By CC Aiken <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: November, 2003
Summary: Thrown into an alternate universe, Lois Lane wants desperately to get home but also finds a reason to stay, while Clark tries to adjust to a life without her.
Author's Note: With thanks to Labrat for her excellent BrRng. And to Carol (or whatever you call yourself!) for her eagle-eyed GEing. Hope you enjoy. All feedback welcome.
"So, I guess this is good night."
"Yes, if you want it to be. But the night doesn't have to be over, if you don't want it to be, Lois."
"And if I don't you'll…hold the sun off, stop it from rising?"
"Not unless that would get me invited in?"
"Oh, you want to come in?"
"You haven't had enough of my company? The longest dinner on record, to my knowledge, dancing all hours, the slow walk home, and still, you're not…tired?"
"Not tired, no, Lois. Sort of the opposite."
"Well, yes, if you wanted a literal opposite."
"What else is there?"
"Oh, I don't know: alive, energized, infused…drunk."
"You're mixing your metaphors in there, mister. How much wine did you have with dinner?"
"It wasn't the wine, Lois. It's never the wine."
"Well…wow. I didn't expect you to just come right out and…well, wow."
"Does that get me invited in, by any chance?"
"That might get you a whole lot more than you bargained for, Clark."
"I don't know, Lois. You see, in the initial bargaining process, I bargained for a whole lot."
"Is that so?"
"Is this still your door?"
"And those things in your hand, still your keys?"
"So, you could use them on your door, do that 'open up' thing and we could…"
"…continue this inside?"
"You're asking me in? What a surprise, Ms. Lane."
"Only because tonight has been so…amazing."
"Amazing? I like the sound of that."
"And since you're not tired…"
"The very opposite of tired…"
"Right, and since you're the very opposite of…
<Help! Help! Superman! My wife! My kids! Oh, please, God! Somebody Help! Please!!>
"…tired, then maybe I should…"
"… do that thing with my keys that you suggested."
"Lois? Lois. Look, um…"
"Clark, you've said 'um' more than once already. What is it? You're looking…"
"Sick, Lois. I feel absolutely sick. I…I…just remembered. I have…a thing…um…an important something…I forgot…I…it kills me to say this…"
"You're not coming in."
"Lois, I swear I really do feel sick about this…"
"Don't swear to anything right now, Clark. You wouldn't find a judge who'd believe you."
"I'm so sorr-"
"Goodnight you lying, two-faced, cowardly, son of a…"
Keys in her door, for real now, Lois unlocked each lock and with every turn invoked further curses on the head of her boyfri- no forget that, her friend…ha! Not even that, no. That man! That man she happened to work with, and that was all. That man whose name she couldn't even remember now.
Wrenching the door open at last, she hit the lights, blew a strand of hair out of her eyes, and ran straight into the tall, smiling stranger standing in her living room.
"Well, finally, darlin', was it just me, or did you think he'd never leave?"
"Look, whoever you are, kidnapper, murderer, thief, you have picked the wrong woman and the wrong night, in that order. So, I'll do you the favor of standing aside and letting you leave. How's that?"
"Lois, you wound me. No hello?"
Lois put her coat and purse down slowly, keeping herself between the man and the door. She threaded her keys between each finger, clutching them in her fist like a pair of brass knuckles.
"I'll tell you again, wrong woman, wrong night."
He pulled a small remote control device from his pocket, and from behind him a shimmery sort of window appeared, casting an iridescent glow over the room.
"Want to talk now?" he drawled, looking quite pleased with Lois' sudden, rapt attention
"How…how do you know my name?
"Oh, come now, Lois, you and I go way back. Don't tell me you don't remember? I thought I was special to you."
"You're a mad scientist, aren't you? I get so sick of you guys, busting in here night and day, shining lights or…or…windows, and things. And I guess you want me to write about your earth-shattering invention, or hide you from your crime lord benefactor."
Lois had moved tentatively closer to the odd special effects display in her living room, though deliberately staying at a comfortable distance from the man.
"You think I don't know what you're doing, don't you?" He smiled a tad smugly at her. "I have to admit, you're good, and you caught me out the last time, but I have studied Lois Lane a bit more extensively since then, so you can drop the act, darlin'."
"The act?" Lois asked in all innocence, all the while relaxing into her stance, doing a slight bounce up and down on her heels, wondering if she had time to take off her shoes. It would be much easier in a lower heel, a boot, or just barefoot, if needed.
"The 'talking killer' act, Lois."
The man bracketed his words with those finger quotations that always so irritated her. Another reason to just go ahead and kick him into next week.
"You know, I talk and talk, tell you my plan, and while you appear to be listening like a good student, you're searching for the equivalent of a 2x4, or getting ready to kick me into next week."
He now had Lois' full attention. She stopped her deep, restful breathing. Stopped visualizing that he was the ball coming into the strike zone to her bat. "We have met before, haven't we?"
"Duh! What have I been trying to tell you? Lois, your reputation does not disappoint. Despite the beauty and the bravery, you are still galactically stu…"
"Oh, now that was entirely too predictable. And that hurts, Lois. You think I haven't taken Big Blue into account here. Trust me, he's busy. I've gone to great pains to insure that. Timing is everything; you'll learn that, darlin'."
Lois had heard enough. She lunged, spinning on her heel, catching him full across the middle with a devastating kick. He was ready. He didn't try to stop their momentum. Instead he held on to her, letting her spin throw them towards the window and through, all in one easy motion.
Clark's head snapped up. "Lois…"
"Superman? Did you say something?" asked the injured woman in his arms.
"No, ma'am. Don't worry. We'll be at the hospital in no time. And your kids are there and fine, just a little shaken up."
"The fire…I never saw anything like that. Like it was everywhere at once, you know…"
Her reply was cut short by a vicious bout of coughing.
"Don't try to talk, ma'am. Your lungs are full of smoke. They'll fix that for you."
"Just…thank you, Su..Superman. Th…thanks."
"Just doing my job." He smiled kindly at her, covering the inexplicable gnawing fear that had entered his gut just moments before. That had been Lois. She was unmistakable to him. He had left her only a few minutes ago, but then a few minutes were all it took with Lois.
He sped up considerably, still trying to keep his passenger's comfort in mind. Once she was safely delivered into the right hands, he took to the skies, not stopping for the press who had gathered, or for the thanks of a relieved and grateful husband.
In seconds he was standing in Lois' very empty living room. She was gone. Her keys were in the middle of the floor. Her coat and purse beside the still-open front door. It had only been minutes, but in that time, something…something terrible had happened.
No. No. It had only been, he glanced at Lois' clock, four minutes. That wasn't time enough for anything…anything. So, relax. Look around. Focus.
He forced himself to stand still. To systematically x-ray every square inch of the room, the bedroom, the bathroom, the hallway. Nothing. He shot out the window, nice and easy, not too fast, and hovered over the building, stared intently at every floor, into every neighbor's apartment, not registering what anyone was doing, just searching for one particular face. The stairwell, the elevator, the lobby…
He went higher still. No need to panic, because it hadn't even been ten minutes since she called. If she were drugged, unconscious, stuffed inside a barrel, he'd find her in time. The street surrounding her apartment. Her Jeep. The neighboring buildings. Nothing.
He went higher still, moving a bit to the south, towards the docks, towards Suicide Slum, where most of the bad things seemed to happen. They would have her in a car or a van, possibly heavily lined with lead, a nifty trick that was going around in criminal circles. They might be speeding, if they weren't smart. The streets, the highways, the back alleys…
It had just been fifteen minutes. Nothing irreversible has occurred. Nothing that couldn't be stopped or fixed or caught.. Just something…unexpected. Underground? Metropolis was riddled with tunnels and pipes that weaved like a tangled maze beneath its streets. He should go down, get close, listen for her heartbeat. Or a helicopter? A quick ride to the airstrip to a private plane headed for… No, he would have heard a helicopter. He was alone in the skies tonight. Alone. God. She's gone. She is gone. Lois is gone.
The world lurched and swayed alarmingly. Held tightly in the stranger's grasp, Lois didn't even try to escape, didn't try to follow what was happening. She just closed her eyes and willed it to be over, afraid that if she opened her mouth to scream the entirety of her expensive dinner would end up on her shoes. With a jolt, everything slammed to a stop.
"It's never easy the first time, darlin'." The man released her in an oddly gentle way. Lois' legs immediately gave out. She found herself sitting on cold, hard, blessedly firm pavement. "Now, when you think about this later, and you will, your inquisitive mind will want to know 'why'."
Despite her efforts not to, Lois rolled to her knees and lost the dinner she'd so enjoyed just hours before.
"Oh, charming… Look, Lois, I'll just wrap this up quickly then. Listening? I had an epiphany. You see, I was always a planner. You know, lots of details, everything so meticulously calculated down to the bottom line. And where did that get me? Ha! Don't ask. Every evil scheme thwarted. The notoriety and high life that I so craved, denied me. So I asked myself, 'Tempus' I said…"
"Tempus," Lois repeated dully, latching onto the important piece of information she knew she needed, so that when she recovered from whatever he'd done to her, she could hunt him down…kill all his housepets.
"Yes, didn't I say that? Now, follow me here, Lois. I was a planner, right? Too often foiled, and by minds much duller than mine. Really, really aggravating. So, I had this thought; what if I just did something? Something spontaneous and random? Something, well, just for fun. And while I might not be around to enjoy the show, I could amuse myself contemplating all the possible scenarios. And that, darlin', brings us…here." He spread his arms wide, encompassing all of their dimly lit surroundings.
"To Centennial Park? An epiphany, a random, spontaneous act, some sort of magic carpet ride …or something, and this is where all this leads to? The park? Seems a bit…much." Lois struggled to stand, batting away his outstretched hand.
""A bit much, you say?" Tempus laughed delightedly. "Oh, Lois, you kill me. And by the way, you ain't seen nothing yet. Have a nice life, Lois Lane."
The window once more appeared behind him. Lois recoiled. Tempus stepped through, "Remember this moment, Lois. I know I will." The window disappeared and he was gone.
"Superman, I understand that we are talking about Lois Lane, here. And I am not questioning your judgment, but she's only been…"
"…missing," Clark supplied quickly.
"Not in her usual place," Henderson gently corrected him, "for how long? An hour, you say?"
"Yes, but she called. Called for my help while I was dealing with tonight's apartment fire. And she wasn't where she was…where she called me from…she wasn't home. She wasn't anywhere."
"That doesn't necessarily mean she's missing. Where that's partner of hers? Find Clark Kent. I bet you next week's paycheck the two of them are hunkered down in some stake-out."
"Clark does NOT know where she is."
"Ok." Henderson cleared his throat, glancing over at his now silent, frozen co-workers. "Come inside, Superman. Just…let me get the details."
Henderson placed a friendly arm around Clark's shoulders, drawing him away from prying eyes and interested ears.
Once his office door was closed, he turned, speaking firmly. "Get a hold of yourself, Superman. Now it doesn't bother me, but do you have any idea how…scary an out of control superhero looks to the average person?"
"I am not out of control, Inspector, but I need you to take me seriously…"
"You need my help, you've got it. You think she's gone."
"She is gone. She has…evaporated. Working from her apartment, I have systematically looked in every possible direction for twenty miles. It's taking too long…"
"So, whatever or whoever took her, got her quick."
"Got her so quick that not five minutes after she yelled, there was no trace of her. Her door was open, her things left on the floor. No signs of struggle, a fight, a break-in…"
"Below the streets then? A hideout?"
"That's why I need you."
"Tell me what you need."
"Eyes. Ears. Bodies to search. I can't get through most of those tunnels much faster than the average man. They're labyrinth and lead-lined and…"
"The perfect hiding place for kryptonite?"
"That may be why I haven't heard from her since. If they had some, and she saw it, she would sooner…well, she wouldn't call."
"Consider it done." Henderson clapped a hand on Clark's arm. "But don't rule out what her partner might know. In fact, if you could find him, I'd appreciate a word with Kent in the next hour, or so."
"He'll be here," Superman promised. "And, sir, thank you. I know how it sounds, me coming in here, getting you out of bed…crazy."
"If it's you, it isn't crazy," Henderson spoke quietly. "You're one of us, Superman. And while I can't say I understand it completely, I know that Lois Lane is…"
"A friend," Clark choked.
"Exactly. And she's done us more than a few favors. Don't ever tell her I said that. Now, go and get Clark for me. And don't…well, try not to worry. We're on it."
Before-twenty four hours had passed, the search for Lois Lane had made international news. Within days, the programming on LNN was devoted to exploring who the culprit might be, running show after show on her famous enemies. A list that was impressively long. Even if it wasn't helpful, it certainly was entertaining to those who lived outside of Metropolis and might have been only vaguely aware of the Lane and Kent track record. The papers were filled with speculation over how, after all this time, someone had finally swiped the intrepid reporter from under Superman's nose.
After a few weeks, Lois Lane began to be referred to in the past tense by both on-air personalities and hard bitten columnists, who sincerely regretted the apparent loss of one of theirs. By the third month there was talk of some sort of memorial. A way for the citizens of Metropolis, who had so benefited from Lois Lane's passionate embrace of their city and its welfare, to thank her publicly. By the time the seasons changed she was practically forgotten. Life went on. It was a shame. She was young and had so much going for her. But it wasn't like she'd wasted her time here. She could serve as an inspiration to make every day count, to live to the fullest, to confront injustice.
By the time the snow had melted, the people of Metropolis were starting to wonder, though, if Superman was ever coming back.
The after effects of time-space travel hadn't been pleasant. That much Lois was able to remember. The nausea, headaches and wooziness had stayed with her for some time, making concentration difficult, if not impossible.
She'd been admitted to Metropolis General at some point in the first twenty-four hours after her…arrival. She didn't really remember it clearly. It all sort of coalesced in a fog of concerned voices, some of them raised, some of them alarmed, some soothing and kind. Followed by clean- smelling sheets and, finally, blissful unawareness.
When she'd awakened in the hospital and demanded to know the time, the day, and where her friends and family were, no one knew who she was. After she'd declared her identity repeatedly, a nice, calming psychiatrist had sat beside her, explaining that there was no Lois Lane. She had come with nothing to identify herself. Was she certain she was who she said she was? Was she prone to amnesia? Delusions? Hysteria? When the nice and calm approach hadn't done the trick, she had asked them to call Superman. He would vouch for her. It had been on the tip of her tongue to ask for Clark, but one crystal clear memory she still retained was her anger at him, his desertion of her time and time again. Superman was far more reliable. And she wasn't ready to give Clark Kent the satisfaction of calling for his help. Not yet.
It was the Superman request that got her transferred to the "quiet corner" of the facility. Where most patients either sat in a drug-induced stupor, or railed at the four walls of their well-padded rooms. Lois had asked for a newspaper. She was an esteemed member of the Daily Planet staff; her disappearance would have made the front page, or, well, page three above the fold. She couldn't understand why no one had come looking for her. Not Perry, not Jimmy, not…that man that she just happened to work with. When someone goes missing, you start with the hospitals before working down the line of optimism to the morgue, the dumpsters, and the bay behind Suicide Slum where things seemed to wash up.
When she'd seen the paper, she'd known. Though still awash in a haze of general confusion and unwellness, she'd realized she wasn't home anymore. Despite the rather striking similarities, this paper wasn't put out by the Daily Planet, not by her Daily Planet. And it didn't reflect her world, but rather a sort of odd distortion of it. Close enough to be recognizable, but not enough to be…real. How far did this reach? Had Tempus gone so far as to drug her, bring a whole staff in on his plan to make her think she was crazy, print a mock copy of her newspaper, just for… what? It didn't make sense. Nothing made sense. She was Lois Lane, and no one had heard of her. No one had searched for her. All the names and phone numbers she had given out had been regretfully returned to her. There was no Ellen Lane at that number. There was no Lucy Lane in California. There was no Dr. Sam Lane at that office. There was no Jimmy Olsen, all around gofer, at the Planet. There was no Perry White in the editor's office. And again she was asked, was she sure? Was she prone to amnesia? Delusions? Basically, was she crazy?
Now she was afraid to ask for Clark. That is what it boiled down to. Because if they came back, sighed sadly, announced that there was no… She'd go crazy for real. She would lose whatever hold on herself she was tenuously keeping. So, she would get out. Investigate. Trace her steps back to Centennial Park. Then her apartment, which they'd assured her was leased to someone else. She would get some fresh air and see how the world looked outside these walls. All she needed was a change of clothes. Some sensible shoes. A couple of bucks. A plan. A cover story for all her ranting and raving. That would be easy, after all she was Lois Lane…she thought.
In his darkest hour Clark had found himself in a graveyard x-raying the massive mausoleum that marked Lex Luthor's final resting place, attempting to reassure himself, again, that Luthor was truly dead. That his bones were still there to give testimony to Lois' disappearance being a different nightmare in the making, initiated by a different source of evil, and nothing whatsoever to do with a very dead Lex.
For reasons he hadn't understood, after that gruesome midnight excursion, Clark had starting sleeping better. And the dreams had started thereafter.
Lois was safe. In his apartment. She was sleeping close by, her slow, even breathing and her heartbeat weaving a soothing lullaby that filled his senses. It had seemed so real that, on waking, he had sprinted to the sofa, fully expecting to find her there. That first morning, after that first dream, had been like losing her all over again. She came back night after night. Always sleeping in the next room, until he became aware of her. He knew now not to look for her, that despite how real she felt, how very present she seemed, she wasn't really there. Not physically.
After some weeks, something wonderful happened. She came to his bed. Lay down beside him, all warmth and soft curves and sweet scent. If he stayed asleep, didn't try to take her in his arms, she was just there. After several nights of this, he pulled her close. Was able to smell her hair, was able to lose himself in loving her. It wasn't real. He knew it wasn't, but the dreams came nightly, like a gift to him, making it possible for him to live during the daylight hours. He told no one about them. Not wanting them analyzed or broken down into What They Meant, fearing that close study would stop the magic. If the dreams were a part of the grieving process, or the first symptoms of his losing his mind, he didn't want to know and didn't care. What mattered was after a total absence of many weeks, night after night, he slept next to Lois, if only in his own mind.
"CK?" Jimmy's gentle voice broke into Clark's scattered patchwork of thoughts. "Your paycheck."
"Thanks, Jimmy," Clark grimaced. "But I don't think I've earned it."
"You put in the hours. Just because you aren't investigating…"
"We both know that hours are all I've put in here. I haven't written a word, haven't called a source, and haven't even turned on my computer in weeks, Jim. I can't keep taking up space, can't keep taking the Planet's charity."
"It's not charity," Jimmy protested hotly, touching Clark with his anger. "It's what you deserve after…after…" Jimmy shrugged, his anger gone as quickly as it had come. "I don't know how to finish that sentence, CK," he confessed lamely. "But you get my meaning."
"Yeah." Clark bowed his head and looked away, embarrassed for them both. "You're a good friend, Jim. And none of us know how to finish that sentence. Maybe if we did, I could leave this desk from time to time, do something productive."
"You'll leave when you're ready, son," came Perry's quiet, steady voice from behind him. "And you'll keep cashing that paycheck if you don't want me to tan your hide."
Perry's hands closed over Clark's shoulders, joined immediately by Jimmy's firm grasp on Clark's arm. For a time the three men stayed as they were, an intimate circle joined by a mutual love of Lois Lane and by a deep affection for each other they scarcely knew how to voice.
Tears ran silently, steadily down Clark's face. He didn't know exactly when they had started, or why now. It just felt good finally to let them go, to stop fighting them, to give in.
Perry broke the silence first. "Tomorrow, Clark, I'm partnering you with Jimmy. I don't care what you write about, just write. Anything. Give me five good paragraphs before quitting time."
"Ok, Perry," Clark rasped, grateful for the direction, any direction, in his rudderless life. A reason to get up and come in to work.
"Thanks, Chief," acknowledged Jimmy with subdued enthusiasm.
With a final squeeze and a stern, "Five paragraphs by this time tomorrow," Perry returned to his office. Pulling the blinds, he fumbled for the phone, needing to hear Alice's voice.
Jimmy cleared his throat nosily. "How about dinner, CK?" He made the same offer night after night, and each evening Clark politely declined.
"Yeah, Jim. Thanks. Let's do that."
It was reported in the Planet's morning edition, with great enthusiasm, that Superman had returned to Metropolis. For the first time in several months he'd been sighted doing a routine patrol in the predawn hours. No one knew where he'd been, but city officials were quite happy to extend him a warm welcome home.
On her release from the hospital, given only after she'd sworn that all the wine they'd detected in her system the night she'd been admitted had definitely 'hit her funny', which was very embarrassing, Lois had headed directly to the Daily Planet. Forgetting all about tracing her footsteps, she headed for the one place she knew inside and out. The one place that was really, truly home. She'd start there. If it wasn't there or if it wasn't hers, then she would know how bad it really was. Then she'd figure out a way to…do something.
She'd found Perry, Jimmy, and Clark — or rather their counterparts — in short order. Jimmy was behind the coffee counter in the lobby, cheerfully serving coffee and pastries and flirting with anyone in a skirt. Perry was, from what she could gather, one of the suits upstairs. And evidently a somewhat absent one. His name had been displayed alongside a host of familiar others on the brass plaque between the elevators. When she'd asked the security guard about him, he'd said something about 'always in Barbados' this time of year. Clark was still Clark, though. She'd almost cried in relief the first time she'd seen him. He had swept into the building a few minutes later than she would have, had this been her building, and jogged right past her, offering a polite, distant smile, as he moved into the stairwell.
Lois stayed close to the Planet. And spent way too much time, for her liking, trying to make sense of the whole thing, playing the sequence of events in her mind over and over, and making comparisons between two worlds that were so similar she could barely believe she wasn't really home. That this wasn't some crazy stunt, or sick joke, or bad acid trip without the acid. And she was haunted, continually, by a crazy fear of meeting herself. Of one morning, sitting there holding her steaming cup of coffee, offered to her by a now very chummy Jimmy, and watching her purposeful, sane other self dart into the building, yelling for any and everyone to hold the elevator or else.
But now days had passed without any other Lois Lanes revealing themselves. Lois relied on the kindness of one of the city missions for food, a cot, a shower…for everything. She gratefully served meals to the other clients of the charity, as a way to take her mind off things for a time and to earn a few dollars a day. Just enough to wash her clothes, to buy her coffee, to get her out and around the city. It was no way to sustain a life, whatever kind of life she might have here. And with each visit to the Daily Planet, a regular occurrence as she really had nothing else to do, she came closer and closer to entering the bullpen, to saying hello. She was still a reporter, after all. And if this Tempus was going to be found, she needed the resources of the paper behind her.
She knew that Clark, her own Clark, from her own time or place or whatever would be amused and disbelieving at her caution here. He'd have expected her to kick down the conference room doors on the first day, demanding action, explanations, threatening retribution if all wasn't set to rights. She'd get to that. For now she was just trying to get through each day — and get past the overwhelming sense that there were no real explanations and that there was no way to set this right. That in reality she was lost, irrevocably.
It was well into her second week of lurking in the lobby when things began to happen. Clark spoke to her.
He'd noticed her almost from the beginning. Always in the same place with an air of weariness about her, despite her bright, keen eyes. As the time passed, he had grown more curious about her. Maybe it was the reporter in him. He'd been a new addition to the Daily Planet staff for only a few months and the investigative learning curve had been steep. So it was initially with a detached interest that he began to speculate about her: who she might be, what she was waiting for, what her story was.
And there was something about her. He couldn't put it into words. But she was familiar, in a vague sort of way. Yet Clark was almost certain he didn't know her. He was, also, just as certain that she was watching him. She was good at it. If not for his enhanced abilities, he would never have known. Her heart rate doubled when he entered the lobby. And from behind her paper, or magazine, or coffee cup, she studied him intently, until he stepped through the elevator doors. Once they closed, he felt her relax, her heart slowing to its normal resting rate.
In fact, Clark sometimes imagined he could hear that particular heartbeat from anywhere in the building. It was crazy, really. His hearing was good, but not like that. He'd never discerned heartbeats before. Or maybe he'd just never tried. But if he couldn't pick out, say, Lana's heartbeat in a crowded room, the woman he had loved most of his life, it didn't follow that he could somehow just know the one of the mysterious lobby-dwelling woman.
Whoever she was, she stayed in his thoughts, pulling him towards her without words, while he tried to convince himself otherwise.
In general, Clark didn't approach women. Not when it wasn't related to work or when there was no one introducing him. He'd grown up in a small town, and everyone he'd ever known had, well, always known him. Since moving to Metropolis, he'd met plenty of people. Friends of friends and associates of associates, that sort of thing. But when it came right down to it, Clark couldn't remember ever walking up to a woman he didn't know and initiating a conversation. Which is why, he thought later, he did it so badly.
On the tenth day, he just couldn't walk past her. As soon as Clark had rounded the street corner headed for the Planet, he had been greeted by the distinct beating of her heart. As soon as he'd walked through the revolving doors, the beating had picked up speed. He found her easily, supposedly engrossed in the sports page. Without talking himself out of it, he headed towards her.
"Do you…come here…um…often?" he blundered. "I mean, that isn't how I meant it…just…don't I know you?"
She met his agonized eyes with her amused ones, lowering the paper into her lap.
"You forgot to ask me what my sign is."
"I'm really…bad at this."
"You really are. But it's kind of a relief. If you had walked over here and said something completely smooth and charming, or worse, something just disgusting, or even, I don't know, something in a Irish brogue, I wouldn't know that you are, indeed, this world's Clark Kent. I mean, I know I'm not in Kansas anymore, so to speak, but you, you are still from Kansas, right?"
Clark seized on the one part of that long, interesting, somewhat disconcerting response he could follow. "Yes. I'm from Kansas." At her nod, he grabbed the chair across from her. "Is that where I know you from?"
Lois looked away. Her face carefully blank. "No," she finally answered. "And no, we don't know each other."
"You know my name is Clark Kent. You know I'm from Kansas, but you don't know me?"
There was something in her eyes that he couldn't read. She blinked quickly, clearing her throat, and carefully creasing the folds of her newspaper. "I should have practiced this more," she said, almost to herself.
Clark had seen enough in those quiet seconds.
"Do you…need help?" Unthinking, he slid his hand across the table to cover hers. As soon as he touched her, he knew. If it was help that she needed, whatever she needed, it would come from him.
She paused just a moment, before smiling down at their joined hands. Turning his palm over and sliding hers into it, she shook his hand firmly. "Clark Kent, I'm Lois Lane. Nice to finally meet you."
"Lois Lane," he repeated, smiling back at her. "Can I buy you…" He stopped at the sight of her cup of coffee between them. "Um…pancakes?"
Clark never made it into the elevator that day. Breakfast in the deli across the street led to lunch in the park under the trees. He never pressured Lois for any explanation, somehow sensing that she was working up to it, and not wanting to scare her away. Instead he filled her in on the city, or rather a country boy's initial impressions of the city, answering her many questions about local and national current events without reservation. The sun had moved behind Metropolis Towers, casting long shadows into the park, when he asked her, "Will you come to my place, Lois?"
"You see how easy this was, Clark. First you pick me up with that suave opening line, and then whisk me off for a day of pancakes and picnics, and now it's back to your place."
He blushed to his roots. "No…Lois. I just meant…"
"Yes," she cut him off. "I'll come back to your place. I have a story to tell you, Clark. After going around and around with it by myself, I can't stand it any longer. And I trust you." She stood up from the grass, picked up his jacket she'd been sitting on and returned it to him. "And…I need a friend."
"Well, you've got him." He smiled broadly, offering his arm gallantly.
Lois had gone perfectly still at his gesture, and something sad had come over her face. But before Clark could open his mouth to ask what was wrong, she had tucked her hand into the crook of his arm, almost as if she needed its support. The moment passed, and she smiled up at him. "What would the world do without Clark Kent?"
"Well," Clark cleared this throat a bit nervously. "This is home."
Lois stood on the landing, taking in the comforting familiarity of Clark's apartment. Different in small ways from the one she had spent so much time in. Yet, really, on the whole, almost exactly the same. Very much like the man next to her.
"I love it," Lois declared truthfully.
"I don't think I've ever had that reaction before. It's more typically, 'you live where?!'"
"So, you've done this before?" She knew it wasn't right, but Lois felt a ridiculous jealousy for the other women who might have been in and out of this domain. To be fair this was not her domain. She had no claims staked in this particular universe. Not that she had claims staked anywhere in her home one, either. Not officially. So…ok, a change of subject.
"What is that?"
"You noticed," Clark grinned at her. "That's Mrs. Cranston. She lives next door. An opera singer."
"What…kind of opera, you think?"
"Well, I've never gone and seen any of her performance. I mean, listen, why would I? But if I had to guess, I'd say the Really Bad and Painfully Loud Opera is her specialty."
"Kind of gives the place a…charming ambiance."
"That is exactly what I think. And, no, by the way."
"No, I've never done this before," he finished, pulling his eyes away from hers. "I wouldn't want you to think, Lois, that anything is happening here. You said you needed a friend. You said you trusted me. I am not going to trifle with that, not going to do…anything. Just…sit, ok? I can make…"
"Tea, it is." He waited for Lois to enter the living room, as if half fearing she would come to her senses or that whatever spell the afternoon had woven over them would be broken, and she would leave.
Once Lois had sat down, he started backing towards the kitchen. "I'll be in here." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Just on the other side. Make yourself comfortable, this will just take a few…"
The door exploded open, the chummy atmosphere ripped away by a voice with which even Mrs. Cranston could not compete.
"Clark?! Are you home?! Help me with this, will you?"
Facing Clark from her seat on the sofa, Lois watched as all the color drained from his face, and his easy friendliness gave way to…what? Horror? Surprise? Dread, even? No, none of those, not quite. But she didn't think she'd ever seen that particular look on her own Clark's face, and, really, she just HAD to stop calling him her own Clark. Other Clark or First Clark or Original Clark, O.C., any of those would be good. But the point was that all of her knowledge of her own Clark, drat, of that other guy, didn't help her read the face of the man in front of her.
"Lana." Clark gaped, with that look that Lois couldn't read intensifying even further.
"Are you a statue or what, Clark? You see me here, don't you? Completely loaded down… Oh, we have company."
Lois, feeling sorry for Clark, though with no clue why, had stood up to meet this 'Lana', not a name she remembered ever hearing from that other guy in that other universe.
"Hi." Lois used her best fake friendly voice and fake friendly smile. "I'm Lois."
"Um…" Clark began, moving forward to rescue the packages in Lana's arms. "Lois, I don't think I mentioned…"
"Lana Lang." She swept past a thoroughly burdened Clark and reached to shake Lois' hand. "Clark's fiancee."
"Fiancee? Wow!" Lois's eyebrows met her hairline. Definitely in a different universe. How many times did she think that to herself in the course of a day, anyway? You'd think that after two weeks of stuff just like this, she would stop being surprised. But this Clark Kent and Lana Lang thing, well, this was bigger than the subway using different sized tokens.
Clark's eyes, the only part of him that showed from above the packages, were practically pleading with her. She wanted to laugh. Now if this had been happening in her real life…er…her former life, best to get that into her head, she wouldn't feel much sympathy for him, but this was not her former life and he was not…that other guy.
"Clark didn't tell you?" Lana was regarding her with well-deserved suspicion, which she had thinly disguised as polite interest.
"Not yet, though I think he was saving it…for a surprise. We have only just met…at the Daily Planet today."
Lana, somewhat mollified, dismissed Lois as mostly uninteresting. Lois sank back into Clark's cushy sofa — same one sold in both universes — and did her very best not to laugh right out loud.
Clark deposited Lana's packages on the landing, something she really could have done herself, in Lois' unvoiced opinion, and walked back into the room. "Lana, I was just going to make us some tea…" he began.
"Tell me you didn't forget our reservations, Clark?" Lana interrupted him, holding up her watch for the room to see. "We're going to be late as it is."
"I didn't forget, Lana. But something has come up…"
Lois knew she should help Clark. How she was so positive of this she wasn't clear. Knowledge of that other guy didn't hurt, and the Clark Kent of this world obviously had the same sweetness, the same goodness, and apparently the same sort of hopeless thing for blondes that weren't good for him.
She stood and began making her regretful exit. "Clark, I can't thank you enough for showing me around today. Being new in town can be really tough, and you made me feel…"
She chose her next words carefully, as she had not only captured Clark's attention, since Lana, obviously gifted with that finely tuned thing that women had for other women — like a whistle only a dog could hear — was riveted on the interplay as well, her eyes shifting between Clark and Lois. "…at home," she finished, congratulating herself on delivering the right message, one that truthfully conveyed her gratitude to Clark and which didn't damn him to a long night of trying to explain.
Clark, however, much like her own Clark might have done, undid all of her masterful work in two words.
Lana's head swung around, brilliantly tossing her blonde hair in its wake.
"Clark, she has to leave. Lois, it was nice meeting you. Don't trip on our wedding gifts on your way out, ok?"
"Please." Clark reached towards her, placing his hand on her shoulder. "We haven't finished. You have something to tell me. And I want to…need…to hear it. And you can stay, have dinner, I'll cook. And after we'll go out onto the terrace while Lana…"
"…does the dishes?!" Lana supplied with venom.
"Goes home," Clark finished quietly, like he'd never heard her, not sparing Lana a glance. "She doesn't live here," he added, even though that was somewhat off-topic.
Lois looked long into Clark's eyes. She knew those eyes, she really did. The same way she knew the hand gently holding her shoulder, the same way she knew this apartment. So much like the originals, only somewhat muted, or muffled. Like she was seeing everything from behind a screen, shadows projected on the wall. Nothing was quite as bright or as sharp. Nothing felt quite as warm or as wonderful. But what was here, in this room, came closest to being real, to being all of the things she had so missed in the hardest, longest weeks of her life. This Clark had no idea what he was offering her. What he was getting himself into. She was bringing havoc to his life, and this was just the first day.
"I can't be selfish with you, Clark." Lois decided to go for broke and address him as honestly as he was her.
"What is that supposed to mean…?"
"Lana." Clark cut her off in the same gentle tone he had used to plead for Lois to stay. "Please leave, ok. I'll call you later. This isn't your fault, but Lois and I were in the middle of something important. I can't see you tonight."
"Clark Kent," Lana's voice dropped to a deadly level, "if you are asking me to leave you here alone with that woman, if you are asking me to go so you can be with her, what am I supposed to think?"
<Think about not tripping on the wedding gifts on your way out?> Lois suggested inwardly. Though she knew the thought was undeserving. If this was her Clark, if the shoe was on the other foot…
"That I'm asking because it's important, Lana." Clark removed his hand from Lois, evidently feeling a fragile confidence that she was going to stay. He moved towards the stairs, opened the front door politely and pointedly. "I'll call you," he repeated.
"Do NOT bother!" Lana spat, removing the ring Lois had been trying to look at, while trying not to be obvious. Clark had nice taste. In jewelry.
The door punctuated Lana's exit with a slam.
"I just took apart your life," Lois stated, disbelieving, into the silence. "I just stood here while you kicked out the woman you love so I could tell you a story that is going to make you run screaming into the streets, wishing like hell you could have these last five minutes back. And you know the worst part?" Lois wiped the tears that at some point had started blurring her view of the man in front of her. "You would think that would be enough reason for me to leave. For me to beg you to catch up with her while I disappear. But I'm not going to do you that kindness, Clark. I'm going to be like…a barnacle…a…something sticky you can't shake off…"
He stopped her in a way entirely different than that other guy would have done. He lowered his voice, whispered, "Thank God for that, Lois. Stay. Stay as long as you want." And he stepped across and took her into his arms. Lois fell into him, and cried until she slept.
Clark stood absolutely still in his living room, lost in the sounds of Lois' breathing coming from the next room. After she had drifted off, he had eventually worked up the nerve to carry her to his bed. His heart pounded now just thinking of it. That had just seemed so…right.
Clark shook his head. He didn't want to think about it any further. He didn't want to think at all. The light on his answering machine, indicating a waiting message, flickered furiously at him in the dimly lit room.
"Play me," it blinked with menace. "You've got it coming."
And did he ever.
At some point during Lois' breakdown, Lana had called. He had taken less than a second to turn the volume off, erasing her shrill voice from the room as simply as he seemed to have erased her from his life this evening.
Clark moved with excruciatingly great care into the kitchen. Lois' heart rate and even breaths assured him she'd be out for a while. But after that?
He sat down at the table, absently reaching for the tea he'd finally gotten around to making. At this time last night, he'd sat right here across from Lana, happily, he'd thought, discussing the wedding. Lana Lang was all the family he had. She had always been a huge part of his life, of who he was even. Until today.
Clark put his mug down and dropped his head into his hands. Today, it seemed, he had simply, albeit temporarily…forgotten her. A bit of an oversight, Kent, he chided himself. But in spending the day with Lois, Lana had…slipped from his mind. That didn't necessarily have to mean something. It could just be one of those crazy things that happened from time to time. Like falling in love with a woman you knew nothing about at the first touch of her hand… Crazy like that.
Clark stared out the window into the night. Lana was no doubt waiting up for him to call. Despite the theatrical taking off of the ring, she'd rightly expect to hear from him. He was lost, he admitted to himself. Lost but for one clear thought that shook him to the core: the woman who had stayed, the woman who was here now, was the woman who belonged here. That one thought, in the swirl of others surrounding it, made perfect sense to him, and yet he had no idea why.
When she woke up Lois hoped maybe it had all been a nightmare. That once she got out of bed and moved into the living room, the world would have straightened itself out. Clark would look up from their story notes and tease her about kicking him out of his own bed and leaving him to do all the work. He'd know that after a meltdown the size she'd had this evening, she'd be hungry. Something would be cooking, or waiting in a take-out container scrawled with words in a language she couldn't read. She would be home.
Lois shivered and pulled the covers closer around her neck. She'd put it off: the getting up part, the finding out part, the knowing part.
She opened her eyes reluctantly. Clark was standing next to the bed at a respectful distance. He had tucked her in, she remembered that. And he had stayed until her hiccups subsided, doing no more than rubbing her back with slow, gentle circles. Lois would have thought she was cried out by now. That now the real Lois Lane- the one still trapped on the other side of that crazy window Tempus had taken her through- would spring to life; find that depraved head-tricking monster and start laying down the rules. Instead, the tears she'd rid herself of so forcefully and unceremoniously on Clark's shirt were back.
"I…I'm sorry," she croaked, hating the sound of her misery, her weakness.
"Don't be." Clark moved to sit beside her. "You've obviously had it coming for a while. And you've found a safe place, a place to let go."
"You have no idea how right you are," Lois sobbed, once more taken into his embrace.
"I told you I wanted you to stay, Lois. And I meant it. Will you…tell me where your place is? I could pack you a bag? Or…or move your car. Notify a roommate? Or a…boyfriend?"
"All I have in the world…" She faltered, and the rest of that sentence died in the warmth of his chest.
Still, he wouldn't have been who he was if he hadn't heard it.
"…is all I have on me."
"You aren't alone anymore, Lois," he told her firmly, taking her by surprise with an answer that went right to the heart of the matter.
Lois closed her eyes. She was tempted to surrender to the exhaustion and just fall asleep against him once more. Let the sun come up and another day start before she'd have to tell him who the crazy woman in his bed was.
"I'm from another universe," she blurted.
She wasn't really sure how a sane person would respond to that. How she'd expected this Clark Kent, who didn't know her, to react to that. In fact, she had no expectations whatsoever. But he had gone so still against her, his hand no longer patting, his arms no longer rocking, his soft, warmth now a hard wall. And she would swear he wasn't breathing.
Well, for a conversation starter it was a shocker, but when she lifted away from him and looked into his eyes- all that stuff about having no expectations aside- what she hadn't expected was…anger.
"Is that supposed to be funny?" His tone swept a chill into the room.
"Funny? No…I know it sounds weird, but…"
"Who told you?" he demanded, dropping his hands from him in apparent disgust. "Who do you work for? Are you…government? Or…or some friend of Lana's trying to make a point?"
After hurling that baffling array of questions at her, he spun on his heel and stormed off to the living room.
She followed, completely bewildered and eager to set his misconceptions straight, despite not having any idea what they might be.
"Clark, I don't know…"
"No?" He whirled on her. "You know who I am. You've been watching me walk in and out of the Daily Planet for days, Lois, if that's your name. You know I'm from Kansas. You know I have a weakness for…for…that I like to help. You make it more than easy for me to…feel like…to bring you home! To kick out my fiancee! You sleep in my bed… I am so stupid! Lana always said if I wasn't more careful… You aren't a friend of hers, are you? She would NEVER risk anyone knowing, and she's not an actress, unlike present company." He gestured to her with a mock bow, lightly applauding. "You were really good; now get out."
"Go back to your own universe. Take your tragic brown eyes, your body to die for, your face that launched a thousand ships and…get back into your own ship. Get out."
He strode towards the terrace, throwing the doors open.
"I know you don't have any proof. I'd know if you were wired. There isn't such a thing as a silent transmitter, not to me."
Lois was pulled towards him, towards his anger, and the despair beneath it. Qualities she knew all to well.
"I promise you…" she began, raising her hands in supplication, stepping out onto the terrace, backing him into a corner. "I have no idea…"
"Got a camera?" He seemed to be looking through her to her soul, lowering his glasses and sweeping her figure head to toe with a look so withering she nearly cringed from its intensity. "No? Too bad, Lois. You're gonna be kicking yourself tomorrow."
And with that he shot into the sky.
"Just when you think it couldn't possibly get any weirder," Lois whispered into the night, watching the rapidly hurtling figure until it disappeared.
It was some time before she remembered how to get her feet to move. How to turn and walk in careful, deliberate steps back inside. Given the way things were going, the world could just decide to turn everything upside down on a whim. Lois gripped the chair backs and the kitchen counter as she went, just in case. She moved towards the coffee maker, took out the filters, started working. The machinery of her mind, so long bogged down in the mud, and just then shut down utterly for more than a minute, geared back up. Started to hum to life, started to move, really move for the first time in weeks. Like it had taken her mind a while to follow her body through that window. Well, it had found her. Lois Lane was back.
"Well that explains a…LOT," she declared, as she watched the coffee brew.
She found his laptop with ease, cracked his code word, and got to work. If this world had a Perry White, albeit an absent one, a Clark Kent, a Jimmy, and…well, now apparently a Superman in the rough, so to speak, it stood to reason that there was a Lois Lane out there somewhere. She'd start there and get moving. Time to start putting the pieces together. Time to figure out how she fit into this new world, if she even did. But most of all, the time for feeling sorry for herself was over.
"Mrs. Ellen Lane's room, please." Clark smiled broadly at the very bored lady behind the desk.
She wasn't having any of it.
"Visiting hours are over, Mr. Kent."
"Mrs. Gladys, I know. Work took a bit longer today and I couldn't make it any sooner, but…" Clark presented the bouquet of flowers he was holding with a flourish. "I'm here now, and I won't stay long."
He waited while she judged his fate. A game they both played with straight faces.
From behind the desk and down the hall came a glad squeal.
"Hey, Luce," Clark threw the still deliberating Ms. Gladys a wave and caught Lucy Lane in his arms.
"Oh, man, it's about time you made it," Lucy complained, in that way she had of sounding so much like Lois it broke his heart, and at the same time had him seeking out her company all the more.
"That bad, huh?" he whispered, setting her down under the reproving glare of Mrs. Gladys.
Lucy took his arm. "Walk with me to get a Coke before we go in, Clark. I've just done my time and I'm not ready to charge back in there without fortification.
"What is it now, Lucy? She hates your new job? Disapproves of the new hair…" Clark stopped and pondered it a bit himself. "What color is that, anyway?"
"It's 'champagne', you idiot. And it works with my own tones and highlights."
They shared a grin.
"So if it isn't this week's hair color and it isn't this week's job," he teased her, "must be…"
"His name is Greg." Lucy let out a long excited breath. "And, Clark, you should see him."
"Oh, yeah, Lucy, I bet I'd really love him on sight. What color is his hair?"
"Shut up." She elbowed him as they waited in the cafeteria line. "And he doesn't have any, except on one side, but we are not talking about his hair."
"Thank goodness for small favors," Clark muttered loud enough for her to hear as he paid for their drinks.
"He's an artist."
"Oh, Lucy. If Lois were here, she'd have just the right response for that."
"You should have heard Mother's," Lucy agreed darkly.
"The thing is, I will. You and Greg will hop on out of here, and I'll be with your mom hearing all about it and more."
Right on cue, a young man with half a head of hair came strolling up.
"You hitting on my baby?" He glowered at Clark.
"Greg!" The same squeal that had greeted Clark earlier was now turned on the not quite bald-headed man.
Clark sat and sipped his drink, enjoying the scene, imaging how Lois would have described it to him if she was still here. Since, if things were different, she would be the one sitting right here, and not him. And the thought of Lois, watching this guy smother her little sister in serious kisses while she seethed not-so-silently, warmed his heart. Lois Lane was still a gift to him in that way. He looked at the world through both their eyes now, combining her natural skepticism with his own bent towards idealism. She had given him that ability. And she'd given him a new family. Granted, they were an unusual bunch, and he still thanked the currents that had blown his ship to the Kents and not here. But when he had started coming around, drawn by their tie to the woman he'd lost, they'd welcomed him. He was Lucy's big brother now. Something he might have become anyway, if things had been different. So he got to hear all the complaints, all the secrets, all the things that Lois would have known.
With the big brother role firmly in mind, Clark spoke up, having given Lucy and Greg what he considered a generous amount of time to relearn each other.
"Hey, you, kid."
Greg was surprised enough to take his face off Lucy's. Lucy smiled a secret smile in Clark's direction, this being something they'd done a few times before.
"Huh?" Greg grunted.
"So, you're an artist? Care to tell me if you can support my sister?"
He had left his apartment to Lois Lane and flown all night, staying high above the clouds, never touching down, not even to visit places that always brought him comfort. Clark hadn't passed over the now derelict Kent farm, something he'd taken to doing since the sting of his parents' deaths had faded enough for him to remember how once he felt loved and welcomed there. How those acres below, now vastly overgrown and inhabited only by wildlife, had once been home. He hadn't touched down on his favorite island or mountain top, either. Last night hadn't been about sightseeing, or revisiting old haunts. Last night he'd been moving for pure speed, trying to outrun the voices that told him he was different, freakish, and had, at last, been found out. Lois Lane, who he'd only known a day, had hurt him more deeply than he could remember being hurt, not in years. Not since life stopped in Smallville, Kansas. He had let Lana go for her. In the quiet hours under the stars Clark had tried to feel some real remorse for that. And he still hadn't found any in the cool light of this Metropolis morning. So maybe that woman had done him one favor. She'd confirmed for him what he'd long suspected. He wasn't meant to be married.
He had done a foolish thing in front of her. Clark had never flown in front of anyone. Not even Lana, who knew that he could. But in his desire to get away from her, and, to be honest, his need to throw his anger in her face, he had done it. It had felt great. Maybe he'd do it more often. Stop trying so hard not to be what he obviously was. And if the world couldn't deal with it, then so what? Clark Kent had played it safe for thirty years. And it had just taken one day with Lois Lane to show him how sick of it he truly was.
"Clark," the Daily Planet's esteemed and somewhat nervous editor hailed him as he stepped off the elevators.
"Yes, Mr. Sorenson?"
Clark trotted over to his side, acutely aware that Lois' heart was drumming away behind the conference room door. He should have been surprised to find her there, but he wasn't. Deep down he had known that they weren't finished with each other, yet. A quick glance confirmed she was inside, and she wasn't alone. She was with the Daily Planet's most elusive executive. A big-wig who had once been something of a legend in reporters' circles, and he was hanging on her every word.
"Perry White is in town," his editor told him in hushed tones. "Flew in unexpectedly from Barbados last night. Have you met him?"
"In my first week," Clark answered equally quietly, a fist of dread forming in his gut. "At a press dinner." She was a reporter, then. And she'd turned him over to his own newspaper. Now he was supposed to what? Give an exclusive? Interview himself? Or maybe just pose for pictures. 'Flying Man Works At the Planet' declares the Planet.
"Well he's here. And for him to show up downstairs," Mr. Sorenson continued with great gravity, "means something big is cooking." He seemed a tad disappointed by Clark's non-reaction.
"Ok," Clark replied. He wouldn't make this easy for them. She had no proof. Just a crazy story, and he planned to laugh right along with everyone else. He wiped his suddenly sweaty palms on his slacks. "Anything you need me for?" he asked, all innocence.
"He wants you in the conference room. He's been there all morning; said as soon as you showed up, you were to come."
Mr. Sorenson had obviously done a little sweating of his own.
Clark smiled like a guy without a care in the world. "Well, great, then I'll just head on in."
"And Clark?" Mr. Sorenson stopped him with a look. "When you find out what's going on, will you come and tell me?
When he'd met the legendary newspaper man, during his first overwhelming weeks in Metropolis, Clark had been bowled over by the man's larger than life energy and charisma. The contrast between then and now was remarkable. It was a shaken and red-eyed Perry White who stood up to greet him.
"Kent, come in, son. Introductions are in order."
Before Clark could contradict him, Lois had jumped to her feet, flashing him a message with her eyes that he couldn't decode. "Lois Lane." She thrust her hand out. "And we're going to be partnered up for a while."
"Lois and I have been talking all morning, Kent, and she has quite a story to tell."
He just bet she did.
"And we're going to be partners?" Clark clarified, wondering if he should be flattered he was getting a by-line in his own media storm.
"Just until Lois gets her feet wet, gets back into the swing of things. After that you kids can vote, see if it works for you." Perry stood, moving towards the doors. "Lois, honey, you took ten years off my life when you went missing. Couldn't bring myself to get back into the swing of things, kind of like a General who can't send his troops into battle anymore." Perry sighed. "Taking that promotion seemed easier than… Well, I don't think I know half the people working here anymore. And I'm certainly as unknown to most of them." He turned quickly, opening the door, the wistfulness gone from his voice. "I can't tell you what it does for this old news hound to see you back where you belong."
"Thank you for hearing me out, for agreeing to lend me Clark. We'll make you proud."
"The first story I want to see in print is the one you just told me. 'Lois Lane Returns from the Dead.' Good luck to you, Kent." He chuckled, a bit of the old Perry peeking through. "If I remember right, I think you'll need it."
The sound of the door closing echoed loudly in the now quiet conference room.
He'd take the offensive, Clark decided, rather than waiting silently for the axe to fall.
"I give up, Lois." He moved to the coffee maker, nonchalantly. "What's the game?"
"I'm glad you asked, because I was up all night figuring it out, and I've got it boiled down to just two things." Lois moved to join him in a cup. She was a completely different woman than the lost and heartbroken one he had taken her for. "And you have to admit, Clark, there isn't anything too imposing or difficult about just two things."
"Ok." He drew a deep breath, took a sip from the mug he was holding. "Do I sit for the two things?"
Lois pointed him to a chair. "We'll do my thing first, then you."
"Oh, is one of these things my thing? One for each of us?" He smiled widely at her. "You didn't make that clear before."
"You think I don't see through that, don't you?" Lois asked sweetly. "You think I don't know you're scared to death and covering?"
"Why, Lois, whatever do you mean?" He leaned an elbow on the table, waiting her out, the picture of polite, bored attention.
"Ok, Kent, I can't do this all day. Right here, right now, cards on the table." Lois rapped the table sharply with each word.
"When I flew off last night, Lois," he supplied mildly, "that was pretty much my cards on the table. The next move is yours."
"That's fair," she agreed suddenly. "So get ready, Clark Kent of Smallville, Kansas by way of Krypton…"
"How did you…?" he gasped.
"I'm going first remember? I am from another universe; don't you roll your eyes at me. When I told you that last night, before you flew off the handle, well, literally, what I meant was I am an inter-dimensional time traveler…er… I think. No, I know. I am from a parallel world where there is a Metropolis, a Daily Planet, a Jimmy Olsen who doesn't serve coffee, a Perry White who wouldn't leave the newsroom for any promotion, and a Clark Kent who is more infuriating than you are." She ticked each of these items off on her fingers like a grocery list. "I was shoved through a portal… or a worm hole… or a tear in the fabric of space and time…or a something." She glared at him.
Undeservedly, he thought, as he smoothed his astonished features to a careful blankness.
"That was two weeks ago, more or less, in this time zone, and you, Clark Kent, are my last, true hope." Breathless, she plopped down, grinning at her poker- faced partner. "That was the first thing. My thing. Now, let's do yours."
"I'm an alien from Krypton," he started smugly, matching her tone, certain he had the stuff to win the strange game they were engaged in. "I can fly; you saw that, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. I can lift anything…"
"Yeah, yeah, I got it. I mean the real stuff, Clark."
"Did I interrupt you?" he demanded. "And I don't think you've got it, Lois. I can…"
"Melt things with your eyes, freeze things with your breath, knock asteroids from the sky; I got that part. Why aren't you Superman?"
"How did you…? Wh…what the…what the… heck is a Superman?!"
"I love that. You don't curse do you? He doesn't either."
"Ok, I give up. I'm trying to play this game, and you keep sliding off in a different direction." Clark stood up under the pretense of pouring more coffee. "What was all that with Mr. White? About your having worked here before and being back from the dead?"
"That was the truth." Lois sighed and jumped up, as if needing to be on her feet to think. "I didn't mislead him. I just didn't tell him that particular truth isn't exactly my truth. It's hers."
"The other Lois Lane, the one who belongs in this world. I looked her up on your laptop last night. I decided there had to be one, and that instead of trying to avoid her, I should find her or what became of her. See if I could borrow her life, so to speak. She's been missing in the Congo for almost five years, never found. And it would seem she has been completely forgotten." Lois' voice trailed off on that last part. "She was a reporter of some merit." She frowned. "Why haven't you heard of her?"
Well…" He shrugged. "…because I'm the new alien in town?"
"So are you up to speed on what's going on here?"
"Not in the slightest, no." Clark sat back down, ran his fingers through his hair, and said almost to himself, "I've been monitoring your heartbeat since you started talking. Something I've practiced in interviews. Maybe it isn't fair, like being hooked up to a lie-detector and not knowing it, but your heart rate doesn't indicate that you're…" He couldn't bring himself to say it, and changed tack. "But no one believes a delusion more than the delusional person. It is their reality. You wouldn't be lying if you really believed all this."
She was studying him closely. He looked back only briefly. He didn't like what he thought he saw in her eyes. Honesty. Truth, burning pure and brightly on her face. It just was not possible. There was no way, no way. It made no sense. The whole thing was too ridiculous to be real. But, then again, so was he.
"I told you it was just two things, Clark," Lois ventured quietly, moving to sit across from him once more. "I thought if you and I could each tell our one big thing, our thing we couldn't tell to anyone else because it would get us committed, or on the cover of Science Digest, or worse, then we could help each other tackle what comes next."
"And what comes next, Lois?" Clark leaned across the table, all pretense of indifference dropped. "You aren't turning me in? I'm not tomorrow's headline? This isn't an elaborate, insane ruse to…to…well, I can't think what it would be for. And…" He hesitated; didn't know how wise it would be to voice it.
"Say it," she commanded.
"You're not crazy?" he asked flatly.
"You can trust me." Lois blew out a breath, shaking her head in silent answer to the question she had to have known he would ask. "I told you I trusted you, Clark, and I meant it. And that was before I knew how very much we have in common."
"That I'm not from around here." He smiled wryly. "Just like you."
"Those are the two things!" exclaimed Lois, triumphantly. "How much crazier does a time window sound than a spaceship? If you can drop in from the sky, why can't I drop in from another dimension?"
"You brought up a… Superman."
"Ok, maybe there were three things, then. But that one is for another day."
"Superman is for another day?"
"Later, Clark, when I know you better. I want to know what makes you…different from my own Clark. What makes him put on a cape and why you haven't done the same."
"I have no idea what you're talking about, Lois. And that has pretty much been the case since hello."
"But you believe me," she stated with conviction. "Clark Kent, you believe me." She dared him to say otherwise.
"I don't know you, Lois," he started to protest. "I really don't. Despite what I felt when we met or…when I look at you. When I was holding you in my arms last night and you seemed so hurt and completely lost, and I felt like maybe my life…had…a purpose." He closed his eyes. He couldn't imagine what had possessed him to impart that last bit of information.
Lois sat back with a thump in her chair. "Clark…you and I…I…" She ended that on a sigh. "I…I don't know what to say to that. I know that when I'm with you, I feel safe and at home in a way I haven't since my life was ripped into 'before' and 'after.' But my life isn't here. And my heart is… committed."
"To your world's Clark Kent." He wasn't sure how he knew this. He just did. It would explain the strange pull she had on him. Maybe he could somehow feel the feelings of his counterpart. If there was a guy out there who was, basically, him, it would make a strange kind of sense. The same way Lois Lane, despite the wild story, made a strange kind of sense. "You said I was your last, true hope, Lois." He moved further from her, finding the other side of the room easier for conversing with her. "What did you mean?"
Lois studied her hands on the table before answering. "I didn't know you were…from outside the universe before last night. And I've known Clark, my Clark, for a couple of years. I've been dating him for a few months. We were serious. But he never told me about that part of himself."
"I can tell you why he didn't," Clark answered quickly, eager to extinguish the hurt that had flared behind her eyes. "Lana Lang has known me my whole life. When I told her, she gave me this look. And in many ways, that look never left her face again."
"I see," Lois replied thoughtfully. "But you wanted to know why you're my last hope. And it isn't because I knew you were stronger and faster than anyone else here. That won't help me. It's simpler than that. I need to find a man named Tempus, the man who brought me here. I need a job. Being a reporter is who I am. I need a friend. And a place to stay until I can figure out if…I'm staying. If you can be my friend-" She moved across the room to stand in front of him. "-and it's asking a lot, then I can stay sane. If I can tell you the truth, level with you in a way that I couldn't with anyone else here, then I can be real here. If I'm only real to me…"
"…it's lonely as hell." He laughed softly at her surprise. "Finally, Lois Lane, I know exactly what you mean." He extended his hand, taking hers in his. "Nice to meet you," he said quietly. "Welcome to my world."
"Come on in, Superman," called Henderson from inside his office.
"I got your message." Clark sat carefully on the edge of the offered chair. "Is there news?"
"Yes and no."
Something inside Clark's gut clenched. He steadied himself, breathing deeply, not taking his eyes off the Inspector's, and waited.
"You've finished looking through all the tunnels, the sewers?"
"Yes. It took awhile, but I can honestly say this department has mapped out every nook and cranny of Metropolis underground."
"And?" He had to ask. If there was anything he needed to hear, he needed to hear it quickly.
"She wasn't there. No sign of her. And using Bernie Klein's instruments, there is no indication there was ever any kryptonite of significant proportions down there."
"So, another dead end." Henderson smiled bitterly. "Or, on the bright side, we know of one more place she isn't."
Thank you, Inspector, for your work…" Clark began.
"I know it's hard," Henderson interrupted him quietly. "I've sat with enough victims' families. You think you want to know, that you need…"
"…closure," Clark finished for him.
"Right. But then when you think you might get it…" Henderson shrugged.
"You know it's the last thing you want," Clark said, mostly to himself. "If you had found her…her body, then I would know that there was no more Lois Lane. At this point I thought it was the not knowing that was killing me."
"We aren't going to stop looking, Superman. The bay is a big job, and the high-ups will have my head about the expense, but…"
"No." Clark cut him off. "I've looked. Every inch and more than once. Below Metropolis, all those lead pipes, well, that was my last reasonable hope."
"And it's come up empty. So now what?"
Clark laughed an empty laugh. "So now I go back to the Daily Planet, sit at my desk, picture her waltzing in with the story of the century. 'The Year I Spent Invisible' by Lois Lane, something like that."
Henderson looked at Superman for a long time. Long enough for the silence to bring the superhero back from his own thoughts.
Their eyes met.
"Oh." Superman said. "Oh…"
Henderson shook his head at him. "Be careful, ok? Grief is a funny thing. It pops out at you, and not everyone can afford to let his guard down."
"Inspector…" Clark tried, but realized he lacked both the energy and the inclination to spin a reasonable explanation. He stopped. "Thanks," he said, standing up and reaching to shake the other man's hand.
"I'll keep you posted and you do the same for me, ok?" Henderson dismissed him with a curt nod.
Clark paused only a moment with his hand on the knob. Smoothing his features into a bland mask and setting his shoulders, Superman walked out the door.
"So," began a teasing voice, "I get this mysterious message that my husband has to work late, rather than come home and spend our first anniversary with me."
"Hello, Lois." Clark grinned into the phone. "I had hoped to hear from you."
"The thing I found most interesting about the 'working late' excuse…?"
"Is that seeing as how my husband also happens to be my partner at work, I can't see how he has to stay late when I'm home pouring over the cookbook, with no knowledge of any late-breaking stories."
"Lois Lane-Kent, if you are pouring over a cookbook, then my name's not…"
"It's an illustration, Clark. What are you doing there? What's happening? Has our corrupt senator crumpled?"
"Ah, we arrive at the true point of this call."
"Don't make me ask again."
"No, Lois. It's much more boring than that. Mr. White caught me before I got to the elevator. Seems you and I are behind on our expense account paperwork, and the suits upstairs are having this meeting tomorrow, so…"
"So, you're going to be there awhile."
"Hardly. Now, the average man might be here awhile. You and I have really let this go, Lois…"
"My bad influence."
"But your guy is just sitting in the lobby, nursing one of Jimmy's lattes, and waiting for the rest of the staff to leave. Then he'll head back up and do a bit of…super housecleaning."
"And I'll be home as soon as I can. And we can still make the dinner reservations, though the show may be a wash."
"That's ok. You were the one who wanted to see it."
"I know. And when am I going to get you to agree to go with me ever again, if not on the anniversary of the day you married me?
"Better luck next year, Superman."
"I'm watching the last of our stragglers leaving the building now, Lois."
"So, I guess you'll be going up and getting that little thing done. Good. I'm hungry."
"Ok, this won't take long, so be ready."
"When am I not?" she teased him softly.
"And don't you dare eat anything before I come home! Hey…what's that I'm hearing? Problem?"
"Our neighbor. She's singing. Again."
"Looks like a job for…"
"Your mean wife. Just get home, silly."
"I'm half-way there, Lois."
Clark snapped his cell phone closed and jumped into the elevator just as the doors were closing.
"Excuse me," he murmured apologetically to the petite woman he'd nearly knocked over. "I was on the phone and didn't want to miss the elevator. It's a long wait…"
His voice trailed off as he got his first real look at her.
At his sudden silence the woman frowned. "You've heard about it not being nice to stare, right?"
"Your hair…" he started. It was long, down to her waist, parted in the middle. Nothing like the short cut Lois had taken to wearing since the wedding.
"And how did you…? We were just talking and I could hear Mrs. Cranston in the background, so…"
"Ok, look, mister, I don't know you. Let's just make this a brief and boring elevator ride. You get off on the next floor and no more talking about my hair or Mrs. Cranston or whatever else that doesn't make sense that is no doubt going to come next."
She stopped his heart. He knew that face so well. Despite the vastly different style of hair and clothing, he knew her inside and out, had her memorized. She was unmistakable.
"You…you're Lois Lane." He took her face between his hands, mindless of how crazy that might seem to her. "You're…my Lois?"
A thousand emotions rolled across her face, a parade of outrage, anger, confusion, annoyance, and very briefly, relief. In fact, if he wasn't so well versed in his wife's expressions, he might have missed that last one entirely.
"I'm not anybody's anything!" she flared. But before the words were even out of her mouth, he was grinning shamelessly at her. "You are her," he breathed. "Welcome back, Lois Lane."
At the sound of the key in the lock, Lois leapt up from where she'd been reading to pass the time. Clark entered, followed by a very angry woman.
"You're late and you've brought me a clone." Lois gasped, the book dropping from her hands. "Not a gift every woman dreams about for her anniversary, but hey, if she can stay here and cook and clean while I chase down leads, then…"
"Lois…" he cut her off softly. That always worked. She'd get nervous or angry and get going and the words would fall everywhere, but if he got quiet, she stopped, without fail. He knew it probably hadn't worked that way for the other Clark. If he had gone quiet during a rant, she probably took that as unspoken permission to talk until day was night. He didn't provoke the same amount of passion in Lois, good or bad, that the first Clark had. Something that was no secret, but that he really hadn't understood…until now. "Lois-" He ran his hands through his hair and tried to think how best to say what had to be said, "-this is…Lois."
"Oh." Lois sat down quickly. "Oh. Well. Hello. I'm Lois, too. Lois Also, I guess you could say the full name was. And, well, I've been borrowing your universe, seeing as how you weren't using it. But I guess you're…going to be needing it back?"
"I have no idea what this is about," snapped the long-haired Lois Lane. "I was going back to work after…well, let's just say a long stay in some place extremely unpleasant, when this…man-" She jabbed her finger in Clark's direction. "-kidnapped me from the elevator! All the while babbling about Lois Lanes and parallel universes and saying that I was his."
That last word had ended on a high dramatic note. It filled the room.
"Is she yours, Clark?" Lois asked from her place on the sofa. "You know for sure?"
Clark stood between the two women. Afraid to move away from the Lois Lane on the landing, certain that if he did, she would bolt. And wishing with all his might he could move towards his wife on the sofa, hold her hand, look into her eyes, and tell her…what?
That he loved her, but when he'd run into the other Lois, she had slammed into his heart like a hammer? And, by the way, 'Happy Anniversary, honey'?
"Is this some sort of slavery ring here? I mean, he says I'm his, and you, his wife — you are his wife, right? You just ask if he's sure?! Does he do this often? Are you people into something…sick?"
"Are you telling me you haven't noticed it?" Lois demanded, rising from the sofa, walking slowly back to the stairs.
"Noticed what?" her counterpart growled.
"That we have the same face," Lois stated plainly.
"I want us all to sit down, please," Clark interjected.
"Well, look who found his voice…"
"I know what you're doing, you know. You're scared and confused and you're covering with anger and bravado. Am I that see-through?" Lois whirled back to Clark.
He smiled at her gently. "Do you want me to answer that?"
"Let's sit," Lois replied. "You too, um…Lois."
The two women sat as far as possible from each other on the sofa. Clark resisted the urge to look continually back and forth, comparing point by point. It really was uncanny.
"Was there a man with a magic window?" Lois finally asked, almost certain of what the answer would be, but needing to ask, just the same.
"It was gunrunners in the Congo, actually…Lois." The words were dripping in derision.
Lois felt tears pricking at the back of her eyes. She stood quickly, moving to the kitchen.
As she brushed past him, Clark reached out for her, grabbing her hand and pulling her to a halt. "Lois, she's just…she doesn't know."
"Clark." Her sad eyes met his pleading ones. "You don't have to tell me. If anyone here knows how she feels, almost exactly how she feels, it's me." She blinked quickly, smiled a shaky smile at him. "You didn't answer me before, though. Is she…yours?"
Clark inhaled, ran his hand up and down her arm in a comforting motion. "Yes," he finally breathed. "And it was like you said, Lois. I just…knew the instant I…"
Lois nodded quickly, held up her hand. "I got it. Don't draw me a picture, ok?"
"This doesn't change things, Lois. You are my wife," he promised softly. And she knew he meant it. That never, ever no matter how powerful the pull, would he ever leave her for…her. If it cost him every ounce of strength, of resolve, of…whatever he might need, he wouldn't go to her. He wouldn't be with the one meant for him. He would stay. Even if it killed him.
"This changes everything, Clark. You know that. You're just too good, too sweet to let yourself say it, or even think it." She stepped a deliberate pace back from him. His hand fell to his side. She moved into the kitchen.
"I'm making coffee," she called over her shoulder. "Why don't you two get acquainted?"
The last thing Lois Lane expected to see, after taking her time reentering the living room, was an odd looking man in a bowler hat engaged in nervous conversation with her husband and her counterpart. "Clark, who's…?"
The effect of her entrance on the man was astonishing. He dropped his hat, dropped his jaw, stammered and sweated and very nearly swooned.
Clark grabbed him quickly, leading him to a chair. "Sir? Are you all right?"
Long-haired Lois had come to her feet; she stepped deftly around the huddled little man and reached for the coffee Lois was still holding in her hand. "I don't know what kind of a place you people are running here," she told Lois softly, with a searching gaze.
Lois smiled. "Trust me; it's even weirder than you think."
Clark had been ineffectively patting the stranger on the back, like he'd had a coughing fit or had swallowed his gum.
"Who is he, Clark?" Lois asked, coming over to save the poor little man.
"He said he was…" Clark shook his head. "Remember when we woke up this morning and I said, 'Good morning, wife, what do we have going on today?' and you said, 'Not much that I know of.'? And I agreed that today was the perfect day for us to celebrate our anniversary, since nothing…big…was happening?"
"You're babbling," sputtered the other Lois. "I saw your face when he got here. Who did he say he was?"
"HG Wells." Clark straightened from his soft pounding of the figure in question.
"The writer?!" both Loises chorused.
"And time traveler." Though he had spoken them quietly, those words went off like a bomb in the room.
One Lois slapped her forehead and collapsed dramatically onto the sofa. "You spend a few years in a prison in the Congo, living on mangos and water, and after you finally tunnel your way out, you find everything makes less sense here than there." She picked up her coffee and sipped some cautiously. "I was in the sun too long."
"He's come to get me," Lois said, disbelieving, sinking into the nearest chair. "I'm going…home."
"Yes, quite," interrupted the little man they had all momentarily forgotten. "Ms. Lane." He stood and bowed stiffly. "And…er…Ms. Lane." He nodded to the woman on the sofa."
"Call me Lane," she offered agreeably. "Everyone in prison did."
"Well…" HG didn't seem to know exactly how to respond to that. "So, you've been away. And you-" He turned to Lois. "-have been…on an adventure?"
Clark clenched his fists, moving swiftly away from the assembled group. "An adventure?! Your people dropped her here without a clue as to why, or with any idea if she was even going to get back, or what she was supposed to do in the meantime. Do you have any idea how scary that was for her? How horrifying?"
"No, no, not my people." HG paled and moved to stand a bit closer to Lois. "I imagine it was Tempus, my dear?"
Lois and Clark shared a long look. 'This is it' the look said. Months of digging had turned up no references to that name whatsoever. Eventually they'd decided there wasn't anything to find, and that, most likely, he wasn't coming back. To appease Clark, Lois had agreed to wear a transmitter at all times. His worst fear was that she would be taken out of the world, and he'd be left with no way of knowing it. Like her own Clark must have been.
"What's a Tempus?" interjected Lane from her perch on the sofa.
"A mad man." HG turned to her eagerly, apparently glad to have an audience that seemed to be listening. "He is an inter-dimensional hoodlum, and the one thing, the one person he hates above everything, is Superman."
"I give up," snapped Lane. "Start to finish, none of this makes a bit of sense."
"She's right," Clark added. "Why, if he hated Superman, would he bring Lois to me? Give me the best year of my life?" He turned his eyes back to his wife and reached for her hand.
"You weren't Superman, Clark," she reminded him quietly. "He was."
"That's it exactly. Lois, you are the one true love of the Clark Kent of your dimension. That fact is well established over all time and space. Tempus seeks to defeat Superman by hitting him where he is weakest, and that weakness, is you."
"He said this was 'just for fun'; those were his words. For me to 'have a nice life'."
"A life apart from the man you were meant to be with."
Clark pulled Lois to his side, placing his arm around her shoulders. He asked, so she wouldn't have to. "Did it work? Is Superman…is Clark Kent defeated? Is that why you've finally turned up to sort this out?"
"He has great strength, Lois." Wells clearly sought to remove the look of terror that had come into her eyes. "And while he is not destroyed, he is deeply unhappy. But that isn't why I've come."
"So 'deeply unhappy' isn't enough for you people?" flared Lane, as if she knew more than a little on the subject. "From what I can follow, you time-dimension travelers have messed with these people royally. She is here with him, but there's another him who loves her and this guy-" She pointed to Clark who was still holding Lois is a tight grip. "-marries her, but now has to stand by while you send her back. Cosmic Soap Opera," she spat.
"Why are you here?" Lois asked.
"Because I let this happen to all three of you, all four of you, really." He turned to include Lane. "I was away…distracted. Not following up on you as I know I should. Until…until this morning over breakfast, when I got a reading that there might be two Lois Lanes in one place, I didn't have any idea that things had gone so terribly awry. Tempus usually leaves a much bigger ripple in the time-space pond, so to speak."
"I…can go…home." Lois turned into Clark's embrace. "Back to my…world."
"Do you want to?" he asked hesitantly. "After everything, Lois. Do you want to go? Could you go? And leave…everything?"
"Perhaps I wasn't direct enough on the 'one true love' thing," HG began timidly. "If this Lois Lane is that for the other Clark Kent, then…"
All eyes turned to Lane, who was watching them with equal parts fascination and skepticism. "What?!" she demanded.
"That isn't to imply that it's going to be easy," Wells stated.
"You said you knew it when you saw her," Lois whispered into her husband's ear.
"Like I knew when I saw him, even though I didn't exactly realize it. And he once told me that from the minute we were introduced, even though I barely looked at him, he was done for."
"I know what you're saying, Lois. I know all of this. I knew when we got married that how I loved you was different from how you would ever love me, that you weren't going to love me like you did him. And that was ok. It was enough just to have you here, in my home…" He lowered his voice, drawing her away to the terrace. "…in my life, in my bed. Without you this world wouldn't have a Superman, just a lonely reporter with a complex the size of Metropolis."
They were facing each other on the terrace, where it had all began for them. Where the gloves of civility had come off, and the real honesty had started.
"Then we foiled him, didn't we? Tempus brought me here to destroy my future with Superman. And instead, I had a year with one of the kindest, most generous men I've known in two worlds. And together, we figured out how to be a family…how to be happy, and how to bring Superman into being."
"You're going," Clark rasped.
"Look at the score," she teased him. "Two Loises for you and none for him?"
"I shouldn't let him get off that easy," he agreed in a choked voice.
"This is her world, Clark," she returned seriously. "I can't be here anymore. You know that. I know that. It wouldn't work…it wouldn't be fair…to any of us. To her, and to you…especially. You would have to choose-"
"Lois, I have chosen. You are the woman I married."
"Before you met her, Clark. Before you even knew there was a her to meet. You felt it when you saw her, didn't you? The difference…? If I stay, you'll be miserable. We'll be miserable."
"You're going," he repeated, this time with a bit more resignation. "When?"
"The sooner the better, I think," she breathed. "Before it's too hard."
Investigative reporter Jimmy Olsen pulled up to the curb in front of Clark's place with a screech of tires and a wide smile.
"Who we got on tap for tonight, CK? I am wired on caffeine, have eight rolls of film, and it's been a week since we bagged a headline."
This was Jimmy's standard greeting, only this time delivered from the driver side of a new…sort of new…
"What do you call this thing, Jim?"
"She's a beauty, isn't she? And perfect for stake- outs. Big dashboard for the lens. Turn out the interior lights, kill the engine, and she disappears. We can watch and record…er…who are we watching and recording tonight?"
"We drew the Latimer property."
"Oh, man," groaned Jimmy. "Nothing ever happens there."
"So tonight we get lucky," Clark vowed, swinging into the passenger seat. "Lead on young partner."
Clark's prediction, hours later, had proven to be grossly optimistic. As with most of their stake-outs of the Latimer property, hope slowly gave way to boredom, which ultimately gave way to a game of cards and a long summary of the status of Jimmy's love life. So no one was more surprised than Clark, when, after the latest sad story of Jimmy's had been heard, he opened his mouth and told his.
"I started dreaming about her a couple of months after she left, Jim."
Jimmy nearly dropped the camera.
"What kind of dreams, CK?"
"Good ones," Clark smiled. "Wouldn't want to tell you much more than that."
"I get the picture," Jimmy laughed.
"Yeah. And they were every night. I mean, not that we were…every night. Just that she was with me every night, one pillow over, you know." Clark blushed, glad for the darkness the night's stake-out required.
Jimmy thoughtfully reloaded his camera. "Did you ever think those might be more than just dreams?"
"I have, but I don't know in what sense they might be. I mean, she was so physically present, but only when I was sleeping. But it's like she shared my bed, really. If I looked too hard she's wasn't really there, but if I closed my eyes, if I fell asleep, she just…was."
"Maybe it's Lois' spirit?" Jimmy suggested hesitantly. "We've never really talked about what you think happened to her. If you think she's…"
"…dead." Clark finished for him, so Jimmy wouldn't have to.
"Yeah, the Chief and I both came to that conclusion pretty quickly. He quicker than me, because he said nothing would have kept an alive and kicking Lois Lane away from the Daily Planet for long, or away from you, for that matter.
"I never told this to anyone…" Clark began.
"Go ahead," Jimmy prompted. He peered back into his camera, knowing it might be easier if Clark didn't have to tell it to his face.
"That last night before she vanished, she and I were on a date. We were at her door, talking and kidding around…"
"I never knew that." Jimmy sat up straight now, turning towards Clark. "You were there?"
"Until right before, Jim. And I mean a few minutes before. I left and in the time it took her to go inside, that's when it happened."
"That's the kind of thing that kills a guy, CK. If you beat yourself up with…"
"Why didn't we stay at dinner five minutes later? Why was the waiter so prompt with the check? Why didn't we dance to that last song? Why on our stroll home didn't I suggest we go back to my place?"
"I see you've covered this."
"Pretty much unceasingly for the first few months. But that isn't all."
All pretenses that he and Clark were watching the house had dropped now. Jimmy shut off the camera, turned on the overhead light, so he could see his friend.
"You can trust me," Jimmy stated bluntly.
"If I didn't I wouldn't be…confessing, I guess."
"Whatever it is, if you just say it, it'll help."
"She was mad at me."
"Lois was mad at you that night?"
"Right when I left. I left kind of abruptly."
"No kidding?" Jimmy teased him gently.
"Another story for another day, partner. So Lois was mad when you left."
"She was calling me names. I could hear her from…far away."
"CK, she would never want you to worry about that, to feel guilty about a petty argument all this time later. You were more important to her than that."
"I had this crazy thought directly after. Like she had made herself disappear to show me how it felt. To scare the daylights out of me. To get my undivided attention."
"That would have been some trick. And you know, if Lois could have managed it, she might have."
Clark chuckled softly.
"So I guess instead of thinking she was dead, I thought of her as teaching me a lesson. Gone to a place only she knew about. And then creeping back in at night to sleep in my bed because deep down, she forgave me, and she missed me. That was easier than letting myself draw the obvious conclusion."
"And there was no body," Jimmy said, putting his hand on Clark's shoulder.
"She hasn't been found. And Jim, Superman has looked. There hasn't been a day since that he hasn't looked somewhere for some period of time."
"I hate this for you, CK. I hate that I have no idea what to say to you, that I had no idea you were carrying all of this with you for so long, that you've been in hell, I guess, and I've been sitting right next to you, not throwing you a line."
"You have been my friend." Clark cleared his throat. The two men looked away from each other for a moment. "I can't overstate what having you around has done for me."
"You're putting the pieces back together, then? The Chief says he thinks so."
"Mostly. Just that one missing piece, the big one. But mostly, most days, I'm ok. Not great. But…living."
"And you still have those dreams?"
"That's the thing. Maybe why I started us on this in the first place. Just in the last few nights, she's hasn't been there. I guess I wonder if that means I'm getting past something, or if she is moving on, or if I'll just never know. I miss her, Jim."
"Me too, CK. She was one of a kind."
"You wouldn't think it would be, but leaving is really a simple matter," HG Wells told the assembled group proudly. Pulling the remote device from his coat pocket, he activated the buttons, and the portal opened.
"You don't have to," Clark blurted.
She smiled at him. "We've decided. And yes, I do."
"Whenever you're ready, Ms. Lane," HG Wells said, moving a discreet distance back from the three solemn figures.
Lane moved in to hug Lois. "I know I've been a pain, but I can't help but feel that I'm kicking you out."
"You aren't kicking me out. I got kicked in, and now I'm going…home. I owe so much to you. That I could be in your place for a while, do your work for a while, be Lois Lane here. It kept me sane. Kept me happy. Something I couldn't imagine in those first horrible weeks."
"Clark's right, Lois. You don't have to go. I mean, I know it would get awkward, but you could be…my twin! Long-lost, given up for adoption, we found each other online, never knew we had an other-half out there…"
"Speaking of other-halves," Lois leaned in and whispered. "He is yours. And I know how that makes you feel. I know the risks involved in that. But the rewards are so great. So, please, don't blow him off, and don't waste years trying to decide should you or shouldn't you. You should. And he needs you, as much as you need him."
"If he's as super-powered as he says, Lois, he doesn't really need…anyone."
"No, it's because he's super-powered that he needs you all the more."
The two women embraced tightly. Lane moved off to join HG Wells at that discreet distance.
Clark stepped immediately towards Lois, and at his touch, she felt all of her resolve fall away.
"I don't know that I ever thanked you enough for saving me," she began.
Clark raised an eyebrow at her. "I saved you? I thought you saved me."
"Really, Clark, when I was first here and was so lost and completely alone, feeling like…"
"…an alien?" he supplied softly. "I know a little something about that, Lois."
"You were my home when I didn't have one," Lois persisted.
"Right back at you," Clark breathed.
"You made me real here…"
"Are we actually competing over who needed who more?" Lois laughed.
"Which one of us was engaged to Lana?" he countered smoothly.
"You win," she stated after a pause. "I can't beat that."
"Do you think you'll let that other guy win, from time to time?" he asked gently.
"Never," Lois vowed. "That's completely different. We're…different, you and I."
"We had something really wonderful." Clark threaded his fingers through Lois', all the teasing in his voice dropping away.
"We borrowed something really wonderful for a while," Lois agreed.
"I'll always be glad of that. I'll never forget you." Clark lowered his head to drop a kiss into her hair.
"Clark, are you letting me go?" She wanted to be sure, absolutely certain, that no one was leaving anyone alone, that this was not a desertion.
"With my blessing, Lois, I'm letting you go."
They clung to each other then, holding tightly, breathing deeply.
"And if I stayed? If maybe… she went… to balance the cosmic scales… or whatever?" Even Lois had to roll her eyes at this, as Clark smiled sadly at her. "I know, never mind, forget that last part."
"It would be safer and easier for both of us, that's for sure." He pulled her close one last time before taking a step back. "I wouldn't have to find a way to her, and you wouldn't have to explain me to him."
"But that's not the way this story is supposed to end and not the way it's meant to be," she replied. "Is it? I need to go home, find a way to pick up my own life, and see if I still fit into his."
"I'll never be sorry, Lois. Meant to be or not, I'll love you forever."
Hands and eyes still locked together, they communicated their final goodbyes in silence. Then Lois turned and stepped through the portal, not daring to look back.
"I traded her for a family. For a husband, a wife, and two kids." Clark stated this quietly, as he helped his dad milk the cows. He never looked up from his task, but Jonathan went absolutely still. In the all the time since Lois had disappeared, his son had never voluntarily talked to his parents about it. He and Martha, in the beginning, had only gotten the news that Lois was gone from the television. Repeated calls to Clark had not been returned. Neither Perry nor Jimmy had seen him.
Fearing the worst, that Clark would lay his life down before letting anything happen to the woman he loved, they had taken the earliest flight to Metropolis they could manage. Only to find him, to their initial relief, sitting in his apartment and surprised to see them barreling in. That relief had ebbed quickly when they took in the state he was in. Or rather wasn't in. Clark wasn't angry, wasn't sad, and wasn't frightened. In fact, he didn't seem to be anything. He was just there.
The months following had been some of the most difficult of Jonathan Kent's life. He had badgered and bullied and prodded his silent son for information, for insight into what he was thinking, for some clue as to Clark's feelings. All he got was, "She's gone, Dad. I can't find her." Nothing else.
Superman had disappeared, also. Clark flatly refused to talk about him, either. So, Jonathan and Martha and Perry had agreed that a leave of absence, some time on the farm, might be of help. Clark had sat lifeless, his large frame squeezed between them, on the flight home. That's when Jonathan could honestly say he'd gotten scared. There was something so strange about buying Clark a plane ticket. Having him accept it. Seeing him inside the airplane cabin. It was like his son had disappeared, also. That Clark Kent was as gone as Lois Lane.
Martha hadn't made more headway than he had. During those weeks Clark had come to stay, she had gently and then not so gently tried to pry open Clark's firmly closed heart. She had baked and stayed up late into the night with him, sharing her own stories of loss, of coping, of grief. And yet, he hadn't responded. Had only politely tolerated them both, and little else. If he couldn't find comfort with them, surrounded by all his old friends and family, they feared he was adrift. That had been further proved to them when, after a couple of weeks, Clark had announced he needed to go back to work. He had asked to be driven into Wichita, and had taken a flight to Metropolis. Then a cab from the airport to his apartment. He had mentioned, in one of their strained weekly phone conversations, that he was thinking about buying a car. Lucy had offered him Lois' Jeep, but, well, he didn't want that.
He and Martha had talked long into the night after that call. Martha, it was decided, would fly back to Metropolis, and shake some sense into him. Or get him to a grief counselor. Or just make herself such a nuisance Clark would have to say something to her, even if it was just to beg her to leave. Jonathan would stay home and milk the cows. And worry himself into an ulcer.
"If I had known when I left her, would I have still done it? Could I have done it? Would I have let strangers die so that Lois would be with me?" Clark continued, as his hands moved rhythmically, squirting the milk into the pail. "That's why Superman was gone for so long. He made me decide. And I hated him. And I wasn't good enough to be him, because I knew if I'd have known I was making that choice, if I had known that leaving her side meant forever… I might have let everyone else in the city die in that fire."
Jonathan wasn't sure Clark even realized he was speaking out loud. That he was even there. Deciding that keeping quiet was his best course of action, he once more bent to his own milking. For a time nothing was heard besides the lowing of the cows, the steady buzz of the Irig's tractor in the neighboring field, the spzzt-spzzt of the milk hitting the tin pails.
Martha, Jonathan remembered, had stayed in Metropolis as long as she could. Clark had claimed to enjoy her company, and had taken her out to dinners and to a few shows. He was always apologetic when his working hours kept him from spending time with her. Finally, she had returned home. Defeated and sad and worn out with worry.
But then, not that much later, they had heard that Superman had returned to Metropolis. That he had reappeared as mysteriously as he had disappeared. That he was granting no interviews on the subject, and especially would not talk about Lois Lane. Clark's byline started appearing in the Daily Planet again. Run-of-the-mill stuff, initially. Not that they didn't cut those out and save them; they still did. And there was an announcement of the Kent-Olsen writing team. Eventually, articles that were more along the lines of what he had done before, with his previous partner, showed up. Not quite as riveting or fantastic or earth-shattering, but a victory in their household, that was for sure. Then one night they had heard the sonic boom overhead, and Clark had walked through the door asking what was cooking. That was the night they felt they got him back. Maybe not all the way back, but maybe that would come. He was here, and now it seemed, he was talking.
"If I had just kissed her, Dad."
Jonathan stopped again.
"If you had just kissed her, what, son?"
'I dissolved into those kisses. In a way I never have into anything else. When I kissed Lois I couldn't hear someone right next to me, much less calling from six blocks away. Do you know how many times Jimmy walked in on us, and Lois would jump away embarrassed, and I would be completely floored to have been snuck up on? But I couldn't hear anything, didn't know anything; the world faded away. I would be lost in her lips…But instead we were just talking…on the verge of something…and I heard the cry. And I left."
"Then I wish you were kissing her, too, son."
They worked in companionable silence for some time.
"You wouldn't have chosen Lois if you'd known. You would have taken her with you. And there is nobody on earth good enough to be Superman than my son."
It had been one endless day, one plane ride, and an exorbitant cab fare, by her calculations, but she was home. Or so she hoped. Lois hadn't bothered with Metropolis, the Daily Planet, her family, her apartment, or any remnants of her life. She wasn't sure yet what the time difference between here and there was, how long she had been missing, whether she was presumed dead, or even if another Lois Lane had showed up in her place, creating a potentially awkward situation in her small group of friends. The after effects of dimension hopping had left her depleted but focused. She didn't have the energy to spend on the many, many details reentering her life would require. She needed one thing — to get to Clark. And there was one way she was certain she could do that.
With that in mind, and little else, Lois opened the screen door, rapping solidly on the weathered one behind it. Now was no time to be timid. She barely managed a smile for the astonished woman who answered.
"Martha, can you call Clark?"
Superman was a few dozen feet above the ground. His mother's startled, wordless yell had rocketed him away from his dad and a very surprised herd of cows, in a literal second. He had spun into the Suit on pure instinct. There had been enough alarm in his mom's voice to warrant that. He saw a small figure on the front porch locked in Martha's arms. He knew her instantly. Before he drew another breath, he was beside her, tearing her out of Martha's embrace, enfolding her into his own.
"This is Smallville, Kansas, right?"
Lois knew how ridiculous that sounded, but she couldn't think of any other way to start.
"And this is your home. And these are your parents." She inclined her head towards Martha and to a huffing and puffing Jonathan down the drive, who was following the commotion just a tad slower than his son.
"And…you know me?"
"Yes, Lois. Yes. Yes." He took her face between his hands, seeming to take no notice of his tears, as he drank her in.
"Superman, you'll confuse her…" a note of caution crept into Martha's tone.
"Maybe you could find Clark for us?" interrupted his father gruffly.
Clark dismissed them with an impatient wave of his hand. "I'm Clark, Lois."
"I know," she said. "I've known for ages. It really doesn't matter." She laughed a shaky, sad laugh.
"That's good. Oh, Lois…"
Lois looked at him full in the face. Knowing that for the first time, in what felt like a lifetime, she was looking at the man who was not her husband. She braced herself for the pain that would bring. The pain didn't come.
"Are you…my Clark?" she asked at last. Because in two entire universes that was the one thing that really mattered.
"Yes," he breathed, absolute in his answer, showing no sign of the hesitancy and confusion that were honestly due him. "I'm your Clark. I always have been."
"So, I'm home," Lois sighed.
"Come inside, Lois." Clark answered. "We've missed you."
"I married him. We spent a year together. I knew he wasn't you and he knew I wasn't her, but we were able to make something, to grow something that helped us both. I won't ever apologize for that," she added defiantly, though it was unnecessary. Clark hadn't let go of her since he had flown down. He was still in the Suit; his parents had long since excused themselves and turned in. They were seated on the sofa. Clark slightly behind, with Lois propped up against his chest, his arms and cape wrapped tightly around her, while she confessed into the dying embers in the fireplace.
"I'm glad, Lois." He told her quietly. The first words he'd been able to get into the conversation in the last hour. "So glad that you had him. That he made you safe, made you a home."
"It was a real marriage, you know." She said in a small voice, still studying the flames.
"It's ok, Lois. You and I weren't married. You and I weren't even…committed to anything. We were just…well, I can only speak for me. I was…am completely in love with you. And that you are here and well and whole is all that matters."
"I found what I had with him only because of what I had with you, Clark. I went to him first, because in a world where I didn't understand anything at all…Clark Kent made sense. You did that for me. You made that so. If I hadn't known I could go to him, that I could count on him, even after learning that he was a whole lot more than I'd imagined, I would have never survived."
"So you see how I can say it's ok, Lois. You see how I can honestly say I'm glad. I love you. And he…loved you when I couldn't. And there is nothing wrong with that."
"And nothing has changed about how you feel about me?"
"Do you know how many deals I made with God, Lois? How I have begged and bargained over the months? Just bring her back. If she's sick or injured or has amnesia — stricken and will never remember me, I'll take her. If she's been held captive and…forced," he faltered, cleared his throat. "Comes home with a child, two children, twenty, I'll take her." He turned her face towards his slowly, wanting her to see him. "Anyway, anyhow, any time, any place. I just…want…her…back."
"My biggest regret," Lois began, "was that I was taken before I could tell you I loved you. That night, the night Tempus came…I would have. I didn't think I would ever be able to say it to your face… just to your memory."
"Lois, I am all ears," he prompted her softly.
"I love you," she breathed. "But I'm not ready to get married," she added quickly, sounding a bit more like the Lois Lane he knew so well.
He seized on the unintentional promise in her words. "But one day?"
"Yes, one day."
He kissed her then. For the first time. Bowing his head towards hers, drinking her brown eyes in with his own, not shutting them, not wanting to miss anything, until hers drifted closed as their lips met.
"We'll do this however you want to, Lois," he whispered against her ear after the kiss ended. "If you want to go back to Metropolis. The Daily Planet. Call your parents. Call Perry. Whatever and whenever you want; you lead, I'll follow."
"I want to stay here, awhile, if that's ok."
At his emphatic nod, she smiled her first genuine smile.
"My mom made the bed up for you. It's upstairs, my old room, you remember."
He slowly pulled out of her arms. Spun quietly. Stood in front of her in faded jeans and an ancient t-shirt. The glasses that would have been on his face, he set down on the mantle. "Tea? Coffee? Hot chocolate? Or just a bed?"
"Just a bed, I think."
"Then I'll walk you up, Lois. And I won't leave tonight. Metropolis and the world can live without Superman for one night. I'll be close by." He gestured to the couch.
"Could you…maybe…stay with me? I mean, just to sleep with me, that's all it would be. You don't know how nauseating portal-hopping is, but believe me… It's just if I woke up in the middle of the night, didn't know where or when I was, it would help me…"
"Yes, Lois." He cut her off. "And by the way, that's a question that never needs further explanation, and in fact, never has any other answer than yes. I will stay with you."
That is how Clark Kent, a visitor to his own universe, found himself living the dream that had sustained him. He was lying beside Lois Lane, a visitor to another universe and back again, and listening to her gentle breathing and feeling her soft warmth against him. Knowing in his heart, that finally, all was right…in both worlds.