By Yvonne Connell <Yvonne@yconnell.fsnet.co.uk>
Submitted February 1999
Summary: Half of the Lane and Kent partnership falls seriously ill with a mysterious ailment. Something seems to be killing Superman!
Author's note: This story was inspired by an idea that Jeff Brogden, an ex-list member, posted a while back. I haven't said anything to him about it, because in his sign-off it seemed pretty clear that he wanted to distance himself from L&C-related stuff, and devote more time to the rest of his life. For that reason, I didn't think he'd welcome emails from me about something he was trying to move on from…so if you're reading this Jeff, can I just say a big thank-you for your idea, and I hope you don't mind me using it without consulting you. The format was also inspired by a discussion some time ago on the list about writing from different characters' point-of-view. I started thinking about how easy or not I found it to write from Clark's and Lois' POV, and the following format was born. It was easy to begin with, but it got harder and harder to maintain the style, as I think you'll see as you read the story. Still, it was an interesting experiment. Finally, I'm sorry that this has turned out to be yet another story where I put Clark through hell and back. I guess there's an argument for sticking with what you're successful at, but I promise I'll try something a bit different next time. And finally, finally — comments, both good and bad are extremely welcome. Be honest, I can take it (hides behind the sofa in preparation…)
She stepped through the patio doors out into their sunny backyard, where her husband lay dozing on a lounger. Noticing that one arm had flopped over the side and was dangling in mid-air, she lifted it up and tucked it back under the blanket on his lap. His eyes opened lazily as she did this, then closed again as he recognised the familiar touch of his wife.
She stroked his head briefly, and then leaned down to pick up his lunch tray. As usual, he hadn't managed to eat much, but at least he had finished the milk. The bowl on the other side of his lounger was still empty, so she left it in place and took the lunch things back into the kitchen to clean up. As she put away the last plate, the phone rang.
"Hello?" There was silence as she listened to the caller announce themselves.
"Oh, hi, thanks for calling," she replied. "No, he's pretty much the same…"…"We're waiting to hear the results of the latest tests. Although I'm not holding out much hope — sometimes I think they're just making wild stabs in the dark."…"I know, I know, it's just…" she trailed off hopelessly.
The caller sympathised with her, and offered to help with the nursing if things got too rough.
"Thanks. We're managing fine at the moment, but I'll let you know if I need you…I have to go, I think I can hear him calling me."
She finished the call, and hurried outside again to her husband. He was awake, and wanted to move back inside the house — he was getting too warm in the sun, he explained. She helped him stand up, and with an arm around his waist, the two of them shuffled slowly over to the patio doors. As they stepped inside, his body tensed and a familiar look came into his eyes, so she tightened her grip on him and picked up the pace as much as he could manage, easing him down onto a sofa before dashing outside to collect the bowl beside his lounger. Thrusting it into his now clammy hands, she sat down beside him and started to rub his back soothingly while he leaned over the bowl. This was a familiar routine: if he got through the next ten to fifteen minutes without incident, then the chances were he could put the bowl down and rest a little.
They were in luck this time, and she felt his back muscles relax as the crisis passed. She took the bowl from him and placed it within easy reach of his hands, in case it was needed later. He stretched out full-length on the sofa, using one of the cushions as a pillow, and she covered him with the blanket they kept downstairs for him.
"Thanks, Lois," he mumbled as he pulled the blanket up around himself.
"Would you like me to play some quiet music, Clark?" she offered.
"That would be nice."
After putting on some soft piano music she settled herself on the other sofa, and thought back to how this had all begun. She had first noticed something odd when Clark disappeared suddenly in the middle of a staff meeting at the Planet. Not that it was odd for Clark to leave abruptly in the pursuit of his Superman duties, but he returned too soon for the absence to have been anything to do with his 'other job'. His lame excuse (were they ever anything but lame, she reflected) was that he had to go to the bathroom. Perry had made fun of him at the time, but something hadn't felt right to her. She had intended to challenge Clark later about the incident, but somehow events overtook her and she never got the chance.
It began at a barbeque. He was turning the steaks when a wave of nausea swept through him. Suddenly the smell from the half-cooked meat revolted him, so that he had to leave what he was doing and rush inside on the pretext of fetching some more barbeque sauce. Instead of going to the kitchen, he sped upstairs to the bathroom, where he splashed cold water on his face. Looking up at himself in the mirror over the sink, he frowned.
"What was that?" he asked his reflection.
He studied the face before him for a minute, before towelling himself dry vigorously.
"Well, whatever it was, you're OK now," he told the reflection. The reflection didn't look convinced, but he turned away anyway and dashed back downstairs to the kitchen, collected the sauce, and returned to the barbeque. His wife had taken over from him at the grill, so he handed her the bottle and picked up the salad tongs instead to do some tossing. For a split second, their eyes met and he thought that his cover was blown, but then the moment was gone as their boss came over to deliver his lecture on the 'correct way' to barbeque steaks.
Weeks passed, and soon he had managed to bury all memories of the strange event in his subconscious. It wasn't until he was sitting at the back of the pack at one of Perry's staff meetings that he was reminded of the incident. Once again, the same sensations began to wash over him. At first, he struggled to ignore them and concentrate on what Perry was saying, but it was a losing battle, and eventually he stood up quietly and slipped out of the conference room to the men's room.
Here he was again, he thought. Leaning over a sink, trying to keep control of his increasingly recalcitrant body, as hot and cold sweats passed through him. Suddenly, the previous experience felt as if it had happened just yesterday, and everything that had taken place in between melted away into the background. Once again, he splashed water over his face to try to wash away the feelings of nausea. Perhaps a little deep breathing would help — he took a couple of long, deep breaths and immediately regretted it. Now he felt dizzy as well as sick. He fumbled over to one of the cubicles, pulled the toilet cover down on top of the seat and sat with his head between his knees. He'd told other people to do this when they felt dizzy, but he never imagined he'd be following his own advice.
Better. He definitely felt better. He stood up slowly to confirm the diagnosis. Yes, he was all right again. As he made his way back to the conference room, he decided he had to do something about this. It was time to pay Dr Klein a visit. Lois didn't need to know, though. At least not until he knew what was going on — she would just worry about him, and he hated to see her fret.
When he returned to the meeting, he found that he had been wrong about his departure going unnoticed.
"Were we boring you?"
"No…uh, sorry. I had to visit the bathroom."
"Well, as I used to tell my sons when they started kindergarten, always make sure you 'go' before class starts. That way you won't embarrass yourself."
A general titter went around the room as Clark reddened.
A knock at the door interrupted her thoughts.
"Come in, Daddy,"
"Sorry I'm late, pumpkin. I couldn't get away from Dr Klein — when that guy warms to a subject, you can't get a word in edgeways!"
"I know," she agreed.
"How's our invalid today?" he asked, striding over to Clark's sofa.
Clark opened his eyes and looked up at her father.
"Hi, Sam," he said with a quick smile that didn't quite touch his eyes.
Her father pulled a chair alongside the sofa and sat down, while she returned to her place on the other sofa.
"Manage to keep anything down today?" he asked, picking up Clark's wrist to take his pulse.
Clark shook his head. "Not really."
"Mmmm." Her Dad fell silent as he concentrated on counting. Lois watched while he performed his daily examination of her husband, wondering not for the first time what he expected to find. Clark's condition hadn't changed for over a week now, except that he became weaker every day.
"Lungs still clear as a bell," was the comment as he packed his stethoscope away and Clark pulled his dressing gown back around himself. "Time for the dreaded blood sample," he continued in a mock threatening voice.
"I'll swear either you or Dr Klein have vampires in your family somewhere," complained Clark, pulling up his sleeve.
"You'd better pray it's Dr Klein, otherwise you've married into the wrong family!" she interjected, joining in with her husband's attempt to lighten the mood.
Clark looked away as her father took the sample.
"It must be Dr Klein — that didn't feel like the practised touch of someone who draws blood for a living," agreed Clark.
"I'm sorry, Ellen is much better at this stuff than I am," her Dad apologised. He made a few more notes on his chart, and stood up. "I'd better get this back to Star Labs."
But she wanted to talk to him before he left.
"Can I have a word first?" she asked, getting up and leading him into the kitchen. She made sure the door was closed before voicing her concerns.
"Daddy, he's not getting any better, is he?"
"Honey, I wish I could disagree with you, but you're right. In fact, the reason I was late was that Dr Klein and I were discussing the possibility of intravenous feeding. He's really getting terribly weak."
She grabbed blindly behind herself for something to lean on, finally coming to rest up against the refrigerator. It sounded so…final, as if they were giving up the fight.
"Intravenous? Oh, Daddy!"
She felt her father put a protective arm around her and pull her to him.
"I know, I know," he said comfortingly.
"Every morning when he wakes up, he seems a little better. Just enough to give us both some hope. And then, he just gets worse and worse during the day. I try to make sure he gets plenty of sunshine through the day, but he doesn't seem to be able to soak up its healing powers like he used to. And then he can't stay out in it for very long before he gets too hot and has to come inside again."
"Yes, actually, I noticed his temperature was a little high today…"
"And then the headache starts. You can almost set your watch by it, it's so predictable. Which makes it harder — I can see him tensing up before it starts, and I'm sure that just helps make it more painful. Daddy, doesn't Dr Klein have any idea what's causing all this yet?"
"I'm afraid not, although…you say Clark gets progressively worse during the day?"
"And the temperature rise…Hmmm."
"It's probably nothing…but worth a look…Angel, I don't want to get your hopes too early. Let me check this out with Dr Klein first."
He visited Dr Klein at Star Labs and explained the problem. Dr Klein ran a battery of tests, then sent him away to await the results. There was a sticky moment at work when Lois answered Dr Klein's phone call and got wind of the fact that Superman had commissioned some tests on himself. She immediately wanted to know what the tests were for, and Clark had to do some swift thinking on his feet to explain them away. The story he came up with was that they were just part of the continuing series of tests Dr Klein was running to try to find some way of protecting Clark from kryptonite. This appeared to placate her, although he then had to make sure Dr Klein knew about his white lie to Lois, which entailed another invention to explain why he didn't want Lois to know the real reason for the tests. That one wasn't so difficult; he just pleaded privacy. The whole business of keeping the truth from Lois was getting out of hand though, and he was beginning to think that it might be easier to come clean.
Things finally came to a head during a 'patching things up' dinner they had arranged for Lois' parents. Somehow everyone ended up in the kitchen while he was putting the finishing touches to the meal, Sam and Ellen throwing mild barbs at each other while Lois tried to mediate. Actually, most of the barbs were coming from Ellen's direction while Sam fought to dampen down his natural inclination to give as good as he got. As this was going on at one end of the kitchen, Clark found himself feeling increasingly queasy over the white sauce he was stirring. It seemed the louder the argument got, the sicker he felt. Finally, it got so bad that he had to escape or risk an embarrassing scene, so after making sure everything was turned off, he announced to no-one in particular, "Just going to pick something up from upstairs," and made his exit. That had to be one of his worst excuses ever, he thought inconsequentially as he walked as fast as he could up the stairs.
He only just reached the bathroom in time.
Afterwards, he moved shakily over to the wash-hand basin and rinsed his mouth out with water. He had to sit on the edge of the bath while he sipped from a glass, he felt so wobbly. Looking over at the mirror, he saw how pale he had become, and knew that this time he wasn't going to be able to hide the facts from Lois. He may as well come straight out with it, rather than wait for an opportune moment. Although how he was going to get her away from Sam and Ellen without the couple detecting that something was wrong was beyond him. He drew in a shaky breath.
"OK, Kent, you can do this," he told himself out loud.
He stood up on legs that felt like jelly, pulled himself as upright as he could, opened the bathroom door and walked straight into Sam.
"Oh, sorry, Clark, I didn't realise you were in there."
"That's OK, Sam. It's all yours now."
He moved to go around his father-in-law, but Sam stopped him with a hand.
"Are you all right, son? You look a little pale."
Except that he wasn't. His legs were giving way, and he felt himself falling forward. Sam caught him in time to control his descent to the floor, where he lay with his head spinning and his stomach churning.
He felt Sam's hands go up to his collar to loosen his tie and undo the top buttons, and tried to stop him, but there was no strength in his hands.
"Don't worry, I just want to make you more comfortable," reassured Sam, holding Clark's hands gently in his own.
No! thought Clark, and tried to bat Sam away again, but it was too late. A sudden stillness came over his father-in-law as he stared at Clark's chest.
He felt a few more buttons being undone.
"Why are you wearing…"
He looked up and met his father-in-law's eyes. A hundred different explanations flashed through his head, but he didn't have the energy. Instead, he simply said, "I'm Superman."
Jonathan and Martha arrived later for the night nursing shift. Earlier during the crisis, they had tried to sleep through the day at Hyperion Avenue, but found themselves unable to relax sufficiently whilst in the same house as their sick son, so instead they were staying at a nearby hotel. Night shifts were usually easier than day shifts, as Clark generally managed to sleep through until morning, once his headache had eased.
Lois kissed her husband on the forehead, and climbed reluctantly upstairs to bed. Clark slept downstairs these days on a temporary bed they had arranged for him, and his parents would help him get ready for the night. She hated leaving him, but she knew she had to get some rest herself so that she had enough energy to care for him during the day.
Lying alone in their bed, she continued her review of the events that had led them to this sad point in their lives. She should have pressed Clark harder when she found out that Dr Klein had been conducting tests on Superman. Maybe if she had, things would have turned out different, or at the very least, Dr Klein would have progressed further in his quest to find the cause of Clark's illness than he currently had. She would have insisted that Dr Klein run more and more tests, whereas as far as she could work out, Clark had accepted the scientist's denial that anything was seriously amiss after the very first batch of tests. As it was, she had let Clark fob her off with stories of kryptonite cures. She had probably been too engrossed in the story she was working on to pick up on the subtle clues that Clark was hiding something from her. Well, that had to change — she was going to find a way to make more time for her husband, even if it meant cutting back on work at the Planet. She would never forgive herself if her pursuit of the ultimate story meant she didn't notice when her husband needed her help.
Before Sam had time to respond to Clark's claim, Lois called up from downstairs.
"Come on, you two! Dinner's getting cold."
Sam got up, and Clark heard him reply,
"Lois, I think you'd better come up here."
And suddenly she was beside him on the floor.
"Clark, what is it? What's wrong?"
I wish I could tell you, he thought. I wish I knew myself.
"I-I'm sorry, Lois. I-I don't feel very well."
Understatement of the year, Kent, you feel like hell. Don't frighten her by telling her how bad you really feel, though.
"Sam, why is he wearing that Superman costume?"
Oh no, that was Ellen.
"I don't know, Ellen. Right now, I don't think it matters, do you? Why don't you fetch my medical bag from the car while Lois and I help Clark into bed?"
"Sam, I didn't know you still carried it around with you. I thought you left all that behind you when you moved into the more lucrative field of quackery."
"Mother, please! Clark is sick. Can't you even stop when your own son-in-law is lying ill in front of you?"
There was a brief pause, and then Lois and Sam were either side of him, helping him sit up. It didn't feel good, and it felt a lot worse when he clambered into a standing position. Spots danced in front of his eyes.
"Please, I can't…" he protested, clinging onto Sam with as much strength as he could muster.
"It's just a couple of steps to the bedroom. It's all right, we've got you. Lois, you come the other side of Clark and put your arm around his waist…that's it."
It was with great relief that he lay back on the bed and rested his head on the pillows. He still felt nauseous, but at least when he was lying down the dizziness eased off.
"Now Clark, why don't you tell me what happened?" Sam sat on the bed beside him and laid a hand on his forehead.
"It started in the kitchen when you three were…talking. I began to feel sick, really sick, so I came upstairs to the bathroom as fast as I could, and then I-I was."
"You were…" Sam prompted.
Clark didn't understand why, but he was embarrassed by his illness. He turned his face away.
"Oh Clark." He felt her clasp his hand in both of hers.
Just then, Ellen returned with Sam's medical bag, and Sam persuaded both women to leave them while he completed his examination. Clark was grateful for Sam's sensitivity; somehow he seemed to sense how difficult it was for Clark to talk about his problems. After collecting a few more medical facts, Sam returned to the question at the top of his mind.
"Perhaps you'd like to tell me why you're really wearing that costume?"
Clark sighed. Why was it that he spent his whole life trying to hide his dual identity from everyone, and then when he finally told someone the truth, they didn't believe him?
"It's all right, you can tell me. I've seen and heard most things by now," encouraged Sam.
"Sam, I already told you why. I'm Superman."
Sam patted his shoulder.
"OK, you don't want to tell me. That's fine, we'll talk about it when you're feeling better. Right now, though, I really think you ought to take it off — it looks terribly tight."
"I-I guess so."
"Do you want me to help you?"
"Ah, no thanks, I'll manage."
"All right. You try and get some rest now, and I'll pop around tomorrow morning to see how you're feeling after a good night's sleep."
That first night, after her father had come back downstairs from examining Clark, he had confessed to her that he was very concerned about Clark. He had explained that her husband's vital signs were quite abnormal, and that if they hadn't settled down by the next morning, he would recommend that Clark be hospitalised. She had suspected that the reason Clark's vital signs appeared abnormal was that he was Kryptonian, but she had been in a quandary as to whether to explain this to her father, or whether to invent another reason. If she told the truth, she would be breaking Clark's confidence, but if she invented a lie, it would have to be plausible enough to explain away the costume, as well as deal with the inevitable discrepancies in Clark's vital signs the next day when her father came around to check him out again. After searching her conscience, she had decided on balance that she would tell her father the truth — she would have to apologise to Clark later, and hope he would understand. The irony was that her father refused to believe the truth; his response was,
"Lois, it's all right. What you do in the privacy of your own home is your own business."
God save us from liberal-minded parents, she had thought at the time, what on earth does he think we do? And what do I do now, go along with his fantasy, insist on the truth, or find another explanation? Her mother was equally disbelieving, although her comments revealed a different slant on things:
"Don't be ridiculous, Lois. Clark couldn't possibly be Superman, he's too…too…nice."
The last word was pronounced with a hint of disdain, as though niceness was not a quality to be proud of. She managed to rub salt in the wound by adding,
"Of course, wearing that costume is more than a little odd — Lois, are you positive you know everything there is to know about Clark?"
Lois reflected on how her mother was one of the few people who could render her completely speechless. She had given up at that point, leaving the battle for another day when she was calmer. In the end, the problem solved itself, or rather, Clark solved the problem for her.
He awoke late the next day, but felt much better. He could hear sounds from downstairs which meant that Lois was in the kitchen fixing breakfast, so he got out of bed and started to get ready for the day ahead. He was fairly sure that Lois would insist that they visit Dr Klein, so he donned the suit in preparation. Just as he was pulling on a shirt on top of the suit, his superhearing detected a desperate cry for help from the driver of a commuter train, which was hurtling out of control, its braking system having failed completely. He hesitated for a split second — should he go? Logic dictated that the only reason for not going was if he couldn't make the save, and he was sure he could, so he had to go. Lois would probably kill him when she found out, but when it came to saving lives, that was a secondary issue.
The railway controllers had managed to redirect the train into a dead-end siding, but it was still running at full speed towards the stops. He landed on the tracks and braced himself for the impact as he had done on several other occasions. The air rushing in front of the train hit him first, followed by the locomotive itself, pushing him backwards along the tracks at breakneck speed. His plan was to stop it gradually, so as to avoid any injury to the passengers or driver. There certainly wasn't any danger of stopping it too quickly — this was going to be harder than he thought. He exerted more and more force, until he was at full stretch. Glancing behind him he could see the stops getting closer and closer…it was going to be a near-run thing. He turned back and gave it one final effort, and much to his relief, the train stopped just inches from the barrier. He leaned his forehead against the cold steel of the train to catch his breath.
"Superman, are you all right?"
He looked up to see the driver poking his head out the window, concern on his face.
"I'm just fine, thank you. Are you all right?"
"Shaken, but otherwise fine. Thank you for saving us all."
He smiled and nodded his acknowledgement before taking off into the air again to fly home.
His landing in the backyard of Hyperion Avenue was somewhat clumsy, due to the fact that he lost control on the way down and nearly crashed into the table they kept there. Steadying himself on a chair, he stepped cautiously through the patio doors into the living room.
"Where have you been?! Have you any idea how worried we've been? What do you think you're doing, rushing out to save the world when you're hardly fit to stand upright by yourself?"
"Clark, did you stop to think for one second how I would feel, knowing you were out God-knows-where and not able to take care of yourself?"
In the background, he was vaguely aware of Sam staring open-mouthed at him, but mostly he was aware of an all-too familiar feeling beginning to creep over him.
"Anything could have happened! And how did you think we would find you, if you had collapsed again? It's not as though you've got a homing beacon attached to your cape, although that might not be such bad idea, considering how difficult you are to track down sometimes."
But he couldn't stop her — she was still in full rant mode.
"Daddy came over specially to see you, and all you can do is run out on some boy-scout errand to save a cat from a tree or something. Don't you think that's a tiny bit rude?"
It was too late for explanations. He supersped up to the bathroom, slammed the door shut and fell to his knees in front of the toilet. He hadn't eaten anything since yesterday, but his body still demanded the same reaction, which left him heaving dryly.
In the midst of his misery, the door opened and someone knelt beside him and laid a gentle arm across his shoulders. When the attack was over, he rocked back on his heels and sat on the carpet trying to gather himself together. The owner of the arm stood up, then he heard running water, and a damp flannel was held to his forehead. It felt good. A glass of water came next.
"Sips only, mind," instructed Sam.
He used the first couple of mouthfuls to wash his mouth out, and then complied with his father-in-law's instructions. He looked over to where Sam was now perched on the side of the bath.
"Thanks," he said.
"Don't mention it."
Sam eyed him in wonderment.
"You really are Superman, aren't you?"
"Yes, I really am."
"Not so super right now, though," he said ruefully.
"No…Do you have any idea what's causing this?"
Clark shook his head. "I wish I did."
"Do you know anyone who could help you? Anyone who understands your…unique physiology?"
"Dr Klein at Star Labs would be my first choice, although he's not really a medical doctor."
"Well, I can probably help you there. Come to think of it, there was that time at Christmas…"
"Yes, I can't thank you enough for helping me then."
"If only I'd known…now I know why Lois was so upset."
"It was terrible for her, having to pretend all the time that she wasn't in love with me."
"My god, yes…"
"I'm sorry we had to deceive you. It's my fault — I'm always terrified that if people learn my secret, especially people near to me, then they'll become targets."
"I can see your point. Although you might have a little more difficulty with Ellen — but that's a subject for another time. Right now, we need to get you to Star Labs."
That morning had been the start of the real nightmare. When Clark had bolted away from her while she was in mid-harangue, she knew that things were very serious. She had rushed upstairs with her father to the bathroom, to find the door closed and the unmistakable sounds of someone being ill behind it. She had started to push inside, but her father had stopped her.
"I think he'd prefer it was me," he said.
"But I'm his wife!"
"I think he's embarrassed — why do you think he closed the door? And he's probably trying to protect you…he doesn't want to scare you."
So instead, she had to content herself with retreating to their bedroom, where she started to look out some comfortable street clothes for Clark to wear to Star Labs. She had been determined to take him there just as soon as she could, sickness or no sickness. As she was laying things out on the bed, she had realised that once again, she had let her self-concern get the better of her when Clark had returned from his rescue. Instead of asking him how he had managed, whether he had been successful, or if he felt all right, she had shouted at him for not considering her feelings first. How had she become so selfish? Is this what happened when you got married — you started taking your partner for granted? She had renewed her vow not to let this happen to their marriage.
In the event, Clark had rejected the clothes she chose in favour of a long overcoat and the usual pair of glasses. He hadn't the energy to do more, he had explained. They had bundled him downstairs and into the car, where he had sat in the back propped up against her father, while she drove.
Dr Klein ran another battery of tests along with a few extra ones suggested by her father, and then it was back home and off with the suit for Clark. Dr Klein had recommended that Clark take in as much sun as possible, in order to supplement any energy loss suffered by his illness, so they set up the lounger for him in the backyard, and thus began their long journey into night.
His Story (present time)
He lay on his back in the darkness, trying to achieve sleep despite the sick headache pounding through his head. His mother sat beside his bed holding his hand in hers, playing small soothing patterns over the back of his hand with her thumb. His father had settled down at the other end of the room, sitting in the pool of a single light while he read a book. Few words had been exchanged between him and his parents; they didn't seem to need any: communication was largely through gesture and action, and often more was understood by what was not said than by what was.
Clark hated being sick. He hated the feeling of helplessness, of having to depend so much on others. He hated the loss of privacy, so that even basic needs became public events. Most of all, he hated the effect it had on others; the way that everyone around him had to adjust their lives to look after him. He was used to being the carer, the one who looked out for others less able than himself, and he didn't like having the tables turned on him. As his head began to clear, he realised that perhaps there was a lesson to be learnt there. Maybe other people didn't like being the helpless ones while he flew in to save the day. This was something he would have to remember, he thought, as sleep finally opened its arms to welcome him once again.
She came downstairs the next morning to find Clark already installed on the lounger outside, doing his best to work through a bowl of breakfast cereal.
"Morning, farmboy," she said fondly as she tousled his hair with her hand. "How was your night?"
"Pretty good," answered Martha for him, coming out onto the patio carrying a tray. "I thought we'd all eat al fresco today, it's such a lovely sunny day."
"Only pretty good?" Lois teased him.
"What do you expect, I'm sick," he tossed back.
That was something of an admission from him, she thought. He never would have said that a week ago. Is this good or bad?
"Someone say they're sick here?" asked Jonathan, joining them outside.
"Yes, Clark says he is, but personally I think he's just playing for sympathy," she replied.
"Well that's a shame, because I'm fresh out of sympathy today. Got bagels though." He held up the plate triumphantly before placing it on the table.
"Coffee, Lois?" asked Martha.
There was a crash as Clark's cereal bowl dropped to the ground.
"Mom," he said tightly.
His mother grabbed the other bowl and handed it to him. Jonathan pulled Lois indoors, saying,
"Let's give him a little privacy."
Lois paced up and down fretfully, waiting for Martha to give the 'all clear'. She hated this part, having to leave him when he was at his worst, but at the same time, she knew Jonathan was right. Clark needed as much privacy as they could give him. He got so little because of his illness, and they all knew how much he hated this — not that he ever complained. Clark wasn't a complainer.
Martha came inside carrying the bowl with a cloth laid over it.
"Go talk to him." She laid a hand on Lois' arm. "Be careful though, he's a little fragile."
Lois and Jonathan returned to the patio just as Clark was wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. He straightened up when he sensed their presence and glanced up at them.
"S-Sorry about that."
"That's OK. What was that you were saying about a good night?" replied Lois.
"Yes, I slept…I slept pretty well."
Lois could tell he'd been crying, but was doing his best to regain his composure. The last thing he needed was gushing sympathy.
"Well enough to blot out Jonathan's snoring?"
"I don't snore!"
"That's not what Martha told me. She says she has to roll you over on your side to shut you up."
"Just when did you have this intimate conversation about my sleeping habits, Lois?"
"Oh, it was just one of those girl-talks. You wouldn't understand."
Jonathan laughed. "If you say so, Lois."
"What about Kryptonians, Clark? Do they snore?"
"You'd have to tell me, honey."
"Well, on my not very representative sample of one, I'd say they don't. Yet. I hope."
"You just let me know if things change, sweetheart."
"You can count on it!"
The phone started ringing inside, interrupting the banter, and Lois heard Martha pick it up and conduct a brief, fairly mono-syllabic conversation. She was wondering who would be calling them this early in the day, when Martha burst onto the patio and started unceremoniously to pull Clark out of the lounger.
"Clark, that was Sam. He said we have to get you out of the sun right now!"
He was still feeling woozy and shaky after his recent attack, and didn't enjoy his mother yanking him by the arm to force him out of the lounger. What she had just announced sounded nuts to him so he stayed put, answering with a vague,
"Come on Jonathan, help me here. Yes, Clark, he said the sun is what's making you sick."
"Mom, that's crazy. The sun gives me my powers, it can't hurt me."
"Clark, Daddy's usually right about these things. Let's get you inside."
Clark stared at her for a second and then sighed in acquiescence.
"OK, but can we slow things down? A few more minutes isn't going to kill me."
He made them give him time to stand up slowly and shuffle over to the patio doors and then over onto one of the sofas inside.
"Mom, tell me exactly what he said."
"Well, he didn't say much more. He's coming over to explain it to us, he said."
He closed his eyes. He really felt horrible today — weak, shaky, nauseous, and even the headache seemed to be starting up sooner than usual. A hand touched his shoulder and he opened his eyes to find Lois leaning over him.
"I think we'd better put you back to bed, don't you think?"
He shook his head carefully. He didn't want to move again so soon.
"I only just sat down here."
"Clark, you're hardly managing to stay upright. You'd be more comfortable in bed."
Couldn't she understand him? He felt wretched, his head was spinning and his stomach was churning. He didn't want to move an inch.
"I'm fine here."
"Well, at least lie down."
He closed his eyes again, tuning her out as another wave of nausea washed over him. For a second he thought he would need to make another grab for the bowl, but gradually, the feeling passed and equilibrium restored itself again. This was definitely the worst he'd felt since this all began, he thought as he shifted shakily into a lying position on the sofa. He felt someone cover him with a blanket and he pulled it tightly around himself, trying to draw himself into a protective cocoon of warmth and darkness.
She watched as her husband drew in on himself, visibly sicker than he had been since his illness first showed itself. Jonathan and Martha got up and stood either side of her, both of them laying an arm across her shoulders. She put her arms around their waists to complete the bond, and the three of them gazed at Clark on the sofa.
"I'm sure your father's right," said Jonathan.
"Yes, he usually is about medical things. It's families he's not so hot on," agreed Lois.
"He made Clark better last time. I'm sure he'll do it again," added Martha.
Lois wasn't sure who was trying to convince who. Perhaps they were all trying to convince each other. Whatever was going on, she knew they had reached a critical point in this journey they'd been set upon.
Someone was jabbing something into his arm.
"Ow," he complained half-heartedly.
"Oh, sorry, Clark! I thought you were still asleep."
His eyes shot open. That had been Ellen's voice. He turned his head in the direction the sound had come from, to find his mother-in-law sitting on their bed — their bed? — inserting a syringe into the back of his hand. He turned away quickly — he didn't like watching that type of procedure — to see that the bedroom was a hive of activity. His mother was pulling the curtains closed, whilst Sam was fiddling with some sort of coat-stand contraption and Lois was coming in through the door carrying a bowl.
"What-what's happening?" he asked, feeling decidedly as though he'd lost a lot of the plot.
"Well, I'm setting you up for an intravenous line, Sam over there is trying, in his usual ham-fisted way, to get the stand for the drip ready, and Martha is making sure you don't get any direct sunlight."
"Oh…how did I get here?"
"We carried you," explained Lois. "And believe me, you might not have been eating much these past few days, but you're still darn heavy. Very dense, those Kryptonian atoms of yours."
His eyes shot back to Ellen in panic.
"Yes, Clark, I know. And thank god I do. That suit had me very worried — I thought you were harbouring some sort of secret fetish. Now at least I know that all you do is lift satellites into orbit and catch bullets in your hands. A mother can cope with that. You'll see what I mean when you have children of your own, Clark." She paused in her babble and leaned a little closer to him. "You *do*…I mean, you have all the, the…equipment for…you're the same as…you *will* be having children, won't you?"
Not now, Ellen, he thought. Lois saved him.
"Mother, leave him alone. I'll tell you all about it later. Is that ready?"
"All ready to be plugged in, if Sam has finished fiddling with the stand."
The drip was set up, and then Lois shooed everyone out of the room.
"Are you going to tell me what's going on?" asked Clark petulantly.
"It's pretty much as mother said. Daddy came back from Star Labs and explained what he and Dr Klein had found out-"
"You're suffering from a kind of radiation sickness — it seems that exposure to a yellow sun isn't all good for you after all."
As soon as she had said 'radiation sickness' his heart had leapt in his chest, and now he was feeling very scared. Lois put a hand on his shoulder.
"Don't be scared, honey. Daddy says you'll get better, you just need to stay out of the sun for a while."
"Lois, it still sounds crazy to me. How can the sun be making me sick, when it's the very thing which gives me my powers?"
"I know it sounds crazy, but you can't argue with the facts. Dr Klein compared the blood samples Daddy's been taking from you daily with data he collected from you about a year ago, and the white blood cell counts gradually get further and further away your norm. Although of course, he doesn't actually know what your norm really is now, since he doesn't have any data from far enough back."
Clark was confused. He didn't know what to think. Was it good news that they knew what was wrong with him, or was it bad news that it was something which could fundamentally affect the way he led his life?
"But-but that means I can't go outside. Ever! Lois, what do I do?"
"You keep calm, that's what you do. Dr Klein is working on a solution to that right now, so you just concentrate on getting well again, getting your strength back-"
"Not super-strength," he commented morosely.
"No, that will have to wait. You're going to have to learn to be very patient. Dr Klein wants you to stay in bed for at least 3 days while you recover, and then he thinks you'll have to stay inside the house out of the sun for 2 weeks or more after that.
He fingered the tube running down into his hand.
"What's this for?"
"The IV is to help build you up with essential nutrients, nothing more. You've become very run-down this past week, so they want to make sure you get a good start now that they've found the reason for your illness. A kick-start, Daddy called it."
He considered this information carefully. It sounded as though Dr Klein had it all worked out, but he was still frightened about his long-term prospects. What if Dr Klein and Sam didn't find a cure for his sickness — would he have to move around in a specially-sealed suit, like he'd seen in a TV show once? Or maybe he wouldn't ever recover completely, and he'd always have to receive IV treatment. How would Lois cope? She'd married a superhero, not a cripple.
"Hey Clark! Not so serious! They *will* find a cure, you know. Has Dr Klein ever let you down before?"
Later in the day, as Lois tried to escape for a few minutes' solitude in the kitchen on the pretext of making coffee for them all, her mother leapt up to follow her.
"Really, mother, I can manage."
"Nonsense, Lois, you know how inept you are in the kitchen."
"I think I can manage coffee."
"I'll help you carry the cups."
Lois took a deep breath and strode into the kitchen, her mother following in her wake. Once inside the kitchen, she rounded on her mother.
"What is it?" she demanded.
"Don't be like that, honey. I just wanted a quiet word with you, without…" she indicated the room outside with her head and lowered her voice, "without *them*."
"You know," her voice dropped again, "*them*."
"You mean, Clark's parents?"
"And why would that be?"
"Well, it's delicate…I wouldn't want to offend them."
"Spit it out, mother, what's bothering you?"
"Lois, you can be so…direct at times. All right, if you want to be direct…your father and I were wondering…well concerned actually…he *is* an alien after all," she finished, as if that explained everything.
Lois was exasperated. She had an inkling that she knew what her mother was getting at, but she wasn't going to help her. If it was what she thought it was, then she was annoyed at her parents' meddling in her private affairs. She glared at her mother.
"Lois, your father and I…we…I hope you use protection." It came out in a rush.
"Protection. What for?"
"Lois, you know exactly what I mean. Don't act the innocent with me."
"Mother, I don't think it's any of your damn business what we do."
"As long as you're my daughter, which you are, then I think it is my business. I-We are concerned for your health, and he's an alien, so who knows what could happen. We just want to be sure you're all right."
"Well, I'm fine, thank you. And for your information, we don't use protection, and haven't ever since we've been trying for a baby. I still seem to be in the land of the living, so you don't need to worry."
"Oh, honey, do you think that's wise? A baby I mean. It's such a big step."
"Mother, you were the one who just asked Clark if he…'had the equipment', I think you put it."
"I know, but that was before I'd thought about it properly. There could be all sorts of medical complications."
"Well, it's all academic now, because since you obviously want all the gory details, you may as well know that we've been told by Dr Klein that it's not going to happen anyway. Humans and Kryptonians aren't compatible for reproduction. Clark and I still try, because you never know, scientists aren't always right, but it's been a long time now, and now that he's so sick, maybe it really will never happen. We even tried for adoption, but we got rejected because my job is too dangerous. So we're a wonderful family of two, and it looks like it's going to stay that way, unless of course I lose Clark as well."
She could feel tears running down her face, but she didn't care. Her mother had asked for the truth, and she had given it to her, lock, stock and barrel. She stared at her mother in what she hoped was a defiant manner.
"Are you happy now? Now you know everything, absolutely everything."
"Lois, I'm sorry. I didn't know."
"No, you didn't. So maybe you'll think twice next time you want to blunder into someone's private life."
"Honey, I'm glad I know everything. As much as you might not believe it, I really do have your best interests at heart, and now I know the problems you and Clark face, I can help you and support you like a mother should. Lord knows, it's not often I get the chance to do just that with you — you never let me into your life."
"You don't exactly make it easy, you know."
"Maybe not, and maybe I should try harder…I'll try not to be too judgmental about the way you lead your life, but at the same time, you have to understand that I — we — want the best for our daughter."
"Well, I have that. His name's Clark Kent."
"And I'm glad for you. Truly. We both are."
"Even though he's an alien?"
"Even if he wears his underwear on top of his tights."
Lois' mouth turned up slightly at one side.
"His mother made it for him."
"Martha? Well, dear, she certainly didn't leave much to the imagination!"
"Just don't say anything to her about it. Or him. He's very sensitive on that issue."
"I'll bet he is!"
Three days later, he was well enough to be bored. Sam had just left after performing his daily examination, complete with the usual unwelcome blood sample, and Clark was now rehearsing in his mind all the reasons why he could finally get out of bed. The door burst open, and Lois sailed in. He began his opening gambit.
"It's been three days-"
"-and it's time you got out of that bed." She began closing off the IV.
"It's what you want, isn't it?"
"Yes, I guess, but-"
"Come on, they're waiting for us downstairs."
He sat up carefully, swung his legs around and stood up slowly.
"All right?" She gazed at him assessingly.
"Mmmm." In truth, he felt a little dizzy, but it wasn't too bad. She helped him on with his dressing gown, and then they proceeded downstairs. The stairs were a bit of a challenge, but they made it eventually. He was concentrating so much on the task in hand that he didn't notice the small crowd of spectators at the bottom until there was a small cheer and clapping hands. He looked up to find his parents and Lois with wide smiles on their faces.
"One small step for man, one giant leap for a superman," he commented dryly.
There was a collective groan.
"He must be feeling better if he can make terrible jokes like that," said Ellen.
She was furious. Absolutely, utterly furious. The headline screamed up at her from the kitchen table where her father had left the paper:
'SUPERMAN DESERTS US AGAIN!!!'
Why was it that the media always took the worst possible slant on anything? At least, certain types of media — she automatically excluded newspapers of the Daily Planet's calibre. This was tabloid journalism of the worst sort. The article hammered on and on about Superman's previous exit to New Krypton, the resulting invasion by Lord Nor, and all the pain and suffering which resulted thereafter. It implied that the public should be on their guard, now that Superman had apparently disappeared once more.
She was angry with the paper, but she was even angrier with herself. She'd been so wrapped up in her anxiety for Clark that she hadn't bothered to consider the consequences of his prolonged absence from the skies of Metropolis. She could have headed off this type of speculation if she'd been thinking more clearly, but instead Clark now had to contend with possible renewed opposition to his presence on Earth as well as his illness.
Her mother pushed through the kitchen door with a grim look on her face and an armful of newspapers.
"It doesn't get any better, honey." She laid down the papers on the table. A myriad of hostile headlines assailed Lois:
'Where Was Superman When We Needed Him?'
'Superman Planning Kryptonian Invasion'
'Superman Living It Up On Mars'
"That one gets the prize for artistic merit, I guess," she said, pointing to the picture on the last one, which depicted Superman sitting in a deckchair sipping a cocktail (complete with mini-umbrella, of course) whilst gazing over a wide expanse of barren red earth.
"Why this sudden outbreak of Superman gossip?" asked her mother.
"God knows. Probably somebody somewhere started a rumour, and it just snowballed. These rags aren't well-known for their rigorous research work. They just get hold of a juicy story and embellish it. Where's Clark?"
"Upstairs, I think."
"He mustn't see these. Can you put them straight in the trash?"
"Sure, but you'll have to make sure he doesn't catch it on the radio or TV either — it's sure to be all over there too."
"Well, the TV will just have to develop a sudden fault, and I'll hide the radio. God knows what he'd do if he heard about this now, and whatever it was, he's definitely not strong enough yet."
They heard the telephone ringing, and Clark's voice calling,
"I'll get it!"
Lois hurried through to the living room just as Clark was picking up the receiver.
She watched him listening as his expression passed from mildly enquiring to puzzlement, then incredulity, and finally something approaching anger.
"No, I don't!" he exclaimed and slammed the phone down. He stared at Lois.
"What?" she asked.
"That was LNN. They wanted to know if I had any comment regarding Superman's involvement in the next Kryptonian invasion."
Lois felt her heart sink. Now he knew, unless she could somehow repair the damage. She was just beginning to formulate a plan when her mother interrupted her thoughts.
"Who was that on the phone, Clark?"
Lois opened her mouth to speak, but Clark got there first.
"LNN. Some crazy question about Superman and Kryptonian invasions."
"I was right. It's on TV-"
"It's probably an isolated-"
Lois and her mother started simultaneously, looked at each other and finished lamely,
Clark looked from Lois to her mother.
"As well as what?"
"Mother…" Lois began threateningly, trying to head her mother off before she did any more damage.
"Lois, I can't lie." Lois snorted derisively. Her mother glared back with pursed lips. "Not to Clark, anyway. It's all over the newspapers. We just finished putting them in the trash. They're all asking where Superman is, and worse."
"How much worse?"
"Well, you know the kind of thing, 'Superman is-"
"Mother!" Lois interrupted. She turned to Clark. "It doesn't matter what they're saying, it's all hearsay and rumours. We'll just ignore it."
"Yes, and if you need any help ignoring it, just ask me. I spent years ignoring things I didn't want to know about, married to Sam. Talking of whom, I said I'd meet him for lunch, so I'd better get going. Lois, you'll call me if you need me?"
Lois nodded half-heartedly. Since Clark's parents had returned home for a much needed rest, her mother had taken it upon herself to lend support and assistance to the beleaguered couple. Bearing in mind their recent conversation in the kitchen, Lois was trying hard to give her the chance she had asked for to exercise her latent mothering skills, but it was sometimes a trial.
He felt a sudden need to sit down. Sinking down onto a sofa, he sighed deeply. He was annoyed, of course, but mostly he was hurt. It seemed that the world was only too ready to turn against the alien in their midst, as soon as he failed to entertain them with super-human feats of bravery and strength. He wasn't permitted to be vulnerable, to show weakness, to garner sympathy. Not that he had created his Superman persona for these things, but it hurt that society appeared to take all and give nothing.
He felt Lois sit down beside him and put her hand up to his forehead.
"I'm fine," he said wearily, brushing her away gently.
"Clark, I'm sorry,"
What was she talking about, she hadn't written the articles. Or started the rumours.
"What do you mean?"
"I should have seen this coming. I should have written something in the Planet to make it impossible for them to spread these rumours. I mean, it's not like it hasn't happened to us before."
"Lois, I'm not sure you could have stopped this even if you'd written a hundred articles in the Daily Planet. Besides, you were distracted. By me."
"Well, I shouldn't have been. Boy, I just don't ever seem to get this right."
She'd lost him again — get what right?
"Before, I wasn't paying enough attention to you when I should have noticed earlier that you were sick, and then, I pay so much attention to you that I forget to take care of your future. See, I knew something was wrong that first time, when you disappeared at Perry's staff meeting, but I was too wrapped up in writing my story to do anything about it."
"If this is confession time, then I have to tell you, that wasn't the first time. The first time I felt sick was at that barbeque, but I didn't want to worry you, so I hid it from you. So I owe you an apology — I'm sorry."
"Hmmm…and so you should be. We share everything in this marriage, the good and the bad. I'm going to make you understand that, even if it means making you write it out a thousand times every day. *Normal* speed."
"Little Miss Chumpy."
He pulled her close to him and kissed the top of her head. She smelled so good — even without the benefit of supersenses, he could smell the coconut shampoo she'd used that morning. He revelled again in his good fortune at being married to this wonderful woman, and hoped she would understand what he had to tell her next.
"Lois, we can't ignore this."
She shifted so she could look up at him.
"Yes we can."
He fondled her hand with his own.
"If we ignore it, it will only gather its own momentum until every newspaper and TV station is talking about it. And if that happens, then the people lose out. Just imagine what those people who suffered when Lord Nor invaded must be thinking now. They must be terrified. I owe it to them to sort this out."
"Granted, they must be miserable. But what do you think you can do?"
He held her tighter in a vain attempt to protect her from what he was going to propose.
"I have to tell them the truth."
She felt herself go cold all over. They had reached this point before in their lives, and each time, she had felt as though she were teetering on the brink of a chasm. She could see their homelife shattering in pieces, their jobs disappearing, and worst of all, she feared that their marriage might not weather the storm. He was surely over-reacting?
"Why? They don't need to know who you are, just that you won't invade their homes."
"I didn't mean that truth. I meant the real reason for my absence. That I've been sick."
She felt her temper flare in relief.
"Then why didn't you say so. Clark, you gave me such a fright! Why can't you say what you mean? For a reporter, you can sometimes be a real poor communicator."
"Besides, I'm not sure that even that's a good idea. The moment you let the world know you can be sick, you're vulnerable. And what do you think the police would have to say — I bet certain types of criminal mind would see it as an open invitation."
"I don't have to tell them the cause of my illness, and I can make sure it's obvious that I'll be back on the streets soon."
Lois hesitated. She had told him that Dr Klein was working on a solution to his problem, but in truth, they didn't know for certain that he would be successful. Clark had obviously convinced himself that the cure was a certainty — and she knew she was partly to blame for that — so she had to tread carefully.
"Clark, you don't actually know how soon. You always say Superman can't lie, so you shouldn't really mislead either. I think that until you have something definite to tell people, you — we — will have to ride out the media storm."
Despite her care, he looked deflated and disappointed.
"But those people…I have to do something."
"You don't have a choice, Clark. Their suffering isn't of your making -" He started to interrupt her, but she overrode him, "- and before you say it, I know that's no excuse for doing nothing, but it *does* mean that you mustn't start to beat yourself up over this." She fixed him with a stern look. "You hear me, farmboy?"
He sighed heavily.
"Good. Now what I want to know is, how come LNN asked *you* about Superman and not me? I thought I was top banana in this partnership?" She smiled mischievously.
"Well excuse me, Ms Banana, but I think the key word there is partnership. Partners are equal — it's what the word means. Besides, LNN obviously realise that I'm the more knowledgeable."
"More likely you just answered the phone first."
"No, in fact, I'm even so well-known to them that they didn't even have to check who I was before they started interviewing me."
"Being well-known to LNN is not necessarily a good thing, Clark. That corrupt senator was well-known to LNN."
"He had excellent taste in ties, though, don't you think?"
"As good as yours, you mean?"
"Impossible!" She put her hand up to her face in mock horror.
He was trying very hard, but it wasn't always very easy. Mainly, he was trying *not* to do things: not to be bored while cooped up inside their house, not to be bad-tempered because he was bored, not to feel guilty about the people he knew were suffering, not to take the attacks on Superman in the media too personally, and not to snap at Sam when he paid his daily visit to draw blood and deliver negative news about their quest for a cure. When it was all stacked up together, Clark thought it was really quite a lot to be trying not to do. Especially when the things he was trying *to* do even had a negative side. His only positive contribution was to concentrate on getting better. So he ate healthily (and missed his Twinkies), hid from the sunshine (and felt like a mountain troll), and exercised (and got frustrated when he couldn't do as much as he thought he should be able to). It was all very frustrating for a man used to action and adventure.
So he was mightily relieved when the phone call finally came.
"Clark, you'd better get into the Suit. We've got the answer, and Dr Klein's so pleased with himself, he's insisting on coming around to tell you personally." Sam's voice sounded elated and proud.
Dr Klein virtually bounced through their front door, Sam following at a more sedate pace behind him.
"Superman! How are you?"
"Better since I heard the good news. Please, have a seat."
They settled themselves on the sofas, Dr Klein perching on the edge of his seat in his excitement."
"First let me say how sorry I am that it took me so long to realise the cause of your illness. If it hadn't been for Sam here, I'm not sure when I would have gotten onto the right track."
"I'm sure you would have gotten there, Dr Klein. You've never failed me before."
"Maybe. Anyhow, I've been working extra hard on a solution to your unique problem, and I think I have the answer now. It was really incredibly simple once I'd worked out the basic premise, and now I'm a little surprised that even that didn't come to me sooner. You see, it's quite obvious that the problem comes from an external source and that therefore, solutions based on changing internal factors were never likely to be successful. Why attempt to treat the symptom, when the correct approach-"
"Dr Klein, perhaps you could tell us the story of how you arrived at your solution sometime later? I'm sure it would make a wonderful paper for one of your scientific journals."
"You know, I hadn't thought of publishing…but you're right, I think maybe I should. Now which journal would be most appropriate-"
"Dr Klein? Could you just tell us what you came up with?"
"What? Oh, I see…to the point. Well, as I say, it was obvious — suntan cream."
Clark couldn't believe his ears. He was aware that the others were also staring open-mouthed at Dr Klein, as they tried to assimilate his apparently ludicrous assertion. Lois recovered first.
"I think you've been working too hard in that lab of yours Dr Klein. Perhaps you should take a break for a few days-"
"Lois, listen to the man. He's absolutely correct," assured Sam.
"Of course. Suntan cream. Why didn't I think of that?" Lois replied, sarcasm dripping from her voice.
"It's a little more complicated than just suntan cream. That was only my starting point. This -" he held up smallish make-up tub, "is a lot more sophisticated than suntan cream. It took me some time to come up with the correct formulation, but now I believe that daily application will be sufficient to filter out the destructive elements of the sun's rays. It's waterproof as well, so you'll still be protected after immersion under water or just a heavy downpour."
Clark took the tub from Dr Klein, opened it to find a substance which looked a lot like cold cream, and sniffed it.
"Odorless as well," he said with some relief.
"Yes, that was quite hard to achieve. Now, I expect you've got lots of questions for me, so fire away."
They bombarded the scientist with questions until they were satisfied that he hadn't gone crazy, and that his solution to Clark's problem was in fact a very elegant and simple one. He finished up by reassuring them that an occasional lapse in use would not endanger Superman, but that regular blood tests would be advisable. He also said that Superman wasn't to venture outside for at least a week, because his blood counts weren't back to normal yet, and then he would have to take things slowly after that for another week. Clark found that parting shot quite deflating, although at least now there was an end in sight.
Now that Clark had definite proof that he could return to a normal life again, she knew it would only be a short time before he returned to the subject of the media. Sure enough, the very next day, he announced his intentions to hold a press briefing in their living room. She was doubtful as to the wisdom of this proposal — for one thing, although he was much recovered, he still wasn't at 100 per cent fitness, and a media conference would put him under immense strain. Also, she wasn't enthusiastic about letting the media into their home — it would be a mess, and it would strengthen the link between Clark and Superman. However, she could see that it meant a lot to Clark, and it would certainly give him something to occupy himself with, so she agreed.
Just before the camera-crew were due to arrive, Lois gazed at Clark assessingly.
"You know, Clark, you still look pretty pale, and the cameras will just emphasise it. I think you should consider a little make-up."
"I don't think so, Lois."
"You don't need to worry — it's all fragrance-free stuff."
"No. Superman doesn't lie. If I look pale, then that's what I am."
"Fine, but don't say I didn't warn you."
Later, when the crew had started to turn their living room upside-down, the producer sidled up to Lois.
"Uh, Ms Lane? Do you think Superman would mind if Jenny our make-up girl gave him a little touch-up? It's just, well…he looks kind of pale and the camera always picks up on that kind of thing, you know?"
"Oh, really, does it? Well, I don't know…would you like me to ask him?"
"Oh, yes, thanks."
Lois sauntered over to Clark.
"They'd like to know if you'd mind putting on some make-up. For the cameras."
"OK, so you were right. But I'm still not doing it. Superman doesn't lie."
"You know, sometimes you're like a stuck record. But all right, I'll tell them you'd rather look pale and interesting."
"Don't worry," she grinned over her shoulder as she walked back to the anxiously waiting producer.
Half an hour later, Lois was getting increasingly agitated as she watched the media circus in their living room. Clark was surrounded by a myriad of cameramen, soundmen, make-up people and miscellaneous other hangers-on, and whilst he was doing a good job of maintaining the superhero act, she could tell that the effort was taking its toll. The lights for the cameras were very bright, and it was obvious that he found their intense beams quite uncomfortable. Whenever attention was focused away from him, his posture became hunched and weary, and his face lost its thin veneer of calm capability. She decided he needed rescuing. She marched over to where Clark was sitting.
"Superman, could I have a word?"
Clark looked up at her in a daze.
"In the kitchen — remember, you said you wanted a quiet rundown with me of what you're going to say?" she added.
"Oh…yes…would you excuse us for a moment or two?"
As soon as the kitchen door closed, Clark stumbled over to the kitchen table and sat down heavily on one of the chairs. Then he crossed his arms on the table and rested his forehead on top of them. Lois crouched down beside him and the two of them were silent for a few minutes while they enjoyed the relative tranquillity of the kitchen.
"This is harder than I thought it would be," he mumbled into his arms eventually.
"Do you want me to get rid of them? You really don't have to do this if you don't feel up to it."
"I'll be all right in a few minutes."
He fell quiet again. While she was waiting, she got up and filled a glass with orange juice for him, and returned to her position on the floor beside him.
"Here, take a drink of this."
He pulled himself slowly off his arms and sat up straighter in the chair. Picking up the glass, he looked at her.
"Thanks for rescuing me in there."
"You looked like you needed it."
"Do you think they noticed?"
"I doubt it. They're all too busy playing with their toys."
"So what *am* I going to say?"
"I thought you had that all figured out."
"Well, yes, I did. I guess I'm just suffering from a little stage fright. It'll come back to me."
He closed his eyes, and was quiet for so long that Lois began to worry that he was feeling sick again.
He opened his eyes again.
"Just rehearsing." He smiled briefly. "Let's get this show on the road."
He hauled himself out of the chair and walked over to the door. Lois put a hand on his shoulder to make him pause.
"Last chance to back out?" she offered.
"I said I'd do this, so I better had."
He drew in a deep breath, pulled himself up into full Superman pose, painted the superhero look back on his face and strode out into the living room.
"Are you all ready for me now?" he asked the assembled throng. The producer stepped forward.
"Superman, if you'd sit here…"
And so he began his announcement.
…"and in conclusion, I would like to thank all the people who have helped me through this difficult time. Without their selfless acts of kindness, these past few weeks would have been almost impossible to get through. I won't name them, for they know who they are, but I thank each and every one of them from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for listening."
Lois got up and turned the TV off. Clark eyed her anxiously.
"Well, what did you think?" he asked.
She parked herself on his lap and wrapped her arms around him.
"Don't give up the day job," she answered.
"Yes, you were stiff and formal, and not a bit like your real self. You were just like that guy…what's his name? Oh, I know…Superman."
Clark tried to defend himself.
"Well, you know, Lois, I have to be-"
"Clark, I'm kidding! You were great. Pale, but great."
He decided to ignore her jibe.
"Do you think I was convincing — I mean to anyone who might have been scared about invasions?"
"I think you came across — as you always do — as very sincere. Also honest, and brave for admitting weakness. But I am a little biased. You'll have to wait for public reaction for a truer picture."
"I just hope the media don't distort public opinion."
"Well, we know we can trust the Daily Planet. As long as Perry doesn't let Ralph loose on the story, which he won't."
The doorbell rang. Lois pulled herself up from Clark's lap and answered the door. She came back a second later carrying an envelope.
"That was the little girl from two doors up. She asked if I could give this to Superman the next time I saw him."
Clark ripped open the envelope and pulled out an obviously home-made card. There was wonky glitter writing on the front, although the glue wasn't quite dry, so bits were falling off all the time. It said:
"GET WELL SOON!"
Inside, the message was "Superman we all hope you feel better real soon," and it was signed by each member of the family.
Clark felt a silly grin spreading over his face, as the dual emotions of relief and delight flooded through him.
"Looks like you've won round one family pretty easily. If everyone else reacts the same way, then the problem's fixed," suggested Lois.
And so it was. By the following day, the mailman had delivered a sackful of cards from well-wishers, and Perry rang up from the Planet to say that cards were arriving there almost by the lorry-load.
"Want to help me?" Clark winked suggestively at her.
"Simmer down, farmboy!"
He held the tub out to her.
"I'll do half and you can do half. Which would you prefer, top or bottom?"
"Clark, what's got into you?" He waggled his eyebrows at her in a poor attempt at a leer. She sighed. "OK, if it shuts you up, I'll do the top half. Just remember what we're doing this for."
She didn't know what to do with him. Today was the big day — his first walk outside since his illness started — and he was so full of bounce it was like dealing with five Jimmys all at once. Now she was engaged in the not-unpleasant task of smearing her husband's body with protective cream, and she too was beginning to have difficulty concentrating on the task in hand. She was pleased to note that the cream was virtually undetectable once it was absorbed into his skin, and it didn't leave a mark on clothes. Dr Klein must have really worked hard to make it just right for Superman. Of course, the big unknown was whether Clark would regain his powers from the sun despite the barrier of the protective cream. Dr Klein said he was fairly sure everything would be all right, but they all knew nothing was certain until he tried it for real. Clark certainly seemed to be convinced that it would work, so she was doing her best not to worry for him.
"All done," he announced.
They walked downstairs and Clark stepped gingerly outside. Lois watched anxiously from inside while he stretched in the sunshine and took a deep lungful of air. He came back inside.
"How does it feel?"
"It feels great," he said emphatically. "Fresh air, sunshine, the sounds of the city — just great! I'm going back out for some more."
"Dr Klein said one hour, no more," cautioned Lois.
"I'll savour every minute."
An hour later, he felt totally invigorated as the strength seeped back into his body. At Lois' insistence, he came back inside, but immediately sped through a series of tests on his superpowers. He finished with a quick flight upstairs and down again, did a circuit of the room, coming to land neatly in front of Lois, who clapped enthusiastically while he bowed with a flourish of his arm.
"Thank you," he said. "And for my next-" He stopped as his face took on a familiar far-away look.
"What?" asked Lois.
He strode over to the TV and turned it on.
"-Force One is out of control. I say again, we now have confirmed reports that the President's plane, Air Force One, is in grave danger as it tries to land at Metropolis Airport. Emergency services are at full alert on the scene -"
Clark turned the sound down and looked at Lois. He could see that she knew what he was going to say.
"I think I can do it."
"You've only just got your powers back," she protested half-heartedly.
"I can't *not* do it. You know that."
"I know." She hugged him briefly but with fierce intensity. "I love you. Now go."
He sped up into the air, glad that he'd decided to don the suit when he got up this morning. At the time, it had seemed a silly thing to do, but somehow it had felt right, as if it was part of the process of getting his powers back. Now he revelled in the familiar sensation of the air rushing past him, and the tug of the cape as it billowed out behind him. It gave him the extra confidence he needed to tackle what he knew was a very critical save, not only because of the extra-special person he was saving, but because it was his first public appearance since his announcement. He had to get this right.
He found the plane just as it was coming in for its final approach. The landing gear still wasn't down. He flew past the pilot's window to reassure the crew that he had arrived and did a quick pass along the passenger windows in an attempt to let everyone inside see that he was in control, before moving underneath to ease the plane's descent to the runway. Not wanting to be caught up in the inevitable media circus following his success, he rushed inside quickly, checked that the President and the rest of the passengers were all right and then feigned a call to another incident in order to escape.
She turned up the TV after he had gone, and watched anxiously as he brought the plane into land. He was no more than a red and blue dot against the bulk of the aircraft, so she couldn't tell how well he was coping with the sudden drain on his recently re-acquired powers. The plane landed without incident, and she was waiting for confirmation from the announcer that all was well inside the aircraft, when the doorbell rang.
"Not now!" she complained.
But the caller was insistent, so she backed over to the door whilst still watching the TV and opened it in between quick glances back to the set.
"Hello honey," said her father.
She waved him in with a hand, shut the door and walked back to stand in front of the TV. She really needed to know that Clark had been completely successful.
"Hello Daddy," supplied her father in place of her absent greeting.
"Shhh!" she responded.
At last, the announcer reported that all the passengers were safe, and she turned the TV off.
"Clark sure picked a big one to make a comeback with," commented her father.
"I know. I just hope he's all right." She bit her fingernail absently. "He shouldn't really have been out at all. He'd had his hour's exposure already."
"If it makes you feel any better, I'll check him over when he comes-"
There was a woosh, and then Clark himself was standing in front of them. Lois flung her arms around him.
"You did it."
"Are you OK?"
"Well, let's just say I wouldn't want to do it again just yet."
She pulled away from him to look up at his face in consternation. Clark didn't usually admit weakness unless he was feeling pretty rough. He gave her a tired smile.
"Don't worry, I'm fine. I was just trying out the new honesty pact — you know, hide nothing? So I'm exactly what I said I was, tired. No more, no less."
"OK, but I'm getting Daddy to check you over anyway."
Clark turned around to face her father.
"Sam! I'm sorry, we completely ignored you. What brings you around? Lois didn't call you, did she?"
"No, I came because I have some good news for you both."
Sam made them both sit down before continuing.
"It's mostly theory, so don't get too excited. Having said that, Dr Klein and I are pretty sure of this, otherwise I wouldn't have come around to tell you." He took a deep breath. "The fact is, we think we've solved your conception problems."
"How?" She said it at the same time as Clark.
"Exposure to the sun made Clark infertile."
"Oh." She glanced at Clark, who was looking embarrassed and confused. "But I thought Dr Klein said it was a fundamental incompatibility that stopped us having children, not infertility."
"That was before he knew that the sun might have an adverse effect on Clark. Neither of us could really make sense of the test data until we had that fact to add into the equation. Now everything is pretty clear. And given your remarkable rate of recovery, Clark, I don't think it will be too soon before you return to normal, and the two of you will be able to have children after all. Like I said, it's all theory…"
But Lois wasn't listening anymore. She had her arms around Clark again, and tears of happiness were streaming down her face.
"How long does it take?"
"It says 3 minutes on the packet."
"They lied. This is 3 hours."
"Maybe if we go away, it'll work."
Neither moved from their seat.
"I think that's blue. Bluish. Definitely blue-tinted. Wouldn't you say?"
Clark held his hand behind it.
"I don't know."
"How're the other 2 doing?"
Clark looked behind him to the counter.
"Not yet. Come on, let's go for a walk." He pulled her up and together they tromped all over the house, returning to stand in front of the kitchen door hesitantly. Lois peeked inside and then withdrew, her face dead-pan.
Clark lowered his glasses and took a look inside.
"Congratulations, Mrs Kent," he said, still looking through the door.
"Are you sure?"
"Well, one might be wrong, but when all three show the same thing, then I think it's pretty conclusive. We're-"
If you've got this far, then you get the dubious reward of being told that the title 'Heliophobia' means Fear of the Sun. I've kind of got into this thing of giving all my stories a 'Fear of' title, but I thought this time it would give too much away, so I trawled through the Net to find out if there was a phobia which would fit the bill instead (my dictionary and thesaurus having failed me completely), and Lo! there was. So there you are — aren't you soooo glad you read this bit?