By Mobile Richard <email@example.com>
Submitted March 2001
Summary: Part Four in the "Life in a Different World" series.
Warning: there is no A-plot in this story.
All standard disclaimers apply. Characters in this story (except those of my own creation) are the property of DC Comics, Warner Bros and December 3rd Productions Ltd; no infringement of any property rights are intended by their use.
ONE: Deja Vu
Clark landed a little shakily on top of the Pan Oil building, glad to feel something solid under his feet again. He didn't feel quite himself— it was almost as if he'd been exposed to kryptonite. Unlikely, though. Nobody knew about the stuff except his mother, and—he grinned—he couldn't remember having done anything lately to make her mad at him.
He drew himself to his full height and peered into the gloomy night surrounding him, trying to pierce the veil of relentless rain with his enhanced vision. He wondered briefly if he should go on one last patrol before setting out for home, but decided it wasn't necessary. Metropolis had been getting pretty quiet lately; almost small-townish. Better call it a night and go home and get some rest so he'd be ready for the next outbreak of violence when it came—and it *would* come.
After a wobbly takeoff, he flew straight to the townhouse on Hyperion Avenue, spinning quickly into casual clothing as soon as he had reached the safety of his welcoming home. He found Lois in the kitchen, jiggling a squalling infant she cradled on her shoulder while she tried to quiet his angry wails. Dodging the flailing arms of the baby, Clark gingerly put his arms around Lois and kissed her cheek, the only part of her face available to him. "Whose baby is that?" he asked.
Lois gave a surprised crack of laughter. "Sometimes I feel the same way," she confessed. "He *is* a little cranky tonight, isn't he?" She looked curiously at the solid form of the man standing in the kitchen, whose attention was now on the spread of food on the counter and added, "Are you feeling okay, Clark?"
"Hmmm? Yeah," said Clark, examining with a marked lack of enthusiasm the dinner that Lois had evidently worked hard to prepare. He wished he could convince his wife that he really *preferred* to do the cooking, but insisting that she do "her share" of the work, she persisted in concocting these nauseous messes that she so fondly called "food." He wrinkled his nose involuntarily. "I *am* a little tired, though."
"Go ahead and start eating," Lois invited. "You'll have to heat it first; I tried to keep it warm but it was starting to dry out so I took it out of the oven. What took you so long? I was expecting you two hours ago."
"Explosion in one of the warehouses on Hobbes' Bay," said Clark absently. "Lois, I can always use my heat vision; you don't need to keep things warm for me."
"Explosion? Funny, I didn't see anything on the news …" said Lois. "Do you want to write it up or shall I?"
"No need; Michelle Henry was there. I gave her a quote. You look like you have your hands full there … hey, you got him quiet. You're pretty good at that!"
"Don't sound so surprised; I *am* learning."
"But—oh, the phone. I'll get it."
"No, let me. You go ahead and eat. I've got him quiet now and I do have one free hand …" Lois picked up the telephone. "Hello … yes, Jimmy … no, Clark was out … um … covering the explosion at Hobbes Bay that Superman … what do you mean? … of *course* there was an explosion, Jimmy … wait a minute …" she covered the receiver with her hand. "What is it, Clark? You have to go out again? You promised you'd mind Charles tonight so I can go to the meeting with Jimmy. Should I get a baby-sitter?"
What? Clark stared at her. He didn't remember making any such promise; he must be more tired than he thought. He obligingly stretched his arms out for the baby, though, assuring Lois that the police were already on the scene at the emergency he'd thought he had to attend. Lois said rather breathlessly that she had to go or she'd be late, brushed his cheek with her lips, then dashed from the house.
Left alone with the infant (an orphan from one of Lois's charities?), Clark took stock of his situation. He was good with children … he'd found that out in his rescues. Even babies would quiet when he held them in his arms, much to Lois's chagrin. For all her aspirations for improving conditions for children, for all her work with children's agencies, she was not good at handling infants. Her nervous energy seemed to be picked up on by the children, and when she held them in her arms, they would become restless or even wail in distress.
Clark was confident that he could handle any child, but admittedly, he had never held one this young before. He looked dubiously at the squirming mass he held cradled to his chest. The tiny thing seemed incapable of holding his own head up and unless Clark supported it with his hand, the head would drop back alarmingly. The baby's limbs flailed out in all directions and the tiny body undulated spastically in his hands. Kinda like holding a bag of squirming gelatin.
He sat down on the sofa, cradling the tyke in his left arm. "Better go to sleep, little guy," he advised the baby. "Before you know it, you'll be grown up, and you won't have *time* for sleep." He yawned. He wouldn't mind taking some of his own advice right now. He took a last look at the baby before closing his eyes. Charles's unfocused gaze appeared to be directed at the ceiling and he looked contented enough, so Clark allowed himself to sink more deeply into the cushions, closing his eyes and drifting off to sleep.
He was dozing in the easy chair with the baby fast asleep in his arms when Lois got home. Smiling at the picture they presented, she kissed Clark on the forehead as she took little Charles into her arms.
He woke up with a start, his head suddenly raised in its listening attitude. "Have to go," he said thickly, peering at Lois through bleary eyes. "Hurricane in Florida." And then he was gone. Her lips twisting in wry disappointment, Lois carried the infant upstairs and fed him, put him to bed, and as it was getting late, prepared for bed herself.
It turned out to be one of those nights. After laboring for hours to assist the hurricane victims, Clark had to go to Moscow to work on a train derailment, and then to Mexico to aid in rescuing people from a volcano eruption. It was close to dawn before he was finally able to fly home to snatch a few hours sleep. As he climbed carefully into bed, he looked longingly at Lois's sleeping form. He would so love to pull his wife close and forget his weariness in her arms, but she had looked a little peaked last evening and he didn't want to disturb her rest. He contented himself with placing a gentle kiss on her cheek, then slipped under the covers and fell into an exhausted sleep.
When he awoke, Lois was gone. And he was … going to be late for work. He sprang for the shower.
He flew to the office, barely managing to slow himself down to human pace so he could enter the Planet building without arousing suspicion. The ride in the elevator was agonizingly slow and extremely uncomfortable due to the presence of a young woman he had dated once, a woman who had taken his marriage to Lois rather badly. She was standing near the front of the elevator and apparently hadn't noticed him yet, but a confrontation would be inevitable if everyone else got off. He kept hoping that the other passengers would stay on the elevator until they reached their floor so he could avoid a tete a tete with her, but his hopes were dashed when the last of the other passengers disembarked on the floor below the newsroom. Stepping aside to let them exit, Lynn turned and noticed him for the first time. Clark took a breath.
Here it comes. Just hope she doesn't make a scene …
"Hi Clark," she said with casual friendliness. She smiled pleasantly.
*Hi, Clark*? Last time I saw you, you practically spit in my face. "Uh, hello," he said cautiously, easing a tentative smile onto his lips while Lynn continued the conversation in the friendliest way imaginable.
Huh! he thought, as he exited at his floor. What's with *her*?!
"Hey, CK," called a friendly voice when he stepped off the elevator. "I put the financial statements for Ombercrom Corporation on your desk."
"Uh, thanks," said Clark, trying to remember who Ombercrom Corporation was and why he had asked for information on their finances.
Walking away, he began looking around for his wife, his face splitting wide open into a grin when he spotted her sitting at her desk with her head bent over her work. No matter how many times a day he saw her, he felt the same rush of pride. And gratitude. Gratitude that he had had the good fortune to have a woman like Lois fall in love with him. She was one in a million.
He began striding eagerly towards her desk, a look of resignation crossing his face when he heard the sirens in the distance. Lois looked up just then. She couldn't hear the sirens, but she knew that look on his face and she nodded in understanding when he touched his tie in the gesture that indicated that Superman was needed somewhere. Clark left more quickly than he had come, grateful that he could do this, that he could leave work and be assured that Lois would cover for him. As she always had and always would.
The day turned out to be much like the preceding night, as far as Superman was concerned. Superman's services were needed around the world for one disaster after another all day long, and Clark didn't get back to the newsroom until after seven in the evening. As he slid into his chair when he finally returned to the office, preparing to write up some of his Superman stories, he noted with surprise that Lois had already gone for the day. Usually she was here until late in the evening, working tirelessly on writing up one story after another. Maybe she had gone to interview a source.
Shrugging, Clark quickly wrote up his stories, then flew home.
Lois was in the kitchen, cooking again, with that baby slung over one shoulder. "Hi," said Clark, leaning in for a quick kiss.
"Hi, yourself," said Lois, "macho man."
"I saw you on the news today, saw how you handled the terrorist attack in Lebanon. Good work. But you were a little rough with them, don't you think?"
"Rough on the terrorists? The murderers?" Clark lifted one shoulder in an annoyed shrug. Lois wasn't going to start that again, was she? They had discussed his behavior at length and he thought that she finally understood the fact that if he didn't scare the bad guys, then they would probably not receive any deterrent at all from committing their next crime, since it was extremely unlikely that they would go to jail. Or even be brought to trial, for that matter.
He peered over her shoulder, idly watching her stir the pot of vegetables. He wished that Lois would put the baby down so he could pull her into his arms and greet her properly. He hadn't seen much of her in the last twenty-four hours, and he had missed her.
After watching her for a few minutes, he gently took the baby from her, and cradling him in one arm, bent his head and began kissing Lois's neck.
She tilted her head to one side, smiling. "None of that, flyboy," she said. "I'm mad at you."
"Mad? Why?" asked Clark, continuing to nuzzle her.
"Because I've told you how much I hate surprise parties, that's why!"
"Surprise party?" said Clark blankly.
"Yes." Lois slipped out of his reach and turned to face him. "You thought I wouldn't catch on, didn't you? Well, I'm on to you, buddy!" She brandished the spoon threateningly. "You always did make up the dumbest excuses, Clark, but that one about the explosion in the warehouse was the worst! You should have known that I'd find out that there was no explosion! What were you *really* doing last night? You were off somewhere planning a birthday party for me, weren't you?"
Clark took a step back, frowning. "What are you talking about, Lois? What excuses? And there *was* an explosion at Hobbes' Bay last night," he insisted. "I was there."
"Clark, don't lie to me," said Lois, beginning to get a little irritated. "There was nothing in the news about any explosion."
"But … that's impossible! Michelle was there … and the Channel Five news team. I saw them," Clark said earnestly. He ran a hand worriedly through his hair, wondering if he had had some kind of hallucination … or maybe the masterminds at Greuel had planted false memories in his head. He swallowed and tugged at his tie, which had suddenly become uncomfortably tight.
The baby in his arm made a gurgling sound and began drooling against Clark's shirt. Clark shifted his gaze, looking down at the squirming infant. "Let me get that—" said Lois, snatching up a napkin. Clark watched while she dabbed expertly at the baby's face.
"Lois," he said, his voice carefully neutral, "why do you have this baby?"
Lois straightened and looked at him as if she couldn't believe her ears. "What??" she said.
"Whose baby is this? And why are you looking after him?"
Lois dropped her hand to her side, her face registering shock. "Clark!" she said fearfully. "What's the matter with you? Don't you know?"
"No," said Clark. "I don't remember. I don't remember you telling me who he is or why you were going to look after him or for how long or—"
"Clark!" exclaimed Lois, aghast. She clutched his upper arms and stared up into his face. "Charles is *our* baby! Your son! Don't you remember?? What is it—amnesia again?" She gazed fearfully into his eyes.
Clark shook his head, backing away from her stiffly.
"Don't you remember—we had so much trouble …?" Lois went on, speaking rapidly as she stepped forward to keep pace with him. "You went to Dr. Klein and at first he said we weren't compatible—"
"Dr. Klein!" Clark exclaimed. "There is no Doctor Klein! Not in *our* universe, Lois." His face grew noticeably paler. "Where am I?" he asked hoarsely.
"'*Our* universe?'" Lois repeated, her voice faltering. "Who are you?" An indescribable expression crossed her face and she reached up and swept the hair off his forehead, gasping when she saw the scar. Uttering a strangled cry, she snatched her hand back as if she had been burned, and before Clark could react, had pulled the baby out of his arms, turning away and cradling young Charles protectively.
Clark stood, rooted to the ground.
This isn't my home.
This isn't my universe.
*This isn't my wife.*
But out of his confusing welter of emotions, the one that came to the forefront as he noted Lois's protective gesture towards her child, was rage at the unjustness of her action. "You didn't need to do that, Lois!" he said hotly. "You didn't need to take him from me like that!"
Not answering, Lois turned her back and strode rapidly out of the kitchen, Clark following. "I wouldn't hurt him, Lois," he said angrily. "I wouldn't hurt—" his voice cracked. "I would *never* hurt a child. *Never*! Lois!" Nausea rose within him as Lois continued moving away, still cradling the infant protectively. His anger was fading, replaced by deep hurt at the thought that she believed him capable of injuring a baby. He raised his voice, almost pleading with her. "Lois!"
It was into this tense scene that the Kents walked. "Hi, Lois! Clark!" sang out Martha, rapping on the door as she opened it. "Sorry to walk in like this, but you didn't hear us ring and the door was unlocked, so—"
As Martha reached for Clark, pretending not to notice his stricken expression, Lois cried out, "That's not Clark, Martha!"
Martha halted abruptly, looking from Lois's tense, angry face to Clark's tense, hurt face, then she put her arms around Clark and drew him close. She didn't know who he was, but if ever there was anyone who was in need of comfort, it was this Clark who looked so much like her son.
Clark stood stiffly in her embrace at first, and then relaxed, putting his arms around her and hugging her gratefully. Next to his wife and his mother, he loved this woman more than any other, the woman who had welcomed him when he had felt like an outcast, when he had—if he were honest with himself—*behaved* like an outcast.
He released her after a minute, blinking rapidly, then grasped Jonathan's extended hand and shook it.
"Which Clark are you?" asked Martha as casually as if Clarks came from other universes to take her son's place every day.
"I'm—we've met before—"
"He's the Clark who almost destroyed this house the last time he was here," Lois interrupted, glaring at him. "And I want to know *why* you're here and why you didn't say anything about who you are?"
"I didn't *know* who I am!" said Clark hotly, his temper rising again. "Uh … I mean, I didn't know that I wasn't … that you aren't Lois … uh … my wife—"
"And the baby?" Lois shot back at him. "You thought he was *your* baby?"
"No! I thought he was one of the orphans you—Lois—my wife—takes care of!"
"Welcome anyway, Clark," said Martha cheerily, trying to lighten the atmosphere. She sat on the sofa, patting the seat next to her to indicate that Clark should sit there, while Jonathan steered Lois to a chair. "How long have you been here?"
"Uh … I was flying in a thunderstorm …"
"I would think you'd know enough to stay away from thunderstorms by now," said Lois acidly.
"Like *your* husband did??" retorted Clark, half rising from the sofa. Martha put a restraining hand on his arm while Jonathan, standing behind Lois's chair, placed a hand on his daughter-in-law's shoulder.
"Why didn't you tell me who you are?" asked Lois angrily. "You took advantage of the situation! You came into *my* house and crawled into bed with me—" she stopped, acutely aware of the shocked looks on Jonathan's and Martha's faces. "Oh! We didn't—"
"It's *my* house, too! At least it is in my own universe—I wasn't taking advantage of anything! I told you I didn't know I wasn't in my own universe! I just wanted to be with my wife—!" Clark yelled.
"I'm NOT YOUR WIFE!" shouted Lois, shaking off Jonathan's hand, and jumping to her feet, baby and all.
"I thought you *were*!" Clark was on his feet now, too. "I thought you were *her*. I thought this was my house; I thought you were Lois *my* Lois, my—wife …" his voice broke and he began striding towards the door, fists clenched.
"Clark!" called Martha. "Wait." She ran after him and placed her hand gently on his arm. He stopped, breathing hard. "Stay here, so we can figure this thing out."
"What is there to figure out?" said Clark lifelessly, his anger gone as quickly as it had come. He was staring at the floor, not looking at her. "I'm here, in this universe, and my w-wife is—" He couldn't go on.
"You married her?" asked Martha gently. "The Lois Lane in your universe?" Clark nodded. "Congratulations." She paused while she searched for words of comfort. She instinctively divined what was eating at Clark, what it was that was tearing his insides out, and added, "You'll get back to her. You've changed universes … what—three times now? so you'll be able to do it again. You'll be back with your own wife before you know it." She patted his arm. "Come back and sit down. Jonathan and I brought dinner, so—"
"Lois married you??" Lois interrupted, staring at Clark. "But—" she bit off what she had been going to say, realizing that it was hardly complimentary to Clark and wanting to refrain from saying anything to further inflame his temper. She tried to think of something to say that *was* complimentary, rejected "so she doesn't threaten you with a knife anymore?", and finally settled on a feebly-uttered "Congratulations."
Clark acknowledged her felicitation with an embarrassed nod; obviously he understood quite well what Lois was *not* saying.
Lois led the way to the kitchen, still trying to hide how staggered she was by the news. Remembering the surly, almost uncontrollably violent man who had been with them last year, she found it difficult to believe that her counterpart—or *any* woman—would willingly consent to marry this man. Yet she could not deny that Clark clearly loved his wife; his expression when he had talked about her just now showed that—and the way he had kissed *her*, she reminded herself, blushing.
Feeling that she needed to explain to the Kents how it was possible that an imposter had been in her husband's place for almost twenty-four hours without her detecting it, she turned to Jonathan and Martha. "I was asleep when he came in last night," she said in a low voice, "and *he* was asleep when I got up this morning, so—."
Jonathan and Martha nodded understandingly. Clark had moved a few steps away and was seemingly intent on examining the by-now soggy vegetables in the pot on the stove, but his red face told her that he was listening to everything she said.
He was secretly glad that Lois was explaining everything to her in-laws, for to tell the truth, he hadn't liked the glances Jonathan had been sending him ever since Lois had accused him of crawling into her bed. Jonathan was probably understandably protective of his son's relationship with his wife, and Clark was relieved that Lois was clearing up any possibility of a misunderstanding.
The meal passed more comfortably than Clark would have thought possible under the circumstances. Jonathan and Martha plied him with questions about his own universe. They were pleased to discover that Clark had taken on the job of Superman, and were intensely interested in learning about the progress he had made in his struggles with the powerful interests that were always fighting to rule his world.
The thought that was uppermost in everyone's minds was never voiced: the fear that the two Clarks would not be able to get back to their respective universes. As if of one mind, the four spoke of the upcoming exchange of the two men as if there could be no doubt of its inevitability.
Throughout the meal, Clark noticed that Lois was often looking curiously at him, a fact which made him exceedingly self-conscious. He had never gotten along very well with this Lois; he knew that she had a low opinion of him.
Towards the end of the meal he had to leave to take a Superman call. Martha turned to Lois as soon as he had disappeared. "He's changed, Lois," she said eagerly. "A lot."
"Yes," Jonathan averred, "I would never have known he was the same person."
"And if he's been taking Clark's place as Superman for almost twenty-four hours and nobody's seen the difference—"
"There are *some* differences …" said Lois slowly, remembering Clark's behavior during the terrorist situation in Lebanon.
"Not many," declared Jonathan. "I was watching him on the news last night and he conducted himself really well during his interviews. Remember how we didn't want him to give interviews as Superman the last time he was here because we were afraid that he'd betray himself in some way?"
"It looks like that young man has really pulled himself together," said Jonathan, not without pride.
"Of course he has," said Martha, looking up from young Charles, whom she had insisted on holding throughout the meal, "he's Clark."
"I wonder if he's ever mended his fences with his parents," said Jonathan thoughtfully. "He didn't say anything about them."
"Yes, and I was afraid to ask," said Martha. "I'll ask him privately, later."
"He seems anxious to return home, too," said Jonathan. "Quite a change from last time; you had to practically drag him out of the house to get him to fly in that thunderstorm, didn't you Lois?"
"Yes," said Lois faintly. She looked down at her fork, which she was idly tapping against her plate. Jonathan and Martha's conversation reminded her of what her husband had told her about the alternate Clark's early life, and as she reflected on what this Clark had been forced to endure, she became a little ashamed of how she had treated him. Part of the reason she had reacted so angrily to the knowledge that he wasn't her husband was because she was embarrassed at how she had responded to his kisses. Reflecting on how lovingly Clark had spoken of his own wife, she was willing to bet that he was equally embarrassed.
She rose and began to clear the table, resolving to apologize to him as soon as he came back.
But he didn't come back.
He appeared on the news—once, and then there was nothing. Lois checked the news services again at around eight, but there had been no reported Superman sightings since shortly after he had left the dinner table.
By nine o'clock, Lois became restless and decided to go to the Daily Planet to fetch some files for a story she was working on. She took young Charles with her since the Kents had gone to a movie. She was forced to park a block away from the newsroom, due to the presence of some demonstrators who were picketing the George Building across the street from the Daily Planet.
When she arrived at the newsroom she was surprised to see that Clark was there, too. He wasn't working on a story, though; he was lounging in one chair with his feet up on another, watching a game on television.
"Clark! What are you doing here?"
He jumped; apparently he had been too engrossed in the game to hear her arrival. "Uh …"
"Why didn't you come home?"
"Home?" he said cautiously. "You mean—would it be okay?"
"Of *course* it would be okay!" said Lois. "Why wouldn't it be?"
"It's not *my* home," he said simply. "And I didn't know if you'd let … if you'd want …"
"Where else would you go? You weren't planning on spending the night *here*, were you?"
"Uh …" Clark looked at her guiltily, and Lois knew that such had been exactly his intention. She was annoyed, even though she knew it was her fault; if she hadn't made him feel so unwelcome before, he wouldn't have felt it necessary to spend the night in the newsroom.
She took a deep breath. "Come home with me, Clark," she said quietly. "There's plenty of room. The Kents are sleeping in the guest room so you can have the sofa. Or we can set up a cot in the baby's room …" her voice trailed off. Mentioning the baby's room reminded her uncomfortably of how she had reacted to Clark touching her son earlier in the evening. Clark was evidently remembering that incident, too, for he turned away, avoiding her eye.
Recalling why she had come to the newsroom in the first place, Lois moved purposefully to her desk. Setting down her briefcase, she began cramming files into it, one-handedly because of the baby, who was cradled in her left arm.
Clark sprang to her side. "Let me help you," he said, taking the files from her and beginning to insert them into the briefcase.
Lois opened her mouth to tell him that she didn't need any help, but after glancing at his eager face, she closed it again and allowed him to accomplish that task for her. She studied him while he worked, noting how the haunted, stricken look that he had worn the last time he had visited their universe seemed to have vanished. He appeared more relaxed, too; more confident; and, except for his outburst when he had first discovered that he wasn't in his own home, less angry and sullen.
He finished inserting the files into her briefcase, apparently unaware of her scrutiny, and turned to her. "Is that it?" he asked. She nodded, and he picked up the briefcase and started towards the elevator. "I'll carry it for you," he said.
Lois noticed that he was avoiding touching the baby, or in fact going anywhere near him, and on impulse she said, "Why don't you carry Charles for me instead?" She held out her son towards Clark, who turned around in surprise. "Go on; take him," said Lois, as Clark made no move to pick up the boy, "he's starting to get heavy."
Clark paused, then hesitantly held out his arms, receiving the child with awkward care. He looked gravely down at the baby. "How old is he?"
Clark looked up in surprise. "And you're back at work already?"
"I was bored, so …" Lois shrugged.
Clark bent his head to observe Charles again. He knew you were supposed to tell people that the baby looked like them, so he tried to find a resemblance in the infant's face to either Lois or himself. "He has your eyes," he said finally. "They're going to be big. And beautiful," he added absently. Then, suddenly embarrassingly aware to whom he was speaking, he flushed hotly, his gaze flying to her face. "I-I mean … that is … I—"
"Thank you," said Lois, smiling.
Her graciousness was surprising, and Clark reflected that she had changed. She was kinder, and didn't appear as inclined to wither him with sarcasm as she had the last time they had been thrown together.
It occurred to him that she seemed to trust him more, too, but after his initial gratification at her change of heart, he couldn't help feeling a pang as he was reminded of *another* Lois who had come to trust him.
He blinked rapidly, fighting the dull ache that had never completely left him since he had first realized that he was separated from his wife.
Glancing over at his companion, he wondered at her seeming acceptance of her husband's absence; she didn't appear to entertain any doubts that she would see her Clark again before too long.
Unfortunately, *he* had no such confidence.
Or maybe the persistent ache in his chest wasn't due to the fear that he would never see his Lois again, but to the insidious doubt that she would not *want* to see him again. He had never forgotten that upon his return to his own universe the *last* time, his Lois had been half in love with his counterpart.
What if her feelings were returned? What if the Other Clark fell in love with *his* wife? He could understand how just such a thing could happen; he quite preferred his own wife to this Lois and he didn't see how anyone else could feel otherwise.
And if the Other Clark fell in love with *his* Lois, wasn't it possible that she would *really* fall in love with him?
NO! she *couldn't*! Lois would *never* do that! She's in love with *me*!
Okay. But what if they aren't as lucky as *we* were; what if *they don't notice the switch?
No, that wouldn't happen … it couldn't! They would figure it out!
But he writhed inwardly.
They had not quite reached the elevator when Clark stopped and told Lois that he had to leave, explaining that the demonstrators outside were beginning to get a little unruly and he felt that Superman should assist the police in restoring order.
As she exited the building, Lois noted without surprise that Superman was already on the scene. She *was* surprised, though, at how much expertise he showed in handling the crowd. He calmed down the mob within a few minutes, and by the time she reached her car, the angry shouting had subsided to a murmur.
Juggling the briefcase and the baby, Lois inserted the key into the door of the Jeep. "Lois Lane!" said a jeering voice behind her. Lois turned slowly to face a tall, thin man whom she judged to be in his late twenties. "Remember me?"
"I can't say that I do," said Lois coolly, not liking the man's tone. "I've interviewed a lot of people, though, so I'm sure you'll excuse me if—"
"Interviewed!" the man snorted. "Is that what you call it when you ruin a man's life?" He leaned forward and put his face close to hers, glaring angrily.
"I don't recall—"
"You don't remember me?" interrupted the man. "Don't tell me … you've ruined a lot of people's lives, so I'll excuse you if you don't remember this particular one? Radville … that ring a bell?"
Lois opened the driver's door, not answering. She pushed the button that unlocked all the doors, intending to put the baby in the car seat in the back, but Radville stood in front of the door, blocking her. Lois shifted her weight uneasily; this could get ugly. "Would you mind moving?" she said loudly. "I need to go home—"
"I'll move when I'm ready," said Radville curtly.
Lois cast a quick look down the street, wondering if she should call for Superman. But she saw immediately that, having quieted and dispersed the crowd somewhat, Superman had left. Clark Kent was striding towards her, however, dressed once more in street clothes. She bit her lip, wishing that he hadn't changed his clothes already. There were enough people lingering in the street to prevent him from running at super speed to a dark alley and changing back so he could come and help her as Superman. For by this time, she knew that she was going to need help.
She had seen the gun.
She raised her gaze from the weapon, hoping that her fear didn't show in her eyes. Her baby! If only she weren't holding Charles …
She heard a couple of quick footsteps behind her and the man's gaze shifted. "Lois …" said Clark's voice over her shoulder. Lois was distracted momentarily from the stranger, and when she looked back, the gun was out of sight. Radville's hand remained in his pocket, however, and he was clearly retaining his grip on the weapon.
"Look who's here," sneered the stranger. "Clark Kent, I presume. Lane's husband?"
"You were saying something to Ms Lane?" said Clark. His voice was quiet, but the menace in his voice and posture was palpable. Lois shivered. "Would you care to say it to me instead?" Clark stepped neatly around her, interposing his body between hers and Radville's, and Lois suddenly relaxed, the tension leaving her body as abruptly as it had come. She felt all at once comforted and reassured; secure in the conviction that Clark was well able to handle the situation. She wasn't at all surprised to hear Radville mutter something about having made a mistake, and retreat rapidly down the street.
"Not bad," said Lois as soon as he had disappeared from their view. "It's not often that an apparently unarmed man can face down a man with a gun. Thank you, Clark."
"I didn't do anything that you couldn't have done," said Clark, embarrassed. "In fact, after his encounter with *you*, I'm surprised there was anything left of him for me to face. If you hadn't had the baby …"
Lois tossed her head, embarrassed in *her* turn. "Are we going to go home now?" she asked tartly. "Or are we going to stand around admiring each other all night …?" Laughing, Clark took young Charles from her and secured him in his car seat. Then the two slid into their seats and rode first to the police station, and then home in companionable silence.
The Kents had returned from the cinema by the time Lois and Clark got back to the townhouse and it wasn't long before Martha had drawn Clark aside to inquire delicately after his parents. He needed very little prompting, and Martha was overjoyed to learn that Clark was on good terms with them for the first time in many years. His face glowing with happiness, Clark told her that his father was walking again, thanks to the medical information she had sent back with him, and that Clark had been flying to Smallville several times a week to perform much-needed repairs at the farm.
Martha ended the conversation by once again reassuring Clark that she was sure he would get back to his own universe soon, and was rewarded by seeing some of the sadness leave his eyes.
Martha was right, as usual; Lois and Clark were seated alone at dinner the next evening (Martha and Jonathan having returned to Kansas), when a late thunderstorm began ripping through the area. The two looked up at the same time and their eyes met. Clark jumped to his feet. "I'm going to try—" he said.
Lois nodded. "If I don't see you again, good luck," she said soberly, walking around the table to hug him briefly.
"If I don't come back, tell them good-bye. And … thanks." Lois nodded. No need to say who "they" were.
She watched as Clark spun into the Superman suit and with a final wave, glided through the open window. She would have liked to go with him and wait for her husband, but with little Charles to take care of, it was out of the question. She picked up her son and began pacing restlessly around the living room, listening to the rain drumming against the windows. The frequent crashes of thunder made her wince, and she looked worriedly at her son, concerned that the noise would frighten him, but he was sleeping soundly in her arms.
She didn't know how much time had passed before she heard the tell-tale whoosh that signified the return of Superman.
But which Superman?
She stood with her back to the window, almost afraid to find out. "Lois?" said a hesitant voice. She turned slowly. Clark was watching her, his eyes uncertain. His gaze fell on the baby, and he strode forward to envelop them both in a warm hug. "I'm home," he breathed.
"Welcome back," said Lois, her voice breaking. She flung herself into his arms. Only now would she acknowledge the secret fear that she had kept hidden even from herself: the fear that his trip to another world *this* time would prove to be unlike the other trips … that *this* time, he wouldn't make it back.
As luck would have it, Clark had to leave again almost immediately, called away on Superman duties. "Hurry back," said Lois, her welcoming smile still in her eyes.
"I will," said Clark, an answering smile in his own. He stepped up to the window, taking one last look back. "Wait up for me."
"I—" Lois winced as a particularly loud clap of thunder interrupted her, "—will," she said. But he was already gone.
Lois drummed her fingers on the bedroom window as a low rumble in the distance told her that the thunderstorm was still in the vicinity. Clark had been gone for almost an hour and she was beginning to get impatient. She had spent the intervening time by bathing and changing into her most provocative nightgown. Her eyes had sparkled when she sprinkled Clark's favorite perfume over herself, anticipating the look of appreciation on his face. She had every intention of seducing her husband tonight. Not—she had to admit—that she expected any difficulty. She was sure that he had missed her as much as she had him.
So … where was he??
She turned away from the window, beginning to feel a little angry. She couldn't imagine what he had been doing all this time; there had been no news of Superman activities other than the emergency he had responded to when he was first called away.
He was probably out there in the storm looking for someone's lost kitten, she thought in disgust. That would be just like him!
Ordinarily the thought of Clark using super powers for something as mundane as rescuing lost pets brought a smile to her face, but tonight it only served to annoy her further. Clark had been transported to the other universe barely six weeks after she had delivered Charles (and a *long* six weeks it had been, too!), and after their two day separation coming on top of that six week period, she was anxious to have her husband home.
She wandered over to the bureau and picked up a hairbrush. After a moment's quiet contemplation, she dragged it slowly through her hair, almost dropping it when she was startled by a particularly crack of thunder. Worried that the long and loud storm might have awakened the baby, she set down the hairbrush, preparing to go and check on him.
"Charles is sound asleep," said a quiet voice behind her.
Lois whirled. "I didn't hear you come in—" her words were lost as she found herself engulfed in an enthusiastic hug. "Where have you been?" she asked when she could breathe again. "Looking for someone's lost puppy?"
"No, child," said Clark briefly.
"Oh!" Lois put a hand to her mouth. "Did you find him? Her?"
"Yes." Clark pulled her close again, drawing back after a minute to look searchingly into her eyes. "Are you all right?" he asked anxiously.
"I'm fine," she said reassuringly.
"I was worried," Clark admitted. "I know how badly Clark acted the last time he was here and—"
"He was nothing like that this time," Lois assured him. "He's really managed to pull himself together."
"That's what Lois said. He's learning to control his temper, he's made up with his parents, he's married Lois, and he's Su—"
"Superman," Lois finished. "Yes; it's unbelievable how much he's changed. People didn't see any difference between your Superman and his at all—not even your father. Even *I* didn't realize at first that he wasn't you. It wasn't until just before your parents came that we found out that you and he had switched again."
"'Not until just before' my parents came?" Clark repeated, frowning. "I thought they weren't going to come until Tuesday, the day after Clark and I switched."
"That's right," Lois affirmed. "It was Tuesday night, when I was making dinner, that …" her voice trailed off at the expression on Clark's face.
"But …" said Clark slowly. "What about … the night before …" There was a look in her husband's eye that Lois had never seen before.
She hurriedly explained the circumstances, and his brow cleared immediately. "I was beginning to wonder …" he said, taking a relieved breath.
"What about you?" asked Lois. "How long did it take *you* to figure out that you had switched places?"
Clark grinned mischievously. "Wouldn't you like to know?" he teased.
Lois snatched a pillow off the bed and threw it at him. "Tell me," she commanded.
Clark dodged the missile easily. "Well, gee, Lois, I don't know," he said with mock-seriousness. "I don't remember … it might have been on the second day," he added thoughtfully.
Lois advanced on him threateningly. "You're lucky that you're Superman, big fella."
"Yes," said Clark, "I am." He dropped his interested gaze to the bodice of her gown.
"Are you going to tell me how long it took you to figure out that you had switched universes?" Lois asked, ignoring his innuendo, although the corners of her lips tugged upward.
"Lois, how long do you *think* it took me?" said Clark, snatching her up into his arms and holding her close, "when I walked into my house and my son wasn't there?"
"Oh …" said Lois.
"Yeah," Clark grinned. "I *thought* you were forgetting that. And now …"
In the room next to theirs, young Charles opened his eyes briefly, awakened by some noise. He heard a muffled squeal, followed by laughter, but in the wise way of infants, he closed his eyes again, drifting off to sleep.
TWO: Haven't We Met Somewhere Before?
Whoosh! Oof! Clark lay on the ground face-down, too stunned to move.
Where was he? What had he been doing? He couldn't remember. He felt almost as if he had fallen from somewhere, but that wasn't possible; he couldn't fall.
He peered into the wet blackness, seeking something familiar to use as a point of reference, but the rain pelting earthward effectively destroyed his view of whatever lay in the darkness beyond.
He raised a hand experimentally. He didn't know *why* he was *wherever* he was, but at least he could figure out whether he was hurt or not. Raising the hand felt okay, but he couldn't say the same for the rest of him. He didn't hurt … exactly … but he felt … strange. Nauseated. Almost as if kryptonite—. He sucked in his breath sharply and looked around anxiously, hope outweighing the fear. Maybe his mother was …
No. There was no one there. He felt a crippling stab of pain from deep inside when he realized the futility of wishing for his mother. It was no use; she hated and feared him. A wave of longing and regret swept over him. He wanted desperately to have her believe him; wanted her to know that he would never hurt her, would never hurt *him*.
Please, you must believe me. I don't know what happened that day, but if I hurt him, then I'm sorry. I never meant to do it.
He buried his face in his hands and lay quite still for a moment, but a sound from several feet away caused him to jerk his head up again quickly.
Footsteps. Someone running. Fast.
"Clark! Oh, Clark! Is it you?" He knew that voice! "Or is it … him?"
Clark raised himself cautiously onto one elbow, peering at the face of the young woman kneeling at his side in the small crater his body had made in the ground. Lois Lane! And wonder of wonders, she sounded worried. She *looked* worried—about *him*! He felt a surge of triumph, the pain of his parents' rejection receding. Maybe his mother didn't want to have him around, but a lot of other women did. Lois Lane had been the only woman he had ever wanted who had denied him access to her charms, and now it looked like she was finally coming around, too. He smirked.
But she was lifting the hair that had fallen onto his forehead, and his smile faded when he realized that she was looking at his scar. Her next words surprised him: "Oh, Clark, it *is* you! I'm so glad you're home again!" Her voice broke, and she sobbed as she threw her arms around him and hugged him gratefully, heedless of the rain that was soaking them both.
Her display of concern struck a chord deep within him. He swallowed hard, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. Drawing a ragged breath, he sat up, pulling the clinging Lois with him. He was acutely aware of her feminine body pressed against him, of her small hands raking through his hair in joyful thankfulness.
Unnerved by her solicitude, he sought refuge in assuming an air of indifference. His mask crumbled immediately, however, when she began running kisses all over his face, her lips seeking his mouth. He closed his eyes with a faint tremor as his body began to respond to her caresses. Seeking to hide how deeply he was moved, he opened his mouth to make a caustic comment.
But before he could speak, it came to him: a jagged memory that had been hovering on the fringes of consciousness … No, not a memory, exactly, more like a dream, for he was sure that nothing like it had ever happened to him in his life: Lois Lane, kneeling beside him, voicing love and concern, and then … he had reached for her, kissing her hard, with her startled voice protesting that he was hurting her. And his own voice saying, "… I take what I want …" He shuddered.
And then that image dissolved, to be replaced by another, a different Lois (no, that wasn't possible; there was only one Lois. Wasn't there?). *That* Lois had shown love and concern for him, too, and then the love in her face had changed to disappointment and disgust, he didn't know why. He couldn't remember. But he did remember the tormenting pain her revulsion of feeling had caused.
Lois was speaking to him: "You're soaking wet, Clark." She patted his chest. "Let's take you home and get you into some dry clothes."
She wanted to take him home??
He staggered to his feet, his head whirling.
This was impossible; Lois Lane hated him; the last time he had seen her, her scorn had been almost tangible. Any minute now the love in her face would change to loathing, just like in his dream …
She had risen with him and was retaining her grip on his arm. He glanced down at her hand. She had said something about dry clothes—. He received another shock when he saw what he was wearing. Tights! With boots and a—he twisted to look behind him—a cape. What was going on; was it Halloween?
And then he saw what was on his chest: an emblem that resembled the letter "S". He recognized it instantly; it was the symbol for the house of El, from his native Krypton.
He backed away from Lois.
This had to be a nightmare; a horrible nightmare.
"Clark!" she said, following him. "What's wrong? Do you feel all right? That was quite a fall you had … can you fly?"
Clark backed away from her more rapidly, his stomach twisting into a knot of apprehension.
Lois knew he could fly.
And he was wearing the crest from the house of El.
What was going on? Had they found out about … him? Was he an outcast? Had they made him dress in a Kryptonian costume so everyone would know who—and what—he was? To distinguish him from humans?
"You seem a little unsteady, Clark," said Lois. "You haven't been exposed to … you don't think that someone has used kryptonite on you … do you?"
She knew about kryptonite, too! Did everyone know about it? Did they use it to keep him at a distance? To control him?
His nausea rose, and he began to run, stumbling in his hurry to get away.
"Clark! Where are you going?" she cried. He was now half a block away. He ran faster, in his haste nearly colliding with a man walking his dog. Lois raised her voice. "Superman!" she called.
He ran faster, not daring to fly. If there was a *chance* that everyone didn't know about his super powers, then he didn't want to give himself away by flying. He lengthened his stride, his legs driving like pistons, not realizing in his confusion that he was already traveling faster than humanly possible. He ran hard and fast, leaving Lois behind, far, far behind, while he blocked her cries from his consciousness.
The rain had stopped, but the pavement was still wet, and Clark's feet made gentle slapping sounds on the concrete as he continued to run, not caring where. He rounded a dark corner into a dimly-lit alley, stopping dead at the scene that met his eyes. He had apparently interrupted a robbery in process, and he slowed, not wanting to provoke gunfire and risk revealing his invulnerability. But to his surprise, instead of turning their guns on him, the assailants flung their weapons at his feet.
"Superman!" exclaimed the victim. "Thank God you're here! They took my purse!" She pointed a finger at the youths who were now standing with their hands up, squirming under his surprised gaze.
"Aw, Superman, we didn't mean nothing by it," said one of the boys. "We were just having a little fun. We weren't really going to rob her."
"No," said his companion. "We were going to give her her purse right back." He cautiously picked up the purse he had dropped when Clark first appeared and holding it gingerly, carried it back to its owner, keeping a wary eye on Clark the whole time.
"Don't believe a word of it!" the woman snapped. "They were robbing me, all right!"
"Hey … don't turn us in to the police," said the boy who had first spoken, encouraged by the fact that Clark had made no move to apprehend them. "Please?"
"I have to support my sick grandmother," said the boy who had returned the purse. "And I don't have a job or nothing … I had a bad childhood," he added as he turned plaintive eyes on Clark.
Clark shifted uncomfortably. All three of the participants in the little tableau were looking at him, clearly expecting some kind of action on his part. He cleared his throat. "All right," he said to the boys, "I won't take you to the police … this time." Relief crossed their faces, but the victim made a sound of disgust and Clark added hurriedly, hoping his voice sounded appropriately stern, "But I'm not giving you any more chances. If I catch you at this again, you're going to jail."
"Yes, sir; thank you, Superman!" "We won't be doing anything like this again; we've learned our lesson!" the boys chimed in together. Leaving their weapons on the ground, they hastily dashed off down the alley, casting half-fearful, half-relieved glances behind them.
Left alone with the woman, Clark turned awkwardly towards her. She had apparently recovered from her disappointment that he had let them go, for she smiled brightly up at him. "Just as well," she said. "They'd probably be out on the street again in a couple of days." Clark managed a sound of assent and turned to go, but her next words stayed him. "Could you take me home?" she asked. "I only live a couple of blocks from here, but it is kinda late and—"
Clark hesitated, then nodded. "Okay," he said. He stepped aside and waited for the woman to precede him, but she only stood and looked at him, disappointment etched on her face.
"Aren't you going to carry me?" she asked. "It would be faster …"
Clark took a step forward, then stopped, rebelling at the thought of picking up this stranger and carrying her. What a weird request, anyway; how often did you see men walking down the street carrying women in their arms? But to his surprise, she flung her hands around his neck and looked up at him expectantly. He hesitated, then swinging her into his grasp, he began striding down the alley in the direction she had indicated. At the look of unholy surprise on her face, he realized that he had made a mistake, and was just about to set her down when he suffered another shock as she said plaintively, "Aren't you going to fly? I don't want to push you or anything, but my cousin Ella has been impossible to live with ever since you rescued her last month. You flew with her all the way from—"
"Okay," said Clark quickly, "We'll fly." And he took to the air, feeling a sense of uneasy gratification at the expression of delight on her face.
They arrived at her apartment building in less than a minute, and he set her down carefully on the steps, suffering her quick hug with embarrassed awkwardness. "Thanks, Superman," she said loudly. "I'm so glad you came along to rescue me!"
Clark winced. Why was she speaking so loudly? She was going to wake the whole neighborhood!
Apparently she was trying to do just that, for she shouted even more loudly as he turned to go, "If you ever need a favor, Superman, anything at all, my name is Abigail Jenkins. Thanks so much for rescuing me, Superman. And thanks for flying me home, too, Superman. I never expected that I—me, Abigail Jenkins—would ever get the chance to fly with *Superman*, so it was really nice I got that chance. Would you like to come in for a cup of coffee, SUPERMAN?"
He alighted on the top of the Pan Oil building, surveying the city below. It was amazing how quiet it was; Metropolis was exhibiting none of its usual rowdiness.
Something was definitely very strange here; Abigail and the boys had called him "Superman." Lois, too. Was that his nickname? If so … why couldn't he remember how he got it? And when did everyone learn about his super powers—and come to regard him as some kind of peacekeeper or law enforcer?
He looked down at his hand and wasn't surprised to see that it was trembling.
He took a deep breath. Maybe he'd better go home; everything would look better in the morning, after he'd had a good night's sleep. He launched himself into the night air, heading for 344 Clinton, his home.
Only it wasn't; someone else was living there.
Fortunately, something—he didn't know what: perhaps some instinct born of the strange events this evening had already unfolded—prevented him from landing on the balcony and barging into the apartment. Instead, he flew slowly over the roof, x-raying the interior, and somehow was not surprised when he saw that a young man, unknown to him, was sitting on a sofa and watching the large screen television that was in the room. The furnishings, as well as the occupant, were unfamiliar to Clark.
He flew quickly back to the Pan Oil building to reconnoiter.
What had happened? Had he been driven from his home?
That didn't fit with the reaction his appearance had garnered among the few people he had seen so far; there had been no trace of loathing in the demeanor of either the woman or the two youths he had apprehended. Fear, certainly, on the part of the boys, and a healthy dose of respect, but no loathing. His Kryptonian garb didn't have the purpose of marking him as an outcast, then, for he obviously wasn't an outcast; far from it. Then, too, there was the way Abigail had kept shouting "Superman!" She had been engaging in an obvious bout of name-dropping. Whatever "Superman" represented to her, he wasn't an object of disgust.
And Lois, too …
He swallowed. No, he couldn't think about her.
So … maybe he wasn't an outcast, but neither did he have a place to stay tonight. Unless … Lois had said she was going to take him home. Did he live with *her* now??? He shook his head. Impossible; Lois Lane hated him. In any case, he had no intention of showing up at her apartment uninvited. She would probably think he was coming to force himself on her or something. He remembered what had happened the last time he had believed she was showing an interest in him, and shuddered.
He really did need to get some sleep, though; his memory problem aside, he still felt woozy and disoriented. After considering and rejecting half a dozen retreats, he finally settled on the Arctic Circle. No one ever bothered him up there. He rose to his feet and launched himself shakily into the night sky, which was just beginning to clear up after the storm. By the time he reached the North Pole a short time later, he was so exhausted that he fell to his knees upon landing, collapsing in the spot where his feet had first touched snow. Rolling his cape to use as a pillow, he lay where he had dropped, and fell immediately and deeply asleep.
When Clark opened his eyes, he wasn't sure at first where he was. Memory quickly came flooding back, however, and he winced when he realized the implications of the previous night's events. He sat up and drew his knees to his chin, burying his face in his arms momentarily. Finally he sighed and climbed slowly to his feet. He had to face this day sometime, it might as well be sooner rather than later.
Picking up the cape that he had used as pillow, he made a discovery that created the first ray of hope in the otherwise bleak present: street clothes were concealed in the cape's pockets. He breathed a silent "thank-you," relieved that he could disguise himself and walk the streets as an Earth person. Further exploration revealed that the man's business suit belonged to himself, Clark Kent, and the brief hope of disguising himself died. Lois Lane knew that Clark Kent was also "Superman," and if Lois Lane knew it, then the whole world must know it.
Still, as a way of blending with the denizens of Metropolis, it was better than the Kryptonian outfit.
He flew quickly to Metropolis, and slipping into a condemned apartment building, he put on the things he had found in the pockets of the cape. Except for one item; an item that puzzled him.
And then he strode out among the Metropolitans.
No one screamed and pointed when they saw him; in fact, no one noticed him at all, and he found himself relaxing as he strolled with more confidence down the city streets. He stopped at a machine to buy a Daily Planet (glad that he had money in his wallet), and was surprised to find an article with his by-line on it. His and Lois Lane's. So he was still working for the Daily Planet—at least that hadn't changed from what he remembered. And Perry still had him partnered with Lois on some stories. That was good, too. What was also good was that their article was about Superman, and it was written in the third person, as if Clark Kent were writing about someone else. So maybe the general public didn't know that Clark Kent and Superman were the same person.
Heaving a sigh of relief, Clark cast down the newspaper. "Superman had a hand in it, though," said a voice behind him. "There were a couple of shots of him in the news yesterday. Hey—are you done with that, sir? Mind if I have it?"
"Uh, sure," said Clark, handing the newspaper to the speaker without looking at him or his companion. The man grasped the paper and began skimming through the Superman article on the front page while Clark drifted a few steps away, trying to melt unobtrusively into the crowd. He felt as if the "S" concealed under his shirt was the Scarlet Letter and in plain view of everyone.
"It doesn't say anything about it here," said the man who had taken his newspaper. "But like I said, it was on the news yesterday. LNN ran it first, then it was picked up by the other stations."
"I still say he couldn't have been there, Dave," said his companion, speaking for the first time. "How could he be in two places at once? LNN must have used old footage of him."
"The press conference only lasted until two o' clock," said Dave. "He could have been there by two-fifteen. He's fast enough."
"He's fast, but not *that* fast," argued his friend. "He couldn't go halfway around the world in fifteen minutes!"
"As fast as *he* flies … *sure* he could!" said Dave. He turned to Clark, who shrank back involuntarily from his penetrating gaze. "Couldn't he?" Dave asked. Clark shrugged. Dave turned his attention back to the paper, scowling. "Maybe it's in one of the back pages … or in the International section … yes, here it is … I *knew* my man Supes was there!" He thrust the paper towards his friend, showing him the article. "'Superman appeared within minutes of the accident—'" he quoted.
"Okay, you win." Dave's companion held up a hand in concession. "But who could have guessed that he's that fast? Roughly thirteen thousand miles, depending on what course he took … fifteen minutes … what's that? Fifty-six-thousand miles an hour?" He turned to Clark for corroboration, who nodded. He didn't tell them that he could fly faster than 56,000 miles an hour. Much faster.
Feeling slightly less conspicuous since the two men apparently hadn't recognized him, Clark ventured to probe for information about Superman. "I've been … in a place where I haven't seen the news for awhile," he said. "What's the story on this Superman?"
Dave raised his eyebrows. "You don't know about Superman?" he said in surprise. "Where have you been … the moon?" He gave a short laugh. "He's some kind of extra-terrestrial," he added, answering Clark's question. "Came here to help us Earth people, for some reason. He's the best thing that's ever happened to this planet, if you ask me."
"Yes, he might even stop us from blowing ourselves up," said his friend.
"Of course, that's assuming he's on the up-and-up," continued Dave. "Some people still don't believe that he doesn't have a hidden agenda. It just seems too good to be true: a guy who does nothing but fly around all day and help people. Never asks for money or anything."
"Of course he's on the up-and-up," bristled his friend.
"You won't get an argument from *me* on it," said Dave. "I'm just telling you what *some* people say." He nodded to Clark.
"Thanks," said Clark, retreating from Dave's gaze, which was still studying him a little too intently for comfort.
"Don't I know you?" Dave asked suddenly. "You look familiar."
"I don't think so," said Clark quickly. He turned and walked away, summoning all his willpower to keep his pace casual.
"I wonder if anyone's ever told that guy that he's a dead ringer for that newspaper reporter, Clark Kent," said Dave's thoughtful voice behind him.
Clark strode into the next street, his stomach churning. Strangers standing in the street, talking about his super feats with the same degree of casualness they might use in discussing Monday night football. Speculating on how fast he could fly. Calling him "my man Supes" with that casual familiarity people often accorded to celebrities. There was something surreal about it.
But at least he had found out that he still worked at the Daily Planet, and that no one—except Lois Lane—apparently connected Clark Kent with Superman. So it was probably okay to go to work. Yes, work would be good. It would offer some stability, and it might even give him some answers.
He beckoned for a cab with a hand that shook.
Unfortunately, what he saw in the streets on the way to work did nothing to reassure him, and when he disembarked from the cab, he was still shaking.
Once in the Planet building, he began walking rapidly through the lobby, his pace slowing when he received cheerful greetings from several acquaintances.
What had happened to put everyone into such a good mood? You'd think it was Christmas.
Exiting the elevator at his floor, he strode towards his desk. Before he could reach it, though, he was waylaid by Lynn from Public Affairs, who told him rather spitefully that they had received a number of complaints about the article he and "Lane" had written on Mayor Walker. Having delivered that news in the most malicious tone imaginable, she turned on her heel and stalked away. Clark frowned, wondering why she was so mad at him; after the last time they had gone out, she had been practically begging him to father her child.
A grip on both of his arms from behind him made him tense his body, and he turned quickly, his posture indicating his defensiveness. "Whoa!" laughed Jimmy Olsen, holding his hands up in mock surrender. "You're not going to break my arm again, are you, CK?"
Clark flushed hotly at Jimmy's reminder of the incident that he considered one of the most shameful in his life. Overcome with embarrassment, he started to turn away, but Jimmy had grabbed his arm again. "Hey, CK, I was just kidding. You okay?"
Clark mumbled an assent, and shaking off Jimmy's arm, he continued to wend his way towards his desk. He was several paces from it when he became aware that someone's gaze was fixed on him. He knew who it was even before he turned his head: Lois Lane. He averted his eyes quickly, but not so quickly that he couldn't tell that her expression was minus her customary loathing; in fact, she had the same look of love and concern that she had worn last night, mixed with undisguised relief. Apparently at his appearing in the newsroom.
He slid into his chair, his heart pounding. Not least puzzling among all the strange things that had happened to him since last night were the circumstances concerning Lois Lane.
He didn't know when or how he had started using his super powers openly; he didn't know when or how he had started wearing a Kryptonian costume and become a hero to the people of Metropolis; he didn't know how or why Metropolis had changed so completely from the city he thought he knew, and he *definitely* didn't understand why Lois Lane, that rabid Mad Dog of a journalist, hadn't exposed him, or how or why she had come to care about him.
That last was quite unsettling. When she looked at him that way, the way she had been, it turned his insides to mush.
He avoided her eye as he turned his attention to his terminal, hoping that she would keep her usual distance from him; he didn't think he would be able to remain in control of himself if she continued to act like she really cared about him, and he didn't want to break down in front of everyone in the newsroom.
"Kent!" bellowed Perry's voice at his elbow. "What do you mean by coming in at this hour? You planning on working half days now?"
Clark looked up guiltily, but before he could say anything, Perry was clapping him heartily on the shoulder. "Just funnin' with you, son," he chuckled. "Lois already told me that you were working on a follow up to yesterday's Superman story. I'll expect it on my desk in an hour." Giving Clark's shoulder a final slap, he strode through the newsroom, on the lookout for his next victim.
Clark dropped his gaze to his desk, his thoughts chaotic. His body jerked as he heard a soft whisper from Lois's desk. "Don't worry, Clark, I've already written the article. You just need to inject some of your personal style into it." Clark picked up a piece of paper and gripped it tightly in two hands, staring at it fiercely, as if lost in concentration. Lois was speaking in a voice that she couldn't possibly expect him to hear—unless she knew about his super hearing.
He studied the document in front of him, hoping that she would go away and leave him alone. But she didn't. Instead, she said, "Could you come into the conference room, Clark? Please?" He was aware that although she wasn't facing him directly, her eyes were upon him. When he didn't respond, she picked up a sheaf of documents and walked with assumed nonchalance into the conference room.
Clark continued to stare at the paper in front of him, determined not to follow her. Maybe this was some kind of test. Maybe she was trying to get proof of his super hearing. But—no; she had *known* last night that Superman was Clark Kent, and incidentally, so far she appeared to be the only one who possessed that knowledge.
Still … he didn't want to face her. Didn't want to hear her speak to him again with that love and tenderness she had shown last night. He was afraid that if she did, he would start crying like a baby, and *that* was a humiliation he would not be able to endure.
So he would just sit and pretend that he hadn't heard her.
She would wait in the conference room for awhile—alone—and then she would give up. She would have to. And then he would have some time for himself, time when he could think, figure out what was happening. Time so he could get control of himself.
She was still calling him! The urgent whisper was compelling, and rather than have her raise her voice and risk having someone else hear her, he pushed his chair back from his desk and got to his feet. Taking a swift glance around the room to see if anyone was watching (they weren't), he followed Lois into the conference room.
Inside, he stole a glance at her and was unnerved to see that she was still giving him that *look*. The look that he would once have willingly given one arm and both his legs to receive from Lois Lane, but that he now found so frightening and confusing. And … upsetting.
He threw himself into a chair, leaning back and putting on what he hoped was an indifferent expression. Lois glanced at his face, then walked deliberately over to the door and shut it. Clark stared at the opposite wall, trying to scowl, although his heart was beating fast as she turned and began walking towards him.
And then suddenly she was sitting in his lap with her arms around his neck, whispering, "Clark, Clark," over and over again. Clark abandoned his lounging position and sat bolt upright, his heart beating thunderously inside his chest. "Clark, what's wrong?? I was so worried when you didn't come home last night. What ever happened to upset you so much? Please tell me?" He had never heard that note of pleading tenderness in her voice before, hadn't even known that such tenderness could find its way into Lois Lane's voice. He looked away, blinking rapidly. He wished she would stop talking so sweetly to him; he *really* didn't want to break down in front of her. "Are you mad at me?"
Mad at her?
"I love you, Clark; you know that, don't you?" Her hands were in his hair, his face wet with her tears.
If this is a dream, why don't I wake up?
"What is it, Clark; what's happened to upset you? Is it *him*? There's no reason to be jealous; I love you with all my heart and soul."
"Do you believe me, Clark? I knew right away that he wasn't you … he and his wife have a baby in their own universe, anyway, so we couldn't have gotten mixed up—but you know that."
… their own universe …? What kind of crazy talk is that?
"I missed you the whole time you were gone, honey," continued Lois, still in that low, pleading tone. "I like the other Clark, I admire and respect him, but he's not *you*. It's *you* I love, Clark. Please, honey."
He didn't know what she was talking about, but he did know that her plaintive voice was ripping him apart. He really was going to start crying in a minute if he didn't do something to stop her. Putting on his best scowl, he pushed her away. She drew back a little, but didn't budge from her position on his lap. Instead, she placed her hands on the sides of his head so she could look searchingly into his face. He averted his eyes, focusing on the glossy dark hair that framed her face so beautifully. But she wouldn't let him avoid her. "Look at me, Clark! Why are you mad at me?"
He had to say something; her voice was rising dangerously. Impossible to tell her the truth, though. He cast about for something to say. "I'm not mad at you," he said finally.
"Then why are you acting this way? Why are you—" Lois gasped as she noticed for the first time. "You aren't even wearing your marriage ring!"
"This?" said Clark quickly. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the item that had puzzled him when he had first found Clark Kent's clothes in his cape. Why did he have a marriage ring in his pocket? He wasn't married! Slowly, he raised his eyes to Lois's; she was staring at him, her expression requesting an explanation. Clearly *she* believed that he was married—and to her! Seeking to ease the hurt reflected in her eyes, he offered the first excuse that came to mind. "I … was helping a motorist with his car and I was afraid it would get caught on something and break."
"Clark, I know very well that your aura would protect it," said Lois sorrowfully, the ache in her voice causing Clark fresh pain. She was pleading with him again. "Why won't you tell me the real reason you're mad at me? Should I call Martha? Would you talk to her?"
Clark jumped, his gaze flying to her face. All fear of breaking down in front of her was gone, replaced by a different kind of fear. "Martha?"
"Or Jonathan? Could you talk to him—?"
Clark's whole body jerked. "NO!"
"If you won't talk to me—"
"No! I'll talk; I'll talk, Lois … I'll … I'm—I'm …" he swallowed hard. He couldn't let Lois talk to Jonathan and Martha Kent. He didn't know why Lois was acting like she loved him, but he didn't ever want her to stop, which she surely would, if she talked to his parents and heard what they had to say about him.
Lois was waiting for him to speak. "What?" she said finally. "*Tell* me, Clark!"
"I—" Clark took a deep breath, trying to think of what he could tell her.
"You're not jealous, are you? Of him?"
"No, I'm not jealous of him," said Clark quickly, wondering who "he" was.
"You're not worried that he said something uncomplimentary about how you acted in the other universe, are you? You had already told me everything yourself, Clark. You weren't on your best behavior over there, but I think changing universes is stressful for you. Even more stressful than it is for the other Clark, probably because your childhood experiences have left you more vulnerable."
What??? He couldn't even *pretend* to know how to respond to *that* string of gibberish.
"You're not afraid of what he said about you, are you?"
"No," said Clark truthfully.
"Then what is it?"
What could he tell her?
"I—everything is different: you, Perry and Jimmy, Metropolis …"
The whole world.
Clark paused while he mentally reviewed the changes he had noted in Metropolis, the changes that had almost convinced him he was losing his mind.
Yesterday Metropolis had been a dangerous and violent city where no one dared to walk the streets without protection. Those who were well off employed bodyguard services … the less well-off carried knives and guns.
The police could choose whether or not to respond to pleas for help, and more often than not, they chose *not* to.
Now … men and women freely walked the streets (even in the middle of the night!) Most of them seemed to have dispensed with bodyguards, and as for the police …! They were actively engaged in enforcing order throughout the city, reponding quickly to calls as they were dispatched.
He didn't belong in this upside-down world.
But how could he tell her that?
"Everything just seems different," he said finally.
Lois reflected silently on what he had told her. From Clark's own report of his behavior when he was in the other universe, bolstered by the Other Clark's corroboration (and obvious shock when he had found out that she had actually married the man he had been led to believe was incorrigible), Lois had found out that his conduct in the other universe had been atrocious, surpassing even his worst behavior in his home universe. From his behavior, Lois had inferred that traveling between universes must upset his equilibrium more than it did the Other Clark's more stable personality. "It must be the change in universes," she concluded aloud. "It'll pass, Clark; it did the other times." Having solved the problem in her own mind, Lois rose, patting him on the chest. "Let's finish your Superman article for Perry," she said briskly, turning her mind to her work.
Seeing that Clark hadn't risen to follow her, she leaned over and gave him a lingering kiss on the lips, to which he couldn't help responding. Lois smiled. "I missed you," she said huskily, giving him an intimate little squeeze. Turning to leave the room, she didn't see that Clark had suddenly taken on a resemblance to a stuffed chicken.
Clark's head was whirling when he went back into the news room. He hoped this day wouldn't hold any more surprises—he was having enough trouble dealing with the ones he had already had.
He returned to his desk and began looking over the article Lois had written for his byline. It contained further information about action Superman had taken in the last few days to break up a drug ring, and all of it was news to Clark—he had no memory of anything that was recorded in the article.
He made changes in the writing to reflect his personal style, sent it to Perry, then took a minute to gaze out the window at the sky above. Funny how blue it was. Funny, too, that the weather was unusually cool for this time of year, and the air was not as muggy as usual—
Wait a minute—*this* time of year? *What* time of year? He hadn't noticed the date on the newspaper this morning. Moving quickly, he checked the date on his computer: May 10, 1912. But … yesterday it had been August of 1910 … At least, he *thought* it was yesterday …
Surreptitiously, he began moving at super speed, reading through past articles in the Daily Planet. It seemed that Superman had made his first appearance in August of 1910, and had been a fixture in Metropolis and around the world ever since.
Clark sat back in his chair, stunned. His memories ended where Superman's adventures began. Now he understood what was going on. The world hadn't gone crazy … *he* hadn't gone crazy; he had just lost some of his memory—almost two years of it, actually—that was all. His body sagged with relief.
But … was it really possible that the city could have changed that much in less than two years? The Metropolis that he remembered was a violent place, filled with every kind of crime and corruption imaginable … what could have happened in two years' time to change it?
At that moment, a sound intruded on his hearing, a woman's frightened voice: "Where's Superman?? Oh, please, let him be somewhere near! Superman! Please, please, please, please—!"
Caught by the panic in that voice, Clark jumped up involuntarily. Almost without conscious thought, he dashed into the storeroom and changed into the Superman suit, then slipped out the window and soared upward. Once above the Daily Planet building, he paused to reconnoiter, his heart pounding as he tried to determine the source of the cry for help. It had seemed to come from the direction of north Metropolis, although he didn't think it was within the city limits.
"I can't stop the bleeding!"
"Keep putting pressure on it—" the man's voice was barely less panicked than hers.
"It won't stop!!"
"I've called 911; the ambulance is coming."
"They'll never make it! Traffic is piled up everywhere—they'll never get to us in time! He's going to bleed to death!" the woman's voice rose hysterically.
He had located them; they were on I-34 near the Melrun exit. Within seconds, he touched to earth near their wrecked vehicle, stumbling a little in his anxiousness. "Superman!" the man cried. "He's here!"
"Thank God!" sobbed the woman.
Clark strode towards them, his pulse beating rapidly. What was he supposed to do?
"You've got to do something!" the woman implored. "Please! It's Billy—! He's—" She looked up at him beseechingly, her eyes begging for his help.
"Superman will get him to the hospital," said the man soothingly. He looked up at Clark, his expression reflecting his relief. Approaching the Explorer, Clark saw that a small boy was slumped in the back seat, unconscious and bleeding profusely from a gash in his leg. The man and woman were hovering over him, the woman pressing a bloody cloth to the wound.
"But … maybe he shouldn't be moved!" gasped the woman. "What if—"
"Superman will x-ray him, Mary," said the man, appearing vastly reassured by Clark's presence. "And he'll rip out the back seat or something and use it for a stretcher. Stand back and let him do his job!"
Relieved to have his instructions laid out for him, Clark hurriedly x-rayed the boy, and after determining that he had no broken bones or spinal injuries, he laid him on the back seat and carried him to the emergency room at Mercy Hospital, as had been suggested.
Clark received a number of awed looks from the patients in the waiting area, but was greeted matter-of-factly by the emergency staff themselves, who accepted his appearance with an injured child quite calmly. "We'll take it from here, Superman, thank you… Do you have any idea who he is? … Oh, you brought his mother's driver's licence; good… What about the insurance information? … You forgot it again? … Never mind, we'll take care of it later."
Clark swept out of the emergency room, his heart racing. The incident had exhilarated him like no other in his life. Frightened him, too. Not just from the public use of his super powers, but from the awesome responsibility he apparently had for saving lives.
Taking off from the hospital, he flew into the storeroom of the Daily Planet again, and after taking a minute to compose himself, he reentered the newsroom. He began to re-read some of the Superman articles, eager to learn more about his other persona.
As he read the news stories, his sense of awe for what Superman had accomplished ran hand-in-hand with the feeling of unreality that had plagued him since he had fallen to the ground last night. It didn't seem possible that he was the man eulogized in the stories; the hero depicted in the newspapers appeared larger than life.
After winning many bitter and hard-fought battles with the ruling forces of the world, Superman had become one of the most revered men on the planet. He had not changed the world overnight, nor had he done it all himself. Rather, his actions had inspired others to band together and demand their rights for freedom and peace.
More than a vigilante law enforcer, he was a symbol for justice, a beacon of hope. Lois Lane had apparently been one of the first to recognize this; her articles had championed his efforts almost from the very beginning.
And that answered his question of *why* Lois Lane, after scorning him for years, had finally fallen in love with him. She must have found out somehow that he was Superman, and her feelings had changed accordingly.
Clark was able to find nothing, however, that explained the gobbledy-goop Lois had been spewing about the "other universe," nor anything that explained how and why he had assumed the role of Superman; it was a colossal responsibility for *anyone* to undertake. He felt unequal to the task and couldn't help feeling that somehow he was not the man in the newspaper articles. And yet, he *had* to be … there was no other explanation.
Having cleared up the Superman question, or at least the question of his role in Metropolis, Clark began searching the newspaper for reference to his marriage to Lois. The question burning in his breast now was how long Lois planned to stay married to him. Ordinarily a marriage ring of the size that Lois was wearing would have assumed at least a 15-year contract, if not a 25-year contract. But considering how he felt about Lois, Clark knew that he would have given her a ring twice that size to commemorate just one night of her love.
He became more and more despondent as he searched the paper and didn't find the announcement. The Daily Planet typically didn't list marriage contracts of less than a year, but he had been hoping that their contract was for longer than that.
By the time he heard the next call for Superman, he still hadn't found the wedding announcement, indicating to him that the marriage contract was probably of less than a year's duration. He was disappointed, wondering how much longer the contract was going to run—and if Lois would be interested in renewing it upon its expiration.
He tried to cheer himself with the reflection that at least he had *some* hope for a future with Lois … more than he would have dreamed possible at the time of his last conscious memory.
The rest of the morning passed relatively peaceably. Having found the answer to the question of why the world was so different from how he remembered it, Clark was able to relax and apply himself to his journalistic responsibilities. He had only two more Superman calls, so he and Lois spent their time tracking down leads for a routine story they were working on together, a task that he found exciting solely because of Lois's behavior. She was brisk and businesslike in the presence of their colleagues in the newsroom, yet the soft light in her eye and the low throbbing in her voice were ample testimony to her pleasure at his nearness. She touched him, too, often, her fingers warm and caressing when they rested on his arm or shoulder, or occasionally tripped lightly through his hair.
Once he became so engrossed in his work that he didn't hear Lois walk up behind him; he didn't know she had come out of Perry's office until she leaned over and slipped an arm around him, pressing her face against his and giving him a warm kiss. Clark looked up, startled, in time to see the envious looks from several others in the newsroom. He half-smiled. It hadn't taken a guy with super hearing long to find out that he was the envy of half the men on the Daily Planet's staff.
By the end of the afternoon Clark had become emboldened enough to put his hand lightly on her shoulder while leaning over to peer at her computer screen. The glowing look she gave him told him that his action hadn't lost him any points with her, and heartened and cheered, he repeated the gesture at the next opportunity, even going so far as to allow his fingers to squeeze her shoulder slightly.
Lois shrugged her shoulder in pleasure and said in a low voice, "Let's see if we can finish up and go home early, Clark."
A flush rose to his cheeks as he realized the implications of what she had just said. He moved involuntarily closer, letting out his breath quickly when Lois reached out a sly hand and patted his thigh.
"CK, line three is for you!" Jimmy's voice interrupted his rosy ruminations. As he strode over to his desk, he glanced back at Lois, sternly willing himself to resist the temptation of x-raying her.
She's my wife! he protested. I've probably seen her lots of times already.
She looked over at him just then, and catching his eye, she smiled, her expression showing that she knew in what direction his thoughts were running. "Tonight," she murmured throatily, adding, "line three."
Oops; in his hazy excitement he had forgotten all about the telephone call.
Hurriedly he picked up the receiver. "Clark Kent."
"Clark." He sucked in his breath sharply. He hadn't heard the voice in years, but he'd have known it anywhere. "Lois told us you were back."
Back? Oh, yeah, that "other universe" stuff. She sounded friendly, as if they were on good terms, so he must have reconciled with her. He clutched the receiver more tightly to his ear, his heart leaping.
"How would you two like to come for dinner tonight?"
He swallowed. Her voice was warm and loving, threatening to overset his equilibrium again. He could not think how to answer her.
"I know this is short notice, but we'd love to see you. We want to hear all about your adventures in the other world. And besides … we've missed you."
He closed his eyes. The note of affectionate kindness in the voice of the one woman, other than Lois, whose acceptance he most craved, was close to overwhelming him. But … he couldn't go to Smallville. He didn't know anything about that other universe (whatever it was), or what he had done there; he wouldn't know how to answer their questions. And he still shrank from revealing to anyone, even Lois, the fact that he had lost his memory. What if he was mistaken about that—what if he didn't have amnesia; what if he was just crazy? He didn't think he could open up to them and expose himself. Not yet. He needed time to think, to figure out what was going on.
And then there was his father. He didn't know if he could face the man whom he may have put in a wheelchair … permanently. Assuming, of course, that Jonathan was still alive. But she had said "we," so presumably he was.
"Uh …" he said, not sure what to say.
"We've having apple pie for dessert," said Martha persuasively. "And don't worry," she added, with a laugh in her voice, "we'll let you go home early. We know how you newlyweds are."
"Who is it?" asked Lois's voice in his ear. "Martha?"
Clark nodded. "Just a minute …" he said into the mouthpiece, "uh …" what did he call her? Mom? Martha? Ma'am? "uh …" he said. He covered the receiver with his hand. "She wants us to go for dinner tonight," he told Lois.
"Let's go," said Lois unhesitatingly. Clark seemed to have recovered somewhat from his strange behavior earlier in the day and last night, but he still wasn't quite back to normal, and she wanted to get Martha's opinion and—possibly—her help.
"Okay," Clark said into the phone. "Yes … yes … we'll be there at six—your time."
Clark followed Lois into the farmhouse, his heart thudding painfully against his ribs. He had been dreading the visit ever since his rash acceptance of Martha's invitation. All afternoon he had been hoping for a Superman emergency that would prevent him from keeping this dinner engagement. It wasn't that he didn't want to see Martha and Jonathan again, it was just that he didn't know if he could bear to look Jonathan in the eye, knowing that he may have been the one responsible for crippling him for life.
And Martha. How could he have made up with her? His last clear memory of Martha involved her threatening him with kryptonite. He shuddered. He wasn't afraid of her … well, not exactly … but he just couldn't imagine how they could have overcome their differences and forgotten the history between them. What was he going to say to them? What were *they* going to say to *him*?
As if sensing some of Clark's inner turmoil, Lois reached back and took his hand as they crossed the threshold, giving it a reassuring squeeze. "They'll be so happy to see you," she whispered.
Clark wondered if that was true. Some part of him half-believed that all this was some sort of elaborate trap, that Jonathan and Martha were using Lois to lure him into the house, where they would use kryptonite on him …
Wiping the sweat off his brow, he shook off his momentary paranoia and squared his shoulders, preparing to face whatever met him inside.
What met him, or rather, *who* met him, was Martha, wrapping her arms around him and giving him a tearful hug. "Honey, I'm so glad you're back," she said thankfully. "You know we love you …" Her voice broke.
Clark looked away, fighting tears himself. He had never thought to have her say those words again, as many times as she had said them during his childhood and … yes … in his adolescence, during the time when he was so surly and recalcitrant, resisting every act of kindness they tried to bestow on him.
"Welcome back, son," said a voice at his side, and turning, he saw Jonathan, *standing on his own two feet*! Using a cane, yes, and looking a little wobbly, but *standing*.
"Dad …!" he said, forgetting to wonder by what name he called his mother and father these days. His voice broke, and he bowed his head as his father walked haltingly forward to place a hand on his shoulder. His mother had not relinquished him yet and with her and his father on one side, and Lois, who had also thrown her arms around him and was trying to hug him, on the other, he didn't know where to look.
It was Jonathan who rescued him. His father, who understood how a guy wouldn't want to break down and blubber like a baby in front of everyone. "Hey, boy, what say we go take a peek at the game on television?" he said. "Or are you too sophisticated to watch baseball now that you're a Metropolite?" He extended his hand for Clark to grip and shook it heartily, then indicated the living room with a nod of his head.
Clark nodded in return, blinking rapidly. He didn't trust himself to speak.
"That's 'Metropolitan,' Jonathan," said Martha vigorously, wiping her eyes with the corner of her apron. "How many times do I have to tell you: 'Metropolitan??'" She gave her husband a loving pat on the arm.
Clark stood in the living room of the house on Hyperion Avenue, pulling the curtain aside so he could stare out the window. It had been an emotional evening, and he felt drained. He believed that he had managed to skate through the questions rather well, telling his parents and Lois that he didn't remember too much of what had happened in the other universe. That much was true, anyway.
Well, sort of. Actually, he didn't remember *any* of what had happened in the other universe.
But anyway, his vague excuses had seemed to satisfy them, and they had stopped questioning him, instead exerting themselves to show how much they loved and appreciated him.
And they had done *that*, all right.
So much so that he had felt overwhelmed at times, and once or twice he had been tempted to set them at a distance by returning a surly rejoinder to their solicitous remarks. But he couldn't. Not when their love for him was shining in their eyes. Not when they were so obviously trying to make him feel wanted and needed.
So he had swallowed his discomfort and tried to accept their demonstrations of affection without falling apart entirely.
Now he was back at the place that Lois called "home." A place that he never remembered having seen before. But he was safe; he could retreat from the world and try to regain his equilibrium.
Except he couldn't. Retreat, that is. Because Lois was here, upstairs, waiting for him. And what, oh, what, was he going to do about that?
He ran a hand agitatedly through his hair.
He knew what he *wanted* to do about it, what his body was screaming at him to do. He had wanted Lois Lane from the first moment he saw her, and it looked like this was going to be his big chance at last. But somehow it wasn't right. He felt like he didn't deserve this, that he didn't belong here.
His marriage to Lois notwithstanding, it was almost like they would be getting together under false pretenses.
He closed his eyes. It was too much.
And now she was upstairs, expecting him to join her, expecting him to engage in a marriage activity that he would ordinarily have delighted in performing with Lois Lane—with or *without* marriage. But not now. Not like this, when his world had been turned upside down and he didn't remember how they had come to love each other.
He felt like he should tell her everything, confess that he didn't recall their marriage, couldn't remember having said his marriage vows (he *still* hadn't found out the length of the contract), but his mind balked at the task. How could he tell this beautiful woman that he had no memory of saying that he loved her, of asking her to marry him?
He just couldn't—
"Clark?" Lois was standing on the bottom stair, watching him curiously.
Clark did his best not to gawk at her; controlling himself with difficulty. She was wearing a flowing nightgown that did nothing to conceal the slender curves of her body. Her dark hair fell softly to her shoulders, framing her face, and the big doe eyes, luminous now with desire, but beginning to darken with impatience, fixed on his with singular intent.
He cleared his throat. "Hi … uh …"
"Are you coming to bed?" Her tone in voicing the simple question betrayed her rising irritation. Lois had been patient and understanding with her husband all day, and that patience was now beginning to wear thin. She had been waiting upstairs for an hour, and she was tired of it.
"I have to … there's something I should finish … some work …"
Tell her, Kent. Tell her that you don't remember.
Right; tell her that you don't remember her. That you don't remember promising to love her and cherish her, that you don't remember making any commitment to her, that you don't remember—
"You don't need to do any work tonight," said Lois crossly. "Let's go upstairs."
"I really need to finish this …"
"Well! If you don't *want* to …" said Lois, annoyed.
"Uh …" said Clark, weakening. She sounded so disappointed …
But, still …
He rubbed the back of his neck in frustration.
"Okay!" Lois was saying. "If you're not interested!" She turned away.
"Wait!" Clark flew across the room and reached out a hand, grasping her bare upper arm. Her flesh felt warm and inviting, the skin begging for his touch.
Lois had suddenly become very still and she stood almost without breathing, watching as her husband's intent gaze fastened on the upper part of her gown. He reached up his other hand to hold her steady while he slowly, very slowly pushed down the sleeve of her gown, baring her shoulder. She shivered as his fingers skimmed lightly over the creamy flesh, then drew in her breath sharply when he suddenly bent his head, replacing his hand with his open mouth, which he pressed against her rounded shoulder.
His lips were warm, as was the tongue that flicked out and licked her, tasting her. He shifted his head, moving his mouth to the juncture of her neck and shoulder, and sucked some of that creamy skin into his mouth. She drew in her breath again, whispering, "Clark …" and moved her hands to his head, running her fingers through the thick hair she loved so well.
Muttering something unintelligible, Clark's mouth abandoned her neck and sought her lips, pressing against her mouth insistently. He uttered a low groan of passion when she parted her lips and slipped her tongue into his mouth, probing the moist depths with reckless abandon.
Growling with all the previously unexpressed frustration of a long and bewildering day, Clark swept her into his arms and took her up into the bedroom, scarcely knowing whether he had run or flown. Sliding into the bed with his precious burden, he pulled her close, falling on her in a frenzy of passion.
He didn't know if today had been a dream, he didn't know if he would awaken to find that Lois no longer loved him, but she loved him tonight … and if tonight was all he would have, then he would take it. Tonight he was married; tonight Lois was his wife and he was going to make love to his wife, in his bed, in his home—
He froze. He didn't know where the words came from, but suddenly they were echoing in his head:
This isn't my home.
This isn't my universe.
*This isn't my wife.*
His whole body jerked, and he sprang from the bed, hardly hearing Lois's cry of protest. He strode to the window and drawing aside the curtain, stared out unseeingly, his body shaking.
Throughout the last twenty-four hours, straining for clues to explain the differences in the world as he remembered it and as appeared to him now, he had learned from Lois and the Kents that he, Clark, had traveled to a parallel universe. Twice. He had been skeptical at first, but their conversation had eventually convinced him that parallel universes did indeed exist outside of science fiction. Hard as it was to believe, there really was another universe out there, a separate plane of existence where a duplicate Clark Kent walked among duplicate Lois, Jonathan, and Martha. More than one of these parallel universes were out there, if his loved ones were to be believed.
And it was in gaining this knowledge that he finally found the solution to the puzzle that had been nagging at him ever since he came crashing to the earth last night. It was quite simple, really, if totally devastating: he was not the Clark Kent who belonged in this universe.
He knew now why he had that sense of not-belonging.
He understood why he felt that he didn't deserve the good things that had been happening to him.
Because he didn't.
He was not the Clark Kent who had earned the esteem of his colleagues and won Lois Lane's heart.
He was not the Clark Kent who had mended his relations with his parents and taken his place once again as their beloved son.
He was not the Clark Kent who had assumed the role of Superman and become a hero to the people of his planet.
He was not the Clark Kent who belonged here. He was from a different world.
"Clark …?" Lois's voice floated down the stairs. Clark hunched over his laptop. He could pretend that he didn't hear her … Her worried face appeared in the stairwell, and, too late, he remembered that Lois knew about his super hearing. "You're back," she said, her voice thick with relief. "Was it bad?" He had excused himself earlier by telling her that he had to go out on a Superman call. He had hoped she would be asleep by now.
"No," he muttered. "Not bad."
"Are you coming … upstairs?"
Clark bent his head over his laptop, hiding his face while he tried to ease the terrible constriction in his chest. "Uh … maybe later …"
Or maybe … never. It should be "never." No, it *had to be* never. Lois was another man's *wife*! He felt a stab of bitter regret.
"Clark …??" Her voice was uncertain. He didn't dare look at her. "Clark?"
"Hmmm?" said Clark, not looking up. He was trying desperately to act as if he had no idea that his behavior could be in the least bit unusual or that Lois could have any expectation of him other than that he would sit on the sofa and work on his laptop all night.
"Are you okay, Clark?" The concern in her voice shook him and he ached to take her in his arms and reassure her—no, no! He couldn't allow himself to think like that—not ever.
"Are you coming?"
"Where?" he said absently.
Lois let out an explosive sigh and Clark's shoulders shrank together as he prepared for her outburst. He dimly divined that there was one constant across the universes: Lois Lane's temper. But she didn't explode. Not yet, anyway. When she spoke her voice was quiet and controlled. "Are you going to tell me what's going on?"
"What do you mean?"
"You know what I mean!" Lois began striding across the room towards him and he braced himself for the attack. Instead, she slid into his lap and wound her arms sinuously around his neck, nuzzling him behind the ear. He gasped and jumped to his feet, scattering everything. Lois tumbled backward onto the sofa while his laptop and files crashed to the floor.
Lois gaped up at him, shocked. "Clark!!"
"I'm sorry," he said, breathing hard.
"Clark!" said Lois again in a tight, hard voice, "*What's wrong*??"
He opened his mouth to tell her, to say the words that would break her heart. But before he could tell her that he was not her husband, an image rose unbidden, an image so vivid, so real, that it was like a memory of something that had already happened: Lois, looking at him with loathing and disgust, her angry voice crying, "Why didn't you tell me who you are? You took advantage of the situation! You came into *my* house and crawled into bed with me …" He shook his head and turned away, fists clenched.
Lois rose to her feet and positioned herself at his side. "I'm sorry," she said, her voice low, contrite. "I didn't mean to pressure you. If you just don't feel like it …" He shook his head, squeezing his eyes shut. "You're so tense," said Lois in concern. "You must be exhausted. Why don't I give you a massage …?" She began unbuttoning his shirt, slipping her hands under it to caress his chest and back.
"No—" said Clark in a strangled voice. He felt as if he were on fire. He tried to push away her hands, the hands that were rubbing and stroking, inflaming him to do something he should not, could not, do. "No …" But a tiny voice inside was urging him to go ahead and do it, urging him to the completion his body and soul demanded.
We're married, he told himself. In this universe Clark Kent and Lois Lane are married. And I'm Clark Kent. As long as I am the only Clark Kent in this universe, I am hers and she is mine. Even if it's just for tonight …
But, no—! That's not what I want, that has never been what I wanted. To have Lois Lane, yes, to make love to her, but that's only one part of the love I feel for her. I want to share my whole life with her, not just a bed for one night.
But that persistent, tiny voice was speaking again.
Who says that it *will* be just for tonight? What if her husband never comes back? What if he's trapped in another universe forever? Wouldn't she rather have me than … nobody?
Throughout dinner, the Kents had made several joking references to flying in thunderstorms, causing Lois to shudder and draw closer to him, declaring that she was going to see to it that he *never* flew in a thunderstorm again.
What if he obliged her in that declaration? What if he avoided thunderstorms now and for the rest of his life? He would never go back to his own world, that fiendish universe that was all he remembered, the universe that was such a dark and lonely place; where everyone in the world was at each other's throats and Lois Lane hated him. He could stay here in this world forever.
Hope flared briefly, to be extinguished again almost immediately. And the other Clark Kent? What of him? What of the man who, after apparently having had a similar childhood, had pulled his life together and reconciled himself with his parents … won the love of Lois Lane … embarked on a course to help the world become a better place? What had that other Clark Kent done to deserve being marooned in a vicious world not his own?
Clark bowed his head, struggling for control.
Lois had not budged from his side. By this time she had managed to unbutton and untuck his shirt. She slid her hands underneath it and slipped her arms around his waist, her hands caressing his back. "What is it Clark?" she whispered, laying her cheek against his now-bare chest. "Tell me."
"I … can't," he said hoarsely. Her voice, aching with pain for him, made him long to comfort her. He had to use every ounce of will power not to put his arms around her.
"Clark, you *have* to tell me what's going on," said Lois quietly. "You've been acting so strangely ever since you came back. You say you're not jealous of the other Clark—"
But … I am. I am jealous of another Clark, but not the one you mean. Your husband. The man you look up to and admire. The man you love more than anyone else in the world, that is the man I'm jealous of.
"—and I've told you that we realized right away that you and he had switched places again. So why you should feel as badly as you obviously do, I can't even begin to guess. If I didn't know better, I would say you've been acting like someone with a guilty conscience—" her voice broke off and her body grew rigid. "Clark …" she said tightly, "How long did it take *you* to find out that you had switched places? You didn't … with his wife …?"
"No!" said Clark quickly.
"But you kissed her? When you first saw her you didn't know … so you kissed his wife—?"
"No!" Clark said. "At least … I don't know." He took a deep breath, straightening his shoulders; he might regret this for the rest of his life, but he had to tell her. He had to give that other Clark Kent the chance to come back to his wife and home. (And maybe … maybe … I can do the same thing in my universe that he's done here. Maybe I can become a Superman, too.)
He blanched as he thought of the enormity of the undertaking, but he didn't flinch now as he made his decision. "As far as I know …" he said, trying to keep his voice steady, "the only man's 'wife' I've kissed is you."
"Me?" said Lois.
"Yes," said Clark. "Lois, I'm not your husband."
"Not my husband?" Lois faltered. She dropped her arms abruptly to her sides and took a quick step back. "But … your scar … you can't be … *him* … who are you?" She had grown a shade paler.
"I'm not the Clark—*either* of the Clarks—you know. I must be from *another* universe. One where we're not married and there is no Superman. I thought at first that I just had amnesia, since I didn't remember getting married and didn't remember becoming Superman, but after you started talking about parallel universes, then I knew: I'm from a different world."
While he was speaking, Lois's gaze had drifted downward to focus on his left hand. Something about that seemed to reassure her, for the color came back into her face and she relaxed slightly. "You're not married?" she asked.
The question surprised him. "No," he said, focusing his gaze on her face. "I'm not married."
"You're not married to Lois Lane?"
"No," he repeated impatiently. "I'm not married to *anyone* … *especially* Lois." He added, a trifle forlornly, "She hates me."
Lois's mouth twisted. "Oh, Clark, she doesn't 'hate' you." Her voice broke and she couldn't help reaching over to give him a warm hug. "She *never* 'hated' you; quite the opposite! She's always been drawn to you, but … she hated *herself* for feeling that way because you were so self-centered and petty and … impossible."
"How could you know that?" asked Clark skeptically. He looked at her. "Oh … yes, you *could* know that."
"Yes," Lois affirmed. "I *do* know that." She regarded him thoughtfully. "So you don't remember Superman?" Clark shook his head. "What about your parents?"
Clark hesitated. "I don't know," he said in a low voice. "The last I heard, my father was in a wheelchair. I—I haven't seen him or my mother for years."
A smile tinged with sadness touched Lois's lips. "Come and sit down, Clark," she said. "Let's talk about this."
Clark followed her to the sofa, surprised at her demeanor.
She's taking this awfully calmly …
She sat, patting the sofa next to her to indicate that he should sit beside her. He hesitated. "Don't worry," she said with a tremor in her voice, "I'm not going to touch you. Yet."
He sat gingerly on the edge of the sofa, as far from her as he could manage.
"Let's see if we can figure this out," said Lois. "You don't remember Superman … but you remember that you're Clark Kent?" Clark nodded. "And that you work at the Daily Planet?" He nodded again. "What's the last thing you *do* remember? What was the last story you worked on?"
Clark thought for a minute. "The Bellisario case," he said finally.
Lois nodded her head. "Yes, that *was* before Superman," she said. "You did that story just before you exchanged places with Clark … the first time. So you've lost … let's see … almost two years of your memory … amnesia … oh, my poor Clark …" Her voice cracking with emotion, she slid over on the sofa, closing the distance between them.
Clark made a strangled sound in his throat, shrinking away from her hand, which sought to smooth the hair from his forehead. Lois *still* didn't understand! "I *don't* have amnesia, Lois," he said. "That's what I thought at first, that I'd lost my memory, but then I realized that I'm just in the wrong universe."
"Oh, Clark," said Lois tenderly. Seeing how he resisted her caresses, she drew back slightly, wracking her brain for a way to convince him. She wasn't going to use her trump card yet; she wanted him to see for himself, to remember …
"Clark …" she said gently, "what do you do when someone calls for Superman?"
"I—I … change into the Suit and … go," he said, taken aback by the question.
"And what do you do when Jimmy or somebody says 'good morning' to you."
"I say 'good morning' back," said Clark, puzzled.
"And what would you have done … say, three days ago—according to your memory—before you came to this universe? Would Superman have gone to the rescue? Would Clark Kent have responded pleasantly to greetings from his colleagues?"
Clark frowned, trying to remember how he would have acted, the last time he remembered … "No …" he said slowly.
Lois smiled. "Exactly," she said. "Clark, it's been nearly two years since you've behaved like that, and in those two years, you've changed. You might not remember *consciously*, but your subconscious mind remembers."
Clark was shaking his head. "Lois, that can't be …" he objected. "I can't be missing two years out of my life!"
"You are," Lois assured him, touching his shoulder gently. She glanced down at his hand again and her smile broadened. "You are my husband, Clark," she said. "I can feel our bond. Can't you?"
"I have always felt it, Lois," Clark said quietly. "Always. But … it was a different Lois. Or I'm a different Clark. I must be."
"Oh, Clark …" Lois said, half-laughing and half-crying. "How can you believe that?"
"It's true, Lois. It must be—"
"Then …" there was a tremor in Lois's voice as she played her trump card, "who is your wife?"
"I don't have one!" said Clark. "I told you I'm not married."
"Then why," asked Lois, picking up his left hand and pressing it tenderly to her lips, "are you wearing a marriage ring?"
Clark's mouth dropped open. He had completely forgotten the existence of the ring, slipping it on and off automatically whenever he changed into and out of the Superman costume.
"I thought you had forgotten about that," said Lois, laughing at his expression.
"But … Lois, that can't be right," said Clark, flushing. "I must have exchanged clothes with the other Clark … the ring … and … oh, yes, the Superman suit …"
Lois was shaking her head. "It doesn't happen like that," she said. "You always bring the clothes you're wearing."
Clark leaned forward and put his face in his hands. "Everything feels so strange …"
"You'll feel better in a day or two," Lois said confidently. She pulled his hands off his face and slid into his lap, and this time Clark didn't push her away. "Let's go upstairs," she said, bending her head to kiss his chest.
"I … but I … are you sure? That we're married?"
And that I'm *Superman*?
"I'm sure," laughed Lois. She traced his marriage ring with her finger.
Clark took a deep breath, convinced at last. "Okay …" But he had to know the answer to a question first, a question that had been burning him all day. "Our marriage contract," he said. "How long is it for?"
"Hmmm?" Lois didn't seem to want to pull her busy lips away from his face long enough to answer the question. "Oh … for life."
"There's no such thing as a lifetime marriage contract," Clark protested, although his heart had leaped at her words.
"There is *now*," said Lois.
Clark closed his eyes. "Lois …" he said, speaking with difficulty because of the sensations Lois was creating by the wonderful things she was doing to his body, "Can we talk or something? It's not that I don't want to … but … how can this have happened? I can't … the last thing I remember about you is your threatening to kill me with a knife."
Lois raised her head. Finally. "Are you afraid that I'm going to stab you in your sleep?" she asked tartly.
Clark couldn't help laughing. "No, but …"
"Then what are you worried about?" She lowered her head again.
Whoa! Clark drew in his breath sharply. "Lo-iss!"
"It's just that … I love you so much. I want you to love me, too—"
"I do," said Lois promptly.
"I want to know how all this happened: *when* you started to love me … *how* you started to love me …"
Lois straightened, sighing. "All right, Clark," she said, resigned. "I can tell you the whole story. How you changed places with the other Clark, became Superman, made up with your parents, and, incidentally, made me fall in love with you." Clark nodded slowly. "Or …" Lois put her hands on his shoulders and slipped his shirt down over his arms, "we can go upstairs and finish …" she kissed him, "this. Your choice." Tossing his shirt to the floor, she put her arms around his neck and smiled impishly.
Clark met her eyes. And without another word, scooped her into his arms.
In less than a second, the room was empty, with no one to notice the papers that eddied and swirled, then settled to the floor.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Wendy for beta-reading; her suggestions and comments were invaluable. And thanks to Charlotte for her comment about Clark avoiding flying in thunderstorms. ;-)