By Mobile Richard <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted May 2000
Summary: Set after the author's "Life in a Different World," Clark is thrown into a new alternate universe. Perry is retired, the Daily Planet building has moved, Clark Kent has been missing for two years. And Lois is …???
All characters in this story (except those of my own creation) are the property of DC Comics, Warner Bros and December 3rd Productions Ltd; no infringement of any property rights are intended by their use.
This story takes place after my fanfic "Life in a Different World." There are some references to events that took place in that story, but it's not necessary to read LIADW first.
Comments are welcome at email@example.com
Clark landed on the roof of the Rayron building, swaying momentarily before regaining his balance. Grimacing, he shook his head groggily while his gaze swept his surroundings. He hadn't thought his speed great enough for him to overshoot Metropolis and land on top of Rayron in the middle of the sewage treatment facility. He hoped it didn't mean what he thought it meant. After a long, tiring day, all he wanted to do was go home and relax with his wife and infant son, and it would be too cruel if he had been jolted into that alternate universe again. The sun peeking out through the storm clouds looked higher in the sky than he remembered it, reinforcing his apprehension that he had been catapulted into the parallel universe, but hopefully he was just more tired than he'd thought …
A flight to Hyperion Avenue and a quick x-ray of the town house that he shared with his wife dashed his faint hopes. Rubbing the back of his neck in frustration, he flew to Clinton Ave so he could reconnoiter inside the walls of his counterpart's home, but he discovered to his surprise that Clark Kent's apartment was occupied by strangers.
Seconds later he learned, to his increasing frustration, that Lois's apartment on Carter Avenue was vacant.
He licked his lips apprehensively, trying to decide what to do next. He could go to his parents' house in Kansas and check with them or … no … he'd go to the Daily Planet and try to find Lois. She must have moved, but she would still be working at the Planet …
Not "no" as in "no, she isn't still working there," but "no" as in "no, there is no *there* there." The Daily Planet building was gone. Completely. A hole had been excavated in the ground where the building used to be.
Clark took a deep breath, setting his jaw. What happened to this world after he left? Had the Daily Planet newspaper gone under, obliterated by the dark forces that controlled the world in this universe?
He ascended into the stormy clouds, concealing himself while he anxiously surveyed Metropolis's streets below.
Odd, the city wasn't as violent and chaotic as he remembered it …
Whoa! The Daily Planet globe! On 33rd Street. The Planet wasn't gone; it'd just been moved.
Several seconds later a relieved Clark Kent strode into the lobby of the new Planet Building. "Hold it right there, sir," said one of the guards, interposing his body between Clark and the elevators. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to see some ID."
"Ben," said Clark. "You remember me." The guard looked at him blankly. "Clark Kent."
Ben's eyes narrowed. He started to shake his head and then his face lit with recognition. "Kent! Yeah, I remember you! Where've you been for the last two years? I haven't seen you since Luthor died."
"Uh …" said Clark, his heart beating rapidly. Something was very odd here. Lex Luthor had still been alive when he left the dark universe a year ago. Was it possible that he was in a *different* universe? Neither his own nor the dark, violent one that he'd had the misfortune to be trapped in last year?
He turned towards Ben, squaring his shoulders resolutely. The sooner he could get into the newsroom, the sooner he could get answers to his questions. "Has it been that long?" he hedged, not answering Ben's question. "It's nice seeing you again, Ben …" He tried to edge past the guard, but Ben blocked his progress again.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Kent," he said firmly, "but I can't let you in without a press pass."
Clark hesitantly pulled his ID out of his wallet, hoping that it would pass muster in whatever universe he happened to be in.
"Sorry, Mr. Kent, but I've never seen one like that before. I'm afraid I can't let you in … unless … you'd like me to call someone?"
"Lois Lane," said Clark, drawing a strange look from the guard.
"Mr. Kent, you know I can't do that!"
Why? Not wanting to betray his ignorance of events that had transpired in this universe, Clark tried another name. "Perry White."
Ben shook his head. "He retired two years ago."
"Not in the building right now. I saw him leave an hour ago."
Rather than continue to try to guess which employees of the Planet might be willing to vouch for him, Clark gave up trying to get into the building and gracefully took his leave.
Undaunted by the guard's impediment to his entry, he strode out of the building, pulling down his glasses to scan through the walls. Spotting an unoccupied room, he whisked himself up to the third floor and inside through the window, then to the elevators. His department was on the eleventh floor … he had noticed that on the directory when he was talking to the guard downstairs.
He found the eleventh floor to be a hive of activity, but within minutes of his entry the newsroom action had ground to a halt. It was Tony who spotted him first. "Clark!" he exclaimed. "Hey, guys, look who's back … *Clark Kent*!"
Immediately he was surrounded by a throng of excited men and women. "Where 'n heck have you *been*??" "Kent, nice to see you!" "You going to see the Queen while you're in town?" "Are you going to get your old job back, Clark?" "Has her Highness seen you yet? … better change your tie before she sees it … that one'll have her calling for help!"
This settled the question of whether he was in the dark universe. The other Clark hadn't been well-liked, but his counterpart in this universe was evidently a very popular fellow, judging by his colleagues' enthusiastic greetings and good-natured ribbing.
After putting up with several minutes of having his back slapped, arms punched and neck hugged (the last, by several women), and returning evasive responses to questions he couldn't answer, Clark began to try, without success, subtly to get answers to his own questions of how Luthor had died, whether the United States was governed by a monarchy in this universe, and why Perry had retired. He was most frustrated in not being able to directly ask the question that overshadowed all others in his mind: *Is Lois Lane here?* (And is Clark Kent married to her in this universe?)
Finally most of the crowd dissipated and only Tony, Jerry, and … Jimmy! yes, Jimmy — there he was! remained. Jimmy shook his hand enthusiastically, then apparently not satisfied with that businesslike gesture as an adequate expression of his feelings, slapped Clark on the back several times. "Nice to see you, CK," he said emotionally. "We wondered … what happened …?"
"Uh …" said Clark.
"You here to see the Queen?" interrupted Jerry.
Who's "the Queen?"
"I don't have an appointment …" Clark said cautiously.
"I bet she'd see you anyway; you were always one of her favorites."
"*One* of her favorites! How about *the* favorite?? The only time she seemed halfway human was around Clark!"
Clark ducked his head. It embarrassed him to hear this, even if the praise was intended for his counterpart, not himself. He had heard it all before; Lois was always telling him that he had a calming influence on people.
"You should at least *try* to get an audience with her."
"Nah; he'd be taking his life into his hands. No one can get near her these days. She's been more and more impossible the longer she reigns."
"Clark can handle her. Go and see her, CK."
"Yeah, we'll see that you get a decent burial."
"You want us to notify your folks?"
"Shh! Shut up you guys! Go ahead, CK. Do you know where she is?"
"Dyna Palace. The guards will want ID, though, so here … I'll get you a pass." Jimmy retreated to a small office with a barred window, returning minutes later with a large green card bearing Clark's name. "And you'll tell us where you've been for the last two years?"
"Uh …" said Clark noncommitally. He dodged Jimmy's question, escaping as gracefully as he could.
The Dyna Palace turned out to be a five-story sprawling mansion on the outskirts of Metropolis. His green pass gained him instant entry, and he was left alone to wait in an opulently splendid antechamber. Clark straightened his tie nervously, wondering what the Clark Kent of this world had done to make him such a hero in the eyes of his colleagues, and why he had disappeared at the time of Lex Luthor's death.
He wondered, too, about the political structure of this country in this universe. Was the United States under a monarchy? Or … maybe the United States wasn't "united," but a collection of small kingdoms … each governed by its own king or queen? No; it was useless to speculate without facts. There were any number of possibilities and he'd just have to try and gather what information he could, picking up cues from what people said … and maybe he could visit the library or the newspaper morgue later …
One thing was certain, though … this was not the universe he had visited previously.
He wandered around the foyer, gazing at the gallery of portraits lining the walls, sucking in his breath when he suddenly confronted the image of the woman he had been completely in love with for six years. He stared up at the magnificent full-length portrait hanging on the wall. Lois. Shoulder-length hair swept up, a diamond tiara gracing her head. Wearing a gown that displayed every luscious curve in that well-loved body. And the jewels! Beautiful gems in exquisite settings at her throat, on her ears, encircling her wrists.
Impossible not to be affected by this portrait, even if it wasn't … Clark reminded himself … his wife. He cleared his throat and straightened his tie again as the guard beckoned him to follow him up the grand staircase and around the corner to a small elevator. A minute later Clark found himself in a lavishly furnished reception area on the fifth floor. "May I help you?" asked the comfortable- looking receptionist.
The door to the inner office opened and Lois Lane walked out just as Clark said, "I'd like to have an audience with the Queen. Is Her Highness available?"
The receptionist gasped.
Lois looked full at Clark and in that second when their eyes met he knew that he had never seen such an expression of mixed relief and heartfelt gladness as suffused her face. The look was gone in an instant, replaced by outrage as Clark's words sank in. "The *Queen*???" she said furiously. "Is that what they're calling me in the newsroom??"
And then Clark realized that the governing structure of the United States wasn't, as he'd thought, a monarchy, and "the queen" was an appellation bestowed on Lois by the sarcastic wags in the newsroom. And judging by the expression on Lois's face, she knew that it was not, in this context, a compliment.
"Did you come here just to insult me??" she asked through her teeth.
"Ub … buh … mfflt," said Clark, wondering how, after three years of marriage, Lois Lane—*any* version of her—could still tie his tongue in knots.
"You can just *get out* right now!" Lois raged. "Lucille, call the guards!"
"No!" Clark leaped forward, holding out his hand. "Wait … Lois …" (Omigosh, am I making another mistake in calling her "Lois??" Can't be helped now.) "I'm not trying to insult you, I'm just …" (Great, Kent; how're you going to explain this one?) "I'm just … I'm not trying to insult you," he repeated firmly, "I just wanted to see you. Sorry." He looked at her placatingly.
Lois studied his face, the glare fading from her eyes, then inclined her head stiffly, motioning him to follow her into her office. Behind him, Clark heard Lucille start breathing again.
Inside her office (which, Clark noted, was about twice the size of his former apartment on Clinton Avenue), Lois motioned him to close the door and retreated behind her desk at the other end of the room. Clark followed, squinting at the glare of the setting sun. It had broken through the clouds that had obscured it earlier in the day and was streaming brightly through the enormous picture window at Lois's back.
"So …" said Lois, "you've come back." She met his eyes fractionally and then swivelled quickly to face out the window. "I knew you would …" She glanced over her shoulder at him. "Where have you been?"
"I … uh … I can't …"
"It doesn't matter," she said quickly, turning back to her desk and rifling through a pile of documents with studied concentration.
"Good. I mean, uh—"
"*Why* did you come back?" She raised her head and looked intently at him.
"Uh … I … uh … just wanted to see what was going on," said Clark cautiously.
"Is that it …?" Lois's voice quavered on the last word and she hastily bowed her head, her hands busily shuffling the papers.
"Well …" said Clark uncertainly.
"Have you come to beg for your old job back?" she asked with careful casualness, her hands stilling while she waited for his answer.
"I … guess so," said Clark slowly.
She took a breath, some of the tension leaving her shoulders. "We *might* be able to find a place for you."
Clark couldn't help smiling at her assumed nonchalance. It was obvious that she desperately wanted his counterpart to come back, and equally obvious that she didn't want him to know it. "Thank you," he said gravely. "I appreciate that."
She lifted her head, her eyes narrowing as if she suspected irony, but he bowed his head quickly to hide his expression. "You can start in City," she said after she had satisfied herself that his attitude was properly respectful. "I'll have Jimmy get you a press pass and a mobile phone and then you can begin an investigation into an alleged kickback scheme. We have a lead on—"
"Is it okay if I go through the morgue first so I can re-acquaint myself with what's going on in Metropolis?" asked Clark. "I've been away for awhile and—"
"You just get into town?"
"Where are you staying?"
"You don't have a place yet?" Lois kept her eyes on his face while he shook his head. "Here," she rummaged through her desk drawer, extracting a key. "You can stay at the Lexor Hotel in the … Honeymoon Suite." She blushed, not looking at him. "Until you find a—oh, drat that phone!" She picked up the telephone in response to the intercom buzz. "What is it, Lucille? Cancel it; I'm busy right now! What? On line 2? Okay; I'll take it." She pushed a button and began speaking rapidly. "Good evening, Mayor Wilson … no, the Daily Planet stands by its piece on the City Council's decision to deny a permit to the Wellington Foundation … we have solid evidence indicating that … no … no … I'm sorry you feel that way, but we're not going to retract our story … yes … I'll see you there!" She replaced the receiver rather abruptly, muttering under her breath when her intercom buzzed again. "Who is it, Lucille? Yes, I'll take the call!"
Lois fielded three more calls while Clark strolled around her office with his hands in his pockets, casually examining the expensively and tastefully-appointed office. He looked up once to see Lois watching him with something almost unfathomable (relief? satisfaction? warmth?) in her eyes, but she dropped her gaze almost immediately and didn't look directly at him again until she had finished the last of her calls.
"Do you need a cash advance?" she asked, looking at him searchingly.
"Uh … yeah, I guess …"
She handed him a credit card. "Use this. You can buy yourself clothes or whatever. The suit you have on now is nice," she continued, looking him over. "I like that tie."
You should; Lois picked it out for me.
"Ready to start?" she asked. Clark nodded. "Go to the newsroom; Jimmy will get you everything you need." Nodding again, Clark left her office and when he was safely out of view, flew back to the Planet building.
After stopping in the newsroom to let Jimmy know where he was going, he descended to the morgue to go through newspaper files. If he was going to pass himself off as the Clark Kent of this universe, he needed to learn the whole history of this planet … and quickly. More, he needed to learn the personal history of certain of Metropolis's citizens: Lois, Perry, Lex, and his counterpart, so he wouldn't make any blunders out of ignorance.
From past experience, he knew that he would need to wait for the next thunderstorm to get back to his own world, but in the meantime it would be helpful if he had a place to stay … and a job, in case he needed to buy anything. He had already found out that his currency wouldn't work in this universe.
He admitted to feeling some curiosity, too, about the relationship between the Lois and Clark of this world. It was evident that Lois Lane was deeply in love with his alternate self, and that something had happened to estrange the couple … and after an hour sifting through old newspapers at super speed, Clark had gathered some idea of what that *something* was.
The ring of his mobile telephone interrupted his browsing. "Clark???" The stridency in Lois's on-the-edge voice brought an involuntary smile to his lips. "Could you come over here again? I need your input on a piece we're considering putting in tomorrow's paper."
"I'll be there as soon as I can," he promised. He dropped his eyes while he finished reading the article that had been absorbing him for the better part of three seconds. When he finished, he put the article aside and headed for the elevator, a grim set to his jaw.
He had just learned some of the events of the last few years and they didn't present an optimistic picture. Lois Lane, it transpired, was a widow. She had been a bride for less than three hours when her husband, Lex Luthor, had leaped to his death from the top of his penthouse suite in Metropolis. Lex Corp had been all but disemboweled by the subsequent lawsuits, court actions, and criminal investigations. Lois Lane, as sole heir to the Luthor empire, had managed to retain controlling interest in Luthor Labs, the Daily Planet, Dyna Corp., the Lexor Hotel, and a number of smaller businesses. She had also inherited a some personal wealth that the courts had not been able to touch.
The man responsible for the demise of Luthor's empire, an investigative journalist by the name of Clark Kent, had disappeared from Metropolis around the time of Luthor's death and had never been heard from again.
Lois began talking almost before Clark had entered her office. "What's your take on this?" she asked, thrusting a draft article at him. He read it through quickly, and had barely offered his opinion when she was asking for his appraisal of another one. And then another. A lively discussion followed, and although Lois often disagreed with him, once even going so far as to complain that he had *always* been "over-cautious," it was plain that she valued his opinion. This other Clark Kent was evidently a man who commanded her respect.
*Had* commanded her respect, he reminded himself grimly; Clark had vanished without a trace two years ago.
Their discussion was interrupted by the entrance of a caterer pushing a cart laden with food. Clark shook his head in answer to Lois's quick question as to whether he had eaten yet and gladly assisted her in polishing off the better part of a Chinese repast. "You always used to get the *best* Chinese food," sighed Lois, a reminiscent smile touching her lips. "And you never would tell me where you got it."
Clark smiled, struck, as he had been so many times before, by the similarities between this universe and his own. There were some major differences, though, and foremost among them was the absence of Superman. Apparently the Clark Kent of this world had never assumed that persona, although Clark had noticed, in his reading of past Metropolis events, that many victims spoke convincingly of an "unseen presence" that had assisted them in escaping from the disasters that had befallen them. So although he hadn't done so publicly, the other Clark Kent evidently *had* used his super powers to aid others.
Before his disappearance two years ago.
Around the time of Lex Luthor's death. The same time, in the time line of his own universe, when *he* had lain helpless in a cellar beneath the seat of Luthor's empire.
His stomach churned when he remembered those agonizing hours in the kryptonite cage, when even worse than the physical pain was the torment of knowing that the woman he loved was soon to be in the power of a man the depths of whose sadistic nature had just been revealed to him.
Had the Clark Kent of this world died in just such a cage?
How would Luthor have known that kryptonite would affect Clark Kent?
And how could the alternate Clark have changed universes with him if he had died two years ago?
Reminding himself that it might be necessary to find the answers to these questions in order to get back to his own universe, and that he should be working on getting those answers right now, Clark rose. "I have to go," he said.
Lois's face fell. "Oh … of course. Yes, you have to go."
Several times during the course of the evening Clark had been on the verge of leaving, and each time, Lois had quickly asked him a question in a blatant attempt to detain him. It was heart-wrenching not to yield to her obvious wish that he stay, but it was apparent that she wanted to broach the subject of their estrangement, and, much as he would like to know some of the history behind Clark's disappearance, he wanted to avoid an emotional reconciliation intended for the other Clark Kent. Besides, she would have questions for him that he would simply not be able to answer.
"I'll see you," he said awkwardly.
"Yes … of course," Lois repeated, not looking at him. She bent her head over the story they had been discussing, apparently absorbed in her work.
Clark's heart went out to her. He longed to offer her some assurance of Clark Kent's love and regard, but he dared not hold out to her what might be a false hope. He had long since discarded his original intention of letting her know that he was not the Clark Kent of this universe; Lois seemed to be struggling to maintain a tenuous grip on her self-control, and he didn't want to add to her burden by revealing that the Clark she knew was in another universe … or dead. "Good-night, Lois," he said. When she didn't answer, he walked hesitantly to her side and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder.
At his touch, her face softened. She said without looking at him, "You'll be here at nine tomorrow." It was not a question.
"Shouldn't I go to the newsroom …?"
"I need you here," said Lois sharply. "That's an order."
Clark smiled. "Okay," he said meekly.
Lois looked up, and seeing the smile, glared at him. Clark's smile broadened. "Aren't you gone yet?" she asked tartly. "I thought you were leaving."
"I'm going," said Clark, walking towards the door. As he opened it, he heard her voice behind him.
"Clark …" He turned. "I'm glad you're back."
He avoided her eyes. "I … mmmm," he said awkwardly, and pulled the door shut behind him.
Morning found Clark no closer to answers than he had been the previous evening. He had spent the better part of the night catching up on the history of this universe, particularly recent events in Metropolis. He was amazed once again at the similarities between the two worlds—and hoped that the similarities didn't include the kryptonite cage.
He interrupted his reading several times during the night to unobtrusively assist in several rescues, one such rescue occupying him until almost ten a.m., and it was not until a quarter past ten that he entered Lois's office suite where he was faced with a seething Lois. "What do you mean by coming in here at this hour?" she asked angrily. "Didn't I tell you to be here at nine?"
"Sorry," said Clark laconically.
"*Sorry*??" For a moment Lois appeared ready to explode, then she swallowed and looked away. "Let's get to work." she said more quietly, leading the way into her inner office.
As Clark prepared to follow her, he felt a hand touch his sleeve. He looked down into Lucille's warm brown eyes. "We're glad you're here, sir," she said in a low voice, squeezing his forearm.
Inside Lois's office, Clark seated himself next to her on the sofa, commenting on the articles as he leafed through them. He kept his voice matter-of-fact, pretending that he didn't notice the private grief that seemed to be afflicting her. There were traces of tears on her cheeks, and the tremulousness in her voice when she finally spoke betrayed the presence of strong emotion. "When you didn't show up at nine, I thought that … I thought you weren't going to …"
Clark realized then that her agitation was on account of him; when he hadn't arrived on time, she had feared that he wasn't going to come … that he was going to vanish again. "If I leave town again, I won't do it without telling you first," he promised, reflecting grimly that he'd better find that his counterpart was alive; he didn't want to have to break this woman's heart by telling her that Clark Kent was going to vanish from her life forever.
She turned to him suddenly. "Clark, where have you been for the last two years? Why didn't you contact me? No, don't answer that; I understand why you didn't want to talk to *me*, but what about Jimmy … and Perry? I was—we were *all* worried about you. Especially … recently. Have you read our articles about Lex's … activities?" Clark nodded and she went on: "At the time of his death you brought to light how unscrupulous—and criminal—his business dealings were, but it wasn't until the last few months that we found out that he was a murderer, too. With you gone for so long, I began to wonder … I was afraid … oh, Clark, where were you all that time?"
"I'm sorry, Lois, but I can't tell you that."
"But … couldn't you at least have called to tell us you were all right?"
"I can't answer that, either. I wish I could, but I can't."
Lois gazed at him with pain-filled eyes. Shifting closer to him on the sofa, she touched his hand lightly. "I missed you, Clark. I missed you so much … I didn't think … I didn't know how much you meant to me until you were gone from my life. I thought at first … I hoped … that you would come back, if only to gloat at how I was so wrong about Lex and everything else, and you were so right—"
"Lo-is," said Clark uncomfortably, wishing he could withdraw his hand without seeming to reject her. "Do I gloat?"
"No," she said, gazing into his eyes. "Never. You are the kindest, most caring person I have ever met and you would never, ever gloat, but when you left … when you disappeared, I wished you *would* gloat, I would have given anything to hear your voice again, even if you just called to say 'I told you so,' even if you *taunted* me …"
Clark dropped his eyes.
"And now you're back, and I'm so glad to see you …! Don't tell me … if you can't … I won't ask any more questions …"
I should tell her; I should break her heart right now and tell her that this isn't her Clark Kent she's baring her soul to, that he isn't here, he's still missing, possibly a victim to Luthor's hatred …
"… but I just wanted to tell you, Clark … I wanted you to know … what you told me in the park that day …"
No, Lois, not that. Don't tell me that happened here, too. Don't say anything …!
"Uh, Lois …"
"… Clark, I want you to know that I feel the same way, and I … I guess I always have. I was just too stubborn to admit it."
"Lois, about this murder story …"
"I knew I'd made a mistake … I knew it when I was walking down the aisle towards Lex, but I was too proud to admit it. I went through with the ceremony … and three hours later I was a widow. I know it's too late … for … I know you must hate me … no, don't say anything, I know you don't 'hate,' you *never* 'hate,' but … I just wanted you to know … I don't expect you to return my feelings or anything, but I wanted to let you know how much I care about you."
Clark looked into her luminous eyes and said feebly, "I think it would be a mistake to print this article as written."
Lois stared at him, completely taken aback. She had just opened her heart and he had responded by talking about a … a story! Her face darkened with anger. "That's it??" she exclaimed, jumping to her feet. "I share my deepest, most personal feelings with you, and you start talking about *work*??"
"I'm sorry, Lois," said Clark quickly. "Look, I want you to know that I can't talk about what happened to me … us. There are reasons … things I can't tell you." She looked down into his face and the expression in the depths of her dark eyes wrenched the words from him: "But I want you to know that I care about you … and I always will."
Lois kept Clark busy all day. He never returned to the newsroom, and he didn't get a chance to make any progress in his investigation into the other Clark's disappearance. Lois kept him at her side while she fielded telephone calls and attended meetings, dispatching her responsibilities with focused efficiency. She asked his advice often, and while she listened attentively and often made decisions based on his opinion, she was just as likely, Clark noted with amusement, to disregard it and do exactly what she had wanted to do anyway.
It was late when he finally managed to disengage himself from her. Her unspoken plea had kept him close to her all day, but at last his own needs overrode hers, and he firmly stated his intention of quitting for the evening.
"We still have so much to do!" Lois protested.
"Lois, have you ever considered … giving up some of your responsibilities?"
"What's that supposed to mean??" Lois flashed.
"Don't get mad. It sounds like you're trying to do your editor's job and the job of your attorneys, too."
"I *have* to do the editor's job!" returned Lois with spirit. "Have you seen that bozo I have working for me?"
"Fire him and get somebody else," said Clark unemotionally.
"Who, for instance?"
"You're in a better position to know who's good than I am. Or you could ask Perry for advice."
"Perry White. You do remember him, don't you?"
"Don't get sarcastic with me, Clark Kent! Of course I remember Perry. But he might consider it odd, me asking him for advice, considering it was my husband who forced him into retirement!"
"You never even asked him to come back??"
"No! I … didn't think he would. Why are you looking at me like that?"
"No reason." sighed Clark. "I really *have* to go now, Lois." He took a last look at the slender young woman standing alone in the middle of the room, and instead of exiting, he strode over to her and grasped her lightly by the shoulders. "Good-bye, Lois," he said, resisting, with supreme effort, the temptation to kiss her on the forehead.
Lois seemed to invite his touch, and he was finding it more and more difficult to keep her at arms' length. If their relationship continued on its present course, he would be forced to tell her what he knew would break her heart.
As he walked past the portrait of "Queen" Lois on his way out, he reflected that the sooner he returned to his own universe, the better.
The next morning Clark decided to make time to continue his search into the mystery of the alternate Clark's disappearance. Having run out of leads in Metropolis, he determined to go to Smallville to see what he could learn there.
It was late afternoon, however, before he managed to slip away from Metropolis and fly to the farm in Smallville. He landed beside the barn, treading cautiously in the direction of the house. He planned to sneak into the house when Jonathan and Martha were out, and see if there were any signs that Clark had been there recently. He didn't want the Kents to see him; it would be cruel to present himself to them if their son had disappeared two years ago and was indeed dead.
He knew that Jonathan wasn't inside; he could hear the chain saw on the other side of the house where the elder Kent was cutting dead tree limbs. He x-rayed the house, and seeing that Martha wasn't inside, either, prepared to enter the kitchen.
The buzz of the chain saw covered the sound of Martha's approach and he jumped when he heard her voice behind him. "Clark!"
In the distance, the chain saw sputtered and stopped. Clark turned to face Martha and his heart sank when he saw the joyful expression on her face. He was very much afraid that her look of radiance meant that the alternate Clark really was missing; how else to account for it? She obviously thought he was her son, come back after two years.
He grimaced; he really didn't want to break her heart like this. But her first words surprised him. "You've decided to get a job?" she asked eagerly, surveying him from head to toe.
"A job?" he repeated thickly. He was aware that Jonathan had set down the chain saw and was striding towards them.
"Are you going back to Metropolis, son?" asked Jonathan. "You wouldn't dress like that for a job in Smallville."
Clark felt a wave of relief. Jonathan and Martha had obviously *not* been missing their son for two years; they must have seen him quite recently. So his first guess was right; Clark was alive.
But now he had to break the news to them that their son was in another universe. "I'm sorry," he said, "but I'm not … your son."
Jonathan and Martha exchanged glances. "Oh, honey …" said Martha, drawing close and putting her arms around him, "we love you more than anything … you know that."
"It doesn't matter where you came from, son," Jonathan chimed in, "we love you just the same."
"No," said Clark, "you don't understand … I'm not your Clark. I'm from an alternate dimension, a parallel universe where we all exist in altered form. I changed places with your son two days ago and now I'm trying to figure out how to get back."
And I've been working on solving the case of your son's murder, although it sounds like there wasn't any murder.
Jonathan and Martha stared at him. Martha was the first to break their stunned silence. "Clark, honey, would you like to come inside?" she asked tenderly. "I'll fix you some of that mint tea you like so much and we can—"
"I know it sounds crazy," said Clark, "but it's true. I *have* exchanged places with your son and I'm trying to get back to my own universe. I came to Smallville because Clark has been missing from Metropolis for two years and I was hoping to find some leads on his disappearance. He's needed there."
Neither Jonathan nor Martha said anything for a minute. "How'd the fishing go, son?" said Jonathan at last. "Catch anything?"
"I haven't *been* fishing," said Clark impatiently. "I take it that Clark has been here, and recently … can you tell me why he disappeared from Metropolis two years ago? His friends miss him; they'd really like to know that he's all right."
"Did you like the sandwich I fixed you for lunch?" asked Martha, evidently determined to ignore that what Clark was talking about was at all unusual.
"I'm not—" began Clark in exasperation. "Lunch?" he said. "Today? But that's not possible!"
"Clark why don't you come inside and we'll all—"
"I got here two days ago … Clark can't be here! Did he say where he was going fishing?" he asked, turning eagerly towards Jonathan.
"You said you were going to try your luck at the creek," said Jonathan slowly, his eyes on Clark's face. "Near that big rock where the stream bends—"
"Excuse me …" said Clark breathlessly.
Jonathan and Martha looked wonderingly at each other as he vanished.
The recumbent form of a man was outstretched beside the creek, a hat covering his face. His fishing pole was stuck into the ground in front of him. "Hello …" said Clark.
One hand lazily tipped the hat aside and Clark found himself looking into the bleary eyes of a mirror image of himself. Clark let out his breath sharply at this anticlimax to all the dire scenarios he had imagined in the last two days about Clark Kent's fate.
The alternate Clark blinked up at him. "Oh no," he groaned, pulling the hat over his face again, "I'm hallucinating."
"What are you doing here?" demanded Clark, his relief that his counterpart was alive swept away by irritation at the worry the alternate Clark had put himself—and everyone else—through. "Don't you know people in Metropolis have been looking all over for you?"
This guy's explanation better be good, he thought grimly. "Metropolis …" said the alternate Clark sleepily. "Haven't been *there* in awhile."
"No, you haven't," said Clark, "and *some* people were devastated by your disappearance. What happened? Where have you been … and why did you run away? A lot is happening in Metropolis and they really need you."
The alternate Clark pushed his hat to one side again and looked Clark up and down. "Tell me right now," he said. "Is this one of those 'Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come' things? 'Cause—"
"No, I'm not a ghost," snapped Clark.
"—you kinda look like *me*. Terrible taste in ties, though. I hope you're not some future version of myself."
"I'm not a ghost," repeated Clark loudly. "And I'm not from the future; I'm your counterpart from another universe."
"Whatever you say, bro," said the alternate Clark, closing his eyes. "Whatever you say."
"Clark …" said a breathless voice behind him. Clark turned to see Jonathan and Martha hurrying towards them. "What are you …?" Jonathan's voice died when he saw the figure reclining beside the stream. "What the—?"
The alternate Clark opened his eyes. "Hi, Mom and Dad," he said. "I'm afraid I'm having some kind of bad dream; I'm seeing someone who looks a lot like me who says that he's from another universe. I must be dreaming …"
"You're not dreaming, Clark," said Jonathan, his eyes on the man in the business suit. "… unless *we* are, too."
"You see him, too?" asked the alternate Clark, showing more interest. He dragged himself to a sitting position. "Maybe it's one of those mass hypnosis things."
"So you were flying through a thunderstorm and you ended up here … in our universe," said Jonathan. His expression showed that he didn't quite understand the mechanics of the transportation.
"It has to do with the ionization in the atmosphere and my rate of speed when I'm flying from a negatively charged environment into a positively charged environment, extreme conditions that typically occur during a thunderstorm," Clark explained. "It creates an inter-dimensional window that I've slipped through … several times now. But this is the first time I went through the window and my counterpart didn't."
Clark looked down at the glass he was holding in his hand. He, Jonathan, and Martha were sitting at the kitchen table, finishing the last of the excellent dinner Martha had cooked. The alternate Clark had retired to the sitting room, where he was watching a game on television while polishing off a pitcher of iced tea.
"How is that possible?" asked Jonathan. "And how are you going to get back to your own world?"
"I don't know," said Clark. "If I could find Dr. Klein, he might be able to help me. But there's no Star Labs here, and no Dr. Klein in Metropolis." The Kents looked confused, but didn't comment. "In the meantime," Clark continued, "I'd been trying to find out what happened to Clark. He disappeared from Metropolis two years ago and many thought that he was dead. I was surprised to find him here … alive and well."
Jonathan and Martha exchanged glances. "Do you have a place to stay, honey?" asked Martha. "You can stay here if you'd like …"
Clark smiled at her gratefully. Even though he wasn't their son, the Kents had welcomed him as if he were, and their hospitality had touched him. "Thanks, but I do have a place to stay," he said. "Lois got me a suite at the Lexor Hotel." He felt his face flush slightly under the penetrating look Martha gave him when he mentioned Lois's name.
"Lois? You've seen her?"
"Yes; as a matter of fact she's given me my—Clark's—old job back."
Jonathan and Martha stared at him. "You mean … " said Jonathan, "… she took you back? Took *him* back, I mean …"
"Yes," said Clark, shutting his jaw with a snap. "She was overjoyed to see me. Almost desperately so, in fact." He spoke the words knowing that the Kents would understand that Lois's feelings were intended for their son. "She's been worried sick about Clark since he disappeared two years ago; she was afraid he was dead. I don't understand why Clark hasn't contacted her or anyone else to at least let them know that he's still alive."
"We'll let you take that up with our son," said Martha, rising and beginning to clear the table. She gestured towards the sitting room.
Nodding, Clark got to his feet. "Let me help you with the dishes," he offered.
Martha shook her head. "Thanks, honey, but I can manage," she said. "Why don't you go in and talk to Clark …?"
Clark strode into the sitting room to find the alternate Clark lying on the sofa watching television. "Hi," he said, seating himself in a chair next to the sofa.
"Hey, bro," said the alternate Clark disinterestedly.
Clark rubbed his hand tiredly across his face. "I thought you were dead," he said without further preamble.
"Well," said the alternate Clark, taking a languid sip of his drink, "I'm not."
Clark set his jaw.
I did think you were dead. I thought you *must* be dead; I believed that if you were anything like me, no power on earth could keep you away from Lois for two years.
"Would you like to tell me where you've been for the last two years?" asked Clark shortly, his anger rising at the worry the alternate Clark had caused everyone. "Or why you haven't at least let your friends know that you're alive and well?
The rest of the conversation passed similarly. By asking direct questions, Clark managed to wrest from his alternate self the information that Clark had joined his parents in Hong Kong the day Lois got married. Perry had managed to get in touch with them a few hours later to tell them of her subsequent widowing, but since Perry had seen Clark in Metropolis a scant six hours earlier, and not nearly enough time had elapsed for Clark to have made the journey by commercial airline, Jonathan had not revealed that his son was with them.
The three of them had continued with their extended vacation around the world, and by the time they returned to Smallville two months later, the phone calls and anxious inquiries had stopped and alternate Clark had felt no need to contact anyone in Metropolis. By that time Perry had retired and Jimmy had gone to work for the Metropolis Star.
"He's back at the Planet now," said Clark, hoping to spark some interest in his counterpart.
"Mmmpp," said alternate Clark lazily. "Iced tea?" He reached for the pitcher and refilled his glass.
"No, thanks; I had buttermilk at dinner," said Clark. He hesitated, choosing how to frame his next sentence. "I'm working at the Planet, too."
"Nice," said alternate Clark, studying the glass in his hand.
There was a pause, while the alternate Clark slowly brought his gaze up to meet Clark's. "Lois …?" His eyes lit with some emotion Clark could only guess at.
Clark nodded, watching his counterpart intently.
The alternate Clark looked down at his glass again, his shoulders slumping. "Good for you," he said unenthusiastically.
"You could go back … take my place …" suggested Clark.
Alternate Clark took another swig of tea. "Attractive as that prospect is," he drawled sardonically, "I think I'll pass. And now, if you'll excuse me … the game?" He gestured towards the television.
Clark returned to the kitchen to take his leave of the Kents. "Did he say anything …?" asked Martha, hope in her eyes. "Does he want to go back …?"
Clark shook his head. Noting Martha's disappointment, he experienced a surge of unaccustomed irritation towards his counterpart. "He doesn't seem interested."
In much of anything.
"He's been like that for the last two years," sighed Martha. "He was pretty broken up about the whole Lex Luthor thing, and when we got back from our tour, he degenerated quickly into what you see now. He's not too bad in the mornings; he's irritable, but at least he's *interested* in some things. He'll do the farm work (Jonathan's semi-retired now) before lunch, and then after lunch he'll go fishing or walking, and spend the rest of the day watching television or lying in the hammock out back. Iced tea?"
"No, thanks; I had buttermilk at dinner. I have to be going now."
"You'll come again …?"
"As soon as I can," Clark promised.
Lois was fuming when Clark got to work the next morning. He had intended to arrive before Lois did, but a flood in Louisiana detained him and it was almost nine-thirty before he presented himself to her. "Where have you been??" she asked angrily. "First, you disappear yesterday afternoon and don't come back, and then you're late for work again—are you *trying* to provoke me??"
"Sorry," said Clark. "Look," he waved a paper in front of her, "I got a story about a flood in Louisiana; I interviewed some of the victims over the phone, so there's going to be some material for a human interest sidebar—"
"Louisiana!" said Lois, her voice rising. "Clark! You're not covering stories from out-of-state; you're working in City!!"
"Actually," said Clark. "I'm not. You've kept me too busy to investigate anything—"
Lois gasped. "Are you complaining about your assignments??"
"No, I'm just reminding you that if you're expecting me to cover the City beat, then you'll have to give me time to do my job," said Clark, keeping his voice calm.
Lois gaped at him while Clark steeled himself for the explosion. "I—!" Lois began, her face reddening. She glared at him while he returned the look mildly. Unexpectedly, she slapped his chest lightly. "You never *would* let me get away with anything," she said, smiling as she blinked away angry tears. Good humor magically imparted, she snatched his story out of his hands and called for Lucille to fax it to the Daily Planet.
She kept Clark close to her all day, eating lunch with him and insisting that they go out to dinner together, preventing him from pursuing his investigation into Dr. Klein's whereabouts. Clark gritted his teeth and reminded himself that, if found, Dr. Klein would probably tell him that he would just have to wait for a thunderstorm, so it wasn't like he was actually *delaying* his return to his own universe …
Dinner was at an expensive-looking Italian restaurant which Lois either owned or had an account with, for a bill was never presented to them. They lingered over the exquisite food and wine (the prices weren't on the menu, but Clark knew the place had to be expensive after his first mouthful), and then Clark walked Lois back to her apartment building, she having elected to dispense with the limousine.
"I'm so glad you're back, Clark," she said softly when they reached her building. She had been clinging to his arm during the walk, and now she swung around to face him.
"Yes, you mentioned that the first day," said Clark quickly, hoping to prevent her from saying anything more.
"I know I was awful to you before," she continued. "I was so young … and foolish, and I wanted … well, what I thought I wanted wasn't what I wanted at all. I wanted a man I could *count* on, not like my father, you know, and Luthor was so powerful; he was a man who *made* things happen. I thought what he did with his money was wonderful; I thought he was …" she edged closer and placed her hands on his arms, "… good-hearted and decent …" She ran her hands up to grip his upper arms. "Clark, I know—"
"Lois," Clark blurted out, "I … I … have to go now. I'm sorry—"
Her face fell, then brightened. "Yes, you're always running off, aren't you?" she said almost gaily. "All right, I'll let you off this time … but I'll talk about this tomorrow."
Not with *me*, you won't, thought Clark grimly. When he was a safe distance, he lifted into the air. He hadn't been called away by an emergency, but by the need to get away from Lois before she said anything further of a personal nature to him. He flew in the direction of Smallville, intending to get the alternate Clark to take his place in Metropolis and leave him free to look for Dr. Klein.
"Go back to Metropolis and work for Lois Lane?" The alternate Clark snorted. "I'd rather have ten devils hounding me than go anywhere near that woman."
"You're the strongest man in the world; what's she going to do to *you*??"
"What's she *not* going to do to me??"
"Come on, Clark; she's not that bad," Clark protested.
"She's that bad!" retorted the alternate Clark. "She's bad-tempered, stubborn, domineering, and pig—"
"—pigheaded," Clark finished with him.
The alternate Clark stared. "And you like it!" he said accusingly.
Clark didn't reply, but a proud smile hovered about his lips.
"Well … you can have her, bro," said the alternate Clark, settling back onto the porch swing and taking a sip of his iced tea. "As for me, I'm going to keep as many miles away from that woman as possible. Now if you'll excuse me, I think it's time for a nap." He slumped back and closed his eyes, reopening them a minute later. "Aren't you gone yet?" he asked in irritation.
"No. And I'm not going to go until you agree to come with me."
"You're going to be standing there a long time, bro. I told you I'm not going anywhere near that woman."
"Would you like a piece of pie, Clark?" asked Martha, poking her head out the back door.
"Yes," said the alternate Clark.
"No, thank you," said Clark. "I should be getting back—" he met Martha's eyes. "Okay, one piece," he amended.
The two Clarks followed her into the kitchen, where she served generous slices of pie along with iced tea for her son and buttermilk for her guest.
"I really have to go now," said Clark firmly when he had eaten the last crumb. "I'll be back, though, Mo-Mrs. Kent."
"Martha, please," she said, presenting a cheek for Clark to kiss, which he did unhesitatingly.
"Thanks," he said, hugging her lightly. "I'll be back. Tomorrow," he promised, responding to the unspoken request in her eyes.
Stepping outside, he took off, soaring upward into the darkness. In his hotel room, the sound of a news broadcast from China caught his attention …
It was broad daylight over there; impossible to render aid unnoticed. Setting his jaw, he spun into the Superman costume. He was tired of trying to conceal himself when he assisted people, tired of tiptoing around and avoiding discussions with Lois, and tired of trying to live the other Clark's life; he wasn't going to hide anymore, and if the other Clark didn't like what he was doing … tough!
Clark spent most of the night flying from one rescue to another, finishing by stopping a robbery-in-progress in Metropolis. He arrived at his hotel room tired but elated; it felt great to be helping people openly again! He headed for the shower, but the blinking red light on his telephone caught his attention. Calling the hotel desk, he learned that he had received nine messages, seven of them from Lois. She wanted him in the newsroom *immediately*! He glanced at his watch, noting that she had first summoned him five hours ago. She was going to be mad, but that couldn't be helped. He dashed for the shower, and presented himself at the Daily Planet less than ten minutes later.
The newsroom was a hive of activity at seven in the morning. Clark found Lois in the conference room, watching a grainy videotape of an incident that had taken place at Teterboro airport earlier this morning. The amateur had caught excellent footage of Superman landing a twin engine aircraft that had lost one engine.
Lois looked up eagerly when Clark entered the room. "What do you make of him, Clark, this … *flying man*?" Her eyes were shining.
"And where have you been? I've been trying to get in touch with you all night … do you think he's for real or is it some kind of hoax? And what do you think about his statements to the press so far? All he's said is that he's from the planet Krypton and he's here to help. What do you make of it?"
"Drop everything and get me his story; I want you working on it full time. Have you had breakfast?"
"Have a donut. This is big, Clark, really big! This is what sells newspapers! Do you really think he's from another planet?"
"Well, he …"
"And what about him saying that he's here to help? What kind of line is he feeding us? What kind of man would fly here from another planet just to help *us*? What do you make of it? Well? Are you going to say anything or not?"
"I … I think he's telling the truth. That he's here to help."
Lois looked at him strangely. "You're taking what he says at face value? Where's your reporter's instinct for ferreting out the truth?"
"I just thought he—"
"Why are you standing there? Didn't I tell you I wanted his story? Go out there and get it!" Clark nodded and turned to go. "Wait! I'm coming with you!" Lois caught up to him and encircled his arm with hers. "Where are we going first?"
"Lois, if we're going to get this guy's story, maybe we'd better separate. It'll increase our chances of seeing him if we spread out—"
"Huh-uh," said Lois, hugging his arm. "I have reporters all over this city … all over the world. We can go together; it'll be just like old times."
As usual, Lois kept Clark close almost all day, and, oddly, the only time Superman was spotted in the city was when Clark excused himself briefly to pick up his dry cleaning. To Lois's disappointment, she was unable to get an interview with the person they were now calling the Man of Steel.
When she saw Clark again she lambasted him for running off just when he was needed. "I don't believe in him at all," she announced when she had cooled off enough to talk about Superman again. "No one could be *that* good, or *that* self-sacrificing. It's … not human. Not that he *is* human … no, of course not, no man is so kind and decent and … except …" Her voice trailed off and she turned slowly to face Clark, the expression in her eyes leaving him nearly speechless.
"No …" he said, backing away. "Lois, I—"
But it was too late. She had flung herself into his arms and had pressed a kiss onto his lips before his numbed brain could order his body to stop her. "Oh, Clark," she whispered, "don't you know that I think you're the most wonderful man alive … that I respect and admire you, that I lov—"
"No!" Clark had managed to recover sufficiently to grasp Lois's shoulders and hold her away from him. "Lois! I can't."
Gazing into his face, the light died slowly out of her eyes. "Oh." She disengaged herself, slipping out of his grasp. "I'm sorry I *bothered* you," she said stiffly. Her chin lifted and she walked away.
"No, Lois, wait!" Clark jogged lightly after her. "It's not like that …"
"No? Then what is it *like*?" She whirled to face him.
"It's not that I don't care for you, it's just that I can't … I …"
Hands on hips, Lois glared up at him. "What??" she said in her most frigid tones.
"I … I … I … just *can't*."
"You *can't*? What is that supposed to mean? Why *can't* you?"
"Because I'm married!" Clark blurted out. At the expression on Lois's face, he wished he'd held his tongue. "I'm sorry, Lois."
"Married." Her face was white. "I see. I'm sorry, too," she said swiftly. "Sorry I made a fool of myself—" she began to hurry away.
"Wait! Lois …" Clark ran after her. "Lois, let me explain … Lois, wait … Lo-is!" He ran around in front of her. "Listen to me … I'm not Clark."
"What??" Lois said incredulously.
"Okay, I *am* Clark, but not *your* Clark."
"Yes, you just said that!"
"No, I don't mean because I'm married; I mean because I'm not … him. I'm not the Clark Kent you knew. He's living in Smallville with his parents, and has been for the last two years."
"What are you saying?" She stared at him. "Are you some kind of cousin? Or an identical twin? No, he doesn't have any brothers; and he's adopted. Besides … no! what are you trying to pull, Kent? You're not a cousin or a twin, you're you! Do you think I wouldn't know that? Do you think you could fool me??"
"No, I'm not a brother or cousin. I'm Clark's counterpart from a different world. A parallel universe where we all exist but in altered— Lois. Where are you going? Lois!"
Lois strode away, tossing over her shoulder: "You've always been a poor liar, Clark, but of all the lame, feeble, inane … *dimwitted* excuses, that is the worst!"
"I know it sounds crazy, but it's true!"
"Do you expect me to believe that??" She faced him again. "Really, Clark, do you think I'm brain-dead? You're not interested in me and you were rude enough not to tell me until after I'd made a fool of myself, and let's just leave it at that, okay?" She stalked away.
"Lois." Clark matched her stride for stride, trying to catch her eye, but she kept her head averted to prevent him from seeing her quivering lip.
"I'll see you at the Planet tomorrow at nine," she said with only the slightest tremor in her voice.
"And *don't* be late!!"
Clark dropped back, letting her walk away from him.
Great, Kent, why'd you have to open *that* can of worms? You'd better get the alternate Clark to Metropolis fast, or you'll lose all chance of getting those two back together!
Rubbing the back of his neck, he looked around for a dark alley where he could take off undetected.
Clark flew to Smallville, stopping only once, to assist in a multi-car accident on the interstate. Martha greeted him enthusiastically. "Clark, what you've been doing is wonderful!" she said, hugging him. "All those rescues …! We knew right away that it was you, even before they showed the photo on television. How did you get the idea of disguising yourself like that … and where on earth did you get that costume?"
"My mother made it for me," said Clark automatically. "Where's Clark?"
"He went to a movie. Honey, what's wrong?"
"I need to talk to him," said Clark, pacing restlessly around the kitchen.
"Is it important?"
"It's … Lois!" he burst out. "He needs to see her right away."
"Has something happened to her?" asked Martha, concerned.
"She's in love … with Clark."
"Oh …!" Martha put her hand to her mouth and sat down rather suddenly. At her urging, Clark sat across from her at the table and related what had just passed between himself and Lois.
"Don't you worry, honey," said Martha, patting his arm comfortingly, "It'll all work out."
"If we can just get Clark to go to Metropolis and see her—" said Clark.
"Would you like a glass of iced tea, Clark?"
"No … —yes, that sounds nice; thanks."
Martha poured the tea while she mulled over what Clark had told her. She had liked Lois Lane from the first time they met, believing that Lois's tempestuous nature was the perfect foil for Clark's more laid-back personality. That lively brunette would shake up her son and lead him a merry dance!
She privately thought Clark was enchanted by the young woman and had long nurtured secret hopes that Lois would come to love him as well, so she had been almost as heartbroken as Clark when Lois had announced her engagement to Lex Luthor. But she had hidden her disappointment and devoted herself to trying to console her inconsolable son.
Now, two years later, this Clark came to her with the wonderful news that Lois loved her son, had probably loved him all along, and Martha could only hope that the news would shake Clark from the torpor he had been in for the last two years.
Meanwhile, this Clark was in need of solace, having been clearly distressed by Lois's declaration of love and the necessity for him to reject her. She sat next to him, plying him with scones and iced tea while she uttered soothing reassurances, and was pleased to see him visibly unwind under her attentions.
"You okay?" she asked after a time.
"Yes," said Clark gratefully. "You're like my mom."
Martha smiled, taking that as a compliment. "I think I'll make Clark an outfit like the one your mother made for you. Maybe that'll get him interested in things again …" She sighed. "More iced tea?"
"Yes; this is great. Nothing like good spring water, I guess."
"Oh, we're not getting our drinking water from the old spring anymore," said Martha. "We're using bottled water from the Tappan spring over near the old Shuster place. Clark likes it … in fact we all do; it tastes better."
"I'll have to tell my mom and dad about it when I get back. If I get back," Clark sighed.
"Oh, honey, don't worry; you'll get back," said Martha confidently.
Jonathan joined them at that point and a short time later Clark marveled at how an hour spent in the company of these good people could make his troubles just fade away. By the time the alternate Clark had come home, even the prospect of being trapped in this universe had ceased to alarm him.
"Hi, Mom, Dad, Clark," said the alternate Clark as he entered the kitchen. He reached eagerly for the glass of iced tea that Martha held out to him.
"Sit down, son," said Jonathan, indicating a chair at the table.
"Clark has something to tell you," said Martha, rising. She beckoned to Jonathan as she prepared to leave the room.
"I do?" said Clark.
Martha looked over her shoulder at him in surprise. "Yes!" she said. "What you told me before … about …" She mouthed Lois's name.
"Oh, yeah, that's right," said Clark. "Forgot." He turned to the alternate Clark, not noticing Martha's puzzled expression. "I think Lois would like to see you," he said without any particular emphasis.
"Unnn," said the alternate Clark without enthusiasm. "She'll get over it."
"Yeah, you're probably right," Clark agreed, taking another swig of his tea.
"Clark!" said Martha sharply. At her tone, both Clarks looked up guiltily. Seeing that his mother had her eye fixed on his counterpart, the alternate Clark breathed a sigh of relief and helped himself to a scone. "Tell him what you told me earlier … about how Lois feels," said Martha.
Clark shrugged. "It's prob'ly not important," he mumbled.
Martha's mouth fell open. "Don't you think you should at least tell him??"
"Tell him what?" asked Jonathan, looking from his wife to the two Clarks.
"What he told me about Lois," said Martha, still staring at her guest.
Clark shrugged. "I don't think Clark'd be interested," he said, "Anyway, if she felt that way she shouldn't 've married Luthor. Not too smart to marry a man you're not in love with." He yawned.
"Martha, what's the matter?" asked Jonathan, concerned about the strange expression on his wife's face.
She opened her mouth to speak, closing it again when she noted the posture of her guest. His head had come up and he was sitting at attention, uncharacteristically upright. Then he seemed to relax. "Police will take care of it, bro," he told Clark.
And Clark relaxed, too. "Yeah, they're already on the scene," he said, settling back into his chair.
"Hey, we're missing the game," said the alternate Clark. He got leisurely to his feet. "You want to watch?"
"Sure," said Clark, preparing to follow him.
Martha stood transfixed as the two young men left the kitchen, hardly seeming to notice when her son paused to give her a lazy half hug.
Clark rolled over in his sleep, muttering in irritation when he fell to the floor. Sitting up, he looked around him in bewilderment. Why was he sleeping on the sofa instead of in his own bed? A wave of homesickness swept over him when he remembered that he wasn't at his own parents' house or even in his own universe.
But why hadn't he gone home to his hotel last night?
More like *this morning*. He and Clark had watched the game on television, sitting on the sofa in companionable camaraderie while they drank glass after glass of iced tea, and then they had stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, watching a deplorably bad horror flick which, for some reason that escaped him now, they had found hilarious …
It had been a good evening, a fun evening; he had felt more relaxed and free to be himself than with anyone else in his life except his parents (and recently, his wife).
Whatever had made him dismiss Lois's declaration of love for his counterpart so carelessly last night? Why hadn't he even seemed to … care?
It was almost as if he had been exposed to …
Clark shot to his feet and dashed into the kitchen, yanking a bottle of Tappan spring water off the shelf and scanning it closely with his microscopic vision. "Good morning, Clark, how are you feeling this morning?" asked Martha's voice behind him.
"Red kryptonite!" Clark declared, turning to look her full in the eyes.
"What was that, honey?" asked Martha cautiously.
"Red kryptonite," Clark repeated. "Minute quantities of red kryptonite dust are dissolved in the Tappan spring water. That's why I watched the movie last night! The Tappan spring is near Shuster's field you said. That's where my space ship landed."
"Yes, that's where we found you—Clark," said Martha, latching onto the only thing Clark had said that made sense.
"That's what's been causing Clark's apathy for the last two years!" said Clark excitedly. "That's why he's not interested in anything any more!" Quickly he explained to Martha and to Jonathan, who had just entered the kitchen, about red kryptonite and its effect on native Kryptonians.
"That's what's been ailing Clark?" said Martha. "For two years?"
"Yes, that's when we started buying the spring water, Martha," said Jonathan. "When we got back from vacation with Clark … remember?"
"Two years …" repeated Martha. "And that's what was wrong with *you* last night." She looked at Clark. "I knew something was wrong when I saw you starting to act the same way …" A smile suffused her face. "So *he'll* get back to his old self again?" she looked questioningly at Clark. "If he stops drinking it?"
"I think so," said Clark cautiously. "I always recovered pretty quickly; and I feel almost normal this morning. I think."
"He's always more like his old self in the mornings …" said Martha. "Have you noticed that, Jonathan?"
"Yes, he does the farm chores in the morning; it's not until after lunch—"
"—after he's had some iced tea—"
"—he spends the rest of the day fishing and loafing," finished Jonathan.
"So I'm going to get my boy back?" said Martha tearfully. And it was then that Clark realized the full extent of Martha's distress concerning her son. He had assumed, based on his contact with the alternate Clark, that this moment how much Clark's personality had changed in the last two years. He remembered then that Martha had said that Clark had been different since their return from vacation, but he had attributed the alteration in behavior to Clark's despondency over Lois's marriage.
"I *hope* he'll change back," said Clark cautiously. The alternate Clark had been ingesting red kryptonite for a long time; he didn't want to assure Martha and Jonathan that Clark would return to normal if for some reason that was not the case …
It was half an hour later when the alternate Clark made his appearance at the breakfast table. "Hey, bro, what's up?" he said to his freshly showered and shaved counterpart, who had been persuaded to stay for the morning meal. He turned his attention to his mother, who was pouring containers of spring water down the sink. "Mom, will you pick me up a new pair of sneakers when you go into town this morning? Say, what're you doing?"
Martha explained to her son about the red kryptonite.
"You're not going to throw it away, are you?" protested the alternate Clark.
Martha turned to look at him, surprise on her face. "Honey, we just explained to you: it's not good for you … the way it makes you feel …"
"I *like* the way it makes me feel," said the alternate Clark.
Martha gaped at him while Jonathan and Clark stopped chewing and stared. "You mean you knew …? You *know* what it does to you?" said Martha.
"Well …" he rubbed the back of his neck. "I guess so … Yeah. It makes me feel good. Kinda relaxed and mellow."
And it doesn't hurt as much to think about Lois …
"But Clark, honey—" Martha stopped. "What is it?" she asked the man who was not her son.
"I gotta go," he said breathlessly. And vanished.
As he zoomed in on the accident, Clark surveyed the wreckage beneath him, his stomach twisting. A five-car pileup on the interstate. Impossible for everyone to have escaped without serious injury. Forcing himself not to react emotionally to the carnage, he methodically began to x-ray the victims, determining which were in need of immediate care. He ripped the doors off cars as necessary. Laying out the two worst-injured on the back seats of their vehicles, he pulled the seats from the cars and lifted them easily, flying the victims to the nearest hospital. Brushing aside the barrage of questions thrown at him after he landed on the helipad, he flew back to the accident site.
"Hey, there's two of them!" he heard a voice say as he skillfully touched down next to a crumpled auto. Several of the lesser-wounded were huddled on the side of the road, those not too much in shock staring at him.
Clark glanced to one side and was surprised to see his counterpart, also dressed as Superman, busily rendering first aid.
"What are you doing here?" he muttered, not missing a beat in tending to the injured.
"Same thing you are," was the curt reply. "I help out whenever I can; I've just never had a flashy suit before."
"Where'd you get it?"
"Mom made it for me last night. Didn't you hear the sewing machine while we were watching T.V.?"
His hands full at the moment, Clark didn't answer. The appearance of a second super hero, especially an unshaven and slightly disheveled one, was causing no small amount of attention and he wondered how the alternate Clark was going to handle it; *he* certainly wasn't going to bother dreaming up an explanation.
When the two Clarks returned to the house, the alternate Clark pulled a pitcher of iced tea out of the refrigerator and poured himself a glass, carrying it out to the hammock. "Are you going to keep drinking that stuff?" asked Clark angrily, following him into the back yard.
"What's it to you?" asked the alternate Clark, pausing in the act of raising the glass to his lips.
"Don't you know what it does to you?"
"You need to go back to Metropolis."
"I *need* to go back? Why do *I* *need* to go back?"
"To help Lois. Come on, Clark; you're going back. You'll never let Lois struggle alone."
"How'n heck do *you* know what I'll do?"
"Because you're me. You like the excitement of the city, you can't stand by and watch someone get hurt, and … you love Lois Lane."
"I do *not* love Lois Lane!"
"I *don't*!" The alternate Clark said loudly. "And even if I did, she doesn't need me—she doesn't need anyone. She's made that plain to me and everyone else!"
"That's not true—"
"It *is* true; you didn't see her face the last time I talked to her!"
"And you didn't see her face when I walked into her office last week," said Clark quietly.
"What do you mean?" the alternate Clark stared up at him.
"When she saw me—you … well … I don't think I've ever seen anyone that glad to see me in my whole life. It's amazing … almost pathetic, really, how quickly she offered me *your* job back."
"No!" The alternate Clark jumped to his feet, an anxious expression on his face. "Not *pathetic*!"
"Yes, pathetic," said Clark firmly. "She seemed kind of lost somehow," he went on ruthlessly. "Forlorn, lonely, desperate. She looked at me so piteously—"
"No!" Alternate Clark almost shouted. "Lois is *not* pathetic or forlorn or … or … desperate! She's bold … fearless!"
"Yeah, sure, Lois is bold. But she's vulnerable, too, and she's all alone now, Clark."
"And whose fault is that??" the alternate Clark retorted, dropping back into the hammock again. "Lois is … impossible; you can't get to know her at all! She's too *busy*, or she doesn't have time for you, or she's daydreaming about some philanthropist do-gooder who's mostly a figment of her imagination … the whole time she's snubbing *you*. The woman's a disaster!"
"She's not that bad!" said Clark in exasperation. "She's …" He stopped, looking at his counterpart consideringly. "Yeah …" he said slowly. "I guess you're right. She's hard to get to know, that's true. She's cynical and suspicious and has impossibly high ideals for *other* people's behavior." He paused and watched as the alternate Clark nodded his agreement. "And her social skills are awful," he continued. "She's so insensitive to other people that she doesn't have a clue how to change her behavior to get along with them, and she's so sure of her own infallibility that she doesn't think she has any need to do it anyway."
The alternate Clark nodded again and Clark went on. "And the things she says to people! Sometimes she just makes ya cringe."
"Boy, does she ever!" said the alternate Clark.
"And she's stubborn. Hardheaded. Won't listen to anyone. She has strong opinions herself, though, and she doesn't mind forcing them on everyone else. She can dish it out, but she sure can't take it. She's inconsiderate of other people—" He noted with satisfaction that although the alternate Clark was still nodding, the beginning of a frown was puckering his forehead. "—and she has a temper that's likely to explode a dozen times a day; and when it does … look out! She's shallow and petty and self- absorbed and—"
"Wait a minute!" Alternate Clark shot to his feet. "She's not self- absorbed … not *really* … And we're *all* petty *sometimes*!"
"—she cares more about being right than about her friends' feelings—"
"—and she's *not* shallow!"
"—I guess she doesn't care much about anyone except herself."
"That is *not* true!" said the alternate Clark hotly. "She's prickly and abrasive … but that's partly because of her background. She didn't grow up in the country like you and I did, and she doesn't trust anyone. She might not always be the kindest or most considerate person in the world, but she has a good heart. Sure, she's so absorbed in her own concerns that she sometimes forgets how to be polite, but she's also passionate and driven and capable of fierce loyalty! Once you've won her trust and earned her respect she'll fight for you with everything she's got!"
Clark smiled his agreement, remembering a time in his own universe when a certain young woman had saved Superman after he had been accused of causing a heat wave. "So you *are* in love with her," he said softly to his counterpart.
"In love with her? Lois? No way! I just don't like to hear anyone trash her, that's all."
Clark hid a smile. "It's too bad," he said, "that you don't love *her*, because … *she* loves *you*."
The alternate Clark's eyes widened. He tried to speak, choked, swallowed and tried again. "No way!" he gasped out finally.
"Says who?" he retorted.
"She said that??" said Alternate Clark eagerly. "She told you—?" His face fell as he realized the implications. "Then it's *you* she loves, not me," he said, the light dying out of his eyes.
"No … she loves *you*," Clark retorted. "She thinks I'm you. Her face lit up when she first saw me because she thought I was *you*. She gave me your old job because she thought I was *you*. She's been confiding in me and asking for help from me and telling me how much she respects and admires me because she thinks I'm *you*. She loves *you*."
Alternate Clark stared at him, his face registering disbelief warring with hope and longing. After a long minute, his gaze dropped and he turned away to stare moodily across the field. "Even if that's true," he threw over his shoulder, "I can't marry her. I can't ever marry anyone. There are things about me that you don't know …" His voice trailed off as he looked at Clark. "Uh, I guess you *do* know …"
"Yes, I do know. And I also happen to know that those 'things' won't bother Lois at all; after all, in my universe, Lois Lane is my wife." He hadn't told the alternate Clark this before, not wanting to pain him if there was no possibility that *he* would be able to achieve the same felicity. Now that he knew Lois's true feelings, though, and that there was a chance that the two of them could find happiness together, he felt safe in telling Clark this personal detail about himself. He looked searchingly at the alternate Clark; that the other man had been staggered by this information was obvious; he sank down in the hammock and gaped wordlessly up at Clark.
"I think you should go back to Metropolis and take my place," said Clark firmly. Seeing that the alternate Clark wasn't going to speak, he continued, "I'm not going to do something melodramatic like fling the Krypton-ade onto the ground or anything like that; it's your choice whether you stay here and waste your life away drinking that red rot … or go to Metropolis and build a life with Lois."
Without pausing to see if his words had made the desired impact, he launched himself skyward in the direction of Metropolis.
Clark had no intention of going to the newsroom immediately; Jimmy had given him a printout of the Bernard Kleins throughout the country and he was going to use that list to find the Dr. Klein who he was sure could help him to return to his own universe. Thus it was mid-afternoon before he sauntered into the Daily Planet newsroom.
Lois told me to be here by nine this morning. She's going to kill me.
Lois was nowhere in sight. He was not to be so fortunate as to escape, though, as he soon found out. "CK, you've got six messages from Lois on your desk," called Jimmy.
"Uh-oh!" Greg yelled.
"Ooooh …" called out several other voices at the same time.
"Make that seven," yelled Ben, holding up a finger. "I just spoke to Her Royal Highness again. She says to be at her office in fifteen minutes if you expect to remain in the ranks of the employed. Wear body armor."
Clark wasn't sure if that last stipulation was from Lois or Ben.
"Ouch," said Greg. He looked at Clark quizzically. "Want police protection?"
Clark smiled. "I'll be all right," he assured his well-wishers. He strolled to the elevators, still smiling. The smile vanished as soon as the doors closed in front of him, however, and he tugged at his tie uncomfortably. He wished that he could have elicited a promise from the alternate Clark that he would exchange places with him and mend relations with Lois. It was going to be awkward facing her after what had passed between them yesterday.
He entered Lois's inner sanctum cautiously, expecting her to be livid. To his surprise, she greeted him quite cordially after Lucille had shut the door behind him. "What did you think of Councilman French's statement concerning their decision to change the zoning in F9 so Cost-Mart can build a new store there?" she asked, obviously determined to act as if nothing had happened between them.
"Lois, about yesterday …" Clark began.
"I owe you an apology, Clark," Lois said, her voice polite, if a little chilly. "I'm sorry I acted the way I did. I don't know why I ever expected you to … that things would be the same after the way I treated you."
"Lois, I'm not Clark," said Clark forcefully, mentally censuring his counterpart for putting him in this position. "Everything I told you yesterday is true."
Lois gave him an exasperated look, clearly not believing him.
"It's true, Lois, I—"
"What's she like?" said Lois unexpectedly.
"My wife? Exciting," said Clark promptly. "Dynamic and full of energy. Once she latches onto something, she never lets go. She's bold and unpredictable, smart and …" he grinned down into Lois's fascinated eyes, "sassy. She's the bravest woman I know, and the smartest. She has a strong, forceful personality. When people meet her they might love her or they might hate her, but they're never indifferent."
Lois stared at him, transfixed, then blushed and lowered her eyes as she realized that his description of his wife could apply to her, too. Clark must be habitually attracted to that type of woman.
That *type* of woman.
A type like *me*.
And it could have been me. It could have been me that he married. If only I hadn't been so stubborn, if only I hadn't been so determined to believe that what I wanted was what I really needed.
She bent her head over the stack of papers that Lucille had just deposited on her desk, blinking away tears. "Look—" she said suddenly, her attention arrested by one of the documents. "Now there are two of them."
"Two of … them?" said Clark cautiously.
"Two. Two Supermen," said Lois, reading rapidly. "A second one, a seedy, scruffy-looking one, appeared at the scene of a multi-car accident on Interstate 70 this morning, 'giving rise to conjecture that the Earth is soon to be taken over by these super-powered beings.' The scruffy Superman gave an interview, though—"
"What??" said Clark. This was news to him.
"And he says that the clean-shaven Superman is just here temporarily, a visitor from another world, and he'll be leaving us soon. 'Another world' … what does that mean?"
"*He*—the scruffy one—is planning to stay and continue to help as Superman … Isn't that strange? What do you make of it?"
"Clark, I don't believe that Superman just arrived here; I believe that he's been on Earth for years! I stayed up half the night reading articles about miraculous rescues that have taken place around the world over the last few years … and a common thread in many of those rescues has been the appearance of a mysterious dark-haired man. I think it was him all along!" Lois's voice rose in excitement. "He's been here, helping us all this time, and now for some reason he's decided to wear this costume, perhaps to disguise himself, although I don't know why he'd ever want to do that, there's no reason for him to hide! Such a kind, well-meaning person—"
She stopped abruptly, staring at Clark, who cleared his throat nervously.
"Interesting theory …" he said, faltering a little under her gaze.
She didn't respond, bending her head again and leafing rapidly through a stack of photos. "Turn your head to your right," she commanded, holding up an 8 x 10 glossy.
Instead of complying, Clark twisted to see the photo, drawing in his breath sharply when he saw that it was a close-up of Superman's face. "You got the pic you wanted," he said nervously. He put his hand up to hide his face, pretending to be adjusting his glasses.
"Yes, I got the picture," Lois said coolly, walking out from behind her desk to approach him. "It tells me *some* of what I want to know …" She kept her gaze on his face as she moved closer. "How do you do it so quickly?" she asked, her eyes glittering. "Yesterday … you disappeared and reappeared seconds later wearing that costume. How do you do it? Do you wear it underneath your other clothes?"
"I don't know what you're talking about, Lois," said Clark feebly.
"No???" She put her hands up to his chest and swiftly began unbuttoning his shirt. Afterwards, Clark wondered why he made no move to stop her. He could have dodged her at super speed, but he just stood there and let her do it. Maybe it was because he *wanted* her to know, maybe it was because he had been finding it such a strain keeping his secret from Lois—-any Lois—-after he had been on terms of intimacy with her for so long. For whatever reason, he didn't offer any resistance when Lois pulled open his shirt.
Seeing the Superman suit beneath it, Lois looked up into his face. Their eyes locked, and for a long minute they stood thus, her hands at his chest holding the shirt open, her eyes on his face.
An exclamation from outside jerked Clark's attention to the window where he saw to his surprise that the alternate Clark was hovering and gaping at them. But not for long. The alternate Clark pushed open the partially-open window and erupted into the room. "What are you *doing*??" he stormed, an expression of jealous rage on his face. "Have you 'forgotten' about your *wife*??" He flew across the room. Neatly sidestepping the astonished Lois, who had drawn back from Clark, the alternate Clark landed a punch on Clark's jaw. Or rather, *tried* to. Clark evaded the intended blow easily, dodging to one side as the alternate Clark overbalanced and tumbled headlong onto the floor.
"Are you okay—?" Clark asked automatically, momentarily forgetting his counterpart's invulnerability.
"Yes," said the alternate Clark, his face flushed. He began to rise, but before he had fully regained his feet, he swung his fist, punching Clark in the stomach. "Are you okay?" he asked mockingly.
"Yes," said Clark. The blow had surprised him, but it certainly hadn't hurt.
The alternate Clark swung again, but Clark deflected the punch easily, even though it came at super speed. The alternate Clark's shoulders slumped. "Okay …" he said softly. Clark relaxed fractionally, and was caught completely off guard when the alternate Clark swung again. He reeled back slightly from the blow that managed to connect with his shoulder. "Still okay?" asked the alternate Clark.
"Sucker punch!" Clark exclaimed. "I can't believe you did it again!" He stepped to one side as the alternate Clark swung again … and again, and for the next few minutes Clark was kept busy fending off the super- fast jabs and punches. "Cut it out, Clark," said Clark angrily. "This isn't getting us anywhere."
"What were you doing … with Lois?" panted Alternate Clark.
"It wasn't what you're thinking!" said Clark, parrying another blow.
"What *am* I thinking, Kent??" the alternate Clark spat out. "That your wife isn't around? That you're here with a beautiful woman who's in love with *me* and she thinks *you're* me?? How convenient for you!!"
"It wasn't like that—unnh!" Clark grunted in surprise when another blow connected with his stomach, followed by one to his chin. "Stop it!" he said. His temper snapping, his own fist swung out, catching the alternate Clark flush in the jaw. The other Clark retaliated with fury and the two entered into a full-scale fistfight and wrestling match which quickly became airborne.
Lois, who had backed away when they first engaged in battle, watched with increasing irritation as the actions of the two super-powerful men began to endanger her office appurtenances. It was when the alternate Clark grasped his counterpart by the shoulders and flung him at her desk that she lost her temper entirely. When Clark slid across her massive desk, sweeping all its paraphernalia to the floor, she marched into the washroom and filled the trash can with water, reentering the room and hurling its contents at the two combatants. Unfortunately, the pugilists were moving so quickly that they were already out of range and the water landed on the expensive Oriental carpet instead of its intended targets.
Her action had its desired effect, however; hearing her exclamation of annoyance, the scrappers paused in their fighting. Seeing that she had their attention, Lois put her hands on her hips and glared at them. "Does this conclude your testosterone-induced contest for dominance?" she asked haughtily.
Relaxing their respective combative stances, the two Clarks exchanged guilty glances. "Yeah …" said Clark rather sheepishly, shoving his hands into his pockets. He would have hated to admit it, but he had rather enjoyed the brief fight; it had felt good—*real* good—to release so harmlessly some of the pent-up frustrations he had been experiencing at being trapped in an alien universe. "Are you okay?" he asked the alternate Clark conscientiously.
The alternate Clark stood nearly motionless, chest heaving from the unusual exertion of hand-to-hand combat with a similarly-powered super being. Two years of near-idleness takes its toll—even on super-bodies. "Yeah," he said, casting an uncomfortable sideways glance at the wrathful Lois. He looked shame-facedly at Clark, "Sorry. Coming down off that red kryptonite made me kinda … edgy." He paused. "You paid me for it, though," he added, rubbing his jaw rather ruefully.
"I hit you, didn't I?"
"A lucky punch, brother," retorted Clark. "*One* lucky punch!" He glanced at Lois, uneasily eyeing the storm clouds gathering on her face.
Lois looked from one Clark to the other, then turned to the alternate Clark. "Where have *you* been for the last two years?" she asked accusingly. "And … you!" she said, rounding on Clark, "Why didn't you tell me who you are when you first got here? The things I said to you … they weren't meant for your ears … and you let me say them!"
"I'm sorry, Lois; I tried to stop you. I didn't tell you about myself because Clark had disappeared and you seemed so glad to see me—him—that I didn't want to have to tell you that he hadn't really returned, that he was still missing …" Clark explained. "And then after I found out that he was okay, that he was in Smallville with his folks, I didn't think I should tell you until he …"
Until he decided for himself that he wanted to return.
"I 'seemed glad to see him?'" repeated Lois, blushing furiously. "Well that's where you're wrong!" she said, avoiding the alternate Clark's eyes. "I was just happy to see a former colleague …" her voice trailed off as, too late, she remembered her last conversation with Clark. "Did you tell him what I said to you yesterday?" she asked accusingly.
Clark's mouth opened but no sound came out. None was needed; his guilty expression told all.
Lois pivoted to face the window, turning her back on her two visitors. "Men!" she muttered through clenched teeth. "I haven't met one yet who could keep his mouth shut!"
"Lois …" Clark's voice behind her was husky, low. "We have to talk …" She half-turned. It was the alternate Clark speaking, *her* Clark. And the expression on his face …! Lois caught her breath. She had seen that look before, had actively taken steps to discourage it. In the long-distant past, before she had realized how much this man meant to her …
But … she was in no mood for that kind of thing now! When Clark had miraculously reappeared (she thought) five days ago, she had been too relieved that he was alive to feel much anger at his two-year absence. Now, though, with that feeling of relief relegated to the dusty recesses of past memory, she was beginning to feel quite ill-used. Adding fuel to her sense of injury was the mortifying knowledge that Clark hadn't come back when she thought he did, that if the Clark from the other universe had not appeared, the man she loved would still be … wherever he had been for the last two years (oh, yes, in *SMALLVILLE*!), and she would still be in the dark about his fate.
Wheeling, she turned to face her Clark and launched a full-scale verbal assault against him, favoring him with her unexpurgated opinion of his behavior, past and present, presenting him with a catalogue of all his shortcomings, including his concealment of his super powers, and ending with a demand for an explanation of just why he had stayed away for two years, not even responding to anxious inquiries from good friends like Perry and Jimmy.
Clark winced at the tirade. "I'd better go," he said, ignoring the silent plea in his counterpart's unhappy face. "You two have a lot to talk about."
But Lois wasn't through with him, either. "You should have told me sooner that you were married," she accused. "You were letting me hug you, and I kissed you—"
"I didn't *let* you," said Clark hurriedly. "You did it before I could stop you."
"You can lift airplanes into the clouds and you couldn't stop me from kissing you?" scoffed Lois. "If you ask me, you *liked* having me hug you; you *enjoyed* it!"
"I—" said Clark nervously. He couldn't totally deny it.
"He's married to you," said the alternate Clark, coming unexpectedly to Clark's aid.
"What?" Lois turned her bewildered gaze on him.
"The you in the other universe," he explained. "He's married to Lois Lane."
"He's …" said Lois, "Clark Kent … is married to … to me … to Lois Lane … in the other universe. I see." Her gaze locked with the alternate Clark's and after a long minute she tore her eyes away, blushing.
Composing herself, Lois turned her attention back to Clark and appeared to be about to renew her complaint when a knocking at her office door forestalled her. "Ms Lane," called Lucille's voice, "Is everything all right in there?"
"Yes, everything's fine, Lucille," called Lois.
"I'd better go …" said the alternate Clark. "She can't see me here."
"*I'll* go," said Clark. "I have a meeting with Dr. Klein. Besides, you two need to talk."
Glancing at Lois's still-stormy face, the alternate Clark felt a craven desire to deny the need for any such conversation; coming down off the red kryptonite *was* rough and he wasn't sure he could handle an irate Lois at full rant. He said hastily, with something very like panic in his voice, "That's okay; we can talk later."
"I think Lois has something to say to you," Clark responded, a mischievous smile hovering about his lips. He didn't think Lois would be *too* hard on the poor guy, and even if she was, well, he sure deserved it for letting all his friends think he was dead. Clark strode towards the window, relenting at the last minute and turning back to retrace his steps just before he reached it. Okay … he *did* owe the alternate Clark for explaining to Lois why he had stood there like an idiot when she'd kissed him yesterday …
Inclining his head, he murmured in Lois's ear, "Go easy on him, Lois; he really loves you."
Satisfied by her quick intake of breath that his words had made an impression, he flew to the window and spun into the Superman outfit, leaving the alternate Clark and a stunned Lois facing each other in a room that had suddenly become very quiet.
Another knock came at the door. "Ms Lane, I have the file you requested on the Rigetti case."
"Come in, Lucille," said Lois quickly, feeling suddenly shy and glad to have an excuse to delay her conversation with Clark.
After Lucille handed Lois the file, she left the room, pulling the door closed behind her. A puzzled frown puckered her brow. Less than an hour ago a clean-shaven and immaculately-groomed gentleman had entered Lois's office and in his place was a grizzled, tousled man who smelled … strange. What on earth had she done to that poor young man …?
Left alone, the two former colleagues faced each other. "Clark …" Lois said tremulously at the same instant that Clark said, "Lois …" They laughed nervously, lapsing into silence.
Taking a deep breath, Lois took two steps forward and gripped Clark's upper arms. "Two years," she said, shaking him gently. "Two years." She dropped her hands to her sides.
Clark looked down at the liquid brown eyes and full, pouting lips that had been haunting his daydreams and disturbing his slumbers for almost three years. He swallowed. "Lois …" he said hoarsely. Clearing his throat, he tried again. "Lois, I'm sorry … I didn't know …"
"You never even let Perry or Jimmy know where you were or that you were all right …!"
"I know," said Clark uncomfortably.
"Let alone me! Clark!! I was starting to think that you … that Lex … Clark, I thought you were dead!"
"Lois, I'm so sorry; I didn't mean to hurt you. I didn't know you'd care."
"You didn't know I'd care!!! You were my *partner*! And my *best friend*!"
"But … I thought you must hate me!"
"Hate you!! I *loved* you! I told you that—"
"Loved me 'like a friend,'" said Clark, flushing. "And that was *before*."
"Lois, I killed your husband," said Clark, anguish twisting his face. "I made you a widow."
"You did not!" Lois exclaimed. "Lex killed himself."
"But I brought him down; I'm the one responsible for his death. In that moment you lost your husband, the man you loved, and your fortune. You would have been one of the wealthiest women in the world. You could have had anything you wanted … *anything* … and I ruined that for you."
Lois's jaw dropped, and she was momentarily at a loss for words. "That's *it*??" she said when she had regained control of her speech center. "You stayed away from me for two years and let me think you were dead because you thought I'd be mad that I lost some *money*??" She said the word as if it were a loathsome disease.
"And your husband," interrupted Clark quickly.
"What kind of person do you think I am, anyway?? What made you think I cared so much about money?'
"N-not the money," Clark stammered, "but what you could do with it. You were talking about rebuilding the Planet …" Lois was looking at him as if he'd grown a second head and he added quickly, "… and Luthor himself, Lois. He died because of me. Your husband, the man you loved."
"Stop saying that!" said Lois, almost in tears.
"That I loved him. I didn't."
"But you told me—"
"I know what I told you!" she snapped. "It wasn't true! And I knew it then; deep down inside, I knew I was making a mistake. I used to daydream about the wedding—" she bit off what she had been going to say. When she had imagined the wedding night, she had shuddered in revulsion at the thought of Luthor coming to her bed.
She had had nightmares about it for months after the wedding, waking up drenched in sweat and shaking with fear. At such times she had comforted herself by substituting Clark for Lex in her imagination, picturing him coming to her dressed as he had been for work, putting his arms around her and holding her, his husky voice comforting and soothing, and then teasing her and making her laugh like only he could. Picturing him bending his head, whispering to her, murmuring those same words he had said to her in the park that day …
And then she would be in tears at what she had lost, at what she had thrown away with her own hands.
She looked at the man standing before her now, shock registering in his face as he realized what their misunderstanding had cost them. "Clark," she whispered. Suddenly she was in his arms.
Clark hugged her hard, breathing in her scent, reveling in the sensation of the body he had never thought to hold again pressed up tightly against his.
After a minute Lois pushed away from him slightly. "Clark, that smell …" she said, wrinkling her nose. "Have you been cleaning out the barn …?"
"I was in the pond …" said Clark, glancing down at the dried green slime that covered the lower legs of his trousers. "Sorry." He shrank away from her, suddenly acutely aware of his disheveled appearance in contrast to Lois's elegant attire. "I guess I should get cleaned up or something …" he said vaguely. "I could go home …" He rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
"Does it hurt?" asked Lois quickly.
"Where he hit you … your jaw," she put her hands on his face, gingerly feeling along his jawline and wincing as her sensitive fingertips encountered his unshaven stubble.
"No, but …" Clark let out his breath as Lois continued to touch his face, her fingers traveling up the sides of his neck to his ears. His ears hadn't been struck at all, but, closing his eyes, Clark decided it wasn't really necessary to remind Lois of that. Her fingers were in his hair now, toying with it, rubbing his head … wow, that felt great! He opened his eyes again, and seeing Lois's face so close to his own, he drew in his breath sharply … and bent his head to press a kiss on those full, ripe lips as he had been longing to do since the first time he'd met her …
Lois drew back abruptly, making a strangled sound in her throat. "Sorry," said Clark, disappointed. "I-I thought … I should have … we need to talk first, I guess …"
Lois gave a gurgle of a laugh from deep in her throat. "No, it's not that! It's your beard! Clark, it's like pins sticking in my face!"
"Ulph," said Clark in embarrassment. He smelled bad and he needed a shave. "I guess I'd better go home …"
"No!" said Lois quickly, grasping his arm. "I don't care, Clark." She slid her arms around his neck and raised her lips invitingly. Unable to resist, Clark bent and kissed that delectable mouth again. Lois moaned, her knees buckling. Encouraged, Clark began to deepen the kiss … releasing her lips again immediately when she squealed and twisted away. "I'm sorry," said Lois, giggling, "I think you really are going to have to shave first."
"Okay …" he relaxed his grip on her reluctantly. "I'll go home and—"
"No!" she clung to him, unwilling to let him go now that she had reunited with him again. "You can clean up in my washroom here. I'll have Lucille call to get you a razor and some clothes—"
"Uh, Lois, a razor won't work on me."
"Oh, that's right, you're invulnerable! I guess that goes for your hair, too?" Grasping his shoulders, Lois shook him fiercely.
"What's that for?" asked Clark in surprise.
"I thought Lex had killed you," said Lois between her teeth. "If I'd known you were invulnerable …" she gave him a dirty look.
"Oh, I get it … you're mad at me 'cause I'm not dead," said Clark, making a feeble attempt at a joke.
"That's not funny, Clark! That's not funny!" Lois shook him again, ending by putting her arms around him and laying her head on his chest. "Oh, Clark, I've missed you so much! I was so worried about you all this time! I knew Jimmy and Perry had tried calling your parents, but they were away on vacation, and your hired hand said that he didn't know where you were. And then Perry retired and Jimmy went to work for the Star … and we all waited to hear from you, Clark. We thought that when you got back from wherever you were, you would get Perry's and Jimmy's messages and call us. But you never did. And you never called *me*, so I thought that you hated me for marrying Lex."
"Hate *you*, Lois? Never!" said Clark emphatically. "I was waiting for *you* to call; you were the one I wanted to hear from. I went on vacation with my parents the day you got married, and when I heard about Luthor's death, I was so scared that you would hate me that I was shaking. I snuck home to see if you had left a message for me … I was scared to look but I went anyway, and you hadn't. I kept going back, night after night, to see if you had called, to see if Hank had taken a message from you, but he didn't, and then I knew you must hate me and I stopped going back and I stopped hoping."
And then I started drinking the red kryptonite and then I just didn't care anymore. Or I tried not to.
"I'm sorry," whispered Lois, her arms tightening around him. "I'm so sorry."
"Me too," he said, stroking her hair. "I'd better go," he said after a minute, wanting to kiss her but not daring to in his grizzled state.
"Into the washroom," Lois commanded, pointing. "Lucille will get you some clothes. And you can shave—how do you shave, anyway? Axe? Chainsaw?"
Clark laughed. "I'll show you sometime," he promised, retreating into the washroom.
The washroom turned out to be a full luxury bath complete with a jacuzzi and shower. Clark turned on the hot water and stepped into the shower, luxuriating in the steamy water cascading over his body. This was just what he needed to revive him. It had been a rough day. First had been the exhilaration of openly performing a super rescue, thanks to the disguise his Mom had made for him (okay, thanks to the other Clark Kent, too).
Then had come Clark's revelation that Lois loved him, something he had found himself unable to believe at first. He had wrestled with his doubts all day, finally deciding to make a trip to Metropolis and check on what Lois was doing (that's called spying, Kent).
The view that had met his eyes when he hovered outside her window had almost made him fall from the sky: Lois, busily unbuttoning his shirt, *his* shirt, that … that *traitor* from another universe, obviously taking advantage of Lois's confusion concerning his identity!
He had rushed headlong into her office, not caring that he was revealing his super powers, and had entered into an all-out battle with a similarly-powered super human. The fight had been followed by Lois's denunciation and their tear-provoking reconciliation.
A lot of turmoil to go through in one day. Especially after two years of having his emotions damped down by red kryptonite.
He was going to have to cope with it all himself now, face up to his problems and deal with his emotions without benefit of the tranquilizing effect of the kryptonite… but at least it would be easier, now that the pain of losing Lois was gone.
A few minutes later, Lois looked up as Clark entered her office again, wearing the clothing she had slipped into the washroom while he was showering. She opened her mouth to speak, but at sight of Clark's eager face, alight with love, found herself unable to utter a syllable. He strode towards her and pulled her into his arms, crushing her to his chest. "Lois," he moaned. "I love you so much …" He buried his face in her hair.
Lois managed to turn her head to one side to free her mouth for speech. "I love you, too, Clark," she gasped, half-laughing, half-crying. She struggled to free her arms and pushed against his chest, backing him up until he encountered the sofa, where he sat down abruptly. He pulled her into his lap and bent his head to kiss her, meeting with no objection this time.
They lost themselves in this pleasurable activity for quite some time, stopping only when they heard a tapping at their window and looked up to see a very embarrassed Superman hovering there. "Sorry," he said sheepishly. "I don't want to interrupt anything, but I wanted to say good-bye before I left—"
"Goodbye?!" Lois sprang to her feet. "Where are you going?"
"Home!" he grinned at her. "I hope. I just had a talk with Dr. Klein, and he thinks I exchanged places with the Eternal Vigilance experimental mini-rocket that was launched from the top of the Rayron building four days ago. Their tracking devices lost it shortly after takeoff, and Dr. Klein thinks, based on what I've told him, that I changed places with it."
Clark paused, wondering briefly what scientists in his own universe had made of the sudden appearance of a rocket seemingly coming out of nowhere …
"Fortunately," Clark continued, "Your rocket was launched several days before *our* version of the Eternal Vigilance is to go off. Based on information I gave him, Dr. Klein estimated the time in this universe that corresponds to launch time in my universe. According to his calculations, if I start flying into thunderstorms in the next …" he glanced at the clock on Lois's wall, "fifteen minutes, and keep trying, I should be able to hit a flight time that coincides with the rocket's. The doctor says the storm doesn't have to be in Metropolis; it can be anywhere in the world. So I've got to get going …"
He strode forward to shake the alternate Clark's hand and kiss Lois lightly on the cheek. "I'll stop in Smallville to say good-bye to your folks," he said to the alternate Clark, going back to the window and jumping up onto the sill. "And then I'm off for Omaha … they're supposed to have a big thunderstorm this evening." He grinned at the alternate Clark. "Good luck," he said, an understanding glint in his eye. Waving, he took off in a flash.
"Thank you …" called Lois, her voice dropping as she realized that he was probably miles away already. "Drat; I wanted to thank him and apologize for the things I said to him, for dumping all my feelings for … you … on him."
"Just what did you say to him—and do?" asked Clark a little jealously.
"Not much, really," said Lois thoughtfully. "He was always a little aloof, and I … I didn't want to rush anything. I wasn't sure how you—he—you felt, and I was just so glad to have my partner back again that I thought we could do the other things," she blushed, "later, after we got reacquainted."
After that statement, Clark, whose blood pressure had risen when she mentioned the "other things," felt compelled to take her into his arms again and get a good start on doing some of those "other things."
It was much later when they were interrupted again, by Lucille this time. "You left this in your limousine, Ms Lane," she said, waving a file at Lois. "What do you want me to do with it?"
"I'll take it," said Lois, extending her hand for it. After Lucille had left the room she began thumbing through it, smiling.
"What is it?" asked Clark.
"A catalogue of all the mysterious and unexplained rescues around the world during the past few years. Especially the ones in Metropolis, the rescues that started three years ago when you first came to Metropolis, and ended a year later … when you left again. It was you, wasn't it? It was you the whole time."
"I … uh, yeah …"
"And to think I once lectured you on philanthropy, and held up Lex Luthor as an example to *you*! Oh, Clark, how did you ever put up with me?"
Clark looked down into her smoky eyes, listened to that unforgettable voice that could arouse in him a passion he never knew he had until he met *her*, and smiled. "Easy," he said.