By Wendy Richards <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: August 2002
Summary: Clark's at home minding his own business when a *very* strange visitor lands on his balcony! An adaptation of the episode "Top Copy."
Author's note: Carbon Copy began its life at least three years ago, when my imagination dreamt up a conversation between the Clark from That Super Man Of Mine and a Clark in another universe who hadn't yet told Lois his secret. I visualised the first Clark getting angry with his counterpart, pointing out all the advantages of letting Lois in on the secret, and the damage that Clark was doing by keeping her in ignorance. It wasn't exactly a friendly conversation; no doubt Kaethel would say that she was right not to like CK in this story. <g> Then I had to find a premise in which I could use that conversation, and for some reason Top Copy seemed like an appropriate place in which to locate it.
And then I lost inspiration, and the notes and the shred of conversation languished on my hard drive. Two years ago I took it out again and actually managed to write the first scene. Then another story I was writing at the time (Just Another Undercover Assignment) grabbed my attention instead, and the untitled copy went back into oblivion on my hard drive until late last year. In the meantime, of course, Ann had posted A Triangle Built For Two — this had enabled me to procrastinate again on this story, because I told myself that I couldn't start posting a Top Copy rewrite when Ann's was still being posted.
But at the end of last year I promised myself that this time I would write and finish it — despite Nan posting Getting To Know You, part of the Mystery series, earlier this year. Like LabRat and her experience with If Tomorrow Comes, Top Copy was an ep which hadn't really been rewritten when I started writing this story, yet by the time I posted, lots of people seemed to have written their own adaptations. But I was determined this time… and despite other distractions, including other WIPs, I did finally finish it. The fact that I finished it is mainly down to the readers and commenters on Zoom's MBs, but also to some other people whose help is very much appreciated. Anne, who nagged and cheerled. Kaethel, who nagged and encouraged and wrote a smoochie for me when I was completely lacking in inspiration. And the 'spoiler gang', who were incredibly patient and tolerant putting up with me pasting bits from this story week after week. And to Katie, Chris, Laura and Anne for the photos. Thanks, too, to Nan, from whom I 'borrowed' the stomach-pump remedy and who gave me the idea for a scene near the end of the story.
And most of all, some truly wonderful beta-readers: Yvonne and Meredith, who were my beta-readers throughout, and Jo_March, who gave the story a final edit before I finished. And thanks, Meredith, for the title!
I would also like to thank my Archive editor, Sarah Murray, for her very speedy and helpful editing. An illustrated version of this story is available on my page at Annesplace, www.annesplace.net.
Yawning, Clark filled his coffee-machine. It was going to be another long day, right on top of last night's stakeout, and Lois was due over at his place shortly to drop off their completed story so that he could look it over before they took it in to Perry. This was one they *didn't* want anywhere around the newsroom before Perry had it safely sent for printing. Knowing Lois, she would expect him to read the story on the spot — well, he could, of course, but she didn't know that! — and she would stay until he'd okayed it. Hence the coffee, made precisely to Lois's exacting specifications.
Not that he would ever object to Lois's company, of course. If only they were able to find some time together when they weren't on assignment! He had finally managed to work up the courage to ask her for a date, and she had actually said yes — but that had been well over a week ago now. What should have been their first date had been cancelled when an assignment had come up, and since then there had been no opportunity to reschedule.
He half-suspected that Lois was secretly relieved at that fact, and if he was honest with himself, there was a part of him which was also a tiny bit relieved. He loved Lois, of course, and he wanted nothing more than to have her as his girlfriend… his wife, even, if she would have him. But at the moment they were best friends, and after a long time and a lot of hard work he had her trust. If they dated, became romantically involved, and it all went pear- shaped, what would happen to their friendship?
But he had already faced that question, he reminded himself. He had been over and over that in his mind before asking her out in the first place. And she had also considered that same point, he was well aware. She'd even brought it up with him in conversation, while she was wondering whether or not their dating was a good idea.
The same issue had been very much in the back of both their minds on their 'almost first date'; there had been that very awkward moment when she had fallen on top of him on the couch. They had ended up staring into each other's eyes, and he had ached to kiss her. Yet something had held him back, and there had been something in her eyes which suggested that she had also been torn. They had both known, instinctively, that one kiss then could plunge them over a precipice into the complete unknown. They had, together but independently, retreated to the security of their friendship, preferring the comfortable and familiar over the uncertainty of what lay beyond it.
And for Clark there was more to that unknown than Lois could know. There was the question of his secret identity to deal with. If he and Lois became romantically involved, he would have to tell her the truth about Superman. And that was something about which he had an enormous sense of mixed feelings.
It wasn't a question of trust; never that. He trusted Lois implicitly by this point. She'd proven over and over that she wouldn't betray Superman and that she considered her loyalty to him more important than getting a story. She hadn't reported the existence of Kryptonite, nor had she printed the fact that his powers could be transferred. She'd even stopped Jimmy photographing Superman being defeated by Metallo.
No, it wasn't trust. It was something far less important, and about which Clark felt ashamed. Because of that, he preferred not to think about it. The real reason he was reluctant to tell Lois his secret was because he was afraid of what her reaction would be — particularly whether she'd want him because he was Superman, and not because he was Clark.
Not something to be proud of, he told himself. After all, they were best friends and almost dating. He should have more faith in her than that. But still…
Pouring himself a much-needed cup of coffee, he was about to raise the drink to his lips when he suddenly became aware of *something.* Not quite a sound, not quite a movement… just some instinct telling him that there was *something* outside. On his balcony…
With a burst of very silent Super-speed, in under a second he was standing at the door to the balcony, his glasses in his hand as he gazed through the closed door using X-ray vision. What he saw made him almost keel over in shock; the next second, he was pinching himself to ensure that he was awake.
Superman was landing on his balcony.
<But *I'm* Superman!> Clark almost felt he had to remind himself of that fact as he stared out through the door at his strange visitor. So who was this impostor? Another clone? Sent by someone who had discovered his secret?
Was this a trap? Maybe he should pretend not to be in. Maybe he should… but no. It would be better to find out *now* what was going on; who this impostor was. If someone was out to try to expose him, or to cause trouble, it would be better to nip it in the bud as soon as possible.
He hesitated before opening the door, unwilling to confront this Superman-clone until he was sure that he could play the part of Clark Kent, reporter, who wouldn't be all that surprised to see Superman show up on his balcony. After all, he was supposed to be a friend of Superman's, so if he showed any degree of suspicion at all…
He stood back, replacing his glasses, then took one deep breath and pulled the door open. The impostor stood, watching, as if he'd been waiting for Clark to open the door.
"Superman! This is a surprise — what can I do for you?" Clark asked, controlling his tone of voice so that he sounded both friendly and curious.
"I just wanted to talk to you, Clark." The deep voice, so like his own, with precisely the lower pitch he used when he was in the Suit, made Clark feel as if he was in the middle of some bizarre dream.
He didn't particularly want to have whatever conversation was going to ensue out on his balcony, though; he really didn't want anyone else noticing that Superman was accustomed to flying into Clark Kent's apartment through the back way. "You better come in, then," he replied, his tone this time a little abrupt.
The Superman-clone followed him into the bedroom, closing the door behind him, and then headed for the kitchen. Clark was about to ask again what his visitor wanted, but before he could do so, the Spandex-clad man began to spin. Less than a second later, Clark found himself staring at…
"What…? How…?" Frantically searching for a question which wouldn't give himself away, Clark simply stared at the man. How had this clone — or the clone's makers — known that *he* was Superman? And what were they planning on doing with the knowledge?
"Maybe your question should be 'who,' Clark," his identical twin pointed out with a touch of irony. Clark looked closer, and began to see some subtle differences. This man's hairstyle wasn't quite the same, and his glasses, though gold-framed, were styled differently. He also seemed to be quite relaxed about the situation, which was more than could be said for Clark himself right now!
He sighed. "Okay then, you got me. Who are you?"
His visitor held out his hand — and in that moment, Clark could see a hint of nervousness in the other man's stance. "Hi. I'm Clark Kent, also known as Superman, and it's great to meet you, Clark."
Clark ignored the hand, shaking his head in disbelief. "Come on — you expect me to believe that? Who are you? Who's paying you to do this? And how did you manage that flying stunt outside?"
His visitor raised an eyebrow in enquiry. "What, you don't believe I'm Superman either now? I guess I can't blame you — after all, you know you're Superman, so how could I be?" He grinned in a lop-sided manner, and before Clark could deny his own relationship to the Super-hero, the visitor levitated several feet off the ground. That scratched the double theory, Clark thought, now completely baffled.
Just who was this guy, who looked just like him and who knew that Superman was really Clark Kent? Was it another clone? Or some sort of hallucination, or even a cyborg?
And what was his agenda? Should Clark be trying to overpower him, before he could be hurt himself?
"Clark, I really am Superman," his double claimed. "I'm just from another dimension, that's all."
"What are you talking about? Another dimension?" Clark repeated, bewildered and unsure whether to believe this fantastic story or not. On the other hand, what other explanation could there be? Well, the guy could be another clone, of course, and if that was the case then he really should be worried. Because *this* clone knew that Clark Kent was Superman, and had known it even before he arrived at the apartment.
"Another dimension, Clark," his double explained. "An alternate universe. I know it sounds crazy, but I swear to you that it's true. I'm you. That's why I look exactly like you, and how I knew where you lived, and how I know that you're Superman. I'm from a Metropolis just like this one."
He *sounded* convincing… but then, of course he would, Clark told himself. And yet it was becoming more difficult to be sceptical. The man was just like him. And the expression on his face was completely without guile. And it was such a tempting idea: someone exactly like him, with the same powers, and even more significant, the same *history*…
"If you really have Super-powers, are you from Krypton?" he found himself asking, almost against his will. It was a tremendous effort to stop himself from adding 'as well'.
He didn't even know why he'd asked the question. It was a stupid thing to do, given that he couldn't be sure by any means that the man's crazy story was true, Super-powers or not. He couldn't possibly trust this stranger, or believe his story. So why…?
"Yes, I'm from Krypton," the man answered. "By way of Smallville, Kansas, and now Metropolis, like I told you."
"This doesn't make any sense," Clark muttered, torn between scepticism and a longing to believe.
Smallville… Wouldn't his story have to be true, if he knew about Smallville?
But not if someone had found out that Clark Kent was Superman, Clark forced himself to remember. And he'd already as good as given himself away as Superman, as much as he'd tried to make sure that he didn't say anything incriminating.
"I know," his double replied, again revealing his possession of super-powers. "Look, I was every bit as sceptical as you were when that Wells guy turned up and told me I had to come and visit your dimension for a few days. I mean, he was trying to convince me that there was another one of me out there, when I'd just got used to the idea that I was the last survivor of Krypton. And you're not just another Kryptonian on Earth, you're *me*!"
He paused, then continued, "I have to be honest — even after Wells put me through that window-gadget of his, I still didn't believe him. I didn't believe you existed — when I flew down onto the balcony a couple of minutes ago, I was convinced I'd find I was at my own apartment and that the guy had just pulled off an elaborate hoax. When you opened the door… well, I was almost as stunned as you, and I'd been told that you existed!"
"Another dimension…" Clark repeated weakly, still completely torn. "Okay… well, since the only other answer here is that you're a clone…"
"I promise you, I'm not a clone," the other Clark interrupted. "I'm not sure how else I can convince you that I'm exactly who I say I am, though."
He reached into his pocket and produced a small rectangular card, about the size of a credit card. Clark inspected it; it was a press pass, identical to his own. Frowning, he reached out for his suit jacket, which was hanging on the back of a chair. Finding his own press card within, he compared it with his twin's. The two were very similar, but not identical. The photographs were of a similar vintage, but the two Clarks portrayed were subtly different, in terms of clothing and hairstyle as well as glasses. The Planet logo was identical, but the layout of the pass and the typefaces used were different.
Clark, noting these differences, reflected that, had someone been trying to trap him with a clone, the passes would be identical at least in terms of the Planet's details. Anyone who wanted to forge his press pass would at least get that much right. They would obtain a legitimate pass and simply insert a different photograph and name. So… could this man be telling the truth? Or could it still be an elaborate trap?
Fixing his visitor with a piercing stare, Clark said abruptly, "Who were your parents, Kal-El?"
"Jor-El of the House of El, and Lara of the House of Ra," came the unhesitating answer.
No-one else knew that, beyond his adoptive parents. Clark took a deep breath. "Which power did you develop first?" he threw at his double. Only he knew that. He'd told his parents that his Super-hearing had manifested itself first, but that wasn't actually true…
"You want what I told Mom and Dad, or the truth?" the visitor asked, grinning. "Of course, who's to say that things happened for you the way they did in my world — but anyway, what really happened was that one day, when I was about ten, I woke up and I don't even know what I was doing, but suddenly the wall between my bedroom and Mom and Dad's just seemed to melt away and I could see them —"
"Yeah, yeah, I know," Clark interrupted, embarrassed. "I remember." Taking a couple of steps to bring himself closer to his double, he extended his hand. "Hi, Clark. I'm Clark — pleased to meet you."
His twin grinned, accepting the hand. "Glad you believe me. I don't blame you for being suspicious — I would be, too, in the same circumstances."
Clark was watching his other-dimensional counterpart with intense interest. "It's *really* great to meet you, believe me! But what are you doing here? And who's this man you said sent you?"
The other Clark grimaced. "That's the weird bit. He says he's a time-traveller, and that he's taken a particular interest in Superman over the years and between dimensions. Anyway," he added, as if the time-traveller was of less interest here, "he told me I needed to come here and help you, because someone's about to expose you as Superman."
That shook Clark; he stared, aghast, at his double. "What?! Who…? And how… Clark, I can't let that happen!"
"I know you can't, Clark — that's why I'm here."
"I can't call you Clark," Clark mused abstractedly. "It's too confusing — I mean, I sometimes refer to *myself* in the third person…" He broke off, realising how weird that must sound, but his double nodded wryly.
"I know how that feels," he commented. "And yeah, this is pretty confusing. Look… Jimmy calls me CK at work, so why don't you call me that?"
"You too?" Clark asked, then wondered why he was surprised. After all, this Clark Kent's life did seem to have paralleled his in every way.
"Yeah. Anyway, you wanted to know who — you've heard of Diana Stride?"
Clark blinked. How could she possibly have discovered his identity? "Yeah — she's a reporter on a tabloid TV programme called 'Top Copy'. They specialise in exposes… But how on earth could she have found out anything about Superman?"
"Oh, she hasn't yet," CK assured him. "But she's going to start trying tonight. Ummm… you should probably also be aware that I've been told she's not quite what she seems. Wells sent me to protect your identity, but apparently this Stride woman also has a contract to kill Superman."
"What?!" Clark was staggered. He actually had to grip the edge of the worktop, so great was his shock at this news. "Diana Stride? But she's just a TV reporter… isn't she?"
But CK was shaking his head. "I have no idea, Clark, I'm sorry. This seems to be somewhere our worlds differ — there isn't a TV show called 'Top Copy' in my world, and I've never heard of Diana Stride. And since Mr Wells didn't tell me any more than I've already told you, I guess this is just something you and Lois will have to figure out yourselves."
Clark wasn't so sure about that, since it might involve telling Lois certain things he would really rather *not* tell her for the moment. But on the other hand, it made sense that he should use his investigative skills, rather than his Superman skills, to find out exactly who was behind Diana Stride. If he thought about it, he was sure he could come up with an explanation for Lois's ears.
"So is this it — did this Mr Wells just send you here to warn me?" Clark asked, a little puzzled at why CK was involved in this at all. Why couldn't this Wells person have come to warn him directly?
But CK shook his head. "No — I'm going to stick around until this is over. For a couple of days, Clark, there really will be two of you. You'll be Clark and I'll be Superman."
There was a flaw in this reasoning, Clark thought. He ran a hand through his hair, musing for a moment on the situation. Then he stared at CK and said, "But if she's trying to kill Superman, it's far too risky for you!"
CK shrugged. "Would it be any less risky for you?"
"That's not the point!" Clark objected, agitated. "This isn't your dimension, CK. Why should you risk your life for me? I can't let you do that."
"You don't have a choice, Clark. I'm volunteering," his visitor retorted. Then he added, "Come on, let's think about this. What could she possibly do that could hurt me?"
"Kryptonite," Clark said grimly. Then, as a thought occurred to him, he added, "You *have* come across that stuff, haven't you?"
"Oh yeah," CK answered with a curl of his lip. "Okay. So let's suppose that she has Kryptonite — we've both got pretty used to detecting the stuff now, haven't we? I'm betting I could get out of the way before it starts to cause me serious problems."
To Clark, that sounded as if his counterpart was being too cocky, and he wondered briefly whether he'd ever been that over-confident. Then he remembered his attitude to the Nightfall asteroid, and gave himself a mental slap.
"I'm not happy about this," he told CK then, his voice heavy. "This sounds too dangerous, and I don't like the idea of you taking the risks for me."
"Look at it this way, Clark," CK pointed out. "There'll be two of us. While I'm being Superman, you can concentrate on investigating this Stride woman. If you can prove who she really is, or that she's trying to kill Superman, then it'll all be over before she even gets within spitting distance of me."
That made sense, Clark thought, but he still couldn't see why he should be the one to lurk in safety as himself, while his counterpart took all the risks. But then he realised that CK couldn't possibly take the Clark Kent role; even though he'd obviously know everyone at the Planet, he wouldn't be as clued in on Clark's daily life as Clark himself was.
And could he maintain a distance from the situation, as Superman, while watching CK work with Lois… spending time with Lois, laughing with her, joking with her…
It would be pure torture.
And anyway, Clark told himself with an inward cynical grin, Lois would see through this visitor if he tried to play himself. Of course she would. She was far too clever to be fooled.
Or was she…?
Eighteen months or more later, she'd still failed to recognise Superman in her partner and best friend…
Clark bit his lip as he realised that he was coming around to accepting that CK would play Superman, and thus expose himself to Diana Stride's attempts on the Super-hero's life.
"I'm still not happy about this," he said wryly, shaking his head at CK.
"Yeah, but you're going to do it, aren't you?" CK grinned at him. "I mean, you don't want the whole world knowing who Superman really is, do you? Look, it'll be fine. *I'll* be fine."
Clark sighed. "You don't know that… but I guess you're right. I don't want people knowing about Superman. My life wouldn't be worth living if that got out…"
"Exactly," CK said. "So it's agreed?"
"Yeah," Clark said reluctantly.
This was weird, Clark thought, shaking his head as he tried to assimilate what was happening. For a few days, he would have to ignore all calls for help, and simply trust that his counterpart from another universe would respond. "But what if I see something you don't help with?"
CK raised an eyebrow. "Clark, are you always able to respond to every single cry for help you hear?"
He shook his head, knowing that he couldn't. It was very difficult sometimes, hearing calls he couldn't answer, seeing disasters happening but knowing he wasn't free to go to help. That was something which occasionally haunted him at night, though he continually reminded himself of Lois's words to him a year or so earlier: the fact that he was able to help at all was important. The *idea* of Superman was enough to give people hope.
"And do you trust yourself to respond to as much as you can, given your circumstances? To act fairly and responsibly, to use your powers to help whenever you can?"
"Of course!" Clark replied indignantly.
"In that case, you should trust me," his visitor pointed out. "Remember, I *am* you."
Another version of me, Clark was about to point out, but a sound outside the apartment caught his attention. Rapidly swivelling to see what it was, he then immediately turned back to his visitor and clutched at his arm. "It's Lois! She's going to be knocking on the door any second — you've got to change back into the Suit!"
CK stared at him. "She doesn't know?"
"Know?" Clark stared back, bemused. "That I'm…? No, of course she doesn't!"
His visitor looked incredulous. "Well, don't you think —"
"I *think* there's no time to waste!" Clark snapped, agitated. "Get into the Suit, or else go and wait out on the balcony. She can't see two of me here!"
With a very long-suffering sigh, CK Super-sped out onto the balcony, just as several sharp knocks were heard at Clark's door.
Barely waiting for an invitation, Lois marched quickly into the apartment, laying her files on the kitchen table without pausing in her rapid speech. "Hi, Clark, how are you today? Fine, great. I've got the story, so you better look it over quick so I can take it to Perry. Got any coffee? Oh, and who were you talking to just now? I definitely heard voices just before I knocked. But there's no-one else here, unless you're hiding someone in the bathroom…"
"No, Lois, I'm not hiding anyone in the bathroom!" Clark interjected as Lois finally paused for breath. He passed her a mug of coffee, already prepared to her taste, and a warmed danish. "Superman was here — he just left."
"Superman?" Clark grimaced inwardly as he saw the sudden widening of Lois's eyes, sensed her increased heart-rate. She was still hung up on his alter ego, no matter how much she denied her crush. And even though she'd agreed to go out on a date with *him*! "He was here? Why? And why didn't he stay to talk to me?"
Clark was now very relieved that his visitor had taken the option of disappearing instead of remaining in the guise of Superman. As bad as it was seeing Lois fawn over himself when he was in the Spandex, it would be far worse to watch her do it to someone else — someone who, if he felt about the Lois of his own world as Clark did about this Lois, might well enjoy it.
But Lois was waiting for an answer. "He had to go — I think someone needed him. As for why he was here, it was just a brief social call." That was easier than pretending Superman's supposed visit had anything to do with giving him the story on some emergency he'd assisted with; Lois would expect to be given all the details, and — for once — he hadn't helped out at anything particularly newsworthy in the past few hours.
But that didn't silence her either. Holding his gaze with an intent stare, she was clearly determined to prise more information from him. When he didn't supply it, she sighed. "Social call, Clark?"
He rolled his eyes in desperation, beginning to wish that his counterpart had never shown up. "Yes — is that so surprising? He visits you, Lois, and I've never asked for details!"
"That's because you're not — " She broke off suddenly, her hand flying up to cover her mouth and her gaze shooting away from his.
<Because you're not in love with Superman> That was what she'd started to say, Clark knew. He shouldn't be surprised; he'd known she hadn't entirely dropped her Superman crush, even though she'd made it clear she now thought the Super-hero had feet of clay. He'd just hoped that her agreement to going on a date with *him* signified that she was ready to put whatever feelings she thought she had for Superman behind her.
Obviously not. It was very clear that if Superman offered to sweep her off her feet, she'd throw herself into his arms, saving him the trouble of picking her up. But *he* wouldn't do that; he wanted her to see beyond outward appearances and come to care for *him,* Clark Kent.
Which was one reason why he would make sure that his visitor stayed well away from Lois.
Her awareness of the gaffe she'd made helped him to change the subject, and soon they had agreed the final text of their latest story. Putting the papers back into her file, Lois got to her feet. "Want a ride to the Planet?"
Clark shook his head. "I'm not ready to go just yet. Thanks, but I'll see you there later."
She hesitated. "I'll wait…?"
Wait while he talked to CK? Not a chance! "No, you go on. There's something I need to do before I go to work."
Shrugging, she left the apartment.
Clark had barely turned away from closing the door behind Lois when CK strode back into the kitchen. He raised an eyebrow at his visitor. "You could at least let her get out of here before…" He made a gesture, indicating CK's presence in the apartment.
"She's gone. I checked."
For some reason, CK seemed more edgy than before, but Clark was in no mood to enquire as to the reason. "Can we finish this? I need to get to work."
CK nodded. "We're nearly done, anyway." He paused, his expression suggesting that he was battling with himself over something; then he gave Clark an incredulous look. "I can't believe that you haven't told her yet!"
"That's hardly your business," Clark objected stiffly. "It's certainly not what you said you came here to do."
"I know, Clark," CK acknowledged, "but… well, I can't just not say anything! Why haven't you told her? You love her, don't you?"
Clark shrugged. "Yeah, I love her. But you know that — I assume. There is a Lois in your world?"
CK's expression softened. "Oh yes. And — I guess like you — I fell in love with her the moment I saw her."
His annoyance fading, Clark nodded. "Exactly like me. She's… beautiful, intelligent, loyal, stubborn — and I can't imagine life without her."
"So?" CK prompted.
Clark grimaced, acknowledging his guest's point, then sighed. "The time's just never been right… I'm just not sure how she'll react." He paused. "*Your* Lois knows?"
"Yeah. I told her just after I got shot by Clyde Barrow — she was so upset, and I couldn't bear to see her crying, so I went to her apartment and told her the truth."
Clark stared at his counterpart. A lot of things had gone through his mind during those terrible couple of days after he'd been 'killed', but telling Lois he was Superman had not been one of them, even though he'd been aware of her grief. Was that selfish of him?
"I… I told her I was alive as soon as I could," he said, excusing himself. "I just had to figure out a way of explaining why I wasn't dead."
"Sure. Lois helped me to do that," CK replied. "And having her know the truth made everything much easier to bear — I've never regretted it."
"But — well, maybe it worked for you…"
"We're getting married in a month," was the soft-voiced reply. The subtle message was clear: 'if you'd trusted her long ago, you could be happy now as well'.
Clark looked away, unable to bear the expression on his counterpart's face. He was suddenly, insanely, jealous; although he'd got as far as asking Lois for a date, and she'd accepted, they were nowhere close to being considered a couple. They hadn't even gone on that date yet.
And, judging by her reaction a few minutes earlier when she'd discovered that Superman had been in his apartment, that elusive date was probably not going to happen.
He pushed those thoughts of dating Lois away. Now that he'd seen that Lois's Superman crush was as strong as ever, he couldn't contemplate telling her the truth yet. And he didn't want any more lectures from CK as to why being honest with her was a good idea.
"Okay, CK." His voice was harsher than he'd intended. "Let's finalise what's going to happen here. You're Superman until further notice, and I'm just Clark Kent, right?"
"That's right. And you have to remember not to answer any cries for help. I'll go to as many as I can — though, on second thoughts, I might have to try not to respond to everything, because you normally don't. I mean, if you did you'd never get any work done, right?"
"Okay. So I'm Superman, and if and when this Stride woman makes her claim that Clark Kent is Superman, we prove her wrong. We can appear together to show that she's wrong, and we should have plenty of reports of Superman activity with people able to swear that they were with Clark Kent at exactly the same time."
"Yeah, that's all fine," Clark said, waving a hand dismissively. "But it's this idea that she wants to kill me — you — uh, Superman, that still bothers me," he added more soberly. "I couldn't live with myself —"
"Clark, we already agreed this!" CK interrupted, his voice insistent. "It's the only way this thing will work. And don't forget that this gives us a huge advantage. She's not expecting there to be two of us." He strode out to the balcony door, then looked back at Clark. "Look, you need to get to work, and start doing some investigation of this Stride woman. We're one step ahead of her at the moment, and if you can prove who she really is, then we don't even have to wait for her to make her move."
With that, he pushed open the door; Clark heard a >whoosh!< and a bare second later, the sight of flapping red fabric in the distance was the only sign that his visitor was now airborne.
Lois looked up as her partner strolled down the ramp and into the bullpen; she'd been at her desk for a full half- hour already, and he'd finally decided to show up. If he'd done as she'd suggested and travelled in with her, they could already have prepared their plan of action for the follow-up to the story she'd just given Perry on their behalf.
But that was Clark all over; sometimes, for no apparent reason whatsoever, he just wasn't where he should be, or where she needed him to be — either physically or mentally, in fact.
Take this morning. She'd gone to his apartment — at *his* suggestion — so that they could work on their story together before coming into work. He'd invited her, saying that he'd provide breakfast.
Well, one cup of coffee and a danish probably just about qualified as breakfast, she supposed.
But he'd been acting very strangely. From the moment she'd arrived, she'd sensed that he didn't really want her there. And he'd seemed so anxious to push her out the door once they'd finished — despite their tacit understanding that he'd ride into work with her. He clearly hadn't wanted her company this morning.
And this was the man who'd asked her for a date? A date they had yet to go on?
Did she really want to date a man who blew hot and cold on her like that?
But this was *Clark*, she reminded herself immediately. Her best friend. Okay, Clark could — and did — act weird sometimes, but there was no malice in it. At worst, he was a little insensitive, maybe. He didn't think; he was sort of absent-minded, she supposed. But he wasn't thoughtless, nor was he in any way neglectful of her. He did care about her, and she was pretty sure that he'd be a very attentive boyfriend.
If only she could get to the bottom of why he acted so strangely sometimes…
It hadn't been easy being just Clark Kent for the day, Clark mused sombrely as he went to refill his and Lois's coffee cups in the late afternoon. For all his occasional temptations to wish that he was no more and no less than Clark Kent, reporter, today had shown him that being 'normal' wasn't what he wanted.
He missed being Superman.
He missed the feeling of satisfaction he got when he saved someone's life, or even when he prevented a fairly minor accident from happening. And it wasn't the adulation, or the thanks, which made the difference to him. It was, quite simply, the need to help.
As long as his other-world counterpart was around, Clark wasn't needed to help. CK could handle it all. And Clark was just what he claimed to be: Clark Kent, reporter.
The first time Clark had heard a cry for help that day, he'd been half-way out of his chair before he'd remembered that he was supposed to be lying low and allowing CK to be Superman. He'd sat down again very reluctantly, all sorts of thoughts whirling through his head. Had CK heard the scream too? Was he going to help? What if he hadn't heard it? What if he was somewhere on the other side of the country?
Then, so subtly that he wasn't even sure it was happening, Clark had seemed to feel *something* in his mind, like a whispered thought, telling him to relax.
<<trust me, I told you I'd take charge, didn't I? you have to let me get on with it>>
Had he really heard that? Bamboozled — in fact, downright mystified — Clark had resumed work. And the next time he'd heard an emergency he'd normally go to, he'd tensed but had stayed where he was, trusting that his other-world self would deal with whatever the problem was.
One big advantage of not having to run off to be Superman, of course, had been the ability to spend the entire day with Lois. No stupid excuses, no pathetic cover stories, and no wondering whether she was going to speak to him again once he got back to the newsroom. And even better, since he could be confident of being free that evening, there might even be a chance that he could suggest to Lois that they do something together once they'd finished work…
And so he did, later that afternoon; as he brought Lois yet another coffee refill, he paused by her desk for a moment until she acknowledged him with a look and a smile.
"Want to go grab a pizza later?" he suggested. "I thought maybe Gorgio's…?"
"Mmmm," she murmured consideringly. "Eat in or take out?"
He shrugged. "Whichever you want. We could get a video and eat at my place, if you like." Bad idea, Kent, he reminded himself immediately. What if CK came over? But he'd made the offer now — and perhaps he could find a way of switching it to her apartment.
"Yeah, I like the sound of that," she told him. "Later, then."
Later turned out to be much later; a big lead broke on one of their investigations shortly before five, and they had to stay. Finally, they'd both got to a point where they couldn't do anything else, but they couldn't leave; a couple of sources had promised them information that evening, and they needed to stay until it came in. Lois was waiting for a phone call, and Clark had been promised a fax from a source in the Iberia Detective Agency.
To his surprise, Lois pushed her keyboard away shortly after six, not long after her phone call had come through. "I've had enough. Do you know if that chessboard is still in Perry's office, or did he get rid of it in his last clearout?"
"Should still be there," Clark thought aloud. "You want a game?"
"Why not?" she said, grinning. "As I recall, I need to consolidate my lead…"
"We'll see about that!" he retorted instantly, getting to his feet to get the board.
They were halfway through the second when Lois leaned back in her chair and yawned, her stomach rumbling simultaneously. "Should have got pizza sent in," she complained, sticking her tongue out.
Clark started to commiserate, but then his phone rang. Answering it, he conducted a brief conversation before hanging up and turning back to Lois. In a cheerful yet sympathetic voice, he said, "The fax from Iberia should be here in a few minutes and we can finally get out of here." He paused, surveyed the chessboard for a moment, then moved a piece. "Okay, Queen to King one. Your move."
Lois pulled a wry face. "I know. It's been my move for a while."
Puzzled, Clark indicated the chessboard. "What do you mean? I just — ?"
"I mean the date thing," she said softly, apologetically; but he could see the nervousness in her eyes.
He was nervous too, of course; the longer it was taking for them actually to *organise* this thing, the more scared he was getting about the whole business. And given Lois's notorious insecurity where men and relationships were concerned, plus the disaster of her relationship with Lex in the spring of the previous year, he could imagine that she had to be ten times as scared as he was. Trying to keep his tone light and not give away how important this was to him, he said softly, "Oh."
"So. About the date thing…" Lois began, and he admired her courage yet again.
"Yes?" He was still deliberately trying to keep it casual.
"I know I've been kind of avoiding the subject lately…" she said hesitantly, and he tried his best to look encouraging.
When she didn't complete the sentence, he tried again for an encouraging, fairly casual tone. "Yes," he acknowledged, hoping that his matter-of-fact agreement didn't put her off.
"But I've finally decided that I think we should just…"
Lois was still speaking when a high-pitched siren cut in via his Super-hearing, shattering the near-silence in the newsroom and drowning out Lois's words entirely. <Not *now*!> he pleaded silently, cursing the fates as the sound of a police announcer came, describing a fire at the Metropolitan Building penthouse which, by the sound of it, definitely needed Superman. People were trapped, and conventional firefighting equipment couldn't get near it.
Then he relaxed as he remembered. He didn't have to go. His counterpart, CK would get it. Knowing that he could trust CK, he allowed himself to shut off his Super-hearing, and focused his attention back on Lois.
She was just finishing speaking. "…just a date, right?" Then, impatiently — clearly she'd noticed that she didn't have his full attention — "Clark?"
Oh, hell. She'd obviously been saying something very important — well, of course it was important; before he'd been interrupted, she'd been talking about their date and why she'd been avoiding the subject, hadn't she? — and he'd missed it all.
How could he ask her to repeat it? He'd be making it obvious that he hadn't heard a word she'd said, and in the circumstances, when he was trying to get her to go out with him, that was a *bad* idea.
"Lois, I — " he began apologetically, but then the shrill beep of the fax machine interrupted the tense atmosphere. "The fax," he said quickly, glad of the breathing space which he desperately needed.
As he got up to retrieve the document now spewing out of the machine, Clark caught sight of Lois's expression. She was angry, but there was something beyond anger there. Her posture looked resigned… but her eyes were hurt.
He'd hurt her by his inattention, by the impression he'd given that he wasn't interested in what she had to say… that he wasn't interested in *them*.
If only she knew that nothing — *nothing* — could be further from the truth!
In that moment, it struck him that CK had been right. He should have told Lois about Superman a long time ago. If he had, he wouldn't be in this position right now. He could simply tell Lois that there was a Superman emergency, and either excuse himself to deal with it or — since, if she knew about Superman, he'd probably have told her about CK too — explain that his counterpart was going.
The document, once he felt capable of concentrating on it, delivered all that Clark's contact at the detective agency had promised. He scanned it at Super-speed, then passed it over to Lois, who'd come to stand behind him. She read it too, then, in a brisk, detached tone which pained him to the core, spelt out the implications for their story. The chess game abandoned, Clark sat down at his computer again and made the relevant amendments and additions to the story before letting Lois check it.
Once she'd finished, he hit the key to send it to the night editor. It would probably get held over for the following day's afternoon edition, since they were right on the deadline for the morning's, but right now Clark really didn't care.
The most important thing right now was undoing the damage he'd done to his relationship to the beautiful, and emotionally insecure, woman standing next to him.
Lois was already pulling her coat on, and judging by her stance she was preparing to leave, on her own. Clark caught her arm, gently tugging her to face him. Her hostile expression and the dark look she gave his grip on her almost made him back away; but this was important. He stood his ground.
"Lois, I'm sorry," he said contritely. "I should have been listening to you. I *wanted* to listen to you. You have no idea how much I wanted to hear what you were trying to say — how much I still want to hear it. Please, don't go. Talk to me. Please… I'm sorry," he repeated.
"I was pouring my heart out, Clark. I needed to express a deep, personal feeling, while you… You decided that *something else* was more important. Whatever it was you were thinking about instead of listening to me!" she muttered furiously.
"Nothing else is more important to me than knowing what you were going to say about our date," Clark told her softly. "I swear to you, Lois. I…" He swallowed, then added, "Lois, this whole thing scares me too. I don't want to lose you as a friend. But I want more… and when you were talking, I was afraid that you were going to tell me that you'd been avoiding the issue because you didn't want to go through with the date after all. And… that's why I was distracted," he finished, knowing that he was lying to her and hating every minute of it.
Lois raised her gaze to his, and he could see that she wanted to believe him. Which only made him feel an even bigger heel, of course. But, he reminded himself, he'd taken the decision a long time ago that he couldn't tell anyone that he was Superman. That included Lois. And, yes, there might well be a time in the future when it was right to tell her, but that would be a decision he'd have to make carefully, with a lot of forethought, and being very sure that it was what he wanted. Not on an impulse, because it seemed to be the most convenient way out of a given situation at the time.
"I'm sorry, Lois," he repeated. "Will you tell me now, please?"
She was wavering, he could tell. Giving her a charming, yet pleading smile, he offered, "I'll treat you to whatever you want at the Fudge Castle. Okay?"
"Okay," she said; it sounded faintly grudging, but Clark didn't care.
Superman flew away from the Metro Penthouse, puzzling over what had just happened. Given that he was in this universe specifically to protect the Clark of this world from a serious threat to his identity and his life, and given that the source of the threat was Diana Stride, it seemed too coincidental that the trapped victim who had fallen from — or thrown herself off — the building had been none other than Ms Stride herself.
Not that CK would have known that, of course; it was only when one of the fire officers had addressed her as Ms Stride that he'd realised.
Diana Stride had manipulated a reason for Superman and herself to meet.
CK was very sure of it. She had to have arranged this. And caused the fire? he asked himself, frowning.
Well, there had to be *some* explanation for the fire. And CK would lay odds that Ms Stride was in some way behind it.
Rubbing his neck absently in response to an irritating itch, he headed for Clark's apartment. Even if his counterpart wasn't at home yet, CK would wait for him. He needed to bring his friend up to date on events.
Lois entered the Fudge Castle ahead of Clark, still wondering if she was doing the right thing by giving him the benefit of the doubt. Yes, she wanted to be with him, but she was more confused than ever by the state of his own feelings. Did he want to be with her or not? Did he still want to date her? Or was he just pretending, knowing that he'd made a very bad move by his inattention in the newsroom?
None of it made sense. A man who was seriously and genuinely interested in her would not have so completely ignored her as she was pouring her feelings out to him. By not listening to her at that moment, when it had been obvious that she was going to say something very important about the two of them and their on-hold relationship, he'd sent a very clear signal that she *didn't* matter.
That any possible relationship they might have didn't matter.
But yet he'd apologised so sincerely and contritely, she could almost believe that he really did want her after all. That his behaviour had been some terrible mistake that he utterly regretted, and that he was desperate to find out just where he stood with her.
Could she believe him?
This was *Clark*, she reminded herself quickly. He was her best friend. Of course she could trust him… couldn't she?
But this was the same Clark who, she'd known for some time, was hiding something from her. Her mind went back to her musings that morning, when she'd wondered if she really wanted to date someone who behaved as oddly — and treated her as casually — as Clark did sometimes.
He really was very weird. There were times when she could have sworn that she was the most precious thing in his life, and that he'd literally give her the world if he could. Christmas Eve, when he'd pretended to be unable to get to Smallville just so that she wouldn't be alone, was one of those times. And yet there were other times when she could've sworn that he wished he was anywhere but with her, when he couldn't wait to get away from her and when he couldn't even trouble himself to come up with a convincing excuse. Yes, Clark was hiding something from her… and maybe it was time she found out just what it was. Maybe then she'd be closer to understanding her partner.
Sliding into a bench seat opposite Clark, she noticed her partner watching her, a contrite and very affectionate expression on his face. Clark had a way of looking at her sometimes, with a particular light in his eyes, which made her feel warmed inside and very much cared about. It was times like this when she could easily let herself believe that his feelings for her went a lot deeper than friendship or mere attraction.
But it was times like that moment in the newsroom which generally gave her a rude awakening, causing her to acknowledge that she'd been imagining things, or hoping for too much, where Clark was concerned.
Attempting to distance herself from her thoughts, she ordered a large serving of double chocolate monster fudge cake, with ice-cream, and a hot chocolate on the side. Clark just ordered coffee, remarking with a crooked smile that he knew he'd be called upon to share her gateau.
"So," he said once the waitress had gone, "what were you saying earlier?"
He seemed so eager, so desperate to know, that Lois sighed. She might as well tell him — and then make sure that he understood that she was thinking of changing her mind.
Shrugging, she said, "I just said that since the anticipation of this thing seems to be making us both crazy, it would probably be the best thing if we just went ahead and did it. The date, I mean. Just… fix a date and do it. I mean, if it goes wrong, we'll deal with it, and it'd be better to know than to be in this state of wondering and worrying. Wouldn't it?" she finished anxiously, now desperately needing to hear what Clark thought.
"You make going out with me sound like a trip to the dentist," Clark said wryly, and she could tell from his expression that he was a little hurt.
Lois felt guilt well up inside her, but she tried to squash it quickly, reminding herself that she'd been hurt when Clark hadn't even bothered to listen to what she'd said earlier. But then she made the mistake of looking at him again, and saw the flat line of his mouth.
"I'm sorry, Clark," she said quietly. "I didn't mean it like that, I swear."
His large hand came to cover hers instantly. "It's okay. I know you didn't." He sighed. "But I guess there's a point there all the same. We're both letting this scare us, aren't we? I know I'm terrified that it'll all go wrong and that our friendship'll never be the same afterwards."
Lois caught her breath. "So… what are you saying?" she whispered. "That you want to forget all about it?"
"Is that what you want?" he asked quickly — so quickly that she felt sure that he was afraid it was what she wanted.
Shaking her head, she said, "We can't go back, Clark. It's like Pandora's box; once it's opened, you can't close it again and shut everything away. We've started to think about each other as potential dates, not as friends. And even if we don't ever go on that date, we'll never forget that we talked about it. And we'll always wonder what it might have been like…"
"And regret that we never found out," Clark finished softly. "I know I would."
"Then let's do it," Lois said quickly, before she could change her mind. "Let's fix a day, right now."
Later, Clark returned to his apartment — on foot, much though he'd have liked to fly, but he knew that he had to be careful with another Superman around — still simultaneously overjoyed and panicked about the agreement he and Lois had made to go on their date next Saturday.
He had so much to work out: where to take her, what to wear, how he should behave — after all, this would be a *date*, so she wouldn't be expecting him to act like good old Clark from the newsroom, would she? Should he try to kiss her when he walked her home? Should he expect to be invited in, and if she did invite him in, what would she be expecting?
And, most of all, was he ready for what she might be expecting?
Oh, not sex — making love, he corrected himself hurriedly. He felt that he knew Lois well enough to be sure that she wouldn't sleep with a guy on the first date. In fact, he was pretty sure, given the way she behaved around men who made it clear that they were attracted to her, and the things she'd said about men in her past, that intimacy was a step she wouldn't consider unless she was very sure about a relationship.
And that suited him down to the ground. Despite being probably the oldest male virgin in Metropolis — well, apart from career celibates, he corrected himself in wry amusement — he was in no hurry to change his status. The fact that he'd waited so long actually made him *more* anxious to ensure that, when he finally made love, it would be with the right woman and for the right reasons.
And that he would love and trust the woman concerned enough to have told her his secret.
There lay the rub, he reminded himself thoughtfully. He hadn't told Lois about Superman, and at present he had no plans to.
CK thought he should tell her, and the sooner the better. CK had told his Lois, and the two of them were engaged to be married.
Maybe he needed to talk to CK…
Clark hoped that CK was somewhere around, waiting for him to come home. He wanted — needed — to find out what his counterpart had been up to, and how he'd handled the emergencies he'd dealt with.
Squashing the thought that he only wanted to know what CK had been doing in order to assure himself that the other Superman had done everything Clark himself would have done, he told himself that he needed to be aware of anything out of the ordinary, in case the Stride woman was getting ready to strike. And, of course — a somewhat less noble motive — he'd missed out on his Superman exclusives today. There might have been something which he'd have written about, had he been the one in the Suit today. If Clark Kent failed to produce a story which, on his past record, he would have turned in, then Perry would get suspicious.
He let himself into his apartment, scanning it quickly over the rims of his glasses to see whether CK was anywhere around. The place was empty. Clark quickly walked through his bedroom and out to the balcony door. Before he had a chance to scan the sky, he heard a soft noise and CK was landing beside him.
"I couldn't take the chance that you might have someone with you," his counterpart explained as Clark led the way back into the apartment.
"Someone?" Clark queried.
"Yeah. Like Lois. Since you're so adamant that you don't want her to know about any of this."
"Lois doesn't make a habit of coming back to my apartment with me late at night," Clark pointed out, knowing that he was being a little snippy, but not caring. The other Clark was engaged to his Lois. He had no idea what it was like to be in love with her and not know how she felt in return; how hard he was having to work just to get her to go on a date with him, and even worse, how nervous he now felt about the date they'd finally arranged for the coming weekend.
<But CK was in exactly that position once!> his conscience reminded him. <At least, I think so…>
CK blinked, but said mildly, "I wasn't implying anything, Clark. If your Lois is anything like mine, she wouldn't care what time it was. If she wanted to talk to you about a story, she'd be on your doorstep, day or night. Wouldn't she?" His expression as he faced Clark was one of amused admiration, and Clark found himself smiling in return.
"Yes, that's Lois," he said softly. "And… um, if you don't mind, CK… later I'd like to ask you about your Lois. If that's okay?"
"Sure," his visitor said, reaching to rub the back of his neck absently. "But we have some other things to talk about first. Like Diana Stride and why she just threw herself off the top of a burning building."
Clark was going to take her out to dinner. As a date.
And Lois still didn't know if she'd made the right decision to agree to it, after Clark's very obvious inattention during what should have been a deep and meaningful conversation in the newsroom. That was *not* the action of a man who was very attracted to her and really wanted to date her.
But, as she'd told Clark, it was impossible to go back. They could only go forward. By the mere fact of his asking her out in the first place, their friendship had changed irrevocably.
And that scared the heck out of her.
But then, something that had been happening over the past few months had also scared her.
The blonde assistant DA had been putting the moves on Clark pretty seriously since the previous autumn. And for a time, Lois had suspected that Clark reciprocated the woman's interest in him. Despite her boast to Perry at that dance that she knew she could never lose Clark, she'd been afraid for some time that this was precisely what was happening.
If Clark started to date someone else, their friendship could never be the same again. She could never invite herself over to his apartment for pizza and a movie just because. She couldn't run to him, or call him, in the middle of the night because she was worried about something or because she'd just had a great idea. She would no longer have the right of first call on his time or his attentions.
She would no longer have the right to flirt with him whenever she felt like it, or invite him to events when she needed a partner.
And this possibility, that she might lose Clark to another woman, had made her become very possessive of him — which was something of which she was secretly ashamed. And it had also made her relieved — despite being scared — when he'd actually asked *her* out. Her. Not Mayson.
Whether Clark had dated Mayson for a while and broken up with her, or whether she'd just never forgiven him for standing her up that weekend when he'd been supposed to go to her cabin with her, Lois had no idea. The important thing was that he didn't seem to be interested in Mayson any more.
Instead, he was interested in… her.
And everything about their relationship had changed. Irrevocably.
"So you think she deliberately jumped?" Clark asked, frowning. "But the building was on fire — I guess she might have thought it was her only way out."
CK shook his head. "I'd have got there in time. Thing is, Clark, I'm almost sure that she was watching for me — that she'd seen me coming before she jumped."
"That doesn't make sense. I don't understand why she'd take that kind of risk."
"To be sure that I rescued her? I don't know," CK answered, looking very puzzled and rubbing his neck again. "I mean, she didn't even talk to me, other than thanking me effusively. She introduced herself and her cameraman — now he was irritating. He had a video camera, and he kept filming me."
"Well, I guess even after almost two years Superman's still kind of a novelty to some people," Clark said thoughtfully. "I get people wanting to have photos taken with me all the time still."
"Maybe," CK said, grimacing and continuing to rub his neck.
Something about his visitor didn't look right to Clark… and then he realised what it was. CK was Kryptonian, and invulnerable. Just as he himself was. Which meant…
"What's wrong with your neck?" Clark demanded abruptly.
Looking taken aback, CK shrugged. "It just itches." Then he stilled and his eyes widened. "I never itch!" he exclaimed.
"Kryptonite?" Clark queried, trying to figure out what could have caused the irritation.
"Nope. I'd have known."
He would, Clark agreed. "Let me take a look," he said. CK bent his head forward, and Clark examined the back of his counterpart's neck.
"Can't see anything," he said after a moment or two. "Where exactly is it irritating?"
CK indicated, and Clark tugged his glasses down slightly, using his Super-vision to examine the area more closely. Then he let out a low whistle.
"What is it?" CK demanded, sounding concerned.
"There's something stuck just below your hairline… it's like some sort of tiny radioactive device. And…" Clark paused, listening carefully. "Yeah — it's giving out a signal!"
"What the…" CK straightened and turned to face Clark. "How could — " He broke off, then finished with, "Diana Stride."
"A tracking device?" Clark queried.
"Has to be."
"And she's probably tracked you here by now," Clark said, resigned.
"Not a problem," CK said quickly. "You're a reporter; you write a lot of stories about Superman. I just came to give you the scoop on the fire — you can call it in to the night editor, can't you? There's our cover."
"Yeah, I can do that," Clark agreed. "You've got to do something about that tracker, though. Want me to burn it off?"
CK hesitated. "We don't want your apartment to be the last place it sends a signal from. If I can get it off myself, I could dump it in the Atlantic or something…"
"I'm not sure you could," Clark said thoughtfully. "It's embedded in the skin somehow — almost as if it's been absorbed."
"She rubbed something on me," CK said flatly. "I remember it now. It was when I caught her…"
"Which is why she jumped," Clark finished. "That way she could be assured that you'd have to hold onto her."
"And she could tag me." CK sighed. "Okay, but I still have to get rid of it."
"I'll fly with you," Clark offered. "Once we're well away from here, I'll get it off you. I could burn it off with heat vision — it might hurt, but at least it'd be gone."
"Sounds okay to me. As long as no-one sees two flying men…"
"Well, I'm not going to let you carry me!" Clark objected. "We'll just make sure we stay high."
An hour or so later, two Kryptonians sat, feet paddling in the shallows, somewhere in the upper reaches of the Zambezi.
"So, you did some checking on Diana Stride?" CK asked, once Clark had finished questioning him on his activities that day. He'd tried not to feel too irritated by his counterpart and host's almost-interrogation, telling himself that if this was his universe he'd probably feel the same way about the presence of another Superman. And Clark was right: he'd be expected to bring in at least one report of a Super-activity, since that was his normal practice, and so CK had to give him the necessary information.
And at least Clark had expressed his appreciation in one respect: that while Superman was out saving people and stopping crime, Clark Kent was visibly working in the newsroom or out and about: there would be plenty of witnesses able to swear that Clark Kent and Superman could not possibly be the same person.
"Yep." Clark nodded. "But she's an elusive woman — at least, the side of her we want to know about is. You want to know about Diana Stride the TV star? No problem — we've got PR releases coming out our ears, from the studio, the production company, Diana's agent and more besides. But try to find out anything about her that's not on the official PR? Zip. Nada. I can't even find what she did — officially — before she became a TV star. It's as if she's got no past — as if she appeared out of nowhere just as she is today."
"Which makes it even more likely that there's something suspicious going on there," CK mused aloud. "What does Lois think?"
"Lois?" Clark sounded taken aback. "I haven't told her…"
CK sighed. His counterpart seemed to be even more lunkheaded where Lois was concerned than he himself had been. He wished that his Lois was here, so that she could talk some sense into this idiot.
He just wished that she was here, period…
It had only been a day, but he missed her. He missed being able to pick up the phone and call her, or look across the newsroom and see her… he just missed being able to hold her in his arms. And now he faced a lonely night on his own, without Lois to hold.
He didn't even know where he was going to be spending the night… and this Clark Kent was so unappreciative of what he had that he was doing his best to chase his Lois away.
CK sighed again. Maybe he was being too critical of Clark, he told himself. After all, he hadn't been much better; he'd hidden his true self from his Lois for almost a year and a half, only telling her the truth in the end a few short months ago. He wasn't perfect either.
But still… Surely Clark could see how much easier things would be if Lois was in on the secret?
"I take it you don't approve." His host's slightly sardonic voice intruded on CK's thoughts.
"It's not really my business," CK equivocated. "I just thought… well, I know I do my best work with Lois, and she's great at coming up with ideas I'd never have thought of. I suppose I figured it might be the same for you."
Clark sighed this time. "You're right, it is. And, yes, working with Lois on this would be easier. The problem is, I just don't know how to explain it all to her. I mean, how can I tell her that I think Diana Stride wants to kill Superman?"
Reluctantly, CK said, "Superman told you?"
"But how does Superman know?" Clark objected. "I don't know how I could explain that. And anyway… I'm getting really tired of having to tell her that 'Superman told me' things."
Guilty conscience kicking in? CK wondered. "Okay, maybe we need to think of something. Because I really think we could use Lois's help here."
"Okay," Clark agreed; CK thought he sounded almost relieved. "Speaking of Lois…" he added then, seeming somewhat awkward, "I wanted to ask you something."
"Sure," CK agreed.
"Well, it's… maybe a bit personal. It's about you and your Lois. You're… engaged, right?"
CK smiled as the image of his beautiful fiancee floated before his mind yet again. "Yes — I asked her to marry me at Christmas. I flew us both to Smallville for the holiday, and I proposed on Christmas Day."
"You're very fortunate," Clark said softly. "I'd love to hope that there's a possibility Lois and I might get to that point some day."
"Why shouldn't you?" CK asked. "If we did…?"
"That's kind of what I wanted to talk to you about," Clark said wryly. "I asked Lois out a week or so ago. Our date had to be postponed because of a stakeout, but she's agreed to go out with me next Saturday. And I'm…"
"Nervous?" CK suggested.
"Yeah," Clark agreed, and CK could hear it in his voice. "Lois put it just right tonight. We've been best friends for ages. I'd hate to lose that. But we're going to try dating… and I'm scared of what might happen if it doesn't work out. We can't go back to being friends — or at least, not easily. And I'd hate to lose her as both girlfriend and best friend."
"Yeah, I can understand that," CK said quietly. "But could you really have just kept things the way they were? Working beside her, knowing that you loved her, maybe seeing her dating someone else?"
<Like Lex Luthor> he added silently, not wanting to ask Clark whether that part of their history was also shared. It was painful enough to remember it on his own account, and he and Lois were engaged. In Clark's position, the memory would be far more distressing.
Clark shook his head. "That's why I asked her out. But ever since I've been having second thoughts — not because I don't want to go out with her, but because…"
"You're scared of what might happen. I know." CK knew only too well; he'd gone through the same thought process many times before that fateful night when he'd been shot and events had simply taken over. It had taken the prospect of losing Lois to Lex Luthor to make him drag up the courage to tell her his feelings the first time, and that rejection had made him very wary of a second attempt. It had been too easy to decide to settle for her friendship, as something he could be sure of, instead of taking the risk on a deeper relationship which might go wrong.
"It was easier for me, in a way," he continued reflectively. "Okay, she was mad at me when she found out I was Superman, but she'd just realised what it was like to think she'd lost me, and that made a difference. Plus, we spent a lot of time together. It was a lot easier to tell her how I felt, and it was pretty obvious that she felt the same. And… well, I won't say that it's all been plain sailing, but we love each other and neither of us is going to risk losing that."
"I suppose I should have a bit more faith in us," Clark said. "It's just… well, it's not easy, you know?"
"I know," CK agreed, wondering whether to add what he really thought. Then he decided that Clark probably needed the push. "But it won't get any easier as long as you're deceiving her, Clark. She deserves to know who you really are."
"She knows who I am," Clark said coolly. "Clark Kent, reporter. That's who I want her to want to be with."
"Clark, you know as well as I do that that's a false choice!" CK said, irritated that his counterpart just seemed to be ignoring the truth. "I had to realise that myself a few months ago. Wanting Lois to choose you as Clark is just as unfair as it would be if you wanted her to choose you as Superman. Neither is *you*. As far as Lois knows, Clark Kent is an ordinary guy, with whom she'd have an ordinary life. She doesn't know that in taking you on she'd have to share you with the whole world, and that might be as much of a turn-off as the powers could be an attraction. She deserves the chance to consider that before she falls in love with a man who doesn't really exist — not as she believes him to be, anyway."
Clark pulled his feet out of the river and sat with his knees drawn up, arms wrapped around them, clearly avoiding CK's gaze. He'd obviously offended his host, CK accepted, but he felt no regret for what he'd said. Clark, in his opinion, needed to hear what he'd said, and he hoped that at least his counterpart would think about the points he'd made.
After a long silence, Clark got to his feet. "I'm going back," he said briefly.
CK grimaced. So his counterpart was going to stay angry. "Okay, Clark. I guess we'll talk again tomorrow."
Clark hesitated. "Where are you planning on spending the night?" he asked, sounding concerned.
CK shrugged. "I don't know. Probably just fly around, I guess. I'm sure to find things to do."
"That's crazy. I know we don't need as much sleep as humans, but you still need some rest. Come back to my place. You can sleep on the couch," Clark offered, sounding — to CK's surprise — as if he meant it.
Grateful, CK nodded. "If you're sure. And… uh, you're sure Lois isn't likely to come over in the middle of the night because she's got a lead on a story and just *has* to tell you about it right there and then?"
Clark shrugged. "If she does, you should be able to get out of the way quickly enough. Or spin back into the Suit and we can think of a reason why Superman's there."
"I guess," CK agreed. "And thanks, Clark."
He saw Clark shrug wryly. "No problem. You'd do the same if our positions were reversed. And… I've been behaving like a jerk to you. I know you mean well, even if I don't really want to hear what you're saying."
That was something, CK thought. "Let's go," he said lightly. "We have an assassin to catch tomorrow — and I bet she'll be looking out for another way to track me down now that her tracer's gone."
"…so that's why he's here," Clark finished. "It all sounds pretty far-fetched, though. I mean, I believe him, but it does all sound pretty crazy, doesn't it?"
"So does the thought that someone from another planet could be living here on Earth, looking just like a normal man, but with all sorts of special powers," Martha Kent pointed out. "Your dad and I learned long ago not to believe that anything's impossible where you're concerned, honey."
"I guess," Clark agreed. "It does bother me that he's taking all the risk, though. What if something goes wrong? What if he…" What if CK were to die, he finished silently.
"You said he's engaged," Jonathan intervened. "I guess that makes it worse — if anything happens to him, his fiancee's going to be devastated."
Two lives ruined, not just one, Clark acknowledged. "He told me that he'd just about had time to tell his Lois what he was doing. She just told him to be careful and come back to her."
The three fell silent as the possibility that the visiting Superman might not be able to fulfil that promise lay heavily on their minds.
"I'll do everything I can to make sure that doesn't happen," Clark said abruptly. "He's insisted on being Superman while he's here, which I guess makes sense in a way. But I'm going to make sure I know what he's doing and where he is the whole time. No-one's going to get near him without me knowing about it."
"In that case, *you* need to be careful too," Jonathan pointed out.
He also, he knew, needed to be more considerate towards his counterpart. It had struck him last night, on hearing CK go out on a rescue for the third time, just how much the other-universe visitor was doing for him. It wasn't just taking the risk from Diana Stride onto his shoulders, although that would have been enough. CK had voluntarily come to this universe from his own, leaving his own family, friends and loved ones behind.
Leaving his *Lois* behind.
He had to be desperately lonely; missing Lois terribly.
Silently, Clark resolved to make this as quick and as easy as possible for his counterpart. If he could quickly prove what Diana Stride was up to, preferably before she got close enough to Superman to do any harm, then CK could get back home very soon, and back to his fiancee.
Martha got to her feet. "I told you your new glasses arrived yesterday. I nearly forgot to give them to you!" She picked up a small case from the dresser and handed them over.
Clark removed his horn-rims and put on the new spectacles, leaning sideways and floating up a few feet so that he could see himself in the mirror. They made quite a difference to his appearance, he thought in satisfaction.
"So why the change of image?" Martha asked, grinning. "This wouldn't be for a certain person's benefit, would it?"
Clark rolled his eyes. "I just got tired of the other ones — they're very old-fashioned. I wanted something a bit more modern."
"Well, they sure suit you," his mother said approvingly.
"Thanks." Clark smiled, then got up and went to hug his mother. "I need to get going," he said.
"Bring CK to meet us," Martha said as he made his way to the door. "We'd like to see him."
Clark nodded. He'd ask CK — always assuming that they had time, and that CK was going to be okay…
Determined that he was going to ask for Lois's help with investigating Diana Stride, Clark hurried into the newsroom later that morning. Lois was already there, and she beckoned quickly to him as he approached, then mimed drinking something. Grinning, he veered over to the coffee area.
"Your coffee, madam," he said with a wink as he came over to Lois a minute or two later. "So what's up?"
"Big breaking story," she said briefly, accepting the cup and instantly taking a sip. Watching her, Clark marvelled again at his partner's ability to detach herself completely from personal issues when she was focused on work. Looking at her now, the way she was behaving towards him, he'd never have guessed that the previous evening they'd had a deep and intense conversation about taking the scary step towards a relationship. It was almost impossible to believe that this was the same Lois who'd given him a shy, almost nervous goodbye when he'd walked her back to her Jeep, having refused a lift home from her.
"You must have missed the news on LNN," Lois answered. "Seems the FBI's managed to arrest an important member of Intergang, and he's agreed to cut a deal. Rumour from the DA's office is that Intergang has been bumping off world leaders for decades, making it look like an accident each time. And it seems that Mr X — that's what the DA's office is calling him — is going to finger their chief assassin."
Lois paused, looking straight at Clark, and he could see the excitement on her face. She had the smell of a really big story under her nose, and she couldn't wait to get going. So much for getting her help with Diana Stride, he thought ruefully.
"Anyway," Lois continued, "Mr X has been moved to a secret location ahead of testifying, and Perry wants us to get the scoop."
"What, find out where he is? Or *who* he is?" Clark queried.
"More like who he's going to name!" Lois exclaimed, grinning. "Apparently it's someone prominent — someone no- one would have suspected. At least, that's what my contact in the FBI says. Oh, nice glasses, by the way," she added with an approving smile. "They suit you."
Clark blinked. Lois had a contact in the FBI? But then, why was he surprised? Lois had contacts everywhere. "Thanks," he said in response to the compliment. "Okay, so what's the plan?" he asked, knowing that she would already have something worked out that they could discuss.
She shrugged, and suddenly she was looking uncomfortable. "Oh, I thought maybe you could talk to your Assistant DA friend."
Clark was about to object, feeling uncomfortable about taking advantage of Mayson in that way, as well as knowing that Mayson hated any idea that he was simply using her for information. But then he was distracted by his Super- hearing kicking in… Someone had mentioned Superman, and it was a voice he recognised.
He focused, ignoring Lois. The Stride woman wasn't speaking, but a man was. The French accent made Clark think that it must have been the man with her the previous evening; CK had mentioned a French cameraman.
"I know it's a nuisance, but can't you tag him again?" the man lisped.
"Don't be stupid!" Diana retorted. "He's never going to fall for that trick again; not if he found the tracer and got rid of it! We'll just have to try something else."
"Well, I did manage to find out where he went last night, remember," the cameraman said defensively. "The apartment belongs to Clark Kent."
That was clearly news to Diana Stride, for her tone was intrigued. "Mr Kent? Of the Daily Planet? Well, well. Perhaps this won't be such a wasted journey after all."
This wasn't good. Already Diana Stride had made a link between himself and Superman. Okay, for the next few days there was a Superman as well as a Clark Kent, so he didn't have to worry too much about exposure of that secret. But even so, he now knew that it would be a mistake to under- estimate Diana Stride.
"Clark? *Clark*!" Suddenly he became aware that Lois was thumping his arm, as well as calling him impatiently.
"I'm sorry. I was… thinking," he said, turning to her.
"About?" she prompted impatiently. "And are you going to talk to Mayson or not? And why aren't you more excited, anyway? This could be the scoop of the year, if we manage to get the name of the assassin before anyone else!"
"I don't know," he admitted. "I don't like the idea. And…" He hesitated, then added, "It's just that I had something else I needed to work on today. I know this will be a great story, if we get it — it's just that it came at kind of a bad time."
"Something else?" Lois's curiosity had clearly been aroused.
Clark shrugged. "It doesn't matter now."
He still wasn't sure that he was ready to tell Lois that Diana Stride wanted to kill Superman. It was a pretty far- fetched idea, he knew: why on earth would the darling of prime-time TV want to kill anyone, least of all Superman? And yet he trusted CK's word on that — and even if he hadn't, the tracer the previous evening at least proved that Stride was up to no good. And, of course, CK had told him that her other aim was to expose Superman as Clark Kent. Whether or not she already guessed his secret identity, Clark wasn't sure. But the fact that Superman had been tracked to his apartment wasn't a good sign, even though they could 'prove' her wrong on that easily enough.
He'd have to talk to CK and see whether they could come up with a deflecting tactic. He needed to talk to CK anyway — his counterpart had left the apartment early in response to a report of a freeway pile-up. Clark was determined, as he'd told his parents, to keep a check on CK's safety.
First, though, he needed to find out just what Diana Stride was doing at the Planet offices.
He didn't have to wait too long. In just a moment, the elevator doors slid open and the TV presenter and her cameraman entered the newsroom. The sudden surprised murmurs as staffers recognised her brought Perry out of his office.
"What in the Sam Hill — Ms Stride! What can I do for you?" His manner changing from gruffly annoyed to welcoming, the editor held out his hand to the visitor.
"I'm so sorry for intruding into your newsroom, Mr White," Clark heard Diana say smoothly; the husky undertone of her voice made his hackles stand on end. He nudged Lois, and the two of them made their way to the front of the newsroom.
"What's she doing here?" Lois hissed.
"Your guess is as good as mine," he told her. "But I don't trust her…"
"Why not?" Lois was surprised. "She's only a lightweight chat-show host. Chosen for her looks and not her brains."
Clark sighed. "I'm not so sure about that," he said unwillingly. "I'll explain later, okay? I just want to know what she's up to."
He turned his attention back to Perry and Diana Stride. "…we're making a special issue of Top Copy, all about Superman. A tribute to him. After all, he does so much for all of us, and for this great city of ours, and we thought that it's time someone said thanks on behalf of all of us. And since we know that the Daily Planet has always had a special relationship with Superman — and especially with a couple of your top journalists — I was hoping that you might agree to help us."
"Help you?" Perry queried.
"Yes — oh, just some background information, and maybe a few short interviews? It won't take up too much of anyone's time, I promise."
Well, that, together with the tag, was proof of one of CK's assertions about the Stride woman, Clark thought grimly. And now he had the answer to one of his questions. Whether or not she already suspected that Superman was Clark Kent, it was very likely that she thought he had a secret identity. Special tribute — hah! She was going to try to expose him.
And, for the first time, Clark found himself feeling very grateful for his counterpart's presence, instead of the vague resentment he'd felt since CK had arrived and which he'd tried to hide from his parents.
"I'd hope that if any of my reporters have anything new to say about Superman, they'd say it in the pages of the Daily Planet, not on Top Copy!" Perry said curtly.
"Oh, but, Perry — may I call you Perry?" Diana cooed. "The Daily Planet is, after all, a serious newspaper. We simply couldn't compare it with Top Copy. My show is really just a light-hearted magazine programme. And since what we're planning is a *tribute* to Superman, I would really love to have his friends talking about how wonderful he is. People who know the *man*, not just the hero."
"I'm not sure that anyone does know the man," Lois said dryly, and Clark glanced at her sharply. She, more than anyone, knew the man in the Suit, even though she didn't know that he was actually her partner. Was she resentful that she didn't know Superman as well as she'd like to — or was she protecting him? Of course, he reminded himself, she'd never printed the truth about Kryptonite after she'd seen him wounded by it… so the idea that she was being protective of Superman wasn't that far-fetched.
Diana looked taken aback at Lois's comment, but then ignored her, turning to Clark. "How about you, Mr Kent? After all, I do know that you're a particular friend of Superman's."
"I'm not sure where you got that information…" Clark began, anxious to scotch any suspicions of close links between himself and his alter ego, but Diana interrupted him.
"Oh, you don't need to cover up for him with me, Mr Kent! I'm not going to stake out your apartment looking for him. Let's just say that I have my sources, and I know that you two are… shall we say, close?"
Time to quash that line of speculation once and for all, Clark decided. "If you mean that Superman occasionally gives us information for stories, sure. He sometimes flies by my apartment — or Lois's — and tells us what he's been up to. I guess he doesn't really get much opportunity to talk to people normally. But that doesn't mean that I know him at all, really."
"That's fascinating, Clark!" Diana gushed. "You don't mind if I quote you on that in the show, do you?"
"He does," Lois growled, grabbing Clark's arm and tugging him away. "We have work to do, Ms Stride; I'm sure you'll excuse us."
"Not just yet, Mr Kent, if you don't mind," Diana said quickly. At his gesture of protest, she added, "It's just that I have a message for Superman, and I'd be so grateful if you could pass it on for me."
"What message?" Clark asked, knowing that his tone was curt, but not really caring.
"Please tell him that I want to apologise for last night. I… played a little trick on him, you see. And I know now that it was unfair, and I'm sure he resents me for it. So if you could tell him that, Mr. Kent, I'd be most grateful. I'd also like to make it up to him…" Her voice dipped an octave. "I would be very honoured if he would have dinner with me in my penthouse. Tonight, if possible, so that I can apologise in person."
Clark, knowing that Lois was giving him an openly questioning look, simply said, "I'll do what I can, Ms Stride. But there's no guarantee at all that either of us will see him today. And now, if you'll excuse us, my partner and I have work to do."
"What on earth is going on with you?" Lois muttered as they walked back to her desk. "I mean, I'm no fan of Diana Stride and I think her show is sensationalist rubbish, but what's your problem?"
It was very unusual that Clark would be rude to anyone, least of all a woman; her partner had very old-fashioned manners in some respect, despite his general belief in equality. And yet it had been more than apparent to her that he'd taken an instant dislike to Diana Stride. She'd almost been able to feel his hackles rising.
Not that her hackles had actually been behaving themselves either, she acknowledged. She hadn't liked the way the perfectly-made-up TV star had been looking at Clark, and she'd wanted to growl when Stride had gushed at him. The way she'd said "That's fascinating, Clark!", and looked at him as if she was hanging on her partner's every word, had set Lois's teeth very definitely on edge.
She'd never cared for Diana Stride; now she actively disliked the woman.
"Long story," Clark answered, his tone equally low. "If we get a few minutes before Perry sends us off in search of Mr X, I'll fill you in. It's related to what I wanted to work on."
"We'll make time," she told him firmly. "Conference room — now. Perry's still occupied with getting her out of his newsroom — he won't notice."
It wasn't often that Clark offered to share a secret with her, and Lois had every intention of taking full advantage of this rare opportunity. It wasn't that her partner was a secretive person as a rule, she was sure, but she did know that there were some things he was keeping from her. Somewhere deep inside, she was still smarting from that incident a year or so ago, when she'd demanded that he tell her his deepest secret so that she could have blackmail material. And he'd admitted later what she'd already suspected: that what he'd told her hadn't been his most protected secret after all.
Of course, part of the reason she felt that Clark was keeping things — or at least, one important thing — from her could be, Lois conceded, that she'd never exactly encouraged him to treat her as a confidant. Whereas, as far as he was concerned, the opposite was true: she'd confided in him on many occasions, and he'd made it clear that he was happy to listen… and, even more important, that anything she told him would never go any further. Clark had never repeated to anyone any of the private things she'd told him about herself, even when she hadn't spelt out their confidential nature.
It struck her as unfair — unworthy of her — that her feelings now about the prospect of Clark confiding in her about something were more related to the satisfaction of her own curiosity than any wish to help her friend. Not just her friend, she reminded herself, biting her lip: the man she had a date with next Saturday.
Closing the conference-room door behind her, she faced Clark and said immediately, "So what's the problem with Diana Stride?"
He looked awkward for a moment, then said, "Superman told me that he's pretty sure that she's out to kill him."
Incredulous, Lois stared at him. "You're kidding! Why on earth would Diana Stride want to kill Superman?" And how could she, unless she knew about Kryptonite? Lois added silently. She was fairly certain that Clark knew Kryptonite could kill Superman, but she'd never taken any chances where discussing the deadly mineral was concerned.
Shoving his hands in his pockets, Clark answered, "I have no idea. It makes no sense to me at all — but he seemed pretty sure. I'm not really convinced… but I'm not going to ignore what he said."
One thing clicked into place. "She asked you to apologise to Superman for a trick she played on him," Lois said slowly. "What was that all about?"
She listened in amazement as Clark explained about the tracer. Then, frowning, she said, "But that could just be to do with this show she's planning. What if it's going to be some sort of expose, Clark? She probably tagged him to try to find out where he goes, what he does, when he's not rescuing people."
And that was a question which, somehow, she herself had failed to address in any serious way, Lois reminded herself. In the beginning, she'd been so dazzled by Superman that she'd been unable to be objective about him; she'd completely failed to apply her usual objective, questioning approach to him. Later, he'd become a friend and she'd understood that he guarded his privacy carefully. She'd also understood, without his needing to tell her, that if she probed too far, she'd lose his trust. And so she'd never actually asked those questions which, it seemed, Diana Stride was now considering.
"Maybe," Clark said, but he didn't look convinced. "I don't know. Superman seems to believe that there's more to it than a TV show. Though one thing I do agree with you on — this isn't just going to be a 'tribute' to Superman. She's trying to find out something sensational or salacious about him — I'd bet a year's salary on that," he added cynically.
"Have you ever seen 'Top Copy'?" Lois demanded, raising an eyebrow. "That's what it's all about! It's not serious journalism, or even just press-release journalism. Sure, she gets the occasional big-name interviewee, and I have *no* idea at all how her production company manages it. But mostly it's all about tabloid-style exposures. Look how she got that senator on last year — he thought she was going to ask him about his opposition to the education bill, but she'd found a string of women he'd had affairs with and got them all on videotape, and she destroyed his marriage right there on live TV. It got great ratings, of course," she finished scornfully.
Not that Lois had any time for the kind of guy who played around behind his wife's back — her own family experiences had given her a loathing for that sort of creep — but she had even less time for salacious media exposure of people's private business.
"I think I've only ever watched it once," Clark said wryly. "But whatever she's planning, I don't want to help her."
"Me neither," Lois said firmly. "I'll bet part of her so- called 'investigation' is poking her nose into Superman's private life. His *sex* life…" Assuming he had one, she thought wryly. Although she knew only too well that Superman was both heterosexual and capable of being attracted to Earth women…
Clark groaned. "Why should anyone care?" he asked, his tone almost desperate, Lois thought.
"Oh, some people care all right," she drawled cynically. "The Diana Strides of the world, in fact. Hang on a minute," she added quickly as a thought came to her mind. "Clark, why don't we put a spoke in her wheel?"
He looked interested. "What have you got in mind?"
"Well…" Lois began with a grin, then outlined the plan she had in mind. As she finished, Clark was grinning too.
"Sounds perfect!" he complimented her. "Did I ever tell you you're brilliant, Lois?"
She laughed. "Not nearly enough for my satisfaction, partner! Now come on," she added. "We have a couple of villains to investigate…"
With Lois determined to review everything they knew about Intergang, it proved impossible for Clark to get away, even for five minutes, to check up on CK. She also had several hunches as to who the mysterious Mr X might be, and some wild guesses about the mystery assassin.
"He's someone high profile, we think," she said, waving a doughnut around as she spoke. "Someone no-one would expect to be an assassin, either. Hmmm… And I guess he'd have to have easy access to his victims, otherwise he'd have been caught by now. So…"
"So…?" Clark prompted.
"So… I don't think we're getting anywhere. I think we should talk to Mayson Drake. I think you should call her and ask her to meet us."
Clark sighed. Okay, sure, he knew that was what they did. They used contacts to get leads. Lois had already used a contact of hers in the FBI. And now he was the one who had a contact in the DA's office.
But Mayson wasn't just a contact. She was a friend — and a friend, furthermore, who'd made it very plain that she hated being used. Not that Lois would understand that, he knew. She sometimes acted as if friends were commodities just like the public library or the Internet: they were an information resource, to be tapped when required. He still remembered, ruefully, Lois acting concerned for him when he'd been burgled, only to find that she was using him as research for a story.
Lois insisted, though, and so eventually Clark picked up the phone. As he'd known, Mayson wasn't happy about the request, but she agreed in the end to meet them for lunch at Lois's uncle's cafe. "I can't tell you anything," she repeated as he thanked her. "Well, I'm grateful anyway," he assured her.
Climbing out of the cab outside Mike Lane's restaurant, Clark said resignedly, "I'm not really comfortable with this, Lois."
She shrugged. "Why? We discussed this, Clark. Mayson works in the DA's office, so she's in the perfect position to give us a lead on this Mr X. Or on the assassin."
Clark sighed. "I know. You don't see any problem with what you're asking me to do."
Lois rolled her eyes at him. "I offered to come alone, remember? And anyway, what's the big problem? Just because she's in love with you?"
She saw Clark flinch at her bluntness, and she winced inwardly. <Tactless, Lois!> she told herself brusquely; it wasn't entirely Clark's fault that Mayson Drake was crazy about him and couldn't manage to hide her feelings.
Although she still wasn't entirely sure where Clark himself stood on the issue of Mayson. He'd told her that she was a friend… but then Lois had always been sceptical about the possibility of men and women being friends without anything else intruding. Oh, sure, she and Clark were friends, but it wasn't as if sex had never reared its ugly head between them — she knew that he'd been attracted to her when they'd first met, and then there had been that declaration and withdrawal of love last summer. Plus she wasn't exactly indifferent to him…
And now they were about to take that scary step from friendship to dating. No, she decided; platonic friendship between men and women was a myth.
Clark sighed again as he held the cafe door open for her. "Mayson's a friend, Lois. That's all. I asked *you* out, if you remember."
"I know," Lois said, a little sheepishly. "But that doesn't stop her wanting more from you than you're prepared to give, does it?"
Clark was silent for a moment; then, just as Mike was approaching to show them to a table, he murmured, "I know. I need to do something about that. I just don't want to hurt her, Lois."
Lois waited until Mike had chatted with them for a couple of minutes, handed them menus and then left, promising to send their guest over as soon as she arrived. Then she touched Clark's arm lightly. "By not telling her you're not interested, you're hurting her more. All the time she doesn't know you don't want a relationship with her, she's allowing herself to hope, and dream… Clark, you're not being fair to her."
He met her gaze, his dark eyes troubled. "You sound like you know how that feels."
Thinking of Superman, Lois nodded. "I do. And, believe me, while it hurts to be told you're wasting your time, it's kinder in the end."
It *had* hurt, six months earlier when Superman had told her that he didn't believe she loved him; when his behaviour had made it clear that they couldn't be any more than friends. For weeks she'd been angry with him, desperately hurt by what had seemed at the time to be the withdrawal of his friendship as well as what she'd hoped was his love. But, as it turned out, she'd never lost his friendship, and they'd now come to a new and better understanding of each other. Without that abrupt, almost cruel dashing of her hopes, she might have continued to believe that she and Superman could be together, and she'd have become bitter and unhappy over time as she gradually came to understand that it would never happen.
She still, sometimes in her most secret dreams, yearned for him; but she recognised that it was a fantasy, and she was directing her romantic thoughts towards ordinary men instead. Well, towards one ordinary man in particular.
No; much as she disliked Mayson Drake — and, yes, she *was* jealous, she admitted silently, of the other woman's apparent hold on Clark and the possessive way she behaved around him — she didn't want another woman to go on hoping and dreaming for something that just wasn't going to happen.
After a moment, Clark nodded. "Okay. I'll talk to her. Thanks." He hesitated then, and after a moment added, "So… who hurt you, Lois?" His voice was soft, his tone concerned.
It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him; but then she shook her head. That conversation with Superman had been private. To the best of her knowledge, nobody else knew about it. She certainly hadn't told anyone, and she couldn't imagine Superman talking about it to anyone, either. He'd never even referred to it again.
No; she couldn't tell Clark. She gave him what she hoped was a reassuring smile. "Oh, that's ancient history. Don't worry about it. And look," she added, for once in her life actually grateful to see the Assistant DA, "Mayson's here."
Forced to shift gears, Clark got to his feet and extended his hand to Mayson. He realised as soon as he saw her puzzled — wounded — expression that she hadn't been expecting him to be so formal, and he awkwardly tried to alter his gesture. Shifting so that his arm went loosely around her, he leaned forward and kissed her cheek lightly.
As Mayson took the seat Mike Lane was holding out for her, though, Clark could see that she was still hurt by what she obviously thought was a snub. Lois was right, he accepted, sighing inwardly. He needed to deal with the Mayson situation, and the sooner the better.
They made small talk between ordering and having their sandwiches brought to them; then Clark explained again what they wanted to talk to Mayson about. She shook her head several times as he was talking, then finally said firmly, "Sorry, guys, I can't give on this one."
That was only what he'd expected. Clark glanced at Lois, hoping that she'd accept it and leave Mayson alone. But she leaned forward, making eye contact with the assistant DA. "Look, we wouldn't be irresponsible with the information," Lois pointed out. "You know us. You can trust us. We'd hold it till the day he testified — you know that's what we'd do."
Mayson was having none of that either. "This isn't a matter of trust," she said instantly. "I have orders. And these orders come from way up."
Feeling, reluctantly, that he had to support his partner, Clark leaned forward and caught Mayson's gaze, giving her what he hoped was a friendly, encouraging smile. "We've heard the rumours about the assassin Mr. X is going to ID… there's nothing at all you can give us?"
He could feel her weakening, and part of him wanted to tell her to ignore him, to forget all about personal feelings and just do her job. He didn't want Mayson giving him special favours just because she was in love with him; he didn't want her to be in love with him at all. Because he couldn't, wouldn't love her back…
After a pause, Mayson said in a low voice, "Well, all right, but I shouldn't even be saying this. Apparently, the assassin is famous. Really famous."
Lois looked up at that; she seemed to have been looking at something on the floor, Clark noticed. "Yeah, we'd got that sort of impression," she said to Mayson. "High-profile was what I heard."
Mayson looked almost disappointed to find that her information wasn't altogether new to the reporters, Clark thought. But she didn't comment. Instead, she just said, "If I say another word, I'll be looking for a new career."
"We understand that, Mayson," Clark said. "Don't worry. And thank you — we really appreciate this. Now, can I get you another latte?"
Mayson was sitting too close to him; she was taking advantage of every possible opportunity to touch him, and she kept trying to make eye contact. Lois noticed too, and she raised a cynical eyebrow in Clark's direction more than once. Clark admitted again that Lois was right, and that the sooner he explained the situation to Mayson, the better.
So, once his partner had finished eating, Clark said quickly, "Lois, would you mind going ahead back to the Planet? I wanted a chance to talk to Mayson about something else."
Lois glanced at him and seemed to read what he was trying to tell her. She nodded. "See you later, Clark. Thanks, Mayson."
Once his partner had left the cafe, Clark turned back to Mayson. She was looking at him expectantly.
"I'm glad you wanted to talk, Clark," she told him, her voice even more husky than normal. "Things got left kind of up in the air between us…"
"I know, and it's my fault," he said quietly, meeting her gaze. "Mayson… there's something I've needed to tell you for a while, and I just could never figure out a way to do it. I… I never wanted to hurt you, but I think by not saying anything I probably ended up hurting you more anyway…"
Her gaze dropped to the table. "You're telling me that you're not… you don't want to date me," she mumbled, sounding crushed.
"Mayson, I'm so sorry," he said quickly. "I never wanted to hurt you. And it's not you — I think you're beautiful, intelligent, great company and a really, really nice person. It's me… I'm just…"
"Just head-over-heels in love with that oblivious partner of yours," Mayson finished, with a humourless laugh. "I think I've always known that, Clark. I guess I hoped that maybe you'd give up on her one of these days and recognise that there's someone out there who really does care about *you* and wants to be with you… and I wanted that to be me."
"I know," Clark said, on a sigh. "But I can't do that… it wouldn't be fair to you. Would you really want to go out with a guy who wanted to be with someone else? Who was thinking of another woman when he kissed you?" He shook his head. "I couldn't do that to you, Mayson. I like you far too much to use you like that."
"Well, that's something anyway," she said gruffly; he could tell that she was hiding her real feelings, which added to his self-castigation for delaying so long in making it clear to her where she stood. "But tell me something," she added suddenly. "I noticed the way Lois looked at me… is there something going on between you two?"
Unable — unwilling — to lie, Clark nodded. "I asked her out about a week ago. Things kind of got in the way, but we're going on our first date this weekend."
Mayson was silent for several moments. Then she collected her things and stood up. "I wish you'd told me this sooner, Clark. All this time I've been hoping… wondering where I stood with you… and you asked Lois out a week or more ago. You should have told me," she repeated raggedly.
"I know," he said softly. "And, believe me, I'm sorry, Mayson."
"Not half as sorry as I am," she muttered, turning to go.
"Mayson," he called quickly.
She didn't turn around, but she did stop moving.
"Mayson, I meant what I said — I really like you. I…"
"Don't tell me," she interrupted, swinging around to stare at him, her expression hurt and angry. "You think of me as a friend. Like a sister, maybe. You want us to stay friends. That's what you were going to say, isn't it?" She ducked her head, as if she couldn't bear to look at Clark as he answered.
"Something like that," Clark admitted.
"Don't. Just don't, Clark! Don't call me, don't come to see me, don't expect me to be your *friend*, okay? At least… not just yet. Maybe… maybe in a while I'll be able to deal with that, but not now," she muttered quickly, and then headed swiftly towards the exit.
This time, Clark let her go.
Lois decided, instead of taking a cab straight back to the Planet, to hang around and wait for Clark. She knew him well enough to know that telling Mayson that he wasn't interested in being more than friends was going to be tough on him, and he'd probably appreciate her support. Even if he didn't want to talk about it, and she suspected he wouldn't, the least she could do was be there and keep him company on the journey back to the office.
As she waited, glancing idly in the shop windows, she congratulated herself again on *not* giving in to the temptation to steal — *borrow* — Mayson's pager. It would have been so easy. It had been sitting on top of Mayson's open bag, and Lois could have had it in her palm in under a second. And who knew what information she could have gleaned from that useful little gadget?
But Clark wouldn't have approved. If he'd found out — and hiding it from him wouldn't have been easy — he'd have insisted she return it and apologise. And apologising to Mayson Drake wasn't exactly something which appealed to Lois. She just didn't like the woman, and that was all there was to it.
Well, it would have been a possible lead on finding where Mr X was being held, she thought wryly, regretting the missed opportunity. But they'd just have to come up with another way.
The sound of alarms just around the corner attracted her attention then, and she hurriedly set off to find out what was happening. A building — a warehouse — was on fire, and Superman was just emerging, carrying a man in his arms. Wishing she had a camera, Lois stood and watched, then fished in her purse for her notebook and pen.
Scribbling notes on the rescue operation, Lois was very conscious that Superman was merely feet from her. It seemed that no matter how many times she told herself that she'd got over her feelings for him, that she just regarded him as a friend, she only had to come close to him to find herself longing for him all over again.
Unusually, he didn't acknowledge her in any way. Normally, if she was present at any sort of incident, then unless he was completely rushed off his feet or deeply engrossed in rescuing people from a life-and-death situation, he tended to give her a nod or a smile or something, a gesture which frequently meant that if she hung around he'd give her a quote when he was finished.
Today, though, while she knew he was aware of her presence, he hadn't acknowledged her in any way, in contrast to his usual practice of at least giving her a brief nod or a smile.
Chagrined, she hung about, watching him; she needed to talk to him anyway, she told herself. She — well, Clark, really — had a message to pass on to him, after all. So she managed to catch his eye after a few minutes, and indicated that she wanted to talk to him when he was free.
After several minutes, when the fire seemed to be out and the fire crew was inside the building doing a clean-up, Superman finally walked over to her. "You wanted to speak to me, Lois?" he asked, sounding very formal.
"Yeah. I…" She halted, frowning, as she studied his face. He seemed to be doing his best to avoid looking at her, his gaze fixed at some point above her head. He was holding himself far more stiffly than he normally would around her. It was almost as if he couldn't bear to be in her company.
"Superman?" she queried, concerned. "Is something wrong?"
CK stared at Lois, his heart sinking. He'd hoped that she wouldn't notice his awkwardness with her; that she'd just ask him a question or two and then let him make his escape. But why should he have expected that? he asked himself wryly. This was Lois Lane, after all. And Lois Lane, in any universe, never did what anyone expected of her.
He'd seen her as soon as he'd come out of the building, and he'd felt an immediate surge of joy flowing through him. Lois was here!
Like a man dying of thirst, he'd drunk in the sight of her, longing to go over and clasp her in his arms, hold her to himself and kiss her until the memory of these last two days without her had been obliterated.
But then he'd remembered.
This wasn't *his* Lois.
He was in Clark's universe, and this was Clark's Lois. The woman *Clark* loved. The woman he didn't care about enough to tell her the truth about himself. The woman he probably didn't deserve…
He missed her so much. And it was torture, being close to someone who looked exactly like her, who was like her in every way but the most important one. She wasn't *his* Lois.
He hadn't wanted to speak to her. He'd been counting on her leaving him alone; that she'd accept that he was busy and therefore just make a few notes and leave. But not Lois. Oh, no. She'd had to make it clear that she wanted to talk to him. And so he'd had to go over to her, or else risk her realising that there was something strange going on with Superman. Since her Clark didn't want her to know anything about his relationship with Superman, there was nothing else he could do.
And now she'd realised anyway that there was something up.
Sighing inwardly, he said stiffly, "No, Lois. I'm just a bit tired." He hoped it wouldn't occur to her that Superman, as an invulnerable being, didn't often get tired.
She gave him a sympathetic look and, to his horror, put her hand on his arm. He braced himself, afraid that he was going to have to fight the urge to pull her into his arms…
…and then he realised, with a shock, that he felt no such desire. Her touch meant no more to him than that of any other stranger. Taken aback, he looked directly at her again… and realised that he was gazing into the eyes of a woman who looked familiar, and yet wasn't. It was as if she was the sister of his own Lois: like her, and in a way so completely different.
Relieved, he smiled warmly at her.
And, at that moment, he saw his counterpart standing a few feet behind them, his face like thunder.
Clark stared at CK and Lois, barely able to believe the evidence of his eyes. His counterpart and his partner, engrossed in what looked like a pretty intimate conversation. Lois, he probably shouldn't be surprised at; he'd always known about her Superman crush, though he'd done his best to discourage it and persuade her to see his alter ego as a friend, no more.
But CK…! CK had his own Lois Lane, apart from anything else. And CK was very well aware of how Clark felt about Lois. So what gave him the right to… to talk to her, to smile at her like that, to make her smile and laugh in return?
Furious, he started to stride towards the two of them. But then he realised that his attitude would only make Lois assume that he was jealous of her affection for Superman, and he'd been trying to dispel that idea for some time now. He'd learned his lesson from the Lex Luthor debacle: as far as Lois was concerned, a jealous friend, whether or not he was a would-be boyfriend, was a pain in the neck.
Forcing himself to calm down, he called to CK. "Superman! I'm glad I've seen you — I have a message for you."
CK stepped away from Lois, and Clark could see the apology in his eyes. Strangely, at the same time, he could almost seem to hear his counterpart's voice in his head.
<<It's not what you thought. I was just talking to her. And I smiled because she's *not* my Lois and I'm not attracted to her!>>
Clark shook his head, dismissing the weird fantasy that somehow his counterpart was talking to him telepathically. "Diana Stride came to the Planet earlier," he said, changing the — unspoken — subject. "She claimed she's doing a story about Superman — you. And she wanted to interview us about you."
"I take it you refused?" CK said sardonically.
"Well, we did," Lois answered. "But then Clark and I talked about it, and we had this idea…"
She explained, and CK said thoughtfully, "It sounds good. But do you think she'll fall for it?"
"Why shouldn't she?" Lois demanded. "What does she really know about you? Other than what she's been able to find by tracking you, that is."
Clark saw CK give him a questioning glance, and he nodded, hoping his counterpart would understand that he'd told Lois about the threat to Superman's life. "True," CK agreed. "Well, okay, but be careful. Please, Lois. I'd hate it if anything happened to you."
Possessiveness got the better of Clark again. He wrapped his arm firmly around Lois's shoulders before saying, "I would too, and you know that, Lois."
"Oh, cool it, you guys!" Lois exclaimed. "Look, I know that you both care, and I love it that you do, but I've been looking after myself for a lot longer than I've known either of you."
CK caught Clark's eye again, this time with a rueful, sympathetic raised eyebrow; Clark couldn't help but smile in return. Clearly this was yet another area in which their respective Loises were alike.
"Anyway," Clark continued, "I told you there was a message for you." Quickly, he passed on Diana Stride's apology and request.
CK nodded thoughtfully. "Hmmm. I suppose it makes sense for her, since it must have been obvious that I'd detected the tag. She's going for more direct action this time, then."
"You won't go, of course," Clark said. It wasn't a question.
"What are you talking about?" Lois demanded. "Clark, it's the perfect opportunity for Superman to find out what she wants, and to prove that she's up to no good!"
"It's too dangerous," Clark said flatly, ignoring Lois and staring at CK, whose expression was impassive.
"Dangerous, maybe," CK said matter-of-factly. "But Lois is right. It's the perfect opportunity."
"No!" Clark exclaimed, then realised that his lack of caution was attracting attention from other bystanders. More quietly, he added, "Superman, it's too dangerous. We don't know what she's planning on doing. If she has Kr — well, you know," he finished, stopping himself from mentioning the lethal mineral just in time. He would never be able to reconcile it with his conscience if anything happened to CK when it could have been prevented.
"If she has *that*," CK finished, "I'll feel it before she has a chance to get close enough with it. I can be out of there before it has time to take effect on me."
He'd been that confident too, before Arianna Carlin had shot him with a Kryptonite bullet, Clark remembered grimly. CK was being far too confident. But he couldn't remind CK of that incident, always assuming that it was part of their shared history. Not while Lois didn't know that she was actually with two Supermen…
"Superman, Clark's right," Lois pointed out, to Clark's surprise. "Remember when you were shot?" She gave Clark a cautious glance. "I'm sorry," she said hesitantly, looking back at CK. "I forgot Clark doesn't know about that…"
"He knows," CK said quickly. "It's okay, Lois. And, yes, I remember. I had no idea that she had a bullet made of that stuff. But this time I'll be aware of that possibility too. Remember, I can scan everything in sight in seconds — if there's a gun, or even if something's hidden behind lead, I'll be aware of it."
Clark still wasn't happy, but it was clear that he was outvoted. CK was going to accept Stride's invitation. Resigned to the inevitable, he said abruptly, "Be careful. And let me — *us* — know what you find out."
"You could carry a miniature tape recorder," Lois suggested quietly. "If you could find somewhere to conceal it in your Suit, that is…"
CK shrugged. "I think I could manage that. Uh…" He gave Clark a questioning look. "How about I stop by your apartment later, Clark? Around seven?"
"Fine," Clark agreed. That way at least he'd get a chance to talk to his counterpart privately, something he was increasingly feeling the need to do.
CK nodded. "I should go," he said then, and without further ado he took a step away from them and became airborne.
Clark watched, wondering why the sight of his counterpart flying bothered him so much; then he admitted that it was a form of jealousy. *He* was supposed to be the only one who could fly in this world; he was the hero everyone — including Lois — looked up to. And now suddenly he really was just Clark Kent, newspaper reporter, standing by while another man performed Super feats.
<It's all in the interests of saving *your* thick skull!> he reminded himself caustically. But somehow that didn't quite succeed in making him overcome his irritation with CK.
"It's not like you to be so anxious about Superman's safety," Lois commented as they made their way back to the Planet. "You're usually pretty blase about what he can do." Clark's attitude to the prospect of Superman meeting Diana Stride had surprised her. As had, she remembered, the fact that he'd actually appeared to be ordering Superman about.
Perhaps the two men were closer friends than she'd imagined. She considered Superman a good friend, and she'd even told him off once for lying to her. But she couldn't imagine talking to him the way Clark just had, especially in front of someone else.
Was that perhaps how Clark normally spoke to Superman? She started to think, then suddenly realised that she'd never actually been witness to any conversations between the two men before today. Now that was odd…
Clark interrupted her thoughts, replying a little defensively, she thought. "Aren't you concerned? If Diana Stride really is out to kill him, then he could be in big trouble if he's not careful."
"Yeah…" Lois fell silent as she remembered again the horror of regaining consciousness only to see Superman bleeding and in agony on the floor in front of her. That had been the first time she'd realised that the Super-hero really could be killed, and she'd been terrified for him.
"He'll be okay, though, won't he?" she questioned quickly, ignoring the fact that Clark couldn't have any more information than she did.
Clark was silent for a few moments. Then, quietly, he said, "I hope so."
She grimaced. The thought of Superman being seriously hurt — even killed — was too horrible to contemplate, and she felt a lump swell in her throat. Glancing at Clark, the muscle she saw twitching in his jaw told her that he felt the same way.
His jaw… Standing next to the two men, it had occurred to her how physically similar they were. She'd always thought that Superman was taller than Clark, but if there was any difference in height it was an inch at most. And the shape of their jawlines seemed almost identical. In a way, apart from the fact that Clark was short-sighted and, of course, that he was human, they could almost be brothers.
Strange how she'd never noticed that before…
She then remembered suddenly why she'd left Mike's cafe on her own in the first place. "Clark, how did it go with Mayson?" she asked him, concerned.
She heard him sigh, which made her stop and turn to look at him. His expression was regretful, and she patted his chest sympathetically. "Bad?"
"It wasn't easy," he admitted. "You were right — seems I had been leading her to expect more between us. I told her that I'd asked you out, and…"
"Ouch," Lois said, grimacing. "That had to hurt."
"It did," he agreed. "I never meant to hurt her, Lois! She was just a friend. I never seriously considered…" He broke off, sighing, and closed his eyes briefly. Then, a muscle twitching in his jaw, he continued awkwardly, beginning to walk again. "She kissed me once. I should have told her then that I wasn't interested in her that way, but… Lois, it's always been you, where I'm concerned. But I guess that night she caught me at a weak moment. I… was getting to think that I had no chance with you, and here was a beautiful woman — " Lois scowled at that, and he obviously noticed, and corrected himself " — an attractive woman, just throwing herself at me, and… I kissed her back. It didn't do a lot for me, and that's when I should have told her that I was never going to want her as more than a friend. I just didn't know how to."
Lois remembered seeing that kiss — and remembered the unfamiliar, threatening feelings which had coursed through her on seeing it. Jealousy. A possessive rage. A burning desire to march right into Clark's apartment, push Mayson out of the way and let her know just who Clark belonged to. But, of course, she'd had to acknowledge that, for all she knew, Clark could have belonged to Mayson at that moment. Unwilling to take the risk of rejection — unwilling to let Clark know how she was beginning to feel about him — she'd said nothing, and just seethed.
And then something else Clark had said resonated with her.
<Lois, it's always been you, where I'm concerned…>
Her breath caught as she digested that statement.
Was he telling her that he'd always… What? Been attracted to her? Wanted her? Maybe… loved her?
No — he'd told her that he didn't love her. The shuddering humiliation of that moment was still seared on her soul. Ever since, she'd thanked whatever gods had been smiling on her that day that she'd let Clark go first, before she'd made an utter fool of herself by telling him that she loved him too.
But if he'd just told her that she'd always been the one… what did that mean?
And, she thought, stealing a quick glance at Clark, did he even realise what he'd said?
She suspected that he didn't, because he was still looking pretty cut up about his conversation with Mayson. This definitely wasn't a time to discuss their own relationship — and Lois wasn't even sure that she wanted to talk about it at the moment anyway. This revelation of the long- standing nature of Clark's feelings for her, whatever those feelings were, was something she needed some time to consider.
In the meantime, Clark was obsessing, she could tell.
She linked her arm through his and nudged him with her hip. "Come on, Clark; it's not your fault! Mayson liked you, and she tried to make a move on you. You like her as a friend, and you just couldn't figure out how to say no to her — but you didn't do it because you wanted to lead her on. You just didn't know how to let her down gently without hurting her feelings. That doesn't make you a love-rat, Clark."
He sighed. "I know — but she was still hurt, and I can't help feeling bad about it."
"She'll get over it," Lois said gently. "We do, you know, Clark. And no matter how much it hurts at the time, we can usually recognise when it's for the best."
He smiled ruefully. "Thanks. And thanks, too, for the advice earlier. You were right — no matter how hard it was to do, I had to tell her."
"You did," Lois assured him. "And now you've done it, so you can take me out on Saturday with a clear conscience. So," she added teasingly, "where are you taking me?"
Clark laughed, and Lois smiled inwardly, glad that she'd managed to persuade him to stop brooding. "Ever heard of the concept of being surprised, Lois?"
"I have. Doesn't mean I like it, though," she warned him.
"Relax, Lois. You might find you like it better than you think," he said, clearly teasing her, and she grinned, nudging him with her hip again as they walked.
Back at the Planet, Lois wanted to put her plan into effect immediately. Clark accompanied her into the conference room, dragging a chair into a corner and straddling it.
"You better keep quiet, Kent!" she warned him with a grin. "And no weird faces, either! This won't work unless I can sound convincing."
Clark grinned widely; he loved watching Lois in this mood. "Lois, you could convince the Pope to ordain women. You're the most persuasive person I know!"
She winked at him. "Just so long as you don't think I should be a candidate!"
Clark gave a mock-shudder. "Please, no! Well, not before we've had our date, anyway," he added, laughing.
"I still think I should make you tell me where you're taking me," she grumbled, before arranging her notes and pulling the phone closer to her.
Where was he going to take her? Clark still hadn't decided. If she knew that he was Superman, he could take her absolutely anywhere in the world. A gondola ride in Venice; an exotic picnic lunch in front of the Taj Mahal; dinner on the top floor of the Eiffel Tower; a flight over any of the world's beauty spots… the options were endless.
But she didn't know he was Superman. No doubt CK would use that as yet another reason why he should tell her.
Yet it wasn't a good reason at all, Clark thought. The whole point was that he wanted Lois to want him for himself: Clark Kent, reporter and normal, ordinary guy. The kind of guy who'd take her to a local Italian restaurant, or to the movies or a play, for a date. So… the restaurant, a movie or a play?
Maybe he should ask CK what his Lois enjoyed most…
Clark's mouth flattened into a straight line. He hadn't been happy to see CK and Lois standing so close together, smiling at each other like that. Okay, he didn't believe that CK would take advantage of the situation, but that still didn't mean he had to like it.
Although there was a bonus to what had happened, he forced himself to recognise. Lois was now completely convinced — if she'd ever been in any doubt — that he and Superman were two different people.
But was that such a good thing? Inconveniently, CK's advice to tell Lois the truth came back to him. Wouldn't what had just happened make that so much harder?
Lois started speaking then, and Clark shook himself out of his introspection in order to listen.
"Hi! Yes, I wanted to talk to Diana, please… Yes, Lois Lane of the Daily Planet."
"Diana! Yes, I've been thinking about what you said earlier, and you know what? You're right! It *is* time that we showed Superman how much we appreciate him. And as one of his biggest fans, as well as — I hope! — a friend of his, I thought I really owed it to him to participate."
Clark allowed his Super-hearing to pick up Stride's reply. "Well, I'm so pleased to hear that, Ms Lane — or may I call you Lois? So, what would you like to tell us about Superman?"
"Oh, he's such a dear, sweet man!" Lois gushed. "Of course, he's not a *man*… but I just can't call him an alien. I mean, that brings up so many horrible images… Like, you've seen the Alien series, haven't you? I mean, those *disgusting* creatures… all covered in slime; ugh!"
Clark winced, simultaneously stifling a laugh.
"Anyway," Lois continued, "He's just perfectly adorable. And so *hunky*! I mean, when did you last see an average Joe with muscles like that?"
"Oh, I know!" Stride agreed. "So do tell, Lois — have you actually managed to get your hands on those delicious pectorals?" Clark noted with amusement that Lois's plan was working perfectly so far.
"You have to be kidding," Lois replied, making a big deal of sighing wistfully. "He's not interested. Not in me, anyway."
"Oh?" Clark could imagine Diana Stride raising her perfectly-plucked eyebrows at this point. "He's interested in someone else, you mean? Involved with someone else?"
"Well… I shouldn't really say," Lois's voice grew uncertain.
"Oh, just between us girls!" Diana said confidentially. "He has a girlfriend? Or…" her voice grew hesitant and squeamish "…a boyfriend?"
"Oh, no!" Lois said, laughing. "Definitely not a boyfriend!"
"So he does have a girlfriend?" Diana questioned impatiently.
"Well…" Lois was doing a great job of sounding reluctant, Clark thought. "I really can't talk about Superman's private life. That wouldn't be right. But… well, I guess I can tell you that he's been spending a lot of time over by East River lately…" She let the sentence trail off in a suggestive manner, at the same time glancing over at Clark and winking.
"Interesting…" Stride drawled. "Well, thank you, Lois! You've been really helpful. I'm sure Superman is grateful to have friends who care about him like you obviously do."
Clark suspected that there was a sarcastic undercurrent to that last remark, although it was delivered in a perfectly sugary tone.
"Oh, thank you!" Lois gushed. "He's such a wonderful man — I'm privileged to be his friend."
"There is just one other thing — well, perhaps two," Stride continued. "Superman seems to be a *close* friend of your partner, Clark — do you know if that's true?"
Clark saw Lois look a little surprised at that question, but she hid it well, saying casually, "Oh, Superman and Clark get along very well. Clark's interviewed him a lot about his rescues for the paper."
"I see," Stride answered. "And you're sure that's all it is?"
"To the best of my knowledge," Lois said. "And I'd know. This isn't common knowledge, Diana, so I'd appreciate it if you kept it to yourself — but Clark and I are dating." That last was said in a coy tone so completely unlike Lois's normal manner that Clark stared at her in disbelief. She winked at him.
"Ah! Well, in that case you probably would know," Stride said condescendingly. "And congratulations — Clark's a good-looking guy! But the other thing I wanted to ask you, Lois, is whether you think Superman would be willing to come on Top Copy live. I'd love to interview him on the show."
No chance, Clark thought.
"I really don't know about that," Lois said hesitantly. "He's actually pretty shy, you know. He hates giving interviews about himself, and I know that he's turned down LNN lots of times."
"Oh well, it was worth a try," Stride said. "Anyway, Lois, thank you so much! I must run now, but I really appreciate your calling."
Lois ended the conversation, then grinned over at Clark. "I think she swallowed that!"
"Hook, line and sinker, I'd say, from what I could hear," Clark replied, grinning. "And you were great — you never actually said that Superman has a girlfriend; just left her to draw her own conclusions."
"Exactly!" Lois grinned back at him. "Simple to deny later, if we need to. So, how long do you think it'll take before she gives up?"
"Oooh… at least a couple of hours," Clark said, still smiling. "All the less time for her to spend getting in Superman's way."
Clark allowed Lois to summarise Diana Stride's side of the conversation, taking care to give no sign that he'd overheard it, before they left the conference room.
"We'd better at least try to do something about Mr X, or Perry's going to yell at us," Lois said dryly as they returned to their desks. "I'm going to run this mystery assassin's victims through the computer, to see if anything comes up."
"Okay," Clark agreed. "Coffee?"
Lois nodded abstractedly and sat down at her computer, running a few details through Planet archive files and doing a couple of web searches. By the time Clark returned, she was barely able to contain her excitement.
"Clark, look at this! See here — these are all the people who were allegedly killed by the mystery assassin."
"Yeah," he said, leaning over her to read her screen over her shoulder. To her surprise, Lois found herself sorely tempted to tilt her head to the side and brush her lips against his clean-shaven jaw. But that was ridiculous! Clark had stood this close to her on many occasions, and she'd never been aware of him in a sexual way before.
Well, she conceded reluctantly, maybe once in a while she'd wondered what it would be like to run her hands through that thick, dark hair, or to have him hold her against his strong, lean body for more than just a friendly or comforting hug.
She might get that chance pretty soon, Lois reminded herself. Saturday. A date with Clark.
The idea was still scary — and yet, as she'd said to Clark only last night, it wasn't possible to go back. He'd asked and she'd said yes, and the only thing they could do was go ahead and take that chance. It still didn't stop her being scared stiff, though…
And the stakes had been raised, too, by what Clark had inadvertently let slip on the way back to the Planet. His feelings for her went a lot deeper than she'd ever imagined.
Did he feel that almost irresistible urge to touch too? Had he always felt that way when they were physically close, like now — or did his seemingly remarkable self-control enable him to shut off his reactions completely? In a sudden shock of memory, Lois was cast back to the time when she'd been under the influence of the pheromone compound and had done everything in her power to try to seduce Clark. He hadn't given in.
So did that mean that he was never as physically aware of her as she was of him right now?
A quick glance at him showed him to be engrossed in reading her computer screen. Apparently not, then. She bit her lip, trying to smother her disappointment.
But he *had* given her a pretty clear indication of where she stood with him, so perhaps she should wait and see whether he was willing to show his feelings on Saturday?
It was good to know that she no longer needed to feel jealous of Mayson. That was a situation which had bothered Lois more than she'd let herself admit. But now, she had to cope with the notion that Clark was — well, at least very attracted to her, if she didn't take his comment to mean that he was in love with her.
Shaking herself out of her abstraction, she tried to concentrate on what it was she'd intended to tell Clark. He was beginning to give her a curious look, clearly wondering where her thoughts had gone.
"What have they all got in common?" she asked.
"Uh… they're all dead?" he hazarded. "And, okay, they were all powerful men — rich, too," he added dryly. "Some of them even got rich on the backs of the people they were governing."
"Yeah, well, there's something else too," Lois pointed out. Switching the image on the screen over to a different browser window, she indicated. "Take a look."
Watching Clark's expression rather than the screen, Lois was delighted to see an arrested look creep over his face. "They've all been interviewed by Diana Stride," he murmured disbelievingly, then let out a low whistle. "Nice work, partner!"
"Unless it's just a coincidence, of course," Lois said, believing nothing of the kind.
"It could be," Clark agreed, coming around to perch on the edge of her desk. "But I'm not sure… this is one heck of a coincidence if there is nothing in it. And your hunches have been pretty good in the past. Besides…"
"Besides, we know that Diana Stride's trying to kill Superman," Lois finished for him. "If it wasn't for that, I think I'd be more hesitant. But that's the clincher. Well, added to what else I found out about her."
"And what's that?"
"Well, remember I said she seemed to come out of nowhere to become one of the top women in TV?"
"Yeah, I remember," Clark said.
"Well, listen to this. She started off in the army. The only woman ever in Special Forces — how's that for a background? Then she pops up in a TV station in Omaha, starts a very fast rise to legendary anchorwoman. And then she's headhunted by the production company behind Top Copy — which is itself kind of a shadowy outfit. I think there's something just a little fishy about our Diana Stride."
"I think you're right," Clark said grimly. Then he winked. "And if I know you, Lois, we're just about to go fishing, right?"
CK landed soundlessly on the balcony of his apartment — no, *Clark's* apartment, he reminded himself. It was exactly like his own; it was so easy to forget sometimes that he was in Clark's world and not his own.
Too easy. Like today, when he'd seen Lois.
But that had been okay in the end. Painful as it had been to see her and know that she wasn't *his* Lois, that he had no right to sweep her into his arms and kiss her, the fact that he'd felt the absence of any real attraction had helped.
Not that Clark had understood; he'd seen the anger in his counterpart's eyes when he'd come upon the two of them talking.
Clark. There was definitely a lot of hostility there, CK mused. And it wasn't making his job in this universe any easier. There were times, he thought, when he wanted to bang Clark's head against the brick wall of his apartment until the other man realised just what a sacrifice CK was making in order to be here — let alone the danger he was placing himself in for Clark's sake.
He wouldn't mind any of that, if he thought that his counterpart actually *wanted* him here. As it was, he just wished he could go home.
Striding through to the kitchen, he saw that Clark was there, still in his formal shirt, though he'd removed his jacket. Suddenly wanting *not* to be Superman, even if only for a few brief minutes, CK spun into T-shirt and jeans.
"Is that wise?" Clark asked sharply, giving him a frown.
CK shrugged. "By the time anyone could get close enough to see, I'd be back in the Suit. Does it matter?"
Clark sighed, but didn't comment. Instead, he said, "Want a coffee?"
"Yeah. We need to talk, I guess, since I'm going to take Ms Stride up on her invitation."
"I guess," Clark agreed. "Anyway, there's a couple of things I need to tell you — and Lois gave me this for you." From his pocket, he produced a miniature tape recorder. "You can hide it in the Suit somewhere — maybe where the cape comes out of the neckline."
"That makes sense," CK agreed. "Voice-activated?"
"You know Lois," Clark said dryly, with an undertone that CK didn't like. "Only the best."
"Okay, Clark, let's have it," CK said abruptly, irritated beyond bearing.
"What?" Clark looked puzzled.
"This hostility of yours towards me. What's behind it? And what the heck have I done to deserve it? If you don't want me here, then fine — but I'm sorry, there's nothing I can do about it. I don't have any way of getting home."
Clark looked angry at first, and CK realised, surprised, that he seemed able to sense a wave of emotion coming from his companion. Then the other man sighed. "You're right. We need to talk about this. Let me get the coffee, and then we can sit down."
CK was right. He was behaving very badly towards his counterpart — appallingly, in fact. The man was risking his life for Clark, and all he could do was snipe at him. Okay, he was angry about the way CK had behaved around Lois, but maybe there was another explanation.
Or maybe CK had been taking the opportunity to flirt with Lois.
Maybe his counterpart had decided that, since *Clark* wasn't being as honest with Lois as CK thought he should be, she was fair game.
Maybe he'd deliberately decided to flirt with her, lead her on; maybe he'd even intended to make an assignation with her.
And maybe *he* was just being too suspicious for his own good!
Clark stacked the coffee items on a tray, resisting the urge to slam them down. Losing his temper wouldn't help at all, especially as he didn't know for sure that CK was guilty of anything. And anyway, as he'd just reminded himself, he owed the guy a lot. It was about time that he started showing some appreciation, wasn't it?
Just as long as he could rid his mind of the picture of his counterpart, in the Superman suit, laughing and joking with Lois. *His* Lois.
He brought the coffee into the living area and sat opposite CK, who flicked a glance at him and away again. "So, you ready to talk?" CK asked coolly.
"So what's the big problem? What's got you so mad at me that I can feel the hostility coming off you in waves, Clark?"
"Okay, you really want to know?" Clark demanded. "I resent the way you were behaving with Lois this afternoon! What did you think you were doing?"
"What? I was just *talking* to her, Clark! What the heck did you think I was doing?"
"You looked guilty enough when I came by," Clark pointed out coldly.
"That was only because of the way you were looking at me! Look, Clark," CK added, speaking more calmly, "I was really bothered by the thought of seeing your Lois. I can't tell you how much I miss L — *my* Lois. And I thought it would be too painful to talk to yours. What really shocked me was that when I did she didn't seem like Lois at all to me. She could have been anyone! I didn't feel even remotely attracted to her."
Clark sank back in his chair, allowing CK's words to sink in. And something struck him as peculiar…
"Earlier, when I saw you two together, I could have sworn that you said something just like that to me. Only not aloud. In my head…"
CK shook his head, clearly not understanding. "I guess I was thinking that… but I didn't say it. I couldn't. How could I have?"
"I don't know," Clark said, puzzled. "I only know that it sounds so familiar… but it doesn't make any sense."
Unless they had some sort of mental connection… but that was something Clark wasn't sure he wanted to find out about.
"Okay, look, I'm sorry," he said abruptly. "I… I guess I over-reacted. I just love her so much, you know?"
"And it kills you to see her swooning over Superman," CK finished. "I've been there, remember?"
"Yeah," Clark said quietly. "I guess you have." He raked a hand through his hair, then looked back at his counterpart. "But not now, of course."
"No, because she knows who I am. And, Clark, let me tell you, it's a pretty great feeling not to have any secrets from her any more!"
Yes, he supposed it would be, Clark thought wistfully, looking down at his hands. No more stupid excuses. No more running out on her at the worst possible moment. No more having to plead with her to forgive him when he couldn't even give her a decent explanation. And no more being jealous of himself.
But first he'd have to take the risky step of *telling* her.
And what if she was furious? What if she never spoke to him again? What if…
What if she decided that she loved him once she knew the truth? How would he ever know whether she really loved him for himself, or for his powers?
<<Sounds like you don't trust her, pal>>
Clark jerked his head up and stared at CK again. Had his counterpart just spoken to him? But how?
No; he was imagining things. And CK wasn't even looking at him; he was fiddling with the settings on the tape recorder.
Anyway, it wasn't true. He *did* trust Lois! Of course he did!
Then something Lois had said in her conversation with Diana Stride came back to him with sickening clarity. She'd said that she would *know* if there was anything to know about Clark and Superman, because she and Clark were dating.
She'd only said that to convince Stride, Clark told himself immediately.
But what if Lois believed it? What if she really thought that because they were on the cusp of dating he could have no secrets from her?
In that case, his deceit was compounded.
Sensing CK's gaze on him, Clark looked up again. His counterpart was regarding him sympathetically.
"I've been there, remember? I know what it was like."
Clark sighed. "It's not that I don't trust her, CK."
"But you don't," CK answered. "Clark, how can you? If you trusted her, there'd be no question in your mind. Like I said, I've been there."
"I trust her!" Clark retorted again. "She never told anyone about that Kryptonite bullet. Not even me! I know I can trust her with anything secret about Superman."
"Yeah, and she never told anyone where Resplendent Man got his powers either, did she?" CK added. "Even though she was hurt because Superman lied to her."
"Yeah," Clark agreed, remembering how Lois's disappointment in him, her hurt that her hero had lied to her, had cut him to the heart. He — Superman — had slipped several notches from his pedestal that day.
"It's not about Superman, it's about you, isn't it?" CK prompted. "You trust her with Superman's secrets, but you still don't trust her to love you for you."
Why was it that his logic sounded so… so *petty* when it was put to him by someone else? Clark flushed and tried to avoid his counterpart's gaze.
"She hero-worships Superman," he muttered defensively. "I couldn't take it if I told her the truth and I found out that she only wanted me for *him*."
"See, that's a trust issue too, Clark," CK pointed out. "And you'll never find out unless you take the scary step and *tell* her. Otherwise, one day — and it'll happen sooner or later, especially the way you guys are getting closer — she'll find out on her own, and she might never forgive you."
"I know," Clark said, resigned. "I have to… but not just yet. I'm taking her out on Saturday. I want to see how that goes first."
"Then you better hope nothing happens in the next three days to let her find out on her own," CK warned soberly. Then he sighed and added, "Clark, I *do* understand, believe me. I had the exact same stupid hang-up — and it *is* a stupid hang-up," he added as Clark shook his head in rejection.
"Clark, the night I was shot, I flew past Lois's apartment. And I… Clark, I can't tell you what it did to me to see Lois sobbing her heart out as she clutched a photo of the two of us together. Right then, I didn't care whether she wanted me as a best friend or a lover. I just knew that she loved me and that she was devastated. There was no way I couldn't go into her apartment right then and tell her the truth."
As Clark listened, he felt a stab of guilt for his own behaviour in that situation. He'd flown to Smallville and simply lurked in hiding. He hadn't gone near Lois. And he'd actually felt *glad* when he'd heard that she was upset.
CK had been braver — and a better friend to Lois — than he himself had.
"So you told her the truth, you said," Clark replied, feeling that some response was demanded.
"Yeah. And she was angry for a while — but she was also glad to have me back." CK's smile told Clark just how glad. "And within twenty-four hours, Clark, we'd confessed that we loved each other. We've been together ever since."
Until now, Clark remembered. Until CK had been asked to leave his own universe, and come here and risk his life for a counterpart who resented his very presence.
He made a sudden decision and leaned forward, catching CK's gaze with an intent look. "Let me go tonight, instead of you."
"Huh?" CK blinked.
"To Diana Stride's place."
CK shook his head. "The whole idea was that I'd be Superman for the time being. Of course I need to go."
"CK, we both know this could be dangerous. Why should you have to take all the risks?" Clark protested.
"Because that's how we agreed it would be," CK said. "Look, I appreciate the offer, Clark. But it's fine. *I'll* be fine. Don't worry, okay?"
Clark sighed. "We both know that you wouldn't be here if there wasn't a real threat. I'd just hate it if anything happened to you when I could have prevented it — and yeah, it doesn't seem fair that you should be taking all the risks."
CK shrugged. "Look, it'll be fine. Really. Don't worry! I'll come straight back here after and let you know what happened."
"Well, there's a couple of things you need to know first," Clark said quickly, remembering. "First, Diana knows that you came here last night after saving her — so even though she doesn't have the tracer any more, you might want to go someplace else first before you come back. And then…" He quickly brought his counterpart up to date on how Lois's plan had worked.
"So with any luck she'll have wasted hours snooping around the East River, instead of getting under my feet?" CK grinned with amusement. "Excellent!" He got to his feet then. "I guess I better get going."
"If you're sure that I can't go instead," Clark said, still not at all happy with the situation.
"I told you. It's fine."
"Look," Clark said suddenly, delaying CK's departure. "I'm sorry for behaving like an idiot earlier. You're right — I haven't exactly been welcoming to you since you came here. I really do appreciate what you're doing for me, though."
CK shrugged, then gave a friendly smile. "That's okay. I guess I'd feel a bit weird as well if another me turned up in my world and then started trying to tell me what to do."
"Well, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have reacted like I did," Clark repeated. "Anyway, be careful, you hear?"
"Sure," CK answered. He spun into his Superman outfit, then gave Clark a grin. "Don't worry. I mean, what could she possibly do to me?"
CK hovered above the penthouse floor of the Lexor Hotel, where Diana Stride was renting a suite while her own apartment was cleaned after the previous night's fire. Scanning the interior to check for any possible traps or other danger was the work of a couple of moments only; he couldn't see anything suspicious. He could see Diana Stride herself, sitting at a desk in the corner working at a laptop computer; behind her hovered her photographer, who seemed to be waiting for some sort of instructions.
The lighting in the living-room of the suite was darkened subtly, with a table set for an intimate, candlelit dinner for two. Not that he would be staying for dinner, CK thought in amusement. He intended to find out whatever it was that Ms Stride wanted, with any luck getting some useful information from her, and then he would lurk above the hotel, watching to see what she did next — and, more importantly, whom she contacted. If she was indeed Intergang's assassin, she had to be getting her orders from somewhere — and presumably she'd be expected to report back on her meeting with Superman.
Time to go in. He drifted downwards, landing on the balcony, from which French doors led to the living-room.
He'd been seen; Rolf came over and flung the doors open. As he walked into the room, CK had the uncomfortable feeling that he was being checked out — and not by the female occupant.
He gave Rolf a sharp look; the man winked at him and said swiftly in French, "Ah, plutot bien foutu…"
CK, realising that he was being described as 'hunky', raised one eyebrow sardonically before turning to greet his hostess. Clearly Rolf wasn't Stride's lover, as he'd suspected — unless the man swung both ways, which was possible, he mused idly.
Diana Stride rose as he approached, and it became immediately obvious to him why she was one of the highest- paid women on TV. While the previous evening she'd been playing the role of damsel in distress, her hair and clothes dishevelled, tonight she wore a beautiful gown, low-cut in front in a manner clearly designed to dazzle. Her hair was tousled in a natural look which CK assumed had taken a couple of hours and several hundred dollars' worth of hairstylist's attention to create.
Holding out her hands to him, Stride gushed, "Superman! I'm so honoured that you could make it."
"Ms Stride, I came because we need to talk," he told her, his voice cool.
"Diana, *please*," she murmured, then glanced aside at Rolf as he brought over two glasses of wine. "Would you like some Merlot, Superman? Thank you, Rolf," she added dismissively. "I would like to be alone with Superman."
Rolf sighed audibly. "Qui ne voudrais pas ca?" he muttered, and left the room.
'Who wouldn't want that?' CK mentally translated, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. How Lois would laugh when he told her about that, he thought; she'd be amused by the thought of his embarrassment — though actually he was simply mildly irritated; and she'd revel in the fact that she had exactly what Rolf appeared to want.
Then he remembered that it would be some time before he'd be able to tell Lois anything about tonight, and his heart sank again.
Stride was still holding out the wine glass, waiting for him to take it from her. He didn't want it — and suddenly it occurred to him to wonder whether this was a trap. Could there be Kryptonite in the wine?
He didn't feel anything, but that wasn't necessarily a guarantee. Well, that was easily dealt with. Shaking his head in rejection, he made it clear that he didn't want the wine.
"Diana," he said firmly, unconsciously adopting his trademark Superman pose as he fixed her with a stern gaze. "I know that this story of yours isn't a tribute. You're planning to do some sort of expose of me. The only reason I came here is to tell you to drop it."
Stride stepped closer, and CK had to resist the urge to back away. "Expose you, Superman?" she repeated, in a tone of surprised innocence so authentic-sounding that CK wished he could congratulate her acting coach. "Do you have something to hide? Like maybe a non-existent girlfriend in the East River area?" she added sardonically.
"We all have something to hide," CK said shortly, noting with some pleasure that Lois's trick had clearly worked, at least to the point of wasting some of Ms Stride's time, which was what he'd hoped for. "Some of us for the good of others… and some of us for our own gain. I'm here to tell you, Ms. Stride — drop this story."
He was about to turn and leave, but Diana Stride surprised him by taking a choking breath and moving away from him, standing with her back to him and her shoulders heaving. "I can't, Superman!" she exclaimed after a moment on a sob. "My show's in trouble. The ratings are down, and the network's considering cancelling it. It's my career, Superman! Look at me — I'm a woman in her forties. Who'd give me a television job if I lost Top Copy? I have to run this story!" she cried. "If I don't… it's all over, and I'll be unemployed. I don't want to do this, but I have no choice!"
Even though CK told himself that she was more than likely still acting, that her tears were no more real than her smile was sincere, something within him couldn't allow him to abandon her.
Sighing, he went over to her. Close up, her emotional reaction looked even more real. "Don't cry," he said awkwardly, putting a hand on her shoulder.
She gave a shudder. "That's what made me do this, Superman. Though I guess you could say it's because I'm no good anyway."
Feeling that he had to say something, CK ventured, "There's good in everyone, Diana."
She turned towards him suddenly, flinging herself into his arms. He'd barely reacted enough to catch her when she plastered her lips on his, her tongue thrusting forward and into his mouth before he could push her away.
Something foul-tasting slid down the back of his throat.
And a horrible, but very familiar, feeling assaulted him.
He pushed Diana away with arms which were already beginning to weaken, and when he saw the exultant smile on her face he realised exactly what game she'd been playing.
There was Kryptonite in her lipstick. And she'd not only kissed him with it, but had pushed a lump of it into his mouth and made him swallow it.
He'd been so *stupid*! Unbelievably cocky and arrogant. Clark and Lois had both warned him to be careful; they'd both pointed out that a woman who was out to kill Superman — knowing what that would take — wouldn't be that easy to deal with. But he'd ignored them, insisting that he knew best and that it would be easy.
<*Idiot*, Clark!> he told himself. Lois would be so furious with him…
Before his knees gave way entirely, he staggered towards the window, giving the Stride woman a look of loathing. The last thing he heard as he threw himself off the balcony, hoping desperately that his powers would carry him safely at least as far as the ground, was the sound of her cruel laughter.
Lois was working on yet another draft of her novel's first chapter when the phone rang. Sighing, she saved her work and reached across her desk for the phone, tucking the receiver under her ear as her fingers automatically returned to her laptop keyboard. "Lois Lane," she said absently.
The faint voice was familiar, and yet not instantly recognisable. Instantly, she sat up straight and frowned in concentration. "Who is this?"
"Loisss…" A sharp gasp, as if the speaker was in pain. "Isss… Superman… Need help…"
Superman! Oh god, he'd been to see Diana Stride! And he sounded badly hurt… "Where are you?" she demanded quickly.
"Phone booth… behind Lexor… Come alone," he gasped out.
Scrambling to her feet, Lois exclaimed, "I'm on my way! Oh, wait!" she added then quickly. "What's your number there? I'll take my cellphone, just in case."
There was a pause, during which she could hear laboured breathing, and she wondered whether she'd asked too much of him. Then, slowly, he read out, "5…5…5… 3718."
"Okay. I'll be there in about ten minutes, Superman. Okay?"
Lois hung up, very worried about her friend. Grabbing her purse and her keys, she ran out of the apartment and down to her Jeep. As she drove off at high speed, she debated calling Clark, but decided that having to use her cellphone would only slow her reactions down. Getting to Superman was the most important thing right now; she could call Clark later, once she knew what had happened and she'd managed to get Superman some help.
There was only one thing, as far as she knew, that could have caused this. Kryptonite.
A phone booth behind the Lexor, he'd said. The Lexor was at least a block long and another block deep; she would just have to drive the whole way around it and hope that Superman was looking out for her. She was pretty sure that he'd be trying to keep out of sight as much as possible: why would he advertise the fact that he was severely incapacitated?
Driving slowly along the road which ran along the back of the hotel, she scanned both sides carefully. There were too many phone booths here, she mused anxiously…
Then she saw it. A tiny flash of red caught in her headlights. She jammed on the brakes and jumped out of the car.
Superman was huddled on the ground, as if he'd been unable to stand and had just slid down the side of the booth. His eyes were closed, and he wasn't moving. Lois crouched down next to him and grabbed his hand, shocked to find it cold. Feeling his forehead with the back of her hand, she caught her breath as it felt hot — feverish.
But at least he was still alive! The relief which crashed through her at that made her realise that she'd been desperately fighting not to acknowledge her fear that she might have been too late to save him.
"Superman!" she called, doing her best to keep her voice low. "Superman, I'm here! Can you hear me?"
His eyelids flickered briefly, and his fingers clenched weakly around hers. "Lo…is…"
"Superman," she repeated. "We've got to get you to help. Do you think you could make it to my car?"
"Lo… my… Loisss…" he muttered semi-coherently, not releasing her hand.
*His* Lois? Was he, in his feverish state, revealing feelings that he would never allow her to see normally?
<Oh, Superman…> But this wasn't the time to wonder about his feelings for her. He was desperately sick, and if she didn't get him help pretty darned fast…
She should have called Clark, Lois told herself. There was no way that she was going to manage to get Superman into the Jeep by herself. If he wasn't capable of moving under his own steam, even with assistance, then they were in trouble.
But he gripped her hand tightly and slowly, obviously painfully, dragged himself up. She caught him around the waist and he laid his arm heavily across her shoulders, and they staggered to the car. Superman collapsed into the passenger seat, clearly exhausted from the effort.
Getting in beside him, Lois asked anxiously, "Was it Kryptonite?"
"Yeah…" he managed with some difficulty. "Swallowed… it…"
*Swallowed* it? Lois stared at him in alarm. "How?"
Then she noticed a crimson streak near his mouth, and understood.
Diana Stride had kissed him — or he'd kissed her, she amended, trying to ignore the sinking feeling which assailed her at that thought. And the Intergang assassin must have laced her lipstick with Kryptonite — or else had some in her mouth in liquid form, or something like that.
Superman had kissed Diana Stride.
The thought almost made her feel ill, despite the fact that she'd decided that she had no claim at all on Superman, and that as far as she was concerned he was just a friend. After all, she was just about to start dating Clark!
But none of that was important right now. If Superman didn't get help soon, he could die.
She started the engine, putting her foot to the floor and heading to Metropolis General.
Pain. Unbearable, gut-wrenching, shattering pain. Pain like he'd never felt before in his life.
It was inside him, in his mouth, his throat, his lungs, his gut. Every breath was excruciating; he felt as if his lungs were on fire. His mouth burned. His stomach felt as if thousands of daggers were shredding it. There seemed to be no escape from the agony.
It would be easier simply to curl up and close his eyes and let it all wash over him — that way, it couldn't possibly last long. He'd be out of it permanently within minutes, he thought. Wasn't that what he'd done? He seemed to remember, vaguely, slumping to the ground…
Phone booth. That was where. Phone booth… he remembered something about a phone…
Lois! He'd called Lois, and she'd come. As always, Lois had been there for him.
Beloved Lois… his Lois…
He felt her hand putting gentle pressure on his leg, and willed himself to reach out and touch her. It was a faint gesture and all he could manage, but her warmth and strength somehow transmitted to him. Determined to fight the pain, he struggled to overcome the desire to slip back into the darkness which had threatened to overwhelm him.
"Superman, we're here." Lois's voice penetrated the fogginess of his brain, and he blinked hazily through the pain. Why was she calling him Superman?
"Let me get one of the ER doctors," she added. "I won't be long, Superman, and then we can get you inside and I can call Clark."
Clark? What was she talking about? CK struggled to put words together to ask her why she was talking about him as if he were two separate people. After all, she *knew*…
Then he remembered. Of course she was calling him Superman. *This* Lois didn't know.
Oh god. What had he said? Had he done… anything? He hadn't… kissed her or anything, had he?
Clark would kill him, if he wasn't already three-quarters dead. And as for Lois — *his* Lois… He swallowed, then regretted it as a new wave of pain swept through him.
He was going to die, he felt sure. He'd never been this close to it before, and there was so much he regretted, so much he simply would never be able to do. He'd never get to marry Lois… never have kids with her, grow old with her…
He'd never even be able to tell her that he was sorry.
<Lois… Lois, I'm so sorry… I love you…>
He moaned involuntarily, and the other Lois's voice came to him as if from some distance away. "I won't be long. Just hang on!"
The ER doctor whose arm she grabbed was sceptical when Lois told him that she had Superman outside in her car. But she refused to let the doctor get away, and within a couple of minutes a gurney was being wheeled outside. Under the supervision of Dr Conway, Superman was carefully moved from the car seat and laid on the trolley, covered with a blanket, and then wheeled swiftly into the ER and to a cubicle.
Then she had another fight on her hands, because the staff wanted her to leave. "Next of kin only, Ms Lane," a nurse informed her coolly.
"He doesn't have any next of kin!" Lois objected.
"That may be so, but you still can't stay."
Still frantically worried, Lois's gaze fixed on the still and helpless body on the gurney. It was hard to imagine right now that he was the strongest man in the world, who had saved her life more times than she could count. Right now, he was helpless, in pain and maybe even dying.
She couldn't leave him! She just couldn't…
Seizing his hand, she murmured, hoping that he'd at least look at her, "Superman?"
"Ms Lane, please," the nurse objected. "We need to start our examination. We can't treat Superman if you won't let us do our jobs!"
At that moment, Superman's fingers folded loosely over Lois's hand; she ignored the nurse and concentrated on her friend. His eyes flickered open briefly, and his eyes seemed to plead silently with her. She bent closer to him.
"Tell Clark… Kryptonite," he managed to say, hissing the words as if in agony.
"I will," Lois promised, her heart twisting painfully at the sight of her friend and hero reduced to this state. "I'll go and call him just as soon as I know that you're going to be okay."
"Ms Lane." Now Dr Conway was speaking insistently to her. "I'm sorry, but you really have to leave."
She turned, ready to fight for her right to be there with Superman. But the concern and dedication she saw in the doctor's expression made her nod resignedly instead.
"Okay. But I'll be right outside. And I want to know immediately if… if anything happens," she said flatly, fighting back tears.
To her surprise, the doctor followed her away from Superman's bedside and halted her by the doorway leading out of the treatment area. "I need to ask you a few things, Ms Lane, since you're the only source of information we have about Superman."
"I told you that he's got no next of kin," she repeated, her fear for his life making her more abrupt than she would have otherwise been. "I don't have an address for him either."
"I'm not interested in that." The doctor's dismissive shake of the head told Lois that it was something more important. "You said that he'd ingested Kryptonite. Do you know how? And what is Kryptonite? What effect does it have on him?"
"It was in her lipstick, I think. Or maybe she had it in her mouth," Lois explained, trying to remain calm, though every impulse she had was screaming at her to run back to Superman. What if he died while she was out here talking?
But she had to concentrate. His life could depend on it… "Kryptonite's a kind of mineral," she said, remembering her conversations with Clark about it a year or more ago. "And… well, I guess the closest way to describe what it does to him is like some sort of extreme allergic reaction. He told me that if he was close to it for any kind of time it would kill him." She hesitated, then added, "He was shot with a bullet made of Kryptonite a few months ago — and it actually penetrated his skin. He was in agony, and if we hadn't got it out of him I'm convinced it would have killed him."
"An allergic reaction," Dr Conway repeated. "Okay… I guess we could maybe treat it like that. Though you said he's ingested it — I wonder if it might be better to treat it like a kind of poison? That might get us a faster result, though the treatment is pretty invasive."
"What kind of treatment?" Lois demanded, torn between not wanting to cause Superman any further pain and needing to know that he wouldn't die.
He couldn't die! The world needed Superman!
She needed Superman.
"Pump his stomach," the doctor replied.
Lois winced. But it made sense, she thought. The poison was inside him, and it needed to come out, the sooner the better.
Bleakly, she nodded. "I need to make a phone call," she told Dr Conway. "But I'll be right outside once I've done that. I have to know that he's going to be okay."
The doctor nodded. "I understand, Ms Lane. I'll have someone keep you updated."
With one final look back at the prone, unmoving body on the gurney, Lois forced herself to leave the treatment area, her tears now flowing unchecked.
Clark checked his watch for what he knew had to be at least the two hundredth time. Surely CK should have been back long before now? He'd brought home stacks of printed-out information on Diana Stride, Intergang and the mystery assassin, with a view to looking for anything which might prove a connection. But his worry about CK was robbing him of any ability to concentrate.
Reaching for the remote control, he snapped on the television; if there was an emergency somewhere, that would explain his counterpart's absence. But the news programmes reported an uneventful night.
So where was CK?
He was beginning to wonder whether he should go out and try to find the other man, when the phone rang.
Irritated at the interruption, Clark barked an abrupt "Yes?" into the receiver. Then he froze in alarm as he recognised Lois's voice — a very panicky Lois — on the other end of the line.
"Clark! I'm at Metropolis General — I brought Superman here; he's in the ER now. Clark, she had… you know what! And —"
"How is he?" Clark demanded, interrupting her as cold fear sliced through him.
Diana Stride *had* had Kryptonite, and CK was hurt. And if it was bad enough that Lois had brought him to the hospital, then it must be pretty serious.
"I *knew* I shouldn't have let him go!" Clark muttered, forgetting that Lois could hear him.
Simultaneously, Lois began to say, "He's — what did you say, Clark?"
"Uh — nothing," he said quickly. "How is he? He's not… not —"
"He's not dead," Lois interrupted. "But he's not good… the stuff's inside him!"
"How…?" Clark began, but then added quickly, "Doesn't matter now. I'm coming down there, okay?"
"Yeah." Her voice sounded weak, and Clark realised that she was trying to choke back tears. Despite his own fear and guilt over CK, jealousy slammed through him. She might have agreed to go out with him, but Lois was still hung up on Superman. And, what was worse, she was at the hospital with a man she believed was the Superman she knew… and loved.
Clark ended the call, castigating himself for even stopping to think about himself at a time like this. CK was seriously sick — he might even be dying. And all because he'd stepped in to protect *him*. If CK died…
He wanted to fly to the hospital, but that would arouse too many suspicions; Lois would know that he couldn't possibly get there that quickly, and he didn't want anyone noticing or hearing Superman flying if there was a possibility that the news of Superman being in the ER might get out.
So there was nothing for it but to call a cab and wait around for it to arrive. But in the meantime, there was something else he could do… Grabbing the phone again, he dialled a number from memory.
"Mayson, it's Clark."
There was a pause; then a much less businesslike voice said, "I asked you not to call me, Clark."
"I know, Mayson. I wouldn't have, except this is important," he said quickly, regretting that he was causing yet more hurt to her. "It's about Superman, and the assassin we think your Mr X is going to identify."
"Clark, I told you I can't talk about that!" Now Mayson was irritated.
"Mayson, please," he persisted. This was important; Diana Stride should be under arrest, and Mayson would know that he wouldn't lie to her; a police officer would no doubt want more evidence. "Look, the person we think it is tried to kill Superman tonight. He's in the ER at Metropolis General fighting for his life. I think that's a good enough reason for you at least to consider talking to me!"
"Di — uh, someone tried to kill Superman?"
Although Mayson tried to cover up her slip, Clark seized the opportunity. "So Diana Stride *is* the assassin?"
"Clark, you know I can't tell you who it is! I could lose my job over this!"
"Okay, okay, but you know that I'm drawing my own conclusions," he informed her.
She ignored that. "What do you mean, tried to kill Superman, anyway? He's supposed to be invulnerable, isn't he?"
Supposed to be, Clark repeated silently. But less and less so in reality; it sometimes seemed as if every villain in the city had somehow managed to get his or her hands on Kryptonite. But he wasn't going to go into that with Mayson over the phone, and anyway his cab was here…
"It's not as simple as that, Mayson. But I can't talk now — my taxi's here, and I need to get to the hospital. If you want to talk to me — or to Lois, she brought him in — you'll find us in the ER."
Time seemed to have slowed to a standstill, Lois thought, having checked her watch yet again and discovered that only one minute had passed since she last looked. She'd been sitting on that hard, uncomfortable chair for almost half an hour, and in that time there'd been no news of Superman.
Inaction had never been Lois Lane's way. She hated having to sit around and wait; she far preferred to keep busy, to be in the thick of things. And right now, apart from her gut-wrenching worry over Superman's life, she was feeling stir-crazy. She desperately needed to have some way she could help. She wanted to be in there with Superman, at least holding his hand and giving him strength and comfort — even if he didn't know she was there, she'd have felt that she was doing *something* useful! Not just sitting around helplessly, waiting for news.
Her two attempts to sneak back into the treatment area to see what was going on had met with irritated instructions to get out, and a threat of being thrown out of the hospital by security.
She'd had no option but to stay put… and wait.
But the wait for news was interminable. And what if the doctors weren't able to do anything? What if Superman was too sick for anyone to help him? What if he…
What if he died, on a cold, lonely ER gurney, without even a friend beside him to hold his hand?
Lois bit her lip, fighting to hold back the tears which yet again threatened. She wasn't going to cry, she told herself. And she wasn't going to let herself think the worst about Superman, either. She had to think positive: he was going to be fine. Of course he was. All she had to do was hold on to that hope…
A familiar, concerned voice spoke from behind her, and a very welcome arm slid around her shoulders, pulling her back against a warm, hard body she knew well.
"Clark," she murmured with a degree of relief which surprised her. "I'm so glad you're here."
"C'mere," he said softly, wrapping her in the warmth and security of his arms, tucking her head into his shoulder.
Somehow, although nothing had changed and she still didn't know whether Superman was going to pull through, things no longer felt quite as bleak; Clark's presence, and his comforting embrace, provided much-needed reassurance.
Pulling herself together, she drew back after a minute, though not withdrawing completely from his embrace.
"You okay, Lois?" Clark asked quietly, sounding concerned.
She nodded. "I don't know about Superman, though. They haven't told me anything yet."
"Tell me what happened," he asked.
Lois took a deep breath, then began from the moment she'd got Superman's phone call, continuing up to leaving him with the medical team in the ER.
"So let me get this straight," Clark said, frowning. "She got him to swallow Kryptonite somehow?"
"I think she kissed him. Actually, I know she did — there was lipstick on his mouth and face." Again, Lois tried to ignore the jealousy she felt at the thought.
She actually felt Clark shudder. "She had to have taken him by surprise. I can't imagine him doing it willingly."
Clark's certainty convinced Lois and she relaxed slightly, still hating herself for letting such a stupid matter as a kiss bother her when Superman's life was in danger. He could be dying, right there in the next room, and she was getting upset about a stupid damned kiss…
"Oh, god, Clark, he can't die!" she sobbed, burying her head in his shoulder again.
Clark simply held her, rocking her silently in his arms as the endless minutes ticked past.
After a while, Clark took advantage of Lois's distraction to lower his glasses slightly and look through to the ER treatment area, wanting to reassure himself that his counterpart was alive, if in a very serious condition. It took a moment or two to locate CK, but eventually he found him.
Superman lay on a trolley, surrounded by staff, his blue suit in ribbons over his chest and with a large black tube coming out of his mouth. His face was a pale grey, and his eyes were closed.
That was just as well, Clark mused grimly. If that were happening to him… well, he wouldn't want to be conscious for any of it, either.
In fact, he suddenly realised that, in a way, he was looking at himself on that trolley. After all, the poison had been meant for him, and the sick man lying there looked so much like him that for a moment he found himself switching places with CK. He was the one lying there with an ugly tube coming out of his mouth…
<They'll dissect you like a frog…>
Belatedly, it occurred to Clark that he owed it to CK to ensure that these medics were doing no more than trying to treat him. The last thing either of them wanted was for some unscrupulous staff member to steal DNA or otherwise try to experiment on Superman when they had him unconscious and vulnerable.
He was, of course, also the only person — apart from CK himself — who understood how his body worked and the effect of Kryptonite on his powers and his system. But he was aware that he didn't know enough about it to be helpful — all he could tell the doctor looking after CK was how he'd felt himself when exposed to Kryptonite and how long it had taken him to recover. And even that wasn't in any way rigorous data: his recovery process had varied on each occasion.
And how could he even explain that much without giving away his identity? And that was one of the things CK's presence was supposed to avoid!
Clark resigned himself to a silent promise to get any relevant information across where he could do it without drawing too much attention to himself or making anyone wonder just how he knew what he was saying. There wasn't much else he could realistically do, he thought bleakly. Other than sit and wait, desperately worried about the man who, if he hadn't been so stupidly jealous and resentful, could have been his friend.
He kept a silent observation of the medical staff treating CK as Lois dozed lightly in his arms, listening carefully as well, but could see or hear nothing which indicated anything other than concern for their patient and strenuous efforts to help him.
He was also still puzzling over the question of why CK had called Lois rather than himself. He'd wondered about that, not wanting to give way to the reluctant suspicion that CK was holding a grudge about his behaviour. As he'd admitted, he hadn't been very nice to CK; in fact, he'd been downright rude and suspicious. But surely CK wouldn't have let a consideration like that get in the way when he was close to death and needing help? It simply didn't make sense.
And he couldn't possibly imagine that CK would have gone to Lois deliberately to annoy him. That seemed, he now accepted, completely out of character. Besides which, the guy had been delirious, Lois had said. He'd hardly been in a fit state to make those kind of calculations. Clark knew that himself from past exposure to Kryptonite.
Unless that was it… unless he'd been protecting Clark? Perhaps CK had thought that Clark might also be affected by the Kryptonite, and so he'd tried to make sure that wouldn't happen?
That was possible, he thought, giving the ER area another sweep to check for anyone suspicious before refocusing his gaze on CK.
"Clark." A familiar, and tense, voice from nearby forced him to cease his vigil.
"Mayson. Thanks for coming down." He noticed that she was avoiding looking directly at him, and realised that it had to be difficult for her to see him holding Lois. There was nothing he could do about that; and anyway, he told himself, if he and Lois were going to be a couple Mayson would just have to get used to it. Gently, he shook Lois to wake her; she stirred, then noticed Mayson.
"What are -?" she began, then broke off. "You heard about Superman?"
"Yes, and Clark tells me that it was Diana Stride. I… uh, think you know why I would be interested in that information."
"Yeah," Lois agreed, pulling away from Clark and sitting up straight. "I assume you want to know what he told me about what happened to him? It wasn't much — he was in a bad way when I found him, and not much better when he called me."
"Please," Mayson said, still sounding brittle.
Thinking it would be a good idea if he got out of the way, Clark said, "Look, why don't you two go and get a coffee? I'll try to find out if there's any news about Superman."
"But I -" Lois began.
"I promise, I'll come and get you straight away if there's any news," he said. She nodded, and went off with Mayson.
Clark headed for the ER reception, grateful for the few minutes alone. He was feeling angry and uncomfortable with himself, because he couldn't seem to shake the feelings of jealousy tearing through him. Lois was supposed to be dating *him* — yet she was sobbing and tearing herself apart over Superman.
It wasn't fair of him to feel like this. He knew it, though that didn't make him feel any better about it. Of *course* Lois was upset and worried about Superman. He was a friend of hers; in fact, as far as Lois was concerned, they were very close. Why wouldn't she be upset? He was upset himself, and he'd only met CK a couple of days earlier.
And, he reminded himself, it wasn't as if she wouldn't be equally distressed if it was himself lying close to death; she'd been devastated when she'd thought he was dead, he made himself acknowledge.
<Admit it. It's got far more to do with the fact that the guy lying on the trolley through there isn't *you* — that it's someone Lois doesn't even know, and you're angry at her for caring about some guy from another universe she's only just met instead of the guy she's known for the last two years!>
He sighed. Yes, it had nothing to do with Lois being worried about Superman, and everything to do with the fact that she was in tears over a completely different Clark Kent. Though, of course, she didn't know that — and whose fault was that?
CK was right. He should have told Lois the truth. Then they'd be sharing concern for their visitor, instead of Clark having to comfort her under false pretences.
Well, maybe once CK had recovered and gone home, he would.
If CK recovered…
"So that's all he told you?" Mayson sounded frustrated.
"He was barely conscious, Mayson! That stuff's lethal to him! Imagine someone had fed you arsenic," Lois finished sarcastically. "How much could you tell anyone about what had happened?"
Talking to Mayson was the last thing Lois felt like doing right now. She really didn't like the other woman, and it had little to do with Mayson's crush on Clark, she told herself. But on the other hand, Clark had been right: Mayson was in the DA's office, and the sooner someone from officialdom got working on this the better. Superman needed to be protected, and Diana Stride had to be arrested.
"It's not enough," Mayson said. "I can't do anything with what you've told me, Lois! You may be able to print stories based on hearsay and deduction, but that kind of evidence is worthless to the law."
Incredulous, Lois could only stare at her. "You mean you're not even going to have Diana Stride arrested?"
"How can I?" Mayson was dismissive.
"Superman *told* me she attacked him! With the only substance which can kill him! At least you could have her brought in for questioning!"
"And tip off her paymasters before she can lead us to them?" Mayson shook her head, the blonde hair rippling around her. "I want Diana Stride for more than attempted murder, Lois — and there's no guarantee that I could even get her for that, without interviewing Superman."
"Assuming he recovers," Lois snapped, though Mayson's comment triggered a reminder of the tape-recorder Superman should have had. She would have to make sure that she and Clark got hold of it, assuming that it was still in one piece. She decided not to mention it to Mayson just yet, in case it couldn't be found or had nothing of any value on it. "You might at least show some concern for his health! But I forgot — in spite of all he's done for this city, and for law and order, you don't like Superman."
"Of course I hope he recovers!" Mayson snarled. "I need him to testify against Stride and back up our Mr X's testimony."
"Yeah, your own self-interest," Lois said scornfully. "It might occur to you that someone we care about very much might be dying. Some sensitivity wouldn't go amiss — that is, assuming you possess any."
"Someone you care about, you mean," Mayson replied. "I doubt there's a single person in Metropolis who doesn't know about your huge crush on Superman, Lois."
Lois stared at the other woman, fury mingling with embarrassment. It couldn't be true, surely?
But of course it wasn't, she told herself. Mayson was just being spiteful. She'd known the other woman didn't like her, although this was more than she'd imagined. Mayson was probably jealous and still hurting from having Clark tell her that he wasn't interested, she concluded.
All the same, that was no excuse for that behaviour…
"I do *not* have a crush on Superman," Lois hissed. "He's a *friend* — if you have any understanding of what that concept means."
Mayson pulled a scornful face. "You don't deserve Clark, Lois."
"And you do, I suppose?" Lois retorted. "Look, it's not my fault that he's not interested in you."
"At least I'd love him!" Mayson said bitterly. "I wouldn't keep him hanging on a leash, holding him in reserve just in case the flying alien finally rejects me one of these days!"
"That's not true!" Lois exclaimed automatically. But inwardly, she caught her breath.
"I'm not staying to listen to any more of this," she said coldly. "If you have nothing more *business-related* to ask me, then I'm going back to see how Superman is. And, by the way, if you don't get on to the MPD to ask for police protection for him, then I will."
Spinning on her heel, she marched out of the deserted relatives' room.
But Mayson's words still reverberated in her head as she walked back along the corridor towards the reception area and Clark.
Hadn't she been doing exactly that for months?
Wishing upon a star, hoping and dreaming that Superman would change his mind about whatever it was which was preventing him admitting the feelings of love she knew he had for her.
And all the time knowing that Clark was there in the background. Knowing that he had feelings for her, suspecting that those feelings went beyond friendship.
Hadn't she been assuming that Clark would always be there for her? That when she'd finally given up on Superman she could turn to him and that he'd still want her?
Maybe that was part of it, she admitted guiltily. But she *did* care about Clark. And she'd said yes when he'd asked her out — and she'd been the one to push him when he showed no sign of rearranging their cancelled date.
No, Mayson was wrong! She didn't understand her relationship with Clark, and she was jealous besides.
<Not entirely wrong, Lois> her conscience pointed out.
Maybe not. Lois sighed and vowed to find out somehow whether Clark felt that she'd been using him in that way, and to make it up to him if he had.
Later, though. For now, Superman was the most important thing on her mind. And while they were waiting for news, she and Clark could ensure that his privacy was well- guarded — something she should have thought about sooner.
Clark was waiting as she reached the ER reception, and she quickly filled him in on the outcome of her conversation with Mayson, though not the personal stuff. He agreed that they needed to make sure that the news of Superman's presence at the hospital didn't get out. Better yet, of course, if Diana Stride was allowed to believe that he was dead.
But then the door to the ER treatment area opened, and Dr Conway emerged.
Clark took a step forward automatically, searching the doctor's face for any clues as to the news he had to relate. There wasn't anything to detect; the man's face was expressionless.
"Ms Lane?" he said, turning to Lois.
"How is he?" Lois asked instantly, her tone reflecting Clark's own anxiety.
Dr Conway's gaze shifted briefly to Clark and then back to Lois.
"Oh, this is Clark Kent!" Lois said quickly. "He's my partner, and he and Superman are friends too. You can tell him anything you'd tell me — in fact, I think Clark is even closer to Superman than I am."
"Ah, okay." The doctor nodded. "Right. Well, he's stable now — we think we managed to get most of the poison out of his stomach, or so we hope. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it myself — it glowed green! Anyway, we've just taken some fluids to run a few tests, and he'll be transferred up to a private room within the next few minutes."
Clark felt the unbearable tension seep out of his body. CK was going to be all right! He could see his own relief mirrored on Lois's face, and she met his glance with a quick smile.
"Can we see him?" Lois asked.
"Well, he's still unconscious," Dr Conway warned. "The anaesthetic, combined with the amount of pain he was in, will keep him out cold for at least a couple of hours yet. But sure, you can look in on him for a minute or two if you want."
"Did you find a tape recorder in his outfit?" Lois asked then.
The doctor nodded. "It's with his other possessions — not that he had many. I'm afraid we can only give it to him, though."
"We understand, of course," Clark said. "It's just that the tape might contain some vital evidence, so we need to be sure that it's kept safe."
"It will be," Dr Conway assured the two.
"There should be some police protection arriving shortly," Clark interjected then. "And we'd also appreciate it — and so would Superman — if his presence here and the reason for it didn't get out."
"Already taken care of, Mr Kent," the doctor assured him. "I figured this wasn't the kind of thing he'd want to see making the headlines — no offence intended to either of you! — so I talked to the hospital press office and the ER staff. Not a word will get out from anyone here."
They travelled up together in the elevator, and as the doors closed behind them Lois stepped closer to Clark and leaned against him, wrapping her arms around his waist. Understanding her need for comfort, and sharing it, he hugged her back warmly.
"He's going to be okay," he murmured, his heart considerably lighter than it had been.
Once Superman was installed in the private room and a police guard posted outside, Lois walked straight in, longing to check on her friend. She needed to see for herself that the nightmare was over, that he'd get better. A nurse tried to delay her, but she was having none of it. "Dr Conway said we could see him," she announced, pushing past.
The man on the bed was so still and pale. Tubes emerged from his mouth and nose, and a cannula resided in one arm. He looked nothing like the supremely powerful Man of Steel at the moment; Lois could well imagine that if any other reporters heard rumours of Superman's presence at MetroGen, they'd never believe that this unconscious, sick-looking man was the city's resident Superhero.
And yet, despite the presence of technology, the outward signs that he'd lost his invulnerability and that he'd been dependent on human medicine to save his life, he looked better than he had a couple of hours earlier, in her car. Then, his complexion had been grey, his eyes sunken and his breathing tortured. Then, she'd known that he was very close to death.
Now, as she pulled up a chair so that she could sit next to him and hold his hand, she studied him carefully. He was still pale, but his colour was certainly better. His breathing was steady and didn't indicate that he was in any kind of pain. And his hand, when she took it in hers, felt cool and dry.
But the occasional sparkle of bright green in what the doctor had told her was a tube from his stomach gave a harsh reminder of what had happened to him.
"Clark, do you think —"
Suddenly, she realised that her partner wasn't standing behind her, as she'd expected. Looking around sharply, she saw him in the doorway, leaning against the jamb in a kind of careless slouch. "Clark! Aren't you going to come in and see how he is?"
"I can see how he is from here," Clark said with a faint shrug.
She stared at him. What had got into him? Downstairs, she could have sworn that he was every bit as worried as she was. And yet now he was acting as if there was nothing at all to be concerned about? Okay, Dr Conway had told them that Superman was responding well to treatment, but he was Kryptonian, after all. No-one really knew how his body worked. He might not be out of danger yet.
Maybe Mayson was right. Maybe Clark was jealous of her feelings for Superman.
Though it was surely petty of him to let that get in the way right now, when Superman had so nearly died!
She pulled a face and, ignoring Clark, turned her attention back to Superman.
In the Jeep, he'd called her *his* Lois. What had he meant? Had it just been the fever — delirium? Or… did he really care for her?
And, if he did, what did it mean? What could it mean? After all, she was — or soon would be — dating Clark.
No, it was crazy to start wishing for the moon again. She'd made a conscious decision to relegate Superman to the status of beloved friend when she'd agreed to go out with Clark. And that was where he should stay. After all, how could they possibly have a future? He wasn't exactly going to ask her to marry him and live happily ever after with her in a house with a white picket fence, was he?
And anyway, could she really cope with what would, in effect, be a part-time boyfriend? Or husband? He spent so much of his time flying around and saving the world; would there be any time left over for her?
That might be selfish, but surely it would matter to her. Wouldn't it?
She sighed and stroked Superman's hand again, then bent and kissed his forehead, drawing her fingertips lightly over his hair.
"Oh, Superman," she sighed quietly. "Just get better, okay? I don't care about anything else… just get better and be super again. We need you…"
Clark was very well aware of what Lois thought of him for not joining her by Superman's bedside. But as soon as he'd gone past the doorway, he'd felt pain and a debilitating weakness shoot through him.
Kryptonite. He'd seen it sparkling in the drain then, the tube emerging from CK's mouth, and he'd been forced to retreat. No matter what Lois thought of him — no matter what he thought of himself, especially given the crazy, thoughtless jealously he'd been indulging in downstairs — he'd be no good to anyone if he was weakened and sick from Kryptonite exposure. Bad enough that CK had to suffer it.
So he'd just have to stay outside.
And another thing was troubling him about the situation: if the Kryptonite in the tube was affecting him, was there a chance that it could be making CK worse? Okay, his counterpart actually had it *inside* him, which was clearly more serious than simply being in close proximity to the substance, but having it next to his body as well couldn't be helping.
The police officer guarding the room gave him a curious glance as he stood waiting outside, but Clark ignored him. A couple of minutes later, a familiar figure strolled up, raising a curious eyebrow at Clark.
"Suppose I should have guessed you'd be here, Kent. Lane around?"
"She's in there, Bill," Clark answered, gesturing inside the room. "You need to talk to her?"
"If I can't talk to Superman."
"He's still unconscious," Clark explained. "Look, what are you guys going to do about Diana Stride?" he asked in a low, urgent voice. "That woman's dangerous! She nearly killed Superman tonight!"
"I know. But we can't do anything without a statement from Superman — not least because we want her for other things. Look, Clark," Henderson added seriously, "I share your concern. And there'll be a twenty-four hour police guard here and at every entrance to the hospital for as long as he's here. Once he has his powers back — he will get them back, won't he?" the inspector added worriedly.
Clark hesitated, not wanting to appear to know too much about Superman's physiology. "I think he will. It just seems to take time, from what he's said about it before."
Henderson nodded. "Well, once he gets them back, he won't be in as much danger, unless she has more of that Kryptonite stuff," he said grimly, then went into the room to talk to Lois. They spoke quietly for several minutes, then emerged together.
"Like I said, there isn't much I can do for now," Henderson was saying as they joined Clark. "But if he wakes and is fit to talk, call me. And if we get any other breakthroughs, you have my personal guarantee that she'll be behind bars before she can even speed-dial her lawyer."
"Thanks, Bill," Lois said, her voice low so as not to attract attention from passing medical staff, Clark assumed.
"Dr Conway doesn't think he's likely to wake up for a couple of hours yet," Clark added. "Not that he can really be sure where Superman's physiology is concerned, but he wouldn't expect a human to wake for a while yet."
Bill Henderson nodded. "Okay. Thanks. Let me know if there are any developments." With a nod to the two reporters, he left.
"Oh, Clark," Lois said softly once they were alone again. "He looks so weak…"
He took her hands and squeezed them, wanting to reassure her that he really did care about CK's well-being, despite what his refusal to enter the room might have suggested. "I know, it's awful to see him in this state. But he's going to be fine. You got him to help in time, Lois — you saved his life."
"I suppose," she said, sounding unconvinced. "Clark, it was horrible! I thought the first time — you know, the bullet," she added in an undertone, "I thought that was bad enough, seeing him on the floor, in agony — but this was far, far worse. When I found him… I thought he was dead!"
"He's not that easy to kill," Clark said gently, touched by her concern for his alter ego.
"I guess…" She looked as if she had something else on her mind. "He was kind of delirious when I picked him up, you know. I can't help wondering if he'll remember what he said to me."
Her words were said wistfully, and Clark felt himself becoming irritated again, and angry at CK. What had he said to her? Okay, it wasn't CK's fault; if he was in pain and delirious, it was entirely possible that he'd mistaken her for his own Lois. But why was she getting all gooey-eyed over Superman again? When she'd agreed to go out with *him*?
And yet she'd had the nerve to tell him, more or less, that he had to make it clear to Mayson that he wasn't interested.
So *he* had to commit exclusively to Lois before they'd even had their first date, while she was keeping her options open with Superman!
<Stop it, Clark!> he told himself. This was neither the time nor the place. Not when CK was still seriously ill and had almost died. He had to stop this stupid, selfish jealous streak before it took over and made him do something he'd regret. He should be ashamed of himself. And he was, really.
"I don't know," he said at last, in response to her comment. "He was pretty sick. He probably didn't know what he was saying."
"Yeah, I guess you're right," she said softly, looking away from Clark and in at CK lying on the bed.
<You're being pathetic and jealous over nothing> he tried to tell himself. <She's just worried about a friend. Just like you are, aren't you?>
He sighed. It was the same old battle he'd been fighting ever since Lois had set eyes on Superman for the first time and fallen headlong over heels in… well, into a crush, he insisted to himself. After all, she couldn't really love a one-dimensional character who didn't exist!
<But she doesn't know he's a one-dimensional character who doesn't exist… and it didn't exactly help matters that she saw you *with* CK as Superman earlier!>
It all came down to one solution: he needed to tell Lois that *he* was Superman. But that too had its problems; apart from the need to explain who CK was and what he was doing in this universe — and persuading Lois of the concept of alternate universes — there would also be the risk that she'd only want him because he was Superman, not for himself.
A yawn from Lois shook him out of his introspection. She was leaning against the door of Superman's room, rubbing her eyes and looking very tired. Of course, it was pretty late by now, he realised.
"Look, Lois, why don't you go home and get some sleep?" he suggested. "There's nothing you can do here at the moment. I promise, I'll call you if anything happens."
She opened her mouth, and at first he thought she was going to protest. But then she nodded. "Yeah. Think I'll do that, Clark. Thanks."
"Hey." He caught her lightly by the shoulders as she was about to walk past him, and brushed a light kiss on her cheek. "See you later."
She seemed surprised — but pleased, he noticed, as a shy smile curved her lips. "Thanks, Clark," she murmured, reaching up to kiss him quickly in return before walking back along the corridor towards the elevator.
Lois drove away from the hospital, a picture of Superman lying still and helpless on the bed still fresh and painful in her mind.
He could have *died*.
Diana Stride had almost murdered him.
And she was still walking free as a bird, all because the DA's office didn't want its case against her for some other murders damaged. As if her attempt on Superman's life was somehow less important!
But then, Lois reminded herself, silently fuming, Mayson Drake didn't like Superman.
And, because of that, Stride was still on the loose, and if she found out that Superman was still alive, she'd no doubt try to finish what she'd failed to do the first time.
Well, she damned well wasn't going to get the chance!
Lois had let Clark think that she was following his advice and going home. But that was far from her intention; she was heading for the Lexor to track down Ms Stride and keep an eye on her. If that woman made one move to get close to Superman, Lois was going to know about it. Diana Stride would only get another chance to kill Superman over Lois's dead body.
Shortly after Lois left, Dr Conway and a couple of assistants came to check on Superman again. When they emerged, the doctor paused beside Clark.
"If you're staying, you can wait in the room if you like. I don't think it's likely to disturb him."
Clark shook his head. "It's okay. I'll stay out here. How is he, anyway? Is there any improvement?"
"Well, his vital signs are improving, which is always a good sign. The main thing we need to know is whether we've got all of the Kryptonite out of his system yet, and we probably won't know that until he wakes up and can tell us how he feels."
Clark could have told them that the Kryptonite hadn't all gone yet, but felt reluctantly, painfully, obliged to keep quiet. Hating the fact that he felt constrained in order to protect his secret, he argued with himself that he really wasn't hindering his counterpart's recovery. Once CK awakened, he could tell the medical staff himself, couldn't he? Wasn't it more important, for so many reasons, to preserve the secret of Clark Kent's identity? After all, that was one of the reasons CK had come here in the first place.
CK would understand, of course he would.
All the same… Well, he really should tell Dr Conway. There had to be a way of doing it which didn't give his secret away, didn't there? He could just suggest that it might not all be gone and that this might be why Superman was still unconscious.
Clark made a decision. If CK didn't waken within the next two hours, he'd tell someone. And in the meantime he'd keep monitoring his counterpart, using his special vision to assess the amount of the vicious substance still in CK's body.
And there was something else he could do right now.
"Can you get hold of any lead foil?" he asked the doctor.
Dr Conway looked surprised. "I expect so, but why?"
"Lead shields Kryptonite — or so Superman told me," Clark explained. "I know he's still got enough of it inside him to be causing him some problems, but the stuff coming out through the tube might be affecting him too."
"Ah." The doctor nodded. "Yes, that's worth considering. I'll see what I can do."
As Dr Conway left, Clark looked again through the walls of the room, again taking in his counterpart's stillness and laboured breathing.
<CK, I'm sorry. I should never have let you do this>
Ignoring the duty police officer standing guard outside CK's room, Clark paced over to the other side of the corridor, stopping opposite CK's room, and sank down to the floor, his back against the wall and his knees drawn up to his chest. He felt as if he were conducting a vigil — and in a way he was, he supposed. After all, it should have been him on the ground outside the Lexor, close to death. It should have been him in the ER, fighting for his life. It should be him, now, in that hospital bed, unconscious and with Kryptonite dripping from his body.
Instead, he'd allowed the visitor from another universe to play the dangerous role — and at the same time, he'd resented that visitor's presence every step of the way, accusing him of actions and even intentions which CK had never been guilty of. That he'd *known* CK had never — would never have — been guilty of.
His behaviour towards CK had been unforgivable. The man hadn't asked to come here — he'd come because this time- traveller called Wells had asked him to help the Clark Kent of this universe. He'd left behind his own life and identity — his own fiancee, even — and was in the position of playing Superman twenty-four hours a day. He didn't even have a home to call his own; he'd been dependent on Clark's charity in allowing him to sleep on the sofa.
And then, to make matters worse, Clark had been cool towards him, had harangued him and shut him out. He'd seemed to forget his manners entirely during the times he and CK had been together. And, given that this was the first, and probably the only, time that he was likely to encounter a fellow Kryptonian in his life, that was such a stupid way to behave, apart from being just plain rude.
If CK had died, he'd never have been able to forgive himself.
He should have insisted on going himself to see Diana Stride this evening. There was no excuse for the way he'd let his guest take all the risks. Okay, CK had insisted, but that needn't have been the end of it. He felt like a darned coward, skulking around at home while CK was walking straight into the Stride woman's trap, and almost getting killed for it. It shouldn't have happened. He shouldn't have let it happen!
And then to let himself glower and fixate himself over stupid, irrational jealousy while CK could have been dying…
<<Stop obsessing, Clark… it wasn't your fault!>>
Clark jerked his head up, half-expecting to see CK standing beside him. The voice had sounded so real, so *life-like*. But he'd only imagined it, of course. It was the kind of thing he'd expect CK to say; after all, he knew only too well that it was what he'd say if the positions were reversed.
But that didn't mitigate the fact that he shouldn't have let this happen. And that he should have behaved better to CK.
<<Don't be an idiot! You didn't let it happen! And it can't have been easy for you, coping with this stranger who said he was from another universe — especially as I insisted on being such a know-it-all>>
"CK?" Clark scrambled to his feet and looked up and down the hall. But, apart from the police officer — who gave him a very odd look — and a passing couple of nurses, there was no-one in sight. He sat down again slowly, carefully pretending to rub his eyes so that his glasses were slightly dislodged, and peered through the wall into CK's room.
His counterpart appeared to be unconscious still. There was no indication that he might have been awake enough to speak.
Was he going mad? Imagining that he was hearing voices now?
<<If you're going mad, then we both are>>
Clark froze. The voice definitely seemed to be inside his head. But was he actually imagining that he was holding a *conversation* with CK? That CK could hear his thoughts and was responding to them?
<<Kinda looks that way, doesn't it>>
This was crazy! Definitely something out of a sci-fi novel. There was just no way that CK could be talking to him telepathically. Anyway, CK was unconscious, so that definitely ruled that possibility out.
<<I can't be as unconscious as all that, if I'm hearing what you're saying, pal>>
Telepathy. CK could read his mind.
Deliberately 'speaking' to CK, Clark said silently, 'Have you been reading my thoughts all the time you've been here?'
He actually felt CK's offence at the question. Then the sense of anger disappeared, to be replaced by a calmer understanding. <<No. I had no idea… But once or twice I thought I could sense your emotions — like earlier, when you were angry about Lois, I could feel it. But nothing conscious>>
'I'm sorry,' Clark thought back, regretting his accusation. He seemed to be making so many errors of judgement where his counterpart was concerned, he mused, annoyed with himself. CK was *himself*, so why wasn't he accepting that CK's standards were his own?
<<Please, stop apologising>> This time the voice in his head was mildly sardonic. <<I'd rather have a conversation with you, to be frank>>
'How are you?' Clark asked urgently, ashamed that it hadn't been his first question. 'Lois said it was touch and go…'
<<I've felt better>> Clark could almost see his counterpart's grimace.
'You still have some Kryptonite inside you. That's why I'm out here and not in there with you,' Clark explained. 'It's draining out of a tube.'
<<No point both of us getting sick>> CK agreed. <<And, yep, it feels as if my insides are being gnawed away>>
Clark realised that he was getting a strong sensation of echoed pain from his counterpart, and he flinched. 'But I still don't understand how we're talking like this, though,' he objected. 'You're unconscious — the doctor checked you only a short while ago and he said you were still out cold.'
<<Dunno>> CK answered, and Clark could actually feel the shrug. <<I feel… I dunno — as if I'm dreaming? Though I didn't know it was possible to feel pain in dreams…>>
Clark winced. 'I wish you hadn't had to go through that. I wish it was me there instead of you…'
<<Trust me on that, Clark — you don't>> CK interrupted, sounding wryly humorous. <<Just get out there and catch that Stride woman, okay?>>
'I would if I could, CK. But right now the DA's office won't let anyone touch her.'
<<Oh, right, they're protecting their case against her. Okay. But don't let her come within a mile of me, you hear?>>
'I won't,' Clark replied instantly, but he could feel the connection with his counterpart somehow fading away, and he knew that CK had drifted off into sleep, or unconsciousness, again. Whatever state of semi- consciousness had allowed him to carry on this very strange conversation, it was now over.
He settled back against the wall, musing on this amazing — unbelievable — discovery. Telepathy. He was actually able to talk to someone in his thoughts! And someone could talk back to him… well, probably not anyone. It made sense that it would only be CK who could do it with him, although whether that was because CK was also Kryptonian, or because he was *himself*, Clark wasn't sure. It was both a fantastic and a worrying discovery: did this mean that he could have no secrets from his counterpart? That every thought or fear he harboured would be an open book for CK to read?
But, if that was true, then surely the same would go for him and CK: he'd be able to read his friend's thoughts. And that was something he really had no wish to do. Well, maybe he'd like to know how it felt to be engaged to Lois, Clark admitted to himself. But he respected CK's privacy too much to want to invade it. That being the case, he mused, then surely CK would feel the same way? Of course he would, Clark decided, answering his own question. He'd misjudged the other man's motives too many times; this time he'd do CK the courtesy of trusting him.
CK… Lowering his glasses a fraction again, Clark gazed through the wall separating him from his counterpart. CK lay still, unmoving, the tube still draining remnants of Kryptonite from his stomach.
Looking at his counterpart's face felt like looking in a mirror. He'd said to CK earlier that it should have been him lying there. Watching CK now, it was again easy to picture himself there; himself unconscious, with a tube running from his stomach and a drip in his arm. He could so easily have been the one who was fighting for his life. And that was a terrifying prospect.
If CK, an invulnerable Superman, could be brought to this level of helplessness, then so could he. So very easily.
There was just too darned much Kryptonite around. And too many criminals seemed to be finding out about it and its properties for his liking.
His musings were interrupted by the buzz of his cellphone. A passing junior doctor glared at him and pointed to the very large 'No cellphones, please!' sign on the wall opposite; Clark gave her an apologetic grimace and, glancing at the phone's display, hurried to the nearest stairwell. What was Lois doing calling him at this hour? And from her cellphone, not her apartment? That suggested that she hadn't gone home… so where was she?
Lois shivered slightly as she ducked behind a tree. Diana Stride and her henchmen seemed to be pretty sure of themselves, she thought as she watched them spread out and assume positions, guns at the ready. Obviously, wherever Stride had got her information from, it was correct.
Mr X was being held at the house just up ahead.
Even if Diana Stride's focus on the lodge hadn't helped her to draw that conclusion, the fact that she could just about make out the camouflage-clad shapes of what looked like SWAT troops would have given it away. The mysterious Intergang member turned state's witness was being guarded less than a quarter of a mile away.
It had been a lightning-quick decision to follow Stride when she and her photographer had emerged from the hotel. The fact that she'd seen them in the first place had been a total fluke, since Stride was driving an unmarked, dark- coloured sedan and both occupants had been dressed in dark clothing. It was only the colour of the TV presenter's hair which had alerted Lois to the identity of the car's driver.
She'd drawn on every lesson she'd ever learned about surveillance as she'd followed Stride's car out of the city and up beyond the foot of the mountains. The woods here gave her perfect cover as she observed Stride and the armed men who'd joined her once she'd arrived. The TV presenter had pulled on some sort of headgear before leaving her vehicle, and now very little of her head or face was visible; just those intense and threatening green eyes, which Lois had caught sight of as the Intergang assassin had passed close by the tree behind which she was crouching.
And now it was time that she called in some back-up. If Stride's intention was to ambush Mr X and possibly kill him, the police and the DA's office needed to know what was going on. Even with the presence of SWAT troops, Stride's skill as an assassin, together with the element of surprise, might just be enough to achieve her goal. Besides, Lois wanted Stride under arrest and in custody *now*, so that she wouldn't get another chance to try to kill Superman. That woman was going to pay for what she'd done to Superman; Lois was determined to make sure of it. And even that supercilious, Superman-hating Mayson Drake couldn't object to arresting Stride if she was caught in the act of trying to assassinate the DA's precious witness, could she?
Pulling out her cellphone, Lois hit the speed key for Clark's number — he'd be able to make the other calls for her, to save her having to find the keys in the dark and also take the risk of getting caught by having to spend longer talking on the phone.
Clark, as she'd anticipated, immediately reacted by wanting to know why she wasn't at her apartment, and once she'd told him where she was she could almost picture him rolling his eyes and praying for strength. His long-suffering "Lo…is…" spoke volumes, and she instantly cut across his protests.
"Clark, this is *big*! And if you don't get Henderson and his guys down here ASAP they won't have a Mr X to testify! Just make the calls, please!" she said urgently, taking care to keep her voice low.
"Okay, okay," he said instantly. "Just tell me where you are and exactly what's going on."
Using a minimum of words, she gave him the information. "Got it," he told her immediately. "Please, Lois, just stay where you are, okay? Don't do anything stupid that's going to get you killed!"
"Make the calls," she said abruptly, breaking the connection. Clark was right, of course; this was a very dangerous situation, and for once she didn't even have the option of yelling "Help, Superman!" if things got sticky. This was one time when she would be well advised to keep her head down — she'd get the story just as well from where she was, and Henderson would no doubt be grateful enough for the tip-off (not that he'd admit it) that he'd give her any other information she needed. Even if part of the deal was that publication would be delayed until Stride was under arrest.
Very slowly and silently, she slid herself downwards until she was sitting hunched with her back to a tree, and prepared to wait.
From his position up close to cloud level, Clark scanned the wooded area on the mountainside. Everything was as Lois had told him: the lodge, surrounded by a SWAT team, and the menacing sight of several heavily-armed men, dressed in black, lying in wait until the appropriate moment. He saw Diana Stride, too; she wasn't easily recognisable given her disguise, but then she turned and he could see the profile of her slim and unmistakeably female form.
She seemed to be talking into some sort of communications device attached to her car — not a cellphone, he could see, which made sense since the guards and army officers at the lodge would probably have monitoring devices. Curious, he engaged his Super-hearing.
"…I'm sure. There were at least half a dozen of them. Why else would Superman's uniforms be at Kent's apartment?"
"So, Kent is Superman," an unfamiliar male voice responded. "Well, that explains a lot. You have to prove it if we're going to discredit him."
"That won't be hard. He should be dead by now anyway, so it'll be child's play getting back into his apartment to look for evidence. And then I'll run the exposure as part of the story on tomorrow night's show."
Clark could barely believe what he was hearing; and yet it all made a sick kind of sense. CK had told him, after all, that Diana Stride would try to expose his secret identity, and that she would also try to kill him. In the space of a few short hours, both had almost come to pass. So, she'd been in his apartment, he mused. He'd have to search it very carefully when he got home, in case there were bugs.
And he would have to be prepared to defend his identity, and to 'prove' Stride wrong. Of course, as long as CK had recovered by then, that wouldn't be difficult.
As long as CK did recover… but Clark was confident now that his counterpart would be okay. He'd found Dr Conway before leaving the hospital and had mentioned his fear that there was still Kryptonite inside Superman's system; the doctor had anticipated this and already had contingency plans ready should Superman regain consciousness and still be affected. The tube through which some Kryptonite was trickling would, the doctor hoped, get rid of most of the poisonous substance, but there were other methods — every bit as invasive, Clark had thought with a painful wince — which could be tried. But the tube was now shielded with protective lead foil, and Clark had unobtrusively tested its effect himself. It worked.
Staring down at the Intergang operatives, Clark hesitated over what to do next. The sensible thing would be to swoop down and seize Stride and her associates, ensuring that they couldn't do any harm to anyone. He could do that as Superman, thus also 'proving' to Stride that she'd failed to kill the Man of Steel. The problem with that, though, was that if Mayson or Bill Henderson, let alone Lois, got to hear that Superman had been here, he'd have to explain how he could possibly be in two places at once.
He was also worried about Lois, though, and so far he hadn't located her. And anyway, he told himself, Stride hadn't actually done anything yet, other than just happening to turn up at the witness's safe house. Unless she did anything, the police couldn't arrest her — and Mayson and Henderson had already said that they weren't willing to arrest her for the attempted murder of Superman if it meant that they'd lose out on getting her on the more serious charges.
That presumably meant that he should wait until her intentions were beyond doubt. So he had time to find Lois, he decided, and get her safely out of the area.
Another quick scout around showed him where she was hiding. He landed silently a few yards from her hiding place, then crept quietly over to her.
"Clark!" she exclaimed in a low voice, startled by his arrival. "What are you doing here? And how did you get here, anyway?"
"Shh," he cautioned. "We don't want to attract attention. Come on, let's get out of here!"
"Not a chance!" she murmured in response. "This is *big*, Clark! I'm getting this story if it kills me!"
Her instant grimace, which he could just about make out in the dark, told him that she regretted her unfortunate choice of words in the context of what had already happened that evening. Reluctantly, he gave up trying to persuade her, dropping down onto the ground beside her. Sliding his glasses discreetly down his nose, he took a careful look around.
Stride and her team were slowly advancing on the lodge. So far the SWAT guards didn't seem to have noticed anything. Well, there was something he could do about that…
Choosing his target carefully, he focused his heat vision on a low branch up ahead, close to where one of Stride's accomplices was standing. It broke off with a snap which echoed loudly in the still, calm night.
Then everything went crazy. The SWAT officers swung as one in the direction of the sound and started firing; Stride's men started firing back, and Clark pushed Lois down on the ground, covering her with his own body while he thought frantically whether there was anything he could do to stop people being hurt and to capture the gangsters without being discovered or having to reveal himself as Superman. Other than burning the weapons out of the would-be assassin's hands, he was finding it hard to think of anything…
…and then suddenly he realised that someone was running in their direction. It was one of Stride's hit-men, heavily armed with an assault rifle and, from what Clark could see, at least one hand-gun. Their hiding place was only adequate if no-one came past the tree they were crouched behind. If this guy kept coming, Clark knew, they'd be discovered in a matter of seconds.
Swiftly, he grabbed Lois, hauling her to her feet. "We have to get out of here! *Now*!" he yelled in her ear, the sound of his voice mostly drowned out by the noise of weapons firing.
Holding her arm tightly, he ran back down the mountain- side, zig-zagging between the trees to provide them with cover. The gunman must have seen them, because shots started to ring out behind them; Clark managed to intercept one bullet in his free hand, dropping it harmlessly to the ground.
"There's no way out!" Lois yelled. "We're trapped!"
"We'll find a way out!" Clark promised, dragging her onwards. There was no way that he'd allow Lois to get killed…
"Clark, there's a cliff up ahead…" she exclaimed suddenly, alarm in her voice.
She was right; he'd brought her some way to the side of the road, and just up ahead, the mountain-side sheered off completely. There were signs that he could see of erosion, where the cliff-edge had given way on previous occasions. For all Lois knew, they were doomed; there was no way ahead, and behind them, gaining on them every second, was the gunman.
Clark didn't even stop to consider his options; there was no other option. He glanced quickly behind and then ahead, then hurriedly said, "Trust me, Lois."
As one more shot zinged its way past them, missing him by inches, he grabbed Lois around the waist and ran forward… straight off the edge of the cliff.
They were falling… tumbling through the black night down towards the rocks which she *knew* were at the bottom of this stretch of cliff. They were going to *die*!
What did Clark think he was doing, running over the edge like that? Who did he think he was? Superman?
His free arm came around her, pulling her against him and tucking her head into the hollow of his shoulder as they fell.
And then she realised that, contrary to what she'd thought, they weren't in free-fall. Their descent had slowed, and now they were gliding slowly along the edge of the cliff, beneath an overhang. And they were moving sideways, too… and then they were coming to rest on a ledge.
Safe. Unhurt. And definitely alive.
She stared at Clark in complete disbelief.
"How did you… What… Who are you?" she stammered incoherently, her brain still refusing to process the incredible evidence he'd just handed her. He'd *flown*! Hadn't he? She couldn't have imagined it. It wasn't possible.
It wasn't possible that Clark could fly, either… and yet she knew that they'd been seconds away from a horrible death on the rocks below them. And Clark had seemed to be in control the whole time — he'd run off the cliff, dragging her with him. He'd known what he was doing.
There was only one possible explanation for what had just happened — and yet she *knew* that was impossible.
Clark stood close to her, still holding her lightly against him, and she could see that he was watching her steadily. "What do you think, Lois?" he asked her quietly.
Shakily, she said, "You just did some things that only Superman can do… and you even look a bit like him. I realised that for the first time today. But Superman's back there in the hospital, unconscious… and anyway, I *saw* you and Superman together! Today — twice! And you were with me in the waiting area and he was in the ER… you *can't* be him!"
"I'm not that Superman, no," Clark said bafflingly. *That* Superman? Was he saying that there were more than one? Was he crazy? And yet… And yet, he'd flown.
"Tell me something, Lois," he added. "Have you ever seen Superman and me together before today?"
She thought about that, then remembered having realised earlier that she'd never been with the two of them together before. But that still didn't explain this — or, at least, if it did, she was missing something. If Clark was suggesting — and he seemed to be — that *he* was Superman, then who was in that bed in Metro Gen?
"You're not that Superman," she echoed slowly. "So which Superman are you, then?" Bewilderment turned into sarcasm as she spoke.
Clark didn't answer immediately, and in the faint light she saw him rake a hand roughly through his hair. Then he sighed and muttered something which she thought sounded like, "Should've listened to CK…"
Lois's thoughts were whirling as she battled with her confusion. What could he possibly mean? Were there two Supermen? Had there always been two? But wait — Clark had said she'd never seen them together until that day, so did that mean that the other one had only just arrived? Was the other Superman another clone? But the last time Superman had been cloned, the clone had been working for a villain — she'd never found out who. Was this clone on the side of the good guys?
Was Clark really Superman?
He could fly. How else could she explain that?
So. He was Superman. Which meant he'd *lied* to her!
She raised her gaze to Clark again, about to accuse him of lying. But before she could say a word he caught her arm and hissed softly at her to stay quiet, pointing upwards as he did so. Several moments later, he murmured on a sigh, "It's okay. They were looking over the edge to see where we'd gone, but they decided we couldn't have survived the drop."
The chilling reminder of how close they'd come to a horrible end — of how she would have been dead but for Clark's hidden talents — shook Lois out of her rage. Clark might have lied to her, but he'd just saved her life.
"We have to get out of here," he added quietly. "Hold on — I'll take us back down to where you left your car, okay?"
"How do we explain getting back there?"
He shrugged. "We don't have to. Assuming the guards get Stride's posse alive, it's their word against ours that we went over the cliff. And it was dark…" Another shrug.
"I guess." Lois wasn't really taking in his arguments; she was still trying to reconcile the evidence of her senses and her eyes against the evidence of the man she'd left lying motionless in a hospital bed. How could Clark be Superman? How could there be two Supermen?
"Who are you?" she whispered again.
He stared at her for a long moment, his brown eyes seeming to burn into her even in the dark night. Then, finally, he said softly, "You know who I am, Lois." Then, gently, he gathered her up into his arms and stepped off the ledge.
He'd tell her everything, of course, as soon as they were somewhere safer than a ledge on the side of a mountain with Intergang assassins running around above them. For now, the most important thing was to get her out of there. Though, knowing Lois, she'd insist on sticking around until they'd got the story, whatever the story proved to be. He just hoped that the state's precious witness wasn't dead or injured because of his failure to intervene.
The area just above where Lois had left her Jeep was now swarming with patrol cars, and as Clark drew near he could see Mayson conferring with someone dressed in a nondescript dark suit. A police officer? Someone from the DA's office? FBI? Who knew?
He landed gently under cover of a clump of trees and allowed Lois to slide to the ground. She looked up at him, her expression telling him that he had a *lot* of questions to answer and that he was extremely fortunate that they had a case to work on first. Ruefully, he smiled at her. "Later. I promise."
She nodded. "You bet, buster!"
"Come on. Let's find out what's going on."
CK had definitely been right, Clark mused again as he wrapped his arm around Lois's shoulders protectively and led her carefully through the trees towards the police. If he'd told Lois about himself sooner, he wouldn't now be in the position of not only explaining how it was that he'd lied to her for over a year and a half — and even asked her out before telling her the truth — but also telling her how it was that there were two Supermen in Metropolis at present. Knowing Lois's sceptical nature, that was going to be a tricky conversation!
But at least, in their present circumstances, he had some time to think about just how he was going to explain it all…
Mayson looked up as they approached, and Clark could see her rolling her eyes. "I suppose I should have expected to find you two in the thick of this!"
"I'm the one who tipped you all off about it," Lois pointed out dryly. "If I hadn't followed Stride up here… Your SWAT guys hadn't noticed a thing."
Mayson shrugged. "I won't deny that we were grateful for the call. But by the time we got here it was mostly over. Our guys got almost all of them, we think. And the witness has already been moved to another location."
Clark mused, staring down at his feet, that if he hadn't alerted the SWAT team by using his powers the outcome could have been very different; the DA's star witness could have been dead. So much for the government's finest!
"Almost all?" Lois queried sharply. "You mean you let some of them get away? Are you crazy?"
"Lois!" Clark hissed; he agreed with her about the seeming incompetence of this protection operation, but he didn't think there was any point in rubbing Mayson and her unknown companion up the wrong way. After all, they still needed information for a story.
She ignored him. "Did you get Diana Stride?"
The expression on the man's face spoke volumes. Clark sighed, wondering if he should have gone after her; but then he reminded himself that he couldn't afford to let anyone — other than Lois — find out that there were two Supermen. But all the same, Stride's escape was alarming. She still had Kryptonite, and once she found out that she hadn't succeeded in killing Superman, she'd no doubt try again.
He remained silent while Lois rattled off a series of questions, managing to move Mayson and the man they discovered was an FBI officer past the standard 'no comment'.
Finally, having got as much information as they were likely to get, Lois punched Clark's arm lightly. "Come on, let's get out of here."
Lois drove the Jeep back to the city in silence. Now that she had Clark on her own, without a villain or a cop or agent or even an Assistant DA in sight, she felt oddly reluctant to start the conversation they needed to have. Clark wasn't making any attempt to talk either, which made the thought of asking him straight out whether he was Superman — which she was now very sure he was — and how he explained the other Superman in MetroGen, kind of awkward.
Not that awkwardness had ever prevented Lois Lane from asking difficult questions before — but this situation seemed different, somehow. This was *Clark*, her best friend, the man she was about to go on a date with. And now she'd discovered that there was a whole side to him she knew nothing about.
Finally, as she neared the junction where she could turn left for Clinton Street or carry on straight to get to Carter Avenue, Clark said, "Mind if we go to your place, Lois? Diana Stride's been in my apartment and I need to check it for bugs — we can't talk there."
"Okay," she said, relieved that he didn't seem to be avoiding the subject after all. "But I expect a full explanation — of *everything*!"
"And you'll get it," he promised. She glanced at him quickly, noting that his expression was one she was very familiar with, and that she trusted. This was Clark, her friend, making her a promise she knew that he'd keep.
Much as she wanted him to keep his promise, though, there was one nagging worry, something she knew she should have thought of sooner. "Diana Stride got away. Is S… the guy in the hospital. Is he safe?"
"He's Superman," Clark said, which still made no sense at all to Lois. "And yes, he's fine. Stride thinks she killed him, so she won't go looking for him — and anyway, Henderson has a guard posted."
"How do you know she thinks he's dead?" Lois asked immediately.
Clark tapped his ear lightly. "I overheard her when I was looking for you. That's how I know my apartment's probably bugged."
Super-hearing. Of course. Lois pulled a face, remembering times when Clark had told her that he was just good at lip- reading. Yeah, right.
A few minutes later, she parked the Jeep outside her apartment building and took a deep breath. This was it. Whatever it was that Clark had to tell her, she knew beyond a doubt that their relationship would alter irrevocably from this point onwards. And that was an even more scary prospect than agreeing to go out on a date with him in the first place.
Just who was Clark Kent?
Which was the fašade — the man or the hero?
And why hadn't he even hinted at any of this before?
Though that, she thought, she could understand. This was big. This was *huge*. It was the kind of secret which, if it got out, would lead to Clark having no life as himself. He'd be under siege day and night from the media and from the public. And his friends would probably receive the same treatment. And even if he'd felt that he could trust her, he'd probably got so much into the habit of keeping the secret that the thought of telling someone else probably never crossed his mind.
Or maybe it had crossed his mind, but something had stopped him telling her.
Something… like the way she'd always behaved around Superman.
The way she'd occasionally denigrated Clark in comparison to Superman.
The way she'd made her admiration for Superman very evident to Clark, and probably everyone else besides — yes, Mayson had been right to say that her crush was well known.
Now embarrassed, Lois could see precisely why all that might have stopped Clark from telling her the truth. Earlier conversations came back to her, making her cringe and wince, appalled at her treatment of Clark as opposed to his alter ego.
<Clark's the before, Superman's the after. Make that the way, *way* after>
That had been mean. Not only mean, but completely unnecessary. How he must have laughed at her!
Or… maybe he hadn't laughed. Maybe he'd been hurt instead.
Mayson had said that she didn't deserve Clark. And right now, Lois couldn't help but agree.
After all, she'd said plenty of things to hurt him over the time they'd known each other… like that summer's day, months ago now, when she'd rejected her partner and then asked him to send Superman to see her… and she'd told Superman that she was deeply in love with him. Okay, she'd had no way of knowing the truth, but now that she knew that it had been Clark on the receiving end of both discussions, she could easily understand his reaction. And why he hadn't told her who he really was.
And who was he, really? Clark Kent or Superman?
And who was the man in that hospital bed? Who had they talked to that very afternoon?
Could she even be sure that the Superman she knew and had talked to — even kissed — on many occasions had always been Clark?
They walked together up to her apartment, still in silence; but as they reached her floor, Clark wordlessly wrapped his arm around her shoulders, hugging her lightly. He didn't let go. Lois wasn't sure whether this was an attempt to soften her up, or to try to give himself courage, or a declaration that, as far as Clark was concerned, their friendship was still the same as ever.
The apartment seemed almost oppressively quiet as they entered; the hum of the refrigerator was less noticeable than usual, and even her fish-tank didn't seem to be making much sound. Awkwardly, Lois offered to make coffee, unsure how to begin the conversation. But before she could move away Clark caught both her hands in his.
"Lois, don't." His voice was gentle, with a note of sorrow. "Don't be nervous with me, please. We've been friends for so long… I couldn't bear it."
"Everything's changed, though…" Strangely, the strongest emotion she was experiencing was sadness. It was as if she was experiencing a sense of loss for the ordinary guy she'd thought she knew. Even though Clark was still standing beside her, he wasn't the Clark she'd known, worked beside… and loved.
"One thing has changed," he agreed. "But nothing else has to, unless you want it to."
She didn't — couldn't — answer. Clark sighed softly, then said, "If you really want coffee, I'll make some."
"No." She took a deep breath and looked straight at him, determined to deal with this revelation and to get to the bottom of the mystery of the other Superman. The truth, even if it was hard to hear, had to be better than not knowing. "Let's talk."
She'd worked it out, of course — he already knew that beyond doubt, even though she'd been sceptical there on that cliff-ledge. The way she'd been looking at him on the way back, the way she'd watched him out of the corner of her eye while they'd been talking to Mayson and the FBI officer; even if she still didn't know how to explain CK, she knew that *he* was Superman. She'd resisted the conclusion at first, of course, as would have been expected, but he knew that even before he'd flown back to the mountain-side with her she'd accepted the truth.
Now, all he had to worry about was how mad she was.
"Lois, you know I'm Superman," he began carefully. "And —"
"Yeah, I worked that one out," she told him, a caustic edge to her voice. "What I haven't figured out yet is why you never told me — and just who that guy in MetroGen is. *And* if you and he have been playing games with me the whole time!"
"I don't know what you mean about games," Clark said, puzzled.
"Well, you and he… I mean, if you're both Superman, which of you have *I* been with? Which of you took me flying? And… and other things? And… oh, you haven't both been Clark, have you?" Now Lois was beginning to sound seriously on edge, and Clark hastened to reassure her, on that point at least.
"Lois, it's only ever been me. He — the other guy — has only been around for the past couple of days. But can we leave him for a while?" Clark asked. "I will explain before we leave here, I promise. It's just that… well, I know you're going to think it's pretty weird and incredible and…"
"No more incredible than the fact that I worked next to you for a year and a half and I never noticed that you had a little *sideline* going," Lois pointed out; this time he recognised that the sarcasm in her tone was directed at herself.
He gave a helpless shrug. "I've been covering up for myself a long time, Lois. Even before I became Superman, I had to hide what I can do."
"So… You're no farmer's son. You're from Krypton, and you can fly," Lois said thoughtfully. "Were you ever going to tell me?" The acerbic note was back.
"Yes, I was!" he insisted defensively. Then he sighed and became calmer. "You're right, I should have told you a lot sooner. I should have told you before I asked you out."
"You should have told me before I…" Lois broke off, shook her head and then sat on the sofa. "Before I thought you'd been killed right in front of me," she finished softly, a tiny choke in her voice.
Clark winced inwardly. As he'd implied to CK, he'd felt guilty about his actions at that time ever since, but there wasn't a lot he could do now to change anything. "I know," he replied quietly, coming to sit beside Lois and wondering if he dared take her hand in his. "That was… cruel. My only excuse is that at the time I had no idea how cruel it was — how upset you'd been by thinking that I was dead."
"You thought I wouldn't care?" The hurt in her voice flayed him, and he longed to pull her into his arms and comfort her. Somehow, though, he knew that this wasn't the time.
"It wasn't like that," he said, trying to find the words to explain. "I guess I thought you'd miss me… but… well, I was just your partner — okay, your friend by then. But… well, just a friend," he said, reluctant to tell her how much he'd longed for her to regard him as someone she loved. "I guess I knew you liked me, but I didn't realise… well, I never thought you'd care that much. And anyway," he finished quickly, before she could interrupt him, "I was trying to come to terms with the fact that it looked like Clark Kent really was dead. And I didn't know how it would help you to know that he wasn't, if it meant that he — I — couldn't come back anyway."
"Because even though you were alive and well, the world believed Clark had been killed," Lois mused aloud. "I guess I can understand that… but, Clark, knowing you were alive *would* have helped me. You have to understand that — and it hurts to know that you didn't then," she finished, turning to look at him with an accusing expression. "It hurts to know that you didn't think I cared that much about you."
"I'm sorry," was all he could say, shaking his head regretfully.
Lois grimaced, and he could see the conflict in her expression. "It's over and done with. I'm not happy about it, and you know me well enough to know that I can stay mad for a darned long time if I want to. And I might yet. But… I think right now we have more important things to talk about."
"If I was going to tell anyone, it would always have been you," Clark interjected quickly; it was the truth, and he wanted her to know that. "I've known for a while that if I could turn back time, I'd have told you then."
"I guess hindsight makes us all perfect," Lois said wryly. "I wish you had, Clark. That's the one thing which…" She broke off and shook her head, then continued. "I *can* understand why you didn't tell anyone about Superman. I can even understand why you didn't tell me, even when we became close friends," Lois told him, surprising him by how reasonable she was being in the circumstances. "I mean, I guess you've been keeping this secret all your life. And… maybe I didn't give you enough reason to expect that I could be trusted with it. Yeah, I've been thinking about all this," she added, making him realise that his surprise must have been visible.
"I should have trusted you, though," he admitted. And he knew it was true. "Lois, I never thought you'd… well, use the information against me or anything like that. And *that's* not why I didn't tell you after I was shot."
"I know that," she said quickly. "I just wish you could've trusted me then."
"Me too," he said heavily. "I swear to you, Lois, if I had that time again…"
"Please, no!" she said, cutting across him. "Thinking I'd lost you once was bad enough…"
"You didn't," he pointed out huskily, this time reaching for her hand. She curled her fingers around his.
"Yeah, I didn't." She surprised him by tilting her chin to look at him and giving him a tentative half-smile. "Don't ever scare me like that again, Clark!"
"I'll try." He smiled back at her. "Just as long as I can manage to stay away from Kryptonite, I guess." He fell silent then, remembering how CK had looked in the hospital bed. Then, because he wasn't quite ready to explain CK just yet, he added, wanting to move the subject away from Kryptonite again, "I really do trust you, Lois. I know it might not have looked that way, but I never thought you'd do anything to expose my secret or anything like that."
"Not even if it could have got me a Pulitzer?" she challenged wryly.
"Oh, when we first knew each other, you might have, I guess," he agreed with a smile. "But not for a long time after that. Don't forget, I know how much newsworthy stuff about me you've held back on. And don't think I don't appreciate it."
"I should hope so!" Lois sobered then. "Clark, you've got a lot of explaining to do. And the only reason I'm not making you do it all now is that I need to know who's in MetroGen masquerading as you, and because we have to stop Diana Stride before she tries to kill you again!"
"And tries to expose me as Superman," Clark completed. "Lois, I promise you that I'll explain everything," he promised her, speaking intensely. "Not now, but as soon as we get some time when we're not trying to foil a psychopathic murderer," he added dryly. "I want you to know everything about me."
Was that saying too much? he wondered. This had to be a lot for her to take in, and he didn't want to scare her off. But he wanted her as so much more than a friend in his life, and that meant that he wanted to have no secrets from her.
But she smiled shyly at him. "I'd like that."
From being uncertain about where the revelation took them, and ashamed of the way she'd treated Clark, Lois had found herself becoming hurt and angry as she and Clark had talked. But now, as his genuine contrition and earnestness had made its impression on her, she was suddenly feeling awkward again.
He wasn't just Clark Kent any longer. He was a man who could see through things, and could hear from long distances away, and could move at the speed of light… and who could fly.
He was Superman.
And she was Lois Lane, reporter, and ordinary human.
A Kerth-award winning reporter, though, and she'd never realised who her partner was. Oh, she'd richly deserved not being nominated this year!
Freeing her hand from Clark's suddenly, she reached for his glasses and pulled them off. He let her, sitting unmoving as she did so. Even still, he didn't look like Superman. He didn't look much like Clark either. But then he brushed one hand over his hair, flattening it, and then she saw.
"Superman," she murmured softly, looking at him.
"Clark," he responded, equally quietly. Letting his hair spring back into its normal style, he reached for both her hands, holding them firmly in his own. "I'm still Clark, Lois. I've always been Clark — I've only been Superman since that day on the Messenger transport."
So, Superman had grown up on Earth — but then, she should have worked that out as soon as Clark had shown her who he was. After all, she'd been to his family home; she'd seen photos of him as a baby.
Did that mean that Martha and Jonathan…? No. No, they were just ordinary Kansas farmers; she'd swear to it. An ordinary Midwest couple who'd found themselves raising an extraordinary man.
And that extraordinary man worked as a reporter on a daily newspaper, earning a salary just like anyone else. He lived in an ordinary apartment, paid his taxes and voted, just like any other citizen. Why had no-one ever considered that Superman might be hiding in plain sight? Why *was* Superman hiding in plain sight?
But yet that one wasn't as much of a puzzle as it seemed. He'd told her that he was Clark, not Superman — which meant that the Clark side of his identity meant more to him than the Superhero side. And that made sense, when she thought about it. She'd known both men — both versions of Clark — for around eighteen months. And it was obvious that it was the Clark version who had the more well-rounded personality. As far as Superman was concerned, she knew that he had a highly-developed sense of civic responsibility, something of a sense of humour, and could kiss amazingly well. But that was all she knew of him, really.
Clark… well, she could fill pages with what she'd known of Clark even before this discovery.
Which reminded her… *Clark* could be pretty impressive in the kissing department, of course. So why had she never made the connection between him and Superman?
<Idiot! You only saw what you wanted to see!> she told herself.
"Lois?" Clark prompted.
"Sorry — I was thinking," she apologised, letting her gaze drop to their joined hands. That was a reassuring factor, she reminded herself; she'd been in danger of thinking that Clark the Superhero wasn't going to want to have anything romantically to do with Lois Lane, ordinary reporter, but his behaviour certainly seemed to be suggesting otherwise. Maybe she shouldn't write off their date just yet after all…
"I know it's a lot to take in," he agreed. "But nothing's really changed between us. And nothing's different in the way I feel about you."
She was tempted to ask… but then her courage failed. She wasn't entirely sure whether she was afraid to find out that he didn't care enough, or cared too much. Was she ready to be loved by Clark 'Superman' Kent? There had, of course, been a time when she'd asked Superman to love her, but she'd known then that she was reaching for the unattainable. That was why the prospect of loving Clark had been so much more scary: he *was* attainable, within reach, and therefore much more likely to hurt her. Clark, in his new guise of both Super-hero and mortal, was at the same time attainable and way, way out of her league.
No, that was a subject better left for now.
Freeing her hands, she said, "I think you need to tell me who the other Superman is."
He sighed and shifted back along the sofa, away from her. "Okay. This is where you're going to think I've gone completely crazy…"
"You think?" she challenged him. "Right. I've just discovered that my partner — and the man I've agreed to go out with — is actually Superman. You think that anything else is going to surprise me after that?"
"This will." He reached for his glasses, which she was still holding, and put them on the coffee-table in front of them. "He's another Clark Kent, from a parallel universe."
Lois stared at him, her jaw dropping. He really expected her to believe that? "Come on, Clark — this is reality here, not an episode of Sliders!"
He simply looked at her, his dark eyes, now unobscured by glasses, telling her even more emphatically than words that he was telling the truth. And, she reminded herself, this was Superman she was talking to. Superman never lied — well, except for that one time which, she now realised, was in an attempt to protect himself. And anyway, she'd always known Clark to be irritatingly honest, except at those times when he just disappeared without warning…
…and which had obviously been occasions when he'd had to go and be Superman. How clear it all was now!
So Clark was telling the truth now. And the Superman — Clark Kent, he'd told her — in MetroGen was from another universe.
"Explain," she said simply, and waited.
The story he told her left her reeling in amazement. There was another universe almost exactly like theirs, with a Daily Planet and a Superman and Lois Lane, and almost all the events of their lives had been duplicated in that other universe.
"It sounds creepy," she said with a little shiver. "The thought that someone else has been living my life…"
"Well, it's not quite the same in every detail," Clark interjected. "Actually… well, going back to what you were saying earlier, CK told his Lois the truth about himself after he was shot." He sounded uncomfortable, she thought — and no wonder!
So, the other Clark Kent had confessed the truth to the Lois Lane in his life, and hadn't let her go on believing that he was dead. At least he'd had some sense of decency! All the same… "I bet she yelled at him," she said dryly, raising an eyebrow at her Clark.
"So I believe," Clark agreed, looking rueful. "I… well, I wasn't surprised, I have to admit."
"It's not that I — well, she — that *we* wouldn't have been glad to know that you were alive, Clark, but —"
He grimaced. "Let me guess. He lied? He didn't trust her? He left her not knowing for… well, however long it was before he went to see her, and I don't think it was immediately. Am I right?"
"Yeah," she agreed, and realised that, though he probably didn't know it, Clark's words had reinforced for her still more that, regardless of what she'd found out about him this evening, he was still her partner and her best friend. Only Clark knew her that well; only Clark would have been able to predict her reactions that accurately. He was still Clark, and always would be, no matter what.
But somehow, the thought of telling him that was something she shied away from. After all, *he* took his dual identity in his stride — of course he did! So to admit that she was having a lot of trouble coming to terms with it and reconciling the two sides of him in her mind was just a step too far. Especially when Clark, rather than Superman, was the side of him she most feared losing in the wake of his revelation.
So instead she forced herself to refocus on what they'd been talking about, expressing some of the feelings which were welling up inside her without actually giving away what had been bothering her most. "And more — you know, Clark, the more I think about it, the more I realise… I mean, you made me think that you were two different men! And the way I behaved with Superman… compared to the way I behaved with you…" She broke off, biting her lip and looking away in embarrassment, wondering whether the other Lois Lane had been equally stupid, equally blind not seeing what was right under her nose. Had she been equally cruel to her Clark?
And could her Clark — could either Clark — forgive her?
She felt a touch on her shoulder, and glanced up to see Clark giving her a concerned look. "Lois, none of that matters," he said earnestly. "You didn't know. And you've been the best friend I could ever have wanted. Even when you were yelling at me, I always knew that you were there for me. And even though you knew I was lying to you about something, you never let that get in the way of our friendship."
"Clark…" she began uncertainly, almost lost for words; his sincerity, and the look in his eyes, was making her almost tear up. He really didn't seem to mind about the way she'd treated him in the past, compared with her attitude to Superman. And didn't what he'd just said mean that he valued her relationship with *Clark*? That the Clark side of his persona was important to him too?
"Lois, I know this has been a shock," he said, his gaze concerned — and something else was lurking in his eyes too. Regret? "If you want to forget Saturday, or take a rain- check for a while, it's okay…"
Their date. He thought she wanted to change her mind.
It had been occurring to her to wonder why he'd want to go out with her anyway. He was Superman — so why would he want Lois Lane? But now he was looking at her in such a concerned, vulnerable way… and she reminded herself of one crucial fact.
Clark had asked her out. He *wanted* to go on a date with her. The fact that he was Superman was nothing new to him; he'd wanted her when she didn't know, and she had to assume that he still wanted her now that she did. And the way he was looking at her, with such an anxious expression as he waited for her response, told her that this mattered to him. He did want her.
"Clark, I meant what I said the other evening. I don't want to postpone our date. I don't need… I mean I know things have changed, but you're still Clark, aren't you? Just with a few… well, added extras, I guess."
That made him laugh. "That's one way of putting it!" But his eyes held an expression of deep affection… and something more. As she looked at him, holding his gaze, Lois wondered how many times she'd seen that same expression in Superman's eyes, but had missed its significance.
Clark had very deep feelings for her. Unless she was very much mistaken, he loved her. Not as a best friend, but as… more. He loved her the way he'd once told her he felt about her; the way she'd almost told him once that she felt about him.
The way she'd told Superman she felt about him… oh god, it was no wonder he'd rejected her that night!
Unable to speak for the lump in her throat, she simply gazed back at Clark. And then his arms came around her and he tugged her against him, hugging her warmly as he rested his chin against her head. She felt him drop a soft kiss against her hair and, deeply touched, she murmured, "Clark… don't ever let me lose you."
<I love you> she thought, but didn't dare to say the words. Not now. Not yet. Some time… maybe… she'd try to say them again. When she had the confidence to say them — and when she thought that Clark might actually believe her. Believe that she loved *him*, and not his cape-wearing alter ego.
"I won't, Lois, I swear it," he promised, a sincerity in his voice which made her heart contract.
Clark reluctantly drew away from Lois. Although he'd have loved to hold her in his arms all night, there were things he needed to do. Things he knew he should have done some time ago — but he'd known that this conversation needed to take priority. He owed it to Lois, after deceiving her for so long, to explain as much to her as he possibly could.
Not that they'd discussed everything yet, by any means. He knew Lois well enough to know that she'd still have a lot of questions and, no doubt, things to complain about as well. But that could wait.
They'd already managed to air quite a lot, as it was. He'd been able to convince Lois, he felt sure, that he'd always intended to tell her. And he'd been able to apologise for what he knew was his worst offence in respect of the way he'd lied to her. And *she'd* clearly recognised how much her own behaviour had contributed to his not telling her the truth. He wasn't holding a grudge about that, but he was glad that she'd understood.
Just now, when he'd hugged her, he'd been seized with the consuming desire to kiss her. He'd almost done it, too, but had confined himself to kissing the top of her head. Now wasn't the time. Maybe on Saturday… that was a distinct possibility, especially since she'd made it clear that she still wanted to go on their date.
"Lois, I need to get going," he told her regretfully. "I have to do a quick fly-past over my apartment, just to see what Stride did while she was there. And then I need to get back to the hospital and see how CK is."
"Oh yeah, you said Stride had been at your place," Lois said, the alert reporter once again. "What was she doing?"
"She thinks that Clark Kent is Superman," Clark explained. "She's planning to expose him as me on tomorrow's Top Copy. Seems she found Superman's suits at my apartment, and on that basis, plus the fact that she knows that Superman went over there the other night when she had the tracer on him, she thinks he's me."
It felt strange to be talking about himself in the third person now that Lois knew, but Clark told himself that it was good discipline. After all, they were alone now, but they wouldn't always be. It was sensible not to allow himself, or her, to become careless.
"Right. So she thinks that she's killed Superman — which means that if you go anywhere near your apartment, she'll think Superman's alive and well," Lois said thoughtfully.
"Yeah," he agreed. That could have advantages… on the other hand, if she still had Kryptonite, it might be best to allow her to continue in the belief that she'd killed him. Which meant that Clark Kent needed to keep a low profile over the next twenty hours or so. "You're right — I'd better not go into the apartment if I can help it. Unless I move fast, that is," he added with a wink.
"I suppose…" Lois said slowly, her eyes widening. He could see that once again she was shocked into recognition of his abilities. It was going to take her some time to reconcile the two sides of his identity; to understand, without prompting either from herself or him, that he and Superman were the same man. And, of course, the fact that she'd — as far as she'd been aware — actually had a conversation with the two of them that same day wouldn't have helped matters.
She was quick to regain her customary composure and talent for organising people, though. "Why don't you go and do that, then? Get anything you need from your apartment while you're there. And then we can drive to the hospital together." As he gave her a surprised look, she added, "You knew I'd want to come, didn't you?"
He hadn't, actually — not now that she knew the Superman in MetroGen wasn't someone she knew. But, as ever, he'd underestimated Lois. The fact that CK was virtually a stranger to her was unimportant. He was a Superman, and he'd almost been killed. Of course she'd want to be there. And Clark was very well aware that the story was of subsidiary importance to Lois here.
Agreeing to her suggestion, he prepared to spin into his Superman suit, aware that it would be the first time he'd done it in front of her — in fact, she'd yet to see him as Superman in the knowledge that he was Clark. But then, remembering that Superman was, depending on who knew what, on his sick-bed in hospital or dead, he thought better of it. His own clothes were dark; he'd be far less likely to be spotted flying than if he changed into the electric-blue Spandex.
Stepping up onto the windowsill, he saw that Lois was now watching him with an expression of wonder and delighted amazement. Grinning at her, he said, "Come on, Lois — you flew with me earlier!"
"I know, but… it's still kind of strange to think of *you* flying," she explained. "Don't worry; I think I'll get used to it pretty fast!"
"Yeah, so I should make the most of this while it lasts," he teased her. "I'll be back in a couple of minutes, okay?"
Flying high over the city rooftops a few seconds later, Clark reflected in some amazement on their conversation. Lois knew, at last, that he was Superman. And the revelation had been nothing like he'd ever imagined it would be. Somehow, in his daydreams — and even nightmares — of Lois finding out the truth, he'd imagined that she'd be furious. After all, he'd lied to her for a long time, and his partner was nothing if not predictable in that respect. She hated it when people kept secrets from her, despite the fact that she was more than capable of keeping her own secrets. That was, in a way, hypocritical of her, Clark knew — but it was one of those idiosyncrasies about his partner and best friend that, contrarily, he'd come to love.
So he'd always imagined that she'd be mad, which was one reason why he'd been reluctant to have the conversation which he'd known for some time he really should have had with her. Dealing with a furious Lois was something he was used to by now, but most of the time these days her rage was at other people. He hadn't wanted to feel it directed at him. The constant reminder, thanks to the knowledge of CK's history with his own Lois, that he'd allowed Lois to believe he was dead was another reason he'd dreaded the revelation: how could he possibly apologise enough for the pain he'd caused her then?
She'd been angry and hurt about that. And he probably hadn't heard the last of it, either. But something seemed to have prevented her going off the deep end about it. He wasn't sure what, but she'd seemed to be fighting some internal battle, something which was making her feel… he wasn't sure, but could it have been guilt?
And as for his chief concern, that she'd suddenly decide that she was really interested in him now that she knew he was Superman, that seemed — so far — to be groundless. She hadn't suddenly flung herself into his arms and declared that she'd been in love with him all along. In fact, she'd almost seemed to withdraw from him at one point, and he'd had to ask her whether she'd changed her mind about their date. Her response had suggested that she'd wondered if *he'd* changed his mind.
So they were fine, he thought. And having Lois know felt absolutely wonderful. He'd have to tell CK that he'd been right all along…
More guilt, this time at his neglect, slammed through Clark, and he lost several feet of altitude. His counterpart, who only a couple of hours earlier had been fighting for his life in MetroGen, all because he'd exposed himself to danger for Clark's sake. His counterpart, of whom Clark had been stupidly, selfishly jealous.
CK would be okay. By the time he'd left the hospital to find Lois, Clark had been sure of that. The Kryptonite was draining out of his system, and Clark's sweeps of CK's body had shown him that the remaining traces of the green menace were getting fewer and fewer. His counterpart had been breathing more easily and his colour had been improving.
Still, he should have gone back to the hospital before now. Okay, explaining to Lois had been important, but he could have kept the conversation brief.
Hovering over his apartment seconds later, he identified several listening devices. He had no intention of disturbing any of them, but he could move quickly enough to avoid being heard. Within a couple of seconds, he'd collected a change of clothes and one of his spare Suits for CK, and he was on his way back to Lois's apartment.
"The other Superman — you said you call him CK? — he will be okay, won't he?" Lois asked, concerned, as he drove her Jeep back to the hospital.
"I hope so. Most of the Kryptonite's out of him and he was beginning to look better around the time I left," Clark explained. "As long as they can get rid of all of it, it'll just be a matter of time until his powers return."
"But will they be able to get all of it out?" Lois asked anxiously.
Clark grimaced. "I hope so. Dr Conway did say that there was something else they could try if he wasn't better by morning."
"It could have been you." Lois's voice was shaky.
"I know. That's been on my mind ever since it happened," Clark answered. "Though I wish it had been. It *should* have been. There was no reason why he should have had to take that risk for me."
"Except that you said that was why he was sent here," Lois said thoughtfully. "I want to know more about that — who sent him? And how does this guy have the means of travelling between dimensions?"
"I have no idea," Clark replied. "But if he'd asked me first, I'd have said no. It's *not* fair that someone else had to take risks for me."
"But you said they knew that Diana Stride was going to expose your identity," Lois reminded him.
"I know — but I could have found a way to deal with that. I hope, anyway," Clark said wryly. "Even protecting my identity isn't worth CK's life."
"Except that your parents and all your friends could be in danger if the whole world found out who Superman really is," Lois pointed out. "Maybe that was worth the risk."
The hospital corridors were quiet as the two reporters made their way back to the floor on which CK's room lay; but then, it was after three in the morning. The discreet police guard was still in place, and one of the officers, who had been there earlier, nodded at Lois and Clark as they went past.
On reaching the partially-open door of CK's room, Lois paused and glanced at Clark; as she did so, he pulled his glasses very slightly down his nose, and a strong sense of deja-vu assailed her. How often had she seen him do that? And she'd assumed that he had mild astigmatism or something. And all the time, she now realised, he'd been using his vision powers. So clearly he couldn't use his powers through his glasses, she reasoned, wondering if the glasses acted in part as a reminder to himself not to use his powers. After all, he'd worn glasses when she'd first known him, and Superman hadn't been around then. At a guess, she thought, he'd invented Superman just before that space shuttle bomb incident.
"He's looking a lot better," Clark murmured, relief clearly evident in his voice. "His colour's improved more and…" He trailed off, then said quietly, "Can you sneak in there and take that foil away from the tube?"
Surprised, but recognising that it was important, Lois slipped into the silent room and did as her partner asked. In the dim light, she couldn't see much, but she thought that Superman wasn't looking as pale than he had been earlier. His breathing also sounded more normal. Setting the foil aside, she then returned to Clark.
He smiled as she approached. "It's looking good. I can't see any Kryptonite in the tube now. And what's more, I can't feel it either. Earlier, I could feel the effect of it as soon as I got to the doorway."
"He's going to be okay, then," she said on a relieved sigh.
"I'm sure of it."
"Good. Now all we need is for Henderson to get Diana Stride under arrest!" Lois said, still keeping her voice low, but with feeling, before going back to replace the lead foil.
Persuading Lois that they could do no more for the time being and that she should go home and get some sleep wasn't easy. She insisted on calling Henderson to find out whether the police were any further forward on arresting Stride — they weren't — and then on talking to Dr Conway about CK. The doctor, clearly still struggling with his lack of knowledge of Superman's physiology, thought that he was unlikely to wake for a few hours yet.
"His body has suffered a huge trauma," the doctor explained. "He's sleeping now, I think — at least, his vital signs seem to suggest that rather than continuing unconsciousness. And, given what he's been through, I've instructed the nurse in charge of his care to ensure that he's left alone to sleep."
Clark nodded. He'd seen Nurse Luddy a few times while he'd been conducting his silent vigil outside CK's room.
"Go home, Lois," he said softly once Dr Carter had left. "There's nothing more you can do here."
"What about you?" she asked immediately.
"I'll stay. I don't need to sleep," he protested quickly as she was about to argue.
She did a double-take. "You don't?"
"Well, not much. The sun recharges me," he explained in hushed tones. "So I can stay and keep an eye on him. I promise I'll call you if he wakes up."
He could see that Lois was about to protest, but then her position was undermined completely as she yawned. "Come on," he urged gently. "I'll drive you home."
After a token protest, she agreed; fifteen minutes later, he parked the Jeep outside her apartment building. "Are you coming up?" she asked, the words partially smothered by another yawn.
"I don't think that's a good idea; do you?" he teased. "Unless you want me to carry you up!"
"That'd be a new experience — Superman carrying me to bed!" she retorted, grinning sleepily at him.
<Don't tempt me, Lois…> Clark couldn't help thinking, stifling an inward groan at the images which sprang to mind.
He escorted her to the building's doorstep, all the same. Leaning against the jamb, she turned and smiled tiredly at him. "I'm not even sure I'll sleep," she told him. "There's all this new information swimming around in my brain right now. And I keep getting pictures of me talking to you as Superman and then you as Clark, and I don't know whether to be embarrassed at the way I treated you, angry that you deceived me for so long, or annoyed with myself for not realising!"
Her smile told him that, no matter how confused she was, any real anger at him wasn't likely to last. He reached out and caressed her cheek with his palm. "Just remind yourself that I've had a lot of practice at keeping secrets. And that you're the only person I've ever told about this. And that I've lost count of the number of times you helped Superman more than you could know. I couldn't have gone on without you, Lois."
"Really?" Her gaze met his, her eyes questioning, shining in wonderment as if she couldn't believe that she'd really been that important to him. *Darn* her father and the way he, and almost every other man in Lois's life, had systematically destroyed her sense of self-worth! Clark thought in sudden anger. But this was something he could reassure her about with no effort whatsoever.
"Oh yes. Just remember a time, more than a year ago, when Superman disappeared for a couple of days after he was being tested. And when I'd lost my memory — you helped me to remember who I was and what I needed to do. And when I was dying with a Kryptonite bullet inside me… who saved my life then? Lois, I could never be what I am without you," he told her softly.
She continued to stare up at him, but didn't speak; instead, she shifted her position and leaned against his shoulder. He wrapped one arm around her in a sideways hug, then said, "Should I carry you up after all?"
That made her grin. "Naah. Though I can't say I wouldn't enjoy it… No, you get back and keep an eye on Superman."
"Okay." Hesitating, not wanting simply to walk away after everything they'd been through that night, Clark took a silent deep breath and caught Lois's chin with his hand. He met her lips gently with his own, though with enough pressure for the kiss not to be quite platonic, then stepped back. "Goodnight, Lois."
In the almost-darkness, he saw her flush, but a shy smile crept across her lips. "Goodnight, Clark."
It had been a very long day — in fact, it was getting close to morning — and Lois had no wish to make it any longer. And yet, even as she climbed into bed, she doubted that she'd be able to sleep any time soon. She felt as if her entire world had shifted on its axis; all the certainties she'd held for the past year and a half had been challenged.
Certainties such as: Clark and Superman were two different people.
She was in love with Superman. She liked Clark.
Clark was… nice. Caring. Considerate. Affectionate. He didn't rouse her to passion.
And now; well, now, Clark *was* Superman. And her feelings for Clark — already undergoing serious change and challenge over the past few weeks — had now been rocked still further. If she was in love with Superman, then she was also in love with Clark. Although, she realised, she still had to work out which of the masks he'd presented her with over the past eighteen months was the real Clark.
And as for passion… wow. That kiss… She was still feeling weak at the knees, although that was probably partly exhaustion. But still…
She'd known that Clark could kiss, of course. There had been all those diversionary tactics they'd employed, some of which had involved the pretence of a relationship between them and the exchange of kisses. But she'd never known whether that was the way Clark would kiss a woman he was really involved with, and she'd never had the courage to ask him — or had never wanted him to realise that she was actually interested.
Superman… Clark… kisses… date on Saturday… Lois's last thought, just before sleep overtook her, was that she had to decide what she was going to wear on Saturday — and that she still hadn't made Clark tell her where he was taking her.
The hum of equipment gradually pierced CK's consciousness, and he struggled to wakefulness, trying to make sense of vague, dream-like memories. There was Diana Stride. A kiss he hadn't invited and definitely didn't want. Pain — intense, wrenching pain. Voices… some familiar, and some not… Lois, pleading with him not to die, and Clark…
Clark saying that he was sorry, that he should never have let CK do it…
And himself telling Clark to stop apologising… but how could he have possibly talked to Clark since last night?
Blinking, he managed to open his eyes enough to take in his surroundings. Somehow he was unsurprised to find himself in a hospital room, and as he investigated further, he even felt as if he'd known that the equipment attached to him was there.
A sound from the doorway attracted his attention, and as he shifted his gaze he then heard Lois murmur quietly, "He's awake!"
She entered the room, with Clark right on her heels. Lois looked exactly as he was used to seeing her — or his own Lois: poised, beautiful, and with a bright smile on her face — all of which sent him a painful reminder of just how badly he was missing his own Lois and how much he yearned to see her. Clark, though, was unshaven and his clothes were distinctly rumpled. CK realised, surprised and genuinely touched, that Clark must have spent the night at the hospital.
And, he mused, it was just as well that Clark was looking so untidy. With that stubble and his usually-tidy hair in such a mess, no-one was likely to notice any resemblance between himself and his visitor.
A sudden fear for his counterpart's safety assailed him, backed up by a dream-like memory of Clark explaining that he couldn't come into the room because of the Kryptonite.
"Clark…" he croaked, then stopped, swallowing to try to moisten his throat. Trying again, he said carefully, in the hope of avoiding Lois becoming suspicious, "Clark, could you wait outside?"
He saw Clark blink; then his expression cleared. "It's okay, Superman," Clark replied quickly. "I think all the Kryptonite's gone now."
Now it was CK's turn to blink. Clark had said something that obvious in front of Lois? He knew how intelligent Lois was, how clever she was at putting things together. What if she worked things out from what he'd said?
"Clark, I think you need to tell him," Lois said, glancing back at Clark as she came closer. "There he is trying so hard to protect you…" She turned and, to CK's surprise, winked at him. What was going on here? Lois proceeded to pour some water into a glass and, sitting on the edge of the bed, helped him to drink. CK noted with dismay how even the act of dragging himself into a half-sitting position almost exhausted him. He slumped back against the pillows gratefully.
Clark closed the door over so that it was almost shut, then came closer to the bed, smiling broadly. "She knows, CK. You don't have to cover up for me any more."
"You… told her?" Amazed, CK could only stare at his counterpart. Clark had been so adamant that he had no intention of telling Lois yet, that he wanted to choose his own time — he'd finally admitted that he was too scared of how Lois might react. And yet he'd told her the truth, and she seemed perfectly comfortable with it. He resisted the urge to say 'I told you so,' but was overcome with the desire to know how, and when, it had happened.
<<We'll explain everything, but not here>> he seemed to hear Clark saying, and yet Clark's mouth hadn't moved. <<Too many people around>>
CK blinked and shook his head. Was he still sick or something? How else could he be imagining that Clark was speaking to him inside his head? And yet there was a faint memory…
Clark was giving him an amused smile. "Something else I need to explain later, I guess. We… uh, discovered that ability late last night," he added in a low voice.
"Ability?" Lois was distinctly curious; CK recognised that tone as one his own fiancee often used.
"Sorry, Lois," Clark said, turning to give her a wry smile. "I'll explain, I promise, but not here."
Clark's caution was justified; just then the door opened and a man in a white coat came in. Greeting both Lois and Clark and introducing himself to CK as Dr Conway, the man approached the bed.
"I have to say that it's a great relief to see you awake and talking, Superman. For a while last night, we weren't sure that you'd make it."
"I wasn't so sure myself," CK remembered, giving Lois a quick, grateful smile as he submitted to the doctor's examination. It was mainly thanks to her that he was alive; he knew that. If she hadn't found him so quickly and managed to get him to the hospital…
Lois and Clark discreetly exited the room as Dr Conway continued. His examination was thorough, and left CK feeling even more drained, but he was hugely relieved when the doctor pronounced him recovered. "At least, as far as I can tell, given that I'm not familiar with your physiology. Your vital signs have been stable for the past three observations, and the last time any traces of Kryptonite were detected in the tube was about five hours ago. We were able to remove the tube about an hour or so after that."
"Well, I don't feel any sign of it any more, so it must be gone," CK agreed.
"Do you have your powers back yet?" the doctor asked.
CK shook his head; he didn't even need to try any of his powers to know that he was still definitely not Super. The pain and exhaustion he was still feeling told him so very clearly. "But I'm sure they'll return quite soon, now that the Kryptonite's gone. I'll be fine, Doctor; there's really no need for me to take up any more of your time and resources."
"Well, let's say that we'll keep you under observation for another couple of hours. If Nurse Luddy reports that you're still stable or improving after that time, I'll sign your discharge. Okay?"
"Sounds good to me," CK agreed. "Uh… no word's got out about my being here, right?"
"Not from any of my staff," the doctor assured him. "Your friends Lois Lane and Clark Kent were very insistent about that, even before the police ordered a news blackout on the information. Speaking of the police," Dr Conway continued, "an Inspector Henderson and someone from the DA's office wanted to talk to you as soon as you're able to. Should I send them in?"
He should probably get Lois and Clark to update him first, CK thought. "Give me fifteen minutes or so — but yes, I'll talk to them."
Now that she knew that the two men were the same — well, apart from the fact of one of them being from another universe — Lois couldn't see why she'd never noticed the resemblance before. They were clearly identical, leaving aside Clark's glasses and the different hairstyles. As she and Clark left the room to allow the doctor to examine CK, she was silently kicking herself again for failing to figure it out.
"Hey, don't blame yourself. Remember, I told you I've got pretty good at hiding the truth." Clark's arm descended around her shoulders and he turned her to face him. She began to wonder how he'd figured out what was bothering her; then she admitted that it wasn't really surprising. Their friendship was already so close that they frequently knew what the other was about to say before they said it — admittedly, most of the time that applied to their job, but Clark did know her so incredibly well, it would be amazing if he couldn't sometimes pick up on her thoughts. Though clearly he wasn't able to do that all the time, or he'd have been less reticent about telling her his secret…
…or maybe he wouldn't have, given her secret longings for Superman which, she knew, would have hurt Clark even more than he'd already been upset by her behaviour around his alter ego. It wasn't that she cared for Superman that bothered him; she understood that very clearly. It was that her feelings had always been at *Clark's* expense. And it was only very recently that she'd begun to realise that she was actually in love with the two of them.
Torn between two would-be lovers… but now it all made sense. There was only one.
She was about to reply to Clark, but then saw that she'd lost his attention. He was staring into space, but as she watched him she realised that he was actually concentrating intently. Now that was an expression that she'd seen on his face many times before, she thought with interest, and then it dawned on her that he must be listening to the conversation inside CK's room.
He smiled down at her then and murmured, "CK's fine. Dr Conway says he can leave in a couple of hours, if he doesn't get worse again."
"Great!" she exclaimed softly, then added, "We need to work out how we get him away from here without attracting any attention."
Just then the doctor emerged and waved them back inside, hurrying away as his beeper started to go off. "You heard?" CK asked as soon as they rejoined him.
Clark nodded. "Good news."
"We need to figure out how we get you out of here," Lois repeated. "The last thing we want is some nosy reporter seeing you."
The irony of what she'd said struck her just as both men stared at her, eyebrows raised in identical incredulous expressions. Laughing, she said quickly, "You two had better not do that when there's anyone else around!"
"Okay, so how do I get out of here?" CK asked. "I guess my Suit's wrecked? I mean, I presume they had to cut most of it off me."
"Probably," Clark agreed. "But Lois is right. You can't leave here as Superman. I could get you some of my clothes…"
"You can't go anywhere near your apartment, Clark," Lois interrupted to remind him. "Not if we want Diana Stride to think you're dead." She noticed that CK's eyebrows shot up at that, and she added quickly, "Long story. We'll fill you in on it later — but briefly, she thinks she killed you and she thinks that Clark's you, okay? So Clark needs to stay away from his place." Turning to Clark then, she asked quickly, "You said your apartment was bugged. Just mikes, or cameras too?"
"Just little audio bugs," Clark confirmed. "You got a plan?"
"Don't I always have a plan? Okay, I'll go over to your place and make like I'm looking for you — I'll call out and pretend that I'm worried about you. While I'm there, I'll pick up a change of clothes for both of you. You can fly over to my place and take a shower, okay? I'll bring your stuff over and meet you there, and then we can come back here with the stuff for CK. I think I should pick up a baseball cap as well."
She paused for breath and to allow the two men to express their approval. Clark nodded with a "Works for me."
"What about shaving gear?" she asked suddenly, realising just how disreputable her partner looked. Superman — CK — looked as if he could do with a shave too, but for some reason he wasn't as bad as Clark. Then she remembered: along with everything else, Clark was invulnerable. "How *do* you shave?" she demanded, mystified.
She noticed the two men exchange amused glances. "I'll show you some time," Clark said, smiling at her.
"I guess I'm going to need a razor, if you don't mind, Lois," CK said meekly.
"Okay, I'll pick up what you need. And I guess we meet back here in a couple of hours, right?"
"Right. And in the meantime I have to talk to the police, it seems," CK pointed out. "Anything I need to know first?"
"Just that Diana Stride is still on the loose," Clark said grimly. "She tried to kidnap or kill the witness last night, but thanks to Lois she didn't get away with it. Unfortunately, the Government's finest managed to let her escape. Which is why we want to be very careful about who knows Superman's alive."
As CK nodded, Lois glanced at her watch. "We need to get going. I need to call Perry too and explain why we're not in the newsroom. I guess you'll make your own way back to my apartment, Clark?" Flying, she assumed.
"Yeah," he agreed. "Umm… how will you get into my place? Do you need keys?"
She winked at him. "You have your special talents, I have mine."
"Oh boy," he muttered as they left the room together.
Lois let herself into her apartment about an hour later, clutching a carryall containing clothing and a bag from one of the local drugstores. Sounds from the bathroom, and a slightly-open window, told her that Clark was there. About to call out to him, she hesitated, suddenly feeling unaccountably nervous.
But that was crazy, she told herself. He was *Clark*, the man who'd been her best friend for well over a year. Sure, he was also Superman, but Superman had been her friend too — and even though she had things to be ashamed about in her differential treatment of him in his two guises, Clark had made it clear that he didn't consider any of that to be important. Anyway, he'd done things to be ashamed of too, so they were probably equal in that respect anyway.
No; what was really making her nervous now was that he'd kissed her last night. And, okay, she'd seen him since, but that had been in the hospital, and he'd barely had time to thank her for the coffee and muffin before she'd noticed that CK seemed to be awake. And then they'd been either with CK or talking about him since.
Now, they were alone in her apartment and she had to confront her feelings for him and her reaction to his kiss. What had he meant by it, anyway? Just a kiss for a friend, after a long and traumatic evening? But it hadn't felt all that platonic… And anyway, they'd acknowledged that they weren't just friends any more, hadn't they? When he'd asked her out on a date and she'd accepted? Even though they hadn't had that date yet. The delay had only served to make the basis of their current relationship even more unclear. They weren't dating… and yet they weren't 'just friends' either.
At least, that was the way she'd been feeling over the past week or so, but she hadn't been so sure about Clark, given his frequent distraction and his seeming avoidance of serious conversations…
…and then, suddenly, another piece of the jigsaw snapped into place. The other evening. When they'd been working late and she'd tried to get him to talk about the status of their relationship, and he'd simply tuned out.
Had he tuned out because he didn't want to hear what she had to say… or because he was trying to listen to something else?
Suddenly, a lot about Clark's behaviour, and not just in the past week or so, seemed to be explained. His habit of running off wasn't avoidance, or laziness, or absent- mindedness; he was hurrying away to be somewhere as Superman. And his occasional apparent deafness wasn't inattention or rudeness; it had to be that he was listening to something only he could hear. And that realisation was in many ways a huge relief to Lois: she'd always known that her partner was conscientious and hard-working, and it had been very hard for her to understand, let alone defend, his occasional moments of what seemed to be idleness or poor performance. It simply had never seemed in character for Clark.
And, of course, it wasn't…
And he hadn't tuned out when she'd been telling him how she felt because he didn't want to hear it. Seen in the context that he'd probably been hearing a cry for help at the same time — which, she assumed, he hadn't responded to because CK had been around — she now knew that his apology and words of regret were deeply sincere. And he'd asked her out, after all; and he'd told her last night that his feelings for her hadn't changed and that he still wanted to date her. And the way he'd looked at her, she acknowledged to herself, told her that his feelings for her went further than she'd allowed herself to recognise before.
Given all that, his kiss was obviously more than a casual gesture. But how did she feel about that?
For the first time since Claude had stolen her story and broken her heart, Lois knew that she was falling in love. Oh, not the sort of love she'd felt for Superman — as real as that had seemed, somehow she'd known inside that it would never turn into a real-life romantic relationship. Superman wasn't going to fall in love with her in return and marry her and live with her in a brownstone in one of the nicer city suburbs.
But Clark might…
And, if her guess was right, he was well on the way to being in love with her. And, yes, that still scared her. But she made herself remember that it wasn't as if he was rushing her in any way. They were due to go out on a date on Saturday — oh god, that was tomorrow! — and he'd kissed her. Once. And not in a way which suggested that he was expecting anything more. Okay. She could relax and just go with the flow… she hoped.
"Lois?" She glanced up quickly to see Clark peering around the open bedroom door. "I thought I'd heard you come in!"
"Oh! Sorry, I was just deciding what we need to do," she said quickly, pushing her thoughts aside and hoping that Clark hadn't noticed anything odd about her behaviour.
"Well, I was just about to shave, and you said you'd like to know how I do it, so…" He quirked an eyebrow at her.
Now her curiosity was piqued. Dropping her bags on the bed in her bedroom — Clark would need what was in there anyway — she followed him into the bathroom. And then stopped dead, as her brain processed what she'd failed to notice before.
Clark had turned to smile at her as she'd come in behind him. He was wearing the same black jeans he'd been wearing all night. But his chest was bare and… and *how* could she have worked with this man, been his best friend, for almost two years and failed to notice just how gorgeous he was?
Those solid, rippling muscles, the broad expanse of his chest, the strength of his upper arms, and his flat abdomen… Of course, she'd seen him without his shirt before, *and* she'd noticed that he wasn't exactly the kind of guy who'd get sand kicked in his face on the beach. But still… Wow.
She blinked and swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry. But Clark was looking at her, his expression puzzled, and she knew she had to pull herself together. Now was *not* the time to start ogling her partner, even if he was her almost-boyfriend! She forced herself to raise her gaze to his face, then noticed that he wasn't wearing his glasses. With his hair damp from the shower, he looked exactly like Superman. Well, a rather stubbly Superman, to be precise, but the resemblance was strikingly obvious.
"Stand over there," Clark directed her, and she followed his instruction, taking up position beside the vanity unit. "And don't move," he added warningly. "I'm going to be using heat vision, and I don't want you hurt."
He shaved with *heat vision*? Then he stood in front of the mirror and she focused, watching him. At first she couldn't see anything; he was gazing into the mirror, but she couldn't figure out what was going on. Then she realised that the shadowing of stubble on his face was steadily disappearing.
"Doesn't that hurt?" she asked, curious.
He grinned. "No, not at all. I'm invulnerable, remember?" He tilted his head then and began, she could see, to 'shave' the other side of his face. "It could hurt you, though," he continued. "That's why I need you to stay out of the way. This — the level of heat I'm using here — wouldn't kill you if you got hit by it, but you'd probably need hospital treatment all the same."
His voice was matter-of-fact, but he glanced towards her once as he was speaking and she saw genuine concern for her in his eyes. "If I was using a stronger level, I could burn someone to a crisp. Or I can make it weak enough to give you a heat-massage or dry you off. It's pretty versatile."
But dangerous; that was the hidden message in his words, Lois knew. *He* was dangerous. His powers could kill her — in fact, he seemed to be saying, getting too close to him could put her life at risk.
But she knew Clark — and she knew Superman, too. He'd never knowingly hurt her. And, given that she'd known Clark and thought him to be just an ordinary guy for so long, then he must be well practised in controlling his powers. There was no way that he could, or ever would, be dangerous to her.
Lois smiled deliberately, warmly, at him. "I trust you."
He paused and turned to look directly at her. "I'm glad."
Lois had collected one of his suits and a relatively sober tie for him; he assumed that the sweats were for CK. That reminded him that they needed to speak to Perry. He hadn't made that call already, because he'd thought they should discuss it; Lois had been suggesting that Clark, as well as Superman, should be keeping a low profile so as not to alert Diana Stride to anything which might make her think she'd failed to kill Superman. So did that mean that he should avoid going into the newsroom? It was probably sensible, but he didn't want to have to pretend to be dead himself. On the other hand, he wasn't all that convinced that telling Perry even that part of the truth which he could talk about would help. Did he really want to put questions in the Chief's mind about the relationship between Clark Kent and Superman?
He needed to talk to Lois; they needed to plan their strategy.
Lois. He'd seen the way she'd looked at him when she'd followed him into the bathroom, and the skittish way she'd looked away again. She was nervous around him. He was fully aware that her behaviour had nothing to do with her new knowledge about him, and everything to do with the kiss.
She'd looked so tempting, standing there on her doorstep struggling to stay awake. And it had been a very stressful — and emotional — few hours; it had just seemed right and natural to kiss her to say goodnight. Leaving her with just words would have felt wrong, after all they'd been through. But given the way she was behaving now, perhaps a hug would have been better, he thought wryly.
Lois was in what he recognised as a tactical retreat. He didn't have to think about it very hard to work out why; she was wary of relationships, because every man she'd had a relationship with, to his knowledge, had treated her badly. Of course, *he* had no intention of doing that, but he could understand her reluctance to take the chance. Though she'd already agreed to take a chance with him: she'd said yes when he'd asked her for a date. Given that, he decided that he shouldn't let himself be discouraged by her reaction this morning. Instead, he would simply let her know, in every way he could, that he was trustworthy and would not let her down — and that he'd give her whatever time she needed.
Thus determined, and dressed, he joined Lois in her living- room, where she was busy typing something on her laptop. "The story," she said without looking up as he entered. "For when we get a chance to print it!"
"That reminds me," he told her. "I called Henderson when I got back here. They still haven't found Diana Stride, but there's now a warrant out for her arrest. She didn't manage to get Mr X last night, thanks to a tip-off and the carelessness of some of her associates in letting the SWAT team find their location — " He grinned, then continued, "but she's officially a fugitive and there's an APB out on her. Henderson also said that once they'd got a statement from Superman her assault on him would be added to the charges."
"So she got away," Lois said consideringly. "We've got to find her, Clark. If she's got Kryptonite, she'll only try again — we can't pretend that Superman's dead for ever. And next time… it could be you," she added slowly, staring up at him with horror in her eyes.
"It should have been me this time," he acknowledged, meeting her gaze and coming to sit opposite her. "If CK hadn't been here, it would have been me in that hospital bed. And, Lois…" he added wryly, knowing that she wouldn't like this, but equally aware that it had to be said. "What on earth were you thinking last night? Going off on your own after someone you *knew* was a dangerous Intergang assassin? As far as you knew, Superman was unconscious in hospital — who did you think was going to help you if you got into trouble?"
She looked across at him and flushed. "I… guess I didn't think about that. Anyway, Clark, why do you always assume that I'm going to get into trouble?" she demanded, in a tactic which he recognised as a classic Lois attempt at deflecting the conversation away from whatever it was she'd done that time.
"Because trouble and you seem to have a kind of symbiotic relationship, Lois, and you know it," he commented wryly.
She stuck her tongue out at him. Momentarily stunned, he burst out laughing. "Okay, okay," he said once he'd calmed down. "But you *know* you don't exactly lead a quiet life — and when have you *ever* stayed put when I ask you to?"
"Clark, I *have* been looking after myself since long before Superman arrived in town, you know!" she protested.
"Yeah, but can you honestly tell me that you haven't taken more risks since then because you've known that I — he — will rescue you if things get out of hand?" he asked pointedly, knowing that he was treading on dangerous territory, but needing to make Lois realise just how risky a behaviour pattern she'd adopted — and how much it scared him sometimes.
She shrugged. "I guess, sometimes… but I don't always rely on him — on *you* — to get me out of trouble!" she added firmly. "And last night I wouldn't have needed any help if you hadn't turned up and started attracting attention to us!"
"Wouldn't you?" he asked softly, although he was well aware that it had been his own actions which had caused the SWAT team and Stride's militia to start firing at each other.
Lois looked uncomfortable, then she confessed, "Okay, you… I mean, I did appreciate you getting me out of there. But, Clark, I *can* look after myself! I don't need to be protected and hemmed in at every turn!"
"I wouldn't want to do that to you," he replied quietly, understanding what was at the root of her protest. "Lois, you wouldn't be the woman you are if you weren't fearless, adventurous, intelligent, daring… all those things which make me freeze with terror for you every time you jump right into danger. You have no idea just how petrified I've been sometimes at the situations you've got yourself into — the times when I only just managed to rescue you with less than a second's margin! Yet, for all that," he finished, "I still wouldn't want you to be any different than you are. Just… please… try not to act like you're testing the limits of my ability to help you, will you?" he pleaded, leaning across towards her.
Now she was biting her lip, clearly seeing a different side to her activities. "I never realised… you've really been scared for me?"
"Can you really say you didn't know?" he asked her wryly. "All those times I've got to you just in the nick of time — you never noticed how scared stiff I was that I might've been too late? How close I was to yelling at you and telling you never to do that to me again?"
She avoided his gaze very briefly; for less than a second, in fact. But it was enough to tell Clark that she knew what he was talking about. Then, raising her eyes to his again, she said quietly, "I'm sorry, Clark. I guess I have been a little… over-confident that you'd always be there to get me out of trouble."
"And last night?" he prompted.
"Last night…" She blinked, then shrugged. "I was just so… so worried about Superman and so *furious* that no- one was prepared to do *anything* to stop Diana Stride that I didn't really think — I just went after her. I want that woman locked up and the key thrown away, Clark! If she tries again…" He could hear the choke in her voice now. "If she tries again and… and succeeds… I don't know what I'd do."
In one swift movement, he crossed the space between them and joined her on the love-seat, grasping her hands firmly in his. "It's not going to happen, Lois. I swear to you, it's not."
She looked up at him, eyes wide. "You don't know that. She has Kryptonite, and she damned nearly succeeded in killing CK."
"And she won't get close enough to either of us to do it again. We know what we're up against now, Lois — and no- one's yet managed to get me with Kryptonite twice." Touched as Clark was for Lois's concern for him, though, part of him couldn't help but be glad that she now understood some of what he went through over her almost every day; he hoped that the point would sink in without his having to labour it.
Lois called Perry, who was initially less than happy that his top reporting team was not planning on coming into the newsroom, at least for the morning. He agreed reluctantly once Lois promised him that they'd have an exclusive on the Intergang assassin once that individual was arrested. And perhaps even a Superman exclusive as well, she'd added when Perry had tried to push for details. But it was all too soon to give him any hard information, and the work they needed to do to get the story would keep them away pretty much all day, she'd argued.
Clark, hands thrust deep in his pockets, watched her as she made the call. Again she studied him, again remarking silently on the resemblance to Superman in his physique and the line of his jaw. He didn't stand quite as upright in his Clark persona, though, which was no doubt why she'd been convinced that Superman was taller.
"Time to go back to the hospital to get CK," she told him once she'd hung up. "Uh… just in case Diana Stride is anywhere around, you really shouldn't be seen, Clark."
"Guess not," he agreed, pulling a disgruntled face. "Okay — I'll fly over and meet you there, okay? You sure you can get CK out without being seen?"
"I'm positive!" she assured him. "Do you doubt me?"
"Oh, Lois, I learned long ago never to doubt you." He grinned, then strolled towards the door. Pausing, he added, sounding worried, "You're not planning on going after Diana Stride again, are you?"
That thought had occurred to her. But she'd decided that protecting CK, and the fact of Superman's survival, had to be her most important job. Stride, she had to leave to the police and the FBI. "Not unless she comes after me — or CK," she assured him.
"I'll be watching," Clark said immediately. "If she comes anywhere near, I'll know about it."
Lois nodded. On this one, it did make sense to leave things to Clark — for now. "Okay."
"I'll leave from the roof. See you in a while."
Clark was already in CK's room by the time she got there, which wasn't surprising. CK broke off whatever he was saying to smile at her. "Hey, Lois! This idiot tells me that you're actually still speaking to him after you found out about him," he said, quietly enough not to be overheard, but with a glint of devilment in his eyes.
"Oh, well… tempting as it was to tell him what I thought of him, I figured that he had just saved my life yet again," she explained. "And it was also a relief in some ways — to know exactly *why* he kept running off on me, among other things. Why?" she asked impishly. "Was your partner less forgiving?"
CK looked rueful. "She yelled at me for a bit."
"Which you deserved, I have no doubt!" Lois informed him firmly, before handing over the large carryall she'd brought. "Shaving stuff, some of Clark's casual clothes, a baseball cap and dark glasses. That should be enough to get you out of here without anyone noticing."
"Actually," Clark said thoughtfully, "it occurred to me that you might want to not shave before you leave, Superman. That'd disguise you even more."
CK nodded. "Sounds sensible. Okay."
Lois left the room, lingering in the corridor and keeping a surreptitious eye on passing staff and visitors. The police guard was still there, and Henderson had assured Clark that every police officer from here to the next county was looking out for Diana Stride, but she felt it was impossible to be too careful. There'd been a news blackout on Superman's presence in the hospital, that was evident — but Stride clearly had spies everywhere.
However, when CK and Clark emerged from the room, CK looking completely unlike either Clark or Superman with his unshaven face, baseball cap worn backwards and dark glasses pushed to the top of his head, no-one was around. Clark accompanied them to the stairwell, then headed upwards as they went down; he'd told them that he would be watching them from the air as they drove to Lois's apartment.
"So, your Lois yelled at you, did she?" Lois couldn't help asking her companion as they drove to her apartment.
CK pulled a rueful grimace. "Yeah. And I was pretty shocked — I mean, I thought she'd be glad to see me since she'd just been crying over me… uh, did Clark tell you just *when* I told her the truth?" he added quickly, sounding wary.
"He did. Actually, I thought it was pretty brave of him, considering that I'd figured out that he left me thinking he was dead," Lois commented, an edge to her voice.
"I know," CK said quietly. "But cut him some slack on that, will you? I mean, I know I've been critical of him for that, but it was still a pretty horrible time. The most obvious thing — to either of us — was that even though I was alive, *Clark Kent* — the life I'd had — was gone. I had to play dead or reveal that I was Superman, and I just couldn't see a way around that. And I was too caught up in my own angst to remember Lois, at first. I went home to Smallville — it was Mom who reminded me about Lois, and that's when I flew to her place. So, really," he finished wryly, "I wasn't much more considerate than Clark."
Lois mulled on that for several minutes. The previous evening, when she'd realised that she'd grieved completely unnecessarily over Clark, all she'd been able to think of was that he should have spared her that pain. He *should* have. But it hadn't occurred to her to wonder what he had been going through at the same time. It made complete sense now that he'd have been faced with the end of his life as he knew it; in many ways, he *had* been dead.
"There's another thing, too," CK continued, breaking the silence in the Jeep. "Even when I'd told Lois the truth, I still wasn't convinced that I'd done the right thing. I mean, the man she knew was, to all intents and purposes, dead. It wasn't as if, by telling her that Superman was really me, she could have me back. I'd guess that Clark was thinking that way too."
"He should have known that I'd help him to find a way back," Lois replied instantly. "We're partners. We're best friends. And he knows that we work far better together than alone. He should have known that we'd find a solution together!"
"Just as Lois did with me," CK said softly. "But, Lois, does it really matter how he did it? He found a way back, so that he could be with you. Isn't that what's most important?"
Yes. It was, Lois had to admit. When Clark had walked out of the darkness towards her, she hadn't cared how he'd got there. All that had mattered was that he *was* there, that he'd come back to her. She'd had her best friend back… and the man that she loved.
There was something else she was curious about, now that CK was talking about the Lois of his world. "CK, you and your Lois… you're partners too?"
CK smiled, as if reliving a pleasant memory. "More than partners, Lois. We're getting married next month."
Married! The Lois Lane of another universe, marrying its Clark Kent? Its Superman…?
That was seriously scary. Did that mean that she was going to… that Clark would ask her… that somewhere in her future she would marry *her* Clark?
No, of course it didn't! Just because there were parallels between CK's world and hers, just because some events in his life mirrored Clark's — and presumably some in his Lois's mirrored her own — did not mean *anything* at all! She was in charge of her own destiny. There was no way that she was going to marry anyone just because her other- universe counterpart was.
<But you love Clark>
Yes, she loved him. But her entire perception of him had been turned upside down and back to front in just the past twelve hours. That was a lot to get used to, quite apart from assimilating what she now suspected were Clark's feelings for her. And her own for him, now that she was no longer confused by thinking that she was in love with two men simultaneously.
And anyway, marriage was still a concept of which she was very, very wary. Her previous engagement was still a bitter nightmare; the memory of her gullibility, to say nothing of the utter, shallow foolishness of agreeing to marry a man she knew she didn't love, was a continuing humiliation for her, even though hardly anyone else seemed to remember her stupidity any more. If she ever accepted another man's proposal — Clark's proposal, if it came to that — she would have to be very, very sure that it was the right thing to do. If she ever could be sure of that…
"Here we are," she commented, pulling up outside her apartment, then realised that she probably hadn't needed to say it; if the parallels between CK's universe and this were so close, his Lois probably lived in exactly the same building.
"Ah, yeah. Apartment 501?" CK said lightly.
Lois frowned, surprised. "Um… no, 105. This building doesn't have a fifth floor."
"Strange," he replied. "Lois lives in 501. Yet the building looks pretty much the same from outside."
Lois shrugged. "Weird." But, not really wanting to encourage CK to continue talking about his fiancee — she found the discussion too unsettling — she suggested that they should hurry inside before they were seen.
"As far as I could see — and I was watching darned closely — no-one was following you. And I can't see anyone watching this place either, Lois. So wherever Diana Stride is, she's got more things on her mind than checking to find out whether Superman's alive."
"Well, that's good news, but what's worrying me now is what else she's up to," Lois commented, bringing a tray of coffee through to her living-room. "I never like letting the bad guys get out of my sight. It always leads to more trouble."
"Well, she's probably trying to find out where Mr X has been moved to," Clark pointed out. "If he testifies, she's finished. At the moment, they don't have enough on her to bring her in — any half-decent lawyer would have her back on the streets in a couple of hours, and would probably get her off at a trial anyway. They don't even have proof that she was there last night, apart from your eyewitness account of following her from the hotel, which she could claim was stalking and illegal harassment. When I spoke to Henderson, he said they could do nothing to her until she's actually caught in the act."
"She tried to kill Superman!" Lois objected angrily.
"She didn't actually kill me," CK interjected softly. "And, you know, I'm not entirely sure that we want her charged with that. Do we?"
"Of course we -" Lois began.
"No, we don't," Clark interrupted her slowly. "I wasn't thinking straight about this last night, but of course you're right, CK. Okay, every two-bit criminal seems to know about Kryptonite now — and how to lay their hands on it! — but I'd still rather keep it out of the press. Not to mention that giving evidence could be problematic," he added wryly. At Lois's questioning glance, he explained, "Supposing CK's gone home by the time anything comes to court — as he probably will be — how could I give evidence about something I wasn't present at?"
"I guess you're right," Lois agreed, though clearly reluctant. "It just makes me mad, though! She's getting away with nearly killing CK!"
"I know," CK said matter-of-factly. "But Bill Henderson and Mayson Drake know about it, even if they can't use it — I didn't give them a statement and told them why not, but they have what happened as more evidence that she's dangerous."
"Not that they need it," Lois muttered. "If she's Intergang's assassin, anyone who thinks she's not dangerous needs their head examined. And that includes you, CK!" she said, giving him an exasperated look.
"Hey! You were all in favour of me going to see her, as I remember!" CK objected.
"Yeah, but I thought you'd have more sense than to get close to her. And as for kissing her…" Lois pulled a disgusted face.
More as a means of deflecting the conversation, Clark raised something which had been puzzling him. "Why did you call Lois and not me?"
"The Kryptonite, of course!" CK told him instantly. "I couldn't take the risk that you'd be affected by it too. I know it was inside me, but it could've happened."
That made sense, Clark accepted — and it was an explanation he liked far more than his initial suspicion, that CK hadn't called him because of the awkward nature of their relationship and his own mistrust of his counterpart.
"Well, anyway, we need a plan," Lois interjected. "Clark, you said that Diana Stride plans to 'out' you as Superman. So what are we going to do about it?"
"It would help if we knew when she was going to do it," CK said.
"We do," Clark pointed out. "I heard her say that it would be on tonight's show. And that's a point," he added. "She'll have spent at least part of the morning getting the final tape ready to air — which will have kept her out of trouble."
"True," Lois agreed. "Top Copy's on at seven," she commented reflectively. "That gives us a few hours to plan our response. What do you think? A pre-emptive strike, or wait until after the show?"
"We can't show that we know what she's planning…" Clark objected.
"No, but Superman and Clark Kent could be seen somewhere public together."
"I think I'd prefer to see exactly what she's going to claim first, and then respond to it," Clark argued. "Though doesn't the network run trailers for Top Copy? We might catch one if we're lucky."
"There's one big problem," CK pointed out ruefully. "I don't think I can be a very convincing Superman at the moment. I still don't have my powers, and I don't think I'll be back to normal by this evening."
Lois shook her head. "That's not a problem. I have a plan…"
A couple of hours later, Clark was flying discreetly around Metropolis, looking for Diana Stride. He'd taken CK to Smallville first, remembering his parents' desire to meet his other-universe counterpart. Martha and Jonathan's reaction on being confronted with two versions of their son had been highly amusing.
CK had been very happy to be left there for a few hours, and when Clark had left the farm, the three of them had been swapping reminiscences, discovering many similarities as well as a few differences.
His parents had, to his relief, been delighted that Lois was now in on the secret. Martha's reaction had been unconcealed pleasure, and she'd told Clark that she'd known right from the first time she'd met Lois that she was the one for Clark. Even his father hadn't seemed to mind that one more person now knew the family secret, which had certainly surprised Clark. That had been a relief, all the same; he hadn't wanted his parents to suffer any anxiety as a result of what he was sure was the deepening of his relationship with Lois.
She was still going out with him the following evening, and he was confident that she cared for him deeply. Whether that yet came anywhere close to love, Clark had no idea. But he was very encouraged by her reaction to him that morning — he hadn't missed the way she'd looked at him when she'd found him in the bathroom. And she'd seemed pleased, if embarrassed, by his kiss the night before. He'd drawn back before she'd had time to kiss him back, but he felt, somehow, that she would have done exactly that — even if she might have felt awkward about it later. She was quite definitely getting skittish about the whole thing, and he knew that he'd have to bide his time before even contemplating anything like that again.
CK's experience with his own Lois was also a very encouraging sign. Not that he had any intention of rushing things, but he was now far more confident than he had been that they were on the brink of something very special.
But first, there was the matter of Diana Stride to deal with. Clark had paid Bill Henderson a discreet visit as Superman, and confirmed that no-one seemed to know where Stride was. That morning, she'd been at the Top Copy studios, finalising the evening's edition, just as he'd thought. Since then, she'd simply vanished.
"It's not as if we could have done anything about it," Bill had grumbled. "I know she orchestrated that murder attempt last night. Lois Lane and Clark Kent know it. Mayson Drake knows it. But we've got no proof. There's no way we can bring her in."
"Not without running the risk of ruining the rest of your case against her by tipping your hand, I know," Clark had agreed. "I'll take a look around, see what I can find," he'd offered.
Then he'd gone to see Mayson Drake, doing his best to show no reaction to her obvious dislike of him. She'd again expressed lukewarm pleasure at his recovery, but had been disinclined to tell him anything.
"Look, Ms Drake," he'd said finally. "We both know that Diana Stride is an expert at getting information. I wouldn't be surprised if she already knows where you've moved your witness to. All I want to know is where he is. You have to know that I won't tell anyone. If Diana Stride is in the area, she'll make sure that your men don't see her — and that this time she'll do what she came to do. Do you want to take that chance?"
Reluctantly, Mayson had given him the address, and now he was hovering over a side street in a quiet suburb of Metropolis. Parked on the opposite side of the road, a few yards down the street, was a truck with a painter and decorator's logo on the front. It could be genuine, he thought, but on the other hand it would be the perfect disguise.
He scanned the interior with his special vision. As he'd thought, Diana Stride was there, accompanied by two men. The back of the van was filled with surveillance equipment, and what looked like gelignite and other bomb-making equipment lay on the floor. Listening to the conversation, Clark realised that the plan was for one of the 'painters' to go over to the house, as if touting for trade; they had been doing exactly that for the past half-hour, it seemed, to provide themselves with a good cover, and right now they were conferring before knocking on the final few doors before their target. A bomb would be planted at or near the door of the 'safe house'. If Mr X wasn't killed immediately, the Intergang team would pick him and his SWAT guards off as they ran for their lives.
Clark's mouth thinned into a straight line. The important thing, he knew, was for them to catch Stride and her associates red-handed, so he dismissed his initial thought of scooping up the truck and flying it somewhere safe. Swooping down, he sealed the doors of the truck with his heat vision, and then called Mayson to get some FBI officers sent to the scene.
A few minutes later, the road sealed and several police patrol cars standing by, as well as some heavily-armed FBI officers in place, he unsealed the doors again and ripped one of the rear doors off its hinges.
"Superman!" Diana Stride exclaimed as she swung around. "So you didn't die. What a shame."
"I'm sorry to disappoint you, Ms Stride," he told her coolly. "But perhaps your information wasn't entirely accurate… in more ways than one, maybe."
Before Stride or her accomplices could move, Clark swept into the truck at Super-speed, seizing their guns and presenting them to the FBI. He then stood guard as the trucks' occupants were arrested, one by one, cuffed and helped into a secure police van. Henderson had promised him that Stride would be kept under lock and key at least until the following morning, and that the only phone call she would be permitted would be to her lawyer. She would not be allowed to contact her TV studio, Henderson assured him.
One major loose end tidied up, Clark told himself in satisfaction as he headed back to Smallville to pick up CK.
At the Daily Planet later that afternoon Lois had made vague excuses for Clark, just in case Diana Stride happened to have a spy around the newsroom who might report that Clark Kent appeared to be alive and well. Apart from not wanting her to know that Superman was alive, the opportunity of letting it be known loud and clear, on their own terms and at their own time, that Clark Kent was not Superman was one none of the three participants to Lois's plan wanted to miss.
They'd caught one of the trailers for Top Copy, which had made it clear that a Superman expose was in store; there had been library footage of Superman flying, then smiling at a camera and saying "no comment" in response to an unheard question. That had been followed by a still shot of Clark, with a voiceover asking "What connection does this man, reporter for the Daily Planet, have with Superman?" Finally, an exterior shot of Clark's apartment had been shown before more film of Superman flying and a voiceover saying tantalisingly, "Tune in to tonight's Top Copy to find out just what Superman has been hiding from us all this time!"
It wasn't a trailer which screamed at the viewer that Superman had a secret identity; Clark and CK had agreed with Lois on that point. But it had certainly linked Clark very closely with Superman — and the effects of that were already showing. The Daily Planet had already put out a press release stating that it had no idea what the TV programme intended to claim, and that it had no intention of speculating in advance as to whatever might be implied. That wasn't stopping reporters from other news organisations calling up continuously to ask what was going on.
And, of course, Clark's absence was being constantly remarked on. Lois had gone to see Perry as soon as she'd arrived, telling him privately that Clark was lying low because of the Top Copy trailer and because of the Superman scoop she'd mentioned earlier. Perry accepted that, but he of course had wanted to know exactly what Top Copy was claiming; Lois had simply shrugged and said, "You and everyone else, Chief!"
She'd been almost relieved to get back to work and away from the two Clarks for a while; the cumulative impact of her discoveries about them was just getting a little too much to cope with. She'd coped pretty much okay, she thought, with the knowledge that Clark was Superman, although she still needed some time to get used to this new Clark Kent. CK's disclosure that he was engaged to *his* Lois had almost sent her running, panicking, in the opposite direction.
Clark had known about CK and the other Lois — he had to, she was sure of it. So did that mean, she wondered, that he assumed they would also get married? Did he want to marry her? Did she want to marry him? All of those questions had been spinning around in her head as they'd talked in her apartment, making her distinctly skittish around Clark. Okay, she'd tried to reassure herself that just because the other Lois Lane had accepted CK's proposal, that didn't mean that she had to do the same — always assuming that Clark proposed in the first place. But even that hadn't stopped her thinking, and fretting.
She loved Clark — so what was the problem? So far all he'd asked for was one date! And she knew him well enough to know that he was hardly going to go down on one knee on Saturday evening — tomorrow evening. Especially considering how long he'd waited before asking her out in the first place! He'd give her the time she needed to get used to him; he'd already told her that.
But none of that stopped the panicky fear inside her; the conviction that this, just like all her other relationships, was doomed to failure. And not because Clark wasn't right for her — because *she* wasn't right for him.
Not long after six, Lois sat upright and stretched her weary muscles, having spent a couple of hours writing up material from her afternoon's research on Diana Stride. At the same time, she heard Jimmy call out, "Hi, CK! Where've you been all day?"
"Oh, around and about," came the response.
Lois turned as the familiar figure made his way across the newsroom to her. "Hi, Clark!" she called, smiling at him.
He grinned back, coming over to her. He pulled up a chair and, giving her a quick smile, sat next to her. "What have you been working on?" he asked her.
Lois explained quickly. "It's all ready to go once we've got the go-ahead. I've dug out as much as I can get hold of about her past, and I wrote up our eyewitness account of the ambush last night as well."
"Sounds good. Superman's had a busy afternoon too," he added with a grin.
"Oh yeah?" Lois raised an eyebrow, interested.
"He tracked down Diana Stride," he explained in a low voice. "It wasn't difficult; he went to see Mayson Drake and persuaded her to tell him where Mr X had been moved to. She didn't want to tell him, but I think her desire to see the guy make it to testify won out over her dislike of Superman — and she actually told him she was glad to see he'd recovered. Anyway, Superman flew over to the location — a small house in a mid-rent suburb — and what do you think he saw there?"
Lois raised an eyebrow. "Couldn't possibly have been a certain red-haired, past-it tabloid news presenter?" she suggested dryly.
Her companion grinned. "Sure was." He explained what had happened, concluding by saying, "She's under arrest now — they caught her with weapons and surveillance equipment, and that means there's no way any fancy lawyer can talk her out of jail for the moment. But Henderson agreed not to announce it until after Top Copy airs — it suits the DA's office as much as it suits us to keep it quiet."
Diana Stride was under arrest! Delighted, Lois grinned back at him. Clark — and CK — were safe, she acknowledged, releasing a long, slow, anxious breath; she'd been battling all afternoon with the fear that the Intergang assassin would figure out that she hadn't been successful in killing Superman and would come back for another try.
They were safe.
"That's wonderful!" she told him.
"Yeah, I was kind of relieved too."
"And once Mr X testifies, they'll be able to charge her with murder too," Lois finished, smiling in satisfaction. "Good work, Superman!"
"I thought so," he agreed with a grin.
"You would!" she hissed, then winked at him.
The Top Copy Superman expose aired soon afterwards. Every TV monitor in the newsroom was showing that channel, and all work stopped shortly before the programme started; everyone still around clearly had far more interest in whatever was about to be revealed about the city's resident Superhero and their newsroom colleague than in their current work. The fact that camera crews had already taken up position outside the Planet building added to the general air of anticipation.
They stood together, a little apart from the rest of the newsroom staff, watching as the opening credits rolled and the tantalising voiceover gave hints as to the contents of the night's edition.
As she watched, Lois couldn't help wondering how she would have reacted had she seen the expose before she'd found out the truth about Clark. Would she, had she still believed that Clark and Superman were two different men, have been convinced by the show's argument and the evidence presented, such as it was? Or would she have been utterly convinced that, knowing the two as she did, there was no way that they could be the same man?
Or… might this have given her the two-by-four across the head she'd needed to put together all the evidence which, she acknowledged, had been accumulating under her nose for a very long time?
She'd been very blinkered where Superman was concerned. Why hadn't she ever thought to ask the important questions? — the ones which, to her chagrin, this pathetic tabloid news show was asking? Such as where Superman went when he wasn't performing rescues? Just when he'd arrived on Earth? And how it was that he spoke with such a natural American accent, complete with references to popular culture, politics and the American way of life?
And she, better than anyone, had known that her partner's behaviour wasn't that of a man who had nothing to hide. All his strange disappearances, his pathetic excuses, the hunted expression he sometimes wore if she got too curious, his very thin explanations for strange happenings…
She should have been asking questions a long time ago. And instead, this pathetic excuse for a journalism programme had done it for her — and beaten her to the scoop.
Not, of course, that Lois would have even considered going public with the information if she'd worked it out herself. She couldn't have done that to Clark, and it was far, far better, and safer, for Superman's secret to remain secret.
The fake tone of mounting anticipation in Diana Stride's voiceover, setting up an atmosphere of titillating tension as she led viewers through the sets of clues and evidence, set Lois's teeth on edge. The 'evidence', such as it was, seemed pretty thin to Lois, all the same. Much of it was circumstantial, built on the premise, first of all, that Superman must have a secret identity: that it simply wasn't possible for him to conceal himself from the public eye between emergencies unless he was hiding in plain sight in some way — and what better way than to assume the guise of an ordinary man?
The link to Clark was made, then, by arguing that in many ways the perfect disguise was someone who, in the course of his job, was frequently 'out and about', and was also in a position to receive information very quickly, ahead of people not in the news business. Then a still picture of Clark was shown, next to a photograph of Superman taken from a similar perspective; the resemblance between the two men was pointed out.
Then the scene shifted to Clark's apartment, and now the voiceover became hushed, clearly leading the audience to conclude that a revelation was to come. Lois felt the tension in the man next to her, and as she glanced at him she could see his fists clenching and unclenching. Lois could well understand it. Quite apart from the risk to Clark's secret identity, having his privacy invaded in this way had to be a horrible experience.
Around the newsroom, people were starting to stare at the two of them and to mutter in low voices about Clark. No-one was throwing any accusations as yet; they were all apparently too interested in seeing the programme through to the bitter end.
The climax came when Clark's secret compartment was found and the Superman suits revealed to the camera. At that point, a collective shocked gasp went around the newsroom; accusatory glares were thrown to where their target stood, next to Lois.
Jimmy's jaw was slack. Perry stood some way apart from everyone else, and his expression was shuttered, revealing nothing of his thoughts. Ralph looked dumbfounded, and Marie in Finance seemed barely able to stand upright.
As Diana Stride ended the report by commenting blandly, but suggestively, that she had been unable to obtain a response from either Clark Kent or Superman to her allegations, the newsroom broke into uproar.
"Clark, what —"
"*Are* you —"
"You're not *him*, are you, Clark?"
"Clark — or should I say *Supe* —"
"Hold it!" He held up one hand in a commanding gesture. "Look, I knew she was going to be alleging something about me and Superman, and I'm fully prepared to answer her. But I want to do it publicly, in front of TV cameras, and I'm only going to do it once. So just keep watching those screens and you'll hear what I have to say."
With that, he turned on his heel and headed to the elevator.
Smothering a smile, Lois turned back to the TV screens, confident in the knowledge that someone would have turned them back to LNN. Within seconds, a nervous-looking Clark Kent filled the screen, standing outside the Planet building and holding up a hand for silence.
"I… uh…" He hesitated, having clearly spoken too closely to the bank of microphones and caused a piercing shrill of feedback. His expression uncomfortable, he began again. "I guess you'll all have seen tonight's edition of Top Copy and Diana Stride's ludicrous assertion that I am Superman."
He paused, blinking and shading his eyes, obviously not liking the bright lights trained on him. "Flattered though I am by the idea, I think anyone who knows me could tell you just how ridiculous —"
Right on cue, a louder, deeper voice interrupted. "It's okay, Clark. I think it'd be better if I took it from here." The TV cameras pulled back to reveal Superman flying in and swooping down to land beside Clark.
"As you can see," Superman told the assembled media, and LNN's audience, "Clark is most definitely not me. And just in case anyone's not entirely convinced that the two of us really are here together, I'll be happy for a couple of representatives of the media to come up and check for themselves — I assume that's okay with you too, Clark?" He turned to his companion, raising an eyebrow.
"Sure, Superman!" the other man replied, looking somewhat overawed.
As LNN's chief city correspondent, accompanied by a reporter from the Metropolis Star, stepped forward, Lois smiled to herself. It was all going perfectly. Clark had arrived at just the moment they'd agreed upon, interrupting CK's very convincing hesitant speech.
Since they'd known that CK's powers were unlikely to return before evening, it had been agreed that he should play the part of Clark at the press conference, with Clark taking the Superman role. It had been in the guise of Clark that CK had come into the newsroom before Top Copy began.
Lois's choreography was working very well, she mused; as she'd suggested, CK as Clark was standing slightly hunched over, making himself look an inch or thereabouts shorter than his normal height, and beside him, Superman was hovering a fraction off the ground, thus giving the impression of a couple of inches' difference in height.
Superman continued, as self-assured as ever, "As I think people know, I don't talk about my private life, or my friends. But in this case I think I have to. Clark Kent is a friend of mine. There's no mystery about why my Suits were in his apartment: I don't have anywhere I can wash them, or store the spares. Clark very kindly lets me launder them at his place, and he allowed me to build what *used* to be a secret compartment so that they could be kept safely out of sight. That's all. Clark is an innocent bystander here, someone who was just doing a favour for a friend."
He paused, clearly allowing the assembled reporters to assimilate the explanation. "As to why Diana Stride and the Top Copy team decided to present this ridiculous story, you may well wonder. As you can all see — " He broke off, smiled slightly and waved a hand at CK standing beside him. " — Clark and I are beyond any doubt not the same person."
Laughter broke out, and Clark waited for it to die down. "Seriously," he continued, "I believe that Clark may very well be considering prosecuting the Top Copy production company for illegal breaking and entering. That aside, I believe that Ms Stride's reasons for this outrageous attempt to discredit me and harm a friend of mine were personal. She appears to be pursuing some sort of vendetta against me; only a couple of days ago she tried to stalk me, and she also persists in the insane belief that she has the means of killing me. As you can see, that didn't work either." Another pause, and Lois heard more laughter.
"However," Clark went on, "Ms Stride is unlikely to be making any further editions of Top Copy for the time being. The Metropolis Police Department has given me permission to announce that she is under arrest in relation to matters unconnected to tonight's programme. I can give you no further details at this time, but you may wish to draw your own conclusions about her trustworthiness, on this or on any other matter. And that is all I have to say."
It had gone well, Clark thought as he surveyed the huddled groups of reporters who had been hanging on his every word. They'd been sceptical, he'd noticed, as CK had come out to talk to them; as he'd hovered above and out of sight, he'd heard some wondering aloud whether a mere reporter could possibly be Superman. It had been inconceivable to a couple that someone with Superman's abilities could ever want to disguise himself as an ordinary man. That had made Clark smile in gratification; that was exactly what he wanted people to carry on believing.
But some had been studying CK very carefully, commenting on things like build, hair and eye colour, the shape of his jaw and so on, and suggesting that it was just about possible that Clark Kent could be Superman's disguise. And when CK had started speaking, that section of the waiting representatives of the media had been particularly disbelieving of his claim that Diana Stride's allegation was nonsense.
Superman's arrival, Clark had been amused to note, had put a stop to that speculation. Once he'd taken over from CK in their prearranged speech, he'd have bet just about everything he possessed that no-one believed the Top Copy claim any longer.
And, in fact, he considered wryly, Diana Stride had done him an enormous favour. After that impromptu press conference, which had been captured on at least two networks' cameras, no-one would believe that Superman might also be Clark Kent.
The ding of the elevator caught Lois's attention, drawing her gaze from the TV screen which had just shown Superman flying off. A smile curved around her lips as Clark emerged. She watched him fend off the comments and teasing of their colleagues, saying with an amused grin, "Come on, guys, you didn't seriously think that *I* could possibly be Superman? Do I look like I can fly?!"
No, he didn't, Lois thought, but that had everything to do with it. The reason the secret identity worked so well wasn't only because no-one expected that Superman had another identity, but because the idea that an ordinary reporter like Clark Kent might be able to turn into Superman was, to most people, simply ludicrous.
As it had been to her — or it would have been, if the idea had ever occurred to her. Much as she liked — loved — Clark, she'd had him pegged as the kind of guy who wasn't exactly hero material. Oh, even though he'd saved her life a couple of times, and she'd been very glad of his supportive, protective company when Kyle Griffin had been after her, she'd never thought of him as the ideal guy to have at her side when things got dangerous. Of course, she now realised, that had a lot to do with the fact that *Clark* was rarely there by that stage; he'd disappeared in order to become Superman.
Clark… her personal Superhero. Or at least, she mused, he could be. He even wanted to be, she thought. But could she do it? She loved Clark; that was beyond doubt. But now he wasn't just Clark; he was also Superman, and she was just Lois Lane, reporter and ordinary woman. How could she possibly be enough for him?
He came over to her, smiling as he approached. "Clark -" she began.
But he shook his head. "CK," he murmured softly, letting her know that he wasn't her partner. She should have realised, she thought; apart from anything else, she hadn't felt that strange jolt she noticed now just about every time she was close to Clark; that feeling that he was so very special to her. "Superman's still out there somewhere — he was talking to a Planet reporter when I came in," he explained. He halted for a moment, looking distracted, then caught Lois by the arm, leading her farther away from the newsroom crowd. "He's just been called away," he murmured to her. "Hotel fire, not serious — I'd guess he'll be half an hour or so."
Lois looked thoughtfully at CK, then indicated the conference room. This was an opportunity too good to miss; a chance to find out just what Clark Kent/Superman really saw in Lois Lane. "Can we talk?"
He shrugged. "Sure. But don't you have a story to write?"
"Perry already told Eduardo to write up the press conference once Julia gets back up here. I said Clark and I would follow up the reference to Diana Stride's arrest, but as we already know the background to that, it won't take too long."
CK shut the door behind them, then turned to smile at her. "So, what did you want to ask me?"
"Well…" Now that she'd got him alone, she was suddenly feeling pretty nervous. "You told me that you and your Lois are getting married."
He smiled again, and this time it was an expression unlike anything she'd ever seen on Clark's face. And Lois felt an unexpected pang of envy for this other Lois who was loved so completely. "Yeah. And I can't wait."
"You… love her, obviously," Lois said tentatively.
"She's the most important person in my life. She's as essential to me as breathing," he said simply.
Lois stared at him, speechless. Was that the way Clark felt about her? Could he possibly love her *that* much? How could he possibly?
"She's very lucky," she managed to say at last, looking away from CK.
His tone was wry, but amused. "Actually, I think I'm the lucky one. Lois, you know that I — we — aren't like everyone else. We're aliens, for one thing. And what with our… uh, other job, we're not exactly easy to live with. I mean, Lois can't ever depend on me actually being there for special occasions, let alone ordinary dates. It takes a lot of generosity to put up with that."
"No more generosity than it takes to put up with my stubbornness and temper and… well, other things," Lois muttered.
"If your Clark is as much like me as he seems to be, I'd guess he loves all of those things about you," CK said softly. "Lois, what's wrong? Surely you know that Clark's head over heels in love with you? Even if he hasn't told you, that has to be obvious!"
"Yeah, I guess," Lois answered quietly. "But… CK, he's — *you're* — Superman! Why does he want *me*?"
"Because he loves you?" CK suggested with a sympathetic smile. "Lois, the one thing I can absolutely swear to you is that Clark loves you so much that it would destroy him to lose you. He needs you. And he wants you in his life, in whatever way you'll have him."
"How do you know that? Did he tell you?"
"He didn't need to. Lois, he feels about you exactly the way I feel about my Lois. I knew that right from when we met a couple of days ago."
"Oh, your telepathy thing," Lois said, still struggling to take in what CK was telling her. Did Clark really feel that way about her? Was it possible that she could mean to him even a fraction of what CK was suggesting?
"Not even that. It's… oh heck, Lois, a guy can tell when a friend of his is in love, especially when it's the way Clark feels about you! But apart from that, he *is* me, just this universe's version. And I know how I feel about my Lois." He paused, then added quietly, "I can't wait to get back to her. It's only been a couple of days, but it feels like a lifetime. I miss her so much, Lois, I can't tell you."
The expression on CK's face left Lois stunned. It was a combination of blazing love and sheer, raw pain. "I hope you get home to her soon," she whispered.
"Me too," he said heavily. "I don't know when that'll happen, but it can't be much longer. I mean, my job here's done. Diana Stride's in prison; she didn't manage to kill Superman; and by being here I helped Clark to 'prove' that he's not Superman. So there can't be anything else for me to do."
"I guess not," Lois murmured, though she wondered wryly whether convincing her that she didn't need to be scared of a future with Clark had been another part of CK's brief in this universe.
"I can see why I was needed, too," CK continued thoughtfully. "I mean, I guess Clark could've come up with some ingenious way of demonstrating that Superman was someone else even if I wasn't here — I don't know, some smoke-and-mirrors solution. But if he'd been hurt last night like I was, he wouldn't have been in any state to play Superman. I'm only just starting to get my powers back. And then, without Superman today Diana Stride might not have been caught in the act like she was. So I guess that needed two of us."
"And without Clark last night I might have got myself killed," Lois mused contemplatively. "He saved my life — yet again. If he'd been unconscious in MetroGen I'd probably be dead now."
"But, Lois," CK said, reverting to their previous topic, "you can't really think that Clark doesn't want you, can you?"
She turned her head away, trying to articulate in her head what was really bothering her, without making herself sound idiotic. "I… I don't think that, really. I just don't understand what he'd want with me. I mean, he's Superman. I can't compete with that! And anyway…"
"Anyway…?" CK prompted. "And, you know, I wouldn't be so sure that he wants you to compete. He just wants you to love him."
"But that's part of the problem," Lois said in a low voice, slumping into a chair at the conference table. "Love who? Clark or Superman?" Before CK could respond, she went on, "I don't know whether your Lois was like me in this respect, but I had a heck of a crush on Superman. Clark knew about it, and I know it upset him. I know he wanted me to choose him over Superman. So if I tell him I love him now, how will he ever believe me that it's *him* — Clark — I love, and not Superman?"
CK came to stand beside her, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Lois, something I've learned from my Lois in the last few months is that it's a darned good thing that she loves Superman as well as Clark. It'd be difficult if she didn't, given Superman's such a major part of our lives. Yeah, it was frustrating when she only saw Superman and never gave me a second glance, but I think you got past that with Clark a while ago — and I'm pretty sure he knows that. I'd guess he wouldn't have asked you out if he'd been upset about your feelings for Superman."
"So you didn't mind that she was crazy about Superman first?" Lois asked, twisting to look up at CK.
He shrugged. "I only minded when it made me feel like I was chopped liver. But even then we were still great friends. And by the time I told her the truth I knew that I was special to her too. I know that Clark knows that about you, too. You know, Lois, you should trust him — and yourself. Don't be so scared of your feelings for him that you miss out on your chance to fall in love. What Lois and I have is something so incredibly special… you can have it too, if you just let yourself take a chance."
Scared? Yes, she was. But CK was right. She owed it to herself, as well as to Clark, to take that chance. And if CK was any guide, the fact that she'd ignored Clark in favour of Superman for so long simply wasn't important to Clark. He loved and wanted her enough to forgive that.
Nodding, she said, "The fearless Lois Lane, scared of taking a chance? I guess that sounds crazy. But… thanks, CK. You've really helped me to see things more clearly."
He smiled warmly at her. "That's okay. I'm glad I could help."
Lois smiled back at him; then, on impulse, got to her feet and kissed him lightly on the cheek. "Your Lois is a lucky woman," she repeated.
He caught her as she was about to move away, kissing her cheek in return. "And your Clark is a very lucky guy," he told her, giving her an intent look so like Clark's expression when he was being very sincere.
"And you'll give Clark a chance?" he persisted.
"If he'll give me one," she answered. She'd do more than give him a chance. She would have the courage to tell Clark just what she felt for him — to tell him that she loved him.
"I don't think that'll be a problem," CK observed with a grin. "Come on — we have a story to write, don't we? That is, if you'll let me work with you."
Lois looked him up and down, a smile curving around her face. "I guess so. I mean, you've been trained by the best, so you must be okay."
"Hey! I'll have you know I won a Kerth last year…"
As they worked together to get the story ready for Perry, CK reflected that he might well have done his counterpart another favour. He certainly hoped so; despite what he'd seen as Clark's idiotic reluctance to tell Lois his secret, he was well aware that his friend loved Lois very much. Clark just seemed for some reason to have been a lot more wary than he himself had.
And this Lois was much more reluctant to trust in love than his own fiancee was.
She'd seemed to take his assurances seriously, and he was hopeful that she'd gather the courage which she showed in her working life and apply it to her personal life as well. The two of them deserved to be as happy as he and his Lois were.
It had been a good day in all, despite having woken up feeling as if he'd fallen down several hundred flights of stairs and cut his throat on the way. He was feeling a lot better now; in fact, his powers were beginning to return and he was looking forward to taking a flight over the city a little later. Flight was something so natural to him that he missed it very much.
The press conference had gone extremely well; it had been a lot of fun playing the role of a meek Clark Kent to Clark's Superman. And Clark's secret identity was about as safe as it could possibly be. Anyone who even contemplated suggesting that Superman was really a certain reporter would have to combat the evidence of videotape and several dozen eye-witnesses.
And meeting Clark's parents that afternoon had been an interesting experience. It had been so weird, being with a couple who were exactly like his own parents and yet weren't. Sure, being around Lois and, now, other Planet employees was a similar experience, but somehow it was different when the people were his parents… or other- universe versions of his parents. He'd thoroughly enjoyed swapping reminiscences with them.
'Hi, Clark,' CK sent back to the voice in his head. 'What's up?'
<<Just about finished here. How about you and Lois meet me at my place?>>
'Sure. We're almost finished too. See you in half an hour?'
"What's up?" Lois was poking his arm, and he refocused on her. She'd obviously noticed his abstraction.
"Sorry." Lowering his voice, he added, "Clark just told me he was heading home. He wants us to meet him at his place when we're finished here."
She blinked, and then clearly realised what they'd been doing. "You two just better not do it to get one up on me!" she said darkly.
"As if we would!" CK teased. "Come on — let's get this sent to Perry and get out of here."
Lois drove them over to Clark's apartment; while she was happy for Clark to drive her Jeep, somehow the idea of CK driving it seemed wrong. She never allowed anyone to drive her car — that had always been her strict rule. Men, she'd believed, were lousy drivers, all testosterone and macho posturing and only interested in gaining the upper hand, in driving as in everything else.
Somehow Clark had managed to sneak through her defences in that respect as with any other; she'd barely been working with him a month when he'd taken the wheel of her Jeep. Actually, that first time had been out of necessity; in running after a source one day, she'd strained her right calf. Driving had been out of the question, and she'd had no choice but to give Clark the car keys. He'd rolled his eyes at her warnings and instructions to treat the Cherokee with respect, but his driving had been excellent. Better than hers. By far. And safer, too, she'd reluctantly had to acknowledge.
After that, she'd often told Clark to drive, telling herself that she was taking advantage of a junior colleague's presence to avoid the chore of driving herself. Not that it had ever really been like that, of course. She actually enjoyed being driven by Clark.
But she wasn't with Clark now; she was with CK. And while he appeared to be like Clark in every way, he wasn't the man she was in love with.
She was in love with Clark.
It felt so good to allow herself to admit that, even if it was only to herself. She hadn't told CK that she loved Clark, because it was something she felt Clark deserved to be the first to hear. Now that she'd admitted to herself that she loved him, she wanted to tell him as soon as she could — immediately, in fact. Though that wasn't going to be possible, with CK around… Still, she owed CK a huge debt of gratitude for having helped her to overcome her doubts and fears. Now, she felt ready to take the scary step of trusting that she could have a future with Clark.
Parking the Jeep outside Clark's apartment, she led the way up the steps, then paused, realising that for appearances' sake it should be CK who opened the door. He gave her a mildly curious look, grinned in sudden understanding and opened the door for her.
Once inside, Lois found herself, without even realising it, looking around for Clark. He was in the kitchen, apparently preparing a meal. Unable to tear her eyes from him, she gazed at him as he moved around, his actions deft and practised.
Just then, he glanced up and smiled across at them. And Lois felt her heart actually skip a beat as she saw the warmth of his gaze, the power of his smile.
If she hadn't already acknowledged that she loved him, she'd have no excuse to deny it any longer.
He'd been smiling at CK as well as at her but, as their gazes met and held, something in the quality of his smile altered, became fonder, more personal. And she felt something, some strange and immensely powerful connection which seemed to flow between them.
If they'd been alone, Lois was sure that they would have been kissing. As it was, Clark's gaze felt as intimate as a kiss.
Warmth flooded through her at the realisation, and at the memory of that too-brief kiss the night before. And she knew that she wanted him to kiss her again.
Not now; not with CK present. Lois was pretty sure that he wouldn't mind, but that wasn't the point. She wanted to be alone when she and Clark finally managed to share a proper kiss. And anyway, she was well aware that CK was desperately missing his own Lois. Seeing her kissing Clark could only make that deep, painful yearning even worse.
Clark broke eye contact first, gesturing to the array of dishes surrounding him. "Dinner's just ready. Lois, could you set the table, please?"
Shaking herself out of her thoughts — and longings — Lois moved to the kitchen area, knowing that Clark was watching her as she did. His hand touched hers lightly as she came close to him, and her gaze shot to him again. His intent look seemed to say, "later". She smiled back tentatively; perhaps he meant that he'd fly over to her apartment to see her once CK had gone to bed. That would be… She found herself melting inside. That would be wonderful. They'd have a chance to talk, and she could tell him that she loved him…
"I got rid of the bugs. It's okay," Clark said suddenly, and she realised he was looking at CK. The other man had been silent ever since they'd entered the apartment, Lois suddenly remembered, and it occurred to her that he must have asked Clark, telepathically, about the listening devices.
"You guys did great out there," Lois told them. "On TV it looked completely ridiculous for anyone to have thought Clark Kent was Superman. You looked taller, more muscled, much more confident," she told Clark. "I'd say that even apart from Diana Stride's arrest, Top Copy's got egg splattered all over its face right now."
"Oh, it's even better than that." Clark grinned broadly as he served tagliatelle with chicken strips onto three plates. "I caught the LNN news roundup just before you two got here. The network's dropped Top Copy like a hot potato. No sugarcoating it or anything; there's been an announcement that Top Copy will not be returning and that its producer's contract has been terminated."
"Wasn't Diana Stride the producer, as well as the anchor?" CK queried.
"Yep," Lois confirmed. "I guess that was inevitable, since she's in jail. There's probably a clause in her contract giving the network grounds to fire her if she becomes unavailable for work for any reason. Or brings the network into disrepute."
"Either way, she's out," Clark confirmed. "I talked to Mayson, too. She told me that they're confident that they can hold her without bail until Mr X testifies. No court's going to let her out with the evidence of that stunt she pulled yesterday."
"So when's the trial?" CK asked.
"Starts next week," Clark answered. "The DA's managed to pull some strings to get it brought forward a couple of days — the risk to witnesses and all that. And — " He paused dramatically and grinned at Lois. "Guess what?"
"What?" Caught up in his excitement, she stared expectantly at him.
"Mayson's agreed to give us a head start on everyone else. The day the trial starts, she'll give us details about Mr X and his testimony, with the agreement that we won't publish until after he testifies."
"She did? I thought she was mad at you for rejecting her, Clark!"
A shadow came over his face, and she acknowledged again how much it had pained him to hurt Mayson. "She's getting over it, I think," he said quietly. "I think she always knew, really, that I was never going to be interested in her while you were around. And she knows I never meant to hurt her. The scoop's in return for what happened last night and today. She knows that if it wasn't for us Mr X wouldn't be alive to testify."
"If it wasn't for us…" Lois repeated, then said indignantly, "That was *me*, Clark! I followed Diana Stride and found out what she was up to!"
Clark raised an eyebrow, amused. "And who called the police? And rescued you? And who found Stride this afternoon?"
"Mayson doesn't know that was you!" Lois pointed out triumphantly.
"But you do," Clark said, with an amused smile. "And anyway, we're partners."
"Yeah," she agreed softly, her gaze caught by his again. Their surroundings, even CK sitting next to Clark, faded away; all she could see was Clark. "We're a team."
"The best," Clark whispered lovingly.
"Always," she whispered back.
Feeling very much an unwanted third, though he didn't at all mind, CK got up from the table and wandered into the living-room. Clark and Lois finally seemed to have sorted out all their relationship problems, and he was sure that it would only be a matter of time before they too were engaged. Seeing them so happy was worth everything he'd had to endure in order to help this world's Clark.
Now, all he wanted was to go home.
His gaze fell on the framed photograph of Lois and Clark together at the Kerth Awards the previous autumn. He knew that photograph; he had an identical one in his own apartment. Picking it up, he stared down at it, as if by committing its every detail to memory he could conjure up his own Lois right now.
He missed her. He missed being with her, talking with her, laughing with her, flying with her, holding her in his arms, kissing her and being kissed senseless by her. He missed the way her face lit up when she saw him, the way she smiled at him, the subtle scent of her perfume, the little touches and caresses she managed to give him all day long when they worked together. He missed being able to see his engagement ring on her finger.
He missed Lois.
And he hadn't the faintest idea how he was supposed to get home to her.
Was he stranded in this universe? Doomed to a shadowy life as a man who couldn't officially be allowed to exist?
It was a bit darned late to realise *now* that the Wells guy who'd sent him here hadn't said *anything* about how he was supposed to get home!
He glanced across at his hosts again. Lois and Clark were now, belatedly, eating, though pausing to smile at each other every so often. He supposed that he and his own Lois had probably looked like that in the first week or so after they'd admitted their love to each other. It was sweet and romantic. But it also made him feel bitter with envy.
He wanted Lois.
A knock at the door shook him out of his lonely thoughts. Clark didn't seem to have heard it, CK realised after a quick glance towards the kitchen showed him that his host was teasing Lois about some tagliatelle sauce which she'd got on her chin. Opening the door wouldn't be a good idea; not with two Clark Kents present.
He slid his glasses down his nose and looked through the door, then caught his breath. The man on the other side was familiar… and this was, he felt sure, his ticket home.
"Clark!" he called. "We have a visitor."
"Oh… uh, not a good idea right now," Clark said, sounding concerned.
"No, this guy's okay, trust me."
"Who is it?" Now Clark had joined him, standing beside him with a curious expression on his face.
Unable to stifle the grin rushing to his face, CK said lightly, "Oh, just a dead writer." Not waiting for Clark's permission, he pulled the door open wide. "Come on in, Mr Wells."
"Wells?" Clark stared at CK. "The guy who sent you here?"
"Indeed, it is I, Mr Kent," Wells said, inclining his head slightly as he turned to Clark.
"In that case, thank you!" Clark answered immediately, offering his hand. "I'm not sure how I'd have got through the last day or so without CK's help."
"Yes, I understand that you've achieved all I could hope for," Wells said, giving CK an enigmatic smile. "Are you ready to return home?"
CK nodded quickly, then noticed the crestfallen expression on Clark's face.
<<I was hoping that we'd get more opportunity to talk>>
<<Yeah, I'm sorry about that too>> he sent back. <<But we've dealt with Diana Stride — you don't need me here any more>>
<<I wanted to apologise for being such an idiot>>
CK shrugged. <<I'd probably have been just the same if it'd been the other way around. Anyway, I was sticking my nose in too much>>
<<You were right>> Clark said firmly.
CK offered Clark his hand. "It's been great to meet you, Clark."
"You too, pal. And thank you for everything." Clark gripped CK's hand tightly, then pulled him into a brief embrace.
CK turned to Lois, who had come to stand next to Clark. "You take care of him, you hear?"
She smiled. "I will, I promise. And… thank you, too. For everything. I… I won't forget that you nearly died for him."
"And I won't forget that you saved me," CK replied, smiling back at her. "So, do I get a hug?"
She felt like his own Lois in every way… except that she wasn't her. He gave her a quick, warm hug, then released her and turned to Mr Wells. "I'm ready."
As the two of them walked towards the apartment door, CK glanced back. Clark was standing with his arm around Lois's shoulders. CK grinned and gave his friend a thumbs-up gesture before stepping forward through the door…
…and into a bright, dazzling light.
When it cleared and he could see again, he found himself standing outside Clark's apartment. But the time-travelling writer was nowhere in sight.
"Hey! You can't just leave me… how am I supposed to get home?" CK demanded, a sinking feeling settling in his stomach. Had Wells just abandoned him in Clark's universe after all?
Then a thought occurred to him, and he lowered his glasses once again to scan the interior of the apartment. And he discovered that he was standing in front of his own place, not Clark's.
He was home.
He had to go and see Lois, the sooner the better. But he supposed that he'd better leave discreetly, via his balcony, so he entered the apartment and headed swiftly to the bedroom. And then halted abruptly as he saw a figure lying in his bed, her shoulder-length dark hair fanned out on the pillow.
"Lois?" he choked out, stunned and delighted to see her there.
She sat up immediately, blinking to rid the remnants of sleep from her eyes; a glance at the clock on the nightstand showed him that it was well after midnight.
"Clark! You're home!" She held out her arms to him, and he almost flew into them, desperate to hold her again.
"I've missed you — god, how I've missed you!" he murmured jerkily as he enveloped her in his embrace, kissing her fiercely.
"And I've missed you! Even though it's only been a few hours. I just couldn't sleep at my place, not knowing what was happening to you. So I came over here — at least I had your scent to remind me of you," she explained through the numerous kisses he was planting all over her face.
"A few *hours*!" he exclaimed, pulling back just a few inches so that he could look at her. "It's been three *days* — three endless days!"
Lois reached for the clock radio on his nightstand, turning it towards him so that he could see the date and time clearly displayed. It was almost one am on Thursday morning; back in the other Clark's world, it was after ten pm on Friday.
"Poor Clark," Lois murmured sympathetically. "Was it really awful, then?"
He shrugged. "Some of it was. And a lot of it wasn't. But do you really want to talk about it now?"
She grinned at him. "Not really." Lifting up the quilt, she quirked an eyebrow at him. "Don't you want to come to bed?"
He stood up, did a quick 360-degree turn, and when he came to a halt again his clothes lay scattered on the floor. "Try and stop me!" he said, laughing, and slid in beside her, leaning over to resume kissing her passionately.
He was home; he was with Lois again, and that was all that mattered.
Clark seemed quiet after CK left; he returned to the kitchen and cleared away the remains of their meal at something close to human speed, then seemed to become lost in thought as he made coffee.
"Are you okay?" Lois asked in the end.
He appeared startled, but then gave her a quick smile. "Sorry. I was just… thinking."
He nodded. "I wasn't expecting him to leave so suddenly. I was kind of hoping that we'd have time to talk more. I mean… well, he's the only person like me I'm ever likely to meet," he finished wistfully.
She hadn't thought of that aspect, Lois realised; Clark was the only one of his kind on Earth, and he was bound to feel isolated as a result. Just because he looked human in every way, that was no reason to believe that he felt entirely human. In fact, given his amazing powers, which set him apart from other people, it would be surprising if he identified totally with the human race.
He was from another planet. Of course he felt different. He *was* different.
Did he feel alien?
Somehow, that wasn't a question Lois felt very comfortable about asking. Okay, he'd been very open with her the night before about who he was, and he'd told her that as soon as they had time he'd tell her anything she wanted to know about him. But to ask that would risk giving the impression that *she* believed he was too different. That she was reacting as Jason Trask had. And nothing could be further from the truth.
"I guess you've never met anyone else who could fly," she settled for after a moment. "Well, except for that clone of you…"
"Yeah, that's true," he agreed, pouring coffee for the two of them. "But he knew nothing about who he was or where he came from, so it wasn't really the same. He wasn't Kryptonian really — not like CK is."
"Do you feel alone, then? Like you… don't belong?" she hazarded.
"Sometimes," he admitted. "Not always — I mean, I came to Earth as a baby and I grew up here, so you could say that I'm pretty well assimilated. And the only culture I know is the Earth's — I grew up as an American in every way, and once I started travelling I learned about other countries and their ways of life too. I don't know anything much about Krypton. So I'd probably feel even more out of place there…"
"…than you do here?" she finished softly as he trailed off.
"Yeah," he replied quietly. "It's just sometimes, you know?"
"Trask?" she suggested.
"Yeah. Well, he was the worst. But there are times when being different is definitely not altogether good."
"But there's so much you can do, Clark!" Lois had to point out. "Your being different has done so much good! I wouldn't be alive today if you weren't different!"
"I guess." He grinned. "And I wonder which of the occasions I saved you would have been your downfall?"
"Don't remind me!" Lois laughed.
"It's not that I wish I wasn't different," he explained then. "It's just that it makes it harder to… belong."
"You belong!" she insisted immediately, struck by the longing in his tone. "Clark, you've got more humanity in your little finger than most *human* males I know! You're my best friend, and I don't know what I'd do without you — of *course* you belong!"
He was more than her best friend, and she was suddenly seized with a fierce desire to tell him just how much more; that she loved him. But he pre-empted her by reaching to take her in his arms in a warm bear-hug of an embrace.
"Thanks, Lois. You know, you've been a great friend to Superman, as well as to me," he said huskily as he drew back. "*You* make me feel like I belong."
Lying in bed later that night, Lois felt just a little disappointed at the way the evening had ended. Once CK had left — although she too had been sorry to see him go — she'd hoped that she and Clark would have time for a long talk. She did want him to tell her everything about himself, to answer all those lingering questions she still had about Superman and about the real Clark Kent. And she'd really wanted to tell him that she loved him, before her courage failed her again.
The time had been right; she was confident of that. After all, the way he'd looked at her when she'd arrived with CK; his gaze had been more intimate than a scorching kiss. And it had seared through her just as effectively. Throughout dinner, he'd barely taken his eyes off her, and again she knew they'd been acting like a couple deeply in love.
Clark *did* love her. She was very sure of that now. And they'd had the perfect opportunity to talk once CK had gone.
But after that hug, Clark had taken her aback by suggesting that she should go home. She was working in the morning, after all, he'd reminded her. And he needed to do a Superman patrol, he'd explained. She would have been hurt, had almost felt deeply rejected — until she'd noticed the longing, regretful look he was giving her. He'd wanted her to stay, too, but for some reason of his own he was sending her home.
So he'd escorted her to her Jeep — without, she'd noticed, offering to fly her home — and wished her goodnight. She'd held her breath, looking up at him and hoping, wishing, for a kiss…
…and, just as she'd decided that he wasn't going to oblige, he'd bent and brushed his lips softly across hers.
"Tomorrow evening, Lois," he'd said, and it was a promise. "We'll have all the time we need then."
Tomorrow evening. Their date.
Tomorrow evening, when she *would* tell Clark that she loved him. And, she thought — she *hoped* — he would tell her the same. Tomorrow evening, when their relationship would change forever from friends to… lovers. Well, maybe not *literally* lovers, but two people in love.
Tomorrow evening. And she still didn't know where he was taking her!
CK would have told him yet again that he was crazy, Clark mused as he prepared for bed. He knew that Lois hadn't wanted to leave. He also knew very well that if he'd kissed her properly, the way he wanted to kiss her, she'd have kissed him back with equal enthusiasm, no hesitation whatsoever.
The way she'd been looking at him… he could almost have believed that she was about to tell him that she loved him.
Whatever doubts she'd been having that morning, they seemed to have vanished. There had been no shyness, no skittishness at all in her this evening. She'd smiled at him, taken real pleasure in being with him, given every indication that she wanted to be close to him… that she loved him.
And he'd sent her home.
Well, he'd had his reasons. In fact, he'd had a very good reason, apart from not wanting to rush her in case he scared her off. After all, it had been late, and he knew that Lois was still tired after their nocturnal activities the night before; he'd be very surprised if she'd got more than about four hours' sleep. So he hadn't wanted to keep her up any later.
And he *had* needed to fly a patrol. Superman had been pretty much absent for a lot of the past twenty-four hours, and he had to make up for that.
But his real reason hadn't been either of those.
They were going on their first date tomorrow night. And it was his deepest wish that it wouldn't be their last. He wanted it to be perfect. Tomorrow, he was going to tell her that he loved her. So he wanted to take her somewhere ultra-romantic, do everything just right, and then tell her exactly what she meant to him… and then kiss her the way he'd longed to ever since that blazing kiss at the Lexor over a year ago.
Tomorrow evening. And he knew *exactly* where he would take her!
The following afternoon, Lois was nervously putting the finishing touches to her appearance, in anticipation of Clark's arrival. He still hadn't given her any clues as to where he was taking her, which had presented problems in deciding what to wear. She'd decided in the end on the red dress with shoestring straps which had been a favourite of hers up until that dreadful night some months ago when Clark had been, as she'd thought, killed; since then it had been shoved to the back of her wardrobe, because it had too many painful memories associated with it.
But now, somehow, those associations didn't seem to matter any more. She knew that Clark had admired her in the dress, and she hoped that he'd see her wearing it tonight as a sign that she'd completely forgiven him for not telling her that he was alive. That wasn't important any more.
He was picking her up very early, which made her wonder even more about their destination. That morning at work, she'd received an email from him, simply headed 'Tonight'.
Do you think you can get away from work early enough to be ready by 5? I'd like to be able to pick you up then if possible. Let me know.
Love, Clark. :)'
She'd felt warm inside at his 'signature'. They'd been in the habit of writing 'love' at the end of notes or emails to each other for a while now — not all the time, but for more personal correspondence — so that wasn't strictly new. But this time she knew that it meant more than the casual affection which they'd shared for a long time. That, and his little 'smilie', had affected her concentration for at least twenty minutes after she'd got his email.
The rest of the day had been almost as good. To start with, all the newspapers led with the story of Diana Stride's spectacular fall from grace, covering both her ridiculed allegation that Clark Kent was Superman and her arrest. There, the Planet had the scoop on every other paper, since Bill Henderson had allowed Lois to reveal that Stride was about to be charged with attempted murder, with other, possibly more serious, charges to follow. The Planet, therefore, had been the paper every other news organisation had been following all day.
And now, it was almost five pm and he was due any -
Clark's familiar knock interrupted her last-minute nervous contemplation, and she hurried from the bedroom to open the door. He was looking even more handsome than normal, in a dark suit and a geometrically-patterned tie which was slightly more sober than some of his collection. And, to her amazement and delight, he was carrying a large bunch of red roses.
So this was the difference between an ordinary evening spent with Clark… and a date.
He came in, then held the roses out to her. "For you."
Accepting them, she automatically lowered her head and inhaled. Their scent was strong, and gorgeous. "Clark! Where did you get these? They're beautiful! And they actually have a scent!"
He grinned. "I just flew down to Carlsbad — it's near San Diego. Their flower fields are famous, and they sell flowers in the market. I guessed they'd be about as fresh as I could get."
Of course. He just flew down to California — and he made it sound as if it was something he did every other day. Though, considering who she was speaking to, he probably did, Lois thought.
"You look beautiful," he said huskily. "I love that dress." The admiration in his eyes warmed her — seared through her, in fact.
"You look pretty great yourself," she assured him, moving closer to him so that she could slip a hand through his arm for a moment. "I guess I should put these in water." Gesturing to the roses, she pulled away again and headed for the kitchen.
"Let me." He zipped past her, found a vase, and in seconds had arranged the roses and their foliage. "Are you ready to go? I hate to rush you, but it's getting kind of late…"
"It's only just after five!" she protested, laughing.
He winked. "Not where we're going!"
Then it hit her. They weren't going to dinner somewhere in Metropolis. In fact, they probably weren't even staying in America! Clark's swift spin into his Superman outfit confirmed her guess.
"Ready to come flying with me?" he asked.
She was very ready. Apart from her other regrets from last night, she'd also felt disappointed that he hadn't offered to take her flying. Lois wondered now whether he'd wanted to make this, tonight, more special.
"Where are we going?" she asked him as it became apparent that they were heading for the Atlantic.
"Paris," he replied, his lips very close to her cheek.
"I've always wanted to go to Paris," she told him, amazed.
"I know." He smiled at her, and she knew that he'd chosen this because he knew it would bring her pleasure. Clark was just the most considerate man she'd ever known; yet again, she recognised how lucky she was that he'd chosen her to fall in love with.
Paris was as beautiful as she'd dreamed. Clark landed in a shadowed clump of trees close to the Eiffel Tower, which was illuminated and looked like something out of a fairy- tale. "This is why I wanted to come early," he explained. "The lights go off at midnight."
"I wouldn't have missed this for the world!" she exclaimed, laughing. "Can we go up it?"
"Of course!" He smiled, then spun back into his dark suit. "Then I'm taking you to dinner — real French food at a brasserie I know."
"Sounds wonderful!" Lois slipped her arm through Clark's again, leaning her head against his shoulder briefly. "You're the best, Clark."
Lois was overwhelmed with the sights and sounds of Paris by the time they were ensconced in the restaurant, choosing their meal. She had to rely on Clark to help her with the menu, French being a language she'd never learned. There was just so much choice, and he warned her to save some room for dessert, since he intended to take her to a little place in Montparnasse for crepes. Chocolate sauce to die for and vanilla ice-cream, he informed her, much to her delight.
Over dinner, a thought occurred to her, and she raised an eyebrow in his direction. "I love that you've taken me to Paris, Clark. It's just the nicest thing you could possibly have thought of. But I can't help wondering where you originally planned to take me — I mean, when we agreed to go on our date tonight I didn't know who… well, you know."
Clark smiled, obviously understanding what she meant. "Oh, I had a table booked at Giovanni's," he told her with a shrug. "I remember you telling me that you love the food there."
"Oh, I do… but this is in a different league," she answered, gesturing around them. "And not only the food — which is magnificent — but the city, everything…"
He grinned, then added, "Well, actually, I had almost decided to take you there anyway. I mean, I was reasoning that it's *Clark* you're going out with, not Superman, and Clark can't fly, so I should take you to Giovanni's still."
She gave him a puzzled look at that. "I don't understand… Or, wait, I think I do," she amended quickly. "You want me to want Clark, not Superman?"
"I did," he admitted. "But CK said something which made me think. I'm not just Clark Kent — not the Clark everyone else thinks I am. You know the real me now, and the real me *can* fly. The real me can do lots of other things too. And it'd be stupid of me to pretend that I can't do all that stuff, now that you know all about it. I want to be myself around you, and that includes flying us somewhere exotic because we want to go for a walk on the beach, or bringing us takeout from New Delhi because we want authentic Indian food. Because that's the real Clark Kent, Lois, and that's the guy who's your friend — and, I hope, more," he finished huskily.
"I hope you're more too," she answered softly, looking straight across at him and holding his gaze with hers.
His expression altered, and she could see the love blazing from his eyes. "Lois, I love you."
She'd known it, and yet it still made her insides melt to hear him say it. Not taking her eyes from his, she answered immediately. "I love you too, Clark. I wanted to tell you last night, but…"
"But I sent you home," he finished wryly. "I wanted to tell you here — where's more romantic than Paris?"
"I guess," she agreed, laughing softly. "Clark, I mean it… I think I've always loved you, but I didn't realise it for such a long time. I should've snapped you up the first time you ever showed an interest in me."
He shook his head, his white teeth flashing in another of his warm smiles. "I'm glad we took the time to become best friends first."
"Me too. And now… now we've got the rest of our lives to be best friends and in love."
His smile lit up the room. "Definitely."
It was the perfect evening, Clark mused. After dessert, he took her down towards the river, where they could stroll and watch the bateaux mouches with their tourist passengers. Lois slipped her hand into his as soon as they started walking, and he curled his fingers around hers in response.
She loved him. After everything, all the disappointments and heartache and his fear that she was never going to love him the way he loved her, she was in love with him.
And he loved her. He wanted to spend the rest of his life with her, but that could wait. He wasn't going to scare her off by proposing marriage before she'd got used to dating him. But he had the example of CK and his Lois, which told him that it was possible.
It was well after two in the morning now, Paris time, and the city was beginning to shut down for the night. As the river traffic began to thin, starlight was reflecting in the dark river, sending flashes of silver into the night. It was beautiful, Clark thought — but no more beautiful than the woman beside him.
Lois halted, turning to gaze at the river and around about them. "Clark, you couldn't have brought us anywhere more romantic if you tried," she murmured, leaning her body against him.
He wrapped his arms around her, tugging her back against him. "It isn't Paris that makes it romantic, Lois. It's the fact that you're here with me."
She turned in his arms, sliding her arms around his waist and hugging him close to her, so that he could feel her heart beating against his chest. "You're incredibly romantic, Clark," she murmured softly, her hair brushing his chin. "For a space guy, you could sure teach Earth guys a thing or two!"
He shook his head slightly. "I just love you, Lois. That makes me want to do things that make you happy."
"Oh?" She gave him an impish grin. "You know what would make me happy right at this moment?"
He didn't need asking a second time. Drawing her closer to him, he slid one hand up and tilted her chin towards him, noticing that her lips parted as he lowered his head. Then his lips touched hers, and all sanity left him.
For all of his adult life, Clark had thought that flying was the most perfect, exhilarating experience he could have. Now, he knew that he'd been wrong all that time. Flying wasn't the most perfect experience there was. *This* was.
Her arms wrapped around his neck, pulling him closer, and he deepened the kiss in response, drowning in the sensations aroused by her touch. His surroundings were forgotten; the reflection of the lights twinkling on the water, the few couples strolling on the walkway, the romantic setting of the city faded entirely.
She was responsive to his kiss in ways he'd never hoped for. Her fingers tangled in his hair, showing him that the words she'd spoken softly earlier were true and not one of his wildest fantasies.
It was real.
*She* was real. After all the nights he'd fantasised about this, all the times he'd woken up with the wish that she was in his arms, this was a dream come true. And it was better, so incredibly better, than anything he'd dreamed about.
Lois was in his arms, her lips brushing against his in a sensual game that drove him to the brink of his self- control. How he'd managed to hold back until tonight amazed him, but now that he'd tasted the bliss of pressing Lois Lane close to him and hearing her soft murmurs of pleasure against his mouth, he didn't think he could ever get enough. Saying goodnight this evening would be much harder than it had been the night before.
But he could live with that. After all, if he was right then soon he would never have to say goodnight to her ever again.
Breaking the kiss to allow her time to breathe, he murmured softly again, "I love you, Lois."
"And I love you. You've made me believe that love exists, Clark Kent," she whispered, then reached up to kiss him again.
(c) 2002 Wendy Richards <email@example.com>