This is part of the Alt-world (Christmas Vacation) series and follows First Case.
How I Spent My Christmas Vacation -- One Year Later
By Nan Smith
"'Billionaire Philanthropist Scorched in Arson Probe,' by Lois Lane and Clark Kent," Lois said, happily. "Special contribution by Charles A. King." She regarded the headline with the deep sense of satisfaction that was born of a difficult job well done.
Their investigation had begun nearly a year before with a series of unexplained arsons and coincidental robberies. Between them, she, Clark and his alter ego, Charlie King, had followed the trail slowly but relentlessly, always careful not to alarm their quarry. When they had required the help of an expert computer hacker, they had gone to James Olsen for help. They had presented him with their evidence and suspicions, and after due consideration, the young business magnate had offered his services -- after securing their promise that the subject of his part in the investigation would never pass their lips.
Lois was secretly of the opinion that James Olsen had discovered a previously unrecognized talent for investigation, for he turned in a superior job, locating information that they hadn't realized existed before, and then erased his tracks with masterly skill. The information he uncovered led Lois and Clark to other, and more incriminating, evidence that Lex Luthor had left undisturbed apparently in a calculated effort to avoid drawing attention to any appearance of irregularity or cover-up. And when they had amassed enough evidence to convince even the cynical Inspector Henderson, Lois thought smugly, they had presented it to him.
"I don't think I've ever seen Henderson smile before," Clark said, evidently following her line of thought without difficulty. "Especially not like that. I wasn't even sure the man had teeth."
Lois giggled. "I know. I wasn't surprised to find out he'd been doing some investigation on his own, though. He just didn't have the advantages of Superman or James on his team."
"Or," Clark said, "you in a low cut cocktail dress."
"Oh?" Lois said, giving him an innocent look. "I didn't think you particularly noticed."
"A guy would have to have been dead not to have noticed," Clark said. "Luthor never stood a chance."
The phone on her desk chose that moment to ring and Clark reached over to pick it up. "Lois Lane's desk. Clark Kent speaking."
He held the receiver away from his ear, grimacing slightly at the shout that issued from it. Even from several feet away, Lois could hear Perry White's voice, and had to suppress a laugh.
"Easy, Perry," Clark said. "You don't need to shout. I can hear you fine."
Their former editor's voice lost some volume, but Clark's eyes met Lois's in a broad wink. "Yeah, we think so, too. Yes, Lois is right here." He put a hand over the mouthpiece. "He wants to talk to you."
"Well, he did call my phone." Lois held out her hand for the instrument and Clark passed it to her. She put the receiver to her ear. "Hi, Perry."
"Honey, I'm so proud of you two I could bust a seam!" Perry said.
"Thanks," Lois said. "We're pretty proud of us, too."
"I see a Kerth in your future," Perry said. "How come I didn't know anything about this? I've had my suspicions about Luthor ever since that business where he ended up selling the Planet to James, but evidence always tended to slip away when Luthor got involved in things."
"We know," Lois said. "It wasn't easy. We started investigating this thing on New Year's Eve -- and it's nearly Christmas again."
"Well, the point is, you did it," Perry said. "I want you to come over for dinner tonight -- all three of you. I've heard a little about this Charles King guy. He sounds like a real promising investigative reporter, pink earring and all. Why isn't he working for the Planet?"
"Charlie says he likes being a free-lancer," Lois said. "He doesn't like set schedules, and since he's got another source of income, he can afford to do it his way." She winked at Clark. "We'll pass the invitation along, but I think he's got a date tonight. Clark and I will be there, though."
"Okay," Perry said. "Seven o'clock."
"All right," Lois said. She saw Clark's hand stray to his tie. "Gotta go, Perry. Breaking story."
"See you tonight," Perry said. "I want to hear all the details."
"Right. Bye." Lois set down the receiver. "What's going on?" she asked Clark.
"Jewelry store robbery," he said. "I'll tell you about it when I get back."
"Just be sure you get a couple of good pictures," she admonished him. "Got your camera?"
"Leave that to Charlie," Clark said. He ran for the stairs, pulling at his tie.
Ralph looked after him and glanced sourly at Lois. "Why aren't you going, Lane?"
"Clark will take care of it," Lois said. "I've got a follow-up on the Luthor story to finish before the deadline."
Ralph grunted. "Anybody could have broken the story, Lane. You got lucky."
"Oh?" Lois raised an eyebrow. "I'll bother to take that seriously when you turn in something half as good."
"Ralph," Eduardo's voice said. Their editor appeared beside Lois's desk. "Where's that bit I assigned you on the demolition derby?"
"Uh, it's coming," Ralph said. He glanced sulkily at Lois. "I don't see why I don't get assigned stories like the Luthor expose. How come Lane and Kent always get the juicy stuff?"
"Could be because they go out and find it," Eduardo said, mildly. "How's that follow-up coming, Lois?"
"I'm on it," Lois said. "I've already got it roughed out, but I'm waiting for a call-back from a source before I have all the details."
"Just be sure it's ready by deadline," Eduardo said. He turned back to Ralph. "Well? What are you waiting for? Get moving!"
"I'll bet if you didn't have Superman on your team, things would have turned out different," Ralph grumbled.
"A good investigative journalist uses whatever advantages he has," Lois said. "The problem you and your buddies had wasn't that you didn't have Superman helping you. It was the fact that not one of you had any clue that Luthor was up to anything -- or if you did, you didn't have the guts to investigate him. Clark, Charlie and I did. The fact that Clark can bend steel bars with his pinky finger has nothing to do with his investigative ability. And no matter how hard you tried, I doubt that you'd ever look good enough in a cocktail dress to interest Lex Luthor."
"All right, break it up," Eduardo said. Lois could swear that he was trying hard to keep a straight face. "We've got a deadline."
Lois's phone rang again and she reached out to answer it. "If you'll excuse me," she said pointedly to Ralph, "Unlike you, I have some work to do. Lois Lane," she added, speaking to the caller. "Oh, hi Bobby. You do? Good. Yeah, I'll reserve a dinner for you at the Mandarin Palace. Go on." She grabbed a pencil and began jotting notes on the scratch pad on her desk. "Yeah -- okay, that makes sense ... good. Thanks, that's exactly what I need. Yeah, I'll give them a call right away. Uh huh. You'll be hearing from me." She set the receiver down with a flourish and almost immediately lifted it to her ear again. Without pausing, she punched in a number and proceeded to order Bobby Bigmouth his favorite Chinese dinner. Then, with an air of satisfaction, she turned to her computer and began to type, pointedly ignoring Ralph. The other reporter walked away, muttering under his breath. Lois summarily dismissed him from her thoughts as not worth her time. She had long ago pigeonholed her fellow reporter as a man with big aspirations but not the initiative or determination to ever realize them. Ralph was destined to remain mediocre all his life unless a miracle somehow happened -- which didn't seem likely.
Finished with the follow-up well before the deadline, she LANned it to Eduardo and leaned back in her chair to stretch. A glance at the calendar pad on her desk reminded her that she still had some Christmas shopping to do this afternoon before she and Clark attended the Mayor's informal dinner tonight.
It was December 21st. In two days, it would be exactly a year since Clark had brought her back to 1997. As a matter of fact, according to Clark, HG Wells had shown up on this day, one year ago, to take him back to 1993 in time to save her life. And what a year it had been.
At first, she had been afraid that she wouldn't be able to adapt to a world that seemed to have leaped forward tremendously in the nearly five years that she had skipped, but Clark stood by her like a rock, helping her to adapt to the changes. And it rapidly became evident that he needed her help as much as she needed his. The Media had set its sights on Superman as a source of news, almost to the exclusion of Superman's real purpose, and was making his life a shambles. She had made it her business to step in, and now the new rules were finally, if reluctantly, accepted by the various news services. Clark Kent was to be left severely alone as an object of news, and woe to the reporter or news crew that was foolish enough to violate that prohibition. Their newspaper or news service would be summarily blacked out of any Superman news, except for the stuff available to everyone, for the next two weeks. No quotes, no original photos, no interviews, no nothing, and Superman would go out of his way to be certain that their chief competitor got extra attention for that same period of time. It worked like a charm, and while it made neither Lois nor Clark particularly popular with the news services thus affected, it did inspire reluctant respect. And Clark had his life back.
The introduction of Charlie King had also been an innovation of Lois's. The independent, free-lance journalist slowly but surely began to establish a reputation for himself and as Lois had said to Clark early in the experiment, people saw what they expected to see. Charlie wasn't well known, but his work was respected, and it was known that he was a friend of Lane and Kent. It gave Clark the freedom that had been missing from his life since Tempus had revealed his secret to the world.
Lois smiled as she began to clear her desk. She hoped that Clark would be back before she was ready to leave. Spending time with him away from work had become second nature to her over the last year, and he no longer made any effort at all to hide his feelings, at least from her.
Five minutes before deadline, Clark stepped out of the stairwell and jogged down the ramp to the newsroom.
"All done?" Lois asked.
He nodded. "Give me a minute to write this up and we're outta here," he said with a quick smile. "Charlie got three pictures that I think will work with the article, and sent them to Eduardo." He seated himself before his computer and his fingers became a blur of speed.
The science editor, Catherine Grant, glanced wistfully at him as she passed by their desks on the way to the stairs. "Oh to be able to type like that," she said.
"I know what you mean," Lois agreed.
The other woman smiled. "Oh well, at least he works for the Planet and not some other paper. What are you two planning for Christmas this year? I noticed neither of you are on the schedule for Christmas Eve."
Lois nodded. "I covered for Jacob on Thanksgiving and he's covering for me on Christmas Eve," she explained. "Clark and I are taking the day off in Aspen."
"Nice," Catherine said. "After this last investigation you deserve it. Congratulations on the story, by the way. Superman or not, I imagine investigating Luthor wasn't easy, no matter what Ralph says."
"It wasn't," Lois said.
"I wondered about him after the scandal," Catherine said. "I know the whole thing was pretty much hushed up, and then James bought the Planet, but it made me think a bit. Considering what you found out, that was just the tip of the iceberg. It's hard to believe he was the kingpin of an entire international criminal network. He'd established such a reputation as a philanthropist."
"Yeah," Lois said. "I thought I'd seen it all until we started to turn up the evidence. I guess it emphasizes the old saying -- if something seems too good to be true, it probably is."
"That's for sure," the other woman agreed. "It must have been a little scary when you realized what you'd found."
There had been a time when Lois would have denied being afraid of anything, but the last year had made its mark. "Definitely," she said. "But now -- well, considering the convictions en absentia in other countries, he'd better hope he never gets released from Stryker's Island. East Umbrito has a death sentence just waiting for him, and they're not particularly well known for their record on human rights."
"I noticed that," Catherine said. "Well, congratulations, is all I can say. You and Clark have done the world a big favor."
Clark glanced up. "Thanks," he said. "I appreciate that, Catherine."
"You're welcome," Catherine said. "I guess I'll see you tomorrow. Have a nice evening."
The science editor went to reclaim her coat and fur hat from the coat rack and Lois turned to Clark, who was shutting down his computer in preparation for leaving. "Is Superman free for the evening?"
"More or less," Clark said. "I guess you have to finish your Christmas shopping, huh?"
"I'm afraid so. I put the last of it off until the last minute, as usual."
Clark grinned. "Well, just by coincidence, I did, too. Shall we go together?"
"I was hoping you'd ask. Just as long as you don't peek at what I'm getting you."
"Scout's honor," he told her.
"Aren't you going to make me promise the same?" she asked.
"Nope. I got yours months ago," he said, looking smug.
She swatted his arm. "Show off. All right, let's go. We've only got a little while before we have to be at Perry's."
They went up the steps and he retrieved her coat for her. She slipped into it and buttoned it up, only to find him holding the door to the stairs open. She didn't comment but proceeded through the door. As it swung shut, a pair of blue-clad arms lifted her lightly. The stairwell blurred around her and then she felt the tiny flecks of cold as the snowflakes of the outer world brushed her face as lightly as feathers. They were flying through the late afternoon air of Metropolis and below her she could see a snow-enshrouded city with the tinsel decorations waving in the stiff breeze that accompanied the snowstorm.
"Where to, Ms. Lane?" he inquired.
"I was thinking of the Metro Center Mall," Lois said. "I have six more people to buy for, including you. If I'm lucky, I can pick everything up in an hour and then we can head back to the apartment house and be ready for Perry's dinner in plenty of time."
"Metro Mall it is." Clark changed direction. "I can't help thinking that it was about this time a year ago that HG Wells showed up on my doorstep with news of you. That was a defining moment in my life."
"And mine," Lois said. "Have I ever thanked you for coming to save me?"
"More than you'll ever know," Clark said with sudden seriousness. "Do you have any idea what a difference you've made in my life?"
"A little," Lois said. "I think you would have made the same changes eventually, though."
"Maybe the ones that involved the media," Clark said, "but there have been a lot of other changes that have nothing to do with that. The most important one was just you being there. I was missing something incredibly important, but I didn't know how important until --" He broke off and she could see that his cheeks were pink. "I'm sounding pretty mushy, aren't I?"
"Mushy isn't always bad," Lois said. She rested a hand on his arm. "It's almost scary to know that I mean that much to you."
"To me, too, a little," Clark said. "I don't know what I'd do without you now. I'm used to having you as my partner. Let alone that you're necessary for Utopia to come to be, you're necessary for me, too. I still have that question I'd like to ask you whenever you tell me you're ready to hear it."
She knew what that was. She'd asked him not to ask her that until she was ready. Clark's style was about as subtle as a sledgehammer, she thought. Her record with men wasn't good. She tended to scare the male of the species away, and it was hard to reconcile that fact with the knowledge that this incredibly superior male specimen not only wasn't scared, but would be satisfied with no woman but her. He'd said so often enough, but almost subconsciously she kept expecting him to change his mind.
"I'll let you know soon," she promised. The idea scared her silly, although she would never admit it to him. If she once committed to Clark, it would be much more painful if he were to back out than it would if the agreement had never existed. Still, she recalled thinking at the New Year's party, nearly a year ago, that if she wanted him, Clark was hers for the taking. She'd been thinking it over ever since, but every time he came near to asking her, she backed skittishly away. What was wrong with her, anyway? It wasn't as if he had given her any reason to doubt him over the last year.
The mall came into view through the dancing snowflakes and Clark dropped into an alley between two buildings across the street from the entrance. A few moments later, a completely unremarkable couple strolled through the entrance to Broadhurst's Emporium. Lois was still chewing the subject of her own skittishness over in her mind as they entered the warmth and glitter of the big store, decorated lavishly for the holiday season. She'd promised that she'd tell him soon. Now she was going to have to carry through. She glanced quickly at him out of the corner of her eye. He was everything any woman could want. For that matter, he could have any woman in the world that he wanted. What made her so special that Clark Kent would be satisfied with no one but her? And what would she do if he ever changed his mind?
On some level she was aware that the whole line of reasoning was a little silly. For some months, now, Clark had made no secret of the fact that it was Lois Lane or no one. So why was she so afraid of making the commitment?
From somewhere, there came the shrilling of an alarm bell. Clark lowered his glasses, glancing quickly around.
"What is it?" Lois asked.
"There's a baby trapped in an elevator, stuck between floors. Come on." Clark slipped an arm around her waist and an instant later they were zipping over the heads of the mob of shoppers that packed the mall during the Christmas season. They exited the department store into the main body of the mall and whisked up an escalator. A crowd of humanity was massed around an elevator door, where a man in the uniform of a security guard was restraining a shrieking woman.
"I don't know how it happened!" she wailed. "I turned my back for a second and when I looked back he was in the elevator and the doors were closing! Somebody help!"
"Ma'am, the fire department is on its way," the uniformed man was saying. "Calm down --"
"You calm down! He's not your baby!"
Clark set Lois on the floor and stepped forward, changing from Clark to Superman in the blink of an eye. "I'll get him, ma'am," he said quickly to the woman and vanished instantly. In another instant he was back, a howling child held in his arms.
The woman grabbed her baby. "Oh, thank you, Superman! I don't know how it happened!"
"Just keep a closer eye on him after this," Clark said with a smile. He turned back to Lois. Then he looked past her.
Lois didn't see what happened next. One instant, Clark was standing in front of her; the next he had spun her around, shielding her body with his own. A bright red glow enveloped them both.
A wave of dizziness swept over her and the world around her was abruptly blotted out.
Clark's arm was holding her up. "Lois?" his voice asked.
She raised her head, struggling to orient herself.
"Lois? Are you all right?" He sounded very worried.
"Yeah -- yeah." Things were steadying down. She blinked at him, trying to clear her head. "A little dizzy. What happened?"
He released her, keeping a steadying hand on her arm. "Someone shot us with a red beam."
"Well, go get him," she said. The dizziness had gone now, leaving only a faint tingle along her nerves.
Clark took a quick step forward and paused. He looked back at Lois, his brows contracted in the slightest of frowns.
Something wasn't right. "What's the matter?" she asked.
"Uh -- I think they went this way," he said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. The message was clear. He wanted her to follow him. Lois extricated herself from the crowd of people around the woman and baby and started after him.
Moments later, she caught up with him, standing at the entrance to Robertson's. The big department store was a blaze of red, green, gold and silver, glittering brilliantly in the glow of the fluorescent lights. The crowds of shoppers swarmed through the aisles as they hunted frantically for gifts. Clark was peering into the crowd, looking back and forth.
"What is it?" Lois asked. "What's wrong?"
"I can't fly!" Clark's voice was very low but nonetheless intense for all that.
"And," Clark continued, "no x-ray vision, no super-hearing --"
He looked at her. "How do you feel?"
"Fine," she said almost rhetorically and then realized that it was the exact truth. She had never felt so well, so full of energy. "No, honestly," she said, at his skeptical glance. "I really do feel fine. But what do you suppose happened?"
"I don't know!" He paused and took an audible breath. Lois could see him deliberately take control of himself. That was one of the things that always astonished her about him -- how he could manage to keep calm under circumstances that would completely freak her out. "The only thing I can figure is that it had something to do with that red beam."
"Then we'd better go back to where it happened and see if we can find some clues," she said. "Did you see where it came from?"
"There were two women," Clark said. "I only caught a glimpse of them. One was holding what looked like a camcorder. That was what shot out the beam of red light." He turned. "You're right. We need to look for clues."
"And then," Lois said determinedly, "we need to go see your friend, Dr. Klein, over at STAR Labs. Maybe he can figure out what happened."
The crowd had largely dissipated when they returned. The security guard was still present, and two men in the clothing of paramedics had appeared on the scene and were speaking with the woman whose baby had caused the disturbance. A short distance away on the floor tiles lay what appeared to be a camcorder. One side of it was obviously blackened, and a little curl of smoke was still drifting up from it.
"Is that it?" Lois asked.
Clark nodded and went to examine the device. The security guard looked around as he knelt beside it. "Thanks for the help, Superman," he said.
"No problem." Clark picked up the camcorder, turning it slowly over but, Lois noted, he didn't open the cassette compartment. The enormity of what had happened was gradually dawning on her and she let out her breath in a controlled exhalation, trying to regain mastery over her jumping nerves. If whatever this thing was had somehow robbed Superman of his powers, it was dangerous. It made sense to wait and let Dr. Klein open it.
"I'd better take that to Lost and Found," the security guard said.
Clark shook his head. "I doubt the owner will be back to claim it," he said. "If he does, you can tell him to contact me."
The man hesitated. "Why do you want it?"
Lois stepped forward. "If you can't trust Superman, who can you trust?" she asked.
The guard grinned faintly. "You got a point," he said. "All right. If someone comes looking for it, I'll tell him you have it."
"Thanks," Clark said.
"I guess the Christmas shopping is going to have to wait," Lois said, as they walked toward the escalator.
"I guess so." Clark said. He was examining the camcorder but he still didn't open the case. "This thing's lined with lead," he said suddenly. "The cassette compartment, anyway."
"Uh huh. Now that's interesting."
"Yeah," Lois said. "Either those women didn't want you to accidentally see what was in it, or --"
"I don't know," she said, "but I think you'd better wait to open it. If it could take your powers away like that, whatever's in there might be dangerous. Are you sure Kryptonite is the only thing that can affect you?"
He shrugged faintly. "Lois -- the other one -- didn't mention anything, and I've never come across anything else that could."
"That doesn't mean there isn't anything," Lois said, "but it makes me suspicious. Promise me you're not going to open that. Let's let Dr. Klein do it. If it turns out there's Kryptonite in it, it wouldn't do you any good at all."
"You don't have to convince me," Clark said. "I think you're probably right."
"But," she continued, "I think we'd better stop at the Men's Shoppe here."
"Unless you want to walk out in the snow in a spandex outfit," she elaborated. "Without your powers you're going to freeze."
He looked surprised. "I hadn't thought of that. You're right."
"Wait for me on that bench," she directed. "I'll be right back. And maybe you should phone Perry."
Clark glanced at her in surprise. "Why?"
"To cancel dinner, of course."
Clark shook his head. "I don't want to disappoint him," he said.
"Lois, my powers are gone, but I'm not sick or anything," he said. "I don't want anyone to know what's happened. If the criminals find out I've lost my powers --"
This probably wasn't a good place to discuss the loss of Superman's powers, Lois thought. "All right. Stay here and I'll get you the coat. Be right back. And while you're waiting, you'd better phone a cab."
"Okay." Clark started to turn toward a pay phone that was situated by one wall and stopped. "Have you got a couple of quarters?"
She fumbled in her handbag and produced the required cash. "Here. I'll be right back."
Lois hurried toward the store. The less time Clark hung around the mall in his extremely conspicuous outfit the better, as far as she was concerned. The whole episode hadn't really hit her yet, but the thought of Superman without his amazing abilities was enough to make a chill run up her spine.
Ten minutes later she walked out of the shop to find Clark sitting on the bench, waiting patiently for her. A woman with two small children was sitting on the other end and the older child, a boy of about four, was unabashedly staring at the bright costume. As Lois approached, he parked himself directly in front of Clark and leaned forward.
"Are you really Superman?" he asked in a conspiratorial tone.
Clark opened his mouth to reply when the boy's mother intervened. "Of course not, Billy," she said. "What would Superman be doing sitting here in the mall?"
"Well, actually," Clark began.
"There you are, John," Lois said, interrupting quickly. "I've been looking all over for you. Your coat was in Lost and Found, just as I thought. Come on; we're going to be late." She smiled at the little boy. "He's just here to advertise Superman action figures at the toy store. They're running a special."
The child's mother nodded. "I figured it was something like that."
"I want a Superman toy!" Billy announced.
"Well, we'll have to see what Santa brings," his mother said.
Lois and Clark walked away, as the little boy's voice rose to a wail behind them. "But I want one! I want one! I want one!"
"What if she finds out the toy store doesn't have a special on Superman action figures?" Clark asked in a low tone.
"She'll figure it's a different toy store," Lois said. "Don't borrow trouble."
A few minutes later, walking out of the mall, Clark pulled the coat tightly around himself. "Brr!" he commented. "I'd forgotten what it was like to be cold."
"Did you ever get cold?" Lois asked. "Actually it doesn't seem particularly cold. It's usually warmer when it's snowing, though."
"Well, it feels cold enough to me," Clark said. "I got cold when I was a kid. I didn't start getting my powers until I was around ten."
"That probably explains it," Lois said. "It's been a long time."
"I guess so," Clark said. "I hope the cab shows up pretty quick."
"I think that might be it," Lois said as a cab pulled up at the curb.
"Are you Lois?" the cabbie asked as they approached the cab.
"That's me," Lois said. Clark reached out to open the door for her, but Lois was ahead of him. She grasped the handle and pulled.
The handle of the door came off.
"Hey!" the cabbie said. "What'd you do to my cab?"
"I didn't!" Lois said indignantly. "The handle fell off! You better get this thing fixed."
"Shall we get another cab?" Clark asked.
"And wait around in the cold? Forget it." Lois got in and Clark slid in after her, closing the rear door with care.
"Take us to Clinton Avenue," Lois said. "Anywhere on the block will be all right." She looked at the broken door handle in her hand and frowned.
"...On the way to dinner." Lois glanced at Clark, who was fastening the buttons of his jacket, and spoke into the phone. "Yes, we'll bring the camcorder -- or whatever it is."
Clark sat on the battered sofa that had belonged in his mother's living room. He fastened the last button of his jacket with hands that tried to shake and certainly would have if not for his determination not to show anyone, even Lois, how the loss of his powers had affected him. Superman, after all, was supposed to face all situations with calm and stoicism.
Lois set the phone down and crossed to the sofa. She sat down beside him and suddenly put her hand over his. "Clark, I promise we're going to figure out what happened; do you understand me? We're Lane and Kent. We'll find whoever did this and get your powers back."
Well, he decided, that effort had been short-lived. His attempt to put on a brave face hadn't worked with Lois. She'd seen right through him, just like she always did. He gave a faint sigh, almost of relief. Pretending in front of her wasn't something he liked to do, anyway.
"I know you're scared," Lois said. "I am, too -- a little. Just because you're Superman doesn't mean you don't have feelings -- no matter what the news services used to say about you."
"I'm not very super right now," he said.
Lois shook her head vehemently. "You'll always be super, powers or not. It's just the kind of person you are. We're not going to panic over this, though. Not yet, anyway."
He smiled a little at that. "Aye aye, sir," he said. "You're the boss."
"Then if I'm the boss," she said, "I'd better go and change. We're due at Perry's in an hour and we still need to stop by STAR Labs."
"Is your Jeep here or at the Planet?" Clark asked.
"Here," Lois said. "If you recall, we flew in to work this morning."
"Yeah." Clark bit his lip. "Let's hope it wasn't for the last time."
"We don't know anything about it right now," Lois said. "We're not going to think that way until we know for sure. I'll be back in fifteen minutes and we'll head for STAR Labs."
She went to the inner door of his apartment that opened into the living room of hers. Her place was next to his, which was a distinct convenience at times. Clark liked hearing her moving around next door, and he usually ended up in her kitchen in the evening, where she would cook dinner for both of them, after which he would clean up the dishes in two seconds flat. It wasn't that Clark couldn't cook, of course. Like any bachelor, he had acquired the basics through necessity. Lois, on the other hand, hadn't learned much about cooking from her mother, who had apparently spent most of Lois's teen years alternately drinking and drying out. As an adult, she had become frustrated with her lack of cooking skills and taken a cooking course at a French school of culinary arts. After some initial fumbles, she had graduated second in the class. Following that particularly rigorous introduction to cooking, she'd experimented with other styles, and proudly displayed her expertise for Clark the day after they had moved her into her new apartment.
Clark had been suitably impressed. The first Lois Lane he'd known had admitted to being a poor cook. This was one of the differences between the Lois of his universe and the other one. That first night had been the model for many others to come, and they had continued it ever since.
"Why don't I wait in your living room," he suggested, getting to his feet. "I promise not to peek."
She laughed. "If I was worried about that, I'd never have moved in next door. Come on." She opened the door quickly and stumbled backward as it collapsed inward, literally ripped from its hinges. Clark rushed forward in an instinctive attempt to catch her, sure that she was seriously hurt, but almost at once she was rising to her feet, pieces of the wooden door falling harmlessly to the carpet and the shocked expression on her face was almost ludicrous. Clark stepped forward to give her a hand up, staring at the mess she had made with sudden, dismayed comprehension. Lois met his eyes and the same understanding was reflected in her face.
"Oh boy ..." Clark said.
"Well," Lois said, as they walked slowly up the pathway that led to the Mayor's residence, "at least we know where your powers went. They aren't gone -- just temporarily misplaced."
"I hope it's 'temporarily'," Clark said.
"Sure it is," Lois said. "If it can be done, it can be undone."
"That's not always true," Clark pointed out. "If you shoot someone dead, that's it."
"Yes," Lois countered, "but neither one of us is dead. Let's not give this up until we've found out all there is to be found out. Somehow, someone transferred your powers to me. If that can be done, they can probably be transferred back. Dr. Klein said he'd get back to us as soon as he figured out what that red crystal stuff inside the camcorder was. I'm betting it's Kryptonite."
Clark shook his head. "Kryptonite is green."
"You mean," she countered, "all the Kryptonite that we've seen was green. How do we know there aren't any other kinds?"
Clark opened his mouth to answer and shut it again, a stunned expression transfixing his face. After a moment he nodded. "That's true. I don't know. Lois -- the other Lois," he clarified, "never said anything about it, but that doesn't mean anything. She might not have known about it, or it might simply be that there wasn't the time. The subject didn't come up, except at the Mayoral Election debate."
"So," Lois said, "we wait until we get Dr. Klein's report. In the meantime, though, who knows about Kryptonite and what it will do?"
"Well --" Clark frowned. "Everybody who was watching that so-called debate saw what happened when Tempus exposed me to the Kryptonite. But Perry found it and he and James gave it to Dr. Klein."
Lois nodded thoughtfully. "Was Tempus acting alone?" she asked. "Was anyone helping him?"
Clark stopped. "He was running for mayor," he said. "He had several people on his campaign staff, but there was one man --" His voice trailed off. "Why didn't I think of that before?" he muttered under his breath, but Lois heard him clearly. "The guy's name was Major Domo."
"You're kidding," Lois said.
Clark shook his head. "I know -- talk about corny. That was his name, though. I doubt that Tempus told him much, but he had to have known about the Kryptonite. I did some research on him after Lois went back to her own universe. He didn't have any kind of criminal record, but he'd been a paid political operative for several years. He was associated with several pretty sleazy political campaigns, and there were a lot of allegations that he was behind some major political dirty tricks."
"In other words, a typical politician," Lois said. "Guys like that walk a fine line between the legal and illegal all the time, but maybe this time he's strayed a little bit over the line. Do you know who he's worked for since?"
Clark shook his head, starting up the walk toward Perry's home again. "No, but we can probably find out."
"I think we should," Lois said. "He's at least a suspect until we find out something more."
The door opened as they mounted the steps, and Lois decided that the Mayor had been watching for them.
"Come on in!" Perry said. Then he stopped, looking back and forth at their faces. "Either you don't want to be here, or something has happened that shouldn't have," he stated in no uncertain terms. "Do I want to know what it is?"
Lois glanced at Clark. "You think we should tell him?"
Clark sighed. "Yeah," he said. "I think we should. Maybe he can help."
"That's when we found out where his powers had gone," Lois said. "I have them. All of them."
"And you're completely normal? No powers at all?" Alice White was holding her husband's hand tightly as Lois and Clark concluded the story.
Clark nodded. "None. I checked out every one of them. I have no more super powers than you do."
"What do you think could have caused it?" Perry asked.
"Well," Lois said, "it obviously had something to do with that camcorder, or whatever it really was. I think the red crystal that Dr. Klein found in there might be some kind of Kryptonite. There was lead on the outside of the casing, and Dr. Klein said there was a coating of it inside as well. Somebody was awfully determined not to let Clark see what was in the camcorder."
"Could the stuff be dangerous to ordinary people?" Alice asked.
"Maybe. Dr. Klein was careful with it, just in case, but he said he'd never seen anything like it before, except for Kryptonite, which is green," Clark said. "He said he'd get back to us as soon as he found out anything. We left him with the camcorder and the crystal."
"That was smart," Perry said. "What're you doin' about Lois, though?"
"What do you mean?" Lois asked.
Clark bit his lip. "He means that I need to teach you to control your powers as quickly as possible. If I don't, you're going to hurt someone without meaning to."
Alice was nodding. "He's right. If you don't know how to handle them, you're going to try to use them, sooner or later, and there's going to be a tragedy. Clark needs to give you some lessons in the use of super powers -- fast."
"I haven't hurt anyone so far," Lois protested weakly.
"Not yet," Perry said. "You're just lucky the handle on the cab's door wasn't somebody's hand."
Clark nodded. "Remember the door at the apartment," he pointed out gently. "Doors can be fixed, but --"
Lois heaved a sigh. "You're right. I guess we'll take some time tomorrow to go somewhere private and Clark can teach me what I need to know."
Alice smiled. "I think that's a very good plan," she said. She got to her feet, glancing at her watch. "Why don't we go in to dinner, now? It was ready fifteen minutes ago."
Dinner, necessarily, was a fairly quiet meal. What conversation they exchanged was somewhat bland, concerning the weather, the current state of Metropolis politics, and like subjects, as might be expected, Lois thought, considering the fact that they couldn't talk about the one burning topic occupying the minds of all four of them.
Perry had mentioned to her more than once that having a cook, and five other members of the Mayor's house staff, was something to which he had difficulty adjusting. Considering his job, however, and the political events that he was obligated to host, they were as much of a necessity as his office team. Lois knew it was absolutely true, but it sure put a crimp in the dinner conversation.
Considering the company tonight, Perry's cook had apparently felt it necessary to put in his best efforts on dinner. Clark, at least, evidently thought that Jacques' cooking deserved a word of thanks, and sent a message to the kitchen, expressing his appreciation for the meal -- one of many little things, Lois supposed, that was expected of Superman. Being a superhero wasn't as easy as most people thought. She had learned that fact over the previous year while she had helped him reclaim his life from the various persons and organizations that seemed to believe that they had some sort of right to intrude on his privacy any time they chose. Still, there were probably a lot of things that she didn't know about -- perhaps things that even Clark didn't consider.
They had retired to the sitting room after dinner and were alone for the moment, but that situation could change any second. Lois had opened her mouth to speak to Clark when the horrifying thought occurred to her that now those same organizations and individuals that she had been thinking about in relation to him might decide to take the same kind of liberties with her if anyone discovered what had happened. That, she decided, couldn't be allowed. At least no one knew that she had received Clark's powers. Maybe they could keep it that way.
Clark seemed to be watching her more closely than she realized. "What's the matter?" he asked in an undertone.
"Later," she whispered. The last thing she needed now was for one of Perry's staff to overhear their conversation. The media would be lying in wait for her by the time she and Clark left the Mayor's home. Clark nodded quickly and turned to Perry.
"So, Chief, how's business going down at City Hall?" he inquired.
"All right," Perry said. "The usual wrangles with the City Council. They're pressuring me to okay an initiative to build a new stadium for the Metropolis Tigers."
"Where would the funding for it come from?" Clark asked. "I thought the city budget was pretty tight. At least that's what I heard at the last council meeting that they let the press into."
"Not everything they do is done in the light of day," Perry said dryly. "You know that rule allowing them private sessions in the case of city crises?"
"I've noticed there's been a lot of them recently," Clark said.
"Yeah. They want to have a session without the press listening in, they just declare a city crisis and closet themselves up in the Council Room, where they debate how to waste the taxpayers' money in ways that'll best ensure their re-election," Perry said, somewhat cynically. "They want to take money from the taxes collected for school repair and funnel it into the stadium. You didn't hear that from me, by the way. If you quote me, they'll just deny it and figure some other way to wangle it. You gotta remember, Luthor was the major donor for three of these guys' campaigns. It wasn't exactly because they're pillars of the community."
"Maybe we should start investigating their finances next," Lois said.
"I'd recommend it," Perry said. "Leave me out of it, though."
"No problem, Chief," Clark said. The door opened and one of the staff came in with a tray of after dinner coffee.
"So are you going to tell us how you got onto Luthor's trail?" Alice said, filling the silence that had fallen. "What was it that made you suspect him?"
"Do you remember the fires last year about this time?" Clark asked. He accepted the coffee from Perry's butler with a small nod of thanks. "There would be one in downtown Metropolis and almost at the same time one would pop up in Suicide Slum. Someone gave us a tip that someone was buying up land on the fringes of the slum, and that every time there was a double fire, there was also a robbery --"
"Suicide Slum?" Alice said.
"Yes," Lois said. "That was the beginning. We've been tracking down hundreds of financial transactions of dubious legality since, and it led us to a lot more -- including several murders. And drug dealing, prostitution, gunrunning, extortion -- every kind of crime you can think of. The Planet's only printed a small portion of what we know. There are going to be more trials, and we'll cover them and give the background after it can't influence the case anymore. By the time it's over, Luthor's going to have more life sentences than you can count on the fingers of both hands, so if his lawyers manage to get him out of one or two, it won't matter. It could go on for years."
Perry shook his head. "I guess it just goes to show that you shouldn't take anyone at face value," he said. "All of Metropolis thought he was a knight in shining armor, and look what happened. LexCorp is being broken up and bought by dozens of its competitors. I hear that Church Enterprises is bidding on the LexSave chain."
"Church Enterprises?" Clark asked. "Aren't they the ones that own Cost Mart?"
"That's the one," Perry said. "I hear they're looking to expand. The City Council is all for that -- it'll keep the tax base stable."
"Yeah, I guess that would matter the most to them," Lois said. "Never mind that Lex was running a crime empire of legendary proportions. After all, we're talking about the City Council here."
Perry snorted. "No comment," he said.
The grandfather clock that stood against one wall of the sitting room began to chime nine p.m. and Clark got reluctantly to his feet. "We both work tomorrow, and Lois and I have that appointment in the morning, so I guess we'd better go."
"Yeah," Perry said. He heaved himself to his feet. "Ribbon-cutting ceremony tomorrow morning," he said. "And another dratted appointment with my trainer."
"Trainer?" Lois asked, startled.
"Yeah." He shot his wife a rueful look. "Alice and my doctor put me on a diet and exercise routine for my blood pressure. Again."
"Well," Alice said, with composure, "if you hadn't let your physical fitness slide, you wouldn't have to work so hard at it."
"All right!" Clark said. "A-plus on the heat vision!"
Lois looked resignedly at the thoroughly crisped log. "I was aiming for the bottle." The glass beer bottle that somebody had discarded on the ground was, naturally, completely untouched. "I don't know if I'm ever going to get the hang of this."
"You just have to focus," Clark explained calmly. "Only think of the thing you want to use your vision on. Look at it and nothing else. Try it again, now."
Lois concentrated, trying as hard as she could to obey the instructions. She knew very well that she wouldn't have nearly the patience that her partner was demonstrating to deal with her ineptness -- especially with something this important. As she had learned in the last hour, as she strained to follow Clark's instructions and learn what he was trying to teach her, super powers, used incorrectly could easily kill or maim someone. She was like a loaded weapon just waiting for someone to inadvertently pull the trigger. Her respect for Clark, already very high, had grown by increment each time she had muffed the use of another power.
A pale red shimmering of heat in the air between her and the bottle told her that this time she had managed to aim correctly. She seemed to feel the power she was putting into the heat vision. She concentrated on limiting the beam to a pinpoint on the neck of the bottle and saw the tiny pinhole form.
"You did it!" Clark's voice held a note of triumph.
Lois relaxed and walked forward to pick her target up, examining the results of her experiment with a surprising feeling of accomplishment. Clark had been right after all. She could control the powers with a little practice. Still, it was a slow process.
Centennial Park was a winter wonderland at five-thirty in the morning, its coat of new snow gleaming luminously in the rosy light of pre-dawn. To the east, above the buildings, the sky was brightening, presaging the rising of the sun. Beside her, Clark looked like a grizzly bear, swathed in a heavy coat, heavy boots and furry hat, with thick gloves on his hands. Lois's muffler was wrapped incongruously around his neck. Lois, of course, though she was aware of the cold, wasn't in the least uncomfortable. It only underlined more vividly for her the change in their status. She bit her lip, looking again at the incinerated log as doubts assailed her once more. "Clark, I don't like this. I don't trust myself."
"I know," he said. "You're having to learn all at once what I learned over time. At least you aren't going to set any haystacks on fire. Most of what I learned, though, I had to figure out on my own. It was pretty scary, because I never knew what was going to happen to me next. I kept expecting to wake up in the morning with green tentacles growing out of my hands, or something."
She was diverted. "Really?"
"You bet. For a while I spent most of my time hiding in my room. It wasn't until I was about fifteen that I figured out that whatever was going on, I probably wouldn't wind up looking any different than a regular person."
She stifled a giggle. "I wouldn't say that. You're the best-looking guy I've ever met."
"Well, you are! You have to know that!"
He shrugged. "Looks don't matter. Look at that assistant of Luthor's -- Mrs. Cox. It didn't matter how beautiful she was on the outside. Inside she was evil. I've always tried to believe that there's some good in everyone, but the only good she did was to turn state's evidence on Luthor, in exchange for being admitted into the Witness Protection program."
"She needed that," Lois said. "Luthor would have had her killed, otherwise -- even in prison."
"I know. That's why I spoke in her favor." He took the bottle from Lois's hand and deposited it in a wire trash container. "I think you have enough control of your heat vision not to hurt anyone. Shall we move on to the next power?"
"Which one is that?"
"Well, there are a lot, but we've mostly covered the ones that could hurt anyone. I think we should try flying, now."
Flying was the one power she wasn't afraid of. "Okay."
"It isn't as hard as you might think," he said. "You --"
The sound of screeching tires and sirens interrupted them. Lois swiveled her head toward the sounds, almost instinctively using her enhanced hearing to zero in on the location.
"What is it?" Clark asked.
Lois took off in a run toward the sounds. It was a police pursuit, she thought. As she watched with Clark's super-vision, the man in the passenger seat of the fleeing vehicle leaned out the window to fire his handgun at the pursuing police car. Even at 5:30 in the morning, there were other cars on the road. This was a recipe for a disaster.
She burst out onto the road ahead of the car as it rounded a turn and came racing toward her. Instinctively, she braced her feet and thrust out her hands in time to contact its bumper. She had seen Clark do this more than a few times and if that was how he did it, that was the way to do it.
The momentum of the car pushed her backwards, but she exerted Clark's super strength and pushed back. She could hear the screech of tires and smell the burning rubber as the vehicle began to slow in spite of the efforts of the driver. The passenger aimed his weapon at her and fired, and she felt the bullet bounce harmlessly off her forehead.
Thanking Providence that it was almost certainly too dark for them to get a good look at her face, Lois pushed harder and brought the car to a halt. The pursuing police cars were screeching to a stop as she sped forward, faster than the eye could follow, disarmed both men, fastened their hands behind them with their belts, shut the car doors again, and left the road with the same speed as she had come.
Clark was standing on the hill above the roadway, looking down at the scene as she joined him. He blinked as she appeared suddenly beside him and then looked back at the scene of the drama. The police were opening the doors to pull the stunned felons from their vehicle.
"Not bad at all, even for a first try," he said slowly. "Good job."
Her heart was beating fast more from the excitement than from exertion. For several seconds they stared at each other, and then Lois sank down on a fallen log. Clark sat down beside her.
"Well, at least they didn't get a good look at me," Lois said finally. "They'll probably think it was you."
"Probably," Clark said, "But this brings up something I meant to mention last night -- only I got distracted. You're not the kind of person who can stand by when someone's in trouble and do nothing."
"I'd already thought of that," Lois said, soberly. "Until we figure out how to get your powers back where they belong, I'm probably going to have to substitute for you. But I'm darned if I want the media turning my life upside down, and I want it even less after things go back to normal."
"If they ever do," Clark said.
"They will. But they don't know who I am -- and I want it to stay that way."
"I agree," Clark said. He frowned, thinking. "The other Lois made my costume, but she's not here. Can you sew?"
"Some. I got a 'C' in Home Ec."
"Alice sews," Clark said. "I wonder if she could help us ..."
Eduardo's voice, coming from behind him, almost made Clark jump out of his skin. Their editor had a way of quietly walking up behind people to watch their work and surprising them with his presence. It had never worked with Clark before, since his super-hearing always detected the man long before his arrival, but this time he didn't have that advantage. He covered his start of surprise and glanced around at his boss.
"Lois is meeting a source of ours. We happened to see that police pursuit this morning near Centennial Park."
"Didn't you stop the car?" Eduardo asked, a faint note of surprise in his voice.
He and Lois had discussed the way to handle this, since she was undoubtedly going to have to make a public debut in the near future. It might be just as well to establish in as many minds as possible that Lois was not the mystery woman. "No. That's what we're working on right now. If anyone has any idea who it was, it will be Bobby Bigmouth."
"That's Lois's infallible snitch, right?"
"Well, not infallible but at least pretty reliable," Clark said. "Bobby is one of the best sources of information in Metropolis. If he doesn't know something about it, either nobody does, or it's not worth knowing."
"Sounds good enough to me," Eduardo agreed. "I'm glad to see you're on it." He was frowning. "Is it possible there's another person like you around? Another ... Kryptonian?"
"Anything's possible," Clark said. "Lois and I heard the sirens, and I got there a few seconds after the car had stopped. Whoever was responsible was gone. We interviewed several of the pursuing officers, but they hadn't been able to tell what happened. The perps weren't talking, of course."
"Big surprise there," Eduardo said. "Okay; stay on it. I guess if anyone's uniquely qualified to find out what happened, it's you."
"Not necessarily," Clark said. "We'll do our best, though."
Mentally, he was crossing his fingers as he spoke, but, as Lois had told him firmly, there was something more important than the transfer of Superman's powers to be protected here, and that was Superman, himself. If it became known that Superman's powers could be transferred, even if he got them back, it wouldn't be long before some enterprising soul came up with another way to do it, and before long his powers would be up for sale to the highest bidder. This was something that the public didn't need to know about.
He'd agreed in principle, but pointed out that someone already knew how to do it.
Lois had apparently been thinking about this, in the way that he admired so much about her, for she replied to that instantly.
"I don't think so."
"Why not?" he'd asked. "They did it, didn't they?"
"They did it," Lois had replied, "but I'm inclined to think that it wasn't what they planned."
"Simple," she'd said. "If they knew it was going to happen, they'd have arranged for your powers to be transferred to one of them -- and once your powers were gone, they might have even tried to get rid of you. Most bad guys really don't like you much, you know. I'm betting that they don't even know what happened. I think they intended to use this red Kryptonite stuff to hurt you, and when it didn't, they took off. If we don't let on that it had any effect on you, and can get your powers back to you without anyone finding out, I think we can bury this whole thing."
"That is, if this red stuff turns out to be Kryptonite."
"Even if it isn't, I'll bet they expected it to hurt you. Anyway, I'm still holding out for Kryptonite."
Upon reflection, he'd had to agree, and that was when they'd come up with their plan.
After Eduardo had gone on to harass some other employee of the Planet, Clark finished putting the final touches on his article and LANned it to his editor. That job taken care of, he got to his feet. Bernard Klein hadn't gotten back to him yet, but it was awfully hard to wait. He thought he'd drop in on the scientist just to see, and then change his identity to go meet Bobby Bigmouth, as he and Lois had planned. Contrary to what he'd inferred to Eduardo, Lois was otherwise employed at this moment. Right now, it was his job to do everything he could to track down the one person on Earth at this moment, besides Bernard Klein, of course, who might know about things that could harm Superman. Tempus's associate, Major Domo, was their best lead, at least as of now. If he wasn't behind this, perhaps he could point them toward the person, or persons, that were.
The newest office employee was just crossing the Pit toward the coffee machine. Jonetta Pickford, the young woman who had warned Lois last New Year's Eve about Leo Nunk's intention of manufacturing a scandal about Superman, had recently applied and been accepted for the position of researcher in the office. Clark touched her elbow.
Jonetta turned, a bright smile lighting her face. Clark was well aware that the young woman had a mild crush on him, but at least she didn't drool over him the way many Superman groupies did. "Hi, Mr. Kent. Can I help you?"
"Yes, you can," Clark said. "I need you to research someone for me -- a political operative by the name of Major Domo."
She blinked. "Are you serious?"
He couldn't help smiling. "I'm afraid so. The guy's name -- at least the one he goes by currently -- is Major Domo. I can't quite imagine any parents actually naming their child that, but it's all I've really got on him -- that and the fact that he's been an operative for politicians of both parties. I need background, current employer, address, if it's available, and as much as you can find out about his recent activities. It's important."
She nodded. "You've got it, Mr. Kent. I'll have it for you as quick as I can."
"Thanks," he said. "I appreciate it."
"Hey, Gorgeous." It was Ralph. "Can I talk to you a sec?"
Jonetta grimaced slightly but turned with a bright, if somewhat strained smile on her face. "Yes, Mr. Stevenson?"
Clark proceeded up the ramp, rang for the elevator and waited impatiently for the car. This was no good, he thought. He needed to act exactly as he did before he lost his powers. If he didn't, sooner or later someone was going to notice.
He opened the door to the stairs and hurried down the steps. Hopefully, no one would think it odd if they saw him driving Lois's Jeep. He did it often enough. Once he was away from the Planet, after he saw Dr. Klein, he could become Charlie King and never get a second glance from anyone -- except for Charlie's peculiar style of dress, of course. The whole point, however, was that no one realized that the guy with the blond, spiked hair, the loud, casual clothing and pink earring was also Superman. And therein lay Charlie King's charm, as well as his advantage. As Charlie, he could go places and do things that Superman couldn't -- at least without a crowd of rabid newsmen following in his wake. In the past year, he had come to like Charlie King very much.
Once in the basement, Clark found the Jeep where he and Lois had parked it a couple of hours before and climbed behind the wheel. A few moments later, he rolled out of the Planet's parking lot, waving casually to Bill, who manned the gate. Bill waved back and Clark paused at the exit to the lot, waited for a break in the traffic and pulled out into the street. STAR Labs was only twenty minutes away, and after that Bobby Bigmouth would be waiting for Charlie behind Ralph's Pagoda.
Bernard Klein raised his head from his microscope when Clark, clad in the Suit, knocked politely on the doorframe of the lab. His eyes widened as they took in the sight of Superman in all his splendor.
"Superman! -- Uh ... Mr. Kent." Clark watched him consciously shift gears, going from hero-worshiping groupie to dignified professional in the space of about two seconds.
"Hello, Dr. Klein," Clark said with his most charming smile. "I'm sorry to interrupt you, but I was wondering if you had any news for me."
The scientist nodded. "Actually, I was just going to call you. It might be best if you don't go into the lab right now." As he spoke, he exited the lab, pulling the door closed behind him and glanced in both directions as if to assure himself that no one was close enough to overhear.
Dr. Klein nodded vigorously. "Why don't we step into the conference room across the hall?" He proceeded to hustle his visitor into the small room opposite the lab, and closed the door behind them. He turned to Clark, lowering his voice. "I thought that you probably didn't want the information about this known -- even to my colleagues, so I haven't exactly mentioned what my current research is all about to them. I have a very tiny sliver of the crystal under the microscope at present," he explained. "The crystalline structure is amazing -- but, of course, that's not the part that interests you." He cleared his throat. "I've managed to analyze its structure and from all the tests that I can devise, it is Kryptonite. You can tell Ms. Lane that she was right."
"She usually is," Clark said.
"I'm aware of that," Dr. Klein said with the faintest of dry smiles. "Ms. Lane has a very unusual method of reasoning. She takes a minimum of information, analyzes it with, from what I can observe, a completely unscientific process, makes leaps of what she loosely calls logic, and arrives almost invariably at the correct, or nearly correct, conclusion. If I knew how she did it, I'd write a treatise on it. It might be a very useful scientific tool. The trick, of course, lies in defining the process."
It took Clark several seconds to realize that the doctor was making a joke. He grinned slightly. "I'm not sure even she knows. It may be some kind of psychic ability. So," he added, "you said this is Kryptonite?"
"It's Kryptonite," Dr. Klein said. "I have a piece of it in the lab, unshielded and since I don't know how sensitive you might be to this red variety, I'd rather not risk having you go anywhere near it. If that first dose removed your powers, the next might kill you, for all we know."
Clark didn't comment. "I thought Kryptonite was green. The piece that Tempus had sure was, and so were all the pieces we found around Smallville."
Dr. Klein nodded. "From all that I've been able to tell, the basic form of Kryptonite is green. I've analyzed the molecular structure of this new kind and it's only very slightly different from the first sort. The red variety appears to be an isotope of the green. You remember the definition of an isotope from your high school chemistry, don't you?"
"Sure," Clark said. "An isotope of an element is one with the same chemical structure as the original, but with a slightly different atomic weight -- like ordinary water. Its isotopes are deuterium and tritium."
"That's right," Dr. Klein said. "The difference in their atomic weight is caused by extra neutrons in the nucleus of the atom. The same is true of the Red Kryptonite."
Clark digested that. "How about the camcorder?" he said at last. "Any information on that?"
"It's actually a laser," Dr. Klein told him. "The circuitry was damaged, but we're trying to repair it."
"How does it work?"
The scientist shrugged. "Like any other laser, actually -- except that all the power seems to be refracted through the chunk of Red Kryptonite in the cassette compartment." He frowned at Clark. "How are you feeling?"
"All right. Just -- normal, I guess." Clark hesitated. "I need to get the thing working again as fast as possible. There's been another development."
"Oh? Something I should know about?"
Clark hesitated and made a decision. Dr. Klein had always been discreet when it came to Superman. They had trusted him with the piece of green Kryptonite, and now with the fact that Clark's powers had vanished. "Dr. Klein -- we have a doctor/patient relationship, don't we?"
The scientist blinked in obvious surprise. "Of course."
"That means that anything I tell you in confidence stays that way, right?"
"Naturally," Dr. Klein said.
Clark took a deep breath. "We know where my powers went," he said.
"I beg your pardon?" Dr. Klein said.
"After we stopped by your office yesterday, Lois and I discovered something --"
Bernard Klein listened, his eyes getting wider and wider as Clark described what they had discovered but by the time he had finished the scientist was frowning in obvious thought.
"Incredible," he said. "So the beam hit you and somehow transferred your powers to Ms. Lane. Before you leave, I wonder if you could spare a minute for me to take a blood sample? I want to run a couple of tests, if you don't mind."
Clark would never admit it, but being poked with needles wasn't an experience that he actually desired to have happen to him. Superman, however, had an image to consider. He couldn't afford to be perceived as squeamish. "I guess so. What for?"
Klein chuckled evilly. "My fellow vampires and I have always wanted to taste Superman's blood. Now's our chance." At Clark's widened eyes, he relented. "Actually, I want to look at the chemical structure and do a DNA analysis. Plus a few other things. If anything actually pans out, you'll be the first to know what I find. In the meantime, I'll put a priority on getting the laser fixed. Deal?"
Clark hesitated. "Well -- as long as it stays confidential. I don't want just anyone finding out too much about me."
"Oh, that goes without saying," Dr. Klein said. "I won't even label it as such."
"In that case, okay," Clark said.
"Come into my office," Dr. Klein said. "We'll do it there, where no one will see it. And you might as well call me Bernie. Considering what I'm about to do, I think we're past the formal stage, don't you?"
"How does it feel?" Alice White asked.
"It's a little tight," Lois's voice said from behind the screen.
"I know, but Clark says it cuts down on wind resistance," Alice said. "I figured I couldn't do better than talk to the expert."
"I suppose not," Lois said. "How on Earth does he get into his outfit so fast?" A faint grunt of effort. "Okay, here goes nothing." There was a rustle, and Lois stepped from behind the screen. "How do I look?"
"Oh to have a figure like that again," Alice murmured wistfully, surveying the results of her work with a critical eye. Lois's figure was always enviable, but in the dark blue suit that molded itself to her body, the effect was devastating. Alice looked down at her own, actually very fit and trim body and sighed. In spite of all her efforts, there was no way that she could ever have her youthful figure back. Not that it had ever been as good as Lois's, but still ...
Beside her, she could practically see the thoughts running through Lois's head as she regarded the suit's effect in the room's full-length mirror.
Alice had copied the general color scheme of Superman's uniform, but had put it together in a somewhat different style. The suit was of blue spandex but of a darker shade than the electric blue of Clark's suit. Alice had forgone altogether the red shorts. They might look good on Superman, but, as she delicately put it, Lois's assets were somewhat different than Clark's, and they were trying to take people's attention away from her face. Even masked, if someone looked too closely, they might see something that Lois didn't want them to see. The sleek tight suit would definitely draw the attention. Her cape was of a dark red color, as were the boots. Yellow-gold gloves edged with red covered her hands and the lining of the cape was of the same gold shade. She wore a mask of the same red color as the cape, and the effect was unexpectedly both dramatic and impressive.
"Wow," Lois said after a minute. "You really went for the color, didn't you?"
"Distraction," Alice said firmly. "If people are dazzled by the colors -- and by your figure, if I may say so -- they're not going to be looking too closely at your face. That's what you want."
"I guess you're right." Lois hesitated. "I guess it'll do -- if Clark doesn't mind."
"Take it from me," Alice said, "he won't. On the other hand, he'd think you were beautiful wearing a gunny sack." She watched her young friend turn an interesting shade of scarlet. "Don't tell me you didn't know. Clark's crazy about you."
"I know that," Lois said. "It scares me sometimes."
"Scares you?" Now that was a new one. "Why should it scare you? Do you know how many women would give anything to have him look at them the way he looks at you?"
"A lot," Lois said. "But that's exactly what scares me. He could have any woman he wants. Why does he want me? And what would I do if he ever changed his mind?"
"Do you think that's likely?" Alice asked quietly. "Clark is a unique guy in more ways than one. That's why I never thought that Ms. Lang was the right woman for him. He was loyal to her, but I could see exactly how that marriage was going to turn out. She'd have ruled the roost, forced him into her idea of what his life should be -- and he'd have been miserable. In the end, it would have either ended in divorce, or one of those marriages where neither partner speaks civilly to the other. But you --" She smiled. "You haven't tried to make him anything but what he is. Clark has changed a lot in the last year. He was always a nice, charming guy, but I've never seen him so happy -- and it's all because of you. He's no fool, Lois. The day he brought you to see us, after he found you in the South Pacific, I could see that he was head over heels in love with you, and I don't think that's likely to change. Do you? -- Really?"
"No," she said. "I don't -- but there aren't any guarantees."
"You're in love with him, aren't you?"
"Yes," she said.
"Then why are you scared?"
"It's -- just such a -- a risk," Lois said.
"And you're afraid of risks? Am I speaking to the woman that helped bring down Lex Luthor, himself?"
"Yeah." Lois's voice had dropped to a whisper. "My mother risked it all like that once. She fell in love with a superior man -- and look what happened to her."
Alice was silent for several seconds. Finally she said, "Living is never safe and secure -- and in the end it doesn't matter how safe you play it, does it? In the meantime, if you take chances you can be hurt terribly -- no one's denying that. But if you don't take them, you can miss out on life itself. I guess it's up to you to decide if the potential reward is worth risking everything -- and no one can decide that but you."
"I know that," Lois said. "And I will."
"Just don't take too long," Alice said. "Clark might be willing to wait forever -- but not even Superman lives that long."
A year ago, Clark thought, as Charlie King drove Lois's Jeep toward Ralph's Pagoda, he and Lois hadn't even been in this time. They had skipped two days in the current time because Tempus had marooned Lois over a thousand years in the past. They -- or more accurately, Lois -- had managed to overpower Tempus when he had shown up to finish the job and turned the tables on him. But when they returned to the present, they had arrived in the late evening of December twenty-third, so technically, at this time a year ago, neither Lois Lane nor Clark Kent had existed. But in the end everything had worked out all right. When he and Lois worked together they accomplished miracles and there was no reason that this time should be any different. Superman might be temporarily out of action, but Lois Lane was substituting for him. If the past year was any example, the bad guys of the world had better watch out, he thought with a certain wry humor. Super-Lois would probably be tougher on them than Superman had ever been.
Speaking of which, if the time came when she was forced to appear in public, they had better have some kind of name for her. There was always Superwoman, of course, but Clark suspected that Lois might not like such an obvious spin-off of his name. If Lois was anything, she was fiercely independent. It was probably that independence that was getting in the way, now, of her accepting his proposal, but given time he hoped he could get past that. Lois was gun-shy of making the kind of commitment that he wanted. Given the train-wreck that her parents' marriage had been, he could understand but it was still frustrating. Still, the Lois he had first met had married her Clark. He was just going to have to be persistent.
He pulled the Jeep into a parking space by the curb. Snow was beginning to drift through the air again. It had been snowing on and off since yesterday, which made for a great Christmas atmosphere, but it was a pain in the -- well, it was definitely a nuisance when it came to getting anywhere when you didn't have super powers. He had never fully appreciated the advantages those abilities gave him -- not, of course, the grand super feats, but the simple, ordinary things in life, like avoiding a traffic jam caused by bad weather, or not feeling the cold. Brr!
He adjusted his pink Calvin Klein sunglasses, wrapped the heavy coat around him, pulled the knit cap down over his ears, making sure the pink earring remained visible, and got out, slamming the door behind him. He shoved his hands deep into the pockets of the coat and stepped onto the sidewalk. As he did, the advertisement on the back of a bench, provided for the convenience of waiting bus passengers, caught his eye. Ultra-Vitamins, the sign proclaimed. He stopped, eyeing the words thoughtfully. Ultra-Woman? Well, it was certainly a possibility. He'd run it by Lois and see what she thought.
Bobby Bigmouth was waiting in the alley, just as he had promised, leaning casually against the chipped, blackened brick of the building. Their snitch looked him over critically. "That hat don't match your coat, Charlie," he informed him bluntly. "You need to get one in fake fur if you're gonna keep your image."
Clark made a note of that. Bobby had been invaluable in the finer points of his Charlie disguise over the year. Clark often wondered if he had seen through the whole thing, but if he had he never said a word. "Thanks. I'll do that as soon as I can get to a department store," he said. "Now, I need to know if anyone has a clue about who stopped that car during the police chase this morning."
Bobby nodded. "You got my lunch?"
Clark produced a gift certificate. "I figured you'd rather have something hot, and nothing's going to stay hot for very long in this weather."
Bobby examined the certificate. "Bronco Bob's All-You-Can-Eat Western Smorgy," he said with something approaching enthusiasm. "Y'know, Charlie, you got good taste." He folded the certificate carefully and tucked it into a heavy leather wallet, and then with equal care, slid the wallet into an inner pocket of his battered coat. "Okay, the chase this morning. The word's startin' to circulate that it was a woman."
Clark raised his eyebrows. "A woman?"
"Yeah. One of the guys the cops caught told one of the guys in the cell next to his -- acquaintance of mine named Norm Campbell. Norm's wife bailed him out this morning and he mentioned it to me when I happened to look him up a while ago."
"Do they know who she was?" Clark asked.
Bobby shook his head. "Nope. Just a woman, he said. I guess it was too dark to see much."
"Probably," Clark agreed. "Anything else on that other thing?"
"Yeah," Bobby said. "There's a rumor that there's some group trying to move into Luthor's old territory, and they're looking for a way to neutralize Superman."
"Do you know who?"
Bobby shook his head. "It's a big, underground criminal organization is all I know, but it might be behind the attack on him yesterday. Lucky for Clark whatever that red beam was, it didn't work."
"That's for sure," Clark said. "If you find out anything more about it, give me a call. There's a Peking duck dinner in it for you if you can get me some of the names involved -- or any information on the organization itself. If somebody's going after Superman, we need to know who it is."
"You got it," Bobby said. "Just remember, I gotta look out for my skin, too."
"If you tell me something in confidence, I promise I'll be very careful what I write," Clark said. "I'll clear it with you, first. Deal?"
"Deal," Bobby said. He straightened up from his slouch. "Anyhow, that's all I know. I think I'll drop by Bronco Bob's now and get out of the snow for a couple of hours."
Clark nodded. Watching Bobby walk away, he hoped he hadn't done Bronco Bob's a disservice in pointing Bobby Bigmouth in their direction. Still, once probably wouldn't be too bad. After all, how much could one man eat?
Trying not to contemplate the answer to that, he headed back toward the Jeep. A glance at his watch told him that he had time to drop by Broadhurst's Department Store and find a fake fur hat before he met Lois for lunch. Charlie King was always a work in progress, he reflected as he maneuvered out of the parking space, but he was a good place to hide while Superman was out of action. The last thing he and Lois needed was someone from this mysterious organization that Bobby had mentioned going after him again while he was powerless, and with any luck whoever was behind this would discount Charlie King as a lightweight. It gave him a certain amount of cover. It had become very plain to him why the Clark of the other universe needed his secret identity. It was just too bad that going back and undoing Tempus's work was impractical, but he had learned first hand what tampering with the timeline could do. With an example like HG Wells and Tempus in front of him, the very idea gave him chills. No, he and Lois would simply have to deal with things as they were.
"I like your hat," Lois told him as she climbed into the Jeep in front of the Daily Planet. "Did Bobby suggest it?"
"Yeah," Clark said. He glanced over his shoulder and pulled carefully out onto the snowy street. The snow was gradually becoming thicker and with it the potential for an accident.
"I thought so," Lois said. "Sometimes I wonder about him. You don't suppose he's guessed, do you? I know he's never said anything but with Bobby you can never be sure."
"If he has, Clark said, "it doesn't look like he wants us to know."
"I guess not," Lois said. "I guess that's one investigation that we won't do."
Clark nodded. "I've noticed that, for all that he's a snitch, Bobby can be pretty closemouthed about some things." He applied the brakes as a big, black mongrel decided to dash into the street, followed by a child about the same size as the dog. The Jeep slid slightly, but came to a stop. Brakes screeched and a horn sounded behind them. He glanced back at the red Volkswagen that had barely avoided a collision with the Jeep's rear bumper. The driver gave him a one-finger salute. Lois returned the favor.
"Idiot! What does he want you to do, hit them? I guess he doesn't care, as long as you don't slow him down!" she said, turning around to face the front again. The child had seized the animal by its collar and was attempting to drag the creature back to the sidewalk. The horn sounded behind them again. Clark ignored it. Lois stuck her head out the window. "Cool off, moron! He can't run over a kid!"
The horn sounded a third time, followed by several more from farther back down the line. Lois muttered darkly under her breath about idiots with driver's licenses. Clark grinned.
The dog and its apparent owner finally made it back to the sidewalk. Clark started the Jeep forward again, moving slowly on the snowy road. The Volkswagen continued to hug their bumper. Lois gave the driver another salute and faced the front, resolutely ignoring the offending vehicle.
"Anyway," she said, "On the subject of your powers, Jonetta found some interesting information for us. Since you weren't around, she gave it to me to give to you."
"That was fast," Clark said. "Did she find out anything useful?"
"She said she'd keep looking for anything else, but that Major Domo pretty much disappeared from the political scene after that scandal with President Winfrey broke last year. Nobody could tie it to him, but there's a lot of speculation that he was behind it," Lois said. "Anyway, he was hired a few months ago by the board of Cost Mart to handle their public relations campaign for them. Apparently there's been some resistance to the idea of their taking LexSave's place in the city."
"So he probably didn't have anything to do with yesterday?" Clark said, aware of a deep sense of disappointment.
"Don't know," Lois said. "Remember, you said that a lot of people were trying to find out about Kryptonite after Tempus used it on you at the debate. It makes sense that someone might have thought to ask him, since he was Tempus's right hand man."
Clark nodded slowly. "You're right. I guess we need to find Mr. Domo and have a little talk with him."
"Did Bobby have anything useful for us?" Lois asked.
"Some. There's a rumor that the mysterious person that stopped the car chase this morning was a woman."
"How did that get out so fast?" Lois asked.
Clark told her. Lois shook her head. "It figures that Bobby would be one of the first to hear it," she said. "Did he have anything to say about the attack on you, yesterday?"
"A little. Just a rumor, really. Bobby says that there may be a big criminal organization trying to move into Luthor's old territory and they might be looking for a way to neutralize Superman."
Lois stared at him for a moment. "Bobby said that?"
"Yes, but he said it was just a rumor."
"Clark, don't you know Bobby by now? His credibility is his stock in trade. He wouldn't have told you that unless he was at least 75 sure it was true! We have to find this Major Domo guy. Don't you see? Someone got hold of him and found out about Kryptonite. They must have gone to Smallville and looked around, but instead of finding green Kryptonite -- because you and I cleared out all that we could find -- they found the red stuff! We weren't looking for that, because we didn't know about it."
Slowly, Clark nodded, remembering what Dr. Klein had said about his volatile partner's reasoning processes. He had been joking but it had been a joke with genuine respect at its core. However Lois reasoned, she was right, or nearly right, much more often than she was wrong.
"So what do we do about it?" he asked.
"Well, I'd say the next thing for us to do is to head for Smallville," Lois said decisively. "Maybe someone saw them hunting for the Kryptonite and we can get a description -- and even if we don't, there's something else we have to do that's almost as important."
"We have to find any of the Red Kryptonite still in the area. We don't know how much they have, but the last thing we need is for them to get hold of any more!"
"Do you think you can fly us to Smallville?" Clark asked.
She hesitated. "I think so. You'll have to hold on tight."
"Oh, I think I can manage that without any problem," Clark said. "When do you think we should make this little foray?"
"There's no time like the present," Lois said, a note of determination in her voice. "Park the Jeep in the garage at the apartment and we'll go -- assuming we ever get home in this stuff." She gestured at the clouds of flakes obscuring the view ahead of them. "The sooner we get any remaining Red K under control, the better off we'll be."
The snow was getting thicker by the minute, Clark thought, maneuvering the Jeep cautiously through the streets. The wheels had a disconcerting tendency to slide unless he applied the brakes with extreme care. "'Red K'?" he asked.
"Well, Kryptonite is such a mouthful," Lois said. "Besides, if someone overhears us, I don't want him to know what we're talking about."
He grinned faintly. "Okay. Didn't I say you're the boss?"
Lois stuck her tongue out at him. "And didn't I say way back when we met that I didn't want to be in charge? If this Utopia thing flops, I don't want all the blame."
"That was then," Clark retorted. "This is now. Can I help it if I like being bossed around by you?"
She sobered. "Do you -- really? I've heard a little more about Lana, now -- from other people who knew her. She bossed you around, and I don't think you liked it."
Clark's hand closed gently over hers. "That was a completely different situation. Lana and I weren't suited for each other. I've realized that pretty clearly since we broke up -- and even more since last year. If we'd married, it would have been a disaster. Your counterpart saved me from that, at least. And then I met you."
"I'm pretty bossy sometimes," Lois said.
Clark chuckled. "'Sometimes'?"
She scowled at him. "I'm not bossy all the time!"
"No," he agreed amiably. "Just when you're awake. The difference is, I like it when you're bossy."
They were approaching the intersection of Sycamore and Broadway. The traffic light, only partially visible through the cloud of flakes, flashed yellow and Clark applied the brakes well in advance, in order to avoid the Jeep's tendency to slide. The driver of the Volkswagen behind them had apparently had enough. He squeezed out from behind the Cherokee, crossed the double line and accelerated past them in the opposing lane, blowing his horn as he did so. The driver of the oncoming car, evidently blinded by the snow, saw the approaching vehicle barreling toward him too late to avoid it. He slammed on his brakes and jerked the wheel sideways in a vain attempt to miss the other car. The Volkswagen plowed into his rear door, just behind the driver's seat. The cars skidded and spun, locked together, and came to a sudden stop against the curb. The drivers of other nearby cars slammed on their brakes, attempting to avoid the accident, skidding and sliding in all directions. By the time all of them had come to a halt, the street and intersection were completely blocked by several minor collisions, one rollover accident and a pickup truck with its nose buried in the shattered display window of Piltman's Bakery. The driver of the Volkswagen was slumped in his seat, while the driver whose car he had rammed was climbing unsteadily out the driver's door. From under the car, Clark could see a thin trickle of liquid beginning to pool in the muddy snow.
The Jeep was resting diagonally against the curb with its nose jammed against a badly bent parking meter. Clark winced at the sight of the broken headlight and the large dent in the hood and grillwork. If the driver of the Volkswagen survived, Lois was probably going to kill him.
He cut the Jeep's engine and opened the door. No matter how obnoxious the man had been, he had to get the guy out of the Volkswagen. If the other car was leaking gas, the results could be deadly.
Lois had shoved open the passenger door. She gave one furious glance at the damage to her Jeep and vanished in a gust of air. Clark blinked. A woman, clad in dark blue and red spandex, and a gold-lined, scarlet cape, had appeared out of thin air by the Volkswagen and without a pause wrenched the door from its hinges.
From somewhere, he heard the wail of a siren. Clark climbed out of the Jeep and hurried to the car that had rolled. A woman was attempting frantically to squirm out the broken window.
"Hold still a minute," he called. "You're going to cut yourself that way."
The woman paused. Clark knelt, trying to see in the window. "Is there anyone else in there with you?"
"No!" The woman's face was streaked with blood and tears. "Help me! The steering wheel's pinning my legs!"
Clark grabbed the door handle and pulled. There was a crunching sound and the tinkle of glass and the jammed door came partway open. He heaved, dragging it open a few more inches, peripherally aware that, even as a normal man, he was still respectably strong. Crouched on hands and knees wasn't exactly the most advantageous position for forcing open a stuck door. He braced his hand against the side of the car, trying to improve his leverage. The metal on the side of the car dented slightly under the force he was exerting, and the door moved another inch.
Lois was suddenly beside him, and she grabbed the door, wrenching it open. It came free of its hinges and she dropped it onto the snowy pavement.
"Are you hurt?" she asked.
The woman shook her head. "I don't think so. I had my seatbelt on. Get me out of here!"
Lois rocked the car upward slightly with one hand, releasing the victim's legs, and Clark leaned forward, assisting her to squirm free. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"I think so." She made an attempt to get to her feet.
"Better sit still," Clark suggested. "The paramedics will be here in a minute. You should have them look at you before you try to move around."
"I'm all right." She used one hand on Clark's shoulder to help boost herself upright.
Lois had gone to assist the driver of the truck that had crashed into the bakery. The man had a deep cut on one cheekbone where flying glass had just missed his eye, but he was walking steadily when Lois helped him out of the bakery window. The paramedics had arrived in the short time they had been conducting rescue operations, as had several police officers and a fire truck, the crew of which was drenching the leaking fuel in foam. Clark found himself being interviewed by a young officer who looked to be barely out of his teens. He gave his name and his account of the accident, reflecting that the driver that had caused it was likely to see his insurance rates rise rather sharply after he got out of the hospital. Two paramedics were lifting the driver in question into their van, secured to a gurney, with his head strapped firmly to a backboard against possible neck injuries. He was just lucky, Clark thought, that Lois had been too busy to give him much attention following the mess that he had caused. He doubted that the guy had seen the last of Lois Lane, either. He had damaged her treasured Jeep, and if he survived his accident -- which now seemed likely -- Clark suspected that he would shortly wish that he hadn't.
Despite the heavy snowfall, reporters were collecting around the perimeter of the accident, he noted, and news crews with their cameras predictably focused not on the accident but on Lois. The appearance of a super powered woman was going to be big news -- as big as the appearance of Superman had been. Lois was about to get first hand experience of what it meant to be a superhero.
He saw her glance at the assembled news media, as the civilian authorities moved in to clean up the last remnants of the accident, and as suddenly as she had appeared, she vanished. A few instants later, Lois Lane quietly materialized beside him.
The police officer turned to her. "Were you involved in the accident, ma'am?" he inquired politely. "If you weren't, the Press is supposed to wait behind the barrier." He pointed.
"She was my passenger," Clark said. "That's her Jeep."
"Oh. In that case, I'll need a statement."
The woman that he had helped from her wrecked car approached while he waited for Lois to speak to the youthful officer, a bandage now adorning her forehead. "Someone said your name is Charles King?"
Clark turned. "Yes?"
She handed him a business card. "My name is Constance Hunter. I've read your articles in the Daily Planet, and I admire your writing tremendously. Thank you very much for your help."
"You're welcome," Clark said.
Constance smiled, nodded, and turned away.
Clark glanced at the card, and then took a second look. Constance Hunter, Attorney at Law, he read. He glanced around, but Constance Hunter had vanished into the crowd and the falling snow.
"I guess I'd better call my insurance company," Lois said sourly as they climbed back into the Cherokee. She glanced at the dented hood of her Jeep and took out her cell phone. "Who was that woman?"
"Which woman?" Clark asked.
"The one that was talking to you a few minutes ago."
"Oh, her. Her name was Constance Hunter," Clark said. He showed Lois the card. "She's a lawyer."
"Oh. Did she offer to sue that guy for us?"
Clark shook his head. "She just wanted to say thanks."
"Amazing," Lois said. "A lawyer that isn't looking for business? I guess miracles will never cease."
Clark concentrated on driving carefully for the next few minutes while Lois finished the call to her insurance company. As he pulled up to the entrance to the apartment house's garage, Lois closed the phone. "They said to bring it by tomorrow morning so they can evaluate the damage," she said. "They're going to contact the police for the report. I guess they want the name of the guy that caused the accident."
"Probably." Clark pulled into Lois's parking spot. "Do you want to get some lunch before we head for Smallville or do you want to eat once we're there?"
"Let's eat once we get there," Lois said. "I want to get moving on this."
"Okay," Clark said. "Maisie's Diner is a good place. She's always got the latest gossip, too."
"You're hungry, aren't you?" Lois asked.
Clark paused in the act of opening the door to take stock of the vaguely familiar gnawing feeling in his middle. "Yeah, I guess I am."
"Welcome to the world of mortals, Superman," Lois said. "Okay, let's get going. We can stop at Maisie's and eat, and maybe we can talk to some of your old friends and see if there's been any unusual activity around Shuster's Field in the last months. Just remember, Charlie King doesn't know anyone in Smallville."
"Yes, but Clark does," Clark said. "How is anyone going to know if Superman brought one or two people with him?"
"You have a point," Lois said. She grinned suddenly. "'Superman' can leave Charlie and Lois at the diner, and come back later, I guess. The mysterious super powered woman doesn't need to make an appearance. That way we won't have to explain anything."
"Exactly" Clark said, "And I think you and I should control the information on her, too, don't you think? At least for now."
"Definitely," Lois said. "You -- Charlie, I mean -- can interview her when we get back."
"Sounds good," Clark said. He locked the Jeep's doors and pocketed the key. "I guess I'm ready."
Lois nodded and abruptly her form blurred and resolved itself into the costumed woman.
"Nice outfit," Clark commented.
"It's a little tight," Lois said.
"I know, but it cuts down on --"
"Wind resistance. Alice told me," she said. She approached him and put an arm around his waist. Clark took the opportunity to slide his around her waist as well.
"Anyhow, tight or not, I like it," he said. "And, believe me, no one is going to be looking at your face."
"Oh, you --" She swatted his arm lightly. Clark pretended to wince.
"Hey! No beating up on me just because you have super powers!"
"Then watch your mouth, partner," she said.
"You mean, you don't want me to notice?"
He laughed. "Good thing."
"Now all I need is a name," Lois said, changing the subject quickly.
"I was wondering about that a while ago," Clark said. "There's always Superwoman, of course, but that might be too closely associated with Superman, and we don't want anyone to think that there's any connection between you and me. How does Ultra Woman sound?"
"Hmm. Not bad," Lois said, after a few seconds of consideration. "You're right about 'Superwoman' being sort of obvious. Ultra Woman's a bit corny, but I can't really think of anything that isn't. I think I'll take it." Her arm tightened slightly. "Are you ready?"
He could see that she was trying to hide her nervousness. "Ready."
"Okay, hold on tight. This is the first time I've ever done this, you know."
"You'll do fi ... ne." The wind whipped his voice away as Lois took off fast, probably to avoid observation, he thought. Bare seconds later, Clark found himself face down, with Lois's arm clamped around his waist, looking down at the city of Metropolis, which was shrinking as he watched. "You're doing great," he told her a little breathlessly. It was a new sensation, being held by someone else instead of providing the motive power on his own. He found it strangely disconcerting.
"Hang on," Lois told him. "I don't want to drop you by accident."
"I will," he said. The worst thing he could do now would be to let Lois know that the situation unnerved him slightly. "Just head west. We'll pick up on the landmarks as we go."
Lois nodded and Clark could feel the arm around his waist tighten again, and then slowly relax, as if his partner were forcing the muscles to obey her will. The city beneath them began to move toward the rear, and after a few moments had fallen far behind as Charlie King and the newly minted Ultra Woman flew west toward Smallville, Kansas.
Smallville hadn't changed a lot from when he was a kid, Clark thought, as he and Lois landed quietly in the alley behind Maisie's Diner. It was a little bigger, but not much, and the Middle-America atmosphere was the same. The town was decked out for Christmas, with tinsel garlands and flashing Christmas lights that outlined the windows of the stores that lined Main Street.
The alley was quiet and sheltered from the brisk breeze that whipped down the streets, carrying a flurry of light snowflakes with it. In spite of the sunlight that glittered from the snow, there was an icy bite to the air that hadn't been present in Metropolis, he thought. He'd never really noticed it before.
Lois changed quickly from Ultra Woman to Lois Lane and paused to check her clothing. "Do I look all right?"
Clark pulled the fur hat down a little farther over his ears, automatically checking to be certain that the pink earring was still prominently displayed. "Yeah, you look fine. How do I look?"
"Better put on your pink glasses," Lois said. "Although I'm not sure what the people around here are going to think of Charlie King's taste in clothing."
"You'd be surprised," Clark said. He pulled the heavy coat more tightly around him. "Brr. Am I imagining things, or is it colder here than it was in Metropolis?"
"I think the air is dryer," Lois said. "Humidity always makes it seem warmer. Come on; let's get inside Maisie's."
The little town of Smallville was bustling in spite of the weather. Clark saw Rachel Harris, the town sheriff, busily writing out a ticket for a vehicle whose driver had apparently despaired of finding a parking place and left his car in a handicapped spot. He'd been casually acquainted with her during his time at Smallville High, and had even asked her to the prom when Lana had come down with the flu two days before the big day. As he had expected, however, Rachel had refused. Her father had told her to stay away from the Kent kid, he recalled, a little bitterly. Sheriff Harris had always regarded Clark with a skeptical air because of the history of the numerous foster homes in which he'd stayed. No kid, Clark had heard him say, with that kind of background ever amounted to anything, and usually wound up in trouble with the law, especially loners like Kent. Rachel hadn't agreed with her father but she'd kept Clark at arm's length all the same. It was too bad, he reflected, that Sheriff Harris had died six months before Clark's debut as Superman. Petty though it might be, showing the sheriff how wrong he had been would have been satisfying.
"Do you know her?" Lois asked, and he saw that she had followed his gaze.
"Yeah. That's Rachel Harris. She took over as the town sheriff after her father died a few years ago."
"Old girlfriend?" Lois asked, and he noted the deliberately airy tone to her voice.
"No, not really. Her dad didn't approve of me," Clark said.
"Why not?" Now Lois sounded genuinely surprised.
"I'd been in half a dozen foster homes by the time I got into high school," Clark said, deliberately keeping his voice casual. "Her father figured I'd be a deadbeat or a petty crook and didn't want me associating with his daughter."
"What?" Her voice was louder than she apparently intended, and she lowered it quickly. "Why that bigoted so-and-so!"
Clark shrugged, surprised at how much better her obvious outrage made him feel. "It was a long time ago. I don't think Rachel felt the same way, but she had to do what her dad said."
"I guess," Lois said. "What a jerk! He didn't even give you a chance!"
"You'd be surprised how many people felt the same way," he said, keeping his voice carefully expressionless. "Of course, now that I'm Superman, a lot of people think differently."
"I guess I can see how you sort of drifted to Lana," Lois said thoughtfully. "I guess it never occurred to me that it was as tough for you as a kid as it was for me. It's too bad we didn't know each other back then."
"Yeah. Moral support and all that. If your father had let me associate with you," Clark said. "Anyway, I think I've proven myself since then, but I guess it still rankles a bit."
"He wouldn't have had any say at all after he left, and Mother was so smashed most of the time that she'd never have noticed," Lois said. "Then, after I was in college, Dad paid for my education, but he never took much interest in anything I did after he found out that I wasn't going to go into medicine, so I could have associated with Jack the Ripper and he'd have never known. And you had to be more socially acceptable than Jack the Ripper." She took his arm. "Come on, let's go get some lunch."
Maisie's Diner was moderately busy just before eleven in the morning, Kansas time. Lois Lane and Charlie King stood in the entrance for a few seconds before Lois spotted an empty table near the rear of the room. They took their seats, and Clark pulled off his hat, careful not to dislodge his blond wig.
"Do I look okay?" he asked.
Lois was busy removing her coat. "You look fine. Your wig is straight and you don't look a bit like Mr. GQ Kent."
Clark grinned a little, fingering the pink earring. Hopefully his old acquaintances in town wouldn't recognize him either. When he'd left he'd been a lot rougher around the edges, and he'd only been here a couple of times since, mostly to take care of business at the farmhouse. He and Lois had come here last year to get rid of as much Kryptonite as they could find but they hadn't been anxious to advertise the reason for their mission and had avoided the residents of Smallville.
He squirmed out of his coat and half got to his feet to hang the article of clothing over the back of one of the empty chairs at their table, glancing around as he did so. He was a stranger in town, he reminded himself. Charlie King didn't know Pete Ross, the biggest bully in high school when he had been there, or Aaron Wilkins, whom he had tutored in English during his senior year. He didn't even recognize Rachel Harris, who had just walked in the door.
Maisie Allen, who had run the diner for as long as he could remember, wended her way through the maze of tables and chairs, to pause beside their table. She smiled at them with the friendly smile that he remembered from his days in high school. "How are you folks today?"
"Fine," Lois said.
She set a pair of menus down on the table. "Can I get you something to drink while you decide?"
Clark nodded. "Thanks. That would be nice. I'd like coffee, please. It's pretty cold today."
Maisie cast him a sharp look, and Clark saw her glance at his pink earring, but she said nothing and turned to Lois. "Would you like anything?"
Lois ordered coffee as well and Maisie left them to peruse the menus.
"Maisie's added stuff to her menu," Clark said after a minute. "It all looks good. I can't make up my mind what I want."
"That's because you're really hungry," Lois told him. "Better pick something. She'll be back any minute."
Clark nodded, scanning the menu again, his mouth watering. "I guess I'll have the steak sandwich and fries," he said finally. "And maybe a side of onion rings, and a bowl of soup, and I think some Cole slaw. That carrot cake looks good for dessert, too."
"Take it easy," Lois said with a grin. "You're going to get fat at that rate. Perry would say your eyes are bigger than your stomach. If I were you I'd stick with the sandwich and fries, and maybe the soup. Order the dessert after you've eaten, if you're still hungry. And if you're still hungry after that, you can order something to go."
"I guess I'm not used to being really hungry," Clark admitted with a small grin. "Okay; I guess I'd better take your advice. You have more experience with this being hungry thing."
Rachel Harris crossed the room and took a seat at the table next to theirs. She gave them a curious glance and then a second one. "New in town?" she asked.
"Yes," Lois said.
"Just passing through?"
"Not really," Lois said. "I'm Lois Lane, from the Daily Planet in Metropolis, and this is Charles King, who sometimes works with me."
Rachel glanced curiously at his earring. "The Daily Planet? What's a big newspaper like yours doing in a little town like ours?"
Lois glanced at Clark. "Charlie and I are in the middle of an investigation. Superman dropped us off here a while ago."
Rachel's eyes widened. "Superman? Why didn't he stay around?"
"He had an emergency he needed to handle," Lois said smoothly. "He left us to find out what we can. He'll be back later to pick us up."
"Oh," Rachel said, frowning slightly at Lois. "You work with him, don't you?"
"We're partners," Lois said.
"Yeah, I remember seeing your name on his articles," Rachel said. "So, what are you investigating for him?"
"We're trying to find out," Lois said, "if anyone has been seen on or nearby the Kent farm in the last few months -- people who aren't from this area. I guess the first person to ask would be the sheriff, so, do you know?"
Rachel frowned. "Out-of-towners? Now that you mention it --"
"You mean you saw someone?"
Rachel shook her head. "No, but Wayne Irig -- that's the owner of the farm nearest the Kent place -- saw some treasure hunters on the property a couple of months ago."
"Treasure hunters?" Clark said.
"People snooping around the place with metal detectors," Rachel said. "We get 'em out here, sometimes. There's some stupid legend that the Dalton Gang buried the gold from a bank robbery somewhere in the area of Smallville."
"I see," Lois said. "Is that all? No other strangers?"
"Kind of." She scowled, obviously making an effort to remember. "Wayne mentioned seeing a survey crew over at the Kent farm, a while back."
"A survey crew?"
Rachel nodded. "He thought Clark was having it done. Maybe going to sell the property or make improvements or something."
"He isn't," Lois said. "When was this?"
"A couple of weeks ago, I guess. After he saw the treasure hunters, I think. What's this about, anyway?"
Maisie set two cups of steaming coffee on the table along with a little bowl of containers of half-and-half, and packets of artificial creamer. "Here you go. Have you decided?"
Lois nodded. "I'll have the bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich with fries. Charlie?"
Clark ordered the steak sandwich, virtuously limiting his side dishes to the soup and fries. Maisie picked up the menus with a smile. "It will only be a few minutes."
Rachel waited until she had walked away. "What's going on, anyway?" she asked. "If Clark didn't send those survey guys, who did?"
"We're not sure," Lois said. "There have been some rumors that some criminal group is trying to find a way to attack Superman."
Rachel's eyes narrowed. "That's not all there is to it, is it?" she asked suddenly. "You wouldn't be here if it was. Why did you think someone might have been on the Kent farm?"
Lois hesitated, glancing at Clark. Rachel was too bright for their good, he thought, but then, she always had been pretty smart. "Do you remember what happened at the Mayoral Debate, when Mayor White's opponent exposed Kent as Superman?" he asked, in his best Charlie King voice, with the trace of Brooklyn accent that he had adopted with the identity.
Rachel nodded, and then her eyes widened. "You mean, when he used that green rock on Clark?" she asked.
"Yeah," Lois said.
"But what does it have to do with someone hunting around the Kent property? You think they were looking for more of that green stuff?"
"We think so," Lois said. "Like I said, we've heard rumors that there's a criminal organization moving into Metropolis and that they're looking for a way to neutralize Superman. I can't go into everything that happened, but we have good reason to suspect that they've been snooping around his old home, trying to find out what they could, and possibly find more of the green rocks. Charlie and I are trying to help Clark figure out what's going on."
Rachel nodded. "Well, I'd think the person to talk to would be Wayne Irig," she said. "Do you need directions to his place?"
"Clark drew us a map," Lois said, "but you could point us to the nearest place to rent a car."
"That's easy," Rachel said. "Two blocks down from here. Barclay's Car Rental." She hesitated. "If I can help any other way, let me know, would you? Clark and I were sort of casual friends in high school. I always thought he had a kind of raw deal -- but don't tell him I said so."
"I won't," Lois said. "Thanks."
Lois vaguely recalled the country around the Kent farm but she had only seen it once, and then from the air. She and Clark had been here nearly a year ago on a mission to locate and remove every green-glowing crystal that they could find in the area. Clark had floated high above Shuster's Field and scanned the countryside for miles around, looking for the deadly stuff. When he'd located it, he'd flown Lois to within fifty feet of it and then hovered directly above the spot so that she could find it, dig it up and place it in a lead-lined bag. There hadn't been many, but fourteen pieces in the wrong hands would have been more than enough to kill Superman. When they had been as sure as it was possible to be that they had found all of it, Lois had wrapped the pieces in the lead foil supplied by Dr. Klein and Clark had hurled them into space hard enough to be certain that they would escape the Earth's gravity field and continue on out of the Solar System, never to return.
The car slowed as Clark turned onto the dirt road that led to Wayne Irig's small farm. A few chickens wandering around the snowy yard were pecking at the snow and withered brown grass in search of who knew what, Lois thought. There weren't likely to be any bugs or ants in this temperature, but they were evidently finding something, for they continued to peck as Clark pulled the car into the area of packed dirt in front of the old farmhouse and cut the engine. As she opened the passenger door and got out of the car, the door of the farmhouse opened and a short, thin man, probably in his late fifties, Lois thought, stepped out onto the broad, wooden porch.
"That's Wayne Irig," Clark said in a low voice.
"Will he recognize you, do you think?" Lois asked, softly.
"I don't think so," Clark said, as he got out of the car. "The last time he actually saw me was over two years ago. We've spoken on the phone a few times since, but that's all." He shut his door and together they approached the big porch. Lois noted the two-seater swing that dangled from the porch roof seemed the best kept up part of the structure. Wayne Irig stood waiting, looking back and forth from one to the other as they mounted the peeling wooden steps.
"Mr. Irig?" Lois asked.
"I'm Wayne Irig," he said. "Can I help you?"
"Maybe. I hope so." Lois gave him her best smile. "We're looking for some information."
"If it's about the Kent house again," Irig said, "I told the other people that it's not for sale, as far as I know. You'll have to talk to the owner."
"Other people?" Lois and Clark looked at each other, and then Lois turned back to Irig. It sounded as if they might have hit pay dirt. "It's kind of about the Kent house, but --" She stopped. This wasn't the time to get distracted. "We're hoping you can help us. I'm Lois Lane -- Clark's partner at the Daily Planet, in Metropolis. This is Charlie King. He sometimes works with us." She produced her press pass.
Irig squinted at her and then at the identification. "Yeah, I've seen your picture in the paper. Weren't you the reporter that Clark rescued from some island in the South Pacific last year?"
"That's me," Lois said. "I'm surprised you remember."
A dry smile stretched the farmer's lips. "I've followed Clark's career," he said. "The tabloids are always makin' up stuff about him and this woman or that woman." He snorted. "Gossipmongers!"
"What do you mean?" Lois asked.
"Clark never was a skirt chaser," Irig said. "Lonesome. Lost his parents too young, but he was a good kid. When he got to be Superman and the tabloids started printin' that stuff about him and women, I knew they couldn't find any dirt to spread around so they were makin' it up. But then I started seein' his name with yours in the paper, so I took note. He made you his representative. I remember now. Smartest move he ever made. Got the press off his back."
Lois almost laughed. Wayne Irig was definitely a no-nonsense sort of man. "Yes, he did. And right now, Charlie and I are trying to help him. We need to find out --"
"Look," Irig said, "It's freezin' out here. Come on into the house and have some coffee while we talk." As he spoke, he opened the door and waved them through.
A woman of about the same age as Wayne Irig was standing in the entryway. She looked questioningly at Lois and Clark.
Irig closed the door. "Nettie, these are Lois Lane and Charlie King, from Metropolis. Friends of Clark's." He added to Lois and Clark, "My wife, Nettie. Come on into the living room. This way."
"Would you like some coffee?" Nettie asked. "It's pretty chilly out."
"That would be nice," Clark said.
"I'll bring it," she said. "Make yourselves at home."
Lois and Clark followed Wayne Irig into a small, cozy living room. A two-foot Christmas tree glittered on a table and the room was strung with garlands of pine and holly. Irig gestured them to chairs and took his place in a heavy wooden rocking chair. The padded cushions on the back and seat had obviously been embroidered by hand, Lois thought. Sort of like the throw cushions that Clark kept on his sofa.
"So," Irig said, getting right down to business, "you said this was about the Kent house?"
"Kind of." Lois had appointed herself spokesman. The less talking Clark did around Wayne Irig, the safer it would probably be. "Mr. Irig, Rachel Harris said you were the person to talk to. She said you saw some strangers on the Kent property. Do you know who they were"
Irig rubbed his chin with one finger. "I don't know, exactly," he said. "A couple of months ago, I happened to be drivin' by the place after dark and noticed lights --"
"In the house?"
He shook his head slowly. "No; not in the house. In the wheat field. People walkin' around with flashlights, and some kinda equipment. There was one guy with a metal detector. At least, that's what it looked like from a distance."
"What did you do?"
Nettie entered at that point with a coffeepot and cups. She distributed the cups to her husband and guests and set a tray bearing cream and sugar on the coffee table. Lois poured two teaspoons of sugar into her cup and followed it with a generous helping of cream.
Wayne Irig took a sip of his coffee and leaned back in his chair. "Wasn't much I could do," he said in answer to her question. "I drove home and called the sheriff, but by the time she got there they were gone. Rachel figured they were just treasure hunters. I wasn't so sure, but I didn't see 'em again."
"What about the 'other people' that asked about the Kent property?" Lois asked. "Someone wanted to buy it?"
"I guess it was about a month ago," Irig said. "These people came by. Two women. Said they were representin' somebody that was thinkin' of buyin' hereabouts, and wanted to look the place over. Somebody in town had told 'em I looked after the land for Clark. I told 'em I didn't have no authority to take 'em onto the property, and that they'd have to talk to him."
"Do you remember what they looked like?" Clark interjected.
Irig frowned, obviously trying hard to recall. Finally he shook his head. "One of 'em was a tall, skinny blond gal," he said. "Dressed kinda flashy. Looked like a good stiff breeze would blow her away. Don't remember the other one in particular. Mighta had brown hair." He leaned forward, clasping his hands on his knee. "What's goin' on?"
"That's what we're trying to figure out," Lois said. "Somebody's out to get Superman. That's all we know. Possibly some organized criminal organization. We think they're looking for some way to harm him."
"By lookin' around his old home?" Irig asked.
Irig scratched an eyebrow. "S'far as I know, the only thing that can hurt Superman is that green rock that guy used on him back when we first found out about him," he said. "It disappeared, didn't it?"
"Yes," Lois said uncomfortably. "We think they're looking for more. Sheriff Harris said there was a survey crew here?"
"Yeah. A couple of weeks ago." Irig frowned. "They showed up with some legal papers. Said they were supposed to survey the property. They were around a couple of days, and that was it."
"Legal papers?" Lois asked. "What kind of legal papers? Did you see them?"
"Sure." The farmer nodded vigorously. "I was drivin' to town and saw all the men and equipment out there. I went over to ask 'em what they were doin' and the man in charge, I guess he was, showed me a bunch of legal-lookin' stuff, about takin' a survey of the property for the county or somethin'. I figured those gals might have got hold of Clark and maybe he was gonna sell the place. Didn't hear anything more about it, though, after that."
"Clark didn't know about it," Lois said. "Whoever they were, he didn't send them. Do you remember the man you talked to? Did he tell you his name or anything?"
"Yeah," Wayne Irig said. "He was a short guy, had kinda broad shoulders and white hair. Had a sorta funny name. Gene somethin'."
"Do you remember what it was?" Lois held her breath.
"Let me think," Irig said. He rubbed his chin, scowling deeply. "Newton? Newrich? Somethin' like that ..." He snapped his fingers suddenly. "I got it. Newtrich! His name was Gene Newtrich!"
A short time later, having said goodbye to the Irigs, Lois and Clark headed for the Kent farm to complete the next part of their mission. They parked the vehicle that they had hired from Barclay's Car Rental and removed a piece of equipment that they had bought in town to deal with any Kryptonite that they might discover. Hovering in the air, directly over the spot where his ship had landed, Lois, dressed in the red, blue and gold outfit of Ultra Woman, began to scan the snowy ground below, as far as her super-powered eyesight would allow her to see. No sign of Kryptonite, red or green, was revealed, so she began to move outward in concentric circles, taking in more and more of the countryside around the spot where Clark had first come to Earth. For two hours she circled, scanning every inch of the ground below her but no sign of the glowing mineral emerged. At last she landed beside her partner amid the skeletons of last years crops. "I've covered an area twenty-five miles around in all directions," she said. "Do you think we've gone far enough yet?"
"I hope so," Clark said. "I think that's well beyond the area where the survey crew or the treasure hunters were, at least according to Wayne."
Lois nodded. "Good. I'll tell you what. I'm going to make a couple of final circles just to be thorough and then we can head back to Metropolis. Did you make those calls while I was playing 'Ring Around the Rosie'?"
"Yes. Jonetta is researching Gene Newtrich for us. She said as soon as she found anything significant, she'd get back to us."
Lois glanced up at the sun. It was mid afternoon, and snow clouds were gathering in the west. "Good." She stretched her arms above her head, feeling the energizing rays of the sun. "Let's hope it's soon. In the meantime, let's finish this." She launched herself again and began her next slow, concentric circle.
She was nearly halfway around the circle when she saw it -- a flicker of sickly green, visible only to her x-ray vision, which alerted all her senses. She zoomed in on the flicker to verify what she had found.
It was a tiny sliver of green crystal, covered with a layer of dirt and withered weeds, but glowing with a terrible light of its own. Marking its position, Lois continued her circle, but no more Kryptonite came to light. Quickly, she landed next to Clark, scooped him up and deposited him some distance from the sliver.
"What is it?" he asked.
"A piece of green Kryptonite," Lois said. "We don't dare leave it here. I'm going to mark it, and finish my next circle. I think I'll make a couple more, just to be on the safe side, since this one turned up. Then I'll come back and we can deal with this piece."
"All right," Clark said. "I'll have the lead foil ready."
"You're going to stay away from it," Lois said in a tone that brooked no opposition. "Just because you have no powers at the moment doesn't mean you're suddenly immune to the stuff."
"I agree," Clark said. "I'll wait for you to get back."
Lois took off again in a rush, feeling her heart pounding almost sickeningly hard in her chest. Most likely, she told herself, the "treasure hunters" and the "survey crew" had limited their search to the area a few miles around the spot where Clark's ship had landed in Shuster's Field. They probably hadn't found any more of the green stuff, or they would have used it. But they had obviously found a piece of the red variety. It must be much rarer than the green sort, or she and Clark would undoubtedly have found it on their first foray to the area. Maybe it was the only piece there.
She completed the circle and started her next one, scanning furiously for any sign of an unnatural red or green crystal glow. And on the return leg, she saw it: a faint red flicker that stood out to her like the landing beacon for an airliner.
Instantly, she zoomed in on it with her vision.
It was a cluster of crystals, the size of a man's fist, apparently growing out of a chunk of very ordinary granite. There was a large projection, like the central spire of a miniature skyscraper, glowing cherry red, and surrounding it were several lesser projections of red and two sliver-thin ones of green. It, too, was buried under a layer of dirt and snow. Again, Lois carefully marked the location and continued her circles. It was obvious to her now that there had been a scattering of smaller pieces that had landed at a greater distance from the ship than they had at first realized. She resumed her circles, out and farther out, scanning every inch of the ground. It was nearly an hour later that she landed by Clark in the field some hundred feet from the first piece that she had discovered.
"How many?" he asked.
"Three," she said. "On the last forty circles I didn't find any more. I was a good hundred miles from Smallville on the last one, so I think that's it. Let's hope Mr. Newtrich and his friends didn't find many samples of the red stuff in the area they searched."
"I don't see how they could have," Clark said. "If there had been many of them, I'd have most likely noticed them. They sure don't look like anything from Earth."
It was what she had been thinking. "I hope you're right. Maybe all they found was the one. All right, let's get this stuff under control. Give me the lead foil -- and the arm."
"We don't know you aren't susceptible to it either, now that you have my powers," Clark protested. It was an argument that he had raised a little while after leaving the Irigs' home.
"True," Lois said, "but I'm going to keep my distance and make the exposure as short as I can until I see what happens." She took the mechanical arm -- one of the devices available for reaching and gripping items on high shelves -- in one hand and a sheet of lead foil, provided by Bernard Klein, in the other. Moving at a speed faster than the eye could follow, she approached the first sliver of Kryptonite.
The metal arm allowed her to keep her body several feet away, but as she neared it she began to feel a strange sensation. Her joints began to ache, and her muscles to twinge. A cramp in her gut nearly made her double over, but if she let Clark know that the green sliver was affecting her, he would never let her do this job.
Her arms felt shaky and weak as she reached out with the mechanical gripping device and scooped away the shielding dirt. The green-glowing sliver came into view. Lois could feel the perspiration break out on her skin.
The faster this was done the better, she knew. The piece of lead foil lay on the ground, ready for its occupant. Lois gripped the crystal with the mechanical arm and transferred it to the foil. Still using the arm, she folded one side of the foil awkwardly over the tiny, malevolent fragment of Kryptonite.
Almost instantly the symptoms let up. They weren't gone, but they lessened to a minor irritation. Lois dropped the mechanical arm and snatched up the foil, wadding it tightly around the poisonous green sliver and, as she did so, the aches and pains dwindled and vanished. The job done, she breathed a sigh of relief, wiping the wetness from her forehead. She could feel the strength returning to her limbs as the seconds went by, but now, for the first time, she could truly understand why Clark feared this stuff. She had seen Tempus use it on him a year ago, her time, on that tropical island a thousand years in the past, but personal experience drove it home like nothing else. The shards of his home planet were deadly to him, and she was just beginning to realize how deadly.
Taking a deep breath, she turned and walked back to Clark.
He was waiting anxiously. "Are you all right?"
"Sure. Nothing to it. Come on; let's get this job done."
The symptoms of the Kryptonite were gone. She felt normal again. Taking a deep breath, Lois hurled the wad of lead foil straight up. The little ball of foil, containing the deadly green sliver, flew upward like a rocket and vanished. She followed it with her telescopic vision as it exited the atmosphere like a meteor in reverse, and vanished into space.
"Nice work," Clark said.
"Two to go." Lois put an arm around his waist and lifted off toward the last sliver that she had found. The second, with its combination of green and red, she planned to deal with last.
Disposing of the second piece was a repeat of the first except that Lois was careful to move at super speed, so that her exposure to the vicious piece of crystal was as short as possible. The ache in her joints and muscles receded a little more slowly this time. She gripped the ball of lead foil and took a deep breath, waiting for her full strength to return.
"Lois, are you all right?" Clark put an arm around her shoulders.
The aches were fading now, and the strength was flowing back into her muscles. "Yeah. Stand back, Clark." Lois inhaled a lungful of the cold, Kansas air and flung the ball upward like a softball pitcher. Following it with her special vision, she saw it flash upward and vanish into the void.
"What's the matter?" Clark rested a hand on her forehead. "You're running a temperature!"
"I'm okay," she assured him. "Really."
"You can feel the Kryptonite, can't you?" he said. "It's affecting you, isn't it?" It really wasn't a question. "Why didn't you say so?"
"Clark, it wasn't bad. Yes, I could feel it, but they were only tiny little slivers. It only lasted a few seconds."
"I don't want you to go near that last one. We don't know what it could do to you. You said it's made of green and red!"
"We have to get rid of it," Lois said. "Don't think for a minute that I intend to leave it where someone could find it and use it against you!"
"Well, look," Clark said. "It affects you now that you have my powers. It may not bother me at all, since I don't have any. I can --"
"Absolutely not!" Lois couldn't help raising her voice. Deliberately, she brought it down to normal levels. "There's no way you're getting near that stuff!" She stopped again and took a deep breath. "I've got it. Stay right here. I'm going to go get help. And when I get back, stay away until I take her back to town."
"What --" Clark said, but he was speaking to empty space. Lois had vanished in a rush of air and an instant later the clap of a sonic boom rattled the atmosphere.
"Her?" he repeated, belatedly. Now what the heck did his partner have in mind this time? However, Lois had proven to him over the last year that he could trust her to do what was best for him. The news organizations in Metropolis had found out the hard way that Lois Lane stood unyieldingly between them and Clark Kent/Superman. She had been a tiger in protecting his interests, and every member of the media knew without a doubt that if they wanted their Superman news, they had better not annoy Lane or even allow her to think that they might consider violating their promise to respect his privacy. So he stood obediently in the field, waiting for whatever she intended to do.
It was completely silent except for the blowing of the wind. He shifted from one foot to the other, wishing that he could go after Lois. This being without powers thing was no fun. True, he had been without them as a child, but then he had had no idea of what he was missing. Now he did, and he didn't like it. What was it going to be like if they couldn't put his powers back where they belonged? What if Lois had them for the rest of his life? Would he be able to reconcile himself to that?
On the other hand, what was it going to be like for Lois if they did manage to get his powers back? He didn't think he could bear it if she resented him for having what she now possessed. He didn't believe she would want to keep what belonged to him, but would she miss them as much as he did? That wouldn't be good, either. Even the thought of Lois being unhappy made him unhappy.
A speck on the horizon caught his attention, and he realized after a second that it was Lois. She was carrying someone, too, he saw, and stood perfectly still, watching as her form passed some distance to the east of him, dropped toward the ground and vanished from his field of vision.
Again silence. Clark fidgeted impatiently, wondering what was going on. As Superman, he was used to being in the middle of the action. It was hard to have to stand and wait for someone else to do the job.
Five minutes passed, and then another five. And then, all at once, Lois and her passenger were once again rising into the sky. They passed a good distance to the east of him and vanished in the direction of Smallville.
Again he waited. Several more minutes passed.
And all at once, Lois was landing beside him. She looked extremely pleased with herself. "There!" she said.
"What did you do?" Clark asked. "What happened?"
"I got rid of the chunk of Kryptonite," she said.
"Who was that?" he asked.
"Rachel. She told us that if she could help, she would, remember? I went and got her, explained that you and I needed her help to get rid of the Kryptonite, and brought her here to dig it up and wrap it in the foil. Then I threw it into space. It's gone."
"Just like that? Didn't she ask any questions?"
"Sure she did. I told her that it was some of the stuff that could hurt Superman and that neither of us could get close to it. I explained that, from what Lois Lane and Charles King found, we were pretty sure the surveyors were actually the criminal group that they mentioned to her earlier, looking for the stuff, and that we needed to get rid of it immediately. She does want you to come back and explain more about it later. I told her we would, once we were finished with the job. By the way, she already knew about me. My picture's all over the television, from that accident this afternoon."
Clark stared at her, barely aware that his jaw had dropped slightly. After a few seconds, he closed his mouth. Lois, as usual, had dealt with the problem directly and effectively. No wonder, he thought, not for the first time, that his partner was as necessary for the Utopia of the future to come about as Superman. Whatever Utopia meant. Maybe one day Wells would come back and he could ask the little man to elaborate a little. It seemed unlikely that the future world would be the perfect one that the word seemed to imply, but maybe to Wells it seemed that way. Still, it had to be better than the one that Tempus had wanted. And his incredible partner was a very integral part of that future. He hoped that she would be an integral part of his future as well.
His cell phone rang.
For an instant he didn't realize what the sound was and then he hurried to pull the device from under his coat and flip it open. "Kent."
"Hello, Mr. Kent?" It was Jonetta's voice. "I've found the information you wanted about Gene Newtrich."
"Yes?" he said. He pressed the button to turn on his phone's speaker so Lois could hear.
"He's a soil engineer. He works for Church Enterprises."
"That's right, Mr. Kent. I printed up everything I could find on him and put it on your desk."
"Thanks," he said. "I appreciate it. I'll pick it up when I get back to the office."
"You're welcome," Jonetta's voice said. "I hope it was what you needed."
"You have no idea," Clark said.
"Church Enterprises?" Lois said, as he closed the phone. "Didn't Perry mention that they were bidding on the LexSave chain?"
"He sure did. They're the corporation that owns Cost Mart."
They stared at each other. "Bobby said that a criminal organization was trying to move into Metropolis," Lois said finally. "Now we find out that the same company that's trying to take over one of Lex's businesses in Metropolis employs a soil engineer that was illegally on your property. In fact, there were three different groups that were interested in your property. And two women used Red Kryptonite on you at the mall. Somehow, I doubt this is all a coincidence."
"So do I," Clark said. "I wonder if the two women that Wayne told us about were the same as the ones with the camcorder."
"It wouldn't surprise me a bit," Lois said. "Come on; let's go back and turn in the car. We need to get back to Metropolis."
A short time later, Lois and Clark were getting back into the rental car. Clark gave a faint sigh of relief as the door closed, cutting off the sharp draft of cold air. The wind was picking up, whipping up the snow that lay on the ground around them in tiny hard flecks of ice that dotted his face, hair and clothing. Overhead, the snow clouds that he had first noticed in the west were blotting out most of the pale, early-evening sky.
Clark turned on the headlights as he pulled back onto the packed dirt of the road. Sunset would be around five o'clock, but it was already getting hard to see, thanks to the cloud cover. Impatiently, he waited for the engine to warm somewhat and then turned on the car's heater. If he ever got his powers back, he promised himself, he would never complain about them again. This getting cold thing was a good enough reason in its own right. Brr!
Lois glanced up at the sky. "I'm ready to call it a day. Besides, it looks like Smallville is in for a storm."
"Probably," Clark agreed. "The car rental place closes at five. We've got a little over an hour to get this thing back or be charged for another day. And since we can't get the paper to cover the expense --"
"Yeah," Lois said. "It might be hard to explain why Superman didn't just fly us out there. Let's get going."
The trip to town, normally a thirty-minute drive, took closer to an hour. Only a few minutes into the return trip the snow started to fall, at first a light sprinkle that dotted the windshield, but it became progressively heavier as they proceeded. By the time they reached the paved highway, it was coming down fairly heavily, and Clark had to fight the gusts of wind that blew unevenly against the side of the car and blasted clouds of flakes against the windshield. The asphalt was slippery with the coating of new snow, and he had to slow to nearly a crawl in order to keep from driving off the road in the white curtain that intermittently obscured his vision. An early dusk had fallen and he was just about to suggest that Lois drive, since her enhanced vision could cut through the snow, when they came upon the scene of a new accident, evidently caused by the sudden snowstorm.
A car had skidded off the road and lay with its nose in the ditch, the rear end thrusting up at an angle. A figure wrapped in a heavy coat and hat was leaning against one of the taillights and waving unsteadily at them as they approached.
Clark brought the car to a stop. Lois leaned out the window. "Need some help?"
The coated figure nodded and tried to stand upright, but succeeded only in falling to one knee. Clark set the emergency brake, turned on the warning flashers and opened the door. The other driver was trying to get to his feet again.
Clark bent to give the other man a hand. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah." The man managed to make it to his feet. "I think maybe I cracked a rib on my seatbelt when the car went into the ditch."
Lois had gone to examine the car. "Charlie, he's going to need a tow truck. There's some kind of fluid running out all over the ground. I don't think he should try to drive it."
"Can you make it to the car if I help you?" Clark asked. "I don't think the tow trucks are going to want to come out in this. Besides, if you hurt yourself you should see a doctor."
A short time later they were on the road again, their passenger sitting in the back seat soaking up the warmth of the car's heater as they made their way slowly toward town.
Between the snow and the necessity of dropping their passenger off at Smallville's tiny emergency clinic, they returned the rental car to Barclay's Car Rental with less than five minutes to spare.
"That was close," Lois said as they stepped out of the small office. "Do you get this kind of weather often in Kansas?"
Clark shrugged. "Sometimes."
"There's a nice, definitive answer," Lois said. "Let's get back to Metropolis. I'm ready to relax and get some rest."
They walked back into the area between two buildings and Lois changed quickly into Ultra Woman. She held out an arm to Clark and together they lifted off into the storm.
As the miles flowed past beneath them, Lois Lane gripped her partner tightly around the torso, almost afraid that she would drop him.
For a short time after she had disposed of the two slivers of green Kryptonite, it had seemed as if the effects were transitory. The warm rays of the afternoon sun seemed to have dispelled the aches and weakness caused by the Kryptonite exposure but a short time after she had returned Rachel Harris to the Sheriff's Office in Smallville, she had begun to wonder.
As the sunlight faded, she had become slowly aware of mild fatigue. Her muscles felt tired and her joints had begun to twinge slightly. Still, it wasn't surprising. This substance affected Clark so badly that he had been powerless for several hours after his exposure to it on the tropical island where they had marooned Tempus. Her own exposure had been much shorter and much less severe, but it was reasonable to expect that there might be some after effects. Still, the sooner they got back to Metropolis the better. A good night's sleep would probably be all that was necessary in order for her to recover.
But as she flew eastward, Clark grew heavier and heavier, and it became more and more difficult to maintain her speed and height in the air. The sun had set and, flying above the clouds, the sky was black and clear and the air was definitely cold.
"Lois, are you all right?" Clark asked. She barely heard his voice over the rush of air in her ears. A pang of fear shot through her. Her super-senses were definitely dulling.
Lois glanced around, at the layer of cottony clouds, tinged with the silver of moonlight, floating below them. As solid as they looked, if she were to suddenly lose her power of flight, she and Clark would fall right through them, to their deaths. And both her strength and her ability to defy gravity were definitely becoming more and more iffy.
She angled downward. Clark glanced once at her and bit his lip, but he said nothing. Instead, he tightened the arm that he had wrapped around her when they took off and hung on.
One they were beneath the clouds, she could feel the tiny, cold flecks of snowflakes hitting her face, and the chill through the spandex of the suit was more than just uncomfortable. It was becoming downright cold! The only warm place was the part of her body where Clark was pulled tightly against her.
She expected Clark to say something, to urge her to land as quickly as possible. He didn't, and she was vaguely grateful, since it must be obvious that that was what she was trying to do anyway. She felt him give a sigh of relief when her feet hit the pavement and after a pause he released the arm that he had wrapped around her.
"Are you all right?" he asked at once. "What happened?"
Her head was swimming, and she grasped his arm for balance. Instantly, he put his arm around her again. "Come on, Lois; let's get you somewhere warm where you can sit down."
"Not in this outfit," she whispered.
"Come on." His voice was a little faint in her ears, but the solid, muscular arm around her waist guided her to a bench and sat her firmly on it. She shivered, pulling the red cape around her body.
Instantly, he removed his coat and put it over her shoulders. "Come on. There's a motel across the street."
Wherever they were, it was considerably later in the evening than it had been in Kansas. They had undoubtedly crossed a time zone or two during their flight, she thought as she let Clark guide her unsteady path across the street. She had no idea how many time zones to the west of Metropolis that Kansas might be, though she probably should. It was snowing here, too, although it probably wasn't the same storm as the one hitting Smallville, and traffic was light. The streetlights were on, and the Christmas lights that illuminated the store fronts made streaks of red, green and blue on the snowy walk and illuminated the flakes as they glittered down in tiny sparks of color. Ahead of them a flashing sign announced "The Minton Motor Court", and beneath it, in smaller red letters, was the word "Vacancy".
At the door of the motel's office, she pulled at his arm. "I can't go in there. Not in this outfit!"
"Take off your mask," Clark said. "And be sure you keep my coat around you so they can't see what you're wearing. Come on. It's freezing out here."
Lois obeyed, stuffing the mask into the pocket of the coat. Clark pushed open the door.
It was very warm in the office, especially compared to the cold without. The sudden blast of heat made her head swim. Clark guided her to a loveseat that sat against one wall. "Stay here. I'll check us in." He turned and approached the desk where the woman who apparently managed the office in the evenings was watching them curiously. Clark pulled out his wallet, presenting the temporary press pass that Eduardo had issued him at Lois's request some weeks ago.
"Charles King, from the Daily Planet. We need a room with twin beds for one night."
The woman examined the identification and Lois saw her glance first at Clark and then at her. "Are you all right?" she inquired of Lois.
"She's cold," Clark said smoothly. "Our car broke down and we had to walk a ways through the snow. It looks like we're going to have to wait until morning to get it towed."
Lois nodded and pulled his coat more tightly around her, leaving Clark to deal with the business of getting them a room. She was so tired, she thought vaguely. She could barely keep her eyes open.
A short time later, Clark was ushering her into a motel room. He shut the door behind them, reached over to turn up the thermostat and guided Lois over to one of the twin beds that were the main feature of the room. There was a dresser, a couple of chairs and a cable television sitting atop a table in one corner.
Clark pulled back the blankets, efficiently removed his coat from around her, pulled off her boots and within moments, Lois found herself in the bed, covered with the blankets.
For a moment, he didn't speak as Lois snuggled beneath the warm covers of the bed. Then Clark sank down on the foot, regarding her with concern. "How do you feel?" he asked.
"Tired," Lois whispered.
"What happened?" he asked. "You were doing all right, and then --"
"I don't know -- my powers started to fade out." Her eyes flew open and she stared at him, appalled. "Clark, if I've lost the powers -- if they've gone -- how are we ever going to get them back to you?"
The thought had occurred to him, but he had been unwilling to voice it. He was quite sure that Lois would blame herself for it, whether or not the blame was warranted, but now Lois had brought it up, herself.
"I'm more worried about you," he said. "Are you sure you're all right? Are you warm enough?"
"I'm warming up just fine," Lois said, impatiently. "Clark, your powers were switched to me and now they're almost gone! Maybe they are gone! And all because I handled the Kryptonite!"
"We don't know that," Clark said. "We know you had them after you were exposed to it. It just seemed to me that they faded after you'd been putting out a lot of effort all day. Maybe you just don't absorb sunlight as well as I do and with a little help from the Kryptonite, they faded out. There's nothing to say they won't come back after you've had some exposure to sunlight." He reached out to take her hand. "Let's not panic until we know there's a reason to panic, huh?"
"Clark, if your powers are gone forever, it's my fault!"
"Oh?" Clark said. He'd known that Lois's tendency to perfectionism would lead her to blame herself and he was determined to refute that here and now. "I suppose you were the one behind those two women shooting us with the Red Kryptonite camcorder?"
"Of course not!" She pushed herself up abruptly.
"Then how on Earth could you possibly be at fault for me losing my powers? We don't know anything about this, yet -- and we don't know that what happened to you is permanent, either. The only thing we can do is wait for tomorrow and see if exposure to sunlight brings your powers back. Blaming yourself, when we don't even know what really happened, isn't very helpful. Aren't you the one who always jumps on me for obsessing about stuff?"
"Yeah, but that's stupid stuff!" Lois shot back. "You blame yourself for things that you couldn't possibly do anything about!"
"And you could?" Clark replied instantly. "You mean you knew that exposing yourself to Kryptonite radiation was going to take your powers away after we started flying back to Metropolis?"
"Of course I didn't!"
"Exactly," he said forcefully. "You didn't know it. We don't even know if it really had anything to do with it. We sure as heck don't know if it's permanent!"
They glared at each other for several seconds. At last Lois began to smile faintly. "Sometimes I really think you're a journalist after all, Kent."
He felt both his eyebrows fly up. "Huh?"
"On the other hand, maybe not," she added. "For a guy that makes his living with words, you sure aren't very quick with the witty retort."
"It's hard to be witty when you haven't got a clue what just happened," Clark said. "What are we talking about?"
"I was just going to say that you make a pretty convincing argument."
Slowly, he replayed the last few lines through his mind. That was one thing that hadn't vanished with the red beam: his photographic memory. "Oh, I get it. You know, you have a super power that I'll never have, Superman or not."
"What do you mean?"
"I'll never be able to change a subject half as fast as you do." He rose from the foot of the bed to sit on the edge next to her and ventured to put an arm around her. "Honey, we don't know much of anything, yet. All we can do is wait until tomorrow to see if sunlight brings the powers back. If they don't come back right away, we're going to have to find some other way to get back to Metropolis, and I guess that means a rental car. Renting a car for the kind of distance I suspect we're going to have to drive is going to be a little expensive, though. Considering the importance of what we've found, the Planet ought to reimburse us. I think I've got a way to get them to, without explaining too much."
"What way?" she asked.
"We're neither of us super-powered," Clark said quietly. "We were out investigating this new criminal organization that's rumored to be moving into Metropolis. We wound up here -- wherever here is -- and Superman had to take off on other business. We have to get back home, so we're going to have to rent a car. That's what other reporters do when they get stranded for some reason or other. We're perfectly within our rights."
She processed that and finally nodded. "I guess you're right."
"And after we get back to Metropolis," he continued, "we'll go straight to Dr. Klein, as soon as we can. Maybe he'll be able to help."
"Okay," Lois said. Her burst of self-recrimination seemed to have burned itself out, to his vast relief.
"Good. Now, we need to take care of a couple of things. Or I do. You're going to stay in that bed, under the covers, and get rested and warmed up."
"What?" Lois asked.
"Well, we need some dinner, and you need some clothes. We can't drive all the way to Metropolis with you dressed as Ultra Woman. Somebody's going to notice, even if it's just when we stop for gas. Besides, it's freezing out there, in case it escaped your attention."
"Not exactly," she said.
"So I'm going to check out the yellow pages of that phone book that is so conveniently sitting next to the phone, and order us food -- and while we're waiting for our food, I'm going to find out where we are, and call Eduardo. And after that, I'm going to do some research on where I need to go to get you some clothes before we leave. We don't have to check out of here until noon, so that should be time enough. Or do you think you can retrieve your clothes from where you put them?"
Lois shook her head. Clark nodded. "I couldn't get mine back either after they shot me in the mall. Oh well. One of the hazards that goes with the job, I guess."
"Clark --" Her voice sounded very subdued. It broke into his list of things he needed to do, and he turned to look at her.
"What's the matter?"
She put her head against his shoulder. "I'm so sorry."
"Hey." He tilted her face up so he could look her in the eyes. "This isn't your fault. We're going to figure out what to do, Lois, and I'm not ready to give up on getting my powers back. There's too much we don't know about all this." He put his other arm around her, pulling her as close to him as he could, allowing for the blankets in the way. "We're partners forever, and partners don't blame each other for things that can't be helped."
She wiggled an arm free of the covers and slipped it around his neck, tugging his head down, and all at once he found he was kissing her.
The kiss lasted forever, even though the clicking of the second hand of the wall clock said it was only for about forty-five seconds. Slowly, and very reluctantly, he drew back. "Besides," he said softly, "How could I possibly blame the woman I love for something that wasn't her fault?"
She held onto him more tightly without answering. Clark didn't move, and more seconds ticked by. At last Lois released him, looking up into his face with a glimmering of tears in her eyes. "Why do you love me, Clark? I'm the most unlovable person I know. I scare men off. You heard Ralph the other day, complaining about what a bitch I am. Why do you feel differently?"
"You don't scare me off," Clark said quietly. "You never have. And Ralph is an idiot. I can say that while I'm Charlie King, even if I can't as Superman. Beside you, Lois, other women are like shadows. I need you to survive, like other people need food and air. I can't help it that most men can't handle the threat to their egos. You've never been a threat to mine, because it isn't a contest and never was. Since we met, I've felt alive in a way I never felt before. I fell in love with you about two minutes after we met, if you want the absolute truth. After that, there was no other woman for me, and there never will be."
"I hope these fit," Clark said, presenting three bags from Angelina's Boutique for her examination. "I bought you jeans and a pullover T-shirt, and as heavy a sweatshirt as I could find. I also bought gloves and a pair of snow boots. If they don't fit, I'll take them back and exchange them. Try the boots on first, would you?"
Lois withdrew the boots from the bag, dreading what she would find, but she was pleasantly surprised. They were a pair of tan, waterproof women's boots in her size, lined thickly with wool, and with non-skid soles, as well as a pair of stockings to wear with the boots. They weren't graced with spike heels or tremendously pointed toes, but Lois suspected that they would be all the more stable in the snow for that lack, and probably wouldn't pinch her toes as most of her stylish high-heeled work shoes did. She undid the socks from their wrapper and slipped one on, and then slid her foot into the boot.
And raised her brows. The boot fit like a glove, there was adequate room for her toes, and it had arch support as well. The soft, wool lining cushioned her foot and if Clark hadn't been there she would have allowed herself to revel in the sensuous sensation. These boots, she suspected, were about to become her favorite winter footwear.
"It fits," she told him, picking up the remaining bags and the other boot. "I'm going to take a shower before we leave. Did you find a place to rent a car?"
He nodded. "Three blocks down. Minton Valley Car Rental. The only place in town, may I add."
"I'm not surprised," she said. "As a matter of fact, I'm a little surprised there's a real car rental place here -- but then, maybe I'd better wait until we see the cars available."
Clark chuckled. "A lot of this is depending on luck," he said.
"By the way," she added, observing his newly shaven chin, "I see you managed to shave without too many nicks."
"Yeah. It's lucky they supplied a toiletries kit, or Charlie King might be going for the unshaven look," Clark said. "I only nicked myself three times. How do ordinary guys manage?"
"Lots of practice," Lois said. "Just imagine if you were a woman and had to shave your legs, too."
He made a face. "That sounds painful."
"It isn't fun," Lois said. "So what else have you done this morning?"
"I called Dr. Klein," Clark said. "He's still doing that analysis of Superman's blood. I told him we need to talk to him in person as soon as we can, but we probably won't be in Metropolis until late tonight. He said to come by first thing in the morning."
"He can bet on that," Lois said, almost under her breath. Clark didn't answer.
They were in the tiny, unincorporated town of Minton, South Carolina, just south of the North Carolina border in Lancaster County, as Clark had discovered last night. She'd never heard of it, of course. She was a big city reporter, and Minton wasn't even as large as Smallville.
Their dinner, when he ordered it, had consisted of pizza with all the trimmings, delivered from the town's only pizza place, two blocks away. The town, according to the literature in the drawer of the telephone table, consisted of slightly more than ten thousand persons, all told, and she and Clark had landed next to one of the two motels in the entire town. They had approximately six hundred and fifteen miles to cover to reach Metropolis, and so far, since last night, Lois had seen no sign of the super powers returning. Clark had pointed out that they had no idea of what they were dealing with at this point, and that it might take the powers more time to come back for her than they did for him. He had refused to speculate about the possibility that they might not return, but Lois knew he was worrying about it. So was she.
She went into the bathroom, but at the last second paused and stuck her head out. "How about a place to eat? I guess there's some pizza left, but --"
"There's a place called the Kozy Kitchen right across the street from the rental place," Clark said. "We'll have to walk over, but I think we can manage that. I also got hold of Eduardo, finally. The Planet will pick up the tab. He tells me Clark's phone is off and he isn't answering his page."
"Big surprise there," Lois muttered. "I just hope we can keep fooling everyone -- but I'd hate to see you have to be Charlie King full time."
"We'll deal with that when and if we need to," Clark said. "All we can do is take things as they come."
Clark was taking this better than she was, Lois thought. Closing the bathroom door, she laid the bags down on the broad sink board and pulled off the boot, followed by the skin-tight costume of Ultra Woman. After the events of the last twenty-four hours, she was more than ready for a hot shower but as she adjusted the water to a comfortable temperature and stepped beneath the stream, she continued to worry.
The selection of cars at Minton Valley Car Rental was, at least to Lois, surprisingly wide. They finally settled on an economy car and filled out the necessary paperwork. Since Lois was unable to produce a driver's license, it fell to Clark to drive and by one o'clock, they drove out of the rental lot and directly across the street to the Kozy Kitchen. By now, both were anxious to get on their trip. Clark ordered sandwiches to go and, some fifteen minutes later, they pulled out onto the road again.
Lois spread out the map, that they had acquired from the rental company, on her lap. "Okay, according to this we stay on this road for about twenty-five miles. Then we should see an entrance to 77. We take that north until we hit 85, which will eventually take us to 95. Then we just stay on 95 North until we get to Metropolis."
"Sounds like a plan," Clark said. "How far is it?"
Lois was examining the map and doing rough calculations in her head. No matter how she worked the problem the answer was larger than she liked. "Six hundred and something. It looks like a ten-hour drive, at least. Maybe more in these weather conditions."
"Then I guess we'd better get going," Clark said. He maneuvered through the streets of Minton, sticking carefully to the speed limit. Many small towns were speed traps, he had learned through observation, and he had no intention of having to explain a ticket to Eduardo or the department at the Planet that handled expense accounts.
Once free of the town, their speed increased somewhat but staying below the speed limit was not a problem. It was no longer snowing and the roads had been cleared but huge drifts lined both sides of the thoroughfare. Cars were traversing the icy surface with caution, and Clark did as well. Lois fidgeted impatiently as their car crept cautiously forward. Ahead of them, the line of vehicles seemed endless. At this speed, it was going to be well after midnight before they reached Metropolis.
"Lois," Clark said as they crawled along, "You can make some use of this time. Take off your sweatshirt and roll up your sleeves. The more sunlight you soak up, the quicker your powers will come back."
"As long as they're not gone for good," Lois said.
"I'm not going to accept that until I hear it from Dr. Klein -- and maybe not then. Give it a try, would you?"
"All right." Lois removed the sweatshirt and gloves and stretched her arms out in the pale, winter sunlight that shone through the car windows. "How long should it take?'
He shrugged. "I have no idea. In the meantime, maybe you could unwrap one of those sandwiches for me -- and have one, yourself."
Since her stomach was growling, that sounded like a good idea. "I'm going to eat first and then I'll hold the sandwich for you while you drive. You need both hands on the wheel in these conditions."
That hadn't occurred to him. He had never had to worry about it before, since Superman's reflexes were good enough to handle any unexpected road conditions that he encountered. This being normal was more of a pain in the neck than he had at first realized, and seemed to be getting worse as he went. Funny, it hadn't seemed so bad as a kid, before he'd gotten his powers, but super powers had spoiled him. If he ever got them back, he'd never lament not being normal again.
They drove in silence for a time. Lois finished her sandwich -- another BLT, he noticed, and then unwrapped one for him and opened the remaining orange juice. As they went along, she carefully fed him his breakfast, catching the occasional drip with one of the paper napkins that the Kozy Kitchen had included with the meal.
"I'll skip the obvious quip about having you eating out of my hand," she said, as he finished the last bite.
"It doesn't take something like this to have me eating out of your hand," he said, reaching for the Styrofoam cup that sat in the car's cup holder. "Do you think the coffee is cool enough to drink by now without scalding myself? You'll notice that I'm deferring to your expertise."
She reached for her own and took a cautious sip. "I think so. Just be careful. It's still pretty warm." She stretched out her arms in the muted sunlight that shone through the windshield. "How will I know if your powers are coming back?"
"Well --" He carefully set the cup back in its holder. "Last year when I lost my powers, the first one that I noticed when it came back was my super-hearing. It might work that way with you, but I don't know for sure, of course."
"I don't feel anything yet," she said, and Clark could hear the doubt in her voice.
"Give it time. It could be hours. Remember, not much of you is exposed to the sun, and it's winter anyway."
"That's true." Silence descended again for a time. As they came around a corner, the pickup truck ahead of them put on its brakes, and Clark instantly did the same. The vehicle slid slightly before the snow tires took hold, and they slowed to a stop.
Ahead of them stretched a line of stationary cars and far ahead, Clark could see flashing lights. "Looks like an accident way up there."
"Great," Lois said. "This is going to be a long trip."
"We'll be all right once we get on the interstate," Clark said. He took another sip of coffee. "In the meantime, I guess we could listen to the radio."
Lois reached forward to turn it on. It was a country music station. Clark glanced out the side window. "It looks like it's already clouding up. See if you can find a weather report."
Obediently she turned the dial. After several seconds she located a station that seemed to be reporting news. "I guess if we wait long enough, we'll get a weather report," she said.
"I hope so." Clark craned his neck, trying to see what was going on ahead while inching the car slowly forward, following the pickup. "They're letting cars past in one lane."
"How long is this going to take?" Lois grumbled.
"It takes as long as it takes," Clark said, sounding resigned, even to himself.
She regarded him with mild exasperation. "I didn't realize Zen was so big in Kansas."
"South Carolina," Clark corrected with a slight grin. "There's nothing to do about it but wait. Think of it as a traffic jam during rush hour in Metropolis. There's not much difference."
The voice of the radio announcer finally switched to that of a woman with a strong Southern accent who was apparently the weather forecaster. After covering the current temperature and humidity, wind speed and precipitation, she finally got to the part that Lois and he were waiting for: the forecast. Another weather front was moving in after having dumped seven inches of snow in the Midwest. Lois groaned audibly. Clark didn't, but he had to muffle a sigh of exasperation. The time was nearing three in the afternoon, the drive to Metropolis was a good ten hours: probably more, allowing for the weather conditions, and they were barely started. It was going to be a long day.
Around eight in the evening they left the Interstate to find a place to eat. They pulled into the parking lot of Susie Q's Family Restaurant and Grill and Clark cut the engine.
It was snowing again: big, puffy flakes, floating leisurely down from an overcast sky, that splatted against the windshield while they drove. As Clark stepped out of the car, a large flake landed squarely on his nose, and he saw Lois's dark hair rapidly acquiring a coating of frost that began at once to melt. They hurried across the slushy parking lot to the restaurant.
The smell of food made his mouth water as they stepped inside. He had always liked to eat, even though it had been unnecessary for Superman, and since his powers had vanished he had become even more aware of the tastes and smells of food. He and Lois had snacked on junk food during the trip, so he wasn't as hungry as he had been when he and Lois had reached Smallville the day before, but he still looked forward to dinner.
The restaurant wasn't crowded, although there was a scattering of customers. Probably only those persons that had to drive today were doing so, Clark figured. A hostess appeared within seconds, picking up two menus as she spoke. "Welcome to Susie Q's. Table for two?"
Lois nodded. The snowflakes that she had acquired were rapidly melting, and her dark hair was beaded with tiny drops of water. Clark became aware of a thread of water running down his neck as they followed the hostess to a booth.
The hostess set the menus on the table and smiled. "Someone will be here in a few minutes."
As she walked away, Lois stood up. "I'll be right back." She vanished in the direction of the Ladies' Room. Clark leaned back in the booth, stretching his arms above his head to work the kinks out, and then picked up the menu. Lois returned, just as he was deciding between roast beef and a sirloin steak, her hair combed and her makeup re-applied. She slid into the seat across from him and picked up the menu. "How's the food?"
"It looks pretty good." Clark glanced out the window. The snow was coming down harder. "It looks like we're in for another six or seven hours of driving, at least. Maybe we should stop here and get a room at the Holiday Suites, unless you want to keep going."
"How tired are you?" Lois asked.
"I could probably go on a few more hours," Clark said, "but the driving conditions are going to be pretty bad. We should probably go on a little longer and find a place when we start to get tired."
Lois nodded her agreement. "If my license hadn't disappeared with my clothes, I could drive, too. I'm not looking forward to having to replace all the stuff I carry in my wallet."
"You might not have to," Clark said. "How's your hearing? Any improvement?"
"Not that I can tell." She sounded discouraged.
"Don't give up yet," Clark said. "You didn't have a lot of sun exposure today. It may take a little longer than it did for me."
Lois nodded, but she looked subdued. As a matter of fact, his confidence wasn't strong. What were they going to do if his powers were gone forever? But the last thing he wanted right now was for Lois to blame herself over something that neither of them knew anything about. Once they got back to Metropolis and to Dr. Klein, the scientist might be able to figure out if there was anything that could be done, or if Superman was gone for good.
After an hour spent on dinner, they returned to the rental car and drove onward.
It continued to snow but not with the intensity that they had seen in Kansas. Maybe some of the force of the storm had leeched out of it in its trip across the country, Clark thought. He wasn't particularly tired, so he continued to drive while Lois dozed in the seat beside him. The snow kept his speed at something below the posted limit but at least they were moving. At two in the morning, they pulled into a gas station and Lois stirred, opening her eyes to look sleepily around. "Clark? What time is it?"
He glanced at his watch. "About two. We should be in Metropolis in another two or three hours."
"Oh." She yawned. "Aren't you tired?"
"No. I had a cup of coffee an hour ago," he said. "I'm going to get another one while the tank is filling. Would you like something?"
She shook her head. "I think I'll get out and stretch my legs, though."
Clark nodded and got out of the car. "Back in a couple of minutes."
He returned five minutes later with an enormous cup of coffee, tastefully labeled "The Super-Tub": the largest cup available. He sipped it as he crossed the asphalt to the car. Lois was waiting, and eyed the small tank of coffee he held with some amusement. "If you had that much coffee an hour ago, I'm not surprised you're wide-awake," she said. "I am surprised you're not climbing the walls with the caffeine jitters."
He shook his head. "Nope. No jitters."
She shook her head. "You'll have them tomorrow. Your metabolism's not used to handling coffee without super powers. Especially that much."
"Maybe I don't process it like a human," Clark suggested.
"Maybe," she said. "But I've got five dollars that says you're going to regret all that caffeine."
Clark grinned. "You're on," he said. "But let's make it interesting. If I do, I'll pay you the five dollars, but if I don't, then I get to ask that question you've been avoiding. Deal?"
She hesitated. "How will I know you're not faking it?"
"Lois! Superman doesn't 'fake' so that he can cheat."
"You mean you've never cheated in your life?"
"That depends on what you mean by cheating," Clark said. "I've never cheated for my own personal gain -- at least not since the age of eight. I've peeked through walls with my x-ray vision to find out things about criminals. I'm sure they would have called that cheating if they'd known."
"Probably," Lois agreed. She opened the door of the car and slid into the passenger seat while Clark got behind the wheel again. "But you've never even cheated in a game of poker?"
"That wouldn't be fair," Clark said mildly. "That's not what Superman is all about."
"Yes, but how about Clark Kent or Charlie King?"
He shook his head. "I never cheat for personal gain," he reiterated. "Not that I haven't been tempted, but my parents taught me better than that while I was a kid."
"You've got more resolution than most of us, then," Lois said, shaking her head. "All right, it's a deal. But I'm not worried."
Clark raised an eyebrow and took a large swallow of coffee.
The sun was peeking over the horizon when they pulled to a stop in front of their apartment house. Clark cut the engine and reached over to shake Lois's shoulder gently. "Lois, we're here."
She stirred and lifted her head, blinking sleepily. "What time is it?"
"Almost seven twenty-five. The sun's coming up."
"What took so long?" she asked.
"There were a couple of accidents on the interstate," Clark said. "It slowed traffic down a lot, but we're here at last."
"Aren't you tired?"
Clark shook his head. "No, not really. I could use a short nap, I guess."
"Not yet," he said.
"And you actually finished that barrel of coffee?"
"It wasn't a barrel," Clark said mildly. "It was just a big cup. And yes, I finished it."
"Oh," Lois said. "And that was enough to keep you awake the rest of the night?"
"Uh huh," Clark said.
"Oh," Lois said.
"So," Clark said, "did you want to get a little rest while I go over to the Planet and get the stuff Jonetta left for us, or did you get enough sleep in the car?"
"I think I must have got enough," Lois said. "I'm going to go in and get a shower and then we can go to the office. We've still got some women with a Red Kryptonite laser to track down, and a criminal organization to start investigating. Not to mention, I'm way late in getting my Jeep in to the insurance company. We can do that after we check at the office and go see Dr. Klein. And then I want to talk to Bobby."
Clark raised an eyebrow. It seemed to him that Lois was suddenly a ball of energy. "This wouldn't, by any chance, have anything to do with avoiding our bet, would it?"
"Of course not," she said, a little too quickly. "But you could still get the jitters. If the caffeine kept you awake all night, it might have a delayed reaction or something."
"Oh; right," Clark said, blandly. "I think I'll get a shower and change clothes, too."
"Well, come on!" Lois said. "We've wasted a whole day! We've got things to do!"
The city around them was bathed in the pink light of sunrise. Clark glanced at Lois as he got out of the rental car and sternly kept his face straight. He actually had no intention of holding her to the bet, but he couldn't resist teasing her a little. He'd let her off the hook later, but right now it was too much fun watching her squirm.
"I just thought of something," Lois said suddenly.
"What?" he asked.
She shut the car door. "It's Christmas Eve again."
Clark lifted his head to the breeze, closing his eyes, and breathed in the crisp air of early morning. The sun felt good, he thought, even in the chilly temperature. Come to think of it, it didn't seem particularly uncomfortable right now. Maybe they were in for a thaw. "Do you know how much better things are for me this year than they were last?"
"Even now -- without your powers?" Lois asked.
"Even now," Clark said. He opened the apartment house door for her and followed her in. "And I owe it all to you. Do you know what a difference you've made in my life?"
"Maybe." She looked sideways at him. "I wanted to do it for you, you know. You deserve to have a private life."
"And thanks to you, I have one," he said. "And I have a best friend. You."
Lois stopped and turned, looking up at him. "I never had a best friend before."
"You have one now," he said.
"I thought you said --" She swallowed. "I thought you said you were in love with me."
"I am," he said. "Doesn't that include being best friends? It should."
"I don't know. My mom and dad weren't. At least, they never acted like it."
He took out his key to unlock the door of his apartment. "Maybe that was what went wrong with their marriage," he said very softly, hoping that she would absorb what he was trying to tell her. He opened his door. "My mom and dad were the best of friends. You could tell it every time one of them spoke to the other. They loved each other too, and I knew all the time that they were with me that I could depend on them to take care of me, and of each other. You're my best friend. Whether you ever marry me or not, you'll always be my best friend." He smiled, trying to convey in the smile what he wanted her to understand. "Better go get your shower. I have the feeling this is going to be a busy day."
Lois closed the door of her apartment, trying to silence her attack of nerves.
What was the big deal, anyway? she asked herself. She'd told Clark only days ago that she'd let him ask his question soon. He was clearly in love with her and she wasn't even trying to deny to herself that she loved him, so what did it matter if he asked the question today or next week?
The big stumbling block was that no matter how she answered the question, there was no going back. If she told Clark no, then she was closing the door to a closer relationship, and she didn't think she could stand that. If she told him yes, then she would be his fiancée, and someday his wife. The thought of being in that position attracted her strongly -- but what, that tiny little doubting voice in the back of her mind whispered, would she do if he changed his mind? What if someone else came along that he preferred to her? It had happened with her mother and father. And look at Ellen Lane, now. She'd been an alcoholic for years and only in the last couple of years had she finally managed to pull herself out of the cycle of self-destruction.
But Clark wasn't the kind of man who made commitments and then lightly broke them, the more rational part of her mind countered. Nor was she a helpless woman, dependent on the man she married to give her life meaning. And if the word monogamous applied to anyone, it applied to Clark. She'd been closer to him than any other human being for the last year, and she had never seen him look at another woman in that manner. He treated women with respect, but with absolutely no interest in them as females. It was as if they didn't exist for him in that way at all. She'd even heard Ralph speculating on the possibility of Superman being gay. Which, she was sure, he wasn't.
If she looked at the question objectively, the bald truth was that she wanted Clark. She had decided that nearly a year ago, so why the nerves? She'd needed time to adjust to the idea, but she'd had an entire year. Why on Earth was she still so skittish?
She'd seen the flash of disappointment in his eyes when she'd gone into instinctive avoidance mode a few minutes before. He'd covered it at once, but she had known and it gave her a guilty feeling in the pit of her stomach. Maybe she should talk her commitment issues over with a therapist or something, she thought. Something in her was terrified of taking that last step, and she knew that it stemmed from what had happened to her parents. But Clark wasn't her father and she wasn't her mother. Was she going to stay a slave of her doubts and fears forever, and allow them to ruin her life and Clark's? Lucy, after all, had apparently overcome her doubts and was happily married. Besides, if Lois was honest with herself, even the thought of seeing Clark with another woman aroused every possessive streak in her nature. When that Assistant DA, Mayson Drake, had made moves in his direction a few months ago, she'd had no hesitation in showing the woman that Clark Kent was very much taken.
So what was the problem?
What had Alice said? Something about missing out on life itself if she refused to take risks. Alice was right; she knew it in her heart. Was she going to let herself be ruled by her insecurities and fears for the rest of her life? She took risks in the course of her job -- risks that caused Perry, Eduardo and Clark to blanch when they found out about them. Why could she take risks to her life and limbs without the blink of an eye and balk at something like this -- marriage to an absolutely gorgeous, caring man who would be one hundred percent faithful to her for as long as they both lived? What was she waiting for -- a certificate from Heaven guaranteeing that nothing would ever go wrong?
Slowly, she walked toward the bathroom pulling off her sweatshirt as she did so. It wasn't fair to Clark to keep him dangling and she sure as heck wasn't going to give him up.
A few minutes later, standing under the blast of hot water from the shower, she was still chewing on the problem. If she wanted him, he was hers for the taking. All she had to do was say so. But could she live up to the challenge of being Superman's wife?
If he was still Superman, of course. If his powers came back.
Lois shook her head. The powers weren't important to her, except for the fact that they were important to him. Clark was what mattered. She had been his partner and representative for a year, and done well at it. This was the man who had broken the barriers of time itself to find her and save her life. He wanted and needed her that much. And if she were brutally honest with herself, she knew she needed him. But did she love him enough to spend the rest of her life with him?
When she finally put it like that, the answer was simple. The thought of not having him in her life was unexpectedly lonely. When had he become so essential to her comfort? She would be miserable if she had to spend the rest of her life without him -- and it was high time that she admitted it. It was just a matter of getting up enough courage to tell him so.
Lois turned off the water, stepped out of the shower and grabbed the bath towel that hung on the shower rack, beginning to dry herself. Through the clouds of steam that filled the room she saw her reflection in the mirror and set her jaw in determination. She didn't care for teases and it was high time that she stopped being a tease, herself. When Clark asked his question, she would give him his answer.
As she made her decision, the telephone rang.
Clark watched Lois close the door of her apartment before he turned and entered his own. He knew Lois in avoidance mode. He'd seen it plenty of times in the last year. As Perry had said to him once, when she was faced with a personal problem, she tended to throw herself into her work with everything she had, as if she expected it to save her. Eventually she would come around with a solution to the problem, and deal with it, but that could take a while. It had been a little disappointing to see her instinctive reaction to his little hint about their bet, but he wasn't going to hold her to her part if it made her that uncomfortable. He'd promised to wait until she was ready to hear his question and he would wait, he told himself, but how long was it going to take for her to get past this fear of commitment? Her father's latest fling with a twenty-year-old model a couple of months ago had bothered her a lot. She'd barely spoken to him for three days.
He'd thought they were making progress over the last couple of days while they dealt with the problems of his lack of powers, the disposal of the Kryptonite and the long trip back to the city. Was it possible that he'd read the situation wrong?
Patience, he told himself, for the millionth time. His counterpart in the other universe had won his Lois after two years of cautious courtship. He'd only been at it for one. H.G. Wells seemed to think that the future was secure, and that things would work out. He just had to be persistent.
Watching her go into avoidance mode was fun in its own way, but it was discouraging as well. He'd better let her off the hook as soon as he could. They did, after all, have work to do today.
His phone was ringing as he stepped out of the shower. He wrapped a towel around his waist and hurried into the living room to answer it.
"Kent," he said.
There was a long moment of silence from the other end, accompanied by the hum of an open line, and then a click as the caller hung up. Clark listened for several seconds to the dial tone and then clicked off the handset and set it in its charger. That was odd.
He went back into his bedroom to shave and dress, with the uncomfortable thought in his mind that somewhere out there were two women who had attacked him with a Red Kryptonite laser, and that those two women might reasonably be suspected of connections to a soil engineer that had been on his property with survey equipment. An engineer, he reminded himself, who might very well be a member of the mysterious criminal organization that was trying to move into Metropolis now that Lex Luthor was no longer the crime kingpin of the city.
And he had no powers. Being Superman made him a target, and a powerless Superman was a vulnerable target, even if his enemies didn't know that he was powerless. He and Lois had better get over to the Daily Planet as quickly as possible, collect the information that Jonetta had assembled for them, and then go on to Dr. Klein's -- after which he would again become Charlie King, at least until they had managed to sort out what was actually happening.
He slipped the pieces of Clark Kent's wardrobe into the briefcase that he frequently carried as Charlie King. He was going to need to change into it before their visits to the Daily Planet and STAR Labs. Then he retreated to the bedroom again to dress quickly in a pair of black leather pants, calf high leather boots and a leather jacket. Briefly, he considered and then chose the loudest tie on the rack to accompany his Clark Kent identity in the briefcase. It made his persona of Charlie, who would never be caught dead wearing a tie, that much more of a contrast. It was inconvenient having to do things this way, but as of the present, neither Clark nor Lois had a driver's license, which meant that Charlie King was going to have to drive. Taking a last look in the mirror, he carefully straightened his wig, adjusted the pink-lensed sunglasses, tightened the pink earring and surveyed the effect critically. Good. No sign of Clark Kent here, that was for sure.
Ready at last, he headed for the door that connected his apartment to Lois's. Originally the apartment house had been one of the great houses of Metropolis, but it had been subdivided many years ago when the building had been converted into an apartment house. When Lois had rented the unit next to his, he had unsealed the door between the two units and installed a latch and doorknob to allow each of them easy access to the other's place without stepping out into the hall. Raising his fist, he knocked lightly on the newly repaired door.
He heard her footsteps on the other side of the door, and then the lock turned and the door opened. Lois stood there, her hair and makeup perfect, dressed for a day at the office.
"I guess you're ready," she said. She brushed a forefinger against his chin where he had nicked himself while shaving, but didn't comment. "Let's hope your powers come back before long."
He nodded. "You realize we're supposed to be taking today off in Aspen," he said.
"I know." She grimaced. "Oh well, maybe next year."
"Who knows," Clark said, "if we can get a lead on this new criminal organization, maybe Eduardo will give us some time off after Christmas."
"Could be --" He paused. "I got a hang-up call a few minutes ago. It was probably just --" He stopped at the look on her face. "What?"
"I got one, too," she said.
They stared at each other.
"It's probably nothing," Lois said.
"Or not," Clark said. "Come on; the quicker we get to the Planet around people we know, the better off we'll be."
Lois nodded. "I think you're right."
They went out the front door of the building and headed toward the rental car where it sat next to the curb. The morning sun shone brightly, reflecting off the glass of the car windows and the snow that had collected on every flat surface during the night. Clark took out the key and went to open the passenger door for Lois.
As he did so, Lois stopped. "Darn!"
"I left my cell phone on my nightstand. I'll be right back."
"Okay. I'll warm up the engine," Clark said. He went around to the driver's door and inserted the key.
As he turned the key, his ears picked up a high, thin sound, at the bare edge of his hearing -- the faintest of whines that shouldn't be there. He'd heard that noise one or two times in his short career as Superman, although much more clearly. It was a very distinctive sound and, as he detected it, it seemed that every hair on his head stood on end.
He raced around the car toward Lois, hustled her roughly up the steps of the apartment house and practically threw her through the door. She hit the floor with a grunt and he landed on top of her, knocking every breath of air from her lungs, as the rental car exploded behind them in a seething ball of orange flame. The roar of sound nearly deafened him, and the blast of heat left him in no doubt of what their condition would have been if they had been in the car at the instant of the explosion.
Quickly, he rolled aside and made it to his knees. Lois was coughing and gasping, and he helped her sit up.
"Are you all right?" he demanded.
She coughed, nodding as she attempted to suck air back into her lungs. Her face was white as she stared past him, wide-eyed, at the burning vehicle that had been their car.
Clark turned to look at the wreckage, and from somewhere he heard the wail of a siren.
"Oh boy," he said, unhappily. "This is going to be awfully hard to explain to the rental company."
Lois coughed again. "I think you can kiss your deposit goodbye," she said. "Cl -- Charlie, who do you suppose wants to kill us this time?"
Two hours later, Lois and Clark walked into the Daily Planet newsroom.
"Hey Lane! I hear you nearly bought the farm this morning!" Ralph smirked at her from the water cooler. "Wonder who you ticked off this time?"
"Word is they thought it was your car, Ralph," Lois said. "I'd watch my step if I were you. Never can tell when a scandal at the dog show will go big time."
Clark heard someone snicker, but couldn't identify the source. He crossed the room to his desk to retrieve the half-inch-thick manila envelope that lay prominently beside the computer and then made a beeline for the conference room. Lois followed.
"Looks like Jonetta didn't waste her time," she remarked, closing and locking the door behind her. "What have we got?"
Clark had opened the envelope and began to spread the papers out on the table. "Just a minute," he said. "I can't read as fast as I could with super powers." He scanned the sheet of statistics on Gene Newtrich. "Eugene Newtrich, age 53. Employed by Church Enterprises as a soil engineer ..."
"We know that much already," Lois said. "What else?"
"Background ... hmm ... that's interesting." Clark frowned thoughtfully at the paper. "He's got a criminal record."
"Oh?" Lois leaned over the table, looking down at the paper. "I guess that would figure. What did he do?"
Clark indicated the paragraph with one finger and watched her face as she read it. "Huh!" she said. "Fraud, no less. And manslaughter. Let's see ... violation of construction code such and such -- received kickbacks from two construction companies. Certified land as fit for major building projects --"
"That later collapsed, killing three people," Clark added, continuing to read. "Hmm -- parents deceased, two sisters, Cornelia, age 41 and Lucille, age 45." He flipped through the papers. "Ah! Photos." He held up the picture of a heavy man with greying hair, obviously taken for a police lineup. "Here he is."
"How about the sisters?" Lois asked.
Clark spread the photos out on the table. Lois examined the images of a thin flashily dressed blond woman, not in the first blush of youth and another, slightly younger, dark-haired woman wearing a shapeless, striped T-shirt and overalls. "These two don't have much taste in clothing, do they? Recognize anyone?"
Clark nodded. "They were the two at the mall."
"I may have lost my powers, but I still have my photographic memory," Clark said. "It was them. Let's see if Jonetta found anything else on them."
Lois was ruffling through the papers. "Here we are. Lucille's an accountant for Cost Mart and Cornelia's employed in laser research at Unitech."
"Unitech?" Clark said.
"Yeah." Lois flipped through the sheaf of paper. "I like Jonetta. She's thorough. Here it is. Unitech is a subsidiary of Church Enterprises."
"Why do I think the fact that Church Enterprises turns up over and over isn't a coincidence?" Clark muttered. He glanced at his watch. "We've got half an hour before we meet Bobby, so we'd better get going. Dr. Klein said to drop by some time after lunch."
Lois scooped up the papers, knocked the edges against the table to align them and stuffed them back in the envelope. "We can look at the rest of this later. I want to hear what Bobby has to say," she said. "Let's go."
Eduardo intercepted them as they left the conference room. "Can I talk to you two a minute?" he said quietly.
Lois paused. "Can it wait? We're meeting an informant in half an hour."
The editor hesitated. "All right," he said finally. "Accounting is having a fit about the rental car, though."
"Charlie and I couldn't help it if somebody booby-trapped it," Lois said.
"That's what I told them. Clark, you stay on your toes. If someone wants your partner dead, I expect you to stop him."
"I'll do my best," Clark said.
"How's King? He wasn't hurt, was he?"
"Charlie's fine," Lois said.
"Well, tell him to be careful, too," Eduardo said. "He may only be a sometime Planet reporter, but I'd rather not lose him."
"Neither would we," Clark said. "He's looking out for himself."
Eduardo grunted. "The three of you sure seem to have stirred up a hornet's nest. Any idea what's behind this?"
"Charlie and I were doing some snooping," Lois said. "Possible gang activity. We think somebody didn't like it. I got a hang-up call a few minutes before the explosion."
"So did I," Clark said.
"Why weren't you there?" Eduardo asked.
"Superman stuff," Clark said, a little uncomfortably.
"Oh. Well, I'm glad King somehow figured out there was a bomb," Eduardo said. "The boy's right on his toes. Tell him thanks for me, would you?"
"Sure thing," Lois said. "Eduardo, we have to go. We're going to be late."
Their editor nodded and they continued on toward the elevator.
"What about those hang-up calls?" Lois said, as the doors closed behind them. "You don't think someone knows about you, do you? The powers, I mean."
"I'm guessing somebody was just being sure we were out of the way, so they could plant the thing," Clark said. "I think the bomb was for you and Charlie."
Lois apparently thought that over for a moment. "I guess," she said finally. "By the way, how did Charlie know there was a bomb?"
"He heard it," Clark said. "Just faintly."
Lois stared at him. "How --"
"I don't know," Clark said. "He shouldn't have been able to hear it at all."
"Do you think your powers could be coming back?"
"Maybe," Clark said. "I hope so. I'm crossing my fingers."
"Me too," Lois said. "You know, in all the excitement I didn't think about it, but you were a lot faster than you should have been when you pushed me into the apartment."
"I didn't notice," Clark said, thoughtfully. "I was just in a rush to get you away from the car. I just acted -- but you might be right."
"Have you tried any of your powers since?" Lois asked.
"No. I didn't really think about it." Clark squinted at the doors of the elevator for a long moment. "Nothing," he said finally.
"Well, they might just be coming back slowly," Lois said. "As you pointed out to me, we haven't had that much sun exposure, and it is winter. Maybe the effect of the Red Kryptonite is only temporary." The elevator slid to a ponderous stop and after a moment the door opened sluggishly. Lois preceded Clark out into the Planet's garage.
Lois's Jeep, the damage to the front end very apparent, sat in her usual parking spot. Lois glanced sourly at the dent. "I told the insurance people I'd bring it in this afternoon," she said. "We can drop by after we see Dr. Klein."
Clark put a restraining hand on her arm as she started toward the driver's door. "Let me check it out first. We don't know if somebody decided to booby-trap it while we were upstairs." He took the key from her and approached the Cherokee with caution, but after opening both doors and popping the hood to check for anything that shouldn't be there, and then peering under the vehicle with Lois's mag-light to look for any foreign object, they concluded that whoever had targeted them must have decided that bombing the Cherokee wasn't the way to go.
The alley was narrow, dirty and smelly. And empty, at least on first glance. Lois looked around. "I don't see him."
She saw Clark tilt his head to the side in a familiar way and felt her heart rate accelerate. "Do you hear something?" she asked, a little breathlessly.
"A heartbeat. He's here. This way."
She didn't comment, but followed him down the alley, glancing occasionally over her shoulder to be sure they hadn't been followed.
Clark stopped at the corner of an intersecting alley. "We're here," he said.
"I know," someone said, very quietly. Bobby's voice was so low that she could barely hear him. "Did anybody follow you?"
"I don't think so," Lois said. She glanced around once more to assure herself of the truth of the statement, straining her ears for any wayward sound that might tell her that someone else was about.
And suddenly she heard it, but it was coming from around the corner. A very faint, but very familiar thumping noise. It took a second for her to realize that she was hearing Bobby's heartbeat. She still had a little super hearing left, she thought in amazement. Or was it coming back?
"Okay. You want to know about the gang trying to take over Luthor's territory?" Bobby still didn't make an appearance. He must be really scared, she thought, dragging her attention back to their informant. "You better be sure. Once you hear it there's no goin' back."
"I don't think we have a choice," Clark said.
"No, probably not," Bobby's voice said softly. "One word. Intergang." A hand holding a small, flat square appeared from the other alley. "Take this. I got it from somebody that don't want his name brought into it. It'll tell you what you need to know. I wasn't here, either. Just phone me in a dinner at Ling's Chinese Buffet."
Lois took the CD jewel case. The hand disappeared and she heard his retreating footsteps. Then silence.
"I've never seen him that scared," Lois said as they got back into the Cherokee. Clark had once more performed a check of the vehicle to assure their safety. "Or maybe that's the wrong word to use, considering that we didn't see him at all."
"Yeah," Clark said. "Whatever's on that thing, it must be pretty hot."
Lois clutched her shoulder bag a little more tightly to her side. "I hope no one figures out what he's done."
"Well, we didn't tell anyone who we were meeting," Clark said. "He's probably safe enough, but I think we should look at that in private. As far as anyone else is concerned, it doesn't exist."
"I'm with you there," Lois said. "From the way he acted, I think I'd be happier carrying around a vial of nitroglycerine. How about you? Any more signs of your powers coming back?"
"I'm not sure," Clark said. "My hearing seems to be getting better. At least I think it is."
"Maybe you should go to a tanning salon or something," Lois suggested. "That way you don't have to freeze your tushie off getting a good dose of ultra-violet."
Clark grinned faintly. "Or whatever it is in sunlight that I need. In the meantime, let's head over to STAR Labs."
Lois started the engine and backed out of the parking place. "Any sign of somebody following us?"
"I don't think so," Clark said.
"This is really weird," Lois said. "First they attack you at the mall, and as far as they know it doesn't work, and then they try to blow up Charlie and me, and now there's no sign of them. What's going on?"
"We'll find out," Clark said. "I'm sure there's a method to their madness, to misquote the Bard of Avon, but I don't want to wait for them to make the next move."
"Neither do I. I'm just hoping that Dr. Klein can give us some answers," Lois said. "I want to see Superman back to full power. I'll feel a lot safer that way."
They pulled into the visitors' lot at STAR Labs twenty minutes later. The Security man at the entrance definitely recognized them by now, for he nodded to them in a businesslike fashion as they stopped beside the guard shack. "Ms. Lane and Mr. Kent," he greeted them, extending a clipboard and pen to Lois. "Dr. Klein notified Security you'd be coming. Sign in, please."
Lois scribbled her name in the indicated space and the guard took the clipboard back, exchanging it for a visitor's placard for the windshield of the Cherokee. Lois took it, laid it on the dashboard and eased forward as the metal arm that regulated the entrance of cars into the lot was raised. There was an open parking space near the lot entrance, and she had no hesitation in pulling the Cherokee into it. "There," she said, as she set the parking brake. "At least the guard can see the car from where he's at."
Dr. Klein was sitting at his desk, apparently reading a report, when they arrived at his office a short time later. He looked up when Lois knocked on the glass wall enclosing the office, and they waited while the scientist set the sheaf of papers on his desk and carefully placed a ceramic coffee mug on top of it to hold it down.
"Mr. Kent, Ms. Lane," he greeted them a moment later. "Come in." He stood back while they entered and then closed the door and locked it.
"Hello, Bernie," Clark said.
Dr. Klein waved them to chairs. "I was glad you called," he said without preliminary. "I had intended to call you today if you hadn't."
"I take it you have some results from your tests?" Clark asked.
Bernie Klein nodded vigorously. "Definitely. First, I have to ask if you've seen any sign of your powers returning yet."
"My powers?" Clark said. "You mean you do expect them to return?"
Dr. Klein nodded vigorously. "The blood samples I took -- I ran several tests on them. I'm still running tests, actually. It's amazing -- the similarity of Kryptonian DNA to human. It's not exact, obviously, but --" He broke off. "Well, never mind that. I noticed something, yesterday afternoon. I exposed one sample to a sunlamp --"
"And?" Lois said eagerly. "You mean, they turned super?"
Dr. Klein's eyebrows flew up. "I wouldn't phrase it quite like that, but essentially, yes. They appeared to absorb the energy from the light. Of course I'm not certain, but from what I've been able to observe, the Red Kryptonite laser drained your powers, transferring them to Ms. Lane, but it didn't take away your ability to generate them, once your solar battery was recharged." He cocked his head. "Have you seen any sign of them returning?"
"We think so," Lois said.
"I wasn't sure if it was my powers returning or just that my hearing was a little better than most people's, anyway," Clark confessed.
"What happened?" Dr. Klein asked.
"A lot," Clark said. He looked at Lois. "I think we should tell him."
"Well, he's your doctor," Lois pointed out. "He can't help you if he doesn't have all the facts."
Clark nodded and began to talk, recounting the significant events of the last two days, leaving out only the actual identity of Charlie King. Lois chimed in when she thought he had omitted important details. When they finished, Dr. Klein's eyebrows were resting where his hairline must once have been. He turned to Lois. "So, your powers are completely gone? You have no abilities at all?"
"Umm --" Lois hesitated. "I'm not actually sure of that."
"What do you mean?"
"I thought they were all gone, but when we met our informant earlier today," Lois said, "once we got closer to him ... I could hear his heartbeat. I must have some super-hearing, or I wouldn't have been able to."
"Could her powers be coming back?" Clark asked, a note of excitement in his voice.
Dr. Klein shrugged. "I have no idea. I doubt it, but I could be wrong. Ms. Lane received a full charge of Superman's powers initially but she apparently drained the charge with the use of the powers and exposure to the Kryptonite. There may be some residual energy left. I suppose it's barely possible the abilities could come back. We don't know what other effects the Red Kryptonite could have had, but it doesn't seem too likely."
"Oh," Clark said, obviously deflated.
Lois put a hand on his arm. "It's okay, Clark."
"I could perform a few tests to be certain," Dr. Klein said hopefully.
"Not," Lois said, "if it involves drawing blood. I can always just wait and see."
"That works too," Dr. Klein said. "You'll let me know, though, won't you?"
"Naturally," Clark said. "In the meantime, what would you recommend for me to speed things up? It's pretty cold out there to do any sunbathing."
"I'd suggest a tanning booth," Dr. Klein said. "Ms. Lane might give it a try, too. You never know." He smiled at Lois.
"I guess we could try it after we visit the insurance company," Lois said.
"All right," Clark said. He got to his feet. "Thanks, Dr. Klein."
"Don't mention it," Dr. Klein said. "If, by chance, your powers should come back, Ms. Lane, I'd appreciate it if you'd come in and let me run some tests. No drawing blood," he assured her quickly at her warning expression. "Just a few non-invasive tests and readings. I'd like to try to figure out how it's possible -- assuming that it is."
Lois hesitated for several long seconds. "Well -- I guess so," she said, somewhat grudgingly. "If you promise not to draw any blood, then okay."
Two hours later, they had visited the insurance company and dropped the Cherokee off with Joe Pemberton, Lois's mechanic. Joe took it in stride. This was Lois Lane's Jeep, after all, and he'd seen it more often in the last year than most mechanics saw a single car in the vehicle's entire lifetime. It had been vandalized, sabotaged, forced off the road, deliberately rammed by various hirelings of criminal overlords, and once had to have an entirely new engine put in to replace the one burned up by the introduction of a toffee bar, shoved into the gas tank by a disgruntled reporter from the Dirt Digger.
Lois looked at the tiny subcompact that had been supplied to replace her car during the time that the Cherokee would be in mechanical therapy and sighed. "Great."
"Well," Clark said doubtfully, "I guess we could try a different rental company."
Lois shook her head. "Wouldn't do any good. I'm on their 'watch' list. None of the car rental companies in Metropolis will rent me anything else."
"Oh." Clark looked uneasily at the roller skate masquerading as a car and sighed. "Okay, I guess beggars can't be choosers. That's what my father used to say."
"Unfortunately, he was right." Lois opened the driver's door and folded her body into the seat. Clark opened the other door and squeezed himself into the passenger seat. "Man, he added, "I hope my powers come back soon. I don't think I can do this for long."
"Me either, and I'm not even as tall as you." She glanced at her watch. "Okay, we've still got time."
"Time for what?"
"The gym where I take my Tai Kwon Do classes is still open. They've got a tanning bed. We're going to go over and you can soak up some artificial sunlight."
"Okay," Clark said. "How about you?"
"I'll have a session after you," she said. "We know we're doing some good with you. We don't with me. I've probably got a non-rechargeable battery when it comes to your powers."
"I'm sorry," Clark said. "It must be pretty disappointing."
Lois started the engine and glanced at him quizzically. "Why?"
"Well -- losing the powers, after you were super-powered for a while. I know what it feels like."
She backed out of the parking space. "Not really. But having them for a little while has made me appreciate what it's like to be you. I didn't really, before, you know." She maneuvered her way through the lot to the exit. "I guess in some ways it must be pretty difficult for you."
"What do you mean?"
"At the accident the other day. For most people it was an inconvenience, but there were several people who were seriously hurt -- or trapped. I had to decide who to help first. That's the kind of decision you have to make practically every day -- and sometimes it's a choice between two or three people who are dying. I don't know how you make a decision like that -- knowing that if you delay they're all going to die and, if you choose, somebody will die because you chose to save somebody else first -- but that if you choose the other person somebody else will die, or they both might. The idiot that caused this accident -- I wasn't too thrilled about pulling him out, but I knew that if I didn't, he stood a good chance of dying -- so I did. I don't know how you handle it."
"The same way you did," Clark said. He smiled a little. "Do you know how often I've had to save some obnoxious guy that got into trouble through his own bad judgment? But that doesn't matter if his life is in danger."
"I know. You even saved Luthor when he jumped off Lex Tower, and he was a lot worse than an irresponsible driver. But don't think for a minute that I'm going to let that guy in the Volkswagen off easily. I had Jonetta look up his record. He's had more citations for moving violations and reckless driving than I have parking tickets. I'm going to see that lawyer you met after the accident. I'll bet we can get a suit for reckless endangerment or something going against him. Just to give him a reason to change his driving habits."
Clark grinned. "That should be interesting."
"And," Lois said, "if we win anything, any money left over from lawyer's fees is going to go to the Superman Foundation's fund for the victims of disabling injuries. It's the least Mr. Irwin can do to pay for all the trouble he caused."
He'd been right, Clark thought, when he'd surmised that the driver of the Volkswagen was going to regret the day he'd damaged Lois's Jeep, but he couldn't really find it in him to protest. Maybe Lois would teach the guy a lesson that he might not otherwise learn. He'd noticed that hitting people in the pocketbook often made more of an impression than a hospital stay. "Well, I wish you luck. One less reckless driver in Metropolis is always a good thing, and that may do more good in the long run than I could as Superman."
"That's what I figure." She turned out on the street. "Have you noticed anyone paying any attention to us? I haven't."
He shook his head. "No -- and I've been watching."
"So have I. I don't get these people. Well, one thing at a time. Let's go take care of helping your powers to come back before they try something else. The weather report is for more snow later this afternoon. I don't see any sign of it yet, but you never know. Let's run past the apartment for a couple of sets of gym clothes and we'll head over to the gym."
The sun was still shining brightly when they pulled up to the Metro Ironworks Gymnasium, forty minutes later. It was just past one in the afternoon and the sky was a cloudless blue. The mild thaw caused by a slight warming the day before had refrozen during the night and produced a thin crust of ice atop the snow, from which the sun reflected in sparks of rainbow fire. A row of crystal-clear icicles hung from the narrow ledge that ran around the building a couple of feet above the main doors. The sidewalk, however, was wet and slippery with the muddy slush left by the feet of countless pedestrians. An employee of the gym was using a wide broom to clean the walk of snow and mud in front of the business.
Lois parked the little car in a spot where it could be seen from the front window of the gym and cut the engine. "Okay. I've got a couple of passes for guests. They hand them out in hopes of attracting new customers. Let's see if there's an empty tanning booth." She opened the door and got out, stepping carefully so as not to slip in the crusts of muddy snow that coated the asphalt. "I really like these boots you bought me," she added. "They're reasonably stylish and I don't think I've ever worn boots this comfortable. I wonder if I can find any like them in Metropolis."
"If not, you can probably order them from the company," Clark said. "What's the temperature?"
"I don't know. Why?"
"I was wondering." Lois saw him lift his face to the sunlight and close his eyes. "It doesn't seem very cold. I was trying to decide if it was me or if the temperature was coming up a bit."
"Maybe both," Lois said. "It doesn't seem that uncomfortable to me, either. Of course, I'm so used to freezing by now that any rise in the temperature would feel warm. There might be a thermometer inside. Come on."
He followed her into the gym.
When they entered, Lois could hear the sounds of treadmills running, accompanied by the pound of feet. A television situated on the upper level where the treadmills and elliptical trainers were located gave forth the sounds and pounding beat of some kind of musical performance. Probably it was tuned to the Music Video station again, or maybe the Fitness Channel. In the room to her left, a television was playing the same program and a number of patrons of the establishment were working on the exercise machines. Farther back, in the same room, several men and women sweated over the free weights. From somewhere beyond, in the mat room, she could hear the distinctive sounds of a Tai Kwon Do class in session.
To their right, she knew, was the physical therapy section - the massage room, the whirlpool baths, the steam room and the tanning room for those that wished to acquire the bronze of a summer tan in the middle of winter. Lois normally avoided the tanning room. Her father had warned her many times as a youngster that the so-called "healthy" tan was a sign that her skin had been damaged and was trying to protect itself by producing pigment. It was one of the few things that she'd retained from Dr. Lane's teachings, but he'd warned her of wrinkles, prematurely aged skin and skin cancer as the result of too much sun, and she had listened.
Now, however, she had a different purpose in mind. She stepped up to the desk and signed in, producing one of her guest passes as she laid down the pen. "I brought along a friend to look the place over," she told the bored man sitting behind the desk. "Do you mind if I show him around?"
"Nope. Go ahead." He glanced at Clark. "You look like you work out a lot."
"He does," Lois said. "He hasn't had much of a chance to work out this week, though. I suggested he try our gym. Come on," she told Clark. "This way."
Sitting by the front window of the gym, Lois held a copy of Metropolis Fitness magazine in her lap but in actuality she wasn't reading. It had been nearly an hour and she had kept her attention divided between their rental car and the clock. They had decided that initially Clark would spend an hour soaking up artificial sunlight and then she would take a turn, although she had little faith that it would do her any good. Still, after spending a large part of the day running around in the cold, sitting in the warm sunlight coming through the window was pleasant, although she half-suspected that any minute someone would show up to attempt to sabotage the vehicle. Still, if the mysterious organization that was after them was aware that her current companion was Superman, they might decide that trying to blow up her car was a useless effort.
Maybe the weather forecast had been right after all, she thought, looking out the window for the third time in as many minutes. The sun was still high in the cloudless blue sky but to the north she could see heavy thunderheads beginning to gather. There would probably be snow by this evening.
The sounds of the treadmills rumbling and the heavy beat of the music in the exercise room were the only noises she could hear. The bored young stud behind the desk had vanished, probably to get himself a vitamin drink or something, she thought absently. Another five minutes passed without incident and a few minutes after that, Clark emerged from the tanning room, clad only in a pair gym shorts, and carrying his shoes and T-shirt in one hand. Lois felt her eyes widen just a little at the sight of the expanse of smooth, olive skin and rippling muscle thus exposed. She had seen him shirtless once or twice before and the sight invariably made it difficult to form a coherent sentence.
"All done," he told her. "You're next." He paused to slip the shirt over his head. Lois took a second to breathe deeply and told herself to calm down. It wasn't as if she had never seen a shirtless man before, after all.
"I'm going to make it short," she said, after a pause. "If things don't work out I don't want a bad burn."
"That's probably smart," Clark said. "I'll just sit here and wait."
"Did the tanning booth have any effect?" she asked, after a short pause. That shirt, she thought, was just way too tight for her peace of mind.
"Yeah, I think so. My hearing is definitely better," he said.
He could probably hear her heart racing, she thought. Which brought to mind something else. "Uh -- you know, earlier, about our bet?"
"Lois, you know I'd never hold you to a bet that makes you uncomfortable," he said quickly.
"No, that wasn't what I --" She broke off as the door to the street opened and two women stepped inside. In an instant, Lois recognized the tall, thin blond woman that she had seen in the picture, and her dowdy sister. Lucille Newtrich moved aside and Cornelia stepped up beside her, a camcorder in her hands.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Kent," Lucille said, smiling unpleasantly. "We have something here for you."
Clark took a step forward, and Cornelia pressed the camcorder's switch.
The beam that shot out of the device this time wasn't red. It was green -- the exact shade of the Kryptonite crystals that she and Clark had found and disposed of in Smallville. For Lois, the scene slipped abruptly into slow motion. She saw Clark stumble back. His collapse to the thin carpet of the gymnasium lobby seemed to take forever. Pain washed over her as well, although much less severe than it must be for Clark and she knew that she had to do something fast. She started toward the woman with the camcorder, and as suddenly the blond woman was holding a small but serviceable handgun aimed directly at her midriff.
"Oh no, Miss Lane," she said, and her voice sounded to Lois like a recording played too slowly. "You'll stay right there until we've finished our business with your super-powered friend."
Clark was on the floor, huddled into a ball, and the dark-haired woman moved leisurely forward, so that the lens of the camcorder was barely two feet from Clark. Lois looked back into the mocking face of Lucille Newtrich, still with that dreamlike sensation of slow motion. If she didn't do something, Clark would never be able to ask his question and all the dreams they had had about their future together would be over before they had a chance.
Lois lunged directly for Lucille Newtrich.
Lucille's response seemed oddly slow. Lois saw her finger begin to contract on the trigger, gradually, ever so gradually, and then she barreled into the other woman, one hand shoving the handgun upward. The gun fired, the sound curiously attenuated, and she saw the bullet spinning through the air before it embedded itself in the ceiling. Lois thrust Lucille Newtrich sideways, directly into her sister. Both women catapulted with unbelievable slowness against the desk and fell to the floor, half-stunned. The camcorder landed on the floor and the beam shut off.
The world jumped back into normal speed. Lois kicked the gun and camcorder across the room. Both women were moving feebly, attempting to get to their feet and people were crowding through the doors from the exercise and therapy rooms to see what was going on.
"Stay where you are!" Lois barked, and such was the force of her command that the rubberneckers stopped in their tracks. "Don't anybody come in here! You!" she pointed to one of men, whom she recognized as one of the instructors. "Call the police! Now!" She turned to Cornelia Newtrich, who had made it to her hands and knees. "Don't move! If I have to hit you again, you won't get up!"
Clark was pushing himself shakily to a sitting position and Lois knelt beside him, never taking her eyes off the Newtrich sisters. "Are you all right?"
He nodded uncertainly. "I think so. Lois, you --"
"We'll talk about it later," she said. "Can you stand up?"
Lois flopped down on the big comfortable couch in Clark's apartment and propped her feet on his coffee table. "What a day! We finish the Luthor investigation and four days later we're on the trail of Intergang! I don't blame Bobby for being scared, but the stuff on that CD is going to net us a Pulitzer by the time we're finished."
"One thing for sure," Clark said, settling down beside her. "You don't lack for confidence. Have I told you yet how great you were today?""
"I think you said so in the car, but you can say it again," Lois said.
"You were my own personal super-heroine at the gym," Clark said. "You just took charge and handled that whole mess. I've never seen you in action quite like that before." He reached out to take her hand. "I knew a year ago that you were the most remarkable woman I'd ever met or could hope to meet, but today you even surpassed my expectations."
She squeezed his hand. "Well, you were my hero, too," she said. "Without you I wouldn't be here. It's a joint effort."
And it was, she thought. Without him, she had been alone against the world, and without her he was lonely and incomplete. She should have realized it a long time ago. The reason she'd been able to "take over", as he'd phrased it, was that she had been protecting him. Just the thought of losing him had brought all her "Mad Dog" instincts to the surface. She'd been operating on determination and adrenaline. Nobody was going to hurt Clark if she had any say in the matter, and that had included getting hold of the camcorder before the police or anyone else did.
She had been thinking about it all afternoon, while the police had been dealing with the Newtrich sisters and interviewing her and Clark; when they had turned the Kryptonite camcorder over to Dr. Klein to keep safe until Clark recovered enough to throw it into space; and even while she and Clark had been quietly checking out the contents of Bobby's CD in the conference room. Even the excitement at the promise of a new, and potentially explosive investigation of an international criminal syndicate could not keep the thought from her mind, and with it her promise to let Clark ask his question soon.
But Clark would keep his word, she thought. And he wouldn't hold her to their bet if he thought it would make her uncomfortable. She needed to tell him, but how was she supposed to do that?
She looked quickly sideways at him and then down at her lap. He had a trace of five-o'clock shadow, she thought, but the tiny nick that he had received from the razor this morning had vanished. "How are your powers?" she asked.
"I should be okay by tomorrow afternoon, I think," he said. "I'll be more interested in what Dr. Klein says about you. Was that just a last burst of my powers -- or are yours coming back, too?"
"I don't know," she said. She was instinctively avoiding the more important subject, she knew, and told herself to stop it. This man deserved fair treatment if anyone did. "About our bet --"
"You know I'd never hold you to a bet if it makes you uncomfortable, don't you?" he said quickly.
"Yes, I do know that," she said. "But I was going to say that I think it's time I stopped acting like a coward."
"Is this the Lois Lane I know speaking?" he said, sounding, she thought, a little incredulous. "If there's anything you're not, it's a coward!"
"You might be surprised," she said. "I tried awfully hard to keep my head about you, you know. I liked you from the start -- a lot -- but falling in love makes you vulnerable. My mother fell in love once, and look what happened." He opened his mouth to protest, but she put her finger over his lips. "Don't say anything. I might not be able to work up the nerve to say this again."
He subsided, watching her with an expression that made her want to giggle nervously. "But," she continued, "I didn't keep my head. I couldn't. I fell in love anyway. It was scary -- to know that you meant so much to me that losing you would hurt more than anything I can imagine. If you were to change your mind once we were a couple, I don't know how I could stand it."
"I'm not going to change my mind," Clark said. "If we weren't made for each other, then we're as close as two people can come to it."
"How can you be so sure?" she asked.
"I just am," he said. "Maybe it has something to do with being Kryptonian. The impression I got from the other Lois was that there was some kind of bond between Kryptonian men and their mates. I've felt it since I saw you walk into that warehouse in Brazzaville. And then I actually talked to you and I knew for certain that I'd found the woman that was right for me. I fell in love with you that day. In that minute, actually," he said quietly. "And I know for certain that you're the only woman that I'll ever love."
She shook her head. "I think I believe that -- now," she said.
A muscular arm went around her shoulders and she found herself pulled against his chest. The look in his eyes made her heart beat even faster than it already was, both from panic and anticipation. The question was coming, she knew: the question that she'd been putting off for nearly a year, and this time she wouldn't stop him.
"Some people would think that was a very proprietary action, Superman," she murmured.
His grin flashed. "If you think that was proprietary, you have no idea how proprietary I can be. There isn't and never will be any woman in the world for Superman -- or Clark Kent, for that matter -- but you. Do I have to tell you that I'll never walk away from you unless you tell me to?"
"No," she said, and discovered that somehow her voice had dropped to a whisper. "And I don't mind a proprietary man -- if that man doesn't mind it if I'm as proprietary as he is."
"I was hoping you'd say that," he said. "May I ask you that question, now?"
She didn't dare risk speaking but nodded against his chest.
"You're my best friend," he said. "The best friend I've ever had. I need you in my life to be happy and I want to try my best to make you happy, too. Will you marry me?"
Lois looked up into his hopeful face. She couldn't pretend that she didn't love him. That had happened early in their friendship. But was love enough?
But he'd said that she was his best friend. She couldn't deny that he was hers as well. Without him she would have to return to the lonely existence that she had lived before he had splashed into her life in a tropical ocean, eleven hundred years in the past. He had searched the world for her and ultimately traveled through time to find her and save her life. And now he was asking her to take the ultimate step: to spend the rest of her life with him, and to let him spend his life with her. And after all, what kind of life would she have without him? Sterile; lonely; safe from hurt -- but never happy. But did she dare to take the risk?
Could she dare not to take it? Sometimes, as Alice had said, if you didn't risk it all you could miss out on life itself. And, with Clark Kent, she certainly wouldn't miss out on life.
When it came down to that, the answer was easy.
"Yes," she whispered, a little surprised at how simple it was to say. And then she couldn't say anything else as his lips closed over hers.
When he finally released her it took several seconds to realize that she was no longer sitting beside him on the couch, but instead that they were floating several inches above the cushions. Clark glanced down and laughed. Very gently, they settled down onto the couch again. "It looks like my powers are back faster than I expected," he remarked.
"That's a relief," she said.
"You pack quite a wallop," he said. "But then you always have."
"So do you," she said, a little shakily.
"Do you remember, I said I had your Christmas gift?" he said.
"Stay right here. I'll get it," he told her, getting to his feet. He strode quickly toward his bedroom, and less than a minute later reappeared. He sat down beside her on the sofa and took her left hand in his. "This is my Christmas gift," he said. "I hope you like it."
Lois watched, almost bemused, as he slipped a glittering diamond ring onto the third finger of her left hand. The ring caught the light, breaking it into rainbow colors. She caught her breath at the realization of what it meant and wondered for an instant how much of his reporter's salary he had sacrificed for it.
"Clark, you didn't need to buy such an expensive ring."
"It was my mother's," Clark said. "My father got it from his grandmother and gave it to my mother. It's been in the Kent family for seven generations."
The diamond was beautiful: not the engagement ring of a farmer's wife.
"It's lovely," she said, turning the ring in the light of the overhead lamp. She looked doubtfully at him. "Are you sure?"
"I'm sure," he said. "I've never been more certain of anything in my life."
She could feel the tears brimming in her eyes. "I never really believed that any man could love me," she said, "especially not so much. You've heard the office gossip. I'm Mad Dog Lane. I chew men up and spit them out. Why am I so special? What is it about me that makes you want me when Superman could have any woman in the world just by lifting a finger?"
He put his arms around her and pulled her against his chest. "Because you're Lois Lane," he said, "and none of those other women are. Whatever it is that makes you you is what I need. I can't be happy without you and I want you with me to boss me around for as long as we both live."
She giggled through her tears. "Well, you'll have that for sure."
"Good," he said, and kissed her.
Lois opened her eyes. She was still in Clark's apartment, still on his sofa and the television was muttering in the background. The movie playing at the moment, she realized after several seconds, was "It's a Wonderful Life". The clock on the wall said it was one o'clock in the morning.
Her back was warm, and after a second of incomprehension, she realized it was because she was lying back against Clark, who was sound asleep against the pillows of the couch, with one arm still firmly around her. It looked like the events of the day had worn even Superman out.
She turned to study his sleeping face and smiled. Even asleep, he was gorgeous, and it was finally beginning to sink in that he was hers and had been hers from almost the minute she had met him. How could any woman be so lucky?
The sound that had awakened her came again: the music of her cell phone. She fumbled quickly for her purse and grabbed it. "Lois Lane."
"Oh, Ms. Lane!" It was Bernard Klein's voice. "I thought your phone would be turned off and I could just leave you a message! I'm sorry if I woke you!"
"Uh ... no, I was watching a movie. What is it?"
"Uh -- well, I wanted to give you the results of the tests I ran this afternoon. Maybe you could drop by STAR Labs in the morning and I could run a couple more just to be certain. It's Christmas, so practically no one will be there."
"Why don't you tell me what you've found," Lois said. "Then we'll know if it's worth it."
"Uh -" Dr. Klein appeared to dither for a moment and then gave in. "I suppose so. In the classic sense of the joke, I have both good news and bad news."
"Well --" The scientist's voice was quivering with suppressed excitement. "The good news is that somehow the Red Kryptonite laser turned you into a solar battery much like Clark is. You absorb sunlight and as far as I can tell will have Superman's powers for the rest of your life."
"What?" Her exclamation brought Clark awake.
"What's going on?" he asked.
"Dr. Klein's on the phone." She spoke to the scientist again. "What's the bad news?"
"Well, I'm not sure the news is really all that bad," Dr. Klein said. "It's just that -- well, your battery can't take as full a charge as Clark's can. When you were first given his powers, you received the full charge from a fully powered battery, so to speak. But you can't retain that level of charge for very long, so the powers ran out more quickly, especially after being exposed to the Kryptonite. When you charged up again on your own, you got a lower level of the powers. You'll be faster than an ordinary human, and stronger, and probably considerably tougher, but not completely invulnerable. As for the other powers, you'll have to try them out and see what you can do. If you'll drop by in the morning, I'd like to try to determine your capabilities more exactly -- and I hope you'll keep me informed in the future."
"All right," Lois said. "We'll be there around nine."
"Great!" She had to stifle a giggle at the similarity of Dr. Klein's excitement to that of a child with a new toy. "I'll see you then. And --" He hesitated. "Merry Christmas, Ms. Lane."
"Merry Christmas to you too, Dr. Klein," she said. She closed the phone and turned to Clark. "Did you hear that?"
He shook his head. "I don't eavesdrop on your phone calls," he said. "What's the bad news?"
"Well, it's not really that bad," she said. "We'll find out more in the morning -- but he says I've still got some of your powers, and I'm going to keep them." She found that she was smiling, and leaned forward to kiss him squarely on the mouth. "I just thought of something."
"Intergang is in for a lot of trouble," she said, a note of glee in her voice. "This is going to be fun!"