What a Difference a Day Makes

By Chris Carr <carrcmh@yahoo.co.uk?

Rated: PG

Submitted: November 2004

Summary: It's Christmas in Metropolis, and Alt-Clark is feeling lonely… Could this be the happy, sappy ending for Alt-Clark and his Lois that so many of us would like to see? You betcha!

INTRODUCTION: This story revisits very well-trodden ground, I'm afraid: just how many ways will folcs find to have Alt-Clark meet his Lois, anyway?

Many, many thanks to Jenni for beta-reading.

DISCLAIMER: This story has been written for fun, not for profit. No attempt is being made to infringe any existing copyrights held by December 3rd Productions, Warner Bros, D C Comics, or any other copyright holders.

***

1980

Lois pulled her chair up tight against the bedroom wall, folded her arms on the windowsill and laid her chin on top of them. If she tried hard enough, she thought, she would be able to tune out the horrible reality that was Christmas Eve in the Lane household. She would be able to blot out the sounds of her parents arguing in the kitchen and the blaring television in the living room. All she had to do was concentrate.

She watched the first snowflakes of the season drift lazily downwards. If the weather forecasters were right — and something told Lois that they were — the city would be carpeted in a thick layer of white by morning. The light frostting on the streets was thickening, even as she watched.

Lois liked snow. It looked so clean and perfect — at least until someone ventured outside, churned it up, and turned it into a filthy grey slush. Above all, though, she likked the sense of peace it brought with it.

Peace and silence.

She suddenly realised that it was as silent inside the apartment as it was out. Her parents' argument was over and Lucy, no longer needing to hide behind it, had turned down the volume on the television. Tension Lois didn't know she had been feeling bled from her shoulders and she sighed.

She sighed again as she saw her father stomp down the front steps and along the sidewalk. Typical, she thought, that her own father would be the first person to sully the new snow. It was just like him to ruin things.

Lois guessed with teenage cynicism that he would end up spending Christmas Eve night and Christmas Day with Mrs Belcanto. Her mother would spend all evening drinking and all tomorrow complaining. She and Lucy would end up doing what they always did: they would make do.

The snow, she was pleased to see, was already filling in her father's footprints, blotting him out. It was soothing to watch. The harsh edges of his prints gradually blunted and faded; her pain blunted, too, numbed, at least for a little while.

Still the snow fell. It decorated the street and the houses more perfectly than any man-made decoration could do.

And then, in the midst of the silence, Lois had a startling thought. If snow fell, surely it must make some kind of noise. What did falling snow sound like?

It would sound like petals falling off a blossoming tree, she thought, or like feathers billowing from a burst pillow.

She smiled to herself, suddenly as peaceful and silent as the snow itself. She savoured the tranquil feeling, knowing that, as long as she could feel the way she did now, the world would never hurt her.

***

1997

It's Christmas Eve morning, I'm lying in bed, and I am listening to the snow fall. For once, I'm almost smiling. There's something special about the sight and sound of the first snow of the season. It's even more special when it falls at Christmas.

I remember trying to explain that to Lana, back when we were kids and she was the only person who knew about me. I guess I must have been about thirteen or fourteen at the time. "I can hear the flakes falling," I told her. It was a secret, but I wanted to share it. I *needed* to share it with somebody and there was nobody else. Besides, she was my best friend, and I wanted to give her something. The secret was the only thing I had to give.

"Oh, Clark," she sighed. I remember that sigh so well. The memory still hurts. "I wish you wouldn't."

"Wouldn't what?" I asked.

"Hear things."

"I can't help it," I said. It was true. Back then, my super- senses were new and I hadn't learned to control them properly.

"Well, then I wish you wouldn't tell me about them," she said.

"Okay," I said, forcing myself to bite back my disappointment. As ever, it hurt to hide a part of myself away. "I won't tell you anything else." And that's why I didn't tell her that the snow sounded like feathers falling, or like blossom dropping off winter-flowering cherry trees.

It's a sad memory I've conjured up, but I can't help that. Most of my memories are sad, and this one is not as bad as many. In any case, it all happened a very long time ago and I'm not going to let it hurt me any more.

***

1984

"…Jingle bell, jingle bell, jingle bell rock…"

Despite the streamers across the cafeteria's ceiling and the tree in one corner, Christmas still seemed an age away. Who could take the holidays seriously when the insurmountable hurdle of end of semester exams lay directly ahead? The music didn't charm Lois or fill her with festive spirit. Instead, it made her want to grind her teeth and throw things.

Lois looked across the table towards her two best friends, Molly Flynn and Linda King. "I keep having these dreams," she said over the blare of music and the clatter of dishes. The cafeteria wasn't the best place to have a conversation, but Molly had been adamant that she couldn't afford to take enough time out of her revision schedule to go anywhere better. In fact, getting her to agree to go anywhere at all had been a minor triumph. Molly was so stressed that both Lois and Linda had begun to fear for her sanity.

Lois didn't really want to talk about the dreams, but she did want to try to ease Molly's panic. If neither she nor Linda could persuade Molly take out enough time to relax properly, they would have to make do with distracting her for half an hour. The problem was, with the exams at the forefront of their own minds, it was hard to find anything else to talk about. The dreams were the best thing Lois had been able to come up with.

"They're about flying. I can't help wondering what they mean."

Linda sucked quickly on her straw before glancing up to say, "What makes you think they mean anything?"

Lois shrugged. "No reason, I guess. It's just that I have so many." She tried — and failed — to make light of her concerns. "And I keep thinking that there must be some deep, psychological reason for tthem. I mean, aren't recurring dreams supposed to mean something?"

Molly didn't answer Lois's question. Instead, she said, "Flying dreams are pretty common, you know." She put a fry in her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. Then she said, "Did you know that Freud thought flying was one way of expressing your sexual desires?" Then, for the first time in days, Molly grinned devilishly and a hint of the fun-loving young woman she usually was shone out from behind tired eyes. "Anything you want to tell us, Lois?" She waggled her eyebrows.

"No!" snapped Lois. Her plan for distracting Molly from her impending failure seemed to be working, but Lois wasn't sure that she liked the price.

"And that," said Linda, speaking to the world in general, "is precisely why I didn't take Psych 101."

"Psych is really interesting!" protested Molly.

"Maybe, but it's also a well known fact that psych majors end up over-analysing everything. Besides, you know what they say about a little knowledge…?"

"Yeah. It goes a long way," said Lois.

"No," said Linda. "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing."

"Meaning ignorance is bliss, I suppose?" asked Lois. "I guess that would explain a lot about your grades this semester, Linda, and why you've been so much keener on studying the football team than your books. It's been self-defence!"

"Oh, harsh!" exclaimed Molly. Then, seeing Linda's scowl, she added hastily, "I'm sure Lois didn't mean anything nasty by that." Then she turned back towards Lois and said, "Seriously, I doubt your dreams are anything to worry about."

"Really?" asked Lois hopefully. "Why not?"

"Freud's explanation is only one interpretation." Molly leaned across the table as she warmed to her subject. "Carl Jung thought that flying dreams were an expression of a desire to break free of restrictions and limitations, while Alfred Adler believed they were an expression of a person's desire to dominate others. Kind of a superiority dream, if you will."

"Wow. Where did you learn all that stuff?" asked Linda, sounding genuinely impressed.

Molly raised her eyebrows. "Psych 101, of course. I told you psych was interesting."

"Remember all that in your exam, and you'll have nothing to worry about," Linda said, reaching over and patting her friend's forearm.

"You really think so?"

"I sure do."

Lois knew that she ought to echo Linda's reassurances but she couldn't help pursuing the ideas that Molly had just presented her with. "So I'm either a sex addict, an anarchist or a dictator, is that it?" asked Lois bitterly.

"Sounds about right, eh, Linda?" grinned Molly.

Linda sniggered. "Maybe she's all three!"

Lois rolled her eyes and looked pained. "I'm still here, you know!"

"I did come across another theory — one you might be more interested in, Lois," said Molly gently.

"Oh, yeah?"

"Do you enjoy the dreams?"

"Yes," answered Lois reluctantly. "I guess I do. I mean, what's not to enjoy… going to far away places… the sense of freedom."

"There you go, then," smiled Molly. "You're having the dreams because you enjoy them. They're fun."

***

1997

I tell myself that I can't stay in bed all day, no matter how much I want to. I get up, make some coffee, then I carry the mug out onto the balcony. I stand there knowing that, in human terms, I must look odd. The temperature is hovering around freezing point and I'm standing here in nothing but boxers and cotton socks. The cold doesn't bother me, though, and I don't really care what people think.

I don't mean to eavesdrop. I mean, I don't set out to pry into other people's lives. However, before I realise what I've done, I've painted myself an aural picture of my neighbourhood. I guess, living other people's lives at one step removed is as close as I come these days to living my own.

Carole, from number 342 Clinton, apartment 2a, is pleading with her husband to take the kids out. How else is she supposed to get everything ready in time for tomorrow? There's a desperate edge to her request; her husband hears it. He yells, "C'mon kids! Let's go to the park and build us some snowmen!"

Two of the kids squeal with delight. The third — the oldest — whines. "Do I *have* to?"

"Yes, you do. Now, turn off that computer and put on your coat!"

"Awwww, Dad…"

Mr Murciano, the owner of the delicatessen on the next street, has decided to get into the Christmas spirit. He's drunk half of the eggnog his wife was going to give to customers, and she is screaming at him in a torrent of furious Italian. Ever other sentence is a plea to God.

Every chance meeting on every corner echoes with the exchange of Christmas greetings. I even hear Mrs O'Malley exchange Merry Christmases with Mr Price, and it is a well-known fact that they haven't been on speaking terms since 1972. Everyone seems in too much of a hurry to stop and chat for real, though.

Everybody, I think, is rushing to finish their preparations for tomorrow. I alone seem to have no preparations to make.

I'll be on my own again for Christmas Day. I don't feel sorry for myself. I refuse to feel sorry for myself. I mean, this is just the way things are. I'm shy, which makes it hard for me to meet people, other than on a purely professional level. So I'll spend Christmas Day in my apartment with a frozen dinner and a good video for company.

I tell myself that I'm just as happy doing that as I would be doing anything else, so there really isn't any reason for me to feel sorry for myself, is there?

Besides, whom else do I have to share Christmas with? I've already fulfilled my responsibilities as Superman. I delivered the tree to the Coates orphanage last week and I gave out presents at the children's hospital three days ago.

And it's not as though my friends have forgotten me. I had lunch with Mr Olsen yesterday, and I've been invited to visit with the Whites on the twenty-sixth. That's something isn't it?

But… I can't help thinking that it isn't quite the same as being with someone on Christmas Day.

Even the paparazzi will stay away. They always do. They have done ever since they realised two things. One, I'm actually a very dull person. I don't talk to them. I don't court them. Most of all, I don't do anything that they could spin into a story. Two, their photos never come out anyway. I see to that.

Most of what the celebrity magazines have printed about me, they learned from Lana. They quickly tired of her, though. Her stories of the quiet, slightly uptight, boy-scout she'd been engaged to just weren't interesting enough. Plus, in the middle of the Super-mania that followed my coming out, it didn't help that she was forced to admit that she'd known about me for years. In a world going mad for Superman, someone who'd tried to keep me in the superhero closet was never going to be popular. Last I heard, Lana had moved back to Smallville, her ambitions for a TV career put on indefinite hold.

The people of Metropolis eventually got used to me and the Super- mania quietened down to a more muted kind of affection and pride. These days, it is only out-of-towners who gawk when I go by.

There's a world of difference, though, between affectionate pride and the kind of affection that goes with proper friendship — or any other kind of meaningful relationship, for that matter. People keep a respectful distance from me and I appreciate that, I really do. But…

Darn it, I get so lonely!

Anyway… That's why I'm on my own for Christmas — because, for the most part, people are considerate. They don't want to pressure me. Most of the invitations I get are froom women of a certain age who are even lonelier than I. I refuse them politely, saying that I have other plans and…

This is going to sound stupid, but I haven't always felt lonely. Yes, I've often felt alone; how could I not after my parents died? I loved them and they loved me and after they were gone… I was a loner, but I wasn't lonely. For one thing, I had Lana.

That sounds stupid, too. Most people would say that I never had Lana. Rather, they'd say that Lana had me — on a leash. She wore the trousers in our relationship. I was under her thumb.

That's not a very flattering image, is it? Who would have thought that the future Superman could be such a door-mat?

It's hard to know where things went wrong for us, or even when they began to change.

Maybe I should rephrase that because it implies that, once-upon- a-time, things were right between us as a couple, and I doubt that was ever the case. We *were* friends, though. We were friends who were looking for something more. I guess it was convenience that made us look for that something in each other.

I've heard the phrase "kissing friends" and maybe that's what we were — friends who kissed. I mean, we certainly weren't lovers.

Even so, somewhere along the line, we decided to get engaged, and things began to unravel from there.

One day I woke up and I realised that I felt… hollow, I suppose is as good a word as any. I felt empty, as though something had been ripped out of me. I thought, is this it? Is this all there is to life?

I told myself that the feeling would pass. Then I told myself that what I was experiencing was a perfectly natural fear of commitment. I mean, isn't it normal for a twenty-something man to want to hang on to his freedom for as long as he can? Give it six months, a year, or two years, and I'll get over it, I told myself. But I never did, not even after Lana left.

Anyway, there is no point in wanting things to be different. This is how things are, and I've got to accept that.

I've grown used to being alone. Most of the time I even manage to fool myself into thinking that I prefer things this way. At Christmas, though… I can't kid myself at Christmas. What I'd really like is a knock on the door or even just a casual wave from someone passing by on the street below. I'd draw some comfort from that.

I would.

I really hope I would, anyway.

If I'm honest with myself, though, there is only one person I want here with me on Christmas Day. I know, though, that I'm insane for even thinking about it. It's been months since Mr Wells told me that he hated the word "impossible" and it's been years since she disappeared. I've never held her, touched her or talked to her. I've never even met her.

I don't talk about her to anyone. I'm enough of a freak as it is without people thinking I'm obsessed with a ghost. I think about her all the time when I'm awake, though. When I'm asleep I dream about her. I can't help it. Even if I could, I don't think I would.

I have a photograph of her that I sneaked out of the Daily Planet's morgue. It's tucked away discreetly in my wallet, behind my video rental card. I only ever get it out in the privacy of my own apartment, so there really isn't any reason for me to carry it around with me all the time. There's no reason at all… except that I like to know it's there.

***

1986

Lois sat back on her sofa and sighed. Christmas was almost over and, as ever, it had been something of an anti-climax. Every year it was the same: so much build up, then — poof! — it was over in an instant. She'd had such high hopes for this year, too.

At least Lucy had enjoyed it, and the stockings they'd put together for one another had been kind of fun. They'd also had presents under the tree, and there hadn't been any arguments to destroy the festive mood. All in all, the day could almost be described as a success.

Nonetheless, Lois thought, she'd expected something more from her first Christmas in her own apartment. It wasn't just that it hadn't snowed this year, although that had made a difference. Rather it was as though… as though something was missing. She frowned, but she couldn't quite pinpoint what that something was. Magic, perhaps, she supposed.

Not that there had been much magic when she was growing up, but, with a child's optimism, she had always managed to find a trace of it somewhere.

Maybe, she thought, this was yet another sign that she was growing up, just like getting her own apartment. She was no longer renting a room in someone else's place; instead, she had a room to rent out of her own, a room Lucy had been quick to move in to.

"I'm getting a Coke." Lucy's voice sailed through from the kitchenette. "Do you want anything?"

"A cream soda'd be great, thanks, Luce!" Lois called back. "And bring the pop-corn. 'The Mark of Zorro' is about to start!"

"Pop-corn!" exclaimed Lucy. "How can you even think about more food after the meal we've just had!" But the clattering around that followed the comment told Lois that Lucy was getting it anyway.

"You know what I should have got you for Christmas?" Lucy said moments later, as she came it juggling two cans in one hand and cradling a large bowl against her chest with the other. "An upgrade to your cable package."

"Which I would have ended up paying for," said Lois. "Besides, I liked the books you gave me. 'Style Pointers For The Young Professional' and 'Cooking For Idiots'. Very useful, the both of them."

"Yeah, well… I can't believe we're having to watch old black- and-white movies on Christmas Day, just because you're too cheap to get HBO."

"Will you quit complaining?" asked Lois. "Besides, I thought you liked Zorro."

"Back when I was ten, yeah, I did. But that was the Disney version and I was just a kid." Lucy paused before continuing. "Why do you want to watch it, anyway? I thought you hated Zorro. You used to complain about him all the time."

Lois shook her head. "I never hated Zorro. I thought he was pretty cool, actually. I just… well… I felt sorry for Don Diego."

"Sorry for Don-! What on Earth for? You just said he was cool."

"Because he always had to hide. Because he could never be true to himself."

"But he was Zorro!"

"Exactly. He was a great man, a hero. But he was Don Diego first. And, in order to be Zorro, he had to pretend that Don Diego was something less than he really was."

"You're crazy, Lois. You know that? It's just a story. Just a bit of fun."

But to Lois it had always been more than that. She'd thought it was the saddest thing she'd ever heard of. Her childish heart had bled for Don Diego. She tried again to explain to Lucy.

"Week after week it was the same," she said. "I couldn't bear to watch. I'd lie awake at night trying to think up new ways for Don Diego to reveal himself. At least in this film I know there'll be a happy ending for Diego and Esmerelda."

Lucy snorted. "A happy ending. Right. They'll settle down and have kids."

"For some people," said Lois, "that *is* a happy ending."

"You really believe that?" asked Lucy, surprised. "Even after everything we saw when we were growing up?"

"Yes," said Lois, surprising herself as much as she did Lucy. "I think I do."

"Well, good luck to you," said Lucy. "But I think you stand as much chance of finding own personal Don Diego as you do of learning to fly! Me? I'm going to set my sights a lot lower, and I'll be the happier for it, too."

"Oh, shut up," said Lois good-naturedly as the opening credits began to roll. "Just pass that popcorn over here and watch the movie."

***

1997

I mooch around the apartment, hoping that someone will call for help so that I'll have something to do, somewhere to go. Nobody does. Apparently, all natural disasters are on hold for the holiday. The world's criminals, too, seem to be taking a rest. There is not even so much as a fender bender or a cat stuck up a tree to go out for.

I get dressed. I make a sandwich for lunch. I drink gallons of herbal tea. The walls begin to press in on me so I decide to go flying. I don't bother to change into the suit first.

I find myself wearing the suit less and less. People recognise me whether I wear it or not, so what is the point? I keep it for special occasions, like meeting world leaders or visiting local schools. I don't bother with it for everyday stuff very often any more.

Flying is probably the best thing about being me. Other people have to save up for years before they can set out to see the world, having to make do with National Geographic in the mean time. I, though, can just take off — literally — on a whim. I've been around the world more times than I can remember and every time I go I see something new..

Today I decide to fly north, up to a little place I know just south of the Arctic Circle. It's not the best time of year to visit, of course. The days are short and I know that the sun will have set already. If I'm lucky, though, I'll see the Northern Lights. Even if I'm not, there will always be the snow and the serenity that goes with it.

I have a favourite spot where glacial ice meets the sea. It is a place of savage beauty, tranquil and invigorating at the same time. I found it the Christmas before I started work at the Daily Planet and I've been coming back here on and off ever since.

The cold at this latitude is so profound that even I can feel it. It pricks my cheeks, bites at my fingers and sears the inside of my nose. The sensations remind me that I'm alive, no matter how dead I sometimes feel inside.

I sit down on the snow and wrap my arms around my knees, pulling myself into a ball. I don't think. I just allow my thoughts to float. They drift this way and that, flotsam on a sea of nothing. Time passes. I don't know how much time and I don't much care. It's not as though I have anything very important to go back to Metropolis for.

But then…

Everything changes.

***

1990

"Oh, wow, Lois!" crowed Lucy as she bumped into a wall. "This is soooo bee-yu-ti-ful!"

Lois followed her sister into the hotel room and looked around. Her eyes widened in surprise. "Wow, indeed! Who'd've guessed that our dear cousin Cyndi had this much taste! You'd never have thought it from her choice of husband."

Lucy giggled a champagne-fuelled giggle, fell down heavily across one of the beds, and gesticulated madly as she said, "Don't think it was her idea. Shyndi was gonna put us up in the Cabin Shack Motel, out along the interstate sh-sh-somewhere. Besides, Rhett isn't so bad. Mom says he's as rich as… rich as… Oh, who's that really rich guy that everyone gets compared to?"

"Croesus?"

"Nah." Lucy rolled her eyes. "Lex Luthor."

"Oh."

Lucy managed to haul herself into a sitting position. "Snagged you another piece of wedding cake, Lois." She listed dangerously off to one side as she began to rummage around inside her purse.

"What on earth for! It was disgusting!"

"Yeah, I know. Kinda like sawdust held together with honey and raisins. An' there was so much brandy in it that Frankie managed to set fire to it with his lighter."

"Now how did I miss that?" Lois asked wryly. "After he tried to pinch my tush in church, I kept my eyes on that little brat the whole time!"

Frankie was Cyndi's eleven-year-old stepbrother. In the space of one hour at the church and the three hours at the reception, Lois had spotted him hiding prayer books, spiking orange juice, looking up the flower girl's skirt, filling the saltcellars with sugar and loosening the lids on the sugar shakers. Lois had serious doubts that he'd ever reach twelve. His mom would probably kill him, assuming he didn't set fire to himself first.

"Here." Lucy pulled out a napkin-wrapped rectangle and held it out.

"You know I'm not going to eat that, don't you?" said Lois, taking it warily.

"Not supposed to eat it," Lucy said, knowingly tapping the side of her nose with her forefinger.

"Then what *am* I supposed to do with it?" asked Lois.

"It's trad-tradish-tradition. That's it. Tradition. You put it under your pillow when you go to sleep. Then you'll dream about your true love. Or the man you're going to marry. Or something. Can't remember exactly."

"Oh, rubbish!" said Lois. She moved over to the trashcan and held the cake over it.

"No!" yelled Lucy. "Don't do that! It'd be…" She couldn't work out what it would be. "C'mon, Lois. Do it for me. It'd be a bit o' fun. Just a bit o' fun."

Lois thought about it. Where, really, was the harm in it? "Maybe," she said grudgingly. She put the cake down on the dressing table.

Lucy grinned broadly and lopsidedly. "Who knows, you might dream of Claude." She leered at Lois's obvious discomfort. "I mean, isn't he your current object of lust?"

Lois turned away from Lucy, lowered her head and didn't reply.

Lucy persisted. "The most perfect blue eyes in the world, didn't you say? Bleached-blonde hair, designer stubble and a smile that makes you swoon?" (She pronounced it "shwoon".)

"Shut up, Lucy," snapped Lois, unable to stand any more. "Please… just shut up."

Her distress must have punctured Lucy's alcoholic haze because when Lucy spoke next she sounded surprisingly sober. "Lois? What's wrong? What's the matter?"

Lois turned to face Lucy. Her eyes pricked with tears she didn't want to shed, not over that good-for-nothing, two-faced, conniving little-

"Lois?" asked Lucy again, cutting through Lois's mental invective. "Tell me?"

"He left. Two weeks ago. We… You know… And then I woke up in the morning and he was gone. And so was my story. And I can't bear it! Even though he went back to Paris the next day, somehow everyone at work seems to know what happened, and I just can't bear it!"

"Oh, Lois…" Lucy pulled herself unsteadily to her feet, made her way over to her sister, and hugged her. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because… because I feel such an idiot! I'm so stupid!"

"No. No, you're not. You're clever and you're smart and you're beautiful. And if Claude couldn't see all that in you then he's the biggest idiot of all."

"You have to say that," said Lois. A grateful chuckle burst through her tears. "You're my sister."

"I know I am. Now, let's get to bed."

It was Lucy who, unnoticed by Lois, put the cake under her pillow that night. Lois knew nothing about it until she woke up the following morning. She'd dreamed again of flying… and chocolate- brown eyes.

***

1997

I spring to my feet and stare wildly around.

Everything looks the same, but it feels very different. The very air is charged with anticipation. It makes my stomach flutter and my skin tingle. Something fantastic is about to happen… is happening right now!

It's like… It's like I was in a dark room and someone has just flipped on the lights. Or, as if I was trapped in a black-and- white movie that has suddenly become Technicolor.

I wonder what is going on, but then I know with a certainly that I cannot explain.

She's here. I can feel it. It's like… like nothing I've felt before. Actually, that's not true. It feels like something familiar but long forgotten. It feels like I was full of silence, like I was empty. Now, suddenly, I feel as though I've been filled. I feel warm. Yes. Warm is a very good word for how I'm feeling right now. Her presence warms me and I don't feel lonely anymore. I feel her!

Where is she?

***

1993

The Congo seemed wonderfully exotic to Lois, and Brazzaville assaulted her senses. It was exciting and colourful. It was also poor and grimy, backward and dangerous.

Lucy had asked her, three days before Lois set of on her trip, whether she was frightened at the thought of going to Africa on her own. Lois had said she wasn't. She'd been in denial at the time. She'd also been hopelessly načve. She'd been so sure that she'd be able to cope with anything Africa could throw at her; after all, she'd ventured into Suicide Slum on her own and, if she could do that, she was certain that she could do anything.

She'd been wrong.

Chop shops and car thieves, she quickly realised, weren't international drugs- and arms-dealers. They were strictly minor-league in comparison. Still, she'd got this far and she wasn't willing to give up on what could very well be the story of a lifetime.

Somehow they — whoever they were — must have known about her itinerary almost as soon as she did. They had to have done, to be waiting ffor her in Ouesso.

Within ten minutes of checking in, three men burst into her hotel room. They brandished guns and started shooting. It was the best kind of luck that she managed to jump out of a second floor window and land unscathed on the ground beneath.

And then she began to run.

Lois had been forced to leave behind everything but the clothes she wore and a very small amount of money she'd happened to have in her pockets. Without her passport, credit cards or any other form of ID, she was a nobody. She was hundreds of miles from the capital, and the nearest US embassy was in the next country. She'd never felt so helpless, alone or scared in her life. Every movement, every crackle of a twig, woke her up in a cold sweat as she tried to sleep rough in the jungle.

Then she began to get sick, probably, she guessed, from the untreated water she was compelled to drink, but she continued to run. She ran until she could run no more.

She ended up collapsing in a small village in the middle of nowhere, and there, finally, her luck began to change.

She was taken to the local medical centre, where she was placed on crisp, clean, cotton sheets and given the freshest water she could remember ever having tasted. A gentle voice murmured reassurance in a language Lois didn't understand and its owner soothed her forehead with a damp cloth.

Then Lois slipped into unconsciousness, and she dreamed of flying.

***

1997

For a moment, I panic. How am I supposed to find her? What if I can't? How could I bear to be disappointed again?

But I'm heartened by the knowledge that she is somewhere to be found. Before, I did not even have that thought to comfort me. I will find her, I vow, even if it takes the rest of my life. I will find her, and I'll start looking right now!

I throw myself into the air. To begin with, I fly randomly, without thought. There is no logic to my search, just the need to move.

Gradually, though, I calm down a little. I realise that, if I concentrate, I can sense a direction to her presence. I'm floating somewhere high over Missouri when I force myself to stop and pay attention.

Then I begin to move again. I'm like a fish caught on a line. I'm being reeled in, back to Metropolis. I'm pulled towards the east side. I begin to recognise my own neighbourhood: the spires of St Mark's Church, Mr Murciano's shop, Clinton Street…

It *can't* be this easy, surely!

It is, though.

I hover above my building for a minute, unable to believe that she is there, waiting for me on the stoop.

I see that she is shivering so I hasten down. She's hunched in on herself to keep warm, so she doesn't see me land.

"Lois?" I breathe, still not believing my eyes. "Is it really you?"

She jumps. I've startled her. She scrambles to her feet, takes a step backwards, and stares at me.

She's thinner than I expected. There is a vertical line between her brows that gives her a serious, faintly worried look. Her cheekbones are high and stick out. I wonder when she last had a decent meal.

She stares at me. She says nothing. That, too, comes as something of a surprise. The other world's Lois Lane talked a lot. This Lois's silence unnerves me.

But then, I realise, beyond that first question, I haven't said anything either. I've been too busy staring at her, trying to come to grips with the fact that she's here. She's really here! I can't believe it. Maybe I'm hallucinating.

Hallucination or not, I tell myself, there is no reason to be rude. "Come on in," I say.

She doesn't move. Instead she asks, "Who are you?"

I frown. I can feel the skin on my forehead pull as my brows draw together. When was the last time anyone needed to ask me who I am? I might be a recluse, but, with or without my glasses, my face is still one of the most famous on the planet.

"I'm Clark Kent," I say. The unfamiliar explanation feels odd. "And you're Lois Lane," I add. "It's… it's wonderful to meet you at last."

Now I'm grinning like an idiot and she's looking even more confused and nervous than she did before. She covers up well, though. Her voice, when she finally does speak, is strong, almost strident.

"If you're Clark Kent, then I've got a message for you from a Mr Wells." The expression on her face is a peculiar one — an odd blend of distaste and concern. Having met Mr Wells myself, I understand completely. His heart may well be in the rright place but his head… That's something else.

"I know Mr Wells," I say. I hope she picks up on the resignation in my voice and draws some comfort from it. I'd hate her to think that I actually approve of the man, even if, right now, I could kiss him for leaving her on my doorstep.

"I didn't catch it all," she says, "seeing as how we were running away from some men with really big guns at the time. He said something about bad tempers and then he told me…" Her brow furrows in the most delightful way. "He said that I had to find a super man and wish him a very merry Christmas."

She doesn't appreciate it when I laugh. I think it annoys her that I can understand her gibberish.

"Well," I say, "you've found your Superman and I appreciate the thought."

Uh, oh. She doesn't like that either. I can see a storm gathering behind her eyes even before she speaks and I wonder what I've said to provoke it. "Think a lot of yourself, do you?" she asks.

Ah. I understand. She doesn't know the difference between a super man and Superman.

"No," I say hastily. "I don't think much of myself at all. It's just… I am Superman. That's what people call me. It's kind of a nickname."

She still looks sceptical, but at least she seems a little calmer.

"And now that we've cleared that up, perhaps you'd like to come inside before you catch your death."

I can see her weighing up her options: stay outside and freeze, or venture into the home of a man she doesn't know. I unlock the door while she makes her decision, then hold it open, waiting. I see the way she rubs her forearms and I hear her teeth chatter.

Why, I wonder, is she wearing summer clothes in the middle of winter?

Then I feel like smacking my forehead. She was with Mr Wells, numbskull! Just because it's winter in Metropolis, it doesn't mean it was wherever he found her. That, of course, begs another question. How much does Lois know?

Not much, I'll bet.

She doesn't seem to know where she is, or whom she has been left with. I'm guessing that Mr Wells didn't tell her why, either.

That man! Why does he have to be so mysterious all the time! I'm sure it's not necessary!

She's still standing there. I want her to come in but I don't want to pressure her, so I go in myself, leaving the door open behind me. It's up to her what she does now.

She decides to follow. I hear her push the door to and I smile.

***

1993

For two days, the only things that felt real to Lois were her dreams. She spent a lot of time flying over places she'd barely heard of and looking at things she'd never seen. There were glaciers and fjords, deserts and dunes, trees and forests, cities, towns and villages, and oceans.

She'd never realised before how beautiful the oceans were. She'd only ever thought of them as bland expanses of water, but now she found herself awed by the sight of breaching whales and soaring albatrosses. The water was fascinating in its own right, too. Sometimes it was a calm, benign blue. At others it turned a savage, angry grey as storm-force winds whipped its surface into a frenzy of foam.

Best of all, though, were the dreams she had of the auroras, startling phenomena at the edge of the world. She'd read about them and had even seen pictures, but nothing prepared her for their beauty. Great curtains of pinks, reds and greens rippled and danced across the night sky. When she had those dreams, the heat and pain of her fever would subside; the world turned cool and she was able to rest for real.

Even inside her dreams, she knew that the world beyond was dangerous and confusing, so she clung to them as long as she could. As her body began to heal, though, their hold on her began to weaken.

Then, on the third day, Lois woke up.

***

Hearing came back first. Then she gradually became aware of a slightly lumpy mattress beneath her. She was lying, half-curled, on her left side. Awake she might have been, but parts of her body were yet to be convinced of the fact. She couldn't persuade her legs to move, and her eyes stayed stubbornly shut.

A conversation was being conducted in hushed tones across her bed. She thought she recognised one of the voices, though it took her a few moments to work out where from. Fragments of memories she'd collected between the dreams came back to her: glimpses of a room masquerading as a make-shift hospital ward; daylight; darkness; injections… and the voice. Its owner had talked to her in words that Lois either hadn't understood or that she couldn't remember. The tone, though, she remembered. It had been unfailingly gentle, as had the way its owner had held her head as she drank from a proffered glass of water. "Is this the woman you're been looking for?"

Yes, Lois thought. That was definitely the voice of a nurse or doctor; she wasn't sure which. What surprised her was that she could now understand what it was saying. She hadn't been able to do that before.

"Yes. Yes, that's Miss Lane. How is she?"

The second speaker was unknown to her. Lois was sure about that; the voice was too distinctive for her to have ever forgotten it. It was precise — almost prissy — in an old-fashioned kind of way, and it was unmistakably English.

"She is doing very well, especially considering the state we found her in."

"And — if I might be so presumptuous as to ask — what was that?" Prissy *and* verbose, Lois thought distantly. Still, she'd likke to know that answer to his question, too.

"My patient — you said her name is Ms Lane?"

"Yes. Miss Lois Lane."

"Miss Lane was brought to us suffering from a high fever and severe dehydration. I diagnosed dysentery, and prescribed a course of antibiotics. We've also been doing our best to raise her fluid levels — hence the drip. She appears to be responding well to the treatment."

"Would it be possible for me to move her, do you think?"

"Away from here, do you mean?"

"Yes. I have reason to believe that her life might be in danger, and I would like to take her to a place of safety."

"You think she's in danger here? That she might *bring* danger here?" Lois could hear a definite hint of alarm creeping into the doctor's words. Having an enigmatic patient was one thing; having an enigmatic patient who might lead gun-crazed killers to the hospital's front door was something else.

"I have reason to believe she was forced to run away from an assassination attempt, which ultimately led to her being brought here. I fear that, if she stays for too long, her attackers might track her down and make another attempt upon her life."

There was a long pause while the doctor weighed up her options. Then soberly she said, "If her presence is not going to pose an immediate threat to my other patients, then my recommendation is that you leave her here. She's still very weak — too weak to travel, in my opinion. And we can treat her as well as any other hospital. Her case is serious, not complicatted."

"How long…?"

"How long until she can be moved, do you mean?"

"Yes."

"Two, maybe three days."

"Very well. In that case, I shall come back for her then."

Was he going? wondered Lois. He couldn't go before she'd had a chance to take a good look at him! He was planning her future and they hadn't even been formally introduced!

Lois made a Herculean effort to roll onto her back and open her eyes.

"Look. I think she's coming around."

"Oh! Do you think so? Oh, jolly good!"

Finally, Lois opened her eyes.

The Englishman was one of the most curious-looking people she had ever seen. His clothes — a little damp and crumpled by the humidity — were as old-fashioned as his voice, he seemed to be bouncing on his toes withh excitement, and there was an undeniable twinkle in his grey eyes.

"Hello, my dear," he said, smiling a tight, closed-lipped smile. "I'm delighted to meet you at last. My name is Wells. Herbert George Wells."

***

1997

She's standing in the centre of my apartment, taking in all its details. I wonder what she's seeing, what she makes of it. It's comfortable, certainly. And it's warm to look at. I painted it in rich earth tones when I first moved in, and I was rather pleased with the way it turned out. It's pretty tidy, too, at least for a bachelor's apartment.

It's also frightening impersonal. I have few trinkets and I have no photos on view. The only one I have of my parents is in the bedroom — all the others got lost when I was bouncing around between foster homes — and the only other photo I've ever treasured is the one in my wallet.

I'm still wondering what she makes of it all when she says, "Do you mind if I sit down?"

I make a vague gesture, which she correctly interprets as an invitation. She perches stiffly on the edge of the couch.

"What would you like to drink?" I ask. "Tea? Coffee? Juice?"

"Coffee," she mumbles. Then, as an afterthought, she adds, "Thank you."

"No problem," I say.

When I return, I see that she hasn't moved. She can't be comfortable, perched like that on the edge of the cushions, I think. I pass her a mug.

She sniffs the coffee then takes a tentative sip. Then she lowers the mug, wrapping long fingers around it, sucking its warmth through her skin. She's still cold, I realise. Cold and confused.

Finally, she says, "I guess we should talk."

She's right, of course. The trouble is, I have no idea where or how to begin to explain everything to her.

While I was waiting for the kettle to boil I ran through a million possibilities in my head. They range from "I've been looking for you for years", which makes me sound like a stalker, through to "Where have you been all my life?" and that's just cheesy. No matter how hard I try, I can't come up with anything I feel comfortable with.

In the end, though, she makes it amazingly easy. I sit down next to her and she looks sideways at me. Her lips curve into a mocking smile. "So, Superman, huh? Why'd they call you that? I mean, you look like a man to me."

"I am a man, Lois," I hasten to reassure her. "I just have some hidden… extras."

Her brows rise and I'm suddenly frightened of what she might be imagining. "Extras?" she asks.

"Yeah. Like this, for instance." I levitate a foot or so. She's so shocked, she begins to choke.

I'm beside myself with embarrassment and I gush apologies that somehow seem to make matters worse.

When she finally stops coughing, she starts laughing. "Stop!" she cries. "Stop! You don't need to keep saying it. You're sorry. I get it!"

I want to say sorry again, but I manage to stop myself just in time.

"You took me by surprise, that's all," she says.

I smile lopsidedly. "It took me by surprise, too, the first time I did it," I say wryly.

"You mean, you couldn't always fly?"

I shake my head, and that leads to a wealth of new questions. When did I learn to fly? What else can I do? Why can I fly? Where do I come from? Why did it take so long for me to become Superman?

When I tell her about Lana she gets angry. When I tell her about trying to have a secret identity she gets even angrier and starts muttering something incomprehensible about Don Diego Vega. Wasn't he Zorro, or something? I wonder what he has to do with anything but decide that is one question that can wait until another time.

Of all the issues I knew we'd have to address, the story behind my outing as Superman is perhaps the one I'd been dreading the most. I remember how I felt when I found that I had an other- worldly counterpart. I am sure that the revelation that she has one can only make her feel uncomfortable, especially when she hears that the other Lois is married to another Clark.

But, to my amazement, she seems to take everything in her stride, even the bit about Utopia and the reasons behind Mr Wells' meddling. I wonder whether this is because there is something in her make-up that inclines her to believe in the impossible, or whether it's because she has seen so much in the last few hours that she is incapable of being amazed by anything else.

Our conversation eventually leads on to Mr Wells and how he tracked her down in the Congo. She's a little hazy on the details, but I guess they don't really matter. The important thing is that he did find her and that she's here now.

After she has finished telling me her story, she thinks for a moment and frowns. Then she says something that sends shivers up my spine. "What I don't understand is how I've managed to miss so much in so little time."

Silently I reach under the coffee table and pull out a two-day old copy of The Daily Planet. "I'm sorry," I say softly. "There's no easy way for me to tell you this, but…" I point to the date.

I feel sick when I see how devastated she is on learning that she has lost four years and I wonder at Mr Wells' reasoning. Why didn't her bring her back sooner? It was in his power to do so, surely! It would have saved me years of pain if I'd met her earlier and it would have saved Lois her current anguish.

I guess Mr Wells must have had his reasons. I suppose, however, that it's too much to hope that he will ever explain them to us mere mortals.

She cries softly, wondering what has happened to her parents, her friends and her sister. How is she going to explain her absence and her miraculous resurrection to them?

I throw caution to the winds and gather her into my embrace. I feel awkward. I'm not used to touching people. Lois clings to me, her face pressed against my chest. I feel my heart pound because of her nearness and my awkwardness quickly gives way to something more protective. I stroke her hair gently. It's soft against my skin, like the finest silk.

I don't know how we're going to deal with her reappearance, but we have a couple of days to think about it. Together we will come up with something. I know we will. I try to convince her of that.

I don't know whether she believes me, but she calms down.

She calms but, miracle of miracles, she doesn't pull away. She seems to like leaning against me as much as I like having her lean. She twists into a more relaxed position, resting against my side. She fits there as though she were made to measure.

***

1993

Two days after she'd first met him, Mr Wells came back.

Lois, who was now allowed to walk around the ward and sit in a chair next to the window, couldn't help noticing that he had on the same clothes as he'd worn previously; that made her wonder about his hygiene habits. They didn't look any dirtier than before, however, so maybe he had an entire wardrobe of identical garments.

Unlike the last time she'd seen him, the twinkle in his eyes was absent. He looked worried, an impression reinforced by his next words.

"Oh, dear! My dear, we must hurry!"

"Hurry? To do what?" Lois asked.

"Why, to get out of here, of course. I'm afraid I'm guilty of a little miscalculation, so I don't have time to explain as fully as I would wish. Suffice to say, you — we — are in grave danger, even as I speak. We must hurry-"

Something in his manner, rather than his words, persuaded her to take him seriously — or more seriously than she might have been inclined to otherwise.

"The men who tried to kill me before…?"

"Yes," he said. "I'm delighted to see that you are as quick- witted as your reputation has always suggested. Now, what I propose is that we get out of here and I'll send you somewhere safe."

"Where?"

"No time for that, my dear… Now, follow me!"

For an elderly man, Wells moved pretty fast, Lois thought. Either that, or the lingering effects of her illness were slowing her down.

Together they sped out of the ward, down a short hall-way and out of the front door. Lois had suspected that the hospital was small, but, even so, seeing it like this came as something of a surprise.

They hurdled down the front steps and around a corner.

And that was when the shooting began.

Between the blazing guns and Wells' shouted words, Lois wasn't entirely sure what happened next.

Wells yelled something about sending her somewhere safe and giving a message to Clark Kent, someone Lois had never even heard of. Then, as they ducked behind some old oil drums, he started jabbering on about bad tempers. Bullets pinged as they ricocheted madly off the metal. Wells continued his raving, even as he pulled a small object, rather like a personal organiser, from his pocket and began poking at it. He shouted something about how she needed to find herself a super man to wish Merry Christmas — which, given that it was only the second week of December barely made sense — and then he yelled, "Run!"

Together they leapt out of their hiding place and-

And then she was gone, or Wells was, or something, and she came to a startled halt on someone's stoop. There was snow on the ground and a chill in the air, and she had no idea where she was or how she'd got there.

***

1997

Lois is exhausted, both mentally and physically. I can see it in the hunch of her shoulders and in the yawns she is stifling. She denies it, though. All she needs, she says, are a bath and a decent meal.

I decide to humour her, at least for the moment.

I point her in the direction on the bathroom, tell her where the towels are, and ransack my closets, looking for something of mine that she'll be able to wear until we can get her something more appropriate. The best I can come up with are sweat pants, a T- shirt, socks and a thick, woolly sweater. They'll drown her, but they'll keep her warm. I leave them in a pile outside the bathroom door while I go to work in the kitchen.

I don't need to eat, but I like to, which is just as well because it means that I actually have some food in.

By the time she reappears, I have the meal ready. Cream of mushroom soup and chunks of granary bread may not be traditional Christmas fare, but Lois doesn't look inclined to complain.

She eats quietly and slowly. The bath has magnified her exhaustion and she can barely keep her eyes open. Every lift of her spoon, every swallow, costs her in effort.

She does not protest when I say that I will clear up while she takes a nap. Nor does she protest when I help her stand and encourage her to lean on me as we go through to the bedroom. I think she's asleep before her head hits the pillow.

***

It's past midnight when Lois reappears, rubbing sleep from her eyes. She's still pale and thin, but she no longer looks as though she's going to keel over any second now.

I've been sprawling across the couch for the last two hours. To begin with, I tried watching television, but I quickly gave up. I couldn't concentrate on anything other than the woman in the next room. At some point, I, too, must have dropped off, soothed into sleep by the lullaby of her breathing. Now, though, I'm awake and I'm just as much in awe of the fact of her presence here in my apartment as I was before.

I ease myself into a sitting position and stretch some kinks out of my spine.

It has started to snow again.

Lois rushes over to the window when I tell her. She's as excited as a little child hoping for a day off school. "You're right!" she cries. "How did you know?"

Even after everything we've already shared, I'm nervous. I point vaguely towards my ear and flush with remembered hurt. "I can hear it." For only the second time in my life, I say, "I can hear the flakes falling."

"Really?" she asks, fascinated. Then she asks, "What do they sound like?"

Lois isn't Lana, and I want to hit myself for fearing that their reactions would be the same. And that's why I tell her that they sound like feathers falling, or like the blossom dropping off trees.

***

I'm not sure whether the idea is hers or mine, but we go flying.

Having flown with the other Lois, I think I know how this Lois will feel in my arms, and, in a way, I guess I do.

The two women are a similar build. Their hair smells the same. But that's where the similarities end. The other Lois felt good in my arms. This one feels great. She feels as though she belongs there. I wonder how I have managed to live for so long without knowing the feel of her. Now that I'm holding her, I never want to let go.

I take her to Paris, where dawn is breaking over the city. We marvel together at the Eiffel Tower and walk around the streets of Monmartre. Then we move on to Tokyo, where the neon lights are almost blinding. We see illuminated nativity displays incongruously set out between the high- rises of Singapore.

"Christmas decorations don't look right without snow," she says, so I fly north.

And that's how I end up back at my favourite spot.

We land, and together we stare up at the sky. I've never seen such a fantastic aurora as the one that's playing now. Lois has never seen one at all. She says something about it being even better than it was in her dreams.

"It's Christmas colours," she breathes.

I've never thought about it before, but she's right. The light weaves patterns of green and red across the sky and the stars shine like fairy lights.

I hold her. I tell her it's to keep her warm; she needs my aura to protect her. But we both hear the unspoken truth. I hold her because I want to, just as she stays because she wants to.

I've only just met this woman, and I know very little about her. But I feel as though I've known her all my life.

She opens her mouth as though she wants to say something. Then she closes it again.

"What is it?" I say, encouraging her.

She ducks her head and shakes it. "It's nothing," she mutters. "It's silly."

"Tell me." My words are not an order. Rather they are a gentle request. I want Lois to feel that she can tell me anything.

"Okay…" She takes a deep breath as if fortifying herself for what is to come. Then she looks me straight in the eye and says, "I don't know why, but I feel as though my whole life has been leading up to this moment."

Her words fill my heart so completely that I think it's going to burst out of my chest any second now. I don't know which is best — that she feels this way, or that I understand exactly how she feels.

"Lois…" I breathe. That single word contains a universe of emotion. There is reverence, affection, desire, longing, and happiness, love…

I reach out with my right hand and tentatively brush a strand of silky hair behind her ear. I look at her, wondering whether she welcomes my touch and how far she will be permit me to go.

Her eyes are warm, her lips parted. She leans into my palm as I cup her jaw.

I bow my head towards her. She stretches up to meet me, standing on tiptoes in the snow. Our lips touch. They brush gently together, a fleeting whisper of sensation before we pull apart. We look into each other's eyes as we silently question and answer each other.

We move closer again, this time with more confidence. I feel the satin of her lips. I feel her fingers kneading the muscles of my back. My hands are caressing her, pulling her closer. Her body moulds against mine.

I savour the warmth of her breath… the sweet velvet of her mouth…

I have no words.

***

The sun is rising over the Atlantic, turning the skyscrapers of Metropolis orange and red, as we return to my apartment. I set down lightly on the balcony and swing Lois onto her feet. I wrap my arm around her waist and together we watch the sun creep higher.

I describe to her the sounds of Christmas coming from the neighbouring apartments. I tell her about the children in number four; the little boy is shouting with joy because he has got the red fire engine he's always wanted. The little girl is gushing over the doll she has just unwrapped.

There is laughter coming from number six. The young woman there has just given her husband her present. She's told him that, sometime next summer, they will be parents for the first time.

An elderly couple two blocks down are crooning along to "White Christmas"; their grandchildren are pleading with them to stop.

The church bells of St Mark's begin to ring. The service is about to start. From another church, three blocks away, I can hear carols.

The air is replete with the spirit of Christmas and, for the first time since I was ten years old, I can feel it. I am a part of it. And I'm not alone.

"This," Lois sighs, leaning in closer and wrapping her hand around mine, "has to be the best Christmas ever. It's perfect."

I nod. "It's magical."

THE END