By Carol Malo <Ccmalo@aol.com>
Submitted May 2000
Summary: In the alternate universe, Clark Kent's struggle to lead a normal life after becoming Superman becomes more complicated when he discovers he's been under surveillance by three separate individuals, each with a different agenda.
note: Thanks to Labrat for her initial encouragement & to Amber for her Spanish translation as well as those on the fanfic list who offered encouragement and suggestions, and especially to Jenni & Wendy who showed great forbearance in beta reading this, and to Laurie for editing it. :)
*—-* denotes emphasis
Comments are very welcome to <Ccmalo@aol.com>
It's tough finding a good place to hide — especially one from where you can watch, plan, wait for an opportunity to strike. To make things right… to get even. Justice and revenge.
It's even harder when you don't have any resources, any contacts, money, a home. When you're not sure if you're being watched as you scramble in the chaos to escape a city ripped apart by corruption and civil war. The only contacts she'd had were also her partner's, and she wasn't sure if she could trust him not to betray her once again. Finally, long after he'd made his own comfortable departure, she too had got out.
Then the earth had exploded in front of the van in which she'd fled, and she and the boy were alone. Was there any hope of rescue? Wouldn't her disappearance be big news? At least for a few days, until the next big scandal or crisis?
As she had twisted out from the jagged wreckage of the van, willing all her reserve strength to drive her body through sharp, twisted metal and the shattered shards of the rear passenger window, she hadn't thought of any of that. She'd just wanted to survive. A quick glance at the van's interior, at the blood and the gaping flesh, told her that her companions had not been as lucky. Except the boy. Reaching in, she struggled to pull him to safety, smelling the fumes as she did, aware of the danger of the gas tank blowing. Instinctively they'd both started to run, racing against the brilliant flash of fire which engulfed the wreckage as the van blew up. Horrified and gasping for air, they stood silently watching the flame, hypnotized by its ferocity.
They waited there until nearly sunset, hoping that someone would have seen the flames or that another vehicle might come. Maybe a truck transporting lumber or minerals. Maybe a U.N. vehicle on patrol as peacekeepers tried, against incredible odds, to build a semblance of peace in a lawless land torn apart by age old feuds. This was dangerous territory, controlled by gangs of bandit-terrorists. Capture would mean being held hostage — if they were lucky.
Slowly, on the horizon, a battered jeep carrying one too many men lumbered and wheezed over the small rise in the rutted road. It stopped several yards from the smoking wreck and, in a lithe, graceful motion, one of its passengers swung out of the vehicle. Grabbing a rifle from the back seat, he jogged the few yards to the wreckage, followed by one of his companions.
Both the woman and the boy recognized the symbolic scarf which marked these men as members of a renegade band of government militia. The boy did not belong to their tribe; he would be mutilated and killed. She would be raped.
Without speaking, they both sank low to the ground, trying not to move, not to breathe, while the occupants of the jeep circled the skeletal remains of the charred van. Realizing there was nothing there for them, the men walked back to their vehicle and took off down the dusty road, disappearing as it twisted into the lush green jungle beyond which lay the village from which the woman and the boy and their companions had just come.
The boy tugged on the woman's arm. "We must go. Through the jungle."
She knew he was right. It was their only chance.
Somehow they had survived. She knew she wouldn't have made it without the boy. Raised in a small village on the edge of the jungle, Nkwame knew it well, at least well enough to keep them this side of death as they travelled one step ahead of the renegade troops who swarmed through the equatorial forest, burning and terrorizing villages as they seized control of the countryside. Sometimes, the two were lucky and found a brief refuge in a safe village for a few days. More often they slept on the jungle floor.
At first, jumbled thoughts of betrayal and revenge had dominated her as she struggled through the dense undergrowth, haunted by those few wonderful days with her partner, their feelings newly awakened. Her feelings, not his. Then the dark bitterness of knowing he'd made a fool of her would surface, pushing her as she fought her way across the damp earth of the rain forest, trying to avoid the dangers lurking in its unknown environment. But as their flight continued and she became increasingly drained, she'd begun to turn to dreams of escape, escape from everything.
So, two months later, when they reached a market town at the elbow of a muddy river swollen by spring floods, she decided to take advantage of her disappearance and discovered how tempting it was to stay missing, seduced by the chance to avoid responsibility, to slip into wanderlust and fly away.
And she'd flown so far away. Fleeing from the pain of a lover who had used her, of a family who'd pushed her away, fleeing from the pressure of being the best — the best at school, the best at her job, the best at everything. Fleeing from the anger that she should have to be the best.
That had been either the end or the beginning, depending on how you looked at it. As soon as he felt strong enough to tackle the next part of his search, Nkwame had left her there on the edge of the jungle, going to search for his family whom he hoped had stayed safe through the nightmare of this last year. She never saw him again.
Exhausted and emaciated after her experience, Lois Lane, nevertheless was exhilarated too. She had survived. She had been given a second chance. And she knew that she was not going back. This was her chance to escape, to find out everything she could about the world, to be free.
It had begun in the refugee camp, run by a few Catholic priests from Belgium, on the outskirts of the town where she and Nkwame had found their way. Although Nkwame had left, she had stayed longer, at first dwelling too much on thoughts of getting even with her former partner and lover. But as she slowly rebuilt her strength, she found satisfaction in assisting the priests and in regaining her awareness of the beauty of the lush landscape. And finally she had buried her need to get revenge. Still, for some reason which she only dimly understood, she had not told the priests her real name and she had also been very careful to conceal the passport which she always carried in an inner pocket of her jacket. Part of her escape.
After that, she had worked her way to the coast, finding temporary jobs with businesses, staying long enough to save the money to move on to the next place. Sometimes even saving enough to finance a rough trip to some long lost ruin or remote destination she'd read about, seen documentaries on, dreamed of. And lost herself in the wonder of what man had constructed, and awe at the way time and nature had begun the relentless process of reclaiming those structures. Or sadness at the way in which man had destroyed them.
She had seen and done so much in those years, driven by a restless curiosity across three continents. Gone hungry in Karachi, bathed naked under a silver sliver of a waterfall in Nepal, chauffeured a Bentley for a Hong Kong millionaire.
It had been a rough time and she had thrived, except of course, for a couple of inevitable, wrenching bouts of food poisoning. Those adolescent fantasies she'd had of exploring her spiritual self and finding the true meaning of life in some remote temple had turned out to be an illusion. Those isolated communities clinging to the peaks of remote cliffs were just the spiritual versions of old boys' clubs: the support staff were women — cooks, cleaners, laundresses, mothers of children. Ah well. Enlightenment was probably over rated. She'd pulled on her hard earned backpack and headed east again — always east, away from Metropolis.
This time south, across the Pacific on a freighter carrying cheap electronics to Ecuador. And this time, she let herself be seduced once again by a city. Quito was much smaller than Metropolis but blended its urban sophistication with a polyglot of peoples, music, buildings — the grace of Spanish colonial townhouses and old, decaying administrative offices nestling in harmony with the elegant simplicity of small scale modern architecture. Yet Quito was still something of a frontier town, where guerrilla leaders and drug lords rubbed shoulders with men in tuxedos roaring into town in open jeeps from the oil fields to spend an evening at a casino or club.
She'd allowed herself to be seduced by one or two of them, enjoying the game, telling herself that intimacy was a fantasy. After all, what intimacy had there really been with Claude Kendall? She'd fallen hard for him. He had made her feel so special and she had been spellbound by his physical charm, the suppleness of his slender, athletic body as he moved, and those blue eyes that sparkled whenever he looked at her. Yeah. If she'd been a little more observant, she would have noticed that they sparkled for others, too, but never so brightly as when he saw the chance of something that was good for his career. She'd felt dead inside when she'd learned the truth. Never again.
But the guys in Quito were different. No promises, no lies. She wasn't looking for anything long term and neither were they. She never would again. Fun. She ventured to places she'd never been before and, at night, slid into her one and only black dress to slink with new friends at the casinos. Slot machines and the silliness of carrying a carton of coins around. In Quito, she was frivolous and for a brief moment she wondered if maybe Cat Grant didn't have the right approach to life after all.
While she had been travelling, she'd avoided, as much as possible, 'The News'. Too much a reminder of her old life. The real 'News' was any information which would get her the next job or a lift to her next destination. 'The News' had been easy to avoid, too. English language media were not readily available in the streets of most of the places she had been. She would have had to actively seek those sources out. But in Quito, it was harder to avoid the news because of the simple fact that she knew some Spanish and the longer she stayed in Ecuador, the more fluent she became. It became harder to block out the rest of the world.
She wasn't sure when she'd first started to think about home. Probably it was the sisters. The longer she travelled, the more she started noticing people, watching them as she pulled into a train station or sat in an outdoor cafe. She especially noticed women together; 'sisters' she began labelling them in her mind.
The first time, she had been sitting in a tiny outdoor cafe on a dusty street in Nairobi when a small girl had raced across the road in pursuit of a puppy on a leash which had just escaped her clutch. An older girl ran after her, giggling as the two tried to grab the leash which was always just a little too short. It didn't matter; the girls were having so much fun chasing it. When the puppy gamboled her way, Lois had quickly reached for it, rising to walk across to where the girls were standing, watching her. She handed the leash back to them, the older one thanked her with a shy smile, and then off they raced again.
Sometimes it was older women, meeting at a bus station or a train station — their family resemblance visible as they hugged and then shared the burden of luggage to be carried to some waiting vehicle. Once it had been at the site of a car crash where one young woman was sobbing, "My sister, my sister." Lois had helped the woman rescue her sister and then watched as the two embraced, tears streaming down the face of the one who had so nearly lost the other. And Lois had cried, too.
That had been a couple of days ago. Lois had lost Lucy in an acrimonious quarrel over Lucy's fiance. This guy had made a pass at Lois which she'd deflected and then told her sister to dump him. Lucy didn't want to be told that, especially by her older sister. The worst fight they'd ever had in their lives ended with Lucy screaming that Lois was jealous, had led Ted on, and that she was going ahead with the wedding, and she never wanted to see Lois again. Never! Fine.
But it wasn't fine. Lois missed Lucy and, besides, she thought, the marriage had probably turned out to be a disaster and her sister would need her. It was time to go home.
The first thing she did the next morning was to check her resources. Minimal. How easy would it be to get her old job back? Although she knew Perry White, the editor of the Daily Planet, had thought highly of her work, she also knew she'd only had a few years experience when she and Claude had flown to the Congo on that gunrunning story. At that time, she'd definitely been considered the junior partner and it was Claude who had delivered the story in the end, using her research and even some of her prose, while she'd slept in his bed at the Hotel du Sud. Everyone at the Planet knew of her relationship with Claude. Now she looked like a gullible fool. What little reputation she'd managed to build had been shot down like a clay pigeon by an expert marksman.
Still, Perry had taken her under his wing when she had first started at the Planet. Maybe he would give her a second chance, she thought, as she prepared a light breakfast in the tiny one room flat she rented in Quito. She didn't yet have enough money for the flight back to Metropolis. She had no credit cards, never having stayed long enough in one place to establish a billing address. Besides, she'd lived so close to the margin, that any cash she had went on the basics. No way she could pay off credit debt. So she'd have to work for a few months to save enough to get home unless she could somehow get back by different means. After all, she'd come this far.
Once she got downtown, she stopped in the lobby of the Quito Continental and did something she hadn't done since she'd left the Congo. She bought an English language newspaper, *the* newspaper — the Daily Planet, took it to a large comfortable chair in the lobby, and examined the front page. The paper had changed its format. The headlines were in larger print and there was a quarter page color photograph of a WWF wrestler on the front page. Oh, god, she thought, the paper's been bought by Rupert Murdoch. Without wasting any more time looking at the front page, she flipped to the editorial page, to the top left corner, looking for the masthead.
Nowhere did she see Perry White's name. The publisher, and that meant owner, was one James Olson. She noticed that he was also the editor-in-chief of the paper. What had happened?
She closed the newspaper, rolled it up and jammed it into her bag. Later today, after work, she would do a little research in the National Library and find out what had happened. And also figure out how to get back to the States.
After Lois finished her research, she pushed back her chair and tried to work out what was going on. Her beloved Metropolis sounded like a different city. When she had left, the city had been in the midst of a surging crime wave — more drugs especially. More violence. She'd never been able to get a good feel for whoever was behind the increase in crime. Each time she'd got close, the story dried up, or stayed small time. Or a distraction had appeared like the gunrunning story which had sent her to the Congo. Now, it looked like the city was constantly battling crime of some sort. Perry White who, incredibly, had become mayor of Metropolis had, so far, been unable to stem the rising corruption plaguing the city.
She was also dismayed by what she'd found out about the Daily Planet's new owner, James Olsen. About five years younger than she, he had made astronomical piles of money designing and marketing computer software and then had decided to cash in some of his chips and play boy editor with *her* newspaper. No wonder its format had changed! Still, she had to admit, its music coverage had improved.
But the thing that clinched in her mind that The Planet had ceased to be a serious newspaper was the front page wrestler. What was he, some kind of stunt that the Planet was using to sell newspapers? She looked at the picture more carefully, this time not distracted by the red cape. Although his posture was that of a wrestler entering the ring, arms crossed, legs planted firmly apart, and the too serious facial composure, his body was not. It was — less. Not as much bulk; he'd be tossed out of the ring pretty quickly. And she didn't like his hair, slicked back like he lived his life with permanent hat hair.
She read the story which accompanied the picture. Incredible. She didn't believe any of it. Tabloid stuff. Cape Guy could fly and he was apparently so strong he could lift a sinking ship out of the water. Uh huh. James Olsen must've read one too many comic books. *Superman*, for heaven's sake. Didn't anyone read Nietzsche anymore? Well, she could only hope this red caped mascot had boosted the Planet's circulation.
She read the rest of the paper now, pleased to find the other articles were still up to the standard of the Planet she remembered. Okay, so maybe James Olsen was nine parts serious about the paper. She spotted some familiar names, but more changes. Claude Kendall was no longer on staff, nor was Cat Grant. Rather than writing the social column, Cat was, that day, one of its stories. Alongside the short article, a photograph showed Cat, who had acquired a new last name, presenting a small trophy to Metropolis billionaire businessman, Lex Luthor, immaculately attired for a polo match. He had, apparently, just played against the Prince of Wales. Lois rolled her eyes as she read the caption. Claude Kendall had made the column, too, photographed with a beautiful woman clinging to his arm. The caption below did not say who she was but identified him as Pulitzer award winning newsanchor, Claude Kendall. Lois felt her blood pressure increase.
There was a new guy, Clark Kent, on staff. She read his article, a column on the heroism of paramedics. Not bad, she thought. Lacked a little edge, but not bad.
Okay, now to see if anything else was out there about the Caped Wonder. There was. Amazing information. If these stories could be believed, he really could fly. Surely that wasn't possible? There had to be some kind of small, hidden device behind the cape. An anti-gravitational gizmo or maybe something with miniature jets. More incredibly, this superman was Clark Kent. Maybe it was part of a hoax then. To sell newspapers, or maybe to distract people in Metropolis from the real cause of crime in the city. Lois wondered how this Clark Kent was able to pull it off.
She'd only managed to find a few pictures of Clark Kent as she'd surfed the various American newspaper websites and checked their back articles. Kent's hair was longer, he wore glasses and somehow his facial features seemed less chiseled, less angular than Superman's, his eyes less narrow. The resemblance seemed superficial but the pictures had been badly focused so it was hard to see what Kent really looked like. James Olsen needed to hire a better photographer.
The next evening, as she was sipping coffee at a cafe with a group of friends, just acquaintances really, Lois had a bit of luck in her plans for returning home. One of the people to join their table during the ebb and flow of the evening was a Brit flight attendant on layover. He knew a guy who piloted cargo planes out of Quito who might be able to do her a favor.
Three days later, Lois Lane was in San Francisco, determined to return to her home town, to rebuild her reputation, and to expose the hoax that was Superman.
Clark Kent slipped in at the latest possible moment, furtively entering through the basement door which had been left unlocked for him. In a blur, he ran up the narrow stairway that opened into a tiny office in the east transept of the huge cathedral, Metropolis's oldest. Fervently he prayed that he had avoided the paparazzi who had dogged his moves for the last year. Today, especially, he hoped for privacy. This day belonged to the bride.
One of the deacons met him and escorted him to the front of the church; he'd made it with a minute to spare. As he took up his position, he heard the strains of Mendelssohn's Wedding March and smiled. Lana had opted for the whole traditional show. Then he caught sight of her as she entered on her father's arm, as beautiful as he'd ever seen her, her blonde hair bright in the sunlight which streamed through the high clerestory windows. The radiance of her smile lit her eyes as she looked up and caught her first sight of her future husband.
Clark smiled, feeling his spirits lift out of the darkness of the last few months. Lana's happiness touched him and for a moment he forgot Lois Lane. He watched as she walked slowly up the aisle, turning at times to smile at a friend or relative in the dark oak pews which lined the aisle. He turned to look at Pete Ross, waiting, looking awestruck in front of the altar as he watched his bride's progression. Then the two were standing beside each other, and Clark knew, as Lana looked at Pete in a way that she had never looked at him, that this marriage was right.
Subconsciously, he had always known that he and Lana had never really belonged together; but, somehow, they had drifted into an engagement which had never seemed to bring either of them the happiness which he thought couples were supposed to feel. Half in love, they'd tried desperately to convince themselves that they were right for each other. He couldn't even remember proposing; he wasn't sure he had. They'd attended a couple of weddings in the year and a half since he'd met up with her again and, somehow, they seemed to be engaged shortly afterwards.
Lana had come to Metropolis when the corporation for which she worked had offered her a promotion and job transfer. Her engagement to Pete, her high school and college sweetheart, had just ended and she'd jumped at the offer for change.
Clark had been part of the change; on standby, as he'd often been when they were in high school. He'd been glad to see her again, the one person who knew about his unusual abilities and whom he knew he could trust to keep them a secret. And he'd been grateful for the way she helped him keep the powers hidden, discouraging their use, reminding him of the threat if he should be discovered, holding him back from the edge of public exposure. She protected him; but at some point, he wasn't sure when, she started to control him, too, trying to make him something he wasn't. In spite of Lana's determination and his longing, he wasn't, never would be, normal.
Lois Lane, at least the other world's Lois Lane, had made him, forced him, freed him to be who he really was. And he had felt exhilarated, free to soar without fear of being seen, and most of all, free to help when people needed him, free to make a difference. Furious, Lana had issued her ultimatum — her or Superman. Superman. He hadn't hesitated, not really believing Lana meant it, half hoping she did. She did. Later that day, Lois Lane, too, had left him; he was alone, trying to figure out how to make it all work.
For the first few months after their engagement ended, he and Lana had avoided each other. Then he'd accidently run into her with Pete at a movie. Clark had been alone and they'd asked him to come with them for dessert and coffee. He'd been just scruffy enough to not be recognized and he'd enjoyed the evening with them. It was clear they were crazy about each other and they told him, finishing each other's sentences as they spoke, the whole story. Their big fight, the broken engagement, the false pride, the 'thing' with Clark. At this point, Pete stopped the story and glared at Clark who had raised his eyebrows at his and Lana's engagement being relegated to a 'thing'. Or did Pete mean, Clark wondered, his and Lana's sex life?
At any rate, Clark had felt a little uncomfortable — after all he and Lana had been engaged, it was only natural for engaged couples… Maybe he should mention that he'd never felt the earth move for either of them. No, that wasn't very gallant. Instead, he diplomatically changed the topic and inquired about Pete's business in Kansas. Pete beamed, apparently forgiving Clark, and, with Lana's help, told Clark all about Ross Inc. Two months later, Pete and Lana were engaged.
Later, at the wedding reception, which was held at Metropolis' newest luxury hotel, the Lexor, Lana managed to convince Clark that it was his duty to dance with the bride. After a few moments, he looked down into her laughing eyes and said, "What?"
"You. You haven't danced with any of the single women here. Clark, there are a couple of girls here tonight who could be right for you. I'll introduce you."
"Don't try to organize me, Lana," Clark laughed. "I'm doing just fine, thank you."
"So why are you only dancing with really safe, unavailable women?"
"Lana, look at the people here. That guy back in the corner, the one who took our picture a minute ago. Is he one of your guests?" He knew the answer before he asked the question.
Lana looked over at the slight, well dressed man. "No, I don't know him."
"I do. He works for the National Whisper. Wanna bet what the caption is for the picture he just took?"
"Clark, that's awful. How'd he get past Gary and Alan?" She broke away from him, rushing over to one of her cousins, the big one who played tackle for his college team. Two minutes later, Clark watched contentedly as the cousin and a friend grabbed the guy's camera and hustled him outside.
Lana returned to his side, a triumphant look on her face. "Okay, now will you let me introduce you to Janine? You haven't exactly been dating this past year, have you?"
Clark shrugged his shoulders. "Not exactly."
Lana patted his arm. "Janine's the tall redhead dancing with Uncle Jim over there. She's a model, Clark."
"Ah." Why not, he thought. Maybe he should start dating. The love of his life, or was she a substitute for the love of his life, was alive and well and living in a different universe. The love of his life was dead, a ghost who haunted his nights.
"Come on." Lana pulled his hand as the music finished, leading him across the floor to where Janine was now sitting, chatting with an equally beautiful friend.
"Lana, come say good-bye to Grandpa." Pete intercepted them and took his bride's hand. "He's getting tired and he'd like to go home."
"Of course, darling." Lana turned to Clark. "Don't *you* go way." Clearly, Lana still expected Clark to do as he was told.
Clark watched them go, bemused by Lana's docility, at least where Pete was concerned. Then he looked across at Janine and her friend. Aware they'd glanced a couple of times in his direction, he wondered what they were saying. Briefly rationalizing that eavesdropping was okay if you were the topic of conversation, he listened in on their conversation, focusing his super hearing on the pitch of their voices.
"But he's not bad looking."
"Imagine the press coverage if you dated Superman. Think of what it'd do for your career."
"Hmm. And imagine what he would do for you if you were his girlfriend. Think about the contacts he must have. You could meet anyone you wanted."
"Yeah. Plus, you could *have* anything you wanted. Imagine the jewelry he could give you."
"Diamonds." A sigh and a pause. "And he must have a hideaway somewhere. A tropical island with a great beach."
Clark stopped listening. He gazed across the room at laughing couples flirting and dancing, at older couples, their affection glowing after a night of celebration, at children playing among the tables with cousins and family. He was an outsider here. He would always be an outsider. Turning, he slipped quietly out of the room.
The toughest thing that Clark Kent did every day was to enter the newsroom of the Daily Planet. Two years ago, it had been the thing that gave him the most pleasure. The job still did bring him great satisfaction — in a way more than what he did as Superman. This job was what he was all about. He was determined not to lose it or to lose the comradeship that he'd found here. The first day after Superman appeared in Metropolis, Clark had shown up for work as usual. As he emerged out of the elevator, he heard the silence: the newsroom was so quiet he suspected that no one was breathing. He hadn't expected that. He tossed out his usual morning greeting, the one that everyone started the day with, in hopes of breaking the stillness. It didn't and he'd felt his gut lurch. Then everyone started talking at once, but not to him.
Since then, he'd tried one day at a time, to reclaim his life as Clark Kent, reporter. He hadn't succeeded. The friends he thought he'd had dropped away, either in awe of, or uncomfortable with, a superhero. A couple of them had tried to capitalize on the relationship. He'd accidentally overhead two guys in the washroom talking about the "alien threat" and the other one replying, "At least he's not green," adding, "Do you think he morphs into other creatures?" And the two had laughed.
That night he reread "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde". The following night he rented "The Wolfman." Fortunately, the third night, he helped lessen the impact of a hurricane off the east coast. Easy.
Now, at least, the staff took his presence in the newsroom for granted, slipping back into the old workplace relationship. Never crossing it. Except for James Olsen. Lately, the two men had become closer. Boy genius whiz kid is not too far removed from superhero. And since Clark Kent's personal life was as exciting as reruns of an ABC sitcom, the tabloids had called off most of their bottom feeders. Superman's feats were bigger news.
The morning after Lana's wedding, as Clark went about his routine at the Daily Planet, he was unaware that he was being watched by a woman about his own age, whose prettiness was obscured by the sensible skirt and sweater which hung loosely enough to render her voluptuous body respectable. Her green eyes watched him speculatively as he reached across his desk for a sheaf of pictures which a staff photographer had just brought. Waiting for him to finish his conversation with the photographer, she hung back. When, Clark was free, she approached him, carrying a legal-sized file folder in her hand.
"Here's that research on the subway project you wanted, Clark." She extended the folder, meeting his eyes as she did, wondering as she had for the last month why he was content to be here. It was so trivial, beneath his rank, not worthy of his destiny.
Clark smiled at the Planet's newest research assistant as she handed him the folder. "That was quick." She impressed him; she always delivered her stuff before anyone expected it; and, although she was always deferential to him, she never appeared to be in awe of him. A couple of times he'd had the strange thought she was waiting for him to do something. "Thanks, Sara."
She smiled in return, turning as someone called her name. They'd been here long enough. It was time to see if Kal El was suitable. She would talk to Ching tonight.
As Zara was leaving work late that afternoon, she was surprised to spot Ching striding purposefully across the main lobby of the Daily Planet, his confident step that of a man used to command. Her eyes lit up with that secret pleasure she felt whenever he was near, but her words were formal. "Ching, why have you come?"
"Zara, you've decided it's time." His voice was eager as he came to a halt in front of her.
She smiled at him, welcoming the proper pronunciation of her name. 'Sara' had such a soft sound to it, compliant, as though anyone with that name was meant to serve. She didn't like it. But it was the closest American variation on her own name and so she had accepted it as a small but necessary part of her camouflage. As someone used to both status and a position of authority, she had found it difficult to live for eight hours every day as a foot soldier at the Daily Planet; however, she also knew that her personal feelings were unimportant compared to the desperation of their mission here.
"Yes. So far Kal El has proved himself worthy, Ching." Her voice let him know her optimism as she continued. "We know of his great courage from our research; he has repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to make sacrifices for the good of society." They walked together toward the revolving doors of the Planet's front entrance, Ching falling slightly behind her to permit her to go through the door first.
His tone was derisive as they stepped onto the pavement. "He takes no risk, given how this planet's sun has magnified his natural abilities to such an extraordinary degree. He's impulsive; he takes off at a moment's notice. When he returns to New Krypton, he won't have that luxury."
Zara sighed. They'd argued around these points so often in the month they had been on earth observing Kal El. "But he must come back, Ching. The spirit of our people must be renewed. If they see Kal El, son of Jor El, great-grandson of Zon El, returning as their leader, I know they will find the courage to defeat Nor."
"Remember, Zara, not all heirs are as strong as their forefathers. Nor's grandfather was a great and honorable commander. It was his and Zon El's vision and drive that created New Krypton out of a barren asteroid." He glanced at her briefly, his face grim as he continued. "Tomorrow, we'll find out if Kal El merits the leadership of New Krypton."
"He will, Ching. He's an honorable man. Don't you see? It would have been so easy for him to succumb to all the pleasures that this planet offers, yet he hasn't done so. He's a true Kryptonian; he has self-discipline and a sense of duty."
Abruptly, their discussion was interrupted by a small group of joking teenagers pushing and jostling each other as they argued about the merits of a couple of obscure bands. The domino effect of their enthusiasm sent one of them spilling into Zara, pushing her momentarily off balance.
Oblivious of her, the boys continued on their way, leaving a scowling Ching muttering about the lack of social order and respect on this forsaken planet. He lifted his hand in a sweeping arc which took in the grimy streets of the city, the rundown buildings they now were passing, and the small businesses with metal security grills across their windows. His hand came to rest at his side, accidentally pointing at an abandoned syringe on the sidewalk. He seemed almost pleased. "Kal El has had absolutely no impact on this city. If he is to be any help to us in our struggle to defeat Nor, I fear he will have to be firmly guided."
"Ching, if that's necessary we can do it." She looked sideways at her tall companion as they turned the corner leading to the tiny basement apartment which was her residence in Metropolis. She had needed an address and this one was located in an obscure enough part of the city that any strange happenings connected with it wouldn't be noticed by her few neighbors, most of whom were fighting bigger demons than the aliens next door. "We need his stature and the aura of his heredity. We," she emphasized, "haven't been able to defeat Nor." She unlocked the apartment door.
Ching's voice was cold, betraying his anger. "I know that. If Trey and the others weren't so indecisive; if they had just a minimal understanding of strategy… But they'll accept Kal El — the long lost son of Krypton," he added with a trace of sarcasm.
He touched a small transparent cube hanging on a silver chain around his neck. For a moment, there was an energy surge, followed by shimmering waves of light, like a mirage coming into focus, and then suddenly the room was larger, stretching into inky shadows which reached beyond the limits of the tiny apartment and then vanished. Ching stood still, concentrating his thoughts, and then, there in the somber blue haze of this room, two chairs materialized, followed by a small round table on which rested two glasses filled with a thick fluorescent blue liquid.
Both Ching and Zara were now dressed in black — sleek uniforms which were a reminder of their homeland. Over her uniform, Zara wore a flowing knee length coat, its lapels dark red, while on her right shoulder, beneath her collarbone, was a small gold insignia, symbol of the aristocratic house of Ra of which she was her generation's only descendant. Two green bands around the wrists of Ching's uniform marked him as a lieutenant in the Kryptonian military, his rank a reflection of the lesser nobility from whom he was descended.
The two sat sipping the blue liquid in silence, both reflecting on what they would do tomorrow. Just recently, both Zara and Ching had discovered that they too had acquired powers, the Earth's sun having gradually enhanced their abilities as it had Kal El's. These they had been careful to use sparingly, not wanting to attract any attention. Ching had, however, on several occasions tracked Superman, observing him as he flew to assist in some natural or man made disaster, watching him carefully to see if what the man was doing required anything much more than the application of those amazing powers. They had not, as far as Ching could see. Kal El's actions were always a quick response to physical danger, with no attempt to change the underlying conditions which had caused those problems. Why didn't he take control of this miserable city, this chaotic planet, and bring order to it?
That question bothered him more than he had admitted to Zara, deliberately blocking his thought waves from her whenever this concern crossed his mind. Ching was a man of action. But he also deplored wasted action when some solid planning would get everyone much further. He was worried that Kal El had become too human, conditioned by his upbringing to give in to impulsive behaviour and to allow the emotional side of his nature to dominate as did most of these Earthmen. Although Kryptonian culture acknowledged this emotional side of behavior and provided the necessary safety valves, reason always triumphed. After all, that was part of what this struggle with Nor was about. Nor wanted power for the sake of power, and what it could give him — wealth and the gratification of all his pleasures. If Nor won, Krypton would become even worse than Metropolis. Kal El's failure to take leadership here worried Ching deeply.
As soon as possible, he and Zara would contrive a crisis to see how Kal El would respond, to see if he was more than just a man with super strength.
Three thousand miles away, the day before Lana Lang's wedding, Lois Lane was speaking eagerly into the mouthpiece of a phone in the lobby of the third rate hotel in which she had spent her first night in San Francisco. She had arrived after midnight, clearing customs pretty quickly thanks to the pilot's charm and the young clerk's late night fatigue. Fortunately, Lois still had a year to run on her passport, and after the obligatory search for any drugs she might have been smuggling, she was on the home side of customs. The pilot of the cargo plane in which she'd been lucky enough to get a lift had offered to let her spend the night at his place but Lois was wary. No strings, he'd said, but then he'd followed that by proposing some take out and some good wine he'd been saving. At two o'clock in the morning! He was a decent guy, so Lois grinned at him, patted his arm, said thanks, and booked herself into a small motel in the city.
She didn't have a lot of money and it would take some time to get a credit card. She knew a few people in San Francisco, but not really well. Anyway, she hesitated to call them before she got in touch with her mother and sister, and, she admitted to herself, she was a little reluctant to phone them. It would be so much easier to reappear in person, rather than as a disembodied voice over wire. Anyway, she wasn't certain where they lived now or what their phone numbers were. She could call her father… No. Besides, she wasn't really sure how her disappearance had been explained. Was she "officially missing"? Probably.
Then she remembered Jessica. They'd been roommates their first year in college before Jess had switched majors and transferred to a different school, got into software design, and then followed the Web to California. They'd kept in sporadic touch up until Lois's disappearance. They weren't the closest of friends, but at the moment, there was no one else. Besides, Jess could be relied on not to alert the whole world that Lois Lane was back in town. For some reason she couldn't quite put her finger on, Lois wanted to return without being noticed, as an observer, until she could get her bearings in a Metropolis which appeared to have changed substantially since she had left four years ago.
But first she had to get there. She had cash enough for about two days expenses but not quite enough for a bus trip to Metropolis. Maybe Jess could help. Reaching for the phone book chained to the small shelf beneath the phone in the motel lobby, she found her friend's name. Different address than she remembered, though.
"Jess. Hi! It's Lois." A very long pause. "Jessica?"
"Lois Lane?" The voice on the other end of the line was shaky, higher pitched than normal.
"Yeah. Look, I'm in San Francisco and I was wondering if we could get together."
"Omigawd! Lois, they said you were dead. That car crash… Lois… "
"I'm not dead, Jess. But I need a place to stay for a couple of days until I can get back to Metropolis."
"I can't believe it! Lois! You're okay? You're really here? Lois… you have to come over here. Where are you? Look, I've moved. I'll come and get you. Where are you?"
Lois broke into her friend's tumble of words. "I'm at a motel downtown — the Carlington. I can get a bus to your place."
"No, no. That'll take forever. I'll come get you. Just don't move! I'll be there in twenty minutes."
Lois dropped her shabby backpack on the satin smooth hardwood floor of her friend's loft and looked around her in surprise. Tall windows which framed San Francisco's grey sky dominated one wall, letting the vista of city and ocean fill the room. Floor to ceiling shelves laden with electronic components, books stored at haphazard angles, and miscellaneous clutter lined one wall in front of which stood a thick mahogany slab mounted on iron construction supports to form a desk. On it was the latest, or what Lois thought might be the latest, in computer equipment. The far end of the room sheltered a baby grand piano while a large and very good abstract painting slashed the wall behind it with vivid color. The room was like Jess, both simple and cluttered. What was new was the level of affluence suggested by it all.
Lois grinned at her friend. "So what lottery did you win, Jess?"
"The great internet sweepstakes, Lois. I registered a few web domains which turned out to be worth big bucks and then my stock options in Optera Graphics shot up. I sold out, and here I am, a millionaire at thirty." Jess smiled as she gestured toward the wall of electronics. "So now I play."
Impressed, Lois eyed the huge mahogany desk which supported Jess's computer. "Looks like NASA control centre."
"Beautiful, isn't it." Jess sighed with satisfaction as she picked up Lois's backpack and the duffel bag which she had also brought, and carried them toward a door across the room. As she deposited them on a low bench by the side of the bed in the small guest room she said, "So where's the rest of your stuff?"
"This is it, Jess." Lois' eyes lit with mischief. "Here I am, broke at thirty."
The smile vanished from Jess's face and she hugged her friend. "I'm so glad you're alive, Lois. So glad."
"Me, too, Jess. It was time to come home."
As the two women separated, it was Jess who spoke first. "Okay, now I want to know everything. And most of all I want to know why you didn't come back. Why, Lois?" She searched her friend's face curiously. "The last note I got from you, I got the feeling that things were pretty okay."
Lois sank into the chair in the corner of the spartan room while Jess dropped onto the bed, sitting crosslegged watching her friend as she waited for an answer. "I'm not sure I can really explain it. A lot of things, I guess." Lois shrugged her shoulders. "There just wasn't anything much to come home to and all at once it seemed such a relief not to have to come home."
"What about Claude?"
"Yeah, Claude," Lois paused before continuing, "I sure can pick 'em."
"And your mom and Lucy?"
Lois sighed and lowered her eyes, gazing at the fingers of her hands which she had spread open. "I need to see them again," she said slowly.
The room was silent for a moment as Lois was reluctant to continue and Jess was unwilling to push her friend. Unwinding her legs, she rose from the bed and walked to the doorway. "How about I make us some lunch and you can give me all the details. What happened in the Congo for a start."
Early the next evening, Jess and Lois swapped a quick hug at the airport and then Lois was on her way back to Metropolis, wedged into an economy seat of Fly By Night Airways beside a guy who was at least six feet four and built like a tackle for the Buffalo Bills. Carefully, she sipped some juice as she attempted to browse the latest edition of the Daily Planet without knocking over Joe Tackle's coffee. Giving up, she refolded the paper and limited herself to the front page.
Again, one of the questions which had been on her mind since her decision to come home, resurfaced. How difficult would it be to get her old job back? If she approached the new owner with a good solid story, she should have a chance. And she had already decided what that story would be. She shuffled the Planet under the copy of the Star which she had also picked up before disembarking. Thoughtfully, she looked at a picture of Superman splashed across its front page. Okay, find the story there. What was the real story behind the Superman facade?
Last night, Jess had given her more to think about as their conversation had shifted onto the topic of Superman. Lois had always regarded anyone who believed in UFOs as one step removed from those people who dropped out and emptied their brains, only to refill them with the mystical babble of some fuzzy cult leader. Jess had always been on the other end of that scale, always the skeptic. The basis of their friendship, in fact, Lois thought with a smile.
But Jess had become interested in UFO sightings, most of which she had rejected as either hoaxes or delusions. What intrigued her were the few she couldn't explain, and she wondered how Superman might fit into all this. And she had no doubt that he could fly.
Still, Lois was more doubtful. Maybe this guy was not an alien but perhaps he was not fully human either, maybe the product of some bioengineering lab. Private corporation or government, she'd wondered. Jess agreed Lois could have a point — for a so called open society, the government did seem to have a lot of secrets.
Given that Clark Kent was Superman, maybe it wouldn't be such a good idea to try to get her old job back at the Planet immediately, Lois thought as she gazed out at the clouds through which the plane was climbing. What she would like to do was to thoroughly check out Kent's background, watch him for a few days from a distance. Tail him. See what that told her about *him*. She'd always hated it when she'd been fooled by anyone. And she hated it when anyone tried to pull that kind of stunt on others. But what if she did prove that "S" was really just a high tech marketing ploy? Maybe, in fact, an android? After all, James Olson had made his fortune in computers. The "S" idea was probably his. So why would Olsen give her back her old job if her plan was to expose his mascot? It would be like unmasking the guy who played Mickey at Disney World in front of a street full of kids. Not too bright. But what if James Olsen was not the mastermind, but a dupe? Then it was absolutely her duty to defrock this caped guy.
Above all, Lois was convinced that this story was important, no matter what she did find out. More important than getting her job back at the Planet. And she had loved working at the Planet, loved what the paper stood for. Truth. She had always believed it and Perry White had drilled her in it, putting her through a journalist's basic training. If only Perry were still editor of the Planet. Well, she would contact him when she got back.
Okay. First thing, she had to get a job, whether at the Planet or not. She'd borrowed money from Jess whom she wanted to repay as soon as possible. She began thinking about her former financial life. Did she still have a bank account? Not that there had been much money in it. Credit cards? As the plane gained altitude and settled into its course, she found herself succumbing to drowsiness. She and Jess had stayed up late, talking well past midnight. She could use some sleep.
The next morning Lois Lane swung her backpack off the bus she'd taken from the airport and hit the streets of Metropolis. She grinned; she was home and it felt right. She looked around for a phone booth to make that first call which would reintegrate her into her old life.
She should have known it wouldn't be that easy. No Lucy Lane was listed in the Metropolis phone book. That didn't surprise Lois too much, given Lucy's marriage plans. No listing under her fiance's — that is, her husband's, Lois mentally corrected herself — surname either. Maybe Lucy had an unlisted number. Lois tried calling her mother's number, but it was no longer in service and she was not listed in the directory either. Lois felt a surge of disappointment, then bit the bullet and tried her father's number. That one she didn't know by heart but had to look up.
She got his answering machine and she left her message. "Hi, Daddy. It's me, Lois." She paused, trying to figure out what to say next to a man who'd had little time for her, whom she'd tried so very hard to please, and then finally stopped trying to please. "I've been away for awhile and I just got back in town. I'll call tonight."
Shivering, Lois stepped away from the phone kiosk, buttoning her thin jacket against the biting January wind. Her walk to the Daily Planet took her through a grimy back street, past a couple of porn shops, a boarded up business with its windows broken and hateful obscenities scrawled in blood-red letters across its facade, and then across a street with enough potholes to challenge the best of drivers. Next, she crossed into a wider main street, noting with dismay more homeless huddled into door frames than when she had left. The greyness of the day did little to relieve her impression that the deterioration of her city had accelerated over the last few years. She hoped Perry's incumbency as mayor would change things but clearly he hadn't held office long enough to make a difference. As this thought crossed through her mind, she instinctively ducked around two angry men who were yelling at each other, concerned their rage was about to erupt into violence at any moment. It did.
The streets didn't change much in appearance as she continued her walk. As she got closer to the Planet, she thought the businesses seemed more respectable until she looked in the window of one up scale shop and noted the tasteful display of designer guns. As she peered through the glass, she caught sight of a salesman reaching for a tiny revolver and then holding it up so the light caught its enamelled handle while a sleekly groomed woman inspected it. Turning away, Lois continued her journey, noting as she passed by a construction site, that at least here, the streets were getting some attention. So was she — two of the workers took the time to offer to improve her sex life for her. Well, some things hadn't changed.
Chilled from the cold, she was grateful when she reached the Planet. For the second time since getting off the plane at Metropolis International Airport, she felt she was home. She grinned at her reflection in the glass door as she pushed her way into the front lobby. Next stop, the personnel office of the Daily Planet. Eagerly pressing the button for the seventh floor of the Planet building, she felt the excitement mount in her stomach. It was great to be back. This was were she belonged. The elevator doors opened way too slowly for her state of mind and she had to hold herself in check for a moment. Then she was in the hall of the seventh floor, striding towards the door marked 'PERSONNEL'.
Once inside, she looked around, noting that there were fewer staff than four years ago. Computers, she supposed. No one there she recognized. Three women, all younger than she was. How did that happen? The first one looked at her politely and then gave her the once over. For the first time, Lois was aware that she had rushed here in such enthusiasm that she had forgotten about how she looked. Jeans, an old jacket, and a nondescript backpack didn't cut it when you were looking for a job. Neat and clean made less than a bottom line statement.
Ah well, her name should make a difference. It didn't. The very pretty and obsessively groomed woman to whom she'd been talking smiled at her and said that she was sorry but she'd never heard of Lois Lane. Quickly her fingers tapped Lois's name onto her keyboard but no information came up on her screen.
"We have no record of your being on the Planet's staff, Ms. Lane. Which department did you say you were in? I'll try again."
"News! I was… am a reporter. Perry White was my editor."
The young woman smiled kindly. "Mr. White's the Mayor of Metropolis."
"I know." She waited while the personnel officer finished inputting her name and department, watching in dismay as the screen again flashed no information. Lois' voice now was tinged with a little impatience. "Look, your records are wrong."
The woman bristled. "Our records were updated and reorganized two years ago when Mr. Olsen took over. They are not wrong. I oversaw the procedure myself," she said with some pride. "Look, what are you trying to pull?"
The rising tone of her voice triggered the attention of one of the other women who rose and walked briskly to her colleague's desk. "Is there a problem here?"
"This person claims she used to work for the Planet but her name's not in my data bank."
"My name is Lois Lane. I worked for the Planet four years ago."
The second woman smiled politely. "I see. I don't recognize your name but, of course, I never read the Planet before I came here from Los Angeles. I guess you were just starting out then. If you're looking for a statement of your employment at the Planet, go down to Records. We only keep data for a three year period before outsourcing it." She smiled helpfully at Lois Lane, former star reporter of the Daily Planet.
The younger of the two women's eyes lit up. "Hey, you must have known Claude Kendall when he was here. What's he like?"
"Claude Kendall!" Lois mentally counted to ten as she pulled her frayed composure back into line. "Look, I'd like to work again for the Planet."
"Oh, you want a job. Why didn't you say so? Let me have your resume and I'll send it across to Allison." She gestured in the direction of the third occupant of the office, a well dressed woman absorbed in a phone conversation at the far end of the office. Lois wondered briefly why there were so many desks in the room if only three people worked here. Maybe everyone was on a coffee break.
Resume? "I, uh, don't have it with me. Look, could I speak to Mrs. Franconi?"
"Linda Franconi. Your manager."
"Oh, yeah, she retired just before we reorganized the department."
Lois sighed impatiently. "Well could I speak to the new manager, please?"
"You are speaking to her," the second women said coldly. "Ms. Lane, I suggest that if you're serious about being rehired by the Planet you submit your resume. Now, if you'll excuse us…" She turned and walked back to her desk.
The younger woman said, "I'm sorry, Ms. Lane. We get a lot of applicants for jobs here and they're not doing much hiring right now. Budget. You know. Anyway, good luck." She swiveled in her chair to face her computer screen.
Lois turned on her heel, annoyed and angry, regretting her decision not to go to the newsroom first. Just because I didn't recognize any names on the masthead, that doesn't mean there's no one there who knows me, she thought as she quickly clattered down the back stairs to the newsroom a couple of floors beneath her.
A few minutes later, she entered the newsroom, slipping in by a door off to the side, wanting first to see who was there, who she knew. No one. There was no one there she knew! Trying to reassure herself, she recalled that many of the staff would be elsewhere, anyway, covering stories, doing interviews, or meeting sources. Her eyes swept the room appraisingly, taking in the changes made during her absence. It all seemed more high tech, with utilitarian furniture which looked like it had been bought from a Scandinavian fast furniture outlet — sleek, laminated and replaceable. But the layout was much the same and so were the dark tones of the wood panelling. Her eyes came to rest at what had been her old desk. At least the desk was still there. That was a good sign.
The door to Perry White's office opened and an expensively tailored man of about twenty-five stepped into the newsroom, his pleasant good looks exuding confidence and efficiency. James Olsen, she thought. Then she noticed the man behind him. Taller, glasses which he was adjusting on the bridge of his nose, dark haired. He was well dressed, too. Must have established a dress code while I was gone, Lois thought. Her heart accelerated for a few seconds as she realized that she was looking at Clark Kent. Instinctively, she stepped back into the shadows cast by the broad leaves of the tall plants which demarcated the staff lounge area from the front lines. She wanted to watch, undetected, to see *him*, how he acted.
He looked liked a man — all the parts of a man; although it was hard to tell for sure, given the sculpted tailoring of his suit. Suits could hide a lot and make a man look either more or less than he really was. She liked the way he moved, with an easy, natural grace. Couldn't be an android. Were they that good? Nice shoulders. He had reached her old desk and he sat down. My desk! He's taken my desk! Her adrenaline level shot up for an instant. Then he removed his suit jacket, slinging it over the back of his chair and she was distracted again. Ah, nice waist, too, and… the android theory was losing credibility. Surely an android wouldn't move that smoothly, she thought as she watched him stretch for a pencil on the far side of the desk, noting with surprise that he pulled it from a very familiar mug, the one she'd been given in Ireland as an exchange student, the one she kept her random, mostly borrowed, pen collection in. He's stolen my mug! The android theory resurfaced. The man has no personality; he can't even select his own pencil mug. They can do the body but not the soul, she thought smugly.
Abruptly, he turned and looked her way and she panicked. I don't want him to see me, not until I figure him out more, she thought. His right hand touched the frame of his glasses, pulling them down along the bridge of his nose and then he stopped. A woman with long brown hair had approached his desk and Clark swiveled to give her his attention, smiling at her and accepting a file from her. "Thanks, Sara," she heard him say.
Lois took advantage of the moment to make good her escape. Had he somehow sensed that she had been watching him? How could he do that? Preoccupied by that thought, she didn't notice the brawny man in his late thirties whom she bumped into in the hall. This man, too, had been watching the newsroom.
When Sara left, Clark turned around to stare again at the staff lounge, at the spot which had somehow alerted his senses. He had felt like he was being watched, not in the usual way of being noticed, but watched, observed. Somehow, people have a sixth sense about that sort of thing; at least, he had it now. And somehow he was sure he'd detected a range of emotions coming from that direction. That's what he'd picked up on, the emotions. He'd been about to use his X-ray vision when Sara had interrupted him. He didn't know if he was glad or sorry; he made a point of never using his unusual abilities when there was no emergency to deal with, so that the people he lived with — make that worked with — he thought wryly, would stop thinking of him as being "different". Still, he was positive there had been someone there, he thought, as he walked over to check out the lounge area. No one. Must have imagined it. But he had felt the presence of whomever had been there so strongly. Ya gotta get a life, Kent, he chided himself…
"Sorry." Lois's response was automatic as she stepped back quickly from the thick set man with whom she'd just collided in the hall outside the newsroom.
"I noticed you standing there. You were watching him, weren't you?" the man asked bluntly.
"What?" Lois looked at him more carefully, taking in his ill fitting suit as well as the sturdiness of his body. He looked like a nightclub bouncer.
"You were watching the alien. Why?"
"The alien?" Lois's eyes flashed in surprise then narrowed. "Why is it any of your business *what* I was doing?"
He reached into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and pulled out a leather wallet. Flicking it open, he raised it so she could take a good look.
"Jason Trask," she read aloud. "Special agent, Bureau 39, FBI." She lifted her eyes to search his face. What she saw were small eyes, set impassively above broad cheekbones. Something about his demeanor suggested he had a sense of humor deficit. And for some reason she distrusted him. "Why are you interested?" she asked.
"Let's just say the Government is interested, ma'am."
"Why?" she repeated her question. So the government didn't trust this "superman". That was interesting. Perhaps Trask could be useful to her. She wondered what he knew. "My name is Lois Lane; I used to work here. I've been away for a few years." She noted the brief flicker in his eyes. Did he recognize her name? For the first time that day she felt as though she hadn't imagined her whole past life. All of a sudden, she decided she could like this man. Well, nearly like him.
"How about a coffee, Ms. Lane?" He smiled at her. "Maybe we could talk about the alien."
That suited her fine. She followed him down the stairwell to the next floor where they picked up the elevator to the main lobby. Moments later they were in a small fast food court drinking coffee and munching donuts.
"You going back to work at the Planet?"
"I don't think so." Lois tucked a dark strand of loose hair behind her ear and avoided his eyes. "There've been a lot of changes since I've been gone."
"So they wouldn't give you your old job back?" he guessed.
"It doesn't look like it."
"That surprises me. You were a pretty good investigative reporter." He concentrated on biting into his jelly filled doughnut.
"I thought so." She wondered where he was going with all this.
"Why the interest in the alien?"
"Why do you call him an alien?" she countered, still surprised at a grown man's acceptance of what she had always regarded as lunatic fringe hoaxes.
He grinned at her, humouring her. "Ms. Lane. Lois. The government doesn't know much about him, except he's not human. That little fact interests us a great deal. We want to know what he's doing here. And if he's alone."
"Maybe he's not an alien. Maybe he's just one of James Olsen's ideas — you know, a publicity stunt."
"No. That doesn't fit our profile on Olsen. Besides the alien really does that stuff you see on the news. He can fly and he's got super strength."
"How come you're so sure he's an alien?" Whenever she heard him use the term, Lois felt he was speaking in bold type and headline caps.
"We're sure, Ms. Lane." Trask's voice was firm. "What I want to know is why you were watching him. What makes *you* suspicious of him?"
Lois raised her coffee mug to her mouth and took a slow sip. "I'm just an interested bystander, Mr. Trask. I'd just like my old job back."
Trask paused for a moment, as though he was trying to figure something out. "What happened to you, Ms. Lane? The reports said you were dead."
Lois shrugged. "As they say, reports of my death are greatly exaggerated. I travelled for a few years, lost touch with Metropolis."
"You could be useful to us, Lois." He leaned forward across the table. "I remember you were a top investigative reporter. Keep an eye on Clark Kent for us."
"You mean work for the FBI?" Lois raised her eyebrows in surprise. Never in a million years would she ever have seen herself as a government agent.
"Pay's not bad, and you look like you could use some money."
A persuasive argument, she had to admit. And working for Bureau 39 fit in with her plan to expose Superman anyway; it just wasn't how she'd expected to achieve her goal. Plus, if she could find out something about Bureau 39's alien file that would be a bonus. Besides, she was broke, unemployed, and had no idea where she was going to stay tonight. She raised her eyes to his. "Okay, you're on. What do I do?"
"Keep an eye on Kent, stick with him but don't get too close. We don't want him to think he's got a tail, and you look a whole lot less like one than I do. It's important he doesn't see you."
"So you guys really do think he's some kind of threat?" she asked thoughtfully.
"Probably. You ever hear of outsiders visiting a different civilization and not trying to take it over? Think about history, Ms. Lane — the Chinese and the Koreans, the Greeks and the Slavs, the Europeans and the Africans. Why should this guy be any different?"
Caught by his intensity, Lois said, "Okay, Mr. Trask, I'll work for you."
Maybe they would give her a dark suit and sunglasses. She could use a new outfit.
Clark slipped into his Clinton Street apartment late that night. Or was it early the next day, he wondered, as he took a quick look at the clock by his kitchen counter. The next day.
He was tired for which he was grateful. The last twenty-four hours had been demanding as he'd battled the relentless winds and torrential rains slashing through the Caribbean. A freak hurricane had ripped apart the homes of thousands of people. He'd done everything he could to rescue those who had stayed too long in ramshackle homes, raced like a dervish to snatch fishermen caught at sea, and finally sped against swollen waters to sandbag small towns built too close to a merciless sea. He hadn't triumphed completely — even a superman couldn't defeat the forces of nature on a rampage, but he felt he'd made a difference.
Nevertheless, he couldn't escape from the fact that there were people still reported as missing. He knew what that meant. It meant he hadn't been fast enough. Like he hadn't been fast enough or strong enough to save his parents that night on the icy road home so long ago. He looked around the darkness of his empty apartment searching for something, he wasn't sure what.
Opening the door of his fridge, he pulled out a bottle of orange juice and chugged about half of it. Carrying the juice, he made his way to the area where he slept, just off his kitchen; it wasn't really a separate bedroom. He sank onto the bed, leaning back against the pillows. His eyes came to rest on the picture of his parents, lost to him when he was ten, killed in that car accident which he had been powerless to stop. He'd been in the car, the only survivor, his life shattered by the random violence of a drunk driver on a treacherous road. He'd saved the picture, even looked at it a few times over the years, but he had never kept it displayed, visible to his daily view, a constant reminder of what he'd lost that day. Now he did.
Since his visit to the other Metropolis two months ago and his brief time with the Martha and Jonathan Kent of that world, he had found himself going back, remembering what it had been like to be part of a family. When Martha Kent, in that other universe, had enfolded him in her hug, he'd gasped with both the emotional pain and comfort which he had felt. The last time he'd experienced that had been the day before the accident on that slippery road, two county roads over from the farm. He'd been in their old farmhouse kitchen, fooling around, laughing with his mom about the weekend away they were planning next month to celebrate his eleventh birthday. He'd said something, he couldn't remember what, and she'd laughed, impulsively hugging him as she said, "Oh, Honey!" And for a moment, in that other world, in that other Lois's living room, he'd had it back again, the feeling that he belonged, that he was connected with people whom he loved and who loved him.
He took another swallow of orange juice and got up from his bed, walking restlessly over to his phone. His number was unlisted, a measure he had turned to after he became "Superman" to give him some privacy. He'd debated about moving but could never figure out where. This place had been besieged by reporters and the curious for a month or so after his big news was out but gradually they had stopped coming. After the first week, he'd refused to talk with any of them. His comings and goings were unremarkable —- Clark Kent going to work; Superman, taking off; Clark Kent coming back from work. Sometimes nothing at all. Harder had been his decision to turn a deaf ear to the pleas of people to solve some personal problem. At first he had listened: Can you lend me some money? Will you endorse my product? Can you find me a job? Can you cure my child? No, he either wouldn't or couldn't. But he stuck to his guns; he would not be pushed out of his home.
Home, he thought, as he listened to the voice on his machine tell him he had no messages. Well, I live here. That makes it home. And the people who lived in this run down and dangerous neighborhood had come to accept him once again as Clark Kent or to ignore him as they had done before. Mostly they ignored him. The tenants in the building seemed to move frequently anyway, so that there were really only two or three people who seemed as though they lived there permanently. He was pretty isolated here.
He suspected one of his neighbors was a petty thief but he wasn't sure. If he was, it took some nerve to live in the same building as Superman. Then the thought had struck him that that's what he had become — a flesh and blood robocop who moonlighted as a one man emergency unit.
He was very tired tonight, but sleep wouldn't come. He felt desolate, overwhelmed by the emptiness of his apartment. And he felt unsettled. Why? He should feel good after the work he had done tonight. There was always that sense of exhilaration he experienced after saving someone's life, the awareness that he could make a difference which alone made what he was doing worthwhile. But then he came home and there was no one there.
Still, it hadn't been better when he was with Lana. Always feeling the frustration of hiding what he was and watching when disaster hit, believing he could help. The awkwardness and discomfort he felt when he did use his powers but hid it from her, the feeling that he was sneaking around. Increasingly, the guilt at his inaction had mounted and he knew he had directed some of his frustration at Lana for holding him back.
He remembered his father's words to him when he had been so upset after a close friend had lost the lower part of his leg in a horrific farm accident. Clark had moped around, both listless and angry at what had happened. His dad had finally taken him aside and said, "Son, you can't change what's happened. But you can always do something besides watch." He'd asked what, and his dad had touched his shoulder. "That I don't know, son. Only you know what you can do. But what you do will make a difference." His dad had been right. Clark had got involved in Josh's rehabilitation, going first to the hospital and then to his home every day as his friend learned once more to walk.
But in Metropolis he'd allowed himself to become mostly a watcher again. Hoping that he could build a life with Lana.
No, this was better, but not a whole lot more. He lay back on his bed and stared at the ceiling, watching the slow progress of a spider above him, his spirits finally lifting when the high pitched scream of a siren called him away.
Lois Lane began her investigation and surveillance of Clark Kent in earnest the next day, in between checking ads for apartments. They all wanted a two month deposit which was beyond her reach at the moment and there was no one in Metropolis she felt she could crash with until her first paycheck came through. At least Trask had advanced her some expense money.
She still hadn't been able to get in touch with her father and she balked at going over to his office personally. Anyway, he probably wasn't working at the same place as he was four years ago. Maybe there were other ways of getting Lucy's new address. Why didn't people just stay put, she thought grumpily. At least stay in the same city or be listed in the phone book. She called the Mayor's office, too, hoping to talk to Perry White but she missed him by hours. He and Mrs. White were off to Mexico City for a one week conference on "The City-State in the Next Millennium". He should stay home and work on *this* city, she thought as she looked at the vandalized phone booth next to hers, the phone's receiverless cord dangling limply beneath its dial pad.
She'd toyed briefly with the idea of showing up on the famous Claude Kendall's doorstep and saying he owed her but that could wait. Wait until she had her big story and was once again a star reporter for the Planet, not someone needing a favour. Success would be the best revenge. Besides, she wasn't obsessed with Claude the way she had been as she'd fought her way out of the jungle. In fact, she probably owed him her life (him and Nkwame, she thought wistfully). Every day during that struggle, she'd thought of Claude and that thought had always been accompanied by "I will survive." Although sometimes it had been, "I'll get you for this, Claude Kendall."
So she'd spent last night in a cheap hotel which she realized, after she'd checked in, was one which rented rooms by the hour to women who had quick business to conduct. Noisy business with sometimes brutal men in rooms with thin walls.
The next morning, she again made use of the public library system to do as much digging as she could on Superman. That he'd only been "operable" for slightly over a year — she still hadn't abandoned her android theory which she found a whole lot more believable than Trask's spooky alien theory — made it less time consuming. Nevertheless, she liked her "Superman is a marketing device" thesis, too. All those Superman exclusives Clark Kent produced for the Planet backed that up. After all, "exclusive" was just a euphemism for "uncorroborated".
There was quite a lot of information on Clark Kent — where he lived (surely he'd moved after all this, probably a penthouse high above Metropolis, she thought), his early life on a Kansas farm (on a Kansas farm??? How believable was that??), the death of his parents when he was ten (no surviving relatives, either, which was convenient), his semi-distinguished life at college where he played football (of course, he played football), his world travels, (he'd worked briefly at the Borneo Gazette — hmm, so had she but no one there had ever mentioned Clark Kent), the job at the Daily Planet (*her* job at the Daily Planet), and his engagement to Lana Lang, hometown girl (pretty but blonde). Other than that,not much. Clark Kent didn't appear to have much of a life — even his engagement to the bland blonde was off. Maybe the engagement had been part of the hoax, too, arranged to make him appear more sympathetic. She should talk to Lana Lang. So, who are you, Clark Kent? she wondered.
She read again the story of his first official appearance in Metropolis. It was accompanied by a picture of him, collapsed on the floor, with a woman who was bending over him. She was thin, too thin, Lois thought as she looked carefully at the picture, dark haired, wearing a white suit or was it a light grey? Her face was not visible, only the back of her head. Who was she? Lois read the article again but there was no mention of the woman's name. Is she his handler? Lois wondered. Did something go wrong with the experiment and he "wound down" so to speak? The woman must have some clout if she was able to keep her name out of the paper. She added "Unidentified Woman" to her notes. She would have to find her. Maybe Trask had some idea of who this woman was — no sense in wasting time. But she would find that woman.
Lois logged off and pushed her chair back. Before standing up, she flipped back to the first page of her notebook to check again the address of a one room apartment available on the east side of Metropolis. She had called earlier but the manager had been on his way out. By now, he should be back. She consulted the city map she'd picked up in the reference section, checked the address and smiled. Two blocks east of Clinton Street. Clearly this was a sign — she was meant to find the real Clark Kent.
A half hour later she was standing before a rundown building not far from Clinton Street. It didn't look good; in fact it looked seedy, exuding a grey grunginess, but she also didn't have a whole lot of choice at this point — an apartment hotel would at least give her a place to stay until she got herself established. Things were looking up, she thought with a grin as she gazed at its sign — The Apollo Hotel.
Zara picked up the sound of Kal El's footsteps as he walked across the newsroom floor to his own desk. She raised her head to watch him, trying to calculate how he would react to the test which she and Ching had devised last night. Then, if Kal El handled the test successfully, they would inform him of his origins, of his duty to return forever to New Krypton, and of his destiny to assume the mantle of his father's house. After that they would return home and finally defeat Nor. Rising from her chair, she approached his desk.
"Hi, Clark. Did you get a chance to look at that material on Lex Luthor's proposal for the West River housing project?"
"Yes." He smiled at her. "Great detail, Sara," he added, nodding towards his computer screen. "I appreciate the notations, too. I couldn't have produced this article without your work."
"Is there anything else you'd like me to work on?" Her voice was friendly as she asked the question.
Clark paused for a moment. "Yeah. I need more information on those Hobbs Canal murders. There's something I'm not quite getting — something I can't put my finger on. How would you like to go over there with me and take a look around? I could use a fresh perspective."
An eager smile lit Zara's face . "I'm ready right now. I'll just grab my sack."
"Sack?" Bewilderment flickered in Clark's eyes a second.
"Um… pouch, er purse," she muttered, leaving his side briefly to grab the item with the elusive name. Why did Earth women carry these things, anyway? It was so much less efficient than the way in which Kryptonian clothing was designed to store any necessary peripherals within the garments themselves. She picked up her purse and returned to his side, smiling brightly. "Let's go."
Lois Lane spotted them as they were leaving the main lobby of the Daily Planet. Now determined not to be recognized as Lois Lane, which, she thought, based on her recent experience was probably not much of a problem anyway, she'd tried to change her looks. She had died her shoulder length hair auburn and picked up a pair of black framed glasses. She was wearing her usual jeans and her one and only jacket, no makeup. She hoped she faded into the woodwork.
She managed to overhear some fragments of their conversation as they stood on the curb waiting for a taxi. The woman's name was Sara and it sounded like she, too, was a reporter at the Planet. After the two of them had got into the taxi, Lois thought for a moment that Kent looked back in her direction but she wasn't sure. Debating for a second whether to follow them to the Hobbs Canal, she vetoed the idea. If he had any suspicion he was being tracked, he would be more likely to spot her there, in that rundown area of town, where even her nondescript appearance was a little too respectable.
Disgruntled, she sighed and decided, instead, to head for the Metropolis City Library. More digging — this time on James Olsen. She still was serious about her "marketing device" hypothesis. And she also decided to read every article written by Clark Kent before he surfaced as the Caped Wonder. She would find out if there really was a Clark Kent. The true Clark Kent. What he believed in, what he cared about. Or whether he was just some hack from Nowheresville who stumbled into *her* job, and the boy genius in the head office decided to use him to build his own action hero. She decided to check the last two years' circulation figures of the Daily Planet, too. Do a before and after comparison.
This afternoon, she had a meeting with Trask and then she was going to stop at a hardware store to spend some of her very scarce resources on a cheap lampshade to mask the minimalist statement made by the naked light bulb that dangled above the narrow bed in her room.
And maybe call her father again.
Clark turned away from Sara to look out the window of the taxi as it manoeuvred to rejoin the stream of traffic in front of the Daily Planet. He'd had that same feeling again that he was being watched. Looking back at the crowded sidewalk he scanned the people there, but they all seemed to be on their way to somewhere, not watching him.
A boy in his late teens, scowling as he trudged along the sidewalk, his shoulders hunched; an old woman, brisk in her stride, muttering to herself; a couple of people he knew entering the Planet building; two women carrying shopping bags, chatting as they walked; a young auburn haired woman in black rimmed glasses and an old jacket and jeans, adjusting a small tattered backpack which was slung across her shoulders as she walked away. He smiled at her retreating figure, briefly admiring the swing of her shoulder-length hair, feeling a connection with her for a moment, thinking that could have been him three years ago when he returned from his travels, seeking a job at the Planet. Silently he wished her luck. But no sign of a potential paparazzi. He was getting paranoid.
Bemused, he shook his head slightly and turned back to Sara. "Here's the problem with those bodies that've shown up by the canal over the last year — Henderson's guys say we're looking at three completely unrelated crimes. They've only got a clear I.D. on one of the victims but no clue as to how he came to be in the area in the first place. Maybe if you take a look at the site, you'll bring a different slant to it. Spot something I've missed."
Zara was pleased that Kal El had decided she could be useful on this story. These murders were a trivial distraction right now, but they did give her a good excuse to get closer to him than she had been able to do so far.
Lois spotted Trask immediately as he entered the Library. The strength and energy of his sturdy body seemed to be constrained by the quietness of the room in which she had been working, by the air of reflection suggested by the banks of bookshelves which dominated the space. He looked out of place — a gunslinger in the front parlor.
Efficiently, she pulled her notes together, slipped on her jacket, and rose to meet him.
"Nearly missed you — was looking for a brunette," he grinned at her, the first time she'd seen him smile. "Find anything?" he asked. "We've poured over all those Superman stories, too. Nothing useful."
"What would be useful?"
"Evidence he's not on his own. Something that clues us in about his purpose."
"Have you ever thought that he just might not be an alien? Maybe he could be the product of some government experiment? I mean, you guys don't always do a lot of interdepartmental sharing from what I've heard. And Bureau 39 was downsized, gutted in fact, five years ago."
Trask's tone was tight-lipped, sarcastic. "You *have* been busy, Ms. Lane."
"Just want to know who I'm working for and if I'm going to get paid," she replied lightly. "So where are we going?" she asked as they trotted down the front steps to the pavement.
"Not too far from here. My car's over there."
Fifteen minutes later they were sitting in front of a large television in a small room in a rundown building which, judging by the faded letters painted on the building's grimy brick facade, had once housed a distillery. Trask pressed the remote control and Lois watched as images of Superman in action played out before her.
"Some of this we got from LNN News; some of it our guys shot. We've been over it with a fine tooth comb, enhancing the images, looking for anything we could find that might indicate what the creature is. Nothing leads us to think he's robotic — no evidence of internal electronics — we did a couple of scans with an infrared camera. Even got some satellite footage which clearly differentiates biological, electronic, chemical data. Both Superman and Kent. He's biological. Show you that after this tape finishes."
Lois watched, astonished in spite of herself by the phenomenon of someone who could fly. She'd read about Superman's heroics but those stories hadn't been helpful — mostly golly-gee-whiz, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, bend steel in his bare hands stuff that read like the copy of an adolescent writing for his high school paper. The feats were impressive; there was no question about that.
"He's saved a lot of people's lives," Lois commented to Trask as she continued to watch the tapes. "I don't get why he should worry you."
Trask's voice was patient as though he were speaking to a child. "It's all just a cover to soften people up. He's the PR, the advance man for the invasion… Okay, here come the interviews."
Lois watched and listened as the first interview with Superman came up, a press conference held when he'd first "arrived" in Metropolis.
"Replay that bit for me, will you?"
"Notice how his eyes shift right there, shortly after he starts his speech. He's looking beyond the crowd, as though he's searching for something or someone on his left. There, his eyes have stopped; it looks as though he found who he was looking for. Now his eyes have shifted back to the crowd and his expression has changed. He's very formal, proper." Her voice was soft, thoughtful as she spoke. "Do you have a crowd shot?"
"That's good, Lois. We hadn't picked up on that. I'll check. If we've got anything I'll get it to you as soon as I can."
"Thanks," she flashed him a quick smile. "Okay, let's see the rest."
She listened carefully as Superman spoke. He never seemed quite real and that bothered her. His words were just a little bit more formal than those an ordinary person would use, making him sound at times like the leader of a Boy Scout troop or her old high school principal. There was never any sign of the personal man — but only earnestness instead of passion, good manners unleavened by a sense of humor, and always that rigid body posture as though he were playing a part. She'd spent the morning reading Clark Kent's articles, her mind skeptical and critical to start with, but she'd finished with a grudging respect for the man. He could write, his work was always well researched, but more than that, she'd come away with a feeling that he was a deeply compassionate man to whom truth and justice mattered. She would like to know Clark Kent.
Trask turned off the TV. "Seen enough?"
"Yeah, thanks." No, she hadn't seen enough. After this morning, she was more confused than ever about this Superman story. "Still not sure I buy your alien theory, though," she said casually.
"There's one more thing you should see. In the back." He stood up, assuming she would follow him into the outer room where a small staff was busy working at whatever it is that people work at in government offices. Trask stopped for a moment in front of one desk and introduced Lois Lane, explaining that she should give the woman her address and a few other bits of information they needed in order to get Lois on the payroll. This seemed to Lois to be a task of major significance and she gave the woman her full and best behaved attention. Never mess with the people who keep your records. She'd learned that yesterday morning.
Then she followed Trask through a narrow corridor painted some obscure dark colour, probably during the Nixon administration, just before they'd started electing celebrities like Presley and Heston to the Presidency. The hall led back into a large storeroom which now housed tall narrow rows of metal filing cabinets. Everything was covered in a thick layer of dust and the air was musty.
"Through here," Trask said as he turned left at an intersection of drab green filing cabinets.
She felt like she was in a poorly lit maze. "Not a lot of visitors here, I guess."
"Not in a few years. Now our funding's back, we'll soon have this place in shape. Over here." He walked across the grey concrete floor to a stack of large wooden crates and a cluster of odd canvas shrouded objects. He approached one of these and pulled back its cover.
"What is it?" Lois' eyes widened as she looked at a grey metallic object, shaped like an elongated egg with a frieze of incised characters along one side of its smooth surface. At its nose was the same shield-like emblem which Superman wore. Slowly she began to move her hand over its surface until it came to rest in a small groove, a little bigger than her thumb. She gave a surprised gasp as the hood of the capsule flew open.
Trask grinned like a boy showing off his favourite toy. "Neat, isn't it? We found it near Smallville, buried in a field not far from the Kent farm. We dug it up last year, just after Superman showed up. We're less sure about how long it was there and how it got there."
Fascinated, Lois looked at the sleek interior. "What do you know about this — how it works?"
"Not much yet. We haven't had it that long; but, it was this little baby," Trask patted the capsule affectionately, "that got us our funding back. The techies are slated to start work on it next week, once we get security clearance on them."
"Did you find anything else in Smallville?"
"I'll get the file — we've kept our field notes and photographs back here." He headed off to the right, again assuming she would follow but this time she didn't.
Instead, she continued examining the interior of the capsule, wishing for the first time in her life that she had a degree in engineering. Her hand moved over an instrument panel, or what she assumed was one, touching small black indentions as she did. The interior was very compact. Had it housed an infant, or something else? A parasitic pod that sprang to life two years ago and took over the body of Clark Kent? As her hand continued its random exploration, her slender fingers poking around and below everything she could reach, a short, low frequency beep sounded and suddenly a sphere, about the size of an oversized softball sprang from a cavity below the panel. She touched it with care and it wobbled, suggesting that it would release easily. Plucking it out, she regarded it briefly; then, hearing the distant squeak of Trask's footsteps, she quickly popped the sphere into her backpack and bent over the capsule, continuing her tactile investigation.
"Find anything?" Trask asked as he came to stand beside her.
"Nothing that makes any sense to me." Lois straightened up and stretched out her hand for the folder which Trask held. Flipping through it quickly, she examined its contents while Trask repositioned the hood on the capsule.
"Mind if I borrow this?" Lois asked.
"As a matter of fact, yes. It's classified information but you can look through it here, in the main office." After taking possession of the file again, he led the way back to the main office where he escorted Lois to an empty desk. He pulled back a chair for her and then grabbed another one from an unoccupied desk nearby. "Let me know if you got questions," he said as he straddled the chair, leaning his forearms along its back.
Great, she thought, nothing like having teacher hovering over me. "Mind if I make a few notes?"
"Go ahead, Ms. Lane."
That was the last thing he said until she closed the file. What she'd read had been descriptions of the Kent farmhouse, interviews with several townspeople, neighboring farmers, former classmates of Clark Kent — every one of them indicating an incredibly normal family shattered by tragedy when Clark Kent was ten years old, but nothing more. No suggestion of a link to Superman at all. Photographs of the field where the capsule had been found were equally uninformative.
Lois rose slowly and then turned to look at Trask. "I'd like to go to Smallville."
"A wild goose chase, Ms. Lane."
"Maybe, but I'll bring a new perspective to it. There's a lot missing from these files."
"And you think you can fill in the gaps?"
Lois grinned at him. "Trask, you wouldn't have hired me if you didn't think I could. So how about expense money for a three day trip to Kansas?"
Trask grinned back. "Okay, Lane, but find something our guys missed."
Not far away, Zara and Clark were standing on a rusty iron foot bridge which crossed the narrow, oily width of the canal which channelled some of the waters of the Hobbs River.
"What I can't figure, Sara, is what ties the victims to this area. Henderson's profilers say murder victims usually come from the area where their bodies were found and their killer usually comes from within a two mile radius. But I don't get it here." He turned to look at the woman standing beside him. "So what am I missing?"
"I've read about these cases. A woman in her late teens, a middle-aged man, and a man in his early twenties — only the older man's identity confirmed, an accountant from across town."
"Henderson's found a bit more, but still no link. The woman, girl, " he corrected himself, "was a prostitute, probably from this neighborhood; the guy he's still not sure about, looks like he was on the streets, a drug user. But no last names for either of them."
"Clark, why don't we check around a bit — maybe there's something the police have missed."
A small smile flitted across Clark's face as he replied. "Between Henderson's expert team and my, uh, sight, I don't think we've missed a lot."
Zara began to walk the short distance to the end of the bridge. "Still, you can't tell. We might…"
She was interrupted by the shrill wail of multiple sirens blaring from the centre of town. Clark's head snapped up and he spoke quickly. "Excuse me, Sara, gotta go." The next second he was flying east.
Zara looked up and smiled. She'd heard the sirens, too. Looking around and noticing no one, she rose effortlessly in the air, gaining altitude, and then she shot towards the sound of the sirens. This was Ching's test. They would both watch with interest.
As Superman got closer to the source of the sirens, he spotted a school bus straddling precipitously across the steel and concrete railing of the long suspension bridge which arcs high across the mouth of Metropolis Harbor. Far above the icy waters, the bus wobbled precariously, threatening to topple at any moment, plunging its frightened young passengers below the frigid surface.
Easy, Superman thought as he descended toward the bus. Then he felt the first wave of weakness wash over his body. He'd only felt it once before, but he recognized it immediately — the green crystal which Tempus had used against him over a year ago. Lois Lane had called it Kryptonite. The closer he got to the bus the stronger its effects on his body. As he felt himself losing altitude more rapidly than he could easily control, he knew he would be powerless to prevent the bus from slipping. Those children would die. He fell away, far enough to feel some of his strength returning. Not much. Maybe enough.
He sped toward a huge sports dome set up in the centre of Metropolis Central Park, quickly circled it, removing the strong fiberglass tarpaulin which formed its roof. Seconds later, carrying the fabric, he shot back to the teetering bus, giving it a wide birth as he swung far below it. Still he was close enough to feel the effect from the Kryptonite, as it seeped into his muscles, weakening him.
He fought against the mounting pain as he pushed himself to stretch the fabric across the water, lashing it to the concrete footings of the bridge. The canvas had been developed specially to withstand the forces of severe winter storms, its fabric reinforced with steel fibres. It should withstand the weight of the bus, serving as a giant net to catch the falling bus. It had to. Grabbing the tarpaulin's two loose corners in each hand, Superman flew far enough out over the water to form a safety net. The harbor police had diverted both road and water traffic from the vicinity of the bridge, anticipating the crash of the bus. Ambulances and fire engines were roaring up to the scene, their sirens echoing the tension in Superman's gut.
Zara watched all this impassively. Somehow she was sure that Ching would not let these children die just as she was also sure that Kal El would rescue them. She watched as he worked at lashing the ends of the canvas and then, holding one corner, as he flew out to grab the remaining corner of his improvised net. Her enhanced vision allowed her to see the physical strain that Kal El was under. His face grimaced in pain and his movements were sluggish as he forced himself to complete his task. Then she noticed a man in a dark leather jacket slip unobtrusively to the footing opposite where Kal El now hovered, just as the bus lost its balance and hurtled over the bridge. The makeshift net held and the bus was safe, cradled in a giant hammock strung across the water.
Sweat beading on his brow, Superman watched, exhausted as the bus finally lost its equilibrium, pitching downward over the side of the bridge. He exhaled in relief as he saw that the bus was secure, at least as long as he could withstand the waves of Kryptonite which were now much closer to him. Where was it anyway?
Quickly scanning the bus, he noticed the green crystal encased in a small box on the front dashboard, just as his supervision began to fail. He was getting weaker. Raising his voice so that it would carry inside the bus, he shouted for the driver to throw the box as far as he could out the other side. The driver did and Superman began to feel some of his strength return — not much, but at least enough for him to hold up his end of the makeshift net until the fire department could lower its ladders and slings to slowly remove the bus's passengers. It would be alright. Feeling relieved he looked around and noticed the black-suited figure standing at one of the footings. That was odd; he hadn't been there a few minutes ago. How'd he get there?
It took a while for the fire department to remove all the passengers and Superman had no choice but to wait it out. The bus had landed on one side and at first it had proved awkward to get the children out. Attempts to negotiate a huge crane from a major construction company were going slowly; it managed to arrive just as the last handful of children were being hoisted to safety. The bus driver was the last to be rescued. The man in the black suit was gone; Clark had watched as he stepped behind the huge footing and then vanished.
Later, as he was talking to the bus driver, Superman could make no sense of how the accident had happened. The driver was defensive in face of a series of hostile questions from the police who were in the process of testing his alcohol level, although it was obvious that he was sober. The bus would be thoroughly inspected for mechanical failure although the bus driver was sure that hadn't been the problem. He was perplexed and angry, still shaken by the experience. He had no idea why the accident had happened.
Much later that night, close to midnight, as Clark landed on the small balcony of the Clinton Street apartment, he was shocked to see Sara with the man in black whom he'd spotted that afternoon at the bridge, waiting for him. Both were dressed in black uniforms and appeared oblivious to the freezing January temperature. "What the??"
"Lord Kal El," Zara began, "I am Zara, kin to your mother Lara, both of us descended from the house of Ra. We've come to take you home."
Lois tried again to reach her father before she caught the plane to Kansas. There was still no response so once again she left a message, this time letting him know she would be out of town for a few days. She didn't tell him where she was going and she left no number where she could be reached since she had no phone and doubted if anyone would take a message for her at the Apollo. She wasn't too surprised at her failure to get hold of Sam Lane; getting in touch with her father had always been an iffy thing, even when he and her mother had been married. When she got back she would try a different way to get in touch with her sister and mother. But she was disappointed; somehow she'd hoped that her father would be waiting for her, grateful that she was still alive. Feeling very alone, she replaced the receiver as the PA announced her flight departure. Hoisting her backpack over her shoulders, she strode quickly to the departure gate.
Clark listened in both wonder and disbelief as Zara and Ching talked to him in his small living room, providing him with answers to questions he'd had for so long. Who he was and where he'd come from.
At first, he'd been skeptical, not believing that he could possibly be from another planet, although Lois Lane had said that to him, mixed somewhere in her torrent of words as she'd cornered him in the newsroom of the Daily Planet when she'd come to this universe. Practically her first words. In fact, one of the things about her which had made him think that she was just a little bit odd. The idea of extraterrestial contact with Earth had been one that he'd always thought of as an unlikely or at best an outside possibility, like the existence of angels or sasquatch. He'd always thought there should be a little tangible evidence before believing. So he'd buried the idea, not really wanting to believe it.
But Zara's and Ching's ultimate proof, the fact that they too had powers like his, was pretty convincing. So he listened to what they had to say, quelling the warring emotions which swept over him. The planet Krypton had exploded, leaving no survivors. They were New Kryptonians, citizens of what had once been a Kryptonian colony, founded by Kal El's great grandfather, Zon El. At the time of Krypton's destruction, New Krypton had been engaged in bitter and often violent negotiations with the mother planet, seeking more power to make its own laws.
"So that's why I wasn't sent to New Krypton?" Clark asked.
"Probably. At the time you were sent, New Krypton's senior military leader was Lord Nor the Elder. He and your father were enemies and Jor El, I'm sure, did not trust him."
"But he must've trusted your father. I mean, he and my mother were cousins you said."
"True, they were second cousins." Zara met his eyes for a moment and then lowered them. "But my father was not well and he feared he would not live much longer. He made provision for my mother and me but he would probably not have been able to protect you."
"I don't get it — why should a baby need protecting?"
"Kal," Zara noted the flicker of surprise that crossed his face when she used his proper name, "your grandfather was the ruler of Krypton and he was a great leader. But Nor was his enemy and the El family knew he would not hesitate to kill you so that you could never become the focal point of rebellion."
"What about you?" Clark asked. "How did you manage to escape from this Nor?"
Zara smiled for the first time since she had entered Clark's living room. "Ching's family. They have always served the Ras with honor. And they did so during my father's illness and later after his death. Lieutenant Ching has always been my protector." She turned to look at the man beside her but his face remained impassive although he nodded his head slightly to acknowledge her comment.
"Why now? Why come for me now — why not thirty years ago or whenever it was that your troubles with this Nor family ended? Somebody just remember I existed?"
"Kal El," Zara's words were formal, a rebuke of the accusation in his tone, "we were not certain of your survival; in fact, given the level of our technology at the time, it seemed unlikely. But we have come now. New Krypton needs you, Jor El's heir, to lead us in the crisis we now face. This is what you are destined to do."
"What?" Clark stood and ran a hand through his black hair, looking at them both as though they were crazy. "Why should I want to go there?"
"Because they are your people, my lord," Ching said, speaking for the first time since they had entered Clark's living room. "It is your duty. We have observed you for over a month now. Today we saw that you are capable of leading us."
"You made that bus go off the bridge." The anger in Clark's voice was clear. "You could have killed those kids!"
"Highly unlikely," Ching said calmly. "I would have intervened."
"Oh, Kryptonite doesn't affect you?" Clark's voice was sarcastic as he glared at both Zara and Ching.
"Kryptonite? Is that what you call it here? How odd. Interesting how this planet intensifies its toxicity. For some reason it has become radioactive. We've found it can be countered with lead, however." Ching's voice was cool as he continued. "The *Kryptonite* was housed in a box which could be automatically opened and closed by remote control. One of our people, posing as a mechanic, placed the box in the bus before it started its route this afternoon. If you had failed, I would have closed the container and you would have been able to use your regular super strength to complete your task."
Clark caught the slight trace of sarcasm in Ching's words but made no comment on it. "One of your people? Just how many people are here?"
"Only a few. Our mission is only to contact you."
"Look, Earth is my home…" Clark started.
Zara's voice was soft as she interrupted him. "No, Kal. How can it be — you're so different from these people. What is there here for you? You belong with us. There must be a great emptiness inside you, an emptiness which only your Kryptonian heritage can fill. You must be curious to know what your home is like, to live among your own people. New Krypton is where you belong."
"My lord, it is your duty," Ching added. "Besides, Metropolis is so inferior to Krypton. Its technology is primitive; its people are not your people."
Clark spoke slowly, thinking about what they had said, and also about what had not been said. "I'm not so sure about that. I need time to think about what you've told me."
"There is no time." Ching's voice was impatient. "We've been here too long already."
"Kal, New Krypton once again faces a threat from the Nor family. They will destroy what we are if they succeed. Our people need you."
"You are the descendant of the great Zon El, his heir. Only you can lead New Krypton." Zara's voice was urgent she spoke.
"And then I return here?"
"Yes," Zara didn't flinch as she spoke.
Clark's tone was equally emphatic as he repeated his earlier words. "I need time to think."
After they'd left, Clark sat down again, his mind racing over all that Zara and Ching had told him. Partly, he was elated. Part of him could hardly wait to go with them, eager to see New Krypton, to travel to a distant universe, something that scientists on Earth still only dreamed of or played academic games about at university conferences. Even his extraordinary powers would not allow anything that astonishing. He'd tried once to reach the moon but had fallen back, unable to do without oxygen for the time required to get there. But the stars had always fascinated him, their bright solitude succoring him in his loneliness as, sometimes, late at night he flew high above the clouds.
And now he knew he did belong somewhere. He was Kryptonian. He had family —- distant, admittedly, but real family. And there was a people of whom he was a part. He was not the last one. He was not alone. There was a whole culture on that distant planet, with beliefs and values and customs that he wanted desperately to know about. That he'd dreamed about knowing ever since he'd began to develop his powers and realized that he was different, really different from those around him. And, over and over, had wondered why. From that time forward, he'd always taken great care to hide what his body could do, afraid of what would happen if he were found out.
He'd been frightened, too, of the power of these new abilities as they developed throughout his adolescence. At times he'd overused them, applying a bit too much force to push a car out of a snow bank or to tackle someone in a high school football game. After that particular incident, his participation in sports became a question of finely tuning his skills, enough to be part of the team, but not quite enough to be its star. For him, the joy of sports became the team work required to assist a fellow player score a touchdown or a basket.
One summer, he'd helped repair a dock at a local marina, lifting rocks which no one else could manage, when he was suddenly aware of the stares from the two guys with whom he was working. Then he'd realized the problem: he shouldn't have been able to lift those rocks. So he covered up, claiming he'd been overextending himself; it was the adrenaline which had given him the extra strength, but man, he sure was beat now. Maybe he'd sit it out for a bit. His companions had laughed, kidding him about showing off and left him to sit in the shade.
That wasn't the only incident. He'd accidentally started a fire in the storage shed behind the bleachers on the Smallville High football field when he'd looked over there quickly to see if the team's missing equipment had been left there by mistake. No one thought, of course, to ascribe the fire to the heat rays he had accidentally activated as he had tried to use his x-ray vision to scan the area behind the bleachers. Instead, there was much talk of spontaneous combustion, especially by him, as he and two of his friends raced to the storage shed to douse the flames.
After that, he resorted to solitary walks in the woods where he could find somewhere to be alone and try out his new powers. Lifting, pulling, throwing. Finding out how fast he could run. Learning to control his x-ray vision. Using his breath to create whirlpools of dry autumn leaves — even doing that a few times to the wheat in farmers' fields. A few years ago he'd been embarrassed to learn of the crop circles in Kansas fields which experts were busy investigating. Still, they'd been fun to make. He'd made them shortly after he realized he could fly, when he was eighteen. At night, he would swoop down low over the fields, thrilling to the whoosh of rustling wheat as he flew above it. That's when he'd made the circles, patterns of rings scattered across the fields.
The first time he'd saved someone's life had been an accident. He was eighteen and he'd been walking along a busy street in Mexico City when a heavy stone balustrade on an old colonial building had suddenly broken away, hurtling downward. Instinctively he'd thrown up his hands and stopped the falling object, deflecting it so that it fell away from the small group of people on the pavement. Then he got out of there real quick. But it had felt good to know that he had prevented someone from being hurt. Just so long as he could pull it off without anyone noticing.
It was Lana who had finally noticed. Shortly after they had graduated from high school, she'd accidentally discovered him "pulling one of his stunts" as she started to call it, and, to put it mildly, she had freaked. Then she had calmed down, read him the riot act, and kept her eye on him. He'd figured he'd been lucky — he'd always thought that sooner or later he was going to get caught and he was lucky it had been by Lana. So he grew even more cautious. But he'd never been happy about it, although later he felt grateful to Lana that she was still willing to marry him even though he was so different. The deal would be that he wouldn't use the powers.
Ironically, now he was faced with losing his powers again, this time really losing them. On New Krypton, his powers would probably disappear. Zara and Ching had told him that they had just recently begun to develop abilities similar to his which they had concluded were the consequence of living under a yellow sun rather than Krypton's red sun. Their powers were still weak — they could only fly short distances, for example.
Clark tried to decide whether this mattered to him or not. At first he had resented the powers but now he wondered if they had partly shaped who he was. Although he'd always been stronger and faster than his friends, he'd spent nearly eleven years of his life as a pretty normal kid and it had been the happiest time of his life. The powers had isolated him, made him cautious although there had been wild moments of pure joy, too, as he soared and twisted and slid through clouds and then shot to the bottom of ocean floors, seeing wonders he'd never dreamed of. The price for that had been high — the constant vigilance to keep his secret and to be less than he could be. And the torment when he saw things happen that he knew he could prevent.
This last year had been different though. If his life was still one of isolation, at least he'd found great satisfaction in the role he'd played as Superman. It had felt good. He smiled as he recalled saying that to Lois Lane when she had hurtled into his universe and made him realize that it was the right thing to use his powers to help others.
Thinking about her made him restless. Slipping out his back door without bothering to change into the Superman costume, he lifted slowly into the dark night sky, gliding low until he came to stand in a cemetery in the heart of the city, in front of the grave of a woman he'd never met. Lois Lane, 1967 -1993. She would have been twenty-six when she'd died in the Congo. He still found it hard to accept. He'd searched everywhere for her after the other Lois Lane had vanished back into her own universe after the most incredible forty-eight hours of his life. He'd felt things for her in that short time that he'd never felt for anyone. But his search had led nowhere. Then, last November, when he'd returned from the other universe's Metropolis, he'd started his search all over again, buoyed by H.G.Wells' statement that Lois was where he would least expect it.
Eagerly, he'd once again flown around the planet, carefully using his x-ray vision as he'd swept low over the world's megacities, positive he'd find her. Once more, he'd dug through the Planet's archives, reading between the lines of the stories filed from the Congo, even the last one which had only Claude Kendall's byline, although Clark thought he detected Lois Lane's writing style in parts of that article. But there were no clues about Lois's fate lurking in the spaces between the words on those printed pages. Still, he'd followed the paper trail, combing the streets of every town and village in the Congo only to stand once again, alone, on that dusty road where the van carrying Lois Lane had exploded. He'd failed to find her; old H.G. wasn't infallible, he'd thought with some bitterness.
When he'd returned from the other Metropolis a couple of months ago, he'd finally understood that the attraction which he felt for that Lois Lane was in some sense not real. He'd realized that as he'd watched when the Clark Kent of that world had finally returned home safely and embraced his wife. Strangely, Clark had felt no jealousy, just a sadness that his counterpart had found the love of his life while he had not. And, as he had watched, he'd felt it was right that those two were together and that it would have been wrong if Lois had stayed with him as he'd asked her to when she had come to his world. At least the trip to the other Metropolis had given him that awareness and that consolation.
Now he touched the head stone which marked the grave in front of him. He should accept that it was Lois Lane who was really buried here. Give her up. Perhaps his mind could, but he wondered if his heart ever could. How could he have this feeling for a woman he'd never met? One more reason why he should go to New Krypton, to accept the finality of what had happened to Lois Lane. She was a past he'd never had. New Krypton was his future.
Soaring into the sky he flew back to Clinton street, once more entering his apartment and gazing around it. So he was Kal El, not Clark Kent. As soon as that thought passed through his mind, he rejected it, memories of the warmth, of the love, and the strength he'd found in a Kansas farmhouse flooding his mind. All of a sudden he needed to see that farmhouse again, just as he had needed to see Lois's grave a few minutes ago. Once again he soared into the sky, this time starting to fly southwest toward Kansas only to be diverted by yet another emergency — this time, a riot at New Troy State Penitentiary.
It would take him most of the day to help negotiate a deal between the angry prisoners and the state authorities. He'd never been called on to do that before — to act as a peacemaker. Maybe it was a sign. Maybe he did have something to offer Zara and Ching.
Lois Lane wasted no time once her plane landed at Wichita Airport. Skirting the passengers rushing to the luggage carousels, she strapped her backpack on and strode over to the car rental kiosks where she picked up the bottom of the line special — small, no guts, but it would get her to Smallville in more style than she'd been accustomed to in the last four years.
Early the next morning in Smallville, Lois began her search, for what she wasn't quite sure. Clark Kent? Superman? The truth? After finishing a quick breakfast in Smallville's only motel, she hit the pavement, stopping in local shops and Maisie's diner, asking about the Kent family.
Not much to be found out that she hadn't already learned from her research, except here she got a sense of the closeness of a community where families had a long history. People held good memories of Jonathan and Martha Kent, although the town was reticent on the subject of their son, whom the older residents recalled as just one of the kids. Most of Clark Kent's peers had left Smallville, in search of careers elsewhere, but a few had stayed and they, too, spoke fondly of Clark Kent who had been one of them, not particularly outstanding, but one of them.
At the hardware, feed and seed store, Lois asked about the Kent farmhouse and found that it had been up for sale since last spring. Times were not good for farmers and when Tom Jackson, who had bought the farm after the Kents died, had himself passed on, his widow had rented out the fields to neighbors, put the property up for sale, and moved into a small frame house in Smallville. She was Lois' next stop.
Anita Jackson, a spare grey-haired woman, welcomed her visitor, inviting her into her small living room for some tea and muffins. Thanking her, Lois followed her into the room, charmed by its coziness. As they talked, it became clear that Anita didn't have much to add to what Lois had already discovered. She remembered Clark Kent and how she'd felt sorry for the young boy who had been orphaned and taken away from his home to nearby Lawrence where he had lived with his grandmother for two years until her death. After that, she'd heard he went into a succession of foster homes until he was old enough to go to college. She wasn't sure though. Then she smiled at Lois and said she had something that she'd brought from the Smallville farmhouse.
Mrs. Jackson left the room for a few minutes and came back with an old cardboard box containing a couple of old photograph albums as well as many loose, unmounted pictures. "I found these in a closet after we first moved in. We bought the house furnished. What use would a young boy have for furniture? I meant to take these to the boy's grandmother but somehow I never did. Raising six kids and running a farm keeps you busy." She looked apologetically at Lois and then sighed, leaning back in her chair. "Then I heard his grandmother had died and I didn't know where he was. Now he's Superman, with important things to do, and probably forgotten all about these."
Eagerly, Lois leaned forward. "Could I see them?" she asked.
"Of course." Anita handed her the box. "Are you a friend of his? Do you think you could give these to him? I'd be grateful. It's something I should have done years ago."
Lois looked at her, surprised. "I'd be pleased to do that, Mrs. Jackson. I don't know when I'll see him but I promise you he'll get them." She placed the lid back on the box and rose to leave, again thanking the woman for her help, not believing her luck in getting the photographs.
Outside Lois looked around her, basking for a moment in the winter sun which somehow had not managed to shine in Metropolis since her return. Then she unlocked the trunk of her car, carefully placed the box beside her backpack, closed the trunk, and then walked the few paces to the driver's side of the car. She had just enough time to look at Clark Kent's boyhood home before sunset.
Forty minutes later, she pulled up in front of a frame farmhouse, its front facade bordered by a porch which seemed to Lois like a perfect spot to spend a summer evening. Had the Kents done that, sipping lemonade as they talked about the day's events? She shook her head, laughing at herself. That must be a scene from an old movie she'd seen; certainly it wasn't anything she knew from her own childhood. She mounted the steps of the porch, observing that the place needed a fresh coat of paint. Peering first in the window to see if anyone one was there, she knocked on the door. No answer, which pleased her. Reaching into her purse, she pulled out her Swiss army knife and adroitly picked the lock.
She found nothing much inside. Mrs. Jackson had removed all the furniture and so it was very unlikely that Lois would discover anything that told her about Clark Kent in these empty, dusty rooms. After a quick tour of inspection upstairs she returned to the front room, thinking she had probably wasted her time in coming. Trask was right. The answer to whatever was going on with Clark Kent was in Metropolis.
She stepped back out onto the verandah. It was getting late and within the hour the place would be in total darkness. Her hand touched one of the roof's supporting posts and she looked at it for a minute, noticing the initials, still visible through the layers of white paint, carved just above where her hand rested. C.K. She smiled, remembering how she too had once carved her own initials on the sill of her bedroom window, thrilled with a penknife given to her by her cousin. Then she stepped lightly down from the porch onto the stone path which curved out of the front yard toward the barn, smiling at her sentimentality, tucking it back into some obscure corner of her mind.
The barn was easier to get into than the house had been. Once inside, she looked around, not really knowing what she was seeing. It looked kind of rustic was about all she could think. There was still the slight smell of farm animal about it but mostly it looked empty. She walked over to a few bins that she supposed were animal stalls. Hard to imagine a space alien here.
Approaching the centre of the barn, she gazed around, her eye caught by the thick rough hewn timber which supported the centre beam of the barn. Again she noticed the nicks in the wood and she looked closely at them, looking for the same initials she'd seen before, pleased when she found them. In fact, there were a series of slashes cut into the wood; one at about six feet and beside it, the initials, J.K. Jonathan Kent, she thought. Then lower, much lower, starting at her knee level, were a series of straight horizontal lines, each one dated, with the initials C.K. beside it. A young boy measuring himself against his father. And then the initials stopped, just when he was a about five feet tall. Lois touched the last cut, feeling a sadness for this boy who had lost so much. Once again, the words echoed in her mind. Who are you, Clark Kent? And now the question, are you Superman? Or is he you?
Turning she left the barn, deciding to take a final tour around the property before she left.
The thought of paying a final visit to Kansas had never really left Clark's mind the whole time he'd been arbitrating between the head of the prisoner's committee, the warden, and the Governor of New Troy. As soon as he felt confident that a settlement seemed in sight, he took off, once more flying southwest. As the sun blazed low in the afternoon sky, he landed in front of the small farmhouse which had been his boyhood home.
He hadn't been at the farm in a very long time, not since he'd finished college and that had been the only time he'd returned since his parents' death. It had been too painful, conjuring memories which were too happy and hurt too much. He'd left without having the courage to knock on the door to even introduce himself.
Now he needed to be here, to remember his childhood. If he was to leave Earth for New Krypton, he knew he first had to return to this farm. Gazing at the front porch for a moment he could almost see his mother there, sitting in the swing his dad had hung from the porch rafters as a special present for her. She had loved that swing and so had he. Now it was gone. Stepping lightly up to the front door, he was surprised to find it unlocked. The real estate agent sure was doing a lousy job of keeping an eye on the property, he thought. He hoped he wouldn't find it vandalized. He opened the front door and was relieved to find no signs of damage.
Although the house was empty, he still could see it as it had been in his childhood — the fieldstone fireplace in front of which his mother used to sit as she read to him in the evening, the kitchen where he and his mom and dad had played all sorts of games as he was growing up, the weird tiles that his mom had made at a ceramics class and which his father had used to make a backsplash behind the kitchen sink. He was pleased to see the tiles were still there and that they didn't look as weird as he'd thought when she first came home with them. "Who knew, Mama, you were ahead of your time?" he said to himself.
Upstairs there were still a few signs that Martha, Jonathan and Clark Kent had once lived there. The bold chevron wallpaper which his mother had hung in the spare room was still there. And in his bedroom, above the window frame, he spotted the nails from which he'd suspended a wire for the antenna of a remote control radio he'd had. Standing by the window, he remembered how excited he'd been when he and his dad had got those first radio signals from a foreign land. Smiling he looked at the bookshelves, just a little uneven, which his dad had helped him build to house his books and his prize collection of "stuff".
He'd never thought about it as a kid, but he realized now his parents had been remarkable. This was his home; leaving it had been the most painful thing he'd ever done or ever would do, he thought. Whatever he was, he was Martha and Jonathan Kent's son. He wondered what they would think about his returning to New Krypton.
Then he wondered how it was that they had found him. He had no idea.
He descended the stairs slowly, deep in thought as he crossed the small hallway to the front door, and then stepped outside onto the porch, standing in the last rays of a winter sunset for a moment before crossing to the barn. Pushing aside its large wooden door, he once again entered the world he'd grown up in, distressed now by its emptiness. That wasn't right, he thought, as he crossed to the centre of the barn, unaware as he did that he was being watched.
Lois wasn't sure why she had returned to the barn after finishing her tour of the farm but she had. She hadn't found much at the farm and she just couldn't believe that she was going back empty handed. So she walked back to the barn, this time methodically working her way around its interior corners, looking for anything that might be out of the ordinary. She had crouched down to examine a loose floorboard when she saw the outline of a man about six feet tall enter the barn. Not moving, she watched as he walked toward the centre of the barn. There was still just enough natural light for her to make out who he was. Clark Kent.
She was astonished. Why was he here? She watched as he walked toward the post which she had examined about half an hour ago. Very slowly his fingers traced each groove which he had carved there so long ago and then he reached up and touched the line that was his father's. She caught her breath as he leaned against the post for a moment, touching his forehead against the line that was his father's. Then he turned, sliding his body down along the post until he was sitting on the barn floor, his shoulders slumped and his head bowed.
At that moment, Lois knew that whatever Clark Kent was, he was no android, no alien threat, but just an ordinary man. She should leave; this was his place, not hers. She rose, unintentionally making a slight noise as she did so. She should get of here, she thought, but somehow she couldn't leave him there alone.
At the sound of her movement, he raised his head. "Who's there?"
Lois emerged out of the shadows, walking over to where he was sitting, embarrassed that she had been found out, yet needing for some reason she didn't understand to comfort him. "Lois Lane," her voice faltered as she became aware of the totally stunned look on his face as he gazed up at her. So she repeated more firmly, "My name is Lois Lane and I, uh, just happened to be, I mean I just wanted to say, to say… that you're not alone," she finally blurted out. Where had that come from? she wondered. And why wasn't he saying anything? Why was he staring at her, slack jawed like she was a ghost? Shouldn't he be mad at her or something for invading his privacy? He was making her nervous.
"Lois," his voice was soft as he said her name. "Lois Lane," he repeated, this time with wonder in his voice.
He still hadn't moved from his seated position and she wasn't sure what to do next. Why didn't he stand up? Well, she would have to take the next step. "You're Clark Kent. Superman." So now they were introduced.
"Lois," he repeated her name again, his dark eyes searching her face.
It looked like he wasn't going to stand up, or say anything for that matter. Well, this was her opportunity to talk to him, to try to get to figure him out. So she sank crosslegged to the cold stone floor in front of him and began the conversation. It was getting dark now and she would have liked more light but she didn't want to risk suggesting they go somewhere else in case he might suddenly remember that she was an intruder.
So many questions flooded through her mind but all of them seemed either too distancing or too personal. "You must've spent a lot of time here when you were a kid." That seemed safe.
He didn't reply to that but instead asked, his voice still holding that odd tone of wonder, "Are you real?"
What? A new hypothesis flashed through her mind — maybe Clark Kent was just a little strange. She should be careful. "Last time I checked, I was." She gave him a small crooked grin as she added, "and this floor is very cold."
"Oh, sorry. We should go somewhere warmer." He rose to his feet, reaching automatically to help her as she too stood up. For a moment, their eyes met, and he kept his hand on her arm. "You are real."
Well that was good to know, she thought; she'd always kinda assumed she was. "Very real and just a little chilled, so let's go somewhere more comfortable."
He stepped a few paces back from her. "Here, let me warm you up." He looked at her intently, focusing his eyes so the rays they emitted undulated slowly, gently over her body, warming her.
It was Lois's turn to stare, amazed. What he was doing felt wonderful, almost like a caress, and she hoped she wasn't blushing. "Wow," she breathed, then regaining her composure, she gave him a very dignified, "Thanks."
He nodded at her respectfully, "You're welcome." And once again there was an awkward silence as both stood still, looking at each other in the twilight's lengthening shadows.
"Well," Lois said, "I guess we should be going, unless there's something else here you wanted to do?"
"No, no… " his voice was shaky. "I found what I was searching for." Was that a trace of suppressed laughter in his voice, she wondered, as he continued, "I should have known it was here."
Clark looked down at the woman beside him as they left the barn and walked out into the cold evening air. He was doing his best to contain the joy that engulfed him, that was coursing through his soul. He wanted to shout her name to the heavens, do cartwheels in the sky, to pick her up and fly away with her. And he also wanted to give her the third degree — just where had she been these last four years?? Right now, a pure happiness that stopped time and blocked out the world, all worlds, flooded his senses. He had found Lois Lane. Or she had found him, which didn't surprise him. He should have known. Mentally, he put H.G. Wells back on his pedestal.
Instinctively, he turned to her, picking her up in his arms, ready to fly back to Metropolis with her, but was stopped by her cry of outrage.
"Hey, what are you doing? Put me down."
He did, quickly. "I thought we'd go back to Metropolis, back to my place."
Her eyes widened. "Back to your place! Look, I don't know what you're thinking, Clark Kent, but that's not what I meant when I said we should go somewhere comfortable." Her body was rigid and her voice annoyed as she spoke. "I hadn't figured you for that kind of guy," she muttered.
"That kind of guy!" he said, cluing in to what his action had implied. "Look, that's not what I meant." His hands made a conciliatory gesture as he tried to convey what he feared he was making a mess of. He'd better watch his step here. This was the first time she'd met him, and, he had to admit, it was the first time he'd met her, too. She was not the other world's Lois Lane; she belonged to this world and this was their first encounter. Somehow he'd never really thought about what this moment would be like other than that he sort of figured she would fling herself into his arms. Now that he stopped to think about it, that idea had been pretty naive. The woman standing in front of him with arms crossed and eyes narrowed in suspicion was not flinging herself into anyone's arms.
"I can, uh, fly, and it seemed like the easiest way to get back to Metropolis. I do it all the time," he added by way of explanation. "I wasn't trying to abduct you." He found the idea distasteful and was a little outraged that she had interpreted his action that way.
"Oh. Oh, of course. Sorry." She uncrossed her arms and continued, "But I have a car which, if I don't get it back to the rental agency at the airport by noon, tomorrow, will cost me big bucks." She stopped speaking for a second. "I'd still like to talk, though, if you've got time."
If he had time? He smiled at her, his happiness resurfacing. "Ms. Lane, for you, I have all the time in the world."
She relaxed and returned his smile. "Great, but we go in my car and I drive."
Clark suggested they have dinner, wanting a chance to talk in a more casual, but also, he hoped, from Lois's point of view, a respectably neutral setting. He watched her as she drove, wanting to ask her so much, but unsure where to start. Right now he was happy, borderline ecstatic in fact, just to sit beside her while she drove, studying her profile.
Aware of his scrutiny, Lois gave him a brief glance. "Don't worry, I'm a good driver." Then she laughed briefly, "I guess *you* don't need to be much worried about that, do you?"
"Not much," he grinned, "but it's good to know you're not going to wipe out some other driver as soon as you get the chance."
"Not likely," she said emphatically. "Not sure, but I think I turn left at that next intersection."
"Yeah, just past Wayne Irig's place. It's the next farm up ahead, and then left at the intersection."
"You know this area pretty well?" Lois asked as they drove by the bright lights of the Irig farmhouse.
"Yeah," his voice was husky as he continued, "I know it pretty well. I grew up here — that was my dad's barn you found me in." He noticed her lips curve in a slight smile as he said this. "What?" he asked.
"Nothing. Just the idea of someone *finding* Superman." But, to be honest, she had been more surprised by how soft his voice had sounded, different from the formal enunciation she'd heard on the Superman tapes in Trask's office. And something in the low, softness of that voice had touched her. The smile had been at herself as she found herself increasingly puzzled by this man; at not finding the final truth about him. The elusive Superman, she thought.
"Like maybe you were looking for me?" He spoke deliberately although he was careful to keep the tone of his voice light.
"Maybe." Her voice was noncommittal, although his comment spooked her. Had he been reading her mind? Which reminded her, her cover was now blown and she wondered how Trask would react when he found out. If he found out. "This my turn here?"
"Yeah, we're not too far from town, now."
"Have things changed much around here since you were a kid?" Lois asked as she drove into the intersection, her attention focused as much on an oncoming pickup truck as on their conversation. She was also planning ahead to the questions she would ask him over dinner. At least she had the chance for an interview. As far as she could tell from all the research she had done, no one had yet got an exclusive with Clark Kent/Superman. So why didn't she feel quite comfortable with the fact that she had?
"Not much," Clark answered, "but to tell you the truth, I haven't been back here too often since I finished high school."
Lois barely heard this response as she concentrated on both her driving and the upcoming interview, wondering if Superman didn't give interviews, why he was going along with this one. And why did he keep staring at her? She'd better watch her step. She picked up on his last words. "High school?"
She followed that thread, asking him about Smallville High and his experiences there, which, it turned out, had been, in many ways, similar to her own high school years. It was a pretty safe topic to explore as long as they kept to those generic experiences which both stimulate and frustrate adolescents everywhere. By the time they pulled up in front of her motel room, she felt like Clark Kent was a pretty normal guy. They'd both been editors of their high school newspapers and, as she removed her keys from the ignition, they were laughing about their first experience writing a bad story, not properly checking their sources, and the disaster which had ensued.
As they walked toward the Smallville Motel Bar and Grill, Lois added the final comment. "Perry would have killed me for that." Then she froze. She shouldn't have said that; he didn't know she had worked for the Planet, that she was a reporter, did he? She gave him a sideways glance to see if her slip had registered.
"Yeah, he would." For a moment, neither spoke as Clark met her gaze, the trace of a knowing smile lurking in the depths of his dark eyes as he waited for her to speak.
"I, uh, used to know Perry White," Lois said as she continued walking, reaching for the knob of the lobby door just a shade after he had opened it for her.
"Ah," he said as he stood back to let her enter.
Once inside, Lois cast a quick glance around the small deserted foyer, noting its dark wainscotting, red flocked wallpaper, and the cluster of framed photographs which covered the upper half of one wall. One photograph captured President Heston talking with three men whom she did not recognize but were probably Smallville notables. Then she spotted what she was really looking for — the door to the ladies room. "I'll meet you in the bar, okay? I'd like to freshen up a bit."
"Sure. I'll just wait out here." Clark wasn't in any mood to let her out of his sight and he briefly wondered if there was a back exit out of the washroom. Then he chided himself for being suspicious. Anyway, if she did take off, it wouldn't take him long to find her. This time she would only have ten minutes on him, not four years. Casting a brief glance in the direction of the washroom, he wondered how long he should give her. Was ten minutes long enough? Lana had always taken forever in the ladies room; he suspected she completely redid her hair, makeup, and who knew what else while she was in there. Maybe he should give Lois fifteen minutes. As he leaned back against the wall opposite the door through which Lois had vanished, he wondered why had she come to Smallville. Why had she been in the barn? He looked forward to finding out.
Inside the ladies' room, Lois hurried, fearing the man outside would clue in to the fact that she was about to get a major interview with him and take off on her. After all he could fly. As she dried her hands, she wondered if he ever needed to freshen up. How his body worked. Hmm… how his body worked, she smiled to herself. She hadn't expected to find him attractive, but she did. She grinned at herself in the mirror. Watch it, girl — if you fall for him, you give him the upper hand. And then she saw him in the barn again, his hand touching the post his father had carved. And she didn't know what to think. Taking a deep breath, she grabbed a comb from her backpack and quickly ran it through her hair, wrinkling her nose in distaste at her new hair colour. Then she strode out to meet him.
Clark looked up at her surprised. Five minutes. And she was beautiful, more beautiful than he had ever thought; although he was more than a little shocked by the fact that she had auburn hair. In his dreams, *his* Lois had always looked exactly like the Lois whom Tempus had brought from the other Metropolis. *This* Lois was different, and he liked the differences — she wasn't quite as thin, a little voluptuous in fact, and her hair was longer, nearly shoulder length. He liked how it swung when she walked. Still, the colour… he looked at her hair accusingly.
Lois noticed the look. "What?" Had he begun to have second thoughts about the interview?
"Nothing… Nothing." He looked at her hair again. "Your hair," he said and then stopped, at a loss for what to say next. Somehow, 'I thought you'd be a brunette' didn't sound right.
Relieved, Lois grinned. "I know — bad dye job. It's little too red." This guy's got a lot of experience with women if he can spot a cheap dye job, she thought. Mentally, she pushed him a little further away from her. Then she remembered he'd been engaged to a blonde which probably accounted for his knowledge about hair dyes. Mentally, she pulled him back into the room.
She preceded him into the dark, wood-panelled bar, suddenly aware that, in some way, he seemed to become diminished, almost furtive as he hung back behind her. Why? she wondered. She waited until he was beside her and she caught a glimpse of the mask that his face had now become. Then she remembered he was Superman and this was a public place.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the waitress, who greeted them cheerfully before leading them to a small table in a dimly lit corner of the room, not too far from where a large TV, currently tuned to the sports channel, was mounted above the far end of the bar. If the waitress recognized Clark, she gave no indication. Nor did the few other customers who were seated at the bar or at a couple of tables nearby. But this was the town he had grown up in. Now that he was Superman, surely they must recognize him, Smallville's most famous son, Lois thought. Still, he certainly didn't look like a superman, dressed as he now was in faded jeans and a plaid shirt — he looked like a farmer, she thought wryly.
If the waitress and the few customers who were there this midweek evening did recognize him, they gave no indication of it, and as it became apparent that they would not, she felt his tension diminish and then, finally, he smiled at her, a wonderful smile that wiped all other thoughts from her head.
"So…," Lois said, wondering if she would be able to follow that up with anything a little more original. She wasn't, but then neither was he.
"So…," he replied, not able to stop smiling at her. "I bet you're a brunette."
That comment surprised her. "Uh huh." Lois picked up the menu, looked it over quickly, and then closed it.
"Why'd you change it?"
Why this interest in her hair colour, she wondered? "It seemed like a good idea at the time," she responded and then turned her attention to the young woman who was asking if they had decided what they wanted yet.
"How'd you like working for Perry White?" Clark asked.
Lois grinned, deciding there was no sense in dissembling. "I loved it. Couldn't get away with a thing, though. He taught me a lot."
"Me, too. I figured I was real lucky to get to work under him."
"How long have you worked at the Planet?" Lois asked him as the waitress brought them each a glass of red wine.
"Close to four years. I started a couple of months after you disappeared in the Congo." He looked at her intently, his voice soft as he asked, "What happened to you there, Lois?"
"I'm surprised you even know about my Congo trip. I wouldn't expect any one to find it of much interest after a couple of weeks."
"Are you kidding? Top journalist disappears covering a major story on gunrunning. Perry said he had people search everywhere. He was pretty upset by it all."
"He did? He was?" Lois was touched by this; yesterday, she'd had the feeling that people had forgotten her pretty quickly. "He was like a father to me," she said quietly.
"Does he know you're back?"
"No, I tried to get in touch with him but he's out of town."
Clark searched her eyes as he repeated his earlier question. "Why, Lois? What happened?"
Lois hadn't expected this kind of question from him. In fact, she was taken aback that he even knew of her existence. And besides, this was *her* interview; she was the one who was supposed to be asking the questions.
"I don't get it, Clark. Why are you so interested?"
Clark hesitated before speaking and when he did speak, he kept his voice casual. "You worked for the Planet and you disappeared; that interests me. Just as I'm interested in, why, after four years, you show up in my dad's barn."
This question, Lois had been expecting, and, in the back of her mind, had been working out what her answer would be. 'Just passing through' seemed lame. Briefly, she'd thought about expressing an interest in mid-western barn architecture but that sounded even lamer. Coincidence? 'Why, Clark, I had no idea' sounded pretty fake. 'Because it was there' lacked originality. So she met his eyes and told him the truth, at least, in a way. "Maybe I was looking for Clark Kent." She gave him a crooked smile, tilting her head slightly to one side as she spoke.
"Were you?" Clark spoke slowly, his voice husky, but his eyes still held a question.
At that moment, much to Lois' relief, their waitress arrived with dinner, her timing so impeccable that Lois decided she would leave a large tip. "It looks good," Lois said as she picked up her fork. "Did you ever come here when you were growing up?"
"Once, for my mom's birthday. It's changed a lot since then — I don't remember much about it though, just a feeling that there was not so much black leather." His eyes swept the room and then he grinned at her. "I remember Dad got them to make a birthday cake — it was a secret and I was pretty excited."
Recalling what she'd read about his parents' death, Lois' face softened. "And was she surprised?"
"Yeah. I really think my dad pulled it off. Keeping stuff from my mom was next to impossible." He smiled, for a moment recalling his mother's delight with the small gifts and events which he and his dad had planned for her. "I'd forgotten about that day."
Lois looked at him, at the wistfulness in his dark eyes, and once again she felt that confusion about who this man was. He seemed like a pretty ordinary man. "Your parents sound like wonderful people."
"They were. They were killed in a car crash when I was ten." His voice was flat as he spoke.
Impulsively, Lois reached across the table to touch his hand for a moment and as she did, she met his eyes. "I'm sorry, Clark. It must have been so hard."
Caught by the sympathy in the depths of her brown eyes, he said, "It was a long time ago." Still, he felt the loss of her comforting touch as she withdrew her hand.
"What happened to you after that? Did you stay in Smallville?"
Just as Clark was about to answer, the TV announcer cut into the current programming with a news bulletin announcing a catastrophic earthquake in Mexico City. Clark's face froze as he listened for details, aware of Lois's voice saying, "You have to go."
His distress was evident in his face. There was no question in his mind about leaving but, more than anything, he did not want to leave Lois Lane. "You'll be here when I get back?"
"Probably not. I have to get my car back to the airport and, by the sounds of it, you'll be gone for some time."
Clark panicked a bit. "When can I see you again?"
Lois looked at him surprise. He made it sound as though this had been a date; she'd thought it had been an interview. "I'll be in Metropolis. I'm staying at the Apollo Hotel."
"Never heard of it but I'll find it." Then he was gone, not exactly in a blur, but quietly out through the back exit, leaving Lois sitting there, thinking about all that had happened in the last couple of hours and aware that things were not nearly as simple as she had thought.
Clark's mind was chaotic as he streaked towards Mexico city, skittering between his time with Lois and his anticipation of what he would find when he reached his destination. Gradually, he brought some order to his thoughts and he focused on the types of wreckage he expected to find, working out where and what he would do first. Then, with horror, he wondered if this were another test orchestrated by Zara and Ching. This was no game; this time people had died. He knew already he would be too late to save everyone. His face was grim as he landed with a dramatic whoosh in the centre of the slums of Mexico City where the damage had been most severe.
"Superman! Gracias a Dios!" He heard the relief in the Lieutenant's voice as he stopped in mid command to a small crew of relief workers. "Venga aqui. Hay personas que esta'n atrapado en el so'tano de este apartamento."
Over the next few hours, Superman raced against time to dismantle the wreckage of collapsed buildings, hoping he was finding the right balance between speed and the need to work carefully so that his actions would not further destabilize the rubble of collapsed walls and timbers. Plucking vehicles out of huge fissures in streets proved to be much easier. Sometimes he was too late, and he unearthed the body of a person who had been crushed immediately by a collapsing structure. But more often, he made it in time, freeing trapped victims who emerged injured but safe, their chests heaving as they gasped street air after hours trapped in small dark spaces. As much as possible he used his super vision to identify the location of people who could be freed easily by the emergency crews who were now at the point of exhaustion, their faces streaked with grime and sweat.
Then the next morning, a severe aftershock hit, adding to the devastation. Now, there was no doubt that there would be a serious problem of dislocation and contaminated water supplies. But the end of the day brought some hope as the first of the international relief forces arrived and hit the streets, ready to assist the desperate Mexican emergency forces.
As Superman sped around the city, helping extinguish fires caused by downed electrical lines and extricating people from the ruins, he felt his anger rising; so many of these people need not have been injured or have died. Shoddy construction practices and corrupt building inspectors had conspired to throw up apartment and office buildings which had turned out to be death traps.
Two days after his arrival, Superman felt that he could leave. The sort of help these people needed now was beyond his ability. He was only the strongman; now they needed their own heroes — the people who had worked with him to the point of exhaustion. They could use a few wise men, too, he thought as he shot back to Metropolis, his mind focused on finding Zara and Ching, hoping he was wrong in his suspicion that they had caused the quake. But, recalling how he had accused them of playing with people's lives after they had set up the bus incident, Superman remembered how Ching had been offended and his cold reply that they were not murderers. Then Superman's mind shifted to Lois Lane and he smiled. The Apollo Hotel.
Zara and Ching had watched the news coverage of Superman's activities with some frustration.
"You see," Ching pointed out as he walked with Zara towards the Planet, "he has no sense of duty to his own people. Aware his homeland is in danger, he rushes off to save a handful of peasants who have no connection to him at all. It's his emotional nature again. It dominates him."
"Ching, we must be patient. I know he will come with us. You saw how eager he was to know everything about New Krypton. His assistance with the earthquake shows that it is his nature to help people in trouble. That, too, will lure him to New Krypton."
Ching let his gaze wander over the streets of Metropolis, wet with grey winter slush, as they continued their walk, his foot kicking at an empty beer bottle which someone had tossed away. "We can't get home fast enough for me, Zara. I hate it here. The emotional sloppiness, the lack of restraint." His hand gestured at a sadistic bondage video playing out in the window of a porn shop they were passing. "This is what New Krypton will become if Nor succeeds. We can't let that happen!"
Zara slid her hand around his arm. "We won't, Ching."
He turned to her, his sternness vanishing as he looked at her. He raised his right hand, and for a brief moment, he touched the side of her face. "We've been gone too long, Zara. Our people need us, our children need us."
"I know, Ching. We must push Kal El to act."
Lois Lane also watched the news coverage of Superman's actions in Mexico. As she did, she thought of the people he'd saved and wondered if he ever got any rest. Did he need to sleep? And, with a pang, she wondered how he was coping with the carnage and the death of so many people.
But watching the news network wasn't the only thing that Lois did when she got back to Metropolis; she also continued her investigation of Superman. Now she wanted to go over all the film footage which Trask's people had gathered, not just what he had selected for her viewing. Why was Trask so convinced that Superman meant catastrophe for planet Earth, anyway? Perhaps a tiny, infinitesimal part of her had thought Trask's notion was marginally possible but her brief encounter with Clark Kent had knocked all her preconceived notions sideways, as well as Trask's. Whatever he was, she felt in her soul that Clark Kent was a decent man. And he was more than that. In her short time with him, she'd glimpsed a man who had become isolated, traces of sadness lurking beneath the humour and optimism which she'd also witnessed as they'd talked during the drive back to Smallville.
Still determined to write that article on Superman, she now was uncertain what would be in it. She was all too aware that she felt attracted to him. But she'd been attracted to Claude, too, and had been completely taken in. Maybe there was something in her nature that allowed her to be easily seduced by these guys with a spark in their eyes. Consequently she mistrusted this part of her reaction to Clark Kent. But what she didn't mistrust, couldn't erase from her mind, was the man who had needed to return to that barn in Smallville.
So Lois spent the two days that Clark was in Mexico City doing more research at Bureau 39, and getting to know Jason Trask just a little better. She was much relieved to discover that Trask was unaware that she had met Superman while she was in Smallville. As far as he knew, her cover was still intact. Over lunch, she learned that Trask, too, had a past which drove him in his pursuit of Superman. He was convinced that twenty years ago, his twelve year old sister had been abducted by aliens. The girl had vanished without a trace after the two of them had approached a vast, luminous circle of light which had suddenly materialized on an escarpment not far from their home. As he told her this, his words spare and his eyes distant, Lois was aware that Jason Trask had felt responsible for his sister and had never got over her disappearance. Four years ago, Lois would have thought he was a little crazy; now she was less sure.
The other thing she did during this period was to try to get in touch with her father again. This time she succeeded, sort of. She called Luthor Labs and found that Sam Lane still worked there but that he was currently on leave of absence, seconded to the University of Hawaii for three months where he was working on a project on bionic prosthetic devices. Luthor Labs gave her his professional address but not his private address which was against corporate policy. Lois contacted the University but, since it was Friday afternoon, Dr. Lane could not be reached. Lois left a message and decided she would wait for his return call.
The other thing she did was to scrub and disinfect her apartment at the Apollo with an efficiency which would have brought joy to the heart of a hospital housekeeper. In theory, the Apollo offered maid service but, in fact, it didn't appear to so in any consistent way. Tying back her thick hair in a ponytail and donning a pair of old grey sweats with one of the knees long gone, she set to work. It was while she in mid-scour, on her knees in the bathroom, that she heard a tapping sound on the one and only window in her apartment. At least, she thought she heard it. Shaking her head, she continued her task, now aggressively scrubbing the grout in the shower stall. The tapping sounded again. Strange.
Rising, she left the bathroom, walking the few steps to the tall narrow window which provided the room's only natural light. Astonished, she saw Superman hovering outside. She stared open mouthed at him for a second and then realized he was signally for her to open her window. Bending over, she tried to push the window up but a succession of bad paint jobs defeated her. She looked up at the man outside her window and shrugged her shoulders, raising her palms upward in a gesture of defeat.
He smiled, drifted back a few feet and narrowed his eyes, letting them trace a line around the perimeter of the window. Then he signalled for her to raise the window. She tried again and the window opened although she noticed that layers of dirty paint were dripping over the sill. She giggled at the absurdity of the sight as she completed the task of raising the window and then stood back to look at the man suspended in the cold dark air.
"May I come in?"
"Sure." Lois stood aside, absently tucking a loose wisp of auburn hair back into the band which held her ponytail, then decided that the ponytail probably looked awful and pulled the band loose. She probably looked pretty awful, too, she thought ruefully. Well, better he should see her at her worse than cosmetically enhanced. Then she frowned as she realized that she wanted him to find her attractive.
Noticing her scowl, he said, "If this is a bad time, I can come back later."
She brightened. "No, no. This is a good time. How did you know this was my apartment?"
"It wasn't that easy," he grinned. "The walls of these old apartments are covered in layers of lead based paint which, for some reason, blocks my vision. Then I saw you pass by the window a few moments ago."
"Oh," Lois said, as she remembered her trip to get cleanser from beneath the kitchen sink. "Hey, wait a minute, does that mean you can just cruise around and check out people?" Her tone was accusing as she thought about the possibilities which that little superpower gave him.
Now it was his turn to frown as he crossed his arms, standing much straighter, feet planted slightly apart on her apartment floor. "Lois, Superman would not do that," he said loftily.
"Of course not," Lois agreed; then asked, "but would Clark Kent?"
"No, I would not!" He was indignant.
Lois looked at him, surprised. No wonder she was confused about Superman/ Clark Kent. *He* was confused about Superman/Clark Kent. She looked at his face carefully, seeing past the mild indignation which had flickered there. Then she noticed his exhaustion. "I watched the news coverage of the quake."
He walked over to the only armchair in the room and dropped heavily into it. "So many people, Lois." His voice was little more than a whisper and she was dismayed by the haunted look in his eyes. "So many people dead. So many people lost family. I couldn't save them."
Lois sat crosslegged on the narrow bed across from him. "But if you hadn't been there, Clark, how many more would have died?" she asked gently.
"Lois, it shouldn't have been as bad as it was. If those buildings had been more substantial…" his voice trailed away. "How do I stop that?" He raised his eyes to look at her.
"I'm not sure," she said slowly. "Maybe that takes a lot longer to do and maybe you can't do it alone." She met his troubled eyes for a moment and was silent. Then she gave him a small smile. "You must be so tired. The news reports made it sound like you didn't get any sleep at all."
"None," he said with a small grin. "I don't need much sleep, but right now I sure could use some."
"So maybe you should go home, Clark."
"Maybe. I guess so." He got to his feet and plodded to her window.
As she followed him, she asked, "Why did you stop here, Clark?"
"I wanted to…" he hesitated, unsure of what to say, and then continued lightly, "to make sure you got back to Metropolis all right."
She patted his arm and said teasingly, "Well, it was kinda rough figuring out how to get back to the airport and then, which plane I should get on, and then which subway line to take to get back here. But I managed."
He grinned at her and then, again their eyes met, and neither spoke for a moment. "Uh, can I take you to breakfast tomorrow?"
She smiled, lost in the soft darkness of his eyes. "Yes," she said almost shyly, like a girl being asked on her first date.
"I'll be here at eight." Then he bent his head and gently kissed her cheek before taking off into the night. "Good night, Lois."
Bewildered, Lois stood at her window watching as he soared upward.
As Superman flew towards Clinton Street, he felt less uptight than he had when he'd first returned to Metropolis from Mexico. In the back of his mind had been the fear that Lois would not be there, that somehow she would have disappeared, that somehow he had imagined the whole thing in Smallville. But she hadn't and he hadn't. She was in Metropolis and she was real. Where should they go for breakfast tomorrow? he wondered. Wanting to impress her, he decided on a new place, not far from the Planet, which James Olsen had raved about only a couple of weeks ago.
As he landed on his balcony he once again encountered Zara and Ching, just as he had before his trip to Smallville, standing, arms crossed, waiting for him.
"Good of you to return, Kal El."
Ching's voice was sarcastic and Clark wondered again about the antagonism which never seemed far from the surface in this man. Surely, if he, Clark, were to save New Krypton, Ching should show more respect. Zara, on the other hand, he liked. Maybe because they were distantly related, he thought, with a smile. Ignoring Ching, Clark explained to Zara. "I had no choice."
Zara smiled as she stepped towards him. "Perhaps not, my lord." She detected a flicker of surprise in Kal El's eyes at her use of the honorary address. That was a good sign, she thought; he had accepted her and wished to drop the use of formalities. "But now it's time for our return to New Krypton."
"You're leaving?" Clark was surprised. Had they decided that they didn't need him after all? He didn't want them to go yet; there were still so many things he wanted to talk to them about, to ask them. He hoped, too, to see the ship in which they'd arrived, and to meet the "others" whom Zara and Ching had said accompanied them to Earth. And he wanted them to meet Lois, wanted Lois to meet them. He smiled as he thought of that.
Zara was puzzled. Had he failed to understand how urgent their mission was? "Yes, we must leave, Kal. And you must come with us. We can't lose any more time here." Her expression took on a worried cast as she thought of the latest news from home base; Nor had managed to kidnap the children and was now holding them hostage against her surrender. He had presented her with a deadline; she had one week to accede to his demand to marry him and thereby legitimize his claim to the throne of New Krypton or he and his supporters would resume hostilities. She and Ching had to get back. She would do anything to free her children. Her voice tinged with fear, she urged, "You must come with us, Kal El. You must."
Clark was surprised by the desperation in her tone. Until this moment, Zara, and more especially, Ching, had struck him as reserved, always logical. But right now, he knew that Zara was very frightened and that Ching was worried, too. He watched as the lieutenant stepped behind Zara and gently placed both hands on her shoulders, lowering his head slightly beside hers. For a moment the two seemed to focus on each other, excluding him, almost as though they were in silent communication. Zara calmed and, once again, turned her attention to Clark as Ching retreated a few paces behind her.
"Kal, we must leave tonight."
"No, I'm not ready to do this, Zara; I'm not even sure if I will do this." What was he saying? he wondered. Why wasn't he blunter? Why was he equivocating? When he'd flown to Smallville, he'd been pretty positive that he would go with Zara and Ching. The trip had been partly about saying good-bye. But it had turned out to be so much more. From that incredible moment when Lois Lane had appeared before him, he had known that, finally, everything made sense. He had felt that sense of connection which he'd been searching for all his life. He couldn't leave Lois; he couldn't.
And yet he still needed to know about his Kryptonian self, needed to explore it, and to understand how it was a part of him, how he was Kryptonian. And he needed, too, to help Zara. Whatever emotion had crossed her face a few moments ago, it had touched him. She was his kin, she was in trouble, and he could not forsake her. His agitation became apparent as he paced the small balcony. Then, he faced them directly. "Things have changed. I need more time. I will not go with you tonight." He crossed his arms as he said this, his voice decisive.
Zara searched his impassive face for a second and then bowed her head slightly. "Very well, my lord." She turned to her companion. "Lieutenant Ching." It was a command and the two Kryptonians elevated a few feet in the night air. "We'll give you time, Kal El, but not long." Then they were gone, two dark clad figures arching into the midnight sky.
"Zara, forget him. He's taking too long to make up his mind," Ching said as he and Zara entered the nebulous, expanded space which lay hidden within Zara's shabby apartment. "No, Ching. Kal El must return with us. You know he has a stronger claim to lead New Krypton than Nor. Kal El is the only counterforce we have."
Ching frowned. "I know that, but just how do you propose we get him to come? He's no use to us if he's not willing. And this indecisiveness of his…"
"We must now give him a reason to come that's stronger than what we have presented so far. Ching, we know how he longs to find out about his heritage. Tonight, as we talked, I detected his thoughts turning to me. He has some feeling for me. We can take advantage of that." She paused for a moment. "We must do whatever is necessary — we will have to use the hologram."
"No! Zara, I cannot accept that!" Ching's anguish ripped Zara's heart like a jagged lance.
"Ching, we must. *I* must. Lin and Kaz, Ching." She touched his arm, imploring him with the love in her tear brimmed eyes. "I could not bear it if anything happened to them."
Ching took her in his arms, bending his head over hers, sliding his hand through her nut brown hair, comforting her, submitting to her. "No more than I could, Zara." He sighed as he kissed her gently. "We will do what is necessary. You and I"… his voice trailed off. "What matters is New Krypton, and our son and daughter." He tightened his arms around her, but his eyes focused elsewhere, determined to protect his country, his children and the woman whom he held who was not his wife, who could never be his wife.
After a sleepless night, torn between thoughts of New Krypton and his anticipation of being with Lois the next morning, Clark gratefully arose at sunrise, showing up at Lois's building an hour later. Not bothering to ask his name, the bleary-eyed porter at the front desk in the small, run-down lobby waved Clark up toward Lois's apartment, making him wonder if the man recognized him or if he was just unconcerned about the security of the hotel's residents. For once, Clark hoped it was the former, although the guy had shown little interest in him and had returned immediately to watching some somnambulant TV program showing people wandering aimlessly around the streets of what looked like a generic megacity.
Eschewing the elevator for the stairs which he took in a blur, Clark was, seconds later, knocking on Lois's door. Slowly, the door opened a little, exposing only a sliver of the apartment inside, as well as, of course, a loose strand of auburn hair and one side of Lois's face. He smiled at the one dark brown eye which widened in surprise at the sight of him.
"Hi," he said cheerfully.
"Clark! It's not even 7:30 yet." Her voice was sleep-laced, confused as she tried to make sense of his appearance.
He smiled apologetically. "Too early? I forgot what time I said last night."
A slight change in her tone indicated she was struggling to the surface of consciousness. "Not too early, but you'll have to wait outside for a couple of minutes while I throw some clothes on." Lois Lane was not about to meet Clark Kent for a breakfast date in a pair of old flannel pyjamas. She closed the door.
Smiling to himself, Clark shoved his hands in his trouser pockets and leaned back against the stained, pale grey wall outside her apartment door. As he waited, he thought about the woman inside, speculating about her life for the last four years.
What had kept her away so long? Whatever it was, she had lost touch with her family. Hoping to find *his* Lois, he'd contacted the Lanes over a year ago, immediately after the other Lois had left Metropolis. He'd started with Sam Lane who had been the only member in her family still living in Metropolis. He'd met a brilliant, fascinating man, totally absorbed in his work, who had lost meaningful touch with his family years ago. If he still mourned his older daughter, it wasn't apparent that day as Clark had talked to him. At least, Dr. Lane had given him his daughter Lucy's address in Seattle, although not his ex-wife's who he said was now living in California.
When Clark flew out to the west coast to talk to both Lucy and Ellen Lane, he learned that they both assumed Lois was dead. There had been no contact with her. For these woman, it was a painful subject, the loss of a daughter and a sister whom they still missed. As he talked to both Lucy and Ellen, he felt that there were things they weren't saying and probably would not say to a stranger. Respecting their grief and their privacy, and not wanting to give them the false hope that Lois might still be alive, he had left, deeply disappointed. As he flew back to Metropolis, he thought, ironically, it was he who had false hope.
Now, as he waited in the hall for Lois, half pondering what the rust coloured stain on the opposite wall might be, Clark wondered if she had finally got in touch with her family and why she hadn't done so before. Had she been prevented from doing so? Maybe she'd had amnesia? Or been held hostage by guerrillas? Or been kidnapped by aliens? He grinned at the last thought.
It wasn't long before the door opened and Lois poked her head outside to flash a quick smile at him. "I'm decent — sort of. But it's safe to come in." She stood back to let him enter, giving him a veiled once over as he walked past her. He was wearing a suit! "Uh, give me a few minutes to shower and get properly dressed." She glanced down at the jeans she'd flung on so quickly and frowned at them. A wry smile snuck across her lips and into her eyes. "I hope I have something more presentable."
"You look terrific," Clark said and he meant it. The unscrubbed, dressed-down woman in front of him was just about the most gorgeous thing he'd ever seen. He grinned at the quirked eyebrow she gave him in response. "Seriously," he assured her.
"Well, with a little skill, I'll look even more terrific in a few minutes." She turned away from him to rummage in the narrow closet beside her front door, which, incidentally, also doubled as her back and side door, pulled out a few items and disappeared into what Clark presumed was the bathroom. Judging by the unmade single bed on the far wall adjacent to the apartment's only window, it wasn't a bedroom. He sat down in the room's only chair and waited.
Twenty minutes later they were walking on the street in front of the Apollo Hotel, debating where to have breakfast. When Clark had suggested James Olsen's recommendation, Lois had said okay but wondered if he wouldn't attract attention there.
"If it's so close to the Planet…" she trailed off, noticing the haunted look in his eyes.
"Yeah, probably. I'd forgotten it's a media hangout."
Lois slid her arm through his, an instinctive gesture aimed at cheering him up. "Okay, then, how about that place?" She pointed to a small diner beside the subway station. "I had some pretty decent spaghetti there last night. And it's got booths so we can have some privacy." Then she blushed. "I mean, we can talk."
"Privacy sounds good." His voice was warm as he picked up on her earlier word. Taking her hand, he led the way across the noisy street, jaywalking through the oncoming traffic with the nonchalance that all city dwellers have.
Inside the crowded diner, a distracted waitress led them to a booth at the back which had, judging by the empty plates still on the table, just been vacated. "Hang on a minute," she said, efficiently removing the clutter and slipping the tip into her pocket.
As Clark slid onto the bench on the far side of the booth, he glanced around the noisy room. "This is good. Not a reporter in sight." He paused, "Except us."
Lois smiled; it had been a long time since anyone had referred to her as a reporter and she liked it. Then, as she put her bag down, she noticed that whoever had been there before them had left a newspaper on the seat and she picked it up. The Star. She grinned at her companion. "Wish it were the Planet. Some people have *no* standards." Looking at the lurid headlines, she said more seriously, "There's been another murder in the Hobbs Canal area. Clark, what's happened to this city? When I left, Metropolis was going through some rough times, but now it seems even worse."
He grimaced. "Tell me about it. I've been trying to get a handle on those murders but so far nothing. The police haven't made much headway either." As he raised the coffee mug which the waitress had just brought, he asked, "Who's the latest victim?"
"No identification yet. The body was there a couple of days they figure. By the bridge that crosses the canal at 28th Street." As she spoke, Clark remembered how he and Zara had stood there a few days ago, trying to figure out what had happened. Lois was silent for a moment as she scanned the rest of the article, then she looked up at him. "This article tells me absolutely nothing," she said, disgusted, and her eyes shifted to the sidebar on the other bodies found in the area in the last two years. After finishing it, she shot him a quick look, her eyes excited. "I bet it's connected with the Taylors' Metro Club. You should check that, Clark."
"What?" He looked at her, both amused and yet caught up in her excitement. "Could we finish our breakfast, first?" he teased, happier than he'd been in years as he listened to her explain about her investigations of the club prior to leaving Metropolis.
Her enthusiasm and energy were contagious and he was half set on taking off to follow her lead as she concluded, "I never could get the proof I needed but I always suspected the club was a front for some of the criminal activities in both the West River and the Hobbs Canal districts."
"Maybe there wasn't any proof to get," he argued. "I met the Taylors at a fund raiser for the homeless last year. It was organized by the daughter, Toni. I'd say they were a pretty community minded family."
She shot him a skeptical look. "Yeah, she is pretty good at PR alright. But I was never convinced. I *know* I could have nailed that story if I hadn't left for the Congo." Then, she added thoughtfully, "Even that seemed somehow connected.
"How?" he asked, curious.
She became more subdued, recalling the past. "I was working undercover at the club when I overheard a conversation between Johnny Taylor and a man whom I didn't recognize about profits from the Congo operation. That's all I heard. Well, Perry had been after me to go to the Congo — the civil war — in order to gain some international experience, he said. I wanted to go but I was close to a break on the Taylor story so I resisted. After I overheard that conversation in the club, though, I was on the plane three hours later." She grinned at him, eyes sparkling as she remembered how excited she'd been.
"And then?" Clark asked quietly, as the Canal murders slipped from his mind.
The light died in her eyes and she looked away from him, focusing on the past as she absently lifted her hand to push back her hair. Raising her eyes to his, she gave him a lopsided grin. "And then, I made a few mistakes. You could say it was a learning experience."
"What did you learn?"
"To work alone. How to survive." Her voice was soft as she spoke and then stronger as she finished, "and, finally, how to live."
"I read the article Claude Kendall wrote about your disappearance."
"Did you? I'm surprised." Her voice was cool.
Clark gave her a speculative look and probed further. "That was some story he uncovered on the diamond cartel's involvement in arms smuggling. Perry'd told me he sent the two of you over to cover it and I gotta admit I was surprised Kendall's article didn't include your byline. Having read what you wrote for the Planet before you went to the Congo, I can't believe you didn't have any input in the story. I had the impression you two were partners."
"Define partner," Lois said lightly, but she was pleased at his comment about her byline and about her earlier work. "I made a fool of myself." She said it simply as though making a confession and was surprised at how good it felt to say that, and she smiled at him. "What is there about you that makes me want to tell you my life story, Clark Kent?"
He grinned at her. "My natural charm?" he teased as their eyes met for a moment.
A brief spark lit her eyes as she answered, "Must be." Then she continued more seriously, "Well, I'll spare you the gruesome details. Let's just say that I made things way too easy for Claude Kendall."
Clark looked at her sympathetically and reached across the table to touch her hand. "Was it so bad you couldn't come back?"
"I thought so." She met his eyes, before giving a slight shrug of her shoulders. "I figured my reputation was shot, but mostly I was mad and determined to regain control of *my* story. Then, I nearly died when a van I was in hit a land mine. Others did die. We had no choice, Nkwame and me, but to run if we were going to escape that wreck. But once we were safe I found I just wanted to stay away. Once I checked some old newspapers, and found that I had been reported as dead; so I thought I'd leave it that way. Saw that Kendall had won a Pulitzer, too."
"But your family?"
"I had landed in a bit of trouble with the cartel — that's why I was in the van that day, trying to get to an Interpol agent in Kinshasa. I'd got part of the story — the gunrunning part but I'd just got some evidence that it was more than guns they were involved in. Then the cartel threatened me and my sister if I stayed on the story. Being dead came in handy — I figured it was safe, for me and for Lucy." She stopped speaking.
"And," he prompted softly.
"And," she added slowly, "my family… is a bit of a disaster, I guess. There was a big fight before I left… I did write my mother a couple of postcards after I made it out of the jungle but when I checked at the American embassy, there was no reply." She paused for a moment. "Anyway, I'd always dreamed about seeing the world. It was the best thing I ever did."
Clark felt her vitality return as she finished speaking. "So what made you come back?"
"I missed my sister," she said simply. "Look, Clark Kent, why are we talking so much about me?"
"Are you kidding? Leading reporter returns from the dead," he said in a mock dramatic tone.
"So this is an interview?" She was disappointed; she'd thought it was a date.
He met her eyes, holding them with the gentleness in his own. "No, it's not. I just want to know everything there is to know about you, Lois Lane." His voice dropped lower as he spoke, its husky timbre summoning long dormant shadows in her soul.
"Oh," she said shyly. And then neither of them spoke for a long moment, content just to gaze at each other, to block out the rest of the world.
So it was the waitress who spoke next. "You folks like more coffee?"
"What?" Clark sounded startled. "Lois?" Seeing the shake of her head, he said, "No, we're fine, fine. Thanks."
"Guess we should be going, Clark. Sooner or later, James Olsen must expect you to show up at the Planet."
"Sooner or later," he smiled, aware that his second identity gave him more flexibility than the average employee. "Hope he's there this morning. You'll like him," he reached for the check which the waitress had just placed on the scratched wooden table top.
But Lois didn't return to the Planet with Clark. Yesterday, she'd agreed to meet Jason Trask at 10:00 o'clock and she figured she had just enough time to get over to Bureau 39. Explaining she had an appointment, she promised to meet Clark for dinner at his place and then left him standing in front of the diner as she hurried across the street, dodging oncoming traffic until she'd made it to the curb on the other side. As she trotted down the graffiti sprayed stairwell of the subway entrance, and past the huddled shapes of two sleeping homeless, she pondered her involvement with Bureau 39.
She wanted to keep working for the Bureau — it was too useful a connection, too good a source of information, to abandon. Besides she was verycurious about Trask's objectives. Was surveillance the only thing he was interested in or was he planning something more? How great a risk was Bureau 39 to Superman? She would have to be very careful — careful of Trask, whom she felt could be dangerous, and also, she acknowledged, careful of her growing feelings for Clark Kent.
She was falling for him, and that was the last thing in the world she wanted. Never again. Besides it would ruin her reporter's objectivity. So why did her hand instinctively touch her cheek where he had brushed a brief, soft kiss as he had left her last night?
When Clark arrived back at the Planet, he wasn't too surprised to see Zara hovering in the vicinity of his desk, ostensibly reviewing some research with Jocasta O'Reilly who had the work station next to his. As he walked towards them, he picked up on their conversation, listening to Zara skillfully bring it to an end, not an easy task where Jocasta was concerned. Clicking on his computer, he waited for Zara's approach and when she did, he stopped what he was doing, cocked his head to one side, and gave her his attention.
"Good morning, Clark." She smiled, demurely diffident, a junior staffer approaching a colleague with more seniority. "I have more background on the Hobbs Canal killings, but I've left it in the conference room. Do you have a moment to look at it?"
"Sure, Sara." He rose, following her across the newsroom to the conference room which had been carved out of the corner next to the edtor-in-chief's office. Once inside, knowing full well she wasn't interested, he asked, "What've you got?"
She gestured dismissively at a couple of files on the long, heavy table in the centre of the small room. "I really have been gathering data on those murders. But you know that's not what I want to talk about." Facing him directly, she asked, "What have you decided, Kal El?"
The conflict in Clark's heart manifested itself in the lines of his face and the agony in his brown eyes. He let out a slow breath as he raked a large hand through his black hair, letting it come to rest for a moment on the back of his neck. He paced away from her, all those thoughts from his restless night tumbling in his mind; then he returned to stand in front of her.
"Zara, it's not so simple. I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to help you, and to find out more about New Krypton. But Zara, you can't be sure that I can solve your problem. I'm no politician, and I'm not a military leader." He paused before adding, "And Earth *is* my home."
"Kal, how can you say that?" Zara was passionate as she continued, her voice betraying her impatience. "What kind of life do you have here? You have no kin here, no strong ties. You're not one of these people. How can you ever be?"
"How can I be?" he repeated, his voice bleak with the pain of his years of isolation. He'd asked himself that question so often, especially in the last year. He bowed his head briefly, then looked up, his face set. "I'm not ready to give up, Zara." And, he added to himself, not now, especially, not now, as he remembered the shock of Lois Lane's touch on his arm that night in the barn, and the magic he felt every time he saw her.
"Listen, Kal. Do you have the vehicle which transported you to earth?" Pleased, she felt his interest return to her.
"No. I had no idea how I got here until you and Ching told me. I must have come in some sort of ship but I have no clue about it." In truth, he hadn't thought about the issue at all that night when Zara and Ching had first come to his apartment, his mind more focused on the enormity of what they had just told him and what they had asked of him.
"We've found it, Kal."
"You have?" Clark's eagerness transformed his face. "Where is it?"
"We found it not far from the dwelling where you were raised. We have the vessel now, on our ship."
"Then let's go," Clark grinned, impatient to satisfy his curiosity about his past, and, also, to see Zara's ship which had to be so much more technically advanced than anything Earth had yet developed. Opening the door, he strode briskly toward the elevator, Zara at his side.
They didn't quite make it; Clark's superhearing picked up the sounds of distant sirens. "I have to go."
"No! You must come with me. Whatever this is, it's not your concern."
"It is, Zara. It is." He turned, jogging towards the stairwell, tugging at his tie as he did.
As Clark and Zara were talking in the conference room, Lois Lane was presenting her latest plan to Jason Trask, her eyes watching his stolid face for any sign of reaction.
"I want to try to get my job back at the Planet. I'm not sure I can keep up this surveillance thing without being noticed. I mean, the man has super hearing and vision. Sooner or later, he's going to notice he's being followed."
"I'd thought of that, Lane. You *could* be more use to us on the inside."
"*Use* how exactly?"
"Watching the alien. Tell us who he sees, who he's close to. Be on the lookout for any attempt he makes to contact his people so we can be ready when they make their move. Eliminate the element of surprise."
Inwardly, Lois thought Jason Trask had seen one too many trash sci-fi movies. How on earth had he managed to get funding for this project, anyway? Must be a few more wackos in Washington than she'd thought. Mentally she was changing her big expose on Superman to one on weirdo witch-hunters in the government. But all she said was, "I'd like to continue my research here, too. The more I know about him, the better I can spot anything out of the ordinary." The thought of Clark Kent leading an alien invasion force was pretty farfetched, she thought. But still, how *had* he got here? That question wouldn't go away, and she didn't like it.
"Just keep me informed, Lane. This is national security we're talking about here."
"You got it, Trask."
She took her leave, walking out into the damp, overcast January day, and began her trip back to the Planet, this time vowing to avoid the personnel office.
No Clark Kent when she got there. Disappointed, she chided herself, <Do you think he's just waiting around for you to show up?> Once again she noticed no one in the newsroom she knew and was thinking about invading James Olsen's sanctuary when her eyes alighted on the brightly-clad, ample figure of Jocasta O'Reilly, sipping coffee with two other people by the large aluminum urn in the lounge area. Yes, she thought, and swiveled in that direction.
"Jocasta," she said quietly, not completely unaware that her presence would require a little explaining.
The older woman's eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. "Lois Lane." Then loudly, with exuberance. "Lois Lane!" She enveloped the smaller woman in an affectionate hug. "I should have known you were indestructible." She laughed and stood back, giving Lois the once over. "Well, you certainly don't look like a ghost."
"I should hope not!" Warmed by Jocasta's welcome, Lois now focused her attention on the two men with whom Jocasta had been chatting.
"Rick, this is Lois Lane, best kid to come on staff in the last ten years, and that includes you, too," Jocasta finished good humouredly.
"Hi, Lois." Rick Vega looked at her curiously, his cool grey eyes assessing her, as he reached out a bony, long fingered hand to shake her own.
"Hi, Rick." Lois had some sixth sense he regarded her as potential competition and right now she didn't need that. "The great thing about Jocasta is she's forgotten all the mistakes I made when I was starting out."
He smiled. "Ah well, she probably didn't have too much to forget then."
"Rick's only been here a month or so," Jocasta explained. "Not enough time to get into much trouble. And this is Tony," she smiled at the slight man dressed in black who, at the mention of his name, opened his heavy lidded eyes just a little wider and raised his coffee cup in a casual salute as Jocasta completed her introduction. "Our new guy on arts, music. College bud of the Boss," she nodded her head in the direction of the editor-in-chief's office. "But that doesn't mean he doesn't know what he's talking about." She smiled at the dark-haired young man before adding, "Doesn't know his way around a race track yet, though."
Tony Bergman cast Jocasta a laconic glance. "Because it's fixed." Then he looked at Lois with more attention, as though he'd just awakened. "You look familiar, Lois."
"I used to work here a few years ago. Maybe you've seen a staff picture?"
"Must be it," he said but he continued to look at her as though searching for something in his mind.
"Come on, Lois, you've got to meet the Boss." Jocasta touched Lois's arm, beckoning her friend to accompany her across the length of the newsroom to the office of James Olsen, editor-in-chief and owner of the Daily Planet.
Jocasta poked her head inside the door. "You got a minute, Boss? There's someone here I'd like you to meet." She trooped in, Lois following in her wake.
"James Olsen, meet Lois Lane."
Lois had the impression that James Olsen looked dumbfounded for a brief moment as he rose from behind his desk to greet her. "You're back. I thought you weren't returning." An expansive smile stretched across his face as he stepped toward her. "You look different, somehow."
"Well, people change in four years," Lois laughed, bemused by this stranger's enthusiasm on meeting her and just a little pleased that he too seemed to know that Lois Lane was once the Planet's most promising new reporter. Things were definitely looking up.
"Four years…" Olsen looked at her more carefully before repeating, "Four years. Then you must be…"
"Interested in getting her old job back, I'd guess," Jocasta jumped in.
"Just what I was going to suggest," James Olsen's wide smile reappeared as he extended his hand to shake hers. "Welcome back, Ms. Lane. When can you start?"
"Right now!" Lois beamed happily at him, taking an instant liking to the young man, fastidiously dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit which seemed a decade too responsible for him.
"Then follow me, Ms. Lane." He walked a few paces beyond his office door toward a small desk situated immediately at his left where a man, not much more than twenty, was occupied at his computer.
"Tariq, this is Lois Lane. Lois this is Tariq Patel, our assistant manager and systems coordinator." He paused for a moment while the two acknowledged the introduction. "Ms. Lane started working here this morning." He flashed Lois a brief smile that was almost mischievous. "Ask Ed to bring up a desk from storage and a computer. Set it over by Jocasta and Kent."
Tariq cast his eyes over to that general area. "Where, Boss? Space is tight. Maybe Ed could suspend the desk above the others? Two tier newsroom." He laughed a little at his joke while the others just looked at him.
"Always room for one more," Jocasta said energetically. "I'll get Rick and Tony to help rearrange the space." She trotted off, raising her voice as she boomed, "Tony! Rick!"
Laughter lurked at the corners of James Olsen's eyes as he watched her retreating figure. "Ms. Lane, the first thing to know about the newsroom is that Jocasta runs it."
"Oh, so that hasn't changed," Lois observed innocently.
"No. I made a lot of changes when I took over, but some things I knew better than to mess with. Okay, time for you to start. First, give Tariq your personal data." Turning to Tariq, he added, "We must have some of that on file."
Tariq had been busy at his terminal for the last moment or so and now he gazed at the screen, scowling. "No, we don't. No entry for Lois Lane." He turned to look at his boss. "I guess she must have been one of those whose records got erased when the Planet reorganized its personnel records a couple of years ago." He looked at Lois apologetically as though it were his fault. "The Planet hired an outside consultant to streamline its records. Think the firm was called 'Gremlins Inc'. Before my time," he added in a disparaging tone.
"One of the reasons why I was able to get the Planet for loose change, Ms. Lane."
"Is it?" Lois was interested in what had transpired here over the last three years and nearly started to ask him when she retrained herself. Now was not the time, and there *would* be lots of time to learn that story. "Well, let's start again," she smiled. In the background she was aware of Tariq on the phone, commandeering a desk from the bowels of the Planet's store room. He certainly moved quickly — probably like his boss, she thought.
"Now for your first story — a survival story," Olsen's face lit up. "Planet Reporter Returns from the Dead," he pronounced dramatically, as though reading a headline.
Lois's eyes widened as she envisioned the lurid headline. "Uh, could we hold back on that a bit? I still haven't contacted my family yet. And," she took a deep breath and met the eyes of this energetic man who was, she knew, five years her junior, "I read something about the latest Hobbs Canal murder this morning. I was working on a story I think might be a tie in when I left for the Congo four years ago. I'd like to pick up on this latest killing." She paused, and offered him a conciliatory branch. "I'll work on the Congo story, too. I kept a journal while I was away."
Olsen looked at her, sizing her up for a moment, she thought. "Perry White once told me you were the most promising reporter he'd come across. No one with better instincts. I've already got someone on that story but I'll partner you with him. Clark Kent. He's not here right now, but I'll let him know when he comes back."
Lois had to ask, although she was pretty sure of the answer, "You don't think he'll mind?"
She got the impression he was stifling a laugh as he replied. "No, he won't mind. In fact, he's a pretty busy guy — he could use a partner."
Okay, Ms. Lane," Tariq Patel swiveled in his chair so he was facing them, and with a wave of his hand toward his computer screen, said, "You are now officially *undead*."
When Superman got to the source of the alarms, he discovered that a subway train had taken a subterranean curve at too high a speed and jumped a track, careening into the concrete wall of an underground tunnel. Reverberations from the crash had caused a partial collapse of the tunnel entrance blocking immediate access by rescue workers. It had taken a couple of hours of careful excavation before the last of the injured passengers were brought to the surface. Then he shot back to the Planet, hoping finally to get a chance to go with Zara to the Kryptonian space craft.
As he stepped off the elevator, he glanced around the newsroom, his eyes searching for Zara but instead they came to an abrupt stop as he spotted Lois Lane in the midst of a conversation with Tariq Patel who was helping her with a computer on a desk which had been squeezed between his own and Jocasta's. He grinned as he stepped lightly down the few steps which bridged the newsroom with the narrow landing in front of the elevator.
"Hi," he said as he reached his desk.
Tariq stopped what he was doing. "Hi, Clark. The boss decided to give you a little help. Meet Lois Lane, your new junior partner."
"*Junior* partner!" Lois's brown eyes instantly widened at the words.
"Sounds good to me." As Clark spoke, a teasing smile flashed in his eyes, drifting down to lurk at the corner of his mouth.
"After all, Lois, Clark has worked here for over three years now. Seniority," Tariq said as he turned his attention again to her computer. "There, up and running."
Lois ignored Tariq's last comment. "I worked at the Planet for over *four* years before the Congo."
"Past tense, Lois," Clark said kindly. "You're only as good as your latest story."
"Full partners — no junior, senior…"
"I don't know," Clark hesitated, "There've been a lot of changes around here. I'll have to spend time showing you the ropes…"
"Showing me the ropes! There are ropes in this town you probably haven't even untangled yet."
"So you'll teach me things I don't know?" Clark asked softly, the teasing note gone from his voice.
Lois retreated, shifting her eyes away from him, back to Tariq who she saw had stopped tinkering with her computer and was now paying close attention to the exchange between her and Clark. She shrugged her shoulders. "Is he gonna be difficult to work with?" she asked lightly.
"No, no!" Tariq shook his head, surprised. This sounded like the old Clark he remembered, before his exposure as Superman. He sounded relaxed, unguarded. As this thought crossed his mind, Tariq noticed Sara approach them, as always, carrying a file folder with her latest research.
"Hi, Clark. We left this folder in the conference room before you left." She looked curiously at Lois, then shifted her attention back to Clark. "Do you have time to go over it now?"
"Sara, this is Lois Lane." The emphasis he placed on her name conveyed to Zara that he attached some importance to this woman. "Lois, this is Sara Ching."
As the two women shook hands, Zara looked at Lois carefully, trying to assess why Kal had placed such emphasis on Lois's name as he had introduced them. What she saw was an attractive woman, about her own height, conservatively dressed in brown. As she listened to Clark explain that Lois Lane would be working with him, Zara felt a flicker of unease. Why would James Olsen have assigned Clark a partner and why did Kal seemed so pleased with this? On the other hand, she reasoned, this could be good; the woman could take over this tedious murder story, freeing Kal to focus on New Krypton. If the woman was any good, then Kal could leave the paper with no qualms. That must be why Kal was so pleased with Lois Lane; he was planning to train her as his replacement. Yes, that must be it. Zara looked closely at Kal, looking for confirmation of her conclusion and a sense of relief from him but picked up neither. What she saw was her distant cousin beaming at this woman and Zara knew that, whatever he was thinking had nothing to do with her or New Krypton, and her unease returned.
Clearing her throat, Zara made a bid to claim Kal's attention. "Clark, shall we go to the conference room to discuss my research?"
Sara's imperative tone got Lois's attention; she now looked more carefully at the woman whose hand rested lightly on Clark's forearm. And Lois noted, too, a brief flicker of something, she wasn't sure what, cross his eyes. Lois's first impression of Sara as a pleasant and efficient co-worker now shifted. Was there something between her and Clark? For the first time, Lois saw that beneath the somewhat frumpy clothes and unstyled hair, Sara was a very beautiful woman. Well, she said to herself, what did you expect? That he's been celibate since the end of his engagement? Her eyes narrowed as she looked at Sara suspiciously.
Clark rocked back on his heels, his hands in his pockets, beaming with happiness at the two women in front of him — his long lost, distant cousin and the long lost woman he loved.
Later, that evening as Clark quickly got his apartment ready for Lois's arrival, he thought back to the short period of time during which he, Zara, and Lois had discussed the Hobbs story in the conference room. Lois had insisted on joining them since, as his partner, she needed to be filled in on what had happened. To tell the truth, he admitted to himself now as he inserted a candle in an old pewter candlestick, he had found it unexpectedly awkward because he'd known that the story was the last thing on Zara's mind while Lois had been really into it. He'd been relieved when, after about twenty minutes of discussion, he had once again been called away, and then, remembering his afternoon commitment to the Children's Hospital, even more relieved as he had told the two women that he was unlikely to make it back to the Planet at all that day.
With a heavy hint to Zara that he was aware of their unfinished business, he'd left, but not before Zara had shocked the hell out of him by somehow conveying, without speaking, what she was thinking. He could still hear her silent response as he'd announced that he had to leave.
<<Very well, Kal El, but don't forget that we have your transporter craft on our ship. We will contact you tonight.>>
And remembering his date with Lois this evening, he had instantly thought. <<No. I can't, not tonight. Tomorrow.>>
And Zara had lowered her head and he knew her thought. <<Very well, my lord. Tomorrow.>>
What had happened? Had he imagined it or had they actually communicated by thought, telepathically? He'd looked across at Lois, wondering if she'd detected anything but she hadn't seemed to. For a brief second he'd been immobilized by the shock before reports blaring through the open, conference room door announced the news of a raging fire aboard a cruise ship in the Caribbean and brought him back to reality. For the first time in over a year, he'd felt really torn — between his job, his obligation to Zara, his feelings for Lois, and his overwhelming compulsion to save those people in danger on that ship on the high seas.
Now all that receded into the back of his mind as he looked over his apartment, hoping it would meet with Lois's approval. That was an understatement, he thought, smiling to himself. He wanted her to feel comfortable here, like it was a place she would want to stay. God, how he wanted her to stay.
His eyes swept over the bottle of wine and the candles on the small table, then shifted to the candles on the coffee table and on the end table beside the couch. The only artificial light in his apartment came from the small kitchen area so that the apartment was almost entirely lit by candles. As he used his heat vision on the one he'd just positioned on the nightstand by his bed he accidentally caught sight of his reflection in the window — a man dressed in black shirt and black slacks. All he needed was a gold chain and some chest hair, he thought derisively. At that moment, with the romantic ballads he had selected in the background, it all came together — it looked very much like he was trying to seduce her.
Geez, not yet, it was too soon. And where'd he get the idea for all those candles from — some dumb TV movie he'd watched with Lana once? He could just see Lois rolling her eyes as she walked in the door and then he foresaw her finding the first plausible reason to leave. Once again, he was reminded that *his* Lois was not the benign being whom he had met from the other universe. His Lois, somehow, seemed *more*; he couldn't quite explain how, but *more*. Now he remembered the other Lois saying she thought what he felt for her was a projection of what he was meant to feel for his own Lois. It had made sense to him at the time, and from the moment he'd met this energetic, incredible woman with the fake red hair, he'd known it was true. But, he reminded himself, she was not yet *his* Lois.
So his apartment shouldn't look quite so predatory. Neither should he. Quickly, he whirled out of the black slacks and into a pair of jeans, snuffed the candle by his bed and shoved it in the drawer of the nightstand, (what had he been thinking?), changed the CD, and removed most of the candles from the living area. Then he turned on a couple of lamps and decided the apartment looked okay. He expelled a deep breath and then turned to walk up the few steps to his front door as he heard Lois's footsteps outside.
"Hi." He opened the door before she had a chance to knock, taking in the snowflakes that had not yet melted on her hair. The Apollo was only a couple of blocks over from Clinton Street and he suspected she'd walked. "You must be cold," he said wondering just how warm the light weight jacket which she wore was.
"No." She gave him a dazzling smile, her cheeks flushed from her walk in the cold night air. "I haven't seen real snow for so long — I'd forgotten how wonderful it feels on the tip of your tongue." She stuck her tongue out briefly to illustrate her point. "Here," she said thrusting a bottle of wine at him. "It's Chilean — manager's recommendation." Then she proceeded to pull off her ear muffs, unwind a very long red scarf, shrug off her jacket, and unpeel a huge cable knit sweater, handing him each layer as she finished. He was as entranced as a child on Christmas day, wondering what was coming next. Not much as it turned out — just her boots which she was now unlacing. Then she stood up straight, shook out her hair, and grinned at him. "Hi. I wasn't absolutely sure you'd be here."
"You weren't?" They walked toward his kitchen as they talked.
"No, I wondered if there'd be some emergency."
"Not tonight." He smiled and said softly, "Tonight, I'm all yours, Ms. Lane."
Their eyes met for a brief a moment before he said, "Uh, would you um… like some wine?"
Lacing her hands behind her back, she answered, "That would be nice. That would be nice." He made her nervous when he looked at her like that. Why? Of what? Of what she saw in his eyes or of what she felt in her heart? So she decided she'd better talk, talk about work, and the first thing that came to mind was her afternoon at the Planet. "Sara filled me in on the Hobbs Canal story. She's pretty good."
"Yes, she is," Clark answered as he poured them each a glass of wine.
"She hasn't worked at the planet very long, she said."
"No." Clark handed her a glass of wine and raised his own to her in a silent toast.
"Where did she work before she came to the Planet?"
"Um, not sure she ever mentioned it," Clark said, beginning to feel uncomfortable. Zara was the last person he wanted to talk about. "So what was it like being back at the Planet?"
"Great," she grinned. "I didn't know how much I missed it until I got my hands on that file. Right now, I'm wishing some miracle would produce my old notes. I'm positive there's a connection between this case and some of the stuff I was checking out before I went to the Congo."
"Why so sure?"
"For one, I'm pretty certain I recognized one of the victims."
"Yeah, the accountant. I'm pretty sure I saw him at the Metro Club a couple of times."
"Lois, how can you remember a guy who you saw twice four years ago?"
"Because he hit on me, and I remember his hand on my… sliding down my arm — the index finger of his left hand was missing the last two joints."
"Oh. I guess that would kinda stick in your memory."
"Yeah, if I hadn't been undercover, that guy would've had a hard time walking out of the club."
Clark smiled. "Still, it's a popular place. His presence there doesn't prove a whole lot." He handed her a spoon with a bit of salad dressing on it. "Think I should add a bit of sugar?"
She looked at him, amazed, and said helpfully, "You know, Clark, you can buy perfectly good salad dressing in bottles."
"You're kidding, right?"
"No." She tasted the dressing, wriggling her nose as she concentrated on its taste. "Yeah, maybe sugar would help. Anyway, this accountant wasn't just an ordinary customer. Both times I saw him, he was at a table with Toni Taylor and Lex Luthor."
Clark turned to her, surprised. "Lex Luthor? I don't get it."
"Not sure if there's a link there. I know Toni was dating Luthor while I was at the club. The accountant was hers."
"Luthor's one of Metropolis's leading citizens."
"I'm not so sure about that — there were a couple of things I couldn't quite pin down."
Clark's voice was curious as he considered what she'd just said. "Like what?"
"Like his purchase of fire sale real estate in the West River district."
"Opportunity?" Clark suggested lightly.
"Really believe that, Kent?"
"Not sure," he said. "Here." He handed her the salad. "I'll bring the pasta."
He followed her to the table, setting down two plates of seafood pasta, and then pulled back the chair for her. As they ate they talked a little more about Lois's suspicions about the Club which she thought was probably a front for money laundering, and probably drug dealing as well. Clark was less sure, although he was beginning to share her suspicions of Lex Luthor.
It turned out that Lois had actually dated Luthor a few times, not long after she joined the Planet. When Clark raised his eyebrows in surprise, Lois shrugged her shoulders and said, "Well, I guess I was one of the lastwomen in town under the age of thirty he hadn't dated. And I was curious about what was behind all those closed doors. Still am. Anyway, I think he didn't much like an article I wrote on Metropolis Power Corp which he controls and he thought maybe dating me was a way to keep an eye on me."
"You didn't object?"
Lois shot him a look of complete honesty and grinned. "He was a great date — always the gentleman and, once, we even flew in his private jet to Milan for dinner. I was so..oo impressed."
"So you went soft on him in your articles after that."
"I did not, Clark Kent!"
He grinned at her. "So what happened to the great romance?"
"I wrote an article he really didn't like and he got all cold and hurt. "I trusted you, Lois, I shared my dreams with you, and this is the thanks I get," she intoned, her voice wounded, mimicing Luthor. "And besides, he had this weird thing about cigars."
"So that was the last you saw of Lex Luthor?"
"Uh uh, but he *was* charming," she sighed.
Clark felt a faint twinge of jealously. "He's charmed a lot of women," he said sourly.
"And bought a lot, too," Lois added cheerfully. "Clark, this is really good."
"Yeah, it is, isn't it? I got it at Petro's, around the corner from here."
"You mean you didn't make this yourself?"
"Made the salad," he said proudly. "But didn't want to gamble on my cooking."
"And here I thought you were a great cook," she sighed in mock disappointment.
"Didn't want to take the risk," he grinned. "I'm competent but…"
Lois sipped her wine. "Well, that still puts you one up on me. *I* would have bought the salad, too." She paused for a minute, and then met his eyes. "Clark, can I ask you a question?"
"About Sara. Are you involved with her?"
"What? Why do you think that?" Clark looked at her, unsure what to say.
"I see," Lois smiled wryly and lowered her eyes, detecting the hesitation in his response.
Clark reached across to cover her hand. "No, you don't see, Lois."
Lois cocked her head to one side and retreated. "It's none of my business. I'm sorry."
Detecting the slight retreat in her manner, Clark tried again. "Sara is a co-worker and one for whom I have a lot of respect. But that's it, Lois."
His voice was definite and she believed him, why she wasn't sure. Maybe because she wanted to. "Okay, let's talk about something else."
And they did. For the rest of the evening they talked, and occasionally argued, about many things — safe things at first like The Metropolis Bearcats and politics in Eastern Europe, things that were pure piffle like who was the most creative of the old County Cobra Gang, and finally, as the evening grew longer, they took tentative steps toward serious matters like their pasts. Lois revealed a little about her involvement with Claude Kendall but still felt uncomfortable admitting how foolish she'd been in trusting him, so she didn't; while Clark told her of his engagement to Lana but he still felt foolish for getting entangled where his heart had not been fully committed, so he didn't admit that either. And he didn't tell her about the long lost distant cousin who waited somewhere in hyperspace for him to make up his mind about where he belonged.
Later, as Clark sat in the armchair opposite Lois, he watched her as she talked, thinking she was more beautiful than any woman he had ever met. He was entranced and, he knew, in the few days he had known her, he had fallen deeply in love with her. He'd never known what it was like to feel like this — to be fascinated by the curve of a woman's neck and the slight tilt of her nose, spellbound by the sparkle in her eyes when she was excited about something, and lost and then found when occasionally their eyes met and they both were speechless. He was happy, content sitting here in his living room, enjoying her laugh as he finished his anecdote about Perry White, the Elvis tribute artist, and the trout.
"You're making that up."
"No, I'm not kidding — it really happened. That's why he decided to run for mayor."
"Now I know you're kidding."
"No, no," he raised his hands, palms outward. "You know Perry thinks Presley's the best President we've had this century."
"I know. Scary, isn't it?" She grinned at him, laughter still in her eyes and then it fled, replaced by something more intense. She took a deep breath and looked away, picking up her empty wine glass and raising it to her lips which she realized was pretty dumb and she put it down quickly, watching it wobble as she placed it too quickly on the coffee table. Leaning forward, she made a swift grab for it, rising to her feet as she did, mumbling something about it being time to go.
Simultaneously, as Lois was rising, Clark was on his feet in front of her "Here, let me get you some more." As Lois turned, she stepped on his foot and then instinctively grabbed his arm to steady herself.
"Oh, sorry. I'm sorry. That must've hurt."
"No," he grinned, "trust me, it didn't hurt."
"Oh… Oh, of course not. I forgot that…"
"Did you, Lois?"
His voice had taken on that huskiness which made her heart flip and less altruistic parts of her tingle. Without thinking, she moved her hand from his forearm to touch his chest, wondering, as she met his dark eyes, why she could not remove her hand and bring it safely back to her side and why her other hand had somehow found its way to his chest as well. She felt his fingers lightly touch her face, slowing stroking a line from her cheekbone, along the side of her face to her neck, then come to rest there as he bent his head closer and she tilted her own. His kiss was light, a feather's brush against her mouth, and she sighed as she moved her lips against his. He murmured her name as his arms encircled her and his kiss turned more passionate, and she felt herself whirling. How could a kiss be so magical, like something she'd never known before? Sliding her arms around his neck, she leaned against him, both submitting to him and demanding more, urged on by the feel of his hand wandering along her back and the hardness of his body.
Finally, she broke away, needing to catch her breath, and she looked at him, her eyes wide with wonder. "Maybe we'd better slow down here, a little. I'm not sure what's happening."
"Aren't you, Lois?" His hand slipped through her hair, and he kissed the corner of her mouth.
Again she rested her hands on his chest, loving the feel of him. "I wasn't expecting this, to feel like this."
"I knew the moment I saw you, Lois. That night in the barn."
"Clark, we've only known each other a few days," she protested, the logical part of her mind battling her emotional turmoil. "It's probably just hormones." She tried to make a joke of what had happened between them and saw the brief flicker of disappointment in his eyes. Oh no, she thought.
"Is that all you're feeling, Lois?"
She faced him honestly. "No, no, it's not all," she admitted and then stepped away from him, pacing around the small space of his living room, her hands flailing as she spoke. "But Clark, my feelings are notoriously unreliable. The last time I fell for a guy, he stole my story and nearly got me killed. One of my rules — test the water before you jump. And never sleep with a co-worker. Not that that's what I was thinking," she glared at him as she continued her speech. "You hafta know that all, that's *all*, Clark, my relationships have been federal disasters. This is probably just hormones — I mean, I don't deny that I find you attractive." She glared at him again as though that were one of his character flaws. By this time she'd completed the circuit of his living room and had come face to face with him. She took a deep breath. "So what d'you say, Clark? Maybe we should go to bed, get the hormone thing out of our systems, and then calm down and be friends."
"Are you nuts?"
"This is a perfectly logical proposition, Clark," she said with dignity.
His eyes glinted and he grabbed her, kissing her with more passion than he'd been aware he possessed, pulling her tight against his body, letting her feel how very tempting he found her offer. Then he let her go. "That's not what I want, Lois, and it's not what you want either. And right now, I'm walking you home, before we do something *I'm* gonna regret in the morning."
"Oh." Lois was surprised — she had flung herself at him and he'd flung herself right back. "Well, then…" Trying to slow her racing pulse, she walked over to the coat rack, reached for the first of the layers of clothing she'd worn over and began to build her cocoon. He helped her on with her jacket when she got to that point, pulled on his own jacket, and they stepped out into the crisp January air. It had stopped snowing and now the night was brighter than when she had arrived, moonlight glistening on the whiteness of the snow covered ground.
Lois paused as she inhaled a deep breath of cold air, pleased with the feel of it on her flushed cheeks. "You're right. I didn't really want to sleep with you."
"Don't know if I should be hurt by that comment or not, Ms. Lane," he teased.
He took her hand as they walked along Clinton street towards the intersection which led to the street on which the Apollo Hotel was located, leaving their footsteps in the new snow. For a few moments they were silent.
"Why were you in my dad's barn, Lois?"
He'd asked the question before and she been able to dodge it. "I was looking for Superman. Do you know, I'd never really heard about Superman while I was away — it's amazing how easy it is to be uninformed about some things, especially when you're living in a different culture. Then, when I started to get into things again, I found it hard to believe Superman was real, maybe because I was so far away." She stopped speaking for a moment and smiled. "And when I read about James Olsen buying the Planet and you working at the Planet, I reached the obvious conclusion."
"Superman was a publicity stunt."
Clark sputtered, "A what?"
"Clark, the costume — what was I to think?"
"You don't like the suit?"
She ignored his question. "So I decided to do some digging. That's why I went to Smallville and that's why I was in the barn. Looking for Superman."
"And you found him."
"No." She turned to look at him. "I found Clark Kent."
He stopped walking then and looked at her, his face registering a quiet happiness he found impossible to put into words. All he did was touch the side of her face and then pulled her hand around his arm, close to his side, and continued walking with her towards the Apollo Hotel.
As Clark and Lois got about half a block from the Apollo Hotel, they spotted two men, both on the wrong side of seedy and looking like they moonlighted carrying brass knuckles and baseball bats. One of them carried a brief case which he handed over to the other as he was getting into a cab; then the first man walked briskly back into the Apollo Hotel. As Lois and Clark got closer to the building, Clark happened to look down and spotted a used condom at the corner wall of the hotel, right beneath some lurid graffiti whose message, coincidently, had something in common with the condom. He also noticed that two basement windows of the Apollo were shattered, their jagged fingers of glass backed now by plywood, and that all the street-level windows had metal bars on them.
"When are you moving from this place?"
"Moving?" Lois followed his eyes to the broken windows and shrugged. "I've been redecorating. Can't move for awhile."
"This isn't a safe neighborhood."
She looked sideways at him. "I've stayed in a lot rougher places than this and I bet you have, too."
"But I'm Superman," he pointed out.
She grinned. "Oh, yeah, I keep forgetting." When he raised his eyebrows, she said, "Really. When we're together like this you just seem like Clark."
His features softened into a smile. "That's because I am," he said as he squeezed her hand briefly. "But back to the point — you should move."
"Clark, I just got here," she protested. "Don't worry — I can take care of myself. Besides I'll move when I can afford a better place."
Clark paused — he should have thought of that; it hadn't been too long since he'd been alone and broke in this city. Nevertheless, he wanted her living in a safer place than this. So he made a cautious offer. "Can I lend you some money, Lois? Just until you've been here for awhile."
"No, you cannot!"
He could tell he'd offended her. "Lois, it'd be just a temporary loan."
"I don't want your money, Clark Kent." They were now at the front entrance to the hotel and she turned to face him. "But it's sweet of you to offer."
He raised his hand to slide it through her thick hair. "I could give you anything you wanted, Lois," he said softly. "I want to give you… things," he finished trying to avoid telling her how much he wanted to give her — the stars, his love, his life — whatever she wanted.
She placed her mittened hand on his broad chest and met his eyes. "Do you?" she whispered.
He bent his dark head and kissed her softly. "Yes, whatever you want." The urgent promise of thousands of lovers across the world.
"No one's ever said that to me before," she said shaken by the emotion she saw in his earth-dark eyes and in her own erratic heart.
"Then," he said, flashing a quick smile, "I'll help you look for an apartment tomorrow."
"You will not!" But now her eyes were teasing. "*I* can take care of myself and besides, I don't want *things* from you, Clark Kent."
He felt disappointed — he had made his first tentative offer of something bigger to her and she had backed away. "I just wanted to help."
She saw his disappointment and teased him. "You should be careful, Clark. You never can tell what someone will say when you make them an offer like that."
"Never made an offer like that before, Lois, so tell me what to expect," he teased back.
"Well, a year's supply of black jellybeans," she said thoughtfully with a blissful sigh.
"Is that what you'd like?" His eyes lit up, but she knew he was still teasing.
"No!" she sounded horrified. "God, I'd devour them all in a month and then you'd never recognize me on the street." She stood on her tiptoes for a second and gave him a swift kiss on the cheek. "Good night, Clark," she said and stepped lightly up the few steps to the double glass doors across which scrawled the gold letters, Apollo Hotel.
He stood watching her and she turned and flashed a quick smile. "I'll tell you what, though. You can help me celebrate when I get my first paycheck — I'll take you out to dinner." And with that she vanished into the hotel.
For a moment, Clark stood watching the closed door; then he turned to walk slowly back to his apartment, not really focusing on anything, feeling Lois's presence still and dazzled by the reflection of streetlights on fresh powder snow. This was his city and it felt good to be here.
But as he got closer to his place, he found that he had begun to think once more of Zara and Ching, this time dreading his next encounter with them. Where did his loyalty lie? To New Krypton where his kin lived and which now needed his help in its time of crisis? To this planet Earth which had given him refuge? To everything which Jonathan and Martha Kent had given him and taught him? He desperately wanted that happiness he'd known as their son; and now with Lois, he felt, for the first time, that it, and so much more, could once again be his. But did he have the right to place his need for personal happiness, and Lois's too, above the need of New Krypton?
Did he have an obligation to these people? In his heart, he didn't feel it, but he was sure he ought to feel an obligation. He did feel something for Zara, his distant kin. Of Ching, he was wary.
He admitted to himself that he did, in fact, want to go with Zara and Ching to that ship which hovered somewhere in hyperspace, undetected by Earth's radar systems, waiting to transport him to a world he had never dreamed existed. But he also knew, especially after tonight, that as deeply curious as he was, he wanted this voyage to be a short one, one from which he would return.
He had studied enough Earth history to know that Zara and Ching's hopes that he, as the descendant of Zon-El, would be able to solve their current political problems, was pretty naive. And every time Zara referred to him as "my lord" he felt deeply uncomfortable.
And then there was Lois. Especially Lois. His thoughts kept coming back to her. He had waited for her too long, for over a year, for a lifetime. He didn't want to leave her. Although he had known her for only a few days, already he was blissfully shocked at how deep was the connection he felt with her. His feeling for her was more profound than anything he had ever known in his life. The restlessness in his soul had quieted, calmed, and yet he'd never felt so elated. This attraction he felt for New Krypton paled in comparison.
But still, it did pull him. To not know what was on that ship was unthinkable, like leaving an important book unopened. He would go there with Zara, but that's as far as he would go. He would explain to her why he did not think returning to New Krypton would work.
He hadn't talked to Lois about any of this. Why? Was it because of the confusion he felt? Or something else? This evening had been wonderful; they'd talked and notched their emotional relationship up a little, and they'd never once mentioned Superman until the end of the evening. He smiled; maybe it really was Clark Kent to whom she was attracted, maybe it was *him* she was beginning to care for. He could still felt the trace of their kiss; he would always feel it, claiming him, keeping him forever Earthbound.
The other thing he and Lois hadn't talked about was Zara's real identity. Why hadn't he told Lois that? He'd had the chance. Was it because everything was going so well with her that he didn't want to rock the boat, or was it because, when he was alone with her, he was sidetracked by how incredible she was and how wonderful he felt, and everything else vanished from his mind?
As he opened the door to his apartment, Clark was not too surprised to find Zara and Ching waiting for him; it seemed to him they were becoming as predictable as jokes on a late night talk show. Still, they weren't a joke and he knew he could not put them off much longer. In a way, he did not want to. As much as ever, he still needed to know about New Krypton, to quell that confusion about who and what he was which had lurked in his psyche since his adolescence; and, more importantly, he wanted to meet the people whose heritage he shared and with whom he would surely feel some connection.
All these thoughts flashed through his mind as he stared now at the two people standing in his living room.
Ching spoke first. "Forget her, Kal El. The Earthwoman is not worthy of your attention. Your duty," he paused and then clipped out his next words, "lies elsewhere. Besides, we have women on New Krytpon who are trained to provide that sort of comfort."
"What?" Clark's startled look conveyed his surprise at the suggestion behind Ching's words. Then he got angry. "Look, my relationship with Lois Lane is none of your business. And I'm not interested in the Kryptonian version of hookers."
Ching shrugged his shoulders and stepped back, his arms folded as Zara spoke.
"We've wasted too much time, Kal. We must go to the ship now."
"All right, Zara, I'll go with you to the ship, but that's all I agree to do."
"Very well, Kal." Zara turned her head briefly toward her companion. "Ching."
He nodded, touching the crystal cube hanging around his neck, altering the space they were in so that suddenly they were standing in that small apartment rented by Sara Ching, researcher for the Daily Planet. They slipped out the door and into a side alley by the apartment building. Again Ching touched the cube, and seconds later the three were getting into a small vehicle, not much larger than a subcompact car and the colour of the hazy shadows in the alley. Once they were inside, it quickly vanished into hyperspace, rematerializing in minutes outside the ship which had brought Zara and Ching to Earth.
The NKSS Future was much larger than Clark had envisioned, about the size of a 747. In awe, he swept his eyes over the ships's curved exterior, curious about the logic behind its irregular shape, like that of an ominous grey amoeba floating in the protoplasm of space.
Once inside the ship, Clark looked around eagerly, taking it all in. He'd been aboard Luthor's EPRAD space shuttle the first year he'd been in Metropolis and his imagination had soared as he had toured that ship. But now it seemed clunky, nothing compared to this. Here the technology was not obvious — the interior was vast and sleek, few humans, Kryptonians that is, in sight. Doors opened automatically, lights turned on or off as they passed through the entry passageway and into the larger entry corridor. Clark watched as Zara shut her eyes for a few seconds and concentrated, surprised that he could read her thoughts. Commands, in fact.
<<We are here. Lord Kal El has come.>>
Then a flurry of mixed thoughts — excited, relieved, and one voice overriding the others. <<At last.>>
A few minutes later, as they walked along the corridor, they were met by a man in late middle age, dressed in a long grey robe and wearing a heavy gold chain which hung from his neck to his chest. At the end of the chain was a large clear crystal pendant, shaped like an elongated hexagon. Behind him stood three men, all dressed in the austere black uniform which both Zara and Ching wore. Each carried what Clark assumed was a weapon at his side.
The robed man spoke, bowing his head in deference. "Welcome home, Lord Kal El. I am Lord Trey, Chancellor of New Krypton, first servant of Lady Zara, and now your servant."
Clark extended his hand, then pulled it back as he realized that Trey had no idea what the gesture meant. "Uh, thank you, Lord Trey. It is my privilege to be here." Clark meant it sincerely, but he was ill at ease. He turned to Zara. "You said that you had the ship which brought me to Earth."
"Yes, my lord. Trey will take us there. Then we will meet with the others."
They followed the older man down the corridor and into a room which contained no furniture except an egg shaped vessel about twelve feet long. Clark approached, his heart beating rapidly as he came to a stop in front of it, hesitating before reaching out to slide his hand along its smooth metallic exterior. Feeling the incised grooves, he traced each one with his fingers, guessing they represented words. He turned to Zara, and his voice caught as he spoke, "Kryptonian?"
She smiled. "Yes."
"What does it say?"
She took his hand, covering it with her own and moved his fingers over the runes, one more time, saying as she did, "Kal El, son of Lara and Jor El, born into the House of El, and out of the House of Lo."
"The house of Lo?" Clark asked.
"Yes — it is the ancient house from whom the Ras trace their decent. The House of Lo was the first house to rule Krypton — it's roots go back to time before history. The Ras are their descendants, descendants of the great mythical kings who brought order to our world." Zara spoke proudly. "The joining of the House of Ra with the House of El transferred to you, Kal El, the mythic power of our ancient kings."
Kal El, aka Clark Kent, raised in the tradition of Jefferson and the Sons of Liberty, not to mention the Bare Naked Ladies, found all this a bit much. The best he could muster was a low keyed, "I see." Then his hand slid into a groove the size of his palm.
"There is more, my lord," Zara said as she slid her hand from his and placed it in a second palm shaped indention beside Clark's.
As she did, a hologram appeared of a grey-haired man, about forty years old, dressed in white. His image floated above the ship and then lingered several feet away from them, seeming to look down at them. "Kal El, my son."
As soon as he heard those words, Clark inhaled deeply and stood, enthralled, gazing at the projection in front of them. His father. Tears stung the back of his eyelids and he swallowed, trying to keep calm as he listened eagerly to his father's words. Then his reverence changed to incredulity as Jor El finished speaking.
Zara was Kal's birth-wife. They had been married as infants. Then Jor El fell silent. Instinctively, Clark moved from behind the ship to where the image still lingered, stretching out his hand, attempting to touch his father, to know some part of him, to keep him in the room. His father had only spoken a few sentences. Surely there must be more. Clark's heart ached to know more than these few unwelcome scraps of information. He wanted to ask about his mother, what they were like, what mattered to them. But he was to learn none of that for the image disintegrated into luminescent pixels, and then vanished leaving Clark clutching the air, holding nothing. He stood for a moment, his head bowed, and his back to Zara, Ching, and Trey as he regained his composure and then turned to face them.
"It is time for you to fulfill your destiny, Kal El," Zara said softly. "Now that you know the full extent of your ties to New Krypton, you must come with us."
"The extent of my ties?"
"We are bound, my lord, in marriage. The House of El and the House of Ra."
"I thought we were cousins," Clark said, appalled by the news of this marriage and not inclined to take it seriously. Nevertheless, it would make his time here more difficult. Still, Zara had struck him as reasonable; she would understand that he could not be bound by any arrangement where his heart was not committed.
Trey interjected, "Exactly, my lord, you are fourth cousins. Both of royal blood, both descendants of the House of Lo, destined to bring New Krypton to the glory which Lo the Great prophesied. The future belongs to Krypton." Trey's eyes shone as he finished speaking.
Clark's eyes didn't shine — they were wary. He didn't want any part of this destiny; it felt wrong. A memory of his father, Jonathan Kent, flashed through his mind. Clark had just finished reading about King Arthur and his Round Table and for weeks afterwards he'd charged around the farm, caught up in games of knights and dragons and wizards. He'd learned the word destiny then and he'd said it solemnly to Jonathan one day, telling him it was his destiny to carry on Jonathan's work on the land. Now Clark saw his father's face, just as solemn, as he placed his large hand on his son's chest, over his heart. "Here's where your destiny lies, son. Where your heart takes you." His heart took him to Metropolis, to Lois Lane.
"Your duty to your father, Lord Kal El, is your destiny." Ching spoke, his arms crossed, his tone stiff. "As it is for us all. Marriages within our noble caste are arranged to ensure, through family alliances, that our society remains strong and the Great Law is upheld, just as your father's marriage to the Lady Lara was arranged."
Zara smiled patiently at him, but her voice was sad. "Of course, Kal — how could it be otherwise? But our parents would be pleased to see us reunited. The House of El will continue. And now," her voice changed, now betraying her anxiety, "with your help, we can defeat Lord Nor."
Clark looked at Zara, sensing her apprehension, but his mind and his heart were reeling, as, for a moment, he relived his evening with Lois, the touch of her smooth skin against his cheek as she had kissed him good-night, heard again her delighted laugh as she offered to buy him dinner. Not now, he pleaded silently to some unseen force. Please, not now. Not when we've just found each other. I can't leave her. I can't. He bowed his head and was silent for a long moment; then he raised it.
Regardless of what he personally felt, Clark could not deny that he also felt some larger commitment to help the New Kryptonians in their fight against Nor. A duty to Jor El. It was not in his nature to refuse a plea for help. Wasn't that what Superman was all about, what Jonathan and Martha Kent had been about? He made up his mind. "Zara, I need to return to Earth for two days to prepare." Again, hethought of Lois, of telling her he must go, of leaving her. How could he do that when he had just found her? "Then I will go with you to New Krypton. Once Nor is defeated, I will return to Earth."
Zara's face paled. "My lord, you are my husband. You must stay. We must produce a child — only a son of both our houses will have the aura to command the loyalty of our people so that once more we will have peace."
That's ridiculous, Clark wanted to say but he quelled the impulse. He was not such an inexperienced world traveller that he would belittle the customs of a different culture. Nevertheless, that didn't mean he, himself, had to be bound by their traditional values. He took a deep breath before he spoke. "No, Zara," he said gently, touching her shoulder. "You aren't my wife and I will not stay. There are others among you who are more suited than me to rule. Others who know and understand New Krypton's needs and customs. You, for example."
There was a brief shocked harrumph from Trey. "But the Lady Zara is a woman, my lord."
Zara ignored him. "Very well, Kal El. We will return to Earth for two days —we will give you time to arrange your affairs before leaving for New Krypton." Her face was impassive, her thoughts blocked from Clark.
The next morning, Lois hopped the subway for the Planet, anticipating that Clark would be there and reliving again, as the train propelled her across the city, their walk through the snow to her apartment. She was falling in love with him, probably was in love with him, given the way she couldn't seem to keep him out of her mind. Whatever this emotion was, it wasn't like anything she'd ever felt before, and somehow, she knew it wasn't going away. Did he feel the same way?
Then, as unwelcome thoughts of Jason Trask and Bureau 39 intruded, she became uneasy. Trask didn't trust Superman and, by extension, that meant neither did the government. And she didn't trust Trask. Besides, she had come to feel very protective of Clark Kent and now she vowed to find out exactly what it was that Trask and Bureau 39 had in mind for Superman. Then, if Clark was truly in danger, she could warn him and also expose whatever it was the agency might be planning. Bumping into Trask that day had turned out to be a stroke of luck — being on the inside would help her do whatever she could to protect Clark Kent.
All along she'd felt Trask was holding back something, although she hadn't been too alarmed by that — he was hardly going to divulge all the Bureau's secrets to a new contact. In fact, all things considered, he'd told her more than, in the cold light of logic, was reasonable, maybe to convince her that Superman was, in fact, an alien. Well, she had to admit that small craft he'd shown her was interesting evidence of something out of the ordinary. She'd sure like to see the lab report once Trask's techies finished with it. And what was that globe she had lifted all about?
It was in safekeeping now, out in California with her friend, Jess, who had written — actually taken pen in hand, placed stamp on envelope, and walked to a corner mail box — a brief letter saying she had no idea what the globe was, but that it was safe with her. She also instructed Lois to destroy the letter. Jess added that she had retrieved Lois's e-mail advising her to expect a package, and eliminated it from the black hole of cyberspace where all such things swirl in ghostly silence like immortal souls. She advised Lois to do the same. Oh sure, Lois had thought, like I know how to do that. She'd obliquely mentioned this to Jess on the phone and Jess had said, not to worry, she'd take care of it. Oh, Lois thought and wondered if she should look for that old decoder ring, the one which had come in a box of cereal and which her uncle had given her when she was a kid.
When Lois did get to the Planet, Clark was nowhere to be seen. She wasn't too surprised. Smiling, she wondered where the crisis du jour was.
Making a quick switch in her plans, she decided to head over to Bureau 39, see what more she could find out. How much did the Bureau know about Superman? Clark Kent she felt she was beginning to know, more than know, she thought with a smile, but Superman — there were still so many things about him she didn't know, didn't understand. She knew, of course, that the answers she was seeking were not in Bureau 39's files, or any files for that matter, but this morning she was restless, fighting a sense of unease she couldn't put her finger on. After a quick chat with Jocasta and Rick Vega, she grabbed a down elevator to the front lobby.
When she got to Bureau 39, Trask was out, which was great. It gave her the chance to work without his muscular form looming over her shoulder. She stopped briefly at the front desk, passing through security, then slipped into the back to finish viewing the video files the bureau had compiled of Superman's activities. Trask's assistant was used to her by now and waved her into the office while he continued a phone conversation.
She hoped, by now, the Bureau would have done that analysis of the crowd at Superman's first press conference. So far, she'd been unable to discover who the woman in the white suit in that Planet photo was or why Superman had fallen to the floor. But, as she picked up the tapes, she noticed that the press conference video was still missing. God, government guys were slow.
Not as slow as she thought, however. Ten minutes later, Trask walked into the office accompanied by a woman whom she had not seen before. "Lane, they told me you were here. This is Maria Zarkowski — head of the team that'll analyze the ship. I'll be back after I take her to the storeroom."
"Mind if I come with you?" Lois didn't wait for his answer but shifted to the doorway as she finished speaking, and the trio walked in silence through the narrow halls to the back of the building.
Once inside the storeroom, Trask led the way to where the ship was lodged and removed the tarp which covered it. This time Lois looked at it differently —could it have possibly held Clark when he was a baby? An intergalactic cradle? She touched it gently. Trask removed the hood of the craft and Lois stared, once again, at the interior, now seeing it as something designed to get a newborn safely across the universe.
"I've never seen anything like this before," Maria said as she too touched the grey metallic exterior of the ship. "Give me a few minutes, Trask, to look it over and then we'll crate it and bring it over to the lab." She pulled a small camera from her bag, checked its settings, then proceeded to take pictures of the craft from several angles, commenting as she did. "I find it difficult to believe this is an extraterrestial vehicle, Trask. There are no signs of burning or other damage from entry into Earth's atmosphere. The surface is smooth except for these notches along the side." She crouched to take a close-up of the string of characters that Lois had explored a few days earlier.
"I figure it's writing, telling us who was inside," Trask said as he stood stolidly to one side, thick arms crossed, watching Maria carefully.
"Piloted by a little green man?" Maria spoke laconically as she continued her superficial examination, walking to the front of the craft where she stopped in surprise. "Oh, I see what you mean," she said as she snapped a picture of the Superman crest which adorned the nose of the capsule. "Well." There was a slight indication of excitement in her monotone voice, then it returned to normal. "No other external markings than the Superman insignia and the string of runes along the side."
Lois noted that Maria had a small tape recorder inserted in the breast pocket of her jacket and that her comments were actually notes. "How long will it take you to do the analysis?"
"Depends. I have one assistant, and given the security involved, I don't want more people than necessary involved. But I want to call in a cultural anthropologist and it'll take time to get security clearance. Should have the chemical and electronic results pretty quickly. We'll check for biological evidence, too. If we could get some DNA…" That subdued excitement tinged her voice again and then she continued her low key commentary as she finished her observations of the ship. "Okay, that's all I can do here. Have it crated and sent over to the lab."
"Bring your equipment here, Zarkowski. I don't want this out of my building."
"Trask, do you have any idea how much equipment is involved? It'll take a day to get it here."
Maria Zarkowski stared at him for a moment and then shrugged. "It'll slow us down and I still may have to take the capsule off site later, but okay. You authorize it, though."
Clark was a little late getting to the Planet that morning — not just because of his nocturnal expedition to the NKSS Future but also because of a more earthly plane which had crashed into the icy currents of the Potomac. It had been a fluke that he'd seen it just as it dove, out of control, towards the river. Restless after his decision to go to New Krypton, he'd done more than his usual patrol over the city of Metropolis, soaring outwards, lost in thought, until he was brought back to reality by the screeching hiss of the 727's descent.
Now, as he stepped out of the elevator, he scanned the newsroom, looking for the woman who'd dominated most of his thoughts as he'd flown across the city early this morning. He was deeply disappointed not to see her. More than anything else, he wanted to spend the next two days with her before he left for New Krypton. And he needed to talk to her about his decision to go — even though they hadn't known each other for very long, he felt, inexplicably, it was somehow her decision too. Although they had not clarified how things were between them, he was beginning to feel that she was attracted to him. Well, she had admitted that, he thought with an inner grin, recalling her blazing eyes as she paced his living room last night. But how much deeper her feelings went at this point, he wasn't sure.
Although he hoped that he and Lois were destined, whatever that might mean, to be together, he couldn't be certain. As far as he could tell, his parallel self had experienced an easier time of it that he had here. And, no, he wasn't feeling sorry for himself, he thought with a wry smile. But that Clark still had his parents, had been happily married to Lois Lane for nearly a year, and had never been engaged to Lana Lang. Not to mention never having had Heston and Presley as presidents. The other Clark's life didn't seem half as disaster prone as his own had been.
Now, he wondered what the other Clark's experience with the New Kryptonians had been like or even if there had been such an encounter. Although he and the other Lois had talked while he had been in that alternate world, they really hadn't had much time. Lois, of course, had often been working, and furthermore, she had been deeply anxious about her husband, while he himself had been busy substituting for Superman. Besides, after that scary moment when he and the other Lois had nearly kissed, they had adopted an unstated policy of keeping some distance between them. No mention had been made of New Krypton. Other than that one reference which he had not understood but now did.
It had come from Jonathan Kent as he stood comforting a tearful and exhausted Lois while he, Clark, had looked on helplessly. Jonathan had said, "Remember, Lois, my boy has always come back to you, even when the odds seemed against it. Even when he left for another world." Clark had been about to ask the older man about that "other world" when the high-pitched frequency of distant sirens had alerted his supersenses and he'd taken off quickly for a massive collision on the interstate which cut across the north of Metropolis.
At the time, he'd been intrigued by Jonathan's comment, assuming that his otherworldly double must have travelled here, to this universe, but somehow the two had never met. At the time, he had wondered if there was some kind of quantum reason,like Newton's unknown fifth law or maybe some corollary of the Theory of Relativity, why a person could not meet his double from an alternate universe. Maybe competing energy forces would neutralize each person, cancelling each of them out. But that theory had been disproved when the other Clark had come home and, for a brief time, the two Clarks had shared the same space and actually touched as they had shaken hands. So maybe the "other world" that Jonathan had mentioned had been New Krypton.
Anyway, Clark had no guidance from an alternate universe as he entered the newsroom that morning to begin his final two days before he would leave Earth. So where was Lois? Zara, he knew, would not be here today, to give him the space he needed to get ready to leave. He appreciated that. He had decided to keep his departure secret so as not to create a public panic about aliens visiting earth. All he would do was ask James Olsen for a leave of absence although he wasn't sure for how long, aware there was a chance he might not return.
Zara had promised him that, once Nor was defeated, the NKSS would transport him back to Earth and he believed her although he also hoped that his trust was not misplaced. He'd always been a pretty good judge of character, he thought to himself; then, for some reason he imagined Lois Lane teasing him and saying, "Everyone is, of course." He smiled ruefully and then brightened as he recalled that Zara had not made any attempt to keep him on board last night. True, she had been reluctant to agree to his request for the two days but she had done so, without fuss. That proved he could trust her, he thought.
No, the greater risk was that on New Krypton, where he wouldn't have powers, there was a chance he could be killed in the struggle between the two contending families for the throne of New Krypton.
Did he have the right to ask Lois to wait for him? Did any man who had ever gone to war have that right? He felt a constriction in his chest as he thought about this. He didn't want to leave her, to lose her, not now when they'd just begun to really know each other. Why wasn't she here this morning? Where was she? He knew he would tell her everything. He knew he could trust her. It was funny how a person could know that so quickly, he thought, but he knew that about Lois Lane.
Today he would work with her on the Hobbs Canal murders and tonight he would tell her. He wanted one complete day with her, one normal day. Was that so selfish?
He heard her steps on the few stairs leading down to the newsroom floor from the elevator and he immediately looked up, tilting back in his desk chair to watch her as she dropped her bag on her desk. She was smiling at him and he wondered how it would be to have her smile at him like that every morning.
"Hi. Why so serious?" she asked.
"I take you very seriously, Ms. Lane." His voice was light as he attempted to mask his feelings.
Lois raised one eyebrow and tilted her head slightly to one side, regarding him for a brief moment before speaking. "Good, because we have a lot to do today." She reached across her desk to pick up a file. "Sara left this with me and I spent a couple of hours on it yesterday. Remember I told you about it last night?"
"Yeah, you said you'd found out more about the girl's background."
"I'm assuming the accountant has something to do with the Taylors so I thought I'd follow the less obvious thread first and see where that led. I've found out a little more about the girl. There wasn't much reported about her at the time — the stories all concentrated on the accountant, not the girl. She disappeared pretty quickly from the headlines, maybe because she was a prostitute. I called Henderson."
Lois smiled as she remembered her chat with an incredulous Bill Henderson, the MPD detective with whom she'd had an amiably hostile working relationship in the past. "He sent me the information on her — he said as a one-time resurrection present." She grinned at Clark as she repeated Henderson's words. "Then he wanted to know if I wasn't in that grave, then who was?" She sobered as she said this, her face losing its impertinence. "It's a good question."
Clark watched her as she spoke. "Shall we find out?"
"Yes, but not right now. Let's finish this story, first." She planted the file in front of Clark, emphasizing her point. "The girl had just turned eighteen about a week before she was killed. She'd been on the streets for three years, running away from a stepfather who'd sexually abused her. Pretty similar story to that of many of the girls and women who work the streets so I guess the media wasn't much interested. But I'd like to find out who she knew."
"Okay." Clark pulled a picture of the dead girl from the file in front of him, and looked at it thoughtfully. "We're not likely to find many people around this time of day who might have known her."
"I know. Maybe ask in a couple of coffee shops. We should try the Metro Club, too. Should be some staff there, setting up for tonight."
"You're on the wrong track there, Lois," Clark said as he walked beside her to get their coats from the rack in the lounge area.
As they rode the elevator to the Planet's basement level garage, Clark looked at Lois and then spoke hesitantly. "*I* might turn out to be a problem here, Lois."
Curiously, she looked at him. "Why?"
He spoke slowly. "People know me. I can poke around in the background or cover the big events and the press conferences — but this sort of thing. It's hard — I tried it after Superman showed up but it doesn't work — people react, you know?"
Lois looked at him, saw the apology in his eyes as his meaning dawned on her. Why hadn't she thought of that? "Oh, of course. I see." She stood there silently as the elevator glided to its destination and the heavy stainless steel doors slid apart.
Not speaking, she proceeded across the cement floor of the dimly lit garage, still lost in thought; then she turned to look at him. "So how do you manage to keep being a reporter?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "I do some feature articles and a biweekly column. In the beginning, I got some flak but not so much lately. At first it was like Superman's not supposed to have opinions. But I'm hoping everyone will accept that I'm Clark Kent and this is what I do." Clark spoke with determination and then added, "And I count on back up research — the fact finders."
"Like Sara?" Lois asked, watching him as she asked the question and a little distressed at the transformation of his face to an impersonal mask.
"Yeah, and Jim cuts me some slack. He's been great."
"Do you miss the street work?"
"Yes! I miss it a lot," he said frankly. He touched her elbow for a brief second. "That car over there," he said pointing to a nondescript late model compact, one of several which the Planet kept available for its employees for business purposes.
"Then we have to figure out some way for you to be able to do it."
"We?" He liked the sound of that.
She grinned across at her tall companion as they climbed into the car. "We," she said firmly. "If you're gonna be my partner, Clark Kent, you've gotta pull your weight."
"Yes, Ma'am," he said, a touch of laughter in his voice. Then he thought to himself, <Today, anyway. Today, Lois, I do whatever you want.>
As she twisted to the driver's side in order to fasten her seatbelt, Lois put her hand on his arm causing him to turn to face her. She looked at him appraisingly. "You need a secret identity."
Clark remembered the other Lois's telling him the same thing and also how, without pausing in mid command, Lana had immediately seen through his Superman disguise. Now, Clark raised his eyebrows skeptically at the woman beside him.
"Can you speed change?" she asked.
"Speed change? I mean, how fast does it take you to put on the Superman costume?"
"What do you do with these?" Lois fingered the sleeve of his coat.
"Not really sure how it works — but I leave them in the hyperspace equivalent of where I changed here."
She looked at him astonished. "Your life is a little weird, isn't it?" Grinning, she added, "But I guess you know that." After a long pause she threw out a suggestion. "Then why can't you do all that with a third suit? Something that doesn't look like Clark Kent or Superman?" She stopped speaking. "A little too complicated? I mean, this would have to be secret, even from Planet staff if you're to have any anonymity out here," she gestured to the street bustle around them as they pulled out of the garage into the bright daylight.
"It's a nice idea, Lois, but how are you going to disguise me? You can't make me taller or shorter. And it's gotta be easy to do."
She squinted her eyes at him critically — "You could be fatter and have a beard and dress kinda sloppy."
"Yeah. Or maybe use a wig so your hair's a different colour."
He couldn't resist. "I could become a redhead like you."
Her eyes acknowledging a hit, she corrected him. "It's auburn."
"Ah. Can't wait to see it's natural colour."
"Can we get back to my idea here?"
"I'll think about it."
"You could be a photographer, back me up."
"Thought I was the senior partner?"
"I don't think so." Mischief sparked Lois's eyes as she grinned, continuing, "You'd need a new name. Um, let me see — what would be good for a photographer? I know — Cliff Kinnear."
"You have a bossy streak, Ms. Lane. You know that?" but he said it teasingly, happy to play this game with her, this second last day of his time with her for a while. "Anyway, the initials CK would give me away."
"Bossy is just what guys call women with organizational skills," she said primly. "Leo Lambossa, then."
"You. Leo Lambossa, photographer."
"I don't think so — I sound like a cheesy dance."
She shot him a narrow, eyes half hidden, glance and further embellished her portrait. "Leo Lambossa, photographer for Granite — underground internet, and really, really obscure, news service. Drinks a little too much beer and is also a hamburger eater."
Clark laughed. "Tell me more. Do I have a girlfriend?" he asked in deference to the lustful twinge he'd felt as he responded to the sparkle in her eyes.
"You have a motorbike."
"Not a good substitute, Lois."
"Guess it wouldn't fit in that hyperspace closet of yours, huh? But then neither would the girlfriend."
He turned to look at her. "Then you'll just have to do." He was pleased when he saw her eyes flash in alarm at that. "Gotcha, Ms. Lane." Then he noticed her eyes distracted by something she'd caught in the passenger side mirror.
"What is it?"
"Nothing. Just thought I saw someone I know." But it wasn't the truth — she thought maybe they were being followed, this morning's meeting with Trask still in the back of her mind. Ten minutes later, she was sure. At first she'd thought it was Trask but she got a better look when they stopped for the lights at Presley and Reagan streets. She'd never seen the man before. From this distance he resembled Trask in build but now she saw that the driver was fair where Trask was not.
She glanced at Clark and saw that he was now aware of the tail. "Who did you think he was Lois? How long has he been with us?"
"Probably since we left the Planet."
Clark swerved turned into a side street in a useless attempt to shake the tail. "This is what I mean, Lois," he said bitterly. "Superman. They've left me alone for a couple of months but I guess it's a slow news day."
Lois hadn't thought of that explanation and she looked at him with sympathy. Probably he was right. "Then he can follow us around while we talk to whoever we can find in Riverside. Should be exciting for him."
"Look, Lois, I'd better let you take the lead on this. I'll stay in the background in case I'm recognized."
"I don't like that."
"Me neither. Right now your crazy idea is beginning to sound less crazy," he said as he drove through the tunnel that divided Riverside from upper Metropolis.
Eyes blazing, Zara confronted the narrow faced man in front of her and spat out her words. "You tell Nor if he so much as touches either of my children, he's a dead man."
"My lady, say the word, the right word, and the children will be with you once again." His voice was smooth, a diplomat's voice trained to ignore and avoid emotional undertones. "My Lord Nor sent me only to assure you that he keeps the children safe and to convey his hopes that one day they will have half-brothers and sisters as playmates. He is most distressed by your secret visit here and he wishes to remind you of your responsibility to your children. A mother belongs at home with her children, especially when they are fatherless." He glanced contemptuously at Ching as he finished speaking.
Zara's green eyes snapped angrily at him but before she could speak, Ching intervened, his voice tightly controlled. "Tell Lord Nor that the Lady Zara is distressed that he has forgotten his oath of loyalty to the House of Ra. Tell him," his tone turned quietly menacing, "that only cowards use children to play their dishonourable games."
Nor's emissary shifted his eyes from Ching and then shrugged, his voice conveying his disinterest. "I can wait for your reply, Lady Zara. This planet has proved to be surprisingly entertaining." He levitated several inches from the floor. "I can do this for a few minutes longer each day. I presume Kal El is an indicator of just how much is possible."
Zara grew alarmed — the last thing she wanted was to see this struggle between the two families extend to earth but she spoke calmly, telling him what she and Ching had speculated and what she thought was probably the truth. "No. We have gradually acquired some powers but they are very limited compared to Kal El's. We tire very easily after exerting them. Perhaps because Lord Kal El came here as a child, his body tissues, cells, and bones were affected by the earth's environment as he developed. We came as adults, so the effect is less."
The emissary's mouth twisted in disappointment then he brightened. "So Lord Kal El has become a mutant. Lord Nor will be pleased." He inclined his head slightly towards Zara. "Thank you for your time, my lady. I will convey your message to my Lord Nor and will await any further communication you may wish to send him." Ignoring Ching, he turned to step through the hazy entrance and left the replicated space which lay hidden within Zara's apartment.
"Ching, they've found us. They know we're here. They know about Kal," the panic in her voice mounted as she continued speaking.
"We have to get back, Zara. The longer we're here the more danger the children are in." Ching began pacing the room, his back straight, never relaxing, the effect of years of a soldier's training. "Kal El must come with us."
"He's in danger now, too, Ching. It won't take them long to find out about the effect of Kryptonite — they have the same models we do — as soon as they think to process Kal's bio-readings, they'll discover it."
"We'd better find him — it's time to leave. It's time for our reluctant leader to realize this is a war we're fighting and he hasn't got the luxury to wait."
Early that afternoon, as Clark drove back to the Planet, he listened happily to Lois sorting out the results of their activities in Riverside. He'd lurked in the background, shoulders rounded, eyes usually averted as she took the more active role, questioning, asking, even listening. Confronted with Lois's energy and good looks, the men they'd talked to hadn't really noticed him anyway. The few women they'd talked to had given him a second, mostly puzzled look and then ignored him too. Lois had actually introduced him as Leo Lambossa once and he'd had to suppress his laughter. Now, he glanced at her beside him, thinking that this was how things were meant to be.
"So I think the chef knows more than he let on. I think he suspects the club is part of a money laundering scam."
"Lois, he didn't say that — just because he was bitter about the cost of lobster."
"It's how he said it, Clark."
"Yeah, I remember. The snide comment about east side fishmongers — I can see how you thought *that* meant money laundering."
"Laugh now, but just wait til I get the whole story, Leo."
Clark looked in his rear view mirror. "That guy's with us again. He was never far behind us the whole time we were out."
"Well, if he's tabloid, he hasn't got much of a story."
"Maybe it's you he's interested in. Maybe he recognized Lois Lane."
"Trust me. I don't think so. So far, most of the people I've met since I got back to Metropolis have no idea who Lois Lane is. I mean, do you remember someone who was in the news a month ago, let along four years ago?" Privately, Lois thought people should have, but she had come to accept that she was yesterday's news.
As they pulled up in front of the door to the Planet's parking garage, she saw that the tail had disappeared. As they got of the car, Clark paused for a minute and met her eyes. "Thanks, Lois."
"For what?" Her eyes widened in surprise.
"For a normal day. Being with you … it was great."
She smiled, both pleased and shy, as she returned his gaze. "You're welcome, Clark. It was great being back in the swing of things, too. Although we didn't get much copy out of this morning," she finished as they walked in step toward the elevator.
"Maybe a mood piece?"
"Desperate filler, you mean?" she said as she jabbed the button which would bring the elevator to the basement level.
"Yeah, genuine page 22 copy."
They rode the elevator in companionable silence until it stopped at the main lobby where several newcomers, including James Olsen, entered the compact cubicle.
"Clark, Lois — hey." His grin was infectious, exuding an energy and confidence which took control of the small elevator compartment. "So, Lois, has Clark been helping you get back on track?"
Lois smiled as she recalled that the Planet's previous owner used a small private elevator. James Olsen was clearly a different sort of person. "We've been working on the Riverside killings," Lois said as she told him some of what she and Clark had done that morning.
The three continued their discussion, Olsen providing them with moral support as well as a casual remembrance that once, after he had played squash with Lex Luthor, the murdered accountant had been at the club, waiting to keep an appointment with Luthor. That hadn't been too long before the accountant's death and Olsen remembered the chance encounter for that reason, pensively commenting on the unpredictability of life's events. Then the elevator doors opened and they stepped down into the maze of cubicles which chequered the vast expanse of the newsroom floor.
When Lois got to her desk she was surprised to see a folded piece of paper lying beside her keyboard. As she picked it up she was aware of Jocasta O'Reilly looking up from what she had been doing.
"He didn't leave his name. Just asked which was your desk. Not a bad looking guy, Lois," Jocasta smiled. "A bit intense, maybe." She paused while Lois read the note. "Story lead?"
"Not sure — maybe," she quickly added. The note was from Jason Trask; he would wait for her in the coffee shop in the main lobby of the Met.Com building across the street from the Planet until two o'clock after which he would be back at headquarters. He expected her to meet him. His note said nothing more and Lois figured she'd better find out what was on his mind. He would be in the coffee shop for another fifteen minutes.
"See you later," she flashed at Clark as she passed by him and James Olsen, both men still engrossed in basketball trivia, on her way to get her coat.
"What's up?" Clark asked.
"Oh, appointment I forgot. There was a note on my desk." She hated deceiving him and she was surprised by the feeling. Maybe because this small deception was part of the larger deception with Trask? But that's not a deception, she argued with herself — you joined Bureau 39 before you knew Clark. And you're still there because of Clark. So why haven't you told him about it, then? she argued back and then puffed out a breath in exasperation as she steamed toward the elevator, leaving her partner and her boss watching her.
"Awesome, isn't it? That she's alive, I mean." James stopped speaking to look at Clark for a second. "She looks a little different from the other dimension's Lois Lane. Is she much different? You know, her personality?"
"I'm not really sure. I realize now that I didn't exactly get to know the other Lois very well. My Lois is more complete somehow. And she's just a little feisty." He grinned, staring at the elevator doors as they closed in front of the woman in question.
James shot his friend a quick look, swallowing and nearly choking on a grin at the expression "my Lois". Then he disappeared into the editor-in-chief's office with a quick, "Time to get back to it."
A few minutes after Clark and James Olsen had wrapped up their profound and insightful analysis of last years NBA statistics, Clark looked up from his desk to see Zara and Ching striding purposefully across the newsroom to his desk. He waited, feeling in the depth of his being that their unexpected presence here boded no good.
As soon as she reached his desk, Zara spoke. "Kal, you must come with us. Now."
Clark's eyes narrowed. "Two days, remember."
"A sentimental waste of time," Ching snapped. "Nor has seized the advantage. We act now or face defeat."
"Kal, you must come. You must come. Come with us to the apartment. Trey is there. Once we get there, we will explain what has happened." Her eyes darted around the room, betraying her agitation. "Not here."
Clark looked at them both for a moment, taking the measure of their anxiety, concerned for Zara who had always seemed so composed, and alerted by the grim sternness of Ching's face. Something was desperately wrong — he couldn't deny them. Silently, he rose and walked with them across the old wooden floor of the newsroom.
Lois caught up with Trask just as he was rising from a table at the back of the coffee shop and fell in step beside him as he walked toward the exit. "So what did you want to see me about, Trask?"
"Wanted to remind you where your loyalties lie, Lane."
"The alien. We have reason to suspect you've been fraternizing with him."
How could he say these things and keep a straight face, Lois wondered. "Look, Trask, I haven't found anything yet to show Superman means us any harm," she said honestly.
"Oh, come on, Lane. Haven't you just a little evidence?" His voice was both sarcastic and intimidating as he spoke.
Her temper rising, Lois shot back, "What are you talking about? I've only known him for just under a week."
"You expect me to believe that?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact I do. Look, come back to the Planet with me. You're so interested in Superman, maybe it's time you actually met him. There's more to the man than those files and videos you've got."
Trask stopped in mid stride and looked at the woman beside him for a long moment. "Okay, Lane. It's time I did meet him. After that, you and I go back to headquarters and do some talking."
As they turned toward the Planet, Trask stopped. "Guess that meeting's gonna happen sooner than we figured," he muttered, staring across the street where he saw Clark Kent, along with a man and a woman leaving one of the side entrances of the building. "Check the east side of the Planet, Lane. Come on." He took off ahead of her. "Let's get your little meeting out of the way."
Breaking into a trot, Lois followed him as he charged across the street towards the retreating figures of Clark and his two companions. She wasn't sure she was happy with this meeting but she had to admit she was curious about where Clark might be going with Sara. All along, she'd had this feeling that there was something more between Clark and Sara than what Clark had admitted. And who was that man they were with?
"Quick. Down here," Trask called as he pursued the trio into a narrow, trash can alley which ran behind the Planet, separating it by just yards from a tall parking garage. Then he stopped and swore softly. "I knew it!"
Lois watched, amazed as first Sara and then the two men leaped upward, Clark this time not bothering to change into the Superman costume. As they rose between the two buildings, Lois felt her heart race and she froze. It was true, then; he was not alone. Trask had been right all along. Shocked, she whispered his name breathlessly, "Clark — Clark."
All of a sudden he was there beside her, looking at her anxiously. "Lois! I heard you call my name."
Ching swooped down beside them, followed by Sara. "My lord, we don't have time for this woman."
Clark turned on him, biting out the words. "We have time."
Sara put her hand on Clark's arm and looked at him, her eyes pleading. "Forget her, Kal."
Trask, with the finesse of someone who'd spent too long skulking in the basements of the FBI, said, "So, alien, the others have finally joined you. I figured it wouldn't be long."
Clark now took more careful notice of the thick necked man who hovered pugnaciously beside Lois Lane and who was now speaking into a cell phone, calling for back up. "Who are you?"
"We've been watching you, alien, waiting for you and the others to make your move."
Sara spoke up, anxious to get out of this place, to get back to the ship and back to her children. "We mean no harm here. Tell your government that. We return today to our home planet. We have been searching for Kal El and now we've found him." Looking directly at Trask, she repeated firmly, "We mean no harm."
Lois was silent, listening to it all. Once again, everything she had thought was being turned upside down. Clark was Kal El. He was only here temporarily; now he would be going back, wherever that was, with Sara and this man who stood behind her. She felt herself go hollow inside, as though something joyful had died. All of a sudden she was very cold, the January dampness seeping through her thin jacket, and she shivered. Last night had just been a date, without much meaning for him, a bit of entertainment before he left, an interlude. For some reason, his being an alien, as Trask put it, had never seemed real to her — Superman had never seemed real; but Clark Kent was real — so tangible that her heart had forgotten everything it had ever learned and had opened once again to trust and hope. Aware that he was watching her, she lifted her eyes to meet his, trying to see him as he really was, as this Kal El who belonged to a world not her own.
Clark looked at Lois, trying to read the expression on her face, feeling her confusion, trying to sort out his own confusion as he absorbed Trask's presence and all that might mean. Then he did the first thing that crossed his mind. He grabbed Lois. "Zara, I'll meet you later," he said quickly as he tightened his hold on Lois's waist and shot upwards between the narrow banks of dark brick until they reached the sunlight.
Once they'd gained some altitude, far enough above the skyscrapers of Metropolis, he spoke. "Are you warm enough?"
Lois looked at him wide-eyed, incredulous. They were flying! The cold air brushed her face while the city of Metropolis lay much diminished below her, spread out like a haphazard quilt trisected by the Hobbs and the West River. "Yes. Why is that? I should be freezing."
He smiled and shook his head, letting her know he didn't have the answer. "We have to talk, Lois. I have to explain." Then with a penetrating look, he added, "Maybe you do, too."
Seconds later he landed on the flat roof of Metropolis's newest building, Luthor Tower, a structure which thrust upwards beyond its neighbours, dominating the skyscape so that it had command of the city. Carefully, Clark released his hold on her, steadying her as her feet touched the gravel surface. Then they both stared at each other for a long moment.
"You first," Lois finally said, shivering slightly in the cold north wind which skimmed across the tower's surface.
He noticed it and removed his coat, draping it gently around her shoulders, quelling her protests. "I don't feel the extremes of temperature the same way you do."
"Oh. Does that mean you don't feel sensations when you touch something?" She couldn't believe it — her emotions were reeling and yet there was some remote part of her that could still ask trivial questions.
"No!" he protested, thinking of how just a light touch of her hand on his did things to him he'd never thought possible. He spoke haltingly, shifting his body so that it deflected the wind from her. "I do …feel things." He paused and then continued. "I was going to tell you. Something's happened but I don't know what yet. I had two days. Just two days. I wanted to spend them with you," he looked at her, his eyes desperate. "I wanted two normal days with you before I told you," he repeated softly as though those days were an elusive dream.
The wistfulness in his voice brought Lois back from the shock which had rippled through her on seeing him with Sara and their companion. Now she looked at him, sensing how much he'd wanted those days. She wanted them too. Reluctantly, instinctively, her hand touched his chest, reaffirming whatever it was that lay between them. At that moment she was profoundly uncertain about what that was.
She hadn't known him long — was it possible to fall in love so quickly? But whatever her feelings for him were, maybe because of those feelings, she was deeply upset and confused by what had just happened. Still, why should she think that on the basis of so short an acquaintance he would be prepared to change his life for her?
"Who are they, Clark? Who are you?" But her tone was not angry or hostile; instead it was curious, soft with the wonder of strange things in a strange universe which she so little understood.
He covered her hand with his and lowered it, then took her other hand as he answered. "They come from a planet called New Krypton, not in our solar system. They arrived last week, just before I met you. At least, that's when they let me know who they were — they've been here for over a month, now."
"Watching you," Lois added, feeling a little uncomfortable, reminded of her own surveillance of him. "That's why Sara was at the Planet. But why? Why not just pick you up and head back to this New Krypton? Clark, I have to ask this. Are they planning something more hostile — are they planning an invasion of Earth?" Boy, did that sound weird, she thought but it was a serious question and she searched his face for the truth as he answered.
"No. No." He sounded shocked. "They want me to go back with them but first they wanted to .. to judge me — see if I had the ability to .. to lead them." He dropped her hands to gesture his incredulity at the sound of this.
"Oh .. to lead them .. uh huh," she narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms, conveying her skepticism.
"You don't think I could?"
"Clark, it sounds so farfetched."
"I'm a little farfetched, Lois," he said with dignity.
"Okay, let's say for the sake of argument, that you are." She ignored the quizzical rise in his eyebrows at her comment but she did wonder why she wasn't more accepting of what he was saying. Why couldn't she let him go? It was almost like she was trying to talk him out of all this. "Why you? Why come all the way across a galaxy or whatever to search for you? And why are *you* here in the first place?"
"They told me I came from the planet Krypton, the mother planet of New Krypton. It," he took a deep breath, "it was destroyed in a massive explosion just before I was sent to earth in a space capsule by my parents."
"Yes," she said thoughtfully, "I've seen it."
"I've seen your space capsule. Clark, Trask has it. You've never seen it have you?" she added, suddenly overwhelmed with compassion for all the things he did not know about himself.
"That's not possible, Lois. I *have* seen it — Zara and Ching found it and brought it aboard their ship."
"When was this?" Lois spoke slowly, trying to figure out what was going on. "I saw the ship this morning. Have Zara and Ching taken it from Trask?"
"I saw it late last night … after our date." He hesitated over the phrase, reluctant to dwell on what he now feared might be the truth about last night. "Lois, who *is* Trask? And why would he fake a copy of my ship?" He stopped speaking and then framed his next words carefully. "And how is it that you know this?"
Lois met his gaze directly. "I guess there are things we've both kept secret. But, Clark, I don't think Trask's ship is a fake. Maybe Zara and Ching have the fake ship."
He looked at her stubbornly, not wanting to believe that Zara would deceive him. "She's my kin, Lois."
"Your kin — what does that mean exactly?"
"We're distant cousins and … we're married." He might as well tell her everything, he figured. "There's a power struggle between two rival noble families on New Krypton and they figure I can help. I'm the heir of one of those families."
Lois listened incredulously and picked on the most important, at least to her way of thinking, bit of information in his list. "Married? I thought you just met her," and silently added, <where does that put me — some kind of potential, second string concubine?> She narrowed her eyes again, the history of millennia of exploited Earth women reflected in the glitter of her eyes, not to mention her personal memories of a father who had walked out the door and a lover who had left her alone.
Clark saw it. "It's not like that, Lois. The marriage was arranged at birth — before I was sent away. It's Kryptonian custom among noble families."
"This New Krypton isn't exactly in the forefront of modern societies, is it?" Lois said sarcastically. "I mean, arranged marriages and inbreeding." Then she sobered, her voice a monotone. "So, you're going back with her to live your life on New Krypton?"
"No! I don't want that. But I promised Zara that I would return until the succession is settled. Lois, they are my people — I have to help them." The grimness is his tone softened as he continued, a plea in his dark eyes which he didn't feel he had the right to make. "Then I return home."
"Clark, what if Zara is lying to you?" Lois shifted to her earlier question.
"I don't believe that, Lois. And how is it that *you've* seen this ship that Trask has?" he added, an edge of suspicion in his voice, as he returned to his earlier question.
Lois averted her eyes from his, not wanting to tell him of her involvement with Trask.
"I see," his voice was toneless, devoid of emotion. "Who does Trask work with, Lois? Is he military? Are you working for them? Is that what you've been doing this last week — keeping an eye on the alien?" he added bitterly as everything he'd dreamed of suddenly evaporated. She wasn't his; the Lois of this world was just one more person on the other side of that barrier which kept him in permanent quarantine.
Lois was aware of the hammering in her chest, of her rapid breathing as she fought to suppress the hot sting of tears building beneath her eyelids. "It's not like that, Clark Kent. I'm the best friend you've got right now. I'm not the one manoeuvring to abduct you to some space-rock on the far side of nowhere. I'm not the one who cheerfully had dinner with me, all the time knowing he had some wife stashed away in hyperspace or however it is you so neatly compartmentalize your life." She was furious, her voice blistering as she fought her rising panic at the glittering coldness in his eyes, and the anger that he had not cared enough or trusted her enough to tell her about Sara and New Krypton, and the fear that she would never see him again.
"So you *are* working with Trask!" He flung the accusation at her, his sense of betrayal mounting. "I thought I knew you, Lois Lane. I don't know you at all!" How could he have been so naive as to think that just because there was another Lois Lane in another reality who loved her Clark Kent, that the Lois Lane of this world would love him. There were enough differences between the two worlds that he should have realized that this would be another of them. She was a government agent, a spy for a government who, in spite of all he had done this past year, did not trust him. He did not belong here.
He would leave for New Krypton, he would accept this marriage with Zara, and forget that for a few brief days he'd felt what it was to love someone to the depths of his being. It'd all been an illusion, a projection of a life he'd wanted so desperately, not anything to do with reality. He'd been a fool.
"No, I'm not working with him!" Her denial was emphatic and a lie. "Not exactly," she backtracked. Then defiantly, "I never thought of it that way."
"Oh." The coldness was still there and he was as remote to her as a star on the other side of the universe as he snapped, "Exactly what *did* you think you were doing?"
She stepped away from the shelter of his tall body into the wind which whipped over the surface of the office tower where they were standing, strands of her hair lashing her face as she looked at him. "I wanted to find out more about you. I told you all this before. The first time I ever heard about you was when I read about you in the paper when I decided to come back to Metropolis. There was a picture of you. And I couldn't believe it, Clark." She looked at him defiantly, not ashamed of her first reaction. "Why would I believe it? I figured you were a fake and," she swallowed before continuing, her voice rising in indignation, "and you worked at the Planet — *my* old paper."
Arms crossed and feet planted firmly apart, he flung out his next question, the one he really cared about. "Where does Trask fit in?"
How could she ever have thought he was so gentle, she wondered, as she looked at this impassive man before her, his jaw somehow more rigid and his eyes dangerously narrowed as he stared at her. "I came to the Planet, hoping to get my old job back but no one knew who I was. As I was leaving I literally bumped into Trask — he'd been watching you."
"So you took over for him!"
She set her mouth stubbornly. "Yes."
"And that was why you were in my dad's barn?" The coldness in his voice had given away to bleakness, betraying his sense of loss. That night they'd met, it'd seemed like a miracle, but he'd been wrong.
"Yes — and then everything changed," she said simply, meeting his eyes, betraying her hope that she was mistaken about him and that maybe he did care.
"Lois, I'd like to believe that but I don't see how I can."
"No, I suppose not." In a way she understood. Who was she anyway? — someone who'd just popped into his life a week ago. Then she realized she wasn't the only one who'd just popped into his life. "But you believe Zara," she said slowly, matter-of-factly, glaring at him.
Finally, the shadow of his normal self reappeared. "When you put it that way…"
"Have faith in me, Clark. I could never do anything that would harm you." When he said nothing, her temper flared again. "Fine. Go then. Don't even look at the evidence. I don't know you either, Clark Kent. I thought there was something between us. And I thought you were a reporter. So be a reporter — go on, investigate!" She turned her head, looking for some way off the stupid roof of this building besides the one that depended on him. How dare he pick her up like that in the first place! Spotting the entrance to the top floor, she stormed in that direction, her strides long, decisive. Rule number 3: Never get involved with space aliens.
Clark watched her for a moment, trying to calm down, fighting to reassert reason over the passion which was currently using his soul as a punching bag. Had last night be an act — had she played up to some need he'd inadvertently let her see? He remembered how incredible she'd felt in his arms and how she'd responded to him, his resentment surfacing again as he decided it had all been a game for her. Then he remembered how she'd tried to warn him off getting involved with her. What had that been about it if she had meant to entrap him?
Why should he believe her? How could there be any innocent explanation for her working with Trask? Yet why should Lois Lane, afterjust one week, decide that Clark Kent was the centre of her universe? And she had a point — why should he believe Zara? All along, he'd felt uneasy about Ching — maybe the two of them were just playing some intragalactic form of "good cop — bad cop."
He gazed out over the city of Metropolis — its traffic and buildings and open spaces — the few parks and the wasted blocks of rubble in those districts of the city which had fallen victim to decay, vandalism or the periodic riots which had struck the city over the last few years. The city was dirty, and corrupt, edged with a grey violence; but it was also alive, and surging with an energy that made him believe that one day it would be a better place. Whatever he was; he was partly what this city was, and what Martha and Jonathan Kent had been, and maybe he just might also be what Lois Lane was.
He watched her defiant strides take her closer to the door that would take her down to the top floor of the Luthor Tower and out of his life forever. Was that what he wanted?
In a blur, he was standing in front of her, blocking her entrance to that exit door. "All right, Ms. Lane." He wasn't yet ready to make any kind of commitment to this unknown quantity in front of him, beyond that of professional colleague. He wasn't yet sure if he could trust her but he didn't want her out of his life, either. "Where do you suggest we start?"
Lois looked at him, unconsciously standing as tall as she could manage, her hostility still rippling beneath the surface. She took a deep breath. "Come with me, Superman — see what Trask has and make up your own mind."
He looked at her for a long moment, sparring with the renewal of hope which was slowing uncurling in his soul, telling himself to be careful. "All right — show me what Trask has got." Quickly he spun into the Superman suit, then took a tentative step toward her, cautious now in how he touched her, willing himself to keep his face impersonal.
Lois saw it and understood that the barrier was still there between them. Fine — she could handle that. This was strictly business. She allowed herself to be gripped around the waist, saying as they drifted upward. "It's stored at Bureau 39 Headquarters, over on Grant and 33rd."
After a few moments of silent, awkward flight, Lois said, "There, over to the right — that dark brick building beside Ebrahimi Imports."
Looking for an unobtrusive landing spot, Superman flew lower over the building, then slipped downward into a weed strewn, vacant parking spot wedged beside Bureau 39 and its neighbour, and blocked at the far end by a three story addition abutting both buildings. In a blur, he whirled back into the working apparel of Clark Kent, adding to it the jacket which he had dropped around Lois's shoulders earlier and which she now silently handed him.
"Okay, I figure we can't just walk in the front entrance. Which end of the building do you thinks it's in?" His tone was skeptical. He didn't really believe he would find anything here.
"We'll have to go out to the street. We'll need to go around to the back of the building — it's in the basement at the far end," she replied, avoiding looking at him directly.
They headed out towards the street, walking quickly in the opposite direction from Bureau 39. It had started to snow, that wet thick snow which turns quickly to slush. They both concentrated on it, avoiding conversation until they reached what Lois figured was roughly the spot where the basement storeroom was located. Clark shifted his eyes along the foundation wall, using his x-ray vision to do a quick scan of what lay below. "Yeah, I think you're right."
"So how do we get in?" The question was posed more to herself as she inspected the back wall of the building, noticing at the far end double doors which were probably used for delivery purposes. And probably very secure. The windows all had bars — maybe that meant there was no electronic security system in place yet. Lois mentally crossed her fingers, hoping that part of the new inflated Bureau 39 budget had not yet been spent.
As she was thinking this, the man of action beside her had crouched down and was pulling the iron grill from the window. Then, using his heat vision, he sliced the perimeter of the glass, at the last minute inhaling deeply, creating enough suction so that the glass would fall towards him. Catching it, he propped it up against the stone foundation beside the window frame. As he did this, he commented, "No one in this end of the building."
"I'm surprised — isn't this just a little bit illegal — I thought Superman was above this sort of thing."
"Me too." Forgetting for a second what had just happened between them, he smiled slightly; then sobered as he remembered her arrangement with Trask, reminding himself that she may have been prepared to betray him. "I'll go first and help you down." He slipped in through the opening, and quickly glanced around, double checking to make sure that he had not alerted security. No one. "Okay," he whispered, "your turn." He waited as she manoeuvred her legs through the opening and then thrust her body forward. He caught her as she slid downwards, quickly releasing her when it was clear that she was on her own two feet.
"I'm not sure. We came from the opposite end, I think. Through rows of old filing cabinets."
He looked around briefly. "This way."
He veered off to the left and she followed, recognizing the way once they found themselves in the alley of filing cabinets through which she had come with Trask. Suddenly Clark stopped in front of her.
"Voices. Up ahead," he said, pulling her behind a tall bank of metal cabinets.
Lois heard the voices, too.
"Okay, let's call it quits."
"Yeah. It's way past five. This has been quite a day!"
"I've never seen anything like this before. The exterior metal is different from anything on this planet. No wonder Trask is so protective of this thing. I'm not even sure what to call it — a space craft, a module, what?"
"We have to get it over to the labs if we're gonna test the electronics properly."
"I know, but Trask is really weird about it being taken off site. He's had it stashed away here for about a year, I think."
"Can't say I blame him. This has to the most significant find I've ever seen."
Lois listened as the voices got closer; then, from her hiding position behind the cabinets, she recognized Zarkowski as she and her companion walked past them towards the door at the far end of the room. Moments later, she heard the door click shut and the lights were extinguished, leaving her and Clark in darkness. Well, her anyway, she thought. She heard him whisper beside her.
She let him lead the way, uncertain in the darkness which enveloped them, and too proud to admit that to him. All she was aware of was his body in front of her as he walked in the direction from which Zarkowski had come. Gradually her eyes grew accustomed to the dimness of the room whose only illumination came from the streetlight outside the far window.
"It's just over here," she said.
And it was. She had remembered correctly. Once again it was covered, but this time carelessly, by people knowing they would be back tomorrow.
Clark stepped ahead of her and noiselessly removed the covering, exposing the small ship which Lois had seen on two previous occasions. In this meager light, she could see little more than its outline but she knew that he, with his enhanced vision, would not be so circumscribed.
Clark had been prepared to doubt whatever it was he would see here. He had, in fact, expected to find nothing, except maybe some grim satisfaction in exposing the government's hoax to Lois Lane. But what he saw and what he had overhead as the two government workers passed by had changed that. There was no doubt in his mind that they were genuinely perplexed by what they had been examining. It was outside their realm of experience and outside their frame of reference.
What he saw now looked remarkably similar to what he had seen on the Kryptonian space craft. However it was smaller, not as sleekly designed, but it appeared to be made of similar material although it was a different tone — a steely blue. Its nose was emblazoned with his symbol, the symbol of the House of El but it was different. Smaller, as was the craft itself. And although there were runes incised along the side of the craft, there were no hand indentations, and these ruins were larger. The craft was the same, only it was different, the way an older car resembles this year's model.
He heard Lois speak beside him and he watched as she stepped haltingly toward the craft, slowed by her inability to see as well as he could.
"The hood opens. The catch is somewhere along here." Her voice was professional, giving him information, impersonal.
He watched as she ran her fingers, like a blind woman, along the ridge that rimmed the hood. Suddenly one side of the hood sprung loose and she removed it; then she pulled back the top of the hood to reveal an interior fitted with instrumentation which meant nothing to him. He felt his breath catch as he stepped forward to touch the craft, unsure now of what he was seeing. If this was really what had transported him to earth then what had Zara shown him? The two vehicles were too similar in design for him to doubt a connection between them. But one of them had to be a copy.
Instinctively, he turned to the woman beside him. "Lois," his voice was nervous, uncertain. He felt her touch on his sleeve, but then it was withdrawn too quickly.
"I know, Clark. But I don't think Trask was lying about this. He told me they dug it up near your farm, in Shuster's field."
"I remember the place," he said quietly. Gently, he traced his large hands over the exterior of the ship, then over its interior, learning it, trying to feel signs of what it had been. The small, dark, leather-like interior held, in its centre, a soft cavity nearly three feet in length, shaped like a nest, and surrounded by electronics. Life support systems for an infant — for him? He touched it, stroking the soft material with his fingers. Had his Kryptonian mother placed him here? He bit his lower lip as he wondered what she had looked like, what she had felt as she had placed him here. Thoughtfully, he touched a strap, one of a pair, which he thought were probably designed to secure him.
He felt Lois at his side. She was not touching him, and yet somehow, he was aware of her sympathy, aware of her.
"Lois, if this is my ship, then what has Zara got?"
"That's the big question, isn't? But I'll tell you one thing she hasn't got."
He detected a small note of mischievous pride in her voice and he smiled. "Something you've got, I bet."
"Yes, only it's in San Francisco."
"Slide your hand under the dashboard or whatever it is. Keep going. There." Her eyes were now accustomed to the room's dimness. "Do you feel that small hole?"
"Yeah. So what was in it, Lois?"
"A small sphere. I discovered it when Trask was off pulling an old file for me."
"And you took it." Clark couldn't help but grin. "Very resourceful, Ms. Lane."
"I thought so."
"So why didn't you hand it over to Trask. Why steal it?"
"Steal it!" Her voice was offended. "He stole your ship, Clark."
"Bet that's not what you were thinking." He was still not prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt when it came to her motivation.
She smiled in the darkness, acknowledging his comment and very aware of the distance between them. "Probably not, but I wasn't *not* thinking it either. I mean, what right does the government have to your ship? Anyway, I had it in my hand when I heard Trask returning so I just shoved it in my bag. I didn't really think *why* I did it." She felt like she was a suspect on that TV show, the one where they catch the guy and then try to pin him down in court — Pursuit and Judgment.
"I see. You do realize sooner or later he's gonna figure you've taken it, if he hasn't already."
Recalling Trask's hostile summons this afternoon, Lois thought Clark might have a point. "Maybe," she said, her tone neutral. Whatever was about to transpire between her and Trask, she had no intention of involving Superman or Clark Kent or Kal El or any other unknown persona he might have up his sleeve. She could take care of herself.
"Where is it now, Lois?"
"With a friend."
They heard the sound of a door creaking open and then footsteps approaching from the far side of the darkened room. The bright arc of a flashlight swept the room quickly; then the footsteps retreated, and the door closed.
"Security check. We should get out of here," Lois whispered.
"Just a second." Clark bent over and methodically but quickly, although eschewing superspeed, moved his hands over the surface and the interior of the ship.
"What are you looking for?"
"Wanna make sure there isn't anything else that might just pop up," he said lightly, not telling her he was hoping he might trigger a hologram, a message from those parents he had no memory of. His fingers finished their exploration, leaving him disappointed. "Okay, let's go."
"San Francisco and then back to Zara's apartment."
"This Lois Lane makes him even less predictable than he was before." As he paced the small command centre on board their space craft, Ching scowled at Zara and Trey, his frustration obvious. "He doesn't seem capable of deciding between this woman and his duty."
Trey brought his hands together and worried thoughtfully, "Picking her up and flying away with her." He shook his head imperceptibly. "He is perhaps easily distracted and impulsive."
"I should have followed him."
"No, Ching. I told you I didn't think it was necessary. It's better to be here in case Nor makes another attempt to contact us. Besides, Kal said he would return to the apartment."
"You place so much trust in him," Ching said bitterly, the strain of his worry about the well-being of their children taking its toll on him, as he knew, in fairness, that it was on Zara.
"I do. He said he would return and he will. I'd better get back there."
"I don't like leaving you alone," Ching said. He'd been with her, guarding her since he was twenty and it went against all his training and his instincts to leave her unprotected in this crisis. And it went beyond his deep feeling for her.
"I'll contact Vega to come to the apartment. Remember, it's you who trained him and he's very good. It's better if you stay here." <<Please, Ching,>> she communicated silently to him. <<What if Nor tries something here?>>
Ching's face softened for a moment as he met her eyes. "Very well, my lady." Silently, he added, <<Be careful, love, be careful."
The flight to San Francisco was, to say the least, awkward. Away from the safe neutrality imposed by the warehouse and the immediacy of the need to locate the ship, Clark and Lois now were thrown into closer intimacy — at least physical intimacy. Somehow the necessity for their bodies to touch if he was to carry her while flying made them more aware of the gulf between them. Here, high above the Earth, there was no task to distract them from each other, no safe footing. They were completely alone and both were painfully conscious of that.
Clark was concerned about Lois's body temperature but she assured him it didn't seem to be a problem; nevertheless, he flew more slowly than he ordinarily would have done. He couldn't seem to get a proper hold on her, and he was afraid of touching her somewhere inappropriate. She seemed stiff in his arms and once, when his grip slipped, she clutched his neck and he was aware of her rapid breathing as he quickly apologized. After that, they lapsed into silence, saying nothing more during the brief time it took to fly to San Francisco.
Then, with a sense of relief, they were standing in front of Jess MacConnell's condominium.
Jess looked up from the keyboard of her baby grand piano, distracted by the buzz of her apartment intercom from her big goal of learning that first piece of classical music. Rising, she padded in sock soft feet across bare hardwood floor to press the speak button. "Hi."
"Jess, it's me — Lois."
"Lois! It's open." Jess was both surprised and pleased; she hadn't expected to see her friend again for awhile. She also wanted to talk to her in person about that strange globe which Lois had sent by express post a few days ago. She walked into her streamlined kitchen to pull out a kettle, teapot, and other tea peripherals, while mentally checking to make sure her guest bedroom was in order. It was. Moments later, hearing a knock on her apartment door, she walked the short distance from the kitchen to greet her guest.
Then Jess froze, not speaking for a moment as she stared at her old friend and her companion — Jess wasn't absolutely sure, but she was ninety-nine percent sure, that she was looking at Clark Kent, or at least someone who looked quite a lot like the pictures she'd seen of him. Finding her voice, she said, "Come in, come in." Then she turned to Lois. "Lois, what's going on?"
"Jess, this is Clark Kent. He's… a friend. We've come to get the globe."
Jess extended her hand to the stranger in front of her, observing his reserve as well as the guarded look on her friend's face. She felt Clark Kent's strong hand take hers in a brief, firm grip and then heard his voice acknowledge the introduction. Partly, she was in awe of who it was who had stepped into her living space but also she had picked up on the restraint in Lois's demeanor. Why had she hesitated before introducing him as a friend? Was Lois trying to give her a signal, a warning that she should be careful about the globe?
Three days ago, while Jess was unwrapping the package in which the globe had come, she had been very conscious of Lois's e-mail to "keep it safe." At first, she had looked at the sphere curiously, then given it a more careful second glance. Not being immodest, she did admit to having a substantial background in both engineering physics and computer science and she knew something extraordinary when she saw it.
Her next move had been to show it to a very close friend whom she trusted and who was also a tech guru, asking him what he thought it was. He'd looked at it, examined it, and been mystified. The casing which protected it was something unknown to him; whatever it housed was impenetrable. He had no idea. If he had no idea, Jess knew, then neither would anyone else. So she had chosen what she thought was the most obscure place in her apartment, the unreachable back section of the corner sink cabinet, placed the globe in an old cookie container, and sworn her friend to secrecy about its existence. She had no idea what it was that Lois had stumbled upon but she would protect it.
Now she looked to her friend for clues as to what to do. None were forthcoming. All she sensed was a stiff awkwardness between Lois and her companion as they entered the apartment, Lois stepping quickly ahead as though trying to put distance between her and this superman.
Jess wondered if maybe Superman was not the benevolent being she'd read about. She had speculated, as had her circle of friends, about where the so-called 'Man of Steel' had come from, their bets being placed on his alien origins. Now she watched both Lois and Clark Kent as they entered her apartment and felt on her guard. Had this superbeing somehow managed to convince Lois, against her will, to come here for the globe?
Then she remembered this was Lois, and Jess had no actual experience of anyone ever convincing her to do anything against her will. So why did she detect this remoteness between Lois and Clark Kent? Something was not quite right.
Smiling pleasantly, at least what she hoped was pleasantly, at the stranger in her room, Jess said, "Lois, can I talk to you for a minute?" Touching her friend's sleeve, she conveyed with a shift of her blue eyes that they should retire into the spare bedroom, leaving Clark Kent alone for a moment.
Hoping that the man on the other side of the closed door was not using superhearing to eavesdrop, Jess whispered, "Lois, do you mean, like, give him the globe?"
"Yes," Lois looked at her friend and rolled her eyes. "Give him the globe, Jess. It's his."
"I figured that — but is it right to give him the globe?"
Jess looked at Lois for a second, decided her friend was not possessed, and then said, "OK, but I have to tell you, me and Angus — and Lois, he's the best all purpose hacker plus hardware guy in Silicon Valley — looked at this real carefully — very thorough, and we have no idea what it is."
Lois followed her friend toward the kitchen, ignoring the man who sat rigidly on the couch in front of Jess's large window. "Trust me. I don't think he has either."
Jess shot a look of alarm at her friend. Trust Lois to come back from the dead, not with a whimper but a bang. Kneeling down on the floor, she rotated the lazy susan in the corner cabinet around until she could reach the cookie container. She pulled it out, opened the lid, and handed the globe to her friend who took it carefully, almost reverently, Jess noticed, in her hands. Then they both walked into the living area, and Jess watched while Lois presented it formally to the man on the couch.
"Here," Lois said, and Jess noticed that she still avoided meeting Superman's eyes, "this is what I removed from your ship."
Jess watched as Clark Kent rose to his feet, giving one respectful, but distant, nod at her friend. She noticed, too, the look, on his face, grateful and yet sad as he looked at Lois, who avoided returning his gaze. "Thank you." His voice sounded humble as he took the globe in his hands, staring at it and waited, Jess had no idea for what.
Nothing happened. Jess watched as Clark raised the globe in one hand, scrutinizing it, narrowing his eyes and giving it a careful once over. She thought he seemed both puzzled and eager, and then finally disappointed. So much for her assumption that Superman was a man without emotions. He was not the son of Spock.
What was he expecting? She looked at Lois, who now was unable to keep her eyes off the globe and the man sitting across from her.
Then Clark Kent lowered his hand, placing the globe on the couch beside him, and said, politely, "Thank you, Jess. This means a lot to me." He turned to Lois. "I'll take this back with me. Do you want to come with me or do you want to stay here?"
Jess noticed Lois's hesitation and then watched her shoulders straighten as she replied, "I'll stay here."
For a moment, there was an awkward silence, and Jess found herself saying for the first time in her life what she'd heard her Scottish grandmother say so many times. "Why don't I make some tea?" Hearing no response, but also noticing that Superman, who seemed very much like an ordinary man to her at this moment, made no move to get up, she disappeared into her kitchen area to dig out some lapsang souchong which she'd taken a fancy to lately.
When she came back into the living area, she nearly dropped the tray she was carrying. The globe had risen, floating now a few feet above the couch, glowing, and moving slowing into the center of the sitting area, hovering and pulsing, the land masses on the globe a bright red and the rest a luminous white. It almost seemed like the globe was reading the people in the room. For a second, it ventured near Jess, then Lois, and finally retreated back to Clark. He raised one hand to try to still its movements but quickly withdrew it when that didn't work. Jess noticed that he shot a quick look at Lois who, for the first time since their arrival, met his eyes.
Jess silently slid her tray onto the sideboard and stood quietly, trying not to voice her astonishment as a hologram suddenly materialized in her living room. She watched, astounded, as a vision of a middle aged man wearing a white tunic spoke, telling them his name was Jor El and that his purpose was to tell his son, Kal El, of his heritage. Then she heard, "This is the first of five messages that we have recorded."
As he spoke, Jess noticed that beside him was a woman, about forty, with long red hair, dressed in the same type of long white tunic as the man. On their chests were crests, white versions of Superman's logo. Were they uniforms? Or were they members of a religious cult? The man called her Lara and Jess wondered, given that they were both in what appeared to be a laboratory, and also, given that the woman did not speak, if she were his assistant. Then the lab appeared to shake as though there had been an explosion and suddenly the image vanished, a postcard from another galaxy to a son, lost for a reason that Jess had no idea about.
Now she looked at Clark Kent, his eyes fixed on the afterglow of his father's image, something desperate in his eyes, and then she saw him look automatically at Lois and for a moment their eyes met and Jess had never seen Lois look so compassionately at anyone. Then she stood up, and Jess felt her friend's energy as she paced to the window overlooking San Francisco Bay.
Lois turned to face them. "I'll come back with you, Clark. To see Zara."
Clark rose, carefully cradling the globe as he asked Jess, his voice more husky than before, "Do you mind if I keep the box? I don't like to leave it unprotected."
Jess looked at him, still amazed at what she had seen and wishing with every fibre of her being that she could take the globe apart to learn how it worked. "No, no. You need something to keep it in."
"Thank you, Jess, for taking care of it for Lois, and for me." He smiled, and Jess felt all right about returning the globe to him, or giving him anything else he might want, for that matter.
"Any time," she grinned back. Then she directed a question at Lois. "How did you find this, Lois? I wanted to ask when you sent it to me, but I figured it was something a little hot, so I didn't want to say anything that could be retrieved or overheard by anyone or be incriminating."
"I sort of came across it in the course of a story I was working on."
For the first time, Jess heard Clark laugh. "She stole it. From the FBI."
Jess laughed too. "Why doesn't that surprise me?"
Lois sounded a little miffed. "Well, it should. No one is more on the side of truth and justice than me." She met Jess's eyes and grinned, "But sometimes, I like to get to define the terms." Turning she walked toward the closet in Jess's foyer. "Thanks, Jess, more than I can say. But I think I should go back to Metropolis."
"Can't you stay tonight? I'd sure like to know what's going on."
Jess thought there was a trace of sadness in her friend's voice as she replied, "So would I, Jess." While Lois pulled on her coat, Jess looked at Clark, catching him unaware, noticing his wistfulness as he watched her friend. Then the look disappeared as Lois turned to face him. "Are you ready, Clark?"
"Yes. Thanks again, Jess. I hope some day I can return your favour."
"It was nothing, Clark. I think maybe it was my privilege to help you."
He smiled and then surprised her. "May we use your balcony? I think we'll cause a little less attention if we take off from there rather than street level."
Jess nodded dumbly. Nothing more was going to faze her tonight. She led the way to her balcony door, slid it open and stepped out into the cool damp air. Lois, and then Clark, followed her. Once again they said their good-byes and Jess watched as Clark warily picked up her friend who was once more studiously avoiding acknowledging his physical presence. Then they shot upwards away from the setting sun, leaving Jess standing on her balcony, curious about her friend's relationship with this man, more curious about Krypton, and deeply mourning the loss of the globe which she still felt she could crack, given enough time. Sighing, but not unhappy, she turned back to her living room. The world was a different place than it had been last week.
Clark and Lois flew, in silence, for only a short distance before Clark changed direction and headed west, drifting downward until they landed on an isolated strip of beach, north of San Francisco.
Lois looked at him, not speaking, listening to the rolling rumble of crashing breakers unfurling white foam on the sandy shore.
"I need a few minutes to think about this, Lois."
He paced away from her, walking along the beach, his red cape snapping in the wind which swept in from the Pacific Ocean. Lois looked around, selected a large flat rock that looked not too uncomfortable and sat down, drawing her knees up to her chin, partly to keep warm in the face of the wind. She watched him as he walked farther away from her, thinking how isolated he looked, red cape billowing, a vivid contrast to the greyness of the ocean.
Oblivious to his surroundings, Clark walked briskly along the beach, trying to bring some order to the images flashing through his mind. Most of it made sense — some of it didn't. He wanted to see the hologram again. What did his father really look like? Did he have brown hair or was it greying? The globe wasn't a fake. His mother was beautiful. He needed to know more. Why was Krypton destroyed? Jess's apartment was nice — interesting that she and Lois should be friends. Why no mention of Zara? He would have to figure out how to "turn the globe on." Why had his father sounded so impersonal, almost cold? Zara had lied to him. He hated the way Lois wouldn't look at him when he flew with her.
Stopping, he turned around and spotted her perched on her rock, looking out to sea. In a blur, he was back in front of her. "What do *you* think, Lois?
She looked up at him, speaking slowly, "Honestly, Clark, I don't know. You must have so many questions about what happened." She moved over slightly to give him room to sit beside her. "Did the hologram say anything different from what Zara told you?"
"I saw a hologram on board their ship, too — stored on the vessel they said brought me to Earth. Lois, that vessel was different from the one Bureau 39 has, and the man who was my father was different." He turned to look at the woman beside him as he said this.
"So Zara faked the hologram. I take it this different dad said you were married to Zara."
"Ah hah, what?"
"Ah hah, you can't trust Zara."
"I don't think it's that simple."
Lois turned her head away, her resentment at how he was prepared to trust this Zara with a Z resurfacing. "Was anything else different?"
"The whole content of the message. This one," he reached into Lois's bag and pulled out the globe, holding it in his hand, "told us about Krypton. The one I saw earlier, didn't do that — he talked about the marriage to Zara."
"Why would Zara want to convince you that you're married? Did she think it would make you more willing to go with her to New Krypton?" Then a new thought crossed her mind. "Did you refuse at first to go with them, Clark?"
He hesitated before speaking. "Not at first."
She looked at him then. "What changed your mind?"
"I met you." His words were tight, as if they gave him little pleasure.
But nevertheless Lois felt something give way inside her as he spoke. So she had meant something to him after all. "Oh." She paused and hugged her knees closer. "So they decided they needed something to provide a bit more pressure. Smart to play on your vulnerability about your past."
"That's pretty cynical."
She ignored him. "Which does raise the question — why are they so desperate to take you back?"
"I told you — they think I can help against Lord Nor."
"Yeah — he's the leader who's opposing them back on New Krypton."
"They must be losing if they'd resort to this kind of deception, Clark."
As Lois finished speaking, the globe which Clark still held in his hand began to vibrate, pulsing vivid light as it rose slowly, as it had down in Jess's apartment, into the air in front of them. Again the austere figure of Jor El appeared.
"This is the second of five messages," his solemn voice intoned. The hologram showed Jor El in the same laboratory, explaining, as he checked instruments, how he was hoping to get the vessel built in time. Lara was there too, bending over a dark eyed baby wrapped in a blue blanket and happily oblivious tothe solemn words of his father but not to the gentle smiles and touches of his mother.
Clark was transfixed, absorbing everything his father said, hoping to see again the image of his mother but she did not reappear. She had not spoken but had always been passively at her husband's side or tending her child. Him! He was that child, Clark thought in wonder. His mother was so beautiful. As he watched the hologram fade, vanishing into the cool air, Clark felt warmed by this second vision, confirmation that whatever he was, he was normal in the most profound way.
"Clark, that was you!" Lois's tone was quietly excited. She shifted and saw the faraway look still there in his eyes. "You never knew did you? Until now, until Zara came, and now this." Her hand sketched an arc in the air to encompass all that they'd just seen.
"No, I never knew." His voice was so soft she barely heard him. Then he added, "Not really."
"It must have been so hard, not knowing or understanding." She spoke slowly, the thought occurring to her for the first time. Hesitantly, remembering that their relationship had altered, she lifted her hand to touch him.
He came back to her then from the distant star where his mind had been with the ghosts of his mother and his father. He saw the luminous darkness of her eyes and instinctively raised his hand to touch her cheek, tracing his thumb lightly along her cheekbone, memorizing its contour, before pulling back.
"You must've felt so alone." Somehow she wanted to go back in time to protect him, to let him know that she would care for him.
"Not when I was a kid, Lois." He smiled as a brief happy memory lit his eyes. "I had a great childhood. No one could have had better parents than my Mom and Dad."
Lois grinned, pulled back from her sentimentality by the flash of his smile. She sighed. "I gotta tell you, Clark, this has been the most amazing week."
"Tell me about it! But at least now I know for sure I wasn't "hatched" or "grown" in a petri dish or a test tube. Maybe some mad scientist experimenting with genetic alteration and in vitro fertilization, or an embryo bombarded with steroids."
Lois look surprised. "What? You're being overly dramatic, Clark."
He chuckled, relieved to be able to laugh after the tension of the last few hours. Especially relieved to laugh with her. Lately, nothing had been what he'd thought; maybe he shouldn't be surprised if that extended to Lois Lane as well. As he was thinking this, he heard her speak again, commenting on the hologram.
"Your father's very dignified, isn't he? Odd that your mother didn't say anything."
"Yeah. I'd say things were a little different on Krypton than they are here."
She rose to her feet, restless. "Well, if Zara is any indication, I'd say a lot different," Lois's tone was acid. "By the way, Clark, notice no mention of cousin Zara yet."
"Thank you, Lois, for pointing that out. I had noticed."
"So maybe we should get back to Metropolis." Her tone conveyed her reluctance; what she really wanted to do was to walk on this beach with him for awhile.
He sighed. "Right. Back to Zara's apartment." He handed her the globe which had obediently returned to his hand, and she slipped it back in her bag.
"Clark, I don't think that's such a good idea. You're walking right into Zara's trap."
His face set stubbornly. "I promised I'd go back. I owe Zara the chance to explain about the ship."
"No you don't. You don't owe her anything. She misled you, Clark."
"She had a reason, Lois, and she's my cousin."
"Oh, like that's the truth, too."
"Lois, there's something very wrong there. I can feel it sometimes from her. She's very afraid of something and I can't leave her to face whatever it is alone."
They stared at each other briefly, not speaking, again aware of the gulf between them. He picked her up and they flew back to Metropolis, each preoccupied with thoughts of the future.
They landed in the dark shadows of an alley just around the corner from the Apollo Hotel. It was now about eight o'clock in the evening. Clark spun out of the uniform and Lois looked at him sadly for a moment, reminded by his street clothing of what it was she would lose when he went to New Krypton, aware that this might be the last time she would ever see him. She felt her heart lurch and suddenly she felt sick to her stomach.
"So …" she took a deep breath, hoping it would settle her stomach. "Be careful, Clark. Maybe if you're ever in this galaxy again…" Her words trailed off; she couldn't finish her thought so instead she walked away, around the dumpster which blocked most of the alley from view, and out to the street.
Clark caught up with her and placed his hand on her shoulder. "Wait, Lois. I won't go without seeing you again." Whatever it was that she had been involved in with Trask seemed much less important now than the fact that he was afraid of never seeing her again. Of being forever alone.
Lois stopped. "Be careful of them, Clark. How do you know that once you're at Zara's apartment, they'll let you go?"
"Because they made no attempt to restrain me when I was on the mother ship, which would have been pretty easy for them to do."
"Unless you take into account, of course, the fake marriage," Lois reminded him dryly, as she resumed walking toward her hotel. "Now they don't have that."
"I'll be OK, Lois. And I will come back."
"You're crazy, Clark, you know that?" But she said it without passion, resigned to the fact that here was one more guy who'd kept secrets from her and who wasn't going to stay. "You're going to get involved in some galactic version of the War of the Roses." Then her feelings betrayed her as she demanded, "What has that kind of ridiculous dynastic struggle got to do with anything you value?"
"It's my family, Lois; it's different."
Lois rolled her eyes and raised her hands in a gesture which was both dismissive and fatalistic. "Then go."
"Will you be here when I get back?" His voice was barely more than a whisper; she had disappeared before; he had no doubt she could do it again.
"I'll always be here when you get back." The words came out unbidden and she was shocked. She raised her eyes to his, meeting them honestly, a promise to him. The she turned and quickly ran up the steps of her hotel as her eyes welled with tears she did not want him to see.
By the time Lois got up to her one room apartment, her mood had changed. Waiting five minutes for the slowest elevator in Metropolis can have that effect on you. She slammed her door, angry at herself for what she now considered to be her state of pure unadulterated wallowing over some guy who'd she known for just about one week. <Get a grip, Lane> she told herself. <Do something! Don't just stand on the sidelines like eye candy in a guy flick.>
Then she remembered her brief talk with Trask as they'd left the coffee shop this afternoon. He'd been hostile, not his usual semi-gracious self. Why had he changed his attitude toward her? She thought for a minute — was it FBI who had been trailing her and Clark while they were in Riverside? But it couldn't be anything to do with her day with Clark which had been pretty routine. Besides Trask knew of, and had approved, her working at the Planet again.
Then Lois remembered something which Trask had uttered just before he'd spotted Clark and the others. He'd said, "It's time we talked about that tape, Lane." She'd forgotten that comment, overwhelmed by the events which had followed.
So what had Trask found? Quickly she piled into her jacket and grabbed her bag, running down the back stairwell when the elevator proved too slow in coming to her floor. It was well after working hours, but Lois suspected there would still be a few people doing their bit at Bureau 39 headquarters. In fact she suspected, given what had happened this afternoon, the place would be a hot bed of activity. This worried her. Trask's fears of Superman had been proven all too real this afternoon — what would be his next move? She had to find that out, too.
Then, as she jogged across the small lobby and out the front door, the horrible thought struck her that Trask might have plans to kill Superman, and the others too. She ran the distance to the next intersection where she could catch a cab more quickly to take her to Bureau 39.
"Let's have it, Zara. What's really going on?"
A grim Clark Kent was standing in front of Zara who for once was unaccompanied by Ching. Instead, Clark was startled to see Rick Vega, the new reporter who had been hired at the Planet a little over a month ago, just about the same time as Zara, he now recalled. Why had he been so shocked that Lois had been tailing him when it seemed like half the world was? There was probably a lineup. He acknowledged Rick with a sardonic lift of his eyebrows, but spoke directly to Zara.
"The ship you showed me last night was a fake and the hologram was a fake."
Zara's face showed no emotion but she stood very still, while Vega moved swiftly to her side. "Why do you say that?"
"I've seen the real craft which brought me to Earth. I've also seen a hologram of my parents. It was transmitted from a small globe which was part of the ship."
"Believe me, Kal El, we had hoped it would be unnecessary to use our mock-up of the ship and the hologram. We expected that natural feelings for your homeland would be enough. I was never comfortable with deceiving you." She looked at him imploringly. "You have to believe that, Kal."
"How much of the rest of your story is a lie?" A small muscle twitched in his jaw, betraying his irritation at Zara's dishonesty.
"That was a projection of what our parents had probably intended. You and I were both born in the same year, Kal. A union between us would have followed Kryptonian custom. My mother informed me that she and your mother had corresponded about such a betrothal after your birth."
Clark was still skeptical. "It's time to level with me, Zara. If you expect me to go to New Krypton, you owe me the truth."
"There's not much more to tell. We've already told you how serious the power struggle with Nor is. But what we haven't told you is that Nor has become more aggressive. He had provoked skirmishes between our supporters and his. Misunderstandings, he claims," she added sarcastically. She took a breath and then continued. "Nor wishes to marry me — he has approached the Council of Elders for permission — the last time, the vote was a tie."
"I don't get it, Zara. Just say no."
"It doesn't work like that. The Council of Elders has acted as regent since the death of my father four years ago. Nor had sought permission from him to marry me but my father always refused."
"So why can't Nor take no for an answer?"
"Nor is ambitious. He has a distant claim to rule New Krypton, which he would very much like to do. Marrying me would strengthen that claim. Any son we might have would automatically inherit the throne. Nor could claim to rule in the child's stead, as regent."
The first thing that echoed through Clark's mind was Lois's scathing comment about dynastic struggles. Clark found the gap between the technological level of New Krypton and the primitive level of their political and social systems astounding. Still, he tried to look at this as a Kryptonian might.
"Would that have been so bad?"
Zara's composure disappeared as she lost her temper for the first time since he'd met her, her voice sharp with impatience. "Don't you understand, Clark? Nor is an amoral, manipulative, selfish thug who'll destroy our society within a year. I won't let him gain power!"
"Then tell this Council of Elders that the answer is no."
"I can't. There's something else, Kal. We found out two days ago that Nor has kidnapped my children. He's holding them hostage until I return and agree to the marriage."
"So that's it," Clark said softly, his voice sympathetic now as he touched Zara's shoulder trying to calm her agitation. "How much danger are they in?"
"I don't know! I hope not any at the moment. But if I don't get back to New Krypton, Idon't know what will happen. I'm counting on the fact that Nor's no fool — he knows he'll lose support with the Council of Elders if anything happens to the children. He claims he's just acting as their guardian until I return."
"I'm not sure I get this, Zara — how could you marry Nor, or me for that matter, if you already have a husband?"
Zara, looked at him surprised. "Kal, it would not be allowed for me to marry the father of my children. He is not of the same rank. The Council of Elders would not permit it."
"Oh," Clark said, properly admonished. How could he have not grasped that little detail? "Of course," he replied, curious about who the father of her children was.
"Now you understand why we must return at once. Besides, your government knows we're here now — that's a complication, as is the fact that Nor has emissaries here. If we leave, they will follow us which means there will cease to a problem for Earth. I'm very concerned that they will not use these developing powers which Earth seems to give us with as much restraint as Ching, Vega and I have done." Recalling the stranded school bus which he'd rescued a few days earlier, Clark raised his eyebrows but said nothing, more concerned about the news that some of Nor's men were here. That was another reason to get to New Krypton. These guys didn't sound too reliable and localizing the struggle to New Krypton seemed like a good idea. The thought of a few Supermen unconstrained by any sense of responsibility was not a welcome one.
"How many of Nor's men are here?"
"I'm not sure. I spoke with his chief emissary, Krc Xi. He said he was part of a small group."
"But you don't believe him?"
"I don't know. Nor has less support than we do and I don't believe he would be able to spare that many men to come here. Besides this technology we've used is still very new and very expensive. I don't think Nor has the resources to send more than one small ship. What worries me is that he has somehow convinced the Council of Elders to permit him to use even one vessel."
"Why do some of the Council support Nor?"
"The Council at times has difficulty reaching decisions — there are some who feel that they have become immobilized and that a strong leader would solve this problem."
"I don't get it. Why not you? Why are they acting as regent for you? You're an adult, Zara."
Zara's face was noncommittal. "It has been suggested, but most members of the Council are uncomfortable with the idea. Only one woman has ever ruled Krypton, and that was centuries ago. No woman has ever ruled New Krypton. They are prepared to accept me as one of the Council, but that is as far as they will go." She returned to her original purpose. "Kal, that is why you must return. New Krypton is on the verge of a civil war and if Nor wins, he will destroy our society. You are the right one to lead us and the nobles will accept you because of your birth." Then her voice lost its control. "My children, Kal. I must rescue them!"
No, Clark thought, I'm not the one to lead you; but maybe I can help. He could not bear the thought of Zara's children being held hostage. He remembered the hologram and his glimpse of himself as an infant. And how lucky he'd been to be found and loved by Martha and Jonathan Kent. Right now, these children were not so fortunate. Jor El and Lara had done everything they could to keep him safe; he knew that now. He owed no less to his cousin.
"Zara, I need to say good-bye to Lois. I'll meet you back here."
Clark shot across the dark night skyline, oblivious to most of what lay below. The excitement and exhilaration he'd felt on first meeting Zara and Ching had long since gone, replaced now by his concern for Zara's children, the dark anticipation of war, and the fear of losing everything he had hoped for with Lois. Swooping low as he neared the Apollo Hotel, he let himself plummet until he was level with the one window in Lois's apartment, hovering in the air as he scanned her room. She wasn't there. Where would she have gone? Then it dawned on him — Bureau 39.
When Lois had arrived earlier at Bureau 39, she approached from half a block away, cautious in face of her expectations about what and who she might find there. As she got closer, she realized her instinct had been right. Bureau 39 was not lit by the half light of a government agency after hours. Lights blazed and several nondescript dark coloured cars which reeked "government issue" were neatly parked in the street in front of the building, their drivers waiting at the wheels. As she approached, another car pulled up and Lois watched as a fit, balding, middle aged man with a soldier's bearing climbed out and jogged up the steps of Bureau 39, an aide with a briefcase trotting behind him.
Deciding this was probably not a safe place for her right now, Lois made a quick change in plans. So did the man who was following her.
Lois's next stop was LNN; she was about to call in a favour from Claude Kendall and she wasn't much looking forward to it. Although it was late, she knew there would still be staff at LNN doing the last minute prep for the 11 o'clock news. Kendall could take a minute away from having his hair groomed and talk to her. She wanted him to give her access to the video archives of LNN News.
She figured Trask had found something in that crowd scene tape and she wanted to know what it was. Maybe it was a shot of Zara or Lieutenant Ching. Maybe they had been here longer than they had told Clark. But how would she contact him to warn him if that's what she found?
As she rode the elevator to the rarefied floor from which LNN NEWS was broadcast, Lois found herself reliving some of what had happened in the Congo four years ago. Claude had left her, not just as her lover, but as her working partner. He'd faxed the first part of her story, with his byline on it, to the Planet; stolen her notes for the rest; then got a seat on a small corporate jet owned by DeKonig Diamonds and left town, a town which at that time was under imminent threat of attack by rebel forces.
She'd scrambled around for a couple of days, hastily reassembling her evidence, increasingly with the feeling that she was being watched, and then decided it might be prudent to leave town. No flights were scheduled for the rest of that week and so she'd felt lucky to get a seat on that van — that van, she thought — and for a moment the screeching red horror of the explosion replayed in her mind as vividly, more vividly than the hologram she'd seen with Clark a couple of hours ago.
Getting to LNN's star anchorman proved more time consuming than she'd expected. The name Lois Lane meant nothing to the pretty woman with the extravagant hair who enhanced the front desk in the news department. Lois's credentials as a Planet reporter got her a look that gave her the feeling the receptionist was looking for Lois's clay tablet. Mr. Kendall was far too busy, by which the receptionist meant important, to talk to a print journalist right now. If Lois would leave her name, she would see if Mr. Kendall was available later this week.
Lois smiled politely and said perhaps she'd forgotten to mention that she and Claude Kendall had worked closely together four years ago when he'd been a *print* journalist. When Perry White, her very good friend, was their editor, she emphasized. The woman arched an eyebrow but picked up her phone saying she'd speak to Mr. Kendall's assistant.
"Thank you," Lois said, leaning back in her chair to wait. She didn't wait long. The receptionist hung up her phone just as a security man entered the small reception area.
"Let's see your I.D., Miss."
Lois pulled her battered passport and her glossy new press card from her bag, handing them silently to the guard who looked at both her and them carefully before handing them back to her. "I'd say she's legit but if Mr. Kendall doesn't want to see her, then she's out of here."
"I'm not so sure she's legit. Mr. Kendall said she had to be another imposter — Lois Lane died four years ago."
"As you can see, Mr. Kendall doesn't have too strong a grasp of the facts," Lois said sweetly.
"Just a minute," the receptionist said, picking up the phone on her desk.
A minute later, Claude Kendall pushed his way through the door on the receptionist's right and stopped, colour draining from his face as he caught sight of Lois, a reaction which lasted less than a second as his eyes travelled to her hair. He turned to the security guard. "She's a fraud." Swiveling impatiently, he reached for the door knob behind him.
"You don't like the new hair colour, Claude?" Lois asked calmly, amazed that she felt nothing on seeing him again.
He turned around and gave her a second look.
"Maybe you need more convincing. We stayed at the Hotel du Sud, room 27."
His voice was cautious. "That's easy information to get hold of."
Lois smiled, noticing she'd now got a different type of interest from the receptionist and security guard. "You have a strawberry birthmark, the size of a quarter, about five inches below your navel, and your right…" She drawled the information, then paused to give him a chance to interrupt.
He took it. Approaching her, he reached for her hands. "Lois, it is you! This is incredible. I don't understand. They said you were dead. Lois, I was devastated, heart broken," he added as he looked quickly at the receptionist.
Lois gave him a long look. "Claude, you were the first person I thought of. I have *so* much to tell you."
"And I want to hear the whole story. Look, Lois, I'm busy right now — the 11 o'clock — you know how it is." A confidant, charming smile curved his lips but failed the climb to his eyes. "Leave me your number and I'll call you tomorrow."
"Why don't I wait here until you're finished?"
Claude hesitated for a moment. "All right."
"I'll just chat with…" Lois paused to peer at the name plate on the desk, "Courtney while I wait." She beamed at him and then at Courtney, now finding she was enjoying herself — maybe she did feel something on seeing Claude again — just the tiniest, infinitesimal urge to extract some small but pleasurable bit of revenge.
Claude took her by the arm and ushered her a few feet down the hall. "Lois, it is so great to see you again — we can probably steal a few minutes in here before the broadcast."
Lois gave him a beatific smile, then walked ahead of him into the small conference room to which he'd led her. As soon as the door closed, she turned. "Claude, this is what I want. I want you to authorize my access to LNN news video archives and I want that right now. And I'll need to borrow someone who can steer me in the right direction so I don't waste two hours figuring out the system." She gave him time to respond, second guessing what he was thinking.
"What are you up to, Lois?"
"Last time I answered that question from you, life got a little too interesting."
"Lois, we were partners," he protested and then stepped closer to her, meeting her eyes, and lowering his voice a seductive notch. "More than partners."
"Access, Claude, or I go back and chat with Courtney … to begin with."
"Lois, it's late."
Lois shrugged and walked to the door. Claude caught up with her. "OK. I'll send Sandi with you but you share what you find." His voice softened again. "Lois, we were a good team once — we can be again."
Lois was about to tell him what the chances of that were when she caught herself. No need to tick him off right now — he had access to what she wanted, and if need be, he could give her access to a large media audience as well. That might be useful to her; Claude could be a useful ally. Then, once Clark was safe, she would get back to having a bit of fun with Claude Kendall.
"Thank you, Claude," she said meekly, as she let him open the door for her.
Clark didn't need to land in front of Bureau 39 to notice the unusual pattern of activity around the building. The parked cars in what at this time of night would be a mostly empty street and the lights which illuminated the whole first floor of the buiding left him in no doubt that Trask had alerted the hierarchy and was probably at this moment presenting his big news about the presence of two additional aliens. Clark hated the word.
Swerving in mid air, he shot two blocks away from Bureau 39, landing in the impenetrable shadows of a service laneway which ran behind a row of small business which were, at this time of night, mostly closed. A quick whirl and he was in street clothes, running in a nearly invisible blur, like the wings of a humming bird in flight, until he was once again at the back of the agency. Spotting the window which he and Lois had used earlier, he was pleased to see that it had yet to be repaired by security. Slipping in again, he floated quickly, like a gust of air, through the building, looking for two people — Trask and Lois Lane.
Lois, he didn't find, which both relieved and disappointed him. He was absolutely sure she wasn't here. Probably, like him, she had spotted the cars in the street, and changed her mind. That was assuming she'd decided to come here in the first place. Maybe she'd just gone out to a movie or something completely innocent. Nah, not Lois! So where had she gone? He had no answer.
Trask, he found, sitting in a windowless room with men whom Clark figured were military or agency although no one was wearing a uniform. Standing just outside the room, he used his superhearing and X-ray vision to pick up what was going on. He'd never met Trask before today but his earlier impression was confirmed: Trask was a determined bulldog of a man, urgently presenting the facts of his encounter with the three aliens, making it clear he thought Earth was facing a national emergency of the first order. What he wanted was an Air Force alert.
Clark felt his heart thudding as he listened to Trask explain how he'd had the alien under surveillance since his first appearance over a year ago. He had even discovered the ship in which the alien had come to earth. Then Trask explained how he'd figured Superman had spent the last year softening up people with his rescues. Now it was obvious he was about to connect with his alien brothers as part of the advance force in conquering and then colonizing Earth. He finished dramatically, "And now the alien has abducted one of my operatives."
Clark seethed as he heard that — he had not abducted Lois! Then he heard the reaction around the table as Trask finished. They asked for corroboration. What was the name of the operative? Had anyone else beside Trask and the operative seen the other two? Any photographs? Too bad Trask had called for back up rather than getting shots. No reports that any foreign aircraft had penetrated Earth's detection systems, the guy with the laptop added. As Clark listened, he picked up the subtext too — some of these men were familiar with Trask — he had a reputation as a loner, obsessed with UFOs for years.
Clark let out a sigh of relief as it became clear that although these guys had taken Trask seriously enough to come to the meeting, they wanted more hard evidence than Superman's existence if they were to move to Red Alert.
Clark watched as they all rose from the table, listening as one of them said that although Superman's existence had put an end to his skepticism about the possibility of UFOs, he still thought there might be other explanations for Superman's existence. As he reached for the door handle, a stocky man with grizzled hair added a crack about Tempus's paranoid delusions about aliens when he'd been running for mayor of Metropolis over a year ago.
Clark vanished into a back stairwell as the men filed out of the room, waiting until they had left leaving Trask standing in the hall, defeated. Then Clark, too, left.
Another quick fly-over of Metropolis produced no sign of Lois, at least in the streets, or her hotel, or at the Daily Planet. That unsettled him, but he also knew he had to get back to Zara. Lois could take care of herself — she had been doing so for years. She was in no danger from anyone. But the disappointment at not finding her encompassed him, pervading his soul. He would have to leave without seeing her. Would he ever see her again? Ever get a chance to spend twenty-four ordinary hours with her? Ever get a chance to wake beside her in the morning?
He veered back toward Zara's apartment.
"The tapes are stored by category and by date starting back here," Sandi Davidson said, as they walked through what at first glance seemed to be a chaotic degree of disorder, tapes and CDs scattered at angles along a narrow work table on which were situated a couple of computers terminals. "We're in the process of reformatting some of our back tapes," she said by way of explaining the clutter. "Claude said whatever you'd like to see…"
"Thanks, Sandi," Lois smiled at the tall, fresh faced woman beside her. "I'm doing an article on Superman and so I thought I'd like to start at the beginning, when he first showed up in Metropolis."
Sandi looked along the shelf, then put her fingers on a tape. "The first thing we've got is footage from the mayoralty candidates' debate, you know where Perry White was supposed to debate that weirdo, Tempus." Then she laughed briefly. "No need to tell *you* that." She pulled it from the shelf, blowing the dust from the top of its case as she did.
Lois smiled, gratified by what she assumed was a reference to her past as a reporter with Perry White. "Did you shoot these?"
"No — not sure which of our guys did. The next tape is Superman's press conference the next morning. They go in order," she added, sliding her finger along the shelf. "Here, you can use this monitor. Not sure you'll find anything the media frenzy at the time didn't pick up."
"Thought I'd take the chance," Lois said. "Thanks, for showing me, Sandi."
"No problem," Sandi replied as she took the chair next to where Lois was sitting.
Dismayed, Lois said, "You don't have to stay. I'm OK with this equipment."
"It's all right. Claude said to give you all the help you need."
<Oh, he did, did he,> Lois thought. <And tell him if I find anything interesting?> She said nothing but concentrated on the first tape, fast forwarding until she came to the image of Superman. Then she slowed the tape. She'd hadn't seen this one before — it wasn't part of Trask's collection.
Now she watched, fascinated as a tall urbane looking man called Tempus — he didn't seem to have a first name — ranted, boasting about how he would expose the alien threat from outer space. As if on cue, Superman landed on the front of the stage carrying in his arms the unknown woman in white. Both their backs were to the camera. Lois watched as the woman rushed to Perry White while Superman dashed into the back room, returning almost immediately with a short almost elderly man in old fashioned clothes. The tape never left Superman — this was his first appearance in Metropolis and the cameraman knew where the story was.
As Superman approached him, Tempus continued his rant, now histrionically accusing Perry White, James Olsen, and Lois Lane of aiding and abetting the alien. As she watched the video, Lois's eyes widened — Lois Lane? How could that be? But before she had time to process this information, she watched as Tempus produced a glowing green crystal from his pocket, and then, horrified, she saw Superman collapse like a puppet with broken strings, grimacing in pain.
The woman in the white pantsuit, *Lois Lane*, Lois thought, rushed forward to crouch over Superman and Lois briefly caught sight of her face before someone yelled "there's a bomb." All order broke down as people rushed everywhere, panicking, including apparently the cameraman because the tape now turned jerky, blurring the faces and bodies as people stampeded to get out of the auditorium. That was the end of the tape except for a brief bit which showed Tempus being subdued by security guards and then hustled off stage.
Lois was in shock — she didn't get it, she didn't get it all. She looked at Sandi who said, "I still find that bit amazing." Lois could only nod, too dumfounded to speak. She reached for the next cassette, her heart thudding.
It was the press conference. This was the one that she'd wanted Trask to analyze. This tape was a little different from what she'd seen at Bureau 39 — they'd probably had their own people at the press conference. Still, the content was much the same. Superman being introduced by Perry White, the close-up of Superman's face and that look as if he were scanning the crowds, looking for someone. Then he stopped and she could tell he'd found who he was looking for. A brief nod of his head and a fleeting look of hope; then, his head lowered and when he raised it again his face had taken on that emotionless cast which she associated with Superman. Hope gone.
This was what she wanted to look at — the crowd. She rewound the tape to the beginning of the conference — to some random crowd shots, none of which were likely to have been used on news broadcasts, she imagined. As the camera panned across the faces, never coming to stop on anyone for more than a second, Lois slowed the tape. Then she caught her breath as she glimpsed a figure in white behind the mass of people, standing in the portico of a building as though separate from the crowd. Lois was looking at herself! Or at least someone who looked an awful lot like her. *She* was the unknown woman in white. How could that be?
Resisting the urge to rewind, Lois looked at Sandi to see if she'd noticed but Sandi didn't seem to be paying close attention. "Pretty boring, I guess," Lois grimaced at the woman beside her.
"I don't know what you think you're going to find in these old shots," Sandi said but she spoke without annoyance.
"Don't suppose there's any coffee around?" Lois asked.
"Good idea. Down the hall. I'll be back in a minute. Whaddya take in it?"
"Black. Thanks." Lois had already started to rewind the tape as Sandi was going out the door. She found her spot, froze it, then magnified the image. It couldn't be. Lois knew the location where the press conference was being held; it was across the street from the Daily Planet. She also knew that where the woman was standing was directly across from where Superman was standing. Was it she whom he had been looking for? What was her relationship with Superman? Where was she now?
Lois looked at the woman carefully — her face was thin, makeup immaculate, and her short black hair professionally tousled; but still she looked so much like Lois herself that she could have been her identical twin. Well, her identical twin with an image consult, she thought uncharitably. What was going on? Lois rewound the tape a little looking for another shot of the woman — there were none but now she noticed the man beside her look-alike. The same man whom Superman had brought from the back room at the White-Tempus debate. Lois guessed he was the woman's companion and she wondered who he was. And, more importantly, who was this woman who was her double? And why had Tempus called her Lois Lane? Why was she impersonating her?
Is that why Clark had been so interested in her, right from the beginning — because she looked so much like this woman? Then she remembered his odd preoccupation with her hair colour the night they'd met and her heart sank.
"Sorry it took me a little longer than I expected — Courtney wanted to chat," Sandi smiled as she spoke.
The tape continued as Lois replied, "That's OK." But her response was automatic, unthinking as she tried to calm down, to think rationally, to make sense out of what made no sense.
So that was probably what Trask had discovered earlier, maybe had known all along, and what had led to his demand that she return with him to Bureau 39 as well as that bizarre crack about fraternizing with the alien. He must suspect she had some long term connection with Superman.
But to Lois Lane, it now looked like she didn't have any connection with him at all. She had never felt so alone, so lost. She ejected the tape, handed it to Sandi, and said, "Thanks for your help, Sandi. I think you're right that I'm not going to find any news here. I'll try a different angle. Tell Claude thanks."
As he was on his way to Zara's apartment Superman was delayed by the distant sound of sirens. The wet snow which had been falling earlier had turned into freezing rain, probably catching many drivers off guard. As he got closer to the source of the sirens, he saw that it was worse than he'd feared. Two trains had collided, one of them having jumped its tracks. One was a passenger train and the other a freight hauling consumer goods but, as Clark learned once he landed, it was also carrying hazardous materials, in this case chlorine gas. The emergency rescue forces could use more help than even Superman could provide.
As he sped around assisting wherever he could, Clark thought about all the times in the next month or so when he would not be available to do this. There were people who would die because of his choice to leave. He knew that this was not in any direct way his fault, but still it did his spirit no good as he gently flew a gurney bearing a severely injured old man to the nearest ER, the icy roads now too treacherous for quick passage by ambulance.
When he returned he landed next to the Chief of Rescue Operations who was talking to the engineer of the train which had jumped the track. He was just in time to hear him say, "I don't get it. We weren't having a problem but I swear I saw two men land up ahead of us. Next thing, we're on a different track and I had no time to stop before the 42 from Boston came. I know it sounds crazy, but I think they switched the track we were on."
The man who was with him said, "I saw them, too. Check the track back there for interference."
The Chief of Rescue Operations spoke quickly. "Ricardo, Andrea, check it out. If you find anything, we report this one to the Military."
Superman heard it, and despaired. It couldn't be Zara and Ching — they knew of his decision to leave. Only Nor had a reason to keep him here. Most likely, these people tonight had been injured to keep him distracted, to keep him away from New Krypton. He had to find Nor. Zara was right — the man was ruthless. Clark tensed, his anger building — Nor had used other people as hostages, toying with their lives. His jaw clenched and he tightened his fists wanting to strike, to stop this thug.
Then he had a quick memory of his father at the Smallville fall fair, facing down a couple of half drunk jerks who'd been having some fun insulting, then shoving, and getting increasingly violent towards a young newcomer who'd said something they hadn't liked. Clark had been shocked by the anger on his father's face. He knew that his dad, who was a strong and powerful man and who also had the advantage of sobriety, could take the two bullies easily. For a moment he'd been sure that his father was about to hit one of them but as he watched, his father brought his temper under control, then stepped forward, standing in front of the larger of the two drunks, fixing him with his eyes as he said to their target, "Haven't seen you around here before, kid. How would you like an old hand's tour of the place?"
End of crisis. Until just before bedtime when Clark had asked, "You wanted to hit that guy, Dad, didn't you?"
Jonathan had looked at him seriously, and suddenly Clark had felt grown up. "Yes, I did, son. But that's not the way I work."
As Superman continued to search through the wreckage of the two trains, he hoped it wasn't the way he worked either.
Without thinking, Lois stormed from the lobby of LNN into the freezing rain, oblivious to its stinging discomfort, heading straight for Bureau 39, furious with Trask. Why had he waited until today to mention the tape? She had to know, had to settle this dark uncertainty which taunted her soul as she thought about Clark and this woman.
When she got there, she saw the cars had gone — did that mean that there was now an alert in place or did it mean that Trask had been left high and dry? A few lights were still on but Lois wasn't too optimistic that Trask would still be there. It was getting late and even Trask had to call it a day at some point.
Maybe me, too, Lois thought, but what was the point? She knew she wouldn't sleep tonight anyway. Clark was never far from her mind and her thoughts of him were chaotic.
She was battling her emotions, trying to forget that for a brief moment she had let herself love him. Part of her still wanted to trust him, to believe that he hadn't misled her, not in the deepest sense of one person's commitment to another. But then, she reminded herself bleakly, he hadn't told her about Zara, and he hadn't told her about this woman whom she so closely resembled and who had been using her name. Impersonating her.
Now he was leaving and she would never know what it had all been about. She would continue working, get in touch with her mother and sister, and try to forget that for one incredible week she had known a man who had touched her in a way that she had never thought possible.
Maybe Trask could help her sort it all out. He must have seen what she'd seen on the tapes. She was dimly aware that she wasn't thinking too coherently, but it was a sure bet that he knew more about what was on those tapes than she did. She wanted some answers and Trask was going to give them to her.
The entrance door of Bureau 39 was still open. Lois flashed her security ID at the night guy at the desk in the lobby, asking if Trask was in as she did so. The guard buzzed the switchboard, waited for a second, and then said, "Lois Lane to see you, sir." Then he looked at Lois. "Go ahead."
"Thanks." Lois pocketed her ID and walked around his desk down the corridor which led to Trask's office. Trask met her en route, firing questions without waiting for her to speak.
"So the alien released you. Why?" He looked at her suspiciously.
Lois rolled her eyes. "Trask, he didn't kidnap me."
"No? I didn't notice him asking for permission before he grabbed you," Trask said sarcastically. "What'd he want?"
Lois met his eyes and said steadily, "He wanted to know what his partner at the Daily Planet was doing with a guy who appeared to be a cop."
Trask seemed to accept that. "I told you he wasn't alone, Lane."
"So what happened with the guys you just met with?"
Trask gave an exasperated snort. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised you know about the meeting. The answer is nothing. Squat." Trask's tone was bitter. "I had no evidence other than my word. My word. The same guys who wouldn't believe me years ago. What will it take to make them believe the threat is real, it's out there?"
For the first time, Lois felt sorry for him. He had been obsessed with this quest for years, she'd figured, and now when he knew he was not completely wrong, no one would believe him. "Trask, I'm here because you said you wanted to see me."
"Yeah. Follow me — it's time you explained." He turned back toward his office.
Lois followed, guessing what it was that he was about to show her, not surprised when Trask flicked on his computer and called up that portion of the tape she'd been interested in.
As Trask zeroed in on the frame showing the woman in white, he said, "What I don't get is why *you* pointed us in this direction. At first, I thought you'd been pulling something — that you haven't been missing all these years and that you've been working with the alien all along. Maybe even were an alien."
Lois's response was an involuntary squawk. "What?" Then finding her normal voice, she continued, "Trust me Trask, I'm no superwoman."
"No. I don't think so, either. We did an extensive check on you as soon as you showed up in Metropolis last week. I remembered you'd been with Superman at that debate but you never showed up again. Always wondered what happened there. Olsen and White pleaded ignorance at the time. Anyway, we couldn't track all your movements over the last four years but we picked you up in Ecuador. But we couldn't find any reference to Superman type stunts there. We've got an exhumation order on that coffin that supposedly has your body in it. But the questions kept coming back — about your disappearance last year and this tape. Why would you point us in the direction of this tape? Either you didn't know what we'd find or you did, and for some reason, you wanted us to find it. Which is it, Lane?"
There was no point in lying to him. "I didn't know what you'd find, Trask. Believe me, that woman was an imposter. *I* was not here in Metropolis last year."
Trask continued without comment. "We talked to a couple of people about this… imposter," Trask pointed at the screen as he spoke and then reached across to his desk, grabbing a copy of what Lois was looking at on the screen. Trask looked at the photo for a second before thrusting it at her. "She could be your twin, Lane."
Lois took the picture, scrutinizing it carefully, still trying to make sense of it, listening as Trask continued.
"Checked at the Planet and found a couple of people there who remember this woman showing up at the paper a little over a year ago, a couple of days before Superman appeared. Guy called Bergman remembered her for the obvious reason — she's easy on the eyes. Also because he watched her plant a kiss on Kent as soon as she saw him."
"Yeah, just about the time Kent's main squeeze showed up."
"Lana Lang?" Not that Clark had told her about Lana, Lois thought uncharitably; it was something she'd picked up during her research. Still, she hadn't told him about Claude either.
"Must've been tense," Trask grinned. "Unfortunately, Lang's out of town — on her honeymoon." Trask pronounced the word as though it were something distasteful, something that real men avoided. And Olsen's still reluctant to talk. Said he didn't remember much about her. Short of getting a warrant, I had to accept that little lie. I'll get back to Lang after her week of wedded bliss is up. No reason she should want to protect Kent or the woman."
"Probably not," Lois agreed, but thinking of James Olsen, remembering his reaction when she'd first met him — maybe not so surprised, after all, that she was alive, the way Jocasta had been. What was it he'd said? "You're back." So he must have thought she was this other woman. What had been going on? Lois rose from her chair.
"Where you going, Lane?"
He followed her as she walked down the hall. "Home. It's late." All of a sudden she felt overwhelmed by her confusion. She was exhausted. Clark had said he would see her before he left. She hadn't much believed him, but now it was her last hope. So she'd better be where he could find her.
"You haven't told me what you think is up with this woman."
"I don't know. I have no clue who she is or where she is now," Lois said irritably.
Trask stood up, saying, "I'll walk you to the subway, Lane." When Lois raised her eyebrows at him, he added, "Rough neighbourhood."
They walked down the hall to the front lobby and out to the deserted street without talking. She was too tired, and Trask lacked the skill, for small talk.
About a block and a half away from Bureau 39 he finally spoke, "You and I should talk to Olsen in the morning."
Lois didn't like that idea although at this point she wasn't sure if it mattered much if Trask found out whatever it was that James Olsen knew. Still, she prevaricated. "Let me talk to Olsen alone — he probably trusts me a little more."
Trask was about to reply when their route was suddenly blocked by two muscular men in black who looked like they might be enforcers for a hockey team or some even less respectable institution, and neither Trask nor Lois had any illusions about the honour of their intentions.
"Shall we take him too?" the taller one asked.
"Why not? Two hostages should be more use than one."
Before the man had finished speaking, Trask let fly a powerful swing of his right arm while Lois's left leg knifed out in a vicious kick, aimed at the groin of the goon in front of her. Their attempts were futile. Trask and Lois quickly rebounded, feeling the pain of slamming against two bodies that felt more like slabs of granite than human tissue. Then they felt themselves being roughly grabbed and lifted off the ground as the men seemed to float, carrying them into an adjacent parking lot, empty and hidden in shadow.
A moment later they were inside a small vehicle, a transporter craft which shifted into hyperspace, shooting in a ball of white light toward a space craft, controlled by Lord Nor.
Once he was certain that he could do nothing more to help the victims of the train collision, Superman took off, again flying by Lois's apartment, hoping that she was there. She wasn't. Once more, he checked his place but she hadn't gone there; neither had she gone to the Planet. Still uneasy about her whereabouts, he gave up his search and flew to Zara's. He would have to leave without seeing Lois again.
"All right, Zara, I'm ready to go," his tone was grim. "But I want to make it absolutely clear that I have no intention of staying on New Krypton. My home is here, on Earth. Before I agree to go with you I want your word that once Nor is defeated and your children safe, we will return."
Zara's shoulders relaxed imperceptibly as she sighed in relief. "You have my word, Kal. We would never keep you against your will."
"Let's get started then."
"Yes. New Krypton has long awaited you." She nodded briefly to Vega to signal their departure.
Moments later, they were aboard the NKSS Future.
Trey and Ching greeted Clark and Zara as they stepped out of the transporter craft onto the grey landing platform. Zara they were pleased to see, Vega as well; but for Clark there was a deferential reserve, particularly from Ching.
Trey bowed his head respectfully and then said, "Welcome, my lord, my lady. It is late but we have all assembled in Hall A to pay our respects to Lord Kal El."
As they proceeded along the corridor, Zara explained to Clark, "This is just a formality, Kal. It will not take long."
"How many people are on board, Zara?"
"Not many. The flight crew, some support staff, Trey and three other members of the Council of Elders. Given your importance, it was appropriate they be here to greet you." She didn't add that she believed they had also wanted to monitor what she did, not completely trusting her capability to carry out this mission on her own.
"I see. Is there anything I should know before I meet these people?"
Zara smiled, pleased at this small sign of his willingness to adapt to Kryptonian custom. "We will instruct you in our customs and language during our journey back to New Krypton so do not worry. Right now all you need to be aware of is our form of greeting. We don't shake hands as they do on Earth; we turn both palms upward."
"It's an old custom, an ancient sign that we are unarmed."
"Ah," Clark said as he noticed that Ching now fell back a few paces behind Zara, walking behind her as they got closer to the large double doors at the end of the hall. Then Zara, too, stepped behind him, as did Trey.
"It is custom for the highest ranking person to precede the others on formal occasions such as this."
Clark groaned inwardly, envisioning a formality which he knew would make him uncomfortable. He could do this. He had to be able to do this. Yet no matter how challenging his life had seemed to him in this past year, this would be more difficult. As he looked around at the heads bent respectfully in front of him he thought, this is not what I want. This is not what I am. I am Clark Kent. A slight grimace of distaste flickered across his face as he listened to Trey's obsequious introduction, reminding himself that Earth too had its Treys. It was with relief that he heard Trey finally dismiss the assembled crew, wishing them good night.
It was with even greater relief that he heard Trey offer to show him to his quarters. At last he was able to close the door, hoping for sleep which would not come as thoughts about the life he had lead and the one he was about to lead whirled in his mind. Would there ever be a time for him and Lois?
Emotionally and physically exhausted, Lois slept like a log as soon as she was shown to a small but not uncomfortable room. At least she did for about four hours, and then she was wide awake, snapped into unsettled alertness by a wonderful, beautiful, sad dream about Clark Kent, herself, and her white suit imposter. Her dream had been of a wedding day, hers and Clark's. He had been at the front of the church, standing on the steps, waiting for her, when she had arrived, her wedding gown held high in a covered garment bag in one hand, as she hastily mounted the steps to go inside to change. But it hadn't been she who Clark had married — it had been the other Lois Lane.
Trying to shake the dream's lingering malaise, and knowing she would need all her mental and physical reserves for what might possibly lie ahead, Lois willed herself to return to sleep but failed. Her mind kept going over all that had happened since she and Trask had been kidnapped as she tried to make sense of it and figure out what these people were. The guys who had snatched her and Trask were no different than a hundred other hard cases who'd probably been out on the streets of Metropolis last night. Except for one little detail — they were from outer space.
And one of them was named Nor.
She remembered his words once they were on board the transporter craft. "So this is Lois Lane." He'd given her the kind of once over a lower order knuckle dragger thinks is charming and then said, "Kal El's distraction." He'd touched her chin, making her flesh crawl. "I wonder how much of a distraction you can be."
At that point, Trask had come on like a defender of law and order and snarled a warning at Nor who looked at him as though he were an inconsequential joke as he hurled him against the cabin wall with one blow from his outstretched arm. Trask had slumped to the floor and Lois had quickly run to his side.
Nor had laughed in evident pleasure at what he had just done; then, without speaking further to the two captives, he had taken his seat at the front of the transporter, leaving Lois and Trask huddled on the floor. One thing had been obvious — Nor and his companion were more powerful than Earthmen but not nearly as powerful as Superman. Yet it was quite clear from their boastful discussion that they expected they could become as strong as Superman.
Nor had been interested in that possibility — very interested.
He had continued to ignore Lois and Trask until they boarded the larger space craft which was home base for Nor and his men. Lois had helped Trask, who was still not steady on his feet, out of the transporter, trying as she did to observe as much as possible about the larger ship which they now were on. The more she knew the better off they would be.
Nor had been immediately surrounded by others who all wore the same black uniform and thick black leather vests as their leader — the costumes of fighters. They looked like some kind of high tech street gang. Lois took some comfort in knowing that at least Clark had picked the right side in this ridiculous Kryptonian gang war.
Nor had issued a brusque order to escort their "guests" to quarters, adding sarcastically that he was looking forward to talking in the morning to the Lady Zara, and to finally meeting the famous Kal El.
Now, as she lay on the narrow bed in the cramped cubicle into which she'd been shoved by one of Nor's henchmen, Lois decided it was time to do a little investigating. Fumbling around in the darkness, she accidentally jabbed a button which turned on a dim light beside her bed. Getting up, she explored the room, an activity that took only seconds given its size and sparseness.
She supposed she should be grateful she hadn't had to spend the night in the same room as Trask although she did admit to some concern about where he was. She had no doubt but that Nor was a killer. He had no idea if Trask had any value as a hostage or not. Or her for that matter. Lois made a wry grin at no one as she thought to herself that she had become one of those tabloidstories she'd never believed — she'd been kidnapped by aliens. And Trask had had a point all along.
She tried the door but was disappointed to find it locked. These guys had no class. What if she needed to use the bathroom in the middle of the night? Frustrated yet accepting that there was no way out, she returned to her bed, once again chasing elusive sleep.
When dawn finally came — at least Lois figured it was dawn because the light automatically flashed in her room — she tried once more to leave. This time the door opened as soon as she touched it, admitting her into a steel grey corridor dimly lit by long tubes installed at floor level along each wall. Lois tried the door at each end but found it locked — so she only had access to the few rooms along the corridor. She stood in front of each one, touching its smooth metallic surface, hoping for admission; but, other than the bathroom, none of them opened until she got to the white door at the end of the hall.
Placing her hand on the door, she was pleased when it automatically opened, leading into a small white room with a narrow rectangular table set with six chairs. Behind the table was a counter with a sink, and what turned out to be a fridge — at least it stored clear containers of a fluorescent blue liquid and packaged trays containing what Lois thought might be breakfast. She wondered if it was safe to try one; she hadn't had supper yesterday and she was hungry.
As she was making up her mind about this, the room suddenly exploded with new energy as two children, a boy and girl, about three years of age, erupted through the door and then skidded to a stop as they spotted the stranger in their space. It was hard to say who was more startled — Lois, whose experience with children was so limited as to make them in their own way, alien beings, or the children, who were deterred only for a second from their original purpose of getting to the fridge where Lois was standing.
Lois smiled, cheered immeasurably by their presence, and asked them if there was anything they would like.
The children stared at her with wide eyes. The boy gazed at her solemnly, his green eyes curious as he spoke. Lois had no idea what he said, as the boy had probably no idea what she said. And she was pretty sure her knowledge of Spanish and the smattering of the few languages she had picked up on her travels would not make much difference. Just how had Zara picked up English so quickly?
A young woman, tall and robust, strode into the room, halted in surprise, then looked very suspiciously at Lois. Lois tried saying hi hoping there would be something in the tone of her voice which would break the ice. There wasn't. The woman did not smile but uttered a string of words which left Lois baffled. Shrugging her shoulders as she explained she knew no Kryptonian, she hoped her own string of words would at least clarify the nature of the problem.
The woman, whom Lois assumed was the children's mother, rushed protectively to the two children and pulled them against her legs. Lois tried smiling again, feeling very lost.
It was the children who helped. Speaking urgently, they tugged on their mother's tunic. She immediately opened the fridge, pulled out the container of blue liquid, and poured it into the glasses on the table. The children climbed onto the chairs, waiting as their mother placed a packaged tray in front of each of them, as well as two others which she placed on the table, motioning to Lois as she did.
Lois sat down and peered cautiously at the tray in front of her. Its lid released easily, revealing implements and food. Lois pointed at the items and shrugged her shoulders. With exaggerated facial expressions and body language, Lois let them know she had no idea what she was eating and the children very seriously helped her to figure out what to do, watching her, fascinated, while their mother attended more carefully.
When Lois started to pour the blue juice over the hard biscuit on her plate, the little girl giggled delightedly. She scrambled down from her chair, trotted around the corner of the table to where Lois was sitting, and scaled the chair beside her, kneeling on its seat. Reaching over to Lois's tray, she put a thick red sauce on a short spurtle and spread it with careful sloppiness on another of the hard biscuits. Then she beamed at Lois.
Lois's eyes sparkled as she thanked the girl and took a bite of the biscuit, rolling her eyes to show her appreciation. The child laughed again and reached to touch Lois, at least to touch the gold locket she wore, saying something which Lois figured was, "What's this?"
Lois removed the locket and opened it to show the picture inside — herself on one side and her sister Lucy on the other. The girl put her finger on Lois's picture and then touched Lois and spoke again. Lois did the same thing, repeating her name as she touched the picture and her chest.
"Lois," the child said, carefully pronouncing it several times.
Lois placed her hand on the child's chest in the same way she had on her own and then shrugged her shoulders.
The little girl figured it out and replied, "Linra."
Lois repeated the girl's name and then got up to place her hand on the boy's chest, and he responded, "Kazra."
It was their mother's turn and she said, nodding shyly, "Roza."
They all beamed at each other, mother, children, and Lois Lane. As she looked at the two children, Lois wondered if they might be twins. Both had dark, almost black, hair and those beautiful green eyes which reminded Lois so much of someone else, she wasn't sure who.
But their pleasure at this breakthrough in communication was short-lived. The door opened, Nor strode in, and Roza automatically stood up while the children seemed to freeze in their places.
"The tracer we injected in you last night alerted me to your early rising, Lois Lane. I see you've found your way around but your companion has not yet joined you." Ignoring Roza, he frowned at the children. "So you've met my wards."
Lois nodded her head, not speaking.
"Roza," Nor commanded, saying something rapidly which Lois didn't understand, although given the quick way in which Roza gathered the children and then scurried from the room, she had a pretty good idea.
When they were gone, he turned to Lois. "Come with me. It's time for us to make a social call."
"What about Trask?"
"We'll leave him here — just in case." Nor smiled unpleasantly, as he grabbed Lois's arm and forced her to walk down the corridor with him. "Your clothes are unsuitable for such a visit." He opened the door to her sleep cubicle. "Appropriate attire is on the bed. Change," he ordered.
Lois took one look at the garment on the bed. "I'm not wearing that!"
"Put it on or I'll take your clothes off and put it on you." His hand clenched around her upper arm roughly. "It would be my pleasure."
Lois looked at him, not doubting he would do it. "Wait outside — and close the door."
Clark ate breakfast with Zara and the three members of the Council of Elders; Zara acting as a translator between Clark and the three men. She had launched into an explanation of a process which would stimulate the language lobes in Clark's brain so that he could learn Kryptonian in a matter of hours over three nights of sleep. As she was describing this process to Clark, Ching entered the small chamber.
"Nor has requested permission to land in the docking bay."
"So he's here, too. Doing what, I wonder?" Zara rose quickly to go to Ching.
Trey spoke up. "Lieutenant Ching, tell Lord Nor that permission is granted." He turned to his companions as Ching relayed this order. "Shall we adjourn to the docking bay, Lord Kal?"
With Kal El at her side, Zara led the way, her face anxious, hoping Nor had her children with him. If only she could see them, know they were all right. She desperately wanted to talk with Ching but, following custom, he walked in his proper place behind the three Elders.
She had not informed them of Nor's kidnapping of her children but she had no doubt that they knew. How had they reacted? Did they see it for what it was, or did had they accepted Nor's explanation that he was acting as the children's protector? Old men could be such gossips, she thought viciously. Besides, her children were illegitimate, not to be treated as seriously as legitimate offspring. While the Council might understand how it was that she came to have a liaison with Ching, the Elders would think it unacceptable to discuss it. Such arrangements were not uncommon among an upper class whose marriages were arranged.
How deadening it must be to live day to day with a man who did not touch your heart. Still Zara knew, had been taught from childhood, that feelings were a selfish thing, especially for people born of noble blood. She looked at Kal El as he walked beside her. She knew that she must encourage him to agree to marriage between them — it would make the throne so much more secure for him and be in the best interests of Krypton. But, oh, how much she hated the idea. He was not Ching.
When the delegation arrived at the docking bay, Nor and his entourage were still aboard their transporter. Nor would not be the one to wait awkwardly to be greeted, Zara thought, as they proceeded in a measured way to the platform, letting him know that they too would not rush to greet him.
Finally, the door of Nor's transporter opened, and four of his men stepped onto the platform, then stood to either side of the door, an honour guard for their overlord. Nor stepped out, alone, and gazed around as though pleased by what he saw, his eyes fixing for a moment on Kal EL, their eyes locking, before Nor shifted to look at Zara.
"Ah, my lady. I see you have a new … companion."
Always helpful, Trey spoke up. "Lord Nor, this is Kal EL, son of Jor El."
Invoking a diplomatic smile, Nor inclined his head, acknowledging the introduction. "Ah, I've forgotten something. A pet I've brought which I acquired as a souvenir of the planet Earth." He turned back to the door of his transporter vehicle and led out Lois Lane, clad in a short diaphanous pale pink garment which revealed too much of her, leaving her the most physically vulnerable person there. She walked very straight, her eyes focusing on a spot somewhere above everyone's head, silently protesting her humiliation. Around her neck was a thick black choker to which was attached a metal chain, a leash which Nor held in his hand.
"Lois!" Clark yelled as he rushed across the platform toward her. He glared at Nor. "Let her go!"
"Such manners, Kal El. But then you are a stranger to our Kryptonian ways."
Clark ignored him, keeping his eyes fixed on Lois. "Lois, are you all right?" He touched her shoulder, noticing the bruise on her arm, and angrily attempted to break the chain which held her prisoner. He failed; his arms felt weak as he touched the metal.
"I've taken precautions, Kal EL. That super strength of yours is such a nuisance. But I warn you — she is my concubine. Touch my property and you challenge me."
Reflexively, Clark's arm pulled back in a blow whose delivery was thwarted by Ching. "My lord," he whispered. "To take a man's concubine without his permission is to attack him. What you have done has already caused much disapproval with the Elders."
"That's garbage, Ching."
"It's our custom, Kal El. Now is not the time to lose allies." He paused. "Sometimes we are prisoners of duty."
Clark gave Ching a level look, not speaking. Slowly, he turned to address Nor, his face impassive. "Then you have attacked me, Nor. As you must know, this woman was already my concubine."
Nor cocked his head to one side. "Is she, Kal El? Then I bring you a token of my friendship." He smiled as he carelessly handed Clark the chain. "It is fortunate that I have not yet had an opportunity to … assess her."
Fighting to reign in his anger, Clark stepped close to Lois and unfastened the choker, his fingers fumbling with the clasp at the side of her neck. "Lois," he whispered as he gently removed the offending item. She would not look athim and he knew, without her speaking, that she was furious. Her dark eyes glittered as she took the chain from him, then turned to drop it at Nor's feet without speaking.
Nor disregarded her action. Instead he spoke to Zara. "My lady, we still have things to discuss. I will await word from you. Take your time." Then his eyes swiveled to Clark as he continued. "Waiting will provide me and my men with the opportunity to further … explore Metropolis. Earth has proven more diverting than we had supposed." Without waiting for Zara's answer, he bade a formal farewell to the Elders, then strode toward his transporter, followed by his four attendants. The doors snapped shut behind them; then the small sleek vessel thrust forward, sliding toward the exit porthole.
"Round one to Nor, Kal El," Ching whispered sharply as the group walked back to their private dining chamber. "The Elders will approve his offer of the woman to you."
"Lois. Her name is Lois," Clark said through clenched teeth although he was aware that in losing his temper he had gained no credit with those who had watched, and that Ching had helped him. "Thank you, Ching, for what you did back there. Your customs are … different from ours." Unless, of course, he mentally added, you're part of a biker gang. "But let's get one thing straight — Lois Lane is a respected colleague at the Daily Planet and she is to be honoured as such." He glanced at Lois who was walking alone, not beside him, contained within herself. He was grateful when Zara slowed and fell in step beside her.
"We'll join you in a few minutes. I expect Lois would like to find clothing more suitable to her rank." Zara then spoke to Lois. "My chambers are down this corridor." Not waiting for Lois's reply, she headed in that direction. Lois followed.
Once inside her compact quarters, Zara strode to a closet in the far wall, slid the door open, and pulled out a dark pant suit and tunic, handing it to Lois. "It's one of my uniforms. It's probably a bit large, but I think you'll find it a lot more comfortable than that." Zara glanced contemptuously at the silly pink dress which Lois was wearing. "You can change in here." Zara stretched out her right arm to open the door to a small bathroom. "I'll wait and then we'll join the others."
"Thank you, Zara." Lois was grateful. "Is this a shower?" She pointed to a burnished metal stall.
Zara smiled. "Yes. Go ahead. We can keep them waiting a few minutes longer." She stepped into the tiny bathroom and pressed a button, then entered a couple of numbers in a small sliver of a monitor just outside the shower stall. "This controls the water temperature and flow."
Lois closed the door and took a deep breath, in relief. Temporarily, she felt safe although she was still worried about Trask and would have to work out some way to get him off Nor's ship. Could she count on Clark, Kal El, to help her?
Turning on the shower, she stepped in and tried to work through the issue as the water poured in welcome soothing rivulets over her tense shoulders. Kal El's concubine, indeed. Well, she had to admit, it had got her out of Nor's hands. But she was astute enough to know that Clark had lost ground to Nor in that little battle of testosterone. Nor got to make the grand gesture. But he still had Trask. How to free him? And how to help Clark? Whether she liked it or not, she had become caught up in this whole ridiculous power struggle.
Moments later, she stepped out of the bathroom, dressed in Zara's uniform which was not so bad a fit — not great either, but right now she was just grateful it wasn't pink.
"Zara, Nor kidnapped a man who was with me. He still has him prisoner."
"His name is Jason Trask. He's the man who was with me this afternoon in the alley when you and Clark were, uh … taking off. He's a member of the government, Zara."
"Lois, I regret that he's been taken, but you have to understand he's not our priority. If we can get him back, we will, but right now we can't afford to antagonize Nor any further."
"Why, Zara? What makes Nor so powerful? It seems to me you hold more of the cards."
"He has my children, Lois. He says to protect them while I'm away. But he's keeping them hostage to make me accept his demands."
Lois looked at her, suddenly sympathetic to this woman whom she had regarded as her enemy. "Oh, god!" Then she met Zara's green eyes and it struck her — Nor's wards. "Zara, are Kazra and Linra your children?"
Zara rose from the bed on which she'd been sitting. "You've seen them?"
"Yes, this morning. Zara, they're delightful. They have your eyes."
"Are they all right?"
"Yes, they're fine. They're under the care of a woman named Roza who was very protective of them. We had breakfast together." She smiled, remembering how they'd triumphed over the language barrier between them.
"Yes, yes. She's wonderful. She's their nurse. If she's with them, I feel better. I know she'll do whatever she can to protect them."
"What exactly is Nor demanding, Zara?"
"He wants me to marry him, in order to give him a stronger claim to rule New Krypton."
"I take it you're not already married?" She didn't wait for the answer. "So that's why you tried to convince Clark you were married — to block Nor." It made sense and Lois thought she too might have pulled something as desperate if she had to protect her children. "So why isn't the father of your children pitching in here?" Lois asked, already having formed a dislike for this man who had so abandoned his children and their mother.
"He is, Lois, " Zara said quietly. "He's with me every day, doing everything he can." She stood up and walked to the door. "It's time to join the others." Just before they left the room, she added. "Lois, don't mention that Nor has Kaz and Lin here or your friend. I'm not sure how much I can trust the Elders — I'd like to find out how much they know."
"And *how* they came to know it," Lois added.
Trey, the three Elders, Zara, and Ching were discussing New Kryptonian politics in what Clark found to be a frustratingly circuitous fashion. He occasionally asked a question, trying to elicit some pertinent fact which would unlock the puzzle and give him a little insight but he felt like he was chasing vapor trails. He looked down the table at Lois, wondering what she was making of all this. As shocked as he'd been to see her with Nor, he now acknowledged a grudging appreciation that at least the end result of that game had meant that she was here. For some reason, that made him feel more settled.
Lois, who was a silent observer, had deduced from the shocked glances of the Elders as she had sat next to Zara that she was probably breaking the 22nd commandment of the Kryptonian Social Code or something even more obscure. Very aware that she was an outsider, she occupied herself watching body language and listening. The Elders were ditherers — should they head immediately for New Krypton? Should they contact Lord Nor and inform him? Should they wait here? And she also thought maybe there was something between Zara and Ching. Ching's dark hair! A little half smile slid across her face.
Then she snuck a look at Clark Kent, Kal El, she reminded herself, now dressed in the same black uniform as Ching and Vega. She wished she didn't find it sexy. She averted her eyes and instead listened as he asked a question that she figured was designed to give him an idea of how the families were allied in this Nor vs. Ra dispute. She could tell he was frustrated when she noticed the muscle that twitched in the side of his jaw — she'd seen it before and she knew it meant he was holding himself in check.
Clark finally stood up. "We stay here. As long as we're here, Nor stays put and this mess gets resolved now." He looked down the table. "Lois and I are going for a walk. We'll be back in half an hour." As Trey motioned for Vega, who had been standing several feet away from the conference table, to join the two, Clark added, "Alone. I don't think we're gonna get lost."
Outside in the corridor, Clark said, "What troubles me most, Lois, is what Nor's men might get up to on Earth while Nor waits for Zara to do what he wants."
"I know. They're developing powers like yours, Clark, but I'm pretty sure they won't use them the way you do."
"Me neither. Just before I left, there was a train derailment. I think they caused it — to send me a message," he added his jaw muscles tightening.
"Then we'd better get Nor and his men back to New Krypton."
"No — I think that'll trigger a full scale civil war. Lois, I don't know if there's a right choice here." He expelled a deep breath before continuing. "You know, I nearly lost it when I saw Nor with you on that chain. If it hadn't been for Ching, I would have. The one thing I've always tried to avoid is violence."
Lois's voice was sympathetic. "I know, but Nor is a violent man, Clark. I guess none of us always reacts the way we think we should."
He took her hand as she said that. "I gotta say, though, Lois, I'm glad you're here."
Lois's eyes flickered briefly as she glanced at him and withdrew her hand. "Did you know that Nor has Zara's children?"
"I just found that out — after I left you at your apartment. So she told you about it." He was pleased Zara had trusted Lois with that information, although he was also puzzled by Lois's aloofness. When he'd last seen her, it had seemed like they were beginning to get beyond what had happened yesterday afternoon. Had Zara said something else?
"No, I told her. I saw them by accident this morning."
"What? He's brought them with him! Are they all right, Lois?"
"They're fine. He also has Jason Trask. We were together."
"I see." Clark's past resentment of her involvement with Trask resurfaced, although he'd suspected all along she might return to Bureau 39. "Why exactly did you go back to see Trask, Lois?" His voice was soft as he asked the question.
"To try to find some answers." Lois drew a deep breath before she continued. "I'd been at LNN. I watched some tapes of Superman, when you first appeared in Metropolis. Some things I'd never seen before. There was a woman, she looked like me. A man named Tempus called her Lois Lane." She stopped speaking, her distress at what she'd found flooding back, pushing thoughts of Krypton from her mind. "Why didn't you tell me about her, Clark?"
He'd known all along that at some point he would probably tell her this yet he was still uncertain about how to explain what had happened. "I guess because it was too soon, Lois. We'd just met and I wanted to get to know you, who you really are."
"Who is she, Clark? What's her connection to you?"
"There is no connection."
"I don't think so," Lois said, reflecting her doubt. "I saw the way you looked at her at that first press conference."
"Lois, this is so hard to explain."
"I don't get it, Clark. Why was she impersonating me?"
"She wasn't impersonating you," he began slowly. He stopped walking and turned to face her, taking her shoulders in his hands, needing to touch her. "Two years ago, if someone had told me what I'm about to tell you, I would have thought he was crazy."
"You're not going to tell me she was a clone or something are you?"
He laughed. "Don't be ridiculous. That's not possible."
"Then what's possible?" she asked, searching his face.
"An alternate universe where we also have an existence, where circumstances are similar but different, too, in how they evolve and how we evolve. Where there is another Metropolis and another Clark Kent and another…"
She finished his statement. "Another Lois Lane. Yeah, yeah… You're right, Clark, that's crazy! What happened? This other Lois Lane slip through a worm hole like Alice in Wonderland?"
"You could say that."
"You're serious, aren't you?" Her voice was incredulous, then accepting. "Why shouldn't I believe it?" she asked quietly, as though talking more to herself than to him. "Two weeks ago I was leading this really incredibly normal life in Quito, but am I happy with it? — No. So I decide to come home and what happens? First, I can't get hold of anyone in my family, and then — then, I get involved with a guy in tights who flies, get kidnapped by aliens, and now I find out there's an alternate universe." She started walking down the hall and he followed. "You're not kidding, are you?"
"No." He told her as briefly as he could of what had happened when the other Lois Lane, along with H.G. Wells, had come to this Metropolis, how she had helped create Superman, how they had defeated Tempus, and then how she had left. What he didn't tell her was Lois Lane's relationship with Clark Kent in that other world. As he watched the emotions flicker in Lois's dark eyes, he was very aware that whatever feelings she had for him were in turmoil. He didn't want their relationship, whatever it was right now, blindsided by any further pressure on her. Worse, given her past record, he feared she'd probably take off. Well, he thought grimly, that would be pretty hard to do right now. So all he told her was that the other Lois Lane and Clark Kent had been working on a story together when Lois had been abducted by Tempus.
Lois listened carefully to what he said and, as he was concluding his story, to his explanation of how her counterpart had left at the beginning of the press conference. Remembering how he'd searched the crowd and the bleakness in his eyes as his hope had faded, she asked, "Is that what I've been, then, just a substitute for this woman who vanished?"
"No," he protested. "It's not, it wasn't… like that. You have to understand what it'd been like, Lois, hiding what I was, and then she showed me how to change that."
"Did you fall in love with her?"
"Lois, it's not as simple as that."
"I think it is." It was time to forget this — to put him back where she'd found him, on the front page of the newspapers. "So how do you propose to deal with Nor?"
"Lois, you have to understand about her." How could he explain to her the weird chemistry which he'd felt between himself and the other Lois, the sense that even as he'd been pulled toward her, they didn't quite fit.
"No, I don't. I don't have to understand at all. *You* have to understand that I'm not a handy copy of some ideal woman, a substitute for the real thing. All *I* have to understand is how to get Zara's children back, and get those space goons back in outer space where they belong, and then how to get me and Trask home. So can we focus on that, please?" Lois was angry now, at him for deceiving her, at herself for being such a fool.
Clark spoke, his voice intense. "Fine. Don't listen then. We'll just concentrate on Nor."
They walked farther along the corridor, not speaking, both unable to focus clearly on the problem at hand, blocked by what was going on between them and their private fears.
Then Clark spoke. "I did feel something for her. I wanted her to stay, but she refused. I thought maybe I was beginning to fall in love with her, but I know now that's not what it was. I had just become Superman. Lana had left me. People knew I was really Clark Kent."
Lois sighed. So he had cared for this woman. "And then it seemed you had her back when I showed up," she said sadly.
"No — I didn't want *her* back. It didn't feel right. I think what I felt for her was a reflection of what I was meant to feel for you. I knew I had to find *you*. I looked everywhere for you but you'd vanished. Then I came to accept that you were dead."
"So you've spent this time fantasizing about life with this dream woman and then I show up. Not exactly what you were expecting, I guess."
"Not exactly," he agreed with a slight smile.
"You don't really approve of me very much, do you?" Lois said softly. "You expected me to be like her… all supportive," she added with a touch of derision. "She sewed that red outfit for you — I bet she cooked for you, too. Wears designer clothes. What else? Well I'm not her, Clark, no matter how much you want that. I'm not supportive, and I have no respect for a journalist whose clothes are always immaculate, and," she finished decisively, glaring at him, "I'm no good at holding capes."
"That's not what I want, Lois. What I want is you. Partners."
"Why should I believe that?"
Clark's passion flared. "You are the most intransigent, immovable, stubborn… I'll tell you why you should believe that. Because I love you! *You.* Not some incarnation of you. Not someone who was just a preview for the real you, while *you* were out having a good time in Rio De Janeiro!"
"Quito," she interrupted.
He looked at her, distracted. "Wherever." He'd lost all control over his hands whose erratic gestures betrayed his agitation. "You. I love *you*. There's nothing more I can do or say to convince you. And now I want to know what you're going to do about it."
She met his eyes, astonished by the depths she saw there, drawn to his passion as she'd been drawn to him from the day they'd first met. And shocked too by that intensity, coiled beneath the surface of his mild-mannered exterior. She laid the palm of her hand on his chest and said honestly, "I don't know. I'm so confused, Clark. We scarcely know each other — I mean really know each other. When we met, something incredible happened between us and I… I fell in love with you but now it's hard — we each had expectations, dreams, you about me, me about you, but they were just fantasy."
"I've been so alone, Lois." Then he finally admitted what he'd never admitted to even himself. "I was scared — scared of having nowhere to hide, that I couldn't do it." His voice was little more than a strained whisper.
How could she have got so sidetracked? she wondered. This was not just about her — it was about him, too, and right now he was facing the challenge of his life. He didn't need one more emotional complication. "No — no. Never." Her protest was urgent as she tried to convince him. Her hand reached up to touch his face.
He caught it and pulled it to his mouth, kissing her palm, and he saw her eyes moisten and blur. "Lois." His voice was a whisper. "Don't cry. Please don't cry." His arms encircled her, holding her gently, hoping to comfort her, trying to comfort himself, his head bowed against hers as he murmured against the softness of her hair.
"Clark, let's just get this mess cleared up and then let's go home, and start again," she whispered, her voice muffled against his shoulder.
He smiled, "Sounds like a plan, Ms. Lane."
She pulled back from him and smiled, patting his chest. "No, it's not — it's a goal. We still need a plan."
"Yeah, we do. Lois, we need to know how many people Nor has here and we have to get on board his ship. So how do we do that?"
"I don't know. Maybe it's time to talk to Zara and Ching — without Trey and the three wise men," Lois finished with a touch of sarcasm.
"So how do we do that without offending them?" Clark pondered.
"Wait til it's time for their afternoon naps?"
"Just a thought," she said as they headed back to the conference room.
After consultation with Zara and Ching, they decided to use Trey and the three Elders as a cover. After all, Clark pointed out to the others, if Nor thought it fitting to visit the NKSS Future, then it was appropriate for them to return the courtesy. Nor could not reasonably object to such a visit or he would lose political support on the Council. Zara eagerly agreed to the idea, determined to return with her children. Ching said nothing which, Clark was beginning to realize, meant the lieutenant approved. Besides, Clark sensed a suppressed energy in the man, a restlessness at being inactive for so long. Clark noticed, too, that once the elders had left, Ching somehow seemed less the bodyguard in the background and more Zara's partner.
Not too long afterwards, their transporter, guided by Vega, shot across space toward Nor's ship, hovering outside its entry port while Vega requested permission to enter. Nor's ship was a smaller and less sleek version of the NKSS Future, Clark observed, and he smiled at the hint of a sneer in Ching's voice as the lieutenant remarked that Nor had obviously come here on his own resources.
Zara, too, sounded pleased. "Does this mean that the Council of Elders did not authorize Nor's intergalactic foray?"
Trey immediately harrumphed, "The Council certainly did not approve. Nor's presence here can serve no official purpose. The only mission to this solar system which we have sanctioned is the mission to restore Kal El to his proper place."
The youngest Elder, a man in late middle age, replied, "Perhaps Nor wished to ensure the Lady Zara's safety."
To which a second Elder replied, "As her intended, he has that right."
Zara's tone was cold. "No betrothal exists between Nor and me."
Trey came to her defence. "No. Now that Kal El has returned, he is Lady Zara's rightful husband."
This little announcement of Trey's resulted in a flutter of murmurs among the three Elders and total silence from Zara, Ching, Kal El, and Lois Lane. Vega, in his pilot's seat, gratefully focused on the task of landing his craft inside the larger ship.
It took a few minutes for the nine travellers to disembark from their small bullet shaped craft. Once they were all assembled on the narrow landing platform, in what Clark took to be the proper Kryptonian pecking order, Zara exchanged polite greetings with Krc Xi, an emissary with whom it appeared she had spoken a couple of days earlier. Her words were correct, dignified, but with an edge of hostility which betrayed her fury over Nor's abduction of her children although she did not refer to them at all. Clark was impressed by her restraint — he wasn't sure he could have held back if they were his children. When Krc Xi made his apologies to the group for the absence of Lord Nor who, along with four of his men, had gone on reconnaissance to Earth, Clark noticed her eyelids flicker in annoyance but again she said nothing. He was more than annoyed, however. The last thing he wanted was Nor in Metropolis.
Trey looked to Clark for direction. "Lord Kal El, is it your wish to leave until we can be properly received by Lord Nor?"
Ah, so that's how the pecking order worked. Recognizing an opportunity when it was handed to him, no matter how unsuspecting, Clark shook his head. "Not yet. We'll wait here until Nor returns." He directed what he hoped was a proper ambassadorial smile at Krc Xi. "I understand that Lord Nor has very thoughtfully brought Lady Zara's children with him. Take us to them."
Krc Xi said, "I lack the authority to do that, Kal El. Nor has assumed responsibility for these poor children who are bereft of the proper protection of a father."
Aware of Ching beside him, bridling, tensing at these words, Clark looked at the lieutenant in surprise. So that's it, Clark thought, before he spoke again. "Nor's protection is no longer required. As Zara's nearest relative, I have full responsibility for these children. Take us to them," he added firmly.
One of the Elders provided him with unexpected support. "Lord Kal El has this right. It is no longer necessary for the children to be under Nor's guardianship. That duty now falls to Kal El."
Krc Xi bowed his head deferentially. "Very well. This way."
As they followed Krc Xi along the narrow corridors to the interior of the ship, Lois fell in step beside Clark. "Clark," she whispered, "we have to get Trask, too."
"And what would be the reason for that, Lois?"
"Be serious, Clark."
"What makes you think I'm not?"
"You're Superman. That's what you do. You rescue people."
He grinned at her. "Well… as a personal favour…"
She rolled her eyes and ploughed ahead. "I didn't see him this morning but I bet they put him in the same corridor as me. I mean, how big can this ship be?"
"Well, I figure there can't be too many people on board because this Krc Xi hasn't offered any resistance," Clark whispered as they slowed down somewhat so they could not be overhead. "Lois, I'm guessing Ching is the father of Zara's children."
"Yes," Lois replied, no surprise in her voice. "I figured that out this morning during that fascinating little seminar on Kryptonian politics."
Clark looked at her, astonished. "How did you figure that out?"
"You're amazing, you know that?"
She smiled, a wide beautiful smile that made his heart do a little dance. "You're not so bad yourself, Clark Kent." There might still be some unresolved issues between them but that didn't mean she couldn't enjoy the small interludes when they chanced along.
"Thank-you," he grinned as they turned a corner, entering a narrow, dimly lit hallway.
"I think this is where I was this morning — I recognize that white door. Trask is probably in one of these rooms."
Krc Xi walked towards the middle of the hall to a door which he opened. The next thing they were all aware of was a flurry of feet as two small children threw themselves at Zara and Ching, while a very relieved woman hovered behind them. Zara knelt beside the little boy who flung his arms around her neck, and both mother and son spoke excitedly in Kryptonian. Ching had picked up the little girl who clung tightly to him, repeating the same word over and over. Clark figured it was 'daddy', and he beamed as he watched, wondering what it would be like to have a child's arms slide around his neck and hear her laughter.
Zara raised her face, eyes radiant as she straightened but unable to say anything at all. The boy escaped her hand for a brief moment when he caught sight of Lois. He stepped in front of her, regarding her solemnly. "Lo-is." He repeated her name, but this time with a shy smile as both Zara and his nurse, Roza, looked on.
Her eyes bright, but her voice as solemn as the boy's, Lois replied, "Kazra."
For the first time since he'd met him, Clark saw Ching smile although his words were businesslike. "That's it. Let's go."
"There's one more person we need to find," Clark said. "Krc Xi, Lois Lane was accompanied by a friend when Nor brought her here," his emphasis on the word 'brought' a reminder to everyone there that Lois had been taken against her will. "Where is he?"
Krc Xi's face set in stubborn lines. "He is our prisoner, Kal El."
Clark took a menacing step toward him. "Release him."
"Surely he can be of no consequence to you. A creature of a lesser species."
Lois blew up. "Listen, you creep. He came with me and he goes back with me."
"Krc Xi, you must understand how important it is to me to keep this lady happy," Clark said. "The Earthman. Now."
For a moment a look of pure hatred crossed Krc Xi's face. Then, without a word, he jerked open a door at the far end of the hall, pulled out Trask, whose hands had been bound behind him and whose face bore traces of bruising, and shoved him toward Clark. Silently, the Kryptonian stalked toward the door, back to the docking bay.
Lois walked beside Trask as the group returned to their transporter. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah." Then he added, his voice smugly elated, "I told you so, Lane."
Once inside the transporter, Clark said, "Zara, we're going back to Metropolis. To find Nor."
"I agree, Kal. Earth provides him with too many temptations."
"If we can trap him there…" Ching didn't finish. "Trey, you and the Elders come with us. You should witness what happens."
When Nor and his men had been in Metropolis for the first time a week ago, it had only been after the first day that they had begun to observe the effects of Earth's atmosphere on their bodies. They had gradually become stronger; they could see and hear more acutely; and, most astounding of all, they could fly — well, make very short flights after which the ability waned.
Now, after only a few hours on Earth, they felt these powers surging the longer they were there. Nor figured that Kal El was proof of just how far they would ultimately develop. Krc Xi had reported Zara's opinion that these powers could never equal Kal El's because he had acquired them as part of his growth process. Maybe so, but Nor knew, after watching Zara and Ching, that these abilities would intensify, and at the moment he reveled in how powerful that made him feel. Besides, with Kal El back in New Krypton there would be no opposition to whatever he wanted to do here. He grinned with pleasure at the infinite possibilities of his future.
Why not abandon New Krypton to Zara? This Earth offered him so much more. Fair Exchange: New Krypton gets Kal El; Earth gets Nor. He would have the physical advantage over these Earthmen. He and his men would be invincible. Whatever they wanted would be theirs — women, wealth, power. It would be easy to conquer the city of Metropolis, then use it his base for bigger things.
He knew he'd taken a risk leaving his ship as undermanned as he had, but Metropolis had been so tempting. Besides, he was pretty sure that Trey and the Elders would restrain Zara from any action. After all, he knew he could count on two of the Elders, and Trey was a fool. Besides, he thought that Kal El would not be bold enough to attempt to take over his ship without the support of the Council.
He smiled with pleasure as he strutted along the street, gratified by the stares they were getting from passersby. Good. Let them get accustomed to their new masters. But he would wait until he had word from his ship that Kal El and Zara were back on New Krypton before taking over Metropolis. Best to lie low until that happened so that he could be sure that Kal El wouldn't come winging back to stop him. Good thing he'd kidnapped the woman — she could keep Kal El distracted, help take his mind off Zara's schemes.
Still, that didn't mean Nor and his men couldn't have some fun while they waited. Metropolis was far less orderly than New Krypton — a few more misdemeanors would go largely unnoticed in this city where they'd already seen one drive-by shooting. They'd accidentally got in the line of fire and Nor had been sure that one of them would be hit. Catching sight of the weapon in that split second before the passenger behind the driver fired it, Nor had thought it looked very primitive, but he still supposed it would be effective. What happened next had proven exhilarating — one of the bullets hit Trg Du but then bounced off him! Incredible! They'd all exchanged looks, then raced from the scene in a blur. Ah yes, superpowers!
So now they were testing them — Nor had always been a methodical man. Just how strong had they become? A few cars upended and tossed before they worked their way up to vans. Small trucks were their current limit. A metal trash can or two melted with a glance of heat vision. How many men could they fight at once? — easy to pick fights in this town. It had been a phenomenal afternoon. And the news about the bullet had been the sublime final touch. Nor grinned. Home was an overrated concept.
As it turned out, Trask had also met Zara's children in much the same way as had Lois. His early morning exploration of the hall to which they'd been confined had coincided with a brief burst of childish energy and Jason Trask had found himself the fascinated centre of attention of two three year olds who had been restricted for too long in a small space. As the transporter had ferried Kal El and his party back to Zara's ship, Kazra and Linra, seated securely beside their parents, had kept twisting in their seats to look back at both Lois and Trask. Now, so soon after being reunited with their parents, the children were once again saying farewell.
Standing beside Roza on the landing platform of the NKSS Future, they solemnly watched as their mother and the man they did not know, Kal El, talked to Lord Trey. Their mother knelt beside them and explained she was going to Earth but that she would be back as soon as she could. Roza and Trey would take care of them. The children said their good-byes, hugging Zara and Ching, smiling shyly at Lois, and then, to Lois's amazement, pronouncing Trask's first name and smiling at him, too. Trask, she observed, got this really weird look on his face when it happened —embarrassment, pleasure, confusion.
Clark, she noticed, had dressed as Superman for his return to Earth. For some reason which she couldn't explain, this pleased her. She was curious if the costume made a difference to where his head was at. She looked at him speculatively.
"What?" he asked as he caught her look.
But this was not the place to tell him what she'd been wondering, so she just smiled. She had so much to ask him. With luck, they'd get the time.
Then they were back in Metropolis, in a deserted woodlot of trees and shrubby undergrowth in a part of Centennial Park not frequented much in good weather let alone on a cold January afternoon. Trey tried to communicate telepathically with Nor, demanding that he meet with him but was met with silence.
He looked puzzled. "Nor does not respond to my summons."
"No," Zara said. "Ching and I found that we could not transmit thoughts over long distances. There must be something in Earth's atmosphere which blocks our thought waves."
While Zara was speaking, Ching touched a crystal, which looked like transparent quartz, suspended around his neck. The transporter vanished, leaving behind a circle of scorched earth rimmed by melted snow where a thicket of scrub bush had been. Lois's eyes widened and she knew she was staring slack-jawed; then she gazed at Clark who smiled slightly.
"I know. That was my reaction the first time I saw it, too."
"So some things do surprise you, Kal El," she said, using his Kryptonian name for the first time, affectionately.
"You're kidding, right?" He raised his eyebrows, but he was warmed by the tone of her voice. Then his expression changed as he faced their small group. "Okay — Zara, Ching, Vega, we look for Nor and his men. Trey, you and the Elders wait for us at my apartment." Then he looked at Lois. He wanted her to go to his apartment, too, thinking she would be safer and liking the idea that she would be there waiting for him when all this was finished; but he knew somehow she wasn't going to do that.
As he finished speaking, he noticed Trask quietly walking away from the group, along a path leading up the slight slope from the thicket in which they were standing. Lois jogged after him turning over her shoulder to call, "I'll stay with Trask."
Clark didn't much like what she was doing, but he also knew that he had no right to tell her what to do. Besides, he thought, it might be a good thing if someone kept an eye on the agent. As far as he was concerned, Trask was a loose cannon.
Ching spoke to him quietly. "We should keep Trask under restraint until this is all over. I suspect he will alert your military."
"I know — but with luck we can find these guys before the military makes up its mind to act," he said, recalling Trask's lack of success earlier. "Besides, when all this is over, it'd be better to have Trask thinking of you in a positive light."
Ching expelled a breath impatiently. "You are too scrupulous, Kal El."
Clark looked at him steadily. "There's no sense in creating more enemies than necessary." Shifting his gaze, he added. "Okay, Trey, here's how you get to my place."
>Five minutes later, a startled taxi driver was accepting a fare from >four old men, all dressed in long robes. "You guys in that new play >over on 42nd Street?"
Ching was right. Trask alerted both his agency superiors and the military as soon as he and Lois got to Bureau 39. Rather than waiting for a face to face meeting, Trask managed, within a short time, to arrange a conference call amongst the key players. Lois listened to their disembodied voices as she and Trask sat in his cramped office. This time, he was more successful in convincing everyone that something was happening that they ought to take seriously.
He had Lois for corroboration, not to mention the eye-witness accounts of the two engineers at yesterday's train derailment, plus a couple of reports from the Metropolis Police Department of five men in black with unusual abilities, not just guys popping steroids, who'd been involved in some petty theft, vandalism, and a couple of fights. That didn't sound much like aninvasion to the higher-ups, but now they were at least paying attention. Trouble was, they still had no sign of foreign aircraft in national airspace. If anyone was out there, they clearly had a very effective cloaking device. Nevertheless, although the military had no real target to focus on, they decided to move to a low level alert, just in case. They would provide extra backup for the Bureau's agents and for the MPD. Above all, they wanted to avoid a public panic.
Lois listened as all this was decided, frightened that these people would not distinguish between Nor's people, and Clark, Zara, Ching, and Vega. She feared a knee-jerk response where they all were labelled as dangerous and therefore all expendable. She raised this point during the conference call, concerned by the ominous pause before the Director of Bureau 39 finally made his careful reply.
"Our prime objective, Ms. Lane, is the security of the American people. We understand how you may have become sympathetic to your captors while held prisoner by them. It's not unknown in hostage situations."
Lois rolled her eyes and replied precisely. "One of these *people*," she emphasized, trying to remind them of what was really at stake here, "one of these people is Superman."
"We are not unappreciative of Superman's assistance in the last year, Ms. Lane."
The disembodied voice transmitting into the room left Lois feeling eerily as though she were having a conversation with Big Brother. She leaned back in her old wooden chair and looked at Trask, hoping to get at least some support from him, but all she saw was controlled excitement. She determined to stick with him like glue.
After the incident with the bullet, Nor decided that he and his men should lie low until he had figured out a long range strategy. They needed a place to stay until he worked out exactly how they should approach a takeover of the city. To accomplish that he needed to know how the city operated, where the power was, how the communication systems worked, how the city was protected. He had already concluded, after the drive-by shooting, that Metropolis's military was pretty ineffective. Taking over the city shouldn't be difficult.
The ability to fly had made it easy to find a place to stay. All they had done was elevate high enough to peruse the upper stories of several of the tallest buildings in what Nor figured was the more affluent part of Metropolis. When they found an apartment that had no occupants, they moved in.
Then they found the television. One of the channels' programming appeared to be focused solely on Metropolis. Nor found the information useful. The city was governed by a Council with whom many people seem unhappy, judging by the petitions which were being presented. Council meetings were not harmonious. The head of the Council was called a mayor and his name was Perry White, although at the moment he was absent. Even better. Given the degree of discontent with his rule and the weakness of his military, Nor decided Perry White would be an easy target. First, they would eliminate the Council and White; then use this television channel to issue their orders to the people of Metropolis. After that, anything they wanted was theirs. He might even bring his supporters here and then begin to colonize the planet.
Superman and the New Kryptonians scoured the city of Metropolis, darting among the high towers of the business district and apartment buildings and swooping low over the theatre and club districts, looking for signs of Nor. After they found the oblong of scorched earth which indicated Nor's landing site, they followed a trail of upended cars and smashed storefronts. Then they came to a halt — nothing more. Superman checked with the precinct office in the area where the damage had occurred and knew by the description he got that they were indeed dealing with Nor. He found himself getting angrier as he listened to what the police had to say. Nor had to be stopped.
"So what's his next move and where would you go if you were him?" Clark asked the others.
"Nor won't be content with this level of activity," Zara said.
"He craves power. He won't be stop until he has control over this city," Ching added.
"You don't think he intends to return to New Krypton?" Vega asked.
"Nor can get away with a lot more here than he can on New Krypton. He may return, but not until he's finished here. Here, it'll be hard to stop him."
"Unless Superman does," Clark added.
"Yes, Kal. You must issue a challenge to Nor," Zara said firmly.
"What?" Clark looked at her in surprise.
"On New Krypton, if there is a dispute between two nobles, it is our custom for one to challenge the other."
"You mean, like a duel," Clark said, his face registering his distaste with the idea.
"Kal, I don't understand. Nor is your enemy. Why don't you just kill him?"
The abruptness of Zara's comment startled Clark. "Zara, I stand for life and not destruction. There must be another way."
She looked at him indulgently, as though he were just a little foolish. "On New Krypton, we'd choose whatever is expedient."
Ching added, "Sometimes there is no choice."
Clark was once again reminded of the gulf which existed between him, and Zara and Ching. Echoing what his father had said to him long ago, he heard himself say, "That's not how I work." Then he added, "But you're right about one thing — we need to figure some way of luring Nor out of wherever he's run to ground. I think it might not be a bad idea to let him know I'm here. Let him know that I stand between him and anything he's got planned for Metropolis."
Zara's green eyes sparkled. "Yes. Nor will respond to your challenge."
Ching was pleased, too, but more cautious. "Yes, he will. But you must be prepared for him, Kal El. Nor is a strong fighter. He will not hesitate to use anything at his disposal. You may have the advantage with these super powers," a slight tone of contempt crept unbidden into Ching's voice, "but Nor has begun to develop them also. And Nor has killed before. You will have to be prepared to kill him."
Resolute, Clark looked at Ching. "No. I've never believed in killing."
Ching looked at Clark, his eyes narrowed. "Sometimes there is no other way. When your family and when your country are threatened, sometimes you must be prepared to kill."
Clark returned his gaze, his eyes like dark flint in the late afternoon sun. "If I can't find another way, Ching, then I fail. So now let's figure how to smoke out Nor and his gang."
Zara made a suggestion. "Why not use your paper, Kal? Knowing Nor, he'll be looking for information about Metropolis, which means the newspapers."
Clark grinned at her. "Guess I'll pay James Olsen a visit."
Lois glared at Trask, defiant face and flailing forearms betraying her agitation. "What are you doing?" she demanded, a sharp edge to her voice. "You don't really think Superman is the enemy anymore!"
"Look, Lane, all I can say is I'm not sure about that one. But I am sure about Nor and so are you."
"Well, can we use our heads here rather than calling out the Marines?"
Trask drew himself up, like a grouse ruffling his feathers, and his posture, always ramrod perfect, now approached godly. Watching him, Lois realized another truth. Her eyes narrowed. "You were a Marine."
"They give good basic, Lane."
Lois sighed. "I should have known. Well, at least Superman and the others are invulnerable." Her words trailed off as she observed Trask's face take on a certain shiftiness. "They are, aren't they, Trask?"
He replied slowly. "Not completely. We've developed a weapon which uses ammunition made from a crystal which can kill Superman."
"Yeah. It's that green rock Tempus had. My guys got hold of it right after Tempus was caught. Everyone was so focused on the alien that they forgot about it."
"So how many of these weapons are there and who has them?"
"Only a few. We worked on them on our own. Took some time to do because we had to figure how to mask the presence of the green stuff so it wouldn't advertise what we were carrying."
"So how did you do that?"
"We ran tests measuring the energy given off by the mineral in the presence of other substances. We found that lead blocked the wave patterns so we encased the bullets in a lead alloy." Trask paused, disappointed as he finished his explanation. "Couldn't get the military interested back then. But they are now. I gave them two revolvers and kept one." Trask's smile was grim.
"And I'd guess they'd be willing to shoot first."
"This is a national emergency, Lane."
Lois was silent for a moment, working out the parameters of the situation. She had no doubt that eventually Clark and the others would find Nor. The question was — what would happen when they met. All of a sudden she wanted to be with them and she wanted Trask there, too. She wasn't at all sure of him, of how he would react, and she wanted to keep an eye on him. "Look, Trask, maybe it's time for us to try to get to Nor, beat the military to the punch."
"And just how do you propose to do that?"
"The six o'clock news," Lois grinned at him. "We're gonna get some air time."
Flashing FBI credentials, Lois and Trask bullied and blustered their way past security and presented themselves in front of Claude Kendall twenty minutes later.
Lois smiled sweetly at him and said, "Claude, I'd like a minute of time on your news broadcast."
"Lois, you know I'd love to help you but that's out of the question. The show's scripted — we're ready to roll."
"Late breaking news, Claude."
"What are you trying to pull, Lois?"
"Nothing that's gonna make you look bad. But I could. It would be very easy. The Pulitzer, Claude. You owe me."
Claude narrowed his eyes, sizing up the woman in front of him. "What's the story?"
"I want to welcome some people from out of town."
"You what?" Claude exploded. "Lois, my news broadcast is no place for you to send greetings to your sorority sisters."
"Sorority! I'll have you know, Claude Kendall…" then she calmed down, remembering the importance of her task. "Give me the time, Claude, at the front end of the cast, or I publish a little story about the amazing adventures of Lois and Claude in the Congo."
So Lois got on the air while Trask stood at the edge of the set, behind the cameramen, watching. Once Claude had given in, he'd insisted Lois be made presentable by makeup who came to her on the set, it now being too close to broadcast time to send Lois down the hall to them. The show began, and Claude introduced his colleague, Lois Lane, with a late breaking story.
Lois flashed a broad smile at the camera and proceeded, hoping that Nor was watching — this was an outside shot and she knew it. "Thank you, Claude. Tonight I'd like to say hello to some special visitors from out of state. Nor and his buddies. And to pass on to him a greeting from Zara and her friends who have just arrived in Metropolis. Kal especially hopes to meet you." She paused for a second and then added. "Lucy and Mom, I'll see you soon." Smiling, she turned to Claude who looked at her dumbfounded as she said, "Thank you Claude."
A few blocks away, the LNN NEWS was broadcasting into the bullpen of the Daily Planet where it was overheard by Clark Kent and his companions as they walked across to talk to James Olsen. Suppressing a chuckle, Clark stopped to watch Lois. "Amazing." With luck, Nor would get either her message or his.
LNN NEWS was also watched by a scowling Nor lounging in a luxurious leather recliner in the penthouse of some absentee jetsetter. He crushed the beer can he was holding in his hand as he listened to Lois Lane.
The last people to be surprised by the newscast were Alice and Perry White, just returned from his conference in Mexico City and now unpacking after a long and tiring flight. As Perry swung his empty suitcase off the bed, he caught sight of Lois Lane on his TV screen. "Judas Priest, Alice! What the hell is going on?" He grabbed the phone on his nightside table and called the LNN news studio.
As Lois and Trask were walking off the set, Lois caught a few snippets of conversation, most of it maliciously amused at Claude's foolishness in starting his show with such banal business. One guy wondered what Lois had done to let her get away with it. Lois swung her head in his direction, about to take a pound of flesh, when Trask touched her arm.
"Keep focused, Lane."
"Ms. Lane, phone call." It was Courtney, the LNN receptionist. "It's the Mayor," she whispered in hushed tones, handing Lois a cordless phone.
"Perry!" Lois's voice was warm, conveying her pleasure at talking to this man whom she had not seen in so long. "I called but you were in Mexico City."
"What in tarnation are you doing back in town, Lois? What's that ridiculous message code for? Is Kent with you?"
Lois smiled, enjoying the sound of Perry in peak form. "No, he's not. Yes, it's code. It was time to come home." Then she realized she should have been surprised by his question about Clark. All of a sudden Lois was reminded of the existence of the other Lois, the woman who had made such a difference in Clark's life, and she felt lost. "Why did you ask me about Clark?… Perry, you think I'm not me. Is that it?"
Perry's voice notched down a couple of decibels. "Lois… Lois it can't be possible…"
"Perry, I didn't die in the Congo." For some reason, she felt bleary eyed. "And I decided it was time to collect on that election bet we had on Heston."
"Darlin', you wait right there. I'm comin' over." He hung up, leaving Lois staring at the receiver. Maybe it was just as well. Perry was the mayor and if his city was under threat, he needed to know, if he didn't already. And at that moment she needed to see someone whose first impression of her had been based on the real her.
"Thanks, Courtney. Perry's on his way over. I wonder if there's somewhere Mr. Trask and I can wait until he gets here?"
Courtney, very respectful of a woman who could manipulate Claude Kendall and also had the Mayor at her beck and call, was very helpful.
Nor raised his right hand to touch a rectangular monitor attached to the thick lapel of his leather vest, reassured by the signal he received. The tracer, which would be in Lois Lane's system for another twenty-four hours, was about to come in handy. He'd be able to find her quickly when it suited his needs. However, he suspected that Kal El might be with her and he wanted to avoid him and the others for a while, if he could, to gain more time for these superpowers to build. He was still very much weaker than Superman, and he had noticed that at night, the new superpowers diminished, although they were still very evident. Killing Kal El would be difficult.
James Olsen had been working late, as he always did before the Sunday edition of the Daily Planet was published. The paper was his latest toy, but that didn't mean he didn't take pride in it; he ran it as seriously as he had the computer business from which he had made his fortune. Even as a kid, he'd never done things by half measures. Right now he was mulling over his decision not to include a story on Superman's departure, hoping that Clark would reconsider his decision about that unexplained leave which he'd requested in the note he'd left behind.
The note had been short, and in its expression of gratitude for his support and friendship, James Olsen had read a note of finality, an uncertainty about how long the superhero expected to be gone. Clark had ended with a short postscript stating that Lois Lane would explain everything to him. Jim had found it difficult to accept the note, so now as he looked across the newsroom and spotted Clark Kent and his companions he grinned. Looks like things are back to normal, he thought. Good thing he didn't run that story.
Just as he was about to get up from his desk, he heard the voice of Lois Lane emanating from the TV monitor suspended above the work stations in the bullpen. He couldn't believe what he was hearing — why on earth had they let her on the air with that fluff? As he was staring at it in disbelief, Clark and his companions entered his office and closed the door.
"Jim, I need a favour. I'd like some space on the front page of the Planet. Tonight's edition."
Jim reached across his desk, grabbing the phone. "Dave, hold the front page… Yeah… 20 minutes, tops." Then he swiveled to face his computer monitor. "Okay, let's have your copy. Then you owe me an explanation."
Clark grinned. No questions, no hesitation. Just do it. "You got it. It's brief — 'The MPD has reported a series of break-ins and acts of vandalism in the downtown core. They are seeking a group of five men, between the ages of 25 and 35, dressed in black. Superman is helping them in the search.' — That's it, Jim. Can you give it a one inch headline. — 'Thugs ignore law.' But misspell 'ignore' so it looks like this." Clark reached for a pencil and wrote on the back of an envelope, 'igNOR'.
Jim looked at it, raised an eyebrow, then added it to the spread on his computer screen. "Done. But I gotta say, Clark, it's not gonna sell papers. So who's Nor?" He paused, as understanding lit his face. "He's the guy Lois sent that message to!" He looked at Sara. "Zara and her friends." Then he looked at Ching, "Kal?"
"No, that's me." Clark looked at his friend steadily. "Jim, this is Lieutenant Ching, of the New Krypton military. Zara is the head of New Krypton's ruling family, and Vega is also a member of their military."
Jim looked at the group in his office. "And New Krypton is?"
"A small planet, in another galaxy."
A slow grin spread across Jim's face. "I don't know why I should, but I believe you. And you, Clark? Who are you?"
Clark met his friend's eyes. "Me, Jim. Me. Clark Kent. But I come from another planet. Krypton. It exploded in a nuclear catastrophe when I was born but my birth parents managed to send me here just before its destruction. I've lived here on Earth all my life. I am the son of Martha and Jonathan Kent. I was born Kal El," he concluded simply, "but I am Clark Kent."
Jim added thoughtfully, "Who came to this planet. The Daily Planet. This paper. The news of this planet, but some of it written by a man from another planet." He looked at Clark, pleased at how it all converged. Then his mood changed. "So who is Nor?"
Zara spoke up. "He's a rival for the leadership of New Krypton. But he finds Earth very attractive. He will do great harm and we must stop him."
"Are you all supermen?"
"Not to the degree that Kal El is," Ching said. "But yes. There is something about your planet which enhances our physical abilities."
"That's why Nor will stay. Being a superman is too seductive," Zara added.
"So how do you propose to stop him?"
"We'll return him and his men to New Krypton with Zara." Clark answered. "But first we have to find him."
"And you hope this front page will flush him out?" Jim's voice was skeptical.
"It'll let him know I'm looking for him. We're the only thing standing in his way. He knows that. If he wants to stay here he has to answer to me." Clark's voice was firm. "The four of us will patrol Metropolis. Nor makes one move and we'll find him." He stood up and looked across the newsroom, feeling more optimistic than he had days. A memory of Lois perched on the corner of his desk, legs crossed and eyes flashing, as she had excitedly discussed their story spun through his mind. She had great legs. And eyes. He would be back; and he would be with Lois Lane. He grinned. "Thanks, Jim. Don't sell my desk. I'll be back."
"What about Lois?" Jim asked.
Clark grinned. "Don't sell hers, either. She's the main reason I'll be back."
"Lane, we shouldn't be sitting here cooling our heels." Trask paced the floor in the small waiting room to which Courtney had shown them.
"So where exactly should we be? What are our chances of finding Nor in a city of seven million people? Besides, you're in contact with the MPD and the military. They'll let you know if they come across him."
"You really think so?" Trask looked as her skeptically. "Prima donnas. They'll let us in on as little as they can a day *after* it happens."
Lois hadn't thought of that but she should have. Her years as a crime reporter had exposed her to the rivalry between various branches of the police and of the government. "Trask, do you think they'll have informed City Hall?"
"Probably not. MPD'll see it as routine law enforcement and not want the politicians involved; Army'll say it's top secret. They answer to the feds anyway, not City Hall."
Before she could finish, Perry White pushed open the waiting room door. The next thing she knew, Lois was swamped by a hearty bear hug, then held at arms' length as Perry inspected her, a smile as bright as a Memphis sunset on his face. "If you don't take the cake, Lois Lane. You look real fine. Wherever you've been, it's been good for you."
"It was, Perry," Lois said simply, then smiled. "And thanks for not saying anything about my hair."
"What about it?" He looked at her. "Oh. Didn't notice." Then, "It'll grow out."
She grinned at him. "But Metropolis sure has changed. It seems strange knowing you're the mayor instead of the editor of the Daily Planet."
"Had to try to do something, Lois." His voice was gruff. "But it's taking a lot more 'n I thought it would."
"It could be about to get worse, Perry. Have you been told about the low level alert the military has Metropolis under right now?"
"What? Judas Priest! Where's a phone?" He stormed out of the small room, Lois and Trask at his heels. Perry turned to him without breaking his stride. "You look familiar."
"Jason Trask, Special agent, Bureau 39."
"Oh, yeah. Now I remember. You're the guy who gave me the third degree after that Tempus business. Lois, how'd you get mixed up with this guy?" Lois had no time to answer because, by now, they'd arrived at Courtney's desk. "Where can I make a private phone call?"
"Over here, Mayor White."
While Perry was on the phone, Lois asked Trask something which had been bothering her since they had returned to Metropolis. "Trask, did Nor inject you with a tracer last night?"
"What? No. They just shoved me in that cell."
Lois sighed. "They injected me with something — this morning he told me it was a tracer. I guess that means he was planning on *giving* me to Kal El all along. I wish I knew how long it lasted. Maybe it's no longer an issue."
"Handy for Nor if it's still in your system — he can grab you again. Maybe you should start drinking lots of water — flush it out."
"Yeah. If that's possible. I need to know how long this is going to be a problem."
"Bet one of the old guys knows."
Lois brightened. "Guess I'll go talk to them." She stood up and looked across at Perry who was having a good time raising his blood pressure as he ranted at the hapless individual on the other end of the phone.
"Tell Perry I'll see him later."
"Think again, Lane. I'm sticking with you. Remember I've got the gun in the glove compartment."
Lois looked at him, touched by his concern for her but still alarmed by the fact that he had this gun. "Trask, right now it's pretty risky being with me."
"It beats hanging around waiting."
"Okay," she agreed reluctantly.
As she said this, Perry finished his phone call, banging down the receiver in disgust. "Can't get a straight answer from anyone. None of this makes any sense. Lois, what all's goin' on here?"
"It's a long story, Chief," Lois said. "But right now I have to leave. Just know that Superman's on it."
"Whoa. Wait a minute. What are you up to?"
"Perry, it might not be safe to be with me right now. I have to leave."
Perry gave her a steady look and then nodded at Trask. "He going with you?"
"I guess he's better than no one. Harry pretty much ordered me to stay put until his undercover guys get here. Bodyguards," Perry said in disgust. "If I had a dollar for every threat I've received since I became mayor…"
"Mayor White, I'd follow his advice. These guys are dangerous."
"Here's my cell number, Lois. You call me if you need any help. I can get half the MPD there in under ten minutes."
"Thanks, Chief." Impulsively, she gave him a swift hug. "Come on, Trask. Let's go."
Superman and his companions flew over Metropolis, but found nothing. Trask had clearly burrowed in for the night so the four decided to return to the Clinton Street apartment.
In spite of the fact that Metropolis knew that Clark Kent was Superman, Clark preferred not to be seen entering his apartment as his alter ego if at all possible, one of the many small things he did to keep the images of the two separate in people's minds. Optimistically, he hoped that if people didn't see Superman, in time they would stop thinking about him in the same sentence as Clark Kent. And he certainly didn't want to be seen suddenly landing on his front steps with three more superbeings.
So they landed in a back alley, darkened by the shadows of winter's early night, and stepped out into Clinton Street.
"If they ever get this city cleaned up, Kal El, I hope they leave you a few strategically located dark alleys."
"Thanks for the thought, Ching," Clark said as he opened the front door of his small apartment, feeling a twinge of satisfaction at once more being home. Then he grinned as he caught sight of his guests. Perfect. Half empty take out containers on the coffee table, the Elders sitting in a row on his couch — three old men in grey robes, watching TV. Trey had commandeered the big armchair plus the remote control and was listening to Jason Trask who was going over the more subtle points of WWF wrestling with him. Trey was interested.
But most pleasing was the sight of Lois Lane, at least he supposed it was her because all he could see at the moment was her perfectly shaped rear end as she bent over to search for something under the kitchen counter. Yep, very pleasing. He grinned when he heard a muffled, "Where on Earth does he keep that stuff?"
In a blur, he was beside her. "Anything I can help you with, Lois?"
She straightened up quickly. "Clark!" She was surprised and very happy to see him, and without thought she flung her arms around her neck, hugging him.
He grinned, holding her against him for a moment longer than necessary or was it a moment less than necessary? "Wasn't expecting to find you in my kitchen," he teased.
Her dark eyes flashed. "I know. Pretty amazing. So where do you keep the tea?"
"Not under the kitchen sink, Lois. Over there, in the cupboard by the stove — just above the kettle," he added helpfully.
They both reached for the cupboard at the same time and both stopped as their eyes met and for a second neither moved. Then Clark's hand gently slid along her neck to cup the side of her cheek, his fingers curving through her hair as he bent forward to kiss her, a soft sweet kiss, a promise for when there would be more time. He drew away slowly, whispering her name as they stood there immobile, lost in each other, only to be pulled back to reality by a loud cackle from one of the Elders who must have been cheering something he'd seen on the screen.
Lois sighed, "Tea. I'm making tea." As she turned on the tap to fill the kettle she asked, "No signs of Nor, I take it?"
"Signs, yes. But not for the last couple of hours. We figure he's in hiding for the night."
"So he has bigger plans than just having a wild night on the town."
"That's what I think. He's not as strong as me yet so it makes sense for him to bide his time. I'm hoping he won't be able to resist that message of yours plus the one that Jim's put in the late edition of the Planet. I'm hoping he'll come looking for me."
Lois grinned at his mention of her message although she didn't mention it. Instead, she said, "It's probably gonna be easy for him to find you." As Clark raised his eyebrows inquisitively, she continued. "I should have told you this before but I didn't think of it. Nor injected me with a chemical tracer last night — he probably planned to get me on Zara's ship all along. Anyway, according to Trey it'll be in my system until tomorrow evening. Nor will have no trouble finding me."
"I'm guessing he didn't inject Trask."
"That's right. For some reason, Nor seems to have concluded that Trask wouldn't be much help in keeping tabs on you."
Clark grinned. "Smart man. So what else have you and Trask been up to?"
Lois briefly explained about Trask's meeting with the Agency and Military Chiefs. "Oh, great," Clark grimaced.
"One other thing — they have a weapon which uses that green crystal — Clark, he thinks it can kill you." She met his eyes, her anxiety obvious. "Is that true?"
He put his hands on her shoulders, squeezing her gently, trying to allay the fear which he saw in her eyes. "Yes. It's called Kryptonite. A very limited amount apparently came to Earth when Krypton exploded. It weakens me — but I would have to be exposed to it for a long period of time or be exposed to a massive amount, I guess."
"You mean you don't exactly know," her voice held an edge of panic.
She stepped away from his grasp, pacing in his small kitchen. "Do you think Nor knows?"
"Probably — Zara and Ching do," he replied, recalling how Ching had used Kryptonite last week to weaken him as the school bus had teetered on the edge of the Hobbs Bay Bridge. "The mineral is only moderately harmful to Kryptonians but they do use small amounts of it in some medical treatments. But the Kryptonite that's here is different — it's become radioactive."
"The Army's out there now, ready to back up the MPD if Nor gets out of hand. I have Perry White's cell phone number. He said if I need the police …" her voice trailed off. "Although what good they'd be against Nor is another question."
By this time, she had wandered into his living area and the last part of their conversation had caught the attention of the others. "Jason Trask has told us about the tracer, Lois," Zara said.
"So we can assume that Nor could come looking for you. We'll be ready when he does," Ching added. "He has until tomorrow evening."
"With luck, we'll find Nor before then. But meanwhile we keep up our patrols over the city," Clark said.
Two of Nor's men had grown restless. As they ranged around the vast apartment they glared with increasing resentment at their leader who for some reason wanted them to stay put until tomorrow. To spend the night acquiring more of the English language. To rest, he said, to be strong for tomorrow. They didn't accept that. They were not tired. In fact, the reverse. They felt more energetic, stronger, more vital than they had ever felt in their lives. And they wanted out of their confinement. This was the opportunity to have the best time they'd ever had in their lives and they didn't want to stall around until tomorrow.
Waiting until Nor and the others had retreated into their separate rooms for the night, they took off, drifting upward from the balcony on the far side of the apartment which they had commandeered, pleased that these new powers permitted them to float, making no noise as they left. Once they were well above the building, they hovered for a second, exchanged broad grins, then zoomed towards a part of town that they figured was most likely to never close down. They agreed that they would be careful and not do anything which would seem too far out of the ordinary, just enough to get what they wanted and to stop anyone who got in their way. Besides, these new powers were very erratic and they still weren't sure yet just how much they could get away with.
They instinctively found their way to Metropolis's entertainment district — main streets with bars open all night, clubs with lights blazing, swarms of people even at midnight during a January cold snap; and sidestreets only moderately less bright where prostitutes looked for business, while their pimps lurked in the background protective of their chattels.
Disappointed by the ineffectiveness of the drinks served in the bars, the two Kryptonians soon got bored and rose to leave without paying their tab. They were followed to the door by a burly barman who interposed himself between them and the door.
"Gentlemen, you've forgotten something."
Although they had just a rudimentary understanding of English, the Kryptonians were still able to get his meaning. Grinning, one of them picked up the barman by his shoulders and slammed him into the wall, watched as he slid down to the floor, then strode toward the door. Immediately, two men from either side of the darkened room converged to pursue the Kryptonians out onto the street but failed to catch them.
A block away the Kryptonians stopped and grinned. What they needed was some Earth money, they decided, although they had no idea how much. They agreed to split up for awhile and meet at a club across the street which had attracted their attention. It shouldn't be too difficult to convince a few of these people to donate some of their cash to out of town visitors. It turned out that it wasn't.
Meeting up later at the club, they had no difficulty getting by the bouncer who had been impressed by how were dressed, probably thinking it would add to the image of the club. Nodding, he didn't oppose their entry into the smoky interior. Both Kryptonians stalked toward the dance floor where they watched for a moment, sizing up what was going on and taking inventory of the women in the room. Then they made their moves, striding towards two very lively and stunning women who were undulating to the sounds of the band at the front of the room.
Neither woman was unwilling to change partners, perhaps not even sure at that point who her partner was. These guys looked interesting, different from most of the men in the room. That they were foreigners added an exotic touch. They might be fun. For the next hour the foursome had a good time, the women laughing at the Kryptonians' inexpert moves on the dance floor, flirting, not objecting, maybe even enjoying the casual groping that was becoming a little more frequent.
One of the Kryptonians signalled to his partner that it was time to leave. Grabbing the girls firmly around their waists, the two men let them know they were coming too. The women weren't so sure. Neither of them knew each other but, as they were pulled half protesting from the room, they began to look to each other for some sign of to what to do next. At first, their protests were mild, the denials of women who hope that they won't have to make too much fuss. No one in the club paid them any attention.
Once on the street, it became clear that they did not have a choice. These jerks had not even bothered to give them time to put their coats on and it was cold. Very cold. These goons were strong, stronger than any man either of them had ever known. So they did what women have often done when nothing else works. They screamed. Loud, high pitched shrieks, curses that pierced the ordinary sounds of night, commanding the Kryptonians release them as they wriggled and kicked, trying to escape. This time they did get some attention from passersby who formed a small cluster around them but did nothing to help.
And they also got the attention of Superman as he was flying over the city. Looking down at the street, he smiled. He'd figured that sooner or later these guys would want a bit of fun. He was disappointed that Nor wasn't with them, but this was a start.
Briefly signalling to Zara, Ching and Vega to position themselves behind the small crowd so they wouldn't be noticed, he swooped down, landing behind the two Kryptonians just as they were about to levitate upwards. Clamping an iron grip on each one's shoulder, he kept them firmly on the pavement. As he did, Zara and the others pushed their way through the small crowd to stand in front of the two thugs.
Startled, the Kryptonians relaxed their grips on their unwilling dates who both launched into a semi-coherent explanation of what had happened, mingled with frequent expressions of gratitude for Superman, and emphatic curses aimed at the Kryptonians, all of it at the same time. As a consequence, it was very difficult for anyone to really understand what was going on. For good measure, one of them kicked her would-be abductor in the shins, eyes widening in surprise at the resulting pain she felt.
Arms pinioned firmly by their captors, Nor's henchmen were forcibly yanked away from the crowd and escorted down the street until Superman thought they were far enough away from the crowd to no longer be seen. Spotting an opportunity to unobtrusively take flight, they ducked into a sliver of space between two buildings, then climbed skyward toward Clinton street.
Once there, the two men were confronted by Trey and the Three Elders. This was serious. Regardless of any personal contempt these men may have felt for their leaders, they still were smart enough to know that at the moment they didn't hold a winning hand.
Trey spoke up. "Ching, Vega, take them back to the ship. Incarcerate them for the rest of our stay here. Their actions have brought great dishonour to New Krypton."
"Not just yet. First, they take us to Nor. Then Ching and Vega can take them back."
When Superman and the others reached the penthouse, Clark stopped before landing, did a quick scan of the apartment, and caught a glimpse of one of the Kryptonians as he strode across the living room. "Yeah, this is it. Let's get these two," he jerked his head in the direction of the two men who had led them there, "back to your ship. Then we meet back here. I'll wait outside on the balcony until you return."
Superman flew with them to Centennial Park where the transporter, invisible in hyperspace, was, in fact, "parked". Once the two men were on board, secured and guarded by Zara and Ching, Clark jumped down, and watched as the ship vanished. The trip wouldn't take them long; the transporter travelled at the speed of light.
"Where are they?" Anger seared Nor's face, as he shouted at his two remaining underlings.
"They wanted some excitement. They left a couple of hours ago."
"Fools. They'll draw attention to themselves and Kal El will spot them."
Picking up a ceramic vase on a shelf in front of him, he hurled it against the black marble surface of the fireplace, watching as it shattered, the clatter of its shards as they fell to the hearth providing some release for his tension. His voice calmed. "It's time to collect our insurance." Removing the monitor attached to his vest, he checked on the location of Lois Lane.
"Yes," he smiled. "If Kal El finds us here, he won't find us alone."
Moments later Nor and his two subordinates landed on the deserted sidewalk in front of Clark's apartment on Clinton Street. Nor forced open the front door and stood on the small landing which led down to Clark's living room, scanning the space, looking for his quarry.
"Where is she? Where is Lois Lane?" he demanded of the startled Elders who had swiveled as one to stare open-mouthed at the figure standing at the top of the steps.
In the tiny bathroom, Lois heard the racket, praying that Trask was still out on that walk he'd taken. Cautiously, she opened the door, hoping to be able to slip out the back before Nor saw her. It was a naive hope. Clark's apartment was way too small; besides, as long as the tracer was still effective, she wouldn't get very far. She wasn't really surprised when she felt Nor's hand coil around her upper arm.
"I'd prefer it if you stayed, Lois Lane." He dragged her back into the living area.
"My lord, I insist you treat this lady with respect," Trey's face was flushed as he blustered his command.
"I'll treat this… concubine however I please, Trey."
"Lord Nor, you've broken the law of the Council," the oldest Elder said. "We insist you return with us to New Krypton."
Nor's laughter was contemptuous as he stared at the Elders in disbelief. He didn't bother to reply as he flung Lois to the floor. "Where is Kal El? You said he wanted to see me? He's not here, I see." He strode across to the armchair at the foot of the foyer stairs, and turned it so that he could sit watching both the door and the room. "I can wait."
Lois straightened, sitting crossed-legged, her back against the living room wall. So can I, she thought, as she stared at Nor, taking in the blunted features that could have been pleasant were they not marred by the cruelty of his character. How could any of the Council members have even considered the possibility of this man ruling? But Kal El was not the right man either. Or was she just being selfish because she wanted so desperately for him to stay here?
What did *he* want? Did he want to rule New Krypton? It didn't seem like it to her, but she wasn't sure, like she wasn't sure about so many things. Where did she really fit in his mind? In his heart? Her doubts about his true feelings for her had surfaced again after Perry's allusion to the Lois from the other dimension. But then Lois remembered Clark's declaration of love this morning when they been alone in the hallway on Zara's ship. She'd had no doubts then. Nothing else had mattered to her at that moment but him. When she was with him she believed him, convinced by the depths in his dark eyes, and the soft huskiness that his voice sometimes took when he murmured her name. She sighed as she thought of how she felt when she was next to him.
If Clark did stay, what then? They had known each other for little more than a week. She didn't believe in love at first sight and she knew she hadn't fallen in love with him at first sight. But she'd been drawn to him, concerned for him, and somewhere along the line she'd been amazed to discover that she loved him. But who was he really in love with? Her or that other Lois Lane? Which one was his reality? How would she ever know?
And why hadn't he told her about this parallel Lois? Did he care so much for her that it hurt to talk about it? Would he have ever told her, if she hadn't found out? She could understood why he hadn't immediately told her about Zara. He hadn't been sure himself about what he would do; she had sensed his turmoil that night they'd talked on the beach outside of San Francisco. And she had sensed too that she had been part of what made him reluctant to go with Zara. Then there was her own arrangement with Trask. Did he understand about that or was he still resentful? They had so many things to talk about.
Lois leaned her head back against the wall, her eyes focused on Clark's bookshelf, shifting her mind to the less puzzling task of looking at the objects there, and the books which Clark had collected, but she was always aware of Nor's presence as she sat there, waiting.
One of the Elders stood up and approached Nor. "My lord, I pray you heed Trey's word. Your place is not here but on New Krypton."
Nor's words were ice. "My place is where I decide."
As he drifted down to the balcony, Superman automatically x-rayed the penthouse. They'd left! Expelling a sharp exasperated breath, he shot upward toward the centre of Metropolis's nightlife, hoping that Nor had gone in search of his errant underlings. When he failed to find any trace of him, a second thought surfaced, one that had been there since his recent chat with Lois. His apartment. As long as she was there, it would be easy for Nor to locate it.
Clark landed in the narrow back entry to his apartment, automatically scanning the apartment as he did. He'd been right; Nor and his thugs were there as was everyone else except Trask. Wonder where he had gone? No one appeared hurt although they were clearly not having much fun. His hearing picked up no sounds of conversation, only the fake laughter of some TV sitcom.
Nor would have some superpowers but was he completely invincible? Clark would have to be careful. He decided to enter through the back door — that would put him closer to where Lois was sitting. With luck he could get between her and Nor before Nor realized what was going on.
A quick glance at the back door revealed that it was locked. No surprise. He levelled his heat vision at it, melting the bolt which secured the door, and then noiselessly pushed it ajar, floating inside to avoid crossing his squeaky back floor. Lucky the door wasn't also squeaky. Lucky the TV was blaring too loudly. He would need all the luck he could get.
In a blur, he raced across the length of his apartment to where Nor was sitting. Before he got a chance to speak, Nor was on his feet.
"I believe you wanted to see me, Kal El." He was physically an imposing man, taller than Clark with the physique of someone who trained regularly.
"Your little holiday is over, Nor. Time to go home."
"So inhospitable, Kal El. You can't have it all to yourself, you know. I thought you chose New Krypton. Why should you care what happens here?" His voice was careless but his actions weren't. As he spoke he made a quick dart in Lois's direction but Clark was too fast for him.
Clark grabbed Nor by the throat, then shoved him to the side, knocking him off balance so he staggered back against the wall. But Nor recovered instantaneously, his right arm stretching back, then thrusting forward in a powerful blow to Clark's jaw, propelling him backwards so that he fell against the kitchen table. Clark leaped to his feet immediately only to be faced on each side by Nor's bodyguards who joined Nor in his attack.
Lois was appalled yet not surprised by what was going on. As the rapid actions of the four men blurred together she heard Trey's querulous voice imploring, with all the effectiveness of a WWF referee, "Gentlemen, gentlemen…" Taking advantage of the confusion, she crept the few feet to the bookshelf.
Grabbing Clark's cordless phone, she placed a hasty call to Perry White. "Clark's apartment, Perry. Nor's here and Clark's needs help." As she spoke she was running out the back door, around to the front of Clark's building. <Come on, Trask, where are you? Why are you taking so long on your ridiculous walk?> He had that gun and as much she was repelled by the idea, she thought she'd like to have it just about now. Wishing she'd also grabbed her coat as she'd fled, she jogged down Clinton Street, finally spotting him at its far end. She raced toward him.
Inside it was hard to know who was winning the struggle as four bodies tangled, pushed and slammed into others. Nor's men sprawled into each other and over rotated at one point as one of them misjudged the extra torque of a superswing. Clark had lost the offensive, but his lightening speed made him hard pin him down. All the while, as he blocked and feinted, he tried to figure out how to win against three near supermen. A quick reach for one of Nor's men went awry as the man dodged quickly, then stumbled into Nor who reflexively took a swipe at him, bouncing him onto the coffee table which broke neatly in half. Clark shot a quick blast of heat vision at the hapless man, now sprawled on the floor, but it was only momentarily effective against his opponent's semi-invulnerability. He jumped to his feet again, grabbed a nearby table lamp, and flung it at his opponent who ducked and then winced when he heard it crash behind him.
Trey and the three elders had scattered, very aware that their brief time on Earth had not yet affected their physical abilities. They were what they had been before — old men, powerless in the face of youthful brawn, and now they huddled in the farthest corners of Clark's apartment, still careful however to select a spot where they could keep an eye on the action.
It was at that moment that Clark got some help. Their two prisoners securely stowed on the NKSS Future, Zara, Ching, and Vega entered the small apartment and joined the fray. Four against three. Not only that, the four had the more highly developed abilities. The odds had now shifted. Levitating as high as they could in Clark's living room, they floated above the brawl, each selecting a target whom he blasted with a ray of heat vision, then moved in to take advantage of his opponent's transient discomfort. Zara, who had enrolled in a martial arts class when she'd first come to Earth, now got a chance to try out a manoeuvre which was designed to be much more effective against a man than a woman. She thrust her leg outward, jackknifing it into her opponent who doubled over, clutching his groin. She quickly grabbed him by the elbow, exerted as much pressure as she could and twisted his arm behind his back. Clark motioned for her to stand to one side, and he blew out a strong blast of subzero air, instantly covering the man in a layer of frost. Clark wasn't sure how long that would keep him immobile but he could keep on repeating it if necessary. Nor's other subordinate got the same treatment.
At last, Clark stood in the middle of his demolished living room, surrounded by the debris of broken furniture, and chunks of plaster, and hauled an exhausted Nor to his feet. "Vacation's over, Nor."
Trey stepped forward. "Lord Nor, the council places you under detention, to await trial."
"Treason," Zara stated decisively. "When you chose to interfere on Earth, you challenged the rightful authority of the Council."
"You call this little expedition treason?"
Zara ignored his comment, adding firmly, "*And* kidnapping."
As she was speaking, the front door opened to reveal Lois and Trask, his right arm raised in readiness to use the gun which he held pointed above their heads. Their entrance provided enough distraction so that every one was a little off guard, unprepared for what happened next. Nor made a grab to his left for Zara, but Trask was quick. He took careful aim and fired. Clark had been standing with his back to the front door and, as he heard the crack of the gun firing, he swiveled to face Trask, his startled voice protesting, just as Nor sank to his knees, clutching his right shoulder, truly defeated. Trask lowered his gun.
"It's Kryptonite," Clark said to Zara as he knelt beside the wounded Nor, holding his hand to stem the bleeding. "Will it kill him?"
Zara looked at her enemy contemptuously. "It's a shoulder wound — if we get him back to the ship quickly, our doctors will be able to save him."
Clark rose to his feet. "Then let's haul these guys out of here."
"Trask, do you mind if I take that gun?" Zara asked. "I'd like to make sure that we don't have any trouble getting these people back where they belong."
Trask looked at her, his reluctance to part with his revolver clear in his narrowed eyes and the way in which he pulled the gun a little closer to his body.
Ching spoke up. "Trask, we need to secure these criminals if we're to get them safely back to New Krypton. We don't want to take any chances." Wordlessly, Trask handed Ching his gun. "Thank you. Once we've got our prisoners safely on board, we'll return here for Trey and the Elders," he said.
After they left, Lois turned to Trask. "You didn't kill him." After all his rants and his paranoia about aliens, she had been surprised.
"My mistake. It was tricky with Zara there. But it was a lousy shot. Better put in some range time next week," Trask responded. His eyes swept over Clark's apartment, at the smashed lamp, the singed sofa, the upended table, the two broken chairs, and the numerous holes in the plaster. "This must've been some fight," he said wistfully.
"Yeah," Lois looked at the shambles. "Guess Clark's gonna lose his deposit."
It wasn't long before Clark was back, accompanied by Zara and Ching but this time without Vega who had been assigned to keep an eye on the prisoners. It was now very late at night, and they had left their tranporter hovering in hyperspace just above the streetlights on Clinton street, ready to return immediately.
"I wanted to thank you, Lois, before we left," Zara said, smiling. Then she faced Trask, "And thank you, Jason Trask, for coming to my defence. I will never forget either of you." Then she looked at Clark, "Will you return with us, Kal El?"
"No, Zara," he said gently. "We both know that wouldn't work. Besides, there's no real need for me on New Krypton. Earth is my home, where I belong."
"But you are the rightful ruler, my lord," Trey objected, although he did not sound very upset by what Clark had said.
"No, Trey. I'm not. Zara is. Maybe it's time to recognize that."
Trey bowed his head although it was one of the Elders who spoke. "We have spoken of this while we have been here. You have shown bravery, Kal El, but we fear that you have grown too far from our customs. Lady Zara has shown that she has courage. She did not back down in the face of Nor's threats, and she was wiser than some of us," he shifted his eyes to look at his fellow Councillors, "in assessing Nor's true character. Perhaps it is time for New Krypton to make a change. Once before in our history there was a woman who ruled when there was no other suitable heir."
One of the other Elders added, "If Lady Zara has the guidance of an honourable man who will act as co-ruler, the council will be willing to change our constitution to permit her to rule."
The third Elder completed the circle. "We have always respected Ching's military abilities and he comes from a distinguished house which has, for generations, served us well. We also," he coughed discreetly, "have been aware of the bond which exists between the Lady Zara and Lieutenant Ching. If you would agree to marry Lieutenant Ching, my lady, then the Council would recognize you both as rulers of New Krypton."
"If… if," Zara was speechless, tremulously smiling at Ching who had involuntarily raised his hand to touch her face. For a moment, neither spoke as they gazed at each other, telepathically communicating their happiness as Ching silently repeated her name.
Then the lieutenant found his voice as his hand drifted down to grasp Zara's, and he actually smiled. "I would be most — happy to accede to the wishes of the Council."
Zara turned to Clark and gave him a swift hug. "You see, we have given in to our emotions," she smiled. "Thank you, Kal El. We will never forget you."
Then they were gone, vanishing after a brief moment in which their transporter was clearly visible on Clinton street, seen by no one in the darkness of early morning. At least, probably by no one.
Five minutes later as Trask, Lois, and Clark were halfheartedly surveying the wreck that was Clark's apartment, the MPD arrived, followed by an unmarked car carrying either Agency or Military personnel. They burst into the apartment, guns cocked, and looked around.
"Terrific timing, guys. Couldn't figure out the paper work?" Trask asked sarcastically.
"They came; now they're gone." Trask looked over at Lois. "I'll ride back downtown with these guys. I guess the threat's over." Then he added ominously, "For now."
"Trask, it's over. They won't be back," Clark said.
"If not them, then someone else. If it's happened once…" He didn't bother finishing what was an obvious statement.
"But you do believe that Superman's not a threat," Lois prodded.
Trask narrowed his eyes and look at the Man of Steel. "Probably not. But I've got my eye on him." Then he grinned at Lois, "Anyway, Lane, I figure he'll have his hands full with you."
Clark thrust out his hand to shake Trask's and he grinned. "I hope so. And thanks, Trask."
As it turned out, the police also expected a statement from Lois, and one from Clark, too, whom they asked with a deference which would have impressed their grandmothers although Superman had often given them brief statements over the past year. Nevertheless, they were still in some awe of the Man of Steel.
Clark agreed, taking a last quick look at the disaster in his living room, mentally taking inventory as to what was salvageable. Good thing tomorrow was his day off.
As they all trooped out the front door, a black sedan pulled up to the curb and Perry White lowered a window. "Excitement over? I knew I shouldn't have gone to Mexico. Tomorrow evening, you two drop by and let me know what happened. Wish it could be sooner but I have to put in an appearance at Lex Luthor's fund-raiser. I sure would like to figure out what that guy's up to." Perry yawned, a tribute to both a long day of travel and a dawn which was just a few hours away. "Okay, Fred, home," he said to his driver; then he raised the window of his car, and with a casual half wave, rode off.
Late the next morning Lois showed up on Clark's doorstep. He'd asked her to share a late breakfast with him, hoping that finally they would get a chance to sort out where things stood between them. Hoping for a normal day. No natural disasters, prison riots, or relatives from outer space — just a normal day.
Much earlier, too early to call it morning, after they had finished making their statements to the police and been debriefed by the military, Lois had offered to come over, after she got some sleep, to help him clean up his apartment. He knew he could clear out the debris much faster on his own and so did she, he figured. But it would be so much better if he did it with her. Now, as she stood there in the grey light of a snowy January day, he beamed at her, taking the brown paper bag which she proffered as she crossed his threshold.
"Bagels," she said. "Still warm. I got them across from my hotel. That deli is the best thing about my apartment." She slid her small backback from her shoulders, depositing it at the base of the coat rack by his front door. She narrowed her eyes. "You look different with morning stubble."
He grimaced. "Sorry. I'm not sure how, but my bathroom mirror got broken last night."
As she slipped off her layers of winter clothing, she gazed at his apartment. "You've got rid of all the smashed stuff — doesn't leave you much, does it?" She looked at him sympathetically, their eyes meeting as he nodded mutely at her words. She averted her gaze, trying to avoid that feeling which flipped around inside her heart whenever their eyes met and what should have been commonplace escalated into something more.
She felt nervous, unsure about what she was doing here, of what she was going to say to him. Furniture should be safe. "But the rest of it can be fixed. That, for instance." She pointed to a kitchen chair which tilted awkwardly on three legs. "And you can get the couch recovered. Replaster the walls, too. Maybe hang a picture over that really big hole over there. It'll all look as good as when you first moved in." She'd paced down into his living area wandering by each item as she babbled a nervous string of meaningless observations like a hostess on the decorating channel.
He stayed where he was, on the landing by his front door, and watched her. Her nervousness reflected his own. He wanted to put her at ease. Wanted more than anything for it to be comfortable between the two of them. To do ordinary things with her. What if she didn't want that as well? "Lois," he said softly.
She raised her eyes to his. "I guess you don't really need my help with this, do you?" she asked as she gestured at the room around her.
"Yes, I do. I need you to help me make it home again."
"Oh," she smiled shyly, suddenly aware of how very much she would like to do that. "Oh. In that case, we'd better get started." She gave the room a second look; then stepped briskly up the steps to the landing, pulled his coat from the coat rack, handed it to him, and put hers back on. "We're gonna need stuff — to fix the plaster, and some paint — do you think the same colour as before or do you want to try something new?" she finished as she pulled her scarf around her face.
He grinned at her, happy now as he felt the change in her. He bent over and kissed her lightly. "Something new, Ms. Lane. You decide." He reached for an old baseball cap on their way out the door, and pulled it on.
They spent the rest of the morning shopping — laughing over things that neither had any intention of ever having, shrugging their shoulders when an item was way too expensive, arguing about paint colours — it turned out Clark didn't really mean that she could decide after all. It meant she could present him with a few possibilities but he wanted input and they argued amiably about the final choice. She expressed admiration at his knowledge of the variety of material for fixing walls but he caught the twinkle in her eye as she spoke and he knew she was teasing him.
"Come on," he said, as they stood in the only deserted aisle of a huge fix-it emporium, "you think this is a meaningless skill."
"No, no. It's the truth. You never can tell when you'll have to redo your apartment after a wrestling match with thugs from outer space."
"It wasn't my fault, Lois," he said loftily.
"I know, it's always the other guy's fault. Do I want to know if you enjoyed that fight?"
He grinned. "No." He read the label on a plastic container of some miracle goop which was supposed to resurrect old plaster walls. "This should do it. Okay, let's go see if we can figure out what to do with this stuff."
"You still need a mirror. Next aisle over, maybe." As they walked across the wide main aisle, they passed several other shoppers, all of whom paid them no attention whatsoever. Lois whispered to him, "Clark, no one's recognized you this morning."
"Yeah. Great, isn't it? Must be my Leo Lambossa look."
She looked at him, stubble, old ski jacket, jeans baggy at the knees, and the baseball cap. "Must be. You look kinda charming, Clark."
"You think?" he grinned.
She pulled him in front of a mirror. "See," she teased. "Definitely G.Q."
He laughed, pulling her against his side, and they solemnly regarded their reflections. "What do you see?" he asked her softly.
"Is that a trick question, Kent?"
"No. It's an honest one."
"I see you, and I see a reflection of me. Is that what you see, too, Clark? A mirror image of me or the real me?"
He drew a deep breath. "So that's it. That's what's been bothering you this morning. Look, we need to talk, but not here. Let's pay for this stuff and head back to my place; and then you and I, Lois Lane, are going to clear the air."
They walked in silence to the cash, paid for Clark's supplies, and then dashed to catch the bus which was pulling to a stop across the street from the hardware store. The bus was mostly empty and they swung back to seats at the rear so Clark could pile his purchases on the floor without fear of obstructing any passengers.
They began the ride in silence, Lois staring out the slush sprayed window, not seeing anything. In spite of where they were, Clark found it impossible not to speak. "I've told you, Lois, it's you. You that I want."
She turned to look at him. "Then why didn't you tell me about her sooner?"
"Why didn't you tell me about Trask?" he countered.
She flushed. "That's different. I wasn't in love with Trask. It wasn't personal."
"I wasn't in love with her either, Lois. Besides, Trask was out to get me and you were part of it! How was I supposed to feel about that?"
"I wasn't out to get you — I was out to find the truth about you."
"So why didn't *you* tell me?"
She looked at him truthfully. "Clark, it all happened so fast. I seemed to be in the middle of just figuring you out, and the next thing I know I was falling in love with you, and *then* the next thing I know you're about to disappear to another planet. And one not even in this galaxy, Clark!" she added, as though this latter point were the most significant. "There was no time to really talk to you."
"Falling in love with me?" A small satisfied smile curved his lips as he picked up the most important thing she'd said, at least from his point of view.
She shot him a resentful glare. "Yes. And then I find out you've got this *thing* for this… this parallel me."
"What? Lois, it isn't, wasn't, like that. She just kinda took over." He shrugged his broad shoulders helplessly as he remembered. "But I won't lie either. I liked it. I liked it a lot." He grinned. "She was nearly as amazing as you are." He calmed down, trying to figure out how he could convince her. What if he couldn't? He took her hand in his, noticing absently how slender her fingers were.
"Lois, you have to believe me. My feelings were confused. I never really understood what they were exactly. Even when she was here. I was engaged to Lana, and then *she* came and I felt something I'd never felt before. But it never felt right and the confusion stayed. But I've never felt confused about how I feel about you." He stopped, and searched her face, looking for a sign in her dark eyes that she understood. "I've told you the truth, Lois. I did care for her; there was something I felt when we met — but Lois, it was you who I was supposed to have that feeling for. *She* was the stand-in, not you. She belongs in another universe — this is our world. Yours and mine." He held her eyes with his own and tightened his hold on her hand. "You know that's the truth, Lois, just as I understand how it was that you came to work with Trask." The timbre of his voice was low, soft, telling her as much as his words how he felt.
With a small hopeful grin, he replied. "Yeah, I do. But I gotta say, Lois, I felt a little betrayed, at first. I guess I just assumed that you would fall unquestioningly into my arms and I was surprised when you didn't."
"Why would you think that, Clark? I mean is that what usually happens — women just fall into your arms?"
"No, no," he protested, mentally adding, not unless they want something.
"Then why would you think that, Clark?" she repeated her question. "When we talked about this yesterday morning, I had this feeling there was something you weren't telling me. I believe what you've told me, why I don't know," she added with a half grin at what she hoped would not prove to be her foolishness. She cocked her head to one side. "But I also don't believe you've told me everything."
The bus driver called out the next stop. It was theirs, and Clark leaned over to pick up the shopping bags beside his seat, then stood back while she preceded him to the centre of the bus where they got off. It was still snowing and by this point there had been a significant accumulation — it looked like they were in for a major winter storm.
As they walked in the blowing snow the couple of blocks back to his place, Lois returned to her query. "I'm right, aren't I, Clark, that there's something you haven't told me." When he was silent beside her, she continued, "Please, Clark, if we're to start again, there has to be complete honesty between us."
"I know that, Lois, and I want nothing less than that for us. No lies, no hiding."
"So… " she started for him.
"Lois, I've never believed in fate or predestination or destiny or whatever you want to call it. And I still don't. I don't believe that things are predetermined. I've always believed that each of us is unique, and we make choices, that we make the best of the circumstances in which we find ourselves, that things happen for a logical reason."
She listened, wondering where he was going with this little dissertation. When he ground to a halt, she prodded, "But…"
"But how do I explain what happened between us? The helplessness I feel when I look at you, the magic when I'm with you?" He flashed her a quick grin. "I just hope you occasionally feel as crazy as I do."
"So…" She wasn't about to let the grin distract her.
"So maybe it *was* meant to be. You and me always, wherever we are."
She stopped walking so she could look at him, at the ridiculous blue baseball cap which was now flecked with snow, at the grizzled black stubble on his chin, at his wonderful eyes, darkened now almost to black as he tried to tell her what was in his heart.
She shook her head as though to clear it and then she realized what it was that he hadn't told her. "What about the other Clark Kent — *your* otherworld parallel? Is he a superman, too?" Then she added, her voice a whisper. "How well does he know Lois Lane? Are they friends?"
"Yes." He watched, waiting for her to go further.
She felt her heart beating rapidly as she asked, "How good? Just how friendly are they, Clark?" When he hesitated, she added. "If I'm following a script here, Clark, I want to know what it is."
He didn't smile. "They're married, Lois."
Her eyes widened and she picked up her pace, walking rapidly the last few steps to his front door. She handed him the shopping bag she'd been carrying. "Guess I'll be going now," she said, running back down his steps.
"See, that's exactly what I was afraid of," he called out. "Nobody tells Lois Lane what to do."
"We're not puppets on a string being manipulated by some universal dungeon master."
"I believe in free will."
"Are they happily married?"
He smiled, remembering the relief and happiness which had suffused their faces as Clark had hugged Lois on his return from the ordeal into which Tempus had hurled him. "Very happy."
"That doesn't mean that we… that it would be the same here."
"No." He waited for her to make up her mind.
"Do you still want some help with your apartment?"
He smiled, feeling the tension slip from his shoulders. "Yes."
"Okay, then." She tramped up his steps. "Let's get started." She passed by him, through his doorway, afraid to look at him as she thought to herself that going into his apartment was either the most foolish thing she'd ever done or the bravest. Then a small voice inside her added, or maybe the best thing. She accepted what he said about his feelings for both her and for this other version of her, but she couldn't resist adding, just to let him know he didn't have the upper hand here, "So what's this other Clark Kent like? Do you think I'd be attracted to him?"
"No, you would not!" he replied emphatically and she was pleased.
They spent the next couple of hours working on his living room, clearing out as many of the bits of shattered wall and furniture as humanly possible. They patched, sanded and repatched his walls, but one of the holes was not going to disappear.
"Must've been Nor's head which hit it," Lois said derisively.
"Uh, I think it was mine," he replied.
She grinned. "You did have a good time, didn't you."
"A little. Maybe." When she levelled him an appraising glance, he added, "It's funny, Lois. At first, I did kinda enjoy it — it was like a test. But that didn't last long. I expected to win, though, but then it was clear it wasn't going to happen. Lois, I've always been against violence, against killing, and yet when Trask raised his hand to shoot Nor, I couldn't stop him. I should have been able to deflect that bullet but I didn't even try." He looked at her and she saw the guilt and the doubt in his eyes.
She touched his chest, sliding her hand in short strokes across it. "So you're not perfect, Clark Kent." Gently, she teased, "Did you think maybe you were?" When he shook his head in mute denial, she smiled, her eyes softened by the tenderness she felt for him. "What matters is what we strive for. That doesn't mean that once in awhile we won't do something we regret. And Clark, you know Nor would have killed you if he could — not stopping Trask, Clark — you're only human." She paused. "I didn't try to stop Trask either, and I was standing next to him. It all happened so quickly — Nor had to be stopped, that's all I thought." She met his eyes, now seeking his understanding.
He touched her cheek, tracing its outline. "So I guess you're only human, too, Lois Lane?" He bent his dark head over hers and kissed her gently, aware of the soft warmth of her mouth beneath his own, of her hand on his chest, of how silky her hair felt beneath his hand. Instinctively he wrapped his arms around her, holding her against him as he deepened their kiss, overwhelmed by the passion of her response, of his desire for her. As his lips slid eagerly over hers, he forgot everything, nothing existed but the woman in his arms. He felt lost, giddy, light, lightweight…
"Clark! We're floating!"
Their heads brushed the ceiling, startling him and they fell with an abrupt thud, sprawling on the floor; at least he was sprawled on the floor; she had fallen on top of him. He leaned back on his elbows, looking at her, astonished. "That's never happened before. I mean, when I kiss a woman." He quickly added, "Not thatI've kissed a lot of women."
Lois laughed at him, rolling sideways to sit on the floor beside him. "You are the most amazing man, Clark Kent."
"Just keep that thought, Ms. Lane."
Lois pointed to the ceiling. "By the way, while we were up there, I noticed a couple of holes in the ceiling. That you or Nor or one of his boys?"
"The crack's always been there but that hole — that was Nor's guy — the tall one."
She reached behind her for the tub of spackle and handed it to him. "Good thing you can float. Saves hauling out the ladder."
"I'd rather get back to what we were doing when our heads touched the ceiling." He grinned at her wickedly.
She resisted. "Not so fast, Kal El."
He took the filler from her with an exaggerated air of resignation and rose to his feet, demonstrating to her that he knew how to be cooperative and would give them the time she wanted. He hoped she noticed, he thought, as he carefully pushed white paste into the hole in his ceiling, a Michelangelo without his scaffold, happy to do this simple thing, all the while aware of her working at another corner of the room. He'd never felt so content in his life.
An hour later, they called it quits. They'd done as much as possible; now everything had to dry before the first coat of paint could be applied. Lois stood in the centre of the room and surveyed their work. "It already looks much better, don't you think?"
"Absolutely. I kinda like the look of randomly patched plaster."
"Yes," she agreed seriously. "We're pretty good, aren't we? It'll be a shame to paint over it." The she gave a little giggle and he looked at her, a glint in his eye. Because she was beginning to recognize that glint just like she was beginning to recognize the small leap in her pulse which it triggered, she took evasive action.
"I've brought something for you. How about you get us something to drink while get it?" She trotted toward his front door, removing her knapsack from his coat rack. She pulled out an old box and brought it back to place it on his couch, regretting the loss of his coffee table.
"What is it?" he asked as he handed her a glass of wine.
He opened the battered box and his eyes welled up as he saw the contents. He looked at her, his voice husky as he asked, "Where'd you get these?"
"In Smallville, from Mrs. Jackson. Remember, she and her husband bought your parents's farm? She asked me if I would give them to you."
Slowly he touched one of the pictures on the top of the disorderly, jumbled pile, gazing at the image of his mother on the porch of their old frame house. He felt Lois's hand on his arm and he looked up.
She said gently, "So … tell me about the pictures, Clark."
He picked up one of the photographs, one of his mom and dad with him in the middle, and looked at it, not speaking, remembering. Then he met her eyes, his own misty. His voice was hoarse, barely audible as he fumbled for words. "I've been so alone since they died, Lois. Never belonging anywhere."
"Did that change when Zara came?" she asked sympathetically. "When you met the New Kryptonians, was it satisfying in any way?"
"At first, I was excited. They had the answers to so many things I never knew. When I was with them, I kept waiting for this incredible feeling of connection, like I was really where I belonged." He gazed at her, overwhelmed by his feeling for her. "But that's only happened once in my life — the night in my dad's barn when I met you."
Lois's eyes blurred as she reached across the box of photos to touch his hand. "I felt it, too, Clark. That night, I tried to leave but I couldn't." She picked up another picture of Clark proudly displaying a birdhouse he'd built, his father grinning in the background. "But at least you got to find out who your real parents were," she said.
"Yeah, I did. My real parents are Martha and Jonathan Kent. It was incredible finding out about Lara and Jor El — that means more to me than I can say. And I know now how much they cared for me. But all through this past week, I've been thinking about my Mom and Dad, remembering. Lois, I was born Kryptonian and I will always revere the memory of Lara and Jor El. Kryptonian society is so different — I can't tell you how frustrating I found it." He grinned. "I guess that's obvious. But, Lois, there didn't seem much reason to stay here either. But now there's you," he looked at her in wonder and his large hand touched her hair, assuring himself of her reality. "And I felt this sense of completeness that I had never had before. And I knew. I knew. In my soul. You are me and I am you. In the depths of my being." Reaching out his hand to touch her neck, he pulled her gently toward him, leaning across the box of old photographs to kiss her.
She asked him the question which still vaguely teased her heart. "How do I know I'm not just a substitute for who you really want to be with?"
He touched her hair, his eyes shining as he answered her, "Because you're not, because I love you, because the thought of a life without you scares me, because I would never lie to you…"
She believed him. The truth is what he would always tell her. And she knew, finally there are things you just have to accept or you could go nuts wondering about what might have been. She took a brief gulp of air, as she put her hand on his shoulder. "Because we were meant to be together," she finished for him.
"Yeah, that, too." His voice was a husky whisper as he brushed his lips against hers, seeking her, moving his mouth slowly, in blissful response to her small sigh as he tried to draw her closer. "This box is in the way," he muttered as he carefully placed it on the floor. Then he pulled her against him, slowly kissing the side of her neck, then finding her lips again. As she whispered she loved him, he smiled against her mouth, capturing it urgently, his arms tightening around her. Eager hands touching hungry souls. Connecting…
Disclaimer: the characters, some settings and a few lines of dialogue in this story are the property of D.C. Comics, Warner Bros., December 3rd uctions. No copyright infringement is intended.