By CC Aiken <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: August 2006
Summary: A villain with a plan puts a love story on fast-forward and a world on the brink of extinction. Plus, there are donuts.
He had only known her a short time. Barely a week. But he wasn't at all surprised to see her there. Right in the middle of it. Center of the action, heart of the story. As he crossed the threshold and took in the alarm on her face, and the growing disbelief, he fought a giddy urge to say as much. "You again?"
Of course he didn't. Because if he could get past her, get in and get out without her shouting about annoying junior partners in ridiculous get-ups who had obviously lost what little mind they already had, then he knew he was golden. The dual-identity thing would work.
Talk about your baptism by fire.
So, Lois was the one who had stopped the launch sequence, who had performed a quick thinking act of sabotage to a billion dollar space craft in order to save lives.
And she would get the story, too.
All in all, really brilliant. Which was exactly why he wasn't surprised to find her there. He was learning; this was par for the course with Lois Lane.
He stepped around her quickly, focusing on what needed to be done, only half-way hearing her stammered, startled questions. He couldn't let her distract him. And he knew too well, she always did. A face like that…
He studied it for only the briefest of seconds. Time was of the essence, to say the least. And it was sized just about right…
Down the hatch, then. He would just have to take it on faith that he could handle it. He'd had enough years to get used to the idea of being invulnerable. To test that reality in a variety of ways. But this would be… different. It certainly hadn't occurred to him before now to just… swallow explosives.
He did it. He gulped it down before he could talk himself out of it. Before he could try to do anything else that might risk those on board, might risk the critical colonist transport. Might risk Lois.
"Excuse me," he said to her, as the after shocks came back up on him a bit.
She didn't call him Clark. She didn't point her finger and declare that even though he had just saved the day, dammit, she had been here first and the story was all hers, no sharing. She simply stared. Dumbfounded.
He took an extra second to memorize that look on her face. He'd never seen it before. She was always so sure, so completely in control. But now…
He grinned. He'd impressed her. Finally. Never mind that she couldn't know exactly *who* had impressed her. The look on her face was good enough for him. He only wished he had thought to bring a camera.
When he had conferred with the scientists both inside and outside the control tower at EPRAD, assuring them he could be of help, that it wasn't necessary to scrub the launch, when the colonists had returned to their stations, ready to go, he sought her out. She was back where she had been before, strapped in and not even breathing hard.
"Excuse me," he said to her again, drawing her attention to where he stood in the doorway. "Miss…?"
"Lane," she said, tossing her seatbelts off in a blur and moving towards him. "Lois Lane. The Daily Planet. And you are…?"
He smiled politely. Yeah, right. "A friend," he said carefully.
"Well, friend," she said with a dazzling smile. "I think we need to talk. And since we aren't moving yet, now would be an excellent time."
"We're going to be underway in just a minute," he told her, watching as she pulled a mini-recorder from her hip pocket. A notebook from the other. She clicked record and held the device just under his chin.
"Right. And I understand you're coming along. So, I just jotted down a few questions."
He peered over at her notes. A few? More like a hundred. And in record time, too.
"Ms Lane," he began somewhat warily.
"Lois," she corrected him with that same dazzling smile.
"Lois," he said distinctly into the recorder, "are you planning on staying on Prometheus as a resident?"
She looked up from her notebook. "What? Oh… no. No! I was just- I wanted- well, no. I hadn't actually planned on it."
"So, you were just… along for the ride?"
"Precisely. And good thing I was! A responsible journalist has a duty to- to-"
"Stow away on restricted space craft?"
"Yes," she said with a stubborn lift of her chin. "Just think what would have happened if I hadn't."
He inclined his head to acknowledge her point. "But what now? You're going to ride into space and then just… catch a cab back?"
"I hadn't actually worked all the kinks out of my plan yet," she said with a sniff, hitting the off button on her recorder and pressing rewind. "We're talking about you, not me."
"Maybe I could make you a deal?" he said slowly, enjoying her excited fumble with the recorder controls as she hit record once more. Her heart was galloping. And yet, to the outside observer, she was as cool and composed as ever.
He felt that now familiar swell in his heart, the tightness in his chest, the one he'd had since the first day, since her stormy entrance into Perry's office, into his world. He couldn't name it. He didn't know what it was. But it was… hypnotic.
"You stay here, and I'll come back and describe the flight to you."
Her brow darkened and her heart rate tripped a bit faster, but she didn't back down. "It's still second-hand that way. I should come with you and watch."
"I don't think that's safe, Lois."
Not smart, Kent. He knew her well enough to know that. What were the words that were the equivalent of catnip to a kitten? 'Not safe' to Lois Lane. Idiot. "I can't bring you back through empty space." He sounded a bit desperate now. Off-balance.
She was studying him more closely too, and he knew exactly why even if she didn't. He had sounded just like Clark Kent.
He rushed on, squaring his shoulders a bit and deepening his voice. "In open space you can't breathe. You'll freeze. Vaporize." He wasn't sure that was right, but it sounded good. "Burn up on re-entry," he added in a moment of inspiration. And that was most definitely true, he thought with great relief. There was no way he could bring her home.
She faltered. Considering. He half expected her to demand a space suit, scuba tanks, or her own craft. "How about I fly you back to the Daily Planet when I'm finished?" He dangled that in front of her to sweeten the deal.
"Fly me?" she said very slowly.
"Fly you, yes."
"In the space pod you came in?" she said to clarify.
"In my arms," he said with a sheepish smile. "I never said I had a space pod."
Neither had he confirmed that he was an alien, though he was as inclined to believe it as Lois apparently was.
"Then you don't?" she demanded. "Have a space pod?"
"No," he answered firmly. "I fly… under my own power. It's how I got here. And it's how I'm going to lift the shuttle into orbit."
"You're going to… lift… the shuttle," she parroted back to him. "Into orbit."
He could practically hear her writing. 'Swallows bomb, dresses oddly, flies unassisted, lifts really heavy things…'
"Yes," he said simply. "I'm going to fly this out to Prometheus, see it safely docked. And if you like, I'll come back here and describe it to you, and then take you back to work. I imagine you have some writing to do."
"Ok," Lois said with more than a bit of reluctance. "I'll meet you in the upstairs file room at EPRAD. Fourth floor, next to last room on the left. It's tiny, no windows, and hardly ever used."
"And you know about that… how?" he asked, just because he knew he would enjoy the answer.
"It's a reporter's job to know," she hedged, her chin coming up once more, a hint of a challenge snapping behind her eyes.
"I'll meet you there," he said quietly.
"And just so we're clear," she pressed. "You won't be flying anyone else… before me."
"You mean, besides the transport?" he teased her gently.
"Right. No other individual."
"So, you want to be exclusive?"
Good grief. Was he flirting with her? Here? Now? A space station to reach and lives in his hands and a new role to play… and he was standing here with Lois Lane… flirting? That could not be right. Because that would be so very, very stupid.
But much more stupid than fun, he reminded himself harshly. So he wouldn't. Would. Not.
"My exclusive," Lois was saying with a look in her eyes that was positively arresting. Was she flirting back? Oh Lord help him, if that was the case. No. She was just… lulling him. Drawing him in so he would tell all. He took a deep breath, only to let it out again in a rush when she added with a bat of her dark eyes, "You're all mine, Mr. … uh… Mr. …?"
"You can just say I'm a friend," he stammered, suddenly really eager to leave. To let the cold of space douse him with much needed clarity. He practically sprinted from the room. He stayed out of her sight, watching her exit — just to make sure she really did — and listening intently to the last minute instructions from EPRAD's team.
So far so good, he told himself. He had saved the transport from the bomb, though he'd be lying if he didn't admit his gut still felt a little strange. He had spoken to Lois and she hadn't seen right through him. All he had left to do was fly the shuttle to its destination.
The hard part was over. What could possibly go wrong?
The sun had long since set by the time he returned. From the sky EPRAD was brilliantly lit and very busy. He took note of the intense concentration on the faces of the scientists monitoring Prometheus's status. Then he let his eyes climb, story by story, to the lone, dim lamp lit in a windowless office on the fourth floor.
She was there. And he knew that she would be. The chances that Lois Lane might grow bored with the wait and leave for home were… He laughed at the very thought. Non-existent.
He took just a moment to hover over the building. He knew he needed to land, enter through the door he had been instructed to, and report on his flight. The questions he would take there were nothing compared to what he knew was waiting for him on the fourth floor. Lois was writing madly, and no doubt had been since the instant she'd snuck in and commandeered the desk.
She wasn't the only one. Not by far. The lobby and press conference rooms were stuffed full. Reporters and photographers he vaguely recognized from his short time in Metropolis were also planted throughout various parts of the building. Hiding behind potted palms and water fountains. Crouched in restroom stalls. There were several with binoculars in the parking lot and in the bushes surrounding the courtyard. Clark was grateful for the night sky that hid him. He and his mom hadn't really thought of the stealth angle when putting the Suit together. They had both thought the more noticeable the better. So people could see him easily, know that help was coming. But now he saw that definitely had its disadvantages.
He owed a debt of gratitude to the forward thinking gentleman who had directed him to the one particular entrance. It was in the service bay, protected by an impressive fence, pitch black, and easy. One swoop and he'd be in and behind private doors faster than anyone could blink.
What if he just flew home? Or even back to Kansas, to his mom and dad's? Where was the real harm in that? He had done what needed to be done. The rest of it was just… public relations. Not necessarily a part of helping. There wasn't any real reason he couldn't come and go. Rescue and leave without a lot of words or explanations. Was there?
If he was going to pull this off — be Clark Kent and be… a flying rescuer, maybe it would be better if people never heard his voice in this guise. If they never got a close look at his face. If he was mysterious, anonymous…
Once more his eyes tracked up to Lois. Waiting. He had given her his word. He had assured the authorities at EPRAD he would come back and meet with them. And he had already spoken to the colonists. To the astronauts housed in Prometheus. To Lois.
So, really, anonymity was out.
He squared his shoulders. Closed his eyes. Took just a minute to appreciate what he had done today. He had made a difference, a vast difference, in the lives of many. That was what he had hoped for. Exactly what he had intended when he had let his mother talk him into a skintight clown suit. He would need to hold to that, to keep that one fact intact and in the forefront of his mind, if he was going to survive everything that was coming.
"I made a difference today," he whispered aloud, feeling a bit foolish, but there was absolutely no one to hear. "Hopefully the first of many," he added, since he was already talking to himself and it made him feel better.
He drew a deep breath, tightened into a dive, and plunged.
It was an exhausting couple of hours later when he bid the grateful, somewhat awed staff of EPRAD goodnight. He left from the parking lot, letting the few remaining reporters and photographers snap some photos of him in a take-off pose he improvised on the spot. He hoped it didn't look too cheesy.
He went straight up and then poured on the speed to go right back down and in through a second story window he had noticed on his first trip back. He hit the floor noiselessly, sweeping the area with his x-ray vision even as he did so. No one around. He listened hard for any indication his return had been seen. Nothing. He found the stairwell and jogged up the steps towards his appointment with Lois.
She was waiting just outside the fourth floor stairwell. His hand had barely touched the knob when the door swung open. Thinking he had been nearly silent in his approach, he fumbled. "Did you hear me coming?"
"I've just been doing that every two minutes for the last hour or so," she said with a bright smile, relief clear on her features.
"Did you think I was going to stand you up?" he teased her lightly.
"That thought had crossed my mind," she returned a tad breathlessly, before stepping back and letting him enter the hallway. "How did it go? What was it like? Have you ever done anything like that before? How much weight can you lift? How far can you fly? Do you not need to breathe? What planet are you from? When did you arrive?"
He stopped and blinked hard. She held the door to the file room open for him, still talking, still asking, he just didn't bother to listen any further. He was too busy trying to think up answers. Good, innocuous, in no way revealing answers to the rain of questions falling all over him.
For one heart-stopping, knee-shaking moment, he was… a complete blank.
"Um," he said, because he realized she was quiet now. Quiet and watching with a sharp attention that was unsettling, to say the very least. She pulled a chair out for him and rounded the desk to flip open her notebook. The spider pulling in the fly.
He swallowed hard. Whatever had possessed him to agree to…?
Wait. He paused and gave himself a minute to think back.
He hadn't agreed to this.
As soon as he had it, he grasped onto that thought like the lifeline it was. He had agreed to come back, to tell her about the space flight and take her to work. But he had never said he was going to tell… everything.
Lois was bulldozing him. He had seen her do it to a parade of victims all week long, and she had very nearly done it to him.
He stopped just short of laughing out loud. She was… amazing. How many times in their short acquaintance had he thought that already?
He sat down, feeling a bit more confident. She was going to be disappointed, but he could do this.
"I don't want to answer any questions of a personal nature, Ms Lane," he said as matter-of-factly as he could. "But if you want to talk about the specifics of the flight, what happened tonight, I'm all yours." He smiled winningly at her.
Which didn't actually work as well as he hoped it might.
"We had an arrangement," she returned in a sweet, friendly voice that immediately had him on edge. He knew better. "Otherwise I wouldn't have camped out here all night just to hear exactly what you finished telling to every scientist and reporter in the building."
He didn't let himself shrink under her hard stare. In fact he made himself sit up straighter, broadened his shoulders. Look imposing. He was *not* Clark Kent right now, so he couldn't let her treat him as if he was. And, for crying out loud, he had saved her life. Saved. Her. Life. That had to earn him some grace points. Though he did know Lois was really stingy with grace points.
He drew a deep breath and tried to say something other than, "But I ate that bomb and rescued you!" Which would sound a little whiny. Or maybe even conceited.
He went for broke. "I don't want to be laid bare for the world to see." It was completely honest and she knew it, he could tell. "I want to help, but I don't want to be… famous."
She sat back in her chair and simply looked at him. "You just saved the space program. By yourself. You flew into deep space carrying a space ship. In that costume—"
"Suit," she echoed distractedly, waving one hand as if batting the word out of the way. "And you don't want fame?"
"I want to help," he repeated. "Because I can. Because I need to, but this…" He gestured to her list. "Is more than I'm ready for."
"Are you kidding me?" There was nothing more in her tone than pure disbelief. "How did you think you were going to pull a stunt like this without—"
"Not a stunt," he returned a bit stiffly. "A rescue. Your rescue," he added a bit peevishly. So much for not sounding whiny or conceited.
Lois wasn't deterred. But then she never was. "Rescue," she amended. "Do you plan to do more things like this from time to time?"
And his nod she continued, "And afterwards, what then? You just disappear? No questions asked?"
"That would be really nice," he said somewhat wistfully.
The silence that sat between them was heavy, pregnant with all the things he knew were racing through her mind that she wasn't saying.
"What?" he prompted, because he trusted her. He liked her. And he wanted to know what she was thinking.
"You're going to need help."
He was floored. She'd caught him completely off-guard. Of all the things he had expected from his hard-bitten, full speed ahead *senior* partner, this was… dead last. He lowered his elbows to the desk and really studied her across the small space that separated them.
She blushed slightly under his measuring gaze, but she didn't look away. "Are you offering?" he asked in a low voice.
"Are you for real?" she returned in the same tone. "As good as you seem?"
"I'm real," he told her. "And I'm here to help. That's it."
She had already surprised him deeply, so he didn't really expect her to do it again. For a cynic like Lois Lane to simply nod her head and accept what he was saying at face value was far too much to hope for. So, he waited. Watching the struggle play out across her face.
"You will have to talk," she said at last, flipping her notebook closed. "Let people know just exactly that. That you're as good as you seem. That you're just here to rescue, nothing else. But I can teach you how to say that without giving too much of yourself away. For now."
On impulse he reached across the desk and put his hand over hers. "Thank you." He knew. He knew better then she could ever guess how much it was costing her to let him off the hook this way.
"There's a catch," she said firmly, though she didn't pull her hand away.
He straightened and smiled. "Name it."
"You belong to me." She reddened a bit under his amused glance, but kept going. "When you do your rescues, you talk to me first, no matter what. For a year."
"Six months," he countered, noting — but doing his best to ignore — the vague ringing of alarm which went with that offer.
"Ten," she shot back.
"Eight," he said, not because he cared but because this was kind of fun.
"Let's call it nine and you have yourself a deal."
"Nine it is, Lois Lane." He rose from his seat, offering his hand to shake on it.
She did the same. "Ok, so for now I'm going to write the details of today's rescue. I'm going to quote you on the friend thing and here to help bit. Do some general description stuff." She waved her hand over him and muttered to herself, "A suit, not a costume."
He nodded. "Sounds good."
"That leaves you some mystery," she continued. "And some time to work out your story. But for the next nine months, I'm the one who tells it."
"And what if something happens and you're not around?"
"I'm always around," she stated. "And you already agreed. Now, about that flight to work…"
With the distinct impression he had been played like a violin, that he had, in fact, agreed to a deal very similar to Bobby Bigmouth's, sans egg rolls, Clark stepped towards her.
She had come around the desk and was holding her bag. Her white knuckles were the only hint she might be anything less than blasé about flying off into the night with a man from outer space.
"I'm going to pick you up," he said, marveling at how easily those words came. "And we can be airborne in seconds. Don't worry. It's perfectly safe."
She gulped and nodded. He lifted her gently, slipping his hand under her knees and around her shoulders. She fit against his chest and in his arms so perfectly he lost a step in his surprise. This was a perk of the job he hadn't considered before just now. Maybe that exclusive deal was going to be worth it.
He swung her around quickly, earning a startled laugh from his passenger, even as he nearly tripped over the night janitor in the doorway.
Clark froze. He hadn't seen or heard the man's approach. He had been so intent on Lois.
The janitor was staring with a look in his eyes that was hard to read. And with good reason. Probably wasn't everyday he came to empty the wastebaskets and found a flying man fondling a famous reporter.
This was not good.
The small bells of alarm, which had been dimly clanging as he was haggling with Lois over interview rights, pealed loudly now. Clarity was his new, though somewhat belated, best friend. This was going to be a problem. If he spoke to Lois and only Lois, she was going to become too well associated with him.
And this, this holding her in front of a witness. One call to a tabloid and he'd be so much more than a mysterious rescuer. And she'd be so much more than just the reporter who interviewed him.
He set her down quickly, knowing it was too late. He had been careless and the horse had left the barn, but he had to try. As much as he didn't want to sound clichéd, he couldn't help it. "This isn't what it looks like." He cringed even as the words left his mouth.
"Do you have any idea how I wish that were so?" The man stepped into the room and into the circle of light cast by the desk lamp.
Clark could see now what he hadn't noticed before. He wasn't the janitor. That wasn't an industrial gray uniform he was wearing, as much as it was a… shiny silver get-up of some sort. Not that he had room to be critical considering what he, himself, was wearing.
"Just as sure as death and taxes," the man groaned. "And Lois, really. I read through hundreds of pages of this drivel — not much else for me to do during my most recent incarceration — and you got it wrong. It clearly states here…" He waved a book under their noses, "'I waited all night. The sun was rising when we left the building and flew into a sky streaked with pink and orange. Metropolis slept on, but for me, everything had changed…'"
"You know him?" Clark asked Lois.
"No," she said adamantly. "And I have no idea what he's rambling on about."
"I'm not the one rambling in purple prose about first meetings and true love," the man sneered. "And it isn't even accurate, Lois! You're a reporter, you ought to be ashamed. It's pitch black outside, not yet one a.m. I came early to get the worm, and still not early enough. Because here you two are… together. Eternally, insufferably… together!"
"Ok, sir," Clark said as soothingly as he was able. "It's clear you're distressed. Let's walk down to the main offices and find someone to assist you. How does that sound?"
"Oh, that sounds dandy. Good plan. They don't call you a hero for nothing, do they?"
He tossed the book at their feet. The spine immediately cracked and papers of unusual size and shape fell out.
"That looks like a… collectable," Clark said, noticing the strange design. "Let's just take this along with us. Maybe with some tape…"
"A dime a dozen," said the man. "Or, actually, free to all school children, if you can imagine. Filthy propaganda."
Lois pulled it from his hands, even as Clark was trying to stuff some wayward pages back in. "What is this?"
"Don't recognize it? Try the title, darlin'."
"The Diary of Lois Lane," read Lois with a stunned laugh. Her look at Clark said it all. 'Certifiable Looney.'
"Pick a page, Lois, any page."
Lois flipped it open at random and the man peered over her shoulder. "Oh, the holidays. Pretty consistent theme here. Gets really boring after a while. Let me guess, 'Dear Diary, Christmas came and went, and still no pony. Lucy is heartbroken. Mother is drunk. Daddy is who knows where…'"
"Oh god!" Lois said.
"Couldn't have said it better myself," he agreed.
"What is this?" Lois rounded on him. "And who are you!"
"Now this is the part I really get tired of. The introductions. We need a code word, don't we? A secret handshake? Something. So we don't have to go through this each and every time."
Clark moved to intercede, with no clue what was happening. "It's obvious you aren't feeling well, sir. Let's go get you some help. Lois, you stay here. I'll be right back."
"Protecting the little woman?" the man taunted. "Careful there, champ. I think everyone knows she doesn't like that."
"Who are you calling 'little woman'?" demanded Lois. "And who the hell are you, and where did you get this?"
"Help has arrived!" trumpeted a voice from the doorway, snapping the three of them to attention at once.
Clark was stunned. As a general rule he wasn't easy to sneak up on, but this was twice in one night. The crazy man beside him gave one quick bark of laughter which ended in something like a low moan. Lois, like Clark, simply looked.
The doorway was jammed to overflowing, full of men and women, all dressed in robes of various colors. All crowding into the room as far as they could fit. All… smiling at him and Lois as if they were long lost family.
"It's them!" one whispered to another.
"I never get used to it," was the reply.
"Excuse me," Clark said, angling his body ever so slightly between Lois and their new audience.
"You see how he does that?" remarked a hushed voice. "It's already second nature. The protective gesture."
"She needs it, though, doesn't she?" someone chortled.
"Can we help you?" Clark asked in as stern a voice as he could manage.
"This is getting weirder by the minute," muttered Lois from behind him and he couldn't disagree.
The one who had spoken stepped forward and made a small bow. "Not to worry, sir. We are the Friends of Utopia. Helpers and Peacekeepers assigned to watch over your fate and the fate of the future. You are in good hands."
"Hey," Lois snapped in his ear, pulling on his cape. "You didn't mention there was more than one of you. That you have helpers and… uh…"
"Peacekeepers," chirped one, snapping his heels together with a smile of pure, radiant joy.
"O-kay," Lois intoned slowly.
Clark turned to face her, blocking those behind him in the tiny space, and lowering his voice. "I swear, I do not know these people."
"No, no, dear boy." A woman, small, round, and bespectacled, squeezed herself into the center of the room and the conversation. "You don't know us. And that's the whole point. You are to live your life and do what you do, while we take care of the time and space details. I'm not allowed to tell you more than that, Superman."
"Superman?" Lois and Clark repeated in unison.
"Whoopsies," said the woman a tad tremulously.
"Lois would have thought of it in a few hours anyway," called an encouraging voice from the crowd.
"Right, right," the woman tutted. "So, I guess we can let that one go. But let that be a lesson to everyone. The less interaction the better."
"Can we just get on with this please?" grouched the man who had started the bizarre portion of his and Lois's evening.
The woman turned towards him, every bit of helpful friendliness wiped from her face. "Tempus," she said severely. "You know what comes next."
"Oh joy," Tempus returned.
"Run a scanner over him, would you, Andrus?" the woman asked, giving Clark a fond pat as she moved aside.
"He isn't armed," Andrus squeaked.
"He isn't?" gasped several of them at once.
"Maybe this one isn't him, then?"
"Maybe it's another replicant."
The group huddled together in anxious conversation.
"This morning when I woke up," Lois said over his left shoulder. "I was in a hurry to break-in here. And then I found a bomb. Met a man who can lift space ships but is shy about it. I was up to speed on all of that… until now."
"Trust me, Lois, you have company in utter confusion," Clark offered back.
"I am not a replicant." The man named Tempus scowled. "Andrus, how many times have we done this? I'm hurt that you can't tell the difference."
"It's hard in the absence of a weapon," apologized Andrus.
"Or gold," volunteered another peacekeeper.
"I was wondering…" Clark raised his voice and an immediate silence fell over the proceedings. The reverent attention was so complete it was unnerving. "…are Ms Lane and I in the way, by any chance?"
Lois pushed around him. "Are you practicing for a play? Or maybe that Sci-Fi Geek Con thing is in town?"
Tempus laughed. "Don't you love them at this point? So clueless and innocent. I wish we all had more time together, I really do. But, alas, it appears I've been foiled… again."
"We haven't lost faith that you'll learn sooner or later, Tempus," said the woman who appeared to be the ringleader. "You just cannot continue to interfere."
"Haven't you been paying attention? Interfering is what I do. It's my life's purpose. He flies around and saves the day. She is perpetually fooled by a pair of glasses…"
"What?" said Lois.
"Too soon, dear girl, cover your ears," ordered the woman.
"…I interfere," continued Tempus. "We all have our place."
"Come along quietly, Tempus. You know we haven't the stomach for violence," said Andrus.
"You caught me fair and square, gang." Tempus shrugged. "Though, God, that's embarrassing considering your combined intellect. But still, it's good that I was prepared."
Something in Tempus's relaxed stance shifted. Something in his easy, lazy voice went quiet.
Clark felt it. He knew Lois, more familiar with bad guys with a plan than he was by far, felt it too. She tensed beside him, her heart rate kicking up a notch. Her fists tightened. He only had time enough to put his arms around her. It wasn't to stop her from charging, and it wasn't exactly to protect her. But more to assure himself that she was with him. That he could feel her close.
That they wouldn't be separated.
The others in the room suddenly looked as concerned as he was.
"You said he wasn't armed!" shouted the woman whose shape was definitely… bending.
"He wasn't! He isn't!" wailed Andrus, who could no longer be seen but for a faint outline.
A bolt of energy hit Clark in the chest, doubling him over. He pulled Lois closer, holding on for dear life. She was limp, as if her bones had melted. The walls of the small room fell away and there was a rush of wind so strong he thought idly of all of EPRAD's files. They were going to be blown over city blocks, probably never recovered.
His vision was tunneling. The cold made him shiver. He couldn't move. Couldn't break away from where he was standing, though the floor was gone. He looked up, straight ahead, and caught one last look at the man called Tempus. He was pointing his ring at them- what looked to be a reddish light was shooting from a gem stone unlike any he'd ever seen. Tempus was laughing. Long, loud delighted laughter, which followed them into the darkness.
Margaret Charlotte Hathaway knew she was going to be demoted for this. Once the news got back to headquarters, there would be no way to avoid it. She spent about a half-second mourning her brand new office, her two assistants, Pearl and Hank. Anna, her receptionist, who made excellent coffee and never missed filing a report.
She would lose them all, she knew. And that was as it should be. This was to have been an easy get. And while they did have Tempus, certain other rather critical factors were… well… missing.
"Where have you sent them?" she thundered to Tempus, who was barely visible under the large pile of coworkers who had dived onto him in the instant it had taken their heroes to disappear.
"Easy, Madge," counseled Andrus, who was, as always, at the top of the heap, and thus in no danger of dirtying his garments. "Your blood pressure."
She glowered as him as thoroughly as one who was Director of Peacekeeping was able. Being peaceful and unruffled at all times had its disadvantages. She gathered her robes and squatted down close enough to look Tempus in the eyes. "Where?"
He smirked. Madge waited. She knew he would tell her. He always did. Eventually.
Not being able to brag on his brilliance was the only real hardship for Tempus. The one thing he could not do. If just once, one time, he did something dreadful and didn't boast about it, then her office would be in real trouble. As well as her world. So far, though, that had never happened.
Tempus continued to look cheerful, despite the hundreds of pounds of wiggly humans on top of him. Madge got comfortable.
"Since you have a hand free," she addressed Andrus through gritted teeth, "have a glimpse at the soul tracer, will you, dear?"
Grateful to be excused from anything remotely close to violence, Andrus scrambled down and unhooked the small device from his belt.
"It will be easier on you if you just tell me," Madge said.
"Easy is boring, darlin'," Tempus returned dryly. "You people never get that."
"They aren't registering," said Andrus faintly.
"What?" The mass on top of Tempus stopped concentrating on pushing him into the floor and gasped in horror.
"Don't let him up," Madge snapped, shooting to her feet and seizing the soul tracer from Andrus's trembling hands. "I'm sure it's just a malfunction. Of course they are *somewhere.*"
"They don't register," said Andrus again, his face a deathly shade of pale.
"Stop saying that," she hissed, casting a glance over at the now very nervous tower on Tempus. "Did someone think to take his ring off?" she called out, just to distract them.
Much wiggling ensued, along with a string of colorful curses from the man at the bottom. Madge closed her eyes. Honestly. Tempus shoots their founders into who knows where, and no one takes the beam? If the elders didn't fire her for some reason, she'd do it herself.
They weren't registering. The two vibrant souls whose status she had checked on the hour for nearly two years were gone. Just like that. Madge steeled herself, tried to keep her voice firm and no nonsense. "Killing the Kents wasn't very creative."
The cries that filled the air were terrible, but Madge didn't acknowledge them. She kept her eyes on her target. "I thought you were too smart, too diabolical for anything so simple."
"They are as good as dead, Mags," Tempus said smugly.
"As good as dead, but not… completely dead?" Madge pushed. "How do I know that for sure?"
"Because completely dead wouldn't be nearly as much fun," Tempus answered, and Madge relaxed infinitesimally. He was proud of himself. He had found a way to outwit the soul tracer and it would kill him not to tell her about it.
"Very clever, then," she added to get the ball rolling.
"You have no idea." Tempus beamed.
"Give me a hint," she coaxed with a kindly smile.
"I've sent them someplace out of reach. A place so obvious I hate that I didn't think of it the first dozen times. The one place that unravels all of Utopia."
"Amazing," Madge marveled. "How ever did you find such a place?"
Tempus ignored her, addressing the pile-up on his chest instead. "Ladies and gentlemen, your world is ending."
He seemed to enjoy the effect his pronouncement had on them, because he got one leg and one arm free.
"Hold him!" Madge barked. "And for God's sakes, somebody tie his hands!" She probably could have said that nicer, but good heavens, someone should have thought of it.
"Where have you sent them?" She was finished playing his game.
"Rest easy, Madge. They've gone on to a better place," Tempus intoned solemnly. "Let's all take a moment to remember them, shall we?"
Lois woke up when the rock underneath her groaned and moved. The sensation was weird enough to force her eyes open.
First things first. It wasn't a rock. Which made a bit more sense. It was a man in bright blue spandex, which made… slightly less sense than a moving rock. But still, that's what it was, so she was going to have to work with it.
She pushed herself off his chest. It wasn't easy. His arms were wrapped tightly around her.
"Hi," she said when his eyes fluttered open and met hers.
She went still, watching him watch her. He smiled a lazy, slow smile. Said her name, pulled her closer… then bolted upright and disappeared.
"Sorry!" he called from a good distance away. "I didn't mean, I mean, I wasn't… uh… Sorry!"
"It's… ok," Lois said a bit breathlessly from the park bench she found herself sitting on.
Wait. A park bench…?
She looked around, confirming that first impression. It checked out. So far she had woken up on top of blue spandex guy, nearly drowned rapturously in his deep, dark brown eyes. And now she was here. On a bench. In Centennial Park. And he was standing some ten feet away looking… completely mortified.
Lois stood, then sank back down immediately when she felt the world spin.
"You ok?" He was back in front of her, one hand on her shoulder.
"Are you?" she returned, standing up much more slowly this time. "I know you weren't taking advantage of me or anything. You weren't, right?" She stopped, trying to remember the course of events that had led her to being on top of this guy in the middle of the day in the middle of the park.
She knew that she knew him. From the space transport. The bomb. EPRAD. After that, though, things got… blank.
He was still holding her by the arm as if she were fragile and might collapse at any moment. Though, oddly, he was the one who was shaking. "Look behind you," he whispered, his face ashen.
She whirled around, expecting… she didn't know what. But by the tone of his voice, the look in his eyes, something really bad.
Horror movie bad.
Bloody-hook-in-the-car-door kind of bad.
It was just a statue, though. Of him. A twelve foot high rendering of blue spandex guy. The cape was captured streaming out behind him. His stance was one of strength and confidence. His eyes looked over their heads, off into the distance, serene and dignified all at once. The symbol on his chest stood out in bold relief. And his torso and arms had been lovingly chiseled muscle by muscle.
"Wow," she said, because even though she wasn't an art lover, she thought maybe it was pretty good as far as likenesses went.
"Why would this be here?" the real man asked, still looking at it as if it really was the bloody hook in the car door.
"Well…" Lois frowned. "I guess because you're a hero? But that was awfully fast, wasn't it? It's only been— My watch is broken. But whoever did it certainly didn't waste any time. It's good, though," she added, not wanting to offend him.
He didn't answer. He was moving towards it, shaking his head and studying his stone-cast likeness with what seemed to be grave embarrassment. The color on the back of his neck nearly matched his cape and boots.
He turned away from it as if he couldn't stand to look at it. "How did we get here, Lois? Do you remember? We were at EPRAD…" His voice faded. "It gets really fuzzy after that."
"For me, too!" she exclaimed. "I remember you trying to wiggle out of my questions…"
The blush that had been subsiding from his face came right back. "Like a fish off a hook," he confessed with an abashed grin. "You… scare me a little."
"I do?" She returned his tentative smile with a big one of her own. "How about that?" she said, mostly to herself, though she didn't mind if he heard her. "A guy who can lift space shuttles into orbit… afraid of me." She tilted her head to the side, looking him over once more. "You're not just strong, then. You're smart, too."
"Not smart enough to figure out how we got here, or how *this* could have." He was back to studying the statue with a scowl.
"Could we have crashed?" Lois asked. "Remember you were going to fly me to work for a formal interview?"
He took his eyes off the statue and brought them back to hers. She wondered if she only imagined the amusement in them. That couldn't be right. She hadn't said anything funny.
"I never agreed to any formal interview," he said. "We agreed that would wait."
"Strange how two people can interpret things differently," she said with a cavalier shrug. And this time she knew she hadn't imagined it. He was trying not to laugh. "We aren't far from the Daily Planet, so … maybe you just… uh… missed the mark?"
"Missed the…?" The smile faded from his face quickly. "Do you think we fell?" he asked, alarm in his voice. "That I… dropped you?"
He stepped towards her in a blur; she couldn't follow him all the way in. He had been standing some distance from her, and in a blink, he was just there, his hands on her upper arms, his eyes trailing over her body rather intimately.
"Hey!" she said somewhat defensively. "Whatever you're gawking at-"
"No broken bones, no head trauma, no internal bleeding," he muttered, looking pale. "But… I don't remember. And I've never just… fallen out of the sky. I've been flying since I was eighteen, and even then, even when I didn't know how it worked, I never…"
"Why not until you were eighteen?" she asked quickly, trying unsuccessfully to extract herself from his firm grip. He didn't even seem to notice. "Is that how old you have to be to get a license on your home planet?"
He dropped his hands and raised a startled expression to her intently curious one. "What?"
"I just wondered. Why the first flights at eighteen. You had to learn? Had to be licensed? Or maybe you were bitten by a radio-active spider?"
His gaze slid away from hers once more and became shuttered. She recognized that now. It was a defensive move. An "I don't know how to answer what you just said without giving away something I don't want to give away" sort of move. She, herself, had a million of them. But they were way better than his. Not nearly so obvious.
"Uh," he said, and she stared at him harder, waiting. He gave her arms a soft squeeze and stepped back, looking around. "There is absolutely no litter here. That's weird, isn't it? I mean, this place is… immaculate. Where are the cigarette butts and beer cans that are always out here? And those flowers… and those… are new."
He had been here before.
Lois jotted that down in her mental notebook. She'd get back to it. He had given something away, though. Something worth noting. But for now she wouldn't pursue it. She was going along with his rather awkward change of subject. It was a tried and true interview method when someone didn't want to talk. Let them steer you off course, and pretend to follow. That, and as she glanced around to humor him, she realized… he was darn right.
Centennial Park had been scrubbed clean. It practically shone.
She turned a tight circle, taking it in. "The streetlights aren't busted," she said in awe. "In five years coming here I've never seen that one intact."
"There are no trash cans," her companion said. "And… no trash."
"The grass is—"
"—like a golf course," he finished for her.
He knew golf. She put that right next to 'had been to the park.' There was something very non-alien about this alien.
"No weeds," she said. "No brown patches."
"No 'Do Not Walk on the Grass' signs for everyone to ignore."
She whirled on him. "Just who are you trying to fool?"
He froze. And the defensive look settled back on his features.
"You aren't an alien," she accused. "What's your story? Trying to pretend that you are?"
"I am," he said firmly. "How else could I do what I do? And I'm also just… observant."
"Oh," she said, because just now she couldn't find the flaw with that answer. "Ok, then."
"Lois, just what do you remember, exactly? Besides us heading towards the Daily Planet? Do you remember falling? Or taking off? Or… anything after we met back at EPRAD?"
She closed her eyes and concentrated. "I remember movement. Flight, I guess."
When she opened her eyes, he looked deeply troubled. Strained. "Maybe I just met my limit," he said in a low voice. "I lifted a space shuttle, so maybe I can't do anything else for a while. Like I just… ran out of steam."
"You've never gotten tired before? Lost control?" she asked, this time just to know, not because she was adding to her mental notebook. He didn't know that though, because the guarded look came back once more.
"If you are going to want to keep secrets," she said bluntly. "If you want to keep something of yourself off limits to the press, you are going to have to buy yourself a poker face. You're way too obvious."
"I'm new at this," he apologized sincerely. "And you're right. I'll practice."
"For your sake, you need to," she said softly. "I know you're here to do good. But if you want to be some kind of… vigilante…"
"No. Not a vigilante," he said with a vehement shake of the head. "Nothing outside of the law in any way. I just want to help however my abilities let me."
There was a plea in those last words she found almost endearing. He was such a juicy interview subject, and she could hardly wait to pin him down. But there was a vulnerability to him, an innocence underneath the muscles. He was right to be guarded. This world could chew him up and spit him out before he knew what hit him.
"I have to head back to work," she said. "But I'm really reluctant to let you out of my sight." She tried to make that sound as business-like as possible. "Can you promise me that you won't talk to any press before me?"
"Yes, but I never said I was going to sit down and talk with you in depth, Lois," he said with something like regret. "I'll talk to you, but it isn't going to be what you want."
"You know how to get in touch with me. When you come to your senses and realize you need me to give you a voice, call me." She turned and stomped off towards the Daily Planet.
And just as she had hoped, he followed, falling in step beside her, giving her a fond, too trusting smile. "I promise, Lois. When I figure out what I want to say, how to say it. When I've practiced that poker face, I'll call you."
"You might have thought of all this before you flew out and tossed a space transport into orbit, you know. Planned a bit better. You seem pretty familiar with how this world works. So, you had to have known you would raise a lot of questions, set the media on its ear."
"There wasn't time. I couldn't wait. I saw the report on the news that the transport was in trouble. I had to go before I was actually ready."
She stopped and looked at him. "Stuff like that. You need to be careful what you say. I could jump right on that comment. Ask where you were until now. Where you were when you saw the report. What you were waiting for. What your plans are. How you know about golf courses and cigarette butts and litter in the park. And if you don't have an answer…"
She shook her head and her attention drifted over his shoulder to the Planet, where she was trying to lead him. The familiar globe…
She blanched. "Good Lord! Would you look at that?"
She didn't tear her eyes from the very changed façade of her building, but she felt him go tense beside her in the instant he turned to see what she was seeing. Heard his low moan of despair.
A banner with his likeness ran the length of the building. It swayed gently in the breeze, just below the flag bearing the symbol he wore on his chest. While the Daily Planet globe was still there, it had been painted an amazing combination of red, blue, and yellow. A dazzling show of color which caught the sun and hurt the eye, even though it perfectly matched the flowers in the giant planters that ran along either side of the main doors.
"No," she heard him choke beside her. "Oh… no."
"A statue in one afternoon, and this, too? I mean, not that what you did wasn't really great. Thank you, by the way, for saving the space program, saving all those lives. But… isn't this a bit much?"
"Too much," he said with a desperate groan. "Why would they do this, Lois?" He tore his eyes from the display in front of them, and they burned into her, so bleak and pleading she took an involuntary step back.
"Maybe this is just Metropolis's way of showing that we appreciate what you did," she lied quickly. "A big, somewhat tacky, thank you."
"I scared everyone," he said flatly. "But instead of raising the white flag of surrender, it's my flag they're waving. Just to show they're friendly. That they'll cooperate. So I won't be a… threat to them."
Panic skittered across his features and his breath came in hard puffs. Without thinking, she put out a hand to steady him, feeling the tension under her fingers. "Oh god. We'll do that formal interview, Lois. We'll do it right now. I have to get my story out as soon as possible. Let everyone know I'm one of them… basically. No delusions of grandeur. No designs to take over the world. I'm just… a friend."
"Come on, then." Lois hooked her arm in his familiarly, towing him along. "We'll find an empty conference room and have something by the evening edition. Don't worry. If anyone can set them straight, it's me."
She was good at what she did. She knew that. And she didn't want him to worry, so she didn't let him see any of her doubts. She just hoped, from the bottom of her heart, that she was good enough. For his sake. For the world's sake. And, well, maybe for that Pulitzer.
It didn't get any better when they stepped into the lobby. Mass hysteria was obviously well underway. And whoever the demented decorator was had gone all out in an attempt to appease the strange visitor from another planet. The rugs were electric blue. The walls, a brilliant red. And the yellow on the elevator doors just… defied description.
Clark managed to smother his pained exclamation, but he must have made some noise, because Lois glanced over at him, tightened her hold on his arm. She clearly wanted him for the story, he knew that, but she wasn't afraid of him. He drew some comfort from that, from her touch. In fact, he wasn't even sure he'd still be standing without it.
The Chief was bearing down on them. In his very short time at the Planet, Clark couldn't recall seeing Perry White outside of the bullpen, his own personal domain. But now, in the lobby, amidst the terrible clash of colors, the Chief looked… different somehow. Smaller than he had been just that afternoon. And most definitely angry.
Clark couldn't blame him. Because of him, someone had defaced Mr White's building, his beloved Daily Planet. That would certainly detract from any sort of hero's welcome.
"What the…?" Lois spoke from beside him, just as Perry reached them in full shout.
"Where in tarnation have you been, son?"
Clark's jaw dropped open. Something was… wrong, very wrong. "Where have I been? Me?"
"You see any other super men around here?" The Chief who wasn't… quite right… seized him by the arm and pulled him along. "We've had a group waiting since noon. Had this reservation for over a year. And believe me, they don't want a Perry White or a Jimmy Olsen. It was Superman or nobody."
"Who are you?" Lois snapped from beside him, her heels sliding on the floor as they moved in the man's wake. Clark slipped an arm around her waist to steady her, still letting himself be pulled by… whoever this was. He had no idea what else to do.
The man who definitely was not Perry turned toward her, noticing her for the first time. He blinked hard and slammed them all to a halt. "Great shades! You're the best I've seen yet, honey! Your group just left with Cat Grant, but you can catch up with them and send her back here. She's very popular with the lonely businessmen on their lunch break," he added with a chuckle. "They started in the usual place."
"The usual place?" Lois threw Clark a look that had to match the one on his own face. Complete and utter confusion.
"What is going on here?" Clark asked, trying to sound stern and unflappable, the way he imagined he should sound. And not how he felt, which was as if someone had injected cold water into his veins.
"Oh, cripes. You're brand new?" The man who absolutely, most definitely was not Perry wasn't pleased with this. With an impatient sigh he pointed Lois towards a hallway. "The DF wing is that way. The most important thing you need to remember is that you can't cut any corners or gloss over the details. People like to hear the whole saga."
"The DF wing?" Lois scowled. "The whole saga? What is going on here? I don't understand—"
"That's two of us," Clark cut-in fervently.
"— and I'm not budging until you tell me," Lois finished.
"Since when did Casting start sending you people down here without training?" Not Perry thundered in an impressive imitation of the genuine one. "The DF wing," he huffed. "The Dysfunctional Family Wing. Lois Lane's history. Just give them the spill: absent, unfaithful father, bitter alcoholic mother, flighty sister, cold as ice ace reporter…"
Beside him, Clark felt Lois flinch and begin to tremble. He pulled her a little closer. He didn't have an iota of an idea what was happening. But he recognized that something in what this stranger had said in some way resonated with Lois. And that she was trying desperately to hide it.
Lois Lane's history, indeed.
"Now just a minute," he spoke in a low, controlled voice, trying to find some sort of footing to work from, wishing desperately everything would slow down for a second, give him a chance to think. "Watch what you say and how you say it. Whatever this is, I'm sure this isn't necessary."
Not Perry raised his eyes heavenward, as if seeking guidance. "Isn't necessary? Believe me, it is. Otherwise they'll all leave here debating why she didn't love him like he did her right away. Whether or not she was even worth the time and effort. We tried to leave it out, at the request of the family, but the Luthor cage exhibit really put them off her without it. It's simple psychology, son."
With that he clapped Clark on the back and gave Lois a gentle push in the direction he had pointed. "Off you go, Lois. Don't worry. It's really much easier than it sounds. Just remember, you're aloof, tough as nails, nothing gets to you."
Lois swallowed. "Right," she said faintly. "Nothing gets to me."
"Lois, wait. We shouldn't split up."
"I'm going to get to the bottom of this," she said simply. And with her shoulders thrown back and her head held high she marched across the lobby, through the yellow doors, and deep into her life history. If what the man beside him had said was true, and really, Clark knew it couldn't be. Still…
"I need to go with her," he protested as Not Perry started them moving again. "I don't know what this is, but—"
He had been led straight into a crowd of people. They gathered around, expectant looks on their faces. Clark took a startled step backward, only to find the false Chief directly behind him, blocking his way.
"Here he is, folks. Sorry for the delay. I understand Superman had some saving to do this morning. What was it, son?" he asked with a cheery smile. "Train derail? Warehouse fire? Cloned bank robbers?"
From around him the sounds of laughter rang out. The group closed in. Leaned in. Listening.
"Prometheus," Clark said weakly, working off the Chief's pointed glare, knowing he needed to say… something. "I had to—"
"Rescue the colonists' transport!" everyone shouted in unison, rocking him back on his heels and nearly sending him dashing for the exit.
Not Perry clapped both hands on his shoulders now, holding him in place, whether he knew it or not. "Well, good you could find the time to join us. Ladies and gentlemen, your guide for the day… Superman."
Clark felt himself go weak in the knees. He shook his head in an attempt to clear it. What was this? What… on earth… was this?
With a final wave, the false Chief turned to leave. Clark lunged for him, pitching his voice low. "Wait. I don't know what to do. There's been a mistake."
"Amateurs," was the muttered reply. "You're in the Krypton wing. It's just holograms. When the lights come on, push the buttons. Nothing to it. And remember, you are Superman. Stay in character whatever happens. And absolutely no kissing."
"Some of the ladies will try. Especially when you get to the baby in spaceship part. Heartbreaking. But no touching, no kissing; that's an iron clad rule. The family won't hear of it any other way. You are a one-woman man. These people know that, they just need reminding, sometimes."
Clark cast a wary glance at the women in his group, young and old. Surely, it was just his imagination. He currently didn't know down from up. But they seemed to be… eyeing him… as if he was on today's lunch menu.
"A one-woman man?" he repeated back to Not Perry, but he was gone, hustling across the lobby to greet the next group of people.
Clark turned back to his group, forcing himself to make eye contact, to smile a stiff smile to cover his total panic.
"So…" He cleared his throat when his voice cracked slightly. "Who wants to see the Krypton wing?"
She wouldn't cry. And she wouldn't kill him. Not yet. Not until she figured out how he had done this. First, she would find him, and work out what sort of head trick he was playing on her. What kind of alien powers built an entire… wing … dedicated to her utter humiliation. And then forced her to play the part of… herself… and watch it.
Lois shook her head on that last thought. It sounded even crazier when put that way. But that is precisely what had happened. She had been one of a host of Loises. An impersonator, a tour guide through her painful life history.
Of all the twisted, evil-minded…
Once she had some answers, she would take him apart. Rend him handsome, muscle bound limb from handsome, muscle bound limb.
She had felt sorry for him. In the park, after their crash, she had thought him to be some kind of innocent in need of a protector.
Lois covered her mouth and stopped in her tracks just long enough to stifle the hysterical laughter that wanted to burst out. She took deliberate, slow breaths. Steadied herself.
Calm. She needed to be calm. Methodical. He was obviously a brilliant actor if he was able to slip under her bad guy radar as neatly as he had. He was, also, obviously much more than simply strong and able to fly. He could control minds and distort reality and even… recreate a person's past.
There was no other explanation. He hadn't missed a thing. The Lane Family wing, as she preferred to call it- and had insisted, through gritted teeth and not so veiled threats, the groups with her call it, as well- was so accurate it amazed her. It had details even she had forgotten. Things she had thought she had out grown, that couldn't hurt her any more. All there. All on display through some sort of computer generated… something. She didn't know what to call it, just that it was highly advanced. Obviously it had come from the very space pod he had assured her he didn't have.
Was she his only victim? Or was he doing this all over? To reporters, maybe? Trying to stifle the media?
Again Lois stopped and took a closer look at her surroundings. The building had emptied out long ago when the announcement for closing time had been made. Along with the call for all cast members to return their costumes before leaving.
Cast members. This was quite a production. She had to hand it to him. He'd certainly gone all out.
She started forward again, the hideous blue carpet muffling her steps.
He was still here somewhere; she knew he had to be. Why would he leave? He would want to stay and wait for her to return to him- shaken, humiliated, begging him not to expose her skeleton-filled closet. Promising him allegiance and anything else.
The thing was, without any of this, he had had her. She had believed his Nice Guy from Outer Space Come to Save crap. She had bought it hook, line, and sinker, and before he had swept her down the rabbit hole, she'd been ready to write a story that would present him in the most flattering light possible.
Lois stopped again and swallowed hard around the tightness in her chest. Steady. Calm. He needed to think he had her under his spell. And she needed him to think it so she could figure out her next move. What to do from here. Who to call. How to get the Daily Planet put back as it was supposed to be.
She found him right away. Sitting in the very first place she checked. The first hallway to the left. She eyed the gold lettering over the doors: 'Krypton Wing.' It bore his likeness just as everything did, and underneath it the words 'A Gift from the Stars.'
She rolled her eyes. Was that conceited enough for him?
He was just sitting in there, in the dark. Much as she had been doing for the last few hours. His eyes were fixed on one of those glowing hologram thingies she hadn't been able to figure out. His ridiculous red cape was a mass of wrinkles around him. And he must have heard her coming— he had to have heard her— because he looked for all the world like the loneliest guy on the planet.
It was a good effect. A great pose. And it would have convinced someone else. But he had no idea who he had picked to mess with. He would, though. Soon enough. She'd make sure of that.
"I want to go home," she told him, deciding to force his hand. If his plan was to keep her here, under his control in this crazy place, he was going to have to give himself away right now. Because she was going to leave, otherwise. Simple as that.
"Me too," he said softly, his brown, troubled eyes meeting hers for a meltingly long minute. "And now I know where that is. Or… was."
He was good. She gave him that much.
"Well, see you later, then," she said briskly, spinning around to leave.
Just as she expected, he rose to his feet hurriedly. "Wait," he called. "You're…? Where are you going, Lois? We need to… be together, I think."
"Oh, you do, do you?" She turned and spat the words at him. So much for calm and methodical. That wasn't how she did things anyway. Head first, damn the torpedoes. That's what had always worked for her. "Am I not humiliated enough for you? Did you want to see me… naked? Crying? Begging you not to tell my secrets to anyone? Did you think you could embarrass me into keeping quiet? Because you can't. You won't. You will have to kill me first." She hissed each word for emphasis, letting all the venom that had built up over the very long day bleed into them. "I'm going to tell the world about you," she said softly, deadly serious. "And if you stop me, then someone else will. Don't think getting rid of one reporter will do the trick for you. And don't think that getting rid of hundreds of reporters will do it either. The truth is bigger than that. The truth finds a way. The truth-"
"What did they do to you, Lois?" he asked in agonized tones. Again, very effective if you didn't know better. "I should have come with you, shouldn't have let Perry separate us when we didn't know what was going on."
"Ah ha!" She moved towards him, waving her finger in his face triumphantly. Maybe he was going to kill her, but she was going to have her say. "That was *not* Perry, and if you're pretending that it was, then you are a part of this. This is *your* doing. *Your* twilight zone. And I'm not buying, space boy. You hear me? Not! Buying!"
He faltered. One hand moved to scrub through his hair, as the other reached for her, almost in supplication. She slapped his hand away, then winced because it was like hitting concrete. She slapped his hand again, though, when he reached with apology on his face, as if sorry she'd been hurt.
"I'm going home," she said between clenched teeth. "And if you know what's good for you, you'll let me."
He didn't move. Didn't try to stop her. She checked just once, tossing a cautious look over her shoulder to make sure she was, indeed, making the get away that she seemed to be making. She pushed open the lobby doors and stepped out onto the peaceful, dark streets of her city.
Back in her element. Back in reality. Away from him and his house of evil… or whatever.
She ran. Flat out. Full speed, shoes in her hand, lungs aching. At this time of night there were no pedestrians. No one to hinder her. And she wanted her legs to put as much distance as possible between that place and her, between her past and now. Between his soulful, apologetic brown eyes and what she really knew him to be.
She had survived it. She was Lois Lane. That was what she did. But what a day. What a story. She would go home and start writing. She ignored the voice inside her telling her that even if she did, she had no place to send the story. He had… warped the Daily Planet. First things first. She would get it all down. And then come back in the morning and see what things were like. If, as she suspected, he was practicing some sort of mind control, then maybe all she needed to do was get away from him. Sleep it off. Then in the morning the…hallucination or illusion…would be broken.
A rustle of wind, a breeze which blew her hair, brought her from her thoughts, reminding her how shaky her legs where. She slowed just a touch. Checking her progress. Checking over her shoulder…
She screamed. A full throated cry of pure despair and terror was ripped from her and she would have run straight into a lamp post if he hadn't grabbed her shoulders and steered her around it.
She lost it. "No! No! Leave me alone! Don't… don't!!"
"I'm not going to hurt you! I'm not! I'm not," he said when she drew a breath long enough to stop yelling. He held his hands up in surrender, but continued to keep pace with her three feet off the ground. "I swear, Lois. I swear I won't touch you again. Won't force you anywhere. Wouldn't hurt you for all the world."
His voice cracked on that last hurried promise and she stopped, doubling over, sucking in air. Running was useless anyway when he could move like that. She hated herself but she started to cry. A rough, choking cry because she was so exhausted she could barely stand.
"Let me take you home," he pleaded in a low voice, keeping his distance from her. "Let me. I'll take you home and we'll see if it's…I don't know…the same… or different like the Daily Planet…My God." Now he sounded on the verge of tears. She looked up at him through blurry eyes, and couldn't tell if his were watery, also, or if that was just her imagination.
Or part of what he wanted her to think.
She jerked around and continued walking. "No."
He didn't argue. "Ok. I'm going to sit right here, Lois." He pointed to a bench along the sidewalk. "Here. At the corner of— " He glanced at the street signs. "— Sunny Street and Happy Way," he read, his eyebrows rising into his hairline.
She turned and glared at him. "You aren't funny."
He shook his head. "There's nothing funny about this. I just want you to know I'll be sitting right here. I won't go anywhere. If you need me, you can just call. I'll hear you. But I won't come otherwise. I won't bother you, all right?"
She watched him as he sat down slowly. Crossing his long legs at the ankles and resting his arms along the back of the bench. Looking like a guy who was waiting for a bus and nothing more. There wasn't anything about him that spoke of menace.
He was good. Really good.
"Fine." She didn't have the strength to say anything more. She was spent. She wouldn't write tonight after all. She would just go home, shower, and fall into the bed. With any luck she'd be too tired to dream. And in the morning, she'd deal with things.
She limped off down the street, looking back at various intervals until she rounded the corner out of sight. At last glance he was still sitting there, illuminated by a single street light, watching her go.
He didn't have to wait long for her to return. It took every ounce of control in him not to stand and go to meet her when he heard her coming. Her heart was beating painfully fast and her soft, jerking sobs ripped straight through him. Clark closed his eyes and held himself still. He didn't want to scare her any more than she already was.
And she was terrified. He could only imagine what she had found when she had gone looking for the comfort of her home. The familiarity of her apartment, her bed, her things.
None of them would have been there, if he had guessed correctly. Because nothing about this place, wherever they were, was as it should be. The Daily Planet and Centennial Park were in the right locations. As were all the buildings in sight. But everything else about them was… wrong. Their architecture was subtly altered. And while he hadn't budged from his bench, keeping his word to Lois, he had x-rayed as far up and down the city blocks as his eyes could see.
And that was far.
They weren't alone, despite how it looked. There was absolutely no traffic on the street, no pedestrians, but the city was as crowded as Metropolis always was. It was the dead of night and everyone was home and apparently relaxing, some sleeping, others going about their business. He knew because he had looked, had seen into countless apartments.
Nothing in the city was open, which was odd. The only light was the one he was sitting under. Motion sensitive. It had turned on when he walked by, and since he was still here, it still shone. He had noted the technology when Lois had stomped up the street. Lights had flickered on and off in her wake.
None of the stores seem to cater to a night crowd. No bars. No clubs. No hang-outs. And there was absolutely no one hanging out. Another oddity. Not even some poor down-on-his-luck guy looking through the dumpsters.
There were no dumpsters. And the streets were so clean. So unMetropolis like.
Lois would have noticed all of that by now, on her long walk back, he was sure of it. Just as he had, when he was alone enough and still enough to let it register. The street names were the least of the changes.
They weren't home. They were… somewhere very, very far from home. And how they had gotten here and what they would do now, he couldn't even begin to fathom. But first, before anything, he needed to gain her trust. To assuage some of her fears. Her primary one. That he was responsible for this.
He felt a twist in his gut, a hard ache at the very thought. Who could blame her? He certainly didn't. But he needed her to get past it. He needed Lois Lane on his side, working with him, if they were going to get a handle on what was happening.
Because he was clueless. And just as scared as she was.
Her breathing had evened out. She had stopped crying. Trying to pull herself together to put on a brave, no doubt, defiant face for his sake. So he wouldn't see that he had broken her.
Again he felt a clench in his heart, similar to the one he'd felt on their first meeting. She was something else. He smiled slightly, despite the circumstances. He was lucky to be stuck here with her. He just wished he could convince her to feel the same.
"What have you done to… everything?" she said wearily, plopping down on the bench next to him.
"This wasn't me," he answered simply.
"Right," she said, closing her eyes and leaning her head back on the bench. His arm was still there, but she didn't bother to recoil. She was too tired for that. She just needed five minutes of shut eye and then…
No. She had no idea what then, she finally admitted to herself. None whatsoever. Hadn't someone said things always look better in the morning? She remembered that dimly. The sun will come out tomorrow. Tomorrow is another day. Joy comes in the morning. Stupid stuff like that.
Well, she would just put that to the test, wouldn't she? Morning had a lot of work to do to straighten this tangle out. She yawned. She could feel him looking at her, but she couldn't seem to get her eyelids open so she could glare at him. She just thought a glare in his direction. If he was mind reader, that could work.
She sank into blessed blackness, letting it come and envelope her, wrap her in warm, steady arms and carry her away as if on a current of air.
Ok, morning, do your best.
She woke on a hard floor in an enormous room she didn't recognize. She lay on her back studying the ceiling for an extra minute. It dipped sharply at the sides, had exposed beams which, from her angle, looked like the bones of a ship upside down. It looked ancient, but sturdy.
She sat up stiffly. Morning had come, and she was ready for the part where it all seemed better somehow. She was obviously in some sort of attic. She looked down, aware of the warm, red silk that was tucked around her. She threw it off and untangled her legs.
"Here," said a quiet voice from behind her. She was on her knees, but she moved quickly to face him. He was sitting against the wall not far from her and he had obviously been watching her sleep. "It's coffee." He held up a steaming mug. "I thought you might…" He shrugged, set it down close to her and moved away.
She picked it up tentatively. She did operate better with a little caffeinated assistance. And if ever there was a morning when she needed it…
As long as it wasn't drugged.
She sniffed it experimentally.
He noticed, and for some reason a smile spread over his face. When she started to sip, he sat back down, as if they had both passed some sort of test. "I reheated that a few times, so I hope it's still good."
It was. Better than any she had ever tasted, actually. She just wasn't going to tell him that.
"Lois." His voice dropped to a serious tone. "Just hear me out, please? There was a man named Tempus-"
She choked. Her coffee seared its way down as she coughed and sputtered. He stepped towards her cautiously, only moving to give her a gentle thump on the back when she nodded vigorously.
"Should have waited until you swallowed," he said with some chagrin.
"You think?" she wheezed.
"Then… you do remember?" She couldn't miss the desperate hope in the question.
"He had… a… ring… or something," she said with a frown, trying to concentrate.
He practically melted into the floor, relief falling from him in waves she could almost see. "I remember the ring, too." He grabbed for her hand and moved next to her. "And he wasn't alone. There were others there, trying to stop him."
"He called one of them Andrus." She closed her eyes, seeing the scene float hazily in front of her, trying to picture exactly where everyone had been standing. "How could we both forget that?"
"I don't know. Tempus obviously activated something that brought us here. Maybe amnesia is a part of it."
"When did you remember?" She turned to face him, glancing at the hand that still held hers tightly. "And… I'm sorry. For what I said. For what I thought—"
"Don't." He cut her off with a shake of his head. "It's not necessary. How could you think otherwise? It came to me sometime after you fell asleep. Just sort of filtered through in bits and pieces. Almost like watching a movie. A really, really confusing movie."
"A Fellini film."
"Very Fellini-esque. And at some point it all fit together and I remembered… most if it, anyway. I had come back to meet you at EPRAD. We haggled over the interview. Then we were interrupted by a bunch of characters who knew us but we didn't know them. They argued. And then… zap."
"Zap? It was more like Zzzzt."
He laughed, squeezing her hand. "I hoped that when you woke up, you would remember on your own. Or if not, if because I'm different I could remember what you couldn't, then maybe I could talk you into believing me."
"So the coffee was a bribe," she said, arching her brow at him.
"You bet," he agreed. "And plenty more where that came from."
"Where did this come from? And where are we?"
He shifted a bit uncomfortably. "I didn't know where to go last night when you fell asleep out there. So, I just picked you up and brought you back here. This is the Daily Planet. The top floor. It isn't used. None of the higher floors are. And since it's kind of the epicenter of the weirdness, I thought we should be here."
"Makes sense. And the coffee?"
"Swiped it from the employee lounge downstairs." He blushed. "I know we aren't *technically* employees, but yesterday everyone seemed to think we were, so…"
"They thought we were or they wanted us to think they thought that," she countered. "Did you notice the other guys dressed like you? The ones dressed like Perry? You should have seen the Cat Grant look-alikes."
He nodded. "Something really… strange is going on here. And… I can't imagine what."
"We should stay here today," she said. "Act as if we work here for real and do a bit of investigating. I'd like to get my hands on the person who came up with the life and times of Lois Lane exhibit."
"I don't know," he said gently. "Maybe there's another way? Are you really up for another day in the… DF wing? Pretending we're pretending to be ourselves? I'm not sure I am."
"It's now the Lane Family wing. And yes, I'm up for it. I was too distracted by everything yesterday. And completely focused on you being the culprit. I didn't dig any deeper." She paused and took another sip. "Rookie mistake."
"The weird stuff isn't contained within these walls, though," he argued. "You saw the city last night. And… your apartment…" He hesitated. "Was it… still there?"
"It was." She smiled grimly. "Looking nicer than I've seen it. I had no idea that building could look like that. But when I tried to go in…" She scowled, remembering last night's mad dash to the doors, her one goal the safety and normalcy of her home.
"Different locks?" he guessed. "Different tenants?"
"No locks whatsoever. It was roped off. It's some sort of landmark. Shown by appointment only."
"We are definitely not home."
"We aren't, are we? But how? And why, for that matter?"
"Maybe we find out today," he said, and she recognized he was trying to cheer her, cheer them both, maybe. "We go with your plan and play along for the morning. Which means it's back to Krypton for me." He rose to his feet and reached for his cape.
"Is Krypton the name of your planet?"
"Yeah," he said. "I saw it yesterday. Saw some… really amazing stuff actually."
She remembered how he had looked when she found him the previous evening. That hadn't been an act, then. He had clearly been moved by what he had seen. And maybe as shaken as she'd been.
"Was it stuff you had…bad memories of?" she asked carefully, finger combing her hair from her face and glancing around for her shoes.
He handed them to her. "No. It was stuff I had no memory of. There was so much about me, about my origins that I never knew, Lois. And it was all there. In that one wing. Every answer to every question I ever asked myself, and more that I didn't even think to ask."
"You should be careful, then." She put her shoes on and tried to brush the dust from her suit jacket. She would definitely visit the cast locker rooms today. Find a change of clothes. "Tempus brought us here for a reason. He has an agenda. That wing is probably an attempt to manipulate you, a lie. You can't trust it."
"Was the Lane Family wing a lie?" he asked her seriously, his eyes searching hers. "Was that what upset you so much? Were there things in there about your family, things that weren't true, that hurt you?"
She blew out a deep breath. "Actually, no. Whoever Tempus is, he got it exactly right."
She shrugged. "It's all in the past. Mostly. And apparently, it's all in the Lane Family wing. Did you look anyplace else yesterday?"
"I didn't." He looked embarrassed. "Eventually my group got tired of waiting on me and struck out on their own. I was just… frozen there. I couldn't read enough, couldn't watch enough. Couldn't take it all in well enough. Basically, I walked ten paces into that room and never moved again."
"So, Tempus contained us rather successfully yesterday," Lois said thoughtfully. "We probably did exactly what he wanted us to do."
He pushed the door open. It swung on rusty hinges, emitting a piercing squeal. "We walked in under our own power yesterday. No one forced us. And we left unchallenged, too. Those were all our choices."
"What we thought were our choices," she said as she jogged down the long stairwell. "Maybe they weren't. Here's our plan. You work your room and I'll work mine. We talk to as many employees as we can. See if we can find out who pays them, how long they've been here, what they were told when they were hired."
"They might all be in on this," he cautioned.
"More than likely. But if so, they'll all have the same basic story and that's a give-away, too. Trust me, I've done this before."
"You've led tours of your life history while impersonating yourself? Great. Because I'm a little green at this."
"Cute," she said through gritted teeth.
"Sorry, keep going."
"Talk to the visitors who come in and out. Ask them where they're from, how long they've been in town, what their favorite part of Metropolis is. Or if they live in Metropolis, pretend you're new in town…"
"No need to pretend there."
"…and ask some general 'what is there to do here?' type questions."
"You never know what piece of information will break everything open, so pay attention to everything. We'll meet back in a couple hours, compare notes. That's about all I'm going to be able to stand anyway."
"Sounds like a plan, partner."
She halted on the stair just below him and he nearly crashed into her. "What did you just say?" she demanded.
"Uh," he said a bit thickly. "I, uh, hadn't mentioned, Lois. And actually, I wasn't sure it was strictly necessary, but I'm—"
"Staff meeting has already started guys!" called a bright-eyed kid as he sailed past them. "New schedules are up on the board. New assignments by request only. If you're late, have a good excuse ready."
Well, he wasn't Jimmy Olsen, but his timing wasn't the only thing eerily familiar about him.
"Some things are universal," Lois said, moving to follow the cub reporter look-alike. "Let's go find some answers. I'd really like to sleep in my own bed tonight."
It had been twenty-four hours and Madge was starting to fear the worst.
"He said he hadn't killed them," Hank reminded her kindly, his steady grey eyes on her as she circled her desk for the hundredth time.
"I know," Madge said around the lead weight in her heart. "Check the vitals for me once more, would you, Petal?"
Obediently, and with an airy, bemused smile meant to indicate she was humoring her, Madge's other assistant, Petal, moved to the cabinet which housed instruments known only to a very few who worked in the building.
That the instruments even existed would be enough to create panic among the citizens of their world. That they had to exist because Tempus did, would only cause more upheaval. Utopia's lifelines were carefully monitored, and had been ever since it had been shown necessary for the community's very survival.
If you were to ask an average citizen on the street what he or she imagined the Ministry of Helpers and Peacekeepers really did, the answer would be vague, or none at all. In a society that was entirely peaceful, where everyone prided themselves on being helpful, the Ministry no doubt seemed unnecessary. Quaint, even.
In fact, for most of the populace the Ministry was nothing more than an outdated bureaucracy that had resorted to selling excellent baked goods to keep its idle employees in pensions. That had been Madge's predecessor's idea. When others had voted to hide the building, cloak it from outside eyes so as not to arouse even an inking of suspicion over what went on inside, Odias Sinders had loudly declared that no one, not one person, ever felt uneasy or threatened by baked goods. Their smell reminded everyone of home and hearth and mother. All the good things and none of the bad.
So, with simple, unimpressive architecture and a central location in the heart of Utopian Metropolis as part of the disguise, as well as a gourmet bakery in the front, the Ministry of Helpers and Peacekeepers existed unnoted. Except on Wednesdays, which was two-for-one donut day.
Behind the bakery and past the kitchens sat a small building lined in lead. A left-over safeguard from previous generations, when there had still been Lane-Kents with x-ray vision among them.
Of course the Lane-Kents were all known to be unfailingly honest. But the thinking at the time had been there was no sense risking the family finding out what really happened behind those walls, especially as it was their fate, in particular, which depended on the work done inside.
And it wasn't just the building that housed secrets. Those who worked there did, too. They had all taken vows of silence on certain subjects. They were all sworn to protect Utopia from a madman. And they were almost all pleasantly plump from two-for-one donut days.
Every morning Madge kissed her husband Fredrick goodbye at their door. He knew where she was going and the administrative title she held. But the rest of it, the losing the founders of Utopia and thereby endangering their very existence part, well, she hadn't mentioned it over breakfast that morning. Or any morning. Ever.
"It all looks good," Petal said, smiling her serene smile and moving back to her work.
Madge would miss her. Petal and her kindness. Hank and his loyalty. Anna and her coffee.
But she was expecting a call from upstairs at any time. And an entire day later she still had nothing new to report. Tempus had been dealt with. Again. She could have sworn that man enjoyed the many ways and places they thought to exile him.
There was a committee that worked round the clock brainstorming just that very thing. The Places to Drop Tempus Safely committee, or PDTS, had been dragged out of bed in the middle of the night and told to get to work.
Madge hoped that this latest one took. And that in time Tempus would grow restless enough to talk to her.
"Where is Tempus now?" she fretted to Hank and Petal. She was forgetting. "USA, eighteen century asylum?"
"No, Madge," said Hank softly. "That was a few crimes ago. PDTS put him in…" Hank found the folder right on top of her desk, just where she had put it down. Madge sat. She was tired. Tired and not thinking. This was not good. "… Prehistoric North America. The Dakotas, to be exact. Tough winters, but plenty of game to sustain him. And maybe when it gets cold enough, he'll feel more like chatting."
"And those lifelines?" Madge repeated.
This time Petal's patient smile seemed forced. "I just told you."
"Check again, dear, please."
She kept her eyes closed to avoid seeing the long look she knew Petal and Hank were exchanging.
"Coffee," said the lovely Anna, entering the room.
"Bless you," Madge told her.
"The levels have dropped," Petal said, her voice cracking. "Just in the last two minutes."
Madge sat back and sipped on her coffee. She wasn't surprised. This is what she had been waiting for. "Call upstairs," she said to Hank, who was standing, frozen, staring at the monitors. "And see if they can find that damned Wells."
She had cursed.
Anna, Hank, and Petal all turned startled faces in her direction, pale and shaky, pupils dilated. Poor kids. First the dip in the lifelines and now this. "Sorry," she said, smiling brightly. "I read that word somewhere. Seemed appropriate for just this situation."
"Hell, yeah," said Hank, moving to make the call.
A fast trip to the cast locker room had been exactly what Lois needed. More coffee. Some kind of pastry that was so good she'd stopped in the middle of her first bite long enough to stuff a second pastry into her coat pocket. She rolled her eyes at the small 'Take Only One. A Sharing Community is a Well Fed Community.' sign some weirdo had placed on the buffet.
She darted into the showers, wishing for shampoo or a toothbrush, but grateful for what she could get- hot water and some slivers of soap left drying in the dish. She toweled off and headed through the door that said 'Costumes, Lois Lane.' If she hadn't been nearly naked, she would have taken a minute to rummage through the Cat Grant closet. She could only imagine…
Finding a fairly nice suit and pair of shoes in the right size, she hustled into them. False Jimmy's message that the staff meeting was already under way spurred her to move quickly. She didn't want to miss the opportunity to see all the people who worked here assembled in one place. So far there were Perrys, Cats, Lois Lanes, and, of course, Superman.
She gave that name some thought as she hurriedly dried her hair and helped herself to the some of the cosmetics strewn about. "A sharing community…" she muttered.
The man she was on this little acid trip with hadn't called himself Superman, ever. But the woman back at EPRAD had. The guy pretending to be Perry had. And the name, along with his likeness, was certainly plastered all over the building. It was the height of ostentatious. The real man was anything but. Still, it fit. Superman. She liked it. She was just having some trouble matching it to the person she was here with. The way he had cringed at the statue, nearly dropped dead at first sight of the lobby. He had told her he didn't want to be famous. He only wanted to help and nothing more…
That wasn't really working for him, was it?
Pulling the second pastry from her coat pocket, she gobbled it down as she headed towards the main room in the back. She would have this all figured out by lunch time. Lois Lane was on the case.
So were a lot of other Lois Lanes. They sat and stood all around the conference room. All with the same shade of brown hair as hers, but the lengths and styles varied, as did their ages. Each of them bore some resemblance to her. Enough to give the illusion of being Lois Lane. But no one looked exactly like her except, well, her. She noticed the glances of approval and welcome as she looked around.
Lois gave herself a full minute to take it in. To just… soak up the weirdness so she could get over it and think clearly. She took a head count. A dozen Loises, including her. Five Cats, all underdressed, as would be expected. Way too many Jimmys, but then she had always found just the one to be too much. And as for Superman…
Six. All with the tall, dark, and handsome thing going on. All looked like they spent several hours in the gym each day. But the real one, the one she had come here with, was easy to distinguish. For one thing, he was smiling at her from where he leaned against the wall on the far side of the room. And secondly, his Suit just seemed to… fit him. Not that the others weren't dressed in exactly the same thing. Still, her Superman— Lois colored a little at the sound of that, though he hadn't really given her anything else to call him— looked more… super.
She pulled her eyes away from his. She didn't really want to give him the chance to read her mind… not that she still believed he could do that.
Three Perrys. The one from yesterday who was leading the meeting. And two more seated around the table, practicing their scowls and their Elvis impersonations, from what it looked like.
The door flew open, nearly knocking into her. "Sorry," stammered the late comer, moving around her and into the room.
She stared at him. Couldn't place who he was supposed to be. When she raised an inquiring eyebrow at her Superman, though, she was surprised to see that his jaw had tightened and he was looking decidedly uneasy.
"What?" she mouthed to him, but he wasn't watching her. His gaze was following the newcomer all the way to his seat.
"Wardrobe wasn't ready for us this morning," offered the guy she couldn't place, fumbling with his glasses.
Fumbling with…? Hey!
"We'll all be coming along in just a minute."
And they did. Ten of them marched into the room in sheepish single file. Tousled dark hair, brown, slightly dopey eyes, ties that should have been grounds to have them all arrested. The Clark Kent parade.
Lois groaned. Even here, in this place, she couldn't get away from him. And so many of him. Nearly as many Clarks as Loises. Why would that be necessary? She would need to bring this to someone's attention. Once she figured out what this was, of course.
Her Superman still looked shaken. Maybe the lack of sleep was catching up to him. She knew he hadn't closed his eyes last night. He had just sat and watched over her as she slept.
The thought warmed her. And she smiled at him, she couldn't help it. As bizarre as this was, at least she had an ally. Someone she could brainstorm with. Someone she could trust.
And since there was an entire wing in a museum dedicated to her trust issues, that was no small thing.
One of the Clarks tripped past her on their way out of the meeting. She hurried over to her Superman. She really needed to think of something else to call him. "You find everything you needed this morning?"
"Yeah. Shower and change. Although…" He looked down at himself ruefully. "The other Suits just didn't feel right, so I'm still in the same one. Had to wash and dry it in record time."
"Did you see anything? Hear anything?" They all moved out into the lobby towards their assigned places. "By the way, I get the fake Bullpen today, so the Lane Family wing goes to another Lois." She pointed to a short haired, slightly older version of herself, studying the hairstyle critically. Not bad. "How weird was that sentence?"
He chuckled. "I'm still on Krypton today, which is fine by me. At least I have some idea what I'm supposed to be doing."
Lois turned and took a good look at the set up. "So, Krypton is first, just as people enter. That makes sense. It's your origin story. And then visitors move on to…where? The Lane Wing is on the opposite side, so some start with my story and some start with yours, maybe, but from there-"
"I was thinking about that," he cut in softly. "The banners everywhere call this the, uh, Superman Museum."
She grinned. She could hear how hard it was for him to say that casually. "Go on."
"So, I get why my life story is here. Why *I'm* here." He gestured to the other caped heroes milling around. "But why you, Lois? Why all of this at the Daily Planet? Have you thought about it?"
She shrugged. "Face it, you're the story of the century, and I'm the reporter who has an exclusive deal with you." She beamed at the thought.
"But this isn't real, right?" he teased her gently. "You told me this morning we were being manipulated. Not to trust any of this."
"Right," she agreed, sobering quickly. "No one but Tempus would know about our agreement, anyway. We are being played and we shouldn't fall for it, no matter how… attractive. But… you know… in Fantasy Land, or wherever we are, I'm still the reporter who scooped every reporter in the world!"
"At least you're keeping it in perspective," he said solemnly, though she would have sworn his eyes twinkled.
"And speaking of every reporter," she added darkly, watching another Clark Kent stumble past. "I can understand Perry being here. He's my editor. And Cat has certain… appeal. Jimmy takes decent pictures. But him?"
"What's wrong with him?" her Superman said quickly.
"You don't know him. Or… not him… but who he represents. This barnacle I've been stuck with. A green horn from… get ready for this, you'll think I'm making it up…"
'Smallville, Kansas is unmanned,' a voice announced over the loudspeakers. 'One Clark Kent to the Smallville Wing, please. One Clark Kent. Thank you.'
"Oh, this is… not good," Superman muttered beside her, his face pained, one hand messing his hair. "Lois—"
"He gets a wing?" Lois said. "What the hell! He's worked with me all of three days and he gets his own… Smallville? Well, we'll just see about that."
She took off in the direction one of the Clark Kents had taken. She would need to see that wing for herself. And if it was more than a popsicle stand with the price of hay and cow feed written in crude lettering on it, there was going to be trouble.
"Lois." Superman had followed her and was reaching for her hand. "We really need to—"
"Back to Krypton, Supes." A Perry came between them. "Three minutes to opening. And this time, see if you can't lead them from there straight to Smallville, would you? Don't let them wander. Bad for traffic flow. When the planet explodes you just follow the spaceship to Schuster's Field. The path glows in the dark. It's easy."
"Right," said Superman weakly. "I'll… do that."
Lois stopped trying to catch up with the Clark. She stopped trying to pull her hand from Superman's.
She looked at him.
She looked back at Perry's double who was hustling away. At another Clark Kent who was chatting up a Cat Grant…
"From Krypton to Smallville," she heard herself say aloud. "Interesting."
His hand dropped from hers. His eyes closed.
"Yeah," she said. "Now I get it."
They had to be in the future.
That's what he kept coming back to over the course of a very surreal morning. Or if not in the actual future, a really incredible facsimile. The technology in the Krypton wing was years beyond any he had ever seen. Decades and decades beyond it. Yesterday he had simply been too stupefied by what that technology conveyed to dwell on it.
He thought back to the night before, flying over Metropolis, bringing the sleeping Lois to the attic. He had noticed things which now he couldn't explain any other way… but for time travel.
Clark grimaced. Time travel. That was so clearly impossible.
Yes, the city had looked pretty much the same. But the cloud of pollution it wore like a hairnet had been gone. He hadn't felt air that pure outside of rural areas and home. The change was profound enough that despite everything else that had been happening at the time, he had noticed.
Maybe the Clean Air Act, despite being gutted by the previous administration, was finally making some headway? That idea seemed as farfetched as time travel. More so.
He should have investigated. Once he'd noticed the air, the deserted streets, the no litter thing, he could have taken a quick flight over the rest of the country, or overseas. Anywhere. Just to see if other places were as changed as this one. But he hadn't wanted to leave Lois alone. Not even for a second. And he hadn't wanted her waking in his arms, not in the state of mind she'd fallen asleep in.
She would have jumped. Which is what she looked like she wanted to do right now.
He had made a point of checking the newspaper when he'd come down at dawn to get her coffee. It bore the familiar Daily Planet logo, but there wasn't anything in it that could be considered news, just a 'Welcome to the Superman Museum' headline, and not much else. It was nothing more than a souvenir.
Though it did carry a date.
If he was inclined to believe it, he and Lois had landed two hundred years in the future. Metropolis's future.
Which was, of course, impossible. Completely and absolutely… impossible.
But… the woman who had tried to stop Tempus had said she was in charge of 'time and space,' or something like that. Clark wished he could remember more of that conversation now. She'd said he wasn't to worry, that part was clear. The details would be looked after, and he was just to live his life.
Did the 'details' include Tempus and his beam?
And she had called him Superman. Just as everyone else here did.
Clark went over it once more. The statue in the park. Difficult to explain, considering that- by his time- he had made his debut just yesterday afternoon. And the Daily Planet had been turned into a sort of living museum in, what, less than twelve hours?
It wasn't just an elaborate front or a Hollywood set. He had spent his short time before the staff meeting x-raying and eavesdropping everywhere. Searching for hidden doors, false walls. Bad guys in meetings. He had gotten a searing eyeful of the Cats in their dressing room.
Clark flushed hotly at the memory. He hadn't had an accident like that since high school, but it *had* been an accident. And he had been much more careful after that.
Everyone seemed legitimate. To be going about the business of impersonating him- in both his guises now- and those he worked with. And a few "I'm new. How long have you worked here?" inquiries in the locker room had earned him responses varying from three months to ten years.
Of course, if all these people were in on whatever this was, that's exactly what they would say, wasn't it? They would all have different stories, carefully rehearsed.
He hadn't seen any Martha or Jonathan look-alikes. Nor anyone else from his life before Metropolis. So, he had assumed that part was unknown. But now there was a wing for Smallville. A host of Clark Kents.
A Schuster's Field.
Nope. The secret identity thing had definitely been blown along the way.
Somewhere in his… past?
The circling thoughts were making him dizzy. There had to be another, simpler, less insane explanation. For the life of him, he just couldn't think of what it was.
Right now, though, as much as he would like to run these ideas past Lois, he doubted she would be receptive. She had murder in her eyes, or something very close to it. And she had been staring at him, very quietly, for far too long.
"I told you yesterday I didn't want to be laid bare for the world to see," he whispered to her. "Remember?"
"You also said you didn't want fame," she hissed back.
She took a long, theatrical look around. "Nice job."
"Can we table this? Please? Meet for lunch in the attic and discuss theories? I have one."
"Oh, and I have one, too, Superman. And I'd like to discuss it now!" Her voice didn't actually shatter glass on that last word, just flirted with the possibility.
"Please, Lois," he begged, because that seemed like the right thing to do. "Please understand. I wasn't trying to-"
"Make an absolute fool of me?" she said in something shy of a yell. "I'm carrying on about Clark Kent like he's a piece of gum on the bottom of my shoe and you just stand there and let me?"
"Oh," said one of the Perrys walking by. "Perfect. Very nice. Give the people what they came here for."
"You are Clark Kent," Lois seethed, managing to make his name and identity sound like a curse of the worst kind.
"That's right," he returned. "I am. I'm also the guy who saved your life yesterday." That drew a smattering of laughter from the crowd now entering the building, but he didn't take his eyes off hers. "Cool trick for a barnacle, huh?" he added completely unwisely.
The laughter became snickers from the groups of tourists.
"Don't let him get away with it, Lois!" called one. "Get him."
Clark lowered his voice, knowing she was going to do exactly that. "You and I need to be on the same side here."
"He was always confused," volunteered an older woman. "But only because he loved you at first sight."
"Oh… god," Clark said.
"What?" said Lois, addressing the tourist.
"He loved you and wanted you to love him for his humble, farm boy self," someone called.
"Which was a lie, actually." This was taken up with gusto by another spectator. "Because he was never just Clark Kent of Smallville, Kansas. He was always Kal-el of Krypton. It wasn't fair he didn't let her in on it."
"And when was he supposed to do that? When she was cozying up to Luthor?"
There were boos all around.
"Upstairs on our lunch break?" Clark interjected quickly, doing his best to make the crowd invisible. They didn't seem to need them now, anyway.
"…or when she would have published her own grandmother's diary to get ahead?"
"How about when she thought he was dead? That was a golden opportunity he let slip by."
"Oh, geez," said a new voice. "Did we get a pre-revelation Lois and Clark? I had this scenario last time."
"I love them pre-revelation. I think they're wonderful."
Not Perry moved into the center of the room. "Shall we get started? Those of you going with Superman, follow him. And those who want to see Lois, she'll be working the Bullpen."
"Up in the attic," Lois snapped at him before turning and walking away. "And don't you dare be late… Clark."
He was grateful. So very grateful. And more than a little frightened, if he was being honest.
She swept into the Bullpen, seething. And by matter of habit went directly to her desk and checked the third drawer to see if there was enough chocolate to handle this latest plot twist in her life.
She grabbed two bars and put them in her suit pockets, pretty sure she would need them later, and tore the paper off another one.
"Hey, don't mess with the props!" chided a not quite Jimmy Olsen as he rushed by in a show of busyness. "Places. Group one on its way."
Lois stopped, the bar midway to her mouth. Good Lord, but this place was weird. It was so easy to forget. She shoved the uneaten bar back in the drawer and slammed it closed.
"A little too far into the role playing, huh?" The fake Jimmy grinned at her cheerfully. "We all do it. I've been Jimmy Olsen for three years now, and the words 'Get it yourself' seem to have left my vocabulary."
Lois nodded, swallowing roughly. Every time she felt like she was on some sort of solid ground, it would just give way suddenly, taking her down with it. She had slept for a few hours last night on the floor of the attic, but she was weary to the bone. And instead of figuring things out, she was more mired in questions than ever.
Oddly enough there had been a sort of comfort in thinking that…Clark…was behind all this. That all the unexplainable things could be explained by the very fact that he was an alien.
Her partner was an alien.
The mouse of a guy who had stumbled along in her wake all last week was from outer space.
"That at least makes sense," she muttered under her breath.
But this wasn't his doing. She believed him on that. Once she remembered how they had come to be here, she'd realized he had been as rudderless as she was yesterday.
There was an outside enemy at work and his name was Tempus. She couldn't lose sight of that. He had brought them here, to this hi-tech house of mirrors which reflected her life back to her. And not only hers, but Clark Kent's as well.
So, for now she would just step around the big, fat 'Clark is Superman' detail. It just muddied things and the whole situation was cloudy enough as it was.
There were bigger questions which demanded attention. Scarier ones which were almost overwhelming. Maybe she could just consign those to the same space she'd put her alien partner superhero? Securely bound and gagged in one corner of her mind. Though it was getting crowded in there.
But if she was going to start putting the pieces together, she couldn't dwell on how Tempus could know her so well. Know what her home life had been like. Where her bed sat in her bedroom and what color sheets it had. How sad and shy Lucy was as a child. How caustic and desperate her mother had been. How her father could be in the same room with them and not there at all. And now the Double Crunch Fudge Bar habit, too. How and why would have to wait.
Who stood to gain?
That was the angle she needed to take. Who stood to gain from this elaborate show? A lot of time, money, and effort had been poured into it. It had to serve a purpose. She would block everything else out and start there.
"Welcome to the Bullpen," boomed the false Chief, arms spread wide in greeting. "Feel free to look around, folks. This is where the news comes to you."
Streams of visitors of all ages and sizes came through the elevator doors and down the ramp. Lois took her cue from those around her and sat down at her desk, clicked on her computer, and pretended to type. She was surprised and pleased when a story of hers popped up on her screen. It was a good one, corruption on the city council. She read it as if for the first time and tried to ignore the oohs and ahhs as people walked past.
"Unbelievable," whispered one guy as he approached her desk. His shy smile of deep appreciation was so completely in contrast with his loud, garish shirt and way overfluffed hair she nearly laughed. "You're as beautiful as the real thing."
"There's a reason for that," she wanted to say, but didn't. She just smiled wanly and gave him what was meant to be a little nod of dismissal.
He didn't move on. Instead he placed the palms of his hands flat on her fake paperwork and smiled a smile with so many teeth she was tempted to count them. "So, what time do get off work, baby?" he growled in a voice that was both intimate and loud enough to grab everyone's attention.
And it did. There was a pause and then a sort of polite, frantic scramble to reach her desk. Before she could put the oily fink in his place privately, they were surrounded.
"Look." Lois ignored the stares. She had grown used to those in the Lane Family wing. "I'm not interested, so…no. Whatever you're asking, whatever you're thinking, whatever you're even thinking of thinking but haven't thought yet, it's no. No way. And in case I haven't made myself clear, no."
That usually did it. In general, by the time she'd said the third 'no' most men with any higher brain function had gotten the hint. But not this one. He smiled… harder. Wider. Hungrier.
She felt her cheeks start to flame. With all she was dealing with right now, this was the very last thing she needed. Or… scratch that. Maybe it was exactly what she needed. It might feel really nice, cheer her up, even, if she lunged across the desk and just… kicked that look off his face.
She stood, eager. The crowd pressed closer.
"You heard the lady." The circle of people swung open like a gate to let the speaker through. "Lois isn't interested, Scardino. For the last time, get lost."
One of the Clark Kents addressed the Hawaiian shirted lothario in front of her, his jaw clenched, a hand rested protectively on the small of her back. And he seethed with frustration.
Lois got it.
The guy was a good likeness, but he could only be acting, since he was nothing like the Clark Kent she had known for such a brief time. That Clark was anything but forceful.
Except for when he was saving her life and the space program. But those facts were currently behind the locked door of her mind, so… whatever.
"Ok, ok." The man playing Scardino took a step back. "When you get tired of Mr Greenjeans, babe," he said to groans, clearly relishing the part, "you know where to find me."
"Back to work, people!" The Chief yelled right on cue. And it was a cue, Lois could see that. "This isn't a Wanda Detroit romance novel; it's a place of business, on your way."
With that the young Jimmy double popped up, taking pictures of the visitors as they exited the room. "Photos available in the gift shop."
"Five minute break," the Perry said in a much quieter, much less southern voice. "Then we start all over."
"I haven't worked with you before, but the improvising was great." The actor Scardino stuck his hand out to shake hers. "I'm Stephen."
"Lo—" she said, then stopped short. "Lorraine."
"Nice meeting you, Lorraine," Stephen said without missing a beat. "And way to get all testosterone on me, Dave!" he said to the Clark who was perched on the corner of her desk.
"Too far out of character?" Dave looked concerned. "Maybe if Clark had just done that once, it wouldn't have taken them so long to get to the HEA room."
Everyone laughed appreciatively. Except Lorraine, of course.
"Those people ate it up," the Jimmy who wasn't Jimmy said. "I think they'd rather see that than what really happened."
Lois sat back down slowly, turning the words over in her head. "'…if Clark had just done that once…'"
She felt a wave of relief wash over her. She closed her eyes and savored it.
Up until now Tempus had gotten everything so right it was unnerving. Terrifying, really. But this… this was all wrong.
He had obviously set up some sort of romantic triangle, which, in itself, was laughable. She didn't even *know* a Scardino, she was sure of it. Especially if the way this guy dressed was indicative of the real one. She wouldn't be inclined to forget him.
And 'Clark' hovering behind her, jealous and angry, driving Scardino away…
She laughed and felt herself relax for the first time since she'd woken on an unfamiliar floor. Maybe this was a little thing, but it was an important thing.
Tempus was wrong.
He was not all knowing and all seeing. Lois felt a surge of optimism. If he had made one mistake, he would make others. And she would be ready when he did.
Putting on an easy smile she turned to the men, remembering her advice to Superman… Clark. No piece of information was insignificant. "What's the HEA room?"
Dave and Stephen stopped talking.
"You don't know?" Stephen said in disbelief. "Happily Ever After. Kind of the whole point."
"You're new here," Dave cut in sympathetically, "and I bet they're working you so hard you haven't had a chance to look around."
"Well, look at her," said the actor playing Jimmy, "You better believe they're keeping her in the front rooms so everyone can see her. The HEA room is so dark, *I* could be Lois Lane in there and no one would notice."
"Are you related?" Stephen asked. "I thought the family didn't do the role-playing."
Lois blinked. Things had swerved off track, and once more she found herself floundering. "Related to who?" That seemed safe enough.
"The Founders," Dave said. "You are, aren't you? Did the family send you? So there would be an authentic looking Lois Lane? There was some concern last year over the, ah, flirtier Loises."
"Flirtier is one way to put it," said Not Jimmy dreamily.
"Excuse me," she said, moving blindly to her feet. "I… I need to take a break."
"Two minutes, places gang," called Perry from his office.
"Hurry back," Stephen whispered.
She moved as quickly as she could, hearing the concern in their voices, but none of the words. It didn't matter. They wouldn't make sense anyway. Nothing did. It was like listening underwater.
And just now she felt like she was drowning.
She sprinted up the ramp. Good, familiar ramp. Even nicked and worn in the same ways as the original. Out of long habit she ran her palm over a scar in the wood. The dent she'd left when she'd thrown her shoe at Ralph and, sadly, missed him.
Who did that? Who replicated a world right down to a scuff on a prop? Chocolate bars in a drawer?
Tempus. Tempus did that.
But why? Why?
She would find out, she told herself fiercely. She was calm and in charge. And she'd just had that surge of optimism, she didn't want to let go of that too soon. Right now she just needed to stretch her legs, go somewhere and not be looked at and told how much she looked exactly like… herself.
Lois headed for the stairwell and started climbing.
On his second morning in the Krypton wing, Clark tried to disassociate himself. To pretend he was a guy pretending to be Superman and nothing more. Just another impersonator in a cape staring at the same displays all day long.
He tried. But after he pushed the first simulator button and the walls dissolved and gave way to the illusion of deep space, swallowing them up, he forgot he was trying.
He had been in open space only two days ago. Or two hundred years and two days ago, depending on whose calendar he went by.
The reproduction of the vastness, the darkness broken only by blazing rays of sharp light was first rate. A coldness seeped into the room right on cue, leaving the audience members shivering, but feeling very much as if they were experiencing the real thing for themselves.
Clark made himself look deeper. The cooling system was found easily, as well as the technology behind the holograms and lasers. It wasn't hidden, just placed discreetly around the room so as not to detract from the illusion. And it didn't give him any answers, it simply pressed more questions on him. It was quite possible this was what home theater systems had advanced to over the last two centuries.
Clark's heart skipped a beat when the red planet spun into view. Since he had seen this part over and over the day before, he thought he'd be ready for the feelings it brought. But something in him- something more primal than thoughtful- reacted again, as if it were the first time.
The twin memories, recognition and reunion, awoke in every cell of his body. His every nerve sang with it. Home.
It had been that sense of awakening and belonging- more than any other thing yesterday- that convinced him all this wasn't a cheap trick, or a lie, a distortion of some kind.
Because while the special effects might be easy enough to manufacture, this feeling when he looked at Krypton could not be.
Watching it explode, watching its destruction, imagining the loss of lives, of the ground his parents had once walked, the air they had once breathed, everything he had once come from and that was rooted in him still, had been his undoing yesterday.
He was a cosmic orphan. The one and only living heir to an entire planet.
Clark nearly choked at the irony. Funny how he had always considered himself a lonely person, well loved by his parents, but still essentially an outsider.
And he hadn't known the half of it, had he?
Now he did. Now he knew the other half of himself as well. He was no longer just Clark Kent of Smallville, Kansas, a man with a baffling array of special abilities and no real explanation for them. He was Kal-el of the house of El. Beloved son of Jor-el and Lara. Two names he savored the weight of in his mind, simply glad to know those syllables.
They had loved him enough not to cling to him. Not to barricade themselves together, determined to live out their last days as a family.
Instead, they had launched him away, making it possible for him to be standing here- whenever and wherever he was- witnessing their sacrifice.
"Thank you," he murmured aloud, though he knew full well the actors portraying his parents in the hologram weren't the real ones. They were as close as he was ever going to get.
He turned away when the crash of light and sound began. He'd seen the simulated explosion yesterday. He didn't ever need to see it again.
The group moved obediently across the room, following the tiny space craft into the hallway, cheering as it cleared the space debris and shot towards the distant planet of green and blue.
Towards Kansas, Jonathan and Martha Kent, and home.
The next set of double doors was the Smallville wing, just exactly as Perry had said. Over the entrance the words 'From Our Arms to Yours.'
Clark stopped on the threshold not following the others in. It even smelled like Smallville. Damp earth and clover. He watched as one of the Clark Kents walked out and greeted the tourists.
"Welcome to Schuster's Field. A favorite place of mine for obvious reasons."
Everyone gave an appreciate chuckle. Some even remembered to turn and wave goodbye to Superman.
Behind him, he heard the next group filing into K-wing. When he was ready, he went to meet them.
Lois reached the third floor and pushed out into the dimly lit hallway. It seemed empty enough and she was tired of climbing stairs, so it was as good as place as any.
Or not. Within seconds a Clark Kent stuck his head from one of the doorways. "Welcome to Happily Ever After," he said with a broad grin.
The proper reply to that failed her, so she just opened her mouth and closed it again.
His brow creased in confusion. "Where's your group?"
"Coming along," she said with what was meant to be breezy confidence. It just came out winded instead. Probably from the climb. Nothing more to it than that.
Lois took note of the candles lining the hallway. The rosy, soft glow they gave off. It was sort of… pretty. Peaceful. She let out a long, slow breath. She could hear light orchestral music floating through the open doors. From where she was standing, everything sounded and looked a little like… church.
No. Not church, exactly. But a place where something important or… sacred, maybe… took place.
She didn't want to go in.
And she didn't want to linger in the hallway any longer either, not under the stare of a Clark Kent. Not when he was wearing a tuxedo, one rose in his lapel almost as if he was dressed for…
"I should head back down and see what's keeping them," she said, though her feet wouldn't move.
"Great." He ducked back in and the doors swung closed, the music was cut off, and it was just her and a bunch of candles. Fire hazards. That was all. Nothing else. Her imagination was starting to run away, but who could blame her?
"Happily Ever After." She snorted that derisively, tossed some skeptical looks around. There was no one else to see them, but they made her feel better.
Her eyes strayed back to the doors.
Whatever was in there certainly couldn't be any worse than what was in the Lane Family Wing. There couldn't be anything here to compare to that house of horrors. And she was fact-gathering today. The best way to get a handle on things, have a look at everything, no stone left unturned. And the timing was good. No group dynamic to distract her.
Silly not to go in, then, really. Foolish. Unprofessional.
"So, why not?" she said aloud.
Clark wasn't too surprised when Lois didn't show up for lunch. He waited as long as he could before he gave in and ate her sandwich. He was starving, and if she turned up he would get her another one.
His stomach full, he leaned up against the attic wall and stretched out his legs and closed his eyes. He just needed a few minutes, a fast nap, before he headed back to work for the afternoon.
He forced all thoughts of Krypton out of his head. All thoughts of the future and time travel and Tempus. He just wanted to sit and nothing more. It had been two days since he last slept, and the constant barrage of images and questions haunting him was exhausting.
He knew it had to be the same for Lois. And now she could add one more little detail to her store of knowledge: Clark Kent and Superman. Same guy.
He laughed a half-laugh. Well, no need to worry she would expose him. Hundreds of people had streamed in and out all morning long, and every last one of them knew.
Clark squeezed his eyes shut. Determinedly relaxing.
'He loved you at first sight.'
Some woman had spoken those words during his and Lois's argument. He tried to ignore them, but they leapt straight to his gut all over again. Along with other words which refused to be pushed off— the Perry's 'You're a one woman man' from the day before.
Clark sighed and opened his eyes. So much for relaxing. He might as well go downstairs; he wasn't going to get any sleep. Not for a minute. He jumped to his feet and walked with quick steps to the door.
He knew those words were true. Every one of them.
He stumbled just a bit in the darkened corner, almost as if that thought had tripped him.
But it had tripped him, hadn't it? And that was the problem.
Lois wasn't the only one who had been handed a really mind-blowing piece of information today. She wasn't the only one who, on top of everything else that was going on, knew just one thing too many.
Clark rested his forehead on the door and let it sink in.
The way he had felt when she had pushed into Perry's office during his interview at the real Daily Planet. The shock to his system. The electric current he could practically see…
"Physical attraction," he whispered aloud. "Nothing unusual."
The worry for her that felt like a band around his heart…
"She's reckless, so that's… natural."
And last night, carrying her back here, folding his cape around her, watching her sleep, after seeing her so undone, even knowing what she thought he was capable of…
"Circumstances. High stress." He spoke a bit louder now, more firmly.
Waking up underneath her in the park yesterday…
"Amazing," he breathed, before he could stop himself.
Clark moved one hand to the door knob. There were some many things to be done. He didn't know what exactly, but he knew he needed to be doing something besides this. Besides standing in the attic, in the future, in a world where his life was, evidently, some sort of amusement ride, wondering if he'd ever have a chance to… wake up underneath Lois Lane again.
The thought was laughable. But he didn't laugh.
"Get a grip," he growled to himself, pulling the door open with enough force to wrench it from the hinges. He didn't stop to fix it. He propped it to one side and took the stairs three at a time trying not to feel as if he was being chased.
He went back to the lobby, deeply grateful for all the people milling about. He would talk to them, every last one. Then maybe after closing, Lois would be ready to meet him and they could compare notes.
He hoped fervently they had more to say to each other than, "Today I learned you're Superman, Clark." And "Well, I can top that. Turns out, I might love you."
Clark smiled ruefully. If there was one thing he did know for certain, it was that his feelings— whatever they were exactly — were entirely one-sided.
One of the Perrys approached him. "Our Smallville Kent has gone home early, you feel up to something a little different?"
"Sure," he said heartily. The more he saw the better. And he was definitely a little homesick.
"Should we notify the Family?"
Madge started, turning away from the monitors, one hand pressed to her galloping heart. "Hank, make some noise next time, will you?"
He smiled good-naturedly, though it was strained. And he didn't repeat himself. He would know that she had heard.
"Not yet," she said finally, not quite able to meet his eyes.
"When?" He took his usual seat across from her desk and Madge moved reluctantly to join him.
"I'm not sure I see the point."
"Don't see the point? The Lane-Kents are the pillars of this community. They number in the thousands. If we've lost their ancestors —"
"Not lost." Madge raised her voice. "Misplaced."
"Since we've… misplaced… their ancestors," Hank said carefully, "shouldn't they be told? They'll be the first ones affected."
"According to the Descendant Theory. We don't really know." Madge moved briskly to her feet. She couldn't seem to make herself sit for long these days. Poor Fredrick. She had kept him awake all night with her tossing and turning.
"You don't look so good," Hank said, as if he was reading her mind. And maybe he was. They had spent countless hours together. She had been his first boss at the Ministry. He had been so young, barely out of school. And as she had climbed in position, she had taken him with her, appreciating his quiet steadiness, his gentle humor, and his undying loyalty. She had placed a lot of trust on his broad shoulders over the years. In many ways, he was the son she'd never had.
Not that they never disagreed. They did, and did often.
"What good can it do them to know? There isn't one thing they can do about it. So why…"
"…ruin their last days?" Hank finished for her, and Madge flinched at his tone, harsher now than she'd ever heard it.
"It hasn't come to that!" She said that louder than she meant to, but just the thought of it, of losing generations of Lois Lane and Clark Kent's offspring all at once…
"You see the lifelines," Hank asserted, moving to his feet and raising his voice to meet hers. "They are definitely weaker. As of now there are still no external signs of it in the community, but for how much longer?"
"I wish I knew." Madge smiled at her friend and co-worker. He smiled back, accepting her unspoken apology for snapping at him. "And then again, I'm glad I don't. The official Ministry position— and I happen to agree with it—" She held up her hand to still Hank's reply. "— is in a Doomsday scenario, the less said the better. We don't want to start a panic."
"But if you were on limited time, wouldn't you want to know?"
That was the question she had wrestled long into the night and well into the morning hours. The one she was wrestling now. Leave it to Hank to voice it.
If she knew her days in this world had grown short, would she truly want to know? Would she want the time to say the things she hadn't said? Do the things she'd always meant to. Or would she prefer the cozy blanket of ignorance? To live her last day with no idea that it was her last day, free of the burden of that knowledge.
"I can't stop thinking of Jor-el and Lara," she confessed softly.
Hank nodded. He knew exactly what she meant. "They were forewarned, and they certainly made the most of it, didn't they?"
Madge cleared her throat roughly and hit the intercom.
"Yes?" Anna's melodic voice responded immediately.
"Tea, if you please, dear," said Madge with an unsteady waver in her voice. "For you and Hank, too. Let's take a break."
"I think you should tell them," Hank said. "No matter what the official position is, if it was me, if I was a Lane-Kent descendant and my life was in jeopardy, if I was going to… disappear or… wink out of existence like I'd never been, I would want to know."
"You sound so sure." Madge moved to the sofas in the corner and started clearing the table.
He spoke the next words so softly, she nearly missed them. "Elise is a descendant, Madge. Eighth generation granddaughter."
Madge froze, and if he hadn't been right there, she would have dropped everything she held. "Elise? Your wife is… is…? You never said!"
He met her startled gaze directly. "That's because I know it's frowned on. As employees we are strongly encouraged not to interact with blood relatives, much less get involved with them. But…" He shrugged unapologetically. "How could I not? She's… Elise. I loved her at first sight. And I've never told her anything about what I do. She understands that I can't."
"But it has certainly upped the stakes for you," said Madge mournfully. "Every mission, every wrinkle in time, every instance with Tempus. You had so much more to lose than everyone else." She wanted to cry for him. But if she got started, she wasn't sure how she'd ever stop. How she'd ever get back to doing her job. "You should have told me. I know what it is to keep quiet in a marriage. Fredrick understands that I can't talk about my work, but it's hard when I want comforting and I can't say anything more specific than, 'bad day at the office.'"
"Which is why you and I are so close, don't you think?" He said that casually, but Madge felt it acutely. It was exactly why.
"You want to tell your wife that she's threatened," she said, sitting slowly.
"I don't want whatever time is left to us to be a lie. I want her to know. And I want to tell her what I do here, what I'll keep doing until the last possible minute."
"If it goes that far, if we lose the descendants, that doesn't mean they're gone for good. We find Lois and Clark, or Tempus grows bored and talks, or Wells comes around, and everything is reversed. The family just… reappears."
"We don't know that for sure, though, do we?" Hank was right and she knew it. So much of what they operated on was theory and nothing more. "Things could easily be altered irrevocably."
Anna came in with the tea.
"Tell Elise with my blessing," Madge whispered. And then more loudly, "It isn't over yet. The search committee is working round the clock. As are the soul tracer programmers. Wells is still out of pocket; no doubt off on a lark and forgetting to leave a forwarding address. It isn't cold enough yet in the Dakotas. But all we need is for one of those variables to change, to fall our way, and this is all stopped. In less than a second."
She was trying to comfort Hank. Comfort Anna and herself. They weren't empty words. They were the very words that ran on a continuous loop inside her head, morning, noon, and night. Keeping her going, keeping her hopeful.
However, as of now, Wells still hadn't answered his SOS. Tempus was snug in a cave and seemingly content to wait it out. Lois Lane and Clark Kent had disappeared from the soul tracer and from… everywhere. And the Cosmos Search Committee, while dedicated, couldn't possibly cover every time and every place ever.
Their best bet was to sit back and wait until the changes in the timestream started to make themselves known. The anomalies would form a pattern, or at least deviate enough to get their attention. And then they could go and investigate. The trouble was, the ripple effect, while failsafe, took time.
Time was what they didn't have.
The museum was closed for the night. Closed but not locked, Clark noticed as he trailed along behind the other employees towards the exit, which made circling around and going back very easy.
On closer inspection, there didn't seem to be any locks at all, which, considering all the hi-tech gadgetry inside seemed a little… optimistic.
He pushed through the lobby doors. Lois hadn't been among the crowd of chatting cast members who had just departed. He had asked about her, been teased about how ridiculous the question "Has anyone seen Lois?" was.
Once he had clarified with "The Lois who looks exactly like Lois", though, a Jimmy, a Clark, and one guy he couldn't place had mentioned she'd left the Bullpen early and never come back.
And he'd learned that her real name was Lorraine.
Clark smiled at that, despite his new worry. It hadn't occurred to him before now that Lois might simply leave. He had assumed she would stay in the building just as he had. That she was somewhere questioning people or tearing through the exhibits, ripping up the carpets to have a better look underneath. Lois Lane after a lead.
But maybe not. Maybe after what she'd learned about him, she had just opted out of the nut house. Left to find her answers outside. That sounded right.
Or maybe she was simply avoiding him. That would work, too.
He did a fast check of the first floor just in case he'd missed her. He tried not to let his eyes linger too long over the Lane Family Wing. Hundreds of people did it everyday. But he was different; he knew her. And knew for certain she would hate him seeing any of it.
One quick sweep assured him he was entirely alone on the first floor. Krypton and Smallville stood empty. As did the Bullpen. He loitered there an extra minute on the off chance she'd left him a note, or some indication she had gotten a clue and set out to investigate. He had only worked in the real bullpen for a few days, but seeing his desk— or rather the duplicate of it— made him nostalgic for… last week.
No wonder Lois had left the set early. Being there would have been so much harder for her. The Daily Planet was practically her home, her whole life.
He started up the stairs just shy of superspeed, giving the building one last, precursory glance before he left by way of the roof. Depending on what time she had gone, it was possible she hadn't gotten too far. She would be on foot. With a little luck, he could catch up with her easily.
When he was just outside the attic, he slammed to a halt. The attic was occupied. A lone figure was sitting in the far corner. And Clark could have sworn he had felt her there before he actually saw her.
Relief made him sag against the doorframe. Relief, which was followed closely by anxiety. He looked down at his clothes. When he had taken over the Smallville wing in the afternoon, he had dressed from the Clark Kent closet. One hand moved to adjust the loose eyeglasses he now wore to complete the look.
There had been a drawer full of them. Different sizes and styles. And in a moment that had been numbing in its surrealness, he had reached in and picked the pair he recognized, the style he'd worn since high school.
But Lois hadn't seen him as Clark since they had arrived, and he was on thin ice with her as it was. And while it was a little late for a change of clothes to protect his identity, maybe she didn't need the reminder of who she was really stranded here with?
Clark drew in a full breath and pocketed the glasses that didn't quite fit right. She knew. Everyone knew. It didn't matter.
She was so still, he thought she had fallen asleep where she was seated. But at his first footstep, her head came up and her eyes lit on him, bright and razor sharp.
"Where do you think we are?" she demanded.
He walked slowly towards her and sat down. "Hello to you, too. I thought maybe you had bolted for parts unknown." At her stony look, he continued, "Certainly wouldn't have blamed you."
"Where are we?" she said again.
"We're skipping the polite smalltalk?" He stretched his legs out in front of him, stalling for time. "No 'How was your day? Mine was weird.'"
"How was your day?" she asked blandly. "Mine was… really, really weird."
"You want to tell me about it?"
She was silent once more. Finally she shook her head. "Not yet."
A much better answer than he'd hoped for. "Ok."
"Where do you think we are?" This time there was no urgency in the question, but a weariness he recognized and appreciated, so similar to his own.
She finally looked at him, their gazes rested on each other. "I think you're asking that wrong," he said softly.
Her heart rate leapt, sounding loud to his ears, letting him know she had her own suspicions. "How should I ask it?" she returned, the strain showing clearly on her face.
"I think the right question is… when… do you think we are?"
Her eyes closed and her head dropped back against the wall she was propped against. "That isn't possible." But there was no heat behind her words. And none of the usual energy he had come to associate with Lois.
"I know," he agreed.
For a time they sat in a silence that wasn't unfriendly. Clark studied her, wondering if her mind was racing, or if she had just shut down, refusing to think any further about the unthinkable.
"I don't believe it," she finally said, turning a challenging stare on him. "Do you?"
"Yes and no. Yes, because I can't think of any other way to explain it. And no, because not being able to think of another explanation is pretty weak evidence. So… I don't know, Lois."
"The woman with Tempus and those other people," Lois returned. "They said something about being in charge of—"
"Yeah.'Time and space details.'"
Lois gulped and nodded. "I remembered that today. Also, did you know they don't call this Metropolis any more? It's…"
"Utopia," he said when she didn't finish. "Or really, Utopian-Metropolis, I think."
Lois's laugh had a slightly hysterical edge to it. "Of course. Where else?"
He scooted a little closer, but stopped when her body tensed at his approach. He made a show of leaning back against the wall once more.
"We're going to need a couple of chairs," she said, the threat of tears in her voice. "It looks like we might be here for a while."
"Don't, Lois. Please, we'll—"
"What?" She jumped to her feet. He had only touched her hand, but it was as if he had scalded her. "What will *we* do, Clark?"
He flinched at the sound of her voice saying his name, the first time she had used it since this morning, and the way she was looking at him— through him— as if she had x-ray vision of her own.
"We are in this together." It was all he could think of, and he could tell it wasn't right, as her agitation increased notably. "We will figure this out. Together we are stronger than-"
"Stop!" she shouted. And he did, chagrined. He couldn't imagine what he might have said that would be more trite, sound more hollow in the cavernous space.
"Did you eat?" Maybe if they just started with the basics. "The cafeteria downstairs wasn't bad. Maybe we could see if-"
She held up her hand to cut him off. "I need to know," she said in a low voice. "Did you… love me… at first sight?"
Clark didn't answer. Couldn't formulate an answer. His mind had already jumped ahead to finding a way to get more food without having any money. How ethical it would be to ask for an advance on their pay tomorrow, since they didn't actually work here. And would that give them away? Someone was bound to notice they weren't employees soon enough.
So, he was nowhere near the ballpark of "Did you love me at first sight?" Nowhere close.
"Don't answer that." She covered her face with her hands and turned away. "I'm losing my mind. So… don't. I mean…you didn't, right? How could you? It's been well established that I'm not exactly…" Her voice trailed away as she circled the room, and he forced himself to wait. Not to try to fill-in the blanks. He was so lost; he knew he'd fill them wrong. "…fairy tale material," she finally finished.
"Is this the Lane Family Wing talking?" he asked her quietly, moving to his feet. "Because I saw it, Lois, and it's not-"
"You looked in there?"
He wasn't sure how to defend such an invasion of her privacy, but then again, it wasn't really private, not when you considered the crowds. "It was fast. I was trying to find you. Thought you might be there."
Her consternation grew. "You said you thought I might have left. Were you looking for me? Did you search this entire place? Look into every room?"
He took a careful step towards her, uncertain how to stem her rising anxiety, her erratic heart beat causing his own to trip unsteadily. "It's ok."
She darted away. "Just answer me."
"No. I only scanned. I was only looking to confirm you weren't on the premises," he said softly. He didn't know why, but that seemed to calm her. "What's going on, Lois?"
She turned back towards him, taking small steps to meet him half way. "Did you love me at first sight?"
This time he was the one who moved back. This was a test of some sort. He couldn't think how it applied, but he knew it was important. And that honesty was crucial between them if they were to remain a united front. It was quite possible 'divide and conquer' was high on Tempus's list of techniques.
Clark sighed and opened his mouth to tell her that maybe he did, he wasn't really sure, he'd never really been in love with anyone before, crushes, yes, college girlfriends, check. But love? What did he really know about it? He didn't have anything to compare this feeling to, to put it into context, so how could he know?
Still… if she ever needed anything, he wanted to be the one she asked, the one who provided it, whatever it was, even if it was just a sandwich or a cup of coffee or… his eternal devotion.
He flinched. "Is this because of what was said when we were fighting this morning?"
There was enough happening here, he argued with the part of himself now declaring him more chicken than superhero. Just how freaked out did she need to be? This was better. Easier. And better. But he'd mentioned that already.
Lois moved closer to him. Close enough to put her hands on his shoulders and closer still, narrowing the space between them to mere inches. His mouth went dry. She tilted her head up and looked at him appraisingly, a slight frown between her eyes.
He didn't know what to do with his own hands. He raised them, thinking to put them around her, or on her waist, but he dropped them, thinking that might be… stupid. So his arms hung heavy at his sides, aching and empty.
He closed his eyes against that last thought, against her nearness.
He had loved her at first sight. He had.
"Yes," he said. And he couldn't look at her. "I did. I… do. I just didn't realize that's what this was."
The silence between them was agony, but when he finally looked at her, she was completely calm and unruffled. Now he was the one precariously on edge.
"I think we're in the future," she said. "I think you're right. I think that Tempus and that woman… the beam… the 'time and space' speech, this museum, this place, all of it… could be the future."
He cleared his throat roughly. "What just happened here? How did my telling you …?" He couldn't repeat it. "How does my answer prove anything?"
She dropped her hands and stepped away from him. "There are parts of this building that are pretty unbelievable otherwise."
It was so obvious. And he had overlooked it. He couldn't believe he had been so stupid and short-sighted.
"You've seen our future." It wasn't a question, he just knew. "Things that haven't happened yet. I've been immersed in Krypton and Smallville— in my past— but you… you've seen… what comes next."
Why hadn't he considered it? He had seen the date, two hundred years from now, had been suspicious enough to entertain the time travel theory most of the day. But the idea there might be more here than just the story of his life as he had lived it thus far, more than the Daily Planet, the reporters he worked with, the planet he was from, the place he fell to…
"I didn't think of that," he said in a choked whisper.
"Then you're going to want to sit down for this, Superman," Lois told him. "We're married."
Clark sat down pretty quickly, and his face was a careful blank. All the emotion and confusion that had been rolling across it just minutes ago were wiped away.
Lois shivered. Without his glasses, and with that unreadable look on his face, he looked exactly how he was depicted in so many of the holograms downstairs. Unflappable. Untouchable. Unreal.
"Say that again." His eyes held hers tightly, pinning her down. She couldn't have looked away if she wanted to. And she really, really wanted to.
"There's a Happily Ever After room." She tried to laugh, but couldn't bring it off. "We're there. Our w-wedding is there. Well, the pictures— the three-dimensional kind they have that make you feel like you're standing right in the middle of everything. Only we are, you and me, actually standing right in the middle of it. In front of a… minister, I guess that's what he is, odd-looking man. And my parents and I assume your parents. A nice looking couple. He's a little stout, and does your mother wear hats? I know we've only known each other a short while, so I don't think you mentioned it, but does she? And glasses? Both of them? Also, Perry and Jimmy were there, the real ones, not the fakes."
She stopped and drew in a deep breath. He still hadn't moved and his expression hadn't altered.
"Married," he said.
Lois nodded. "Three years from now, or one hundred and ninety-seven years ago, take your pick."
"If it's that last one, though, buster, you owe me a lot of anniversary presents."
She would swear he had turned to stone just like the statue in the park. After an excruciatingly long minute, he spoke so softly she could barely hear him.
"Could you say something else? Just one other little thing else? Just so I know you're still in there and not just a sitting corpse?"
That, at last, earned her a blink. And then a half smile, which slowly turned into a full smile, which eventually climbed into his eyes and lit every corner of his face. "How about… wow?" he asked.
"Wow is… f-fine." She hadn't meant for that to come out so high and squeaky. "I think I'll sit now."
And she did, without ceremony, precisely where she had been standing.
Silas Kent moved with a show of reluctance from his date's car to the doors of the Superman Museum. "Sorry about this," he said again to the beautiful woman he had just rushed through dinner. "I have some paperwork. I just remembered."
She raised one eyebrow and floored it. Or at least that would have been the effect if the city's no speeding technology hadn't been activated. And it always was, preventing rash acts, such as hers, from ever occurring. Still, it couldn't stop her from thinking of speeding away, which she most definitely was.
Silas watched until she was out of sight. He hadn't exactly lied. He did have paperwork. He always did. It just wasn't quite as urgent as he had made it out to be. How could it be? Standing guard over the family legacy was a pretty dull job. Interesting only if you liked relics. And Silas didn't.
He was doing what was expected of him, though. A part of what went into being a member of the family. A two year commitment to be on the premises during operating hours. And in the last year to more closely supervise the hiring of look-alikes. Most especially after the last Lois Lane debacle. For some reason the Museum had taken to hiring women who, while they resembled her, didn't seem to understand there was a pretty tight code of behavior expected from those impersonating her.
Lois Lane did not sit on the laps of visiting dignitaries, no matter how handsome or how single. She didn't sing and do Wanda Detroit on request; the family was most adamant about that. And any jokes that she was not actually Lois but Lois's clone were strictly forbidden.
Some things, no matter how much time had passed, were never funny.
Silas sighed and moved into the lobby. The clone incident was what had gotten him dragged away from his studies and into the drab office on the fifth floor. His mom and dad had insisted he put off his senior year and take his turn. His brother and sister had made their sacrifice. His cousins, as well. So, he was needed. It was up to him to be a constant reminder to those who ran the day to day operation here that the life stories of Lois Lane and Clark Kent weren't merely for entertainment and cheap thrills.
Silas knew that first hand. He was most definitely not entertained. And never, ever thrilled.
He steered around the yellow elevators. After the first six months of being nauseated by the color, he had started taking the stairs. He would take care of the few outstanding items on his desk, maybe call his sister and thank her for the set-up and beg her not to send him on any blind dates ever again.
Elise would be concerned and disappointed. There hadn't been anything wrong with Nicole, there just hadn't been enough right to spend the rest of the evening forcing conversation. Fending off questions about what his family gatherings were like, and if it was true all the superpowers had been diluted over the last six generations and there were no new super members among the younger family members, if all the genetic throwbacks were really gone.
Silas was just outside the stairwell when he heard voices. He stopped, surprised. A glance at his chronometer told him it was well past operating hours.
'…the phrase 'Wild Horses couldn't drag me' mean anything to you?'
'Don't want you… seeing it…just now, in… frame of mind.'
'But you saw it! You better believe I'm…'
A man and a woman, from what it sounded like. And by their tones, definitely arguing.
Silas hastened his steps, a smile playing on his lips. At least this was new. And maybe he could tell it to his sister and distract her from her inquisition over Nicole.
He jogged up and swung out onto the second floor ready to demand an explanation from the trespassers, only to find the hall empty and the lights off. He moved quickly, opening and closing doors. "Hello?"
A voice answered, but it wasn't directed at him.
"…besides, don't even know… for sure… it's real."
'You said you thought… future… our future…'
Silas stopped and listened harder. They were on the third floor, not the second. Evidently having some sort of lover's spat. They had picked a strange place for it. The Happily Ever After room.
Though come to think of it, he could see how a couple might argue there. Hard to compete with the perfect, complete love of legendary soulmates.
Maybe that was why he rarely dated?
Silas pushed that thought from his head as fast as it entered. That was his mom talking.
He went back into the stairwell, realizing now that he had heard them all the way from the lobby. Better than average hearing was his claim to the super gene pool. Other than embarrassing him from time and time, and leaving him with almost no illusions as to what people really thought of him, it was an ability that had never really come in handy. He'd never bothered to mention it. Those in the extended family who were still gifted were rarer and rarer these days. And so often it was expected they would seek leadership positions on the Family Council or serve in the Justice League. Neither of which Silas was interested in. And besides, it was just hearing, so it wasn't as if he was shirking his duties.
He was here, wasn't he? Back to fill-out more forms and now to run two disgruntled lovers off the premises.
'…going to have to go through me…'
The man's laughter floated down the stairs. 'Not really going to be a problem, is it?'
Silas was on the landing when he wondered if he should call out a warning and let them know he was coming. He didn't want to walk in on anything too intimate. But he had no sooner opened his mouth when he heard an urgent, whispered, "Someone's here."
No need then. He must have been noisier than he'd thought. "Hello?" he called once more. "Visiting hours are over. We open again at nine a.m."
As he opened the door, a gust of air blew the one lock of hair he could never seem to control off his forehead before dropping it back down again.
The place was empty.
"Ghosts," his brother Nate would have said in an eerie voice, laughing. "Either that or you're losing it, Silas."
But it hadn't been ghosts. Tendrils of smoke drifted lazily from newly extinguished candles. Someone had just been here.
"Oh, come on." Silas raised his voice. "I know you're here. And frankly, I don't want to have to find you."
There was no answer, not that he had really expected one.
"There is only one way in and out from this floor, you know," he offered conversationally. "It was designed like this so you have to see the Lane-Kent wedding before moving up to the fourth floor and seeing their children's photos. No putting the cart before the horse, as my grandmother would say."
That did earn him a response, though if it hadn't been for his enhanced hearing he might have missed it. A startled gasp from the man. A very feminine… moan?
Silas blushed hotly. What were they doing? And please God, don't let it be what it sounded like.
'Forget to mention that?' a hissed voice sounded from… overhead?
Silas jerked his gaze up. Nothing. An empty ceiling. And of course it was. What had he been expecting? Arguing ghosts?
'You didn't ask,' snarled the woman's voice.
Silas couldn't keep the frustration from his own tone. "I can't leave until you do, so give me a break, will you?" He pushed opened the door and hit the central switches. The lights came on and the display sprang into view. Having seen it a thousand times, he ignored it, stepping right through the illusion of being a member of the world's most relieved wedding party, and searching for his own party-crashers. "I know you're in here."
He almost walked right into them. They were so close he couldn't imagine how he hadn't seen them until he was nearly on top of them. The man was looking at the wedding couple, the lights throwing his face half in shadow, but not enough to disguise his wide-eyed stare. The woman was standing in his embrace, her head on his chest and her eyes tightly closed.
"I told you," she said mournfully. "I knew once you saw this it would be too weird."
Silas cleared his throat loudly. Only the woman glanced his way. He took one look at her face and reconsidered the ghost scenario on the spot.
"I've heard about you. You're the Lois who looks exactly like Lois."
Clark felt Lois step out of his arms, heard her speak, introduce herself as Lorraine in a low voice to the employee who had caught them trespassing. He didn't try to follow. Didn't try to explain their presence or apologize.
He couldn't. He couldn't look away. He couldn't look enough. At her. And himself. His mom and dad, Perry and Jimmy…
Her dress. And that smile. For him.
He was holding her in the picture almost exactly as he had been minutes before, when he had grabbed her and headed inside, pressed her up against the ceiling in the dark to hide them.
Clark swallowed hard. Lois hadn't wanted him to see this. She had declared herself not ready. Had declared him not ready. And so she had fought him tooth and nail down eight flights of stairs. Barely stopping to take a breath, filling her arguments against them coming in here with everything but the kitchen sink.
If he hadn't heard the man's footsteps on the stairs when he did, she no doubt would have taken up arguing the kitchen sink as a last resort.
Initially, he had tried to reassure her. He wasn't going to rush to judgment. He wasn't going to come take a look and start making wild assumptions about where they were, or when. He wasn't going to assume she felt the same about him as he did about her. None of that. He simply wanted the opportunity to see what she had seen. To be on the same page as she was. He would gladly take her through the Smallville exhibit. The only place he'd been today that she hadn't. But for now, it was the HEA room or bust.
By the time they'd argued down three flights, she had shoved her way around him, attempted to block the stairs. He had thought it was funny. But she hadn't; not when he'd merely floated over her and kept going.
The colorful cursing had started there. Threats on his life, his position as her junior partner at the Daily Planet, his father's crops and his mother's hats.
Still, he'd kept going. The closer they had gotten, the louder she had. And he knew, in a corner of his mind, she had a legitimate argument. A sound one. Seeing what she had might make their relationship even more awkward than it currently was. And they needed each other. Needed to be able to trust each other, to work together so they could find their way back to where they had come from.
He had agreed with that last. Of course they needed to trust each other, to be able to work together. But Lois had already seen it. And she had told him about it. Even joked about it. So weren't things weird enough already? How would his seeing it really make it more so?
Clark stood there now, looking at a man who was him, only light years from him, wrapped around a woman who was her, only so much more her than he'd ever seen, and he knew… Lois had been right to try and stop him.
They were married.
Pictures could be doctored. Photos easily distorted. This whole effect could just be a work of smoke and mirrors, magic and pixie dust, whatever the late twenty-second century had to offer.
But it wasn't. He knew it the same way he had known Krypton. Lois was his wife. Or… she would be. And nothing, not one thing he could ever remember, had ever felt better than this. It was all he could do to keep his feet on the ground, to keep the joy from his face. Because if she saw it, it would send her into a blind panic.
When he had learned his parents's names, been given the answers to all his questions about his origins, he had thought he had all the missing pieces.
But that had only been part of it. This was the other part of who he was.
Lois Lane's husband.
She hadn't been kidding. Things were going to be so much more than weird.
"Stop staring!" Lois snapped for the third time. "This is Silas. He works here. He thinks you're a brick wall."
Clark finally turned. But when he did, it took everything in her not to scream at the way he looked at her. Almost as if he was seeing her for the first time. As if they'd never met. He ran his eyes over her in a way that was embarrassingly intimate. Did he even realize?
Probably not. He was dazed… drunken.
"Hey!" She was past caring how she sounded to the stranger standing next to her. "Pay attention."
"Sir," Silas spoke in a low, soothing voice. "Can I get you something? A glass of water? A… chair?"
"N-no," Clark said, proving that he could speak. "Sorry. I'm… fine. Just…"
Again his gaze trailed back to her. Lois steeled herself as it practically crawled all over her, seeking out the 'Mrs' part, probing for the hidden bride underneath, no doubt. Wasted effort, she could have told him. He wouldn't find her.
"I told you so." And she had. She had told him every way she knew how and some she had just made up on the spot. But the big, dumb ox had just kept coming, lumbering down the stairs like a… love-sick, out of control… locomotive.
Lois drew a couple of deep breaths in and out. Screaming would not be good. Not good. Really, really not good.
Though she couldn't think why not right now.
"You know…" She swung back towards Silas, catching him off-guard with a bright smile she hoped didn't look too unhinged. "…I could use that glass of water. And a chair. With a cushion, please."
"Uh." He frowned a little. "Sure. Ok. But then I'm going to need to run you two off. Sorry about that. The Family is funny about people being here unchaperoned."
"The family?" Clark said, and Lois tightened her hands into fists and concentrated on not hitting him. They were already making quite the impression.
"Yes," Silas said with an easy smile. "I know it doesn't look like it, but this place is actually watched fairly closely, we don't want it to… Well…" He voice trailed off and he rolled his eyes. "…cheapen the memory of our ancestors, I guess."
He laughed a small laugh. "Sorry. You're catching me on a bad night. Generally, I can pull that off a little better."
"You're… a member of the… family?" Clark said, taking a step closer to Silas, the dazed, dopey look coming right back.
"Can I get that water?" Lois interjected. "I'm just so, so thirsty! And that chair? My legs are cramped."
Silas grinned. "You do a great impression, you know? A lot of people play her too sweet, and my grandmother swears she would hate that. I'll be right back, Lorraine."
As soon as the doors closed behind him, Lois grabbed Clark by his shirtfront and shook him. Or she tried. It was kind of difficult shaking a brick wall.
"Clark, come on. Let's get out of here. He's gone. You can just zip us away before he gets back." She pulled his arms around her, and put her arms around his neck. The position he had used when he had floated them up to the ceiling earlier. "Come on," she coached again, because he was still just standing there, though he held her closely to his chest. She tensed and waited for lift off, but instead his hands moved from around her waist, traced lightly up her spine, and settled in her hair, which she would swear he was… smelling.
She pushed away, shoving him and nearly hurting herself with the effort. He let her go immediately, a dark blush staining his cheeks. "I told you!" This time when her voice climbed the octaves towards hysteria, she didn't rein it in. "And now you're going to be… weirder than you already are, and that's weird, Clark!"
"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I won't… do that again."
She approached him much more carefully. "Let's just go."
"I don't want to. Silas is coming back and he's… family, Lois."
"Clark, I swear to God-"
"I've never met a member of my family. Ever. I have no blood ties to this planet. Or I didn't. Until just now."
"Listen to me." She moved towards him again, taking his face in her hands and bending his gaze to meet hers. She softened her voice when she saw the turmoil in his eyes, and worse than that, the bright hope blazing from them. It hurt her to see it. To know she needed to extinguish it. But it would be unfair to him to let it linger. "Listen, Clark. We're getting sucked in. We're forgetting Tempus. He has some sort of agenda, and I think it includes preying on our weaknesses. Manipulation, pure and simple. I've been thinking about it. The Lane Family wing takes every worst memory of mine and… memorializes them. And you— yesterday you didn't know where you came from. And now, ta-da, you do. And this… here…"
"It's real, Lois." He whispered it, but the words slammed her in the chest just the same, filling her with something close to panic.
"No. No, Clark. It isn't. You said you don't have any family members, something I guess you've missed your entire life." She waited for his nod, then continued. "So, isn't it more than a little suspicious that this guy, Silas, waltzes in and announces he's one of them?"
"The pictures of the children upstairs," he said in a maddeningly calm voice. "You saw those?"
"Fakes. Just like these. Just like the whole place."
"How many?" he said softly.
She blinked, confused. "How many… what?"
She didn't want to meet his eyes, but she couldn't look away. "I don't know." At his skeptical look, she added. "I didn't go very far inside. I saw the sign over the door… and a bassinet with a… a… blue blanket with your…" She faltered. "… S-thingy on it. And I … ran."
He nodded, moving his hands to cover hers, pulling them from his face and lacing their fingers together. "I know how crazy this is. Let's just take a minute. Regroup."
She shook her head. "We need to get out of here. I think this place is casting some sort of spell over us. It's mind control, Clark. Think about it. We've been here a day and a half and we've hardly left the building. Haven't tried to find Tempus. Haven't done anything but wallow in our own personal issues. Whatever Tempus is trying to do, it's working, don't you see? That's why we have to leave and leave right now."
"Silas—" he said.
"— is in this up to his neck," she returned.
"How can you be so sure?"
Lois tried to close herself off from the longing she heard in those words.
"Because." It was hard to answer under his stare. "Because I'm sometimes… lonely. I always have been. And you, too, right? So, what better way to tie us in knots than to introduce the idea that we're bonded by this… fairy tale, all perfect love?"
"How would Tempus know you were lonely?" Clark asked gently. "I didn't know that about you, Lois."
"Tempus had my diary, remember? I don't know how, but he obviously has it memorized."
He took a deep breath and moved away. She saw the way his shoulders sagged and she knew she had won, though the victory felt hollow somehow.
"Besides that," she said. "Did you get a load of that bow I'm wearing on my wedding veil? Seriously. A hair bow? In what universe would I wear such a thing? Can you really imagine?"
He turned and looked at their wedding picture. Their *doctored* wedding picture, she reminded herself. "I think it looks nice," he offered.
"It's hideous and so far out of character it may as well be a bright, neon sign flashing 'Not Lois, Not Lois.'"
"I've never seen that look on my face, either," he added, and she found herself admiring how detached he sounded now. Back to business. "There is definitely a too good to be true element to all this. But in the attic you sounded like you believed this. You asked if I… loved you. And when I said… what I said… you told me you thought we were in the future."
"I was just spooked. That was… temporary insanity."
"The mind control thing?" he asked, swinging around and looking at her closely.
They stood in the bright lights of the wedding party with the silence stringing out between them. Their mood a sharp contrast to the joyous expressions on the faces of their loved ones. Their fake loved ones.
"How could this not mess with our heads?" he said aloud. And she nodded. She knew to her bones exactly what he meant.
He cocked his head to the side, a pensive look coming over him. "Silas is coming back."
"Let's go," she said.
"Maybe we should talk to him. Question him. We might get something from him."
"I'm not up to it tonight," she said forcefully, hoping he would believe her. She suddenly couldn't bear the thought of him being hurt any more. "Please, let's just—"
She didn't have to complete the sentence; she was in his arms and out under the stars in a blur.
Silas sat back in his chair, removing the cushion he had scurried around looking for, and drinking the water he had been taking to Lorraine. He chuckled to himself as he propped his feet up on his desk. For the life of him he couldn't imagine why he had moved to obey her so unquestioningly. A chair with a cushion because her legs were cramping?
He laughed aloud. Whoever they were, they were long gone. While he was grateful he hadn't had to figure out how to get rid of them, he was a little sorry. They had been different. And as Silas looked around the tiny office with the plain gray walls, he appreciated how much he needed a little different in his life.
And whoever Lorraine was, she had been really beautiful. The guy with her had seemed nice enough. His resemblance to Clark Kent had been good, if not a bit more subtle. He was smaller than the original, maybe. Shorter, less… something. Anyway, though he wasn't the dead ringer that she was, the two of them together were pretty amazing.
His mom would love them.
What she wouldn't love, he thought with a frown, was that they didn't really work here.
Earlier today, Silas had been congratulated by his unusually enthusiastic floor manager for casting the new Lois and new Superman. "Where'd you find them?" he'd been asked by various individuals during operating hours.
He had been pleased and surprised the latest look-alikes were working out so well. He hadn't thought them any more special than any of the others, and in the weeks since he'd hired them, he hadn't gotten any feedback, good or bad. So, he was more than glad for the belated input. Thinking maybe he'd finally gotten the hang of things, he had accepted the praise and promptly forgotten it.
Until now. One look at the couple in the HEA had been all the confirmation he'd needed. They had to be the ones creating all the buzz, not the couple he had taken on. And apparently they were pretending to be new cast members. A quick check of his records had backed this up. No one new had been added. No one he hadn't added himself.
Not that he wouldn't have hired them on the spot if they had presented themselves to him. He would definitely have hired Lorraine. The man, too, if they were an item, which they clearly appeared to be. A cranky, off-balance item, but an item just the same.
Silas sighed. The good ones were always taken.
He leaned back in his chair and dutifully considered calling his parents. This probably qualified as unusual, and therefore fell into the category of Things the Family Must Know.
But it wasn't as if the imposters had done any harm. On the contrary, one quick read through guest comment cards showed they were a highlight of most people's visits.
Silas absently stacked the cards back in order.
They probably wouldn't come back. Not after he'd caught them tonight and made it clear he was a part of the management.
And they hadn't appeared to be religious nuts on a pilgrimage, either. Sometimes the museum drew that kind of tourist, ones who had trouble distinguishing Utopia's founders from minor deities.
Silas could hardly blame them. The way Lois Lane and Clark Kent were revered and lauded had always made him somewhat uncomfortable. They had just been people after all. Extraordinary people, but still…
He felt fairly confident crossing that possibility off the list. The man might had been a bit awed. But Lorraine definitely hadn't been.
Silas shook his head and pushed to his feet. He had no idea what they were doing here this evening other than arguing. Or why they'd been pretending to work here earlier. But they had done precisely what he'd hoped for- vacated the premises.
No sense pondering it any further. Adventure over.
He filed the day's papers and shut off his desk lamp.
The sun was rising when they returned to the attic.
Clark had asked if Lois wanted to stay anywhere else. The possibilities were limitless, after all. But she had simply shaken her head.
He put her down gently and moved away, giving her some space. He knew she needed it even though she hadn't said so.
She hadn't really said much of anything at all. He had spent the entire night doing all the talking. Thinking out loud, pointing out landmarks- both man made and natural- explaining how they had changed since the last time he'd flown over them.
Mountain ranges remained the same to the naked eye, but he was able to detect an erosion pattern. The oceans had risen, not significantly, but enough to take note of. There appeared to be alternate sources of energy in most countries now. Power plants unknown to him. Perhaps that explained the clean air. The pollution problem all but gone.
He had expressed gratitude for that. Lois hadn't been too impressed, but then she'd never flown over fog-enshrouded Los Angeles on a summer day and then tried to get the smell of it out of her clothes.
All night, Clark had cast his observations and comments into the conversational black hole which sat firmly between them.
The only time he had paused in his monologue was when they had flown over Smallville. He hadn't been able to choke out any words for what he'd seen.
"What?" Lois had asked, her first word in hours, when he had suddenly fallen silent.
He hadn't really known how to answer. "My house. And…" He had pointed to where his parent's crops and the barn should be. The farmhouse was surrounded by a vast parking lot. He could see admissions booths, turnstiles, ticket prices listed for the full tour or half-tour. Around his treehouse, velvet ropes and some sort of gold-plated sign. He hadn't read it. He hadn't wanted to.
"I'm going to go get us some breakfast," he said now, returning to the present, and their present needs. Lois immediately relaxed. Some of the tension left her body, her heart-rate dipped closer to a resting range.
He admired her. The way she was able to keep it all inside— no cracks in the smooth façade. If he didn't know her well enough, if he couldn't cheat and monitor her breathing, the quickening of her pulse, he would think she was completely unfazed by what they had discovered.
He was fazed, to put it mildly. He moved towards the stairs on legs which felt like rubber. "It's quiet down there. I don't think anyone's here yet."
She didn't respond.
"If you wanted a quick shower or a change of clothes while I find the coffee and…" His voice trailed away. She wasn't listening. She remained exactly where he'd put her, head down, studying the floor.
She nodded once, a quick acknowledgment clearly meant to dismiss him.
He stood, undecided. She wanted to be alone, of course, to digest what they had seen and the implications that went with it. Pretty gigantic as far as implications went. But just now, though he would never be foolish enough to voice it, she seemed so fragile and off-kilter she worried him.
That was the word which had come back to him time and again last night. And time after time he had shut his mouth against it, refused to speak it. When they had taken off from the HEA room, they'd had a plan in mind. Get out of Metropolis, see if the spell or the illusion would break. If this whole thing was just a product of proximity, then they would simply outrun it.
If it wasn't, then they would land, talk to people in other countries and time zones. He had assured Lois he knew enough languages to do so. They would read newspapers, check dates, compare testimonies. They would have a handle on when and where they were. Simple, really.
But none of that had been necessary. From hundreds of feet up it had been apparent, immediately so, that if this was an illusion, it blanketed the earth. There was no corner it didn't reach.
They were not in their world. Not in their time. They were as displaced as two people could be.
Everything felt different now. This was their third day. But now they knew no amount of questioning the staff and visitors, no close study of the exhibits or how they worked, no quick flight above the clouds, was going to provide them with what they needed.
They needed a time machine. More than likely not too commonplace.
Or a ring like the one Tempus had. And an extensive course in how to use it.
They needed Tempus, himself.
But first, breakfast and- maybe- some sleep.
"I'll be back in a few minutes," he told her.
He wasn't three steps out the door when he heard her first shuddering intake of breath. He forced his feet to keep walking, forced himself to keep putting the distance between them. He'd go and get some things they might need to be more comfortable.
It looked as if they'd be here for a while.
"Andrus is here," Anna announced over the intercom and Madge could hear the apology in her receptionist's voice, though she was sure Andrus would never equate it with his arrival.
Over the years Andrus had served in every department within the Ministry, being diplomatically shuffled from post to post. It was highly suspected, though never said aloud- as it would be unkind- that had Andrus not been the son-in-law of Odias Sinders, the esteemed Director who had previously held Madge's office, he would never have been hired. Or more than certainly fired long ago.
As it stood now, Andrus tagged along on missions of relatively little importance. If an extra body was needed, he made up the number, but he was never sent to places he could do irrevocable damage.
That's why he had been with Madge on the night of Superman's debut. It had been widely known for years Tempus would show up there sooner or later. There should not have been any surprises. And as much as Madge would love to blame Andrus- he made for such a ripe, convenient scapegoat- she knew the fault of what happened was solely hers.
She hadn't kept her eye on Tempus closely enough. She had fallen victim to the oldest, most clichéd rookie mistake in the book. She'd been distracted by the very real, very commanding presence of Superman, the one whose existence she was sworn to protect.
And she hadn't factored in the possibility of Tempus acquiring new technology they were unaware of. The ring was being studied by the department's greatest minds, and thus far they couldn't figure it out. Not its origin, or how it operated, least of all, how to recreate the beam Tempus had used and magically fix everything.
The door opened, and Madge stood and tried to greet Andrus with the appropriate amount of warmth. She knew she was indebted to him. She highly suspected his reputation was the reason she had not been demoted or fired, herself. Word had gotten round that Andrus had been on the disastrous expedition. Assumptions had been made by the elders. And despite her vehement testimony to the contrary, her stalwart effort to take the blame, Andrus's well known tendency towards incompetence, ironically, had saved her. It was widely rumored he had botched it. Therefore Madge had been chastised, but not sternly, and sent on her way to sort things out.
"Do you bring any news of the ring?" she asked, a bit desperately. She needed good news and she would take it from any source.
Andrus's countenance fell. "Sadly, no. I've just recently been reassigned to the Bakery Department. Evidently my input is desperately needed there. Though I did try to explain I've never actually baked anything… ever."
Madge nodded crisply. "I'm sure you'll get the hang of it. Were those your, erm, tarts this morning? They were… unique."
"Thank you." Andrus beamed. "But that isn't why I've come."
Madge sat, grateful for the little things, and gestured for Andrus to do the same.
"I have an idea," he said.
"Wonderful," said Madge, bracing herself.
"Since Tempus won't cooperate, we find one of his replicants and ask him."
"Ask him what, dear?"
"Ask him where *he* would hide Lois Lane and Clark Kent if he had to put them someplace out of reach."
Madge sat back in her chair, making thinking noises and furrowing her brow.
She didn't want to admit it, but she had called Hank at nearly two a.m. with the exact same idea. She had been incandescent with hope, with the sureness that she had figured it out at last, a way to wake them from this nightmare.
Instead it had only been Hank she'd awakened. And he had listened patiently, yawning as she spoke, word tumbling over word. Only when she had begun narrowing down the possible jail cells and asylums that would need to be searched had he interrupted. "They aren't smart enough, Madge."
Thinking of it now, Madge blushed all over again. They weren't. When Tempus had started making his own replicants to be the easy pickings for their traps, he hadn't given them any intelligence beyond what they needed to function.
Initially, department members had mistaken the replicants lack of wit for Tempus stubbornly giving them the silent treatment.
It was only after one had gone more than a day and a half without voicing any dripping sarcasm that they had grown suspicious and eventually alarmed.
Andrus was studying her, leaning forward in his seat, hope marked on his features. She hated to let him down. She had done nothing but let people down for the last three days.
"That occurred to me, also," she told him honestly. "But they don't think like he does."
"Maybe not the ones we've met, but there could be others," Andrus argued.
And it wasn't a bad argument. Along with the ring, Tempus almost certainly could have acquired Tempus-smart replicants. But then again, she didn't think his ego could take being just one of a handful of smart Tempuses.
Madge frowned. The possibilities were pretty endless and nearly overwhelming. "I'll bring it up at the next meeting."
"And in the meanwhile, I'll keep thinking," Andrus promised.
"Thank you, dear," she said a little weakly.
It wasn't fair to rule him out, she reminded herself. They all needed to be thinking as dedicatedly as Andrus. Madge just didn't want to admit to herself that she was becoming needy enough take any input from him seriously.
That would mean they were in big, big trouble.
When Lois returned from the showers, she could hear him moving around in the attic.
"There you are," he said, sounding a little too cheerful. "I brought breakfast and… a few other things."
He was watching her carefully and pretending not to. Nervous, no doubt, as to what her reaction would be to the lamp he'd brought up— for her, she realized, as he didn't seem to have any problem seeing in the dark— the mattress he had set against the wall, the bed frame he was assembling.
She stopped and watched him. It made a strange domestic picture. The guy who was Superman down on his knees putting a bed together, the small side table which held two cups of coffee and some funny looking tarts…
Lois gulped and moved closer.
"Nice clothes," he told her as he went back to his work, apparently satisfied she wasn't going to pass out.
She pushed up the sleeves of the sweatshirt she'd chosen, her sweatpants were already rolled up several times over at the ankles.
"I raided the Clark Kent closet."
"As the original Clark Kent, you have my permission," he said magnanimously. "You'll need something comfortable…"
He stopped abruptly. She wished he would quit doing that, quit measuring his words, or at the very least get better at disguising that was what he was doing. His concern, while kind, was irritating.
"Speaking of comfortable," she said after a long sip of coffee, "where did you get all this?"
"There's a props department in the basement. I figured since none of it is being used right now, and we have a need…"
A need. They were both dancing around it, but the set-up in the attic had an unmistakable sort of permanence to it now. She'd liked it better when it was an empty space, a bare floor, nothing but the two of them and the idea they could somehow investigate their way out of here.
If this went on for much longer, he'd be hanging pictures and asking her what colors she'd like to paint the walls.
As he unrolled the scatter rug she drew in a deep breath.
His quick glance was full of understanding. "Too much?"
She nodded vigorously.
He didn't question her; he just rolled it back up and shoved it under the bed. "I thought… since the floor gets cold. It doesn't bother me, but…" He shrugged.
"I have one exactly like it in my apartment," she said as casually as she was able.
He tried to match the casualness in her voice with his own. "This bed is mine. From my room in Smallville. A model of it, anyway, right down to my initials burned into the wood." He pointed. "I got into trouble for that. My mom thought I'd used a woodburning set, it was a while before I told her…"
He lapsed into silence again.
"Heat vision," she said, moving to inspect the CK.
"Right. How'd you know?"
"I don't know if you've noticed, but there's a good bit of information about you downstairs. An entire museum, as a matter of fact, if you wanted to check it out."
"Not just about me," he said with a teasing grin. "Let's not forget who makes up the other half of this equation."
She stilled. And then grimaced when she saw he had noticed.
"Sorry," he began, "I wasn't… that wasn't…"
"Forget it." She forced down a bite of tart and tried not to gag. "You were talking about the bed…"
He hesitated for only a second, clearly wanting to say more, to address the huge time-traveling elephant in the room which had nothing to do with the furnishings. She wasn't ready. Not yet. Not now. Not for anything, really. He turned and lifted the mattress, placing it on the frame. "Whoever made this reproduction used a regular wood burner. You can tell; heat vision is distinctive."
Lois sat on the edge of the bed, testing it with a few tentative bounces. "How about the lamp?" She tried for a smile and a lighter mood. "Yours or mine?"
"I don't recognize it." A relieved smile lit his own features as he moved to retrieve his coffee cup.
"Ah," she said. "Not a lamp from our past, then. A future lamp!"
"Maybe we bought it together?" He looked at it doubtfully, one finger playing with the gold fringe which dangled from the leopard print shade. "When we were mad at each other or… drunk?"
"Or it's a gift," Lois said darkly. "From my aunt Mavis. This looks exactly like her taste."
"A wedding gift?" he proposed, then stopped and did that thing again— the ever so careful 'is this where you have that nervous breakdown?' pause— and looked in her direction.
She drank some more coffee, took another bite of tart and made a face, all the while trying not to appear on the verge of a psychotic break.
"I'm ok," she finally said, because he was obviously still trying to decide for himself.
He nodded, as if that had never been in doubt. "Ok, then. I went down to the gift shop, it wasn't open, but—"
"— nothing is ever locked here," she finished for him.
"And I figured we've earned a few wages from the hours we've worked. I didn't take much, but I thought we might… you might… need some other things."
From the look on his face, the extreme embarrassment he couldn't hide, she assumed it was going to be unmentionables. Something lacy and small. Or a personal product with curlicue pink lettering reading For Women Only. So, it was with a sharp peal of relieved laughter that she took the Superman toothbrush from him, complete with Man of Steel toothpaste.
"Thank you," she managed, wondering just how many more shades he had to go until his face matched the famous cape. "These are… super thoughtful of you."
"Here's a theory that didn't occur to me until just now," he groaned. "We're really dead. And this is a sort of life-review holding station. Or maybe this is just hell, the last stop."
"According to the people I've spoken to, this is the closest thing to heaven on earth. That's why they call it Utopia."
"Then they haven't spent time in the gift shop, Lois. There are… things there."
"Things?" she prompted, knowing full well what they were, having seen them herself.
He shifted, his eyes darting everywhere but to hers. One hand worked its way through his hair. "Tea towels," he finally said weakly. "Wind chimes, pot holders, coloring books, salt and pepper shakers… pajamas," he just barely choked out.
"I could use a pair of those," she interjected, struggling to look innocent under his glare. She relented. "You could consider it a trade, Clark. Yes, these people are a little… Superman happy." She paused at the odd strangling noise that came from his throat. "But there are no locks. There is no litter, no pollution. And a Sharing Community is…"
"…a well fed one," he returned with resignation. "Superman happy," he muttered darkly under his breath. "Also, have you noticed how nice everyone is?" He gestured to the space beside her tentatively and she scooted over to make room for him on the bed. He leaned back against the headboard and studied the ceiling. "It's small-town nice. That's the thing I was having trouble putting my finger on earlier. How like Smallville it is, even though this place is anything but small. In Metropolis, people would brush right by me on the street, or look right at me and not even nod, no eye contact. The objective was to in no way acknowledge you were standing inches away from another human being."
"I love that," Lois said.
"Me too," he said, taking her by surprise.
"Why?" she sat up straighter. "You're so friendly, even just those first few days at the Planet before…" She paused and frowned, not really sure how to word it. 'Before we time-traveled to a museum dedicated to our life stories' seemed a bit heavy for breakfast conversation. "…before a couple of days ago. You spoke to everyone, always so polite and open and —"
"Irritatingly naïve?" he filled in, though he smiled around the words.
"Yes!" she sputtered. "Oh my gosh! That was going to drive me crazy! What was Perry thinking hiring this lamb and then sending him off to the slaughter?"
"By teaming the lamb with you, right?" he clarified with a twinkle in his eyes.
She laughed. "You see? I wouldn't have worried if you had just mentioned you were from outer space and indestructible. Not easily edible by wolves."
"You were worried?" he asked, his tone going soft. "About me? Or… just about me being dead weight?"
Lois shifted a bit uncomfortably. "Both, I guess. But when I met you as Superman, I was just… worried."
He sat up straighter now, too, interest and concern kindling on his features. "Because I was so strong… or different? Were you worried I could… hurt you…or…?"
"I worried you were too good, too kind for this world." At his startled blink, she rushed on. "Well, not *this* world. This world suits you just exactly right. It's practically tailor made for you…" She paused and tried to chase down the end of that thought. Something was glimmering there, trying to spark just beneath the surface. She closed her eyes and concentrated.
He didn't interrupt her. She was aware of him watching, but he didn't try to probe. Sighing heavily, she opened her eyes. "Thought I had something."
He nodded sympathetically. "I do that a thousand times a day now."
"Anyway." She leaned back against the headboard, stretching tired muscles. "Back at EPRAD, and then later in the park, and when we saw the Planet, I mean, the Superman Museum for the first time…" She yawned, a jaw-splitting yawn. "Sorry. I… worried you were out of your element… going to be… picked apart." Her eyelids grew heavy, and she felt him remove the coffee mug from her hand. "I'm fine," she protested. "We need to… to…" She stopped there. There were so many things they needed to do, she couldn't think of just one.
"We need to sleep," she heard him say soothingly. "I'm exhausted. You must be, too."
"But," she protested, though it was a token protest, she had rolled over and curled up. She felt a blanket… no, his cape… come around her. She forced her eyes open and pushed herself up on one elbow. He was bent over her solicitously, removing her shoes and tucking the corners of the red silk around her feet.
"What?" he said.
"You didn't answer me. Why do you like how impersonal Metropolis is?"
His smile was a little sheepish. "Think about it, Lois. What better place to go unnoticed? To live anonymously? It was like a dream come true."
She pondered that. "This place is the very opposite of that, isn't it?"
He straightened and turned away, busying himself with stacking the coffee mugs and plates. "It's still pretty amazing," he said very carefully. "You sleep. I'll just—" He jerked his thumb towards the door. "—get out of your way and-"
"No." She sat up straight. "Don't go anywhere? Stay with me. Please."
She didn't exactly mean that the way it sounded. It wasn't as if she needed him to be there to keep her company. That she needed his protection, or companionship. It wasn't really that.
She just didn't want him downstairs alone. Mooning over pictures of their… of the children and grandchildren, or brooding in the Krypton wing. Things like that. It wouldn't be good for him, even though she had pretty much discounted her earlier mind-control theory.
Maybe Tempus was nothing more than a… time-travel… facilitator, some kind of futuristic travel agent. "In what century will you be vacationing today, Ms Lane? Have you considered the Dark Ages? Off the beaten path and the fare is cheap."
She yawned again and sank back into the mattress. She wasn't making sense; she did need a fast nap.
If Tempus had done nothing more sinister than transport them here, then what was downstairs could simply be… the absolute truth. Still, she didn't want Clark looking at it. Not without her. They should stick together from now on. And after she'd had five minutes to rest, or ten, ten would be good, she would reel off the mental list she had been adding to since their flight last night. Things They Must Do.
Clark had moved closer, and she could tell by his face he had misinterpreted her plea—and it had been a plea— despite how she'd intended it. Her suspicions were confirmed when he sat next to her on the bed and covered her hand with his.
"I won't leave you," he promised.
The tension melted from her. She was far more relaxed by those words than it made sense to be.
So, she probably should have clarified things for him, for them both, just so he wouldn't get the wrong idea. Instead she turned her palm over and threaded her fingers through his.
"Good," he whispered. "Sleep well, Lois."
And she did. Only dimly registering the warm body which eventually came to lie beside her, or the hand that never left hers. Or that she slept far longer than the time she had allotted herself.
The leopard print lampshade was casting a spotted-glow over the darkened room when she woke.
Lois eased herself up, noticing the arm which was draped over her, and the fact that its owner was sleeping soundly a few inches off the mattress.
She rolled to one side, carefully disentangling from him, and as she had hoped, he slept on.
She knew there were no wires holding him up. She knew that. She had flown with him all night. And before that, he had flown the shuttle into orbit. So, there wasn't any reason to run her hands underneath him and around while she crouched on the bed. None whatsoever.
Her hands hit nothing but air. Just as she knew they would.
Eyeing him closely for any sign he'd caught her testing him, Lois scrambled from the bed. She knew he had to be exhausted. He hadn't slept since they had arrived. So… that would make it two hundred years and three days since his last nap.
He looked pretty good, considering.
Lois turned deliberately away. Never mind what he looked like. That wasn't the pressing issue just now.
Of their own accord, though, her eyes tracked back to where he was, floating just above the pillow. He hadn't left her side. She knew that, despite how deeply she had slept. And she couldn't remember a time when sleep had been more welcome, when she had needed the reprieve from reality more.
Lois snorted and bit back a hollow laugh. She walked a slow circle around the room, taking stock. Reality was many things. But it wasn't this. It wasn't a man who slept over a bed. A bed that was borrowed from a props department— stowed away in an attic which was built over a museum dedicated to…
Lois pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes. No more flinching, no more pretending otherwise. The museum was dedicated to them.
She wished there was another way to think of it. But if there was, it eluded her. The evidence was piling up. Their trip around the world last night, what they'd seen, what had been clear to her from high up, even without the benefits of x-ray vision…
Add to that the Happily Ever After room, then the room with the cradle she hadn't been able to force herself to walk all the way into…
Again she was drawn back to the man over the bed, despite her every intention not to disturb him, to let him sleep as long as possible. Because she knew as soon as he woke up, Clark would want to see everything. All of it. The rooms they hadn't explored yet, depicting the children they hadn't had, the family tree she had only glanced at briefly, blanching when she'd seen her name and face at the very top, connected to his by a strong, straight line, branching out and downwards and out some more, generation upon generation of smiling Lane-Kents. Some with his eyes, some with hers. Some with the tilt of his head, the jut of her chin and Lucy's, too.
Lois swallowed hard and stopped her pacing.
Was it any wonder she felt a little crazy? If not one hundred percent crazy?
She tiptoed to the door and swung it open. At some point Clark had put the hinges back on and oiled the squeak.
She listened closely, staring intently into the darkness below. The building seemed empty, silent. Closed for the evening. They had wasted an entire day, then. Not that it would have made that much of a difference. But instead of doing something, anything, they had just slept. Together.
She knew they had needed it, both of them. Still, it went against the grain. Against who she was… or who she thought she was.
God, it was confusing.
Who was she? Plucky, romantic heroine destined to love and marry Superman, have his kids, be immortalized in tacky glory, in a wedding veil with a bow on it?
Behind her, Clark mumbled something and rolled over.
Lois watched, fascinated, as he did so without falling back to the mattress, held up by a cushion of invisible springs.
She almost wished he would wake up now and distract her from the conclusions she was drawing. Ridiculous, impossible, beyond reason, conclusions that, nevertheless, were clicking into place all too easily. As if all the parts fit and fit perfectly.
She was Lois Lane. Reporter. Respected and slightly feared Mad Dog Lane. She had friends and a family she might sometimes despair of, but they were hers and she loved them- even if it was with an exasperated sort of love. A disappointed sort of love. Her work was her life. Her drive was to set things right. To see justice done and the truth uncovered.
And she imagined many things for herself in that regard— success, accolades, an eventual Pulitzer…
She had her own secret hopes, as well. The fantasy she would never speak aloud. Maybe you would call it finding true love. Not a hearts and flowers sort of love, but a real love, with someone who knew her and supported her. Would never leave her, never judge her and find her wanting.
That didn't make her unique; everyone wished for that. It was human nature.
But what if… she had gotten what she wished for? Everything she had ever wished for?
On reluctant feet, Lois moved back to Clark's side, as if he was pulling her into his orbit. It was a fanciful thought, and more suited to the secret romance novel she had on her hard drive, but she knew part of her was seeking reassurance, seeking his closeness which, for whatever reason, simply made her feel better.
Because they belonged together?
Or because they were in this situation together and had no one else to rely on? A foxhole bond. It could be that. That would explain why she couldn't seem to move too far away, to actually go down the dark stairs, maybe find something to eat.
She had barely had the idea when her stomach concurred loudly. She jumped, startled and flustered, when his eyes opened and found her there, standing beside him, nearly nose to nose.
"Hey," he croaked softly, his sleepy features somewhat puzzled. "Did you hear thunder?"
"Funny," she snapped. Or she tried, she was just a little too glad to have the company.
"Time for lunch?" he asked with a yawn, stretching his arms over his head.
"More like dinner." Lois backed up a pace and tried not to follow the line of muscles moving under his t-shirt too closely. No reason to. He was strong and well built, yes. But so were lots of people, so gawking would be… adolescent and silly.
He caught her staring and froze. She watched as the color crept up his neck and flushed his cheeks. "I'm floating, aren't I?"
"And that's… kind of… weird, isn't it?" He landed with a slight bounce on the mattress and sat up, his hands messing his hair adorably.
Oh god. Lois drew in a slow, steady breath. Adorably? That word wasn't even in her vocabulary. Never in her life ever, not even when confronted with the babies of her friends or those little fluff balls at a dog show had she ever, ever used the word adorable. Ever!
"I… I… do that in my sleep, sometimes," Clark was stammering, obviously misreading her silence. "I know it looks strange. I didn't mean to… to… well… make you uncomfortable."
His eyes were everywhere but on her, and she watched as her hands— entirely on their own, without her permission— moved to his hair, smoothing it back down from the spikes he was working it into.
It was soft, lush under her fingertips, and she sank her fingers into it, turning off the part of her brain demanding to know what the hell she thought she was doing. "It wasn't that," she said, and she almost didn't recognize the voice as hers, the tenderness in it so unfamiliar. "Don't worry. On the weirdness scale…" She waited until his gaze came up. And then she nearly forgot what she was going to say at the intent, surprised look in it. "…given time-travel, museums, hair bows…" He crinkled his brow at that, a smile growing. "…a man who floats in his sleep doesn't even register."
He nodded and didn't speak. She moved her hands from his hair and stepped away before she did anything else. Or thought anything else. Or started to act like… anyone else.
"I'm so confused," she blurted.
"How could you not be?" he said in a low voice.
"Want to go find some food?" He had risen and was standing a few paces behind her. She liked how he did that. He didn't crowd her. She never had to tell him she needed space, he just seemed to know when to back off.
"Sounds good," she said, moving swiftly back towards the stairs.
"And…" At his hesitation, she turned back towards him. "I'm going to want to take a look around the rest of the museum. See… some things." There was apology in his tone, but no room to negotiate.
"I figured," she said with a shrug she tried to make look casual. "I'll go with you."
He moved towards her, taking her hand. "It's dark. I'll float us down."
At her nod, he pulled her into his arms, or he didn't have to pull, not really. At his first gentle tug, she went to him. Into his warmth, his solidness, his goodness. The one thing that made sense, that soothed her, the eye in the storm.
She clung to him, knowing all the reasons she shouldn't. Knowing what it would seem like to him; how any man would interpret a woman who wrapped herself around him and practically tried to push herself under his skin.
He just rubbed soothing circles on her back, though, murmuring assurances and moving them down the stairs slowly. "We're going to be ok," he repeated over and over.
For some reason, in the moment, she believed him completely.
Silas stood outside of the kitchen doors listening closely and grinding his teeth. They were back. And arguing over how the stove worked, of all things.
"It isn't that I never cook, because I have once or twice." The woman was laughing. "But you offered. You said omelets would be easy."
"Easy if I could figure out how this thing works."
"It can't be that different," the voice Silas knew as Lorraine's answered.
"You do know you're enjoying this a little too much, don't you?"
"You have to be smarter than the stove, Superman."
"And we're back to that," the man returned dryly. "And again I ask you, how much cooking experience do you have in the current century?"
What were they doing here? Silas wondered for the tenth time in the last ten minutes. Besides the obvious, which was, apparently, making dinner. And that was puzzling enough on its own.
"…can use my vision, but it won't taste as good."
"Use your…? Oh! Cool! Do it. I want to watch."
Silas contemplated his options. Confront them? Demand to know why they were in the museum galley at…he stared at his chronometer in the dark…ten p.m. Once again, just as last night, well past closing.
Or maybe call the family on the zip-com? Call Nate away from whatever he was doing tonight. Probably one of his kids's games or something. It was hard to keep up. And what would he say, exactly. "Nate, can you come help me get rid of the look a-like couple cooking eggs in the kitchen?"
Silas straightened, squaring his shoulders. He didn't need his big brother. He would handle this himself. He wasn't afraid of them. He just wasn't used to people who broke the rules. Who entered the museum when the sign out front clearly asked for no unauthorized visits. They had never had to do more than that. People saw the sign and obeyed it.
That was the way things worked.
Though, evidently, not for Lorraine and the guy with her.
"See? I overcook them that way. Kind of rubbery."
"Better than I can do with a stove I actually understand and a cookbook written for toddlers, believe me."
They were settling down to eat. That gave him a bit of time to prepare how he was going to intervene, what he was going to say when he pushed open the doors, which he was going to do any minute now, and behind which he was definitely *not* hiding.
What would he do if, God forbid, they refused to go? Call the Justice League? Silas frowned. That seemed like overkill for a couple of trespassers who were just hungry, maybe.
He could hire them. Offer them a job. Maybe they were hard up and new in town. Possibly from a far off place, one that didn't adopt Utopian ideals? He'd heard there might be some of those…
If that was the case, then maybe they just didn't realize there were programs in place to take care of people. To offer jobs and placements and food. In a sharing community no one had to go without. They just needed to learn how to give and take.
Yes, Silas nodded feeling better. That was it. They didn't know how things worked. And they needed a little help. And helping Lorraine would be…
He skipped over the thought 'his pleasure,' but it would be something he would be really glad to do. And with her amazing resemblance to Lois Lane, he could put her to work, and maybe get to know her a little better.
Spend more time downstairs and less in his office…
Take her home to meet his parents…
The clink of flatware against dishes pulled him from his daydream.
"What do you think this drink is?"
"No idea. It's good, though."
"Think they still have Coke? Pepsi?"
"We should check that out."
Lorraine laughed. "Yeah, of all the things we need to be doing, that'll be our top priority, finding out if we can buy a Diet Coke here."
"Or if diet is even still a concept."
They didn't seem to be in any sort of hurry to leave. Silas pondered a quick trip to his office to bring down the necessary employee forms. His family had written them out, rather painstakingly, over the years. Maybe he could bring them in, sit down and go over the rules, and ask them to sign. Act like this was nothing out of the ordinary. Just a job interview conducted past hours in the kitchen…
He groaned softly. Was that as dumb as it sounded?
He heard a chair scrape back. Belatedly, just before the door bumped against him, he realized that Lorraine and her friend had stopped talking.
He blinked into the bright light, which now poured from the kitchen through the wide open doors, and at the man standing there, a small smile on his face. "Silas," he greeted him somewhat sheepishly, "we meet again. You…uh… hungry?"
Lorraine was standing beside the counter, fork poised in mid-air, mouth open. "You work late, don't you?" she said matter-of-factly.
"Good work ethic," the man behind him said, clapping him lightly on the back and steering him inside. "I'm really sorry about this, Silas. I know we're intruding. Um… can I get you anything?"
Silas rallied fairly quickly, if he did say so himself. "An explanation would be nice."
The two of them shared a long, long look which Silas was reluctant to interpret. It just seemed like… trouble.
"We do need an ally," the man said finally.
Lorraine looked over at him doubtfully. "He's a kid."
Silas felt the heat he knew was on his face. "I'm twenty!" Though actually, when he said it like that, he didn't help his case too much.
"He's a Lane-Kent," the man countered, moving back to his place and tucking into his food. "I'd put my money on him."
"You don't have any money," Lorraine returned dryly.
The man only grinned and went back to chewing.
"I can help you," Silas blurted, latching onto what he could understand. "With the money thing. If you'd both like a job, the museum can use you." He studied Lorraine's friend more closely now. In the well-lit room, he could see, for the first time, that while the man was obviously not Superman material, his resemblance to Clark Kent was more than passable. It wasn't bad, actually. "I know you don't really work here. That you're imposters…"
"Imposters of imposters," Lorraine said with a sigh.
"…but I can sign you on, and get you some funds to tide you over until payday," he finished firmly.
"Do you do that for all trespassers?" asked Lorraine, smiling.
"You're my first," he admitted.
"Thanks, Silas," said the man quietly. "That's nice of you. But we're looking for help of another kind."
"We don't know if we can trust him," Lorraine hissed, and Silas tried hard not to be offended. They were the rule breakers here, not him.
"We have to trust someone, don't we?"
"Are you in trouble? Do you need help?" The questions popped out of his mouth before he even planned to voice it. "You're new here, maybe? Haven't figured out how Utopia works?"
The looks they were shooting back and forth between them were making him really uncomfortable.
"We are new here," the man said at last. "And Utopia is… unfamiliar."
"In a bizarre, hippy commune sort of way," Lorraine filled-in, still eating.
"Hippy commune?" Silas repeated, not familiar with the term. He watched as the two of them shared another one of those measuring, silent glances. He did his very best not to squirm. Or to run.
Lorraine sighed heavily and put her fork down. "We need help finding a man named Tempus."
Silas coughed in his surprise. "I beg your pardon? You want my help finding… the Time-Traveler?"
The man with Lorraine moved to his feet quickly. "You know Tempus?"
"What do you take me for?" Silas answered scornfully, backing away. "Some kind of… idiot? You people keep coming into my family's museum night after night, doing the strangest things, and still, I offer you a job, I offer to help you… and in return you ask me about… Tempus? You *are* crazy."
"But you do know who he is and that he time-travels?" Lorraine persisted.
Silas laughed, loud and bitter. "Get out. Both of you. Right now. And if you come back, I *will* call the League and report you. They will be on the look out for you. And you will be deported. How's that?"
He turned and headed for the doors. "I'm going up to my office. I'll give you five minutes to clean up. And believe me, I will know if you don't leave. I'll hear you—"
He stopped abruptly, biting his tongue. Never mind, they were just a couple of weirdoes. They wouldn't read too much into that.
"Is that how you've found us the last two nights?" the man's voice reached him. "You heard us?"
Silas didn't stop walking. "Five minutes," he repeated. "And I'm not bluffing about the League. My uncle and grandmother are pretty high-up. I shout and they answer."
"What do you think the League is?" he heard Lorraine ask in a tone he felt was far too relaxed for the circumstances.
"Police?" the man murmured thoughtfully. "Governing body? Something we aren't supposed to mess with."
"Maybe they can help us with Tempus," she said. "They must know him. We should have asked sooner."
"Let's cut ourselves a break. We were putting two and two together. Still are."
Silas stopped, turning to face them. He was outside the stairwell doors; they had followed him into the lobby. "What the hell is the matter with you?" he ground out, surprising them, surprising himself, as well. He didn't think he had it in him. "Why are you still here? You've had your joke, now go!" He pointed to the lobby doors and took to the stairs at a jog.
"We need to find out what he knows," he heard from behind him.
"The name sort of touched a nerve with him, didn't it?"
"To put it mildly," Lorraine rejoined, her voice echoing in the stairwell as she climbed.
Silas hurried, putting on a bit of speed, not much, just quick enough to get out of their sight. He was trapped in the museum with a couple of crazies. He would call Nate. Call him and tell him what was going on, see if he had any advice on what to do next. Despite his words, the League wouldn't really jump when summoned. They were reserved for the big stuff. Natural disasters. Other than that, they operated ceremonially more than anything. Founder's Day parades, commemorative anniversary dates, and the like.
"Silas," the man called from behind him. Close behind him. "We just need a few minutes of your time. Hear us out and we'll go."
"You will?" Silas stopped climbing and turned around. "You'll go… if I just listen to you?" He knew that sounded a little desperate, but he pretty much was. Desperate to be rid of them.
They stood a half-flight below him on the landing. Not even winded. Their eyes imploring him.
Silas sighed. He had been really bored lately. Wishing for something, almost anything, to happen. And now that it was, he was running from it. Or rather, it was chasing him.
"Ok," he said. "Let's go to my office. You tell me what you're doing here. Why I keep finding you. And I'll show you everything I've got on the Time-Traveler."
"You'll…" Lorraine's mouth dropped open, the man beside her gasped and tightened his arm around her.
"You've got information on Tempus?"
"Sure," Silas said, humoring them, barely resisting the urge to roll his eyes. "You get what you want. I get what I want. Deal?"
He was pleased by their quick, silent nods of consent. Maybe he was finally getting the upper hand here. He crooked his head towards the fifth floor hallway and his office. "Follow me."
"I told you we should have had him declared a criminal. An enemy of the state." Hank marched into the room and threw the latest committee report onto the table between them.
"Hello yourself, dear," answered Madge, unperturbed. "Long day?"
"Long, senseless meeting in which it was once again concluded that no one can find HG Wells anywhere. That man has vanished."
Madge chewed thoughtfully on her brownie. Her really good brownie. Andrus must have been reassigned again. "Do you think Tempus got him? Before he arrived at EPRAD?"
Hank sank wearily to the sofa next to her. She held out the other half of her brownie and he took it.
"Maybe," he said with his mouth full.
"I know Tempus is a terrible man," Madge said, her heart aching for her young assistant. The lines of strain in his lean face were growing more noticeable by the hour. "But he's never been an out and out murderer. He enjoys the game too much for that."
"He's not the only villain here," said Hank darkly. "If I'd had my way last year, we would have had Herb locked up. Or at least under house arrest. That way, when we needed him, like now, we'd have him."
"I know your feelings on Herb," Madge said quietly. "And they are not… unpopular."
Hank closed his eyes and dropped his head back against the headrest. "He started this. He couldn't leave well enough alone. Couldn't just travel and see the worlds without picking up Tempus- of all people. Telling him everything there is to know about dimension hopping and time-travel."
"You know how clever Tempus is. And for all his books smarts, how… unclever… Herb is. He was tricked. And he has apologized many times over."
"I don't care." Hank's eyes, wide open now, stared hard into hers. "And I want him found. If we can't stop this, if he can't help us…"
"I honestly don't see how he could," Madge interjected. "I've been round and round on it, and I don't see what he could do that we haven't."
"Then he should be here," Hank said simply. "To watch it all go up in smoke. See the demise of Utopia. He was instrumental in bringing it about."
"There isn't going to be any demise—" Madge began.
"Don't," Hank cut in. "Just… don't, ok?"
She reached her hand across the space that separated them. He grabbed it and held on. "How about you go home? Be with Elise. If anything changes overnight, I'll call you."
For a moment she thought he might refuse. "I think I will," he said finally. "You'll call?"
"You know I will," she assured him.
"And when Wells turns up…?"
Madge smiled, taking small comfort in his choice of words. 'When' Wells turns up, not 'if.' For all his pessimism, Hank still held to a thread of hope just as she did.
"I will tell him you would like to have a word with him personally."
Hank smiled. His first genuine smile in three days. "You tell him I have a jail cell with his name on it."
"Utopia has no jail cells," she called to him as he moved across the room and pulled open the door. "No need for them, remember?"
"Maybe that's part of our problem, Madge. Did you ever think of that?"
"I don't see how zero crime is a problem," Madge protested, rising to her feet.
"Zero crime, zero criminal minds. Nothing but good citizens raised on the ideals of Superman and Lois Lane. People who know only truth and justice. Who can't imagine evil. Can't see it coming. Can't protect themselves."
"They don't have to," Madge said in a low voice. "They have us for that."
"Are we really any better?" he asked gently. "The scientists with Tempus's ring are completely baffled. How are they supposed to figure out how it works, if they can't even imagine how or why a person would use such a thing? Same with the soul tracer programmers. If they can't fathom anyone trying to outsmart the device, how can they build it to guard against that?"
Madge pressed her hands together firmly under the sleeves of her robe. She was trembling, shaken by Hank's words. By the horrible truth she recognized in them. Still, she didn't want to flinch, didn't want Hank, or Petal, who now hovered uncertainly in the doorway, to see her as anything but rock solid and completely assured.
"Tempus has not won," she said clearly. "And he will not. Not while I have breath in my body."
Hank smiled, the emptiness in his eyes replaced with a warm affection. "When Wells shows up, tell him I'm building that jail cell with my bare hands."
"And I'll search the basement archive for a sizable lock," she answered him.
And she would, she vowed to herself. Right after she saved the world.
"Cozy," said Lois, looking around at the small, bare office Silas had led them to.
"And it isn't red, blue, or yellow," added Clark, a rush of gratitude coming over him. "Thank God."
"Yeah, the color scheme downstairs does kind of… grate," Silas answered with a low laugh.
"Then why allow it?" Lois asked. "Why doesn't your family do something about it? And about the…" Clark noticed the look she was giving him. "Tea towels and toothbrushes and…"
"Wind chimes," he filled-in weakly, closing his eyes. When he opened them again, she was grinning at him. "Enjoying this?" he asked between clenched teeth.
"A tiny bit," she breathed.
"We would love to do it differently," Silas said, moving into the room and behind his desk. The space was too small for the three of them to stand in front of it.
"Then why don't you?" Clark asked, his curiosity genuine.
"As much as they belong to us, Clark Kent and Lois Lane belong to the world. We have to share them, even when it includes wind chimes," he said with a shrug. "It's been hard learned, but over the years we've decided to choose our battles. To only fight for what we feel needs protecting."
"For example?" Clark prompted, lowering himself into the chair across from the Silas.
Silas looked back at him thoughtfully. "Why should I tell you?"
He couldn't think of a good answer to that, besides the obvious. And one glance at Lois told him all he needed about her feelings on that option. Not yet. Or… ever, from the look she was sending his way. "I don't know," he admitted. "We're new here. Trying to find our way. I guess I would just appreciate… knowing."
He spent a long, uncomfortable minute under Silas's stare, until Lois settled the matter for them. She leaned in, drawing Silas's eyes onto her. "*We* would appreciate it very much," was all she said. And despite the war of reluctance on Silas's features, Clark saw the moment he was snagged in her web, dangling and helpless. Something he knew a little bit about, himself.
"For example?" Lois prompted Silas again, this time with a small encouraging smile.
"You won't find Jonathan or Martha Kent impersonators," Silas blurted immediately. "They're true heroes, but during his lifetime Clark Kent felt strongly their privacy should be respected, even long after he and they were gone."
Clark shifted a bit uneasily, not sure how he felt hearing both himself and his parents referred to in the past tense. As if he had telegraphed his discomfort, Lois put her hand on his arm.
"They must have been really close, then," Lois said, stealing a glance at him. "Clark Kent and his parents."
Silas nodded. "If it wasn't for those two people, their kindness and generosity, none of us Lane-Kents would be around to complain about the color scheme or anything else."
"Why doesn't Lois get the same consideration?" Clark asked, feeling Lois's surprise as her grip tightened on him. "You have a whole wing down there that's about nothing but her… her…"
"Difficult childhood?" Silas asked. "I know it seems like a contradiction, and once upon a time it wasn't there, but women like my grandmother and my great aunts said it should be. Said it isn't fair to show where he came from and not her. She's just as much a part of the hero as he was. And according to their argument, Lois was fine with all of it. She'd gotten over it."
"She'd gotten over it?" Lois echoed, skepticism filling the words. "How would they know that?"
"Lois Lane didn't believe in sugar-coating anything," Silas said simply. "Her childhood was what it was. And in the end, she lived a happy life."
"A happy life," Clark repeated aloud, not really meaning to. He looked over at the woman next to him, at the hand folded in his. He had no memory of reaching for it, though he must have. Their hands looked right together, felt right together, intertwined as they were.
Again, almost as if reading his mind, Lois pulled gently away, reddening under his gaze. He looked down. It wasn't fair to her. This whole thing. She couldn't even think the words 'wife' and 'mother' without flinching. So, for her to imagine all this…
Clark shook his head. He didn't know how she was able to hold it together. She had reserves of strength he knew he couldn't compete with. Because for him, the words 'husband' and 'father' came all too easily. The products of his life's dream, and yet more than he had ever dreamed. More and better than anything he could have written for himself.
Their experiences here were completely different. Hers was completely nightmarish. And his, despite his acute embarrassment over the gift shop and utter overkill of the Superman image, was completely… amazing.
They hadn't asked Silas about Tempus yet. Hadn't heard what he had to say, seen what he had to show them, and for a crazy minute, Clark almost wished they wouldn't. That they could conclude what had turned out to be an interesting conversation, stand up and leave and…
Go back upstairs to the attic and live there forever?
Would that be so bad? whispered a voice he had come to know well since the day he had met her. It was insistent, persistent, and lately always present. It wanted one thing: to be near Lois. And stuck here, like this, strangers in a world that wasn't theirs, husband and wife…
If they were stranded and there was no way back, would that really be the worst thing ever?
They couldn't stay in the attic, but they could find a place of their own, maybe. Earn money by taking Silas up on his initial offer, working here at the museum. They were certainly more than qualified to give input…
"What other things does the family protect?" Lois asked, interrupting his train of thought, and just in time, he realized wryly. He had been mentally building the picket fence.
"The Departure Room," Silas said. "This office is on the same floor for a reason. We don't want it to be disrespectful. And we discourage young kids from entering, unless they're accompanied by their parents. Stuff like that."
"The Departure Room?" Clark felt himself growing cold, and beside him, Lois shivered, her hand somehow back in his.
"Even superheroes don't live forever," Silas said matter-of-factly. "And Lois was as human as you guys are, so… well, no one is immortal. Their deaths are recorded simply, though. There isn't anything exploitive in there. No giant holograms or special effects, just accounts of how they met their-"
"Oh god," said Clark, surging to his feet. He got to the office doorway one step in front of Lois. One critical step, as she slammed right into him when he stopped where he was.
He knew what he would see when she lifted her face. Knew the look she would give him, the burning, avid interest that would be in her eyes. That reporter's spark he had seen on the very first day, that very first second, when she had swept into Perry's office, already talking, already thinking, planning, moving.
He gripped the doorframe tightly. "No." He said it just before she could get her words out, whatever she had been going to say. Her mouth was already open. "We shouldn't."
"What's going on?" Silas asked, moving to his feet as well.
"What's going on is this is the first we've heard of the Departure Room, and *we* want to see it," Lois rapped out, her eyes skewering Clark's as she tried to squeeze around him.
He held her off with no difficulty. "*We* do not want to see the Departure Room," he said over her head to Silas. "Because there are some things *we* should not know."
"Interesting," said Lois loudly, turning and addressing her remarks to Silas now, as well. "If I remember correctly that is the exact argument *we* used to discourage *us* from diving head first into the Happily Ever After room!"
Silas ran his hands through his hair. "Sometimes you guys seem so normal, maybe in need of a little help, but… normal," he practically whimpered to himself. "And other times you just… lose it."
"No one is losing it," Clark barked. And maybe the bark wasn't a good choice, but Lois had both hands against his chest, feet planted in the floor, and she was pushing hard. "And no one is looking in the Departure Room, because that room and the HEA room are two entirely different things."
"How?" Lois stopped abruptly and crossed her arms over her chest. "Exactly, precisely *how* are they different?"
"They just are!" he said, again too loudly. "And… we're bothering Silas."
"Are you bothered?" Lois hurled at Silas, who stepped back until he hit the wall behind him.
"See?" she said, one brow arched. "He's not bothered. In fact, I think he would find it enlightening if you would explain to him why *you* can go see the HEA room and that's ok, but *I* can't see the Departure Room."
"There are some things that aren't good to know," Clark said, lowering his voice and imploring her with his eyes. "Some things a person isn't meant to know; that are too hard to see."
"Maybe that's how I felt about the wedding and the kids and that damn family tree which takes up one entire wall—"
"A family tree? Where is that?" he blurted, unwisely, he knew.
"Outside of the Generations room," Silas offered into the charged silence.
"I see," Clark breathed. "An entire family tree? Up to present day?"
"It goes as far as me," Silas said, obviously relieved they had moved back onto saner ground, "and Elise and Nate, and Nate's kids."
"Elise and Nate?" Clark asked.
"My brother and sister. In fact," Silas said, just a touch too casually, "I was thinking of giving Nate a call. Seeing if he'd like to come… meet… you both."
"We've freaked out Junior," Lois said scathingly.
He moved his hands to her shoulders, tilted his head to meet her eyes. "Please don't look," he asked her softly. "Not yet. Not like this. Think about it for a while. For tonight, at least. If you feel the same in the morning—"
He knew she had relented before she said so. Her body, rigid and tense, uncoiled slowly under his palms. She blew out a long breath and nodded curtly.
His thank you was heartfelt.
"Is everything… ok, now?" Silas asked, worry etched on his brow.
Clark and Lois shared a long look. "Yes," she said, finally looking away. "We haven't gotten what we came here for anyway."
She turned back and sat down, all business, as if nothing had taken place.
Silas lowered himself warily back to his own seat.
Clark did the same. "Sorry about that," he said with a weak smile. "We just… didn't know."
"You did know they're dead, right? Because I could swear it was news to you, and it's not exactly hot off the presses."
"Of course," Clark answered, feeling ridiculous and wishing Lois would come to their rescue. She was faster on her feet than he was.
"That's just really interesting. We didn't realize the family went to pains to keep certain things somewhat dignified," she lied smoothly. So smoothly he looked over at her with pure admiration. "First your respect for Martha and Jonathan and now this." She cleared her throat and hit Silas with a smile that should not have been legal. The poor kid didn't stand a chance under its onslaught.
Clark heard Silas's heart rate kick up another notch and had to laugh. It was genetic, then.
"And don't forget the globe," Silas said, leaning towards Lois eagerly. "That's the one relic that keeps me here."
Hank let himself through the front entrance the old-fashioned way. He overrode the automatic lift and pushed the door open manually. It only took an extra minute, but it was an extra minute he needed. An extra minute he didn't have to look at his wife and wonder if or… when… she was going to disappear, literally evaporate from his life.
He paused in the foyer, shivering, even though the day was mild. He could hear Elise singing in the cook-unit and a familiar scorched food smell permeated their small living space.
He smiled. And just as quickly the smile fell away.
The things he would miss. He couldn't number them; they were countless. Elise's cooking experiments, which were her way of relieving stress after a long, frustrating meeting as Head of the Family Council. The stench they left behind. The terrible heartburn he went to bed with the first Monday of every month.
Hank leaned heavily against the nearest wall, closed his eyes, and enjoyed the horrid smell. He listened to his wife's voice as she sang. Tragically, it rivaled her cooking in quality. But he wished with all his heart he would always hear it. Everyday for the rest of his life.
For the millionth time he groped for the answers. How did he keep things as they were? What could he do to keep hell from his door?
He was so afraid the answer was simply… nothing. That there was nothing he could do. The constant bombardment to his nervous system, the alarmed feeling zinging through his veins, never left him now. Not for a moment.
Every one at the Ministry felt it. It was a ghostly presence over the entire operation. But no one else was married to a family member. No one else went home after a long, hopeless day, and stood outside their home and wondered… if the person they loved most in the world… still existed.
He wasn't sure he could face her tonight. Not without breaking down and telling her everything. And though Madge had given her blessing for him to do just that, he still hadn't.
Every time he had tried, words, any words at all, failed him completely. He was starting to have more understanding for the Ministry's policy of keeping the family members in the dark. Would it really do his wife any good to know? Was it just himself he was trying to make feel better? He wanted so badly to unburden. Yearned to lay his head in her lap and rid himself of every last detail.
But that would merely shift the heavy weight onto her.
So, was that honesty or selfishness?
Until he decided, he knew he couldn't begin to let her in on his mind's turmoil. Though she knew it was there. She had been watching him closely for the last two days, long looks quietly taking his measure.
Elise knew this was part of being married to him. That he couldn't talk about his job. Couldn't be anything more than vague. In the early days of their courtship, that fact of his life had threatened to sink them. Hank had vowed to her he would be honest in all things he was able to. But that at some point, she was just going to have to trust he couldn't say any more.
He had waited a nerve wracking two weeks before she had shown up on his doorstep one day and put him out of his misery. And married him. She'd told him it was probably a fair trade. She would put up with not knowing, and he'd have the headache of being married to a family member who was dedicated to all the obligations which went with that.
Hank heard her coming now and straightened quickly, checking that his features were coaxed into something of a smile.
By the time she rounded the corner, he was as together as he was going to be.
"Hey, you." She moved forward to kiss him, looking frazzled and gorgeous, her light brown hair frizzing into curls from the heat of the oven. When she would have stepped away, he grabbed her and brought her back to him.
"You're home early." She relaxed against him, letting him know it was ok to hold her, to keep her there. "Another bad one, I take it."
"Pretty much," he said lightly. "And since I was useless, the boss sent me home for some R&R."
"You were useless to Madge? Why do I find that hard to believe?"
He rested his head on top of hers, his eyes burning with tears he had no intention of letting her see. She felt so good in his arms. Solid. Steady. Here.
Still here and still his to love.
"And by the smoke billowing from the cook-unit, I gather this evening's Family Council wasn't the most productive?"
"The smoke…?" She pulled away, looking offended. "Very funny. There's no— Oh, shoot! That dish was going to be edible, Hank, I swear!"
She took off and disappeared around the corner, the sounds of pots clanging and water running playing a familiar medley.
He moved into the room to join her and to surreptitiously survey the damage. "What are the Lane-Kents debating now?"
He perched on the edge of the counter while she told him. At some point he tuned out the exact words— they rarely varied from meeting to meeting— and simply soaked her in. Her rambling explanations, her flashing brown eyes and energetic movements, her exasperated sighs and laughter. Just her. The woman he loved. The woman he wanted to grow old with.
"Tell me again," Andrus said with a pleading look, "why Hank couldn't come with us?"
"He was needed elsewhere," Madge answered briskly, winding her scarf tighter against the frigid wind.
"Well," said Petal, looking around, "this place is certainly beautiful. The vegetation is so thick and lush. And look at the sky."
"Looks like snow," Madge said, and she and her assistant shared a secret smile. "And I think the temperature has dropped no less than ten degrees since we arrived."
"So, where do you think he is?" Andrus asked. "And if we don't find him in the next half-hour, do you mind if I go back to the portal? I can't feel my toes."
"You can go back now, dear," Madge said quickly. She and Petal had been circling pointlessly for the last several minutes hoping for just this request. "In fact, I would feel better if I knew you were guarding the portal for us."
Andrus's answering smile was so pleadingly grateful, she almost felt guilty for the manipulation.
Almost, not completely. Desperate times called for desperate measures. There were, of course, nearly a dozen guards standing by the portal, obscured by the vegetation, anticipating Tempus might try to leave the way they had come. But Andrus didn't need to know that.
"Perhaps I need a… weapon?" he asked somewhat haltingly. "In case… well… just in case…"
The three of them grew silent while Madge weighed the question in her mind. Once more Andrus had come uncomfortably close to her own thoughts. Before leaving on this expedition, she had given serious consideration to searching the basement archives and finding… something. Something to give the guards. Perhaps something to slip into the folds of her robe when she confronted Tempus. A little added insurance.
But the idea of actually doing it, of actually holding a weapon of any sort on Tempus curdled her blood. Because he would love it. And he would know, in the very instant, that he had won. Utopia, though still existing, would be defeated if any of them had to resort to violence to defend it.
It was the ultimate ethical dilemma. And Madge still wasn't certain she had the right handle on it.
Instead, she had packed their time portal full of able bodies. Counting on strength in numbers. Which was how they had ended up with Andrus. The same elders, who had allowed her to keep her job, had insisted Andrus be given another chance to prove his usefulness. That, or they were just looking for an excuse to be rid of him for a few hours.
As for Hank, Madge wasn't entirely confident he would see things as she did, that using violence against Tempus was anathema to everything Superman was. So, she had sent him home and left without his knowing.
He would be beyond furious with her in the morning, but it was her dearest wish that she could diffuse his anger by telling him her gamble had paid off, and all was finally well.
"No weapon," Madge spoke softly now, even as Andrus was breaking a branch off a nearby tree. "Just watch the portal and call on your zip-com if you see him."
Somewhat guiltily, Andrus let go of the tree branch. It swung back wildly, nearly slapping her and Petal across their faces. Only their quick ducking saved them.
"Right, then. Good luck." Andrus took his leave from them at last.
She and Petal stood still for a few minutes and watched his progress, making sure he was headed in the right direction. Madge didn't even want to think about what would happen if he got lost… the time they would waste finding him…how tempted she would be to leave him behind…
"I put a signal on him," Petal said, reading her mind, and proving to her, once again, why she was such a grand assistant. "It's in his shoe." She held up the signal tracker and showed her the moving, blinking light.
"Very good. And now, let's go see him, shall we?"
"After you," Petal said, and the excitement in her voice drew Madge up short.
"Try to tone down that enthusiasm when we're with him," she remarked dryly.
"I will," Petal vowed, her dimples flashing, making her look exactly like the young go-getter that she was. "But I can't help it. I can't believe I'm really going to meet him. Talk to him. After years of studying his every move, anticipating his every thought, tracking his patterns. This is… well, I wish I could tell my cadet class. They would die!"
"This isn't a game," Madge said severely. "Don't lose sight of that. The stakes are precious. And Tempus is not a… a… what do you call those entertainers, dear? The ones who wailed and wiggled around so much in the previous century?"
"Rock stars," Petal said. "And I know, Madge. Believe me, if anyone knows, I do."
"Let's do this, then." Madge pushed off in the direction of the cave they knew Tempus to be housed in.
"The globe?" Clark and Lois asked as one. He shot her a quick questioning glance. Up to this point, she had seen more of the museum than he had. Something he would really like to rectify before the night was over. But the look she was giving him was just as blank as his.
"The communicator Jor-el and Lara installed in the ship," Silas said. "It held their messages, images of their last moments, as well as the things they wanted Kal-el to know."
Their young relative was looking at them suspiciously, and Clark couldn't blame him. This was no doubt common knowledge.
"The globe held their messages?" Lois placed her elbows on Silas's desk and smiled. The suspicion immediately left the young man's face. It was replaced by… awe. "Like an answering machine?"
"What's an answering machine?" he asked her, leaning in, as well. "Is that new? Something they have where you're from?"
"Yes," Clark said carefully, trying hard not to convey his deep impatience with the topic change. "When you can't get in touch with someone, you leave them a message. It gets recorded and they play it later."
"Why wouldn't you be able to get in touch with someone?" Silas asked, looking genuinely intrigued now. "Zip-com's are universally issued and solar powered. So… why…?"
Lois shifted back in her chair and tilted her head to peer at Silas from under her lashes. "Can we get back to the globe?" The look she gave him had him gulping audibly.
"Lois," Clark whispered warningly. "Play fair."
He didn't know if she even heard him, but Silas clearly did, as his gaze darted to him before being pulled inexorably back to Lois.
"Well, no one really knows how it works. But during his life span, at certain critical points, Clark Kent was able to receive messages from his parents which were stored inside."
"He was?" Clark sat up straighter. "Where did the globe come from?"
"We think it was his ship's navigational system."
"Kryptonian technology," Lois clarified.
"And since the device was only attuned to Superman and what his circumstances were, no one really knows for sure what those messages looked like or what they contained."
"No one?" Clark echoed.
Silas shook his head. "He and Lois didn't make a record of them for the family. That had to be on purpose, because they were pretty good about leaving their story to those who came after them. Some things, though, they kept to themselves. And I guess they didn't feel like this was anyone else's business."
"So, the globe has done nothing since…?"
"Since the original Superman was alive," Silas said.
"And you have it here? In the museum? On display?" Clark asked, an insane hope rising inside.
"No. It was really special to Superman. If I left it out, left it unattended, there'd be a tent built over it. A brass band. Circus performers dressed as House of El impersonators. Little globe ornaments for Festival trees. You get the idea. And even if we don't understand it, it's still a family heirloom, so…"
"You're keeping it safe."
"Being its caretaker falls to whoever is working here. That's me. And it means my being here isn't a complete waste of… Well, it's just good that it's here."
"I'm sure…Clark Kent… would appreciate that," Clark said quietly.
Silas nodded. "I'd really like to think so."
Clark and Lois exchanged another long look. She was shaking her head slightly, trying to warn him off, he knew. And he understood why, of course.
"About Tempus," she began, confirming his suspicions she wanted him to drop it. "You said you had some information—"
"Can I see the globe?" Clark cut-in.
Silas sat back in his chair, blinking rapidly. "Uh. No. Sorry about that. As a matter of fact, I'm not sure why I told you all I did about it. It isn't for public viewing. And it's… well-hidden."
"That's fine," Lois said, irritation dancing on the edge of her voice. "What sort of information do you have on—"
"It's in the safe. In the wall. Behind that picture," Clark said, pointing just over Silas's head. It had taken him all of two seconds to locate it. Now that he knew it was here, it stood to reason Silas would keep it close by.
Lois turned on him, her face like thunder. "You know, this has been our problem the last three days! We start down one path and we get distracted by…" She waved her hands over the room. "… our histories. And another day goes by and still we don't know anything that will help us. We have a source!" She motioned towards Silas urgently. "Shut up and let me question him."
Silas had that same caged look as before. And Clark knew they weren't helping their cause with him. If he had the answers they needed, they couldn't afford to be so clumsy.
"Believe me, I appreciate that," he told Lois apologetically. "And Silas, I appreciate, very much, what you're trying to do by protecting it." He drew in a deep breath and met the befuddled stares of both of them. For an instant, they were so similar, he nearly laughed. "But you should know; I can have it out in under a second. And… to be honest, that's exactly what I'll do after you've gone, Silas. Or we can do it now, and you can supervise."
"You're admitting you'd… break the law?" Silas gasped, shoving to his feet and moving to stand in front of the picture. "You can't! People don't break laws in Utopia. It… isn't nice!"
"What has gotten into you?" Lois demanded at the same time. "Who are you, Clark? You can't be this mild-mannered, Kansas farmboy one minute, then go all 'Show me the globe or else!'"
"I know you can't understand this, Lois." He turned to her, imploring. "But my parents touched it. It's from my home. Who knows if I get to see it later? If we never make it back, then I never do. I need to. I have to."
"What did you just call each other?" Silas interjected in a low voice. He was pacing as much as he could in the small space available to him. "You just called him Clark. And then you…" He pointed in Clark's direction without really looking. "…called Lorraine Lois." He stopped and sagged against the corner of his desk. When his eyes turned to them at last, they were full of the last thing Clark expected.
"I was really afraid of this. I had my suspicions before. And we've had this happen a time a two," Silas said regretfully. "Some look-alikes get a little too… into their roles and just sort of forget… That's one reason we don't hire just anyone with a resemblance. We try to screen for… emotional…uh… fortitude."
"Now he thinks we're crazy. Nice work, Kent."
"At this point, I am a little crazy," Clark said in a raw voice. "And we need Silas. We need him to know everything. This isn't going to work any other way. If the globe responds to me…"
"If you wanted to prove your identity to Silas, you could just… bend things. Or… float!"
"You float?" Silas's voice cracked with tension. "In your sleep? Are you a family member? Why didn't you say so? Family members identify themselves; that's how it's done."
"I'm identifying myself now. I'm definitely a member of the family." Clark stood. "Both of us are. And if you just let me see the globe, I think I can clear everything up."
Lois was on her feet as well. "I'm not sure this is smart. What if by touching it now, it gets messed up? It's cued to certain times in your life, and this cannot be one of them."
"What if it is, Lois? What if the answer to how we get back is inside it? What if Jor-el knew this would happen?"
"What if this is like the Departure Room?" she argued back. "One of those things that in your words is 'better not to know'? We already know far too much. And what if by touching it here and now, you… break it? And it stops responding to you alone and starts playing back to any guy in a geeky pair of glasses? Or worse?"
"Then you do admit I'm right about the Depature Room."
"Did you listen to anything else I said? I'm not saying you're right, I'm saying—"
"I'm not letting you see it."
Silas's nervous voice broke in. He was holding his ground, his stance straight and his frown stern. He almost pulled it off, but for the rapid blinking. "I have no idea who you are. And I'm assuming you figured out the safe because this is the only two-dimensional picture on the wall, so it isn't a huge stretch of the imagination. That is, if you know what a safe is, what it's used for. I kind of thought the very concept was so outdated no one would ever think to look. I mean… locks?" He laughed a tad too loudly. "Hidden locks? Who could live that way…?"
"The babble gene. Wonder whose side that comes from?" Clark breathed, casting a look at Lois.
She met it with a harsh glare and tossed it right back to him, voicing nearly silently, "And he's caving under the pressure. Wonder whose side that comes from."
"Who says I'm caving!" Silas demanded angrily. "I'm not caving! I'm trying to defend a family heirloom from you two loonies!"
"You heard that?" Lois said swiftly.
Silas looked uncomfortable, and Clark couldn't blame him. He knew the two of them were studying him like a specimen under a microscope. "You weren't as quiet as you thought you were."
"You hear things fairly easily." Clark said matter-of-factly. "That's how you keep finding us."
"Maybe, but I'm not a throwback," Silas said distinctly, and completely incomprehensibly. "And I am not showing you the globe. I…I… thought you wanted to see the Tempus stuff." There was an air of desperation in that last.
"We do," said Lois, returning to her seat. "Very much, Silas. Let's see the Tempus stuff."
"You can hold the globe," Clark said, and beside him Lois sighed loudly and dropped her head in her hands. "You don't have to let go of it. I'll just touch it… once. And you can put it back, and you have my word I won't disturb it ever again."
Clark counted their heartbeats in the silence.
Finally Silas spoke. "I should warn you that if you decide to take it, you can't outrun me."
Clark forgot the globe momentarily, smiling at the younger man who was doing his best to stare him down. "Really? You're fast?"
Silas cleared his throat noisily. "Not…unusually fast, but I have no doubt I could catch you, and… hurt you… to get it back. If I have to. So, don't make me have to."
Silas's attempt at menace touched him to the core. He was so grateful to him for being here, for putting up a fight on his behalf. A fight which, nonetheless, Clark knew he couldn't let him win.
Lois, on the other hand, burst out laughing. "I think I see why you needed me so much. Or will need me, or whatever," she told Clark. "There are some things even beyond super men."
He couldn't help but agree. "Maybe if I have bad guys to intimidate, I should bring you along?"
"This isn't funny," said Silas stiffly. "I shouldn't even be showing you this. In fact, I don't know how you talked me into it. I should have my head examined."
"Please, Silas," was all Clark said.
With a weary sigh and some muttering Clark did his best not to decipher, Silas turned and removed the picture from the wall. Belatedly, Clark recognized it. "Hey! Is that… that's one of… Martha Kent's, isn't it?"
"A reproduction," Silas answered in short clipped tones, pulling a heavy case from the wall and setting it on his desk.
Clark felt the itch in his palms even before Silas had it unwrapped. With his hands tightly gripping it, Silas turned to Clark. "One touch," he reminded him. "And this goes back and you guys leave. I don't want to see you again. I will call the League."
"If you still feel that way after, it's a deal," Lois said on his behalf, since he couldn't find the words.
It was so dull and nondescript. Clark fought back a ridiculous disappointment. He hadn't known what to expect, but it wasn't this.
He reached a tentative hand towards it, suddenly doubtful it would work. As separated as he was from his true time and place, would the globe know him still? Could it? And if it didn't, if nothing happened, then he had risked and squandered Silas's good will. And anything he might know about Tempus. He wouldn't want to help them, and he and Lois would be back at square one.
Lois moved beside him, a show of support he had come to recognize. "Go ahead."
At first contact, his eyes widened. "It's warm!"
And it was. Despite its cool exterior, beneath his fingers, Clark could feel heat building. And some mechanism inside started to… hum. A barely audible signal. Audible to him, and clearly audible to Silas, who, in his shock, nearly dropped it.
"It's awake!" Silas said.
They found Tempus layered in the furs of an animal Madge didn't recognize and huddled beside a small fire at the entrance of his cave.
He stood to greet them, flashing them both a bright smile. "Been expecting you, darlin'. Everything all set to rights? Coming to lecture me on my propensity for mayhem? Or is this just a social call?"
"Everything is set to right, once again, Tempus," Madge said solemnly. "And this is getting old."
"None of us are getting any younger, are we?" Tempus said agreeably. "Can I pull up a rock for you? Or will we be leaving soon?" On seeing Petal, his smile widened. "I don't believe I've had the pleasure."
To her credit, Petal didn't bat an eye. "No, you haven't."
"This is my assistant. She's in her graduate program and observing. Since we've solved your latest riddle, I wanted her to come along and listen in on the wrap-up."
"How did you solve it?" Tempus asked, stretching his long legs towards the fire. "I thought it would take longer."
Madge lowered herself onto a nearby fallen tree and tucked her robes tightly around her. "I'll admit this was a bit more difficult than the last few," she said primly.
"Thank you." The twinkle in Tempus's eyes told her he was genuinely pleased. And flattered, which was always the key to unlocking him.
At their prearranged signal, Petal spoke up. "I've studied you. In cadet class. Your scenarios were the toughest assignments we had."
Tempus was looking downright cheery now. "Is that so? And how were your grades, darlin'?"
Petal blushed prettily, and Madge had a moments worry it wasn't all an act. "Top of my class," she admitted with a show of modesty.
"Want an autograph?" Tempus drawled. "Something to show the kids back home?"
Petal moved to sit beside him. "I'd like to know exactly how you worked it out. Exactly how you planned and executed this last one. And, you know…" She glanced hesitantly over at Madge, just as they'd rehearsed. "…we still haven't figured out what you did with Wells."
Tempus threw back his head and laughed loudly enough to scare whatever wildlife had been scurrying in the bushes beyond his small clearing. "So, ol' Herb hasn't shown up yet?"
Despite herself, Madge found herself smiling a little. When Petal looked her way, she smoothed her features immediately. "No," she said with a heavy sigh. "Care to give us a clue?" If they could get him to tell one thing, just the one, then maybe that would get the ball rolling.
"Sure." Tempus tossed another stick onto the fire. "Let's see. Poor Herb is somewhere in the 1980s stuffed into a high school locker. It's summer break, so no one will hear him banging. However, just to show you I have a heart, there are enough pizza crusts and discarded juice boxes to tide him over for a while longer."
"Isn't that a bit too stereotypical bully of you?" Madge asked, swallowing back laughter of her own. Now that they knew Wells was safe, she had no real qualms with him being locked down one more day… maybe two. Three at the very most.
"Not my most creative work," Tempus conceded. "But I was saving that for Lois and Clark. How are they, by the way? Shaken but not stirred?"
"They are back where they belong. And they've come away from their ordeal fine as always," Madge answered briskly, aware that the conversational ice was getting thin and she needed to move forward carefully.
"Shame," Tempus said agreeably. "Where do we go from here?"
"Actually, we've decided this is the best place for you," Madge said sweetly. "I know the winter will be hard, but you're quit inventive, so I'm not too worried you'll survive it nicely."
"You're leaving me here?" For the first time real concern showed on his face, and his relaxed posture tightened. "Do you have any idea how the temperature drops when the sun goes down?"
Madge studied the darkening sky thoughtfully. "I imagine it is rather bone chilling."
"Maybe if he explains his theory behind this last escapade?" Petal said a bit tremulously, biting her lip and looking appropriately unsure of herself. "Then we could move him someplace… warmer? Kind of a trade? And I could present it to my class!"
"Petal," Madge said warningly, her heart lifting at the wonderful job her assistant was doing on her first field assignment. She was a natural. Maybe it wouldn't be too many years before she was the one with Madge's office and title.
"Sorry." Petal ducked her head and scooted closer to the fire to warm her hands. "Overstepping," she said to Tempus in a whisper Madge couldn't hear but they had scripted earlier.
Tempus winked at her. "I find those terms acceptable, Mags."
Underneath her robes, Madge's fists clenched in victory. She kept her outside façade as implacable as ever, but inside, hope churned and bubbled, and if she had been able, she would have floated.
"Very well. How about the tropics? An island with vegetation. You could fish for your supper. Get a tan."
"What century?" Tempus shot back.
"Anything pre-20th. Don't want to risk you signaling a helicopter or the Coast Guard."
Tempus nodded. "And provisions?"
"Same as last time. Fresh water tablets, books, blankets, cookware, toothpaste, shoes…"
"How about her?" Tempus inclined his head towards Petal, a devilish smile lighting his features.
"I'm afraid you'll have to be content with your own company."
"Ah well." Tempus sighed theatrically. "It never hurts to ask."
The sound of thundering feet, twigs snapping, and greenery parting reached their ears at that moment.
"Into the cave," Tempus barked, shooting to his feet and picking up a sharp stick. "Some of the natural predators are… ambitious."
Madge hopped down from her perch and Tempus grabbed her by the arm, pulling her in his wake. Petal was right behind.
"They never look inside," Tempus was saying, ironically, trying to soothe her fear. "They aren't smart enough."
They were steps away from the entrance when the sight Madge least wanted to see emerged into the clearing, into full view, in full voice as well. "I believe I saw a Woolly Mammoth! Back by the portal! You *have* to come see! It's breathtaking!"
"Andrus!" Madge cut him off in as close to a shout as she'd ever come. "Go back to the portal at once!"
Andrus, twigs in his hair, came to a halt beside them. "You found him," he said, looking at Tempus. "Didn't think you'd be able to. Has he told you yet…?"
"Andy," Petal moved towards him and seized him by sleeve of his robe. "Show me what you saw. Let's go. Now. I can record it for my class."
Madge turned wary eyes to Tempus, weighing the speculation in them, registering the dawning comprehension.
"You lied to me." His voice rang with disbelief. "You, Margaret Hathaway, Director of Peacekeeping, told a lie."
"I was not lying about the tropics," she interjected earnestly. "We can be away from here in minutes."
But the most crucial minute, the one she most needed and would never get back, had already passed.
Tempus grinned. "You don't know where they are. And you almost had me. That's how good you are, Mags. Because I never thought you could be dishonest." He shook his head and looked at her in gleeful admiration.
Her heart grew cold, and in the instant, she understood murder. She would kill Andrus. Kill him. Strangle him with the belt of her robe. Hang him from one of these trees and let the ambitious natural predators treat him as a piñata…
Petal put a steadying hand on her shoulder and Madge blinked, and remembered who she was and all she represented.
"I'm teaching you a thing or two," Tempus said. "This is getting much more interesting. Just think about what we could accomplish together, Mags, you and me. Superman and Lois Lane wouldn't have anything on us."
"Enjoy your winter," Madge snapped, pivoting to follow Petal and Andrus. She didn't look back or slow her pace. Tempus wouldn't follow. Wouldn't reconsider. Wouldn't chase after her and put her out of her misery. She knew that.
In fact, the memory of this victory would no doubt keep him warm for many nights to come.
"Did I… do something wrong?" Andrus asked in a breathless voice. Petal had not let him go, and despite his height and weight advantage, she was practically dragging him through the woods.
"Shut up, Andrus," Madge spat.
The shocked silence which followed should have shamed her, but it didn't. What did it matter when they were all on the verge of total collapse?
"Let go of it," Clark said to Silas, sounding as if he knew it was exactly what they were supposed to do. "If you just let it hover, that will get it started."
Lois moved in between them. "Are you sure?" She didn't take her eyes off the glowing object held in Silas's trembling grasp. "What if it drops and breaks?"
The words weren't out of her mouth when the globe split at the seams. They all blinked hard against the bright white light pouring from it. Under its own power it pulled from Silas's still reaching hand and moved above them, peeling apart and projecting a stream of crisp, vivid images into the small office space.
Lois felt Clark go slack against her. She slipped an arm around his waist, and he leaned in close enough for her to feel his shaking. "I've got you," she whispered, her face blushing hotly even as she registered the words, hoping suddenly he hadn't heard them.
The likeness of a man who had to be his father filled the room, rising above the ocean of other images. Lois saw the resemblance immediately. The lines of the jaw, the nose, the mouth…
On her other side, Silas stood at mute attention, eyes wide and unblinking. Glancing between the three men, as she did, Lois could now see similarities which were impossible to miss.
Jor-el's image grew and expanded, covering the walls and much of the ceiling. His eyes tracked the room with an intelligence that was unmistakable. His presence went beyond ethereal. In the moment, in the room, he seemed as real as they did. And Lois would swear he looked right at her, if only fleetingly. But in that glance had been… recognition.
Before she could decide that was impossible, Clark shivered, and she moved her other arm around him, just as Jor-el's searching gaze found his son.
His eyes, settled now on Clark, filled with knowingness- simply that. Across the miles, across the universes, and now across the centuries, he spoke. "Kal-el, my son…"
Silas slumped against his desk. Lois was pretty sure she was the only thing keeping Clark upright. And Jor-el told his child about the destruction of their home, the frantic research which had preceded the decision to launch him into space. His mother's sorrow. Jor-el's own fears. And the hopes that had been riding on his son's small ship.
"… if you are seeing this, you have started to meet your destiny. You have taken up your powers for the good of others, just as we wished for you…"
Clark seemed unaware of the tears on his cheeks. Lois blinked hard against her own. His hand found its way into hers, clinging tightly. And she understood.
She understood him in a way she might never have if she hadn't been here to witness this. Or maybe she understood him in a way she one day would, was destined to, given years to know him, to know them, to learn his heart. She understood they fit, just as their hands did.
And like a puzzle, once worked, the big picture seemed obvious.
The way she had felt the first night at EPRAD. He had sat down across from her and tried not to look nervous about her questions. He'd expressed his desire to help but not be famous. In response, she had done something she had never done before. Something she would have sworn she was incapable of. In the face of a big story, a huge story, she had relented. Instead of looking across the desk and seeing her Pulitzer, she had seen…him.
Later, after Tempus, after everything, when they had been in the park, it had happened again. The story of her career, of any reporter's career, and she had feared for him. Feared that despite his abilities, his goodness might render him far too vulnerable to the world.
He was super-powered, yes. Strong and gifted. Able to do what no one else was…
But he was just one person. One person, who alone carried the legacy of an entire world on his shoulders. One person who only days before- at the colonists' launch- had taken on responsibility for his adopted world as well.
No matter who he was or what he could do, how could one person operate under that kind of weight?
He couldn't. He wouldn't be able to. Not without someone to share it with. Not without a partner. She had said it to him that first night, and now she felt its echo whisper in her heart.
>>You're going to need help.<<
Lois closed her eyes for just a moment and let it all sink in.
Had she ever really been needed?
Maybe she was needed by the citizens of Metropolis, though they didn't know it. She worked on their behalf daily, doing what she could to root out corruption, expose unfair practices, find ways to make their city a better place to live. It wasn't a job that others couldn't do, but she liked to think she brought a unique talent and energy to it.
On the personal level, Lucy needed her. Since they were children she had been Lucy's only reliable 'parent.' Despite their different outlooks and lifestyles, and Lucy's stubborn streak, which rivaled Lois's — though she pretended it didn't- she was still a source of emotional support for Lucy.
This, however, was an entirely different kind of need. It was hard to imagine its scale and scope. If they managed to get back to their lives, what Clark would need from her would be life-changing, all encompassing. It would require everything she had to give. And no doubt much more than that, many times over.
>>It's too much<< an all-too familiar voice inside her head insisted. >>Too hard. Too complicated. Too risky.<<
But she was good at hard. Great at complicated. Hell, risk taking was what she did best. Maybe not in matters of the heart, exactly, but still, it was the ordinary which so often tripped her up. Ordinary, every day relationships had always been something of a mystery to her, something she couldn't quite seem to manage the way everyone else did.
But her life with Clark would be anything but ordinary. So… maybe, just maybe, that made her uniquely suited to being the partner of a superhero.
Lois opened her eyes, looked into the face of Clark's father, and before she could talk herself out it, she decided. She silently promised Jor-el to be family to the son he had been forced to abandon to the stars. To help him as he steered his course.
And to love him as she did so.
"But there will be no hair bow on the wedding veil," she murmured to herself. "A girl's got to draw the line somewhere."
"It's a very important assignment," Madge said gravely. "And it may take some time, as we haven't much to go on."
"I won't disappoint you," Andrus vowed, hanging on her every word, ignoring the mug of tea he held in his grip.
Madge stood up from her desk and walked over to him, placing a hand on his shoulder. "You must find Herb and save him."
Andrus's eyes widened. "Is he is danger?"
"Tempus has… stored him somewhere." Madge moved back to her desk and picked up the copy of Tempus's comments on Herb's whereabouts Anna had just brought in.
Andrus looked them over and frowned. "That's all we have to go on? The 1980s? And high schools? There must be… hundreds of them."
"Hundreds of thousands," Madge said apologetically. "However, we do know you can narrow your search to the summer months of that decade. Tempus gave us that much."
Andrus swallowed hard. "So, I must go to every high school? Search every locker for ten years?"
"Herb is counting on you. As is the Ministry. If there is anyone more suited for this difficult assignment, Andrus, I can't think who."
Andrus sat back with a proud, nervous smile. "You flatter me."
Madge shook her head solemnly. "I haven't said a word that isn't the literal truth."
"Right, then." He stood and slapped his mug down on the edge of her desk, not noticing the splash he left on her vid screens.
"Wish me luck!"
"The very best," Madge said fervently, moving to the door and opening it. "And whatever you do, don't come back until you have him, ok, dear?"
Slowly he became aware Lois had said his name. That she had been saying his name for some time now. With effort, he pulled his gaze from where the hologram of Jor-el had been.
"Are you all right?" Lois asked, worry in her eyes. "Are both of you?" she added, as another pair of anguished brown eyes, nearly identical in shade to the first, turned to meet his.
"Yeah," said Clark starting in surprise when Lois's hands brushed over his face, wiping away tears he hadn't felt. He cleared his throat, tried to steady his voice. "How about you, Silas?"
Silas merely looked at them. He opened his mouth to speak, closed it again, and settled for nodding.
Clark tried to put himself in his young relative's shoes. He couldn't begin to imagine it. Or maybe he could. Maybe his and Lois's presence here in Silas's office was as amazing to Silas as Jor-el's had been to Clark. He didn't know. Nor did he have any idea how to begin the conversation they needed to have.
He didn't get a chance to debate it. Lois, as she did in all things, went with the direct approach.
"We're Lois Lane and Clark Kent. Genuine articles."
This time Silas gulped audibly, but still, he didn't speak.
"And what is your relation to us, exactly, Junior?"
Clark moved to offer a seat, and Silas, as if not fully aware of it, collapsed into the chair pushed towards him.
"Gr- great grandson," he said in a choked whisper. "My great, great, great, eight greats in all, grandmother was… your …your…" He stopped and lowered his elbows to his knees, raking his hands through his hair.
"Our daughter," Lois supplied.
Clark looked at her sharply. She had said that so easily. In fact, she sounded almost as if… she believed it.
She shrugged, noticing the look he was doing a bad job of hiding. "It's the truth, isn't it?"
This time he was the one who opened his mouth, closed it, and then settled for the mute nod.
"So, you're…" Silas lifted his head. "…them."
"Yes," he and Lois said as one.
"Oh," Silas said. "I guess, in a way, that… explains some things."
"And makes some other things more confusing," said Clark with great sympathy. At this point, he knew a thing or two about confusing.
"Are you here from…uh…Heaven? Come to pay a…v-visit? See how we're all doing?"
"Like ghosts?" Lois asked with a small grin. "Or maybe angels?"
"Lois, don't," Clark said softly. "It's a lot to take in."
"Oh god," Silas moaned, the color, which had been returning to his face, leaving again. "I was… you were so…" He gestured mutely to Lois. "I… I had this thing for you and you're my… dead great-grandmother!"
The look he shot Clark was horror-filled and decidedly shamed.
Clark only laughed and shook his head. "That just shows me how smart you are, Silas."
Silas nodded weakly and cleared his throat. "Smart. Right."
"And we're not ghosts and definitely not angels." Clark shot Lois a reproving stare. "But we are your family. And we do need your help."
"We aren't here from the great beyond," Lois added. "We're here from our own time and place. Tempus sent us."
The words weren't so much as out of her mouth when Silas's eyes rolled back, the white of them showing just as he slumped off the chair and crumpled to the floor.
"…definitely doesn't get that from me."
"Oh, come on, Lois. We hit him with it all at once. The globe. Who we are. You can hardly blame him."
"I'm just saying it's becoming more and more apparent how a superman such as yourself needs someone exactly like me in his life. To toughen him up and help him with… with…"
"Please, don't stop. You were getting to the good stuff."
"Let's sit him up. He's coming around."
"God, he weighs a ton! He doesn't look it."
"Dense molecular structure. I got him, don't hurt yourself."
Strong hands lifted him to a reclining position. He felt a cushion at his back. Recognized it as the one he had gone to fetch for Lorraine- who was not Lorraine- on their first meeting. For an instant, he considered faking it. Keeping his head rolled to the side and simply lying there until they lost interest and went away.
But if they really were Lane and Kent, the actual ones, in the flesh, and they wanted something from him, they wouldn't leave him alone. Ever.
"His eyes are opening."
Silas blinked. Lois was leaning over him. She was so close her hair was touching his face and he could smell the mix of soap and coffee that lingered on her. He inhaled deeply. She frowned and speared him with a concerned stare. "Beautiful," he breathed before he could stop himself.
"What did he say?"
"He said you're beautiful."
"He's delirious. Maybe he hit his head."
"He's got a good eye."
"He's a kid."
"Hardly a kid, Lois."
"We're at least six years older than he is."
"Two hundred and six years older, don't forget."
"You really enjoy that, don't you?"
Silas blinked rapidly a few times more, clearing his vision. He was awake. No denying it. And if he didn't indicate as much, he knew they would never stop talking, and already his head was pounding. "What happened?"
"Are you ok?"
"Fainted?" Silas struggled to sit upright, as Lois moved aside and Clark steadied him with a firm grip on his shoulders.
"Passed out cold, and your Gramps and Gram were worried about you."
"Lois, don't tease him."
"This is all a bad dream," Silas said, looking at them defiantly, willing them to dissipate into a mist. "Or bad gin, maybe?" he added hopefully when they remained, looking stubbornly solid and three-dimensional.
"Does alcohol affect you?" Clark asked him quietly.
"Well… no," Silas acknowledged. "And I researched that quite a bit my freshman year in college."
"It doesn't affect you either?" Lois asked Clark. "What about hallucinogens? Could we be given something that scrambled our minds? Made us think we'd time-traveled? Because that's a theory we should give some thought to. Maybe we're all just drugged and dreaming. Maybe none of this is really happening, maybe—"
"Drugs don't affect me, Lois," Clark cut-in firmly. "At all. In no way. My mind is… scramble proof."
Lois uttered something that sounded like, "… not how it looked when you met Cat Grant."
Before they could get started again, Silas cleared his throat noisily. "Ok. I'm finished freaking out. What can I do for you both?"
"You can tell us everything you know about Tempus," Lois said quickly.
He closed his eyes again, felt the room start to sway.
"Lois, stop doing that. The name seems to…"
"Make him pass out."
"No, no. I'm not passing out." Silas clenched his jaw and planted his hands on the floor on either side of him. "I'm just… confused. You're here. You're… real."
"Flesh and blood," Clark added helpfully.
"Here. In Utopia. In the Superman Museum," Silas clarified. "Have I got that much right?"
"Exactly right." Clark again.
"And you're saying that… Tempus the Time-Traveler … sent you here."
At their nods he grimaced and shook his head, immediately sorry he had done so, as the dizziness returned. "That isn't possible. Tempus isn't real. He's just a… a… fictional character. Like the boogeyman or… the Loch Ness Monster. The bad guy in one of those stories told around the campfire to scare little kids. There is no such thing as a Tempus."
Clark frowned and Lois scowled. For just one minute, there was blessed silence. It didn't last. They started right up again.
"But there is such a person."
"We met him."
"I thought he was the janitor."
"He pointed a beam at us and—"
"Zap!" said Clark.
"More like Zzzst," Lois countered. "Well, it was!"
"No matter what it sounded like, we landed here. In Centennial Park, two hundred years in the future, and really, really clueless."
"No way," said Silas, aware that his heart was pounding unnaturally hard. "No way. You've got it wrong, somehow. Tempus isn't real. He isn't. He can't be! If he was then… then… the world as we know it is… is… oh… dear God…" He paused, unable to compute the consequences of a real Tempus.
"What?" Lois prompted.
"…in terrible danger," Silas finished in a low, shaky voice. He surged to his feet, moving somewhat unsteadily behind his desk. "Please tell me you're kidding. That this is some horrible, twisted, unfunny joke Nate is playing on me because he knows how bored I am working here."
"Your brother isn't behind this." Clark stood and offered a hand up to Lois.
Silas rifled through his desk drawers, tossing folders and comments cards to the floor without noticing.
"He uses my filing system," he was dimly aware of Lois commenting with some pride.
"Here!" He pulled a rumpled comic book from the bottom of the third drawer. "When you asked about him earlier and I said I would show you what I had, this is what I was talking about. This is the best issue they ever did. Issue one hundred seventeen. 'Time-Traveling Tempus Meets Doomsday in the Ultimate Battle of Brains versus Brawn.' This one sold out in one afternoon."
He shoved the comic across the desk. "And I have dozens more. I've collected them since I was a kid. So… see? He's a comic book villain. There are movies, too. Action figures. Halloween costumes. But that's all. And really, he's mainly a cautionary tale. A way to teach kids to be happy where they are, appreciative of the here and now. That trying to change things can lead to trouble."
"Trying to change things can lead to trouble? What kind of propaganda is that!" demanded Lois.
Silas ignored her, directing his words to Clark, instead. "So, whoever you think you saw…"
"It was Tempus," Clark finished for him gently. "I'm sorry, Silas. He's real. And he transported us here. And you need to tell us what you meant by the world as you know it being in danger."
"More like *endangered*… on the verge of… extinction." Silas lowered himself slowly into his chair, studying the determined and calm face of the man in front of him.
He didn't know how he hadn't seen it before. How many holograms were there of this man on record? How many personal family photos had Silas seen over his twenty years? Hundreds, maybe thousands.
But it was all in the expression, Silas realized now. In the eyes. In the solidness that radiated from them. Things that couldn't be captured in vids and holophotos, no matter what their quality. He looked so capable standing there.
Silas hoped with all his heart he was a capable as he looked. That he was everything legend heralded him to be. God help them all if Superman couldn't save them.
Madge didn't need x-ray vision to know who was pounding on her door at three a.m.
"Trouble?" murmured Fredrick before dropping immediately back into a deep sleep.
"Hank," she answered, though her husband's even snores indicated no further explanation was necessary.
By the time she found her wrap and glasses and made it downstairs, Hank was pacing in her living area.
"Why didn't you tell me you were going?" he greeted her. The fury in his face would have intimidated anyone else. Anyone who didn't know him as she did, who couldn't see it for what it was: a flimsy cover for despair and fear. A combination Madge knew all too well now. She had seen it looking back at her in the mirror when she had readied for bed just an hour before.
"I wanted it to be a fait accompli." She sank down into Fredrick's favorite chair. The cushions were molded into his shape. The feel of it gave her a small amount of comfort and reassurance. She was going to need it for this conversation.
"And?" Hank asked in a voice which gave nothing away. None of the hopes she knew had to be riding on the question. She was grateful to him for that kindness. Fear and despair she could handle, but hope?
She wasn't sure she was ready for hope, not just yet, not after the disaster with Tempus. Prying the information from him had been the most promising avenue left to them. And now it was gone. Closed tightly. There would be no point in going back to try again.
"Tempus did not cooperate."
Hank moved slowly into the chair next to hers. "Do I, or do I not, work for you?"
"With me, dear," Madge corrected. "Not just for me. You are vital—"
"So vital you left me at home asleep and went to face him? And you took Andrus with you instead?"
"Is that how you heard?" Madge removed her glasses and rubbed her weary eyes. "Did Andrus call you before he left on his assignment?"
"No. I called in," Hank said after a long pause. "Talked to Anna. Andrus has an assignment? A real one?"
Madge waved that last away. "You shouldn't have called," she admonished. "I told you I would get in touch if anything—"
"A trip to question Tempus qualifies, Madge." His censor was quietly spoken, and she couldn't disagree with it.
Madge sighed heavily. "It was…" She paused, catching herself. She'd been on the verge of calling it a desperate act, but right now, the word 'desperate' was the last thing the man next to her needed to hear. "…an unwise use of our time," she said instead.
"We're scraping the bottom of the barrel, aren't we?"
"We are… running low on new strategies at the moment, yes," Madge conceded.
Hank smiled at her. The way he always did when she said something like that. Something carefully chosen and yet in complete earnest. He always seemed to find it secretly amusing. Of course, the secret was that she knew it full well. And often played right to it— when they were discouraged, or arguing, or when he was winning a debate. Or all three, like now.
"How did Elise take the news?"
The smile died quickly and the fear and despair slid right back into place.
It hurt her to watch the transformation, and she did her very best not to let her own features do the same.
"You haven't told her," she guessed.
He shrugged. "It's an awfully hard conversation to start."
Madge nodded, hesitant to probe further. Though that didn't stop her for more than a few seconds. "Elise is too smart not to know something is terribly wrong."
When Hank merely studied his hands and didn't answer, she continued. "I'm rethinking our policies. Tempus had continued to adapt and change, and we've remained the exact same organization we were under Odias Sinders. Maybe it's time we altered our strategies. I think we could use some fresh recruits, some restructuring—"
"You don't think the horse is out of barn on all of that?"
"This time, yes. But in the future—"
Hank was on his feet, moving quickly. "There isn't going to be a future. Not for Elise and me."
He was almost to the entry way when she caught up with him. She didn't remember moving from Fredrick's chair, but she had Hank's coat in her grip and was pulling fiercely before she knew it.
"Don't you dare give up! Don't you dare! We are all that stands between… between… We are all there is! So, don't you dare quit on me. This job is hard enough… lonely enough… but without you—"
She choked on a shallow sob, swallowing it hard. Trying to keep it all down, tucked away. If she let go, if she let any of it go, she would be no use to anyone.
After a pause which felt like an eternity, Hank's arms came firmly around her, holding her and rocking her where they stood. It was just a few minutes, but it was enough. For her, and evidently for him, as well.
"Go catch a few hours sleep," he said. "I'll meet you at work in a little while."
"And we'll get this solved today," she said with watery resolve.
"Sure thing, boss."
Lois had had about all the uncomfortable silence she could take. "Let's hear it," she prodded Silas, who, to her best guess, was completely occupied with doing an impression of a mannequin, or possibly a boulder, though the rapid eye blinking ruined the effect.
As expected, Clark stepped in to navigate. "I know you're processing a lot, Silas. But… about the world ending…?"
"It sounds kind of important," Lois filled-in mildly, shooting a glance at Clark which dared him to caution her to take it easy on their subject. Or, rather… grandson.
Family or not, it was looking more and more as if she and Clark were going to have to good cop-bad cop the pertinent details out of him. She had no illusions which cop she would be playing. And it was best to get started. Otherwise these two men could sit around and politely stammer for hours.
"Maybe I jumped to conclusions," Silas spoke, a wistful sort of hopefulness coloring the words.
"That's quite a conclusion," Clark said carefully.
"Care to elaborate?" Lois pressed.
"Ok." Boulder imitation apparently concluded, Silas moved into blurry action. He pulled a small device from his pocket and showed it to them with hands that trembled. "My zip-com. We need to call someone. Nate does some legal work for the League. And Elise is head of the Family Council. So, we should call one… or the other. Or both! Yes. Both. My parents, probably. My grandmother… everyone, actually. And right now."
"Take a couple of deep breaths, Junior."
"Let's just keep this between us," said the good cop, white hat gleaming. "Just until we have an idea what we're up against."
"We can't waste any more time," Silas answered, taking the words right out of Lois's mouth. He paused, a look of horror stealing over his face. "How much time have we wasted anyway? How long have you been here? I saw you last night, had you just arrived?"
"No. It's been a couple of days." Clark's answer shot Silas right out his chair.
"Oh god," he said. "Exactly how many?"
"Three whole days, right? Or nearly four now." Clark looked to her for confirmation.
She nodded. "It'll be four by morning. Though… I think there was a time change in there somewhere. Remember when we were at EPRAD? It was night. Late. But when we landed in the park…"
"It was daylight." Clark finished. "I'd forgotten that. But… maybe that doesn't matter?"
"It matters," said Silas in ragged voice. "Every minute, every hour. It all matters."
"Tell us how," said Clark, and for the first time, Lois heard an impatience in him that matched her own. It had always been there, she realized, belatedly. He just did a better job of covering it.
"Please," said Lois, taking the good cop reins in what she felt was a fairly smooth transfer. "Tell us what we don't know that you obviously do."
"And why you're so scared," Clark added.
So, fine, they were both good cops in this scenario now. It didn't matter, because Silas had cracked and was ready to sing.
His white knuckles gripped the edges of his desk, and underneath them the wood groaned and splintered. He didn't seem to notice, though Clark did. His eyes darted from the finger-gouged desk and back up to her in a split second.
"Our boy," she wanted to say, but didn't.
Still, from the fleeting half-smile he gave her, she suspected he knew exactly what she was thinking.
"Tempus's one and only goal is the destruction of Utopia. The plots have been wild, far-fetched, and at times really ridiculous. But the one fact, the one plot-point, has never varied. He wants Utopia gone, destroyed… erased."
"Why?" Clark asked.
"He's a madman. Or at least that's how he's always portrayed. He hates how peaceful it is here. How uncomplicated and… serene and… I can't believe I'm talking about him like he's a real person."
"He is very real. Real enough that we're standing here."
"Right. And he has a very real grudge against Superman and Lois Lane for being responsible for Utopia. Their ideals and their descendants are Utopia's building blocks. It all started with them, and it has spread and covered most of the world over the last century."
"So, he sends the two people he hates to the place he hates," said Clark. "For what purpose?"
"Yeah, I can see how he'd enjoy messing with us, having us see all of this before we're ready," Lois rejoined slowly. "But… what makes you think the world is ending?"
"How many kids do you have?" Silas returned quickly
Lois frowned, trying to find the connection between her question and his.
Clark fumbled. "I… don't know. I haven't seen that part of the museum yet." His confused gaze moved back to her. "Lois?"
She sighed. "When I told you I didn't really look, I wasn't kidding. I didn't. I only saw enough to—"
"I know," he said. "Really. I understand."
"None yet," Silas said flatly. "Right? Lois Lane and Clark Kent in their own time have zero offspring. Is that it?"
"I wasn't even sure I could," Clark interjected. "I always wondered… being Kryptonian… if that was even possible."
"I'm human and I wondered the same about myself," Lois added. "I was pretty positive the answer was when hell freezes."
"Are you even married?" Silas interrupted, his words heavy with frustration, and Lois wondered at what point Silas had gotten to be bad cop.
She was feeling somewhat awkward under his steady stare. And the question wasn't as easy as it seemed. Of course, they weren't actually married. But the reality of their marriage was pretty much inescapable. The fact of it permeated the building. The entire community. So much so, she could hardly remember how deeply shocked she been to make the discovery, how preposterous and ridiculous the very idea had seemed. And that had only been… two days ago.
She felt her cheeks grow warm. Silas was watching her closely. "No, not… really," she said, in the same instant Clark spoke a quiet, "We aren't."
Silas's stern look softened immediately. "God. I'm sorry. It's… the clone, right? You guys are in that in between place now? Should be married, but aren't yet. And… well… that was the one thing I just couldn't… well, not the only thing, certainly, but definitely one of the big ones I just couldn't fathom… so terrible."
The look Clark gave her was wary, bordering on fearful. "Why do I feel like we don't want to know?"
"Is this more comic book stuff?" she demanded. "You aren't making sense."
Silas went right back to being the boulder. "Oh."
"Oh?" she prompted.
"Nope. Definitely don't want to know," Clark muttered.
Silas shifted uneasily, studying first his shoes, and then looking beyond her shoulder as if there was something of desperate importance written on the wall behind her.
"Um… maybe we should get back to discussing the world ending?" Clark suggested.
"That might be easier. And… more cheerful," Silas said.
"This is payback, isn't it? We came in here and blew your mind, so you're paying us back."
"Lois," Clark said in the tone was starting to become somewhat permanent when addressing her.
"I wish," said Silas fervently. "But can we say we've established you two are not married back in your time? That you haven't had any children. Therefore, there are currently no Lane-Kents in the twentieth century. Is that the size of it?"
"Lois and I had just met," Clark said. "We've known each other just under two weeks, no where near long enough to be dating, much less married and…"
His voice trailed away. She watched as the color in his face left with it. "No Lane-Kents in the twentieth century," he repeated. He exhaled slowly. "A century we have no idea how to get back to."
A heavy silence filled the room. Conclusions she had never seen coming, but which suddenly seemed completely obvious to her now, took on form and shape terrifying in their magnitude.
Lois found herself moving towards Clark, almost unaware she was doing so until he reached out for her. When his warm hands caught hers, she started to breathe again, short, shaky breaths that weren't doing her much good. She lowered herself slowly to sit beside him, her legs having forgotten how to hold her.
"So, if we're stuck here…" she said haltingly, "…we're never married, never have kids. And since you said Utopia is founded on that…"
"…none of this will ever happen," Clark spoke in a low, choked voice.
"And Tempus destroys Utopia before it starts," Silas finished.
Lois fought the urge to put her head between her knees, either the room was suddenly spinning, or she was dizzy with the knowledge of what it all meant. Of all that was at stake.
To think she'd thought things were difficult up to this point…
Clark's hand moved to her back, rubbing lightly up and down her spine, his fingers smoothing the tense muscles in her shoulders. He was doing it entirely unconsciously; one look at him told her he was miles away. Maybe someplace watching the demise of an entire society. Of their every living relative. The future of millions.
Krypton all over again.
"Wait," she said. "Just… wait. Why are we all still here, then? You said every minute counted, but we've been here going on four days and…" She gestured to the tiny office. "It's all still here. You are directly related to us, and you're still…" She stopped, considering Silas closely, one hand reaching across the space to touch his shoulder, confirming what her eyes told her.
"Still here," he said, smiling weakly. "But now which one of us is the ghost?"
"Maybe… whatever happens… doesn't happen right away." The edge in Clark's voice matched the one she felt herself teetering on.
"In the Tempus comics, there were all these references to time disruption delays," Silas said slowly. "A major change takes a while to be felt across the reaches of time and space. And he's always foiled during that time. I don't know. It made sense when I read it, though I never thought I'd be applying it to… here. To my family. To me."
"Vacation's over, Kent," Lois said, standing abruptly and shoving her chair out of the way. She tried to hold her voice steady, to hold herself steady. To move them all from this place as quickly as possible. However they were going to do that, whatever they were going to do, they needed to do it. Now. Silas was right. They didn't have time to waste. And they certainly didn't have the luxury of panic, or worse, sorrow. "It's time for us to go home."
"'Bout time you came home," Elise's sleepy voice grumbled as Hank eased himself back into their bed. "And you sure are lucky I'm not the jealous type."
"Late meeting with Madge," he murmured, glad that it was mostly true. That he could say only that and she would ask no more. He groped for her hand in the dark and pressed it over his heart, his fingers circling her wrist so that the thrum of her pulse beat under his.
Still beating. Still strong. Still here.
"I wish you could tell me." Her voice wasn't sleepy any more. She was, in fact, wide awake.
And she was giving him the opening he had spent days agonizing over how to create, whether or not he should create it. What it would sound like, how he would proceed if he did. If there were words to even do it justice. "I've been… debating it."
She rolled over to face him, and even in the dark he felt the weight of her frank stare.
"I wish I had the Kryptonian 'measure your heart rate, bio-rhythm feedback thing'," she said quietly. "Then I could tell if you're as calm as you seem."
"If you'd had that ability, you would know how often I've been… really scared… over the years." He squeezed his eyes shut, unable to look into hers for another minute. "But never more scared than right now, Elise."
She moved towards him, around him. Her arms, her hair, her softness and scent. He was enveloped in her. "Maybe I can help. Maybe if you just tell me."
"It's bad." His voice shook precariously on the last word. "Really bad. And once I tell you, if I tell you, then I can't… untell you, and you might wish I could." Tears he had spent days fighting spilled over, hot on his cheeks, and she blurred to his vision.
"If it hurts you, I want you to tell me." There was no hesitancy in her voice.
"I'm the least of it," he choked. "It's you, Elise. Your family. Everything."
"Then it's definitely too much for you to be carrying all by yourself. Two heads are better than one. Lay it on me." She pushed up onto her elbow so she could peer down at him, but he pulled her roughly, greedily, back to him.
"Ok, now you're freaking me out a little," she said with forced lightness, while he fought to win back some of his control. Years of control born of years of practice doing what he did, being married to her and unable to tell her what he really did, what the current threat was. Maybe he had simply reached the limit of what he could conceal, of how much he could despair. The limits of fear. Plain and simple.
"We're in trouble," he said, lifting his eyes to meet hers at last. "All of us. And nearly out of time."
She nodded. "Tell me about it, whatever it is."
Clark looked to Lois. She had moved to her feet and was ready to dash off and get to work. He knew that. She had held still as long as she was able, and now she needed to move. "You've seen enough of this century, then?"
"Not that it isn't a great place to hang around, but, apparently, visiting hours are over."
He stood and took her hand in his, holding her in place for just a minute, a minute he needed to get his bearings. "I can be packed really quickly. And… I'm completely open to ideas on our exit strategy?" He was asking, no, praying, that she had some idea, some insight as to what they should do.
"We call for help," Silas interjected, coming to his feet and completing the circle. Clark moved his other hand to Silas's shoulder, linking the three of them. Lois to his right and Silas to his left.
An overwhelming surge of protectiveness and love crashed over him; he was nearly staggered by it. He couldn't let this be lost. He couldn't stand it if it was. If he really was the Superman Utopia thought him to be, then he had to save this. He had to. "We'll figure this out." He tried to impart a confidence he was nowhere close to feeling. "The three of us working together."
"Not just the three of us." Panic seeped into Silas's words. "You need way more than me. I'm no good to you. You need real help. Justice League help. Family Council help. Whatever helpers Utopia has to offer."
Beside him, Lois tensed and her eyes flew wide. He felt the jolt run between them like a current. "Helpers…" she murmured.
"What?" Clark said.
"Whatever… helpers… Utopia… has to offer," she repeated. She looked at him, but she wasn't seeing him. He dropped her hand and she started pacing, muttering. In the short time they'd worked together, he had come to know that look. She had something.
She came to a halt in front of him, deep excitement banked behind her eyes. "The… the… Friends of Utopia, remember? Helpers and… dammit…" She grabbed her head and went back to pacing. "There's one other thing."
"Peacekeepers!" Clark exclaimed as forgotten memory, scattered and faded to near nothing, surfaced all at once and slid into place. "Friends of Utopia, Lois. Helpers and Peacekeepers!"
"Yes!" she cried, pumping her fist in the air as he grabbed her up and swung her around.
"The ones in charge of the time and space details," they said together, grinning at each other like fools.
Lois started to laugh.
Clark couldn't help it. He wasn't thinking. She was pressed up against him and before he really knew it his lips were covering hers. As if they always had. As if he kissed her every day, as fundamental as breathing. It was fleeting, blink and you missed it. Not really a romantic kiss so much as a 'hurray-the world-won't-end!' kiss. There wasn't really anything more to it than that.
Not that more wouldn't have been very, very nice. Just… the timing was probably lousy.
He set her down. Lois beamed at him, grabbed his face between her hands and kissed him back soundly. "That was so easy, Clark. Why didn't we think of that before?"
He raised his hands to cover hers, casting about for just the right words for this moment. "Believe me, Lois, I thought of this right away. The very first day. The very first second I saw you. I just didn't think you would…"
>>Wait<< whispered a small, still sane voice inside his head. >>Hang on.<<
"…um…what are we talking about… exactly?" he finished somewhat lamely.
Actually, they weren't talking. Not any more. He had said that last part to the back of her head. Lois had already turned and was pulling Silas along by his tie. "Look at this," she said, "you have the same excruciatingly bad taste."
Silas sighed, standing where she held him, making no move to retrieve his tie from her fist. "It's part of the uniform. And I think I've figured it out now. I can stay up to speed with you guys for only so long, then you just… tangent off into… incomprehensible, inexplicable—"
"Pay attention, Junior," Lois said smartly, patting him on the chest and flashing him a smile which shut him up at once. "Helpers, peacekeepers, friends of Utopia. A guy named Andrus. Who are they? You must have heard of them."
"They were definitely an organization of some kind." Clark was back now. Back from the kissing. Superman probably didn't stop for kissing, so the kissing could wait. "Though, come to think of it, they weren't all that organized."
"A bureaucracy!" Lois said. This time he was the recipient of the mega-watt smile. "They *had* to be government. Think about it. Where else do you see that kind of inefficiency?"
"They wore robes," Clark spoke over Lois's head to Silas, since she had moved forward and was practically dancing in his arms. "And we haven't seen anyone else here who does."
"Take us to them, Junior!" Lois ordered.
But Silas didn't. He just stood there— mouth working, sounds emitting. None of them words.
"Give him a minute," Lois breathed in Clark's ear. "I've noticed he loads new data kind of slow."
"I heard you," Silas said with a frown. "And I do not. It's just… let me get this straight. I'm to take you to some robe-wearing, disorganized, bureaucratic helpers and friends…"
"And peacekeepers," Lois added.
"I was getting to that," Silas scolded. "And peacekeepers."
"One of them is named Andrus," she prompted helpfully.
"One named Andrus," Silas added to the list. "And… that's where you want us to go?"
"And no dawdling; Clark will fly us." Lois had a hand in each one of theirs and pulled them both unceremoniously towards the door.
"Uh," said Clark, reading the look on their young relative's face.
"Um," said Silas, looking back at him helplessly.
"The Kent men are fairly mono-syllabic," Lois commented to no one in particular. "Lucky for them they're so good looking."
Clark hated to crush her. Hated to be the sharp pin to her ballooning good mood, but… "I don't think Silas knows what we're talking about."
"Yes, he does." Lois didn't pause in their walk… jog… down the hallway. "Tell him, Junior. You know. How could you not? That was a damned fine description."
"I don't," Silas said, pleading apology in his eyes. "I'm wracking my brain and the only thing that even comes close is… the bakery."
"Maybe 'bakery,'" said Clark, pronouncing the word very carefully, "means something completely different now. Words change. They add new ones to the dictionary all the time. I remember when they added 'ain't.' My mom hated that, said it was a sign of—"
"They always credit you with the babble," commented Silas, looking in Lois's direction. "That's sort of unfair, isn't it?"
"No kidding," she said. "What does bakery mean, Junior?"
"A store for baked goods."
"Of course. Why am I even surprised? What else would you people have but peaceful pastries, serene bagels, éclairs of tranquility?"
"It's still kind of an interesting story," Silas ventured somewhat nervously. "If you'd like, I could tell it to you on the way to League Headquarters."
"We are not going to League Headquarters," Lois snapped. "That's our last resort. We don't want this to turn into 'War of the Worlds.'"
"Oh, there wouldn't be a war," said Silas, earnestly. "War is against the fundamental principles of Utopia. Of Superman… well, you…" He gestured to Clark. "And you, too, Lois. So, if that's a concern, it shouldn't be."
"I can't talk to him," Lois said to Clark, moving towards the stairwell. "And we can't stand around any more." She took off at a jog. "The sun will be up soon."
"'War of the Worlds' was a radio program, Silas." Clark's voice followed close behind her. "In the 1930s. Orson Welles. It was fiction, based on the HG Wells novel, but it fooled a lot of people. They believed aliens had landed on earth. It caused a full scale panic."
"What would be scary about aliens landing on earth?" asked Silas, clearly intrigued. "You landed in Metropolis and no one panicked. Or… wait. Were these New Kryptonians? I thought they didn't show up until much later."
Behind her, Lois heard Clark miss a step. "New… who?"
"Never mind," she called. "This is part of our problem. We keep getting side-tracked by all the stuff Junior keeps tossing out. We can't do that any more."
"So, where are we headed exactly?" asked Clark. "I'm totally with you on the time is of the essence thing. But… shouldn't we have a… strategy?"
"If you don't want to go to the League," interjected Silas, keeping pace. "I could call the Family Council. They could gather quickly. Maybe they would have some ideas."
Lois stopped on the landing; the two men pulled up sharply. "Do you think they know about Tempus? Maybe they keep that information to themselves?"
"I can't believe they would," said Silas, frowning thoughtfully. "My sister is Head of the Family Council. She and I are… really close. I can't imagine she could keep such a secret. Or that all of the council members could. They rotate on and off every few years, hundreds of them."
"There would be a leak," said Clark. "Somewhere, somehow, someone would have said something."
"The League, then," Silas pressed. "There are fewer of them. Some of them are super-powered, or at least have enhanced abilities. We go to them."
"I have all the abilities, Silas," Clark pointed out. "And in these circumstances, they aren't doing a whole lot of good."
"It can't just be the three of us." Again, panic neared the edges of Silas's voice. "It can't. The entire world is at stake. We need help."
"We can do this." Clark said it quietly, but something in his voice left no room for doubt. His warm gaze landed on hers. "Now… where are we going, Lois?"
He smiled at her in such a way she couldn't be irritated by the question she didn't actually have an answer to.
"Right now, just out of here," she said sheepishly. "Just outside of these walls. Maybe a different color scheme would make it easier to think."
"Oh god," said Silas, "you don't know where we're going! You have no idea! You're just… going."
Clark moved his arm around Silas's shoulders. "You get to see Lois Lane in action, Sy. That makes you pretty lucky."
"Yeah, lucky me."
"What if you made him a deal?" Elise's voice, far from sleep-filled as it should have been at the predawn hour, pierced the darkness.
Hank came awake immediately, chagrined that he had actually slept, that he had wasted even a single moment they had left. "Sorry?"
"What if you made him a deal?" Elise repeated, and he didn't have to ask who she was referring to.
"Tempus isn't easy to negotiate with, honey. Believe me, if Madge can't coax the information from him, no one can." He rolled over and tried to take her back into his arms, but she was sitting up, moving away.
"Yes, but what if you offered him something in exchange? Something too good for him to resist."
"Such as?" He gave up and reached for the bedside lamp. She had a sound in her voice, one he had learned not to ignore. Not if he valued his own skin.
The light cast her in a soft pool of yellow and gold, heightening the brown of her eyes, the dark glints of her hair. He almost closed his eyes against her beauty. The hurt returning hard and fast. Instead, he kept his eyes on her, doing his best to memorize her there, just as she was.
That's why she had to repeat it before he actually got it. "Fame."
"Fame?" He sat back, shaking his head. "I don't… what?"
"Tempus tells you where the Founders are; you tell the world who he is and what he's capable of."
"Elise…" He rubbed his hands over his eyes. "I don't think you understand the chaos that would create."
"I'd be willing to trade a little chaos for survival," she argued, pulling his hands away from his face and grasping them hard in her own. "Could Tempus say no to notoriety?"
Hank paused, taking a minute to let the idea filter through, trying hard to imagine how it would look. So completely opposite of the operational logic of his life's work, and the entire ethos of the Ministry.
But hadn't he been arguing to Madge that the Ministry was flawed? Their tireless efforts over the past four days had netted them zero results. All the tried and true methods had failed them one by one. And time was running out.
He hadn't even checked the monitors before heading home last night. He hadn't been able it face what he might see.
"But if the world knows about Tempus, it loses its sense of security." He said it slowly, thoughtfully, testing the weight and sound of it on his tongue. "Just as you have."
"True," she answered. "But the world survives. And in surviving is a little wiser."
He exhaled slowly, fighting against the wild surge of hope which was starting to hum through his veins. >>Maybe. Just maybe.<<
He shook his head. "Tempus is so bent on destroying Utopia. This has been his sole purpose. Destroying the Lane-Kent legacy, and now he's come so close…"
"And in a way, he will have succeeded," Elise ventured. "Because Utopia's citizens will know a peaceful society doesn't just happen. It's a façade. We are reaping the benefits of the hard work of others. You, Madge, Andrus—"
"Not Andrus!" he said a bit too forcefully.
She raised an eyebrow at that. "There's a story there."
"A novel," he said dryly. "A tragedy. Epic length."
Elise was quiet now, watching him. Waiting for him to tell her more, or to let her idea take root, he didn't know which. "So, Utopia finds out and… grows up?"
"Yes." She smiled at him as if he was her prize pupil, making him feel ridiculously proud and foolish all at once. This was his job. His work, and yet, she had something. Something he hadn't even come close to thinking of. He couldn't be anything but awed and grateful.
No doubt how Superman had felt about Lois Lane their entire shared life.
"And Tempus gets to be famous. Really famous. Feared and talked about forevermore," he said, failing to keep the excitement from his voice.
She caught it though, rising to her knees and grabbing his hands once more. "And we stay. I stay. The family stays. Things will shift. There will be adjustments. Big ones. But in essence, we're all still here."
"I'll call Madge," he said, turning towards to his zip-com. "No! I'll go over. This will need to be done face to face."
He kicked back the covers and found his clothes scattered on the floor. "Stay home, today, ok?" he asked as he hurriedly put them on. "Just call in sick or something and call me, if you start to feel—"
"As if I never existed?" She was grinning like the cat who had breakfasted on the canary.
He scowled at her, tucking his shirt into his pants. "Not funny."
"I'll be here. Close by. You call me as soon as you talk to Madge."
"You may have just saved us, honey," he said with wonder. "You may have done what none of the rest of us combined could do."
"I told you two heads were better than one."
He walked over to her and took her face in his hands. "Especially when it's this one." He kissed her quickly but thoroughly. "Stay home. I'll call."
"Is she really going to do it?" Silas asked as he and Clark walked the dark, quiet sidewalks of Utopian-Metropolis.
"Do what?" Clark asked.
"Kick down their doors and—"
"— demand a couple of bear claws and to be taken to their leader?" Clark finished, watching Lois striding purposely down the sidewalk, several yards ahead of them. "She might."
Silas nodded, a slow grin spreading over his face. "You know, all this time I thought her reputation had to be exaggerated, but…"
He didn't finish the thought and Clark didn't finish for him. They didn't need to. They shared a smile and a low chuckle.
"Maybe we can talk her into the subtle approach," Clark said, eyeing Lois's shrinking form doubtfully.
"What's the subtle approach?" Silas asked.
"We order some coffee and sit around. Talk to the people there. At least we have a name."
"I wish it was more, but it's something."
"You don't really think this will lead to anything do you?" Silas asked heavily. "We're just doing this because we can't think of anything else."
"I'm not pinning all my hopes on it, no. But for now, this is all we have. And… who knows?"
Lois was still moving quickly, she hadn't looked back to see where they were. She would know they were following.
"Does Lois think there's something to this?" Silas asked, reading his mind.
"I think she's just eager to do something at this point. It's taken us four days to piece together exactly what happened, what it means, what we're up against. It's been one thing after another, as far as discoveries go. Just enough to keep us off-kilter. So… she's hurrying because she…"
"Needs to hurry," Silas finished.
A heavy silence descended between them, and for the first time he could ever remember, Clark watched the awakening sky, streaks of oranges and pinks forecasting sunrise, with something akin to dread.
"How are you feeling?" he blurted to Silas. "I mean, I know this has all been really crazy. And we spent the night talking and threw a lot of curve balls your way. But, that aside, how are you… feeling?"
"I'm ok," said Silas, looking him the eye. "And I know I should be, but I'm not scared. Superman and Lois Lane are on the case, right? If there's one thing I do know, it's that you'll save the day. You always do."
"Right," Clark said, swallowing hard and looking away. "Uh… tell me again… about the bakery?"
They fell back into step, as Silas did his best to repeat everything he had told them when they had set out from the museum.
"There used to be a Ministry of Helpers and Peacekeepers. I remember that from history class. They were instrumental in helping put Utopian ideals into practice. The mundane, day to day work of converting a philosophy to operating policy, or something like that. Lots of details, big and small. Kind of tedious. And they had a headquarters right down town."
"Where the bakery is now?"
"Right. And about fifty years ago, more or less, someone, I don't know who, pointed out that their job was done. They had succeeded. Utopia runs itself. The world is peaceful. Everyone who lives here is helpful. So maybe it was time to close the Ministry down, just like they closed the Department of Defense and all the old intelligence and spy agencies."
"Makes sense," said Clark slowly. He pulled up short on a wayward thought. "Wait. So… what if these people Lois and I saw, the ones who were there to meet Tempus when we were taken… " He wasn't sure 'taken' was the best word, but 'time-travel kidnapped' was a mouthful. "… operate in another time? What if they're from the past, like Lois and me? Only… the more recent past? The Ministry that was here fifty years ago. We could be in the right place, just at the wrong time."
Silas nodded but said nothing.
"Did that make sense?" Clark asked, still trying to work the logic out for himself.
"I'm standing on the sidewalk talking to my eighth great-grandfather who is the real Superman, on my way to the bakery to find out if it's a cover for some sort of time-travel protection agency working against the comic book character Tempus. Oh, and for about a day and half, I had a huge crush on my dead great-grandmother. So… what you just said… makes the exact same amount of sense as anything else."
"Just so we know we're on the same page," said Clark seriously. Their eyes met solemnly for moment, and then they were laughing.
"This isn't funny," Silas protested weakly. "It isn't."
It wasn't. That was true. It was the furthest thing from that. And if Lois turned around and caught them, she would kill them. But Clark knew, despite everything, he would never forget how this moment felt.
"Ok," he said, smoothing his features into seriousness. "Let's get back to the subject at hand. You were saying… the Ministry is outdated and no longer necessary…"
"And they agreed right away that they had no real purpose any more. It was almost as if they'd known for ages and were just waiting for someone to notice. Problem was they had all these old-timers going there everyday. It was a way of life for them, and despite the Sharing Community, which would have found other things for them to do, supported them in the meanwhile, they just weren't willing to give it up and retire."
"They restructured," Clark guessed. "Into a bakery?"
"And they kept their robes. All the workers wear them. It gives the place a neat nostalgic sort of feel."
"Like the 1950s diner in Metropolis," Clark said. "With the Elvis waiters."
"Perry White's favorite," agreed Silas. "And here we are."
"There you are," echoed Lois. "What took you so long?"
Clark smiled his apology at her. "Did we miss the kicking down the doors part?"
She rolled her eyes. "Actually, no. The doors are locked."
"They're… what?" Silas looked stricken as he walked over and signaled the automatic to swing open the door. Nothing happened.
"They probably aren't even open for business yet," said Clark. "It isn't quite six a.m."
He stood back and took in the simple building. The lights were shining through the windows, projecting squares of white onto the sidewalk where they stood. The scent of cinnamon, apples, and other good things was enticing, welcoming. As was the steady hum of voices in conversation coming from within.
"There are no locks in Utopia," said Silas quietly from the doorway. "There's never been a need."
"Maybe not elsewhere, but I know if I got a craving in the middle of the night, you'd need to keep me out," proposed Lois.
"Or maybe there really is something to this place," Clark said, looking more closely now. "If it's locked, maybe there's something hidden here after all?"
"Or maybe it's starting," Silas returned. "You guys are gone from your own time. Your ideals might be… fading. Maybe this is the first sign, the first ripple—"
"Hang on there, Junior." Lois stepped towards him and patted him on the arm. "First rule, no panicking until you're actually tied to the chair and the fuse is lit."
Clark nodded, clearing his throat roughly. He could hear her rapid heart beat, knew the adrenalin had hit her system, and though she was far from showing it, she was as worried as Silas. "She's right. That's the first rule. The second is— don't actually get yourself tied to the chair, but Lois has a little trouble with that one."
"Ok," said Silas. "I get it. So… what now?"
"Have you looked?" Lois turned to Clark. "I mean… looked deeply?"
"Yes," he said faintly, sick at heart. He had.
Inside was a working bakery and nothing more. And even though he had told himself that would most likely be the case, he realized now he had been hoping for something far different. The memory of his and Silas's previous good humor faded quickly, as the weight of what was happening, what was really happening, settled like a shroud around his shoulders.
"Tell me," Lois said quietly. "What do you see?"
"Four workers rolling dough. Two standing and talking beside a wall of ovens. One washing tables and another setting out chairs."
Lois moved towards him and reached out her hand. He took it, squeezing it gratefully. Silas thought he was here with Superman, and he didn't want to take that away from him, didn't want to disillusion him, by showing how completely terrified he suddenly was. Lois knew, though.
"Do we still want to go in?" Silas broke the uneasy silence. "It looks like they're open now." The sign above their heads had flashed on.
"Did you look upstairs? Downstairs?" Lois asked
"I'd love to buy you both a cup of coffee," Silas said when another silence grew long.
Clark forced a smile, forced himself to sound normal. "That would be great. Thanks."
Madge knew the few hours of sleep had done her good, but it was nothing compared to what it seemed to have done for the person waiting on her doorstep. Hank bore no resemblance to the angry, defeated young man who had stood in that very spot so short a time ago.
Madge only dimly heard Fredrick's farewell, so taken was she with the change in her assistant's demeanor.
"What?" she said. It came out breathless, since she suddenly was.
In answer, Hank grabbed her arm and pulled her across the threshold, shut the door behind her and moved her, at a trot, towards the tiny vehicle he and Elise insisted on calling a car.
"It's good, isn't it?"
He only smiled and, as politely as possible, stuffed her into the impossibly small front seat.
As soon as he entered through the driver's side, she leaned across the gears. "Tell me right this instant or you're fired."
"Just promise you'll keep an open mind. And that you'll back me up," was all he said as he swung them around and headed the vehicle towards the commuter rails. "Where are the elders in session today?"
"We're going to the elders?" she gasped. "Hank, stop this ridiculous car immediately and tell me, or so help me, I'll…" She stalled there, trying to think of an appropriate threat. She was horribly unused to issuing threats, so she didn't have many handy.
Hank was waiting, smiling at her like the Cheshire cat.
"I'll partner you with Andrus for a lifetime," she finished triumphantly.
He stopped the car. "You are cold, woman."
"Please," she said simply. "If you've figured it out, please, Hank…"
"It wasn't me," he said ruefully. "I wish I could take credit. It was my brilliant wife."
"You told her," Madge said, moving a hand over her racing heart. "You told Elise. Told… a family member." She took a few breaths and just let that sink in.
For the first time in known Utopian history, a Lane-Kent knew the community's deepest, darkest secret. The whole world had changed, then. Quietly, but still, right here, right now, they were living in an entirely new society. And she was witness to it. On the front row. She hoped others would live to study this day, to debate its place in history, argue what she had given Hank permission to do, and what Hank had actually done. That there would be still be Utopian citizens around to do so.
"How did she take it?"
Hank's eyes filled with tears, and Madge looked away, trying to afford him privacy, though it was difficult smushed together as they were. "She was… great. She comforted me, when it should have been the other way around." His voice was choked with emotion, but he steadied himself and continued. "And she has an idea that is crazy enough to work."
"An idea we are taking to the elders," Madge clarified, feeling a nearly giddy surge of optimism.
Hank nodded and shifted the car back into gear. "As soon as you tell me where the great ones are having their breakfast."
"Tell me her idea first," she said. "Tell me this instant."
"We waste more time this way. Let's get everyone together. Then I only have to say it once and we could get moving. I know I don't need to tell you every minute counts."
"Proper chain of command—" Madge began.
"Screw proper chain of command!" Hank barked. "The world is ending. Probably today. Do you know what I did on my way over here, Madge? I sped. Like a bat out of hell. The No Speeding technology wasn't in effect. When is the last time that ever happened?"
Madge opened her mouth to answer, then paused.
"Never," Hank said for her.
"Perhaps the controller forgot to… change the batteries in the central device?"
"The solar powered batteries?" His voice was heavy with sarcasm.
"Don't you take that tone with me," she returned, pulling herself as upright as she could in the little tin can.
"It's starting, Madge," Hank said simply. "Maybe it starts small. The little things. But once in motion…"
He didn't need to finish. She knew. "That's just one theory." Though she wasn't sure that's all it was. "And it's all the more reason to tell me first, and now. You said I needed to keep an open mind, and you know I have one, unlike some of our leaders. So, what if they say no? What if they hear you out and vote nay?"
"While the world is ending?" Hank asked incredulously. "This is our best chance. They couldn't vote against it."
"These are the same people who have kept Andrus around for decades," she reminded him, feeling just the smallest bit smug. There was no arguing that.
"What if they do say no?" Hank echoed weakly, his face suddenly ashen. "They are the only ones with access to the timestream. They can't say no. We need them."
"Actually," said Madge carefully, "they aren't the only ones. And I will not say no, whatever it is."
The look he gave her was almost worth the cramps she was getting debating him in the tiny space.
"You have access to the timestream?"
"And you won't say no? To whatever I say next?"
"I have access. I will not say no."
"Then… do we even… need… the elders?" The look he was giving her was one of a man who suddenly didn't know down from up. Well, the world was new and the rules had changed, so really, he didn't.
"Maybe we should let them enjoy their breakfast undisturbed?" Madge answered primly, just catching herself from being flung against the window as Hank turned sharply and sent them flying towards Main Street.
"Wheee!" she said before she could stop herself. "I mean, shame on you, dear, you're breaking the law."
"You want to see Andrus?" asked the startled, stammering bakery worker behind the counter. His eyes darted between Lois, Clark, and Silas, as he swallowed convulsively. "H-he no longer works here. In fact, he's gone away for an undetermined amount of time."
"Great," muttered Lois under her breath. "Just perfect."
She felt Clark's hand move to the small of her back, his warm fingers spreading along her spine, partly to show support. And partly, she knew, in the hope she wasn't about to pull the bakery worker over the glass case and shake him until his teeth rattled.
"And this Andrus," Clark was saying, "he's about… this tall?" He held his free hand up to indicate height. Lois used her hand to push Clark's down an inch or two more. When he raised an eyebrow at her, she shrugged. She was good at estimating heights. Always had been. If there had been a carnival booth dedicated to just that, she would have cleaned up every time.
"I stand corrected," said Clark, the hand on her back giving her a friendly pat, his eyes crinkling at the corners. "He's about this tall. Has blond hair. In his fifties, or later, maybe. Soft-spoken."
"Mild-mannered," Lois filled-in.
"That, too," said Clark. "Does that sound like the same man who worked here?"
Again the anxious gulp and the bulging eyes, as the baker nodded frantically. "That's him. That's Andrus. And… for whatever he did to you, we at the Helpers and Peacekeepers Bakery formally apologize."
Lois straightened, watching a bead of sweat work its way down the man's brow. This was not your normal reaction. Nowhere close. He was nervous, obviously. And had been since Silas had placed their order and mentioned the locks on the door. The man whose name tag read 'I'm Neville. How may I be most helpful to you?' had been disbelieving. Nearly offended at the very idea the establishment could have been locked. A sticky door, maybe, from all the sugar build up, had been his best guess. He had sent another worker over to wipe it down, tut-tutting as he did so.
But then Lois had wondered aloud if her friend Andrus still worked here. And in front of their eyes, he had dissolved at an alarming rate.
Which was good. Really, really good. Clearly there was something here, and it was close to bursting from Neville's twitchy skin. It wouldn't take any time at all.
She knew that Silas and Clark agreed. They were doing a great job of appearing nonchalant, but Silas's hands, wrapped around his coffee mug, were trembling with excitement. And the muscle in Clark's jaw was jumping.
"Your bear claws will be up in two minutes," their target offered in tones of absolute desperation. "If you'd care to take a seat? I'll bring them to you."
Lois figured they should do exactly that. Anything less, and he was going to swoon into the pastries, which would render him useless, and the loss of pastries would be terrible. They would stay and eat, she decided. Slowly. Savoring every bite as they watched him and anyone he spoke to, anyone who came in and out…
"Sure," said Silas with a friendly smile. "And about that apology. Of course it's accepted, that goes without saying. But if you don't mind, we'd love to speak to your manager."
Yes! And speak to the manager. Lois tacked that onto their to-do list. She gave Silas a fast pat on the back. "Good one, Junior."
"Thanks, Grams," he returned in a low voice.
The baker was nodding so vigorously he had nearly lost his chef's hat. "As soon as she arrives. She should be here soon. Don't know why she isn't here already. Bear claws and then manager. And… we really are sorry. No charge for breakfast. We didn't charge anyone else. And we can refund what you paid on your last visit. You just tell us how we can make this up to you. Your business is important to us. Have a peaceful day."
"He said that all in one breath," said Clark, as he pulled her chair out for her.
"And he's about to have a stroke," added Silas. "Did you hear his heartbeat? You could dance to it."
"There is definitely something here," said Lois, wincing as she tried to sip her coffee. She noticed Silas and Clark were having no trouble drinking theirs, but hers, as of yet, was blistering hot.
"Can't wait to hear what the manager has to say," Clark agreed, leaning towards her and blowing softly over her mug for the briefest instant.
He winked at her and went back to his own coffee. She tried a tentative sip. Perfect. No wonder she had married him. Or… would marry him. Or… something.
"In the meantime," Silas said, "the bear claws here are outstanding. Just wait until you taste them."
"You're sure you don't want to take anyone with you?" Madge asked again. Even she was tired of hearing the question out of her own mouth.
"It's better kept between us; don't you think?" Hank returned automatically, as he had been doing the last fifteen minutes.
They hustled up the basement stairs. "You going to tell me where we're headed?" Hank's voice was close behind. Madge was moving as fast as she could, but conceded she maybe wasn't as spry as she had once been.
"I'm saving that for a surprise," she panted.
"'The timestream is an exceedingly dangerous device,'" began Hank, quoting from the Peackeepers Handbook. "'It is never used without grave and deliberate consideration and a vote of the majority of elders. This rule is irrefutable and non-negotiable…'"
"And about to fly out the window," finished Madge.
Hank's laugh bordered on hysterical. "You and I are either going to be heroes evermore, or damned to be deported like Tempus was."
"I'll settle for either one," Madge said whole-heartedly, as she pushed open her office door. "As long as there are people left to deport us."
"It's in here? In your office?"
Madge's affirmation died on her lips as she and Hank pulled up short, only belatedly realizing they weren't the room's only occupants.
"Anna!" Madge had narrowly avoided barreling into her receptionist. "Whatever brings you here at this hour?"
"Couldn't sleep," said Anna, flashing a shy smile, her arms filled with files from Madge's desk. "And I knew the day would start early, so…"
"You should go home to your loved ones," said Madge firmly. "Take today off. We're working on a new approach, the results of which won't be known for a few hours, at least. And… whatever happens… I want you to have seen your parents, dear."
"You need me," said Anna, standing her ground. "Even if it's just coffee and filing. I'm not leaving."
Madge heard Hank's impatient exhale and muttering behind her. Knew how close he was to picking sweet Anna up and tossing her down the basement stairs. But Madge was immeasurably warmed by the fierce support of the woman in front of her. "I'm giving you a chance to leave," she said to her honestly. "Hank and I are about to commit treason."
Anna blinked. The files she had gathered dropped from her hands and spread over the floor. "You'll… need tea for that," she said faintly, before darting around them and out the door. "I'll be fast. And if anyone comes, I'll… scald them."
"Now I think I've seen everything," said Hank into the shocked beat of silence Anna left behind.
"Quite," agreed Madge, "and speaking of tea, help me move this tea table. I'm not as young as I used to be."
"Don't tell me the timestream runs under your tea table," said Hank, staring hard at her.
But Madge was already pushing the heavy piece of furniture to the side.
"Quickly," she said to him. "I can program it after you jump."
"Under the tea table," he repeated in disbelief, even as he was obediently moving it aside.
"And under the rug, of course," added Madge, rolling it up quickly.
"And under this sheet of plywood." Hank lifted it away and propped it against the wall.
"And this lead plate, dear," Madge said. "Far too heavy for me."
"Lead plate?" Hank looked at her. "Why on earth—?"
"Odias thought it was a good idea."
"Director Sinders put the secret timestream in here?" Hank tugged the heavy sheet of lead out of the way.
"He thought it might be wise," Madge admitted. "And the old goat was right, wasn't he?"
She reached into her robes and pulled out a handle, fitting it into the grooves on the door.
Hank's eyes widened a considerable few inches.
"It works like the main one. You jump. I'll program your current. You should be right on the mark."
As she pried the square door open, the sound of the rippling stream filled the room, and the reflection of its colors danced across the walls and ceilings like frantic, darting rainbows.
"You are… an amazing woman." Hank stepped towards it. At the last minute he pulled her into a fast, tight hug. "I'll go get Tempus. Tell him our deal."
"He'll take it," Madge said with a conviction she knew to be completely true. Tempus would take the deal. He would take it and love it. And she was prepared to answer to whomever she would have to in order to defend their course of action. And she was more than ready to play ball with Tempus right out in the open from now on.
Behind them the door flew wide. Petal, dripping head to toe in tea, was chased into the room by a contrite and concerned Anna. "I didn't get a chance to get it hot enough," Anna apologized miserably.
"Don't worry, Anna, accidents happen," Petal responded, pushing the wet curtain of hair off her face. She paused only a moment at the sight in front of her. In one quick, calculating glance she took in their surprised faces, the rearranged furniture, the door in the floor, Hank poised to jump…
Her features morphed from confusion to steely resolve in an instant. "Not without me, you don't." She took a running leap and beat Hank in by a nose.
Madge lowered the door behind them and removed the handle, returning it to her robes. With a small remote she entered their destination code.
"I believe I'll have that tea now, Anna."
They had made their way through a half dozen bear claws and two pots of coffee before the wind-blown manager, cheeks bright and robes flying, bustled into the store.
Lois knew that's exactly who she was, because at the sight of her, the miserable Neville moved towards her in a blur of sweat and powdered sugar, wiping his hands on his apron and gesturing frantically in their direction.
"Listen in on this," Lois ordered the men at her table. Though one look at them told her they already were. "And tell me everything," she added with a scowl, not used to being the one at a disadvantage while investigating. "Right now."
Clark smiled absently and moved his hand over hers.
"He's saying… 'What took you so long?'" Silas said quietly. "'These customers have been here over an hour.'"
"'You won't believe what I just had to go through on the trip over," returned Clark, apparently as the voice of the manager. "'There were… lots and lots of cars. And they were… all bunched up… practically stopped… the main thoroughfare is almost impassable… people were… almost… angry… with one another and all the waiting. It was… endless.'"
"Rush hour traffic," hissed Lois. "What's the big deal?"
"We don't have any," Silas said, looking between them. "Ever. The commuter rails are set for certain speeds. You load your vehicle, sit back, and go at your assigned pace. No traffic."
Clark held up his hand for silence. He and Silas went back to the identical head tilt.
"'Oh, no, Neville. Don't tell me,'" Clark repeated. "'More victims of Andrus?'"
The three of them shared a somewhat gleeful, incredulous look. Lois turned her head just in time to catch their worried baker nodding vehemently. "We're getting somewhere," she breathed.
"'They came in as soon as we opened. I gave them everything on the house. Offered our formal apology. But they asked to see you!'" Silas whispered for her.
Lois watched as the manager sighed deeply and unwrapped her scarf. "'Don't worry, Neville. I'll handle it,'" Clark told her. "'But will that man's treachery never end? How long are we going to have to pay for his mistakes?'"
"'Until he isn't related to the boss?'" Neville guessed in Silas's voice.
The manager now looked their way, giving them a warm smile that in no way indicated she had been trapped in her first traffic jam, and now had to deal with a situation she clearly did not relish. "Peaceful morning to you. My name's Charity…"
Lois snorted. "Of course it is," she said in a low voice.
"…I'll just put my things away and be right with you," the manager finished.
They nodded and smiled back as warmly as she. Or they tried. "We are definitely in the right place," said Lois, her voice rich with satisfaction.
"Thank God," said Silas.
"Don't take your eyes off her," Lois told Clark, even as he was shifting around in his chair under the guise of admiring the display case full of pastries and cakes on the far wall.
"She's in the back room. There's a small office. A table, one lamp…"
"No drawers with files to rifle through?" Lois tried to squelch her disappointment. It was nice that Clark and Silas could see and hear everything, but she was dying to get her hands on something solid. Something tangible she could hold, look at, read for clues to connect all the dots.
"Any bakery records would be on holodisk, anyway," said Silas. "Paper is a nostalgia item."
"What's she doing now?" Lois asked.
"Taking off her coat and doing deep breathing exercises, I think," returned Silas automatically.
Lois's gaze shot back to Clark's, expecting to find surprise equal to her own. Instead, he was smiling a small, knowing smile. His hand gave hers a meaningful squeeze. She understood its message, and refrained from pointing out to Junior he had just looked through a wall.
Her eyes still on Clark, she saw the exact moment his casual, searching gaze sharpened. The hand in hers went tense as he straightened in his chair. "What?"
Clark leaned in close. "This entire back wall…" He inclined his head to the one running the length of the building behind her. "It's lined in lead."
"And?" she said, not following, but wanting to understand the change in his easy demeanor.
"I can't see through lead," he told her. "X-ray vision can't penetrate it. Or… at least, mine doesn't. I don't know if that's… unique to me." He looked at Silas, his voice nothing more than deliberately casual. "Do you know, Silas?"
"No one with x-ray vision can see through lead," Silas said simply, intent as he was on studying the back wall. "But lead shielding isn't all that uncommon. It's a hold over. The first few generations of your sons and daughters almost all had x-ray vision. Initially, a lot of people felt sort of… weird… in a city they shared with hundreds of Lane-Kents who could see anything they wanted to."
"But they wouldn't have violated anyone's privacy, would they?" asked Clark, aghast.
"If they wouldn't, they were definitely more Kent than Lane," sighed Lois. "I mean…just imagine what an investigative reporter could do with x-ray vision and superhearing and…ohhh… Oh! We're partners! At the Planet! Oh god… Clark and I must have been great together!" She grabbed Silas by the arm. "We were, weren't we?"
Silas laughed. "Am I allowed to even tell you? I don't know how this works."
"How this works, Junior, is that I ask and you answer."
"I don't know, Lois," interrupted Clark. "Maybe we need to learn our lesson with the HEA room and the Departure room. There is so much information here we are clearly not meant to have—"
"Kerths?" pressed Lois, ignoring him. "Pulitzers?" she asked, heart in her throat.
"You really want to know?" Silas teased.
"Yes," Silas said simply. "But I'm not saying what for or how many."
"Oh." She covered her mouth with one hand and flopped back into her seat.
Clark was laughing at her, eyes shining, clearly as delighted with that news as she was. "See? There were… or are… advantages to having me around."
She rolled her eyes. "I am almost certain you rode my coat-tails, Kent. Yeah, you can see through walls, but someone had to tell you where to look."
His eyes turned serious, warm, but deeply serious. "I'm nearly positive that's exactly how it went. Or will go. You know what I mean."
"That is how it went," Silas filled in, with obvious enjoyment. "Without Grams, you wouldn't have been nearly so super. Or… that's how legend has it."
"It's true," Clark said. "I knew that from the very first second."
"I think maybe I did, too," she heard herself say, to her utter disbelief. And try though she might, she knew there was no getting those words back.
Clark's laughter stopped quickly and his eyebrows rose into his hairline
"I mean… you know… maybe not… right away. Not when Clark Greenjeans Kent fell into my lap still with hayseed between his teeth. But… later… when you showed up at the shuttle…"
"You met me twice, really," Clark returned slowly. "So maybe you just needed to know… both of me… in order to…?"
"I would have known you weren't two people if I'd had more time. You were pretty obvious, and I was figuring you out in the park. If things hadn't gotten so insane, I would have put my finger on exactly who you were, I'm sure of it."
Clark nodded thoughtfully. "I think you're right. You nearly had me. I knew I was in serious trouble. Besides, you're an investigative reporter, so it stands to reason…"
Silas coughed and sputtered, choking on his coffee.
Lois gave him a few hearty thumps on the back. "Is that how it went, Silas? Once I saw Clark in both guises, I was pretty much in on the secret and… with him, helping him?"
"I am not touching that question with a ten foot pole," Silas wheezed, eyes tearing.
"Uh oh," said Clark.
"Twenty foot," amended Silas, between strangled breaths. "And look. I'm saved. Here comes Charity now."
Anna's knock on the office door interrupting Madge's nervous pacing. "Is it the elders?" Madge asked. "Have they arrived?"
She was dreading their return. Knowing full well they would summon her as soon as they were convened. They would be eager to hear what progress she had made…
Madge swallowed hard against the nerves leaping in her stomach. She had made this decision. She had sent Hank and Petal into the timestream to get Tempus. To offer him a lifetime of legendary status. She had done it, and she didn't regret it. She would do it over again in an instant.
Still… she wasn't looking forward to saying exactly that to those who held her job and her fate in their hands. She half-feared she would kill some of them outright. That some of the weaker, less hearty members would just drop dead right onto the highly polished floor before she could get the words fully out of her mouth.
But more than anything, Madge wanted to see this through. Whatever happened hereafter, whatever they chose to do with her, she would not fight it. But she didn't want to be forced to leave before she had finished her job. Before she had fixed everything and saved Utopia.
Anna cleared her throat softly, and Madge became aware that while she had been staring at her receptionist and waiting for her answer, she hadn't actually heard it.
"Sorry, dear. What was that?"
"It's the bakery. They're doing another Temporal Plane Adjustment. They wanted us forewarned so we can be ready."
'That's the third one this week!" Madge exclaimed. "Of all the lousy timing," she allowed herself to mutter grumpily.
She sighed and moved to secure her saucer and tea cup. Her favorite ones had been broken in the previous adjustment, which had come with no warning at all. She capped the bottle of milk and set it on the sofa, wedged between the cushions to keep it upright.
"Just tell me this is only a test. Not another official tour of the bakery offered as apology to another of Andrus's food poisoning victims," she grouched, as she placed all her holophotos face down on the surface of her desk.
"You don't want me to answer that," said Anna mildly, fastening the file drawers closed and securing the doors to the instrument panel. "Are we ready?"
Madge nodded. "I hate these things. Make me slightly sea sick."
"I think they're a lot smoother than they used to be. And at least they gave notice this time."
Anna moved to the intercom. "Turn the oven knob, Neville. We're ready."
Both women sat down, holding the edges of their chairs. Madge always found it better to close her eyes and wait until the spinning sensation stopped completely before opening them or trying to stand.
Anna, however, did no such thing, but then again, she enjoyed roller coasters. "We're here."
Madge peered out of one cautious eye in time to see Anna hop to her feet and move to check the gauge on the wall. "Alternate Temporal Plane number 3-7-1."
"My favorite," said Madge a little weakly. "How long do you think we'll be stuck here?"
She was fairly certain, should it be necessary, she could program the timestream to redirect Petal, Hank, and Tempus. Their return would be smooth and on target despite the time-space shift. But at this point, she desperately did not want to take chances or throw in any additional variables to court bad luck.
"Just long enough for whoever's taking the tour to see how completely empty our building is."
"As I understand it, it's full of hungry cats."
"Poor things," Anna said. "But Neville does feed them, and they make a lovely cover."
"A roomful of cats looking for their next meal," Madge agreed. "What could be more innocent?"
"Just tell me you've called the Health Department." Lois stepped back sharply as one of the buildings inhabitants dared try rub up against her.
Charity smiled, though her cheeks bloomed a slightly embarrassed pink. "The poor things are Utopia's strays. They are everyone's responsibility."
"A bakery and a homeless shelter for cats," muttered Lois. "What else would there be? What on earth was I thinking…?" She nudged another cat out of her way, and Clark turned from x-raying the empty offices to study her. Underneath the glare and simmering frustration, she looked exactly how he felt. Pole-axed.
"This building isn't really used, then?" he asked, though he knew the answer was more than obvious.
The manager, who had offered to show them around before they had even asked, shook her head. "Oh no, we use it. It would be wasteful not to. Neville feeds the cats and we use the cellar for the freezer space."
"Great," said Clark. "Thank you. You've been… very kind, Charity." He had a little trouble getting those last words out.
He had been so sure, so certain. They all had. When the name Andrus has gotten the reaction it had, when he had noticed the lead-lined wall, been able to detect the outline of an entire building…
Despite Silas's assurances that lead-lining, though outdated, did still exist in Utopia, he'd just known they had found something. Something big, something they desperately needed.
>>Behind a bakery?<< asked his inner skeptic. Or maybe his inner skeptic was actually Lois, and he was just reading her mind. Her thoughts were coming through crystal clear, despite her carefully blank expression. She was as bitterly disappointed as he was, and no doubt feeling just as foolish.
The three of them had been nearly giddy only minutes before, making the crash back to reality all the harder.
When they had put together what Silas had told them about the history of the Peacekeepers with everything he and Lois could remember of their one encounter with them, it had all seemed to make sense.
A twisted kind of sense, but still…
And for a second, maybe less, just before Charity had opened the doors in front of them, Clark could have sworn he had heard voices coming from inside.
Wishful thinking, maybe? What he had wanted to hear, so he had? Because the space he had now studied every inch of wasn't filled with the robe-wearing, time-travel guardians of Superman and Lois Lane. Instead it was filled with…
A loud, peevish meow punctured his thoughts perfectly.
"It's the least we could do," Charity was still speaking, though Clark had barely registered the words. "And again, for whatever discomfort you suffered, we are truly sorry. Andrus was asked to throw out all the eggs that were outdated. And for some reason, he heard that as 'put them in the soufflé.' He meant no harm. And he's really very bright and well meaning, just… easily distracted."
"And you have no idea where he is? No address where we might find him?" Lois asked, still trying, still reluctant, Clark knew, to declare their first and only lead a bust.
"He has left Utopia. He travels often, leaves no itinerary behind. Again, as the manager, I do offer my sincerest apology. We are very sorry."
"Not as sorry as we are." Lois's sharp, troubled gaze went straight through him. Clark managed a half-smile and shrug of his shoulders. He didn't have anything more than that to offer.
Silas, for his part, was still saying nothing.
"Can we leave out this back way?" Clark gestured to the staircase leading to the cellar. "I've had so many of your pastries I could stand to walk them off."
"Of course. I hope you enjoyed your breakfast. Have a —"
"—peaceful day. Yeah, got it," Lois finished for her, turning and hitting the stairs at a run.
"Plan B," Lois said curtly when they had made their way through a thousand mangy beasts and out into the back alley. "The bakery was a stupid idea anyway, and now that we've ruled it out, we just… move on to plan B."
Silas had lowered himself to the stoop and was sitting, staring blankly into space. Clark wasn't doing much better, though he did put his arm around her shoulders. For just a minute she leaned against him, too grateful for the unspoken support to say anything more.
"We can't just stop here," she broke the silence before it could grow oppressive. "We need to keep going."
The answering sympathy in Clark's gaze had her pulling away from him before she was quite ready. She was afraid to let herself fall into it. Afraid she would be frozen into immobility if she did. Afraid she would be useless. Just afraid, period.
She cleared her throat roughly. "Let's go."
That brought Silas out of his daze. "Where?"
It was a simple, completely logical one word response, and it infuriated her. "Plan B! Which, by the way, does not include sitting in an alley wasting time."
"Lois." That, too, was a simple one word response, and she turned on its speaker with a vengeance.
"Don't try to calm me down, Clark! Just… stop it."
"Ok," was all he said, but he moved towards her and pulled her into a loose, friendly embrace. And rather than feeling suffocated, as she would with anyone else, or feeling as if she needed to claw her way free to keep up her momentum, keep herself from sinking onto the stoop next to Silas and letting the tide of despair catch up to her; she sank into his arms, burrowing her face into the side of his neck, breathing deeply. She went limp against him and his hold tightened easily. "I've got you." His breath warmed her ear and came dangerously close to pushing her off balance, pitching her towards tears.
"I'm not going to cry," she said, lifting her chin. Just in case he thought she might.
"That makes one of us, then," he returned softly.
"If no one minds," Silas said from behind them, "I'm just going to curl up and sob like a baby."
Clark's chuckle rumbled through his chest and throat, and held against him as she was, she felt every bit of it. And with it, the return of some of her equilibrium.
She stepped away. He let her go at once, one hand caressing the curve of her cheek as he did so. "Ok," she said a bit shakily.
"Ok," he agreed with a small smile.
"Ok," repeated Silas, moving to his feet to stand with them. "Plan B. I'm on board. Let's do this save the world thing you guys are so good at."
Lois watched as the smile left Clark's eyes, fading quickly. Silas's faith was almost as heavy a burden on him as everything else.
"First rule of world saving, Junior," she said crisply, "is that it isn't always as easy as going to the first place you get a tentative lead on and—"
"Kicking in the doors and demanding pastries," Silas filled-in. "I've figured out that much, Grams."
"No one saves the world without doing a lot of tedious homework beforehand. Which is why there aren't many world-savers. It's really, really dull in parts…"
She had Clark's attention now, too. She could feel the weight of his somewhat bemused stare. Wondering, she guessed, if she was just talking to talk, or if she had an actual idea. The truth was… a little of both.
"What sort of resources do we have for some serious bad guy- good guy research? Does Utopia have a host of cloned Jimmys somewhere? Because that's what we're going to need."
Hank stood shivering in the biting wind, waiting for Petal to join him in the small clearing. He clenched his jaw and tightened his fists around the large burlap bag he held over his shoulder. It was heavy, but not nearly heavy enough.
"What's the hold up?" he barked, just as Petal emerged from the entrance of the cave. He winced against the vitriol even he could hear in his own words. "Sorry," he murmured.
Petal shook her head, her long braids lifting in the breeze. "Madge told me," was all she said by answer.
Hank scuffed one foot in the dirt, kicking up a small cloud of dust which blew into the vegetation surrounding them. "You know about Elise."
Petal came to stand in front of him. When he was able, he met her gaze, having braced himself for the pity or sorrow he expected to see there. Instead, he caught only her clear-eyed, level stare. "Yes."
He relaxed, nearly losing his grip on their find. She wasn't going to offer sympathy and he was deeply grateful.
"And I don't blame you," Petal added matter-of-factly. "Elise is really cool."
He smiled faintly. "She is."
Hank found it hard to stand against the pain building in his chest. He fought to catch his breath, taking in harsh, cold puffs of air that made his lungs ache. Made him ache, head to toe.
"I don't think we overlooked anything," Petal said, watching him closely now. "Want me to carry that?"
He shook his head vehemently.
"Ready to get back?"
He nodded. "You lead the way."
She did. Petal marched along swiftly, finding their path easily, though they had been careful to obscure it, fully aware Tempus could be waiting to hijack their portal as soon as they left it unattended. It went without saying that he hadn't, though.
Hank followed behind Petal numbly, putting one foot in front of the other, looking neither left nor right, letting the tears fall silently. By the time they reached the portal to the timestream his eyes were dry, and any redness on his face could easily be attributed to the cold. Not that he really cared.
Petal moved aside, making room for him and his large burden. She punched in the code numbers that would signal Madge they were returning. Hank welcomed the whiteness which swallowed them up before shooting them back towards Utopia… or what was left of it.
Even though it was mid morning, the streets held only the occasional jogger and dog walker. A baby or two being pushed along in carriages that didn't look too different from the models some of her friends had. Maybe there were some things you couldn't improve on? Lois wondered idly, as she rode the lift towards the entrance of the library.
It was kind of disappointing not to find robots as servants and flying cars, though…
She stepped up and waved her hand over the sensor, mentally wording how she would phrase her request. 'I'm researching fictional characters and time travel for a story I'm writing…' It was nothing but the literal truth, as well as her strategy. She was here on a story, even if she never wrote it. And granted it came with a pretty tight deadline, but if she allowed herself to dwell on anything else, to get lost contemplating the steep consequences, she wouldn't be able to stay sharp. She might miss something crucial.
The door swung wide and a mechanical voice bade her come in and told her how welcome she was. The library was enormous. The ceiling reached cathedral heights, and though books were clearly a thing of the past, the wall to wall shelves held thousands of objects of differing shapes and sizes.
For the first time since parting ways with Clark and Silas at the bakery, Lois felt a stab of doubt. They had somewhat reluctantly agreed to split up. She knew Clark hadn't wanted to, but with the clock ticking, they would cover more ground apart than together. Silas had mentioned the family archives. Records kept by the family for the family. He didn't really think they would hold anything as useful as information pointing to Tempus's whereabouts or how to get in touch with Utopia's Peacekeepers who did something other than bake and care for strays. Still, Lois had insisted they go and take a look, under the theory one just never knew what piece of information might make all the difference. Also, Clark had admitted reading through the archives wouldn't take him much time at all. He had further reasoned that with Silas helping him, they might cut that time in half.
Lois smiled now at the memory of Silas's uncertain look and Clark's somewhat smug one.
For her part, she had decided on the library as a sensible course of action. Silas hadn't been able to recall exactly when he'd become aware of who Tempus was. Like the big bad wolf, he had just always known about him, knowledge acquired in childhood. But, if she could chase down the source of the earliest stories…
Lois stopped and looked around, confidence flagging. No. She didn't really know if it would do any more good than the family archives. Still, she straightened, throwing back her shoulders. This was a story, and no stone would be left unturned. Once more, she eyed the baffling collection of objects on the shelves. Maybe Silas should have come with her? By the time she even figured out how to begin searching…
"Area of interest?"
The voice sounded so close behind her, Lois turned swiftly, already up on the balls of her feet, fists tightened, ready to swing. The last person who had caught her so unguarded had been Tempus.
It wasn't Tempus. And, actually, if it had been, her library trip would have successful beyond their wildest dreams. But instead of staring into the face of Utopia's Public Enemy number one, she was looking at a blank vid screen similar to the ones in the museum. This one was hovering a few feet behind her. "Um… what?"
"Area of interest?" the… thing asked again, extremely politely.
"Area of interest. Oh. Ah. I'm writing a story on… never mind. Fictional characters. Wait… uh… villains. Tempus!" she finally blurted, casting an anxious look around for any eavesdroppers who might overhear and guess their world was in jeopardy. No one seemed alarmed, or even vaguely interested.
"Tempus the Time-traveler," the monitor intoned. At once a series of numbers, letters and dashes began to scroll down the screen faster than she could read them. "Vid screen, holonet, or holodisk?"
"Holodisk," she repeated, remembering Silas's comments about how current records were stored.
"Film? Comics? History and meaning of?"
"History and meaning of," she said assertively, feeling better by the minute, and besides that sounded about right.
A drawer opened just below the screen— somewhat like a cash register— and inside sat rows of clear boxes holding several glimmering, sparkling… well… holodisks.
"Thank you," she offered somewhat distractedly. "And…uh… don't go anywhere, ok?"
"A pleasure to serve you," the screen assured her.
"Yeah… great." She scooped out as many as she could carry, putting the rest into her pockets. They were no larger than quarters, so it wasn't hard.
Uncertain what to do next, she poked around until she found a quiet desk in the corner— something she recognized at least— and pried opened the first box. As soon as she did, the holodisk flared into a prism of color, projecting a tiny holographic… person… who walked out onto the surface of the desk and began to lecture.
"The origin of the Tempus Time-Traveler stories can be traced back to the mid 2100s, original source unknown. Tales of a maniacal man who travels through time bent on ruining Superman and Lois Lane's union and thus Utopia are numerous. Of course, at earliest rumors, Utopia's citizens were concerned, until they were assured by the Ministry of Helpers and Peacekeepers there was no more truth to the legends of Tempus than there was to Mr Mxyzptlk and the fifth-dimension. Entertaining, but impossible…"
"Impossible," repeated Lois under her breath. "Right, buddy. If you could see me now…"
When she had watched each holodisk twice, she stood and stretched. None of them had really given her anything more specific to go on than Silas and his comics had. There were hundreds of vague references and over the top legends. And one other thing. 2143 seemed to be the earliest year Tempus had ever been heard of. Prior to that, she could find no mention of him in any medium.
A cross check, provided by the helpful vid screen, had established that was the very same year the Ministry of Helpers and Peacekeepers had converted into a bakery. Another check had informed her it was the year of Utopia's one and only missing persons case. An event unusual enough to have been widely known. A case that was still unsolved.
Something had happened then. Something that had uncloaked the man known as Tempus. And the Ministry of Helpers and Peacekeepers had obviously worked to suppress it.
Oddly, this cheered her a bit. Suppressing truth in Utopia. Keeping the public uninformed of matters of vital public interest. Here was something she could understand and sink her teeth into.
Utopia wasn't the Utopia it presented itself to be. In order to keep things running, there needed to be someone in the know, someone who knew exactly who Tempus was and what sort of threat he posed. She would bet on it. Silas had assured her the Ministry was no more. Their trip to the bakery had all but confirmed Clark's theory they might be fifty years too late to find them.
But clearly the Ministry's true purpose, just like Tempus's existence, was just one more thing that was, by necessity, kept quiet.
"So, the Peacekeepers are here somewhere," she muttered. "Invisible… but here."
>>And looking for us…<<
"Oh god." She moved to her feet so quickly she sent holodisk rolling everywhere. If the Ministry operated under the strict secrecy she assumed they did, they would be all but impossible to find.
But she and Clark were not.
Could it really be that easy? Was the answer to saving Utopia as simple as walking down Main Street and making some noise? Putting their faces on a milk carton under the caption 'Have you seen this couple?'
Lois swore under her breath viciously. Of all the stupid, idiotic… Whoever Utopia's guardians were, by cleaning up every clue to their existence, they had handicapped themselves.
She left the holodisks where they had fallen, stopping only to grab the first one. Without a second thought, she placed it, still warm, into her pocket. She threw a backward glance behind her, just in case. But no one was watching. And even if they had been, she knew subterfuge wouldn't have been necessary.
She could announce, "I'm taking this," in a loud, clear voice, and those around her would smile kindly and tell her to use it in good health; it was a Sharing Community, after all.
Just the sort of thing that could drive a person crazy, she reasoned as she headed towards the door at a dead run.
>>Crazy enough to travel through time and try to undo it?<<
Lois stopped cold on the thought, one hand on the exit sensor, the other grasping the holodisk in her fist.
Tempus was bent on ruining an entire civilization. He was dangerous beyond imagination. If he had his way he would take apart a wholly peaceful place. A place with no crime, no locks, no litter, no haves and have-nots. A civilization that was her legacy. Hers and Clark's, together.
Lois closed her eyes for a brief moment. That part of the equation was nearly overwhelming. To think that something she had done during her lifetime, something she and Clark had done together, what their children and their children had done… had set the world right…
Wasn't that exactly what drove her as a reporter? What kept her digging for information in Metropolis, ferreting out slimy politicians, bringing down the powerful who preyed on the weak— things that cheated an unsuspecting public? Weren't truth-seeking and seeing justice done what motivated her to be the investigative journalist she was?
She knew she was occasionally reckless in the pursuit of those things, but it was a part of doing the job well. Beneath her hardened cynicism, which was simply part of who she was, beat the heart of an idealist. Something she would deny if ever confronted with the charge. But if she didn't believe righting wrongs was possible, she wouldn't take the risks she did, wouldn't work as single-mindedly…
Two hundred years into the future all evidence pointed towards her life's work as successful beyond her wildest dreams. She, Lois Lane, had a hand in creating Utopia. A hand in creating an entire world…
She swallowed a humorless chuckle, finally moving through the doors and out onto the sidewalk, her steps considerably slower.
That was great news, wasn't it? All of it. Really… great.
So why, when she looked into Tempus's maniacally smiling caricatured face on the holodisk, could she so easily imagine seeing… herself?
Maybe she had helped bring about Utopia, but it was a place she would never want to live. It was wonderful in so many ways, important ways. And yet, here she could imagine herself growing stagnant, stale…
It was a life with few challenges, few dangers, and therefore few rewards. Because without the mess and the struggle, without any of the bad, all the good things in the world— the things people wished aloud for in New Year's Eve toasts— were just too easy.
Lois Lane had no idea what to do with easy.
Evidently, neither did Tempus.
Lois pocketed the Tempus hologram once more. The most dangerous man alive, because he was a threat to an entire way of life. And yet… she agreed with him. In principle.
It was enough to give a person a headache of universal proportions.
"Someone's underground lair?" Clark guessed, stepping into the cavernous, ornate room.
He had lost track of the twists and turns he and Silas had taken through the labyrinth of tunnels which ran under the city, but this was the last thing he had expected to find on the other end. "Is this ours?" he asked. "I mean… the Lane-Kents?"
"It is now. We bought it from the city about a hundred years ago. Before that, it was used by a more than a few criminals, though none of them with the flare of the original," Silas returned. "And at one time it was pretty famous. Tours came through several times a day. But… you don't know it? I mean… it's not familiar?"
"It should be?" Clark asked. "Or it will be, right?"
Silas nodded as they moved further into the room. "Yeah. And it's so weird to be standing here… with you… in this place. And, god, we still need to figure out the rules on this. What I should say; what I shouldn't. I don't want to mess things up."
"I think it would be hard to mess things up more than they are," Clark answered. "Why this place in particular?" He searched the ballroom with a critical eye, not that he really thought there might be clues to its significance lying around. But maybe a feeling, a sense of something. The same sort of resonance he had gotten at first sight of Krypton. At first glance of Lois as his bride in the HEA room.
Instead all he saw were shadowed corners, sconces in dire need of dusting, and the most overdone gold paneling he had ever seen. If anything, the room left him cold. "Why did the family want this place?"
Silas's looked away. "I think it's better if I don't tell you," he said firmly. "Besides, if I start… where do I stop?"
Clark fought back disappointment and relief in equal parts. "And Lois would say this is what is holding us up. We get so distracted; we lose sight of the goal." He shook off the vaguely uneasy feeling creeping over him. "So, where are these records?"
Silas marched towards the far wall and grabbed the corner of an ancient tapestry, lifting it aside. "Give me a hand with this?"
Clark moved to join him, handling the fragile fabric carefully. "What in the world…?" He caught himself just before he completed the question. "Never mind. Go ahead."
"Just hold it back," Silas said. "Uh… please."
Silas moved his fingertips along the edges of what Clark could now see was a hidden compartment.
"What…?" Clark began again, swallowing the remaining question and smiling sheepishly. "Never mind, really. Sorry. Ignore me."
Silas tugged at the corner, which gave way easily. "Remember how I told you the family has learned to choose their battles? In fact, as Head of the Family Council, that's essentially what my sister does. Negotiates what belongs to the Lane-Kents, and what belongs to the rest of the world. Kind of a tricky process. Anyway, this place got a little too… um… celebrated, so we closed it down and took it back. Besides, there were issues of public safety. Those tunnels are old. Some have caved in more than once. But most importantly, this is the dead last place anyone would think to look for our collected records or where we all gather…"
Clark had been listening intently, his mind swirling with questions and thoughts, too confused to makes sense of what Silas was telling him, or rather, what he wasn't telling him. He eyed the tapestry he held closely, looked once more around the elaborate ballroom and tried to imagine it full of Lane-Kents…
"You're killing me," he blurted.
He was immediately sorry. Silas, who had been pulling out boxes of various sizes, turned an instantly contrite face towards his.
"I'm sorry. God. You're right. And it's not anything… too horrible. I mean, there were a lot of hostages, but—"
"It's ok, really," Clark interrupted hastily.
"You were great," Silas finished. "You saved the day. You should know that."
"Let's just… stay on task," Clark said. "I keep asking and that's… my fault."
It certainly wasn't Silas's fault. He knew that. And Clark was suddenly really glad he had been the one to accompany Silas on this fishing expedition. He could well imagine Lois's hands around their relative's throat by now, either choking the full story from him, or trying to kill him for dangling such tantalizing pieces of information in front of her.
"I'm sorry. Again. Let's just keep going," he prodded, since Silas was still looking worried and undecided.
"Or maybe I should tell you," Silas said quietly, instead.
Clark braced himself. He knew he shouldn't, it wasn't wise, but he so badly wanted to hear whatever Silas was going to say next.
"What if I just warned you about attending a certain function? Just that. Just told you not to go. Told you to talk Lois out of going—"
"I'm doomed," Clark broke in. "If this warning involves talking Lois out of anything."
Silas smiled, but the lightness failed to reach his eyes. He drew in a deep breath. "Clark, when you're in your fifties, you'll be invited to a retirement party for Perry White —"
"Don't!" Clark ordered sharply. He dropped the tapestry and moved away, as if the distance could stop the words from reaching him. "Please… don't tell me."
Silas groaned. "I'm sorry."
"No. No, Silas. It's just that…" Clark shifted from foot to foot, one agitated hand scrubbing through his hair. "I thought I wanted to know. And I do. I want to know. But… I don't." He studied the young man hanging on his every word, debating. He was about to rip the confidence Silas seemed to have in him right out from under him. And that felt cruel, even if it was honest. "I'm not really… him."
"What?" Silas let the panel swing shut and turned to face him fully. "You're not really who?"
"Superman," Clark said in a low voice. "I mean, I *am* Superman. Just… not yet. I've worn the suit one time. Performed one rescue. One. A big one, but still… that's all. So, this…" He gestured vaguely to the ballroom, the hidden door, the assorted boxes on the floor which he knew to contain his and Lois's life story. The story of Utopia, really. "I think if I know too much, if you start issuing warnings, once I get back, that will make it all the harder to just… do it."
"What do you mean?" Silas was clearly intrigued. "To just do what?"
"Be Superman. Or be the Superman everyone seems convinced I am."
The words echoed long in the vastness. Ringing off the walls, to his ears, though he had spoken them quietly.
Silas's face had gone unreadable. A blank. Clark felt a hot rush of shame. For taking away Silas's faith, for showing him that Utopia's shiny to perfection founder was far, far less than shiny.
"But didn't you always know Superman was who you were going to be? Don't you have this sense of… of… destiny? I mean, you always knew that you were… extraordinary, right?"
Clark forced a chuckle. "I would replace that last word with 'different.' Or 'faster,' 'stronger.' Not extraordinary. And no, it wasn't a feeling of destiny, not completely, it was more like…"
"Obligation?" Silas guessed, and something in his tone, something in the question, caught Clark's attention. He stopped worrying he was ruining the hero for him.
"Partly obligation," he said truthfully. "Considering what my abilities are, how could I not help? Who else could fly a space shuttle to a space station?"
Silas nodded. "Right. No one. It was just you. No kids to help you, yet. No one to eventually take over when you're ready to share the burden. Not for a long time."
The heaviness in Clark's heart lifted at once. "My kids… help me?"
Silas froze. "Oops."
"No," he shook his head vigorously, smiling broadly. "That was a really great detail to let slip. Thank you. That's… that's… pretty wonderful."
Silas smiled. "You aren't alone, you know. Not ever again. Not after Lois. I think I can tell you that much."
Clark turned away, blinking back the sudden tears in his eyes, too moved and too full to speak.
"But I always thought you knew," Silas continued, more to himself now. "About this higher purpose. Exactly what to do with your abilities. Well before you put on the suit and adopted the guise, you were just looking for the right moment to come forward. Something big enough to get the world's attention."
Clark chose his words carefully. He needed to get this right. "After college I traveled the world a few times over. Is that known?"
"Sure, you were looking for a big enough city to operate unnoticed in."
"No. I was looking for a place, Silas. Some place, any place… where I fit. Before Metropolis I found temporary places, but I was always searching for something I couldn't even name, really."
"You grew into being Superman." It wasn't a question and he could tell by Silas's face it was something of a revelation. "You weren't always."
"Not always, Silas," he said firmly. "And not yet. I'm no saint. I'm no icon. I'm just… me."
"I thought anyone who followed you would need to know what they were doing. Be as confident. And good. And… brave."
"Now you know the truth," Clark said simply. He waited and watched as Silas processed that. "Now maybe you can help me with something I'm having trouble understanding."
"Anything," said Silas, seriously. "Ask me anything you want."
"You have superhearing, right?"
Silas gulped and nodded. "I hear pretty well, yes."
"And when Lois and I asked you about Tempus in the kitchen, you left and went through the lobby and up the stairs. We followed you."
"Sorry about that. I didn't know who you were then. Didn't know who Tempus was, so—"
"I had to pick Lois up and move at close to superspeed to catch up with you."
Silas stilled. "You… did?"
He nodded. "Then when we told you Tempus was real and you realized what that meant, you put your fingerprints into the wood on your desk."
"I was… that was… stressful."
"Silas, this morning at the bakery, you looked through the wall into the manager's office."
"You mentioned alcohol doesn't affect you. Today you drank your coffee faster than I did. Lois couldn't touch it until I cooled it."
Silas was no longer answering. Clark moved across from him, holding his troubled gaze.
"By my count, that's hearing, speed, strength, sight, and invulnerability."
Silas's mouth worked but nothing came.
"Can you fly?"
"No." Silas shook his head vehemently, obviously glad to be asked a question he could answer easily. "I can't."
"Have you tried?"
"What? No! There are no flyers left. None. There haven't been since the last throwback."
"What's a throwback? You used that word earlier."
"A throwback is a member of the family who has… has… oh… God."
"All of my abilities," Clark guessed, and he knew by Silas's expression he had gotten it right. "You've mentioned how my powers were diluted over the generations. But the throwback has them? All of them?"
"And no one knows why," Silas said slowly. "STAR labs did endless genetic studies trying to see if they could predict who would be next, if there would even be another, and what the variable was."
"And it's still a mystery."
"What's expected of the throwback, Silas?"
Silas closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. "Traditionally, they've been head of the Justice League. They wear your colors and go by your title. The current one is Superwoman. But it's been forty years since she took over, and we've started to think she might be the last one."
"She isn't, though… is she?"
Silas swallowed hard and looked away. "It's not as if she needs help. The other members of the League have various enhanced abilities, and since there is no real crime, they only really deal with natural disasters, people in peril, and simple ceremonial stuff."
Clark paused, considering. "Do you float in your sleep, Silas?"
"I… that's… not the same as flying."
"I figured it out when I was eighteen years old; it is the same. If you can float you can fly."
He watched the words sink in, watched as their meaning found their way into Silas's eyes and moved across his face as dawning comprehension. "But… if I can fly…"
"…you're the new Superman."
Madge heard the commotion in the hallway and jumped to her feet, beating Anna to the door by two paces. She threw it open to find a dirt-streaked Petal standing side by side with an even filthier Hank. Between them they were lugging a burlap bag just about big enough to hold…
"Tell me," she said quickly. She didn't even want to hope, didn't even want the beginning of hope, if it was going to be squashed.
"Bones, Madge," said Hank. And though she didn't understand it, it was enough for her to know. The Tempus option was no more.
"Bones?" she repeated, shutting the door on a number of curious faces from offices both downstairs and above.
Madge had informed the elders of the latest developments, and while the news hadn't actually killed anyone, it hadn't stayed secret, either. Like a match to dry kindling it had spread throughout the building, and all day Madge had listened to the anxious voices of the gathering crowd outside her door. She couldn't look at them now, couldn't stand to. She knew it was cowardly, but that's where she was.
Hank upended the bag in his hands and emptied its contents directly onto her desk. They hit the surface with a loud clatter.
Madge peered over her glasses, studying them. "Bones," she said.
"Human," Hank supplied, still in that dead tone. As if there were speaking of nothing more consequential than lousy weather. "A man's. And since PDTS sent Tempus where there were no other humans…"
"That narrows down who the owner of this femur might be," she finished mildly, tasting bitter defeat as she did so.
"Well." She pinched the bridge of her nose just under her glasses, exhaling slowly. "This is… a set-back."
"You see? That's exactly what I thought, standing there in that cave, seeing the signs of skirmish and half-digested human remains. 'This is a set-back,' I said to Petal. Didn't I, Petal? Of all the rotten luck—"
"Hank." She quelled him with a look she had never used on him before, a voice rich with censure.
He stopped, clamping his jaws tight around the next words she knew wanted to come out.
"PDTS reports they may have underestimated the aggression of the natural predators," said Petal into the charged silence.
Hank made a noise. Something between a curse and a laugh, but he said no more.
"This is just another closed avenue," Madge said to them. "And, yes, we had high hopes for it, but it's just one more…" She hesitated over the words 'dead end.' They came a touch too close to the literal truth. "… unusable option."
She checked Hank for his reaction. And despite the rage glimmering right beneath the surface, he smiled at her… faintly. "Well put."
She relaxed. She still had him. And as long as they stuck together…
"What's our next move?" asked Petal, gamely playing along.
"Get the bones ID'ed," she said matter-of-factly.
"Are you kidding me?" Hank exploded in exasperation. "Boss, the world is ending. For all intents and purposes, it already has ended. And you want a positive ID on the human bones of the only human in all of the Dakotas? You're handling me, Madge. And giving me busy work isn't going to fool me into making me think there is anything more we can do."
"Are you quitting?" she all but roared. "Are you telling me to quit, too?"
"It's over," Hank said. "It just is. And no one could have tried harder to—"
"Don't you dare try to make me feel better," she hissed. "Yell at me, but don't you dare condescend to me."
"I am not condescending! You did all that you could! We all did. He got us, Madge. Before whatever it was got him, he got us. We're done. And I'm going home to see if I can hold my wife one more time."
"Do not put it past Tempus to plant these there," she declared, rising from her seat and waving a clavicle at him. "We have underestimated him in the past, and the price has been hellish! ID them! Now! Take them right down and do not come back until you can tell me for sure these are his."
Hank walked over to the desk and swept the bones to the floor. "These… are… his," he said. "And I'm going home to my wife."
"Hank!" she called after him, but the door was swinging closed behind him, shut with such force it shook the building.
"I'll take them," said Petal, moving quickly to gather them up. "I'll take them right now."
Madge looked into the pleading eyes of her assistant. Her assistant who, like Hank, no doubt knew this really was nothing more than busy work. Nothing more than an attempt to stay in motion under the onslaught of the inevitable. Petal knew it. But she was pretending not to. For Madge's sake, and maybe for her own.
"Thank you," said Madge quietly. "And then after that, go on home, ok? Be with your family."
Petal's chin trembled but she stayed dry-eyed and defiant. "I'll go when you go. But…"
"What, dear?" Madge inquired heavily, lowering herself into her chair.
Petal's gaze met hers and fell away. And Madge paused, regarding her closely. There was nothing demure or uncertain about Petal. Hesitation looked odd on her. Suddenly certain she knew what her young protégé was struggling to say… or not to say, she spoke dismissively. "Take the bones, please. Now."
There was nothing easily dismiss-able about Petal, either.
"Why couldn't you just send me back?" It was a near whisper, but she'd said it. "Send me back to… before. Tempus was fine when you, Andrus, and I left him. You could program the timestream for just a few minutes after that. I'll reinsert. Then we'd have him before… whatever happened… happened."
"We can't," Madge answered automatically, her pulse lurching. Lord, she had broken so many protocols, violated so many standards she had sworn to protect. But this one… could she? Could she reinsert Petal, reinsert the Peacekeepers further back into the same timeline, and thereby raise Tempus from probable death? Deliberate manipulation of the timestream. A resurrection. An act of God…
"Why not?" Petal persisted, and Madge had to acknowledge Petal wasn't alone in struggling with the question. Though, quite tellingly, Hank hadn't asked it. Hank, with so much more hanging on the outcome than any of them, hadn't even thought to ask it.
Which told Madge everything she already knew about how wrong, how indescribably wrong, it would be to do what Petal suggested, and what she, herself, was sorely tempted to try.
"There are… certain rules, Petal," she said now, "… ethics which are just… unbendable. I've broken all I can break while still staying true to Utopian ideals. If I did that, I'd be defending a peaceful society by… doing violence to the timestream, to all time and space…"
"Would that be worse than what's coming?" Petal asked quietly. "Worse than… the end?"
Madge shifted uncomfortably, remembering her refusal to allow Andrus a weapon when he had guarded the portal. And her own fleeting wish to have one, as well. She hadn't been able to betray the most fundamental of ethics to protect the legacy of one whose ethics were unshakable. It was long understood there was a built-in disadvantage to trying to keep up with Tempus without resorting to corrupt means. That had never been truer than now.
"The ramifications of that kind of tampering are beyond us to calculate. We… can't." She hoped, no, prayed, that Petal wouldn't push.
And she didn't. Without another word, Petal swept the bones back into the bag and left the room. The crowds outside parted to let her pass, and from their expressions Madge saw that they knew.
They had lost.
"Go home," she said quietly to the assembly. "We're done for the day."
Lois found him exactly where she had expected to. The museum was empty. Silas had posted a sign thanking everyone for their interest, but asking they respect the early closing time. Her steps had echoed up the stairwell, so she knew Clark would have heard her coming, if he hadn't been so absorbed in the display.
She read the sign over the doors— Generations Room — gathered her courage and kept going.
"I think we just need to rent out a billboard," she said by way of hello, enjoying his start of surprise. "Our picture and our location. A big red arrow. Just tell the Peacekeepers exactly where we are." She bent slightly at the waist, catching her breath, running her fingers through her wind-tangled hair.
Clark moved away from the holophotos. "Can I get you a chair?" He smiled when she scowled at him darkly.
"You can get me a billboard," she puffed. "Or fly to the center of the city and do some barrel rolls, or… sky writing."
"Or we could just ask the Family Council and the Justice League to work together to put the word out." His hands dropped to her shoulders as she straightened, rubbing tense muscles. "Would that work?"
"Yes." She let her head lull back. "Those Peacekeepers are here, Clark. Somewhere. Not fifty years in the past. They are… now. In Utopia. And you know they have to be—"
"— searching for us," he filled in, and what he was doing with his hands was so good she let the rest of her body lean back against him as well.
"Ok," she said after a blissful minute. "Let's get going. Let's do it."
"Silas already is."
"He is?" She straightened and turned to face him.
"We decided the same thing. And that it would be easier if he was the one to tell everyone."
That should have been good news, but there was something in his eyes, deep and troubled.
"What did you find in the family records?"
He shrugged. "Nothing which indicated any of the Lane-Kents ever knew of or encountered Tempus."
"They might have and not realized who he was." She covered the hand on her shoulder with her own, squeezing gently. "What's wrong? Besides the really obvious?"
He looked past her, over her head. "You and I didn't mention him in our records either."
"Yes." This time his eyes flicked back to her briefly, before darting away.
"Silas and I read through… everything."
"Then I guess you're way ahead of me now. On the whole life story thing."
He cupped her cheek in his hand and said nothing, though the look he studied her with spoke of many things. Tenderness, most pointedly.
"You want to fill me in?" she whispered. "On how it all turns out?"
"Do you want me to?" he returned in an equally low voice.
She bit a corner of her lip, considering. The silence stretched between them.
"I stuck to reading our kids's stuff. Gave the bulk of our records to Silas," he continued. "I let him read it. Still, it was… harder to see than I thought."
She swallowed convulsively. "Because it's that bad?"
He laughed softly, his thumb stroking under her jaw, a simple touch making her slightly dizzy. "Because it's that good." He dropped his hand and moved around her.
She stayed where she was, trying to remember why she had run most of the way from the library and up four flights of stairs, what they had been talking about that was so urgent. It took longer than it should have.
"So…ah… you and I never mentioned Tempus?"
"I've been trying to think why we wouldn't have. And I don't know. Would we lie to protect Utopia's sense of security?"
"Like Utopia does now?" She shook her head, coming to stand next to him. "No. No way. You see how vulnerable that leaves our family."
His arm slipped around her waist and she let herself do what he was doing. Let herself really look at the portraits surrounding them. "Our children and their children." She pointed towards the photos, pleased that she sounded so matter-of-fact. "If we don't tell the truth, we leave them vulnerable. Like… baby seals… just laying in the snow waiting for Tempus and his club. So, no, Clark. We wouldn't have left Tempus out on purpose."
His shoulders relaxed and he exhaled slowly. "That's what I wanted to think. But maybe we changed, Lois."
"Or maybe someone changed our records. These people can time-travel. They can hide themselves. How far out a notion is it that they might alter our papers after the fact?"
"That makes a twisted kind of sense, actually."
"So does Tempus."
That got his attention. He tore his eyes from the faces in front of them and looked at her. Hard.
"I'm not saying I'm going to join forces with him…" she began.
"Then I can put that worry out of my mind?"
"But he had a point. There are things here that need changing. Things that aren't right."
He turned to face her and she felt the loss of his arm around her. "What did you learn at the library?"
"I think Tempus was just a regular guy. He just felt out of place. Once I narrowed down the earliest year of his legend, I did a search for missing persons. Utopia has one and only one. It coincides with that same year."
Clark straightened. "Who is he? Or… was he?"
"Robert Smith. Pretty dull and nondescript. He lived alone, worked quietly at his job as an accounts manager. His co-workers reported him lost after he had missed two days work. He'd never done that."
"When was this?"
"Fifty years ago. His one distinguishing characteristic was his apparent obsession with the works of HG Wells, most especially the Time Machine."
"Maybe he built one?" Clark guessed, then laughed. "That sounds absurd, but…"
"We're getting used to absurd," she acknowledged. "And it's as good a theory as any. He did something, that's for sure, because he disappeared."
"Which was when the legends started?"
"And when the Ministry was outed as unnecessary," she returned.
"You think he was the one who pointed that out?"
"And in return they turned him into a comic book character so no one would be the wiser."
"That's one way to make someone… less scary."
"Whoever these so-called Helpers and Peacekeepers are, they haven't done Utopia any favors by suppressing the truth."
"Devil's advocate, Lois," he said, putting out a hand to stop the pacing she hadn't realized she was doing. "What if Utopia had known all this time? How would they have lived?"
"They would live like we all do. Aware that the world is sometimes a dangerous place."
"This is a little more serious than having some vague sense that bad things can happen," Clark argued. "This is… world-ending stuff."
"What about when nuclear weapons were new? Remember all the drills? Kids being taught to climb under their desks? Fall-out shelters being built in backyards…"
"Exactly, Lois!" Clark ran his hands through his hair. "I don't want my kids brought up in a world like that. Fearful, paranoid…" He gestured towards the family portrait. "What kind of life is that?"
"A real one!" Lois argued back. "People still married, still had kids, were still productive and happy. No one quit. No one gave up and declared it too scary, too hard to live."
"People rose to the occasion," Clark said slowly, reluctantly. "They adjusted."
"Yes," she said. "Yes, Clark. That isn't happening here. Utopia isn't real. It's a lie. They aren't giving its citizens a chance."
"Lois, this is still our future at stake. Our family's future. Whether or not Tempus is crazy or has a point, we have to stop this." He moved back to the holophotos, pointing towards one in particular. "These children are ours. Ours, together. If we don't get back, they'll never be…" His voice wavered and broke, and he turned away.
She moved towards him swiftly, encircling him in her arms, pressing her cheek between his shoulder blades. She could feel his pounding heart, his trembling.
"Sorry," he choked out. "I just… I got to know them today. Read their words, learned their names, saw their faces, and… they're so real, Lois. As real as we are."
"They'll be born," she whispered. "They will. We're going home. Soon. Today. And the future will unfold as it's meant to. It will, Clark."
He stilled in her arms, his hands coming up to cover hers where they lay against him chest. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." She lost track of the long minute they stood in just that way. She cleared her throat. "I… uh…"
"Yeah?" he prodded, turning until his dark eyes met hers.
"When we get back, I think we should… you know… at least go out to dinner. Maybe some dancing… first date stuff."
His surprised laughter loosened the knots in her stomach. "You mean we aren't going to get married right away? Have a huge, multi-generational family? How about on the second date, then?"
"Second dates are more like movie dates."
He sighed dramatically. "Third date, Lois, and that's my final offer."
"As long as you bring flowers. And chocolate. A lot of it."
He looked thoughtful; a slight frown appeared between his eyes. "Just how much chocolate are we talking about? I live on a junior partner salary, so…"
"I'm offering you a lifetime of happiness and you're worried about the cost?" She glared at him, catching her breath suddenly when he moved his hands into hers, his eyes turning serious, liquid, emitting some sort of superpower he had never told her about, but which held her still, unable to move, blink, look anywhere but at him.
"This is going to be weird, isn't it?" he asked gently. "When we get back."
"We're learning to live with weird," she all but breathed. "Weird is what we do."
"So, we'll be fine?" The question was full of hope and a longing she hadn't seen from him before. Something he had obviously been careful not to show her.
She nodded mutely.
"Because the lines are blurring for me, Lois. Then and now. Who we are and who we'll be. You're my wife, but you aren't. I'm your husband, but not yet. It's getting… confusing."
She nodded again, too flustered to speak.
"Is it the same for you?" He asked it softly, gently, loosening his hold on her as he did so and stepping back. Something she had come to recognize was very typical of how he was with her. Never crowding her, never forcing her, never pushing. Support offered, freely given, no expectation in return.
So, she threw herself at him.
She threw because if it was going to happen, it was going to have to be that way. And she threw, knowing he would catch her, always. Forever. Catch her.
He did and the last thing she saw was delight, gratitude… love… shining in his eyes, pouring out to her, as he arms closed around her and his mouth moved to hers at last.
So many things had been hard to believe. So many discoveries had knocked her off balance, sent her reeling, tumbling without a compass. But the one that had been hardest was the idea of herself as some kind of new Eve of the new Eden. She saw herself as many things, but the idea of Lois Lane as revered and adored wife and mother…
At the first slow touch of his lips on hers, the first tentative brush of tongues, she believed. All of it. Every last bit. She pressed herself against him, against her destiny, her future, her love. She couldn't get close enough, couldn't take him in enough.
He sighed, murmuring her name and other wordless things she didn't try to follow. She didn't need to. She understood them on the deepest level.
"What… are we doing now?" she asked after a time, her voice full and husky.
He nuzzled her jaw line, tugged on her ear lob with his teeth. "I think we're kissing." The words filled her ear, making her knees give way. He held her up easily. "Am I wrong?"
"No." She shook her head, tried to find the thread of thought which had prompted the question. "I mean… what are we doing… now?"
"Oh." He leaned his forehead against hers and she enjoyed watching him struggle to remember. "We're… waiting… to be rescued," he said after a minute. "Silas is getting in touch with Elise and the Justice League. Those changes you wanted are happening, Lois. Right now."
"So…" She met his eyes directly. "… we just sit and wait?"
He nodded. "I know that goes against the grain—"
"So we could go upstairs for a little while?" she rode over him, momentum was on her side and she wasn't letting anything stop it.
His mouth opened and shut. She pressed another kiss against it. His eyes closed. "We didn't sleep all night," he said in a strangled voice, "you must be… tired?"
"Not really," she said sweetly.
"Thank God," he said fervently, He wrapped her up in his arms, returned the kiss she had just given him plus a few more with interest, and floated them up and away.
Madge wondered if she was just imagining it or if the ground really did feel less solid under her feet.
"Are you feeling quite well?" sweet Fredrick had asked when she had called to tell him she would be delayed at work… again.
"Just fine," she had said, wanting more than anything to share her anguish with him. . But the fear was bad. So bad and so enormous, Madge couldn't imagine trying to put it into words. If she could, if she succeeded at voicing it, the darkness that would come out of her mouth, its depth and its dimension, would sit between them for whatever time they had left.
And it wouldn't be long now.
Hank had gone. Wanting every last, precious minute with Elise. As much as Madge hated how they'd left things, she hadn't dared call him to see how he was doing. If she did call, she might find out that Elise was no longer…
Madge sat back in her chair and closed her eyes. She knew it was cowardly, but she didn't think she could stand knowing it had started. That the descendants of Lois and Clark were winking out all over Utopia.
She looked listlessly through her files. Petal had yet to return from the lab. Accurate testing couldn't be rushed. But it seemed more than likely the PDTS had done their job a little too completely.
Their latest communiqué had come complete with apology and references to formerly unknown predators in the wilds of the Dakotas, which they were now cataloging for the data base. All signs pointed towards one of those predators solving the Tempus problem once and for all.
It was ironic; and wouldn't Tempus love that? He was gone just when he was so desperately needed. And he wouldn't be around to see he had finally succeeded.
Madge didn't even look at the monitors any more, though the cabinet stood open just behind her. It was too discouraging. The signals, the lifelines of her world, were fading.
Is that what they would do? All of them? Just fade into nothingness, erased because their history was gone, their founders no more, and therefore the society built on their principles was dead?
The very few of them whose life work it was to prevent such a thing had their own personal theories. Some more alarming than others.
Odias Sinders had always held to the most catastrophic Armageddon scenario. The foundations would break apart. The sidewalks tear open. The sky fall. Total and complete destruction. The death of a world.
Petal and Hank subscribed to the idea of falling asleep in Utopia and waking up in a war zone, or rather a gun culture similar to twentieth century America, though there was hardly a difference. Everyone armed to the teeth and fearful to the point of paranoia.
It wasn't an attractive option, but most of them would still be here. Though not here in their offices. The Ministry of Peacekeepers would be no more. Its entire purpose defeated, therefore rendering it obsolete. Thereby rendering Madge's entire life's work… pointless.
Madge tried and failed to force her thoughts from the cliff they'd been trying to drag her over all afternoon. She honestly didn't know the repercussions of a Tempus victory. No one did.
None of them had ever really thought it would come to pass.
Her own theory was that they would be left as a society of people, still whole, still intact, still kind and law-abiding. Just simply with no memory of their founders. As if a large-scale computer virus had wiped the hard drive. Any memory of Superman and Lois Lane, their ideals, their descendants, their impact on the society that had formed because of them, would simply vanish.
It would be no less devastating than the bricks crumbling to dust. The Lane-Kent's place in their culture was so central it was impossible to imagine how it would look if they were just extracted. They would lose their underpinnings.
But the rest of them would still be here.
Confused, maybe. Uncertain, probably. But still present. Still living.
Would Hank remember he had once loved a woman named Elise? Would mothers remember they had once held children? And what would form in place of the enormous holes in the fabric of Utopia?
She didn't know. She had never wanted to find out.
Anna bustled into the room bearing more coffee.
Madge had long since lost her taste for it, but she appreciated her assistant's need to do something.
"Go home," she told the younger woman again.
"When you do," Anna answered again.
"In a little while," she assured her.
She would work as quickly as she could and then join her sweet Fredrick at home. She knew it was probably a waste of time, a senseless act, but if her world was heading towards a massive memory wipe, she wanted to go on record with everything she knew. Just on the slim chance her holodisks would survive.
She looked into the recorder, speaking as plainly and calmly as she could. "Tempus is not a legend. He is real. My job and the job of others in the Ministry of Helpers and Peacekeepers has been to contain him. We have not. And it appears that he has succeeded in his goal to destroy our world. With that in mind, I, Margaret Hathaway, am making this record of our past…"
It would take some time, but she wouldn't leave until she had covered everything she knew of Superman, Lois Lane, and what they meant to her people.
Clark didn't put her down until they reached the attic. He was trembling with emotions too many and too right to name when he raised her face to his, pressing kisses over her cheeks, eyelids, forehead…
Marriage. Utopia. Museums and history books. A family lineage that went down through the centuries. Holding her, tasting her, feeling her tight against him, it was as if it had already happened. Or was happening right now. Lois was his wife. The mother of his children. His life's partner. It all started and ended with her.
She pulled back from him and he let her go immediately, raking a trembling hand through his hair, wondering how to begin to speak to what was between them. The words of his heart so tangled he knew they would never string together coherently.
Lois's eyes never left his face as she walked purposefully, not stopping until the back of her knees hit the bed. She slowly reclined onto the mattress, holding out her hand to him in a mute invitation.
She didn't answer, but her eyes were clear and untroubled. The meaning in them, the absolute certainty, both shook him and thrilled him.
He went to her. Without question and without hesitation. With a profound sense of homecoming.
In the short walk to their bed, the Clark Kent he was and the Clark Kent he would one day be merged into one man. One man, who despite the years yet to live, would be husband to his wife, and lover to his soulmate. He laid his body over hers and any thoughts— whether or not this was wise, if they should be here at all, if they should know everything they did— stopped completely and ceased to matter. The here and now, the woman in his arms, against his skin, sighing underneath him, was everything.
Tempus had meant them harm. He had tossed them into turmoil and confusion. His sole purpose had been to break their life story, to steal their future and dissolve Utopia. And yet, when the sun slid out from behind the clouds and shone through the window lighting their bed, Clark cradled Lois to him and felt nothing but deeply grateful. He thanked the stars that had guided his ship from Krypton, thanked the currents that had led him to Metropolis, and thanked whomever had designed the Cosmos for this gift, this preview, of loving Lois Lane.
They would find a way back. He had to believe that. Together they were unstoppable. And they had a whole lifetime ahead of them.
Silas had assured Clark he would put the word out. He knew everything that was riding on it. Understood perfectly that time was of the essence. He had decided to start with the Justice League. He knew them well. His uncle and grandmother had enhanced abilities and they worked hard as part of the world's caretakers.
They worked so hard League headquarters had been empty. A distant cousin at the front desk had informed him of the earthquake on the other side of the world, chastised him gently for not knowing about it, and asked him to leave a message.
Silas laughed now, a hollow chuckle. Some message that would have been. 'Come back. The world is ending.'
He sighed, holding the zip-com in his fist. He had just left his name and number, nothing more. And he had been waiting, longer than he knew he should have, for them to call.
Which left him with the Family Council yet to contact. And more specifically, Elise. He would call her and tell her everything.
And in so doing, take her world apart.
Silas stood up from his desk and put down his zip-com. How long had he been sitting, overwhelmed and aching to pull the trigger, and yet despairing of what he was about to do to his family?
He was just one man. One family member. There were so many better suited to this position than he.
He was. He didn't deny it. But it hadn't even been twenty-four hours since he had run into Lois Lane and Clark Kent in the museum's kitchen. Not even a full day since they had opened their mouths and changed every single thing he had thought he had known to be true.
Silas studied his face in the mirrored glass of Martha Kent's painting. He looked exactly the same. Not like someone who had just found out his life, and the lives of every person he had ever loved, hung in fragile balance, dependant on behind the scenes cosmic maneuverings they had never been privy to.
He straightened his stance, squaring his shoulders, just as he had seen Clark do. His grin mocked him. Some Superman.
Yet… he was here. Intact. His reflection showed no ghostly outlines, no faint, glowing aura. He flexed his hands and reached for his zip-com. He was still substantial. Still able to hold things… no reaching through them… not yet.
He palmed the zip-com, turning it over a few times, turning the thoughts over in his mind. It was already decided. He knew that. It was crucial, he reminded himself, even as he fought down the waves of guilt and regret as he spoke his sister's name into the com's programmed memory.
She was his closest friend, his confidant since childhood. Keeper of his secrets, all the ones he had dared to share. Some had been hard, too heavy to tell… up until today, until this morning in the records room with Clark, who had known those secrets, and understood them in a way no one else ever could.
Elise was far smarter than he. Better suited to the burden of this knowledge, and once he shared it with her, part of him knew she would take over. Take charge. She would call the Family Council to order, make the Justice League drop everything and come back from wherever they currently were.
He wanted exactly that, right? To be off the hook. To have the job placed into hands more competent than his own… which were shaking.
She picked up immediately, nearly startling the com from his nervous grip. "Well? What did he say? Did he agree? What took so long? I've been dying here!"
"That's quite a hello," he said, taking comfort in the sound of her voice, decision made, no going back.
"Who were you expecting?"
"Hank. He said he'd… never mind. Is it important? I guess it is. You're calling me and you never call me any more. Not unless it's to beg me to stop fixing you up on blind dates which you botch on purpose, and even then it takes you a few days to get around to it—"
"Usually I can wait as long as it takes for you to run out of words," he cut-in quickly. "But this is sort of important."
Elise paused, drawing in a sharp breath. "Any other time, I'd love to hear you out, but things here are really… urgent… so I don't think I can concentrate on your woman problems right now, Sy."
"They can't be more urgent than what I need to tell you." He raised his voice, knowing she was about to hang up on him. "Can I fly… uh… run over and see you?"
She sighed heavily. "Really, Silas. No. I'm sorry. Any other time, it's always yes. You know it is. But Hank and I are working on something… vital."
"Tempus is real," he blurted. "Tempus is real and he sent Lois Lane and Clark Kent, the originals, our founders, forward into the future. If they can't get back to their time, get married, have kids, you and I won't need to put this conversation off until later. We won't be here to argue it. And… I do not have problems with women."
"Come over," Elise squeaked. "Come over this instant. Why did you call, you big doofus? Why didn't you just break the door in?"
"This seemed more polite."
"Screw polite," she retorted.
"Why aren't you asking me a thousands questions, starting with 'Am I high?'" he said as he moved to the doorway, then turned back slowly and eyed the window. "Why do I feel like you aren't surprised?"
"Just get here," she said. "Wait!" Her shout reached his ears as he was disconnecting. "How did you know they'd been sent into the future?"
"They're living in the museum."
He listened closely, but all he could make out were half-strangled exclamations, swear words that raised his eyebrows. He would have sworn before today she didn't know such an assortment.
He smiled, perversely enjoying one-upping the sister he'd spent his entire life being one-upped by. "I'm on my way."
"No. Meet me at the museum. I'm headed there."
"Let me come get you." He easily opened the protesting window. "Trust me. It'll be faster… I think."
He disconnected and set the zip-com down on his desk.
A breeze was blowing, ruffling his hair. He placed his hands on the edge of the window and boosted himself up. It was a long way down from the fifth floor.
When his tie started to flap in the wind just as the flags over the museum entrance were doing, he ripped it off and tossed it behind him.
"He wasn't ready either," he muttered to himself as he swung his legs out. "And that was Prometheus. This is just a trip to my sister's. If it doesn't work…" He looked down again, tightening his grip on the ledge. "… no one has to know."
Trying to get the image of a baby bird being hurled from the mother nest out of his head, Silas closed his eyes. "If you can float, you can fly," he recited. And, god, he was really counting on that being true.
With a wordless prayer, Utopia's new Superman pushed off into the blue.
"Did I fall asleep?" Lois sat up quickly, alarmed. She wouldn't have thought it possible, but the rhythmic beating of Clark's heart under her ear had slowly taken her from her worries and into dreams.
"Only for a few minutes. Did I wake you?" he said, coming back over to the bed.
"Not really." She leaned back against the headboard. "I just knew you were gone."
"It's the noise." He came and sat down next to her, lacing his fingers in hers.
"I don't hear anything."
"I guess it's just loud to us Kryptonians, then." He tried to smile reassuringly, but he couldn't quite pull if off.
"What do you hear?"
"There's…" He hesitated, and she squeezed his hand. "…a pitch in the air. It's hard to describe."
"Try, please," she said softly, moving closer to him.
"It's a rumble, sort of low and constant, but it's picking up now. A bit… rougher, less stable. It reminds me of…" He stopped.
"Don't try to cushion it. Just tell me."
"The sounds that precede an avalanche or an eruption, just higher pitched. No. I don't know really. I've never heard anything like it before."
She was quiet for a minute. As was he.
"What happens to us? That's what I keep wondering. This isn't our world or our time. Does that mean that whatever comes, we're basically unaffected? That we'll be left standing in the middle of… what's left? Or can we die here? Will we? If everyone else does?"
"No one is going to die." But the way he said it, she knew that's what had him up and pacing the floor. The worry crept into his voice, across his face, and more than anything else, it told her how close the end really was.
"Silas isn't back yet?"
"Not as of two minutes ago."
"Do you think he's with the Justice League? Or maybe meeting with the Family Council?"
"That's all I can figure. I expected him before now. He was going to come back and keep us updated, but I haven't heard him, and he's not downstairs…" He voiced trailed off and he closed his eyes.
"You think he might be… gone?" She forced herself to say it, since she knew the thought had just occurred to him, too.
"Maybe he's just… hung up somewhere. Having trouble getting back… or something. I need to go look for him."
"I'll come with you." She swept back the covers, standing up and finding her clothes. He watched her from where he sat, eyes dark and deeply appreciative. And it felt… nice. Natural. As if she had always dressed in front of him.
She opened her mouth to tell him that when she saw the change in him. He had tensed and was listening, head tilted in way she had come to know well. "Silas is back?" she guessed, moving a little faster.
"The lobby door just opened. Someone's downstairs," he answered, the worry lifting from his face immediately. "Do you want me to…?"
"Go on," she said. "I'll catch up with you. Go and see what's happening."
He pulled her to him, tipping her off balance so she spilled into his lap. He kissed her lightly and returned her gently to her feet. "Meet you downstairs. Hurry, honey."
Before she could blink again, he was gone.
Madge knew what had drawn her to the Krypton Wing of the Superman Museum. It had been many years since her last visit. In general, she found the commercialization of the Lane-Kents more than a little off-putting, but today she hadn't been able to walk past without stopping.
In the early evening hour, the place should have been crowded, but it wasn't. Like the rest of Utopia, everything was shut off and closed down. Madge preferred it that way. She didn't need the crowds, and she didn't need to see the displays; she only wanted to stand in the quiet and find the pocket of peace she needed.
The parallels had drawn her. One world exploding and one more on the verge of disappearing. Centuries and galaxies apart, and yet so intimately tied. Linked by one man.
At least Clark Kent would never know. There was some comfort in that. He had already lost his past. Madge was grateful to the fates that he would never realize he had lost his future.
And besides, wherever he and Lois were now— and the search committee had looked so many places and times she had lost count— Madge knew one thing for certain: wherever they were together, or whenever, a new future would be formed.
This future would just pass away. But somewhere a new one, a better one, maybe, would take root.
"I failed you," she spoke aloud. "And I'm sorry."
She let the first tears fall. She would do her mourning here, then put on a serene face and go home and be with Fredrick. She was a lucky woman to have him. Blessed in so many ways. She had lived in a wonderful society. Had been given the opportunity to serve it for most of her years. If only she had served it better…
"Can I help you?" a gentle voice asked from behind her.
Madge only shook her head. She was beyond words. Any words at all. Even polite refusals to caring strangers.
"Are you sure?" the voice asked again, and its owner stepped into her sight. In the dim light she could see kind brown eyes searching hers.
"I thought all the Clarks were required to wear glasses," she said upon getting a closer look at his face. It was the very first thought that came into her head. She had seen many Supermen and many Clark Kents, but never one who looked so much like both at the same time.
He smiled, and there was something in that smile that raced into her heart and straight down every nerve. "The museum closed early. I'm kind of out of uniform."
"Only the real Superman can help me," Madge said sniffling. "You should go home to your family, ok, dear?"
While she was speaking his stance changed. His smile vanished and his eyes, no longer filled with concern, grew wide.
"You're the woman from EPRAD!" he gasped.
"You *are* the real Superman!" she said simultaneously.
They both started speaking at once, then both stopped politely to let the other have their say, then both leapt into the silence once more, talking all over each other again.
The real Clark Kent held up his hand. "Time-out. Ladies first."
"I'm Margaret Hathaway, Director of Peacekeeping. Madge," she choked between grateful sobs. "And I'm so glad to see you, you have no idea."
"I think I have some idea," he said, a fleeting smile showing, and Madge let herself enjoy— for only the briefest of seconds— nothing that would be disloyal to sweet Fredrick— how nice he was to just… look at it. Listen to. Stand near. She remembered the old saw about never meeting your idols; they're always bound to disappoint you.
Baloney. This one was even better in person.
"Where's Lois?" she asked, a new worry hitting her all at once. "Please tell me she's with you! That you didn't get separated!"
"She's upstairs. I'll get her," Clark said. "I know we need to leave," he added at the exact same instant she remembered her job and yelled, "You need to leave!"
"Give me two seconds. We'll meet you back here."
A very large part of her didn't want him out of her sight. She wanted to catch hold of his ankles and make him drag her with him.
But she knew he would be back. He was Superman. He didn't lie. And sobbing at his feet wouldn't be dignified.
Also, she would have missed the whoosh of his exit, which thrilled her to her toes. She'd read about that, but to see it…
Madge pressed one shaking hand over her heart, a chorus of joy like a choir loft of angels sprang to voice inside her head singing over and over, "Oh my God! He's heeeerrrreeee!"
Madge gasped, then sputtered. Here. And now. In her own time. In her own hometown.
In the one place Lois Lane and Clark Kent would never register on the soul tracer. The one place in all of time and space they couldn't be monitored. Utopia simply wasn't wired for it. Why would it be? It was the lighthouse, the look-out point…
The current incarnations of their souls were already present. It was Madge's job to know that, and though she would never tell, it was her pleasure to work closely with one of them. She knew when and where all the other incarnations existed across all time and space. Those souls were watched closely. But unknown to anyone else, on an entirely separate device only she was privileged to see, Utopia's two souls were watched by her alone. Beyond that, Utopia was entirely monitor-free.
Besides, wouldn't Tempus have to be crazy to send Lois and Clark right into the very center of the Ministry's life and work? To put them right in their backyard, out in the open, where anyone could see them?
Madge took a long, slow look around the building.
Right out in the open… alongside dozens of look-alikes…
Tempus. That evil, brilliant bastard. All his bragging had been right. He really was a diabolical genius.
Madge found herself laughing. She almost wished he hadn't been eaten just so she could tell him so. He wouldn't like that he'd been foiled. But still, only the two of them could appreciate the new level he had raised their game of cat and mouse to.
"Ah well. Rest easy, Tempus. You sick git."
Finding her knees a little wobbly, Madge decided she would just sit for those two seconds.
Hank stood in his empty bedroom trying to absorb what it meant. Despite his show of temper, he had done as Madge had asked and stayed with Petal to process the bones.
It had cost him. Precious time. Time he should have been here…
When the results had finally come up, he had sprinted home, thrown open the doors, shouting for Elise. His voice had echoed off empty walls, bounced off the floors, come back to him, shrill and mocking.
He was alone. He had looked thoroughly, over and over. More times than it made sense to, but sense was something he currently didn't have. As if they were playing an elaborate game of hide and seek, he had checked the oddest places. Any place Elise might fit.
She'd gone out, then. Gotten impatient, and who could blame her? She had probably decided on her own to raise the alarm, go to the family… something.
But her zip-com was still on the counter in the cook unit. And Hank couldn't find any theory that had her leaving it behind. Not when she would have been waiting to hear from him. Not when today, of all days, it was so important.
He drew in a series of hard breaths and switched off his thoughts before they could proceed to their logical conclusion.
Pocketing her zip-com and imagining handing it back to her and fussing at her for forgetting it, he headed out the door. He would go back to work. He would finish this, fix this, and get her back.
If there was any justice in the world, that was the way it would be.
"That was quick!" Madge said, breathlessly, standing and beaming at the woman Clark was holding in his arms.
Lois Lane smiled back and Madge relaxed a little. She hadn't been too sure what her reception from the legendary woman of tomorrow would be, and she had half expected Lois to read her the riot act.
Which she clearly wasn't going to do. And that was nice, if not a tiny bit disappointing.
"You've fared well?" she asked the couple in front of her. "Lost and confused as you must have been?"
"Our time here has been very…" Lois paused and searched for the word. "Bizarre," she concluded, in the same instant Clark said, "Wonderful."
Madge nodded vigorously. Two vastly different takes on the same thing. And both true. That was Lane and Kent in a nutshell. She would remember this. Maybe even cheat horribly and tell it to Fredrick. "Splendid! But we really must get going. Things are very unstable."
"Exactly where are we going?" Clark asked as they hustled towards the lobby doors. "We've looked for you and never found more than…"
"…a few crumbs," Lois finished for him.
"The Ministry of Helpers and Peacekeepers," she said proudly. Madge had to pinch herself. Look at her! She was filling in Lois and Clark on the details of something they had obviously investigated. She was a… what was the word? A source! "There's a very good reason you couldn't find us. You see—"
"We should let Silas know," Lois interrupted, turning away from her and back to Clark.
And Lois was being rude and abrupt! Oh, this was too, too good. Madge knew she didn't deserve this, but was grateful, all the same. And she would tell Fredrick. How on earth could she not? A newer, more open policy was in the works anyway. She decided that justified it very neatly.
"Right," Clark said. And then he did the oddest thing. He threw back his head and yelled, "Help, Superman!"
What in the name of…?
Lois looked just as blank as she felt. "Clark, what the hell are you…?"
Clark draped an arm around Lois's shoulders. "I didn't get a chance to tell you—"
Whatever he had been going to say was interrupted. There was a zooming sound. It started from far out and grew louder and more immediate. Madge braced herself, fearful of the unfamiliar noise, and of what it might mean. That this was it. The end. And what a horrible way to go, when she was so very close to fixing everything. "Oh no," she barely voiced.
Then the doors burst open and gust of wind filled the room. The blur that came with it slowed and inexplicably formed into a young man who was holding… Elise.
"I was on my way when you called," he said at once, "and you will *not* believe what my brother-in-law does for a living." Catching sight of Madge, the young man holding her assistant's wife stopped talking immediately. "Oh, um, hello."
She smiled politely, waiting for an introduction, an explanation, a… something.
"Madge!" Elise said with joyful surprise. "You're here!"
"As are you, Elise." Madge's voice wobbled on that a bit. "Thank Heaven."
Elise threw her arms around her. "Where's Hank?"
She frowned. "We… ah… concluded our business early; he was on his way home to you some time ago."
"I'm not there," said Elise entirely unnecessarily. "Silas called and said the strangest…"
Her voice trailed off as her gaze moved, belatedly, to the other members of the group.
"So, you're Silas's sister," said Clark, stepping into the silence and offering his hand. "It's really nice to meet you, Elise. He speaks highly of you."
"Sis, this is Gramps," said Silas with a huge, face-splitting smile. "He's holding up pretty well for his advanced age, don't you think?"
"Holy freakin' cow," said Elise, then immediately blushed hotly. "I mean, that is, on behalf of the family… uh… holy freakin' cow."
"You practice that speech on the way over?" Silas asked her solemnly. "Because it's excellent."
"And I'm Lois," said Lois. "Introduce me as Grams, Junior, and you're grounded."
"Lois Lane," said Elise with a smile. "My hero. You have no idea how… well… I'm just… this is just… We've been… so worried. Hank has been… so… so…"
"Call him," said Madge briskly. "Have him come back to the Ministry. We can't waste any more time."
A slight tremor shook the building to punctuate her point. From the feel of it, Odias Sinders's theory had been the most correct. Another point in favor of the old goat, Madge begrudging noted. If she wasn't busy saving the world, she would have felt downright bitter over it.
"It's getting louder," said Silas, looking to Clark. "Closer, too."
"It is," he confirmed. "We need to go now."
"Can you carry all of us?" asked Lois anxiously.
"I don't think that will be a problem," said Clark. "Right, Silas?"
"For a maiden voyage," said Elise, "he wasn't half bad. Though I kept my eyes closed the whole time."
"I was shaky," confessed Silas. "But…"
"…you did it," Clark finished with a wink. "And it's the best part, Sy. Trust me; it just gets better."
"I can't wait to find out," Silas said.
"Neither can I," commented Lois darkly. "Why was this somewhat important detail left out of your report of your afternoon with Silas?"
"You and I got a bit… ah… preoccupied," said Clark. And Madge noticed he didn't look even the slightest bit sorry.
"All I can say is it's about time." Elise gave her brother an affection jab. "Mom and I thought you'd never get a clue."
"You float in your sleep, little brother. Kind of hard not to notice when we shared a house."
"You knew? Mom and Dad… know?"
"That you're the throwback?" Elise said seriously now. "That you're Superman? Yes. And I can't think of anyone else I would rather see in the role."
"I agree," said Clark simply.
"I'll second that, Junior," Lois supplied.
"But there's no pressure, Silas," Clark continued. "Really. Find your own way. Make your own decisions. You have more than fulfilled your obligation to this family."
"Listen to your grandfather," added Lois. "Don't let anyone force you into anything."
Elise smiled smugly. "Such as working in the Superman museum?"
Silas's look bordered on amusement and disbelief. "You engineered that! I thought I was needed because of the clone thing!"
Madge watched as Lois and Clark exchanged a look. "I am starting to really hate how they throw that word around," Lois muttered.
"I guess we find out in due time?" he whispered back, giving her a smile that had Madge sighing dreamily… just before she remembered that while family reunions and revelations were their own good things, and really fascinating to watch, certain other matters were more pressing.
She cleared her throat and straightened her shoulders. "We must go at once."
"Where to?" Lois asked, marching over to Silas and pulling his arms around her.
He held her loosely. "You brave enough to go with me, Grams?"
Lois shrugged. "I'm good at flying with brand new Supermen."
"We'll lead the way." Clark walked towards Madge now. "Is it ok if we're seen?" he asked as his arm came around her.
Words failed her. For just a moment. Granted it was a pretty critical moment, but Superman was… holding her. Lifting her against his side like she was a feather. A tiny, downy, floaty…
"Madge?" Clark prompted.
And she was back and all business. Or mostly so. Sweet Fredrick, of course, was the owner of her heart and her loyalties, that went without saying, but good heavens she wasn't dead yet. She felt a little less guilty when Elise, happily married to Hank as she well knew, wore an identical look when Clark wrapped his free arm around her.
"No, it doesn't matter," Madge said in a strangled voice. "We've decided to reverse our Tempus policy so the citizenry can be better informed, able to protect themselves."
"If you didn't, we were going to," said Lois pointedly, and Madge felt a thrill of fear… or really, just a thrill. Lois was fussing at her!
"Take us right down the middle of the city, straight to the bakery. We'll wave at anyone we see on the way," she said proudly.
"The bakery? We've been there," Silas said. "Earlier today. There was nothing."
"Evidently we missed something fairly big," Clark said with regret.
"You can't look for what can't be seen," Madge tried to say comfortingly, but his chest muscles were so hard against her side she might have just said 'meow', she wasn't sure.
"Let's go." Clark lifted off.
Silas lifted off almost as smoothly.
"I didn't know we had a current Superman," Madge commented happily, bringing down an awkward silence.
"I don't want to be in the League," Silas said grimly. "I don't know what I want to do… yet."
Lois said nothing, but sent what was clearly a warning glare in Madge's direction.
"Of course not," Madge stammered, taking just a moment to admire the glare, wondering if she could learn it and use it herself. Imagining all the ways it might come in handy. "Though if you're looking for adventure and travel, I might know just the job for you, dear."
They turned more than a few heads on their way down Main Street. Two flying men carrying three women. Concerned citizens, noticing the changes creeping over their city, and feeling uneasy for reasons they couldn't have named, were out on the sidewalks conversing with one another as the sun set.
Clark's heart sang at the sight of them. They looked worried and appropriately stunned at the spectacle of the five of them passing overhead, but they were all still well. Still whole. And now they would stay that way. The future, his and Lois's, would unfold as it was meant to. Maybe even better than before.
Madge had been rattling off orders into her zip-com, so he knew the Ministry was open and waiting for them. From his vantage point, he could see lights pouring from the bakery windows and anxious, robe-wearing workers, some of whom had been in the bakery that very morning, pacing the sidewalk.
"Right here," said Madge, "just inside. And we need to hurry. Anna says the lifelines are nearly entirely gone."
He didn't know their exact meaning, but he recognized the urgency in her words.
"Follow me in, Silas," he said in a normal tone he knew his grandson could hear above the din. "Straight through the doors."
"Behind you," Silas returned easily.
"He's going to be good at this," Elise told Clark quietly, her eyes shining. "I wish I could have known you, but thank you, for whatever you did for him."
Clark looked at the young woman he held. Probably not any younger than he was, he realized, but his granddaughter, all the same. The instant kinship between them felt exactly right. "I honestly don't know who helped who more," he said, just as they burst through the doors and past dozens of dancing and clapping Peacekeepers.
"Lois Lane and Clark Kent," Madge called into the noisy reception. "Meet everyone. Everyone… say hello and get out of the way, please."
The Peacekeepers scattered like a colorful flock of birds, robes streaming behind them as they moved.
Silas shifted his grip on her, and as if it had translated down his arms and through his fingertips, Lois could feel his nervousness at being seen. "Don't worry, Junior. You're saving the world today. If you don't want to do it on a full time basis, no one can argue you haven't done your part."
Silas nodded, swallowing audibly. "I think I needed more time."
"That's exactly what Clark said after Prometheus. Maybe that's the trick. You just do it because you have to."
"I know. And I'll figure it out, Grams. I just wish …" His eyes moved from hers and she waited, as patiently as she knew how to, and that wasn't much. "… I had someone like you," he finally continued. "Someone to help me."
Lois found herself blinking back unexpected tears. She tightened her hold on him for a quiet minute wanting to promise him there would be someone. Someone suited to the task, someone willing and able and meant for him. But she didn't. Those promises would have sounded empty, she knew. Because before she had seen it for herself, been overwhelmed by the evidence, she would have rolled her eyes and written those promises off as the stuff of fairy tales.
They had followed Clark and his passengers into a roomy office. Silas landed, setting her down. She hadn't gained her feet for a second before Clark took hold of her hand, pulling her clear of the crowds who were pushing their way in.
"Petal, the door," shouted Madge. And a young woman materialized from nowhere and worked her way to the door, leaning up against it, shutting out their rapt audience.
"Sorry!" she called cheerfully to those whose feet were caught in the doorway. She flashed Lois and Clark a brief and bright smile before turning towards Madge. "The bones weren't his."
"What?" Madge halted in the middle of what she had been doing, which to Lois looked a lot like rearranging furniture. "What did you say?"
"We just got the ID back." The woman named Petal moved into the center of the group and grabbed hold of the table, tugging it aside just as Clark stepped up to offer a hand.
"Can I help?" he said. "With… whatever… it is that you're doing?"
"Thank you," Madge said, obviously distracted. "Rug, plywood, lead shielding, dear."
Lois smiled at the look on Clark's face, but he caught on fairly quickly once Madge toed up the corner of the rug.
"The bones," said Madge.
"Hank and I processed them," Petal returned.
"Hank is here?" interrupted Elise. "Where?"
"He went home right after. He wanted to tell you what was happening. We were going back to trace Tempus, see what we overlooked. I'm sure Tempus left us a clue just for the fun of it."
"Get back to the bones, dear," said Madge, this time a bit heatedly. "They weren't… his?"
"A replicant's," said Petal with a delighted glint in her eye.
"How on earth did he manage that?" Madge muttered weakly.
"I can't wait to find out," Petal said.
"Is… uh… this what we're here for?" Clark gestured towards a square door in the floor.
Lois moved up next to him to see.
"That's it," Madge said. "The timestream."
"Timestream? This is how we're getting back?" Lois knew she sounded doubtful, but honestly… "Through this little door?"
"It's really fun, Ms Lane," said Petal encouragingly. "Though I threw up the first few times."
"Is anyone else as lost as I am?" Silas stepped forward for a closer view.
"Lois and I have learned to just go with it," Clark answered.
And he missed it completely. Lois couldn't blame him. He was obviously x-raying through the door and trying to make heads or tails of what he was seeing. But she saw it. The thunderstruck expression on Silas's face when Petal caught his eye and flashed her dimples.
Silas froze in mid-step and gaped at her like a fish on a hook— which was pretty much what he was. Lois realized there might be something to the whole maternal thing after all. Her heart filled with love and relief for her grandson. She recognized that look. She'd scarcely been paying attention, but it registered with her now — Clark standing up in Perry's office to say hello… to her.
Lois eyed Petal closely. "She'd just better be good enough."
Clark pulled his gaze away from the door. "You say something, honey?"
She smiled at him. "Maybe."
He smiled back. "Care to elaborate?"
"I don't want this marriage growing stale before it gets started. So… no. Let's leave a little mystery."
"Lois—" His protest was cut off by Madge, who stepped between them and put a handle on the door.
"It isn't as scary as it looks," she assured them as she pried it open.
Lois took one good look down. "Oh god. No way."
"I'll hold you," Clark said quickly. "I'm invulnerable. I'll keep you close. Wrapped up tight." And she appreciated the effort, since he sounded as unnerved as she was.
She couldn't take her eyes off the dizzying, clashing swirl of colors just below her feet. "Close," she repeated. "Invulnerable, wrapped up tight… right."
The building shook violently and the lights blinked on and off.
"No time to waste," said Madge. "I'll program the current after you get in."
"We do this all the time," offered Petal. "We never, ever miss."
"This from the people who brought us Andrus and the killer soufflé," Lois said dryly.
"Andrus will be dealt with when he makes it back," Madge said. "He just needs a little… extra tutoring… before he's ready to work on his own."
"Or to cook on his own," Petal added.
"Maybe he needs… a partner?" Silas said, one eye on Petal. "This is my family." He gestured towards Lois and Clark. "I'd like to be involved in their protection."
"Thank you, Silas," said Clark. "But I don't want you doing anything you don't—"
"— And until you know the ropes, Junior, you'll need a partner of your own," Lois interrupted quickly, shooting Madge a meaningful stare, gratified to see it fielded so astutely.
"Of course," Madge pronounced. "We'd be honored to have you. Petal, you'll work with Silas. Even Superman will need help bringing Andrus up to speed."
"And maybe it's time we worked on Wells, too," Petal replied. "He's always off sight-seeing; he should be more involved in looking after things."
"Wells?" asked Clark and Lois as one.
"Long story," Madge said mildly. "And it's a good idea, Petal. I'll put him with Hank…erm… if Hank promises not to kill him, which I'm almost sure he wouldn't do."
"So… we're partners," said Silas to Petal, offering her a tentative hand.
Petal took it readily. "But I have seniority. I was Hank's apprentice and now you'll be mine."
"That sounds really perfect," said Silas with enough awe in his voice to capture even Clark's notice.
Clark raised his eyebrows at Lois, eyes wide in wonder. Her returned grin was as smug as she could make it. "Since that's settled," he said with a grin of his own, "maybe it's time we…" He pointed to the floor.
"Ok." She drew in a deep, steadying breath. "I'm as ready as I'll ever be."
A shout sounded from behind them, a series of curses and threats just preceded the door opening and someone very determined making his way past the crowds and into the office. Once there, his eyes scanned the room, flicking over her and Clark, the timestream, Madge and Petal and Silas…
He walked past them all and grabbed Elise with a wordless cry.
"Just in time, dear," said Madge.
The man who was holding onto Clark's granddaughter looked over at him with exasperated disbelief. "I go home early one time… and this is what I miss."
"We all missed it, dear" Madge said. "But as of today, we're starting over. Clean slate. New rules, new Peacekeepers…"
"I'm Clark Kent," offered Clark, feeling more than a little foolish, since apparently the man wrapped around Elise already knew that.
"Hank Bailey. And it's about time you showed up," answered Hank with an unsteady smile.
Lois stepped gingerly around the door in the floor and into view. At the sight of her, Hank's smile turned decidedly lop-sided. "Lois Lane. It's nice to finally meet you."
"You're doing so much better than me," Elise murmured to him. "You should have heard my greeting…"
Hank hugged her closer.
"You work here, Hank?" Lois asked.
"I try." The words were short, clipped, but couldn't hide the exhaustion, relief, remorse— all the things that formed them. "And I guess I'm your… son-in-law."
"They were just leaving," Elise said. "I'm glad you made it. I couldn't call you. In all the excitement, I—"
"— left this behind." Hank put a com unit, identical to the one Madge had used on the flight over, into Elise's hand. "Don't do that again, ok?" He said it lightly, but something in the tone had Clark turning away, giving the couple some privacy.
He quirked an eyebrow at Lois. "Ready to go home?"
"Your place or mine?"
He swung her up into his arms and moved them over to the door. "Silas, Elise. I can't tell you how amazing it's been to meet you. To know you… to be able to see everything that we'll—"
"Their memories, Madge," interrupted Hank, and Clark caught the flash of apology on the other man's face.
"Oh, good heavens, what was I thinking?" Madge stepped in front of them, halting their progress and the goodbye speech he was knew wasn't all that great but he was still formulating. "I was just so glad… so relieved. We must fix this first."
"We don't have enough time," a soft, troubled voice called.
For the first time Clark realized there was someone else in the room. She had been so quiet he hadn't noticed her there— in the corner, next to a cabinet of instruments he couldn't begin to decipher. "Just let them go and they'll figure it out." She added that last with a worshipful look in his direction. Or… he thought that's what it might be.
Lois seemed to agree, since she was the one who returned it with a hard stare. "What is this about?"
"This is Anna," Madge said by way of introduction. "Petal, head down to the archives, the old filing system. Look under 'B.' The memory contraption."
"The memory contraption?" Clark asked warily, lowering Lois slowly to the floor.
"You know too much." Madge closed the trapdoor just as another spasm shook the building, and Clark didn't know who looked more pained, Anna or Hank.
"Go help Petal and quickly," Madge ordered Silas now. "I mean… if you would, dear.
Silas leapt to attention. "Where…?"
"The cellar," Petal told him. "Our first assignment. Can you carry me?"
She didn't have to ask twice. He scooped her up and moved them out of the room at a blur.
"They won't make it back in time," fretted Anna, still beside the cabinet. "The lifelines… I can't see them any more."
"If we don't do this correctly," Madge said, "then it doesn't matter if we send them at all. We may as well not. How are they supposed to interact with each other knowing what they do? They're people, not icons. Every time they have arguments, every time they break-up—"
"Break-up?" said Lois.
"Temporary spats. Nothing unusual."
"Ok," Lois answered shakily, and Clark felt her hand slip into his.
He leaned close. "Never, Lois."
Another shock wave hit the building and the noise grew loud enough for even non-Kryptonians to hear. "We need to go," Clark said to Madge. "I think I understand what you're getting at, but Lois and I will be fine."
"We've already talked about how weird this will be," Lois added.
"I can't let you," Madge said. "What happens if you go back in time to the first week you've known each other, only now you're fully aware you are each other's match? That an entire society exists because of it? The pressure that would place on you both would be inhumane." She moved towards Clark, patting him on the arm. "When you do something lunkheaded, and Lois lets you have it, your defense cannot be 'But if you date Dan Scardino, the future collapses, our children don't get born!'"
"I would never—" Clark started to protest, but Madge held up her hand to silence him.
"The unknown is an important thing. If people understood all the repercussions of their actions, they would be paralyzed, unable to make the simplest decisions."
Clark said nothing. He couldn't. He recognized the truth in her words and felt their sting. He had made the same argument about the Departure Room, about the warning Silas had tried to give him in the ballroom…
At that moment the power shut down. Startled cries could be heard from inside the building and outside on the street.
"You're going to make us forget," Lois said flatly. "That's what the memory contraption is."
"It's for the greater good, dear. And for your own, as well."
"I don't want to forget," said Clark in a low, urgent voice. "I know what you're saying. I do. But I need to remember." He looked to the woman whose hand was in his, directing his next words at her. "Everything I ever hoped for, everything I dreamed of…" He gestured to their surroundings. "… is here." He pressed her hand over his heart. "And here." He waited for her nod of understanding and was warmed by it. "And I want to know that. I don't ever want to forget."
"It's necessary." Madge addressed them both, speaking earnestly. "Can you take heart that your destiny awaits you, but you can't take a shortcut?"
"Does it? Does our destiny await us? The future isn't carved in stone. All of this…all we saw… it could happen differently, couldn't it?" Lois argued.
"Yes. There is always free will. Freedom of choice." Madge adjusted her glasses, frowning. "I suppose you could choose differently. But in every time and place, you have consistently chosen each other. You just have to find your way. Find your way to love, and everything that comes after."
"We've done that. We've found that." Lois held up their linked hands.
"We have," Clark echoed, the lump his throat too hard to say more.
"But the bad has to happen, too," Madge said. "This is part of your story. The pain and the difficulty are what forged you. They brought you through the refining fire. Burned off the dross, so to speak. Made you who you are. This is how it has to be."
"If it's true for us, it's true for Utopia," Clark told Madge, and his eyes met Lois's in resigned agreement. It was her argument, her point, but somehow it had been turned on them.
"The bad has to happen here, too. You can't just have the good. The people here need to find their way," Lois said.
Madge nodded thoughtfully. "So they do. And they will from now on. You have my word on it."
"We've got it!" shouted Petal as she and Silas flew through the doorway.
Petal was holding a small device along with some wires and numerous attachments. They dumped it on the table and everyone gathered round to study it.
"Who remembers this from history class?" Madge asked.
"Follow the directions," said Hank, holding a torch to give her better light.
"Can I help?" offered Clark.
"Superman can save us," whispered Anna in awe.
"Yes," said Madge. "Why didn't I think of that? Please, at superspeed, if you can."
He didn't understand it, what it was or how it was going to work, but he could read the instructions and assembled it in a blur. "There."
"Power it up," Madge said.
"This is safe, right?" Lois asked.
"It's your father's invention," Petal answered her.
"Don't worry." Madge took in the look on Lois's face. "It's a modification of something he invented. He called it the Bummer be Gone."
"Oh god, that sounds like Daddy."
"Only now it doesn't just erase bad memories. It erases all memories for a programmable amount of time. It is, of course, effective on humans and Kryptonians. And very useful. I may just turn it on myself after you leave."
"Madge!" exclaimed Petal, shocked.
"Of course I won't," said Madge. "Though… wouldn't it be nice?"
Clark turned to Lois. "Since it will be a while before I get to say it… thank you. For giving me a home, for having our babies, for living with me all the years that you will. No matter what, I know I'll wish it could be longer."
"I'll miss you," she said. "But we'll get there, Clark."
"Oh," said Anna mournfully, mopping at her tears.
"We'll do it fast," said Madge a bit tearfully herself. "Your memory and then the drop. Godspeed, you two."
"His suit," Hank said, and it sounded as if the words had been torn from him.
One look told Clark exactly why. From the way she tensed beside him, he knew Lois saw it, too. Elise was standing where she had been since they had walked in. She was still there, still in Hank's arms. Only now… less so.
"I'm ok," she said gamely.
Clark's eyes shot to Silas. "There's time," Silas said in a voice that sounded much farther away than it should have. "But it's getting… darker."
Petal was at his side immediately, putting out her hand. "I still feel him. He's still here, but…"
"Let's hurry," finished Hank, looking as if he'd like nothing more than to shove them both into the timestream himself.
A subdued sort of panic stole in.
"We'll just go," said Lois. "Now. You can get another suit."
"I agree." Clark looked down at the jeans and t-shirt he was wearing, remembered his bare face. It didn't matter. He was willing to chance it. "I can get a new suit from my mom."
"Where is the suit you arrived in, dear?" Madge called over her shoulder. She and Anna had darted towards the cabinet drawers and were flinging contents everywhere. "Just so we can collect it later."
"Under our bed in the attic," Lois volunteered.
Clark looked at Lois. Saw his worry for their descendants mirrored in her eyes. And something else, as well. A link, a tie far beyond anything he could ever explain.
His fears about the memory wipe vanished. Maybe this invention would make him forget this place and these people. But he knew. The memory of Lois, of what they had shared here, was burned into him now. Imprinted onto a part of him untouchable by technology, no matter how advanced. He would carry her with him, lingering in his cells, under his skin. And no matter what their path, however long and twisted it proved to be, he and Lois would find their way.
"We're going to be fine," he said to her a bit incongruously now.
She smiled as if she had already figured that out. And probably she had. She was always one step ahead of him.
"If you don't mind, Clark," Silas said with some effort. "I'd like to keep the original suit. I could use it, I think."
His answer was heartfelt. "I'd like that."
With a cry of triumph, Anna pulled out the familiar colors. "It's from a Founders Day parade, but close enough he might not even notice the difference." She brought it to him breathlessly.
He felt a little awkward with all of them watching so expectantly. He knew time was running out, but with seven sets of eyes on him…
"This won't take but a second. Is there… well… a place where I can…?"
"Turn around," snapped Lois. "All of you."
They obeyed her at once. He changed at superspeed, noticing that Lois hadn't taken her own order, but was staring, fascinated. "Ok?" he asked her, smoothing the material over his chest.
"Um…" Her eyes lingered here and there. "… yeah. I guess it will be awhile before I get to see what's under the suit again, won't it?" The wink she gave him was quick, wicked, and really satisfying.
He pulled her to him, one final chance to say it right. "Lois, I have loved you from the beginning."
She stroked his face and answered quietly. "And I will love you until the end."
"In my heart, I'm your husband."
"And I'm your wife."
He drank her in, pushing her image deeper into his heart, away from the reach of any machine.
"So, I'll meet you on the other side," she said.
"And we'll get started." He let her go, and before he was ready, she turned and announced the all clear.
By the light of Hank's one torch, in a city that was shaking apart at the rafters, Clark looked around the assembly. "Silas, remember what I told you. I don't know anything more than you do. You'll figure it out. We both will."
Silas nodded, a smile lighting his face despite everything. He moved towards them. "Goodbye and thank you."
Petal stayed beside him, an arm hooked through his.
Hank did the same with Elise.
Clark and Lois filled in the circle.
A mighty rumble rose from beneath them shaking the floor and rattling the pictures on the wall.
"No more time," said Madge, shouldering the Bummer be Gone. Hank and Petal reopened the trapdoor. "It's painless. Might make you dizzy. But you will land square on the mark."
"You'll be ok?" Lois asked. "All of you? And what about Tempus?"
"We'll be great. Better than ever," Madge assured her robustly.
"We'll be here," offered Hank. "Watching out for things."
"Tempus doesn't stand a chance, Grams," added Silas with a grin.
Clark put his arms around Lois. "Say when."
"Now," Lois answered, keeping her eyes locked on his.
He kissed her and jumped. They went down into an ocean of colors, into a great wind, spinning.
He forced his head up, caught one last sight of a neat, square door closing above him. One last glimpse of Silas, Petal, Hank, Elise, Anna, and Madge's faces peering down at them.
Then he forgot their names completely. Forgot them completely. He let go and enjoyed the ride.
Wait. The ride?
Why was he riding?
What… was he riding?
No. He wasn't riding. He was flying. But hadn't he just been holding someone?
The colonists launch! Heck of a thing to forget.
Clark floated up, slowing his descent. His head was spinning and he had slight aches and pains everywhere, nothing horrible, but enough to notice. The effects of flying into deep space, he guessed. Even though he could go for long periods of time without oxygen, that didn't mean it was easy or advisable.
He landed, winded and still somewhat dazed, on the roof at EPRAD. He was shocked to see the sun was coming up.
He clearly remembered taking off with the shuttle at night…
Maybe he'd lost consciousness for awhile? Or it had taken far longer than he had realized. He didn't know all the ins and outs of space travel, but either one would account for how he was feeling.
Though the details were still hazy, he remembered there was someplace he needed to be…
Lois was on the fourth floor, waiting, no doubt, to pin him to the wall. He took a few minutes to just sit and catch his breath. To recall the flight and the space station, things she would want to know, things he would need to appease her with if he was going to get past her with his secret identity intact.
When he was ready, he floated down to an open second story window he had noted on lift off and went in.
"Sorry, that took me longer that I thought…" His voice trailed off when he saw her there. Her head was on the desk, and she was sound asleep. He grinned. When he'd imagined the dangers behind this door, the leaping tiger waiting to greet him, it hadn't looked like this. One small woman curled up, her head pillowed on her jacket, asleep over her notes.
He approached her quietly, reluctant to disturb her.
And as he did, a scattering of images rained down on him. Warm. And familiar.
He had seen her sleep before. Had held her as she did so… been with her in the most intimate way…
He froze, a bright sea of memories floating just beyond his grasp. The harder he tried to bring them into focus, the further away they went. And then they disappeared completely.
He realized he was just standing there gawking at Lois. And heaven forbid she catch him at it. It certainly wouldn't endear him to her, and he was going to need her on his side if he was going to survive his entry into the world as a mild-mannered reporter-superhero.
He cleared his throat loudly. "Ms Lane?"
She stirred, blinking up at him groggily.
"Sorry I'm late," he said.
The easy smile that lit her sleepy features had him holding his breath "I nodded off, I guess," she said around a yawn. "The strangest dreams…"
"What were they about?"
"Uh…" Lois frowned, looking thoughtful. Then she shook her head. "No idea."
For some ridiculous reason, he was disappointed.
"I have a few questions." Lois straightened in her chair, her voice back to all business.
"I'm beat," he said bluntly. "Can I fly you back to the Planet and we can do this some other time?"
She wanted to protest, he could tell. But instead, she nodded reluctantly. "You know, I'm feeling a little off, too. Maybe I'm coming down with something, or maybe it's just the night spent sleeping in the chair. Later today, then?"
"How about I call you?"
"How about we set a time up so you don't have to call me?"
"How about I promise I won't talk to anyone else first, then I'll just drop by when I can?"
"How about I hold you to that promise and we make an appointment for you to drop by?"
He swung her into his arms. She felt so right against his chest he nearly lost a step in his surprise. "How about we let destiny take its course?" he said with a grin.
"There's no such thing," she said dismissively. "I make my own destiny."
"Somehow I don't find that too hard to believe," he returned.
He flew them slowly, leisurely, enjoying her wide-eyed wonder at the sights below them.
He was in no real hurry to reach their destination and too soon the Daily Planet came into view, the work day underway, the bullpen buzzing with activity.
"The window's open, Ms Lane," he said to the woman who fit his arms so perfectly. "Care to make an entrance?"
On September 1, 2004, in Fanfic Related, Erin K asked this question about Superman's first appearance:
Didn't he save the shuttle taking the crew to Prometheus at night? I was thinking so, but then didn't we see him fly Lois in through the DP window during daylight? (Hmmm…) Do we know how that accounts for the time difference, if that's the case?
Yes, it was dark — sunset-ish — at the shuttle and daylight at the Planet. Plus, I believe Lois changed clothes.
Maybe there was a whole night in between on some desert island somewhere that we never knew about till now…
Gerry chimed in:
Did Superman fly Lois up to the space station with the shuttle passengers or leave her on earth while he did so? (She would want to know what that experience felt like.) But if he did fly her to the space station, how did she get back? She can't hold her breath and even if she wore a space suit with oxygen, would she burn up on re-entry?
So, if she waited for Superman to come back, changed and then he flew her to the Planet, what did they talk about? She tells Trask that they "didn't have to talk", but knowing Lois's insatiable curiosity, I can't see that happening.
And I said:
You know, until I read Erin's post, I never realized there was a time difference… that's a really interesting window in time.
Once I'd typed 'window', I pretty much knew where I was headed.
Thank you to Erin for the idea. And for BRing this from the very beginning, when it was a tiny outline, cheering me along, naming all the rooms in the Museum, thinking up Tempus's ring, and insisting that I stop procrastinating and 'start posting!' I couldn't have written this without her.
And to Labrat for always, always getting me unstuck, no matter how tangled up I was. And that was often! For wanting to see more Elise. For the temporal shift. For the 'demand a couple of bear claws and to be taken to their leader' line, which I so love. I wouldn't have finished this without her.
Thank you to Sherry for the shot of confidence about the bakery, for holding my feet to the fire, making me defend my characters and making me sharper. And Pam and Lynn, for the second opinions on the globe revelation scene.
To Paul for providing the Bummer be Gone. James, Mr d8A, for the locker in which Herb was stored throughout. Tank for being Special Consultant on call and answering questions which came to him with no rhyme or reason. To Gerry for providing the approach to the opening scene.
And most especially, thank you to the readers of the L&C fanfic message boards, whose generous comments, insights, ideas, and enthusiastic participation made this, by far, the most fun and satisfying writer's experience I've had.
Thank you for reading. I'm deeply, deeply grateful! All feedback, good and bad, is welcome.