfire on him. Perhaps he'd never realize the depths of the plot worked up to foil his great plan. Clark did feel proud of that.
In any case, the mess of covers on his bed was more than inviting. Clark pulled off all but his briefs, laid down on his back and frowned at the ceiling, putting up, he realized, a good fight that nobody was taking seriously. At least they wouldn't get everything their way—he'd nap *first*.
Jimmy started at the end at the end of the story, apparently to further assure the Kents that Lois was in good hands now. Darn right, Clark thought… though it would be better if they were *my* hands…
Jimmy said that Mrs. Lane had recalled that Dr. Friskin had helped Lois over some psychological turmoil she'd had a few months ago, so Lois's physician had called her in.
Clark had no idea what that meant; while he knew Lois had seen Dr. Friskin several times, he and Lois hadn't talked about why, though the term "distancing" came to mind now, which was ironic at the moment…
Dr. Friskin had brought along a specialist in amnesia because, given that Lois had thought she was Wanda Detroit and who knew who she thought she was now, somebody who knew all about that kind of thing would be great, huh?
His mom asked for more details. Clark recalled how she had taken that course in psychology at the community college in Smallville. She was now studying Etruscan history because she was interested in their art and trying to apply some of their styles to some sculptures which she was doing. His dad wanted her to put them in an art gallery and not in the barn because they were scaring the chickens. His mom had laughed and said, they're staying in the barn to scare the *foxes* because other farmers had noted an upswing in the predator population, which had cheered Clark because better farming practices were sharing the environment with the rest of the world, which was sort of like something Superman had said, cleaning things up, which should have started happening earlier though Clark wouldn't have had that garbage dump years ago to mislead Lois into rooting through to find clues about Superman and she'd only found that Godzilla doll with red diapers and…
Clark drifted off to sleep until a niggly little feeling edged him back to the surface of consciousness. His home was quiet but for a small sound that he decided after a few moments was someone in the living room turning the pages of a magazine. Oh, Jimmy. He'd stopped talking? Sounded like. Hmm… Clark realized he had bundled himself into his covers. He also realized he still smelled like the dust from the cave in and that smelled just a touch like orangutan. He remembered he hadn't showered, but now was a good time to do so as he could see the light of early morning peeking through his window. It was well after seven.
He decided he was awake now, though he realized he could have used another, oh, six hours in dreamtime. This was a good thing to acknowledge. It told him that his thinking was clearer, his attitude better, and that Superman's bitter if understandable almost big-brother influence was waning. There were things to be learned from that man's experience… but each one would have to be considered carefully and maybe even talked over with Lois…
Lois! He smiled. It was time to get ready to look good for Lois! Time to assist her doctors—the whole lot of them—time to help her get back on her feet. *Today!*
He rose, went through his closet for relaxed clothing—Lois wouldn't want to see him dressed seriously, she'd think something was still wrong—but not *too* relaxed or the doctors wouldn't take him seriously. Then he hit the shower and did an amazing job of cleaning up if he said so himself. He was virtually sparkling when he stepped out of his bedroom, prepared to counter any argument Jimmy might try to give him, even accompanied by /stare, stare, stare/s.
Jimmy was leafing through a sports magazine. He looked up and smiled. "I was about to wake you up."
Oh. "Well, I beat you to it. Let's go."
"Okay." He stood up and tossed the magazine on the coffee table. "You know, I went to use the bathroom and you were all tangled up in your sheets but I didn't wake you up because I didn't think I could."
The sheets had held him down. He rarely floated nowadays, he was sure, though under times of stress who knew what could happen. What if he'd been floating when Lex Luthor had broken in? He repressed a shutter. What-ifs were not allowed on a glorious morning like this. "I don't think you could have, either. Will you drive or shall I?"
Clark motioned at the door. "Then let's go, hmm? I'm starving," and, by gosh, it hit him that he actually was very hungry indeed.
"Oh, your mom said that would be a good sign! She's great, you know? I wish my own mom were like that, but, well, that's how it is." He lead the way out of the apartment, talking about the gift the Kents had sent him for Christmas. He hadn't really known what to do with the selection of produce, the apples and pears and such, and jars of jam, but eat it. That's what you were supposed to do with it, Jim, Clark said. Oh, really? Well, they tasted great!
Sunday morning and the parking lot at the hospital wasn't quite as full as it might have been on any other day. Jimmy found a parking spot near the one Perry had used originally and they entered the hospital. They passed a gift shop, Clark noticed that it was open since it was just a few minutes past eight now, and he said, "Wait a minute…" They turned back and entered it and Clark saw several things to purchase. Jimmy marveled at the prices and whispered that he didn't think it was nice for these people to charge 75 cents for a candy bar just because they had a monopoly here in the big hospital. Clark agreed but he hadn't thought of this earlier and so it was buy now or go out again to shop. He was so close to Lois, however, that leaving was out of the question. The shop got his money and he liked the things he picked out anyhow and hoped Lois would, too.
Jimmy had no trouble finding the ICU and Clark saw that anyone who wasn't half dead on his feet could easily find it as well. I'm feeling a lot better, he thought. Ellen and Sam, Lucy and Perry were in the waiting room among the families breaking camp and preparing to eat. The female contingent of his group gave him hugs and the male half patted him on the back and commented that he looked a thousand percent better. "I think you should go in there and take another look at her before Dr. Deiter comes back," Sam advised. "She's still asleep, but she looks like an angel."
Clark smiled and nodded and left his bag of goodies with Jimmy for now. So the doctor's name was Deiter, that was interesting. It sounded a little German and weren't Germans good at psychotherapy or was that Austrians? Or was that just a stereotype? Whatever.
Lois did look like a sleeping angel. Actually, she didn't look much different than she had some five hours earlier, but Clark's outlook on the situation was much improved. Rather than notice things that indicated roadblocks to recovery, he saw that her breathing was steady and clear and that she didn't seem to be having any bad dreams. He dared this time to step forward and touch her knee. She didn't react. This was good: her totally relaxed, uncramped position was surely helpful to her overall well being. The IV had even been removed, which had to be another good sign.
Wake up soon, lover, he thought at her, but only if you're ready to, and I'll be here… Not even an earthquake could take me away… Well, maybe a really, really big earthquake, but you'd understand…
He rejoined the group and they headed through the corridors and down the elevators to the other side of the hospital and up more elevators to the cafeteria. Dr. Deiter and Dr. Friskin would meet them there, it was already arranged via cell phone now that Clark and Jimmy had returned. This was going to be a planning session, Sam explained, and the specialist psychiatrist wanted his patient's relatives and closest friends involved in the process.
"Sounds to me like he wants to give us our marching orders," Perry grumbled.
"That's what it may *sound* like," Ellen said, "but specialists are like that. They want total cooperation."
"Specialists charge a lot, too," Sam explained. "So if they can get all their ducks in a row right away, they won't waste any time or money."
Total cooperation, Clark thought. No problem there. Anything for Lois.
"Clark," Perry said, "Sam and I visited this place's morgue—"
"That's library," Sam corrected."
"Ah, right, well, it's the same thing almost. We found several journals with articles by Maxwell Deiter, Ph.D., M.D., and he's a diplomat of something,"
"Whatever, I'm sure it means he's a member of… what was that?"
"He's a member of all the good associations, but they probably begged him to join because of all his degrees and research projects."
This sounded good. "I'm glad Dr. Friskin thought of him then," even if he was so blunt and pushy. Hey, it had been in the middle of the night on a Sunday, *any* one could have a bad attitude if they'd been dragged out of bed. Getting things under control, the doctor would probably cheer up quickly. "Only the best for Lois."
They all agreed, and Lucy added that she thought Dr. Deiter was cute. She had found out that he wasn't married and hoped he wasn't instead married to his job.
That caused a general chuckle.
The doctors had already reserved a small room off the cafeteria, Jimmy spotted it immediately. The latecomers went through the line and, trays laden with a variety of surprisingly good smelling food, met with the doctors.
At last Clark was officially introduced to Dr. Maxwell Deiter and the men shook hands briefly.
The doctor gave him a brief once over and grunted. He looked as serious and intensely concerned about things as he had earlier, even though he must have been working for hours on the case. He had a lot on his mind worrying about Lois's case. For example, he didn't even notice how Lucy maneuvered to sit right next to him and how she hung on his every word.
Clark couldn't bring himself to hang, so he decided that it was best to indulge his stomach and listen quietly to the ensuing conversation. Most of it was one way anyhow, Dr. Deiter to his audience, and Clark was sure he'd easily slip on to thin ice if he tried to ask questions before he understood what the doctor intended to do.
I know my limits there, he thought. Why, look at Superman. That fellow claimed to have psychoanalyzed himself and he probably had because he was into a lot of things, what with is creative tinkering and knowledge of biology. But he hadn't been able to see the obvious, how much he really needed someone like Punkin. A cheerful person who didn't hesitate to boss Superman around, who could see the Clark in him, had to be part of anything the man wanted to call a life. I have a much fuller life than that already, Clark thought, and I already knew Lois had to be part of it. But she has to be and feel healthy, so…
After more than 45 minutes and at least one trip back through the food line for everyone but Clark, who had gotten enough food first time around, Dr. Deiter explained his treatment plan. Clark noticed that he did pause when the Lanes, major players and his peers in the medical profession, left to get seconds, but he ignored Lucy and Perry doing the same thing. When the Lanes returned, he'd launch right in again, giving his reasons for his approach and examples of patients with similar conditions that he had treated successfully. Dr. Friskin added a few samples from her own experiences and they all supported his claims. Sam and Ellen asked a lot of the questions, using names of drugs and diseases that Clark understood the Latin and Greek for but not exactly the context. He was glad that the Lanes felt at home with the conversation though, and that the others didn't seem at all put off by being left out of the technical jargon.
Yet… something didn't seem quite right to Clark. He thought he understood the plan and it made sense, in a way, or it must have for everyone else to agree with it, particularly those who had medical skills and experience. If he could, he told himself, just pinpoint what it was that made him uneasy and ask the right questions of the busy doctor, surely that would clear things up…
Dr. Deiter explained that Ms. Lane had been betrayed by all her friends. Not *literally*, of course, he said smoothly when the gasp he had clearly wanted from his audience died down and he had their complete attention.
Look at her actions, he said, the most telling one being that she had escaped from her captors and been free for some time but not made any attempt to reach out to her loved ones. Why was this? Did she fear they wouldn't be able to help her or, as he posited, did she think—indeed *know* for her own reasons that they wouldn't want to help her? Her assumption was incorrect, of course, everyone knew that—everyone but Ms. Lane herself and that was the critical factor. If anyone entertained any doubts about this, they could read the police reports, but they plainly stated that when given the choice, she had returned willingly to the hands of her captors. Yes, there had been guns involved, but she had not struggled, no one reported this at all. She clearly could not trust the man she went with—but she no doubt knew that. Ironically, she could totally trust him to be totally untrustworthy. His very untrustworthiness was the one secure thing she thought she could rely upon.
Jimmy had said "Wow…" at this point and Perry had nodded reluctantly. "He did release me…"
"A gesture on his part to show her that he had a heart, though I suspect that physiological oddity was no more than a freak of nature in his case. We know he did not have her best interests in mind, but I believe it is highly likely that she was aware of this, too. However, it didn't matter. The alternative he was offering was the most attractive one at hand. Ms. Lane, Lois, did not see that her friends," he looked at Jimmy and Perry, "being captured and helpless themselves, could assist her in any form. Furthermore, and far worse, it was clear that even her…" he glanced emotionlessly at Clark then looked elsewhere as though found the view distasteful, "boy friend could not offer what she needed: love and security. She may well have thought he was unwilling to—"
"Which of course is not the case, but we must try to read her mind and understand her motives so that we can help her. Even you, without any training whatsoever, can understand that…"
"Remember, you reacted in a violent fashion, striking her captor to the ground. Perhaps Ms. Lane, Lois, then sought to rescue the man, who was helpless at your feet, because she saw she had something in common with him: they were both victims of senseless violence…"
Earlier, in trying to decide on a word to describe Clark's relationship to the patient, Dr. Deiter had rejected "husband" because, he said, Lois had not participated in the finalizing ceremony, a "critically import event, something to show her that her world was secure." Lucy had peeped "fiance" but apparently in his rush to get his wayward ducks to line up, the man hadn't heard the suggestion. Where, then, Clark wondered, did "boy friends" come into the equation? It was looking like somewhere on the distant periphery… Clark had decided then to keep his peace about titles and with difficulty reaffirmed that decision now because this probably wasn't important to the grand scheme of things…
But the determination of "senseless violence"? Well… maybe the doctor was right about that, it *had* been a stupid way to react, regardless of how it made him feel at the moment. He should have thought about it a hundred times over and then not done it. A guy claiming the right to be Superman should never stoop to that…
"She went to Lex Luthor, even though she already knew he was violent, precisely *because* she knew she could expect that from him. However, she was unable to cope with the idea that… you, who, as far as I know have no recent criminal record, could act in such a manner. What if you struck her next?—" He held up a quick, soothing hand. "I know you wouldn't dream of it, but witnesses reported that you grabbed her by the arms and tried to pull her away. She struggled with you and escaped your grasp. You may have been trying to talk sensibly to her, but that was the worst possible way to approach it. I realize you couldn't help it, but you can see now why she had to leave you behind."
Ah… "No, she left because Lex Luthor was holding hostages and she was worried about them."
"But he had merely drugged them. She knew this, she was in the car with him and he no doubt explained it to her. This she could expect from him, too, and she knew that he would not kill them because it would sadden her. Mr. Kent, I realize that it's hard for you to accept this, but for her own good, you must make every effort to reconcile yourself to it. To her you proved yourself untrustworthy, it's as straightforward as that." He turned away from Clark and looked over the others. "Her actions after that episode simply verify my theories. There are reports that she may have assisted Lex Luthor that very afternoon, yesterday, but since the sources are not reliable or clear, I can't factor them into my diagnosis. If they are true, however, they strengthen my appraisal of her state of mind. In any event, she made no further moves to sever the linkages between herself and her captor. She began to settle in to her new life."
Clark noticed Dr. Friskin nodding; she'd seen the reports, too. They must have been referring to Lois helping Luthor in the robbery at Star Labs, the aim that being to find the Kryptonite. She had said there in the cave that she was going to help kill Superman, she had confirmed it "six times already" and, at Luthor's prompting, even "Clark's a dead man"…
But… but that couldn't count for anything, she'd also been dressed like a cross between Elvira and Phyllis Diller and sounding like Fran Dresher.
"What about Wanda?" Jimmy asked.
"Lois's taking on a new persona for a short while was a clear attempt to break with the past. It was an uneasy, awkward step to be sure, but it spoke volumes to the trained ear.
"Her reactions during her rescue, as reported by a qualified observer, one Inspector Henderson, are what leave me with few doubts about her mental stability. I'm sure those will be settled when I conduct my personal evaluation as soon as she regains consciousness." He made a fist and pounded it lightly but decisively on the table. Lucy watched this with admiration brimming in her yes. He charged ahead. "So you all see why this is something I must move quickly on before it becomes any worse and perhaps even irreversible…" He let that idea soak in.
He then proceeded calmly, soothingly. "Lois is suffering from a form of amnesia that allows her to adjust to what she sees as being rejected—again. She's suffered this throughout her history…" He swept a look over the Lanes collectively. They squirmed under his unfettered judgment. Lucy even sat back away from him.
"So what I am going to do is simple: as soon as she can be safely moved from this fine facility, I will escort her personally to my clinic. It's a lovely, peaceful place out in the country side. We've even imported a wide variety of frost-tolerant flowers and trees so it always seems like springtime there. Patients are surrounded by the idea of renewal at every turn; they don't have to face the bleak prospect of winter out here in the real world until they are strong again. She'll be under no pressure to conform to the wishes of her… friends and relatives. I will help her to see your true motives, your love and compassion, and I will teach her new coping skills to help her reintegrate you all into her life…" He weaved his fingers and clutched his hands together to demonstrate this… then he spread them apart, "…should she wish to do so."
"We'll visit her every day to help her," Ellen promised.
"Yes!" Sam nodded. "Baby Gunderson can…" Everyone looked at him. "Well, she can feed my dogs and answer my mail! Lois's health is of the greatest importance!"
"She and I can talk about girl things!" Lucy smiled. "She enjoys that!"
"I can send her some simple assignments when she's ready," Perry said, "and Jimmy can be our delivery boy."
"Yeah! I can bring her pizza, too, if she wants!"
Clark said nothing.
"I appreciate why you are all offering this," Dr. Deiter said benevolently, "and I know what you're thinking. Such suggestions might work for simple, straight-forward cases, but this case is so complicated and Lois is in such a delicate state—you've seen her, she is frail… at this point in time she would have a great deal of trouble accepting your protestations of love and concern. Visiting her before she is ready to accept and trust you again would be a very bad idea. Outside influences must be strictly controlled in cases like this. Believe me, I know."
Clark sat forward.
Dr. Deiter didn't even look at him. "*All* outside influences."
Clark sat back again.
"Well," Perry said, speaking up carefully, "When do you think she can get back to work? She loves her work…"
"Her work has been her life, according to my esteemed colleague," with a grateful nod to Dr. Friskin, "but that may be one of Lois's major problems. She needs an extended period of time out, of vacation if you will, in a safe place. There, she can see that she is no longer restricted for life by the strict boundaries she set for herself so she could cope with her original psychically crippling circumstances. I will work closely with her to help her to enlarge her view. This will take time, but I am very methodical in my approach. If the strategies we decide that she should adopt still include working at the Daily Planet, that will be wonderful," he smiled. "However, if the choice is otherwise, that *must* be honored, I'm sure you all agree. In any event, I will assist her to determine what new paths she wishes to take and with what new people she wants to be associated for her own precious peace of mind."
Clark folded his arms before his chest and considered his tray. He had eaten all his food but it was leaving a sour taste in his mouth. All that was on his tray now was recyclable dinnerware and juice containers.
Lois could decided to recycle me right out of her life…
*They* could decide it was best for her…
How could that possibly be right?
That was the question he realized he had trouble asking. The doctor had made his presentation clear and convincing, but…
Clark told himself, I have to talk to her first, before any big decisions are made.
His conscious, supplied with the new interpretation of the evidence, warned: even talking to her now could hurt her. She wanted to sing the blues before, remember? Where better a place than that nightclub? She has an excellent singing voice—that could be a new career path for her, and she'd certainly meet a lot of new people while you're busy making payments to this hospital and Deiter's clinic. What would Deiter say about that career move? Something about Lois at last giving voice to her fears and overcoming them in a creative manner, Clark bet.
But how could she not trust her friends and family any more, and particularly not trust him? Even if she hadn't tried to get in touch with him that afternoon and the night after escaping from Luthor—and maybe she had since no one had gotten the chance to ask the woman herself about that yet—there was no way she could just throw away what they meant to each other. Sure, they'd had a rocky time of it for a while after she found out the truth, and, hey, yeah, he'd even said some stupid things, really stupid things, *terrifically* stupid… okay, but they'd cleared that all up.
She can trust *me*, she has to know that, that has to be the one thing she can depend on, that I'd never willingly let her down.
I might get a little lost, I'm not perfect… but she has to know that, too.
I *have* to talk to her…
Everyone looked at him.
Excuse time! "Ah, nature calls, heh…" He looked at Dr. Deiter, who was eyeing him in what might have been a suspicious manner. No, Clark told himself, he has Lois's interests at heart, that's all… maybe. "I'll be right back, so don't say anything important, okay? This is really all just… fascinating…"
"Take your time," the doctor said. "Your signature isn't required on the commitment papers."
"This is one thing Sam and I are in agreement upon," Ellen said, her exhaustion, held back from public view for so long, becoming evident in her voice.
"I do think an extended rest will help her," Sam agreed.
Lucy, Perry and Jimmy muttered similar sentiments.
Clark's heart nearly fell out. Was he the only one to be entertaining full-fledged doubts here? "I… I'd like to read those papers first, before anyone signs anything."
"It's a simple, standard form allowing me to use my discretion in the matter after complete consultation with my peers. You can read it if you wish, but we're going to be moving quickly on this, so…"
The implication was that Clark better answer Nature quickly if he wanted to keep up with the parade.
"I understand, Doctor." He looked for help around the table but everyone was metaphorically sitting at the doctor's feet. He was sure they'd make room for him to join them in worship when he returned.
Something occurred suddenly to Clark: he's got them fooled…
Fooled? Surely that wasn't the right way to describe it just because he was the only one to feel uncomfortable.
The warning from an unexpected source came to mind. "Doctor, are you… from Metropolis?" He might, after all, be the "alien" about whom Superman had cautioned…
"Yes, I was born here. I travelled in Europe attending the classical schools, but my home has always been this city. In fact, I've admired Lois's work from afar for several years. I can hardly believe my good fortune in being allowed to help her through this terrible time she's having."
"Oh…" A tiny bingo went off in Clark's mind but he couldn't see it clearly enough to grab and shake the meaning out of the revelation. He could tell that it warned about playing along for now. "Ah, good, that's nice to know…"
Dr. Deiter tried to look interested. "And you're from… Kansas."
It wasn't a question but statement and even a dismissal.
You're way oversensitive, Kent, everyone disses Kansas… "Born and bred," Clark smiled, pretending to begin to fall in line with the other acolytes. "I'm glad you came back from Europe…"
"Umm, yes…" as though he couldn't have cared less what Clark Kent thought.
No matter, Clark told himself, it was indeed time to move and move quickly. He took up his bag, hoping this part of the move wouldn't be noticed and then realized that it was. He muttered something about needing a moment of privacy, which he could find in the restroom, to compose a get-well message on the card he had bought for Lois in the hopes that Dr. Deiter would find the appropriate time to deliver it. That made Ellen smile warmly for him; the doctor didn't comment.
As he left the cafeteria and within view of his friends, he stopped a busboy and asked where the restrooms were. They were pointed out and proved in the direction he wanted to go.
Clark left the cafeteria, bypassed the restrooms and headed for the bank of blue elevators. The journey back to the ICU involved several elevator trips and walks down long halls. He began wondering if it would have been quicker to go outside—and fly around to the closer entrance.
He did not get lost this time but instead sidetracked: on one of the three separate elevator trips, the car stopped and the doors opened but no one got on. False alarm, he thought, until he saw a crying child running down a hall in his direction, arms stretched out for him. She had seen him and known instinctively that he would help her. These things happened whether or not he was in the suit. He picked her up and took her to the nearest nurses station. They recognized and took charge of her and in return gave him new instructions on how to get to the ICU.
Lois Lane was dreaming about wearing a colorful supersuit, that, with the yellow stripes up her legs and the marvelous turquoise cape, made her look stunning as she zipped through the air saving countless people, righting wrongs and making life good again even if she hardly had time to stop and pant between each deed. She was beginning to understand what Clark went through on a daily basis. Sure he made wrongheaded decisions and had to be clued in sometimes, but he clearly tried to put his heart in the right place even though at times he had no idea where that was and she had to tell him. But when total responsibility had been thrust upon her, his advice and tips were perfect, the pride in his eyes supportive like nothing else, the trouble he was in…
He wasn't calling for help, he needed help… he was in big trouble and he thought he could handle it by himself and he wasn't a violent person or as invulnerable as he thought he was, with powers or without… Clark, you need me, I *know* you do, I know now, I'll help you like you've helped me…
She began to wake slowly.
There was a sound, like the covers moving, and her feet felt cool suddenly. A warm hand began to caress them. Clark? Wow… No, he wouldn't do that without permission and then he might try tickling her first.
Accompanying the strange move was a man's voice she didn't recognize and he was saying things she couldn't believe…
Clark noticed that the Unit was busier than it had been some six hours earlier. More doctors and staff were in attendance. Curtains on many of the patient cubicles were open and patients were being visited by friends and relatives. Down the way, Lois's curtains were still closed. Was she still asleep? There was one way to find out: he headed that way.
But Dr. Maxwell Deiter emerged from behind Lois's curtain! He was jotting something down on a chart.
Clark came to a nearly screeching halt only yards short of his destination. How had the man gotten here so fast? Had Clark's child-rescuing detour taken that long? Did the man know shortcuts that visitors were not privy to? Had he made up some story to tell the others—and they had believed him?
The doctor looked up at Clark, not at all surprised to see him, and shook his head. "Did you really think you could pull this on me? It's always the boy friends who give us the worst problems. They just can't get the idea through their thick heads."
"Doctor, I *have* to talk to her—"
"No, *you* don't *have* to do anything but respect her extreme need to recover. She's been battered and bruised, physically *and* psychologically. She simply cannot withstand the strain of having to face you, the man who couldn't save her without the help of Superman and half the Metropolis Police Force."
"Doctor, that's not true—"
"That's how she sees it, how can it not be? She's a beautiful woman who everyone she has ever known has taken advantage of in one form or another. She struggles to control her own life and what happens? More people want to control it for her, even her so-called boy friend."
"But that's not true either!"
Except for the sounds of monitoring equipment, the ICU had grown quiet. People were stopping now to watch them, to stare at him in particular because he was clearly not a doctor. Clark could imagine every head nurse in the area heading his way. He wished he'd thought to borrow a white lab coat to wear instead of this shirt and jeans.
"Truth is a precious commodity, *Mister* Kent, and the truth is," he said, quietly and calmly, no doubt intending his next words to sting and belittle his target, "it's thoughtless, bull-headed actions and reactions like yours that are the most detrimental to that fine woman's health!"
Clark pursed his lips. His mom had called him a slow boiler. He suddenly understood the description. Had he been accused of this earlier, when he'd been so tired… "Doctor, believe me, *I* can be very detrimental to *your* health if you keep—"
"That just proves it. Lois doesn't need a volatile person like you bullying his way back into her life before she's ready to stand up for herself. And just what *is* in that bag?" He grabbed the white plastic bag out of Clark's hand before Clark could react and opened it, sneering into it. He pulled out a decorated card. "So this is the 'get well' card, how sweet. 'Thinking of you, every day, you're the best in every way.'" He opened it. "You didn't write anything in it. Couldn't think of anything more maudlin than the cover, could you?" He turned it over. "Not a Hallmark, you're cheap, I should have known. Tight with your money, aren't you?"
"Lois needs a gentle reintroduction to reality, not pity and mush." He tossed the gift-shop card over his shoulder. "A hairbrush? Unsanitary." It flew over his shoulder, too. "What else… *Candy*?" He looked up, disgusted, and began to crumple the contents of the bag in his hands without looking any further. "How *dare* you try to poison that wonderful woman with *chocolate*! *I* can take far better care of her and I hardly know her at all!"
Clark could feel his pressure gauge hit the red zone. The "Bingo!" sign was flashing but he ignored it, revelations didn't matter now. It didn't matter that the staff of the ICU and most of the visitors and mobile patients had gathered around either, and that two security guards had just entered down at the far end of the unit was of no concern. At the moment only one thing mattered: "Doctor, I've heard *enough* and I *don't* want to hear any more—"
Well, one more thing mattered. "Lois!"
Dr. Deiter placed himself in front of Clark. "I will not allow you to see my patient! You are to leave this floor and this hospital at once! You will receive word by registered mail if my patient wishes to see you again!"
"And you, doctor, are going to receive—"
"Clark!" the fragile, strained voice interrupted him again, almost begging "Don't… don't hit him…"
Dr. Deiter smiled in supreme victory. "There, you see? Your insipid threats and violence not only get you nowhere, but Lois herself—"
"Let *me* hit him!" Lois hollered hoarsely and from her room came the sound of furniture moving.
Clark clamped his hands on the doctor's arms below the man's shoulders, picked him up by an inch or two, and moved him to the right. This act alone was a marvelous pressure venting technique. Before he let the man go, he smiled quickly, "Pardon me, but *my wife* needs me." Then he rushed through the crowd, around the curtain and into Lois's cubicle. She had shoved aside a high table carrying medicines and wrestled with the railing and nearly made it over but her foot caught there and she was about to fall the long way down to the floor.
He caught her as gently as he might a flower.
She said "Whoa…" and embraced his neck weakly but it was a weakness pressed upon her by the drugs, not by any form of surrender. She sighed as he laid her back down again and tried to keep her arms around his neck, but he eased them off so she wouldn't strain herself. She frowned. "This bed is awful…"
"Take me home now…"
"There's nothing I'd like better to do, but, hey, your insurance might not pay off if you leave before you're released…"
He smiled. "You remember…"
"I remember you owe me five dollars for… something. I'm always loaning you money. I remember *everything,* I remember I'm supposed to be marrying you…" She stroked his closer arm and kept a firm hold of his hand at the end of the move. "I can't go like this—where's my dress?"
"Your mom has it, it's just fine, valentine."
"Oh, a rhyme… valen…time? What time is it?"
"It's been a few days, you've had some big adventures. There's a *lot* to explain, but I'll tell you everything later, when we're home," hoping she understood that parts of it involved somebody he had made up a few years ago and who had often come between them.
"Okay, but I think I remember… some… I knew you'd come," she whispered, "I knew it all along…"
He smiled. Deiter's theories had, of course, been all wrong, entirely and totally wrong. Clark felt so good he could have cried, except she might have been upset to see that. It was easiest to say, "I know, I knew you knew…"
"Well…" she looked him, her brown eyes soft and misty. "You trust me…"
"Of course! More than anyone in the world!" Even more than Mom and Dad.
"And I *knew*…"
He returned the look, probably, he thought, just a misty. "I know…" because she trusted him, too, she really did, there could never be any doubt about that.
Dr. Deiter entered the little room and positioned himself powerfully at the foot of the bed, backed up by what Clark assumed was a head nurse and had no doubt were two burly security guards. They all looked daggers at him.
Clark straightened to face them. He felt Lois clutch his hand even more securely. She mock-whispered for more than him to hear, "Oh, don't let him tickle my toes again, Clark," and she pulled up her legs a little as though she were too weak to defend herself. Maybe she was. Well, she didn't have to now.
Clark pinned Deiter with a fierce frown. "You tickled my wife's toes?"
Deiter dismissed any implications with an airy look. "It's a standard test, purely to determine the degree of her waking state."
The head nurse raised an eyebrow, shrugged ever so slightly to herself, and nodded in firm agreement. Doctors were doctors. When the security guards saw the affirmation, they took a step closer to Clark, apparently intent on surrounding him slowly but wary of starting a struggle if they could avoid one. Dr. Friskin even poked her head around the curtain to see if she could be of assistance.
"He said he wanted to run away with me, too," Lois continued, "and that he would take care of me forever and ever, on any beach in France that I wanted to go to."
Huh? Good grief! "Trying to determine the degree of her gullibility, too, Doctor?"
The head nurse frowned, turned, and gave Dr. Deiter a narrow look. This had happened on *her* ward?
Dr. Friskin stepped all the way into the room now.
Dr. Deiter smiled limply. "It was to… to try to shock her, in case she was faking. She has no one to trust, I had to talk to her, and… she's clearly afraid of everyone…"
"And did you notice, Clark? He looks a *lot* like Lex, and Jaxon, too…"
Ohmigosh, she was right! The bingos were adding up by the truckload! This place was getting downright dangerous. Clark looked down at her. "Are you sure you don't want to go home?"
Lois smiled sleepily at this reversal of roles.
Dr. Friskin tapped Dr. Deiter on the shoulder and crooked her finger at him, indicating he should follow her, outside, immediately, no questions asked. She then looked at the guards and said, "I'd like to speak to you two as well…"
The guards nodded, clearly recognizing her as an authority figure over the man who had summoned them for assistance. They placed themselves quietly on either side of Dr. Deiter and escorted him away.
The head nurse, however, did not leave. "You're not going anywhere, missy," she told Lois, "until Doctor Dolarhyde says you can go. No power on Earth is going to override that as far as I'm concerned," and she gave Clark a warning look.
"Who, me?" Clark said innocently.
Lois said, "'sokay, as long as my husband doesn't go."
"Oh, he can stay, just don't let him cause any more trouble."
"Trouble? Not my Clark, he's so mild mannered…"
"And no straining yourself, Mrs. Kent, and *no* funny stuff." The nurse turned toward the curtain but paused to add, "Or I'll open this up wide and everyone can watch and we'll charge admission."
"Heh…" Clark said.
But Lois really smiled. After the nurse had gone, she pulled at Clark's hand, coaxed him close again, and whispered, "What are they doing out there?"
Oh. He looked up, lowered his glasses, and scanned the immediate area. "I don't see the him or Dr. Friskin or the guards anywhere. Maybe they're introducing him to an empty elevator shaft."
"No, I hope not, you'd have to go save him."
"And then you'd probably beat him up and I don't want you to tarnish your mild-mannered reputation. I use that, you know, that's our secret weapon."
"Oh? Well, maybe they'll just kick him out the back door."
"That will do. We'll expose his whole operation when I feel like typing again."
"We'll work on all this together…" She paused to yawn, but it looked like the move hurt.
"When you're rested," he insisted.
"Yeah, yeah… when I remember everything else… we'll work everything out…"
"…because things just happen to us, don't they…"
"Yeah, I just wish…"
"But wouldn't you hate it if I was a… a file clerk and you were a, oh…"
"An ice cream truck driver?"
"Yeah… how boring…" She blinked sleepily, the strain of the last few minutes catching up with her. "*Is* it Sunday?"
"Valentine's Day, yes."
"Did you get me a valentine?"
"Well, I got you some Twinkies, but they're a little squished at the moment…"
"You got me squished Twinkies when I got you this?" She pushed up to her right elbow, threw her left arm around his neck and pulled him down for a kiss that would have drawn cheers had there been an audience…
[Insert promo for next episode, proposed: The Wedding, Mark II. After some typical A plot madness, the scene - a mountain top or a seashore scene; Lois and Clark in wedding garb. Close relatives and friends are in attendance, plus two surprise guests: a Superman who can't keep a smile off his face and a sleek, ever-laughing Ultrawoman, her long hair pulled back gently into a braid…]
The author thanks Margaret B. for her proofing and ideas, and all those who voted for/against the appearance of Deiter. I compromised :)
September 29, 1996