[PART SEVEN]

*~\s/~*

For every major life situation, there is a proverbial fork in the road. It is what the Faustians refer to as the Devil's Crossroads. The Point of Decision. And sometimes, The Point of No Return.

Clark Kent, however, lived in a context where the normal rules did not apply. Often, situations that should have been his Points of No Return offered him an out.

As he watched the smoke billow from the damaged towers in the far distance and the sky begin to lose its blush, he felt his 'out' weigh heavily in the palm of his hand. The answer was simple: all he had to do was slip that ring onto his finger and he would go back. He could fix all of this by preventing it from happening.

The questions were not as simple as the answer, though. He had used the ring once already as an escape, and here it was again, promising the same thing. He had bowed to that promise before, and it had almost *been* an actual Point of No Return. When the ring had been lost, his options were slim.

With no ring, he would have been resigned to take the mantle Lois had laid out for him. He would have had no choice but to retreat into another metal chamber that would preserve and then deliver him unto a world in need of a savior.

Lois had said that running from Destiny only made it appear right in front of you, and she was right. 'Where ever you go, there you are.'

But there was a ring now. And with it came options. He could escape this future and no one would be the wiser. In fact, his escape would prove their salvation. He was sure of it.

So the answer was simple. He would put the ring on. He would leave these people to the nightmare that was their reality, and he would return to his own and carve out a dream.

Resolutely, Clark looked down at the small boy standing beside him. He, too, was staring out at the destruction in the distance.

"Sir!"

Clark turned to see Dale beckoning him to come inside. Pocketing the ring, Clark swooped the little boy into his arms and stepped across the threshold.

He handed the boy to Dale and then stepped back outside.

"Sir? We need you inside... to seal the doors..."

"Ten minutes," Clark replied. "In ten minutes, you seal these doors and don't come out until they come in and get you."

Dale frowned and shook his head. "Sir, I'm afraid..."

"General Lane left orders for me to assume command, is that right?" At first, the implications of everyone saluting him and addressing him as their leader had been overwhelming for him, but then he had understood Lois's strategy. Now, he was intent on creating one of his own.

"That is correct, but..."

"No buts, Dale. Ten minutes." With a stern nod, Clark took another step away from the doors. Yes, he would go home, but there was something he had to do first.

*~\s/~*

When he first started running, the sky had not yet cleared enough to let the yellow life-line come through, but as he gained distance, the clouds cleared and his speed increased. By time thirty seconds had passed, he had overtaken the car Oliver was speeding away in and pulled it to a stop. Twenty seconds after that, the car's tires had been blown, and he had Oliver standing in front of a dazed man and little boy at the entrance to the Ark.

"Stay, Clark," Oliver pleaded with a hand gripping his arm. "There's not enough time left for you to save her."

Clark knew that there were only minutes-maybe, seconds-left before the bombs would begin to fall; when the sky would mock Christmas and turn it a sickening hue of green. He didn't have time to explain to his friend that he had the ring back.

He didn't have time to explain that he knew that he didn't really *need* to save her in this blood-tinted future where his currently reclaimed powers would soon be worthless.

He didn't have time to try to explain why-to Oliver or to himself-he just *had* to try.

Gently pulling free of his friend's grip, Clark spared only a moment to say what would have to serve as both good-bye and good luck. "Command is yours now."

Finally, powerful enough to reach full speed, he wasted no more time before dashing head first into the war zone...

...and skidded to a stop in the middle of the once-was Metropolis where Lois and Zod were embroiled in a terrifying death dance. As his speed descended, and the rest of the world sped up to meet his velocity, he saw Lois's eyes shift to acknowledge his arrival, and her read there her surprise and her dismay.

It was that slightly misplaced second that drew her attention away from her attacker and allowed Zod-however normal-strengthened he was-to bury to the hilt, an ugly-looking knife into her gut.

The sky may have no longer carried the color, but red was all Clark saw as he rushed to the spot where the two stood macabredly connected. When his vision cleared, Zod had been knocked backwards and Lois was cradled in his arms.

"It was you all the time."

Clark turned to see Zod smiling at him with blood staining his teeth and mouth-and a jagged metal pipe jutting from his chest.

Even in the pallor of death, the man seemed to never lose his hold on evil. He tried to laugh and instead coughed violently, dribbling blood down his chin. "Too bad about your timing," Zod offered, attempting to lift his hands but then giving up. "Now we all die." The knife that he'd somehow held onto when he'd been knocked away clattered to the ground as his fingers lost their ability to grip.

A whistling sound alerted Clark's attention to the sky and watched fascinated as a missile exploded like a celebratory firework, throwing green dust into the air and promising death. When he lowered his eyes, he noticed for the first time the army of black-clad Kandorians surrounding them. They also looked to the sky and then back to their dying leader before silently backing into the shadows.

Clark lowered himself to the ground, gently adjusting Lois onto his lap, taking off his jacket and bunching it between their bodies at her side. His hand pressed tightly against the wound that trickled a steady flow of blood, even as he began to feel the tightness in his neck that indicated poison entering his lungs. "I'm so sorry," he whispered, looking down into surprisingly clear hazel eyes.

"You're not supposed to be here," Lois said back, swallowing around the words as she fought obvious pain. Her hand moved to lie across his. "You don't take orders very well."

Fighting tears and ignoring the fire-laced tendrils that were starting to attack his veins, he leaned closer. "I had to come."

Lois's eyes were beginning to glaze and he watched as a sole tear tracked a path down her cheek after being dislodged by a blink. When he wiped it away, his fingers left a smudge of blood in its place. If he had ever felt powerless before, that could not compare with what he was feeling then. His own abilities had once again been stripped and there was no way to save her-yet, there was no way he could let her go.

"Y-you're not ss-supposed to be here," she said again, and Clark hoped she was just reiterating and not succumbing to delirium.

He fished the ring out of his pocket with his free hand and held it up for her to see. "It's okay," he promised. "It's going to be okay."

Her hand lifted from his to take the ring and she smiled weakly as she inspected it. Watching her then, he decided that he would take her with him. Forget that he didn't know if it would work that way, or even if it could take two people together-all he knew is that he would never be without her again. He would ensure that she would go. Even if he didn't.

"Lois, I..." "S-smallville, you.."

They spoke at once, both voices urgent, but hers so much softer... weaker... that he paused first.

She coughed, and he pressed tighter against the blood-flow, grimacing when the motion elicited a pain-laced moan. She grabbed at his hand with her other one, but he didn't give in-intent on keeping her alive, even as he died.

Lois opened her eyes again, clearing slightly out of pain and purpose. Another ominous whistle pierced the sky and Clark knew it was time. "You need... t'know," she ground out, her fingers wrapping around his, "th-that I..." Coughing again, she lost some of her strength.

"Lois..."

But she shook her head, and fought to continue. "I l-loved you then..." She closed her eyes, spent, and Clark feared the worst. But she had more to say, albeit weakly. "...D-died when you... l-left."

Once again Clark felt the pressure of time and the lack of it. He wanted to ask her what she meant about 'then', and yet at the same time, he wanted to beg her to hold on a little while longer. He wished they had more time.

Mostly though, he needed to tell her too.

Her eyes were closed and the sky was about to start burning, but he would stand there until the Earth at his feet opened up so he could say this...

"I lah..." he began...

...only to be interrupted by the blast of a shockwave of heat and light.

*~\s/~*

[EPILOGUE]

*~\s/~*

When the light faded, Clark was surprised that he could breathe easily in the wake of the nuclear detonation. The world's sights and sounds all came snapping back in the same instant, and he found himself looking directly into the grill of an oncoming bus.

In the same amount of time it took for him to realize that he was sitting in the middle of the street of a blue-skyed Metropolis, Clark had escaped the opportunity to leave a man-sized dent in the front of the bus, and was standing on the sidewalk in a dazed stupor.

Blinking, he saw that he was standing directly in front of the Daily Planet, and lifting his hand, he saw the Legion Ring securely in place around his finger. He remembered Lois grasping at the hand that he had pressed against her wound and suddenly realized what she had been doing all along.

She had slipped the ring on his finger so he could be sent home. He smiled sadly at his thoughts, acknowledging with a grim emptiness that she's go so far as to die in order to have the last word.

He guessed that the few milliseconds that he'd spent in the nuclear fallout had cleaned his hands of excess organic matter because they were surprising clear of her blood.

His head suddenly lifted. He was back in his time. Which meant he had work to do. Which meant he had an invasion to prevent.

Which meant that *she* wasn't dead.

At a speed he would never be able to explain to bystanders, Clark disappeared through the doors of his place of employment, stopping at the bottom of the stairs; arrested by the sight before him as though only now believing what he had known-hoped-he would see.

Lois Lane. Unscarred and unscathed. Hair held together by that infernal pencil that she would undoubtedly be looking for when it came time to write something down.

No holster. No gun. No blood.

She was sitting at her desk, swiveling mindlessly in her chair while she gazed unseeingly at the empty desk in front of hers.

Holding his breath, afraid to start a ripple that would prove this vision an oasis, Clark stepped forward, crossing the treshhold from hallway to main room as if he were stepping from a dream into reality.

When Lois looked up, he couldn't read the myriad of emotions that crossed her face, but it didn't seem to matter once she had launched herself into his arms.

"My God!" she exclaimed, wrapping her arms around him so tightly that Clark-superpowered as he was-felt a bit constricted. He didn't make a move for her to stop, though, because her hold on him coincided with his hold on sanity. "Where have you been?"

Her voice was full of wonder and relief and exasperation, but even his lack of answers didn't stop her from talking. "It's been three weeks!" She pulled back enough to look at him. "Chloe and Ollie were sure you were gone for good, but I knew you wouldn't just take off..." She paused again, searching his eyes. "Why weren't you at the funeral?"

She finally released her boa-grip on his neck and stepped back, patting his chest and arms with her hands. "Are you hurt?" Her hands worried a small place on his shirt where some blood had stained.

"It's not mine." Clark grabbed her hands, stilling her movements and pulling her back to his chest. There would be time for the questions, and time for the answers. There would even be time for dealing with alien forces and preventing heinous losses... but right in that moment, Clark refused to let any more time pass—future or present—before he said what he needed to say.

"Lois. I love you too."

And, finally having achieved getting the last word in a conversation with Lois Lane—mostly because his declaration had left her speechless—Clark decided to seal his victory with a kiss.

*This*, he decided, as he allowed the realness of 'now' to soothe the pain and warning of the 'future', was the only way he needed to ever try to escape.

Apparently, Lois must have agreed, because she sighed into his mouth and snuggled deeper into his embrace.

Once they saved it, they would have all the time in the world.

*~\s/~*

Fin.

Hope you enjoyed the ride!