Trial by Empress

By Phil Atcliffe <>

Rated PG-13

Uploaded February 2001

Summary: When Lois finds out Clark's secret at a New Year's party, she's upset, to say the least. And so Spaceman Spiff must answer for his "crimes" against The Empress of the Galaxy! Final part of the Snowball Trilogy.

[Yes, it's the final part of the Snowball Trilogy. If you don't know what that is, then you haven't read "The Spirit of…" and "Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons of Smallville," alias parts 1 and 2 respectively. This will make a whole lot more sense if you have, so I suggest that you do. Once you've done that, you can read this and then let me know what you thought of it all. [Subtle hint mode OFF] <g>

My thanks go to Sarah Lindsay-Tallant and Pamela Mace for help with a little legal Latin, and to Yvonne Connell for the idea of the fate of the hypersonic snowball. <g>

DISCLAIMER: Time-Warner and various subsidiaries like DC Comics own the main characters, most of the background and a whole lot of other stuff. December 3rd Productions, ABC and/or TNT (the American versions of the latter two, that is) may also have a legal claim to certain aspects, and I'll let them sort out who owns what. Calvin and Hobbes and all subsidiary characters were the idea (and are presumably the property) of Bill Watterson. The Empress of the Galaxy was my idea! <g> I'm not challenging anyone's copyrights, just borrowing it all for the fun of telling this tale, which is mine. I am not going to get anything other than that out of it, except whatever feedback I get from fellow FoLCs — PA]


Clark always said that he would have liked to preserve the snowball that revealed his secret to Lois. That was impossible, of course, but it would have been an amusing, and somewhat sentimental, reminder of the event and what followed — not to mention a demonstration and awful warning to his descendants of the difficulties of maintaining a double identity. Of all the things to have given him away…!

At the time, though, throwing it had seemed a perfectly reasonable thing to do, and safe enough. But that mistaken complacency did not allow for the sharp eyes and even sharper analytical mind of Lois Lane, nor (and this was what Clark always considered to be his *real* mistake) for the way in which the events of the previous week-and-a-half had honed those eyes and that mind, at least with respect to the subject of throwing snowballs…

It all began — or happened, depending on how you looked at it — on New Year's Eve, at the Coates Orphanage. The two reporters, along with Perry and Jimmy, had been invited there for this year's "Great New Year's Eve Bonfire," an event of which they had previously been unaware. Nor were they quite sure why they had been invited, but the invitations had been impossible to refuse; not only were they obviously the product of a lot of loving effort by the kids, but they had been delivered (by a bunch of them, including a chatty Danielle, with "Santa" in attendance) smack dab in the middle of the Planet newsroom, which left the recipients with no choice, really. As Lois said at the time, what were they supposed to do — say no in front of everyone, and make the little girl miserable?

Of course, Lois was feeling generally well-disposed towards the world just then. Memories of her trip to Smallville for Christmas were still fresh, casting a rosy glow over the post-holiday period that was quite unusual in her experience. The glow was only reinforced by the new aspects of Clark that she kept discovering as her relationship with her best friend began to broaden and deepen. She was continually amazed by his thoughtfulness; she'd always known that he was kind and caring, but it seemed as though he'd been hiding his light under a bushel — or, she ruefully admitted to herself, she just hadn't bothered to look for it. He was also rapidly coming to occupy the position of the *sneakiest* person she knew.

Take her prized copy of "Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons," for instance: not only had Clark noticed that she liked "Calvin and Hobbes", but he'd also seen that she was missing that particular collection and had gone looking for a copy to give her for Christmas. Lois had found the book impossible to get hold of, so she could only guess at what Clark had had to do to find her a copy — but when he said that the book was "just plain hard to find" and that he had had to go out of town to get it, she could only wonder at his tenacity, particularly when it was hardly something important.

But it wasn't until she'd settled down to read it and had been studying the back cover painting… and noticed the *UK* price above the bar code that she'd realised the scope of the effort that he must have gone to, to find the book! She opened the book and rapidly flicked through the first few pages to find the publishing information — and her amazement only grew. She hadn't wanted to believe it, but there it was in black and white: this was an *English* copy of the book! How on Earth had he found this? Was *this* what he meant by having to go "out of town" to get it?!

And *then*… and then, she'd turned back to the first page and seen that he'd had it "signed" — and not just by the author! No, somehow, by some incredible means, just above the "Best Wishes" message and signature of the strip's creator, was the paw-print of a *tiger!* When she first saw it, she just sat there and stared in utter amazement, and she still had no idea how he'd done it.

It was mind-blowing, head-spinning stuff — and all to give her a copy of a collection of comic strips! And, when she'd tried to thank him and ask him why he'd gone to so much trouble over something like that, he'd… sort of blown her off, dismissing what amounted to an unbelievable amount of time and trouble as nothing special — except that he thought it was worth the effort if she liked the book.

If she *liked* it?! She wasn't sure whether to be stunned or infuriated by his attitude, but annoyance won out shortly thereafter when he refused to tell her any further details, or even which tiger it was that had made her book unique. "Tigers don't have names, Lois," he'd said with a grin, "Except for Hobbes, and he wasn't available; I believe he had a G.R.O.S.S. meeting to attend…" She hadn't known whether to hit him or kiss him for that, and had settled for stalking away in what ought to have been a bad-tempered huff, except that she was having trouble not giggling — or, possibly, screaming with rage.

The memory of that conversation was still quite vivid when she saw "Santa" draw Clark aside just after everyone had accepted Danielle's invitation to the Great Bonfire. They whispered together for a while, and Lois' eyes narrowed when she saw Clark nod agreement to whatever it was that they were discussing. 'What's he up to now?'

The two men shook hands, and the Orphanage party headed for home. Clark returned to his desk, a small smile on his lips. Lois watched as he looked after the departing children and their adult companion, and the light in his eyes was enough to tell her that he was definitely up to something; he was making plans of some sort — something for the kids, she was certain.

Then he shot a quick glance at *her*, and she couldn't take it any more. That so-fast flash of his eyes, and the way he looked away when he saw that she was watching him, had to mean that whatever he had in mind was going to involve her, too… and he knew that she hated surprises — even if *his* surprises generally turned out to be good ones.

Well, two could play at that game, although Lois intended to surprise him immediately, the better to break down his resistance and get him to tell his partner everything. She got up and went over to his desk, perching on one corner. "Cla-aa-rk…" she said, drawing the word out to get his attention; unconsciously, she also spoke in a slightly high-pitched, sing-song tone.

"Just a second, Lois," her victim replied, "I…!" His words cut off suddenly, and he slowly turned his head from the computer screen tolook at her, a most peculiar expression on his face — equal parts apprehension, resignation, even a little anticipation… and was that a soupcon of pure terror in back of them all?

He seemed to be surprised to see her where she was, but he looked relieved, if still slightly worried. "Are you okay, Lois?" he asked a trifle nervously.

"Never better," she answered, and saw him flinch. That worried *her*; surprise was one thing, but he was acting as though he was scared of what she might do next. What could have brought that on? It wasn't as though she was treating him the way she had when they'd first been partnered, when she would have enjoyed seeing that sort of reaction — and so, naturally, didn't get anything like it from him.

"I couldn't help noticing…" she began… and he flinched again, looking even more nervous; then, his face tightened and became grim, his eyes fixed on hers with a hard, piercing stare — but, strangely, one that was also compassionate, or so she thought. It was as though he was trying to see inside her head, or wanted to read her mind. This unnerved her, so that her voice trailed off as she finished her sentence: "…that you were talking to the guy from the Orphanage…"

His reaction was immediate, and only confused her further. His entire being — body, posture, face, expression, eyes — relaxed and he let out a huge sigh of relief as he sagged in his chair. She was sure she heard him mutter something like, "Oh, thank God…"

"Clark… are *you* okay?" she asked, still concerned.

"Yeah, Lois, I'm fine," he replied instantly, a couple of small chuckles interspersed with his words. "Since *you* are." She just looked at him, baffled, so he explained, "I just had a massive dose of deja vu. You coming over here, and some of the things you just said — particularly the way you said my name — were almost identical to what you did, the day Miranda sprayed the newsroom with those pheromones of hers. You didn't put your leg up on the desk, but I was getting flashbacks to that day, and they were starting to make me *very* nervous…"

Lois winced at the memory of being under the influence of that stuff, even though she couldn't recall very much of what she'd done. "Was I that bad?" she murmured, half to herself, ducking her head. That was not a time she liked to think about, and Clark's reaction to her then — or lack of it — was one of the main reasons why; especially these days, when what he thought of and about her was something that had become important to her.

He seemed to sense her unhappiness and confusion, and reached out to gently raise her head until their eyes met, hers dark and troubled, and his warm, compassionate and, above all, understanding. "Hey…" he said softly, "No, you weren't 'that bad'; you just weren't *you*, and that was what spooked me. Here was this person — this *woman*; no man ever had legs like that!"

He paused and searched her face, and especially her eyes, for some reaction, and she couldn't help but smile, just a little; it was silly, but it somehow made her feel warm inside to know that, whether or not he'd been affected by Miranda's… potion, he'd noticed her legs — *and* liked them, she thought, which made her feel even better.

"She looked like my partner," Clark went on. "You were still in your work clothes — then; and she sounded like my partner — except that the voice was a bit higher than usual; but she wasn't *acting* like the Lois Lane I knew and lo— worked with. That was what freaked me out — not what you did, but that it wasn't *you*."

Lois' eyes widened at his slip, and she avoided his gaze while she thought about it. What he had almost said— what she *thought* he had almost said, she hurriedly corrected herself… well, the implications were pretty staggering, especially in the light of her doubts— worries— no, neither of those were right; call it her *unease* about the way he felt about her, both then and now.

"So… you didn't really mind what I did?" she asked in a small voice, wondering even as she spoke what the heck she thought she was doing. She always suffered from near-terminal embarrassment when she remembered that time, but now, in the light of the feelings that had begun to surface since spending Christmas with him in Smallville, the thought of her behaviour didn't seem quite so terrible; it might, if she could be sure of how he'd react (and could summon the courage), possibly be fun to do again, without the need for mind-clouding pheromones — yes, even the Dance of the Seven Veils…

Clark's reply was equally low, but his voice was full of sincerity… and something more that almost made her shiver — but in a good way. "Lois… if I had thought you meant it… if you were to act like that again, but in your right mind… actually, if you were in your right mind, you *wouldn't* act like that, but you know what I mean… then my reaction would be very different."

"Oh." Well, she'd asked for it… and he'd answered her, and now she was feeling close to panic — or was it crying? Whatever it was, she couldn't do it here, and she needed to think very hard about what he'd said and how he'd said it, and what they both might mean and how she felt about that, and how she felt about a lot of other things — and him in particular… and she realised that she needed to change the subject quickly before her mental babbling tied her thoughts and emotions into a knot that would stop her from being able to think about anything else for the rest of the day — at least!

Fortunately, she remembered why she'd come over to his desk in the first place. "So, what were you talking to the guy from the Orphanage about?" she demanded — or that's how it was supposed to sound; Lois was afraid that her overwhelming desire to change the subject came through much too clearly.

Clark didn't react to that, though; instead, he met her gaze with that same warm regard, and then he smiled. Lois fought to match his calm as that smile sent a ripple of an amazingly powerful feeling through her, and managed to succeed well enough to be able to listen to him as he replied, "Oh, he wanted to ask me about a surprise for the kids. I told him I thought it could be arranged…"

That wonderfully informative answer almost instantly dispelled any remaining disquiet that Lois might have been feeling. "Okay, Clark… enough with the evasion. What's this surprise? You *know* how I feel about surprises."

"Yes, but this surprise isn't for you, Lois," he responded, obviously teasing her. "Oh, wait — maybe it is." He watched as her eyes narrowed, and stifled a laugh as she began to bristle. "Okay, okay, Lois, no more teasing," he assured her, smiling apologetically — which made her feel better, almost in spite of herself. "He asked me if there was any chance I could ask Superman if he could make an appearance at the Bonfire — maybe even light it."

"And you think he'll be able to come?" He nodded, and she smiled, the prospect pleasing her almost as much as the end of the teasing. Then an oft-pondered thought struck her, and she regarded him with a quizzical stare. "You know, Clark, one of these days, you're going to have to tell me how you get in touch with Superman. I mean, I was the first person to meet him, but these days, except for very rare occasions, I have to get in trouble before he shows up!"

Clark returned Lois' regard, but his eyes were gentle and warm… and, she thought as a shiver shot down her spine, maybe even *loving*… "Tell you what, Lois," he said softly, "You refrain from using your method of contacting him too much, and one day, I *will* tell you mine." 'Maybe sooner than you think…'

Lois' eyes narrowed again as she glared at him — but it was an amused glare, and they both went back to work feeling happy and looking forward to the coming party at the Orphanage.


The Great New Year's Eve Bonfire got off to a spectacular start. Once everyone had arrived, Clark began to live up to Lois' opinion of him as regarded sneakiness, although neither she nor anyone else realised it.

After ostentatiously looking at his watch, he began to collar the Orphanage staff and the visitors from the Daily Planet, asking them to help move the kids (and themselves, though they didn't know it) away from the huge pile of wood and flammable refuse in the centre of the courtyard that was to become the bonfire. Everyone co-operated when he explained that it was nearly time for Superman to arrive, and that the hero was going to light the bonfire.

The *really* sneaky bit, which no-one caught on to, was that, after getting the other adults to form a loose ring around the wood-pile and slowly expand it, gently chivvying the children away, he wasn't part of it. Everyone thought that Clark was helping too, somewhere on the other side of the circle, whereas he had sidled into the shadows by one of the buildings, there to spin into the suit and silently streak into the sky for his grand entrance as the Man of Steel.

Shortly thereafter, a familiar sonic boom and whoosh had everyone lifting their eyes to the night sky for a figure in red and blue. The adults, still facing outwards from the wood-pile in order to keep the kids away, were looking in the wrong direction, and it was left to the children to point excited fingers and exclaim, "Look!" in awed voices as the caped figure descended slowly from the blackness to hover right over the heap of wood and rubbish.

Superman called out a greeting, which the kids — *and* most of the adults — enthusiastically returned. The Superintendent came towards him, intending to make some sort of welcoming speech, but he waved her back, saying that it was time that the bonfire was lit — before everyone got too cold. The Superintendent laughed and agreed, hastily retiring to a safer distance.

Then, as the crowd of children and adults watched, entranced, Superman looked down… and flames leapt into the air, spreading over the woodpile in an instant, transforming the appearance of the snowy courtyard, the buildings and everyone there with a warm, orange-yellow glow.

Cheers and applause broke out as the caped figure, now more black and orange than red and blue in the light of the fire, slowly rose from the centre of the rising flames to float over the heads of the watchers, descending gently, almost reluctantly, to earth next to the Superintendent, where he smiled and took her hand, quietly apologising for ruining her planned welcome, but he thought it best to light the fire before something called him away, as happened all too often.

The Superintendent was flustered graciousness incarnate as she dismissed his apologies as un-necessary… and then the kids arrived en masse, and all semblance of organisation vanished. Clark was never as glad to be invulnerable as when he was mobbed by a crowd of children; he, at least, could withstand their attentions without worry — always providing that no-one was crushed, or tried to strike or kick him, as had happened on occasion — and he was of the opinion that it did the kids good to cut loose sometimes.

He allowed himself to be dragged away by his eager admirers and spent the next 10 minutes or so talking to them, answering questions, admiring snowmen — even stopping one, located just a little too close to the fire, from melting for a while with a blast of super-cold breath. The children were amazed that he remembered their names from the Christmas Eve party, which he found sad, but took care not to show; this was a night to be positive and to look forward to the coming year.

Unfortunately, one thing he was definitely positive about was that, on New Year's Eve, he wouldn't have to fake having to leave the party in order to switch identities, and he was right; his hearing kicked in as it so often did, alerting him to a bank alarm *and* a fire in a crowded apartment block. He looked around at the kids with a rueful expression and apologised for having to leave for a while. "Gotta go to work…" He soared upwards, followed by their big, wondering eyes, the wind of his passing sweeping hats and hair and gloves and coat-tails into the air after him.

As if in sorrow at his departure, it began to snow; large, fat flakes that quickly covered the ground with a fresh layer of pristine whiteness — at least until the children charged across it, seemingly re-energised by its appearance and busily seeking entertainment now that their visitor was gone for the moment.


Lois had been watching Superman and his devoted followers from one side, finding herself feeling unexpectedly wistful at the way the Big Guy interacted with the orphans. 'He's so good with children,' she thought as the youngsters scattered, wincing slightly as she compared his ease and delight in being with them to her own nervous insecurity when confronted with anyone under the age of about 16 — and even that was pushing it, sometimes…

Of course, there was another man in her life who was equally good — maybe even better — with children, but where had he gone? She looked around for him, realising that she hadn't seen her partner since he started to organise the ring around the bonfire, and she found, to her considerable surprise, that it didn't feel right to be by herself at the moment. She *missed* him, darn it!

She strolled over to warm her hands at the fire — which, she was pleased to see, was defying the snow and still blazing away merrily — and to think over this decidedly unusual feeling. Somehow, Clark Kent had wormed his way into her life to such an extent that it felt wrong for him not to be there. He was her best friend — the best friend she had ever had, or, indeed, could conceive of having — and after the events of Christmas Day, she knew that the possibility existed that he could become so much more, if she was prepared to let him. That was scary… and also potentially wonderful, and she shivered slightly in unconscious reaction to the thought — and other thoughts that her mind rushed towards, using the first one as a springboard.

"Hey, you cold?" a quiet voice murmured from behind her. Startled, she whirled around to see, and almost collide with, Clark. He caught her before she could lose her balance completely, holding her upright with that gentle strength that she had come to know so well.

For a second, she was lost in indecision, un-nerved by his sudden appearance when she had been thinking so hard about him, but then newly-discovered instincts took over, and she didn't feel like fighting them. She turned around again and leaned back against him; his arms closed around her automatically, as if she was exactly where she belonged — and she began to think that maybe that was so.

"Not any more," she replied, equally softly. "Not since I found my special Kansas-style body-warmer again. Where have you been?"

Behind her, and thus unseen, Clark's brows rose in delighted surprise at her description of him — not to mention the way in which she was leaning against him. "Um…" he began, a little flustered by the experience, "I've been looking for you, a lot of the time…"

Which was not quite a lie: he had kept an eye out for her all the time he'd been in the suit, just so he knew where she was; and when he'd had to leave, he'd made one final check of where she was before taking off. The bank alarm had turned out to be a short-circuit — caused, he suspected, by an inebriated reveller throwing a not-quite-empty bottle of beer at it — and the apartment fire had been simple to put out from the air, so he hadn't been away long, and had naturally searched for her as he came in to land and change back to himself.

"Well, you found me…" she purred, snuggling against him — and, though no-one else could have told by looking at them, it was a very fine point as to which of the two reporters was most astonished at her behaviour. Lois might have had the edge, because she ought to have known why she was doing something so out of character — or was it? — but, instead, she felt totally bewildered… but being this close to him in the firelight, buffered by his solid warmth and the fire against the cold air that nipped gently at her face, felt so comfortable, and so *right*, that she thrust away her confusion and inevitable nervousness and simply luxuriated in the sensations of the night, the fire and the man.

For his part, Clark said nothing and did nothing except tighten his grip on the petite figure so close to him, supremely content to be there with her and to gaze into the flames and dream…

How long the couple might have stayed there, unmoving, silent, and perfectly happy that way, will forever remain a mystery because suddenly, a group of the children came racing up to them, all smiles and yells and boundless energy, Danielle in the lead.

"Mr Kent! Miss Lane! Come see!" she cried. "We made a really awesome snowman!" She grabbed both their hands and pulled, the other kids echoing her exhortations.

Lois and Clark, forced to separate by the sheer exuberance of their companions, looked apologetically at one another. Both knew that what they had just shared was something very special, perhaps even unique… but it was over for the moment, and they had to move on. But each could see the promise of other such moments in the shining eyes and gentle expression of the other, and that would suffice.

Despite their every wish and intention to stay together, the couple found themselves taken in different directions. Danielle let Lois go, but refused to release Clark and dragged him off to see the snowman and half-a-dozen other things, all the while chattering excitedly. He cast an apologetic what-can-I-do look at Lois as he was swept away by the little girl and her friends.

Not that Lois was being ignored; she found herself in the company of the older boy whom she had clobbered with a snowball when he was under the influence of the Greed Potion. He bore her no ill will, though; indeed, he was so impressed with her skill at throwing snowballs that he wanted to recruit her for a big fight about to begin over on the far side of the courtyard. She managed to avoid becoming a combatant, but only by promising to watch the battle from the sidelines. She suspected that her would-be team-mate might try to provoke her into joining in, but she didn't really mind; of course, if he *did* try anything, she would make sure that he got the largest load of snow she could scrape up straight down his neck!

Meanwhile, Clark had admired the snowman (with a slight smile at the memories that it inspired of the snow goons; he suspected that he would never look at a snowman in the same way again); also avoided being conscripted into the snowball fight; spent some time chatting to Danielle, who had obviously taken a particular liking to him; and then, when she ran off to see a friend, quietly slipped into the shadows — now growing longer as the bonfire began to die down — to make another fast change into Superman. It was about time the super-hero returned from his good deeds.


The snowball fight was raging furiously. Both sides were pretty good, in Lois' opinion — for kids, at least. How they'd do in a snow goon-demolishing contest, on the other hand… *that* took true skill, only to be found in very special people. She chuckled and hugged herself, both for warmth and to savour the delicious memory of Christmas Day in Smallville.

Lost in a reverie, she failed to notice that the battle was moving closer, and that some of the kids weren't all that good at aiming — or simply didn't care who they hit, so long as they hit someone! Lois had been expecting to be deliberately attacked at some stage, but when the snowball (The Snowball, as it was ever after remembered) came towards her, she was not its intended target; in fact, it didn't have a specific target, being made and thrown in no particular direction for sheer fun and the potential mayhem it could cause if it happened to strike home.

The thrower saw where his creation was headed, and began to feel worried; it usually meant trouble when an adult got hit, even if they were watching. But his concern turned to relief — and stunned surprise — when a whoosh signalled the arrival of a colourful blur, and the snowball was intercepted and plucked from the air by a hand attached to a blue-clad arm.

"You know, Lois, I was kinda hoping *not* to have to rescue you tonight," Superman quipped dryly as she started, the world and her "peril" suddenly crashing in on her memories.

She blinked, but almost instantly assumed her normal unflappable demeanour. "Nice catch," she responded nonchalantly. "Are you going to throw it back?"

"I don't think I'd better," he replied in an amused tone. "Too dangerous."

One of the children looked very relieved when he heard that, but the rest were disappointed. "Aw, go on, Superman," called one young voice, and the rest of the kids joined in, combining boisterous enthusiasm with a kind of semi-pathetic, manipulative pleading that Lois recognised from her own childhood. "Please, Superman?" "You wouldn't hurt us." "It'll be fun…" "You can be on my team…" "Yeah, you could throw a snowball to the *moon!*"

Superman held up both hands in an attempt to restore calm, and the group, now rapidly growing to include every child there, quietened down. He felt relieved that they weren't going to insist… until he noticed that everyone, including Lois, had their eyes fixed on the hand that still held the snowball. 'Oh, boy… Think fast, Kent.'

He did, and seized on what one of the kids had said seconds earlier. "You know, I don't think I *could* throw a snowball to the moon…" Faces everywhere dropped, and he hastened to reassure them, "Oh, it's not the distance — I could throw a *rock* there easily enough…" Expressions brightened again, but now they were bewildered, too.

"…It's just that snowballs aren't up to the trip," he explained. "In fact, I can't throw a snowball much faster or harder than any ordinary person."

The kids found this hard to believe. "Why not, Superman?" came a puzzled voice, and the question was taken up by the others.

"Well, it's because… I've got a better idea: let me *show* you why, okay?"

Enthusiastic cheers greeted that idea, and the kids crowded around — which was exactly what Superman didn't want. Rather than shoo them away, he slowly rose above them, looking back down from about ten feet up with an amused but fond half-smile. "I can't show you unless you move back a bit. I wasn't kidding when I said that this could be dangerous, so we need to be careful, okay? For a start, how about you all go over there where you'll be safer?"

He pointed to the side of a building about twenty yards away, and all the children scrambled over there. Being used to lining up in a group, and impatient to see what the Man of Steel was going to do, they quickly arranged themselves so that everybody had a good view and waited, quietly but also practically quivering with expectation.

Superman slowly floated back down to the ground, but he made no move to do anything further because Lois hadn't moved from where she was standing when he took off. There was something about that smile of his… something *familiar*… but she couldn't quite place it. This bothered her, so much so that she became lost in thought as he spoke to the kids, and it was only after he'd landed that she realised that everyone was waiting for her to move…

"Oh! Sorry…" she muttered, hastily striding over to where the children were waiting, glad that the darkness hid her flush of embarrassment. Once she was safely out of the way, though, her thoughts returned to the mystery of the odd familiarity of Superman's expression.

At first, she tried to dismiss the whole idea with the thought that it was just that no-one had ever seen Superman smile much (with his enormous power and responsibilities, it was no wonder that he was a serious soul), and so she, who had probably seen him smile more than anyone (except maybe Clark), had simply recognised something rare, but familiar to *her* — a feeling akin to deja vu. But that didn't seem right; there was more to it than that, she was sure, and she sank deeper into thought as Superman began to speak again, tossing the snowball in his hand gently into the air.

"Why can't I throw a snowball to the moon? Well, like I said earlier, a snowball isn't really up to the trip. It is only ice, after all, and ice melts if it gets hot. The thing is, to get to the moon, it would have to be travelling at a speed of at least 25,000 miles an hour when it left my hand — so unless I flew into space to throw it, it would get very hot very quickly from the friction between it and the air. And when *that* happens…" He paused and grinned. "Well, you'll see.

"Okay, now before I really throw this—" He gently tossed the snowball into the air and caught it. "—I want everyone to put their hands over their ears, because this is going to be loud!

"And I mean *everyone*," he said pointedly, catching the eyes of all the adults who had gathered to watch as well. Most adults and children obediently put their hands over their ears, but Superman did nothing until, after giving the few un-co-operative ones a piercing stare as he repeatedly tossed the snowball a few inches into the air and caught it, he was satisfied that there were no more hold-outs. Then he turned and threw the snowball into the sky with an easy, unhurried action — but one with super-strength behind it.

The snowball didn't get far. There was a deafening sound like a crack of thunder, and the spherical shape that, seconds before, was gleaming whitely in the spotlights… disappeared. Not like Superman flying off at super-speed — there was no whoosh, no blur of motion to mark its passage; instead, the thunderous boom seemed to herald the complete disintegration of the snowball, with only a small trace of white vapour remaining to mark the fact that it had ever existed.

Their ears were ringing, but the spectators' reaction was one of total awe. "What happened?" said one amazed child, to be echoed by a chorus of her friends — and a large number of the adults as well.

"Well, I threw the snowball fast enough to reach the moon, but it never got out of the atmosphere — in fact, I think it had evaporated by the time it would have reached the level of the roof," Superman explained. "You see, when anything moves that fast in air, it generates shock waves, like a sonic boom, and those shock waves cause a lot of heat — the faster it travels, the more heat there is. So the snowball was moving so fast that it melted and turned into steam almost instantly, and the noise you heard was the shock wave that did it."

The adults in the audience began to applaud, and some of the kids joined in, while others ran to surround their super-visitor, cheering loudly. However, in the background, over by where the children had stood to watch the demonstration-cum-science lesson (not that any of them realised that they'd just learnt something), was a notable absentee from the applause and acclaim for the Man of Steel. Instead, this person hadn't moved from the spot where she had been lost in thought for some time. She had missed most of the demonstration because she was concentrating on thoughts of Superman; now, though, she was staring at the hero as though she'd never seen him before — and that was a fairly accurate assessment of her feelings at that moment.

It was, of course, Lois.

She couldn't believe what she'd just seen. It was impossible… wasn't it? Her mind raced, memory flying back to a day before Christmas, and the street outside this very orphanage… and then to Christmas Day itself, in a field full of odd-looking snow sculptures… She'd seen snowballs thrown that way before; that measured, graceful motion of shoulder, arm and wrist, so smooth and almost leisurely in its flow that, watching it, one never suspected the force that it transmitted…

That was *Clark!* She was certain of it. She watched him use that same easy, but so powerful, action to destroy the snow goons they'd made in the field… The way he moved, the play of his back and shoulder muscles, the way his arm whipped around in a blur of motion and his wrist flicked… she'd seen it all before in the field in Smallville, studied it so closely, telling herself not to drool at the sight and grinning at just how drool-worthy he was…

She'd seen him throw snowballs at the kids who were under the influence of Schott's Greed Potion. She remembered seeing him take on four of the orphans in a snowball fight with only Danielle to help him, and wipe the floor with three of them (leaving the last, and biggest, one for *her*), his every throw precise and devastating, yet so easy in its execution… And she had this unforgettable mental picture of his protecting the little girl by putting himself in the way of the boys' first salvo of snowballs, his overcoat spread wide to cover her, just like…

Just like a *cape!*

'No…' She couldn't— didn't *want* to believe it, but her mind seized on that comparison and replayed her view of his initial riposte to the boys' attack; when, in one smooth, flowing, continuous movement, he'd reached down and whirled around, grabbing a handful of snow as he turned, and launched it on its way towards one of Danielle's tormentors. His overcoat had billowed out behind him as it tried to catch up with the movement of his body and, for one unforgettable moment, it hung in the winter air… exactly how Superman's cape had flapped out behind him as he made his throw, only seconds ago.

'Oh, my God… it's true… Superman… Clark is…'

She found it hard to come out and say it, even silently to herself. How could this be? How could her partner and the super-hero… her fellow reporter and the scourge of the underworld… her best friend and the saviour of the world, not once but many times… how could they be one and the same? And if they were, how could she have not *seen* it?

And now that she had, what was she going to *do* when she saw one of them — *him?*

She felt numb… and dizzy… and disbelieving… and upset… and… and… and she didn't know what else, only that there were all these feelings churning around inside her. She gasped as the breath she had unconsciously been holding whooshed out of her, and its sound seemed to free her from a paralysis that had kept her where she was since Cl— Sup— *he'd* thrown that snowball.

She quickly looked around, but no-one was looking at her; everyone else nearby was either part of the crowd around Superman or trying to keep it under some semblance of control. This suited Lois, and she stumbled away to find somewhere where she could be by herself for a while; right now, she needed desperately to think about this incredible discovery, and there was no-one she could turn to for help while she tried to come to terms with it.

'Not even Clark…' she thought, and almost burst into tears at being deprived of his support.

A nearby clock chimed the hour, and she wheeled to face it with wide, panic-stricken eyes. 'Oh, my God! It's New Year's Eve! What am I going to do at midnight?' When midnight came and the year changed, Cl— *he* was bound to want to kiss her, especially after the way she'd acted earlier; and, until a few minutes ago, Lois had been looking forward to it, too. Now… *now*, she didn't want to have to face him, not until she was able to sort out just how she felt about what she now knew about him.

But how could she leave? *He* could just fly off, and he probably would, soon; he'd want to turn up as Clark to give everyone — especially her, she realised — the impression that he'd been there all the time. She could try to leave, but he'd be looking for her — and how could she escape from Superman?

Sure enough, a few minutes later, Superman bade the children goodnight, saying that it had been a lot of fun, but he had to go; he needed to keep a special eye out for people in trouble on New Year's Eve, because sometimes they were having fun, too — too much fun, so that they forgot to look after themselves properly. He shook hands with the Superintendent and slowly rose above the crowd of kids and adults, returning their energetic waves. Then, as they all watched in awe, he turned his face to the sky and accelerated upwards, quickly being lost to sight… and the well-known sonic boom recorded his departure from the scene — and, for all anyone knew, the city, or even the continent!

Anyone except Lois Lane, that is. She began to scan her surroundings for the expected re-appearance of her partner — not that she knew what she was going to do when he did show up, but she wanted to try to see how he'd been fooling her, both tonight and, she guessed, on Christmas Eve. She shook her head in growing disgust. Oh, he was good; she'd seen both men— oh, all right, just the one man — in both his guises almost continuously on both evenings (from a distance a lot of the time, to be sure, but that shouldn't have mattered) and she hadn't so much as seen a resemblance!

And there he was, emerging from the shadows across the courtyard and heading towards her with a broad smile — *that* smile, the one that made her insides start to melt, even now.

She still didn't know what to do — what to say, whether to tell him what she knew and demand an explanation, or even just to hit him for daring to fool her for so long… but she couldn't do that, could she? He wouldn't feel it, and she'd probably break her hand! 'So what are you going to do, Lois, because here he comes…'

She had no answer, and was getting close to full-blown panic — or was it all-out rage? — when Fate took a hand. Clark came to a sudden stop, and his head snapped around to stare across the yard in the direction of a small group of adults left after the crowd around Superman a little earlier had mostly dispersed. Lois followed his gaze and saw the Superintendent clutching at her chest… and then, to the accompaniment of a scream from one of the other women in the group, soon echoed by some of the nearby children, she folded up and collapsed to the ground.

Lois' eyes widened; Clark was *there* at the fallen woman's side, appearing out of nowhere as if by magic — or super-speed, she realised, but that wasn't important because he was examining the Superintendent closely (super-closely? she wondered), and then lifting his head, his expression now all serious determination, to rake the yard with his eyes… for *her?*

"Lois!" he called, "Call 911! She's had a heart attack!"

Later, she was to wonder at the way in which he immediately concentrated on the casualty, paying Lois herself no further mind — as though, having given her her orders, she was of no importance. She eventually realised that a kinder interpretation was that it meant that he knew he could rely on her to do what needed to be done, so he could give his full attention to the woman who needed it. At the time, though, she felt a brief flare of irritation, all the stronger for coming on top of the other reason she had to be mad at him… but she was still reaching into her purse for her cellphone even as she felt the anger rise.

She made the call and turned back to her partner, to see him in the process of administering single-person CPR to the Superintendent. She watched him compress the woman's chest and force air into her lungs in the familiar rhythm: 2 breaths… 15 compressions… 2 breaths… 15 compressions…

Suddenly, she realised that she was just standing there, not doing anything, while someone needed help. Two-person CPR was more effective than single-person, and it was a heck of a lot easier on the operators! Stung into action by her indifference, she raced over to the man and the woman on the ground. "Clark! Do you need help?"

His reaction matched her own urgency. He finished a series of compressions and moved to the Superintendent's face. "You do the heart; I'll handle the breathing," he replied.

"Got it!" she answered, kneeling down and leaning over to find the end of the woman's sternum through her clothes. Once she had located it, she found where to place her hands to compress the heart, put them into the correct position, and the pair set to work, partners as ever — but now in trying to save a life.

To Lois, this need and chance to do something other than think (and brood) was a godsend; her entire attention could be, and was, focused on the woman she was trying to help and her reactions to the CPR. The children, the other adults, the Orphanage — the *world* — faded into the background of her consciousness; even Clark was only there as her fellow resuscitator, the person whose breaths had to be synchronised with her chest compressions. There was a life at stake, and that over-rode all else.

That same concern for the life of the woman on whom they were working also filled her with an overwhelming sense of frustration; she wanted to pound on the Superintendent's chest and scream something like, "Breathe, damn you!" — though she knew that she neither could nor should do anything like that

The next few… minutes? hours? aeons? …seemed endless, an unrelenting procession of breathe-and-compress, check for signs of recovery, then resume their respective actions to keep the Superintendent alive until help arrived. But where was it? Surely there had been enough time for the EMTs and an ambulance to arrive, even at this time of the year?

They did arrive, eventually, and the shock of their intrusion into the strange little world in which Lois felt herself to be was enough to produce a small, hastily-muffled scream from her when one of the paramedics gently touched her on the shoulder. Appropriately (or ironically), it was just at that moment that the Superintendent gave a sort of weak, sputtering cough, and Clark… *lunged* for her neck.

"She's got a pulse!" he announced triumphantly. "And she's breathing!" Only then did he notice the EMTs; it seemed that he, too, had been lost in the task of sustaining — or returning — life to the woman before him.

"Nice goin', buddy," the paramedic who'd touched Lois said. "We'll take her from here."

The reporters got slowly, and in Lois' case, stiffly, to their feet and stepped back to allow the EMTs and ambulance crew to do their job. They watched silently as the Superintendent was loaded onto a stretcher and wheeled away to the ambulance; once she was aboard, it slowly moved to the Orphanage entrance and out into the street before racing away, lights and siren blaring.

Only then did Lois and Clark realise two things: firstly, that they were practically alone in the courtyard, the bonfire having been extinguished and the party wound up while they had been working on their patient; and secondly, that they had unconsciously come together for support and were leaning on each other, Clark with his arms around Lois and she clutching one of them tightly to her.

Clark, still ignorant of Lois' discovery of his other identity, was quite content. Lois felt uneasy when she came back to reality, but she couldn't bring herself to break his embrace. Right now, after that experience, she felt quite washed out physically, and he was strong and comfortable to lean against. Emotionally, she appreciated his closeness after a brush with death — not hers, and not as immediate as, say, being the target of some crook or madman, but perhaps all the more shocking for that, since it had been there, right in front of her, inescapable and defying any attempt to challenge it… except that they *had* challenged it — fought it together, and *beat* it!

She felt a flood of satisfaction wash through her, bringing new energy with it — not much, but enough to be able to rejoice at what they had done, and to share the gladness. "We did it, Clark…" she murmured softly, "We saved her…"

For a moment, he didn't react, and she wondered if he'd heard her. But, even as she started to snort internally at the thought — of course he'd heard her! He was Superman! — he slowly moved her away from him, gently but irresistibly turning her to face him, and then placing his forehead on hers. "Yes, we did, Lois," he replied, equally softly. "*We* did it…"

She hadn't been planning to challenge him about his secret — not now, not yet — but even if she had, the warm, tender emphasis he placed on "we" would have driven all her plans that way right out of her head. He drew her to him again, and she was powerless to resist; she didn't *want* to resist — not when he was telling her that he couldn't have done it without her, that for all his powers and superhuman attributes, he still needed her…

Or that's what she thought— *hoped* he was saying, anyway. It was a lot to infer from a single word, but she couldn't think what else he could be trying to tell her; and she was in no doubt that he was trying to tell her something.

Once again, as they had earlier by the fire, they remained motionless in each other's arms for a long time, but there was no-one around now to come racing up, break the moment and drag them apart. It was not until Clark said something into Lois' hair, something so soft that she was not absolutely certain that she'd heard it, that either one was roused from the stillness that enveloped them.

"I love you…"

It took all the self-control that Lois had to keep from reacting to his words, especially as she was sure that he hadn't meant her to hear them; indeed, he probably hadn't meant to utter them aloud, but they had slipped out as he gradually relaxed. His tone of voice — as much as a near-silent whisper could be said to have one — was strange: emphatic, and somehow desperate, as though he was saying something that he'd needed to express for a long time, but hadn't dared to. Only now, as he wound down from the stress of saving the Superintendent… and because he was holding her, and she was holding him? …did it come out.

Her mind went blank for a moment. Somehow, though they had been getting closer and closer in this peculiar relationship that they shared (until tonight, that is), she hadn't expected this from him — not yet, though she had had… hopes for the future. But that "future" was upon them— her — now, it seemed, and she had to deal with it.

Not for the first time that evening, she asked herself, 'What are you going to do, Lois?' The man that was every woman's dream and the man who had begun to occupy more and more of *her* dreams had turned out to be one and the same, and that one man had just said that he loved her; never mind that he hadn't intended for her to hear it, or might not even be aware himself that he'd said it out loud, the fact remained that he *had* said it — and *meant* it, too, she was certain.

'And how do you feel about that, huh?' She wished she had an answer. In one way, she felt that she ought to be furious with him for deceiving her for so long — the Mad Dog Lane reaction, known and feared by its recipients everywhere (including Clark) — but she couldn't summon the energy to let rip; and to compound that, she wasn't sure, in the light of what they'd just gone through together, that it was appropriate.

It— *he* didn't seem to make sense. How could the man who had fought so hard to save a woman's life (and who gratefully accepted her help without a second's hesitation), who did so much to help other people with no expectation of reward, no matter what the cost to himself… who had saved *her* bacon so many times, and always been there when she really needed him… how could he reject her like this?

'Reject you? The guy just told you he loves you!' part of her asserted. But that was the problem: he *hadn't* told her, he'd whispered it to himself, and that only by accident, as though he didn't dare to say it aloud… Why? If that was the way he felt, why not say so? Why keep it such a secret, the same way he…

'…didn't tell you about Superman?' Could there be a connection there?

Lois shivered, her whirling mind desperate for answers but finding none. Clark noticed and lifted his head from where it rested on hers to ask, "You cold?"

Lost in thought, she started at the sound of his voice. "Oh! Uh… no… no, not really. Just… a reaction from earlier, I guess…"

He nodded in understanding and then looked deeply, lovingly into her eyes. "Do you want to go home?"

It took her a moment to pull herself away from the warmth of his gaze and respond. "Uh… yeah," she said a little breathlessly. "That's a… good idea, Clark. Let's go."


Clark offered to drive Lois home, and she gladly accepted, having neither the inclination nor the energy to argue the point. By mutual, if unspoken, agreement, the trip to her apartment building was a silent one. Lois was lost in thought and Clark let her be, knowing that she would say if what was on her mind was something that she thought he could help with. In any case, he thought he knew what was preoccupying her (in which he was completely wrong), and though he was slightly surprised that she was reacting quite so strongly, he knew that she would mostly have to work it out for herself, just as he had, less than two years ago; he could and would help her as she had helped him in the past, but this was not the time — not yet. Soon, though…

By chance, Carter Avenue was mostly deserted, so that Clark was able to park the Jeep near the entrance to Lois' building. She made no move to get out, though, so he turned in his seat to get a better look at her and said softly, "We're here, Lois… are you okay?"

"Yeah, Clark," she answered immediately, but very tiredly. "I'm just… incredibly washed out." Which was the truth, although not all of it. "I know it's New Year's Eve and all, but would you mind terribly if we didn't see the new year in? All I want to do right now is go up and collapse into bed."

"Of course I don't mind, Lois," was his instant reply. "I understand."

'Not everything, you don't,' she thought, 'but I know what you mean…' And who better to understand how it felt to have saved a life, even if that wasn't the real cause of her lassitude? And he *was* understanding, incredibly so — so much that it baffled her how he couldn't understand how she would— *did* feel on learning the truth about him.

Nonetheless, the way in which he escorted her to the building entrance, wished her a Happy New Year with the gentlest kiss on the cheek and then waited to see her go inside was so tender, so solicitous of her well-being, that she almost broke down and cried. Instead, she wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in his chest as she hugged him as tightly as she could manage before turning and rushing inside.

Once out of his direct line of sight, she flattened herself against the wall of the lobby (although what good was that if he used his super-vision, she asked herself) and waited, listening. And, sure enough, a few moments later, a very familiar whoosh could just be heard coming from outside — and was that a sonic boom?

'Well, that settles that,' she told herself. Okay, all her "evidence" was purely circumstantial, but it felt pretty conclusive to her; about the only way she'd get anything more solid would be to confront him and… what? Rip his shirt open to reveal the uniform?

Firmly squelching the images that *that* idea brought to mind (and her body's reactions to them), she headed for her apartment, and bed. She needed to think this whole situation over, long and hard, but the physical and emotional exertions of the evening had rendered her far too tired to give it the proper consideration. She needed to rest, and sleeping on her problem seemed to be a very good idea.


Naturally, once she'd reached the sanctuary of her apartment and gratefully flopped into bed in a comfortable old night-gown, her brain started to tick over, preventing her from getting to sleep!

When she thought over the events of the evening — and, for that matter, the previous 18 months or so — confusion almost overwhelmed her, but she couldn't let it alone. Her best friend, the man she worked with, confided in, felt closer to than any other human being… wasn't human. Not that *that* mattered; Kryptonian, human, whatever, he was still Clark — *and* Superman! And *that* was the puzzle: who was this man? And what did he *really* think of her? Because, until she had answers to those questions, she didn't know what to think herself, and she didn't trust her feelings, not in the light of her previous track record with men.

'Ha! And I told him once that I had him pretty much figured out!' she castigated herself. Memories flooded in of hundreds of conversations, incidents, adventures… moments that she'd shared with Clark and Superman, but she gritted her teeth and forced them out of her mind because just then, she didn't think they'd help — any of them. She was sure that she could come up with event after event that should have told her the truth about him, but for every example like that, her conscience could respond with the memory of a time when she'd been horrible to him — and yet, if what he had revealed tonight was true, he loved her in spite of it all. And that only made her feel more confused.

Despite her ruthless determination to keep them out, two memories slipped into her consciousness. The first was of Clark, quietly replying to her typically forceful assertion that there was no such thing as an invisible man; he was resting his head on his arms on his desk and looking at her, and he murmured something, more to himself than to her, but she'd caught it anyway: "Oh, yes, there is, Lois…"

At the time, she'd taken it as one more example of a man refusing to let her have the last word, even when he knew that she was right, and she hadn't bothered to dignify it with an answer. Now… now, she wondered if, with those few words and the rueful, resigned tone that he said them in, he'd been trying to tell her something. Or, maybe (more likely?) he would have told her something if he'd thought she'd be prepared to listen — but he knew she wasn't, and he'd been right.

And then a second scene came to mind: Clark, standing in his apartment, the morning after the Dance of the Seven Veils, saying that he couldn't take it any more, he was hers if she still wanted him. Miranda's pheromones had worn off, of course, so she'd squelched him, hard — and only then realised what she was wearing. The humiliation that she'd felt over that incident had coloured her perception of the whole affair — so much so, she realised, that she hadn't bothered to even wonder how to reconcile Clark's later contention that he just wasn't attracted to her with his earlier anguished declaration.

And it was anguished, she had to admit. When Clark made that offer to her, it had been the final capitulation of a man pushed past the limits of his self-control. An honourable man, too, one who'd resisted her every advance — some of them pretty blatant, she was sure — for nearly two days, and then who'd spent a sleepless night watching over her as she recovered from the vile stuff that caused the whole fiasco.

And now, of course, she had to consider what had happened at the end of that whole business when, as Superman, he'd kissed her! Why had the more potent version of Miranda's concoction affected him? Or had it worked on him at all? After all, he'd never said anything at the time, or since, to confirm or deny what was really an assumption on her part.

Despite her present anxieties, she smiled slightly. He'd resisted her, but she'd broken that resistance in the end — one way or another, for a little while, at least. That argued pretty strongly that he did care for her, even then; he just hadn't wanted to admit it, presumably because he thought that she'd object — maybe even break up their partnership. After all, she'd told him straight out not to fall for her…

But then, before tonight, she'd been certain that he cared for her, and she was falling for him, too, and remarkably happy about it, thank you very much. So much of what was good in her life had Clark as a vital element… and she didn't want to go back to the way she'd been when they'd first met. Not when he had brought so much warmth into her existence.

The thought of warmth took her back to Smallville, and the wonderful time she'd had, barely a week ago. She remembered sitting at the kitchen table in the farmhouse, waiting for dinner on Christmas Day, and the thoughts that had run through her head then…

She had never had so much fun at Christmas in her life, not even when she was a little girl. It seemed that, no matter what they were doing, the Kents found a way to make it enjoyable, by making it into a game, or laughing, joking and singing while they did it — or just by *doing* it with unrestrained enthusiasm, joy and… well, it had to be love.

Take something as mundane as serving Christmas dinner: Lois had been amazed at what seemed to be an intricate, three-handed ballet as Jonathan, Martha and Clark zipped around the kitchen, producing more and more food from the oven, saucepans and the refrigerator until the kitchen table groaned under the load. Lois had offered to help, but had been told to sit down and relax; she was a guest, and all she had to do was wait to be served.

This was something of a relief to her, for she had to admit to not being the handiest person in a kitchen, particularly a kitchen that was as crowded as the Kent "ballet" was making that one at present. Mind you, merely waiting was something of an ordeal in its own right, because the smells that emanated from the food were heavenly, and Lois found her stomach rumbling and her mouth watering, even despite the huge breakfast that she'd had.

Finally, Jonathan picked up the carving tools — a huge fork and a large, razor-sharp knife — and began to dismember the golden-brown bird currently dominating the table (not to mention torturing everyone with its delightful smell). Lois, somewhat surprised to find that it was a goose, not a turkey, watched her host at work and forgot about the kind of bird, recognising a master at work as the first juicy slices began to fall from the body, as perfectly cut as they were cooked.

She was quite intent on watching Jonathan display his skills, so much so that it took her a moment to realise that Clark had begun to sing softly; only when Martha joined in did Lois really begin to listen. At first, she thought they were singing a carol — she recognised the tune as "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" — but then the words began to register, and her brows lifted in amused surprise as Jonathan raised his voice for the chorus.

The song ran to a reprise, this time with all three Kents singing in something vaguely resembling harmony while Lois watched and listened and tried not to laugh out loud — yet.

*"God help you, merry ganders all,

Here's something of dismay.

Remember that goose, stuffed and roast,

Is good on Christmas Day.

So, if you want to see next year,

You'd better run away…

Oh-hh, stuffing and cranberry sauce,

Cranberry sauce,

Oh-hh, stuffing and cranberry sauce…"*

The singers grinned or chuckled as they finished, and Lois cracked up, and it took her some time to stop laughing. When she did — finally — she wiped her eyes, to find the entire Kent family staring fondly at her. She blushed frantically, but couldn't resist asking, "Where on Earth did *that* come from?"

"Would you believe Kew Gardens in England?" Clark replied, apparently serious, even though he had a big smile on his face. "I visited them a few years ago, towards Christmas-time, and I was wandering around the big pond in the middle of the gardens, watching some of the resident birds, including two or three different kinds of geese, when I heard someone singing that to themselves. I asked, and the guy said that he and his son had just made it up while *they* were watching the geese — who were acting kinda aggressive towards everyone nearby at the time — as a sort of vicarious revenge for attacking them."

Martha chimed in, "Did you know that a 'traditional' English Christmas dinner is goose and beef? Most people have turkey these days, just like here, but before Europe knew about turkeys, that was one of the English equivalents — for those who could afford it, anyway. We thought we'd give it a try this year, just for a change."

Sure enough, no sooner had the now decidedly diminished goose vanished from the carving platter than it was replaced by a large slab of roast beef, and Jonathan started in on that with his implements of destruction. Lois looked across the room at Martha and Clark, who were doing things with vegetables, stuffing, gravy and other stuff, then looked down at her stomach. 'This is gonna cost me a week at the gym, but it'll be worth it!'

And it was. But, Lois had concluded when she thought about it the next day, what *really* made that Christmas dinner special was not the food, however superlative, but the company. And, in particular, *Clark's* company.

She remembered thinking that there was so much more to him than she'd ever realised. 'Oh, yeah, that's goin' for Understatement of the Millennium, Lois,' she thought sardonically, her mind coming back to the present with a metaphorical crash. But, in spite of the sarcasm, he still didn't make sense to her. How did she reconcile the man who'd made her Christmas so special, the man who had Jonathan and Martha as parents, who had given her that book — and everything else, especially the emotional support that he'd given her over the months that they'd known one another — with the manipulative… *swine* who didn't trust her with his real self?

'WHY DIDN'T HE TELL ME?!' she mentally screamed. She would have liked to scream it out loud, but that would only have brought complaints from her neighbours. And she wouldn't have got an answer, anyway.

That thought made her stop and consider. If this concerned anyone other than Clark— if a question this big, this important, had turned up when she was *working*, she'd have had half-a-dozen ways of trying to find out, including the simplest and most direct: *ask* him! And the more she thought about it, the more she began to come to the conclusion that that's exactly what she should do.

The question was, when, where and how?

It took Lois some time to come up with an answer, and, perhaps appropriately, it was the Snow Goon book which gave her the idea — and there was *one* mystery solved, namely the origin of the book and its unique "signature"! In any case, certain memories associated with that book gave her the basic concept, and a few calls to some people she knew took care of the rest of the arrangements; they were surprised to hear from her at that time of night on New Year's Eve, but were quite agreeable to helping her, especially as most of the "help" consisted of lending her keys to buildings that would be closed for New Year anyway.

Now, all she had to do was to get Clark to be in the right place at the right time. Or should she be trying to get Superman there? That was, after all, the— okay, *one* of the big questions that she was trying to solve: just who was this man that she had been— no, she needed to be honest with herself; *was* coming to love with an intensity that was unlike anything she'd ever known?

Well, hopefully, she'd find out. She only hoped that she'd like the answer.


New Year's Day resembled its eve, as far as the weather went: heavy, low cloud cast a pall over the entire city; it was no longer snowing, but looked as though it could start again at any moment; and the wind-chill factor was something fierce. Lois was glad that the city authorities had been on the ball, even though it was the holiday season; driving to her friends' homes to get the keys, and from there to the warehouse and the theatre, had not been fun, but at least the roads had been partially cleared, and gritted, too.

She was equally glad that the theatre was heated to stop the pipes from freezing, even though it was shut today; her outfit wouldn't have been wearable if the place was any colder. She took a final look at herself in the dressing room mirror, and giggled. This was going to be fun! Or so she hoped; whether what she was about to do was something that she would regret or remember fondly in the future depended on how Clark responded to it. And she had no idea how he would react — not any more; he might do *anything*, from joining in her game to flying away in disgust.

And his reaction would determine where they went from here — as partners, as friends, and maybe, just maybe… as a couple. Lois still wasn't sure how she regarded the latter prospect, except that, before last night, it had seemed to be becoming more and more inevitable, and she hadn't worried about it at all. But there was no time to think about that; if Clark was on time (and when *wasn't* he?), he'd be here soon, and she had to be in position. She had never wanted to be either an actress or a gambler, but she was about to assume both those roles in order to, once and for all, find out the truth about Clark Kent!


Superman dropped lightly into the alley outside the New Bernhardt Theater, checked that it was as deserted as it looked, and spun back into Clark Kent. As Lois' message on his answering machine had promised, the stage door was unlocked. He entered the building, pausing only to reflect that, despite the "New" in its name, it was much the same age as the original Sarah Bernhardt Theater, of which he had fond memories — which meant that he could guess its layout without needing to scan the interior with his super-vision, and he didn't want to do that because Lois had said that she had a surprise for him. He had no idea what it could be, but he didn't want to spoil it.

The surprise, it seemed, had more than one part to it, because no sooner had he closed the door behind him than he found an envelope with his name on it in Lois' bold handwriting. It contained a note, asking him to lock and bolt the door and then to come out onto the stage… "…and NO PEEKING!"

'What could she mean by that?' he wondered. If he didn't know better, he'd suspect that she'd found him out… but if that were the case, he didn't think that she'd be arranging a "surprise" for him — more like a lynching, and it certainly wouldn't happen in a place like this. 'Well, quit wondering and go and find out,' he told himself, and so he made his way through the backstage area to the wings at stage right.

The stage, and the theatre itself, was in complete darkness. That didn't bother Clark, but he frowned slightly as he wondered once again what Lois was up to. He was musing as to whether it would be better to use his super-vision or to call out when the decision was taken out of his hands: a single overhead spot came on, casting a small circle of light onto centre stage — and onto a wooden structure that wasn't immediately recognisable. It looked a little like a lectern, or a pulpit, or even possibly an orchestra conductor's podium; the latter might be the most likely, because it was facing away from the audience.

As he pondered the mystery of the object on stage, the theatre sound system crackled to life, and a familiar voice boomed out. That is, the voice started out as familiar, but it had been heavily modified by electronics. It had, he guessed, been put through some "chopping" to give it a semi-mechanical sound, and had more than a little "echo" added for dramatic effect, and the sheer volume at which it was coming from the speakers further distorted it. Nonetheless, to Clark's ears, it was still recognisably Lois speaking, but a Lois determined to make an impression — one of complete and overwhelming control of the situation. Whatever the situation *was…*


'"Defendant"? What the heck…?' Suddenly, Clark thought he recognised the object on stage. That was no lectern, podium or pulpit: that was a *dock!* And from all indications, especially the sound of Lois'… command (?), he was meant to be in it. Which must mean that she was putting him on trial for something, some real or imagined crime — although with Lois, there was no real boundary that way; her personal version of the justice system had more to do with that of Imperial China than modern jurisprudence, specifically the bit about being guilty until proven innocent. If she thought he'd done something wrong, she'd act on that opinion unless given concrete proof that she was mistaken.

So this could well be her way of exacting retribution — although for what, he had no idea. It must be something major to have her go to so much effort… Come to think of it, this wasn't really like Lois; when she was angry, she confronted people and told them to their faces what she thought of them, so this… whatever it was, seemed out of character — or there was more to this than first met the eye.

Which meant that the best way to find out what was going on was to play along…

He walked out of the wings and made for the lit circle, taking care not to make it obvious that he had no qualms about stepping out onto a deserted, pitch-black stage, but wanting to come across as being as much at his ease as these unusual circumstances allowed. Once he reached the "dock," he stepped into it and waited.

But not for long. The lights began to come up, gradually illuminating the stage in front of him, revealing a simple set consisting of scaffolding arranged in a more-or-less cubical arrangement, but with large sheets of painted cloth hanging over parts of it, concealing most of the framework. Glancing around, he noticed that some of the sheets had stylised designs painted on them, looking for all the world like tapestries or banners in a Hollywood-style mediaeval castle — although the designs reminded him more of Japanese feudal emblems than European heraldry.

Right in the centre of the stage, the "banners," which were back-lit high up, shaped an area that was still dark. In this area was a large black object that Clark could only determine the approximate outline of without using his super-vision, which he still didn't want to do. What he could tell, however, using his other senses, was that Lois was there, standing or sitting on whatever it was, and she was… nervous, or excited; her heart-rate was up and she was taking deep breaths, as though she was preparing for something.

'Here we go,' he thought… and the lights came up.

There she was — and boy, was she ever there! The mysterious object was a large, highly elaborate chair — a *throne?* — mounted atop a raised dais, and Lois was sitting regally on it, head high, looking haughtily down at him. Of course, she *had* to hold her head up, because if she lowered it even a fraction, the huge head-dress she was wearing might cause her to overbalance and fall off!

Not that he was wasting much time looking at the head-dress — other than as a frame for Lois' face, which was as lovely as ever. There was more to look at than that, and he didn't mean the control panels of some sort which he noticed were mounted on the arms of the chair, and that her hands were resting on gracefully.

Lois was wearing a long, flowing dress, something like an evening gown — only more so. Its red and gold folds swept out from her hips and cascaded down over the dais like a shimmering liquid… but Clark wasn't paying attention to that; instead, his gaze was riveted on the long, elegant legs which were visible through the *large* slit in the front. And when he managed to stop looking at her legs, there was a lot more of Lois to be seen, or to be hinted at by the dress, which was sheer, tight-fitting and *very* low-cut in front. Only a thin choker around her neck, which Clark realised was a cunningly-disguised throat microphone, spoiled the sweep of smooth flesh revealed by the deep V neckline running from her jaw to somewhere approaching her navel.

The overall effect was exotic, almost alien; more than a little outlandish; and quite, quite stunning. She looked like something out of a 1930s movie serial — but in colour, and he doubted that the Hays Office would ever have passed a film that featured *that* outfit!

And then the penny dropped, and he realised who she must be intended to be. 'Well, you've only got yourself to blame for this one, Kent,' he thought, amused. 'After all, you gave her the title…' But that didn't answer the question of what this whole… production was all about. He appeared to be on trial for something, and, despite the entertainment value of the situation, he had a familiar feeling that he wasn't going to like what she had to say next.

That turned out to be all too accurate a guess.


Once the initial shock passed (a matter of no more than a millisecond or so) Clark thought very quickly. He'd been right; Lois had discovered his secret, and wasn't happy about having been fooled — as she saw it. On the other hand, confronting him as the Empress of the Galaxy (a title *he* had given her, a mere week ago) had to mean that she wasn't rip-roaringly, Mad-Dog-Lane angry about it — which was something to wonder at in itself. But this whole trial thing was no doubt meant to put him in his place; she obviously wanted answers, and wanted them now!

Despite the playful nature of the "charges" he was facing, Clark knew that there were some real issues here, and he needed to be careful as to how he phrased his response. He resisted the temptation to answer the final question by getting down on his hands and knees in supplication and saying, "Like this?" but grinned inwardly at the thought. Instead, his brain began to run through thousands of variations of what he wanted to say and what would be the best way to say it. This took a mere fraction of a second, thanks to super-speed, and he began to speak after a brief pause that was more for effect than anything else.

"If it please Her Majesty and the court," he began — seriously, intending to emphasise that he realised the importance of what was happening, "as the list of charges against me is long and somewhat complex, so too is my plea. Before that, however, I would like to raise a point of order." He looked at Lois, who regarded him evenly for a moment before nodding.

"Thank you, Your Majesty," he went on. "The point of order that I wish to raise, and which the court will, I hope, see is relevant to some, if not all of the charges, concerns the name under which I have been brought before this court. 'Kal-El' may be my birth name, but it is not my name. *I* am Clark Kent, and always have been, from my earliest memories as a child. I have used, or have been called by, the other aliases listed at various times, but they are not my name. *My* name is Clark."


Clark paused in his oratory, meeting Lois' eyes with a cool, expectant gaze. It was not unfriendly, but there was a distinct component of challenge there, and Lois found herself wondering what it meant — and, for that matter, what the importance was of his "point of order." It had to *be* important, or he wouldn't have brought it up, she was sure, but what did it mean?

She settled for a silent nod in reply, conceding the point without committing herself to anything further, nor breaking the solemnity that seemed to have settled over them. For all the absurdity of their surroundings and the idea of Clark being "on trial," they both seemed to have decided — or, perhaps, Clark had reached the same conclusion that Lois had made when she planned this — that this was a serious, perhaps crucial moment in their relationship, and one which demanded that they both treat what was said now (if not, perhaps, the location and manner of delivery) with the importance it demanded.

"If the court will allow it," he went on, "I would like to consider the charges against me individually as well as jointly, and to address the acts separately from the alleged motives with which they were committed."

He paused again, and looked at her again, but his expression this time did not have the challenge in it that she had noticed before; instead, it was… well, 'open' was the only word she could think of, and he genuinely seemed to be awaiting her permission. Quite why, she didn't know… until, with a leap of the heart, she realised — or *thought*, at least, and most definitely *hoped* — that he was relinquishing control of the situation to her and acknowledging the validity of her questions. Having done that, he intended to explain himself to her; he just wanted her approval to do it his own way.

'You can't ask for more than that, Your Majesty,' she thought. 'Not until you've heard what he has to say.' This was going to be just like a press conference and, since they were both veterans of far too many of the things, that had to be deliberate on his part, since they both knew how such things were conducted. He would give his "statement," and then she could ask any further questions that he hadn't answered — but, unlike a typical press conference, there would be no PR fluff; having come this far, she was sure that he would tell her everything if she asked, or why bother playing along with her? Unless she'd been totally and completely wrong in her estimate of his character in both his guises — which was the big question, wasn't it? — she couldn't imagine him trying to snow her, if for no other reason than that he must know that she'd never fall for it!

She repeated the slow, condescending nod, outwardly impassive. Inside, though, her heart was pounding and her stomach was churning in a familiar fashion. Quite apart from what his "plea" might mean for their future, she recognised her usual excited reaction to being about to learn the truth about something — and this was no ordinary story. And her nervousness was not helped by the realisation, made long before, that the man in the "dock" could no doubt tell exactly how she felt by observing her with super-senses!

"If I may begin at the beginning," he said, "that is, with the matter of my origins, I deny concealing anything from Her Majesty, with one exception: how I came to know what little I *do* know of the planet of my birth. Your Majesty, until we ran into Bureau 39, I didn't know *where* I came from — or what I was. I have no memory of Krypton; I was too small a child to remember anything about the planet. My earliest memories are of my parents — the Kents — and the farm. *That's* where I grew up… just the way I told you.

"It wasn't until I found my spaceship in Trask's warehouse that I even knew Krypton existed! And even then, that was *all* I knew. It answered one question — I was an alien, not a Russian, a mutant or a scientific experiment — but there were still plenty of others. Why was I sent to Earth? Why send a *baby?* Why did I have my powers? It wasn't until later, just before Jack burgled my apartment, that the Globe — it says it's the ship's navigation computer, and it was the one piece of it that I managed to recover before Bureau 39 cleaned out the place — began to play messages from my biological father that I finally had the answers.

"Her Majesty knows what happened to Krypton; I have told her everything that the Globe told me about that. The only thing she doesn't know about is the nature of those messages, and personal things like… like what it felt like to see my Kryptonian parents, and to know that what they did, they did out of love; the sheer relief I felt to finally know who and what I was; and the realisation that, in a way, it didn't matter — wherever I came from originally and whatever I was genetically, I was still Clark Kent from Smallville, Kansas, even if I did spend my spare time flying around in a spandex costume my mom whipped up."

He stopped for a moment and sighed. Lois wondered why. Was he remembering what it felt like to finally know who he was? Or what had happened with Trask and the Globe? Or was he sorrowing over what he'd lost? But if he was, how did that relate to what he'd just said about being Clark, not… not Kryptonian? Not Superman?

She remembered asking him once about a game she and Lucy had played as kids — "fly or be invisible" — and tried not to remember the smug comment she'd made about his choice, never dreaming that he *had* the power he'd chosen. Right now, she wished there was a third option: telepathy. She so wanted— needed? — to see inside his head, to know what he was thinking… but all she had was his words and how he said them, and that wasn't much help. All she could do was listen to him and wait and hope for enlightenment.

"Which brings me to the next charge," he went on. "Two charges, really — regarding my 'nature and character.' And I could argue that I haven't misled Her Majesty about those, either.

"I am Clark Kent! The same Clark Kent that Her Majesty has known and worked with ever since we met. The farm boy from Smallville, Kansas, who went to Smallville High, took Rachel Harris to the Senior Prom, went to Midwestern State University, travelled the world for several years… and then came to Metropolis and got a job at the Daily Planet. That's me! It's just not… all of me.

"The other part of me— there *isn't* really another part of me! I just… can do things that no-one else can. And *that*, I had to hide from everyone except my parents, because we always knew that there were people like Jason Trask out there… *until* Her Majesty gave me the idea for a 'change of clothes' — or, more fundamentally, a change of identity. Now, simply by putting on a flashy spandex suit my mother made for me, and by adopting the name that Her Majesty gave me, I can use my powers to help people and still have a chance to live a normal life — to be *me* — when I take the suit *off*.

"But I'm still *me!* Okay, I don't get sick and I shave using my heat vision, but that doesn't change who I am, it's just something that comes with being *what* I am. Becoming Superman simply allows me to do things that the rest of the world considers extra-ordinary, but, to me, are just things I can do. But behind the spandex and the 'super-hero' front I put up when I'm in the suit, it's still me, and I can't change myself that much. So how can I have deceived Her Majesty as to my nature and character when she has seen and known me both as myself and as Superman? Whether I wear ordinary clothes or the suit, whether I use my powers or just do the things a normal human can do, it's still the same man."

Lois maintained her poker face and said nothing, but she was thinking hard, and she disagreed with Clark there: *he* might not see any difference between himself and Superman, but he admitted that the purpose of his double identity was to make everyone else think that Clark Kent and Superman were two different men, and he had been very successful at that. And *that* was the problem: she'd known Clark Kent and Superman as two men, and now she had to cope with the sudden discovery that they were only one.

But then, if he didn't see any difference between his two identities (although she wondered about that "super-hero front" that he'd mentioned) other than what he felt free to do in them, then it made sense that he might not be able to see her predicament. This was going to take some hard thinking (maybe on both their parts) to sort out… Meantime, Clark was still talking.

"As for my feelings…" He shook his head, grimaced as if in pain and dropped his "advocate" guise. "Lois, you didn't want to *know* about my feelings! Not *my* feelings — not Clark's feelings. Must I go through all the times you told me not to bother you that way — all the way from 'Don't fall for me, farm boy' onwards?"

Lois winced, despite herself. That one had hit home — as had what he'd *not* said, which was the way that she'd thrown herself at him as Superman while abusing him as Clark. She found that she appreciated him not throwing that at her — but then, he didn't seem to want to attack her at all. Had he been any other man, she would have expected it; but she wouldn't have done this with any other man, would she? Even so, he could still have raked up a few old grievances, but his main aim in talking to her like this seemed to be to explain himself as best he could. *Her* behaviour had hardly been mentioned, and she suspected that it wouldn't be, only being of importance to him at the moment in the way in which it had affected what he had done — and hadn't done.

"But if you want to know my feelings *now*, then here you are: for the record, I have loved you — and *not* just as a friend or sister — from the moment we met, and I have only grown to love you more since then. I have never had a friend who has helped me more, even when you didn't know that you were helping, nor has any woman or girl ever touched my heart in the way that you have. You… you are all I could ever want in a friend, in a partner… and in a woman."

Lois gasped. Yes, she'd wanted to know — well, she knew now, all right! And she couldn't bring herself to doubt what he'd said: the part of her that instinctively rejected the idea of trusting any man might be voicing its usual objections, but every other part — including, she found to her surprise, her reporter's instincts — was joining in a chorus saying that he was telling the truth. And it startled and scared her, just a little, to find how much she wanted to believe that.

"And *that*, as hard as it might be to believe," he continued, resuming his role as defendant and defence counsel, "was one of the reasons why I maintained the fiction of Superman being a separate person. There are people out there — like Trask, and Luthor, and Intergang — who would do *anything* to have a way of striking at me, and they don't care who or what they hurt or destroy in the process. Her Majesty has seen that a number of times in the course of the last year-and-a-half, and I don't imagine those attempts will be the last.

"Superman was invented as a way for me to use the abilities I've been given without exposing myself and the people close to me to that kind of danger. When I was a kid and my powers were just starting to manifest themselves, my father used to warn me to be careful, or someone would come and take me away and 'dissect me like a frog…' Well, add to that the likelihood of being attacked, or having people dear to me attacked, by some criminal maniac and his henchmen — or their admirers, ex-wives, would-be employees, copycats, people 'looking for a rep'… the list goes on and on, and any of them would do anything they could to harm me or anyone whose pain or death they thought would hurt me — or even use the threat of such things as a means of controlling me.

"I'm just not prepared to expose anyone else to that kind of risk, not if I don't have to. Now, the court may feel that this was and is arrogant, high-handed, patronising, condescending, or whatever of me, but I ask this: what right do I have to even ask another person to put themselves in danger like that? It's not as though I can take back the secret once I let it out, and I can't even *ask* someone if they're prepared to take the risk without forcing them to do it, because they can't know just how big the risk is without knowing the secret!

"And until very recently, 'anyone' included Her Majesty. It was only as we started to become close — really close — that I had to face the fact that she would *need* to know if we were ever to be anything more than friends. And so I have been trying to plan when and how best to tell her, and I'd just about decided that today was as good a chance as I was ever likely to get. It would have been symbolic in a way — a new year, and a new stage in both our lives — but, as I've always more than half-expected from the day I first put on the suit, Her Majesty finally saw through the disguise… and here we are.

"Now, if what I have done is considered wilful behaviour in the opinion of this court, then I accept the charge. However, I continue to maintain that, wilful or not, it was both justified and *necessary* — and temporary, at least in intent, as far as Her Majesty was concerned.

"But malice? Never. I took no pleasure in having to hide part of myself from Her Majesty — in either guise; nor do I enjoy having to refer to myself as a separate person, or having to continually come up with excuses for why I have to leave in order to change identities, or not having anyone to talk to about the things I do and what I see — except for my parents, and I can't dump everything on them!"

Something about the way Clark talked about "dumping" things on Jonathan and Martha made Lois' mental ears prick up. He sounded as though he really needed someone to talk to at times, and she could understand that; she knew how much it helped her to be able to talk things out, or let off some steam with an understanding friend, or just to go to that friend when she needed some advice, or encouragement, or even just a hug! And the irony was that *her* friend, the person she found herself relying on more and more for that support, was Clark! But, because of his double life, he didn't seem to have anyone, and she was sure that he must have to deal with some pretty unpleasant things — and they *must* be bad if he didn't want his parents to know about them, because the Kents were the warmest, most supportive, most *coping* people that she knew.

And then her mind made a sudden connection between what he had just said, and what he'd said, or implied, earlier, and she felt stunned — seriously stunned, hit-between-the-eyes-with-a-two-by-four stunned. He did need someone to help him that way… and somehow, without realising it, *she* had been helping him! Not only that, but he'd been going to tell her his secret — which could only mean that he wanted her to keep helping him; helping him properly, knowing everything about who he was and what he did.

Again, memory swept her away from the here and now, but not so far, this time — only to the preceding evening at the Orphanage, and the collapsed Superintendent. She'd offered to help him, and he'd accepted her offer without hesitation, with no doubt as to her competence, no pause or thought for which job she could do "better" because she was a woman… He'd known that she could help, and he'd taken that help because it was there and the woman on the ground needed it.

And when they'd finished, and they were winding down from the tension, he'd said, "*We* did it." And that was the point, wasn't it? "We" — not Clark, not Clark with Lois' help, but the two of them together, had saved that woman's life. And that was the way that he'd always treated her when he was being himself — well, Clark; Superman was different, because he could do things that no-one else could… except that you'd never know that when he was out of the suit… and even when he was in it, he'd never refused her help if he thought it was safe for her *to* help, and even a couple of times when it wasn't!

Lois shook her head — but only slightly, because she was wearing that heavy head-dress — and tried to sort out the mental babble that she'd got into. The point was, Clark needed someone, and wasn't afraid to admit it, and he wanted *her*.

'Well, Lois, isn't that what you've always wanted?' she asked herself. 'A man who wants you as you are, and who needs you the same way you need him. There he is…'

Her mind went blank for a moment at the truth of this realisation, and his voice filled her attention, as, indeed, it seemed to her to fill the entire theatre.

"And finally, with regards to the charge of treason-by-cheating, I plead Not Guilty. I put it to the court that Her Majesty may be able to recall the many instances in the past which should demonstrate the fact that I don't cheat, as a matter of principle. Her Majesty and I have had too many friendly games — most of which, *she* has won — for that charge to be credible. As I told Her Majesty once, I 'play to play,' not to win. I will do my best to win in a game in which my powers cannot provide an unfair advantage because that's what makes the contest worthwhile, but I will *not* cheat! Your Majesty can rest assured that, every time you've beaten me at chess, or Trivial Pursuit, or Scrabble (the word 'chumpy' notwithstanding), you have won fairly and squarely.

"In the specific case of the Spiff Rebellion, I would assert that there was no need to cheat there, and no advantage to be gained *by* cheating. In the first place, Her Majesty has seen what happens if I use more than normal human strength to throw a snowball. With that in mind, I ask the court to accept that the only way in which my super-powers could have helped me during the Rebellion was by enabling me to locate the Empress behind her defensive fortifications — which was un-necessary because I could *see* her without needing to use my powers!"

Clark again switched out of advocate mode for a moment, remarking dryly, "Next time, Lois, don't hide behind the remnants of a snow goon that 'rebel scum' can see *underneath*…" before continuing, "As to the possible accusation of using superhuman aim or skill in launching attacks on Her Majesty, I can only say that any skill that I may have in throwing snowballs comes from long practice. Snowball fights were a part of winter in Smallville, right from when I was a little kid — and long before any of my powers started to manifest themselves.

"If I am any good at throwing a snowball, it's because I've thrown hundreds of them, like any kid — or adult, for that matter. I really was the indirect fire champion of Midwestern State U, and I've got a certificate at home to prove it. If that was due to being Kryptonian, then neither I nor anyone else knew it — it was just a skill that I had instinctively, and which I honed by repeated practice. Just like anyone else… even the Empress of the Galaxy."

He paused, and met her slightly bewildered gaze (though this was well hidden) with his own, his eyes gleaming with reflected light from the spots… and also seeming to shine from within — with honesty, with what Lois could no longer deny was love, and with a certain nervous wistfulness that struck straight into Lois' mind and heart with devastating effect.

"So, in summary," he said after a few moments in which they searched one another's eyes for some hint of how they felt — with varying success, "I plead Not Guilty to the charge of treason, and… 'nolo contendre' [no contest] to the other charges. I would plead Not Guilty to those, too, but there's no way I can *prove* that I acted as I did for the reasons that I have stated, nor that I hated having to conceal myself from my best friend — Her Majesty… nor that, after this last week and the way in which we had begun to become more than friends, I fully intended to tell her everything, and was just waiting for the right time and place to do it. What can I do except throw myself on the mercy of this court?

"And I do, because I can't change what I've done. Only you, Lois, can say whether you feel that the deception that I was forced into is too great a barrier between us. If you can't forgive me, then… so be it. I don't imagine you'll want to work with me after this, if that's the case, so I'll resign from the Planet, and probably leave Metropolis. I know I can trust you to keep my secret — for my parents' sake, if not mine. I'd… still like to help you out occasionally as Superman, but you won't have to worry about Clark Kent ever again."

He fell silent, bowing his head so that his face fell into shadow and Lois could no longer see it. A small part of her hoped that he couldn't see her, either, because she was sure that she was gaping like a landed fish. *This* was something that she had never expected.

'Oh, my God… he *means* it!' she thought, horrified. Well, of course he did! An offer like that was so… so… *Clark* that she couldn't doubt that he would do what he said he would do — if *she* said that that was what he ought to do.

But what if she didn't want him to go? What would he do then? For one thing was now obvious and paramount: this man embodied everything she had ever wanted in a partner, in a friend… in a man; and he was everything that she thought she could never find — yet there he was, not ten feet away. And then there were the super-powers on top of all that! Why on Earth was she even hesitating?

"NO, CLARK!" she cried — and only then did she realise that she still had the throat mike on. She scrabbled at her neck to get it off, or at least turn it off; amplified speech was all very well when she was playing at being an Empress, but this was too important! Now, if she could only remember how to speak (that last, desperate shout was more reflex than the product of conscious thought) and then think of something to say, she might be able to…

'To stop him from leaving me!' And she *had* to do that; every other man that she'd ever cared about in any way had left her, but despite what she nowknew about him — or, perhaps, because of it — she couldn't imagine Clark doing that… unless she drove him away.

"You can't do that! If you leave, who's going to…" '…need me …care about me …*love* me?'

"…to…" 'Oh, God, I'm a *writer!* Why can't I find the words?'

Finally, her whirling mind seized on a sudden inspiration, though at first, she was appalled by the triviality of the idea; but then, thinking of the current situation and everything that had led up to it, it seemed appropriate, so she decided to take the risk.

"…to… help me if another invasion force of snow goons shows up?"

Clark's head snapped up and he stared at her as though she'd begun to speak in Sanskrit. His brows were straining to reach his hairline and, just for a moment, Lois couldn't help but wonder which of them had the widest eyes at the moment, what with all the surprises they'd been throwing at one another. But she dismissed that as nonsense and waited for him to reply. What he said next would almost certainly determine what the future held for them both.

"Uh…" he said hesitantly, and Lois nearly screamed with frustration. Now was *not* the time for both of them to become inarticulate; for one thing, she'd already claimed that position for the day, and she wasn't prepared to share!

Luckily, Clark seemed to manage to make himself say something, albeit in a decidedly nervous voice: "I… take it from that that the court is not going to demand my exile?"

'Oh, good grief!' Lois thought. Why was he keeping on with the silly trial business? 'Oh, yeah… *I* started it.' And, since she had, Clark was presumably waiting for her to end it — which gave her an idea for *how* to end it, and stop him from abandoning his job, his life here in Metropolis… and her.

"Correct," she said, assuming as much of her earlier hauteur as she could — which wasn't a lot, because she really felt like grinning gleefully and bursting into tears at the same time.

"This court finds the defendant Not Guilty on the charge of High Treason, but must pass sentence on the other charges." She paused and took a deep breath, because she needed to say this confidently, but also with feeling. "The sentence is… eternal devotion and servitude to Her Imperial Majesty from this day forth."

He let out a huge sigh. "Lois… that's not a sentence. That's been my most cherished ambition since the day we met. The devotion part, anyway."

"Oh, and what about the servitude part?" she quipped, dropping the Imperial guise — at least in her manner; she was still wearing the crazy costume, which was the main reason that she wasn't running over and grabbing him — she'd fall and break her neck!

He appeared to give the idea serious consideration — but not too serious, she could tell with a new-found sensitivity to his reactions. "That would depend on what you wanted me to do," he said eventually. His eyes lit up with a familiar teasing light as he went on, "I'm not going to be at your beck and call for every single whim you might have — not more so that I usually am, anyway."

Lois didn't know whether to be annoyed at his comment or to rejoice that he felt able to tease her again, but a small giggle that she couldn't hold in made the decision for her. She smiled, tilting her head to one side… and then jerked back upright as the weight of the ornate head-dress threatened to drag her over the arm of the chair.

"Um… is it too much to ask you to take this thing off for me?" she said plaintively. "My neck's getting tired…"

"Your wish is my command, Your Majesty," he replied, his voice both amused and concerned — which was a good trick, Lois mused. She wasn't sure if he'd used super-speed or not (no whoosh), but he was there immediately, lifting the cumbersome head-gear from her.

As he placed it on the stage floor by the side of the dais, she sagged into the chair, heaving a sigh of relief as her neck and back muscles relaxed, the weight they'd had to support finally gone. When Clark turned back to her, though, she sat up again; it wouldn't do for the Empress to appear slovenly in front of her foremost space explorer, even if they were only playing… although she wondered if maybe the nature of the game might not be about to change.

Clark seemed to be thinking along those lines, because he went down on one knee at the base of the dais and looked up at her. Lois stifled a gasp at the intensity of his gaze and the feelings shown therein; if she'd had any doubts before, she had none now — the man before her cared for her, needed her, loved her… *wanted* her!

"Your next command, O my Empress?" he intoned, breaking her out of a desire-filled haze that had suddenly enveloped her consciousness.

'He's got to be kidding!' Lois thought breathlessly. 'Talk about a feed line…' "We-el-ll…" she drawled, amazing herself with how calm she sounded when her heart was threatening to burst out of her chest with sheer joy. "I didn't get a proper New Year's kiss last night, and I want one."

"Only one?" he replied equally calmly, but with just a hint of devilment in both his tone and the single eyebrow that he'd raised above a half-smile.

"Let's start with one, and see how we feel after that…"

His response to that was to raise himself to his feet and approach her in one fluid movement that had Lois wondering if he'd levitated himself in order to do it. She'd just about decided that he was strong enough not to need to (there she went with the gross understatement thing again) when his lips gently brushed hers, and the subject lost all interest for her.

Actually, most of her consciousness shut down. She lost all sense of time and place, and even identity, and her senses either stopped registering, or overloaded and could only focus on one thing — the man who had lifted her from the throne to hold her against himself in a firm, strong, supportive, passionate, *loving* embrace.

If their kiss on Christmas Day had been like being hit by a bolt of lightning, then this one had to rank as being caught in a supernova! The totality of Lois' awareness became Clark and the unbelievable feelings that his lips and his arms and his body— *he* was producing in her. Her limbs were turning— heck, had already *turned* to jelly, and she would have been surprised at the strength with which she was clutching him, had she been able to concentrate enough to realise what she was doing.

When, after an age or so, their mouths finally separated, both were wide-eyed and breathing heavily. They stared into each other's eyes, seeking and finding reassurance that what they had just experienced was real.

Clark set Lois down oh, so gently, and she sagged against his chest with a small whimper. He staggered slightly before making a supreme effort (or so it felt to her) to remain upright; super-strength or not, right now, he was trembling as if exhausted, but he was still there, supporting her — and always would be, she knew.

They stayed like that for some time, neither moving nor wanting to move, except to place the softest of kisses on whichever part of the other they could reach without effort. Clark kissed Lois' hair, and she nuzzled his chest or arms, but otherwise they were still and silent. Even the kisses and nuzzles were almost instinctive in manner, as though they were a means by which to express the feelings that lingered from their coming together — and those which now linked them and would do so for all time — but unconsciously, because their minds were still overwhelmed.

Finally, Clark seemed to recover sufficiently to whisper to her, "Would Her Imperial Majesty care to inspect her domain?"

Lois was still drifting in the warmth of his embrace and the wonderful, *wonderful* feelings that it gave her, but she managed to register that he was saying something; after a moment or two, she could even work out what it was. Her initial reaction was to wonder why they had to move at all. Particularly since…

'I think I'd rather inspect *you*, mister — especially if it means more of those kisses!' she thought, but her curiosity had been piqued. "What do you mean?"

"Wait and see…"

Clark made sure she was stable (or reasonably so) on her feet, and stepped away from her. Unconsciously, she began to follow, not wanting to be parted from him even for a moment, not now, but he held up one hand to stop her and she halted, confused.

Confusion became stupefaction as he spun into his uniform; for a second or two, all Lois could see was this multi-coloured column of… what? She didn't know what it was, only that it looked a little like a tornado… and then it dissolved and Superman was standing there — but not the usual Superman. No, *this* Superman was smiling at her, and that smile was all Clark. His hair was more like Clark's, too, rather than the usual tightly slicked-back look of the super-hero, and she marvelled at the incredible difference this made even as she simultaneously concluded that he really did look like another person in the suit and wondered how she could have been so blind as to not see the resemblance.

She stopped thinking about that, however, when he reached out and took her by the hand… and they slowly rose from the stage to hover several feet in the air, her train and his cape swaying gently as she looked around in amazement.

"How else should the Empress of the Galaxy travel, if not by anti-gravity?" he quipped, grinning as they began to float out over the stalls and then up towards the ceiling of the theatre. The gloom of the seating area meant Lois couldn't see anything above their heads, but evidently Clark could (which figured, she realised) — specifically, a skylight which he opened with one hand while gently drawing her to him with the other.

"We need to be closer to fit through this," he explained. Lois was hardly going to argue; instead, she wrapped her arms around him with a blissful half-sigh, half-moan, so very glad to have him against her again, even if he had been performing wonders while only holding her hand.

Clark took the opportunity to reciprocate, putting his arms around her as they slowly rose through the open skylight — which wasn't all *that* small, Lois saw with delight; obviously, he wanted to hold her close, too. Well, good!

"Okay, now hold on tight," he murmured as they emerged into the open air. Again, Lois felt no need to dispute the point — anyway, he'd tightened his own grip on her, and that was just fine. But she hugged him harder, anyway, for the sheer pleasure of holding him… and then clutched at him in startled not-quite-panic as the world blurred around her.

Seconds later, as her eyes began to focus again, she found they were floating above an endless, moon-lit ocean. High above it, because, looking down, she could see a few fluffy clouds, shining whitely in the moonlight.

"Hey, you're looking the wrong way…"

Lois jumped, or at least twitched, at the unexpected sound of Clark's voice — somehow, the strangeness and beauty of her surroundings had made her forget momentarily how she'd got there, and with whom — but he was holding her firmly, and she was never in any danger of falling. She met his amused, but friendly gaze, and couldn't help but return his smile. "Where are we?"

"Over the eastern Atlantic," he replied. "Just south of the equator." And about 40,000 feet up, but Clark saw no need to tell Lois that just then; thanks to his aura, she was quite comfortable, so why bother her? "We had to go a few time zones east for it to be night-time. And you're *still* not looking in the right direction. Look *up*, Lois… look up."

So she did… and gasped at the beauty of the night sky. The moon was large and bright, and low on the horizon, so that it cast a sheet of silver onto the calm waters below them, but the rest of the sky… Lois had never seen the stars so bright and clear, and the Milky Way dusted the heavens as an incomparable background to the beauty of the constellations.

"There you are, Your Majesty," Clark whispered in her ear. "The Galaxy beseeches your approval, and awaits the next command from the Imperial presence."

Lois giggled, but only for a moment. She dragged her eyes away from the beauty of the sky to regard somethingequally pleasing to the sight — her sight, anyway: Clark (or Superman; she now knew that it didn't matter which), smiling at her in that charming way he had, with his eyes full of love.

She reached up with one arm to touch his cheek. "Oh, let them wait…" she said, grinning as his smile broadened. "I don't need the galaxy, Clark. I've got everything I need at home in Metropolis… as long as you're there. Except maybe for that Pulitzer, but I'm working on that!"

Clark threw back his head and roared with laughter, but soon sobered and responded, "I'll be there, Lois. I may have to leave at times when there's trouble, but I'll always come back — as long as you want me. And would you mind terribly if the Pulitzer was a shared one? You know — partners?"

"No, I wouldn't mind," she said softly, teasingly, "As long as my name goes first."

Clark snorted. "Okay, okay… I guess everyone knows us as 'Lane & Kent' by now, anyway. And it doesn't really matter, as long as we're together. If I have you, who needs to worry about top billing? I love you, and that's all that's important."

Lois felt like screaming, 'Yes! Yes! Yes! Love me, please!' but decided not to waste the breath. Instead, she moved her hand from his face to put her arm around his neck and pull his mouth down to hers.

The couple hung in the sky, their hearts, minds and souls entwined as surely as their bodies were, while the stars looked down, approving — for who would dare to challenge the will of the Empress of the Galaxy?