In Dreams
By Kaylle kaylle@bigfoot.com

Author's Notes: I have so many people to thank, I don't know where to start! A huge thank you first and foremost to my beta-readers, Amac, Ray, Merry, and Irene, who were tremendously reassuring, supportive, and patient while I tried to piece this together... Thanks to the numerous naggers on IRC and Zoom's boards who commented and cheered me on and let me know someone was still reading this... Thanks to my parents, who spent several hours helping me brainstorm the a-plot ("If I wanted to smuggle guns into Africa, hypothetically speaking, how would I do it?" g)... Thanks to RL friend Shada, for reminding me the lynching party was always just outside the window... And special thanks to Wendy Richards, for GE'ing the gfic version on short notice and being the very best cheerleader I could ask for. I would never have finished this without your constant support g.

There is also an nfic version of this story available at Annesplace.

This story does start with a few WHAMs, although I don't think they're too bad. Rest assured that things are not what they seem. I wanted to tell a different kind of story, and to be honest, this was the first solution I came up with when I decided to find a way to make alt-Clark happy.

The quotes at the beginning of each chapter are credited at the end of the story. * denotes emphasis, denotes thoughts.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

CHAPTER ONE

"Love is the sweetest of dreams, and the worst of nightmares."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

APRIL 16TH, 1976

SMALLVILLE, KANSAS

[ALTWORLD 2]

The roads were icier than he'd expected for this time of year, but the little car wasn't having too much trouble navigating the rain-slicked streets. He turned the wheel carefully, knowing that the ditches in this part of the countryside were deep and that in this weather it would be all too easy to lose control.

Martha made a small sound as she shifted in the passenger seat, her head resting against the window as she slept. Jonathan smiled at her and peeked over his shoulder to check the backseat. Their ten-year-old son was also asleep, his little body stretched out full length. Jonathan chuckled a little at the sight, then turned his attention back to his driving.

It was certainly no fault of Jonathan's that the driver of the van couldn't slow down fast enough. It wasn't his fault that the roads were wet and slick, that the other driver had indulged in one too many drinks before he left his party. But the slightly inebriated man in the other vehicle hadn't counted on the condition of the pavement beneath him, hadn't thought to allow for the spring rains and the unusual chill in the air that made them dangerous. He missed the stop sign entirely, tires skidding, and shot into the intersection just as the Kents entered it.

The van caught the front end of the little car, spinning it sharply around. The passenger side crumpled inward, and then the entire vehicle was skidding off the road, landing hard in the ditch with a crash of shattering glass and screeching metal. The impact was jarring enough to turn the car over, its momentum carrying it forward, until it came to rest upside down in the grass.

The driver of the van called the police, and was taken to the hospital. He was treated for a broken rib and received three stitches along one eyebrow. He was released into police custody that very night, his injuries far from life- threatening.

If it had been a different car, one police officer at the scene commented. If the Kents had been driving something larger, more massive, perhaps things would have been different. He shook his head regretfully. There was little point to wondering what could have been different. He wiped the rain out of his eyes and turned away. There were arrangements to be made. But try as he might, he could not banish from his mind the sight of that mangled car, and the three innocent passengers that had died within it.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

APRIL 16TH, 1997

METROPOLIS, NEW TROY

[ALTWORLD 2]

She stretched out on the sofa, settling her nightgown carefully around her. This was her favorite one, a pale silk sheath that stretched nearly to her ankles. She always wore it on nights like this, because it made her feel beautiful. And on nights like this, she sorely needed to feel beautiful.

She pushed her spoon deeper into the sludge of mostly melted chocolate ice cream, suddenly uninterested in it. That alone was enough to show her something was wrong, she reflected wryly. Not even going to finish your ice cream, Lane? What's wrong with you?

She knew, of course, what was wrong. It would be easy if she had had a bad day at work, if someone had said something to hurt her or humiliate her. If she had seen a romantic movie, or dug out one of her well-hidden romance novels, or otherwise been reminded of how utterly alone she was. If there had been some tangible reason for her misery tonight, she would almost have been grateful.

But it was April 16th. She supposed that was reason enough.

The dreams had started when she was fourteen. She'd started her period that year, too, and at the time she had just assumed it was her overactive hormones kicking in. But the dreams hadn't been overtly sexual, not at that age; so, looking back, she doubted that was the reason. She didn't know what had caused them, or what made them return year after year.

But come they did, every night for nine days, and then once in a while throughout the year. Dreams of gentleness and intimacy and pure, untainted affection with a man she had never met. Dreams in which she could feel entirely safe and entirely loved, and dreams that left her with an incredible sense of loss when she awoke.

Because always, always, she knew that this man did not exist. That first year, she had realized that. She was mourning his loss, the loss of a man she had never known.

Even as she acknowledged it, she knew the thought was absurd. The man in her dreams was only that-- a dream. He had never existed, and therefore it was silly to imagine he had died before she could meet him. But her rational logic did not distract her from the feelings of loss and anger at a fate that would take from her the only chance she would ever have at happiness.

Some years, she was able to look forward to this first night of dreams, eager to immerse herself in his fantasy world and the unconditional, unrestricted love she could find there. Eager to feel that fiery passion for a man, and the soul-deep tenderness, and to know he felt the same. If only in a dream, if only for a handful of nights every year, she wanted-- needed-- to feel cherished this way.

But sometimes the joy of the dreams was bittersweet; their simple sweetness was tempered by reality when she cried out his name in the night and awoke alone in her bed.

Once, when she was in college, she had tried to overpower the dreams, the loneliness. She had tried to banish them by surrendering to another man's arms on the 16th, hoping that reality, however inferior it might be to her fantasy world, might be enough to hold the dreams at bay. Her boyfriend at the time had been elated at her invitation, something she hadn't offered before.

He hadn't been so happy with her when, before he'd had a chance even to unbutton her blouse, an immense wave of revulsion and guilt rose in her chest and she had to insist that he stop.

The dreams were something sacred; she knew that now. Something she could never share, and something she would never forsake. Even if they made her miserable, she could not have given them up. She could not give up the once chance in her life, real or imagined, to be truly, wholly loved for who and what she was.

So every year on this most sacred night she was alone, half-anticipating and half-dreading her next encounter with the man of her dreams. She would put on her favorite nightgown and go to bed early, hoping to catch a few extra hours before dawn cut away the shadows and fancies of the night.

She had never seen his face. Or rather, she had never remembered it on waking the following morning. She could just see his eyes, if she concentrated very hard, warm brown eyes that made little secret of his feelings for her. She knew his name, had known since the beginning. It was always *his* name she cried out when she awoke, flushed and feverish, from tangled dreams of passion. She knew, instinctively, the sound of his voice, his laughter; the way his arms would feel around her; the warmth of his chest beneath her cheek; the touch of his lips on her own. But she did not know his face.

The fact that she could not remember him had disturbed her at first-- what if she were to meet him someday, and not recognize him for who he was? What if she passed him in the street without a second glance, and never had the chance to really know him? But then she had remembered that he did not exist, or at the very least was dead. So she would never need to recognize him.

She looked at her watch; it was barely ten o'clock. Sighing, she rearranged the folds of her gown around her legs, gathering her strength. It hurt, of course; it always did, knowing that she was going to dream of her one true love and awaken to find him still only a dream. It got harder every year.

She drew another deep breath, closing her eyes, and then levered herself off the couch. Lying here, she was only preventing the inevitable, and, despite herself, she felt a warm tingle of anticipation thrill through her at the thought of one more precious night spent with a man who loved her. A man she had never met, nor even put a face to-- and a man more dear to her than anyone she had ever known.

She padded softly to the bedroom and climbed into her bed, pulling the covers up to her chin and curling into them comfortably. She smiled a little, sadly, and closed her eyes, trying to calm her breathing and drift into sleep. "Oh, Clark," she whispered softly into the pillow, wishing he could somehow hear her. "I need you."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

APRIL 16TH, 1997

METROPOLIS, NEW TROY

[ALTWORLD 1]

April 16th.

He closed his eyes, uncharacteristically weary. Physical strain rarely affected him this much, unless he was at a full-blown emergency. Only the emotional pain could reach so deeply into his soul and leave him so profoundly drained.

April 16th.

That was reason enough for a much-needed night off, he decided, taking another tasteless sip of the lukewarm tea he'd hoped would soothe him. Tonight, the world could tend to its own problems. And he could tend to the great aching emptiness within him. Although he knew very well that nothing could ease it. The one person who could have never would.

It had been hell to see Lois again. To watch her with her husband, happy and confident in his love, to see the emotion in her eyes for that man who so strongly resembled him, and to know that no one would ever look at him that way. It had nearly killed him.

And yet, he thought that this perhaps was somehow worse.

"I think that your feelings for me are really meant for her-- your Lois," she had said. "I just think that somehow you're meant to be together." And he had tried to believe her, or at least to pretend, for her sake, that he still held out some hope.

He didn't, of course. He hadn't for a very long time.

He was going to dream tonight, he knew that. It was, after all, the 16th. But he couldn't look forward to the dreams anymore, couldn't thrill in the knowledge that he was going to be with her again. Such occasions were rare, certainly; he got perhaps twenty dreams with her each year, and nine of those were concentrated into as many days. So he had always cherished them before, anticipated their coming eagerly.

But he thought it might cut a little too deeply this time. It would certainly slice into the old wounds and scars on his soul, pain and pleasure mingled. But this time, he wasn't sure they would heal. He might simply bleed away through those old, bruised scars. This had never been a good day; it had held been painful memories for him even before the onset of his dreams. But this year would be worse than most.

Lois had told him of her and Clark's adventures in time, the way their souls had clung throughout their lifetimes. It was painfully unfair, he reflected bitterly, that the mate to his own spirit had been taken from him. How could he go on, incomplete as he was? He gave a humorless laugh at that; even his thoughts were turning maudlin. But, on the other hand, he supposed that on nights like this he could allow himself the indulgence.

He'd never understood the dreams, until a few years ago. They haunted him these nine days out of the year, and occasionally throughout the other months. If they hadn't been so regular, so predictably rhythmic, he would probably have passed them off as a fluke, a product of testosterone and loneliness. But as it was, he couldn't pretend them away so easily.

His mysterious companion had never had name nor face. His hands knew the silk of her hair, and his mouth certainly knew the taste of her. He knew the way her body would fit against his own, the rhythm of her heartbeat mingled with his, the cool, clean scent of her. But his memories centered mostly on touch; his eyes could not conjure up her smile, and he could not recall her name.

At least, he never had been able to before.

With no real identifying characteristics for the ethereal woman who haunted him, it had been easy to project her on someone else. He'd tried to imagine Lana in those visions, tried to make her the person he'd dreamed of. His body, however, had rejected the assimilation. Simply put, Lana didn't feel the way the dream woman always had. Her hair was just a fraction too long when he ran his fingers through it, too wavy; she was taller than she should have been, and the heavy floral scents of perfume she wore were alien to him.

He hadn't realized who this new stranger was immediately, of course. At first she had seemed unusual, to say the least-- she'd run up and kissed him out of the blue! So he had of course thought her very strange. But she was not familiar, really.

Obviously she knew a good deal about him-- that had scared him at first. But gradually he had started inexplicably to trust her, without reason but without doubt. His subconscious had recognized her first; the scent of her perfume was just a little too familiar, the sound of her laughter echoing a moment too long in his ears. He had been immensely attracted to her, without quite knowing why. But she had her own life to live, her own love to go home to, and nothing he could say or do would change that. So he had let her go, aching inside to lose her.

If he had known, then, just what it was he was losing, he wasn't at all sure he'd have let her go so easily.

He dreamed that night, vividly. Of a raven-haired siren who called to his soul, a flickering flame of beauty that faded away when he tried to touch her, hold her, keep her for his own. He'd awakened the next morning with her name, her face, for the first time. And though the images and sensations of the dream faded with the dawning of the day, the ache of loss did not.

Lois was right, of course. What he felt for her could not be real. She wasn't his, had never been intended for him. What had existed between them had been only an allusion to what would have been, between him and his own soulmate. Too bad she wasn't available to him. He had never been able to decide whether the dreams were a blessing or a curse. True, they gave him a few moments of joy with her, moments he'd never have the chance to know in life. But they also reminded him, in the most painful way possible, of the immeasurable loss he had suffered.

He glanced at the mug in his hand, and with a grimace he put it aside. For a moment he was tempted to lash out, to smash the fragile ceramic into splinters and dust, to manifest his rage and sorrow in a tangible way. But there was a resigned sort of melancholy in him, too; the knowledge that such a display of anger would be pointless. It would not bring his Lois back to him. He fisted his fingers tightly, nails digging painlessly into his palm, and tried to let the rage drain out of him. When it was gone, only the resigned despair remained. Closing his eyes against the pain, he stood up, absently flipping out the lights, and made his way to the bedroom.

He was too weary to change at superspeed; he shrugged out of his clothing and stepped into a pair of shorts. Climbing into bed, he lay on his side, trying not to imagine what it might have been like to feel her there beside him, to hold her in his arms all night long and to awaken still entwined with her. He turned onto his stomach and folded his arms beneath his head, daring his imagination to find something painful about that position. Mercifully, it didn't.

He lay there for a long moment, his breathing slow, his eyes closed. "God, Lois," he said softly into the darkness, as if somehow beyond the grave she might hear him. "I need you."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

His hand was warm in hers, the touch of his fingers firm on her own. There was a tender reassurance in that miniature embrace, the knowledge that she was something fragile, something to be carefully guarded, something infinitely precious to him. It was the same reassurance she felt when he held her completely: that he cherished her, wanted her, cared for her. That her well-being came before his own.

She squeezed back, her fingers tightening briefly, trying to return the simple message in his gesture. She wasn't sure how to tell him that he was everything to her, that she cherished him, too. But he looked over at her and smiled, raising their joined hands to his lips, and she knew he understood.

The little club they'd chosen to come to tonight was nearly deserted at this hour, but she was not at all inclined to leave just yet. She didn't want their evening to end; she never wanted their time together to end. She scooted a bit closer to him in the circular booth, her body pressed warmly to his side. Closing her eyes, she lay her head absently on his shoulder and let the simple sensations of being together soothe her.

He seemed content to sit this way with her, his arm draped around her and his lips buried in her hair, watching the few remaining couples swirling on the dance floor to the low sounds of a small jazz band. On another night, the two of them might have danced, too. He loved to hold her close to him and move gently to strains of music only they could hear. But tonight it was enough simply to feel her beside him, warm and solid.

The club really was emptying out, though, and they would have to be on their way sooner or later. He pulled away a little, smiling gently at the look of regret that crossed her face. "We should get going," he said, smoothing her hair where his absent kiss had tangled it. "They'll be shooing us out any minute now anyway."

Lois nodded, pulling back to get her purse, muttering something about inconsiderate wait-staff. Clark laughed softly at her show of indignation as he left the table to pay their bill. She met him at the doorway, and together they went out into the night.

It was warm this time of year, warm enough that she wasn't cold in her sleeveless dress. Nevertheless, he settled his suit jacket around her shoulders, insisting that she would catch a chill if she wasn't careful. She laughed at his protective chivalry, but she accepted the jacket. Somehow, there was an intimacy in the gesture that appealed to her.

They walked hand in hand for a while, traveling aimlessly through the waterfront. The bay was beautiful this time of night, but they were barely conscious of it. Lois noticed only the way the electric lights caught in Clark's hair, threw his face into planes of shadow and softness, trickled gently over his lips.

At last he pulled his hand from hers and looped it around her shoulders instead, pulling her gently against him. "What do you want to do now, Lois?"

She glanced around them, not really very surprised that she had lost track of their surroundings. They were only a few blocks away from her apartment. It was late, but they didn't have to part just yet. She looked up into his face hopefully. "Do you want to go back to my apartment? For coffee or something?"

He hesitated, then smiled regretfully. "It's late, Lois... We both have work in the morning."

She knew what he was saying, and could accept it for what it was. When she'd invited him for coffee or something, they'd both known what she meant. They were deeply in love, and they both knew it. His decision tonight was not a rejection, even though she would have taken it as such from any other man. No, she knew he was concerned that their passion might carry them through the night, and she'd be tired the next morning at work. He wanted to be with her-- she could see it in his eyes, his smile-- but he cared for her well-being above all.

So it was relatively easy for her to nod her agreement. She was disappointed, but she knew there would be other nights for them. "You're right," she said. "It **is** late."

Clark nodded back, frowning at the disappointment on her face and knowing the same regret was probably painted clearly on his. "Come on, I'll walk you home," he said, tightening his arm around her.

Their walk was mostly silent, each concentrating on the scent and feel and beauty of the other. When they'd reached her apartment building, Clark insisted as usual on accompanying her all the way to her door. She paused there in the hallway, fumbling to find her keys, and turned to look up at him. "Are you sure you don't want to come in? Just for coffee?"

He grinned. "I'd love to, Lois, but I don't think that's such a good idea." He raised a hand then to trace the line of her face with one finger, moving slowly from temple to cheekbone to lips. She was so beautiful, he marveled, for perhaps the thousandth time. The way her hair curved across her face and swayed gently at her collarbone, the way her eyes lit up when she smiled at him... She was the most exquisitely beautiful creature he had ever known, and it took everything in him not to accept her invitation. He curled his fingers under her chin and raised her face to his. "Goodnight, Lois," he whispered, drawing nearer to kiss her.

There was a wealth of promise in his kiss, a gentle vow of things to come. His hand moved to cradle her face, his palm spread warmly across her cheek, his thumb stroking gently over her cheekbone. She raised herself up on her toes and wrapped her arms around his neck, feeling his free arm come around her waist.

He caught her against his chest and held her tightly, suddenly needing to feel her there, close in his arms, real and solid and beautiful and his. The flash of possessiveness was unexpected, but he couldn't deny that he saw her that way. Only his, just as he was only hers.

But abruptly he could feel it all fading away around him, the dream world eroding rapidly away. Desperately, he clung to the last sensations of her in his arms, her silken hair tangling in his fingers, her lips warm and inviting under his as she faded away, reality soaking through the distant kiss.... ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Awakening alone in her bed, Lois Lane rolled onto her stomach. She balled her pillow under her head and wept bitterly into it. She would sleep no more this night.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

CHAPTER TWO

"It's the heart afraid of breaking That never learns to dance; It's the dream afraid of waking That never takes a chance..."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

APRIL 25TH, 1993

MWERANA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO

[ALTWORLD 1]

Lois Lane was in no mood to be trifled with. She'd been traveling for thirteen hours straight now, and she was hot, sticky, and tired. Unfortunately, the sweating customs officer in Mwerana was not observant enough to notice her mood.

"What do you mean my visas are invalid? I just got them!"

The man shrugged indifferently. "No good. Can't let you into the country."

"There must be some mistake," she insisted. "Maybe you're just out of touch; maybe they've changed something and you haven't gotten the news yet. What kind of customs office is this, anyway?" she continued, looking around the tiny ramshackle building with disdain. "I didn't have any problems in Mbandaka last year."

"Should have flown to Mbandaka then, hmm?" the man replied with an impertinent grin.

Lois rolled her eyes. "Look, you've got a phone somewhere, right? Go call someone, figure out what the problem is."

The man held up his hands in an indulgent gesture. "All right, all right. I'll call the main office in Kinshasa. But I'm not making any promises."

Lois nodded, pleased. "I'm sure they'll be able to clear up the problem."

The man shrugged again and turned away to use the phone. Lois wandered back out onto the rickety porch, desperate for a breath of moving air. She got her wish as the tiny propeller plane that had brought her here from Brazzaville took off, but the backwash of wind that assailed her was gritty and hot. She'd been traveling for two days now; she didn't even want to think about what would happen if she didn't get this visa problem taken care of. Her clothes were dirty, her skin damp, her shoes ruined. She wanted nothing more than to get away from here and take a long shower. She wondered if that was wishful thinking.

Next time Perry has a lead on a gunrunning ring in Africa, she vowed, I'll tell him to send someone else! But she knew that wasn't true. She always wanted the story; she always did whatever it took. And the attitude paid off: she always got the story.

Inside, the man cupped his hand over the mouthpiece of the phone. "Yes, sir, just as you said."

The man on the other end sighed. "I'd hoped she'd start in Kinshasa and we'd be able to fool her there. If she headed straight for Mwerana, she already knows too much. You'll have to take care of her."

The burly man bit his lip. "But, sir--"

"No buts," the other chided him firmly, an edge of steel behind the controlled calm. "You do not want to disobey me. You have a family to support, do you not?"

The man gulped a yes.

"I'd hate for something... untoward to happen to them." There was a pregnant pause, and then the voice continued, "Take care of her." With a click, he ended the conversation.

The customs officer hung up the phone with shaky hands. It was one thing to look the other way for the gunrunners, but it was something else entirely to kill someone. An American reporter, no less! Her disappearance would surely attract a lot of attention. Still, he knew that what the boss had said was true; he had a family. If it were a choice between them and the American, it was really no choice at all.

His hands still trembling, he reached for the gun under the counter. The woman was still turned away, and he aligned the crosshairs carefully with the back of her head.

He fired a single shot, and she fell. This was a story Lois Lane would never get.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

APRIL 17TH, 1997

METROPOLIS, NEW TROY

[ALTWORLD 1]

Clark Kent dropped breathlessly into his chair, exhausted. He hadn't started the day with much energy-- he'd been unable to sleep after waking from the dream, and had spent the remaining hours until dawn flying aimlessly over the city. Since then, he'd foiled a bank robbery, cleaned up an accident site on the East Side, and put out several fires in Honolulu. It wasn't even noon yet! By tonight, he suspected, he'd be too tired even to dream. He wasn't sure if that would be a good thing or not.

He reached across his desk to turn on his computer, smiling and waving at Mr. Olsen as he passed with the newest editor-in-chief, Corrie Andrews. After Perry left his position to become mayor of Metropolis, the Planet had gone through a string of new editors. Many had refused to put in the long hours Perry had always worked, or simply couldn't handle the strain and responsibilities Perry had thrived under. Miss Andrews, however, seemed to be having no such difficulties, and Clark was relieved to see that it looked as if she might be a more permanent fixture than the others had been. The Planet had certainly suffered through the multiple changes, and since he'd become Superman, there had been plenty of complications with his job. He certainly couldn't work as an investigative reporter the way he used to. Each successive editor had given him different assignments and made different arrangements to allow for his Super abilities and limitations. It had been difficult keeping up with all the changes in the last year.

For now, Clark was mostly writing accounts of his Super activities. Corrie allowed him to work whatever hours he could, provided that he kept writing his rescues for the paper. To supplement those articles, he had started a biweekly column to address some of the issues he faced around the world. His first piece had been about the decreasing need for civilians to carry weapons for defense; he'd noticed that far too many of his rescues were of children or even adults who were playing with or misusing them. Crime in Metropolis had certainly taken an amazing decline in the last year-- he attributed this partly to Perry's leadership and partly to Superman's influence-- and it just wasn't as important to carry a gun anymore. He was glad that his world was beginning to turn around, and he wanted to use his column to encourage that change. What he did now wasn't as interesting as investigative reporting had been, but he strongly felt that he was still making a difference this way, and that was far more important.

He had another column in mind for this weekend, a discourse on the need for more powerful drug and alcohol resistance programs in the public schools. But for now, he had plenty of Superman incidents to write up, so he wanted to finish them first. He was still feeling rather exhausted and hungry after his busy morning; perhaps when he'd finished his stories, he would go out to lunch. Then he could patrol the city for a few hours in the afternoon, write up whatever he did, and head home early.

Except... Lois was waiting for him at home.

He sighed. He didn't think he was ready just yet to face that pain again. Maybe that patrol would take a bit longer than he'd planned.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

APRIL 17TH, 1997

METROPOLIS, NEW TROY

[ALTWORLD 2]

Lois Lane was early to work that morning, her hair neatly brushed into place and her clothing stylish and immaculate. If one didn't look too closely, it wasn't apparent that she'd been up for several hours. The makeup under her eyes, slightly heavier than usual, concealed the darker circles, and she walked with a deliberate strength in her step that wasn't too obviously forced.

She was polite and almost cheerful to those she passed; most of her coworkers were unaware that anything was wrong. She settled herself at her desk and shuffled half-heartedly through the notes scattered there, trying to look busy but not feeling motivated enough to actually accomplish anything.

"Morning, Lois," called a voice from across the newsroom, and Lois looked up to find Catherine Grant striding easily toward her. The outfit the other woman wore could almost be considered conservative, but Lois could remember a time when her colleague had been much more flamboyant and flashy. Life had mellowed her a little since then, and Lois wasn't sure that the change had been a good thing. It was true that she and Cat got along much better now, but there was a part of her that missed the spirit and fire that Cat had once possessed.

"Good morning, Cat," she replied politely. "How are you this morning?"

Cat shrugged nonchalantly, seating herself on the corner of the desk. "Not too bad. I'm not sleeping much lately, but I guess that's to be expected. Colic, you know." Lois didn't know, not really, but she nodded understandingly. "Anyway," Cat continued, and Lois could sense that she was eager to change the subject, "how are you? No offense, but you don't look so good today."

Lois dropped her gaze, embarrassed. She should have known that Cat, of all people, would notice the imperfections in her appearance. She was a society columnist, after all, and the closest thing she had to a female friend.

Cat misunderstood the gesture; by the sudden spark of playful interest in her eyes, Lois was pretty sure she had done it deliberately. "Actually, you look like *you* didn't sleep too much last night, either," she commented speculatively, a mischievous smile on her face. "Probably for a different reason than me... Something-- some*one*-- you want to talk about, Lois? Who is he?"

Lois shook her head, smiling a little at Cat's insinuation in spite of herself. "Nothing so exciting as that, Cat. Just... bad dreams, I guess."

Cat frowned. "Oh. Well, I hope you get some rest tonight. No reason for both of us to be overtired."

Now it was Lois' turn to be grateful for the change in subject, and she nodded. "What are you working on today?"

Cat smiled indifferently. "Luthor's ball is coming up on Tuesday, so I'll be able to report on that. Until then, it's just the usual gossip and scandals." Lois nodded again, inwardly noting the lack of enthusiasm in her friend's voice. As little as a year ago, Cat would have been thrilled about the newest rumors and indiscretions. She certainly had changed. "You're going to Lex's ball, aren't you, Lois?" Cat continued.

Lois frowned; she didn't really want to go, especially this week, but Lex Luthor owned the Planet and she didn't think it would look good if one of the star reporters didn't show. "I don't know yet," she said. "I got an invitation, but I don't know if I'm going to go."

"Well, I hope you do. It'll be fun. Maybe you can bring this mysterious guy that's keeping you up at night," she added with a smirk and a wink. Before Lois could correct her once more, she hopped down from the desk. "I should get going, though; Perry will have both our heads if he catches us at girl-talk in the office."

Lois watched her go, marveling at the differences in her. A year ago, Cat had been the perfect society columnist, glamorous but flirtatious, thriving on a steady diet of infidelities, indiscretions, and intrigue. Then she'd done the one thing no one had ever expected of her. She'd fallen in love.

Claude Rochert had been a star reporter in France; they'd all been excited-- if a bit competitive-- when he'd joined the Planet staff. He'd worked a good deal with Lois in the beginning, and it was Lois whom he'd attempted to ensnare with his Parisian charms. She was honest enough with herself to admit now that she'd been attracted to him; he'd been handsome, charming, and charismatic. But the memory of that April night in college had been enough to stifle any romance that might have developed between them. No matter how alluring he was, how romantic, he wasn't who she wanted.

So instead he'd turned to Catherine Grant, who'd been more than willing to indulge him.

No one had expected their affair to last long. Cat wasn't in the habit of staying in relationships for more than a few dates. She lived and loved casually, and commitment wasn't something she offered or requested. But somehow, something had been different this time.

She and Lois hadn't gotten along very well at the time, but as her outlook changed, Cat began to speak more civilly to her, and they had painstakingly built up something approximating a friendship. In very vague terms, Cat confided to Lois a few times that she had begun to wonder if maybe it was time to settle down a little. Suddenly, commitment didn't seem such a bad thing.

By the end, their nebulous friendship had changed into something far closer. Lois was the first to know when the pregnancy tests came back positive, and Lois was the one who comforted her when Claude walked out.

Claude left the Planet shortly thereafter; there were rumors that Perry had fired him, but no one could confirm them. To everyone's surprise, Cat chose to keep her baby; her daughter, Anna, had been born two months ago. She had spoken very little of her child at work since her return from maternity leave, although her desk bore several pictures of the infant. It was clear that she wanted to continue working the way she always had, and she was still a good columnist. It was only her attitude that had changed. For the loss of that fire in her, Lois hated Claude Rochert.

For a moment Lois allowed herself to wonder what might have happened to her if things had been different, if she hadn't been so resistant to Claude's advances. If not for her dreams, she supposed things might have turned out very differently. *She* would have been the one who got hurt. But Claude wasn't Clark, could never be Clark. Clark would never have done that to me. If we'd ended up in that situation, he'd have stood by me.

She'd never wanted children, but for a moment she imagined holding a baby close, seeing it look back up at her with those familiar, enthralling eyes. She could always remember his eyes. She let her fingers drift absently over her belly, wondering what it might be like to feel it swell beneath her hand as a child grew within. She supposed she wouldn't ever know. If she were going to have a baby, she couldn't imagine doing it with anyone but Clark. And there was precious little chance of that happening.

Unexpected tears stung at her eyes, and Lois shook her head abruptly, trying to clear it. Cat was right, Perry would have her head if she didn't get some work done. She had a small follow-up to work on, after last week's string of murders on the East Side. There were still no suspects, still no leads, but the Metropolis police were still investigating. For several hours she was somewhat successful in burying herself in her work. She finished the follow-up and then began the preliminary research for a few other small stories she was working on. However, her mind refused to remain on the tasks at hand, flashes of last night's dream flitting through her head. The way his arm had felt around her shoulders, his jacket warm and rough on her skin, the subtle scent of him enveloping her...

She set the tangle of papers aside and simply stared at her desk for a long moment. She felt today as if she'd been buried in sand; she was disconsolate after another night with her dream-love, awaking with the knowledge that he could only ever be a dream. But the depression was a very familiar emotion, and she didn't have the strength to fight it any longer. It was easier simply to sink deeper into the sandy depths of despondency and let the sorrow take her.

Part of her recognized the dark turn her thoughts were taking, and she rallied against the encroaching despair. Clark wouldn't want this for you, she thought, though it offered only dubious comfort. Clark would want you to be happy...

Clark isn't a real person! she snapped back, a tiny spark of anger rising in her. Anger was a safe haven, she knew unconsciously; anger would give her the strength to fight back the dejection threatening to overcome her. You've got to quit wallowing in your self-pity and get to work!

With that conviction planted firmly in her mind, she turned back to her work. However, her change of heart didn't come quickly enough. Perry's voice cut across the city room. "Lois! In my office, now!"

She looked up, trying not to appear guilty, and turned in the direction of the call. "Coming, Perry," she replied, standing.

She met her editor in his office, standing almost nervously at attention as he moved around his desk to sit down. He leaned back in his chair and eyed her appraisingly. "Lois," he began, his voice tentatively gentle, "do you want to tell me what's bothering you?"

Lois looked down, not really surprised that he knew she was upset. She'd tried very hard to hide her melancholy from the others in the newsroom, but Perry was far more observant than most. "I don't know what to say," she answered, stalling for time. That much was true; she had no way to explain her problem to him without sounding crazy. She hoped he would hazard a guess, and then she could confirm it.

Perry raised an eyebrow. "Now, look, Lois, I know something's got you upset. I can tell you didn't sleep much last night. And I know that whatever it is that's come back to haunt you, it comes back every year about this time, and every year it kills you just a little bit more."

Lois simply stared at him, appalled. He knew far more than she would have suspected. She'd figured he would know she was unhappy, but she never thought he'd make the connection year after year. She couldn't deny the truth of his statement, but she still didn't know what to say to him. "Listen, Perry..."

He held up a hand. "No, Lois, I know you aren't gonna tell me the truth, and I'd just as soon you not make up some cock-and-bull story for me. So here's what I think. I want you to get out of here. You get some rest, take care of things, do whatever you have to do. Tomorrow, I want you back in here and I want you to try to get some work done. I have a new lead I want you to check out, and if you play your cards right you might even get a Kerth out of it. I need you at your best to follow it up. So go on, get out of here, and tomorrow you can get started."

Lois hesitated. Even the lure of an award-winning story wasn't enough to cut through the haze of misery surrounding her. That alone told her enough. But she knew she would be just as miserable at home as she was at work. She also knew that she wouldn't be any less distracted by tomorrow, and she didn't want to mislead Perry on that account. "Perry, this... thing that's wrong with me... It won't be gone by tomorrow."

Perry looked at her for a long moment. He, too, had noticed her lack of excitement about the promised lead. "I know, sweetheart," he said at last. "But I'm counting on you to pull yourself together. And you've never let me down before."

Lois nodded. "Okay. I'll try."

He nodded back. "Go on, then. See you tomorrow."

Lois drifted out of the city room in a thoughtful daze. Perry had realized that her bouts of misery came at the same time each year. She supposed she shouldn't be too surprised; she'd realized after only a few years that April 16th seemed to be significant. She wasn't sure what it meant, exactly, but it didn't take too much analysis to realize that the dreams were cyclical. Still, what Perry had said worried her a little. "Every year it kills you just a little bit more." Was that what was happening to her? Was she dying, ever so slowly, of a broken heart?

Don't be so maudlin! she scolded herself sharply. She tried to put the matter out of her mind as she walked to her car in the parking garage. It would be good to go home, if only to give up the charade she'd been carrying on all day. She could take a nice long shower, she thought, or try to watch some television. Anything to distance herself from the depression. She wondered where she'd last hidden her tapes of The Ivory Tower.

And eventually, when she had the strength, she would have to go back to bed and face Clark again.

She sighed, and bit her lip to hold back the tears.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It was almost too warm tonight, the air heavy and humid around them. In the distance there was an ominous growl of thunder; Clark barely noticed it. His attention was focused entirely on the slim woman at his side as she smiled up at him.

"...And when I was *very* little I wanted to be a nurse, like Mother," she admitted with a grin. "Until I found out that nurses had to give people shots, and then I knew that wasn't for me!"

He laughed with her, one arm slung low about her waist as they walked. "When I was little I wanted to be an archaeologist," he admitted. "I wanted to travel the world and study the people. I guess I did a little of that anyway."

She nodded thoughtfully. "And when did you decide you wanted to be a writer?" she asked.

Clark shrugged. "I always knew I liked to write. I was pretty good at it, and it was something I enjoyed doing. When I was fourteen there was this program at school that matched students with professionals in the area. I got to shadow a reporter for the Eagle in Wichita. After that, I knew journalism was what I wanted to do." He smiled reminiscently. "And you?"

"Well, I knew I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to help. I realized medicine wasn't the best way for me to do that, no matter what Daddy said. So I looked for other ways. Being a reporter meant that I could bring the bad guys to justice and still solve all the puzzles my own way. Reporters don't have to follow the same rules that cops do, and we get more recognition, too. I have to admit, I've always wanted a Pulitzer," she said with a sheepish smile. "That was always a big motivation."

He opened his mouth to reply, but his words were cut off by another sudden rumble of thunder above. Without a moment's pause, the skies opened and a heavy torrent of rain poured down on them. In seconds they were each soaked to the skin.

Lois gave a squeal of astonished laughter at their misfortune and pulled away from him. Skipping ahead a few steps, she flung her arms out and spun around. Her head tossed back exultantly, her smile beaming up into the dripping dark, she laughed at the storm.

He could only laugh with her. "Lois," he chided reluctantly, "Lois, we should head inside. You'll catch a cold for sure... Your apartment is just up the street... Lois!" Her name was the last thing he managed to say, for at that moment she flung herself into his arms with a last giggle and kissed him deeply.

His mind clouded instantly, his arms coming up to enfold her. They were both drenched, and he groaned softly as his fingers lighted on her back. Her blouse was plastered to her skin; every curve of her was outlined clearly for his gentle exploration. Her breasts were pressed high into his chest, and with both of them soaked, there seemed almost no barrier between them. She seemed to have noticed this, for she was already mapping out the planes and contours of his chest with impatient hands.

He allowed one hand to drop to her waist and then lower, cradling her gently against him. His other hand slid smoothly up over the fragile bones of her shoulder to settle at the back of her head, his fingers threaded deeply into her hair as he met her kiss with increasing intensity.

Clark broke the kiss at last, breathing hard. It was all he could do not to swoop down to her lips once more, and he could tell by the rapid rhythm of her heartbeat and her breathing that she was equally entranced. Her hair was beginning to curl in heavy, wet ringlets about her face, and he was taken aback by how stunningly beautiful she was to him in that moment. He wanted to tell her so, but it came out in tangled whispers against her skin as he surrendered once more and moved to string a line of kisses along her cheekbone. "Beautiful... Lois... so beautiful..."

She closed her eyes, her breath rushing hot against his neck. "Clark," she whispered, and then gave a tiny gasp as his lips found the tender hollow behind her earlobe and caressed it. At her sound of approval he grew bolder, and he touched that place again with his tongue, stroking firmly along the back of her ear. She trembled in his arms and moaned his name again, her head lolling to the side to give him greater access.

Her arms had risen around his neck to pull him closer and tighter to her; now she let one of them fall slowly down his back, her fingers following the sharp arc of his spine, noting every tendon and sinew that trembled at her touch. Her hand settled at the base, pressing him still closer, and then she lifted one leg to twine her ankle around his. The pressure between them made him groan once more into the soft flesh of her neck, and she shivered at the sensation.

He slanted his mouth against hers once more, wanting to hear her moan again, wanting to hear his name in that breathy, mindless tone. The rain was still pounding down around them, and they were standing in plain sight on a deserted but public corner. He should have been embarrassed at their behavior, but embarrassment was an emotion that was foreign to a dream world such as this. At this moment he wanted nothing more than to scoop her up into his arms and fly away with her. He would find a quiet, private place, and then he would surrender himself entirely to her and the emotion between them.

But something was wrong. Terribly wrong.

It took him a moment to realize what it was that had bothered him, but at last it came to him and he had to pull away.

He couldn't retreat very far. He was able only to break the kiss and rest his forehead against hers. Even then, he had to kiss her twice more, desperately, before he could find the strength simply to meet her gaze and hold it. His body and heart were aflame, and he found, incredulously, that he needed that sweet contact with her, physically needed it as he needed nothing else.

It wasn't real. None of it was real.

She looked up at him breathlessly, her smile coy. "What was that you were saying about my apartment being nearby?" she whispered, her voice low and alluring.

It wasn't real.

He closed his eyes, surprised at the sudden sting of tears in them. Sorrow had always been another emotion that was out of place in this dream world. It seemed the rules had changed.

That was the problem, of course. Suddenly, he was achingly aware that he was dreaming. Always before, he had known intellectually that these were dreams. But always before, while in the dream itself he had been entirely immersed within it, at least until it began to fade. He had always been able to totally accept the dream realities, blissfully unaware that it was all artificial. The knowledge weighed heavily on him now, for reasons he couldn't fathom, and suddenly the dream had become an exercise in torture rather than seduction.

Damn it, this wasn't supposed to hurt! He rebelled bitterly against this sudden change in protocol. The dreams were supposed to be a safe haven. He was supposed to ache in the morning, when he awoke still alone. His heart wasn't supposed to break yet.

Lois had moved to cup one side of his face in her hand, and she tilted her head backward, trying to catch his lips once more. He jumped at the touch, and pulled away hastily. This wasn't supposed to hurt! But he knew without a doubt that to make love to her this way, to allow them to follow their embrace to its logical conclusion, would hurt more than anything he'd ever known.

"We can't do this," he said, his voice harsh as he struggled to catch his breath. "I... *I* can't do this."

She pulled away immediately, but she didn't back away from him. He had closed his eyes, and thus he missed the expression in hers. "Clark?" she asked at last, her tone uncertain and soft in the sudden silence. What had happened to the rain? It had ceased as quickly as it had started, the spell it had woven abruptly broken, and the abrupt change only served to further devastate his grasp on reality, such as it was. Nevertheless, the confusion and sudden pain in her voice cut deeply, and he opened his eyes.

There were tears in hers, soft and shadowed, as she stared imploringly up at him. The magnitude of what he'd just done struck him at once; he'd rejected her advances, rejected *her,* with barely a thought of how it would seem to her.

What does it matter how it seems to her? She's a dream!

He was utterly certain of that, but somehow it wasn't important. Dream or not, he loved her, and he couldn't hurt her this way. He struggled for an explanation.

"Clark..." she said again, a little stronger now but with a definite quaver in her voice, "Is something wrong? Did I... did I do something wrong?"

He shook his head fervently, allowing one of his hands to settle comfortingly on her shoulder. "No, Lois... It's nothing you've done. It's just that..." He trailed off in frustration; there was no way to explain this problem to her!

But he ached to see the pain in her eyes, the self-doubt and inadequacy, and he knew he had to assuage her fears somehow.

"I'm sorry," he said softly, "but I just couldn't let this go on any longer. It isn't real, Lois... and I don't think I can pretend any differently."

If anything, the confusion in her eyes tripled. "Not real... It felt pretty real to me, Clark," she teased half-heartedly, trying to break the sudden tension between them, but there was a look of desperation in her eyes.

He sighed and closed his eyes. This wasn't supposed to hurt!

"You're a dream, Lois!" he blurted out at last. "You aren't real!"

She stared at him in utter and total shock, and then, to his own surprise, she disappeared entirely.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

CHAPTER THREE

"When I wake I see One more mystery

While our lives run Is there someone Dreaming you and me?"

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

APRIL 18TH, 1997

METROPOLIS, NEW TROY

[ALTWORLD 2]

Lois sat up sharply, her breath rushing in time with the sudden pounding of her heart. If she'd moved any faster, she would probably have fallen out of the bed. What had just happened?

"You're a dream, Lois!" he had said. "You aren't real!"

She had no idea what to make of that.

*He's* a dream! Why on earth would a dream of yours say that?

Her first instinct was to dismiss the dream entirely, to pass it off as a fluke and ignore his strange proclamation. The entire thing had been unusual, in more ways than one. Toward the end, she'd been vaguely aware that she was dreaming, something she wasn't usually able to realize. To drown out the unpleasant knowledge, she'd pushed their embrace a little farther, trying to distract herself with the sensations he could arouse in her. It had almost worked, too, until he'd pulled away.

Maybe it had just been a weird night, and tonight things would go back to the way they were. But she couldn't forget it so easily. It had just been too unsettling to ignore. She shook her head, wondering what other explanation there might be.

A stray thought crossed her mind, and she frowned as she examined it. When she'd been very young, she'd taken a writing course at a local writers' club. The class had been called Dragons and Dreams, and she'd chosen it partly because of the description in the brochure. "Do dragons exist only in our dreams, or are we all just the dreams of a dragon?" At the time, she'd been intrigued by the fanciful suggestion that the reality she lived in might exist only in the imagination of someone else. Now, the idea seemed frighteningly real.

Was that what Clark's accusation meant? Was it even possible? Could she exist only in his imagination? She laughed humorlessly; this was absurd. She knew she existed. Cogito ergo sum, right? It was ridiculous to try to envision herself as a figment of imagination.

On the other hand, if she was real, did that make Clark the dream? Did he exist only in *her* imagination? Even though that seemed the most likely explanation, it didn't feel quite right either, when she thought about it that way. Rationally, she'd always believed it, but her heart had felt differently. She'd always felt he was dead, that he'd died before she could ever meet him. Her heart had never considered him imaginary.

So if she wasn't imagining him, and he wasn't imagining her, where did that leave them? Two real people, meeting only in dreams?

She dragged a hand across her face, reluctant to continue that train of thought any further. She wondered if she were losing her mind. Lois rolled over to look at the clock; it was almost time to get up anyway. Resolutely, she put thoughts of Clark and the dream out of her mind, and set about preparing for work.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"Lois!" Perry shouted as she came into the city room. "I want to see you in my office!"

"Coming, Chief," she called back, rounding the corner at the top of the ramp. She left her jacket at her desk, then headed toward the editor's office. There was another man there already, sitting quietly by the door.

Perry eyed her critically as she entered. "How're you feeling today?"

Lois considered for a moment. The numbing depression that had dogged her yesterday was nearly gone, replaced by the roiling confusion of last night's dream. She stubbornly steered her thoughts away from that maelstrom, and managed a smile for Perry. "Um, better, Chief. I think I'm feeling better."

He looked her over carefully once more, then he nodded. "Well, good. You've got a lot of work to do today. I'd like you to meet someone." He gestured to the other man, who stood and offered his hand. "Lois, this is an old friend of mine, Gary Keane. Gary, my best reporter, Lois Lane."

"Nice to meet you," she said, taking the offered hand. Gary Keane was a tall, older man with graying brown hair. She smiled politely at him, but his answering grin seemed a little forced.

"Gary and I were in college together," Perry explained.

"I'm retired now," Gary added. "But I work as a night security guard at the New Eden warehouse."

"I see," Lois said, though she wasn't sure she did. This was Perry's big lead?

"Last week, one of my friends was murdered," Gary continued. "Samuel Hathoway."

Lois frowned. The name was familiar, but she couldn't place it.... "One of the East Side murder victims," she said at last, remembering.

Gary nodded. "Sam was another guard at New Eden. He and I work the same shift, but he and I alternate nights in the control room. Anyway, the night he died was my night off, so Sam was walking the route. He called me at about ten o'clock; he was on his break and he wanted to know how the baseball game was going." The man smiled briefly, sadly. "Sam was a big Chicago fan, and we were playing the White Sox that night. He knows I'm a Metropolitan, born and bred, so we tease each other when our teams are playing."

"I told him the Sox were leading four to three and filled him in on some of the details, and he ribbed me about it for a while. Then he said he'd better go, because he could see some lights on in one of the loading docks in the back of the warehouse. A lot of times there are workers there late at night, since some of our shipments have to go on red-eye flights. Most of the time we don't worry too much about them. But Sam said he'd taken a look at the schedule and he didn't think there was a shipment going out. So I let him go so he could check it out."

The man looked down for a moment, then he raised his eyes again. "I should have checked up on him. Should've called back to make sure he was okay. The next morning, they found him in an alley, half a block down."

Lois nodded. "I'm sorry," she said, not sure what else she could say. The man was obviously feeling responsible for his friend's death, but she doubted he would appreciate any reassurance from a stranger.

He nodded back. "The police said it was possible that Sam sneaked outside to smoke a cigarette or something and came across a crime scene of some sort. There've been several murders on the East Side lately. I didn't mention that he'd seen lights *inside* the warehouse. I have a wife and a family, Miss Lane; my youngest isn't out of high school yet. I can't afford to end up the way Sam did. So I kept my mouth shut."

Lois bit her lip, suddenly understanding where this was going. "You think Sam saw something he wasn't supposed to see, and that someone killed him and tried to make it look like part of that string of murders."

Gary nodded. "We're allowed to smoke on our routes, Miss Lane, and Sam doesn't smoke anyway. I can't think of any reason for him to have left the warehouse. Since then I've been walking the route through the warehouse. I watched very carefully for the first few nights, wondering if I'd see any more suspicious activity, but everything was in order. I thought maybe whoever it was had gotten scared, and stopped working in the warehouse. But two nights ago, there were more lights in the loading docks."

"What did you do?" Lois asked, intrigued now in spite of herself.

"Nothing!" Gary replied emphatically. "I told you, Miss Lane, I have a family. I'm not going to get myself killed. So I ignored the lights and I stayed on my route. And then I came to see old Perry here."

Perry smiled grimly. "I talked to Gary yesterday morning. I wanted to get you on this right away, but," he glanced at the other man and then at Lois, "you weren't feeling so well yesterday. So now that you're doing better, I want you to take a look at this. Why don't you take Gary to the conference room and let him finish his story."

Lois flashed Perry a smile, grateful for his discretion. "Thanks, Chief, I'll do that. If you'll come with me, Mr. Keane?" He nodded, and allowed Lois to lead him out of the office and into the conference room. She pulled out a chair at the table, and he joined her. "So you think Samuel Hathoway saw something he shouldn't have in the loading docks, and someone killed him to silence him? And then disguised it as one of the string of murders on the East Side?"

Gary nodded. "And if they knew he'd been on the phone, they'd probably come after me, too."

Lois frowned. "There was someone working in the control room, watching the displays from the security cameras, right? Don't they have a security camera in the loading docks?"

The other man shook his head. "We had one, but it malfunctioned about six months ago and they disconnected it. Someone was supposed to come to replace it, but it never happened."

"So the management knows that it doesn't work, and it hasn't worked in months, but they still haven't had it fixed?" She smiled grimly; there was certainly a story here. "It sounds to me like they're in on it, whatever it is that's going on."

Gary sighed. "That's what my wife said. So what do we do now?"

Lois bit her lip. "Well, you need to go back to work tonight and pretend that nothing has happened. You can't let anyone know that you've spoken to me. You were right about not mentioning the lights Sam saw; you don't want anyone to suspect that you know anything about it." She thought for a moment, trying to plan her attack. "In the meantime, I'm going to get some information on New Eden and see what I can find out about its latest shipments." She reached in her bag for a pad and pen. "Why don't you give me your phone number, and I'll keep in touch with you over the next few days, okay?"

The man complied, and she showed him the way back to the elevators. "Thanks for the information, Gary. I'm going to do everything I can to get to the bottom of this."

She called for Jimmy as she moved back to her desk, a new fortitude in her stride. There was a good deal of work to be done today, but she knew that Perry had been right to give her this assignment. This was just what she needed to get her mind off of her miserable-- and confusing-- dreams. Mentally, she began to compile a list of the information she wanted, and who she might contact.

She *would* get to the bottom of this; she always did. Lois Lane always got the story.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

APRIL 18TH, 1997

METROPOLIS, NEW TROY

[ALTWORLD 1]

Clark lay in bed for a long time after he awoke, his eyes closed tightly. He suspected that if he opened them, he'd cry.

The dream had been beautiful, as always. Even now he could feel her in his arms, a shadow of her body cradled against him and her lips under his. He groaned at the sensation, raising his hands and covering his face.

He wasn't sure he could keep doing this.

This time had been worse than most, of course. He wondered if it had been a mistake, if tonight he would be able to go back to his blissful ignorance. He wanted to believe that, but part of him was doubtful. Things had changed, and they weren't going back to the way they were.

Clark balled his hand into a fist and struck out at the mattress, trying to vent his anger without actually damaging his furniture. Sometimes, he wanted simply to destroy everything within reach. But it wouldn't help, he knew that, and he restrained himself. He rolled over and levered himself out of bed. Silently, he moved through his apartment; he showered, dressed, and ate within a few moments, and launched himself into the early morning sky.

It was raining outside, a steady, chilling drizzle. Normally he wasn't affected by extremes of weather, but today he thought he could feel the icy touch of the water, letting it chill him through and through. Last night's rain had been warm, inviting. The dawn was cold and relentless, washing away the last traces of her touch as if punishing him for finding some measure of comfort in the dream world.

He flew for nearly three hours, drifting aimlessly through the streaks of gray clouds over the city. Sometimes it felt good simply to float, numb and mindless. At other times the rage and sorrow would rise in him once more, that desire to lash out. Then he'd go shooting across the sky as fast as he dared, and then faster, the rain slicing at his face, the wind rushing cold and indifferent across his shoulders.

The criminal population of Metropolis seemed to have sensed his mood, for he saw no assaults or robberies, heard no cries for help. He would almost have welcomed the distraction, but it looked as if the rain had kept many citizens inside.

He was noticing, however, that many mornings were like this; crime was still dropping rapidly in Metropolis and even the surrounding cities. He hoped it meant that his world was on a better path, that things were going to keep getting better. He wished the thought could compensate for even a small amount of the chill within him.

By the time he arrived at the Daily Planet, the rain had trickled off into a light mist. He changed clothes in the employee restrooms on the first floor, wringing his Suit out and scanning it with heat vision until it dried. Then he headed up to the city room.

The newsroom was as alive and busy as ever, a stark contrast to the solitude of the sky. He stood transfixed in the doorway for a long moment, trying to adjust to the sudden storm of movement around him. He felt numb this morning, sluggish; he couldn't think as clearly as usual.

Mr. Olsen passed him on the way to the elevator. "Kent, you okay?"

Clark started, and turned to face the young owner. "Yeah, I think so. I just... had a rough night, I guess. Not sleeping well."

James quirked an eyebrow at him; he obviously thought it odd that Clark would need to sleep at all. "Well, I hope things get better for you."

Clark nodded absently. He knew James cared, but the two men weren't really friends. Since he'd become Superman, Clark had effectively isolated himself from the world. There were few people he would call friends, and he didn't think he could confide his real problem to any of them. For a moment he wished he and Lana were still on speaking terms, but he didn't think she'd have been much help anyway. She'd have told him he was obsessing, that he was reacting to the stress of being a superhero. She'd have patted him on the shoulder and told him to quit worrying about it. Sometimes he wondered how he could ever have considered marrying her. Or how he could ever have imagined that it was she he dreamed of.

He walked down to his desk, trying to put his mind to his work. He didn't have any Superman stories to write up this morning, since the city had been so peaceful, so he figured he could devote the time to his drug education column. He had some statistics he wanted to cite, but his desk was in disarray, and he shuffled through the papers there.

Corrie Andrews found him still sifting through the scraps of paper, his mind not really focused enough to find what he was looking for. "Good morning, Clark," she said as she passed. "Looking for something?"

Clark flashed her as friendly a smile as he could manage. "Good morning, Miss Andrews. I'm looking for some statistics I wanted to quote in my next column, but I guess I'm disorganized."

She nodded amiably, leaning back against his desk. "Well, I'll be looking for that column for tomorrow's edition, okay?" He nodded, and she fell silent for a moment. Just as the pause began to feel awkward, she spoke up again. "Um, Clark... are you free tonight? I have some tickets to the symphony, if you'd like to go."

Clark looked up at her, a sinking feeling in his stomach. How was he to refuse her politely? She was his boss, after all, and he had no desire to alienate her. He couldn't even explain that he'd be 'seeing' someone else tonight. "Um, Miss Andrews," he began uncomfortably.

"Corrie," she corrected him.

"Corrie," he repeated. "I think you're a wonderful person, and under different circumstances I'd probably take you up on that. But, as it is, I don't think it would be a good idea to... extend our relationship beyond our professional one."

She nodded, her short reddish hair swaying against her cheek, and her smile was reassuring. "It's okay, Clark," she said. "I didn't really think you'd say yes. It's just that you always look so lonely. Especially these last few days." She shrugged. "I thought maybe you needed a friend."

He sighed. He'd told her the truth; Corrie was a very attractive and friendly woman, and in another lifetime he could have dated her, maybe even loved her. But he knew all too well that it wasn't what he needed now. "I appreciate that, Corrie, I really do. I *have* been kind of distracted lately. But I don't think you can help me. I don't think anyone can."

"It's a woman, isn't it?" she asked, tilting her head to look at him. "I bet I can even guess who she is." At his wary nod, her smile widened. "Lois Lane."

He dropped his gaze, unwilling to openly confirm her guess, but knowing that his silence would tell her all she needed to know.

Corrie shook her head. "I saw the two of you on the news shows, back when you first started being Superman. I don't think everyone noticed it, but it was pretty obvious to me, and probably to a lot of other women out there, that the Man of Steel's heart was taken. Engaged or not."

Clark shrugged. "That wasn't her, though. Lois Lane, I mean. Lois died four years ago in the Congo."

Corrie raised an eyebrow. "Well, that's what they say. But they never found her body, and no one knows exactly what happened to her. Maybe you should look into it. Call up Perry White and see if he can give you access to her research. It wouldn't bring her back, but you might be able to bring justice to the people who killed her."

Clark nodded. "I've been over there plenty of times, looking. But you're right about calling Perry; he might be able to tell me more about what she was working on." He hesitated, then smiled ruefully at her. "I should have thought of that myself. I appreciate the help, Corrie."

The editor shrugged again. "No problem, Clark. I *do* want to be your friend. No strings attached, I promise."

He laughed, beginning to relax once more. "I will give Perry a call," he assured her.

"You do that," she said, stepping away from his desk. "But you get that column finished first!"

"I will," he promised with a smile, and turned back to his work. Now that he had something constructive to work on, he felt a little better about his situation. As Corrie had said, if he couldn't have Lois, he could at least avenge her murder.

He wished that weren't such a cold comfort.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

She was dreaming, and she knew it.

She was in her apartment, lying on the couch, watching some inane soap opera on the television. The dreams often started that way, and then Clark would come over and they'd spend the evening talking and cuddling in privacy. But after last night's painful separation, she wasn't sure what to expect.

As if on cue, there was a knock at the door, and she got up to answer it. She wasn't surprised to see Clark there when she checked the peephole. What surprised her was the sudden anxiety that settled in her stomach at the sight.

Relax, Lane she chided herself as she unlocked the door and swung it open. It's Clark.

Clark met her nervous smile with a tight one of his own. He looked vaguely apprehensive. "I-- I brought dinner," he said, holding up the cardboard cartons of food like a peace offering.

"Come on in," she said as cheerfully as she could, closing the door behind him. He settled the food on the coffee table and sat down at one end of the couch. Lois hesitated, then joined him, leaving a careful space between them. She folded her hands in her lap and studied them, unwilling to meet his gaze.

Clark looked over at her. She was obviously upset; her posture spoke of caution and insecurity. Vulnerability. He knew that his retreat the night before must be the cause of her unease, but that in itself was odd. Though they had both gotten older as the years passed, the dreams weren't really linear or connected in any other way. But apparently she remembered what had happened, and it hung heavily between them now.

"Lois," he said, tentatively, and then stopped. He really had no idea what to say to her.

"I want to know why you said that," she said evenly, still not looking up at him. "Why you said it... wasn't real."

Clark dropped his gaze. Explaining last night, his thoughts clouded with heady emotion, had been impossible. Explaining now, in the calm of her apartment, was still hopeless.

Well, he could tell her the truth; he supposed she deserved that much. But he wasn't sure how to go about that. "When I was sixteen," he began at last, "I had a dream. Well, a lot of dreams. About... the most wonderful girl I had ever met. I could never remember her face, but I knew *her.*"

He paused for a moment, measuring his words. "I dream about her every year, and every year I learn to love her a little bit more. I got to watch her grow up into the most intelligent, honest, fiery woman I've ever known. But... she doesn't exist in my life-- in my world-- and sometimes it hurts too much to pretend that she does. That's why I couldn't... go on... last night." He raised his eyes to hers at last. "I do love her," he said, his voice low. "But she won't be there when I wake up."

She showed no reaction to his pained confession. "I don't exist in your world," she repeated.

Clark shook his head. "You did," he admitted after a moment. "But... she died, four years ago."

"I died," she said, her voice still calm.

He nodded. "She was a reporter... she died on a story. I never met her."

Lois sat back, her eyes focused vaguely on the coffee table. For a long moment she said nothing, and Clark wondered nervously what she was thinking.

Lois, for her part, wasn't sure what she was thinking. When she'd wondered idly earlier whether it could be possible that she was communicating with someone real through the dreams, she hadn't seriously considered it a viable explanation. But now... it somehow seemed plausible. She was at a loss to explain it any other way.

His story sounded remarkably like hers. She dreamt of a man that did not exist, or at least was dead. She'd been mourning him, she thought. And he said she didn't exist for him, either. She was dead. What did that mean?

She sighed, wondering if she'd have a terrible headache from all of this when she woke up.

He'd been honest; she felt compelled to reward that honesty in kind. So at last she raised her eyes to his. "I have dreams, too," she said tentatively. "The first one came when I was fourteen. I dreamed about an amusement park or a carnival or something. I was there with... a boy. I'd never met him in life, but he and I were like old friends in the dream. Like we'd known each other our whole lives. And I can never remember his face, but I knew his name, and his eyes..." she confided softly. "Anyway, there was some game at the carnival, one of those poles to test your strength, and he won the prize for me."

"A bear," he finished for her. "He-- I-- won you a little black bear."

Lois stared at him. How did he know that?

Part of her wondered if she was going crazy, slowly sinking into madness. After all, this was only a dream. It was perfectly logical for a creature of her imagination to know all the things she knew. He could never offer her proof of any kind.

But even as she tried to make sense of it all, a small, detached part of her mind was noting the way his hair fell across his forehead, the smooth, handsome line of his jaw, the honest tenderness in his eyes. Reminding her just what it meant to be with him, if only twenty-odd nights a year, what it felt like to be held and kissed and wanted. If there were a chance that it might all be real, that he might be real somewhere out there, how could she dismiss it so easily?

The madness beckoned....

"You're a dream," she said at last. "I've dreamed you up. And now, for some reason, I'm dreaming this too. Maybe-- maybe it's the loneliness. Maybe I just can't deal with it anymore, and I'm inventing a way to make you real. Maybe I'm going crazy."

Clark slid closer to her on the couch, his expression earnest. "Lois, listen to me. I know all this sounds crazy. It sounds crazy to me, too. But... well, I've had some experience with crazy things in the past, and they've all been real. And Lois, if this... thing between us is real, I don't want to throw it away. Even if we only get twenty dreams a year, I don't want to lose you." Something inside him had the frightening suspicion that, if she denied this now, there would be no more dreams. No more second chances.

She was watching him critically, tracing his face with her gaze. There were tears in her eyes, and behind them he saw once more the vulnerability, the deep, lonely despair. "Maybe I *am* going crazy," she said at last, her voice soft and unsteady. "But I want to believe it."

Relief flooded through him, and he felt weak with the sudden force of it. "Oh, Lois," he said, moving still closer to pull her into his arms. She melted into his embrace, sobbing quietly into his chest, and he relished the feeling of her in his arms. Familiar, but somehow all the more precious now.

But after a moment she stiffened, and though she did not pull away he could feel her retreating into herself. After an awkward pause, he released her. "Lois?" he repeated, a note of uncertainty in his voice now.

She shook her head, raising a hand and, embarrassed, dashing the tears from her cheeks. "It's not you, Clark. It's just that... all these years I thought you were just a dream." She looked away, and for a moment he thought she might start crying again. At last she cleared her throat and continued. "When you were just a dream, I could count on your... feelings for me," she explained haltingly. "Now that you might be... real, I can't help but think that you don't know me, and I don't know you. Suddenly, I feel... self-conscious in front of you. I've never felt that way before."

Clark pulled away, abruptly self-conscious himself. "Okay," he said after a moment. He hadn't anticipated this, and he knew instinctively that he would have to tread very carefully now. "Then... let me get to know you. And you can get to know me. I'm still the same man you've known, Lois. And you can *always* count on my feelings for you. They're unconditional. But we'll take things slowly, for both our sakes. Okay?"

She looked up at him hesitantly, her eyes shadowed now, and smiled a little. She wanted to trust him, but she wasn't sure she remembered how. Perhaps she'd never known.

"Okay," she said at last.

"So... tell me about yourself," he said after a moment's pause. "You're right; I don't really know you. But I want to know everything."

Lois smiled wryly, taking refuge in self-deprecation. "Where do I start?" she said. "My whole life story in fifty words or less?"

Clark smiled back encouragingly, and reached out to take her hand. "I want to know it all," he said, his voice soft. "Use as many words as you want."

She opened her mouth to reply, but something distracted her. A vague prickle at the edge of her awareness, soft now but slowly growing more insistent. By the stricken expression of regret on his face, she knew he had felt it, too. "I guess the life story will have to wait," she said. "We're fading."

"Tomorrow, then," he insisted. "We have six more nights."

She nodded. "It's a date."

Lois glanced about her, noticing that the colors of the dream had begun to fade as well, looking gray and whitewashed. She hesitated, then opened her mouth to speak. "Um, Clark?" she said, unwilling to meet his eyes. "Do you think... maybe... Would you hold me? Until I-- we wake up?"

She looked ashamed of the request, and his heart went out to her even as his arms did. "Oh, Lois," he whispered, pulling her close once more and settling her against his body. He wanted to tell her he loved her, but he wasn't sure she was ready yet for that.

Instead, he simply rocked her gently in his arms until their shared world melted away.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

CHAPTER FOUR

"In dreams and in love there are no impossibilities."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

APRIL 19TH, 1997

METROPOLIS, NEW TROY

[ALTWORLD 1]

For the first time in fifteen years, there was no sorrow when he awoke. He lingered in bed for a few moments, savoring the newfound peace of it. He didn't think he'd ever felt so good.

True, he still didn't have Lois in his life, not really. But he'd connected to her in a way he'd never expected, in a way that seemed extraordinary, unbelievable. Although it wasn't difficult for him to believe that she existed somehow, somewhere. As he'd told her, he'd seen plenty of crazy things in his lifetime; he supposed a lot of people thought a man that flew was unbelievable, too. His entire life he'd been looking for a person that could love him for all that he was. If Lois was that person, he was willing to believe anything.

But she didn't exist in his world, he knew that. So that meant she existed in another one? Another Metropolis somewhere, just as the first Lois he'd met?

For a fleeting instant, he wondered just where H.G. Wells was when he needed him. He would demand that the little man find Lois's universe, and take him there! He'd certainly done the time-traveler plenty of favors, and doing so had irrevocably disrupted his life. It seemed only fair to expect something in return.

He dismissed the angry thought immediately. For one thing, he admitted to himself, he hadn't become Superman to help Wells. He'd done that for Lois, and to fulfill his own need to help.

But for another thing, he didn't think he could up and leave his universe. As Superman, he was in a position to do a great deal of good for his world. He wasn't sure he could ever justify leaving it. How could he put his own needs ahead of those of an entire planet?

For once in his life, he thought, he wanted to be selfish.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

When Clark arrived at the Planet that morning, he waved hello to the few others in the office, but he didn't stop to talk to anyone. He had plenty of things he wanted to get done today. He called Perry White at the office first, and was surprised to find that he wasn't there. While it wasn't required that the mayor be at work on a Saturday, Clark knew Perry very well. He knew that the older man was very accustomed to working seven days a week at a newspaper, and that he often put in extra days even now, working to improve his city.

But the receptionist politely informed him that Mayor White wasn't coming in today, and that perhaps Clark would have better luck calling his home. So Clark dialed the Whites' residence instead. Alice answered, and after a few moments of small talk and catching up, she called for Perry.

"Clark?" Perry answered. "It's good to hear from you."

"It's good to hear from you, too," Clark replied sincerely. Perry had been one of the few people that hadn't regarded him differently after he became Superman. Clark sometimes wished he saw his former editor more often. But between Perry's mayoral duties and Clark's Superman activities, neither of them really had time to visit.

After another few minutes of small talk, Clark finally cleared his throat. "Actually, I called to ask you about something."

"I figured as much," Perry answered, and Clark could almost hear his smile. "You don't have the time to call just to chat. So what's going on?"

"Well, I wanted to look into Lois Lane's death. I want to try to pick up that case where she left off, see if I can find out what happened to her. I don't think I'll find her," he admitted regretfully. "I think it's too late for that. But maybe I can bring some justice to the people that killed her."

"You've been talking to Corrie Andrews, haven't you?" Perry asked suspiciously.

"Yeah," Clark admitted, trying to stifle his surprise. After all, Perry had always known more than he had reason to. "She suggested it, and I think it's a good idea."

"But you don't know where to start?" Perry asked.

"Right."

"Well," the older man said, "she was investigating some gun-running in the Congo. Something about civil war... I guess I'd suggest you talk to her family. Her sister was sharing her apartment at the time, so she may know something about what Lois was working on. She was pretty helpful at the time; she probably wouldn't mind talking to you now.

"And you should call down to the archives and ask about Lois's computer files. When we lose a reporter in action, we back up their computer on CD. That way we can try to trace their logic backwards and find them. But there may not be any of the regular staff in archives over the weekend, so you may have to wait till Monday to get the CDs. Now, I had plenty of people looking at those files back in '93, but you're certainly welcome to look at them again. I hope you find something."

"Thanks, Perry. I hope so, too."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

By that evening, however, Clark was no closer to finding anything useful than he had been that morning. Perry had been right, there was only a skeleton crew in the archives for the weekend, though they'd promised to leave a memo for the staff to find the backup discs first thing Monday morning.

Lucy Lane no longer lived in Lois's former apartment, although she was still in Metropolis. He'd called her that afternoon and arranged to meet her for lunch the following day.

So Clark had spent the day looking through older editions of the Planet, trying to figure out who else had been on staff at the time. He wondered if any of them would be able to tell him anything about what she'd been working on. Judging from what he knew of the Lois he'd met, however, he doubted anyone would know anything. The Lois of the other dimension had been relatively friendly with her coworkers, but she'd been rather tight-lipped about her stories. He suspected she'd been worse earlier in her career; he imagined that her Clark had mellowed her a little. So the Lois of his own dimension had probably been just as bad.

Still, he wanted to pursue all his leads, so he began to compile a list of the reporters that might have known Lois. He was interrupted several times by minor Superman emergencies; while they were time-consuming, there was nothing serious. By that afternoon he had his list of reporters. Many of them still worked at the Planet, but very few of them were in the office on a Saturday. He called most of them at home and asked about her, but no one had anything particularly helpful to say.

"She did keep pretty good notes on her computer," Eduardo commented. "So if you can get a copy of the backup files from her hard drive, you might get something from that. But she was really secretive, too, so she probably had passwords on everything."

Clark wasn't too worried about that; he could go through a large number of possible passwords in seconds. But it looked as if there wasn't anything else he could do tonight. He hoped that after he'd spoken to Lucy tomorrow he'd have something more concrete to start with. Otherwise, he'd have to wait on the archive staff to find Lois's backup files.

He frowned a little as he hung up the phone. He was used to being able to work at superspeed, and he didn't like having nothing to do. It wasn't that he minded having to wait, but there was a sense of urgency in him. Ever since he'd decided to examine this case, he'd felt a need to conclude it as quickly as possible. He chalked it up to the fact that he was investigating Lois's death. Even if, as he was beginning to suspect, the Lois of this universe hadn't been intended for him at all, he felt a strong tie with her. He hated to think that she had died violently, and he couldn't stand the idea that her killers had gotten away with murder.

He shook his head. Well, they weren't going to get away with it, if he could help it. Tomorrow he'd talk to Lucy, and he'd have the computer files by Monday or Tuesday. Sooner or later, he *was* going to find out what had happened to Lois Lane.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

APRIL 19TH, 1997

METROPOLIS, NEW TROY

[ALTWORLD 2]

When she woke up, Lois was surprised to find she could almost still see him. She closed her eyes again quickly, anxiously, and was rewarded with the newfound image of his face, smiling gently as he encouraged her to confide in him. She gave a delighted laugh, half joy and half relief. For fifteen years that face had eluded her. Today, at long last, she could see him fully.

She smiled as she rolled out of bed, but her mood was thoughtful. Why had things suddenly begun to change between them? Not that she wasn't grateful; this was without a doubt the best thing that had ever happened to her. But the reporter in her wanted to ask questions. For fifteen years, she repeated to herself. Fifteen years of not remembering, not understanding. Why were the rules suddenly changing now?

Never question a miracle she reminded herself. What does it matter why this is happening? The important thing is that it's happening at all. You said it yourself, this is the best thing that's *ever* happened to you.

For a moment she bit her lip, a pang of sorrow cutting through the joy. The only thing that would be better would be to have him truly there with her. She was acting this morning as if everything was going to change. But it wasn't, not really. She was still only with him in dreams. She was still going to be alone.

Resolutely, she turned her mind away from the thought. She was *not* going to spoil this. The dream last night had been beautiful. Clark was simply the most wonderful person she'd ever known. She'd almost been able to believe him when he said his feelings for her were unconditional. And she *did* believe that he wanted to get to know her.

So focus on that! she told herself firmly. For some reason, things are changing with Clark, and it certainly looks as if they're changing for the better.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Lois straightened her skirt and glanced both ways as she climbed out of the taxi. The New Eden building was in a quieter section of the East Side, so the traffic was relatively light.

When Gary had called her yesterday with this suggestion, she had her doubts about it, but she figured it was worth a try. If nothing else, it would get her inside the building and give her some basic background information. She hadn't discovered much of anything useful in her preliminary research the day before. New Eden specialized in expensive furniture and interior decorations. It was a relatively young company, still trying to establish itself in the market, but they carried high-quality furnishings. She'd glanced at their online catalog and had been astonished at the prices of some of their wares. And it looked as if New Eden would become even more upscale in the future; it had been bought out by a larger company in February. Apparently there was still some confusion about the management of the smaller company; while it was going to continue operating much as it had before the buyout, there were several new openings for support staff.

Which was why she was here. Gary had said there was a secretary's position open in the main office, and wondered if she thought it might be useful to apply. Lois wasn't sure she would find anything worthwhile by working in the office, but after considering his suggestion for a moment she'd thought of a way it could be very useful indeed. She had outlined her strategy carefully to Gary, and she'd promised to call him back as soon as she'd made an appointment.

So she was to meet with a Mr. David Campbell at two o'clock this afternoon. This morning she'd been busy with an interview with the mayor; she'd barely had time to change her clothes and catch a cab from City Hall. As it was, she was cutting it pretty close.

She made it to Mr. Campbell's second-floor office at three minutes to two, relieved. He greeted her at the door. "Miss Kelley? Please, come in." She smiled and nodded an affirmative, and let him usher her inside.

"I'm sorry about the mess," he said as she took a seat, waving his hand at the scattered folders on the desk and stacks of paper on the floor. "We're updating our filing system, and everything's a little disorganized right now. That's something you'd be helping with in this position, actually."

She nodded again, her manner assertive but polite. "I see. And I'd be acting as your secretary, Mr. Campbell?"

He smiled warmly, though there was a sense of appraisal in his glance that made her uncomfortable. "David, you can call me David. And yes, you'd be working in the next office over, taking phone calls and helping me out. I'm the supervisor at this facility. New Eden has an office and call center on 23rd Street, but this is our main building. So it's important that we keep it going smoothly."

Lois tried to match his smile. "I understand. So--"

She was interrupted by the telephone. David gave her an apologetic grin. "Hold on just a moment," he said, turning to answer the phone.

Lois strained her ears, but she could only just make out the voice on the other end, and couldn't decipher what was being said. The look of annoyance that crossed David's face was enough to confirm her suspicions, and she bit her lip to hide a smile. "The *power* went out?" he asked incredulously. "That's never happened before." There was a pause as the other person spoke. "Well, it must be a fuse. You'll have to go to the fuse box and check."

There was another moment's pause, and his expression went from annoyance to outright anger. "You checked the fuse box? And you couldn't find the problem? Who is this? What kind of incompetent...." He trailed off, running a hand aggrievedly through his hair. "All right, I'll be down in a moment." He slammed the phone into its cradle and, composing himself, gave Lois another oily grin. "I'll be right back. There seems to be some sort of problem with the fuses in one of the loading docks."

Lois gestured for him to go. "Not a problem. I can wait."

She listened to his footsteps as they disappeared down the corridor. Gary had assured her she'd have five minutes, but he couldn't guarantee any longer. When she was sure he was out of earshot, she stood quickly and moved to the desk. David hadn't been exaggerating about the mess; the desk was in total disarray. She shuffled quickly through the files, looking for anything she might be able to use. Most of them were financial records of various sorts: receipts, accounting ledgers, old purchase orders. She sifted through them as quickly as she could, looking carefully at the dates written on each file, but they all looked more than a few months old.

Watching the clock, she moved to sort through the folders and loose pages on the floor. At last, with barely a minute to spare, she found what she needed: a file of records for the last two weeks. Inside, she was delighted to find a shipping invoice from a local trucking company. The time listed was 1:04 a.m., April 12th, the night Samuel Hathoway had died.

By the time David Campbell had returned, she had stowed the folder safely in her attach‚ case and tried to rearrange the others on the desk as they had been. He found her waiting patiently, apologized for the delay, and continued the interview.

Lois left New Eden with a satisfied smile. The shipping invoice wasn't a very big lead, but it was something to start with. She raised her arm to hail another cab, but a shout from behind stopped her. "Miss Lane!"

She turned to find Gary Keane waving at her. "Did it work?" the elderly man asked, his expression a mixture of excitement and anxiety. "Did you get anything?"

"It worked wonderfully," she assured him. "You did a great job."

He smiled and looked down, embarrassed. "I wasn't sure if the fuse thing would work, but I kept playing dumb until he came downstairs."

Lois frowned. "Won't you get in trouble? I mean, you aren't even supposed to be here during the day!"

Gary shrugged. "Campbell doesn't know that. I used the loading dock with the bad security camera, and we don't have any electronic security systems on during the day. So there's no way for them to see that I was here at all. It was easy to flip that fuse, and I just pretended I didn't know how to fix it." He gave her a sardonic grin. "Campbell likes to believe the people around him aren't as smart as he is, so it was easy to get him to believe it. Anyway, he doesn't know who I am, so he can't fire me. And by tomorrow he'll have forgotten all about it."

"Well, it was great," she repeated with a grin. "I was able to get some paperwork from his office. Not a huge lead, but I think it might be really helpful." She was exaggerating a little, but she knew it had been difficult for the man to go along with her plan, and she wanted to reassure him. "I'll have to follow it up, see what other information I can get. I'll let you know as soon as I find anything."

Gary smiled a little and nodded. "Thanks, Miss Lane. I just hope we find something soon. If there's anything else I can do, you let me know."

Lois nodded back. "I will. In the meantime, if you see any more lights in the loading docks after hours, would you call me?" She fumbled in her case for a business card and handed it to him. "My home number is on there, so you can call me anytime, okay?"

"Will do," he promised, tucking the card into a pocket. "I'll let you get back to your work now," he said, stepping back. "Thanks again."

"Thank *you.*" She bid him a polite farewell and turned back to the street to hail a taxi back to the Planet. She wanted to try to follow up on this lead today if possible, but she wasn't staying at the office all night.

You have a date tonight, Lane. She smiled wryly. Okay, it isn't a real date... but it's as close as you've come in a long time! Despite her apprehensions, she couldn't help but feel good about seeing Clark again. She wanted to believe he was real, crazy as it all seemed. And she wanted him to be the first person in the world to truly know her, everything about her. She closed her eyes and summoned up his smiling face once more, relishing the ability to truly remember him for the first time. She was going to bed early tonight.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Tonight the transition was almost seamless. He lay down in bed and closed his eyes, only to open them again almost immediately. It felt like blinking.

Clark found himself in his apartment, half-reclining on the couch, his legs stretched out on the cushions. The television was on; some forgettable sitcom chattered at him. He flicked through the channels idly, waiting impatiently for Lois's arrival.

He felt her presence a moment before she knocked, like a sudden sense of warmth or peace. A sense that all was right in their tiny world. Clark turned off the television and moved to answer the door.

Lois stood in the doorway for a long moment, taking him in. He was dressed fairly casually, in jeans and a cotton button-down shirt. Her eyes were drawn to his, locking there as she tried to absorb his features. She had remembered him this morning, but she wondered if her memory had done him justice. He was the most attractive man she had ever known, body and soul, and the knowledge made her want to step forward into his arms. He would let her, she knew that; his arms would enfold her, and then she could reach up and play with the hair at the back of his head, thread her fingers through it and guide his mouth to hers...

But she couldn't do that. Not yet. Despite their long- time acquaintance, she still felt she didn't know him, really know him. And therefore she couldn't really trust him, either, much as she wanted to.

So she didn't step into his embrace, though she allowed her eyes to convey to his her wish to do so, and the reasons for her hesitancy. There was understanding in his gaze, tender reassurance, and she relaxed a little under the caress of it.

He cleared his throat and stepped aside awkwardly, motioning toward the couch. "Hi, Lois," he said at last, unsure of how to greet her. "Come on in."

She dropped her eyes and complied, descending into the living room. She waited as he locked the door and came down to join her, her manner strangely reserved. "Make yourself comfortable," he said, wondering why she hadn't sat down. He moved to the couch and sat, as if to give her an example to follow.

That seemed to reassure her, and she moved to sit beside him, close but not quite touching. She smiled shyly at him, and he understood. He reached out tentatively and took her hand, and she shifted a little to face him. Her eyes were wide and bright, with a touch of apprehension behind them, but she didn't pull her hand away. Then her smile changed a little, became more wry, and she dropped her gaze. "I guess I owe you a life story," she said lightly, embarrassed.

He smiled gently and squeezed her hand. "That's right."

"Remind me why I'm telling you all of this?" she asked, stalling for time.

He laughed a little. "Because I want to get to know you. I want to know everything about you."

Lois nodded, laughing nervously. "Right. Everything. Okay..." She paused for a moment, gathering her thoughts. "Well, I'm twenty-nine years old; I'll be thirty in October. I live in Metropolis, and I'm an investigative reporter at the Daily Planet. I've worked there almost ten years now; I started as an intern in college and I hired on full time when I graduated."

"You studied journalism? Where did you go?"

"Metropolis University," she answered. "And yes, I studied journalism." She smiled fondly. "I was top of my class, you know."

He smiled back, delighted to see her opening up a little. He had worried for a moment there that she was going to simply rattle off the basic, statistical details of her life, trying to distract him from the deeper, more personal information he wanted. He didn't want her 'name, rank and serial number.' He wanted to *know* her, and he suspected that deep down she wanted that as well. He just wasn't sure how willing she would be to open herself up to him. "Top of your class, hmm?" he asked, with a carefully measured amount of disbelief in his voice.

"I *was!*" she insisted with a smile, swatting at him. "And I was editor of the university paper, too."

"I wouldn't expect anything less," he replied honestly, glad that she'd taken his teasing in the spirit it had been meant. She wasn't so unsure of him as to mistake his tone for cruelty, and he decided that was a very good sign.

"So after you got out of college, you went to work at the Planet?"

Lois nodded. "Perry offered me a job right away. And I won my first Kerth that same year."

"And you went into journalism so you could help people?" he asked, remembering what she'd said two nights ago.

Lois blushed a little. "Well, I know it isn't as helpful as a doctor or a cop or something. But I just didn't want to do those things. Daddy wanted me to be a doctor, but he put so much emphasis on it that I was just as determined not to do it. I didn't get along so well with my father," she admitted. "So I think I decided against medicine just to spite him. At least, that was part of it. But... I always liked journalism. I wanted to *know* everything. I wanted to get to the bottom of everything, all by myself."

Clark smiled, but he was distracted by something else she'd said. "You didn't get along with your father?"

Lois drew a deep breath. "Daddy was... he was difficult to be close to. He'd never wanted a daughter, but he got two of them. Lucy and I-- my younger sister-- were never quite good enough for him. He wanted a son to carry on the family name and practice. I think it really hurt him when neither of us wanted that."

She tilted her head and dropped her gaze, lost temporarily in her introspection. "Of course, he wasn't the best of role models, either. I mean, he and Mother never got along very well, either. I know he had at least a couple affairs, and I think that's what made Mother so depressed all the time. So he didn't exactly give us much of an example to aspire to. I mean, he's a fabulous doctor. But he wasn't a very good father, and he wasn't very happy. So why would I want to be that?"

Clark bit his lip. "I'm sorry," he said, knowing it couldn't help, but wanting to say it anyway.

She looked back up at him, startled out of her memories, though her eyes were shadowed with some emotion he couldn't decipher. "It's not *your* fault, Clark," she said matter- of-factly. "It's no one's fault but his."

Clark was surprised at the lack of anger or resentment in her voice, but he didn't push the matter any further. "So you grew up in Metropolis, too?"

Lois nodded, smiling. "Big city girl, born and bred," she affirmed. "I've lived my whole life here." She looked carefully at him. "I guess you haven't, have you? I mean, I think you must live in Metropolis now, because almost all of the dreams have taken place here for a while now. But you didn't grow up here, did you?"

Clark was mildly surprised by her insight. He hadn't expected to be on the receiving end of the questions tonight. But he wanted her to know him, to feel comfortable with him. So he supposed he should be doing as much sharing tonight as she was. "No," he admitted. "I mean, I live in Metropolis now, but I didn't always live here. I grew up in Kansas."

"Kansas?" she repeated. "How did you go from Kansas to Metropolis?"

"Well, I did it in small increments," he teased. "So I didn't go into shock or anything." He shrugged. "I did a lot of traveling before I settled down. I've told you that. So by the time I got to Metropolis, I was used to living in a lot of unusual places. But it is a big difference from Smallville," he conceded.

She nodded. "With a name like that, I guess it'd have to be!"

Now it was his turn to be good-naturedly indignant. "Hey, Smallville was a great place to live!"

"I believe you," she said, raising a placating hand. "Do your parents still live there?"

He dropped his gaze. "They died," he replied. "When I was ten. Actually, it's almost exactly twenty-one years now."

Her eyes flew open wide. "Oh, Clark, I'm sorry!"

"It's not your fault, Lois," he said, repeating her words. "It was a long time ago. It doesn't hurt so much anymore."

"Well, still... I mean, my family wasn't so great, but it was better than nothing. What happened to you after that?"

Clark shrugged. "I went to a lot of different foster homes... I stayed with my aunt and uncle for a while, but they couldn't really afford to support me. But I stayed in or near Smallville, and most of the people were nice enough to me. I just didn't quite fit in anywhere."

"Oh, Clark," she repeated, reaching across to take his other hand. "I'm sorry."

"Hey, it's okay," he said. "I'm okay."

They lapsed into silence for a moment, unsure of how to continue the conversation. At last Clark changed the subject. "So you're twenty-nine years old," he commented. "And you've been dreaming about... me... since you were fourteen?"

She nodded. "Yeah. And you said the dreams started when you were sixteen. That makes you..." She did the math in her head. "Thirty-one?"

Clark nodded back. "So we've been... connected for fifteen years?

Lois smiled fondly. "Fifteen years... And at least nine dreams a year. Usually more."

He smiled, too, remembering some of those. "We had some beautiful times, didn't we?"

She laughed. "And some strange ones... I used to keep a journal of them, you know. I have all of them written down, except this last week. After the first two or three, when I realized you might become a regular player in my dreams, I started to keep track of them. That's part of what helped me realize they were cyclical."

"I didn't do anything like that. I wish I had," Clark answered wistfully. "I'd like to read it."

"Someday," she said softly, "maybe you will."

Clark dropped his gaze and didn't answer. There was no point in reminding her that the journal existed only in her world, and he had no way to get there. Besides, in a way she was right. Perhaps, in one of their dreams, he could read it someday. Wouldn't that be ridiculous? Reading about your dreams in a dream?

"I remember the first week of them," he said, steering the conversation away from the journal. "You were so young... We both were, I guess. But I thought you were the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen."

"Since then, of course, you've realized the error of your ways," she commented cynically; her tone was teasing but Clark suspected there was a hidden question in her criticism. Was she testing him, testing his feelings for her?

"Since then, Lois, I'm more convinced every night," he replied softly, letting the emotion bleed through into his voice.

She blushed and looked down at their joined hands. "Oh, Clark..."

Sensing he'd reassured her of his sincerity, and not wanting to make her uncomfortable, he backed off. "And you were smart, and feisty, and I was amazed that you wanted anything to do with me."

"Well, I thought you were handsome," she countered, a little more relaxed now. "And you certainly were strong," she teased. "You won that bear for me pretty easily!" She was silent for a moment, her gaze turning inward once more. "You were such a gentleman," she mused. "And in your arms... I felt safe. Even at fourteen, I wanted that. More than anything."

Clark squeezed her hands again. "You *are* safe with me," he whispered firmly. "I would never hurt you."

Lois's eyes focused on his, and she smiled a little. "I guess I know that, Clark," she admitted. "I guess I'm just more skittish than most."

"That's okay," he said. "We have all the time in the world."

She nodded, almost absently, as her thoughts went back to those first few adolescent dreams. "We had such fun back then. Not that we don't have fun now," she hastened to add, "but it was different then. Innocent, I guess. At least, for a while."

Clark understood. "We were young," he repeated. "I hadn't had any real romantic relationships by then. So everything you and I did was new. Just being out together, alone, was something new for me. And, in dreams, you don't have the same inhibitions you would have in life. You're less vulnerable, because dreams are safe. So you let yourself do... anything you want to do, innocent or not."

Lois flushed again, remembering the first intimate dream they'd had. "A safe way to yield to the lure of the forbidden?"

Clark shook his head with a laugh. "The lure of the most beautiful, the most desirable woman I'd ever met!"

She laughed a little, embarrassed. "Well, you weren't so bad yourself... You were the only boy-- man-- I'd ever responded to that way. It was a little scary," she admitted, "the strength of what I felt for you. And sad, knowing I couldn't ever be with you the way I wanted."

Clark opened his mouth, ready once more to lead them away from the pain and regret she was steering toward, but Lois changed the subject on her own. She gave a nervous laugh. "It's embarrassing now," she said, "knowing you saw all those dreams of mine. A real person, watching them all."

"I wasn't just watching," he reminded her. "They were my dreams too. I wanted them-- enjoyed them-- as much as you did." He laughed wryly, shaking his head. "If you only knew how badly I wanted them."

She looked up sharply, a flash of fear or uncertainty in her eyes, and he smiled. "I don't mean now," he assured her gently, a touch of mild humor in his tone. "I only meant that you shouldn't be embarrassed about them. They were something we both wanted."

She bit her lip. "I'm sorry," she said softly. "It's just that I'm still trying to absorb all of this. That you could be a real person, and that I've been dreaming of you, with you, for fifteen years. It's not that I don't care for you. I love you. You're so good at saying that to me, and I can't say it nearly so well."

"It's okay," he assured her. "Listen, Lois, if I seem to have accepted all this easily, it's only because I've been waiting for you, searching for you, my whole life. I'll believe anything I have to. But I still have to get used to it all, too. From here on out, we're back in unexplored territory. Everything is new again. I want to take the time to move forward slowly, and I want to give you all the time you need to get comfortable again.

"I still want to be close to you," he admitted, daring to raise a hand and cup her cheek gently in his palm. "To touch you, and to hold you, and to kiss you. But we have plenty of time for all of that."

"I know," she said, closing her eyes and leaning into his touch. "At least five more nights."

"That's right," he affirmed, though he didn't like to think of it that way. Five nights didn't seem like much time at all. "So for now we should just get to know one another. For having been friends for fifteen years, we don't know much at all."

Lois, reassured once more, frowned a moment. "Fifteen years," she repeated. "I wonder what made the dreams start then?"

"Well," Clark answered thoughtfully, "Maybe that's when we needed them." He frowned, trying to explain. "I mean, we didn't really need that sort of relationship when we were kids. But at some point you start looking for a... a partner, I guess. A soulmate. And we couldn't find that in our own worlds. So maybe we dream to assuage that need."

She nodded, considering. "I guess that makes sense," she conceded. "But... it sounded like you needed a companion when you were ten. Why couldn't I have been there for you then?"

"You're here for me now," he answered. "That's more than enough."

She smiled a little, and scooted a bit closer to him, pressing her body into his side. "I'll always be there for you, Clark," she whispered.

Clark put his arm around her shoulders, pulling her in close against him. "And I'll be there for you," he promised, dropping a kiss on the top of her head.

They sat thus for a long moment, growing reaccustomed to the feeling of being close. At long last Lois sighed sadly. "It's time to go, isn't it?" she asked, frustration clear in her voice.

Clark nodded; he had felt it too. She closed her eyes tightly, burrowing into his shoulder, as if she could postpone the inevitable. "Lois," he chided softly. "Come here."

She raised her face to his, her eyes hesitant but wistful. Clark reached out and gently lifted her to his lap, wrapping his arms around her. She laid her head against his chest and closed her eyes once more, sinking into his warmth and trying to memorize the sensation. He buried his lips once more in her hair, his arms tightening as the apartment darkened.

"Love you," he heard her say, and then she was gone.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

CHAPTER FIVE

"Love is not love, which alters when it alteration finds."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

APRIL 20TH, 1997

METROPOLIS, NEW TROY

[ALTWORLD 2]

Sunday morning dawned bright and clear, as if to match her mood. As she drove to work, Lois allowed her mind to drift. It had been strange to be so open with someone, even if he wasn't really in her life. But it had felt good, too, in a way she hadn't expected. Clark had been so understanding, so accepting; she just wasn't used to being able to trust anyone so fully. But he made no secret of his feelings for her, his admiration, his attraction. Never had she heard scorn or derision in his voice, and never had his manner been anything but gentlemanly, if teasing. Never had his eyes slid over her the way David Campbell's would have, in appraisal or evaluation. And, as she'd confessed to him, in his arms she felt safe, safer than anywhere she'd ever found in her waking world.

He hadn't said he lived in Metropolis, but he hadn't denied it when she asked. And she knew he was a reporter. She wondered if he worked for the Daily Planet of his world. Parking her jeep and making her way through the parking garage, she let herself fantasize about what it would be like to work with him everyday. She didn't usually work with a partner unless Perry insisted, but she thought she'd make an exception for Clark. She wondered what it might be like, tossing ideas back and forth, having him as her partner on a stakeout or in an interview, fighting good- naturedly over the wording of their latest story....

And stealing a kiss or two when no one was looking, she thought with a laugh. Yes, she mused, it would be very nice indeed. It would never happen, she knew, but it was a nice daydream. Anyway, at the very least they had five more nights together. All things considered, that was more than she'd ever expected to have.

"Lois! In my office!"

"Coming, Perry," she called to her editor, smiling to herself. Today felt like a good day.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Lois stared at the various records scattered across her desk. After briefing Perry about the status of her investigation, she'd gone through the folder and sorted the pages carefully by date. She'd found three invoices with times in the middle of the night. The first was from the night Samuel Hathoway had died; another was a week prior, and the third dated just a few nights ago, probably the night Gary had seen the lights in the loading dock.

Further study revealed that each invoice was issued by the same trucking company, although none of the daytime shipments had gone through it. The drivers had been different each time, unless the signatures were false, but all three deliveries had gone to the same address.

She turned to her computer and typed the address into an online street guide. As she'd suspected, it was in the Waterfront District. A search on another site revealed that it was a private dock owned by an overseas shipping company.

The second signature on one of the invoices was another clue; while the other two were rather illegible, a Captain James Tyler had received and signed for the most recent shipment. Searching for Tyler had been less successful, so on her way to lunch she gave the name to Jimmy. If she was lucky, he'd have something useful by the time she got back.

Because it was Sunday, Lois wasn't really required to come to work, and could thus take as long a lunch break as she wanted. She planned to use the time wisely, although she wasn't sure how much could be done today. She stopped for a sandwich at a nearby caf‚, and then set out for the Metropolis Public Library.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

She stared at the map in her hand, not sure what to make of it. She'd gone through three different atlases to find one detailed enough, but in the end she'd found what she was looking for: Smallville, Kansas.

So it existed, even in her own world. She knew that didn't really prove anything, but it was as close to proof as she had. She hadn't dreamed it up, at least not that part of it. She wasn't sure how to react to that finding; while it was somewhat of a relief, it felt strangely... final. If she looked up Clark Kent, and discovered he really was dead, there was no going back.

Of course, it sounded like he lives in Metropolis now, she reminded herself. You'd be able to find him here, if he existed in this world. But she'd found no listing for Clark Kent in any phone book, nor in the public records for the last few years, not even for a driver's license or voter registration.

The librarian looked up the name of the Smallville newspaper for her, but the Post was too small a paper to be carried by the Metropolitan library. Instead, the librarian advised her to check the online archives for the information she wanted, and offered her use of one of the public computers. For such a small publication, the Post's website was remarkably well developed and organized, but when she searched the archives for his name, she came up empty. The online archives currently only went back to 1990, so Lois supposed there might be mention of him before then.

Frustrated, Lois logged off the computer. She'd hit another dead end. Short of going to Kansas to check public records there, she wasn't sure what else to do. She didn't have any contacts in Kansas that might owe her favors, either. Frowning, Lois jotted down the phone number of the Smallville Post's office, and on a whim she looked up the number of the local library as well. Perhaps someone would be willing to check for her, she thought as she headed back to the Planet.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

That night, as she lay in bed, Lois pulled out her dream journal. It took her nearly two hours to record the last four nights' worth of dreams. Usually she wouldn't have waited so long to do it, but those last few dreams had been difficult to handle. After Thursday night, when Clark had pulled away from their kisses in the rain, she hadn't felt like recording that. It was too painful. And after the confusing revelations of the following night, she hadn't wanted to write anything down until things became clearer. But she couldn't put it off any longer, if she wanted to be able to remember things in detail.

When she was finished, she flipped randomly through the pages. This was only the latest in her dream journals, covering the last few years. She rummaged through the small stack of them under her bed until she found the first. It was a red spiral-bound notebook with her name printed across the cover in black marker; she'd bought it after the third or fourth dream and started recording them. She hid it under her mattress at first, wary of Lucy's prying eyes, and then took to slipping it in among the textbooks and such on her shelves. On lonely nights, she'd take it out and read from it.

Like tonight, although she wasn't feeling too lonely just now. She knew she had only to close her eyes and dream. But tonight she had a few questions on her mind. She allowed herself to read a few random passages before she actively began to search for what she wanted. In the entries for 1984, she found it.

In April of that year, they'd dreamed of flying.

That wasn't the only time, either; she thumbed through the pages, counting. Six times in this journal alone, and probably twice as many in the next. At the time it had been easy to dismiss them as fanciful. You could do whatever you wanted in dreams, right? Flying wasn't an uncommon theme, she knew, but in light of her most recent discoveries, it seemed a strange one for her dreams with Clark. Their dreams had always been fairly realistic. Although at times she had found herself in unusual or unfamiliar locations-- she supposed some of them had been Smallville, and others the places he'd traveled-- the settings had always seemed normal and earthly.

But once in a while they'd flown through the night skies. Clark had gathered her into his arms, cradling her against his chest, and held her close as he lifted gently into the air. She turned to another page and read of floating in the clouds and then higher, into the star-dazzled darkness. Of chasing the sun as it drowned in the ocean, and aerial kisses against the sky.

The first time, she was pretty sure he'd been wearing a t- shirt and jeans, but she vaguely remembered something blue, skintight, more recently. She turned back to the most recent journal and checked. Yes, something soft and sleek and blue, and a red silken cape streaming off his shoulders. What had that been?

She frowned a little, considering, then laid the journals aside and reached over to flip off the bedside lamp. It was time to sleep. Clark had a lot of questions to answer tonight!

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

APRIL 20TH, 1997

METROPOLIS, NEW TROY

[ALTWORLD 1]

Clark arrived at the bistro ten minutes early, but Lucy Lane had beaten him anyway. He had no difficulty in recognizing her, though he hadn't seen her in a year; with her dark hair and pretty, expressive eyes it was very easy to see she was Lois's sister. He waved the hostess politely away, pointing at the young woman waiting for him, and made his way through the crowded restaurant.

"Nice to see you again, Miss Lane," he said, extending a hand in greeting.

"Lane-Rosen," she corrected, taking his hand and shaking it firmly. "Paul and I got married last fall."

"Congratulations," he replied sincerely. "I'm sure you'll be very happy together." Clark was vaguely acquainted with Paul Rosen, a doctor in the emergency room at Metropolis General, as he was often dropping in unexpectedly there with rescue victims.

She nodded distractedly, looking down at her menu. They were silent for a few moments until the waitress returned and took their lunch orders. Then Clark turned his attention to the dark-haired woman before him, a touch of apprehension in his expression. "I was a little surprised you were willing to see me," he admitted.

She took a deep breath and then met his eyes unflinchingly. "The first time you called me, last year, I didn't believe you really wanted to find my sister at all."

Clark was mildly surprised at that, although he'd suspected it was something along those lines. "Why? Why would I look for her if I didn't want to find her?"

Lucy gave him an acerbic smile. "I believe you wanted to find *someone,*" she corrected him. "The Lois Lane you'd fallen in love with. Not my sister."

Clark gave a sigh. It looked as if Corrie had been more right than he realized; his feelings for Lois must have been very transparent indeed. "Lucy, my feelings for that woman notwithstanding, I wanted very much to find your sister. Whatever happened to her, it shouldn't have. I want to bring her justice, even if that's all I can do at this point."

Lucy looked at him for a long moment, considering. "You love her, don't you? The imposter Lois? How can I believe that you aren't looking for my sister so she can be *her* for you?"

Clark shook his head. "I *was* in love with her," he admitted. "But I'm not in love with her anymore. She was engaged, you know," he confided after a moment's pause. "She didn't want me. And I know now that she wasn't what I needed, either. So I'm not looking to replace her, if that's what you're asking.

"But even if I were," he continued, a little more firmly, "what difference does it make? If I can find your sister, or even just find the people who did this to her, what does it matter why I did it?"

Lucy frowned, dropping her gaze. At last she looked back at him, and nodded a little. "You're right," she admitted reluctantly. "I guess it doesn't really matter much at all."

"So you'll help me?"

She sighed. "I miss my sister," she said softly. "I'll help you in any way I can."

On impulse, Clark took her hand gently in his own. "I appreciate that, Lucy."

She nodded almost absently, her eyes focused once more on the tablecloth, her fingers limp in his. "Lois was the best, you know," she said at last. "She got any story she wanted. I used to think she was charmed or something."

Clark nodded. Not charmed, Lucy. Just very good at what she did.

"But she was a very private person, too. Half the time even I didn't know what she was working on, and I lived with her. I used to worry about her, as closed up as she was. I thought she'd never be happy, if she went on that way."

Lucy shook her head, remembering. "She was writing a novel, you know. She'd kill me if she knew I was telling you about it," she continued, laughing a little, bitterly. "A novel about a woman who died without ever finding love. I used to tell her that wasn't going to happen to her." Lucy looked up at him, her brown eyes glassy with unshed tears. "I guess I was wrong, wasn't I?"

Clark squeezed her fingers, secondhand pain blossoming in him as he realized what guilt and sorrow Lucy Lane still carried with her. And how utterly alone her sister Lois had been in life and death. "You couldn't have known," he said, his voice abruptly hollow. "You couldn't have known."

Lucy shook her head, wiping the tears from her eyes before they escaped down her cheeks. "It doesn't matter. She still died alone."

Clark wanted to tell her that they didn't know that, that Lois might still be alive somewhere, but deep down he knew that wasn't likely. Deep down he knew false hope was not what Lucy needed right now. "I'm sorry," he said sincerely. "I wish I could have stopped it from happening."

Lucy shook her head more vehemently. "It doesn't matter now," she said resolutely. "What matters now is that the-- " She struggled for a moment with her language. "--the people who did this to her are stopped."

Clark nodded. "And that's what I want. But I need your help. Is there anything you can tell me, anything at all, that the cops and the FBI might not have known about? Something you might have forgotten?"

Lucy shook her head. "I told them everything I knew. Can you get the files from them?"

Clark shook his head in frustration. "I have some contacts high-up in the bureau, but they're all out of the office for the weekend. I'll try to talk to them tomorrow and see if there's something they can do for me. But until then you'll have to tell me everything yourself."

Lucy nodded. "I can do that," she agreed, "but maybe it would be better to do it at my apartment. And I guess you could look at Lois's old notebooks and things. They probably won't tell you anything; the FBI went over them all with a fine-toothed comb and they never found anything worthwhile. But you can look, if you want."

At that moment, their waitress returned with their orders. Clark nodded politely at her, then turned his attention back to Lucy. "That would be great. I'm not sure I'll see anything the FBI didn't see the first time around, but it's certainly worth a shot. I've arranged to get the backup of her work computer, too. Did she have a home computer that might have any information on it?"

Lucy shook her head. "She had a laptop, but she took it with her to the Congo, so we don't know what happened to it."

Clark frowned. He had a feeling that the laptop would have had Lois's most up-to-date notes on it, but there was nothing he could do about it. He'd have to make do with what he had, though he wasn't sure he would find any leads the FBI hadn't already followed four years ago. And even if he did, four years was a long time; surely the trail was cold by now. He tried to quash those feelings of discouragement, but he wasn't entirely successful.

"Well, that sounds like a good start," he said, his voice sounding far more optimistic than he felt. "We can finish lunch here, and then head over to your apartment to look at Lois's notes. And then we'll just have to see where we can go from there." He smiled a little. "In the meantime, why don't you tell me about your sister?"

She looked up from her food, which she'd been absently picking at. "You want to know about Lois? Why?"

Clark shrugged. "She sounds like someone I'd have liked to know. And she was the best reporter the Planet's ever seen."

Lucy looked surprised at that, but she didn't deny the sentiment. "Yes, she certainly was. Okay, I'll tell you about her. But in return, you have to tell me about yourself."

Now it was Clark's turn to be surprised. "Why me?"

Lucy smiled back, traces of both sadness and amusement in her eyes. "You sound like someone she'd have liked to know. And you're the best superhero the planet's ever seen."

He laughed in spite of himself, then nodded his agreement. "Okay," he said, his smile growing. "I'll tell you about myself, and you can tell me about Lois."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Clark settled the box of books and papers on his coffee table. True to her word, Lucy had told him everything she knew about Lois's disappearance four years ago, and provided him with all of her sister's old notebooks. He'd borrowed those for further study, as he hadn't wanted to take up Lucy's time while he read through them.

It had been more difficult than he'd expected, however, just to hear about Lois and the way she lived and died. Even though he'd never known her, never met her, he felt connected to her. Somewhere deep down, he still harbored the secret thought that she should have been his.

Although, he reflected, she wasn't who he'd dreamed of. Lucy's story had proven that. His Lois had grown up in a dysfunctional family, her mother depressed and apathetic, her father absent and over-dedicated to his work. The Lois of this world had been similarly alone, but for different reasons.

"Mom and Dad weren't the perfect couple," Lucy had said later, at the apartment, "but they could have given them a run for their money. Daddy was a doctor, one of the best, and Mother was his assistant. They spent long hours together at the lab or the hospital, or just being together. That meant me and Lois were home by ourselves pretty often."

Lucy had smiled sadly, her eyes falling to the couch cushions at her side, her fingers absently tracing the patterned fabric. "She used to try so hard to get their attention. She was top of her class, got a full ride to college... But it was never quite enough. I guess they were just a little bit too wrapped up in their work, and each other, to see either of us."

He hadn't missed the pain in Lucy's voice either, but it seemed less dynamic, less bitter. He wondered if she had lived in Lois's shadow in all things: feeling the same emotions, the same pain, to a lesser degree. The passion that had driven Lois, the anger and the hurt, were less volatile in her sister, but he suspected as he watched her that they were still present and active. Yes, it was easy to see they were sisters, both physically and emotionally; they were painted with the same brush.

He sighed and lifted one of the notebooks off the stack in the box. After spending the afternoon reminiscing with Lucy, he was strangely reluctant to begin reading through the evidence she'd provided him. It had been an easy day for him, very few rescues to perform and no major emergencies. But his heart was heavy, and he did not think he had the strength to read about Lois tonight.

He was also acutely aware, after today's discussion, of how difficult this investigation was going to be. He had no leads yet, and anything he found would be four years old. He was certain that the FBI would have been very thorough with the case, and he wasn't sure that he'd be able to find anything they hadn't seen. Yesterday, he'd been so confident about this case; today, he could see how na‹ve that was.

He'd looked for Lois last year, too. His world had been in turmoil, his secret exposed, his emotions raw and chaotic. Lana had left him; Lois had deserted him.... He'd been hurt and angry, and self-righteously he'd decided that the Lois of his own world must belong to him, as the first Lois had belonged to her own Clark. His search had been clumsy and disorganized; he'd flown over the whole of the Congo Basin, scoured the jungles and the villages alike. He hadn't had the presence of mind to mount an orderly and systematic investigation, and Lucy's refusal to talk to him had only fueled his anger and his impatience. Instead, he'd been brash and overconfident, and when he found nothing he was uncharacteristically frustrated and outraged. He'd turned his back on the search and on Lois, and he'd thrust himself into his work instead, trying to resign himself to his loneliness...

But still the dreams came, a tiny handful of them scattered throughout the year, at once a gentle reassurance that she belonged with him and a harsh reminder that he did not have her. As wonderful as the last four nights had been, he still didn't have her. And, as wonderful as the last four nights had been, they also seemed to be proof that he would never have her. Even if his search was miraculously successful, and he found the Lois Lane of this world alive and unharmed, she wasn't meant for him. She wasn't who he wanted anymore. The woman for him was the woman he dreamed of, an apparition he could never truly have.

Clark laid the notebook aside, too depressed and exhausted to read it tonight. The investigation would have to wait until tomorrow. For tonight, he very badly needed to see Lois. He rose from the couch and headed for the bedroom.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

For a moment she felt suspended between her two realities. She was aware first of the gentle movement of cool air on her skin, the humid, saline scent of water and the rhythm of waves on wood. Then, so light she half-thought she'd imagined it, the touch of his hands on her upper arms. They moved soothingly over her shoulders, then trailed down to her clasped hands, enfolding them in his own and pulling her backwards into his embrace.

She felt him lean down to kiss her temple, and opened her eyes to look up into his smiling face. Lois smiled back, shifting to pull his arms closer around her, crossed beneath her breasts. "Hi, Clark," she said softly, feeling a little shy at the easy intimacy between them, but luxuriating in the closeness of his body, the strength in his arms around her.

"Hello, Lois," he replied warmly, tightening his arms about her in a gentle hug. They stood motionless for a moment, watching the lazy movements of the tide against the dock where they stood. The lights of the city were reflected in the uneven dark of the water, and she imagined she could see the pinprick stars echoed there as well.

The stars... A faded memory flashed through her mind, an image of the two of them floating effortlessly among those stars, his arms close and tight around her, a scarlet swathe of silk wrapped about her body to ward off the chill... She flushed a little, remembering, but she reminded herself that she would have to ask him about that.

But for right now, it felt too good simply to be with him. She didn't want to spoil that just yet with questions and conversation. Apparently Clark was of the same mind, because he sighed contentedly and lowered his head to bury his face in the crown of her head; she could feel his smile. She closed her eyes once more, leaning back, entwining her fingers through his.

There was something very comforting about this relaxed physical affection between them, and each of them were pleased at the ease with which it had been achieved. For Lois, it simply felt good to be near him, in his arms, warm and safe and beloved. And, she was surprised to find, she was a little relieved that he had not tried to parlay that innocent contact into something more intimate. She had believed him the night before about taking things slowly, but it was reassuring to have this tangible expression of his patience.

Clark, for his part, was pleasantly surprised at the sudden closeness between them, and surprised too at the relief he felt at it. She'd told him twice that she loved him, the night before, but a part of him had been hard-pressed to fully accept that. Part of him had still been unsure, uncertain of her feelings and hesitant to expose his own any further. But the comfortable way she melted against him, the simple pleasure he saw in her face, was reassuring beyond measure. He closed his eyes and absorbed the sensation of her in his arms.

At long last he drew reluctantly away; much as he'd enjoyed that, he did want a chance to talk to her again tonight. He'd hate to miss that opportunity when they had only four nights left.

Four nights for now, he reminded himself. You'll have other dreams throughout the year. But for some reason, he felt a disturbing sense of finality about the dreams, as if four nights might really be all they had.

"So," he said, as much to disturb his train of thought as to break the silence between them. "How are you?"

She laughed at his mundane question. "I'm fine, Clark; how are you?"

He smiled sheepishly. "Good. Did you do anything interesting today?"

Lois shrugged, stepping forward and out of his embrace to lead him to the end of the dock. She was dressed casually, in shorts and sneakers, and as she spoke she sat down on the wooden planks and began to pull off her shoes and socks. "Nothing much," she said. "It was a slow day. I just did some research for some things I'm working on. Did you do anything?"

Clark hesitated; he should have known she would ask if he brought up the subject. "I had lunch with Lucy Lane," he admitted. He didn't want to talk about the Lois who had died, but he didn't want to lie, either.

Lois's face registered surprise. "Really? There's a Lucy Lane in your world?"

"Yes. Well, she said Lucy Lane-Rosen now; she just got married."

"To... Paul Rosen? They just got married? But my Lucy's been married for two years now. Three this fall." She laughed, folding her socks into her shoes and setting them aside. "Lucy always said she'd never be a doctor, but maybe Daddy'd be satisfied if she married one."

Clark laughed as well, idly wondering if the Lucy of his own world had ever voiced the same sentiment.

"So why were you having lunch with her? Should I be jealous?"

Surprised that she might think he was involved with Lucy-- and guiltily pleased that she might see him as someone to be jealous over-- he glanced down at her, but found only good-natured teasing in her eyes. "Actually, I was talking to her about her Lois. I'm trying to figure out what happened to her," he explained, sitting down beside her to slip his own casual shoes off.

Lois frowned as she scooted forward on the dock to let her feet hang over the edge in the water. "I thought you said she died."

"She probably did," he affirmed, following her lead and letting his legs dangle. "She was investigating a story. But we never found her body, and no one knows what happened. I don't think I can find her, but I might be able to figure out who killed her."

Lois watched him carefully as he explained, trying to examine his expression, then slid awkwardly over to sit closer to him and take his hand. "You never met her?"

Clark shook his head. "She died about a year before I came to the Planet. I had heard of her, of course-- she had been at the Planet for a while before I got there. But she disappeared in 1993, and I didn't start at the Planet until '95."

Lois nodded, leaning her head into his shoulder and lacing her arm low about his waist, then admitted, "I looked up the Clark Kent of my world today, too."

He pulled back to see her face, surprised. Even though he'd known there had been a Lois Lane in his own world, it had never really occurred to him that there must be a Clark Kent in hers. For an instant he wondered if she would be able to find that Clark, and he would be alone again.

"I didn't find him," she continued, unaware of his anxiety but soothing it nonetheless. "I did find Smallville, on a map." She shook her head. "But I couldn't find anything about the Kent family, or Clark himself. What does that mean, do you think?"

Clark shrugged, leaning into her loose embrace. "I don't know. I guess it would be hard to get information about him, if he's still in Smallville. But he could be anywhere. I mean, I traveled a lot before I came to the Planet. Maybe he's still traveling."

"Maybe," she conceded. "But I don't think so. I think... maybe... he's dead, like your Lois. I think I've always known that." She sighed softly, her eyes falling to rest on the rocking water below them. "It's hard, isn't it? To be alone, and to keep dreaming..." She trailed off, but he understood.

"Shh," he said softly, pulling his hand from hers so he could loop his arm about her shoulders. "It doesn't help to talk about that. It only makes us miserable, and I don't want to spend my time with you feeling miserable."

She looked up at him, smiling a little, and nodded. "You're right. I don't want to waste it that way, either."

Clark smiled gently back, his arm tightening a little in a brief hug. He wondered what else he could say to change the subject, but Lois beat him to it.

"Anyway, I researched something else today, too," she said with a little smile. "I went through my old dream journals."

"Yeah?" he asked. "Did you read anything interesting?" He fervently wished he could see those journals, to read her thoughts and her reactions, to see their dreams-- and himself-- through her eyes.

She smiled enigmatically. "Well, actually, I did."

He frowned, a bit puzzled by her answer. "What was it?"

"Well, all our dreams have been pretty realistic. I mean, we dream about Metropolis, or Smallville, or some city you're traveling to, right?"

Clark thought back. "Yes," he said slowly. "I think we dream about places where one of us is. We dreamed about other cities, but only when I was there."

Lois nodded; she hadn't known for sure, as she hadn't known his schedule, but she had suspected as much. "And we dream about realistic events, too," she continued. "Fairs, dates, dinner, stuff like that."

Clark nodded, conceding that as well, but he was beginning to wonder where she was going with all of this.

As if she could read his mind, Lois flashed him a triumphant smile that told him she knew exactly where she was going with it. "But once in a while," she finished pointedly, "we dream about flying."

She watched his reaction carefully, but he only blinked in surprise, shook his head, and began to laugh.

"What?" she asked, beginning to feel as if she'd missed something.

"Nothing," he reassured her, pulling away so he could see her. "You're brilliant, you know that?"

"I may have heard it once or twice before," she admitted with a grin. "But you still haven't explained the flying."

He sobered somewhat. "Well, that's sort of a long story."

She frowned a little, hurt by his apparent reluctance to confide in her. "Well, Clark, I told you a few 'long stories' yesterday," she snapped, her tone a bit more accusatory than she'd intended.

Clark took her hands quickly in his own, his expression conciliatory. "I'm going to tell you," he assured her. "I'll tell you everything, Lois, because that's the kind of relationship I want. I'm just trying to organize my thoughts a little, okay? It *is* a pretty long-- and strange-- story. Just give me a minute to think it through."

She nodded, mollified by the sincerity in his voice and eyes, and feeling a little sheepish for jumping on him so quickly. He was right-- they both wanted a relationship based on honesty, as much of a relationship as they could have this way. And, she reflected, he probably really could use the thinking time; this would have to be a very unusual story indeed.

At last he drew a deep breath. "Okay," he began. "Did I ever tell you I'm adopted?"

She shook her head, surprised at this apparently unrelated revelation.

He nodded. "Well, I was. My parents-- the Kents-- were never able to have children of their own. But one night, on their way home, they saw what looked like a shooting star. And when they stopped to check it out, they just found a-- a little spaceship. And inside was a baby."

Lois simply stared at him, her eyes wide as she absorbed that information and its implications. "They found you in a *spaceship,* Clark? Are you kidding?"

He smiled sardonically. "It's no stranger than two people meeting only in dreams," he commented.

Lois frowned, though she had to concede that their situation was pretty difficult to believe, too. "So... they found you in this spaceship and they just took you home, no questions asked?"

Clark shrugged. "Well, the space program was just starting to be big news back then. There were all sorts of experiments, both in the United States and around the world. So they thought I might have been some sort of experiment or something. They could see I'd been abandoned, at any rate. They weren't going to just leave me there. They pretended I was really their son, and they got me a birth certificate and everything.

"But... as it turns out, I wasn't an experiment," Clark continued slowly, watching Lois's reactions. "As I got older, I started to notice that I wasn't really... like other kids. By the time I was ten, I was starting to be just a little bit faster, a little bit stronger, than everyone else. I didn't know what it meant at first, and that was really scary. I didn't know if I was an alien, or a mutant, or what. And then Mom and Dad..." He paused, his eyes clouding at the memory. "It was really hard for a while there... But when I was about sixteen I found out.

"See, there was a little glass globe in the spaceship with me, and when I touched it, it used to glow. When I was sixteen, it started to... talk to me, too. It would sort of show little movies, messages from my birth parents."

"And they were... from another planet?" Lois asked hesitantly. He'd said he wasn't an experiment, and she couldn't find any other conclusion if he'd been found in a spaceship.

Clark nodded, his nervousness rising steadily as he watched her. "Yeah. They were from Krypton, they said, but the planet was dying. It was going to explode. They didn't have time to build a ship to carry the three of us to safety. So they just built a little one for me, and they sent me off to Earth."

Lois blinked, her brain trying to take in all of this new information. "So... they sent you away and they all died? You're the only one who lived?"

"I think so," he confirmed uneasily, unsure what her reaction meant. She didn't seem upset or repulsed, but he could tell she hadn't fully absorbed it all yet.

"So that makes you... a Kryptonian?"

"Yes," he answered, biting his lip. Would that bother her? The other Lois had never expressed any revulsion for him because of his heritage, but he was certainly learning that each Lois so far had been a very different person.

"And you can fly?"

He relaxed a little. She'd moved over that topic pretty easily and gone back to the evidence of his powers. "Yeah," he admitted with a small smile. "By the time I was seventeen or so, I knew I was a lot stronger and faster than everyone else, and I was starting to be invulnerable. I don't get sick or hurt. And when I was eighteen, I learned to fly."

"Wow..." she said, dropping her gaze to the water again as she thought it all over. He was an alien. He'd come to Earth in a spaceship. He was faster and stronger than a normal person. And he could fly!

"So you're pretty strong," she repeated. "How strong, exactly? And how fast?"

Clark relaxed a bit more; he suspected it might be fun to show off for her sometime. "I've never found anything I couldn't bend or break. And I can fly around the world in just a few minutes." He was tempted to do something flashy, like flying off and bringing back a lump of coal to crush into a diamond, but he didn't want to overwhelm her. "And I can see through most things," he admitted, deciding reluctantly that it was best if all the revelations came at once. "Everything but lead. And I can heat things with my eyes, too."

"Show me," she demanded; there was a hint of challenge in her voice, but the fascination in her eyes told him she already believed him.

He focused his eyes on the water below, pointing, and stared intently until a small patch began to boil and give off steam. It was as effective a demonstration as he needed; Lois gave a small gasp of surprise, and turned to him with wide eyes. "You did that?"

He nodded. She seemed to be taking this all very well indeed. Maybe too well? "Yeah. Lois, are you-- are you okay with all of this?"

Lois shrugged, shaking her head in bewilderment. "What can I say? It's a lot to take in," she admitted. "I mean, a *lot.* If ever I was tempted to doubt that you were a real person, this would be the time to do it. This is most definitely more like a dream than reality."

"Lois, no," he protested immediately, reaching out to cup her face gently in his hands. "You aren't dreaming this. It's real; *I'm* real. You have to believe that."

"I do, Clark," she said, raising one hand to lie over his. "But you have to admit, this is definitely a strange thing to learn."

His stomach tightened; her voice was hesitant, unsure. "But... not *too* strange?" he asked, hope and panic mingled in his tone. "I mean, you-- you and I..." He trailed off, unwilling even to voice his fear that she might reject him over this.

It took her a moment to work out what was bothering him, but there was insecurity in his eyes, and a large amount of fear. He was afraid? Afraid that she'd find this too strange, too much to accept? She almost laughed at the thought. Even if she did, what could she do about it? Stop caring for him, loving him? She didn't think so.

And, she realized with some surprise, it *wasn't* too much. Neither of them had understated; this was indeed a very unusual story, and a difficult one to believe. But he had a point: they were two real people meeting in dreams. She'd managed to accept that, without proof of any kind; though it had been a lot to swallow, it had also been the only conclusion she could draw. So why should this be any harder? His story made sense, and there was certainly more scientific support for aliens than for a link like theirs. Despite what she'd said, she still believed that he was real, their dreams were real. So if she'd accepted that, she had some 'proof' that his story was true as well. She'd seen that water boil; she'd *flown* with him, for goodness' sake!

And, she admitted with a small smile, she'd love to do that again sometime.

So was it too much to take in? Enough so that she wouldn't want to be with him, given half a chance?

She pressed her hand a bit more firmly against his. "What, Clark, so strange that I'm not going to be your friend anymore, not going to dream with you?" She smiled gently to show him how ridiculous that idea was. "I don't think I could stop dreaming even if I wanted to."

He relaxed visibly. "Lois--"

"No, listen, Clark," she interrupted, knowing instinctively what needed to be said. She was gradually realizing that however strong he tried to be, however reassuring, he was still vulnerable to her. She'd been so skittish, so afraid of him, and he'd been so caring and gentle with her. Now it was his turn to be exposed, open, and she could see how desperately afraid he was. She wondered briefly who had hurt him in the past, to make him so unsure this way; she'd have to ask him sometime. But for now, it was her turn to be strong, to be caring and protective, to soothe his vulnerabilities as he had soothed hers.

"I love you," she continued softly. "I think I always have. What kind of love would that be, if I abandoned you because I found out something I didn't like about your past, something you had no control over?

"And I don't mean to say that I don't like what I've found out tonight, either," she said firmly, cutting him off as he tried to speak once more. "I don't mean it that way at all. Yes, it's a lot to take in at once. And yes, it's hard to believe. But the truth is, I don't mind it at all. Especially the flying," she added with a teasing smile. "It's made you who you are today, Clark, and I wouldn't change that for anything."

She smiled tenderly, turning her head a little to press a kiss into his palm, and then reached out to cup his cheek the same way. "I love you," she said again, and she was amazed to find how easy it was to say. "I love you for who you are, for *what* you are. For the way you've been so gentle with me, and the way you make me feel about myself. Beautiful, and desirable, and wanted. I want you to feel that way. I want to make you feel that way."

He had closed his eyes for a moment as if to savor her words, leaning into her hand. When he opened them again, she was shocked by the depth of emotion there, the love and the amazement, and the huge weight of relief overshadowing them both. "Lois," he whispered fervently, "you *do* make me feel those things. More than anyone ever has." His hand shifted on her cheek, sliding deeper into her hair and tilting her face up to his. "I love you so much." His eyes met hers for a long, warm moment, and then he leaned down to kiss her.

They were both acutely aware, as he pressed his lips gently to hers, that this was in a way their first kiss, the first since they had discovered what was happening between them. So this first caress was shy, a sweet and simple touch meant to reassure and soothe. Clark let his fingers burrow deeper into the silken hair at the nape of her neck, his mouth moving softly, slowly on hers, undemanding and unhurried.

He pulled away after a moment, a little nervous about the liberty he'd taken. He'd promised not to push her, not to move too fast. But he honestly didn't think he could have resisted kissing her at that moment. Her words had touched him deeply, had eased fears he could not even have articulated to her. He'd felt an immediate and essential need to show her what she meant to him.

"Mmm," she sighed as he retreated, her eyes still closed, a tiny smile on her lips. He could tell pretty clearly by her expression that she wasn't upset or angry with him, but, as if to reassure him of that, her own fingers curled in his hair to guide his mouth back to hers.

He smiled against her lips, kissing her a little less guardedly now. Their twisted position was awkward, seated side by side as they were, but he gently eased his arms around her and held her as close as he could. He could hear the rapid beating of her heart, feel the flutter of it against his chest, and he tightened his arms around her, needing to feel it mingle with the rhythm of his own. Cautiously, he eased them into the air and floated them back from the edge of the dock, settling them once again on dry ground and pulling her against him. She made a tiny sound of contentment, opening her mouth under the gentle pressure of his.

They held that way for several pleasurable moments, unguarded and unafraid, exploring gently with hands and lips, patiently relearning what it meant to be close this way, never pushing too hard to take their kisses any further. At long last Lois pulled back and tucked her face into his shoulder, feeling the hurried cadence of her breathing slow, letting the liquid desire rising in her ebb and drain away. Clark clasped one large hand against her hair, his other arm still wrapped about her waist, and then shifted to lift her fully into his lap. She looped her legs sideways over his, her body curled against his chest, and he folded his arms about her.

"This is nice," she murmured, moving to circle her own arms about his waist and burrowing deeper into him. "Wish we could stay this way forever."

He nodded, dropping his head to lay his cheek against her forehead. "Me, too."

He felt her sigh. "It's hard, isn't it?" she asked, for the second time that night. "To be so alone..."

"Shh," he soothed her again. "Shh, it's okay."

She shook her head. "No, Clark, it isn't okay," she said softly. "It just can't be changed, that's all."

He frowned, drawing a deep breath against the pain. "I know," he said simply, because there was nothing else he could say.

She shrugged a little, and he could feel the movement of her shoulders. "I guess we should be grateful for what we have... I mean, I'd give anything to be with you, really with you. But at least we have this." She raised her face to his, luminous in the darkness, and he smiled sadly down at her.

"Yes," he agreed wholeheartedly. "At least we have this." He lowered his mouth to hers again to drop a kiss there, and then another...

Lois pulled away suddenly, her eyes snapping open. "What's that?"

Clark frowned. "What?"

She tilted her head, listening. "Don't you hear it?" Clark shook his head, but she was adamant. "It sounds like... a bell. Or an alarm..."

And then she was fading in his arms, the stars winking out one by one above them, and their world receded into darkness.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

She awoke abruptly to the insistent ringing of her telephone. Cursing at the interruption of her dream, she flung an arm out and fumbled about her nightstand until she found the offending object.

"Lois Lane," she mumbled into the mouthpiece, glancing absently at the clock. 1:27 a.m.

"Miss Lane?" came the agitated response. "I'm so sorry to wake you up like this..."

Her sleep-fogged mind cast about for a name to put to the voice. "Gary Keane? What's going on?"

"Miss Lane, I think you'd better come out to the warehouse right away," the older man confided urgently. "There are men in the loading docks again, and from what I could see... there's something very strange going on."

Lois had already rolled out of bed, reaching for a pair of sweatpants. "Thanks, Gary. I'll be right there."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

CHAPTER SIX

"Our brightest blazes of gladness are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

APRIL 21ST, 1997

METROPOLIS, NEW TROY

[ALTWORLD 2]

Lois shrank down a little lower, dropping her head back behind the crate. The approaching worker took a box from one of the stacks nearby, and turned to carry it back to the waiting truck. That had been far too close; she wondered if the lack of sleep was making her careless, or if it was simply the irritation at being interrupted during a perfectly good dream with Clark.

She shook her head wryly. Why didn't criminals ever operate in the daytime? Gary's call couldn't have come at a worse time; things had just been getting good in her dream! Clark had kissed her, their first kiss since they'd discovered the truth about their bond. He'd been gentle at first, hesitant, and she'd had to reassure him that she wanted that kiss as much as he did. She wanted a chance to properly study the sensation that rushed up inside her when his lips closed over hers, the incredible, sweeping heat of the touch, and she'd pulled him back to her immediately. She'd never imagined a single kiss could spread through her entire body that way, warm and liquid and viscous... Absently, her fingers rose to touch her lips, remembering. If they hadn't been interrupted, who knew what might have happened? The thought made her blush, but she couldn't pretend that she would have resisted. Frightening as the thought was, part of her wanted it to happen.

But thinking about *that* was likely to get her killed just now, and she shook her head to clear it. She tried to focus her attention on the scene before her, but watching men move boxes wasn't very interesting.

One man did catch her eye, though. A rather stern, uneasy David Campbell.

"That's why I called you," Gary had explained, meeting her at the side door and hurrying her inside. He only had a few moments left on his break, but he wanted to show her where the men were working.

"Campbell's a daytime supervisor. He's never here at night. And he only oversees the loading of shipments when they're extremely valuable or important. According to the labels on those crates, that's just some of the more casual furniture. There's no reason for Campbell to be watching over them like a hawk."

Lois had nodded her understanding. "So maybe there's something else in those crates than just furniture." She paused, biting her lip as she considered her options. "I'm going to try to find out. You'd better get back to your rounds, though, or the guard in the control room will notice you're not on any of the monitors."

Gary had been unhappy about leaving her there to investigate alone, but they both knew it was important that he not call attention to himself by neglecting his duties. So he had reluctantly gone on his way, and Lois had worked her way carefully around the large arc of light spilling across the loading dock, taking care to stay behind the stacks of boxes and out of the sight of any of the still- functional cameras nearby. She watched the pattern of men moving across the floor, looking for an opening she could exploit. At last one of them took a short break to get a drink of water, and the others joined him eagerly. Campbell looked on disapprovingly, but Lois supposed he couldn't deny them a drink.

Moving quickly, she slipped between the piles of boxes and swung herself up into the open loading door of the truck. She was careful not to make too much noise as the interior of the truck would probably cast echoes, but she doubted anyone would hear her over the men talking loudly in the docking bay. Once inside, she managed to shift a few of the stacks aside and crouch down between them.

Painstakingly, she worked her way on hands and knees backward through the interior. The noise from outside the truck faded the farther back she went, and she assumed the effect worked both ways. When she thought she had gone far enough, she stopped and fumbled in her pocket for her pocketknife. The boxes surrounding her were crude wooden crates, labels glued messily on the sides, and they were held together by sturdy nails. She eased the blade into the seam along the edge of the nearest box and rocked it gently back and forth, testing the strength of the nails. It would be difficult to get the entire lid off the box, but maybe she could pry off one of the planks along the top and at least get a look inside.

Outside, the men had reluctantly ended their break and started loading the truck once more. Lois was careful to stay behind the box as she worked, out of sight of the workers. So engrossed was she in her efforts that she failed to note that the truck was nearly full. She didn't realize what had happened until the last worker had jumped quickly onto the back of the truck, grasped the handle of the door, and sealed her in the darkness.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Gary Keane cursed under his breath. Hadn't she been paying attention at all?

He'd been careful to keep up the appearance of his route, but he hadn't felt very good about leaving the reporter alone. Whatever Sam had seen had been enough to get him killed. He liked this young reporter of Perry's; he didn't want the same thing to happen to her.

To that end, he'd cautiously modified his route; taking care to make sure he showed up on the security cameras so that Phil in the control room would see him, he slowed his steps when he passed within sight of the occupied loading dock and hurried quickly through the other areas of the warehouse.

So he'd seen Lois climb into the truck, though he supposed he'd only noticed because he knew what to look for. With her dark clothing and hair, she blended easily into the shadows, and she had waited for a perfect opportunity. Apparently no one else had seen her, and Gary was reassured by that fact. If she could get in without being noticed, surely she'd get back out again.

Apparently his trust in her abilities had been misplaced, because by the next time he'd come around, they were closing up the back end of the truck. He scanned the area, a sinking feeling in his chest. He knew she could be hiding very well, but somehow he doubted it. Somehow he knew she was still inside, waiting to be taken away.

He slowed down, trying to give himself as much time as possible to consider his options. He wasn't sure where this shipment was going, but the trucking company was a local one, so he doubted it was going out of the city. Could he follow it, and try to rescue her somehow? He shook his head ruefully; he was getting too old for games like this.

He was approaching Campbell now; he knew it was risky to dawdle at all. If the younger man noticed him, and recognized him from the fuse incident, Gary would lose his job. If Campbell was particularly perceptive, he would lose more than that.

But as he walked as quietly as he could behind him, something caught Gary's attention. Campbell stood beside a stack of boxes, one hand resting absently on the top, a sheaf of papers scattered beneath his fingers. Gary couldn't be sure, but he suspected those were receipts that would accompany the truck to its destination, to be signed by whoever received the shipment and returned to New Eden for verification.

An idea struck him, and he stopped walking for a moment, thinking it through. He reached into his pocket, fishing for something small and hard, and found a few coins. Selecting the largest one, he circled until he knew he was out of Campbell's line of sight. Gary backed into the shadows and flung the coin as hard as he could into the darkness to one side of the truck. It landed with a satisfying clatter.

"What was that?" one of the men demanded.

Several of them moved swiftly to check out the disturbance, and Campbell joined them suspiciously. "Is someone there?"

Walking quickly, Gary hurried to the stack of boxes, took about half of the sheets there, and retreated into the darkness. By the time the men had given up their search, he was already halfway around the warehouse. It was several more minutes until the truck finally left, but the dock was abandoned by the time Gary returned. "Miss Lane?" he called out, just in case, and then repeated the name a bit louder. "Are you there?"

There was no answer; it looked as if his suspicion had been correct. He reached for his radio and called instead for the guard in the control room. "Hello, Phil? Listen, I'm sorry to do this to you, but can you hold down the fort for a while? I've got a problem here in loading dock six... No, the shipment's gone but it looks like they left behind some of their receipts. I'm going to have to drive over and return them... Yeah, the address on here is somewhere on the waterfront, so it's not too far. I'll be back as soon as I can. Thanks, Phil, I owe you one."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Lois scrubbed a hand across her eyes. She couldn't believe this.

It had to be the lack of sleep. There was no other explanation for how extraordinarily careless she'd been. And here she was, sealed inside a moving truck, on her way to goodness knew where.

She wasn't sure what she would do when they got to wherever they were going. She didn't think sneaking out would be nearly as easy as sneaking in had been; there would be men coming and going from the truck constantly as it was unloaded, and she'd be in unfamiliar surroundings. A trickle of fear was beginning to make itself known in the pit of her stomach, and she tried only half-successfully to quash it. Worrying would not help her; she needed to keep a level head if she was going to get out of this in one piece.

Absently, she kept rocking the knife in the seam of the crate, thinking wryly that if she were going to risk her life she'd better at least get some decent evidence out of the deal. After several more long moments, she managed to work her fingers into the crack and pry up the plank. The uprooted nails scratched angrily at her skin as she reached inside the box, but she ignored the pain.

Inside, her fingers met packing foam and cool, smooth metal; she'd have expected wood or cloth if the boxes really contained furniture. It felt far too small to be a piece of furniture, and it didn't seem to be attached to the rest of the cargo. Perhaps the box was full of smaller items like this. She mapped out the surface with her fingertips. She couldn't encompass it entirely in her hand, it was long and rather heavy. She tried to identify it by touch alone but did not have much luck. At last she remembered the tiny penlight on her keyring and reached for her pocket once more, pulling it out and aiming it at the crack she'd opened.

With all the stops and starts along the drive, she hadn't noticed that the truck had stopped moving for good, and the sudden noise behind her was a scant warning. She dropped hastily to the floor, extinguishing her penlight; she couldn't believe she had once more been too absorbed to take note of her surroundings. With one raised hand she tried to pull the plank back into place on the crate; she succeeded just as the workers opened the large door behind her.

Lois listened to the movements of the men outside, wondering what possible chance she could have to escape undetected. The trickle of fear had grown stronger now, tensing her muscles against her will, and she bit her lip.

From outside there was an abrupt commotion, and she tensed, wondering if this might be her chance. She allowed herself a quick peek over the top of the nearest stack. It looked as if most of the men were gone, leaving just two behind to finish unloading the truck. They were still fairly close to the truck, but for the moment they were facing away, talking to a third man.

"Bless you, Gary!" she sighed under her breath, relief and gratitude flooding her. She hadn't realized how frightened she really was until that fear had been assuaged, and the sudden reprieve left her feeling weak. Moving as quickly as she could, she slithered between the piles of boxes and climbed silently back out of the truck.

She saw Gary's eyes flick over her once, but to his credit he didn't focus on her or otherwise call attention to her presence. "Yeah, I found them on the floor," he was saying. "Must have gotten knocked off the stack."

She had only a moment to scan her new surroundings in search of a hiding place, and she hastily circled the edge of the garage, dropping behind another stack and watching the others through the cracks between the boxes.

The other men exchanged glances as she watched. "Campbell would have had our necks," one of them admitted, shaking his head. "You've really done us a favor, buddy."

"Yeah," the other chimed in. "We'd have lost our jobs."

Or worse, Lois added, wondering just how much these two knew about the cargo they were moving.

"Can we buy you a drink or something, to say thanks? We've got to finish up here, but there's a little place around the corner, if you want to wait," the first asked, but Gary shook his head politely.

"I'd love to, but I'm not even supposed to leave the warehouse this long. I've got to head back. It was good to meet you, though. Have a good night." As he turned, his eyes moved once more to her hiding place, fleetingly, as if to reassure himself that she was all right now, and then he headed across the garage to the exit. Lois shivered; to all appearances he'd been entirely focused on the two workers he'd been speaking with, and yet he'd kept close enough watch on her to find her even now. She remembered that he'd been a college classmate of Perry's, and wondered distractedly what career he had chosen.

She dropped her eyes and focused once more on her surroundings. On impulse, she pulled her pocketknife out once more and sliced the label from one of the newly- unpacked crates; she wasn't sure if it would be useful, but the more information she could collect, the better. The two workers had by now turned back to the truck, and she crawled cautiously through the haphazard boxes until she too had made her way to the exit. She eased the door open, careful not to let it squeak or make any noise that would call attention to her presence. Climbing at last to her feet, she stepped out into the darkness and closed the door behind her. For a moment she simply stood leaning against it, letting her heartbeat slow down a little.

"Can I offer you a ride, Miss Lane?"

She jumped, her nerves already stretched to breaking, and then calmed a little as she realized who had spoken. Gary Keane was looking up at her anxiously, his little car waiting at the curb. She made her way shakily to the vehicle, surprised at how unsteady she was, weak from tension and adrenaline.

"I can't even tell you how grateful I am," she said as she climbed into the passenger seat. "You could have lost your job."

"You could have been killed," Gary replied instantly, putting the car back into gear and pulling away from the curb. "That was incredibly dangerous, what you just did."

"I know," she said, trying not to sound like a scolded child. "But it was important that I get a look around in there."

"Well, you be more careful next time," he insisted gruffly. "I'm getting too old for this sort of thing." But he smiled reluctantly at her. "Can I drop you off at home, or do you want to go back to New Eden and get your car?"

"I should get my jeep," she answered. "I wouldn't want it to be found in the morning. And I know you took a risk leaving the warehouse for me, anyway. I don't want you to get in any more trouble."

He nodded, turning his eyes back to the road. "Did you get any useful info from all that, or did you risk your neck for nothing?"

Lois smiled a little, pulling the crumpled label out of her pocket. "Well, I think this could be useful. We'll have to see." She hadn't looked at it yet, but she didn't have to. She knew tonight's raid had been successful anyway.

"Well, good. If you need anything else, let me know. But no more nights like this one!"

She nodded but did not reply, leaning back into the seat and drawing a deep breath. She wouldn't tell Gary, not yet, but she knew what had been in those boxes. She had felt the weight of one in her hand, the cold length of it, and, in the few seconds she'd had with her penlight, she'd seen them, row after row nestled carefully in the packing foam. She didn't know what kind they had been, but there was no mistaking what they were.

Weapons. Row after row of shining metal guns.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"Lois! Hey, I got that information you wanted."

She smiled distractedly at him. "Thanks, Jimmy," she said. "What'd you find?"

He held up the a stack of pages and read aloud, "Captain James Tyler, 41, captain of the *Atalan* of Samson Transatlantic Shipping." He flipped through them quickly. "Makes a run to the Middle East once a month and Europe twice a month. Registered ports of call Metropolis, Boston, and Quebec in North America, and London, Paris, Lisbon, and Rome in Europe. But it doesn't stop at all of those every time it goes over; I think its route depends on what it's carrying. Oh, and it's registered in Casablanca, Tunis, and Port Said in the Middle East, and a bunch of little stops along the west coast of Africa. It's all in the file."

Lois frowned. None of those ports sounded particularly suspicious to her. "Well, that's certainly a start," she said as cheerfully as she could, considering how little sleep she'd gotten the night before. She took the sheaf of papers and settled them on her desk. "Thanks a lot, Jimmy."

Lois shifted the pages before her until she found the list of ports he'd recited. Inspecting the shipping label earlier had yielded few clues; the only shipping information had been a few cryptic codes. Frowning, she pulled the wrinkled label from her pocket once more. Nothing on it seemed to be connected with the ports of call Jimmy had listed.

New Eden Imports/IE Inc. Shipment #5664-2337 MET--CAB--MWN

"Hey, Jimmy," she called, halting his retreat. "Take a look at this, would you?"

The younger man returned to her desk. "What is it?"

"It's a shipping label of some sort," she explained. At his questioning look, she smiled wryly. "You don't want to know how I got it. But anyway, I'm pretty sure this shipment or another one like it will be on the *Atalan.* But I can't figure out what these three letter codes mean."

"Could be some sort of internal designation," he suggested, frowning. "Maybe they're supposed to go to another warehouse, and the company identifies its warehouses that way?"

She shook her head. "I thought of that, but New Eden's a pretty small company. Their headquarters are here in Metropolis, and I'm not sure they even have any other warehouses."

Jimmy tilted his head to one side, squinting at the label. After a moment he shrugged. "Could be airport codes, I guess. MET, doesn't that stand for Metropolis' airport?"

She looked up at him in surprise. "You know, you might be right." She considered, then shook her head. "But the shipments have all gone by boat. Why would they use airport codes?"

"Well, maybe they're just using them as a way to identify the city. I mean, MET is a lot easier than writing out 'Metropolis.' So even if they're using the harbor, if the cities all had airports they could still identify them that way."

"Hmm..." she said, looking at the list of ports he'd given her. "I'll have to look at that. Thanks, Jimmy, that was a really good idea."

He smiled at the compliment. "You're welcome, Lois."

Searching rapidly on the internet, Lois was able to determine the airport codes for almost all of the ports on Jimmy's list. But none of them matched the three on the label, so she was left with two stops unidentified. Searching for cities with those codes didn't find anything either. Lois wondered if that meant Jimmy's theory was wrong; maybe they weren't airport codes at all. Or perhaps these cities didn't have airports? If not, what did the codes stand for?

On the other hand, some of the smaller ports on Jimmy's list weren't listed in any of the databases she had searched. She'd been looking mostly in commercial directories. Perhaps her lack of information only meant that no commercial flights went to those airports.

Guiltily, she resettled the pages back into their file, opening her mouth to call Jimmy back yet again and ask him to see what he could find out about the remaining codes. She was halted by the ringing of her telephone.

"Lois Lane, Daily Planet," she answered, balancing the phone against her shoulder while she searched for pen and paper.

"Miss Lane? This is the Smallville Public Library calling."

"Oh, yes," she replied. She'd called the library yesterday and the librarian had promised to look in their archives for her. "Did you find anything?"

"Well, we did find mention of a Clark Kent," the man on the other end answered hesitantly. "But I don't think it'll be of much use to you. He and his parents were killed in a car crash in April, 1976, when he was only ten years old. But that must be the wrong Clark Kent, right? That can't be the sort of information you were looking for."

No, I guess that's not what I was hoping for. She forced her voice to sound professional on the phone. After all, she'd half-expected an answer like this. "No, that's fine. Could you send me a copy of that article? Thank you so much. You've been a huge help."

The librarian assured her it had been no problem and promised to fax the article later that afternoon. Lois hung up the phone mutely, staring at it for a long moment. She *had* expected news like this. She'd always known he couldn't be hers. She'd always known she was mourning his loss.

She hadn't expected it would hurt so badly to hear it finally confirmed.

Lois closed her eyes and counted to ten, drawing a deep breath. When she could trust her voice, she called for Jimmy once more.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

APRIL 21ST, 1997

METROPOLIS, NEW TROY

[ALTWORLD 1]

Clark made it to the Daily Planet early, his steps light, his smile brilliant. After his dream had faded, he had expected to awaken. Instead, he had slipped into a deep and dreamless sleep, and he had awakened this morning feeling more rested than he had in weeks. He was certain the change had little to do with sleep, and everything to do with Lois.

She knew. She knew everything about him, and she loved him just the same.

Clark would never have said that he worried about Lois accepting him. To be honest, the thought had never crossed his mind. Up until a few days ago it hadn't really been an issue; he'd thought she was a dream anyway. So given that he'd never worried about it, he was totally stunned by the weight of relief he felt now that she knew.

Then again, he supposed he'd worried enough last night to last him a lifetime.

But she'd said it didn't matter, and he believed her. She'd said, in fact, that it was part of him, had made him who he was, and that she wouldn't change him. She loved him, just as and for all he was. He checked to make sure his feet were still on the ground.

And then she'd let him kiss her, or she'd kissed him...

They'd kissed plenty of times in the past, both as teenagers and adults; there had been as many friendly kisses as passionate ones over the years. He thought this was the closest they'd ever come to a mixture of the two. The passion had been there, certainly, and he wasn't entirely sure where that embrace would have led them if they hadn't been interrupted. But mingled with that heat had been equal parts of tenderness, reassurance, and promise. That kiss had been an affirmation as much as their words had been, a cementing of the bond between them and a vow of eternity.

He didn't think he'd ever been so happy in his life.

There was still a disheartening voice in his head, if he let himself hear it, that reminded him patiently that she was still only his in a dream world, that he could never be with her fully. As he had done throughout the last few days, he firmly silenced it. He wanted to enjoy all of this for a little while longer. There would be time enough, in four days, to face reality once more.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Working from the little information Lucy had been able to give him, Clark tried to trace Lois's journey from Metropolis to Africa. Lucy had given him a date of departure, April 24th, but she wasn't entirely sure where Lois had been going, or what airline she'd flown on.

Corrie had been extremely helpful; she called down to accounting and connected him with someone there who had access to financial records from that time period. Andy, the young accountant, had seemed by turns intimidated by and excited to work with Clark. Clark found the young man a bit overeager and optimistic, but he had to admit he could use the help.

So with Andy's help Clark found the charges on Lois's expense account that would have corresponded to the purchase of her airline tickets. "See, she was flying Cirrus Air," Andy pointed to the printed record. "There's no flight number listed, but you could probably call Cirrus and find out which one she was on."

In the end, it was hardly necessary; the FBI records came by courier at noon. Clark's contact had enclosed a note with the folders, wishing him the best of luck with the case. Clark wrote a quick thank you and sent it back with the courier. Andy reluctantly went back to accounting; Clark explained gently that the FBI files were classified and not intended for general consumption. Andy begged Clark to keep him posted about the investigation, and the older man was happy to comply.

Almost hesitantly, Clark opened the file and scanned the contents at normal speed. He wasn't entirely sure he wanted to know what these records said; he didn't want to know just yet how meager his evidence really was. So he gingerly paged through the typewritten notes, taking notes of his own when he found something particularly useful.

She had indeed been flying Cirrus Air; the FBI had found her on the passenger list of a flight to Paris. However, there had been no return ticket purchased, and the reservation at a local hotel had been for one night only. No phone calls had been made to or from her hotel room. She'd bought breakfast at the hotel restaurant the morning of the 25th and withdrawn a large amount of cash in local currency from the expense account. There were no further purchases on her account after that; it seemed that after breakfast she'd promptly disappeared.

So he was at another dead end; he was sure she'd caught another flight from Paris, but the fact that she hadn't charged it to her account probably meant she'd been flying under an assumed name. So he wasn't sure how to go about tracing her any further.

The rest of the FBI file concentrated on unsuccessfully trying to recreate her investigation into the gun- smuggling. She'd been looking at a company called Intersea Exports, he read, which had apparently been involved somehow, but the details of her findings were never uncovered. There had been an extensive search through her hard drive; the more recent of her passworded files had been cracked and searched. There were printouts of them included in the file, so he skimmed through them. Several were old drafts of stories, especially large scoops she hadn't wanted to leave unprotected even on her own computer. He blushed when, after confusedly reading a few paragraphs, he realized one of them was her forgotten novel. Feeling a little like a voyeur, he put it quickly on the bottom of the stack.

But none of the files had contained a rough draft or even notes for the story on Intersea Exports. She'd given Perry a few updates on the status of her investigation, which Perry had dutifully relayed to the FBI agents, but he hadn't had any details, and no one had been able to uncover them. The editor had been able to name her source, an employee at Intersea, but the man had been murdered three days after Lois's disappearance, and without him no one seemed to be able to find evidence of any wrongdoing on Intersea's part. The murder had never been solved, though police had tentatively linked it with a larger string of unsolved killings in the area.

He wondered how many flights went through Charles de Gaulle airport in a day. And there were a few other airports relatively nearby; just because Lois had flown into de Gaulle didn't mean she'd left from the same airport. In fact, from what he knew of her, he figured it would be just like her to switch airports to confuse anyone trying to follow her. It's working, Lois. You managed to lose both the FBI and Superman. I wish you'd been just a little less careful.

Clark sat back in his chair, frowning. He wasn't sure where to go from here. The FBI had been very thorough in their search; he couldn't see any leads they'd neglected to follow up. He supposed once he had a copy of the hard drive backup he'd be able to go through it himself, but he didn't really think he'd be able to find anything there either. He'd tried very hard to be optimistic thus far, but it was difficult not to get discouraged.

Another thought occurred to him, and he bit his lip, considering. He was pretty sure she'd been flying to someplace in Africa, though he couldn't be entirely certain she hadn't made more stops along the way. And he had no idea what name she might be flying under. But it was a starting point, at least. He wondered if he'd be able to get a list of passengers leaving de Gaulle for cities in Africa on the 25th. He smiled a little, grimly. Sometimes there were advantages to having lost his secret identity; a little Super influence could come in handy now and then. And he had some contacts in the Paris police force that might be able to help if the airlines wouldn't cooperate. In fact, perhaps it would be best simply to start there.

It wouldn't be enough. Somehow he knew that. But he couldn't stop trying now. Decisively, he reached for the phone and dialed his friend in Paris.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

He settled on the couch, reaching again for the stack of Lois' belongings. He already knew that one of her notebooks was a journal, and while he felt like an intruder reading through her private thoughts, he didn't know where else to look for information. He was sure the FBI would have already picked through the book, but maybe they had missed something. He had to hope they had missed something *somewhere,* or his search was bound to be over very quickly.

She had disappeared on the 25th; when would she have started her investigation? He flipped a few pages backward from that date and started there. He quickly skimmed the first few entries without any luck, but halfway through the third he stopped. Going back to the beginning, he read through it properly.

April 17, 1993

Not much to report today. I was pretty exhausted this morning, and Perry just about bit my head off for being 'distracted' at work. Made it up to him with an exclusive interview with the police chief about that last string of murders. He had to leave me alone after that, even if I was distracted. Anyway, he wants me to meet with some source of his sometime in the next few days; he won't tell me what it's about but it sounds like something really big.

Dreamed again last night. Knew I would. I tried to stay awake all night, just to get out of it. Bless her heart, Lucy offered to stay up with me. I think she drifted out around 2 o'clock, halfway through Dr. Zhivago (she let me pick the movies). I think I made it almost all the way to the end before I dozed off too.

Poor Lucy woke me up again around four thirty. Said I was screaming and crying in my sleep. Dream was same as always; I'm not going to describe it again. I've seen it so many times it's like a movie now, instantly recognizable. But it's just a car crash, right? Why does it upset me so much? It's not like I know or recognize any of those people. Cried a little anyway. It hurts, but I don't understand why. But, God, does it hurt! I keep thinking I'll get used to it, one of these years, but I never do.

Tried to go back to sleep; ended up watching some stupid rerun on television. Lucy tried to get me to talk about it; I tried to explain to her but I don't really understand either. Eventually she went back to bed...

Clark closed the book softly, unable to read any further. After a long moment he rose from the couch, replaced the diary on the table, and went to bed.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

He could feel the gentle weight of her in his arms, the soft strands of her hair pressed into his cheek. They weren't quite flying, not really, just drifting aimlessly through the sky, the wind gusting lazily around them.

"Mmm," he said softly, turning to press a kiss to the crown of her head. "I missed you."

She twisted a little in his arms until she could look up at him. "Missed you, too," she replied, a tiny smile playing about her lips. She strained up and he met her halfway, kissing her lightly.

The smile bloomed a little brighter when he pulled away, and she pressed forward once more. He obliged her and kissed her several more times, languorously, content just to hold her and be close to her. After a time she pulled back, her sly grin changing to one of satisfaction. She laughed a little, splaying her hands across the muscles of his chest and shoulders. "This is different," she teased, twisting slightly in his arms to look over his shoulder at the city below.

"Different, but good," he replied. "My two favorite things in the world."

"What, flying and making out?" she asked archly, raising one eyebrow and flashing him a clever grin.

"Flying and being with you," he corrected her, his answering smile a bit sheepish.

"Mmm." She snuggled in against his chest once more. "Rapidly becoming *my* two favorite things in the world."

He laughed, tucking his face into the crown of her head once more. "I'm glad."

They let themselves float for a few minutes more, silent, simply soaking up the sensations. After a moment Clark lifted his face once more so he could look at her. "So what was it last night that woke you up?"

Lois scowled. "The telephone. My source was calling me; I had to go downtown and sneak into a warehouse."

"Nothing too dangerous, I hope?" he asked.

Lois shrugged as nonchalantly as she could, remembering the long moments she'd spent trapped inside the truck. "Nothing I couldn't handle. I *can* take care of myself, Kent," she assured him, slightly annoyed that he didn't believe that. "I've done just fine so far."

His arms tightened about her nonetheless. "I know, but, Lois, if something happened to you during the day, I wouldn't even know. The time between dreams would just get longer and longer, day after day and month after month, until I'd finally have to decide they weren't coming back..." He trailed off, his voice soft. "I wouldn't even know what had happened to you, Lois. So you have to be careful, do you understand? I couldn't go through that. I can't lose you."

Lois shook her head gently, her mild irritation melting away. She reached up to touch his cheek, tracing the bone with her fingertips. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I never thought of that. But I'm here, Clark, I'm fine. And I'll be careful."

Clark turned his head and kissed the palm of her hand. "I'm sorry," he said, laughing a little. "I didn't mean to get so serious. It's just... when I thought about what my life would be like, without even being able to dream with you, I couldn't even imagine it."

She smiled, deliberately trying to lighten the mood. "It's flattering, really," she replied, carefully brushing his hair off his forehead. "That I mean so much to you that you can't even imagine life without me."

He shook his head wryly. "Lois, I don't even want to try."

Lois cocked one eyebrow. "Well, I should hope not!"

He laughed, and she calmed a little. She'd been a little worried that she was losing him to a bad mood; usually, she supposed, it was his job to keep her spirits up. It was nice to see she could return the favor if need be.

"So did you find anything worthwhile, when you broke into this warehouse?"

She shrugged. "Nothing I can prove yet. But I did get some paperwork; I'm having Jimmy look into it."

Clark frowned. "Jimmy? Someone at the office?"

"Yeah, Jimmy Olsen. He's officially a copy boy, but he does a lot of research for me," she explained. "You don't have a Jimmy Olsen in your world?"

Clark laughed disbelievingly. "James Olsen, young computer genius, owns the Daily Planet."

"He *owns* it? *Jimmy*? Well, what about Perry? You have a Perry White, don't you?"

Clark shook his head. "Not anymore. He left the paper to become mayor of Metropolis. I assume he's still the editor, in your world?"

Lois giggled. "Perry, leave the Planet to be mayor? No way."

"He did," Clark assured her. "Last year. Won by a landslide."

"Perry, the mayor," she repeated to herself, shaking her head incredulously. "I can't even imagine it."

"We live in very different worlds, I guess."

"Yeah... very different." She sighed, her gaze falling, and she was silent for a moment.

He studied her face, trying to discern what was troubling her. "What is it?"

Lois shrugged a little, wryly wondering what had happened to that good mood she'd established a few minutes ago. "I told you I'd looked for the Clark Kent of my world," she began, and he nodded. Her face was troubled, and reflexively he tightened his embrace once more. "I couldn't find any mention of him anywhere, so I called the public library in Smallville. The librarian said he'd look in the electronic newspaper archives and get back to me."

Clark was fairly certain he knew where this was going, but he nodded encouragingly. "And?"

"And he-- he died, Clark! In a car crash, when he was just a little kid."

"I know," he admitted softly, dropping his gaze. "I... I read about it."

"You what?"

"I'm looking for Lois Lane, remember? So I talked to Lucy, and Lucy gave me Lois's old diary." He paused, reluctant to explain, as if to speak aloud what he had learned would make it more real. "She... she used to dream, too, Lois. Once a year on the 16th. Only... she dreamed of a car crash, not a lover."

"God," Lois said softly, horror in her voice. "What an awful thing to imagine. I mean... I used to dream about you, and I knew you weren't real. I thought you were dead. But I never had to see it happen. I never had to watch you-- him-- die."

"I know," he agreed, holding her close. "I don't know how she could stand it. She had to know what it was she was losing. Even in our first dream together, I knew you were someone special to me. I always knew that."

"We've been thinking of this as some sort of gift, a way for us to be together in spirit even if we can't be together for real." Lois shook her head. "But for her, and probably for her Clark, it was a curse."

He nodded, dropping another kiss in her hair and nuzzling his face into the fragrant mass of it. He didn't say that he'd never been sure it wasn't a curse for them, too. It wouldn't help to hear that. He wasn't sure anything could help.

"So... she was linked to him, the way you and I are linked," Lois said slowly, thinking out loud. "And the 16th was the important date, on both sides."

"The day your Clark died, I imagine," he suggested softly. "You said a car crash, right?"

She looked up at him, surprised. "Yeah, they were killed instantly. He and his parents."

Clark nodded, sighing. "Yeah. Like my parents."

Lois gasped, pulling back in his arms in horror. "Oh, Clark! You never said-- I mean, I knew they died... when you were ten..." She shook her head as the pieces fell into place. "God, Clark, why didn't you tell me?"

He shrugged. "It was a long time ago," he replied after a moment. "In the beginning, being with you made me feel better about it. You made me feel less alone, I guess. And then later, I guess I just tried not to think about it at all. I wanted it to be a day for you and me, and not a day that reminded me of them. Really, it doesn't hurt much anymore, Lois," he assured her. Not half as much as it hurts to lose you, again and again every year.

She shook her head, unwilling to accept his easy dismissal. "I'm so sorry," she said. "I wish I'd known."

"Hey," he said, jouncing her gently in his arms, trying to reassure her. "What would you have done differently? You were never insensitive. You were never inconsiderate. You were the most wonderful person I'd ever known, and being with you made that day worthwhile for me, in a way it hadn't been for a long time. So what else do you wish you had done?"

She smiled softly and stretched up to kiss him again. "I love you," she said softly.

He grinned. "I love you, too."

She settled back against him once more, apparently satisfied with his explanation. "Still," she said at last, "I can't understand why we're all tied to people we can't have. I mean, what's the point?"

He looked carefully down at her, but her expression was more thoughtful than pained. "I don't know," he answered honestly. "I mean, at least you and I made sense of all of it, and we can spend time together now in a way we couldn't before. More... consciously, I guess. But the two of them... I imagine they didn't ever get to meet properly. We were older when we started dreaming. By the time she was old enough, he'd have been dead already."

Lois nodded sadly. "I know. But the Lois in your world, she might still be alive. And if she is, she's tied to someone who really is dead. At least we can be together this way. She'll never have that. She'll just keep dreaming, looking, searching, and being miserable."

Clark shook his head, sighing. "I don't think so. I think... I think she was killed, just as everybody assumes. I'm trying to find her, but she did such a good job covering her tracks. She lost the FBI; how am I supposed to find her?"

"What leads do you have?"

Clark shrugged. "I know she was traveling. I know the date, and probably where she left from, but she was using an assumed name and I don't know where she was going. So I can get a list of flights leaving that day from that airport, but that would be thousands of passengers to go through."

Lois raised an eyebrow speculatively. "Well, if she's anything like me... I always used LL names. You know, Linda Lewis or Lucy Layton or something. That doesn't narrow it down too much, but it might be a little help."

Clark nodded. "You're right. Assuming she's a lot like you, she probably had the same investigating habits that you do."

Lois smiled. "I guess she was the best in your world, then."

Clark laughed, tightening his arms around her. "She was, Lois, she was."

"So what other leads do you have?"

Clark frowned. "Not much," he said, shaking his head. "She was very good at hiding her trail. I assume she kept all her up-to-date notes on her laptop, but that disappeared when she did. So all we have is her computer at the office."

Lois nodded. "Well, I never keep anything really important on the Planet computer. No stories I haven't broken yet, I mean. I'm pretty paranoid, I guess," she admitted, blushing a little.

"Yes, but you're also the best. So it works for you." He kissed her quickly on the mouth, smiling, but then he sobered. "But if something were to happen to you, and you take your laptop with you everywhere, the FBI would have no way to track you down. That's why I can't find her."

Lois smiled enigmatically. "You'd have to find her backup."

Clark shook his head. "She didn't have a backup of her laptop."

Lois quirked her eyebrow at him once more. "And you're so sure of that? Well, I guess you don't need my help, then."

"Lois!"

"Well, you didn't seem to want to hear what I had to say," she replied, mock-offended. "So I won't tell you where I hide my backups before I go undercover for an investigation."

"You make a backup before you go out of town?" Clark asked incredulously. If the other Lois had had a similar practice, and if he could find her hiding place, he might be able to retrace her steps after all.

Lois grinned. "Of course I do," she answered smugly. "I learned that the hard way. So once a month, or whenever I was going undercover, I used to take my laptop to the computer guys on the third floor and get them to back it up on CD for me. Eventually I figured it would be worth it just to buy a CD-writer myself, and from then on I just made the backups myself at home."

"And where did you hide them?" Clark asked, nearly holding his breath.

Lois blushed a little, laughing. "Well, Lucy was living with me at the time, but I didn't want her to know what it was. And Lucy hated country music. So I found the case of a country CD I'd lost, and I used to hide the most recent backup CD in there because I knew Lucy wouldn't look in it."

Clark caught her tightly against him, dropping a joyful kiss on her head. "Lois, you are amazing," he said, elated. "Do you know how much you've helped me?"

She grinned back, reaching up to give him a playful kiss. "Yeah," she answered immodestly. "Care to show me a little appreciation?"

He laughed. "Absolutely." He shifted, letting her legs down gently until she was pressed full length against him, and lowered his lips to hers. Simply touching her, it seemed, was enough to keep her aloft, so he tentatively loosened his supporting embrace, letting his hands explore her back and shoulders. She had splayed her own across his chest, hungrily outlining the curves of each muscle and tendon before drifting over his shoulders and into the fine hair at the nape of his neck.

This embrace was almost playful, as her inviting kiss had been. There was passion there, certainly, but there was more a sense of joy and wonder. It occurred to him that they'd both tried to put aside the darker, more disheartening aspects of their bond that they'd discovered tonight. They only had three nights left; he did not want to spend them feeling guilty for what he had. Apparently, neither did she. He pulled away for a moment, teasing, dropping kiss after kiss on her lips but never lingering. She moaned in frustration, tightening her fingers in his hair and yanking him back to kiss her properly.

"Seriously," he began, though she only allowed him to speak between kisses, which contradicted his words a little, "do you... mmm... know how much you... helped me tonight?"

She nodded briefly. "I know you'll have an easier time finding your Lois Lane," she said, moving to string mischievous kisses along his cheekbone. "I'm glad I could help."

"Mmm," he answered, tilting his head back as her mouth moved across his face, his arms tightening around her. "Me too."

"I meant to ask you," she said, working her way to his ear, "what this is you're wearing."

He had to think about it for a long moment, his mind more occupied on the sensation of her lips on the pulse point in his jaw, teasing and withdrawing, landing again. "Oh... it's the Suit."

"The Suit?" she asked, finally making it back to his lips.

"Yeah," he sighed, fiercely reclaiming her mouth at last. "I'll tell you about it sometime," he promised, because already he could feel her growing lighter, fainter in his embrace. "Lois... you feel amazing. You make me feel amazing."

He could feel her smile against him. "I'm good at that," she answered, teasing again. "But it's mutual."

He laughed. "I'm glad." Closing his eyes, he tried to lose himself in the feel of her, the feelings she aroused in him, until the sky went dark around them.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

CHAPTER SEVEN

"...Your soul, it comes from a place beyond planets, beyond time, where we . . . where we all come from. And the power of your love is what brings your souls together, time after time. You see, that is the one absolute: Wherever she is, you are."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

FEBRUARY 21, 2042

METROPOLIS, NEW TROY

[ALTWORLD 1]

He sighed and set the screen aside at last. There. He'd found her.

What a strange turn of events this was. He couldn't quite figure out how it had happened, but the evidence was clear.

He did owe this Clark Kent a favor; the man had helped him tremendously in the past. So the obvious thing to do for him was to find the Lois Lane he'd lost. It wasn't difficult to go back and find her. But watching her carefully and monitoring the readouts on the handheld screen of his soul-tracking device, he'd made a surprising discovery. She wasn't the one. This woman, this Lois Lane, was not meant for this Clark Kent.

Thus began another month's worth of work, tracking Clark's soul backwards a few generations until he had a lock on the real soulmate. Then he'd gone back to Clark's time and scanned for her.

Nothing. No matter what year he scanned, he never found more than the faintest traces of her. Did that mean this Clark was destined to be alone, his soulmate lost to him in this life? Except that there *were* those faint traces of her presence, random nights of the year, ghostly echoes that were not quite physical but definitely real.

So he'd simply picked a date and started watching Clark through the tracker. The display on the device allowed him to watch the younger man as he went about his daily business, his body always haloed with the vivid nimbus of his soul. He'd watched carefully, waiting for the next manifestation of her. And after a few days of surveillance, he found it.

It was late, and Clark was tossing uneasily in his sleep. Slowly, as he watched, the light of her bloomed into life, translucent and ephemeral, glowing softly in the darkness of the bedroom. She appeared behind Clark, her body tucked beneath the sheets, still glowing faintly through the cotton. Clark seemed to sense her there without waking; at once he calmed and rolled over to pull that fragile, misty specter into his arms.

He adjusted a knob on the tracker, and both souls faded from it, leaving only the physical reality visible. Clark Kent lay alone in the bed, arms curled protectively around empty air. There was no physical presence there. But the signature of that displaced soul was unmistakable, even without the evidence of Clark's immediate response to her. No, he admitted to himself as he readjusted the tracker, there could be no doubt. This was the one.

Which meant Clark was tied to... a ghost? An angel? Something darker? Even as he pondered the implications, the glow of her presence was waning. Clark frowned in his sleep, his arms tightening about her, but she was rapidly fading away. Hastily, he adjusted the screen to track her departure. The device beeped and informed him that she had left the dimension entirely.

So, hoping against hope, he began searching other dimensions at random. It was fairly easy work, dropping in and scanning for her, but tedious; there were so many varying parallel realities. He didn't think he could search them all.

But now, now he'd found her at last. He still wasn't sure how the soulmates had gotten split up this way. He suspected he would never know. And he had serious concerns about what he might do to help them. Originally, he'd traveled through time as an explorer, a passive observer. Later, he'd changed things, but only to set right the events Tempus had altered. But Lois and Clark's predicament, their separation, was not the result of any meddling or mistake. To help them was to change the natural order of their worlds, and he wasn't sure the happiness of two people could justify that. Who was he to make such a decision?

On the other hand, perhaps Fate had allowed him to find her, against the odds, because despite their obstacles she and Clark were still meant to be together. Perhaps he was meant to implement that change.

In that case, there were arrangements to be made, numerous ones. He wondered if he could transplant one of them into the other's world, and if so, which world would be preferable. He was familiar enough with Clark's dimension; he'd have to check into Lois's.

He checked the date he was watching: April 22nd, 1997. He adjusted a dial on the tracker, pushing it forward a few days, intending to track her soul step-by-step through the next few weeks to get a feel for her lifestyle. The tracker hummed for a moment, tracking to her new location, and then the screen cleared.

What he saw stunned him.

Well, *that* would never do. He frowned, thinking through his next move, and then reached for the controls again.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

APRIL 22ND, 1997

METROPOLIS, NEW TROY

[ALTWORLD 1]

Even as he surfaced slowly from sleep, he was aware that something was wrong.

He tried to ignore the sensation and concentrated instead on the fading weight of her in his arms, the memory of her caress still faintly warm on his skin. But he was rising out of the dream, and she was dissolving beneath his hands. The trickle of sound, overheard from a neighbor's radio, strengthened into a steady dialogue, and he snapped into wakefulness.

"...officials are saying it may have registered as high as an eight on the Richter scale. Several buildings in downtown San Francisco are at risk, but the most dangerous area right now is the Bay Bridge..."

Clark barely took the time to change before he launched himself out of the window.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It was nearly fifteen hours later when he returned, dejected, bedraggled, and exhausted. His cape was frayed and stained, the brilliant blue of the Suit dimmed under a layer of grime and smoke. Absently, he stripped out of it, his body moving mechanically without conscious thought, and he stumbled into the bathroom.

He turned the water on and stepped into the shower, leaning against the wall and sighing as the heat of it spread through his body. He wasn't cold, really; San Francisco had been 65 degrees, even in April. But there was a weariness in him, desperation and grief combined, and instinctively he needed the meager comfort the warmth could provide. He raised his hands to cover his face, running his fingers through his hair, and let the water beat down on the back of his neck.

He should be used to this, shouldn't he? He'd been Superman for more than a year now, and he'd been helping secretly for more than a decade. He'd seen his share of disaster and tragedy. Shouldn't he have built up some resistance against it by now? Pulling a battered woman from the warped wreckage of a car, crushed under twisted steel girders and broken blocks of concrete-- or worse, finding a child in the back seat, still strapped into his mangled car seat-- surely that should not affect him so strongly by now.

But he could see their faces, painted crisply on his eyelids, each and every person he'd reached a moment too late. They would fade in time, the details of their appearance and circumstances blurring, but their shadows stayed clear and strong, and on nights like this they rose before him like smoky specters. There could be no resistance, not really. Not without the loss of some fundamental part of himself, the part that made him Superman in the first place. He'd told the first Lois that he didn't know how to be the hero she'd crafted, but it had been his insecurity and desperation speaking. The truth was, he'd always known how to do what was right. What he didn't know how to do was fail. He didn't know how to admit to himself that there came a time when even a hero had to walk away.

He shut off the water, feeling no cleaner than he had when he'd stepped into the shower. Absently he dried his body, pulled on some shorts, and wandered into the bedroom. He was tired, and he knew he needed rest. More than that, he needed reassurance, the simple touch of a hand or an encouraging embrace, an assertion that life could go on despite what he'd seen today. He'd never realized how much being Superman would cut him off from the rest of the world, or how much he craved the basic human contact that was denied him.

He wanted someone simply to hold him, to soothe his pain and guilt and grief away. To tell him that he was enough, that what he did was enough. There was no one here who could do that for him. Climbing into bed, he closed his eyes and mentally reached out for the only person who could.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

APRIL 22ND, 1997

METROPOLIS, NEW TROY

[ALTWORLD 2]

"Morning, Lois."

Lois blinked out of her daydream. "Oh, good morning, Cat."

The other woman hopped up onto the corner of the desk, grinning speculatively. "You're looking much better," Cat said. "More rested. Is that good news or bad news?"

Lois smiled slyly, remembering Cat's insinuation about the cause of her sleepless nights. "It's not what you think, but it's good news," she answered, folding her arms in smug satisfaction. "Very good."

Cat laughed. "Must be some guy."

Lois didn't even bother to make an excuse. "He is."

"So do I get to meet him? Are you bringing him to the ball?"

"The ball?" Lois repeated, drawing a blank.

"The White Orchid Ball! It's tonight! Come on, Lois, even you can't forget the biggest social event of the season."

Lois shook her head. "Honestly, it totally slipped my mind." And for good reason, too. She had no desire to spend an evening rubbing elbows with the snobbish elite of Metropolis, especially not when she could be dreaming with Clark instead. But Lex Luthor would expect all the Planet reporters to be there, and her absence would surely be noted. "I don't even have a gown."

Cat made a show of looking her up and down. "Well, I could lend you something..."

"Absolutely not!" Lois laughed. Even as conservative as Cat had gotten, Lois wasn't going to be borrowing her clothes anytime soon! "I'll have to find something."

Cat tilted her head, hesitating, and then said, "I don't have much to work on today. Maybe you could convince Perry to let you leave a few hours early, and we could go shopping."

Lois frowned. "Perry'll never go for it. I'll just have to go out right after work."

Cat shrugged. "Well, whatever you think is best..."

Lois abruptly understood what it had cost the other woman to make such an offer. Certainly they were friends, of a sort, but their interaction before had been mostly about support and comfort. They hadn't simply spent time together, the way friends did, since before Anna was born, and they'd certainly never gone shopping for clothing, as different as their styles were!

"No, you're right," Lois recanted quickly. "It's always best to get someone else's opinion. And I haven't gone shopping with a friend in a long time."

Cat smiled, reassured, and inwardly Lois marveled at how much she had changed, to need that reassurance from Lois Lane, of all people.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Perry was a bit harder to convince. "Now, Lois, I wasn't aware that the Daily Planet was in the habit of giving our reporters time off for social excursions."

"It's not a 'social excursion,' Perry," she insisted. "It's an emergency. You know I've been busy with this New Eden story all week. I wouldn't ask if I had an alternative. Of course, I could just skip the ball entirely..." Perry raised an eyebrow, and she knew he wasn't falling for that line. She lowered her voice. "You know I haven't been... quite myself lately, Chief. It totally slipped my mind."

He frowned, but at last he pointed a finger at her. "You can leave at three; will that give you enough time? But I want you downtown this morning covering the press conference at the courthouse, and I want a full update on this New Eden story first thing in the morning, you hear?"

She smiled, but nodded as coolly as she could. "I'm on it, Chief." Her expression softened for a moment. "Thanks."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Between writing up the press conference and covering a minor fire downtown, Lois had no time to even *think* about New Eden. Oh, well. I'll just have to check with Jimmy first thing tomorrow, before I see Perry, and find out what he came up with for those airport codes.

She met Cat at three, and they set off for Carter's, a newer boutique on the West Side. It was apparent immediately that their styles were clashing, as Cat selected gown after gown and Lois vetoed them. After an hour's searching, they found something they could agree on: a sleeveless satin gown in midnight blue, modestly but fashionably cut. The fabric skimmed lightly over her shoulders, accentuating the long, slim line of her neck and slender waist.

"I think this is it," Cat said. "I'm sure he'd like it, too." Lois looked up from her reflection, startled, but she did not ask who Cat meant. "You know, I'd really like to meet him," Cat continued. "I'll be nice, I promise. It's just that... Lois, you're so cold to men, to everyone. I'd like to meet the one that finally got through to you; he must be a pretty special guy. And..." She dropped her eyes, embarrassed. "You've been a really good friend to me. I'd-- I'd hate to see you hurt. So maybe I'd like to make sure I... approve of him. That he's worthy, you know?" she finished with a self-conscious laugh.

Lois looked away, embarrassed as well. "I'm flattered you care," she said, honestly. "And you're right, he's pretty special." Cat's comments were true; she *was* standoffish and cold to people, even downright rude at times, and she was hardest on men who pursued her. Claude had not been an unusual case. Every one of them was measured against Clark and found wanting. It was foolish, of course, to judge men by what was perhaps an impossible standard, especially when she'd thought him dead or imaginary until a week ago. But she knew her feelings, knew who and what she wanted, and she wasn't willing to settle for less. "Pretty special," she repeated, nodding wistfully to herself. "I wish you could meet him, too," she replied, surprised to find she actually meant it. Of course, it would be nice to sweep into the White Orchid Ball on Clark's arm, feeling all the surprised and jealous eyes turn her way, and knowing utterly that he was hers. But beyond showing him off to Cat and the others, she thought it might be nice to have a girl-friend to talk with about him, to complain and celebrate and gossip with. "But... it's complicated."

Cat nodded, but she didn't seem to take Lois's secrecy as an insult. Then she smiled tentatively. "Well, you could tell me about him, couldn't you?"

Lois smiled back, thinking quickly. What harm could there be in pretending? "Sure I could."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"So tell me, already."

Lois hesitated, unsure how to begin. "I've known him all my life," she started. "Well, since I was fourteen, anyway." There, that much was mostly true.

"First crush, hmm?" Cat asked sympathetically from behind Lois's chair, where she was carefully combing the last of the tangles out of Lois's dark hair. She'd somehow managed to persuade Lois to get some takeout and go back to her apartment with her to get ready for the ball. They picked up Anna and a pizza on the way and settled themselves in Cat's bedroom, which was far less risque than Lois had expected. Cat had noticed her surprise and winked at her. "You won't mention this to anyone, will you? You wouldn't want to ruin my image." Lois had sworn herself to secrecy, reminded faintly of teenage sleepovers or proms, helping friends with hair and makeup and gossiping. Still, she thought as she watched Cat in the mirror, she had to admit she was enjoying herself.

"Yeah," Lois affirmed, not even aware of the absent note her voice took on. "I think I fell in love with him from the very first night."

Cat hadn't been so unobservant. "Really," she remarked dryly, raising an eyebrow.

Lois flashed her a smirk, but she wasn't really annoyed. "Yes, well, I was young and impressionable. And he was... sweet. Such a gentleman, and so eager to please. Not that I could lead him around by the nose," she corrected herself. "He was smart, and he knew his own mind. But... there was just a sense of kindness about him. Gentleness. He was just... sweet," she repeated, coming back to that same word, still finding it the best descriptor of Clark at that age. "Of course, he was gorgeous, too," she admitted with a smile. "That didn't hurt."

Cat snorted. "Never does, does it?"

Lois shook her head reminiscently, her voice going dreamy again. "We were both so shy," she marveled. "So tentative. But always deep down I knew I didn't really need to be so careful with him. He was always so honest. Like you could trust him with your soul."

Cat frowned. "Dangerous ground, there, that kind of trust."

Belatedly Lois remembered where she was, and her eyes flew to the framed photograph on the vanity. The infant smiled back at her behind the glass, the same infant that was napping in the adjacent room. An infant that, for all her mother's auburn beauty, bore dark eyes and hair more like those of her father. "Does it bother-- I mean, you don't mind me going all mushy on you?" she asked, changing her words at the last minute.

Cat had clearly followed her gaze, but she averted her eyes and pretended ignorance, shrugging nonchalantly. "Nah," she replied. "If you've found a perfect man, that means there's still hope for the rest of us. I want to know all about him, so I know what to look for. What's his name, anyway?"

"Clark. Clark Kent."

Cat nodded, finishing her brushing at last and gathering the weight of Lois's hair in her hands. "Up, you think? Maybe a French knot?" Lois nodded her approval, and Cat began carefully arranging the strands as she'd described. "So you were first crushes. What happened?"

Lois considered. "He's not from around here," she answered at last. "I met him at summer camp. So we had nine days together, and then we had to split up."

"So at the end of camp you went home and pined for him?"

Lois snorted; however close Cat's estimation might be, she'd never admit it. "I hardly think 'pined' is the right word," she replied. "But I missed him, a lot. He'd never even kissed me, but that didn't stop me from wishing he had, or imagining what that would have been like." She laughed, her thoughts turning inward. "I imagined that pretty often, actually. Heck, Clark practically taught me what a fantasy really was." Blinking, Lois realized abruptly what she'd just said, and blushed brilliantly. Then she looked down and gave a wry laugh. "I guess 'pined' was the right word after all."

Cat giggled. "Yeah, it sounds like it." She patted the smooth sweep of dark hair and stepped back. "How's that?"

Lois studied her reflection in the mirror. "Oh, that's perfect," she assured her. Her hair had been carefully drawn back and up away from her face, with a few spiraling strands escaping. She had splurged on a pair of earrings to go with the dress, and she fumbled to put them in. "Your turn?" she asked, rising.

Cat hesitated, then nodded and settled herself in the chair. Lois had seen Cat's dress for the evening, a daring scrap of crimson silk, and she rummaged through the hair supplies in the drawer for something suitable. At last she found a few ruby-studded combs. "So then what?" Cat asked, reminding Lois of her unintentional confession.

She blushed, reaching for the hairbrush. "So I... pined for him, and he pined for me, I guess. So the next year we went to camp again, and we got nine more days together."

"And you got to try out a few of those fantasies in the flesh?"

Lois tried valiantly not to blush harder, knowing Cat's choice of words had been deliberate. "I was only fifteen!" she protested. Cat rolled her eyes, and Lois relented. "Okay, yes, I did get a kiss or two that year." Well, maybe a little more than that, she admitted to herself. That first year, there had been no intermittent dreams, and by the following April she'd been ready to admit that he'd been a fluke, a figment of her imagination. After a year's separation, they'd been desperately glad to see each other on the sixteenth.

"And then our time was up, and that was that," she continued, hoping Cat wouldn't press for more detail. "And it went on like that for years."

"But you're older now. You don't need summer camp to see each other anymore."

"No," Lois admitted. "But... well, it's complicated."

Cat apparently realized that was as much information as she was likely to get. "But he wants to be with you, and you want to be with him?"

"God, yes." She shook her head, trying to put words to what she felt. "He's amazing, Cat. Just amazing. So gentle, and so kind. I've never felt for anyone else the way I feel for him. And I know he feels the same way for me."

Cat shook her head, dropping her eyes to the polished top of the vanity. "Well," she said softly. "I hope he does."

There was such wistfulness and bitterness about her, and Lois knew at once she'd said too much. She opened her mouth to reply, but a tentative cry from the other room interrupted her. "It's Anna," Cat said, starting to get up.

"No," Lois said, appalled at her own behavior and needing a moment to compose herself. "Let me." She walked quickly into the baby's room, where she found Anna whimpering in her crib. The baby was startled by the appearance of an unfamiliar face, but she allowed Lois to pick her up and awkwardly settle her in her arms. "Shh-shh," Lois hushed her. "We'll go find your mom." The baby looked inquisitively at her, and despite her coloring, Lois was surprised at how much the child resembled her mother.

"Here she is," Lois announced as she returned to the bedroom, though she wasn't sure if she was speaking to mother or daughter. It didn't much matter; neither of them were paying much attention to her anymore.

Cat accepted the baby eagerly, the traces of pain in her face instantly gone. "There's my girl," she said, her voice bright, and she made soothing noises as the child cooed back at her.

Lois watched the two of them for a moment, then reached for the ruby combs, arranging them as artfully as she could in Cat's pale hair. It was funny, but she didn't feel so guilty now about sharing her story. Cat might not have a man in her life, but she was not alone, either. Admittedly, maternity did not seem a likely suit for Catherine Grant, society columnist. But Lois had to concede that it seemed to make her happy, which was more than could be said for many of the men she dated.

Cat was going to be all right. In a way, Lois was jealous. Certainly, Claude had treated her abominably, but she had her daughter now, a tiny human being that loved her without question and without reserve. All Lois had was dreams, and it looked very much like she would be alone for the rest of her life.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The White Orchid Ball was everything Lois had feared it would be. The ballroom was crowded with well-dressed, arrogant people, dancing and making small talk. Luthor himself was the life of the party, drifting from guest to guest, greeting them all as the most important person in the room.

"Miss Lane, Miss Grant," he exclaimed when he found them, only a few moments after they arrived. "Don't you ladies look wonderful tonight? I'm so glad the Planet staff was able to join me tonight; you know I think of you all as family."

I'm sure you do, Lois thought uncharitably. We're like the backwater relatives you pretend not to know.

Luthor took her hand and raised it to his lips. "A lovely color for you, Miss Lane, brings out the warmth in your eyes." Lois doubted that; Cat's flashy gown had turned out to be much more flattering, with the sharp scarlet combs in her hair giving her an almost dangerous look reminiscent of the Cat Grant of old. Lois felt rather plain next to her, with her dark satin and dark hair, but she supposed it didn't matter. There was no one here tonight that she wanted to impress.

Luthor kissed Cat's hand as well, then relinquished her to her date, who chose that moment to meet them at last. Peter was a tall, dark-haired man; Cat hung appropriately on his arm, but neither of them seemed overly amorous. Cat had briefly confided the details of their relationship to Lois: they were friends for now, and went out fairly often, but things were moving very slowly. Lois was glad to see her having fun on a date without any strings attached. She remembered what Cat had said about wanting to protect her; the feeling was unexpectedly mutual.

Fortunately, Peter seemed like a nice enough guy, so Lois released Cat into his custody. That left her free to wander aimlessly through the crowd of people, making idle chit chat with the other guests. She spotted Perry and some of the other Planet staffers across the room, but she never seemed to be able to meet up with them. She was snared time and again in pointless conversations, until she grew so tired and bored with it all that she retreated to one side of the ballroom to catch her breath. She surveyed the crowd idly, wondering if there were anyone out there she particularly wanted to avoid, but her eyes stopped on a man in the far corner.

Well, isn't *that* interesting! Looking distinctly uncomfortable in his formal attire, David Campbell was sidling through the crowd, never really stopping to make conversation.

Lois considered. Lex Luthor's White Orchid Ball was a private affair, but at least a hundred of Metropolis's citizens were invited, and many brought dates or spouses. It wasn't particularly unlikely, she supposed, that Campbell might have been invited for some reason, or come on the arm of some young woman. On the other hand, Campbell was only a daytime supervisor at a warehouse. Admittedly, New Eden seemed to be doing very well for itself, and many of its wares were upscale, but Lois didn't think that would elevate Campbell to the elite status of most of the other invitees. And he was alone; if he'd come with a date, wouldn't he still be with her?

No, Lois decided, watching as Campbell finally worked his way to Luthor's side, there was something else entirely going on tonight.

Luthor, standing perhaps fifteen feet from where Lois herself was, turned to acknowledge his guest. Positioned as he was, Lois couldn't fully see his expression, but she imagined that he jumped a little when he recognized Campbell. David said something, and Lois strained her ears, but she couldn't make out the words. Luthor frowned, that much Lois could see; then he made a dismissive gesture and returned his attention to his other companions.

Campbell spoke again, his posture speaking of urgency, and Luthor looked back at him, frowning once more. For a moment Lois thought he would upbraid the other man, but then he turned back to his friends. He smiled apologetically, obviously explaining to them that he'd have to attend to something, and then led Campbell out of the ballroom.

Lois watched them ascend, then glanced about; Luthor's companions seemed to have accepted his departure and had turned their attention to other things, and no one seemed to be watching her. Swiftly, she followed the two men, hoping no one was paying too much attention.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"I told you not to contact me." Luthor's voice was angry, accusing. "Do you have any idea how dangerous that is?"

Lois crouched down beside the heavy door, listening intently. "But, Mr. Luthor--" Campbell protested.

"But nothing! How did you get in here, anyway?"

"I came with a girl. Mr. Luthor, if you'd just listen to me--"

"I cannot afford to have associates who can't obey orders. You replaced Martin; you yourself can be replaced very easily. Now get out of here."

"Mr. Luthor, I think we have a leak!"

A pause, and then, "What?" Now there was a deadly edge to his tone, and involuntarily Lois shrank back a little from the door.

In growing alarm, Lois listened as Campbell explained that a file of invoices-- including the shipping invoices for several shipments of weapons-- was missing from the office. He had interviewed several people for the secretary's position, he said; he could only conclude that one of them had taken the folder. No one else had been inside the office, to his knowledge.

"It could have been the cleaning staff, or even a break- in," Luthor suggested.

"Well, it could have been a break-in, I guess, but I never saw anything to suggest that. And I don't have any cleaning staff for my office."

Luthor sighed heavily. "Well, you had better hope that whoever took that file did so by mistake, or that they don't manage to trace those shipments. Because it's *you,* my friend, whose head will roll."

He was not speaking figuratively; the tone of his voice made that very clear. Lois backed away from the door. She'd heard more than enough already, and by the sound of it, the impromptu meeting was about to disperse. She did *not* want to get caught eavesdropping in the hallway.

The knob turned behind her, and she took off running as quietly as she could back to the ladies' room. There was the sound of ripping cloth from behind her, but she didn't dare to turn around and see what had caused it. She pounded into the washroom and shut the door quickly behind her, leaning back against it and catching her breath. Mercifully, the room was empty, and when she'd calmed a little, she sank into one of the upholstered chairs in the antechamber, trying to analyze what she'd just heard.

She'd never quite liked Lex Luthor, but he was indirectly her employer, and he was the most generous philanthropist in the city. But from what she'd overheard, it sounded as if all of that was a cover for illegal business dealings, and somehow she doubted that this was his first shady endeavor. Luthor had been a little too comfortable, a little too controlled to be new to this. The threat had been too easily delivered.

So it sounded as if Luthor was the mastermind behind the smuggling of weapons, and most likely the man to profit the most by it. Where were they going, and how could they possibly be worth enough to justify the trouble?

Lois sighed. She still had far too many questions, and not enough answers. On the other hand, she smiled wryly to herself, at least the ball wasn't a total waste of time. Standing, she reached for the door. She'd had quite enough of high society; she was headed home for tonight. New Eden could wait until tomorrow.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Lex Luthor knelt in the hallway, curious, and plucked the scrap of cloth from the floor. It had apparently gotten caught on a protruding nail in the woodwork, and been torn from someone's dress as she passed. He rubbed the silk idly between his fingers, considering. The only people who should have been in this hall were Campbell, a few trusted servants, and himself. None of whom would have been wearing blue silk.

One of the guests, then? Someone who might have been eavesdropping in the hall? Luthor frowned, trying to remember what the most likely suspects had been wearing tonight. No, the only lady he remembered in that shade was...

Luthor straightened abruptly. "Campbell, you idiot," he sighed to himself. "How could you have interviewed the most famous journalist in Metropolis and not even recognized her?"

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It took Clark a long time to fall asleep, still tortured by the gruesome images he'd seen today. Sleep did claim him at last, his tired body overwhelming his mind and pulling him down into oblivion. When he opened his eyes again, he was drifting through the sky, floating listlessly towards his bedroom window. He ducked under the sash, landing carefully and closing the window behind him.

There was a knock at the door almost immediately, and he moved to answer it. He opened the door and there she was; he didn't think he'd ever been so glad to see her. The emotion must have been visible on his face, because she reached for him tentatively, frowning. "What's wrong?"

"Oh, Lois," he said, drawing her into his arms, unable even to explain why he was upset. He held her thus for a long moment, her head pressed close against his chest and his cheek resting against her hair. Her arms stretched around his waist and she hugged him back, letting him take his comfort from the closeness of her body, just as he had comforted her in the past.

At long last he drew a breath and pulled back, smiling a little at her, his expression sheepish. "Sorry," he said softly. "I-- I just needed that. It's been a long day."

She pulled away a little further so she could study his face, her brow still furrowed with a slight frown. "Are you all right? What is it?"

"Earthquake," he said shortly. "A few hundred people killed or wounded."

"Oh," she answered, surprised and saddened, but she didn't really understand what was bothering him. "When was it?"

"Last night," he replied. "I should have been there."

"I'm sorry, Clark, I don't understand."

He sighed. "No, I guess you don't."

For the first time, Lois realized he was wearing the tight blue suit he'd had on the night before. She allowed herself to study it this time; it certainly was a strange outfit. Still, she couldn't help but notice *just* how tightly it fit across his broad shoulders, and filed the thought and image away for later analysis. For now, she needed to figure out what was bothering him, and how she could help. "Clark..."

He backed away abruptly, releasing her but catching at her hands. "Lois, I know I need to explain. But..." He frowned briefly; he'd just realized what this explanation would entail, and he wasn't at all sure how she'd take this new information. "Well, it's sort of a long story... Maybe we should sit down," he finished awkwardly, tugging her down the stairs and to the couch.

They sat, and he turned to face her, still holding her hands in his lap. He hesitated a moment, running his fingers carefully over hers, trying to gather his thoughts and his courage. "I told you about my powers," he started at last. "How I'm stronger than other people, and faster. I'm invulnerable, too, to almost everything. And I can hear really well, and when people are in trouble, or hurt, I-- I can hear them calling for help. When I was younger, it used to tear me apart, being able to hear them and knowing I could help them. I mean, bullets don't hurt me, fire doesn't hurt me. I can rescue people in dangerous places, or prop up collapsing buildings. And I'm fast, really fast, so I can be anywhere in the world in a matter of minutes. Imagine all the good I could do, the people I could save!

"But I was always afraid that if I used my powers openly, I'd never have a normal life." His face darkened for a moment, and he gave her a twisted smile. And I was right. He shook his head, and deliberately lightened his tone. "So anyway, I used to just ignore the calls, only helping when I thought I could get away with it without being seen. But I always thought that these powers gave me a lot of potential to do good in the world, and I hated having to waste that."

"And that's why you're upset about the earthquake?" Lois asked, still unsure what he was talking about. "Because you could have helped, but you're afraid?" She had noticed that he was speaking in the past tense, which implied that he'd found a solution to his problem, but if that was the case, she didn't know why he was upset now.

"No," he answered, "I have a way to help now. And usually, if there's an emergency in the middle of the night, my super-hearing activates and I wake up. But... last night... We were dreaming, and I didn't wake up."

"So you're feeling guilty?" Lois asked incredulously. "Clark, even with your powers, you can't do *everything.* You do what you can. That has to be enough!" He looked unconvinced, and Lois thought fast, trying to find a better way to get through to him. "Clark, if you'd had a choice between the dream and helping with the earthquake, which would you have chosen?"

He looked up, his expression guarded. "Lois, I love you, but..."

"You'd choose the earthquake," she finished promptly, squeezing his hand to show that she wasn't hurt. "I know that. I wouldn't expect any less of you." She reached up and smoothed a hand across his forehead, brushing his hair back. "But you didn't have a choice this time. You didn't know. So don't tear yourself up about what you could have done, because you *couldn't* have done *anything.* Okay?"

He hesitated, but he had to admit she was right. He'd always known that, really. It was just a question of being able to accept it. "Okay," he said at last.

"Good," she replied. She lay her hand against his cheek and simply looked at him for a moment, searching his eyes, looking carefully for any lingering guilt or pain. Finding none, she gently skimmed her fingers down his neck and withdrew them. "So... Tell me about how you help people. You said you found a way?"

Out of the frying pan... Clark dropped his gaze again. She'd gotten him past his guilt, but the conversation was going to get even harder now. He could tell her about Superman, of course, but he didn't want to keep anything from her. And the story of Superman included the story of the 'impostor' Lois Lane.

And Lana, his conscience reminded him, and he bit his lip, realizing how much about him she still did not know, even after all their careful 'getting to know each other.'

"Well," he started hesitantly, unsure even how to begin this story. "A year ago, someone came to Metropolis. Well, actually a few people. One of them was Tempus, a politician. The city wasn't doing too well back then; most people were carrying guns with them all the time, and generally they were violent and distrustful of each other. Tempus promised to change all that. So he was running for mayor-- against Perry, you remember I told you Perry's the mayor now? Anyway, Tempus claimed that he knew 'the enemy' was coming, and that he was the only one who could protect the city from it."

Lois nodded. She didn't really see where this was going, but Clark had approached the tale of his alien origins in a roundabout way as well, so she figured she would hear him out. "But he lost, right? I mean, you said Perry's the mayor."

"Yes, he lost, but most of the time he was leading the race. Then the other two came to Metropolis. They knew who I was, and what I could do, and they'd had experience with Tempus in the past. They said he was really a dangerous criminal from... from far away," he edited, not wanting to explain about alternate universes just yet. "They said I was the only one who could stop him, and they showed me how to disguise myself so that I wouldn't be recognized as Clark Kent."

Lois raised an eyebrow, her gaze running up and down the spandex costume. "So they gave you this outfit?"

Clark glanced downward self-consciously, smiling. "Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time."

"These people must have been very persuasive."

Clark dropped his gaze, thinking of the other Lois, and just why he'd been so willing to listen to her. "Yeah... So anyway, they helped me make this outfit. And, when I was wearing it, I took off my glasses and I styled my hair differently. They said that would fool people. The crest here is some sort of Kryptonian symbol-- it was on the baby blanket that came with me to Earth-- but it looks like an 'S,' so they called me 'Superman.'"

"Superman," Lois repeated speculatively. On the one hand, it sounded ridiculous, but on the other, considering who he was and just what he could do, it was unexpectedly fitting. "And you set an example for your city and your world, protecting the innocent and helpless?"

He laughed. "Well, something like that." Then he sobered. "But in the end, Tempus's 'enemy' was me. He tried to kill me, and he almost succeeded. And he blew my cover. So the whole world knows that Clark Kent can fly."

"Oh, Clark," she exclaimed, raising a hand to touch his face again. She could tell from the tone of his voice how important his 'normal life' had been to him. "I know that can't be easy for you. What happened?"

"Well, Perry and Jimmy let me keep working at the Planet. When I'm dressed in 'Clark' clothes, I refuse to let the press talk to me, and they gave up doorstepping my apartment after a few months. I can avoid them, if I want to. What's harder is dealing with the general public... Half of them think I'm a freak, and don't want anything to do with me. And the other half think I'm a commodity, something they want to exploit or market. Women make jokes about Super-sex, and men make jokes about a man in tights." He was trying to keep the depression out of his voice, but at last he shrugged and gave up. "It's not a life I ever wanted for myself, and it's cost me just about every close relationship I ever had."

She squeezed his hand tightly in hers. "Not mine," she whispered. "It hasn't cost you this one, and it won't."

Clark smiled wryly. Not yet, maybe. But he only said, "Thank you for that, Lois. I value you, and my connection to you, more than anything else. More than anything I've ever had."

"So what happened to your friends? The ones who'd gotten you into this mess?"

Clark dropped his eyes again, hoping she wouldn't notice. "They left. They weren't from around here. They captured Tempus, and they took him away."

"After they'd ruined your life? They just left you?" There was a note of hostility in her voice now.

"It's not like they meant for it to happen, Lois," he replied. "And there was nothing they could do. Besides, they didn't force me to become Superman. They suggested it, and I went along with it willingly."

"Who were they? Where were they from?"

"Lois--" he protested.

"No, Clark, it's not right what they did to you. They ruined your life, and then they left you to clean up the mess. Why didn't you track them down?"

"They were from another dimension, Lois," he blurted.

She stared at him. "What?"

"They were from another dimension. Another world." He shrugged. "Like you, I guess. They knew the Clark Kent there, and they modeled me as Superman after him."

"Another dimension," she repeated flatly. "And they just set out to make you into their hero? Who were they? Why'd you let them do it?"

He laughed a little. "One of them said he was H. G. Wells."

Lois frowned. "The writer?"

"Yeah," Clark affirmed, well aware how ridiculous all this sounded. "Apparently he really had a time machine. And a machine to change dimensions, too. He's the one that brought them here."

Lois bit her lip, considering. He sounded sincere; she didn't think he was lying or joking. Still, there was a sense of uneasiness about him; he wasn't meeting her gaze, and his posture was awkward and uncomfortable. "Who was the other one?"

He took a deep breath. "Lois Lane."

She blinked. "She was... me? You met me-- her-- and you never said anything?" She struggled to process the information, but deep down she had a feeling that she was not going to like this part of the story.

"I didn't know she was you," he replied, his face still downcast. "I couldn't remember your face, you know. You said you always remembered my name; I didn't even know that much. I knew her name before I knew yours."

"But you know my name now?"

"And your face, yeah," he admitted.

"When did that change?"

He didn't move, but she thought she could sense him withdrawing, tensing, anticipating her anger or wrath. "After she left, I... I dreamed about her. And I realized she was you."

She regarded him coolly, pulling her hands from his, retreating from him. "So... you met this Lois Lane, and you could remember *her*, so you decided *I* must be her, right? Just like that, suddenly I've got an identity." She snapped her fingers, rising from the couch to pace back and forth. "What if it turned out I *wasn't* Lois Lane? What if my name was something else entirely? Would you have been disappointed?"

"Lois, no," he replied insistently, standing. He tried to catch her hands again, but she waved him away. "I've loved you forever, Lois. I only knew her for a few days."

"Long enough for you to decide she must be the soulmate you were dreaming about," she replied acidly. "You must have been busy."

"It wasn't like that," he insisted defensively, starting to lose his cool. He knew she had a right to be angry, but she wasn't looking at things from his point of view. What she'd said had hurt, and he found himself reacting angrily in turn. "Okay, I liked her," he admitted, frustrated. "But she was taken, you know. She had a fiance waiting for her back in her own world. And I wasn't exactly free, either." Abruptly he stopped, realizing he'd said too much, but Lois had heard him.

"What?" she asked softly.

"She was engaged," he repeated, sighing, the flash of anger dissipating as quickly as it had come. "And... and so was I."

Lois simply stared at him, obviously waiting for him to elaborate. He dropped his eyes to the floor, unsure what he could say. At last, Lois pressed, "She was engaged?"

Clark, well aware that she was asking the easy questions first, awkwardly replied, "Yes. After we foiled Tempus, she went home to him."

Lois swallowed. She knew the answer, but she had to ask. "Who was he?"

He shrugged dejectedly. "Her Clark Kent. Her Superman."

"So you figured, hey, what works for him works for you? Lois Lanes all around?" She knew she was being irrational and unnecessarily cruel, but she couldn't help herself. Before he could reply, she continued, "And who was *your* fiancee?"

He frowned. "Lana Lang. My... my high school sweetheart."

"Funny," she said, her voice brittle. "I thought I was that."

"You were-- you are, Lois," he assured her, wanting to touch her, but afraid to see her withdraw from him. "Lana was just... persuasive."

"Persuasive, hmm?" she repeated, the pain starting to seep into her voice now. "You said the same thing about the other Lois. Is that the kind of woman you want, Clark? Is that the kind of woman I am? Or wait, let me guess, you thought *she* was me, too."

Clark closed his eyes, drawing a deep breath. He couldn't deny what she'd said, even if she was taking it the wrong way.

Lois laughed hollowly. "Gee, Clark, how many names have I had over the years? How many faces?"

"That's not fair, Lois--"

"Not fair?" she retorted. "No, Clark, let me tell you what's not fair. Not fair is meeting the perfect guy you can never have when you're fourteen years old. Not fair is judging *every single man* you meet afterwards against his standard and never finding one that lives up. Not fair is being alone night after night, year after year, knowing that's the way it's going to be for the rest of your life. Not fair, Clark, is being virgin at twenty-nine years old except in your head, because you can't even imagine being that intimate with anyone else. *Not fair* is saving yourself and your soul and your body for someone, and not fair is finding out he isn't who you thought he was."

He stared at her for a long moment, struggling to absorb what she'd said and wondering how on earth he could make this right. "Lois," he said, speaking softly, as if to a frightened child or a spooked animal. "Lois, listen to me. I never, ever meant to mislead you, or to hurt you. You have to know that by now, don't you? That I care for you, that I'd never hurt you if I could help it? But look at it from my point of view. I didn't know you, didn't know what you looked like or what your name was. What could I do, except hope that someday I'd find you?" He looked down, shaking his head slightly. "So... whenever I met someone, I always wondered if she could be you. I *hoped* that she was. I didn't want to admit that you were unattainable, unreachable. I tried to see you in them. If that was wrong, I'm sorry, Lois, but that was all I could do. I had to try."

"Oh, I see," she spat acidly, her voice harsh but her eyes gleaming. "It's easy to be faithful nine days a year."

He drew back, stung. "I was never unfaithful. Never. I was always, *always* looking for you. You have to believe that."

Lois shook her head, tears finally starting to stream down her face even as the dream began to fade around them. "I don't know what to believe anymore, Clark."

He reached out to brush the tears from her cheek, desperate now to ease her pain, but she drew back almost frantically, as if she feared the touch. "No," she sobbed, stumbling backwards up the stairs, groping behind her for the doorknob. "I can't, Clark, I just can't. I-- I need time. I need to be alone, to think, okay? I'll-- I'll talk to you tomorrow night."

At last her fingers closed on the handle, and she tore her eyes away from his stricken face. Wrenching the door open, she fled into the hallway and the world went black.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

CHAPTER EIGHT

"Destiny is something not be to desired and not to be avoided."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

APRIL 23RD, 1997

METROPOLIS, NEW TROY

[ALTWORLD 2]

Her throat was still sore. Irritably, Lois swallowed another mouthful of her coffee and headed to her desk.

She'd been crying even before she woke up. She found her pillowcase damp and her cheeks smeared with bitter tears, her throat tight and swollen, her eyes burning. Her whole body felt weary and sore, as if she hadn't slept at all. She wanted to close her eyes on the world and sink back into sleep, but she'd been afraid to slip back into her dreams.

God, what a week it had been. She sighed. Had it really been only a week ago that she'd donned her favorite nightgown and scooped out a bowl of ice cream, settling down for another week of bittersweet fantasies? So much had changed in so short a span of time. They'd been given such an incredible gift, such an amazing connection.

Funny, she thought bitterly, I don't feel any better for it.

It had always been hard. She'd become accustomed to that. She'd been in love with a man who could never exist for her. She was used to being alone, had planned for it all along. What was worse than being alone, she understood now, was being betrayed. She'd never expected that from Clark.

How many women, she wondered again. How many names had he given her, substituting one lover for another, looking for her in the random faces of everyone he met? Had he found her, she wondered bitterly, in that other Lois's arms, in Lana's kisses? In a more intimate embrace? She shuddered as images flashed through her mind, crude images, painful images. Had he imagined her under him even as he lay entwined with Lana?

That's not fair, Lois.

She winced; that's what he had said, too. And she'd informed him very clearly what she thought of *that* excuse.

He was probably right; the way she'd reacted hadn't been fair to him. But she was feeling hurt and angry; surely it wasn't unreasonable to expect some time to recover from that. Except that she couldn't have time alone. In another twelve hours or so, she'd be dreaming with him again. She'd never wanted to skip a dream with Clark before, but she dreaded the thought of seeing him again. She didn't know how to deal with all of this.

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Jimmy coming out of the elevator. She still hadn't found out what information he might have come up with for her. There would be time later to think about what to say to Clark; for now, there was work to be done. Lois swallowed hard, switching into business-mode and trying to ignore the lingering taste of tears in her throat.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

APRIL 23RD, 1997

METROPOLIS, NEW TROY

[ALTWORLD 1]

Clark stared at the silver disc for a moment before he laid it in the waiting CD tray. This was sure to be his best clue; he was suddenly nervous about reading it.

He didn't know why it mattered so much to him; after all, he had never known this Lois. She should have been only a little more than any other case he'd investigated. But somehow he found himself desperate to bring her justice if nothing else. She wasn't his, had not been intended for him. But he did have a connection to her, if only because she *might* have been. He wanted to find her, for that if nothing else.

On the other hand, things had gone so badly last night, maybe he was just looking for some small measure of success in something.

That was a disheartening thought, and with some effort he forced himself back to the task at hand. Lucy had been surprised to hear from him again so soon, but she'd been cooperative, and the backup CD had been just where Lois had told him it would be. Examining the contents, he could see it contained copies of all of Lois's notes for her pending stories. He did a search for 'Intersea' and came up with a handful of small text files. Opening the first one, he began to read.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"What have you got for me, Jimmy?"

The copy boy looked up at her approach. "Oh, hi, Lois. I found these two airport codes you were looking for." He shuffled through the stack of pages in his arms and withdrew a single sheet for her.

"Thanks, Jimmy," she said, scanning the sheet but not recognizing the cities listed there. "Oh, and Jimmy, I want you to see if Lex Luthor owns any import/export businesses, even indirectly. I'll see what I can do with these."

The younger man nodded. "Will do."

Lois returned to her desk, absently fingering the sheet Jimmy had given her. This didn't make any sense; why would Luthor be sending large shipments of weapons to the middle of nowhere? And who there could afford to pay him enough to make it worthwhile?

After half an hour's fruitless searching, she found something quite interesting indeed.

"Hey, Lois," Jimmy called, passing by on his way to Perry's office. "You're right, LuthorCorp does have a small but profitable import/export division. But it goes by a different name, so most people don't realize Lex owns it."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"Intersea Exports," Clark read, "bought out several smaller companies in the past six months and is probably using them as a cover-up for the illegal arms traffic.... Civil wars in various parts of Africa make gun-smuggling a very profitable endeavor, both in cash and in political favors.... The most unstable country is the most profitable...."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"The Democratic Republic of Congo," Lois explained to Perry, "has been in civil war for almost a decade! Think of the money to be made selling guns, selling to both sides, even!"

"What money is there to be made selling guns to rebels in Africa? Come on, Lois, it wouldn't be worth the effort."

Lois shook her head. "Ordinarily, yes, but the chief export of the Congo is uncut diamonds! The current government might be willing to offer an exclusive export contract in return for extra weapons. And if you were relatively certain one rebel group would win, you could trade guns for political promises. You'd have influence when the new government came to power."

"That sounds a little farfetched to me, Lois--"

"But LuthorCorp has an imports/exports division *and* a gem-cutting one. Their profits from diamonds and precious stones have gone through the roof in the last six months, and no one has any concrete explanation for their sudden success. I told you what Lex said last night, Perry! He knows about the guns; he's orchestrated the whole thing!"

"I believe you, honey, but Lex Luthor? He's the most respected businessman and philanthropist in Metropolis, maybe in all of America! Not to mention your employer."

"I know what I heard, Chief. I can't prove Lex is involved, but if we could get David Campbell, he might be willing to testify against Luthor."

"You aren't a prosecutor, Lois, you're a reporter. And may I remind you again that as such you're privately employed, and that Luthor signs your checks?"

"You aren't suggesting I cover up a story just because Luthor owns the Planet!" Lois protested incredulously.

Perry made a pacifying gesture. "I didn't say that. What I meant was, you'd better have some very solid proof. So far I haven't seen anything like that."

"I can get proof!" Lois promised. "Let me go over there, Chief. Just for a few days. See how the guns are getting in, maybe try to follow them... I'll be careful," she added, preempting the look forming on his face. "Come on, this is a major story. We're talking international smuggling *and* the downfall of the third-richest man in the world!"

Perry studied her for a long moment, and then nodded reluctantly. "Okay. You can put your tickets on your Planet account."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Clark closed the document he was reading and leaned back in his chair. It was done. He knew what she'd discovered, who she'd suspected, where she'd been going. The only thing he didn't know was what had happened when she got there.

But then, he had a sinking feeling he knew that, too.

She'd planned to use the name Lisa Larrian on her second plane ticket; double L's, just as Lois had predicted the other night. A call to Paris and some Super-influence had confirmed that she'd taken a flight to Brazzaville on the 25th. From there, she'd planned to charter a private jet to Mwerana. She wanted to visit the customs office, hoping to figure out who the smugglers' contact was, and then planned to stay in town for a few days to see if she could find out just where the guns were going. If she could do the former, at least she'd have an accomplice and proof of her story; the latter would be a bonus.

Clark considered. There wasn't anyone looking for her in Brazzaville, and nothing illegal there that she'd been investigating. So he thought the chances that some misfortune had befallen her there were rather slim. It was much more likely that she'd made it to Mwerana, and been caught there.

So perhaps a trip to Congo was in order. Clark reached for the FBI files he'd hidden in his desk drawer, and leafed through them until he found a snapshot of Lois. Reaching for his tie, he headed for the elevator.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The Mwerana airport consisted of a dusty, unpaved runway and a ramshackle wooden building that housed the customs office. Clark x-rayed the building as he descended; inside, a man sat half-asleep behind the desk, watching some talk show on a beat-up television monitor. As he dropped lower, something else caught his eye: a small gun stashed inside one of the desk drawers.

Landing at last in the dust outside the office, Clark drew himself up to his full height and adopted his most intimidating Superman posture. He had no proof, but his instincts told him this was where the Lois of this world had been killed. If he were right, his only hope at this point was to bluff the attendant into giving something away.

The man scrambled hastily out of his chair when Clark entered. "Superman! It's an honor... I never expected you to drop by... Um, what can I do for you, sir?"

"How long have you worked at this office?"

"Five years, Superman, sir."

"Well, then, perhaps you can help me." He offered the man the photograph he'd brought with him. "I'm looking for a young woman who disappeared three years ago. Perhaps you might have seen her."

Even without the benefit of supersenses, the man's sudden distress was apparent, despite his attempts to hide it. His hand was slightly shaky as he took the photograph from Clark, his heartbeat instantly accelerating in panic. "I-- I've never seen her before," he said, his voice carefully flat. "Are you sure she was coming to Mwerana? We do not get many visitors here..."

"She wasn't a visitor," Clark interrupted sternly, injecting his tone with as much authority and strength as he could muster even as his heart sank in his chest. She was dead, somehow he knew it, and this man knew what had happened to her. "She was a reporter. A very good, very famous reporter who came here investigating a gun-smuggling ring." He paused, fixing the trembling man with an unflinching gaze. "I think you did see her. I think you killed her."

The attendant opened his mouth in protest, but no sound came from his lips. Clark reached out, very deliberately, and caught the man by his collar. "She was a friend of mine, you know," he said, his voice carefully controlled. "And I would *love* to find the man who's responsible for her death. I don't like to lose friends. I would love to let him see just how little I like it. Unless..." he paused for a moment, "unless he could give me the man who ordered him to do it."

The man gave him a beseeching look. "Superman, please! I-- I have a wife, a family--"

"Will you help me?" Clark pressed insistently.

The smaller man nodded desperately. "Anything you ask, sir, anything!"

Clark released him to drop bonelessly into his chair. "Then tell me. Everything."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Lois cast a last glance over the neat contents of the small suitcase. It was no use; she'd checked it three times already. Everything was gathered and packed.

Her laptop beeped at her, and she moved to the desk. The backup disc was finished. It was silly to worry about hiding it, now that she lived alone, but she went to the bookcase and secreted it away anyway. Old habits died hard.

Lois shut down the laptop and packed it away, setting the case on the floor and then closing her suitcase and leaving them both by the door. She was leaving the apartment at four-thirty to catch a seven o'clock flight, and she wanted to be sure everything was ready before she went to bed so she wouldn't have to rush in the morning.

She was only pretending now, she was well aware. She'd succeeded all day in immersing herself in her investigation and her travel plans, successfully distracting herself from the more painful thoughts of Clark and their argument. But now there was nothing left to be done, no more packing or planning to require her attention. It was late; she needed to go to bed soon if she wanted to get any sleep at all.

For a moment she toyed with the idea of staying up all night. After all, she could sleep tomorrow on the plane if she wanted. She could do some more research on the rebellion in the Congo, or there might be something relatively palatable on television...

She sighed. She was avoiding the issue again, and that wasn't going to get her anywhere. She'd never reflected that, just as they couldn't be together, they couldn't ever really be apart either. Whether they wanted them or not, they still got at least nine dreams together each year. There were only two nights left this time around. As much as she dreaded seeing Clark again, deep down she did not want to waste them.

They needed to talk. She hadn't been fair, not really. She hadn't even let him explain himself. She still believed she had a right to be hurt, to be angry. At the very least, he'd hidden things from her. Whether or not his actions were truly a betrayal of her and their bond was debatable at best, but the knowledge still cut deeply. Dreaming with Clark had shaped her life and her personality more than she cared to admit. It hurt that she apparently hadn't had as great an impact on his.

But that wasn't fair either, she realized, deliberately calming her troubled heart. She'd made her own choices; he had never asked for anything from her. And she hadn't let him explain anything. Tonight, she would let him tell her everything, if he would. And when they had everything out in the open, they could figure out where to go from here.

Abruptly, she remembered her own near-betrayal, so many years ago, and shuddered. She had to tell him everything, if that was what she expected from him.

Deep down, part of her realized it was all a moot point. They were linked. Like it or not, whatever road they chose from now on, they'd travel it together.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Slowly she opened the door, her eyes flickering briefly up to his before dropping back to the carpet. "Hi," she said, awkwardly, and stepped aside to let him in.

"Hi," he replied, coming inside but making no move to go further into the apartment. Lois closed the door and leaned back against it; Clark turned to face her and for a long moment they simply stood staring miserably at each other.

"Come on in," Lois said at last, moving past him into the living room. She took care not to touch him as she passed, a fact that Clark was painfully aware of. He followed her lead, and they spent another uncomfortable moment looking at each other before Lois finally backed away to sit on the far corner of the couch.

Clark took the chair nearest her, folding his hands in his lap. "Lois," he began at last. "I-- I know you're hurt, and I'm sorry. But I think we both said a lot of things we didn't mean last night. I got defensive and angry, and I didn't explain things very well. If you'll let me, I'd like to fix that. Let me tell you everything. If after that you still don't want anything to do with me, well, at least I'll have done everything I could."

Lois raised her eyes to him again, and she ached to see the pained regret on his face. It would have been easy to let him take all the blame for their argument, but the expression in his eyes told her he was hurting as much as she was. That knowledge gave her the strength to speak up. "It's not that I don't want anything to do with you, Clark," she said softly; her voice was rawer than she'd expected. "I do care for you. I couldn't turn that off in the space of a day, even if I wanted to. I'm just... hurt, and confused, and... betrayed, I guess," she admitted, and Clark flinched at the word. "But I got angry, and I said things I didn't mean, too. So I think it's a good idea to talk about this, calmly and carefully. We'll both have a better understanding of what's ahead for us."

Clark, still stinging, couldn't decide if she sounded optimistic or not. 'What's ahead' implied there was still a chance for a future, but it did not sound particularly likely.

Still, a start was a start, and he manufactured an encouraging smile for her, as reward for her courage and her honesty. "Thank you," he replied. "I still want the same thing I've always wanted: a relationship with you that's built on trust. I don't know how to show you that, except to be as honest as I can. But I wouldn't want anything less for you, for us."

"I know," she said, softly.

"So... where do I begin?" he asked. He'd rehearsed this story a thousand times today, but now that it came time to deliver it, he couldn't remember any of his prepared speech. He decided perhaps it would be best anyway to let her guide him through it, ask questions. That way, he reasoned, he'd be sure to cover everything she wanted to know.

"Start with your fiancee," Lois suggested quietly, her eyes on the ground once more. "Lana."

Well, that was logical enough, he thought; chronologically, Lana came before the other Lois. "Lana Lang," he repeated. "Lana and I grew up in Smallville. She lived next door to one of my foster homes. She was a couple years younger than I was, so we weren't really childhood friends, but we got a little closer in junior high. We started dating when I was in tenth grade, I think, and we were together off and on all through high school. Lana was," he hesitated, considering, "stubborn. She knew what she wanted, and she went after it. I don't know if I ever really 'wanted' her, but she had her sights set on me. It was flattering," he admitted. "She was popular and self-assured, all the things I couldn't be. And she wanted *me.* So, after a while, I... I decided she was the best thing I was going to get, and I asked her to marry me."

Lois didn't let it show, but she was inwardly relieved. That didn't sound like the passionate affair she'd been imagining. "But... you didn't marry her," she prompted, suddenly wary.

"No!" he assured her, horrified that he'd been so unclear. "God, no, Lois. I'm not married, and I never have been. She-- well, she knew about my... differences. I told her about that in college, when things started to get more serious between us. And she was... tolerant." He chose his words carefully. "Deep down, I think she wasn't happy with the idea of marrying a-- an alien. She decided to ignore that part of me, and she forbade me to use my powers. She said she was scared that someone would find out, that the government would take me away to some laboratory. And she probably *was* scared," he admitted. "But I don't think that was really her problem. I think deep down she thought that if she pretended hard enough, I'd turn into a normal man. I couldn't do that. Superman was a step too far for her," he finished softly. Not to mention the other Lois, he thought, but he did not say it aloud. He'd come to that in due time.

To his surprise, she reached out and caught his hand. "Clark, I'm sorry," she said, unconsciously mimicking what the other Lois had said at the time.

"It's okay," he assured her. "Really, it's better this way."

Lois shook her head, though she was surprised at her own conclusion. "No," she said slowly, as if testing out the truth of her words. "It isn't, not really. I-- I can't be with you, I know that. If you can find someone to share your life with, Clark, I should be happy for you. I don't want you to be alone. I don't want that for you."

"But that's what you expect for yourself," he replied in a sudden moment of insight, her words from the night before replaying in his head. 'Judging *every single man* you meet afterwards against his standard and never finding one that lives up.'

She laughed, bitterly, and he caught the shine of moisture in her eyes. "We'll talk about me later," she promised, wiping at her eye with one finger. "For now, let's finish with you. The other Lois. Tell me about her."

Clark nodded. "Well, what I told you yesterday was true. Tempus had been campaigning for mayor, but he was really an escaped convict from Lois's dimension. An old enemy of Wells's, I think; that's why he came looking for him. Tempus brought Lois here, but I've never really been sure why. I mean, I think he had a plan to expose me and thus elevate himself in public opinion, and Lois played a part in that, but I'm not sure that was all of it. Unless it was just to make me miserable," he considered. "Tempus hated the Clark of the other dimension. Maybe he was using Lois to hurt both of us."

"By showing you what you couldn't have, and depriving him of his fiancee," Lois finished. They'd never know if that was really the reason, but it was probably at least partly right.

"Yeah," Clark agreed. "So anyway, Lois showed up at the Planet, and Perry was thrilled to see her. Our Lois was missing by then, you know, but everyone assumed this was her. Perry partnered her with me until she could get back in the swing of things, and she wanted to investigate Tempus."

He shifted uncomfortably. "Now, even though Wells had told her they were in a new dimension, when she saw me, I guess she thought I was... him. She kissed me." He sighed. "It was only for a split second, and it never happened again. But I wanted to tell you, because I promised I wouldn't hide anything from you."

For an instant Lois felt irrationally jealous. Clark had gotten a kiss from this other version of herself. Even though it *wasn't* her, and thus the kiss didn't matter much to Clark, Lois thought she'd give anything for a real, waking kiss, even from a simulacrum of Clark.

Still, a split-second kiss was not something she felt inclined to get angry about just now, especially if it had been a misunderstanding as he had said. And he'd told her of his own free will; surely that implied she could trust him about it. "It's okay, Clark," she said after a moment's consideration. "It wasn't your fault."

He smiled a little, tentatively. "Well, no, but I did want to tell you."

"I appreciate that," she assured him, squeezing his hand in hers.

He looked down at her hand in his lap, returning the caress. "So Lois ran up and kissed me, and Lana wasn't too happy with that."

"I guess not," Lois replied wryly.

"But Perry introduced Lois and partnered me with her," Clark continued. "She cornered me in the conference room, and told me she knew who I was, what I could do. Wells backed her up. It was a lot to take in," he conceded. "But they knew about me. I had to keep an eye on them, at least. And... I felt a sort of connection with her," he admitted softly. "I wanted to believe her.

"She wanted me to be Superman. She had a photo of him in her wallet. I thought she was crazy when I saw it. I mean, the outfit looked pretty ridiculous. But she... she had a picture of my-- his-- parents, too. They're still alive there. And a picture of her with him. From the picture," he said, his voice faintly wistful, "it was very obvious how the two of them felt about each other."

Clark sighed, shifting a little on the couch. "Maybe I thought I could take his place. Subconsciously, I mean. Or maybe it was just that he seemed so happy. Everything in his life had fallen perfectly into place. Maybe I thought I could have that, too. That Superman was the way to get that. It wasn't," he continued. "It can't bring back my parents, and it can't give me you." He caught her gaze and held it for a moment. "But I let her make me Superman, because, regardless, I knew it was right for me."

Lois could feel the tears burning in her eyes, and angrily she blinked them away. It wasn't fair. The other Clark Kent had everything he'd ever wanted: family, love, a way to help and still lead a normal life. Her own Clark had none of those things, could never have them, and to make it worse, he'd had to confront that reality when the other Lois Lane fluttered briefly through his life. It wasn't fair at all.

"Lana was furious," Clark continued, his eyes downcast, oblivious to her response. "I told you what happened with Tempus; my secret identity was blown. She told me to choose between Superman and her. And it wasn't really a difficult choice."

"And Lois?" she asked, gently.

"I asked her to stay," he replied honestly. "I was kidding myself. I knew she loved him. I just-- I had to try. I'd never felt that connection before-- not outside of a dream. I didn't know if I'd ever feel it again."

Lois nodded. It hurt a little, yes, to know that he'd come so close to replacing her. But deep down she was aware that Clark was hers, had always been hers. It was she whom he dreamed with, she whom he had known and loved all his life. The bond between them could not so easily be replaced. How could she doubt his dedication to that, and to her? Here he was, looking so uncertain and desperate, confessing unbidden and asking her forgiveness for this tiny transgression. He meant it, she knew that. So it was almost easy-- almost-- to reach up, touch his cheek, and lean forward to kiss him gently, briefly. As she pulled back his arms rose around her to halt her retreat, and he held her against his chest for a long moment, relieved and grateful.

She tucked her head under his chin, listening to the steady beat of his heart beneath her. His reaction was reassuring; if she had been unsure of her decision, the fervency and joy in his embrace would have laid her doubts to rest.

When he released her, his eyes were shining. She smiled reassuringly at him. "It's okay, Clark." She was surprised how easily she could forgive him, but she could. He hadn't done what he had in malice, or even knowing that she was real. She couldn't hold that against him.

Clark was acutely aware that he hadn't told her everything yet, however, and he didn't want to omit anything. So when he'd composed himself, he started again. "I dreamed about her that night," he admitted. "I don't think it was you. It was just a lot of fragments of things, images. Nothing coherent, except a sense of loss. I could see her, but I could never reach her or touch her." He dropped his eyes. "When I woke up, I knew she must be the person I was looking for. I mean, I'd wondered, since I knew she was engaged to her Clark. But the dream told me that she was just another version of you."

"Did you ever see her again?"

"Actually, I did," he said. "Once when her Clark was... lost. It's a long story. But Tempus was involved, and Wells, and they needed help. So I went over to their universe, and I helped them find her husband-- they were married by then. She was lost without him," he said softly. The wistfulness was back in his tone, though Lois suspected he wasn't even aware of it; a longing for someone in his life that cared for him as much as that Lois had cared for her Clark.

"What happened?" she asked, when his gaze turned inward and he seemed to lose himself in his memories.

"She was so afraid, and lonely, and I was lonely and jealous... I-- we-- I almost kissed her again. We didn't," he hastened to continue. "We knew it was wrong. We were both just so miserable, and it would have been so easy to pretend. Easy for both of us." He caught her eyes, wondering if she'd understood what he meant. That he, too, would have been imagining someone else in his arms. That it was not only the other Lois who would be pretending. Lois nodded slightly, and, satisfied, he shrugged guiltily. "I guess that isn't an excuse, but it's all I can say. Anyway, we stopped Tempus, and we saved her Clark, and Wells brought me back home.

"It was so hard, Lois," he said softly. "I'd stepped into his life so easily, it was hard to abandon it when the time came. To see her with him, so happy and secure in their relationship. To see him with his parents. To walk down the street and never get so much as a backward glance, because no one knows his identity... it was wonderful and awful all at the same time." Lois squeezed his hand again, aching to hear what he had gone through. "I wanted to hate him," he whispered fiercely. "It wasn't his fault, but he had *everything* I've ever wanted."

Lois bit her lip, hearing her own thoughts quoted back to her. "I'm sorry," she said miserably. "I'm so sorry."

Clark raised her hand and kissed her palm, folding her fingers in as if to seal the warmth of his touch in place. "But he didn't have this," he replied intensely. "You and I, we have a connection that they can never have."

Lois shrugged bitterly, her eyes pricking again. "They have each other, though. They're real."

He sighed heavily, closing his eyes. "Yeah," he admitted. "They are."

Lois pressed herself closer into his side, needing to feel him warm and firm under her, even if none of it was real. He wrapped his free arm around her and dropped a kiss into her hair. They sat thus for several moments, seeking comfort but finding only a sense of resignation and uneasy peace.

At last Clark looked down at her. He'd spoken his piece; now it was her turn. "So you expect to be alone all your life?" he asked again, gently.

Lois flushed faintly, remembering exactly what she'd said the night before. Her gaze remained rooted to her hands in her lap, twisting nervously. "I guess I expect that, yeah. I mean, you're just a dream in my world. But I-- I love you. And I can't settle for less than that."

He sighed, frowning. "But that isn't what I want for you, either, Lois. To be alone, I mean. We both know we can't be together, not really." He swallowed hard. "Maybe it's time we accepted that, and stopped torturing ourselves."

She pulled away. "Stop dreaming, you mean," she replied, incredulous. "Clark, are you crazy? Did you hear me? I said I love you, and I'm pretty positive that you love me, too. Why would we want to give that up? Even if we could," she added. "Which we probably can't, because we don't know how these dreams work, anyway."

He smiled at her outburst in spite of himself. "Okay," he soothed. "Okay, you're right, that was a stupid idea."

She flashed him a glare. "Darn right it was. A minute ago you weren't willing to give this up so you could find someone else. What makes you think I'd be any more enthusiastic about the prospect?"

"I'm sorry," he assured her, guiding her back into the cradle of his shoulder, but there was a shadow in her eyes that he could not interpret. She was silent for a long moment. "Lois," he prodded at last. "What is it? You'll feel better if you tell me. And we agreed to talk this out, all of it."

"I was fourteen," she said softly. "Barely old enough to be thinking about boys as anything important. I'd had little crushes, but nothing serious. Nothing reciprocated. And then... then came you." She shook her head. "You were different. You were everything I'd wanted in a boy and more. You were handsome, you were smart, you were gentle. You... affected me, in a way I wasn't familiar with. *And* you liked me back. God, Clark, how was I supposed to resist that?"

She laughed a little, dryly. "You know, they tell little girls, growing up, that we shouldn't dream about our knight in shining armor, because he doesn't exist. But it's what the world fills our heads with. Our movies, our music, even our fairy tales. You grow up thinking that, even if knights in shining armor don't exist as a rule, maybe, just maybe, one might exist for *you.* That your story might be the 'happily ever after' kind, against the odds." She smiled. "Well, when I was fourteen, I found mine. His name was Clark Kent, and he was the most amazing boy-- man-- I'd ever met. So all I had to do was wait for him to find me."

She curled her fingers around his, the optimistic tone fading from her voice. "Deep down I always knew you weren't real. I just... I needed you. I needed that fantasy. And by the time I learned to *accept* that you weren't real, I'd already realized it didn't matter. I loved you, and I couldn't imagine giving you up.

"I always knew your name," she continued, conversationally. "I know you didn't have that advantage. But it was easy for me to disqualify men on those grounds alone. I tried to date, in college and later." Her face darkened as she remembered. "One year I even tried to banish you," she confessed in a whisper. "I was angry and hurt. I thought that if I made-- slept with another man on the 16th, the dreams would go away."

Clark drew a sharp breath, surprised by how much that admission could hurt. At once he thought he could understand the anguish that had been in her voice last night. He couldn't call it a betrayal, not really, not when he'd only been a dream. But he thought if there was any way to sever this link between them, she had certainly just described it.

"I couldn't do it," she said, her voice at once both dark and apologetic. "I-- I asked him in, and I let him kiss me. But all I could think about was you. The way *you'd* have kissed me, the way it felt to... well, to do that with you. And I couldn't stand it. I couldn't stand to betray you and I couldn't stand the touch of his hands on me. It felt... dirty," she admitted. "You and I... we'd never been that way. And I didn't want that."

Clark tightened his arm around her, as if to ease that long ago pain. "What happened?"

"He left," she said simply. "Went off to sleep with my best friend."

"Oh, Lois," he protested.

"It's okay, Clark," she assured him, and he could almost believe her. "It was a long time ago. It just proved to me that I'd been right all along-- that the only person right for me was you."

He had to kiss her again for that, a simple, gentle touch of gratitude and warmth. "Me too," he admitted. "I mean, I know you're the one for me, too."

She pulled back to look at him, searching his face, and he knew with a pang that she was reliving last night's conversation. But at last she nodded, accepting what he'd said. His old transgressions could be forgiven, just as he could forgive her for what she'd confessed tonight. She pressed forward for another kiss, but there was a sorrow in her now. He let her, but he broke gently away after a moment. He took her face lightly in his hands; she tried to avert her gaze, but he tilted her head until she had to look at him.

"What is it?" he asked.

She gave a humorless laugh. "The usual, I guess."

He frowned, pulling her close against his side once more. Stupid question. "Are we okay?" he said at last. "I mean, we're going to get through this?"

Lois shrugged against him, her face downcast so he couldn't see her expression. "We're not fighting anymore, if that's what you mean," she said tentatively. "I-- I know I said some hurtful things yesterday. And you *did* hurt me," she continued honestly. "But I know it hasn't been easy for you, either, all these years. And I haven't been perfect."

"Lois, honey--"

"So I'm not mad anymore," she continued, cutting him off. "We've talked it out, and I believe you've told me the truth. So we can put that behind us. Whether we're going to get through this..." she added, wiping moisture from the corner of her eye before it could spill over, "Well, that's another story."

Clark sighed. "I'm sorry," he said softly, pulling her in close against him.

Lois buried her head in the crook of his shoulder, turning her face into the solid warmth of his chest and closing her eyes even as the sensation began to fade. "Me, too."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

CHAPTER NINE

"Why live life from dream to dream, and dread the day when dreaming ends?"

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

APRIL 24TH, 1997

METROPOLIS, NEW TROY

[ALTWORLD 1]

"I'll have your badge for this. I'll have your head!" Luthor fumed.

Clark gave a grim smile. There would be no strings to pull this time, no palms to grease. The Congolese officials had been very accommodating for Superman; the customs officer was already in the custody of Metropolis Police, along with David Campbell. Between the two of them and Lois's notes, the evidence was overwhelming. Even now the FBI was searching the Intersea headquarters and all the smaller warehouses, including New Eden. Luthor, however, had been deemed a flight risk; they'd wanted to get him into custody before word of the warehouse raids got to him.

Clark's presence at the arrest was not a matter of courtesy, although the MPD and the FBI had expressed their gratitude for his assistance. There had been some concern that Luthor might become violent or suicidal, so they had asked Clark to come along as backup. The fact that he was the only reporter on the scene was just an afterthought. He'd brought Sara, a Planet photographer, with him. She was busily snapping shots of the irate billionaire being cuffed and led away. At one moment Lex yanked desperately at his bonds, making one last-ditch lunge for the balcony. Clark stepped forward to intercept him, unwilling to let him escape justice that easily, but his intervention wasn't necessary. With a sharp tug, the cop on Luthor's left pulled him back and pushed him roughly into the elevator.

Clark had watched the proceedings with a grim, detached sense of satisfaction. It all seemed rather anti- climactic. He'd won, hadn't he? He'd found Lois's killers and they would be brought to justice. That was what he'd wanted, after all, wasn't it? Looking back, he had the sick feeling that he was forgetting something crucial.

He shook his head. Chances were he was just feeling miserable. He had reason enough for that today.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"Clark? Are you okay?"

The question, soft as it was, startled him from his reverie. He'd been staring blankly at the screen, trying to focus his thoughts on his report of the arrest, or even on his upcoming column. All he could think about was Lois.

He looked up guiltily at his editor. "Sorry, Corrie. I guess I'm just a little preoccupied."

She smiled sympathetically. "I know it was hard on you, ending your story this way. I know it isn't the outcome you wanted."

He shook his head. Even if this Lois had not been the one he wanted, he hadn't wanted to find her dead. "It's not what I wanted, no," he admitted with a sigh. "But what's bothering me even more is that I feel like I've missed something. Some huge missing piece that's staring me in the face, and I'm just not seeing it."

Corrie picked up his stack of notes from the desk. "I don't know, Clark, this case seems pretty open-and-shut to me. I mean, I'm sure it was hard to piece it together from all the old investigations, but with the customs official admitting to the murder, and the financial gain to be made from the smuggling all pointing back to Luthor, even indirectly, I'd say you've put all the pieces together pretty well."

He shrugged wearily. "You're probably right. I guess I'm just looking for a way to save her." That wasn't true, he knew it, but it was an explanation he knew Corrie would accept. He'd always known this Lois was dead, but Corrie seemed to think he'd been infatuated with her. He didn't bother to correct the assumption.

She patted his shoulder. "You can't save everyone, Superman," she said quietly. At first he was stung by the words, but he realized that she was right. He couldn't do everything. No matter who he was, how powerful, he wasn't *all* powerful. He couldn't save this Lois, and he couldn't be with his own. For a moment he felt so lost and alone he couldn't breathe.

Drawing a deep breath at last, he manufactured a half-smile for her. "I know. You're right. I guess it's hard to accept that sometimes."

She cocked her head, looking at him carefully for a moment. "You'll be all right, Clark Kent," she said at last. "I honestly believe that." Before he could question her cryptic comment, she stepped back. "I'll want that article on my desk in half an hour, and don't forget you have another column coming up."

"Yes," he agreed, reluctantly putting away both doubt and self-pity. "I'll have it to you right away."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

APRIL 24TH, 1997

METROPOLIS, NEW TROY

[ALTWORLD 2]

Lois settled back in her seat, arranging her laptop bag in the adjacent chair. This morning's flight to Paris looked rather empty; with any luck she wouldn't have a neighbor. She hated talking to strangers on planes on *good* days. Today was far from good.

Stop that! You're on your way to breaking the biggest story of the year! You could get a Kerth for this! Heck, a Pulitzer!

She smiled faintly at her own attempt to distract herself. It was true; she was close to breaking this one wide open, she could feel it. But somehow the warm glow of adrenaline and excitement that usually accompanied her success wasn't enough to lift her spirits today.

Things *did* look much better today than they had yesterday. Last night's talk with Clark had helped more than she'd expected. Sure, there had been some rough spots, but they'd both been honest, and she liked to think they were stronger now for having talked things out.

She'd felt almost rested when she got up-- as rested as could be expected, anyway, after less than six hours of sleep. She'd gotten to the airport without any problems, checked in for her flight, and waited for one of the airport coffee shops to open. Lois had been to Congo once before, in Kinshasa, investigating what had looked like a drug-smuggling operation but had ultimately been a dead end. The only good thing to come of that assignment was that her passport was still up to date.

The guns, Jimmy had discovered for her, were apparently being sent by ship to Cabindi, Angola, where there was an isolated harbor, and then spirited across the border to Mwerana in small cargo planes. Lois didn't have the stamps and paperwork to get into Angola and hadn't wanted to wait to get them. Instead she was flying into Brazzaville, as she had last year. From there she hoped to find a charter plane that could take her on to Mwerana. She wasn't sure what she'd do then, but her research had indicated it was a small town; she hoped that by keeping her eyes and ears open, she could learn something.

If she was honest with herself, she could admit she had no idea why Perry had let her go on this assignment. Her evidence *was* compelling, but it was all very hard to prove. The Planet could not afford to send its reporters on wild goose chases this way.

Unless.... She thought back to the beginning of her investigation. Perry had given her this assignment in the hopes that it would jolt her out of whatever slump she was in. Maybe he thought it was worth the expense, just this once, if it meant Lois could get back on her feet.

She wasn't sure if the thought was upsetting or not. On the one hand, she didn't want Perry coddling her. She'd gotten this far on her own; she'd never asked for nor received special treatment of any sort. But on the other hand, she *had* been in a pretty bad way last week. It was nice to know that Perry cared enough to try to help her.

Either way, she decided, leaning back in her chair, it was over and done now. She was going to get the story, and then it wouldn't matter why Perry had agreed to send her. Until then, she had a nine-hour flight ahead of her, and she had no intention of staying awake. She wondered briefly if Clark would show up in her dreams if she napped, but decided he wouldn't be sleeping in the middle of the day. Not that she knew how all of this worked, but it seemed as good a hypothesis as any.

She consoled herself with the promise of a dream with him later, studiously ignoring the reminder that it would be the last. Sighing, she closed her eyes and surrendered to sleep.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Lois waited impatiently as the bellboy unlocked the door and led her inside. He settled her luggage on a nearby chair; she tipped him quickly and he left. Turning back, she surveyed the hotel room. Not nearly the largest nor grandest the Parisian hotel had to offer, but it was a clean and elegant room, certainly nicer than she was used to. Normally she wouldn't charge such a room to her expense account, but this time she was willing to pay the difference out of her pocket. She wasn't examining her motives too carefully, especially since she was only staying one night, but she was aware that she was a little disappointed to be spending the ninth night away from home. And Paris *was* the city of lovers.

Gingerly she crossed the room to the queen-sized bed. It was far later here than she was used to, and she had a fairly early flight again tomorrow, but she didn't feel ready to sleep just yet. Restless, she got up again and retrieved her laptop, set it up on the desk, and logged in to check her mail. Nothing noteworthy. She turned on the television, but she didn't speak enough French to understand any of the news programs. Lois opened up her suitcase and fished out her long white nightgown, half- wishing she had some ice cream. She'd come full circle, she thought miserably.

At last, resigned, she settled back in the bed, sighing. She was trying to avoid thinking, and doing a poor job of it. She might as well stop pretending and get it over with.

Most years, she faced this night with mixed feelings. Yes, she was sorry that the span of dreams was over, but also relieved to lose the constant reminder of the emptiness in her life. Dreaming had been at best a bittersweet experience in the past.

Not that it was all good this year, either, she admitted, remembering their fight. But it had all been so much more *real.* Before, she'd looked forward to spending time with an imaginary man who loved her, but it was easy for a fantasy to love you back. Now she knew Clark was a real person, a real man who loved her for who she truly was, uninhibited by the constraints of society or even reality. It would be more difficult than she wanted to imagine, giving that up.

In a moment of anger, she'd confided more than she'd intended to tell even Clark. "Being virgin at twenty-nine years old except in your head, because you can't even imagine being that intimate with anyone else." It was a secret she guarded very carefully, not because she was ashamed, but because it hurt so badly even to think of it. To think it could never change.

As a young teenager she hadn't understood all the fuss about sex. She'd wanted love, but she hadn't understood lust. The boys she knew were nice enough, but she couldn't joke and tease with her girlfriends about them. She didn't giggle at sex scenes in movies, didn't sigh dreamily over movie stars, didn't physically admire any of the young men around her even in the way that very young adolescent girls did. It had set her apart from her friends, though she tried to hide it, and she'd resigned herself to the idea that she was just different.

Clark had changed all of that.

Lois sighed. She'd thought it was the onset of her menstrual cycle that prompted the change. She knew better now. It had been Clark.

Even at sixteen, he'd been perfect. She'd tried to explain it to herself by attributing her attraction to his personality, his honesty, his gentleness. The truth was, above and beyond all of those things, there was something very real between them on a physical, elemental level. She knew that, even though she could not remember his face. And suddenly she'd understood. She still didn't sigh over cute waiters, or lust after her classmates. But at least she knew why other girls did. And knowing now that it was at least possible for her to feel that sort of attraction, she'd been content to wait until she felt it again.

Now, she could expect a handful of dreams scattered throughout the rest of the year, but that number had increased very slowly over time. That first year there had been no intermittent dreams at all. She'd been desperate to dream of him again; knowing what she did now, she suspected Clark had been equally dismayed by their long separation. When they finally met again, the following April, it had been very easy to get carried away.

That first experience of intimacy had been clumsy, uncoordinated, at once both frightening and exciting. But through it all had been a very deep emotion, a connection. In the real world, her virgin status had not changed. But she had given herself to Clark in that moment as surely as if he really had been there beside her.

She couldn't entirely dismiss those experiences in the past, but she couldn't help thinking they didn't quite count in light of what she knew now. Fantasies were easy, and dreams were safe. This year everything was different and new. She couldn't help but think of the old dreams as less than real.

Which left her feeling virgin again.

She wasn't sure how she felt about that. She loved him, she knew that. They might have had some rough spots along the way, but she felt confident now in their bond and their love. And she *did* want to show him that, as much as she ever had; maybe more, knowing now that he was someone real she was interacting with. But they still had only a handful of dreams each year. She couldn't have a full-time relationship that way. Could she live in that pattern, seeing him when fate allowed and pining for him in between? To give herself to him *again,* for real this time, and then to lose him as she always did, would hurt so much more than it had hurt to lose a fantasy.

Lois sighed. The truth was, Clark had her heart. Nothing would change that, whether she gave in to what she wanted or not. And she didn't know when the next dream would be. This was her last night with him for an indeterminate amount of time. And somehow it felt like a last chance altogether.

She knew what she wanted. But, she promised herself, she was not going to push their time together in an unnatural direction. She would play things by ear, and if it was something they both felt good about, then she'd let them progress. If not, she had to admit she'd be disappointed, but they'd be better off for having respected their own feelings and taking the time to grow into their new relationship.

Feeling a little calmer at having come to a conclusion, she slipped beneath the sheet, reaching to turn off the bedside lamp. The silk of her gown was cold on her skin, and she pulled the blankets up to her chin, curling into them comfortably and closed her eyes. She smiled faintly, sadly. It couldn't ever be quite what she wanted. But if things went as she hoped, Clark might be here beside her in her dreams. It had to be enough.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

When she opened her eyes, she was standing on the side of the street, outside a small cafe. Looking down, she found she was wearing a shortish red dress, cut modestly high on her leg and enticingly low at the collar. The light fabric clung to her without being restrictive, subtly highlighting curves and lines without blatantly showcasing them. The gown reminded her a bit of Cat Grant's outfit at the White Orchid Ball two nights before; given her agenda tonight, perhaps her subconscious was looking for cues from the most unselfconsciously sensual person she knew. She laughed, looking at the simple lines of the gown. Even in her imagination, she wasn't *that* brave!

From behind her came a low whistle and she turned, grinning. He was elegantly dressed in jacket and tie, and his eyes slid warmly over her as he approached. "How do I look?" she asked innocently, pivoting a bit so the slight flare of the skirt rose on her thigh.

Clark made a vague gesture, unable to articulate how she looked, how beautiful and desirable she was. "Lois, honey, you look... you're amazing."

She smiled saucily, looping her arm through his. "So are you."

He led her into the cafe and asked for a table. The little restaurant was nearly empty, as befitted a dream as private as this ninth one was, and the maitre'd led them to a secluded table on the patio. He lit the candles and left them to their menus.

Clark smiled gently at her when they were seated, dark eyes shining with reflected candleflame. "You really do look beautiful tonight," he said again, but his expression sobered as he noticed the tension in her, the taut line of her shoulders. He reached out to catch her hand in his.

"Lois, honey, are you okay?"

She dropped her eyes, feeling strangely brittle, fragile. She wasn't sure how to do this. She didn't know how to say goodbye.

That train of thought threatened to bring on tears, and she blinked them away as best she could. She couldn't stop them all; one solitary tear burned its way down her cheek, and he released her hand to wipe it gently away. "Oh, Lois, please," he implored her. "Don't cry. It'll be okay, really it will."

He'd promise her the moon if he could erase that shimmer of moisture in her eyes, but she shook her head sharply. "Don't, Clark, she said, a bit more harshly than she'd intended. "Don't pretend." Deliberately she softened her tone. "Let's not talk about it, Clark, please. Let's just be happy for a little while. Please?"

He nodded, letting his hand slide around to cup her cheek for a moment, aching to see her in such pain, but at last he released her, sitting back in his chair and trying to impose some order on his own jumbled emotions. He didn't know how to handle this. It couldn't be done.

They were silent for a moment until their waiter returned to take their orders, then Lois looked up uncertainly. "So how was your day?"

She'd whispered so quietly, so tentatively, and his heart went out to her for making the effort. She was trying so hard to make this any other dream for them. He didn't know where she found the strength.

He tried to give an answer as casual as the question, but he wouldn't lie to her. "Lousy," he admitted. "I... Well, I found out what happened to my Lois yesterday, so now I'm trying to bring her some justice."

She looked stricken. "She's dead, then?"

Clark nodded. "Yeah. She was murdered when she got too close to her story. I caught the guy who did it, and today the police went after the man who ordered it. So they'll pay, but I still feel like I failed her."

"Clark," Lois said incredulously. "You didn't even *know* her. And it was four years ago! What could you have done?"

"I know," Clark agreed. "It's silly. I know. But I can't help feeling like there's something I should have done, or even something I could do now. Something I'm forgetting." He shook his head. "Anyway, let's not talk about it."

She looked as if she had something else to say, but apparently she decided to comply. "Well, my day was a little better," she offered. "I spent most of it on the plane to Paris."

Clark looked around them. "Yeah, I wondered why we were here. Undercover?"

Lois nodded. "I'm staying at the Lexor-Paris," she added nonchalantly. "Maybe we can go back there after dinner."

Clark raised an eyebrow, but she was pointedly studying her menu. How was he supposed to take that? They'd been intimate in the past, but that had been before they knew the nature of their bond, before dreaming had become a conduit for something more real. In the last week, they'd been demonstrative, but neither had pushed to take things past heated kisses. Was she implying that she wanted to take that next step now?

More importantly, were they ready for that? They'd really only had seven days of clarity, seven days to get to know each other, despite years of dreaming. That wasn't much time. And knowing now that her sexual experience was confined solely to him and her dreams, he was reluctant to pursue that line of their relationship.

Not that he himself had been a Casanova, he reminded himself. There'd been no one before Lana, and he'd slept with her only a spare handful of times during their engagement, a pastime he'd avoided when at all possible. He'd been deeply disappointed by his first real experience of physical love. After years of dream-lovemaking with Lois, sex with Lana had left him cold. He hadn't loved her; he suspected he'd always known that. And his body had known she wasn't Lois even before they'd been lovers. He hadn't needed the confirmation that intimacy provided, but he'd been lonely and desperate enough to ignore it. He'd convinced himself that fevered dreams were hardly a realistic standard on which to judge, and then he'd done his best not to think about it at all.

After Lana... well, he'd be honest with himself, he'd been tempted. Particularly during the second encounter with the other Lois. But nothing could have come of that, and he'd understood even then that she wasn't really who he wanted.

"The Lexor-Paris, huh?" he asked as casually as he could manage, trying not to read too much into her invitation.

She dropped her eyes, embarrassed. "When I was eight, Daddy brought us here for some medical convention. Tried to make a family vacation out of it. But he was at the convention all the time, and all Mother wanted to do was relax in the hotel. I *hated* being here and not being able to explore it properly, so I promised myself I'd come back someday, when I..." She blushed. "Well, when I had someone to share it with." Lois shrugged. "I'm here on business now, but I figured... Well, it just seemed like a good opportunity. Who knows when we'll be in Paris again?"

He took her hand, stopping her nervous chatter. "It's a beautiful city," he agreed, looking out at the lamplit streets. "I'd be honored to share it with you."

She curled her fingers absently about his, her other hand tracing patterns on the tablecloth. "You know, I always sort of figured I'd come here for my honeymoon."

Instantly she realized what she'd said, the implication behind the words, and her eyes flashed to his, her cheeks flushing crimson once again. Then the color faded abruptly from her face, and she slumped in her chair, as if her energy had fled as well. "Not that I'm likely to get married anyway," she said softly. "Not after..." She stopped, but they both knew what she meant. Not after you.

He moved to touch her, to offer what comfort he could, but at that moment the waiter returned with their meals, and the darker turn of their mood was carefully ignored when they were settled again. They were silent as they picked at their food, unsure of what to say. They'd never had difficulty talking to each other before, and it upset Clark that suddenly it was too painful even to look at each other.

There was a small band playing on the corner of the terrace, and he noted them with interest. There wasn't really room for a dance floor, but when they had finished eating, he took her hand again. "Dance with me?"

She frowned. "Where?"

"Right here," he said impulsively. "What do we care who's watching us? None of them are real anyway." He stood, tugging her gently to her feet. "I-- I want to hold you. We haven't danced all week."

She glanced around at the handful of patrons on the terrace, but he had a point. Laughing, she let him pull her into his arms, and they stood lightly swaying to the quiet music for a long moment. He settled his hands low at the dip of her spine, and she wrapped her arms around his neck, laying her head against his chest and closing her eyes. She'd forgotten how good it felt to be held tight against him, moving gently together. She tucked her face into the hollow of his shoulder, breathing deeply and trying to imprint every detail, every sensation, in her memory to carry her through the long, lonely days and months ahead.

Her lips grazed his skin, and after a moment's hesitation, she closed her eyes and planted a kiss there on the tense curve of his throat.

He gave a quiet groan in response, his arms tightening about her waist, and, encouraged, she tried again. The sound he made, low in his throat, was the most alluring thing she'd ever heard, and she couldn't help herself, pressing tiny, desperate kisses there, over and over.

"Lois," he whispered, his breath catching in his chest, and she wasn't sure if he was warning her or pleading. She decided it didn't matter and continued her tentative seduction, finding the courage to press another kiss on the leaping pulse of blood in his jaw, open-mouthed, letting the tip of her tongue trace a tiny circle there on his skin. He pulled away with a strangled cry, catching her chin firmly in his hand, and bent to kiss her properly.

It was her turn to moan her pleasure and impatience, opening her mouth once more under his, welcoming the movement of his flesh within hers and aching to be joined with him on a deeper level. Was this the last chance she had? Would this be the last time he would hold her, touch her? Some small, undistracted part of her mind remembered their second night this year, when they had kissed in the rain. She'd been desperate then for his touch, his love, to drown out the disturbing sense of reality intruding on their dream world. She clung to him now, his lips fervently exploring hers, and she knew that some things never changed.

"Let's go, Clark," she managed to gasp as his mouth finally left hers to press warm, delicate kisses on her cheeks, her eyelids. "I-- I need you." Despite her promise earlier, she wanted this with him, wanted it badly enough to plead.

He pulled away for a moment, his heart still pounding hard and heavy against her breast, but his eyes clear and alert. "Are you sure?"

"I love you," she whispered, trying not to cry. "I need to be close to you."

He hesitated, searching her eyes, but he seemed to accept her answer, for he bent and scooped her into his arms. Uncaring who was watching, he lifted off gently and flew them across the glowing city lights to her hotel.

Flying with her this way was a new experience for him. She had buried her face in his neck again, nuzzling tenderly at his throat and pressing kisses along his jaw. The sensations of her in his arms, her lips teasing, were intensely powerful and hugely distracting, but his mind was a little clearer now that their bodies weren't pressed full-length, and despite the pleasure she was giving him, he began to worry about the motives driving her.

The Lexor-Paris's windows did not open to the outside, so they were forced to land and take the elevator up. Feeling conspicuous in the crowded elevator despite their actions in the restaurant, they refrained from touching and stood discreetly side-by-side until they reached her floor. Lois led him out and down the hall, reaching in her pocket for her key, a plastic card in a cardboard folder. There was a name written on the folder, and he couldn't help but smile. Lisa Larrian. Double L's, just as she'd said.

She opened the door and ushered him inside. He surveyed the small room, nodding his surprised approval. "Very nice for an undercover assignment."

Lois smiled a little. "Well, I paid the extra. Not the honeymoon suite, but nice enough." She hesitated, then stepped forward to put a tentative hand on his chest. Her fingers traced lightly over the starched cotton, her eyes meeting his. "Now, where were we?"

He smiled reluctantly, and let her reach up to kiss him, but now that he'd had a moment to catch his breath, he felt conflicted. He wasn't sure why she was doing this, but he suspected he wouldn't like the answer.

When he didn't respond as she'd expected, she redoubled her efforts, the pressure of her mouth increasing, her hands tight on the back of his head. Her passion bordered on desperation now, her movements frantic, and at last he broke away from that almost-violent kiss. She was half-gasping, half-sobbing as he withdrew, and he pressed several gentle, passionless kisses on her lips, trying to soothe her. He pulled her body tightly to his, rocking tenderly and crooning meaningless words of comfort to her. "Shh, shh."

Slowly the storm passed, and she lay limp in his embrace, still weeping silently. "Lois?" he asked tentatively when the worst of the shudders had faded. "Lois, look at me," he insisted. Reluctantly she raised her head, her cheeks blotchy, dark eyes gleaming and pained. "Why?" he asked softly. "We don't have to do this, you know that."

She mumbled something against his chest. His superhearing told him she'd said, "Last chance." He frowned; he'd suspected she'd been thinking something like that.

Intimacy had always been something natural between them, a very easy expression of their feelings. A touch, a kiss, a caress. they had all been very instinctive and unconscious gestures, one flowing from another. Certainly when they'd been younger they had been shy even in dreams, unsure of themselves and their bodies. But they had been patient with each other, gentle, and slowly they had learned how to touch and be touched, how a single caress could say more than a whisper, and how a kiss could be more reassuring than any spoken words of love had ever been.

But in the newfound understanding of their link, and knowing what he did about her, there was an awkwardness between them that had never been there before. He didn't want to see her hurt herself, and him, this way. "It's *not* our last chance," he insisted. "This doesn't have to happen tonight. It doesn't have to happen till we're both ready. Lois, please."

"No, Clark. I don't want to be alone," she whispered, her voice ragged with suppressed emotion. "This is our last night together, Clark, we have to do this now or..." She trailed off, unwilling even to voice the thought. "It wasn't real before," she said softly, and he blinked a moment before he understood what she meant. "It wasn't real, because *you* weren't real. And now, now you are, and I want... I want to know what that feels like. I'll never have another chance."

He knew what she meant, and he wanted to hold her, to show her. But how could he be sure she wouldn't regret it in the morning, when left with only a bittersweet memory of what they couldn't have? On the other hand, how was he supposed to resist her? He looked down at her, her eyes glistening, the faint shine of tearstains on her cheeks.

"Please, Clark. I don't want to be alone."

How indeed? He sighed, pulling her close to him once more, one hand stroking her hair as she buried her face in his shoulder. He could feel her hot tears trickling into his shirt. "This isn't the end," he soothed her softly. "We'll see each other again, Lois, you know we will. This is just a... a temporary break."

"It doesn't feel temporary," she insisted, her voice loud even muffled as it was in the cloth. "It-- it feels like forever."

He shook his head a little, although he couldn't deny the truth of her words. Somehow, this parting did seem final. He wanted to attribute it to the fact that for the first time they really knew what was happening between them, but he wasn't sure that was it at all. Still, he had to reassure her as best he could. "Think of us as long-distance friends," he suggested gently, his hand still stroking firmly, soothingly along her hair. "We can't be together all the time, but we still love each other, Lois. Nothing changes that."

"Long distance lovers can call each other on the phone. They can write, or email. They can plan their visits, and look forward to them. We can't do any of that. We don't even know when our next dream will be."

He sighed heavily. "Lois--"

"I know what I want, even if I haven't done this in life," she interrupted, her voice suddenly calm and steady. She pulled away a little so she could look up at him, her hand cupping his cheek. "I want this," she asserted softly. "Don't make me seduce you. I don't know how."

Clark closed his eyes as if to block out that alluring picture, the plea in her eyes, the open, inviting line of her posture. But he couldn't block the sensation of her hands, one on his cheek and one shyly caressing his chest. He couldn't block the scent of her, clean and fragrant and *hers.* Her words cut deeper than he'd like to admit, and he couldn't block them, either.

What harm is there in it?

At last he allowed himself to admit that he wanted her too, wanted her in his arms, and that there was no shame in that. Pain, yes, knowing what they were losing, but if this were their last dream, as it was beginning to feel, which would he regret more? Losing this last opportunity to be close to her, or taking it and finding it bittersweet?

She shifted before him, and he'd waited too long. She leaned in and pressed her lips to his, persuading, and their old familiarity was back, belying her words and proving that she was utterly comfortable with him despite her experiences in life.

His arms went around her, his lips meeting the pressure of hers and opening beneath them. She responded instantly, deepening their kiss and tightening her hands on the back of his neck. He groaned at the intimate contact of her tongue on his, tentative, and she pressed herself tight against him. "Please, Clark, please," she whispered, and this time he answered her.

"Yes... yes."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"I love you," she said softly, dropping a kiss on the corner of his jaw. She'd said it before, several times, but in this moment she thought she'd never say it enough.

He rolled carefully off her, curling her close against his side. She settled her head on his shoulder, her hands lazily stroking over his shoulders and chest as if reassuring herself he was there. The haze was slowly fading from their minds, their breath slowing, bodies cooling, and he reached down to pull up the coverlet.

"I didn't know," she said softly after a few peaceful moments. "I mean, we'd... made love... before, the two of us. And it was-- it was good," she assured him hastily, stumbling at the choice of words, but realizing that he might misunderstand her. He laughed gently and pressed another kiss to her shoulder. "But this... I hadn't realized how... muted it was before. How much of it was dreamlike."

Clark nodded. "I know. I hadn't expected-- well, I didn't expect anything like this." He dropped his eyes, pulling her a bit closer to him. "You know I... I've done this before. In life, I mean. Not many times, and only with Lana," he clarified nervously.

Lois cupped his cheek in one hand, forestalling his pained admission. "I know," she said. "I know, and I-- I'm glad you could show me."

He kissed the inside of her wrist. "We showed each other," he corrected. "What I meant to say was, I've never felt anything like what just happened between us. Even before, you and I... Compared to what I felt with you, even when we were teenagers, sex with Lana was, well..." he blushed. "Sort of anticlimactic, if you'll pardon the pun. I'd almost had myself convinced that these dreams were just wishful thinking, that I wasn't really missing anything. Being with you this way, even in dreams, is so much more real than anything I've ever known."

She closed her eyes, holding back a sudden flood of tears, and buried her face in his side. "Oh, Clark..." she sighed sadly, wrapping her arms around him as if to hold herself to him even as she was beginning to fade.

"Shh, shh," he hushed her, turning to gather her close against his body, stifling his own tears, and held her as tight as he could even as she was disappearing. "I love you," he whispered. "Nothing changes that."

There was the fleeting sensation of her lips on his, sweet and saline, and then darkness.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

APRIL 25TH, 1997

METROPOLIS, NEW TROY

[ALTWORLD 1]

He lay in bed for a long moment when he awakened, eyes closed, as if by not opening them he could stay submerged in the dream, in their tiny shared world. Part of him felt very good; being close to her had always been wonderful, and being intimate with her had been a hundred times better. But last night, knowing everything, had been far more than he'd expected. So part of him felt joyful simply at the memory of holding her to him, knowing they loved each other and proving it in the simplest way. And part of him wanted to curl up and cry. She was gone now, and who knew when he'd see her again?

Clark forced himself up and out of bed, padding listlessly into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. Sinking into a kitchen chair as the pot brewed, he looked idly at the array of paperwork on the table. His copies of the FBI files were scattered on the tabletop, and the sense that he'd forgotten something was growing steadily stronger.

Idly, he rifled through them once more. He'd pored over these the night before and found nothing to warrant the rising sense of alarm he was feeling now.

At the top of the pile was the invoice of her expense account, but he'd seen it all before. Flight from Metropolis to Paris, overnight stay, flight the next morning to Brazzaville...

He dropped the stack of records, sending paper fluttering into his lap and on the floor.

Oh, my God...

He pawed frantically through the pages, heart hammering urgently in his chest. At last he found the hotel record. One night in the Lexor-Paris, for a Mlle Lisa Larrian.

He jumped to his feet, reaching for the calendar inside one of the cabinets even though he knew what day it was. April 25th.

Lois! Oh, my God! Suddenly it all made perfect sense, and he felt violently ill.

He slumped back into his chair. She was going to die, and there was nothing he could do to help her. He'd never felt so utterly helpless in his life.

Please, Lois, be careful! You can still make it! But he knew she couldn't hear him. He put his head down on the table, too numb to cry or even to move.

There was a knock at the door.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

CHAPTER TEN

"I think we dream so we don't have to be apart so long. If we're in each other's dreams, we can be together all the time."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

APRIL 25TH, 1997

MWERANA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO

[ALTWORLD 2]

Lois Lane was in no mood to be trifled with. She'd been traveling for thirteen hours straight now, and she was hot, sticky, and tired. Unfortunately, the sweating customs officer in Mwerana was not observant enough to notice her mood.

"What do you mean my visas are invalid? I just got them!"

The man shrugged indifferently. "No good. Can't let you into the country."

"There must be some mistake," she insisted. "Maybe you're just out of touch; maybe they've changed something and you haven't gotten the news yet. What kind of customs office is this, anyway?" she continued, looking around the tiny ramshackle building with disdain. "I didn't have any problems in Mbandaka last year."

"Should have flown to Mbandaka then, hmm?" the man replied with an impertinent grin.

Lois rolled her eyes. "Look, you've got a phone somewhere, right? Go call someone, figure out what the problem is."

The man held up his hands in an indulgent gesture. "All right, all right. I'll call the main office in Kinshasa. But I'm not making any promises."

Lois nodded, pleased. "I'm sure they'll be able to clear up the problem."

The man shrugged again and turned away to use the phone. Lois wandered back out onto the porch, desperate for a breath of moving air. She got her wish as the tiny propeller plane that had brought her here from Brazzaville took off, but the backwash of wind that assailed her was gritty and hot. She'd been traveling for a day and a half now; she didn't even want to think about what would happen if she didn't get this visa problem taken care of. Her clothes were dirty, her skin damp, her shoes ruined. She wanted nothing more than to get away from here and take a long shower. She wondered if that was wishful thinking.

Next time Perry has a lead on a gunrunning ring in Africa, she vowed, I'll tell him to send someone else! But she knew that wasn't true. She always wanted the story; she always did whatever it took. And the attitude paid off: she always got the story.

Inside, the man cupped his hand over the mouthpiece of the phone. "Yes, sir, just as you said."

The man on the other end sighed. "I'd hoped she'd start in Kinshasa and we'd be able to fool her there. If she headed straight for Mwerana, she already knows too much. You'll have to take care of her."

The burly man bit his lip. "But, sir--"

"No buts," the other chided him firmly, an edge of steel behind the controlled calm. "You do not want to disobey me. You have a family to support, do you not?"

The man gulped a yes.

"I'd hate for something... untoward to happen to them." There was a pregnant pause, and then the voice continued, "Take care of her." With a click, he ended the conversation.

The customs officer hung up the phone with shaky hands. It was one thing to look the other way for the gunrunners, but it was something else entirely to kill someone. An American reporter, no less! Her disappearance would surely attract a lot of attention. Still, he knew that what the boss had said was true; he had a family. If it were a choice between them and the American, it was really no choice at all.

His hands still trembling, he reached for the gun under the counter. The woman was still turned away, and he aligned the crosshairs carefully with the back of her head.

There came the sound of a gunshot and a great rush of wind.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Warmth.

She was aware of warmth against her, under her cheek, and a tight pressure around her. Her first thought was that she'd been hit, that she was dead or dying, but she felt no pain, and gradually she became more aware of her position. The warmth against her was a man's body, and the tightness about her was his arms, crushing her to him, one large hand cupping the back of her head. He was holding her as if he'd never let her go, as if she were the most precious thing in the world. His heart was racing beneath her ear, as if he'd had a great shock or fright, his breathing fast. Tentatively, she opened her eyes; all she could see was blue.

She held her breath, not daring to hope, and pulled back to look up at him.

"Oh, my God," she whispered, and then his mouth came down on hers and he was kissing her as if he'd been waiting to kiss her his whole life, desperately, frantically. She slid her fingers up over his chest to twine her arms around his neck, and his hand shifted to settle in the crook of her shoulders, his bent fingers stroking the length of her throat. She was trembling violently, her knees giving way beneath her, but he was solid against her, his arm about her waist supporting her fully, and still his lips moved on hers, with passion, but mostly with joy.

It was real. Dear God, but it was real.

At long last she became aware of her surroundings, and that someone nearby was clearing his throat. Gently she disengaged from the kiss, putting her hand on his cheek instead, and pulled back enough to look around.

There was a small man standing a little way behind Clark. Inside the office, visibly shaking, was the customs officer. He'd been tied to his chair with what appeared to be a length of thick cable, and his gun lay discarded just out of his reach on the desk.

"Good show, my boy," the small man said in accented English, standing slightly away from them. "But, ah, I think you'd better take care of that young man before something else goes wrong. I'm sure Miss Lane won't mind."

Clark looked to her, and she managed to nod her agreement. "Yes, you should do something with him... Superman," she finished, remembering abruptly.

Reluctantly Clark released her, nodding to the other man. "You're right," he agreed. Then he turned to approach the customs officer.

"Do you know who this lady is?" he asked softly, his voice low and flat. The officer didn't manage a reply, simply staring up with fear-widened eyes. "She's a friend of mine. A very good friend of mine."

Deliberately he opened the gun, shook out one of the bullets, and set the weapon aside. "I don't like seeing my friends nearly killed," he commented, flattening the bullet between two fingers and handing it to the officer. "I'll assume you had a reason for trying. I'd like you to tell me."

The officer, still holding the mangled bullet in his palm, abruptly lost his paralysis, nodding eagerly, desperately. "Yes, yes, of course..."

"Lois," Clark interrupted, calling over his shoulder without looking. "Do you have a tape recorder, by any chance?"

She did; going mechanically to her bag, she retrieved it and handed it to him. She still couldn't fathom what was going on here. She couldn't believe Clark was here, was real at all, let alone that he'd just saved her life by the slimmest margin possible. Shock and reaction were beginning to set in, and she wrapped her arms around herself, suddenly feeling very cold despite the heat of the day.

"Come here, my dear," the other man said, gesturing to her, and she realized abstractly that he hadn't moved from the section of the porch that could not be seen from inside the office. She obeyed without thought, and he helped her to sit on the porch step. He pressed a bottle of water into her hand. "You've had quite a shock. Just rest now for a moment."

Clark had turned in the doorway, obviously torn between helping her and interrogating her would-be killer. The man gestured at him to continue, and reluctantly he did. Lois took a cautious sip of water, her hands trembling as the adrenaline wore off. The water was cool in her mouth and she was thirsty, taking several gulping draughts until her heart had stopped racing in her chest and the dizziness in her head subsided. "Who are you?" she asked at last.

He smiled kindly down at her. "My name is Herbert George Wells. I'm a friend of Clark's."

H. G. Wells. Of course. She felt too numb to be surprised.

The next hour or so passed in a hazy blur for her. Dimly, she was aware that Clark had finished interrogating the man and called the local authorities. Wells disappeared before the police arrived, claiming he had an errand to run and assuring Lois that she'd be fine, that she simply needed to rest and calm herself.

She heard Clark conversing with the police when they arrived, his tone authoritative. They were bewildered by his outfit and his story of saving her, but one of them found the flattened bullet, and after that they were more inclined to listen.

One policeman knelt down to question her; she answered him as best she could, almost surprised to hear logical responses coming from her lips despite the blurry, disconnected state of her thoughts.

There were calls to be made, one of them was saying behind her. The Americans would have to be informed of the allegations of smuggling. The customs officer's testimony was damning enough, but the phone call to America, which he'd admitted, would go a long way toward condemning his contact there as well.

Someone offered to take Lois to a hotel. Clark politely declined, assuring them he'd take care of her. None of them seemed to want to challenge him; reluctantly they agreed, leading their prisoner away, and then they were gone.

She drew a breath, watching their cars disappear, trying to will some clarity back into her mind. It had been more than an hour, and she was still shivering, still frightened and confused and off-balance.

Then he knelt silently down behind her, wrapping gentle arms about her shoulders and pulling her back against his chest. Without really knowing why, she began to cry quietly.

"Lois," he said then, turning her in his arms and rocking back to sit, pulling her into his lap. She sobbed softly into his chest, letting the tension bleed out of her. His arms were tight about her body; eventually she realized he'd been close to tears himself. "Shh," he was whispering. "It's okay... you're okay." Part of her wondered if he said it to reassure her or himself.

"You saved my life," she said, wonderingly.

His arms tightened around her. "God, Lois... I found out what was happening to you... the same thing that happened to her... I couldn't breathe," he replied, semi-coherent. "If I'd lost you..."

"You didn't," she assured him instantly, her own shock and disbelief abated enough now to let her reassure him on that count. "I'm here."

He buried his face in her hair, still rocking gently back and forth. They held each other for a long moment.

"Ahem, excuse me." Lois lifted her head to see that Wells had returned as promised.

"Hi," she said tentatively.

"Hello again," he replied cheerfully. "I think I've got all the arrangements taken care of now."

"Arrangements?" Clark asked, rising to his feet and helping Lois up.

"For your life here," Wells explained matter-of-factly.

"My life here?" he repeated. He hadn't really thought about any of this beyond getting to Lois and saving her. He wanted to be with her, but he hadn't considered what happened now.

"Yes, yes, you'll need an identity, and for that you needed a past. Birth certificate, college diploma, things like that. I couldn't manage to make you from Smallville," he admitted. "Already a Clark Kent there. Is Wichita acceptable?"

"You mean for me to stay here?" he asked. "But... my world... Superman..." He trailed off, his expression pained. How could he be expected to make a choice? Unconsciously, he tightened his hold on Lois's hand.

Wells smiled gently. "Your world, Clark, will get along just fine without you. I don't think you'll get along much longer without her." He inclined his head towards Lois. "And she needs you, too."

"How can I abandon them?" he insisted.

"You can only do so much, Clark," Lois surprised them all by speaking up. "At some point you have to let them find their own way. So that you can find yours," she finished softly, her hand squeezing his fingers.

She was right, he realized. They both were. He needed her.

"Okay," he agreed softly.

"Very well, then," Wells continued happily. "Now, here's the paperwork you need... You've got a birth certificate, a diploma, a social security card-well, it's all in here, you can look at it later." He handed Clark a large briefcase. "And I've included the samples of your work as well, for your portfolio."

"My work?"

"Your articles, of course. That was the tricky bit, getting them printed in places that could be verified later, but I think it's all taken care of now."

Clark stared, speechless at the amount of work Wells had done to make this possible for them. "Thank you," he managed. "I don't know how to thank you."

"Now, now, no thanks needed," Wells assured him. "I've brought you a suit as well. Perhaps you'd better wear it when you get to Metropolis and Lois takes you to the Planet to get a job."

"The Planet?" he repeated. He seemed to be repeating everything the other man said.

"Of course," Wells replied. "You'd better take her home now so she can see the FBI-- I'm sure they'll be waiting for her. And then the two of you can take the stories-- the smuggling and Superman-- and you can ask Perry for a job."

Clark found himself nodding. Everything seemed to be coming together. Wells had planned for everything.

"If you like," Wells was continuing, "I can take a message back to someone in your world. If there's someone you'd like to say goodbye to."

Clark considered, still a little stunned. "My editor, Corrie... She's been a good friend to me." A thought occurred to him. "I owe her a column for Saturday. Maybe I can use it to say goodbye to everyone at once."

Wells nodded. "I can pick it up tomorrow afternoon, if that will give you enough time," he offered.

Clark swallowed. How do you say goodbye to a whole planet? One you feel responsible for? But he nodded. "Yes, I think I can finish it by then."

"Good, good," Wells said, smiling happily now. "You two had best be on your way, then, and I'll see you both tomorrow."

Clark glanced at Lois, who nodded slightly. Reaching out, he shook Wells's hand. "I can't thank you enough," he said softly.

Wells merely smiled as Clark lifted Lois into his arms and took to the sky.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

By the time they left the FBI building, Lois was exhausted. Flying back to the States so quickly meant they'd gone immediately from afternoon to mid-morning, and though she hadn't really had time to adjust to the Congo's time zone, she'd gotten very little sleep for several nights. Clark, now attired in the suit Wells had brought him, had been waiting for her in the lobby as she met with investigators. He rose as she emerged and put his arm around her. He seemed to sense how tired she was, pulling her close and letting his strength bolster her.

"Well, I'd say that was a success," she commented as they hailed a cab. He looked down at her inquisitively. He hadn't been allowed to accompany her into the questioning room, but she quickly filled him in on the details.

Apparently her testimony alone was not enough to justify an arrest, but the FBI was in contact with Congolese officials and it looked as though they'd be willing to allow the customs officer to testify. Gary Keane was being called in for questioning, and a search warrant would be issued for the New Eden warehouses. Between the three of them, the FBI agents she'd spoken with expected to have quite a case against David Campbell. From there, it would depend on whether or not he was willing to testify in turn against his superior. The officers weren't ready to concede that the mastermind of the plot was Lex Luthor, but they intended to follow up on the information she'd provided. None of them knew what to make of Superman, either, but both the Congo officials and the would-be assassin had described him in just the same way. They'd been forced to accept his existence, and hoped they might somehow make contact with him for questioning as well.

For now, she was allowed to print that there had been an attempt on her life, but not the reasons behind it. The officers had agreed that she would be allowed to print each successive piece of the investigation as it happened.

They caught a cab to the Planet. Inside, Lois led him immediately to Perry's office. "Lois!" her editor exclaimed. "You're supposed to be undercover."

"I was, Chief." She made a face. "Until someone tried to kill me."

Perry stood immediately. "What? Are you alright, honey?" He started to come around the desk, but she smiled reassuringly and waved him away.

"I'm fine," she said. "You won't believe what happened."

"But I'll see it in my evening edition?" he asked, grinning.

"Absolutely. Well, as much of it as we can print. The FBI is still working on some of it." Lois lowered her voice. "And you remember my suspicions about Lex Luthor?" she asked, glancing at the closed door. "Now, I know he owns the Planet, but I know he's in on this. And the FBI isn't quite ready to believe me, but I'm sure the evidence they come up with will prove it."

Perry sat back in his chair. "Well, Lois, we can't print anything about him without absolute proof. A direct statement from the FBI or something like that."

"I know," she assured him, slightly annoyed. "I just wanted you to know. The FBI's going to let us print everything as it happens; we'll have the exclusive."

Perry smiled proudly. "That's my girl."

Lois grinned back, then turned to Clark. "Perry, I-- I want you to meet a very old friend of mine. Clark Kent, Perry White."

Perry seemed a bit surprised by the non sequitur, but he extended a hand. "Nice to meet you, son."

Clark shook it warmly. "Nice to meet you, sir."

"Now, you know I've been feeling a little... under the weather," Lois started, looking to Perry, sticking with the story she and Clark had concocted on their flight over. "And I knew this was a big story, but I was having a lot of trouble focusing on it. But Clark here was in town the last week, and he's a freelance journalist. So I... I told him my leads and he's been helping me track them down. We thought he could help me write it up, and if you liked his work, maybe he could join us here at the Planet."

Even as she spoke she realized how flimsy a story it was, and she could see in his eyes that Perry knew it, too. Lois Lane, willingly share a lead? Or a byline? With a freelance reporter, no less? She was relying on the knowledge that he had probably been humoring her all week, that he might be willing to let this slide as well.

"I have some samples of my work," Clark added, reaching for the attache.

Perry's gaze shifted to him. "Let me see. I'll take a look while you two write up your story," he agreed reluctantly, still eyeing Lois. "I can't make any promises. We're not supposed to be hiring new staff right now."

Clark smiled. "I understand. Thanks for taking the time anyway." He extracted the clippings from the case and handed them over.

"We're just going to write this up, then," Lois said, breaking the awkward silence that had settled over them. "And then I'm going home, and I'm not coming in tomorrow. I need some sleep."

Perry nodded in surprise. "Sounds like a good idea to me, honey. Take care of yourself." He watched them go, eyes narrowed. Clark took Lois's hand as they went, and she glanced up at him with a tired but happy smile.

"Well, I never," Perry said softly, and turned his attention to the clippings with renewed interest.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Working with Lois was like nothing he'd ever known.

He was surprised to find they could have such fun performing such a mundane task, but they fell easily into a comfortable, playful pattern. He let her do the typing; it was her story, after all, even if she was sharing the byline with him. He contented himself with leaning over her shoulder and pointing out changes and typos. She could be very defensive about her writing, he learned, but she was always smiling at him, her joy at his presence outweighing her irritation, and she accepted most of his corrections good-naturedly in the end.

She focused on the attempt on her life and her miraculous rescue by the mysterious superhero, trying to downplay her reasons for being undercover in the first place. Knowing Perry wouldn't believe the story of her Superman rescue without proof, they'd asked Wells to take several pictures of the two of them and fabricated a brief interview with the superhero to run as a sidebar to Lois's murder story. They were going to have a problem if the customs officer told anyone he'd seen Superman kiss her, but it couldn't be helped. The only thing they could do was try to keep Lois as distant from Superman as possible and try to discourage any rumors that sprang up.

They were nearly finished with their articles when a voice interrupted, "Lois?"

Clark looked up to see a tall auburn-haired woman hesitantly approaching the desk. Lois smiled almost shyly. "Cat," she said. "Let me introduce you to Clark Kent. Clark, this is my colleague and friend, Cat Grant. Cat's our society columnist here at the Planet."

Clark extended his hand. "A pleasure to meet you."

Cat took his hand, surprise making her hesitate. "The pleasure is mine," she replied sincerely, but her eyes were on Lois. "I've heard a lot about you."

"Clark's in town visiting," Lois explained softly. "But he's thinking of staying in Metropolis."

Cat's gaze moved back to Clark, as if sizing him up. "I'm glad to hear that. I'm sure I'll be seeing you again soon, then."

"I'll look forward to it," he replied, grinning.

Cat nodded politely at him, but her eyes were on Lois again, and they were shining with shared joy.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

And then the door clicked shut behind him, and at last they were truly alone. Lois settled her bag on the kitchen floor, switching on the living room lamp, and then turned back to face him.

For a long moment they simply looked at each other, eyes locked. He was astonished at how beautiful she was to him, half-familiar but somehow brighter, more solid, more substantial. There was warmth in her eyes, and wonder, but a hesitance, too. He moved forward, focusing on the warmth for a moment. "Are you real?" he asked, only half-joking. Even after a whole day spent in her presence, he couldn't believe any of it.

He raised a hand to touch her cheek lightly, skimming across to curl at her shoulder and pull her gently to him. She came willingly, eagerly, folding herself into his arms, her face pressed tight to the side of his throat. "Oh, Clark," she said softly. "I don't believe it."

He buried his face in her hair, letting the silken strands caress his cheek, breathing deeply the scent of shampoo and her. "It feels real," he marveled, feeling foolish but needing that confirmation. She made a choked sound low in her throat, halfway between a laugh and a sob. "It *is* real," she said wonderingly. "It's real."

He looked down at her for a moment, his heart beginning to pound in his chest, and then he lowered his head to kiss her deeply. She complied, yielding to the sudden heat that flared in him, but he could sense that her own response was muted. Pulling away, he studied her face in the half- light. "Lois?"

Her eyes dropped. "It's not that I don't want..." She trailed off, gathering her thoughts. "So much has happened today, Clark. Almost dying, and then you showing up... So much so fast. I can't manage it all. Could you-- would you just hold me tonight? I just need to calm down a little."

His doubt must have shown on his face, because she reached up to touch his cheek with the backs of her fingers. "It's not you," she assured him as firmly as she could. "It's just... I'm tired, and I'm emotional, and I don't want that for our first time. Do you understand?"

Clark nodded, knowing she was right, but it was hard not to read anything into her sudden withdrawal. "Yes," he whispered, pulling her back to him. "It's wonderful just to hold you."

They stood that way for a moment, weary after the long day. She could hear his heart beating solid and strong under her cheek. She thought it might be the most beautiful thing she'd ever heard. He rocked gently back and forth, his arms warm and tight, and she burrowed her face closer against his neck, simply savoring a moment they'd never thought to have. They stayed there together for a long time.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

He offered to sleep on the couch and leave the bedroom to her. After her withdrawal, he wasn't sure what she wanted. She'd agreed with him at first that perhaps it would be best. But then she'd glanced shyly up at him and commented that it would be nice to fall asleep in his arms.

He'd agreed immediately; besides the closeness and intimacy of the idea, neither one of them really wanted to let the other out of their sight. They were both terrified to waken and find the events of the day the cruelest dream of all.

There was an awkward moment when they both returned to the bedroom, having changed clothes and brushed teeth and prepared for bed. For a moment they simply stood staring at the floor, reluctant to make eye contact. At last Lois moved to one side of the bed. "I usually sleep here," she said, reaching to pull the covers down. "Do you have a preference?"

He moved to the other side. "This is fine." He made no move to climb into bed until she did. She turned on her side, facing him, but he made no move to touch her. She lay waiting, wondering, for several awkward moments, looking at him and making idle conversation. "Clark," she started at last. "Can I..." She wanted him to hold her, needed him to pull her against him and assure her she was safe and loved.

"Lois," he replied softly, and she moved quickly toward him, letting him enfold her in his arms. She hadn't realized she was near tears until they were streaming down her face, and she tried angrily to quell them. She'd cried so much today!

"Shh," he was saying, though his voice was suspiciously shaky as well. "It's okay. You're okay. I'm here, I won't leave you."

She hugged him back fiercely. "I love you," she told him forcefully, definitively. "I'm not going anywhere either."

His hand stroked gently through her hair, soft and soothing. "I love you, too," he told her, trying to keep his movements slow and non-threatening, knowing she was reacting once again to the trauma of the day. "It's okay," he said again. "Go to sleep."

She sniffled, pressing herself ever closer in his embrace, but the stiffness was leaving her body, her breathing slowing as she relaxed in his arms and surrendered to her exhaustion.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Lois woke to the sound of someone breathing beside her. At first she stiffened, unnerved and frightened by the unfamiliar sound. Then her eyes opened in surprise, falling on Clark, and she smiled softly. His face was relaxed in slumber; he looked peaceful, happy. She'd never seen him so vulnerable before, so unworried. And this was a new experience for them. In all the years they'd been dreaming, they'd never awakened together.

She reached out, unable to resist, and laid the back of her hand gently on his cheek. His eyes fluttered slowly open at the touch. Clark made a low sound of pleasure and contentment, turning to look over at her and grinning as she came into focus. "Good morning," he said softly.

"Good morning." Scooting forward, she cuddled close against his side, and he folded her in his arms. "What a nice way to wake up," she commented happily, pillowing her head on his shoulder. "Can we stay like this all day?"

He chuckled. "Wouldn't that be nice?"

She frowned a little. "Does that mean no?"

Clark shrugged. "Well, sooner or later I have to write my column. Wells is coming back this afternoon to pick it up. After that we can do whatever we like," he continued. "This, or something else..." He smiled softly to let her know he was only teasing, remembering how she'd pulled away the night before, but her eyes were smiling back.

She made a face. "Well, if we have to..."

He pressed a kiss to her forehead. "We don't have to get up just yet." She tilted her head to look up at him, and they traded several soft, exploratory kisses until Lois laughed at last and pulled away.

"If we're not careful, we *will* spend the whole day here, and I don't want Wells walking in on us that way!" She stood, straightening her pajamas and offering him a hand. "Come on. Let's see what we can do about this column."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

She moaned softly and Clark deepened the kiss, gently, tenderly, his hands coming up to cup her face. Her arms were wrapped loosely, lazily around his neck, her fingers playing in his hair. She broke away and reclaimed his lips several times, small, teasing kisses, neither of them pushing too hard.

Clark had struggled to stay professional as she'd helped him write his goodbye column, mindful of the limits she'd set the night before, but even the tiny, unconscious touches she'd given him were distracting. Resting her hand on his shoulder; her body pressing into his back as she leaned in to read what he'd typed over his shoulder; her hand over his on the mouse; all of them had served to make him increasingly aware of her, the physical presence of her, so much so that when they'd finished it was all he could do not to sweep her up in his arms.

Fortunately, she seemed to be feeling the same things. As he put the finishing touches on the column, she bent down over him as if to read over his shoulder again. This time she turned her head and planted a tentative kiss on his neck. The unexpected touch startled a laugh out of him, but he found her hand and squeezed it to let her know he wasn't laughing at her. He could feel her smile against his skin, and then she continued stringing those tiny kisses up the line of his neck.

He'd struggled to finish editing the column and printing it out, and then edged his chair backwards, pulling her around in front of him and down into his lap, meeting her kiss fully. Lois spread her hands across the back of his neck, slid them slowly down until they were splayed over his chest, fingers tracing idly over his shirt, fumbling at the button at his collar.

There came a knock on the door.

Lois groaned in frustration, not breaking the kiss. He reached up and caught her hands at his neck, bringing them down between them and gently pulling away. A quick scan of the door confirmed what he already knew. "It's Wells," he told her. "He's here to pick up the column."

She made a face, straightening her hair and clothes, but she went to the door and let the time traveler in.

"Hello again, Lois, my dear. And Clark, how is your column coming along?"

Clark retrieved the forgotten sheet of paper from the printer. "We just finished it." They'd bought a card at the drugstore the night before, and he folded the page inside and handed it over.

Wells smiled. "I'll ensure it gets to your editor." He glanced back into the hall. "I, ah, took the liberty of having your apartment packed," he admitted after a moment. "I have several boxes downstairs for you."

Clark was surprised but pleased at Wells's forethought, and went down to the alley to retrieve his belongings, leaving Lois and the time traveler alone for a moment.

Lois cleared her throat nervously, her hands fidgeting. "Mr. Wells," she said softly, "I didn't get to thank you properly, yesterday. You saved my life... You brought him to me..." She closed her eyes, sudden tears threatening, and she blinked them away. "I can't tell you what it means to me, to us. You've given me everything. I have no way to thank you for that."

Wells smiled gently. "There's no need for thanks, my dear. I've known Clark a long time, and he's helped me in the past even when it cost him everything. He deserves to be happy, and you make him happy. And together you can do great things for your world. I'm only pleased I could help you."

Clark returned then with a massive stack of boxes, moving at human speed to avoid calling attention to himself but carrying far more than he should. Lois clucked at him. "You're going to drop something."

Clark laughed as he settled the stack on the living room floor. "I'll be fine, Lois. I've got one more load to bring up." He turned to Wells. "Thank you for bringing my things. I'd have left them behind in a heartbeat," he admitted, "but it'll be nice to have a few pieces of home."

"Not to mention clothing," Lois quipped wryly. He was still wearing yesterday's suit.

It took him only a moment to bring up the rest of the boxes. Wells smiled at the two of them, putting Clark's envelope in his pocket. "Well, then, I must be going. I'm sure the two of you have plenty to do." He extended a hand to Clark. "Take care, my boy. You're starting a brand new life. I'm sure it will be exciting."

Clark grinned as he shook the man's hand. "I can't wait." Sobering, he continued, "I can't thank you enough for your help. If you hadn't--"

"That's enough," Wells interrupted. "You deserved this. I'm glad you have it." Turning to Lois, he hugged her politely. "You two will be just fine. And maybe our paths will cross again in the future." Smiling, he tipped his hat and left.

And once again they were alone.

Feeling abruptly awkward, Clark gestured embarrassedly at the pile of boxes. "I'm sort of taking over your living room, aren't I? I'll start looking for my own place tomorrow so you can--"

"No."

He looked back at her, startled. "No?"

She smiled gently. "No, you're not taking over my living room, and no, I don't want you looking for your own place. I-- I want you to stay. With me."

He hesitated. "Lois... last night..."

She made a face. "I was tired and overwrought last night," she reminded him. "Didn't I tell you not to read anything into that?"

He blushed. "Well, yeah..."

"But you just had to assume I didn't want to be with you. Didn't want you," she continued, her tone reproachful. She stepped closer, laying a hand on his chest. "Clark, I almost died yesterday. I *would* have died if not for you. Then I met the love of my life for the first time," she continued softly. "The only man I've ever loved, and suddenly he was there with me." She grinned. "Don't you think that's enough of an emotional roller-coaster for one day, without throwing making love for the first time in there, too?"

He chuckled, acknowledging the truth in her words.

"Yesterday, I just needed you to hold me, let me calm down and find some peace. It was a heck of a day! And you did that wonderfully," she assured him, moving closer yet to wrap her arms low about his waist and lay her head on his chest. "I needed that, and you gave it to me. I've never had that before. Don't underestimate what that meant to me just because it's not making love. I still wanted you. It's just a different kind of need."

He reached up to enfold her in his arms, warm and comforting, and they stood thus for a long moment. After a time, she tilted her head back, inviting, and he kissed her gently. "Clark," she said softly.

"Yes?"

She grinned shyly up at him. "Today's been a pretty uneventful day."

He blinked in surprise, a slow smile spreading over his face. "Really? Are you sure?"

She made a face of impatience, tracing the fingers of one hand idly over his chest. "Clark, how much of an invitation do you need?"

He raised a hand to curve around the back of her head. "That's enough," he assured her, bending down to kiss her once more.

She met him eagerly this time, smiling so much she could barely kiss him. The desperate urgency that had fueled them two nights ago was gone, and in its place was a relaxed, awed joy. They let the emotion carry them, lightly, easily, trading kisses that were both playful and loving. There was no pain here, no threat of separation when the night was over. Lois was surprised to find that, under these circumstances, she could be all the things she hadn't known how to be: seductive, bold, flirtatious. She reveled in that newfound freedom, using hands and lips to tease as well as to worship, and every sound of pleasure he made thrilled her as well, the knowledge that she could make him feel that.

Reality melted around them, soft and surreal, as they made their way slowly to the bedroom, easing away layers of cloth as they went. Lois fell back on the bed, drawing a shaky breath. He rose above her, arms wrapped around her body, and she closed her eyes. It was the most real moment she'd ever known.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

When Corrie Andrews returned to her office that evening to pick up her coat, she was surprised to find a card on her desk. The strong, clean handwriting inside was familiar.

Dear Corrie, I'm sorry to do this in writing, but please accept my resignation from the Planet. I'd have liked to give you two weeks' notice, but circumstances don't allow that. I've enclosed my last column; please see that it gets printed if you approve. I appreciate everything you've done for me. Thank you for being such a good friend. And don't worry about me. Just know that I'm okay, and that I'm much happier this way.

Take care of yourself, Clark Kent

Folded inside the envelope she found a sheet of typed paper and a photograph. She pulled out the column first.

"HOPE FOR THE FUTURE "By Clark Kent

"To the people of Metropolis, and the world:

"For two years now I've had the privilege of serving you and watching your world turn slowly out of darkness into light. I've seen a violent, cynical community begin to heal, to strive for peace and to trust one another enough to believe it can happen. You don't know how proud I am of all of you, how flattered I am by the idea that I might have helped you find the courage to take these first steps. From here it can only get easier. I have every faith in you.

"But the time has come for me to take my leave of you. It's come to my attention that another world has need of me, great need, and I think I have need of it, too. Don't think the choice was an easy one, or that I'm abandoning you. I know you all can make it on your own now. There are plenty of you just waiting for the opportunity to step up and lead. You don't need a figurehead anymore.

"I see so many good things for you. In just two years, peace talks have reopened in three different conflicts. Petty crime is down forty percent in Metropolis. More than a thousand neighborhood watch groups have formed in the United States alone. And it's only been two years. Imagine what you'll do in ten, in twenty!

"So I leave you with a sad heart, but not a heavy one. I know you all have it in you to be heroes. Now's your chance. I trust you to rise to the occasion."

Corrie folded the sheet again, dropping it to the desk, slightly stunned. He was leaving? What would compel him to do something like that? Where would he go?

Her eyes fell on the photograph on the desk, and she picked it up. It was a picture of Clark, bold and unmistakable in Superman blue. But in his arms, his eyes fixed adoringly on her, was a woman smiling back at him. It took Corrie a second to recognize her. Gasping in surprise, she flipped the photo over, hoping for an explanation.

Clark had written the date on the back: April 25th, 1997. Below that, he'd printed a short message. "Don't ask too many questions. Just believe that I am very happy, happier than I ever expected to be. All the best, Clark."

She turned the picture back, smiling fondly at the couple. "Good for you, Clark," she said softly. "Good for you."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Clark pulled her close against his chest, smoothing her damp hair back from her brow. Lois smiled up at him drowsily, and he tucked her head into his shoulder, watching as her eyes closed and her breathing evened. He didn't want to fall asleep just yet. He simply drew his fingers gently through her hair, learning, letting each sensation bleed through him.

He still couldn't quite believe he was here with her. For real. Forever. And she was just as he'd always known she would be. Her voice was the same, her laughter, and the taste of her as she kissed him. Her body fit against his, her heartbeat mingled with his. She was beautiful and brilliant and feisty and loving, and she belonged with him.

She was, quite simply, everything he'd ever dreamed of.

He pressed a kiss to her brow, pulling her closer to him, and let himself slip into sleep.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The End

The quotes at the beginning of each chapter are credited as follows:

1 - Tentatively attributed to William Shakespeare.
2 - Excerpted from The Rose, by Amanda Broom.
3 - Excerpted from Dream a Dream (and See), by Dennis Lee and Phil Balsam (written for Fraggle Rock).
4 - Attributed to Janos Irany.
5 - Excerpted from William Shakespeare's Sonnet CXVI.
6 - Attributed to Samuel Johnson.
7 - H. G. Wells in L&C: Soulmates, screenwritten by Brad Kern (?).
8 - Excerpted from Markings, by Dag Hammarskj"ld
9 - Excerpted from One Day I'll Fly Away, by Will Jennings and Joe Sample.
10 - Excerpted from Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson.

Notes: Mwerana is a fictitious city in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Also, while the country does have diamond resources, they are not their chief export in our universe