Summary: It's a wonderful life, Clark! A mysterious apparition shows a depressed Clark Kent how Lois' life would have turned out without him.
Clark Kent had never before experienced the deep emotional turmoil of being hopelessly in love. Even when Lois nearly married Luthor, it hadn't hurt like this.
Now it felt as if he'd been exposed to Kryptonite for the very first time. The sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach and the hurt he felt deep in his heart were almost as bad as the physical pain he endured when he encountered the deadly mineral from his home planet.
How could he have let this happen? He wasn't stupid, he should have seen it coming. He'd been so wrapped up in his own personal hell trying to cope with the guilt he felt after Mayson's death, that he couldn't rationally deal with this guy who was sweeping Lois off her feet. All he could feel was jealousy and anger—emotions that were strangers to the usually unflappable Clark Kent.
He wanted to tell Lois what he was thinking, what he was feeling, how that could just as easily have been her, and if she had died in his arms like that he could never live with himself. That was the nightmare. He kept seeing Lois' face instead of Mayson's. But telling her also meant revealing his secret—and that compounded the anguish.
So instead of sharing his fears and uncertainties, he lashed out with his emotions, acting petty, resentful and suspicious.
Fate, too, seemed to be against them. Even when they tried to get together, they couldn't have a meaningful conversation without something or someone trying to pull them apart. If it wasn't Scardino intruding in their lives, then it was a cry for help, or a crisis demanding his attention as Superman. He was beginning to hate the man in the blue suit. But he couldn't ignore the calls for help, and he also couldn't understand why they were happening at the worst possible moments. Were his senses somehow heightened by the very presence of the woman he loved? Or was it some subconscious fear that made his super-hearing kick in just at the very moment he needed to focus all of his attention on Lois? He didn't know, but it was a problem that was turning into a monster. He could see the frustration and dejection in Lois' eyes. It nearly killed him to run out on her, having her think he was deliberately avoiding her, when that was the last thing he wanted to do. He knew how it must look to her, and he couldn't blame her for not waiting this time, but to find that *she* asked Scardino out—that was the last straw.
Was it any wonder he was feeling bitter from this blow to his ego? The more he dwelled on this turn of events, the angrier he became. But it was anger directed at himself. He couldn't expect any woman to wait forever, even Lois, especially when she had no idea why he was acting so strangely. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt her, leaving her vulnerable and confused. But that, in effect, is exactly what he had done.
And that left the door open for Scardino. The man must have been born with some sort of built-in radar—he had a real knack for driving a wedge between two people. He was a smooth operator—Clark had to him credit for that. The man was slick, a real charmer. He was loose with a compliment, and fast with a comeback—and Scardino knew how to disappear fast when the cards weren't in his favor. On the positive side, he certainly had questionable taste in gifts. Clark smiled wryly to himself as he looked over at the strange piece of—well, to put it bluntly—junk, still sitting on Lois' desk. He hoped the man would never find out Lois loved sentimental things, like flowers, and teddy bears, and—Charlie Brown Christmas trees.
Clark knew if he were an ordinary human male, he wouldn't have thought twice about going one on one with Scardino. But he wasn't ordinary, and he surely would have killed the man. And then what? Exposure? Loss of self respect? He'd lose everything and everyone he loved. That was the last thing he wanted, but his restraint only served to make him look and act like a fool. A fool in love, unfortunately. He would have told Lois everything, if only—he shook his head.
Can't stay here, he decided. Perry was right. He was doing too much thinking and it wasn't getting him anywhere. He picked up his jacket, and stopped at Perry White's office on his way out of the newsroom.
"Perry?" Clark's voice was a bit shaky, but he tried to maintain his composure.
"Yes, son, what is it?" Apparently Perry wasn't aware that Lois had gone to lunch with the DEA agent. Better not say anything or he'd never hear the end of it.
"I'm, uh, going to take off for a while. Thought I'd stop by the hospital and see how Jimmy's doing."
"Go ahead, Clark, he'll like that." Perry smiled and waved him away. He glanced up as Clark made his way to the elevator. That boy's in an awful hurry, he thought. But he dismissed it as business as usual. Until one of the staffers popped his head in the door, and interrupted him with a "Chief, you got a minute?" Perry looked up. Now what?
"Chief, was that Kent I just saw heading for the elevator?"
"Yes. Was there something you wanted?"
"Just wanted to check on those pictures Olsen took. I was hoping Kent could ID them for me since Jimmy isn't here. But it looks like I'm too late. He didn't look too happy before. He must have found out about Lois and that guy she was with."
"What? What about Lane? What guy?" Perry was clearly annoyed. "Out with it, and make it good, because I've got a paper to put to bed." Perry was not happy about this latest development.
"Sorry. But, uh, I think Clark overheard someone at the coffee machine talking about Lois going to lunch with that government agent. And they haven't come back yet."
"WHAT? Great shades of Elvis! I should have known something was wrong." He threw his pencil in the wastebasket in disgust. "Where the hell is she? Never mind, I don't want to know. Aw, now *why* did she go and do that? What is the matter with that woman?" No one deserved to have that happen to him, even Clark, in spite of the way he'd been acting lately. No wonder he tore out of here like a bat out of hell, Perry thought.
Perry started mumbling to himself. "Where's that woman's head? Judas Priest—if she were my daughter I'd disown her." Looking up at his employee, Perry tapped the side of his nose. "That agent is trouble, I can smell it."
He couldn't help thinking about the progress those two had made these last few weeks, and now, for Elvis knows what reason, they were really making a mess of things. He knew how Lois and Clark felt about each other, but he couldn't understand where their common sense had gone to. Perry slumped down into his chair, with one fist supporting his chin as he leaned on the arm. He just shook his head in silence. He hoped they'd both wake up before they ruined everything—Kent was the best thing that ever happened to Lane, and he could do a hell of a lot worse than fall in love with his top reporter. "Damn, my best reporting team is going right down the toilet," he muttered. "I knew that DEA guy was going to cause problems right from the start."
"Uh, I think I'll be going, Chief, maybe I can get somebody else to help me with these photos." The man turned and tip-toed out of Perry's office. He failed to see his boss frantically looking through his desk, for a slightly used box of pava leaves.
Clark had never felt so down in his life. Even the Luthor mess had been a piece of cake compared to this. Clark knew what he was dealing with there. But this other guy—he was having a difficult time handling this problem.
He needed to talk to somebody, and he debated whether or not to call his parents. Him mom might not understand. She liked Lois, and she'd been so thrilled when she heard they were finally dating. She hadn't said anything, but Clark sensed the relief in his mother's voice—he attributed it to the fact that someday soon Lois would learn Clark's secret, a burden he desperately needed to share with someone he loved and could trust with his life. No, that was out. And he didn't want another father-son lecture, either.
Flying had always lifted his spirits, and put things in perspective, especially when he was on the outs with his partner. But not this time. He had lost his desire for the one thing next to Lois that made him really happy. His life was falling apart, and he needed to do something, anything, just to relieve the tension. He thought about trying to find Lois and Scardino, but then what? What would he say? What would he do? Probably something really stupid, considering his frame of mind. He almost flew home, but changed his mind halfway to Smallville.
By the time he got back to his apartment, his mind and body were out of synch. The mental exhaustion was winning, and he felt old and tired. He tore off his cape and threw it at a chair, missing it completely. He ripped off the blue outfit and kicked it all the way across the apartment. He just didn't care anymore. He slipped into an old sweatshirt and jeans. Flopping down on the bed, he closed his eyes, tuning out the rest of the world.
Something woke him up. He was lying on his back with his arm covering his eyes. Glancing at the clock, it read 7:00. Still early, but he'd already slept several hours. That was unusual for him. He never slept more than a couple of hours even on a heavy patrol night. He felt drugged. What? Something or someone was in the room.
"Lois?" he whispered out loud.
"No, Superman, I'm afraid not." A cloaked apparition hovered at the foot of his bed.
"Do I know you?" Clark asked, afraid that he had a pretty good idea who or what it was.
"Unfortunately, yes. Or no. Or rather, someone like me visited you not too long ago." This apparition had a feminine voice.
"Don't tell me—Linear Man, or Woman, or whoever you are." Why couldn't these beings leave him alone. His life was screwed up enough as it was.
"Yes—the Linear Men. We hoped we wouldn't have to visit you again, but you and Miss Lane seem to have a bad habit of disrupting this time line—and we have to waste precious moments getting it straightened out again. We *would* like to get on with more important matters."
"What do you mean? Are you trying to tell me that what happened today shouldn't have happened? Now how was I to know she'd—"
"No, today was meant to be. It's what happens after today that causes a rift in time. If you two would be honest with your feelings, and trust each other—"
"I don't understand. I've tried—" Clark interrupted. It was all he could do to keep from breaking down. "Damn, I wish I'd never met her. I wish there was no such person as Superman."
"Superman, don't wish for something you may regret." The apparition was silent for a moment. "On second thought, perhaps you should see what her world would be like without Superman. Since the time line is disturbed *after* today, the future will be different from that point on. You still don't realize how important you are to this place and time, do you? We thought that last visit would make things right. Obviously you—"
Clark interrupted again. "No, don't blame me for this one. Things were moving along just great until recently. Someone died that shouldn't have, and then this guy she just met starts putting the moves on her, and she—" He couldn't finish.
"ENOUGH!" The voice of the apparition vibrated through the room. "There is blame enough for everyone. I can not show you the future, but I can show you an alternate reality, and trust me, that time and place DOES exist." The apparition moved toward him, and before Clark could escape, he found himself suspended somewhere in time and space. It seemed familiar somehow, but it also made no sense. The apparition was nowhere to be found. He vaguely remembered the first Linear Man describing a place called Vanishing Point. He couldn't recall if this was it or not. A door suddenly appeared and opened.
"This way, Superman." As if numbed by Kryptonite, Clark was pulled unwillingly through the door. He blacked out.
Suddenly Clark found himself at the Daily Planet. The apparition was behind him.
"What?" He was confused.
"They will not be able to see you or hear you. You do not exist in this time line. You will watch and listen, do you understand?" Clark nodded his head, fearful of what he might learn.
As they waited, staff members began arriving for the morning shift. Perry arrived first (as always). Things seemed normal so far. Jimmy arrived next—he was an early bird even in this time line. But something seemed different. He couldn't quite put his finger on it. Never mind, he'd figure it out later. A few more familiar faces exited the elevator. Then he got a shock. Cat Grant! What was she doing there? He thought she was supposed to be in Europe. Well, not in this time line, he guessed. Still no Lois. That was unusual. Maybe she was sick or something. No, that would be unusual for her, too. She usually checked in at the office before heading out to track down a story. She should have been there by now. Just as he turned to speak to the apparition, the elevator door opened once more, and Lois Lane entered the newsroom. But what a different woman from the Lois he knew and loved. Her face looked hard, and she had a cigarette dangling from her fingers. This wasn't his Lois. She wouldn't be caught dead smoking. Something was definitely wrong here. She seemed tired, as if she carried the weight of the world on her shoulders. And she looked as if she didn't care how she appeared to that world, either. She was wearing an old trench coat over jeans and a sweater. Her hair was pulled back from her face, and she was wearing long, dangling earrings. She was carrying a battered briefcase and a dinged-up laptop computer.
"Well, well, well. Bad night, Lois?" Cat Grant hadn't changed. Still as sarcastic as ever.
"What business is that of yours?" Lois snapped.
"Touchy, touchy." Cat smirked at her. Lois took a step forward, but stopped when she heard Perry's voice.
"Lois, can I see you, please?" Perry beckoned from his office to her.
"Sure, Chief. Let me get my coffee." Lois headed toward the opposite end of the newsroom. Perry just stood there, with a solemn look on his face, watching the reporter saunter up to the coffee pot.
Clark was stunned. The apparition looked on as the scene unfolded. "Come," she said, and Clark followed. He found himself in Perry's office. He started, then remembered they couldn't see him. Afraid, he moved to a corner of the room, near a file cabinet. He crossed his arms, jamming his fist against his mouth, not daring or even wanting to guess at what was going to happen next. He found it quite disconcerting that objects looked solid, even if he wasn't. At least it gave him something to focus on.
A few minutes later, Lois walked in, and plopped down in an overstuffed chair next to Perry's desk. Perry was already seated, waiting for her.
"Lois, we've known each other for a long time, haven't we?"
"Lois, you know you're one of the best reporters we have, don't you?"
"Sure. But what does that have to do with anything?"
"Well, I've been worried about you."
"Oh, come on, Chief. You don't have to worry about me. You've gotta stop treating me like I need a mother, or something." She laughed, but it was a bitter laugh, as if the irony of the conversation had been lost on her boss. But Perry wasn't laughing, neither was he smiling.
"Well, Lois, I'm not the only one who's worried. So are the people I report to. And it doesn't look good."
"What do you mean?" Lois' face was turning red. A familiar hurt look was creeping into her eyes.
"I'm afraid we're going to have to put you on suspension. That last story of yours nearly got us involved in a nasty libel suit. We just can't afford to keep you anymore. We can't keep running your stories if you're not going to back them up with more sources. And we can't protect your sources anymore, either.
Clark winced. He had a feeling this was the tip of the iceberg. What followed next made him feel sick.
"Dammit, I'm a good reporter and you know it." Lois was on the verge of tears.
"I know you are." Perry looked miserable. "But your other habits are causing us a great deal of embarrassment. You refuse to get help, you won't clean up your act—what happened to that smart, beautiful woman who walked into this office seven years ago? Lois, you had so much promise. The Claude fiasco was bad enough, but Lex Luthor? How could you let him do that to you? You knew what he was. Honey, if I were your father I'd have kicked your butt from one end of Metropolis to the other over that one. Not to mention that sleazy journalist. What was his name? And your last escapade—with that government agent—I was ashamed to admit I knew you. Lois, I've tried to help, I really have, but I can't run your life for you. You have to decide what you want. This is really going to kill me, but I have no choice—give me your press badge and your pager, and clean out your desk. If you make up your mind that what you really want is to be the best damned reporter this city has ever seen, then you come back to me and we'll talk."
"Perry, no, please," she said while choking back the tears that were threatening to make this bad scene even worse.
"Lois, that's my final word on the subject." Perry turned away. Clark could see the look on his face, and he wished with all his heart he could be any place but here. Suddenly everything faded to black. They had returned to Vanishing Point.
"But, why? Why did this happen to her?" Clark was in turmoil. He felt as much anguish over this Lois as he did for the Lois in his own timeline.
"Superman, don't you understand? You weren't there. You do not exist in that time and place." The apparition slowly shook her head. This superhero needed a lot of help.
"Oh, God. When I wished that Superman didn't exist—"
"Now do you understand? Clark Kent doesn't exist either. And, Superman *cannot* exist if his alter-ego doesn't. You are one and the same person. One cannot exist without the other. You and Lois Lane have seen to that. When you entered her life in your own timeline, you saved her from that other future. You do not know how close she came to becoming that other person."
"Do I still have a chance with Lois in my own time?" Clark had a pleading look on his face.
"I can not tell you what *will* happen. We are not permitted to do that. But I can tell you this. Events in history must occur in their proper sequence, and it is our duty to prevent disruptions in the time line. I would not be here otherwise. Your existence on this planet is far too important to ignore. And what you do, or do *not* do affects the future of this world. Remember, your time line will be disrupted after today if you or Miss Lane—I have said too much already." The apparition sighed. "In any event, we will surely meet again."
Suddenly the blackness overcame him again. When he opened his eyes, he was in his own apartment, lying on his bed. He felt disoriented. Checking the clock, he saw that it was just 7:15 p.m.
He wasn't sure if what he had experienced was real or a dream, but he knew he had to do something even if it was the thing he dreaded most—or he'd lose her forever. In a burst of speed he was dressed and heading out the door—toward an uncertain future, but feeling better than he had in days.
NOT THE END, BUT A BEGINNING…