By Yvonne Connell <Yvonne@yconnell.fsnet.co.uk>
Submitted December 1999
Summary: For readers who wanted to know how Clark2 coped when he went back to his own universe… here is his story, that of a lonely superhero. However, there are a few surprises in store for him. Part two in the author's "Fear of Discovery" series.
This story is all Wendy Richards' fault <g>. She encouraged me to write an altClark story, and this is the result. It follows on from my previous story, Fear of Discovery, but I've tried to ensure that this one pretty much stands on its own. This is the story of altClark and his life as a single and somewhat lonely superhero.
'Butteries', by the way, are an Aberdonian delicacy (my home town in Scotland). People usually eat them for breakfast, warmed up, and personally, I like them spread with butter while they're still warm so that the butter sinks into the bread, then covered with jam or Scottish heather honey. You can only buy them in the North East of Scotland - which is probably just as well, otherwise I'd eat far too many of them (being exiled to SE England as I am).
Email to: Yvonne@yconnell.fsnet.co.uk
Feedback: Private/public comments of any description are welcome. No editing.
The alley was quiet except for a scrawny dog snuffling around the trash cans bunched together at the end nearest the street. Metropolis was a busy city, but this was a forgotten corner where drunks sometimes sheltered or addicts sought relief for an all too brief moment in time. Tonight the alley was clear, probably because an MPD squad car had just cruised slowly by. The dog found the end of something interesting and possibly edible, and started to pull on it with its teeth, but when the air started to vibrate strangely at the far end of the alley, it looked up and barked to warn off the unfamiliar presence. Its barking became more aggressive as the vibrating air slowly solidified into a dark shape. When the dark shape coalesced into the form of a man dressed in a blue ski-suit with a yellow belt, red briefs and a red, flowing cape, it stopped its barking suddenly, stared for a moment and then ran off into the night. It would be some time before the dog was brave enough to scavenge in that particular alley again.
Clark Kent unlocked the front door of his apartment and entered just as his answering machine kicked in and a voice with a Southern twang rang out loud and clear.
"Clark, just where the heck are you, son? I checked the world news reports again but there's nothing major going down, and the MPD say they haven't seen you for days. Alice had to throw last night's dinner in the trash, and you know how she-"
Clark slammed the door shut and sped over to the phone to pick it up. "Hi, Perry. Sorry about Alice's dinner."
"Clark! At last. Where have you been?"
"I-I had to help a close friend in trouble."
"For two weeks?"
"He was in a lot of trouble." Was it really that long, thought Clark.
"You could have phoned."
"Ah…not from where I was. Look, Perry, I'm really sorry that I missed your dinner last night, and I'm sorry I've been out of touch for so long. It was just… something I had to do."
"I see," said Perry, plainly not understanding at all. "Well, I guess we all have commitments we can't break from time to time. You'd better call that editor of yours, though. I hear he's pretty mad."
Clark sighed deeply. Life just seemed to get more and more complicated the longer he acted out this dual role of journalist and super-hero. He'd only been in the other universe for a few days, and although he had been warned that the elapsed time across universes could be unpredictable, he had never expected to be explaining away a 14 day absence.
"Sure, I'll call him."
"I'll talk to Alice about rescheduling dinner, but it's gonna take some doing. You know she doesn't understand your sudden Superman absences like I do."
"Yes, tell her I'm sorry." He seemed to be saying a lot of that.
"I will. But look here, son, it's good to have you back. Just don't disappear on us again like that, you hear?"
"Sure, Perry. And thanks."
Clark replaced the received and slumped down on a chair, his cape scrunched up beneath him. One of his best friends was mad at him for missing dinner, his editor was ready to throw him out, and even that dog in the alley had run away from him. Was there anything else? Oh, yes, that video he'd rented over two weeks ago was now way overdue and he had a bad feeling about the contents of his vegetable basket.
He decided to ignore it all and make himself a cup of coffee instead. He needed to adjust to being back home. Barely ten minutes ago, he had been saying farewell to his opposite number in a different universe, having spent several days helping him survive a cruel plot to ruin his life by exposing him to the world as a man with a secret identity: that of the superhero, Superman. After an initial awkwardness, the two men had become as close as brothers, and it had been a wrench to leave his friend to return home.
Now he had to get used to living on his own again.
He did a quick change out of the Superman suit into a comfortable pair of jeans and a black T-shirt - God, it was good to be wearing his own clothes again - and padded into the kitchen. Ignoring the pungent smell of rotting carrots which his super-sense picked up, he made coffee while his mind wandered back to the other universe again. Clark and he had made the startling discovery towards the end of his visit that they could read each other's minds, and whilst they had decided to avoid using the facility except in emergencies, nevertheless, he had become used to feeling a constant presence within him. Clark had likened it to growing an extra limb: at first it felt strange, but once you became accustomed to it, you began to take it for granted. Today the limb had been severed.
Taking the coffee back to his sofa, he sat down and tried to stretch his mind outwards, to see if he could re-establish the link. Maybe if he could imagine what Clark was doing right now, he could make contact…when he had left, Clark had been optimistic that their latest attempt to show Clark and Superman as two separate men had been successful, so he was probably checking the news reports. He tried to imagine his friend sitting in front of the TV, his arm around Lois - his heart lurched at the thought of Lois - as he flicked through the channels…but nothing. The link had gone. OK, what did he expect? There was no link before across the universes, so why should there be one now? He gulped down a large mouthful of coffee and stood up decisively. No point in dwelling on it. Do something useful.
He dealt with the rotting vegetables, took the video back and paid the gigantic fine with a grimace, bought some more food whilst he was out, came back home and picked up the phone. Time to phone his editor.
"Pinedo," said a harried voice.
"Hi, Ralph, it's me, Clark."
"Clark. Clark. Don't tell me, it's coming back to me…tall guy with a strange taste in ties…it's on the tip of my tongue…yes! Clark Kent. You used to work for me once, didn't you?"
Clark took a deep breath. "Ralph, I can't explain why I disappeared for two weeks, and I'm sorry about the Johnson piece, but I'm back now. Do you still want the next part of my homeless series?"
"Do I still want the next part of your series? Let me see now…we printed an ad saying we're running a five part series…do I want part three? Tough decision. I tell you what, Clark, you tell me. Do I want part three, or shall I run another ad saying we're sorry, but the Daily Planet can't count? We thought there were five parts, but really there's only two."
"You want part three?" answered Clark tentatively.
"Of course I want part three! The Star are just waiting for us to make some stupid slip-up like this, so yes, write parts, three, four and five. Preferably sometime before the next ice-age."
"I'll get on it right away, Ralph."
"You going to tell me where you were, or is this some mystic Superman thing?"
"I'm sorry, I can't."
"Look, Clark, we all know you have to run off at the drop of a hat to do your rescues, and I think I'm right in saying that I already cut you quite a lot of slack because of that. God knows, the city needs someone like you. But two weeks! It wasn't girlfriend trouble, was it?"
Clark rolled his eyes. The man had a one-track mind. "No, Ralph, it wasn't anything like that."
"Because, you know, I'd understand something like that."
I bet you would, thought Clark. "No, it was just something important, but private."
"OK, OK, I know when to stop asking questions."
Clark could almost feel the conspiratorial nudge in his ribs, despite the fact he was only on the other end of a phone. "I'll see you tomorrow, Ralph."
Clark groaned out loud as he replaced the receiver. He hated that nickname, and had told Ralph several times that he disliked it, but the man was impervious to his objections. How he ever got the editor's job was a mystery to Clark. Well, not quite. He thought it was probably because the newspaper's owner, Mr Olsen, had decided that it was time for an injection of youth into the paper. After all, Mr Olsen was quite young himself, and probably thought that because he was successful from an early age, other youngsters could be equally successful. Clark was sure that Ralph would have performed well at interview, and despite his obvious deficiencies, had managed to amass some pretty impressive credentials. The Washington Post spoke very highly of him, although Clark wondered privately if they had just incredibly desperate to get rid of him. Come back, Perry, please, he thought. But Perry was mayor now, and far too busy to have anything to do with the editorship of the Planet.
Digging out his notes on the homeless series, he tried to think himself back into the world of down-and-outs, doss-houses and street begging which had been his concern before his excursion into parallel universe travel. He already had a good idea of how this next part was going to be written, so the job should have been easy. However, his mind kept wandering back to his recent adventures, and so the article took him twice as long as usual to complete. Nevertheless, it was done, and after a couple of passes through to check it over, he emailed it to Ralph.
He was just getting up to fetch another cup of coffee when the noise of sirens made him stop, spin into the suit and fly off to see what he could do to help.
The fire was a raging inferno by the time he got there. Flames were roaring out of the shop windows and shooting up the front of the building. Already, the shop sign had melted under the heat from the fire, and the fire brigade were fighting a losing battle with their hoses. Clark could see that they were trying to move inside, which meant that there were still people trapped, and without hesitation flew directly through the flames into the building. Experience of these situations had taught him that a moment spent listening for heart-beats was much more effective than frantic searching and calling out, and that was what he did now. He detected two people, in a room behind the one he was standing in.
Seconds later, he was setting the wife down beside her husband and unwrapping her from the protective folds of his cape. Immediately she grabbed hold of his arms, saying, "Carrie, my daughter! Have you got her?"
Clark's heart lurched. He'd missed the third heartbeat. He flew back inside and listened intently. Tuning out the sounds of the fire as much as he could, he listened for the rhythm of a child's heart, praying that he wasn't too late. For a split second he was torn between resorting to brute force to find the child and continuing to listen, and then…very faintly…it was there. The slightly higher pitched, faster rhythm of a terrified child. He followed the sound to a chest freezer at the back of the shop, and yanking the door up, found a little girl huddled into a tight ball in a corner. As soon as he lifted her gently out she wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her face in his shoulder. He pulled his cape around her and flew outside to her parents and the paramedics.
"Thanks, Superman." The father clapped his hand on Clark's shoulder in gratitude.
"Glad to help."
Clark smiled briefly before turning his attention to the fire again. One strong, even blow of super-breath, and it was extinguished for good. He turned back to the father.
"Any idea how it started?"
The man's expression hardened from relief to something more aggressive. "No. No idea at all."
"What about the fire brigade - did they say anything?"
"Look, Superman, I'm just grateful my family are safe." He turned away abruptly to talk to his wife, leaving Clark to puzzle at the abrupt brush-off.
Two days later, Clark had put out his fourth fire in the same district and was beginning to wonder just what was going on. It was unusual but not unlikely that two fires could happen in the same area, especially a poor area where these had taken place, but four? Something wasn't right. He asked the fourth group of people he rescued if they knew how the fire had started, and just like the first family, the shutters came down and they refused to comment. It was time to get more persistent, and so he spent some time chasing down the victims' addresses so that he could interview each of them in case anyone was willing to talk. At the same time, he tried to put together a theory on why so many fires might be happening in the same small area. A phone call to the fire department yielded a small clue: the fires were being treated as suspected arson cases. That was enough to make him contact Chen Chow, his friend on the Chinatown Gazette.
"You want to shoot some hoops tonight, Chen?"
"Sure. What time?"
"Around 7 OK for you?"
"All right, see you then. Should I bring my notebook and pen with me?"
"Why would you want to do that?"
"Well, a guy doesn't hear from his buddy for over three weeks and then suddenly he wants to play ball with you the very day he calls you. You're on a story, Clark."
"I'm always on a story."
"Yeah, yeah, and I'm always eating Chop Suey. Just remember to leave the super-strength at home, OK?"
Clark had worked hard at this particular friendship. They had been friends since college, but when the truth had come out about Clark's true identity, Chen had been understandably confused and wary of the person he thought he knew. Clark had done everything he could to demonstrate that he was still the same person he had always been, but things had come to a messy stand-off when they had tried to play ball together for the first time. Clark had been pleased that Chen had accepted his invitation to play, but the first five minutes were stilted and unpleasant, and then Chen had suddenly stopped with the ball tucked under one arm and said,
"I don't know why you bother…no, I don't know why *I* bother. This must be a big joke for you."
"Pretending that I might actually be able to beat you. I mean, I must be just like a toy to you."
"No, you're wrong, it's not like that-"
"Do you have any idea how humiliating this is? I feel like-like this big." He held his finger and thumb up close to illustrate his point. "Here I am, playing with my college buddy, thinking we're pretty evenly matched, today I feel like I could beat him, and all the time, you could just crush me like a fly."
"I would never-"
"I thought you were just like me, and now you turn out to be some weird alien who can fly!"
"Do I get to say anything here? Or are you just going to yell at me all night?"
The two men stared at each other in anger and frustration. Chen bounced the ball a couple of times on the ground before throwing it abruptly to Clark.
"To begin with, I would never hurt you, or anyone else I cared about for that matter. I use my strength to stop people from getting hurt, or to stop bad guys commit crimes. You must believe that?"
"Chen! When have I ever hurt you? When have you ever seen me hurt anyone else, or heard of me doing anything like that?"
"I guess I haven't. But why bother to pretend I can beat you on the court? That's just a joke."
"No it isn't. You don't understand."
"No, I don't."
"OK. This is hard for me to explain, but I'll try. What you have to remember is, I've been hiding this thing all my life. So, all my life I've been acting like I've got normal strength, a normal range of physical abilities. Nowadays, it's a habit. I can be super-strong, or I can be normal. When I play ball with you, I'm normal. When I race you for the ball, I'm putting just as much effort into it as you are, because I don't let myself use my powers - they're…switched off."
"But you could switch them on if you wanted. You could beat me every time."
"Sure I could, but where's the challenge in that? Don't you realise how dull life would be for me if I let myself win every single time?"
"Oh, poor, poor, Clark."
Clark groaned inwardly. He was making a complete mess of this. How could he be an award-winning writer and not be able to string the words together to say what he meant when it really mattered?
"Why can't you let me be normal?" he blurted out in frustration.
"Because you're not!" countered Chen.
Clark felt as if he'd been punched in the face. He turned on his heel and walked away in silence.
He continued to walk.
He broke into a jog. It was time to put distance between himself and the ugly incident. He heard footsteps behind him, but didn't feel like stopping.
"Clark, don't go all supersonic on me now, or I'll never catch you up!"
That made him stop. Chen came up breathlessly behind him and clapped a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry. I should never have said that."
Clark laughed mirthlessly. "It's true, isn't it?"
"Give me a minute here…" Clark waited while Chen caught his breath. "Maybe, but I should still never have said it. It was cruel and unnecessary. You're a good friend, and I don't want to lose that."
"Neither do I."
"OK. We can make this thing work then."
"I guess we can."
"So, tell me about the flying. Do you really fly, or do you just do, like, giant leaps in the air?"
They continued up the street, Clark doing his best to describe how he flew to his friend, and even revealing a couple of powers which hadn't yet been exposed in the media.
"Super-hearing? Wow, that could be useful!"
"Useful? Embarrassing, more like, when it happened for the first time."
"When was that?"
"At home one night…"
"Yeah. I thought they were fighting at first…all those odd noises, you know?"
"Well, let me tell you, you don't need to have had super-hearing to have been through that."
"Let me tell you about my big sister…"
They finished up the evening in a bar, exchanging stories about growing up until the barkeeper threw them out at closing time.
After that point, the friendship was rekindled, and Clark made sure that he kept in regular touch with his friend, knowing that he was very lucky to have at least one person with whom he could have a normal relationship.
"Oh, no, you don't!"
Chen switched hands and darted away to his left as Clark came around his right side. A quick twist on the ball of his foot, a leap in the air, and the ball was home and dry in the net.
"So what do you want to know about Chinatown?" Chen asked.
"Oh, come on, Clark. Stop being so coy. You're not here for the exercise."
"OK, OK. But it's really not Chinatown. Have you heard about these fires?"
"In the garment district? Yes, sure. And you're wondering, since that's next door to my patch, do I know anything?"
"I know there's a lot of scared people around. I know the Chinatown shopkeepers are keeping their heads down and hoping it doesn't spread to them."
"Do you know why they're scared?"
"Wouldn't you be scared if you thought your place was going to go up in flames?"
Clark pulled a face. "Sure, but there's more to it than that. The fire department say it's arson, but I'm guessing these people aren't setting the fires themselves. I bet most of them haven't got any insurance to collect."
"No, but maybe they're still paying for some."
"You mean an old-fashioned protection racket?"
"It might be old, but sometimes old works best, you know?"
"Who do you think is doing the protecting?"
"Can't help you there. But my money would be on one of the big crime syndicates, maybe looking to diversify their portfolio."
"I heard Billy Shand let his son take over part of the operation."
"Yes, it could be Michael. He's been desperate for his own little piece of the action for a while now. And he'd be the kind of guy to try something new, just to prove himself to the veterans."
"This is all guess-work, though."
"Not all. I've heard about the protection racket from some pretty reliable sources."
"Why aren't you investigating it?"
"Not enough resources. We've got plenty to report on in our part of town, and I figured you'd be around soon enough to look into it with the might of the Daily Planet behind you."
"So you knew I'd be asking you about the fires?"
"Hey, I'm a reporter! What do you expect?"
"I expect you to be suitably impressed when I do this."
Clark lobbed the ball into the net, but it bounced off the edge of the ring and back down into Chen's waiting arms.
"Oh, very impressive, Clark. What's the matter? That's the second time you've missed."
"I guess my mind's not on the game. Sorry."
"You going to tell me where you were for two weeks?"
Clark smiled ruefully.
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"Thanks, but if I told you, you'd think I was really weird."
"You mean flying isn't weird?" Chen held up a hand quickly as Clark balked at his comment. "Only kidding. Come on, you've got me interested now."
"Some other time, maybe."
Clark knew he would never tell Chen where he had been. Chen was a good friend, but Clark was aware that his friend still thought him strange, and he didn't want to amplify that any further by claiming to have passed into a parallel universe. They managed to maintain a happy, but ultimately superficial relationship, which was as much as Clark felt he could expect in his situation, and he didn't want to lose what he had worked so hard to build up. No, this was one part of himself that he was going to keep completely private. After all, he told himself, he needed some secrets when so much of his life was in the public eye. If that meant he couldn't share his feelings of loss following his departure from the other universe, then it was a small price to pay.
Looking down the short row of houses, Clark wondered if he was going to be any more fortunate with this family than he had with the others. So far, he'd visited two sets of victims, and had two very brief conversations which had terminated in doors being firmly shut in his face. Perhaps he should try a different tactic this time. He'd tried sympathy and subtlety, maybe this time he'd try the direct approach. When the door opened, he began,
"Hello, I'm Clark Kent, from the Daily Planet and I really think you could use my help."
"I doubt that, unless you're a qualified plumber," replied the woman he remembered rescuing a few days ago. She was holding a large spanner in one hand and a dirty rag in the other.
"I've done my share of DIY plumbing - maybe I *can* help."
"Sorry, I don't let strange men into my home."
The door began to shut, but Clark intercepted it with his hand. "Why are you so afraid?"
"I told you, I don't talk to strange men. Are you going to let go of my door, or do I have to call the police?"
I'm the next best thing, actually, Clark thought to himself, but refrained from further comment and let go of the door.
"I could have told you that would happen," said a voice behind him.
He turned around, and discovered a woman - a very attractive woman, his subconscious pointed out - standing on the sidewalk regarding him cynically.
"You won't get anyone to talk to you," she continued. "They're all too terrified."
"I know, but do you know what they're terrified of?"
"I have a few theories. How about you?"
"Drake. Mayson Drake." She held out a hand, and he clasped it. She had an assured, firm handshake. "You must be Clark Kent."
"That's right, but how did you know?"
"I recognise you from your picture in the Planet. Although it doesn't really do you justice."
Clark blinked. "That's…that's…a nice thing to say," unlike that, thought Clark, which was a dumb thing to say. "You still have the advantage over me. You know who I am…"
"I work in the DA's office. Assistant DA."
"Ah. So the DA is interested in these fires?"
"And that would be because…?"
"Because they weren't accidental. But you knew that, or you wouldn't be doorstepping the victims."
"So who does the DA think is behind the fires?"
"Sorry, Kent, that's as far as I go."
"Not even a hint?"
Clark waited, hopeful that his open, honest smile was going to work after all.
"Look, I want you to know I don't usually do this sort of thing, but…"
Yes! thought Clark.
"I've got this spare ticket for the new Lethal Weapon movie, and I wondered…well, I wondered if you'd like to go? With me, I mean. Tonight?"
Clark was all at once confused and completely at a loss as to what he actually thought of the proposition. You're not going out with anyone else tonight…so what's new?…she's very attractive…why me…why has she got an extra ticket…say something, you're staring… The thoughts whizzed through his mind one after the other.
"Of course, maybe you've seen it already. Or you probably hate Mel Gibson movies. Let's just forget it, I shouldn't have asked-"
"No, I like Lethal Weapon movies. I'd love to come." The words were out of his mouth before he was aware he'd made a decision.
"Oh. Right. Good…good, so I'll meet you there?"
"Uh, 7.30? No, I mean, the Cinemax on Brewer Street. At 7.30."
"I'll look forward to it."
Clark expected Mayson to walk away now that the date was fixed, but it didn't look as though she was going anywhere. It occurred to him that she hadn't yet done what she came here to do (on the other hand, maybe she had, whispered his subconscious) and was waiting for him to remove himself so that she could get on with her job. He started to walk down the street.
"See you later," he said over his shoulder with a smile.
Rounding the corner of the street, Clark glanced around quickly to check no-one was looking, and then did a quick spin change into his suit. It wasn't necessary to hide the change, of course, but he still felt uncomfortable laying bare his split identity for all to see. He flew up above the clouds, doing circuits of the skies above Metropolis. He couldn't believe he'd just accepted an invitation to go out with someone he'd met for about 30 seconds. What if she was an axe-murder in disguise? Well, of course, he wouldn't be in any danger, but it wouldn't make for a great night out. How did he know she really was an assistant DA - she could be anyone…she could be the arsonist, in fact. OK, so he'd check her out when he got back to the Planet. Then at least he'd know who he was dealing with. Why on earth had she asked him out? There was that comment about his picture…did she find him attractive? Or maybe she was just asking him out to find out what he knew about the fires? Maybe he could find out what she knew…no, that wasn't fair, he was going out with her on a date, not an interview. Was this a date? Or was it just a convenient way of using up an extra ticket? Why was he going? Because you find her attractive, answered a little voice in his head. Yeah, she's attractive…OK very attractive…but is there anything else? I don't know, said the voice, just go on the date and see what happens. At least you get to see a movie you know you'll like. Yes, but what if it's not as good as the others?
"Just go!" he yelled at himself, startling a passing pigeon into a brief nose-dive before it recovered its equilibrium. "Sorry," he called after it. He shook his head in self-mockery. Talking to pigeons…I really *must* get out more.
"If only law-enforcement was as easy as that in real life," said Mayson as they left the cinema.
"At least we don't have housewives doing the weekly supermarket run with a shotgun propped up in their shopping basket anymore," replied Clark.
"Yes, Perry White has done a lot to clean up this city since he became mayor. But it still takes a whole lot more than a couple of crazy cops and one big shoot-out to catch the bad guys and put them behind bars."
"I guess I do the easy part - catching them, I mean. You do the tough work of actually bringing them to trial."
"Yes…actually, I'd forgotten you do your own share of law-enforcement. You do a pretty good job of hiding away that side of yourself."
Clark smiled wryly. "I figure it's like working for the IRS, you know? 'So what do you do for a living, Clark?' 'I fight for truth, justice and the American way.' Kind of a conversation-killer."
Mayson laughed. "I guess it could be. But at least you're not taking people's hard-earned cash away from them."
"You know, I never thought of charging for my services…what do you think - five bucks for cats up trees, 50 for stopping runaway trains,100 bucks per criminal caught?"
Mayson looked sideways at him. "You *are* kidding?"
"No, I think it's a good idea. I could collect all the money up and give it to a different charity every week…what's your favourite - Save The Whales?"
"And what are you going to do when someone can't pay? Refuse to save them? Or will you have 'save and rescue' schemes for the less well-off?"
"OK, so the details need some work. Maybe I'd need an agent for that - do you know any good ones?"
"And I could have certificates. 'I was saved by Superman'," he outlined the label in mid-air with his hands, "with a tasteful logo embossed in the corner. There would be different levels, maybe bronze, silver and g-"
"You can't be serious."
"Why not? I could make a lot of money. The certificates might become collectors' items - generations of Metropolitans would hand them down to their children, and there would be museums dedicated to the larger collections. It could be the start of a whole new culture."
Mayson bashed him playfully in the arm. "Enough!"
"Yes, joke's over."
"But I was looking forward to designing the logo on my laptop tonight."
"Yeah, yeah. You want to get something to eat instead?"
"I guess I could tear myself away. You know anywhere near here?"
"There's a half-way decent pasta place on the next block - you want to go there?"
"Sounds good to me."
"…and so my Dad sent away for the application form without even telling me, and here I am, Assistant DA. How about you - did your parents have a hand in you becoming a journalist?"
Clark picked up his coffee cup and raised it to his lips with a brief smile.
"Not really," he said over the rim of the cup before taking a gulp.
"What did they want you to be - a superhero?" Mayson asked with a twinkle in her eye.
"A farmer, probably." He held the cup up in front of him and studied the pattern on it.
"Probably? You mean they didn't ever say?"
"That's right. They never told me." He took another gulp of coffee and put the cup down. This was getting too heavy: he didn't want to dump all his personal problems on her tonight. It wasn't fair on her, when they'd only just met.
"We should get the check." He started casting his eyes around to find their waiter, but his attention was drawn back to the table when he felt Mayson's hand on his.
"Clark, what happened?"
His gaze was drawn to her eyes, full of enquiry and concern. They weren't going to allow him to duck the issue after all. He drew a deep breath and heard himself say, "They died. But that was a long time ago - I was just a boy."
"How old were you?"
"I'm sorry. It must have been terrible."
"It got easier. And like I say, it was ages ago. Things are different now." He dragged his eyes away from hers and glanced around the restaurant again. "Where's that waiter got to? I swear he's avoiding us."
He was still searching around when Mayson stopped a passing waiter decisively with a hand on his arm and said pointedly,
"We'd like to pay. Now."
Within two minutes, they had settled up and were walking down the street.
"Where do you live?" asked Clark.
"Oh, it's OK, I can get a cab from here."
"You sure? I should see you home."
"That's very kind of you, but I'll be fine. Really."
She spotted a cab driving towards them and flagged it down. She said something to the driver and then turned back to Clark.
"This was nice."
"Thank you for inviting me."
"Thanks for coming."
"I had a great time."
"So did I."
"Maybe…maybe we should do this again?"
Mayson broke into a wide, happy grin. "I'd love to. You pick the time and place."
"OK, I'll call you tomorrow."
He looked at her, so pretty, sensitive and fun, and suddenly impulse overtook him and he clasped her lightly by the shoulders and kissed her on the cheek. Not expecting a response, he was surprised when she wrapped her arms around him and kissed him back. Her lips felt so warm and soft on his cheek, her body so gentle and sweet-smelling…it seemed like a lifetime since he had felt these things.
She broke away from him and turned back to the taxi. "Don't forget to call," she reminded him through the window as it drove away.
"I won't," he called after her.
He stood on the sidewalk staring after the cab as it disappeared around a corner. This was exciting. And scary. He'd only just met her, and already he'd caught himself wondering, is she the one? That was just plain ridiculous - how could he be thinking that after one night? Yet she had left him with a light heart and a smile in his soul which made the world seem a brighter, happier place to live in than it had during the past few days. This was how he had felt when the alternative Lois first came into his life and turned it upside down. Maybe Mayson was as close as he was going to get to his own Lois. He decided to walk home rather than fly, wanting to make the evening last by taking his time making his way through the streets of Metropolis, re-living the best parts of their night out together.
The next morning, he bounced down the ramp to his desk at the Daily Planet, ready to face whatever challenges Ralph or anyone else was able to throw at him. He didn't even care when he spotted his editor moving across to intercept him in front of his desk, waggling his eyebrows suggestively with a huge grin on his face.
"Looks to me like you've sorted out that girl-friend trouble, Clark. Had a good night out yesterday, did we - or should that be a good night in?"
Clark's good temper nearly evaporated…what was Ralph insinuating about Mayson? - but then he realised that Ralph couldn't possibly know anything about the previous night. The man was just fishing as usual. He smiled pleasantly.
"That's really none of your business, Ralph. Was there anything else you wanted to ask?"
"Clark, you're no fun, do you know that? You really need to go out and get yourself a life, instead of just playing the good boyscout in between communing with your Kryptonian roots or whatever it is that you do at home."
Clark felt the smile cracking, but he was determined that his good mood was not going to be destroyed today, so he shrugged helplessly and tried to change the subject again instead.
"I'm starting an investigation into the fires I've been helping put out down in the garment district. I've had a tip-off that there could be some sort of protection racket going on: that would explain why the families are terrified but no-one's saying anything. I'm going to talk to a few sources on the street today to see if I can find out who might be behind this…if that's OK with you, of course," he added belatedly.
"Have you got any leads? Anything we can actually print?"
"Not yet, but you know how these things take time…"
"Yeah, yeah, like parts of series that are two weeks overdue."
"Didn't you get-"
"Yes, I got it…not bad, not bad at all, though I had to cut it a little. Had to make space for that new competition we're running. Sorry about that - I'll make sure we run the whole of the next part."
Clark sighed internally. Ralph was always doing this - cutting copy to make way for whatever the marketing department's latest copy-selling gimmick was. And he would always promise to make it up next time…Perry would never have done this. He would have fought it out with marketing, kept the meaty content and when the paper's sales stayed on target, he would have made sure marketing knew all about it so that next time he wouldn't even have to fight the battle. He wondered what Mr Olsen thought about the direction the Planet seemed to be heading in - Clark guessed the owner must approve, although it was possible that he just wasn't aware of the decisions like this one which were being made. Maybe Clark could find a way to make sure he did…he turned his attention to the present.
"So how about the investigation?" he asked.
"Yeah, OK. Could be a juicy scandal in there somewhere."
Or a serious human interest issue, thought Clark. He would make sure that was the way the story was told, not in the more colourful, sensation-seeking manner which occasionally found its way onto the pages these days. He didn't often do investigative journalism any more - his Superman role tended to make certain aspects of the job more difficult - but he was pleased to have the opportunity to turn in a piece of work written the way he thought it should be. A reminder of the old Planet style.
He had just sat down behind his desk when his phone rang. It was the reception desk downstairs, saying that there was a little girl wanting to talk to Superman. This was a surprise: when he'd first become Superman, in full view of the public, he'd had his share of hero-worshipping visits from children - and sometimes their parents - but things had pretty much calmed down lately. A small pang of guilt flickered through him as he stood up. He didn't like to spend too much of the Planet's time on this sort of thing, but at the same time, he always took special care to give generously of himself when children were involved.
He changed in the lift, and emerged resplendent in his suit with a broad smile on his face, his cape billowing majestically behind him. He spotted the girl straightaway, sitting on one of the visitors' chairs, her short legs dangling in mid-air while she gazed around with a small frown on her face. Striding across, he crouched down in front of her and said, "Hello, I'm Superman. What can I do for you?"
"You don't have to tell me that, I'm not stupid."
"OK, you got me there. I guess this-" he gestured at his suit, "-is a dead give-away, isn't it?"
"Yeah. My Mom says it doesn't leave much to the imagination."
Clark coughed to hide his embarrassed laugh. He wasn't sure if the girl really understood what her mother was referring to or not. "Yes. Well. So, what was it you wanted?"
The girl glanced around the busy lobby anxiously before leaning close to him. "Can we go someplace else?"
"Sure, you want to come upstairs?"
Clark was aware of the curious glances from his colleagues as he led the little girl through to the conference room. He didn't often come into the newsroom dressed as Superman - another part of his effort to keep the two identities apart - so they were naturally wondering why today was different. Well, they would just have to keep wondering. He closed the conference room door and they sat down at one end of the large table. Smiling gently, he invited her to tell him what the problem was.
"Mommy and Daddy were told not to go to the police, but I figure you're not the police so you're OK. Anyway, I wasn't supposed to hear that, so really no-one's told me not to say anything, so I'm not doing wrong, am I?"
"Who told your Mommy and Daddy not to say anything?" asked Clark, side-stepping the right/wrong question until he knew more.
"A man. A real bad man. They send me upstairs when he comes, but I sat on the stairs round the corner so I could hear what he said."
"What did he say?"
Her bottom lip began to tremble. "He made Mommy cry. I never heard my Mommy cry before. And Daddy shouted at him, and then he went all quiet. The man said bad things would happen."
"What sort of bad things?"
"He said he would torch us. I don't know what that is, but it sounds real bad." She looked up at him with eyes wide with fear. "I heard him light a match once…that was when Mommy cried…"
Clark reached over and laid a gentle hand on her arm. "Where do you live, honey?"
"Above a shop."
"And what sort of shop is it?"
"Daddy sells clothes. You won't tell them I told you, will you?"
"I won't tell anybody anything you don't want them to know."
"Cross your heart and hope to die?"
"Cross my heart."
"OK. Because Daddy says not to talk to strange men, and I mustn't go anywhere with a person I don't know. I don't know you."
"I don't think Daddy would mind you talking to Superman. Now, you know my name, but I don't know yours."
"It's Clara. Clara Jefferson."
"Pleased to meet you, Clara Jefferson. You did a very brave thing, coming here to talk to me. How did you get here?"
"I took a bus and then another one. I spent all my money."
"Well, don't worry, I'll make sure you get home safe."
"Can we go flying?"
"Sure we can. Clara, has the bad man come to your house more than once?"
"He comes once a week, on Mondays usually."
"Do you think you remember enough of how he looks to help me draw a picture of him?"
"I think so."
Twenty minutes later, Clark had a portrait of the 'bad man', and Clara was ready for her first Superman flight. He dropped her well out of sight, just around the corner from her house so that she could walk the last hundred yards or so by herself. She was very excited by the flight, and he had to remind her to 'act normal' in front of her parents so as not to raise any suspicions. He flew up high and watched her until she stepped inside her house, and took a brief peek through the roof to make sure she was being properly welcomed by her parents. Satisfied that she was safe, he flew back to the Planet, changed back into 'Clark', collected the sketch and set out for the best place he knew to find 'Frank the Food', his favourite and best informant.
"OK, what d'ya want?" boomed the large man over his shoulder as he stuffed the previous customer's money into his cash register.
"Double chilli-burger with all the trimmings, large fries. Please."
A beetroot-red face jerked around at the sound of Clark's voice…the rest of the rotund figure followed at a more leisurely pace. "Clark! Where ya been, buddy? A guy can only wait so long for his next - what did you say those Scottish pastries were called again?"
"Butteries. Or rowies. Sometimes morning rolls."
"Jeez, why can't they just have one name for a thing?"
"Maybe something that good deserves more than one name."
"Could be, could be. So what you got for me this time?"
Clark held up a bulging white paper bag in front of Frank, who leaned forward to take possession, only to have it pulled out of his reach again. "But first," said Clark, "I need information."
"Try a library," replied Frank, eyeing the paper bag as it dangled just out of his reach.
"Do you like chocolate, Frank?"
"Thick, dark chocolate wrapped around rich, creamy truffle?"
"Some of these chocolates have pure cream fillings. But you probably don't like cream, do you Frank?"
"OK, OK, so what d'ya wanna know?"
Clark held out the picture he had drawn with Clara's help. "Do you know him?"
Frank took the picture into a large, sweaty hand and studied it. "Nope," he said definitively, handing it back. As Clark took it from him, he held out his hand, palm up. "Give," he said.
"Frank." Clark admonished his informant with a stern look.
"OK, at least give me a sample of the merchandise. I'm getting weak here from lack of nutrition."
Clark pulled out one large truffle and handed it over. Frank demolished it quickly. "Not bad. Belgian?" he deduced.
"Very good. I'm impressed."
"It's the cocoa butter. More than a certain level, you're talking high-class product. Add in the right flavour truffle, and it's got to be Belgian."
"I see. So tell me, Frank, what are people saying about Michael?"
"Michael Shand? Plenty."
"Like…" Clark encouraged expansion by swinging his hand around in mid-air.
"Like - he's a greedy little upstart who's screwing up his Daddy's operation by charging too much. Like - Michael couldn't organise his way out of a paper bag even if he had a pair of scissors. Like, Daddy's going to pull the plug soon to protect himself if sonny boy doesn't get his act together. That kinda thing."
"Any idea when?"
"Do I look like a Dictaphone? Listen, this stuff is a word here, a gesture there - people don't show me their appointment diaries, you know?"
"OK. What's Michael's operation?"
"Let's just say he thinks he's living in Chicago in the 1920s and he's feeling very protective. Now, do I get my truffles, or do I score you off my list of nice people?"
Clark rolled his eyes and handed over the bag. "Where's my chilli-burger?" he asked.
"You don't wanna eat that rubbish, Clark, it's bad for your heart."
"And truffles aren't?"
"Truffles are the food of life. Burgers are cholesterol-laden death-traps."
"Frank, your logic astounds me as usual."
"Just don't forget those Butter-things next time!" called Frank to Clark's back as he walked away. Clark raised a hand in acknowledgement.
Back at the office, Clark wrote up some notes on his computer whilst glancing at the phone every few seconds. He should phone Mayson, but what should he say? They'd done the movies and the informal dinner, so what next? It was probably too soon for dinner at his place, so they needed to meet on more neutral ground…she'd said she liked art, and he did too, but not passionately, and he certainly wasn't an expert. He remembered the Monet exhibition at the Metropolis Museum of Art - maybe he could get tickets for that. Everyone liked Monet, didn't they?
Half an hour later, he'd managed to procure two evening tickets, and in a sudden burst of inspiration, had remembered a French creperie nearby that he was sure Mayson would love. Now to make the phone call. He was just picking up the receiver when an unwelcome voice intruded.
"Got anything for me to print, yet, Clark?"
Clark dropped the receiver as if it had stung him. "Working on it, Ralph. But-"
"These things take time. I know. Trouble is, this is the Daily Planet…*Daily* Planet, you get it? We print the news every day, not every few days. I have blank pages to fill. I know the sales team would love to fill them with ads and earn fat commissions, but if we don't print at least *some* news, no-one wants to read the paper, no-one buys the paper, and we're all out of a job. Comprende?"
Glad you noticed we need to print news, Clark thought. "I'm getting close, Ralph, I just need a little longer."
"Well, you've got 48 hours to give me some copy, or I'm pulling it. Now get out there and use some of that superspeed of yours to bag us a story."
"All right, Ralph."
Clark looked up at him expectantly.
"You can phone her now."
"Your girlfriend. Bet the old superspeed comes in real handy in that department too, eh, Clark?" Ralph grinned broadly.
"I don't know what you mean, Ralph."
"Oh, I think you do. How many times a night, Super-Clark, three, four, five?"
Clark remained mute.
"Well, of course, maybe things are different on Krypton. Maybe you do it all by telepathy. Is that what Kryptonian girls are like, eh, Clark? Strong, silent types - good for a quick one in the photocopying room, I'll bet. Maybe you could introduce me to her?"
"Excuse me, Ralph, I just remembered I have to return a video."
Clark stood up quickly and strode over to the elevators without further acknowledgement of his editor's presence. Thankfully, the elevator came straightaway, and he escaped into the brief sanctuary it offered. He could feel rage bubbling up inside him, and he desperately needed to gain control before he did any serious damage. He thumbed the stop button and leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes in an effort to regain his inner calm. Of course, he'd received taunts before, even before people knew his secret - at school, and at his foster homes, but somehow, this man had the uncanny knack of getting right under his carefully built-up defences, going right to his core where he was most vulnerable. Maybe it was because Ralph was his boss. All the other times, the taunts and jeering had come from people who were his equal, or at least had no direct authority over him. He guessed he'd been lucky that none of the adults he'd come into contact with while he was growing up had been like that. Ralph, on the other hand, continually reminded him that he was different, that he stood out from the crowd, that he didn't fit in.
It was actually employee harassment, he realised, but he couldn't very well go to personnel and tell them. How could Superman, the world's strongest person, claim to be hurt by a few words from his boss? He was invulnerable, wasn't he?
No, I'm not, he answered himself. I'm lonely.
With that thought, he remembered Mayson again, and fumbled inside his jacket to see if he'd got his cell phone with him. He had, so he let the car continue on its journey, and called her from the lobby.
"Hi, it's me."
Why did two words from this woman leave him tongue-tied? He'd never had this problem with Lana…harassed, maybe, but not full of things to say and no way to say them. Stall, stall…
"I'm not interrupting anything, am I?"
"No, in fact I'm glad you rang. Gives me a break from this report I've been trying to write for the past hour. So, what kind of day has yours been so far?"
"Mixed, I guess. My boss is hassling me for copy."
"Your boss…that would be Ralph Pinedo?"
"What do you think of him?"
"He's…" Clark was searching for a diplomatic way to describe Ralph, but was coming up blank.
"He's a little raw, don't you think?"
Raw…that was one way of describing him, thought Clark.
"And frankly, I don't like what he's doing to the Planet," Mayson continued. "Seems to me he's trying to 'dumb down' to the Star's level - all these competitions and special offers. It's all gimmicks and no substance - present company excepted, of course."
"He was well respected at the Post," suggested Clark.
"Yeah, so well respected they practically hung out the flags when he left. I've got a friend over in Washington, and she says there were rumours of sexual harassment, although nothing was ever done about it. Face it, Clark, the guy's pocket lint."
"I know, I shouldn't pre-judge the man based on hearsay. Heck, I should know, I'm a lawyer. So aren't you going to ask my how my day's been?"
"Well, I could, but it would be much nicer to ask you in person."
"Oh?" He could hear the sudden hopefulness in her voice, and thus encouraged, pressed on.
"You said you liked art, so I hope that includes Monet?"
"You didn't get us tickets for the Monet exhibition, did you?"
"Yes," said Clark, suddenly wary that he'd made a huge mistake.
"Clark, that's wonderful. I've been wanting to go to it since it opened, but I've never managed to get tickets. When are we going?"
"Tonight?" Panic again - he'd forgotten to check she was actually free tonight.
"Taking a chance there, weren't you, Kent? But yes, I'm free, and I'd love to come."
Relief washed through him, and they rang off after making arrangements to meet later in the day.
Clark forced himself not to float upstairs to his apartment as he returned home from his second evening with Mayson. Once again, they'd had a great time together, the conversation flowing effortlessly from topic to topic, sometimes sparked off by one of the pictures they were gazing at, sometimes started by a chance remark from one or other of them. Each had shared some of the hairier episodes from their careers, and there had been tender moments when more intimate details were revealed and when hands touched and gentle caresses were exchanged. Best of all, Mayson accepted him for what he was, and gave no hint of wanting to change him in any way, or make him sublimate part of his identity for her. She took his alien origins in a matter-of-fact sort of way - that was who and what he was, and she seemed totally at ease with it. This was so refreshing after his experience with Lana, who had wanted him to hide himself away and refrain from ever using his special gifts in any way.
Come to think of it, Mayson was a lot like Lois. She was almost as good-looking as Lois, and probably just as bright. Maybe he should give up any lingering hopes of finding his Lois, the woman who was lost in the Congo before he even came to Metropolis, and settle for Mayson instead. The alternate Lois had given him an all-too brief glimpse of what he would never experience in his own dimension; his heart still ached for her in a way he didn't fully understand. He didn't think he loved her, but there was still a very strong pull towards her which he had found almost impossible to ignore while he'd been close to her. In some ways, their most recent encounter had been easier for him than the first time he met her, because her husband Clark had always been present and thus served as an unconscious barrier and reminder of reality. He still had to keep his distance from her for his own sanity - he recalled an embarrassing moment when she'd reached out to him and he'd flinched away from her. God knows what she must have thought of him then.
But now he had Mayson. Of course, it was too soon to be thinking of long-term plans, and he was going to make sure he didn't rush her at all. Who knew - things might not work out between them anyway, but he was going to give it his best shot and enjoy it while it lasted.
The phone rang suddenly, jolting him out of his reverie.
"Chocolate mousse." said Mayson.
Clark laughed. "I thought we settled that!"
"No, you settled it. You said chocolate fudge cake was the superior dessert and then you changed the subject. Don't think I didn't notice."
"Well, the waiter was beginning to give us funny looks. Especially when you threatened to ask the rest of the restaurant for a vote on the issue."
"I like a democratic decision."
"Mayson, they didn't even have either dessert on the menu!"
"But they should have. Anyway, like I say, chocolate mousse always wins over fudge cake - and I am prepared to defend that position in a court of law."
"Mmmm, I can just see Ralph's headline - Assistant DA Defends Mighty Mousse."
Mayson giggled. "Or, Clark Kent's Cake Causes Catastrophe in Court."
"Mousse Mayson Makes Mountain out of Molehill?"
"Oh, please! A girl can only take so much alliteration in one day."
"OK, I promise to stop if you agree that fudge cake is better."
"No way, buster. But I tell you what, how about you bring that picture around tomorrow and we can settle the argument over lunch."
"Sounds fair. What time?"
"Around one is fine."
"All right. Just don't expect me to eat any mousse."
"Goodnight, Clark, and sweet dreams. Mousse-filled, I hope."
"May-" he began, but she'd put the phone down.
He chuckled as he replaced the receiver - he'd have to get back at her for that.
He had been reticent to tell Mayson about the picture when she had asked casually if he had any new leads on the arson case. It was important to respect the little girl's privacy, so he'd talked vaguely about his conversation with Frank the Food and nothing more. However, Mayson had told him a little more about the DA's problem, and he had begun to think that perhaps he should share more with her after all. Apparently, the DA had been trying for years to snare a high-ranking member of Billy Shand's syndicate, and they now thought that Michael was looking like the weak link in the chain. They were pretty sure that the fires were his responsibility, and because it looked like the operation was turning sour, they were pulling out all the stops to build a case against him. The theory was that once they caught someone like Michael, the rest of Billy's operation would begin to unravel. Clark could see that a lot of lives could be saved if they were even partly successful, and so after an inner tussle with his conscience, he finally told her about the picture, and she immediately suggested checking it against police records. He agreed enthusiastically, knowing how much it would advance the case if they found a match against a known felon.
Gazing at the receiver he had just replaced, his mind wandered back to brave little Clara and her family. He could only imagine how it felt to live in constant fear of the knock at the door, the unwelcome visit from someone who effectively ruled your life. Everything would be tainted by it - even the happy times would be dulled by the constant pressure, the glance over the shoulder to check all was secure. Clark had known sadness and loneliness; he'd experienced fear, but mostly his fear was of inner demons, like his developing powers, which sometimes seemed uncontrollable and wholly inhuman. That had been almost terrifying at times, but he had never been scared of another person…well, not physically scared, anyway. He felt pleased that Mayson and he looked set to bring some light into these blighted lives.
The next morning, anyone entering Clark's apartment would have been forgiven for thinking a whirlwind had passed through. There were ties; brightly patterned ties, sober striped ones, cartoon-festooned ties strewn over the couch, together with jackets, trousers, slacks and shirts all jumbled up together. Clark stood before this mess in his underwear and an unbuttoned blue shirt, running a hand through his hair in bemusement.
This is crazy! What is suddenly so difficult about choosing what to wear? You're acting like a teenager, he berated himself. Just wear these pants…he grabbed the nearest pair…with this tie…another lunge for the one with little yellow stars…and this…he picked his favourite jacket…and get going! A quick spin later, he was staring at himself in the mirror again…never did like that tie <shut up!>…in fact, I don't know why you keep it <shut up!>…try the modern art one again…she likes art <OK, but this is the last time>. Another lightening change, and another critical examination in the mirror.
"All right, Clark, that's it. If she doesn't like the tie, too bad."
He rushed out the door, determined not to give himself time to rethink yet again.
The morning dragged by. Ralph was out of town for the day, so there wasn't even the distraction of playing word-football with Metropolis' answer to Casanova <in your dreams, Ralph!>. By 11 o'clock, Clark was killing time by surfing the web for people called Clark, and by 11.30am, he had begun to hope that someone would yell "Superman!" - nothing serious, just a cat up a tree would do - just so he could do something. Eventually, the clock inched its way up to 12.30pm, and Clark couldn't stand it any longer. If he walked really slowly, he could stretch the 10 minute journey to Mayson's office into 20 minutes, and probably by the time he'd waited for traffic signals to change, the other 10 minutes would be gone. Easily.
Fifteen minutes later, Clark knocked on Mayson's office door. It opened just as he was drawing back for a second rap with his knuckles.
"Hi," said Mayson a little breathlessly.
"Hi," replied Clark, his fist still held up in mid-air.
"You going to hit me with that, or is it some kind of special Kryptonian greeting?"
He looked at his fist in surprise.
"This? I…no, actually, sorry," he laughed nervously and swung his arm back down again.
"Well. You better come in." She held the door open for him and invited him in with a sweep of her hand.
"Thanks," he said, walking past her and standing awkwardly in the middle of the room. His eye was caught by the screen on her PC, which was turned around just enough for him to see the results of the search she had been conducting on the web…Mayson zoomed past him and perched on the desk right in front of the screen, blocking his view.
"So…lunch first, or business?" she asked with an overly-merry tone.
"How many did you find?"
"I couldn't help noticing your search…" Clark gestured vaguely in the direction of Mayson's PC screen. "Did you find the one living in the Antarctic?"
"How?…oh." A wry smile crept over Mayson's face. "What can I say? It's been a slow crime day."
"I'm flattered you were looking for Clarks and not Maysons."
"Two hundred and fifty-four Maysons. And three who spell it with an 'i' instead of a 'y'. I did that one first."
"Look, how about we take your picture downstairs and then grab some lunch."
"OK, fine." Clark handed her the brown manila envelope he was carrying the sketch in.
Mayson pulled the picture part way out to take a look. She raised her eyebrows in appreciation. "Nice drawing. Who did it?"
"Uh, just someone I know."
"Protecting our sources are we?"
"Just like you might protect a witness."
"OK, but it's talking to people like your source that helps me find the witnesses to protect in the first place. Then we catch the bad guys."
"Maybe. But this source remains anonymous."
"All right, for now."
"For ever." He looked at her seriously. "This is not up for discussion, OK?"
Mayson stared back at him in silence for a minute before jumping up from the desk and walking over to the door. "Come on, let's go," she said.
Clark stayed where he was. "Mayson?"
"Clark, your source will be safe and secure. I promise. Now come with me so I can show you the best hot dogs in town."
Clark was still hesitating, so she walked back to him, grabbed him by the arm and started marching back to the door. It was either rankle her by using his strength against her, or comply, so he gave in and followed. Satisfied that she had got her way, she transferred her hand up to his shoulder, and he found his arm automatically snaking its way around her waist.
"Nice tie, by the way," she said as they walked into the elevator.
Clark sat bolt upright in bed, his heart thumping. He recognised that cry…please, not her, not now. He flung the suit on and sped out into the sky in the direction of the frightened voice. This was the sixth time he'd been out tonight, and he was already feeling ragged and tired…something bad was going on in the garment district tonight. All the fires had been small and quickly containable, but so many in such a short space of time was unprecedented.
He arrived at Clara's house, to find a small bonfire raging right in front of the house, blocking the entrance. The flames were lapping at the windows of the house, and inside, he could see Clara and her mother cowering together as far as they could get away from the windows. Blowing the fire out quickly, he ran inside to check that they were unharmed. Tears were streaming down Clara's face, and when she saw Clark, she ran up to him and starting pummelling him with her small fists, shouting,
"You said you wouldn't tell! You said you wouldn't tell!"
Clark caught her hands gently; he didn't want her to hurt herself against him, and crouched down in front of her. "Shhh, Clara, it's all right now," he said quietly, hoping she would take the hint despite her distress and not give the game away to her mother.
"No it's not," countered Clara with a wail. "Daddy's in the hospital, and Mommy's scared, and the bad man came, and my Daddy got hurt, and it's all your fault!"
"Clara…" said Clark helplessly. He was becoming upset by Clara's distress, and he really didn't know what to say to her to calm her down.
"What is she talking about? What did you do?" Clara's mother had come across to comfort her daughter.
Clark stood up. All of a sudden, he had an inkling that something terrible had happened and that he was somehow involved in it. Nevertheless, faced with Clara's anxious mother, he really couldn't keep the truth from her.
"Clara came to see me to tell me about the man who comes to visit you and threaten your family."
"Oh, Clara!" exclaimed her mother.
"I did it for you and Daddy, I didn't talk to any strange men 'cos Superman isn't strange."
"She was very brave to come and see me on her own," added Clark.
"And you didn't think you should tell us that our daughter was wandering about Metropolis on her own, or that she was in the possession of some very dangerous information? Is this how you operate, Superman? I thought you'd have better judgement than that."
"I-I-she was very concerned that no-one find out, because she was afraid of this man, and when someone takes me into their confidence, I respect that."
"Superman, she's a child! She doesn't know about these things. How can you expect a kid to know whether it's safe to keep something secret or not?"
"I'm sorry, Mrs ?-"
"Mrs Jefferson, I'm sorry if you don't agree with what I did, but you have to believe me when I tell you I was doing what I thought was best and safest for everyone. Besides, I have had experience of this type of situation before."
"Oh, so you're leaving a trail of damaged kids behind you, are you?"
"No, that's not what I meant." Clark took a deep breath. "What I meant was-"
"Look, just forget it and leave us in peace, OK? I think you've done enough damage for one day."
Clark turned to go, resigned to losing this particular battle and not wanting to upset these people any more than they were already, but then he remembered something.
"Mrs Jefferson, what happened to your husband?"
"He got beaten up, what do you think?"
"Oh, for God's sake…they wanted to know who talked, of course. Why do you think this neighbourhood is going up in flames tonight?"
Clark stared at her in shock.
"Please, just go," she pleaded, turning away from him.
Clark walked out the door in a daze. His eye was caught by the mess of bonfire outside and slowly, he began gathering up the rubbish into his arms, his mind numb with the implications of what she had just told him. On autopilot now, he floated into the air and found a dump for the garbage before heading home.
Once back inside the haven of his apartment, Clark ripped the Suit off and flung himself down on his sofa, not even bothering to get dressed again - what did it matter, no-one was going to see him, no-one was going to visit him. Especially not now - he, the most stupid person in the entire world. He sat with his head in his hands…<stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid…> What had he done? How many people had been hurt, how many lives blighted by his stupid, ill-judged decision. He should never have told Mayson about the picture, never. He should have kept it to himself and found his own way to investigate it. The other Clark wouldn't have made such a stupid mistake, he was sure. But it wasn't fair: how was he supposed to always know the right thing to do - he didn't have anyone to ask, anyone to check things out with. That damned Suit made everyone think he automatically knew everything, did everything right, always made the right choice, when all the time he was questioning his decisions, never quite sure of the correct course of action, or whether even to intervene at all. <I'm not perfect!> No, he was very imperfect, and tonight his imperfections had caused a lot of hurtful damage.
He lifted his head up and looked over balefully at the discarded Suit, lying in a crumpled pile on the floor near the door. Mrs Jefferson was probably right about Clara, too. What made him think he should keep information about a young child from her parents? They needed to know that she was liable to leave the house and travel half-way across the city without their knowledge. What if she had gone out again without telling them and got lost? Perhaps ended up in one of the less salubrious parts of town? He would have been to blame for that as well.
Maybe he wasn't cut out for this life after all. Maybe Lana was right: he should live the life of a normal human being, forget his superpowers and just fade into the background. He used to be good at that, in fact it was a useful survival mechanism when he was growing up in foster homes - be as little trouble as possible, and people won't bother you. He liked being one of the crowd, feeling like he blended into the scenery, and consequentially, he found the attention he received as Superman one of the hardest aspects of the job to accept and cope with. He could go back to being a proper journalist if he gave up being Superman. Perhaps he could move to another country where he wouldn't be instantly recognisable and start all over again. That might even be fun, learning a new language and new customs, inventing a new identity for himself.
He looked over at the Suit again.
Funnily enough, it was his first Suit; the one that Lois had made for him. He could see her stitching on the cape where she had straightened the line for him. It would be a fitting end, he thought, if he finished in the Suit he had started with. He got up, padded over and swiped it up off the floor, studying those stitches and running his thumb over them. She certainly wasn't the neatest seamstress he'd met, but the sewing had survived innumerable washes, fires, floods, explosions, mud slides, earthquakes…what would she say now if she knew he was contemplating abandoning it forever? She'd probably come up with a brilliant one-liner, and then talk him into changing his mind.
Well, she wasn't here, so he wasn't changing his mind. He hung the suit up and retired to bed again.
An hour later, Clark was still wide awake, lying in bed, and staring at the ceiling. He couldn't help wondering how things had gone so wrong. What had Mayson done with the picture that was so indiscreet that the extortioners now knew that someone from the neighbourhood had given information to the authorities? Whilst he was angry at himself, he was almost as angry at her for messing up so badly, and he ached to find out what had happened.
Suddenly, he was lurching out of bed and throwing on whatever clothes came to hand first. He was going to find out.
Pounding on the door to Mayson's apartment, he began to wonder what would break first - the door, or his patience. He was on the point of giving in to his impatience by calling out to her when he heard the sounds of bolts being drawn back and locks being undone. The door opened to reveal a bleary-eyed Mayson dressed in a full-length silk dressing gown, her blond hair sticking out in all directions.
"Clark! What are you doing?"
"Who did you give the picture to?" he demanded.
"Wha-the picture? Oh, that picture. I gave it to - hang on, just what the hell do you think you're doing, coming over here at…" she peered at her watch, "3.20 in the morning?"
"Asking the questions I should have asked before. Who did you give the picture to?" he repeated.
"The right people. Just what gives you the right to come storming over here demanding answers to irrelevant questions-"
"This is not irrelevant."
"And you're shouting."
"I-" he started in a loud voice, but continued more softly, "I am not shouting. Who are the right people?"
"Clark, I'm sorry, but I don't answer questions yelled at me at 3.20am in the morning by crazy men who have nothing better to do than fly over here and bang on my door all night."
"Well, fine. I'll just go over to your office and find out for myself."
"You'll do no such-"
"Look, lady, just tell him who you gave the picture to so we can all get some sleep around here, OK?"
It was a neighbour, calling down the corridor from his own front door. Neither Mayson or Clark had realised they were still talking with her door open and with Clark still outside.
"You'd better come in," muttered Mayson and stood aside to let him pass.
Clark waited until she'd shut the door, then drew breath to speak again.
"Sit," she commanded, cutting him off before he could start.
He sat on the edge of her sofa, while she settled into an easy chair and pulled her dressing gown protectively around her.
"OK, what is all this about?" she asked.
Clark spoke slowly and carefully, as if explaining things to a small child. "I need to know who you gave the picture to, because whoever saw it told the bad guys, and now the bad guys are punishing the whole neighbourhood for talking."
Mayson stared at him in horror.
"I was going to call you, but it was late…we found a match in the police records. The guy's name is Ed White, a small time crook they'd lost track of about a year ago."
"And?" Clark prompted in a tightly controlled voice.
"And I passed the information on to the Arson Task Force."
"Oh, great. So it was too late to tell me, but it was fine to let half the MPD know about it, plus the staff at the DA's office."
"Clark, you agreed to let us check it out."
"Yes, but not for you to broadcast it to half of Metropolis."
"Oh, don't be ridiculous! A couple of people at my office, and one person in the MPD. Get some perspective."
"Oh, forgive me for being upset. It's just, when people get hurt and it's my fault, I take it personally. I'm kind of funny that way."
"So that's what this is really about. You feeling guilty."
"Yes, me feeling guilty. Just like you should."
"Clark, I did my job. I don't feel guilty for that."
"I'm sure that's what the man stoking the fires in the concentration camps said. 'I'm just doing my job'."
Mayson stared at him in silence before getting up and striding across to the door.
"Get out." She yanked the door open, the rage inside her making her eyes flare.
Clark stood up and stormed across to her.
"This isn't over."
"Oh, yes it is. This is very much over."
Clark strode quickly out of Mayson's apartment block and immediately took off into the sky, carelessly causing a sonic boom as he flew furiously through the night to god-knew-where. Almost blind with rage, he didn't notice the mountain range until he narrowly missed flying straight into a cliff face, changing direction at the last second to drive upwards until he found level ground at the top. Thus brought to his senses, he landed abruptly and kicked the nearest boulder viciously into orbit, belatedly checking with his supervision that it didn't hit anything important on its way.
The white heat of his anger having spent itself, he flopped down on the rocky mountain top to fume more quietly to himself. What did Mayson think she was doing, telling the arson task force without letting him know first? Obviously, someone in the chain of people who now knew about the picture was an informant for Michael Shand, and that must have been how Ed White ended up accusing the families of turning snitch. Surely Mayson must have had an inkling that there was a bad apple in the system somewhere, yet she still went ahead with her ruthless pursuit of justice. Plus, she didn't seem to have one ounce of remorse about what she'd done, as if witnesses were just expendable flotsam in the drive to catch criminals, especially the high-profile, headline-grabbing ones like Michael Shand. She'd said it was over, and as far as he was concerned, any relationship with such a hard-nosed person certainly was over. He wasn't a softie himself - life hadn't allowed him that luxury - but he liked to think he had compassion and sympathy for others. Which was why this was so hard to bear. He had made a disastrous mistake, and a lot of people were being hurt because of it. He cared about these people, yet he had managed to make their lives a worse misery that it already was. Why, why, why was he so stupid? The other Clark would never have made this mistake, but then the other Clark had proper parents, the other Clark had Lois…oh, Lois! You would have told me what to do, told me where I was going wrong.
He lay back on the ground and stared up at the stars, letting his mind freewheel. What to do now? He'd promised himself to give up the superhero charade, but he'd told Mayson he wasn't done with this mess, and that was certainly true. He couldn't just abandon the people whose lives he'd wrecked; somehow he had to make amends. He now knew who was at the sharp end of the operation, but to cause it to shut down, he had to demonstrate a link between Ed White and Michael Shand, and he had to do it as quickly as possible. At the same time, he had to protect these people as much as he could…so how could he do all that?
By maintaining a 24 hour vigil, he decided. He would watch and follow Ed White every time he came into the neighbourhood, tracing his every move until he had the evidence he needed. In between times, when his quarry was safely occupied on a long-term activity, he would keep an eye on people's houses, stopping as many fires from being lit as he possibly could. In short, he wouldn't rest until he'd made things right again.
The young man tugged his back-to-front baseball cap more firmly down onto his head before reaching inside the black rucksack for one of the rag-stuffed bottles. Flicking open his lighter, he lit the end of the rag and drew his arm back to throw it at the nearest front door. His arm was nearly wrenched out of its socket when he pulled it forward, because its path was stayed by a steel-like grip on his wrist.
"Tut-tut! Playing with fire at your age? What would your mother think?" said a hard-edged voice from behind him.
He twisted around to find a familiar caped figure staring at him with a grim face.
"You're hurting me!" he protested.
"Relax, I'm Superman. This won't hurt a bit."
Superman yanked the bottle from the young man's hand and held it up close to his face.
"Aren't you going to put it out?" the man asked querulously, flinching from the flame.
"Why, does it bother you?"
"Superman, it's going to blow!"
"That's OK, it won't hurt me."
"What about me?"
"Well, that doesn't matter, does it? After all, you were going to throw it at those people's door, so what difference does it make if you're on the receiving end instead?"
"Because it'll kill me, you dumb alien! Put it out!"
"You going to tell me why you were doing this first?"
"Because that's what I do. Put it out!"
"Because that's what you do…nope, sorry, I don't get it. You'll have to explain some more."
"This guy told me to. He gave me ten bucks to throw the bomb at this house. Now are you gonna put it out?"
Superman stared intently at the young man's face as he fired a quick shot of freezing air at the flame to snuff it out.
"Who was this guy?" Superman asked, maintaining his fixed gaze.
"I don't know…some guy." The young man broke eye contact and started wriggling in Superman's grasp, more confident now that the bomb had been 'defused'. Superman laid the bottle on the ground, still hanging onto the man's arm, before fishing a picture out from behind his cape.
"Did he look like this?" he asked.
"Look at it!"
"I ain't no stoolie, Mr Pantyhose. Let me go!"
Clark's fragile patience finally ran out, and he flew the man swiftly to the nearest police station with a brief explanation of his misdemeanours, before rushing back to resume his vigil.
He'd found a useful perch out of sight on top of a long-abandoned church which gave him a view of most of the district. He interspersed sessions watching from here with circuits around the area, and once a day he would fly home, bolt down whatever food he could find, and fly back, all within the space of less than 60 seconds. Food stocks were running pretty low, but he reckoned he was staying outside in the sunshine a lot so he should be OK.
So far, he'd managed to stop five fires, but each time it was the same. The person setting the fire was doing it for the first time, and had been employed by a nameless person, usually in a bar - but never the same bar twice. No-one would identify the person from Clark's sketch. It was incredibly frustrating, and he knew that tonight he had almost gone too far with that boy - he shouldn't have threatened him like that - but he was finding it harder and harder to contain his emotions. Also, he hadn't even spotted Ed White yet, although tomorrow was Monday, and he was hoping to pick him up at Clara's house and follow him to wherever he handed over the money.
Meanwhile, he spent long hours atop the church, pondering his life. For much of his earlier years, he had been pretty much a loner, and had built up a tough shell around himself as protection. He taught himself not to dwell on the past, not to miss his parents, not to expect too much from life. The gradual appearance of his incredible powers had been frightening and totally disorientating, but he had learnt to hide those away too and restore normality and control to his life again.
Then there was Lana, and he wasn't alone anymore. Lana broke down his barriers, softened his edges, while at the same time helping him strengthen the illusion of normality. It felt safe, secure…but ultimately wrong. He couldn't be himself when he was with her, he felt he was always apologising for something, always trying to make amends for something he had said or done. He was never at ease, but at least he had company. He got used to that company.
Next, the alternate Lois Lane steamrollered her way into his life, and everything turned upside down. Under the bright light of Lois' personality, he had seen the truth about his relationship with Lana: she wanted something he couldn't give her - a normal, safe, all-American husband with a no-risk job and a decent income. Not an unreasonable ambition, quite a modest one, in fact, but not one that he could deliver. Lois taught him not to deny his differences, but instead to embrace them, and so he had broken up with Lana and taken up this crazy double life as superhero-cum-newsman.
Now he was alone again, and it hurt. God, how it hurt. Not at first - the whirlwind of public attention following his 'coming out' made sure he was too distracted to notice his loneliness. There was also the complication of explaining Lois' sudden disappearance again, and the departure of Perry from the Planet, to be replaced by the wunderkind from Washington, Ralph Pinedo. It was around the time of Ralph's appointment that he realised the few friends he once had were suddenly missing, that his apartment was empty and uninviting, and there was a yawning gap which Lois had filled for all-too-brief a time.
How was he supposed to cope? He thought he'd done pretty well, by emerging sane from his frightening and lonely youth, but then fate upped the ante by letting him meet Lois Lane, not once, not twice, but three times! And he'd had to meet his alternate parents after twenty-odd years of learning to cope with their premature death.
Mom and Dad…he'd had nightmares about that car-wreck for months, years afterwards. It still came to him even now - sometimes a difficult save would trigger it. Hearing the squeal of tyres, running like crazy to get there before the collision but never quite making it, seeing the blood splashed garishly over the windscreen…and then the explosion. The devastating explosion, knocking him back, destroying his life. He suddenly felt a lump at the back of his throat, and his eyes pricked with unshed tears. This was crazy, what was the matter with him? He was over all that years ago. He closed his eyes briefly, trying to centre himself again…<pull yourself together, you're just wallowing>. He took some deep breaths, and tried to push the emotions back down again, just as he had been doing for so many years.
A sound snagged his superhearing, his eyes shot open and turned towards the sound to catch the evil glimmer of a fire a few blocks away. Even as he was taking off and flying over to put it out, he was regaling himself for his private self-pitying session <see where that got you? You missed catching the person that set this one up>. Not that it would have done any good, judging from his experience thus far.
He landed in the backyard and extinguished the small fire with a couple of breaths. That done, he looked up to find three white faces watching him from the back door. Father, with a protective hand on his young son's shoulder, and mother, her hands still wringing the dishtowel she had been using for the washing-up. The little tableau froze him to the spot for a moment, and the two parties stared at each other across the backyard: the harried superhero, standing resplendent in his bright colours, and the frightened young family.
"Thank you, Superman," said the father, breaking the spell.
"Is-is everyone all right?" stammered Clark.
"Yes, thanks," replied the father.
That was Clark's cue to depart, yet he was strangely reluctant to move. Something about the picture before him…the boy was about the same age as he had been just before the accident…
The mother stepped forward hesitantly.
"Superman, are you all right?"
"You look tired."
Clark forced a smile. "Me? Oh, I never get tired. I'm sorry, you just reminded me of someone I once knew."
"If everything's OK here, I'll be on my way."
He launched himself up into the air, so intent on putting space between himself and the house that he didn't hear the short exchange between mother and father.
"Honey, did you see his face? I don't think I've ever seen anyone look so weary."
"Yeah, he sure looked like he's got the world on his shoulders."
"I guess I never thought how tough it could get for him. He should take a rest."
"Martha, you're such a sucker for birds with broken wings. I'm sure he's got someone to look after him."
"I hope so."
Clark resumed his perch on the church top. OK, from now on he was thinking happy thoughts, and nothing else. All that self-absorption had got him precisely nowhere, and it was even interfering with his job. It wasn't good if the people he was rescuing thought he wasn't up to the task; they needed to have complete confidence in his ability to help them. That kind woman had said he looked tired, but he wasn't tired, just a little sad. He couldn't be tired - he was eating, wasn't he? And he was getting plenty of sunshine (as well as his fair share of rain, he grimaced to himself). So what he needed was a game to keep his mind occupied…a few minutes later, he had the perfect idea - OK, it wasn't exactly a game, but it was personally satisfying.
101 ways to humiliate Ralph…let's see, number one: how many of Ralph's sexual conquests are actually just tea with his mother?
"Mickey, I'm gonna say this once, and once only. You clean up your operation real soon, or you're gonna be looking for a new career. And it won't be in the family business, you get it?"
Billy Shand lit up his cigar and took a long, slow draw.
"-and that includes getting your people under control," continued Billy with a jab of the cigar in Michael's direction.
"What's to control? Everything's just peachy," protested Michael.
"Peachy my a-"
"-and the money's rolling in. What's your problem?"
"My problem, Mickey, is that your clients are this far," he held finger and thumb close together, "from squealing to the cops. You give them no hope. You charge them so much they can't pay, you torch them every night, so what's to lose, they ask themselves. They may as well go to the cops as wait for you to set fire to their homes."
"Dad, give me some credit. Someone already has gone to the cops - that's why I'm doing this."
"Mickey, you gotta learn to be subtle. Running a racket is a fine balance - and you ain't got it yet."
"I can be subtle," said Michael defensively.
"You, Mickey, are as subtle as my lawyer's annual bill. You got Superman breathing down your neck."
"I'm working on that."
"You better be, 'cos if you screw this up, you pull us all down with you."
"Ok, Ok, I can do it. Just leave me alone and I'll make us a stack of dough."
"Mickey, you foul up, you'll be so alone you'll feel like you was livin' on the Moon. Now go be subtle."
Billy waved his cigar dismissively at his errant son, who scowled before stomping out of the room.
Actually, Michael was completely at a loss as to what to do about the Superman problem. It was getting harder and harder to find people willing to carry out his campaign of terror, so tight a hold had the alien on the situation. All he had so far was a vague rumour that a guy who knew some other guys had found something he thought might hurt Superman. He was desperately trying to convert the rumour into fact, but it was slow work, and now his Dad had just made things harder by turning up the pressure. He was well aware that most of his authority derived from his father, and if word got around that his Dad didn't have any confidence in him, then control really would begin to slip from his fingers. Well, he'd just have to crank up the heat even more, and chase even harder for the Superman deterrent.
Clark hovered high over Clara Jefferson's house, waiting for Ed White to appear for his regular Monday-night collection. He'd been watching for over two hours now, and with every passing minute, he was becoming more and more frantic. What if his vigorous defence of the neighbourhood had deterred the man from appearing tonight? What was happening around the rest of the streets while he was watching Clara's house? He was making super-sweeps around the area every ten minutes, but so much could happen in ten minutes…maybe he should make it five? What was he going to do if he actually spotted a fire - what should his priority be?
Even worse, the hover was becoming hard to maintain. Twice now, he had abruptly dropped ten feet before managing to stay his descent and climb back up again. There was no denying it: he was getting tired, and this only served to increase his anxiety. If he didn't pick up Ed White tonight, he was quite sure he couldn't manage a complete week of 24-hour neighbourhood policing, so his opportunity to right his wrongs would be gone forever.
Time for another sweep…nothing. Well, at least his constant presence seemed to have done some good: the crime rate had definitely dropped off since he started the vigil. His eyes dropped back to Clara's house. At last! A quick zoom in to check that the man was actually Ed White, and then he x-rayed through to the living room to make sure that the exchange didn't become violent. It looked as though Clara's mother had lost the will to fight, however, and the envelope was handed over quickly and without comment from either side.
Now he had to follow Ed White wherever he went, for as long as it took until he could see what happened next to the money. He was painfully aware that this meant abandoning the neighbourhood vigil, but hopefully the calming effect of his efforts so far would linger for a while.
One thing that surprised him about Ed White was his behaviour upon leaving Clara's house: sneaking into a quiet alleyway, he split the money he collected in half. Half went into his wallet; the other into a brown manila envelope. No wonder Michael had a reputation for greed if his operatives were doubling the charges to his 'clients'.
Clark watched White visit several other houses in the neighbourhood, and the pattern was the same each time - he wasn't just skimming off the top, he was taking a full 50% of the takings. Clark was elated and felt newly energised by this information. His investigation and hard work were beginning to pay off at long last.
The ensuing twelve hours spent following White were extremely dull and something of an anti-climax after the triumph of finding him in the first place. It appeared that apart from his illegal activities as collection agent for Michael Shand, Ed White led an uneventful life: he drank in a bar, ate from a hotdog stand, drank some more in a bar, then went home alone to sleep it off. Once Clark was sure his quarry had settled for the remainder of the night, he dashed home himself for three Oreos, a slug of orange juice and, as an afterthought, a lump of cheese. Carbohydrate, vitamin C and some protein - should be a reasonable balance, he reckoned. Then it was a quick check around Metropolis: his conscience had been tugging at him ever since he started his single-minded vigil over in the garment district. Now that things were a little better under control, he needed to make sure the rest of the city was all right - and make sure the criminal element didn't get too complacent about his protracted absence.
He still felt as though he were working on borrowed time, however, so when he spotted a mugging in progress, he swooped down, grabbed the mugger without comment and immediately delivered him to the nearest precinct office. A few words to the desk sergeant, and then he was off again. Another swift pass over the city uncovered a robbery in progress, and once again, he dealt with it with the minimum of comment and delay. A final pass gave him the all clear, and with a sigh of relief, he flew back to check that Ed White was still safely slumbering away in his bed. He knew that he'd really only made a token effort, but the pull back to his investigation was just too strong to resist for any longer.
Another day dawned, and Clark felt thankful for the tentative light of dawn as it emerged over the city. These quiet spells gave his mind far too much free time to roam around, usually bringing things to his attention he'd rather not think about. For example, he'd remembered his promise to Ralph to bring in some copy about this investigation within two days. He'd well and truly blown it this time. He wondered if he'd have a job at all to go back to when he finished this one: sometimes he got the distinct impression that Ralph would rather dump him from the payroll than keep employing a person who was unpredictable, and who was so obviously at odds with the new style Ralph was pursuing at the Planet. Even his colleagues thought he was unreliable - they didn't like to be partnered with him, and although he received the same invitations to parties and other celebrations that everyone else did, he knew they didn't really expect him to turn up. Snippets from accidentally overheard conversations told him that it wasn't malicious, and they genuinely seemed to like him, but he was no longer one of the crowd, but stood apart in his own peculiar category of workmate-cum-superhero-cum-celebrity.
Ed White was on the move. Clark had already seen him remove his stash from his secret hideaway, and now he was heading across town to a more upscale part of the city, where smart designer shops and stylish pavement cafes were frequented by well-heeled business executives. White sat at a table in one of the cafes and ordered an espresso. As Clark watched, his stomach rumbling in protest at the lack of breakfast, White pulled a menu out of the holder in the middle of the table, glanced around quickly and then placed his manila envelope inside the menu. He stuffed it back into the holder, gulped down the rest of his coffee and stood up to go.
Now what to do? Follow White, or keep watching the table? Clark elected for the latter, and his efforts were rewarded minutes later when a smart, fiftyish man wearing a business suit and carrying a briefcase settled down at the table. He pulled out the menu, pocketed the envelope, and finished off by ordering and consuming a generously large breakfast. Clark's stomach growled its annoyance at the neglect it was suffering, but there was no respite, as 'briefcase-man' was up and making his way across the street to a branch of the New Troy Bank. Got you at last!
Well, nearly. He x-rayed through the bank's walls to see briefcase-man paying in money to one of the cashiers, but he couldn't make out the account details. There was also too much background noise for him to tune into what they were saying. Maybe he should keep track of this guy for a while longer, and if he continued to make deposits at this bank, then Clark could get Mayson to gain access to the account details.
Mayson…he'd been thinking about her a lot during his lonely watch. His initial anger had cooled off, and in the quiet calm of the night, he had begun to think that maybe he had over-reacted. She had only been doing her job, probably the best way she knew how, and he realised now that his comment about concentration camps had been extremely cruel and unfair. He still thought she could have told him about finding the photo match earlier, and she could have been a little more circumspect about who she told, but it wasn't an unforgivable crime. Moreover, he missed her. She was funny and quick-witted, intelligent and attractive. Very attractive. She had shown him a softer, caring side too, when he told her about his parents, and he was pretty certain she had strong feelings for him as well. He liked her, cared for her, although he wasn't sure if it was love…was it fair to continue a relationship on that basis? Even worse, was it fair to try and resurrect a relationship which had faltered on the rocks when he wasn't sure of his motives? Was Mayson just a substitute for the real thing: Lois Lane? But love doesn't have to be something you feel straightaway, he told himself, it can grow and develop, if you nurture it properly. Put away all thoughts of Lois, and concentrate on a future with Mayson. At least she was here and attainable; she didn't need to know that she was a compromise.
The first step was to contact her, and after a couple of days watching briefcase-man he was ready. The guy collected from various sites around Metropolis, but he always went to the same branch of the bank to pay in his takings. Not very clever, thought Clark, but he didn't mind it if the criminals occasionally made things easy for him.
Clark took a deep breath and dialled the number.
"Mayson Drake." His heart did a flip at the sound of her voice.
"Hi. It's me."
"Hi." Mayson's voice had already changed from upbeat business-like, to low and defensive, but Clark plunged on nevertheless.
"I have some important information I think you could use about the Shand case. Can we meet?"
"Does this come with strings attached like the last lead you gave me?"
"Mayson, let's not start all that again, I-"
"If I recall, you were the one doing all the starting, not me."
"Please, Mayson. This is important. It could turn the case around. Really."
Mayson was quiet for so long, he began to wonder if she'd even been listening to him. Then came a reluctant "OK. Where do you want to meet?"
"How about your office?"
"I-I could come around now, if you're not busy?"
"Clark, when am I not busy?"
He was racking his brains for an answer when she continued, "Don't answer that." He heard her sigh heavily. "You may as well come anyway."
Mayson's intercom buzzed moments later.
"Mayson, Clark Kent is here to see you."
"Sure, send him up."
Mayson replaced the receiver and waited expectantly for the rap at her door. This was going to be a quick exchange of information between professionals, and then he could get out of her life again. She wasn't having some sanctimonious do-gooder trying to teach her right from wrong: he saw everything in black and white, and life just wasn't like that.
He knocked on her door, and she barked "Come!", painting her face with the best cold, non-committal look she could muster to make sure he got the message.
She wasn't sure what happened to her face when he opened the door and walked into her office, but it probably wasn't non-committal. The self-assured, well-dressed man she knew a few days ago had been replaced by someone she hardly recognised. He was dressed in old, tatty jeans and a sloppy, faded T-shirt, he looked like he hadn't shaved for a couple of days, and there were dark circles under his eyes. She watched him in shocked silence as he came across the room and sat in the chair opposite her.
"What?" he asked, puzzled by her silent scrutiny.
"N-nothing." She cleared her throat. "So, what's this all about?"
"OK, I know where the money's being paid into. I followed Ed White after he finished his collections, and he hands the money over to another guy. I don't have a name for him, but I've got a sketch so you can do a search for him. Anyway, this guy does pickups twice a day - at a couple of different places - and then pays the money in to a bank. The same bank every time, at around the same time of day."
He paused in his monologue and looked expectantly at her.
She shook herself mentally. She'd only been paying scant attention to what he was saying, as she traced the lines of strain around his eyes, took in the way his normally healthy tan had faded to a pale, sunken look, and watched his body language, which spoke of a man living purely on nerves and adrenaline.
"Clark, when did you last get any sleep?"
That wasn't the question she intended to ask, but it just popped out of its own volition.
He blinked. "Uh, a few days ago. Why?"
"A few days!"
"I don't need as much sleep as you do."
"Uh, huh…" In a pig's ear, she thought. You look awful.
"So, what do you think…about the bank account, I mean?"
"Well…you're hoping it will lead to Michael Shand, right?"
"Yes, I thought we…you…could take the picture to the bank and get them to give you the bank account details. Or if you got a name for this guy first it would be even better."
"Clark, I can't just waltz into the bank and demand they hand over someone's bank account details. I need a search warrant, and for that I need evidence."
"I know that, but you must know a-a tame judge you can talk to - I thought all DA's had one."
"Clark, that's the movies. This is real life."
"Would it help if Superman came with you and told the judge what he saw? Come on, Mayson, I really need this." He leaned forward on the edge of his seat, his eyes pleading with her.
"Listen to yourself - 'I really need this.' Who are you doing this for - aren't you taking this too personally?"
"I meant, I need it so I can help some very needy people, and yes, I'm taking this personally. That's what I do."
Well, it's high time you started detaching yourself from things like this, or you'll burn yourself out, thought Mayson. She regarded him assessingly. This wasn't turning out anything like the way she had planned it, yet there was no denying that he was on to something, and she had a responsibility to act on what he had told her. At the same time, she had to do something about his current state of exhaustion.
"OK. First, we don't just go straight to a judge. You need to tell your story to one of our investigators and then he'll write up a search warrant affidavit. We'd usually take that to the judge on call for signing, but in this case, you're right, we need someone more…friendly. There is a judge, Judge Prescott, who might be willing to help," she admitted finally.
"Great. When can we go see him?"
"*We* are going nowhere. *You* are going home to bed to get some sleep, and *I* will go to see Judge Prescott."
He stared at her. "No way."
She folded her arms across her chest. "OK, then we drop it. Bye, Clark, it's been a pleasure." She waited for him to leave.
He gave a mirthless laugh. "You won't give up this investigation just because I won't go home to bed. Besides, how much sleep do you think I'd get, not knowing what's happening?"
He had a point. "All right. But this is just a temporary reprieve, OK?"
"OK." He relaxed back in his chair a little, but then jumped forward again. "I almost forgot - I also found out that Michael's men are doubling his charges and keeping half from themselves."
Mayson snorted. "That explains a lot."
"And here's the picture of that guy." Clark reached into a back pocket and spread a sheet of paper in front of Mayson. She picked it up and studied it closely.
"He looks familiar…hold on."
She stood up, fished a file out of her file cabinet and opened it on her desk. Spreading the contents out in an increasingly messy pile, she hunted around for a while before grabbing a photo and holding it next to Clark's sketch.
"Got you!" she cried triumphantly.
"Gordon Taylor. Did two years for fraud a few years ago, reputedly Billy Shand's accountant at the time, although I could never prove it. Does a nice line in aliases…Graeme Townsend, Gary Trevino, Gerry Thorpe - you sensing a theme here?"
"GT - not very imaginative."
"Imagination is not our Gordon's strong point. Although here's a good one: Gina Tipping."
Clark raised his eyebrows. "Now that is imaginative."
"So it looks like he's still in the business of fraud, except he's moved from Daddy's payroll to Michael's."
"So, this is good, right? We have a stronger case for Judge Prescott?"
"Yes, I guess so."
"So, bring on your investigator and let's get this affidavit written."
He was leaning forward over her desk, fixing her gaze with eyes wide open and bright with intense determination. It was impossible to resist the power of his intention: Mayson picked up the phone and dialled an internal number.
"Hi, Joe, it's Mayson. Can you come up here for a few minutes - I need you to do an affidavit for me."
Clark related his observations to Joe, and then Mayson added all the information she had regarding Gordon Taylor, and a short while later they had the required affidavit.
Alone again, Clark resumed his pressure tactics.
"You going to phone the judge, then?"
"Clark," admonished Mayson with a glare.
"The sooner you call him, the sooner we visit him, and…" Clark paused.
"-The sooner I get rid of you. OK."
Mayson reached for the phone, but Clark had already picked it up for her and was handing it to her. She gave him another glare before taking it from him and dialling the number.
"Knows it by heart. Very interesting," commented Clark.
"Shut up," mouthed Mayson back.
"Hello, Wilbur, it's Mayson."
She paused to listen while Clark mouthed "Wilbur?" with an incredulous expression. Mayson shooed him away with her free hand while replying,
"And it's nice to hear your voice, too, Wilbur. But I have a small favour to ask of you. I need a search warrant-"
She stopped, obviously interrupted by Judge Prescott, wincing as she listened to him.
"Wilbur…I know…yes, I'm sorry…I will…but…Wilbur, it's for the Shand case," she finished loudly.
A few more seconds passed while the judge gave his opinion on that piece of information, and then she put the phone down. Clark raised his eyebrows at her in question.
"He says we can go around now, we can have five minutes, and it better be good."
Clark bounded out of his chair with new-found energy. Mayson regarded him critically.
"You are going to change, aren't you?" she asked.
Clark looked down at himself as if noticing his scruffy appearance for the first time.
He did his usual spin-change while Mayson watched in amazement. He flushed when he saw her looking at him. "I guess I've never done that in front of you before, have I?"
"No…no, I'd say you haven't," she replied, feigning controlled consideration.
"Actually, I don't usually do it in front of anyone. It's kind of a private thing."
"Well, thank you for letting me see it. But, Clark?"
She walked around her desk and up close to him. Clark's heart did a quick flip - what was she up to? He watched her face warily as she came even closer and clasped his wrist, pulling his arm up in front of her. Now he was really confused.
"I think it looks better like this."
She grasped hold of his sleeve, which had somehow become rolled up somewhere around his elbow and pulled it back down to his wrist, smoothing the fabric down along his arm. Then she clasped his hand lightly in both of hers for a moment before releasing him.
Her touch had been so light it sent a frisson of excitement through his body, and now she was so close he could smell her perfume without recourse to superpowers. Her eyes sparkled as she looked up into his.
"My pleasure," she replied softly, a smile dancing around her lips.
"Shh." She silenced him with a finger on his lips.
Suddenly his arms were around her and they were locked in a fierce, passionate embrace. Bodies pressed tight together, lips to lips, arms roaming feverishly as if they could never get enough of each other, drinking in each other's scent.
"God, Mayson, I'm so sorry," gasped Clark between kisses. "I should never have said what I said."
"Shh," she repeated.
"It's OK." She silenced him with another kiss.
Clark was stunned. Kissing Lana had been play-acting compared to this. And yet…was all that stuff he'd read about the earth moving just over-blown fantasy? Trashy romance novels probably weren't the place to learn about real emotions, and this was pretty good, even without earthquakes - Mayson certainly seemed to be enjoying it. He surrendered himself to the delicious feel of her soft body against his.
Gradually, the heat of the embrace diminished, and they were able to pull a little away from each other, still maintaining the contact through their hands on each other's arms. A corner of Clark's mouth curved upwards.
"Does this mean we've made up?"
Mayson swatted his upper arm. "Watch it, Kent!"
He grabbed the offended arm theatrically. "Ow."
"Quit playacting and let's go see Wilbur."
"How come you call him Wilbur?" he asked as they walked out of her office and into the elevator.
"Because that's his name," she replied tartly.
"That's not what I meant," he said as the elevator doors closed.
Outside the building, Clark made as if to scoop Mayson up in his arms, but Mayson stopped him.
"Let me guess. You don't like heights? It's OK, you'll be quite s-"
"It's not that."
"What then?" he asked, puzzled and a little disappointed by her reaction. Most people were excited by the prospect of a flight with Superman.
"It's just…I don't think we should. You should," she amended pointedly.
"I really don't underst-"
"Clark, when was the last time you made a mistake with that spin-change thing?"
"Well, I tell you, when I first tried it…wait a minute, what are you saying? You don't think I'm safe?" His voice rose incredulously.
"Mayson, that's ridiculous."
"I think we should take a cab."
She walked to the edge of the sidewalk, whistling and sticking her arm out to hail one. Clark followed behind her. "Come on! OK, I'm a little tired, but I think I can manage one short flight with a lightweight passenger."
The cab drew up in front of Mayson, so she opened the door and turned back to Clark.
"Superman doesn't take cabs," he hissed between gritted teeth.
She leaned forward, gave the cabbie an address and started to pull the door shut.
Clark expelled a lungful of air in exasperation and defeat, stopped the door shutting and climbed in.
"Happy?" he demanded.
"Ecstatic." She replied with a smirk.
As the cab drew away from the kerb, the cabbie shouted out,
"So, Superman. Why is it that you're not flying today?"
Mayson sniggered. Clark glared.
Judge Prescott was a large man with a shock of red hair fading to grey, wearing a tweed jacket that had seen better days and a pair of muddy slacks of indeterminate shape. As Clark shook hands with him, he was aware of a razor-sharp intelligence hiding behind the smiling eyes, and the handshake was a lot firmer than the shabby, friendly exterior belied.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Superman," enthused the Judge.
Clark mustered up a brief smile. "Clark. Please call me Clark."
"And you can call me Judge Prescott. Only Mayson gets to call me Wilbur, don't you Mayson?"
"So! Let's see what you've got for me." He held out his hand to receive the affidavit. Mayson handed it over and he immediately began to read, waving an absent hand to indicate that they should sit.
After what seemed like an interminable time, he looked up and fixed Mayson with a piercing gaze.
"You want me to sign a search warrant based largely on hearsay evidence, is that right?"
Mayson met him eye to eye. "Yes, but I think you'll agree the witness is a reliable source."
"Yet you have no evidence that this man has associated with other members of your suspected protection racket?"
"Not directly, no. But we have him collecting money from a drop-off point used by a known member of the racket."
"As witnessed by Clark again."
Clark and Mayson exchanged uneasy glances.
"And an anonymous witness," volunteered Clark.
Judge Prescott transferred his searching eyes to Clark.
There was silence while the Judge stared at Clark, and Clark tried not to squirm.
"How many days' work you put into this, son?"
"I thought so - it shows."
Clark couldn't help it - his eyes slid away from the Judge's in embarrassment at being found out. Abruptly, the Judge picked up his pen and signed the search warrant with a quick scrawl.
"Catch the bastards for me," he said, handing the document back to Mayson.
Standing outside Judge Prescott's chambers, Mayson turned to Clark.
"Why don't you fly home and get some rest while I take this to the bank?"
"But I can speed things up by pointing out the cashiers he dealt with."
"Clark, even the Judge could see how exhausted you are."
"How about if I promise to go home after you've got the bank records?"
"Superman doesn't break promises?"
"Well, Clark might, but Superman doesn't."
Mayson looked at him with amused consternation.
"You have different standards of conduct depending on what you're wearing?"
"No. Well, yes. No." He fidgeted with his hands and feet as he swithered, finally coming to rest with his arms crossed defensively. "I was only kidding."
"Uh, huh." Mayson was openly sceptical. "OK, this is a rock-solid, Superman-type promise. You," she pressed her index finger into his chest, "will go home to bed as soon as I have the records."
Clark sucked in air through his teeth. "Can we make it 'home to rest'?"
"You drive a hard bargain. Why not bed?"
"I don't like going to bed in the middle of the day."
"All right. And no sneaking off to respond to cries for help, or I will personally come round and kick your butt."
He unfolded his arms and placed his hands lightly on her shoulders.
"Mayson, you don't want to kick my butt. Trust me."
She raised an eyebrow in question, so he elaborated, "It would hurt you more than me."
"Ah. I'm sure you have some sensitive spots, though." She smiled up at him. They were drifting closer to each other, lips almost touching, but Clark suddenly jerked backwards.
"It's too public."
"Too public?" Mayson was confused. "What do you mean?"
"I…I don't know. It just doesn't feel right."
Mayson stared at him for a long minute, and then took a deep breath. "This is something we're going to have to talk about. But not now, let's get over to the bank."
"Clark, forget it. We'll talk later. Come on." She walked out into the street to hail another cab. Clark hurried after her, cursing silently to himself. He'd screwed that one up, for sure. The trouble was, he wasn't sure why he'd withdrawn; only that it was something to do with being dressed as Superman. Damn! Well, maybe he could figure things out at home before Mayson got too mad.
The cab ride over to the bank was accomplished in awkward silence, each wrapped up in their own thoughts while the cabbie hurled the vehicle through the streets of Metropolis. As soon as they reached their destination, Mayson was out and marching purposefully into the bank. Clark jumped out to follow, but was stopped short by an irate voice.
"Hey, Superman! I ain't no charity."
Clark turned back to the cabbie. "I'm sorry, sir, if you'll just hold on one minute…" He supersped up to Mayson, who was just about to push open the door of the bank.
"He needs paying," he said.
"And I don't have any money." He held his hands out either side of him, indicating his attire.
"Clark, I clearly saw you change from your street clothes into…that, and there weren't any clothes left on the floor when you finished. You must have money; pay the man."
"OK, I have money, it's just not very accessible."
"Oh, for heaven's sake…" She brushed past him and quickly paid the cabbie. "This is going to be an expensive relationship," she threw at him as she pushed the door open and entered the bank. He caught the door before it swung back and hit him in the face, sighed deeply and followed her in.
Mayson found a free cashier, and asked to see the manager. Once sought, the manager listened while Mayson explained the reason for their visit. As soon as she understood the situation, she ushered them into a small office and shut the door.
"This is a very serious accusation, Ms Drake."
"We're not accusing the bank of anything, Mrs Penney."
"Nevertheless, it will reflect badly on the bank if it turns out that these criminals have been laundering money through one of our accounts."
"It will look even worse if the bank is accused of non-co-operation in a criminal investigation."
Mrs Penney held up her hand. "There's no need to get tough with me, young lady. I was merely expressing my concerns. Now, which of my tellers would you like to talk to?"
Mayson looked at Clark.
"The third from the left. The other one I saw isn't there right now."
Mrs Penney left to summon the teller. Clark glanced sideways at Mayson.
"I wonder what the 'M' stands for."
"Mrs M Penney? I hope it's not Monnie."
"Ha. Very cute. Maybe she's a relation of J C?"
Before Mayson had a chance to respond, Mrs Penney had returned with her teller.
"This is Jeff Anderson. He's been with the bank for…how long is it, Jeff?"
"Fifteen years next January, Mrs Penney. I joined the year after we merged with Gotham Mutual Credit."
Introductions were made, and then Mayson showed Jeff the picture of Gordon Taylor.
"Yes, I know him. That's Gregory Tyler. He collects up charity donations and pays them in twice a day to one of our special charity accounts."
"Some charity," observed Mayson dryly. "Looks like Michael isn't very clever, as well as a poor manager. This is going to be pretty straightforward to trace, I'm sure. I'd like all the records pertaining to this account, and any others which Gregory Tyler holds here. We'll also check for his other aliases, just in case. Superman, can I have a word while we're waiting?"
"Of course, Ms Drake."
The two of them stepped outside the office to talk.
"You should go home now, Clark, I can take it from here."
"You're sure you've got everything you need?"
"Yes. I'll stop by tonight to tell you what I've found. Now go!"
Clark slowly peeled off his Superman suit and dragged on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt. Despite his protestations to Mayson, he really did feel completely lifeless. His mind, on the other hand, was working on overdrive, so sleep was definitely not an option. Instead, he flopped down full-length on his sofa and tried to make some sense of his feelings towards Mayson.
Why was it wrong to kiss her in public dressed as Superman? Everyone knew he was Superman, so what difference did it make? OK, revise that - everyone knew that Clark Kent was Superman, but not everyone knew what Clark Kent looked like when he wasn't being Superman. Hopefully. He certainly went out of his way to keep the two personas as separate as he could, so that he could have some sort of private life…that was it! He didn't want a public relationship, something that would be reported in the tabloids, something that reporters would hound them day and night for. He knew what it was like for public figures trying to have a relationship - he knew some of the tactics reporters employed, even if he didn't approve of them himself.
Was this selfish? Well, he could think of another reason, but he wasn't quite so sure that Mayson would understand this one. Clark had done his best to build up Superman as the perfect superhero, completely reliable and supposedly above human frailties - kind of sexless, really. It would destroy that image if Superman was seen kissing and cuddling his girlfriend - wouldn't it?
Oh, this was so difficult! If he really wanted a future with Mayson, he couldn't keep pushing her away like this. That kiss in her office had been enough to show him that there was something between them, although…his mind wandered back to his first and only kiss with Lois. She'd kissed him like she would kiss her own husband, thinking that he was the other Clark, and not a visitor from another dimension. The world truly had seemed to spin around him at the moment when she embraced him with such emotion. Was that the power of real love, was that why it felt so much better than Mayson's kiss? Or maybe he was just exaggerating the whole thing, and it was nothing more than an accidental encounter. Being with Mayson had been nice, very nice, and that was good enough for him.
And then, there was the whole issue of being Superman. He'd decided a few days ago that he couldn't do it anymore, yet here he was, still playing the part and planning his future as if the superhero was going to be a permanent part of his life. Just where was he going with all this?
He was still tossing his emotions around in his mind, having tried and failed to distract himself by watching TV for a while, when Mayson arrived with news and a Chinese takeout.
"Well, as Wilbur would say, we got the bastard."
"Already? That was quick."
"OK, I admit this is only in theory. But we've got a trail leading all the way back to Michael Shand himself, and once we've gathered in a few more pieces of paperwork, we'll be able to make an arrest."
"Mayson, that's great!"
"Yeah, and you know what's even better?"
Clark shook his head slightly as he grappled with a particularly drippy spare rib.
"You are finally going to get the sleep you need." He grimaced. "Well, you didn't get any sleep this afternoon, did you?"
"Ah, see, that's where you're wrong," he countered, laying the bare bone of the rib on their 'rubbish' plate. "I distinctly remember falling asleep during the Simpsons on TV."
"Clark, if you can remember falling asleep, then you didn't fall asleep."
"Hmmm. I see your point. OK, I nearly fell asleep."
"Exactly. So you're going to finish this, and then I'm putting you to bed."
"Putting or taking?"
"My, my, Mr Kent, that's very forward of you. But I'm afraid this time it's definitely 'putting'."
His eyebrows went up. "This time?"
"Don't push your luck. Now eat up, before I send you to bed with no supper."
"And wipe that silly grin off your face."
"And stop calling me Ma'am."
She clamped her hand over his mouth and glared at him in mock severity.
"You going to be good?"
He nodded again, so she removed her hand.
"Clark!" She punched his shoulder.
Eventually, she got him to behave enough to finish his food and get him settled for the night. Sitting on his bed, she still had a few things she wanted to say to him.
"Clark, we haven't talked about that…thing yet."
He made to answer her, but she stopped him.
"I don't fully understand it, but I think I know why you pulled away from me. I've noticed you keep Superman very separate from Clark - you said you never do that spin change in public, for instance."
A nod of agreement.
"So you don't want Superman, the public celebrity, to have a very public relationship with the press hounding him wherever he goes. You want Clark Kent to have a normal, private relationship like any other guy. Am I right?"
"Yes. How did you-"
"What I don't understand is how you think you can sustain that for very long. What if we get engaged, or even, what if we get married? You won't be able to keep that from the public, so I think we might as well start getting used to the attention now."
Clark hadn't listened much after the word 'married', and he could only stare at her dumbly when she finished.
"Don't answer me now," she continued, "but think about it."
"OK," he squeaked in a voice which seemed to have gone up several octaves all of a sudden.
She wasn't done yet.
"Another thing. What you did over the past few days was heroic, kind beyond belief, brave, and I'll always be in your debt for helping us catch Michael Shand. It was also incredibly stupid. You drove yourself to the brink of exhaustion, and you almost lost all sense of perspective in the process. You could have hurt yourself badly, and then you'd have been no use to anyone, let alone the people you strive so hard to protect. So you have to promise me you'll never do anything like that again."
"I-I'm not sure I can. When I see people in trouble, I have to help."
"Clark, you can't help all of the people all of the time. Even a superhero can only do so much."
"And I don't want a boyfriend who's so exhausted he doesn't have any energy left for me," she added with a smile. "And I'm planning some very energetic activities for us both, believe me."
"I am. So do I get that promise?"
"OK." He crossed his fingers under the blanket.
"Good." She leaned across and kissed him on the forehead. "Have a good, long sleep."
So Mayson was thinking about marriage as well! Not only that, but she was thinking about their future together, with Superman playing a full role in that future. He had just told her that he couldn't stop himself wanting to help people, so maybe he should just give in to destiny after all and carry on being the superhero. An assistant DA and a crime-fighter should make for an interesting pairing - he imagined that things might get a little heated at times, like the other day, but they had overcome that, hadn't they? What if she ever became DA? That could be even more-
His thoughts were interrupted by a huge, booming crash from outside. His eyes flew open and immediately caught the glint of flames reflected on the windows of his apartment. In an instant he was at the window, looking down into the street to locate the source of the explosion.
It was a car.
He dove through the window, heedless of the pane of glass he had just smashed, and was beside the car in an instant. Now he was shaking all over. She's not the only one who drives a car like this, she's not…he ripped the remains of the car door off its hinges, and crouched down beside the driver. Her head was lolling at a strange angle, her beautiful golden hair partly covering her face, covering the lips which had caressed him so sweetly only minutes ago.
"Mayson," he whispered.
He gently lifted the hair away from her face, stroking it into place over her shoulder. His hand felt for a pulse at the side of her neck, but there was nothing there. Perhaps he was mistaken…he reached for her wrist, and tried again there. Still nothing. No breath escaped from her lips either, but he shouldn't give up yet. As carefully as he could, he began CPR, breathing air into her lungs, watching her chest rise and fall, taking heart from this sign of normality, ignoring the dead eyes above him, staring unseeingly out into the night. He heard a siren approaching and felt a spark of optimism at the sound of specialist help arriving. Breathe, breathe…he could keep going forever if it meant she had a chance. Breathe, breathe…this time it was going to be all right, this time he wasn't going to let someone close to him die in a car wreck. Breathe, breathe…he felt a hand on his shoulder and brushed it off. He didn't need distractions now. Breathe, breathe…the hand was on him again, shaking him, making it difficult to work properly. Didn't they realise he was saving a life here? Breathe, breathe-
"Sir! It's over. Please stop. It's over."
No it wasn't. Breathe, breathe…there were more hands now, rougher hands, pulling him away, dragging him away. He was sitting on the cold sidewalk now, there was something draped over his shoulders, someone had a hand on his arm.
"I'm so very sorry, sir. Did you know her?"
He nodded slightly, thinking how inadequately that word explained their relationship, their understanding of each other, their hopes for the future. All gone. All shattered. His head flopped down into his hands as a strange kind of numbness enveloped him, the sounds of the emergency services a distant chatter in the background while he floated in a sea of swirling emotions.
The sound of his own name made him look up, where he found Inspector Henderson gazing down at him.
"Why don't you come upstairs to your apartment instead of freezing your butt off down there?"
A helping hand was proffered, which Clark accepted as he clambered up, the human contact becoming a lifeline in a world of chaos. He felt Henderson's guiding hand against his back as they made their way through the lobby and into the elevator, where they stood in desolate silence until they reached Clark's apartment.
"Good grief, it's cold in here," exclaimed Henderson, before noticing the shattered window which Clark had launched himself through. He pulled out his radio while Clark sank down into one of the armchairs.
"Petersen, there's a broken window up here needs boarding up. Now."
He crossed to the window and pulled the curtains closed in an attempt to prevent the worst of the draft coming in. It also shut out some of the noise from downstairs, making the place a more private space for Clark to grieve in. Henderson had known that they had been seeing each other, but he hadn't realised how close they had obviously become. He looked back at the bereft young man, who had done so much for this city in so short a time. Clark was sitting staring into space, still clad in only his sleepshorts and the blanket the EMT man had draped over his shoulders. There was a smear of something red on one of his cheeks, and his hair was sticking out in all directions.
"Clark." Sad brown eyes moved slowly to meet his. "Is there someone you know, someone you can call, maybe get them to come stay with you?"
A shake of the head, and the eyes slid away again.
"How about Perry? Perry White?"
Small shrug of the shoulders.
"Do you have a number for him?"
Clark mumbled something inaudible.
"What, son? I didn't hear you."
"Top drawer," Clark repeated in a flat voice only just within hearing.
Top drawer. Top drawer of what, thought Henderson. He hunted around for the phone, and discovered it on top of a small chest of drawers. Pulling open the top drawer, he found a phone book. <Please don't be out at some charity event, Perry.>
"White," answered a gruff voice.
"Mayor White, this is Inspector Henderson of the MPD."
"Hello, Henderson, what can I do for you?"
"I'm sorry, sir, but I have some very sad news." Henderson glanced at Clark still staring into space, and turned away so that his conversation was less audible. "Mayson Drake, the assistant DA, was killed tonight by a car bomb."
"Oh, dear God! Do we know who did it?"
"We have a couple of suspects, but that's not why I-"
"He's right here with me." Henderson lowered his voice even more. "He found her - it happened right outside his apartment."
"I'm on my way - you're at his apartment?"
Henderson hung up, relieved that help was on its way for Clark. Whilst he felt deeply sorry for the young man, there was only so much time that he could devote to looking after him. Henderson's job was to find and catch the perpetrators of this terrible crime. Deciding a hot drink was required, he walked into Clark's kitchen, touching a reassuring hand to Clark's shoulder on the way.
Finding the right equipment to make a cup of coffee was relatively straightforward, and minutes later he was carrying a steaming cup back to Clark, who didn't seem to have moved a muscle since he left him.
"Here." He handed down the coffee.
Clark looked blankly at the mug in front of him, but took it from Henderson and clasped it in both hands. Henderson took a seat nearby and leaned forward towards Clark.
"Do you know what happened?"
A shake of the head, and a whispered, "No."
"She had just been to see you, is that right?"
A nod, and a crack in the blank expression of something even more painful, before it was shuttered away again behind the blank mask.
"Who do you think did this?"
Another shake of the head.
"What was she working on lately?"
"Shand. Michael Shand."
"She was working on the Michael Shand case? OK, could he have done it?"
"Maybe." Clark closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair, the forgotten cup of coffee slopping unheeded across his legs.
Henderson gave up the quest for information. Not knowing what else to do, he rescued the cup from Clark's limp fingers and put it on the table. Now all he could do was wait until Perry arrived.
Someone was shaking his shoulder again. He opened his eyes. This time it was Perry leaning over him with concerned eyes.
"I'm so sorry, son. She was a good, brave woman. She'll be sorely missed, God knows."
"Now, Alice and I are looking after you tonight. You're to come home with us, and you can stay just as long as you like. OK?"
"I-I don't want to be any trouble."
"Clark, you can't stay here with that broken window. And it won't be any trouble - we always keep a spare room ready in case one of the boys wants to come visit us."
"Why don't we get you cleaned up, find you some clothes to wear, and then I'll drive you home."
Perry put a hand behind Clark's shoulder to encourage him to stand up, which he did, slowly and hesitantly.
"I think I'll take a shower…if that's all right?"
"Sure it is, son. You take as much time as you want to."
Clark showered, dragged on the first clothes which came to hand, and reappeared back in the living room where Perry was sitting, pondering on the best way to handle Clark over the next few days.
"Let's go then."
The ensuing couple of days passed in a nightmarish haze for Clark. Months later, he would find that he could only remember small incidents, never a complete sequence of events. He remembered a motherly hug from Perry's wife, Alice, when he just barely managed to stop a flood of tears from starting up. He remembered her saying, "It's all right to cry, Clark," but he didn't. He recalled Perry producing a black tie for the funeral, explaining that he could wear what he liked; he didn't have to follow convention. He vaguely remembered Mayson's parents: kind, quiet people, dignified in their grief but unable to extend their grieving to include Clark, at least not much beyond polite pleasantries. The funeral itself was a complete blank, although he remembered spilling coffee on the White's living room carpet the same morning, and Alice saying it didn't matter because they were going to be replacing it soon anyway.
What he did remember clearly was the sense of fear that once again, death had touched him. He remembered Mayson's pale, lifeless face and the smell of the burning car. When he could, he remembered her smiling, happy countenance, the laughter dancing behind her eyes, the fun they'd shared together. But this never lasted long when he came back to cold reality and remembered that there wouldn't be any more moments like that together, that the laughter was gone and the fun stopped.
At night, sometimes he was lucky, and the dreams didn't wake him up. Other times, he awoke in a cold sweat, the sound of the explosion still echoing in his ears. Once, it was the sound of two cars smashing together which woke him up, and he lay in the darkness, expecting to see the familiar surroundings of his room back in Smallville, but was disoriented when he found himself in a stranger's bed instead.
Perry and Alice did their best to guide him through the living nightmare, always ready to answer questions but never probing too deeply for answers. Alice put food in front of him which he seldom ate, washed his clothes and ironed his shirts, and always made sure he had human contact in the form of a comforting hand on the shoulder or a brief clasp of hand over hand. Perry dealt with the outside world for him, keeping Ralph and the rest of the media at bay, organising the funeral, ensuring the broken window was repaired, and making sure the police weren't too pushy when they came visiting.
Gradually, through their ministrations, Clark progressed from someone barely able to communicate in monosyllables to a person with at least the outward appearance of normality, even if inner demons were gnawing away at him. Alice tried to encourage him to unbend and let his emotions run freely, but he was too expert in the art of cover-up and suppression to allow himself that luxury. So, a week after the explosion, Clark announced his intention to move back to his own apartment and resume work at the Planet and as Superman.
Alice paused in her task of making coffee for breakfast.
"Are you sure, Clark? You know you're more than welcome to stay here just as long as you like."
"Thanks, Alice, but it's time I started getting back to normal. I mean, I-I can't put my life on hold for ever, can I?"
"I guess not, but…are you sure you're ready?"
"Alice, I don't think I'll ever be sure of that, but I won't know until I try."
"Try what?" asked Perry, strolling into the kitchen while straightening his tie.
"Clark wants to go home and start back at the Planet."
"Ah, well, that's good, son, I guess. But-"
"-am I sure?" interrupted Clark. "No. But I don't think…I don't think she, I mean Mayson, would have wanted…" He stopped and swallowed when the words got stuck in his throat. He took a deep breath and started again. "I don't think Mayson would have wanted me to put my life on hold." He gabbled the words, ending on a quick intake of breath again.
Alice and Perry exchanged glances.
"I'm sure she wouldn't, Clark," began Alice carefully, "but she also wouldn't want you to do something you didn't feel right about."
"Look, I know you guys are trying to be nice, but can't you see you're just making this harder? I've decided I'm doing this, so please - let me make this choice." He looked pleadingly at them.
"Clark, you know we'll support you whatever you decide. Just remember - you pick up that phone and we'll be there, OK?" said Perry.
"Good. Now, is there any coffee hereabouts, or am I going to have to wait and drink that rubbish they call coffee down at City Hall? You know, Clark, Alice makes coffee almost as good as the newsroom Java we used to drink at the Planet. Isn't that true, darlin'?" Perry put an affectionate arm around Alice's shoulders.
"Perry, that 'newsroom Java' as you call it was nothing more than overcooked sludge," retorted Alice.
"Yes, but it was Planet sludge, not just any old sludge."
Alice gave Clark a long-suffering look. "Now you know why I was glad when he left the Planet. I don't have to compete with it anymore."
"You mean having a whole city to compete with isn't just as bad?" asked Clark.
"Clark, the Planet was Perry's mistress."
"Alice!" Perry was embarrassed by his wife's colourful phraseology.
"The city is his extended family. At least I get invited to spend almost as much time with them as he does."
"And she does a pretty good job at it, I'll give her that."
"Only pretty good?"
"Now, Alice," he held his hands up in defence. "you know how much I appreciate your company at city events. Even when you call senators by their pet names in front of visiting foreign dignitaries."
"He needed taking down a peg or two!"
"And you were just the right person to do it."
She looked at him suspiciously.
"I mean it," he insisted.
"Hmmm. You want some of this?" she asked, holding up the coffee pot. "I'm sorry it's fresh, so it won't have that three-times boiled taste you love so much."
"Fresh is fine."
Clark had to face a range of reactions from his fellow workers when he returned from work. The worst part was finding that he was often the one who ended up trying to make them feel less uncomfortable, instead of the other way around. Many of them just didn't know what to say to him. On the whole, he preferred the approach of those who just acted as though nothing had happened at all. A few managed to say a couple of sentences of condolence and then move naturally on to other matters.
There was an ominous note waiting for him on his desk: 'Ralph wants to see you'. Oh joy. Walking over to Ralph's office, he felt as if everyone in the newsroom was watching him, gauging his mood perhaps, or waiting for him to burst into tears. He knocked on the door and went in.
"You wanted to see me, Ralph?"
"Clark! Great to see you! Come in and have a seat. You want coffee? I'll have Sarah bring us some - you take decaf or regular?"
"Uh, regular's fine."
"Yeah, I guess the old caffeine doesn't affect you the same way as it does us humans." He picked up his phone and ordered the coffee from his assistant. "So, Clark, I was sorry to hear about your girlfriend - it must have been terrible, finding her like that."
"But you're back now. It's great to see you've pulled yourself together and got yourself back to work. Nothing like climbing straight back into the saddle, is there?"
"I mean, bereavement is a terrible thing, but I can't stand these people that wallow in their own emotions, can you? Much better to put it all behind you and get on with your life, just like you have."
Thankfully, Sarah came in with the coffees, enabling Clark to avoid answering Ralph's comments. His editor gazed at her lustfully as she departed.
"Shame she's married. Still, plenty of fish in the sea, eh, Clark?"
Clark drank his coffee quietly.
"I guess you're wondering why I asked you in here? Well, you're fired." He grinned broadly and held up a hand. "Just kidding. Though, seriously, I haven't been too impressed with your work lately, Clark. I think you know that."
Clark drank some more coffee.
"But I don't believe in kicking a man when he's down, so I'm going to give you a second chance. If that's OK with you, of course?"
"Uh, sure. Thanks."
"Now, I don't expect you to be up to full speed yet, so we'll start you with light work - just a few background jobs, the odd event, that kind of thing. OK?"
"He's got you doing what?!"
Clark winced as Perry's yell stretched the capabilities of the phone's speaker.
"Updating the obituary file. Perry, it's not so bad-"
"That man has gone too far this time. I had him pegged as a weasel the minute he walked through my office door, but Olsen just wouldn't listen to me. All he could see was a young man hungry for action with a fancy resume from a hotshot newspaper. Now he's got an idiot who's turning the Planet into a comic with a travel supplement."
"I've also got a couple of dog shows to cover and a charity auction. It's OK, really. He's trying to be kind."
"'Kind' my sweet Aunt Fanny. Only Ralph would give obituary work to a man in your position. You leave this with me, son. This is going to stop."
"Perry, I'd really prefer it if you didn't make a fuss. You know what he's like."
Clark almost bit his tongue as soon as the words were out. He should never had said something like that to Perry. There was a long pause at the other end of the phone, and then a very careful voice said, "What do you mean?"
"Nothing. I just meant, I can handle this myself. It's OK."
"No, what did you mean - 'I know what he's like.' What else has he done?"
"Oh, just stuff."
"Clark, if there's something going on here, I want to know about it. Tell me."
Clark sighed heavily. There wasn't room to backtrack now.
"There's been rumours of harassment."
"I knew it! You know he had a close run-in back at the Post on this, I suppose? What kind? Sexual? Physical? Intellectual?"
"Take your pick," said Clark bitterly.
Perry's voice became very soft.
"Clark, is this personal? To you, I mean?"
Perry waited for an answer, but Clark was silent.
Still nothing, just an even longer silence.
"OK, I'm going to take that as a yes. You want to fly over here, take some supper with us, tell your Uncle Perry what's been going on? Alice is cooking tonight, so you won't have to suffer my chilli. How does that sound?"
"OK." Clark's voice sounded strangled, as though he had difficulty speaking.
"Fine. You just come over whenever you're ready."
Clark replaced the receiver whilst trying to swallow past the huge lump in his throat. This was crazy - he just didn't seem to have any control over his emotions these days. Why should a simple question about his irritating boss reduce him to a gibbering wreck? It wasn't even as if the treatment he received from Ralph bothered him that much - OK, sometimes it needled him more than he would prefer, and it made him angry from time to time, but it really wasn't such a big deal. Get a grip! He couldn't go over to Perry and Alice's like this - as soon as Perry asked him anything, he'd lose control. Taking some deep breaths, he got up and paced around the room a while, clenching his fists and willing himself to regain his composure. He tried a few sentences out loud to make sure his voice sounded steady.
"Hi, Perry; Alice."
"That was delicious, Alice."
"You want to know about Ralph?"
"I think Ralph needs some help with his management skills."
When he was sure that he could conduct a coherent conversation with his hosts, he flew over and was warmly greeted at the White's household. Perry kept to neutral topics during supper, so that Clark was able to consolidate on the fragile control he had attained back at his apartment, even to the point where he was able to raise a small smile at Alice and Perry's playful banter. When Perry eventually steered the conversation around to the Daily Planet and Ralph over coffee, he was relaxed enough to give an honest opinion about his editor.
"I don't think he should be editing the Daily Planet. He doesn't have the management skills, or even the journalistic skills, to be running such a high-profile newspaper - he's been promoted too fast. Right now, he belongs on the reporting team of a medium-sized paper, where he'd probably do great on the right kind of stories."
Perry snorted. "Ha! Right kind of stories - that's one way of putting it, I guess. Clark, you always look for the good in people, but you got to remember - the guy didn't just suddenly find himself pitched into this job. He went for it, just like he must have gone for all the other jobs he's had on the way up, so he thinks he belongs where he is. Face it, son, he's an arrogant SOB."
"Actually, I think he lacks self-confidence, and that's why he treats people the way he does."
"How does he treat them?"
Clark shifted uneasily in his chair now that the conversation was moving into muddier waters.
"Well…for a start, I know the women staff feel uncomfortable around him. I think they try to avoid getting caught in a room alone with him."
"Has he actually tried anything with any of them?"
"No-one's said…so it's really only rumours."
"But…" Perry waved a hand around to encourage expansion.
"I know how he talks about women - what his attitude towards them is like."
Clark glanced in Alice's direction before replying.
"I think he regards them all as fair game."
Alice grimaced. "Unfortunately, Clark, Ralph is not the only man on this planet to go chasing after anything in a skirt."
"I think Clark knows that, honey, but it's different when the man in question is their boss."
"What else has he done? Does he go in for any other forms of harassment except sexual?" asked Alice.
Clark was silent for a moment before replying.
"I really don't like doing this, guys. I mean, we're tearing down this guy's character and he's not even here to defend himself."
"Oh, he'll get a chance to defend himself, don't you worry," assured Perry. "But I've got to know the full picture first. Has he said anything inappropriate to you, for instance?"
"I don't think giving him obituaries to do just after his girlfriend has been killed is very appropriate, Perry!" interjected Alice before Clark could answer.
Perry winced inwardly at his wife's direct language. He glanced over at Clark, who had picked up a teaspoon and was carefully stirring it around his coffee.
"Uh…what about…before, Clark? Maybe he had something to say about you having been adopted?" Perry prompted, taking a stab in the dark.
Clark laughed mirthlessly. "Not exactly," he told the coffee cup.
He mumbled something so low that Perry couldn't catch it.
"Sorry, son, what was that?"
"I said," Clark looked up abruptly and stared directly at Perry, "he likes to remind me that I'm an alien."
Ah. These days, Perry tended to forget that Clark didn't come from this planet - he just took him for what he was: a person with extraordinary abilities. It didn't matter to him what Clark's genetic roots were, so he forgot that other people might not think the same way. Aware that Clark was still staring at him, he fumbled an answer.
"Judas Priest, that's ridiculous! Who cares what you are?"
Clark went back to stirring his coffee. "He obviously does."
Alice reached out a hand and put it over Clark's free one. "That really hurts, doesn't it?"
He nodded, head still bowed.
"What sort of things does he say?" she asked. Perry glared at her, willing her to stop rubbing salt in the wound, but she ignored him and squeezed Clark's hand encouragingly.
"Just…stuff. He makes jokes about my Kryptonian heritage, about my powers, my speed…even innuendo about my-my sexual prowess." He snatched a quick glance up at her with that admission, but Alice wasn't so easily shocked. He gave a half-hearted laugh. "It's not much, really, just a word here or there. I don't usually let it bother me."
"But that's why this type of thing is so cruel - it's insidious. It builds up and builds up, one word at a time. Is that what it's like, Clark?"
"And that's part of what was so special about Mayson, wasn't it? She accepted you for what you are."
Clark nodded. Whatever fragile control he had over his emotions was gradually being eroded by Alice's quiet probing, but he wasn't going to let go. He picked up the cup and took a shaky gulp.
Perry cleared his throat and spoke gruffly.
"Uh, son, I think you've told us enough. I'll have a word with Olsen tomorrow and we'll see if we can't sort this mess out. Don't worry - if there's one thing I've learned as mayor, it's how to be subtle, so you won't be in any trouble with Ralph. Now, how about another coffee?"
"Th-thanks, Perry, but I should be going. Thanks, Alice, for a lovely meal."
He was on his feet and already moving towards the door before they could object. Alice managed a brief hug before he escaped, but he didn't return the embrace.
"You should have pushed him for more," observed Alice as she closed the door on their visitor.
"Honey, couldn't you see how he was suffering? I don't know what your game was at all - one more word from either of us and he'd have lost it completely."
"That's what he needs. He's holding on to so much grief, he'll be in real trouble if he doesn't let go of it soon. I don't think he's shed one tear since it happened."
"Yes, 'oh'. Honestly, you men! You always want to brush those pesky, messy emotions away under the carpet, instead of letting them out into the open where they belong."
"Now, Alice, you know that's not true." Perry put an affectionate arm around his wife and smiled a twinkly smile. "You know I can be very…emotional."
"What were we saying earlier about men and skirts?" Alice asked mischievously.
"Alice, it's OK. I'm your husband, remember?"
"Oh, yes. In that case, let's see just how emotional you can be." They started to walk upstairs. "But I want you to remember what I said about Clark. Don't let him bottle it all up."
"If I get a chance to, honey. He's not an easy guy to track down these days."
"I know - that's part of the problem."
Alice was referring to the fact that Clark had thrown himself into his Superman work with a renewed vigour bordering on the obsessive since returning to work. It seemed that these days no job was too small for Superman to handle. He rescued cats from trees, mended burst water mains, helped some office workers trapped in a lift, even broke up a school playground fight, all with the same energy and enthusiasm as he gave to the larger incidents which people were more accustomed to him attending. It was probably fortuitous that Ralph only expected him to carry out minor tasks for the Planet, as he was continually leaping up from his desk to respond to these emergencies.
A little voice at the back of Clark's subconscious was telling him to stop it; that he was repeating his mistakes from before by pushing himself too hard, but he ignored it. 'She' would have wanted him to carry on his Superman duties, and besides, keeping busy at work was preferable to the other alternative.
Night time was the hardest part of the day to get through. If he managed to exhaust himself enough so that he could eventually fall asleep, then the dreams would start. Once he dreamt that he was walking on his own through a deserted wood, came across a small hut, and when he entered, Mayson was there, sitting at a kitchen table. All at once he knew that somehow it had been a huge mistake, that she was alive after all, and he was happy again. His relief and joy was overwhelming, and he woke up in a state of great elation. Immediately this changed to abject devastation when he had to relive the realisation that she really was gone for ever, that it had all been a dream.
Saving people from muggers and stopping robberies was a far better way of passing the desolate night hours than repeating that type of experience.
During one of his brief sojourns into the newsroom, he received a phone call from Mr Olsen's secretary, inviting him to tea at Mandy's, a popular eatery a couple of blocks away from the Planet. Feeling a little as though he'd started something he was later going to regret, he nevertheless accepted the invitation and duly turned up promptly at 3pm. As the hostess delivered him to the appointed table, Mr Olsen stood up and shook hands with him before gesturing for him to sit.
"Clark, may I offer my sincerest sympathy for your loss. You must have been through hell and back these past couple of weeks."
"I…it hasn't been easy."
"And you're back at work so soon. You know, you can always take more time off if you need it. You needn't worry about your job at the Planet - that's there for as long as you want it."
"Th-Thank you. And thank you for the card you sent, Mr Olsen."
"The least I could do. Call me James, by the way. I think we've known each other long enough to be on first name terms, don't you?"
"I guess. James."
"OK…ah, here's our tea. I got Oolong for you, I hope that's all right?"
Clark snapped his attention up from watching the waiter place tea pots and cups and saucers on the table.
"How did I know? I didn't get where I am today without knowing a thing or two about the people who work for me. Know your staff, know their strengths and weaknesses, you understand?"
Intrigued, Clark nearly asked what his own weaknesses were, but thought the better of it. Instead, he tried something more neutral.
"Talking about where you are today - you made your money in computers. What made you buy a newspaper?"
"Clark, are you interviewing me? I thought I was the one interviewing you today."
"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean-"
"It's OK, I was only kidding. That, by the way, is one of your strengths. Your genuine interest in people."
God, but this guy was disarming, thought Clark as he cast around for a suitable reply.
"To answer your question, I bought the Planet because it's one of the greatest newspapers in this country and I wanted to make sure it stayed that way. It was going through a bad patch financially at the time, and there were certain people…shall we say, certain morally-challenged people who were looking to snap it up. I didn't want to see that happen."
"I see. And are you pleased with your purchase? Is it going the way you hoped?"
Olsen studied Clark over the top of his teacup. "What makes you think I might not be?"
"Well…" Clark decided to tread carefully, "I know that circulation is up, and we're selling more ad space than ever before, but…"
"Am I happy with the content?"
"Clark, the paper was stagnating. It was seen as fusty and old, with dry articles and leaden editorials. Why do you think circulation was dropping? We needed to find a brighter, more youthful image to bring in new readers - readers who would keep buying the paper because there was something in it for them. So yes, we've added a few more competitions and special offers, a few exclusive serialisations from the gaudier end of the book market, but that's what people want. We still run the hard news alongside the gimmicks - just look at your series on the homeless. That was an excellent, hard-hitting piece of journalism."
"Did you realise how much of that was cut?"
"I have to admit I expected a couple of sections to be longer, but you know as well as I do that stories get cut all the time. It's a fact of life in this business."
"I agree, except that if those sections hadn't been cut, then the Planet would have been the first paper to report on the fact that the city was planning to withdraw funding for those shelters in Hobs Bay instead of the Star."
"I see. Well, it's not good if the Planet misses a scoop, but everyone makes mistakes from time to time."
"Is that the philosophy you built your computer business up with?"
"Now hold on, Clark. I said we were on first name terms, but that doesn't give you the right to throw wholesale criticism at my business practices."
"I'm sorry. It's just…the Planet means a lot to me, I guess."
"And to me. Don't forget that."
The two men fell into an awkward silence, Clark thinking he'd just screwed up his chances of keeping his job, Olsen soothing his quiet indignation with a couple of mouthfuls of tea. Clark was beginning to compose his exit lines when Olsen broke the silence.
"Look, why don't you tell me about any other incidents like that one and I'll make my own judgement, OK?"
Clark heaved an inner sigh of relief, and began to relate other times when editorial decisions had resulted in a loss to the Planet. Olsen's face grew grimmer and grimmer as the catalogue of poor decision-making rolled out in front of him, until finally he raised a hand for Clark to stop.
"I think I've got the picture. Could you put together a short report on this? Nothing fancy - just a list so that I've got something to work from."
"And I'll be checking up everything you've said, of course."
Clark shrugged his shoulders and turned the corners of his mouth down. "Fine by me."
"Good. Now, that wasn't what we came here to discuss."
It wasn't? thought Clark.
"I've been hearing reports of…inappropriate behaviour, and I'd like to get to the bottom of this. Normally, I would leave personnel to deal with it, but it's been brought to my personal attention, so I need to see this one through. I don't want rumour, I only want to know about your own experiences."
"And let's be clear - we're talking about Ralph Pinedo, your editor, and anything he has done or said to you which you felt was harassment."
Clark stared at Olsen, at a loss for words. It all seemed so petty now, and hardly worth telling someone so senior as the owner of the newspaper. This was the rolling ball gathering moss which he'd been wary of when he accepted the invitation. One chance remark to Perry, and now he was having to admit his own insecurities to the person who paid his salary, not to mention the fact that he could be about to ruin a person's career.
Finally, he gave a nervous laugh. "It's just a little harmless name-calling, that's all."
"Sorry, that's not good enough. Bosses do not jeer at their employees in my organisations. Also, don't forget that I was there when that Tempus idiot tried to discredit you by calling you an alien. I could see how that hurt, even then."
Clark's eyes widened as he remembered how Olsen had stuck up for him back then, how he'd declared, "Alien or not, this man has rights."
"James. I appreciate your concern, I really do, but I can't do this."
"Oh? Why not?"
"It…just doesn't feel right."
"Telling tales out of school? Clark, sometimes you have to tell the brutal truth, no matter how wrong it feels."
Clark was silent.
"OK. This is what you're going to do. If you can't tell me face to face, you're going to do me another report. I want every instance you can remember where he's made inappropriate remarks to you, with as many times, dates and places as you can recall as well. Think you can do that?"
"But you don't get off the hook that easily - you're going to come back to me with that report and read it out to me. Many people can distort the truth on paper, but fewer can voice it out loud, and I don't think you're one of them." He held up a hand. "Not that I don't trust you, but if I'm going to accuse someone of harassment, then I need to be 110 per cent sure I have my facts straight - and Clark? This is not optional. You do this as soon as you're back at your desk."
Clark nodded reluctantly.
"And don't look so anxious. Remember, your job is secure at the Planet."
Clark walked out of the tea room thinking his job might be secure, but his working relationship with Ralph could soon be in tatters. How could he continue working at the Planet in that situation? He hadn't given it much thought since he made up with Mayson, but moving out of Metropolis was becoming more and more attractive once again. Maybe he could put all this behind him if he moved. Just lately, when he'd allowed himself to think about her, he'd thought how much he had let Mayson down. She had come looking for him, and he had welcomed her with open arms, but he'd always treated her as a substitute for the real thing. He had wanted her to be Lois, and had looked for the qualities she shared with Lois, instead of loving her for her own uniqueness. What a terrible way to use someone. Had she ever realised that she was second-best, had he ever hurt her by his own selfishness?
He arrived back at the Planet even more depressed than when he had left. His heart wasn't in the task Olsen had set him, but his innate sense of duty made him write the reports required of him. He phoned Olsen's secretary to make an appointment to see him again, emailed the reports to the owner and to himself, and finished by deleting all evidence of the reports from the Planet's computer system. He didn't think Ralph was a snooper, but it was prudent to be cautious.
As he reluctantly turned back to the obituaries file, he reached out with his superhearing, hoping to pick up a rescue or a robbery in progress which he could attend to instead of this soul-destroying task. Fortunately, with Metropolis being the size it was, it wasn't too long before he was out of his chair and fumbling with his tie on the way to a cry for help.
The help required turned out to be a small child who had fallen into the lake in Centennial Park, but Clark managed to reach him before he'd taken more than a couple of gulps of water. Clark restored him to his distraught mother, and dried him gently with heat vision. He was just suggesting that she take the boy to a doctor in case there was anything nasty in the water, when he heard another call for help and was swiftly on his way once more.
Arriving at the fifteen car pile-up on the main freeway around Metropolis, he scanned quickly for the fireman who had called him. Experience had taught him that it was best to work with the emergency services in cases such as this, so these days he didn't just fly straight to the first problem which caught his attention, but consulted initially with those already on the scene. Spotting the man near the back of the pile-up, he landed in front of him and asked what was required of him.
Their first priority was to secure the area, which had largely been completed already, but they wanted Clark to conduct a scan of all the vehicles to check for leaks and possible spark points. He did this carefully, recognising the importance of preventing further disaster, and managed to seal up a couple of fuel lines which looked dangerous. That done, he was directed to the middle of the pile-up, where there were three victims who needed to be air-lifted to hospital immediately. This was the part of the accident where the injured were most numerous, and he had to work hard to stay calm amid the cries for help, the shouts from people in pain, and worst of all, the two shapeless piles drawn to one side and covered discretely by blankets. He had encountered scenes like this numerous times before, but it never got any easier, and nowadays he found it especially difficult to deal with. However, he was here for his speed and strength, not his empathy, so he pushed back the emotion to be dealt with later, and flew the three victims on their stretchers quickly and safely to Metropolis General.
Arriving back at the centre of operations, he was asked to help free a couple of people who were trapped in their cars. The first one was difficult, as the poor victim was quite panicky and very vocal in his distress, trying to pull himself out even though it was dangerous for him to do so. Every time he struggled, he made it more likely that the structure above him would collapse and crush him completely. It also made it more difficult for Clark to lift everything away safely, and it was some time before the paramedic tending to the man could calm him down enough so that the job could be completed. The continual battery of screaming and crying had taken their toll on everyone involved, and all heaved a sigh of relief when the man was finally released and taken away to a waiting ambulance.
The second victim was a woman trapped in a car by a bus which was partially resting on top, balanced in a very precarious position. Amidst his jangling nerves from the previous rescue, Clark lifted the bus out of the way, and then bent down to ease her out of the car.
He froze at the sight in front of him. Backing away, he whispered, "I'm sorry."
He turned away and pushed his way blindly through the knot of rescue workers.
"Superman, what's the problem?" asked one of them.
A concerned and puzzled face looked up at him as he turned numbly.
"I'm sorry," he repeated. "I can't…can't do this. I'm sorry. I can't do this anymore."
He took off into the sky, ignoring the shouts from below.
"Superman! Where are you going? We still need you!"
He flew fast, desperately fast, trying to exorcise the image burned onto his memory. The blond hair, long and curly, only partly obscuring the gash in her forehead and the blood running down one side of her face. The eyes as her face turned towards him, not dead and lifeless like before, but frightened and pleading. The dark stains on the car seat, on her clothes.
He flew aimlessly into the thin atmosphere above the clouds, circling the earth, criss-crossing the skies, flying into darkness and oblivion.
Clark kicked the front door of their house closed with his foot and strode into their living room. Dumping his laptop on the carpet, he pulled the black sling supporting his left hand off over his head and was about to start on the plaster cast around his hand when a belligerent voice stopped him.
"You going to help me with these?"
He hurried back to Lois, who was standing in front of the door with a delicately balanced pile of takeout cartons in her arms and a look of mild annoyance on her face.
He gathered up some of the cartons from her, but somehow they slipped from his clumsy cast-impaired grasp, and dropped to the carpet. Muttering a mild curse, he snapped the concealed catch on the cast, pulled it off and tossed it in the general direction of the sofa. Lois carried her cartons into the kitchen while he cleared up the mess on the carpet.
"What did we lose?" called Lois from the kitchen.
"Both rice and your noodles."
"Oh, Clark, honey, could you fly out and get us some more?"
Clark came into the kitchen and dumped the last of the mess in the trash. "How about I do us more us rice here?"
"What about my noodles?"
He pulled a face. "Lois, I've really had enough of that cast today. I nearly forgot to take it off this morning when I went to that fire."
Ever since he had been shot very publicly, he had been wearing a false cast on his hand and it was beginning to drive him crazy. To start with, it had been a real necessity, because he had been wounded whilst weakened with kryptonite and his hand took some time to heal, but now it was just an annoyance.
"You don't have to wear the cast - you can fly there as Superman."
"Lois, Superman doesn't buy food from Chinese takeouts. I'd still have to change into Clark."
"Only for a couple of minutes." She walked up to him, put her hands flat on his chest and smiled up at him. "Please? You know what noodles do to me."
He sighed heavily. "OK, if you insist."
"Sorry." He smiled briefly. "I'll get the noodles."
Instead of speeding away at superspeed as he normally would, he walked reluctantly back into the living room to retrieve his cast. Lois frowned and followed him.
"Clark, never mind. Forget the noodles."
"It's OK, I'll get them."
"Forget the damned noodles and tell me what's wrong."
It was his turn to frown. "What?"
"You've been moping around like a bear with a sore head for two days now. What's the matter?"
"Nothing. Like I said, it's just this stupid cast. I wish Dr Klein could have made it out of something less itchy." He turned the offending article around in his hands, gazing down at it.
"What happened to the invulnerability?"
"Lois, I have touch sensations just the same as anyone else. You, of all people, should know that." He threw it down on the sofa and slumped down beside it.
Lois sat down beside him and put an arm around him. "Clark, come on. Speak to me. Tell me what's really wrong."
He exhaled sharply. "I don't know."
"What do you mean?"
"Just that - I don't know. It's like…there's this black cloud hanging over me all the time."
"Was it a bad rescue? That train crash a couple of days ago?"
Lois didn't think there had been any fatalities at the incident, but sometimes Clark didn't tell her everything.
"No, nothing like that. I just feel…sad."
"Oh, honey." She pulled him down towards her and tousled his hair with her fingers. "Maybe you've been working too hard lately. Perhaps you need a break - you want to go visit your folks this weekend? We've been promising them a visit for ages now."
"I guess, although I don't think I'd be very great company right now."
"Hey, since when has that mattered to them?"
He fell silent while she played with his hair some more.
"I was thinking about him," he volunteered.
Clark2 was the name the alternative Clark had adopted while he was visiting their universe a short while ago.
"Yeah. I was wondering if he was OK."
"He was a little lonely, wasn't he?"
"He didn't seem to have many friends."
"There was Chen Chow, wasn't there? And Perry was still a good friend to him, I think."
"I guess, but he didn't have anyone real close to him. I mean, I have you, and Mom and Dad, but he didn't have anyone."
"Do you still miss him?"
"Sometimes. Not enough to make me feel like this, though."
She moved her hand down to rub his arm thoughtfully. Maybe, maybe not, she wondered.
A ring on the doorbell interrupted their reverie. Clark heaved himself up from the sofa to answer it.
"Clark, your cast!" hissed Lois.
Grimacing, he donned the dummy cast at superspeed and opened the door.
"Quite," replied H G Wells.
"After a brief visit to late nineteenth-century England in the alternate universe, I felt in need of a short holiday, so I travelled to my favourite destination: Utopia. Alas, when I arrived there, my beloved Utopia was gone and in its place was a far darker, desolate world. Naturally, I immediately surmised that something was amiss with the Superman of that world, so instead of continuing my holiday - which wouldn't have been a terribly pleasant one in any case - I continued on my way, back to this time period."
He paused in his narrative, distracted by the demeanour of his audience. Lois was frowning at him and looking strained, while Clark was slumped back in his seat with a resigned expression on his face.
"Forgive me for saying so, but you seem rather down. Especially you, Clark. I hope I haven't arrived at an inopportune moment."
Lois and Clark glanced at each other in a shared moment of irony.
"Mr Wells, as it happens, you do have a certain knack…" began Clark carefully, uncertain as to where he was going now that he'd started to explain.
"You were always interrupting us during intimate moments," stated Lois baldly.
"Well, I wouldn't have put it quite like that…" hurried out Clark.
"Just when we were about to-"
"Kiss. About to kiss."
Lois glanced at Clark before turning back to Wells.
"About to kiss, you would turn up again like a b-"
"Like an long-lost friend. Acquaintance."
Lois gave Clark a 'stop editing my copy' look.
Wells turned a little pink. "Oh. I see. How terribly, terribly embarrassing. I hope I wasn't…?"
"Oh, no! Nothing like that this time," Lois was quick to clarify. "No, Clark's got an attack of the blues, and I was worried that he's been working too hard, and then you turn up, and that usually means more work, and maybe time apart for the two of us, and no holiday in Smallville, plus I think we've already had our fair share of time-travelling and universe-hopping, not to mention nosy tabloid journalists who should know better and psychopathic Utopians, so what that all means is, we're not completely overcome with joy to see you. Nothing personal, you understand."
"Ah. I suppose I am rather a bringer of bad tidings."
"Perhaps you should tell us why you're here," suggested Clark.
Wells studied Clark closely through narrowed eyes for a moment. "Hmmm. I believe I may know the reason for your sadness. Interesting." He made clicking sounds to himself as he pondered the idea.
"Mr Wells? Please?" prompted Clark again.
"Ah, yes, the reason for my visit. Where was I? Let me see…arriving back in this time period in the alternate universe. I checked some of the newspapers, and this is what I found."
He reached inside his jacket, pulled out a few newspaper cuttings, and handed them to Clark. Lois read them with him.
"SUPERMAN DESERTS CRASH VICTIM"
"WHERE IS SUPERMAN?"
"MAN OF COWARDICE?"
"SUPERMAN ABANDONS METROPOLIS"
The headlines screamed the gist of the story at them, but reading the accompanying articles gave them a clearer picture of the situation. Before they could comment on these, Wells continued,
"I visited the library and checked some back issues to see if I could find an explanation for Superman's untimely disappearance, and found these." He handed them some more cuttings.
"ASSISTANT DA MURDERED"
"IS SUPERMAN IN LOVE?"
"Oh, no," whispered Lois.
Clark looked dumbly at Wells.
"Something terrible has happened to that poor boy," said Wells. "He needs a good friend, and naturally I thought of you, Clark."
"I'll go, of course," said Clark, standing up.
"I'll come with you," added Lois.
Clark winced. "Honey, I'm not so sure that's a good idea."
"Why not? He might find it easier to talk to a woman."
"Normally, I'd agree, but you're special."
"Exactly." Lois crossed her arms smugly. "I rest my case."
Clark smiled briefly. "Honey, you're the most wonderful woman in the world, but that's not what I meant. You remember what Clark2 was like with you when he was here. You're Lois Lane, the woman he was searching for. The woman he thought he loved."
"Well, he obviously changed his mind on that one."
"I'm not so sure…"
"What makes you say that?"
"If he's anything like me, then Mayson was just a substitute for the real thing."
"Clark, you can't know that."
"No, but if I'm right, then do you really think it would help him right now to see you and then have to lose you again?"
"So I think I have to do this one on my own."
"Clark's right, my dear. Not only for the reason he's given you, but because we must do everything in our power to minimise the disruption of the timelines. One 'foreign' body, as it were, is bad enough, but two would carry an even greater risk of damage," said Wells.
"How long will he be gone?" asked Lois.
"I'm afraid that's quite difficult to predict. It may seem like mere minutes to you, or it may take just as long as it does in the other universe."
"So Clark could be gone for days?"
"Honey, I'm sorry. This isn't going to be easy on you."
"Clark, after all he did for us, it's the least we can do. And don't worry about me, I can take care of myself."
"I know, that's what worries me," he said with a smile.
"Hey! If you're not careful, I'll tell Perry you broke your leg and then you'll have to hobble around in another cast for weeks."
"Honey, that's not funny."
"Clark, do you want to change clothes before we leave?" asked Wells.
Clark glanced down at his dress trousers. "Good idea."
He disappeared in a blur of grey and blue, returning seconds later in his favourite jeans and a T-shirt. Lois turned to Wells.
"Mr Wells, would you excuse us a moment?"
Lois pulled Clark into the kitchen and wrapped her arms around him.
"Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
He smiled into her hair.
"And don't let yourself get too involved. Emotionally, I mean."
"You won't do him any favours if you get as upset as he is. I know you, Clark Kent."
"You know I'd rather have you with me, don't you, Lois?"
"I know. But you'll do fine on your own. Just don't go out on too many all-night benders together. I know what you Kryptonian men are like when you get together."
"I promise I'll be good, if you will."
"I love you."
They shared a last long, indulgent kiss before returning to the living room.
"Ready?" asked Wells.
"Ready," replied Clark.
Lois watched as the space around them bent in on itself, and then they were gone.
"Come back soon," she told the empty space.
Materialising in the alley behind his old apartment, Clark felt his stomach do a flip and his head swim as his body adjusted itself to the unnatural mode of travel. When everything felt normal again, he turned to Wells, and was surprised to see him already preparing for another hop.
"I'll be going now. Ta-ta!"
"Hold on!" Clark cried in a panic. "How do I get back?"
"Oh, don't worry, I'll know when to pick you up. Cheerio!"
"But-" Clark started, but it was too late. Wells was already gone.
Clark stared at the spot where Wells had been standing. He hadn't expected to be left alone so soon, and he really hadn't expected the time-traveller to abandon him without any means of escape. He'd have to have a few words with the man when he caught up with him again…if he ever did.
He gazed up at the apartment. Would Clark be there? Somehow he doubted it, but he dropped his glasses down his nose and did a thorough x-ray search of the building. Nope, nothing there. Where would he, himself, go if he was desperate to escape something like this and lock himself away? Well, for short-term solitude, the skies above were a good place to hide, but longer term…he sometimes retreated to the polar ice-caps or a remote mountain-top, but again, that didn't feel right. Clark wanted comforting. All at once he knew where Clark was. He wasn't entirely sure what the status of the farmhouse these days was, but that would be where he would instinctively head for if he possibly could. He flew straight up until he was out of sight from the ground, and headed off to Smallville.
As he neared the farm, the weather closed in, and he landed in a grey, drizzly landscape where trees drooped limply under the weight of water on their leaves and puddles filled the hollows in the farm tracks. The farmhouse seemed oddly familiar, yet unfamiliar at the same time, the strangeness accentuated by the run-down appearance of the building. He approached the front door, not surprised to find it swinging loosely on its hinges. Closer inspection revealed that the lock had been sheared off: clear evidence of super-strength. Walking tentatively inside, he found a dusty, empty place, with none of the warmth and homeliness he was used to. It wasn't just that there were no personal effects strewn around, it was the lack of those big, generous personalities which filled the home he grew up in.
A quick x-ray scan told him that he had indeed come to the right place, and any nerves he might have felt when he arrived melted away as he caught a first glimpse of his friend and almost-brother. The man was so obviously in need of his help and support that it was meaningless to feel nervous about the immensity of the task before him. He made his way up to the attic, where his friend was sitting beside an open box, one hand caressing the material of a white dress.
The figure on the floor seemed oblivious to his approach, so he tried a soft, "Clark?"
The head whirled around and looked up at him. Clark saw bloodshot eyes, days' worth of stubble, sunken cheeks and dark circles under the eyes, and immediately felt a welling up of emotion inside. He hunkered down beside his friend and put a gentle hand on his shoulder.
"I heard you could do with a friend," he said quietly.
"How…?" whispered his brother.
"H G Wells."
Clark looked down at the hand clutching the white dress, and his heart did a little lurch.
"Mom's wedding dress. She was planning on giving it away to charity, but…"
"I never saw it before. I always knew she had it up here when I was a kid, but at 10 I wasn't exactly interested, and then she gave it away." He reached out to the dress. "May I?"
The other Clark nodded.
Clark lifted the top half of the dress out of the box and gazed at it silently for a few minutes.
"It's beautiful," he said in awe.
"I wish I'd seen her in it."
"There's a photo here…" He rummaged around in a pile of papers and old photographs until he found it. His fingers traced a partial outline around his mother's image while he gazed fondly at it.
Clark put the dress down and leaned over to look.
"And Dad looks proud enough to burst," he continued with a smile.
"Yeah, literally as well as figuratively. He was a little optimistic about the size of that suit, I think."
"He never was a great dresser."
Clark looked around the attic. "Is this the first time you've been back here since they…?"
"No. I come back now and then, just to make sure it's OK."
"It's still yours?"
"They left it to me, along with a few savings. Folks kept trying to make me sell it, telling me that it was just something else to worry about, or that it would just keep reminding me of what happened, but I couldn't let it go. I mean, it's the only thing which gives me any…any roots," he finished on a whisper.
Clark squeezed his shoulder. "I can understand that." He forced a brighter note into his voice. "Look, when was the last time you ate, because I'm starving."
"I-I'm not sure."
"Sounds like it's time we found you some food then. Is there any in the house?"
"I doubt it."
Clark stood up. "How about I fly into Smallville and get us some?"
The other Clark looked doubtful. "What if someone recognises you?"
Clark put a hand to his chin "Hmmm. You have a point. OK, I'll go somewhere further away." He walked over to the attic hatch and looked back. "You coming?" he asked expectantly.
"Come on, it'll be more comfortable eating downstairs."
Clark continued on his way, crossing his fingers that his apparent assumption of co-operation would do the trick. Sure enough, his gamble paid off, and the other Clark followed him down.
"One thing before I go."
"What are we going to call each other? It's weird enough that you look exactly like me, without you calling me Clark and me doing the same."
"You used to call me Clark2. How about that?"
"Well, I could, but…it doesn't seem fair. I'm the visitor here - I should be the one with the new name."
A small smile curled around the other Clark's mouth. "Jerome?"
"Oh, no! Not that. Please, anything but that!"
"Do you have any nicknames?"
"Lois has a few, but I'd rather you didn't call me 'honey'."
The smile broadened a little.
"How about at work?"
"Yes! Jimmy calls me 'CK'. That would do."
"OK, CK it is."
CK disappeared in a blur and was back five minutes later carrying some steaming containers.
"I went to that Chinese - you know, the one in Shanghai? Oh, and I hope you like Chinese beer."
"I'm not very hungry."
"You wait 'til you try these spare ribs." He laid the containers out on the dining table, sat down and dug in enthusiastically. It wasn't all for show - he really was very hungry, since his aborted meal with Lois back in Metropolis. He looked over at Clark, who had sat down opposite him at the table but was pushing a box around aimlessly without much interest in the contents.
"Here, try one of these." He shoved the spare rib box across to Clark, who peered inside, picked out a rib and nibbled tentatively.
"Try this." He shoved another container across. "It's Lois' favourite."
He snatched a glance up - perhaps he shouldn't have mentioned Lois - and caught Clark's eye as he also looked up. There was a brief moment of silent communication before Clark broke contact and dipped into the box with his chopsticks.
"This is good!" he said in surprise.
CK smiled and continued eating. Soon, Clark was digging in with as much enthusiasm as he was, and they finished the meal, chatting on safe topics such as where to buy the best food around the world. Finally, CK leant back in his chair with a half-empty beer bottle in one hand.
"So what are your plans for this place?"
"I don't know. I'm not a farmer, never will be. Keep it for my retirement? Rent it, maybe?"
"You'll have to do some work around the place if you're planning on renting."
Clark gazed around the room. "I guess…it is a little unwelcoming."
"And you'd need to fix the front door, maybe paint the fence outside."
"I think one of the gate posts is rotting as well."
"Plus, you'd want to move all that personal stuff out of the attic."
CK took a swig of beer, watching Clark as he contemplated uneasily what that might entail. "It wouldn't be so bad," encouraged CK. "I can help you."
"I guess." The tone wasn't enthusiastic.
"How about we start on that tomorrow? Even if you don't decide to rent, it'll be worth getting the place nice again."
"Right now, though, I'm ready for bed - I'm beat. This universe hopping sure takes it out of you - did you find that?"
"Yes, it took me a few hours to adjust totally."
"You never mentioned it."
"I guess I thought at the time you had enough to worry about."
CK remembered with a jolt how close he had been to collapse, and why, when Clark had first arrived in his universe. In fact, he had crumpled into Clark's arms instead of shaking hands with him. It wasn't a pleasant memory.
"Sorry," offered Clark, noticing how CK's mood had changed.
"I never asked - how's the hand?"
"Oh, it's fine," replied CK, unconsciously flexing the limb in question. "The worst part was having to wear a dummy cast for so long. First, because when my hand healed it was still very stiff and achy, but I couldn't exercise it when I wanted to because it was stuck in the stupid cast. Then, I don't know how, but Dr Klein managed to make it out of the most irritating substance known to mankind, so that it itched like hell."
Clark winced in sympathy. "Ouch."
"I wasn't a nice person to know either. It made me very crabby."
"I can't imagine you crabby."
"Ask Lo-lots of people…anyone. I can be as crabby as the next guy."
Clark smiled and fell silent for a moment.
"You don't have to keep avoiding her name, you know," he said eventually.
"I wasn't sure. I didn't want to…confuse things."
"She's part of your life - part of you. You mustn't leave her out."
"All right. And thank you." He yawned. "I've really got to get to bed."
CK lay in bed staring at the ceiling. He thought he was so tired that he would have dropped off to sleep immediately he lay down, but he reckoned he'd been lying like this for about two hours now. He knew that Clark wasn't asleep either. The mysterious link between the two of them had reasserted itself, so that he could sense how the other was feeling even without trying. If he wanted to, he could probably work out what Clark was thinking as well, but that would be intruding. In fact, maybe this link was why he couldn't sleep: Clark hadn't slept more than fitfully for days now, and maybe his mood was affecting CK. If that were the case, he'd have to try and break the link somehow. He couldn't help Clark if he wasn't properly rested himself.
After another hour of sleepless tossing and turning, he gave up and went downstairs to the kitchen to make himself a hot drink with the Chinese tea he'd picked up on his flying visit.
It wasn't a surprise to find Clark sitting in the lounge, staring blankly at the floorboards. He looked up when CK walked in.
CK was struck again at how ill he looked. Neither of them had bothered to turn on any lights, so that the only light coming into the room was moonlight, slanting in through one of the curtainless windows. It gave Clark's face an unearthly pallor, highlighting the angles of his face, emphasising the sunken cheeks.
"Couldn't sleep?" CK asked.
Clark shook his head.
"Me neither." He joined Clark on the easy chairs. "Wells showed us some of the newspaper cuttings about what happened."
He waited for a comment, but Clark was silent.
"I guess they didn't tell the whole story, though."
"I nearly went out with Mayson once, you know."
Still no reaction, so he let silence fall between them, happy to sit quietly with his friend if that was what was needed.
Suddenly Clark spoke up.
"I just feel so guilty, you know?" He snatched a quick glance up to CK. "I date her, treat her so badly she throws me out, but she still gives me a second chance. All the time I'm comparing her to Lois, wanting her to be Lois, thinking 'well, I can't have Lois, so Mayson will have to be enough'. What if she could sense she was second best? What would that make her feel like? So I let her get blown up, mess up when I try to save her, and now she's…she's dead…and I never even told her that I was lying to her. How could I do that to her?"
He looked up again, staring with desperate wide eyes at CK, the tension and self-hatred evident in the lines of his face. CK took a deep breath. At last, the barrier was breaking down.
"Clark, you didn't *do* anything to her. You followed your instinct and did what you thought was right at the time."
"And as usual my instinct let me down."
He stood up quickly and moved to stare blindly out the window, his back to CK.
"I miss her, I really, really miss her," he whispered.
CK joined him at the window and put an arm around his shoulders.
"I know you do. I know it hurts like hell at the moment, but you'll get through today, then tomorrow, then the next day, and gradually, it won't hurt so much."
"But I don't want…to forget her."
"You won't. You'll always remember her, and in time, you'll remember the good times as well as the bad. She'll always be with you. Like your parents are."
CK could feel the body under his arm trembling as Clark fought with his unruly emotions.
"Hey," he said softly. "It's all right to cry."
He hadn't finished the sentence before the tears came, trickling slowly down the cheeks, the body wracked with held-in sobs. He turned to Clark and enveloped him in a close hug as the sobs intensified, the days and days of pent-up emotion finally finding an outlet.
"Did you fly straight here after the car pile-up?" he asked gently.
He felt a nod against his shoulder.
"Something there reminded you of her, was that it?"
"What was it - something somebody said?"
Clark shook his head this time, still gulping in great sobs of grief.
"Somebody who looked like her?"
He could feel Clark trying to gather himself together so that he could answer, so he waited patiently, rubbing his hand soothingly up and down Clark's back.
"Yes," came the strangled reply at last.
"She was in a car?"
"T-trapped inside. She turned to me when I reached in…her face…there was blood…" The sobs started up again.
"Oh, Clark," whispered CK. He could feel himself beginning to slide into Clark's sorrow as he understood at once how devastating the experience must have been. He remembered Lois' words: don't get too emotionally involved, and wondered how on earth he was going to avoid that. This could be him, suffering this terrible grief - it was only a quirk of fate that made him the one to escape and Clark the one to suffer. His own eyes were blurring with unshed tears…he had to shut down this emotional link somehow, otherwise they'd both end up spiralling down into interminable depression.
He held his friend for a long time, until the sobs turned into an occasional sharp intake of breath and the tears had dried. Clark pulled away from him.
"Alice said that too, you know."
"It's all right to cry."
"Oh, well, Alice knows a thing or two about dealing with grief."
"I never could, though. Cry, I mean."
"When you've had a lifetime's practice at hiding your emotions like I have, it doesn't come easy."
"I guess not."
"Plus, I think I was scared that if I started, I might never stop." Even the admission brought fresh tears close to the surface, and he had to swallow hard against the lump in his throat.
"Hey," CK touched his upper arm. "It gets better, it really does."
Clark swallowed again. "I know," he managed.
"Maybe we should try and get some sleep again."
"Sounds like a good idea."
CK walked towards the door, as Clark stood and watched. He turned before leaving the room, concerned that Clark didn't seem to be making any move to return to bed.
"You'll be OK?"
"Sure. I'll see you tomorrow."
He continued on his way, still worried, but not wanting to seem over-protective. Maybe Clark just wanted a few minutes to calm down before retiring to bed.
Settling back under the covers, he heard a soft 'whoosh', and immediately understood. He'd done the same thing himself countless times before: the quiet solitude of the heavens often enabled him to reinstate his inner calm after the harrowing drama of a difficult save. These days it was more likely to be Lois who would soothe away his troubles, but sometimes he still flew up into the sky to wash away the roughest of his emotions before returning to her warm embrace. He could do with her company right now, he realised, but he didn't have that option, so instead he tried to imagine what she would say to him; how she would hold him and tell him to keep himself safe.
The next morning, Clark came downstairs to find CK cooking up a delicious-smelling breakfast.
"Do you like your eggs over-easy or sunny-side up?"
"Over-easy…where did you get all this stuff?"
The kitchen was positively groaning with food. There was a huge bowl of fruit, some very tasty-looking French bread on the counter, a quick shot of supervision revealed cupboards full of groceries, ditto the refrigerator.
"Forward a few time-zones." CK grinned. "France, Britain, and Italy mostly."
"I figured tidying up this place is gonna make us-" he stopped suddenly and cocked his head upwards, listening intently.
Clark heard it too, and felt panic rising up inside him: he wasn't ready for this. He caught CK's eye and wondered what the other man saw in his eyes.
"Do you want me to go?" asked CK.
Did he? Did he want CK to take his place? Was there to be a Superman in this world anymore? Could he live with himself if he said no?
"Do you want me to go?" repeated CK in a tense voice…he couldn't leave it much longer if he was going to save everyone.
The conflicting emotions swirled around his mind…"Yes!" he blurted out, with no idea if that was what he actually wanted. "Go!"
"Don't let it burn." CK dropped the cooking utensils on the counter, span into the suit and flew away at top speed.
Clark picked up the spatula and half-heartedly prodded the bacon in the frying pan. Was that the right decision? He'd pushed the whole Superman question to the back of his mind the past couple of days, not having the mental strength to cope with that issue as well as everything else. His world had shrunk down to the aching grief he felt over Mayson's death and the accompanying guilt, so much so that he had successfully shut down his Superman antennae. Now CK was out there, perpetuating the persona he was shying away from. Damn him for bringing it all back, making Clark hear the cries for help again.
A gust of wind signalled CK's return. He walked into the kitchen, pushing the glasses up his nose.
"Was everyone all right?" asked Clark.
"Yeah, just about." CK pulled out a chair and flopped down into it.
"No-one was hurt, were they?" Despite his current self-centred outlook on life, he could still sense strong emotions emanating from CK. Oh, God, he thought suddenly, it's the telepathic link thing again. He really wasn't ready to allow such intimate communication between himself and CK, and he sure wasn't ready to deal with CK's emotions as well as his own. This would have to stop, and stop now. He tried to imagine a steel gate shutting down in his mind's eye, and held the image steadfastly until he was sure the connection was broken.
"No, they were all fine. Is breakfast ready?"
Clark looked down at the pan he had been absent-mindedly stirring around.
"No bacon and eggs. Sorry. I'm not much of a cook."
"You're not? Well, I guess that's another difference between us."
Clark flinched inwardly. What was all that about?
"At least we've got the French bread. You want some coffee?"
Clark made coffee, and brought bread, butter, jam and the coffee to the table. He cut a few chunky slices of bread before offering them to CK.
"Did anyone…say anything to you?"
CK picked up a couple of slices and began spreading them with butter.
"I figured we hadn't discussed what you'd want to tell them, so I didn't give them a chance to talk."
An awkward silence descended between them.
"Look, I'm sorry about the bacon," tried Clark after a while.
"No problem. Really."
Once again silence reigned.
After enduring this for a couple of minutes, Clark dropped the piece of bread he was eating down onto his place and looked directly at CK.
"Is there something I've done wrong? Because I sure as hell don't know what it is, but you've been acting real strange since you came back."
"Yes. Is it something to do with the rescue?"
"No." CK sighed heavily. "Yes. I only just got there in time, and I don't like close calls like that."
"And why is that my fault?"
"It's not your fault."
"Good, because I could have sworn you were blaming me for something."
They stared at each other angrily over the table, until CK's eyes suddenly softened when he realised what he was doing. He sagged back in his chair, pulled his glasses down and pinched the top of his nose in a tired gesture.
"I'm sorry, Clark. You're right, I was blaming you for holding me up, and that was totally unfair. I guess this swapping universes has shaken me up more than I realised, plus neither of us got much sleep last night."
"That's true. I guess you're missing Lois, too."
"Yeah." He smiled ruefully. "Crazy, isn't it? I've only been away from her for less than a day, and already I'm missing her."
"She's a part of you, that's why. You wouldn't be who you are without her - even I can see that."
"Even you? Don't put yourself down - you're a pretty perceptive guy, you know."
Clark snorted. "Tell Mrs Jefferson that."
"Who's Mrs Jefferson?"
"Clara Jefferson's mother. Clara came halfway across town to see Superman and give him some very dangerous information, and I let her make me promise not to tell her parents. Mrs Jefferson was furious when she found out - told me I had no business keeping them in the dark when their child was taking risks like that."
CK winced. "Tough decision."
"Yes, but you'd have made the right one. It's times like that I really miss having someone like you or Lois to talk to."
"The Perry I know would make a pretty good sounding board."
"Perry's great. But he's busy, and I can't call him every time I've got a tough decision to make. Chen Chow is a good friend as well, but not like that, you know?" CK nodded. "We play ball together, have a few beers, talk about the game, about work, about women, but we're not real close. He doesn't know where I went when I visited you, for instance."
"Well, I can see how that might be difficult to explain."
"Being an alien is tough enough, but one that travels to alternative universes? Forget it!"
"The alien thing still bothers you?"
"I seem to remember you saying it still got to you sometimes."
"It's not so much the alien-from-outer-space aspect as the whole secret identity thing. I only get to be myself with my parents or Lois. But you sound as though people are giving you a hard time."
"Not people, person. Mostly him, anyway. I have this editor, Ralph-"
"Ralph! Not Ralph Pinedo?"
"Yes. You know him?"
"Do I know him? You could say. Lois partnered me with him once when she was acting editor, and I think those few hours would rank amongst my all-time worst as a journalist. Way up there with my very first assignment. The guy is…well, inept would be kind. He's your editor?" finished CK incredulously.
"Yep. Incredible as it may seem."
"I don't even want to know what he's done to the Planet. No, cancel that, maybe it would remind me how lucky I am."
"Believe me, you certainly are."
"So what's he been saying?"
Clark squirmed in his chair. "It's pathetic really - I shouldn't let it get to me. He…likes to make a thing out of the fact that I'm an alien. Doesn't ever let me forget it, in fact."
"But that's harassment."
"Yes, that's what Perry said. Look, can we not talk about this now? It's probably all past history now anyway."
CK frowned, but Clark had stood up and was starting to put away the breakfast things, so he let it slide for the time being. Instead, he suggested they get started on tidying up the attic, and Clark agreed.
Both men stood side by side in the attic, surveying the accumulated flotsam of several decades of marriage and family life. Dusty piles of magazines, old school books and college notes, piles of half-complete dinner sets in garish patterns, old toys and clothes - these were just some of the things littering the floor of the attic. It was difficult to know where to start.
"I vote we just start right here and work our way over to the other side," suggested CK.
"We need a space to move things to as we're sorting, though."
"OK." There was a blur of blue jeans and purple T-shirt for a couple of seconds, then CK was standing triumphant in the middle of a clear space near the attic hatch with an even bigger pile of junk to one side. "How's that?"
"Better. How do you want to do this? Slow or fast?"
"I'd prefer fast, except we need to talk to each other, and I don't know about you, but I haven't perfected the art of superfast speaking yet."
"Or superfast hearing. So I guess it's normal speed."
They worked happily together for about half an hour, building up different piles of items as they went. It wasn't until he'd moved the fifth item from one pile to another that something clicked in Clark's head.
"Hold on," he said as CK stretched over to place the magazines in his hands onto a pile on Clark's left. "Why are you putting those there?"
"Because that's the 'throw-out' pile."
"No, it's not. That," he said, pointing to the pile on his right, "is the 'throw-out' pile. This," he indicated the pile on his left, "is the 'Clark to check it out later pile'. That one," he pointed forward, "is the 'definitely keep it' pile."
"No it's not. That's the one behind you. That one is the 'give to charity' pile."
They stared at each other.
"I thought we were doing this the slow way so we could communicate with each other?" said Clark.
"I guess for journalists we make pretty poor communicators," agreed CK ruefully.
"Not to mention the telepathy - or lack of it." Why had he said that, Clark asked himself. Hadn't he been trying to shy away from that particular issue down in the kitchen?
CK became very still. "You noticed," he said eventually.
"Noticed? Noticed what?"
"I've been keeping a certain…distance between us."
"You have? So have I. Except…"
"We're not very good at ignoring it, are we?"
"No, you were leaking anger and frustration all over me downstairs."
The side of CK's mouth turned up in an amused half-smile. "I was leaking?"
Clark laughed briefly at his own choice of word. "You know what I mean."
"Yeah. Actually, Lois does a lot of 'leaking' too."
"I bet she does."
The two men smiled at the shared fond memory. The mood was broken when CK abruptly turned away and picked up a box of old Christmas decorations. "What do you want to do with these?"
It was Clark's turn to frown at the sudden change in demeanour, but CK didn't allow him to question it. Laying the decorations at Clark's feet, he said, "I'll let you decide," and turned away to pick up the next object.
"Charming," he remarked, holding up a voluminous ladies' corset. "This was never your Mom's."
"I don't even want to guess at what that's doing up here. Definitely the 'throw-out' pile. Actually, we better re-do these piles before we go any further."
They re-sorted the piles, and worked steadily until they were roughly half-way across the attic. CK glanced at his watch.
"Time for coffee." He looked over at Clark, who was studying something brightly coloured he held in his hands. "What's that?"
Clark held it up for CK to see. "Just a vase."
CK pulled a face. "A pretty ugly vase. A pretty ugly broken vase," he amended when he saw the piece missing from one side.
"Yeah. Throw-out pile." Clark moved across to dump it where it belonged but seemed curiously reluctant to let go of it.
"How did it get broken?"
Clark sighed. "I broke it."
"With my heat vision. I was fooling around one day when Mom and Dad were out…bored, I guess, and I was testing how far I could see with my telescopic vision. Only I wasn't very good in those days, and instead of telescopic vision, out came a burst of heat vision. If you look, you'll see it's actually melted, not broken. Anyway, Dad had just given me a lecture about being careful with my powers, especially indoors, so I hid it up here. No-one noticed it was missing for a while, and I thought somehow I'd got away with it. Then one day Mom asked me if I knew where it was. I said I didn't know."
He glanced up at CK. "Pretty pathetic, huh? She never asked me again, but it preyed on my conscience for days. I kept wanting to tell them, but I could never get up the nerve to do it."
"And then they died," deduced CK.
CK studied the guilt-ridden face before him. "Did it never occur to you that they probably knew you had done it? How else would it disappear - there's no-one around here to take it."
"I guess not. So you think they were waiting for me to confess?"
"And I let them down again."
CK shot out a lung-full of air and shook his head. "Clark, you were ten years old! You didn't let them down; they were just helping you learn right from wrong. If parents felt let down every time their children didn't do what they were told, they'd go crazy."
He walked over to put a hand on Clark's shoulder. "Come on, let's get that coffee."
Clark sat at the table, following CK's back around the kitchen as he made the coffee. The guy was incredible and he didn't even realise it. Here he was, puttering around the kitchen in a peculiar replica of his own parents' home, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to be flung into a strange world light-years away from his wife and family. Clark remembered the kind, concerned face that had greeted him when he had turned around in the attic, the gentle hand on his shoulder and the simple offer of friendship. He had never been granted such unconditional support and love before, not since his parents died anyway, and it humbled him. He didn't feel that he deserved this kind of attention, after all that he had done wrong in his life. Tears pricked at his eyes again and he dashed them away angrily with the heel of his hand. Was he ever going to stop crying? This was ridiculous. CK turned around with two mugs of coffee in his hand and Clark whirled his eyes away to a point somewhere on the floor. He felt CK pause momentarily, then join him at the table.
"Here." CK pushed a mug towards him.
He snatched a glance up to CK; just long enough to meet his eyes and locate the coffee with the periphery of his vision.
"I was thinking," began CK. "we should decide what we're going to do if another emergency arises."
"Do you want me to continue doing saves for you?"
"I-I'm not sure."
Clark shrugged helplessly.
"You're not sure if you want to continue being Superman, is that it?"
"Well, just because I carry on doing rescues now doesn't mean that you have to after I'm gone."
"And to be honest, I'd be a lot happier rescuing people when I hear them in trouble."
Clark's eyes shot up to meet CK's again. "I-I hadn't thought of that. Of course, you can carry on helping people the way you always have."
"Thank you." CK pushed his glasses absentmindedly up his nose. "What do you want me to say to people? The media?"
"I-I don't know."
"Because, you know, they'll think I'm you - which is fine, I guess, except the press are gonna be all over me after what happened. I'm not sure I could do that - talk to them as if I was you, I mean."
An idea struck CK. "How about I say I'm a close relative, a-a cousin, maybe, come to help out while you…recover."
Clark was intrigued despite his depression. "Where would we say you came from?"
"Krypton?" Clark pulled a face. "Sorry, just thinking out loud. How about another planet a long way away?"
"Yes, that could work. We'd have to explain why you're here now, though. Maybe you just found out about me and decided to pay me a visit."
"I don't think we need to give a reason. I mean, whatever reason we gave would sound far-fetched, so why even bother? When Lois asked me what I was here for, I just told her 'to help'. I think that would do fine."
"Hmmm. I kinda like that…'to help'. OK, let's go with that."
Happy to have agreed on this, CK suggested a quick trip back to Metropolis: they could both do with a change of clothes. Clark was immediately embarrassed by what he suddenly realised were some very well lived-in items of clothing, but CK insisted that the trip was for his own benefit as much as Clark's. That settled, CK flew across and picked up a spare couple of suits, a few pairs of jeans, t-shirts and underwear.
Over the next couple of days the two men continued their tidy-up of the farmhouse, finishing the attic, mending the broken lock on the front door, replacing parts of a rotting fence. Sometimes they would chat while they worked, sometimes they would work steadily in companionable silence. Occasionally, Clark's emotions would flare up and get the better of him, but each time the feelings were less intense, and the hurt less immediate. CK would talk to him steadily and reassuringly, never judging or attempting to offer trite explanations, always understanding and often just listening quietly while Clark let go of his guilt and sorrow. It was a very draining experience for CK, but also a tremendously rewarding one as he saw Clark gradually regain his confidence and self-respect. In fact, in a fanciful moment, he thought he could draw a parallel between the state of the farmhouse and Clark's emotional stability: as the farmhouse was repaired, so Clark became a whole person again.
In between the mending and fixing, CK continued to answer calls for help, passing on the story the two had concocted together whenever he stopped long enough to talk to someone. He brought back a few newspaper cuttings for Clark to see; most were complimentary and delighted that another Superman was looking after things while Clark was away, although there was one darker piece which alluded to alien invasions and evil master-plans. The paper in question was one of the more colourful tabloids, so neither of them were overly concerned about the article. One day he even arrived with a single red rose for Clark - a woman had presented it to CK when he had rescued her cat on the way back from stopping a crane from toppling over.
"She said," reported CK, "and I'm not exaggerating here, 'it's great that you're here' (meaning me), 'but there's really only one Superman for me. Tell him we all miss him'."
"How old was this wonderful woman?"
"Oh, I'd say…late 60s?"
It was towards the end of the third day that their pleasant status quo was disrupted. Clark was in the kitchen, carefully cooking the one meal he felt competent to make - chilli con carne - while waiting for CK to return from a rescue in downtown Metropolis. He heard the front door bang and knew his friend had returned.
"Hi, CK, everything go all right?" he called out.
"Sure!" came the answer from the living room.
When CK didn't automatically appear in the kitchen, Clark turned down the heat under the pans and wandered next door. CK was standing with his back to Clark, staring out of a window, still dressed in his Superman suit.
"I'm making chilli. I do that better than bacon and eggs."
CK replied in a curiously flat voice, "Sounds great. I'll go and get cleaned up."
Before Clark could say more, he had disappeared at superspeed into his bedroom. Puzzled, but concerned about his cooking, Clark returned to the kitchen to check that the rice hadn't boiled over.
Five minutes later, CK arrived in the kitchen, changed and ready for dinner. As they sat down to eat, he remarked, "Did I ever tell you about the time Lois made chilli?"
"You know how little confidence she has in her abilities as a cook? Well, she dishes up the chilli, we sit down to eat and she's pretending not to be anxious, so of course, I dive in and take a hearty mouthful. I thought I did pretty well, all things considered. I took my time, chewed, swallowed and even smiled at her. She asks me if it's OK; I say it's a little hot, honey."
Clark winced. "Bad move?"
CK nodded. "She's straight into the apologies and self-recrimination. Which is OK, I can handle that. But then before I can stop her, she decides to try it for herself."
CK stopped, a strange mixture of emotions on his face. Fond amusement, tinged with sadness and perhaps loneliness, Clark thought. What had started as an amusing story had abruptly turned into something more thoughtful, more emotionally demanding.
"CK?" prompted Clark hesitantly.
CK glanced over at him and raised a shaky smile.
"Yeah. So she takes a mouthful, goes quiet for a second, and then she's bolting for the kitchen. I swear she drank a pint of water faster than I could. Poor Lois. She never tastes anything while she's cooking it - that's part of her problem."
CK fell silent, bowing his head to eat his meal. Clark regarded him for a moment, a frown playing over his face as he puzzled over his friend's subdued behaviour.
"Is everything OK?" he asked eventually.
CK looked up with what Clark now recognised as his carefully blank, open face.
"Sure. This is great - just enough chilli, not too runny. Just how I like it."
That's not what I meant, and you know it, thought Clark.
"OK," was all he could say, however, shying away from further probing.
As soon as the dishes were done and put away, CK announced that he was going out to patrol around Metropolis. Clark was a little hurt that CK seemed to want to escape from his company as quickly as he could all of a sudden, and was beginning to wonder what he'd done wrong. He spent the evening pottering aimlessly around the farmhouse, trying unsuccessfully to shake off feelings of rejection and annoyance. CK was usually such an amiable guy; what had changed to make him so stand-offish? In an effort to make something of the evening, he repainted the front fence at superspeed before retiring to bed early, still fighting negative feelings.
CK floated high above the skies of Metropolis, watching the night people of the city go about their business. Yes, he was patrolling the city, but really he was reliving the afternoon's events, analysing what he had done and how he could have done it better. He had to get this figured out before he returned home to Smallville, or he'd be 'leaking' out all the wrong kinds of emotions to Clark, who really didn't need CK's hang-ups as well as his own to deal with.
Maybe if he'd gone for the gunman instead of his hostage it would have worked out better. Except if he'd misjudged his moves at all, the gunman might have fired the gun by reflex anyway. So grabbing the hostage was probably the best move…but she still got shot. Maybe he shouldn't have intervened at that point at all, but waited until the gunman had calmed down again. No, he had been at fever-pitch and ready to shoot anything…
A mugging caught his eye and he swooped down to apprehend the assailant. OK, he hadn't lost his touch completely - that went according to plan. The victim thanked him profusely, and he delivered the criminal to the nearest police precinct. Glancing at a clock on the side of one of the many tall buildings in Metropolis, he decided that Clark would be asleep by now: it was safe to return, unruly emotions or not.
Clark stared at the ceiling of his bedroom, tracing the cracks he found there and pondering what CK was doing now…apart from avoiding him, that was. He really couldn't figure out what he might have said to put CK in this strange, withdrawn mood. He knew that CK missed Lois, but this was something more.
The familiar whoosh signalled CK's return. Clark listened to CK prepare for bed, heard the bed springs creak as he settled down for sleep, and wondered. Should he…? Was it intruding? Was it cheating, to try and discover the source of someone's changed behaviour by reaching into their mind, instead of talking to them face to face?
In the end, the decision was made for him, when he discovered that in the midst of his cogitations about CK, he was unconsciously reaching out into the mysterious realm of another's thoughts and emotions. Gradually a sense of depression and self-recrimination descending upon him, which he recognised not as his own feelings, but those of CK. The part of him which remained solely his own felt a guilty relief that his fears of being somehow responsible for CK's mood were unfounded. CK was blaming himself for something. Oh, how well he recognised that emotion! And how well he now knew how unreasonable that was. This was something he could do something about; perhaps also it was an opportunity to repay CK's kindness in a small way.
CK froze when he heard the knock at his door. So Clark hadn't been asleep after all…damn!
"CK, can I come in?"
CK quickly sat upright in bed and pulled the bedclothes protectively around himself.
Clark turned the light on as he came in and hovered just inside the door uncertainly.
"What's the problem?" asked CK.
"I…nothing, there's no problem." He looked away quickly then turned back. "It's you. You're the problem."
Clark spotted a chair in one corner of the room. He walked quickly over and sat down. Now that he was seated, a new confidence grew within him and he fixed CK with a steady gaze.
"What happened this afternoon, CK?"
CK shrugged. "Runaway truck, couple of near-misses when some traffic lights went out on the Upper West Side, a lift stuck in the NTM tower - nothing much. Look, if that's all we're going to talk about, I'd much prefer to get some sleep. It's been a long day. We can talk about this tomorrow."
"No, we need to talk about it now. You missed one rescue out."
CK sighed. "Clark, I appreciate what you're trying to do, but there's really no need. Leave it till tomorrow."
"What went wrong?"
CK dropped his eyes down to the coverlet and laughed cheerlessly. "You don't give up easily, do you?"
"I learned from the best. What happened?"
CK looked up again and faced Clark squarely. "There was a hostage situation."
"And someone got shot."
"Which, of course, was your fault."
"No! Of course it wasn't my fault."
"So why are you beating yourself up over it?"
"I'm not. I'm just trying to figure out how to do it better next time."
"Sure. And just how long have you been trying to figure that out? Two, three, maybe four hours?"
"OK, so I've been giving it a lot of thought. What's wrong with that?"
"Only that if you've been spending that long thinking about it, you're way beyond self-improvement, and moving well into obsession."
"It's obsessive to try and stop someone from being shot?"
Clark leaned forward in his chair and spoke intently. "Hasn't it occurred to you that maybe you can't find an answer simply because you already did the best you could? That maybe you were in a no-win situation, and any move you made - or didn't make - wasn't going to succeed?"
"There's always a better way to do something."
"Sure there is. But maybe you couldn't do it. You did the very best you could - you couldn't improve anything, no matter how hard you tried - and it still wasn't enough. You have to face that. Sometimes your best isn't good enough and people get hurt."
"I can't accept that."
"I know, neither can I, but we have to try. *You* have to try. Otherwise you end up a wreck like I was."
"Yes, I was, and you know it. You pulled me back from the edge, and I'll never forget you did that for me. Now it's time the teacher followed his own advice."
They locked eyes for a moment.
The shadow of a smile crept up onto CK's face.
<<For a second there you sounded an awful lot like Lois.>>
Clark blinked. "Did you just…?"
<<Yes. Try it.>>
He closed his eyes and concentrated hard…<<CAN YOU HEAR ME?!!!!>>
<<Whoa! No need to shout.>>
Clark tried again. <<How's this?>>
<<This is weird. But neat, very neat.>>
<<It takes a while to get used to it, but yeah, it's neat.>>
"But not strictly necessary right now," pointed out Clark, opening his eyes again, "and you changed the subject - don't think I didn't notice."
"I wanted to find out if we could actually have a conversation, like I did with the New Kryptonians. We've mostly just communicated through sensing each other's feelings up until now. It's good that it worked."
"Yes. So - are you going to stop obsessing about this afternoon?"
CK smiled. "Still not letting go, are you?"
"Nope. The answer?"
"I'll try. That's all I can promise you."
"Good." Clark stood up and crossed to the door. "You can tell me about the New Kryptonians tomorrow."
The following day, Clark was rummaging around in amongst some childhood belongings in his room when he came across an old favourite which gave him an idea. This required stealth. He levitated a foot above the floor, and floated quietly outside to where CK was busily trimming back an overgrown bush in the garden.
"Catch!" he shouted suddenly, launching the ball superfast at CK.
CK whirled around in surprise, saw the ball hurtling straight at him, and put his hands up instinctively to protect himself, misjudging the catch completely. Away went the ball, bouncing off his palms to land on the ground where he retrieved it on the re-bound. A slow grin crept over his face.
"OK, you got me that time. Savour the moment, though, 'cos it's gonna be your last."
"Oh, yeah?" replied Clark, hovering in classic Superman pose, arms crossed and legs planted solidly apart on thin air.
"Oh, yeah," grinned CK - and feinted with the ball to his left. Clark dove superfast, falling lock, stock and barrel for the bluff, skidding to a halt just before he drilled a hole in the ground. Up went the ball in the air, and he reversed direction to stop it before it disappeared beyond the clouds. He floated back down, twirling the ball on the top of one finger.
"You said?" he enquired cockily.
"Stopping it just before it enters the ionosphere doesn't count."
"There are rules?"
"There are no rules."
"I see. In that case-" he threw the ball up again, while blasting CK with a finely directed stream of superbreath, preventing him from diving after the ball. CK tumbled backwards in the torrent of air, before regaining his wits and diving upwards to retrieve the fast-disappearing ball. He zoomed back down with the ball tucked under one arm.
"That," he exclaimed indignantly, "was cheating!"
Clark laughed gleefully. "You said there were no rules."
"I didn't expect you to cheat!"
"Huh? Is that the kind of logic the New Kryptonians taught you?"
"Actually," replied CK, sobering up, "logic is the last thing they seemed to possess."
"They claimed that their society was based on logic, but actually it was full of strange customs and rules which prevented them from behaving logically."
"Like almost allowing a psychopathic madman to become their leader just because he was next in line. Like pinning all their hopes on someone who'd never met another Kryptonian in his life, let alone understood any of their customs. Like expecting me to be happy marrying someone I'd never met. Like wanting me to-to be intimate with a virtual stranger when I'd just left my fiancee back on Earth."
"I'm sorry, CK, I didn't realise it still upset you. You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to."
"No, it's OK. You should know this." He sank down onto the grass, hugging the ball in front of him. Clark perched on the steps at the front of the house.
"How did you first meet them?" asked Clark.
CK grimaced. "They tested me. They wanted to know if I had the right character for the job, so they set tests - like setting up two bombs and waiting to see which one I would defuse. Save my friends or save Metropolis - that kind of thing."
"Oh, no. So I wasn't exactly happy when they told me who they were. Of course, I didn't entirely believe them at first, but they could do all these things, like the telepathy and the flying, plus they knew about my spaceship. That was the worst part. We took them to see the spaceship, and Zara translated the Kryptonian writing along the side for me: 'Behold Kal-El, a noble of Krypton, born from the house of Lo and into the house of El.' Well, she could have made it up, but it sounded right, you know?"
Clark nodded in agreement at CK's glance upward. He was fascinated by CK's story, yet already fearful. Would these people be coming for him one day? What did he feel about that? For CK, it had obviously been a harrowing experience, judging by his closed body language: his hands were tight fists as he hugged the ball closely to his chest.
"Then, Zara and I placed our hands into this special recess at the front, and my father, Jor-El, appeared in front of us. I tell you, that was one of the worst moments, and one of the best moments, in my life. It meant that everything they had told me was true-"
"That I had been betrothed to Zara as a child. That I was supposed to marry Zara, and keep the peace of New Krypton by taking my rightful place as ruler of the planet. This, when I was just about to marry Lois, settle down - finally start living the life I'd dreamed about for so long. And who was taking all this away from me? My father, the man I'd looked up to since I first learned of his existence, the man who had told me who I was, who had guided me through the mysteries of my life. It was just, just…" he shook his head, one hand going behind to worry with his hair.
"You said it was also one of the best moments?"
"Seeing my father again. I thought I'd seen him for the last time when the globe stopped talking, but there he was again. It was stupid - I wanted to reach out and touch him, but of course, as soon as I did, them image broke down."
"What did L-"
"I mean, how could he do that to me?" exploded CK suddenly. "Why didn't he tell me before that I was destined to marry Zara, tell me that I might have to leave Earth again? Sure, he told me all about where I'd come from, but he didn't tell me where I was going. He didn't even tell me I came from so-called noble blood! Not that it would have mattered to me, but it would have been nice to know, don't you think? Kal-El - you're my son, you come from a Planet called Krypton that blew up when you were a baby, we sent you to Earth because your physiology is very similar to theirs - oh, and don't bother to form any romantic attachments while you're there, because you'll have to leave it all behind. It would have been nice, wouldn't it, to know? Instead, for 30 years he lets me live a normal life, form relationships, get a girlfriend, almost get married - why?"
Clark was taken aback by the sudden outburst - CK's face was staring up at him, full of hurt and anger. He'd never seen CK so upset by something, even when he'd been attacked by Tempus back in his own universe. Then, there had been pain and fright, his confidence rocked by a humiliating and degrading experience, but he'd never seen such raw hurt before from his friend. It made him even more certain that he never wanted to encounter these people.
"Hey," he began softly, "I'm sorry. It must have been terrible for you."
"Maybe he thought I couldn't love. Or maybe it was that famous Kryptonian logic again - duty before love, and all that. I didn't think he was like that though, I thought he cared."
"Oh, God, CK, of course he cared! Why else did he send you away like he did, in a desperate attempt to save your life, while he and his wife perished on Krypton?"
"Because it was the logical thing to do." CK almost spat the words out.
"Maybe it was logical, yes, but don't you think it was also an incredibly brave, incredibly loving thing to do? Don't try telling me that Kryptonians don't love their children the same way we do, because I just don't believe it. They would have wanted to keep you with them until the end, as a comfort, as a reminder of how things could have been. Instead they loved you so much that even if there was a faint chance you might survive when they couldn't, they would take it and sacrifice their own feelings."
"Huh," muttered CK.
"Yes, feelings. Just like you and I have…don't turn your back on your father, CK. Don't hate him for doing what he thought was best. Who knows why he didn't tell you about Zara? Maybe he never expected her to find you, so his message was just a safety net in the remote chance that she did. Wouldn't you want to leave a message like that, if you knew that it might offer a chance to keep your people safe?"
"He left that message to reassure you, CK, not to hit you with something you didn't want, weren't ready for. I'm sure he loved you, just as I'm sure that my father loved me. It's one of the few things in my life that I am sure about."
CK blinked, losing some of the intensity in his expression. "I'm sorry, I forgot I was talking about your father too. I don't know where all that came from…I-I thought I was over it a long time ago."
"I guess you've never talked about it much."
"Lois and I discussed it some, I guess, but it was a difficult time for both of us. When it was all over, we just wanted to get on with our lives again."
"I didn't even realise until now that I felt that way about Jor-El. I guess I pushed it all away - being mad at the New Kryptonians took over."
"What did Lois say when she heard what they had in mind for you?"
"You mean, what didn't Lois say! She was hurt, she thought I was turning all Kryptonian on her…I-I'm sure she felt excluded. She fought every way she could to stop them - she even went to see them herself to ask them to leave. She was great."
"Yeah, I can imagine. I bet she made them think twice about it all. So what happened?"
"I - we - decided I should go. That was the hardest decision in my entire life, but at the time, it felt right. I was going to save the people who had given me my life, save an entire planet from years of war. How could I not go? They were my people, the people my father had asked me to keep safe. 'Keep alive the watchfires, bring the people from the darkness of chaos into the light of peace,' he said."
"And did you?"
"Yes. By fighting a war," CK explained in disgust. "I led my people into battle against Lord Nor. And in return…"
CK bowed his head, resting it against the top of the ball with his eyes shut. Clark waited, sensing there was worse to come just as soon as CK was ready.
"They taught me to kill," he said in a low voice.
Clark was floored. He didn't know what to say. What did you say to a man who had been through so much, only to have one of his most cherished and personal beliefs taken away from him? Surely CK hadn't…?
"Did you…?" he faltered on the words.
CK shook his head vehemently. "But I could have. I would have."
Again, Clark was silenced by the chill of honesty in CK's words. He felt that they were moving into uncharted, dangerous territory with this latest revelation. This was beyond his realm of experience, far removed from anything he was qualified to deal with. He wanted to shy away, yet the man sitting yards away from him on the grass needed him to probe further, to exorcise the lingering demons within him. After all, this could be him one day, if history did indeed repeat itself in this universe. Perhaps he could escape the worst if he learnt what had happened to his 'brother'. Mentally gearing himself up for a tough journey, he began.
"You can't know that."
CK looked up sharply. "Yes, I can. I know that in the last few seconds of my fight with Lord Nor, I was going to kill him. It was in my heart. They taught me to recognise that, and channel it into the fight."
"But you said you didn't…"
"Didn't kill anyone?" finished CK harshly. "No, it turned out I wasn't very good at killing, so Lord Nor was still alive after I'd finished with him."
"Are you sure? Sure that you couldn't do it, or was it that you didn't want to do it?"
"Oh, I wanted to, all right. I hated him like I've never hated anyone before. He was pure evil, and I wanted him dead, gone, out of our lives and out of Zara's life."
"I think you pulled back at the last minute, so as not to kill him."
"And who made you the expert on killing all of a sudden? Since when have you come even close to a situation like that? How can you know what I was thinking?"
"OK, you're right! I've never hated someone so much I wanted to kill them. I've never needed to use my powers like that. Granted. But I know the way you think, the way you live your life, and I know that even if you thought you wanted to kill someone, you couldn't. Call it your subconscious, call it your soul - I don't know - but something would stop you."
"But does that make it right? Isn't it enough that I wanted to kill, even if I couldn't?"
"CK, you're only human!"
The ridiculous words jolted them both out of the intense debate for a moment. A ghost of a smile passed across CK's face, and Clark at last sensed a chink in the armour of self-recrimination CK had built around this event. He waved an arm vaguely in the air.
"You know what I mean," he continued. "We all of us have feelings like that-" he pointed suddenly at CK, "-and don't say 'but this was more than that.' Yes, it probably was. But you didn't kill him, even though you could have. Don't forget that."
He stopped, empty of any further argument. He hoped that at least he'd managed to make CK understand his own emotions a little more clearly. He studied his friend on the grass, now turning the ball around in his hands, occasionally tossing it up a few inches in the air…reach out…reach out with the mind…
It was still a surprise to hear actual words in his head, but this time it was easier. <<Sorry, I didn't mean to intrude.>>
<<It's OK. Maybe you're right. Maybe I don't have the 'killing' instinct.>>
CK stood up abruptly and tossed the ball lightly to Clark. "Thank you, by the way."
"What for?" he asked, making the catch easily.
"That was one of the nicest compliments I think I've had."
"Huh?" Clark tossed the ball back again.
"'You're only human'," CK caught the ball with a smile.
Clark pulled a face. "Don't let's go there."
Instead, CK mentioned the basketball ring still affixed to the side of the barn, and they had fun shooting a few hoops together. Clark set the rules this time, stipulating that the first person to accidentally use a superpower lost the game. CK agreed, not realising that Clark was a master of this particular type of play, having had hours of practice during his regular games with Chen Chow. Of course, CK's competitive edge eventually got the better of him, his energetic boost up to intercept the ball clearly not the result of earth-bound abilities. Clark called foul, and CK had lost. They retired inside for a much-needed drink and a few cookies.
CK stared blindly at a crack in the wall, waiting for the kettle to boil. Clark had disappeared somewhere, doubtless answering the call of nature, so that he had a few minutes to himself to reflect on their conversation. He had known for a long time that he hated the New Kryptonians for forcing out violent, aggressive emotions and actions from within himself. A lifetime spent controlling superpowers and using them to do some good in the world had taught him to repress any raw aggression he might harbour, or at least channel it into something positive and life-enhancing. The New Kryptonians, during their brief visit, had stripped away his hard-won control and laid bare something ugly and angry which disgusted and saddened him. However, that was all a long time ago now, and he thought he understood his feelings in this regard: it still hurt, and every time he talked it over with someone, he would revisit that hurt…was that wallowing? Anyway, whatever it was, he knew that every time it was easier to talk about; every time the hurt diminished.
On the other hand, what had come as a total shock was his admission about Jor-El. He hadn't realised how important his natural father was to him until now, considering that he had only caught brief glimpses of him throughout his lifetime. Mom and Dad had taught him everything, had given him love, given him emotional strength, but as soon as Jor-El had come into his life, he had become CK's backstop; his foundation. Jor-El gave him his identity, told him his name even, explained why he was on Earth and crucially, why he was different. When he had suddenly given CK new information which gave his life a totally different direction, CK's foundation had rocked. He had thought he knew who he was, but then Jor-El told him he was someone else, someone expected to return to his people and lead them into peace, abandoning everything he had believed in for most of his life. He still couldn't understand why his father hadn't told him earlier about this destiny, especially about Zara. In the end, he had worked through the impossible situation he found himself in to find his own resolution, almost despite his father's message. He had made peace for New Krypton and peace with himself, until now.
Of course, maybe he wouldn't be thinking all these maudlin thoughts if he hadn't been stuck in this farmhouse for so long. He was beginning to feel trapped, despite his trips away as Superman. Theoretically, of course, they could both go out together, now that his presence in this universe had been explained and accepted, but in practice neither of them had even suggested it. CK didn't relish the inevitable attention they would attract, and he suspected Clark felt the same. However, it was time to move on, he thought. Clark appeared content to while away his hours around the farmhouse, and would probably be quite happy to turn into a virtual recluse, but CK didn't want that for his friend. He was too young to turn his back on the world, and CK knew that he needed company to thrive, even if Clark thought otherwise. CK reckoned his friend needed to move back to Metropolis and start picking up the threads of his life again.
"Where's the coffee?"
Clark's voice intruded into his thoughts, making him come back to earth with a thump. "Oh, sorry! I was miles away."
He finished making the coffee and brought it to the table. "I was thinking-"
"-it's time to move back to Metropolis?"
"Yes! You were thinking the same thing?" asked CK hopefully.
"No…your thoughts," Clark pointed a finger to his own head apologetically, "you know?"
"Oh." CK's voice held a notice of deflation. "So, you don't think it's a good idea?"
"I don't know. I-I'm not sure if I ever want to go back to Metropolis."
"What? You're kidding! Why not?"
"What's there for me? A lonely apartment, a hostile editor, the paparazzi, and a job I'm not even sure I want. Why would I want to go back? Why not just move on somewhere else and start again - someplace where they don't know anything about me?"
"Run away, you mean."
"Yes, run away! Why not?"
"When will you stop running?"
"I don't know - when I'm ready."
CK leant forward intently. "Clark, I've done that. I know what it's like. Sure, it's fun and exciting for a time. You get to meet lots of new people, learn new customs and cultures, try out alternate ways of living. But sooner or later, you realise that something's missing."
"Oh, yeah?" Clark's voice was heavy with sarcasm.
"Yes. You're alone. You have no roots, no permanency. Nothing to build a future on."
"OK, so that's what you want out of life, but how do you know that's what I want?"
"Because I know you. OK, we have our differences, and you had a much tougher time than I did growing up, but deep down, we're the same person. In fact, I would say your upbringing - bouncing from foster home to foster home - makes you yearn for permanency even more. Why else did you nearly marry Lana?" CK knew this was a sensitive subject for Clark, but he was deliberate in bringing it up now.
Clark's eyes flared for an instant. "That's not fair. Lana practically steamrollered me into that marriage, and you know it."
"And why did you let yourself be steamrollered?"
Clark was silent.
"Because you liked the idea of settling down with someone and raising a family, that's why. Lana just wasn't the right person to do it with."
"Yeah, Lois showed me that."
There was a tinge of bitterness in Clark's voice now, but CK ignored it as he warmed to his argument. "And then there was Mayson. You were thinking of marriage with her, weren't you?"
Their eyes locked for a moment, a cold silence pervading the room. Clark lurched to his feet, almost knocking the chair over before striding out of the kitchen.
CK rolled his eyes. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Why had he mentioned Mayson when he could feel that he was beginning to win the argument? Because he was getting too sure of himself, that was why, when he should have been reading the warning signs. Well, he'd just have to repair the damage as best he could - this was too important to give up on now.
The rhythmic sound of a ball bouncing against hard surfaces led him outside to Clark, who was throwing the ball so that it hit the ground, then the wall, and then came back to him to be caught. CK watched him in silence for a time.
"Sorry," he volunteered eventually.
Clark ignored him.
"I shouldn't have used Mayson like that."
"Are you going to talk to me?"
Clark stopped and turned to CK. "I'm the one who should be sorry."
"I shouldn't have walked out on you like that. You're right, I was thinking of marriage to Mayson, and yes, I like the idea of settling down and raising a family. I'm just not sure I want to do it in Metropolis."
"Because of some bad things that happened there?"
"But you love Metropolis, don't you?"
"And you have friends there - Chen Chow, Perry?"
"You love writing. Anyone reading your articles can tell that."
"You've read my stuff?"
CK looked abashed. "Well, wouldn't you? I had to see how your style compared to mine."
"Not bad." He raised his eyebrows cheekily. "Almost as good as me, in fact."
"So why not at least give it another try? Come back with me, and see how you feel after a few days. If you're still convinced you want to leave, fine. But you might just be surprised."
"I'm not sure I'd want to go back to the Planet straightaway."
"That's OK. We'll take things nice and slow, for just as long as you want."
Clark bounced the ball on the ground a couple of times while he considered the idea of returning back to the scene of so much sadness in his life. CK was right, he loved Metropolis, loved living there amongst the myriad of peoples and customs, the incredible energy which permeated the city. Writing, on the other hand, was a way of putting right some wrongs that those people might have been dealt, and he loved the whole creative process of writing…the Daily Planet, in its hey-day, was the best place to do that. He also needed stability…
"OK, I'll give it a try,"
"Great! When do you want to leave?"
"Hold on! What happened to nice and slow?" He chucked the ball at CK, who caught it deftly and sent it back to him.
"That's for when we actually get there."
Clark threw the ball again. "You're desperate to get back, aren't you?"
"I wouldn't say desperate, but I guess I am getting a little…stir-crazy." Back went the ball.
"You know, I read your stuff too." Ball to CK.
CK caught the ball and stopped the rhythm. "You did?" he asked warily.
"Not bad. Almost as good as me." He ducked fast as the ball came shooting out at his chest. CK's went wide as he saw the ball head off towards the horizon, and zoomed after it at superspeed to stop it before it hit the unfortunate cow standing innocently in its path. The cow emitted a loud "Moo!" in surprise when he stopped inches in front of her.
"Sorry," he told her, "he wasn't supposed to duck."
The cow stared balefully back at him, seemingly none the worse for her near miss, so he reversed direction and returned back to Clark.
"Is the cow OK?"
"Cow doing fine, fence in need of TLC."
He pointed at the round hole in their recently repaired perimeter fence.
"Ah. Guess I'd better fix that. Why don't you start getting stuff ready for leaving?"
Clark had a strong sense of deja vu upon returning to his apartment in Metropolis. Once again, he was arriving home after an unexplained absence, and once again, there was the faint smell of food which had been left out for too long. The only difference was that the answer-phone messages were more conciliatory than the first time around.
"Clark, son, if you get this message then I hope you're feelin' better than the last time I saw you. Alice and I feel real bad about what you must have gone through at that crash site, and we just want you to know that any time you want to drop around for a bite to eat, you're welcome."
"Clark, buddy, the basketball court is kinda quiet without you. Chop Suey awaits you here in Chinatown when you get hungry."
"Clark! Guess what? The top brass are sending me on a four-week management course - I guess they can spot potential when they see it, eh? It's residential - hey, I wonder what we do in the evenings? Better take some supplies with me, if you get my drift, eh, Clark? Anyway, I hear they're dragging in some guy from the Gotham Courier to look after things while I'm away, so do me a favour and keep an eye on things for me when you get back? Don't want some suit from the frozen north undoing all the good I've done, do we? See ya!"
"James Olsen, here, Clark. If you're listening to this message, then Metropolis is a very lucky city, and I am a fortunate newspaper owner to have you back with us. I realise you may not want to stay here following recent events, but I would urge you to consider your decision very carefully. Your cousin has done an excellent job in your absence, but the city needs its own Superman, and I need a reporter with a conscience working at the Planet. You may already have heard from Ralph - we decided to send him on an intensive management and personnel course as a way of developing and maturing his skills in those areas. In the meantime, I think you'll find Jeff Greenstreet from the Courier to be a steady pair of hands."
CK raised his eyebrows as the tape clicked off again. "Sounds interesting. Do you know this Greenstreet guy?"
"He's deputy editor at the Courier. Not exactly a Perry White, but definitely not a Ralph Pinedo either. He would have been my choice for editor when Perry left - except that he had one kid just about to graduate high-school and another with just a couple of years to go, so he would never have left Gotham."
In fact, Greenstreet had once offered Clark a job at the Courier, but at the time, he'd been engaged to Lana, and she would never have entertained a move away from Metropolis. Just how different would things have been if he'd accepted that job offer, he wondered? No Lana, no Superman, no Mayson…no Lois, no CK. A whole lot different, he decided, but no matter how much you play 'what if' it doesn't change things…better to live in the present.
Together, they sorted out the apartment and agreed sleeping arrangements, temporary storage space for CK and such like. Finally, while CK went out to buy food, Clark took a deep breath and dialled Perry's number. Alice answered and was delighted to hear from him, but of course he'd forgotten that Perry would be at work. They chatted briefly, Alice probing gently to gauge his mood and spirit, Clark assuring her he was fine and finishing on a vague agreement to drop by sometime soon. Although unwilling to interrupt Perry at work, Alice insisted that Perry would want to hear from him straightaway, so after saying goodbye he dialled City Hall. It would have been easy to use the time of day as an excuse not to call Perry and put it off for later…even indefinitely, but a small voice in his head was urging him to commit rather than drift, so…
"Hi, Perry! It's Clark."
"Clark! Great to hear you, son. Are you back here in Metropolis?"
"Yes. I just got back today with my…cousin."
"Ah, yes. He's been doing some good work while you've been away. How are you, Clark? We were real worried about you when you took off like that, you know. I guess that crash was the last straw, huh?"
"I think it was, Perry. But I-I'm much better now, thanks. I'm sorry I didn't contact you before-"
"Don't worry about it, son. Heck, I'm sure you had enough on your mind, without having to think about keeping your friends happy too. You heard what's going down at the Planet?"
"Yes, Mr Olsen left a message. Greenstreet's a good guy."
"He did a nice job on Mayson's story, too. When you're up to it, you should read it - I don't think Metropolis is going to be hearing from the Shand family again any time soon."
Oh, God! The Shand case! He'd completely forgotten about it while he'd been in Smallville. How could he have done that, when the case investigation was what had started this whole sorry affair?
"Michael's been arrested, then?"
"Sure! Henderson tied him into the car-bombing, and the DA's office finished up the bank investigations, so there's not much doubt he's going away for a very long time. Of course, he's singing like a canary to try and get his sentence reduced, so the whole organisation is caving in faster than the fleas on a racehorse."
"What about the people in the garment district? Are they OK?"
"Well, it's gonna take more than a few arrests to repair all the damage they suffered, but at least they know they're safe now."
"It's a start," Clark agreed. "You wonder who'll be next, though, don't you? One criminal family goes down, someone else rises in their place."
"Clark, don't start getting all maudlin on me. We got a bunch of bad guys, and we got them good. Let that be enough for now. Y'all can start worrying about the next criminal when he or she does something wrong, not before. You got it?"
"Got it, Ch-Perry."
"OK. Now, you gonna come around and see us sometime soon? Alice says I don't appreciate her cooking like you do."
"Love to, Perry."
"Good. You take care of yourself, y'hear?"
He was replacing the receiver just as CK returned from his shopping expedition.
"Who was that?" CK asked as he walked into the kitchen and dumped a fistful of bags on the counter.
"Perry." Clark crossed over to start helping unpack the bags and put away their contents. "He told me the Shand case is all wrapped up. Apparently the whole organisation is folding now that Michael is under arrest."
"That's good news. Maybe those poor people can start putting their lives back together again."
"Yeah. He mentioned Jeff Greenstreet too - said he's doing a good job at the Planet. I was thinking…"
"Maybe I'll give him a call. Just to say hi."
"'Hi' would be good."
"After all, it would be rude not to call him when we're in the same town together."
"Who knows, he might even have something he needs writing up."
"Nothing big, you understand. Just a short piece. To keep my hand in."
"Sure. Maybe a follow-up on the Shand case, that kind of thing?"
"Better make that call, then."
"Yeah…you bought butteries!" Clark held up the bag in disbelief.
"Is that what they're called? I just saw them in the bakery section and thought they looked interesting."
"Bakery section where?"
"Um…somewhere in Scotland. I dropped by on my way over to Paris."
"Ah, that explains the smelly cheese. How come the French can make cheese that smells so awful yet tastes so good? Anyway, you'll like the butteries, I think."
"You want one now?"
"Why don't you call Greenstreet first, I'll finish this, and then we can eat."
CK smiled to himself as Clark bounded back into the living room to make the call. He'd thought something like this might happen once they got back to Metropolis. Well, either this, or the complete opposite. Luckily, it looked like the return to Metropolis had been just what Clark needed to bring him back to his old self, to stimulate his interest in the world around him and make him rediscover his zest for life again. If you were the right sort of person, that was what a big city did for you - CK understood that, because he felt the same. Metropolis gave him a real buzz of excitement whenever he came back after a few days away from it. Of course, he loved the country, too, with its slower rhythms and close communities, but the city made his senses tingle like no other place could.
A quieter, more thoughtful Clark came back into the kitchen a few minutes later. CK had put out a couple of butteries on plates with two mugs of coffee, so he picked up one of the butteries and started chewing absently.
"Well?" asked CK.
"Huh?" Clark regained his focus and held up the pastry. "They taste a whole lot better if you warm them up, you know. Butter and honey makes them even better."
"That's not what I meant," said CK, fetching the suggested items plus two knives. "What about Greenstreet?"
"H-he asked me if I'd like to write a piece for him. No pressure, he said. Anytime over the next couple of days would be fine."
"I said yes."
"That's great!" CK checked himself. "Isn't it?"
CK sensed the uncertainty within Clark; telepathy wasn't necessary to figure that one out. "But you're not sure you want to after all?"
"No, I definitely want to get back to writing…it's just the subject matter. He asked if I would do a human interest follow-up on the Shand case, and I know exactly what would make a good story, but…"
"It's that little girl, isn't it? Clara Jefferson?"
"Yes. But that means having to go see her and her parents, and I'm not sure I'm ready for that yet. I'm not exactly on their favourite people list."
"Hmm. Tough one. I could come with you, if you like."
"I think two of us would be worse than one." Clark gave his buttery a quick zap of heat vision and started spreading butter and honey. "There's plenty of other angles I could take, like the effect on the whole community - whether it's drawn them closer together or pushed them further apart-"
"But a human interest story works best if you can focus on specific people, and Clara was a hero to boot."
"Exactly. But what if their lives have been completely ruined by all of this? What if I go there and find out that her parents have split up, or that he's lost his job?"
"Then that's the story you write. It's not always good news after the bad guys have been put away." CK copied Clark with his treatment of the buttery and took a bite.
CK raised his eyebrows appreciatively. "Not bad. Not bad at all. So, what do you think? Will you write Clara's story?"
"I guess. Actually, I'd like to find out what happened to her and her family anyway." He glanced at his watch. "It's probably better to go later, when they're all at home. I think I'll go for a flight around the city now…kinda say hello to it. Do you want to come?"
"No, thanks - I've been saying hello most days this week."
Clark smiled ruefully. "I guess you have. You don't mind me leaving you like this, do you? I mean, we've only just got here."
"Of course not. It's a weird nostalgia trip for me, being in this apartment again."
"I guess it is." He did a spin-change into the Superman suit and smiled. "Missed that."
CK watched as he launched himself up and out of the window. He hoped that Clark wasn't sensing what he was thinking right now, because it wouldn't do his new-found confidence much good. The thing was, CK wasn't convinced that Clark had realised the possible consequences of what he'd just done. He was using the suit as his natural attire for flying around the city, but wasn't remembering the responsibilities that went with the suit. What if something happened while he was out? Would he cope…would he even respond to the call?
Clark skimmed lazily over the rooftops of Metropolis, wandering wherever his instinct took him. It was wonderful to be back in the skies again, free from the earth's gravity, feeling the wind on his face, the tug of his cape as it flowed free behind him. Even the sounds of the city were different up here, as long as he was careful not to use his superhearing. They floated up from the streets, mostly distant echoes of their earth-bound blare, the occasional siren piercing the air when its more raucous tones penetrated up through the air.
He found himself approaching the Daily Planet building, and couldn't resist a peek inside, down to the presses, quiescent now before their nightly workout, then up to the newsroom, where his co-workers were hard at work, pulling together the strands of yet another edition of the mighty newspaper. He scanned briefly for Jeff Greenstreet, but evidently he was either somewhere else in the building, or had left for the day.
Moving over to the harbour, he enjoyed the vast horizons of the sea for a time before directing his attention to the dock workers handling the cranes and forklift trucks around the warehouses. Such a hive of activity! He smiled and saluted as one of the workers looked up and waved to him. Suddenly, a near-miss between two of the trucks caught his eye and made him jerk to a standstill. Reality dawned like a cold shower: he was wearing the Suit - what if the near-miss had been a head-on collision? Could he have intervened? Would he have intervened? Abruptly he realised that he had to go back to the apartment and figure this all out, before something happened that he would regret.
CK was idly picking his way through the contents of Clark's bookshelf, amused to discover that their respective collections had a lot of common points. Clark had fewer travel books than he did, but quite a few more on psychology; child psychology in particular. CK had just the one which he had purchased when he was trying to understand Lois' strange mood swings a couple of years ago. Of course, the reason for the odd behaviour became apparent when he realised that there was a double of Lois walking around - that had been a huge relief. Wonder why Clark has all these child psychology books? He plucked one out at random, and was just wading his way through the incredibly wordy introduction when a 'whoosh-thump' signalled Clark's return.
"Good trip?" he asked absently, still negotiating his way around a particularly twisty sentence. Why was it that some authors felt the need to prove their academic weight by writing such convoluted English?
Uh-oh. Even listening with only half an ear, he could hear the tension in that one word. Closing the book, he looked up at an anxious Clark, still dressed in the Suit.
"Want to talk about it?"
Clark nodded quickly. "I've got to get out of this thing first, though." He spun back into jeans and a T-shirt, and dropped heavily into an easy chair. CK came over and settled down opposite him.
Clark stared dumbly at him, curiously stuck for words even though he had volumes to say. Where to start?
<<It's OK, I know.>>
All right, this was easier. Now he didn't have to arrange the words into proper sentences. He thought back to the incident he'd witnessed at the docks.
<<So, you wondered if you could have helped if anything worse had happened??>
He nodded, reliving the guilt and faint panic he'd felt at the time.
<<In fact, what the heck where you doing there at all, in the Suit? What right had you to go out as Superman, but not accept the responsibilities that went with it.>>
Another nod, accompanied with a brief grimace.
<<And now you're wondering if we should have come back at all.>>
"Maybe I'm not ready for this," Clark blurted out. "I can't go out in the Suit like this, and that means I can't be myself here."
"Why?" asked CK, genuinely puzzled.
"Because…because…" his hands fluttered around as he fought to express himself adequately.
CK 'listened' again. "Because it's important to you that your two identities are kept separate, and Clark the reporter doesn't go flying around the skies of Metropolis."
"Yes." He flopped back into the recesses of his chair.
"That's your only problem?"
CK shook his head. "No, it's not. You're kidding yourself, Clark. Your real problem is that you still don't know whether you want to be Superman or not."
Clark eyed him balefully. "You've been reading too many of my psychology books."
"No, just using common sense. You found yourself out there as Superman and you panicked. That's OK, it just means you're not ready to go back to rescuing people just yet. It's not an excuse to go high-tailing it back to Smallville at the first hint of trouble."
"That's not fair! I rang Perry, didn't I? I rang Greenstreet - and I'm going to visit the Jeffersons tonight. That's not running away."
"No, it's not. I'm glad you're still intending to go."
"Of course I am."
"Because a second ago you sounded like you were going to leave again."
"No, I'm just…"
CK didn't blame him. I'm not handling this very well, he thought. I'm supposed to be helping him see things more clearly, not confuse him even more. Lois, I need your help on this one. In fact, Lois, I need you, full stop. I miss you, and we've been apart too long. Focus, focus…he pulled his glasses of and started to polish them while he thought. OK, what we need here is a plan to get us through the next couple of days.
"How about this? I carry on being Superman, while you do the follow-up story, maybe drop into the Planet and catch up with your friends. If you want to go flying, I'll come out with you and then if anything happens, I can take care of it."
Clark screwed his face up.
"What?" asked CK.
"Kind of makes me sound like I'm not capable of going out on my own. Like-like I need a chaperone, or something."
"Clark, I'm doing my best here, OK? Yes, it's a compromise, but can you think of anything better?"
"Fine, then let's give this a chance. Who knows, maybe it'll be fun going out together."
"OK." He shoved his glasses back on and slumped wearily into the sofa. Boy, but this was getting to be hard work. The thing was, he didn't even know when it was going to end. He had no idea when Wells was going to come back for him - if he ever did - and if Wells didn't turn up, then he was trapped in this universe for ever. That meant life without Lois, and that was unthinkable. No, he would have to get back somehow…he wondered if there was a Dr Klein here. He was about the only person CK knew who might, just might, be able to help him get back.
Clark got up to fish his laptop out of a cupboard. May as well read some of his old notes on the case before he went to meet the Jeffersons. Setting it up on the coffee table, he eyed CK over the top of the screen as he waited for it to boot up. He looked tired, and Clark realised with remorse that he was the cause. In fact, things must have been pretty hard for CK since he arrived here: no-one for company but a grieving depressive, nothing to do except tidy out an old farmhouse and stand in for him as Superman.
"I'm sorry," he said.
"This can't have been easy for you. I mean, I haven't exactly made things easy for you."
"Hey, don't worry about me." CK raised a half-hearted smile. "I'm fine."
"Sure, I can tell that by the way you're splitting your sides with laughter."
"You can tell that, can you?"
"Yes, and there's the grin that's permanently fixed on your face. That gives it away, too."
"Sorry about that. I'll try to tone it down some."
"And if you could please stop dancing around the room…"
"OK, OK!" CK really was smiling now. "I promise not to dance."
"Good, because it was beginning to drive me crazy. Really, really crazy."
"If I promise not to look too happy, do you want to eat now?"
"OK, let me show you my recipe for stir-fry beef with spring onions. It's about time you learnt to cook properly."
Clark turned away from the Jeffersons' front door, much happier than he had expected to be after visiting them, but also relieved that the visit was over. It hadn't been easy, invading their lives out of the blue like that, and understandably, they had been reserved in their welcome, if not actually hostile. He suspected their displeasure at his arrival was tempered by the knowledge that he, too, had been through a terrible experience. That embarrassed and depressed him, to think that his personal problems had become public property, as well as most of the rest of his life. Was there nothing he could keep private in this city? On the other hand, during the course of their conversation, he discovered a shared sense of survival which was strangely comforting, and he found himself telling them things he would never have expected to have been able to reveal to near-strangers. This was not good journalistic technique, he knew, but he didn't care: this wasn't about getting a story, this was about healing the hurt - on both sides.
The Jeffersons had not come through the experience unscathed. They had massive debts to repay which were a constant source of worry, and Mr Jefferson was still receiving physiotherapy for a broken foot, a legacy from his encounter with Michael Shand's men. Husband and wife had had their share of arguments, apportioning blame in the heat of the moment were none was deserved, and friends had been lost when sides were taken. However, they were still a family, and Clara was definitely a more relaxed child than when last he had seen her. When he arrived she had been extremely distrustful of him, sticking closely to her mother's side, but something he said must have changed her mind, because towards the end of his visit, she came across and sat down beside him. He told her again what a brave girl she'd been, and took the opportunity to rectify his earlier mistake by re-iterating her parents' instructions not to go anywhere without asking their permission first. That earned a small frown.
"Even going to the toilet?"
Clark smothered a smile. "No, sweetie, only when you leave the house."
"You're as bad as Mommy and Daddy," she pouted.
"Now, Clara," intervened Mrs Jefferson, "be nice to Mr Kent. He wants to write a story about you."
"Yes, I want to tell everyone what a brave girl you are, and what brave people your Mommy and Daddy are too."
"That's cool. Will I be famous like you are?"
"Clara, being famous isn't always a good thing. Sometimes it's nice to be private - you wouldn't want everyone knowing every single little thing that you do, would you?"
Clara thought hard about this. "I guess not."
"So I won't actually tell anyone your name in the story, but when you read it, you'll know that it's you. That'll be OK, won't it?"
"I'll know something that no-one else does?"
Clara's mother rolled her eyes. "It's her favourite word right now," she told Clark.
Clark smiled. "I had a few when I was that age. So, you're OK with me doing this story?"
"As long as you keep our names out of it. A lot of folks around here will guess who it is anyway, but not everyone."
"Sure, no problem."
So he left the family and wandered up the street, intending to get a feel for how the neighbourhood was adjusting to its new-found freedom. There were more boarded-up windows than previously, a sign of the damage which had been wreaked on people's homes and livelihoods. On the other hand, the streets were less deserted than they had been, and the couple of bars he dropped into had turned into easy-going, convivial places where people obviously went to socialise rather than drown their sorrows.
He was thinking of heading home when his superhearing picked up the unmistakable sounds of a scuffle going on a couple of streets away. He was into the Suit and in the air even before he realised what he was doing. In fact, his momentum was such that he had arrived at the scene of the mugging before he could have stopped himself. He was confronted with the sight of his double hoisting the mugger up into the air, the criminal's legs still moving as if running away from the superhero.
Both friends were as surprised as each other.
"Hi!" tried CK.
"Hi, er…cousin. Thanks for getting this one for me."
"No problem, especially when they're as slow as this guy." CK shook his captive gently.
"Hey!" complained the mugger. "I keep in shape pretty good. And quit shaking me."
CK gave him a long-suffering look, but lowered him to the ground, still keeping a firm grip on his collar.
"Busy night?" asked Clark.
"Not really - pretty quiet for a Saturday night."
"Need any help with him?" Clark nodded at the mugger.
"No, but…" CK wrenched the wallet out of the mugger's fist, "you could return this to its owner."
"Ow!" cried the mugger. "That hurt!"
<<Slow *and* soft as marshmallow,>> smiled CK.
Clark grinned as he retrieved the wallet. <<Doesn't smell much like marshmallow.>>
<<Just be thankful your hand's not where mine is.>>
"What's so funny?" demanded the mugger. "Are you laughing at me? That's not professional, that's not. If you were a cop, I'd report you to your boss."
"Well, *sir*, I'm not a cop, and I don't have a boss, so I'm afraid you'll have to save your report for another time."
CK launched into the air with the mugger to deliver him to the nearest precinct station.
<<See you later,>> he tossed back to Clark.
"Hey, I'm allergic to flying, I am! I'll report you for this!"
Clark straightened his face with difficulty as he turned to the victim, who had been watching the exchange with some amusement once she overcame her initial fright.
"Are you all right?" he asked her, handing over the wallet.
"Just a little shook up, but otherwise fine. I think he's going to end up in a worse state than I am!"
"Would you like me to see you home?"
"No, really, I'll be fine. Which one are you - our Superman, or the other one?"
"I-I'm your Superman, I guess."
"Oh, good! I'm glad you're back."
Clark flew off, but landed a few streets away and changed back into his street clothes. Weird evening, he thought, as he made his way back home.
A few hours later, he shoved the laptop away in frustration and thumbed the remote on his TV. A vacuous game show was hardly attention-grabbing, but it suited his mood for the moment. The story he'd been trying to write most of the evening just wasn't flowing onto the page at all easily, and he'd found himself re-writing the same sentence over and over again. It didn't help that his attention kept wandering each time he heard the cry of someone in distress or the sounds of a crime being committed. Apparently the return to Metropolis had somehow reactivated at full force that sixth sense which made him listen subconsciously for the sounds of trouble. Each time he heard a noise he went through a moment's hesitation: should he go or not? Of course, CK was out there patrolling the streets, but what if he couldn't reach the incident Clark was hearing because he was occupied elsewhere? So, a few times, he had spun into the Suit and flown over the city just to make sure that his friend was on the scene in time. Then he would return, get changed again, and sit in front of his laptop feeling guilty that he was playing the part of ghoulish spectator over other people's misfortune. He also hoped CK didn't think he was checking up on him; a couple of times they had touched minds and CK had issued a terse <<got it>> or <<it's OK>>.
The game show was winding itself up into a finale of contrived drama and tension, the studio audience yelling out the answers to the questions the lone contender was now facing. Complete silence was called for the last question, worth one million dollars.
"If a man walks 3 miles north, then 4 miles south, what is the furthest distance he can be from his starting point?" asked the host, enunciating each word slowly and deliberately.
"Seven," answered Clark in a bored voice, and waited while the clock ticked down for the contestant.
"One?" tried the unfortunate man when the buzzer sounded.
A collective groan went up from the audience and the host looked suitably distressed.
"I'm sorry, Arnie, but that was the wrong answer. The correct answer is seven…"
Clark thumbed the mute. Another million missed. Ah, well, what would he do with a million bucks anyway? Probably give most of it away to charity; keep enough to live off modestly so that he could do what he wanted to when he wanted to it. He'd still write for the Planet, but he wouldn't need to worry about losing his job if his Superman duties got in the way too much. Hang on, though. He still wasn't sure if he wanted to be Superman, was he? He cast his mind back to his conversation with CK earlier. He had panicked when he thought he might have to intervene at the docks, and CK had told him he obviously wasn't ready to go back to being Superman yet. CK had assumed, in saying that, that he was definitely intending to resume the role at some point. Clark wasn't so sure. Except he'd just spent the whole evening trying not to be Superman, hadn't he?
CK awoke to the sound of intermittent tapping on a keyboard. He sat up, stretched, and paid a brief visit to the bathroom before following the sound into the kitchen, where Clark was sitting pecking away at his laptop in short, hesitant bursts.
"How's it going?" he asked, pouring a cup of coffee from the pot on the stove.
"Great," replied Clark in a voice dripping with irony. "I've written about a thousand words so far - except I've deleted most of those, so all I've got left is this."
He stopped writing and swivelled the laptop around so that CK could see what he'd written. CK leaned over the table and read it quickly.
"Hmmm." He slurped some coffee thoughtfully. "That's good, but…" He laid down his mug and glanced at Clark, his hands hovering over the keyboard. "May I?"
"Be my guest."
CK's fingers rattled across the keyboard for a few seconds. "You start with Clara, which is fine, but now you want to bring in the bigger picture, so…"
He swivelled the laptop back for Clark to read.
"OK." Clark nodded thoughtfully before launching into an extended bout of typing.
CK watched him while drinking his coffee until it became obvious that he wasn't going to stop again for a while.
"Back in a sec," said CK.
"Mmmm," replied an engrossed Clark.
CK washed, got dressed and came back into the kitchen to find Clark reading through what he'd written so far.
"Finished?" he asked.
"Not quite. I want to bring it back to Clara at the end, but I can't see how without making it sound…contrived. Plus, I don't think this bit reads right yet." He pointed with his finger while CK leaned over his shoulder.
"Switch the sentence around the other way…that's better. Now, let's see the end." He waited while Clark scrolled down to the bottom. "I don't think it will be contrived. You just start a new paragraph, and sum it all up from her point of view…" He stretched over and typed a couple of sentences. "Something like that."
"Yes, except…" Clark amended his words and added a final tagline, "I prefer that."
CK nodded. "Much better."
"You want to read it over while I get dressed?"
Clark took a quick shower, and came back moments later dressed in one of his work suits. CK raised his eyebrows in question.
"I thought I'd drop the story into the Planet personally," Clark explained. "May as well look like I belong there."
CK nodded his understanding. "This is good. I picked up a couple of typos, that's all. I like your style, by the way."
"Almost as good as yours?" Clark asked wryly.
"Same as." CK smiled. "Face it, Clark, we write the same way."
"Yeah, but it's a good way. We Kryptonians write a hell of a story, don't we?"
"Must be something in the genes."
"Thanks for helping me with this. I would have been stuck without you."
"I guess this is how you and Lois work - helping each other, I mean."
"Mostly. We don't write all our stories together, and sometimes there isn't time to help each other, but when we do, it's great. Lois makes these incredible leaps of logic sometimes, and she adds an edge to stories that really makes them hit home hard. I correct her grammar, which she hates," he smiled fondly, "and pull her back from going too far when we haven't got the evidence to back up her claims. Not that she does that very often - hardly ever, in fact - but once in a while she wants to write the story that should be written rather than the story that we can actually write."
"I can sympathise with that. Ralph is completely paranoid about sources and proof - he never wants to take a chance on a story, even when I can tell he knows it's true."
"Yeah, well, Perry is cautious too, but when it counts, he'll stick his neck out for us. Lois would just like him to do it every week, instead of once every six months."
Clark smiled. "I bet she would - and I bet he does it more often than he would like to because of her."
"She's a passionate woman."
"I knew that from the first moment I met her."
"You did?" CK was surprised. He had imagined their first meeting to be awkward, considering the circumstances. Lois was stranded in a strange place where everyone thought she'd returned from the dead, she didn't know if she would ever get back to her own universe and her own family and friends, and then she meets someone who looks and sounds just like the husband she's just been separated from. Surely she would have been upset, perhaps even rejected him as an impostor? Passion didn't seem likely.
"Yes, the way she-" Clark stopped abruptly.
CK frowned. "The way she what?"
"Th-the way she was when we first met. She was so determined to expose Tempus for what he was, despite what she must have been going through herself."
"And-and then there was the way she encouraged me to stop hiding myself away. She was irresistible."
"Exactly how irresistible?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, just how irresistible did you find her?"
"CK, I don't know what you're implying here."
"And I don't know what you're hiding."
"What really happened when you first met?"
"So why did you stop just now?"
"I didn't stop."
"Yes, you did. You said, 'the way she' and then you stopped."
"CK, you're blowing this all out of proportion. I know you're missing Lois, but there's no need to take it out on me."
"Oh, so there is something to blow out of proportion, then?"
Clark stared at CK silently for a moment. The trouble was, he did feel guilty about his feelings towards Lois, and still regretted that moment when they had almost kissed during a late-night conversation back in her universe. CK didn't look like he was going to let this slide, though, so the only way was to face him out with it.
"She kissed me," he stated bluntly. "She thought I was you, so she kissed me, that's all."
"And where exactly was this kiss?"
"At the Daily Planet, in a very public place. Satisfied?"
"She never mentioned it."
"Well, like me, I guess she thought it didn't matter. It certainly didn't mean anything - just a straight mistaken identity. God, CK, I never thought of you as the possessive type before. What's got into you?"
"She never mentioned it," CK repeated more reflectively. "I mean, we talk about everything together, but she never told me about this. I wonder why?"
"She probably forgot about it." Clark studied CK as he frowned his way around the puzzle in his head. "Look, as long as we're talking about this stuff, there's something else you should know."
"Do you remember when I came over to your universe the first time, to help Lois get you back from Tempus' time vortex?"
"We were both…vulnerable, I guess. I was still figuring out how to be Superman, and she was missing you so much it hurt…she tried to hide it, but I knew that she cried for you when she was alone. We talked a lot about things, sometimes late into the night."
He glanced up to see a pained, almost fearful expression on CK's face.
"Nothing happened!" he said hastily. "Well, I mean, almost nothing happened."
"Clark…" Nothing Clark was saying was reassuring CK.
"I nearly kissed her. She said she nearly kissed me, but really it was the other way around. I just felt myself drawn to her, like I had from the first time I saw her. We were close, it had been a long day, we'd been drinking wine, and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to do. I'm sorry."
"Sorry," repeated CK blankly.
"Yes, sorry. I just can't think straight around Lois. I told you once that I don't love her, but sometimes I think that maybe I do, except it doesn't feel right. I mean, apart from not feeling right because she's your wife. Every time I think about her I get these confusing feelings, and I just don't know what to do with them."
"Except kiss her."
"But that's just it! I didn't kiss her, because I knew it was wrong. Can't you understand?"
"Actually, no, I don't understand."
"Well, then, I think you're being totally unreasonable. I'm trying to be completely honest here, and all you're doing is acting like the jealous husband, when that's not the point at all."
"OK, so if I don't need to act like the jealous husband, why did you even bother telling me about this in the first place?"
"Because you seemed like you needed to know! You obviously wanted to know what happened when I met her for the first time, so I thought you'd want to know this too. CK, we've been dancing around this issue almost from the first day we met, and I thought it was about time we got it all out in the open. You must have known that I had feelings for Lois - I think I even told you once - and you also knew that I spent quite a lot of time alone with her. I thought we could discuss it like adults, but you're obviously missing your beloved Lois so much that you can't think straight. I'm going to the Planet now to deliver this story, and maybe when you've got your head sorted out we can talk about this properly!"
Clark snatched the laptop off the table and stormed out of the apartment, leaving CK whirling in a tornado of emotions. Of course he was jealous - what guy wouldn't be, knowing someone he thought he could trust had got so close to his wife? God only knew what they might have done if they'd allowed their emotions to run even freer than they had already. CK couldn't bear to think of Lois with another man - it hurt him to think that she could be attracted to someone else that easily. Why hadn't she told him about what happened? She told him everything else, but not this. Maybe it wasn't important to her, so she'd forgotten about it - but what did that say about their relationship? That she didn't value it enough to consider something like this a matter for mutual sharing and understanding? No, that didn't sound like Lois. He trusted her completely, and he knew she loved him just as much as he loved her. Hadn't Clark just been telling him that she cried for him when he had disappeared? So why hadn't she told him about this?
He leaned his elbows on the table and put his head in his hands. One hand reached around to fiddle restlessly with the hair at the back of his head - he didn't usually get headaches, but he felt as close as he was probably ever going to get to one right now. Start again. Lois was upset and lonely. They'd likely been talking about each other's feelings, so her emotions were close to the surface, and here was a man who looked and sounded just like her husband, listening sympathetically to her sorrows, just like her husband would do. CK could just about understand why she might have a moment's confusion, when Clark - a very willing Clark - would become mixed up in her mind with her husband. She would seek the comfort that CK would normally provide, but before things went too far, she would pull back. What would she feel then? Guilt? Embarrassment? Probably. So would she tell CK about it if she felt like that? Maybe not, although he had hoped that they were able to share the tough emotions as well as the pleasant ones. How about if he flipped things over? What would he do if he had been in Lois' position? Would he tell her? He wasn't sure. He'd like to think he would, but maybe in the relief of getting her back, a small incident which he'd rather forget anyway might stay hidden.
OK, that was Lois figured…sort of. He'd have to talk to her about this when - or if - he got back to his own dimension. He hadn't a clue how he was going to raise it, but he'd do it somehow, just so that he could hear Lois explain how she felt in her own words. If he didn't, he knew it would fester in his mind until he'd blown it completely out of proportion: Lois had taught him that much about himself.
What of Clark? There had been guilt written all over his face when he was telling CK what had happened. In fact, maybe CK wouldn't have got so angry if Clark hadn't looked so guilty. He supposed that was a good thing, in a way - Clark being guilty. At least it meant he knew it was wrong, terribly wrong, to have come so close with Lois. What the heck did he think he was doing, acting like that with another man's wife - was that really all that Clark's code of behaviour amounted to? Yet, as CK thought back to their confrontation, he also remembered the ring of honesty in Clark's words and actions. It was clear that he had told CK the whole truth, even though that truth had earned him the third degree from his friend. That took courage. So what was his motive in telling CK all about this? To clear the air, he had said. Well, that was fair, CK supposed. It seemed like they spoke pretty freely about Lois nowadays, but there was always a sense that more was being left unsaid than was spoken out loud. But maybe there was more to it than that. Clark had said he was confused, mixed up. Could it be that he was looking for advice and guidance from CK? Maybe even understanding and sympathy? CK wasn't sure he could supply that, given the situation, but maybe Clark's boldness and direct approach deserved a better hearing than CK had given him.
CK stood up and stretched. If he left now, he could probably catch Clark at the Planet - that might be interesting. On the other hand, maybe it wasn't such a good idea to turn up at the Planet. Clark didn't want his 'alienness' emphasised at work, and having a cousin who also looked like his double might not do him any favours. The sound of squealing brakes made up his mind for him, and he headed swiftly out the window to an overturned truck careering down the highway.
Walking back into the newsroom should have ranked amongst the hardest things Clark had ever done, but he was so wound up by his conversation with CK that he hardly noticed the occasional double-take from colleagues around him. In fact, Jeff Greenstreet had everyone working so hard that his entrance passed largely unnoticed anyway. He flopped down at his desk and eyed the stacks of paper and unopened mail moodily - as usual when he was away, his desk had become a dumping ground for everyone else's junk. There was only one way to deal with it: he gathered the whole lot into his arms and dumped it unceremoniously on the floor beside his desk.
"That's against Health and Safety regulations, Clark," said a familiar voice from behind.
Clark swivelled around in his chair to look up into Jeff's beaming face. "I guess you'll just have to give me a bigger desk then," he retorted with a half-smile.
"Ah…bigger desk, bigger job. You up for that?"
"Only if you've found a way of doubling the number of hours in a day."
"Well, actually, I have. It's called delegation, and I have it down to a fine art."
Clark glanced around the busy newsroom appreciatively. "I can see that."
"Which gives me time to talk to the people who count. You want to drop by my office for a chat?"
"Sure…I've got that story, by the way. I'll email it to you first?"
"OK. Five minutes."
Jeff strolled away back to his office, leaving Clark to plug in his laptop and send along the story. This gave him time to think back to his confrontation with CK. He couldn't believe how aggressively jealous CK had been - this was a side to his friend he'd never seen before. Of course, it didn't help that he had been feeling guilty about what had happened anyway, but why did CK have to jump down his throat when all he'd been trying to do was bring things out into the open? They'd been through so much together, and CK had been so kind to him when he'd badly needed it, that he didn't understand why things should be different with this. Didn't CK realise just how much it took for him to admit what he'd done? He wasn't a sharer, but he'd pushed himself to share this for both their sakes - and how did he get repaid? With an interrogation. So if he couldn't share things with CK, the person he was probably closest to in the whole world, then he was obviously doomed to a life of emotional solitude. Well, that was all right, he'd pretty much learned how to live like that already. It wasn't what he wanted out of life, but maybe that was the hand he'd been dealt when he landed on this planet. He sighed heavily as he made his way over to Jeff's office. Things weren't turning out today like he'd thought they would at all.
"Come in, Clark! Be with you in a minute."
Clark sat down, waiting for Jeff to finish whatever he was reading on his screen. He glanced around the office while he waited, noting that the girlie calendar had gone, together with the clutter of executive toys which had adorned Ralph's desk.
"Excellent piece, Clark. I like the way you've focused in on just the one family, with the girl as the centrepiece. I think I'll run this in tomorrow's edition,if that's OK with you?"
"No, thank you. I'm sure this wasn't an easy story to write, so I appreciate what you've done here. Now, are you staying with us, or is this just a flying visit - no pun intended."
Greenstreet smiled broadly to take any sting out of his comment. Clark didn't mind at all - from Jeff the tone was light-hearted and completely non-malicious. If Ralph had said the same thing, there would have been an undertone of jeering and contempt. However, it sounded like Jeff was asking two questions in one - was he staying today, and was he staying long-term - and Clark wasn't sure which one to answer.
"I thought I'd stay a while and sort out my desk," he answered non-committally.
"Good. Nothing like a good tidy-up to blow away the cobwebs ready for a fresh start."
Greenstreet suddenly laughed. "Clark, you should see your face! I've never seen someone look so downright cagey. Relax! I don't need you to tell me right now if you're staying one day or all three hundred and sixty five days of the year. How about this: I'm happy to take stories from you whenever you've got something for me. You can have a kind of roving brief - you see a story which you think needs writing, you write it. No pressure, no deadlines, just good solid reporting. How does that sound?"
To Clark it sounded too good to be true. What was the catch? Was he to be cut from the Planet's permanent staff?
"What terms would I be working under?" he ventured, not wanted to seem ungrateful, but needing to know where he stood financially.
"Same as always."
"But won't that be unfair to the rest of the full-time staff?" Plus, he didn't want to be singled out for special treatment.
"I hear what you're saying, but let's give it a try, hmmm? This isn't a permanent arrangement yet - heck, I'm not permanent - so let's just see how things go while I'm here. You see, Clark, I value you a great deal as a reporter, and I know Olsen feels the same way. We don't want to lose you."
"Oh." He didn't know what else to say.
"OK, it's agreed, then…Clark, is something wrong?"
Clark had suddenly acquired a distracted, agitated look. "No…I just…I have to go." He was already standing and backing towards the door, pulling at his tie. "Thanks for everything…sorry!"
The papers on Jeff's desk flew up in the breeze caused by Clark's departure. Patting them back down again, the light quickly dawned on Jeff - Clark was answering a Superman call. Great - he's really back now, he thought with satisfaction.
Clark sped towards the toppling crane, expecting to find CK already there as usual, but needing to be sure anyway. This was getting to be a habit, he realised - apparently he couldn't ignore the cries for help so easily here in Metropolis, and once he'd heard something, he just had to know that it was being taken care of. His heart started thumping as he got closer - no CK. He must be stuck somewhere else…what to do…no time to wait…he grabbed the crane just before it struck the neighbouring building and pulled it upright again. He held it there while workers below secured it in place once more, then tested it carefully for stability. Finding it to be safe, he swooped down to ground level to check no-one had been hurt by the accident.
"Thanks, Superman," said the foreman on site, "but we're all OK."
"Any idea why it fell over?"
The foreman snorted without humour. "What can you expect from those guys?" He nodded at the "LL Industries" logo on the side of the crane.
"Biggest bunch of cowboys this side of Gotham City, if you ask me. Their margins are so tight they're always cutting corners. There's probably half-a-dozen regulations being broken just on this one site, but they don't care, as long as they make a fast buck. That new building over in Gable Heights is one of theirs - you know, the one where they had to evacuate everyone for a week? I can't believe people are still living there - it's an accident waiting to happen, if you ask me."
"There are channels to report that kind of thing," suggested Clark.
"Superman, get real! I got a wife and kids."
"You mean you'd get the sack if you reported them?"
"If I was lucky. Look, I gotta get on - we've got the big boss coming over later for a look-see at his pretty new building."
"Some guy called Luthor."
Clark flew away slowly, in reflective mood. He had to be careful with situations like this. People knew he was a reporter as well as Superman, and sometimes they tended to sensationalise their stories in the hope that he would write a piece about them in the Planet. This story, however, had the ring of truth about it. Maybe he should look into LL Industries later. Right now, he had to go somewhere quiet and think about what he felt about the rescue he'd just done. Tidying his desk at the Planet could also wait until later.
CK arrived back at the apartment, and flew straight into the shower, suit and all. The runaway tanker he had stopped had ruptured and spilt thick, smelly effluent all over him, and the only thing on his mind was getting clean and getting rid of the disgusting smell pervading his nostrils. He peeled off the suit under the shower, dumped it in a heap in the corner and washed himself vigorously. There didn't seem any point in trying to clean the suit so he disposed of it in the trash. What a horrible morning - first an argument with his best friend, and then this! Couldn't he just escape from this world right now, especially as he had a strong hunch that his job was just about done here? Clark was almost back to his old self, and was pretty close to settling down into a life he felt happy with. CK padded through to the living room, and was just settling down in an armchair with another of Clark's books when Clark himself came flying through the window. They exchanged a cool greeting. CK raised an eyebrow at Clark's suit but said nothing. Instead he buried himself back in his book while Clark walked past him to the bedroom. It was stupid, he knew, considering he'd been ready to go and apologise to Clark before the tanker thing, but somehow the forgiving mood had left him - probably washed away by that effluent, he thought sourly. He sighed heavily and read through the same sentence for the third time…this impasse had to end sometime, but could he still make the first move?
Clark changed into comfortable clothes and flopped down on the bed, feeling depressed. He and CK had been such good friends, and now he felt like he couldn't talk to him any more. It would have been great to have given CK the news about his save, which he'd decided he felt pretty good about, but his friend seemed suddenly unapproachable. So it was as he had thought - he wasn't going to be allowed the luxury of sharing deeply personal experiences with a close friend. Where did that leave him with the Superman question? There was no doubt that it felt right to be using his gifts again to help people out, and he thought he'd just about got over his fears and nervousness about returning to the job. There was just a nagging doubt as to whether he was ready for the whole package - holding down a demanding job at the Planet and rushing about saving life and limb at the same time, without any really close friends to talk to when things got rough.
"Can we talk?"
CK had appeared around the corner and was hovering uncertainly a few feet away. Clark managed to glance up without looking at him directly.
CK pulled up a chair and sat down. "I owe you an apology." Now, their eyes met steadily. "I shouldn't have acted the way I did when you told me about Lois. You were trying to be honest and adult about a difficult situation, and I was being unreasonable and jealous. I'm sorry."
"Apology accepted," said Clark stiffly.
"I can't tell you that I'm happy to know that you did…nearly did what you did, or that you still have such strong feelings for Lois, but I think I can understand them a little. I'm not even sure that I wouldn't feel the same way in your shoes."
"Pity you couldn't understand that a little sooner."
CK sighed. "I…I'm just tired, Clark. It's been great getting to know you like this, and it was fun fixing up the farmhouse together, but now I just want to be home in my own world again. Pretty pathetic, huh?"
"No…but next time, tell me that instead of jumping down my throat about something else, OK?"
"It took me a while to realise it myself, but OK, I'll try."
Clark felt himself unbending a little in the face of CK's obvious weariness, but he wasn't going to let his friend off the hook that easily.
"I-I thought I'd lost the one person I could really talk to, you know? It wasn't easy for me to tell you what happened - I've never found it easy to open up like that - and you just made it ten…no, a hundred times more difficult by refusing to listen to what I was really saying."
"I know. I'm sorry." CK pulled his glasses off in a by-now familiar gesture and pinched the bridge of his nose with his other hand.
"I mean, you wouldn't let me tell you how I felt, or when I did you just ignored me and became more and more aggressive."
CK looked up sharply. "I said I'm sorry, didn't I?"
The two men stared at each other, both feeling a trace of their previous anger rising up again. Almost as quickly, the mental door which up to now had been firmly shut while their emotions ran high flew open, and both gained a sudden insight into the other's feelings. Clark received a jolt of immense longing coupled with anxiety, while CK understood how deeply Clark's fear of loneliness ran. He also saw how desperately confused Clark was about the almost-kiss and what that implied about his feelings for Lois. It was an extremely personal moment, and there was embarrassment on both sides as they experienced this reading of another man's emotions so acutely. Eyes fled to opposite corners of the room and silence filled the air, each of them processing this new insight into their friend's behaviour and reassessing their own actions in the light of it.
When they were ready, both spoke at once.
"CK, I'm so sorry-"
"Clark, I wish I'd realised-"
They stopped together…and started together.
Both gave up again and smiled ruefully at each other.
They stopped again.
This time they both had to stop because they were laughing so much. CK stuck up a hand as if he was back at kindergarten.
"Yes?" managed Clark through his laughter.
"May I speak?" gasped CK.
"Certainly." Clark tried mock seriousness, but the giggles bubbled up again, defeating his attempt.
"I was going to say, you go first," squeaked CK.
"Ah…" Clark took a deep breath to calm himself down. "Maybe we should…maybe we should," but it was no use. He was laughing again.
CK tried again. "Maybe we should what?" he managed before he dissolved into hysterics.
"We should agree…we're…both sorry," Clark forced out between laughs, "and leave it at that."
"Fine by me," laughed CK.
It was a couple of minutes before they both sobered up enough to say anything sensible. When they did, Clark noticed something he'd only been vaguely aware of before.
"What's that smell?" His nose wrinkled fastidiously.
CK grimaced. "I thought I'd got rid of it. A tanker filled with effluent burst open all over me when I was stopping it from crashing."
"Yeah. Maybe I'll try a swim in the ocean - see if that gets rid of it. First though, you going to tell me what you were doing in the suit just now? I thought you wanted me with you when you went flying."
"Ah. This wasn't flying. There was a crane falling, and you weren't there, so…" he smiled.
"You did the save yourself! Way to go, Clark! Good work. How do you feel about it?"
"Pretty good. I even picked up a lead for a possible story - oh, and Jeff is keeping me on as a kind of freelance reporter for a while. I can write what I want, when I want."
"That's great! Same pay?"
"Yes. I thought it was too good to be true, but it seems he and Mr Olsen are pretty keen to hold on to me."
"Who wouldn't want to hold on to someone who writes almost as well as I do?" said CK with a grin.
"Make that better than you do," corrected Clark, also grinning. "Anyway, I'm gonna head back to the Planet now - start doing some research on that story."
"What's it about?"
"Some dodgy construction company - the usual story of cost cutting and ignoring safety procedures. You wanna come with me? Could be interesting for you to see the 'other' Planet."
CK hesitated; he was very tempted. It would relieve the boredom, take his mind off Lois and being marooned here for God-knew how long, and Clark was right - it would be interesting. On the other hand, he still thought it might look odd for the two of them to turn up together, and they might end up fielding a lot of questions they'd rather avoid.
"No - but thanks for the offer. I'll stick around here and catch up on my reading."
"OK, if you're sure…?" CK nodded definitely. "See you later - maybe we could do Indian tonight? I know a good place in Kashmir."
"Sure, sounds good."
Clark flew back to the Planet, enjoying a new confidence in wearing the Suit. How did it feel? he asked himself. It felt…super, he grinned as he flew. Maybe Superman was on his way back after all. Plus, he was looking forward to getting stuck into a new investigation - and he wasn't going to get too personally involved this time, he reminded himself. He'd be the professional investigator, concerned but detached.
After a quick swim in the ocean and another shower, CK wandered restlessly around the apartment, picking up books and magazines, flicking through them but not really reading anything properly. He made himself a cup of coffee, and in a fit of utter boredom and frustration, balanced it on his head and tried flying around the room in a sitting position without spilling any of it. That was pretty easy, so he made it more difficult by lying on his back and keeping the cup levitated by a stream of gentle air blowing on its base. This was fine until he tried to move, and then the cup would have fallen to the carpet if he hadn't caught it with his super-reflexes. <What am I doing?> He stood up and heated up the coffee again with his vision. <I must be crazy…I *am* crazy. Where are you, Wells? Clark is fine and I'm ready to go home - more than ready! Where- >
The explosion was so loud, he would have heard it as a faint 'boom' even without superhearing. He shot into the air, changing clothes in mid-air as he flew towards the source of the noise.
Clark was waiting for an Internet search to produce results when he heard the explosion. His reaction was the same as CK's - except that as he flew towards the incident, his heart sank as he realised where it was.
Gable Heights was not a wealthy neighbourhood. It was a new development on the outskirts of the city, built on reclaimed waste ground, with few facilities and even fewer transport links to the centre. Most of the people living there were workers at the two nearby factories, and most of the housing was in blocks of flats like the one which had just exploded.
CK was the first to arrive on the scene. One side of the building had been completely torn apart by the explosion, and the floors had collapsed down onto each other like a deck of cards. A huge fireball was making inroads into the other side of the building, and smaller fires were evident on this side: occasional flames licked around the corners and escaped through windows every few floors. CK expended a huge lung-full of supercooled breath onto the fireball, successfully extinguishing it, but then he quickly realised that its source had been a ruptured gas main which needed welding before it erupted again. He swooped down and started repairing it.
<<I'll start looking for survivors.>>
It was Clark, arriving on the scene and making his presence felt.
<<OK. I'll keep working on the fires.>>
CK finished his repair and started methodically on the fires, picking the largest ones first. He wished he could just hit them all at the same time with a few big blows, but he couldn't while there were still people inside - it could hurt them, or worse, he might blow down part of the structure onto them.
<<CK, I've got six people here, two of them trapped under a girder.>>
CK flew up and held up the girder while Clark gently lifted up the children one at a time and carried them to the paramedics who had now arrived on the scene. The fire brigade had also arrived and were training their hoses on the lower parts of the building. They were preparing to put up the high-rise equipment, but Clark stopped them, pointing out that CK could put out the fires quicker than they could.
"OK, Superman, we'll concentrate on the lower half of the building and you two get the survivors out from the top half," replied the fire chief.
"Fine - just yell if you need any help!" called Clark over his shoulder as he flew back to the upper reaches. CK was already making significant progress with the fires, so he continued on his quest for survivors, scanning for those in the most peril first.
Countless rescues later, he 'heard' CK calling him.
<<Need your help on this one.>>
He joined CK on the top floor. "Every time I lift this up," CK indicated a large slab of concrete, "that tips forwards," he nodded to another chunk of concrete, "and there's someone under there."
Clark pulled the second piece of concrete up, allowing CK to lift his slab without endangering whoever was underneath. A young father cowered beneath, cradling a child in his arms.
"Shhh," he whispered. "She's sleeping."
Clark and CK exchanged glances; the small, lifeless body had passed well beyond sleep. Clark crouched down in front of the man.
"Can I take you both somewhere safer?" he asked quietly.
"Isn't she pretty when she's sleeping?" The father looked fondly down at his daughter, brushing a lock of hair from her forehead.
Clark forced himself to gaze down at the child. "Yes, she's very pretty. You must love her very much."
"She's our first, you know."
"She's very pretty," he repeated, at a loss as to what else to say. "Shall we go now?" He put an hand on the man's shoulder. "I promise I'll be very careful with her."
Clark lifted up father and child. It wasn't a very easy burden to carry, but there was obviously no way the man was going to be separated from his daughter. He flew them gently down, taking more time than usual so as not to frighten the fragile man and his precious load.
He took a deep breath before flying back up to join CK back on the top floor.
"OK?" asked CK, concerned for his friend's feelings.
Clark expelled breath quickly. "Not really. But I will be."
CK nodded. "Come on - I think we're almost done here. You want to do one last scan for survivors while I check for any hot spots?"
They completed their work and after reporting their findings to the fire chief, headed back to the apartment to shower and change.
CK collected a mug of Oolong tea from the kitchen and joined Clark in the living room. They sat in silence for a time, each reflecting on the explosion and its devastating consequences. CK was guiltily aware that they had actually left early from the incident: they had ducked out of the grisly task of locating the dead and bringing them out. His excuse was that he didn't think Clark was ready to face that particular trauma yet, excellent though he had been during the rescue operation. It didn't stop him feeling bad about the rescue workers who would have to carry out the job instead, encountering far worse than the one dead child they had found.
Clark was thinking about the construction company which had been responsible for that building. Various comments from the firemen led him to believe that the gas explosion had been the result of shoddy workmanship, and he was quietly fuming at the thought that so many lives had been lost or irreparably damaged at the cost of a lousy few dollars. Who could be so callous and greedy as to put money before safety in such a blatant manner? One thing was certain: he was going to get to the bottom of this, and bring those responsible to book for what they had done.
A knock on his front door interrupted his thoughts. This was odd - he didn't get many visitors these days. Curious, he looked through the door as he got up to answer it, and was astonished to see a dapper, shortish man wearing a pin-stripe suit and carrying a curious device in his right hand.
"May I come in?" asked H G Wells.
CK was beside Clark in a split second.
Wells blinked. "Yes?" he enquired politely.
"You…you abandoned me!"
"Did I? Ah, yes, I rather suppose I did. But you knew I'd be back for you when everything was, well, right with the world, as it were."
"No I didn't! I didn't know when you'd be back, or-or even if you'd be back at all! Do you have any idea what I've been through?" demanded CK through gritted teeth.
"Oh! Well, I'm sorry, but as you can see, I'm here now."
"Yes, and about time, too. Are we going back?"
"Of course. If it's convenient for you?"
"Now he asks," muttered CK to Clark.
Clark grinned. He was happy that his friend was finally able to go home to the wife and family he so obviously missed. Holding out his hand, he began the farewells.
"Well, CK, I guess this is it. Thank you for everything you've done for me. I-I could never have got through all this if it hadn't been for you."
CK clasped his hand firmly. "You've taught me a few things about myself, too. I've got a lot to talk to Lois about when I get back."
"Oh! Talking of who…" he disappeared into the kitchen and came back carrying a bag of butteries. "Give these to her for me."
Clark held his breath when CK suddenly stilled for a moment. He regarded the proffered bag solemnly then shifted his gaze to Clark.
"Don't I get any?" he asked innocently.
"I-I think I might have another-"
CK punched him lightly on the shoulder. "I was just kidding," he grinned. "Lois will love them - and so will I."
Awkward silence descended between them again.
CK broke the impasse. "Here…" He enveloped Clark in a hug, which Clark returned warmly.
<<Don't let yourself get too emotionally involved in that story,>> advised CK.
Clark pulled away in surprise. "I'll try," he replied, once more in awe of this man who understood him better than he did himself. Neither of them noticed a very puzzled Wells trying to make sense of the exchange.
"Ready?" asked Wells.
"Ready," replied CK.
"Here we go…"
Clark watched as they appeared to fold in on themselves and then disappeared.
"Thank you for everything," he repeated to the blank space.
<<And thank you,>> came CK's faint response.
Suddenly excited that they might be able to continue a link through the universes, he tried again.
<<Say hi to Lois for me.>>
But there was no reply.
Clark's stomach lurched as he landed back in his own living room; this inter-universe travel really was no fun at all. Once he'd recovered, he was greeted by the sight of his beloved wife lounging on the sofa with her eyes closed, a bunch of open Chinese take-out cartons strewn on the table in front of her.
"Drop any noodles this time?" he asked.
Lois' eyes flew open. "Clark!"
She stood up and he rushed to envelop her in a tight hug. It was so, so good to feel her soft body close to his again, to smell her perfume, touch her hair, feel her arms around him, holding him close. He never wanted to let her go again - he especially never wanted to leave her again like that, not knowing if he would ever get her back again. The tension he hadn't even been aware of melted away from him in her loving arms and he felt complete once more, renewed in spirit and body.
Lois was taken aback by the intensity of Clark's embrace. He didn't know it yet, but as far as she was concerned, he'd only been gone for a couple of hours. Had it been longer for him? Or had something bad happened which made him cling to her as if his life depended on it?
"Mmmm…I missed you so much," he said into her hair.
"I missed you too, honey, but you were only gone for a couple of hours. What happened?"
He released her in surprise. "Two hours? I was gone for days and days! It seemed like forever."
"Oh, Clark!" She gathered him up in her arms again. "Was it bad? How's Clark2?"
"He's OK…now. It took us a while to work things out, but he'll do just fine."
"And how are you?"
"I-I'm fine too. I just missed you." He renewed his embrace, enveloping her with his body, wanting to feel every soft curve, every beat of her heart, hear her quiet, steady breaths beside him.
Lois held him tight, still not really clear as to why he wanted such close contact for so long, but understanding enough to give him the time he needed with her. "It's OK, you're home now," she murmured in his ear. "We've got all the time in the world to be together."
Some time later, she felt him release her gently, maintaining the link by entwining his fingers in hers. It was then that she noticed the bag.
"What's that?" she asked.
Clark looked down at the bag in his right hand. "Oh! I nearly forgot." He held them up for her. "These are for you."
Lois peered through the clear plastic bag to the misshapen lumps of pastry and screwed up her face. "They are?" she asked in a sceptical voice.
"Yes - they taste much better than they look, trust me. They're from Clark2."
Lois nodded slowly. "He obviously doesn't take after you in the cooking department."
"Lois! They really are good - you'll love them. He didn't bake them - he buys them from somewhere in Scotland." He offered the bag to her, which she took, still examining the contents with suspicion.
"These from a nation where men wear skirts? Figures. I guess it was a nice gesture, though."
Clark walked her over to the sofa, where he pulled her into his lap, still wanting to feel her close by. Lois dumped the bag of butteries on the coffee table and met him in a long, deep kiss.
"Mmmm…this is nice," purred Lois.
"You going to tell me what happened?"
"Soon…but let's just do this for a while."
The 'Other' Metropolis
A few nights later, Clark was patrolling around the Hob's Bay area when he heard the unmistakable sounds of a brawl taking place in one of the many seedy night-clubs in the district. When he arrived on the scene, he found that almost all the occupants were caught up in the fight, the bar staff having retreated behind the counter and pulled up a protective grille. After a few abortive attempts to pull pairs of fighters apart - they merely engaged with someone else close by - in exasperation he began picking up participants one at a time and dumping them a couple of streets away in a random pattern. Most protested vehemently at such cavalier treatment, but his answer was the same to all:
"You're only a couple of streets away, in that direction. Maybe by the time you've walked back, you'll have cooled off. Just don't think you can start up the fight again wherever you go: I'll hear you, even if I don't see you."
As he plucked fighters away, he reflected that maybe he should be delivering them to the nearest police precinct, but there were so many of them, and a quick consultation with a couple of the staff told him that no-one was entirely sure who the original perpetrators were.
When things began to quieten down a little, he noticed there was still music playing in the background. Nice voice, he thought, as he pulled a particularly violent pair apart and dumped them within sight of a precinct office, just in case. Returning to the club again, he glanced at the billboard outside…awful name - sounds like someone from a bad romance novel. A hefty guy came reeling towards him, and he just managed to catch him before he crashed to the ground. This is almost comical, he mused. The whole room is fighting with each other, and that singer is plugging on doggedly with her set - does she really think anyone is listening? Curious to see who this crazy woman was, he glanced up at the stage - and his jaw dropped a mile.
"I've got a crush on you," she sang in a sexy voice, holding one elegantly-clad arm out towards her oblivious audience.
That wasn't Wanda Detroit at all - that was Lois Lane!
To be continued…