By Mobile Richard <email@example.com>
Submitted September 1999
Summary: The second part of this series sees the alternate Clark back in his own world and finding he has to live up to the reputation which the other Clark has left behind. It's hard-hitting, heartwrenching, and a darned good story.
This story takes place entirely in a parallel universe and is a sequel to my earlier story, "Life in a Different World", which should be read first.
Thanks to all those who commented on Life in a Different World—1: I appreciate all your kind encouragement and constructive suggestions.
All standard disclaimers apply. All characters in this story (except those of my own creation) are the property of DC Comics, Warner Bros and December 3rd Productions Ltd; no infringement of any property rights are intended by their use. Please do not redistribute or copy this story without my permission.
Comments, complaints, and constructive criticisms are welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org
"Help! Help! Somebody, please help!"
The man standing beside the window shifted his weight and ran a hand uneasily through his hair, but gave no other sign that he had heard the plea. Indeed, if he hadn't been gifted with extra-sensitive hearing, he would not have been able to hear it at all, for the apartment was far from the source of the cry.
Determined to ignore the plea, the man concentrated on staring fiercely at the relentless rain pounding against the window of his apartment. Not even the storm on the day he came back to his own universe could match the intensity of the tempest now pelting Metropolis.
But as he gazed intently out the window, the vision of the storm's fury was gradually replaced in his mind by the vision that had haunted him for three days—the image of a lovely young woman kneeling beside him, frightened eyes dark in a pale face. Beseeching him with trembling voice, "Get up, Clark, please! Oh, please, please, please be all right! Please!"
Her face drawn with concern. For him.
For *him*. For the *other* Clark. The other, the goody-goody, the adored, the worshiped … Superman-from-the-other-universe … Clark.
He scowled, clenching his fists. He detested that Clark, and, moreover, he detested himself—for helping that Clark get back to his own universe, where he would have been welcomed by his loving wife and adoring parents, admiring friends, and the idolizing millions who worship him, while he himself had to come back to this miserable world with all its loneliness and desolation …
Abandoning his pose by the window, he paced restlessly back and forth in the large room.
<<"Clark, get up. You're okay, aren't you? Tell me you're okay!">>
The words echoed in his ears.
He shook his head distractedly, not wanting to remember what had happened next. But he couldn't erase the images.
He winced when he remembered how the relief on Lois's face had changed to bitter disappointment when she realized that he was not the *other* Clark— that the other Clark was gone. She had buried her face in her hands and cried. Heart-rending sobs that had torn at him and at the same time had filled him with the rage of disappointment.
He shuttered that image, only to have its memory replaced by the radiant look Lois had given him when he had first moved, when she had first realized that he was still alive, and unhurt. She had been glad only because she had thought he was the *other* Clark, but for one heart-stopping moment he had thought that her joy was for him. For himself.
Her face swam before him, then dissolved into yet another image—that of *another* Lois who had looked at him in loving concern, who had tenderly run soft hands over his face, whose luminous eyes had shone mistily down at him.
Giving him a look also meant for *him.* The Other Clark.
There were others, too, who showed bonhomie that was really intended for the Other Clark.
His jaw tightened as he mentally reviewed what had happened at the office after he returned to his own universe. He had received more affable smiles and friendly nods in that one morning than in his entire previous four years at the Planet.
He had liked it at first. He had felt himself relaxing as he became the recipient of all those pleasant greetings, not suspecting the reasons for the change in the atmosphere in the newsroom.
Not even when Biff came up to him and greeted him so amiably. "Hello, Kent."
"'Lo, Kelly," Clark had responded.
"Say, thanks for giving me the dope on the Michetti case," Biff had said. "You really bailed me out of a tight spot, Kent. I won't forget it." Biff had clapped him on the shoulder, leaving Clark staring after him—he hadn't given Biff any information on the Michetti case.
And then Clark got it.
The pleasant greetings and cheery nods weren't for him. They were for the Other Clark. It was the Other Clark who had done Biff a favor by giving him the information he wanted. It was the Other Clark who had somehow dissolved the tension in the Daily Planet and turned the newsroom into a Playground for the Permanently Congenial.
Vacant smiles on everyone's faces, meaningless greetings on everyone's lips.
Except for Lois. Only Lois remained cold toward him.
Colder than ever, he thought. He shrank now from the memory of the loathing on her face. The contempt. The … fear?
She *knows* about me. Is she going to tell anyone?
The cry from downtown intruded on his musings once more. "Help! Oh, won't someone please help me! Please … !" Clark put his hands over his ears, trying to stop the sound, wishing he could tune it out the way he had tuned out cries for help in the past.
He had heard them, long ago. But he had stopped listening—why should he respond to them—they had nothing to do with him, did they?—and they had eventually ceased to intrude on his consciousness.
But being Superman in the other universe had changed all that. Rescuing the helpless had awakened buried memories, reviving yearnings that had long been dormant. And after he had responded to the first few distress calls, he had found himself becoming more and more attuned to cries for help, until now he found them impossible to ignore.
<<"Help me, please!">>
Clark strode angrily to the sofa and plunked himself down.
The Superman suit he had brought from the other universe was hanging in his closet—maybe he could … No! It was no use. A guy could be Superman in the other universe, where it would do some good, but what could one person do in this world so filled with hatred and violence? Nothing. He had learned that lesson long ago … poor Lana … Fighting for justice was a hopeless task. A gut-wrenching, thankless waste. He didn't need that. Didn't want that.
Besides, why should *he* do it? No one had helped *him*. No one had come to *his* rescue. And he had screamed and screamed …
Picking up two throw pillows, he held them tightly to his ears, shutting his eyes as if that would somehow silence the terrible cries that were becoming more and more compelling …
"Lois, aren't you going to speak to me ever again?" Clark stood next to his sometime partner's desk, awkwardly holding the cup of coffee she had stonily rejected. She had maintained a stubborn silence since their rendezvous in the park when Clark had returned after a week spent in the parallel universe, and for the first time, Clark was trying to break through the ice. Lois had been mad at him before (actually, when had she ever *not* been mad at him??), but this was the coldest she had ever acted towards him. Even the loathing she had displayed after the incident in the supply closet (and Clark winced just thinking of *that* infamous episode!) was nothing compared to this.
For the first few days after his return he had watched her in uneasy silence, afraid that she would tell his secret to the world. When he had realized that she knew about his super powers, knew that he was an extra-terrestrial, he had been gripped with a fear unlike any he had known in years. He knew that Lois was the only person in the world who could identify him as an alien … and it scared him. He had gritted his teeth and waited for her to set in motion the events that would mean the destruction of his life.
With each passing day he had breathed more easily as she showed no signs of betraying him, and he now felt confident enough to approach her and try to break through the wall of icy contempt she had erected between them.
Contempt, he had quickly realized, not for the knowledge that he was an *alien* being, but for his behavior as a *human* being.
Strange. When he would have expected her to hate him for what he was, rather than for what he did.
He wasn't sure if that made him feel better or worse.
He decided to try to make peace with her—or at least, get as close to peace as his relationship ever was with Lois.
Remembering how the Other Lois had insisted that he fetch her coffee in the office, telling him that *her* Clark always did it, he had poured a cup for Lois, only to have her summarily reject it.
She was ignoring him now, spreading out the morning edition of the Daily Planet on her desk and quickly becoming absorbed in reading the day's headlines. Clark returned sulkily to his desk, where he busied himself with various mundane tasks. A smothered exclamation from Lois drew his attention and he looked up as she came toward him, folding her newspaper so that it lay open to an article that had been inserted early that morning.
"Do you know anything about this?" she asked, placing the newspaper on his desk in front of him. Clark glanced downward, not so much to read the article—he already knew what it contained—as to avoid her penetrating gaze.
"What's to know?" he hedged.
"Clark!!" Lois hissed, leaning forward. "You know what I mean! Do you know anything about this?"
"What?" said Clark, still not looking at her. "That article? No, Lois, Ed in City wrote it—"
"Clark!!" said Lois again. She put her hands on her hips, looking down at her colleague in exasperation. In a low voice, she began to read aloud.
"HAS THE ANGEL OF METROPOLIS RETURNED?
At 1:00 a.m. this morning a wo- man who was dragged from her car by three assailants received dramatic assistance from an unknown benefactor. Leila Louise of Glen Oaks had stop- ped at a red light at the intersec- tion of Belle Boulevard and Third Street when three armed men opened her door and pulled her from the car, throwing her to the ground and pinning her. After Ms Louise had called repeatedly for help, the man standing over her suddenly fell to the ground face-down. Ms Louise's arms were released when the two men holding her also fell to the ground, all rendered uncon- scious by an unknown, unseen … "
Clark made no comment as Lois's voice trailed off. When he had acted last night after finding himself unable to ignore the cries for help, he hadn't donned the Suit, not wanting to make a commitment to *being* Superman. He had moved swiftly, too swiftly for detection, he had thought.
But Lois knew about him, knew who the "angel" must be.
How would she react?
Lois liked the Other Clark, and she knew that the Other Clark was an alien. Maybe—his throat tightened as he thought of this for the first time—maybe … if she knew that he had rescued Leila Louise … she might get *that* look on her face again. The look she got when he had first returned and she thought he was the *other* Clark.
He sat quite still, not looking at her, and scarcely daring to breathe.
"Well??" Lois said. "I've seen *him* do it … I mean, I *haven't seen* him, but I've seen how quickly he moves … how quickly he can disarm someone … " Clark risked a glance at her face then turned quickly away from those eager eyes, suddenly realizing what she was expecting, what she wanted to hear …
"*He* hasn't come back, if that's what you mean," Clark said sullenly. He felt rather than saw the eagerness die out of her face.
"Oh," she said in a colorless voice. She gathered up the newspaper and returned to her desk.
Left to himself, Clark picked up a pencil and stabbed viciously at his notepad.
In the middle of the morning Perry sent Lois and Clark into the conference room to work on a political story he had assigned to the two of them. Lois had other ideas, however, and she maintained her stony silence through all Clark's attempts to get her to talk to him.
"Come on, Lois, you have to talk to me sometime," he argued, "Perry wants us to finish this story on Congressman Blau's latest peccadillo and I need your input." But Lois may as well not have heard him for all the reaction she gave, keeping her eyes on the paper before her and reading it through with maddening concentration.
Clark flopped into the chair across from her, sighing. "At least tell me what you think of my rewrite," he said. "Lois. Come on—it's not my fault that I'm not *him*." No need to say who *he* was.
"I don't know why we're writing this trash anyway!" flared Lois, breaking her long silence at last. "We could be writing about something more important than Blau's latest love interest! That's tabloid trash not suited to a newspaper like the Daily Planet! We could be covering serious issues, like—"
"You got that idea from *him*, didn't you?" said Clark angrily, annoyed that her first words to him had been inspired by the Other Clark.
"So-o … what if I did?" said Lois. "He's right, isn't he? We could be covering issues of substance, exposing corruption, fighting for truth—"
"—and justice?" Clark scowled. "Like *he* says?"
"Well, yes!" said Lois. "What's wrong with that?"
"Because it's a never-ending battle, Lois … even in *his* world, and his world is a lot more ordered than ours. He's been fighting for years, and he still hasn't achieved justice."
"That's no excuse for not trying," said Lois. "Besides, you didn't seem to think so last night, when you rescued Leila Louise. Come to think of it, why *did* you rescue her, anyway? That doesn't fit your style, Kent. Usually *you're* the one forcing yourself on women!"
"I don't—I've never—!" Clark half-rose to his feet, flushing hotly. Encountering Lois's disdainful look, daring him to take issue with her statement, he sat down again abruptly. "Well, Lois, I thought I could make some money—so I charged her for the rescue," he said sullenly.
"*That* I can believe," said Lois, getting to her feet and stretching to her full height. "Well, fascinating as it is talking to you, I have to get back to work. *Real* work."
Clark hooked his index finger on the middle of his glasses and pulled them down, rubbing the bridge of his nose nonchalantly. Seeing his action, Lois swiftly crossed her arms over her chest, covering her breasts. "I can x-ray through your arms, too," Clark assured her insolently.
She gasped. Whirling away from him, she strode swiftly toward the door. Clark sprang to his feet. "No, Lois, wait—I wasn't x-raying you!" he cried. "Wait. Please." He sprinted around the table, catching up to her just as she reached the doorway. Moving around to face her, he blocked her progress. "I don't know why I said that to you," he confessed, "but I wasn't x-raying you."
Lois turned her head away. "I don't believe you," she said coldly.
"Lois, I didn't x-ray you; I have never x-rayed you, please believe me," said Clark. Lois kept her face averted, unconvinced. "I've wanted to," he added rather unwisely. Her head swivelled and she glared at him. "But I've never done it," he repeated.
She tapped her foot on the floor, still not sure whether to believe him or not. "You've never x-rayed me?"
"No," he said earnestly. "I don't x-ray women, Lois."
"You don't?" Lois said skeptically. "You've *never* x-rayed women?"
"No, never," he asseverated, looking into her searching gaze. After a minute, he dropped his eyes. "Yes," he admitted unwillingly. "I have. But it was a long time ago," he pleaded, seeing her turn from him in disgust. "I did it when I was in high school, when I first found out I could see through things. I was curious—I just wanted to *know* … about … women. But I stopped doing it because it was … it was like a peeping Tom."
"So you haven't x-rayed anyone since high school?" asked Lois.
"No … yes … " he met her eyes rather shamefacedly. "In the other universe, I x-rayed our hostess at a restaurant." He shrank from Lois's look of revulsion. "I don't know why I did it," he said. "I was with Lois—the other Lois. She had been going on and on about *him* all day. Her husband, you know. *He* wouldn't do this, *he* wouldn't do that, he was perfect, a paragon—*you* know … So I just—I don't know, I just—well, I just did it, that's all." He took a breath. Seeing that Lois was at least looking at him, he added, "but I've never x-rayed you, Lois; I swear!"
"Well … "
"Please believe me!"
Lois was still regarding him doubtfully when Perry stormed into the conference room and bellowed at his two best reporters. "Lane! Kent! Train wreck! Grand Union Junction! Get your butts down there and check it out now!"
Lois dashed out of the conference room. "I'm on it, Perry," she yelled, scurrying for the elevator and managing to leap inside just before the doors closed.
Annoyed that Lois hadn't waited for him, Clark considered getting a cup of coffee before following her. Let her do the unpleasant task of watching the emergency squads rescue the victims! He went over to his desk, picked up a file and began thumbing through it.
"You goin' to go sometime in this millennium, Kent?" Perry growled, glowering at him.
Scowling, Clark shrugged into his jacket and sauntered unhurriedly toward the elevators, increasing his pace marginally when he noticed Perry's frown of annoyance.
He stopped for a Mocha Java outside, deciding that he could save enough time by flying to allow him to drink it at his leisure.
Arriving at the site of the train wreck, he was taken aback at the damage, which fortunately didn't include any human fatalities. He pursed his lips in a silent whistle at sight of the overturned and upended freight cars, then waded through the debris to join Lois, who was attempting to get interviews with members of the train's crew.
"So no one knows how the switch got turned the wrong way?" Lois was saying. To Clark's annoyance, she turned slightly away from him as she spoke, excluding him. He shoved his hands into his pockets and waited for a chance to interject his own comments and questions.
When the interview had ended, Clark followed Lois as she picked her way through the mess, trying in vain to engage her in conversation. "Come on, Lois," he said in a low voice. "You're acting like this is all my fault. Do you think I caused it?" Lois didn't answer. "Or do you think I could have stopped it? I never even knew it happened until Perry told us about it."
"You could have helped with cleanup!" she hissed. "And you could have taken some of the crew to the hospital—two of them were pretty badly hurt. You could have spared them a lot of pain if you'd flown them there. Just like you could have helped with that collision on Rose Highway yesterday morning."
"Do you think I don't have anything else to do?" Clark said angrily.
"Like what—drink an extra cup of Mocha?" Lois pointed to a tell-tale spot of cream on his upper lip. "Snatch another five minutes of *bliss* with Ginny—or Cat?"
"Aw, Lois—I haven't even seen either of them since—"
"Since when?" Lois prodded. "Since you came back?"
Clark bit his lip angrily at the knowing smile on her face. He knew what she was thinking: Ginny and Cat weren't staying away from him because *he* had broken up with them, they were staying away because the Other Clark had somehow managed to discourage them from continuing their relationships with him. "At least he saved me the trouble," Clark mumbled under his breath. Encountering a look of surprise from Lois, he hastily brought the subject back to the train wreck.
"Kent!" brayed Perry when Clark entered the newsroom later that afternoon. "Where have you been? Never mind—just get down to 34th and Bland right away—Lois has been down there since noon. That inferno is still raging. They've got fire fighters from 2 districts workin' on it. It's burned through two city blocks already and there's no end in sight."
Clark briefly considered telling Perry to stuff it—he didn't feel like going on any more assignments with Lois—but he forced himself to nod his acquiescence. He took a cab to 34th and Bland—he didn't fly because he wasn't in any particular hurry—and got out nonchalantly when he had reached his destination. "What are you doing here?" said a voice at his side. Clark looked down at Lois's weary and soot-blackened face.
"Perry sent me," he said surlily. "I work for the Daily Planet—remember?"
"No! I mean … " Lois lowered her voice, " … why aren't you here as … " She made a flying motion with her hand.
"I'm a reporter, not a firefighter," said Clark sulkily.
Lois stared at him, then spun on her heel and walked away, disgust written all over her face.
They hadn't been back in the newsroom for long when Perry was calling for them again. "Kent," he said, "I want you and Lois on that angel story! Find out if that Louise woman is on the up-and-up. Was it really Superman who rescued her? And if that's the case, why hasn't he been rescuing anyone else?"
"What made them decide to call Superman an *angel*?" grumbled Clark when Perry had walked away. Even in the parallel universe they hadn't elevated the Other Clark to *that* status!
"The *other* Clark is the closest thing to an angel *I've* ever met!" said Lois pointedly, gathering up her notes. The muscles in Clark's jaw tightened, but he didn't reply to her obvious attempt to draw an unfavorable comparison between himself and the Other Clark.
Outside the building, Lois pulled slightly away from Clark, announcing, "I'm going to the police station to interview Fairfax about—"
"Lois, wait, what do you mean? Perry assigned us to the Louise story!"
"Clark, you and I both know *that* one's a dead end!" said Lois tartly. "Superman hasn't returned and he never will!"
"How do you know?" said Clark, stung. "Maybe I could … maybe Superman just *will* show up sometime, Lois!"
"Not a *real* Superman," was Lois's caustic reply. "Not in *your* lifetime, Kent." Speechless, Clark made no attempt to follow her as she strode toward the street, beckoning for a taxi.
Not a *real* Superman! Like he couldn't do that two-bit phony's job!
Clark switched direction and headed toward his apartment. He'd change into his Superman outfit, and then Lois would see a *real* Superman!
It was with great triumph that Superman floated gently to the ground after dousing a fire at the gasoline station on 21st Street several hours later—his fifth super feat during that time. Taking care to land directly in the path of the intrepid reporter Lois Lane, he nevertheless did not look in her direction. "Yes, miss?" he said, gesturing toward a pretty young blond reporter. "What was your question again, please?" He was glad he had spent so many hours in the parallel universe studying tapes of the Other Clark's Superman—he was pretty sure he could imitate the Other Superman's stilted speech and formal posture well enough to prevent anyone from detecting the switch.
"Thank you, Superman," said a voice at his elbow after he had given the reporter a statement.
Turning, he saw a young woman with a toddler in her arms smiling shyly at him. He straightened, favoring her with his most noble expression. He threw a sidelong glance at Lois to see if she had noticed—*some* people thought highly of him!
"Again," the young woman added.
"Again … ?" said Clark
"Yes; but don't worry, we won't make a habit of getting you to rescue us," the woman said. "After what you did for us last week … "
Last week … ? Oh. The Other Clark again. Clark barely managed a civil reply.
As he answered the questions from the mob thronging him, he glanced at Lois out of the corner of his eye and was further annoyed to see that she had drifted away to talk to one of the firefighters. Catching up to her a few minutes later, he attempted to gain her attention. "Do you want an interview?" he asked her.
"When I see something worth writing about," she replied coolly.
"Come on, Lois! Give me a break here!" Clark said plaintively. "Look at all the good I've done today!"
"Nothing special," she said coldly. "Nothing that *he* hasn't already done. Your rescues will be written up in the City section and filed as part of history. The history that *he* already started last week."
"Come on, Lois, this is news! Superman has returned! He's—"
"Superman has *not* returned!" said Lois emphatically. "You dress up like him but you *aren't* him—you don't have the faintest idea what it means to *be* him! You spend half your time sulking and the other half chasing women—"
"Now wait a minute!" protested Clark. "I don't chase—"
"—and—oh—! Sometimes you take time out for temper tantrums. And then you think that if you put on the Suit and strut around in it, indulging yourself by performing a few odd rescues, that you *are* Superman. Well, you're not! It doesn't take any courage to do what you've been doing!"
"What is it with you, Lois? You've been ragging on me all day!"
"You preen yourself in front of the pretty girls and tell yourself that you're doing the same job that *he* did but—"
"That's not true!" exclaimed Clark, stung. "I'm not *preening* myself—"
"You know what your problem is?" Lois continued as if she hadn't heard the interruption. "You think the world should give you everything you want and if it doesn't, you're justified in *taking* it! You just grab, grab, grab, like every other testosterone-poisoned male on this planet!"
"No!" said Clark. "That's not—"
"You're trying to *act* like Superman without any real understanding of what it takes to *be*—
"All right—you've said enough," Clark snarled. He turned angrily on his heel, taking off and heading for his apartment.
Home again, he stomped into the bedroom and ripped off the suit, growling impatiently when a book fell out of a pocket in the cape. Was it something belonging to the *other* Clark—? He picked it up and examined it in annoyance. "How to Control Your Temper," he read. Where had this come from? Oh, yes, he vaguely remembered Martha from the other universe handing it to him just before he left. He had shoved it into the pocket of his cape without looking at it.
Why had Martha given this to him? He didn't need this stupid book! Clark hurled it to the other side of the room.
He had begun to dress himself again when the blinking light of the answering machine caught his attention. He pressed the button and rewound the tape while continuing to dress. "Nice job at First National Bank, Clark," said a voice that froze him in his tracks. He whirled and faced the machine. "Can you come for dinner tonight? We'd love to see you. We're having baked ham with pineapple bread pudding, and apple pie for dessert. Six o'clock our time. Hope you can make it."
The change of clothes forgotten, Clark stood with fists clenched at his sides, staring at the answering machine. His mother. Inviting him to dinner. He swallowed. He hadn't seen her in—how long? He closed his eyes briefly, remembering that last meeting.
Why was she calling now? Of course—she must have seen him on television— LNN news cameras had been on the scene during the incident at First National. she would have known it was he—who else could have flown into that situation and withstood the barrage of bullets aimed at his body?
After all these years they wanted to see him again.
And his dad … who had been confined to a wheelchair for years, disabled by a shattered pelvis.
Finally, someone who preferred him to the Other Clark.
Tears stung his eyes, tears which he wiped away with the back of his hand. He looked at the clock: 7:45. Almost six o'clock, Kansas time. Galvanized into action, he tore off his clothes again and plunged into the shower, taking the Suit with him and cleaning both it and himself in record time— even for him. He dried the Suit with his heat vision and put it on again, dressing with unusual care and combing his hair nervously in front of the mirror.
At exactly 5:59 he stood in front of the door of the farmhouse, his heart pounding furiously. How would they act? He lifted his fist and knocked. "Mom?" he called tentatively. "Da—" he choked, then cleared his throat nervously. "Dad?"
"Come in, Clark," called his mother from the back of the kitchen. He moved forward, crossing the threshold unsteadily. "Hi, honey," said Martha. Her back was to him as she removed a pan of ham from the oven and set it on top of the stove. "I'm glad you could come." She turned and walked toward him, smiling. Clark could hear the sound of his father's wheelchair in the hall.
"Yeah … " Clark managed, gazing mistily at the woman he liked to think of as his mother. She wrapped her arms around him and gave him a warm hug, which he returned tentatively at first, then more eagerly, as he relaxed into it.
"Where have you been?" she asked, peering up into his face as she kept her hands on his upper arms. "I've been watching the news for you."
What? "Uh … I just got your message … " he said, not sure what she meant.
"No, I mean what have you been doing for the last three days? There hasn't been any news of Superman's activities since Monday … Clark—?" His face had gone white as he stared at her with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. "Are you all right? Clark?"
She looked at him more closely, her smile fading. Dropping her hands from his arms, she took a step back. "It's you." All expression was gone from her voice. "*He* went back to his own world. Didn't he?"
Clark stood without moving, perspiration beading on his brow.
It wasn't him that she wanted.
She had been expecting the Other Clark.
Her eyes on his face, Martha continued to back away until she butted up against the cabinet. She put her hands behind her back and opened a drawer, fumbling in it.
"No!" said Clark, realizing the significance of her move. "Mom—please … don't!" A wave of excruciating pain hit him and he bent double as she removed a large green crystal from the drawer and held it in front of her. "Mom, please … " but the anguish in his voice was not from physical pain.
"Get out," said Martha, her face like marble.
Clark staggered to the door, out of the house, into the yard. Breathing in ragged sobs, with tears streaming down his face, he looked back at his mother, standing in the doorway with the Kryptonite still held in front of her. His eyes pleaded with her.
"Go," said Martha.
Still sobbing for breath, Clark straightened. When he had recovered sufficiently, he took to the skies, flying back to Metropolis, back to the silent apartment in the heart of the city where he lived alone.
He landed on his balcony with a thud. Lunging through the door into his living room, he ripped the suit from his body, mashing it into a ball and hurling it across the room. He flopped down onto the floor with his back against the wall, hunching over and drawing up his knees to his chest. There was no sound in the darkened apartment save the ticking of the alarm clock.
Superman made no appearance anywhere in the world that night. Nor all the next day, which was the first of Clark's three days off.
The following night, he was roused from an uneasy sleep by a conversation apparently taking place in the Gang District. "Hey old man, whacha doin' here? Doncha know this is our territory?"
"Yeah. If you come here, you gotta pay the price."
"Now … now … take it easy boys … " said a trembling voice. "I didn't mean nothin' … "
"You didn't mean *nothin'*??" taunted one of the voices. "Well, we do! Don't we, guys? Let's show him what we mean."
There was the sound of a thudding blow as something hard connected with something soft, and then the youth who had just thrown the punch felt himself being hurled skyward, accelerating as if catapulted from a cannon. He screamed in terror, the scream cut off when he felt himself being grasped by the collar of his jacket. He gaped when he realized that he was being held in the powerful grip of a blue-clad man who was descending rapidly to the street below.
Safely on the ground, the man forced the youth to his knees. "Wait here," commanded the flier. The youth collapsed onto the pavement. He would no more have thought of disobeying the Being's instruction than of flinging himself from a cruising jetliner.
Superman rounded up the other youths, who had fled in terror when they saw their companion become airborne, and disarmed them in a matter of seconds. His face a mask of anger, he forced them to their knees in a circle around their weapons, which he placed in a pile. He used his heat vision to melt their knives, then ground their pistols into powder. "If you *ever* attack anyone again," he said to the trembling gang members, "I'll do the same things to you that I just did to your weapons." Thoroughly cowed, the perpetrators scrambled to their feet and stumbled away.
Superman maintained his threatening posture until the youths had scurried away. His shoulders relaxed as he let out a long breath. He stepped over to the elderly victim and gently assisted him to his feet. "Are you all right, sir?" he asked, trying to steady his voice, which shook slightly.
"What? Yes, yes, I'm fine," quavered the old man. "You sure taught those boys a thing or two, didn't you? You must be a pretty strong fella."
"Well … " said Clark.
"I used to be pretty strong myself, you know," the man said.
"I'm sure you were," said Clark. "I'll see you home, now, sir."
"Yes, in my day, I'd have taken on that whole group and done the same thing you did. Let me show you … " the man put up his hands, adopting a fighter's stance. "Take that, you!" he jabbed with his fist. "And that!" Taking a wild swing at his unseen opponent, he overbalanced himself and would have fallen had Clark not caught him.
"Okay, sir," said Clark, taking gentle hold of the pugilist's arm.
After walking the man home, Clark shot upward toward the stars, flying east until he reached daylight. Floating gently above the clouds, he lay back and put his arms behind his head, feeling more at peace than he had in years.
After delivering her lecture to Superman/Clark and watching him fly away, Lois drew a shaky breath. She hadn't meant to be quite that rough on him, but his nonchalant adoption of the Superman costume had irritated her beyond measure, especially when she compared his demeanor to that of the Other Clark, who had performed his duties so nobly.
She wished now that she had shown a more accepting attitude toward this Clark. Maybe he donned the uniform for the wrong reasons, but at least he was using his powers for good. And he himself wasn't all that bad—the rescue of Leila Louise last night had clearly been for purely humanitarian reasons since he had never shown himself to the victim or her assailants.
She resolved to treat Clark a little more kindly when next she saw him.
"Excuse me, but aren't you Lois Lane?" asked a hesitant voice. Lois looked into the eyes of a woman gazing at her timidly. At Lois's nod the woman continued, "You work at the Daily Planet? You work with Clark Kent?"
"Yes," Lois confirmed.
"You're so lucky!" breathed the pretty blond.
"Hmmmph." Lois turned to go. If she heard one more woman tell her how *lucky* she was to work with the handsome and charming Clark Kent, she was going to scream, she really was!
"He was always the nicest boy. So kind and brave. Always defending the rest of us … "
What??? Lois swivelled back to face the woman. "Kind?" she blurted out. "Defending you? Who?"
"Well … me, I guess. And Ernie Mallow, and poor Lana … I wonder what ever happened to her—"
"Wait," said Lois. "Who are these people? How do you know Clark Kent? Do you live near him?"
"Oh, no, no," said the woman. "I don't even live in Metropolis. I haven't seen Clark in … oh, twenty years. Not since we were kids together in Barnesville."
"You must have the wrong Clark Kent," said Lois, struggling with mixed feelings. "Kent grew up in Smallville."
"He lived in Barnesville after the Johnsons took him in," replied the blond. "Or should I say after they pulled strings to get Clark taken away from the Kents. When Clark lived with the Kents, the Johnsons used to see him when he came to town with his parents, and … well … he was a pretty cute kid, and they wanted him for themselves. Worse luck for him, poor boy. Lucky break for the rest of us, though. He used to take it upon himself to champion whoever was being bullied, mostly Ernie and Lana and me, which was amazing when you come to think of it because I understand he was putting up with some pretty rough treatment from the Johnsons at the time, but he never seemed to let it affect him, or maybe it made him even *more* kind, but—"
"Ms—" said Lois.
"Brown," said the young woman. "Eva Brown."
"Brown," said Lois. "Would you like to have a cup of coffee with me? I'd like to hear more about this."
Lois listened to Eva Brown's recollections for half an hour, until Ms Brown excused herself to meet her husband and children. Lois sat quietly in the cafe for a few minutes after Eva left, then instead of returning home, she took a cab to an apartment in the north end of town.
She walked into the foyer of the building, pressing the buzzer for the penthouse apartment.
"Yes?" said a woman's voice.
"Mother, it's me, Lois," said Lois into the speaker. She pushed the door open as soon as it unlocked and hastened up to her parents' apartment, to find that door still locked. "Mother!" she called, knocking loudly.
"Lois," said Ellen Lane, opening the door. "Lois, this is a surprise!" She turned her head and bellowed, "Sam!!! … So, Lois, how are you? We haven't seen you since the last board meeting of Kisses for Kids."
"I'm alright," said Lois impatiently. "Mother, I wanted to ask you a question about—"
"Sa-am!!" yelled Ellen. "Come on out—your daughter's here! Sometimes I can't tear him away from his work," she explained to Lois. "Although he's acted so distracted lately that I'm beginning to think—oh, there you are, Sam. I'm glad you decided to put in an appearance."
Sam Lane walked into the living room, carrying a sheaf of stapled documents and with his glasses pushed up on his head. "Hello, Princess," he said, hugging his daughter.
"Sam, I was just telling Lois how distracted you've been acting lately. Are you being blackmailed *again*?"
"What?" said Sam. "Oh, yes," rather absently. "We'd better increase security. I want to switch to Beef's Bodyguard, Ellen, I've been having my doubts about Lenny's."
"Who's blackmailing you this time?" asked Ellen.
"Is it safe to talk in here?" interrupted Lois.
"Oh, yes," said Ellen. "We had this room swept for bugs three hours ago. Sam, who's blackmailing you? What do they want?"
"I'm not sure who's behind it," said Sam. "Either Chaney or Vernon LaSalle, I imagine. I don't think it's Mattican. Don't worry about it, Ellen, we can take care of it. Why do you think we have an investigative journalist for a daughter?" He winked at Lois. "I think it's Chaney or LaSalle," he said. "Someone wants me to lie about quarterback Hanson's readiness for playing in the big game on Saturday, so it has to be one of them—they both have a big stake in that game. Do you think you can find something on Chaney or LaSalle, Princess?" he asked.
"LaSalle, maybe," said Lois. "I don't know about Chaney."
"You can't publish what you find, you know," Sam reminded her. "That would defeat the purpose. We need to find something we can hold over his head so he'll stop threatening me."
"I know that, Daddy," said Lois impatiently. "Mother," returning to the reason for her visit, "can you tell me something about childhood abuse and the chances of recovery from it? I know a man who—"
"Stay away from him!" warned Ellen. "Irma says the shelter in the Underground, where she's hiding women until their marriage contracts are over, is filled with women who've been battered by men who were abused themselves as children. A woman takes out a 30-year contract in hopes that if she shows
her husband that she will never leave him, that she will always love him no matter what, then he'll become secure enough to stop abusing her. She thinks that if she just loves him long enough and hard enough, it'll make up for all the abuse he suffered in childhood. But it doesn't, Lois. People *need* unconditional love—when they're children. And no amount of love can ever make up for it afterwards. He'll never change. So if you're thinking of going out with him—"
"No, no, I'm not thinking of dating him. I'm just … he's in a position where he can do some good if he'll just apply himself to it and—" Ellen was shaking her head. "Not much chance then?" Lois sighed. "I just thought I'd ask."
"This isn't really my field," said Ellen apologetically. "And researchers are just starting to delve into the whole field of childhood development. Why don't you talk to your sister about it?"
"I will," said Lois, "as soon as she gets back to town. I've got to run now, I love you both … "
"We love you, too, honey," said Ellen, hugging her. "And I wish we'd known as much about raising children twenty years ago as we do now. I know we didn't treat you right and I hope you'll forgive us for that—"
"I know, I know," Lois broke in. "I really have to go now."
"Be careful going home," admonished Sam.
"Yes. Lois, you're not still carrying that ridiculous knife, are you? I wish you'd get rid of that thing."
"Yes, Baby, I'm not sure it's wise to carry that," chimed in Sam.
"It's not ridiculous, Mother, Daddy. It's saved me from assault—or worse."
"But what defense will it be if someone points a gun at you? What you really need is one of these." Ellen flipped open her jacket and pulled a pistol out of her waistband. "Smith and Wesson W-Lite," she said proudly. "Women's Special Lite, .38 caliber. Made of aluminum and titanium so it weighs only 12 ounces. It has a double action trigger pull that's so smooth and crisp that I could hardly tell it from a single-action—"
"Mother!" said Lois. "That gun is pink!"
"Oh, dear, do you think that's a mistake?" asked Ellen, putting a hand to her mouth. "I know I said I would stick to beige or gray, they're much more practical, but it looked so pretty in the store and I thought, how often am I going to use it anyway, so that someone will actually *see* it, so—"
"It's fine, Mother," said Lois, catching her father's eye. "I'm sure it will work out fine."
"Your mother spent hours trying to decide which gun to buy, Princess," whispered Sam, as though Ellen wouldn't be able to hear him.
"It does have quite a recoil, though," Ellen continued, turning the gun over in her hand thoughtfully. "Maybe I should have bought the Beretta instead. Or the Glock. They had a beige Glock Special that—"
"This one's okay, Mother," said Lois hastily. "Beige is blah. And the black edging on this one is very pretty. I like the gold filigree, too—it reminds me of the filigree on the chamber of your old Colt."
"Yes, the filigree *is* pretty, isn't it?" Ellen agreed. "Well, you be careful going home, Lois. And be careful *at* home, too. Who was it who came to your door one night and attacked you when you let him in? Richie? Sam, why don't you give her your old Beretta? Or—"
"Mother, I'm not going to carry a gun!" said Lois. "I'll be fine without it. Really." She reached for the door handle then turned back. "Um … Mother … wouldn't it be wonderful if we could walk down the street and not have to carry weapons to protect ourselves?"
"Yes, dear … and I'd love to be able to eat Fudge Castle sundaes all day long without getting fat," Ellen said.
"No, Mother, I mean *really.* It could happen."
"Yes, and I might be able to perform surgery on a professional athlete without having anyone threaten me to lie about the athlete's condition," said Sam with a hearty laugh. "Very funny, Princess."
Lois looked at her parents and sighed. "Yes," she said quietly. "Well … I do have to be going. I have to go home and type up a story."
"Don't forget to dig up something on Chaney and LaSalle," Sam said, still chuckling at Lois's joke.
"I won't … " said Lois, escaping out the door.
The next day was the first of Clark's three days off, and Lois found that her eyes frequently strayed to her absent partner's desk. She had been doing some serious thinking in the past week, ever since the advent of the Other Clark into her world. She had been suspicious of the Other Clark at first, but he had somehow managed to convince her that not only was he a kind and gentle person, but that he was not the Clark Kent she knew. (Or was it *because* he was a kind and gentle person that he had convinced her that he was not the Clark Kent she knew?)
Once she had accepted that he was a different man (and yet somehow the same) she had begun to re-evaluate the Kent she knew. Clark was not the most pleasant person she had ever worked with. It wasn't that he couldn't be charming—oh no, Lois had seen people (especially women) practically melt in the face of that devastatingly attractive smile he turned on then—it was that he too often chose *not* to be. He was frequently surly and withdrawn, prone to childish behavior, especially when he didn't get his own way, and he had exhibited one blaze of temper with consequences which had left her shaking. The incident in the supply room.
Now, though, after learning of Clark's super strength, and the control he must need to exert at all times to keep that strength in check, she realized that even a small loss of control could have resulted in Jimmy breaking his arm. If Clark had *really* given in to rage at that time—Lois shuddered— Jimmy could have lost much more than the use of his arm for a few weeks.
She wondered what had happened with Clark's father. Was it another such accident?
Lois jumped to her feet and hurried into the conference room with the intention of making a telephone call in private. She paused on the threshold, looking at the room's two occupants, first in annoyance, then in anger. "Do you need some help, Cat?" she asked brusquely.
"No," said Cat, lovingly fingering the dagger she had removed from its sheath, "I think Ralph and I understand each other … now."
"If you're sure … " said Lois, watching as Ralph, red-faced, backed away from Cat.
"Hey, baby, are you *sure* you're sure?" he asked Cat insolently.
Cat grasped the hilt of her dagger, pointing the tip upward, under Ralph's chin. "What do you think?" she asked in a sultry voice.
Ralph backed away carefully, then spun on his heel and retreated from the room, stopping just outside the door to hitch up his trousers and call, "I bet I can make you change your mind!"
Lois watched him swagger out of the room, curling her lip in disgust. "Cat … " she said when he had gone, "wouldn't it be nice if we didn't have to put up with things like that?"
Cat shrugged. "How are you going to stop it?" she asked. "Men are men."
"What if there were laws?" persisted Lois. "What if men weren't allowed to keep pestering us?"
"There *are* laws against assault, Lois," said Cat, raising her eyebrows.
"But what if the justice system really enforced them?" said Lois. "What if a woman could go to the police and *not* have them grab her and fondle her when she tried to make a report, and what if the courts would actually convict a man? And a judge sentence him to prison?"
"You always were a dreamer, Lois," said Cat in amusement. "Men are men and always will be." She pondered that statement for a minute. "Except Clark," she said, giving Lois a sidelong look. "He's … different. Gentle … "
"Oh, *spare* me the details of your exploits, Cat!" exclaimed Lois.
"I wasn't talking about *that*—oh, well," Cat shrugged. She gave Lois another sidelong look as she backed up to the table and seated herself on its edge. "He's very much in love with you, you know," she said.
Lois stopped breathing for a minute. "Who?" she said when she could speak.
"Clark," pronounced Cat.
"That's ridiculous!" said Lois. "He's too busy chasing after everyone else!"
"I've never seen him chase anyone, Lois," said Cat. "But I *have* seen him *look* at you. He can't keep his eyes off you."
Lois swallowed. "That doesn't mean anything," she said finally.
"A man looks at what he likes," said Cat. She examined her dagger thoughtfully. "It's you he wants, Lois. He's wanted you all along. When he told me last week that he wouldn't be seeing me any more … I knew then that he was thinking about you."
Last week? But that was …
"You two looked so good. You worked really well together, Lois."
… a different Clark, not this one …
"If he likes me he has a strange way of showing it," said Lois, recovering. "He's been unfailingly obnoxious to me … "
"Hmmm," Cat said with a throaty chuckle. "He's been unfailingly polite to me—I wonder if that means anything?"
"Anyway," said Lois, returning doggedly to her original point, "suppose that there were laws to stop men from importuning us? Anywhere. Suppose your boss couldn't fire you if you refused to give him sex?"
"You'd have to get political support to get those kinds of laws passed," Cat pointed out. "And I don't think the men and women in Congress are inclined to do it."
"Maybe someone could … persuade them to change their minds," said Lois, catching Cat's eye and holding it.
"Ahh," said Cat. "You mean … "
"Exactly," Lois affirmed. "We can use blackmail material to pressure Congress to pass the laws we want. You must have dirt on half of Congress, Cat, and I'll bet I have dirt on the other half."
"And what we don't have, we can get," smiled Cat. "Lois, I think you may be on to something here." Winking at Lois, she slid off the table and sashayed out of the room.
After Cat left the conference room Lois used the telephone to make reservations to fly to Barnesville, Kansas, where she intended to check out Clark's past.
It was a thoughtful Lois who pushed open the door to the offices of Bernstein, Friskin, and Lane the next evening, walking in on a conference among the three colleagues. "I'm sorry to interrupt you, but I need to talk to Lucy," said Lois. She rushed on without waiting for reply, "What can you tell me about childhood abuse and chances of recovery from it?" she asked.
"Dr. Friskin is more experienced in that area than I am," said Lucy apologetically, looking at her fellow doctor for confirmation.
"Come into my office, Lois," said Dr. Friskin, allowing Lois to lead the way. Under Lois's probing, she proceeded to give Lois her prognosis for abused children. [Notes: 1., 2.] When she was finished, she looked searchingly at the reporter, "That isn't what you wanted to hear, is it?"
"There's no hope for recovery, then?" Lois asked quietly.
"I didn't say that, Lois. There is *never* no hope!' It depends."
"Severity and duration of the abuse, the child's age and temperament … I'm sorry, I hope I haven't disappointed you too much—is it important?"
"It could mean the whole world," said Lois. "It's a man. A man who was mistreated as a child, and who is so powerful—is—well, he could change the world."
"It's not Lex Luthor, is it?" said Dr. Friskin with interest. "He seems to have had a rough childhood … "
"No, not Lex," said Lois hastily. "This is someone else. You make it sound like it's hopeless."
"It isn't *hopeless,* Lois," said Dr. Friskin. "But I don't want to paint a rosy picture. Most people who have been abused over a long period of time, child or adult, suffer from depression. There are a few, mostly men, who react with violence, but abuse is correlated more with suicide than homicide. Survivors of childhood abuse are far more likely to be victimized or to harm themselves than to victimize other people." [Notes: 3.]
Dr. Friskin paused. "Can you tell me more about his background?"
Lois rushed to tell the doctor as much of Clark's early life as she knew, noting that Dr. Friskin's brow cleared when Lois mentioned that Clark's earliest years had been spent with the Kents. "So he was in a loving environment until age seven?" said the doctor.
"Yes. Is that important?"
"Critical. That gives me a little more hope. But … " she cautioned as Lois's face lit up, "the prognosis is still not good. Even an adult would probably have difficulty recovering if he had been abused over such a long period of time." Lois was silent. "Tell me … what was the young boy like? Before he was mistreated?"
"Nice," said Lois promptly, thinking of the Clark Kent of the other world, and of what she had learned of this Clark's childhood personality. "Kind, gentle, mild, compassionate, forbearing, patient, generous, sweet, caring, sensitive … " she paused as she ran out of adjectives.
Dr. Friskin blinked. "I see," she said. "Then I wouldn't expect him to be the violent type. He'd be more likely to withdraw and become depressed and apathetic. He may exhibit signs of what we call 'learned helplessness'."
"He does that, too," said Lois, suddenly making sense of some aspects of her partner's personality. "But … I saw him get mad once … " she shivered, " … it was awful."
"He may suffer from occasional attacks of rage. Which he may get over," said Dr. Friskin. "In time. He may still have the ability to develop relationships—don't look so discouraged, Lois. It's not hopeless. There are some cases where children show extraordinary resilience after mistreatment. We call them 'super children.'" [Notes: 4.]
It was Lois's turn to blink. How appropriate, she thought.
"They're children who in spite of the worst treatment the world has to offer somehow pull themselves together and make a successful life for themselves. Those children are fairly rare, however."
Lois left Dr. Friskin's office with a determined look in her eye that would have alarmed her parents, who knew her so well, and certainly would have given the object of her determination some moments' disquiet, had he been able to see it, and understood its cause.
After several days off, Clark was feeling pretty good. He had selected a few Superman rescues to perform, gratified as much by the feeling of warmth he got by helping people as by the enthusiastic reception he invariably received.
He rose on Monday morning quite refreshed, and took his time showering and eating breakfast. When his phone rang, he didn't answer it, but the voice on his answering machine made him pause in his eating.
"Clark!!!" Lois's voice was tremulous. "Where are you?? You need to come right away! I'm at 92nd and Bland—"
Lois looked up, gaping, as Clark jogged toward her, his half-eaten bagel still in one hand.
"Lois??" he said, looking at her anxiously. "What is it? Are you all right? I got your message—" he gestured towards the cell phone still in her hand.
"I'm … fine!" said Lois.
Clark drew a breath. "I thought something was wrong," he said simply.
"Something *is* wrong!" snapped Lois irritably, closing up her cell phone and putting it into her purse. "Can't you see? Look around you!"
Clark cast his eyes around the area, noting the billows of smoke drifting toward them from the fire sweeping down the block. "Yeah?" he said. "Whaddya want, Lois? You can cover it—Perry doesn't need two people here."
"I don't need help covering the story! *They* need help putting out the fire!" Lois gestured toward the firefighters.
"What d'ya think firemen are for, Lois?" said Clark. He wasn't going to make this easy for her. "I'm not a firefighter; I'm a journalist."
"Not *you* you!" Lois said in annoyance. She leaned towards him and said under her breath, "Superman!"
"Superman?" drawled Clark, wide-eyed and innocent. "But, Lois, there *is* no Superman, not in *this* world. You said so yourself—"
His words were cut off when, to his astonishment and complete and utter delight, Lois grasped him by the shoulders, turned him around and gave him a shove. "Go! They need you. *We* need you!"
"*Who* needs me, Lois?" he couldn't resist saying. "You're not actually asking for my help, are you?" The only answer was another push against his back, and he laughed again.
Tossing the remains of his bagel into an adjacent trash can, he jogged toward a nearby alley. A grin threatened to split his face as he rose to the skies, his spirits soaring along with his body.
Later, in the office, it became apparent that Lois's attitude change wasn't a fleeting impulse—and even though she was a bit overbearing at times, Clark found that he didn't really mind.
Unstinting in her criticism, unhesitating in her condemnation of his behavior when she disapproved of it, she nevertheless showed an interest in him that she never had before. And irritating as her tongue-lashings were, they showed a total lack of the fear and revulsion that he had would have expected from anyone who knew his secret.
Her bullying made Clark feel that she accepted him—well, accepted the alien side of him, however much she deplored what she called his want of character. His behavior he could change, but not his alien nature.
Not that he wouldn't have preferred a little more friendliness from Lois, but … well, at least she wasn't *ignoring* him, freezing him out with that wall of icy contempt that had so irked him in the past.
Several days later …
Clark glanced up from his desk, then lowered his eyes quickly, shifting uneasily in his chair when he realized that Lois was looking at him again. It had been like this all morning, from the moment he had stepped off the elevator to find her gaze on him as he walked to his desk. This was new behavior. As many times as he had looked at Lois in the past (and ever since he had started working at the Daily Planet he had fallen into the habit of sneaking glances at her throughout the day), he had never once found her to be looking at him. Today, to his great embarrassment, every time he ventured to look at her, he found her eyes on him, regarding him thoughtfully.
At first he had noted these signs of her interest with gratified anticipation, but as it gradually dawned on him that her interest had a speculative air to it, more like that of a shopper hunting for bargains at a flea market than of a woman who's decided she likes what she sees in a man, he had become increasingly wary. He had the feeling that she was working up to making some request of him, something that he probably wasn't going to like. He hunched his shoulders and sank further into his chair, as if doing so would somehow hide him from her penetrating gaze.
Midway through the morning, Lois stood up and made her way slowly over to his desk. Clark hurriedly bent over his work, watching her warily out of the corner of his eye. She stood in front of his desk, not moving or speaking, until politeness finally forced him to acknowledge her presence.
He looked up. "Uh … hi, Lois," he said, forcing a grin.
"Clark, have you been watching LNN?"
"No, I've been working on this story. Why?"
"There's a skirmish in Marnia that Superman might be able to put a stop to."
"A skirmish!! It's a *war*, Lois! And Marnia's halfway around the world,!"
"So … I have to finish editing this story before deadline or Perry will have my … hide." Clark bent his head and began writing furiously, showing Lois how busy he was. Several minutes later, noting that Lois still hadn't moved, he raised his head again. "What??"
"It'll only take you a minute," said Lois. "I've seen you disarm gunmen in a matter of seconds."
"But this is a whole army, Lois! Two armies!"
"You don't have to disarm the armies—just stop some of the missiles both sides are launching. Come on, Clark, they *need* you."
Grumbling under his breath, Clark laid down his pen and sauntered toward the elevators.
Upon his return, he was greeted by a radiant Lois. "Good work, Clark!" she whispered, rubbing and patting his arm. "LNN captured the whole thing and beamed it live by satellite. We're really going to show the world what Superman can do!"
Clark gave her a small smile and returned to his interrupted task. It wasn't long before he had to lay down his pen again. "Yes, Lois?" he asked, leaning back in his chair and directing an inquiring look up at her. "What is it now?"
"The Weather Channel," Lois hissed in a confidential whisper.
Clark blinked. "What about it?"
"Hurricane Wilbur." She seated herself on the edge of her desk and leaned toward him.
"Lois, I can't stop what I'm doing and rescue people from a hurricane," he said in a low voice. "It's going to sweep up the east coast and could last for days! Thousands of people could be in need of assistance, and Superman won't be able to help them all. I just can't do it." He picked up his pen again.
"Come on, Lois," he said a minute later. "You can't expect me to—"
"You don't have to rescue *everyone*, Clark. Just one eensy, weensy little boat that's at sea near Charleston. The coast guard is looking for it, but they don't know if they'll be able to reach it in time." Lois put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed it encouragingly. "You could scan the whole area in a matter of minutes," she said brightly.
Clark sighed, laid down his pen again, and hauled himself to his feet. It was going to be a long day. He pulled his jacket off the coatrack and shrugged into it, muttering something that sounded like "hurricane Lois."
When he got back, he began retyping his story at a furious pace—while rescuing the boat, an idea for a new angle had coalesced in his mind. The whispered "Clark!" made him jump. He had been so engrossed in his task that he hadn't noticed when Lois got up and approached his desk again. He looked up at her rather desperately, giving the appearance of a deer trapped in a car's headlights.
He was rescued by Jimmy, who yelled to Lois that "Peters" had just called, demanding to know why she hadn't met him at Smith and Barnes, as they had arranged. With a smothered exclamation, Lois picked up her briefcase and headed for the elevators, first giving Clark a sidelong glance as if assuring herself that he would still be there when she got back.
Clark leaned back in his chair and let out his breath in a long sigh. He was going to have to start working on his ability to say "no" to Lois. If that was possible.
"Hi, Kent," said Jimmy, staggering under a pile of documents. "Here are the copies of Lex Corp.'s 10 Q and 10 K reports that Lois wanted." He handed Clark a sheaf of papers from the stack he was carrying.
Lois? Why is she interested in Lex Corp.'s finances? "Thanks, Jimmy."
"Sure. And thank *you* for helping me move my stuff last night, Clark," Jimmy said gruffly.
Realizing that this was the first time Jimmy had called him by his first name, Clark nodded and managed a curt, "sokay," to Jimmy's retreating back.
When he had first learned that the Other Clark had committed himself to helping Jimmy pick up some furniture, he had been tempted to tell the young man that he had changed his mind, he wasn't interested in spending the evening moving household goods. But the look of cautious hopefulness in Jimmy's eyes had touched him and he had found himself reluctantly agreeing to assist the young man as (the Other Clark had) promised.
Remembering the unalloyed friendliness that the Other Jimmy had displayed toward him, Clark was suddenly seized with the desire to further mend his fences with the young man. "Jimmy," he called.
"Yeah, Clark?" Jimmy said, glancing over his shoulder at him with guarded friendliness.
"Call me CK, huh?"
"CK?" laughed Jimmy. "Why? Oh, I get it—for Clark Kent. Yeah, I like that. All right … CK!" He beamed at Clark, walking back to Clark's desk and leaning over it to talk privately. "Hey, uh, CK, … uh … I think it's great about you and Lois."
What … ?
"When I saw the way you two were working together that week, well … I knew somethin' was gonna be happenin' there soon."
That week … ?
"I know how you feel about Lois—I guess everybody does. And just look at her today! She can't stay away from you!" Jimmy grinned, then slapped Clark on the shoulder. "I guess she figured out what happened in the supply room that day was an accident, huh? Way to go, man!" He sped away to continue on his round of errands.
Clark hunched his shoulders over his keyboard, wondering gloomily if he really had been so transparent that "everyone" knew how he felt about Lois. He wished that Jimmy's observations of Lois were as accurate as the young man's observations of *him* had been. It would be great if Lois were looking at him like he was a prospective dating partner instead of a dubious bargain in a discount warehouse. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. If Jimmy only knew!
A woman's voice pleading for "Superman" caused him to drop everything and rush away a short time later. When he got back, he found that Perry had called an impromptu staff meeting in the conference room and, resignedly putting off finishing his story once again, he headed for the meeting.
He spotted an empty chair halfway across the room and threaded his way through the labyrinth of staff members, noting that Lois had already returned and was sitting next to (darn!) Roy. Balancing a donut, cup of coffee, and notepad, he seated himself in the empty chair.
"Okay, that wraps up the assignments for the Snow investigation," Perry was saying. "Now … " He placed his hands on the table, leaning on his arms. "That brings us to the allegations that U.S. citizens in small towns bordering Canada are raiding Quebec, kidnaping young Canadian women, and bringing them into the States to be sold as brides."
"I thought that was just unfounded rumors," said Richie. "How could they *force* women to get married?"
"I have … uh … sources that confirm the rumors," said Perry. "The Canadian women don't speak any English and they feel that they don't have any choice. It's a sure bet that they're being threatened."
"Wait—" said Jimmy. "Why are small town men kidnaping Canadian women to be brides? Don't they have women in small towns?"
"Jimmy!!" said Perry, ignoring the snickers that erupted at Jimmy's question, "Don't you have any knowledge of the history that's happened in your own lifetime? Twenty years ago, when everyone was so wrapped up in excess population growth hysteria, Congress passed a law limiting the number of children per family to one. Most families chose to have boys. So now we have a shortage of women between the ages of sixteen and twenty.
"—oh, not in Metropolis!" he said, seeing Jimmy's eyes dart furtively around the room, noting the number of young women present. "Most big cities are doin' okay because the women in rural areas have flocked to the cities. It's the small towns in the outlying areas that are hurting. Comprende?
"Now … I'm going to need an investigative team to go to French Canada and check it out. Cat … you speak French … "
"Oui," Cat confirmed.
"That's not all she does that's French," said Richie, causing a general outbreak of laughter.
"Am I interrupting anything??" said Perry sarcastically, fixing them all with a stern eye until order had been restored. "Lois, I want you to go, too, and … uh … Kent … " Clark looked up in surprise. "Lois says you speak French." Clark glanced at Lois, expecting her to contradict Perry, but she was just sitting there calmly watching their editor. He looked back at Perry and nodded his agreement.
The staff meeting ended a short time later. As Lois got up to follow the other staff from the room, she was detained by a hand on her arm. "So when do I offer my congratulations?" drawled Richie when Clark was (or so Richie thought) safely out of earshot.
Lois looked at him in surprise. "Congratulations? On what?"
"You and Kent. So it's true … what everyone's been saying … you two are an item now. Amazing. I never thought you'd wanna be one of Kent's pack of women, Lois. I thought you had more class. "
Lois shook her arm free from his grasp. "Clark and I are going *on assignment* together," she said haughtily. "To do *work*. You should try it yourself sometime."
"To do 'work.' Sure, Lane, you expect me to believe that? You and Kent have been thick since week before last. Everyone's been talking about it, and—"
"Let's get one thing straight!" hissed Lois, keeping her voice low. "Clark and I are **working** together. I'm not 'one of his pack', and I never will be! What went on between Clark and me that week—not that it's any of your business—was a very special thing, a onetime thing, and it's *never* going to happen again. Clark and I are not 'an item' and we never will be—not even if he's the last man on earth!"
Lois stalked from the conference room, halting immediately outside the door and putting her hand to her mouth as with a sinking feeling she remembered Clark's super hearing. She hadn't meant to make her denial sound so … emphatic. Her gaze flew to her sometime partner, who had set his belongings on his desk and was preparing to seat himself in front of the computer. He showed no sign of having overheard her vehement declaration. Maybe he hadn't heard her … ?
But … no, Lois, the man can hear a cry for help from two miles away, of course he heard you.
Well, it can't be helped now. And look on the bright side, Lois—at least the guy's not going to get any false hopes about the possibility of having a relationship. If what Cat said about Clark being in love is true, that is …
"Clark … " she said, approaching his desk.
"Hi, Lois," he said, looking up to meet her eyes. There was absolutely no expression on his face.
Something twisted inside her, and she found herself gripping his shoulder gently. "Clark, I'm sorry," she said, not bothering to explain what she was talking about. He knew what she meant and she knew he knew. "I didn't mean it quite the way it sounded."
"It's all right, Lois," he said.
"No, it isn't," she insisted. "I didn't really mean that you were the las— that—well, I didn't—"
"It's okay, Lois!" said Clark. "It's not the first time I've heard something … "
"No, of course not. It wouldn't be the first time, you must hear things all the time. Things you're not meant to hear, I mean … " Lois said nervously, "terrible things. About yourself. Oh, not *terrible* things. I mean, you wouldn't *always* hear terrible things about yourself, you might hear good things, too, that could happen sometimes—" I can't believe I'm saying this! Someone shut me up, please!
Clark was reflecting glumly that the only time in recent memory that he had overheard good things about himself was when he was in the other universe— and those comments had been meant for the Other Clark. The first time he had overheard someone mention "his" name, "Kent … " he had automatically started to tune it out, not wanting to hear the snide or sneering or just plain venomous remark that he presumed the speaker would direct at him. But the rest of the sentence was spoken before he could ignore it, " … will get it for you. He's pretty good about helping rookies."
After that, he had stopped tuning out whenever his name was mentioned, and had subsequently heard things like,
" … not only one of the best reporters this newsroom has ever seen, but … "
"I've heard of a body that won't quit, but Clark has a personality that won't—okay, he has the body, too."
" … whenever I see that boy it makes me re-think my position against cloning … "
" … not only a great reporter, but an all-round great person, too … "
" … the best friend a guy could have … "
The remarks about his appearance had made him squirm, the way such things always did, but it had been sweet indeed to hear the other praise linked with his name. Clark knew that these comments were meant for the Other Clark, but still, the warm feeling had lingered.
He looked up at Lois now. "I don't *always* hear terrible things about myself, Lois."
She said hastily, "No! No, of course not! That's what I said! I—" She was rescued by Jimmy calling that she had a phone call. As she returned to her desk, she saw Clark's head suddenly jerk up to attention. He signaled that he was leaving, then stood up and snatched his jacket, holding it by an index finger as he slung it over his shoulder and jogged toward the elevator.
Clark wearily finished up his Superman duties in the South side. After taking his leave of Lois to respond to one distress call, he had needed to attend to three more and finally felt free to return to the office, which he did with slumped shoulders. He wasn't physically tired, but the morning had been a strain for him, especially overhearing Lois's comments about him after the staff meeting.
Well, not a strain—it's not like he had built any hopes around the fact that Lois was paying more attention to him.
And just because he'd learned that the Clark Kent of another universe was married to that Lois Lane didn't mean *he* had hoped to achieve the same domestic bliss here.
He hadn't really thought about it at all.
He sighed as he landed on the unoccupied machinery floor and surreptitiously made his way back to the newsroom.
"Hi Clark," Lois said brightly, evidently having forgotten about the earlier awkwardness. He returned her greeting with a nod and seated himself at his desk, trying to resume his interrupted task. His tired mind wandered, however, going invariably back to Lois.
It wasn't like he wasn't used to disappointment where she was concerned. The first time he met her Lois had made it quite plain what she thought of him, and she had never lost the opportunity to reiterate her opinion since then.
He didn't know what it was with Lois, but something about her made him care— right from the very beginning. Upon his first sight of her, he had been stricken with emotions so strong they threatened to dwarf the turbulence of adolescence.
He had not hesitated to let the dark-eyed beauty know of his feelings for her. But somehow he had done everything all wrong. He had favored Lois with bold glances because, in his experience, women liked that.
Stung by her rejection, he had flaunted his sexual encounters before her, certain that she would be impressed when she saw how desirable he was to other women.
She wasn't impressed.
So their relationship had tottered along unsteadily, with Clark continually importuning her, and Lois steadfastly rejecting him.
There had been one time when he had dared to hope … and it had ended so disastrously that he cringed to think of it now.
He and Lois had been working on a story about political corruption, a story that met with her approval for a change, and she had been in a rare sunny mood toward him. She had patted his arm (he didn't remember her ever voluntarily touching him before) and said with a roguish smile as she looked back over her shoulder at him that she was going into the supply room. Why had he taken that as a come-on? What made him believe that Lois Lane would be remotely interested in him after all the trouble she had taken to show him that she considered him to be of less value than an insect crawling across the floor, and of considerably less interest?
He winced when he remembered following her into the supply room, coming up on her while she was standing on that stool, feeling rather than seeing her tumble into his arms …
He swallowed as he remembered the delicious sensation of holding that cozy little armful of woman. And then …
… a quick succession of events, each harder to remember than the last: her outraged rejection, his startled response, his anger born of disappointment and embarrassment for his error. Flinging his arm out and hitting Jimmy. Fear that he had killed the young man, anger following swiftly on the heels of his relief, and everything culminating in his enraged statement that he would break Jimmy's other arm. *Why had he said that??* Clark winced again.
"Are you okay, Clark?" Lois interrupted his thoughts.
"What? Yes, I'm okay." He managed to raise a smile for her when what he really felt like doing was throwing his monitor onto the newsroom floor and stomping on it.
"Kent, Lois, listen up," said Perry, erupting from his office and bearing down on them rapidly. "The French Canada investigation is off."
"But Perry—" said Lois.
"Now, Lois, not another word," said Perry firmly. He lowered his voice. "The orders are coming from pretty high up—I suspect Mattican may have leaned on the Brass to stop the investigation."
"Mattican? But that would mean—"
"—that Mattican's probably running the kidnaping ring. That's right, Lois. So we're stayin' out of it."
Lois glanced at Clark, who shrugged. "Well … anyway," she said, swallowing her disappointment, "at least Clark has several more Superman stories … I think." Clark nodded. He could write up his latest exploits in a flash.
"Uh … no, we're not doin' Superman stories any more, darlin'."
"Not doing—! What do you *mean*, we're not doing Superman stories anymore, Perry?? Superman is the biggest news to hit Metropolis—the *world*!— in … in … *forever!* We're going to be scooped by every other newspaper in town!"
"No, Lois, I'm afraid not," said Perry sadly. "No other newspapers are goin' to be carrying Superman stories. Or radio or television. There's a media blackout on Superman."
Lois's opened her mouth in astonishment, then closed it again, staring at him as he returned to his office. "Wait!" she called, running after him and motioning behind her back for Clark to follow her. He ducked his head, pretending not to see, but he was forced to listen to her since he couldn't shut off his super hearing. "Perry, you can't mean that!!" she said as soon as she had entered Perry's office. "Superman is our only hope! We've *got* to let everyone know that he's on the job, fighting for justice—that he's *there* for us!"
"Lois, public opinion polls have shown that most people don't have much faith in Superman's existence, and even less in his benevolence. They—"
"Public opinion polls!" Lois snorted. "Those things are so rigged! The Powers-That-Be are always telling us what our opinions should be! I don't put any stock in those polls, Perry! Clark and I have a couple of stories … let's just put them into the evening edition and … " she trailed off as Perry shook his head.
"Lois, I can't do that," he said. "I'd be out of a job in nothing flat, and so would you. You know that. There's nothing we can do about it, so let's just put this whole Superman thing behind us and … uh … get back to reality. You need to finish your story on Congressman Blau, so—"
"Congressman Blau!" cried Lois. "Perry, he's been doing the same old things for twenty-five years and nobody has ever cared about it before! We've been instructed to 'find' something on him because his political enemies want him out of office—it's that simple."
"I'm *not* going to complete my investigation on Congressman Blau and I *am* going to keep writing about Superman! Clark and I both! We—" Lois looked around the room and noticed for the first time that Clark hadn't accompanied her into Perry's office. "We … we're going to get his story out to the public somehow. I'll see to that!"
Lois spun on her heel and charged out of Perry's office, bearing down rapidly on Clark, who suddenly decided that this would be a good time to investigate those sirens he had been hearing for the last few minutes. "Hi, Lois, I have to go now—there's a hostage situation in the Central Plaza," he said hurriedly as he slipped out of his chair. He flashed her a grin that he hoped looked apologetic, and quickly made his escape.
When he got back to the office, he was relieved that Lois didn't try to draw him into a debate about the moratorium on Superman stories—until he realized it was because she had something else in mind for him: another situation she thought he should straighten out, this one in Turkey. When he returned, she had another "suggestion" for him. And another. And then he didn't bother going back to the office any more, for in Metropolis one crisis after another called for his assistance throughout the rest of that day and on into the night. He didn't see Lois again until the wee hours of the morning.
It was shortly after 3 a.m. (he knew the time because he'd just heard the Whitchurch clock strike the hour) when he flew to the middle of a collapsing bridge, holding it up from underneath until the motorists already on it could drive to safety. Afterwards, he quickly erected barriers on both ends to prevent other hapless drivers from attempting to cross.
"Superman!" called a voice from behind him. "The one-lane bridge at Clemons Crossing just collapsed—with someone on it! I don't know if the Rescue Squad's gonna be able to get there in time!"
Clark dropped one last beam of his barricade into place, and shot into the sky at supersonic speed. Time was of the essence here. If someone had gone into the water, he had only minutes to pull them out before they drowned. As he dived into the New Troy river at Clemons Crossing, he reflected grimly that this couldn't be coincidence—not *another* bridge on the very same night.
Under water, he quickly found the broken end of the bridge in the murky, polluted water, and began feeling carefully for signs of the submerged vehicle. He found … nothing. Panicked, he went back to the bridge, located one broken end under water, then the other, and began swimming in ever-widening circles, groping in the dark water for any sign of a car.
The need for air drove him to the surface, and after inhaling quickly, he dived again. And again. The last time under water, he miscalculated his time and stayed under too long. His mouth opened reflexively and he sucked in a mouthful of polluted river water. He shot to the surface and flew to the river's edge, kneeling on hands and knees on the muddy bank and coughing up river water painfully. When at last the paroxysms had abated, he collapsed on the ground, gasping and wheezing.
The mud was soft and cool. Maybe he could just lie here for awhile … rest …
A bright light flooded him, pinning him where he lay face-down in the mud. "Did you find anything?" asked the voice of his nemesis. He didn't answer. "Nothing, huh? I thought so." The beam from the flashlight played over him, drifting down the length of his body and back up again. "It was another false alarm, wasn't it? I heard about the shoppers in Valleybrook Mall calling for help and then scattering when you appeared—have you had many fake cries for help like that?"
Clark opened his mouth to speak, but was overcome by another fit of coughing, after which he spluttered and lay still.
Some concern in the voice. "Are you all right?"
*Thank you* for asking. "Yeah." His tormentor moved closer, bending over him. "Don't … touch me, Lois," he wheezed. "I'm … covered with slime."
Lois promptly knelt beside him and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Ooooh," she said. "You need a shower."
Just what he needed to hear.
"Get up!" said Lois briskly. "You should go home and get some sleep."
You mean I'm allowed to sleep? "Mfffnnn."
"You've got to have strength to come out again tomorrow."
Clark shook his head and buried his face in his arms. "I'm not doing this tomorrow," he said, his voice muffled.
"Yes, you are," said Lois.
"No, I'm not."
"Yes, you are!" said Lois, her voice rising. "You have to! We *need* you!"
"What's the point?" said Clark, rolling over onto his side and pushing himself up to a sitting position. "Lois, it's been one thing after another for more than twelve hours. Some of these emergencies aren't accidents. Like this bridge collapsing—it's the third one today."
"I know … wait—the third???"
"The Twelfth street bridge collapsed, this bridge collapsed, and the Fourteenth street bridge *would* have collapsed if I hadn't made some emergency repairs. When I was flying past it earlier today—yesterday—I noticed one of the suspension cables was cut almost all the way through, so I welded the break with my heat vision and notified the City."
Lois was silent as Clark rose to his feet.
"And now … this … " Clark waved his arm at the Clemons Bridge. "I can't keep up with it … one false alarm after another, with a lot of *real* distress calls in between—just enough that I can't quit responding, even when I suspect that it's a false alarm. Someone's trying to stop me from being Superman." His voice was tired. "I've had it, Lois. They've won."
"They haven't *won*!" snapped Lois. "As soon as we find out who's behind the false alarms we can stop them, and that'll leave you free to deal with the *real* emergencies."
Clark gave a short laugh. "'As *soon* as we find out … '" he said skeptically. "Yeah, that'll be so easy, Lois."
"It *will* be easy," she insisted. "Who are the prominent crime lords in Metropolis? Mattican of Tiron Industries, Chaney of Mass Markets, and Luthor—it's got to be one of those three. And we know which Congressmen and Cabinet officers they own, so—"
"Luthor's a crime lord?" interrupted Clark, staring at her. "I thought he was your … I thought you were going out with him, Lois."
"Not any more," she said calmly. "The Other Clark told me about the Lex Luthor of *his* world and I suspect that our Lex is cast from the same mold."
"The *Other Clark*. Hah. You listened to *him*, but you wouldn't believe what *I* said about Luthor," Clark grumbled.
"Never mind that now," said Lois. "The important thing is not to let them stop us. We'll just have to show them that it's not possible to wear you down—"
"—and then we'll find out who's doing this and stop them."
"What do you mean, 'huh-uh'?"
"'Huh-uh,' as in no, I'm not going to have any part of it."
"But you *have* to! We need you!"
"I don't care."
"Yes, you *do*!"
"No, I *don't*!!"
"Clark Kent you do *so* care!" Lois said. "Why did you rescue Leila Louise?"
Clark was silent.
"You *do* care—so don't lie to me!"
"Okay, I *did* care. A little. But that's over now. I—"
"—and Lana Lang," said Lois. "Why did you help her?" Clark suddenly became very still.
"How do you know about that?" he asked quietly.
"I know a lot about you," said Lois smugly. "I know about your early years with the Kents, and about the Johnsons taking you from them … "
Clark's head jerked up and he drew in his breath sharply.
" … and how you defended Ernie Mallow and Tom Winder against the school bullies when you moved to Barnesville, and how you helped Eva Strong, and Lana Lang—"
"—*tried* to help her," Clark amended, closing his eyes as if doing so would shut out a painful memory. He didn't seem to notice that Lois had put both hands on his arms, disregarding the slime clinging to the sleeves of the Suit.
"You couldn't very well do much for *her* when the schoolteachers were the ones leading the bullying against her … "
"So you know about that, too," muttered Clark. "Is there anything about my life that you *don't* know, Miss Investigative Journalist? Or Lana's? Do you know why?" He looked at her keenly.
"Do I know why the teachers were out to get Lana Lang?"
"Yes," she said quietly.
"You do??? What—? How?"
"I have ways of finding things out … " Lois said with a self-satisfied look.
"You want me to tell you about Lana?"
Clark let out his breath in a long, exasperated sigh.
"Okay," she said, sure of his attention. "Lana Lang's mother is from Metropolis."
"And … ?"
"She worked for Chaney about thirty years ago."
"Chaney!" Clark ejaculated.
"Yes. She was his Special Assistant. It seems that he was romantically inclined, but she … well, she married David Lang instead of him. Chaney didn't take it too well, and the newlyweds left Metropolis to escape his harassment. They managed to stay out of harm's way until he located them some nine years later in Barnesville. Are you with me?"
"Yes." Clark was hanging onto every word.
"Chaney found out somehow that the Langs were living in Barnesville and he began to harass the Langs again—"
"Come on, Lois, Chaney wasn't powerful enough to harass them in Kansas! Not twenty years ago!"
"He had … connections," said Lois, giving Clark a long look. "Mattican and LaSalle are from Kansas, if you'll remember."
"Wait a minute … " Clark said. "Are you telling me that Mattican and LaSalle went after the Langs—"
Lois was nodding her head, thinking of the information that she had already relayed to her father.
" … to get in good with Chaney?"
Lois nodded again. "They were Chaney's boys then, only too glad to do him the tiny little favor of tormenting a little girl who had the misfortune of being daughter to a woman who had rejected Chaney."
Clark stood rigid, his face darkening with anger.
" … so you see … " said Lois. "You *have* to help! We're dealing with some ugly customers here."
"I already knew *that* much," said Clark, the anger leaving him suddenly. He bowed his head.
"You *will* keep on being Superman, won't you?" said Lois anxiously.
"Maybe … "
Lois looked at him closely, really seeing him for the first time. He seemed tired and his shoulders were slumped—he didn't look like Superman now. He looked, in fact, like somebody badly in need of a hug …
He was going to have to do without it, however, because unfortunately she wasn't going to give him one. Not with that rusty orange slime all over him—she was still shuddering from touching it earlier.
She *did* give him a nice pat on the arm, however (although she took care to surreptitiously wipe her hand afterwards). "Go home and get some rest," she told him, "and we'll talk about this in the morning."
"Okay," said Clark. "I'll take you home first and—"
"I don't need you to take me home," rejoined Lois. "Superman has done such a good job of cleaning up the street gangs that I'll be quite safe. *You* go home and get some rest. My Jeep's right here. I'll be fine." She gave him a push. "Go."
Lois smiled as she watched him disappear into the night sky. Things were looking up. Literally.
Lois drifted over to the Jeep and climbed in, starting the engine and driving away slowly, as befitted her sleepy state. She turned corners at a leisurely pace, not even trying to beat the traffic lights. She didn't have any problem until she reached the intersection at Lloyd and Benson Streets.
Looking back on it, Lois couldn't remember that there had been any warning signs. No gunshots or screams, no sharp movements in the shadows. The first indication of trouble was when she stopped at a red light. When the light changed and she drove forward, a young man fell into the middle of the street in front of her vehicle.
Lois jammed on the brakes, catching sight of several fleeing forms in the beams of her headlight. She jumped from her seat and rushed to kneel beside the fallen youth. "Are you all right?" she asked anxiously.
"Peachy, lady," he said, opening his eyes and winking at her. "Real peachy … " His eyes ran lasciviously over her form. Lois felt rather than saw the others gather around them.
"Mmm, mmmm, mmmm … what have we here?" said a voice behind her. Lois rose to her feet and turned slowly to face directly into the barrel of a Smith & Wesson Model 645 semiautomatic pistol.
Her glance slid sideways, to light on the unwelcome sight of a dozen black-clad young men closing in on her.
How could I have been so careless? Well … because the streets have been so much safer lately—since Superman came … but … oh, no … I've sent *him* home, slimed and scummed with river pollution, home to shower and bed and—judging by the look on his face—to fall asleep even before his head touches the pillow. There's no point in calling for help …
"Isn't it past your bedtime?" she said, rather unwisely, to the wielder of the gun.
"Think you're funny, lady? Hey, guys, this one thinks she's funny. That's good. I like to laugh when I'm—"
Lois moved her hand surreptitiously toward her waist.
"Hey, keep your hands where we can see them!" said the young man sharply.
"Maybe we better frisk her," said the youth who had been lying on the street. He licked his lips.
"Yeah, maybe we'd *all* better frisk her."
"Come here, lady … you don't mind havin' a little fun, do ya?"
Lois had just begun to mentally review all her martial arts training when a gust of wind swept through the street.
In place of the dozen youths scattered around her was now a pile of what looked at first like corpses, but on closer examination proved to be living, if somewhat worse for the wear, bodies. Somebody groaned.
Shocked, Lois looked at Superman. There was not a trace of slime … or weariness … about him, and he stood with his fists clenched at his sides and a look on his face that Lois could only have described as homicidal.
"Supe—" she whispered. She cleared her throat. "Superman," she said firmly. "I'll call the police. Thank you for your help."
"*I'll* take them to the police," said Superman. "*You* get into your Jeep and lock the doors. Don't stop driving until you get home. When you get to your parking garage sit in your car and *don't get out until I get there.* Wait for me. I'll come."
Lois started to object: "But … " she looked at his unsmiling face and gave up. "Okay," she said, "but—don't kill them!"
Not by the flicker of an eyelash did Clark betray that he'd heard her warning, and Lois could only hope that he could see the sense in what she'd said.
Clark Kent was waiting in her parking garage when she arrived, wearing the business suit he'd had on earlier in the day. He escorted her to her apartment, pushing past her to go in first and refusing to leave until he had looked around and satisfied himself that no one was lying in wait for her.
Lois decided to try to talk to him about what had happened in the street. "Clark … when you stopped that gang … it was wonderful. But … "
"But … ?" said Clark, still not smiling.
"Don't you think you were just a little bit rough? And the way you looked at them! You looked … murderous!"
"And … ?" Clark folded his arms across his chest.
"I don't think that Superman should … " she began. She was checked by the bleak look on his face. He doesn't need this, she thought. Not tonight. Neither of us does. "Oh, never mind," she said. They could discuss the proper Superman attitude tomorrow. "You go home and get some rest," she told him. "I'll see you at the Planet tomorrow, okay?" He nodded, and this time Lois felt ready to hug him.
"Thank you, Clark," she said, squeezing him hard.
He mumbled something inarticulate.
Lois hugged him again and this time she couldn't help clinging a little. He was so big and reassuringly solid, and she *had* been scared … Clark stood stiffly with his arms at his sides, but Lois thought he relaxed a little under her touch. She slipped her arms underneath his jacket and wrapped them around his waist, laying her head against his chest. She was surprised to find that his heart was racing furiously, not at all what she would have expected from a man so dead on his feet that he was swaying … and then she remembered that he was an alien. Kryptonian physiology was probably different—that explained the thudding heartbeat …
She squeezed his waist. "I *will* see you tomorrow?" she asked again.
"You'll go on being Superman?"
Clark nodded reluctantly.
"You won't quit on me—us, will you?"
He sighed. "I guess not."
Lois released him, beaming happily up at him. "I knew we could count on you."
Lois decided not to take notice of how unenthusiastic his response was. "Good night," she said cheerfully, patting his shoulder as she urged him toward the door.
After he was gone, she allowed herself to slump against the door, content in the knowledge that she had averted the looming disaster. It was a close call, but she had pulled him through it.
For tonight, anyway.
To be continued … (probably)
In having Clark overcome the scars from his tragically bad childhood, I didn't want to make light of the trauma suffered by those who have been abused as children, so I compromised and made Clark a "super" child (I really have heard of such children—see Number 4, below.)
Here are some of the things Dr. Friskin could have told Lois when Lois asked about the prognosis for recovery from childhood abuse:
1. "Repeated trauma in adult life erodes the structure of the personality already formed, but repeated trauma in childhood forms and deforms the personality. The child trapped in an abusive environment is faced with formidable tasks of adaptation. She must find a way to preserve a sense of trust in people who are untrustworthy, safety in a situation that is unsafe, control in a situation that is terrifyingly unpredictable, power in a situation of helplessness. Unable to care for or protect herself she must compensate for the failures of adult care and protection with the only means at her disposal, an immature system of psychological defenses."; Herman, Judith Lewis, M.D.; "Trauma and Recovery;" BasicBooks; 1992; p.96
2. " … the child faces a formidable developmental task. She must find a way to form primary attachments to caretakers who are either dangerous or, from her perspective, negligent. She must find a way to develop a sense of basic trust and safety with caretakers who are untrustworthy and unsafe. She must develop a sense of self in relation to others who are helpless, uncaring, or cruel."; Ibid; p. 101
… and references for what Dr. Friskin did tell Lois in my story …
3. Abuse victims more likely to be suicidal than homicidal. Ibid; p. 113
4. Super children: attribute lost. Some twenty years ago I read an article about super children, children who buck the odds and become successes in spite of growing up in the worst kinds of environments. I hope it's not unreasonable to think it possible that Clark could have a "super"-resilient personality as well as body.
(P.S. How many readers believe Clark's assertion that he's never x-rayed anyone since high school, except for one waitress? ;)