By Pam Jernigan <ChiefPam@nc.rr.com>
Submitted: October 2000
Summary: Lois may have died in the Congo at the hands of a clever villain, but that won't stop our heroes from getting the best of him. Destiny has decided that Lois and Clark *will* meet and fall in love — a little thing like death won't be allowed to interfere.
This is an elseworlds story. Lois, Clark & Perry are all fairly recognizable, but some of the supporting characters have undergone some alterations <g> and I've added a few new faces. The basic premise came from the (fantastic) book _Tryst_, by Elswyth Thane, with the ending adapted from _Possessing Elissa_, by Donna Sterling. The A-plot, such as it is, is mine. Wendy Richards, Chris Mulder and Ann McBride graciously pointed out errors and provided valuable plot insight. Claire Hess was a terrific grammar-patroller and ego-stroker <g> Erin Klingler was my fantastic GE. And thanks to Susanna for helping with the blurb!
So, Lois thought to herself, this is what dying feels like. She had cheated death many times before, but this time … this time she didn't think she would be so lucky. The trip to Africa had seemed like such a good idea at the time. Looking back now, she still didn't think she'd done anything rash … but the trip was not meant to end like this. Even stronger than the urge for self-preservation was the small voice inside her, insisting that this was *wrong*. She was not meant to die like this.
…one week earlier…
"It wasn't my fault the crate dropped," Harry assured Mike. "I chained it up right and the crane guy knew his job. But those idiots on first shift never did pay any attention to maintenance … anyway, the crane seized up, and then the pin broke — without any resistance, the chain ran right out and that crate dropped faster than you could say holy sh—"
"Yeah, I get the idea," Mike interrupted, looking around his diner. "But I try to run a family place here, okay?"
"Sorry, Mike." Harry shrugged. Privately, he thought his buddy was overdoing it, since the place was practically deserted this late at night, but he didn't care enough to argue. "Anyway, so this crate drops right on the deck of the ship, and it splits open at the one corner. I got right up there to see if I could fix it. I mean, the ship's supposed to leave by dawn; this was the last of the cargo we were loading."
"You're lucky the chain didn't give out while your crate was over the water," Mike observed, with a glint of humor.
"I'm not so sure." Harry hunched down in his seat. "See, when I got up there, I could see what was inside. Normally, I couldn't give a rat's — well, normally I wouldn't care, but that crate was carrying guns, Mike. Lots and lots of machine guns; M-16s by the look of 'em."
Mike sat back, chewing his lip thoughtfully. "Guns aren't illegal."
"Some of 'em are," Harry retorted. "And the rest are restricted. You have to jump through about fifteen different hoops to even get a handgun in this town, and God forbid you mess up even one tiny little step, or it's back to square one … never mind, that's not the point. Point is, the manifest listed this crate as holding 'agricultural implements'. I don't care what you think about guns; they ain't useful in agriculture."
Mike couldn't restrain a grin. "I can't argue with you on that one. Sounds like there might be some smuggling going on. Did you talk to the cops?"
Harry stared at the tabletop. "Nah. I'm not sure they'd even care, y'know? The guns were going *out* not in — the ship's bound for Africa. Besides, anybody who can pull this off has got to have some local muscle." He looked up. "I ain't worried about me, but I got kids. I'm not risking them."
"I see your point. So then why are you telling me?"
"The ship left a week ago … but I can't get it off my mind. There's something screwy going on there, and I was wishing someone could look into it … and then I remembered your niece."
Mike Lane's eyebrows rose approvingly. "Now there's a thought. Yep, I bet Lois would be interested to hear about this."
"Just don't tell her my name, okay? I don't want anyone to know she got this from me."
"It's a deal." Mike leaned forwards, planting his arms on the table. "Now tell me everything you know about the ship, the cargo, where it's going, and who sent it…"
"Lois Lane, Daily Planet," she answered the phone crisply. Her professional, alert posture slumped a little as she recognized her caller's voice. "Oh, hi, Alan. How are you? … I'm sorry, I just can't … no, Alan, I'm not mad at you. Listen, if I were mad at you, you'd know it, okay?" She rolled her eyes as he tried to up the guilt factor. "I'm sorry your mother was disappointed, but I had to work. I have to do that a lot, actually, so maybe you'd be better off with —" She broke off at his protest, and sighed silently as he reiterated his complete and unwavering devotion.
"I'll have to see how my schedule works out, okay? And I really can't talk too much here, so I'd better go … yes, okay, I'll talk to you later. I promise. Okay, goodbye, Alan." Ignoring his fond farewell, she hung up the phone, wondering yet again how she'd ever hooked up with this sap, and if there was any possible way to get rid of him.
It was just her luck. Most men were intimidated by the end of their first date with her. Alan, on the other hand, she couldn't beat off with a stick. It was a little puzzling, actually, but he just couldn't seem to get it through his head that she didn't want to go out with him. The trouble was, he was basically a decent guy, so she hesitated to be too brutal. Though she was beginning to suspect that he still wouldn't get it if she aimed a gun at his head. That mental image entertained her for another full minute before the phone rang again.
"Listen, Alan, I'm telling you —" She recognized the voice on the other end of the line and laughed. "Oh, you're not Alan are you? Sorry." As she listened, her face grew serious, she hunched forward over her desk, and began making feverish notes.
"Thanks, Uncle Mike!" Lois hung up the phone, buzzing with excitement. Her instincts were tingling like mad, and they'd never let her down before. She took a deep breath and tried to organize her thoughts; if Perry thought she was rushing off half-cocked he'd never let her go.
Perry set down the report of the latest circulation figures with a sigh. The paper's readership was coming back up after last month's fiasco, but they really needed another big story to reclaim their place at the top. More to the point, Lois needed another big story, to rebuild her confidence. She might have been right about the last one — he didn't rightly know — but she hadn't been able to prove it, and he knew she'd been bitterly disappointed. She was a fighter, though; not even Carpenter had kept her down for long.
A knock on the door made him look up, and he motioned for Lois to come in. She entered, wearing a smug expression. "Perry, have I got a lead for you. We've got a shipment of guns being smuggled to Africa somewhere — see, they're *not* on the manifest of the Congo Queen."
Perry leaned back in his chair, considering this. "Who's shipping them?"
"A little import-export business called Rarer There. It's unclear who owns it, but all the signs point toward it being a holding company. Research is looking into it." Lois shrugged this off, leaning forward to emphasize her next words. "But the really interesting question is, *why* are they shipping them? The manifest says they're going to a port in Qtun, which is one of the few really peaceful states in Africa — it's a democracy, and they're moderately prosperous. I mean, I can understand shipping guns to Zimbabwe or South Africa, but Qtun? It's like sending machine guns to … to Green Hills!"
Perry grinned at her mention of the city's most ritzy suburb. "They might ship them inland from there."
"Yeah, maybe — but there are other ports that have better overland transportation. But that's got to be the key to it, Perry. If we can figure out where the guns are going, we'll figure out why. And that'll lead us back to who."
"So what are you suggesting, Lois?"
Lois paused, choosing her words carefully. "Well, you see, I checked the schedule for the Congo Queen. It'll reach Qtun City in another week. That just gives me enough time to do a little more digging here, then fly over there —"
Perry made a choking noise, but she ignored him.
"— and be in place before the ship docks, so I can figure out where the shipment ends up."
He merely stared at her for a long moment, mentally juggling a number of factors. He knew she could probably dig up answers in Qtun that would be impossible to find here in Metropolis. On the other hand, it was outside the Planet's normal territory, and the cost alone… He stirred, breaking eye contact with a sigh. "Lois, do you have any idea how much a transatlantic plane ticket costs?"
She grinned at him. "But think of the story, Perry! A local connection to an international scandal. Maybe even a war — and we could break the story wide open. The best thing is, the bad guys have no idea that anyone's on to them, so they won't be suspecting a thing."
Perry rubbed his chin, scowling at her. The story did sound enticing, and if anyone could get it for him, it would be Lois Lane. He suddenly wished that there was someone else on staff who could go with her, to keep her from behaving too rashly … but he had yet to meet the man or woman who could keep up with Lois. And besides, the thought of paying for *two* transatlantic tickets made him wince.
"All right," he growled, "get Ginny to arrange your travel, and get as much done as you can before you leave — I want a copy of all your notes before you go." The complications of international travel were starting to come back to him, so he added, "Make sure you get your immunizations, mind — and is your passport current?"
"Always. And I've already set up an appointment with my doctor," she informed him cheekily. "So all I'll have to do is pack, and tell a few friends, and I'm on my way. Thanks, Chief!"
"Don't thank me, just get me the story."
"I always get the story," she assured him.
"And be careful," Perry added dourly.
Lois interrupted her exit to turn back towards him, a cheeky grin on her face. "I'm always careful." Before he could argue, she slipped out the door.
"Uh-huh," he muttered to empty air. "I have a bad feeling about this."
"There's a possibility of a leak," the Qtun City port master told his trusted aide. "We're to be on high alert for this shipment."
Mboto nodded. Qtun City was a small town; if anything unusual happened he would know about it. "Not to worry," he briefly showed his teeth in a savage smile. "We can handle anything."
So she'd flown into Qtun City, after changing planes twice, found a native guide, and followed the shipment north from the city. She'd discovered where the guns were going, and to who. But the knowledge would do her no good. She had to face facts — she was going to die.
A shrill voice in a distant corner of her brain was demanding some action, that she do *something*, *anything* to save herself, but she was strangely apathetic. Very likely the effect of a concussion, she realized, but that knowledge did nothing to shake her lassitude.
One moment she'd been driving on this barely-passable track, then she'd heard a boom and felt the world spin. The next thing she'd known, she was lying face down, with coarse grass and thistles prickling her face and arms. The rented Jeep had been a wreck, lying some twenty feet away, still on fire. She couldn't tell how long she'd been unconscious, but the flames had died down, suggesting that it had been some time. With tremendous effort, she'd managed to crawl to a less-uncomfortable stretch of dirt, and prop herself partway against a tree. It had been agony to use her right arm — something was very wrong in either her collarbone or her shoulder. And there was a fair amount of blood coming from somewhere. She tipped her head back as gently as she could, wincing at the slight thud when it landed against the tree.
She took stock … useless arm, no strength to move, bleeding from a few places. Rescue was possible, she supposed … but if no one had seen the smoke from this fire by now, there was no reason to assume they were going to.
'Award-Winning Journalist Dies in Jungle,' she mentally composed the headline, approaching it as just another news story. Have to write it myself, she thought wryly; no one else would get the details right. Too bad she wouldn't be able to file it, but the laptop had landed a few feet away. Even if it still worked, she doubted she could move that far. The pain was bearable, but only as long as she didn't move.
Enough of this, Lane, she ordered herself. Write the damn story. The familiar discipline calmed her.
"Byline, Lois Lane … somewhere in the Congo. While following an illicit shipment of guns, Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane" — no, make that "intrepid reporter," she mentally edited — "Lois Lane traveled to a village north of Qtun City. Taking all due precautions, Ms. Lane discovered and explored a weapons cache concealed near the village; discovering evidence of a conspiracy against the country's duly elected government. On the way back to the port town, however, the jeep suffered an accidental explosion, critically injuring the reporter. Ms. Lane suspects sabotage, but unfortunately has not been able to confirm this."
Lois glared at the remains of her vehicle. She was almost certain that someone had planted an explosive in the back of the jeep with her duffel bag. He'd probably meant for it to ignite the fuel tank and kill her instantly. She looked down at her blood-soaked shirt and grimaced. Perhaps it was a shame that he'd been so incompetent.
"This reporter suspects that her guide, Mohammed Mboto, was responsible, due to his suspicious absence from this trip. In retrospect, it seems quite possible that he is in fact working for the gun-runners."
Lois stopped, panting slightly in the heat. She shook her head, very slightly, smiling faintly as she envisioned Perry's reaction if she ever tried to turn in such an unsubstantiated invitation to a libel suit. "Hard facts!" the editor would growl, and then he'd send her back out to find them, to prove herself … except it didn't matter. She wasn't even able to move, let alone file a story, and very soon she would die here, in the middle of the jungle. She wasn't even sure her body would ever be found. She might simply disappear, almost as if she'd never existed to begin with.
That thought broke through her emotional walls, and she felt a tear slowly trickle down her cheek. Her life was *over* and what did she have to show for it? A few headlines, two Kerth Awards … a few friends. Perry would miss her; Ginny probably would too, but not for long. Her family … well, Lucy loved her, but she wasn't convinced that her parents would even stop fighting long enough to notice that she was gone. Now that it was too late, she could clearly see what was lacking in her life — love. She was going to die without ever finding true love, all because she had always been too busy, too wrapped up in her work … too intense. Not that she'd found a lot of likely candidates, but honestly, even if the perfect man had walked in one day; she probably wouldn't even have said hello, brushing past him on her search for the next big story.
She wallowed in melancholy for a few moments, then pulled herself together with a teary sniff. Well, Lois, she told herself bracingly, it wasn't all bad. You got to work at the best paper in the world, and you got to live and work in the best city in the world. God, she loved Metropolis. There was always something happening, and Lois Lane had always been there to chronicle it — to avenge wrongdoing, and celebrate the good — what there was of it, anyway. At least she had been there, she told herself, feeling a glow of accomplishment. She smiled, feeling giddy and lightheaded. She had fought for truth, she told herself grandly, and justice, and she had made the world — or at least Metropolis — a better place. The heck with the world, anyway, she decided. She only cared about Metropolis. It was a beautiful, wonderful city, and she knew it backwards and forwards. Lois glared at the hated jungle around her, noting distantly that her vision was going. So what? There wasn't anything here she wanted to see, anyway. She closed her eyes, seized by an intense wave of homesickness, overwhelmed by the longing to return home. She wouldn't mind dying, if only she could see Metropolis one more time…
The jungle noises were fading in and out, but she ignored them, concentrating on envisioning her city. If she could just remember everything perfectly — the sights, the sounds, the smells — then it would be like going home. If only for a little while.
She felt herself slip into oblivion.
Clark Kent stepped off the city bus, looked up at the Daily Planet building, and took a deep breath. This was it, the job he really wanted, the goal he'd been working towards for the past few years. He hadn't stinted any of his former employers in his travels around the world, but all the time, a small part of his brain had been noting which stories might impress the editor at the Planet, which experiences might help him get his foot in the door. He'd studied the paper until he felt he had a good idea of what standards Perry White demanded of his reporters. And while Clark knew he wasn't in the same league with the paper's superstar, Lois Lane, he did finally feel that he had something of value to offer. So he'd packed his bags, yet again, and set out for Metropolis.
His Aunt Opal had been delighted to put him up, and now he was here, resume, references, and portfolio in hand. And he was stalling. He looked around once more, enjoying the hustle-bustle of the street, before plunging into the Planet building. He politely introduced himself and explained that he had an appointment to speak to the Chief Editor. The security guard gave him instructions on how to get to Mr. White's office.
The newsroom seemed even more chaotic than the street outside, but there was a hum of enthusiasm and purpose that told him these people were working hard, and working well. Yes, this was where he wanted to be. He crossed the floor and knocked on Mr. White's open door.
"What is it?" The editor didn't look up from the copy he was marking, using his blue pencil with abandon and a savage expression that made Clark wince.
"Sir, my name is Clark Kent, and I'm here to apply for a job?"
"Come on in, then," Mr. White growled, briefly raising his eyes to greet him before returning his gaze to the papers in his hand. "If you can write better than Ralph, here, you're hired."
Clark hesitated a moment, but then settled himself into one of the chairs facing the desk. He pulled out his portfolio, making sure the letter of reference was on top. "I won't make any claims, sir, but I have brought some of my work."
The editor laid down the much-marked sheets and began to flip through Clark's samples. "Ah, Professor Carlton called about you, I remember. I hadn't talked to him in…" His voice trailed off as his attention was caught by the next sheet. "Mating Rituals of the Knob-Tailed Gecko?" he asked in some disbelief.
"It was for a technical journal," Clark hastened to explain. "I included it to show you my range, but look at the next one."
"'Drug Ring Broken; Kingpin Arrested,' in the Jamaica News … and picked up by a few American papers, I see." Mr. White nodded approvingly. "That's more like it." He scanned the first few paragraphs, and nodded again. "Good summary, good grammar — you wouldn't believe how many college graduates apply here, not even knowing how to *spell* — of course, maybe you just had a good editor…" He picked up Ralph's printout again, and tossed the last page across the desk, shoving the pencil over as an afterthought. "Look that over. Mark up anything you see."
Clark grabbed the paper on reflex. "But, sir, I don't have any idea what the story's about!"
"Ha! Neither does Ralph, from what I can tell. Don't worry about the facts, just look at the writing. The boy has good instincts and sources, but he can't write a coherent sentence to save his life."
Clark shrugged, and picked up the pencil, determined to take his time and do his best. His future depended on it.
Lois stirred, aware of a blessed absence of pain. How wonderful. The relief, however, was quickly supplanted by questions. What had happened? Was she healed? How? Her mind was clouded, whirling with possibilities, and she took a moment to try to calm down and think logically. Wherever she was, it was dark.
Or was it? With an effort, she opened her eyes.
Instead of the half-expected hospital room, however, she saw shelves filled with office supplies against a drab-colored wall. As she turned, frowning, she realized that she was sitting in a chair, leaning against the wall. She shook her head to clear it and straightened, returning to her survey of the room. It was clearly a supply room. How odd. Even stranger was the nagging sense of recognition. She stood and moved closer to the nearest shelf, inspecting the contents. She'd been right. Improbable as it seemed, she was in the secondary supply room of the Daily Planet.
It was wonderful to be back, and yet, and yet … how had she gotten there? She couldn't remember. Well, she was an investigative reporter, she could handle this puzzle. The first step was to marshal the facts that she had. This supply room had always been a good quiet place to think when she needed it, so she sank back into the room's only chair to take stock of her situation. Physically, she seemed healthy. A little weak, perhaps, but that didn't seem surprising after the ordeal she'd gone through. She was wearing one of her favorite brown suits, she saw. And she noticed that the button that had been dangling was now fixed; obviously she'd been back long enough to get that taken care of. "My suit's repaired, and so am I," she muttered to herself, "but how?"
She frowned again, remembering the extent of her injuries. Obviously someone had found her and saved her life, but why couldn't she remember any of the recovery? And how had she ended up in this supply room, of all places? Perhaps this was some form of amnesia. That might explain it. Maybe she'd recovered, and seemed okay, and gone back to work, but then suffered another trauma that wiped her memory of the intervening weeks? She thought she'd heard of that happening to people. Yeah, she'd probably get out there and talk to Perry, and he'd tell her that she'd been back at work for a while, and that the jungle experience had been quite a while ago. She hoped, vaguely, that she hadn't missed too many stories while in the hospital; she'd wanted to hurry back in order not to miss the launch of the Messenger, for one.
Well, the thing to do was to seek out Perry. He'd be able to help her. Armed with a purpose, she stood, and made her way out into the hallway. This supply room was a fair distance away from the newsroom, in a maze of back corridors. Lois smiled as she passed the classified department's crowded offices. She knew people who thought an office held much greater status than a desk in a large open room, such as hers. But at the Planet, that status ladder was reversed; the stars of the paper weren't crammed in these back rooms.
She recognized Carl coming down the hall, intent on studying a fistful of papers. Right, the Travel department was around here somewhere, too. The sight of him convinced her that this couldn't be a dream. If she were dreaming, she smiled to herself, she would *not* dream about Carl. She upgraded her smile from private to friendly as she passed him, and murmured hello. He was too wrapped up in his papers to notice.
At the end of the next corridor, finally, was the newsroom. She had to pause a moment, blinking, to adjust to the riot of colors and motion in the bustling heart of the paper. She surveyed the large open room, feeling absurdly happy to be there. It was like coming home.
Clark handed the marked-up copy back to the chief editor. It had been difficult to concentrate on the words, knowing that his future was probably riding on his proofreading skills, but Clark had used his special abilities to lower his heart rate and calm himself. The story had seemed to be about a scandal involving a school board member, but the writing had been as sloppy as he'd been warned. The first time through, he'd tried just to get the gist of the piece, fixing a few obvious spelling errors along the way. On his second pass, he'd paid attention to sentence structure, finding ways to rephrase and reorganize so that the sentences made sense. Luckily, the printout had a broad right-hand margin and was double-spaced, so there was room to make some major changes.
The chief editor read the page over, absorbing the suggested changes, grunting softly to himself at a few points. Clark felt his blood pressure begin to rise again, from the tension.
"Are you sure you want to be a reporter and not an editor?"
The question startled Clark. "Sir? Ah, yes, I want to be — I *am* a reporter."
"Well, now you're a reporter for the Daily Planet." The older man broke into a wide smile, and extended his hand. "Congratulations, son."
Clark smiled broadly and shook hands, careful not to exert too much pressure. "Thank you, sir! You don't know what this means to me; I've wanted to work here for years."
"Well, that just shows how smart you are. And drop the 'sir' — it makes me feel old. Call me Chief. I'll get someone to show you around and take you down to Personnel to fill out forms." He stood, moved the door, and bellowed, "Olsen, get in here!" Turning back to Clark, he asked, "You have a local address yet?"
"No, sir, not a permanent one; I'm staying with relatives."
"Give them that address for now, then, and change it when you get your own place. You can start tomorrow; I'll partner you with Ralph until you get familiar with the city."
"Oh, not Ralph, Chief — you'll scare him off!" A young woman stood in the doorway, smiling cheerfully. She had reddish-brown curly hair, with light blue eyes.
"Don't give me any of your sass, Ginny," the chief replied grumpily. "Besides, Lois is out of town."
Clark's eyebrows shot up at the mention of that name, but he paid attention as the editor introduced him with a wave of his hand.
"Clark Kent, meet Ginny Olsen, my secretary."
"I'm his *assistant*," she corrected, smiling and shaking Clark's hand. "I run errands, find things he's lost, and try to keep him from murdering the poor writers." She turned back to Perry. "So he's a new hire?"
"Yeah, a reporter, and he might even be able to write properly. Take him to personnel, then show him around and set him up with Ralph. For now." He pointed a finger at his assistant, daring her to object.
Ginny shrugged. "You're the chief, Chief. C'mon, rookie, I'll get you settled in."
Lois stood at the entrance to the newsroom. Well, it looked like a normal day, she thought with a contented smile. Reporters were typing, calling sources, heading out to get the news and back in to write it up. No one even noticed her standing at the edge of the room, which reinforced her guess of amnesia. If this were her first day back, she'd have been noticed by now. Time to tell Perry what had happened, then.
She carefully made her way across the newsroom floor. Intent on her goal, she barely acknowledged her co-workers along the way, but they were apparently used to such behavior and ignored her in turn. Remembering the wave of intense loneliness she'd experienced back in the jungle, she slowed. She really ought to make more of an effort to make friends. But not right now.
She approached Perry's door and saw that Perry and Ginny were talking to someone she didn't recognize. She leaned against the open doorframe and listened shamelessly to the end of the conversation. A new hire, huh? And Perry always claimed he couldn't afford to give *her* a raise. Then the stranger half-turned, and all thought fled as she caught sight of his face for the first time. Lord Almighty, how did any one man get to look that good? He even made glasses look sexy, but he was intent on talking to Ginny, and they were both out of the office before she could pull herself together enough to say hello. She shrugged. Back to business.
Perry was sitting down again, ostensibly looking at the departmental budgets. She smiled brightly and plunged into speech. "Hi, Perry. You're not going to believe what happened to me. I think I must have bumped my head, because I can't remember anything about the past few weeks. Weird, huh? I know amnesia is such a soap opera kind of thing, but I guess it really does happen…" Her voice trailed off as she realized Perry was paying her no attention. "Sorry, did I interrupt? What are you working on?"
She leaned across the desk to get a better look, but at that moment he sighed and tilted the chair back, staring sadly at the ceiling. Lois frowned. She'd seen him give the cold shoulder treatment to some of the staff, but never to her. "What is it? C'mon, Perry, I can't have annoyed you this badly, and even if I did, it's unfair to snub me when I don't remember why."
He shifted restlessly in his chair, then spoke softly, as if to himself. "Ah, Lois, darlin', where are you?"
Lois frowned, feeling the first touch of fear. "I'm right here, Perry, can't you see me?" She waved a hand in front of his eyes, then stopped, frozen by his utter lack of reaction. He wasn't that good of an actor. She looked away, and a mock-up front page caught her eye. It was incomplete, with space reserved for an as-yet unwritten top story, but one of the lesser headlines jumped out at her. "Space Station Prometheus Nearly Complete; Messenger Launch Scheduled" Lois didn't follow the space program very closely, but surely enough time had passed … unwillingly, her gaze tracked upwards to the paper's date, and her breath stopped. She had been in the jungle only yesterday. There had been no time for her to heal; there had hardly been enough time to return to the States in any condition.
Recent events impinged on her mind, insisting on alternative explanations. No one had talked to her, acknowledged her in any way. They couldn't see her, she realized. She wasn't really there.
Clark followed Ginny across the newsroom. "Is he always like that?"
She laughed. "Like what? Brilliant or grumpy?"
He grinned. "Both, I guess."
"Then the answer is yes. He's not always quite that grumpy, though. When he's pleased with someone he can be almost good-natured."
"Well, I wouldn't want to be Ralph right now."
She smiled, half-shrugging. "Ralph's not that bad, and Perry's not that upset with him. Ralph is, well, he's kind of a jerk, but he does have good instincts. Once Perry gets through with him, he'll be fine." Ginny shrugged. "The Chief likes training people from the ground up."
Dismayed, Clark couldn't help asking, "You mean I could have applied here years ago, instead of getting experience elsewhere?"
She shot him a sympathetic glance. "Maybe, maybe not. Besides, we all have a destiny, and it just took yours this long to get you here."
Clark tried to be comforted by that, but it didn't quite work. If he had a destiny, it was certainly taking its sweet time to reveal itself to him.
"Ah, here we are," Ginny announced. "Personnel, also Administration. Enter and fill out a thousand forms." She stepped inside the cramped office and looked around. "Bertie! We've got a new reporter here, help him get set up, will you?"
An older woman emerged from behind a desk piled high with untidy stacks of papers and surveyed him. "A new hire? That'll be entertaining." She looked at Ginny and smirked. "Has he met Lois yet?"
"Bertie!" Ginny scolded. "She's not that bad. And she's out of town, remember?"
Clark couldn't resist. "Do you mean Lois Lane? I've, ah, heard of her."
"Who hasn't?" Bertie asked cynically. "But do you know what she looks like?"
He frowned. "No, I've never seen a picture." He had a mental image of a tough-talking chain-smoking 40-year old, rather like an older version of Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday.
Bertie smirked again. "Wait here, I've got one in her file." She disappeared into the depths of the cluttered office.
Ginny turned to Clark and shrugged. "Lois is the superstar around here; I think some people get a little jealous."
"What's she like?"
Ginny tilted her head, considering. "Well, she is brilliant. And opinionated, and stubborn, and she can get so focused on a story it's uncanny. A few brave souls call her 'Mad Dog Lane' — but not to her face."
Clark tried to process that. "Are you a friend of hers?"
Ginny smiled, a little sadly. "Lois doesn't really have time for friends. But I like her. She's so determined to make the world a better place, by sheer force of will. And she does get the most amazing stories. It's like she's psychic sometimes, the way she knows what questions to ask, and where to look for the answers."
"A-ha, here it is," Bertie announced triumphantly, emerging again. She thrust a folder at Clark. "Now what do you think?"
He gazed at the picture, momentarily robbed of speech. The woman in that picture was nowhere near 40, with beautiful features, direct brown eyes, and glossy brown hair. Her expression was intense, but he thought he detected a smile that hadn't quite arrived by the time the picture had been taken. His stomach did a little flip, and he felt a nonsensical notion possess his brain. He had found his destiny.
Bertie watched his face, and snorted derision. "Yep, there's another one. Watch out, junior. She'll eat you alive."
Lois sat motionless for long moments, resisting thought, but her subconscious mind boiled away anyway, presenting her with the inescapable conclusion. Her injuries had been bad, and a day later, her whereabouts were still unknown. She wouldn't have survived that long without medical help, so it followed that she must be … dead. And yet, something of her remained … the only thing that made any kind of sense was that she was a ghost.
As she faced the facts, her fear leaked away, leaving only a vague melancholy. How very … odd. She had known she was going to die, but she hadn't expected this. Not that she'd ever given much thought to an afterlife.
She wondered absently if there was anything she was meant to accomplish in this new existence. Did she feel compelled to do anything? She pondered the question for a long moment. She still hadn't exposed the gun-runners, or won a Pulitzer, but she didn't see how she'd manage either of those as a ghost. Other than that, she couldn't think of anything in particular she'd left undone. All her other stories had been written or passed off before she left, and she'd left her apartment in good shape — she didn't even have her fish on her conscience; Ginny had agreed to feed them for her.
Lois looked around again as Perry sighed and got back to work, clearly unaware of her presence. Regardless of what her brain was telling her about her insubstantial state, this *felt* like he was ignoring her, and that hurt. She looked out the window, seeing all the busy people, aware that she would be unable to join them in any real sense. She stood, suddenly unable to bear it. She had to get out of here, to get to her apartment somehow … as the thought formed, she was overcome with a wave of dizziness, and blackness reclaimed her.
Opal Clark Jenkins was at her desk working on her latest entomology treatise when she glanced out the window and saw her grand-nephew coming down the sidewalk. She had tried to keep in touch with him and his family over the years — Martha had always been her favorite niece — and it had certainly become easier to do once he'd gotten the hang of flying. Now, she considered, it was all paying off; she was delighted to have him staying with her. With her daughter Laura off gallivanting around the world the old-fashioned way, the house was too empty. But if Clark settled into Metropolis, as he hoped, she knew he'd visit regularly. Maybe he'd even settle down, finally, and have some children for her to spoil. She was seventy-five years old already, for heaven's sake; did he think she had forever?
"Aunt Opal, I'm back!" Clark's voice drifted up from the foyer.
"I'm upstairs, Clark," she replied, confident that he would hear her. "Come on up and tell me how it went."
A moment later he appeared in the doorway, smiling broadly.
"It went great," he reported with satisfaction. "I was hired on the spot. Mr. White seems to have a temper, but no one really seems scared of him … they just want to do their best. I think I'm going to like it there."
She pushed her chair back from the desk and turned towards him. "Better than the last five jobs you had?" she asked in a faintly caustic tone.
"Yeah, maybe," he replied, then stopped to consider the matter more carefully. "I've been wanting to work for the Planet for a while now, you know, so that's a dream come true … and there's this reporter. Lois Lane."
Opal raised her eyebrows. There was a note in his voice that she hadn't heard before. "I've seen her work — she's a very, ah, brave and tenacious woman."
"Fool-hardy and pigheaded, you mean," Clark corrected her with a grin. "You wouldn't believe some of the stories I've heard. But she's done a lot of good that way."
"True." Aunt Opal cocked her head and studied him. "So what did she think of you?"
"Well…" He looked down, then up again, admitting, "I haven't actually met her yet. She's out of the country on assignment at the moment, but she should be back in a few days. Supposedly it's a really big story, with local connections — they don't usually send her travelling like this. They told me that she got hold of the story and just wouldn't rest until Mr. White okayed the trip; she's sure she'll get a Pulitzer out of it." He paused, then continued, "I did see a picture of her though…"
"Hmm." This was *very* interesting, very interesting indeed, but it wouldn't do to seem *too* interested. She deftly changed the subject, promising herself to exchange notes with Martha later. "Well, I look forward to hearing all about her, but I admit, Clark, part of me was hoping you'd not like the place once you'd seen it — I'm going to miss all the souvenirs of your travels!"
He laughed lightly, his attention diverted. "You've still got Aunt Laura to bring you exotic bugs from around the world — isn't she in Egypt now? — and if you want something in particular, you know you can always ask."
"Yes," she sighed, glancing at her unfinished paper, "but it'll be harder to explain how I got them when you're not officially travelling anymore. Besides, Laura can't stand the rain forests, and there are so many specimens I've yet to collect from there." She looked back at Clark to see him looking so alert and helpful that she smiled and held up a hand. "Nothing that needs to be done at the moment, however, thank you. I need to finish this project for the University, and then this publisher's been after me to contribute to a textbook … it may be some time before I can really devote any time to studying new species."
He looked relieved to hear it, she noted with an inward smile, knowing that he'd have gone if she'd asked him to. Bless him, he was just too accommodating sometimes; Jonathan had taught him well. She stood, reaching for the cane she used more as a prop than for support. "I'm done working for the day, and I'm hungry, so how about we see what mischief we can get up to in the kitchen?"
Clark smiled and moved aside to let her pass, falling in step next to her, alert to help her if she needed it. "Okay, but have pity on me and don't do anything *too* spicy, all right?"
Lois didn't know where she was. All she was aware of was darkness … a sense of movement … dizziness … pain. A faint light in the distance, faint noises accompanying it … but when she tried to move closer to the light, the pain increased, forcing her back. Where did she want to be? Home. Desperately she wished for home.
In a rush, surroundings came towards her, colors filling the blackness, and she blinked, realizing she was back at her apartment. She half-sobbed with relief at being out of the suffocating blackness, away from the painful light. That light meant death, a final exit even from this ghostly existence; she was irrationally sure of it. And no matter how tenuous her grip on life was at the moment, she was not yet ready to relinquish it.
She sat up, looking around and trying to steady her nerves. Everything was the same as she remembered it; not surprising given that she'd been only been gone a week. Out of habit, she started thinking about dinner, then realized that she wouldn't be able to either pick up the phone, or give anyone her order. On the plus side, however, she wasn't at all hungry, which seemed logical once she thought about it. Why would ghosts need to eat, anyway?
She headed back to the living room, and reached for the remote control. Her fingers passed right through it, and through the table below. Well, that was interesting. She spent some time amusing herself by poking her fingers through the table, the fishtank, the wall. When she sat on the couch, however, it supported her, which made her curious. Maybe she had some control over this. Ghosts were supposed to be able to make things move, weren't they? She wished she'd paid more attention to fairy tales and legends, but it was too late now.
Frowning in concentration, she poked at the coffee table again, and this time she thought she detected some resistance before her fingertip penetrated the wood. She pulled her hand back and focused on that bit of wood, thinking how very solid it was … and this time, her finger merely pressed against the surface. Lois grinned in triumph. "I'll get this afterlife thing figured out after all."
After that, it was merely a matter of concentration before she could pick up the television remote, and press the right buttons to get the channel she wanted. Sound and color swept into the darkening room, cheering her immeasurably, and she leaned back, feeling tired, but not quite so alone.
It was too late to go anywhere that night, but she decided that she would have to go back to the Planet tomorrow morning. Somehow. Whatever it was that she was meant to do must be there. At any rate, it would be more entertaining than staying here. She turned sideways, wishing vaguely that she'd bought more comfortable furniture, but she was too tired to move back to the bedroom. She'd just watch the news for a while, and rest.
When the darkness came to reclaim her, she was already asleep.
Clark arrived at the Planet nice and early the next morning, eager to get to work. His new partner greeted him with glee, and gave him a stack of stories to edit.
It wasn't exactly the way he wanted to spend the morning, but as a good team player, he acquiesced. The writing was every bit as bad as the sample he'd seen yesterday, so he resigned himself to a dreary morning.
He was halfway through the first piece when he heard the faintest whisper of a sound, and felt a strange, chill breeze. He looked around, but saw no open windows. "Did you feel that?"
Ralph looked up from his coffee. "Feel what?"
"I don't know." Clark frowned, puzzled. "It was like … a draft."
"Probably the air-conditioning switching on," Ralph shrugged. "It's always a little weird at the beginning of the season. So do you have that school board story ready yet? Perry wanted that yesterday."
"Uh, yeah … almost ready." He dutifully got back to work, but he was aware of two things. First, it felt as if someone was watching him … and second, the air conditioner wasn't running.
This time when Lois realized she was engulfed in darkness, she knew better than to head for the light. She turned her back on it, willing herself away. Where did she want to be? Ah yes … with an almost audible whoosh, the Daily Planet newsroom rushed towards her, and when the world steadied, she was standing near her desk. She surveyed the room, hoping against hope that someone would see her, but they all remained oblivious.
Across the room, she could see the gorgeous man that Perry had just hired; he was talking to Ralph, and looking a little bewildered. Involuntarily, she grinned. Anyone who didn't get along with Ralph was okay in her book. She found herself moving in his direction, and was briefly distracted by the discovery that she wasn't actually moving her legs. Well, she could explore that later. For right now, she was intrigued by this new reporter.
She'd just reached his desk when Perry emerged from his office.
"Hey, people. I, ah, I … have an announcement."
Lois heard the note of suppressed grief in his voice and guessed at his news. "Oh, Perry," she whispered, "I'm sorry."
Perry cleared his throat and worked to control his face. "You all know that Lois went to Africa a few days ago to follow a story. Well … I got a call this morning. I'm afraid there's been an accident — a fatal one."
The rush of questions and concern that followed would have gratified Lois under any other circumstances. She wouldn't have guessed that news of her death would so upset them.
"No, it can't be…"
She heard from behind her, and turned to see the new guy looking as if someone had punched him in the gut. She wondered why he was reacting so strongly when they'd never met.
He closed his eyes briefly, until he got his face under control, then opened them again and approached Perry. "What happened, Mr. White? What kind of accident?"
Others were also peppering the chief editor with questions. He held up his hands for quiet. "There was an explosion in the car she rented — she'd driven out of town to check out a lead. The wreck wasn't even found for hours. And that's all I know for now. I know you're all upset. I'm none too happy myself. But this paper is bigger than any one reporter, no matter how good. We will continue to report the news — which means you all need to keep working on your current stories."
"Sir, what if the explosion wasn't an accident? What if Ms. Lane was on to something?"
"Good thought, Clark," Perry replied, and Lois smiled. He was smart, and now she knew his name. "I've got the notes she made before she left, and I will make them available to anyone who wants to work on this, but coordinate it with me before you start digging too deep; I don't want to duplicate efforts."
Clark walked back to his desk, deep in thought. He couldn't understand his reaction to the news. He'd never even met the woman, how could he feel so destroyed at the thought of her death? And yet, and yet … some part of him insisted that it wasn't true. She couldn't possibly be dead; he could almost feel her presence. The combination of grief and comfort, both inexplicable, left him utterly confused. Maybe Dad was right, he thought. Maybe life in the big city *does* make people crazy.
Still, when he'd finished editing Ralph's first story, he excused himself to go see Mr. White. Something about the tale of her accident in the jungle was nagging at him, his reporter's instincts stirring, and he wanted a chance to follow the story.
He knocked on the half-open door to the editor's office, and Ginny motioned for him to enter. As he entered, he automatically moved to the side, and then wondered why he'd done it — there had been no one there.
Mr. White was on the phone. "Yes, ma'am, I understand. No, if I'd had any idea, I certainly wouldn't have sent her … well, I don't agree, but you do what you have to. In the meantime … yes, all right, I'll have someone do that for you. I'll pass you to my secretary, you can give her the details."
Alert to her cue, Ginny slipped out of the office to pick up her extension when Perry pushed a few buttons to transfer the call. He hung up, and sighed. "Lois's mother seems to think I should have kept her little girl out of danger."
Clark quirked an eyebrow. "Um, from what I've heard…"
"Oh, I know — no one could possibly keep Lois out of danger; she thrived on it. Still, I wish — well, it doesn't matter now."
Ginny re-entered the office. "I have their address for shipping the things to. When do you want me to go over there?"
"Go where?" Clark asked.
"Dr. and Mrs. Lane want us to pack up Lois's apartment and send them her personal effects."
Clark was surprised at the flash of resentment he felt. "That's it? They're giving up?"
Mr. White eyed him kindly. "Son, she was in the Jeep when it exploded. There's not much reason to hold out hope. If she'd just disappeared, believe me, I'd send an army over there to find her, but in this case … this is about all we can do. Her parents live on the West Coast, so we get to take care of it." He sighed heavily. "Ginny, you've got her spare keys, right?"
"Yep, I'm feeding her fish. It should only take me a few hours."
Perry shook his head. "I can't spare you for that long. Kent, you're lowest on the totem pole, so you get the job. Get some petty cash from Bertie and buy some sturdy packing boxes. The furniture can all go into storage for now, and we'll send her personal things."
"But, sir — I mean, Chief — I wanted to look into the story she was working on, see if I could find anything…"
Perry waved this off. "I've got Myerson working on that for now. You can pick it up tomorrow, if you want. I'm sure you're a good reporter, but you are new to the city."
Clark accepted that with as much good grace as he could muster. Looked like he'd be spending the day thinking and learning about Lois Lane. In other circumstances, it would have been a pleasure. "So, Ginny, I'll need those keys and some directions…"
As she rummaged through her desk, Clark realized that the chill from earlier was gone.
The trip through the darkness was shorter this time, and Lois made the trip with fierce determination, and a destination firmly in mind. The light beckoned, but she ignored its siren call, concentrating on her apartment. Within moments, the familiar walls appeared around her. Willpower seemed to be all that it took to accomplish things in this ephemeral state — well, that was good, because if there was one quality Lois Lane had in spades, it was willpower.
According to her wall clock, very little time had passed since she'd left the Planet. Perhaps she should have stayed at the paper, but she'd been too annoyed at the way Perry and her parents were conspiring to pack away her life. This unexpected afterlife was going to be lonely enough without interaction, but to lose her apartment, too … the prospect seemed bleak. Being able to watch but not participate was foreign to her. If she didn't come up with something, this afterlife might be more hell than heaven.
She considered turning on the TV to get the morning news, but then decided that it wasn't worth the mental effort. Already, she was a little bit drained from her morning's activities, and she didn't want to fade away again just yet.
Noises at her door distracted her, and she watched with interest as her locks opened, one at a time. Finally, the door opened, and Clark walked inside. Well, he'd certainly made good time. Perhaps she should leave now, and not stay to watch her life dismantled.
Clark looked around and nodded to himself. "Nice, Lois, very nice."
"Thank you," she replied automatically, and was rewarded with a hint of a smile. Coincidence, obviously, but she was pathetically glad for even this imitation of interaction.
He walked slowly towards the kitchen, then found her phone and placed a call. "Hi, Aunt Opal, it's me … Looks like the paper needs me out on assignment today. So listen, if you need to get hold of me, here's the number." He read her phone number off the base of the phone and repeated it patiently until, apparently, Aunt Opal got it right. Lois was charmed by this glimpse of a man being so nice to an older relative. In her experience, most good-looking guys were jerks of one type or another; but Clark seemed to be an exception to that rule. Of course, her cynical side objected, you could be wrong; you don't really know him at all. She wanted to ignore the cynical voice — it had steered her wrong too many times before — but she had to admit the point. Well, only one way to fix that, she told herself. She'd stay here and watch him, see what he was really made of.
Clark was more than a little depressed at the task of closing up someone's apartment. Bad enough for anyone to die in a jungle, but why did it have to be Lois Lane? Metropolis would be worse off without her … and he would have liked a chance to get to know her. Well, by looking around her apartment he could get to know her, in a way. He rationalized his survey with the excuse that it would help him pack her things more logically.
Her furniture was good, if a little more severe than his own taste, and the place was uncluttered. Not too many pictures around, but there were two in the living room — one of Lois, smiling broadly with an arm around a younger woman, possibly her sister, and another shot of the younger woman alone. No pictures of boyfriends. Why would such a gorgeous, vibrant woman not have a boyfriend? Unless the younger woman was a girlfriend … but he rather thought that someone at the Planet would have hinted at that.
He turned from the living room towards the kitchen and found himself facing a display case. The focus was on the two clear statuettes inside; on closer inspection he discovered that he was looking at her two Kerth Awards. She was obviously proud of her work, as she had every right to be. He remembered what Ginny had said, about Lois having no time for friends, and his mouth quirked sadly in sympathy. For his own reasons, he never let anyone get too close, and he knew how lonely such an existence could be.
He continued his survey around the apartment, slowly soaking up impressions of the woman who had lived in this space. A workaholic, a loner, but with a passion for justice. He could relate to that. He began to feel like he knew her … and the feeling of her presence was back again, even stronger than before.
He moved into her kitchen, peeking into various cupboards and surveying her food supply, thinking of his own preference for fresh produce — he'd have to clear out foods that were likely to spoil. On closer inspection, though, he found very few perishable items at all; it was mostly cans and boxes of easy-to-heat-up premade food. "Not a gourmet cook then, I take it," he murmured in quiet amusement.
A faint noise caught his attention, and he stilled, trying to capture the sound. It had seemed just out of his hearing, or on a different frequency … and there were very few things he couldn't hear if he wanted to. But whatever it had been was gone now. If it had been anything at all.
He realized he was stalling. He really didn't want to pack up these things; it was an admission of defeat that he didn't want to make. It just seemed wrong to think of her as dead. He remembered the singing sensation he'd felt when he'd first seen her picture yesterday. She'd seemed so vibrantly alive, even in that still photo. He sighed. "I'm sorry, Lois. I think we should have met … I would have liked to know you."
Lois was touched by his statement. "Yeah, I wish we could have met too — properly, I mean." At her words, his expression became abstracted, as if he were straining to listen to something, but after a moment he shook himself out of it, and began setting up boxes in front of her bookcase.
He moved with an easy grace, but was obviously in no hurry. She stood across the room, watching his muscles ripple and flow beneath his dress shirt. It really wasn't fair. The best-looking, nicest guy she'd seen in ages, and he literally didn't know she existed.
Methodically, he packed up her books, beginning with the lowest shelf and filling two boxes before he got to the top shelf. He was able to reach a shelf higher than she could, but there was another one above that. She saw him look around the room, and wished she could tell him where she stored her step-stool. It wasn't in sight, however, so he shrugged. And then noiselessly rose into the air, his feet dangling a foot above the floor as he calmly gathered an armful of books.
Lois felt her mouth drop open. Was it possible this was all just a bizarre dream? Everything and everyone else was behaving normally. Even her imagination wasn't lurid enough to create a floating man, was it?
Meanwhile, Clark had cleared out the top shelf and filled the third box. His feet were once again on the floor, and she doubted her own memories. Except that the top shelf was empty. And, come to think of it, those boxes would be heavy, yet he was carrying them with ease. Not to mention his amazingly fast arrival at her apartment, when he'd been in Perry's office scant moments before. This definitely called for further observation.
He moved into the kitchen and began working on her meager collection of cookware. Nonchalantly floating when necessary to reach items on the top shelves of her cupboards. It was the contrast of using such an unusual method to accomplish such a mundane task that finally convinced her that what she was seeing was real. Normal men didn't float, but somehow, Clark Kent did.
The phone rang. After a second's startlement, Clark drifted to the floor and crossed the room to answer it. "Lois Lane's apartment."
Curious, Lois moved closer, trying to hear who was on the other end of the call.
"Well, I'm a colleague of hers … nice to meet you, Alan."
Lois rolled her eyes, but then brightened as she realized that she'd finally found the upside to being dead — at last she could rid herself of the Clueless Wonder. She leaned in closer, and though Clark shivered a bit he didn't shift positions. Ah, now she could hear Alan.
<<…like to know what you're doing there — has she come back from her trip yet?>>
Clark's reply was soft and full of sadness. "No, I'm afraid not." She waited to see if he'd elaborate, but apparently he preferred to leave it at that.
As always, Alan missed the nuance. <<Then why are you there? I must protest — you know she and I are practically engaged.>>
Lois couldn't help herself; she snorted laughter. "Hardly."
"Hardly," Clark echoed, then looked up in shock, staring straight towards her. He didn't quite know where to focus his eyes, but he certainly seemed to be aware of her.
<<Excuse me?>> Alan was demanding, <<What do you know about it?>>
"Well, she, ah…" Clark foundered.
Hardly daring to hope that he'd hear, Lois fed him the answer. "I could never marry anyone so anal-retentive."
Clark's eyebrows rose, but he gamely relayed her message. "She could never marry anyone so — never mind, it's really none of my business. I'll, ah, let her know that you called."
Alan was still sputtering when Clark hung up the phone.
There was a long moment of silence, then Clark reached a tentative, trembling hand towards her. "Lois?"
Lois swallowed hard, trying to vanquish the lump on her throat. She hadn't realized how desperately she'd missed human interaction until it was restored.
Clark's hand faltered, and he repeated, less certainly, "Lois — are you there?"
Hurriedly, she cleared her throat, determined to put aside all these messy emotions. "Yes, I'm here. I just … can't believe you can hear me." She reached for him, then stopped a little short of touching him — she didn't want to risk the disappointment of having her hand pass straight through his, undetected.
He smiled faintly. "Uh, yeah, I know the feeling. I couldn't really make out what you were saying, at first, but I think I've got the right frequency now. How are you here, anyway?"
She shrugged, then realized she couldn't use nonverbal cues. "I really don't know. One moment, I'm leaning against a tree, dying; next thing I know, I'm at the Daily Planet."
Clark frowned, thinking back. "Were you there this morning?"
"Yep, and yesterday, too — I saw you get hired. Congratulations, by the way."
"Thank you," he answered absently. "I didn't sense you at all yesterday … but this morning … there was something."
"Really? I know you didn't hear me, nobody did. I was right there, while everyone was talking about my death, and no one saw me, or reacted to me…" Unexpectedly, her voice wavered on that last phrase, and Clark reached out again.
"Hey, it's okay … I'm here now." Self-consciousness struck. "I mean, I'm probably not the person you'd want to be stuck with, but at least I've got to be better than nothing, right?"
Lois pulled herself together with a teary sniff. "You're much better than nothing," she assured him. "I just wish we could have met in a less weird way."
"Yeah, me too." There was a longish pause, then Clark continued, in a brisker tone, "So you're … dead … but you're here. How is that possible?"
"Hell if I know." Firmly, she changed the subject. "Although I'm not the only one with some explaining to do. How about that floating trick, mister?"
To her amusement, he flushed. "Oh, you saw that, huh. Well … I can't really explain it. It's just something I can do; I don't know why."
"Oh come on, you must have some theories." Her natural good cheer was resurfacing now that the topic had shifted. "Were you bitten by a radioactive spider?"
He laughed. "No, I've always been … different. See, I was adopted."
"Did you ever find out who your real parents were?" She grinned. "Maybe *they* were bitten by radioactive spiders."
"What is it with you and spiders?" He grinned, and she caught her breath at how the expression lit up his face. "No, I don't know who they were. My parents … well, they found me as a baby, in a spaceship."
Her eyes widened. "A spaceship? Holy cow, you could be an alien!"
Clark grimaced at the suggestion. "Or a Russian experiment. Mom even suspected our own government might have experimented on me. None of the alternatives sound very appealing."
"Hmm, I can see that, I guess." Lois was quiet for a moment, trying to imagine how she'd feel in his place. Memories of her own upbringing crowded in, and she felt the urge to squash them … but maybe she could use them to help Clark. "I thought it was bad enough having a drunk for a mother. Now there's a gene pool to be proud of." It wasn't as hard to open up as she'd feared. Maybe she should have done it more when she'd been alive.
His face showed a wealth of sympathy. "Hey, there's a lot more to us than our genes, you know."
"I sure hope so. But if that goes for me, it goes for you too, so cheer up, okay?"
"Okay, you got me." Laughing, he held up his hands in surrender. "Darn, they told me Lois Lane was smart as a whip. Anyway, my parents are great, they've always treated me as a normal kid, just with a few … extras."
"There's more than the flying? Like what? I saw you lift those boxes pretty easily; how strong are you?"
Clark began to look faintly uncomfortable. "What is this, an interview?"
"Well, I am a reporter," she pointed out logically. "Or at least I was. Old habits are hard to break."
"Yeah, I can tell," he grumbled. "I know this is gonna sound silly, but just in case … don't tell anyone else, okay?"
She smiled wryly. "My lips, such as they are, are sealed," she assured him. "Completely off the record."
"Well, let's see." He paused, staring off in the distance as he gathered his thoughts. "I am really strong — I mean, really really strong. And fast. And I can see through most things, if I concentrate. And apparently," he glanced in her direction with a flash of mischief, "I hear dead people, although you're my first."
"Don't worry, I'll be gentle," she quipped automatically, then blushed as she realized what she'd said. "Um, never mind. Old joke."
"Very old," he agreed sourly. "Anyway, I try to keep all this stuff secret. But … if you wanted … well, is there anything you want to say to anyone? I mean, they probably wouldn't believe me that I can hear you, but we could try."
She considered it a moment, touched by his offer. "I hadn't really thought about it … I don't know that there's anything to say. But I'll tell you what I do want to do, which is find the guys running those guns, and nail them to the wall."
"You and me both. So where do we start?"
"Well, you're going to need my notes. Research was supposed to find out who was behind the import-export business." She paused, then continued glumly, "And I guess you'd better finish packing up my things — Perry won't want you working on this story 'til you've done your chores."
He smiled mysteriously. "Now *that* is not a problem. I can have it finished in no time. In fact…" He stood and began to move, his form blurring as he sped faster and faster around the room. With a final whoosh of displaced air, he came to a stop beside her. "How's that?"
She looked around the room in puzzlement. "You … put it all back."
He shrugged. "Yeah, but I figure you'd prefer it that way. I can pack it all up again just about that fast, so it won't matter if I leave it for a few days."
"Oh." Emotions once more threatened to swamp her, and for the first time she was grateful that he couldn't see her face. He didn't need to know how deeply his thoughtfulness had touched her. "Good idea; thank you," she managed in a reasonably neutral voice.
"Okay, then, let's go." He headed for the door.
Out of nowhere, a wave of weakness swept over her, and she felt the darkness approaching. "Damn."
"What is it?" Clark turned back, a concerned look on his face.
"I think I'm about to fade out," she said, willing herself to stay connected to this moment, this man. Speaking was becoming more difficult as her energy reserves reached their limit. "I'm not conscious all the time," she explained, trying to find the words to explain her new reality. "I kind of come and go, and I don't always have control over it; it depends on how much energy I use, I think. You go on ahead, and I'll try to catch up later."
The concern on his face was shading into outright fear. "You will come back, right? Promise me you'll come back!"
She opened her mouth to reassure him, but before she could force out the words, she was swept away into the darkness.
That afternoon, Clark headed back over to the Daily Planet, still worried about Lois. He hadn't sensed her presence at all for hours. He'd been tempted to stay in her apartment, but it had quickly become unbearable without her there.
Part of him still wondered if he'd imagined the whole thing, but he couldn't have … it was too real, too unexpected. Lois had been consistent with the stories he'd been told, but she had a sense of humor, too — no one had told him that she liked to tease.
He marveled at her resiliency. She had *died* two days ago. He was very glad that she was still, somehow, present — but he didn't underestimate how lonely it must be to be so cut off from her former life. Being there, yet insubstantial, seemed scarcely better than death. Several times, he had detected traces of her fear and sorrow in her tones, but each time, she'd quickly regained control of herself.
He was glad she'd been able to communicate with him; she'd need that. She would probably have preferred someone else, but selfishly, he was glad that it had been him. Probably his special hearing had something to do with it, but whatever the reason was, she needed a friend, and he was determined to be there for her.
And the most concrete thing he could do for her would be to finish investigating her story, find out if she'd been killed for it, and bring her murderer to justice. It was a cold substitute for her life, but it was the best anyone could do.
He reached the newsroom shortly after two o'clock, and headed for Ginny's desk. The young assistant had her hands on the keyboard, but they lay idle as she contemplated her computer screen. "Hey, Ginny," he greeted her.
She startled slightly, and quickly reached for a tissue to swipe across her eyes. "Hi, Clark. Um … aren't you supposed to be knee-deep in boxes right now?"
Clark grimaced, hoping she'd buy his excuse. "Well, I started, but the packaging store only had a few boxes. They said they'll have more tomorrow."
Ginny frowned. "Did you try the store on Third and Franklin? Lemme give them a call…" She reached for the phone, but Clark gently fended her off.
"No, no — it's okay." He paused, letting some of his embarrassment show. "I wasn't really enjoying the job anyway, so I thought I'd take a break. It's just so morbid packing up someone's things — so sad."
Ginny sighed and sat back in her chair. "Yeah, I know. It stinks that we have to do that, but her parents … I've met them once, and that was enough." She made a face, then shrugged. "Anyway … I just can't believe she's gone. Lois was so vibrant, you know? So full of life."
"Passionate," Clark suggested, thinking of his morning's encounter, realizing too late that he wasn't supposed to have any first hand knowledge of her.
Ginny didn't notice the slip, however. "Yeah, that describes her." She stared into space again, looking forlorn.
Clark gave her a moment, respecting her grief for her friend, and as he waited, he felt a chill. His pulse quickened; was Lois back? He could hardly ask aloud, but he did glance around the room. Perhaps she would realize that he was aware of her.
At Clark's movement, Ginny shook herself out of her reverie. "Sorry. I mean, I shouldn't be surprised. Lois has been in any number of life-threatening situations. It's just that she's always survived them before."
"It's a shock," Clark concurred softly.
He more sensed than heard Lois comment, "I thought you'd be here. What'd you find?"
"And that's what I wanted to talk to you about, Ginny," Clark continued aloud. "Can I see her notes and research? I'd like to see if there's anything I can do to follow up on that story."
Ginny looked faintly surprised, but reached for a file. "Yeah, I guess so. Myerson was looking at it earlier, but I don't think he's followed up on anything yet." She handed over the folder. "Personally, I think they're all too intimidated to even try to follow in her footsteps. They're all good at what they do, but Lois was the best for digging up juicy stories."
Clark suppressed a grin as he heard Lois snicker. "Well, I'll just have to take it as a challenge." He began leafing through the pages of printouts and hand-scribbled notes.
"Good luck. She didn't really have a lot to go on; that's why she headed to Africa in the first place. But we did find out a few things after she left." Ginny seemed in the mood to talk, perhaps in the habit of briefing Perry on the progress of various stories. "The guns were shipped by Rarer There, an import/export business, and after working through multiple layers, we traced the ownership back to Adastra, a medium-to-large sized corporation headquartered here in Metropolis."
"Adastra, huh?" Lois spat. "It just figures."
Clark closed the folder, his interest fully engaged. "I don't think I've ever heard of it."
"A lot of people haven't," Ginny replied. "They build a lot of different things, but mostly sell them to other businesses, not to the public. We couldn't tell who might have been in charge of moving the guns."
"It's Carpenter; I just know it is," Lois stated.
Clark decided he had to just ignore Lois for the time being; when they were alone he could get the whole story out of her. For now, he couldn't risk making Ginny suspicious. "I figure I might as well start at the top. Who's the company's CEO?"
Ginny raised her eyebrows at him. "You're not shy, are you?"
Clark shrugged, smiling unapologetically. "If the CEO doesn't know what's going on, he ought to. Either way, I want to talk to him. Where can I find his number?"
"Hang on, I've got a business directory here somewhere." She quickly shuffled several piles of booklets on her desk until she pulled one out in triumph. "Knew that was in there. Let's see…" She thumbed through the pages. "John Carpenter, CEO. I'll write down the address and phone number for you." Efficiently, she copied down the information and handed it to him. "I hear he's a tough nut to crack."
"Tell me about it," Lois agreed sourly.
"I'll just ask nicely, then." Clark tucked the sheet into the folder with the others. "Thanks, Ginny."
"No problem," she assured him as he turned to go. "Give 'em hell, Harry."
Lois tried to wait patiently as Clark read through her notes and called Adastra to set up an appointment with Carpenter. It seemed as if it had only been moments before that she'd been talking with Clark in her apartment, but a glance at the clock told her that hours had gone by, and she resented having missed them.
"Thank you, I appreciate that," he said into the phone. "Goodbye." He hung up, and then spoke softly, seemingly to himself. "Well, that was easy. He'll see me in an hour."
"Too easy," she informed him, "but I bet he's just doing damage control. He knew I was onto him. Ginny was right, though; he's a slippery rat. I tried to nail him last month, with minimal success."
Clark opened his mouth, then closed it again, looking around the room with a frustrated expression. Abruptly, he stood up and headed towards the elevator.
"Hey, wait up! Where are we going?"
Clark slowed, and turned to face the newsroom. "Ginny?" he called. "I'm going to interview Carpenter — I'll bring the notes back when I'm done."
Ginny waved acknowledgement, and he resumed his rapid pace towards the exit. Lois glided along beside him, effortlessly keeping pace. "Thanks."
A muscle twitched in Clark's jaw, but he managed to keep himself quiet until they boarded an empty elevator. As the doors closed, he turned slightly, searching for some sign of her. "Where are you?"
"Right here," she said, standing next to him. "Was I driving you crazy?"
He smiled wryly. "No, you weren't. Not being able to talk to you was. So what do you know about Carpenter?"
"Well, not much, really; he hides his tracks awfully well. But he has no respect for any law that I've seen. Last month, I exposed one of his paper processing plants; it was dumping air and water pollution at a frightening rate, and they'd been bribing the local EPA inspector. They had to shut that one down and pretend to clean up the others, but it was really just a slap on the wrist."
"But I bet he's not happy with you."
She grinned. "I get that a lot. I'm really quite proud of the quality of my enemies."
Clark rolled his eyes. "With that attitude, it's no wonder you didn't make it to thirty."
The elevator pinged softly as the doors opened, and Clark stepped out into the lobby, with Lois close behind him.
"Hey, I did my job and I was *good* at it. *And* I was nowhere near thirty, thank you. Anyway, even if he had a motive to do me in, that's a long way from proof."
"We'll just have to find some proof then, won't we?" he challenged as they walked out into the mid-afternoon sun. He made a show of checking the street signs, then looking at his notes. "Wonder if it's close enough to walk?"
"Yeah, it's not far. Turn left and go two blocks. On the way, I'll tell you what I know about Carpenter, and what happened to the guns once they got to Qtun."
"I'm afraid I don't know anything about that," John Carpenter said in languid disinterest. He leaned back and gestured around his office. "I have many businesses of various types, but I'm not able to be personally inv olved with all of them."
"He's lying," Lois scoffed.
Clark kept his expression neutral with some difficulty. Any lingering doubts as to the reality of her presence had vanished, in favor of overwhelming annoyance. But however badly Lois wanted to confront Carpenter, they really had no evidence of any wrongdoing on his part. Therefore, Clark was treating the Adastra CEO as politely as possible. Much to his partner's chagrin.
"Go on, Clark, tell him he's lying," she ordered.
Clark smiled over clenched teeth. "I understand, Mr. Carpenter. I just hoped you could direct me to whoever might be in charge."
Lois groaned. "Clark, you are driving me insane."
"I'd have to look into it," Carpenter said. "Rarer There is one of our smaller subsidiaries, you see, so I —" The phone on his desk rang. "Excuse me, this must be important or my secretary wouldn't have put it through." He picked up the handset and swiveled his chair towards the window to begin a low-voiced conversation.
Clark listened for a moment, but the call didn't appear related to either Lois or Qtun. Under the pretense of giving the CEO more privacy for his call, he stood and began wandering the office, looking at the few pieces of artwork displayed. When he reached a statue in the corner, he paused, his back to the room. Very quietly, he said, "Lois?"
"Yes, I'm here," she replied testily. "Although I don't know why, when you won't listen to a thing I say —"
"Just let me handle this, okay?"
"Well, what choice do I have, anyway? All right, you can talk to him. I'll just be a good little girl, seen but not heard, although of course no one can see me, either…" Her complaints died down, replaced by dawning enthusiasm. "Hey, there's an idea."
Clark frowned, not trusting the note of glee in her voice. "What?"
"Never mind, you just keep him talking for a few minutes."
His unease deepened, but Carpenter was hanging up the phone, so Clark pulled himself together and walked back over to the desk. "You've got some nice pieces of art here," he commented.
Carpenter smiled, the first touch of real emotion he'd shown. "Thank you, I'm very fond of my little collection.
"So, you were going to tell me about Rarer There," Clark prompted.
"Ah yes. I should have something…" Carpenter swiveled his chair so that he could reach the low filing cabinet beneath the window. Rifling quickly through the folders, he came up with a thick document. "There we are." He turned back towards Clark, explaining, "This is our shareholder's report, which has a good overview of the various subsidiaries, with some names. And this," he pulled from a desk drawer, "is our internal organizational chart. Let me see … well, you can just have a copy." He tossed both documents across the desk, and Clark, faintly surprised, caught them. "That should give you an idea of where to start."
"Thank you," Clark said, glancing through the papers. "I admit, I wasn't expecting you to be so helpful."
Carpenter arched an eyebrow. "You've been listening to rumors. Well, I admit that I had no love for Lois Lane."
"I did hear a mention of that, yes." Clark fixed his best listening expression, wondering and worrying why Lois wasn't chiming in. Not that she hadn't already given him an earful on their way over. He could still sense her presence, so she was still here — she must be up to something. And she had asked him to keep Carpenter talking. "I wasn't in Metropolis at the time, though; perhaps you could fill me in."
Carpenter shrugged. "There was a great deal of unpleasantness about one of my subsidiaries — a pulp and paper plant upstate."
As he listened, Clark's attention was caught by a hint of movement behind the CEO. The low filing cabinet was open … but hadn't Carpenter left it partly closed?
"Apparently, the plant foreman was a bit too eager to cut costs, and skimped on some of the required pollution-scrubbing devices, which meant that the plant was polluting both the air and the water. Even the local EPA inspector had been bribed, to keep from reporting it."
In casual glances, Clark kept watch on the file cabinet. After a moment, he saw some of the folders shift … as if ghostly fingers were moving them. His eyes widened. To cover his reaction, and to keep Carpenter facing forward, he said, "That's pretty brazen. Seems like a very zealous employee, too."
"Well, you see we have a profit-sharing arrangement with our employees — the foreman was able to pocket quite a bit of the savings, and it would have taken our accounting department some time to realize what was happening."
A file folder began to rise into the air and open. "Ah, well then, wasn't it lucky that someone caught him before more damage was done?"
Carpenter snorted. "Depends on what you call lucky. That woman was very sloppy in her reporting, splashing mud all over our corporate image. She implied that I was involved — more thorough investigation cleared me, of course, but it was a huge expense. And we're still cleaning up the public relations aftermath. Not to mention the remediation costs and fines imposed by the EPA. Frankly, we were on the verge of going bankrupt from it all, and then where would all my employees be?"
"Yes, I see your point," Clark said, stealing glances at the floating file folder. I don't know how much longer I can stall him, Lois, so hurry up. "I can see that you weren't Ms. Lane's biggest fan."
Carpenter took a deep breath, calming himself. "No, I must say that I wasn't, but I do regret her death, if that's what you're hinting at. I would have had her fired, if I could, but I'm not a bloodthirsty man. Besides," he laughed lightly, "I didn't know I was doing any business in — where was it? Qtun? — and I didn't know that Ms. Lane was heading there, so I really wasn't in position to do anything about it, even if I'd wanted to."
To Clark's intense relief, the folder slid back down into place, and the drawer glided partly shut, back to where Carpenter had left it. Clark stood up, and extended his hand. "Well, I appreciate you taking the time to give me an interview."
Carpenter shook hand firmly. "Not a problem, I'm glad for the chance to clear my name. And please, if you find any of my employees involved in something shady, do let me know — I realize you'll want to get your story, but I will want to begin cleaning house as soon as possible."
"I'll see what I can do," Clark replied vaguely.
Carpenter nodded. "Thanks. My secretary can show you out."
Lois remained behind after Clark left, feeling too tired to move. She knew she'd been giving Clark a hard time — under the circumstances he probably had taken the, well, not-totally-wrong approach, but it was so frustrating not being able to interact directly! However, being undetectable had its benefits. It had taken intense concentration to actually move the folders and papers, but the results had been worth it. She could hardly wait to tell Clark what she'd found.
It was odd, really. She never would have wanted to share information with anyone before, never wanted a partner … but there was something about Clark. Besides the fact that he was the only one who even knew she was there. If only she hadn't died in the jungle … she might have made an exception to her lone-wolf ways for him.
Then again, maybe not, she admitted with a weak grin. And he had seemed fairly annoyed with her earlier, so maybe he wouldn't have thought it worth the trouble. A tendril of fear crept into her mind. What if Clark had decided he didn't want to deal with her anymore? She had been kind of rough on him, even though it was her own limitations that had angered her. She'd have to make it up to him somehow, and let him know that she wouldn't go off like that again … oh who was she kidding, she thought wearily. Her personality was well-formed, and she wasn't likely to change at this late date. She'd just have to hope he was tough enough to deal with it. Maybe if she didn't demand too much of him…
Her musings were interrupted by Carpenter, who had picked up his phone and punched in a long string of numbers. "Hello? … Yes, it's me … Find Mohammed for me; I need to talk to him."
The name caught her attention; Mohammed was the name of her guide and her personal top suspect for the bomb in her rented Jeep. Of course, there were probably about a million men named Mohammed in the world, but still…
"Mohammed, there you are. No, I don't care what you were in the middle of. I've just had a reporter here sniffing around. Were you able to retrieve the laptop computer?"
There was a pause, and Lois felt the darkness begin to beckon. She'd expected it, after her earlier exertion, but she refused to go just yet — she had to hear this. Not that there was anything to find on her computer; she hadn't had time to make notes on what she'd found before the explosion.
Carpenter relaxed, seating himself behind his desk. "Good, good. Well, in that case, you can return it." He sat upright. "What do you mean, there's a problem with the body?" He listened tensely, and Lois strained to hear, but couldn't make herself move. "No, that doesn't matter … I don't care how it looks. Fine, fine, just mop it up and lay low for a while. I'll let you know when to expect more."
The darkness became more insistent, sweeping over her in encroaching waves. Reluctantly, Lois allowed herself to be carried away, wondering what all that meant, and when she might see Clark again.
Lois reflected wryly that she was getting too used to her new existence; she made the journey out of the darkness with all the excitement and drama of a routine commute to work. The only worrisome part was deciding her destination, but the Planet seemed a good bet. Even if no one were there, she could get her bearings and see how much time had passed.
The newsroom was quiet and the last rays of the setting sun were peering through the high windows; obviously she'd missed a few hours. Had she missed Clark, too? He wasn't at his new desk, and her heart sank, but then she spotted him talking to Ralph. She moved slowly towards them, wondering at what point Clark would become aware of her.
"Okay, Ralph, that's the last one finished." Clark tossed a printout and a floppy disk onto his partner's desk.
Ralph glanced at it. "Thanks, Kent. You do fast work."
Clark smiled tightly. "Well, I have to meet someone for dinner."
Lois felt a pang of loss and betrayal, and scolded herself for it. He was a great guy, why shouldn't he have a girlfriend? She couldn't expect anything different. It was just that she'd felt such a connection to him … and he had seemed to reciprocate. But how real could it have been, if he were dating someone else? She wouldn't have thought he would take relationships so casually … but it was absolutely none of her business. If she had still been alive, it would have been different, but as it was … she had no hold on him.
Ralph looked up at Clark, grinning slyly. "You dog! Not in the city a week, and already you've got a date. What's she like?"
Clark pondered the question for a moment, then smiled. "Well, she's beautiful, and very smart, and she's very, ah, well-built. For her age."
"For her age?" Ralph laughed, and tried to elbow him in manly camaraderie. "So how old is she? Seventeen? Sixteen? You can tell me!"
Lois frowned, starting to wonder where this was going. Clark's eyes were brimming over with mischief.
"Seventy-five, I believe," Clark replied, smothering a chuckle as Ralph's face fell. "She's my mother's aunt; I'm staying with her until I get an apartment."
Relief flooded Lois, and she laughed. Clark startled slightly at the sound, and glanced around quickly before turning back to his intended victim.
"Hah hah, Kent, very cute," Ralph was saying sourly. "Well, if you're done making fun of me, I'm going home."
"Yeah … sorry about that, I just couldn't resist." Clark really did look sorry, too, though Lois considered that Ralph had set himself up for it. "Goodnight." Clark headed back to his desk.
"Hi, Clark," Lois greeted, feeling much more cheerful. "Good one. I'll have to tell Ginny … well, I guess you'll have to tell her, but she'll appreciate it, believe me. And don't feel sorry about making fun of Ralph; we all do it, and he richly deserves it. But never mind that; you will never guess what I found out at Carpenter's."
Clark looked around in frustration; Ralph was still there. Inspiration struck, and he picked up his telephone handset, keeping a finger on the switchhook so that the phone wouldn't know it was off the hook. "Hi there, nice to hear your voice."
"Oh, good idea," Lois said warmly; not only was he *not* cheating on anyone, he was smart as well. "Yes, nice to see you, too. So do you want to know what I found?"
"Of course I do," he replied, his smile widening into a grin. "Although you almost gave me a heart attack with that little stunt."
"Um, yeah…" She grinned, remembering the look of shock on his face, then sobered. "Listen, Clark … about the way I was, earlier…" She stumbled to a stop.
"Hey, it's okay," he hastily assured her. "Don't worry about it."
"I just didn't want you to think … I mean…" True, he didn't seem to be holding her actions against her, but she still felt that he was owed an apology.
"Lois," he said quietly, "It's okay. Really."
She searched his face for hidden resentment, but found none. Well, good. She'd never been good at apologizing anyway. "Okay, then. Good. So, when I went through the cabinet, I found a folder labeled 'Qtun' and it had a list of names and numbers, and what looked like a contract, although I didn't have time to see what it was for."
Clark raised an eyebrow. "Well, he was lying — you were right. Not that I'm surprised. He flatly said he wasn't aware of doing any business there."
"And that's not all," she added quietly. "After you left, he made a phone call, and I *think* he talked to my guide from the jungle."
Clark sat up, hunching his shoulder against the phone. "That's not proof, but we can probably get a copy of his phone records, as corroborating evidence. What did they talk about?"
"Well, I couldn't hear it all; I was pretty tired and fading out by then. They talked about my laptop — sounds like they were checking to see if I'd stored anything incriminating on it. Which I hadn't. And then…" She paused. "Well, it's not important."
"Maybe not, but what was it?"
She sighed, then spit it out. "Mohammed said there was a problem with the body."
Clark grimaced. "Oh. Sorry I asked." He looked around, and noticed that Ralph had finally gone. The need for subterfuge gone, he returned the phone handset to its cradle.
"It's okay, I'm fine. It's just kinda creepy, you know? But then Carpenter said that whatever it was didn't matter." She paused, then continued on in a firmer tone. "So where does that leave us?"
Clark sagged back into his chair. "I'm pretty certain that he knew about the gun shipment, but we can't prove it. And he certainly sounds involved in your, um, accident, but we can't prove that, either. What I can't figure is how he knew that you were heading over there."
"Yeah … that might be the key."
"So who all knew you were going, anyway? Perry and Ginny, obviously, and probably most of the Planet staff."
Lois thought back. "Well, the staff knew I was going somewhere, but I doubt many of them knew details. You could ask Perry who he told; I stayed pretty quiet about it."
"Okay, I'll ask him tomorrow." Idly, he picked up the shareholders' report that Carpenter had given him earlier, and began paging through it. "I've been looking through this but it's all too vague to be helpful, just a lot of company propaganda."
Lois gave it a cursory glance. "Yeah, I saw that when I was investigating last month, and it was — hold it!"
Clark stilled, looking up curiously. "What is it?"
"Flip back a page or two." He complied, turning them slowly. She wasn't sure what she'd seen, but if she were right … excitement coiled in her stomach. Or the region where her stomach would have been, at any rate, and it didn't matter anyway, because — "A-ha! That's what I thought. AlphaDynamics."
Clark glanced at the page, which consisted mostly of a corporate logo, some pictures of employees hard at work, and a glossy paragraph which said very little, but in glowing terms. "What about it?"
"That's where Alan works," she said triumphantly.
He frowned, but then his eyes widened as he got the reference. "Alan, as in the guy who called today?"
"Alan, as in the guy who's been sticking to me closer than glue for the last month or more. We met at one of those big political bashes — I was working, he was playing. For some reason that I frankly don't understand, he fell for me, hard."
Clark said softly, "Oh, I understand."
She paused, taken aback by the unexpectedly sweet comment. "Um, thanks … it's just that, well, sometimes I'm not very … um … nice. And I wasn't ever interested in him, but he wouldn't take a hint. He kept calling, and inviting me places, and if I told him I was busy, he'd keep calling, and asking me if I were mad at him, and was I still his friend, and … I don't know." She sighed. "He was just very hard to get through to, and he was a nice enough guy, so … I let him take me to dinner once. Once! I was going to let him down easy, but he just kept mis-interpreting what I was saying. It was really making me crazy." She took a deep metaphorical breath. "Anyway, the point is, he works for Carpenter — a couple of layers away, but they might still know each other — and I told him about my trip."
"So that might be how Carpenter found out," Clark summed up. "Well, I will definitely pay Alan a visit tomorrow — where does he work?"
"Oh, no," she contradicted. "You're not going without me; I want to see that weasel's face."
"Ooo-kay." Clark smiled faintly. "If that's the way you want it. Just, ah, let me know when you arrive tomorrow, so I can set it up."
"Deal." Lois paused, realizing that they'd probably reached the limit of things they could do tonight, investigation-wise. She didn't feel the least bit tired, so she would probably stay conscious for another few hours; the evening loomed large and empty. "So, you've got to be going, I guess."
Clark glanced guiltily at his watch. "Yeah, I guess so … what are you going to do tonight?"
She forced herself to sound cheerful. "Oh, I just figured on a quiet evening at home; you know, relax, watch some television…"
"Ah. Well, that sounds good." He stood, tidying up the few stray papers on his desk. He turned towards the elevators, hesitated, then turned back, speaking in a rush. "Do you want to come with me to dinner?"
Lois smiled at his nervousness. Maybe he did like her, after all. She struggled to keep her voice neutral. "What about your aunt?"
Clark shrugged. "She'd invite you herself if she — well, she's read your work and liked it, and she always tells me I can bring friends over." A smile played along his lips. "It's not like you'll eat too much."
Lois laughed, feeling immensely cheered at the prospect of an evening with a friend. "Okay, then, let's go."
"Aunt Opal, I'm here!" Clark called as he entered the hall of the townhouse. The walk from the Planet had been nice, if necessarily quiet; they had conversed only briefly, when no one had been close enough to think that Clark was talking to himself. He still wasn't quite sure what impulse had prompted him to invite Lois along to dinner; she would inevitably be relegated to invisible third-wheel status, which couldn't be much fun for her. He'd just hated the idea of her stuck in an empty apartment all evening … besides, when she was around, he knew for certain that he wasn't crazy.
"I'm in the kitchen," Aunt Opal replied. "How was your day?"
Feeling awkward, Clark turned to where he estimated Lois to be, and gestured gallantly towards the kitchen.
"Relax, Clark," she told him with a hint of amusement in her voice. "You don't need to open doors for me; I can manage perfectly well. Anyway, you don't want to look like Jimmy Stewart in 'Harvey'; he was committed."
Clark grinned at the mention of the classic movie. "You're hardly a six-foot tall invisible rabbit."
"Or so you assume," she pointed out, laughing. "I'm just saying, don't make yourself look crazy on my account — I'll be fine."
Clark shrugged, and started walking. "Suit yourself. But I'm not worried. If I *did* get committed, I'm sure you'd help me bust out again."
"Well, of course!" she laughed.
Smiling broadly, Clark entered the kitchen. "Hello, Aunt Opal. What's for dinner?"
She smiled at him from where she was standing at the stove, stirring the contents of a large metal pot. "Nothing special, I'm afraid — just my famous beef stew. Can you close that window, dear? The air felt good earlier but now it's a bit too cool."
"I think I can handle that." Suiting actions to words, he crossed the kitchen and closed the window. "Beef stew, huh? You wouldn't be experimenting with your secret recipe, now would you?"
Opal's eyes twinkled. "Maybe. Laura sent me some wonderful Arabic spices from Egypt, and I just had to play a little."
With the window closed, the savory smell of the stew filled the room. "Mmm, Aunt Opal, that smells great."
"Sure does," Lois chimed in. "It's almost enough to make *me* hungry."
"Well, it's almost done, so we'll just see how you like it, dear. Can you set the table for me? And no speeding around, please; it makes me too worried about my china."
"I'll be careful," he promised, knowing that she really wasn't worried; she just liked being able to talk to him while they were working. Clark busied himself setting the dining room table, resisting the impulse to set three places.
"So your aunt knows about your abilities too," Lois murmured. "Interesting. How many people do?"
"Only her and my parents," he whispered. "And you."
"So Clark," Aunt Opal called from the next room, "how was your day?"
He grimaced. "It was … weird. Remember I told you that Lois Lane was overseas on assignment? Well, we heard today that she'd been in an accident."
"Is she all right?"
"Ah, no, I'm afraid not." He paused, hating to say it, but realized he was in too deep to back out. "She's dead."
Aunt Opal peered in from the kitchen, her face distressed. "Oh, no! That poor girl — she was so young! And I know you were looking forward to meeting her."
Clark smiled wryly, remembering his excitement just a day or two ago about the prospect of meeting Lois. "Yeah. She is — was — something special. So I was investigating her last story, to see if I could find anything." Briefly, and leaving Lois out of it, he recounted their investigations.
Opal entered the dining room, carrying a covered basket of hot fresh bread. "That's such a tragedy. I certainly hope you get to the bottom of it."
"Well, I'm trying." He looked at his aunt, and noticed that she seemed a little tired. "Is the stew done? Should I bring it out?"
"Yes, dear — the serving dish is right next to the stove. Thank you." She settled into a chair.
He returned carrying the soup tureen, and set it in the middle of the table. "Here we go."
"Perfect. Shall we eat?"
They helped themselves to the food and began eating. "Aunt Opal, this stew is great."
"Yes, it did turn out well," she agreed. "I'll have to experiment further."
There was another short pause as they ate, but Clark was uneasily aware of how bored Lois must be, watching them. He searched for a topic of conversation.
"Aunt Opal, do you believe in ghosts?"
She looked up from her dinner, brows drawn in over bright brown eyes. "Ghosts? Whatever brought that on?"
"Gee, I dunno," Lois murmured, with a tinge of humor in her tone.
He smiled briefly. "Well, it's just that the news of this death … it got me thinking. So, do you?"
Opal sat back, regarding him thoughtfully. "As a rule, no. I believe in an omnipotent God who created the world, and created rules for the world. People live only once, and then face judgement."
"Well, what about the stories people tell, about haunted houses and things?"
She tilted her head, considering. "Well, I don't know for certain. But people can make things up, or imagine them. And I do believe in the supernatural, you know — there are angels and demons at work in the world."
"Oh, for pete's sake," Lois muttered. "I am *not* a demon."
"I'm not saying that everything unexplained is demonic, you understand," Opal continued. "But it's a possibility to be considered."
Clark's eyes widened. Had his aunt really just responded to Lois without knowing it? It must have been just a coincidence. He struggled to keep up his end of the conversation. "So how do you explain me, then? Some of the things I do could be called supernatural."
"Yes, dear," she smiled at him fondly, "but you're one of God's children all the same. As I said, God created rules for the world, and for the most part, he follows them. But sometimes, in special circumstances, he steps outside the rules. That's what we call a miracle."
"I feel like a teenager trying to find a place to neck."
Clark grinned at Lois's grumbling. "It wasn't that bad."
Well, maybe not, she silently conceded. It had been fun to watch Clark try to find a spot where they could talk in private after dinner. They had first retreated to his bedroom, but he had been so clearly uncomfortable that it hadn't been long before he'd started looking for an alternative. She wasn't sure whether it was entirely paranoia about being overheard, either … possibly he was embarrassed to have her in his room. Well, she could understand that. Being there had been oddly intimate, and given their circumstances, quite frustrating.
"Anyway, look at the view — it's one of the best things about this house."
"It's beautiful, Clark." She hadn't even realized that these old townhouses had access to the roof, let alone that there were tiny porches built into them. Night had fully fallen, and the other roofs in the row were deserted, so no one was likely to see them … and the lights of Metropolis were twinkling in all directions. "I love this city."
"Yep, I know what you mean," he said softly, leaning against the porch rail. "There's always something happening, that's for sure. I always loved visiting here when I was a kid. My dad could never handle city life for too long, and my mom was always busy stocking up on the sorts of things you can't buy in Smallville, so they turned me over to Aunt Opal and Aunt Laura. She's my mom's cousin. They always took me to the coolest places."
She smiled at the nostalgic pleasure in his expression. "So you visited here a lot?"
"Well, not a lot. Once or twice a year."
"I wonder if we ever did meet," she mused, gazing out over the city. "I grew up here, you know."
He thought about it for a moment, then shook his head. "Nope, we can't have. I wouldn't have forgotten such a beautiful girl."
Lois wasn't quite sure how to take that, but then she grinned, realizing the joke. "Easy for you to say; you've never seen me."
He turned towards her, sheepishly admitting, "I've seen your file picture. Bertie showed it to me."
"Oh." He really meant that? She'd been called beautiful before, but that had mostly been by men who hadn't really known her; who hadn't factored her acerbic, work-driven personality into the mix. Once they'd realized that her face came with a quick brain and a sharp tongue, their interest tended to fade. And come to think of it, that file picture wasn't very flattering. With that realization, she found a way to cover her confusion, and regain her balance. "Well, thanks … but it's a rotten picture, so it's obvious you need new glasses."
"Hmm." He was studying the city again, wearing a faint smile. "Anyway, I don't think we ever met. I wish we had."
"Yeah, me too," she admitted softly. Thinking back, she could clearly remember all the times she could have used a friend. Would he have joined the chess club in 10th grade? Looking him over now, she suspected that he would have been more of a jock, glasses or not. Well, she had spent her senior year trying desperately to escape her earlier geekdom and achieve "normalcy" — she'd even dated the quarterback, briefly. Not that there'd been anything wrong with Joe, apart from slight octopus tendencies, but she decided that Clark would have paid more attention … he would have seen beneath her carefully-primed surface, to the lonely girl inside.
And if she'd gone parking with Clark, instead of Joe, it would have been a much different experience. Clark wouldn't have been so blindly eager to get physical, for one thing … but she wouldn't have been so resistant to the idea, either. Just the thought of Clark's arms around her made her feel shivery … and made her want to cry. Damn this half-existence anyway, for showing her all she would be missing.
Lois resolved to pull herself together, and resolutely brought up the topic that both of them had been avoiding. "Do you think your Aunt Opal really heard me?"
Clark sighed, turning away from the railing to sit in one of the lawnchairs on the tiny porch. "I don't know. It sure sounded like she was responding to what you said, but on the other hand, I know she didn't realize you were there. It could have just been a coincidence."
"Yeah, probably," she replied briskly, moving to arrange herself on the other chair. She really couldn't decide if she were disappointed or relieved. "I was too shocked to try testing it again … I didn't want to startle her, you know?"
"You should try to get through to Perry, maybe," he suggested carefully.
She frowned at him. Was he trying to get rid of her? "I guess I can try. I mean, I can move things if I concentrate hard enough, so maybe I just need to shout." A memory presented itself. "He did seem aware of me when I first showed up, you know. I went into his office and he started worrying about me. He just didn't know I was right in front of him."
"But that's a start," he pointed out. "Maybe you just have to try harder."
"Maybe. But what am I going to say, anyway? 'Hi, it's me, I'm dead'?" She glanced sideways at him. He was watching the stars. Not that he could ever make eye contact with her, but this felt like more than the usual 'don't know where to look' problem. "Unless you'd rather I worked with him…"
He turned towards her, an anxious look on his face. "No, Lois, I'm not trying to get rid of you. I just thought … you might prefer someone familiar."
She smiled in relief. "Nah, you're okay. I think we're making a pretty good team, actually. So why don't I just get familiar with you?"
He laughed softly. "I wish you could. So what do you want to know?"
Lois paused for a moment, studying the man next to her. He looked so open, so vulnerable … and she felt just as vulnerable to him. She wished desperately that she could kiss him, that she could curl up in his arms and fly off with him, undisturbed by the world, forever. She wished for the impossible. Which did no one any good, so she pulled herself together by sheer force of will, and indulged her curiosity. "Um … when did you realize you were, uh, different?"
Clark seemed unsurprised by the question. "I think I was six when I realized that I was never sick. All the other kids would get colds and stuff, but I never did. I was pretty annoyed by that later, too," he added with a grin. "All my friends could pretend to be sick to skip school, but I never could."
She grinned. "I bet you loved school. So what else?"
"By the time I hit twelve or thirteen, I was starting to get very strong, and very fast. It was really cool, and my parents were great about it, but it was scary, too. I didn't know what was happening to me. I just kept hiding it from everybody, except Mom and Dad. And I started seeing through things. That was … weird."
"I can imagine," she mused. "It was probably almost as weird as me being able to put my hand through things."
Clark paused and slanted a glance her way. "Are you trying to one-up my weirdness?"
She winced. "No, I'm sorry, did it sound that way? I was just trying to empathize, really. I'll be quiet, go on."
"It's okay, I guess maybe you really can understand. I mean, obviously it's different…"
"But still similar." She had known that she felt a bond with him; this only reinforced it. They had more in common than she'd first thought, but his differences still intrigued her, and attracted her all the more. "So when did you start with the flying thing?"
"Ah, the flying thing," he grinned, his teeth a flash of white in the dimness. "That was unexpected. Even after all the other stuff. I was eighteen, in the spring of my senior year. It was one of those perfect spring days, you know? The kind of day where you just want to be outside and enjoy the wind, the sun, the smell of the earth, the colors…"
Lois, who viewed the outdoors mainly as a means to an end, found herself nodding. "So you were just walking around?"
"Walking, running, jumping … the great thing about growing up on a farm is that there's plenty of land where no one can see you. I was pretending I was doing track, with sprints, and hurdles, and high jumps … until the time I jumped, and just kind of forgot to come down again. When I realized I was fifteen feet in the air, I crashed down in a panic." He laughed at the memory.
Lois chuckled along with him. "Falling from floating?"
"It *is* possible," he affirmed with a lilt of humor. "But I've rarely done it since then. Anyway, I practiced for a little bit — I had to wait until dark to really go anywhere. I was so excited I didn't want to sleep. Mom and Dad told me to be careful with it, of course, but after they were in bed, I went out again. In fact," he looked around conspiratorially. "I got a little overconfident. I was so anxious to try out this new perk, and eager to share, that I flew here to Metropolis. Landed on this very roof — see that crack in the railing over in that corner?"
Eagerly, she turned, and saw that the heavy wood was indeed cracked, with part of it slightly askew. "You did that?"
"I wasn't too good at landings, yet. And then I just walked downstairs to see Aunt Opal."
"Clark," Lois scolded, unable to restrain a hint of laughter. "You must have scared the life out of her!"
Abashed, he ducked his head a bit. "Well, she obviously survived, but she claims that I was responsible for quite a few gray hairs! Aunt Laura wasn't here at the time, and I asked Aunt Opal not to tell my folks, so you're the only other one who knows. I was really wiped out by the trip, so she let me sleep a few hours here, and I snuck back home in the morning."
Lois smiled. "That reminds me of a time that I snuck out of the house, to go to a journalism seminar — my dad was dead-set on me going into medicine, just like him, but I —" She noticed that he was tensing up, staring off into the distance. "Okay, it wasn't as cute a story as yours, but —"
"I hear sirens," he explained, and now she could see that he did appear to be listening intently to something beyond her hearing.
"Where? What kind?" she asked softly, her journalistic instincts rising to the fore.
He listened for a moment longer, then sat back, relaxing fractionally. "There's a fire in the Troy Hills district — not too big, I don't think. They can handle it."
"Sure they can," she responded in pride, covering a quick internal calculation. Troy Hills was at least two miles away — impressive hearing, indeed. "Our emergency services are great. Mind you, I had to run an expose on the sorry state of their funding two years ago, but even then the people were terrific. Now they've got the equipment to back them up."
"That's good." He smiled briefly. "I should have known you had a hand in it."
Lois shrugged. "I try to help out where I can." She paused, watching him. He was too keyed up over those sirens not to care. "I think you do, too."
"I try, but…" He grimaced. "I could do so much more."
"So why don't you?"
"Because I want to have a *life*." Clark rose and paced over to the railing. "If I flew down there, and blew out that fire, I could save lives, maybe … but can you imagine what the press coverage would be?"
"The Daily Planet would treat you right!" she said indignantly, then paused. "Some of the others, though … I don't know about the Star, and the Whisper would make your life hell."
He waved that off impatiently. "I could deal with that, and maybe I should — there has to be a reason I have all these … gifts. I should be using them. I feel so selfish when I don't. But I just can't expose my family to all that."
Lois let her imagination run wild for a moment, and shuddered at the thought of what a ravening pack of tabloid reporters would do to Aunt Opal. And that was assuming that no one acquired a grudge against Clark; if she as a mere reporter had gained enemies, she could only assume that he would, too. And enemies often preferred to strike indirectly — she'd gotten one such threat against Lucy that had scared her worse than all the others combined. "No, you can't."
He turned to face her. "I sometimes still help … sneaking in too fast to be seen, or when it's dark."
"Good for you. But you have to be careful, Clark." There had to be a way around this problem, but she couldn't quite see it yet.
"I am," he assured her. "They've got the fire under control, by the way."
"Good." She added lightly, "I'd hate to see Metropolis burn down the second my back was turned."
His face lightened at her attempt at humor, and he sat down beside her once more. "Nope, can't have that."
A comfortable silence grew as they silently watched the stars twinkle overhead. Lois felt awash with contentment, and not a bit tired. Tonight had been like a first date in some ways … a bit more melancholy than most, but thankfully lacking in tension. Clark was so easy to talk to, and easy to listen to. She was tempted to fall back into self-pity over what she'd missed, but decided instead to focus on what she had. If she hadn't been a ghost, she'd probably have treated him as one, brushing right past him, seeing him only as her competition. At least this way, she could be friends with him. She hadn't enjoyed an evening so much in years … she hoped he felt the same way. "It's getting kind of late. You tired?"
"Nah, I'm fine. You?"
"Oh, I'm doing great. I'll probably be up for hours. But you know, you wouldn't have to — I mean, you have to work in the morning —"
Clark shook his head firmly. "I'm fine, Lois. Quit trying to get rid of me. I don't need a lot of sleep, and even if I did, I'm not leaving. Not while you're still here."
"Oh." Her heart warmed, and her resolve to avoid self-pity wavered. "Thanks," she whispered.
"My pleasure. So, um…" He paused, apparently searching for a new topic of conversation. "You said earlier that your hand went right through things. So how did you move that file in Carpenter's office?"
"Hard work," she replied lazily. "If I concentrate really hard, I can touch things. It tires me out, though."
"Ah. Guess you'd better save it for the important things, then."
"Probably." She glanced at him, and saw his hand lying invitingly close on the chair's armrest. Maybe she could… Staring intently, she studied the back of his hand for a moment before moving hers towards it. Entirely forgetting to breathe, hardly daring to hope, she let her hand hover over his for a moment, feeling his warmth even before she gathered her courage and gently lowered her hand over his.
He felt warm and alive in her palm, and a tingle shot through her at the contact. Holding his hand felt almost as natural as talking to him — not nearly the strain she had braced for. The very ease of it sent worry shooting through her — was she just imagining this touch? She ached to ask him if he felt it, too, but the possibility of a negative reply kept her silent. Even the illusion of feeling was better than nothing.
Still, she couldn't keep herself from shyly raising her eyes to his face — to find him staring at his hand in something akin to awe. Hoarsely, hesitantly, he asked, "Lois … is that…? I mean, are you…?"
Heart overflowing with emotion, she squeezed his hand gently. "Yep. I am."
He glanced up at her, managing a good approximation of eye contact. A soft smile settled over his face, an uncanny match to the one on hers. "Thank you."
Carefully keeping in contact, not daring to test their luck by moving, they settled back into their chairs, watching the stars in companionable silence.
Eventually, Lois felt her eyes drift shut as a pleasant sleepiness enfolded her. Beyond the drowsiness, however, she felt the gentle pull of the darkness. "Clark?" she whispered. "I think it's time for me to go."
He was silent, and she wondered if he had fallen asleep. Then he replied, "Okay. See you in the morning then?"
"I hope so, yeah."
"Good night, Lois."
"Good night, Clark." Silently, as the darkness closed in, she added, 'I love you.'
The newsroom was a somber place again the next day, the usual cheerful clatter subdued by the specter of sudden death. Clark filled his morning with some left-over paperwork for Bertie, but his mind wasn't on it. He kept replaying the memory of the previous night. He'd never had an evening that had been more enjoyable, or more heart-breaking. From the moment he'd seen her picture, he'd felt a connection to Lois Lane, and getting to know her as a disembodied spirit had only deepened that bond. She might even return his feelings … he was pretty sure that she did, in fact, but he had no idea what might come of it all. All he'd wanted to do was to have a normal life … a job, friends, a girl … yet everything was complicated and tangled almost beyond recognition. He couldn't ever take her home to his parents — he wasn't even sure he should *mention* her to his parents, and he'd never kept secrets from them before.
He'd thought, when he saw Lois's picture, that he'd found his destiny. Destiny apparently had a mean sense of humor.
"Clark, in my office, now!"
Perry's gruff command cut across his dismal reflections, and he abandoned them gladly. "Sir?" He crossed the newsroom in quick steps, noting absently as he entered Perry's office that Ginny was away from her desk.
"Have a seat, Clark." Perry directed, sitting himself behind the desk. "Now, Ginny tells me that you went to see Carpenter of Adastra yesterday. I admire initiative in my reporters, but I prefer that they have good reasons before they hare off and disturb the city's movers and shakers."
Clark sat on the edge of his chair. "Chief, Research revealed that Adastra was the parent company of Rarer There. I just asked him a few questions — has he called to complain about me?"
"Well, no, luckily. But Carpenter has no love for this paper, Kent. We've only got so much access to him, and I'd prefer not to waste it on wild goose chases."
"I was very polite," Clark assured his boss. "But I think he was lying to me — he's involved in this."
Perry leaned forward, his attention fully engaged. "How do you figure?"
"Well, sir, while I was there…" Clark stumbled, verbally, as he tried to rewrite history on the fly. "I, ah, got a quick look at some of his files."
Perry raised a sardonic eyebrow. "Do I want to know exactly *how* you got this look?" At Clark's flush, he snorted. "I didn't think so. Never mind. Just remember we only print stories that we can prove, and stolen glances aren't proof."
"Yes, sir, I understand. But from what I saw, Carpenter is definitely involved in Qtun somehow. He shipped those guns there — I don't know why, yet, but I will find out."
Perry considered that for a moment, then nodded. "You do that. And remember, we're a team here at the Planet — feel free to ask for help if something comes up that you're unfamiliar with." He reached for one of the many folders on his desk, lecturing absently, "You're good, but you're still new to the city. A native guide, so to speak, can be invaluable."
"Yes, sir." Clark fought the urge to grin. "I'll keep that in mind. Was that all?"
"Hmm? Oh, yes, that was it. Oh, one last thing … the memorial service will be held at the end of this week … Dr. and Mrs. Lane are flying in. I'd sure like to have an explanation for them when they get here."
"I'll do my best, sir."
Clark returned to his desk, trying to think of some way to prove Carpenter's involvement. He knew full well that what little they had wouldn't stand up in court — what judge would listen to testimony from someone who'd been talking to ghosts? They needed to get those files legally, which meant a search warrant, and no judge would issue one without probable cause. They didn't even have that much to go on. Maybe Lois knew someone in the Metropolis police force who'd be willing to help out, but he doubted it. There had to be a way. Otherwise, Carpenter would get away with murder, and that was simply unacceptable.
Clark took a deep breath, willing himself to calm down. This problem had to be approached rationally. To distract himself, he thought again of last night's rooftop conversation, choosing to focus on the positive aspects. It had been a beautiful night, one he thought he would remember for the rest of his life. It had been surprisingly easy to tell her about his childhood; he regretted that the sirens had interrupted and forestalled her own stories. >From what few hints he had, he surmised that her family life was not ideal, though she seemed close to her sister. How strong she must have been, to emerge from a tumultuous childhood with a passion for justice, and her sense of humor intact. Maybe later today he could encourage her to open up some more.
The more he thought about it, the more he felt that Lois should at least try to make contact with Lucy. Lois might be dead, but she wasn't altogether gone, and surely Lucy would prefer a piece of her sister to nothing at all. Clark certainly did. Not that he wouldn't trade nearly anything to have her alive again.
Lois regained consciousness with her own words ringing in her ears. 'Good night, Clark … I love you.'
Had she really said that? Had she even *thought* it? She'd known him for less than a day, really. It must just have been the intimacy of the setting, looking out over the city, together in the sheltering night. Or possibly left-over exhilaration from being able to touch his hand. She hadn't said that last part out loud, had she?
Alone in the darkness, the reality of her circumstances weighed heavily on her. She didn't know why she was still in this world at all, or how long she would remain. The ever-present light beckoned, a little bit stronger than before, and she somehow knew that if she crossed that threshold she would not return. No, she wasn't willing to leave Metropolis and the remnants of her life behind just yet.
And Clark Kent was the main reason she didn't want to go. Not only because he was able to interact with her, although that was wonderful, but because *he* was wonderful, and something about him spoke to her on a level so deep she might never have heard it amongst the everyday hustle and bustle of her life. Stripped of her usual distractions, she was able to see him clearly. He was a good man, the kind of man she'd always subconsciously hoped for, but had long ago given up on finding. She felt again the wash of loneliness that had assaulted her under that tree in Qtun. It had broached her carefully-constructed defenses, made her vulnerable. And she was very much afraid that she had fallen in love.
'Just what he needs,' she told herself viciously. 'A ghost who's in love with him. That'll make him very comfortable, won't it.' Even though he'd be far too polite to say so. Although… Pausing, she had to admit that he had seemed to have some feelings for her, as well. Maybe he'd even grow to love her, if she could keep from making him crazy in the meantime, and they had managed to touch. She wondered absently how much energy it would take to sustain a more full-body sort of contact, and whether it would become easier with practice…
A sharp jolt of pain in her chest shocked her. Looking around, she realized that she'd gotten much too close to the light. Or it had gotten too close to her, whichever. The pain eased as she hastily backed away, her fantasies crumbling.
Even if Clark was interested in her, it would hardly be fair to encourage him. He needed someone else to love — someone with a pulse, for starters. She would help him get this story, but then she would have to try to be more independent. Lois Lane had never depended on a man before, and she wasn't about to start now. Maybe she could get through to Perry, or to someone else.
With that decision firmly in mind, she began the trip towards the Daily Planet newsroom, feeling the now-familiar sensation of rushing forward as the darkness slipping past picked up color and solidified, and she had arrived. Looking around, she saw that it was morning. Good, not too much time wasted. She spied Clark at his desk, and moved across towards him.
'Business, Lois,' she reminded herself sternly. 'We will be all business.' Still, as she came up behind him she couldn't resist the temptation to experiment, and lightly reached out to touch his shoulder.
Clark jumped slightly, and turned around, only to frown as he saw no one.
"Good morning, Clark," Lois greeted him briskly. "Ready to talk to Alan?"
He relaxed as he realized it was her, and smiled a bit before getting his face under control. He turned back to his desk, pretending to be engrossed in his paperwork. Softly, he replied, "I'm ready whenever you are. So where do we find him, anyway?"
"AlphaDynamics has their main facility on Washington and Fifth. He does something with statistical analysis — he explained it in great detail, you understand, but I was busy plotting my escape so I didn't really pay much attention."
"Do you know his phone number?"
"Yeah, it's in my — oh." Worry struck, along with frustration at yet another limitation. "It's in my rolodex. They haven't packed up my desk yet, have they?"
"Don't think so," he reassured her. "But I've got the main number," he indicated the Adastra annual report, "so all I really need is his last name."
Lois composed herself. "That, I know. Langstrom." It was on the tip of her tongue to recommend that he try to snag her rolodex — she kept most, though not all, of her contacts listed there, and it would be an invaluable resource to him. On the other hand, if she gave it to him, that might imply they had a future working together, and she wasn't sure that was wise.
"Okay, then…" He picked up the phone and dialed.
Lois let her attention wander as Clark went through the tedium of setting up an immediate meeting. The newsroom still seemed rather subdued, although it was beginning to get back to normal. She spied Ginny Olsen returning to her desk from the direction of the ladies room, looking pale, and her heart went out to her friend. Ginny had always been nice to her, although Lois was guiltily aware that she hadn't always been kind to Ginny in return. Not that there was much she could do about it now.
She turned her attention back to Clark, and found him hanging up the phone. After a second, though, he picked up the handset once more, keeping an unobtrusive finger on the switchhook. "You still here?"
"Yep. When do we get to see him?"
"In an hour. I don't know if you were listening—"
"I wasn't," she confessed.
He grinned briefly. "I thought not, you were being way too quiet. Anyway, I told him I wanted to ask him a few questions about your relationship. He seemed a bit flustered, but not guilty, you know?"
"Alan never feels guilty, he just likes making *other* people feel guilty," she groused, but at his raised eyebrow she relented. "But no, I don't think he was directly involved. He's an accountant, for pete's sake!"
His grin returned, more adorable than before. "That doesn't prove anything," he replied, "even accountants can —" Abruptly, he stopped, looking at something behind her, and composed his features.
She turned to see Ginny approaching.
Clark muttered a quick, "Talk to you later," then hung up the phone, turning to face Ginny. "Hi, Ginny, how are you?"
"I'm managing," Ginny replied, with a wan smile. "I just came to let you know the details about the memorial service for Lois. We should be getting her … remains, and effects, in a few days, so we've planned the service for Saturday. You're invited, but attendance isn't mandatory."
Lois shivered at the mention of her remains, and found refuge in black humor. "Ask her if you can bring a date, Clark — I can't wait to hear the eulogies."
A spasm of distaste crossed Clark's face.
Ginny frowned slightly. "Well, if you're not going to be there, we could use some help getting a paper printed that day."
"No, I'll be there," Clark corrected her, his eyes slightly narrowed as he glanced around the empty air. "I just, um, hate funerals."
Ginny sighed. "Who doesn't? And speaking of unpleasant chores, have you gotten those extra boxes yet, for packing up her apartment?"
"Ah, um, no. I've been busy, um … editing stories for Ralph."
That distracted her. "He's got you editing for him? He's supposed to be showing you around the city!"
Clark shrugged, feigning innocence. "He said he needed some help. And believe me, he did."
"Of course he did," she muttered, looking more annoyed all the time. "But he should be working *with* you. I'll soon straighten him out."
"Ah, good idea. I'll just keep working on this gun-running story, and check in later, okay?"
She waved acquiescence, already half-way across the room towards her prey.
Lois chuckled. "Ralph is *so* dead meat."
Clark shot an annoyed glance in her general direction. "I thought *I* was dead meat, thanks to you."
She sobered, aware that she'd made him look like a jerk. "I'm sorry. I just have a hard time hearing about…"
He sighed, looking slightly guilty. "I know. It's just frustrating." He glanced around the newsroom, then at his watch. "Come on, let's get over to see your boyfriend."
They made the trip in strained silence. Clark tried to analyze the change in Lois today … she seemed more distant, somehow. After last night, he'd thought they might have reached a new understanding, but perhaps it had all been an illusion. Of course, he hadn't helped matters by venting his frustration at her — she was just trying to deal with a macabre situation as well as she could. He wasn't comfortable with the picture Ginny was getting of him, but if he couldn't conceal his reactions better than that, it was his own fault, not Lois's. He'd learned to hide a lot of things in his lifetime; this would just be one more to master.
"This is it," Lois said quietly, and he looked up to see AlphaDynamics' corporate logo adorning a glass-fronted office building. They entered, and a few moments later boarded a sleek elevator.
Once the doors closed, Clark seized the moment. "Lois, I'm sorry … I know this is a bizarre situation."
"Yeah, it is," she admitted, thawing slightly. "Let's just get the story, and get through this week."
It wasn't quite the reconciliation he'd been hoping for, but with a soft chime, the elevator stopped, delivering them to Alan's floor. A vigilant secretary came over to greet him, and helped him find his way.
"Mr. Langstrom, I'm Clark Kent," he greeted, holding out his hand.
Alan rose from his seat to absently shake hands, then abruptly pulled back. "You're the one who was in Lois's apartment yesterday!"
Funny, it seemed longer ago than just yesterday. "Ah, yes, I was. I apologize for my conduct on the phone — I had just received a bit of a shock."
Alan reseated himself, motioning Clark to a chair on the other side of the desk. "So why were you in her apartment, anyway? I don't remember her mentioning you."
"No, we hadn't met — I was just there as a favor to a friend." He shrugged dismissively as he sat down. "Mr. Langstrom, I have a few questions for you, if you don't mind."
Alan eyed him suspiciously. "All right."
"Well, I wanted to know … did Miss Lane tell you that she was going on a trip?"
"Yes, of course."
"And did she tell you where she was going?"
"Well, not at first." Alan relaxed a bit, and warmed to his favorite subject. "She's so bashful about her work at times."
Clark ducked his head, faking a cough to cover his instinctive laughter. Lois, bashful? Were they talking about the same woman?
Beside him, he heard a slightly embarrassed Lois murmur, "I thought it might discourage him if I never talked about anything. No such luck."
He cleared his throat and faced Alan again, face once more under control. "But you say she did open up eventually?"
"Indeed. Slow and steady wins the race, you know — or in this case, the woman." Alan winked in a gesture that was no doubt meant to be manly camaraderie, but which only emphasized his inner geek.
"I see. Well, ah … may I ask exactly how much she told you?"
Alan pursed his lips. "Just that she was going to Africa on some big story — she refused to tell me what it was, exactly. She did mention the Congo, and Qtun City. I do hope the story pans out for her; she was so excited about it, and I know her confidence must have been sorely shaken after that pulp mill fiasco upstate. She bungled that one rather badly, so she really needed a good story to reassure herself."
Lois was quietly reciting, "I will not kill him, I will not kill him," and interrupted herself to add, "Clark, nod your head to show me that you understand that this dimwit hasn't got a clue."
His lips twitching, he nodded. "Mr. Langstrom, what do you know about Qtun City?"
Alan's brows drew together. "Not much at the time. After she mentioned it, I did a little research, you know, talked to a few friends. It's amazing, but in a city this size it seems easy to find someone who knows something about … anything, really."
Clark's heart sank at the mention of a few friends; following this trail might not be as straightforward as they'd hoped. But he didn't want to fluster Alan, so he made himself ask casually, "And did you find someone?"
Alan smiled happily. "Yes, it was my friend John — I should have known, really. He's a goldmine of information."
"John who?" Lois demanded.
Clark echoed her, in a more controlled tone. "John who?"
Alan looked blank. "John Carpenter, of course."
"YES!" Lois crowed triumphantly.
Clark winced, and even Alan seemed a bit startled. "I say, did you hear that?"
"Hear what?" Clark asked, somewhat curious as to how Lois was perceived by others.
"Oh, a faint, short noise…" Alan shook his head. "Probably just those maniacs in marketing upstairs. Never mind that. You come in here asking all these questions, and I want to know why. What has happened to Lois?"
"Ah. Well, you see, two days ago, while Lois was in Qtun, she had … an accident." He hesitated, reluctant to spell it out when Lois was right there.
"It's okay, Clark," she assured him wryly. "It won't come as a shock to me."
Alan was staring at Clark in confusion, with a touch of fear. "What? What kind of accident?"
There was no way around it. "A fatal one. Her Jeep blew up, and we suspect sabotage."
Alan went white, and for a moment Clark feared that he was about to faint. "Alan?"
"I'm okay," Alan whispered, closing his eyes and breathing deeply for a moment. "I'll be fine, I just … I never thought … I knew her job was dangerous, but I didn't really expect —"
"It's been difficult for all of us," Clark said, feeling a spark of genuine empathy for the man.
"Me included," Lois interjected. Clark dared a shushing gesture at her while Alan's eyes were closed.
"I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Mr. Langstrom, but I'm investigating her death, and the story that may have led to it. So, you discussed this with Mr. Carpenter?"
"Do you think I shouldn't have?" Alan looked plaintively at Clark for a second, then let his gaze wander as his attention turned inward. "It's just that I didn't know quite what to make of her leaving, and John's always given me good advice in the past."
"Really?" Clark prompted as neutrally as he could.
"I've known John for a while now," Alan rambled, still staring into space. "He's my boss, really, but we're members of the same club, too. And ever since I met Lois, I was so unsure of what to do — he's been wonderful. He kept encouraging me to call her — Lois tried to tell me that she wasn't interested, but John said that just meant she was unsure of her feelings, and that I should just be as reassuring and persistent as I could. She was so beautiful…"
"I don't believe it," Lois muttered, with a strong suggestion of clenched teeth. "Not only is he a pathetic loser, he's a spy, too."
Clark frowned at her. Alan had obviously been a victim here, too, and even if his feelings hadn't been returned, they were still real to him. "So I've heard, Mr. Langstrom."
Alan pulled himself together a bit, focusing Clark with a beseeching look. "Shouldn't I have mentioned it to John? I know he's not fond of her work, but that doesn't mean…"
Clark grimaced. "Well, you see, I talked to Mr. Carpenter yesterday, and he said he had no knowledge of Miss Lane's trip. Would you be willing to state otherwise, for the record?"
Alan blinked in confusion, then straightened. "I would. If I've done anything to harm Lois, I will never forgive myself; the least I can do is help uncover the truth."
"I appreciate it, Mr. Langstrom," Clark replied softly. "And don't be too hard on yourself, you had no way of knowing. And we don't even know yet that Carpenter was involved, so this may all be a wild goose chase. All the same though … please don't mention any of this to your friend John."
"Oh, no! Certainly not. You needn't worry."
"Thank you." Clark stood and shook Alan's hand. "I'm sorry for your loss," he added sincerely.
"Yes, well, yes," Alan muttered somewhat disjointedly as Clark left.
As they entered the elevator again, Lois sighed. "Sometimes I hate it when I'm right."
"It's not enough," Clark argued. After leaving Alan's office, they had decided to spend some time in nearby Centennial Park, where they could hopefully find a quiet spot to talk.
"Clark, you know Carpenter's behind all this," Lois countered, barely noticing the tranquil surroundings. They'd passed the fountain, and were now wandering around the park's foot paths, surrounded by bushes and a few trees on one side, and a mid-sized pond on the other. This early in the day the park was only thinly populated, which gave them relative freedom to plan. And argue.
"Yeah, I know, Lois, but our problem is a little thing called 'proof,' as in, we don't have any."
"I heard him talk to the guy who killed me!" she protested indignantly.
"So you want to tell that to a judge?" He lifted a sardonic eyebrow in her direction, and she deflated slightly.
"Okay, so that part's inadmissible, but we've got to have something."
"Well, let's review." Clark held up a hand, ticking off bullet points on his fingers. Before she could stop herself, she noted what nice hands he had, then firmly wrenched her mind back on topic. "Carpenter is shipping guns to an obscure little country in Africa. The guns are smuggled, since they're deceptively packaged. Carpenter found out that you were headed to that same obscure little country, and, not being a dumb man, he got worried. So to cover his tracks —"
"And get revenge on me for how close I *almost* came to bringing him down last month," she interjected.
"And revenge, okay," he amended with a nod. "So he told one of his local bully-boys to make sure you never made it back. How did you hook up with this guy, anyway?"
Lois grimaced. "I was careless," she muttered, annoyed with herself. "I got into town, and the shipment was nearly there — I needed a native guide quickly. I asked the hotel manager about it, and a little bit later Mohammed showed up as a volunteer. I didn't think anything about it at the time, but he must have been waiting for me. I should have known better," she concluded in disgust.
Clark shrugged. "I don't see how you could have avoided it. You've gotta trust somebody, sometime —"
Lois laughed. "I can tell you're new in town."
His lips twitched, but otherwise he ignored her. "And asking for a native guide is exactly what anybody would have done."
"I still should have known better," she insisted. She'd been suspicious of the man from the start, but in her excitement over the story she hadn't properly assessed the risk. She'd been prepared for him to spy on her; she hadn't taken precautions against a murder attempt. "But then I never have been good at checking the water level before jumping in. I just — charge straight ahead, no matter what … usually, it's worked." She sighed. Perry had warned her often enough.
Clark shrugged again, noncommittally. "Well, anyway, what we need to do is find a way to get Carpenter locked up. I don't know that we can do it for murder, but there's got to be something."
"Okay, let's see … he's smuggled guns. Looks to me like he's involved in a conspiracy to overthrow the government of Qtun, although I can't imagine why he'd care…"
Clark looked up. "Is that where the guns were going?"
"Yeah — didn't I tell you?" She stared at him in surprise. "No, I didn't tell you! Clark, you have to warn them!"
"Warn who?" he asked, looking momentarily confused.
"The government of Qtun — they have a consulate here in Metropolis, I got my visa there — you have to tell them that there's an armed group massing north of the city. I don't know when they were planning on making their move, but it looked like it was imminent."
"Okay, yeah, I can do that." Clark paused for a moment. "I think I'll offer an anonymous tip, to start, since I can't exactly quote my source. Was this what Carpenter was afraid you'd put in your laptop?"
"Yeah, I think so. But we really can't do too much about the Africa side of things right now … so what are we missing here in Metropolis?" She stared unseeing across the pond, deep in thought. She had the feeling that she was missing something, but it just wasn't coming to her … did being dead affect your brain? She rejected that paranoid worry; she was probably just too close to the answer to see it.
"Well, you know Carpenter," Clark pointed out. "What's his normal mode of operations?"
"Profits at any cost," she replied automatically. "With some middleman poised to take the fall for him." There was something there, if only she could tease it out.
"Just like at the pulp mill, right?" Clark helpfully prompted.
"Right. He blamed that all on the plant foreman … and the EPA inspector that … he…" She felt a surge of triumph as her intuition hopscotched logic and skipped straight to a final conclusion. "Bribes. He bribed the EPA inspector then, he'll be bribing someone on the docks now — someone who makes sure that the crates are loaded without being inspected, without any questions asked. Probably the customs inspector, or it could be one of the senior union men."
Clark was nodding slowly as he tried to follow her. "Yeah, that makes sense. So if we can find whoever it is, and if we can get him to testify…"
"We could get Carpenter on smuggling and weapons charges," she finished for him. "And that'd probably be enough to trigger an investigation into the rest of it."
He smiled. "Yep, it probably would. Have I told you that it's a pleasure working with you?"
Lois felt her nonexistent stomach flutter and warm at the sight of his smile. "Why, thank you, Mr. Kent. Likewise. Just remember that I'm the senior partner."
"Yes, ma'am." Laughing, he saluted in her general direction.
"Hey, mister, who ya talking to?"
At the unexpected voice, Lois turned to see a small boy standing behind them in the path, his head tipped sideways in unabashed curiosity.
Clark smiled at him. "Hey there, buddy — I didn't see you coming."
The boy regarded him gravely. "So then who were ya talking to?"
Lois felt for her partner's embarrassment, but she couldn't help but find it a little funny, too. "Don't worry, Clark, it's not the first time people have talked to thin air in *this* park," she advised, her voice betraying some of her amusement.
Clark pointed a stern finger at her. "You be quiet." Then, he crouched down to the child's eye level. "Have you ever had an imaginary friend?"
The boy hesitantly nodded, his eyes wide and searching, torn between watching Clark and searching the air for a sign of the imaginary friend. Lois managed, with some effort, to keep from giggling out loud.
"Well, so do I," Clark continued, keeping steady eye contact. "She helps me think things through."
The boy nodded again, a little more enthusiastically, but then he frowned. "My mom said that invisible friends are for babies. I'm a big boy." Doubtfully, he assessed Clark's size. "Aren't you a big boy?"
Clark smiled. "Well, sort of. But the great thing about being a *really* big boy — a grown up — is that sometimes you can act like a little kid again."
A woman pushing a stroller crested the hill, looking worried. "Patrick? Oh, there you are … please don't run ahead of us that way!"
Patrick made a face, but dutifully apologized. "I was just talking," he added in his defense.
"Well, come on, it's time to go home!" she said crossly, waiting at the top of the hill and keeping a wary eye on Clark.
"Go easy on him," Lois couldn't help suggesting, remembering her own childhood adventures in this park. "It's a beautiful day; you guys should get some ice cream before you leave." There were still a few ice cream carts around the park, weren't there? She couldn't remember.
Clark stood up again. "Nice meeting you, Patrick."
"Bye!" Patrick ran back towards his mother.
When he got there, she smiled slightly. "Thanks for coming so quickly, Patrick. Hey, want to get some ice cream before we leave?"
Lois and Clark both waited until the small family was out of sight before moving again. "Clark, did you hear that?"
"About the ice cream? Yeah. You think it was a coincidence?"
"I don't know." An idea began brewing in the back of her mind. This was the third time that someone had responded to something she'd said to them. Neither Perry, Aunt Opal or Patrick's mother had seemed aware that she was there, but still, they'd picked up on her comments on some level. Alan hadn't seemed to, but then she hadn't been talking to him; maybe that made a difference. Or maybe Alan was just as dense in this area as he was in most others. She still didn't know quite what to do with this new … talent, but decided to let her subconscious work on the problem for a while. "I guess the park wasn't quite as private as I'd hoped," she apologized. "That was close."
Clark chuckled wryly. "It's becoming a habit, I think. I'm sure I'll get better at excuses, though, with more practice."
"Oh, I thought this one was pretty good, actually." Lois looked back towards the hill where she'd last seen Patrick, musing aloud, "You're beloved by small boys *and* by old ladies … you sure are different from most of the men I've known."
"Well, that's not saying much," he teased. "I mean, your last boyfriend wasn't much of a prize."
She glared at him, pique warring with laughter. "Stop calling Alan my boyfriend or I'll have to hit you — I can do that now, you know."
"Go ahead," he informed her smugly, "I'm invulnerable."
"Hah! That's what you think," she muttered darkly, for lack of any more convincing threat.
Clark laughed, a sound so joyous that it evaporated the last of her irritation. "I live in fear, I promise you. So, madam senior partner, if we can get back to the story … what do we do next?"
Lois paused, considering their options. "We could nose around on the docks, do lots of boring legwork and interviews. Orrrr…" She dragged the word out, just to enjoy his inquisitive expression. "We could go straight to the top and see Carpenter again." Inspiration struck. "Oh, yeah, we're definitely going to see Carpenter. We," she announced gleefully, "are going to haunt him."
Clark checked his watch for the third time in three minutes. It was almost time to leave for their second interview with Carpenter, but Lois hadn't yet returned. She'd faded out shortly after explaining her plan in the park, so he had filled his time with a quick call to the Qtun consulate, lunch with Aunt Opal, and a remedial grammar lesson with Ralph. He'd made the appointment with Carpenter fairly late in the afternoon in order to give Lois time to rest and rejoin him, but so far, there'd been no hint of her, and it was almost time to leave…
A familiar chill invaded the room, and Clark relaxed. "That was cutting it close," he murmured, gathering up a few file folders and heading for the elevator.
"Sorry," she replied, easily keeping pace. "I don't exactly have control over it, I'm afraid."
He punched the button for the ground floor and watched the car doors close. "I'm just glad you made it back. Oh, and I figured out one of our missing pieces — got the information from Aunt Opal of all people!"
Lois laughed delightedly. "Really? What did she find out?
"Well, apparently, there's an area in Qtun that's supposed to have a fortune in platinum and some strategic metals … but it's partially on sacred ground of one of the minority tribes. The government has forbidden any mining in favor of keeping the peace, but there's an insurgent group that would like nothing better than to exterminate this tribe. My guess is, Carpenter has an agreement with the insurgents — he helps them take over the country, they let him start mining operations."
"Wow." She was silent for a moment, then continued. "That fits in with some of the files I glimpsed in his office. Well, good work, Aunt Opal! How on earth did she figure this out, anyway?"
"She has her sources — in this case, a geology professor at her faculty club. I'll be lucky if I can accumulate *half* her contacts." The elevator stopped and they exited into the lobby.
As they crossed to the revolving door, Lois replied, "Sources are the lifeblood of journalism, as Perry likes to say." She paused, then continued with a shade more constraint in her voice. "Which reminds me — you should try to snag my rolodex. I've got — had — quite a network built up. It'll help you a lot. I'd probably have to introduce you around, though — some of them are a little…"
"Eccentric?" Clark suggested.
"Weird," she replied firmly. "And I can't guarantee they'll all talk to you, since you're not me, but if you didn't mind me tagging along while you talked to them the first time, they'd probably be really helpful."
"Thank you," he replied, walking briskly down the street towards the Adastra building. "And what's this about *minding* if you tag along? I thought this was a partnership."
"Well, I just thought…" Her voice trailed off, sounding oddly embarrassed. She tried again. "I know it makes you crazy when you can't talk to me, and then when you do talk to me, it makes you *look* crazy, so you really can't win, and that's bound to get real old, real fast."
Clark shook his head firmly, trying to mask how appalled he felt at the prospect of losing what little of her he had. "You just let me worry about that, okay? You come with a few unique … requirements, but you are definitely worth it."
"Okay … well, good then."
Her tone was brisk, but he hoped that it was just her way of dealing with tricky emotions. There wasn't time now to deal with all that, anyway. "We're here," he announced, and they silently retraced the path to Carpenter's office.
Clark took a deep breath before entering the office. He had to control his anger at what this man had done; their plan called for him to be polite, and even slightly dense. It was galling, but he'd played similar stratagems previously to deflect suspicion when he'd used his powers surreptitiously; no one looking for a mysterious hero had ever glanced twice at a mild-mannered bystander.
Beside him, he heard Lois murmur, "Good luck."
Pasting on a pleasant smile, he opened the door. "Mr. Carpenter, thank you for seeing me again."
Carpenter nodded cordially and gestured Clark to a seat. "Fortunately, I had some time in my schedule. You said that you'd learned more about this gun-smuggling case?"
"Well, I've been making some calls and doing some thinking, you see." Clark juggled the file folders he'd brought along.
"He knows you did it," Lois told Carpenter, speaking clearly.
Clark glanced upwards, but could see no reaction, and his heart sank. She had been so sure that she could make an impression on him subliminally. Clark continued on with his script. "Rarer There is a small company, and the woman in charge doesn't really seem to know anything. So either the guns are being slipped in from the outside, or," he paused, making eye contact for emphasis, "someone higher in the chain of command is managing this."
"He knows you're the one doing it," Lois repeated.
Carpenter twitched. Calmly, he replied, "That opens rather a lot of possibilities — you've seen our organizational chart."
"Yes, indeed. And I can't narrow this down yet, but I knew you'd want to know that this probably extends further into your organization."
"He knows," Lois intoned. "But he hasn't got any evidence yet. There's still time to salvage things."
"I appreciate that," Carpenter said, a bare hint of strain creeping into his voice. "So where will your investigation take you next?"
"Oh, I thought I'd nose around the docks — someone there must have been looking the other way."
"Make some phone calls now," Lois urged him. "Get rid of all the evidence while you have a chance."
Carpenter stood, his smile looking a little forced. "Well, good luck to you. I hope you'll continue to keep me informed."
Clark rose as well, smiling in what he hoped was a genial and dim-witted way. "I'll be glad to. I know you have your company's image to protect."
"Yes, exactly. But now, I'm afraid I have to make some phone calls … to follow up on those leads you mentioned."
"Good luck." Still smiling, Clark allowed himself to be escorted out into the hallway.
Lois remained sitting in Carpenter's office. As soon as the door had closed behind Clark, the CEO's smile disappeared, to be replaced by a snarl. In jerky movements, he crossed back to his desk and grabbed for the phone, punching in a string of seven numbers — a local call. He closed his eyes and seemed to be concentrating on his breathing while waiting for the call to go through. Abruptly, his eyes shot open. "Andresson? It's me. Yes, it's about that special cargo I asked you to handle for me … I don't believe we'll be using that method again for a while, and I wanted to make sure we were all settled up — I can't recall offhand if I've paid you in full for the Congo Queen shipment." He paused, then flashed a humorless smile. "Ah, I thought not. Very well, when can we meet? … Not tonight? … All right, tomorrow afternoon should do. Bring your records, too, would you? Some of my files have been misplaced and I'm trying to reconstruct them. I appreciate it. See you tomorrow." Carpenter hung up the phone with a grimace and muttered, "Idiot."
After a moment's pause for thought, he turned his chair to face the low filing cabinet under the window and wrenched the drawer open. Quickly, he pulled out five or six folders, then carried them to the back wall of his office and deposited them on a pedestal. Very carefully, he lifted a large painting off the wall and set it on the floor, revealing a small safe. Lois moved closer, hoping to see the combination. His fingers flew over the tiny keypad in a short sequence that she couldn't quite see. The safe opened, and Carpenter tucked the file folders inside. Glancing towards the door, he closed the safe and replaced the painting.
Dusting his hands together in satisfaction, Carpenter relaxed slightly and returned to his desk.
Lois narrowed her eyes at him. So he thought he was going to get away with this, did he? She and Clark would just have to make sure that he didn't. And getting Andresson to talk would be an excellent next step, so she'd have to get out of here and let Clark know that her plan had worked beautifully. She grinned. She'd always enjoyed spooking suspects, and it was almost more fun now that the spooking was literal.
Carpenter shivered and picked up the phone. "Maintenance? Get someone up here to fix the AC — it's much too cold in my office!"
Hoping cordially that he'd freeze, Lois headed towards the office door, only to stop short when she realized it was closed. She'd been spoiled, these last few days, in going places with Clark, who automatically opened doors for her. Well, it was time to start cashing in on this new, insubstantial state. Tentatively, she reached towards the door, concentrating on putting her fingers through the surface. She felt a slight resistance, but then her hand sank into the wood. It felt different than moving through air … a little stiffer, and almost ticklish, but not unpleasant. She pulled her hand back out. She could do this.
Taking a deep, metaphorical breath, Lois closed her eyes and stepped forward. Her foot entered the door first, then the rest of her quickly followed, and in another second she was out again. She opened her eyes and looked around for the stairs.
The metal door to the stairway felt different than wood, but she still made it through easily, and then amused herself by riding the banisters all the way down to the ground floor. When she emerged back into the lobby, she saw Clark sitting on a bench, studying some files.
She studied him for a moment from across the room. He was a great partner, a wonderful friend, and a great guy … beloved of small boys and old ladies… Her emotions for him welled up and threatened to overwhelm her. How could she love him after only two days? And yet … how could she not? Something about him just … made sense to her, on a very fundamental level. She wasn't even sure she could define it.
She wondered again why she'd become a ghost, why she was still able to interact with the world. It was almost as if God, or fate, or someone, had decreed that Lois Lane should meet Clark Kent, and a little thing like death wasn't going to be allowed to stand in the way. She rather liked the notion, but couldn't quite let herself believe it; her faith in the universe wasn't that strong.
Her faith in love was even shakier. Her parents had claimed to love each other, but it hadn't stopped them from fighting all the time. Romance novels painted rosy pictures, but her cynical side had always chalked that up to fiction. A nice fantasy, but not representative of the real world. Each failed relationship had reinforced that view.
But if life after death was possible … maybe love wasn't such a fantasy, either.
Well, okay, maybe she was in love with him. They still didn't have much of a future. She'd just have to content herself with being his friend and partner. And she could help him get this story. Time to go back to work.
"Mr. Andresson, I really think it would be best if you turned yourself in," Clark stated earnestly. It was early evening, and the breeze across the water put a bit of a chill in the air. It was almost enough to disguise the fact that Lois was gone again.
Harry Andresson, the Metropolis field agent for the US Customs service, snorted derision. "For what? All I did was slap a few stickers on crates — it's not my job to care about guns going *out* of the country. If the customs on the other end don't catch it, it ain't my fault."
Clark set his jaw. "It's still fraud, and you've accepted bribes." Obviously, this didn't trouble the man, so Clark upped the ante. "However, if you continue to cover up for Carpenter, you'll be an accessory after the fact to murder."
That made an impression on the beefy man. "Murder? I ain't killed nobody!"
"No, but Carpenter has — that's why I'm asking you to help me to bring him down." Clark paused, letting Andresson consider that. "And he knows that you can do it."
Andresson frowned. "Ah, that pansy wouldn't hurt anybody."
"He already had a reporter killed," Clark countered, still feeling a pang of loss at the words. "Have you heard of Lois Lane?"
"Yeah, sure, Mike brags on his niece all the time … and I read about her in the paper, today…" Slowly, light dawned. "She was killed in Africa … was that where the guns were going? Damn, maybe he did…"
"I'm afraid so. And you might well be next. Why else would he ask you to bring your records when you meet with him?"
"Well, he said…" Andresson paused, looking at Clark under a furrowed brow. "How'd you know about that?"
Clark smiled mysteriously. "I have my sources."
Andresson stared unhappily out across the bay. "Knew I shouldn't have done it, but it didn't seem like much at the time."
"Sometimes these things sneak up on you," Clark commented neutrally. He couldn't really understand how anyone could think that such a large shipment of guns was harmless, but he wasn't here to argue the fine points. "Anyway, I talked to Inspector Henderson of the MPD … he thinks he can get you limited immunity if you help us bag Carpenter — the charges against you aren't that serious anyway, we just need to link Carpenter to the whole scheme." It had been Lois's idea to talk to Henderson, and Clark had liked the man — his outwardly dour demeanor hid a passion for justice, Lois said, and Clark could easily believe it.
After another long moment, Andresson shrugged. "Might as well. Lemme get my records, then I'll go downtown."
"Actually, Henderson's right over in Mike Lane's cafe at the moment." Clark smiled politely. "Conveniently located." Clark didn't trust Andresson's public spirit; better to get the man safely delivered to the police before he could decide just to take his chances with Carpenter, or run for it.
With a minimum of conversation, Clark accompanied Andresson to his office and then to the cafe, finally turning the man over to Henderson.
"Thanks, Kent," the Inspector said, allowing a hint of a smile to escape. "This should be an interesting conversation."
"I hope so," Clark said. "So you'll let me be there when you arrest Carpenter? I won't get in your way, I just want the exclusive."
"That was the deal," Henderson replied laconically. It hadn't been hard to convince him; he was as interested in avenging Lois's death as Clark was. Or nearly so. "Assuming your guy gives us the goods."
"He will. Goodnight, Inspector."
Henderson waved, already turning his attention to getting Andresson's statement, and Clark moved towards the exit, feeling drained and restless. He was stopped by Mike Lane, who was looking older than his years.
"You're going to get the so-and-so who did this to my Lois, right?" Mike demanded.
Clark nodded. "I think we are, yeah. Thanks for letting us use your cafe."
"Hey, anything I can do. I mean, it was my fault she went over there in the first place — I'm the one who tipped her."
Clark shook his head, aware of the painful futility of might-have-beens. Wearily, he repeated, "You couldn't have known." Further platitudes stuck in his throat. He was facing his own regrets … if he had come to Metropolis earlier, might he have made a difference? He was certain he would have loved her on sight; surely, with all his gifts and abilities, he would have been able to do *something* to save her…
Mike Lane sighed. "She always was so daring … made more than her share of last-minute escapes, too … do you suppose there's any chance that this is a mistake? I mean, they haven't shipped the body back yet; do you think maybe she's still alive somehow?"
Clark flinched from the hope in the older man's eyes. "I don't think so," he replied as gently as he could.
"Well, you just get the b—" he stopped himself, looking around the cafe, his mouth working as he searched for a suitable word. "The sociopath who did it."
"Yes, sir." Sketching a salute, Clark slipped out the door. Night was falling by now, and Clark felt the pull of the sky. His suit would be a bit too visible, however, so he took a taxi to the townhouse. There, he quickly changed to black clothing, and took off from the roof, stopping and hovering a few hundred feet up.
He knew he should stay in Metropolis; when Lois returned, he wanted to be someplace she could find him. Nevertheless, he was tempted to fly home to Kansas, just to talk out his confusion. It wasn't just that he was in contact with a ghost that worried him, it was the emotional connection that he felt with her.
>From the moment he'd seen her picture, he'd felt it; an inexplicable sense that she was the one he'd been searching for. He hadn't even realized he'd been searching until that moment. Up until that point, he had traveled the world, explored his differences, and been fairly comfortable with the nearly imperceptible gap separating him from the rest of humanity. Not a part of the earth, not a part of the stars … comfortably existing between them, with many acquaintances, but no really close friends. That life had been lonely, on occasion, but he'd never met anyone who'd seriously tempted him to bridge that gap. Until Lois.
Just seeing her picture hadn't prepared him to meet her, however. Of course, their meeting had been extremely unconventional — he frankly didn't understand how she still existed, and yet she incontrovertibly did. Still, somehow she was able to talk to him, and move things, and touch him … and capture his heart. Her passion, her humor, her determination to improve the world … he admired them all. Her easy acceptance of his differences amazed and touched him. He had never expected anyone besides his parents would be able to take his special abilities in stride, yet Lois took it all in with scarcely a blink, neither overly impressed nor repulsed.
Of course, she had a few special abilities herself, these days. And she really seemed to enjoy some of them, he acknowledged with a hint of a grin, remembering when she'd rifled through Carpenter's files. If only the price to gain them hadn't been so high.
He turned on his stomach in mid-air, gazing down on Metropolis, watching the lights wink on and off in the late-spring night. He supposed he should land again … Lois might come back at any time, and she wouldn't be able to find him here. Every time she faded out, the fear that she wouldn't return gnawed at him … but the waiting would be intolerable wherever he was, and he didn't really expect her back for another hour or so. There hadn't really been a pattern to her appearances, but her "rest" periods had never been shorter than two hours.
Clark remained floating in place. He needed a little peace, to think things through, and time, to adjust to the fact that he'd fallen in love with a ghost.
As soon as Lois became aware of herself again, she began concentrating on the Daily Planet newsroom, refusing to even acknowledge the persistent glow of light in the distance. She'd heard about dead people making a journey down a tunnel of light; she wasn't remotely ready for that.
The newsroom was deserted, and the clock silently informed her of the late hour. She frowned, wondering where Clark was. She wanted to see if he'd been able to talk Andresson into turning himself in, she wanted to know if Henderson had cooperated … mostly, however, she just wanted to see Clark again.
She took the elevator down to the lobby — pressing the buttons without expending too much energy — and smiled at the night guard's confusion when the car arrived, seemingly empty. Maybe it would inspire him to check around; security had always been lousy. She didn't stay to find out, however, slipping through the glass window to the sidewalk.
Now, where would Clark be? Assuming he was no longer working, he'd probably be at home … and now that she thought about it, it seemed like she could sense his presence off in the distance, in the direction of the university.
If she remembered correctly, Aunt Opal's townhouse was in the university district, not too far from the Planet. She set off in that direction, walking at a brisk pace. Or at least she thought she was walking, if only by force of habit after twenty-six years on this planet, but perhaps it wasn't strictly necessary … she tried moving faster, and faster, and before long, she was effortlessly gliding along the streets at a pace to match the late night traffic. The sensation of speed was exhilarating, and she shot past the university, having too much fun to stop. After a few fast laps around the campus, however, she calmed herself, and felt the renewed urge to see Clark. She tried recapturing the sense of his presence, and found that she was closer.
Within a minute, she was outside Opal's townhouse, gazing up at the darkened windows. Could Clark be asleep? Should she invade his room to find him? What *did* he sleep in, anyway? She sternly told herself to behave. Besides, it felt like he was *up*, and that probably meant he was on their rooftop again.
She started up the short staircase towards the front door, then paused, gazing upwards speculatively. She'd been able to move forward, left and right, just by thinking about the direction … it couldn't hurt to try.
Lois closed her eyes, calmed herself, and began thinking *up*. Nothing seemed to be happening, so she peeked out of one eye — and discovered to her delight that she was already level with the second floor. She broke out into a broad grin. This was even better than the running had been! Effortlessly, she floated up further until she was level with the rooftop … but it was empty, and her internal Clark-compass was still pointing up. Assuming, of course, that she wasn't imagining his presence.
Determined to test this new ability, she began floating upwards once more, straining her eyes in all directions, and trying to home in on Clark's presence. She found herself drifting slightly northward, and intensified her search in that direction. A-ha, there he was! Floating horizontally in mid air, hands behind his head and watching the stars just as if he were in a lawn chair. She grinned at the absurdity of the sight, and couldn't resist a bit of her own mischief. Flying quietly closer, she greeted him with a cheerful, "Boo!"
Clark had been watching the stars, minding his own business, lost in pleasant thoughts about the many wonderful qualities of Lois, until suddenly, her voice came out of nowhere, startling him. Clark sat bolt upright while simultaneously losing about ten feet of altitude. The unplanned movements set him tumbling, just a little, until he was able to regain his figurative and literal equilibrium. He quickly regained his previous height, although in a more vertical position.
"Don't *do* that," he fussed at her, torn between embarrassment at his uncoordinated reaction, and relief that she had returned. "Come to think of it … how *did* you do that?"
"Sorry," she laughed, sounding not the least repentant. "It just occurred to me to try it, and it worked. Plus I had a feeling you were up here, and I…" She paused. "I wanted to see you," she admitted quietly.
He smiled slightly. "Yeah, I'm glad to see you again, too. So to speak."
"So, how did the meeting with the customs guy go?"
Clark recognized that she was retreating from personal topics again, but he let her get away with it. "Pretty well, actually." Quickly, he updated her on their progress. "I've got some of the story written already, I'll just have to check back with Henderson in the morning before turning it in to Perry."
"I'm looking forward to reading it," she said, with a hint of wistful longing in her tone. "Perry will love you for this one."
"Well, if you don't have anything better to do tomorrow morning," he smiled, "I was hoping you'd look it over for me, and help me get it into top shape for Perry. I've written a lot of stories, but not that many for the front page — not like you have. I've read your work, you know; you've got a great hard-hitting style."
"Flattery will get you everywhere, Kent," she teased back, sounding very pleased and smug at the compliment. "I'll whip it into shape for you. You just stick with me, kid; we'll go places."
"Believe me," he murmured, "I'd love to."
She paused, and he wondered if he'd hit too close to sensitive emotions again. It was so frustrating, not being able to read her facial expressions or body language. He wanted to declare his love for her, but would she laugh, be angry, be terrified…? He couldn't tell, and he wasn't sure he wanted to risk it. Having her as a friend was better than not having her around at all.
"So, Clark," she finally asked, voice neutral, "What do you think of Ginny?"
He frowned slightly, not really following the change in subjects. "Ginny Olsen? She seems nice enough, why?"
"Well, I was just thinking … you're a great guy, and she's really nice, and as far as I know she's not dating anyone right now, and you two have a lot in common, and I just thought…" she trailed off as he stared in her direction, amazed at how her mind seemed to work.
"Lois … no. I mean, Ginny's very nice, and I like her, as a friend, but … I'm just not interested in her that way. I don't think I'm her type, either," he added carefully. In fact, Clark had a vague suspicion that Ginny had a bit of a crush on *Lois* but he wasn't sure how Lois would react if he told her that, and anyway it was none of his business.
"Not her type?" Lois was incredulous. "But, but, you're nice, and you're gorgeous, and you're smart, and … how could anyone know you and not —" Abruptly, she shut herself up, but Clark had heard enough to encourage him; she was clearly not indifferent.
"Lois … I know I've only known you two days, but as soon as I saw your picture, I knew … I love you." It was surprisingly easy to say the words, but once they were out, panic set in.
"Oh," she said, in a very small voice.
"I don't want to make you uncomfortable or anything," Clark added when she didn't elaborate. Maybe this hadn't been such a good idea, and he backpedaled furiously. "We can still be friends, no matter what, really, and I won't mention it again if you don't want me to, but —" Out of nowhere, he felt her fingers on his lips, and he fell obediently silent.
"Clark, I … I love you too," she finally said, and he breathed a quick prayer of thanks. "I just don't think we have much of a future; I mean, after all, I'm *dead,* so it's not like we can grow old together and have nine kids or anything…"
Anxious to reassure her, he reached up and took the hand that was still lingering on his mouth, pulling it downwards so he could speak. "Lois … the future isn't important." Vaguely, he noticed that he could feel her hand in his, which he hadn't expected. He set that thought aside for the moment. "What matters is what we have right now … and right now I know that you are the only woman I will ever want to love. I *hate* the fact that you're dead, because you'll miss so much, and the world will be a poorer place without you … but you are still here, and I don't want to lose that."
"Oh, Clark," she murmured, sounding close to tears, then without warning, she was in his arms, soft and tender and *there*. Deliberately, he closed his eyes, and concentrated on seeing her with his hands. She was smaller than he'd expected; more delicate than her reputation had led him to believe. Her lips felt slightly cool against his mouth, but not unpleasantly so. He relished the feel of her body against his as she kissed him. Tentatively at first, then with more confidence, he returned the kiss, running his hands over her back and through her silky hair. She was wearing something soft that muffled her curves, but that was almost a relief; he wouldn't have been comfortable with too much intimacy just yet, even if it did seem like it might be possible. She felt so solid and real in his arms; this was just as he'd always imagined a loving embrace should feel.
The kiss seemed to last a long time, but eventually he pulled back, his head swimming from the unexpected wish fulfillment of her kiss.
"Clark?" she asked uncertainly, moving as if to retreat.
He held tighter, still keeping his eyes closed so he wouldn't be distracted by the fact that he couldn't see her, and shifted slightly so that she was in the crook of his arm. "Don't leave — I just thought we could talk a little."
Lois relaxed against him then, and he repositioned them so that they were lying nestled together, the haze-obscured stars twinkling benignly above them. "I don't know how we're going to handle this," she confessed.
Clark shrugged slightly. "We'll handle it one day at a time … as long as we handle it together." He was content, for the moment, just to enjoy her unprecedented nearness, and postpone all thought about practicalities to a later date. "You know, this isn't all bad."
"Well, that's true," she admitted. "There are parts of this ghost thing that are actually pretty fun. I mean, flying, wow … I never dreamed it could be this wonderful."
"I never dreamed I'd meet a woman who could fly," he chuckled. "Remember, I'm not exactly normal, myself."
"You're special," she insisted.
"So are you." He turned slightly, to drop a kiss on the top of her head. "And we make a pretty good team."
"Yeah." They lay quietly above the city, and Clark thought his heart might burst from contradictory emotions. Meeting Lois, falling in love with her, learning that she was in love with him … it was happiness far beyond anything he'd expected to have, and he wouldn't trade it for anything. At the same time, however, he was achingly aware that he would trade anything for more — for the chance to have Lois alive again.
"Don't forget the part about the hidden safe," Lois pointed out as she leaned over Clark's shoulder, watching him type up the story of Carpenter's crime and arrest.
"I'm getting there," he reassured her. He paused for a moment, then began typing again, too fast for her to follow. Her attention wandered.
Lois was in an exceptionally cheerful mood this morning, and for once she was glad to be invisible. If anyone had been able to see her, they would have wondered at the permanent, goofy grin she was sporting, but she wasn't ready to explain it. She was too busy savoring the joy of her new relationship with Clark. Rationally, she knew that they'd known each other for only two days, which was hardly enough time to get to know each other and forge a lasting emotional bond. Under the circumstances, however, she was disinclined to be picky.
It was much more fun to remember their flying duet from the night before. She'd never realized that flight could be so exhilarating — it had certainly made the bungee jump she'd taken last year seem tame. And the flying hadn't even been the highlight of the evening.
She hadn't expected to be able to hold him — she had been too emotionally driven to be able to concentrate on staying solid. But she had certainly known what she'd wanted, and God or fate or whoever had granted her wish. She'd been right; being in his arms had been wonderful.
It was probably just as well that they hadn't progressed past kissing. Apart from the fact that they barely knew each other, Lois had no idea if any further intimacies were possible. They might find out, in time, but there didn't seem to be any need to rush. Just the idea that he was content to wait was tremendously reassuring, given some of her disastrous past relationships.
So they'd talked and cuddled together in the sky until early in the morning. Good thing he didn't need much sleep, she thought fondly. She was a little put out that she'd missed Carpenter's arrest, but such was life. Well, afterlife. Really, that was the only thing about this existence that she'd change if she could: she'd like more control over her comings and goings. Then, once Clark got his own place, they could explore various intriguing possibilities.
She checked his computer screen again, gratified to see that he'd gotten it nearly all done. Curiosity piqued, she asked, "How did Carpenter take the arrest?"
Clark didn't stop typing, but a look of satisfaction crossed his face. "He didn't like it very much."
Out of the corner of her eye, Lois spotted Ralph approaching, but before she could shush Clark, he continued, "Henderson had him dead to rights, though, you should pardon the expression."
Lois winced at the look on Ralph's face.
"Hey, Kent," he sneered. "Talk to yourself much?"
Clark didn't miss a beat, replying amicably, "Yep, I get some of my best ideas that way."
Ralph looked disgruntled at this lack of reaction. Clark looked up at him, his face as innocent as he could make it, and asked, "Need another grammar lesson?"
Ralph scowled. "No, thank you, the last one was bad enough." Hastily, he retreated.
Lois grinned. "That was good. You missed an opportunity, though — you should have told him you have a policy to only speak to the smartest people in the room. Now that I'm gone that only leaves you."
Clark smothered a grin and returned to his file, scrolling up to the top again and scanning back down through the story, fixing a few things here and there. "There. 'Local businessman connected to failed coup, murder.' That ought to sell a few papers."
"It certainly should," Lois agreed, feeling almost as proud as if she'd written it herself. Abruptly, the world darkened, and seemed to blur for half a second, before returning to its prior state. That had never happened before … unless, she thought, grasping at straws, it had just been a power flicker. "Uh, Clark? Did the lights just blink for everyone, or am I special?"
The perplexed look on his face as he glanced up answered her question.
"Never mind. I'm sure it was nothing."
He frowned. "What was it?"
"Just a blip," she assured him, not wanting to believe it was anything serious.
He looked as if he were inclined to argue, but then his attention shifted as he focused on one of the television monitors in the corner of the newsroom. Lois turned to see, and gathered from the pictures that there had been a bad wreck on the bypass. Clark was clearly unhappy, a muscle jumping in his jaw, and she ventured a guess. "You'd like to help out, wouldn't you?"
"But the news helicopter is recording, so you can't."
Grimly, he nodded agreement.
"Metropolis rescue services are top-rate, you know," she offered, knowing that he was trying vainly to think of some way to assist. "You can't risk yourself, or your family."
He closed his eyes briefly, jaw setting in frustration, then forcibly shifted his attention back to the nearly-finished story. With a few savage keystrokes he began doing another edit.
Lois watched in silence, her heart hurting for him, as her brain whirled. There had to be a way to arrange things so that he could use his gifts, without endangering anyone. Some way to disguise his appearance…
Unbidden, a memory surfaced from her early days at the Planet. When she'd first begun working there, she had been on the bottom of the totem pole, with no say in her assignments, and usually getting the stories no one else wanted. She had quickly worked her way up the ladder, but before she'd escaped the slush pile hell, Perry had made her write up an interview with an actor from a popular science fiction show who'd been in town for a convention. She'd expected him to be vain and arrogant, but the man had actually possessed a sense of humor and humility — qualities which he had attributed to the fact that he worked under layers of makeup and prosthetics. When he was out of costume, very few people recognized him, even though his features were the same. Without the whole package of visual cues, he was effectively a different person.
She glanced at Clark, hunched over his keyboard, light glinting off the edges of his glasses. Now, a mask or elaborate costume would probably be too bulky and get in his way, but if he used the opposite approach, and pared down to the essentials … she'd have to talk to him about it, as soon as they had a moment alone.
Clark stood, bringing her out of her reverie. "Let's go show it to Perry," he muttered, collecting a printout before heading to the editor's office. Lois tagged along, feeling a bit superfluous, but eager to watch the reactions Clark was going to get. It was a great story, and she was proud of it. Too bad she couldn't have the byline — a posthumous Pulitzer was better than none — but Clark had put a lot of work in on this, and deserved credit.
Ginny was in with Perry when they arrived. She rose to excuse herself, but Clark held out a hand to detain her. "You might want to stay, Ginny — I've got the whole story about Lois's death."
Perry's eyebrows crawled up his forehead in astonishment. "I know you've been poking around on that, Kent, but are you telling me you've solved it?"
Clark smiled smugly. "Lock, stock, and arrest warrant. MPD picked up John Carpenter this morning, and I have the exclusive." He waved the printout in the air and Perry snatched it. While Perry quickly scanned the article, Clark brought Ginny up to speed.
"So you're telling me that Carpenter was after mineral rights?" Perry demanded, looking up.
"That's about it. The existing government wouldn't let him open any mines, but if the rebels had gotten in — the plot's been crushed by the authorities, by the way — he would have had exclusive rights. There's platinum there, and some other strategic minerals. Adastra had a lot of contracts with the space program; they're invested heavily in Space Station Prometheus, too. Some of those minerals would have been really useful in orbital manufacturing."
As Clark was explaining, the world dimmed and flickered around Lois again, and she instinctively moved closer to him. After a second, though, things stabilized once more, leaving behind only a slight sense of fatigue, which she was probably imagining. She'd been aware for less than an hour, and she hadn't been pushing her limits.
"So to help the rebels, he shipped them guns." Perry shook his head in disgust. "Who cares how many people were killed in the fighting, as long as he got his minerals."
Ginny spoke up. "But how did Lois fit in? He didn't know she was going to Africa, did he?"
Clark shrugged. "Carpenter had a grudge against Lois, so he wanted to keep track of her — he was able to latch onto her, um…" He paused, searching for the right word.
"Don't call him my boyfriend," she warned him.
He showed no sign that he'd heard her. "Her admirer, Alan. So when Lois told Alan she was going out of the country, he pressed for details, and then unknowingly passed the information on to Carpenter, who alerted his accomplices in Qtun. They knew she was coming."
Ginny closed her eyes in pain. "She never had a chance."
Lois would have liked to bristle at that, and retort that she could take care of herself, thank you … except that she literally didn't have a leg to stand on. She settled for being generally annoyed.
Perry flipped back through the pages and examined the first sheet more carefully. "What the — 'story by Lois Lane and Clark Kent'?"
Startled, Lois darted around the desk to see the byline for herself. There was her name, all right … the last time it would ever grace the front page. She turned to stare at Clark.
Clark ducked his head, losing confidence for the first time. "Well, she did a lot of the preliminary work; I was just building on what she'd done. It was really her story, first."
Lois felt her heart melt, and fell a little bit more in love with him. Then the world wavered again as the darkness pounced on her. Before, it had been a gentle, inexorable tug upon her senses; now it was a savage riptide pulling her away. She fought to stay connected; this wasn't right, it wasn't time for her to go.
Concentrating fiercely, she made Perry's office come back into focus, but it was oh so tiring, a battle just to stand her ground. A battle she was losing. As the sights and sounds of the Planet dissolved into nothingness, she reached out her hands, involuntarily crying, "Clark!"
"Lois!" Clark bit back the exclamation a half-second too late; he couldn't help but respond to the panic in her voice.
"Clark?" Perry asked carefully, shooting a puzzled glance at Ginny. "Are you all right, son?"
"Uh, yeah, Chief, I'm fine. I just, um, well, was upset. About the whole thing." He stammered through his explanation, trying to sense her presence. The ever-present chill was gone, and she was silent. Ominously so, considering that he'd expected her to stick around for a while yet.
"Uh-huh." Perry sat back, keeping a watchful eye on his newest reporter.
Clark smiled, trying to show that he wasn't, after all, mentally deranged. Further explanation would just make things worse, so he confined himself to, "Sorry about that."
"Well, we've all been upset," Ginny offered. "But it's good to know that the guy who did this is going to pay for it."
"Now she can rest in peace," Perry agreed. "And in good time, too — did we get that package today, Ginny?"
Clark felt a touch of fear at Perry's words. He'd spent some time, these last few days, reading up on ghost lore. There were no constants, but a recurring theme had been that of a murder victim haunting the perpetrator … and those ghosts had tended to disappear once their murder had been avenged. Just as Lois had.
No, this was a fluke, a coincidence. It had to be. She would be back soon, and things would go on as before. Tonight they could go flying again … he had some special places he wanted to show her. He forced himself to pay attention to the conversation.
"— checked it of course, but there wasn't anything there," Ginny was reporting.
"And…" Perry paused delicately. "What about the body?"
Ginny sighed. "The authorities said there wasn't enough left of it to send."
Clark frowned at that. Lois had told him that she'd been sitting under a tree when she died — badly injured, but basically in one piece. "What happened to her body?" he demanded. "Did animals get it or something?"
Ginny looked at him, startled, and made a face. "Ugh, what an awful idea. No, they say she was killed instantly in the explosion, and then her body burned. There wasn't much left."
Clark stood up, his brain whirling with contradictory information. How was this possible? Had Lois hallucinated the part with the tree, or had the authorities in Qtun somehow gotten it wrong? Did it even make a difference? He didn't know what to think.
"Clark?" Perry asked again, patiently.
"Sorry, Chief, I'm just … I've got to go, okay? I'll be back in a little while, I just have to … go." He let himself out of the office, heading straight towards the elevator. He needed time to think about this, and decide if there was anything he could do.
"That boy is odd," Clark overheard Perry say. "But he sure can write. Let's get this story set for the afternoon edition."
Lois struggled against a darkness that was now palpable, and faintly warm. She could almost feel it flowing against her skin, thick and viscous. She kicked and squirmed, trying to keep free of the light, which was larger and brighter and definitely pursuing her. Whenever she paused, it drew closer, bringing pain and weakness in its wake. With fierce determination, she kept resisting, retreating. Finally, it seemed to back off, dimming a bit with distance. She nearly collapsed from relief and fatigue, and all consciousness fled.
"Clark, is that you?" Opal called when she heard the door open. She hadn't expected him home in the middle of the day, and it was just one more thing to make her worry. He'd been acting strangely for the past few days, although he probably thought she hadn't noticed. He'd been so excited when he'd gotten the job, but then the next day his mood had been … odd. Asking about ghosts at dinner, then excusing himself shortly thereafter. And she hadn't seen much of him since. It wasn't that she needed to be entertained, but he usually did spend a little more time with her than he had been doing this week. And according to Martha, he hadn't called or visited home once.
Circumstantial evidence, to be sure, but it was enough to make her wonder.
"Yeah, it's me," he replied, sounding tired as he made his way up the stairs to her study.
She watched him carefully as he entered and plopped into a chair. "I don't mean to pry, dear, but shouldn't you be at work?"
He half-shrugged. "It's okay. I just turned in a front-page story — the one I've been working on, about Lois…"
The look of sadness as he spoke that name communicated volumes, and Opal filed the information away. Poor Clark, if he'd become infatuated with someone he'd never meet. She knew all about loving the dead; her Maxwell had been gone these thirty years, and she missed him still. She wouldn't wish it on anyone, though, and especially not on one so young and vital as her great-nephew. "I'm glad you figured it out," she commented neutrally.
He thrust his fingers through his hair. "I don't know, Aunt Opal, maybe I shouldn't have — I mean, on the one hand, yeah, but on the other … I don't know."
Unsure what to make of that, she set it aside for the moment. "Well, you've inspired me — after talking to my geology friend, I traveled over to the anthropology department to see what they knew about Qtun. It's fascinating, really. I'd never really paid much attention, since the bug life is pretty much standard there."
Clark looked up, making a polite effort to appear interested. She quickly reviewed what she'd learned, hoping for an item to catch his attention, then remembered his recent curiosity about the occult.
"Did you know that some of the local tribes have shamans who are said to exhibit psychic types of powers? They use some sort of herbal concoction to go into trances, my friend said. Some of them claim to communicate telepathically, or move things — some of them even claim to send their spirits travelling outside their bodies. Similar to what we call astral projection. I'm not sure that's a wise thing, mind you, but —" She stopped, watching fascinated as Clark sat bolt upright, his eyes open wide.
"That's it!" he exclaimed, his focus turned inwards. "That's got to be it! She said she escaped — Carpenter said there was a problem with the body —" He stood up, unable to contain his excitement. "I've got to get over there. Anything could be happening." Briefly, he refocused on her, and gave her a brilliant smile. "Thanks, Aunt Opal, you're the best. Wish me luck." With that, he darted out of the room in the direction of the stairs to the roof. Moments later, she heard his tell-tale sonic boom.
She shook her head in wonderment. This must really be something, for Clark to take off like that in full daylight. She hoped the neighbors hadn't noticed. "Whatever it is, dear," she muttered as she got back to her studies, "I wish you well."
When Lois next became aware of herself, she floated for a moment in the darkness — then jerked upright, looking around frantically for the menacing light. Ah, there it was … a fair distance away, to judge by the brightness. Well, good. She was still tired from the last fight.
She needed to see Clark. She must have scared him, with that abrupt departure. If she knew what time it was, she'd have an idea of where to go first, but there was no way to judge the passing of time in here. Well, the Planet was a good starting point.
She took a moment to calm herself, pretending she was closing her eyes and taking deep breaths. Then she began visualizing the Daily Planet newsroom, willing herself there. She wasn't sure how many people would be there when she arrived, but she wasn't picky, and it hadn't seemed to matter before. She built up the picture in her mind until she could almost hear the clatter of a busy bullpen, then opened her eyes.
Nothing. She was stuck in the darkness.
"Yes, I understand that, Inspector," Clark repeated patiently in French. "But I have reason to believe that she *wasn't* in the Jeep when it exploded. I mean, she was driving it, but what if she were thrown free?"
The Qtun City policeman looked at him condescendingly. "Then we would have found her body nearby. We did not."
"But you yourself said that you didn't get there until *hours* later. What if someone else got there first?" Clark was having a hard time controlling his annoyance, his emotions see-sawing between wild hope that Lois still lived, and despair that she was dying somewhere right now, without him. The possibility that her body had been stolen for nefarious purposes was also preying on his mind. Why had he so blindly accepted Lois's word that she was dead? He should have come to Qtun *days* ago.
"Anything is possible, monsieur," the Inspector said with infuriating nonchalance, "but I don't think — ah, wait! Je m'en souviens — I remember. The Sisters of Mercy are in that area … they have a mission in the jungle, teaching the white gods to the tribes and providing medical care. If your friend were hurt…"
Clark closed his eyes in a silent prayer of mingled appeal and gratitude. "Where are they?"
"Oh, north and west of the city. Any of the taxi drivers will know."
There was no way Clark wanted to wait that long. "Would it be visible from the air?"
The Inspector arched an eyebrow. "You have a plane?"
Clark sidestepped the question. "Would it?"
The Inspector shrugged. "Yes, I suppose it would — it is a large building, not modern, with a cross; the Sisters keep a garden cleared. There is no airstrip, however."
"Thank you, Inspector. Merci beaucoup." Clark shook his hand, then walked away quickly, exiting the building and finding an alley. Quickly, he shot upwards, then headed north and west.
Some time later, Lois had to admit defeat. She had tried to go to the newsroom, her apartment — even Aunt Opal's roof — but she hadn't been able to summon more than a few fleeting traces of color. And even the painful light seemed to be dimming, a prospect which left her more forlorn than cheered.
She was just so tired, and she missed Clark desperately. Maybe if she rested a while, then tried again. Yes, that's what she'd do. She had to believe that she'd regain the ability to travel out of this bleak nothingness, because the possibility of being trapped was unthinkable.
"Thank you for seeing me, Sister," Clark greeted the head of the mission. He could barely sit still, but he was trying to control himself. "I'm looking for a friend of mine."
Sister Mary Christine inclined her head. "And you think your friend is here?"
"I hope so. You see, about four days ago, she was in an accident. I know she was injured, but I'm told it's possible that either you found her, or someone brought her here. She's in her twenties, a white woman with dark, shoulder-length hair."
The Sister regarded him coolly. "If such a woman were here, she would have enemies. I'm sure you understand that we wouldn't wish to further endanger her."
Clark's heart skipped. She was here! "I'm not her enemy, please believe me. Is she okay? Is she still alive? I've been worried sick." Giving up on words, he silently pleaded with her, holding nothing back.
She watched him for a moment, then smiled slightly. "Your love is obvious. Yes, we have such a woman here."
He leapt to his feet. "Where?"
"One moment," she cautioned him, taking her time to stand. "Your friend is not doing well, I'm afraid. She was unconscious when she was brought in, and has since slipped into a coma. We suspect a concussion from her head injury, but we're not sure … we wouldn't have thought it would cause a coma. We have tried repeatedly to rouse her, but with no success. We have been feeding her intravenously, and trying to heal her wounds, but we do not know whether she will recover. Her fate is in God's hands."
"Please, just let me see her," he begged, and she nodded, acquiescing. Silently, she led him into a large room full of beds, about half of them occupied. Between the beds, nuns and other helpers moved quickly and efficiently, tending to the ill. The sister led her to a far corner … and then he saw Lois.
She was deathly pale, her dark hair pushed back in matted strings. Green and yellow bruises mottled her skin, and her right arm was tied up in a sling. A thin sheet was tucked neatly under her arms, and she was so still he feared that she'd already died.
Sister Mary Christine guided him to the left side of the bed, abjuring him to stay clear of the IV pole. As she briefly checked Lois's vital signs, Clark used his special hearing to check for a heartbeat, feeling weak with relief when he found it. It was weak and slow, but it was there.
"How is she?" Clark asked, pulling a chair next to the bed so he could sit. Carefully, he eased his hand around hers, threading his fingers through hers. It felt so good to finally touch her, but she was so still…
The sister concluded her examination. "She's still alive, still in the coma. Weakening a bit, I think. I'm sorry."
"Can I just stay here — talk to her?"
"Yes, of course," her voice gentled with compassion. "She may be able to hear you, if God grants it. Just please be careful."
The nun retreated silently, and Clark just gazed at Lois for a long moment, overcome by emotion. "Hi," he said, then choked up. "Lois … please come back to me. I need you."
He paused. "This is easier when you answer back. So answer back, okay? I know you can do it … you're alive in there, you just need to come back to your body, come back to me. Unless these past few days were a dream after all … actually, I don't care. You just have to be alive, that's all. I don't know whether you'll remember me or not, but that doesn't matter. You just wake up. Come on, Lois … wake up."
Clark watched hopefully. Was that a twitch? Maybe not… "Hey, the Lois I met — the one I heard about — she's a fighter. So fight this! You just need to come back, and wake up … we can deal with everything else, as long as you wake up."
He began wondering about the feasibility of moving her. The nuns had done the best they could, but this facility was pretty basic. She needed the intravenous tube to get her nutrients, but it was on a portable stand; he could theoretically carry her and the IV pole to a better hospital — preferably in Metropolis. He had no idea how he would explain that, but it didn't matter; if he had to do it, he would. Just as long as he was sure the trip wouldn't injure her further…
He leaned forward, reaching a tentative hand to lightly run a finger along the line of her cheek. She looked much too thin, and her color was awful, but if only she'd open her eyes, she'd be the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. "Lois…" He dropped his voice to a whisper, focusing only on her face. "I love you. Please open your eyes, please wake up."
A whimsical thought hit him, and he was desperate enough to give it a try. "You know the traditional way to wake up sleeping princesses?" Not that Lois was the fairy princess type; she was much more sturdy and practical, but the idea appealed to him nonetheless.
Rising slightly from his seat, he leaned across the bed and slowly, gingerly, touched his lips to hers in a short, sweet kiss.
Lois rested in the darkness, trying to rally her strength. She was coming to hate this nothingness with a passion, and used that passion to smother the panic that welled up whenever she let herself think of being trapped here. She was feeling better already, really. Just a little bit longer, then she'd try again.
To keep herself distracted, she thought happy thoughts … chiefly about Clark, mentally reviewing all of their conversations together, smiling again at the teasing exchanges. She could almost hear his voice now. He didn't sound happy, though; he sounded worried.
She frowned. This wasn't a memory. Was she hallucinating? She opened her eyes, searching the darkness for clues … and focused on the light as the only point of interest. Cautiously, she moved just a little nearer, and was rewarded with another short burst of sound … definitely Clark's voice, though she could barely make out the words. 'Wake up'? She frowned. What did she need to wake up from? And how did Clark get into the light?
Oy, this was great, she was definitely losing it now. But she strained her every sense, creeping just a little closer to the light, listening intently.
It sure sounded like Clark. And he couldn't be dead, could he? Then again, even if he were … she wanted to be with Clark again, rather than stuck here alone. She was seized with a longing to touch him again … to feel his arms around her, his lips … it was almost as if she could feel him kissing her. But it wasn't enough; she wanted more.
She studied the light, really looking at it for the first time … there were traces of colors in there, slowly swirling, and some sounds even fainter than Clark's voice. Had those sounds been there before? She didn't know.
Slowly, she moved closer still, until the pain began. Suddenly, her right arm began to throb, and her shoulder felt as if it were on fire. But Clark's voice was much clearer, as well, so she hovered, and heard him say her name, and that he loved her.
She moved backwards, just until the pain eased, and considered her options. Stay in the darkness, alone forever, or go forward, hoping to end up with Clark. No contest, really. She didn't know why it had to hurt, she thought resentfully, but if that was what it took…
Resolutely, she began moving forward. Pain pulsed across her nerve endings, in her arm, shoulder, head, and chest. She focused on Clark's voice, encouraging her, and kept going. The light grew, and now she could feel heat, too; a sticky uncomfortable warmth. More body aches presented themselves, and progress became harder, though she couldn't tell if it were because the atmosphere had grown thick and viscous again, or whether her legs were too sore to move. Slowly, she struggled forwards, all the time concentrating on moving closer to Clark, and to his voice, which was soothing, encouraging, and challenging in turn.
"Come on, Lois," Clark repeated, searching her face for any response. He didn't know how much longer he could sit here with her as a barely-breathing near corpse. "Your parents are coming in for the weekend, and they want to see you. Your Uncle Mike feels guilty and wants to apologize — you have to let him know it's okay. Inspector Henderson would even be happy to see you again. Perry misses you … I miss you.
"My parents would even like to meet you — or at least they will, once I tell them about you — I'm sure you understand it's been a bit weird, this week. You'll love my parents, you know — and you already like my Aunt Opal, right? So fight! You can do this, Lois; you can beat this. Please, Lois…"
He ran out of steam for a moment, and just sat there, closely watching her every breath. Her chest rose and fell, slowly, hypnotically. A flicker of movement caught his attention, and he focused on her face … had she moved, or had he imagined it? Her mouth twitched, pursing into a grimace.
Clark took a firmer grip on her hand. "Come on, Lois, open your eyes. You can do it…"
Slowly, fitfully, her eyes opened.
The pain lessened slightly as Lois took the final plunge into the light. She still felt overly warm, though, and other sensations rushed forward to join in, leaving her feeling heavy, weak, weary, terribly dry-mouthed, and faintly nauseated. She heard Clark's voice again, so near this time, and felt a pressure on her hand. With a tremendous effort, she opened her eyes, squinting against the brightness of the room.
"Lois?" He sounded disbelieving but happy, and she attempted a smile; it hurt her cracked lips. She tried to talk, but her throat and mouth were too parched.
"Do you need some water?"
Lois fluttered her eyes open once more, eager for her first real sight of Clark. He was just as darkly handsome as she remembered, and she smiled again, no longer caring that it hurt. A beautiful return smile crossed his lips. "I'll get some water for you," he promised.
She closed her eyes again and rested while he went in search of water. She was greatly tempted to drift off to sleep, but resisted the urge; she had worked too hard to get here to leave just yet. No more fading away.
"Here we are," he said quietly, startling her out of a doze despite her resolve to stay awake. Something cold touched her lips, and she flinched. "Sorry," he said, "it's ice chips — you're not going to be able to drink much lying down, and I don't want to risk moving you."
She opened her mouth slightly, and allowed him to feed her an ice chip. The coolness felt wonderful, and the moisture was quickly absorbed by her parched tissues.
"You've been on an IV," he told her, slipping her another ice chip, "so you're not really dehydrated, it just feels like it. You should feel better soon, I hope."
After her third ice chip, she tried talking again. "How…?"
"How did you get here? Someone found your body, and brought you for medical attention — it's been four days," he replied, adding anxiously, "Do you remember me? Somehow you were in Metropolis — you thought you were a ghost but I think it was more like astral projection."
She smiled, still too tired to open her eyes. "Flying."
"Yeah, we went flying," he said huskily. "Do you remember anything else?"
"Thanks for —" a cough interrupted her, and she spasmed for a moment, trying to clear her throat.
"You're awake!" A new voice, a woman's voice. "Praise the Father. Sister Mary Eliza, please come here."
Lois opened her eyes long enough to see that she was being surrounded by competent-looking women — nuns by the sounds of things. Some of them were speaking in French, others in English. One of them began examining her, and Clark slipped out of the way, and out of her sight.
With as much patience as she could muster, she endured the exam, which included several painful moments as her injuries were checked, cleaned, and rebandaged. "What's the damage?" she asked, her voice still sounding weak and thready.
Sister Mary Eliza smiled at her. "You are a blessed woman, my dear. You had a head injury — most likely a concussion — a broken collarbone, wrenched shoulder, several broken ribs, and many lesser abrasions and contusions. Those have all begun to heal. You were also in a coma, though we didn't exactly know why … that was our biggest worry. However, now that you have returned to us, the rest of your recovery should proceed smoothly. What you need most now is sleep."
That didn't seem logical, given that she'd been lying in this bed for days, but she was much too tired to argue. And she wanted to see Clark again, to know for sure that she hadn't dreamed him. "Are you done?"
The sister smiled again, tucking the bedsheet carefully in place under her arms. "Yes, I'm done. Would you like to talk to your friend again?"
"Please." She rested again for a moment, until she heard the rustle of fabric nearby. Gathering her courage, she opened her eyes. Clark was looking tired, but he was there … she raised her hand a few inches off the bed, hoping he'd take the hint, and smiled when he slid his hand into hers. If she could touch him, he must be real. "Hi," she managed.
"Hi, yourself," he replied softly. "I heard the nurse say something about getting you some pain killers."
"Oh, good. Sore. And so tired." She just watched him for a moment, her eyes adjusting to the brightness.
He was watching her with the same intensity. Hesitantly, huskily, he asked, "Was it real?"
"Hope so." She searched for the quickest way to confirm their experience, and remembered what she'd started to say earlier. "Thanks for the byline."
Clark blinked, then grinned as her meaning sunk in. "You deserved it — I couldn't have done it without you."
"Partners." She closed her eyes again, feeling the pull of sleep.
He gently squeezed her hand. "Partners."
A rattle of medical equipment informed her that someone else had arrived; the newcomer murmured something about painkillers in the IV line. Her last coherent thought before succumbing to sleep was that Clark was here, and all was right with her world.
Clark sat quietly by the bed, watching Lois sleep. Although his watch said 9:00PM, it was much later by local time — the middle of the night. Lois had been sleeping for hours, briefly waking twice, only to fall back asleep without comment. A healing sleep, the sisters had called it, although Clark suspected that it was at least enhanced by the pain killers she was receiving in her IV. Still, he accepted that she needed the rest, and the latest nurse had discontinued the medicine; it was time for her to wake up a bit more, so they could check on her condition.
It had been a long vigil, but he had barely noticed the passage of time; he was focused on the steady beat of her heart and the soft rise and fall of her chest as she breathed. She might be awake at any time during the night, between shorter naps. Clark was fully prepared to spend the night by her side. He'd come too close to losing her to miss a moment now, and besides, he hated to think of her waking up and finding herself alone.
While she'd slept, he'd studied her. At first, he'd been content to memorize her face, comparing it to the pictures he'd seen, and speculating on how much lovelier she'd be when the scrapes and bruises healed. It was hard to tell, but he suspected the photos hadn't done her justice. And no matter what she looked like, it was wonderful simply to be able to *see* her.
After a while, though, his attention had wandered, and curiosity had overtaken him. He'd checked the chart kept on the foot of her bed, and then he had taken his own, private, x-ray survey of her injuries, careful to preserve her modesty. He'd been reassured to find that the Sisters had been thorough in treating her, and that her broken bones were all in the process of mending.
Which left him giddily contemplating the concept of a real, live girlfriend. He'd not had much experience at this sort of relationship, between his travels and his differences. He wasn't yet entirely comfortable with sharing his secret, but on the other hand, it felt so blindingly right that he refused to worry about anything. It was much more fun to contemplate the future's wonderful possibilities. He had sometimes doubted that he would ever find a woman to love, and who could love him, but the connection that he felt to Lois was like nothing he'd ever imagined. He looked forward to introducing her to his parents; Dad would be a little protective, but Mom would surely welcome her with open arms. And after they got married…
Lois stirred on the bed, gaining his hopeful attention. In sleep, she had been much less corpse-like than in the coma; the restless sighs and fleeting grimaces had kept him calm. She stirred again and attempted to roll over, stopping with a wince as she inadvertently jostled her injured collar bone. "Ow," she mumbled, then blearily opened her eyes. For a moment, she searched the room, looking bewildered at her surroundings, then her gaze fell on Clark. She smiled sleepily. "You're still here."
He smiled back. "I'll always be here for you, Lois." He paused, seeing her eyes widen slightly as she woke up further, and wondered if he'd sounded too intense. "Just try not to make hospitals a habit, okay?"
Her smile faltered as she shifted on the bed. "I'll try not to — this hurts too much."
Clark leaned forward slightly. "Can I help?"
"No!" she replied quickly, her heart rate temporarily increasing. "Just get a nurse, okay?" She smiled up at him, but the smile didn't quite seem to reach her eyes. "I just have to…" She gestured vaguely, looking embarrassed. "Nature's calling, kinda urgently."
"Oh, right." Clark stood, looking around for the nearest nurse. As the sister approached and took over, he discreetly faded away, letting Lois attend to her needs in private. He hoped that her discomfort had been purely physical, but old doubts were stirring in his mind. Lois hadn't seemed to mind his differences before, but then, she hadn't been precisely normal herself. Perhaps now that she was back in the land of the living, with her choices expanded, she wouldn't want him anymore.
When he saw Lois was alone once more, he returned to her side. They had helped her into a sitting position, he saw — she was looking more awake and less pleased about it than he'd yet seen her. She was scowling at his approach. "You know how they say that whatever doesn't kill you, makes you stronger?" she demanded.
"Yeah, I've heard that." It hadn't seemed to apply to him, so he hadn't really spent much time pondering it.
"Well, they lied." She adjusted the sheet with a savage little twitch. "When I was dead, I felt great, but now that it *hasn't* killed me, it just hurts like hell."
Clark ached for her pains, but he was also reluctantly amused by her convoluted sentence structure. "Yeah, I bet it does," he agreed. "But you'll be better soon, I hope."
"The sister told me I need to keep my right arm in this sling for at least another few weeks," she reported gloomily. "That's my writing hand!"
"Can you move your fingers?" he asked, concerned about nerve damage.
She demonstrated, conceding grumpily, "They already checked — I should recover completely. It's just going to be a pain in the butt for a while."
"Don't worry about it then. I'll be glad to help you out." Again, her eyes widened a bit, and her heart fluttered, and he was forced to conclude that he made her nervous. "We'll all help," he generalized it. "Everyone's missed you — your parents will be in town, even."
She rolled her eyes. "Yeah, a lot of help they'll be," she grumbled, but her voice softened as she added, "I'll be glad to see Lucy, though. Maybe she can stay for a few weeks."
"There ya go," Clark agreed, sitting back in the chair and firmly suppressing his urge to hold her hand.
"So tell me about Carpenter," she changed the subject. "I want to know how the twerp liked being arrested."
"He didn't, much." Clark grinned briefly. "Henderson had a few other cops with him, and they looked impressive going into the building in a group like that. Carpenter was cool as a cucumber at first, sticking to his story — when he wasn't glaring at me. He was a little put out when Henderson showed him the phone records —" Clark paused to make sure she caught the significance of that, and she didn't disappoint him.
"Calls to Qtun City, right?" she asked, a gleam in her eye.
He nodded. "And to Andresson at the docks. And then when the search warrant was mentioned, he got really upset and called his lawyer. He didn't really lose it completely until the uniformed cops found his secret safe. That's when he started yelling about confidential business information, corporate espionage, and lawsuits."
She frowned. "He won't be able to slither out of this, will he?"
Clark shrugged, understanding her worry, given her history with the man. "Henderson didn't think so. They should have everything they need to prosecute him for smuggling, at least, and they may be able to get him for attempted murder, too. And his deal with the rebels here has completely disintegrated."
Lois looked savagely pleased. "Couldn't happen to a nicer guy. That'll teach him to tell everyone I've *botched* a story. I may have to visit him when I get back, just to see the look on his face when he sees that I'm alive."
"Hmm, yeah, that should be fun," Clark murmured, but his heart wasn't in it. Lois was obviously retreating from him, just as she'd done at least once before now. And he'd have to let her go. At least before, he'd had the advantage of being her only human contact. Now, however, she wasn't so dependent on him.
Not that he wanted her to be dependent; he wanted her to have all the choices in the world … all the same, he wished she would choose *him*, and he had the terrible feeling that she wouldn't.
He'd have to give her all the space she wanted. Surely he could still be her friend … unless his very presence would remind her of such an unsettled time in her life? The worry grew that she would ask him to give up his job, and he had worked years to end up at the Planet — could he give that up, even for her? Then again, what good was a job if it would just make both of them miserable? He sighed, and realized that conversation had been halted for a few minutes. He glanced at Lois, and found she was nervously picking at the bedsheets with her good hand.
Perhaps in response to his sigh, she glanced up, her eyes sliding away from his almost before they made contact. "I'll probably have to testify, won't I?"
With an effort, he jerked his mind back to the case in question. "Yeah, you might."
She grimaced. "Just another reason it was more fun to be dead."
Clark couldn't help himself; he reached forward to touch her hand. "Hey, I happen to think it's better that you're alive."
She froze, looking at his hand on hers. "Ah, yeah, well … about that, Clark…" She took a deep breath, then rushed into tumbling speech. "When I was dead, I said some things, well, I mean, a lot of things, really, but a couple of *important* things, and I think they were probably at least influenced by the fact that I was, you know, *dead* … it was just easier then, but now…"
Clark eased his hand back. "I understand." He tried to keep his voice level. "It's probably best that we talk about it. There were exceptional circumstances. You weren't…" His throat suddenly dry, he had to swallow before managing to finish his sentence. "You weren't really in love with me."
Lois raised her eyes to his finally, with an expression almost of pleading. "Well, they were exceptional circumstances, and things are different now, a lot different, and I just want … I mean, I think it's only reasonable —"
"It's okay, Lois," he cut her off, looking away, unable to hear her blunder on about getting rid of him. "I won't hold you to it — in fact, I won't bother you at all."
"Clark!" she said sharply, reaching for his hand. "I just meant…" She faltered, and unwillingly, he met her gaze. Her barriers were down; she looked vulnerable, frightened, beautiful, and altogether lovable. "We got to know each other really fast, and it was great, believe me." She tightened her hand on his in emphasis. "It wasn't exactly normal, though, and I don't really trust myself about this stuff, but I want to try … so I just thought … we could maybe try … dating?"
Clark sat stunned, slowly processing that she didn't want to get rid of him, and the cold knot in his stomach began to dissolve, melting under the warmth of her gaze. He smiled. "Yeah, I'd like that."
She smiled back, relaxing for the first time since she'd woken up. "Good. Think your Aunt Opal would invite me over again?"
Clark laughed. "I'm pretty sure she'd be delighted. And I'd like to introduce you to my parents, too — when you're ready."
Lois made a face. "Oh, god, parents — mine will be in Metropolis for the funeral."
"Oh, no — the funeral. We have to stop that." He glanced at his watch, which was still on Metropolis time. "It's late Friday night now, but if you know what number to call, we should probably take care of that."
"As fun as it might be to crash the party … yeah, I guess we should." She frowned for a moment, considering that, then looked up with a gamine grin. "You wouldn't happen to have my Rolodex handy, would you?"
"Les Etats-Unis, s'il vous plait."
Lois watched Clark try to persuade the international operator to find Perry White's number, and make the connection. He'd worked his way through three languages, so far, but he'd been unfailingly polite. He was probably much too good for her, but she selfishly hoped he wouldn't notice. She was still boggled to realize that he'd thought she wanted to get rid of *him*! On the one hand, it was good to know that he'd have been willing to give her that freedom … but it scared her to think she'd come that close to losing him over a misunderstanding.
Suddenly, the phone appeared, and she recalled herself to the present. "You got through?"
He smiled. "It should be ringing now."
Hastily, she put the phone to her ear, reminding herself that while she had seen Perry just this morning, he hadn't seen her for a week.
"Hello?" Perry answered the phone, his voice clogged with sleep, and scratchy with static from the less-than-stellar connection.
"Hi Perry — are you awake?"
"Of course I'm awake," he grumbled, then suspicion sharpened his tone. "Who is this?"
"Brace yourself, Chief," she warned happily. "This is Lois — reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."
There was a stunned silence on the other end of the line.
"Perry? Are you okay? I didn't know how to break it to you gently…"
"Lois?" he bellowed, joy winning out over disbelief. "Lois, honey, if you're alive, I'm happier than a preacher in a month of Sundays!"
She laughed, and winked at Clark to let him know it was going well. Although come to think of it, she thought with a grin, he was probably listening in to both sides of the conversation.
"Yep, I'm alive — I was injured, but I'm on the mend now; I'll tell you all about it when I get home. So," with another wink at Clark, "did you hold my job for me, or have you hired my replacement yet?"
"None of your sauce, young lady," Perry said sternly. "You're just lucky I haven't fired you for not calling in before now!"
"Well, I would have, Chief, if it weren't for the coma."
His voice softened somewhat at the reminder of her injuries. "Ha! Well, I suppose I'll forgive you this once. Never mind all that, honey, are you well enough to travel? When can you get home? Where are you, anyway? I can send you another transatlantic ticket to get you home."
That brought her up short; she'd just assumed that Clark would fly her home, but she couldn't very well tell Perry that. She looked up to meet his eyes, and saw that he was looking a bit alarmed, himself. Her brain kicked into overdrive. "No, it's okay, Perry. I'm at this mission, and there's, um, a pilot here; he's got his own plane and everything. Anyway, don't worry, I can get home by myself; I'll call you when I get in."
"Is this one of those things I don't want to know about?" Perry drawled. "No, don't even answer that. Call me the second you get into town, darlin'; I don't care what time it is. I can come get you at the airport, or whatever you need."
Lois silently checked with Clark, who was nodding. "Okay, Chief, I'll do that. Thanks. I don't know when I'll be getting in, but not until tomorrow sometime, I'm sure. Can you spread the word tomorrow, and cancel the funeral and everything?" She saw Clark wince, and belatedly, she realized she shouldn't have known about the funeral. "Unless you had it already, I mean," she added quickly, making it sound like a joke. "I know Ginny's pretty efficient about that sort of thing."
He snorted, and didn't seem to notice her slip. "No, you guessed it right, honey; the funeral's set for tomorrow. Don't you worry, though, I'll take care of it. You just concentrate on getting better, and getting home in one piece."
"Ah, don't worry about me, Chief. I told you I'm always careful." She looked over at Clark again and smiled. "And I'm in good hands. I've got to go, Perry. I'll talk to you tomorrow when I get in."
"All right, fine. Take care, and Lois…" Perry paused for a moment, then added gruffly, "We missed you."
"Thanks, Perry. I know I'll be glad to be home! See you tomorrow."
She hung up the phone and gestured for the nurse to take it away. When it was gone, and the nurse safely out of earshot, she sighed noisily. "Well, that was fun."
Clark quirked an inquisitive brow. "You handled it okay."
"Well, thanks, but it was trickier than I'd expected. You do know that we can't tell anyone you were here?"
He smiled faintly. "I know — I'm just glad you figured it out. For a second there, you had me worried."
She frowned at him. "Clark, I'm not about to endanger your secret. But it would be awfully handy if you had some way to make more use of your powers, don't you think?"
"Yeah," he admitted, "but I can't quite see how to do that."
"Well, I've been thinking," she said, glancing around the room to make sure they were functionally alone. "And *I* think what you need is some sort of outfit…"
…one week later…
Lois's real return to the newsroom was much more enjoyable than her ghostly return had been, just two weeks before. This time, everyone noticed her, and most had a smile or a happy greeting. She took her time talking to everyone, not at all anxious to return to the days when it was normal for her co-workers to ignore her.
She looked around the crowd, searching for Clark's friendly smile. They'd spent a lot of time together this past week. The more she got to know him, the more she liked him, which was unusual enough — but even stranger was the fact that he seemed to like her, too, even in real life. She wasn't used to that yet, but she liked it, and she was looking forward to working with him.
They had spent a lot of time deciding what their work relationship should be, since no one at the Planet had any idea they'd met before today. Telling the full truth was out of the question, but pretending not to know one another held no appeal. Together, they'd worked out a story that bore some resemblance to the truth, and should adequately explain their sudden friendship.
Of course, that only took care of the business side of their relationship. On the personal side, he was maddeningly diffident, treating her as a friend, but no more. It had been disconcerting at first; she had worried that she had finally managed to drive him off. But then she'd realized that he was just being considerate, thinking she wouldn't welcome his affection. She had tried to flirt and drop hints, but he was stubbornly remaining a gentleman. Stronger measures were clearly called for … but first they had to get through the work day.
"Lois!" A familiar voice from behind made her turn — carefully, as she still had her right arm in a sling. Her smile flattened a bit as she realized the greeting came from Bertie, who had always enjoyed making snide remarks about everyone. "Lois, I'm glad you're back," Bertie said earnestly, and for once her smirk was missing. But then it returned full-force as she steered Lois around the corner. "I've just got to introduce you to our newest reporter. Lois, meet Clark Kent."
The startled look on Clark's face told her clearly that he hadn't been expecting this; judging from Bertie's smirk, the woman expected *something* entertaining to happen from this meeting. "Clark, this is Lois," Bertie continued smoothly, ignoring the silence of her two victims. "Lois, Clark has been very interested in you," she confided as Lois began to realize what she was up to. "I think someone has a little crush…" she sing-songed, eyes glittering in malicious glee.
"Bertie," Clark began, looking exceptionally embarrassed, but Lois raised a hand to stop him. Bertie was no doubt looking for some of the famous Lois Lane verbal venom, which had been used before now to cut men off at the knees.
She smiled pleasantly at Clark, pretending to ignore Bertie. She'd explain their official story to Perry in a few minutes, but for the moment, she intended to have fun messing with Bertie's head. "Hello, Mr. Kent, pleased to meet you." She raised her left hand for an awkward sort of handshake.
After a beat, Clark caught on, and smoothly raised her hand to his lips for a barely-there kiss. "The pleasure is all mine. I've been looking forward to working with you."
She caught her breath as the faint kiss made her skin tingle deliciously. "Likewise, Clark. Until this arm of mine heals, I may need some extra assistance — we'd have to work … closely … together. Interested?" She raised a cool eyebrow, wondering how far he'd be comfortable taking this pretense. From the corner of her eye, she could see that Bertie's mouth was hanging open. Unfortunately, some others had also noticed their conversation, and were moving surreptitiously closer.
"It would be an honor," Clark replied, his eyes dancing. "But I believe Mr. White is looking for you…"
She grinned. "Yes, I'm sure he is." She was almost disappointed he hadn't wanted to flirt further, but he was clearly reluctant to step out of bounds — even at her instigation. "Nice to meet you," she stated demurely before walking away, her head held high. That glimpse of Bertie looking dumbfounded was making it very difficult not to laugh.
She reached Perry's office and greeted Ginny again. "Is he in there?"
"Yep, he's been waiting impatiently for you," Ginny grinned. "But he didn't want to let everyone know how much he missed you."
Lois smiled. "I understand." Quietly, she opened the door to the office and slipped inside. "Hey, Chief, I've got this great idea for a story…" she began, trying to lighten what suddenly felt like a very emotion-laden moment.
"Ha!" Perry growled, but couldn't disguise his happiness at her return. When he'd picked her up at the airport a week ago, he'd actually hugged her, but today he was more restrained, remaining in his chair. "Are you sure you're ready to come back to work? You've got more than enough sick time coming, on top of workers' comp and I don't know what all else. You don't need to force yourself into anything you're not ready for."
She shrugged slightly, settling herself on the couch. "The doctor says as long as I don't stress my collar bone I should be okay. And I'm going crazy at home, Chief." Which was true enough.
"Well, I'm going to make sure you don't overwork yourself." He eyed her speculatively for a moment, then said, "I've been thinking … while you're recuperating, you could use a partner."
Lois frowned, wondering what he was up to. Of course, she intended to ask to work with Clark, but she'd never worked well with others in the past, and she distrusted Perry's hesitancy on the issue.
"It's only temporary," he hastened to add. "And if you can't stand him, you just let me know; we'll find another way to help you out. But he's good, and he's new, and I think you could work well together."
Lois felt a smile building, and tried to tamp it down. "You're thinking of partnering me with a new hire?" she asked, trying to sound insulted.
"Temporarily," Perry restated, his eyes uneasily sliding away from her face. "He's got experience elsewhere, but he needs that Daily Planet polish, and I know you can help him out there. And he can help you with research, taking notes, carrying files, that sort of thing." Lois had a brief vision of Clark carrying not only files, but whole file cabinets, and had to work hard to suppress a laugh. Luckily, Perry had other things to worry about. "Honestly, he was acting a little flaky the first week, and he's been hard to keep track of this past week, but I think he'll work out okay once he settles in. His name is —"
"Clark Kent," Lois supplied, taking pity on him and moving smoothly into the official version of their first meeting. "I already met him. He came by the apartment last week, wanting to apologize for packing up some of my belongings — he explained everything."
Perry was staring at her, with an expression almost akin to Bertie's. "You've … met him?"
She smiled serenely. "Yes. He's very nice. I'm looking forward to working with him — he showed me the story he'd done on Carpenter and the gun-running; it was good work."
"Ah, well … yes, of course. Well, good then. Okay." Perry searched for some papers on his desk, clearly taken aback by her easy acceptance of what he'd thought would be a hard sell.
Carefully, Lois stood, an exercise that had gotten easier with practice, and as her various aches had faded. "Well, if that's all … I have a story I want to track down."
Perry looked up, his grouch-mask firmly back in place. "You'd better be talking about Superman."
She grinned. "I am." Clark had made his public debut yesterday, but so far he'd revealed very little beyond indicating his name. She and Clark would rectify that in their upcoming interview, which should educate Metropolis on her newest hero. Still smiling, she left Perry's office and headed for her desk. Of course, the Superman story wouldn't take very long, but she also had a follow-up to the Carpenter story in mind, and she was eager to introduce Clark around to her network of sources.
"Kent!" she barked, seeing everyone in the newsroom watching her in fascination.
Clark walked up, looking alert and amused. "Yeah, Lois?"
"You're with me — we're going to get the scoop on Superman." Grabbing her purse, she started towards the elevator, knowing he would follow.
Behind her, she heard Ginny laugh. "Oh yeah," she commented, "Lois is definitely back."
Opal heard the front door open and put down the pot lid. The stew, once started, didn't require a lot of attention, which was why she'd chosen to make it tonight for Clark and his new friend. Leaving the kitchen, she walked down the main hall as quickly as she could, observing them from the relative dimness of the hall. Clark and Lois were standing close together, she noted, seeming remarkably comfortable with each other. Lois was very pretty, apart from the sling on her arm, Opal decided approvingly.
"Hello, Clark," she greeted him warmly as she entered the foyer. She gave Clark a quick peck on the cheek before turning to his companion. "And you must be Lois."
Clark smiled proudly, keeping one arm along the small of Lois's back. "Yes, this is Lois Lane. Lois, this is my aunt, Opal Jenkins."
Opal extended a friendly handshake. "I'm so glad you're here." Up close, she could see that Lois still bore half-healed scrapes on her face, but all in all she looked to be in excellent shape for someone who'd been pronounced dead so recently.
"I'm so pleased to meet you, Mrs. Jenkins," Lois replied with a wide smile. "Clark's told me a lot about you."
Opal laughed softly. "He hasn't told me a lot about you, but what I have heard has been very intriguing! And of course I've read your work, so it's a pleasure to meet you finally. Please come in, both of you." She steered them towards the front parlor and asked Lois, with a touch of humor, "I assume you're the reason I've scarcely seen Clark this week?"
Clark winced. "I'm sorry, Aunt Opal, I didn't realize I was spending so much time away."
She waved a dismissive hand at him. "Pish tosh. I'm sure you've had your reasons."
"It is partly my fault," Lois confessed, "although the whole Superman thing has been hectic, too."
That decidedly ambiguous comment made Opal pause. She hadn't had much chance to talk to Clark this week, particularly after Superman had begun making himself conspicuously helpful. As far as she knew, Clark had never shared his secret with anyone outside his closest family; would he have revealed himself to a woman he'd only just met? And an award-winning reporter, at that? On the other hand, he was looking completely besotted, whether he knew it or not, which may have affected his judgment. She found herself wishing that she'd returned Martha's call today, daytime rates or not. She arched an eyebrow at Clark, hoping he would clear up this confusion. "I suppose you've been trying to get the story there, have you?"
Lois grinned. "We got the definitive interview today — it'll be tomorrow's front page news. Personally, I think he's a hit."
Clark was looking concerned. "Aunt Opal, did my mom call you? I thought she was going to."
Opal sighed. "There was a message last night, but I haven't called back yet — I knew I should have."
"Ah, well … Lois knows all about Superman." He shuffled his feet guiltily. "The costume was her idea, actually."
Opal took that in silently for a moment, and considered being annoyed at having been left in the dark. Of course, it was partly her own fault for being stingy with her phone bill. Besides, it was about time Clark put his gifts to good use. She turned to Lois with a smile. "Thank you, my dear. I think it's a splendid idea."
Lois smiled wryly. "I'm glad you think so; Jonathan about spit when we first told Martha and him about it. But then, he wasn't too happy about me knowing about Clark, either — at least not at first."
Clark reached out to hold her hand. "He's always been protective of me," he explained quietly.
Lois looked at him, lacing her fingers through his. "I know that, Clark; it's okay." She laughed briefly. "I'd have probably been a lot ruder in his place! And your mother was great."
"So you've met them?" Opal asked, eager to hear all the details.
Lois nodded. "Yep, Clark flew us to Kansas the other night — see, that's the reason he hasn't been home much lately. Between work, and Superman, and babying me, he's been booked up."
"Not to mention side trips to Kansas," Opal commented dryly.
"Well, only the one … we needed someone who could sew, and Clark said his mom used to do good Halloween costumes when he was a kid."
"Yes, she's always been handy at that sort of thing," Opal replied vaguely; although that sort of hand work had been much more emphasized when she was growing up, she had never taken to it, and had in fact always striven to avoid it. "I take it things went well."
Lois grinned. "Eventually. We had a few rejected designs."
A blush began to stain Clark's cheek at the memory, to Opal's vast amusement. "Did you help out, dear?"
"I was, ah…" her lips twitched as she sought the right term to use, "a technical consultant."
"Yes, she helped," Clark stated firmly, clearly anxious to move the conversation to less delicate matters. "But we finally got the right costume, and even Dad thought it looked pretty sharp. And now that I have a disguise," he glanced at Lois, "I can go flying more, which is pretty great."
Lois glanced sideways to meet Clark's gaze and grinned slyly. "Yeah, flying is pretty incredible … shame I can't do it myself. Still, flying with Clark definitely has certain compensations."
Opal smothered a knowing smile. "Yes, I'm sure it has, dear." She paused, then decided to risk a delicate inquiry. "You two seem very … close."
Clark ducked his head. "We're friends," he explained.
Lois was less reserved. "We're dating, he means. And we're working together, too, starting today."
"You're working? But your arm…" Opal gestured to the sling.
Lois shrugged. "I can deal with it. And Clark helps. He made me take it easy all last week, but now I'm feeling much better."
"You're telling me," Clark teased. "Today she ran me ragged out there, I swear."
"Yeah, save it for someone who doesn't know you so well," Lois retorted, leaning towards him, and the look that passed between them was almost a kiss.
Opal averted her eyes so as not to invade their privacy. "Well, shall we have dinner? It's right this way. And then afterwards," she added, unable to resist the hint, "Clark will have to show you the view from the roof."
True to her word, after dinner, Aunt Opal gracefully withdrew, urging her guests to explore the rooftop for as long as they liked. Clark led the way, holding Lois's hand, just to remind himself that she was fully here this time.
As they walked out onto the small porch, Lois looked around happily. "So this is the view you were supposed to show me … seems like the same view as last time."
"With one major improvement," Clark couldn't resist adding. He hadn't wanted to pressure Lois at all — taking their time to get to know one another was very sensible — but he'd found to his delight that she enjoyed a teasing flirtation.
She grinned at him, then turned to lean on the railing, looking out over the city. "It is better this time," she admitted. "I mean, I really do miss the flying; that was amazing … but all in all, I think I'd rather be alive."
"No argument here," he agreed, content to stand beside her and survey the lights of Metropolis. By now it was a habit to approach her from her uninjured left side; he fleetingly wondered if that pattern would continue long after she healed. The thought, and the assumptions contained in it, made him smile. After a second, she moved closer to him, resting her head on his shoulder, and his right arm reached up to encircle her waist.
"It's peaceful tonight," she observed, then slanted a glance upwards at him. "Right?"
For a moment, Clark expanded his senses, listening more than looking for trouble. "Everything seems quiet," he reported in satisfaction.
"Mmm, that's good."
His lips twitched. "Are you sure you're an award-winning journalist? I thought you were supposed to hate it when nothing was happening."
Lois laughed. "If it continues, yeah … but I think I can manage to enjoy an evening off, now and then. It's been a busy week … it's nice to have some time just to relax."
"True." For a moment longer, he surveyed the view, until curiosity began nagging at him. "I've been wondering … what was the deal with that whole ghost thing, anyway? I mean, I've read a little bit about psychic projection and astral voyages, but I got the impression that you had to do that on purpose."
"I don't know," she admitted. "I've been thinking about it, though. All my life I've had a pretty good intuition. I mean, part of it was self-defense, because I had to know when Mom was going to be drunk, just so I could take care of myself and Lucy … but sometimes I've known things, and I didn't know how. Mostly I just told myself it was reporter's instincts, and didn't spend too much time worrying about it."
A stray memory surfaced, and he frowned, trying to remember more clearly. "You know, there was something … when I first started, Ginny was telling me a little bit about you … she said that she thought you were psychic. I thought she was kidding."
"Hmm." Lois let that pass without comment. "Well, all I know is, when I thought I was dying, the thing I wanted most in the world was to get back to Metropolis. I guess when my body went unconscious, my spirit took off … or maybe it took the coma to do it, I don't know. I think I was still drawing on my body's energy, which is why I kept blacking out — I'd just exhaust myself."
Clark leaned his head towards hers, just enough to rest his cheek lightly on her hair. "It always scared the heck out of me when you'd fade out. I was afraid you wouldn't come back."
"I didn't like it much, myself," she admitted. "You know, I think I could have come out of that coma days earlier, if I'd only known."
"Really? Why didn't you?"
"Because it would have hurt. And I didn't realize that was what was going on. By the time I figured it out, it was almost too late."
They shared a shiver at that dreadful prospect, but Clark found that he didn't want to dwell on their near-miss. A world without Lois was too empty to contemplate. "I guess we'll never know how it happened, will we?"
"Probably not," she sighed. "Hey, maybe your Aunt Opal had it right all along … maybe it was a miracle."
"Maybe it was, at that." He wasn't sure what to think, and he tried to resign himself to never figuring it out. "Well, whatever it was … I'm glad it happened."
She smiled up at him briefly. "Me, too."
Another companionable silence fell. "So, think you could do the out-of-body thing again?" he asked, curious in spite of himself.
"I still don't know how I did it in the first place. And besides … I mean, some of it was pretty fun, but … I'm not sure I'd want to risk it."
"Hmm, good point."
Lois turned in his arms, resting her side against the railing, and he turned to face her. "Never mind that, let's talk about something more fun."
He grinned. "Your wish is my command."
"Well, we agreed to do the dating thing…" She looked down, then up again through her lashes. "So when do we have our first real date?"
Clark felt his pulse rate quicken at the invitation he saw written on her face. "You mean, like when we both dress up and I take you out to the nicest restaurant in the city? Name the time, Lois; I'll be there."
A smile played on her lips. "Well, actually, I think tonight was pretty nice. Your aunt is a good cook, and the view *is* spectacular…"
Clark began to smile. "Can't argue with you there … Lois, I haven't wanted to pressure you —"
She cut him off by touching her fingers to his lips. "Clark, I'm a big girl; I can make my own boundaries. And I happen to think that after a nice dinner in a nice place, a relationship could pick up a little speed…" She removed her fingers, placing her hand on his shoulder instead as she leaned in, and, illustrating her point, kissed him.
The kiss was gentle, almost tentative, nothing like the desperation-tinged caress they'd exchanged during their mutual flight. Taken by surprise, Clark barely had time to respond before she pulled back, just far enough to see him. Her eyes searched his face, seeking reassurance.
Clark smiled. "I see what you mean," he murmured, raising a hand to caress the side of her face. "Good idea." He leaned in and kissed her back, opening his mouth to deepen the kiss as she responded enthusiastically.
Clark reminded himself to be careful of her injured arm, but thought was becoming difficult as the sweetness rapidly warmed up to passion. Dredging up the reserves of his willpower, he broke the kiss before he lost all control, and rested his forehead on hers. "Let's … not get carried away."
Lois shifted in his arms, trying to move closer, but then winced. "Damn broken bones," she muttered. "Okay, maybe we can hold off for a little while."
He smiled tenderly. "Hey, we don't have to be in a hurry — we have the rest of our lives." For a moment, he tensed, remembering too late that she was wary of any such permanent declarations.
Her wince faded into a dreamy smile. "I can't believe I'm saying this … but I like the sound of that."
He relaxed, pleased at their mutual progress. They still had a long way to go, but now he was certain they would get there, in the proper time. "Well, let's just enjoy the moments, as they happen."
"Hmm, good plan." Carefully, she moved closer to him again, and they found a way to hug without disturbing her injuries.
Clark looked out over the city, cherishing the feel of the woman in his arms. He knew this couldn't last; he might have to leave at any time to be Superman, and she would have to go home to sleep pretty soon, in any case … but for the moment, he felt privileged just to hold her, secure in the knowledge that this time, she wouldn't just disappear.
Recommended Reading/Viewing: _Tryst_, by Elswyth Thane (not in print, check your library); 'His Girl Friday,' starring Cary Grant & Rosalind ell (RR's character, Hildy Johnson, was rumored to be the model for the comic's Lois Lane, and it's a brilliant comedy); 'Harvey,' starring Jimmy Stewart (a gentle man hangs out with an invisible rabbit, to the consternation of his relatives). Of course, there's lots more, but I think that's all the references in this fic :)