By Chris Carr <email@example.com>
Submitted: December 2005
Summary: Several years have passed since Lois vanished in the Congo… Yes, this is yet another Alt-World Christmas story.
INTRODUCTION: I took myself out to lunch one day right at the start of the build up to Christmas — on the very first day of December, as it happens. I was in a "Bah, humbug!" type of mood at the time, so I was a little distressed to find myself sitting in the middle of a café while the staff put up Christmas decorations.
The small centrepiece on my table was made of a slice of orange, a cinnamon stick and a few other bits and pieces. The aroma it gave off was almost intoxicating. I had soup, which was supposedly a straightforward blend of parsnip, leek and lemon. However, there must have been some other secret ingredient, because it, combined with the warm, spicy smells, definitely lifted my mood.
And then I found myself thinking, planning and musing and…
Well, this is the result.
Many, many thanks to Wendy for beta-reading and GEing.
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.
Clark floated high over Metropolis. Far below, the first snow of the year was already turning soft and grey. The sky, arcing above him, was a turning a bright, cold blue; only a few lingering pinks remained from what had been a truly stunning dawn. Surrounding him, the broken clouds that remained after last night's snow storm turned from a muted grey to blinding white as he watched.
It was going to be a perfect mid-winter's day. No doubt about it.
Clark supposed he should be taking the morning's patrol more seriously. First snows always brought with them more than their fair share of fender-benders and irate motorists. Such accidents were perhaps trivial in the grand scheme of things, but they blocked roads and raised tempers. If he could help ease the tensions in the city, make someone's terrible day just that little bit better, then that was what he would do.
Trivial in the grander scheme of things, yes. But certainly not trivial to the individuals such tiny incidences affected. He'd seen grown men cry over less.
But surely five or ten minutes to himself, away from the sights and sounds of impending holiday cheer, wouldn't hurt.
Five minutes… Five minutes drifting… Five minutes to cocoon himself, to protect himself, to pretend that everything was all right, even if it wasn't.
He wanted to love it. He wanted to feel the joy of it seep into his bones. He wanted to be a part of it, not apart from it.
But everything — the tinned music blaring out from every department store and supermarket, the carols drifting from choir rehearsals, the clanging handbells rung by every street-corner Santa, and even the scent of pine from the garage selling Christmas trees from its forecourt — wore him down.
Most of the time, he could fool himself into believing that he belonged in the world of humans. At Christmas, though, he felt his differences acutely.
Sure, friends — complete strangers, too, for that matter — sent him Christmas cards. Passersby greeted him warmly, extending to him best wishes for the season. But…
But at the end of the day, all those people — friends and complete strangers — went home to their families, leaving him alone at Christmas.
Sometimes he felt as though he lived on a different plane to everyone else on Earth. Sometimes his plane and the plane of the humans would touch. Mostly, though, he lived his life apart from them, like he was looking at the world through binoculars or via the television. It was as though he lived his life one step removed from everyone else.
He sighed. Turned a lazy somersault. Wrapped his arms around his torso as though he were cold.
He *was* cold. Maybe not physically, but in his heart and in his soul. The cold seeped and sapped his energy, his very will to live. In his heart and soul, he'd been cold for a very, very long time.
"Come with me," Kilmartin said. "I want to show you something."
Lois nodded, took Kilmartin's hand, and was suddenly *there*. Even after five and a half years, she found travel at the speed of thought — especially someone else's thought — disconcerting. Doubly so when, like now, she found herself standing on nothing. She had wings and she even knew how to use them, but to find oneself floating in the middle of the sky was decidedly odd.
Nice. But odd.
She looked up. Then down. Sideways. All around.
Then she blinked and said, "Wow. Good looking guy."
"You think so?" Kilmartin asked blandly.
"Oh, yeah! Perfect cheekbones. Soulful eyes. A mouth that would make any hot-blooded woman swoon. Not to mention a body—"
Kilmartin cleared his throat.
"Ah. Yes. Sorry," Lois said. "Perhaps those are not the most… appropriate… comments to make, given our employer and all."
"Perhaps not," Kilmartin said gently. "Still… Apology accepted."
He tilted his head to one side as he contemplated the floating man. Then he turned back to face his companion.
"It is quite understandable that you might feel some kind of attraction to him. Even I, who has felt nothing in the way of physical attraction for several millenia, can see that he is an extraordinarily good-looking man. And you, after all, have not been here long."
"Five and a half years," corrected Lois.
"A mere blink of an eye in the face of eternity," said Kilmartin. "My point is, even though you have been making acceptable progress, you are still adapting to your new life. You still have memories of the ways of the flesh."
Lois flinched slightly at that. Memories? Well, yeah. She supposed she had a few memories that related to attractive men, but none of them were worth mentioning. Indeed, even when she'd been human, she would rather have forgotten about about them. Her few experiments had been less than pleasurable.
Her reaction to the flying man was more likely based on the memories she had of her fantasies. As a mortal, she'd never quite managed to find out why people made such a fuss about love and sex. In her experience, both were highly over-rated.
Nonetheless, she'd always held out the hope that one day… Some day…
But a false lead in the Congo, a betrayal, and an ambush had destroyed her dreams and brought her here.
Lois shook her head ruefully. "As you so frequently tell me, I remember too much."
Kilmartin almost smiled. "And so you do, although I am aware that you do your best to compensate for that particular weakness."
Lois shrugged her thoughts aside. Time, she decided, to change the subject. "What's he doing up here, anyway?"
"Not a lot, by the looks of things. Thinking, I suppose."
"How can he be up here? He's not one of us. *He* doesn't have wings."
Kilmartin smiled. There was a tinge of sadness to it. "He's not one of them, either. He's special. Kind of an in-between, I suppose."
"In-between?" she asked.
"As you say, he's not one of us, but he's up here. How is that possible, if he's one of them? Plus, he has a reputation for doing good deeds. Lots of good deeds. Sounds to me as though he's caught between two worlds but doesn't belong to either of them."
"An in-between," Lois said softly, almost to herself. "Sounds kind of lonely."
"Yes. I imagine that it is." Kilmartin straightened his shoulders. "He bears Watching, that one. And that's why he's your first assignment."
An assignment! At last! Lois grinned, excitement bubbling up inside her. Finally she was going to get to do something with some meaning. Okay, so maybe not a lot of meaning, but *something*.
She'd spent the last five and a half years training for this moment. She'd spent hours, days and, sometimes, weeks in Kilmartin's company, learning how to Watch carefully.
She'd learned a lot from Kilmartin. She hadn't just learned about angels and the tricks of her trade. She'd also learned something akin to patience, which, as a mortal, she'd been very short of. She'd learned that, for the most part, Watching was dull work, rather like being on a never-ending stake-out.
Watching meant not speaking, touching or otherwise interacting with the mortals on the planet below. All Kilmartin ever did was make notes and report back. And all she'd ever done was watch Kilmartin Watch the mortals to whom he'd been assigned.
But… But this was a *real* mission. Her *first* real mission. The other angels — the ones who had been around longest — liked to smile reminiscently and tell the newbies that an angel never forgot his or her first. Now, as excitement coursed through her, she understood why.
What happened to the reports she filed would be up to someone else entirely. Usually, any issues arising would be dealt with deftly and promptly be someone from Operational Services. Sometimes, though, a full Council would be convened before a final decision was made.
Whatever, it would be out of her hands. Her duties were simple: Watch and report. Nothing more. Nothing less.
No matter what Kilmartin said, five plus years felt like a long time to her. She wondered if that were normal. She wasn't mortal. As an angel — albeit an angel-in-training — five and a half years should have passed in a flash.
She shook her head. Maybe this was just another echo of her Flesh days.
It was of no matter. She had work to do.
Even after more than five years, she wasn't used to the wings. The weight pulled her off-balance and made her back ache. Plus the feathers made her want to sneeze.
She was very grateful, therefore, when her assignment gave a heartfelt sigh, lazily rolled over so he was facing the ground, and then torpedoed back down to earth.
Lois followed him, landing silently and invisibly behind him in a rubbish-strewn alley, furled her wings and tucked them away.
Lois's assignment changed direction, following the panicked screams of a woman. He landed lightly on the ground in front of the screamer and said, "How can I help you, Ma'am?"
"My… my purse! He stole my purse!"
"Who did, Ma'am? What did he look like?"
"Why, a no good punk, of course! He had a baseball cap, leather jacket and sneakers and… and he went thataway!" She pointed a trembling finger along the street.
Superman lifted off the ground and hovered for a few seconds, staring down at the snow beneath him. He tilted his head, apparently reading the story of the mugging in the scuffed snow. Then he said, "Ma'am, I'll be right back."
Lois blinked and… he was gone!
Boy! He was *fast*! One moment he was there. The next he was gone. No way Lois could keep up with someone who moved that quickly.
She frowned. Could Superman moved at the speed of thought? It sure looked like it. Maybe that was another angelic trait this odd mortal shared with the heavenly host. Maybe it was another sign of his in-betweenishness.
Or maybe he was just very, very fast.
Oh, and here he was back again, holding a purse in one hand and a mugger in the other. "Is this your purse, Ma'am?" he asked the woman.
"Why, yes," she said, her voice trembling. Then, more strongly, she said, "Yes. That's mine. And is that the punk who…?"
"I believe so, ma'am."
The woman stared at the punk. The punk looked down at the ground.
"He ain't nothin' but a child!" she said shocked.
The boy glanced up at her.
Lois, standing off to one side, looked on with interest. She could see the boy's expression, an odd blend of defiance, bravado and… and guilt.
The latter wasn't something she often saw in a mugger.
"You want me to deliver him to the police?" Superman asked.
The woman and the punk locked eyes. Then she said, "No. No, I don't think I do. I have my purse back, and it bein' Christmas an' all…"
The punk's mouth opened. "You… Why…? I…"
"Jus' don' make me regret this, young man! If I read about you in the papers, I'll be mighty sorry that I let you go."
"Ma'am!" cried the punk. "I won't do nothin' like that! I only… It was… I'm sorry. Really sorry. I ain't done nothin' like this before, but I wanted…" He shook his head. "It was stupid. An' I'm sorry." He hung his head again.
The woman stared at him some more, then must have decided that she liked what she saw. "I know you are, honey. C'mon. If Mr Superman'll put you down, I'll buy you a cup of coffee. In the spirit of the season. An' you can tell ol' Beryl all about it."
"Are you sure, ma'am?" asked Superman.
Lois Watched. She saw how Superman's grip on the mugger's collar grew tighter rather than looser as the woman's words sank in.
"Sure I'm sure, Mr Superman," she said. "But thank you for everythin' you done here for me."
Superman landed and reluctantly let go of his charge.
The mugger looked bemused and relieved and… scared of the old lady who, so few minutes before, he'd obviously picked out as an easy mark. Superman, Lois noticed, was shaking his head, as if he couldn't believe what had just happened.
"Well…" Superman said reluctantly. "Good luck to you both."
"And to you. And a merry Christmas, when it comes."
"Yeah," said the punk. "What the lady said."
Superman shook his head some more and took off.
He didn't go far.
He landed on a nearby roof and narrowed his eyes as though he was focusing on something. Lois couldn't see anything particularly interesting about the brick wall he was staring at, so she levitated a little.
From a higher angle, she could see what he must be looking at: the mugger and his victim were making their way down the sidewalk to the nearest greasy spoon.
But how could he see them from where he was?
Lois glanced at Superman and hoped that she could spare the few moments it would cost her to take a closer look at the pair. She thought about where she wanted to be, and the next moment she found herself standing aside as the young man held open the café's front door for the woman. Lois listened to just enough of the mismatched couple's conversation to be sure that the spirit of the season truly had touched the hearts and souls of them both.
Lois smiled. She loved a happy ending.
Lois Watched Superman as he pulled apart two cars that had collided at a busy downtown intersection. She Watched as he foiled a bank robbery, delivered a Christmas tree to a children's orphanage and caught a puppy that had run away from its owner in Centennial Park.
She Watched as Superman waved away the thanks of all the people he helped, telling them that it was his pleasure… that they were welcome. But his answers seemed to carry a weariness about them, as though he was speaking by rote, not from the heart. Just as the people he helped also seemed to speak by rote, and not from the heart.
Lois found herself frowning. If she was reading the signs correctly, the people of Metropolis took this most amazing of men for granted, assuming that he was at their beck and call. Did they really expect him to drop everything whenever one of them needed something? Expect him to come to rescue them from any mundane inconvenience?
But… He had done nothing to discourage them, had he? He hadn't been called to help the lady with the dog. And she could only suppose that he had willingly agreed to deliver the tree to the orphanage because that had obviously been organised in advance.
In fact, the only person who had called for his help had been the victim of the morning's mugging.
Lois Watched as Superman heard a story on the radio about a fishing trawler that was in trouble two hundred miles out to sea. She Watched as he rescued it and carried it back to its home harbour.
She Watched as he spent some time helping clear up an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. She Watched as he gave a talk to a class of pre-schoolers in Philadelphia and another to a class of High School seniors in Richmond, Virginia.
Lois shook her head. Did Superman *have* a life beyond helping people? Was there more to him that that? She had seen no signs of it so far.
He was off again, so Lois followed, just as she was supposed to do.
And found answers to some of her questions.
Clark landed in an alley next to the Daily Planet building. He spun into street clothes — trousers, jacket and tie — and then made his way out onto the sidewalk.
A few people did double-takes when they saw him, twisting their heads to get a better look as he walked by. One person positively gawked. They had to be tourists. These days, only out-of-towners reacted that way.
Most people ignored him, as though he were invisible. He knew that, for the most part, they were trying to be polite. Playing it cool. Letting the celebrity have his privacy. He knew he should appreciate their efforts, but…
But… What would he give for a friendly smile? How he longed for a warm hello! For just one person to see the person he really was and not just the superhero!
He sighed, shrugged off his melancholy, and straightened his shoulders. Then he walked through the revolving door and into the Daily Planet building's foyer.
Old Al Horowitz was manning the concession stand. As usual, he called out a hearty greeting. "Hi there, Mr Kent!"
"Morning, Al! How are the family?"
"Fine. Got another grandkiddy on the way!"
"Oh, congratulations! That'll be… what… five?"
"Yep. Just what the world needs, another little Horror, eh, Mr Kent?"
Clark managed to laugh at Al's joke, even though he'd heard it a dozen times before. He waved and moved on to the elevator.
Clark pressed the button for the third floor and watched the display as it counted upwards. The doors slid open and he stepped out onto the upper level of the newsroom.
A few people waved disinterestedly at him.
"Hey, Jack," he said, snagging the attention of a sandy-haired gopher. "Is Mr Olsen free?"
"Yeah." Jack pointed over his right shoulder with his thumb. "He's expecting you." Then he headed off purposefully.
Clark suppressed another sigh. He didn't like coming here very much any more. There had been a time when he'd loved this place. But that had been back when he was just another regular guy, trying to earn a living. Back then, colleagues had been friends, and he'd been anonymous.
Now people kept their distance. He didn't know whether it was awe or awkwardness that prompted his ex-colleagues to keep him at arm's length. What he did know was that he didn't like it.
If the work James Olsen put his way hadn't been so important to him, he would have stopped visiting a long time ago.
Sometimes he wondered if any of the Daily Planet staff had realised that the mysterious and enigmatic K-C Jerome, travel correspondent *par excellence*, was the pseudonym of Metropolis's resident superhero. He would have thought that one or two of the people he'd worked with might have recognised his style. Nobody had ever hinted that they had, however, and Olsen swore that the travel editor was still convinced that Jerome lived out of the country, filing all this stories by email.
Only Olsen knew the truth, and that was why Clark dealt with him, and him alone.
How ironic that, after having had his secrets exposed by Tempus, he'd ended up creating an entire web of new ones.
Another suppressed sigh. Another straightening of his shoulders.
Then he walked over to Olsen's office and knocked on the glass panel of the door.
Clark turned the handle, poked his head in first, then followed it with the rest of his body.
"Ah! Clark! Good to see you!"
"And you, Mr Olsen."
"James," Olsen corrected him. "How many times do I have to tell you? If anyone has the right to call me James, it's you."
"Yes, Mr— James."
"That's better." Olsen flashed a grin at Clark and waved at him to sit down. "Your piece on the Welsh speakers of Patagonia was top-notch, as usual."
Clark nodded his thanks politely.
"What do you have in mind for an encore?"
"Well, I thought, since Jerome is already in that part of the world, he might take a look at Tierra del Fuego and visit the Ona and Yaghan peoples."
They talked about logistics, fees, expenses and deadlines for a while.
Finally, though, Olsen said, "So, Clark, are you doing anything nice for Christmas?" and Clark knew that Olsen was drawing the meeting to a close.
Clark shrugged non-commitally. "The usual, I suppose." He didn't bother saying what the usual was. In any case, maybe he'd go down to Tierra del Fuego and get a headstart on his next article instead of moping around his apartment on his own.
But probably not.
"Good, good," Olsen said.
"And you, sir?" asked Clark, deftly reflecting the conversation before Olsen realised that Clark actually hadn't told him anything useful and chose to probe his non-answer. "What are your plans for Christmas?"
"Dinner with the in-laws." Olsen mock-grimaced. "Of course, they're not the in-laws quite yet. Penny and I have only just got engaged, and we can't even begin to think about setting a date until she agrees to sign the prenuptial agreement. Still, what can you do?"
Clark knew Olsen didn't expect an answer.
"Make an appointment with my secretary on the way out, will you, Clark? In about a month's time all right with you?"
Clark nodded. "Fine, Mr Olsen. I'll see you then."
He noticed that this time Olsen didn't bother to tell him to call him James.
Yeah, the meeting was well and truly over.
Time to go home.
Lois wasn't sure what she'd expected of his home, but a small apartment on the not-quite fashionable east side of town certainly wasn't it.
On the other hand, the bright paint on a number of refurbished tenements and converted warehouses suggested that the gentrifiers had moved into the area since she'd lived in Metropolis. She wondered how much of the change was indirectly due to his presence. There was nothing like a famous name to inflate real- estate prices.
His apartment wasn't quite to her taste, but she liked it nonetheless. The earth tones of the painted walls warmed his living room, and the sofa had been designed for comfort rather than style. The overall impression was one of homeliness… of a sanctuary in a sometimes unforgiving city.
Lois sat down on the top of a short flight of steps that separated the front door from the apartment's sunken living area. She rested her chin in her hand.
She Watched as Clark pottered around, turning on table lamps, making tea, nipping into the bedroom only to reappear seconds later in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt.
Lois felt her eyebrows rise. The labourer look really suited him. His jeans hugged his thighs and the white tee emphasised his torso.
Uh, oh. The echoes of her mortal life were making themselves felt again.
Superman — or Clark, as she now also knew him — sat down on the comfortable sofa, picked up the television remote, then sank bank into the cushions. He put his feet up on the coffee table and switched the television set on.
He channel surfed for a while, flicking his way through news, sport and commercials, then briefly pausing and discounting a rerun of an old sitcom that Lois recognised from her Flesh days.
If television had changed since then, it hadn't been a change for the better. She was relieved when Clark flicked off the set with a sigh.
He leaned his head back against the sofa cushions and closed his eyes. He didn't move again until it was time to go to bed.
Nobody visited him. Nobody called.
Lois Watched and made notes, and wondered how someone could give so much to others and take nothing back in return.
Lois listened to Clark's slow breathing and knew that he was asleep.
Time to do some serious snooping.
She moved around the apartment, scrutinising his bookshelves. Assuming that he had actually looked at everything, Clark Kent was a very well-read guy. He had to know an amazing amount about an incredible range of things. Not to mention that there were books written in at least twenty different languages.
Bright clearly didn't begin to cover Clark "Superman" Kent.
She turned her attention to his knick-knacks. A signed football from some team he'd played for in college. A few weird-looking African carvings. A soap-stone sculpture that had a "Made in Canada" label on the bottom.
A photograph of a middle-aged couple.
His parents, maybe?
Did he *have* parents?
One that would have made her blood run cold, if she'd still had any.
The photograph was of her. She'd never seen it before, but she remembered when it had been taken: at the Kerth Awards dinner a few hours before she'd been stupid enough to follow that lead to the Congo. As far as she knew, this was the last photograph of her that had ever been taken.
She could guess where Clark would have got a copy from, too. Of course the Daily Planet would have kept copies on file.
What she didn't know… What she couldn't begin to guess at, though, was why *Clark* had a copy of the photograph. He'd never met her, and she'd never even heard of him until that morning.
She carried on her search.
She learned that Clark was very organised, almost compulsively so. He paid all his bills punctually and filed them away neatly, along with all his receipts. He recorded his appointments carefully in a diary that he kept by his telephone, neatly noting everything from Perry White's birthday, regular meetings at something called The Superman Foundation and public appearances to the days for a recycling collection.
His choice in clothes — except for his ties and the Superman suits — verged on the conservative. Clearly, Clark Kent was not a dedicated follower of fashion.
Lois found a couple of pairs of wire-framed glasses, but she couldn't begin to guess why Clark had them. She hadn't seen him wearing glasses during the day. In fact, from what she *had* seen, she was pretty certain that they were last thing he needed. He could see through walls, for heaven's sake!
She held the glasses up to her eyes and peered through the lenses.
Useless. Completely pointless.
She shrugged and put them back where she had found them.
She found his passport, noting idly that he hadn't bothered to fill in the emergency contact details. Did that mean that he was invulnerable, so that he didn't need to? Or did it mean that he had no one to call?
She hoped it wasn't the second.
Nothing, however, disturbed her as much as the memory of her photograph.
*Why* did he have it?
Finally, only one thing remained untouched.
Now… If she could just remember how these things worked…
Lois booted up Clark's machine, praying that technology hadn't changed much in the years that she had been away.
Clark's compulsive organisation extended to electronic folders and files. Lois scanned through various directories quickly: one for bills; one for work; one for correspondence.
Then she noticed an inviting icon labelled "Journal". She paused, considered, and opened it.
Inside was a single file, also called "Journal", which had been updated just that morning.
Was it what it sounded like? If so, how many answers would it hold?
She couldn't resist its lure.
She tried to open the file, only to find that it was password protected. Lois grinned to herself. She'd never been one to shirk from a challenge.
Pity he hadn't made the common mistake of leaving a list of passwords lying around.
But… Suppose he'd wanted to use something easily memorable…
She looked around the apartment, seeking inspiration.
Then she began to type.
The computer burped a "Password incorrect" message back at her.
The "Password incorrect" dialogue box appeared again. Lois chewed on her lower lip. She should have known that the password wouldn't have been that obvious.
Lois cast around again, looking for something else to try. Then, on a hunch and remembering the photograph that disturbed her so much, she tried LOISLANE.
The file opened.
She was almost surprised when there was no accompanying fanfare of trumpets.
Clark had written his first journal entry on the twenty-ninth of January, 1996, almost two years before.
Lois felt an echo of an old excitement. The thrill of the chase. The buzz of a story coming together.
She took a deep breath. And began to read.
"I've never dared to keep a journal before," Clark had written. "Although I've thought about it once or twice, fear of what might happen if another person chanced upon it has always stayed my hand.
"Now, though, Lana, my only confidante is gone, and I need to tell someone — *something*, I guess, since my computer isn't a person — how I'm feeling. A journal seems the best way to go. And, seeing as now the world knows all about me, I have nothing left to fear should anyone stumble upon it, I might as well give the journal thing a go.
"My future stretches out ahead of me, and I can't even begin to picture what it will hold. My whole life has been turned upside down, and I don't think it is entirely melodrama that makes me say that my life as I knew it is over. Done with. Ended. Finito. Destroyed.
"The whole world knows me for what I am.
"I'm an alien. A freak. I've been outed to an entire planet and… And I don't know if I feel relieved, good, proud, terrified or ashamed. I guess I feel all those things in some measure.
"Lana has left me. I can't blame her for that and, when I think about it, I rather think I forced her to leave.
"Lois Lane left me, too."
Lois's breath caught and her eyes widened.
What was he talking about?
She leaned closer to the screen and picked up her pace.
"I don't blame her. She has to go home, back to her world. Back to the place where she is happy. Back to… him. Her *fiance*. The man who, in another reality, might have been me."
Lois frowned, perplexed. What was he talking about? Before today, she hadn't even known Clark Kent, aka Superman, even existed. And she had certainly never been engaged — she hadn't even come close — so what fiance was he talking about?
Unable to resist, she read on.
"Stupid, really, to feel jealous of a man I haven't met. A man, outside of a miracle, I'll never meet. I don't *want* to meet him, either. I don't want to see how my life might have turned out if…
"The world is too full of ifs and might-have-beens.
"Lana left me and sold her story to the Metropolis Star. She didn't even have the decency to sell me out to a decent paper! Instead, she got her sordid kiss-and-tell on the front page of the second worst rag in town."
Lois snorted. Apparently somethings hadn't changed in the mortal world since she'd left it. The Metropolis Star apparently continued to live down to its reputation.
"I guess it could have been worse. She could have sold the story to the Dirt Digger. That really would have been insulting."
This time Lois's snort was almost a chuckle. She wouldn't have expected Clark Kent of having such a wry, dry sense of humour. Lois rather liked it.
"There is some truth to what she told them, of course. Enough, anyway, that I daren't sue them for libel. And the stuff she said about what went on in the bedroom… I guess I should be kind of flattered that she thinks things would have been that good — if only we'd done the things she claims we did.
"I daren't come out and tell the truth. Not now. Telling everyone that I'm the oldest virgin in town, despite our lengthy engagement, would turn me into a laughing stock. Always assuming I'm not one already. And it'd be hard to prove that we didn't do… well, you know.
"It'd turn Lana into a laughing stock, too. Although I kind of think she'd deserve it, I find that I can't do it to her. I owe her for standing by me through all the years. This is a chance to pay off some of that debt.
"Anyway… Lana is gone. I feel relieved but I also feel… bereft, I guess. She has been my anchor for more than half my life, ever since my parents died. Okay, so maybe she *was* holding me back, but at least she was holding me. She was the only one who did. She was the only constant in my otherwise turbulent life."
"You don't owe her anything." Lois hadn't meant to whisper her thoughts out loud. "And why would you think you did? She sounds like a real…"
Lois shook her head and continued reading.
"Lois is also gone.
"Although I only knew her for a few days, I find myself missing her more than I miss Lana."
The journal entry was so frustrating! Without knowing the context, Clark's words were more confusing that illuminating. They nonetheless fascinated her, drawing her further in.
"Lana is an empty space in my life. Lois is… Lois is an aching void."
Lois swallowed painfully. She could feel his anguish in Clark's words, and her heart went out to him. She felt her eyes sting and she had to blink tears away.
"I miss Lana in the same way that I'd miss a favourite tree from the park down the street. I'd miss the fact of its existence; I'd notice the gap in the landscape its felling left behind.
"Lois, though… Lois's leaving has left a void within myself. I miss her with an intensity I would have never believed possible. I miss her with my heart and soul. I felt something for her quite unlike anything I've ever experienced before. We… connected, I guess is the best word.
"Or… I should say, I felt connected to her. I don't think she felt the same way about me. She was connected to that other guy. Her *fiance*.
"However the connection worked, now that it has been broken, I feel as though it has left behind a bleeding, open wound.
"Yet… In spite of everything, I can't wish that I'd never met her. She answered so many questions I had about myself. She offered such open acceptance of what I am. She gave me enough courage to like myself. She…
"She gave me courage to be me.
"I hope I can cling on to that courage now, because it is the only thing I have left."
Frustration. Confusion. Pain. Clark's computer screen screamed them all to Lois through the medium of his words.
"Tempus made sure of that when, two days ago, he exposed my origins on prime-time television. Clark Kent ceased to be when he revealed me to be Superman. Clark Kent used to be a person. Now Clark Kent is just a name. I've lost my private life to a cartoon cut-out of a hero.
"Superman is not who I wanted to be. I wanted to be Clark Kent, with a little extra on the side. Now, though, Superman is who I have to be. All the time. All day. Every day.
"I'm scared of what I have been forced to become.
"There. I admitted it.
And suddenly Lois was scared for him too. This must be why she'd been sent here, to see how he was coping with the huge burdens that he carried.
She wanted to help him so much that her desire almost hurt her.
At least she could see a way she could be of use to him. She would Watch and report back and she would make sure he got all the help and support that he needed so badly and deserved so much.
Lois scrowled down through the document and carried on reading. After a while, she stopped reading every word he'd written. Instead she began to skim, focussing on bits and pieces at random.
"FEBRUARY 12, 1996
"Today was a good day. Really, really good. I mean, I did some things that made me feel proud of what I can do. For once, I felt as though I'd made a difference. That my being here — my being what I am — serves a purpose…"
"MARCH 18, 1996
"…I see her in my dreams. That hurts, but it comforts too. So long as I can dream of Lois, I am never truly alone. I carry a little bit of her inside of myself. In my dreams I can talk to her, touch her.
"It has been a month since she left, and I miss her more and more with each passing day…"
"MAY 13, 1996
"…I wish I could tell someone how awful it was. I could hear the little girl's heartbeat falter and her last breath catch in her throat. And then I had to tell her parents that she was gone. How could I comfort them when I wanted to weep too? I tell myself over and over that I couldn't have done things any differently, but it doesn't help…"
"MAY 14, 1996
"…I went back to the Congo today. I still can't find any leads. I guess too much time has passed. I won't give up, though. I'll keep on looking until I find out what happened to Lois Lane…"
"JUNE 9, 1996
"I feel so alone sometimes. But, no. I won't think about that. Self-pity is pointless…"
"AUGUST 10, 1996
"I realised something today. I'm no longer daunted by the kinds of jobs I do.
"When I started out, I was frightened because I doubted I could make a difference or that I could be the kind of hero Lois said I should be.
"Back at the beginning, I was pretty much scared of everything. Lois threw this huge thing at me — that I was an alien and that I was destined to be a superhero. It was crazy. I mean, me, a hero! Clark Kent, from some small town that nobody outside Kansas has ever heard of! Come to think of it, not many people inside Kansas have heard of it, either.
"Her idea was crazy, but it made some kind of crazy sense, too.
"Lois had this great plan for me. I would take on some kind of second identity. I would play the superhero in secret and carry on being Clark Kent in my everyday life. I didn't believe I could do it. Be a hero, I mean. But Lois told me that I could.
"Then she made me go out into the city, dressed in the crazy costume she made for me, and try being Superman out. And, on some level, in addition to feeling really, really weird, it felt good.
"But I still had my doubts. One night of good deeds wasn't enough to convince me that I was born to be a hero.
"Still, Lois believed in me in a way that nobody since my parents has ever done. She accepted me completely, differences and all. She gave me courage. She gave me strength. And, after she'd gone, I tried to cling on to the memories of everything she'd been to me and of everything she'd said.
"Of course, by then, the secret-identity idea had blown up in my face, and I didn't really have much choice but to continue with the hero thing. I'd lost whatever chance I'd had of ever being able to go back to being plain-old Clark Kent if Superman didn't work out.
"All I had left was the superhero that Lois had created.
"Now, though, I guess I'm beginning to see that Lois might have been right after all. I *do* have what it takes to be a hero. I realised it this morning when I went to the scene of a mud-slide in Venezuela and began to help pull people from the wreckage of their homes. I didn't think twice. I just did it. I knew what I was doing, and I knew that I was making a difference.
"I think… I think I am growing into the role I took on. It has been a while, but I think finally I am becoming the Superman that Lois thought I could be. Some days are hard, yes. But some days I believe in what I do. I can see the difference I make to the world around me. Some days I feel good about myself and my place in the world.
"I wish Lois was here so I could tell her that.
"At the risk of sounding conceited, I feel proud of myself.
"Today has been a good day."
After that, Clark's life seemed to have settled into some kind of routine. The details of his days changed, but the general picture remained the same. He saved lots of people. He helped where he could. He didn't socialise, and he confided in his journal.
His mentions of Lois became less detailed, confined to sketchy comments along the lines of "I dreamed about Lois last night."
Then, suddenly, after weeks of short entries, Angel Lois stumbled across something longer and more puzzling than ever.
"MARCH 15, 1997
"…Mr Wells told me that he needed my help. As fantastic as it seems, he took me to the other world that Lois had told me about and…
"And I saw her again. And it was every bit as wonderful and awful as I thought it would be…
"…I could feel her breath and the warmth of her skin, so close to mine. I could hear the staccato beat of her heart. And, for one glorious moment, she wanted me as much as I wanted her. For one moment, I was a hair's breadth away from touching heaven. I knew peace and fulfillment and happiness and desire and—
"Then she remembered where she was, who she was with, and why. And she pulled away from me.
"I can't fault her for that. I can't. But… I wish she hadn't remembered. I wish I'd had that moment.
"Mr Wells told me that I shouldn't give up hope of ever finding my world's Lois. He told me that he doesn't like the word impossible.
"The trouble is, after you've gone through every possibility, only the impossible remains.
"That other world's Lois and Clark are lucky to have each other. I'm glad that, in some small way, I managed to help them.
"But seeing them, seeing their life… It *hurt*. They have — *he* has — everything. He has Lois. He has his parents. And I… I can't help thinking how unfair life is…"
Lois closed down the file and sighed. If she felt this weighed down by what she had read, how must Clark feel? He had to carry the burdens of his life every day.
Clark's journal had told Lois a great deal about how Clark felt about his life, but it had provided her with very little detail about what his day-to-day routine actually involved. How typical was the day she'd Watched? She didn't know and his journal hadn't helped her find out.
She'd caught the feel of his life, she'd read his thoughts, but she still lacked the context — the background — that would make it real to her. She needed to find out more if she were to understand his pride, his loneliness and his obsession.
Yes. Obsession. He was obsessed with her, or at least with some twisted version of her. She'd learned that much, at least.
Should she be disturbed by that?
Because she wasn't, and she didn't understand why.
Her heart went out to the gentle, lonely soul, who lay sleeping in the room next door.
The more answers she found, the more questions she had and the more investigating she needed to do.
So Lois logged onto the internet and pointed the browser towards The Daily Planet Online.
Dawn was creeping into the apartment when Lois finally switched off the computer. She would have sworn that her eyes were killing her were it not for two things. One, she was already dead, and, two, surely eyestrain belonged the the world she'd left behind, the world of the Flesh.
Then again, her wings hurt and gave her allergies, so perhaps anything was possible.
She moved over to the sofa and sat down, curling her feet up underneath her. She had a lot to think about.
She'd put "Clark Kent" into Google and immediately had been rewarded by several hundred links. Before January 1996, they'd mostly linked to articles he'd written for The Daily Planet, where he'd worked as an investigative reporter.
And he'd replaced her.
To begin with, she'd had a hard time imagining that, on all sorts of counts.
Nobody should have been able to replace her. She'd been the best in the business. The youngest Kerth award winner ever. Plus, what with the flying and the rescues and the other things she'd witnessed yesterday, Clark could hardly be described as inconspicuous, so how had he coped with going undercover or on stakeouts? How could he ever have blended into the background?
But then she'd read the articles from January 1996. From 22 January, 1996, to be precise.
Seven days before he'd started his journal.
One day after he'd been 'outed' to the world as an alien.
Two days after he'd made his debut as a superhero, dressed in his flashy blue, red and yellow costume, apparently aided and abetted by a woman called Lois Lane, a woman who looked like her (except for the shorter hair), shared a name with her, but who most certainly was not her.
After discovery had come dissection at the hands of the media.
Reporters must have doorstepped everyone Clark had ever worked with, been friends with, or gone to school with. They'd tracked down his neighbours, foster parents and social workers. Someone had even photographed the graves of his parents.
Everyone who had talked had said exactly the same things. "He was kind and polite. Quiet. Shy. Like to keep himself to himself. I still can't believe he's an alien. But then, I guess it's like they always say with serial killers: it's always the ones you least expect."
Everyone had said the same, that was, except for Lana Lang.
Lana had told the Metropolis Star everything she knew about Clark and more. If the speculation in the gossip columns had been right, she'd sold him out for a six-figure sum. Then she'd gone on the chat show circuit and sold the film rights to her story. Apparently she now had a house in Aspen, and an apartment in New York, complete with toy boy.
Lois didn't think she liked Lana very much.
She wondered how Clark felt about the people who'd passed comment on him.
He hadn't said much in his journal but Lois guessed that he must have been hurt. Once he'd had friends. Now he seldom saw anyone privately. Either his friends had abandoned him or he had abandoned them. She didn't know which it was. She supposed it didn't matter one way or the other. The end result was surely the same.
In a world of billions of people, he was alone.
After a few weeks of his 'outing', the media had turned its spotlight elsewhere. Superman continued to appear in the papers, but usually he was part of a bigger story rather than being the story himself. As the novelty of his abilities began to wane, Superman appeared less often on the front pages. Increasingly, he was relegated to pages two or three.
And by April 1996, Clark Kent's byline had disappeared altogether.
The rustling of cotton sheets, a noisy yawn, and then the padding of feet towards the bathroom told Lois that Clark's day was about to begin.
A couple of minutes later, he appeared through the arch between the fridge and the kitchen, dressed once again in jeans and tee- shirt, and set about making himself a breakfast of cereal and tea.
He switched on the radio, which was tuned to an innocuous easy- listening station.
Lois rested her head against the back of the sofa and closed her eyes. She could feel a smile curling one side of her lips as she recalled her Flesh days. She'd once been a regular listener to this show, too. The disc jockey, Ralph Kinsey, specialised in a soothing blend of middle-of-the-road music, news and chit-chat. She'd always thought his show the perfect way to ease herself into the day, an opinion that had been shared by critics and half a million other New Troy residents alike.
Kilmartin was right. She did remember too much.
Clark spent the day as he spent too many others. He told himself that he was patrolling the skies over Metropolis and that was a useful activity in and of itself. The truth, though, was that he was filling time, waiting for someone to call him.
Waiting for someone to need him.
Waiting for someone to want him.
On a whim, he flew to Europe, landing and spinning into street clothes just as dusk was falling in Munich. In the half-light and so far from home, he was able to wander the streets unnoticed.
He ended up in the Marienplatz, in the centre of the city. The square was full of little stalls selling Christmas sweets and decorations. The air was heavy with the smells of baking, of bratwursts and gluhwein. For once, Clark found himself at peace with himself and with the world.
From Germany, he flew east, over Poland, Russia and into Asia. Then he flew south to Australia, where he marvelled at the incongruity of Christmas decorations in the middle of summer.
Then he headed west to Argentina and Chile. He flew north along the west coast of South America, crossing over Costa Rica and the Caribbean to bring him back along the east coast of the United States, en route to Metropolis.
Metropolis, where he spent a few more hours on patrol. Wanting to be wanted. Wanting to be needed.
Lois wasn't sure what she made of Clark's day. On the one hand, she'd found it exhilarating. It had been hard work keeping up with him, but how wonderful it had been to catch glimpses of places she'd never had the chance to visit when she was alive!
On the other, following Clark as he meandered his solitary way around the world only served to reinforce her impression of his isolation. In turn, that depressed her.
How could such a wonderful man have ended up so alone?
He'd gone to bed early. Lois suspected that had had more to do with being bored than with being tired.
Now Lois was alone in his living room again, wondering what to do with her night and wishing that sleep was something that angels did, too.
An idea struck her.
Clark often dreamed of Lois. He'd said as much in his journal. So it couldn't hurt for Lois to visit him in his sleep, could it? Not when he would see some version of her anyway?
Kilmartin wouldn't approve.
What harm could it possibly do?
Lois wandered into Clark's bedroom and looked down at him. He was lying on his back, sprawling across the full width of the double bed. Awake, his eyes were often clouded by a wary sadness. Sleep robbed them of their shadows and smoothed the creases out of his forehead. He looked younger and more peaceful this way, more the way a young man should look.
Lois stepped into his mind and looked around.
She knew where his dream had taken her, not only because she'd visited the Daily Planet with him yesterday, but also because for years it had been as much her home as her apartment had been. In fact, now she thought about it, of the two, she missed the newsroom of The Daily Planet the most.
Then she looked down at herself. His mind had dressed her in a pastel trouser suit. She'd never owned such a thing but, assuming this dream was based upon a memory, presumably her counterpart had.
A short, bowler-hatted man was standing next to her. He looked out of place in clothing that looked as though it belonged in an old black-and-white film. She wondered what he was doing here.
Then again, this was a dream. There was no telling how surreal Clark's imagination would turn out to be.
Lois mentally shook her head. All she could do was wait and see where the dream would take her. She would let Clark take the lead.
Clark was dreaming. He knew he was. He only ever saw her in his dreams.
That didn't make her any less real. For as long as he remained asleep, she was as real to him as she could possibly be.
Odd, though. This dream wasn't playing out as it usually did.
Lois had not come rushing over to him as soon as he'd stepped out of the elevator. She hadn't flung herself in her arms. She hadn't kissed him, which was a pity, because he rather liked that part of the dream.
In real life, Clark remembered, Lana had caught him with an armful of Lois and had set about interrogating him, demanding to know who Lois was, in that uniquely strident way she had.
Funny how his subconscious always edited Lana out of the dream.
Instead, tonight Lois had turned away from her companions — a short, bowler-hatted man, Mr Olsen and Perry White, with whom she had been talking, looked straight at him, taken one step in his direction… and then stopped. She looked as though she were waiting for something, though he didn't know what.
Still, this was a dream. His dream. So he would be quite within his rights to take the initiative.
He walked over to her and stopped three feet short of her position. He ignored her companions completely and said, "Hello, Lois."
"Hello… Clark." She smiled shyly.
He blinked. He looked at her and realised that her unusual shyness and her behaviour weren't the only things that were different about her in this dream.
"I like your hair," he said. That was no lie. He'd never seeen her with long hair before, but he thought it suited her. She'd raked it loosely back from her face, tucked the sides behind her ears, and let the remainder hang down her back.
Clark wished he could reach out and run a strand through his fingers. Would it feel as soft and silky as it looked?
She ducked her head at the compliment and said, "Thank you."
Clark glanced at the bowler-hatted man. He knew that he was H G Wells, but the dream usually played his memories of the introductions and shocking revelations that had, in real life, followed on from his initial meeting with the inter-dimensional travellers.
But, as he'd already noticed, tonight's dream wasn't working out as it should.
"Would you… Do you want to talk to me? I could take you into the conference room, if you'd like," he said.
Lois nodded. "Thank you."
She didn't wait for him to show her where to go. Instead, she turned on her heel and led the way.
The dream jumped. One moment, Lois had been sitting in The Daily Planet's conference room, listening to Wells rabbiting on about another reality, another Lois and another Clark.
The next, she was sitting on the sofa in the living area of Clark's apartment.
At least, she now knew where her mysterious counterpart had come from. Of course, that assumed that the dream's facts of the other Lois's appearance were based on real events and weren't part of a strange sleep-induced fantasy.
Lois looked across at Dream-Clark.
He was looking down at something, so she followed the direction of his gaze with her own. He was holding a wallet that looked rather like one she had once owned herself. She didn't recognise as hers the wallet-sized pictures he was flicking through, though.
The first one was a picture of Clark, or perhaps of his counterpart. Photo-Clark was dressed in his suit of primary colours, standing with his arms folded across his chest and looking every bit the invincible superhero.
Lois risked a look at Clark's face. Right now, sitting next to her, he was looking as far from invincible as was possible. Rather, he looked overwhelmed and a little bewildered.
The next photograph he looked at made him swallow. It showed what had to be the other Lois and Clark standing next to each other, smiling genuinely into the camera lens. They looked… happy.
"Is that… us?"
"Well, it's me and him." The words that came out of Lois's mouth must have been planted there by the dream. They were not hers.
Lois lifted her left hand and saw a ring there. Ah, yes, her counterpart had been engaged. She remembered that from reading Clark's journal.
Lois showed the ring to Clark.
"This is just too weird," he said.
Lois had to agree.
Clark flipped to another photograph. "Oh, my God," he murmured. He sounded beyond shocked. He sounded… awed, lost, sad, amazed…
Lois peered over to see what had affected him so much. He was staring at a picture of an older couple. She recognised them from the photograph she'd seen the night before.
"They're alive?" Lois could hear naked grief in the question. "Does he… spend much time with them?"
"Yes." The dream was speaking for her again. It was also giving her new knowledge. The couple were, as she'd guessed, his parents. And they were dead.
"That's good. That's…" He sounded wistful and envious in equal measure.
"They're very proud of him." Then Lois added some words of her own. "I bet your parents were proud of you, too." She reached out and wrapped her both hands around one of his, a gesture of sympathy and support.
Clark swallowed and wrenched his eyes away from the photograph. He looked at their intertwined hands then slowly raised his gaze along her arm, up her shoulder and to her face. Fleetingly, Lois wondered how a mere glance could feel so intimate.
His lips parted fractionally and there was a longing in his eyes that twisted her stomach in the most pleasurable way imaginable. He leaned towards her, his lips parted just a fraction.
And then they were staring at each other, trapped in the moment.
Clark wanted to kiss her. He'd wanted that for so long. Her lips were mere inches away from his own, and her eyes were staring into his looking… surprised, but also inviting.
He waited, expecting her to pull away any moment now. She'd never let him kiss her before, always remembering at the last moment that he was not her Clark Kent, that she belonged with another.
But she didn't pull away. Instead, she continued to stare at him.
She'd never held his hand before, either.
And it *was* his dream.
He inched forward, leaning in closer, closer, closer…
He could smell the scent of her. Hear her breathing, rapid and shallow. The staccato beat of her heart.
His lips brushed hers.
And she didn't pull away.
His lips were a featherlight touch against hers, a whisper of sensation that sent an exquisite tingle to her brain and down to her toes.
She felt him shift against her, felt his free arm snake around the back of her neck, pulling her closer. She pulled one of her hands free and lifted it towards his face.
She brushed his cheek with her fingertips, letting the beginnings of a five o'clock shadow graze their sensitive skin, then she cradled the back of his head in her palm.
His mouth was warm against hers and so tender. His tongue brushed a wordless enquiry against her lips, and she found herself opening them to let him in. He explored her, then he opened up to her, inviting her to do the same.
She felt worshipped and loved. She felt capable of worshipping and loving. And somehow their arms were now wrapped tightly around each other, holding one another so close that their bodies might as well have been one. She was aflame with desire, all her nerve endings craving his attention.
Never in all her Flesh days had she felt something as perfect as this.
Reality came crashing around her. She staggered as she came to herself, thrown out of the dream by the memory that she was not Flesh. She stumbled as she tried to regain her footing, surprised to realise that she had been standing next to his bed all the time that she had been in his dream.
Lois touched her lips with her fingertips, shocked to the core at what she had just allowed to happen. She could feel the echo of his mouth on hers, feel her racing heartbeat, and the weakness in her knees.
This time when her stomach twisted, it was with guilt and nausea, not pleasure.
Yet how could she regret something so perfect, something she had wanted to find her whole Flesh life, but which had remained forever out of reach? Now, finally, she understood why the poets of the ages had spent so much time writing about love.
She felt a sob catch in her throat.
Now she understood why those same poets spent so much time dwelling on love's tragedies.
What had she done?
Nothing she should have, she was sure.
Something she would remember and treasure for eternity.
A single tear trickled down her cheek as she looked down at the man on the bed. He stirred, murmured her name, and rolled over onto his side. He drew his legs up towards his body and wrapped his arms around his chest. His face was no longer peaceful and somehow she knew that, in his dream, he felt her loss acutely.
Unable to stop herself, she reached out and brushed a curl from his forehead. He sighed at her touch and the frown that had been marring his forehead smoothed out again.
Lois straightened and looked down at him for long minutes. Then she moved over to the window seat and sat down.
Her eyes never wavered from Clark as the moon rose and fell, as the city slept then stirred, grouchy and cantankerous, in the early hours.
She kept her eyes on him as the grey light of predawn crept through the blinds and as Clark woke up and leapt out of bed.
Clark dashed through into the living room.
Lois followed him as, still in his sleep shorts, he sat down in front of the computer. He switched it on and waited impatiently for the opening screen to appear. Then, faster than Lois's eyes could follow, he entered the commands necessary to access his journal.
He scrolled to the bottom of the document, and began to type, his fingers flying over the keys faster than Lois could follow.
"22 DECEMBER 1998
"I dreamed about her again last night. It was the most exquisite torture. She let me kiss her. She has never let me do that before, but this time she did. More than that, she kissed me back.
"It was everything I'd ever thought it would be and infinitely more. Her hair was the softest satin beneath my fingers, her skin perfect, warm and smooth to the touch. Her mouth was the most welcoming haven of warmth and velvet.
"I close my eyes and I can still feel her body moulding itself against mine. We fit together perfectly, just as I always knew we would…"
Lois wanted to howl. "Exquisite torture" he had written, and that just about described how she felt, too. Kissing Clark had been exquisite. The torture lay in knowing it could never happen again.
She was an angel. He was mortal.
There could never be anything between them.
What had she done?
Nothing she should have, she was sure.
Clark was still smiling as he switched off the computer and headed to the bathroom. He knew that last night had only been a dream, but what a dream! He could still feel her on his body. Maybe Lois was just a fantasy, but that fantasy was better than his daylight reality.
It was far more enjoyable to think of the night before than the day ahead.
A quick shower, shave and flight later, Clark landed in front of an imposing sky-scraper that was situated on the fringes of Metropolis's business district, two blocks back from Centennial Park.
He wasn't smiling now.
He stared up at the building and supressed a shudder. While he accepted the need for the organisation itself, he hated having to deal with the suits of the Superman Foundation. The accountants and business managers were bad enough. The public relations and marketing staff were infinitely worse.
Clark felt as though he had nothing in common with any of them. He was, by nature, a quiet, self-effacing man. Only an accident of fate had led him to dress up in red, yellow and blue, and had made his the most famous face on Earth.
He hated the fame, but the Foundation's PR people loved it, and they stoked the celebrity machine enthusiastically.
But, as much as Clark resented the Foundation's activities, he accepted at least some of them as necessary evils. The Foundation was charged with protecting his image and worked tirelessly to prevent opportunists from exploiting his likeness and the famous S-symbol.
Lawyers and sales people worked hard to generate income. Business managers and accountants redistributed the funds to good causes across the Earth.
And once a month, Clark, along with representatives from all of the Foundation's departments, was expected to attend a board meeting. Together they would coordinate his public appearances for the weeks ahead and he would be briefed on where funds were being directed.
Ironically, Clark was the only person on the board who didn't get any remuneration from the Foundation. He had so far managed to avoid having to take any money for his Superman activities, although for a while it had been difficult.
Clark had had to access his savings after he'd lost his byline at The Daily Planet. He'd been teetering on the edge of an overdraft and eviction before desperation had led him to create his alter ego, K-C Jerome. If Clark had had to eat to survive, his financial situation would have been a whole lot worse.
Clark doubted that anyone but the most churlish would fault him for accepting funds from the Foundation. Indeed, its lawyers and accountants took pains to point out that they drew salaries from the Foundation, and Clark, as its raison d'etre, was an employee just as surely as they were.
But Clark resisted the temptation. He couldn't help fearing that accepting money for what he did would sully Superman's image. He did what he did because he could, not because he wanted the fame or glory that came with it.
Also, so long as he refused payment, he could delude himself that he was in control of his destiny. No contracts. No financial ties. No obligations. No responsibility towards the suits he hated so much. He could walk away from being Superman and from the Foundation at any time.
He wouldn't walk, though. Deep down he knew that he'd passed the point of no return a long time ago.
Clark Kent was imprisoned by Superman and it was a life sentence.
And he never felt the weight of that sentence more strongly than when he was at the Foundation.
Lois Watched as Clark straightened his shoulders, took a fortifying breath and strode past the doorman who was standing at the downtown sky-scraper's entrance.
She couldn't help but notice that Clark barely acknowledged the doorman's obsequious "Good morning, Mr Kent. The board is expecting you." Clark's curt manner was at odds with the impression she had previously garnered from him of unfailing courtesy.
Clark glanced at the stairs then decided to take the elevator. Lois wondered if he was deliberately taking his time to get to wherever it was he was going.
As they waited for the car to descend, Lois looked around. Like its exterior, the sky-scraper's foyer was a riot of classic art deco. She vaguely remembered once hearing that several high- rises in this part of downtown were considered to be amongst the country's finest examples of thirties design. She idly wondered which internationally famous architect had been responsible for this particular one. Then she ran her eyes down the business directory that had been fastened to the wall.
That must be it. The Superman Foundation. And, wow! Whatever it did, it sure did a lot of it because the Foundation took up fully half of the building's office space.
A ding alerted her to the elevator car's arrival. She dodged through the doors after Clark, just before they closed and Watched as he pressed the button for the penthouse level.
Why, she suddenly wondered, hadn't he simply flown up there? Why bother with the front door when a window would have done as well?
But she got her answer as soon as she entered the board room. All of the windows were sealed and whatever air circulated this high up was recycled through a noisy air-conditioning system. Obviously, the original architects hadn't designed the building with the convenience of visiting superheros in mind. Most likely, they'd been remembering the nineteen twenties and the need to keep executives securely inside.
"Ah, Mr Kent." The man at the head of the board table rose and extended his hand towards Clark.
"Mr Brown," said Clark, as he shook the proffered hand. He glanced around room. "Gentlemen. Ladies."
A few people nodded in return. Most didn't bother.
Clark sat to the immediate right of the chairman in the place that had obviously been saved for him. Lois made a mental note of the unspoken power-play and rolled her eyes.
There was no warm welcome for Clark. There were no pleasantries. Nothing to suggest that this was anything more than a chore for any of the participants. And the rapid-fire round of self- introduction were solely for the benefit of a new board member. Nobody seemed to think Clark deserving of a similar degree of consideration.
Then again, maybe he already knew these people of old.
Lois soon bored of the meeting. Surely the Foundation could have simply emailed its quarterly accounts to Clark and saved everyone a lot of time and effort. Then again, she thought, as she glanced over at Clark, maybe this was the only way to get him to pay any attention to them. He didn't look particularly interested. That was quite some doodle he was executing in the margins of his set of board papers!
The agenda crawled on through legal actions completed and pending and a schedule future public appearances before moving on to funding applications. By the time they got there, Lois was losing the will to live — or would have been, had she not already been dead.
Clark, however, was perking up a little. Clearly, this was where his interest in the Foundation lay. Apparently, even though he didn't seem to have much interest in its other activities, he cared a great deal about the good the Foundation could do for others.
Somehow she wasn't surprised.
"… and then we have an application from an orphanage in Kenya. The amount they are looking for is unrealistically small. The business plan lacks sufficient detail. I'm minded to suggest refusal on the grounds that—"
Clark glanced up from the papers in front of him and interrupted. "I know about this one. In fact, I suggested they got in touch with you."
Several people groaned, and Lois was sure she heard someone mutter, "Not again! He's got to stop doing this!"
If she had heard the comment, Lois was certain Clark must have done, too. For all the reaction he gave, however, he might have been deaf.
Clark continued. "The orphanage was forced to find new premises in a hurry. The only building available that was large enough to house all the children doesn't have adequate water and sanitation. The money they're asking for is for a one-off capital project. I hardly think a detailed business proposal is required here."
"Of course it is. How are they going to schedule payments to their labourers? How—"
"The labour is going to be done by volunteers. And I said I'd help, too. They won't need any heavy machinery or extra manpower. All they need is the money to pay for pipes, basins, baths and toilets. Oh, and they need to connect everything to the sewerage system. That's it."
One of the men — a lawyer, Lois remembered, from the earlier round of introductions — scowled and said, "Mr Kent, that is not it. As I have told you countless times in the past, we use contracts and contractors for a reason. Someone has to be liable if something goes wrong, and we do not want it to be us!"
"Not everyone can afford lawyers!" Clark pointed out.
"They could if they submitted a more realistic business plan in the first place!"
Lois had a feeling that Clark was only keeping himself from punching a hole in the table-top by sheer willpower alone. "Are you telling me," he asked, "that, if the orphanage had put in a bid for a larger sum of money, you'd have been more likely to recommend approval?"
"Of course," several people chorused.
"Do you have any idea how ludicrous that sounds?" Clark asked.
"Only to the naïve or idealistic mind, Mr Kent," said the lawyer. "To the rest of us, it is merely common sense."
"And the orphanage? Will you give them the money?"
Chairman Brown looked at Clark with disfavour. "We're going to have to, since you more or less promised them that we would. Which I'm sure you know. If you weren't… who you are… I'd assume you were deliberately manipulating the system to get what you want. But you'd never stoop to such… underhand… tactics, would you, *Superman*?"
Clark didn't answer, but Lois, along with everyone else around the table, knew what his answer would have been. Of course Clark had manipulated the system, just as he had done countless times in the past and as, no doubt, he would do countless times in the future.
No matter how the seating arrangement worked, Clark was the real power in the room.
And the rest of the board didn't like it. Not one jot.
Brown moved down the agenda. "Right. Any other business, anyone? No? Great." He sighed with something akin to relief. "That's it until next month, then," he said. "Thank you, everyone."
There was a collective scraping of chairs and a mass stampede in the direction of the exit.
Clark also rose to leave, but as he headed towards the door, one of the PR people snagged hold of his forearm and said, "Mr Kent… If I might have a quiet word, please?"
Clark's lips thinned, but his voice was polite when he answered. "Of course, Miss… Simmons, isn't it?"
She nodded. "You remembered."
"Well?" he asked. "What can I do for you?"
"I heard," she said, "about your appearance at that orphanage the other day."
"The Coates' Orphanage, yes. I delivered their tree. Its director said the kids were thrilled."
"I daresay they were. However, the fact remains that the appearance was not agreed through the Foundation. How are we supposed to manage your schedule if you go off and do things on your own?"
Clark's eyebrows rose. "It was just a tree," he said.
"Just a tree this week. Last week it was a beach clean-up in Maine. The week before that… You can't go around doing random good deeds like this! These are golden photo opportunities and we miss them because you don't go through the proper channels!"
Clark stiffened. "I don't do them because they are photo opportunities. I do them because I feel like it."
Miss Simmons crossed her arms and tapped her foot. She looked like an irritated schoolmarm intent on chastising a small child.
"Look," said Clark with a sigh. "For the most part, I do the things you ask me to do. I give speeches at universities and to the UN. I help negotiate peace treaties. I even attended the premiere of that biopic of my life in Los Angeles — which, incidentally, was excruciating to sit through. So what if I want to do a few things on top of that? If it gives me and other people pleasure, then what's the harm?"
"The harm is that you prevent me from doing my job, which is to make sure that you project the best image possible at all times."
Clark frowned. "And how is delivering a Christmas tree to an orphanage harming my image?"
Good question, thought Lois as she looked around the boardroom. How could a room so full of the trappings of Christmas — the tree in one corner and the garlands that spanned the ceiling — be so lacking in its spirit?
Only Clark seemed to understand the joy of giving. Only Clark didn't see good deeds as profit and loss accounts. Only in Clark did the Christmas spirit shine through, which was ironic because she knew that he hadn't bothered to put up any decorations at home.
The door to the board room was flung open from the other side, and a young woman — possibly a secretary — burst in.
"I'm sorry, Mr Kent," she said breathlessly, "but there's been an earthquake in Afghanistan, and the government is asking for help. And there is a plane full of people being held hostage in Namibwe. The terrorists want you as negotiator. I—"
"Excuse me," Clark said to Miss Simmons, and Lois caught sight of the almost comical look of relief on his face as he turned away, thankful for the interruption.
"Don't think this is over, Mr Kent," Miss Simmons snarled at his back.
Namibwe. Now, where had Lois heard of Namibwe before? Oh, yes…
Namibwe was one of the newer southern African republics. Free elections in the 1980s had brought more than a century of colonialism to an end. A left of centre government, led by a charismatic leader, had brought new hope to the country's poor majority.
Early hope had given way, first, to scepticism and, later, to despair. Rigged elections had returned President Rwinde time after time, and Rwinde's regime became synonymous with nepotism, corruption and human rights abuses. Namibwe's economy fell into ruin.
If terrorists had hijacked a plane in Namibwe, Lois could only imagine things hadn't changed for the better in the time she'd been away. If they even were terrorists. Hadn't someone once said that one man's terrorist was another's freedom fighter?
Lois Watched carefully as Clark weighed his options. She didn't envy him his task one little bit. Should he deal with the immediate aftermath of the earthquake in Afghanistan, or go to talk to the terrorists?
Clark didn't take long to reach a decision, which he hurriedly explained to the secretary. The disaster had already happened in Afghanistan and people there needed his help now. Other than taking a plane-load of people hostage, the terrorists hadn't done anything. Hopefully they would wait for him to get to them. There was no reason to suppose they wouldn't, especially since they'd asked for his help.
Miss Simmons, who had been hovering in the background, listening in to his conversation, didn't agree with his priorities. She argued loudly that the news crews would already be staking out the airport. There would be good coverage of his presence there, and who had even heard of any of the villages worst affected by the quake, anyway?
Clark didn't take the time to tell her that was hardly the point. Instead, he fled from the room. Lois followed hot on his heels.
She couldn't resist the temptation to cuff Miss Simmons on the back of her head on the way out.
This time they took the stairs.
Lois had never been to Afghanistan before. Nor had she ever witnessed first hand the aftermath of an earthquake. She hoped she would never do either again.
There was dust and rubble and screaming people everywhere. There were men screaming for their wives, women screaming for their husbands and children, and children sobbing for their parents and grandparents.
There were people, blinded by tears, digging with their bare hands. There were bodies and casualties, covered in blood, placed next to each other on every patch of clear ground. Buildings creaked and groaned and threatened to collapse on the people working beneath them.
And through it all, Clark worked tirelessly, using his powers to find survivors and sift through rubble to rescue people.
"What are you doing here, Lois?" a voice said from behind her left shoulder.
Lois turned, and recognised a friend of Kilmartin's. "Hi, Patrick," she said. "I'm Watching him." She pointed at Clark. "And you?"
Patrick shrugged. "The usual," he said. "Helping out. Telling people where to go."
Lois nodded. Patrick worked for Operational Services. "Let me know if there is anything I can do."
"Nah. You're all right, love. You stick with him. But thanks for offering."
Patrick ambled off, leaving Lois to her Watching.
She wished she could do something to help.
She wanted to cry.
Night had fallen before Clark managed to tear himself away from the disaster area. Only when the first of the international relief workers arrived did he feel that he could leave with a clear conscience. Even then, had it not been for the hostage situation awaiting him in Africa, he would have stayed.
Clark didn't bother going home to change. He knew his suit was filthy and rank, but a quick swim in the Indian Ocean would take care of that. He'd been delayed long enough.
But when Clark circled Namibwe City's airport, all he could see was darkness. All he could hear was silence. All he could smell was…
Traces of gunpowder.
And burnt paint.
Oh, dear God…
He couldn't be too late. He couldn't bear it if…
But he was.
The twisted wreckage of the Boeing 747 was still warm to the touch.
Clark went home. He didn't know what else to do. He turned on the television almost before he'd touched down in his living room. He flicked through the channels, his stomach knotting.
The theme tune to an aged sitcom.
A quiz show.
"… stormed the Boeing 747 on the orders of President Rwinde. There were no survivors. More on the hour."
Clark staggered backwards and collapsed onto his sofa.
He pointed the remote control at the television and resumed searching, pausing when he reached LNN. This time he caught an entire report, complete with footage of the massacre.
His heart bled as he watched. And the phone began to ring.
Did Miss Simmons have any idea how much damage a single phone call could do?
Lois looked at the shards of black plastic that once been a handset. How Clark had managed to be polite in the face of so much provocation, Lois had no idea. She would not have been.
He'd kept his temper under wraps until Miss Simmons had hung up at her end. Then he'd pulled the phone cable, along with its socket, out of the wall, crushed the handset between his palms. He sank back onto the sofa, curled in on himself and hung his head.
Lois looked down at him and felt on his behalf all the anger he apparently would not allow himself to feel.
So what if Clark's going to Afghanistan had meant that he wasn't around to prevent the massacre in Namibwe? That didn't give that… woman… the right to rant about how she had to clear up after him! So what if the Superman Foundation found itself having to field awkward questions? So what if Miss Simmons had to do the kind of work she was being paid the big money to do?
Miss Simmons was a complete cow!
Lois wanted to rush over to the Foundation and give Miss Simmons a piece of her mind.
But she couldn't. She wasn't allowed. Plus, for all the satisfaction that such an act might give Lois, what good would it actually do? There was no reasoning with some people, and Lois was pretty certain that the sour-faced Miss Simmons would be one of those.
Besides, Clark needed her.
Lois lifted her hand, then stilled, her arm half-raised. She so desperately wanted to touch him, to take away just a fraction of the pain he was feeling. But… should she?
She let her hand fall back down by her side.
The rules said she mustn't talk to him.
Something told her that, once upon a time, she hadn't been very good at obeying rules.
She took a step closer. Another.
She wanted to tell him that he was not to blame for those deaths today. He could not have known that a mad despot would order his army to kill four hundred innocents just to get at three hijackers. Nobody else had guessed that Rwinde had been that far down the path to megalomania and madness, so why should Clark have been expected to know?
She sat down beside him, the inches between them a chasm that she desperately wanted to cross. She wanted to wipe away his tears. She wanted to wrap him in her arms. She wanted to rock him gently, as though she would a child.
It would be the easiest thing in the world to reach out to him because how could she *not* talk to him, when he sat like that, bowed down with misery and a guilt that was not his to bear. He needed someone so desperately. He needed a confidante. He needed comfort.
He needed her. There was nobody else.
Lois gave into temptation and threw caution to the winds.
Something touched his cheek, a whisper of sensation that brought his nerve endings alive. He'd never felt anything like it outside of his dreams.
Outside of one dream in particular.
Clark gasped as he sat upright and looked around.
The room was empty.
But… there it was again. An invisible touch so gentle and so intimate that it grazed his soul.
He reached out blindly and found himself touching something solid. He explored with his fingertips, then felt himself being gathered into a hug.
He hadn't been hugged like that since… He couldn't remember when. Perhaps he hadn't been hugged like that, held to a warm and comforting busom, since he was ten years old and his parents had died.
Should he be frightened? There was nobody there. He was being embraced by air.
It felt so good.
He gave into temptation, and he began to sob.
Lois held him and rocked him and crooned softly in his ear. His sobs, the way his body shuddered as he finally released some of his burden, twisted her gut. His sorrow was noisy. Hers was silent, but tears ran down her cheeks nonetheless.
Gradually, though, his shudders lessened and he quietened, stilling in her embrace.
"Oh, Clark…" she murmured.
She shifted slightly, getting more comfortable, and pulling him along with her back against the cushions. Somehow, the movement subtly changed the tenor of their embrace. One moment she was in control, cast in the role of comforter. The next, they were more evenly balanced. Equals.
His head rested against her shoulder. If she leaned down, she realised, she'd be able to kiss his hair.
His arm snaked over her stomach, around her waist.
Her hand rested upon his upper arm. If she moved it, she'd be able to feel the strength of his biceps, the contours of his skin.
His breath brushed her chest.
If she closed her eyes, she'd be able to pretend that he was kissing her.
This was too much. Too intimate. Too much like something she'd always craved but that, in her Flesh days, had always eluded her.
It felt like…
It couldn't be…
She'd only just met him, and he couldn't really be said to have met her at all. Yet she'd witnessed his triumphs, his failures, his generosity and his pain. She understood him better than she'd understood anyone in her life, except perhaps for her sister.
But love was out of the question. There was no way they could be together. They were from two different worlds, worlds that brushed against each other from time to time, but which were never meant to meet.
He was alive. She was dead.
She was an angel. He was Flesh.
She kissed the top of his head, stroked his arm and closed her eyes.
Clark shifted against her, pulling himself along her body. His breath caressed her neck, her cheek, her mouth. His lips…
Lois didn't care what it was. All she cared about was that it felt wonderful.
If he closed his eyes, he could delude himself that someone was with him.
She felt warm enough, solid enough and real enough to him. He'd heard her words of comfort, her gentle breathing and the rustle of her clothing. Now, he could smell her, a light, fresh scent, with a hint of fruit.
And when he kissed her… How sweet she tasted!
It was only sight that told him that she wasn't there.
If he closed his eyes…
Was it unreasonable to stretch his fantasy so that he gave the woman he was with a name? Was it wrong to pretend that he was with Lois?
Clark felt so good in her arms. She didn't know why. They'd stopped kissing ages ago, so it couldn't be because of anything as straightforward as sensual pleasure. And, although she'd talked to him, she doubted that he had taken in much beyond the fact that she was there for him. She'd couldn't remember what she'd said, so it wasn't that they'd established any kind of rapport, either.
If it wasn't because of anything they had done or achieved together, then it had to be because of something more fundamental. Something beyond rational thought. Something… instinctive.
Sitting there, her limbs entwined with Clark's, she felt a sense of rightness, of belonging.
How could something so impossible be anything other than wrong? The more she tried to understand what she was feeling, the more wrong she knew it to be, but the more right it felt.
She didn't understand.
"You *are* real, aren't you?" Clark suddenly asked. "Your heart does this weird thing every now and then where it skips a beat. I think, if you were just a dream of mine, it wouldn't do that."
"It skips?" she said before she could stop herself. "That can't be good, can it?"
Lois could feel his answering chuckle as well as hear it.
"Oh, I don't think it's anything to worry about. I've heard plenty of heartbeats in my time, and yours sounds as healthy as any. It's just… cute, I guess. You're not in any danger of having a heart attack, if that's what you're worried about."
The irony of his remark hit her. She *had* been worried. Another echo of her Flesh days, she supposed.
For the first time, she wondered why angels had heartbeats and, if they needed them, could they have heart attacks? What would happen to an angel who went into cardiac arrest?
"Hey. You still there?" Clark asked. Lois wondered if he was teasing her. Probably he was, because as surely as she could feel his body against hers, he must be able to feel hers.
"Yeah," she said.
"It's just… You're awfully quiet."
"Sorry. I was thinking. And, in answer to your question, yes, I'm real. I'm just… I'm a different kind of real to what you're used to, I guess. I'm not sure I can explain it."
"Try me," Clark said. "If anyone understands different, it's me."
"I guess so," Lois whispered thoughtfully.
"Go on, then. What kind of different are you?" Yes. He was definitely teasing, but gently so.
"I'm… You won't believe me if I tell you."
Clark snorted derisively. "Oh, come on! I'm an alien! What could possibly be more unbelievable than that?"
Lois tried to match his lightness of tone. "Being an angel, perhaps?"
This time the silence was his.
After a few seconds, Lois asked tentatively, "Clark?"
"Yeah. I was just thinking. You're *really* an angel?"
Another long pause. Then: "Okay. You win."
"You win. You out-differented me. I'm just an alien. I didn't even know angels existed. Now, on the other hand, if you'd said you were a ghost… That would have been pretty mundane."
"Mundane? You mean you actually believe in ghosts?"
"Well, sure. Doesn't everyone?"
"No," said Lois. "I don't. I mean, I didn't, even before I found out what the afterlife is like. Now that I'm dead, I *know* they don't exist."
"So what else do you believe in?" Lois asked.
"Why do you want to know? So you can put me right on those things as well?"
"Maybe," she said with a smile.
Clark gave her question more careful thought than she thought it deserved, especially since she'd been aiming for light-hearted banter.
Then he said seriously, "I believe in what I do. I believe in the essential goodness of people, even if some of them forget to show it half the time. And I believe in love at first sight." He chuckled softly, so maybe the light-hearted bit of the conversation hadn't been entirely lost on him, after all. "Oh, and angels, of course. Now that I've met you, I have to believe in angels. That enough for you at the moment?"
"Not quite," said Lois. "What about God?"
"I don't believe the universe happened by accident, if that's what you mean."
It wasn't quite the answer Lois had hoped for, but it would do for now.
"So… Love at first sight, huh?" Lois asked.
"Yeah," Clark said. "It only takes an instant to fall in love. If you find the right person, that is."
She didn't follow up on his comment. Was that because she didn't need to ask him who he had fallen in love with to know the answer? Or was it because she was frightened of hearing him confirm that he had been in love with her? Or the other her. Or the idea of her. Or… something.
They sat together in silence for a while. Lois used the time to calm her unsettled emotions.
"I wish I could see you," he said eventually.
Lois didn't want him to see her, not properly. It was bad enough that she had started talking to him, but if he found out who she had been…
She didn't want to deny him anything, either.
But maybe there was a way to give them both what they wanted.
"I don't think you'll be able to," she said. "Not clearly."
Leastways, he wouldn't, not if she did this properly.
She pulled carefully out of Clark's embrace and stepped into the centre of the living room. Then she let her soul shine and she Revealed herself to him.
This wasn't how she looked to other angels. Nor was it how the angels from Operational Services looked when they walked among mortals.
This was the stuff of legends, of great works of art and fantasy.
She unfurled her wings and stood before him, swathed in folds of the purest light.
Clark sat up straight and stared at her. Then he rose to his feet.
He lifted his right arm and reached out.
She stood frozen as he slowly walked towards her.
His hand cupped the side of her face.
And he stared some more.
She saw tears collecting in his eyes, ready to spill down his cheeks, and she realised she'd made a terrible, shattering mistake.
She'd forgotten that he could see through walls.
"Lois?" Clark whispered. "Is that… is that you?"
She should have guessed that he'd also be able to see through blinding light.
Lois couldn't help herself.
She mewled in the back of her throat, tore herself away from his touch, and fled.
"Kilmartin! *Kilmartin!*" Lois yelled as she ran through the Enclave.
The elderly angel appeared next to her. He didn't look too happy at the ruckus she was making, but Lois didn't care.
She threw herself at Kilmartin and wrapped her arms around him. "You've got to help me!" she cried. She could feel hysteria clawing up her throat. She swallowed, desperate to tamp it down. "I've made such a mess of the assignment," she cried. "It's a disaster!"
Kilmartin patted her awkwardly on her back. "What's happened?" he asked. "Things can't be that bad, surely. And even if they are, nothing is ever so bad that it can't be fixed."
She tightened her grip him, pressing her head into his chest. Oh, how she hoped that what he said was true!
Kilmartin said nothing for a minute. He just held her, soothing her with his stillness and patience.
Finally, he softly asked, "Better?"
Lois let go of him and took a step backwards, out of his embrace. She nodded shakily. She wasn't sure that she was completely better, but she was calmer, at least. That had to count for something.?
"Ready to tell me what's wrong?"
No, thought Lois, but she forced her mouth to say, "Yes."
Kilmartin grasped her elbow gently and steered her to a nearby bench. Through a haze of tears, Lois could see that he was looking at her with an almost fatherly concern. "Here. Dry your eyes," he said, and he offered her a cotton handkerchief.
The material was soft and crumpled and felt warm, as though it had been in Kilmartin's pocket for a long time.
After a minute of two, when she was sure that she could speak without her voice trembling or cracking, she said thickly, "Thank you."
She tried to give the handkerchief back to its owner, but Kilmartin waved it away with a smile and said, "Keep it."
"Thank you," she said again. Then: "I made a real mess of things down there."
"I gathered as much," said Kilmartin. "Or, at least, I gathered that you believe you have done so."
Lois sniffed. "I have. I mean, I messed up, big time. I… I think I've been falling in love with him. I didn't mean to. It just happened. But…" She shook her head and screwed her eyes closed, forcing back the next wave of tears. "I should have never let things go so far. And then… I… I let him see me. And he recognised me. I… I couldn't have made a worse mess of things if I'd tried!"
Kilmartin held his hand up, interrupting her flow of words with his gesture.
"Please, Lois. One thing at a time."
She looked at him and waited.
"You think you're in love with him?" he asked.
She nodded. "Yes. Or well on the way to it, anyway."
"Don't you think that's rather sudden? You've only been Watching him for three days!"
"It only takes an instant to fall in love," Lois said wistfully.
"What was that?"
She shook her head. "Nothing important. Just something Clark said to me."
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she knew they'd been a mistake.
Kilmartin's eyes narrowed as he turned the full force of his gaze on her. For a serene old angel, he could do a remarkably good impression of looking very, very angry. "Something Clark said… to *you*."
Lois swallowed her automatic "Uh, oh" and resisted the urge to take a shrink away from him.
"What," Kilmartin ground out, "was Clark Kent doing saying *anything* to you? You know the rules!"
"The rules… don't seem to apply with Clark Kent."
"You mean you flouted them!"
"No! Yes. No, not exactly! Okay, so maybe I did. But I didn't set out to. Circumstances just seemed to demand it."
Kilmartin took a deep breath and when he spoke again his words were flat with a false calm. "You talked to him."
"And he saw you."
"And he recognised you."
Kilmartin frowned, then asked. "How?"
"How did he recognise you? Did you know him when you were Flesh?"
"No! Of course not!"
Kilmartin frowned, puzzled. "But how could he have recognised you, if you hadn't known each other before?"
"Because…" And Lois found herself explaining everything she knew about another world's Lois Lane and of Clark Kent's obsession. She told Kilmartin about Clark's journal and his dreams, and how she'd been drawn to comfort him when he seemed beyond comfort.
And then, reluctantly, she confessed to the kisses they'd shared, the conversation that had followed, and the Revelation that had gone so spectacularly wrong.
At the end of her story, Kilmartin sighed heavily. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back, then he said, "Well, Lois, you got one thing right. You *have* made a mess of your assignment."
Lois ducked her head and screwed up her lips in shame. "I don't need you to tell me that," she said. "I know what I've done. And I'm sorry. About everything. I didn't mean to make you angry. And—"
"And you need me to fix things."
"Yes. No. Well, not exactly." She looked at him, her eyes wide and imploring. "It's not like I expect you to clear up after me. I know I need to take responsibility for what I've done. But I need some advice on *how* to fix things, and I hoped you could give me that, at least."
Kilmartin nodded and sighed. "I can try to advise you, but I make no promises. And, Lois…"
"You're right, I am angry. But that's my problem, not yours. I have no reason to be angry; you're young and inexperienced. Of course you will make mistakes. And for as long as you are my student, you are my responsibility. Until you finish your training — probably in about four hundred years time — your messes are my messes, too. It's my responsibility to help you."
"That doesn't make me feel any better. In fact, I feel a whole lot worse, knowing that I've dragged you into this."
"Lois, listen to me. I forgive you for, as you put it, dragging me into this situation of yours. But what's done is done. Don't waste your energy on feeling bad for me because there are far more important things you could be using it on. And I will try not to waste my energy on being angry with you."
Lois inclined her head, accepting Kilmartin's words, even if she couldn't find it in herself to wholeheartedly believe in his forgiveness. Still, he had a point: they did have more important things to think about.
"So what do I do?" Lois asked.
Kilmartin stood up. "Come along," he said. "Let's go and see this Clark of yours."
Lois jumped to her feet as much out of astonishment as out of a need to keep up with him. "Why? What do you need to see him for?"
Kilmartin lifted his left eyebrow, apparently surprised she needed to ask. "Because," he said, as though he suspected her of being wilfully dim-witted, "you ran out on him just as he'd discovered something very significant about you. Don't you think we should check up on him? Find out how he took the Revelation that not only are you an angel, but that you are dead?"
Lois frowned slightly. That seemed a rather backward way of looking at things. Surely being dead came first. Being chosen to become an angel was something that had happened later.
She said as much to Kilmartin, but he shook his head.
"Clark wasn't fazed at the idea that you were an angel. Indeed, from what you said, he took that particular piece of news very well. However, at that point in time, he didn't know that you were Lois Lane, source of his strength and his only real source of hope. Knowing that you are dead and that there *is* no hope of getting you back…"
"But it's not like he had any realistic hope of ever finding me, anyway," Lois said.
"No realistic hope, perhaps. But he still had an unrealistic hope. And, in its way, unrealistic hope is just as powerful as hope grounded in genuine expectations. Now he has nothing. From what you said before, he was already in a fragile frame of mind. Therefore, we need to check up on him."
Lois blanched at Kilmartin's words, but she did not question him again. She could see clearly the need to visit Clark. But… Kilmartin had shown her yet another area of damage her actions had caused.
Even if she had tried, she couldn't possibly have made a bigger mess of things than this!
"Take me to him," he commanded her.
She nodded reluctantly, took his right hand in her left, and Thought.
The lights were low when Lois and Kilmartin materialised in Clark's apartment. A distant clock tower was chiming a quarter past the hour. Lois wondered which hour. All she knew was that, judging by the impenetrable darkness outside and the absence of traffic noises, it must be somewhere in the very early hours of the morning. Past midnight. And before four thirty a.m., when the city began to come alive again with delivery lorries trundling through the otherwise empty streets.
Clark sat in front of his computer, its screen casting an eerie glow across his face and hands. His skin appeared to be an unhealthy contrast of pale grey and black shadow. His eyes were hooded and bleak. His mouth was set in a thin line.
Lois looked across at Kilmartin and opened her mouth to speak. However, he stopped her by raising his hand and giving a small shake of his head. Then he held a finger to his lips and gestured her to follow.
Although they were shrouded in invisibility and Clark should not have been able to hear or see them, Kilmartin and Lois tiptoed across the room. They came to a pause immediately behind him and peered over his shoulders at the document he was working on.
Lois wasn't surprised to see that it was his journal. Her stomach felt leaden with dread as she began to read.
"23 DECEMBER, 1998
"… Be careful what you wish for. That's what people say, isn't it? Because it might come true?
"What I've been wishing for over the last two years has come true with a vengeance.
"Every time I saw the first star of the evening I'd make a wish. And on my birthday. And for every shooting star I saw. And everytime I pulled a chicken's wishbone. Heck, I'd wish just for the sake of wishing. For something to do.
"Always the same wish.
"I'd close my eyes and I'd form the words in big, bold letters on the backs of my eyelids.
"I WISH I COULD FIND MY LOIS LANE.
"Yes, I wished I'd find my Lois, but now I really, really wish I hadn't.
"Maybe I should have worded it more carefully. Maybe I should have said, I wish I could find my Lois, *safe and whole and well*. Obviously, simply wanting to find her wasn't good enough.
"My Lois is dead. I know that now, beyond any shadow of a doubt. I should have just accepted it years ago and tried to move on with my life. But I couldn't let the idea of her go.
"Mr Wells didn't exactly help matters, either. I should never have been taken in by his twinkling eyes and quaint mannerisms. I mean, honestly! Who taps the side of his or her nose in an I- know-something-you-don't kind of way? And all that rubbish he spouted about not liking the word impossible!
"I shouldn't blame him. Not really. It was my own stupidity that led me to hang on to hope when logically there was no hope left. I should have known better.
"Plus, in a way, he was right. I did find my Lois Lane. Just not the way I wanted to.
"I should have cut my losses years ago.
"But… Without her… Without the thought of her…
"What am I going to—"
Clark's hands stilled. His back straightened.
He cocked his head, like a bird on the alert. Frozen. Concentrating.
"Lois?" he whispered. "You came back?"
Lois's jaw dropped. "How…?" she whispered before she could stop herself.
She turned to Kilmartin and mouthed, "How does he know I'm here?"
Kilmartin exaggerated a shrug and shook his head.
"Lois?" Clark twisted around, uncannily looking at the space she was invisibly filling. "You brought someone with you?"
Lois's jaw sagged open. She saw Kilmartin's do the same.
"I know you're here, Lois. I can… feel you. In my mind. It's like…" He reached out a questing hand and frowned when Lois deftly dodged it, leaving him to touch only air. "Lois? Please say something!"
Question after question cascaded through her head. What did he mean, he could feel her? How did he know Lois hadn't come back alone? Could he feel Kilmartin's presence too? How—
"It's like I said, I can feel you in my mind. When you left earlier, you left a… I guess the closest analogy I can come up with is a hole. I felt cold and empty after you'd gone. But, as soon as you came back, I could feel you. And I was warm again."
*You can hear me?* Lois asked in her mind.
"Yes, of course I can hear you. Why shouldn't I be able to? I could, when you were here before."
Lois glanced across at Kilmartin. He stared back at her, a frown carving deep lines between his brows. More for his sake than for Clark's, she answered Clark's question aloud.
"You shouldn't have been able to hear me just now because I didn't say anything."
"But I heard you!"
"I don't know how, but you read my thoughts."
Kilmartin turned his gaze on Clark and asked, "Can you hear me?" Then, seeing that Clark gave no sign of having done so, he said, "Apparently not."
The old angel's frown deepened.
"Who else is here besides us, Lois?" Clark asked. "I know there's someone else. Just now you asked them how I knew you were here."
Kilmartin glanced and Lois and nodded at her, giving her permission to tell Clark.
"Another angel," said Lois. "His name's Kilmartin. He's my mentor."
"You can't hear him?" Lois asked.
"No," said Clark. "Should I be able to?"
"No," Lois answered. "It's not normal for mortals to hear angels. Not unless we allow you to."
"That's why I can hear you? Because you allowed it?"
"No. At least, not any more. To begin with, I had to make it possible for you to hear me. Now, though, you hear even my thoughts, and I certainly didn't give permission for you to do that!"
Lois looked at Kilmartin, who shrugged again. "We don't know, and that's what we want to figure out."
Clark tilted his head, then asked, "Out of interest, how long were you around before you started talking to me, anyway?"
"Just a few days."
"So it took me a while to be able to sense you?"
"Then maybe I'll be able to sense your mentor in a day or so, too."
"Maybe," agreed Lois doubtfully. "I don't know."
"The point is that he shouldn't be able to sense either of us," Kilmartin said. "No mortal has ever been able to do so before. It's… unprecedented."
Kilmartin sighed and Lois was surprised to see so many different emotions skitter across his face: confusion… worry… discomfort… She'd never seen him look so uncomfortable before and that bothered her beyond words. Where was the usually unemotional, dependable angel she'd learned to rely upon? She could really have used him now.
"We'd better get going," Kilmartin said. "I'm going to have to talk to some of the others about this. No doubt they're going to want to talk to you, too."
Kilmartin sounded about as unenthusiastic about the idea as she felt. Bad enough that Kilmartin had to know the gory details of her poor judgment, but did everyone else have to know to? Apparently they did.
"We're going?" she asked.
"Yes," said Kilmartin. He held out his hand and waited in vain for her to take it.
"Lois? You're leaving me again? Already?" Clark asked suddenly, sounding alarmed. "You'll be back, though. Won't you?"
Yes, she wanted to say, but she didn't dare to in front of Kilmartin. Besides, she didn't know whether she would be allowed. So, instead, she more honestly said, "I don't know."
"Oh," said Clark. It was a tiny sound. A single syllable. More of a quiet moan of worry than a real word.
Lois couldn't bear to leave things like that, so she said, "Whatever happens, I'm sure everything will work out for the best." She hoped that was the truth and not just empty words. She prayed she didn't sound as doubtful as she felt.
Kilmartin grabbed her hand and then they were gone.
Lois tried not to resent Kilmartin dragging her away from Clark before she was ready to leave, but she couldn't help it. Knowing that she might never have been ready didn't help. Nor did knowing that Kilmartin was doing his job the only way he knew how.
Neither spoke for long seconds after they reappeared in the Enclave. Lois followed after Kilmartin as he headed through the cloisters and along a maze of corridors, heading for what, for want of a better word, passed as his office.
Once there, he gestured for Lois to sit down. She'd visited Kilmartin's room countless times before, but she suddenly felt as she had the first time she'd been brought here. She glanced around at the shelves crammed with ancient leather-bound books. Through the window set high in the wall opposite the door, she could make out the top branches of a tree, its boughs covered in the fresh green foliage of a temperate spring. Behind them, the sky was a perfect pastel blue, dotted lightly with tiny candy- floss clouds. In all the time she'd lived in the Enclave, she'd never known the season or the weather to change.
She'd been scared that first day, she remembered. She'd been confused and hadn't had even the remotest idea of what to expect of her new life. Kilmartin had put her at her ease, doing his best to reassure his newest pupil.
That had been then. This was now. And, somehow, she didn't think Kilmartin was going to ply her with tea and comfort this time.
In fact, from the looks of things, he was in need of comfort and reassurance himself.
Kilmartin sat down and sighed. Then he rubbed his face with his palms. And sighed again. Finally he said, "I've never seen anything like that before."
Lois waited, not knowing what she was supposed to say. Maybe she wasn't supposed to say anything.
"I don't think I've ever even heard of anything like it. Even where Watchers have got involved with their assignments—"
He took in Lois's gasp of astonishment and said, "Oh, yes. It's happened before. It's rare, of course, but it does happen. You aren't the first and, I daresay, you won't be the last to get emotionally entangled with an assignment. However, I've never heard of a mortal gaining access to an angel's thoughts. In fact, I've never even heard of a mortal hearing a Watcher who doesn't want to be heard, even when they have built up some kind of relationship."
"What does that all mean?" Lois asked. "For the assignment, I mean."
"I'm not sure. One thing is certain, though. You can't go back. You won't be able to even get near him without him knowing that you're there. The question is, will anyone else? And what should we do about what he knows of you and us? We could blank his memory, but…"
Lois felt as though someone had sucked her insides out then put them back upside down. Nothing felt right. Everything felt unsettled and twisted.
She'd failed her first assignment. The one that every angel remembered and waxed nostalgic about. She should care desperately about that, but it paled into insignificance when she realised that Kilmartin was saying that she could never see Clark again.
That maybe no angel would ever be able to get near Clark lest he noticed them, too.
That nobody from the Enclave would ever be able to give Clark the help and comfort that he so obviously needed.
That Clark was perhaps beyond all angelic help because he was different to other mortals.
The implications of what Kilmartin had said chased each other around her head. She felt sick.
No! It wasn't fair! She would not allow it!
She was on her feet and Kilmartin was staring up at her. "What do you mean, *you* won't allow it?" he asked. "It's not in your power to prevent it." Only then did she realise that she had voiced her protests allowed.
"I…" She held out her hands in a helpless gesture. "We can't abandon him! I won't let it happen! I'll…" She had no idea what she'd do. No idea what she — anyone — could do. She slumped down on the seat and looked at Kilmartin. "He needs someone so badly. We can't just leave him alone."
"We may not have any choice," said Kilmartin gently. "Now, you wait here while I go and talk to my line manager."
Kilmartin was gone for a long time. Or maybe it just seemed that way to Lois. She never *had* been able to adjust to the way time moved in eternity.
He looked sombre when he returned and, when he spoke, his voice was weary. "The Council wants to see us."
"The *Council*?" squeaked Lois. "The *full* Council?"
"What, *now*?" Some small corner of her mind noted absently that her words were coming out an octave higher than usual. The rest of her mind resorted to panic.
She must have really stuffed up if she was going to have to appear in front of one of the most powerful assemblies in Heaven. "They're *that* mad at me? They're putting me on *trial*?"
"It's not a trial," said Kilmartin. For someone who seemed to want to reassure her, he wasn't very good at it. He didn't sound as if he believed a word he was saying. "Archangel Marcus says it'll just be an informal inquiry at this stage."
"Archangel…" Lois's eyes grew round. If someone as prominent as Archangel Marcus was involved, this was serious. Had to be. This wasn't, whatever Kilmartin had been told and was trying to tell her, an informal enquiry.
No wonder Kilmartin didn't sound confident.
Rumour had it that Marcus had been a crusader in his youth. Lois didn't know whether that was true, but from what she'd heard about him, she thought it more than likely. According to gossip, Marcus lacked the quiet humility of some of his fellow councillors. He radiated power, confidence and leadership.
Whatever mercy he had in him was tempered with justice. By angelic standards, he was harsh, almost ruthless, in his judgments.
"Come along, Lois," Kilmartin said. "We'd better not keep them waiting. And bring your notes with you."
Lois took a deep breath, stood, and followed her mentor.
The Chamber must have been designed to intimidate. Enormous and ornate, it was round in shape, with a high, domed ceiling. Every tiny noise bounced around so that, when someone sneezed, Lois couldn't begin to work out where the sound had come from. She felt terribly small and insignificant, and she felt very afraid.
Next to her, Kilmartin whispered, "Don't worry, Lois. You'll be all right." But his words were empty of anything other than compassion. Neither could quite bring themselves to believe that they were true.
They took their places in the centre of the chamber, facing the dais upon which the Council would sit.
Neither spoke. Neither could think of anything else to say. The seconds crawled by. The gallery seats filled. Lois wondered how come she'd never before noticed that angels were not immune to the lure of spectacle.
Then, finally, the Council filed in.
The Council was made up of the great and the good — which, given that they were all angels, meant the greatest and the best that history had to offer. Lois was sure she recognised several saints.
Lois had never been one to feel awed by power, authority or celebrity.
She was awed now.
A reverential hush fell when Archangel Marcus took his place in the throne-like chair and opened the proceedings.
Lois tried to swallow, but her mouth was dry and her throat wouldn't work. Her palms were damp; she tried to dry them surreptitiously on her robes.
Marcus didn't need to call for everyone's attention. He already had it by the mere fact of his presence, so he began to talk without preamble. "This extraordinary meeting of the Council of Angels has been called to consider the activities of the alien mortal known as Clark Kent Superman.
"The Council has been concerned about the actions of this alien for a while now. For most of his life, he behaved like other mortals. He kept his differences hidden and used his unusual powers sparingly. However, two years ago, the alien began to operate more boldly."
Lois scowled and muttered under her breath, "His *name* is Clark. Not alien or mortal. Or even alien mortal. His name is *Clark*!"
Kilmartin softly shushed her.
"For this reason," Archangel Marcus continued, heedless of Lois and Kilmartin's exchange, "we recently asked that he be Watched. His presence upon Earth was an accident, and we wanted to know what impact his activities might be having upon on the Grand Design.
"At this early stage, *all* we wanted was for someone to Watch him. There should have been no contact of any sort at all, and the Council is concerned that Angel Lois overstepped her bounds."
A frisson of fear ran up Lois's spin and chilled her. Her scalp crawled. Here it came. The chastisement. The inevitable judgment. Lois had done wrong, and now she was going to be made to pay.
"While some sort of disciplinary procedure is undoubtedly warranted for her breaches of etiquette, that is not the purpose of this current inquiry. What we need to decide is how to put right the damage that has been done if, indeed, damage has been done."
What? She *wasn't* going to be punished? At least, not here and now? Lois turned, open-mouthed, towards her mentor.
Kilmartin got slowly to his feet. He looked every bit as perplexed by this unexpected turn of events as she was.
Archangel Marcus looked at him and said, "The Leader recognises Angel Kilmartin. You may speak."
"Thank you, Leader." Kilmartin sketched a little bow. "I seem to have been under a few misapprehensions, both about the assignment I gave to my trainee and to the purposes of this gathering. I wonder, then, if you might clarify a few matters for me.
"I will try," said Marcus.
"Thank you," said Kilmartin. "First, am I to understand that the Council was *not* at any time concerned for Clark Kent personally? That your only interest in him stemmed from your wider concerns with the Grand Design?"
"That is correct, yes."
"And the purpose of this current meeting is likewise primarily concerned with Clark Kent's possible impact on the workings of the Grand Design?"
"And nobody saw fit to mention this before? For example, when the assignment was originally posted?"
"Of course not. Why should we have done? The use to which material gathered by Watchers is put should not affect the collecting of that information. Watchers are detached and impartial."
"I quite agreed that they should be," agreed Kilmartin. "However, without information to the contrary, Angel Lois's assumption that she was to focus on Clark Kent and not on how his activities were impacting upon the world more widely was perfectly natural. That is, after all, the purpose of most assignments. And, seeing as the errors of judgement she made stemmed from her concern for him, the Council must surely also hold some measure of responsibility for the current situation."
Marcus stared at Kilmartin, their eyes locking. Lois watched the interplay with the same kind of sick fascination with which a mortal would watch a train wreck. She was impressed that Kilmartin held the Leader's gaze; she was sure that she would have collapsed under his unremitting scrutiny.
After a long few seconds, Marcus said, "I shall take your comments under advisement. But, just as we are not here to discipline your *protégé*, neither are we here to apportion blame."
"Perhaps not," said Kilmartin. "However, you must see that the concerns that Angel Lois noted with regard to Clark Kent's well- being stem directly from this misunderstanding. I suggest, therefore, that the focus of discussion should be broadened accordingly."
Again Marcus took a few seconds to consider Kilmartin's words. Then he said, "I won't promise anything. However, for the moment I will allow some leeway in the discussion."
Kilmartin nodded. "Thank you, Leader." He sat down.
"Angel Lois," Marcus said.
Lois reluctantly got to her feet. She felt her skin warm as hundreds of pairs of eyes settled on her. The last time she'd felt this self-conscious had been when…
Wow. That long ago?
If anything, Lois's embarrassment increased as she remembered the occasion when, aged twenty-three, she'd walked into the Daily Planet's newsroom only to discover that her senior partner, Claude Vantard, had not only stolen her story but had told the newsroom in the most explicit terms imaginable in what ways she had failed to satisfy him in bed.
"Please tell the Council what you observed while you were Watching the alien."
Lois cleared her throat nervously, then said, "*Clark Kent* is a good man. Caring and—"
Marcus held up his hand and interrupted her. "I did not ask for your impressions, Angel Lois. I asked for your observations. Stick to the facts, if you will."
What did he mean, stick to the facts? As far as Lois was concerned, it was a fact that Clark was a good man, honest, hard- working and kind. If that wasn't the kind of information Archangel Marcus wanted, then what did he want?
Lois's confusion must have shown, because Marcus looked at her and said condescendingly, "Tell us what he did and where he went. Consult your notes if you must."
Right. If facts were what Archangel Marcus wanted, then that was what she would give him. In full, glorious and tedious detail. For all the good it would do.
Lois opened her notebook with a pronounced flounce. Then she began to recite with painstaking exactness everything she had recorded over the last few days. After twenty minutes, however, even Marcus had had enough.
"Angel Lois, you might learn to show some selectivity in your reporting. The alien's shoe size is hardly relevant."
Lois suppressed a smirk, feeling that she had won a small victory. Perhaps deliberately antagonising the Leader of the Council wasn't the best idea she'd ever had, but on some level she'd enjoyed it.
Still… Marcus had a point. She was boring even herself.
Lois summarised the rest of her observations, concentrating more on Clark's actions than on his possessions or lack of social life.
Finally, she drew to a halt. She looked up from her notes to find Archangel Marcus looking at her with something approaching thoughtfulness on his face. Then he said, "Angel Lois. Do you have anything that you would like to add at this point in time?"
Lois looked around her. Then defiantly she said, "Yes!" The word came out louder than she intended, and it reverberated around the hall.
"Go on, then," said Marcus.
Lois forced her voice under control, and when she spoke again, her words were quieter, more suited to her surroundings. "Clark Kent does more good down there than the Hosts of us combined," she said.
Marcus slowly and deliberately raised his left eyebrow. "And is that your observation or your opinion, Angel Lane?"
Lois lifted her chin defiantly and said, "That is my opinion based upon my observations, Leader."
"I see. Anything else?"
"Yes. Clark Kent does great deeds. He believes in what he does. He's a good man. However, through no real fault of his own, he has become distanced from the humans he used to live and work with. He's isolated and alone. And, dare I say it, he's also lonely. And…"
"And?" prompted Marcus.
"And he's… bending. Nobody can survive unscathed under the kind of emotional pressures he experiences day after day. I *saw* him after the incident in Namibwe. He was devastated. And he needed someone to help him."
"Namibwe?" Marcus muttered quietly. "Oh, yes. That little incident was most unfortunate. However, thanks to the national and international outrage his actions provoked, I daresay President Rwinde will be overthrown in the near future. No lasting harm was done."
Suddenly Lois felt a surge of outrage. Bad enough that Archangel Marcus saw Clark as nothing more than an accident of fate, an inconvenience to be investigated in case he upset the Grand Design, but this… Was Marcus really so cold?
"No harm done?" she shouted. "No. Harm. Done? Four hundred people died down there. And Clark Kent was devastated because he couldn't prevent those deaths! And you say that no harm was done? Tell that to the victim's families! Tell that to the people who died! Tell that to Clark Kent!"
Marcus stared at her as though he'd never seen her before.
"I meant," he said, "that no ultimate harm was done to the Grand Design. Of course those deaths were regrettable. However, Rwinde will be removed. And life will get better for the people of Namibwe. The loss of a few hundred lives on that plane was tragic, yes. But think of the thousands of lives that will improve because of it."
Lois gaped at Marcus. "So that makes it all right, then? I don't think so, because I believe that all life is precious and all death is tragic. Life isn't an exercise in accountancy! Life and death is not a profit and loss account!" Then, more doubtfully, she added, "Is it?"
The thought scared her. Bad enough that she'd come across that kind of attitude amongst the suits at the Superman Foundation. How infinitely worse if similar attitudes existed here. Shouldn't every individual, alien or human, be as precious as the next?
"No," said Marcus, and, to her surprise, he sounded genuinely compassionate. "Life is not, as you put it, a profit and loss account. And the ultimate removal of Rwinde does not make everything all right. I'm sorry if I implied that it did. However, something positive will come out of this eventually. That is something, no matter how small, to be grateful for." He almost smiled at her. "Sometimes even angels have to look for silver linings in their clouds, Angel Lois. Life isn't fair and it isn't perfect, even here. No matter how much we try to make it so. No matter how much we want it to be. I am sorry if you took my attempt at optimism to be callousness."
Lois tilted her head on one side, suspending judgment for the moment at least. If nothing else, Marcus's words gave her a lot to think about.
"Now," said Marcus. "You were telling us about Clark Kent. You said he was bending, I believe."
"Yes," said Lois. "He needs someone to help him through when terrible things like that happen. He needs a confidante. He needs someone to hold him and to comfort him. It goes beyond his merely wanting someone to share things with.
"I find it hard to believe, just because he was born on another planet, that we shouldn't automatically give him the same level of care that we give to the natives of Earth. Clark Kent is an alien, yes, but he's also a person. A wonderful person, who cares deeply for the people around him. Don't judge him by where he came from. Judge him according to who he is and what he does for humanity.
"The world needs Superman. We — the angelic Host — need Superman, too. Think how much he does for us! How much he saves us having to do!
"And Superman needs… someone." Then, more softly, shyly and unable to stop herself, she said, "He needs me."
Marcus sat up straighter in his chair. His eyes narrowed. "Are you seriously suggesting, Angel Lois, that you should be made his Guardian?"
"No!" Kilmartin's voice, magnified by panic and fear, reverberated around the council chamber. "She doesn't know what—"
Lois twisted around and stared. The usually imperturbable Kilmartin had risen out of his seat and looked more shaken than she'd ever seen him. The colour had fled from his face and his eyes were round with something akin to horror.
"Please be quiet," said Marcus in a tone that made it clear his words were not a request. "I do not want to hear what you have to say at this time. This is a matter for your trainee alone."
"If you are not quiet, I will have you removed from the chamber!"
Lois watched as Kilmartin's discretion warred with anger. To her relief, discretion won. She had already created enough trouble for both of them. There was no need for him to create his own.
Lois turned back towards the dais.
"Well?" Marcus demanded. "*Are* you honestly saying that you would be his Guardian Angel?"
She could do that? After being told that she'd never be allowed to go back to him? This was unbelievable. It sounded too good to be true, tempting beyond words.
She could feel her heart pounding in her chest at one all- consuming thought. She would be able to see him again.
"Well, why not?" she asked with a defiant shrug. "Nobody else seems to want to help him, and it sounds good to me."
Gasps — hissing intakes of breath — broke out around the room and continued to echo around the dome long after silence had fallen among the crowd below.
Only Lois could hear Kilmartin's shattered whisper. "Oh, Lois… What have you done?"
If the Council meeting was simply an informal inquiry, why did the Councillors have to, as Marcus put it, retire to consider their verdict? And how long would Lois and Kilmartin have to wait until the meeting was reconvened?
Lois followed Kilmartin as he walked over to a bench in the shadow of the cloister and collapsed. He must have been holding himself upright through willpower alone. His legs couldn't hold him up any longer.
Lois looked down at him. Why did he look so lost?
Why wouldn't her mouth work properly?
She cleared her throat. "What just happened in there?"
Kilmartin lifted his head and met her gaze. "You… They…" He made a helpless gesture and lapsed back into silence.
Today had been a day of firsts, Lois thought wryly. It had been her first time in the Council Chamber. Her first time appearing in front of the Council. Her first time seeing Kilmartin truly angry. Then scared. And now defeated.
"What did I do?" she asked.
"There's a reason," Kilmartin said, as much to himself as to her, "why no Guardianships have been invoked since 1702."
"But I thought—"
Kilmartin cut her off with a harsh, mirthless chuckle. "You still think too much like a mortal, Lois. And that may be the only thing that will save you now."
"I… don't understand."
"I know you don't." Kilmartin sounded more than sad. He sounded bereft. He closed his eyes and looked down at the ground. "The reason Guardianships fell out of use is that they very rarely worked."
Lois waited for more. When nothing was forthcoming, she said down next to him, and angled herself so that she could see his profile. She said, "But I thought—"
Kilmartin's lips twisted. "You thought Guardian Angels were two- a-penny. Mortals use the term lightly, but they don't understand anything."
"Oh." It was a hollow word. Like her. For some reason, she felt terribly empty.
"What is an angel?" Kilmartin asked abruptly, and suddenly Lois was back in his office, right at the beginning of her training.
He'd asked her that question then, too. And she had struggled to find an answer. She'd mumbled something about God and messengers before grinding to an embarrassed halt.
"What are you?" he'd asked her then.
"I'm…" And she'd faltered a second time.
Before, if she'd been asked, she'd have said she was a reporter or an American or a woman or a human, but most of those no longer applied. She'd lost her job the moment she'd died, she wasn't sure whether nationalities existed in heaven, and she doubted, strictly speaking, that she was still human.
She'd looked down at her body, compared it to his, and had been relieved to discover that she was at least still a woman.
"You're an angel," he'd said.
"But I don't know what that is!" she'd protested miserably.
"I know you don't. That is why you have me. My job is to help you learn what you are, what being an angel involves and how to become the best angel you can. I daresay it will take time. Leaving behind the ways of Flesh always does."
He'd never asked the question again. Until now.
"We are angels," Lois said, "chosen in the name of God. We are tasked with monitoring the mortals of Earth, comforting, guiding and protecting where our work does not conflict with the Grand Design. We cannot fight destiny."
Kilmartin nodded approvingly. Lois felt warmed by his unspoken praise, but she still didn't get the point he was trying to make.
"As you know, there are different kinds of love," he said. "Selfish love. Selfless love. Fraternal love. The kind of love that exists between a man and a woman. *Phileo*…"
"I know that," she said, remembering another early lesson. "And there is also *agape*."
"Indeed." A hint of a smile played around Kilmartin's lips. "Angels are ecouraged to put *phileo* behind them, but, once an angel has been returned to Earth, *agape* is seldom enough to sustain the Guardianship bond."
"What?" Lois exclaimed. She shot to her feet, paced away from the bench, spun around and faced Kilmartin, her hands on her hips and her face a picture of horror. "What do you mean, 'returned to Earth'?"
"*Now* you begin to see what all the fuss was about. Come and sit down again." Kilmartin gestured to the spot beside him.
Lois reluctantly returned to the place she'd left moments before.
"Guardianship is different to all other angelic activities. It is far more… Intimate, I suppose, is as good a word as any, although it need not imply actual intimacy. It requires one to one interaction between Guardian and Guardee. *Human* interaction. And *phileo*.
"But, just as new angels feel the echoes of their Flesh days, angels returned to Earth often suffer from echoes of the angelic. The longer someone has been an angel, the stronger those echoes will be, and the harder he or she will find it to adjust to life on Earth. History is littered with Guardians who failed to establish a bond with their Guardee and who were forced to wonder rootless across the Earth until they died." Kilmartin's lips twisted in a parody of a smile. "Haven't you wondered why there are so many great tragedies in human literature and art? Many have been inspired by Guardianships gone awry.
"Some Guardians — my friend Patrick, for example — end up back here, but there is no guarantee, just because someone is chosen for an angel once, that they will be chosen again."
"I often wonder why I was chosen at all," Lois muttered. "I mean, I've never been naturally angelic."
"You were chosen because you have a good heart, Lois. And because you work hard. I know you have sometimes struggled here, but you have always persevered."
Lois nodded. "I've always tried to do my best."
"And for the most part, you have succeeded, recent events notwithstanding."
"Thank you," she said softly. "Your saying that means a lot to me."
Lois chewed on her lower lip for a moment or two while she ran through everything Kilmartin had just told her. Then she thought about Clark and everything he had come to mean to her. "So," she said finally, "you're telling me that Guardians are angels made Flesh and returned to Earth?"
"And the shorter the time someone has been an angel, and the harder that person has found it to adjust, the more likely it is that Guardianship will work?"
"Yes," Kilmartin said grudgingly.
"Which would give me an above average chance of success, am I correct? After all you're always saying I—"
"Don't tell me what I'm always telling you, please." Kilmartin's voice was pained.
"I'm right, though, aren't I?"
Kilmartin clamped his lips tightly closed.
"Tell me!" Lois demanded. "I want… I *need* to know!"
"All right!" The words exploded from Kilmartin's mouth. "All right. Yes! You're right!"
"You think they're going to go for the Guardianship idea, don't you?"
"I hope I'm wrong, but… I think there is a strong chance they will. Their final decision, though, will depend on how far your alien's activities fit into the Grand Design."
Lois stood before the dais, her fingers crossed. She hoped that the Council would make the right decision. A *just* decision. If they brushed Clark's needs away…
Was it possible for an angel to run away from heaven if they were needed more elsewhere?
Lois didn't know. She hoped she wouldn't need to find out.
Archangel Marcus slowly looked around the Chamber and began to speak. "God did not plan for Clark Kent's arrival on Earth, but He approves of his work and deeds. Indeed, Angel Lois—" and he looked straight at her "— His opinion is not unlike your own: this man has done a huge amount for Earth and its people. We should assist him in any way we can."
Lois let out a long breath she hadn't realised she'd been holding. "Thank you," she murmured softly, her eyes lifted up, a very human gesture of profound gratitude. Of prayer.
She was so distracted, she almost missed Marcus's next words.
"*Un*fortunately for you, Angel Lois, however, the Council also agrees with certain of your opinions.
"There is evidence to support your notion that no human can help Clark Kent. And giving him closure — letting him keep the knowledge that you are dead — will not heal the wounds his soul carries. Moreover, it robs him of hope. This will, of course, affect his ability to operate. In turn, that will have negative consequences for the Grand Design. We are required to prevent those negative consequences from happening.
"However, you cannot return to him in your angelic form. Our laws and customs forbid it.
"Only one possibility remains. Guardianship. Under this scenario, you would be returned to Earth. You would return to your human body. And you would be given the chance to meet and bond with Clark Kent.
"Understand, Angel Lois, that Guardianship holds many dangers.
"As such, we will not compell you to take on Guardianship. We offer you a choice. We will not think any less or more of you however you chose.
"You may have one day to decide. The Council will reconvene at mid-day tomorrow to hear your decision." Marcus looked up and out towards the assembled crowds and said, "This hearing is adjorned."
"No!" cried Lois. "I don't need a day! I'll do it!"
There was silence.
Then a crescendo of muttering.
Then, across it all, a knife cutting through the uproar, Marcus's voice. He sounded sombre, almost regretful, even though the idea had orignally been his. "Very well," he said. "If you are sure, then we may as well proceed immediately. Angel Lois, we will need your assistance in making the necessary preparations for the Guardianship. If you wouldn't mind…" He gestured towards the entrance through which the Council had entered. "You, too, Angel Kilmartin, if you please."
Lois moved to follow the Leader but her arm was snagged by Kilmartin's hand. She turned back to face him.
"Lois!" Never had she expected to hear such anguish from her mentor. "Please, no! You must reconsider! Perhaps it is not yet too late!"
Lois shook her head. "I don't need to reconsider."
"Leader—" cried Kilmartin after Marcus's departing back.
Marcus paused, turned, and said flatly, "The decision lay with your trainee, Angel Kilmartin. And you are simply delaying the inevitable."
Kilmartin stared at Marcus, but there was no hope to be gained from that quarter. He turned back to face Lois.
Kilmartin looked as though he wanted to faint. "How could you say yes?" he hissed at her, trying to keep his voice low. "After everything I told you! You heard the Leader! You had a choice! You didn't have to do this! Maybe you still don't. Maybe it's not too late for you to change your mind!"
Lois shook her head again. She smiled, knowing it for what it was, a sweet blend of sadness, tranquility and acceptance. "No, I don't have a choice. I'm not sure that I ever did."
"Lois, *listen* to me!" Kilmartin grabbed her shoulders with both hands and gripped so hard that it hurt. "Pay attention for once in your life! I still don't think you really know what this means for you!
"You will be sent back! Your memory will be wiped! You'll be human again. You've seen heaven. You've touched it. Could you really give it all up for a collection of mere possibilities?"
Lois nodded serenely. "Yes." She knew what she was doing. She'd seen heaven, yes, but she'd also seen Clark. She'd seen what he'd needed. She'd felt the echoes of human desire coursing through her body, remembered how it felt to feel attraction, to want to love and be loved.
She knew that with Clark she could give and have it all. It would be as close to heaven on earth as it was possible to get.
Plus she'd be doing something good. Something wonderful. Something… Noble. Or it would have been noble if she was giving more than she would receive.
So, no. She had no doubts. Only a wealth of certainties.
She felt the serenity she'd never before managed to find in heaven wash over her. She felt at peace.
Kilmartin sighed and, although he continued talking, the fire had gone out of his argument. Now his words were just words, lacking conviction. He knew he'd lost the argument. He accepted that he'd lost it even before it had begun.
Lois took no pleasure from her victory.
"You'll be starting from scratch," Kilmartin said sadly. "You have to understand that. Right here and right now, you know what you want to go back for. But down there… You will be just another human. You won't know him. You won't remember anything that you have seen here. You won't remember what it is that you've set out to do.
"What if you don't fall in love with him?"
Lois lifted her chin. "Then I'll be his friend."
Kilmartin tried one last time. "Do you really want to risk an eternity of peace for the merest possibility of a life with Clark Kent?"
"Yes." How could she begin to explain that, for her, perfect peace lay away from the Enclave? That, for her, the path to peace lay in the heart and soul of a mortal?
But perhaps she didn't need to explain, because Kilmartin said, "If what you say is true, then I won't stand in your way."
Ten minutes ago, Lois had been feeling full of hope and anticipation. Now, she was feeling claustrophobic, frustrated and scared.
The Leader's office wasn't big enough to accommodate the full Council plus Lois and Kilmartin, particularly when everybody wanted to talk at once and nobody seemed to have anything useful to say.
So much time had passed since the last Guardianship had been invoked that no one seemed to remember what to do.
Lois's stomach knotted. Surely she couldn't have come so far only to be thwarted?
"Silence! I can't hear myself think!" Archangel Marcus roared.
Heads turned in the Leader's direction. Lois watched as he rubbed his face vigorously with his palms. Then, more quietly, he said, "Can anyone remember *anything* about how to go about invoking Guardianship?"
A few shrugs greeted his question. Then an elderly angel raised a feeble hand.
"Yes, Angel Eusebio?"
"I used to help with the paperwork," Eusebio said. "I can perhaps remember a little of what needs to be done."
Lois had seen Eusebio sitting with the rest of the councillors during the inquiry, but she hadn't paid him much attention. Now, she looked at him carefully for the first time. He was small and stooped, and must have been very old when he'd died because the little hair he had was thin and wispy and snow white. His eyes were milky brown and, when he spoke, his voice was every bit as feeble as his movements. His words were slow and heavily accented, enriched by the slurs and lisps of a native Spanish speaker from Castille.
Lois felt an upsurge of gratitude towards Eusebio. Maybe… maybe things would work out after all.
After that, things happened fast. Angels from all over the Enclave were brought in to help.
The Leader's room grew more and more crowded. Angels began spilling out into the corridors, then disappeared into other offices as little working parties formed.
There were story-tellers, who were told to come up with a credible explanation as to where Lois had been for the last five years. There were computer specialists, who were tasked with changing databases to give Lois a different history, one where she did not die in 1993.
Lois watched them work, offering comments and information when needed.
"You okay?" asked one of the story-tellers, a smiling Asian woman called Mei-Lin, at one point.
"I guess," said Lois softly. "I mean… I want this, but I can't help thinking, it will take a miracle to make it work."
Mei-Lin's smile widened. "We're angels, Lois. Miracles are our business. Do not worry."
She turned around and found herself looking into the bluest pair of eyes she'd ever seen.
"My name is Hugh," their owner said. "And I could use your help. I'm a… Well, when I was a mortal, I was a psychiatrist. Here I work in Well-being Services. And I've been asked to… Adjust… your memory before you leave us. And Clark Kent's."
Kilmartin had already told her that her memory would be wiped, but she hadn't given any real thought to what that actually mean.
"What do you mean, 'adjust,' exactly?"
He waved vaguely at three other angels, who stood silently behind him, and said, "We will enter your sleeping minds and Weave your memories into dreams."
Then, Hugh explained, just to make doubly sure that no traces of Angel Lois's presence were left behind in the mortal world, angels from Operational Services would delete the journal entries Clark had written since he'd met Lois.
"And that's where you come in," Hugh said finally. "We need to know the password you used to get into Clark's journal. Also…" He looked uncomfortable.
"Yes?" asked Lois warily.
"You have to understand, we could enter Clark's dreams without permission. However, for various reasons, I would rather we didn't have to do that."
Lois looked at him expectantly.
"For one thing," Hugh said, "tampering with someone's mind without their permission is… ethically questionable. For another, we know, from working with humans, that Weaving works best when the mind has been prepared for it."
"I still don't understand what you want me to do," Lois said.
"No? It's simple, really. I want you to talk to him. I want you to persuade him to let us help him to forget you."
Almost twenty-four hours had passed since she'd last seen him, and night had come around again.
He was sleeping peacefully, sprawled across his bed, his breathing slow and even.
Lois shook his shoulder lightly. "Wake up," she whispered. "I need to talk to you."
Clark mumbled something unintelligible, then rolled onto his back. His eyes opened, and he said more clearly, "Lois? Is that you?"
"Yeah," she said softly.
"I'm right here." She smiled lopsidedly as she looked down at him. She perched sideways on the edge of the bed and took his hand in hers.
His fingers curled around hers, and he lifted her hand. "Lois…" His lips were warm and supple against her knuckles, his breath a sweet caress against her skin.
"Clark," Lois said. "I need to talk to you."
He scooted back against the headboard and patted the area of mattress next to him. "You sound so serious," he said.
"I am serious. I… We…"
How could she explain everything that had happened in the last day? Everything that was yet to come?
She wanted to ask, "Do you love me?" But she already knew the answer.
Yes, he loved her, or at least he loved the idea of her. He loved her beyond all logic and reason.
She didn't need to ask.
So, instead she said, "Do you trust me?"
"Of course I do! What kind of a question is that?"
"An important one," she answered. "Because I need you to do something for me. Something you won't be comfortable with, and that I don't think you'll understand."
"And that is?"
"I need you to forget me."
"Lois! No! I can't — I *won't* — do that!"
"You must, Clark. It's not… It's not as bad as it sounds. And it might… Clark, they're sending me back down to Earth. I'll be alive again. I'll be Flesh. And I—" She blinked back tears.
When had she started to cry? And why?
Were they tears of hope? Tears of sadness? Tears of desperation?
She didn't know.
She blinked again and said, "We'll have a chance to meet. We might even fall in love. But I can only come back if nobody knows who — what — I've been. And that includes you. And me. Only by forgetting the past do we stand a chance of having a future."
Clark's grip on her hand tightened. "I don't— This is too much to take in. You're being sent back? What does that mean? Is that some kind of punishment? Like… being banished?"
Lois shook her head, then remembered he couldn't see her. "No," she said. "It's not a punishment. I chose this. I believe it's for the best."
"You *chose* to stop being an angel? You can do that?"
"Why? Why would you want to do that?"
She couldn't bring herself to explain. Explaining would mean hurting him. Explaining would mean telling him why she had been sent to Watch him in the first place. She'd have to tell him that the angels hadn't been concerned for him, just for the Grand Design.
She'd seen how he was treated on Earth. How could she tell him that he'd been treated as badly up above? It was bad enough that he was isolated from the rest of the world. How would he feel if he knew that he had been set apart by heaven as well?
Surely, it was enough for him to know that she was willing to trade in an eternity in paradise for just the possibility of a lifetime by his side.
"Isn't it enough that I do?" she asked.
"No," he answered.
"Just… Clark… Please! Just believe me when I say, I'm doing this for you. If I stayed in the Enclave, I'd never be allowed to see you again. At least this way, there is at least a chance that I will." She smiled sadly through her tears.
"All right," he said. "Tell me what I need to do."
A lump blocked her throat. His trust was a blessing and she felt honoured by it.
She had to swallow before she could answer him. "Nothing," she whispered. "Just go to sleep. We'll do the rest."
"Yes. I know you can't see them, but your apartment is full of angels. They're all here for you. For us."
"Oh." Then: "Will you… Will you stay with me? Will you let me hold you?"
"You know… In case this is the last time…"
He snuggled down, drawing her with him. His arms wrapped around her, pulling her close.
She laid her head against his chest and felt his breath ruffle her hair. His heartbeat thundered in her ear.
"Just in case I never get another chance to say it… Just so you know… I love you."
"I know. And I love you, too."
He closed his eyes.
His breathing steadied and slowed.
And Lois held him as Hugh and his companions began to Weave.
Lois felt someone put a hand on her shoulder. She opened her eyes and lifted her head.
Hugh was looking down at her. He smiled wearily.
"We've finished. It's time to go."
Lois nodded and eased herself out of Clark's embrace.
Was this the last time she would look at Clark with so much love in her heart? Was this truly good-bye?
If everything went according to plan, he would not remember her, nor she him.
But she prayed that her heart would remember. They would see each other again, and it would be as though they'd known each other across a thousand lifetimes.
She stood, but she couldn't bring herself to leave. "Please," she said to Hugh, "let me have a moment more."
She looked down at Clark. How peaceful he looked, lying there, asleep!
A tear trickled down her cheek. "Please, God. Don't let this be good-bye," she whispered.
She stared at Clark until her eyes blurred, wanting to carve Clark's face into her soul. She *would* know him again. She *would*.
She leaned over and kissed his cheek.
He sighed in his sleep, and a smile curved his lips. "*Au revoir*," she whispered.
Not good-bye. Not farewell.
*Au revoir.* A promise.
She would see him again.
"We're sorry," Mei-Lin said a little while later.
Lois was back in the Leader's office, where the story-tellers were putting together the final touches of the Guardianship.
"Your back story is going to have to be a pretty sad one. It might even be a bit hard for you to live with. However, you've been away for such a long time that our options are pretty limited."
"How do you mean?" Lois asked.
"Too many people know about your death."
"Presumed death," said Lois. "Nobody ever found me."
"Which, of course, helps us now, because we don't have to explain a body away. However, presumed or actual death… It makes very little difference, really. The point is, most people have accepted that you're dead. That you died a long time ago.
"Okay, so you've still got another couple of years to go before your family can have you declared *officially* dead, but… But they believe it, as do most other people you knew.
"In the process of invoking Guardianship, we have to change as little of the mortal world as possible. When we put you back, we can't have people asking too many questions."
"How can you stop them?" Lois asked.
"By coming up with a story that explains where you've been for the last five and a half years, and why you haven't been in contact with anyone. And — I'm sorry, Lois — but the best any of us have been able to come up with is that you were so badly injured that you suffered from almost total amnesia."
"Nobody will buy that!" protested Lois. "People looked for me! *Clark* looked for me. I'd have been found!"
"In the real world, most likely you would have been. But, remember, Lois, this isn't the real world. This is a fiction. It needs to be plausible. It doesn't have to be true.
"Besides, Angel Mehitabel has said he can help us." Mei-Lin wave forward a tall black man with a serene face. "He's from Operational Services, and he works as a doctor alongside a dozen mortals at a hospital in Brazzaville. If anyone asks, he'll say you were there, and he'll make sure that he has the paperwork to back up that story."
"Okay…" said Lois grudgingly. "So, basically, you're telling me that you're sending me back to Earth, with a medical history that will put my insurance premiums through the roof. Is that right?"
Mei-Lin shrugged. "Sorry, Lois. If you can come up with a better story, we'd love to hear it, but that's the best any of us have been able to come up with at such short notice."
Lois wracked her brains but, as much as she wanted to be anything other than a medical-student's delight, she couldn't come up with a viable alternative.
"You said that Angel Mehitabel is going to help. Does that mean that I'm being sent back to the Congo?"
"No," said Mei-Lin. "That's not necessary. We also have someone in Metropolis who will help us."
"She's an in-between — a nun, actually. Her name is Sister Trine, and she runs a half-way house on the lower east side. She'll look after you. Now, if you're ready… I think Angel Hugh is waiting for you outside."
Lois felt disconnected. Nothing around her felt real. Maybe it was because, in her heart, she had already left the Enclave.
The marble of the cloisters looked too white and the angels who passed them too serene.
As Mei-Lin had said, Hugh was waiting for her. But he was not alone. Next to him stood Kilmartin.
He didn't smile at her. Somehow Lois knew that wasn't because he didn't want to, but it was because he couldn't.
She'd been his student for more than five years, a mere blink of an eye in the face of eternity. More than long enough, however, for her to grow fond of the older angel and for him to grow fond of her.
Now, he said, "I couldn't let you go without saying good-bye."
She nodded, and felt yet more tears pricking her eyes. "I'm glad you didn't." She reached up and hugged him. "Thank you," she said. "For everything. I wish…"
What, though? That things had turned out differently? That she had been the perfect angel? That she could have stayed by his side, studying with him and learning from him for the next four hundred years?
No. She didn't wish for any of those things.
The only thing she regretted was that, to have everything she wanted, she would have to leave his caring warmth behind.
"I wish," she said, "that this wasn't good-bye. I'm going to miss you."
"No," said Kilmartin. "That's the whole point of why we're here. You won't miss me at all. But I'll miss you enough for both of us."
Did he have to say that? Did he have to make her feel guilty about their parting?
But somehow she knew he hadn't meant it that way. He just wanted her to know how much she'd come to mean to him.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"I don't want you to be sorry," Kilmartin answered. "I just want you to be happy."
Then, just as he had done earlier, back in Clark's apartment, Hugh put his hand on Lois's shoulder and said, "It's time to go."
"What do I have to do?" she asked.
"Nothing much. Just lie down on the grass and close your eyes. You'll feel sleepy. That's all."
Lois looked at Kilmartin. "Will you…? Would you mind…? Stay with me."
And then Kilmartin did manage to smile, at least a little. "You couldn't tear me away," he said, his voice catching.
"Thank you," Lois whispered.
She knelt, then lay, on the lawn. The grass was dry and tickled her skin.
Kilmartin held her hand.
The last thing Lois saw before she closed her eyes was the sky. The stars were bright here, closer and more numerous than they ever appeared on Earth.
Deep in the Enclave a bell began to toll for the first time since 1702.
A knell for an angel passing beyond the point of no return.
Bells rang across the city, joyful carillons heralding the arrival of Christmas morning.
In his small east side apartment, Clark Kent began to stir.
He tried to snag onto the fading images of his dream, unwilling to give them up. However, they sidestepped his waking mind, leaving only the faintest echoes behind.
He'd dreamed about *her* again. He did that a lot. This dream, though…
Something about it…
It had been different from usual.
Lois walking among angels.
Kisses to warm the soul.
And the merest hint of a light, fresh scent, with a hint of fruit.
Usually, after he'd dreamed about Lois, he would wake up and feel a profound sense of loss. But this time…
He didn't feel loss. He felt… hope.
A promise of things to come.
Which made no sense whatsoever because, from what he could remember of the dream, Lois had been dead.
Clark shook himself, yawned and stretched.
Time to get up and meet the day.
Clark walked down the steps of his apartment, hands thrust deeply into his coat pockets. The frosty air nipped at his cheeks. He didn't find the cold painful or unpleasant. Instead, he found the chill wind playful and invigorating. He lifted his face towards the sky, closed his eyes, and felt a rare smile play on his lips.
Maybe he couldn't be a part of Christmas in the way that he'd always wanted. Maybe he didn't have a family or friends to unwrap presents and sing carols with. But, for once, he didn't care. He'd still have a Christmas that would mean something. A Christmas where he would touch the lives of others and make a difference.
He lowered his face and opened his eyes again.
He glanced down at his watch. Eleven o'clock. Plenty of time before he had to be at Sister Trine's half-way house, where he, along with half a dozen other volunteers, would serve turkey and trimmings to as many of Metropolis's homeless as the building could hold.
He felt his smile broaden. Then he set off at a walk.
No, not a walk. He was dancing, listening to the music of the crackling snow as he planted his feet first heel-toe, then toe- heel. He hopped and jumped and twirled, flinging his arms out as he spun, human-speed for once.
He hadn't felt so light and free in years. Not since… Probably not since he was a child. His laughter floated free, lifting to the sky.
Making music for heaven to hear, he thought fancifully, then wondered where the notion had come from.
He was outside the half-way house when a female voice said out of nowhere, "You sound like you're having fun."
Clark came to an abrupt halt, embarrassed. He turned, suddenly heavy-footed, towards the speaker, an automatic apology on his lips.
"Sor—" he said, before the word froze, half-formed, in the crisp Christmas air.
The woman was silhouetted against the winter sun. Clark had to squint to look at her. With the light behind her, she looked as though she wore a halo.
Then she took a couple of steps towards him and the halo vanished.
Long brown hair framed an oval face. She had the biggest, darkest eyes he had ever seen. Her lips were twisting in rueful amusement as she tried not to laugh at him.
She was beautiful.
She was… "Lois?"
She frowned at him. "Yes," she said uncertainly, almost suspiciously. "Who are you, and how do you know my name?"
FIVE YEARS LATER
There was nothing like waking up with Lois in his arms. Especially on Christmas Day.
The anniversary of the day they'd first met.
The day his life had really begun.
Clark smiled and inhaled deeply, breathing the scent of her in. He'd always loved the scent of her: light and fresh, with a hint of apple. Then again, maybe the apple was from the shampoo she used. Clark didn't know, and he didn't care. All he knew was that it suited her, and that was enough for him.
He loved lying with her like this, in the silence of their townhouse, before the rest of the world woke up. Her breathing was slow, and he could hear the strong beat of her pulse.
He loved listening to her heartbeat, and the way it sometimes skipped.
He loved the feel of her skin, warm and smooth against his.
He loved her.
Sometimes, Clark wondered how he had failed to find her in all his searches of the Congo.
Sometimes, he wished for her sake as much as his own that he had found her sooner. Then she wouldn't have had to spend five years in the sweltering heat, wondering who she was.
And, sometimes, he wondered how different their lives would have been if they had met each other sooner.
But mostly, all he felt was a profound gratitude that he'd managed to find her at all. He treasured every moment of every day they spent together.
Once, Lois had jokingly said that she would trade an eternity in paradise for just a moment with him. He hadn't laughed. Her words had sounded too close to the truth for comfort, and the idea that she felt that way about him had taken his breath away.
Besides, he knew exactly how she felt. He would do the same for her. In a skipping heartbeat.
Clark reached up and brushed a strand of hair away from Lois's cheek with his finger tips. Asleep, she looked so peaceful. Relaxed.
Very different from the feisty powerhouse she was when she was awake.
Clark felt a smile curve his lips and a chuckle bubble in his chest as a memory popped unbidden into his head.
He remembered how, soon after they'd got engaged, Lois had insisted on going with him to one of his monthly meetings at the Superman Foundation. She'd said it would make for a great feature article and that she needed all the help she could get to regain her rightful place as the Daily Planet's top reporter.
Clark had wanted to say an awful lot of things to the Foundation's board for a very long time, but he'd never quite dared to. Lois, however, had had no such qualms, either to their faces or in print.
Lois was his tiger, his guardian angel, his lover, his wife and best friend, all rolled into one.
And, next to him, she was beginning to stir.
She muttered and slurred something he couldn't quite catch. Her hand reached across and brushed his chest as she stretched. And then he felt her snuggle closer to him.
He wrapped his arms around her and kissed the top of her head.
"H'm… Feels nice…" she said. "But I think we can do better than that…"
She scooted along the length of his torso, setting his nerve endings on fire.
Her lips on his were soft and warm and perfect.
He loved her kisses. Sweet and warm and passionate.
Touches of heaven.
Clark glanced over and looked at the alarm clock. 6.35 AM.
The door handle turned, and then a pint-sized tornado stormed inside. She clambered onto the double bed and began to bounce.
"Mewwy Chwistmas! Daddy! Mommy! Mewwy Chwistmas!"
Three years old. Brown-eyed. Excited. And *loud*.
If Martha was awake, the baby wouldn't be far behind.
Oh, well. Early mornings were a small price to pay for family.
At least the early start would give them plenty of time to get up, have breakfast, open presents, and tidy up the resulting wreckage before going over to Sister Trine's…
Clark heard Lois groan as Martha launched into a tuneless chorus of Jingle Bells.
"No doubt about it, Clark," Lois said. "She's inherited your talent for singing."
Clark grinned wryly. "So you keep saying."
"Lois! Clark! Welcome!"
Sister Trine held out her arms, embracing the adults and then kissing the heads of the Kent children.
"Come inside out of the cold! Make yourselves at home!"
Clark loved Christmas dinner at Sister Trine's, and it would always have a special place in his heart.
He had met Lois for the first time on the pavement outside, and he'd begun to get to know her as they'd helped to serve up turkey, cranberry sauce and Christmas pudding.
Clark hadn't had wanted to stop helping at the half-way house after Martha was born, though he'd wondered if he would have to.
Fortunately, neither Sister Trine nor her friend Patrick would hear of either him or Lois giving up their Christmases at the half-way house just because they thought it might be awkward having a baby around. She could never have enough volunteers, Sister Trine had said, when he'd broached the subject. She couldn't possibly spare them.
Clark didn't quite believe her. Especially because she'd been winking at the time.
As the Kents' circle of friends had grown, so had the number of people who came by on Christmas day. This year, for the first time, Lois's sister, Lucy was going to come along. So were several people from the Daily Planet and a couple of friends that Clark had made from among the reinvigorated Superman Foundation's newer employees.
If there were too many people to serve the food, the extra volunteers would chat with the homeless who came by. Sometimes the volunteers could find ways to help them. Other times, it was simply enough to talk.
And there were always plenty of people ready and willing to keep Martha entertained while Lois and Clark worked. This year they'd also get to bounce the baby on their knees.
Martha ran ahead, knowing from other visits exactly where the dining room was. Lois followed. Clark, holding the baby, brought up the rear.
Clark smiled as he took in the amount of trouble someone had taken to decorate the half-way house. There were garlands along the walls and tinsel around the door frames.
In the corner of the dining room stood the seven foot spruce that Clark had dropped off just a few days before. Now it was festooned with baubles and fairy lights, and a serene-looking angel looked down from its topmost branch.
Patrick looked up from peeling potatoes to greet the Kents like long lost friends.
They usually only saw him at Christmas. Clark wasn't even sure what he did for the rest of the year. Lois seemed to think that he was some kind of aid worker, but the one time Clark had asked outright what he did, Patrick had quickly changed the subject.
This year, Patrick had brought along a friend, an old man called something Martin. Or Martin something. Whoever he was, Clark noticed that he seemed to be pretty taken with Lois. Something Martin (or Martin Something) also lavished attention on the kids.
The dinner, as usual, was a runaway success.
Afterwards, a few people drifted away, but most stayed to sing carols and then, after they ran out of those, other holiday favourites, including Jingle Bell Rock, A Winter's Tale and Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.
They even sang Fairytale of New York.
Lois leaned in to Clark's side and nudged, directing his attention towards Sister Trine. The nun was singing as loudly and as lustily as anyone else, even if she did seem a bit embarrassed by the words.
Then Lois nudged him again and pointed upwards.
She grinned at him.
He grinned back.
And then they kissed.
The singing faded away. Then people all around them began to applaud and wolf whistle.
And Clark drew back and looked around sheepishly. He could feel his cheeks warm. "Lois… I think we've drawn a crowd," he whispered.
She blushed and ducked her head. Then she looked back up at him, her eyes alight with mischief. "Aw, heck, Clark! Who cares if anyone's watching?"
Writing this story has been a fascinating experience. Usually I feel in control of a story. This time, I felt that the story was in control of me. I wanted to write something short, in the spirit of the season. The story was determined to be long, complicated, and angsty! It took me on a magical mystery tour of my imagination, showing me things I didn't know were there.
The feedback I received on the lcficmbs was amazing. Not only was it complimentary, it was also thought provoking. Thank you to everyone who commented, both on the boards and privately.
I'm sure Wendy didn't know what she was letting herself in for when she said she would beta-read and GE this for me. How could she, when I had no idea, myself! She worked miracles, being at all times encouraging and *fast*. Also, it is largely thanks to her that the story ends the way it does. (I'd wondered if I could get away leaving it where the bell knelled, but Wendy promised to lead the lynch mob if I did. And since she knows where I live… ;) )
So, finally, to Wendy: I can't thank you enough.