By Nan Smith
The city of Paris flowed by beneath them. Clasped in Clark's arms, Lois looked delightedly around as they swooped in wide, lazy circles around the Eiffel Tower.
"This is fantastic!" she said. "And you get to see all these places whenever you want?"
"Well," he said, "not any time, but yeah, I've seen a lot of exotic places. You know something, though --"
"What?" she asked, when the pause lengthened between them.
"Well --" He looked a little embarrassed. "You'll probably think it's silly, but --"
He smiled shyly. "I've never enjoyed it like this before. That's crazy, isn't it? But it wasn't much fun seeing all the wonders of the world by myself. Lana wouldn't fly with me, so I was never able to take her with me when I went to places like Paris or Egypt -- or anywhere, really. In fact, I didn't even dare tell her I was going or she'd get angry."
"The more fool her," Lois said. "She had no idea what she was missing."
Was she imagining things, or did his arms tighten just for an instant? She didn't know, but his teeth flashed in a wide smile.
They maintained their distance from the actual Tower. Lois could see people pointing at them as they circled. Before they had left Metropolis, Clark had suggested that she wrap a gauzy scarf around her neck and over her nose and mouth to prevent anyone from actually photographing her face. She hadn't been certain that it was necessary but had gone along with his suggestion, and now she was glad that she had. The fact that she and Clark were on a date was something she didn't want to answer questions about from the Press. If they were to start dating on a regular basis, the world was bound to find out eventually, but this was their private business and not the media's. When they were ready to make it public, it would be on their terms, and in the meantime there would be no comment. As it was, she could see cameras aimed in their direction. Superman might not be a regular tourist attraction in Paris, but no one was going to miss a picture of him if they could help it.
"Ready for dinner?" Clark asked.
She nodded. "I hope we're not going to have to deal with the press at this place."
"We won't. The reservation is in the name of a friend of mine, and it's not at one of the hot nightspots over here. It's just a quiet little café on the outskirts of the city that serves some of the best country French food that I've ever tasted."
"I'll trust your judgement," Lois said. "I guess you try to pick little out-of-the-way places to keep from being recognized, don't you?"
He nodded. "If I didn't, I'd have every camera in the city zeroed in on me, and every psychologist in the world would be analyzing my eating habits."
Lois made a face. "It's not really fair, but that's one of the problems of being a celebrity. I wonder if we might be able to do something about it."
"What do you mean?"
"Well --" She paused before giving voice to something she had been thinking about ever since he had told her a little about his experiences in the other universe. "You told me the other Clark has a secret identity, but that here, Tempus revealed it to the world."
"That's right. On national television."
"Okay, so here, everyone knows who you are. I'll bet it would never occur to anyone that you might adopt another one -- maybe just for those occasions when you want to go out privately and just be you, not Superman. Someone not even remotely associated with Superman."
He looked at her almost in astonishment. "You know, I never thought of that. Do you really think it would work?"
The speed with which he seized on the idea was revealing in itself. Clark was, she thought, desperate for a little genuine privacy, and that hardened her resolve to find a way to give it to him. Superman might be the most powerful man on Earth, but it was becoming more and more obvious to her in the short time that she had known him that he sometimes needed someone to protect him from that very same world. Well, if no one else would do it, she would.
"Yes, I do," she said, putting all the confidence that she could summon into the words. "I'll get to work on it tomorrow morning."
"Okay." He increased their speed so that, to anyone who might be watching them, they seemed to vanish, but moments later they dropped into an alley and Clark spun back into civilian clothing.
She watched the primary colors of the suit fade into black, and he emerged immaculately clad in a charcoal suit and tie that looked quite as good on him as the Superman outfit. She looked him up and down approvingly.
"Very nice. And this way you don't clash with my dress," she said. "How far away is this place?"
"About three blocks," Clark said. He held out his arm. "Shall we go?"
Lois rested her hand in the crook of his elbow as they strolled out of the alleyway and down the sidewalk. The sun was dropping toward the horizon, and shadows had begun to creep across the city. Traffic was fairly heavy, crowding the narrow streets. The sounds of engines, horns, many voices speaking a language that she didn't understand, and radios blaring music, floated on the chilly evening air. They walked parallel to the main boulevard, and crossed two lesser streets. From somewhere not far away, she could hear a dog barking, and someone was revving a motorcycle.
"You know," Lois said, "lots of people say that big cities are all alike, but they aren't, really. I mean," she pursued, "there are a lot of similarities, but each one has its own particular flavor."
"Flavor?" Clark asked.
"Yes. They have different sounds, different smells -- just -- well, a whole different atmosphere. I can't really pin it down completely. Don't tell me you hadn't noticed."
"I guess they do," he said. He lifted his head and sniffed the air. "I hadn't really thought about it, but you're right. Paris smells different than Metropolis does."
"What do you smell?" she asked.
"Well, the food, for one. I can smell the cooking in the eating establishments around here. It's different. Other things, too. There's a perfume shop not far away. I can smell the scents."
"They have those in Metropolis."
He shrugged. "Sure, but it's not quite the same. Maybe different scents are popular here than in Metropolis."
"I suppose that's possible," she agreed.
"And speaking of scents," he added, "I can smell the food at the café where we're going to eat. It's right across the street on the corner."
Now that he mentioned it, Lois could also smell the aromas of superbly prepared food in the early evening air and her mouth started to water. They crossed the street and Clark opened the door for her. She had noticed that particular quality about him not long after they had met. Clark was unfailingly polite in a way that led her to believe that his mother and father must have taught him courtesy so early and so well that it was almost an instinct. Within a few minutes of their arrival a little man presented himself to Clark and spoke courteously, although Lois couldn't understand a word.
Clark replied in the same language. The other man smiled widely and beckoned, and a short time later, Lois found herself seated at a small table opposite Clark. A tall candle glowed in the center of the table, and through the window beside them, she could see an enclosed patio that during the spring and summer would be alive with flowering plants. Just now a light powdering of snow sprinkled the ground, dyed pink by the rays of the setting sun.
"What would you like to eat?" Clark asked.
"Well, since I don't understand a word of French, that's going to be a problem," Lois said.
He grinned. "Do you trust me to order for you?"
"Okay -- as long as it's not snails," she said. "Somehow, I never could convince myself to try them."
His grin widened. "Scout's honor -- no snails," he said. He opened the menu and scanned it briefly, then folded it and laid it on the table. "So, what do you think of Paris?"
"It's incredible," Lois said honestly. "I was here once, a few years ago, but I didn't have much time to see the sights. I was here on business. There was a big international conference that I was covering and mostly I saw the inside of the hotel and the convention center."
"You didn't even have time to see the Eiffel Tower?"
"Only from a distance." She shrugged. "It wouldn't have been anything like today, anyhow. Like you said, it's not much fun by yourself."
"Yeah." Clark reached across the table to touch her hand. "I guess we'll have to do this more often. Maybe we can try China next time. I can take you to Shanghai, to my favorite Chinese food place."
"I'd like that." She turned her palm over and, greatly daring, slipped her hand into his. "I don't know why, but I feel like I've known you all my life. I can't believe I only met you three days ago -- so to speak."
His fingers interlaced with hers almost automatically. "Well, you could say we've known each other since we met -- five years ago," he suggested. "Doesn't that make us old friends?"
"I guess you could," she admitted with a little smile. "When you put it that way, that makes you one of my oldest friends."
She found herself looking into his eyes, and he was smiling back at her with so much warmth that she felt a lump rise in her throat. No one had ever looked at her that way before. "It makes you my oldest friend, for certain," he said.
The soft, apologetic clearing of a throat interrupted them. Lois glanced up to see the little man who had escorted them to their table regarding them benignly.
Clark smiled and slowly released her hand. The little man spoke unintelligibly, and Clark answered. Lois sat back, listening to him speaking French like a native of the country as he ordered their meal, marveling at what this incredible man seemed to be hinting. Was she jumping to conclusions? She didn't think so, but she didn't want to scare him away, either. Still, he didn't seem to be the kind of man who was afraid of making commitments. After all, he had already been engaged once, and he had been forced to choose between his fiancee and what he could do for the world, so making difficult decisions wasn't new to him, either -- or maybe that particular decision hadn't been so difficult to make, after all. It hadn't been his fault that Lana Lang had been afraid of the implications of the world finding out the tremendous things that he could do, or that she apparently couldn't tolerate his decision to follow his dream of using his incredible abilities to help his adopted planet.
And, if what Lois thought Clark was saying was true, the question might be one that she would have to answer someday, or at least a similar one. Did she have what it took to fill the position that Lana Lang couldn't, or wouldn't? Could she be Clark Kent -- and Superman's -- partner in all ways, as he seemed to be suggesting that he would like?
It was much too soon to say anything, of course, but surprisingly, the idea wasn't a bit frightening. Lois Lane had never shirked from a challenge, and this one might be a big one, but the thought excited, rather than frightened, her. She already knew that her life was likely to be tied closely to his. Together, they would lay the foundation for the society that was to come, so maybe they were meant to be together in other ways too. Clark might not know whether that was so, but she could ask. Later. When they knew each other better.
But, she thought, on a more practical note, if she was going to have that much of a say in her world's so-called Utopia, then she was darned well going to try to be sure that its citizens were a little more competent than the ones of the other universe! Letting a maniac like Tempus loose, when he held the potential for destroying everything that they were, had to be the ultimate in stupidity. Maybe she could see to it that the future men and women of her universe had a little more common sense, at the very least.
Someone was presenting Clark with a bottle of white wine, and she watched in some amusement as they went through the traditional routine. He tasted it and solemnly approved the vintage. "I hope you like my choice," he said to her. "It's one of my favorites."
"I noticed you had a pretty impressive collection at your apartment," she said. "Where did you get to be a wine connoisseur?"
He shrugged. "I learned a little about wine from the Langs. Since Lana and I broke up, I've tried to travel to see more of the world, like I told you before. Some of it was while I was hunting for you. Socializing with the people of different countries often involves eating with them, and --" He shrugged again. "I found that I liked the wines of different regions. Naturally, alcohol doesn't affect me, but I still appreciate a good wine, and getting intoxicated isn't the point of wine, anyway."
"That's for sure, or I'd never touch it," Lois said. "I saw enough of my mother falling-down drunk when I was in my teens to ever want to do it myself."
"I don't blame you at all." He picked up the bottle. "May I pour you a little?"
"I guess so. What did you order for us?"
"Well, we're starting with a stuffed mushroom appetizer, if that's okay. Definitely not snails --"
She laughed. "Thank you."
"You're welcome. As for the rest, why don't you just wait and see if you like my choice. If you don't, we'll get something else."
"Well --" She watched him pour the wine. "All right, just this once."
He grinned. "Why do I get the idea that suspense isn't one of your favorite things?"
"Maybe because it isn't," she said. "I don't exactly make it a secret."
"I noticed. Do you feel like a walk by the river after dinner? I know it's a little cold for nighttime walks, so if it gets too cold we can always just go home."
"How about a night time flight?" Lois suggested. "That way I don't have to worry about the cold. Besides, I doubt I'll ever get enough of flying with you."
"That sounds even better," Clark said. He set down the bottle and lifted his glass. "To our partnership," he said.
"And to our friendship," Lois said, bravely.
"And whatever more may come of it," Clark added.
The moon had risen by the time they left the café. The little man who had welcomed them bowed them out with a phrase in French and a broad smile at Lois. Clark said something in the same language that made him smile even more widely, and led Lois out into the evening air.
It was definitely chilly, but the feeling of cold lasted only as long as it took for the two of them to step into the nearest alley, where Clark scooped her up into his arms and launched himself into the night sky, not bothering to change into his Suit. They rose over the lighted city and Clark headed toward the river. Once there, they flew slowly along the bank at a casual walking pace, looking down at the faintly luminous water. Below them, Lois could see shadowy couples strolling along hand in hand, even in the cold weather. In France, she supposed, romance was always in season.
At last, they landed in a deserted spot where they could stand looking out over the water. Clark had an arm around her, holding her against him, and she thought it wasn't because of the chilly air. He was going to kiss her, and she found herself lifting her face as he bent slowly, giving her plenty of time to refuse.
Which she had no intention whatsoever of doing. The kiss was slow and gentle, and over much too soon. Clark lifted his head and looked down at her. His face was a shadow in the darkness, but she could see his eyes glowing in the moonlight reflecting from the water.
"I've been wanting to do that since the day we met," he said.
She gave a soft laugh. "What took you so long?"
"Well, I didn't want you to think I was trying to take advantage of you while you were staying with me. But a date is a little different."
She hadn't moved away from him. "True. It's not an official date without at least one kiss."
"At least," he agreed. "Would you care to try again and see if we can do better the second time?"
"Well ... Why not?"
The second kiss was longer, but it was still over too soon. It was the sound of someone clearing his throat that interrupted the third. Lois looked around to meet the amused eyes of a police officer. He spoke to Clark, who answered him with suitable respect, and turned to Lois. "The officer wants us to move along," he said. "Shall we go? We can always find a more private spot to continue this discussion later -- assuming you'd like to, that is."
"Sure," Lois said. "It's getting late. Let's go home."
"Your wish is my command," he said. In an instant, he had scooped her up and was rising from the ground. Lois caught a glimpse of the police officer's dropped jaw a second before Clark shifted into high speed, and they rose like a bullet into the night sky. In seconds, Paris had dwindled to a bright spot on the horizon behind them as they soared over the Atlantic Ocean, headed for Metropolis.
They flew in silence for some minutes, and then Clark spoke. "Would you like to go somewhere else before we go back? It's only late afternoon in Metropolis."
"How about Rio?"
"Sure. I probably need to change my clothes, though. It's going to be a lot warmer there."
"Okay, we'll make a quick stop in New Orleans for some cooler clothing, and then we'll head for Rio."
"We're going to get you something, too. I've got an idea."
"Sure. There's no time like the present for you to try out a new identity."
He raised an eyebrow at her. "You sound like you have some definite ideas on the subject."
He chuckled softly. "Okay, I'm in your hands."
A young couple strolled along one of the streets of the famous Brazilian city, looking around, wide-eyed, at the sights. The air was warm and humid, and the woman slapped absently at the occasional insect, but the tiny annoyance wasn't bothering her at all. All her attention was on her companion.
Tall, olive-skinned, and strikingly handsome in his loud shirt and Bermuda shorts, with leather thongs on his feet, he wore fashionable sunglasses and his hair was brushed into the current spiky style. He kept an arm about her waist, and held her a little closer than was strictly necessary as they progressed down the avenue, window-shopping.
"I'm not sure about this hairstyle," Clark muttered. "It doesn't quite seem to be me."
"That," Lois said firmly, "is exactly the point. Don't forget to slouch a little, and act casual. Come on; let's go in here. They have all kinds of Superman collectibles. I want you to stand over by the life-size cardboard cutout of you. Let's see if anyone notices."
Clark hesitated and then laughed. "Sure, why not?"
The store had a large section devoted exclusively to Superman. They browsed for some time among the fantastic wares offered, moving among a number of other persons engaged in the same activity. A life-size cardboard cutout of Superman, smiling and folding his arms, stood prominently in the middle of the exhibit, and after several minutes, Clark walked somewhat reluctantly over and stood beside it in exactly the same pose as his image.
A woman who had been standing and observing the cutout giggled. She glanced at Lois, who was surveying the scene critically. "My," she said, with a strong Southern accent. "That is a picture."
"What do you mean?" Lois asked.
"It's just funny," she said. "Is that your boyfriend?"
"Well," the other woman said with a smile, "he's pretty nice-looking, but he looks like he brushed his hair with an egg-beater."
"I know," Lois said. "I can't convince him to change it, though. He thinks it's cool. He says," she added carefully, "that his friends keep kidding him for trying to look like Superman, so he does his hair this way on purpose to get them to stop."
The woman eyed Clark critically while Lois held her breath. "Well -- maybe a little," she conceded. "He has a nice build, and dark hair, but he's not tall enough. Besides, his face is the wrong shape. He shouldn't worry about what others think, anyway."
"That's what I keep telling him," Lois said. "I'm glad someone agrees with me." She gestured to Clark. "Come on, Charlie, stop kidding around. I want to pick up some souvenirs for my mom and dad."
Clark sauntered over to her and put an arm around her. "Okay. I think I saw some stuff they'd like, back at that last place."
"I am not buying my dad a tie that looks like someone threw paint on it!" Lois informed him. She glanced at the women who had been speaking to her a moment before. "Nice talking to you."
The woman gave a faint laugh. "Good luck," she said, before turning to examine a blue and red T-shirt and shorts combination with the famous S printed prominently on the shirt. Lois tugged Clark after her but didn't speak until they were once again on the sidewalk. "Well?" she said, "what do you think of that -- Charlie?"
Clark stopped to examine his reflection in a store window. "I think I could get to like this hairstyle," he said, "but I can't wear Bermuda shorts in Metropolis -- especially at this time of year."
"No, but we can get you some stuff just as un-Clark Kent-ish," Lois said. "We'll buy you some casual clothes for wear around Metropolis. And those glasses you used to wear before people knew about Superman have got to go. We're going to get you something completely different -- different frame, and with lenses that change color when you go out in the sun. What do they call those?"
"I have no idea," Clark said, "but I know what you're talking about. 'Charlie'?"
"Uh huh. When you're not on one of your jobs, you're Charlie from now on. I'm going to see a couple of friends I know in Metropolis once we let it be known that I'm back. We'll get you the identification you need, just in case, and you'll be officially Charlie King. That should give you a little privacy from the media and everybody else when you don't want to be bothered."
"I'm not sure I should go that far," Clark objected. "A false ID isn't --"
"If you were going to use it for illegal purposes that would be one thing," Lois said. "But you're not. You're doing this so you can kick back and give yourself some time off, occasionally. It's better for you, and will help you do both your real jobs better if you're allowed to relax, once in a while."
He laughed suddenly. "Now I see why Perry told me they called you Mad Dog Lane," he said. "Why oh why didn't I meet you sooner?"
"Because Tempus was trying to wreck your life," Lois said. "But we've taken care of that little detail, and now we're going to undo the damage he did as much as we can. Is it a deal?"
His arm went around her waist again, and she found herself being kissed soundly in broad daylight in the middle of a crowded sidewalk.
She was gasping slightly when he let her go, but he was grinning, and she grinned back.
"It's a deal!" he said. "How can I argue with the woman who's giving me my life back?"
"Well, it's only fair," she pointed out, mildly. "You gave me mine back, too."
It was after dark when they arrived back in Metropolis. They landed in an alley not far from the Daily Planet, and Clark changed back into his ordinary Clark Kent attire. At the corner, he stopped to purchase a copy of the paper and Lois glanced at the other copies of various papers that were sold at the same location. The Whisper already had a picture of Superman, apparently taken when he had flown around the Eiffel Tower carrying her, and the headline screamed "Superman's Mystery Woman!"
"I'm glad you suggested I wear that scarf," Lois said. "When we get back to your place, I'm going to walk in through the apartment building's front doors. You follow in about ten minutes, and let me in to your apartment through the door to the hall"
Clark nodded. "Gotcha. I know exactly what I'm going to tell the media if they're staking out the place, too, but I'm glad you came up with the Charlie King idea. If we have another date, no one will notice us. I like the idea of that."
"So do I," Lois said. "I had fun today, Clark."
"So did I. More than I've had in a long time. Does that mean you'll consider another one?"
"I think so," she said, trying to keep the elation from showing in her voice.
"Good. How about next Friday night? We could go to Shanghai."
"That would be nice." She turned away from the blaring headline. "I'm looking forward to some good Chinese food again."
"Me too. And maybe we could take a tour of the Great Wall or something. Or maybe just have a picnic in the countryside."
"Either one is fine with me." She smiled up at him. "Lucy used to say that all my dates were interviews. Now I can tell her that she's wrong. I go on normal dates just like any other girl -- if you don't count the flying."
"Exactly," Clark said. He took her hand. "Let's go home."