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