By Sheila Harper
Summary: Chaos occurs in Metropolis when Mr. Mxyzptlk appears and begins granting people's every wish. And when Mxyzptlk overhears Clark wish he were just "a normal man," Lois Lane suddenly finds herself with two husbands! (Episode # 4 and # 5 (titled "All Mxyed Up") of The Unaired Fifth Season)
PART ONE: MXYSPLIT
The being hovered before the enormous interdimensional vortex, thoughtfully watching the whirling energies fold and unfold on themselves. He reached out — not with his hand or mind, but with his magic — and touched the surface of this interstice between dimensions —
— and it reluctantly yielded to his touch.
Yes! Magical energies exploded from him, light and color and sound washing over him in a kaleidoscopic celebration. Since his banishment to the fifth dimension by that third dimensional goody-two-shoes, Superman, he had waited, testing the barrier again and again, but it had remained stubbornly impenetrable.
But a mindless interdimensional bridge couldn't possibly match Mr. Mxyzptlk for stubbornness, and he had whiled away the timelessness by reading up on what humans chose to worship. Their gods, it appeared, were in the business of answering prayers — or, more simply, granting wishes. And in return, humans acknowledged the gods' supremacy and right to rule over them. Recalling that, he grinned: sounded like just the relationship he wanted to establish.
Mxyzptlk tested the barrier again, and this time, his magical probe pierced the vortex with no resistance. Giggling to himself, he gathered up the energies that had spilled from him and wrapped them around him like a cloak, like a black velvet jacket with white ruffles, like a purple tunic and bowler. Then, without a backward glance at the fifth dimension, where he was just one more being with magic to burn, the imp dove into the vortex. <Look out, Earth! Look out, Metropolis! I'm ba-ack!>
The snick of a window closing and the whoosh of a super-speed spin change penetrated the blanket of sleep enveloping Lois Lane, and she glanced at the alarm clock when her husband climbed into bed. <Four- *what*?!> She blinked and looked at the LED display again.
"Four-fifty," he said, answering her double-take, and the weariness in his voice stopped the manic flood of questions that clamored in her mind. But being Lois Lane, she couldn't resist asking one or two.
"Honey, what is it?" She reached for him. "Did something go wrong?"
Drawing a shuddering breath, Clark turned into her embrace and buried his face against the curve of her neck. For long moments, he clutched her, letting the reality of her presence strengthen him. Lois held him, her cheek resting against the top of his head, rocking gently as she crooned reassurances that she loved him and was there and always would be. And after a while, he sighed and relaxed.
"Did something go wrong?" Lois repeated.
"No, it was okay," he said against the side of her neck and added, "A sinking cruise ship … Just took a long time to get everyone out."
"Then what — ?"
He took a deep, shaky breath. "I'm tired, Lois. I don't know if I can keep doing this."
Lois reached back and turned on the lamp beside the bed. In the soft light, Clark looked exhausted — worse, defeated. She stroked a tumbled lock of hair away from his face, her hand lingering on his cheek. "Keep doing what?"
He countered her question with one of his own. "How long has it been since we had dinner together … or watched more than the opening titles of a movie or — " he kissed her soft mouth — "actually had time to make love?"
She had been ready to be a cheerleader for him, to encourage him to get up and fight the good fight yet another day, but after tonight's dream, she couldn't deny the truth of what he said, and her gaze fell before his.
He took that wordless response for an affirmative. "I feel like … Superman is swallowing me up. I mean, I have the life I've always wanted — right *here* in my hands … a job, a home, friends … a wife I love more than anything … And I'm not home enough to enjoy any of it. God, honey, I don't know why we're even talking about a baby. I haven't been home enough to make one."
A sad smile quirked one corner of her mouth. "It does seem like there've been a lot of emergencies for Superman lately."
"A lot?" He counted off his absences like they were crimes. "Lois, I've left you alone every night for the past two weeks. I was gone all weekend with the flooding and mud slides in California from El Nino. I haven't made it to bed before 4:30 in longer than I can remember, and if I didn't see you at work, I wouldn't see you at all."
Lois was silent for a long moment; then she snuggled against him in her favorite position, her head on his shoulder and her hand on his bare chest. "Maybe you should cut back," she whispered.
"No! I can't — I — "
She frowned and lifted her head to study him. He had sounded so appalled, almost panicky. "You can't? Clark, what is it?"
He started to shake his head, but her look stopped him. "Okay, you're right, it's — " He stopped, trying to find the right words. "I'm almost glad I've been too busy to get more than an hour of sleep a night."
"Are you having bad dreams again?" she asked, remembering the dream that had so disturbed him when Tempus had returned to Metropolis as John Doe.
"Well … yeah," Clark admitted. "Except this starts as a really good dream."
He stroked her cheek with the back of his fingers. "We're making love — " She turned her head and kissed his fingers, and he smiled — "and then I hear a call for help — "
"You don't really hear things like that — not then, do you?"
"No. When we're that involved, I can't seem to hear anything but you," he assured her. "But in this dream I do, and I'm so tired of having to leave you every time someone needs help that I ignore it. You know, let the police or fire department handle it. But something goes wrong, and people die."
He felt the sudden tension in her body. "And afterwards," he continued, his voice shaking, "their families appear in our room. They don't say anything. They just stand there, holding their loved ones … and look at me."
"Oh, Clark, that's awful." Lois slid her arms around his strong body, trying to comfort him. She hesitated, then added, "But … isn't that what you said you had to learn to accept when you put on the suit — that you couldn't save everyone?"
"Yeah … but this isn't because I'm not fast enough or because I can't be everywhere at once. It's because I want to stay home with you." Clark clung to Lois, his face buried in her soft hair. "Honey, I can't keep making this choice — staying with you and giving you the attention *you* need while people die that I could have helped … or helping them and leaving you alone all the time,,, God, I wish I was just a normal man!"
High on the wall, an inconspicuous, fly-like speck perched in the shadow of the door jamb. Had Clark cared to used his special vision, he could have seen that the speck boasted a head of curly dark hair and a goatee and mustache and was dashingly clad in black velvet. Mxyzptlk grinned to himself. He had headed for Lois and Clark's townhouse as soon as he broke through the interdimensional barrier. And this was just what he was looking for: a chance to gain that interfering boy scout's gratitude. Mxyzptlk rubbed his tiny hands together. This was going to be good … *really* good.
Lois caught her trembling bottom lip between her teeth. Clark's voice had been so full of anguish that it was just as well she couldn't grant his wish — because she would have done it immediately, and the world's need for Superman be damned.
Almost from the moment Clark first put on the suit, she had been encouraging him to do what he could, to realize that whatever he *could* do was enough. She had repeatedly kept him from giving up — but what could she say to this? She couldn't tell him not to worry about leaving her — not when she missed him so much, when some nights she would give anything to fall asleep in his arms and awaken there in the morning. But she couldn't ask him to stay, either — not when *he* was the one who would bear the pain and guilt if anyone died because Superman didn't help them.
The only way to live with such an impossible situation was by maintaining a careful balancing act. But Clark was too tired and upset to see that. "You wish you were normal,,, Does that mean you regret all the good you've done as Superman?"
He shook his head. "Of course not. Especially all the times I've saved one feisty, brilliant, headstrong reporter." Clark smiled and kissed the tip of her nose; then he sobered abruptly. "Lois, I'd never wish Superman gone — I just wish I wasn't him."
A deep voice, like the voice that spoke to Moses in "The Ten Commandments" rumbled through the room. "Your desire is granted, my child."
Clark jerked around, scanning the room, searching for the source of the voice, even as Lois clutched the sheet to her breast and demanded, "Who's there? What're you doing in our room?"
"I don't see-rggh — " Clark stopped abruptly, groaning and pressing the heels of his hands against his temples.
"Clark! What's wrong?" Lois cried.
He groaned again. "I don't know. I'm — I'm — it's tearing me apart." He scooted away from her, his hands still pressed to the sides of his head with a force that would have reduced a car to an aluminum pie plate.
Before Lois's horrified eyes, Clark seemed to shimmer and brighten. "*Lois*!" he cried, his voice echoing oddly in the small room. She reached for him — and was suddenly flung to the other side of the bed, not by a hand, but by something like an electric shock. "Oh, Clark," she whispered, fists pressed to her mouth as she watched helplessly from her side of the bed.
His blurry figure shone brighter and brighter, and Lois blinked painfully. She shaded her eyes with one hand, and through the brilliance, she saw his figure grow thicker, wider, and then it began to pull apart. Her heart clenched, and a faint whimper broke from her throat. <Oh, God, Clark! What's happening to you?>
Slowly the blazing light dimmed, and Lois rubbed her blurring eyes and looked at Clark — then blinked and rubbed her eyes again. Of all the times to be unable to focus properly!
"Lois," he said, his voice still echoing. He was sitting on the very edge of the bed, and he flinched at the sound of his voice. As he did, he lost his balance and teetered backwards — and leaped back in flight as she had seen him do once in a courtroom —
— at least, *one* of him did.
The other one tumbled backwards onto the floor, hitting his head on the nightstand with a sharp thud. "Ow!" he cried.
Lois scrambled across the bed. Clark had never hurt himself by banging his head against something; he wouldn't notice if she smacked him on the side of the head with a two-by-four. But this Clark —
She looked up to see the other Clark hovering by the door, and she slowly sank back onto her heels. <This Clark? The other Clark?> "Oh, God … oh, God," she whispered and covered her mouth. It wasn't blurry vision. There really were two of him.
One was floating about 12 inches off the floor, and the other … was sitting up on the floor, rubbing the back of his head. Both had dark hair and soft brown eyes; both were bare-chested and wore red- and-navy plaid sleep shorts, and they were as much alike as Superman and his clone had been years before.
Except one was flying and the other had hurt his head when he fell off the bed. What had happened? "Clark?" she began.
The man on the floor looked up. "Lois? What's — ?"
"Su-Superman?" she continued, and the flying man lifted his fascinated, horrified gaze from his double and nodded.
She shut her eyes. It was impossible. Things like *this* didn't happen — not out of the blue, not —
But it hadn't been out of the blue. There had been a voice, deep, resonating: amplified, almost. And it had said … "'Your desire is granted, my child,'" she quoted.
Clark stood up, an arrested expression on his face. "I wanted to be normal — "
" — and you wanted Superman to be someone else," Lois finished.
Superman settled lightly on the floor. Side by side, the two men were more identical than any twins — or clones — even down to the same freckles. Lois bet their fingerprints were identical, too. Perfect duplicates — except for the powers.
"So — I'm Superman," he said. "But … I remember being Clark."
Clark frowned. "And I remember being Superman."
Lois chewed on her lower lip, thinking furiously. Her husband hadn't been duplicated — this wasn't like meeting the Clark from the alternate Metropolis. It was almost like —
Superman lifted his head sharply, focusing on a cry for help he alone could hear. "I have to go." In a flesh-colored blur that became a streak of red and blue, he rocketed from the room with a hurricane roar of wind that ended in a sonic boom.
Clark raked his hair back from his face. "Wow."
Sitting on a cloud high above the city, Mxyzptlk watched Superman streak toward the car stalled on the railroad tracks, the driver frantically yanking at a sticking door handle while a train full of sleepy-eyed commuters bore down on her. That could be a good place to grant a few wishes, the fifth dimensional visitor thought, but … <Nah> Better to stay away from Superman until he'd had a chance to realize how wonderful it was to have had his wish granted.
Mxyzptlk focused on the Kents' townhouse, where Lois and Clark were sitting on the edge of the bed, talking. The imp nodded with satisfaction. Everything was in line for a happy ending. It was time he found more wishes to grant, and he knew just where to start.
"It's almost like … you've been split into two people," Lois finished.
Clark yawned and blinked to clear his eyes. "Instead of being duplicated and losing my powers? That could be, too. I don't see what difference it makes, though." He yawned again and stretched, easing tired muscles. "Honey, I'm too tired to think. Can we talk about this later? I've gotta get some sleep, or I won't be able to string two sentences together at work." Groggily, he aimed a kiss at her cheek, missed, and connected with her ear, but he didn't notice as he collapsed onto his pillow.
Even in sleep, he held her hand, and Lois stroked her thumb back and forth across his strong wrist. She had never seen Clark fall asleep in exhaustion. Well, there was the time he fell asleep in her Jeep after she thought he'd been killed, but she'd always half-suspected he'd faked it to avoid a discussion he was afraid of. It wasn't like this … sudden collapse into unconsciousness. In a year of marriage, she'd learned he didn't like going without sleep; he'd told her that he needed it to stay mentally alert. But she also knew he was capable of staying awake for days, when necessary. Listening to his slow, steady breathing, she wondered if this was what happened when a human body tried to cope with the demands of super feats.
She touched her husband's cheek tenderly — and suddenly realized that it *did* make a difference whether he had been duplicated or split. If he had been duplicated, the original was her husband and the duplicate no more her spouse than an identical twin would be. But if he had been split, neither one was entirely her Clark, yet both were the genuine article —
— and she had two husbands.
The elevator door opened onto the newsroom of the Daily Planet. "Hold still,,, There, I think it's stopped bleeding," Lois said as she picked a piece of tissue from one of Clark's shaving nicks.
Bleary-eyed, he nodded and drained his coffee cup, making a face at the cooling liquid and heading for the coffee pot as he stepped off the elevator.
Lois followed cautiously, expecting Perry's roar at any second. They were late. Damned late. The kind of late that had bosses making caustic comments like, "Oh, are you here? I thought you were takin' a sick day," or "You think you're gettin' paid to stay in bed all day?"
But there was no roar — because there was no boss. Perry wasn't in his office or the bullpen. Or anywhere else, she learned when she flagged down Celine, who had replaced Carl in Travel. He hadn't come in yet.
That was almost as unusual as what had happened in their bedroom that morning. Perry *never* missed work, never came in late or left early. So what was going on? She joined Clark at the coffee pot, where he was cautiously sipping a fresh cup of the steaming black liquid. "Clark," she hissed, clutching his arm, "Perry isn't here."
"Wha — ?" Her grab jostled him, and hot coffee sloshed onto his hand. "Ouch!" he exclaimed, startled by the sudden pain. "That — hurt."
She lifted her gaze to his, stricken by her thoughtlessness. "I'm sorry, Clark," she whispered, looking down at the faint red burn on his hand.
A tiny, rueful smile touched his mouth. "It's okay, honey. I'm not made of china any more than you are. I'm just not — "
"Made of steel," she finished for him. "Let me get you something cold to put on that."
He nodded, and she hurried away. A movement on the ramp caught his eye. "Hi, Jimmy. What's up with Perry?"
Jimmy Olsen shrugged, frowning. "Beats me. He isn't answering his phone, and Advertising's about to have a heart attack." He half- turned away and stopped, his expression unhappy.
Clark recognized his friend's desire for a man-to-man chat. "What is it, Jimmy?" he asked, trying his coffee again. At least this time he didn't sear his tongue — although the tip of it still felt odd, and he found himself continually rubbing it against the roof of his mouth.
"Nothin — " Jimmy began, then broke off, a sheepish grin spreading across his face at Clark's skeptical look. "Well, okay, it — " He took a deep breath, and his face settled back into lines of depression. "Penny broke up with me last night."
Feeling stupid with lack of sleep, Clark had to search his memory for the name, finally putting it together with the tall blonde who'd had a crush on Superman. Jimmy'd been going out with her for several months now. He shook his head, trying to shake off the fatigue that clogged his brain. "I'm sorry, Jimmy. I know you really liked her."
Jimmy nodded and looked down, scrubbing the toe of his shoe across the carpet. "Yeah. I did. I still do." He glanced back up at Clark, a painful smile flickering at one corner of his mouth. "Pretty stupid, huh?"
Clark shook his head. "It isn't stupid to care about someone else, even if she doesn't care about you." He looked beyond Jimmy to Lois, who was approaching from the hallway. "Sometimes, you can't help yourself," he added softly.
She pressed a cold can of soda into Clark's hand, and his eyebrows snapped together in silent question. "I couldn't find any ice. Hold it against the back of your hand," she murmured, then said to Jimmy, "My advice: lose yourself in your work. Nothing helps a broken heart like chasing down a good story."
"Yeah, thanks." Jimmy headed back down the ramp. "Except I don't get to chase down stories," he muttered to himself. "And research leaves too much time for thinking."
Superman soared high above Metropolis, his super senses extended as he looked and listened for problems that needed his assistance. He'd been in time to save the woman whose car had stalled on the railroad track, but the rescue had been trickier than he'd expected. Just as he'd swooped in and picked up the car, the door finally popped open, and he barely caught the driver before she slammed onto the tracks. Her eyes nearly popped from their sockets when the train roared under them an instant later. He hadn't been able to think of what to say to calm her down, so when he stopped at the hospital to make sure his desperate catch hadn't hurt her, it took three emergency room attendants to disengage her stranglehold on him.
Since then, he'd saved a child who'd ridden his bike in front of two lanes of on-coming cars and put out a fire in a downtown office building. Superman executed a smooth barrel-roll, enjoying the morning sunshine on his face, feeling a pleasurable rush as the sunlight re-energized him. No need to race back to The Planet after that last rescue, to fall in with whatever excuse Lois had used to explain his absence. The only thing on his calendar today was helping people.
Below him, the last of the rush-hour traffic on the 110 slowed to a crawl, then stopped entirely as he approached the Hobbs River bridge, where he saw a tanker jack-knifed across the bridge, blocking all four lanes of traffic. As he plummeted earthward to move the tanker, Superman heard a siren wailing, and he looked around to see an ambulance trapped in the gridlock, the driver waving at him frantically.
"Superman, thank God!" the ambulance driver greeted him as he drew alongside. Then the man lowered his voice. "We have a gunshot victim onboard — and he won't make it if we can't get to the hospital right away."
Superman nodded. "I'll take you to Metropolis General." The driver called the EMT who was in the back of the ambulance as Superman reached down and grasped the running board and soared upward. The ambulance floated with him, leaving the traffic jam far below.
Trapped in the parking lot that used to be a high-speed freeway, one driver, a mother with two toddlers squirming in their car seats, watched Superman wistfully and sighed, "I wish *I* could fly out of here like that."
Immediately, a deep voice boomed, "My child, your desire is granted," and the maroon Toyota drifted skyward.
"The voice is the key," Lois insisted.
Clark shrugged. "Okay, but I think it's the whole wish thing. Who — or what — would have that kind of pow … er?"
The end of his question trailed off as a commotion at the elevator caught his attention. But no matter how hard he listened, he couldn't make out what the jumble of voices were saying, and he exhaled sharply, frustrated by his "deafness."
Lois noticed his distraction and turned to look, just as Perry and Alice emerged from the crowd. She stood up. "Perry?" she said incredulously.
The gray-haired editor had his arm around his wife, and they were walking so close that they were in danger of stepping on one another. Lois turned to look at Clark, her eyes wide with disbelief. "*Perry*?" she asked again.
"Oh, good, Lois. You're here," he greeted her. "I'm gonna be gone for a few days — " and he beamed at Alice and squeezed her waist — "and I need you to take over for me like you did before. Just temporarily, Clark," he added, "so don't be gettin' your nose outa joint."
Clark started to protest the older man's belief that he was jealous of Lois being given the responsibility, but Perry waved him quiet and kissed Alice on the cheek. "We're goin' to that Trojan Honeymoon Hideaway, so you kids need to hold down the fort till I get back."
Lois finally found her voice. "This is kind of sudden, isn't it, Perry?"
"Spontaneous," he corrected. "Seize the moment. You don't ask questions when life hands you your dearest wish."
At the word "wish," Lois and Clark exchanged troubled glances. Clark began, "Perry, this morning you didn't make a wish — "
" — or hear a voice," Lois added.
" — did you?" they finished in unison.
Their boss shrugged. "Same wish I've made every morning for two years — that Alice would love me like she used to." He smiled down at his wife, who tipped back her blonde head and kissed him on the cheek. "Only difference is today she called me and asked me to come by."
"So, you didn't hear a voice that said, 'My child, your desire is granted'?" Lois continued.
Perry laughed. "Lois, if I started hearin' voices, I'd wonder what was mixed with my coffee. 'Sides, the King was on the stereo singin' 'Blue Suede Shoes.' I'd'a had to have ears like Superman's to hear anything else. Now, you take care of my paper, and I'll see you kids in a couple days," he said, and he and Alice strolled back to the elevator.
"But, Perry — " Lois objected to the editor's retreating back. He dismissed her protest with a wave behind his head, and she turned back to Clark, who shrugged.
"You think that's another one?" she asked.
"Wish granted? I don't know. Could be just a coincidence."
She gazed across the newsroom to where the elevator doors were closing on a blissfully happy Perry and Alice. "I hope so," she said.
Word had spread, and Advertising, Layout, and Distribution were determinedly closing in on her desk. "Clark, what about — ?" Lois hissed, using their hand gesture for flying.
He stopped. Did she think he couldn't do his job without super powers? A muscle jumped along his jaw, but he controlled his sudden anger. Maybe that wasn't what she meant. "I'll try to find out if Superman has heard anything about this," he said and walked to his desk.
Jimmy Olsen paused as he passed one of the televisions in the newsroom, his attention caught by footage of a swift-moving figure in blue. LNN had a short piece on a cruise ship Superman had rescued last night. He watched the brief report, shaking his head. "I bet Superman never has to worry about being dumped." An ache to be more — - *other* than he was — clenched in his chest. "Boy, I wish I had women falling over me like *he* does."
Immediately, a deep voice boomed, "Your desire is granted, my child."
Startled, Jimmy jerked around. "Hey, who said that?"
After setting the ambulance down at the Metropolis General Hospital Emergency entrance, Superman returned to the bridge and the jack- knifed tanker —
— to find four cars soaring through the air over the river.
He didn't have time for more than a mental, "Oh, no!" as he chased down the nearest car. The toddler and baby in the back seat were crying, and the woman driver's eyes were wide and panicky in her set, white face. Rather than grab the car's undercarriage and pull it down, Superman flew alongside and took hold of the door handle and driver's side mirror so he could reassure the woman, "I've got you, ma'am."
She let her breath out in a sob. "Oh, Superman, *thank* you!"
As he brought the car down, he asked, "What happened?"
"I don't know. I was stopped in the traffic jam, and I saw you lift the ambulance up, and I was wishing …" She stopped, embarrassed to confess her idle desire. "Anyway, the next thing I knew, my car was floating into the sky."
Wishing … Superman felt an unpleasant knot in his stomach. He struggled to find the words. "Did you — did you hear a voice?"
Frowning, she started to shake her head; then her face cleared as she remembered. "Yes, I did. Someone said … my wish was granted. You don't think — ?"
He shrugged and lightly set her car down beyond the traffic jam. What was happening to him? He'd been tongue-tied before, but never like this. "I have to go," he said, looking at the other soaring vehicles. Two of them appeared to be playing "chicken," and he leaped skyward, rocketing toward them.
There wasn't time for a reassuring, side-long hold. Superman streaked under the nearest car and lifted it straight up. Even so, the bumpers scraped as he raised the car out of the way.
"'I was wishing …'"
"'A voice? Yeah …'"
"'Your desire is granted …'"
With each car he rescued, Superman heard the same story, and with each repetition, the sinking feeling in his stomach increased. Something magical was loose in Metropolis, and he was afraid the flying cars were only the beginning. He needed to discuss it with Lois when he got back to The Planet.
Except … he wouldn't be going back, and there wouldn't be any discussion with Lois that got things clear in his mind. Clark was already at The Planet, and Superman had no place there any more.
He stopped in mid-air as he realized the enormity of what had happened to him. <Oh, God.> A wave of desolation swept over him, catching at his breath, but he dealt with it like he did any other disturbing emotion: he shoved it to the back of his mind and went to help someone else. As he touched down by the jack-knifed tanker, the driver greeted him with, "Superman, are *you* an answer to prayer!"
The Man of Steel flinched, but no disaster followed the truck driver's words. Relieved, Superman swept his cape behind him and walked over to where the driver was inspecting his tanker. "Is there a problem?" he asked.
"I don' think so," the driver said. "I'm haulin' sulfuric acid, and I jus' wanna make sure the tank isn't leakin' anywhere."
"Let me," Superman offered and examined the integrity of each weld and seal with his x-ray vision. The swift, pin-point precision of his heat vision reinforced a seal damaged when the tanker struck the side of the bridge. "I think you're okay for now, but I need to move your truck."
The driver was shaking his head, pointing, his startled gaze fastened on something behind Superman. "L-look!"
The superhero turned and, without hesitation, hurtled toward downtown — and the disaster that crashed through the crowded city streets.
Mxyzptlk gleefully watched the Tyrannosaurus Rex step down from the billboard and take a few uncertain steps down the street and stop, cocking its head to one side. The boy who had wished he could see dinosaurs "for real" was standing absolutely still, his mouth open, as he stared at the huge predator. <Another happy customer,> the imp thought and vanished in search of more wishes to grant.
All around the boy, people began to point and scream. They shoved against the other people on the crowded sidewalks, beating on the people in front of them in their haste to get away, and their panicky flight triggered the dinosaur's hunting instinct. With its huge head snaked forward, cruel jaws opened, tail extended behind him like a tightrope walker's pole, the Tyrannosaurus began to run toward the screaming crowd.
Terrified, the boy who wished for the dinosaur stood frozen — until the huge foot came smashing toward him. Adrenaline unlocked the child's muscles, and he dove to one side, just missing being stepped on by the enormous predator.
But his quick, jerky movement drew the T. Rex's attention, and the monstrous head whipped toward the boy, yellow reptilian eyes following his desperate scramble to get away. For an instant, the dinosaur drew back; then it lunged forward, dagger-like teeth snapping down.
A streak of red and blue tore past the hungry beast, lifting up the child and gently depositing him on the other side of the street. The crowd, which only a moment before had been watching in horrified fascination, suddenly burst into applause and cheers. Superman stopped for an instant, frowning in thought, then dove headlong at the giant dinosaur.
He shot past the snapping jaws and grabbed a foreleg — the only part of its massive body he could get his arms around — and soared upward. Jerking its forelegs, throwing its head back, kicking out with its powerful hind legs, and flailing its tail, the T. Rex rose into the air with him. Soon they were high enough that the crowd was safe from the animal's frantic struggles.
Superman took a firmer grip on the creature. But what was he going to do with it? he thought helplessly.
Jimmy approached Clark's desk hesitantly. "Clark?"
Clark didn't look up from his keyboard. "Hang on while I finish this sentence," he said, tapping the keys for a few more seconds. "Okay. What's up, Jimmy?"
"You didn't just … call me or anything, did you?"
"Huh-uh. Someone playing games?"
"I guess," Jimmy answered. "It was weird, though. It almost sounded like someone said my wish was granted."
Clark's head snapped up, his story forgotten. "What did you wish for?"
He ducked his head. "You know how it is. I saw Superman on TV, and I was wishing that women would go for me like they do him."
Clark rolled his eyes. Jimmy could have it. Adoring women flocking underfoot wasn't all it was cracked up to be. But … "So, has anything happened?"
Jimmy laughed. "Not unless you count Peggy, Arlene, and the new girl in research all tripping and falling on me when they walked by."
"*All* of them? Falling on you?" Clark frowned. "Jimmy, what *exactly* did you say when you made your wish?"
"You know, that women would — would fall for me." He listened to what he'd said and looked up at Clark. "Hey, Clark, you don't think — -? Nah," he answered himself and started away. "That's crazy." He stopped and turned back. "But if I find out it's Ralph, I'm gonna pop him one."
Clark waved him away with a sheaf of paper, his mind working furiously. The wish. The voice. And now the wish coming true in a crazy sort of way. He got up and headed for Perry's office. He needed to talk to Lois about this.
"Dr. Klein?" A lab tech poked her head into the special projects lab at S.T.A.R. Labs. "You're wanted up front."
The balding doctor didn't look up from the electron microscope, so the tech added, "It sounded urgent."
It was always urgent — at least to the bureaucrats who filled the front office. Bernard Klein thought about ignoring the summons, but then he remembered that the board of directors was still considering whether or not to fund his latest proposal. This was not a good time to disregard requests from the front office. He sighed. "I'll be right there."
<They should have told me it involved Superman,> he thought. The Man of Steel came to him with some pretty incredible requests and problems, but even for him, this one was … extraordinary. Klein craned his head back to look at what appeared to be a Tyrannosaurus Rex, which Superman held in the air by one forearm. "Superman, where on earth — ?"
The superhero gave him a tight smile. "Downtown." He shook his head. "But I need some help."
The dinosaur began to kick and curve its head around to try to crunch its jailer in its vicious jaws, and for a moment, Superman was busy maintaining control of the aggressive behemoth. "I don't know what to do with it," he admitted, when the T. Rex had quieted some. "Do you have some rope or cable?" He glanced up and down the animal's astonishing length. "A lot of cable."
Dr. Klein wrote something on a piece of paper and gave it to the tech who had summoned him. "Give this to Dr. Braswell. Tell her she'll need enough to knock out — " he eyed the dinosaur — "at least a dozen elephants. And hurry!"
The lab tech stumbled backwards, still looking at the dinosaur hanging in midair. "Hurry!" Dr. Klein repeated. He looked back up at Superman, who was again fending off the predator's teeth and clawed feet. He should get word to Drs. Fetting and Marshall, too. They would jump at the chance to examine a living specimen.
Lois poked her head out of Perry's office. "Clark! Where's that cruise ship story?"
"In a minute. I'm just checking it over."
"Hurry. I want you on that voice thing," she reminded him.
He nodded, finishing the last sentence in a rush, thankful that he was still a fast typist, even without super speed. But, as he keyed back to the start of the story and began rereading to check the flow, frustration gnawed at him. He wanted to start investigating that mysterious voice, but he was shackled by a normal reading rate.
<You wanted to be normal,> he reminded himself. <This is part of it.> A few minutes and several corrections later, he sent the story to his impatient spouse, then picked up a pencil and started writing down everything he knew or guessed about this wish-granting business.
He, Jimmy, maybe Perry. It was either a pattern or an amazing coincidence, but there was nothing to get a handle on. It wasn't exactly the sort of thing he could find in the hall of records — and since he couldn't mention his own experience, it looked like a complete non-story.
But, if someone was going around granting wishes — and Clark couldn't imagine what else was going on — maybe someone, *somewhere,* had reported *something.* He picked up the phone and punched a speed-dial number. "Yes, may I speak with Inspector Henderson?"
The police department was a waste of time. Henderson was out, and the other detectives didn't know anything, or else they weren't talking. Clark cradled the receiver for a moment, trying to think of who else might know if something was going on. He kept shoving away the thought of how easy it would be to check the city — if only he still had his powers. He flipped open his Rolodex and started down his list of sources. "Bobby?"
Three minutes later, Clark sent a quick message to Lois's email box, then grabbed his dark brown jacket off the back of his chair and headed for the elevator.
*** Jimmy shut the darkroom door behind him and started down the hall, studying the prints he'd just made. "Hi, Jimmy," a soft voice said.
He glanced up. "Hi, Lynda — " then photos scattered everywhere as he dropped them to catch the pretty blond copy girl, who had unaccountably tripped and fallen into his arms. But for the first time that day, he didn't find himself thinking, Why me?
She managed a shaky laugh. "That was … strange. It almost felt like someone pushed me."
"Are you okay?" he asked.
"Yeah." She looked up at him, her bright blue eyes sparkling admiringly. "Thanks."
Looking into those dazzling eyes, he seemed to have lost the power of speech. "Ummm … sure."
She looked down at the mess of pictures on the floor. "Here, let me help you," she said.
Lois pushed her way past the production staff filling Perry's office and stopped at Clark's desk. "Clark, I just got word some cars are flying around the Hobbs River bridge on the one-ten. Go check it out."
"Honey — " She turned back, and he continued, "I've already got the story on the flying cars. I'm writing it up now."
"Wonderful!" She impulsively kissed him. "Can we run it on the front page? What do you have?"
"Ten inches of copy, but no pictures."
The whooshing sound he'd only heard a few times before interrupted him, and he turned back to see Superman standing by his desk. "Superman?"
"You might be interested in the T. Rex I took to S.T.A.R. Labs."
Lois tore her gaze away from Superman, and she pointed to Jimmy, who had been wandering around with a silly grin on his face since Lynda had dropped into his arms. "Get over to S.T.A.R. Labs with a camera. I need pictures for the front page." She ignored the demanding voices coming from Perry's office. "Clark, Superman, can I see you for a minute?"
The men gave identical nods and followed her into the conference room, while Jimmy fumbled through his camera bag. In the conference room, Superman stood against one wall with his arms crossed over his chest and Clark leaned against the other, his hands shoved in his pockets. Lois looked back and forth from one to the other. "This is … incredible," she finally said.
The two men eyed each other, and she wondered if she was imagining the hint of challenge in their exchange. "What did you need, Lois?" Clark asked.
She felt like a schoolgirl caught staring at her latest crush. "Oh, right … We need a way to contact you — " she nodded to Superman — "in an emergency. Before, I could always get hold of Clark, but now …"
"That doesn't do any good," Clark finished.
"What's wrong with, 'help, Superman'?" his doppelganger asked.
A muscle in Clark's jaw jumped. "I'm not yelling for help when I'm not in trouble. But I needed to talk with you about this wish business, and I couldn't get hold of you."
That exchange had an odd undertone. Lois frowned and studied the two men, noticing Superman's arrogant posture, his muscles bulging intimidatingly under the sleek spandex, and Clark's in-your-face attitude as he all but jabbed a finger at Superman's chest.
They almost acted like they were jealous, she realized and decided to bring them back to order. She turned to Superman. "I need that emergency contact device, method, whatever, from you, ASAP." Then she turned to Clark. "And I need *you* to get the details from Superman on this Jurassic Park thing and add it to your car story for the front page. We're on deadline here, Cl — guys, and I need you working together, not — not — playing games." She jerked the door open and paused. "And, by the way, dinner's at eight."
Lois carefully did not slam the door behind her, and she strode across the newsroom to Perry's office, sternly forbidding herself to look back at the men she loved or otherwise weaken in the posture she had taken. Perry had left her in charge, and she was — by God — going to get the paper out, whether those two wanted to work together or not.
But she could guess only too well how they felt. Despite the trauma of being drugged, knocked unconscious twice, brainwashed, and hypnotized, one memory of that awful time after her and Clark's first wedding remained clear. Tied to a chair in Lex's underground hideout, queasy from what was left of the drug in her system, fending off his taunts, weeping inside because her wedding to Clark had been wrecked … and then that childish image of herself walked in, babbling about Clark's muscles —
Lois closed her eyes. For an instant, strangling on jealous rage, she had wanted to kill the creature that had stolen her wedding night with Clark.
"Lois? Lois? Are you okay?"
She opened her eyes to see Margie from advertising, the older woman's blue eyes clouded with concern. "I'm fine," Lois said. "Just thinking of something else. So, what were you saying about the Christensen account?"
Clark turned away, blindly picking up a spare notebook and fumbling through it until he found a blank page. He wasn't used to Lois looking at someone else with that expression in her eyes. "Okay. What d'you have for me?" If he kept this professional, maybe he could get through it before his growing sense of loss and jealousy choked him.
Superman looked blank. "Have?"
"Yeah. On the T. Rex at S.T.A.R. Labs."
"Oh. I — I caught it when it tried to eat a little boy."
Clark frowned. Was his double deliberately trying to make this difficult? "C'mon. You know the drill. Let me have the facts first."
"Yeah. Who, what, when, where, how, and why. First thing I — you — learned in journalism class. Remember?" Chagrined, Clark bit his lip. Even if this… Superman … was pretending to be obtuse, that was no reason for him — Clark — to lose his professionalism. "I'm sorry," he finally said. "How 'bout if I just ask you some questions?"
It was hard for Superman to look at his double, knowing that Clark was the one Lois would be going home with, but he hid his jealousy and sense of loss under the grave, slightly detached air Superman always had. As he answered Clark's probing questions, part of him was frantically trying to make sense of what had happened. Clark had spoken to him as an equal, someone who 'knew the score' — and he hadn't had the faintest idea of what Clark was expecting him to say. And when he had captured the T. Rex, he hadn't known what to do with it. His memories told him that he used to be able to figure things like that out, that he used to know what sort of information Clark needed for his story. But his brain felt like it was wrapped in layers of cotton wool and information only passed through slowly, if at all. What was *wrong* with him?
Clark sniffed the bags appreciatively. "From Cuginos on 48th?" he asked. "Mmmm, I love their food."
Lois smiled over her shoulder as she set a plate on the dining room table. After work, he had changed into jeans and that black, band- collared shirt she liked, with the sleeves rolled back to his elbows. She sighed, tempted just to forget dinner. "I know."
He reached around her to set the silverware on each side of the plate, trapping her between his arms while he pressed the length of his body against her back. Nuzzling the side of her neck, he murmured, "Then you also know what pasta does to me." He clasped her waist; then his hands slid up her ribcage, stopping just below her breasts.
She leaned against him, tipping her head back onto his shoulder. "Why do you think I went to Cuginos?"
Clark bent down to capture her smiling mouth. She tasted faintly of tomatoes and oregano, and he grinned and slid his arms around her as he deepened the kiss —
— when the unwelcome sound of a super speed arrival interrupted them. He lifted his head, lips still parted for their kiss, and met his double's hard, dark eyes.
Lois pulled away, laughing nervously and looking at her watch. "Right on time," she said.
A flicker of something crossed Superman's face, and he folded his arms across his chest, his expression remote. "Maybe I should — " he began.
"No, oh, no!" she exclaimed, launching into full babble-mode. "You're not interrupting, and you're certainly not intruding. I *want* you here tonight, for dinner and … well, we have a lot of things to talk about, and — "
He held up his hand to stem the flow of words. "Okay." He drew a deep breath and glanced at the white bags of food, and a tiny smile flickered at one corner of his mouth. "Mmmm, Cuginos. Lois, you shouldn't have." He uncrossed his arms and joined them at the table, his cape lifting as he walked.
Each man sat at one end of the table, with Lois along the side between them, and in deference to her determinedly light-hearted chatter, Clark tried not to sulk and, instead, join the dinner conversation. It was odd to look at himself from the outside: to hear the whoosh of his arrival; to see how big, how well-defined he looked in the supersuit; to notice the automatic deference people paid his alter ego. But as he watched the sparkle in Lois's eyes as she showed Superman the front-page picture of the discomfited T. Rex hog-tied in front of S.T.A.R Labs, Clark found himself wrenched for the second time that day by an emotion he hadn't felt for years: jealousy of Superman.
Polite, deferential, always supportive of Lois, never correcting her writing or arguing over how to pursue a story — and add to that the undeniable impact of Superman's physical presence, that aura of competence and — face it — sheer sexual power — and the only wonder was that Lois had ever noticed Clark Kent at all. Even when he had tried to impress her … Clark winced. The Chinese takeout from Shanghai, the ballroom dancing he had learned from a Nigerian princess, his linguistic fluency ("I can order dinner in 347 languages") — they were all *him,* Superman. Without the super powers, what did a farm boy from Kansas have to offer a woman like Lois Lane?
He took a deep, shaky breath, then stood abruptly and put his napkin on the table. "I'll take care of the dishes," he said.
Startled, Lois and Superman turned to look at him. "You don't have to do that, Clark," she said. "We can get it later."
Stacking the plates and silverware, he shook his head, trying for a casual smile. "Honey, it isn't like we have company to entertain … and it's my night to clean up, so scoot."
She started to protest, but the phone rang then, and she went to answer it, still turning to look back at Clark. "Oh, hi, Paul," she said. "What — ? … They did? … Okay, so what have you done with — "
The kitchen door swung shut behind him, cutting off the rest of her conversation, but he'd heard enough to guess that it was one of those editor-in-chief problems. Clark set the dishes in the sink and turned back to get the rest when Superman came in with the glasses and utensils. "You didn't have to do that."
Superman set the glasses on the counter and started rinsing them one at a time. "If it's your night to clean up, it's mine, too."
Clark threw Superman a glance of surprise, then took the glasses he held out and stacked them in the dishwasher. The two men worked quickly in strained silence, the running water and clinking of dishes the only sounds in the kitchen.
As Clark finished loading the silverware, Superman wiped the water off the counters and threw the sponge into the sink, a humorless smile crossing his face. "This isn't what I thought it'd be."
He wasn't talking about doing the dishes. Clark pushed the dishwasher closed. "Yeah, I know."
The kitchen door swung open, and both men turned to see Lois sweep in, clearly in a no-nonsense mood. She stopped, surprised to see them sharing such a homely task. "What are — ? Never mind. Sit down," she directed, indicating the breakfast table. "I've got the answering machine on. *You* — " she pointed to Superman — "aren't going anywhere, and we are going to discuss this wish thing — *now.*"
The smile that spread across two faces was the same one she originally fell in love with. Alone, it made her heart flutter giddily; doubled, she felt like her insides had just melted, and she wanted to forget this crisis, forget the world, and lose herself in his arms. <Whose?> her inconvenient conscience asked. It didn't matter, she told herself, because she wasn't going to get sidetracked by a smile. Lois Lane was made of sterner stuff than that. She tried to regain the determination she had walked in with as she took the seat at the end of the table. "Okay. Wish-related incidents. Clark?"
He leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table. "Me wishing to be normal and have someone else be Superman, Jimmy wishing to have women fall for him — not literally, but that's what actually happening," he added for Superman's benefit. "And probably Perry wishing to get back with Alice." He thought for an instant. "Oh, and I followed up on that T. Rex thing. You were right," he told Superman. "That little boy had wished he could see real dinosaurs."
"You didn't put that in your story," Lois accused.
Clark nodded. "I know. I — we — " he glanced across the table at Superman — "decided it wasn't wise to let everyone know they can wish for something and it'll happen."
"Boy scouts. Both of you." She shook her head and contented herself with glaring at each of them. "Superman?"
He sat straight in the chair, his arms folded. "In the cars — they all wished they could fly. This afternoon, some kids wished they didn't have any school, and their elementary school … vanished." He answered the concerned question in their eyes. "No one was hurt. I was … flying by when it happened, and I caught the people from the second floor."
"This is getting scary," Lois said. "What happens when someone gets upset and says, 'I wish you were d — umph — '"
Clark and Superman clapped a hand over her mouth at the same time. Above their hands, her eyes were shocked, then furious, and finally sheepish. The men cautiously removed their hands, expecting an explosion, but Lois shook her head, laughing at herself. "Okay, so I guess I still jump in sometimes without checking the water level."
"Sometimes?" Clark breathed, and Superman threw him a look of amused agreement.
Lois ignored that by-play and continued, "We don't know enough about this voice/wish-granting thing. Have either of you tried wishing to return to normal?"
The startled way they looked at her was answer enough. "So, *try* it," she said. "What'll it hurt?"
Clark shrugged. "I wish I were my normal self — Clark Kent and Superman, together."
The three froze, waiting for … something. But nothing happened. No voice, no bright light, no poof. Nothing.
"Maybe we have to wish together," Clark suggested, and he and Superman tried that, with the same result.
Lois frowned thoughtfully. "Maybe you've used up your wish. Let me try. I wish Clark Kent and Superman were the same person again," she said loudly, looking skyward, but it had no more effect than before.
"We aren't crazy!" Lois said in exasperation. "All day people have been making casual wishes and getting them. So what's wrong now?"
Superman shrugged, but Clark shook his head. "Lois, I think maybe you were right," he said, turning to her eagerly. "You remember — you said that voice was the key. Maybe someone's actively granting wishes … and he has to be present to hear them."
Lois protested. "But — but *no one* has that kind of power!"
"Do you remember the party at The Planet last Christmas?" Clark asked.
"Sure. Your parents came, and … You mean that little guy with the crazy name that we had to get him to say backwards?"
Superman shot Clark a questioning look. "Mxyzptlk?" he asked.
"That's what I think."
"That's … serious." Superman looked appalled.
"What?" Lois asked. "Why?"
"He — he can do … almost anything," Superman explained.
"Honey, he has *no* moral restraints. He told me he wanted to be the god of this world," Clark added, "and he was afraid I would stop him, so he set up that whole time-loop thing at Christmas just to get rid of me. Regardless of who else got hurt. Lois, he is unbelievably dangerous."
She took a deep breath. "Well, we got rid of him before, so how are we going to do it this time?"
"We have to find him first," Clark said.
Superman looked up, that faraway expression on his face as he listened to something beyond his companions' hearing. "Maybe I can help." And he shot out the back door in a streak of red and blue.
*** The "Superman Express" rollercoaster at Metropolis Gardens amusement park was billed as the fastest, highest rollercoaster in the world ("Fly like Superman! Find out what it's like to be faster than a speeding bullet!"), and it was the most popular ride at the park. But the screams coming from the passengers today weren't cries of terrified delight, and the crowd at the foot of the ride bore more resemblance to rubberneckers at a disaster than eager customers awaiting their turn.
Superman swooped down to the controls, where a sweating park employee was frantically pushing buttons. "What's wrong?" asked the Man of Steel.
"It won't stop," the middle-aged man gasped. "The board wouldn't respond, so I tripped the power, and it's *still* running."
Superman was airborne before "running" had died away. He scanned the track with his microscopic vision and saw the man was right: no electricity sparkled in the lines. But at that magnification, he could see energy glimmering in the power cables. Magic, he guessed, and braced himself as the rollercoaster cars hurtled toward him. The passengers looked terrified or sick — or both — but he didn't have time to notice the relief appear on their faces when they saw him. His attention narrowed to a single spot on the front car where he could get a handhold and push against the magic-driven force.
The roar of the approaching cars filled his ears. His head snapped forward when they struck his hands, locked in front of him, and his boots skidded down the track. The resistance that stopped a runaway city bus was hardly slowing the cars, and he began to put some muscle into his effort.
The rollercoaster rolled to a gentle stop at the boarding area, and the passengers staggered off, some hurrying as far away as possible from the crazed ride, others stopping to thank Superman. In the midst of the confusion, his super hearing picked up a conversation between a teenage boy and girl.
"*You* may have wanted that ride to go on forever," she groaned, "but once was enough. Next time, you can go by yourself!"
"Christy," the boy called after her, "I only said that because I wanted to keep riding with you."
She turned back. "You did?"
Superman sighed. Another careless wish granted, another disaster averted.
By the time Superman returned to the townhouse on Hyperion, he had chased all over the city, cleaning up Mxyzptlk's disasters, but never catching sight of the imp himself. It looked like Mxyzptlk only hung around long enough to grant a wish, then left to find a new set of victims.
Superman streaked into the darkened living room and turned back to close the window behind him. He pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes, feeling a bone-deep weariness that was more than just no sleep the night before. Too tired to walk quietly, he floated up the stairs, instinctively heading for his room —
— where he was stopped by a locked door. His hand had tightened on the doorknob when the sounds from inside the room stopped him: breathless gasps and sighs; low groans; mouths clasping and unclasping moistly; his voice — no, Clark's — murmuring, "Mmmm, Lois, you're so beautiful"; and then the soft whisper of lips on skin and Lois's muffled cry of, "Oh, Clark, yes …"
A shiver went through Superman. He remembered those sounds, the feel of Lois in his arms, with a knowledge that went far beyond any power of Mxyzptlk's to erase. Superman, Clark, or Kal-El: he loved Lois Lane with an intensity that made him ache, and he cursed the 5th dimensional imp for this division that took away his right to be her husband.
He turned away from the master bedroom and opened the door to the spare room. For a long moment, he stared at the empty double bed, his enhanced vision clearly showing him — even through the darkness — that the covers had been turned down. Behind him, the soft sounds of lovemaking filtered through the closed door: nothing that a normal human would have heard, but too loud, too immediate for his super hearing to ignore. Memory and imagination relentlessly supplied images to his over-tired mind, and with a sharply in-drawn breath that was almost a sob, he opened the window and flung himself into the night sky.
A shaft of moonlight fell across their bed, casting the planes of Clark's face into sharp relief. Lois raised up on one elbow, watching him sleep, resisting the temptation to smooth the tumbled hair off his forehead. Tired though he was, he had taken his time making love with her, drawing it out until she was crying out and clinging to him. And afterwards, he had murmured, "I love you, Lois," and collapsed onto the bed, asleep almost before he hit the mattress.
She gave in and tenderly stroked the dark hair away from his face. <You don't have to try to be Superman for me, sweetheart,> she told him silently. <I love you as you are — however you are.>
That was the truth. If his powers never returned, he was still the man his past had made him, and she couldn't help but love him. But …
She carefully got out of bed so she didn't disturb him and, picking up her nightgown from the floor, slipped it over her head. But … without his powers, there was no denying that he was different. It was, she thought, rather like an unexpected disability from an accident, something that changed the way they behaved and related to each other, a physical change they were going to have to get used to.
That would be hard enough … except his powers hadn't been erased. All of that part of him had been torn away and put into another self. Lois closed her eyes and crossed her arms, hugging herself against a sudden chill. <Another self.>
This wasn't fair. It was hard enough for Clark and her without her having to resist a siren call from Superman. She recalled telling Lucy — years ago, not long after she first met Superman — that there was something between them, a connection —
— and changed though he was, it was still there.
She studied Clark's face, her gaze touching his beloved features. She loved her husband: passionately, physically, intellectually … on every level, she needed him, and he met that need. And yet, she couldn't deny the bond that drew her to Superman.
Oh, God. Was that it? Was the bond she and Clark had always felt an outgrowth of his Kryptonian nature? No … Mr. Wells had said that their souls were mated together. It didn't depend on whether Clark was a Kryptonian or not.
She relaxed in relief, closing her eyes and testing her connection with Clark. It was still there — that something that said they belonged to each other. It drew her so strongly these days that she was stunned that she hadn't recognized it when they first met, that she hadn't looked into his eyes and immediately realized he was the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with.
But … at the same time, she could feel the bond tugging her in another direction. One soul in two bodies? she wondered.
Lois slipped out of the room and crossed the hall to the guest room. She tapped lightly on the door, but silence answered her, and she opened the door and put her head in. "Superman?" she breathed.
The streetlight outside the window showed her an empty bed, the covers as smooth as when she had turned them down earlier. He hadn't come back. At least, she hoped he hadn't, imagining his feelings had he returned right after she and Clark went to bed, while they were …
She went to the window and stared out into the night. "Be careful," she whispered.
The first glare of sunlight touched a figure perched high on a ledge overlooking Metropolis, his bright cape wrapped around him, his head resting on his arms crossed over his knees. The light on his eyelids awakened him, and Superman lifted his head and opened his eyes. <What the — ?> he thought, startled by the sight of the city spread out below him. Then he remembered, and he sighed. He didn't want to go back to the house on Hyperion, but he needed to share his findings. He drifted upward, stretching out as he soared into the bright morning light. He would make it a quick trip.
Clark was knotting his tie as he walked into the kitchen. "Good morning, honey," he said and bent to kiss Lois, careful not to disturb her hair or makeup. He touched his tongue to his lip. "Mmmm, fresh orange juice."
She grinned. "Fresh from the box." She got the juice out of the refrigerator and poured him a glass. "Clark, you know when we were talking about whether you were duplicated or — or split into two people?" At his blank look, she continued, "Remember? Yesterday morning, before you fell asleep."
He shook his head. "Sorry, honey. I don't remember. I guess I was pretty tired."
"Oh. Well, anyway, I've noticed something. I really think that somehow that Mix-lick guy has split you into two people."
He took a swallow of his juice, then swirled the glass, watching the juice splash high onto the sides. If she didn't know better, she'd think he was ignoring her. "Don't you see, Clark? You're the one who figured out who was behind this wish craziness."
He looked at her, his eyes flat and opaque. Whatever confidence their lovemaking the night before had given him had vanished at the reminder of his double. "Yeah. So?"
"So … if you and Superman were exact duplicates with the same memories, *both* of you'd've come up with the answer."
He frowned thoughtfully.
At least he was thinking. "And you still write like the Kerth-winning reporter you are," she went on, "while Superman … Didn't you notice that he hardly talks now? You may have lost your super powers, but he — "
" — lost his communication skills," Clark said slowly.
"And the creativity, too," Lois added, "or whatever you use to make connections or dream up ideas." Cheered by the arrested look in his eyes, she finished, "I think he — the imp thing, I mean — took the easy way out and gave one of you the brains …" She waited.
"And the other the brawn?"
She nodded, and Clark considered that for a moment. "So … what does that mean?" he asked. "Neither of us are the real thing?"
"Oh, no! *Both* of you are. Partly, anyway."
Partly? Something deep inside him bristled at the idea that he was less than he'd been. But that was the point, wasn't it. Superman had the powers he had taken for granted for so long, and he … he had the quick mind and facility with language that had been part of him for as far back as he could remember. And luckily, that's what they would need to get rid of Mxyzptlk and get back to normal.
For the first time since he had felt himself splitting in two, Clark grinned. It was good to know that *he* had what it took to defeat the bad guy.
Clark turned the watch over, studying the buttons on the face. "This is that hypersonic prototype from S.T.A.R. Labs, isn't it? The one Jimmy had a few years ago."
Superman shrugged brawny shoulders, his arms crossed over his chest. "Dr. Klein said it's newer — *ow*! Shut it off!" He reached for the watch with one hand and his ear with the other, but Clark had already found the button to stop the sound.
"Sorry," Clark said, remembering how it had hurt when Jimmy set it off. Kinda the way his hand did after he burned it on the biscuit pan this morning. "At least I know it'll get your attention."
Superman rubbed his ears. "You bet."
"Did you catch sight of Mr. Mixed-up-whatever-his-name-is?" Lois asked.
"No. Lots of wishes answered. Mostly kids who — who wished they lived somewhere else."
She noticed how depressed he looked and placed her hand on his crossed arm. "Long night?"
Superman looked down at her hand; unwillingly, his gaze lifted to meet Clark's as they both remembered the video tape of her touching him that way during the Lois/Superman tabloid scandal. Superman cleared his throat. "Yeah. But he was always gone by the time I got there…"
Clark frowned. "We'll have to think of some other way to get hold of him."
"You could always try bowing down to worship Lord Mxyzptlk. I'm sure that'd catch my attention," a deep, booming voice broke in.
PART TWO: ALL MXYED UP
The three jerked around — to face the grinning imp from the fifth dimension.
Mr. Mxyzptlk floated in the middle of the living room on a massive, golden throne, dressed in shining white garments, long white hair like the picture of God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling surrounding his rubbery face.
"I never knew doing good was so much fun," he continued.
Lois blinked. "Doing *good*?"
"Yes, of course. Granting wishes, answering prayers, giving people their hearts' desire." He turned to Superman. "I finally see why you're such a do-gooder." The imp crossed his arms and assumed a dignified posture. "I'm waiting,,,"
"Waiting?" Clark asked.
"For your thanks. I *did* give you the dearest wish of your heart."
"What?!" Lois spluttered, then faded into silence as Clark sent her a warning look.
"Yeah, you did," Clark said slowly. "I wanted to be normal, and you gave me that."
Lois drew a breath to protest and subsided again at his cautioning glance, and Mxyzptlk puffed out his chest and nodded.
"So, thank you, Mr. Mixy — umm — Mixit — umm — Mixed Pickle?"
"Mxyzptlk!!" the imp stormed.
Clark frowned. "Then what's that other name of yours? Kill-tip something?"
"Kltpzyx — " He clapped both hands over his mouth, his eyes wide with horror. Then his eyes narrowed. "That wasn't very nice," he said in a tightly controlled voice, and he snapped his fingers and vanished.
Clark slumped with disappointment, and Lois let out a long sigh and grabbed his arm. "Oh, God, it almost worked!" she exclaimed.
"Yeah, but now he knows we'll try to stop him," he said.
Superman nodded. "What about next time?"
"We need to plan how to get him to say his name backwards," Clark said.
"Do you think there'll be a next time?" Lois asked.
"I think so. He seems … playful, and I think he'll get bored after a while and come back to us." Clark smiled faintly. "If only for the sport of frustrating our attempts to send him back."
"I hope so," Superman said gravely.
Mr. Mxyzptlk perched on the edge of a cloud above Metropolis and glumly watched the people passing far below him. It hadn't worked. Granting Superman's wish hadn't made him grateful. That party- pooping, two-faced Clark Kent had almost tricked him into saying his name backwards, and then it would have been bzzt — back to the boring fifth dimension.
For a moment, he sadly contemplated the failure of his beautiful plan. Then another thought struck him and he perked up, his mobile face changing in an instant from sorrow to delight. Okay, so that interfering Kryptonian was going to try to spoil his fun, but the only thing the third-dimensional creature could do was try to make him say his name backwards. And that would be awfully hard to do if they never saw each other.
Mxyzptlk giggled. He'd be god of this world *despite* Superman.
Jimmy sat at his desk, morosely sorting through the pictures he had shot two days ago that didn't get used in the paper. His date last night with Lynda had been a disaster. First, one of the waitresses had tripped when she was bringing a pitcher of water to the table, and she and most of the ice had landed in his lap. She had apologized repeatedly and brought a couple of towels so they could dry off.
He had tried to laugh it off, but Lynda wasn't amused — not when half the water in the pitcher had drenched her new silk blouse. Even after she blotted off most of the water, she kept fussing about water stains instead of carrying on a conversation. Unfortunately, the second waitress had been carrying salads for another table. Most of it ended up on his shirt — and he didn't really like the smell of blue cheese dressing. What was worse, the rest landed on Lynda's skirt.
Geez, Jimmy thought. He hadn't known a girl that small could shriek that loudly. And, yeah, it *was* a French-type dressing, and the orangey stain looked pretty bad on her white skirt, but c'mon! You'd've thought she was being mugged or something.
The manager had come out to apologize in person, and he told them there would be no charge for their dinners. But Lynda wasn't satisfied. She demanded that the restaurant pay for cleaning her skirt and blouse. Mortified, Jimmy had wanted to slide under the table.
After all that, he could hardly eat when the waiter brought their food, and he minced his steak and pushed the pieces around his plate until Lynda was finished. Throwing down the money to cover both dinners and a tip, he made his escape, only to be held up at the door by a heavily pregnant woman who stumbled and fell into his arms. It was the cap to a perfect evening.
He glanced up as Lois and Clark exited the elevator and shared a brief kiss before she headed for Perry's office. He shook his head. Just looking at them made him miss Penny, and for the dozenth time, he wondered what he could have done to keep her from leaving.
Jimmy picked up the photos again, this time noticing that he had gotten one of Superman and Clark together. By chance, he'd caught them in profile, facing each other across Clark's desk. How odd. He couldn't remember having seen another picture like that. Even in the photos he'd taken at the two press conferences where they'd shown up together, the two men hadn't been right next to each other. He tilted the photo to the light, studying it. Funny how much alike they looked. Had anyone asked, he'd've said Superman was taller and broader, but in this picture … He picked up a magnifying glass.
Lois poked her head out of Perry's office and, pitching her voice to carry across the news room, called, "Staff meeting in fifteen minutes!"
"Hey, Lois, look at this," Jimmy said, hurrying over to her, holding out the picture of Clark and Superman.
She turned to look at him, and the sudden change in her expression reminded him of someone reaching too late to grab a cup of coffee before it spilled on a stack of papers. Hands held out in front of her, she started backing up. "No, Jimmy, don't — " she managed before she abruptly stopped moving backwards and pitched forward.
The picture fluttered to the floor as Jimmy found his arms full of a soft, good-smelling, but very irritated temporary editor-in-chief. At her scowl, he started babbling. "Lois, are you okay? Boy, it's a good thing I was here. You're like the tenth woman I've caught in the past two days. Here, let me give you a hand up."
Lois slid out of his arms to sit on the floor. "I'm fine, Jimmy. At least, I will be when you go back to your desk."
"You will — ? My desk? But, what — ?" He looked puzzled and apologetic, and she felt like she was kicking a puppy. They were also drawing the interested stares of the entire news room, and a blush heated her cheeks.
He was still hovering, and she waved him away. "Jimmy, you've got to back up. I'm not sure how far — maybe ten feet — and then I can get up and tell you."
Reluctantly, he stepped back, and Lois held her hand up to Clark, who had joined them when he saw her fall. Even without super powers, he was a big, strong man, and he easily raised her to her feet.
"Thanks," she muttered, as Clark said, "Jimmy, you remember your wish the day before yesterday?"
The younger man frowned, then blushed as his friend began, "You wanted women to — "
"CK!" he protested, looking around to see who was listening. "Yeah, yeah, I remember."
Clark lowered his voice. "Jimmy, someone granted your wish — literally. Instead of women falling in love with you …"
"… they're falling at my feet? CK, that's crazy! How could anyone grant a wish like that?" Jimmy stepped toward them, and Lois hastily backed up. "Oh, relax, Lois," he said. "No one's fallen on me twice." He bent down and picked up the picture of Superman and Clark, then held it out to Lois —
— and promptly dropped it as she tumbled into his arms again.
She heaved an exasperated sigh. "Jimmy, let me down." Once she was seated on the floor, she continued, "Give me the picture." And when he handed it to her, she ordered, "Now, go *away.*"
He didn't wait to be told twice, but scurried back to his desk and out of Lois's sight.
She glared at Clark, who was trying to hide a smile as he reached down to help her to her feet. "Don't say anything," she warned him, trying to turn around and see if she had gotten the back of her skirt dirty.
He pantomimed an innocent 'who, me?' and impersonally brushed the dust off her skirt. "There you are."
Lois took a deep breath and finally noticed the sympathy lurking in his laughing eyes. She rested her hand on his arm. "Thank you," she said softly and stood on tiptoe to kiss him.
Clark bent down to meet her lips — and jerked back as a Southern voice rumbled, "Hey, hey, hey, you two! This isn't the Niagara Falls overlook."
"Or poolside at a honeymoon resort," Clark breathed as Lois exclaimed, "Perry! What're you doing back?"
"I don't know, Ralph," Lois said from her position at the head of the table. "Accusing the D.A. of going easy on his investigation of police improprieties is pretty serious. Newsworthy, but serious. What evidence d'you have?"
Perry sat in the corner of the conference room, letting Lois run the staff meeting while he caught up on what had gone on in his absence. His absence … that was a joke, Clark thought, but not one that boded well for a reconciliation with Alice. When he arrived, Perry had said he missed being at The Planet, so he and Alice had just stayed the night and then returned to Metropolis. He had gotten a second chance at his marriage, but he seemed intent on throwing it away.
Clark shook his head slightly. He couldn't understand Perry's attitude. He lifted his gaze to his wife — brilliant, courageous, fiery, determined to make the world a better place. Without Lois in his life, Clark wasn't sure he would have the heart to keep trying to make a difference, and he again resolved to do whatever it took to keep their marriage healthy.
Lois's voice pierced his abstraction. "Clark, what're you working on?"
"City council budget controversy," he said. "And I'm following up on those supernatural incidents Superman's been handling."
"Okay." She tapped her pen against her notebook. "I need an op-ed piece from you about that, too." At his surprised look, she added, "We'll talk about it later."
Superman thrust both fists forward, tearing through the thin upper atmosphere above the Atlantic after a trip to Portugal to help victims of the flooding in that country. He had saved scores of people trapped by the turbulent flood waters and evacuated hundreds of people who lived below a failing dam. A distant memory came to him: "Every time I save a life … I know two things. Why I'm here, and how I can make a difference."
In rescuing those people, he had made a difference and once again demonstrated why he was here. He should be feeling cheerful — or at least fulfilled.
Except he wasn't.
The people he saved had cried out their thanks; terrified children clung to him; parents sobbed with joy as he returned their children to their arms; farmers thanked him fervently when he rescued their livestock — and livelihoods. He had smiled and given and accepted hugs, and all the while, he had felt removed, as if his feelings were cocooned in the same thick cotton wool that seemed to surround his brain.
Ice crystals sheeted off Superman as he arced down toward Metropolis. Maybe he was just depressed. The Lois-sized ache in his heart was enough to depress anyone. He tried to swallow past the ball of kryptonite lodged in his throat. Maybe helping other people would start feeling good again once he got used to living without her.
Clark stared at his monitor, trying to imagine how to warn people about the danger of careless wishes — without letting them know that *any* wish could be granted. After a dozen starts, he was no closer to a publishable essay than when he'd first sat down, and he was tempted to tell Lois to write her own damned op-ed piece.
From the street outside, he heard the wail of a fire engine, and he had shoved his chair back and risen to his feet before he remembered that he couldn't do anything to help. Clark slowly sank back into his chair.
This was what he'd wanted, wasn't it? No more dropping whatever he was doing to fly off, no more interrupted meals, no more evening plans ruined by a call for Superman. And it wasn't as if Metropolis had been left without her customary guardian angel. Superman was probably already on the scene and everything was under control.
So why did he feel so empty and depressed?
An errant memory intruded: him stuffing his mouth with another big bite of his mom's peach cobbler and wishing that he could eat it for every meal. And his mom laughing and warning him to be careful what he wished for — because he might get it. And he got her point when she served him peach cobbler — and only peach cobbler — at every meal for the next two days. It was weeks before he could look at a peach again.
Be careful what you wish for,,, Something else stirred in his memory, and he tilted back in his chair, eyes closed, waiting for the thought to surface. A cautionary tale … 'The Monkey's Paw.'
That was it. Clark slammed his chair forward, his hands moving to the keyboard, words spilling from his mind to the screen as fast as he could type them. "Cars flying out of control over the Hobbs River, a flesh-eating dinosaur hunting on the downtown streets, a building vanishing and leaving the occupants to fall several stories to the ground … All these supernatural occurrences had one common thread: someone had casually wished for each one. Oh, not in the form that the answer took. Kids who wish to see a dinosaur aren't thinking about becoming a meal for a hungry T. Rex, any more than commuters caught in a traffic jam really want to play "chicken" in the sky with other out-of-control cars. If there is some entity granting wishes in Metropolis, it seems to make sure that every wish rebounds against the wisher, turning an idle desire into a nightmare,,,"
He typed rapidly, fleshing out the op-ed piece, then going back to smooth out the writing. Fifteen minutes later, Clark read it over and, satisfied, LAN'd it to Lois. He tilted back in his chair for a moment, savoring the pleasure of having written well. Around him, the news room hummed with activity: reporters on the phones, interviewing sources, typing their stories — and he smiled. Maybe most people wouldn't understand how exhilarating it was to come up with the right idea and have the words pour out so quickly and easily, but at The Planet, he was surrounded by other writers who knew exactly how he felt. It was a good place to be. He tipped his chair forward and got back to work on his story on the city budget controversy — and this time, he didn't have to work to put the sound of emergency sirens out of his mind. He didn't even notice them.
"Hey, Ralph, you headed out to lunch?" Jimmy asked.
Ralph stopped at the foot of the ramp. "Yeah. Why?"
Jimmy held out a five dollar bill. "Could you pick up my sandwich at the deli? They're holding it."
"Around the corner? Sure. Perry got an assignment for you or something?"
"Or something," Jimmy said. He couldn't risk going out where a lot of women were — not if Clark was right. "Thanks, Ralph," he called as the reporter headed up the ramp.
He wandered back toward his desk and picked up a note from Clark requesting copies of the city budget for the last three years. His stomach rumbled, and he hoped Ralph hurried.
"So you're off the hook now?" Clark asked as he and Lois strolled around the corner to get some lunch at the nearby deli.
"Uh-huh. Perry's going to edit the stories I assigned — *and,* I suspect, put together a different front page than the one I was envisioning."
They caught the light at the corner and crossed the crowded street. "Does that bother you?"
Her expression was self-mocking, and she looked up from where she was digging through her purse. "A little," she admitted. "No matter what I tell myself, I can't help feeling that it means my choices weren't any good. Blast!"
"Oh, I can't find the notes for my interview with Colonel Gohr this afternoon." She started back toward The Planet and Clark fell into step beside her. She stopped him. "No, honey, could you go ahead and place our orders while I run back and get my notebook? Otherwise, I'm not going to have time to eat before that interview, and I refuse to skip lunch *again* this week."
He shrugged. "Sure. Chicken salad on whole wheat with a dill pickle and a diet cream soda, right?"
Lois stretched up to kiss him. "I knew there was a reason I love you."
He grinned as she wiped the lipstick off his mouth. "I'll be right back," she added, turning to look at the light and rushing onto the crosswalk.
The driver of the sleek, black Viper drummed his fingers impatiently against the steering wheel. "C'mon, c'mon," he muttered, glowering at the red traffic light and checking his watch for the third time. He punched a speed dial code into his car phone. "Turn green, dammit."
From his perch atop The Daily Planet globe, Mr. Mxyzptlk watched Lois Lane hurrying into the middle of the street just as the Viper's driver ordered the light to change. "Close enough," the imp snickered. "Your desire is granted, my child," he boomed, and the lights went green in every direction.
The familiar voice stopped Lois in her tracks, and she cast a quick glance around. A small figure with a purple tunic and bowler sat on top of The Daily Planet globe, waving to attract her attention, then grinned and vanished as she started toward him.
At the high-pitched squeal of tires, Clark jerked around. Lois was standing in the middle of the street as a black sports car leaped toward her, the driver looking to one side, a cell phone at his ear.
<Oh, God!> Clark started running, cursing his human-slow reflexes and fumbling for the button on the signal watch Superman had given him. "*Lois*!" he yelled.
Superman angled toward The Planet when that annoying hypersonic dog- whistle went off, but at Clark's panicked cry, he hurtled across the cityscape like a missile, the acrid taste of fear flooding his mouth. Focusing his vision on the source of the hypersonic signal, he saw the scene in the street as if the action had been frozen, Lois's mouth agape as she saw the car bearing down on her.
<Please,> he prayed, straining for the speed that turned him into a blur of red and blue.
Lois turned at the sound of Clark's voice — and caught a glimpse of the car accelerating toward her. She drew her breath to scream, "Help! Superman!" when she was struck with a force that took her breath away- -
— and abruptly found herself a thousand feet above the city, clutched tightly in Superman's arms.
He buried his face against her hair, and his big body shook. "Oh, God, Lois," he groaned. "I almost didn't make it."
She drew a long, shuddering breath, tears pricking her eyelids. "You came … you came," she whispered.
"If I'd lost you …" He hugged her to him, one arm cradling her back, the other hand cupping the back of her head.
Her arms slipped around his neck. "I'm right here."
"Lois." He ducked his head and blindly sought her mouth, starving for the taste of her.
Locked in his arms, kissing him as they drifted through the sky … The situation was too familiar for her to hesitate now, and she responded eagerly. She knew his touch, his taste, the way he kissed … and that extra something in him that called to her irresistibly. No fake, no clone, no double from an alternate universe: this was her husband as much as —
<Oh, God.> Lois eased back. This was absolutely impossible. She was kissing her husband — and fighting back the sick feeling that she was cheating on her husband by doing so.
Superman murmured an inarticulate protest when she broke their kiss, but he lowered his head and nuzzled the side of her neck. "I've missed you so much," he murmured.
Each of them — Clark and Superman — felt like the other half of herself, and she could no more ignore the aching need in his voice than she could make her heart stop beating. "Oh, Cl — " she began — and caught herself, tightening her arms around him. "Sweetheart, we can't do this."
He stiffened and, looking away, tried to pull back from her clinging arms. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have — "
"Not *that.*" Too late, Lois realized what her statement sounded like. "I meant this split thing. We've got to get it solved."
He still looked unconvinced. "I'm not apologizing for kissing my husband," she told him firmly, "because that's what you are."
Pain-filled brown eyes raised to meet her gaze. "Am I?" he asked simply.
"What? Of course you are — " she began.
Superman shook his head. "I don't think so. I think … I think I'm just … a badly made double. Or something." At her frown, he shook his head in frustration. "I'm not … saying this right. I can't find the right words any more." He lowered his voice to a whisper, as if he were confessing something shameful. "And I — I can't think of how to do things, either,,,"
He struggled to explain. "Like the T. Rex. I picked it up so it wouldn't hurt anyone, but then … but then, I didn't know what to do … except keep holding it. But … the real Superman knows what to do with things like that."
Lois clenched her teeth together, trying to stop the rush of tears to her eyes. He sounded so lost and ashamed, as if it were somehow his fault that his mind didn't work the way it used to, as if that meant he had no right to ask for reassurance or comfort. She cupped her hands on either side of his face and forced him to look at her. "Listen to me," she said. "You are the real Superman — "
He started to turn away, unwilling to listen to her lie to him. "I'm not a baby. You don't have to make things up to make me feel better."
"I'm not." The words came out as a choked cry, tears roughening her voice. "Ask Clark. I already told him."
"Told him? What?"
"That both of you are the real thing. That somehow that Mix-it thing split you into two people — you, with the super powers, and Clark, with the — " she stumbled and made a desperate recovery — "the writing skills and — and the creativity." How would she ever convince him there was nothing shameful in lacking a high intelligence if she was embarrassed even to say it?
His attention was focused on fitting her explanation into what he had been experiencing, but he tilted his head questioningly. "The brains?" he asked.
"Well … yeah, sort of. I mean, Clark isn't a weakling or anything. He's just not super-strong. Like you're not a gifted writer or … or … extra intelligent any more. But that doesn't mean you're stupid, either."
Superman smiled faintly, humorlessly. "That isn't what it feels like. Not from this end. I can remember being … different. Knowing things. Figuring things out. And this feels …" He waved one hand, trying to find a better word and finally settled for, "Stupid."
What could she say when she was sure she would feel the same in his place? "Intelligence isn't the only measure of a man's worth," she managed. "It isn't even the most important."
Superman slipped one arm behind her legs and the other behind her back, moving her to their normal "carry" position. "Maybe not," he agreed, "but it matters to you." And having silenced her with that simple, if unpalatable truth, he angled down toward The Planet, where Clark was waiting for her.
"Oh, chief!" Jimmy called as Perry returned from a meeting with the "suits" upstairs.
"Not now, Jimmy," he growled and kept walking toward his office.
Once, Jimmy would have accepted that and held onto the message, but he knew this was something Perry would want to hear, and he hurried up the ramp and fell in step beside his boss. "Alice called to remind you to pick her up at 7:30 for the concert."
Perry stopped. "Concert? Judas Priest! I forgot all about that! Did you say seven-thirty?" At Jimmy's nod, he dug into his pocket and handed him a set of keys. "Run by my place, son, and pick up that monkey suit of mine. I'll have to leave from here if I'm gonna get this paper to bed before I go." He marched into his office, where half a dozen people awaited him, each convinced that their urgent problem could only be solved by the editor.
Jimmy stared at the keys in his hand, trying to decide whether this was a step back to the days of being Mr. Fix-it or a demonstration of how much the chief trusted him. He turned back to the elevator. Oh, well, at least if he was in his car, women wouldn't be falling at his feet.
Clark shaded his eyes as he watched Superman lightly descend with Lois in his arms. The superhero touched down and set her on her feet with grave courtesy.
"Thank you," she said, and he nodded and bent his knees to spring skyward when Clark said, "Wait!"
Superman looked back, puzzled.
"Take me with you," Clark continued. "Please."
Two identical pairs of brown eyes met and studied the other. "All right," Superman said, holding out his hand.
Clark clasped his wrist and forearm, and the two men drifted skyward. From below, Lois held her hand up to her eyes and watched them until they were out of sight.
Content to go wherever his double led, Clark watched the city pass beneath him, felt the wind in his face, and once again joyed in the exquisite sensation of flying. "Thank you," he said at last and, at the other's questioning glance, added, "for this … and for answering my signal quickly enough to save her." There was only one "her" in either man's life.
"I was afraid I was going to be too late," Superman admitted. He looked at Clark for a moment, then turned away, shamefaced. "And I was so … happy … she was safe."
The writing between those lines was pretty clear. "So you kissed her." Clark made it a statement, and when Superman nodded, he continued, "Where did you sleep last night?"
Superman shrugged, but when Clark kept waiting, he added, "You know, where I … we … went when Luthor had her."
<God.> He had sat on that ledge overlooking the city during one of the darkest times of his life: Lois had been kidnapped from their wedding by Luthor, and he couldn't find her anywhere. "Why didn't you come home?"
Superman shook his head. "I did. But you were … with her."
Clark stared at him, appalled, and he went on, "I may not be as smart as you are, but I still love her. And I can't stay there and — and listen to the two of you together."
Mired in his own jealous anguish, it had never occurred to him that Superman was hurting, too. Clark had the grace to be ashamed. "Come home tonight," he said. "I'll sleep on the couch, and you can have the guest room."
When Superman hesitated, he added, "Please. It isn't fair that you don't have anywhere to go."
Superman nodded slowly, and Clark said, "I don't know how we decided this, anyway."
"That I would be staying with Lois and you would be … nowhere. Maybe because the marriage license says Lois Lane and Clark Kent, not Superman."
Clark looked at Superman for a long time. "Come early," he said. "We need to plan how to trick that imp so we can get things back to normal. Not just for our sakes, but for hers, too. We can't protect her well enough this way."
From a safe distance, Mr. Mxyzptlk watched Superman rescue Lois. Not that that boy scout could do anything to him, but the lunkhead's repeated attempts to capture him could distract him from important business — like granting more wishes. Watching the delivery trucks pull out from The Daily Planet, the imp snapped his fingers, and a copy of the paper appeared in his hands. Perhaps Lane and Kent had written something about him. Perhaps they had even bowed to the inevitable and were proclaiming the good news about his return to Earth.
He paged through the paper. Of course, that last wish wasn't exactly the sort of thing to make any of them feel kindly toward a potential ruler from the fifth dimension. But it *had* been amusing to see the look on her face when that car started racing toward her.
Opinions and editorials, he read. Kent had an article there, and Mxyzptlk perused it quickly. By the time he was halfway through the piece, smoke was pouring out his ears, and his flame-colored curls looked like real flames framing his face. He ripped the paper in half and turned it into a miniature fireball, vengefully watching the pages disintegrate until even the ash had vanished. Warn the world not to make wishes, would they? Maybe it was time he stopped being anonymous and let the world know who its benefactor really was.
He stood up and lifted his arms to disappear — when the purple sleeves of his tunic caught his eye. <Too playful for God,> he decided. Mxyzptlk swept his arms down, his garments changing back to the black velvet and lace suit he had favored during his previous visit. <Much better. Elegant, yet subdued.> And in a dusting of golden sparkles, he vanished.
"Jimmy!" Perry's gravelly roar brought the young photographer/researcher/aide de camp running to his office.
"Yes, chief. You bellowed?"
Perry pointed a finger at the young man. "Don't get smart, kid. What'd you do with that — "
" — monkey suit? On your coat rack." As Perry swiveled around in his chair, Jimmy continued, "With shirt, shoes, tie, cummerbund, and your cufflinks."
A broad smile slowly spread across the editor's face. "Good job, Jimmy. Nice to know I can trust someone to take care of the details."
Jimmy hesitated. That was the opening he'd been waiting for — if he could just get his nerve up to take advantage of it. "Just part of the job, chief, for any good researcher … or reporter."
Perry took a breath to continue — and stopped as the young man's words sank in. But before he could respond, a sudden clamor of irritated and puzzled voices in the news room drew them both out of the office.
"What the — ?"
"Okay, who's mucking with the channels?"
"Hey, I was watching LNN!"
"Who's that weird little guy?"
"It's on every channel!"
Perry waded through the circle of staff members around the nearest TV, Jimmy bobbing along in his wake. Unfortunately, not every woman in the group had already been exposed to Jimmy's wish, and he lost his place when a woman tumbled into his arms. <Oh, man,> he sighed. He had barely helped her to her feet and started after Perry again when another one plopped into his arms. Blushing, an embarrassed grin plastered across his face, he set her on her feet and plowed forward determinedly, let the chicks fall where they may. He finally stopped behind Perry, close enough to see and hear the TV.
" — the rash of recent miraculous events. I — " the man on the screen with the rather piratical beard and hair style placed one hand on his chest and bowed slightly " — am responsible for granting those wishes. If I may introduce myself, I am Mr. Mxyzptlk, lately of the fifth dimension." He bowed again, and Jimmy took his eyes off the man's face long enough to notice the colorful, swirling vortex in the background. After watching for a few seconds, he felt his eyes crossing, and he shook his head and yanked his attention back to the man, who was speaking again. "Despite the speculation that you may have read from certain reporters, I am here to freely grant wishes to anyone who asks me."
Lois and Clark exited the elevator at that moment and saw everyone gathered around the TV screens. They exchanged a swift, questioning glance and hurried to join their co-workers.
"Yes," Mxyzptlk continued, "you heard right. I will grant your every wish, however large or small it may be."
"And plunge the world into total chaos," Lois muttered over the sudden buzz of excited voices.
Clark gave her hand a quick squeeze, and pitched his voice to carry over the increasingly loud discussions. "Freely? What does he get out of it?"
His comment stopped the people around him, and they took up his question. "Yeah, what does *he* get out of it?" several people repeated until the happy, excited hum had changed to an agitated, challenging rumble.
As if he had been expecting such a question, Mxyzptlk announced, "And in exchange, I ask nothing from you but gratitude and respect."
At that, the disquieted tone of the voices in the news room escalated into a delighted roar. Lois turned to Clark and buried her face against his shoulder. "They don't get it," she murmured.
His arms tightened around her, and he dipped his head lower to hear her over the blare of dozens of voices exclaiming in excitement and chattering about what they intended to wish for. "What was that, honey?" he asked, speaking as loudly as if he were trying to get her attention across the room.
She shook her head and spoke a little lower than a shout. "It'll be madness. C'mon. Let's find out what Perry wants us to do. Then we can go home and figure out how to stop this."
Superman didn't have to have access to a television to know that the people of Metropolis had just realized they could have anything they wanted, just by wishing for it. Several dozen kids floated skyward as Mxyzptlk answered their wish to fly like Superman. All over the freeways below, cheap or old or practical cars suddenly morphed into high-powered sports cars or big luxury cars or four-wheel-drive vehicles, and bumpers on the suddenly larger vehicles crunched into each other in the stalled rush-hour traffic. Superman had to ignore minor disruptions like that because across town, several houses had sprouted legs and begun walking toward the ocean-front, heedless of the cars and pedestrians in the way.
He rocketed toward the first of the houses, buzzing around it like an angry hornet. This was the same sort of problem that the T. Rex had posed: he could lift it easily enough so the people in its path were safe, but then, what would he do with it? And if he evacuated the residents and tossed the walking house into orbit, where would those people live? Frustrated by his inability to come up with a workable solution, Superman knocked on the front door and walked in.
An elderly man sat in the living room, clutching the arms of his chair with gnarled, white-knuckled hands as the furniture slid back and forth with each monstrous step. "What did you wish for?" Superman asked.
The man didn't pretend ignorance. "A v-v-view of the ocean," he stuttered.
"Can you wish it back?"
"I-I tried that. It doesn't work."
Superman was tempted to swear. Whether Mxyzptlk was only granting one wish per person or just leaving before anyone could make a second wish, people were stuck with his skewed interpretation of their desire. But that didn't help get these blindly walking behemoths out of the city.
Zipping out of the house, Superman flew under it and, bracing it on one shoulder, picked it up. Carrying the unwieldy building above the houses and streets in its path, he made for an empty stretch of beach as quickly as he could. As he set the house down on its magical feet, the building hunkered down, rocking back and forth as it settled onto the sand. He poked his head in the front door to confirm that the frightened homeowner was okay, then took off after the next wandering house.
The Planet was putting out a special edition on Mxyzptlk since Lois and Clark were the only reporters who had actually spoken with the imp. Lois was writing that story while Clark was doing "man-in-the- street" interviews to get ordinary people's reactions to what was happening. In the meantime, Perry was unexpectedly short-handed as he tried to get the rest of the paper together. After Mxyzptlk's announcement on TV, Ralph had expressed his desire to be in Hawaii, but Celine from Travel had assured him that Bali was a better choice. Everyone within earshot agreed; a voice boomed, "Your desire is granted, my children," and half the news room disappeared on an unscheduled vacation.
And now Perry was trying to get a paper out with only half the people he needed. 'Course, he told himself, they'd be lucky if anybody was even around to buy a special edition, but that didn't absolve The Planet of its responsibility to keep the public informed. <Eternal vigilance and all that.> He ignored his premonition of disaster and concentrated on the job at hand.
Clark clicked the send button and forwarded his story to Perry, then stretched and looked over at Lois's desk. His wife was frowning at her monitor, a pencil gripped in her teeth as she typed an explosive burst on her keyboard. She stopped and, without removing her gaze from the screen, took the pencil from her mouth and tapped the eraser end against her desk, her mouth pursed in thought. Tucking the pencil into her hair above one ear, she rested her fingers on the keys, stared blankly in front of her for a few seconds, and began typing again.
Amused by his wife's familiar gestures, Clark leaned back in his chair, one hand covering his smile as he watched her finish her story. She made a couple of corrections, then sent the story to Perry and turned to look at Clark. "Done?" she asked.
"As soon as Perry okays it. You want a cup of coffee?"
"Sure." Lois picked up her cup and walked to the coffee pot with him. Sipping her coffee, she suddenly noticed that he had poured his coffee from the decaf pot and was stirring non-fat creamer and artificial sweetener into his cup. "Since when did you switch to fat-free, sugar-free decaf?"
His smile was a little crooked. "Since caffeine started keeping me awake." He sipped it gingerly.
She laid her hand on his other arm. "It's been hard, hasn't it?"
He didn't pretend to misunderstand her. "Yeah. I've been — " he glanced over his shoulder to make sure they were alone, then lowered his voice — "invulnerable … to bumps and cuts for as long as I can remember. I never learned *how* to be careful."
"Like this morning when you tried to take the biscuits out of the oven without a mitt — "
" — and burned my hand," he said ruefully, flexing his fingers. He glanced back at her and smiled. "Good thing I only use that thumb for the space bar."
Lifting his hand to her mouth, Lois uncurled his fingers and brushed her lips over the blister on his palm. His eyes darkened, and he set down his coffee cup and reached for the back of her head with his other hand.
Clark jerked around as Jimmy continued, "Where's Lo — "
At that instant, she stumbled toward Jimmy, her coffee splashing onto his shirt.
" — is," he finished, dismayed by his coffee-soaked shirt and the exasperated reporter in his arms. "Uh-oh."
Lois sighed and handed her empty cup to Clark before she settled onto the floor. "Why were you looking for me, Jimmy?"
"Oh, I — uh — "
Clark handed him several napkins, and Jimmy accepted them gratefully, pressing them against his shirt as he backed away from Lois. "Um, the chief says your stories are ay-okay, so you guys can go." He took a few more steps back, then hurried down the stairs toward his desk.
Lois held up her hand and let Clark lift her to her feet. "I don't get it," she said. "How come I'm the only one who keeps falling at Jimmy's feet again and again?"
Perry stepped out of his office and waved Jimmy in. The young man entered, still blotting coffee off his shirt with a fistful of napkins. Distracted, Perry asked, "Jimmy, what in the name of Elvis happened to you?"
Jimmy grimaced. "I didn't see Lois standing behind Clark, and … I got too close. Again." He threw the wet napkins in the trashcan. "Chief, I don't get it. All the other women just fall on me once. But Lois trips into me every time I get near her."
"You're sure this is because of that wish you made?"
"Yeah, I think so. Clark seems pretty sure, anyway."
Well, son, maybe Lois likes you more than you thought — " Perry broke off at the look of enlightenment that spread over Jimmy's face.
"Not me. *Superman.*"
"Superman? What does he have to do with it?"
"I wished that women would fall for me like they fell for Superman." His delight at finding an answer faded as he recognized its implications. "Chief, you don't think … ?"
"Now, Jimmy, don't go borrowin' trouble. Lois was head-over-heels for Superman for a couple a years before she and Clark got together. She never did fall for him the same way other women did."
Jimmy thought about it, then nodded, a smile returning to his face. "Yeah, sure, that makes sense." He started back to the door and stopped. "Oh, did you want me for something?"
While waiting at a traffic light in their Jeep, Lois dug into her purse and pulled out a photo which she handed to Clark. "What's this for?" he asked.
"Something Jimmy was trying to show me … this morning." She shook her head. "It seems longer ago than that." She started the Jeep forward when the light changed, but she risked a quick glance at her husband. "What d'you think?"
He shrugged. "Nice evidence that Clark Kent *isn't* Superman."
"Except … with all the composite pictures in the National Whisper, people wouldn't necessarily believe it."
Clark looked at the picture again, this time noticing how clearly it showed his and Superman's profiles — and how identical they were. "I see," he said.
She nodded. "Jimmy won't be a problem because he saw both of you at The Planet, but no one else better see this picture."
"Yeah. If they haven't noticed how much alike Superman and Clark Kent look, this'd do it. Should I tear it up?"
A little smile curved the corners of her mouth, and she shook her head. "I want to keep it."
Perry was studying his computer monitor where the layout of the special edition was displayed while he spoke on the phone with Arlene's assistant in Layout. Arlene, who would have understood what he wanted before he even told her, was, unfortunately, part of the group vacationing in Bali, courtesy of Mxyzptlk. When Jimmy poked his head in the door, the harassed editor waved him away, but he put his fist to the side of his face with thumb and little finger extended like a phone receiver. He held up two fingers on the other hand and mouthed, "Alice."
<Oh, no,> Perry groaned. "Dimitri, I'll get back to you," he said and took a deep breath before he pressed the button for line two. "Alice, honey, let me explain," he began, but she cut him off furiously, and he was only able to insert the odd word here or there. "No, I didn't realize what time — … Aw, honey, don't — … We've got a crisis down h — … Now, that's not true … Not *every* day …"
He listened for a while, feeling guilty about spoiling her evening plans yet again, but struggling with anger because doing his job was even an issue. "No, I can't leave yet," he managed to say, "so how 'bout you call the box office and make sure the concert's still on — … What? … Oh, it's that crisis I told you about,,, Never mind. If it's still on, go without me, and I'll join you when I'm done,,, I'm sorry, honey. I'll see you later." But he was already talking on a dead line. For a moment, staring at the phone, he looked old and tired, and his eyes drooped more than ever. "Oh, Alice," he whispered.
Then he took a deep breath and, straightening his shoulders, called Dimitri in Layout.
"I don't think something like the card will work again," Clark said. He sat in the corner of the couch, his arm resting along the back of it. The lightweight knit sweater he wore followed the contours of his hard-muscled shoulders and chest.
Lois paced back and forth in front of the couch. She had changed into a snug-fitting long-sleeved top and corduroy jeans. "He'll be expecting us to try something like that again."
"He'll be expecting something if he sees us at all."
She stopped in front of him. "Are you saying that we can't send him back?"
"No." He reached for her hand and drew her to stand between his knees. "I'm saying that we can't spring whatever trap we set without scaring him off."
A whooshing sound interrupted them, heralding Superman's arrival, and Clark turned to greet his double. "Hi," he said. "Come on in. We're trying to decide how to trap Mxyzptlk."
Smiling, Lois held out her free hand to him, inviting him to join them. Superman stepped forward and took her hand, his long fingers closing around hers. He bent to kiss her cheek, then sat in the other corner of the couch, draping his cape over the back of the sofa. "Have you thought of anything?" he asked.
Her smile faded, and she sat down between the two men. "Just that we can't spring the trap — whatever it's going to be — without scaring him off."
Superman frowned, thinking hard. "What about me? He — he won't think I could trick him — and he knows my superpowers don't work against him." He clearly remembered grabbing Mxyzptlk at super speed and finding himself gripping a bouquet of flowers instead.
Clark raised his eyebrows in surprise at the suggestion and sent Lois a questioning glance. She thought for a minute, then shook her head. "That may be true, but if you're there, he'll suspect something's up. And if he's on guard, nothing will work."
Exasperated, she flopped against the back of the couch. Both men instinctively reached out to put a comforting arm around her shoulders, and when their hands bumped, they froze, gazes locked. Without a word, they drew back, and Superman rested a hand on her shoulder while Clark clasped her hand, interlacing his fingers with hers.
Clark cleared his throat. "Since he's come out in the open, maybe we can use that to get to him."
Superman nodded. "Chasing him doesn't work."
Lois was staring ahead of her, frowning, so the men continued their discussion across her head. "We'll have to lure him to us — or to our trap, anyway," Clark continued.
"Something that appeals to his ego. I mean, he wants to be *God,* which isn't exactly an ambition for the shy and retiring."
Superman smiled at that. It had been hard for him to accept the adulation that came with putting on the tights and cape, and that was part of what he found so exhausting now. Except for brief moments like this, he had no escape from the constant attention, from people's certainty that he could solve whatever problem faced him. The needs that he could never turn his back on, the cries for help he couldn't ignore … without some time away, he was burning out, exhausting his emotional resources. Superman didn't think of it in those terms now, but he felt the weight of that responsibility on his shoulders and a bone-deep weariness that persisted despite the breaks he took to sleep or to soar in the re-energizing sunlight. "So he wants attention, right?"
"Yeah," Clark agreed. "He wants to walk down the street and see Mxyzptlk souvenirs. His face on everyone's T-shirt — "
" — people buying and selling him on street corners," Superman quoted, and the two men shared a look of distaste.
"That's it!" Lois exclaimed, flinging herself to her feet. She paced back and forth in front of the couch. "We'll need a street vendor with T-shirts and — and hats, maybe. And a big mirror. And some other customers, and a couple of little kids." She turned back to the men, who were staring at her in bemusement, and she laughed and sat down between them again. "I have an idea how to get him to say his name backwards."
Jimmy poked his head into Perry's office again. "Alice on line one, chief."
Perry nodded and asked Levi, the head of Distribution, to hold the line for just a moment. He pressed the button for line one and said, "Alice? What'd you find out?"
"You were right, Perry. The concert was canceled."
"Aw, honey, I'm sorry. Maybe we can trade in our tickets and go tomorrow night."
She sounded tired. "I don't know. Maybe,,, Could you come by this evening — when you get the paper out? I need to talk to you."
"Why, sure, honey. It may be another couple a hours, but I'll drop by if that's what you want."
"It is," she said. "Bye, Perry."
As he hung up, Perry couldn't shake the feeling that he wasn't going to enjoy this talk, but he shrugged it off and punched the line where Levi was still waiting. "Now, what's this about not having any drivers?" the editor demanded.
Superman stayed just long enough to find out what his part of the plan entailed, then he took off in response to yet another emergency call. Lois curled up in the curve of Clark's arm and rested her head on his shoulder. "Well?" she asked. "What do you think?"
His arm tightened around her shoulders as he brushed a kiss across her forehead. "I sure hope it works. I just want to get back to normal."
"Normal never sounded so good." She brushed a stray lock of hair back from his face, and her hand slid tenderly down his cheek. "Normal for us, anyway." And she leaned toward him and kissed his mouth.
"Mmmm," Clark sighed. He pulled her onto his lap, one hand sliding into her hair to hold her head against his kiss while the other one slipped down her back. His tongue touched her lips each time his mouth closed over hers, and her soft sounds of welcome drove him to take their kiss deeper.
A big truck rumbled past the townhouse, siren wailing, horn blaring at each intersection. Clark drew back, cocking his head and frowning. "What is it?" Lois asked breathlessly.
Belatedly, he realized that he couldn't do anything about the emergency … and Superman was already on duty. He looked down at Lois, her eyes sultry and dark, her lips soft and kiss-reddened, and he smiled slowly. His hand slid back into her hair, and he bent down to trace his mouth along the curve of her throat. "Nothin'," he said against her soft skin. "Nothin' at all."
The next morning, Mxyzptlk sat atop the Lex Corp building, imitating the pose of "The Thinker." However, his appearance lacked the seriousness of the original: he wore a purple tunic over his skinny frame with a purple bowler perched on his head above curly tufts of hair, red gold in the early morning sunlight. His right ear ballooned out from his head like a trumpet as he listened for any sounds of praise or gratitude for the many wishes he had granted during the past day. Only silence — or complaints — answered him.
Puzzled and unhappy, the imp tried to think of what he had done wrong. These humans were quick to make wishes and usually demanded more than one at a time. But when he gave them what they wished for, instead of being pleased and thanking him, they grumbled and complained. <Children,> he thought. <They're just a pack of children.>
But … that wasn't true. Children were the only ones who seemed happy to have their wishes granted. Even if they didn't actually say, "Thank you, Mr. Mxyzptlk," their squeals of delight were the reaction he had expected. He straightened up. That was it: he would find some more children and grant their wishes. And maybe this time someone would actually thank him.
He turned around slowly, peering over the city in search of a group of children. A schoolyard, perhaps, if it wasn't too early. Downtown, bright colors, balloons, and music caught his attention, and he turned his semaphore ear toward the commotion.
"We love you, Mi-ix-y, oh yes, we do-oo,,, Mix-yez-pi-it-lick, we love you," drifted up to him, and his heart (or what passed for one in the three-dimensional shape he had donned) swelled in his chest. <At last!> And he vanished in a puff of golden sparkles.
From the hotel window, looking through the binoculars, Lois could see the small crowd going through the street vendor's selection. T-shirts and sweat-shirts had Mxyzptlk's piratical face imprinted on them, while the vendor's assistant was working furiously to turn out additional shirts with clever palindromes and Mxyzptlk's name. The customers all seemed happy and excited, like fans discovering an unexpected cache of souvenirs for their favorite star.
She lowered the binoculars and turned back to her companions. "Remind me to do something special for Jimmy. He did a terrific job turning that screen capture into an iron-on transfer."
Superman nodded, his expression lightening at her comment as his telescopic vision focused on the carnival-like activity down the street. Clark was too tense to smile, and, frustrated by his inability to see what was happening, he held out his hand for the binoculars. "I hope this works."
"Me, too," Superman echoed.
Clark glanced back at Lois. "Mark knows what to say, right?"
Lois squeezed his shoulder. "Relax, Clark. It's a simple question, and his mom rehearsed it with him."
Mxyzptlk appeared in the center of a noisy crowd. Somewhere nearby, a cassette player was blaring the song that had caught his attention: "We love you Mi-ix-y, oh yes, we do-oo …" Above his stand, the street vendor displayed a large sign with the imp's likeness and the words, "Thank you, Mxyzptlk!" and all his stock seemed to be Mxyzptlk souvenirs.
Entranced, the fifth dimensional visitor went from one rack to another, pulling out sweatshirts and grinning at his face ironed across the front, picking up baseball caps with his name stamped above the bill, and pawing through stacks of T-shirts with sayings like, "Mxyzptlk. It doesn't get any better," and "If you made more than three wishes since last night, you might be a Mxyzptlk groupie," and "Mxyzptlk is life. The rest is just details."
This was more like it. He moved around to another table, and his beaming face changed to a frown. Picking up a neon-orange T-shirt, he marched over to the counter, where the vendor's assistant was putting transfers on more T-shirts with the commercial iron. Mxyzptlk banged on the counter to get her attention. She looked up from the iron, counting seconds. When she raised it up and pulled out another finished shirt, she asked, "Whatcha need?"
"You made a mistake," he announced. "You put some of the letters on backwards." And he held up the shirt.
She shook her head, a thick brown braid swinging across her back, and shoved her wad of gum into her cheek. "Nope. S'pposed ta be that way." She folded the shirt and reached for another blank T-shirt.
Mxyzptlk considered that; then he froze the iron in place when she tried to press it down on another transfer. "Hey, what's goin' on?" she asked.
"I want to know *why* the letters are put on backwards."
The assistant tried again to press the iron down, and when it didn't work, she turned to him and, exasperated, said, "You're s'pposed ta read it in the mirror. Reads the same either way. You know. 'Madam, I'm Adam'?" At his puzzled expression, she shook her head and told him, "Put one on and look in the mirror." The girl gestured vaguely toward the mirror at the end of the counter and turned back to her stubborn iron.
With a wave of his hand, Mxyzptlk magically donned the T-shirt and enlarged the small mirror into a huge, free-standing mirror with an ornately carved wooden frame. Behind him, a little boy watched, wide- eyed, as the imp studied his reflection. "Go ahead, Mark," the woman standing beside the boy whispered, giving him a gentle push. The child glanced up at her and, at her nod, wandered up to the magical being and asked, "Mister, what does that say?"
<Mister.> Of course. These young humans were the ones who were quickest to appreciate him. Eager to show off before his admiring audience, Mxyzptlk quickly read the palindrome, which now appeared with every letter facing forward, "MA IS AS SELFLESS AS I AM. KLTPZYXM."
As the words echoed in his ears, he realized what had happened, but fifth dimensional magic began dragging him into the interdimensional vortex. "No!" he howled. "Not this time!" Golden sparkles swirled around him, growing brighter as his image became fainter. "Superman! I'll get you!" he cried, and with a loud "pop!" he vanished, his T- shirt shooting into the air and falling unnoticed on the street.
All over the city, the effects of Mxyzptlk's magic reversed themselves.
On the freeways of Metropolis, morning rush-hour was thrown into utter chaos as sports cars, luxury cars, and four-wheel-drive vehicles shuddered to a stop and popped back into the old or rundown or practical cars they had been the day before.
On the beach, half a dozen houses squatting on the sand vanished and reappeared on their original foundations.
At S.T.A.R. Labs, a dinosaur tied up in the parking lot disappeared in a puff of sparkles, leaving behind a pile of knotted cable and two extremely disappointed paleontologists.
At The Daily Planet, Jimmy Olsen slipped into the lobby from the revolving door, and bumped against a tall blonde. "Sorry," he said automatically, his arms coming out to catch her — but she didn't fall.
She turned around, and he took in the wide blue eyes, the short nose, the full-lipped mouth,,, "Penny!"
"Wh-what are you doing here?" he stammered.
"I don't have to be at work for another hour. Can I buy you a cup of coffee?"
Upstairs in the news room, The Planet employees who had gathered around the coffee pot were startled by the sudden reappearance of a dozen co-workers. Sun-burned and chattering, the newcomers froze as they realized where they were.
Perry raised an eyebrow, and Ralph looked down at his bare chest, his pants rolled up to the knee, sand still clinging to his bare toes. "Ummm, maybe I should go home and change," the reporter said and shuffled toward the elevator.
The sparkles and Mxyzptlk's howl of protest reached the tense on- lookers in the hotel room down the street. "He's gone!" Lois cried. "We did it!" She swung back from the window to hug her companions — and stopped at the blazing light surrounding them.
"Oh, God," she whispered, pressing her balled fists to her mouth, blinking against the brilliant ball of light. The miniature sun flared up, covering the two men completely. Then it seemed to grow smaller, dimmer, and when it disappeared, only one figure remained. "Clark?" she asked hesitantly.
He looked down his body, feeling the easy power in the muscles under his t-shirt and jeans. He tuned into — then blocked out — a conversation from the next room, and when he "looked" through the wall, he saw a maid pushing her cart down the hallway. He turned back to Lois, smiling. "Both of us."
She cast herself into his arms. "Sweetheart," she gasped before she began pressing kisses onto his face.
Clark grinned and tightened his arms around her, turning round and round, spiraling upward until his head nearly bumped the ceiling. "Oh, honey, it feels so good to be *me* again!" And he bent down and kissed her.
Lois and Clark lingered in the elevator, kissing even after the door opened and only reluctantly stepping into the news room. Still holding hands, they strolled toward their desks, where Jimmy intercepted them.
"Hey, Lois, CK, I'm cured!" He patted Lois on the shoulder. "See? No more women falling for me."
Lois rolled her eyes and looked through her in-basket, while Clark noticed Jimmy's cheerful whistling and the happy way he circled them before heading toward his desk. "Except one, right?" Clark guessed.
A broad grin split Jimmy's face, and he pointed the papers in his hand at Clark. "CK, did anyone ever tell you you should be an investigative reporter?" He started whistling again and spun back toward his own desk.
Clark grinned and turned back to his wife. With her head bent down a bit as she studied a barely legible message, the bare nape of her neck was exposed, and he gave in to the urge to plant a kiss there.
"Hey, hey," a gruff voice interrupted. "This is a news room, not a Valentine's Day celebration at the Trojan Honeymoon Hideaway."
Lois tipped her head back and smiled at Clark, who shrugged and grinned back. "Sounds like a fun place to visit," he whispered.
She took a deep breath and turned around, her dark eyes flashing. "Set up the reservations," she challenged him, one finger running down the length of his tie and ending at his waistband.
His gaze lifted to hers in time to see her slowly moisten her parted lips with the tip of her tongue. "I'll call 'em today," he promised.
She smiled again, then called over her shoulder, "What did you have for us, Perry?"
"In here." He gestured toward his office with his head. When they were standing at his desk, he continued, "Am I right in guessin' that you two were workin' with Superman to get rid of that Mix-yet guy … and that he's gone now?"
Lois nodded. "Superman assures us that all Mix-yeh-spit-lick's magic disappeared with him, too, so everything should be getting back to normal."
"All right. Then get me the story on what happened. Mr. Stern wants an editorial about how nothin' good comes of people wantin' somethin' for nothin', and I'll need a news piece to hang it on." He walked around his desk and saw them still standing there. "What're you doin'? Get after it."
Lois headed for her desk, but Clark lingered at the door. "Chief," he began hesitantly, "is everything okay?"
For a minute, Perry looked like he was going to chew Clark out; then he reconsidered and said, "Alice and I had a talk last night. She … uh … wants me to decide what my priorities are … because she doesn't want to be in second or third place."
Clark tried to picture Lois accepting second or third place in his life, but it was impossible for him even to imagine relegating her to that position. In a blinding flash, he realized that that was why she was willing to accept the other demands on his time: she knew beyond any doubt that she was first in his heart and mind.
But Perry,,, He loved the paper as passionately as most men loved their wives or children. No wonder Alice felt like she was taking second place to a demanding mistress.
"If you love someone," Clark began slowly, looking at the floor as he tried to find the right words, "I think you have to love them with your whole heart … and not try to split that love with someone or something else … or neither one'll be happy." He glanced up and smiled faintly. "I think this is one case where half a loaf is worse than none at all."
Perry stared at his folded hands, and after a moment, Clark excused himself and went back to his desk. Behind him, a man whose lifeblood was the newspaper business looked at his two fondest dreams and began to realize that he might not be able to have both.
On the patio that evening, Clark raised his arm to the back of their new loveseat to let Lois snuggle in beside him. She shivered, and he tightened his arm around her shoulders. "Cold?" He ran his hand up and down her arm.
"A little," she admitted.
Clark directed a gentle burst of heat vision at her, and she arched against the welcome warmth, a sigh of pleasure rumbling in her throat. "Better?" he asked.
"Mmmm, yes." Lois sighed and relaxed against him. He had taken off his suitcoat and tie, and with his glasses on the table beside him, he looked like a combination of Superman and Clark Kent — that face he showed only to her and his parents. "It's been a crazy three days — almost like going back in time."
She laughed. "Oh, not for you, but for me … back when I used to think Clark Kent, the farm boy from Kansas, and Superman, the oh-so- romantic superhero, were two different people. Of course, Mixulplick mixed that up — " she grinned at her own pun — "by splitting up the brains, too, but still …" She tipped her head back and studied his expression. "Are you okay with this?"
He was slow to answer, and Lois straightened up. "Clark?"
"I'm okay." He stared into her dark eyes. "It's just … something I hadn't realized before."
As Lois waited, Clark took a deep breath and continued. "After I was … split … into Clark and Superman, I — Clark — " He shook his head. "This is really hard to explain … I have both sets of memories because both of them were *me.*" He let out his breath in a gusty sigh. "*Clark* was jealous of Superman …"
"Over me?" At his nod, she continued, "Why? I mean, I was treating Clark like he was my husband and Superman was just a friend."
"I know. But … Lois, Superman was a lot more like who I'd been before the split than Clark was."
"*Clark* was me without the powers, and … as far as he knew, Superman was me with them. He — Clark, I mean — felt … disabled."
She frowned. "But you've been without your powers before, and you didn't feel that way,,, Did you?"
He shook his head. "But I didn't have Superman flying around, being the me I'd always been,,, It was the comparison, I think."
"But Superman wasn't himself, either."
He smiled faintly. "Yeah, I know." His gaze became unfocused. "That was … hard."
His expression reflected the pain of those memories, and Lois rested her hand on his shoulder, offering the comfort of her presence. "Is that what you realized? That you needed to be smart *and* strong to be Superman?"
Clark shook off the memory of helpless frustration. "That isn't …" He braced his forearms on his knees while he stared at his flexing hands. "I don't know if you can understand this, but … ever since I created Superman, I've thought of him as a … disguise. Just a suit and some super powers to hide the real person, Clark. Me." He glanced over his shoulder at her and smiled faintly. "But that isn't true. The Clark I show to the world, the one I tried to get you to fall in love with, the normal guy who can get hurt and is never around when there's trouble … is a disguise, too. Something I pretend to be. What's made me the man I am, the things I've done — or not done — " she smiled to herself at that reminder that he had been a virgin when they married — "are because I *am* an alien with super powers. Who grew up on a farm in Kansas. Neither of 'em is more real than the other."
"Of course. So what're you trying to say?" she asked.
"Maybe you already knew that. But I didn't. I thought of myself as a normal guy. Clark. And when we first met … I used to get mad at you for being in love with — with a fancy costume and some super powers … and ignoring the *real* me. Except you weren't,,, So that kinda answers a question I'd had about the soul-mates thing."
Her perplexed expression cleared, and she nodded. "How we could be soul mates if it took me *years* to fall in love with you? Yeah, I've asked myself that one once or twice."
Clark sat back and put his arm around her again. "But it isn't true. Superman is as much the real me as the — the public Clark is, and you fell for him as fast as I fell for you." He pulled her onto his lap, nuzzling the side of her face and ear as he murmured, "So we *were* destined to be together."
Lois smiled and tilted her head to one side, arching the side of her neck toward his mouth. She wasn't sure that she bought his whole argument. Clark, after all, *did* tend to think in black-and-white, either-or terms. But he was right about one thing: he kept his real self hidden from everyone except her — and his parents. "So you don't — um — want to — oh, Clark, that is *so* … um, want to be a regular guy any more?"
He grinned against her neck, enjoying the fact he could break her concentration, but delighting in her ability to stay on track anyway. "I never was one before, so why should I start now?"
That brought her head around in surprise. Clark had denied his extraordinary nature for so long that she had despaired of his ever admitting it to himself, even though he had seemed more comfortable with the idea since their marriage.
He misread her surprise and added, "Well, it was nice not having to dash off all the time. But when people were in trouble, it really … hurt … to have to sit by because I couldn't help them."
Lois nodded. "Not being able to do what you were born to do."
His flickering smile let her know he remembered Ultra Woman telling him that. "Yeah, but Superman couldn't help 24 hours a day, either. He was burning out. He couldn't escape from his public face. And he didn't have someone to go to who was strong enough to support *him.*" Clark lifted her hands to his mouth and kissed them. "I love you, Lois Lane," he said, looking into her eyes and speaking as solemnly as if they were exchanging their wedding vows again. "And I need you every minute of every day."
"Oh, Clark," she whispered. "I love you, too." Love and gratitude threatened to overwhelm her, bringing tears to her eyes, and her smile twisted a little. "So, no more obsessing about not being able to help everyone."
"Mmmm-hmmm," he agreed, planting small kisses down her jaw.
"And — and no more obsessing about not spending enough time with me."
"Mmmm." This time, his murmur sounded undecided … a definite 'maybe I'll think about it.'
Well, she could live with his obsessing over that. "And no patrolling tonight until after I celebrate having my husband back in one piece."
Clark nearly choked on a spurt of laughter and rose to his feet, cradling her easily in his arms. "Absolutely!"
Lois flung her arms around his neck and closed her eyes as their furnishings flashed dizzyingly past her. All was right in the world. Mxyzptlk was in his own dimension, and her Superman was back where he belonged, at peace with himself, in her arms.
This story was the result of the pairing up of a premise (how would Lois deal with a physically separate Clark and Superman?) with a story theme (Clark realizes that his public "Clark" persona is as much a disguise as Superman). The two ideas had floated around separately for quite a while until I realized that separating Clark into two people might provide the crucible I needed for him to recognize that neither Superman nor the public Clark was the whole truth about himself. Since the premise was so fantastic, and I wanted to return everything to normal by story's end, Mxyzptlk was the obvious choice for a villain, and the story came together from there. The choice of wishes for Perry and Jimmy seemed to happen by accident, but as a writer, I've learned that there are no accidents. Instead, their subplots let me explore on different levels the two themes of being loved for oneself and not splitting one's love between multiple objects.
Special thanks go to Kathy Brown and Lynda Love, whom I rely on to point out those places where I'm unclear or hard to understand. Despite time crunches and terribly short notice, they did their usual excellent job and, frankly, stopped me from miswriting Clark's epiphany in my haste to meet my deadline. Thank God for editors who aren't afraid to say what they really think and *why* and who are good enough writers to make valuable suggestions for changes in dialogue or wording; they are pearls without price.
The final scene is my response to Zoom's post following the original broadcast of "Lethal Weapon." Zoom wrote: "I would like incidents like the sharpshooter, and even the effect of the red K itself, to start Clark on some trail of self-discovery that maybe after 4 years, Superman is a lot more than 'what he can do' (Tempus Fugitive), or a job for helping people (Individual Responsibility). That Superman is everything Clark is and more. That Superman is the public consumption side of Clark's truest self,,, Lois has been in love with Clark from the very beginning, and for all that he was (alien, super powers, Clark's 'goodness') just as Clark had loved her from the very beginning. I just want Clark to slowly discover this." The show never gave us that journey of self-discovery, and I was arrogant enough to think I could do it, so you can decide whether I succeeded or not. In any case, the last scene is for you, Zoom.