By Georgia Walden (GWalden@aol.com)
Summary: Is this lousy luck or what? After surviving a coma and an attempt on her life, Lois Lane returns at last to Metropolis … to find out that the world is imperiled by a fast-approaching asteroid. And to further complicate her life, there's this amnesiac — sweet, cute, *naked* — she finds in a blast crater. An elseworld story that explores what might happen if the Nightfall asteroid showed up on a collision course with the alternate earth.
Author's Note: Not only do the usual disclaimers apply to this story, but I think I should make a special point of saying I realize how little of this is really mine. I prefer to think of it as a pastiche, rather than rank plagiarism <g>, but you be the judge. I have "borrowed" large chunks of plot, dialogue, character bits, all kinds of things in this story, but in my own defense, I did have a reason for choosing this particular premise. I hope it becomes clear why. I love "Lois & Clark" just as it is, and have never had any desire to re-write the show or re-imagine its characters. I sincerely hope that in addition to all the fanfic inspired by TEMPUS, ANYONE and LOIS AND CLARKS we will get the *official* meeting of AltLois and AltClark next year. Until then, with apologies to Bryce Zabel, John McNamara, and all the rest, this is my way of saying "thanks" to "Lois & Clark."
The world was waiting — at least the part of it that had access to television, radio, newspapers — waiting for the outcome of the most important battle in its long history of battles. On one side was a gigantic piece of rock — the Nightfall asteroid. It was a juggernaut, 17 miles across, mindlessly tumbling through space at 30,00 miles per hour, on a collision course with Earth. If nothing stopped it within the next four days, it would bring with it massive destruction, perhaps even the end of life. On the other side — a man. True, he was a super man, miraculously strong, and even more miraculously willing to pit his strength against the cold rock in cold space, but still — one man. He had answered the call from the government and military leaders when they first learned of the asteroid's existence, and he had promised to "do his best." His best was usually pretty spectacular, so they had great hope, but the world that understood what was happening held its breath, prayed, and waited.
Lois Lane clutched the receiver of the pay phone a little more tightly as she listened to the ring at the other end. "Come on, Perry, be there — answer the phone," she urged under her breath, and shuffled her feet impatiently.
The phone was located in the dingy, deserted lobby of the Royale, an incredibly grungy therefore incredibly cheap hotel. She'd been back in Metropolis for three hours, and had needed a place to rest and plan before announcing her return to her friends. The little money she'd managed to scrape together had gone for travel expenses and the few items of clothing that were crammed into the canvas bag at her feet. There had been nothing left over for such luxuries as a nice hotel.
She had visited Suicide Slum many times in her early days as a reporter on the crime beat. Back then she'd never imagined she'd be hiding out in the seediest hotel in the district. She'd never imagined a lot of things — like being left for dead in the African jungle by a hired killer, or spending months in a coma in tiny mission hospital, or battling her way through a war zone to catch the last plane out of Brazzaville. She couldn't have imagined them, but they'd happened. Typical Lois Lane, Perry would have said — she just seemed to go from disaster to disaster, somehow coming out of each one not only unscathed, but with a great story. Now she was home, ready to reclaim her life and find the man who had tried to end it, just in time for the possible destruction of the world. If it hadn't been so awful, she would have laughed.
The ringing stopped and a voice said: "Daily Planet, Editor's desk." It wasn't Perry, the voice was younger and female.
"Is Perry there? I have to speak to him — it's very important. This is …an old friend."
"Perry White? Why would the mayor — oh, you *have* been out of touch. Perry White is no longer the editor of the Planet. He's the mayor of Metropolis now. I'm sure he's still at City Hall with the rest of the bigwigs, waiting to hear from Superman."
Lois' shock at hearing that Perry wasn't a newspaperman any more momentarily distracted her from the rest of the woman's words. "Uh, Superman? Oh, right, the guy in the cape — he went into space to try to stop the asteroid," she said absently. She was furiously rethinking her original plan of action.
The first thing she'd done when she got off the plane at midnight had been to buy a copy of The Daily Planet. It was like food to a starving woman to see that logo, to read about what was going on in Metropolis. The paper was completely taken over by the Nightfall story, of course, and there had been a front page shot of the brightly clad young man who had recently appeared in the city, a young man who could do amazing things. He was standing outside the EPRAD Command Center, shaking hands with some general and looking, as best as she could tell from the fuzzy photo, a bit grim. Her life had been so focussed on surviving the last three years that she'd paid little attention to what the rest of the world was up to. She didn't know which was the most amazing: the asteroid, the appearance of a man who could fly, or Perry giving up his job as editor. She had been sure that with a story like this one, Perry would be living at the Planet. She frowned at the phone. This was going to change things a bit — she had been counting on Perry, as a friend, but also as a boss and a newspaperman. Well, she'd see, but first she had to contact him.
"Thanks, I'll try to call him there."
She hung up and turned toward the street entrance. The grimy windows in the double doors prevented her from seeing the sidewalk, but for three o'clock in the morning in Suicide Slum, it looked surprisingly quiet out there. On impulse, she picked up her bag and walked outside, stopping at the top of the short flight of steps which led down to the street. The air was cool, and Lois shivered in her skimpy cotton T-shirt and worn jeans. The streets and alleys of the slum were deserted — even the drug dealers, thieves, and prostitutes who usually littered the area from dusk to dawn were holed up somewhere watching television or listening to the radio. The homeless who spent their days wandering the street had disappeared to wherever they spent their nights. From here, she could see the lighted windows of several bars filled with people, and the sounds of laughter and music drifted out into the night. Not everyone was praying, Lois thought wryly. A lot of them were getting drunk. Maybe she'd join them. If this Superman didn't succeed in stopping Nightfall, all her plans wouldn't matter anyway. Time enough to call on Mayor Perry White afterwards.
Lois started down the steps just as a bright flash of light streaked across the sky, arcing down behind the broken tooth skyline and disappearing from sight. A rumble of sound followed, and a plume of dust rose from a spot a couple of streets away.
"What the -?" Lois was halfway down the block before the sound had completely died away. The drift of dust was barely discernible in the faint glow of the streetlights, but it was enough to lead her into an alley that connected with the next street over. She plunged into the alley and out the other end, then stopped, dropping her bag where she stood.
Where there had been sidewalk was now a large hole at least eight feet across and several feet deep. Small fires were burning in a scattered pattern around the edge, and Lois stepped carefully past them as she crept closer to the hole for a better look.. The dust was still settling and very little light penetrated, but Lois could see something was there, a shape in the center of the crater. Suddenly the figure shifted, sitting up with a grunt.
Lois's eyes rounded with astonishment as the flickering light cast by the fires reflected off smoothly polished skin. A *lot* of skin, she thought with a mixture of shock and amusement. It was a man sitting there — and he was totally naked. For a moment she just admired the breadth of his shoulders and the graceful line of his back as he bent forward. His position and the darkness prevented her from getting a good look at *everything*, but she could see that his legs were as finely muscled as the rest of him.
"Wow," she breathed.
The man must have heard her or sensed her presence, for he turned his face toward her and stared directly at Lois. Dark eyes met hers and the slightly dazed look in them faded and changed to something else. For just a second, the expression on his face seemed to be one of joyful recognition, but it was gone almost before she could identify it, and she thought she must have imagined it. He didn't say anything, but gathered his legs under him to stand.
"Um, before you make any sudden moves, I guess I should mention you aren't wearing any clothes." Her voice was cool and uninflected. She was proud of that voice — no one could tell she was a bit dazed herself. The man froze and looked down at himself, then back at her. He was confused, she thought, and a little embarrassed.
"Are you all right?" she added. "It looks like there was some kind of explosion. Are you hurt?"
"I don't seem to be," he said. His voice was low, a little husky, but with a light, smooth quality. Like ice cream, she thought fancifully.
"I don't …I don't exactly remember how I got here," he went on, and looked at her with a question in his eyes. "Did you see what happened?"
"Nope," she said cheerfully, "but don't worry, I'm sure it will all come back to you soon. It usually does."
"You've been in a lot of explosions?" he asked, and he sounded a little amused.
"A few," she said tartly, "but I've never been knocked out of my clothes by any of them."
She couldn't seem to get her mind off the fact that this magnificent specimen sitting in front of her was naked. Get a grip, Lois, she admonished herself. You've seen a naked man before, and besides, he's a poor soul who needs help. Just because he was the living fulfillment of every fantasy she'd ever had was no reason to totally lose her head. She had a sudden inspiration.
"Hold on, maybe I can do something about that." She turned to her bag lying on the ground behind her and opened it. Digging through its meager contents, she finally pulled out a pair of white cotton drawstring pants and the oversized hot pink T-shirt that served as her nightwear.
"Here, try these. They may be a bit snug, but at least you'll be decent." She tossed the clothes to the man, who caught them and immediately began putting them on. The T- shirt which swallowed her slight form strained over his shoulders, and the pants were also tight and inches too short, but they covered him.
"Thanks," he said, and smiled at her as he stood and began pulling himself up out of the hole. The smile was a dazzling flash of white in the shadowed planes of his face, and Lois felt her concentration slip again. She mentally shook off the effect, and in self-defense shifted into reporter mode.
"All right — what's your name and where do you live? Somewhere around here?"
He was standing beside her now, looming a bit, and she thought longingly of the closet full of stylish shoes that she had once owned. Four-inch heels in every possible color and design — those shoes had added a lot to the image and effectiveness of Lois Lane, Top Investigative Reporter. She liked looking people in the eye, especially when she was asking them probing and potentially incriminating questions. The flat canvas slip-ons she was wearing now made her feel small next to the man — not threatened by his height and bulk, but aware of it in a way she wasn't used to.
He looked down at her, and once again, those dark eyes seemed to be looking not at her, but into her, as though searching for something. But his words were nothing to do with her at all. "I don't know. I can't remember my name *or* where I live." He looked around at the dreary street and dilapidated buildings. "There's nothing familiar about this neighborhood, but I guess that doesn't mean much."
"Are you telling me you don't remember *anything* about yourself? Nothing at all?"
Her voice rose in disbelief, and he hunched his shoulders slightly and tried to shove his hands into the slash pockets of the pants. The attempt strained the flimsy material and he hastily brought his hands back up, raising one to his face, then dropping it again. Lois narrowed her eyes speculatively at the abortive gesture. It reminded her of something.
"I wonder…" she began, but then stopped. "Never mind," she said soothingly, "you probably just need a little time. Do you want to go to a hospital? You don't look injured, but maybe you have a head wound that doesn't show."
"No, really, I'm fine. I don't hurt anywhere. I just don't… remember anything about myself."
"Well, what's the last thing you do remember?"
His eyes took on a faraway look as he thought, then sharpened with sudden recollection. "A newspaper office. I think that's what it is. I can see myself at a desk writing. I must work for a newspaper."
"Great! That's a good start!" In her excitement, Lois grabbed his arm with one hand and placed her other on his chest. "I'm a reporter — well, I used to be, and I will be again — maybe you work at my old newspaper. Maybe that's why you were out here, covering a story — and got caught up in something dangerous."
The man had gone still when she touched him, and Lois quickly stepped back. She didn't know why she'd clutched at him like that, a perfect stranger. It had seemed so natural, but maybe he was one of those people who didn't like their body space invaded.
"The Daily Planet? Is that it? — it's the biggest paper in Metropolis — and the best," she added proudly.
"The Planet? I'm not sure — maybe," he said, "but if we went there now, do you think someone would recognize me?" He looked again at the deserted streets, and then turned back to Lois with a hopeful expression. "I don't suppose you have a car, do you? I doubt we can get a cab around here, and I have no money for one. Obviously."
Lois shook her head. "No car. Not much money, either and it's a very long walk from here. We can go back to my hotel. There's a phone in the lobby — we can try calling the paper."
"Yes, my hotel," Lois glared at him, "but don't get any funny ideas. Just think of me as a Good Samaritan."
He nodded, and said, "Yes, ma'am — no funny ideas." His tone was solemn, but his eyes were dancing. He added, "Seriously, though, you're taking quite a chance helping me, a woman all alone. You know nothing about me. I could be dangerous, a crazed killer or something."
Lois laughed. "Dangerous? Buster, you have no idea who you're talking to. I think I can handle one slightly addled guy in a hot pink T-shirt."
He looked down at himself and then grinned at her. "You're probably right. By the way, who *am* I talking to?"
She grinned back, and stuck out her hand. "Lois Lane, once and future investigative reporter for the Daily Planet. I've been…ah, out of town for a while."
He took her hand in his much larger one, and for a moment just stared at the sight of her fingers wrapped in his. When he looked back up, that hard to identify expression was there again.
He smiled warmly. "Nice to meet you, Lois Lane."
She slowly withdrew her hand from his — he seemed reluctant to let go — and backed away. She had this odd feeling bubbling up in her, a feeling of anticipation, as though something wonderful were about to happen. But that was ridiculous. Her entire life was in shambles, the world was possibly coming to an end, and here she stood in the middle of Suicide Slum with a man with no memory, feeling…happy.
It couldn't be because he'd smiled at her, that would be beyond ridiculous, it would be insane. She tapped him lightly on the arm, turned and started back down the alley, saying over her shoulder, "Well, come on then, let's get moving." Pausing to scoop up her bag, the man obediently hurried after her.
The lobby of the Royale was still deserted, but Lois could hear the mutter of a television somewhere. The desk clerk must be watching the news too, she thought. She wondered if there was any word from Superman, if he had succeeded in destroying the asteroid. She stopped suddenly, and turned to find her nose pressed against the chest of her companion.
"Oops, sorry," she said, "I didn't realize you were right behind me."
"What's the matter? Did you change your mind?" he asked.
"No, of course not — I want to check the news. I think there's a TV or radio in that room behind the desk. Maybe there's some word about the asteroid. Let me go check."
Without waiting for a response, Lois dashed away, slipping behind the desk and through the door behind it. She was back in a few moments, shaking her head. "Nothing. Superman sighted the asteroid, checked in with EPRAD, and since then, not a thing. Doesn't sound good, does it?"
The young man looked at her blankly. "Asteroid? Superman?"
Lois sighed. "Good lord, it's worse than I thought," she said, and took his arm. "Come on, let's go find a newspaper and some coffee. I'll fill you in."
A half hour later, Lois sat cross-legged on the narrow, lumpy bed in her hotel room and sipped coffee from a styrofoam cup. Her new friend occupied the rickety chair beside the bed. He was reading the latest edition of the Daily Planet, skimming through each column on every page, pausing occasionally to study a photograph or chart. She was down to the sludge at the bottom of her cup when he finally re-folded the newspaper, and looked up at her. His expression was a little bleak, but he smiled slightly when she looked into the cup and wrinkled her nose.
"It looks like it may not matter much whether I get my memory back," he said quietly. "I really appreciate your trying to help me, but I've got to ask — why?"
"Why what?" Lois replied, setting down her cup, and shifting on the bed so that she sat on the edge facing him.
"I don't understand why you're spending time with me, when all this is going on. You say there's been no contact with Superman since he sighted the asteroid. Shouldn't you be with your family or friends now? This could be your last chance to spend time with the people you love."
Lois shook her head, and looked away. Her bottom lip trembled just a little, but her voice was even. "I haven't been in contact with my family for a long time — we didn't talk much before, and besides, everyone thinks I've been dead for the last three years."
"And you don't want them to know that you're not? Why? Why are you staying in this place? You don't fit here, Lois. This isn't where you belong."
"You know that about me, do you? After one hour in my company, you know where I belong, but you don't have a clue about anything else," she said challengingly, but the young man's gaze didn't waver. He leaned forward until their faces were only inches apart.
"That's right. I'm not sure why I'm sure, but there's something about you — something I can't explain. I feel…I don't know — as though I know you. Weird, huh?" Brown eyes searched her own, looking for… what? Lois stared back for a breathless moment, then looked away again. It was too much — she didn't believe in instant connections between people. It was just the strangeness of the situation, too many things happening all at once.
Her eyes dropped to the discarded newspaper, which had fallen to the floor. Just below the fold on the front page was an article entitled "Nightfall Asteroid Superman's Biggest Challenge Yet" by Clark Kent/AKA Superman. A small photo of a young man with dark hair and wire-rimmed glasses accompanied the article. It didn't register at first, but as she stared, the image came more sharply into focus. Her breath caught, and she snatched up the paper so suddenly, the young man jerked back into his chair, startled by her movement.
"My God — Clark Kent AKA Superman! It's you — this is a picture of you!" She whipped the paper around so that he could see the photograph, but bounced up off the bed before he had a chance to look at it. She dropped the paper into his lap and began pacing back and forth in front of him, waving her arms excitedly as she spoke. The words tumbled out of her in a torrent, and he was torn between watching and listening to her and studying the picture.
"I can't believe it! Don't you see? That flash of light in the sky was *you* — not some explosion. You fell from outer space! No wonder you weren't hurt — you're Superman! When you hit the asteroid, the impact must have been like a nuclear explosion — it knocked you back to earth, and totally wiped out your memory. Not to mention your suit," she threw in parenthetically, with a smile in his direction, then rushed on. " And that thing you did with your hand — you were straightening your glasses, people who wear glasses do that all the time, only you didn't have any glasses. Why *do* you wear glasses — don't you have super-eyes or something? Everyone in the world is waiting to hear from you, and you're sitting in *my* hotel room, wearing *my* T-shirt and pants! What a story! I mean, it would be a story if I were able to come out of hiding and write it, but still, it's a great story, you can write it yourself once it's all over — why are you laughing — this is not funny!" She stopped in mid-spate and put her hands on her hips. The mystery man, no — Clark Kent — Superman himself — was shaking his head and laughing softly.
"You are — amazing, Lois Lane," he said.
"Me?" Lois squeaked in surprise. "You're the one — you're Superman!"
He frowned at that. "It's funny. You seem sure this is me and I do remember writing at a newspaper, but I still don't remember any of the rest. I don't *feel* super. I can't imagine flying or pushing an asteroid around and I sure can't imagine wearing that outfit! A cape, sheesh, and those tights." His expression was pure masculine distaste for such a display.
"Well, trust me, I know what I saw, and it all fits. This is a picture of you." Lois pointed again to the paper, then grabbed Clark Kent's hand and tugged him out of the chair. "Look in the mirror — you'll see."
He faced the mottled mirror that hung above the dresser. She was right — he did resemble the man on the front page — minus the glasses. His eyes met Lois's in the mirror.
"You see? Come on — let's check the phone book downstairs. Maybe you're listed," she urged. "Why wouldn't you be? You don't have to worry about wackos threatening you if you write something they don't like." She urged him toward the door.
"That sounds like the voice of experience," Clark said, as he followed her down the stairs. She was still holding his hand, and he savored the feel of it. He hoped she wouldn't suddenly notice and take hers away.
"Well, yes," she said, looking back at him. "I do seem to have a talent for ticking people off. That's how I know — knew — I was doing my job right."
"Is that why you're hiding out here in this place? You said everyone thinks you're dead. Did somebody do something more than threaten you, Lois?" The amusement was suddenly gone. His voice sounded different to Lois — more authoritative, and his expression had changed, too. He didn't look like reporter Clark Kent now, but she could definitely see a resemblance to the grim-faced superhero in the EPRAD photo.
"We can talk about all that later," she said. "Right now, we've got to get you back into action. First step — find out where you live. You're going to need some more clothes."
Clark looked as if he wanted to pursue the other matter, but after a moment, he nodded. "All right, but whatever happens, Lois, know this. As long as I'm around, I won't let anyone or anything hurt you." It sounded like a vow, and Lois knew she should have resented his presumption. Instead, she felt that bubbly feeling again. The future, both hers and the rest of the world's, suddenly looked a whole lot brighter. The cab pulled up in front of 344 Clinton and Lois and Clark got out quickly. Lois started up the low flight of steps immediately, but Clark turned back and leaned into the open window on the passenger side of the front seat.
"If you'll wait a moment, I'll go get some money to pay you," he said, but the cabbie just lifted a hand to the brim of his cap and tipped it.
"It's okay, Superman," he said with a grin. "I couldn't help but hear you and the little lady talking. This is a story to tell the grandkids. Thanks for saving us all." The cab was gone in a cloud of exhaust before Clark could even say 'thanks', or explain that he wasn't sure he'd saved anyone yet. He turned and followed Lois up the steps.
The apartment was locked, but when he turned the knob it broke off in his hand. Startled, he looked down at the doorknob, and then at Lois. She was beaming at him, as though he were a child who had just done something clever.
"See, I told you. The cab driver recognized you. You're very strong. You *are* Superman."
Clark pushed open the door gently, and motioned Lois to go in ahead of him. The room was dark, but the faint light from the street revealed a broad flight of steps leading down into the large room. It was sparsely furnished, and the rough, unfinished walls gave it a rather austere look. Behind her, Clark flipped the switch next to the door, and Lois blinked in the sudden bright light. They stood there looking around the room, then Lois turned to him.
"Doesn't any of this seem familiar?" she asked, but instead of answering, Clark walked down the steps, and across to a desk on the opposite side of the room. A neat stack of newspaper clippings sat in the center of the desk.
He picked up the one on top, and read the headline: "Madman's Plot Foiled by Superman; Tempus and Mysterious Woman in White Still Missing." There was an out-of-focus shot of a woman bending over a man, himself apparently — he was wearing that suit. She was crying and he seemed to be in pain. There was a flash of memory — he could feel the strange weakness, the agony of just trying to breathe, to stay conscious, but at the same time, the relief. He had done something, stopped something terrible from happening, and that was what mattered. Clark looked at the woman in the picture. She had shorter hair, and her white suit was stylishly elegant, but the face — it wasn't very clear, but he thought it looked like Lois Lane. No, that was impossible. Lois had never seen him before tonight. She hadn't been in Metropolis for three years, so how could she have been on the scene when this picture was taken?
Lois came up beside him. "What's that? Have you remembered something? You looked funny just now."
Clark looked again at the clipping and then at the woman next to him. "Yes, I remembered something. I think I am this Superman, and if I am — I need to find out what's going on with the asteroid. Maybe I stopped it, but I don't know — I'll call EPRAD."
While Clark looked for the number, Lois walked over to the television and switched it on. The Channel 6 News reporter, looking a bit haggard, was speaking. "…we take you now to our man at the EPRAD Command Center for a live report. Go ahead, Steve."
The screen showed a jumble of reporters and equipment clustered around three men.
"Professor Daitch, have you heard from Superman?" One of the reporters called out the question they all wanted to ask. "What about Nightfall? Did he stop it?"
A balding middle aged man with a gray mustache and a worried look stepped up to the microphones.
"Superman's impact on the Nightfall asteroid was substantial. It was not, however, decisive. A large chunk of it, approximately three miles across, is on the same collision course with Earth, and unless something is done, we are still in grave danger."
"But Superman," persisted the reporter, "what about him? Is he going to try again?"
Secretary Cosgrove stepped forward to answer. He was the shortest of the three, with a shock of silvery hair, but his worried look was identical to the professor's. "We haven't yet heard from Superman. We aren't even sure he made it back to earth."
A heavyset black man in uniform broke in. His tone was clipped and solemn. "We're proceeding with our contingency plan of using the Asgard delivery system to fire nuclear missiles at the asteroid. If he wants to, Superman knows how to find us easier than we know how to find him. That will be all, ladies and gentlemen. If you'll excuse us, we have work to do."
"Well, there's your answer, Clark," Lois said. "They need you to go back into space and try again." She looked around the room. "I wonder where you keep the outfits. Let's check the bedroom closet." She started toward the sleeping area, but Clark's strained words stopped her. He was staring at the TV screen, and when he turned to face her, she saw his expression of dismay.
"Lois, what are you talking about? You say I'm Superman, the evidence seems to indicate that I'm Superman, but I don't remember how to *be* Superman! I want to help, really I do, but I'm supposed to know how to fly, and have x- ray vision. I don't remember any of that, and if I can't remember them, how can I do them?" He brought both hands up and ran his fingers through his hair in a gesture of frustration.
Lois stared at him, for the first time since recognizing him in her hotel room, really seeing him. Despite his amnesia, he'd been perfectly calm before, even relaxed. Now he looked worried, anxious. As though the fate of the world rested on his shoulders, she thought wryly. Her eyes softened, and she moved to him impulsively. Resting both hands on his chest, she looked up into his eyes. He had gone still again, but this time Lois didn't think it was because he didn't want her touching him. His eyes told her differently, and his arms came slowly around her to hold her gently in place.
"You can do them. I know you can." She reached up and pushed back the curl of silky black hair that had fallen on his forehead. Her fingers barely brushed his skin, but Clark closed his eyes and sighed, releasing the breath he hadn't realized he was holding. When he opened them again, he was stunned by the look of warmth and trust on her face.
"You know that about me, do you?" he asked. She smiled at his echoing her earlier words, but she could feel her throat closing and tears misting her eyes. He looked so doubtful and uncertain she felt compelled to reassure him.
"Yes, I do. I don't know why I'm so sure about this. We *don't* know each other. But I know that you're special, not just because you can fly, but because you're the kind of person who cares, who wants to help. Remember when I first saw you at the crater? You were the one in trouble, but you told me I was taking a chance, that you might be dangerous. When you got the idea someone had tried to hurt me, you promised to protect *me.* I think that's what you do, Clark. You protect. It's just you."
Clark swallowed, his emotions too near the surface for him to speak. He lifted his right hand to carefully cup Lois' cheek, his fingers whisper soft against her skin. His body shifted even closer to hers as his hand slid up her face to tangle gently in her hair.
"Lois." His voice was low, urgent. "Lois, I know you said not to get any ideas, but when you're close to me, all I can think about is how desperately I want to kiss you." His fingers continued to stroke through the fall of mink brown hair, while his eyes searched her face.
Clark lowered his head slowly, watching for some sign of resistance, as though he expected her to pull away. But instead she tilted her head into the hand moving in her hair, and smiled, her eyes drifting closed as she pressed against him.
"Well, that's good," she murmured, just as his mouth touched hers, "'cause I desperately want to be kissed by you."
He was gentle for a moment, tasting her, then with a groan of relief and pleasure he deepened the kiss. For a dazed second Lois thought that he kissed as though he were starving for her, but soon all thought was drowned in sensation.
Without breaking the kiss, Clark backed her toward the couch, and they collapsed onto the cushioned length of it, Clark beneath her. Her body had gone boneless with desire, while his was tense, straining to hold her even more closely. His hands moved restlessly, trying to touch her everywhere at once.
Long moments later, Lois pushed weakly at his chest, lifting her mouth from his to take a breath. She tried to speak, but the words died in her throat as she looked at his face. He was staring up at her with the strangest expression — as though he'd seen a ghost.
"What's the matter, Clark? she asked shakily. "Is something wrong — did I do something wrong?" She didn't usually go down like melted wax when she was kissed, but surely he wasn't put off by her response.
"What?" he said in a dazed voice. And then, "No! Oh no, never — it's just that I realized — just now when we were kissing — I knew. You're my Lois." The look of wonder was growing and spreading, making his eyes glow. Lois felt blinded by the light.
"*Your* Lois?" she repeated.
He sat up suddenly, swinging his legs around, Lois still cradled in his arms. She made a move to slide out of his lap, but he tightened his grip. He was laughing, she realized with a mixture of confusion and delight. The troubled man who had looked at her with such anguish only a short time before was positively giddy with joy.
"Clark?" She placed both hands on either side of his face and forced him to look at her. "What is it?"
"I remember. I remember *everything*," he said. "I remember who I am, and all the things that have happened to me, and most important of all, I remember *you*." He kissed her again, a hard, quick kiss that shook her to her toes, and then he hugged her even closer, tucking her head under his chin, and rocking back and forth on the sofa.
"How can you remember me, Clark? We've just met." She loved the feel of his arms wrapped around her, but no matter how right it felt, there was something strange going on here that she didn't understand, and Lois Lane didn't like being out of the loop.
"It's a complicated, pretty unbelievable story, Lois, which I will be happy to tell you just as soon as I have the time. For now, just believe that I've been waiting for you to come home to Metropolis, to *me*, for a long time. And now you're here." Clark tilted her face up to his again, his mouth brushing hers softly. "I think I'd just about given up hope — maybe that's why I forgot who I was and what I was — I didn't want to face living without you anymore."
Lois looked even more confused, but the sincerity of his words couldn't be doubted. "I still don't understand, but I'm glad that you're all right now. And as much as I'm enjoying this," she smiled a little shyly, and brushed his lips lightly with her fingers, shivering as he kissed them, "I guess we'd better take care of this other thing first. Then I'll expect a full explanation."
Clark nodded and sat up straighter. He sighed and said, "You're right. First Nightfall, then us." He smiled. "Us. I like the sound of that." He stood, still holding Lois, and then slowly eased her down to a standing position. He let her go reluctantly and headed for the bedroom. "I'll change and get over to the EPRAD facility." Before Lois could move, Clark had disappeared around the corner and with a blur of color re- appeared before her.
"Wow," she said, with a grin.
Clark smiled back with touch of embarrassment. "You like the suit?"
"You look…wonderful," she said. "What's not to like?"
Clark beamed. "Thanks. I should have known. Well, I'll be back just as soon as I can. Wait for me here?"
Lois shook her head, and replied firmly, "No way. Take me with you, or I'll find a way to follow you. I'm not likely to be recognized in all the confusion, and maybe I can hook up with Perry while you're off saving the world."
Clark sighed, but didn't seem surprised. "I should have known that, too. Okay, let's go."
Lois gasped as with a whoosh, she was scooped up against the oddly shaped 'S' design on Clark's chest and they were out the window and flying through the cool pre-dawn air.
From the air, the white concrete of the EPRAD Command Center was clearly visible in the dim gray light of early morning. Lights shone from every window, and there was more illumination from those set up by the TV camera crews. Lois could see the crowd of reporters milling about on the steps of the main entrance. It had been less than a half hour since they had watched the press conference with Professor Daitch, Secretary Cosgrove, and General Zeitlin and most of the TV journalists were still doing commentary. As Clark began to descend, one of them looked up.
"Hey, look, it's Superman! He's back — hey, Superman, did you hear what the professor said about the asteroid? Are you going back out to finish the job?"
Clark dropped lower, landing outside the circle of light on the top step and setting Lois down carefully. A barrage of questions were coming from all sides. He held up a hand for silence, and Lois smiled slightly when the crowd instantly became quiet.
"Yes, I heard everything, and I'm going in now to meet with the scientific and military teams. I want you all to know that I believe this time I'll be able to stop Nightfall completely, but," he smiled at the crowd, "it never hurts to wish me luck."
The reporters laughed, and began scattering again, talking into their individual microphones to their colleagues in the studios, while cameras followed Superman as he entered EPRAD. Lois had retreated further into the shadows while Clark was speaking, but rejoined him as he reached the door. She kept her face turned away, and used his body to block the view of the cameras. She could see that the reporters had recovered quickly from the excitement of Superman's return and were now turning their attention to his flying companion.
"Let's get inside before they get too close a look at me. I'm not concerned about any of these government types recognizing me, but I really don't want my picture on the news." Lois peered around Clark's shoulder and saw that the Channel 6 reporter was heading their way.
The large door leading into the reception area closed behind them with a thud, and Clark smiled down at Lois.
"Don't worry about the reporters. I'll take care of it," he said just as the elevator door opened and the three officials hurried across the lobby to greet him. The men barely glanced at Lois — their attention was wholly on Superman.
"Superman — thank God. We were afraid — well, never mind, you're here," Secretary Cosgrove exclaimed breathlessly.
"We've already begun the calculations for your next rendezvous with Nightfall," said Professor Daitch.
Clark allowed himself to be surrounded as they moved toward the elevator, and Lois trailed behind, mentally taking notes on the scene. What a story it would be, she thought gleefully, and she was on the inside!
Mayor Perry White leaned back in the padded leather chair behind his desk and closed his eyes. His staff bustled around the office serving coffee to an assortment of politicians and businessmen. He didn't know how much coffee had been drunk in the last three days, but personally he was sick of the stuff. When this was all over, he was planning to have a good stiff drink or three, and to hell with his public image. For a moment, he fantasized about how it would have been — to be at the Planet, covering the biggest story since the Flood — and nothing to worry about but getting one last edition out before whatever was going to happen, happened. Instead he was here, trying to coordinate Metropolis's response to an event beyond most people's comprehension. He had done his best to project an image of calm and confidence, but in reality, the city government was just as panicked as everyone else. The sky was falling, and there wasn't a damn thing the mayor of Metropolis could do about it, except make sure the emergency plans were in place to handle the aftermath. If there was anyone still around, that is. Since the initial sighting they'd been on an emotional roller coaster. Councilmen, bureaucrats, heads of private organizations, and business leaders had all converged on City Hall when Superman had flown into space. They had watched together as ground control at EPRAD had relayed his messages and cheered at the moment of impact, but the cheers had turned to grim silence when contact with Superman was lost. Professor's Daitch's announcement a short time before had seemed to be the signal to start panicking again, but then, once again, Superman had shown up to offer another chance at avoiding disaster. The atmosphere had relaxed considerably in the mayor's office while they drank coffee and waited for Superman to come out of EPRAD Command. Perry shook his head in wonder at how life had changed in just a few months. To think that Clark Kent was some kind of alien superman! A nicer guy you wouldn't want to meet, and a good, solid journalist, but who in the King's name would have thought such a thing!
There was a subtle change in the air around him, and Perry opened his eyes to see who had dared disturb the first restful moment he'd had in three days.
"I beg your pardon, Mayor. I know you're exhausted, but could I have a moment of your time?" The voice was smooth and exquisitely polite, but Perry felt a flash of irritation out of all proportion to the interruption. Lex Luthor was a young and successful businessman whose considerable holdings had mushroomed dramatically in recent months. He had expanded his collection of companies to include communications, computers, high tech "r & d" of all kinds, and seemingly overnight had become a commanding force in Metropolis. Perry knew he had made a play to take over the Daily Planet, too, but luckily Mr. Olsen was just as adept at stock market games as Luthor. The man was handsome, cultured, and generous with his time and money, but there was something about him that Perry just couldn't like. Maybe it was the eyes, he thought. Lex Luthor had very cold eyes.
"Yes, Mr. Luthor, what can I do for you?" Perry answered with equal politeness, as he sat up straighter in his chair.
"I was thinking, Mayor, since it appears our resident superhero is going to pull our fat out of the fire after all, that we should be looking to the future of Metropolis, indeed of the world." Lex smiled charmingly and sat on the edge of Perry's desk. The casual pose blocked Perry's view of the rest of the room, including the bank of television sets that had been set up on the opposite wall.
"Well, I like to think I'm always lookin' to the future of Metropolis," Perry drawled, pushing back his chair and standing so that he could look Luthor in the eye, "but what exactly did you have in mind?"
"I'm as grateful as the next person for all the wonderful things that Superman has done for us since he, um, came out of hiding, shall we say — and I'm sure he's as trustworthy and ethical as any being could be, but…" Lex trailed off and looked pensive.
"But…?" Perry prompted. He knew that there were still people in Metropolis who harbored doubts about Superman, doubts planted by that scum Tempus, but he'd thought they would gradually be won over by Superman's unquestionable integrity. For heaven's sake, the man still worked at his old job, and he refused to use his position to enrich himself in any way. What was Luthor implying?
"Power corrupts, Mayor, and there is no one on this earth more powerful than Superman. Shouldn't we be thinking ahead? What if he should change? He could become ill, go mad, anything is possible. He might have an agenda we know nothing about — well-intentioned, perhaps — but not of our choosing. How do we deal with a Superman who is no longer our friend, Mayor? Answer me that."
Perry stared at Luthor. It wasn't an unreasonable question; it wasn't even the first time he'd heard it asked, but he had the feeling that there was something different here, something other than concern for the good of society. He started to speak, but was distracted by the televisions. Superman had reappeared in front of EPRAD, and was making a statement. Perry brushed by Luthor and crossed the room to stand with the others to listen.
"I have the coordinates of the remaining fragment of the asteroid and will be leaving immediately." Superman was speaking to the cluster of reporters, standing with his arms folded across his chest, and his head tilted a little down. It was his usual stance when answering questions from the press. He lifted his gaze to look directly into the television cameras. "I believe I can handle this problem and be back very quickly. Thank you for your confidence and support." He smiled, and added, "See you soon." The red cape swirled and billowed as he turned quickly and lifted into the air.
From the shrubbery which surrounded the EPRAD entrance, Lois watched as within seconds he became a reddish dot against the pearl of the sky, and then disappeared from sight altogether. She had slipped out a side door while Clark was speaking to the crowd. He had said goodbye to her inside, touching her cheek as he had before. Without regard for the curious audience of scientists and soldiers, he had kissed her deeply, then taken her hands in his and just looked at her. Her face was lit by the pale sunbeams falling from the high windows.
"The sun's up," he'd said quietly. "It's going to be a beautiful day. Will you stay here until I get back?"
"I'm going to try to get in touch with Perry White. I hear he's the mayor now," she smiled. "If you can't find me, I'll be in touch."
"Oh, don't worry, Lois. I *will* find you."
The mayor's office was noisy with the laughter and chatter of people a little drunk with relief. The danger wasn't officially over yet, but it was just a matter of time. Superman would do it this time, and life in Metropolis, and the rest of the world, could get back to normal.
"Or whatever passes for normal around here," Perry amended jovially, when Deputy Mayor Gillis made the remark. His eyes still rested absently on the television screen. The Channel 6 reporter was moving back toward the entrance to EPRAD, and his cameraman was following him. Maybe they were going to set up for a follow-up report, Perry thought, while they waited for Superman to do his stuff. A figure stepped out of the bushes near the door, moving out of camera view toward the side of the building. It was a bit far away to see much, but something about the figure caught Perry's attention. That long swath of smooth dark hair swinging as jean-clad legs hurried away — if he didn't know better, he'd say that was Lois. The camera was obviously following her, and just as the woman turned to look back over her shoulder, it zoomed in for a closer view.
"Judas priest!" Perry exclaimed. "It *is* Lois!"
Everyone in the room turned to stare in amazement as their mayor put his nose to the TV screen and bellowed, "Honey, where the hell have you been, and what the Sam Hill are you doin' out there?!"
"Mayor White, what's the matter? Who are you talking about?" Lex Luthor placed a calming hand on Perry's arm, and glanced at the screen. There was nothing visible but the Channel 6 reporter, looking thwarted. Perry turned to Luthor, his stunned gaze not really seeing the man beside him.
"I can't believe it — after all this time! By all that's holy, that was Lois! I'd given up …" Perry motioned to one of his staffers and the young man hurried over.
"Jack, get out to EPRAD right now, and see if you can find out who that woman was that the Channel 6 reporter was chasin'. Ask everybody out there if they've seen…" He reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out his wallet. He removed a small photo and handed it to Jack, "..this woman. Her name is Lois Lane. I've got some better pictures, but I don't want to waste any time. Get movin', boy!"
Jack glanced down at the photograph, and then nodded briskly. "You got it, Chief." With a cheeky salute, he turned and left the room.
Perry's eyes were moist when he finally focussed on Luthor, still standing next to him.
"She's back — she's really back this time, I know it, Luthor, as sure as I know anything," he said.
Lex Luthor's face was expressionless and his voice even. "Lois Lane?" he asked.
"Lois Lane," Perry repeated. "The best damn investigative reporter I've ever known. She disappeared three years ago while doing a story on illegal weapons being routed through Africa to Metropolis. I don't suppose you ever met her — the businessmen she wrote about are all doin' ten to twenty now." His smile was one of fond reminiscence.
"No," Luthor said flatly. "We never met, but she sounds fascinating. Are you sure that it was she you saw just now?"
Perry shook his head. "I'm not sure, no — but if there's even a slight chance… I loved that girl like a daughter, Luthor. Not a day has gone by I haven't thought about her."
"Well," Lex smiled at Perry, "I hope you're right and she has returned to you. If it *is* your Miss Lane, you must introduce me. I can hardly wait to meet this paragon."
The words and smile were perfectly pleasant, but as the man took his leave, Perry thought to himself that he had been right. Lex Luthor had the coldest eyes he'd ever seen.
Lois hurried down the flight of steps that led from the side entrance of EPRAD, not pausing to look back again. She stopped on the sidewalk and lifted her arm to flag down the taxicab that was passing. Some days were just luckier than others and this was turning out to be one for the record books. As she threw herself into the back seat of the cab and said, "City Hall," she spared a glance back up the slope. No one was pursuing that she could see, but there was no point in trying to keep her presence a secret any longer. Flying around in Superman's arms was not a low profile activity, she told herself with a giggle, but she thought she could live with it.
City Hall was familiar territory to Lois and she headed straight for the fifth floor where the mayor's offices were located. Despite her casual clothes and disheveled appearance, no one questioned her as she marched down the hall and stopped at the open door to the reception area. People were everywhere, but Lois's eye was drawn to the door leading to the inner office. It was standing open, revealing even more people clustered around the television sets. A voice rose from the center of the largest group.
"I'm tellin' you that I saw Lois out there at EPRAD! I know we've been fooled before, but this was no trick, no double. I don't know what's goin' on, but I intend to have some answers or know the reason why! "
"Careful, Chief," Lois said pertly, "you know what all this ranting does to your blood pressure."
Everyone turned to stare at the figure leaning against the doorjamb, and Lois smiled brilliantly at the crowd. As she strolled further into the room, the women were torn between disparaging the inferior clothing and admiring the self- possession of the wearer. The men simply enjoyed the view. Perry White stood gaping for a second and Lois came to a halt in front of him, her smile now a little tentative. With a whoop, he threw out both arms and enfolded Lois into a crushing hug. She buried her face against his chest.
"Ah, honey, this is as good as knowin' Superman is knockin' that asteroid to kingdom come," Perry said with a final squeeze, adding cryptically, "and I can tell this time it's really you. That smile just now — that was the real Lois."
Lois pulled back to give Perry a questioning look, but he was turning her around to face the television sets. A graphic charted the course Superman was taking, and the voice of EPRAD Mission Control had begun the countdown to his arrival at the asteroid. The crowd grew silent as they listened to the calm tones.
"We are 20 seconds and counting to Superman's rendezvous with the Nightfall asteroid fragment. 15…14…13…Mission trackers reporting an anomaly — the asteroid's velocity is decreasing — it appears to be changing course. We are stopping the countdown clock at this time."
Cheers erupted from the crowd, and Perry's explosive laugh could be heard above them. "By jingo, he did it! He's saved us all!"
Clark landed on the balcony of his apartment unnoticed by any of his neighbors. It was eight o'clock in the morning, and the population was celebrating their deliverance from catastrophe. Clark knew he'd be mobbed by grateful citizens if they saw him and right now he had something more important to do. Lois had said she wanted to see Perry White, and wherever Lois was, that was where he wanted to be too. It seemed like an eternity since he had said goodbye to her, instead of an hour, and he missed her. Instants later, he had showered, shaved, and dressed again, this time in slacks and jacket. He dug out his spare pair of glasses and was out the front door, heading for City Hall. They had a lot to talk about and he couldn't wait to begin.
The celebration on the fifth floor was in full swing when Clark arrived, and he enjoyed a moment of anonymity as he stood in the door and watched secretaries and CEOs hug each other. Someone had produced a magnum of champagne and the paper cups were being filled and emptied at a rate guaranteed to produce some serious hangovers tomorrow, Clark thought, though he'd never experienced the phenomenon himself. He knew they were too happy there was going to be a tomorrow to care. He spotted Lois immediately — she was being danced around the room by Perry, and as he watched, Perry suddenly dipped her backwards until her hair almost touched the floor. She was breathless and laughing, and he felt a tightness in his chest at the sight. She was so luminously beautiful, so alive — just looking at her made him feel more alive too. He started toward her, his entrance finally drawing the attention of the crowd.
"Clark — Superman!" Perry hurried over, Lois right behind, and grabbing Clark's hand in both of his, shook it vigorously. "Son, what can I say? Metropolis, everyone, is more grateful than we can ever tell you. Shall we set up a press conference now? You know there are goin' to be all kinds of special events planned for you."
Clark smiled, but shook his head. "No, thanks, Perry — you know I do what I can *because* I can — there's no need for any special thanks. I'll be glad to do a press conference, but later, okay? Right now, I have some personal business to take care of."
His eyes met Lois's over Perry's shoulder, and Perry turned to follow his gaze, an expression of surprise dawning as he intercepted the look.
"Well, sure, whatever you want, Superman, you know we're at your disposal anytime you're ready," he said, then turned to Lois. "Honey, just how long have you been back in Metropolis?" His tone was teasing, and Lois knew what he was asking.
"I got in about midnight — eight hours or so," she replied.
"Uh huh," Perry grunted. "Musta been some eight hours."
"Oh, it was, Perry. It was." Lois stepped closer to Clark, and spoke directly to him, as though they were completely alone in the room. "I believe you said something about a "complicated, unbelievable story"? she said, with a lift of her eyebrow.
"Yes, I did, Miss Lane," Clark replied, and gestured to the door. "Shall we go?"
Lois turned back to Perry. "Thanks for inviting me to stay with you and Alice, Perry," she said. "If you're sure she won't mind coming home to a houseguest, I'll be there as soon as I collect my things -"
"But it might be a while," Clark interjected and took Lois's hand with a meaningful look at her. She gave him an impudent smile, but followed obediently as he began to pull her toward the door. She waved to Perry and the rest of the fascinated crowd.
"Later, Perry," she said, with a laugh. "As you can see, I'm working on an exclusive."
The apartment was quiet, the only sounds the tick of the wall clock and the rustle of paper as Lois read the newspaper clippings Clark had given her. Muted traffic noises occasionally penetrated, but the couple seated on the couch were aware only of each other. Clark's description of the events leading up to the bizarre confrontation in the TV studio had been as matter of fact as a newspaper, too, but Lois had felt all sorts of unspoken emotions behind the unadorned account. The feeling of things unsaid had become even stronger as he recounted his time in the other Metropolis impersonating their missing Superman. He had told her the "real" story about Tempus, Lois, and H. G. Wells' visit here, he said, not the considerably edited version known to the public. As for his little "side trip", the two of them were literally the only ones in *this* world to know it had happened at all. She studied the picture of the "Woman in White" once more.
"It does look like me," she admitted. "It's kind of scary to know that there's someone in the world, in *a* world, that's your exact double."
"Physically, yes," Clark agreed, "that Lois is your twin, just as I look like that other Clark, but we're not really the same."
"No?" Lois looked dubious. "Why not? I thought the idea was that these parallel worlds and the people in them *are* alike, with predictable behavior. *She* made you become Superman, or at least she made you realize it was what you wanted — and only she was the one who could do it. That was the whole point of Tempus's plan, wasn't it?"
The "other Lois" — the thought of it still made her uneasy — had been profoundly important to Clark. Reference to his engagement to Lana Lang had caused a mere ripple of discomfort, but this was different.
"Lana didn't love you enough or she would have seen how much you needed to use your powers to help, how unhappy you were when you couldn't. *I* could see that as soon as we met. Lana limited you, but *she* appeared out of nowhere and in less than a day you had a whole different life."
Then she'd left him to deal with it alone, she added to herself. And he *had* dealt with it, because he was strong and good, and it was the right thing for him. But he'd been unhappy at her going. She was trying to be fair-minded about all this, but the moment Clark had begun talking about this other Lois, the bubbly feeling of happy anticipation had flattened into a familiar disappointment.
Lois had tried to keep the resentment out of her voice, but Clark heard it. He thought he already understood her very well, so he ignored the tone and responded to the underlying fear.
"Well, yes, she was a friend to me in a way no one ever had been before, but trust me," Clark said wryly, "deciding to become Superman and actually being him day after day are two different things."
He got up and began pacing, searching for the right words to make her see how it really was. He had a feeling that what he said in the next few minutes could mean the difference between a life of loneliness or a chance to have real happiness at last. She was watching him pace, her eyes full of questions. Beautiful eyes. He wanted those eyes filled with joy when she looked at him, the joy he felt when he was with her. Happiness and Lois. They were the same thing.
He took a deep breath, and sat down again, taking Lois's hands in his. His thumbs brushed caressingly over them as he gathered his thoughts, and Lois held her breath. Such a little thing, but he made her feel so…cherished when he touched her.
"There's a lot that's alike about our two worlds, because some things *are* innate. But what happens in our lives matters just as much. And we're the sum total of it all — the inborn parts and the experiences. I knew it even when that other Lois was here, but I was so overwhelmed by everything that was going on, I didn't understand it completely. It was when I went there, to her world, that I really saw the truth."
Lois still looked doubtful. "What truth?" she asked carefully.
"It felt so different there — in huge ways and in small ones — can you imagine, Mr. Olsen is an office boy at the Planet? — but the biggest difference was no matter how good it was, it wasn't *my* life. That other Clark still has his parents — Jonathan and Martha — and I really envied him that. They were great people, just as my parents were, and they treated me like a son, but…we had none of that special knowledge about each other that comes from living together. I mean, when I was five, my dad took me fishing and taught me how to bait a hook, and I caught my first fish. It was a perfect day and I have a perfect memory of it. If my dad were here, he'd remember it too. No other two people could have the bond created by that shared memory. It was the same with Lois. She and her Clark had a marriage that was created out of not just physical love, but years of sharing each other's lives, supporting each other — and when I saw what it *could* be like, I wouldn't — couldn't settle for anything less. That's what I meant when I told you I'd been waiting for *you* — not as a substitute for someone I couldn't have, but because I think you really are "my Lois" …the one I was *born* to love, and I hope… the one who could love me."
Clark's voice thickened on his last words, and he swallowed. He was looking at her with a yearning that touched her as nothing ever had. He'd just told her he loved her, she realized with amazement. This very special man thought she was his soul mate, that they were meant to be together. And now he wanted to know how *she* felt. She wished she knew. She did know that the gift of love he offered deserved to be treated with care. She didn't want to hurt him, and she was afraid that she might.
"Clark," she began, and she saw the immediate disappointment in his eyes. He'd been hoping she'd throw herself into his arms, she supposed, and say, "Take me, I'm yours," but she just couldn't. Not yet.
"I believe you when you say you love *me* — after all, you don't lie, do you? — no, don't answer that, I'm just being flippant — it's one of my many bad habits."
He didn't speak, and she rushed on, suddenly desperate to erase that wounded look.
"There was something between us from the moment we met, and you didn't know who I was or who *you* were. You're a wonderful person, and gorgeous, and a fabulous kisser, and that flying, wow…" She laughed at her own babbling, and Clark smiled slightly, too, but the disappointment was still there.
"But?…" he prodded.
"But it's too much, too fast," she finished. "I don't know anything about love. The people I thought loved me before didn't really mean it. Or maybe I didn't love them in the right way. Not that I think you don't mean it, but, well, I'm just not as sure as you seem to be. And you deserve that — for me to be sure. Besides, I have to get my life straightened out, find out who wanted to kill me and why — "
"With my help," Clark said firmly. He was still stroking her hands, she realized. He hadn't pulled away.
"Of course, with your help," she agreed. "I need your help." She moved closer to him and the papers slid from her lap to the couch. "Let's just take things one at a time, all right? Maybe we could try dating?" She gave him a teasing smile, and, pulling one hand free, rubbed her index finger down the bridge of his nose, stopping at his mouth. His lips quirked at her distracting move, and he gently bit the tip of her finger.
"Dating," he repeated. He sighed, but his tone was good humored. "Okay. As long as I can be with you, I suppose I can wait." He grinned. "I'm a very patient man."
"Really?" she purred provocatively. Her relief at his understanding made her a little reckless. She slid into his arms and looked into his eyes, which heated with a different emotion as she moved against him. They were like melted chocolate, Lois thought. First an ice cream voice, now chocolate eyes. What next, she wondered, bananas? -and couldn't repress a giggle.
"What?" Clark asked, but didn't wait for an answer as his mouth came down on hers hungrily. He pulled her even closer to lie stretched atop his body as the kiss deepened. The newspaper clippings fluttered to the floor unnoticed.
Cameras flashed and the spectators gathered around the wide marble steps of City Hall roared with approval as Superman stepped up to the podium. Mayor White had introduced him with the same folksy warmth he had employed the first time he'd made a public appearance as Superman, but Clark still felt uncomfortable with the crowds that assembled each time he used his powers. Maybe after they'd gotten used to having him around, he wouldn't be so newsworthy, he thought. In a world always looking for the latest sensation, even a flying man could become boring from over-exposure. At least, he hoped so. It had been hard enough finding a private moment for himself before, but now that Lois was in his life, it was more necessary than ever to create some sort of sanctuary. He really wished that secret identity thing had worked out.
He looked down into the crowd, seeking and finding Lois. She stood near the front, just behind the row of TV cameras, and she was applauding as enthusiastically as everyone else. Their eyes met and for a moment everything else faded away and he saw only her face turned up to his, her eyes filled with admiration and warmth. He squared his shoulders even more and spoke into the microphones.
"We've all been through a frightening time together but today the sun is shining and the danger has past. It makes it all worthwhile to be able to help the people of Metropolis and elsewhere when they need me."
Superman stepped back and shook Perry's hand again while more flashbulbs popped, and the cheering rose to another crescendo. Gradually the sound died away and the people began to scatter, leaving the dignitaries to the inevitable "just a few more questions" from the press. Clark worked his way through the reporters massed on the steps, finally reaching the bottom where Lois waited.
"Sorry, guys, that's all I have to say," Clark said, and the hard news reporters recognized the tone of finality in his voice. They abandoned their fruitless quest for a usable sound bite, but the representatives from the tabloids had seen Superman's goal and stayed where they were.
"Hey, Kent, who's the new squeeze? Wasn't your old honey into capes?" The insolent voice belonged to Nunk of the National Whisper. Clark's face froze into a non-committal mask as he turned to face his "colleague", keeping Lois behind him. "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm sure you have much more interesting things to do than follow me around. There's nothing going on here but two friends talking, so if you don't mind? I work for a newspaper, too, you know, and it's a smart reporter who knows when a story is over. Isn't that right, Mr. Nunk?"
"Yeah, sure, *Superman*," Nunk sneered. "Just remember — you're not just a reporter anymore — you're news and so is everyone you *talk* to."
Clark took one step forward, his face still expressionless, but before he could speak, Lois broke in. She marched up to Nunk, and stabbed her finger into his chest.
"Back off, bottom feeder — who Superman talks to is nobody's business but his own. This man just saved the world, the least you could do is give him a little privacy."
Most of the group looked a little ashamed at this reminder. Nunk just signaled to his photographer to snap a few more shots, but when Clark took Lois's arm and turned them toward the park, no one followed.
Within a few minutes, they were well into the trees and out of sight of any curious citizens. They strolled along the shady path to the fountain, holding hands, accompanied only by the sounds of splashing water, rustling leaves, and birdsong.
Clark finally broke the comfortable silence. "How did it go last night with Perry and Alice? Are you all settled in?"
"Yeah — Alice is so great. She finally gets back to her husband after being stranded in Iowa for three days, and finds *me* parked in her best guest bedroom." Lois leaned her head against Clark's arm — the curve of his bicep felt wonderfully solid. "They've been more like parents to me since I started working at the paper than my own ever were. And Perry wants me to take a temporary job as his aide, just until I find my feet again. I need a regular income and my position at the Planet isn't exactly assured. Perry's going to talk to Mr. Olsen, but I may be better placed to do my investigating at City Hall than at the paper."
"I'm glad you have a safer place to stay than the Royale," he said, and she slapped his arm in mock reproval.
"How can you criticize that hotel?" she said. "If I hadn't been staying there, I wouldn't have seen you crash into Suicide Slum, and we might never have met. Think about that."
Clark stopped short, and turned her around to face him His hands gripped her shoulders and then pulled her close.
"I have thought about it, Lois. I don't know whether it was fate or luck or I have my own guardian angel, but the best thing that *ever* happened to me was falling into that alley. Because you were there."
She brushed the embroidered symbol on his chest with one hand and smiled up at him. He was so intense, she thought. Despite all his powers, his life had been too full of loss and fear and loneliness. Like hers. What he — they — needed was a little fun.
"You know, Clark, this is a really nice suit, and you look very striking in it, but I think I'll always like you best the way I first saw you." Her serious tone was belied by the mischief in her eyes. "In nothing at all."
Clark stared down at her, so surprised by her unexpected remark, he could think of nothing to say.
"Lo-is!" he groaned, but the shadows in his eyes were gone, replaced by the heat her words had kindled. Then the corners of his mouth twitched, and he burst into delighted laughter.
"Miss Lane, you will definitely pay for that later," he threatened, giving her a playful shake.
Lois rested her cheek against his chest.
"Help, Superman," she whispered, and their mingled laughter rose into the clear sky above them.