By Phil Atcliffe (Phillip.Atcliffe@uwe.ac.uk)
Rating: PG Submitted: 6 November 1997
Summary: Superman meets Batman — and Lois does a little match-making!
[This is a sequel of sorts to "A Flash of Green Light" (what's that, you ask? See below…), in which one obvious thread is taken up and explored. Or, I should say, that's how it started out; in the way of these things, it twisted in my hands and became my chance to "correct" a couple of what I consider to be _big_ mistakes that were made in the comics, both pre- and post-Crisis, and to pay a small tribute to Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin, who together created what I consider to be the _best_Batman stories ever, anywhere. It should be noted, though, that I'm mixing and matching elements from various Bat-continuities rather than sticking to just the comics, or the movies, or the TV version(s). Comics fans can, however, amuse themselves finding the references to various Superman and Batman stories.
It is entirely characteristic of the author that the sequel was finished before the original story (B-P). I'm working on the latter, but other ideas (like this one) keep turning up and yelling, "Write Me!" And I do. The tale of Lois and Clark and their visit from Jay Garrick and Alan Scott (and their respective wives, Joan and Molly) — to which the reader will find the odd reference in this story — will get finished eventually.
Oh, and by the way, I started writing this story well before the show came up with the episode "Bob and Carol and Lois and Clark" (yes, it has been a long time coming… <g>), and I was _not_ best pleased to find out that they'd used that title.
Ye Inevitable Disclaimer: Time-Warner and various subsidiaries like DC Comics own the main characters, most of the background and a whole lot of other stuff. December 3rd Productions, ABC and/or TNT (the American versions of the latter two, that is) may also have a legal claim to certain aspects. I'm not challenging anyone's copyrights, just borrowing it all for the fun of telling this tale, which is mine. I am not going to get anything other than that out of it.
Thanks go to Gay Devlin for her comments and suggestions. As always, constructive comments are welcome — PA]
Prologue: One dark (K)night…
Gotham City was, according to some, misnamed — but not very much; it should have called Goth*ic* City. The people who held that opinion had probably seen the city's… *forbidding* skyline against a background of thunderclouds from one of the storms that frequented that part of the east coast of the United States at certain times of the year. The combination of the city buildings and lightning-lit clouds could produce a dark, brooding panorama that was often compared to scenes from early black-and-white horror movies, but carried more conviction and had a more powerful effect especially on visitors to the city — because it was real.
On this particular night, the clouds from such a storm were lying heavily over the city, threatening to unleash another torrent of rain on the already-wet streets. The citizens of Gotham were used to this, and many didn't mind because the first downpour had at least relieved the tension that had built in the hot, humid atmosphere before the storm.
Other Gothamites actually found the storm-clouds useful; a case in point could be seen at the moment: as a giant searchlight mounted atop the police headquarters building projected an image into the sky as a message for the city's most mysterious son. The image, vividly reflected by the low cloud-base, was a circle of light, in the middle of which was the black shape of a stylised bat…
Superman could see the Bat-signal in rather greater detail than other people, not only because he had telescopic vision, but because he, too, was up amongst the clouds, flying over Gotham City. He looked around and saw where the beam was coming from, then flew down to land on the roof of the police building. He touched down a few yards from a thick-set, grey-haired man with heavy glasses and a bristling moustache, who was scanning the surrounding area of the city, obviously waiting for something — or some*one*.
Superman walked over to the man, who was hunched up inside an elderly raincoat and using the searchlight for some protection against the cold wind, and said quietly, "Commissioner Gordon, I presume?"
Gordon didn't immediately react visibly, although Superman heard his heart rate jump. Superman supposed that he must be used to shocks, especially mysterious appearances and disappearances, considering whom he— they *both* were here to see.
Eventually, Gordon turned around to regard his visitor, outwardly cool as a cucumber, and said, with just a trace of surprise in his voice, "Superman? What brings *you* to Gotham?"
"I was just passing. A… social call, you might say. But when I saw your signal, I thought I'd better see if you could use any help. Is there anything I can do?"
"Well, I was hardly expecting you to turn up, but I'd be a fool to turn you *down*. I have a situation here where you could be of great help. Do you mind if we wait for Batman, though — I'd just as soon not go through it all twice."
"Fine. Gotham is his — and your — city. I don't know much about it, or anything about this 'situation'. You're the experts, so it makes more sense for me to simply put myself at your disposal."
"That's good to hear." The voice — strong, quiet, confident — came from the deepest shadows. Superman whirled to face those shadows; Gordon didn't. Instead, he relaxed slightly, a certain tension seeming to leave his body, to be replaced by an eagerness, an anticipation… a metaphorical girding of loins, if you will.
The speaker stepped out of the shadows, although, without super-vision, a person on the roof might have thought that the shadows themselves had moved. The dark blue and grey-black of the Batman's costume was only relieved by the yellow-gold of his belt and the small oval surrounding the bat-symbol on his chest, and the swirl of the cape as he moved masked most of that. All in all, it looked to be an almost perfect outfit for moving unseen in the dark, and Superman imagined that the sight of the man appearing out of the night's blackness could well paralyse a crook with fright —which, he guessed, was the idea. It certainly would be hard to come up with a bigger contrast with his own bright primary colours.
Batman nodded to both men but made no move to shake hands, nor did he offer any words of greeting. For his part, Superman decided that matching the restrained silence of the other man might be wise; for one thing, he didn't really have anything specific to say. He'd come to Gotham to meet this man, but getting-to-know-you conversation didn't seem to be appropriate at the moment. Maybe after they'd sorted out Gordon's "situation", there'd be time for small talk and, say, a quiet chat about the difficulties of keeping a cape unwrinkled in the middle of a street fight.
Batman met his eyes coolly — Superman couldn't detect anything in the masked man's expression other than the merest hint of polite surprise and interest in his presence — then, all business, turned to Gordon to ask, "What's the problem, Jim?"
Gordon's answer was short and almost curt. "Magpie."
"Ah… The Faberge collection at the Fluggelheim, no doubt."
"You got it. She ambushed a party of VIP patrons getting an early preview of the exhibition, but one of the guards managed to trip the silent alarm. We've got the building surrounded, but she's holed up in the centre of the museum with a dozen wealthy hostages, demanding that we let her leave with her loot or… well, you can guess the rest. Our SWAT teams are ready to go in, but from the amount of firepower that's come out of the building in the few exchanges of shots so far, she must have more than enough men to hold them off long enough to carry out her threat. We can take the building all right, but it'll be a bloodbath."
"Yes… and we both know Margaret — she *will* carry out that threat unless she gets away with her toys."
Batman and Gordon began to look at a map of the museum and the surrounding area and consider plans for dealing with the situation. Listening to them talk together, Superman was struck by how their minds worked. There was a remarkable rapport between the two men; their minds seemed to run along the same channels, at least as far as crime-fighting went, and they had the knack of striking sparks off one another, generating ideas that were examined in minute detail, then quickly and decisively adopted or rejected, in whole or in part. He was reminded of… himself and Lois, of all people. Although the discussion between the gruff police commissioner and the taciturn man in the dark cape was quite different from conversations in the Planet newsroom — or at one of their apartments, or in Lois' jeep, or just about anywhere for that matter — between himself and his fiancee, the *process* was very similar. And, it seemed, equally effective.
Gordon beckoned him over. "Superman, we've got the beginnings of an idea on how to deal with Magpie's hoods, but it depends on your powers, and we've only got news reports to judge those by. Let me describe what we've got in mind, and then you can tell us if you think it'll work…"
Margaret Pye — "Magpie" — was a criminal mastermind in the long and… glorious? tradition of such figures in the history of Gotham City. Like her contemporaries — the Joker, the Penguin, Two-Face, amongst others — her brilliant, but twisted intellect was accompanied by more than a little mental instability and an assortment of idiosyncrasies taken to extremes.
In her case, these took the form of a murderous obsession with bright, shiny, "pretty things" — jewels, objets d'art and the like in a not-dissimilar manner to the bird from which she took her nom de guerre. So it had been a real wrench for her to have to sell some of her treasured "collection" in order to pay for extra men to help with this, her latest and greatest coup.
However, Margaret wasn't stupid by any means and knew that, with hired muscle, you got what you paid for. So, since she was expecting to have to go up against the Batman and the best that the cops had, she *had* to have men with brains as well as brawn, and they cost big. She simply hadn't been able to steal enough cash in time, so it meant sacrificing a few of her less prized pieces for their monetary value. It hurt — it hurt a *lot* — but not being able to get her hands on the Faberge collection would have hurt even more, and maybe she could steal the lost pretties back afterwards…
Her strategy was quite a good one. She was holed up in the centre of the museum with the hostages, her loot and six of the toughest and nastiest of her own men. The rest of her underlings, together with the hired muscle, were patrolling in pairs around the central part of the building. Everyone was armed, except the hostages.
The idea was simple: since the initial snatch-and-grab raid had failed, she was prepared for a siege. The hostages would prevent a frontal attack, and the cops wouldn't risk that anyway because she had too many men with too much firepower for it to work. For her part, she was quite secure where she was, and had no intention of trying to leave until the cops granted her safe passage — which she expected them to do eventually, especially if she sent a hostage or two out in little pieces.
Batman might — almost certainly *would* — try to sneak in, but she'd set things up so that even *he* couldn't make it undetected; she had too many men, and they were working in teams, always covering one another. They were expecting him, anyway, and with a little luck, *he'd* be their biggest and best hostage. The cops would *have* to let her out with her lovely new toys if she threatened to kill *Batman*…
Margaret would have gone insane (well, more so) with fury had she realised that all her sacrifice, all her planning had suddenly become much less effective than she intended, if not totally useless. Those expensive goons were now ranged against much tougher opposition than she was expecting, and it remained to be seen if she had, in fact, wasted her money…
Throughout the museum, the same scene was played out over and over again: a pair of patrolling thugs would step out of direct sight of their nearby comrades — they weren't supposed to, but the layout of the exhibits made it nearly impossible for them to stay visible *all* the time, and their first mistake was also their last; there would be a quick rush of wind, and their weapons would vanish; caught by surprise, they would hesitate, just for a moment; and in that short period of hesitation, a nearby shadow would come alive and one of the mystified pair would fall, hit by a fist or a foot that would flash out of the darkness like a black thunderbolt. What happened next depended on the temperament of the remaining goon: some would leap to the attack, only to receive the same type of blow as their partner on the floor; others would turn and start to run away, usually opening their mouths to yell a warning, in which case the would-be alarm-raiser almost instantly found himself running into something rock-hard while a powerful hand clamped over his mouth and another, equally powerful hand pressed on a certain spot on his neck. Either way, there would be another brief rush of wind and the two crooks would be deposited in one of several steadily-growing piles of bodies in the back of the police vans outside the museum.
Eventually, one of the gunsels became suspicious when he realised that he hadn't seen a fellow "guard" for some time. He called to his partner to cover him while he began to check nearby doorways into other rooms and corridors for his missing comrades — if they *were* missing…
His search didn't get far, because two sharp cracks and the tinkle of shattering glass sent him diving to the floor. From outside the building, the chatter of rapid gunfire heralded what had to be a major police assault on the museum. Yells and curses announced the other hoods rushing to take up defensive positions at windows and entrances, and the searcher and his mate raced to do likewise, scrambling towards their assigned locations. Only when they were settled in, guns at the ready to repel the invading cops, did they have time to look around and discover that their fears had been justified — there weren't anything like as many men ranged along the walls as there should have been! And where were the guys covering the side entrances? His eyes swept the darkened hall, almost desperately searching for his absent team-mates, but another furious barrage >from outside, followed by a cry of pain from one guy about ten feet away, had him ducking for cover…
Commissioner Gordon moved from officer to officer, keeping his head well below the level of the improvised barricades. As he reached each policeman — or woman — in their prone firing position, he would gently but firmly grab his or her shoulder and murmur a few words of caution and encouragement. He'd already congratulated the two snipers on their usual pin-point accuracy in breaking the two windows without damaging any of the museum exhibits, and then wounding one of the crooks, and warned them to be alert for any more of the gang in an exposed position; now, he just wanted to make sure that the rest of his people were well under cover and ready for anything. This was a dangerous situation, made even more so by the fact that their job was to act as a diversion, and Gordon didn't want his "men" — for, slightly old-fashioned as he was, that was the way he thought of them, even the women (none of whom, however, could ever have complained of any discrimination from their boss; to him, a cop was a cop) — getting hurt. That he, as the single figure moving about, was potentially in more danger than any of the others, was something that didn't even occur to him, nor would he have done anything different if it had.
This unconscious bravery was typical of Gordon, and his subordinates thought the world of him for it, even as they wished that he'd back off a bit. This whole business was nerve-racking at the very least — firing *blanks* at hoods who were shooting back with live ammo seemed crazy, but the boss and the Bat-guy had set this up, and that was a pretty darn good recommendation. Now, if the Commissioner would only keep his head down…
Inside the museum, something finally clicked in the mind of the crook who'd noticed the drop in the numbers of his colleagues. He swung his gun away from the cops outside to cover the shadows of the room — or some of them, anyway; to his mounting horror, he realised that there were so *many* shadows… so many places to hide for the one who must be responsible for this mess — and yelled, "Forget about the cops! It's a set-up! Look for Bat—"
That was as far as he got before disappearing in a rush of wind. Startled faces turned to look at the empty space where he had been, and the looks on those faces changed to near-panic when that quiet, strong, confident voice spoke from *somewhere*: "He was right, you know."
Before anyone could react, the room erupted with small explosions and the gunmen lost sight of everything, even each other, as the space around them filled with black, choking fumes.
All hell broke loose — at least from the point of view of the hoods. They couldn't see; they could barely breathe, and most of them were racked by coughing fits — those who hadn't already succumbed to the fumes and collapsed — and they couldn't use their weapons; there was nothing to shoot *at*, and they were too smart to fire blindly into the smoke, because they'd most likely hit each other. Each man was isolated >from everyone and everything else, and the only relief came in the form of a fist or a foot emerging from the murk to slam its target into unconsciousness.
It didn't last long. Less than thirty seconds after the smoke hid the inside of the building from sight, the watching police were startled to see it stream out of the windows in long, dark tendrils, then climb into the night sky to dissipate high above the city.
Silence reigned over the museum plaza, broken only by a rush of wind from the clouds. Commissioner Gordon signalled to the SWAT team, who moved carefully towards the building. In perfect formation, they crossed the plaza and entered the museum, covering each other as they went, but no shots came from the building. Finally, the team leader came out of the entrance and radioed Gordon. "Outer perimeter secure, sir. There's about a dozen perps in here, but they're all out cold and secured, and their weapons have been rendered useless. No sign of our friends, though."
"Right," replied Gordon. "Drag 'em out, Lieutenant, then proceed to your inside positions." He stood up and called out to the remaining police, in a quiet but carrying voice, "Stage One complete. Move in!" He then began to walk towards the entrance to the building. Behind him, policemen and women picked themselves up and followed, a few to take charge of the unconscious gunmen from the SWAT team, but most to join their boss in the dark maze of the museum.
Margaret had been looking at some of the latest additions to her collection — for that was how she already thought of the looted Faberge exhibits — when she heard the gunfire outside. She made an odd noise, half growl, half groan, at the interruption; why couldn't they let her enjoy herself for a little while before they gave up and let her go with her lovely "pretties"? You'd think that they'd have realised by now that she was going to *win* this one…
After the shots and cries had died down, she pulled out a walkie-talkie. If the cops were getting frisky, maybe it was time to prove that she meant business. First, though, she needed to find out what was going on. She tried to call one of the "squad leaders". No response. Then another; still no response. And another. The silence was deafening. The final one — no more success than she'd had with any of the others. "Hmmm…" she murmured to herself.
One or two of her long-time henchmen looked at each other when they heard her, and worried. When the Boss used *that* tone of voice, it usually meant that she was about to do something crazy—*nasty* crazy. It might be directed at them, or the hostages, or the cops; there was no way to tell. All you could say was that *someone* was gonna get it! The problem was, half the time, when the Boss got nasty, it worked, and she got her way; the other half… well, it could also make a bad situation a lot worse.
Magpie did something to her radio, then spoke into it again. Across the room, one of her other henchmen, who'd been diligently watching the hostages just the way she'd told him to, jumped when his walkie-talkie barked at him. "Boss?!" he yelped, looking over at her, his voice half an octave higher than normal, "Wh-whaddya want, Boss?"
Margaret waved dismissively at him. "Don't worry, Biff — I just wanted to see if this thing was working." Her eyes narrowed for a moment, and then she began to address her men. "Listen up, boys! I can't get through to any of the outside guys, so we're going to have to assume that they've been taken out, by the cops or Batman. So-oo-oo…" She paused for a moment to look around the room, scanning the huddled figures of the hostages with eager eyes that suddenly held more than a hint of madness. "So," she repeated, "we're just going to have to show them that we're not bluffing…" Something about the way that she said that made her captives shudder, and more than one of her "boys" felt a shiver go down his own spine, coupled with no small amount of relief that the Boss' craziness was (probably) going to be visited on the marks this time.
She strolled around the group of hostages, occasionally reaching down to grasp a face and turn it to the light while she thought about… something. No-one knew what she was thinking about; those hostages who watched her or were forced to look at her could see nothing in her face but the fringes of madness, and her men didn't even bother to try to work out what their boss had in mind; she didn't appreciate second-guessers — she'd tell them what to do when she was ready.
After two or three circuits of the hostages, Margaret seemed to suddenly reach a decision. She jumped around her captives and seized the Hon. Mrs Eugenia Welling, a middle-aged woman who represented one of Gotham City's better-off districts in Congress. Mrs Welling was dragged to her feet and forced to stand at something like attention. The woman stared at her captor with wide, nervous eyes, not unlike a rabbit confronted by a snake. The analogy became even more marked when Margaret's arm shot out quickly to brush across Mrs Welling's face, a sharp, whip-like motion very similar to that of a snake striking. The Congresswoman felt a brief stinging, as though something had scratched her cheek, and went to lift her hand to the wound — only to find that she couldn't. In fact, she couldn't move at all, not even to scream her horror and surprise at this sudden paralysis.
The horror was to get worse. Although she couldn't move, she could *be* moved, both in part and bodily. Her arms were forced up and made to hold a package of explosive tightly against her body, then she was picked up by Biff and carried over to the doorway. Two of the gunsels turned their weapons on the door, ready to cover Biff as he went to undo the bolts holding the heavy doors shut before leaving the room with Mrs Welling…
Biff didn't even get to touch the door bolts; instead, the doors smashed open, crashing into him and sending him sliding across the floor, out cold. The hoods covering the doorway, the only ones who were looking in that direction, had the briefest glimpse of a figure clad in red and blue, standing out brightly against the shadows in the background, but before they were even sure that they'd seen it, much less been able to open fire, it disappeared in a blur and they were fighting to stay upright against a blast of wind.
Something else came in with that wind; several small somethings, to be exact, and none of the crooks noticed them. But they soon found out that they were there, because the same choking, acrid smoke as had decimated the "outside guys" belched forth from the exploding capsules, filling the room and hiding everyone and everything from sight.
The three remaining gunmen, standing towards the back of the room, were the last to be affected by the smoke, and, in accordance with Margaret's orders (because it did *not* pay to mess up when the Boss had told you what to do) they raised their Uzis and prepared to "hose" the hostages. Before they could fire, however, one of them was unconscious and another dropped his weapon, yelping in pain as the stock became red-hot; the third managed to pull the trigger, but the first and only shot that he got off was deflected by the sudden interposition of a broad chest. The shooter recognised the red-and-yellow shield blocking his line of fire and got as far as whispering in a horrified tone, "Oh, sh—" before joining his two comrades in merciful oblivion, courtesy of a steel-hard fist.
Elsewhere in the room, their comrades were faring no better. The two covering the doorway had barely registered the presence of the red-and-blue intruder before they were nearly swept off their feet by the accompanying wind, and before they could recover from that, the billowing smoke swept over them, disorienting them instantly. Their discomfort didn't last long, however; the smoke proved to be a mere harbinger of a worse fate, as dark, winged shapes emerged >from the blackness, trailing filaments of blackness to wrap around them, immobilising them. A sharp yank on the thin cables that entangled them and their weapons pulled them off their feet, and they quickly found that their legs had been deftly tied as well. They couldn't move and they couldn't see more than a few inches, and the only target for the guns now strapped to their chests was each other, so, sensibly, they gave in and relaxed on the floor, quite helpless.
Margaret, by contrast to her underlings, was still free and active. She was also incandescent with fury. She didn't understand how he'd done it, but Batman had *somehow* managed to ruin her plan. She knew that her men were out of commission, and her only option was to escape. She'd grabbed a couple of the exhibits, so the evening wasn't a total loss, although her heart ached at the thought of what she was having to leave behind. However, to get away with even these few treasures, she'd have to distract the cops and Batman, and she had just the thing for that. Two could play at the gas game, and who knew — it might even hurt them the way that having to leave all the beautiful things here was hurting her.
She reached into her shoulder bag and pulled out a large, almost spherical object, attached to which was a small gas mask. She quickly pulled the mask over her head, but before she covered her mouth and nose, she couldn't resist having her say. "Oh, Batman…" she trilled — well, it would have been a trill but for the hate in her voice, which soured her tone to a harsh rasp — "Here's a pretty bauble for *you*… and those *charming* patrons of this museum."
She fitted the mask over her face and tossed the spheroid into the gloom of the smoke. It landed with a loud thud out of sight somewhere on the parquet floor and began to sputter. Then, with a hiss that sounded very like a roman candle, it released a plume of gas that shot to the ceiling of the hall and began to spread out into the room.
Of course, the smoke meant that only Superman could see the gas; perhaps Batman might have been able to detect it, too, if he happened to be wearing infra-red goggles, but he couldn't do anything about it. Superman, whose super-senses told him that the sickly green fumes were a fast-acting poison, could, though. He flew up to the ceiling, calling out, "Gas! Everyone keep your heads down!"
He was pleased to see that the hostages all obeyed. Batman, of course, was intent on catching Magpie, and was wearing his own breathing gear anyway. Superman left him to it; right now, he had to get rid of that gas. He took a deep breath, drawing the gas and the smoke, which had served its purpose, into his lungs. It only took a few moments, and then he flashed out of the room, and out of the building, to release the noxious fumes into the air high over Gotham Harbour, incinerating them with his heat vision as they streamed from his mouth.
He flew back down to the museum, returning to the exhibition hall to see Batman handing a handcuffed ('Bat-cuffed?' he wondered) Magpie over to the Gotham SWAT team, who were also picking up the unconscious forms of her henchmen and untying the former hostages.
"Yuk!" complained Superman, touching down next to the other caped figure. "Why can't anyone ever come up with a poison gas that tastes good? Or better than *that*, anyway?"
"I don't think taste is a big consideration in chemical weapons design."
"You're telling me…" Superman shook his head in disgust and looked around at the hall, which showed the inevitable signs of the evening's events: the walls had a sprinkling of pock-marks high up where the invading crooks had fired a few shots to impress on the people in the room that they meant business; several display cases had either been broken into by Margaret or had been smashed in the brief fracas, and the exhibits were all over the place; there was a thin deposit of smoke particles on almost everything; and the large double doors had been forced open, damaging the bolts and part of the doors themselves. "Hmmm…" he grimaced, "I hope the museum trustees don't complain too much about the damage to the building."
"I wouldn't worry about that," replied Batman. "Considering the alternative, they're more likely to be glad that their exhibits weren't stolen and none of the patrons were hurt. One or two might make a fuss on principle — there are would-be politicians everywhere — but I know at least one member of the Board who would be prepared to pay for repairs himself if the City and the insurance companies don't come up with the cash."
'Oh, really,' thought Superman to himself, grinning inwardly. 'Now, I wonder who *that* might be…'
Outside the museum, it wasn't long before the erstwhile hostages had been put into ambulances and the last of the thugs was bundled into the now-crowded GCPD vans, all of which drove off immediately. Once Margaret had also been loaded into a squad car, closely guarded by two female SWAT team members, Commissioner Gordon came over to thank the heroes before turning back to his men and the final clean-up of the crime scene.
"He seems like a good man," remarked Superman as Gordon bustled away.
"Jim's the best. A dedicated, caring, old-fashioned cop — the kind every force wishes it had, but few do. Although I hear good things about your Inspector Henderson and Captain Sawyer."
"Yeah, Bill's great. Gordon reminds me of him, actually — same kind of commitment to the city and his job, and especially to his people, I guess. Maggie — well, what can I say about the woman who invented the Special Crimes Unit concept? She's unique."
"So I understand. But then, she's had to be…"
By now the police cordon was being lifted, and sounds of bustle and running feet indicated that the media were about to arrive en masse. The caped figures exchanged glances, then, acting in perfect concert, lifted off or swung away from the approaching horde, eventually descending unseen into the shadows atop a nearby building.
Batman watched the disappointed reporters and cameramen mill around for a few minutes before sorting themselves out to film "talking head" pieces in front of the museum or pull out portable phones. Then he turned to his companion to ask, "So, what brought you to Gotham tonight? I heard you tell Jim it was a… social call?"
"Yes. I was looking for you, actually."
"Really? What made you suddenly decide to meet me… socially?" The Batman's voice was quietly and dryly amused, but also definitely curious.
"There's a long story behind that. Lots of them, actually." Superman grinned, remembering Alan Scott and Jay Garrick, and their huge fund of stories about their lengthy careers as super-heroes on a parallel Earth. "Let's just say for now that it was suggested to me that it might be a good idea for you and I to get acquainted. Things were quiet in Metropolis, so I took the opportunity to visit Gotham City and have a look around. I thought I might find you at work, so to speak, but I wasn't expecting anything quite of this magnitude."
"True. This was unusual, even for Gotham. However, I'm more interested in who would suggest that you and I should meet, and why."
"That's part of that long story. But it was someone who had reason to believe that we might work well together — and I think we made quite a good team, don't you?"
"Yes…" The voice was now thoughtful and reflective. "Yes, we did. It's a little surprising, given the differences in our methods and public profiles."
"Oh, I don't know; maybe that's *why* we worked so well as a team. I do know that it took both of us to handle Magpie and her army. I don't think I could have dealt with the problem by myself without a much greater chance of the hostages being hurt, and, with all due respect, neither could you."
"I… have to agree. Margaret isn't stupid, for all her obsessions, and she was expecting me. Things could have happened very differently. Thank you for the help."
"Glad I could *be* of help."
Superman looked out over the city. After a moment, he asked diffidently, "Would you mind if I told some reporter friends of mine about tonight? The story will be going out across the country any minute now, and it would add something to their take on it if I could give them a few quotes." There was no immediate answer, so he waited for a minute before continuing, "I can assure you that they're responsible journalists. You might have heard of them — Lois Lane and Clark Kent..?"
"Ah, yes. I know of Ms Lane and Mr Kent. They're said to be among your closest friends; I take it that those reports are correct, then."
"You could say that…"
"I could. I might also say that a man who can call his wife-to-be and partner his best friend is truly fortunate."
Superman froze at that, then slowly turned to look at the man in the dark costume. Batman met his gaze with eyes that were coolly steady but held a twinkle of warmth. The two heroes stood motionless and silent for several moments, before Superman finally spoke. "Well… I see your reputation as the World's Greatest Detective is well-earned," he said ruefully, tacitly acknowledging the unsaid truth of Batman's statement.
"Perhaps… It's not a title I lay claim to — it was hung on me by the Gotham media — nor do I particularly care for it; there's always someone out there, on either side of the law, who sees it as a challenge, and I'm not sure which is worse: would-be rivals, or crooks plotting the perfect crime!
"In any case, I knew that it would be impossible to keep *my* identity secret from you, should you ever decide to look for it seriously. I might wear a lead-lined mask, but I can hardly line the entire Bat-cave with the stuff, nor would it do me any good if I did — I imagine that a large cavern that you couldn't see into would be rather conspicuous?"
Superman nodded. "You're right. That's something that more than a few crooks out there never seem to understand; I can't see through lead, but I can *see* it just fine."
"Yes, well, most crooks are stupid, for which we should be thankful, I suppose. The few with any intelligence — like Margaret are quite enough to handle as it is. But, getting back to you and I, having realised my own vulnerability, I did a little pre-emptive investigation. It wasn't easy; you and your family did a good job keeping your secret, but the clues are there if one is prepared to go back far enough — to, say, 1966. A certain government department was a big help in that respect."
"Don't tell me…" interrupted Superman. "Bureau 39, right?"
"Of course. Jason Trask may have been a paranoid, but he was an excellent investigator and his files were remarkably comprehensive. *And* something of a challenge to access."
"I'll bet…" replied Superman dryly. "I can't even imagine what kinds of security that madman would put around his precious files —I'm surprised that he ever let them be put on a computer in the first place."
"So was I. You may be interested to know that they're not there *now*. In fact, Bureau 39 has completely vanished from all computer networks. I'm fairly sure that their disappearance has nothing to do with my activities; the entire bureau seems to have shut itself down and gone underground about 18 months after Trask was killed."
"Hmmm… thanks for telling me that. I'll have to keep my eyes open." Superman was lost in thought for a few moments. "Both x-ray and electronic. I have a friend at the Daily Planet who'd just love to know how you cracked Trask's security."
"That would be Jimmy Olsen, no doubt. I've heard that he's quite a hacker."
Superman's eyebrows rose. "You *are* well-informed…"
"It goes with the territory. I'd be interested in talking to him some day. I'd like to know more about Jaxon Xavier's virtual reality set-up — not to mention his experiences with the NIA."
"You'll have to come and visit Metropolis sometime, then. I can't promise you anything like this in the way of entertainment…" He gestured, indicating the museum and the rapidly-dwindling police presence in front of it. "…but I ought to be able to arrange for you to meet Bill and Maggie. Jimmy will go nuts when I tell him that *Batman* wants to swap hacking tips with him! And I can tell you all about who suggested we meet, and why."
"I'll look forward to it. Shall we say sometime next month? I have to be in Metropolis then, on… business." At Superman's nod, he went on, "I'll see you then, Clark."
"Me, too. Goodbye — for now… Bruce."
With that, Superman gently rose into the air, paused to sketch a friendly salute to the man on the rooftop below, and headed back towards Metropolis and Lois. Boy, did he have a story to tell her tonight!
Batman remained where he was for a few seconds, musing over the unexpected happenings of the evening, not least of which was the strange feeling of having met someone who was, at the very least, a colleague worthy of respect, and quite possibly much more. Then he moved suddenly and melted into the night-time shadows of the city he loved, and was gone.
A few years later…
"Lois! Good news!" Clark called out as he walked across the newsroom of the Daily Planet offices.
His wife looked up, smiled as always when she saw him, and replied, "Yeah? Tell me." She looked at her computer terminal and pulled a face. "I could just do with some *good* news about now."
"I just heard from Alfred — Bruce will be in Metropolis next week for a couple of days."
"Great! We haven't seen him since… that thing with the Gotham Werewolf a couple of months ago." Lois sat back in her chair and looked up at her husband, now perched on the edge of her desk. "So, what brings the billionaire playboy to town?"
"Some sort of international investment conference. Actually, from Alfred's tone of voice, I think it's a case of either this or 'Master Bruce' gets hit over the head and kept under sedation for a month or so."
"Oh, dear. Has he been burning the candle at both ends *and* in the middle *again*?" Her voice suddenly became very, very soft, the merest whisper — which made no difference whatsoever to Clark's ability to hear her. "And I thought Superman had it bad… Poor Bruce. I know he *has* to do the Bat-thing, but I sometimes wonder just how long he's going to be able to keep going."
Clark's voice also dropped, to a low, growly whisper which Lois could hear but no-one else would be able to follow. "Me, too, Lois. Which is why Alfred wants us to make sure he relaxes a bit while he's in Metropolis. No playboy stuff, no heroics, just a little time to himself to unwind."
"Ooohhh," Lois groaned quietly, "He makes that sound *so* simple. I wish."
"Yeah," said her husband dryly. "Sometimes, getting Bruce to relax really *is* a job for Superman." His voice became a little stronger. "But I promised to try. Hmmm… Maybe we can drag him away from that conference for a picnic or something."
"That's a good idea. Bruce is so… urban, that some time in the country…" Lois mouthed "Smallville" before going on, "…could be just the thing." She became thoughtful. "I wonder if Lindsey knows anything about this conference."
Lois got up and went over to another desk nearby. She talked for a moment to the young, blonde-haired woman who was sitting there, then came back to Clark with a pamphlet in her hand. "Here we go," she said. "I thought Lindsey would know about anything important in the financial world. She really is a whiz at her stuff."
Clark looked across the newsroom at the woman, and he appeared to be giving her the once-over. "Hmmm… I wonder if she likes picnics…"
Lois' eyebrows shot up. "Why?"
"Well… it occurred to me that we'd have a better chance of getting Bruce away from the city if we could promise him some congenial company. That playboy image of his isn't *all* an act, you know."
"True… but would he find a reporter — a financial reporter at that — the right sort of company? I mean, Lindsey's young, nice-looking and all, but she's still at the *intense* stage, and hasn't quite learned to let go yet. I don't know whether she could cope with a purely social encounter with Bruce Wayne, billionaire financier and playboy…"
Lois' voice trailed off as she looked at Clark's face. She had been expecting a little gentle teasing about her own bulldog tendencies, but instead he looked… stricken? "Clark? What's wrong?"
"Oh, boy…" he muttered. Lois recognised the tone, and began to *really* worry. Clark never had that downward-inflected note in his voice unless there was a genuine problem — like, say, finding that she suddenly had his super-powers, courtesy of the Newtrich sisters and their red kryptonite laser.
"Clark! What's the matter?"
Clark started and returned to Earth from wherever he'd been inside his head. He looked over at Lois with an almost mournful expression. "We have a problem, Lois. I was just wondering whether I should advise Alfred to dope Bruce after all…"
This confirmed Lois' deductions regarding the existence of a problem but was no help in informing her as to its nature. "Clark," she said, her voice becoming sharper, "Just what *is* this problem? Make with the details, huh?"
"Oh… sorry. I was just reading this brochure about the conference, and then I saw who was running it…"
Lois looked at the pamphlet. It was the usual glossy fare, extolling the importance of the forthcoming conference and the comfort and luxury of its setting. Finally, she saw what Clark must have been referring to; right down at the bottom of the back page, in small type, were the words: "Conference facilities and organisation provided by St Cloud Conferences, Inc." She raised her eyes to meet Clark's. "So? Who are 'St Cloud Conferences, Inc.', and what do they have to do with Bruce?"
Clark looked unhappy. He quickly scanned the newsroom and noticed, as usual, that several of their colleagues were surreptitiously watching his wife and himself, and, no doubt, trying to listen in to their conversation. He sighed. Lane-and-Kent-watching had been a favourite pastime of many of the newsroom staff ever since he'd been partnered with Lois; this preoccupation of the Planet grapevine had waned slightly when they got married, but there were still plenty of their colleagues who took a keen interest, both personal and professional, in their doings. Which made it hard, at times, to discuss important things at work that weren't suitable for public consumption.
He made a quick x-ray vision check on Perry White, and was pleased to see that their editor was busy holding forth on something to Jimmy Olsen, no doubt embellishing it with anecdotes >from the life of the King of Rock and Roll. Since this was liable to keep both men busy for some time, Clark felt safe in whispering to Lois, "Let's get out of here, and I'll tell you all about it."
Lois needed no further urging; she grabbed her coat and they headed for the elevator together. They ended up at the Fudge Castle, a choice of Clark's that made Lois even more concerned because it seemed to indicate that he thought that she might need emotional reinforcement, and that *he*, her preferred source of this, even ahead of chocolate, wouldn't be able to supply it.
As they sat together, sharing a Chocaholic's Overdose, Clark, who had lapsed back into a reverie, suddenly seemed to realise that Lois was more than a little troubled. He hastened to reassure her that there was nothing for her to worry about — about the two of them, anyway. "I'm just concerned about Bruce, that's all. You see, St Cloud Conferences, Inc., is Silver St Cloud, and Silver St Cloud is an… old friend of Bruce's."
"Is *that* all? Clark, half of the women in Gotham City are 'old friends' of Bruce Wayne! Especially the attractive, unmarried ones!"
Lois was so relieved that her half-formed fears were groundless that she was perhaps a little slow to realise that Clark wouldn't have been worried if this woman had just been a passing fancy.
"I know, Lois… but Silver was different. You may laugh, but do you remember about… oh, three years ago, when we didn't hear from Bruce for about six months?"
"Yes…" she replied hesitantly. "Didn't he go undercover or something?"
"That was the excuse he gave us, but he wasn't very convincing. Bruce seemed even bleaker in himself than usual, so I asked Alfred about it. He said that Bruce had become very close — *really* close — to Silver, so much so that she had guessed his double identity. And she couldn't cope with the knowledge.
"Bruce had to deal with the Joker — that surreal Joker-Fish business, from memory — and Silver saw them fighting on a construction site. It was the usual vicious game of catch-me-if-you-can that that madman specialises in, and, even though Bruce won — that is, he survived, and the Joker was hit by lightning and fell into the Gotham River — it was too much for Silver. She loved him, but she couldn't deal with the thought of spending her life waiting for him to come back, night after night, never knowing if some maniac, or even just some lucky punk, would kill him and leave her waiting…
"That really hurt Bruce. Alfred said that there'd been something about his voice when he talked to Silver on the phone that had never ever been there before. Alfred's exact words were, 'I remember wondering if Miss St Cloud was *the* one… And perhaps she was.'"
"Oh." Lois was quiet for a few minutes, thinking hard. She could now understand why Clark was concerned for his friend, and she had to admit that she had become a little anxious herself. She liked Bruce and didn't want to see him unhappy — well, more so than he usually was; Bruce, for all the superficial gaiety that was part and parcel of his playboy role, always felt to her as though he had an air about him of great sadness, which could change in an instant to tremendous anger. Lois had once introduced him to her former neighbour, Starr, and the normally voluble psychic woman had shut up immediately and looked like someone had hit her over the head with a sledgehammer. She'd only stayed a few minutes before making an excuse and leaving; when Lois had seen her later, she'd apologised but said flatly that she couldn't stay in the same room with "that man" — it seems that the negative vibes that he gave off were just too much for her.
More than that, however, Lois Lane the reporter was astonished by the idea that Bruce Wayne, acknowledged expert on both women and the care and maintenance of a secret identity, had managed to let down his guard sufficiently for someone to penetrate his double life. 'There must be a hell of a story there,' she thought. 'I can't print it, but I'd sure like to know how she did it…'
She asked Clark, who had also been silently thinking, "What happened, Clark? Bruce is so good at the secret identity bit — how did this Silver woman find out?"
Clark looked at his wife and smiled reminiscently. "Well, in some ways it was rather like you and me, Lois. Bruce let Silver get close to him, and she was smart enough and cared enough to realise that her boyfriend was the Batman when she encountered him in costume. Alfred thinks she recognised his jaw; apparently she would spend a lot of time looking at it when they were together. There must be something about jaws…" He reached over to caress her face in that special way, and she leaned into it happily.
"As to *why* he let her get that close — well, Alfred says that it was part mutual attraction and part circumstance. Bruce first met her at a party on his yacht. The whole party was a cover for Batman to work on a case, but Bruce met Silver before he had to disappear for a while, and the two of them just clicked. About that time, the Gotham City Council went on one of its periodic anti-Batman crusades — Rupert Thorne was behind this one — and Bruce was under that bit more stress because of it. Then Silver got mixed up in something to do with Hugo Strange — as it happened, she saved Bruce's life by getting Dick involved — and one thing led to another. Before either of them had time to think, they were deeply in love. Bruce was trying to work out what to do about it, but then a running battle with Deadshot ended up in a convention that Silver was organising, and she recognised him.
"She didn't say anything, though, so Bruce wasn't quite sure if she knew or not. They hemmed and hawed around the question for a couple of days; he couldn't ask her if she knew, and she wasn't prepared to admit that she did know until she'd thought it all over. Then the Joker struck and Bruce was on 24-hour call. He didn't see Silver for a day or so, and then she turned up at the construction site and told him that she didn't want to see him again. She loved him, but she couldn't live with the danger in his life. And that was it — until now, maybe."
"Ah… So, what do we do?"
"I don't know that *we* do *anything*. It's none of our business. I'll tell Alfred, and he can decide if he thinks Bruce should be warned — if he doesn't know already. Other than that, all we *can* do is look forward to a visit from a friend. If Bruce wants to talk about anything, he knows we'll provide a sympathetic ear — four of them, if need be."
"I guess you're right…" Lois sounded sincere, even to Clark, and she was — but, in the back of her mind, she made a private resolution to keep her eyes open for this Silver St Cloud person; she wanted to see, maybe meet this woman, and just *maybe* there might be something that she could do to help Bruce… In the meantime, there were other things to think about. She scooped up the last of the sundae and grinned mischievously at her husband. "Okay, so how do we keep Perry happy this morning? I *don't* think he'll take coming here to talk about Bruce's love life as a legitimate use of our time…"
"You have a point," Clark replied, smiling back. "Let's see… I could…" He made their flying hand signal. "…around and see what's happening around the city. A Superman story is always good for a paragraph or two."
"And what do *I* do while you're…" Hand signal.
"Well, you could come along. It's a nice day for a flight…"
Lois' grin became an enthusiastic, slightly dreamy smile. A flight with Clark in the morning sun, the prospect of another story about him helping people, and something intriguing to think about for a week or so before doing a little personal investigation… what more could a girl — *this* girl, anyway — want on a working day? Life was *good*! She got up, as did Clark, and they strolled out into the street, hand in hand.
The following week…
Lois looked around the room at the milling throng. The Grand Ballroom of the Metropolis Hilton was near to overflowing with bankers, brokers and wealthy investors, various spouses, partners and escorts, plus the PAs, junior executives and assorted hangers-on attached to any or all of them. The crowd around the bar was particularly thick, and Lois was sure by the way that they were pouring booze down their necks that some of the conference attendees had no intention whatsoever of actually *attending* any of the sessions; to them, this was merely an opportunity to get stinking drunk on an expense account.
She turned to her companion. "Is it going to be like this for the entire conference?"
"No," replied Lindsey. "This is just the normal welcoming bash. Although…" Her voice trailed off and she surveyed the scene from their mezzanine vantage point with the air of a connoisseur. "…I guess it is a bit wilder than I would have expected. Looks like there are more of the out-of-town cirrhosis junket brigade than usual…"
"The *what*?" laughed Lois.
"The cirrhosis junket brigade — you know, the kind of people who come to these things because they can have a holiday on an expense account and claim it all off their tax returns. We don't get many of them in Metropolis; they tend to go for the beach spots, and Hobbs Bay can't compete with Miami or Hawaii." Again, she paused, and for a moment looked a little unsure of herself. Then her expression blanked out and she assumed a reporter's poker face that could have stood comparison with Lois' own, and she went on, "To be honest, Lois, I would have classed your Mr Wayne as one of that lot…"
Lois had managed to convince Lindsey to let her tag along to the conference welcoming event by saying that she might be able to introduce the younger woman to Bruce Wayne, and *maybe* even get him to give her an interview. Lindsey had her doubts, but the opportunity was too good to pass up; she just wondered what Lois was going to want *her* to do in return.
What she didn't know was that she was, in effect, already doing it. Lois was scanning the crowd, searching for a familiar face — Bruce — and for someone whom she only knew by reputation, namely Silver St Cloud. She had quickly spotted the distinctive ID badges that the St Cloud Conferences, Inc. employees wore, and now she was looking for a woman with one of those badges who looked like she might be the boss. Lois just hoped the woman was here; it had taken a lot of careful planning and more than a little subtle manipulation to get herself here tonight, including landing Clark with a ton of work that would keep him at the Planet until nearly midnight — something for which she knew she'd have to apologise; fortunately, she had a few ideas as to *how* to apologise that should soothe his ire (and would be a lot of fun, too) — so it would be a real pain to have gone to all that effort for nothing.
"Well, that just goes to show that that old saw about not judging books by their covers was right," Lois replied in her best I-am-top-banana-listen-and-learn manner. "And he's not *my* Mr Wayne — I just happen to have met him once or twice. But one thing I could tell from meeting him: when he plays, he plays hard, but when he works, he works equally hard. Besides, *he* hardly needs to worry about an expense account; if he wanted to be on the beach in Florida, he'd *be* there! So, if he's come to Metropolis for this conference, then I think it's a good bet that he wants to be here, don't you?"
"Okay…" agreed Lindsey, feeling somewhat squelched and rather surprised by Lois' spirited defence of Wayne. "How *did* you meet him, anyway?"
"Oh, through a… connection," said Lois, not really paying attention because she thought she might have found who she was looking for. There was a tall blonde woman circulating around the edge of the room, and Lois was almost certain that she was wearing a StCCI badge. That *had* to be her!
Meanwhile, Lindsey was mulling over Lois' words. 'A "connection", huh? That sounds like Lane-speak for Superman. Which figures — who *else* could introduce Lois to so many people?
'I wonder what Clark thinks of his wife's relationship with Superman. Might he be jealous? Nah… I've seen those two together; Lois is totally *gone* over Clark. Besides, Clark is supposed to be Superman's best friend. Some people have *all* the luck…'
She sighed to herself. 'That's the city beat for ya. I wonder if there's a Super-Accountant out there who'd be interested in a *financial* reporter…'
However, in lieu of a handsome hero in dark tights with a grey cape swooping down to carry her off, she decided that she'd better do some work. She'd already seen a number of attendees that it would be worth her while to collar and get some quotes from, so she turned to Lois, saying, "I gotta get to work, Lois. If you find Mr Wayne, *and* he's willing to talk, I'll be over by the buffet. Looks like some other real money-men are eating here tonight…"
With that, she strolled away, concentrating on whom she was going to try to ask about what, and where she could go with what they might answer. Because she was concentrating so hard, she didn't notice that Lois was equally preoccupied, taking off briskly in the opposite direction as soon as Lindsey had moved away.
Lois strode down the staircase to the ballroom floor at a rate that had various business-suited types coming *up* the stairs dodging hastily as she charged past. Had she been observing one or two of them, she might have been amused — or angry, depending on her mood — to see how their initial reaction to seeing her, which was composed of equal parts of "Wow, look at that!" and "I wonder what's she's doing after this is over", changed incredibly rapidly to something approaching panic as they threw themselves out of her way lest she walk right though them. As it was, however, she was more interested in not losing her quarry and didn't even notice, thereby quite possibly avoiding turning the function into an all-in brawl.
She paused just before reaching the end of the staircase and cast one final searching glance around the room, mentally locking onto the blonde woman currently moving towards the bar before plunging into the herd and losing sight of anyone more than a few feet away.
She made her way towards where she hoped to corner her target, employing her usual method of getting through crowds in a hurry. This had been likened (by her husband) to someone hacking their way through a jungle, but using stiletto heels instead of a machete; Lois herself described it as "lean, push and wriggle, and stamp on their feet if they won't get out of the way." It wasn't a particularly *nice* technique, but even Clark had to admit that it was undeniably *effective*… In any case, it got her to the bar quickly enough.
Or, at least, to the vicinity of the bar. The bar itself was surrounded by the cirrhosis brigade, packed three to five deep, and even Lois' crowd technique couldn't get her through *that* lot. Not that she was interested, anyway; she was working — well, sort of as was the person she'd come here to see, which meant that alcohol was, if not off-limits, something to be consumed only if there was no way to avoid it. And the people round the bar were hardly attractive drinking companions — not that *anyone* here was, compared to sharing a glass of wine, or even a beer, with Clark.
Lois dragged herself back to the present, away from beguiling memories of precious, private times with her husband, and other fun occasions together, with and without friends, and looked around. She moved to one side of the bar and checked along its length, then strolled to its other end, checking the entrance alcoves. There was no sign of the woman she was looking for, and she was sure that she would be able to spot the tall blonde even over the heads of the massed topers.
'Blast,' she thought. 'Now where the heck did she go?' Lois stepped back, prior to casting around the ballroom for another sight of the vanished woman, and bumped into someone. She turned quickly, apologising as she did so, polite but determined to keep any interaction with this person as short as possible, especially if it were male.
It wasn't. It was a tall, slim woman with pale, almost platinum-blonde hair piled elegantly on top of her head. Indeed, "elegant" was a good word to describe the overall impression that this woman made, from her graceful carriage and minimal but skilful make-up and hairdo, to the simple but expensive ball-gown that would have had Lois drooling in envy had her attention not been riveted on the ID badge now visible up close. It was, as Lois had suspected, a conference staff badge, and the elegant (there was that word again) printing on it read: "Silver St Cloud — CEO, St Cloud Conferences, Inc."
"Ahhh…" breathed Lois in an anticipatory, triumphant manner, leaning forward. It took considerable self-control for her not to lunge at the woman and grab her in something like a hammerlock before she could get away. Ms St Cloud stepped back a little, somewhat taken aback by the intensity that showed in Lois' eyes.
Lois realised that this was not the time and place to pounce on someone, particularly someone whom she wished to ever-so-subtly turn inside out, so she made an effort to assume a calmer demeanour. "Hi," she said, holding out a hand. "Lois Lane, Daily Planet. Sorry if I startled you — I've been looking for you, and just when I finally managed to track you down, I thought I'd lost you in this crowd." She waved a hand, indicating the crush around the bar, and, indeed, everywhere in the room.
"Oh…" said a bemused Silver St Cloud, fine eyebrows up, clasping the proffered hand with a pleasantly firm grip. "May I ask why you were looking for me so desperately?"
"Well, not *desperately*…" Lois laughed, hoping that she hadn't made a bad impression on the woman. "It's just that you're obviously pretty busy running this thing, and I thought that tonight would probably be the best time to catch you while you're in Metropolis, so when I saw you a few minutes ago, I…" Lois paused for a second, trying to find a diplomatic way to say this, then decided to say it anyway. "…guess I pounced." She cast a rueful, what-can-you-do look at Ms St Cloud, who, to Lois' well-hidden relief, smiled.
"I see…" she replied, sounding for all the world as though she did — although *what* she saw, Lois couldn't say, that "explanation" sounding all too close to a typical Lane Babble for comfort. "Well, in that case, what did you want to pounce on me for?" she went on smoothly, as though being pounced on was all in a day's work.
'Time for the cover story,' Lois thought. "Ah, well, I'm planning an article— a *series* of articles, actually," she hastily improvised, "on successful businesswomen, and you certainly qualify. Also, I gather that this is your company's first event in Metropolis, and I can think of a number of angles relating to that that'd be interesting to explore. How does working here compare with Gotham City, is this conference a harbinger of a move by you into a new position on a national scale — that sort of thing…"
Ms St Cloud pondered that for a few moments, but, before she could say anything, another conference staff member appeared and whispered in her ear. She nodded, and the man left as quietly as he had come. She turned back to Lois. "You must excuse me for a moment, Ms Lane; duty calls."
Lois nodded "understandingly", cursing inwardly all the while, and watched with frustration as the woman began to follow her employee. However, before she'd got more than a few steps away, she stopped, threw a mischievous glance over one shoulder and said, "Oh, but don't worry — I *will* be back, so you needn't start hunting for me. Perhaps if we arranged to meet in, say, 20 minutes, over by table number 49?"
Lois hastily agreed to this and bid her good-bye — for now. Once the crowd had closed behind the tall, blonde figure, Lois also moved away; she wanted to locate the table in question, and was doing some hard thinking herself as she went.
Lois had to admit that she was impressed by Silver St Cloud. The woman just oozed class, looked fantastic, and the background check that Lois, with Lindsey's help, had managed to run on both her and her company showed her to be as competent as she was spectacular —in a quiet, understated sort of way. She didn't push herself forward, nor did her company, but somehow, when people at the top of their particular trees thought about organising a professional event in or around Gotham City, the name of St Cloud Conferences, Inc. was one of those which was regularly brought out for consideration. And, more often than not these days, the company got the job. >From being almost unknown five years ago, StCCI was now one of the leaders of its field, at least locally, and was doing very nicely, thank you, as far as profitability went.
Ms St Cloud herself also seemed to have this ability to pass unremarked — as she had tonight, moving around the ballroom quietly checking that all was well, unhindered even by the junket brigade, despite her looks — until she decided that she wanted to be noticed, at which point she was most definitely *there*, and no-one, or at least no-one whom she wanted to have an effect on, could possibly ignore her.
This reminded Lois of someone, and it took her a minute to work out who — it was *Clark*, of course! He had exactly the same knack of lurking in the background and then coming forward when he wanted to — except, of course, that he rarely wanted to push himself into the limelight unless he was in the suit, and he wasn't particularly fond of it even then. In fact, he could do with a few lessons from Ms St Cloud on self-promotion, although he was a lot better at it than he had been when they'd first met.
Lois forced herself to ignore past history — not difficult, because she still cringed at how close she must have come to driving Clark away, so many times, in the early days; thank God he was persistent — and turned her mind back to Silver St Cloud. Yep, she was a pretty impressive person and, at least superficially, Lois couldn't have thought of a better potential partner for Bruce Wayne if she'd sat down to design one herself.
As she mused over that, Lois finally located table 49. It was obviously a spare table, meant for use only if the number of guests overflowed the main dining area, but it was also a perfect place for a reasonably private conversation — all the "action" was taking place towards the stage end of the ballroom, where the bar and buffet were. All one could see of the rest of the room was a sea of backs, but no-one was looking over here, either.
Lois flopped into a chair with a sigh of relief; crowds didn't normally bother her, but this one was absolutely choc-a-bloc. The only person she liked being forced to get *that* close to was Clark! She looked at her watch; if she lived up to her promises, Silver ought to appear in the next couple of minutes.
Lois suddenly sat up, startled. 'How come I'm thinking of her by her first name?' she thought. 'Boy, this woman is dangerous — she's even got *me* charmed…
'Of course, that must mean that she *wants* to charm me — I imagine that she could choke off an unwanted conversation just as easily. Hmmm… I wonder what she wants.'
Lost in thought, Lois didn't notice the approach of another figure, a tall, dark-haired man in faultless evening dress and with a slightly bored expression — at least, until he saw her. Then, a smile broke out on his handsome, rugged face, completely changing his whole demeanour. He quickly, but quietly, walked over towards Lois. His shadow fell across her face and she raised her head. "Hello, Lois," said Bruce Wayne.
Lois' brain locked up. This didn't happen often, but, on occasion, she'd find herself caught in a situation where she couldn't explain what she was doing, didn't have a cover story and, for some reason, couldn't bluff her way out with sheer chutzpah and fast talking. In such cases, she found that her mind tended to go blank while it desperately sought a solution or, at the very least, prayed for one to miraculously materialise. It was exceedingly rare these days, now that she'd met Clark — who was somewhat miraculous himself, and was about as good as one could possibly hope for in the way of someone to help her get out of the more dangerous examples of this kind of situation — but it was happening *right now*. She was torn between delight at seeing Bruce and horror at the thought of Silver St Cloud suddenly appearing while he was here, and there was *no way* that she could explain that she was there to indulge her curiosity about the woman who'd apparently captured his heart three years ago and then dumped him because she couldn't cope with his alter ego…
She managed to blurt out "Bruce!" in a startled, half-strangled squawk that was *very* un-Lois Lane-like. He looked at her with a concerned frown that said all too plainly that he didn't need to be the World's Greatest Detective to tell that something was wrong. She groaned inwardly before attempting to rescue the situation with a babble that she tried desperately to make sound normal: "How lovely to see you! I mean, I knew you'd be here, but it's so crowded that I didn't think I had a chance of *finding* you, at least not until more of that lot—" She waved at the collective backs of the people in the room. "—left, sat down or passed out on the floor. Clark's going to be *so* sorry that he missed you, but the poor dear's up to his neck in work — research, re-writes, even a bit of copy editing that Perry asked him to do — and I don't suppose he'll get away until very late, maybe eve n after midnight…"
As she rattled on, Lois realised that she'd just said goodbye to any hope she'd ever had of concealing from Clark that she'd been here tonight, but she figured that that was a fair exchange if only she could keep Bruce from running into Silver St Cloud — at least, at *her* instigation; Bruce would just have to take his chances during the rest of the conference, but Lois didn't want to be responsible for causing either of them any pain due to her own machinations.
She finally ran down and Bruce smiled at her in some amusement. He had joined Clark as a connoisseur of the Lane Babble over the last couple of years, and this was a prime example; the question was, what had produced it? Why was Lois so nervous? He decided to do a little gentle probing, just for the fun of it. "So, what brings half of the Daily Planet's top investigative reporting team to an event like this? Meeting a source? Looking into some financial misdeeds?" Despite himself, Bruce's tone became a bit more serious as he continued to casually list possible targets for "Lane & Kent" — after all, anything that the two reporters were working on could well involve criminal activity, and that was his or, rather, his alter ego's — business. And *that* he took very seriously…
'Oops,' thought Lois, calling on all her self-control to maintain what she hoped was a pleasant outward facade, 'Cover story time again. Hope he buys it.' "No, nothing like that. Nothing so interesting. I've been landed with one of Perry's bright ideas…" She mentally apologised to the editor for this calumny, and prayed that he'd never hear about this; he certainly wouldn't from *her*. "…An article about successful business types from out-of-town moving into Metropolis, and this seemed like a good chance to meet a few likely candidates. Or, it *would* be if they weren't all packed around the bar," she added sarcastically.
She decided that she had to end the conversation; if she could get away from Bruce, then hopefully he'd move away from this part of the room and she could double back to make her rendezvous with Ms St Cloud. She got up and stretched a little, surveying the room. "The crowds were so bad that I came over here to catch my breath," she began. Then, changing her tone to "resigned", she continued, "But I guess I'd better get back to it. It's great to see you, Bruce, but you know how it is…" He nodded and she went on, encouraged, "Don't forget to ring us… tomorrow? You know Clark is looking forward to seeing you, and Martha sent us a fruitcake last week, so you've *got* to come and help me stop Clark from stuffing himself with it. Okay?"
"Okay," he replied. Lois didn't let him get another word in, telling him again that she had to get back to work and saying so long for now. Then she turned and headed for the crush of people filling the room…
…just in time to see Silver St Cloud emerge from the crowd and head in her direction.
"Here I am *finally*, Ms Lane…" Her voice trailed off as her line of sight moved past Lois to take in the man standing next to the table, and she paled. *Really* paled, until her face almost matched her hair. Her eyes were huge, and for a moment Lois left off cringing internally to wonder if the other woman was going to faint on her. She didn't, however — she just stood there, sylph-like and unmoving. After a few moments that seemed like ages to Lois, and were probably even longer for Ms St Cloud, she half-raised one hand towards Wayne and managed to murmur, "Bruce?"
Lois turned, with some difficulty, away from the woman to look at Bruce — and promptly wished she hadn't made the effort. Unlike Silver St Cloud, his face was blank — but it was the blankness of a sheer cliff, of a concrete dam. Even worse, though his face was as expressionless as a rubber mask, his eyes and body language were anything but. His eyes *blazed*, and somehow, he was managing to frown with his entire body. It was very subtle and incredibly intimidating — at least, up close; Lois had the feeling that anyone more than a couple of feet away would see only a man in evening dress chatting to a couple of women. All very pleasant, and utterly misleading.
"Ms St Cloud," replied Bruce in the coolest, most nonchalant voice that Lois had ever heard *anyone* use, with the possible exception of Lex Luthor. "Nice to see you again."
'And if you believe *that*…' Lois thought. His voice was oh, so pleasant, but neither woman could possibly kid themselves that he meant what he said.
"A-And you," replied the other woman unsteadily. She recovered, at least partially, fairly quickly and went on, "It's been a while."
"Three years," Bruce said in a pleasant, cool tone that almost casually conveyed the sub-text that he'd have preferred it to have been three *hundred*, if not longer. He surveyed the scene around them with a careless, indifferent gaze that would have confirmed Lindsey's opinion of him, but that Lois knew was the most studied of artificial poses. "I take it that your people are organising the conference?" he asked, equally lightly, so obviously making polite conversation.
"That's right," said Silver, making an effort to match his coolness. "Our first major effort outside Gotham City. What do you think?"
"Oh, it's well up to the mark; a truly professional job, everything meeting the highest standards of such events — what I would expect from you, really."
There was something about the way that Bruce said the word "professional" that would have made Lois wince were she not keeping an absolute clamp on her best reporter's face. And what he had then gone on to say had to be the most pointed example of damning with faint praise that she had ever heard. What made it worse was that his praise was not faint by any means, and Lois was fairly sure that he meant it — it was just that the *way* that he said it carried undercurrents that she didn't fully understand (although she could make a few guesses, based on what Clark had told her earlier) but that were the expression of a lot of pain, and were also intended to pass some of that pain on — specifically to Silver St Cloud.
Bruce looked around again and apparently caught sight of someone. He turned back to the two women and said, ever so politely, "You must excuse me; it's been lovely to see you again, but I must talk to Lucius, and I've just seen him. Please accept my apologies for… running off like this."
The women nodded, there not being much else that they *could* do, short of accusing him of abandoning them; he returned the nod (or was it a small bow?), murmured, "Ms Lane. Ms St Cloud," and left, vanishing into the crowd with practised skill.
'Whew!' thought Lois. But any relief that she might have felt was quickly forgotten when she looked over at Silver. She had gone white again; Lois guessed that Bruce had slipped a final barb in before leaving — probably something to do with "running off" — and she yet again cringed behind her bland outward expression at the unhappiness that she had caused, however inadvertently. Feeling that the other woman needed something to distract her, and yet unable to leave well enough alone, Lois asked, "You know Bruce?"
Silver's head snapped around so fast that Lois half-expected to hear a whip-crack. Her eyes were large and there was a… hunger behind them that was startling in its intensity. But it was only visible for a second and was soon replaced by a professional blankness. The even, untouched expression didn't extend to her voice, though; that unsteadiness was back, at least at the beginning, as she replied, "Y-yes. We were… good friends, some years ago, in Gotham City. But we… lost touch — busy with work, that sort of thing — and this is the first time that I've seen him for quite a while."
"Yes, so you said," said Lois. "Funny that you should run into him *here*, in Metropolis, of all places."
"Yes. Strange…" murmured Silver, her voice trailing off as she became lost in a private reverie. After a few moments of silence, which Lois didn't interrupt, she remembered where she was and dragged her attention back to the present, and to her companion. Her eyes narrowed slightly and Lois noticed that the hunger was back as Silver asked, "I-if you'll forgive my curiosity, how do *you* come to know Bruce?"
"Through a mutual friend," said Lois pleasantly. 'Well, that's true enough,' she thought. 'Bruce is Clark's friend (and mine), and Clark is still— will *always* be — *my* best friend…' "I met him… oh, it must be four or five years ago by now, when he came to Metropolis on business." 'Bat-business, that is.' "We keep in touch, and drop in on each other when he's here or Clark and I are in Gotham City."
"My husband." Lois held out her left hand, showing her rings. Was that a touch of relief in Silver's eyes? "Also my partner at the Planet." 'Not to mention best friend, lover, soul mate, man of my dreams and personal superhero… God, I love that man!'
"Oh…" Silver looked as though she would have said more — congratulations, small-talk-type questions about marriage and work but something seemed to have closed down her capacity for conversation, because she remained silent for a few moments before finally managing to force out, "Ex-excuse me, Ms Lane. I'm *really* sorry, but I've just remembered some things that I have to do — for the conference." She looked as though she was about to rush off, but then, perhaps recognising that Lois' interview would be useful publicity for her company, turned back and continued, "Perhaps we could get together before the conference ends — say, tomorrow?"
"That'd be fine," said Lois, realising that this arrangement suited her as well. For one thing, it gave her the opportunity to see Ms St Cloud again, if she wanted to, and a perfect out if she didn't; all she had to do was not make an appointment. "I'll call you and we can work out a time."
"Fine," replied Silver. She took out a business card, wrote on it with a pen, and handed it to Lois, saying, "The number on there is my mobile phone — it'll get you straight to me. Heaven only knows how long it might take you if you tried to go through the hotel and convention staff."
Lois laughed at that, appreciating the gesture, and the two women separated.
They didn't get very far from one another, though, before a commotion outside the ballroom entrance caught their attention, and that of most of the nearby crowd. There was a muffled cry of, "Hey, you can't go in—" which was abruptly cut off as the ornate double doors crashed open under the impact of a flying body — the unconscious, bleeding body of one of the hotel's uniformed security guards.
The fallen guard was followed by several gun-toting figures wearing the obligatory "uniform" of jeans and black leather jackets, plus balaclavas to hide their faces. Despite the attempt at disguise, Lois recognised a scar on one guy's wrist; it belonged to one Johnny Malone, leader of the SSlum Lords, one of Suicide Slum's toughest gangs, which meant that the others had to be gang members as well. This was not good…
Her apprehension only increased when she got a better look at what the intruders were carrying. Each one had either a sawn-off shot-gun or what looked like an assault rifle, and two or three, including Malone, had handguns stuck into their belts. They probably had knives, too, since these were pretty much standard equipment for gang members. Some of them had a bank bag slung over one shoulder, and the bags looked full. The gang must have held up the hotel, or possibly the conference organisation, or maybe both.
"Awright, you guys," yelled Malone, "Get over there, now!" He gestured with his rifle towards the bar end of the ballroom, indicating that the crowd should move away from the gang, and the entrance. For a moment, everyone was too surprised by the sudden appearance of the invaders to react, so Malone waved at one of his troops, who lifted his shotgun and fired one barrel into the ceiling, bellowing, "MOVE!"
*That* got a reaction; the ranks of business people and their hangers-on began to obediently shuffle away from the menacing group of armed intruders. They couldn't move very fast because the crowd was quite thick, and the only way that people at the front could do as they had been ordered was for it to become even thicker at the back, and that was a slow process, a sort of ooze not unlike that of molasses.
Lois, who was doing her best to look like she was moving with the rest of the crowd while at the same time trying to ensure that she didn't get pushed away from the action, just hoped that Malone and his cronies realised that they *were* being obeyed. Suicide Slum gangs were not noted for their patience, and it was all too likely that someone could get hurt or killed because some idiot with a gun decided that this dense crowd wasn't moving fast enough.
Thinking about moving fast inevitably brought Clark to mind; she'd give a lot to see that familiar blur flash across the room right now, leaving a trail of helpless goons behind it. But her silent plea was not answered, and her beloved hero in the red-and-blue suit was nowhere to be seen.
Lois stumbled, falling against a couple of businessmen as a further thought startled her: speaking of heroes, where was *Bruce*? But then she realised that he was probably trapped in the crowd, unable to slip away and change, so she guessed that there was no likelihood of Bat-intervention. Which left it up to Clark. 'Come on, sweetheart. We need some help here…'
Seconds dragged by, though, and no Superman. Lois began to wonder if she could somehow contact him by using her mobile phone, but before she could make much of a plan that way, Malone started yelling again. "Okay, okay, a couple of you rich types are gonna come with us, to keep the cops off our back. Behave yourself and nobody's gonna get hurt… much." The last word was said with a contemptuous sneer that Lois longed to wipe off the creep's face, but now was not the time for that.
Malone looked around and pointed his rifle at three of the women on the edge of the crowd. "You, you and you — get out here." When the women hesitated, partly from surprise and fear, and partly because each one was hoping against hope that he hadn't really meant *her*, his voice became a wheedling croon. "C'mon, baby — we're goin' for a little ride, and then we'll have some fun…"
If this was meant to entice them, it was a disaster. The women shrank back, horrified by the idea of "having fun" with Malone, and the gang leader lost his temper. "Awright, you stupid bitches!" he screamed, "Get out here, or I'll blow your goddamned heads off!" He would have signalled to some of the gang to grab the chosen hostages, but his attention was caught by a small movement above him… and a voice.
"I don't think so, *punk*!"
Before Malone could react, his rifle was yanked from his hands by a cable that shot down from an open skylight and wrapped itself around the stock. The rifle disappeared into the rafters of the ballroom, but not before it swung across the room, an impromptu pendulum that hit two of the nearby thugs in the head, knocking them both to the ground.
All the gang members looked up at the skylight in surprise, but there was nothing to be seen — at least, now. Before they could work out what that meant, a crash of breaking glass behind them announced the arrival, through a second skylight, cape spread like huge wings, of the Batman.
His descent to ground level was cushioned by landing on top of one of the gang, which "kindness" put the thug in question out of action for the duration. Then, like a streak of dark lightning, he was among the others, rolling, kicking, punching — and what he hit went down. Some — very few — of the tougher gang members managed to get up again, but those that did stayed down after being hit a second time, which usually happened quite quickly.
Lois didn't think it was possible for the tightly-packed crowd to get any closer together but, to her surprise, the people nearest the fight managed to draw back a bit more. This was a good idea but, unfortunately, it also gave the remaining thugs more room to manoeuvre; Batman's attack had been so swift that he had been in amongst them before they'd caught up with what was going on and, perhaps surprisingly for street punks, this had kept them from using their guns as anything other than improvised clubs, lest they shoot one another. Or maybe it was just that they liked the idea of a brawl, not realising that allowing Batman to get in close practically guaranteed a trip to dreamland.
However, as their numbers went down, so opportunities to get a shot at their attacker became more likely. One or two guns barked, but they either missed or simply had no effect on their target. Lois, as fascinated a spectator as any of the conference-goers packed together behind her, saw that Bruce's body armour was doing its usual job; she also saw that he had been very careful not to get between any of the gang and the civilians, so that a careless shot could not hit anyone else.
This realisation brought her attention away from the fight and back to the gang leader standing a few yards away. Malone, once he had overcome the petrifying surprise of the Batman's initial appearance and attack, had managed to draw his handgun, but he couldn't get a clear shot until the last of his cronies went down and stayed that way.
Batman dropped the unconscious body of the thug that he'd just knocked out and looked towards Malone. "It's over," he said, in the quiet, forceful voice that was a part of his costumed persona. "Make it easy on yourself and drop the gun."
"No way, freak!" screamed Malone, more than a little hysterically. "You got them, but you won't get me!" With that, he brought the gun up and fired twice…
Lois' perception of time *changed*. She was never able to say what it was about that moment in that place, but the world seemed to slow down for her — *right* down — and she could almost *see* the bullets leave the gun and fly across the room towards the man in the mask. As Malone had raised the gun, so Batman had lifted his own arms into a martial arts posture, where they also protected his vulnerable jaw. The first bullet bounced off a reinforced glove and thunked into a rafter. The second, fired slightly lower than its predecessor, ricocheted from a different part of the same gauntlet and shot back towards the crowd. To her horror, Lois *knew*, though she couldn't say how or why she knew, that the slug was headed straight for Silver St Cloud.
And there was nothing she could do about it. Her perception and knowledge were not matched by equally-swift reflexes, and she began to turn towards the woman, agonisingly slowly, all the time *knowing* that the sight which awaited her would be a bloody corpse…
Except it wasn't. The world snapped back to its normal speed, and Lois found herself staring at a broad male chest in blue with that famous pentagonal shield emblazoned on it. The sense of relief was overwhelming, and it took considerable self-control for her not to run over, throw herself into his arms and collapse against that chest in sheer joy at seeing him.
Clark, she could tell, was equally relieved that he'd got there in time, although he could have no idea who it was that he'd just saved. He was also, if his eyes were any guide, distinctly surprised to see *her* there, but Lois had long ago (or so it seemed to her) accepted that she'd have to explain herself to him but later, at home, by themselves.
Behind him, Silver St Cloud had that familiar breathless expression that so many people — especially women — got when Superman flashed into action. Lois didn't think that the woman could have had any idea of how close she'd come to severe injury or death, so the lack of breath had to have more to do with his sudden appearance and… well, the sheer *presence* of the man when he wasin the suit.
Then Lois looked at Batman, and gasped involuntarily. He was looking towards Clark, but his gaze was fixed on the woman behind him. Other than the intensity of his stare, his face — as much as could be seen of it, anyway — was blank, emotionless. But Lois saw it change. Somehow, he too had *known* what would have happened had Superman not arrived just then, and the rage that appeared as this knowledge sank in was literally terrible to behold. Others in the crowd also saw the change in him, and they shrank away from the grey-and-blue figure — their saviour, who had, in an instant, been transformed into a creature from the worst depths of nightmare.
What made it all the worse, Lois thought, was that he didn't make a sound. Not a word, not a grunt, a groan or a growl, not so much as the merest hint of a whisper. Nothing. But the expression on his face, and especially the look in his eyes, said it all.
Lois knew that Bruce had adopted the guise of the Batman to throw fear into criminals — as he put it, "a superstitious, cowardly lot" — but, had he been able to assume at will the face that he was currently showing to the world, and particularly to Johnny Malone, he wouldn't have needed to bother with the mask and cape. Of course, since he was wearing them both at the moment, the effect was only heightened.
Malone, who, a moment ago, had been angry and scared, but jubilant as he fired, striking back at the source of his anger and fear, at the legend who had flattened his gang like a harvester in a wheat field, now bore the look of a man who has seen Hell — and who realises that it is *coming* for him…
The sudden appearance of Superman might have explained his appalled gaze, but he didn't seem to have even noticed the arrival of the hero. His attention was locked on the *other* caped figure, and what he saw had him trembling with fear as the object of his horrified obsession slowly but relentlessly advanced towards him…
He raised his gun again, but his hand was shaking so hard that he couldn't hold it steady enough to fire. Then he screamed and dropped it as the barrel began to *melt*… It was obvious that Superman's heat vision was responsible for that — obvious, that is, to everyone but Malone, who was now transfixed, staring at the approaching Batman in the certain knowledge that he *was* a demon >from Hell; hadn't he just used hellfire?
The demon came closer, but Malone couldn't run, couldn't move. He just stood there with agonised horror distorting his face as he watched, helplessly, the apparition advance on him, coming nearer, ever nearer… His heart pounded, but his muscles wouldn't obey what little will he had. Trapped in "fight-or-flight" mode, but with his brain screaming that he had no chance of doing either, it became too much for Malone and he fainted, falling silently, almost gracefully, into an untidy heap on the carpeted floor.
Batman stood over the unconscious gang leader, staring down at him. The hero's face was now hidden from view by the shadows of his costume, but his body language told of a man still in the grip of strong emotion, and none of the silent watchers had any illusions as to what that emotion was. Superman stepped over to the unmoving figure and whispered something that no-one else could hear —indeed, few people could have told that he'd said anything at all.Only Lois, who knew her husband so well, could guess at what he might have said: "Steady, pal…"
Batman heard. He raised his head to look into the eyes of his friend and comrade. There, he found what many others had found — openness, concern and compassion — and something more, something that perhaps only one other person alive could offer: understanding and friendship. Understanding of what it meant to wear a costume, to be different, of why it was necessary to do this, and of the cost that came with it. And the promise of support — the simple statement, "I know what it's like. You're *not* alone." — with all that that implied.
In other times, at other places, this promise might have been conveyed by a handshake, by a firm grip that let each man give and receive strength from the other and from the bond itself, but here and now, much the same was done by a simple meeting of eyes. The fire in the eyes behind the mask was quenched and the tensioned muscles relaxed. Nothing was said — there was no need — but a quick, almost imperceptible nod told of the Batman's gratitude.
Then he reached for something under his cape and brought out an odd-looking… was it a weapon? No, it turned out to be some form of line-thrower, which he fired through the open skylight. He hooked the now-taut cable to his belt and began to rise off the floor, his cape once again spread like the wings of the animal from which he took his sobriquet, up to the skylight and into the darkness of the night, where he vanished from the collective view of the crowd below.
While the crowd still gazed at the skylight in hushed awe, Superman gathered the unconscious thugs together and secured them, tying their hands and feet with the cords from the bank bags. Then he flashed a glance at Lois, whom he knew was using her cellphone to call 911, and went over to the injured security guard. A quick examination showed that the man had a fractured skull and a cracked rib, but none of his injuries were life-threatening; all the blood was from surface cuts and scrapes that had bled profusely but should heal, given time.
As he bent over the guard, a soft, concerned voice sounded in Clark's ear. "How is he?"
He turned his head to see, at very close range, the head of the woman whom he had saved from the wild ricochet, also bowed over the injured man. "Not too bad," he reassured her. "It looks worse than it is — the bleeding is all superficial. He'll be in the hospital for a while, but he'll recover."
She lifted her head to look at him, and he saw the worry in her face gradually dissolve as their eyes met. "Thank God," she whispered. "And thank *you*…"
"That's why I'm here," he replied, almost as quietly. After a few seconds of silent communion, he moved away to get a grip on the guard, breaking the peace of the moment by saying, "The important thing is that he can be moved, so I'll take him to Metro General —it'll be quicker than waiting for an ambulance."
He stood up with the unconscious man in his arms. The woman also rose and, for the first time, Clark could see the name on her ID. His eyes widened as he realised that *this* was Silver St Cloud; suddenly, Bruce's anger at the gang leader made much more sense. Fortunately, she wasn't looking at him right at that moment, and by the time her eyes met his again, his face was back to the neutral expression that he adopted most of the time when he was in the suit.
Former love of his friend or no, it was time he got going; this man needed help. He gave Ms St Cloud a courteous nod and gently rose from the floor, drifting over to the broken skylight through which Batman had made his spectacular entrance. He carefully rose out of the ballroom, then, with the characteristic whoosh, he, too, was gone.
Lois came over to her. "I called the cops," she said, matter-of-factly. "They'll be here in a few minutes — with a couple of ambulances, just in case anyone got hurt."
"Oh!" said Silver, startled. "Oh, thank you, Ms Lane." She fell silent and her attention drifted back to the hole in the ceiling through which Superman had departed on his errand of mercy.
Lois saw this and smiled to herself. 'Got a thing for capes, have we?' she thought to herself, before remarking in a friendly, conversational tone, with just a hint of amusement, "Impressive, isn't he?"
"Hmm..?" Silver shook, just a bit, as once again, her mind came back to earth with something of a thud. "Yes… yes, he is," she said. Her voice died away, and Lois could barely hear her say one more word: "Almost…"
Lois was prepared to bet just about anything that Silver was thinking, 'Almost as impressive as *Batman*…' She smiled; she had her own opinions about the kind of impression that the two men made on people seeing them for the first time (or second, or third…), although she was prepared to admit that she might be just a *teeny* bit biased…
Before she could take that line of thought any further, though, the police arrived, and, hard on their heels, the Press — in the form of a dark-haired, glasses-wearing reporter for the Daily Planet who looked just a little grim. Clark came over to her and gave her a quick hug, which, she noted, had more than a tinge of relief about it. She hugged back, feeling that he might need a little reassurance, though she wasn't quite sure why. He turned his head to kiss her ear and whispered in it, "Lois, what the heck is going on here?"
"I'll tell you later, okay? How's the guy you took to hospital?" she whispered back.
Clark moved her away from him, although he didn't let go of her, and looked into her eyes. Her voice told him that Lois wasn't just trying to put him off here; she really did have a reason for wanting to talk to him elsewhere, presumably in private. "Okay," he agreed, keeping his voice down. "So's the guard. A fractured skull and a cracked rib, but nothing else major. He might end up with a few scars here and there, but other than that, he'll be fine. I got him to the hospital before his condition could deteriorate. That paramedic course was a good idea of yours — it really came in handy tonight; I could tell that he was okay to move, for one thing, and that was a big help."
Lois had to smile at that. Clark had been unsure about the idea when she'd come up with it — *Superman* taking a course at Metro College? — but it had all worked out fine. Once the college administrators had managed to recover from the shock of the Man of Steel enquiring about a part-time course, and had finally come to a sensible agreement about the publicity angle — they'd wanted to announce it with as much hoop-la as they could generate, whereas Clark wanted the whole thing kept as low-key as possible — they'd managed to put together a study package that enabled their super-student to whiz through the theoretical side in a very short time. The practical work had taken a bit longer, but that too had been arranged — including some *real* on-the-job training. The College had got its publicity boost as well; the compromise that had been agreed was that the College could make as much noise as they liked, within reason, *after* Superman successfully completed the course, but everyone was to keep things quiet while he was actually attending classes, so that he *could* take them.
The end result was that Superman was now a trained paramedic, something which the various hospitals in and around Metropolis found invaluable — so much so that Clark had heard a few mutterings about getting him to take a full medical degree, but he was still thinking about that.
Meantime, they both had to go to work, so, after a quick discussion as to who did what, Lane and Kent separated and moved in on people who could help them write another of the stories that made them the hottest news team in Metropolis. Perry was gonna *love* this one…
An hour or so later, Lois was just about finished. She'd interviewed several of the conference-goers, including two of the women who'd been picked out as hostages (the third was receiving some sort of medical attention and wasn't talking to anyone), talked to the cashiers who'd been bailed up by the gang, and had been given the brush-off by the hotel's night manager. Clark, she knew, had talked to the cops and the hotel and conference security people, including the injured guard's partner — who, she guessed >from his reaction to something that Clark had said, had been awfully glad to hear that his buddy would be okay. 'That should be good for a quote or two,' she thought. Unlike the would-be bandits and kidnappers, who had clammed up totally — those of them who had regained consciousness, that is.
She made her way to a nearby table, flopped into a chair and thought for a moment. Who *else* would be worth talking to before they headed for the office and their computers? The only person she could think of was… Silver St Cloud.
'Hmmm…' Lois was in two minds about this. On the one hand, Ms St Cloud was the logical person to go for since the hotel manager wasn't co-operating, but on the other, she'd been barely six feet >from Lois when the gang burst in, so she couldn't know anything much more than anyone else in the ballroom. Any information that she could provide — as distinct from the journalistic equivalent of soundbites, of which Lois had plenty already — could only be background, and Lois was disinclined to bother her because… well, she'd had *enough* bother tonight already, what with the Bruce fiasco and all.
So it was something of a surprise when the woman herself sat down across from her. They exchanged tired glances; this had been quite a night, after all, and it wasn't over for either of them. Neither one said anything for some time, then Lois murmured quietly, "You okay?"
Silver came out of whatever far-distant world her thoughts had carried her to with a slight start, turned towards Lois and replied in a soft, puzzled voice, "Yes… why do you ask?"
"Well… it hasn't exactly been a relaxing evening. And I know only too well what it feels like to nearly get killed; the reaction afterwards can be pretty fierce…"
Silver looked shocked. "Nearly get *killed*..? What do you mean? *Who* nearly got killed?"
"Well, when Malone — the gang leader — shot at Batman, the bullets bounced off his suit… and one of the ricochets was headed straight for you! If Superman hadn't been there…"
'Oops,' thought Lois, 'Shouldn't have said that. She didn't know.' Although, to be fair, the woman was taking the news pretty well: she was pale, yes, but no more so than she'd been earlier, when she'd… met Bruce..!
Lois decided that the subject of their conversation needed to be changed immediately, both to distract Ms St Cloud and to take her own mind away from its repeated self-castigation at the mess that her curiosity had stirred up. Her mind raced for a second, looking for a suitable topic, before she settled on the business-like approach and asked, "Um… if you don't mind a couple of questions, is tonight's 'excitement' going to affect the conference at all?"
"No…" replied Silver slowly, distantly. Then, as though she had thrown a switch inside herself, her voice recovered its strength, becoming more like it had been when Lois had first met her — or nearly so; the humour wasn't there, and there was still the tiniest trace of a tremor, although she did her best to hide it. "No, fortunately not. We're not using this room again until the final banquet on Saturday, and the hotel should be able to repair the damage by then. Their insurance will cover the cost, although I suspect that they'll try to claim against *ours*…"
She talked on, and Lois conscientiously took notes and asked a few more questions. There wasn't much in what Silver was saying, at least as far as the story of the evening's happenings went, but Lindsey might find some of the other stuff useful, and Lois had come up with a couple of ideas for future stories — like, say, a probe into the machinations of certain insurance companies. And, of course, it kept both women's minds off Bruce Wayne.
Engrossed in her work, Lois failed to notice Clark approach the table. The first she knew of his presence was when, during a pause in the conversation, two large, warm hands landed softly on her shoulders and she felt a gentle kiss on the top of her head. "Hi, honey," he said quietly. "I'm done. Anything you want me to do?"
Lois looked up at him, and her face… "lit up" was the only word for it, Silver thought, watching the couple exchange smiles and something more — an unvoiced communication that spoke volumes about the relationship between them. This *had* to be "Clark"…
And then, as he straightened up from the embrace and Lois replied softly to his question, Silver finally got a good look at the man's face… and almost fainted in shock. The world whirled and she had to grab onto the edge of the table to hold herself steady until it gave up on its fandango. He… he… *couldn't* be — could he?
Almost against her will, she took a second look at the man. He *was*! That face, those eyes— that *jaw*! She was *sure*, as sure as she had been the day that… she'd recognised Bruce in the Bat-suit..!
'Oh, God,' she thought, 'Not again… Why does this keep happening to me? First Bruce, now… *him*!' Overwhelmed by her discovery, she covered her face with her hands and struggled not to break down and cry.
Her movement caught the attention of the reporters. Lois leaned over the table, concerned. "Are you okay?" she asked, unconsciously repeating her earlier words.
Silver's head snapped up, her face startled and wide-eyed. "What?!" she hissed. Her head moved from side to side jerkily, and her eyes swept the room in something that looked quite a lot like near-panic. She focused on Clark, who had begun to go round to her when she became upset, but he stopped when he saw her almost shrink from him. Then she seemed to get a grip on herself. "Oh… yes, yes, I'm fine. I guess everything just caught up with me all at once…"
Lois nodded sympathetically. She'd noticed the woman's reaction to Clark, which was decidedly unusual. She didn't know what the problem was, but she recognised someone who needed very careful handling at the moment. Clark, she was sure, would do his best to retire into the background as only he could, while she tried to find out what had caused Silver to freak out like this. With his long experience of dealing with difficult women, especially ones named Lois Lane, he'd make himself as inconspicuous and unthreatening as possible, while still being there, ready to help in any way that he could if needed. It was a neat trick of his, and one that Lois knew she'd never be able to imitate if she lived to be 150.
Lois tried asking again if Silver was all right, but got no further. Indeed, Silver seemed determined not to say anything more about anything; questions of any sort, no matter how gently phrased, ran up against professional stonewalling that General Jackson himself would have been proud of. Eventually, the conversation ran down to an uneasy silence, Lois still wondering what was going on, and Silver silently praying for the ordeal to end.
Lois looked over to Clark for comfort and, hopefully, a little inspiration. No such luck; he had That Look on his face, the there-goes-my-super-hearing-someone-needs-me look that she knew all too well. So it was no surprise when he caught her eye and said, "I guess we'd better get back to the office. Or I should, anyway. I'll… uh, ring Perry to let him know we're on our way."
"Good idea, Clark. You do that, and then go on to the office. I'll meet you there." As Clark darted away, Lois turned back to Silver. She had a nagging feeling about Silver's sudden upset, and her peculiar reaction to Clark, but it needed some thought before she'd know how to approach the subject again. There was no point to any further probing — at least, not tonight — so she made her excuses politely and left.
Clark wasn't in the Planet newsroom when Lois arrived there, which didn't surprise her. He emerged from the elevator about 20 minutes after she sat down at her computer, and beckoned her into the conference room.
They kissed as they always did when Clark came back from being his other self, with perhaps just a little more passion and feeling than usual. They sat down and Clark remarked, "Big night for the gangs — Superman just helped the police break up a riot and looting expedition by the Suiciders…"
Lois frowned at him, and he looked back calmly, albeit with one eyebrow cocked. "Really?" she said thoughtfully, "And on the same night, the SSlum Lords pull a major hold-up. Interesting… Think they're connected?"
"Could be. It wouldn't be the first time those two gangs have tried to out-do each other. But, naturally, no-one's talking about it, so we don't know for certain. Which brings us to the important point: how do we incorporate this in the story of tonight's happenings?"
The conversation became increasingly technical as the two reporters began to swap ideas for their articles. Eventually they hammered out their angles and retired to their respective desks to write. Fortunately, the newsroom was unusually empty tonight, so Clark was able to make up for his late arrival and incorporate the extra story about the Suiciders by using a little super-speed — or as much as the computer keyboard could cope with, anyway. They each finished their work at about the same time, LANned it to each other for comments, tweaked the articles until they were both happy with them, and sent them off to the night editor. She didn't ask for any major changes, so they were done and out the door, glad to finally be on their way home, in fairly short order.
Lois came out of the bathroom and headed for bed. Purely by chance—it had been the first one to hand when she looked in the drawer—the nightgown she was wearing was one of Clark's favourites, and the look in his eyes as she came across the room made her feel loved, desired and very happy about that. Which was welcome, because she had a feeling that, in a few minutes, she was going to need all the self-esteem she could get.
Clark was already in bed, and she took the time to appreciate his fantastic torso before climbing under the covers with him. They hugged, briefly but intensely, before settling themselves comfortably against the pillows so that they could talk. By unspoken but mutual consent, they hadn't mentioned the events at the Hilton while they drove home, unwound and got ready for bed, preferring to concentrate on the mundane trivia of married life. But now, the time for that had passed, and Lois knew that she was going to have to explain what she'd been doing before Clark had arrived to save Silver St Cloud from near-certain death.
It had long been one of Lois' guiding principles that the best defence was a good offence. It didn't exactly apply here, but she figured that it at least gave her a way to start what was bound to be a sticky conversation. "Boy, was I glad to see you tonight, sweetheart. One second later, and…"
"Yeah…" said a thoughtful Clark. "Me, too. I'd been worried about you. I tried to call you here about eight, but there was no answer, and you weren't there when I checked visually. I couldn't think where you could have got to. I certainly didn't expect to see you at the Hilton." As Lois watched, one eyebrow lifted and his voice became rueful. "Although I guess I *should* have. Big important conference with lots of wealthy business people gets held up by a bike gang from Suicide Slum — where *else* would Lois Lane be?"
Lois just looked at him with an oh-brother! expression, although she was actually feeling a bit happier. This wasn't as bad as she'd half-feared; if Clark was teasing her, then he couldn't be very angry. Of course, that was *now* — how he'd feel after she told him what she was *doing* at the banquet was something else entirely.
Meantime, there was something of some importance, albeit peripheral to the main topic of conversation, to be sorted out. "Why didn't you call my mobile?" she queried, "I was trying to think of some way to call you on it without the SSlum Lords noticing, when Bruce made his big entrance."
"Um… this is gonna sound silly, but I was a bit worried that I might… oh, I don't know, blow your cover, disturb your concentration, spook a witness, *whatever*… if I did that. You *know* how many times that's happened to us! I just… had this feeling that it mightn't be a good idea, that's all. Besides, I'd have called you well before the gang hit the hotel."
"Oh…" Lois was surprised. "Hmmm, maybe we can think of some way for me to be able to call you in an emergency. Sort of like that watch of Jimmy's, but less deafening to those of us with super-hearing…"
Lois lapsed into thought, but Clark refused to be distracted. "Lois…" he said, softly but with sufficient intensity to catch her attention, "You still haven't told me what you were doing there in the first place. *Or* why you landed me with all that extra work this evening."
*That* caught Lois unawares. "What..? How..? You *knew* I was…"
Clark grinned. "Lois, give me some credit for observation, at the very least. I could tell you were up to something — you've been organising this for what? A week? — and it seemed to involve keeping me at the office for most of the evening. Now, it just so happens that I trust my partner, who also happens to be my wife, so I didn't do anything about it, figuring that I'd find out what this was all about eventually. I think maybe 'eventually' has arrived, don't you?"
"Yes…" said Lois resignedly. "You're right, Clark. I'm sorry. It was just… well, I wanted to meet Silver. Ever since you told me about her, she's… sort of fascinated me. I knew you wouldn't be keen on the idea, but I thought I could arrange it so that I could talk to her while you were busy, and then I'd get what I wanted, you wouldn't be bothered, and no-one would be any the worse for it." Her eyes fell and her voice took on a plaintive tone. "But it all went wrong, and then Malone and his gang of creeps showed up…"
Clark frowned, not at his wife but at the unhappiness that he could hear. There was more to this than just wanting to meet a woman whom he had mentioned once. Curiosity was one thing, but Lois didn't go to this sort of effort unless the end result was something important — and he couldn't see that meeting an old girlfriend of Bruce's qualified. "Why did you want to meet her, honey?" he asked, as gently as he could. "What was it about her that fascinated you?"
"I… oh… Bruce…" For a moment, Lois seemed to be embarrassed, having trouble putting what she wanted to say into words. But then, she almost visibly took herself in hand and stiffened her resolve, breaking the silence by bursting out, "I wanted to know how she *did* it! I mean, look at you and I — two years, and I never guessed, barely even *suspected*, despite Diana Stride, despite H.G. Wells and Tempus, despite the Cheese-of-the-Month Club..!" They both had to smile at *that*, at least for a moment. "And then you tell me that this woman has cracked Bruce's secret after… what? A few weeks? A couple of months at most — that's incredible!"
"Ahhh…" So *that* was it. Clark nodded to himself. He knew about Lois' continuing chagrin that she hadn't discovered his dual identities in all that time — not until, under the twin stresses of having his parents kidnapped and being ordered to kill Lois to save their lives, he had given himself away.
She'd got over the double surprise of his proposal and finding out about Superman, and there were no more secrets between them — except for the harmless kind like what he was giving her for Christmas — but he knew that, deep down, what she saw as her own blindness and stupidity still rankled, just a little. He understood that; he had his own regrets about their rocky road to romance and marriage, however much the end of that road was as wonderful as he— *they* hoped it would be, so he could also understand how Lois would want to find out more about a woman who had, to her mind, done what she, Lois, had not — discovered her boyfriend's secret identity, and *quickly*, not after years of having the "obvious" right under her nose.
He looked at her, and saw a miserable look on her face that immediately banished any remaining traces of annoyance that he might have had. What's done was done, and he couldn't stand to see her unhappy. He opened his arms, murmuring, "Come here, honey," and she came into them gladly.
The next few minutes were spent just holding one another, Lois wrapped in Clark's arms and holding on to him tightly as the peace that always came from being together like this, seeped into her soul. For the umpteenth time, she thanked God, and meant it, for this man and everything he gave to her — his kindness, his forbearance, his strength and, most of all, his love.
Eventually, they separated slightly, though only enough to move so that they could look into one another's eyes, and Clark said, "Okay, you've indulged your curiosity and seen Silver — and, I have to admit, from what little *I* saw of her, she comes across as a nice person. It's a shame about her and Bruce… Anyway, are you happy now? Can we leave it at that, and make tonight the end of this?"
"Well… I guess so," said Lois in a small voice. 'I *hope* so,' she thought to herself. In her mind, despite the contentment that Clark had brought her, she was still somewhat apprehensive, unsure as to whether she *could* safely "leave it at that". There was something about the way that Silver had reacted when she'd seen Clark *as* Clark that had her reporter's instincts twitching. She'd have to think about this…
"That's good," Clark said, yawning. If he'd picked up on Lois' uncertainty, either from her voice or the slight tension that she felt inside at the thought of what her instincts might be telling her, he didn't react to it at all. "Because, frankly, I'd much prefer spending the next couple of evenings *with* Bruce, rather than analysing his old girlfriends."
"Yeah… me, too. I just hope he can stand to see *me*. I wouldn't blame him if I wasn't his favourite person right now…"
"What do you mean, honey? Why would Bruce not want to see *you*?"
Lois winced again at the memory of the confrontation between Bruce and Silver, and began to tell Clark the tale of that unfortunate meeting. Clark grimaced at her description of Bruce's emotionless demeanour and the undercurrents in the outwardly bland conversation. Some he could explain, or at least guess what lay behind Bruce's words, but others had to be accepted as only having meaning to the two people involved.
Lois went on to tell him of her conversation with Bruce immediately before Silver arrived, and Clark couldn't help smiling at that, which made them both feel a little better. He could picture the scene: Lois caught in a classic Lane Babble, striving frantically to have a "normal" conversation with their friend, but also to cut it short, never quite realising that the very torrent of words with which she was trying to do this was dragging out the conversation and working against everything that she was desperate to achieve!
His smile became a grin and their eyes met for a moment in quiet appreciation of the absurdity of the situation, although Lois couldn't really relish the full humour of her predicament. Maybe in the future, but right now she was still too close to the event to find it very funny.
"Thank God he doesn't realise the *real* reason why I was there!" she finished. "He might have guessed— what am I saying? Of *course* he guessed — he *is* the world's greatest detective, after all! Anyway, he guessed that I knew about him and Silver, and that that was why I was so surprised when he came up to me, but I'm sure that he thinks that I was there on business, and I *really* want him to keep thinking that. You won't tell him, will you, Clark? Please?"
"Of course not, Lois." Clark's manner had been calm and reassuring up until this point, but now that teasing tone appeared, as did just a hint of the famous Kent grin. "I mean, what would be the point? Bruce already *knows* about your insatiable curiosity…"
Lois picked up a pillow and tried to swat him. Unfortunately for her, he blocked her swing, yanked it out of her hand and went to return the favour. One thing led to another, and the evening — well, morning now — ended on a much happier note than it had had earlier.
Lois lay in Clark's arms, watching the slow rise and fall of his chest as he slept. This was something that she loved to do on those few occasions on which he dropped off to sleep before she did, and was one of the best reasons for insomnia that she could imagine. Not that she normally suffered from insomnia, but any excuse to feast her eyes on her husband's gorgeous body was welcome.
Tonight, however, she *was* having trouble sleeping. Ordinarily, she'd have been out like a light after a long day like today — particularly if Clark was holding her — and this ought not to have been an exception; she felt pleasantly relaxed, and physically tired, but her mind wouldn't let her get to sleep.
She was concerned about Silver St Cloud, and her reaction to Clark earlier that evening. Lois had seen how the woman handled shocks — *big* shocks, like meeting Bruce Wayne, having her banquet interrupted by gun-toting thugs, finding out that she'd nearly been shot — and from what she'd seen, Silver's near-collapse when she'd met Clark was definitely a similar sort of response, only more so. It was as though seeing Clark was the biggest shock of all, the ultimate kicker in an evening which had already had more heart-stoppers in it than ought to be allowed in such a short time.
And *that* was worrying… dangerous, even. Clark said that Silver had recognised Bruce in his Batman costume; what if she'd done the same to *Clark*? Okay, so the woman had only seen Superman for a few seconds, and hadn't met Clark at *all* before, but Bruce's mask provided much more in the way of concealment and disguise than did Clark's glasses. 'Even if it did take *me* two years to see past them…' Lois thought ruefully.
Could Silver have possibly have recognised Clark? She sure acted like she had! But was it likely? Clark's "disguise" worked so well, especially with women, because his character was so different in his two identities; Superman was noble, upright, stern or caring as the case demanded — and, it had to be admitted, as sexy as hell; Clark was… okay, "mild-mannered", which translated in public to polite, friendly, helpful, easy-going at times — although, with her help, he had added "incisive" to that list of qualities. 'He's *also* as sexy as hell,' she thought to herself with a grin, 'if you bother to look at him…' The grin became a grimace as she remembered some of the women who *had* looked, even before she had (except, maybe, when under the influence of artificial pheromones).
She shook that off, and returned to her train of thought about Ms St Cloud. Could she have possibly done what Martha had designed the suit to prevent, namely looked at Superman's *face* well enough to recognise it when Clark showed up at the table? She thought about this over and over, but came to no real decision… until she remembered Silver's worried face mere inches away >from Superman's as they checked on the injured guard!
'Oh, hell…' Lois thought, '*that's* how she did it. *If* she did it — which is starting to look all too likely. So now what do we do?
'No, what do *I* do? Clark doesn't need to know about this yet; not until I've checked her out and found if she really has discovered his secret identity. Geez, I wish I could ask Bruce for help; the World's Greatest Detective is just who I need right now…
'Well, one thing's for sure: I'm definitely going to make an appointment to see her tomorrow!'
With that decided, Lois tried to relax, stop thinking and go to sleep. She wasn't expecting that to be easy, though, but Clark came to her rescue once again; somehow, even though asleep, he sensed that she was troubled and held her a little tighter. This made her reflect yet again on how lucky she was to be loved by this incredible man, and how much she loved him. Her worries seemed that bit less powerful in the light of that love, and eventually the combination of Clark's reassuring presence and her own fatigue won out over her internal tension, and she drifted off.
Lois and Clark slept late (for them) the following morning, but they weren't worried because they weren't expected in at the Planet until around lunchtime. Perry would see that their story about the gang activity had been submitted after midnight, and it was his policy in such cases not to call on day staff who'd been working that late until the following afternoon unless it was an emergency; of course, Lane and Kent were prone to getting a large number of these emergency calls but, as Lois put it, that was the price you paid for being the best!
Their late night had turned out to be convenient for them; Superman was due to visit STAR Labs that morning to help Dr Klein with an experiment, and now Lois wouldn't have to cover for Clark while he was away, because no-one would expect him to be at work anyway. Clark's absence also meant that Lois had the opportunity to contact Silver St Cloud while he was gone, and make that appointment to see her. What happened after that depended on what Lois could find out regarding the extent of Silver's knowledge or suspicions regarding Clark and Superman.
Which gave her furiously to think while the couple shared a leisurely breakfast. Clark noticed that Lois seemed a little preoccupied — or was it tired? Sometimes, if she'd had a busy night, Lois would spend the first few hours of the next day in a less-than-alert state that she described as "being on automatic pilot — at least until I've had enough coffee to wake up properly." Which was okay, he was used to that — he even thought he knew what it felt like himself, although it took a lot more to tire *him* out that much — but it was pretty similar to Lois' manner when she was distracted or really concentrating on something, so it wasn't always easy to tell if she was brooding or exhausted.
He decided that it was probably the latter (which was a tribute to Lois' unconscious acting ability) and told her to go back to bed for a couple of hours. She grunted something which might have been agreement (actually, she was still deep in thought, planning how to pick Silver St Cloud's brains without her realising that it was being done, at least until it was too late) as he spun into the suit and kissed her good-bye. The kiss got her full attention, and she grabbed him in a long, sensual hug — but then, she did that every morning, so Clark suspected nothing of his wife's worries and self-imposed quest as he flew off with a happy smile.
His departure galvanised Lois into action. She washed and dressed for work briskly, then took out her cellphone and the card that Ms St Cloud had given her, and dialled the number on it. Her timing was good; Silver answered almost immediately, and it was quickly arranged that the two women would meet in Silver's room at the Hilton in about an hour. This gave Lois time to make a flying visit to the Planet to check her messages and arrange things so that she could concentrate on Silver for as long as necessary. She rang off politely and headed out the door for her jeep.
Having done everything that she needed to do, Lois was about to leave the newsroom for the Hilton when she was stopped short by the commanding drawl of Perry White. "Lois!"
"Yes, Chief," she replied, mentally sending up a prayer for this not to involve a long discussion of her schedule for the rest of the day, with or without Elvis stories.
Perry came over to her desk. "Nice work last night. Lindsey was tellin' me about this idea of yours for an article on successful businesswomen…" Lois began to mentally curse the woman, but she didn't get very far into the list of dreadful fates that would be visited upon the hapless financial reporter if the Great Goddess Lane had anything to do with it before Perry continued, "…I like it," at which point she had to abandon the whole thing.
"Yeah…" the editor said thoughtfully, "I think there's potential there for a Sunday feature — maybe even a series, if you can find enough interestin' women…"
Lois grabbed this one on the fly. "Thanks, Chief. Actually, I'm just on my way to interview a prime candidate for that, and I'm gonna be late if I don't go *now*…"
"Oh, okay, sure. But don't spend too much time on this; Sunday features are okay, but this is a *news*paper! I want you and Clark to talk to Henderson this afternoon about these gang rumbles…"
This last was said to Lois' retreating back. She climbed the newsroom stairs, whirled around, waved, called out, "No problem, Chief. I'll be back before lunch — well, I *should* be…" and dived into the elevator, leaving a bemused Perry standing staring after her.
'Now, what in tarnation is that girl up to?' he thought to himself. 'When she's like this, it usually means that she's on the trail of somethin' big, and I don't think interviewin' successful businesswomen comes up to her standards for big… Maybe it's a follow-up to that robbery last night? Ah, you think I'd have better sense than to try second-guessing Lois after all these years. She'll tell me when she's good and ready.' And on that happy thought, Perry headed for his office, barking a few friendly editorial comments to various newsroom inhabitants as he went.
Lois paused outside the door of room 1587 of the Hilton. She quickly ran her hands over her hair and smoothed her skirt, closed her eyes and took a deep breath. A small part of her mind was rather amused at this sudden need to calm herself and put on a good front, but she told it to shut up; she had some serious, delicate probing to do and she needed to be as focused as possible to do it, which meant that she couldn't waste time worrying if her hair and clothes were okay. She wasn't nervous, no, not at all. Just because this woman knew Bruce Wayne's dual identity and might well have guessed Clark's, that was no reason to be nervous, of course not…
Another deep breath, and she reached out and knocked on the door. After a short wait, the peephole lens in the door went dark and, a few moments later, the door opened. Ms St Cloud greeted Lois cordially and led her into the suite. The desk in the living room was covered with papers, which Silver waved at deprecatingly, murmuring about work always being there, so they settled down in comfortable armchairs.
The next half-an-hour or so was spent in a conventional interview; Lois, having trapped herself into actually having to produce the articles that she'd invented as a cover story, applied her usual professional thoroughness to the job, which left her interviewee with the sensation, new to her but familiar amongst Metropolitans who'd attracted the interest of Lois Lane, of having had her life — or, at least, the business part of it — extracted, examined in exquisite detail under an electron microscope, and hung out to dry. So it was with a sigh of relief that Silver got up to answer a knock on the door, which she hoped, and was very pleased to see, was room service, bringing coffee.
Lois welcomed the break, too. She'd just about got everything she needed for her article, so it was time to get down to the *real* reason why she was here, and that could best be approached in a less adversarial setting — like, say, while having coffee.
She accepted the proffered cup, took a sip — hey, that was *good* coffee! — and declined anything to eat. The two women sat in comfortable silence, savouring the coffee, for some time, and then Lois began a "conversation".
"How are you feeling this morning?" she said chattily. "You were looking pretty pale last night. Of course, you had good reason to: first night of your first big conference in Metropolis, it gets held up; *you* get shot at; then you're rescued by Superman — *and* Batman! Wonder what *he* was doing here… That's enough to stress out anybody."
This didn't seem to be having any effect — or not the effect that Lois wanted, because Silver, who up to now had been conversing pleasantly, suddenly became rather quiet — so Lois decided to up the ante. "And all that on top of meeting Bruce again… hell of way to spend an evening, if you ask me."
Silver still didn't respond. In fact, she looked to Lois as though she'd withdrawn from the world, pulled right back inside herself — presumably as a defensive measure. 'Hmmm… now what do I do?' Lois thought, 'Do I lure her out or *blast* her out? But out she must come, or I'm not going to get any answers.'
Lois tried the softly-softly approach first, chatting about this and that with the occasional gentle, oblique query about Silver's state of mind and health, but the woman's reticent near-silence continued, stymieing Lois' attempts to turn the conversation to where she wanted it to go. Eventually, Lois was forced to the conclusion that it was blasting time; she *had* to break this stonewalling — the question was, what would be the best bombshell to drop? After a few minutes, she decided that she might as well use the biggest weapon in her possession — the biggest one that it was safe to use, that is.
Being a practised interviewer, it wasn't hard for her to move the conversation — which was more like a monologue, anyway — by obscure and devious routes to the subject of the events of the previous evening. "I was so surprised when Batman came crashing through that skylight," she babbled — deliberately, babble seeming to be appropriate since she was having to do most of the talking. "Relieved, too — but not half as relieved as those poor women that Malone was threatening. I've been taken hostage a few times and, believe me, it is *no* fun…"
'Okay, here we go…' "Malone's lucky that he didn't know who you were. You'd have been a perfect hostage from his point of view: attractive, important, 'rich' — Suicide Slum gangs think everyone who isn't from the Slum is rich — and Bruce would have gone through the roof! I mean, he was *so* angry last night when you were nearly hurt; if Malone had actually *touched* you, I think Bruce might have killed him…"
Silver's coffee cup hit the floor with a crash and an accompanying tinkle from the spoon. Fortunately, there was nothing in it, or her legs might have been badly scalded. Lois, not realising that the cup was empty, cut short what she had gone on to say and grabbed a napkin from the coffee tray, hastily kneeling by the other woman's legs to clean up and begin first aid if needed. But when she saw that there was no coffee or blood anywhere, she looked up… to see Silver staring at her. After a few seconds during which the blonde woman seemed to be struggling to say something, but the words wouldn't come, Lois finally heard her say, in a half-strangled gasp, "You… you *know*?"
"About Batman?" In sharp contrast to Silver's distress, Lois' voice was determinedly nonchalant as she got up and sat down again. "Of course. I *told* you we were friends…"
"You mean… your 'mutual friend'… your husband… *Superman*..?"
'Well, that answers *that* question,' Lois thought wryly. She would have said as much, but the startled gaze of the blonde woman changed as she watched to a cold glare, matched by the chill in Ms St Cloud's voice as she spoke again: "Did Bruce send you here?"
Now it was *Lois'* turn to be startled. "No!" she half-yelped, stifling a giggle that didn't seem to realise that it was totally out of place right now. "Nobody *sent* me, and certainly not …Bruce—in fact, he would be furious if he knew I was here."
"Then why *are* you here? Just what did you have in mind, playing your little games with me? It's become obvious that your 'story' is just that, so what is it you really want, Ms Lane?"
'Oh, dear…' thought Lois, her mind suddenly racing. 'Now, how do I answer that?' The conversation was not going at all the way she'd planned it, mostly because she'd grossly underestimated the other person taking part; nonetheless, it was important that they sort a few things out now that Lois' fears had been confirmed, and the only way that she could see to make sure that that happened was to tell the truth. 'Okay, cards on the table…'
"Why am I here?" Lois asked. "First of all, not to play *games*. I don't get any kick out of malicious mind games with people who don't deserve it, and I don't think you qualify. Believe it or not, I've enjoyed getting to know you, and I think we could be friends if you can stand the sight of me after today — which is not something I say to very many people.
"We sure as hell have something in common! Which is one reason why I had to see you today; from the way you acted last night, I was afraid that you suspected something about Clark, and obviously, I was right! You have to understand that I couldn't just let that hang — it's too dangerous; I had to *know*, and now that I do, we need to talk about it."
"What is there to say?" Silver replied, surprise peeking through the icy control — which perhaps wasn't as effective as she might have liked. "I certainly have no intention of telling anyone, and I can't imagine that anyone is going to suspect *me* of knowing who Superman really is." Her next words sounded forced, as though she felt they had to be said, even though a pit of rattlesnakes might be an acceptable alternative, were one available. "Bruce will vouch for my trustworthiness, I think…" Then, despite herself, her tone turned to curiosity. "This must have happened before, surely; those glasses aren't much of a disguise."
Lois didn't know whether to wince or laugh. She settled for the latter, and the atmosphere in the room thawed a couple of degrees. "You'd be surprised… they fooled *me* for an awful long time! Look, Silver, it's not that Clark and I don't trust you, but now that you know, we need to talk about this. It's not as simple as just saying, 'Yes, I know, but I won't tell anyone.' Secrets like this put you under a lot of pressure, whatever you do. You *can't* just forget about them, because they keep pushing themselves forward. Look at you and Bruce…"
The thaw instantly re-froze. "What do you mean?" Silver said, and the edge to her voice could have cut raw silk.
Lois was beginning to get angry, just a little. She *had* to get it through the woman's head that she couldn't just walk away from what she now knew — or, it was becoming increasingly obvious, from Bruce Wayne, either. And that thought gave her an angle to use.
"Silver…" she said, exasperation tingeing her words, "I don't want to butt into your personal life any more than I have to, but I think you need to re-assess your relationship with Bruce. Okay, you broke up with him, but from what I saw last night, neither of you has really let go. I don't think I've seen anyone react so strongly to someone since…" She paused for thought, and then realised that there was only *one* valid comparison to make. "…since I looked in the mirror after meeting Superman! I think you need to sort yourself out, and I hope I can help. I'd like to try, at least…"
"How… how *dare* you?!" Horrified and furious at Lois' presumption, not to mention the prospect of having to bare her soul over something that she'd much rather stayed buried — or would she? — but also dangerously near tears, Silver stood up and pointed to the door. "Ms Lane, would you please leave?"
"No!" Lois yelled, mentally damning the torpedoes. "I'm not going anywhere! Not until you and I sit down and *talk* about this! Because I've *seen* you, last night and this morning, and you need help! Not professional help, but help from a friend — and I'm all you got, as far as this secret identity business goes. Just meeting Bruce again is eating you alive, and now you've got to deal with Clark and I on top of that. If you don't talk about it — about *everything*: Bruce, Batman, your fears, your worries, the insecurity, the whole bit — it will fester until it poisons your whole life. Believe me, I've been there, and I know: you either talk, or the emotional pressure will tear you to pieces!"
Lois paused for breath, glaring at Silver through the moment of silence before continuing, "I *know* what you're going through, dammit! Do you think that just because Clark is bullet-proof, he can't be *hurt*? He's saved my life more often than I can count, but I've saved *his* more than a few times, and he'd be the first to admit that. You worry about Bruce getting shot; *I* worry about some maniac with kryptonite!"
Silver was rocked back on her heels, both figuratively and literally, by the sheer power of Lois'… well, explosion seemed to be the best way to describe it. Had she not been so affected by the woman's whirlwind invective, she might have resented that Lois had made more than a few assumptions about her and her wants and needs, particularly with respect to Bruce; as it was, she found herself swept along by the force of Lois' demands until she forgot her anger, forgot her determination to keep Bruce Wayne out of her life, and began to take part in what had somehow become a conversation about something that she'd never imagined ever being able to talk about with anyone.
"Lois… how *do* you deal with it? How do you live with the possibility that your husband — the man you love…" 'There, I said it!' "…will go out one night and not come back?"
"The same way every woman does who's married to a policeman, a fireman, a paramedic, a soldier, a test pilot… By admitting that it could happen, praying that it won't, and being prepared to accept the consequences if it does. And by remembering, every minute of every day, that if there's *any* way humanly possible — and Clark counts as human for this — my man *will* come back to me.
"Silver, before I found out that Clark was Superman, we nearly didn't get together because Clark kept having to disappear to go help someone in the suit. When I lost my memory, one of the things which gradually came back was this habit of Clark's of leaving all the time. I called him on it, and I will always remember what he said: 'Yes, I do' — run off, that is — 'but I always come back.' And he does. He's come back from everywhere and everything that you can imagine. From the four corners of the world, from space, from attacks on the innermost depths of his mind and soul — from *death*, even! For me."
"Yes, but that's Cl— Superman. I… I'm not sure Batman can do that…"
"Silver, this is *Bruce* we're talking about, remember? Look, I know finding that the man you love has a secret identity and spends his time in long underwear fighting bad guys can be frightening, but you've got to look past the costume — *both* of them: the spandex and body armour, *and* the 'normal' guy that everyone else sees. Only then can you find the real man.
"I knew Clark for nearly two years before I got past the 'Super' part to discover the man, and when I did, finally, it took me *weeks* to sort out my feelings about the fact that he wasn't just the simple, mild-mannered reporter that I fell in love with. But once I did… I've never been so happy, and neither has Clark.
"Do you realise that it's a minor miracle that Clark isn't schizoid? Almost all his life, he's had to hide what he can do. And then, once he came up with the idea of Superman so that he could use his powers, he found he had to… bottle himself up when he was in the suit. He could never be just himself, except when he was *by* himself or with his parents. Now he can do that — *be* that with *me*, every day. And, when we see them, with Bruce, Dick and Alfred. He told me that it's like having a weight taken from him, one that even his super-strength couldn't lift. I… he makes me feel so *special*…"
"You're very lucky…" Silver whispered, downcast. Was there a trace of envy there?
Lois, lost for a moment in the warmth of the great mutual love between herself and Clark, forced herself back to the present and began to get angry. "Silver! Yes, I'm lucky, but so could *you* be, if you only had the guts to *go* for it! Have you heard a word of what I've been saying? Bruce is just like Clark! Oh, he can't fly, but there are these two halves of him that no-one else knows —no-one but Alfred, Dick, Clark, me… and you.
"Okay, Batman is a pretty scary guy — look at what happened last night, when you nearly got shot; he even frightened *me*! — but that's the whole idea! You've got to look past the Bat to the man inside the suit. There *is* a man there — a good, kind, decent, *caring* man who was hurt incredibly badly as a little boy, so he dedicated himself— his entire *life* — to preventing that from happening to anyone else. But to do that, he had to split himself into two, the same way that Clark did; the difference is that Bruce Wayne became more of a disguise and the Batman has more of the real person in him."
"But… but Bruce is real. I know he is…"
"When he's with *you*, yeah, he probably is — but how many times have you read gossip columns about Bruce Wayne, the idle rich playboy? Seen photos of him surrounded by bimbos or beach bunnies? You think *that's* the real Bruce? Don't make me laugh!"
Lois could see that strike home. Silver lowered her head and Lois could imagine the massive cringe that the other woman must be experiencing inside. She went on, determined to sink a few home truths through Silver's skull, "It's all front! Oh, he enjoys it on a superficial level, just like I enjoyed getting flowers from Brad Pitt and Antonio Banderas when I was Ultra Woman, but it doesn't *mean* anything — it's all show, just like Clark's glasses, so no-one can ever conceive that the playboy could possibly be the hero. But that's not Bruce, any more than Superman is who Clark really is.
"I've *seen* the real Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. the Batman. Not often, and not for long, but I've been lucky enough, because I married Clark, to see him and talk to him — even *joke* with him! Can you imagine the Batman laughing? You should hear him with his feet up, the mask off and a cup of coffee in his hand. *Bruce Wayne* can laugh all right, and he *does* when he feels relaxed enough. He's got a great sense of humour — very sharp, very pointed; the inevitable result of being the world's greatest detective, I guess but it only ever really comes out in the Bat-cave. It's a shame, but I think that even his beloved Wayne Manor has become a stage for his act as the shallow billionaire.
"You got lucky — you met Bruce at a time when his alter ego was under attack by Boss Thorne and his cronies, and because of that, he was that little bit more willing to let you get close to something deeper than the playboy facade, to show you his real self. And *that* was who you fell in love with. And that was who you left behind…
"I'm not saying it's going to be easy. It's not. At times, it's going to be even harder than it was for Clark and I — and, God knows, I wouldn't wish *that* on anyone — because Bruce carries around this tremendous load of anger and sorrow. What drives him to be the Batman is always going to be there, but it's not *all* there is to him. *You* know that if anyone does.
"Bruce is a man with an incredible amount of compassion — and passion — inside. He needs to be able to let that out. At the moment, the only way he can do that is as the Batman, or by proxy, by doing good works through the Wayne Foundation. Neither is what he really needs; one is only a way to release his anger and frustrations, and the other is too dry, too detached to be much help. But it's all he's got, except for those very few people that he dares care about — Alfred, Dick, Commissioner Gordon and, to a lesser extent, Clark and I. And you — *especially* you, if you'd let him. He needs more — and you could give it to him."
Silver sat, silently and visibly thinking over Lois' words. Lois stayed silent, too. She'd had her say; what happened now depended on the decision that the woman next to her would make. She just hoped that Silver realised that she was being offered that rarest of opportunities, a second chance.
Eventually, Silver turned to look at Lois. Her face showed uncertainty, as did her voice as she said, very softly, "How do I do that? Not just right now, but… in the future. How do I give him what he needs?" 'And where do I get the strength to do it?'
Lois perceived the unsaid question almost as clearly as she heard Silver's words. She replied, equally softly, "By loving him. By letting *him* love *you*. By being yourself and insisting that he be himself. By going and doing your job, and coping when he has to leave you to do his. By being there when he comes back, and demanding that he share the things that he's seen and done with you. By *not* letting him fob you off; if they're anything like what Clark has to handle — and they're probably *worse* — the things that Batman deals with on a nightly basis are likely to be pretty dreadful at times, and he needs to know that someone else cares, even though he might not want to bother you.
"How do you cope with all that? Oddly enough, it helps if you're a little bit selfish. I see Superman fly overhead sometimes, or look at a story in the paper or on TV — even one I wrote myself and I think to myself, 'Lois, girl, you are the luckiest woman alive, because that man is all *yours*!' I think of the whole world, and I… preen, I guess, because I know that Clark is out there, doing what he has to do because he is what he is, but that what he's really looking forward to is coming back home, to *me*. It's a nice feeling… and it helps when he has to leave me to go save someone else, or the world.
"That's what you should do. Think about all the bimbos and beach bunnies, and all the society matrons, all over the world, who are going to be *devastated* by the news that Bruce Wayne, that most eligible of eligible bachelors, is going to settle down at last — with *you*! Laugh at them! Imagine their screams of rage at the news."
Lois paused for a second, then grinned. "Take a leaf out of one of the Dorothy L Sayers books: go down to the biggest florist's shop that you know and imagine ordering tons of willow branches to send to all Bruce's old dates and their mothers, 'for the better beating of breasts'. And in every single bunch, you put a card: 'Sorry, girls, you're out of luck — he's *mine*!' Hell, woman, you could be the… significant other…" 'At the very least, but let's not push it too much, Lois. Silver's just barely coming to terms with the idea as it is.' "…of a guy who is not only indecently rich…" 'Well, that really describes *Lex* better than Bruce.' "…but is also drop-dead handsome, with a body to *die* for! Flaunt it, kid! Glory in it!"
She paused again, and her voice lost the playful tone. "But, if you want Bruce, you have to accept the Batman, because you can't split them apart. Just remember, when he charges into danger or ends up in a knock-down, drag-out fight with a gang of crooks, he's doing it because he *has* to, because he cares so much for other people, for the whole of Gotham City, that he can't bear to see another person hurt the way he was as a little boy while there is *anything* in his power that he can do to stop it. But when it's all over, and the cops are picking up the pieces, what he wants more than anything is *never* to have to do that again. To be able to hang up his cape for good, because it would mean that he'd done his job.
"Now, you and I know that that's not likely to happen, and so does Bruce. By now, he'd probably miss the excitement if the whole world *did* suddenly become totally honest and peaceful overnight. But that doesn't mean that he doesn't need that peace inside himself. What makes him the Batman is a deep, deep rage; he needs something positive to counter that, to act as a balance before it sucks him in completely and destroys a wonderful man.
"I can't believe I'm saying this, because it's the world's *worst* cliche, but what Bruce needs is the love of a good woman. And *you*, Silver St Cloud, are the good woman that he wants. All that caring that drives him to be the Batman could be yours, too —*if* you can bring yourself to take it!"
'Bring myself to take it…' thought Silver. 'Can I do that? Do I *want* to?' Her head felt numb inside; thinking was difficult through a maelstrom of confused emotion, and decision-making next to impossible. Still, she tried to sort out just what she was feeling, but her indecision only deepened and the confusion grew. Finally, in a desperate attempt to respond somehow, she blanked her mind, deliberately refusing to think in the hope that her emotions would untangle themselves and present her with a straightforward answer to two simple questions: 'Do I love Bruce Wayne?' and, 'If I do, can I live with his double life?'
But, it came to her suddenly, there was really only one question. The fact that she had to ask herself the second question meant that the answer to the first one was yes; she *did* love Bruce Wayne, she had since she'd come to know him three years ago, and she'd never stopped loving him, even when she'd run away from him because of his alter ego.
She'd done her best to forget him, to bury her feelings for him deep inside where they would eventually wither and die… but they hadn't. She had only to hear a casual remark from anyone about Bruce or the Batman and she would be consumed with curiosity. She'd always been interested in the hero, even before she'd met him, in either guise, and this… this fascination would *not* go away, no matter how hard she tried to present an indifferent facade to the world, and even to herself.
She'd managed to cope without him by building a wall between herself and her emotions. She hadn't had a real relationship with anyone since Bruce; a few dates, yes, but the men always seemed so shallow that she'd given up on them very quickly, almost in disgust. Now, with this new self-awareness that Lois had somehow forced upon her, she knew that the reason for her dismissive attitude to her unfortunate escorts was that they simply didn't measure up to Bruce Wayne; she'd never realised it before because she hadn't dared think of him, lest the pain return. So, she'd rejected the whole idea of personal relationships as messy and unnecessary, and put her efforts into her work. That had kept her mind occupied and given her a measure of contentment, but had done nothing for her emotionally.
But then Bruce had come back into her life, and all her efforts to put him out of her mind and her heart had been for nothing. Without even trying, he had crashed through her defences as though they were paper walls in a Japanese house and exposed her feelings, so long buried but none the less strong for the passage of time, for anyone who cared to look. The worst part was that *he* hadn't bothered to look, probably because he didn't want to open his own emotional wounds from three years ago.
But *Lois* had looked, both before and after Silver had discovered Clark's secret, and she was holding out the prospect of a renewed relationship with Bruce, something which was both enticing and terrifying — *if*, the thought sprang into Silver's mind, she knew what she was talking about. Yes, the woman was Superman's wife — a startling idea in itself — but did that mean that her opinions of *Batman* were to be trusted?
It suddenly became imperative to Silver to find out just what Lois really knew about Bruce Wayne, so, in a voice that she tried to keep as flat as possible, although a certain hesitancy was there despite her efforts, she asked, "Lois… I know you're his friend, but Bruce is such a private person — how do you know so much about him?"
"Hey, I *am* an investigative reporter — and a good one, even if I do say so myself. You don't get far in that business without being able to at least get a feel for what's going on inside someone else's head." Lois grimaced oddly before continuing, "Okay, so I messed up big time with Clark, but that just helped me get better at it with everyone else. And, as I keep telling you, Bruce is like Clark — they're both unique, both driven in their own way to go out there in costume and fight the good fight, both liable to suffer for it.
"I can understand Bruce's pain, much more so than Clark can. He grew up in a small town, with a wonderful mother and father; his parents are the *best* people. Me, my family was the original dysfunctional urban unit; I know what it's like to lose your
parents as a child. I was older than Bruce when Mom and Dad split up, and my mother brought my sister Lucy and I up after Dad finally left, but I'm not sure that Bruce wasn't better off with his uncle and Mrs Chilton, and especially Alfred. So I can appreciate, just a little, what he's gone through.
"On top of all that, like I said, I've been lucky enough to get to know Bruce when he's not putting up a front. And, believe me, I *know* about putting up fronts; ask Clark — but not when I'm around, please. So I can recognise when the real person emerges >from underneath the mask and the playboy facade. And he's quite a guy. If I didn't have Clark, you might have a rival…
"And don't kid yourself — you *have* got rivals. Not for Bruce; even the bimbos, bunnies and society gals have pretty much given up on catching him by now. Though hope does spring eternal in the human breast — which is usually their most… outstanding attribute.
"*Batman*, on the other hand… There are a couple of women out there who take more than a passing interest in the guy with the mask and the cape. Catwoman, for one; Poison Ivy; and then there's this mystery woman, Talia, that Bruce has mentioned on occasion. >From what little he's said, I'm not sure whether she's a good guy or a bad one — a bit of both, I think. But she's definitely interested in him, and he's intrigued by her at the very least…
"So if I were you, I'd make up my mind and get my skates on. Superheroes are pretty rare birds — or, in this case, bats — and you don't want to lose *yours* to some other woman who's prepared to throw herself at him. It nearly happened to me…"
Silver was momentarily distracted from her own concerns, taken aback by this — not the idea that she had one or more rivals for Bruce, but that Lois could ever have been in any danger of losing Clark. She had seen them together, and the love between them was so strong and so obvious that it was a wonder that they weren't permanently linked by a flower- and heart-covered steel cable. The thought that *she* might also know a love like that sent a thrill through her, but it was accompanied by a surge of apprehension; could she bring herself to take the risk, and was it still possible?
She cringed internally again, this time at the thought that she'd blown her chance at something that she only now realised that she wanted desperately. She felt a brief flash of anger at herself, mixed with a surge of jealousy directed at those fancy women who *dared* to covet her man — her *Batman*! — but it died quickly in the face of her fears and a feeling of helplessness. She had made her decision — she was still afraid of what she was contemplating, but Bruce was worth the risk — but she didn't know what to do about it.
"Lois… what do I do?" Silver asked, her voice filled with anguish… and need. "I hurt him so badly… How can I tell him that I was wrong? How can I make that up to him?" 'How do I make him love me again?'
Lois smiled. 'All *right*!' she thought. 'Bruce Wayne, Look out! The Lane-Kent Matchmaking Bureau has you in its sights!' She leaned forward conspiratorially and beckoned Silver to join her. "What we need," she said, "is a little advice from an expert — an expert on Bruce Wayne. Fortunately, I just happen to know one…" She picked up her cellphone before continuing, "…and my husband is *really* good at arranging quick flights to Gotham City."
'If I can convince him to co-operate, that is,' she thought, but didn't say out loud.
Clark was going over the results of some research that Jimmy had done for him when his desk phone rang. He picked it up and answered, "Daily Planet, Clark Kent speaking," although most of his attention was still on what he was reading.
"Hi, Clark," came Lois' voice from the receiver, "I'm at the Hilton, room 1587. Can you get over here quickly — *really* quickly?"
Jimmy's research was suddenly completely forgotten; Lois asking him to go somewhere "*really* quickly" was their private code for Superman, which in turn could only mean Trouble. "I'm on my way," he replied, one hand already loosening his tie and the other preparing to put the phone down.
However, before the receiver was in its cradle, Lois went on and Clark's super-hearing picked up, "Don't worry, Clark; there's no problem. Quite the opposite, in fact. But don't hang 'round, okay?"
This had Clark totally mystified. He lifted the receiver and replied, "Um… okay, Lois. See you shortly."
"Great. Love you." She rang off.
"Love you, too…" murmured a confused Clark, holding a dead telephone. 'What the heck was that all about?' he wondered. Then, realising the possible significance of where she was calling from, he had an awful feeling that he knew what it was about. 'I thought she'd given up on that.' But, since he always tried to be fair, he considered the possibility that she *had* given up on any potential matchmaking — which only raised the mystifying question of what *else* could be at the Metropolis Hilton that required super-intervention but "wasn't a problem." 'Oh well, there's one easy way to find out…'
He hung up the phone and headed for the stockroom.
A firm, brisk knock sounded on the door of Silver's room. Lois, who'd been watching out the window, jumped slightly in surprise and got up, saying, "That'll probably be Clark," and went to answer the door. She looked through the peep-hole just in case it wasn't him, but it was. However, she noticed two things about him which had her a little concerned: first, he'd come to the door, and as Clark; and second, he didn't look very happy. 'Oh-oh,' she thought, 'Guess who's checked out the lay of the land with x-ray vision. I don't think he's too pleased with me…'
She quickly decided that a bright, bouncy approach was her best bet; it probably wouldn't work, but it just might take the edge off his annoyance with her. Suiting her action to her plan, she threw open the door and launched herself at him. "Hi, sweetheart," she half-said, half-giggled before kissing him hard and hustling him inside. He could have resisted, but her tactics were successful insofar as they surprised and distracted him, and he let himself be propelled into the hotel room without thinking much about it — he was too busy enjoying her hug and kiss.
Once inside, however, his brain began to work again and he stiffened. He looked around the room — 'just as if he hadn't already done that before he came in,' Lois thought to herself with an internal smile — and, catching sight of Silver, went over to her to say hello.
"Good morning, Ms St Cloud," he said. Silver murmured something in reply and held out her hand. Clark noticed that her heart was beating fast, and it jumped before increasing even further when he shook hands with her. 'What's she so nervous about?' he wondered. "It's good to see you again." He paused for a moment. "I don't want to seem rude, but would you excuse Lois and I for a few minutes?" 'While I find out just what is going on here…'
"Of course, Mr Kent," Silver replied, turning away and sitting down with a magazine. Clark stepped back and headed towards Lois, who was leaning against the wall by the door with a small smile on her face. This outward cool-as-a-cucumber manner was at some variance with her internal state of mind, and Lois was afraid that Clark could tell this from her vital signs, but, as usual, she wasn't going to admit to anything.
Clark took his wife by the shoulders and stared into her eyes. He tried to glare at her, but he had never found that easy, and the playful look in her eyes wasn't helping. "Okay, Lois," he whispered forcefully, "just what are you up to? I thought you'd satisfied your 'curiosity' about Ms St Cloud."
"I had…" she replied, quite unabashed, "…mostly. There was just one or two things that I needed to talk to her about, and then Perry heard about my cover story and *liked* the idea, so I made an appointment to meet her here and we got talking, and it wasn't long before the subject of Bruce came up — and *she* brought him up, not me— No, wait a minute, I did, after all… Anyway, one thing led to another, and pretty soon she was pouring her heart out to me…" Lois' babble finally wound down, and she looked up at Clark, whose attempt at a glare had collapsed completely and become an amused, adoring gaze — he did love her so, babble and all.
Encouraged by this, Lois continued, "Look, Clark, all I did was *talk* to her; she needed that, just like I did after I found out you were Superman and you proposed to me. I haven't done anything more than try to help her the way Martha helped me, and Jonathan did with *you*."
"Ah…" said Clark. Lois had a point; someone in Silver's position probably did need someone to talk to, and his wife was about the best person — the *only* person with that sort of experience — that she could find to discuss her feelings with. Molly Maynne-Scott and Joan Garrick, with their decades-long experience of a relationship with a superhero, might have been of more help, but they weren't here. Besides, he could hardly object to Lois doing what his mother had done — not when it had worked out so well for the two of *them*.
Something, though, was making him uneasy; lurking in the back of his mind was the suspicion that he'd missed or forgotten something, but he couldn't think what. He decided to let it surface in its own good time and turned his attention back to his wife. "Okay, Lois," he said ruefully, "You got me there. What is it you want?"
Lois grinned wickedly, partly from relief and partly in triumph. She hugged Clark again, saying, "Thank you," in a happy voice. She reached up and pulled him down for a quick, intense kiss. Then she let his head go, although she kept her arms around him, and looked up at him as she went on quickly, "All you need to do is take us to Gotham City. We need to talk to Alfred, and maybe Dick; Silver thinks she's sorted out how she feels, but how does Bruce feel about her after all this time? I have my own ideas, after the way he acted last night, but Silver needs more than that, and who better to ask than those two?"
"That's true," he said quietly. Any remaining objections that he might have had to interfering in his friend's life were rapidly fading — or perhaps were being steamrollered by Lois' bubbly enthusiasm — because the "interference" came down to helping someone who had been, and might again be, important to Bruce. It might be sophistry, but the important point seemed to him to be that the two potential partners were being, or would be, given a choice. All Lois wanted to do — 'at the moment,' he admitted wryly was to find out what the current situation was; where Silver and Bruce went from there was up to them, or it should be. Of course, knowing her, Lois would probably come up with some way to throw them together if Alfred's opinion was even half-favourable, but for now, at least, he could go along with her plans.
"Okay, so how do we do this?" he asked quietly — too quietly for Silver to hear. "Do I go and 'look for Superman', or what?"
"No, no — no need. Silver knows."
"*What*?!" blurted Clark, caught completely off-guard. *That* was what he should have seen before — how would a woman who loved Batman know to talk to *Lois* about it? "Lois— you *didn't*?!— I mean, she—"
"No, I didn't. She recognised you last night, which was one of those reasons why I *had* to talk to her again. I had a feeling about her from the way she acted last night, and I was right; she saw right through you, farm boy — and don't think that I don't feel humiliated by that! This woman has the sharpest eye for a jaw-line that I've ever heard of; those glasses didn't stand a chance against Eagle-Eye St Cloud!"
Clark's eyebrows shot up, and he turned to look at the other woman, who was sitting peacefully, reading her magazine, but he said nothing; there was nothing *to* say. Lois went over to Silver and said, "You ready? Clark just has to change, and then we'll get going." She looked across to her husband. "Do your thing, sweetheart. Time's a-wastin'…"
Just for a split-second, a long-suffering look flashed across Clark's face. He had come to the conclusion some time ago that Lois enjoyed showing him off to those very few people — mostly time travellers, other superheroes and their nearest and dearest — who could be trusted with the knowledge of his dual identity. She particularly enjoyed their reactions to him changing into the suit, and here was another person who hadn't seen his "party-piece" yet…
'Oh, the heck with it,' he thought. 'Let Lois have her fun; it's harmless — I think…' He spun into the suit, perhaps a little slower and more flamboyantly than usual, and stood still for a few seconds in the classic, ultra-serious Superman pose, watching Silver's astonished face and his wife's reaction — a combination of impish amusement at the other woman's amazed look and just a hint of the same emotions herself; Clark was pretty sure that she still found his identity switch thrilling, even after all the times she'd seen him do it.
He smiled, hopefully breaking the spell, and walked over to the women, offering each one a hand. "Shall we go?" he asked. They both nodded without saying anything, and he reached around each of them to get a secure grip, and they went.
The front door to Wayne Manor opened, revealing, as usual, the immaculate figure of Alfred Pennyworth, butler, chauffeur, family retainer, surrogate father and aide de camp to the master of the estate. His normally imperturbable countenance brightened at the sight of the man and woman on the doorstep, and he smiled as he greeted them.
"Mr Kent! Mrs Ken— Miss Lois," he hastily amended as Lois shook her finger at him. He moved aside and the couple entered the house, followed by their companion, who up till now had been hidden from view behind Clark's broad figure. At the sight of her, Alfred's eyebrows shot up and his archetypal British sang-froid almost disappeared completely.
"Miss *St Cloud*?!" he exclaimed. "I— it's very good to see you again, miss…" He pulled himself together and bowed to Silver as she stepped inside.
"It took me *years* to get Alfred to stop calling me 'Mrs Kent'," Lois remarked conversationally to Silver as they crossed the entrance hall. "He refused to call me 'Ms Lane' — I think he objects to the term 'Ms' on principle — so we compromised on 'Miss Lois', although it is a strain for him to refer to a friend of Bruce's so familiarly, poor dear."
Clark smiled at his wife's attempt to get her companion to relax, as did the woman herself, unable to resist Lois' chatty asides. The group went into the drawing room and Silver looked around at the elegance of the decor. Her eyes widened. "Wow…" she breathed. "I'd heard about Wayne Manor, but I didn't know that it was like this…"
"Haven't you ever been here before?" asked Lois, disconcerted by Silver's reaction.
"No… When I knew Bruce, he was living in the penthouse on top of the Wayne Foundation building. That was nice enough, but it was all modern furniture — nothing like *this*…"
"Oh, right… That must have been while Dick was at Hudson University." Lois looked over at Alfred for confirmation, and the butler nodded almost imperceptibly. "You'll have to give Silver the Grand Tour sometime, Alfred," she said, before turning to Silver and continuing in a low voice, "This place is *really* worth seeing—just make sure you wear comfortable shoes, because it goes on and on and *on*, both upstairs and down below."
"I should be delighted," replied Alfred, who had caught Lois' mention of "down below" and was wondering just what it meant. Could she possibly mean the Bat-cave? If so, what did *that* mean, and why was Miss St Cloud here? He hadn't seen a car outside — could Mr Kent have brought the two ladies here by air? But that would mean that Miss St Cloud knew *Superman's* secret identity as well as Batman's — *what* was going on here?
"How may I help you?" he asked. "Unfortunately, Master Dick is away" — a euphemism for "out on a case" — "and Mr Wayne is, of course, in Metropolis."
"We know," said Lois. "That's why we're here. Alfred, we— that is, Silver — needs your help. She still loves Bruce, and she's finally decided that she can live with Batman. The question is, how does Bruce feel about *her* these days? She'd like to get back together with him, but we need a little advice as to whether you think that's possible, and just how we might go about it."
"Ah…" Alfred's eyes narrowed slightly as he turned to regard the blonde woman. Silver was staggered and would have recoiled under the intense scrutiny of his eyes, which, normally politely expressionless, were boring into her like gimlets, but she rallied and stood her ground. She had let Lois take the lead in approaching Alfred — actually, it would have been difficult to stop her new friend — but now it was up to her, and her alone; if Alfred could not be convinced that her change of heart was genuine, then there was no point in even trying to rekindle her relationship with Bruce. All she could do was face this man, who knew the man she loved as no-one else did, and try to present her feelings to him as the truth.
It seemed to work. Alfred's gaze softened and he walked over to her. "If I may say so, miss, that is… wonderful news," he said gently.
Silver's eyes were bright. So were Lois', and Clark reached out and pulled her to his side with one long arm. The couple watched as Silver looked in her handbag for a handkerchief, then accepted one from Alfred. She wiped her eyes and looked at the butler, smiling. "Thank you, Alfred."
"Thank *you*, miss…" he replied. He turned back to Lois and Clark, a small smile on his face. "As to Mr Wayne's feelings, I believe I know of something that should satisfy you on the matter. If you would care to follow me..?"
Alfred led the way out of the drawing room, along a maze of corridors, up a flight of stairs and along more corridors. As she followed, Silver caught tantalising glimpses of other rooms in the house through various doors; a *huge* library with thousands of books; a billiard room; several luxurious bedrooms; a room full of armour and weapons — all spoke of great wealth and comfort, but somehow they seemed… empty, sterile, in need of life. She wondered if this might not reflect an aspect of their owner, and she began to feel an unaccustomed excitement at the challenge of turning this big house into a *home*. But then she reined in her imagination: home-making was *way* in the future. First she had to establish if there was any chance that she could mend what she had broken three years ago.
Finally, Alfred led the trio of visitors into a small bedroom. Only Clark had ever been in here before, and the two women were shocked at how spartan the room was. In marked contrast to the plush elegance of the rest of the house, the decor in this room was basic, even rudimentary. No Louis XIV furniture here, no velvet wallpaper, no deep-pile carpet — no carpet at all, for that matter. A polished wood floor, a simple, single wooden bed and a few items of equally-modest furniture were all that could be seen against a background of plain painted walls. Except for the quality of the furniture, which was excellent despite its simplicity, and the cleanliness of the room and everything in it — Alfred's work, no doubt — this could have been a room in a low-rent flophouse instead of the bedroom of a billionaire playboy with a reputation as a ladies' man.
"This is Bruce's *bedroom*?" Lois exclaimed in amazement. "Oh, Silver, you gotta do something about this! I don't believe this — the rest of the house is so… so beautiful, and he sleeps *here*?"
"Lois…" Clark said quietly, "I think you're missing the point." Lois turned to look at him, her eyebrows up and a come-on-tell-me-already look on her face. "This is where Bruce *sleeps* — *when* he sleeps. I don't think he's ever felt the… desire to do anything else here."
Both women looked at Alfred, who simply nodded. "This has been Mr Wayne's room since he was a child," he said. "He has never wanted to move out of it, particularly not into the master bedroom — which, if the dust covers were off, I think you would find more in keeping with the rest of the house.
"In fact, the only time that Master Bruce—" Alfred didn't notice that he had unconsciously slipped into using the name by which he referred to Bruce as a child, but both Lois and Clark picked up on it and exchanged meaningful glances across the room. "—has ever shown any interest in the master bedroom was three or so years ago, while he was seeing you, miss."
Silver looked stunned. She stood, pale and silent, with one hand raised to her breast, as Alfred moved over to a small bedside cabinet and opened the bottom drawer. He took from it a flat object, which Lois saw had been lying face-down in the drawer, and passed it to Silver. "Do you remember this, miss?" Alfred asked quietly.
Silver, already pale, went white. For a moment, it looked as though she was going to faint, and Alfred went to help her, only to find that Clark was there before him. Clark held Silver's shoulders as she stared at what the butler had given her for a long moment before raising huge eyes from it to meet Alfred's and whisper, "He… he *kept* it?" as though that was the most inconceivable thing on Earth.
"Yes, miss," Alfred replied gravely. "He could not bring himself to throw it away. He kept it in this drawer, and it was some time before he stopped taking it out to look at before retiring."
Silver's face crumpled and she buried it in her hands, the mysterious object falling to the floor as she burst into tears. Clark gently turned her to face him and held her as she sobbed against him.
Lois moved over to Clark and picked up this somehow-so-important thing. It turned out to be a photo-portrait of Silver, her hair hanging loose and a brilliant smile on her face. On the photo were the words, hand-written: "To Bruce. Love you always and all ways. Silver."
Lois thought for a moment, then cried out triumphantly, "That's *it*! Silver, that's it — *that's* how we get you back with Bruce!" Clark recognised the tone — this was Lois Lane, investigative reporter, figuring out another mystery — and looked at his wife expectantly.
Silver, not used to Lois' idiosyncrasies, merely looked surprised at the other woman's enthusiasm, once she managed to raise her head from Clark's chest. "What… what do you mean, Lois?" she asked after a few fruitless attempts to speak.
"I mean I *know* how we do this! Come over here and I'll tell you all about it. He won't have a chance if we do this right!"
Clark released Silver, who murmured her thanks to him and went over to Lois, who was now sitting at a desk. She pulled up another chair and the two women put their heads together, dark hair to blonde hair, as Lois began to speak quietly but rapidly. Before long, Silver's woebegone manner began to brighten, and she even giggled once or twice.
"Is Miss Lois like this often, sir?" a bemused Alfred asked of Clark, who was grinning at the spectacle of Lois deep in a torturous planning session with Silver.
"A lot of the time, yes," Clark confirmed, "When she gets an idea in her head." He was enjoying the sight of his wife doing what she did so well. It felt a little unusual not to be the one with whom she was weaving her plots, but he knew that she'd involve him quickly enough if she thought that he could be of any help.
"Then I suppose we should give thanks that she is on the side of the angels," was the dry reply before the butler smoothly retired >from the room. Clark was left to laugh to himself and reflect that, to him, Lois *was* an angel…
He was curious as to what she had in mind for his friend, but hadn't been listening to the conversation; he figured that he could convince Lois to tell him her plans eventually — or at least have fun trying.
Sure enough, she turned and waved him over. "Clark, come here," she called. "Look, I want you to take this to Jimmy and get him to…"
Bruce Wayne walked along the corridor towards his suite in the Metropolis Hilton. His shoulders drooped and his stride was listless; the last session of the day at the conference had been even more boring than usual, and the evening stretched out ahead of him, promising nothing but still more boredom. He had been looking forward to dinner with Lois and Clark in their townhouse, followed by whatever they — usually Lois — had in mind for an evening's relaxation, but his friends had left a message with the hotel to say that they had to work that night. He toyed with the idea of ringing them to ask if they minded if he tagged along — stake-outs and the like were hardly new to *him*, and he would have enjoyed the company — but decided against it; whatever they were involved with, it couldn't involve any serious criminal activity or Clark would have called him.
Which left him at a loose end for the evening. Had he been at home in Gotham City, it would have meant a night of patrolling, looking for trouble, but, even though he had brought the Bat-suit, he didn't feel like swinging around an unfamiliar city. Nor did the usual "society" activities appeal to him; he was certain that he could do the rounds of Metropolis' night-clubs and find some suitable companionship, but the need to assume the playboy role, with all its shallowness and insincerity, made him feel slightly ill. 'I guess I was looking forward to some *real* relaxation tonight,' he mused. 'And the alternative is just not appealing by comparison. I wonder what's on TV…'
The thought of "companionship" made him even more depressed. 'Silver! Of all the people to run into — and in Metropolis!' He felt like Rick in "Casablanca" — of all the conferences in all the cities in all the world, he had to come to one that *she* organised… He had kept his cool when he met her again — except for those few moments after Clark had saved her from that ricochet—but the knowledge that she was somewhere in the same building had been tormenting him all day. Seeing her, talking to her, had brought it all back, and it still hurt. Somehow, she had the power to touch him deep inside — deep, *deep* inside, deeper than any woman had ever been able to reach, deeper than any*thing* had ever touched him since… since the death of his parents, in that dark, accursed place now known as Crime Alley, all those years ago…
He felt a sudden, sharp flare of anger — at her, at himself, at the world for, as he had put it three years ago, "going crazy sometimes" — and would have pounded the wall in frustration had he been at home or even just alone. However, there were other people in the corridor, so he suppressed the feeling and took out his key to unlock the door to his suite.
He went in, his head bowed under the weight of his feelings and a kind of mental fatigue. He closed the door and put on the privacy chain. He was doing his best not to think of anything, and was, in consequence, operating almost on automatic, so it was not until he turned around, intending to take off his coat and tie, and perhaps fix himself a drink from the bar, that he noticed the addition to the living room's decor — and froze in shock.
It was a giant — easily 6 feet square — blow-up of Silver's portrait, complete with message and signature, and it rested against the wall of the room next to the bedroom door. Bruce stood there for a moment, stunned by its presence, then his eyes narrowed and his whole demeanour changed. Although the only outward sign was a grim expression, Bruce Wayne disappeared; it was the Batman who stood by the door, seeking the meaning of this intrusion. The lassitude of a few moments before had vanished, to be replaced by an alertness that was almost tangible; his eyes flicked across the room, back and forth, back and forth, but missed nothing despite their rapid motion; his stance and body language reflected that alertness, together with a readiness to instantly leap into action. An observer who knew of Bruce's dual identity might have been surprised to see that he hadn't sprouted pointed ears.
A noise came from the bedroom, and Bruce dived for the shadows by the door — which, unfortunately, brought him up against the portrait. It was a testimony to the almost inhuman self-control that was a part of him, although it mostly came out in his costumed guise, that he didn't scream in fury and tear the thing apart. The original of that photograph was one of his most treasured possessions, for all the pain associated with it, and the thought that it had been taken from its resting place and… *violated*, used to torture him in this way, filled him with a rage only rivalled by that which stemmed from the death of his parents.
The bedroom door opened, and the shadowed figure in the doorway called out softly, "Bruce..?"
Bruce had tensed at the sound of the door and assumed an attack posture; he was about to hurl himself at the intruder when he recognised the voice. "*Silver*?!" he barked before he could stop himself, "What the *hell*…"
She was startled by the sound of him, so close and so angry, and she stepped back into the darkness of the bedroom. Bruce followed her, charging through the doorway, diving past her in a perfect shoulder-roll into the middle of the room, coming to rest near the far wall in a excellent position from which to launch an attack against anyone lying in wait behind the woman. But there was no-one there — no foe ready to strike, no henchmen, not a soul save Silver St Cloud, silhouetted against the light from the doorway.
There was something strange about her silhouette, though — she seemed to be wearing an odd sort of coat with no visible sleeves; it fell from her shoulders to around knee-level, almost shapeless, although the essential femininity of her excellent figure was not hidden. It also featured a high collar that looked as though it was padded, and a peculiar hemline—
Bruce was suddenly filled with a premonition of… revulsion? Dread? Embarrassment? 'Oh, no. She *can't* have…' He moved to the bedside lamp and switched it on.
She had. There, standing by the door, was Silver — in a Batman costume! The "collar" was revealed to be the cowl, thrown back behind her neck and covered by the sweep of her hair, loose about her shoulders, and the "coat" with the strange hemline was, of course, the cape. But, finally seen in the light, the costume really only resembled his in broad outline. For one thing, the fabric was much softer than the unique semi-armour that he wore; it was glossy and quite tight-fitting, and, even as he gaped at the sight of it, Bruce reflected to himself that the tights looked more like something Clark would wear — except, of course, that his friend had never had curves like *those*. The outfit was also subtly, and not-so-subtly, feminine in cut, featuring, among other distinctive touches, a low, scalloped neckline that definitely was not part of *his* uniform.
He shook off his surprise, ignored the part of his mind that was admiring the costume and the figure of the person wearing it, and glared at her. "Would you mind telling me the meaning of this?" he said coldly, almost viciously. "*And* the meaning of that… that *thing* in the other room?"
"Bruce, we… It's been a long time." He nodded. "I… I wanted to talk to you, and I thought… I thought that you might be angry with me — and you have every right to be. I guess it was silly, but I thought that the costume might lighten the atmosphere a bit… And, of course, *you* were in costume the last time we spoke to each other — *really* spoke, I mean; last night doesn't count."
Her voice trailed off. This wasn't going well. He might have been carved out of granite for all the effect her words were having. She paused for a moment and changed tack. "Do you remember coming to my apartment as Batman, that stormy night?"
He nodded again. His expression hadn't changed.
"You swung over and climbed in the bedroom window, and then you asked me if I had wanted to tell you something the night before at the conference hall. I said no, because I was afraid to say *anything* to you. There you were, the Batman, a living legend… but you were also Bruce Wayne, my boyfriend — I didn't know what to say, so all I could do was… not say anything."
She hesitated, and Bruce could see that she was struggling with some powerful emotion — probably fear. He wanted to go to her, but he was wary; her fear could be because she was intended as a distraction — willing or unwilling — for him, as part of a trap. Again, his eyes scanned the room repeatedly, but found nothing. Finally they came to rest on the figure of the woman in the costume.
His gaze was even more difficult to withstand than Alfred's had been, but she had gained strength from standing up to the older man, and more from winning his approval, so she did not bend or retreat under Bruce's scrutiny, but remained there, slim and upright — and, to Bruce, though she didn't know it, eminently desirable, even in the silly costume. Eventually, she gathered her resolve again and broke the silence: "I— I do have something to say to you this time, so… so, could you ask me again, please?"
Bruce cast his mind back to that night. After their inconclusive encounter, he had left and then rung the apartment from a phone booth to cancel his date with Silver for that evening; she had been relieved, begging off herself with a phoney story of illness. He hadn't seen her again until they had met at the building site a couple of days later, when she had broken off their relationship. He now knew that she had driven out of town that same night, presumably in order to think things over. Her car had broken down on the highway, and she'd had something of a minor adventure getting back to Gotham in time to see the end of his battle with the Joker. But for all of that, the memory from that time which stood out and remained fresh and clear, despite his every attempt to eliminate it, was their confrontation in Silver's bedroom, he in his costume and she in… 'God, it was a *towel*, wasn't it?' So it was not at all hard for him to remember his words of three years before.
"Silver St Cloud," he quoted, his voice unconsciously assuming the deeper pitch that went with the Bat-suit, "I thought you had something to tell me last night."
"Bruce… Batman…" Her voice trailed away. She had so much that she wanted to say, but the words wouldn't come. It wasn't that she couldn't think what to say, not this time, but she couldn't find a way to start. She wanted desperately to have *said* it all, for him to know and to understand how she felt, but getting there from where she was at the moment was suddenly a gigantic obstacle.
Searching for inspiration, she went over to the bedside table and picked up the original of the huge photograph in the other room, looked at it for a long moment in silence then came towards Bruce, holding it out to him. He took it from her gently as she bowed her head and said, "I gave you this because I wanted you to have… a small piece of me, to be with you every day. I had begun to hope that you might eventually want *all* of me, but you had a reputation as a confirmed bachelor who was allergic to the idea of any sort of long-term commitment, let alone marriage. Somehow, though, that didn't seem to match up with the man I knew.
"I spent a long time deciding what to write on the photo; I went through *dozens* of sheets of paper, trying to come up with a message that would tell you how I felt without scaring you off. In the end, I decided that the best thing to do was to just come out and say that I loved you. I made it into a bit of a joke, to keep things light and airy in case it was too soon and you bolted, but I meant every word. I meant it then, and, I've come to realise over the last two days… I still mean it now."
She raised her head and looked deeply into his eyes, her own wide and bright, filled with emotion welling up from the depths of her soul. Bruce felt as though he was on the verge of falling into them as Silver kept speaking, her voice now tinged with passion and desperation as she finally came to the words that she *had* to say, regardless of the consequences. "I love you, Bruce. I've never stopped loving you. I guess I… just forgot some important things about what I wrote back then."
He said nothing, but his expression had been softening as he listened. It had lost the hardness and aggression that was there when he dived into the room, and was now close to being completely blank. There was, however, almost in spite of himself, a hint of sympathy in the quirk of one eyebrow as he waited for her to go on.
"I was overwhelmed by finding out that you were Batman, and everything that that meant, and I… didn't know if my love could help me deal with that. And… I forgot about the word 'all'. It's such a small word, but it can mean so much. Meeting you again, I've had to face myself and my feelings, and I realise now that I *do* love you — *all* of you, both with the cape and without — and I *want* to love you, in all the ways that I can, for all the rest of my life.
"Bruce, I know I hurt you very deeply… but if there's any way that I can make it up to you, then please believe that I want to, with all my heart. Tell me, please — is there any way that we could be what we were to each other three years ago?"
Bruce said nothing and did nothing for a long time, simply looking at Silver with eyes that were no longer probing; instead, they were thoughtful but gave absolutely no indication of what their owner was thinking about, nor of any decision that he might be making. Silver stood there, equally silent and motionless, waiting. She had no way to know what would happen now, and so she did her best not to think of anything, simply awaiting the man's reaction.
Finally, he spoke, quietly and reflectively. "Silver… I don't think we *can* go back to where we were three years ago." He paused for a moment. "We're not the same people that we were then. We've gone through separation and a great deal of unhappiness, and all the other things that come with spending three years apart. We're never going to get back to the early days of our relationship, to that first 'fine, careless rapture'."
She slumped forward, her whole posture radiating defeat, but he wasn't finished. "But we *could* try to be something else to one another. Something that might have grown out of that first rapture. Something much deeper and longer-lasting. We just won't be able to get there by the same route. I'd like to try…"
She looked up again, hope and joy racing through her like fire, and saw in his face the manliness and charm that had first attracted her, and the honesty and decency that had made her doubt the playboy facade and try to look beneath it, although she had had no idea of all that she was going to find there. There could be no doubt that he meant what he was saying. For his part, her expression silently shouted to him that she wanted to try, too, but there was also a hint of uncertainty as to just how to go about it. He reached out and took her hand. "Let's get out of here, for a start. We need to talk, a lot, in private, but a bedroom is… inappropriate at the moment, to say the least. It's not exactly haute cuisine, but how do you feel about room service for dinner?"
Her eyes sparkled. "You're on, big spender. I'm famished." It was another quote — something she had said the last time that they had had lunch together, a few hours before the Batman had come crashing through a skylight into the Gotham Exhibition Hall after a murderous gunman and she had recognised his jaw as belonging to Bruce Wayne.
He also remembered what she had said that day, and laughed before responding in kind: "Only for you, Silver my dear…" Then his face screwed itself into a wince. "But could you *please* change out of that costume?" Silver giggled and nodded.
They left the bedroom, hand in hand, smiling.
Clark pushed his glasses back up, and an impatient Lois sitting at his feet struggled not to scream at him. "*Well*?!"
"I think it went okay," he said, sitting back in his armchair in their townhouse. "They left the bedroom holding hands, and I'm sure that I saw Bruce laugh. It looks to me like they're going to spend the evening talking — and *we* know how important that can be — so I'm going to leave them to it. I have no doubt that we'll hear all about it from one or other of them, so let's let them get on with it, *privately*." He looked at his wife sternly, but with a twinkle in his eyes that told her that he wasn't angry, just determined on this point.
"Okay, okay…" she sighed. "But I wish you really *could* read lips the way you used to tell me you could. I don't suppose your hearing gizmo will work, this far away?" She looked at him, hopefully.
"No," he replied, firmly squashing her hopes of eavesdropping. "Even if I could hear their conversation from here — and I *can't*, because there's half the city, with all its noise, between me and them, and they're hardly calling out for help — I *wouldn't*, because it's none of my business! I hope Bruce and Silver sort things out as much as you do, but it's up to *them*, and we can't do anything more to help them."
"I guess you're right…" murmured Lois, standing up. "So, I suppose that I'll just have to find something else to do tonight… Any suggestions?"
"One, at the very least," said Clark, pulling her onto his lap.
Lois smiled mischievously and snuggled up to him. "Tell me more, farm boy…" she purred.
Epilogue: Six months later…
"Don't you just *love* a big roaring fire on a winter's night?" said Lois happily, gazing into the bright flames lighting up the drawing room from the huge fireplace. Clark, sitting next to her on the plush couch, said nothing but tightened his grip on her. She "mmm"-ed with contentment and laid her head on his shoulder.
The occupants of the other end of the enormous couch were equally close to one another, but Silver was sitting in Bruce's lap with her long legs stretched out towards Lois and Clark. Her head was very close to Bruce's, and every so often one of them would say something that the other couple couldn't hear — or *wouldn't*, in Clark's case — and they would both smile, which would usually lead to a kiss — a quick, gentle smooch, a deep, passionate toe-curler or anything in between, as the mood took them.
"Look at them," whispered Clark, kissing Lois' hair. She lifted her head slightly, which allowed her husband to move his mouth down the side of her face. She wriggled with pleasure as he gently ran it around her ear, then gently pushed him away by putting two fingers to his lips.
"Yeah…" she replied quietly, "Isn't it nice to see other people as happy as we are?"
"*Very* nice. Especially when they're such good friends. Bruce is more relaxed these days than I've ever seen him, even in costume, and Silver has just… blossomed. I think they needed each other, but didn't realise it themselves or were too stubborn to admit it like another couple I could mention…" He gently turned her face to him and kissed her thoroughly.
"So, I did good, huh?" Lois teased after they came up for air.
"Yes, my little matchmaker," Clark sighed with mock resignation. "You did good."
He would have said more — he had thought of a joke about Dick being nervous around her these days in case she decided to fix *him* up with someone — but he was interrupted by a sight which, although he had seen it before, never failed to impress, and sometimes even startle him: two bright beams of light shone into the room from fixtures mounted on the eaves of the house, and the Bat-signal, reflected from the night sky, appeared on the wall over the fireplace.
Bruce saw it, too, and gently lifted Silver from his lap, setting her down on the couch beside himself before getting up and turning back to her for a brief kiss.
"Go on, you two," said Silver. "You're wanted. We'll be here when you get back…"
"And we *will* be back," murmured Clark to Lois as *he* stood up and then leaned back down to rest his forehead momentarily on hers.
"I know," she said, kissing him softly. "Now, go! The quicker you're gone, the sooner you'll *get* back. Silver and I will be fine right here."
Bruce headed for the study and the grandfather clock, Clark right behind him. Lois watched them leave the room and snorted to herself. "Men! They know that they're going to leave, but they won't get on with it!"
"Would you have it any other way?" said Silver, one eyebrow cocked.
"Not really," Lois admitted. "If they *have* to go — and they do then I guess it's a good thing that they don't want to. Except, of course, that they *do* want to, they just don't want to have to leave *us* to go do the hero thing. It's a pity that they can't timetable bad guys or disasters… you know, 10:45 — stop bank robbery; 11:00 — save the world; 12:00 — have lunch with wife." She stopped for a second, looking a little embarrassed. "Am I babbling?"
Silver laughed. "I suppose so. Does it matter? Anyway, Lois, with the men gone, there's something I've been meaning to ask you for ages. When you were bawling me out that day at the Hilton, you mentioned that *you* were Ultra Woman?" At Lois' nod, she asked eagerly, "How did *that* happen?"
"Oh…" said Lois, embarrassed again. "Well, it all started one morning at work. Clark and I had just escaped from Tim and Amber Lake's zoo, and they'd been arrested for kidnapping and murder…"
[One last note: the Dorothy L Sayers book that Lois refers to is "Busman's Honeymoon", the final Lord Peter Wimsey novel (and not a bad play, either). Described by the author as a love story with detective interruptions (or was it a detective story with romantic interruptions?), it's an excellent read, and worth the notice of FoLCs if for no other reason than that it proves that _other_ couples have problems with romance, marriage and honeymoons… <g> PA