By Wendy Richards <email@example.com>
Submitted: November 2003
Summary: In another universe, Clark Kent lives a solitary, lonely life. Sometimes it's not only Lois Lane who hates Christmas…
As always, I owe tremendous thanks to my wonderful beta-readers, Yvonne and Kaethel. You guys were as terrific as ever in helping me to finish this story and reassure me when I thought it was going off the rails. I couldn't have done it without you. Thanks also to KathyB who reassured me that even those less keen on angsty stories could like this one! ;) And, as always, to my favourite *reader*, Annette, who gave me her usual delighted reaction when more sections were forthcoming.
And to everyone who reads my stories throughout the year, and especially those who send me feedback, I wish you all a very merry Christmas, with the hope that you will be spending it with someone you love.
Disclaimer: All rights to the characters belong to DC Comics and Warner Bros; no infringement of copyright is intended.
The sound of carol-singers echoed upwards from the street below his apartment, and Clark Kent gritted his teeth, turning away. No doubt if the world realised how much Superman hated Christmas, he'd be labelled a Scrooge and a humbug, and probably many other names besides.
Well, tough. He absolutely loathed this time of year. Hated the pressure it put on people to act as if everything was absolutely wonderful. Resented the widespread assumption that everyone loved Christmas and that a shout of 'Merry Christmas!' would earn the speaker a smile and a return of the — so-called — compliment.
And, most of all, he hated the emphasis on family which was so prevalent at Christmas.
Family. That was all very well if you had a family in the first place.
Clark turned away from the window and jabbed his remote control in the general direction of the TV set; immediately, the sound of a news bulletin from LNN drowned out the final chorus of Joy to the World. Much better, he thought savagely. The last thing he felt like being right now was joyful.
Sometimes, it seemed as if he was the only person in the whole world who hated this time of year. And that made him even lonelier than he was normally.
Of course, it being Christmas Eve, even LNN couldn't offer him sanctuary for long; within minutes the serious news clip had ended and the anchors had moved to fluff pieces, covering so- called seasonal stories about the throngs of people still shopping for last-minute Christmas presents and the fact that Nieman's had run out of this year's must-have toy, the Power- Super-Ranger — the small matter that he had refused to licence any manufacturers to produce Superman toys just didn't seem to stop some people finding ways around his lack of co-operation.
And, of course, the studio, he now noticed, was bedecked with holly. Both anchors wore stupid Santa Claus hats and the female had a sprig of mistletoe pinned to her blouse.
Bile rose in his throat. Seizing the remote control again, with one press of a button the revolting images vanished.
The carol singers had gone. That was one blessing.
Clark sighed and went over to the window again. The streets below were covered in a dusting of snow, and more flakes had just started to fall. He'd better go out and do another patrol later; this was just the sort of weather for careless driving to result in accidents. Some people — pedestrians as well as drivers — simply appeared to believe that they were untouchable, that nothing bad would ever happen to them. And their actions, fuelled by their false sense of invulnerability, invariably led to danger and disaster.
Christmas. A time of peace and goodwill to all. And for some, a time of grief and pain, because some idiot had had one drink too many, or stupidly got into his or her car in appalling weather conditions.
He corrected his earlier thoughts. He wouldn't be the only person miserable this Christmas — or any Christmas.
The phone rang, shattering the longed-for silence. For a moment, Clark was tempted not to answer it — but ingrained habit sent him to pick up the receiver. His greeting, however, was curt, and he almost hoped that it was some tabloid sleaze who had somehow managed to find his unlisted number, so that he could blast the piece of scum out of it.
"Clark! I was hoping that you'd be in." The voice was that of his former boss, currently Mayor of Metropolis.
"Perry," he said, less abruptly. He couldn't find it in himself to be rude to Perry White, despite the fact that he knew very well why the mayor was calling. Perry had been his friend in the dark days after his identity had been first exposed and everyone had wanted a piece of the alien known as Superman. Perry, still editor of the Planet at the time, had immediately given Clark a revised contract, allowing him to work from home — or from wherever he happened to be — so that he wouldn't get mobbed in the newsroom. And he'd made the Planet's owner guarantee that Clark would have a job there for as long as he wanted, without any pressure to use his Superman persona for the Planet's benefit.
Perry had also offered him an oasis of sanity in times when everything had got simply too much for Clark — the adulation, the speculation, the conspiracy theories and the outright mobbing and stalking. He'd always known that he was welcome in the White establishment, at any time of the day or night. He firmly believed that the man had saved his sanity several times — not least after his return from the other universe, where he'd spent several days pretending to be *her* husband.
He'd almost kissed her then.
And in his dreams, almost every night, he relived those moments, which would be etched in his memory for ever.
In his dreams, though, they weren't interrupted. There was no abrupt return to reality just as their lips were about to touch. There was no realisation that this was wrong, that Lois's husband was lost somewhere in time and that *he* was an interloper from another universe. In his dreams, they were just Lois and Clark, in love and desperately needing the comfort of intimacy from each other.
He frequently awakened suddenly, sweating and with the memory of passionate embraces searing his consciousness.
Lois had told him that what he felt for her was surely only a pale mirror of what he would feel for *his* Lois. But that was easy for her to say — too easy. She wasn't the one who had to live in a world where her soulmate, the one person she would love for the rest of her life, was missing. No. She was dead.
His Lois was dead. He was very sure of that. It was almost a year since HG Wells had promised to find out what had happened to her. He was a time-traveller as well as a dimension-hopper; if he'd found this world's Lois alive and well — or even if he'd been able to go back in time and save her before she was killed — he could have brought her back at any point in time. Certainly long before now.
His Lois was dead. And he was alone.
"…so, we were wondering… Clark, are you still there?"
Suddenly jerked back to reality by the realisation that Perry had been talking to him and he hadn't heard a word, Clark grimaced. "Sorry, Perry. I was miles away."
"That's okay. Anyway, as I was saying, I know what you told us before, but I just wanted to let you know that you're still very welcome to join Alice and me for Christmas dinner tomorrow. Neither of the boys can make it home, and I know Alice would really love to have someone she can spoil. So, what about it?"
It was thoughtful of Perry; it really was. But Clark fervently wished that his former boss — and everyone else he knew — would just get the message that he wanted to be left alone. Couldn't they see that he didn't *want* to celebrate Christmas? That the last thing he felt like doing was pretending a jollity he didn't feel, or joining in with a myth of peace and goodwill to all when the last thing he felt like was being in charity with his fellow human beings? Or not fellow human beings, he reminded himself savagely. He wasn't human. He would never be human. He would always be set apart from humanity by his differences, as he was reminded every day of the week, even in his Clark Kent role. After all, given that everyone knew that Clark Kent was Superman, few lost the opportunity to take advantage of the fact that they were in Superman's company, even if he wasn't in the Spandex at the time. The concept of 'off-duty' seemed lost on most people.
Not on Perry and Alice, that was true. Spending time with them was always good for him, for that precise reason. With them he could relax, could be just Clark Kent if he wanted to — or he could talk about Superman stuff if he needed to. They allowed him to be himself, whoever 'himself' happened to be at the time.
But he still wouldn't inflict himself on them, or them on himself, tomorrow. Not at Christmas. Not when he had a rage burning inside him, anger and bitterness at what had been done to him.
"No, Perry, I haven't changed my mind, but thanks for asking," he said quietly, tonelessly; he didn't dare allow any emotion to creep into his voice, for fear it would be fury — or worse, resentment. Ending the conversation swiftly, he hung up, then crossed to his large window again, staring out unseeing at the snow-covered street below.
Why had he ever been allowed to meet that other Lois Lane?
He didn't blame Lois — after all, she'd been brought to his world and simply dumped there. But HG Wells could easily have taken her away, back home again, before she'd ever had the chance to make it as far as the Daily Planet.
And then he would never have fallen in love with her.
He'd probably be married to Lana now, with a baby either in the nursery or on the way — as long as Lana could have been persuaded to put up with the effect on her figure and the disruption to her career, he thought cynically.
No, it was a good thing that he hadn't married Lana. And he wasn't sure that he would have had the courage to walk away from her without Lois's intervention.
Even still, he was now left with a bleak, miserable existence in which all the world around him wanted of him was his special powers. He could have any woman he chose, sure — as long as he didn't mind being coveted for what he could do rather than for who he was. And as long as his heart wasn't telling him that the only woman he wanted was one he could never have.
Clark could hear church bells ringing across the city — in fact, for many miles beyond, and once again he cursed his powerful hearing. If there was any way he could shut out the sound of carols and peals being rung, while at the same time still be able to hear calls for help, he would do it in a heartbeat.
At the same time, the ringing told him that there were just twenty-four hours left to endure. Only one more full day, and it would be over for another year. Life would go back to normal; he wouldn't be assailed everywhere he went by seasonal greetings, aimed at those who had something to celebrate, and someone to celebrate it with.
The other Lois had her Clark. He'd met his counterpart, albeit briefly, and had even helped him to retain his secret identity when Tempus had tried to expose it. Yet another way in which his other-universe counterpart simply didn't know how lucky he was, Clark thought savagely: not only did he have Lois as his wife, but he actually had a private life. Not for him a life spent dodging people who wanted a piece of Clark Kent, AKA Superman. He didn't have to cope with complete strangers rummaging through his garbage looking for dirt on him. He didn't have the downmarket media making up stories about his love-life, or women he'd never set eyes on before in his life claiming to have had his baby. Or, at least, Clark Kent didn't. If he had that as Superman, it was still not so bad; he could close his front door and shut out the worst of it — and he had Lois to help him cope with it anyway.
He'd like to see that Clark swap places with him even for a couple of days, Clark thought, grimacing in distaste. He'd never take his own life for granted ever again.
But that wasn't fair, he reminded himself. None of this was the other Clark's fault.
He should probably go out and do one last patrol — no doubt there would be plenty of incidents of over-enthusiastic Christmas revellers to deal with, Clark reminded himself. If it wasn't for the fact that he would probably be needed, he'd be sorely tempted to go and spend the next twenty-four hours in the Arctic Circle.
But just as he was about to change into his Suit, a rap at the door claimed his attention. Inclined not to answer it — no-one, to his knowledge, could have any legitimate reason for being at his door in the early hours of Christmas morning — Clark lowered his glasses and scanned the doorstep.
What he saw made him furious. Striding up the steps, he wrenched open the door.
"What are you doing here?" he growled, giving his unwanted visitor a dangerous look.
"Ah. Mr Kent. I do apologise for the intrusion -"
"You're damn right it's an intrusion!" Clark snapped at Wells. "I don't know what you want, and I don't care. Just get out of my sight!"
"I'm afraid that I can't do that, Mr Kent," Wells replied diffidently, angering Clark still further. "You see, I have someone with me who needs your help rather badly."
About to respond with another irate retort, Clark felt his anger begin to drain away. How was it that this interfering busybody always seemed to know just how to appeal to his better instincts? It simply wasn't fair. All he wanted was to be left alone, and in particular never to have to see the time- travelling writer ever again.
Clark sighed. "Who is it? And what kind of help does he need?"
"She, Mr Kent," Wells corrected him. "And as to who…" He stepped back, gesturing to the street below him.
Clark looked down, seeing the man's time machine apparently parked at the kerb. A woman lay in it, apparently asleep. A woman he recognised.
Clark swung around to face Wells, fury filling him once more. "Why have you brought her here again?" He turned away, preparing to slam the door in the writer's face. "Take her back to her husband."
"Look more closely, Mr Kent," Wells said sharply. "This is not the Lois Lane you remember."
Clark froze. What was Wells up to now? Would this cruelty never stop?
"Are you trying to destroy my life again?" he demanded, refusing to allow himself to look at the woman in the time machine. He couldn't bear to see her, to know that she was Lois Lane and that he couldn't be with her.
"Mr Kent, take a closer look," Wells urged again. "This is not the Lois Lane from the other universe. This Lois belongs here, in your world."
*His* world's Lois?
His limbs felt as if they were frozen to the spot. Clark couldn't move; he could only stare at the sleeping woman, taking in her beloved features.
She was Lois… *his* Lois?
Could it really be true? After all this time, was his world's Lois really alive?
She was breathing. Asleep, her long lashes formed perfect semi- circles above her cheekbones, and he could see the soft rise and fall of her chest. Oh, she was definitely alive!
And, yes, now that Wells had made him look again, he could see: this wasn't the Lois he'd met before. Her hair was longer, for one thing, and she was also thinner — quite a lot thinner, in fact. Unhealthily so.
"What happened to her?" he asked abruptly, without shifting his gaze from her.
"She has been through some quite considerable trauma, Mr Kent. She is going to need all the help and support you can give her."
"Where did you find her? What happened to her?" Frustrated by the lack of information forthcoming from Wells, Clark repeated his question impatiently.
"The real question should perhaps be 'when', Mr Kent," Wells said bafflingly. Then he explained. "I found Ms Lane four years ago, just before her assassin was about to murder her. Having discovered at just what point in time she had been struck down, I was able to pull her into my time machine just before the bullet would have struck her. So here she is — in somewhat poor health, but alive."
"But why bring her here?" Clark exclaimed. "Wouldn't it make more sense to bring her back to Metropolis four years ago?"
"Not exactly," Wells said, shaking his head. "Four years ago, Mr Kent, what was your life like?"
Clark frowned, then said slowly, "I was engaged to Lana. And we were just planning to move to Metropolis."
"Precisely. And had this Ms Lane returned to Metropolis at that time, she would not have taken an interest in you in the way her counterpart did. She would not have helped you to become Superman -"
"You say that like it's a bad thing," Clark growled.
"I'm sure that, if you search your heart, you will admit that being Superman is by far the best thing you could have done with your life," Wells said, in a tone which Clark felt was utterly patronising. If the man hadn't brought *his* Lois back, Clark would have…
But he forced himself to calm down. "Okay. So what makes you think that Lois and I wouldn't have got together if you'd brought her home four years ago?"
"You never met Lois Lane as she was in 1993, Mr Kent. That Lois Lane pretended that she felt nothing at all for Clark Kent. She only had eyes for Superman — but in your world, or indeed, in any world, without the intervention of Lois Lane there would be no Superman. However, your then fiancee had every intention of making very sure that you never used your powers to help people. It took a Lois Lane who already knew that Clark Kent was Kryptonian to turn you into Superman. *This* Lois Lane would not — indeed, could not — have done that. The fact of your engagement would have ensured that she would never have given you a second glance — or, perhaps, we might say that your fiancee would have ensured that she didn't get the opportunity. And without a Superman to catch her attention, she might well have fallen for someone else."
"Someone else?" Clark echoed, a hollow feeling inside him at the thought. And then the possible identity of that someone else struck him. "Not… Lex Luthor?"
"That is one possible alternative future," Wells confirmed. "And so, because it is better for both of you, I have brought Ms Lane here to you now. Can you take her inside, please?"
As if freed suddenly from a kind of limbo, Clark rushed down the steps and lifted Lois into his arms. She weighed almost nothing, and again he wondered just what had happened to her between travelling to the Congo and almost getting shot. And, he asked himself, why couldn't Wells have rescued her earlier, before she'd got into this state?
But right now he was just too happy to know that she was alive and safe, and in his protection.
He carried his precious burden tenderly back up the steps and into his apartment. As he brought her inside, he was only vaguely aware of Wells saying cheerfully, "Merry Christmas, Mr Kent!"
Taking her straight into his bedroom, Clark laid her on the bed, then stood back to look at her.
In his apartment.
He took a deep breath, still metaphorically pinching himself to be sure that he wasn't dreaming. She was alive — and she was with him.
But she was sleeping still — or was she perhaps unconscious? He sat carefully on the edge of the bed and examined her face. Thin — too thin. There were streaks of dirt across her forehead and cheeks, and some narrow, jagged red lines where she'd been scratched.
Her clothes were shabby and none too clean. He picked up one hand; the fingernails were filthy and ingrained dirt marred her palm; the back of her hand was also covered in scratches and the sting of some poisonous plant. Wherever she'd been, she'd been in rough conditions.
The Congo, he supposed; it was the only possible explanation. She must have been in the jungle for some reason. Knowing the mindset of a Lois Lane, it had to have been in search of a hot lead. Instead, by the look of her, he'd guess that she'd come close to losing her life.
Actually… wasn't that what Wells had said? That he'd rescued her just as she was about to be murdered?
"Oh, Lois, what had you got yourself into?" he murmured. She didn't stir.
Her breathing seemed fine, though: regular and even. Perhaps she was just sleeping. He held her wrist, checking her pulse; it was steady and at a rate consistent with relaxed sleep.
He debated with himself for several moments, grimacing as the desperate need to ensure that she was okay warred with the desire to respect her privacy. Then he lowered his glasses slightly and scanned her body.
No broken bones.
No internal injuries that he could see — just a long-healed broken ankle.
Okay. She was okay. Just sleeping, he told himself.
All he had to do was let her sleep. She'd wake up when she was rested.
And he would be right there beside her when that happened.
He was tempted to go and get a sponge and warm water, and clean some of the dirt and dried blood from her face, but then he wondered if doing that might wake her up. It would be better just to let her sleep, he decided. She needed her rest. Sleep, after all, was a great healer.
He shifted, moving to lie beside her on the bed, at a discreet distance. Turning on his side so that he could watch her sleep, he kept her hand in his and prepared himself to wait. After all, he'd waited almost two long years to meet his Lois; another few hours wouldn't hurt him.
Outside, he could hear more church bells — midnight services coming to an end, he supposed. Inside, all he could hear was her breathing. Lois's breathing.
"Welcome home, Lois," he whispered.
Lois stretched, acknowledging to herself that she really was awake and so there was no excuse for delaying opening her eyes any longer. Odd… she must really be getting used to sleeping rough. The ground didn't feel anything like as lumpy and uncomfortable as it had the last couple of nights.
She dragged one eye open. Strange — she wasn't seeing foliage and trees and bushes. There was no green in sight. Instead, she was seeing a window, blue-grey sky and curtains. And walls. And furniture. And… a bed.
She was lying on a bed.
In an unfamiliar bedroom.
And, she realised, she could also hear breathing. Not her breathing… someone else's.
Someone who was holding her hand. Holding her prisoner by his side.
A man. The hand was too large not to be.
Turning her head, she saw him. A man. Lying next to her, his eyes closed in slumber, his dark hair tumbling over his forehead.
A very good-looking man, she realised. And he had a nice face: open and friendly, she thought, before castigating herself for having those sort of thoughts about a man she didn't know from Adam.
A man who had clearly kidnapped her and brought her here to his bedroom — a man who was holding her prisoner.
A man who was, without a doubt, working for the Mr Big she'd been chasing ever since she'd gone to the Congo.
Lois sat up in one sudden movement, wrenching her hand away from her captor's, and lunged at the stranger. All she needed to do was to immobilise him — a neat clip to his throat with the side of her hand should do it — and then she could make her escape.
Her hand connected with his throat. And she yelled in pain.
He sat up abruptly, blinking, and looked at her. "Lois?" His voice sounded sleepy. "What did you do? Are you all right?"
<He knows my name! This is bad…> she thought, frantically calculating whether she could make it to the door before he caught her. If only she'd managed to overcome her distaste for the local cuisine, she could have been eating better and she would have been stronger… *No-one* in the Congo, she'd thought, knew who Lorna Lynch, biologist, really was. Her cover had been perfect.
Not quite perfect. Someone had penetrated it.
She gathered her strength and tensed, preparing to make a run for it. Her captor was watching her, something in his expression which actually looked like… concern.
"Lois," he said again. He moved closer towards her, cutting off her exit. "Look, I guess you must be wondering where you are. And who the heck I am -"
'The heck'? Who was this guy? Some hick from the sticks? Who the hell used words like 'heck' these days? Nobody in Metropolis, that was for sure. And he was wrong: she wasn't wondering who he was. She knew. He worked for Mr Big.
"This is going to seem kind of weird," he was saying. "But this is 1998. December 1998. And you're in my apartment, in Metropolis. I'm Clark Kent — I'm a reporter at the Daily Planet."
Lois froze. This was… this was *crazy*! Who did he think she was?
"First off, buster," she said, "You do not work for the Daily Planet. Believe me, I would know if you did. Second, you're a little off with your dates there. This is 1993. Spring 1993. So you better just get back to whatever funny farm you escaped from, Mr Kent —"
She broke off abruptly as her captor simply… disappeared. There was a whoosh of wind and he just wasn't there any more.
And then, just as quickly, there was another whoosh and he was back. And he was holding a newspaper.
"I'm sorry about this, you know," he was saying meekly. "If it was up to me, you wouldn't have had this shock. But take a look — you'll see that I'm right."
He held the newspaper out to her. It was a copy of the Daily Planet. She looked at the date on the front cover. It said Thursday December 24, 1998.
And the front-page lead story was 'Superman Saves Christmas!' — by Clark Kent.
Lois stared at the newspaper, not understanding.
"How can this be?" she asked, not really expecting an answer. "Yesterday it was March 14th. 1993. I know it was! And… who's this 'Superman'?" she added sceptically, treating the name with distaste. Superman? What sort of a name was that? Who on earth would masquerade under that alias?
Her captor — or Clark Kent — gave her a sheepish smile. "Actually… I'm Superman. And, by the way, I didn't write that headline," he added, grimacing.
Lois stared at him. "You? Just a minute ago, you told me your name was Clark Kent," she threw at him sceptically.
"It is. I'm also Superman, that's all," he said with an awkward shrug. "Look, that bit doesn't matter, and I'll explain it all later anyway if you really want to know. I'd have thought you'd be more interested in knowing how you got to 1998 and what you're doing here."
She did. He was darned right about that one!
"So?" she challenged him. "What crazy explanation do you have for that? I suppose I just went to sleep in 1993 and slept like Rip Van Winkle?"
He gave her a slight shrug. "Actually, no — but I don't think you're gonna like what I'm going to tell you much better."
"What's the last thing you remember?" he asked her.
She was about to answer, but then hesitated. What *was* the last thing she remembered?
She'd been in the jungle, because that was where her leads had taken her. And for several nights she'd been camping out, waiting for something to happen. Then, suddenly, something had — an old Jeep had come crashing through the undergrowth, its occupants dressed in denim and fatigues and carrying machine- guns.
She'd been seen — that much she did remember. And she'd taken off, running through the trees and vegetation, dodging bullets, afraid for her life.
And then… nothing.
No, wait. There had been something. Someone had called her name. She'd distinctly heard a strange voice — and a strange accent — calling, "Miss Lane!" Hadn't she?
She related her confused memories to the man who called himself Clark. And he nodded.
"That man was a friend of mine," he said. "And he saved your life, Lois — you were just about to be shot, but he pulled you into his… well, his travelling machine, and brought you here."
Lois frowned. She did seem to remember something grabbing her arm… "What travelling machine?" she demanded suspiciously. The only vehicle she remembered seeing was the Jeep the bandits had been in.
"His time machine," Clark said.
Lois leaned back against the shower wall, letting the blissful warm water wash over her. It had been days — years, she amended, reminding herself that she was now apparently in 1998 — since she'd had a proper shower.
She now believed Clark Kent's story. Well, she hadn't really had much option; he'd taken her into his sitting-room and turned on the TV, and she hadn't been able to deny that it was Christmas 1998. Well, unless Clark had somehow taken over all the TV stations in the city, or even the country, to perpetrate an elaborate hoax.
She had been brought into the future by a time-machine. That had been the hardest of all to believe, but over a delicious breakfast — which he'd made himself and which had impressed her no end — Clark had told her all about his friend HG Wells. Yes, a dead writer, she'd had to believe that too — and about his own experience of travelling in the time machine with Wells. Apparently they'd gone together back in time to the Congo a few months earlier, but hadn't found any sign of her. Wells, it seemed, had continued searching.
And just as well, too — if he hadn't come upon her at that precise moment, she would have been dead.
"Why didn't he take you further back, to before I left Metropolis for the Congo?" she'd asked Clark, eyeing him somewhat suspiciously over a mug of coffee.
He'd shrugged. "I'm not sure. But put it this way, Lois — if two strangers had appeared out of nowhere at that point in your life and advised you not to go to the Congo, what would you have done?"
Now, that was a no-brainer. She'd have assumed that she was being warned off, and that would only have made her all the more determined to go.
"But why you?" she'd asked him. "What's your interest in me?"
He'd flushed at that, then busied himself getting more coffee — something she'd recognised as a delaying tactic. Then he'd turned back to her. "That's a long story, Lois, and not one I really want to get into right now."
"Okay," she'd said, not happy with his answer and very determined to get the full explanation out of him later — including why he was so reluctant to tell her. 'Okay', she was very well aware, but she hoped that Clark Kent was not, meant that she was biding her time and would return to the subject when it suited her. Like some time very soon. "Tell me about Superman instead."
She threw her head back, letting the water stream over her face.
Superman. He'd spun around on the spot, and when he'd stopped he'd been wearing this brightly-coloured ski suit.
Blue. And red. And splashes of yellow. And a big S slap bang in the middle of his chest.
"What's this? A clown outfit?" she'd been in the middle of asking, when he'd suddenly…
… drifted upwards, turned a slow somersault in the air and then walked along the ceiling.
She'd been very glad to be sitting down at the time.
Superman. The world's superhero, he'd explained. He was actually from another planet — so maybe, Lois reflected, deliberately delaying in the shower longer than necessary, that time machine stuff wasn't the weirdest of all the stuff she'd been hit with in the last couple of hours.
She considered the list.
She was in 1998, not 1993.
She'd lost five years of her life.
She'd been brought there in a time machine — by a dead writer.
The man who was her host was an alien.
He could also fly.
Nope, not much could beat that. In fact, she thought, that had better be all of the crazy things he planned on throwing at her. Otherwise she'd been checking herself into the funny farm!
And then there was Clark himself. The man — not the guy in the ski suit, not the alien, not the time-traveller's companion.
Clark Kent, reporter for the Daily Planet and apparent saviour of damsels in distress.
He still hadn't told her just why he was interested in her — why he even knew about her, though she could probably guess at the answer to that one.
Perry White. Her former editor, now apparently, according to Clark, Mayor of Metropolis.
Perry as mayor — now, that was a good one. It was sure to be worth at least twenty minutes of teasing when she saw him again. The fearless investigator, exposer of wrongdoing, eternal critic of those in charge of running things — now running the city himself.
She just hoped that the Planet was holding Mayor White to the same high standards that he used to hold elected officials to when he was editor. Though she also thought, knowing Perry, that he would hold himself to high standards anyway. That was something she'd have to ask Clark about…
The guy was far too good-looking for his own good! And, now that she knew about his extra-curricular activities, she suspected that he had women throwing themselves at him all the time.
Well, she wasn't throwing herself at him. Even if he was the most attractive man she'd ever met.
Attractiveness counted for nothing, she told herself quickly. After all, she'd met plenty of good-looking guys who'd turned out to be complete louses — untrustworthy, full of themselves and promiscuous. She'd also exposed a few of them for the criminals that they were.
<But he's one of the good guys> her inner self piped up. <He's Superman!>
Good guy or not, one thing was for sure: if she stayed around him for very long, she was going to find herself falling for him. She already knew that. Something about him was already beginning to sneak through her defences. And that was far from sensible.
For all she knew, anyway, he already had a girlfriend. Or a wife.
Decisively, Lois switched off the controls and stretched out an arm, looking for a towel. The sooner she got herself sorted out, the better. She couldn't hang around in Clark Kent's apartment indefinitely. She had a place of her own — though she supposed that if she hadn't been there for five years it was no longer her place.
Family, she thought as she dried herself briskly. No matter that she and her mother weren't close — she'd just come back after being missing for five years, so surely Ellen Lane would be pleased to see her older daughter? Or there was Lucy. Of course she had somewhere to go.
Dressing quickly again in the grubby clothes she wished she could throw out — but she had nothing else to wear — Lois exited the bathroom, preparing to thank Clark Kent very much for his hospitality and get out of his way.
Christmas 1998. Pretty much like Christmas 1992, she mused, the bleak thought hitting her abruptly. She didn't have anyone special to spend the season with then, either, and she'd been faced with the choice of working or gritting her teeth and putting up with her mom spending the whole day complaining to her daughters about how she'd given up her youth to bring them up, and now she was alone and unappreciated.
To Lois's dismay, a tear trickled down her cheek, landing with a plop on her hand.
After Lois had gone for a shower, Clark had glanced around his apartment and had suddenly been struck by the stark, bare look of the place. It was Christmas, and he didn't even have so much as a piece of tinsel.
That had suited him just fine a mere few hours ago. But now that he had a guest — now that *Lois* was back — it was appalling. He'd decided that he had to do something about it.
So he'd zipped out, taken a quick flight to northern Michigan and chopped down a spruce tree. The tree was now standing in the corner of his living-room and he was busy arranging decorations on it at Superspeed. Decorations he had plenty of; the Christmas he was engaged to Lana, she'd insisted that he *had* to decorate his apartment, and of course the ones she'd wanted had all been expensive and very classy.
Though he had to admit, now, that they looked great on his tree and around his living-room.
The shower had stopped, he realised. Lois must be getting out. And that reminded him that she had no clean clothes; only the dirty, torn clothes she'd arrived in. And there was something he could do about that.
Some time before, when she'd moved from Metropolis to LA, Lucy Lane had given Clark the boxes of Lois's possessions that she'd been looking after ever since she'd cleaned out Lois's apartment once it had been generally accepted that Lois wasn't coming back. Clark had met Lucy when he'd first started to look for Lois, and in a way, other than Perry, Lucy was the only person who liked him for Clark Kent and not because he was Superman. He thought of her as a little sister, and he occasionally flew to LA just to check in on her.
And now, because he had Lois's boxes, he also had her clothes. And he could tell her that, he realised. He hurried into the bedroom, just in time to see her emerge from the bathroom, dressed in the clothes she'd been wearing when she arrived.
"Lois, I've got some boxes upstairs with your things in them," he began. And then he noticed the tear rolling down her cheek.
"Lois?" he questioned, horrified.
"You have my things?" she demanded, scrubbing at her eye with the back of her hand. "What are you doing with my things?"
"Your sister gave them to me," he explained. "Lois, what's wrong? Is it something I've done? Can I help?"
She wasn't looking at him now, which meant that she was obviously upset but trying not to show it. Clark bit his lip. What had he expected, after all? The poor woman had been torn out of her past and taken here to a future which made no sense at all to her. She'd woken up in the apartment of a man she'd never met before and who she'd soon discovered was an alien. And she'd probably figured out what he hadn't told her: that everyone she knew thought she was dead.
Which she had been, in fact; it was just that now she'd been rescued from her past in the second before her life would have ended.
She probably wanted to be anywhere but here — anywhere but with a man she didn't even know — on Christmas Day.
Why had he ever thought that this would be easy? What on earth had ever made him believe that all he needed was for Lois Lane — *his* Lois Lane — to be found and come home for him to be happy and fulfilled?
Foolishly, he'd imagined that she would take one look at him and fall in love. Just as he had with her — or rather, he corrected himself, with *her*, Lois's other-world counterpart. But why on earth should she? She didn't know him from Adam. And besides, she was her own person. Just because her name was Lois Lane, he shouldn't expect her to fall in love with a Clark Kent.
Besides, he remembered suddenly, the other Lois had told him that, while her Clark had fallen in love with her at first sight, she'd taken quite a bit longer to realise that he was her destiny. Of course, in their case Superman had got in the way and confused matters, which wasn't the case here — but still. Why on earth should Lois take one look at him and fall in love? Or even want to spend more than one minute in his company?
She didn't. That was clear.
Okay. So he needed to accept that and do something about it. Now.
He could offer to fly her to LA, he thought; Lucy would no doubt be delighted to see her, and it would be a wonderful reunion for the sisters. The perfect Christmas present. Or, if Lois wanted more time to prepare for meeting her sister again, he could take her to Perry's. At least then she'd be with someone she knew.
And he would be alone again.
But then, he was used to that. So what was new?
"Look, Lois," he said quietly, " just because Wells brought you here, that doesn't mean that you have to stay here if you don't want to. I mean, I could understand it if you'd prefer to be somewhere else. I could fly you to LA to see your sister…"
She turned to face him so suddenly that he was taken by surprise. "Lucy's in LA? And how come she gave you my stuff, anyway?"
Clark grimaced; he hadn't wanted to voice aloud the fact that people thought her dead. "She'd been keeping it all for you ever since she cleaned out your apartment after you never came back from the Congo. She… well, Lucy never wanted to believe you were dead, even though Perry organised the memorial service and everything. That was before I came to Metropolis," he added. "They both told me all about it once I… found out about you and started looking for you. Anyway, last summer Lucy moved to LA — she got a promotion for moving out West — and she couldn't take all your things with her. So I offered to keep them. I've got the space."
"Oh." Now she sounded very deflated, and he could see more tears. "Everyone thinks I'm dead?" she asked in a small voice.
Clark nodded. "I'm sorry, Lois. Look, if there was any way I could contact HG Wells, I could ask him if he'd take you back to 1993 — if I went back with him, we could still rescue you and get you back to Metropolis, and then you wouldn't have to go through all this," he suggested weakly, feeling helpless in his inability to give her what she needed.
But, to his surprise, she shook her head. "No. I can't go back. I'm here now — okay, so I've missed out on five years, but I guess I'll soon get up to speed on what's changed. What about my mother?"
She was sounding stronger; Clark had to admire the way she was pulling herself together. But he had more bad news for her. "Lois, I'm sorry; your mother died two years ago."
"Oh, god…" she muttered. "Let me guess… liver failure or something like that?"
Clark nodded. "I'm sorry."
But she shook her head. "It's only what I've been expecting for years. But still… she died thinking that I was dead…"
The tears were now falling freely again, and this time Clark didn't hesitate. With one swift movement, she was in his arms and he was cradling her against his chest, murmuring soft words to her as he stroked her hair.
It was tearing him apart to cause her so much pain. If he could take it all from her, carry it all inside himself, he'd do it in a heartbeat. But, for all his powers, that wasn't something he was able to do.
And so he did the only thing he could. He held her tightly and let her sob away the pain in his arms.
She had jumped five years into the future, and she was every bit as alone now as she had been in her past. More so, in fact. Lucy was thousands of miles away, and her mother was…
Not that that was anything of a surprise, of course — and in a way, Ellen Lane, or at least the Ellen Lane she and Lucy had loved as their mother, had died long ago. It had all happened when their father had been killed, murdered by a drug-crazed young man looking for money for his next fix. Sam Lane, on the way home from another late-night stint in the emergency room, had intervened to save a woman on the hospital staff from being mugged in the hospital parking lot, and had been stabbed in the stomach for his pains. And he'd died within the hour.
Left bereft by the loss of the husband she'd loved, Ellen had turned to alcohol; not even the love and needs of her two daughters had been enough to persuade her that she had anything to live for. Lois had practically brought up Lucy herself, trying to shield her younger sister from their mother's binges and depression. It hadn't worked; even by the time she was thirteen Lucy knew how important it was to tell her sister if she saw any alcohol in the house.
By five years ago, Ellen Lane had retreated into a world of her own, a place where neither of her daughters could reach her. She'd been in and out of rehab several times, but nothing could persuade her to give up the one crutch which seemed to help her through life. Driven more by duty than love, Lois and Lucy had continued to visit her regularly and take care of her when she needed it.
And now all that was over. She was dead — and Lois was alone.
No. Not quite alone.
She was being held securely in the strongest arms she'd ever felt holding her. She was resting against the most solid, welcoming chest she'd ever known. Not even her father's embraces, when she'd been a small child, had felt as comforting.
This man — this stranger, Clark Kent — was offering her a haven. And she felt safe, secure, as long as he was holding her. As long as he went on holding her next to his heart, she felt as if she need never be afraid again.
Taking a shuddering breath, Lois relaxed further against him and allowed him to rock her until the tears stopped flowing.
But then she remembered that she had no right to be letting Clark Kent act as her personal comforter. He didn't even know her. He'd never met her before that friend of his had brought her to his apartment a mere few hours before. Why should she expect him to put up with her? Come to that, she didn't even know why she'd been brought to him, unless it was because he was Superman — did Wells expect Clark to return her to her family?
And anyway, why had Clark been searching for her in the first place? She'd resolved to get that story out of him, of course.
He clearly felt her stirring; his arms dropped and he stepped back. "I'll just get your clothes," he said, and… suddenly he just wasn't there any more. But then she blinked and he was back, carrying a cardboard carton.
"I scanned this one," he said, gesturing to his eyes, and she realised that he meant he'd… simply looked through the cardboard to see what was inside. "Looks like it has winter clothes."
"Thanks," she said in muted tones. "I'll just…" She waved vaguely towards the bathroom, behind her.
"No need," he said quickly. "I'll just… I'll be outside."
He left, and Lois sighed in relief. His presence was far too much of a distraction, and she had too many things to deal with — too many decisions to make. Such as, where exactly was she going to go, given that this was Christmas Day? And how was she going to explain her return from the dead?
Just concentrate on the here and now, she told herself, pulling open the carton Clark had left for her. As he'd said, it contained winter clothes — clothes which she'd seen only weeks earlier, but which, of course, had been packed up for almost five years. Sighing, she pulled out a sweater, shaking out the creases which had accumulated over the time — that had been newly purchased just a few weeks before she left for the Congo.
It was red, green and white — very seasonal, in fact. And she had a pair of black jeans which looked great with it… now, where were they? A quick rummage found them at the bottom of the box. And, to her relief, there was also a pile of underwear near the bottom; she hadn't really wanted to go and ask Clark to find her underwear for her.
But then, she reminded herself, he'd scanned the box before bringing it to her. He'd probably deliberately brought one which had underwear in it.
Okay. She would get dressed, and worry about what she was going to do after that.
Returning to the kitchen a few minutes later, Lois had made up her mind: she was going to ask Clark to take her to Lucy's new home. He'd offered to fly her there, after all, so it would be a reasonable request. And if she took him up on it, she'd be getting out of his way, and she'd also get to see Lucy again. Even if it might well be a difficult meeting: quite apart from the need for explanations, unless Lucy had changed markedly, she was probably living with a man, and her boyfriend might not be particularly happy about his girlfriend's sister turning up on their doorstep out of the blue at Christmas. Lois would really have preferred to make her initial contact with Lucy by phone — but, she told herself, beggars couldn't be choosers.
Clark was standing by the sink, clearly just finishing clearing up after their breakfast. He turned at her approach — she thought she hadn't made a sound, but then, she supposed that Superman was probably Super in the area of hearing too. Smiling lightly at her, he said, "So — what would you like to do? I can fly you to LA, as I said, or I could take you to the Whites — I know that Perry would love to see you. I discovered very quickly, once I knew about you, that he thinks of you like a daughter."
Perry… It was tempting. But, on the other hand, Lois wasn't sure that she was ready yet to meet Mayor White.
So Lucy it would have to be.
She took a deep breath, about to speak and tell Clark so, when something caught her eye. Something bright and sparkling and flashing…
She turned to see what it was, and noticed the Christmas tree standing in the living room of Clark's apartment, just below the steps leading to the door. It was somewhat inexpertly covered with red and gold decorations. And around the living room there were strands of tinsel and sprigs of holly.
None of that had been there when they'd had breakfast. She knew it; she'd actually noticed the lack of decorations. There hadn't even been one piece of holly anywhere in the apartment.
Clark had decorated for Christmas. And since he hadn't done it before this morning… he had to have done it for her.
She stole a look at him. He knew what she was looking at, that much was clear, and a tiny muscle twitched in his jaw. And she noticed something about Clark Kent that she hadn't realised, and that if anyone had suggested to her about him she would have laughed in disbelief.
He was lonely, too.
"Lois?" His prompting reminded her that he was still waiting for an answer.
"Uhh…" She hesitated, still wondering what the right thing to do was, but then made a sudden decision. "Clark, I'm really not sure that I'm ready to meet anyone yet."
His smile could have powered the city's grid for a week. "Then you don't have to. You can stay here for as long as you want."
She was staying!
This was going to be a great Christmas, after all.
Okay, she might want to be taken to her sister's place later, but still… she was here for now.
She'd looked so sad, so forlorn, when she'd said she wasn't ready to meet anyone yet. So lost and alone.
Just like him.
And he wanted to show her that she would never be alone as long as he existed. He wanted to enfold her in his arms again and tell her how much he loved her and how he would protect and love her for the rest of his life.
But it was too soon — far, far too soon, if indeed it would ever be the right time for him to tell her that. She would run screaming in the opposite direction if he even so much as hinted at it now.
No; he had to tread very carefully. Right now, the most he could look for was friendship — and even that would take time.
Taking a risk, he reached out with one hand and touched her shoulder lightly. "So, you'll stay?"
She gave him a tremulous smile. "If you'll have me. If you didn't have any other plans for today…?"
"Nope. No other plans. Not a thing," he assured her, smiling broadly again. "So… hey, how about a flight over the city?" he offered, not above grasping at any means of holding her in his arms again. "You haven't seen Metropolis from the air, have you?"
She gave him a wide-eyed stare. "Flying? With you?"
"Well, only if you like the idea," he said hesitantly, unsure how to read her reaction.
"It sounds… Wow!" she exclaimed. "I mean, I've never known anyone who could fly before, and… well, I'm still not convinced that I'm not dreaming that bit." She grinned.
"Nope, not dreaming," he said. "Okay, how about you find a coat or something warm? If you don't have one in that box I brought down, I guess I could lend you one. And then we'll get going."
There was simply no experience in the world like it, Lois thought dazedly as she gazed down at the city spread out beneath her under its white blanket. Held securely in Clark's arms, cushioned against his chest, she felt very safe and not at all nervous at being so many hundreds of feet above ground level without a parachute, as he'd joked when they'd stood together on his balcony. He'd seemed worried that she might not enjoy the experience, and for a moment she'd wondered if he was about to withdraw his invitation. But then he'd done a sudden whirl, coming to stop in his blue and red regalia, and in a smooth movement he'd scooped her up… and then stepped up onto the rail and off into thin air.
And now they were flying, cruising effortlessly through the sky.
She recognised buildings below her… the LexCorp tower, now the headquarters of a multinational bank, Clark told her, and she idly wondered what had become of Lex Luthor, millionaire philanthropist and, she'd suspected five years earlier (or a few weeks earlier, by her time), probably not as squeaky-clean as he pretended. She'd have to ask Clark.
And there was the Lexor Hotel — still called the Lexor, Clark confirmed — and the Metropolis Power Company plant. The harbour looked exactly the same, as did the river as it wound its complicated path through Metropolis. There were new developments: the run-down West River area had been redeveloped, with new and expensive-looking apartment blocks overlooking the river, and rows of shops and small businesses between them and along the side-streets. That area had badly needed redevelopment, she mused, but she couldn't help wondering what had happened to the low-income families who had once lived there. They certainly couldn't afford a river-front apartment!
And then they flew over the Daily Planet. Lois almost wept as Clark flew her down to look at the big globe; there'd been a few times over the past week or so she'd spent in the jungle when she'd thought she would never see the Planet again. It had been touch and go; apart from hiding from the members of the gun-running gang whom she knew were on her tail, the jungle itself had been fraught with danger. She'd had a narrow escape, a couple of nights ago, from some unidentified but very large creature which had come crashing through the vegetation in her direction; only a swift scramble up a tree had removed her from its path.
But now she was back in Metropolis, and she was safe.
Even safer, given that she had the strongest, most powerful being in the world taking care of her…
But she shouldn't get too used to that. Clark was just being kind, after all. For some reason, she'd been brought to him, and he clearly felt some sort of responsibility towards her for that reason. Later tonight, or tomorrow, he'd take her to Perry and Alice, or to Lucy, and his duty towards her would be discharged.
Although… The thought struck her, then, that he did work for the Daily Planet. Now, if she could persuade the new editor, whoever that was, to give her back her job, maybe they could work together? For some reason, the thought of Clark Kent disappearing entirely from her life was very unpalatable…
And that was highly unusual for her. She usually took a long time to decide whether someone was trustworthy or not, and she'd never before felt herself drawn to someone as quickly as to Clark Kent. Never before felt that someone was as indispensable to her life as Clark Kent. It was scary… but at the same time, oddly comforting. Something about him was telling her that he needed her too…
They flew further across the city, even heading out across the bay and looking down at the dark sea and across to the circle of lights surrounding Hobbs Bay, and the entire experience became almost dream-like. She stopped asking excited questions and Clark stopped murmuring the answers in her ear.
And they were alone, hundreds of feet above the surface of the earth, with nothing between the earth and the sky but them.
The panorama below seemed to melt away, and Lois became aware only of Clark, his strong arms around her, his soft breath against her cheek, his body so close to her.
She could fall in love with this man.
And the prospect frightened her.
Why should he have any interest in Lois Lane, reporter? Especially when she was behaving like a flake over the fact that she'd been abruptly wrenched five years into the future? When the first thing she'd done when she'd awoken in his apartment was attack him?
Clark Kent, Superman, could have all the women he wanted. He wouldn't want Lois Lane.
A little while later, at her request, he took her to the cemetery, a bleak landscape in the wintry snow. He stood a little way back as she walked across to her father's grave. She saw, as he'd told her, the stone tablet dedicated to her; and, next to it, the headstone which had been her father's had been added to.
"And his beloved wife, Ellen Lane 1946 — 1996 Rest In Peace"
Lois took a deep, shuddering breath, feeling tears prick at her eyes. "Rest in peace, Mom," she choked out. It was for the best. Her parents were together again, which was all her mom had ever wanted. But she missed the loving mother she remembered as a kid. And she had missed her chance to say goodbye.
But she was alive, she reminded herself. If she hadn't been brought here, now, she too would have been dead.
"Goodbye, Mom," she whispered.
And then she felt a strong arm come around her, and she was being tugged back against a hard, solid, wonderfully comforting chest.
He held her in silence for a long time. Then, when she took another deep breath, he murmured, "I lost both my parents when I was ten. It does get better, Lois. I promise."
She turned in his arms to look at him, and he hugged her close. And as crazy, as unexpected as it was, she felt herself even more drawn to him. She didn't dare to put a name on the feeling just yet, but she was afraid she already knew what it was. How could she be falling in love so fast?
And yet she was. And with every second Clark held her, she fell even deeper in love with him.
Later, after they'd eaten — and Clark had even impressed himself at the way he'd managed to conjure up a respectable Christmas dinner almost out of nowhere — they adjourned to the living room. It was dusk outside, and the room was lit only by a couple of small lamps and the Christmas tree.
He was feeling more Christmassy than he had in years. For the first time since his parents had died, Clark was enjoying this time of year.
And Lois was having a good time, too. Although she'd been upset when he'd taken her to the cemetery, he'd sensed that her tears had also been healing. Back in his apartment, she'd relaxed with a glass of wine and they'd actually had a conversation which wasn't about Superman, or Clark Kent, or Metropolis five years on, or what Lois had been doing in the Congo… or, the question he was dreading, why he had been looking for her; why Wells had brought her to him.
They talked, they laughed; they discovered that they had a lot in common. And Clark discovered that he liked this Lois Lane even more than he'd liked her counterpart.
She was different. He'd always felt somewhat inadequate next to that Lois. After all, she was the one with experience of Superman; she was the one who'd made him what he was, and to whom he looked to for advice. Even when he'd been in her world, by which time he'd been Superman for over a year, she'd still been the one calling the shots.
With this Lois, they were equals. And he even felt protective towards her, in a way he hadn't really had the opportunity to be towards the other Lois. He'd even felt awkward about comforting her in the absence of her husband; after all, there had been that dangerous moment when they'd almost kissed.
She settled herself on the other end of the sofa, making herself comfortable, and then turned to him.
"So, Clark… why were you looking for me? I mean, it's not as if you even knew me. What's going on here that I don't know about?"
Clark's heart sank. This was the question he'd been dreading… but he had to give her an answer. And he had to tell her the truth, too. Not doing so simply wasn't an option.
"Well, this is going to sound pretty crazy," he said awkwardly. "I mean, really, really off the wall."
"You think?" she threw back at him, mildly sardonic. "Come on, Clark — I've just been brought five years into the future by a time-traveller who's also a dead writer, and I've met an alien from another planet who can fly… I mean, what can be weirder than that?"
"Parallel universes?" he suggested wryly.
"What?" she exclaimed.
"Parallel universes. Or, specifically, *one* parallel universe. Where there's another Clark Kent… and another Lois Lane," he explained, his heart in his mouth. "I met the other Lois Lane about two years ago — when she was dumped in this universe by a meddling guy from the future."
Any second now, she was either going to have him hauled off to the funny farm, or she was going to yell at him and walk out.
"There's really another universe?" she asked sceptically.
"Yeah. At least one other that I know of," he assured her.
"And because there was a Lois Lane there, you thought there had to be one here?"
"I knew there was one — had been one — here," he explained. "The memorial stone in the cemetery, remember?"
"Yeah." She bit her lip.
He took a deep breath, then forged onwards. "Anyway, once I knew that there was a Lois in the other world, I… started to look for you."
"But why?" she asked, puzzled. "I can't see why it would matter to you."
"No?" He shrugged. "Lois… the other Lois and Clark Kent… they're partners. They work together at the Planet in their world."
She frowned. "And you wanted a partner? But why would Superman need a partner? I mean, with what you can do, wouldn't you work better alone?"
"In the other world, people don't know that Clark's Superman," he said. "So I guess — well, apart from the fact that he and Lois love working together — I guess she covers for him when he needs to… you know," he finished vaguely.
Lois gave him a considering look. "There's something you're not telling me, isn't there?"
He gulped. Then he acknowledged the reality of the situation. He had to tell her the truth. If he didn't, and at some point she found out some other way, he could have destroyed her trust in him for ever. No, there was no way around it; he had to tell her.
"They're married," he said quickly.
"Who are married?" she demanded, giving him a wary look.
"Clark and… Lois."
"Oh." She bit her lip, and he watched her through worried eyes. She was looking very nervous now, and he held his breath, just waiting for her to accuse him of wanting her only because he was already in love with the other Lois and couldn't have her. Seeing *her* as a substitute. Of already deciding that she had no choice but to be his girlfriend… lover… wife… whatever; of giving her no choice.
Lois barely knew what to say. She'd accepted the parallel universes bit — well, because, as she'd told him, it wasn't much more fantastic than everything else she'd discovered that day. She'd even accepted an alternative Lois, and an alternative Clark Kent. She'd been delighted to hear that they were partners at the Planet — that told her that her thoughts earlier, about wanting to work with *her* Clark, weren't too much of a fantasy.
But… her counterpart was married to his counterpart…
That was… scary.
And her Clark had met that other Lois… and it was after that meeting that he'd started to look for *her*. Was that because… oh god, he'd fallen for that other Lois, but since he couldn't have her he'd been looking for a substitute, hadn't he?
And yet… She'd only known Clark a matter of hours. But something about him told her that he'd have looked for her anyway, once he'd discovered that she was missing. Because that was the kind of man he was.
"So…" she said awkwardly.
"Yeah?" he prompted once she didn't continue.
"So… you kind of figured that we were supposed to be together too? To… fall in love with each other?" she asked him, needing him to tell her something she could believe. Needing him to reassure her that he wasn't just seeing her as a substitute for a woman he couldn't have.
Of course she thought he saw her as a substitute. He reached for her, caught her hand and held it firmly in his. "Lois, you're your own woman. Sure, you look like her, and you have the same job as she does — and I'm Clark Kent and Superman, just like her husband. But I'm very different from him in lots of ways — as you are from her. Having met you, I could never confuse you with her, if that's what's worrying you."
"I guess… a bit," she admitted.
He had to reassure her, even if it meant… well, being not entirely honest about his feelings. "You wouldn't be human if it didn't occur to you," he told her. Then, figuring that he'd better deal with the marriage stuff, he added, "Lois, I don't want to push you into anything you don't want. I… I mean, if it's all you want, I'm happy to be your friend and nothing more. Just having you around is enough."
It would be enough. It would have to be!
And he could live with it, too. His counterpart had shown that it could be done. The other Clark Kent had waited two years for his Lois to fall in love with him, after all.
"So… you'll settle for just being friends?" Lois questioned him.
"Of course. If that's what you want. I mean, if you want me to be your friend."
Again, he held his breath. After this, he couldn't blame her if she tried to get as far away from him as possible.
She gave him a long look. Did she want to be his friend? Did she believe him when he said he wanted *her*, that he wasn't confusing her with the other Lois?
Actually… she had a sneaking suspicion that she did. It was something about the way he looked at her, the way he'd possessed himself of her hand. And the expression on his face when he'd told her that he was different from the other Clark Kent. Something told her that he hadn't liked being confused with the other Clark, any more than she would like being considered a substitute for the other Lois.
Yes, she believed him.
Enough to be his friend?
Just his friend? But she wanted more than that. And, beneath his caution and reassurance, he was telling her pretty clearly that he did too — something she hadn't even dared let herself dream about.
A cautious smile edging across her face, she said, "Actually, I'm not sure that I could settle for just being your friend, Clark Kent."
Sounding as if he was barely able to believe his ears, he exclaimed, "You can't?"
She held up her hands in a wary gesture. "Whoa, whoa! Look, can we take this *very* slowly here? I mean, I've only just met you, and I have kind of had an eventful day. But yeah, I mean, I think… in time, I think I'd like to be… your girlfriend," she finished softly, her heart in her mouth.
Clark stared at her, barely able to believe his ears. She wanted to be his *girlfriend*?
This was unbelievable. His dream was coming true. Lois — his Lois — wanted him, too.
Outside, he could hear bells again. It was late afternoon, and people were still celebrating Christmas according to their particular tradition.
Inside, he'd just been given the very best Christmas present he could ever have. Lois was back and with him, and she thought she might like to be his girlfriend. Some day. In time.
"Lois," he said huskily. She smiled tremulously at him.
"Oh, Lois…" he murmured; then he gave up on words and simply reached for her. She came willingly.
Tugging her gently into his arms, he murmured, "I'm not rushing you. But do you think we can… well, sort of do this just as a promise to each other? That maybe one day we'll be more than friends?"
"A sort of trial kiss?" she said softly.
"I guess." He smiled. "But for me it's more of a promise — that I will wait for you and in the meantime I'll be there for you whenever you need me."
She slid her arms around his neck. "I like the sound of that, Clark. Me too. And… also to say Merry Christmas?"
"Oh, that too," he agreed, chuckling gently. "But mostly… because I want to kiss you."
"And I want to kiss you," she admitted. And then their lips met, tentatively at first, but then eagerly, and nothing else mattered.
Outside, bells rang, people chattered and wished each other a merry Christmas. Snow fell, and traffic moved, and children ran about and played. Inside, the occupants of the room were oblivious to everything except each other.
And Clark Kent rediscovered the magic of Christmas, just as Lois Lane found her way home.