By Hazel <IHazel@yahoo.com>
Submitted January 2000
Summary: In this rewrite of the episode "Tempus, Anyone?" Tempus accidentally snatches Lois *before* she knows that CK=S — and Wells isn't there to help Lois figure things out!
(First Posted in December 1999; eligibile for 2000 Kerth Awards)
Disclaimer: dialogue and descriptions taken from the episode "Tempus, Anyone?" presumably belong to Warner Brothers; Superman, Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and the other citizens of Metropolis belong to whomever currently owns the copyright on those characters and locations. H.G. Wells belongs to himself, no doubt, but he's not in this story anyway. :)
Thanks to Sammi Burleigh for giving me the original inspiration for this story; to Margaret Brignell for introducing me to FoLCdom in the first place and doing a same-day delivery on her excellent beta-editing; and many, many thanks to the regulars at Zoomway's fanfic message board for their advice and encouragement! Without their help, this story would have never made it out of my brain, much less off my hard drive. ***
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
'The curse is come upon me!
The Lady of Shalott.
Lord Alfred Tennyson, "The Lady of Shalott"
Note: This story begins the night before "And the Answer Is…"
Lois Lane pulled a sweater over her thin blouse to guard against the chill of the evening and raked a cursory comb through her hair. She took her wallet out of her purse and slipped it into her pocket before heading out the door. She needed a good, long walk, with time to think things through. She had no idea what Clark wanted to discuss in the morning, but she had more than a few things to "discuss" with *him*!
Lois ran lightly down the steps of her apartment building and turned right, setting off at a brisk pace. As the dusk deepened into full night, Lois walked restlessly through the streets, trying to get her whirling thoughts into some semblance of order. She'd said her final good-byes to Dan, and proposed that she and Clark take the "next step." Yet he still backed away from her, still disappeared at the oddest moments and most infuriating times. Now he'd invited her to breakfast in the morning, but for what reason? When he called her on the phone, he seemed too purposeful for this to be merely a casual breakfast date. No, he had definitely had something in mind. But what?
Maybe some chocolate would help… Her hand reached for her wallet as she scanned her surroundings, trying to determine her exact location. She smiled as she saw she was only half a block away from Lincoln Street, which meant there was a 7-11 right around the corner. She felt desperately in need of some gratuitous calories right now.
Startled out of her thoughts, Lois turned her head and blinked at the revolver pointed at her nose.
"In here. Now."
Reluctantly, she followed the strange man into an alley. In this neighborhood, at this hour of night, there was no one else in sight; she couldn't risk putting up a fight against such odds. Screaming, "Help, Superman!" wouldn't do her any good if this character had time to shoot before her hero appeared.
He grinned at her mockingly. "Remember me?"
"Uh — no," she said, still staring at the menacing, yet mesmerizing gun.
His face took on a pseudo-comical look. "Oh, Lois," he cooed. "After all we've meant to each other, I'm not ringing any bells?" His expression changed again as he used his free hand to pull his glasses away from his face. "How about now?" he sneered. "Sorry, private joke. Guess time travel can be a real brain drain, huh?"
"Time travel?" she repeated stupidly, now looking past the man at the strange contraption that stood in the darkened alley behind him. For all its old-fashioned appearance, she couldn't shake the feeling that it was something far beyond the cutting edge of current technology. But how would she know that?
"Get in," he ordered impatiently, waving the gun for emphasis.
Lois balked, taking a half step backward. Old-fashioned looking or not, she had no intention of getting near that thing if she could help it.
His eyes narrowed at her. "Step on or be carried," he said in a dangerously soft tone. "It makes no difference to me."
Reluctantly, she brushed past him, muttering, "It's always something…"
As she reached forward to grasp the edge of the seat, she suddenly whirled and kicked, aiming straight for the man's gun hand. To her shock, she missed completely. With all the force she put behind the kick and nothing to counter it, she ended up sprawled awkwardly on the ground. She stared up at him in disbelief. He'd darted back out of range the moment she started to pivot, almost as if he'd anticipated her move!
"Ah, Lois," he sighed, keeping a careful eye on her as she scrambled to her feet, "sometimes you are just too predictable. I think I would have been disappointed if you hadn't tried something."
The gun dipped for a moment as he pulled the trigger. The bullet buried itself in the ground inches away from her shoes. Startled, she leaped backwards, stumbling against the weird contraption.
"Last chance, Lois," he warned, once again aiming straight at her face. "Get in. *Now*."
He'd fired once, even if only as a warning shot. All bets were off now, Lois decided; it would be all too easy for him to shoot again. Hoping that he wouldn't actually fire at her once she was in the machine and risk damaging it, she dived on board, crouched next to the seats, and screamed, "Help! Superman!"
Instead of snarling at her temerity, the man only laughed. He leapt onto the machine, ignoring her completely as he twisted a dial. A strange, enveloping glow coruscated around them, and Lois watched in awe as the dirty alley walls seemed to shimmer and disappear.
A sudden blow to the temple sent her reeling backwards, sprawling against the seat. The man's irritating laugh seemed to come from somewhere miles distant as hands lifted her bodily and tossed her out of the machine. She felt chilly, as if the temperature had suddenly dropped. No, that was impossible — it was just the blow to her head. She pushed herself off the ground, ready to do battle —
The machine and its owner were gone.
So was the alley.
It couldn't be! She must still be dazed. He'd hit her… Her hands touched the stinging soreness on her temple. She squinted though slightly unfocused eyes, but there was no trace of blood. Good, she'd be feeling better soon.
Any minute now, in fact…
But she was still somewhere else. And it was daytime now, not early night. And the cold was getting to her.
Taking a deep breath to steady her nerves and wrapping her arms around herself for warmth, Lois examined her surroundings. Gray sky, chilly wind. Frosty ground. Trees that mourned the brown drifts of leaves lying at their roots. Tombstones.
She slowly pivoted in a circle, staring in all directions. Tombstones marched across the large area in orderly rows. A gravel walk lay several paces away, neatly bordered by flowers. Yes, this was a cemetery.
Swallowing hard, Lois eased over to the closest grave and gave it a wary glance. She looked at it for a long moment before the words burned themselves into her brain.
"Lois Lane, 1967-1993"
Her knees gave way. She sank to the ground and reached out with trembling fingers to touch those horrific dates.
The numbers stayed the same. According to this tombstone, she'd been dead for years…
As the words blurred before her eyes, Lois tilted her head upwards. "Help!" she croaked. "Superman, help me, *please*!"
The keening wind was her only answer. ***
Some time later, a very shaken Lois Lane emerged from the cemetery and made her unsteady way to the closest bench, a crumbling concrete slab that had definitely seen better days. She ignored its condition as she sank down onto it gratefully, staring unseeingly at the passersby as she tried to make sense of what was happening.
Try as she might, she couldn't find any way to rationalize the "proof" of her grave with her own existence. Anyone could probably create a tombstone, true. But even the Prankster couldn't give such a mock-up the weather-beaten appearance of something that had been outdoors for years, much less change her location and the time of day in the blink of an eye. This was no silly joke or whim, but something real.
"All right, Lane," she muttered aloud. "You're an investigative reporter. Put the facts together."
She'd gone for a walk and been mugged by a guy with a perverse sense of humor and a gun. He'd dragged her onto a strange contraption of some sort and hit her with enough force to leave her dazed. She must have lost consciousness, because the next thing she knew, it was afternoon instead of evening, and she was somewhere else entirely.
She winced again and gingerly touched her sore temple. Out for so many hours…? Maybe she did have a concussion.
So what did the guy want from her? Belatedly, she reached into her pocket. To her surprise, her wallet was still there. She opened it up and riffled through the various pockets quickly. Driver's license, press card, business cards from various sources, some pictures, about forty dollars in cash, loose change — nothing was gone.
Frowning, she reached for her other pocket. Her keys were still there, too.
She just couldn't make sense of it. Why would someone attack her, hold her for nearly a day, and then dump her in a cemetery without even bothering to rob her while he was at it? And why, *why* was there a tombstone with her name on it, a tombstone that asserted that she'd died years ago?
Maybe it wasn't her grave? Maybe there was another woman there, a young woman who just so happened to share her first and last name, the same year of birth… Lois shook her head impatiently. No, that was too farfetched. She recognized the cemetery as the one where her father's parents were buried; she'd even spotted Grandma Lucille's grave nearby. Hoax or not, that tombstone was definitely intended for her.
There was something *skewed* about the whole thing. And that man with the gun, who had seemed to expect her to recognize him and had anticipated her defense moves, was somehow behind it all.
…Whatever "it" was.
Her forehead creased as she thought back. What had he said? Something about time. Time *travel*?
"Impossible," she snorted to herself. But even as she tried to dismiss the thought out of hand, a snippet of conversation that had taken place well over a year ago suddenly flashed through her mind:
~Does everything in life have to have a perfectly reasonable explanation?~
~All grounded in clear, scientific reason?~
~No magic left in the universe?~
~There's no werewolves or vampires loose in the city, either…~
~What about Superman?~
~There's a man living somewhere in Metropolis who flies, Lois!~
Almost reluctantly, she began cataloging events of the past two years that were almost impossible to accept as real. A pheromone compound that sent Perry chasing after the cleaning woman and had her showing up in Clark's apartment to perform the Dance of Seven Veils… Clones, both of Superman and gangsters of the 1920's… Superman's powers transferred to Waldecker by a bolt of lightning… The "Space Rats" that turned her, as well as the rest of the citizens of Metropolis, into a bunch of greedy, selfish kids… A penlight that implanted incredible amounts of knowledge in her brain instantaneously… Lex's resurrection by Gretchen Kelly… The Prankster's "camera," which froze her helplessly in place… A rash and a virus that turned Jimmy Olsen into a cold-blooded assassin.
All things that could technically be explained away through reams of expositionary scientific gobbledygook, yet on the surface, seemed utterly impossible.
And a time machine…?
"Guess time travel can be a real brain drain, huh?" The mocking, infuriating voice echoed in her head.
"No," she whispered. "It can't be. It *can't*."
Yet the machine had seemed strangely familiar. She felt sure that she'd seen it sometime before. And with a time machine…
She shook her head violently, desperately trying to expel the treacherous thought from her brain, but it persisted.
Reluctantly, she added up the facts again, this time taking the incredible "time machine" factor into account. The alleyway had shimmered and vanished. She'd appeared somewhere else, at a different time of day — and possibly even a different time of year. She shivered, buttoning her sweater against the chilly wind. Maybe she'd only been momentarily dazed, as she'd originally thought. No time — at least "subjective" time — had passed before the man had dumped her at the cemetery. As bizarre as it seemed, she was actually beginning to consider the possibility.
But the tombstone still didn't make sense. Even if that man had somehow moved her through time, she *knew* she didn't die in 1993! After all, it was 1996 now!
Or was it?
Lois stood up compulsively from the bench. She somehow couldn't bring herself to ask someone the year; she refused to sound like an escapee from an insane asylum! She briefly considered rifling through a nearby trash can for an old newspaper, but dismissed the thought as too trite for consideration. Besides, she had a better source than old newspapers of dubious reputation.
She turned in a circle, then nodded as she got her bearings. The Daily Planet building was six short blocks away. She would go there and get some answers! ***
While she didn't have any answers yet, many more questions had added themselves to the list by the time she'd walked half a block. The reality she expected to see was strangely warped — everything was *wrong*. The city seemed dirtier and uglier somehow. People walked warily, almost fearfully. To Lois' eyes, it looked as if a disproportionate number of citizens were armed. Pistols. Revolvers. Even machine guns! What kind of horrific future was Metropolis destined to have?
Then reality tilted even further, came to a screeching halt, and collapsed under its own weight as she spotted the campaign posters tacked on the wall of a building nearby.
Perry? Running for *mayor*?
"Time travel's not the word for it," Lois muttered, drawing closer to the incredible sight plastered on the wall. Yes, it was definitely Perry, but he looked… different. Younger. His hair was thicker, Lois observed with a strange kind of detachment. And when had he started wearing suits and ties like that? It just wasn't his style.
"Time travel," she said again, her fingers trailing across the poster. "Yep. Right. Uh huh." Time travel indeed, for elections took place in November, and the month should have been early April.
Her hand dropped back down to her side as she took a step back. So… Metropolis had become a darker, more menacing place than she ever remembered. That pointed to the future. Perry seemed younger in his campaign poster. That pointed to the past. Yet if she was in the past now, why didn't she remember Perry running for mayor?
She gave the poster another careful appraisal. Actually, other than the thicker hair, he seemed more or less the same. Perhaps it was only some kind of touching-up to make him more appealing to the voters.
Lois considered this idea, then nodded. It might be stretching things a bit, but if she was going to use the time-travel theory, the least she could do was keep things going in one direction instead of two! Besides, vanity touch-ups were par for the course in politics. If Ronald Reagan could become president of the United States after starting his career as an actor, what was so surprising about some artificially thickened hair? That would also explain why this future Perry looked so similar to the Perry of her time; the photographer must have brushed out whatever additional wrinkles had developed over the years.
"All right, then," she sighed, turning away from the poster. "The future it is."
She still felt more than a little incredulous that she was taking this time-traveling nonsense seriously. Still, her experience in investigative reporting had taught her that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was correct: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." Under normal circumstances, of course, "time travel" would definitely qualify as the "impossible." But ridiculous as it seemed, time travel was the only thing that made sense — at least with the facts she currently possessed.
Although how being transported to the future could explain her tombstone…
It was that moment when she saw the other campaign poster — the one for Perry's opponent in the mayoral race. The sight of that face took what was left of reality and turned it inside out, shredding it into confetti for good measure.
It was the man who had kidnapped her and brought her to this bizarre place!
No, it couldn't be. It wasn't possible! A mayoral candidate from the future attacking her and bringing her to his current time? *Why*?
Yet it was definitely him. Lois would recognize that infuriating smirk anywhere.
She examined it carefully. "TEMPUS FOR MAYOR!" it urged the populace. "He's Prepared For the Enemy — Are You?"
"I'm not prepared for anything right now," she muttered. The enemy? What enemy? As far as she could tell from her brief experience with the man — Tempus? At least she had a name now — he was the one who best qualified for that particular appellation. If only *something* in this bizarre future would make sense…
A sudden fusillade of shots down the block startled her. Reflexively, she shrank back and hugged the wall, even as she edged closer to the action. Reporter instincts don't atrophy with time travel, after all. The other people on the street, she noted grimly, didn't even pause, but merely hurried along their way. Such events were clearly common occurrences in Metropolis' future.
By now, Lois could see a woman crouched in front of a shoe store, firing wildly with a shotgun and spitting expletives at a car roaring down the street. One of the darkly tinted windows of the car had been lowered just enough to allow the muzzle of a machine gun to poke through. Bullets hammered into the plate glass of the store's display window, sending deadly shards of glass flying in all directions. Those that were close to the store ducked or dove for the street, trying to avoid the broken glass; everyone else ignored the entire incident.
Lois gritted her teeth at the cries of pain and the sudden bright splashes of red that stained the sidewalk. Her head jerked upward as she scanned the skies, vainly searching for a well-known and well-beloved streak of blue. Why wasn't Superman doing something to prevent such a tragedy?
As the car screeched around a corner, a sudden report, almost as loud as the original gunshots, echoed through the street. Straining to get a good look, Lois saw that one of the car's rear tires had blown out, sending the car skidding into the nearest stop sign. She smiled in fierce satisfaction. Maybe this future's version of Metropolis' Finest would actually have a chance to get here in time and arrest the perpetrators. Good!
She turned away from the scene and strode down the block, looking for landmarks to ensure that she was going in the right direction. Yes, there was the main branch of the Metropolis City Bank, and the coffee cart that she and Clark patronized was right where it was supposed to be. She looked longingly at it for a moment, then reluctantly continued on her way. Much as she would love to indulge, her funds were woefully short; she needed to get a clearer picture of what was happening before she spent what little cash she had.
One more block, and she was there. The Daily Planet.
She stopped short and took a long, steady look at the building that had been her second home for so many years. Thank goodness that it, at least, hadn't changed. The globe still perched there proudly, a symbol of the steady, universal integrity of the Fourth Estate in a world gone mad. The only difference was the huge banner that strung across the building's facade, Perry's face smiling out at her in encouragement. "PERRY WHITE FOR MAYOR!" the banner proclaimed. "Someone who *knows* Metropolis!"
Lois grinned to herself. "After all those years of avoiding endorsements," she said under her breath. "Oh, Perry, I can't wait to talk to you!"
She started across the street, dodging cars with the ease of long practice. As she neared the main entrance, she stopped for a moment to glance at the newspaper machines, where the latest editions of the Daily Planet were always available. It took several moments for the headline to really sink into her brain; but once it did, she openly gawked.
"GET TOUGH ON CRIME, SAYS PRESIDENT HESTON."
Heston? As in *Charlton* Heston? Ben Hur was president of the United States?
"That explains the guns, if nothing else," she mumbled, shaking her head in disbelief. Charlton Heston as president! And she'd been thinking so cynically of Ronald Reagan only a few minutes ago! What next? Was Elvis Presley going to come back from the dead and run for president too?
She covered her eyes with one hand, willing the nightmare to stop. If this was the future, she wasn't sure she wanted to be around to see it. Maybe that tombstone wasn't such a bad idea after all…
Then her head snapped up and her shoulders went back. She was suddenly angry. A maniac named Tempus had waylaid her and dumped her in this awful, bizarre future of Metropolis, practically forcing her into despair at the sight of what had happened to her beloved city. Well, no more! She was Lois Lane, three time Kerth winner, and she was standing in front of the Daily Planet, home of the best newspaper in the entire world. She was going to take charge, get the low-down on Tempus, and put things right again!
Lois turned away from the newspaper machines and strode forward. She gave an impatient shove to the slow-moving revolving door and went inside the building. As she stalked past the security station, the guard frowned and reached out a hand to stop her. "Excuse me, miss, but you can't just walk in here like this. I need some identification or —"
Infuriated by this final insult, Lois whipped out her Daily Planet press pass and practically shoved it in the startled woman's face. "I've been working here since 1988!" she snapped. "Don't you recognize the reporters who write the paper?"
Without waiting for a reply, she wrenched her arm away from the guard and marched over to the bank of elevators. She needed to have a good long talk with —
She stopped in her tracks and almost whacked herself on the forehead with exasperation. She'd been so shocked by that outrageous headline that she hadn't even noticed the date printed on the masthead of the paper! She turned, ready to go back outside to double-check, even if it did mean arguing with that silly security guard again. Then she saw that a single man had just stepped inside one of the elevators and pushed a button. Too impatient to even consider waiting for the next elevator, Lois discarded the idea of going back to the vending machines. She hurried forward and hollered, "Hold it!"
The man glanced over his shoulder at her, then held out a hand to keep the doors from closing. The doors slid obediently open again. Smiling at relief that at least *something* was going right, Lois stepped onto the elevator and turned to thank the man for his courtesy.
He was wearing a custom-made suit of fine wool that set off his silk shirt and the diamond clip on his conservative tie to perfection. His brushed-back hairstyle made him look much older, giving him an air of world-weariness that she'd never seen in him before. His expression was polite and reserved — and held no spark of friendliness or recognition.
But it was unquestionably Jimmy Olsen.
"Whoa, Jimmy!" Lois exclaimed. She fingered a lapel and gave him a wicked grin. "I see you've come up in the world since the last time I saw you! Good taste. Niiice suit." She touched the diamond pin, then smoothed a hand over his tie. "Clark would find this kinda dull, though."
Jimmy blinked. "Ah…"
"Salaries at the Planet must have *really* improved. I am impressed." She reached past him to slap at the third floor button. "So, what are you up to these days? Still involved with Sarah?"
His face instantly closed down as the elevator began to rise. "Sarah?" he repeated carefully.
"Sarah Goodwin? Remember, the girl with the rash on her arm and the brainwashed assassin bit? The one who was a psych major who analyzed everyone in sight?" She eyed him. "Huh. I guess not."
"I do not know any Sarah Goodwin, and —"
"Oh, Jimmy, who are you kidding? You may not keep in touch with her any more, but you can't expect me to believe that you don't remember her!"
"I don't —"
"Are you trying to tell me that you've forgotten that whole episode? Your family doctor's murder? The Valhalla Project? How you tried to kill me?" Lois frowned at him. "Look, Jimmy, I know it was a while ago — actually, I have no idea how long ago it *was*, since I have no idea when — well, ah, never mind."
As the elevator ponderously rose towards the newsroom — shouldn't they have faster elevators in the future? — Lois took a deep breath and mentally ordered her tongue to behave itself. While she was practically certain that her time travel theory was correct, it would take a lot of fast talking to convince anyone else and avoid sounding like an escapee from the closest mental institution — what was it called again? Oh, yes: The Lex Luthor Treatment Center for the Reality Challenged. Lois grimaced at the thought. Better to avoid it if possible.
This strange, somber version of Jimmy took advantage of her momentary silence to attempt a complete sentence. "Look, miss," he tried again, "I'm not sure who you are, but nobody's called me 'Jimmy' since —"
"'Miss'? What, you don't recognize me?" Lois couldn't help feeling a bit hurt. "Don't tell me I've changed so much since… well, since whenever. Let me guess, I've dyed my hair blond?"
Even as he stared at her, Lois clamped her mouth shut. Why, *why* had she said that when she'd just told herself not to blurt out anything that hinted at her current predicament? "Sorry," she said lamely. "Chalk it up to tension."
The elevator slowed, then stopped as they reached the third floor. Lois, eager to escape the awkwardness of the situation, was ready to dart out and down the ramp as soon as the doors opened; but Jimmy stepped in front of her, blocking her view and her way.
"I don't know who you are," he repeated. His voice was soft, yet suddenly very hard. "But I'll tell you this. If you're working for one of the tabloids and you try to print a story linking me with someone named 'Sarah,' this other nonsense about my family doctor's 'murder,' or a project that involves my 'trying to kill you,' I assure you that you'll regret it."
*That* stopped her as nothing else could. She whirled at him with fury in her eyes. "Jimmy!" she hissed. "Me? Working for the *tabloids*?"
"I am not 'Jimmy,' and I would appreciate it if you stopped calling me that!"
"So what is it these days? Jim? James?" She glared at him, undaunted by his cold anger. "Does changing your name give you the right to forget your old friends and treat them like this?"
"You're not an 'old friend' of mine, miss. I've never seen you before in my life. And quite frankly, I think I'd rather have kept it that way!" He turned on his heel and strode out of the elevator, heading down the ramp to the pit and straight for Perry's office.
Lois remained where she was, staring after him, until the elevator doors began to close. She started and stepped out onto the newsroom landing before she could be carried back downstairs to the lobby.
Something was really wrong. Jimmy didn't dress like that. A diamond tie clip and a custom-made suit? Where was his camera? And what could have happened to him over the years that destroyed his exuberant personality? The Jimmy that she knew so well didn't treat strangers, much less old friends, with as much reserve and coldness as he'd shown her.
Then again, Jimmy didn't march up to Perry's office and walk inside without knocking, either… but even as she watched, the smartly dressed Jimmy did exactly that! Lois braced herself, expecting a roar to erupt from the closed room, but nothing happened.
Okay, even *more* proof that something was wrong.
"This isn't my Daily Planet," she whispered. "This isn't my Metropolis. This is something more than time."
The guard hadn't recognized her. Jimmy — James? Jim? — hadn't recognized her. Was that why Tempus pulled her out of time? Was she actually dead in the future, and was she needed for some reason that compelled the man to take her out of the past and bring her here?
She shook her head slowly, recognizing the flaws in that reasoning. Even if she was fated to die sometime soon, that didn't explain the date on the tombstone, which clearly pointed to her dying in the past, not the future. And if Tempus had a good reason for bringing her to this time, why do it at gunpoint?
Her eyes narrowed as she leaned against the railing and stared at the closed door to Perry's office. Jimmy, or whatever he was calling himself these days, hadn't merely behaved like an older version of the Jimmy Olsen she knew so well. He was *different*. He hadn't known her, had assumed she was working on a tabloid story about… him? Now that didn't make any sense. Why would the tabloid press be interested in a photographer for the Daily Planet?
Lois shook her head, frustrated at her lack of knowledge. What *year* was it? How far had she come into the future? She closed her eyes, trying to remember the newspaper she'd glanced at before she entered the Daily Planet building. She wished that she hadn't been so floored by the implications of the headline, or that at least she had gone back to double-check the date. Was she two years in the future? Five? Ten? She doubted it was more, because Jimmy hadn't looked middle-aged. Actually, he hadn't looked like he'd aged at all — only changed, somehow.
Lois tapped her chin thoughtfully as she turned that fact over in her mind. Was that a clue? If Jimmy was more or less the same age, she was probably only a year or two in the future. How, then, could she explain his strange lack of recognition, his outrageous accusation that she trafficked in gossip and rumors, and his bizarre assumption that the tabloids would be interested in him in the first place?
Her gaze drifted over the newsroom below her, picking out people she knew and new faces she didn't recognize. She spotted Carol Nieder standing by the fax machine, impatiently snatching each sheet of paper as it emerged. There was Jose Martinez standing by his desk, playing with his Rolodex as he talked on the phone. Debby Levine, the sports columnist, had just stepped out of one of the conference rooms, escorting an athletic-looking young woman. And there was Cat —
She resisted the urge to rub her eyes in disbelief and merely took another careful look.
Yes, it was definitely Cat Grant, dressed in an elegant, knee-length skirt with a matching jacket. Even as a bemused Lois watched, the auburn-haired woman sat down at a desk that was clearly hers and reached for the keyboard. She began typing rapidly, consulting a notebook from time to time.
A man stopped at her desk and asked her something with a hopeful expression, but Cat smiled and shook her head without even looking at him. The man gave a disappointed shrug and walked away.
"Welcome to the Twilight Zone," Lois breathed, simultaneously amazed and amused. First Jimmy Olsen had changed completely; now Cat Grant was not only back at work at the Planet, but also behaving far differently than Lois ever remembered.
Unless, of course, she'd somehow managed to marry Victor Chow in the interim…
Lois straightened up from her position at the railing and sighed. Things were too different here. She couldn't puzzle this out on her own. She needed to reconnoiter and get more information. She needed to talk to someone in a calm and rational fashion, someone like Clark or —
"Where the Sam Hill is Bailey when I need him? I want that article twenty minutes ago!"
Lois sighed with relief. Perry, bless him, hadn't changed a bit. He strode out of his office now, gesturing at a copy boy and shouting something about deadlines to one of the reporters. She smiled broadly, starting down the ramp towards him. Perry would believe her and help her.
She noted that Jimmy had followed Perry out of the editor's office and was now looking in her direction. Even as she reached the bottom of the ramp and started towards them, Jimmy touched Perry's arm and gestured towards her. Perry turned and looked at her —
And his eyes nearly fell out of sockets. "Lois?" he gasped, hurrying towards her. "Lois, darlin', is that you?"
"Yes, Perry, it's me," she said, half-laughing, half something else.
"I can't believe it. I *can't* believe it." He wrapped his arms around her in a heartfelt hug, then stood back, holding her by her shoulders as he gave her a rapid inspection. "Honey, you're all right? Is everything okay with you?"
"Yes, I am," she assured him, her smile fading a little. "I'm fine." Why was Perry so surprised to see her in good health? Was she really dead in the future, after all?
Perry took a quick glance around the newsroom, clearly realizing that the Planet's staff members were either covertly or overtly watching the strange reunion. A few of them, mostly reporters that Lois recognized, were beginning to move towards the little group. "Hey, let's go into my office and talk with a bit of privacy. Come on, Lois, Mr. Olsen…"
Lois, already turning towards Perry's office, stopped short. "Perry? Did you just say, 'Mr. Olsen'?"
"Oh, I'm sorry, Lois. I wasn't thinking." He nodded at the silent young man standing by his side. "Mr. Olsen, meet Lois Lane, one of the best reporters this paper has ever seen. Lois, this is James Olsen, the current owner of the Daily Planet."
"That's all right, White," James Olsen said coolly, even as he reached to shake the stunned young woman's hand. "We've already met." His eyes, more amused now than angry, took in her dazed expression. "Considering that meeting, I must say that I look forward to hearing her story."
As Perry discreetly herded the two of them into his office, Lois desperately tried to make sense of this incredible revelation. *Jimmy Olsen* owned the Daily Planet?!
No, she amended. Not "Jimmy" Olsen, but "James" Olsen. This definitely was not the exuberant young photographer she knew so well. The passage of time couldn't account for this astounding twist on reality. Even if, through some bizarre turn of events, Jimmy *did* eventually become owner of the Planet, he and Perry would surely never behave to each other in this manner. "Mr. Olsen" and "White"? Yeah, right.
A cousin, perhaps? Someone who just happened to look incredibly similar to the gopher-cum-aspiring-photojournalist who had brightened so many of her days with his ebullient personality…?
Her mind took that idea and promptly dumped it in the wastebasket where it belonged. Silently admonishing herself for such desperate reaching, Lois took a deep mental breath and prepared to throw everything to the winds. If this wasn't Jimmy, then that meant that…
"So, Mr. Olsen, you own the Planet," she tried.
"That's right," he nodded, even as he courteously held her chair. "I bought the Planet about six months ago." He dropped into the chair beside her, clearly at ease. "I was under the impression that the purchase was pretty well-known. Where have you been, Ms. Lane, that you weren't aware of it?"
"Um. Well." Lois crossed her legs and smoothed a hand along the fabric of her slacks, wondering frantically what excuse she might offer for her ignorance. "I guess I've been kind of out of it lately."
Perry stood with his back to the closed office door, guarding them against any intrusion. Now he stepped forward, his expression suddenly urgent. "Lois," he said softly, "what happened to you?"
The concern in his voice and the kindness in his eyes were almost too much to bear. "Perry," she whispered in all honesty, "I don't know."
"You've got to know!" His face was anguished. "Lois, we thought you were *dead*!"
"You thought *what*?" She rose from her seat convulsively, too stunned to even try to fit this new snippet of information into the wild theories currently racing through her mind. Dead? Was that tombstone real, then?
He turned away, unable to face her. "You disappeared two years ago," he said, his voice ragged with pain. "No sign of you, no word, nothing to give us the faintest bit of hope that you were still alive. Do you know what that put me through, knowing I'd let you investigate a story that killed you?" He suddenly swung on her. "How could you let us believe that, Lois? Why didn't you let me know you were alive?"
"Perry, I —" She faltered under the genuine distress so evident in his eyes. She sank back into her chair, nearly overwhelmed by the entire situation. How could she explain herself? "I couldn't," she finished lamely, knowing the answer wasn't good enough.
"You *couldn't*?" Perry's voice held a high note of disbelief. "Two years since the Congo, Lois, and you couldn't find time for a phone call?"
"I didn't—" Lois started, then stopped. There didn't seem to be anything she could say.
She remembered going to the Congo, about six months before Clark first arrived at the Daily Planet. She'd been investigating the possibility of gunrunners and discovered nothing. Perry, she vaguely recalled, hadn't been very happy at the wasted expense of the trip. Still, she'd come back safe and sound, if a little thinner because of a bad reaction to the local food. At least she'd known better than to drink the water…
So why was Perry saying that she'd disappeared?
"Ms. Lane," James cut in smoothly, "perhaps you could begin by explaining to Mr. White exactly what happened when you went to the Congo in '93?"
"In '93," Lois repeated dully. Then she sharpened. "Wait a minute. Two years ago?"
Perry stopped his restless pacing and looked at her with incredulity. "Yes, Lois, two years ago. Please don't try to tell me you've had amnesia since then."
"But it can't be two—" Her voice trailed off.
James raised his eyebrows at her. "Surely you know the year, Ms. Lane?"
Two years ago?
It was 1995?
But — but Tempus had *taken* her from 1995…
"It's not possible," she whispered.
"What's not possible?" Perry demanded.
She stood up again and turned to face him. "It's not possible!" she insisted, her voice suddenly shrill. Her hands tried to shape the impossibility of it and failed. "It *can't* be!"
Perry must have recognized the stricken look on her face, for his own expression suddenly softened. "Lois, honey," he said more gently, "let's get one thing clear here. You disappeared two years ago in the Congo, and we all thought you were dead. I sent people down there to investigate, but it was as if you'd vanished off the face of the earth…"
That sounds perfectly reasonable right now, Lois thought numbly.
"…and after nearly a year, your parents gave up hope and had you declared dead."
That's where the tombstone comes from, she added to herself with detachment. My parents had it raised in memory of their dead daughter.
She turned away, unable to face him. Her eyes desperately sought a neutral ground — away from Perry, away from this frighteningly intelligent and suave version of Jimmy, away from the realization that was sweeping over her and threatening to overwhelm her sanity. Her gaze wandered the walls of the office, recognizing it as the same bizarre combination of the strange and the familiar that had so disturbed her since her arrival in this place. The framed copy of Perry's first article as a cub reporter remained in place, but instead of his regular Elvis picture —
She gave a ragged sob just on the edge of hysteria. She jerked her head and shouted upwards, "I didn't mean it! I really didn't!"
"Something's wrong," she heard James murmur through the sudden haze that seemed to surround her brain. "Here, Ms. Lane, please sit down…"
Lois allowed herself to be guided back to her chair, but she couldn't stop the insane little giggle from leaving her mouth. "Perry, you've got a picture up there of Elvis shaking your hand, and holding up a copy of the Daily Planet with a headline about his landslide victory."
Perry glanced at the framed picture. "Lois, honey, that picture of President Presley was hanging on the wall when you left. I don't —"
"I was just kidding," she assured the ceiling. "I really didn't mean it when I said I expected this to happen. Really, I was just joking."
She tried to stand again, irritably shaking away the hands that tried to restrain her. "So, Perry," she said, her voice high-pitched and strangely unsteady. "Jimmy's your boss and I'm dead. Do I have the right story here?" Her blood thundered in her ears. "'Cause a reporter always has to know the facts, and I wouldn't want to be wrong about anything."
"Lois, I think you'd better —"
"—been ill, I would imagine. Perhaps we should —"
"—to sit down, will you? Maybe she — all right after a little —"
"—ask someone to — water."
The words were coming from very far away. The thunder in her ears had changed to a roar that drowned out everything else. Even her vision was blurred. She reached out with unsteady hands and found nothing to grasp. Everything was slipping away, vanishing into a swirling mass of colors and fog and —
"Ah, glad you're here — help us with —"
"— is she?"
"— your time, the best — Metropolis."
There were hands supporting her now. Hands she knew, arms that offered a comfort she recognized and trusted. She relaxed, suddenly feeling safe. She felt a glass at her lips, and sipped its contents without hesitation. Fresh, cold water. It seemed to clear her head.
"Drink it slowly," urged a voice that prompted the same soothing feelings as the arms that supported her. "A few sips at a time."
Obediently, she swallowed the water, feeling the cold liquid slide down her throat and stir her mind to wakefulness.
" — all right now, I think." Her ears began to work again; she could hear voices properly now, and recognized this particular speaker as the owner of the arms that encircled her so reassuringly. "Just give her another minute or so, sir."
"Looks like we'll have to wait a bit longer to get the answers, White. I don't think she's up to questioning at the moment."
"I don't think it's just shock," the first voice added, its warm tones shaded with extra concern. "Look at that bump on her head. Perhaps she's concussed."
"We'll give her all the time she needs," a third voice said. "Let's not push her."
Lois tried to match faces to the voices, but nothing happened. She frowned. She was hearing just fine, and she no longer felt dazed. So why couldn't she see?
Lois suddenly realized that her eyes were closed. Strange, she didn't remember closing them in the first place. Still, it occurred to her that it might be helpful if she opened them. Her brain considered this suggestion with the utmost gravity, then agreed that it was the best option available.
She opened her eyes.
The scene had changed. Perry and James Olsen stood over her, watching her with mixed expressions of wariness and concern. She appreciated this, but Lois was only *really* interested in the man whose arms supported her, kneeling next to her chair as he offered her the sweet comfort of his presence.
"Clark," she breathed. With a tremulous smile, she reached out and touched his hair, reassuring herself that he actually existed. "Clark, it *is* you!"
"Ah, yes, Ms. Lane," he smiled back with a touch of uncertainty. "I'm Clark Kent. I think you'll be all right now."
She drew back, stung at the formality of his words. "Clark? 'Ms. Lane'?"
He rose to his feet with his usual effortless grace. "Yes, Ms. Lane, Mr. White and Mr. Olsen told me who you are. I hope I haven't been presumptuous in offering my help."
"This is Clark Kent, Lois," Perry interceded. "He's one of the reporters here in the Planet. He came on board a couple of months after you… left us."
Lois stared, unwilling to absorb the reality of Perry's words.
"I called him into the office to give us a hand. You had some kind of spell there, Lois. You had me worried for a minute."
"Are you all right now, Ms. Lane?"
Lois slowly turned her head and looked at the man standing by her side. He was polite, kind, and obviously concerned… about someone he clearly considered to be a complete stranger.
This Clark Kent didn't know her at all.
It was the final blow. Lois finally forced herself to face the truth: This was not her world. Period.
"Ms. Lane?" The brown eyes, darkened with worry yet still those of a stranger, looked intently into hers. "Are you all right?"
"No," she whispered, her heart breaking. "I'm not." ***
Lois was never quite sure how she managed to turn the conversation away from her own state of mind and her sudden reappearance after two years of being presumed dead. She spoke vaguely of "transportation" and how time "seemed to have blurred"; she didn't dare tell them of her conclusion that the infuriating Tempus had somehow transported her to this Metropolis from a different universe. Not only would they have failed to believe her, but they would have had her hospitalized immediately. Calling it "concussion" at that point would have been a kindness.
So she'd changed the subject as quickly as possible. It had taken a great deal of fast talking and some adroit misdirection, and she wasn't quite sure she had fooled James Olsen; he had a knowing, amused expression that would have annoyed her immensely if she hadn't taken such a liking to the young man in the first place. Perry was much easier to handle. Even though he wasn't "her" Perry, his behavior and personality was so familiar that it was simplicity itself to sidestep his questions and influence the topic of conversation. Clark, on the other hand…
He was an enigma to her. His manner lacked the easy self-confidence and assertiveness that she knew so well; he seemed more submissive, almost cowed. Yet Perry and James treated him like an equal, clearly respecting his opinion and ideas. So why was he behaving like that?
Of course, Lois reminded herself, this Clark wasn't going to be exactly like her own. With her own history so pointedly altered, who knew how his past had changed as well? She would have to find out…
Even as she spared a small part of her brain to participate in the conversation that swirled around her, Lois' mind quickly moved into high gear. Tempus had kidnapped her from her own sane — well, relatively sane — world and brought her to this one, a bizarre universe where things were familiar, yet frighteningly different. He must have had one of two motives: either her presence here would somehow cause a chain of reaction that he wanted to take place, or he needed her out of the way in *her* universe in order to successfully complete some plot that her presence might disrupt.
After another moment's thought, Lois classified the second possibility as "doubtful." The man had kidnapped her at gunpoint and hadn't hesitated to fire his weapon. If he *really* wanted her out of the way, it probably wouldn't have been that difficult for him to arrange for a matching set of tombstones.
Whichever theory was correct, Lois knew that the best way to ruin Tempus' plans was to get back home as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, getting back to one's own universe from an alternate one wasn't quite as simple as calling a cab. Her mind contemplated the prospect and quickly boggled at the thought of somehow figuring out a way back to her universe on her own. No, she needed help. A *lot* of it. Something beyond the vast resources of the Daily Planet and its talented staff. Someone who could accept the bizarre and unbelievable and help her overcome it.
She needed Superman.
As she absently formulated makeshift replies to the questions the others directed at her, Lois reached a rapid conclusion. She needed the big guy in the red cape, and she had to find him as quickly and discreetly as possible to avoid telling others about her predicament. Normally, it wasn't that hard for her to find him; but in this world, Superman didn't even know she existed. That meant that she would have to go through the one other person that seemed to know Superman better than she did herself. She needed…
"Clark," she said abruptly.
Still standing in a room where everyone else was seated, Clark moved immediately to her side. "Yes, Ms. Lane?" His manner was polite, interested… reserved. If he wondered why this stranger persisted in calling him by his first name, his expression didn't show it.
She pushed away her sharp pang of distress at his cool reaction. "Clark, who has been writing about Tempus for the paper?" She paused for a moment as a thought struck her. "What's his first name, anyway?"
"His full name is John D. Tempus," Perry answered, studying her curiously. "No one knows what the 'D' stands for, and Tempus himself seems to find it very funny for some reason. Why do you ask?"
"John D. Tempus. Okay." She took a moment to carefully select her words. "Perry, I know the Planet doesn't deal in smear campaigns, but I've got some inside information on Tempus that could be very damaging to him. It's only a beginning, though, and it'll take a lot of research. I'd like to work on this, if I can, but I'll need a partner — and I was sort of hoping I could work with Clark."
All three men wore identical expressions of astonishment at her words, but Lois could not help but be amused at the difference in their reactions:
"You want to start working again?" James exclaimed.
"You want to work with *me*?" Clark almost squeaked.
"*You* want to work with a partner?" Perry blurted.
Time to take charge, Lois decided. She stood and nodded briskly at the trio. "Yes, Mr. Olsen, it's time for me to start working again; it's the best way to get myself back on my feet. Yes, Perry, I know I've always worked alone in the past, but I need a partner after being away for so long. And yes, Clark, I'd very much like to work with you, if I can." She paused for a moment, suddenly doubtful. "Unless you have a partner already?"
For a fleeting instant, she thought she saw a flicker of panic wash across his features. "Partner? Me?" he stammered. "Ah, no, I've always worked alone, usually. I mean, it's, uh, easier for me that way."
She started to frown at him, then stopped himself. This Clark really did seem to be lacking in self-confidence. "It'll be a good learning experience for you, then," she assured him. With a private grin at her memories of her first pairing with "her" Clark, she added, "I think you'll find it rather educational."
"Ms. Lane," James interrupted smoothly, "while I admire you for your willingness to dive back into your profession, I must point out that you have clearly undergone a great deal of trauma. Are you sure that you're ready to —"
Lois rounded on him, suddenly wishing she was dressed in one of her power suits instead of casual slacks and a sweater. "Are you saying that I'm not up to it?" she demanded. "Because if that's the case, I'm sure I could find some other paper in Metropolis who would like to hire a three-time — an award-winning reporter!" She caught the word "Kerth" just in time, uncertain whether this world had Kerths or not. Still, she was confident that *any* version of her would have *some* awards to her credit, no matter what the award might be called.
"I didn't say that," James said, his voice mild. "But Ms. Lane, I really do think you're rushing things here. Despite what you have and haven't told us," and at this point the glint in his eye clearly told her that he hadn't missed a single evasion, "I think you are more in need of a hot meal and a good night's sleep than a desk with a computer. Do you have somewhere to stay?"
"I —" Lois started, then stopped, defeated by this suave version of Jimmy who seemed to see through her all too easily. She was suddenly conscious of her disheveled appearance — the livid welt on her forehead, the makeup that had long since vanished, her exhaustion, the state of her hair and her over casual clothes. All she owned in this universe was the contents of her pockets. "No," she sighed. "I don't."
"That's not a problem," Perry said. "Lois can stay with me. Alice and I will put her up in the guest room until she can get back on her feet."
"Good," James approved as Lois smiled at Perry's spontaneous offer. "In that case, Ms. Lane, perhaps you could come back here tomorrow, and we'll discuss salary and benefits?" His eyes twinkled at her as he added, "We're not going to let the woman that was known as the 'best reporter in Metropolis' get away from the Daily Planet."
"Thank you," Lois said, honestly grateful. She couldn't help hoping, though, that by tomorrow she would be safely back in her own universe, where she belonged. And to arrange for that to happen, she needed — "But if I could just talk to Clark for a few minutes first? In one of the conference rooms, maybe?"
Perry chuckled. "Mr. Olsen, there's no gettin' past Lois." He glanced at his watch. "I won't be leaving for another hour or so anyway. Clark, son, take Lois with you into a conference room and let her convince you to do whatever it is she wants you to do." He clapped Clark on the shoulder as he confided, "It's going to happen. You might as well make it relatively painless!"
Lois mock-glared at Perry through her grin, then impulsively linked her arm through Clark's. "Let's go, Clark," she urged.
He stiffened a little, and her smile faded as she remembered once again that this Clark did *not* know her. Carefully disengaging her arm, she said quietly, "If you're ready, that is?"
"Sure." He smiled at her a bit uneasily as he adjusted his glasses. "Let's —"
A tentative knock on the door interrupted him.
"Yeah?" Perry called.
The office door swung open and a blonde head peeked inside. "Excuse me for interrupting you, but is Clark still busy…?"
"Oh, Lana, I'm sorry!" Clark exclaimed, hurrying forward. "Let me just —" He stopped and looked back at Lois. "Ah, Ms. Lane, I'll be right with you…"
"Go ahead," Lois said, staring at the blonde woman with the pretty but sharp features. "I'll wait."
"Who is this, Clark?" the woman asked, looking at Lois with a calculated expression.
Clark flushed a little. "I'm sorry, where are my manners?" He nodded at Lois. "Lana, this is Lois Lane. Ms. Lane, this is Lana Lang."
Lana held out her hand. Lois moved forward automatically to shake it.
"Nice to meet you, Ms. Lane," the woman smiled, but there was a clear warning in her eyes. "I'm Mr. Kent's fiancee."
Lois strained to keep her expression impassive, but the shock of this new detail threatened to unravel her composure. Clark, engaged to this woman? Who *was* she? Despite the diversity of the two universes, she found it very hard to believe that this alternate Clark could be engaged to a woman whose counterpart had never even been mentioned by the Clark of her own world.
As she watched Clark walk Lana to the elevator, she sensed Perry coming to stand behind her. "Who is she?" she murmured, unable to take her eyes off the couple long enough to turn her head and address him directly.
"Lana Lang," Perry replied softly. "She's a newsanchor at LNN."
"I see." Lois bit her lip at this bit of news, realizing that "LNN" meant that Lex also existed in this universe. Was he alive and well, recently resurrected, or merely still dead? "Where did he meet her?"
"She's Clark's childhood sweetheart, or so I understand. I get the impression that the two of them have been engaged since they first swapped Valentines in the second grade."
Lois stared as Lana and Clark spoke together on the landing. She couldn't hear what they were saying, but their animated gestures seemed to be almost a code. "So, Lana's also from Smallville," she said absently as she wondered what that swooping hand motion of Lana's could possibly mean. "Interesting. Why didn't he ever say something? I only remember Rachel…"
Lois tore her gaze away from Clark and his fiancee and turned to Perry, puzzled by his tone of voice. "What's wrong?"
Perry looked at her for a long moment, then shook his head in resignation. "Never mind. I don't think I want to know how you know that Clark is from Smallville."
As he turned back into the office to speak to James, Lois felt her heart stutter with alarm. She'd forgotten again that she was not supposed to have any knowledge of anything that had happened at the Daily Planet since her disappearance in the Congo in '92 — and that included any and all information regarding Clark Kent.
Distressed, she took a long, steadying breath to calm herself. She didn't have time for this now. As soon as she got back home, she promised herself, she'd allow herself to go to pieces — but she had to find a way to travel across dimensions first.
She turned back to the newsroom just in time to see the elevator doors close, carrying Lana away from the newsroom. Even as she watched, Clark's shoulders seemed to slump fractionally. He stared at the closed doors for another long moment before he finally turned away.
Lois frowned. This wasn't her Clark, and she couldn't expect this man's body language to be the same as the man she knew so well. But if this *was* her Clark, she would interpret that gesture as… relief?
Relief that his fiancee had left? That made no sense at all.
She put all speculation aside as she saw him come back down the ramp to the newsroom floor. Finally, she would have the chance to talk to him. Once she managed to explain the situation, the two of them could get in touch with Superman and figure out some way to get her back to her own dimension, where she belonged.
She watched his face close down again as he approached her. He was wary, uneasy. She wished she knew why. Was it her? Lana? The idea of a partner? Or was it simply that this Clark seemed so unsure of himself?
"If you'll come this way, Ms. Lane…?" he invited her, gesturing towards the conference room where she'd seen Debby Levine interviewing an athlete earlier in the day. "You can tell me what you suspect about Tempus, and we can take it from there."
She smiled at him despite her resolution to keep things strictly professional. She liked his usage of the word "we." "That's fine, Clark," she said quietly as she followed him into the conference room, "but first we have to talk about us."
Clark closed the door for privacy, then frowned at her. "Excuse me? 'Us'?"
"Well, me, actually," Lois conceded. She sat down and resisted the urge to rest her head on the conference table. "Clark, I need help. A lot of it."
She looked him straight in the eye. "I need *super* help."
He'd started to sit down across the table from her, but now he suddenly leaped to his feet. "What?!"
Lois wrinkled her brows at him. "I need Superman's help, Clark. I need you to help me find him."
"S-superman?" Clark stammered, avoiding her gaze. "Ms. Lane, I —"
"Call me Lois, will you?" she interrupted. "This 'Ms. Lane' stuff is getting on my nerves! It was bad enough with Jimmy — I mean James — but I can't take it from you!"
He swallowed hard. "Okay, Ms. — uh, Lois."
"Good. That's better." She gave him an encouraging smile, wondering yet again why this version of Clark was so ill at ease with himself. "Now. Superman. Can you get in touch with him?"
"Superman," he repeated.
"Yes, Superman. Remember him? The guy from another planet?"
A look of sheer panic crossed his face as he backed away from her. "Who?"
"The one who can bend steel with his bare hands and leap tall buildings in a single bound…?" She stopped, seeing him with his back to the door. "Clark, what *is* wrong with you? Calm down and sit down! I don't know what you're so anxious about here, but I promise I don't bite."
He gulped hard and cautiously came back to the table, moving as if he expected her to leap up and attack him at any moment. Lois squeezed her eyes shut, knowing that if this was her Clark, she might have done just that… But it wasn't. She was a universe away from her own Clark, and at that moment, she wanted nothing more than to see him again.
She opened her eyes again to see Clark seated across from her, his facial expression under control but his dark eyes betraying his anxiety. "Look, Ms. La — Lois — I'm not sure what's going on here."
"There isn't anything going on here. I just need to talk to Superman."
"Okay, then." Clark seemed to settle himself, as if prepared to do battle. "Let's start with that. Who is Superman?"
"*What* did you say?" It was Lois' turn to rise from her chair.
Clark flinched, but repeated, "Who is Superman? I've — I've never heard the name before."
"You've — never — heard the name…" She stared at him in absolute horror. No. This couldn't be. This could not be happening. A world without Superman?
Her mind flashed back to her walk to the Daily Planet: the dirtier streets, the darker atmosphere, the vicious drive-by shooting without the flash of red and blue to apprehend the criminals. Could it really be true that Superman didn't exist?
With a sudden, desperate surge of hope, Lois pounced upon another possibility. "Things are so different here… Maybe you call him something else." She dug into her pocket and pulled out her wallet. Opening it, she pointed to a picture of a smiling man with dark hair, piercing eyes, and a red and blue suit. "We call him Superman, but maybe you have a different name for him…"
Her voice trailed off as she glanced up at Clark and saw his reaction. His face was a study of mixed horror and awe. He reached out with a trembling finger and touched the S-symbol proudly emblazoned on Superman's chest.
"Where did you get that?" he whispered.
"The picture?" Lois flushed a little. "Well, uh, I usually tell people that it came with the wallet, but — I actually took it myself." She looked at the picture with a critical eye. "I did a pretty good job, too," she added reflectively.
He stared at the picture for a moment longer, then looked up at her abruptly. "All right. Who are you?"
"What? What do you mean? I'm Lois —"
"Are you from the government?" he demanded, his voice not quite shrill.
"Certainly not!" she said, indignant. "I'm a reporter and —"
"Tell me the truth!" he insisted. "Who are you, really?"
She reached across the table to give his hand a reassuring pat, but he jerked away at her touch. "Who are you?" he almost hissed.
"Clark." She pushed her chair away from the table and stood up, backing away to give him plenty of room. She had no idea what had spooked him. "I'm Lois Lane. I work for the Daily Planet. I have nothing to do with the government. I don't even *know* anyone in the government here." She pushed her hair back in a nervous gesture. "Clark, I don't know why this picture of Superman bothers you so much, but I really do need your help. You're the only one who can contact him on a regular basis and I've got to talk to him as soon as I can. I don't feel like falling out a window, which seems to be *my* regular way of contacting him, so if you could please…?"
She stopped as she realized that she'd lost him. His gaze was once more fixed on the picture in her wallet. He traced the S-symbol, then touched the handsome face. Shaking his head with disbelief, his left hand reached up and raked through his hair. "It can't be," he whispered. He touched his glasses, almost as if he wanted to assure himself that they were still there. "This just can't be."
"Tell me about it," Lois agreed with him bitterly, although she was thinking of her own situation. "So, can you help me get in touch with him?"
Clark gave a slight shudder and firmly closed the wallet over the picture. "Ms. Lane," he said formally, "the man in this picture does not exist. I'm afraid I can't help you."
"I refuse to believe that," Lois snapped, feeling desperate. "Maybe he just hasn't made his debut here yet. We'll have to track him down somehow."
Clark narrowed his eyes at her. "You keep talking about 'here,' Ms. Lane," he said softly, rising from his chair to confront her directly. "You speak to me as if we've known each other for years, when we first met half an hour ago. You refer to events and things that you can't know, yet somehow you do. And you expect me to have knowledge of some… some circus performer in a ridiculous costume with clashing colors. Who exactly are you, Ms. Lane, and what do you want from me?"
Lois turned her head away. "You're right," she admitted, her voice very small. "There's a lot I haven't told you. But it all ties in to Tempus, so if you don't want to talk about Superman yet, could we at least talk about that?" She turned back to him, and she wasn't ashamed to know that her face was openly pleading now. "Clark, I need help desperately. I've got to talk to someone who knows this Metropolis and will listen to me without declaring me insane. Clark, I'm going to trust you, because if you're anything like the Clark I know, I can."
He just looked at her.
She took a deep breath. "Clark — I'm from another universe."
There. She'd said it. She watched him carefully, waiting for his reaction, but his face remained deadpan. The silence between them stretched out unbearably.
"Say something!" Lois finally blurted.
Clark sat back down and slowly rubbed his eyes. "Look, Ms. Lane —"
"Call me Lois!"
"Lois," he said, clearly humoring her. Lois gritted her teeth.
"So, you're from another universe."
"And you want me to help you find someone who wears a Halloween costume made up of a red cape and blue tights, who just so happens to come from another planet."
"And I'm supposed to believe you?"
For some strange reason, much of his tension seemed to have vanished. Lois would have expected the opposite. Why was he so pleased with her claim?
He leaned forward and added, "First you make up a story about some guy called 'Superman,' and now you tell me you're from another dimension. What possible reason could you have for playing such a practical joke?"
Lois opened her mouth to make an angry retort, then stopped as a new thought struck her. She found it almost frightening how easily she could read this man. "Correct me if I'm wrong, Clark," she said softly, "but you seem to be a lot more skeptical about the other-dimension part than you are about the flying-alien part."
He flinched. "Is that what you think of this guy you keep claiming exists? That's how you classify him — as a flying alien?"
"No, I don't think of him as an alien. I think he's the most incredible, special person to ever walk — or fly — the face of this earth!" she snapped back. *Except for you…* "So what if he comes from Krypton? He's from another planet, and I'm from another dimension, so we ought to get along just fine!"
His face had paled again. "How do you know he's from Krypton?"
"Because he told me, the first time he gave me an interview." Lois regarded him thoughtfully. Something was bothering him far beyond what she would have expected. "What difference does it make if he's from Krypton, or Vulcan for that matter?"
"He told you," Clark repeated mechanically. He propped an elbow on the table and rested his head in his hand. "He gave you an interview? More than one?"
"Yes," Lois said, puzzled anew.
"I…" He stopped for a moment and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, Lois saw resignation clearly reflected there. "All right," he said at last. "I believe you."
"You do?" She hadn't expected this. "Why?"
A hint of humor peeked through his despondency. "Don't you want me to?"
"Well, yes, but…" Her voice trailed off as she realized the sheer silliness of her objection. He'd deflected her question rather neatly, but — "Okay, never mind." She hitched her chair closer to the table. "You believe me, that's great. So let's get started."
He looked at her warily. "Where are we going to start?"
"Tempus, I should think," Lois replied. "He's the one who brought me here in the first place."
"Let's get back to Tempus in a minute," Clark suggested. His expression seemed strangely intent. "Tell me more about this Superman first."
Lois frowned at him. "Why?"
"You want me to help you find him, don't you?" Clark was now radiating the kind of innocence that Lois instantly mistrusted. "What do you know about him, other than that he's from Krypton and flies?" He glanced at the picture again and added, "And has absolutely no fashion sense?"
"His mother made the costume for him," Lois objected, remembering a little girl in a wheelchair with a shy smile and a hero who took the time to talk to her. "At least, I heard him say that once… Clark? What's wrong now?"
He'd risen from his chair and was staring at her with a look that she could only classify as "panic-stricken." Were those tears glimmering in his eyes?
"That's not possible," he whispered, staring once again at the plastic-encased photo of Superman. "It *can't* be true."
"Clark, please." Forgetting how he'd flinched from her touch earlier, she circled the table to lay a reassuring hand on his arm. "Tell me what's bothering you, so I can help."
She felt him lean into her touch for a moment before he reluctantly moved away. "I can't —" He stopped and clearly struggled to compose himself. "Ah, let's try this again, okay? This alternate universe thing — I do believe you, but it's a little hard to swallow."
"I know," she said softly, trying to give him time to calm himself. "I've been a little shell-shocked myself all day."
"So." He clasped his hands together. "There's another — a version of each person in both universes?"
"Yes," Lois nodded. "Some of them seem to be almost exactly the same, like Perry, while others are totally different. Jimmy Olsen, for example. Your James is called Jimmy in my universe — he's a photographer and researcher for the Planet, not the owner."
"Oh." With a casual air that completely failed to fool her, he asked, "And your Clark? What am I like in your universe?"
She sat down in his chair and looked up at him. "He looks exactly the same," she said slowly, "but there are definite differences. He's — well, more self-assertive, for one thing. You seem to be more deferential. And…" She swallowed hard. "Well, the two of us are kind of close."
"I'm sorry," he said, kneeling by the chair, his own anxieties clearly forgotten in his concern for her. "I think I understand now. That's why you reacted so strongly in the office when I didn't recognize you?"
"Yes," Lois admitted, her voice trembling a little as the reality of her predicament struck her all over again. "And I miss him very, very much." She lifted her chin and tried to smile. "Imagine how you'd feel if you were a universe away from your Lana!"
He smiled back at her, but it wasn't a regular, easy smile at all. Lois filed that little detail away for future reference.
"Lana…" He shook his head. "I never knew you," he said quietly. "I wonder how things would have been here, if the Lois of this universe hadn't disappeared in the Congo half a year before I first came to the Planet."
He shivered a little. "I don't what it is about you," he whispered. "This is the weirdest feeling. I know I shouldn't talk to you, I know I should just walk away…"
He rose to his feet and stood there, looking down at her. "But I can't." He sighed, then squared his shoulders and added, "Tell me more about your Clark. Is his background the same as mine?"
"I don't know, I don't know your background." Shaken by his confession and his oblique acknowledgement of the mutual attraction between the two of them, Lois tried to lighten the atmosphere. "Did you grow up in Smallville and wander all over the world after graduation? Did you once work for the Borneo Gazette? Did you learn ballroom dancing from a Nigerian princess? Do you go back every year to Smallville to worship corn at the Corn Festival? Do your parents ask every girl who walks into the farmhouse with you if she —"
"My parents." He shuddered. "So it's true. No, not…"
"What did you say about my parents?"
"Clark, what is it?"
"Lois." His eyes burned with intensity. "Have you met my — Clark's parents? Jonathan and Martha?"
"Of course I have. They're wonderful people, they come into Metropolis every once in a while… Clark, you're frightening me. What's the matter with you?"
"I can't believe it, I *can't*." He scrubbed fiercely at his eyes, then turned to her. "Promise me you're telling me the truth, Lois! Are Martha and Jonathan really alive and well in your universe?"
"Are they —" Lois repeated, horrified. "Oh, no, Clark, no. What happened in this universe?"
Clark propped himself against the edge of the table and stared fixedly at the wall of the conference room. "I was ten years old," he muttered. "I was standing by the lane to the farm, waiting for them to come home. I saw their car in the distance… and there was a truck coming towards the intersection, much too fast to stop. I tried to warn them, but I wasn't fast enough…"
Lois felt her heart break for him. "Clark, you can't blame yourself," she said earnestly. "You were only ten, and you're not Superman."
He gave a bitter, brittle laugh, and Lois couldn't help but feel that she'd said something far beyond what she intended to say. "Lana says the same thing," he told her. "That I shouldn't blame myself, because one person can't really make that much of a difference, no matter who or what he is."
"Well." Lois considered this sentiment, automatically suspect for having come from Lana Lang. "I agree with her that you shouldn't blame yourself, but I don't agree with the rest of it. One man *can* make a difference. Superman has."
"Superman has," Clark repeated dully. His eyes reflected pain. "Yeah, right."
With obvious effort, he straightened. "Let's take this from the top. You've come here from an alternate universe, where there's a guy calling himself Superman."
"How did you get here?"
"Tempus," Lois said simply.
He blinked at her. "Excuse me?"
"Tempus brought me here. I have no idea why."
"Uh huh…" He sighed and rubbed a hand across his forehead. "I'm trying my best to accept all this, Lois, but it's really hard to believe.'
"Which part?" She wryly ticked some of the more incredible points off on her fingers. "That I'm from a parallel Metropolis? That Tempus, the guy who's running for mayor here, is a dimension-hopping mugger and kidnapper? Or that James Olsen is little more than a copy boy in my universe?"
"Actually, I was thinking more about the idea that this other — that this Superman guy flies around in tights." He shook himself and visibly tried to regain his calm. "Uh, would you care to explain *how* Tempus brought you here?"
"He used a time machine, I think. A dimension-hopping machine, actually." Seeing Clark's look of clear incredulity, she added sharply, "Look, I know it doesn't make much sense! But he dragged me into an alleyway at gunpoint and ordered me to climb onto some kind of machine. He made a crack about time travel, twisted a dial, and dumped me into a cemetery in your universe, where I got a good look at my own tombstone! Then I had to wander through the streets of a Metropolis turned upside-down, witness a drive-by shooting —"
"Were you hurt?" he interrupted, his face creased with concern. "I didn't see you there —"
"I didn't see you there either." She eyed him suspiciously. "How do you know about it?"
"I was pretty close by," he said hastily. "In the background, you might say."
"I still didn't see you." She sighed and added, "And if Superman would have existed in this dimension, he would have shown up, caught all the bullets with his bare hands, and probably flown the entire car of gangsters over to the closest police station for arraignment."
"He can do that?!"
"Sure, why not? He's strong enough."
"No, I mean the people of your — your dimension would allow such a thing to happen?"
Lois frowned at him, wondering why he was so agitated. "Of course they would! Look, Clark, I can see that this universe of yours is a lot more paranoid. I saw all those stores selling ammunition…"
"That's Tempus' doing," he told her, his voice grim. "He's got a whole chain of shops in the greater Metropolis area, selling weapons and ammunition for inexpensive prices." He shook his head. "It's as if he's more interested in turning New Troy into an armed militia than in actually making a profit."
"Maybe he is," Lois suggested. "He quite clearly has some private agenda of his own, or he wouldn't have dragged me here. And who is this 'enemy' that he tells people to be ready for?"
"In his campaign posters, you mean?" At Lois' nod, Clark only shrugged. "I have no idea. No one has any idea. I asked him the question myself, when I interviewed him a couple of weeks ago. He smiled at me — a really infuriating smirk, if you don't mind my saying so —"
"I don't," Lois said emphatically.
"— and just said that we'd all find out soon, so we'd better get ready." He twisted his mouth into a grimace. "I'm usually good at getting people to open up when I interview them, but Tempus, for all his verbosity, actually says very little. I'm not the only reporter who's been stymied by the guy. There's going to be a debate, though, the day after tomorrow, between Tempus and Mr. White. It'll be televised, and Tempus will have to say *something* if he actually wants to convince people to vote for him!"
"So what do I have to do with all this?" Lois demanded, frustrated. "Why did he bring me here to this dimension? How is he planning on using me?"
Clark, his face a study of compassion, reached out a hand to touch her cheek. He jerked back and flushed. "Don't let him use you, Lois," he said quietly. "I don't —"
A cursory knock on the door warned them before it swung open to reveal an irritated-looking Lana Lang. "Clark," she said, clearly impatient. "It's ten to seven now! I've been waiting downstairs in the lobby for twenty minutes!"
Clark glanced at his watch. "I'm so sorry, Lana," he apologized. "I forgot that we agreed to go meet your parents at seven o'clock. I got caught up with —"
"With Ms. Lane here?" Lana stared coldly at Lois. "Why are you working with her, Clark?"
Lois, annoyed that Lana spoke over her head as if she were a three-year-old, stood up and said pointedly, "We're working together on a story, Ms. Lang. Perry paired the two of us together."
"Did he?" Lana seemed unimpressed. "Well, working hours ended a long time ago, and my fiance and I have some wedding plans to work out, so if you'll excuse us…?" ***
Lois stood by the door of the conference room and watched Lana and Clark leave the newsroom. As the couple hurried up the ramp to the elevators, Lana was clearly doing most of the talking. Lois noted with some irritation that Clark did little more than nod and agree with whatever Lana said, behaving in that same meek and submissive manner. Why did he let her walk all over him like that? Why didn't he stand up for himself?
"I'm not sure," Lois muttered, "but I think I hate her."
Part of Lois was annoyed with herself for her instinctive dislike for Lana Lang. The other part assured her that her instincts were usually right on the mark, and there was something fundamentally wrong with Clark's engagement to the woman. Frustrated by her inability to make up her mind, Lois set the question aside and went to talk to Perry.
She found him arguing with one of the reporters who did not have a counterpart in her own universe. As she watched Perry pointedly and sarcastically explain that a newspaper required facts rather than fiction, Lois wondered what had caused the divergence between the two universes. Why were some people practically the same in both dimensions, others completely different in character, and still others without matching counterparts? Why didn't Superman exist here? Was there some key event that had changed things, preventing events from taking their proper course? But then, who could say how things were "supposed" to happen? Which one was the "right" dimension, anyway? Hers? This one? Some other universe entirely?
She shuddered and ordered that errant thought out of sight, if not out of mind. It was bad enough to worry about two dimensions; she really didn't want to start postulating about others.
Perry finished his diatribe and the chastised reporter slunk away. Lois watched with some amusement as Perry turned away in exasperation, only to brighten as he caught sight of her.
"There you are, Lois." He came forward and patted her on the shoulder. "How'd that talk go with Clark?"
Lois paused for a moment, wondering exactly how to describe the incredible conversation she'd had in the conference room. "It was — enlightening, Perry," she said at last.
"That's more than I can say about *our* conversation, darlin'," he said gently.
She looked at him, stricken.
He nodded, his face openly sympathetic. "You didn't want to tell us what happened; I guess it's too soon. You let us know when you're ready, honey, and we'll be ready to listen."
Lois reached out and hugged him. "Thanks, Perry," she said, her voice hoarse as she struggled to control herself. "You're the best."
"Nice to hear you admit it for a change," he told her, his eyes twinkling. "You usually claim that title for yourself."
She shrugged and smiled ruefully. "I think it'll take me at least a day or two before I can reclaim that title."
"Well, you keep working with Clark and you'll be back on the top of the heap before you know it. He's a quiet one, that boy, but he's got an uncanny knack for showing up at the right place at the right time."
"What do you mean?"
Perry waved a vague hand. "It's hard to explain, but — the strangest coincidences seem to happen around him. He just manages to fall on his feet."
"Do you think you could be a little more specific?"
Perry looked thoughtful. "Well, take last week. He was on his way here when some punk on rollerblades ripped off a woman's purse. He was speeding past Clark when a freak gust of wind sent the punk sideways into a tree." He chuckled. "So Clark ends up collaring the punk, giving the lady back her purse, and writing a nice little story."
"Not all that newsworthy, though," Lois said absently as she mulled this over. Come to think of it, things like that happened around her Clark, too…
"Are you kidding?" Perry snorted. "Petty crime that actually gets prosecuted?"
Lois stared at him. "Chief, are you serious?"
Perry sighed. "Lois, you've been out of it for over two years now. I'm afraid things have only gone downhill since then. There's so much crime out there that we're lucky if one criminal out of twenty actually gets punished. Believe me, a mugger getting caught and charges getting pressed might not be front-page news, but it definitely gets printed. It happens so rarely that it really is newsworthy." He shrugged. "Sure, the news is usually bad; but I think the people of Metropolis are pretty desperate to hear something good once in a while."
Lois absorbed this in silence, realizing once again how much darker this Metropolis was. A sudden, desperate yearning seized her for the city she knew and loved. More than anything, she wanted to be back where she belonged.
But that would have to wait until tomorrow, when she could talk to Clark again. Even if Superman didn't exist — and the mere thought of that still made her reel with shock — she needed Clark's insight and innate knowledge of this universe to help her figure out her next move.
A sudden wave of exhaustion washed over her. She glanced at her watch, but it took a long moment before she realized that it actually read 2:05 a.m. Her watch was still on "regular universe" time, which meant that she'd been running at full speed for some twenty hours now. She'd forgotten that when Tempus brought her into this dimension, she'd gone from early night to early afternoon. No wonder she was so tired! Universe lag was evidently worse than jet lag.
"Ah, Perry?" She looked up at him, trying not to sound too anxious. "Are you going home any time soon?"
"Don't worry, Lois, the paper's been put to bed and the late edition is in the night editor's hands anyway. Now that I've explained Reporting 101 to Walter, we can go home and get you a good, hot meal and a nice, soft bed."
She blinked at him, astonished at his blase attitude. "Just leave everything to the night editor, Perry? *You*?"
He patted her hand. "Ah, you're remembering the good old days, when I came here at 6 a.m. and left at 4 a.m. the following morning. I haven't done that for well over a year now, Lois. Alice very kindly pointed out that I'm married to her and not the paper." He sobered for a moment, then added quietly, "You know, Lois, much as I love the paper, Alice does come first. It's one reason I'm glad Olsen is convincing me to run for mayor — believe it or not, the hours will be shorter than my workday is now."
Lois nodded, storing her reaction to Perry's attitude for future contemplation. "So it was James Olsen who convinced you to go into politics?"
Perry smiled again, his lighter mood restored. "That boy may have made his fortune in computers, but I do sometimes wonder about his ideas. He seems to think that the editor-in-chief of the Daily Planet running for mayor would be good for sales."
"A promotional gimmick?" Lois said, grinning.
"Looks like." Perry shrugged. "Truth is, though, that once he suggested the idea, I took the ball and ran with it. Alice is behind me all the way. This city is such a mess that someone has to do something about it. And since I'm willing to give it a try…"
Lois framed him with her hands, picturing it. "Perry White, mayor," she announced. "Yep. Has a nice ring to it." She nodded approvingly. "And for the record, Perry, I think you'd do a good job."
She dropped her hands. "So. Can we go now?"
"No problem, darlin'. I'll just call Alice and let her know we're on the way home."
Leaving Perry to call Alice and have a last-minute discussion with the night-editor, Lois made a quick detour to the restroom to freshen up a bit. Finally, the two of them entered the elevator and headed down towards the parking garage.
As they stepped out into the darkened, echoing area, Lois suddenly tensed. Something was wrong.
"Where's your car, Perry?" she breathed.
Perry stood still, clearly as uneasy as she. "Just three cars down," he whispered back. "But there's —"
Lois almost groaned aloud as two men stepped out from behind a nearby mini-van, pistols drawn and pointed straight at them. "Stay right where you are," one of them ordered. "Do as you're told, and no one gets hurt."
"Except you," Lois gritted. She stepped back a pace and eased herself into a fighting stance.
The first thug sneered at her over his weapon. "This isn't a James Bond movie, lady," he snapped.
"Good," Lois snapped back. "The woman usually gets killed in those things anyway. I have other plans."
"Lois…" Perry cautioned. "Take it easy. I didn't just get you back in order to lose you again."
"Stay out of this," the man ordered Perry. "We don't want to hurt you. We're just after her."
Perry almost rolled his eyes at this statement. "She's back in Metropolis for a single day, and it's already starting again!"
Lois shot a look of annoyance at him, then turned her attention back to the two armed men. "What do you want with me?" she demanded.
The leader of the two shrugged. "I'm told to bring you in, I bring you in. I don't ask questions."
"Who told you to bring me in?" she pressed.
"I'm not saying." He scowled. "Enough of this!" He took a step forward and aimed his gun directly at Perry. "Get into the van, lady, or the guy here gets it."
Lois allowed her shoulders to slump and assumed a look of dejection. She took one meek step towards the van, then another. The crook smiled with smug satisfaction at her apparent surrender to the inevitable.
His smirk vanished when a third step brought her within range to execute a sudden, flying kick that sent the gun spinning out of the startled man's grasp. As the thug shouted in pain, the weapon soared over the trunk of the next car and fell into the shadows with a clatter.
Perry instantly leapt forward and grappled with the now unarmed crook, falling to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs. Lois launched herself against the second man, but the thug took a quick step sideways and managed to evade her. The two of them circled each other for a moment, ignoring the scuffle taking place only a few feet away. Lois could only pray that Perry would hold his own.
The man brought his weapon up to bear, but Lois gambled that he wouldn't risk shooting her at point-blank range, and possibly killing her, when he'd been ordered to bring her someplace — presumably alive. She threw herself at him again, this time landing a solid blow to the side of his neck. But even as he reeled from the attack, his own arm came down with a stunning impact against the side of her head. The gun, she realized dimly as the darkened parking garage suddenly turned into exploding shards of color. He'd hit her with the handle of his gun…
Then something struck her again, and the world went black. ***
"…set up the cameras?"
"Yes, sir. Motion sensitive, as you asked."
The ropes were tight, but not painful. She was seated on an uncomfortable wooden chair, with her hands handcuffed behind her back. Her neck ached from hanging forward so awkwardly. Couldn't they have been courteous enough to tie her onto a high-backed chair?
"Good. It's set up from every angle?"
"You name it, it's covered. If something happens there, sir, we'll get it on tape."
"Good. Excellent, in fact." A snicker sounded. "I just love it when a plan comes together."
Lois listened carefully, straining her ears for every nuance of sound. She carefully kept her body completely limp and refused to allow her eyelids to flicker. As long her captors assumed she was still unconscious, she might learn something that could prove helpful in escaping and eventually apprehending these crooks. There was something familiar about one of the voices, the one who was clearly in charge…
"Now, how about the ledge and the outside of the building?"
"The ledge was easy, sir, but we're having a little trouble covering the entire side of the building."
"You don't need to bother focusing on the area that's, say, more than twenty meters away from the south corner. I think she'll be looong gone by then." Again, that annoying snigger. "But for now — ah, Lois, you can stop pretending. Wakey wakey, it's time to get up!"
Lois jerked her head up and opened her eyes, startled that the man with the familiar voice had somehow discerned that she was playing possum. She found herself staring straight into Tempus' smirking visage.
"You!" she spat.
"How original, if not very polite." He gave her an infuriating pat on the cheek. "I'm sorry to inconvenience you like this, Lois, but if you're going to let yourself get kidnapped so easily… You know, you really shouldn't walk around unarmed. My stores are offering a nice deal on a twelve-clip automatic. Twenty-four rounds with every purchase, and a free pair of sunglasses!"
He straightened, turned his back on her, and sauntered over to a comfortable armchair placed on the other side of the room. He settled into it and reached for the bowl of popcorn on the stand near his elbow. Watching her lazily, he tossed a handful of popcorn into his mouth.
Lois looked warily around the windowless room. The fake wooden paneling offered no clue to her location, and aside from her chair and Tempus', the only other furniture was the small stand with the popcorn and an expensive-looking television. The henchman who had managed to knock her out in the Daily Planet parking garage stood silently against the wall, observing the scene with interest.
Her gaze wandered back to Tempus. She stared, incredulous, as he calmly munched away. "So. You kidnapped me in order to have an audience while you snack?"
"No, I kidnapped you because you haven't been behaving yourself." He took another handful of popcorn. "You know, Lois, I planned this thing right down to the last detail. I studied you and your behavior for weeks until I was sure I could say exactly what you would do in just about any situation. You should have marched right up to the guy and shoved him out the window, but you didn't. What's wrong with you?"
"What are you talking about?" Lois demanded.
He gave an impatient sigh. "Do you think I brought you here just so you could do a little sightseeing? If you're not going to behave the way I predicted you would, Lois, I simply have to force your hand. So it's really your own fault that things have come to this point."
"I couldn't care less why you brought me here," she snarled at him. "And you're not going to get away with this!"
He arched his eyebrows at her. "Not going to get away with what, Lois?"
She fumbled for a moment. "With — well, whatever you've got planned." She straightened and added with defiance, "I'm sure not going to help you!"
"You will, you know." Patiently, as if talking to a recalcitrant child, Tempus explained, "My plan is to become the mayor of Metropolis by killing Perry White."
"You can't do that!" Lois breathed, horrified by the man's casual reference to cold-blooded murder.
"Why not? Oh, wait!" He held up a finger. "Somebody might try and stop me — big, brawny, looks good in blue?" He gave a mock sigh. "Gee, if only I lived in a dimension with no Superman."
He leaned forward and grinned at her gleefully. "Oh, wait. Duh, I do!"
He sat back and chewed on another mouthful of popcorn, waiting for her reaction. Lois just sat there, stunned.
"Oh, and speaking of dimensions," he added casually, "you're headed for another dimension yourself, Lois. One that's slightly more… spiritual. Hope you've been good."
"Why are you doing this?" she asked hopelessly.
"Well…" He shrugged. "Why not?" He took another handful of popcorn. "Besides, there's always that gripping moment when the heroine screams, 'Help, Superman! Save me!' Who'd want to miss it?"
He leaned forward again with a conspirational air, as if he wanted to tell her a secret. "Only this time," he purred, "there's no Superman."
Grinning, Tempus nodded at his henchman. The man moved forward, holding a strip of cloth. Tempus reached out and picked up a remote that was propped against the popcorn bowl.
"It's kinda chilly out there," he remarked, "so if you don't mind, Lois, I'll just watch from in here."
As the television screen opposite Tempus' armchair flickered to life, Lois caught a quick glimpse of a building with a narrow ledge. Then the henchman bound the cloth over her eyes and cut the ropes binding her to the chair. With her hands still cuffed behind her and the blindfold to hamper her further, Lois could do little more than put up a token resistance as the man led her away.
He hustled her out of the room. As she heard the door close behind her, Tempus called out cheerily, "See you soon, Lois! Don't just stand around!" Furious, she tried to squirm away, but the henchman kept a firm grip on her elbow and seemed to have no trouble evading her backward kick. He led her down a long hallway, and she shivered as she felt a cold breeze slap against her face. Were they going outside?
Well, *she* was, apparently. They stopped right in front of the source of the draft, and then the man shoved her forward. "Watch your step," he advised her politely. "But don't try to come back in through here; the door is getting closed and locked the second you're outside. Good luck, I suppose."
Warily, Lois stepped forward. She shivered as the wind buffeted her from all sides. A click sounded behind her; when she leaned back slightly, she could feel the gritty surface of the closed and locked door. Whatever Tempus had planned for her, it looked like she was going to have to go through with it.
Okay, she was outdoors somewhere. She was blindfolded and handcuffed, so she had no way to explore her surroundings properly. Carefully, without shifting her weight, she reached out with her left foot to prod at the ground.
There was nothing there. Her foot hovered open empty space.
Gasping, she shrank back. It took all her courage to reach out with her foot again and move it in a cautious half circle. To either side of her, there was a narrow path of bricks; ahead of her, she could only feel the cold air. There was no question about it: the man had steered her onto a narrow ledge, somewhere high on a building. The picture on the television screen! She had to find some way off the ledge that wouldn't involve the scientific principle of gravity, but how? She couldn't see; she couldn't steady herself with her hands; she didn't even know if there was a nearby window.
"Window," she said to herself. "Good idea. Look for a window."
Well, maybe "look" wasn't the right word.
As she stood there, debating her options and wondering whether or not it was possible to try to pick a lock with her hands cuffed behind her back, she felt a sudden, unsteady shift beneath her. Her eyes behind the blindfold widened with panic as she remembered Tempus' mocking farewell: "Don't just stand around!" It wasn't enough that he'd tossed her out on a ledge. He had to go and make it one that would crumble under her feet!
She didn't have a choice. She had to start moving *now*, or the whole question of gravity would become largely academic.
Keeping her back pressed against the wall, she carefully began to shuffle along, sliding her feet from brick to brick instead of actually lifting them. If the ledge was as rickety as it seemed to be, she didn't dare shift her weight too suddenly.
"A window, a window," she chanted, a mantra of desperation. "There has to be a window somewhere, keep moving, you'll find a window, a window…"
A brick crumbled away just as she slid her foot onto the next one in line. She swallowed hard and kept moving, praying that she would feel the sudden chill of glass against her back.
"Okay," she said aloud, trying to keep her cool. "Stay calm. You're high up, you're blind, you can't use your hands, the ledge is falling apart and you're alone."
She wasn't helping herself.
The bricks under her feet cracked in two. She shuffled along as quickly as possible.
"Superman?" she called out, her voice quavering, almost breaking. "Superman? Are you out there? Kal-El? Stupendous Man? Ultra Man? I don't really care what you call yourself, but please, if you're out there —"
The ledge groaned warningly under her weight, and she fought to maintain her balance.
"Come and rescue me!" she shouted. "Please!"
She shifted her foot sideways, reaching —
And the entire ledge crumbled away, sending her toppling outward in a shower of ancient mortar.
There was no Superman to swoop in at the last moment and save her from a grisly death. She was falling, and she was going to die.
In her absolute terror and despair, Lois screamed out for the one person that she desperately wanted to see one last time and now never would again:
There wasn't time for any more regrets or words. Lois braced herself for impact —
And the speed of her descent suddenly slowed. She gasped as warm arms encircled her, supporting her as the killing speed was lessened. Then the direction changed from the vertical to the horizontal, and she was being carried away and upwards to safety.
"Superman," she choked. "Superman?"
For a moment, there was no answer. Then she heard a low, hoarse voice. "Kal-El," the man whispered.
Lois sobbed with relief. He was here, he existed, he'd rescued her from certain death. "Thank you. Thank you for coming in time."
"I couldn't let you die," came the whisper, urgent and heavy with emotion. "I couldn't let that happen."
They flew onward in silence for several seconds longer. Lois, still shivering from her near brush with death, struggled to calm herself. After all, she'd been tossed off of buildings before, suspended over bubbling vats of chemicals, nearly drowned in cement… She'd lost track of the times she'd nearly been killed, and she usually bounced right back once the danger was past. Why did she have such a bad case of the shakes now?
"I thought you weren't here," she said aloud, answering her own question. She'd thought there was no one to rescue her this time, and had been convinced of her imminent demise as she'd never been before.
"I'm here," he assured her in that hoarse murmur. "It's all right, Lois."
She tried to relax in his arms, but failed. If only she could see him, look into those gentle brown eyes and absorb his confidence and strength… "Could we — could we land somewhere just for a second? So you can take off the handcuffs and the blindfold?"
The arms tightened around her for a brief second, then, "Lois, I'll take off the handcuffs, but not the blindfold. Not yet."
Startled, Lois twisted her head in an attempt to look at him. Defeated by the blindfold, she could only question, "Super — I mean, Kal-El? Why can't I see you?"
Again, his grip tightened. "Don't ask," the whisper begged her. "It's just not meant to be."
Their trajectory changed as he glided downwards, setting her gently on her feet. Her legs buckled and she sank to her knees in frostbitten grass, still trembling with reaction. The arms reached around her and snapped the handcuffs effortlessly, then encircled her entirely in a warm hug of reassurance.
She found herself sitting in his lap, rocking back and forth as he sought to convince her that she was really and truly safe. Her arms reflexively went around his neck as she buried her face in his shoulder. Never mind the blindfold; she didn't have to see him to know him. Kal-El or Superman, it didn't matter; she *knew* him. She knew this was —
She frowned. She knew how it felt to be held by Superman, and this wasn't it. This was more like —
A flash of memory stirred in her heart, the way she'd felt when someone had once cradled her as she huddled on her kitchen floor, comforting her in just this manner. This was only a faint echo of that intensity, a reflection that paled in comparison with that reality, but…
Her grip on his neck shifted as she fingered the collar of his business suit. Her cheek rubbed slowly against his shoulder, feeling the soft wool. She sat up, her right hand reaching unerringly for the knot of his tie.
Unwilling to actually feel the glasses on his face, she touched the temple of the frames behind his ear instead.
The clues were screaming at her, yet were completely unnecessary, serving only as confirmation for what she somehow already knew. Without her eyes to blind her from reality, she realized the truth. She *knew* this man; not because he was Superman/Kal-El, but because he was —
The arms stiffened.
"Clark, it's you."
She heard him expel a soft breath, but he didn't answer.
"This isn't Superman holding me," she said with finality. "This is Clark."
When he still didn't say anything, she reached up and pulled off the blindfold that had ironically opened her eyes.
The faint glint of starlight left his face in shadow. She wished she could see his expression.
"Where are we?" she asked softly, postponing the inevitable flurry of questions.
"Centennial Park," he answered mechanically. "No one comes here at night any more; it's too dangerous."
"So you could land without being seen," she concluded.
Without replying, he gently lifted her off his lap and set her down on the grass. The two of them simply sat there, looking at each other in the chilly darkness.
"I'm sorry," she finally said. Those two words carried the weight of everything: her regret that she'd forced his hand, her empathy for the tremendous burden of responsibility that he carried, her sympathy for the lonely life he must lead in such a constrained existence.
He must have understood, for she caught the swift white gleam of his teeth as he smiled briefly. "I'm not sorry you're alive," he parried gently.
She smiled despite herself. "Well, I appreciate that." She reached out slowly, ready to stop if he flinched away, and removed his glasses. She set them carefully on the grass and studied as much of his face as she could in the dim light.
He seemed almost amused by her scrutiny. "Do you think I'd look better with contacts?"
She picked up the glasses and shook her head. "Clark doesn't wear his glasses when he's wearing his Superman suit," she said by way of explanation. She stopped short as she realized what she'd just said.
Clark Kent was Superman.
*Her* Clark Kent was Superman.
His superior vision must have picked up her sudden change of expression even in the dark, for he stirred and rose to his feet. "It's after three in the morning," he said quietly. "Can I take you to the hospital for observation? I imagine that they hit you on the head too, and I'd say that you've had a pretty hard day."
"Too?" she repeated, looking up at him from her sitting position. She bit her lip as she remembered the scene in the parking garage when Tempus' henchman had kidnapped her. "Perry? Is he okay?"
"He will be. He only had a slight concussion." Clark walked a pace away from her and stared at the constellations twinkling brightly overhead. "One of the night staff found him lying on the floor in the parking garage under the Daily Planet. He told the police that you both were attacked by two men with guns. He's very worried about you." He turned back to look at her. "*Are* you all right?"
"Thanks to you, yes." She scrambled to her feet with much less grace than he had, refusing his offered hand. "Um, here. You ought to put these on again." She held out the glasses, hoping their hands wouldn't touch when he took them.
"Thank you." He took the glasses and slipped them back onto his face, the eyes softening and blurring behind the frames. Lois wondered why he wore them, why her own Clark wore them, when their eyesight was so — Her mind shied away from that train of thought. She wasn't ready to consider it yet.
"So," he said again, "can I take you to the hospital?"
Lois shook her head. "I don't — I don't want to go." She sighed. "I just want a hot shower and a few hours' sleep. I'm sure I'll be all right then." She needed time to recuperate, to recover emotional stamina before she could allow the impact of her discovery to really sink into her consciousness. She was functioning on automatic now, and she wasn't quite sure how she would react when her system recovered from the incredible series of shocks that she'd received over the past day.
He hesitated for a long moment, as if unsure how she would take his next words. "Alice is spending the night in the hospital with Perry, so I can't take you to the Whites'. Would you — would you like to sleep on my couch tonight?"
She stilled at this offer. Her eyes closed momentarily, then opened again. She drew in breath to speak, then let it out when she could think of nothing to say.
"You don't have to," he said hastily. "I can get you a room in a decent motel." He fingered his glasses in a hauntingly familiar gesture of nervousness before he added, "I'm just not so sure that you ought to be alone right now."
This wasn't her Clark, Lois reminded herself. She and Clark agreed that it wasn't appropriate for her to sleep in his apartment now that they were dating, but this was *not* her Clark.
"I don't think I want to be alone right now either," she heard herself admit. She took a step towards him. "All right, we'll go to your apartment. Thank you for the offer of your couch." She bit her lip to stop it from trembling. "But let's — walk there, okay?"
He regarded her for a moment in the dark before he mildly replied, "That's usually the way I get there, Lois."
"Of course it is," she said slowly, her heart sinking as she realized yet again what her presence had done to this man. "I'm sorry…"
"It's done," he told her simply. "And it doesn't matter now. Come. I'll take you home." ***
The bright sunlight teased her eyelids unmercifully, forcing her awake. Lois groaned, rolling over onto her stomach in an effort to escape. She kept her face buried in the pillow for nearly a minute before she reluctantly conceded that she wasn't going to fall asleep again any time in the near future. She dragged her right hand upwards and squinted blearily at her watch, then blinked with surprise at the discovery that she'd been dead to the world for over ten hours.
Shaking off the heavy lassitude of too much sleep, she somehow managed to achieve a sitting position. She slowly rubbed her eyes as she surveyed her surroundings. Last night, when Clark escorted her to his apartment, she'd been too tired and drained to do anything more than wordlessly accept his blankets, his pillow, a large sweatshirt to use as pajamas, and the use of his shower. Now, suddenly more awake, she looked around with undisguised interest, wondering at the similarities and differences that abounded throughout the living room and the open kitchen to her right.
The first thing that struck her was that the apartment was almost painfully neat. There seemed to be very little in the way of personal momentoes. Many of the more interesting prints and hangings still decorated the walls, but that more intimate touch seemed absent. Where were all the little notes and magnets that adorned her Clark's refrigerator? The kitchen looked as if it had never been used — no towels hanging from the oven door or tucked into the freezer's handle, no glasses on the drainboard, no appliances on the counter. She frowned a little. *Was* it ever used? Didn't he eat?
~You do, uh, eat… don't you?~
~I don't have to, but I like to.~
The enormity of the situation struck her again with full force. Clark. Superman. One and the same.
And this Clark? Why wasn't he Superman? Why didn't he wear the cape? What had made her Clark choose to wear the suit, while this one didn't?
~My mother made it for me.~
Lois' mouth slowly opened as she remembered Superman — no, Clark! — telling Amy Platt that his mother had made the suit. *Martha*? Martha had made the Superman costume?
And this Clark didn't have a Martha…
Lois' gaze was drawn to the blank spot by the lamp that stood next to the couch, the spot where her Clark's picture of his smiling parents usually stood. She sighed, remembering that this Clark had lost Martha and Jonathan at the age of ten. She wondered where he'd lived until he was old enough to be on his own.
Was it Martha that had convinced Clark to don the suit and adopt the persona of Superman? Somehow, she didn't think so. Who, then? What had caused her Clark to disguise himself as Superman, when this one hadn't?
…Or was it Superman disguised as Clark?
She thought about that idea for a moment, then discarded it impatiently. It made no sense. After all, Superman was an icon, a symbol. Clark was a person, with idiosyncrasies and a real personality.
A person she cared for, very deeply…
She wrenched her mind away from that train of thought. She didn't want to dwell on her own Clark now; that topic, with all its ramifications, would need to wait until this crisis was over and she was back where she belonged. For now, she needed to concentrate on this other Clark Kent, who was so alike, and yet unlike, the man she knew so well.
She studied the apartment again as she tried to analyze the sad-eyed young man whose home seemed so impersonal. She sat there for a while, her arms wrapped around her knees as she considered this strange dichotomy. After all, why *should* this Clark have a less lived-in feeling to his apartment? Just because he wasn't Superman? That made no sense; as she'd just concluded, it was Clark that had the personality, not Superman. With a pang, she wondered if it was because his differences made him feel distanced — not just from others, but from his own life.
"Is that what you feel, Clark?" she whispered, addressing the man who was a universe away. "Do you sometimes feel this alone? What gives you that connection with us?"
Even as she asked, she knew the answer: Martha and Jonathan Kent. Two wonderful people that were absent from this Clark's life. Her Clark had them, and that made all the difference.
Biting her lip, she twisted her head to look at the other table lamp that flanked the couch. Sure enough, the picture of Clark standing next to her was gone, and in its place was a framed photograph of Clark, his arm wrapped around a smiling Lana Lang. She grimaced at the sight.
"It's not jealousy," she told herself firmly. An inner, brutally honest examination of her own feelings confirmed that. This wasn't her Clark, after all. "It's not jealousy. It's just plain *wrong*."
If he was engaged, if he was creating a life of commitment and solidity, why didn't Lana give him that missing connection?
"Does she know?" Lois suddenly wondered aloud. "Have you told her?"
She bent her head, resting her forehead on her knees. "And why haven't you told me?" she whispered painfully to the man whose super-hearing couldn't be of much use from a dimension away. Tears squeezed their way through tightly closed eyelids. "Why haven't you told me, Clark? Why didn't you tell me your secret?"
She remained in that position for some time before she reluctantly stirred. Clark might return at any moment, and she'd rather face him fully dressed. Her stomach reminded her that a little breakfast wouldn't hurt, either.
She swung around and placed her bare feet on the carpet, noting with bemusement that the pattern was different. The coffee table was also a deeper shade of mahogany. As she stood and stretched, she took another look around the apartment, suddenly more astonished at the similarities than she was by the differences. Two young men had just so happened to rent the same apartment and decorate it in the same manner. Couch, television, lamps — even the large urn was in exactly the same spot.
How could such a thing happen? Even identical twins didn't do things like this, and her Clark and this Clark had led very different lives. Even if both had traveled around the world after graduating high school, how could they have possibly chosen the same souvenirs? It made no sense!
"Then again," Lois reminded herself dryly, "alternate dimensions don't make any sense, either."
She turned in a slow circle, taking in the apartment once more. The spiral staircase was painted brown instead of that deep red. The window seat had only two cushions; instead of the armchair, this Clark had a rocking chair that looked as if it had been hand-carved. The mat by the front door was a different color. The built-in shelves were crammed full of books; there didn't seem to be any of the trophies or pictures that her Clark displayed. The closet door was the same, although the doorknob seemed more ornate than she remembered —
She sat back down on the couch with a jolt, slack-jawed again.
"You lied to me, Clark Kent," she muttered, suddenly angry. "You've been lying to me for the last two years!"
That little sneak. All those times he ducked away, all those silly excuses… Why didn't he just *tell* her?
She shook her head and stood up again, brushing the question aside and tucking it neatly into a niche of her brain. No time for it now; she'd already decided that she didn't want to think about her Clark until she was safely home. She'd have plenty of time to yell at him when she saw him again.
*If* she saw him again…
"Don't think like that," she told herself fiercely. "We'll figure out a way. And I'll make sure Tempus gets stuck in jail for the next two hundred years while I'm at it!"
Feeling better, she strode towards the bedroom and the bathroom. She stopped short after three steps as she caught a glimpse of the note lying on the floor next to the coffee table. Clark must have written it before leaving for work that morning. She picked it up and examined it.
"Dear Lois," she read aloud, "I hope you'll feel rested when you awaken. I spoke to Perry and Alice and reassured them that you're all right. Alice has sent over what she calls a 'care package' for you; you'll find it on the desk in the bedroom. Please make yourself at home. I should be back around five."
He'd signed it "Clark Kent." She grimaced at the formality. At least he hadn't addressed it to "Ms. Lane."
She hurried into the bedroom and found a large plastic bag sitting prominently on the corner desk. She untied it, peeked inside, and gave a sigh of pure delight.
Clean clothing, clean underwear, makeup…!
"Alice White, you *are* a sweetheart," she breathed, reaching inside the bag and pulling out a hairbrush much like the one she had back home. "Now maybe I can feel human again."
Forty-five minutes later, Lois emerged from the bathroom with a satisfied smile. The only items Alice hadn't supplied were a blowdryer and shoes. Well, her walking shoes would do, and she didn't mind letting her hair air-dry. At least she felt fresh and ready to tackle whatever happened next.
"Breakfast, I think," she said thoughtfully. "Or lunch. Or whatever." A look at her watch left her blinking; it was almost five o'clock in the afternoon. "Okay, then, we'll make it an early supper."
A quick look in the refrigerator surprised her. She'd expected lots of soft drinks, but she saw only low-fat milk and fresh juices. Whole wheat bread? A container of what looked like tofu? A quick scan of the cabinets showed only healthy items there as well, instead of the Twinkies and other high-sugar snacks that her Clark was always eating. After all, he didn't… have to worry…
~So, explain something to me. You eat like an eight-year-old, and you look like Mr. Hardbody. What's your secret, and can I have it?~
"Cheater," Lois muttered. Of course he could eat like an eight-year-old. He was Superman!
She settled on granola and milk and sat down at the table to eat it. She'd just finished rinsing out her bowl when the sound of a key in the lock made her whirl around.
She gulped, suddenly feeling awkward all over again. Clark was home. They needed to talk, and she wasn't quite sure how to begin.
He stepped inside the door, balancing several grocery bags with ease. He locked gazes with her for a long moment before breaking eye contact as he turned to lock the door behind him. Then he came down the stairs, setting the bags down on the coffee table in front of the couch.
"Thanks for the things from Alice," Lois offered hesitantly.
"You're welcome." He glanced at the couch. "Oh, you straightened up. You didn't have to do that."
She flushed a little. "Well, if you would have brought Lana here, and she'd seen that I was sleeping on the couch, it might have been a little awkward…"
He blinked. "Um, yeah, it might have."
"That didn't occur to you?" she asked, taken aback.
He gave her a rueful smile. "Lois, for some reason, anything involved with you sends logical reasoning right out the window." He paused for a moment, as if replaying his words in his mind, then shook his head. "Including sentence structure."
She couldn't help but smile. "Well, I don't always make too much sense, either. Clark says I babble a lot…" Her voice trailed off as his face suddenly changed.
"Clark," he repeated. He took a deep breath. "Lois, I think we'd better talk."
"Talk. Um, right." She sat down at one end of the couch. Clark sat down, too, but made sure that they were separated by at least two feet of upholstery. "So, where do you want to start?"
A rueful smile crept across his face. "It's rather difficult to figure that out, isn't it?"
"Well, yes." She tucked her hair behind her ear and squared her shoulders. "I guess we could choose. Do we talk about Tempus? About getting me back home? About… you?"
He looked at her for a moment, then clearly chose what he felt would be the easier topic. "How about starting with how you managed to fall off a building with a blindfold over your eyes and your hands cuffed behind your back?" His face took on a grim expression, one that made him look so much like Superman that she had to look away. "I barely made it to you in time, Lois. What happened?"
"Tempus happened," she muttered.
He was suddenly on his feet. "He did that to you? Why didn't you say so last night? We should have him arrested and —"
"Clark, think it through," she interrupted tiredly. "What are you going to say? A woman who is supposed to be dead, but claims to be alive and well in another dimension, accused the mayoral candidate of attempted murder? Who's going to believe it, Clark? I went through it personally, and I can barely believe it myself!"
"Heh. Hadn't thought about that." He sat back down. "All right. But we can't just let him get away with this, Lois!"
"I know, and we won't," she assured him. "But this isn't the way to do it. We have to find out *why* he did it, then expose him."
"Okay, let's start with that, then. Did you get any clue why he was doing this? Did he say anything or do anything to give you a hint of his intentions?"
She frowned, trying to think back to that bizarre confrontation with Tempus before she'd been shoved out on a ledge and left to fall to her death… She shuddered and pushed the thought away. "Tempus. Okay. Ah, I managed to overhear him talking to a henchman, but it didn't make sense — something about setting up motion-sensitive cameras somewhere."
Clark rubbed at his nose. "Motion-sensitive cameras? It might have something to do with tomorrow's debate, although I have no idea why. You do realize, don't you, that I caught you falling from the ledge of the TBS building?"
"TBS?" Lois repeated.
"Yeah, Tele-Broadcasting System. That's where the debate is going to be. It's a regional station, broadcasting on local channels, but the debate will be picked up by the national stations too."
"There wasn't much in the room," Lois said slowly. "A couple of chairs and a high-quality television… I guess that part makes sense." She thought some more. "Do you think Tempus *owns* TBS, or that he just managed to break into the building to use it for his own purposes?"
Clark shrugged. "It's something we can dig into, I guess. If he does own the building, it might be easier to link him to your kidnapping. As far as I know, though, TBS is a subsidiary of Lexcorp."
"Lexcorp. Eh, I didn't have to hear that."
"What do you mean?" Clark looked at her, puzzled.
Lois squirmed a little. "Let's just say that if the Lex Luthor of your world is anything like the Lex Luthor of mine, you'll find that he's behind just about every shady deal that takes place in Metropolis."
"Oh, I see. Did you expose him, then?"
"Well… no." She looked away and bit her lip. "Clark was the one who figured him out, and — look, it doesn't matter, okay?"
"No, I suppose it doesn't. Especially since Lex Luthor died over three years ago. Lexcorp is owned by —"
"He did!" Lois' head whipped around and she stared at him incredulously. "Was he actually buried? With reliable witnesses, I mean? Killing him doesn't necessarily seem to help, you know."
"Excuse me?" Clark blinked.
Lois waved it away. "Oh, never mind, it's not important. Tempus is important."
"Right. Tempus. Okay." Clark shook his head. "Can you remember anything else? Cameras are good, a link to TBS. What about you, Lois? Did he say anything directly to you?"
Lois thought back, and her eyes suddenly widened. "Clark," she said, her voice a horrified whisper, "I think he expects me to kill Perry!"
"He — he said —" Lois racked her brains, trying to remember the exact words. "He said he brought me here for a reason, he'd planned it down to the last detail, and he thought I'd go and — and 'march up to the guy and shove him out the window,' or something like that. He said that since I didn't do it, it was my fault he was going to kill me —"
Clark's eyes darkened, and his hands slowly clenched into fists. Lois, seeing this reaction, hurried to get to the point. "— and Clark, he said that he plans to become mayor of Metropolis by killing Perry White!"
She saw him set his jaw in a manner so familiar it made her ache. "That will not happen," he said softly, the conviction in his voice unshakable. "We've got to warn the police that Perry needs protection. We won't say from what," he added as Lois opened her mouth to protest. "But Inspector Henderson is a pretty good guy, and he'll believe me if I tell him that 'sources' say that Perry is under a death threat."
Lois nodded silently. She supposed it wouldn't hurt. Besides, she'd trust Henderson in any universe.
Clark quickly picked up the phone and called police headquarters. Within minutes, he was talking directly to Henderson — a clear sign of the respect he'd earned in this universe, Lois thought. She listened to Clark's half of the conversation as he quickly persuaded the laconic inspector to assign officers to protect the mayoral candidate from unspecified death threats.
"That's done," Clark said finally as he hung up the phone.
"I guess so," Lois mumbled, reluctant to admit that she doubted the police could really help in this case. With the resources Tempus had at his disposal…
"But we need more, Lois," Clark urged, leaning towards her. "Think! Did he say anything else that might give us a clue of how he plans on killing Perry?"
She suddenly couldn't meet his gaze. "He said — he said…"
"He said that the only thing that could stop him was Superman, and it was a good thing that he was in a dimension where Superman doesn't exist," she finally managed, blurting it out to the coffee table instead of to him.
A heavy silence settled over the apartment. It was a long minute before she dared to look at him.
Clark had sat back on the couch, his head tipped upwards to study the rafters. He must have felt her gaze, for he suddenly turned to look at her.
"No Superman to stop him?" he asked quietly.
"That's what he said." Lois felt horribly guilty.
"Clark —" she unconsciously shifted a few inches closer to him. "Clark, he obviously doesn't know about you. Maybe you *can* stop him somehow."
"Lois, thank you for the vote of confidence, but I don't think so."
"Why not?" she demanded. "You have the abilities. You just never put on a red cape."
"Let's not forget the blue tights," Clark said dryly. "Or the red underwear, for that matter."
"But Clark, don't you *see*? If you *do* become Superman, you can stop this!"
His expression showed his exasperation. "Lois, how exactly can I stop him, just by putting on that awful suit?"
"It's not awful! It's — eye-catching, that's all!" She nodded emphatically. "Besides, it's so much more than that. It's the idea behind it, Clark. It's a symbol. You're making yourself into a beacon!"
He looked at her for a long moment, as if not quite sure she was actually finished. "Are you always like this?"
She flushed, suddenly realizing that she'd gotten a little carried away. "I'm sorry. I'm a little high-strung sometimes, I think."
"A little?" He laughed. "Lois, you're a Stradivarius!" He sobered and shook his head. "Besides, I am most definitely not putting on that suit."
He took a deep breath. "Look. You seem to have this incredibly relaxed attitude towards my abilities, but not everyone is going to look at it that way. I've always made sure to hide what I can do."
Lois winced. "So you never have a chance to be yourself?"
"That seems to be the price of a normal life," he agreed. "What kind of life would I have if people knew I could fly?"
"You would have freedom," she said softly. "Freedom to be what you're meant to be."
"I don't think so.' He hunched into himself. "It's better this way, if people think I'm just ordinary."
"Clark," she began, somewhat exasperated, "you could never be 'just' anybody. You yourself, not your powers, are much too special for that. Unless someone is blind, it's easy to tell that you're most definitely not an ordinary —"
He stiffened, and she stopped short, appalled at what she'd just said.
~I know you. I don't mean you the celebrity or you the superhero. If you had no powers at all, if you were just an ordinary man, living an ordinary life, I would love you just the same. Can't you believe that?~
~I wish I could, Lois. But under the circumstances, I don't see how I can.~
"Oh, Clark," she whispered. "What did I do to you?"
He looked at her sharply, as if unsure whether she was speaking to him or his counterpart. "I can't do it, Lois. I don't dare use my powers openly. I've always wanted to help, but I have to do it in ways no one will realize…"
~I'm really glad you're here. But why are you here?~
"To help," Lois repeated dully. She buried her head in her hands. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
She lifted her head and looked at him, her eyes a little too bright. "Clark," she whispered, "we have to do this. We have to stop Tempus from killing Perry. I don't know why he ever dreamed I would do such a thing, but he's not going to give it up just because I won't cooperate. We have to stop him, Clark, and the only way we can do it is if you put on that suit!"
She'd transferred her wallet into the pocket of the clean pantsuit Alice had sent her, and now she pulled it out to give him another good look at the picture of Superman — of Clark dressed in his supersuit. "Let me put it this way, Clark. You don't want to ruin your private life, and I understand that. You want to help others, and I understand that too. So you've been doing things on the sly, when no one is looking…?"
At his silent, almost mesmerized nod, she suddenly sat up straight. "Hey, did you blow out the tire in that drive-by shooting? Is that why the car plowed into a pole?"
"Yes," he said hesitantly. "I burned a hole in the back tire with my… uh…"
"With your laser vision." She nodded, then tried to hide her smile at his stare. "Clark, you forget that I'm used to this, with Superman."
"You talk about Superman as if he's a separate entity, apart from your Clark," Clark observed shrewdly. "Why?"
She sat back at the question, staring at the snapshot of Superman — of Clark — smiling at her. "He never told me," she said finally. She looked at him sharply. "Does Lana know about you?"
Clark nodded. "She was the only person I had, the only one who knew the truth, when I first began to discover what I can do." He glanced down at his hands, then closed them carefully, almost gingerly. "And she's afraid that if anyone discovers the truth about me, we'll never have a life together."
Lois turned back to the photo. "I think of Clark and Superman as two people because I've always assumed that they were. We've worked together for two years, we've been dating steadily, I love him more than anything else in the world and I think he feels the same — but he never told me." She lifted her gaze from the photo and turned to look at Clark again. "And it hurts," she added softly.
She tapped a finger on the S-symbol. "But there's all the proof you need, Clark. The disguise obviously works. Clark can take off his glasses, slick back his hair, and put on the suit — and he's a completely different person, even to someone who knows him as well as I do. It's the perfect solution. All we need to do is make you a Superman suit, and the rest will take care of itself."
"Lois, I really don't think —"
"Clark, you can't deny this world the hope that Superman would give," she said firmly, "and if there's a chance to stop Tempus from assassinating Perry, we have to do everything we can." She stood up briskly. "Come on, Clark. Let's go find a sports store."
"Why?" he asked warily as he followed her towards the door.
She turned, her eyes suddenly alight with excitement. "Because we are going to turn you into Superman," she said, grinning, "and we'll do a lot better with a ski suit, or something along those lines, instead of my sewing!" ***
Lois frowned at her latest effort, then compared it with the picture from her wallet. With a resigned sigh, she tossed it onto the growing pile of crooked, out-of-proportion, or otherwise rejected S-symbols. "There's got to be an easier way to do this," she muttered to herself. "It's a good thing I thought to get a *lot* of extra material."
She raised her voice and called through the open arch to the bedroom, "How's it going in there?"
Clark's voice came back, somewhat muffled. "Well, it's sort of tight."
Lois smothered a grin. "Yes, the suit is pretty tight. I suppose it helps cut down on wind resistance or something." She dropped her scissors on the coffee table, glad to have an excuse to stop for a moment. "Can I see?"
"Clark," she coaxed, "the whole idea is that the world is going to see you dressed in the suit, and see 'Superman' instead of 'Clark Kent.' You might as well start with one person."
Silence from the bedroom.
"Clark, I'm not going to laugh, you know that. Let me see, okay?"
After another moment, Clark reluctantly stepped into the archway. She sucked in her breath at the sight of him — cape, tights, boots… and glasses.
He seemed to misinterpret her stunned silence. "I knew it," he muttered dismally, turning back towards the bedroom. "I look stupid!"
"No, you don't! Really!" Lois rushed forward.
"Lois, this is a bright blue ski suit, a pair of red underwear that I can't believe you had the nerve to buy, a yellow belt, and dyed red boots. And a cape. A cape!" Clark tugged at the red piece of material with a disconsolate expression. "C'mon, who is going to take this seriously?"
"Clark, that's what *you* see. The world will only see Superman!"
"Huh." He looked down at himself dubiously. "*I* see a guy in an ugly ski suit."
"You look great, you really do." She pursed her lips and cocked her head, eyeing him critically. "There's something missing, though…" She nodded. "The S. We need the S-symbol."
"The 'S-symbol'?" He frowned at her for a moment, and then his face cleared. "Oh, you mean the family crest?"
She stared at him, and he hastened to explain. "I admit it looks a lot like the letter 'S,' but the Cyrillic alphabet has a letter that looks like the letter 'H' and actually sounds like the letter 'N,' so…" He shrugged. "It's the El family crest. It's just coincidence that it looks like an out-of-shape 'S.'" He gave her a deprecating smile. "Small galaxy, huh?"
"El?" Lois repeated. "As in 'Kal-El'?"
"Uh, yeah. It's the family name." He moved towards a trunk against the wall. "My…" He swallowed hard. "My parents, Martha and Jonathan, they found me wrapped in a blanket, a blue blanket with…"
He opened up the trunk and took out a neatly folded blanket, lovingly wrapped in tissue paper. He unwrapped it and shook it out, holding it up for her to see.
She caught her breath at the sight of that proud red-and-yellow symbol that had come to stand for truth and justice on her world. "It always shows up, just in the nick of time," she murmured.
She came to with a start. "Sorry. So, that's where it comes from…" Her voice trailed off as she stared at it again, mesmerized. "I always wondered."
"It was also on my spaceship," he said quietly, tracing the crest with a gentle finger. "My father even wore it on his clothing."
"Your father?" Lois gave him a sharp look. "You mean, your father from Krypton?"
"Yes…" He reached into the trunk again and brought out something else, something that Lois recognized. "Right after my parents died, I went to the field where they'd told me that they found me and dug up my spaceship. This was inside."
"The globe!" she breathed, awed. "Clark — Clark had it. He stole it from Bureau 39…"
"From what?" Clark slanted his brows at her. "It's his, and he *stole* it?"
Lois blinked, trying to once again readjust her thinking of past events to the new reality of knowing that Clark was really Superman. "I guess not," she conceded. "I guess it's better to say that he stole it back." She stepped forward, her eyes alight with curiosity. "So, what does it do?"
"It shows me Krypton," Clark replied, fingering it gently. The continents shifted, turned reddish. "And it plays several holograms my parents made when they prepared to send me to Earth."
Lois couldn't tear her eyes away from it. "Could — could you show me?"
He looked at her, and his face closed down again. "I could," he agreed, his voice mild. "But don't you think *your* Clark should show it to you?"
Lois felt strangely ashamed. She'd been using this opportunity to learn more about her Clark without having to confront him. In a way, she was cheating. "You're right," she admitted. "Put it away, but give me the blanket. We'll use the family crest for the suit."
She noticed that he'd suddenly grown still. She glanced at him uneasily. "Uh, if that's okay with you?"
"No, Lois," he said simply. "It's not." He stepped back a pace as he carefully folded the blanket again, hiding the famous symbol between the creases. "Your Clark might have been willing to cut up one of the only possessions he had from his Kryptonian parents, but I'm not going to do it." He smoothed a hand along the soft blue cloth. "I know so little about Krypton, Lois. All I know is that my parents loved me; they sent me away just before the planet was destroyed. I have this blanket they wrapped me in, I have the spaceship they sent me in, and I have the globe. That's it." He reached for the tissue paper, then looked at her. "Do you really expect me to let you cut it up so you can pin the family crest on a ski suit?"
Lois sat down quickly on the couch before her knees could give way. "No. I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking." She covered her eyes with her hand, fiercely willing the tears to stay where they were. "Do you want me to leave, Clark? I'd understand, I —"
A gentle hand on her shoulder stopped her. She looked up, blinking furiously. "I'm really sorry."
"You mean well," he said kindly. "But if the crest is so important to you, I'm sure we could manage to make one ourselves." He gestured at the red and yellow scraps of material that littered the coffee table.
"Well, I've been trying," she protested, grateful that he'd changed the subject. "I'm good at writing articles, not at sewing things."
"It's not that hard. All we need to do is take some red and yellow material —" He picked up two pieces of fabric. "— cut them like this —" She watched, fascinated, as his fingers suddenly blurred into action. "— and then sew them together." The scissors clattered to the coffee table, followed by the needle and thread seconds later. Clark held up the El family crest for her inspection. "Does this look close enough for you?"
"Uh, yeah. That looks good. Really good." She reached out tentatively and took it from him. It really did look the ones on Clark's suits back home. "Could you do another one? For the cape? Clark has one sewed onto the cape, too…"
Some ten seconds later, she held another one in her hand. She tried to stop blinking. It suddenly occurred to her that — "Clark?" she asked softly. "How often do you do things like that? Use your powers, I mean?"
He flushed. "I shouldn't have done that. I'm sorry." He began to back away from her. "I didn't scare you, did I? I just —"
"Clark, *stop*." She stretched across the coffee table and managed to snag the edge of the cape. "You flew me to safety last night, and you think I'd be frightened of a little super-speed? You don't have to apologize for being what you are." She frowned as another thought struck her. "Is this how Lana reacts to you?"
He shuffled his feet a little, staring at the red tips of his boots. "Lana loves me, you know," he muttered defensively. "She's afraid that if I do anything too obvious, something will happen, and we'll never be able to have a life together."
Lois pressed her lips together in vexation. She longed to say something catty, but she realized it would only make things worse. "Clark, we're giving you a secret identity so that you can use your powers in public," she reminded him gently. "You can tell Lana that she doesn't need to worry about Clark Kent being exposed, because no one will dream that Superman also works as a reporter at the Daily Planet."
"I'm not so sure," he said, looking doubtful. "I mean, just because I'm wearing this outfit…"
"Clark, I told you that I've worked next to my Clark on a daily basis for two years now, and I never made the connection. Part of it is simply because no one *thinks* Superman could possibly be someone else." She considered the matter for a moment. "Now, if you would wear a mask, people might think you had something to hide. But since your face is out in the open, no one dreams of another identity behind the cape."
He hesitated. "So if I take off my glasses and slick back my hair, no one will realize I'm Clark Kent?"
He looked at the two symbols she held in her hand, then down at the ski suit he wore. "Just because I'm not wearing my glasses, are you *sure* no one's going to recognize me?"
"Positive," Lois assured him. She smiled wryly. "Trust someone who's gone through it personally. Believe me, it works!"
"Okay, okay." He took the emblems back and picked up the needle and thread. "I'll go sew these on."
She waited as he disappeared back into the bedroom. Rustling sounds told her that he was taking off the suit in order to add the S — the family crest, she corrected herself — then putting it back on. When he didn't reappear right away, she started to wonder if he'd gotten cold feet after all, and —
He walked into the archway.
"Wow," she breathed. Then, seeing him flush, she added hastily, "It's perfect, Clark. No one will ever realize who you are."
"Are you sure?" He looked down at himself, touching his family crest self-consciously.
"I am," she said emphatically. Then, softening her voice a little, she continued, "but you're not. So why don't we get you more comfortable?"
She smiled and took his hand. "Come on, Clark," she said softly, pulling him towards the balcony. "I'm going to teach you how to fly." ***
Dawn stained the sky as the two of them floated down onto the balcony. Lois, tired as she was from the long night, couldn't help but smile at the sight of the silly grin that had adorned Clark's face for the last several hours. He'd truly spread his wings; there would be no holding him back now.
"Well, you've experienced your first night as Superman," she said as he gently set her down on her feet. "Nobody laughed, and there isn't anyone here waving a net at you. That cop even said that 'Superman' is a 'cool' name." She took a step back so she could look him in the eye. "So, how does it feel?"
The silly grin stretched wider. "It feels great," he said wonderingly. He laughed aloud. "It feels great!"
He stretched his arms out, encompassing the entire world. "Lois, do you realize what you've done for me? I'm finally myself. I can do what I've always wanted to do: use my powers to help others. You've given me a way to do that."
He sobered a fraction and laid his hands gently on her shoulders. "My whole life, I've never felt so good about being me," he added softly. "You've changed that. Thank you, Lois."
They stood there for a long moment, almost in an embrace, before Clark suddenly seemed to realize what he was doing. He flushed and dropped his hands, backing away.
"I'm sorry," he fumbled. "That was a mistake, I didn't —"
Lois, a little embarrassed herself, hurried to calm him. "It's confusing, that's all. Don't worry about it."
He rubbed at his eyes. "I know you love your Clark, not me, and I have Lana, but — this feeling I keep having when I'm around you…" He sighed, his shoulders slumping. "I can't control it," he whispered.
She couldn't bear the sadness in his eyes, not after his almost child-like wonder and joy in his first night as Superman. "It's fine," she told him firmly. "We're both fine." Deciding it would be best to keep things on a more businesslike level, she added briskly, "I should straighten the line on your cape before we go out again. Come inside. We've got other things to talk about, anyway."
"What kind of things?" he asked as he followed her off the balcony and into the apartment.
"Clark, you're a reporter for the greatest newspaper in the world. Think for a minute. What's the reaction going to be when people suddenly hear about a flying man in a cape who caught bad guys and helped good guys last night? We have a story to write!"
He paled. "Lois, you don't think I should…?"
"No, no," she said quickly. "I'm not saying you should tell people who you really are. I'm saying we should interview Superman."
He blinked. "You want me to interview myself?"
"*We*, Clark and Lois, will interview Superman," Lois corrected him. "Not only will this help assure people that you're here to help, but it will also reinforce the idea that you're a friend of Superman's, not Superman himself." She sat down at the kitchen table and gave him an amused look. "Let's face it, Clark — you're going to be getting an awful lot of Superman scoops and quotes over the next couple of years. You might as well establish a working relationship with your alter ego as soon as possible."
He sat down slowly in the chair across from her, still dressed in the suit. "It seems like cheating, somehow," he said thoughtfully.
Lois shrugged. "I've thought that once or twice myself over the last day or so," she admitted, "ever since I realized that Clark manages to get hold of Superman so easily because he *is* Superman." She stretched her legs under the table, feeling suddenly very tired. "But I've come to realize that it's no less unfair than using any other source you've got available, Clark. Balance your very intimate knowledge of Superman's affairs with the time that being Superman is going to cost you, and I'm not so sure you'll come out even, much less come out ahead."
She bit her lip, remembering angry comments and hurt feelings. "Do you know how many times Clark has had to run away from me in order to change into Superman? Do you know how often it's interrupted his life and interfered with his plans? We'd be in the middle of talking and he would suddenly get this *look.* He must have been hearing calls for help, or somehow picking up signs of danger. Then he'd offer some really stupid excuse and disappear, and Superman would appear at a crime scene seconds later… It hurt him, Clark. Almost as much as it hurt me." She sighed. "I know that now."
"What are you saying?" Clark frowned. "That I'm going to regret choosing to become Superman?"
"Do you?" Lois asked simply. "Do you regret your choice?"
He sat back, his expression firm with resolve. "No, I don't. At least, I don't now, and I don't think I'll change my mind."
"I didn't think so. You're too good a person to turn your back on your ability to help people. This is the best way, Clark — a compromise that allows you to be both aspects of yourself. You can use your powers freely, yet live a regular life." She thought about it for a moment. "You have another advantage, Clark," she added. "Lana knows about you already. You don't have to hide yourself from her."
He tensed. "I hope not," he said. "Lana's never really liked the idea of my powers."
"Well, she can't deny they exist, can she?" Lois demanded with some irritation. "They're a part of you, after all."
"Umm." Clark looked noncommittal.
Lois frowned a little. What kind of relationship did he have with his future bride?
He stood up abruptly, clearly anxious to change the subject. "Look, if we're going to write an article, let's get to work. I'll go get my laptop. Do you want some coffee before we get started? I know you got plenty of sleep yesterday, but we were up all night."
Lois blinked at him, once again aware of just how tired she felt. "Coffee. Yeah. That would be good. Thanks."
He bustled about the kitchen, still dressed in his Superman suit. She thought about suggesting that he take it off, then dismissed the idea. Let him get more comfortable in it. Of course, it probably wasn't all that comfortable. Were ski suits comfortable? It certainly didn't look as good as her Clark's costume, but then, her Clark had Martha to do the sewing for him. He'd better come up with a way to get a custom job made on a really good Superman suit. Would a tailor create one, made to order, if he asked nicely? Surely any tailor would jump at the chance to sew Superman's suits! Maybe Lana sewed. Or he could do it himself; he'd done a nice job on creating that copy of the El family crest. What an interesting family name. Nice and simple. No, nothing was simple about Clark. Which Clark was simple? Not hers. Not this one either. Not simple, strange… but she had him all — figured — out…
Without even realizing it, Lois put her head down on the table and drifted off to sleep.
It slowly dawned on her that someone was talking. No, two someones. She was comfortable, and still very tired, but one of the voices was increasing in volume. The words began to assume some kind of coherency as she gradually drifted awake.
"…she — here? And — ridiculous —!"
"She's just — couch, Lana. Don't be so —"
"I don't understand what — on here, but why are you wearing that silly outfit? Do you have *any* idea how ridiculous you look?"
"Lana, I've decided that I need — No. I've decided that the *world* needs me."
"Needs you to what? Model men's underwear? Bring capes back in fashion?"
At that last acid comment, Lois' eyes snapped open. She was lying on the couch, covered with the same blanket she had used yesterday. Clark must have carried her here after she'd fallen asleep. How long was it since she'd dozed off at the kitchen table? It must have been a while, because not six feet away from her, Lana Lang stood toe to toe with Clark, arguing heatedly.
"Lana, please, it's not like that."
"Not like what? Did *she* convince you that a grown man should cavort around in tights?" Her eyes narrowed at him. "Clark, you didn't — you didn't go out like that and — and…" She made that same swooping motion that she'd made at the Daily Planet two days ago, and Lois suddenly realized that it was a hand signal for flying. "Clark, you didn't — did people *see* you?"
"Of course they saw him!" Lois blurted as she sat up on the couch. "He's Superman!"
Lana rounded on her, her features distorted with anger. "You stay out of this!" she spat. "I don't know how you talked him into this or what you're really after, but this is between him and me!"
She turned her back on Lois and reached up to caress Clark's cheek. "I want things the way they were, Clark," she whispered, her voice suddenly honeyed and warm. "The way you promised."
"Lana." Clark sounded helpless.
"Clark, you promised me!"
"All right," gritted Lois, getting to her feet. "I've had it!" She advanced towards Lana, ready to unleash the full extent of her contempt at this woman's efforts to stifle Clark's desire to help others under the smothering weight of her own demands. "If you think —"
The phone rang, interrupting her. Clark darted a glance at the two women, then quickly picked it up, clearly reasoning that any interruption would help.
"Hello? Yes?" He listened for a moment, then blinked with surprise. "Um, Lois? It's for you." He held out the receiver.
Lana's eyes blazed with fury. "Clark," she snarled, "that's *it*! You've got this woman getting phone calls in your house? I'm not going —"
Lois, for all her dislike for Lana, could not help but wince at the apparent implications. With a grimace, she took the phone. "Hello?"
"Lois Lane?" The voice was slightly muffled.
"Come on, Lana, this is stupid…!" Clark's voice receded as he followed Lana towards the front door.
Lois frowned. "Yes?" She concentrated on the phone, trying to tune out the argument taking place behind her. "Who is this?"
"I can't tell you, it's too dangerous," the muffled voice claimed. "But Perry White will die unless you get over to the TBS studio, right now! The debate is starting and there's a bomb ready to go off at any minute!"
"Wait!" Lois shouted into the phone. "Don't hang up! What's happening? Hello? Hello?"
Stricken, she dropped the phone and whirled to face Clark, who was standing by the steps with a disconsolate look on his face. Lana must have left and — but there was no time to think of that now. "Clark, we forgot about the threat to Perry's life! We've got to get over to the TBS building immediately. When's the debate supposed to start?"
Clark started to glance at his wrist, then stopped. "Superman doesn't have a watch…" he muttered distractedly. He looked up at the wall clock. "If it's on schedule, it started about ten minutes ago."
"Clark, we have to get over there *now*," she said urgently. "Whoever was on the phone said there's a bomb ready to go off at the studio. We have to hurry, Clark! Perry will die if we don't get there in time!"
"The police," Clark stuttered, looking as horrified as she felt. "The security we called in…?"
"It's obviously not good enough!" Lois moved forward and grabbed at his sleeve. "Come *on*, Clark! We have to get going, or we'll be too late to stop it!"
Without another word, Clark scooped Lois into his arms and flew out the balcony doors, leaving the curtains fluttering wildly in his wake. They headed towards the TBS building at just under the speed of sound. Lois gripped him tightly, praying they would get there before disaster struck.
It seemed to take only seconds before Superman blurred through the main entrance to the building and landed right in the middle of the main television studio. As Clark set her down, Lois caught a quick glimpse of Tempus in her peripheral vision; he seemed to be gesturing grandly, apparently in the middle of some kind of announcement. She ignored him for the moment, interested only in knowing that Perry White was still alive and well.
"Perry," she gasped, rushing towards him. "Are you all right?"
To her relief, the man looked unharmed. He'd been leaning against his podium when they first arrived, addressing Tempus, but now he stood up straight, his eyes opened wide as he stared past her. Anxious, she glanced back over her shoulder. Was there some open threat?
No, it was just Clark, his stance alert as he scanned the studio for any dangers.
"I'm fine," Perry stammered, "but — who is…? What —?"
Lois suddenly realized what a brightly-clad Superman might look like to the uninitiated. "It's fine," she started to reassure Perry, noticing an equally wide-eyed James Olsen standing behind him. "We just wanted to make sure —"
"Everyone get back!" Tempus was shouting. "He's very dangerous!"
Lois whirled at the man, suddenly irritated. "Will you be quiet?" She turned back to Perry, trying to explain. "There's a bomb threat, we just need to —"
"A bomb!" Tempus howled at the top of his lungs, looking positively gleeful as he picked up on Lois' words. "The alien has got a bomb!"
Oh, no. Clark.
"No," she protested weakly over the sudden eruption of shrieks and screams from the studio audience. "It's not like that, he just —"
Clark's sudden move interrupted her. He strode past her and tore away the backdrop, revealing a steel door. Without pausing, he ripped the door off its hinges as if it was made of wet cardboard and disappeared into the small room beyond.
Clark reappeared in the doorway a heartbeat later, holding up a small, ominous-looking device. His quick glance at Lois confirmed her guess that it was, indeed, some kind of explosive. Ignoring the frantic shouts and the insistent demands for explanations, Clark readied himself to fly the bomb out of the studio, where it could explode harmlessly —
And then everything seemed to happen at once. Tempus leapt forward, shouting that the alien was armed with a bomb. Frightened security guards fired wildly at Clark, setting off a further wave of panic as the bullets ricocheted harmlessly off Superman's chest. Members of the studio audience fought to reach the exits, screaming with terror. Lois stumbled forward, clutching at Perry's arm, wondering with despair how the situation had managed to deteriorate so badly in so little time.
Then she heard Tempus' triumphant yell. "Stand back! Everyone back! I will save us!"
She turned her head just in time to see Tempus produce a small, glowing chunk of green crystal from a pocket.
"No!" she screamed. She lunged forward in a frantic effort to reach Tempus and throw that poisonous rock far away from the young man who only wanted to help a world that so desperately needed him. She'd taken just two steps before she was intercepted from behind, strong hands pinning her arms to her side and hauling her off-balance. Furious, she kicked back, thrashing wildly in her attempts to get away. Tempus gave her a quick glance and a smug, infuriating wink.
Poor Clark had already started advancing towards Tempus, clearly unaware of the danger inherent in that unassuming piece of crystalline rock. His face looked stern. "You've got a lot of explaining to do, Mister Temp —"
His voice suddenly faltered as he came within range of the Kryptonite. Lois strained against the arms that held her, desperate to reach him. This Clark had never experienced Kryptonite, never known the searing pain, the debilitating weakness, the —
It was too late. Lois's eyes filled as she saw Tempus hold the Kryptonite high, grinning triumphantly as Clark staggered and stumbled to his knees. The bomb fell out of his suddenly nerveless fingers and rolled across the floor towards her.
"I think you're the one who owes this planet an explanation, invader!" Tempus sneered. He struck a dramatic pose before leaning forward and demanding, "You are part of an invading army, are you not?"
"No," Clark gasped, squirming weakly on the floor as he tried to edge away.
Tempus took a step closer, relentless. "You're here to conquer us. Admit it!"
"Stop it!" Lois screamed, writhing against her captor's grip. "You're killing him!"
Tempus turned away from Clark, carefully keeping the Kryptonite close to the weakened hero. "I am holding the alien at bay with the only alloy known to weaken him," he announced to the room at large. "You should feel fortunate that I was prepared! He can't hurt us now!"
Lois finally tore one arm away from the man's grasp and started forward, dragging Tempus' henchman along with her. "He's not part of an army!" she shouted furiously, struggling to get to Clark and help him. "He's not here to hurt us!"
Tempus nodded at her, as if encouraging her participation in the awful farce, then made a sweeping gesture. "Oh, so that's why he flew in here, ripped a door open, threatened us with a bomb?"
"That's a lie," Lois protested desperately, furious at the way Tempus was twisting the truth. His henchman had planted his feet by now and was not allowing her to go any further. Her shoe bumped against something, and she glanced down to see the bomb rocking gently on its axis.
"Let me tell you what's a lie, people," Tempus declared. He stepped forward and prodded Clark with his toe. "This is the lie! He's been among us for years, hiding, learning — waiting to strike!"
He waved a hand at someone out of Lois' line of vision, and a bank of monitors lit up.
Lois sank to her knees next to the bomb as Tempus' plan suddenly became horribly clear. They were in a TV studio, being broadcast live all over the nation, and Tempus had planned this confrontation down to the last detail…
~I planned this thing right down to the last detail. I studied you and your behavior for weeks until I was sure I could say exactly what you would do in just about any situation. You should have marched right up to the guy and shoved him out the window, but you didn't. What's wrong with you?~
Tempus had wanted her to turn Clark into Superman, had *expected* her to turn Clark into Superman, and she'd played right into his hands! She covered her eyes with her free hand as the monitors began to play, unable to watch as Clark's secret was revealed to the entire world.
The henchman grabbed at her hand and jerked it away from her face. Lois looked up, staring in horror at the videotape of a Clark dressed in a regular suit and tie, *flying* to her rescue as she plunged to her death off the ledge of the TBS building. Then the scene switched to Clark's balcony — how had Tempus known exactly what they were going to do? — and clearly showed the two of them standing there, Clark dressed in his Superman suit, as she urged him up into the evening sky.
"That's right!" Tempus said gleefully. "Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great Metropolitan newspaper!"
"I'm sorry," Lois whispered at the crumpled figure across the floor, her eyes streaming with despair at how she'd helped Tempus destroy him. "I never meant for this to happen…"
"Kent?" Perry said incredulously.
Tempus swiveled and pointed a dramatic finger at his rival. "Aided and abetted by Perry White, James Olsen, and Lois Lane!" He turned back and held the Kryptonite a little closer to Clark, causing Superman to cry out in agony.
"Now hold on a minute," snapped an authoritative voice. James Olsen suddenly stepped forward, his face grim. "You can't torture him like this, Tempus. Alien or not, this man has rights!"
Lois' heart warmed. Dear Jimmy — James — whoever he was! She shook off the henchman and began to rise, then stopped as she stared at the bomb next to her feet.
The LED display was blinking, the numbers counting backwards. 33… 32… 31…
She touched it with a shaky finger. The casing was damaged; the metal housing was scarred and dented. Bullet holes? Ricochets from the attempts to shoot Superman?
She was vaguely aware of James continuing to argue with Tempus, demanding that the police deal with the situation and that Clark be left alone. Tempus was shouting something about James trying to hide behind the law, but that the people would know who was *really* protecting them from the alien.
And the numbers kept changing. 24… 23… 22…
She snatched it up and scrambled to her feet. She took several stumbling steps toward Tempus, vaguely wondering why the henchman didn't stop her. Was this somehow part of Tempus' plan, too?
"They've seen the enemy," Tempus ranted, "and they know that one man is ready to protect them! One man is ready to lay down his life to save a world! And that man is me!"
She lurched up to him and shoved the bomb under his nose. "If you're so determined to protect the world," she gasped, "would you mind stopping this?"
His diatribe suddenly cut short, Tempus stared at her. "What?"
"Your *bomb*," she spat at him. "It's ready to explode!"
He looked down at the deadly device in her hands. 16… 15… 14…
"It's counting down?"
"It's going to explode!"
"Well, *duh*! I already said that!"
Tempus panicked. "Run!" he howled. Dropping the Kryptonite, he bolted for the exit, shoving people out of his way. He pulled out a large handgun and waved it wildly. "Clear out, morons, or I'll blow you away!"
Lois, suddenly galvanized, dropped the bomb and snatched the Kryptonite from the floor next to Clark. She drew her arm back and hurled the deadly rock across the studio, where it landed somewhere among the seats. Then she dropped to her knees beside Clark, frantic to see if he was still alive.
"Please, Clark, are you still with us?" she whispered. "We need you right now…"
8… 7… 6…
Clark struggled to a sitting position and stared with a vague, dazed expression at the bomb. He reached out with one hand and tried to crush it, but it was painfully clear that he was still too weak.
4… 3… 2…
With a sudden look of determination, he snatched up the bomb and swallowed it.
"Clark, no!" Lois reached out to him, horrified. "You're too weak to —"
There was a muffled boom.
Clark's eyes widened for a single moment before he collapsed back onto the floor into the brightness of his cape.
And then there was silence.
Every eye, both human and electronic, focused on the silent young man in the red cape and the blue suit. He had saved the lives of everyone in the room, but at what cost?
Lois was the first to break the frozen tableau. She crawled forward and touched the pale cheek with trembling fingers. "Clark," she whispered, the faint sound of her voice incredibly clear in the hushed silence. "Clark, breathe for me, please?"
As if in answer to her fervent plea, he stirred. His eyelids twitched, then opened.
A soft sound soughed its way through the room: a collective sigh of relief. He lived!
He shakily attempted to rise, and she hurried to help him sit up. He tried to smile at her, but his eyes widened again and his hands flew to his mouth as an embarrassingly loud belch emerged.
"Excuse me," he said sheepishly. "Displaced gas from the bomb, I guess."
A laugh ran though the watching crowd at this very human reaction. Lois sat back on her heels, smiling to herself as she remembered another bomb, another Superman, and her astonished question then…
Well, she knew the answer now, and she understood it more than anything else she'd ever known in her entire life.
All around her, the studio erupted into animated chatter, as Clark's meek apology seemed to be the cue for everyone to begin talking at once.
"He saved us!"
"Swallowed the bomb before it could kill us all…"
"—all on camera, Tempus just ran and forgot about the rest of —"
"Amazing! If he hadn't been here, we'd all be dead!"
"Guess the enemy was Tempus, not him!"
"The ratings on this one are gonna soar through the roof. Get the —"
"Focus over here, Jerry, we've got to get a clear look —"
Clark was slowly getting to his feet. Lois shook off her reverie and hurried to assist him. She was busy dusting off his cape when Perry and James came forward, their faces still mirroring their wonder.
"Are you all right, Mr. White, Mr. Olsen?" Clark asked them anxiously. He looked around the studio. "Is *everyone* all right?"
"We're all fine, Clark," Perry assured him. He eyed the psychedelic costume for a moment, then added, "Thanks to you, son. Good job."
"Yes, good work," James agreed, coming forward and laying a casual hand on Clark's shoulder. Lois wanted to hug James for that. "But why didn't you tell us about yourself before?"
Lois, seeing Clark's hesitation, stepped forward and said clearly, "I'm sure everyone has lots of questions, but the important thing to remember is that he's here to help."
~I'm really glad you're here. But why are you here?~
She blinked away the memory and continued with a soft smile, "He is, in every way, no less than a Superman."
"Superman," Perry repeated.
James chuckled. "Kind of a nickname, Kent?"
Clark flushed a little. "Well, Mr. Olsen, I —"
"I love it," James declared approvingly. He put both hands on Clark's shoulders now as he inspected him with a critical eye. "And the suit is great. Stand alone kind of thing, touch of the patriotic, lots of muscle —" He dropped his hands and turned to Perry. "White, we've got to get you one of these!"
Lois almost laughed at Perry's sudden look of panic at the idea of being stuffed into a form fitting costume like Clark's. "No, thank you, sir!" he said quickly. "There can only be one Superman!"
"Superman." James nodded with satisfaction. "Yep. Superman. What a name!" He took Clark by the arm and began to guide him towards the door. "Kent, I can just see the headline in the Daily Planet. Now, let's talk about—"
As Lois watched James lead Clark away, she became aware of Perry standing by her elbow. "Lois, do you have any idea of what just happened?" he murmured.
"Quite a lot," she replied equally softly. "But I'll tell you one thing, Perry — Metropolis suddenly has hope."
"Umm." He shifted his weight from one foot to another, as if uneasy. "You do realize, don't you, that the debate was being taped live. The entire world is going to be watching a tape of this before the day is out."
"I know," she said, then stopped. Her mouth slowly opened as the true meaning of that fact suddenly hit with the full force of a tidal wave. The entire world was going to know that Clark Kent was really Superman, thanks to Tempus's sadistic machinations — and her own blindness.
Tempus had planned, from the very beginning, to reveal Clark's identity as Superman. He'd wanted her to guide Clark into donning the suit, and had expected her to do it immediately. When she hadn't moved fast enough for him, he'd precipitated matters by forcing Clark's hand in coming to her rescue.
But that meant that Tempus had expected her to know that Clark was Superman when she first arrived in this dimension. He could clearly manipulate time, could quite possibly know what would happen in the future —
~Guess time travel can be a real brain drain, huh?~
For all she knew, he was from the future in the first place! So why had he made such a stupid mistake? Why would he think that she knew that Clark was Superman, when she hadn't yet known…?
"Lois, darlin', if you don't want to talk to me now, I'll understand…"
Unless she would, in reality, know sometime in the very near future.
…Like tomorrow morning?
~Lois? Let's go out to breakfast tomorrow morning. I want to talk to you.~
Her hands flew to her cheeks as the realization suddenly dawned on her: *this* was what Clark had planned for their breakfast date! He'd wanted to tell her that he was Superman! He loved her, he knew she loved him, and he had finally worked up sufficient courage to tell her…
And now they would never have the chance. Tempus had stranded her here, a universe away.
"Oh, my Clark," she breathed.
"Lois, honey, are you all right?"
She turned away from Perry and stumbled to the nearest chair. What had she done? She'd taken a Clark who had suppressed his powers all his life and callously thrust him into the spotlight, the one place where he definitely did *not* want to be. There was no going back now; not to obscurity, not to anonymity, and not even to his regular life as Clark Kent. At least her own Clark could retreat from the demands of the world into his cherished place as a regular human being, but this Clark no longer had that choice.
"I understand, Clark," she whispered to the man she loved, the man who was impossibly far away from her now. No wonder he clung so desperately to the secret of his identity as Superman! No wonder it was so hard for him to steel himself and let go! Tempus had given her a brutal, practical lesson in the necessity of separating the cape from the man in the suit and tie. And her Clark had more to lose, more at risk than this one had — people that were close to him, people whose privacy needed to be protected as closely as his own.
She bowed her head and wept.
She had no idea how long she sat there, but when she lifted her head again, the room was empty — except for a young man in a suit and tie, nervously fiddling with his glasses as he stood and waited for her to speak.
"I'm sorry," she said abruptly. "He used me, he used you, and now your entire life has been destroyed."
He shoved his hands into his pockets and shrugged. "It's happened. We can't change it. I guess I'll learn how to adjust." He looked up at her and added firmly, "This *wasn't* your fault. You were doing what you thought best. Tempus was two steps ahead of us all the time, and we just didn't know it."
"I'm sorry the secret identity thing got blown," Lois persisted. "If it hadn't —"
Clark held up hand, forestalling further apologies. "It's all right, Lois," he repeated. Then he gave her a rueful grin. "Honestly, though, I don't know how you thought a pair of glasses would keep people from finding out. It's ridiculous."
Lois narrowed her eyes at him. "Don't get me started," she snapped. "It worked on *me* for the last two years."
The grin on his face faded into an expression of concern. "Are you angry at me?" he asked curiously. "Or at *him*? Or maybe at both of us?"
Lois subsided into her chair. "No, of course not. I didn't mean it that way. I understand my Clark now; I guess I have *you* to thank for that." She straightened. "What's been happening?"
"Well, you've been sitting here for a couple of hours now. Perry realized you wanted to be left alone, and he shooed everyone else outside." He gestured vaguely towards the door. "I gave a press conference; it looks like Perry's going to win by a landslide. Tempus is in jail and isn't very happy about it. He didn't seem to realize that by taping my rescue of you, he was essentially taping evidence of his attempted murder of you — and that's not even considering the number of lives he threatened with that bomb. Mr. Olsen is working on having him charged with trying to kill me, too."
Lois nodded. It was a very small payback for the damage Tempus had done, but it was better than nothing.
He ran a hand through his hair and cleared his throat. "Ah, I remembered what you said about Tempus and TBS, and I took a good look at the building. There's a room in the second basement with a lead door and lead-painted walls — I guess Tempus really does know a lot about my abilities — but he forgot about the ceiling. There's a funny-looking machine in there."
Lois sat up straight. "The machine that brought me here."
"It might be," Clark nodded. "I thought we should go take a good look."
For the first time in hours, Lois suddenly found a reason to really smile. "I can go home," she breathed.
He returned her smile. "And you won't even have to tap your heels three times. Come on."
The two of them took the elevator down to the sub-basement, and Clark led her to a heavy door with an impressive lock. Impressive, that is, until Clark casually snapped it in half.
Lois eagerly entered the room, then stopped short. "That's it," she whispered. Her lips slowly curved into a grin that spread from ear to ear. "That's it!" She laughed aloud with joy and spun around to hug him. "I can go home, Clark!"
He smiled back at her, but this time the expression didn't touch his eyes.
She sobered a bit and stepped back a pace. She looked at him carefully, wondering if any part of his former life still existed. "What about Lana, Clark?" she asked, her voice hesitant.
His face closed again, the same expression she'd seen when she first met him. "What about her?"
"Is — is she okay with this?"
Clark expelled a long breath. "Lana said it was either her or Superman."
Lois dropped her gaze, unable to meet his glance. She'd not only shattered his life, she'd ground the remaining pieces into dust under her heel. "I'm so sorry," she said helplessly, realizing how incredibly inadequate and lame the words sounded.
"I wish —" He faltered. Swallowing hard, he tried again and said, "I wish I felt half as bad about losing her… as I do about losing you."
Lois closed her eyes against the naked pain in his expression.
"What — what if I asked you to stay?"
She opened her eyes and laid a hand against the bright pattern of his tie. "I can't," she told him softly.
"But I'm not sure how to do this," he persisted, his expression almost desperate now. "You made it happen."
Lois shook her head and reached up to touch his cheek. "All I did was help you make the right choice," she said firmly. "You'll keep doing that." She forced herself to give him an encouraging smile. "You just have to believe in yourself as much as I do."
"Lois, I don't just need your help." He took both her hands in his own, those powerful hands that could crush mountains but were now trembling with anxiety. "Lois — I need *you*."
With tears glimmering in her eyes, she gently removed her hands from his grasp. "So does he," she pointed out gently.
He shook his head helplessly, his hands sketching his inability to say the right words. "What I'm trying to tell you is — I know it's crazy, but — Lois. I think I — I…"
"So does he," she repeated, her heart breaking inside.
After a long moment, he reached out and wiped her tears away with a tentative finger. "Does he know what he has?" he whispered.
"We both do," she managed.
His hand dropped away. "We all do," he said quietly.
Without another word, he turned and guided her to the machine. "Do you know what to do?"
She clambered into the first seat and pointed at the dial. "There are only two settings. He twisted it when he brought me here. Hopefully, twisting it the other way will bring me back home."
She reached out for the dial, then stopped and looked at him, this man who had taken the burden of a universe on his shoulders with no one to help him carry the load.
"You're not alone," she said suddenly. "James will be a wonderful friend for you, and Perry will always support you. And Clark — they never found proof that Lois is dead. If she's anything like me," and her mouth quirked, "it'll take more than two missing years to put her down for good."
He nodded gravely, but the pain in his eyes refused to go away.
She took a deep breath. "Keep the hope, Clark," she finally whispered. "I know your world is in good hands."
He stepped away from the machine, his hand lifted in a final farewell. She blinked against the moisture in her eyes, reached out again, and twisted the dial —
— and the world seemed to invert upon itself, the walls of the room shimmering and glittering into something entirely different —
Dirty bricks, night sky.
She was in the alley again, the same place where Tempus had first snatched her away from her universe. She was *home*!
As she stumbled off the machine, a familiar *whoosh!* sounded in her ears, a familiar flash of red and blue dazzled her eyes.
It was Superman. *Her* Superman.
"Lois!" he gasped, enfolding her in his arms. "Are you all right? What happened?"
Her mouth worked, but nothing came out.
"I heard you calling, I was flying here as fast as I could to help you, and then — you weren't there anymore. I could *feel* you weren't there."
She stared into his eyes. Not Superman's eyes, but Clark's eyes.
"I thought —" He choked a little, then continued, "I thought you'd died, Lois! And then I could feel you again, only seconds later. I don't understand what happened, but I kept flying towards where I'd heard your shout for help, and then I saw you…" He stopped and took a breath. "Are you all right, Lois? Really all right?"
His beloved face suddenly blurred as tears flooded her eyes. "Oh, Clark," she sobbed, burying her face in his neck.
The arms that held her so close suddenly stiffened, and he pulled back a little to look at her incredulously. "Lois?"
"Clark," she gasped again, unable to say anything more.
"Lois?" He touched her face, his fingers curling along her cheek.
It was more than she could bear. "Just hold me, Clark," she begged. "Please!"
"Whatever you say," he finally breathed. Whatever questions he might have, he clearly realized that now was not the time.
He cradled her close against the S-shield, rocking her gently. As she surrendered to the comfort of his embrace, she heard the murmur against her hair: "It's all right, Lois. I'm here for you now, and I'm not going to let go of you ever again."
The End, or maybe The Beginning ;)