Summary: While testing a new systems upgrade, Barbara finds herself involved in a turning point in an old acquaintance's life.

Disclaimer: I don't own any of the characters portrayed here, they remain the property of their respective owners/creators.

Rating: PG-13, for themes.

Time Frame: Some time after "Slick" in the Birds of Prey timeline: just after "Red" in the Smallville timeline. Spoilers for both shows up to that point.

Archiving: Be my guest, but e-mail me (eilandesq@charter.net) and let me know. . .I like to know where stuff I write ends up and I might want to see what else you've got.

Author's Comment: Yes, there is a lot of pseudoscientific babble in this story--so sue me. :-)


CONFIDANT


Barbara glanced once more at the new circuitry, then closed the panel and restarted the computer. The system whirred to life, surrounding its mistress with chaos and light. She smiled, and made a few adjustments, glancing at the new switch that glowed with amber fire. * If this new system works-- *

"What's going on?" Barbara blinked, mildly startled, then turned to see Dinah, who had just walked in, faintly flushed from the post-school training session that Barbara had assigned her. The teenager walked up next to Barbara and commented, "You've added some stuff. What does it do? Has Helena seen it?"

"No, she hasn't." Barbara answered the second question first, while considering how to answer the first. Helena was out running errands: she had made it clear long before that she did not want to be around when new technology from Wayne Enterprises was being installed, and Barbara had agreed, though she was saddened by yet another manifestation of Helena's disdain for her father. Barbara sighed inwardly, then looked into Dinah's eager eyes and explained, "I've installed new circuitry into the scanners. If it works right, it should improve our response time to dangerous events quite a bit."

Dinah frowned, then asked, "From what you told me, you've already tied into practically every com signal in New Gotham, and the computer scans them all thousands of times faster than anything human could hope to: how do you get faster than that?"

Barbara closed her eyes for a moment, trying to remember what science courses Dinah had been exposed to, and replied, "All of the forms of mass communication we use today--radio, microwaves, fiberoptics--use forms of electromagnetic radiation that is transmitted in wave form. It gets transmitted at one point, then is received at one or more points elsewhere. According to some recent theoretical work, electromagnetic waves should propagate to a limited degree through time as well as space along its path in three-dimensional space."

Dinah blinked, then attempted to look thoughtful for a moment before admitting: "OK, you lost me."

Barbara smiled. * At least she's willing to admit it, and is still interested. Helena would have shrugged and left by now * She reached for a flashlight, pointed it at a nearby wall, and flipped it on. "The flashlight projects a beam of normal light when I turn on the switch. Up to now, the best sensors we have can only detect the beam during the time it remains in existence. If I was to point the beam out the window, in theory the beam would go on forever until it hit something that blocked it completely, though it would continue to weaken more and more over time, but once the light waves have gone by, there is nothing more to detect, other than maybe a bit of residual molecular activity that is soon gone." She flipped the flashlight off, then added, "According to the theory, there should be a far weaker but measurable energy flux that is detectable both after the flashlight is turned off--and far more significantly, before the flashlight is ever turned on."

"So, you'll be able to see news flashes before they even happen?" Dinah saw Barbara smile and nod, and gave an impressed whistle before adding, "Wow. How much extra warning should it give you?"

"I'm not sure. The theoretical studies suggest that the signal strength should drop off according to the cube of the time before and after the base signal transmission. I'm guessing it'll top off at ten minutes, maybe fifteen if we can upgrade some of the power systems a bit more." Dinah looked a bit disappointed, and Barbara chuckled and chided her: "Don't look down your nose at an extra ten minutes--I've been a lot of scrapes where ten minutes warning might have made the difference between a routine bust and--" She glanced involuntarily at the chair she was sitting in, then forced herself to look back at the screen, knowing that Dinah had seen the moment of weakness. She reached out and activated two more auxiliary power systems, then looked back to Dinah and said, "I'm going to need to concentrate on this, Dinah. Perhaps you should go get cleaned up and get your homework done before Helena gets back."

Dinah's face fell, and she nodded and turned to go. Barbara felt a pang of guilt, and she sighed and called out, "All right, you can watch--but I need to concentrate, so I need you to be as quiet as a mouse while I finish the adjustments and make the test scan, all right?"

Dinah nodded emphatically, and retrieved a chair, pulling it up behind Barbara. Barbara did not react: she continued her adjustments without pause, though a substantial amount of her attention was still focused on the extraordinary young woman behind her. * You're going to spoil her if you aren't careful. Still, better that than having her feel left out *

Dinah's arrival had renewed Barbara's doubts about her role as the mentor of the group. Sure, she had stepped into the role because--damn it--someone had to, and it wasn't as if someone else was going to be there for Helena--at least no one that she would accept. But seven years had passed, and Helena was still deeply troubled, though as Huntress she had been responsible for saving many lives. Was it just that Helena's scars--much like her father's--were too deep for any amount of support to really help do more than just allow her to cope, or was her continued pain simple, direct proof that Barbara couldn't hack it as a guardian? Was it fair to Dinah for Barbara to put herself forward as someone who could fill that role, when she wasn't really sure she could?

Barbara frowned and dismissed the disturbing thoughts as she finished the final preparations. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, then opened them again. Oracle turned back to Dinah, smiled reassuringly at her, then turned back to her displays and pressed the amber switch.

Instantly, the displays began to change, and Dinah leaned forward. She had watched Oracle at work over the last few weeks, and she had learned to spot identifying characteristics of the news items as they flew by on the screen. Her eyes widened as she noticed that the time indicators of some of the messages were clearly different from the bulk of the data stream--the changes in the system were working. Unfortunately, most of the time stamps indicated old messages--only a tantalizing few seemed to be from a few seconds in the future. Fascinated, she leaned further forward, and she unconsciously placed a hand on Oracle's left shoulder to balance herself.

Oracle gasped, and the data flow immediately changed again, becoming a blur that Dinah was completely unable to distinguish any details from. She moved around in front of Barbara and saw that her eyes were open and staring, though the strong pulse in her throat made it clear that she was still alive. Afraid to shake her, Dinah called out: "Barbara! Wake up! I need to know what to do!"

Her only answer was silence, as Oracle stared into eternity.



* * * * *


Barbara opened her eyes and saw stars. It took her a moment to realize that the stars she was looking at were actually--stars. Not the occasionally sickly flicker of light that occasionally became visible through cloud cover and the effects of the night lights of New Gotham, but a glorious, shimmering blanket that cast a silver sheen over her skin as she sat up and realized that she was lying on a small patch of grass. Absent-mindedly, she stood up and examined her surroundings. From the looks of it, she was on a farm: she could see a barn, a farmhouse, and other signs of--

* What the hell? *

She looked down, and absorbed the unquestionable fact that she was indeed standing up. She held up her hands--they looked like the ones she had that morning as she got ready for work. She noticed a truck parked nearby and walked over to examine herself in the sideview mirror--she looked like herself, wearing an unexceptional but attractive sweater and jeans combination. She frowned and shook her head: something odd was going on, and she had more than an idle hunch that Dinah's hand on her shoulder had precipitated the whole chain of events. * I'm going to have to work with her on that if possible--powers that trigger that readily can be a danger to her and everyone around her. Of course, I've got to get back to her for that to be doable * She sighed again, then started to examine her surroundings again.

It only took a few seconds for her to notice some interesting things about the truck she was standing next to. It was relatively new: a glance into the driver's side window revealed that it only had a few thousand miles on it. It was also about twenty-five to thirty years old--it would violate dozens of environmental and fuel economy standards if it was still on the roads in New Gotham or Metropolis. Barbara closed her eyes and ruthlessly considered the facts as she knew them. Either she was completely delusional, or she had somehow been sent back in time a couple of decades in some way. If it was the former, there was little she could do other than hope the situation was corrected by someone else. If it was the latter, she needed to try to find a way back, or at least to try to make it easier for anyone trying to retrieve her.

The farmhouse was dark, but Barbara noticed a faint light in the upper loft area of the barn. * Might as well start there * She walked quietly into the barn, reveling in the feel of her leg muscles resisting the pull of gravity, and in the restoration of the grace with which she had moved before the Joker's bullet had changed her life. She spotted the stairs leading up to the upper part of the barn, and quietly ascended, finding a few pieces of furniture that would be inadequate for a bedroom, but quite serviceable for a "hangout spot." * Looks like a teenager lives on this farm * As if to confirm her conclusion, Barbara heard a rustle of motion, and a young man stepped into view, and he began to speak before looking at her: "Look, I appreciate that you're worried about me, but I need to be alo-" His eyes fell on Barbara, and he blinked, startled, before recovering and remembering his manners and improvising a greeting: "Uh, hello. Is there something I can help you with, ma'am?"

Barbara felt a sudden urge to smack the boy, then dismissed it as unworthy. * Damn it, I miss the Batgirl costume. Teenage boys weren't calling me 'ma'am' when I was wearing that * She took a moment to let the irritated feeling dissipate, and used the down time to get a good look at the young man. He was tall, though not exceptionally so, and was wearing a work shirt and jeans, revealing a lean, well-muscled build. His hair was dark, and his blue eyes sparkled with concern in the dim light as he frowned and commented, "Maybe you should sit down--you look a bit confused."

* You got that right, kid * Barbara met the young man's concerned gaze and replied, "I am a bit confused, actually. Thanks for the offer to help." She extended her hand and said, "I'm Barbara."

"I'm Clark. Go ahead and sit down, and I'll get us something cool to drink." Barbara sat on the sofa and watched as Clark vanished into the shadows, then quickly returned with two cans of diet cola. She accepted one with a smile, and Clark sat across from her and opened his own can before looking back at her and asking, "So, how did you find your way out here?"

Barbara hesitated, then decided on a completely honest--if incomplete--reply: "I don't really know, Clark. I woke up outside on that patch of grass about two hundred feet from here, and looked around a bit before I saw your light up here. I live in N--in Gotham City, and I don't have a clue about how I could have ended up here--where is here, anyway?"

"Smallville, Kansas. Just a couple of hours out of Metropolis." Clark sipped his drink, then added, "Gotham City's over a thousand miles away. That's at least a day by car or by train, and at least four or five hours to fly to Metropolis then drive here. What's the last thing you can remember?"

"I was doing some research in my office. Someone came up behind me, and that's the last thing I remember." Also true, but very misleading. Barbara smiled thankfully at Clark, then said, "Clark, I should probably just rest a bit, then go into town and call someone I know. * Of course, that might be a little problem, since none of my friends and family are going to recognize me, particularly with little 'Barbara Gordon' walking around and just mastering the fine art of potty training * "Can you give a ride into town a couple of hours from now?"

"Sure, but you won't be able to get a place to sleep in town that late--we don't have any motels with twenty-four hour check-in." Clark looked thoughtful, then added, "You should let us put you up for the night: you can sleep in my room, and I'll take the couch in the living room."

"Clark, I can't put you out of your own room--it wouldn't be right. Not to mention, we've just met: what would your parents think about you having a stranger in the house?" Barbara was moved by Clark's generosity, but didn't want to get the boy in trouble.

"They trust me to use good judgment--most of the time." Clark winced, as if an unpleasant memory had been summoned, then said, "They're in Metropolis for the weekend. I'd use their room, but it's just been painted, and the smell is a tad strong." He stood up and motioned for her to follow, and Barbara complied.

The farmhouse was warm and well-lit, and made Barbara more comfortable immediately. * This would have been a nice place to grow up * She sat down in the kitchen and waited while Clark brought tea and sticky pastries and sat down across from her. Barbara looked at Clark thoughtfully, while considering the situation she was in. * If this is a delusion, nothing I do will make any difference. If this is real, I could really screw up Clark's future by saying the wrong thing to him. Maybe I should just plead fatigue and call it a night * She started to open her mouth to do so, then paused. Clark was putting on a good show of being the attentive host, but she could see the signs of exhaustion around his eyes and in his posture: she knew all too well what the signs of a couple of nights without sleep looked like. She wavered, then sighed inwardly: it wasn't in her to let Clark suffer in silence without at least trying to help. She looked down, then back into Clark's eyes as she asked quietly, "Clark, is something bothering you? Maybe I can help."

Clark had picked up a small stone paperweight and was idly toying with it: he smiled at Barbara and replied, "I'm fine. Just need to get some sleep tonight, and I'll be good to go tomorrow." His voice was soft, and his tone unconvincing, though his gaze remained composed.

"Unless you're sick, missing a couple of nights of sleep is nothing to dismiss lightly, Clark. I don't think you're sick--I think something's bothering you. I'll drop it if you want me to, but I know it helps to have someone to talk to when something is bothering you--even if it is just a stranger passing in the night." Barbara was startled at her own insistence; somehow, it just seemed right.

Clark looked at her, then sighed and turned away before asking quietly, "Have you ever had a day when you completely lost control? When you managed to betray everything you've stood for--everyone you've ever cared about?" Barbara was silent, and Clark turned back to her, his expression twisting in remorse as he concluded, "That was Tuesday for me."

Barbara reacted instinctively, reaching out and touching Clark on the wrist. He remained silent, and she shook her head sadly and replied, "Clark, I can tell from the way you're telling it that whatever it was wasn't something you wanted, and that you wouldn't have done it if you could have possibly avoided it. Were there extenuating circumstances?" Clark nodded once, and Barbara squeezed his wrist and pressed, "There you go, then. Can't you just apologize and explain it to them? If they care about you, they'll understand."

"My parents know, and one of my friends. The others. . .I can't tell them. There are things that they just can't know, no matter how much I want to tell them. I know it's for the best, but it's hard, Barbara--it's so damned hard sometimes." Clark stood and walked away a few feet: he looked over at Barbara as if he knew he was saying more than he should, but felt compelled to unburden himself.

Barbara stood and walked over to him, feeling vaguely uneasy. * I know this kid from somewhere, but I've never been within five hundred miles of this place. Who is he? * Still, she was well-acquainted with his general problem, if not the specifics. "Clark, sometimes we have to keep secrets, even though people we care about might not understand. It's about knowing what's important in your life, and knowing what you have to do to get it done. It's not easy to strike a balance--believe me, I know. All I can tell you is: do your best, and never stop caring about them, no matter how frustrated they get with you. It may drive you crazy, but I promise you it's worth it."

Clark blinked, then looked up at her, his eyes shouting confusion and frustration. Barbara heard a pop, and looked down to see gravel and powder falling from Clark's right hand where a paperweight had been an instant before. Clark turned away, flushing and muttering, "Dropped this a few weeks back--it must have had cracks in it. I'll get the broo-"

Barbara seized his wrist, then quickly opened his hand with her other hand before he could think to hold it shut. She saw dust, bits of broken rock, and absolutely no sign of injury. Clark pulled away too late, and commented, "Lucky I didn't get cut. I'll get that broom now."

"Clark Kent, I presume?" The cool, faintly amused tone startled him enough to stop him in his tracks, and he turned back to see an odd smile on Barbara's face. She chuckled softly at the confusion on his face and commented, "I've heard a few things about you. A friend of a friend of a friend mentioned your name." Far less confusing than mentioning a yet-to-happen day in the BatCave when the greatest heroes of Gotham City and Metropolis had met and planned a joint offensive, and where certain personal information had changed hands.

Clark stared at Barbara in disbelief, and Barbara could tell that the young man was considering denying everything. She met his eyes calmly, and walked over to him, clasping his hands and smiling at him before saying quietly, "Clark, anything you tell me doesn't leave this room. Talk to me."

Clark sighed, then sat down on the couch, burying his head in his hands in silence. Barbara sat next to him and waited, fascinated in spite of her concern. Clark looked up and noticed her attention, and managed a weak smile before saying quietly, "I can't explain myself because of my secret, and I have to lie to them. It's become a joke to Lana--as pissed off as she was at me. Chloe investigated the circumstances of my adoption once without asking me, and I almost bit her head off. When I had to tell Pete. . .oh God, I thought he'd hate me forever." He paused, shaking his head angrily, and added, "Lex doesn't push me any more, but he's made clear enough how he feels about deception--"

Barbara heard the last name Clark mentioned, and several data files she had read years before came into sudden, shocking focus, and she blurted out the name before she was able to stop herself: "Lex Luthor?"

Clark blinked, noticing that Barbara had turned pale, and replied, "Yeah--we've been friends for over a year now." Barbara remained silent, and Clark could tell that she was upset. He reached out and squeezed her arm, whispering, "Let me guess--someone else who's been treated badly by the Luthors. Whatever you've been through, I can only tell you that Lex isn't anything like his father. He's not perfect, but he cares a lot about this town and the people in it. His father is a ba---well, he's a real--no, I was right the first time--he's a real bastard, and Lex will be a lot better off if he goes off and does something on his own without him--I'm just sorry Lionel wronged you."

Barbara swallowed hard and thanked whatever benevolent power that was watching over her that Clark had jumped to conclusions so quickly. She looked into his eyes, and responded, "Thanks, but it's nothing you need to worry about. I'm glad you have friends who care about you, even if you can't tell them everything." She reached out and touched Clark's hand, which was still on her arm, and added, "Clark, one thing all of us have in common is that we will be hurt in some way--it's part of the little package deal we call 'life.' As time goes on, things are bound to happen that will make you want to just give up trying to help--to just walk away. Those feelings are real, Clark, and they're not the stupidest way in the world to react, under the circumstances. You just need to remember: every person you help, every life you save. . .they matter, whether someone ends up dying the next day anyway, or if they live to be a hundred. Walking away has a price, too. Hold on to that knowledge, and save it for times when you need it."

Clark nodded, and looked substantially more cheerful as they talked about less weighty matters for a few more minutes. Eventually, the conversation was interrupted by a loud yawn from Barbara. Clark grinned at her and led her up to his room, gathering some toiletries along the way. After giving her the guided tour, Clark fell silent, and the two of them stood there for a moment before Clark coughed self-consciously before saying, "Good night", and heading for the door.

Barbara waited for Clark to reach the doorway, then called out, "Clark?" Clark stopped and turned around, and Barbara smiled sweetly and continued, "A bit of friendly advice: calling a woman who isn't old enough to be your mother 'ma'am' is not a good way to charm them. Just smile and say, 'Pleased to meet you.' It'll probably save you a few groveling apologies over the years."

Clark chuckled, bowed slightly at the waist, then headed out. Barbara sighed, prepared for bed, and sank into the soft mattress, her thoughts racing with how she would extract herself from this predicament. The first thing she would need to do would be--



* * * * *



". . .coming out of it. Thank goodness: my skills as a field medic are a poor substitute for the expertise of a medical doctor."

"She's waking up, isn't she? Don't waste time worrying about it now, Alfred."

Barbara opened her eyes and found herself lying on the couch nearest to her computer. She could see Alfred and Helena standing over her, and Dinah walked into view, looking visibly guilty. She sat up and shook her head to clear out the cobwebs, then looked over at Dinah and reassured her, "I'm OK, just a bit shaken up." It was true enough--she felt fine, and it was only when she automatically tried to stand up and failed that her mood turned a bit more somber. Helena eased the wheelchair next to the couch, and Barbara eased herself into it before moving over to the computer and checking the connections. After a few moments, she sighed and commented, "The new circuit boards are fused--looks like this new system is a bust until we figure out what went wrong."

"What did go wrong, anyway?" Helena asked, shaking her head. "I thought this new gadget was supposed to help the crime reports, not send you off into zombie-land for two hours. What happened to you?"

Barbara looked down, and considered how to answer. After a moment, she looked back at Helena and replied, "I think it just fried my brain a little and made me dream, though I'd like to see some of the readings before the circuits blew--it could tell us whether the technology is worth pursuing or not." She looked over at Dinah and added pointedly, "And I believe it will be best to have you watch the next test from your own chair at a distance, Dinah.'

Dinah looked relieved, though still abashed, and Barbara sat in front of the computer while the others went about their business, relieved at her recovery. She finished examining the circuits, then paused. It must have been a dream--the shock of the malfunction causing odd bits of knowledge in her brain to combine in an unpredictable way. Still--she reached for the phone, and punched in a number she had not used in years. After a few seconds, a familiar voice came out of the speaker: "Daily Planet. Kent speaking."

Barbara took a deep breath, then asked quietly, "Do you know who this is?"

There was silence on the other end of the line for two seconds, then the voice replied, "Do you still have that moon-shaped birthmark on your right shoulder?"

Barbara flushed. * Overgrown Boy Scout my ass * She forced a chuckle, then asked quietly, "This is going to seem like an odd question, but do you remember having a dream when you were sixteen about someone who looked a lot like me showing up and meddling in your life before disappearing again?" The line was silent, and Barbara frowned in concern and called out, "Mr. Kent, are you there?"

"I woke up in my own bed the next morning. I had a really bad moment of 'what is Mom going to think' until I realized I was alone. I searched the house, and found no sign you had ever been there--and the paperweight was still as good as new. I wrote it off as Smallville weirdness and never thought about it again--until thirty seconds ago."

The voice came from the balcony, and Barbara swallowed hard as the most recognizable person on Earth came through the opening and walked over to her. With the recent memories of having met him at sixteen still fresh, she could see how the ensuing two and a half decades had changed him: She had always thought of Superman as virtually untouched by what he had seen and done; now, she could see the care lines in the corners of his eyes, and the almost subliminal air of weariness that was virtually cloaked by the aura of power and charisma that had inspired millions of words in trying to describe it. He walked over to her, his cape fluttering slightly in the breeze, and smiled as he concluded, "You always seemed familiar to me, Barbara--I just assumed that it was the stubbornness reminding me of a few people I knew in high school."

"Well, in a way you were right." * Damned if I'm going to let him be the only one playing it cool here * Barbara inclined her head at the computer, then commented, "The stuff that dreams are made of."

Superman turned his head slightly, and stared at the computer for a few moments before nodding and replying, "Yes, I've seen these--he asked me for some advice while they were being designed. I had no idea that they could reach across anywhere near that distance in time and space, even in the limited manner they apparently did."

"They had some help." Barbara was about to explain when she heard a very faint noise at the partially closed door across the room. Superman had noticed too, and looked at her questioningly. She motioned him to be silent, and silently glided over to the doorway and pulled it open. Helena and Dinah stood there, looking vaguely guilty. Barbara caught a glimpse of Alfred shaking his head disapprovingly before he moved off. She looked up at her companions, and saw that they were staring at the visitor who stood, quietly waiting, next to the computer. Barbara turned and called out, "Superman, I'd like you to meet Helena Kyle, and this is Dinah. Dinah is the help I was speaking of. . .something the designer of the circuits couldn't have anticipated."

"No, I don't suppose he could have." Superman walked over and smiled at Dinah, who was staying calm with great effort, then turned to Helena and said gently, "I'm very sorry about your mother, Helena. I only knew her through. . .a third party, but her death was a tragedy that touched many."

Helena's eyes had gone cold for a moment when the allusion to her father had been made, but she shrugged and replied quietly, "I guess even you can't be everywhere." She extended her hand, and Superman shook it gently. Helena looked into his eyes for a moment, then turned and called out, "Come on, kid, the bigshot superheroes want to talk alone."

Dinah looked disappointed, but obeyed, following Helena out the door as Barbara closed it behind them. She inclined her head at the balcony, and she led him outside, where he stood leaning casually against a stone fixture while she watched him, finding him only slightly more comprehensible than she did when she had been nineteen and she had seen him glide through the shadows of the BatCave. Superman smiled and asked, "Penny for your thoughts?"

Barbara sighed, then looked down at the ground and whispered, "I'm trying to figure out how to apologize to you, and I'm not sure I can do an adequate job."

Superman frowned and shook his head gently. "You don't owe me an apology, Barbara. I gave my own secret away, and I could have chosen to bluff my way through it. If it had happened in real life I'm sure I would have. . .but something just told me to trust you, and once I realized it was a dream I never bothered to wonder why. The old cliché works here--a dream is a wish your heart makes. I wanted desperately to talk to someone about my problems, and you came. Of course, that raises the question of why, out of all the trillions of dreams that have occurred on this planet in the last quarter century, you wound up in mine."

"The thought had occurred to me," Barbara admitted. She looked back at the computer, then added, "I was feeling a bit down just before I started the test--doubts about whether I was cut out for what I've been trying to do here. Maybe we were on the same wavelength at just the right moment--give or take twenty five years." Superman shrugged, and Barbara chuckled at the reaction before sobering again and saying, "It wasn't about that, not really. It was--"

"Lex." Superman's voice was level, but Barbara could hear the pain in it.

Barbara closed her eyes, then turned away from him: "I didn't know your whole background, just what you told me and what I had heard about your journalism career. I knew he had been in Smallville for a while, and I knew when. It all came together when you said his name, and I just panicked and shut up. If I had--"

"Told me that you were from the future and that you knew my best friend was going to become a master criminal who would spend most of the rest of his life trying to kill me? I think I might have been a bit skeptical, Barbara." Superman sounded darkly amused, and Barbara looked back at him with concern. He walked over next to her and crouched, looking up into her eyes as he continued, "Barbara, my father tried to interfere with the friendship I had with Lex from the moment it began--he hated Lex's father, with good reason. My other friends warned me about him, even as they were coming to like him. I didn't ignore the warnings--I knew that he had a dark side. He also was capable of great good, Barbara--there are good, honest people living today who owe their lives to decent things that Lex Luthor did for them, even though they'd be horrified if they knew about some of the things he did afterwards. Even if you had told me everything you know about him today, and I had believed you, I wouldn't have given up on him--not for a minute."

Barbara saw the sadness in the blue eyes, and she reached out and squeezed his arm, as she had done in the dream. She saw him relax, then asked quietly, "You wouldn't change it if you could?"

"I'd change a lot of things if I could, Barbara." Superman sighed, then stood up and turned to look out at the city. Late afternoon traffic was flowing by below, and Barbara could see him reflexively scanning for potential threats. "Lex made his choices, and I've made mine, and we've both had to live with them--my job is to keep those choices from hurting other people, no matter the cost." He shook his head sadly, then commented, "Well, that's one little mystery in my life cleared up--thanks for trying to help, Barbara."

Superman turned back to Barbara and nodded, and was about to depart when he heard her whisper, "Clark, wait." He froze briefly in surprise, then turned back to her again, seeing a determined look on her face. He waited as Barbara frowned self-consciously and shook her head before saying, "Anything you want to tell me about him doesn't leave this place, Clark. Talk to me."

Barbara saw the hesitation on Superman's face, and she decided to raise the stakes a bit: "Alfred has roast duck in the oven. It'll be ready in two hours."

Superman glanced behind Barbara, and she was amused to see him visibly salivate. The Man of Steel chuckled before leaning back against the wall and replying, "I don't see how I can refuse an offer like that." He bowed to her slightly, and she could hear the gratitude beneath the humor as he concluded, "Much obliged for your hospitality, ma'am."

The sound of Barbara smacking Superman on the arm--and the laughter that followed--was lost in the sound of traffic as the sun sped towards the western horizon, ignoring the two heroes deep in conversation that continued as the shadows lengthened.