hazelrah: (superman)
[personal profile] hazelrah
Written in late 2000, and my second rewrite of Tempus, Anyone? - only this time, from an unusual "certain point of view." Rated PG.



Author's notes: This story began as a challenge. Could I write in first-person? Could I do angst and introspection? Could I write sympathetically about a character FoLCs love to hate? :) This fic is not going to be for everyone. The story took much longer to write than expected because of the difficulties inherent in understanding the main character, and I'm grateful to those that were so supportive among the way. Thanks to Margaret Brignell, who bravely began beta-reading this before succumbing and fleeing for the Maalox; to Zoomway's message board regulars, who supplied constant encouragement and lots of food for thought; to Wendy Richards, who brainstormed with me late nights on IRC and whose suggestions enhanced the impact of the story; to LabRat, who made an excellent GE; and special thanks to Carol Malo, who found herself "volunteering" to beta-read and doing a truly splendid job. This story would never been completed without all of you!

Disclaimer: All rights to Superman and the other characters in this story belong to DC Comics and Warner Brothers -- with the exception of H.G. Wells, who presumably belonged to himself. Dialogue taken directly from Tempus, Anyone? isn't mine either. Come to think of it, none of this is really mine. Hope you enjoy it anyway. :)

A Certain Point of View


"So what I told you was true... from a certain point of view."

"A certain point of view!"

"Luke, you're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view."

Ben Kenobi and Luke Skywalker, ROTJ, 1983


It's quiet here. The sounds of the street come faintly to the eleventh floor, and besides, there are far fewer sirens wailing through the night than there used to be.

Clark saw to that.

I often find myself sitting here, curled up on the sofa and staring out the window into the welcome anonymity of the night. My eyes, long accustomed to the darkness, strain for a glimpse of red, a flash of blue, the whoosh of air or the sonic boom that would mark his passing. He will not look in my direction, I know, but it would offer a bitter comfort to know he was nearby, even if it is in that guise that fills my soul with acrid regret. Nearby, as he once always was. Now we are both alone; more alone than we ever have been, locked within the paths we have chosen that will never cross again. He is not Clark anymore, but Superman.

Thinking comes more easily when I'm alone. At work, everything is bright: bright false smiles, bright blinding lights, bright artificial statements. Here, in the dark, things seem more real. After all, reality isn't bright; it doesn't seem to fit into the loud, bustling pattern of my days. It's only at night, when the lighting is dim and my ears strain for the echo of that sonic boom, that I can face the stark truth of my life and relive the inexorable chain of events that brought me to this lonely existence.

Oh, Clark...

We were robbed of a regular childhood, he and I. The vivid colors of the happiness of our first few years appear as a snapshot in my mind, a frozen frame of a lifetime ago. We both lost our innocence when we were ten: he to a truck careening wildly out of control, I to a burden beyond the capacity of my frail shoulders. Nothing was the same after that.

I remember the panic in his eyes when we met after school one day, and he confided, in a hoarse whisper, that things were "wrong." The whole thing had been somewhat surreal from the beginning; we met daily in school, we walked home partway together each afternoon, so why did Clark have to ask me to meet him? The formality of his request was, in itself, somewhat alarming. Then he explained why.

I was changed afterwards, and I knew it. I don't mean to condemn him; I'm glad that he felt he could trust me, and I'm happy I was there to help share his burden. If Martha and Jonathan had lived, perhaps things would have been different, and he wouldn't have needed to confide in me. And he, who lived daily with the fear of the unknown and the dread of a hand on his shoulder, carried a weight far beyond that of mine. But the truth remained that I was no longer a carefree ten-year-old with no greater concern than matching the color of my headband to my skirt.

Most days were happy enough. Life in Smallville proceeded at the same easy, lazy pace. For the most part, both he and I were able to forget the strange differences that had begun to manifest themselves. And if Clark read a chapter of our assigned homework in the time it took me to read a single paragraph, well, we could somehow ignore it. We both became more cautious in what we said and did in public, and to some extent, in private; even then, I think, our perception of the outside world as an enemy had begun to coalesce in our subconscious minds. Clark's inexplicable powers had to be hidden, and for the most part, they were.

Then, five years after his parents were killed, the heat vision started. Poor Clark was more terrified than I'd ever seen him. Being just a little too strong, a little too fast, or seeing just a little too far could be rationalized; he could excuse anything inexplicable to his foster parents by vague references to "growth spurts." But what explanation could he give for his ability to set things on fire simply by staring at them?

Clark took me into the meadow beyond his foster parents' farm to tell me. Our quiet talks on our walks home must have seemed too dangerous for such a startling piece of news.

"Lana, it's gotten worse." He put a shaking hand over his eyes. "It happened yesterday, when Mrs. Smithson was trying to start the barbecue for dinner."

I nodded. Jackie Smithson, who fostered Clark, was particularly fond of outdoor cooking in the summertime. I'd heard my mother joke about the Smithsons' barbecue: "She lights it in May and lets the fire go out in October."

"Tell me," I urged him.

He hesitated for a moment, biting his lip. With a pang, I wondered if the habit of secrecy would somehow begin to encompass me, too.

Then he blurted it out. "Lana, she was having trouble getting the fire started. She was so frustrated. And I just looked at it and thought, 'C'mon, light already!' And then --"

He swallowed hard. "Lana, I l-lit the f-fire with my eyes."

"Clark!" Instinctively, I looked around to make sure no one was in earshot. Standing there on the lush grass beneath a bright, sunny sky, I found myself suddenly very cold.

We ended up sitting there, in the middle of the meadow, and talking together for hours. As the brassy sun cast our lengthening shadows before us, I came to a deeper understanding of the terrible burden he carried: being orphaned at ten, robbed of a loving, supportive family, was only a fraction of the terrible anxiety that weighed upon him.

For the first time, he told me something more of his adoption. All of Smallville had heard the story of how Jonathan and Martha Kent had taken an unwanted child, the result of a "fling" by a distant cousin; now, I heard the real story. I suppose that he felt that this new "talent" made any kind of normal explanation impossible.

I sat back after a while, staring at the long shadows that stretched across the grass. What kind of shadow haunted the boy who had been my closest friend for over a decade? How could we, two adolescents, discover the reasons behind these bizarre manifestations?

"You can't tell anyone," I finally said.

"I know."

I turned to him, allowing my fear to show in my eyes. "I'm scared for you, Clark," I said softly. "I don't mean I'm scared of you. I'm scared for you. If someone finds out..."

He nodded soberly. "They might want to -- examine me."

I wrapped my arms my body for warmth. "Yeah," I whispered.

"Dad used to worry." He shuddered. "When I'd do things. He used to say that if I wasn't careful, someone would come and -- and --" He swallowed hard. "And dissect me like a frog."

"No, Clark," I said, my voice almost a whimper. "Oh, no."

"I remember hearing Mom and Dad talk about it sometimes," he said distantly. "I think my hearing must have been better than it was supposed to be, even then. Dad used to wonder if I was Russian, and Mom talked about NASA..."

"So you're an astronaut or something?"

"Or something, I guess." He pulled up a blade of grass and absently twined it around his finger. "That spaceship -- Mom and Dad said it didn't look like anything from Earth."

"Not from Earth?" I looked at him with disbelief. "Clark, you can't expect me to believe you're from outer space!"

"I don't know, Lana," he suddenly flared. He rose to his feet and took several strides away from me. Then his shoulders slumped, and he turned back. "I don't know," he said again, more quietly this time. "And that's what kills me."

After that, we became more cautious. Surreptitious experimentation on Clark's part showed that lead seemed to hamper his abilities, so he turned to leaded eyeglasses as a deterrent -- it wasn't hard to trick the optometrist into thinking his eyesight was poor. I fretted about his experiments, suddenly convinced that government agents were spying on him, ready to take him away as soon as they had proof of his supernatural abilities. Clark accepted my concerns, but to my dismay, he also dismissed them.

"If I don't know what I'm doing, I could do it by accident at the worst possible time," he told me.

A sudden vision of Clark accidentally setting our classroom on fire forced me to concede the point. But I was still so frightened for him. Clark seemed to understand, for he promised to avoid any unnecessary use of his powers.

"I'll learn to control it, and that's all," he reassured me. "Don't worry, Lana. I don't want anyone to find out about this either."

It wasn't that simple, though. We'd discovered that even as his strength grew, his body was slowly growing impervious to any kinds of assault. A jagged shard of glass didn't cut him; a trodden nail was crushed beneath the sole of his foot instead of penetrating his skin; and he could literally reach into a flame and pick up a glowing coal without burning his fingers. Even his hair became invulnerable, and we worried about that one for quite some time before he hit upon the idea of bouncing his heat vision off a mirror to shear off the ragged edges. What would happen if he became involved in some kind of accident that would leave bystanders wondering why he was unmarked?

Anxiety turned us inwards even more. Every step he took, every glance at another person, even a friendly handshake became a reason for caution. Under the circumstances, it was hardly surprising that we became closer than I'd ever imagined, until we were virtually inseparable. As we grew older, our friendship changed in nature. We were no longer just friends, but romantic partners, too.

In our senior year of high school, we automatically applied to the same colleges, confident that we could remain together and continue to support one another. Then we got our replies. I was accepted to Metropolitan University, but Clark's application for a scholarship had only been granted by Kansas U. As an orphan without parental support, he couldn't afford to pay his way, and my parents were adamant that I attend the more prestigious Metropolitan University. We were going to have to separate.

It was around that time when Clark discovered a new ability. We should have seen it coming; after all, we'd realized long before that he could jump down from almost any flight and literally float to the ground. But even that knowledge hadn't given me fair warning for the incredible revelation that Clark could actually fly!

My initial reaction was the same as always: Hide it! This time, I argued, it wouldn't be necessary to master the ability to prevent discovery. "It's not as if you're going to be called upon to fly very often," I said dryly.

"Um, no, probably not," he admitted. Yet he still hesitated, clearly reluctant to commit himself not to fly again.

"Clark, what is it?" Concerned, I laid a hand on his arm.

He shoved his hands into his pockets and shrugged. "I don't want to stop, Lana," he finally said quietly.

"Why?" I was taken aback by this confession.

He looked up at me, and his eyes shone. "Lana, you don't understand. Flying, it's -- it's incredible. Whoever I am, whatever I am, flying is a part of me. I can't deny it."

I panicked. I understood what he was saying, and I wished things could be different; but if he insisted on flying, and someone saw him...! "N-no, Clark," I stammered. "You can't do this, you can't. This isn't something we can explain away. It's too dangerous!"

"I know, but --"

"Clark, please." I was almost frantic now. How could I get him to understand? I couldn't let him risk his life like this. "For me, Clark. Please, promise me you won't do this!"

It took a long time before we finally came to a compromise of sorts: no flying during the daylight hours, and never in a city setting. The countryside at night was, to my mind, still too risky, but I knew that it was better than nothing.

As my shoulders slumped and I conceded defeat, Clark drew me close and hugged me warmly. "It'll be okay, Lana," he whispered. "You'll see."

***

My first few months at Metropolitan U were unbelievably lonely. I hadn't realized how dependent Clark and I had become on each other until I was suddenly faced with life without him. I found it incredibly difficult to make friends; the twin habits of reticence and caution had been second nature for almost ten years now. After several rebuffs, my roommates abandoned their overtures of friendship, dismissing me as snobbish and aloof. I suppose my parents were delighted with my first semester's grades, but those high marks were painfully bought with many long, solitary nights curled up with my books as my only companion.

Clark and I exchanged long letters over the course of the fall and winter. From his correspondence, I knew he was doing well with his studies, but it was harder to read between the lines. Neither of us dared set down anything explicit about his powers in writing, so any references to his abilities were coached in very vague terms.

"I'm glad I have a private room in my dorm so I can study in peace." That meant he didn't have to worry about someone seeing him if he accidentally floated in his sleep. Good, we'd worried about that.

"A lot of the students have bought gas burners for their rooms, but I've decided to save my money for books. Besides, it's better to avoid the extra snacks." I easily translated that as, "My heat vision comes in handy for cooking, and I still don't need to eat unless I actually want to."

"The coach looked at my high school records and asked me to try out for the team, but I don't have time for football this year." Poor Clark. That meant that he felt that his strength had grown too much to risk playing contact sports.

"I'm amazed with the equipment in the science lab; the microscopes are powerful enough to show me things I've never seen before." This surely referred to his microscopic vision, a relatively new power that had manifested itself when he was seventeen. We'd wondered if he could use his vision in tandem with a microscope to increase his range. The answer, apparently, was yes.

"I walk alone on campus late at night, and the stars seem so close I can almost touch them." I bit my lip when I read that line; it meant he'd been flying again. Campus grounds were technically off-limits for flying, according to the compromise we'd hammered out before our departure for our respective colleges. Was the strain of denying what was apparently his birthright too much for him?

"I've discovered a real liking for ice-cold drinks." That one left me stumped. I puzzled over the sentence for a long time, wondering what it meant. Maybe it was actually an offhand comment instead of an allusion to his powers?

In my reply to the letter, I voiced my confusion in a teasing question, asking if my absence wasn't enough to cool him off without the need for ice-cold drinks. When I examined his next letter, though, the only reference I could find on the subject was the comment, "A bowl of soup seems to get cold very quickly in the wintertime." I sighed and set the letter aside. Whatever he meant, it would have to wait until we were face-to-face.

I confess I felt a pang when I realized he was obviously better adjusted to my absence from his life than I was to his. Aside from his studies and the references to his abilities, his letters clearly described a rich, full, busy college life. Upon closer examination of his letters, though, it was easy to see that he was still maintaining that cautious barrier between himself and others. I was glad of that. For his own sake, he couldn't afford to let anyone close enough to discover his secret.

Still, I had to reluctantly admit that he probably had the right idea; after all, I couldn't spend the next three or four years moping. Slowly, I began to break down those glass walls that Clark and I had so painstakingly erected. It wasn't easy, especially with my bad start; but by the time the first semester ended, I'd made enough casual friends for college life to be, at the very least, pleasant. That didn't mean that I wanted to spend my holidays in Metropolis, though; I fled back to the solace of Smallville at the first semester break, eager to see Clark again and find out how he was really faring.

He looked marvelous. I'm not ashamed to admit that I've always loved to watch him move; whatever genes he might possess, they had combined to form one magnificent package. The smile that lit his face when he saw me was only the crowning touch.

"Lana!" He swept me up in a fierce embrace, whirling me around in a circle as he kissed me. I was laughing aloud when he finally put me down.

"I've missed you, too," I told him with a teasing grin.

"Glad to hear it." His arm slid familiarly around my waist. "C'mon, let's go find somewhere we can talk."

"Somewhere," surprisingly enough, turned out to be the Kent farm. "I'm between tenants now," Clark explained at my questioning gaze. "Oh, don't worry, there's someone coming in mid-March, and it's only been vacant for a month."

"No trouble renting it, then?"

Clark shook his head. A sad grin quirked at the edge of his mouth. "Mom and Dad did a marvelous job in setting up the place. Neither of the previous tenants even suggested changing things. The farm gives a good return, Lana. I'm glad it worked out like this, anyway; with the farm in between tenants like this, I can spend my vacation here. A week here will help recharge my batteries."

Something about the way he said that last sentence made me look at him sharply. "Clark, have you discovered something new?"

"A few somethings," he admitted slowly.

"Ice-cold drinks," I remembered. "What was that about?"

"Come into the house, and I'll show you." As we walked forward, hand-in-hand, he suddenly gave a short laugh. "Lana, do you have any idea how good it feels to be able to say something like that? All these months..."

"I'm glad I'm here for you now," I told him softly.

He fished a key out of the pocket of his jeans and unlocked the door. As we walked into the kitchen, I wrinkled my nose at the month-thick layer of dust lying on the counters.

"If you're going to stay here for long, we'd better clean up a little," I muttered under my breath.

He glanced at me, and I suddenly remembered his hearing. He opened his mouth, closed it, and broke into a wide grin. "Okay, Lana -- mind if I show off a little?"

"Show off...?" It took me half a second to realize he wanted to use his powers. A reflexive glance around reminded me that we truly were alone here. "Okay, I guess --"

A sudden whirlwind made me blink. By the time my eyelids flicked open again, Clark was standing next to me, looking enormously pleased with himself.

The kitchen was spotless.

"Did you...? What -- Clark, what just happened?"

"I cleaned up," he replied, straining to look nonchalant but failing.

"You cleaned up." I blinked again. "In half a second."

He patted my shoulder. "Relax, Lana. I've been practicing my speed. I can move really, really fast when I want to."

"Practicing," I repeated numbly. Oh, no, please... "Where people can see you?"

He frowned a little, finally realizing that I wasn't happy. "Lana, you don't understand. The faster I move, the less chance there is that anyone can see what I'm doing. I know you weren't happy about the flying thing..." He tried to smile at me. "I mean, really, Lana, writing back that I should 'keep my head out of the clouds'?"

"You did promise, Clark," I reminded him, a little more sharply than I intended. At his stricken expression, I tried to soften it a little. "Look, it's for the best, right? We're trying to avoid anyone finding out about you. So we agreed that you'd restrict your flying to nights in the country. Nights on campus do not qualify, Clark!"

"That's what I'm trying to tell you, Lana." He gestured at the kitchen. "You saw how fast I can move now. I stroll down to the far end of the campus, find a spot where there's little or no lighting, and zoom straight up. Believe me, Lana, no one can see me. I'm moving too fast for the human eye."

The panic had started again, and all the visions that haunted my nightmares -- government agents, wild-eyed men with rifles shooting innocent men with dark hair and similar builds, all of Smallville plunged into a bloodbath of cataclysmic proportions -- started up again. "The human eye." I shook my head. "Clark, there are so many eyes out there that aren't human. How about radar?"

"Radar?" He waved his hand in dismissal, much too casual for my liking. "I stay too low, Lana."

"You just said you shoot straight up, Clark. How can you control how fast you move? What if you go too high?"

"Lana, I'm telling you, I really have better control now. And I think I've discovered a little more about myself."

I swallowed my concern, reluctantly shelving my protests for another time. "Tell me," I urged him, seeing the old reticence take over his expression. This, I knew, was why he needed me most.

He hesitated for a long moment, and I patiently waited. "That crack about 'recharging my batteries' was a little deliberate," he finally said. "It looks like I'm sort of solar powered."

The concept was hard to comprehend. "Like those solar calculators?" I asked, a little incredulous.

"Er, yeah, I guess so. Except that I don't wink out when the sun goes down, like those do when you block the solar panels."

"Clark, how can you tell?" I frowned at the thought. "Okay, we figured out a long time ago that you don't really have to eat, but -- the sun?"

He shrugged. "I just -- feel it. I'm more invigorated, stronger somehow, when I soak up sunlight. I did some high flying off the Pacific coast and --"

"Off the Pacific coast? Clark!"

"Lana, I can fly a lot farther and faster than we thought," he told me, making calming motions with his hands. "And really, I have it all under control now. Look at how I can handle a new power..." He moved to the sink and ran some water into a glass. "Watch closely, okay?" He held out the glass of water at arm's length and blew.

The water froze to ice.

I took a tentative step forward and touched the glass. It was brittle with cold; the slightest knock would shatter it into a thousand pieces.

"You froze it with your breath," I said, unsurprised at how matter-of-fact I sounded. It wasn't any stranger than his other powers, after all.

"Uh huh." He lowered his eyeglasses with his free hand and stared at the glass for a moment. The water slowly melted. It took almost a full minute before it began to bubble gently.

"That took you longer than usual," I observed, hiding the screaming panic that was clawing at my brain, demanding to get out. He was being much too calm about this. I didn't like his complacency at the development of yet another one of his powers. "Why?"

"Control, Lana," he repeated, smiling at me. "If I would heat it too fast, the sudden contrast in temperatures would make the glass shatter. I know you get frightened, Lana, but really, if I can control what I do, I can avoid making any mistakes!"

"You've told me that before," I said as I fought to keep my voice from turning shrill. "I just wish I could believe it!"

"I can, Lana, really."

I didn't even try to hide my skepticism. "So, how'd you discover this one?"

He squirmed a little. "Ah, a friend walked in on me when I was sipping boiling coffee, so I quickly blew on it so it wouldn't be so obviously hot. By the time he reached my side, I was sipping iced cappuccino instead."

"Oh, Clark," I breathed in despair. "And you call this under control?"

He set the glass down on the counter and drew me close again. "Lana, whatever reason there may be for what I can do, I might as well perfect my powers and find out my limitations," he said softly. "And as long as I've got you around, someone to be my support and to let me be myself, I know I can't go wrong."

I couldn't resist the gentle plea in his tone. Yet even as I smiled at him, blinking away the tears that threatened to blur my vision, a very unwelcome thought struck: by encouraging him to be himself in my presence, was I actually risking his secret? What if he got used to using his powers openly around me, and then slipped up in front of someone else?

But what could I do? Deny him his birthright, even in the privacy of solitude? Force him to acknowledge the danger of being what he really was, despite the anguish it would cause him? Or should I encourage him to continue to behave as he did now, knowing that the danger increased with every incautious movement...?

I shivered, wondering what kind of solution there could be for such a double-bladed dilemma.

***

Years passed. Clark and I continued to correspond closely, although I refused to allow him to fly over to Metropolis under cover of night to visit me. I just couldn't bear the thought of his risking exposure on my account. It was bad enough that he dared to use his powers to rescue people in danger. While I agreed that all life was precious, was the risk to his own life worth it?

"But Lana," he tried to protest once when I warned him, "I have to help."

"So help like a regular human being!" I cried, wishing I could shake some sense into him. "If people find out the truth about you, what kind of life would you have? What kind of life would we have?" He wilted at that, realizing that he was risking not only his happiness and peace of mind, but mine too.

"I just think that maybe my powers were given to me to be used," he suggested on another occasion. He looked at me sideways, clearly unsure of his own words. "Maybe... maybe I'm meant to make a difference."

"Well, you make a difference to me," I told him lightly to ease the moment. Then, sobering, I added, "But Clark, no one man can make a difference in the world, no matter what powers he possesses. Don't destroy yourself trying."

Clark nodded, but still seemed unconvinced. This set off another attack of anxiety for me, and for months afterwards, I reminded him that no matter what powers he might have, he was still only one person.

With time, we received our degrees and entered the real world. The two of us had both majored in journalism, but I was attracted to television reporting, while Clark favored the good old-fashioned print kind.

"Pretty modern now, with computers and the 'net," I teased him.

"At least I get to overwhelm your five second soundbite with a three column article," he teased back.

As strange as it may sound, some irrational part of me wanted to go on television because of Clark. It was as if I was somehow convinced that one of us was going to end up televised, and I preferred that it should be me, in the course of my profession, instead of Clark, exposed, profiled, and reviled as a mutant or alien. I never told Clark, though. I don't think he would have appreciated the reasoning.

By this time, the two of us were more or less engaged. I don't think he ever officially proposed, and I know I never made a formal acceptance; but we simply took it for granted that once we were both settled in steady jobs, we would start planning the wedding. Clark, who seemed perfectly capable of making himself at home in any city on the planet, readily agreed to settle in Metropolis. I'd grown to love the city while I studied there, and I'd already been promised a job at LNN. So it was just a matter of waiting until the time was right... or wrong, as I would eventually learn.

While I learned the ropes at LNN, Clark wandered the world, visiting countries all over the globe and submitting his stories to the paper back in Smallville. My parents sent me copies of the paper, and I read his articles avidly. After that, I rushed to compare the dates on his articles with my back copies of the Daily Planet to check to see if there had been any "strange" reports in the country he'd visited. There were one or two mentions of an "angel" coming to the rescue of accident victims, but the reports were dismissed as the results of trauma or excitement. I was tremendously relieved, although I did wish there was some way to convince Clark not to fly under his own steam. I knew he couldn't afford the regular mode of travel, but still...

At last, Clark came to Metropolis. He arrived by bus in a considerate gesture to me, using the conventional means I always wanted him to employ. I was as delighted as he was when he got the job he'd always wanted: a reporter at the Daily Planet! We were both full-fledged reporters now, happily ensconced in the fields that we'd desired. It seemed as if our fondest dreams were finally coming true.

The day he got his first paycheck, the two of us went out to dinner and began our plans for the wedding. We both agreed that we wanted to get married in Smallville, but the logistics proved to be a little complicated. While I was reluctantly willing, under the circumstances, to let Clark fly me back to Smallville, the time frame would still be a problem. Neither of us would be able to get much time off; Clark, in particular, was still technically on trial at the Planet. In the end, we agreed to wait one more year, so we could accumulate enough vacation days -- and in Clark's case, his sick days, since he hardly needed them -- to allow ourselves a real wedding and honeymoon.

The months flew by. Clark and I continued to do well at our respective jobs, and my parents in Smallville willingly began to make some of the arrangements on our behalf. Still, when they came to visit us in Metropolis, Clark and I seized the opportunity to sit down with them properly and get a clear idea of what we really wanted for the wedding.

Two days before my parents were due to go back to Smallville, I left work early to go and visit Clark at the Daily Planet. I wanted to remind him of the dinner we'd planned to have with my parents, and it was always more fun to surprise him at work than to simply call him. I tucked the folder with our wedding lists under my arm and called for a taxi.

The ride was uneventful enough, but I paid the taxi driver and stepped up on the curb just in time to dive to the ground as a drive-by shooting took place only a few dozen feet away. Once I was sure that the bullets weren't flying in my direction, I sat on the sidewalk and watched with furious resignation as the car with the sniper made a quick getaway. If only this city had someone who could --

At that moment, I spotted Clark across the street. My jaw dropped as I saw him zip, at a speed far beyond that of most humans, to a spot behind a parked car. From my vantage point on the ground, I could just catch a glimpse as he lowered his glasses and stared down the street. A loud report, with a counterpart screeching noise, confirmed my guess even before I turned my head. He'd used his heat vision to burn out the getaway car's tires!

I couldn't afford to start hyperventilating or go into a panic attack now. I forced myself to keep my breathing steady, but I know my grip on my pocketbook was white-knuckled and my teeth were clenched. In broad daylight, in the middle of the city, right in front of the one of the biggest newspapers in the world! Oh, Clark, you promised, you promised...

I glanced across the street again, but he was long gone. More of that vaunted superspeed, no doubt.

Picking up my wedding folder from the sidewalk, I slowly got to my feet and headed across the street to the Planet. I would be speaking to my fiance today, but the words I was now planning to use were not the ones I originally had in mind....

Just as I entered the lobby of the Daily Planet building, I saw a man and woman stepping into the elevator. I was a little startled to see the woman dressed in a powder blue pantsuit -- what woman wears such a light color in November? -- but I was perversely glad to realize that the elevator doors would close long before I reached them. It would do me some good to take the stairs; I needed the time to calm down.

As I pushed open the heavy door to the stairwell and started upward, I forced myself to think the matter through. Clark was breaking the compromise that we'd made. It would probably be safe to assume that this wasn't a one-time thing; this hadn't been a major crisis, after all, but merely a frustrating, yet typical example of how badly Metropolis had declined in the last year or so. If Clark was using his powers for a relatively trivial matter, he was probably doing it on a regular basis.

Why? Clark, why are you doing this? My steps slowed as I reached the first landing, and I leaned against the railing. Why was he breaking his promise to me like this?

It wasn't like Clark to behave in such a manner. Our relationship had been woven with tight knots of secrecy, sealed with the defensiveness of hiding from the world. We'd never kept anything from each other - on the contrary, we'd taken turns as each other's conscience. I couldn't think of any other time that Clark had kept something secret from me; and yet now, as I mounted the steps toward the second floor, a sudden fear took hold. I wondered what other secrets might exist behind the shield of those glasses he wore. I knew I understood him, I knew that we were closer than any two people had a right to be -- and still I wondered.

I stopped at the second landing and glanced upward. One more flight to go. Before I started up again, I needed to decide how to confront Clark... Confront him? No, not a confrontation. This shouldn't be a fight.

Should it?

I gripped my wedding folder a little more tightly, reminding myself that Clark was the man I loved, the man I would be marrying in just a few short weeks. This behavior was alarming, to be sure; but I needed to find out if it was a problem in and of itself, or rather the symptom of something even more worrying.

One step at a time, I told myself firmly. I needed to let him know that I'd seen him; the mere fact that he'd been spotted ought to serve as sufficient warning for any future rashness. Then, once he was suitably chastened, I could save the discussion for later, when we'd both be calm and rational... or, at the very least, in the privacy of my apartment or his, where we could speak without risk of being overheard. The Daily Planet newsroom was not the ideal spot for a private discussion, after all.

My resolution relaxed me, and I was smiling as I walked lightly up the last flight of stairs to the third floor. I pushed the heavy door open and stepped onto the raised landing above the newsroom --

Just in time to see that woman in the powder blue suit throw herself at Clark and kiss him squarely on the mouth!

I stood frozen as Clark, clearly shaken, divested himself of her embrace. The look of confusion on his face matched my own astonishment, but I was glad to see that her unprovoked affections were just as unwelcome to him as they were to me. I hurried down the ramp to join him and offer my support.

"Clark," I called as I came forward. "Who is this?"

Clark stiffened at the sight of me. "I don't know," he stammered.

Was he anxious that I'd seen that kiss? He needn't worry; it was obvious that the woman had practically attacked him. Still, he would probably appreciate a shield of sorts, and I could certainly provide that for him.

"Well, I guess she knows you..." I turned to the woman, using the frozen smile that I'd needed to perfect for my work in the studios. "So she ought to know me. I'm Lana Lang, Clark Kent's fiancee."

Her own smile froze at my words, and her eyes grew wide with shock. I wondered why.

"And you are...?" I pressed.

"Uhh, I..." She seemed at a loss for words. What a strange woman! Did she make a habit of kissing unfamiliar men at random?

The old man I'd seen in the elevator with her -- her father? A friend? Why was he dressed so outlandishly? -- smoothly interceded. "Lois Lane," he introduced her. "And still a bit feverish, I'm afraid." His smile wasn't quite as forced as hers, but his eyes were wary. "Aren't you, my dear?"

She mumbled something as he led her away. Seeing that Clark was as confused as I was, I turned to Perry White and James Olsen for an explanation.

"Who is she?" I asked quietly. "Lois Lane?"

"A ghost from the past," White muttered without thinking. He looked up then and cleared his throat. "Sorry, Ms. Lang. Ah, Lois Lane was a reporter for the Daily Planet -- a very successful one, too -- until she disappeared in the Congo about three years ago. That older fellow seems to have helped her get back to Metropolis."

"Three years ago," I repeated, frowning in the woman's direction. "That's well before Clark came here." I turned to him. "So why did she act like that, if she's never met you before?"

"Lana, I didn't ask her to do that."

"Of course you didn't, Clark," I said soothingly. "I know you better than that."

White and Olsen seemed a little relieved and moved away. I wasn't comfortable with the idea that they thought I needed to be placated, but I decided to ignore it.

Clark looked at me for a long moment. "So," he said finally. "Nice to see you. What brings you by?"

I had to struggle with my own tangle of thoughts to answer him. There was my original intention to discuss our wedding plans, the need to stop him from any other superstunts, and this perplexing new situation with the mysterious Lois Lane. Where was I supposed to start?

"I came to go over a few last things," I said, settling on the first reason as the best way to begin. I tapped the folder and gave him a warm smile. "Not much time left, you know. I thought it would be a good idea to finalize what we really want before we discuss it with my parents. It will be so much easier if we have a detailed plan, don't you think?"

"Um, yeah. Sure."

I looked him over carefully. He was clearly distracted, anxious to get back to work. Or to her? No, I dismissed the thought quickly, that was ridiculous. I wouldn't blame him for being curious about her, of course, but I was also confident and comfortable in my role as his fiancee.

"Not the best time?" I suggested. I wasn't pleased that I wouldn't be able to have the discussion I'd wanted, but after all, these were his work hours.

"Um, not really." He squared his shoulders and gave me the first natural smile of the day. "Maybe we can go over together to meet your parents, so we'll have time to discuss things first?"

"That would be fine, sweetheart." I flipped open my wedding folder and glanced at the list. "I think we can manage well enough."

"Okay, good." He walked me towards the elevator.

"I can take care of a few more things this afternoon, and we're meeting my parents at seven to go over the final guest list."

"Okay," he said again. I saw him glance back towards the bullpen before he turned to press the button for me.

I closed my wedding folder and turned to face him fully. If I couldn't take care of my initial objective, at least I could aim for the second. Seeding some doubts now might prevent a repeat performance this afternoon.

"Last thing," I said slowly. "I saw that little stunt you pulled a few minutes ago."

He flinched, then schooled his expression into something more innocent. "Stunt?" he repeated.

"Don't give me those puppy eyes," I told him sharply. "The gunfight out front?"

His face paled very slightly at the realization that I'd seen him.

"You ducked away," I continued doggedly. "And..." My hand moved in the swooping motion that we'd long since adopted to symbolize his ability to fly.

To my astonishment, he tried to defend himself. "Honey, nobody saw me," he said hurriedly. "I just used the --" He motioned towards his eyes, indicating his heat vision. "Zzzzz! Burned out his tires, and the cops got him."

I was stunned -- almost horrified. How could he possibly try to justify his actions?

"Clark," I said forcefully, "you promised!"

His gaze slid away from me, and he hit the button on the wall again. "Boy, this is one slow elevator, huh?" he said with strained cheerfulness.

I was truly frightened by now. I didn't know when it happened, or how, but Clark had clearly embarked on a disastrous course of behavior. If he continued in this fashion, then...

"They'd lock you up in some lab and study you." My voice was urgent, almost desperate in my desire to make him remember. "And even if you broke out, you'd never have a life." I hugged him fiercely. "We'd never have a life!"

He hesitated.

"No one will ever love you more than I do," I told him then, trying to help him realize what was at stake.

"I know," he said quietly.

"And no one understands you better."

He nodded.

Feeling slightly more hopeful, I looked up at him. "So promise. This is the last time."

The elevator slid open, and to my dismay, Clark seized on the distraction with alacrity. "Here you are!" he said, his tone once again shaded with an overly bright cheeriness.

I couldn't just stand there in front of the open elevator without attracting unwanted attention, so I reluctantly stepped inside. I turned to face him. "Promise me," I pleaded.

Clark's face remained a mask of schooled pleasantness. "See you at seven," he said.

"Clark..." I tried to step forward, to reason with him -- even to beg him -- but the door slid shut in my face.

The numbers ticked down to the lobby. I walked mechanically out of the elevator and across the wide expanse, but even the bright sunshine outside could do nothing to warm the chill in my soul.

I walked aimlessly down the street, clutching the wedding folder like a lifeline. In the space of a few minutes, everything I thought I could take for granted had been suddenly tainted with doubt. I knew there were things I should be doing -- work-related errands, wedding details, even mundanities like picking up my dry-cleaning -- but I couldn't. All I could think about was Clark, the man I loved -- the man I thought I knew -- sidestepping my naked plea and allowing the elevator to close in my face.

I shivered a little. The sun may have been bright, but it still had the thin, distant quality of November. I took stock of my surroundings and retraced my steps, walking back towards a small, cozy diner that served excellent coffee.

Clark and I had often stopped there when we met at the Daily Planet....

Janet, the waitress, knew my preferences. She led me to a corner table and brought me a scalding black coffee without asking. She looked at me questioningly for a moment, clearly wondering why I was there alone when I'd always come with Clark before; but I knew that my face didn't invite any conversation, and she wisely said nothing.

As she bustled away, I looked down at the steaming liquid for a moment, then pushed it to the side. I couldn't drink yet. I needed to think first.

I laid the wedding folder on the table and opened it with an almost reverential air. The papers that smiled up at me seemed to offer reassurance -- a black-and-white reminder of the reality of our upcoming wedding. But as I stared unseeingly at the neat rows of writing, I found that the text seemed strangely blurred.

This couldn't be happening. We'd waited so long for this, taking the time to make sure that everything would be absolutely perfect. We'd picked the right date and carefully juggled our work schedules so that we'd both be free to enjoy the ceremony and our honeymoon; we'd spent countless hours working out the details, with Clark so supportive and agreeable to my own vision of what the wedding should be. And now, a two-minute confrontation had taken my picture-perfect life and threatened to bring the entire thing crashing down.

I blinked hard, forcing the words on the pages in the open folder to swim back into focus. I traced my finger along the neatly written lines on the first page, the list of details that we needed to clarify and finalize in the meeting with my parents this evening. It had seemed so important just a short while ago; but now, with my very foundation shaken by Clark's dismissal, I found myself wondering just how important it might be to have cloth napkins instead of paper ones.

"He loves me," I whispered to the folder. "I know he does."

This was just... an aberration. It had to be. This must be Clark's equivalent of "one last fling" before our marriage. After all, there had been times when we'd been separated and he'd used his powers before; our years in college sprang instantly to mind, as did the years when I'd been busy starting my career in Metropolis while Clark wandered the globe. I knew, and he accepted, that it was too risky; nevertheless, there were times he couldn't seem to help himself.

Perhaps my assumption that he was doing it on a regular basis was faulty, and this was just one of those times when he'd felt impelled to act. Maybe one of the victims, or near-victims, of the shooting had been someone that Clark knew; that might account for his behavior. If that was the case, then his evasiveness this morning was nothing more than guilt at the realization that he'd acted wrongly and his unwillingness to admit it.

I considered the matter carefully from this new angle. Yes, it was quite possible that his attempts at rationalization were just a cover for his alarm at being caught. As for his failure to commit himself... Well, he surely knew he would have to stop using his powers -- completely stop -- once we were married. It wouldn't be long now, and maybe he just couldn't bear to abandon his strange abilities before it was absolutely necessary.

I still had those old newspaper accounts of mysterious angels saving hikers and small children. They were ammunition of sorts for those times when Clark tried to argue that he could use his powers in secret. He knew, even if he didn't want to admit it, that it couldn't be done. And it had only been that one time, after all... Hadn't it?

"He loves me," I told the wedding folder again, this time a little louder.

And he did. I straightened in my chair, pulling the coffee closer to me. The first hot sip spread a comforting warmth throughout my body, reaching right down to my toes. Yes, everything was going to be fine. We'd talk tonight, and I would gently lead him towards an admission. Once he fully realized how dangerous such behavior could be, I knew he would accept the necessity of abandoning his powers for good.

***

It was shortly after six when I returned to the Daily Planet. I knew Clark would be down shortly, so I settled in a comfortable couch in the lobby to wait. I made a few short phone calls, mostly work-related, then sat back and looked expectantly at the elevator doors.

Time dragged. I frowned at my watch as the tenth glimpse showed me that Clark was undeniably late. He should have come down already; and considering his inability to talk to me earlier, he certainly ought to be more considerate about being on time now. What could possibly delay him?

I bit my lip at the sudden thought that he might be out there, somewhere in the darkening Metropolis streets, performing yet another surreptitious rescue. No, he wouldn't do that. He surely wouldn't. Not now.

Would he?

I reached into my purse and pulled out my cellphone again. I dialed my parents' hotel number, forcing myself not to tap my foot in impatience as I stared with annoyance at the stolid elevator doors.

"Hello?"

"Mother?"

"Oh, Lana. Shouldn't you be here by now?"

I gritted my teeth. "Yes, Mother, and we'll be there very soon," I said with as much calm as I could muster. "Clark was delayed a little, working on a story --" At least, I prayed that was the only reason! -- "but we'll be there as soon as we can. I just didn't want you to worry."

"That's considerate of you, dear. All right, then, your father and I will meet you in the restaurant instead of the hotel room. That way, we won't run later than we ought. Okay?"

"That sounds perfect, Mother. I'm sorry about this."

"That's all right, dear." She sighed a little. "I'll make sure your father isn't too upset. We'll see you soon."

I folded the cellphone and slipped it back into my purse. Then I stared at my wristwatch, marking off the seconds.

One minute. Two. Still no Clark.

I got to my feet compulsively. I had to know for myself that he was really there -- that this was an unavoidable delay due to work, and not one that sprang from carelessness on his part.

The elevator seemed to groan its way upward, begrudging me every foot of ascent. Finally, a soft chime sounded and the elevator doors opened.

The first thing I saw was Clark. A wave of relief swept through me at the sight of him. He was here; he hadn't rushed to perform a reckless super-powered rescue. He was safe.

The second thing I saw was her. That same woman in the really tacky powder-blue suit, with that strange elderly fellow in the old-fashioned suit and hat standing right behind her. And she was looking up at Clark, talking to him, practically begging him for something... What?

"Clark!" I called sharply, drawing his attention. He jumped and turned as I walked toward him. "Where have you been?"

His guilty expression did nothing to assuage my concerns. "Uh, right. Seven. Your folks." He looked apologetic. "We were just..."

"...working on a story," the woman finished smoothly.

I looked at her coldly. Lois Lane, Perry White had called her. A former reporter. Was she trying to get her old job back? What did she have to do with Clark?

"Together?" I let my skepticism show in my voice.

"Perry teamed us up," Clark told me hastily.

"Did he?" I continued staring at the woman. I wasn't sure why, but I definitely knew that I didn't like her.

"But we can take point while you deal with your wedding," she said, looking more at Clark than me. "I know how overwhelming it can get."

I glanced down quickly at her hand. She was wearing an engagement ring of her own. Perhaps I was wrong to think she had any ulterior motives?

But then she added, "Just promise we'll meet up later?"

I struggled to keep my mouth from dropping open in disbelief as she gazed soulfully into Clark's eyes. How dare this woman come on to my fiancee like that, right in front of me!

"Let's go, Clark," I said, allowing my annoyance to show clearly. Of all the nerve!

"Clark?" Lois Lane ignored me and looked at him anxiously.

I was dumbfounded to see Clark nod in acquiescence. "I'll catch up with you back at the Planet about one."

"Great." She smiled her relief, then finally stepped back and released him.

I resisted the urge to say something cutting and contented myself with leading Clark back towards the elevators. "I don't like having to come look for you," I said firmly. "You know how Dad gets when you're late."

He winced at the thought and hastened his steps. I was glad to see he was finally thinking seriously.

We stepped onto the waiting elevator, and I waited until Clark had pushed the button for the lobby and the doors had closed before I turned to face him fully. "Clark!" I hissed at him. "What in the world are you doing, making plans to meet that Lois Lane at one o'clock in the morning?"

He shifted uneasily, then muttered, "Lana, we have to talk, but not here."

"Fine," I said stiffly. "But we'll have to talk in the taxi, because we're already late. We're supposed to be there already."

"I'm really sorry," he said softly, staring at his shoes.

Despite my justifiable anger, I softened a little. Clark was such a little boy sometimes.

"Look," I said more calmly, laying a comforting hand on his arm, "you've clearly had a rough day. I'm afraid my own day hasn't been much better, and to be frank, your behavior hasn't helped. It's clear that we've got a lot of issues to talk through, and we'd better make sure that we clear the air before we meet my parents." I gave him a rueful look. "You know how good my mother is at noticing when people are at odds with each other."

"Yes," he said, so fervently that I couldn't help but grin with sympathy. Mother was somewhat notorious back in Smallville for her ability to ferret out other people's secrets, and Clark and I had always needed to be very careful about his special secret when we were in her presence.

The elevator slowed and stopped, and we stepped out into the empty lobby. "I called my mother, and we're meeting them at the restaurant instead of the hotel," I continued.

"Good idea," said Clark. "We won't be that late, then."

We walked out onto the street and looked for a taxi. At that time of evening, it wasn't too difficult to find an empty one. Clark gave the cabby the address of the restaurant and then sat back, looking at me with fresh apprehension.

I eyed him. He was clearly anxious -- and well he should be, considering the hijinks he'd pulled that day -- but I couldn't help wondering if he, too, had some worrisome news to share. We needed to talk, but what could be said in the back seat of a taxicab, when the driver could hear every word he said?

I decided to begin by discussing the problem of Lois Lane. She, at least, didn't have any super powers to hide, so it wouldn't matter what the driver overhead. "So," I started, "would you care to explain what story is so crucially important that you have to head back to the Planet tonight at one o'clock in the morning?"

Clark's eyes moved to the back of the driver's head, then returned to me. "A story," he said slowly, his voice somehow unconvincing, "about Tempus."

I frowned a little. I wasn't on the politics beat; but I hadn't heard any rumors about dirt on the mayoral candidate, and gossip travels faster than lightning at a television station. "And it's something so urgent it has to be done tonight?"

"We need to move quickly on it," he said. "Lois had some... exclusive information."

So he was calling her "Lois" already? What happened to Clark's polite formality with strange women? It was time to push the envelope a little. "Clark, tell me the truth. What's going on?"

He hesitated for a long moment, looking once more at the driver, and then reached out and drew me closer to him. He wrapped his arm around my shoulder and lovingly tucked my hair behind my ear. He bent his head towards mine, until his lips were tickling my earlobe.

Just as it dawned on me that this was actually a charade to fool the taxi driver, he breathed in my ear, "She knows, Lana. She knows."

It took a moment for the real meaning of those two words to sink into my comprehension. Then I felt my heart stuttering with panic, and I reflexively drew back in rejection of the horrific ramifications. "She knows?" I breathed. "Oh, no, no, it can't be..."

The taxi had stopped for a red light, and the driver was watching us curiously in the rear-view mirror. Clark shifted, drawing me back to him. "She knows," he affirmed, his voice still barely audible. "But... I think it'll be okay."

"You think?" I stared at him, incredulous. "Clark, don't you realize what this means?" His arm tightened around my shoulder, and I suddenly realized that I was shivering convulsively. All the old fears, all the nightmares, all the gory visions of blood and screams and wild-eyed panic rampaging through the streets of Smallville -- it was all replaying in my head, and I couldn't shut it out. "Is she a government agent? Does she have proof? Did you admit --"

"Lana, calm down," he said, his voice urgent as he looked at the driver again. The light had turned green and the taxi had shifted back into motion, but it was more than likely that the man was listening intently.

"Calm down?" I heard the high-pitched note of hysteria in my own voice, but I couldn't stop it. "Calm down when --"

He silenced me rather effectively just then. Tempting as it was to let myself get carried away, I knew that I couldn't afford to be distracted from such a crucial discussion. Gently but firmly, I pulled away.

"Talk, Clark. Now."

"Not here," he breathed, "where he can listen. Wait." He gave me another quick squeeze before he raised his voice and addressed the driver. "How far away are we from Luigi's?"

"'Bout a block and a half, sir," the cabby replied in a laconic voice.

"Stop here, please. We'll walk the rest of the way."

"What?" I tried to protest as the driver shrugged and the taxi swerved toward the sidewalk. "We're late enough as it is, you know what Dad is like when --"

"Your father will be annoyed with us anyway," Clark pointed out. "Another few minutes won't make much difference."

I had to grudgingly agree that he was right about that. I waited while Clark paid the driver, then joined him on the sidewalk. I gripped his arm firmly and started steering him towards Luigi's as the taxi roared away.

"All right, Clark," I said in a low tone. "Start talking. What made you tell her the truth?" I shuddered again. "How could you possibly risk everything and --"

"I didn't tell her," Clark said simply. "She already knew."

I stopped short, appalled. "She already knew? Oh, no. When did she spot you? Are you sure she had proof? Couldn't you have denied it?"

He coaxed me into moving again. "Lana, it's not like that. She didn't have proof about me. She had proof about... Clark Kent."

I stopped again and simply looked at him.

"I mean it, Lana."

"You're not making any sense, Clark."

"The whole thing doesn't make sense," he admitted, "but she knew too much, and she had -- proof of a sort."

"What kind of proof?" I demanded, suspicious.

He hesitated for a long moment before he said slowly, "Not only did she know about my powers and where I'm from -- she mentioned Krypton by name, Lana! -- but she had... a picture... of me."

"Of you."

"Yes."

"She snapped a picture of you somewhere? Doing something with your powers?" I made the swooping motion with my hand. "Were you --"

"No, you don't understand. It was a picture of me, but it wasn't me."

I blinked at that statement, then shook my head and started walking towards Luigi's again. "Clark, please say something that makes sense for a change."

"It was me," he said carefully, "wearing a bizarre costume, without my glasses, and with my hair slicked back on my forehead. I've never dressed like that in my life, but it was unquestionably Clark Kent in the picture."

I gave him a sidelong glance. "Trick photography."

"No," he said soberly. "A Clark Kent from... another universe."

Again, I stopped short. The restaurant was only five doors away now, but there was no way I could face my parents with that incredible statement still up in the air. "Another universe," I repeated incredulously, allowing my sheer disbelief to color my voice.

He squirmed a little. "Lana, I know it sounds insane," he said urgently, "and I want nothing less than to believe that this other me flies around in tights, but --"

"Tights?" I choked. "Clark, how could you fall for something so outrageously false? It has to be a lie, it's --"

"Lana." He turned toward me and took both my hands in his. "I'll say it again -- she knew too much. She listed my powers, Lana. I'm an alien from another planet; why is it so hard to believe in an alternate universe? She knew about my parents --" He choked a little. "How my parents took me in as a baby. I believe that picture, Lana. She said..." He swallowed hard. "She said my mother made that costume. The Martha Kent of her world, Lana! She's still alive over there..."

A sudden wave of fury blazed up in my heart. How dare this woman play so coldly and maliciously with Clark's greatest insecurities, meddling with my fiance's life -- in our lives -- in such a manner? What kind of calculating, manipulative...

"What does she want from you?" I demanded, trying to keep the hiss out of my voice. "Is it blackmail? Money? How does she want to use you?" I wasn't forgetting the soulful, doe-eyed way she'd looked at him, either.

Clark shook his head. "She just wants me to help her get back where she came from. She and that funny guy, Wells."

"Wells."

"Um, yeah." He started to elaborate, then stopped and changed the subject. "Lana, I don't understand who she is, really, but wouldn't it be best just to do what she wants and get rid of her? I'll help her find this gadget she's looking for, she and Wells will disappear..." A strange look crossed his face, but he quickly finished, "And we'll never have to deal with them again."

I shook my head with despair at his naivete. "Clark, once you submit to her, you'll never be rid of her. She'll videotape you using your powers or something, and then you'll really have to do what she says." I slipped my hands out of his grasp and placed them on his shoulders, willing him to understand the danger -- not only to him, but to both of us. "She'll have you exactly where she wants," I whispered. "And then we'll never have a life together..."

He swallowed hard. "I can't walk away from her," he said helplessly. "I'm in too deep now."

Before I could think of a suggestion or rebuttal, a shrill voice called from down the block.

"Lana! Clark! What are you doing out here? Your father is on his third martini already!"

I suppressed a groan and turned my head. Sure enough, my mother was trotting towards us, a look of exasperation on her face.

Clark reached up and took my right hand off his shoulder, giving it a quick, reassuring squeeze. "Look, I don't have to go back to her until one o'clock tonight," he whispered hurriedly, "so we can discuss the whole thing after dinner with your parents. We'll have hours to work something out."

I nodded reluctantly, shifting my grip to touch my purse with the wedding folder tucked inside. We needed to concentrate on getting through the meal and the meeting with my parents, without letting my mother know that anything was amiss. As soon as we'd escorted them back to the hotel, Clark and I would be able to have that long talk we so desperately needed.

***

The dinner and subsequent discussion went much more calmly than I'd expected. Despite my anxiety over my father's annoyance with our tardy appearance, Clark's natural charm smoothed things over. The extra pre-dinner martini didn't hurt, either.

We ran into a tense moment when Mother arbitrarily decided that it would be lacking in taste to open the wedding folder at a restaurant table. It took all my self-control to refrain from acidly pointing out that discussing the wedding was the entire purpose of our get-together in the first place. Fortunately, Clark just smiled and suggested that we adjourn to his apartment after dinner to discuss the wedding plans in private. I wasn't entirely pleased with this development, as it meant that we would have to postpone our own conversation that much longer; but at least it made my parents happy, which was an accomplishment in itself.

As we walked the three short blocks from Luigi's to Clark's apartment, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, why I'd accepted Mother's offer to handle the wedding for us. True, it was saving us a great deal of hassle and time, but it also meant having to cope with her ideas often running counter to ours. Still, it would have been impossible to get married in Smallville without my parents' help, and I preferred getting married there to having a wedding in Metropolis. I liked the big city, of course, but my roots were still in Smallville. There would be a quiet, solid satisfaction to marrying back in Kansas, a certain something that just wouldn't be there if we performed the ceremony in Metropolis instead.

Besides, the wedding wouldn't be truly complete if I didn't get to see Rachel Harris gritting her teeth while she congratulated me on my marriage to Clark....

We settled onto Clark's comfortable couch and spread the papers from the wedding folder on the coffee table. As the discussion progressed, Clark's arm crept around my shoulder, and I snuggled back, suddenly feeling more relaxed.

We'd never had the chance to prepare a joint front, but Clark was adept at picking up my cues and supporting my views. I was relieved to see Dad, now comfortably full after a good meal, coming to our defense when Mother didn't like the choices I'd made for the reception; I'd hoped he would enjoy arguing with Mother, but it wasn't always easy to predict how he would react. By the time ten o'clock neared and my parents decided it was time to leave, we'd settled nearly all the issues we'd planned to clarify before my parents' return to Smallville.

Clark offered to drive my parents back to the hotel, but they decided they preferred to walk. As we all stepped outside and said our polite good-byes on the doorstep, I wished that they'd hurry on their way. Now that we'd taken care of the wedding plans, I was anxious all over again, eager to sit down with Clark and discuss ways and means to solve the problem of the dangerous Lois Lane.

"So that's everything, isn't it, Lana?" my father asked as he glanced down the street and my mother checked the clip on her lady-like pistol. "We're not going to have to worry about any last-minute changes, are we?"

"I don't think so..." I ran a rapid mental checklist and suddenly remembered two items we'd forgotten. "Oh, yes. I wanted to tell you to make sure that you don't hire that Wilson band for the reception. The bass player is awful. And we want cloth napkins, not paper. Right, Clark?"

I turned and smiled at him, but he wasn't listening. His head was turned slightly, poised in frozen attention -- but not to me. To somewhere else.

To something else.

I felt a sudden surge of alarm. I'd seen that arrested expression before, at times when his astonishing hearing suddenly alerted him to danger nearby. "Clark?" I repeated anxiously.

He looked down at me, completely distracted. "I'll get back to you on that," he said hastily, and he turned and bolted back into the house.

My parents stared at the door that had blown shut in his wake, then turned to look at me. "What was that all about, Lana?" my mother asked suspiciously.

My heart sank. "He must have heard the phone ringing," I said hurriedly. "I know he has to meet a source tonight."

A "source" named Lois Lane. A woman who knew his secret, who was holding it over him and demanding that Clark use his powers for her own benefit.

As I steered my parents away from Clark's apartment and towards their hotel, hoping to avoid any further awkward questions, I could only pray that this new development had nothing to do with Her.

Once my parents had safely turned the corner and disappeared from sight, I raced back to Clark's apartment. I fumbled with my key before I managed to fit it into the lock. I wrestled with it, almost sobbing with frustration, before I realized that the door was actually unlocked. He hadn't even taken the time for that elementary precaution? Yanking on the doorknob, I finally shoved the door open and staggered inside.

A silence hovered over the apartment, oppressing me with its finality. The lights were on, and the smell of my mother's intrusive perfume still lingered in the air, but the place was unquestionably empty.

For a long moment, I just stood there, an icy chill of fear running through my veins. He was gone, and once again, he was at risk of discovery. Lurid visions of death and disaster, made no less grisly by their sickening familiarity to my imagination, rose up to torment me.

Then, without warning, I felt the fresh swell of anger.

He'd done it again. Right in front of me and my parents -- my mother, of all people! -- at a time when he knew that we desperately needed to talk; at a time when a conniving woman who knew his secret was running loose in Metropolis. How could he do this?

How could he do this to me?

I slowly descended the stairs to the main floor of the apartment and went through the archway to his bedroom. Sure enough, the doors to the balcony were ajar. He'd dashed back into the house and flown -- flown! In the heart of Metropolis, with a myriad of streetlights to expose him to the world! He'd flown right out the window to...

To where?

My fists clenched as I resisted the urge to break something, preferably expensive. If this had anything to do with Her... If she had somehow engineered this, caused some kind of disaster to force him to break his promise to me --

Or, whispered a treacherous thought, did he want to do it?

A shudder ran through my entire frame at that dangerous suggestion, and I suddenly groped for the window seat, sitting down with a thump. No, no, it couldn't be. Clark understood the necessity of hiding his powers, he knew what was at risk, he wouldn't -- he couldn't --

But he had. Heaven help me... and him. He had.

I stood compulsively and hurried out of the bedroom, stopping short at the sight of the comfortable couch that faced me. Clark and I had sat on that couch not ten minutes before. I'd thought that we were at peace, despite the knowledge of our impending heart-to-heart discussion. But now? Now, I couldn't even tell where we stood.

Where I stood.

I moved to the side of the couch and gently touched the framed photograph on the lamp table. The two of us looked so happy in that picture. When had it all changed?

I stiffened at the traitorous thought. No, it hadn't changed! True, we had problems that needed to be solved, but I still loved him, and he still loved me --

Didn't he?

The sudden memory of his voice betrayed me: "I can't walk away from her. I'm in too deep now."

What had he meant by that? It was painfully clear that the awful woman held something over my Clark. But what? Was it the danger of exposure? The threat to his private life?

Or could it be, despite the ostentatiousness of the engagement ring she wore on her finger, that she'd...?

No. It couldn't be that. Clark would never fall for something like that.

Unless she had used the threat of exposure to force him?

I could feel my fingernails digging into my palms as the sickening taste of dread rose up my throat and threatened to choke me. I'd seen the way Clark looked at her just before we'd left the Planet. What if he wasn't all that unwilling to succumb to her wiles?

I gagged on my own thoughts, almost stumbling up the stairs in my sudden haste to escape the apartment. I'd initially thought of remaining there to wait for Clark's return, but I couldn't bear to face him now. I had to get away, take the time to think.

Take the time to wonder, and to wrestle with the deep anguish of knowing that even now, it might already be too late. She had come into our lives, callously disrupting the happy rhythm of our days, and I had no way of knowing if things would ever be the same again.

I was fortunate that my blind wanderings didn't lead me into the more unsavory parts of town. A lone woman could be a tempting target at night in the jungle that Metropolis had become in the last few years, and I'd never purchased a weapon. I'd learned how to walk with an air of competence, exuding a no-nonsense, I-can-take-care-of-myself attitude for any thug that might think me an easy mark. But that night, with my thoughts dwelling on Clark, I wasn't paying any attention to the dangers that lurked in every alleyway.

Near midnight, some seven miles from Clark's apartment, I found myself sitting on a crumbling park bench, shivering from the cold. I rubbed my hands together absently as I considered my options.

It seemed that several problems were clashing together all at once. Only one seemed to have any deep-seated basis: Clark's infuriating recklessness in using his powers in the heart of Metropolis. Despite my hopeful dismissal of his earlier use of his speed and heat vision as a one-time deviation, his disappearance from his apartment forced me to conclude that he was performing such feats with frightening regularity. It spoke of too many things that I didn't want to think about; not only was Clark betraying the promise he'd made to me, but he was also keeping secrets from me, secrets that he knew would affect both of us. What kind of basis was that for the future of our lives together?

Even worse, though, was the problem of Her. Lois Lane. She'd burst into the peaceful pattern of our lives and turned everything upside-down. Her manipulation of Clark's feelings and emotions, her contemptuous dismissal of my status at Clark's side -- how dare she ask a man, in front of his fiancee, to meet her at one o'clock in the morning? -- it all spoke of a determination to get what she wanted at whatever cost to others. I couldn't let Clark near her again; she was clearly a dangerous woman. If only I could get her out of our lives somehow, and erase the damage that she'd caused!

For damage she already had done. Her bizarre claims and blatant pleas for help had shaken Clark badly; it was no wonder that he wasn't acting like himself. The longer I considered it, the more certain I felt that she had somehow been the cause of Clark's abrupt flight earlier that night. Even if Clark's aberrant behavior had preceded her sudden return to the Daily Planet, I felt sure that she had also exacerbated it.

I suddenly came to a decision. No matter what, I couldn't allow Clark to see her again. That woman -- that siren -- was too dangerous. It was twenty minutes after twelve by now, and Clark was scheduled to meet her at the Planet at one o'clock. I couldn't let that happen -- not without talking to Clark first and making him see the peril she represented for both of us.

I tried to get my bearings. There was a main thoroughfare only two blocks away. I stood and began walking briskly southwards, pulling out my cellphone as I trotted down the street. I wasn't sure how easy it would be to find a taxi at that time of night, but a call to one of the local cab companies might direct a taxi in the right direction. I enjoyed long walks, and I could jog pretty quickly when I put my mind to it, but a seven-mile run would take too long. I had to get to Clark as soon as possible!

It was fourteen minutes to one when I finally paid the sleepy taxi driver and ran up the steps to Clark's apartment door. If only he was still there, if only he hadn't gone to meet her yet!

I tried the door tentatively. It was locked, but that meant little; I had prudently locked it myself when I left earlier, hoping that Clark's possessions would not fall prey to the petty thieves of the neighborhood. If Clark had returned the same way he'd departed, he might still be inside.

Forcing my fingers not to tremble, I unlocked the door and stepped inside.

The apartment, neat and tidy only a few hours before, was a mess. Scraps of material in yellow, garish red and bright blue littered the coffee table; a huge, ungainly pot sprawled on the stovetop, surrounded by bright red stains that spattered the counter and the floor. Something had clearly happened... but what?

I walked carefully down the steps, unsure of my own balance. This sudden clutter was a puzzle of sorts, demanding that I unravel the mystery and decipher the cause for the mess... and what had happened to Clark.

I sidestepped the coffee table and investigated Clark's bedroom. The chilly November breeze swirled through the open balcony doors; he'd clearly used the window route again. I swallowed the surge of bitterness at this further betrayal and continued to look around.

The bedroom itself was strewn with items of clothing -- Clark's clothing, including the suit he'd worn that day -- but I quickly put that thought aside. His cellphone was also there, carelessly tossed on the pillow of his bed; I wouldn't be able to call him and try to track him down that way.

My next stop was the kitchen and the mysterious pot. I'd never seen it before; it was so huge that it belonged in a soup kitchen, not a bachelor's pad. The red spatters looked almost like blood, but a closer inspection showed that it was actually dye.

I felt the sides of the pot; it was still very warm, almost hot, to the touch. Someone had dyed something, and quite recently. The stained tongs lying on the counter seemed to confirm my hypothesis, but who in their right mind would dye anything such a bright shade of red?

I slowly turned and approached the coffee table. An abandoned pair of scissors lay upon an old envelope. The scraps of cloth, some kind of stretchy material, had been clearly worked into some kind of lopsided shape. I studied the poor handiwork closely. There was a stylized "S" within an irregular pentagon. It reminded me of something I'd once seen long ago, but I couldn't remember what.

Then I saw it: a brown leather wallet. A women's wallet, half-hidden beneath a large piece of yellow cloth.

I sucked in my breath at this final confirmation of my deepest fears: She was involved. That wallet couldn't belong to anyone else except Lois Lane.

Shakily, I picked up the wallet and opened the snap. There were several pictures in the plastic billfold, but the first was enough to rob me of what little composure remained.

The echo of Clark's voice thundered in my ears: "It was a picture of me, but it wasn't me... It was me, wearing a bizarre costume, without my glasses, and with my hair slicked back on my forehead."

He hadn't mentioned the symbol emblazoned on his chest, a symbol I recognized now. He'd shown me an envelope once...

My gaze flicked to the yellowed envelope lying on the table before it was inexorably dragged back to that horrible picture. Yes, that was the very envelope that had held the strange emblem Martha had saved for him.

The selfsame emblem that was splashed across his chest on that bizarre costume in the photograph.

And if he'd taken it out of the envelope, and shown it to her... shared with Lois Lane a secret out of his past, a secret that he had never shared with anyone else besides me...

I looked at that awful picture yet again, and then stared at the scraps of material on the table.

"You didn't, Clark," I whispered to the silent room. "Please, tell me you didn't."

I swallowed hard. Had he? And if he had, what had he done then?

Trembling with fear and suppressed fury, I turned to the next page in the wallet. My heart stuttered at the incredible sight. Martha and Jonathan Kent. Much older than I remembered them as a child before their deaths. Happy... Clearly alive.

How dared she do this to him? I choked and sat down hard on the couch. How could anyone be so cruel as to present a long-time orphan with such a carefully calculated lie?

I couldn't bear to look at it any longer. Angrily, I flipped to the next photo.

This one made my heart stop completely.

It was Clark. And Her.

"I'll kill her," I breathed. "So help me..."

The engagement ring she wore so prominently on her finger had clearly been a lie, cunningly designed to throw both of us off-guard and lull us into thinking she had no ulterior motives regarding Clark. I didn't stop to question how she'd manage to fake such a picture; if she had the resources to create a false picture of an older Martha and Jonathan, why couldn't she perform similar trick photography to make a picture of herself together with my Clark?

I was still angry with Clark for his failure to keep his promises to me, but I could suddenly understand his desperate willingness to believe her lies. Faced with apparent evidence, and her wild claim to be from "another universe," even I could hardly expect Clark to remember the truth about the love we shared, or to think of the incontrovertible proof of our picture next to the lamp....

I glanced towards the picture -- and froze.

Someone had taken the framed photograph and, with calculated coldness, turned it onto its face to hide our smiling expressions.

She had done it, I knew. She'd wanted to hide any evidence of the reality of Clark's life so she could blind him with her own wild stories.

Rage. Fury as I'd never felt before. I could hardly breathe for the pure anger that suffused my being. I'd never truly hated anyone before, but at that moment, I knew that I hated Lois Lane.

I took several long, deep breaths in a futile attempt to get my seething emotions under control. I didn't know where they were -- there was no question in my mind that he was together with her -- and I had no way to track them down. But they had to come back here eventually, and when they did, they were going to have to face me.

***

Something roused me from an uneasy doze. I sat up straight on the couch, listening. Had that been a thump from Clark's balcony? The quality of light in the room showed that it was after sunrise; I'd clearly fallen asleep at some point during the night while I waited for Clark to come back.

To come back from risking exposure and danger.

From jeopardizing our future together.

From betraying me.

To come back from Her.

There were voices coming from the balcony beyond the bedroom. Feminine and masculine. Clark... and that conniving harpy.

I rose to my feet, waiting for them to come inside. All the emotions and anguish that had filled the long, weary hours of waiting came rushing upwards, overwhelming me with their intensity.

Clark was going to listen to me this time, no matter what. He had to understand that Lois Lane was poison, a conniver and manipulator who was twisting everything to suit her own needs and desires. The damage of the night was already done, but I would not let anything like it ever happen again.

The voices drew nearer, and I could catch her words:

"...straighten the line on your cape before we go out again."

"Cape"?

"We"?

A new blaze of fury stoked the fires further as my nemesis entered the living room, leading Clark like an obedient puppy dog. And he was wearing...

Dear Heaven, NO!

Once again, I heard the echo of Clark's voice: "I want nothing less than to believe that this other me flies around in tights..."

The picture had been bad enough, but it had only shown the upper body of "Clark" in that ridiculous costume. Now I saw what she'd done to him in all its horrific glory.

It was nothing short of a mockery. She'd thrust him into an outfit of clashing colors that molded themselves to his body, physically exposing him to the world. It wasn't enough to manipulate him to her own ends; did she have to humiliate him as well? Even the cherished heirloom of his past, the only symbol he possessed to connect him to his unknown origin, had been defiled in her obsessive scheme!

"Just because I'm not wearing my glasses," he was saying to her, "you're sure no one is going to recognize me?"

"Positive," she assured him with airy certainty.

She was right about one thing, I thought bitterly; Clark was barely recognizable. Not only because of that awful costume that she'd forced onto him, but also as the man I thought I knew.

"Clark!" The name burst from my heart, from the rage that threatened to erupt over the last tattered remnants of my control. "What are you doing?"

He turned and saw me. I saw his shoulders, proud and confident, suddenly slump. It seemed clear that at the sight of me, Clark's common sense had finally returned, and he'd realized the enormity of whatever it was he'd done out there last night. A small tendril of hope poked through the welter of my emotions. Could it really be that the nightmare was actually over...?

"Lana," he said, looking extremely uncomfortable. "Hi."

"Hi"? I felt incredulity battle with fresh anger. He'd spent the entire night with another woman -- flying with her -- and how had he flown with her, if he hadn't cradled her in his arms? And now, all he could say was "hi"? Where was his remorse, his recognition of his betrayal of everything we'd done, of all that we'd attempted in the last twenty years?

"What's going on?" I demanded sharply, resisting the urge to grab him by the shoulders and shake some sense into him.

"Lois knows about me," he began unnecessarily.

I glared. I knew that; he'd told me the night before. But that didn't explain --

"I've decided that I need..." He stopped. "No," he said more firmly. "I've decided that the world needs me."

The world needed him? I choked back an inappropriate surge of laughter, the kind of hysterical laughter that is laden with angry tears. "Needs you to what?" I gestured at the ludicrous costume. "Model men's underwear?" I shuddered at the knowledge that She had done this to him. "Bring capes back into fashion?"

She stepped forward at that, clearly angry that I'd seen through her pathetic ruse. "All right, that's it..."

Clark turned to her and, unbelievably, tried to placate her! "Lois," he started.

"Clark." I used my most commanding voice to summon his attention away from Her, desperate to know just how disastrous her meddling had been. "You didn't... you didn't go out like that and --" I couldn't voice the words in front of her, even if she did know the truth; instead, I made the flying-hand motion that we'd used so many times before. "People didn't... see you?"

"Of course people saw him!" Lois Lane burst out, obviously relishing her interruption in our private moment. "He's Superman!"

I whirled on her, infuriated. "I don't how you talked him into this," I hissed, "or what you're really after. But this is between him and me!"

I did my best to ignore her after that, particularly that last inexplicable statement she'd made -- who or what was a Superman? Instead, I focused on Clark. My dear, beloved Clark, even if he was standing there looking absolutely ridiculous in that absurd costume...

"Clark," I said with fierce intensity. "I want things the way they were. I want what you promised." I swallowed hard, then realized I would have to produce an ultimatum if I wanted him to take this seriously. "Or else --"

The phone interrupted me. Clark hesitated for a moment, then moved to pick it up. I stared at him with angry frustration. Wasn't it more important to finish our conversation than listen to some stupid salesman's pitch?

"Hello?" He listened for a moment, then turned to her, extending the phone. "It's for you."

I suppressed my gasp at this sickening confirmation of just how tightly the witch had gotten her hooks into my Clark. She'd directed his actions like a marionette, pulling his strings to serve her own caprices; had she had the audacity to move into his apartment and announce her acquisition of my fiance to the world as well?

"That does it," I said between gritted teeth. I turned away quickly before She could have the satisfaction of seeing the moisture that beaded on my eyelashes. Blindly, I made my way towards the stairs. I would use the more conventional method of leaving the apartment; I wasn't sure I ever wanted to be there again.

"Lana, come on," I heard Clark say behind me as he hurried to catch up. Was he ready to admit how wrong he'd been? "This is stupid!"

The horror of the situation was suddenly masked by a tidal wave of absolute wrath. How dared he even attempt to insinuate that I was at fault here! He, together with Her, were the culprits! They both had smashed my dreams and destroyed my hopes of a long, happy life with the man I loved. Clark and I had spent twenty years together, bound by our need to hide his secret, supporting one another throughout every crisis -- and now, after his betrayal of our decades-long pact, Clark dared to suggest that I was the one in the wrong?

This was more than I could bear.

"You'll have to choose, Clark," I whispered without looking at him. The acrid taste of gall sickened me as I realized that I, too, was using his powers; after all, I knew he could hear me despite my hushed tones. "I will not allow you to continue with this travesty. It's either Her or me, Clark. If you continue doing what she demands -- if you persist in flaunting the secret that I've done my best to keep for you all along -- then you and I are finished."

I stood by the front door, my hand on the knob, waiting for him to say something -- anything. When he remained silent, I turned the doorknob and stepped out of his apartment -- and quite possibly out of his life.

I didn't run, but I walked as quickly as I could. I didn't want him to stop me now and try to talk; I didn't think I could handle it. I had to get away from him, to have time to think of what he'd done and wonder if there was any way to repair the dreadful damage. I couldn't face him now!

My pace grew faster and faster, until I was almost jogging down the block in my haste. I was afraid to look behind me: afraid to see he was coming after me, and even more afraid to discover that he was not.

A taxi! Frantically, I waved it down. It screeched to a halt a bare inch from the curb with the usual flair of all Metropolis taxicabs.

I yanked the door open and got inside, slamming the door behind me with all my strength. I needed some outlet for my frustrations, and this, little as it was, would have to do.

"Hey, lady, don't break my cab," the driver complained. "Where to?"

I bit my lip. Where to, indeed? Not home, to stare at the four walls and sink into deeper fury and depression; certainly not to the hotel where my parents were staying. I needed a distraction now. I needed --

"Take me to LNN Studios," I instructed the cabby.

"Right, lady." He floored the gas pedal with relish, and I reflexively grabbed for the door handle as the taxi roared down the street. My usual morning spot had been preempted that day -- instead, there would be a scheduled televised debate between the two mayoral candidates before that afternoon's elections -- but it wouldn't hurt to show up anyway. Of course, Perry White would be a most unwelcome reminder of Clark, but I would just have to manage.

Some five minutes into the ride, just as the taxi stopped by the third traffic light, the driver's mike suddenly crackled. "Steve, turn your radio to WLNN," a staticky voice said. "You've got to hear this!"

The cabby rolled his eyes and picked up the mike. "C'mon, Harry, I'm not into politics! All they're talkin' about is that dumb debate."

"Steve. Turn. It. On. It's the story of the century, and it's happening now!"

"All right, Harry, just to make you happy..." The driver reached out and flicked on the radio, tuning it to WLNN. I leaned forward, curious too.

"...top-breaking story happening right now, it looks like Mr. Tempus is holding some kind of green crystal over the fallen man. The man is obviously in great pain, too."

A new voice, one I recognized from work, broke into the hurried monologue. "Gerald, did you say the man is dressed in tights and a cape?"

"Say what?" the taxi driver blurted. His driving slowed as he concentrated on the radio.

I felt my eyes stretch wide. I quickly clamped both hands over my mouth to stop the cry of dismay that threatened to escape. Were they talking about Clark? No, it couldn't be! Clark couldn't be hurt, we knew that...

Didn't we?

There was so much we didn't know about Clark. What if --

"Yes, Roberta, that's correct. To recap for those of you just tuning in, a man just flew into the room of the televised debate between John Tempus and Perry White..."

"Oh, Clark," I whispered behind my fingers.

"...dropped the woman next to White and then proceeded to tear a metal door off its hinges like it was made out of paper. He disappeared for a moment into the room, then returned together with a man in old-fashioned clothing..."

The strange man I'd seen together with Lois Lane. What awful plot had she hatched against him?

"Gerald, what's the possibility this is just a hoax?"

"No hoax, Roberta, not when bullets literally bounced off the guy in the cape when they said he was holding a bomb... He's dropped it on the floor now."

A bomb? Clark?

"But now Tempus has him under control with that green crystal, although it looks like it's really hurting the man in the costume... Wait a moment, we're switching live to the candidate, he's making an announcement..."

I sank back against the back seat, trembling all over and biting the inside of my cheek to keep from screaming aloud. Oh, Clark, I tried to warn you, and now it's too late. You've been seen flying; you've been exposed as invulnerable to conventional weapons; and now someone has done what we've always thought was impossible and found a way to hurt you.

It's all Her fault. She did this to you, Clark. She exposed you, and now you're going to...

To...

Die?

A tremor ran through me at that awful possibility. Frantic, I leaned forward again and banged on the driver's shoulder. "Step on it!" I cried hoarsely. "Get me to LNN Studios immediately!" I had to get there and see if I could somehow save Clark, before it was too late.

But he wasn't listening to me; he was too absorbed in the drama unfolding over the radio. John Tempus was speaking, shouting over the screams and commotion in the studio:

"Let me tell you what's a lie, people! This is the lie! He's been among us for years, hiding, learning -- waiting to strike!"

An audible gasp came from the speakers as the original announcer came back on the air. "He -- he's got a film, Robert, that we're seeing right now -- a man dressed in an ordinary suit and glasses, flying through the air to catch a woman falling off a building!"

Please, no...

"Gerald, is that the same man that Tempus is holding at bay with the green mineral?"

"Yes, Roberta, we're seeing a different clip now -- the same man dressed in the costume he's wearing now, and the woman is still with him -- they're standing on a balcony, and he's picking her up and flying into the air!"

I buried my face in my hands as the words thundered in my ears. Everything torn away, his every secret exposed, and now he was dying...

"That's right!" shouted Tempus on the radio. "Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great Metropolitan newspaper!"

"No," I moaned, sobbing in anguish. "No..."

But it was already too late.

The next few minutes were a blur that I was never able to bring into focus afterwards. I do know that it was the sound of that hated voice, shouting something on the radio, that jerked me out of my frozen immobility. Sorry, was she? After she'd callously manipulated Clark for her own ends, now she was sorry? How could she dare claim to be sorry for something that she herself had deliberately, maliciously done?

Even if he survived, the man known as Clark Kent had already been stripped away by this public exposure. And it was all Her fault.

The taxi driver, still driving slowly as he paid more attention to the radio than the road, stopped at yet another red light. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an electronics store, featuring a large television in the window. It was tuned to the debate, and focusing on Clark --

On Clark...

Dear Heaven, what could make him writhe in agony so?

I fumbled for the handle of the car door and scrambled out of the taxi before I knew what I was doing. I ignored the indignant shout behind me and ran up to the store window, my fingers pressing hard against the glass as if I could somehow reach inside to help him. I couldn't hear anything through the thick window, but what I could see was more than enough.

I recognized the sound stage; the debate was taking place in one of LNN's regular studios. The cameras were focused on John Tempus, who held an eerie, oddly pulsating green crystal like a badge of office. James Olsen, holding a cell phone, stood almost toe to toe with him, clearly arguing. And lying at their feet...

I wanted to screw up my eyes and turn away from the horrible sight, to retch at the hideousness of it, but I couldn't. All my anger and resentment vanished at the sight of poor Clark, still stuffed into that awful suit, twisting on the floor in his torment. Had she planned this from the beginning? Was this whole thing an elaborate plot to destroy Clark utterly?

I heard a step behind me, then a voice tinged with annoyance. "Pay up, lady, you can't just... Whoa!"

The taxi driver seemed to forget me as he, too, focused on the horrible scene playing itself out on the television in the window. The elderly man in the out-of-date clothing had approached Tempus now. It took him a few moments to get the mayoral candidate's attention -- Tempus was clearly enjoying listening to himself talk too much -- but the man finally gestured at the object in his hand. Even I could see that it was a bomb of some sort -- the bomb that Clark had been accused of wielding? Was it really an actual bomb?

It was hard to tell what happened next without the benefit of sound, but it quickly became apparent that the device was not only a bomb, but also a live one. Tempus stared at the bomb, then dropped the ugly crystal, shoved the older man away, and dashed off the screen. The cameras veered to follow him, and the taxi driver and I both gasped aloud as Tempus pulled a heavy revolver from his pocket and threatened the people who blocked his egress from the sound stage. The elderly man came back into the camera's focus, argued for another moment with Tempus, and then drew back his fist and punched the candidate squarely in the face. He looked almost surprised at his own action, but I only wanted the cameras to return to the center of the stage and tell me if Clark was still alive.

The cameras did move back and focus on Clark, but I almost wished they hadn't. The rock was gone, and Clark had staggered back to his feet, but he was holding the bomb in his hand!

The television was a good one. I could clearly see his fingers tighten on the device. Ordinarily, I knew, he would have been able to crush it to powder; but whatever that rock was, it had clearly done more than just cause him pain. It had also weakened him.

And he was standing there, at ground zero, faced with an explosive device that was clearly about to detonate.

"Get out of there," I whispered, a breath and a prayer.

Then She came back into the picture, running towards him, just as Clark fumbled the explosive out of the device and --

Swallowed it.

Swallowed it!

"No..." My vision blurred and I tightened my grip on the glass for support. "No --"

There was no sound from the television to tell us that the bomb had detonated, but I watched helplessly as Clark's eyes widened in shock before his body jerked.

And then he collapsed.

Please, no...

Lois Lane went down with him too, but she was clearly unharmed.

And Clark...

Was dead?

I wanted to turn away. I longed to move my head just far enough to hide the awful sight from view. But I couldn't.

Clark was dead.

She was on her knees now, her mouth moving as she pounded on his motionless chest. I wanted to scream at her, shout at her to get away from him. Wasn't it enough that she'd caused his death? Why couldn't she leave him alone?

Then it happened. The man beside me, as frozen with shock as I was, muttered an astonished curse under his breath as Clark suddenly stirred.

His eyelids flickered open. He sat up carefully. Then his eyes widened again as smoke suddenly escaped his mouth.

What?

The taxi driver slapped at the window and laughed aloud. "Who is this guy?" he exclaimed. "He swallows a bomb, and all he does is burp up some smoke?"

I cringed, realizing the man was right. How embarrassing!

As Clark got to his feet, and others began to approach him -- Olsen, White, the strange older man -- I finally turned away. As glad as I was that he hadn't been killed, the realization that swept over me at that moment was too much to bear.

He was alive, but he was dead.

Clark Kent was dead.

A man with his features and his voice still lived, but he would never be Clark Kent again. Thanks to Tempus and Lois Lane, he had been exposed before all the world. He was Superman now, and Clark Kent was lost to me forever.

***

The taxi driver did finally take me to LNN Studios, but it was nearly an hour before we got there. By that time, the excitement had moved elsewhere. Televisions played endless repeats of those climactic minutes, but the players in the drama had left.

And where was Clark?

Somewhere, no doubt, with Her...

I couldn't understand how he could possibly stand the sight of her. She'd taken everything we'd done in the last twenty years and made a mockery of our efforts. The two of us had worked for decades to hide his secret, and now, because of her, it was all gone.

And he'd helped her do it. He'd brushed aside my warnings, he'd ignored my pleas, and now he'd paid the price.

I finally found some of my fellow employees in one of the broadcasting rooms in the back of the building.

"Lana, did you see this?"

"Yes," I managed, "but not all of it. Where are the videos?"

"Pull up a chair and see for yourself. We're playing it again."

So I watched the travesty, seeing it fully this time. Tempus' assertion that the "enemy" of his campaign had actually been Clark; Clark's arrival in that outlandish costume, together with Lois Lane; the door torn off its hinges, the panic at the sight of Clark with the bomb, the ricocheting bullets...

The rock. That ugly, glowing crystal.

Some of the videos here were spliced together. I watched carefully and saw that one camera had, indeed, remained focused on the center of the sound stage at all times. Now I could see that once Tempus had fled, She had picked up the stone and thrown it into the seats, while Olsen and White fought off Tempus' henchmen. That explained, perhaps, why Clark had been able to survive swallowing the bomb; the dangerous rock had been removed from his vicinity.

Yet she'd known about it, I realized. She'd known its properties; she'd recognized it even before Clark was first affected by it. And she'd known how far to throw it so that he could recover enough to destroy the bomb. Here was the final proof I needed that she'd been in league with Tempus all along.

Had she only thrown away the rock, I wondered bitterly, to ensure her own survival?

As the video began to play yet another time, I stood up and quietly made my way out of the room. There was something I had to do for Clark's sake. Even if he'd spurned me in the cruelest way possible, even if he had nothing left but the former shell of his being, I could at least make sure that he was never threatened with that awful, agonizing death again.

I walked into the main sound stage and turned on the overhead lights. The place was empty. The cleaning crew hadn't arrived yet; I could still see bullet shells littering the main stage, and many of the chairs and equipment were overturned. I was looking upon a battlefield with a death count of one: Clark Kent.

"Killed by Tempus," I whispered, "aided and abetted..." I swallowed hard against the sour taste as I realized I was quoting the would-be mayor. "Aided and abetted by Her."

I wondered, with a strange kind of detachment, why the place was so deserted. Had everyone rushed to the voting booths, eager to cast a ballot either for against the man who had tried to kill the -- I gagged at the thought -- the alien in their midst? Or were they so absorbed in watching morbid replays of Clark's near-death that they couldn't pay attention to anything else?

I picked my way across the sound stage, stopping at a particularly disturbed area of dust. This was where Clark had lain, unconscious, while that horrible woman pounded viciously against his chest in her belated regret for the way she'd almost killed him. That awful belch must have been the ultimate capper on poor Clark's humiliation.

I took a deep breath, then positioned myself as She had been standing just before Clark swallowed the bomb. Frowning a little, I mimed picking something off the floor, then twisted towards the audience. I took my apartment keys out of my pocket and threw them away with all the strength I could muster.

I followed their arching trajectory into the studio seats, then walked slowly in their direction, my eyes scanning the ground. The keys were lighter, but she'd been operating under adrenaline. I found the keys easily enough, but I couldn't find --

I heard it before I saw it: a strange, ugly shimmering noise, something unearthly and uncannily frightening. I craned my neck to look behind the next row of seats, then caught my breath at the greenish light that limned the dusty carpet. Yes, it was there.

I clambered over the seats and squatted next to the strange green rock that had brought Clark so close to death. It had killed him, I reminded myself grimly. The person that still walked and breathed wasn't Clark Kent any longer, but a strange entity named Superman -- a man with no privacy, no life, and no future. His body might still exist, but my Clark Kent was gone.

The man I loved.

My fiance.

My future.

I touched the rock with a shaking finger, wondering if it was as deadly to humans as it had been to Clark. But no -- Tempus had shown no effects, and neither had Lois Lane. How strange that Clark should be impervious to fire, to bullets, even to the effects of swallowing a bomb -- but this sickly, slick stone should be fatal to him.

I couldn't leave it here. It made me feel ill just to look at it, let alone touch it, but I couldn't allow it to remain where it might fall into the hands of someone like Tempus who would want to harm Clark. Part of me wanted to kill him almost as much as I wanted to kill Lois Lane, but not this way. I couldn't leave it behind.

That harridan hadn't thought of that, of course. Or perhaps she had, and she just didn't care...

I picked it up gingerly, swallowing my surge of nausea. Reluctantly, I opened my purse, transferred its contents to my pockets, and dropped the rock inside. As I carefully fastened the clasp, I knew I would be buying a new purse soon; I didn't think I'd ever be able to use this one again. Then I slipped out of the sound stage, hurrying through the silent halls until I reached the parking lot outside.

I stood for a moment, indecisive. What should I do with it? I couldn't leave it where it could be found, but was it possible to destroy it? I opened my purse again, gagging a little at the menacing glint of green that shone from inside. This -- this thing had almost killed the man I had tried to protect for twenty years. I couldn't rest until I knew it was no longer a threat.

In the end, I went to Hobbs Bay and jammed the purse, with the rock still inside, deep within a half-brick that I found near an abandoned, broken building. Then I went to the pier, ready to hire a motorboat. At the last moment, however, I reconsidered the hazards of navigating a rocking, dirty motorboat in heels and an expensive suit. I was willing to do this for Clark, but not at the expense of my favorite outfit. It would be better to take the ferry ride across the harbor instead.

The woman behind the ticket counter looked at my brick with a wary eye, but no one in Metropolis questioned other people's motives too closely -- even a power-dressed woman clutching a broken half-brick. I avoided the other passengers and remained glued to the railing, watching the shore recede into the distance. As soon as I was sure I was in deep water, I hurled the heavy brick over the side. It sank with a loud and satisfying splash into the green, murky depths. It was, I felt, the best I could do.

By the time I returned to shore, dusk had already fallen. I felt anxious, wondering what had happened in my absence. What if Clark had tried to get in touch with me? I retrieved my cellphone from the pocket of my jacket and nearly groaned aloud in dismay. The battery had died overnight -- during that long, agonizing night while I waited to hear from Clark, while he was busy flying around with Her. If he'd tried to contact me over the last few hours, he would have failed.

As I passed the ticket counter, I saw that a man had replaced the former vendor. He paid little attention to his customers; he was too busy watching the news on the small television perched on the counter.

"What's the news?" I asked, marveling at the steadiness of my voice.

"Elections are over already," he grunted. "White won by a landslide."

I resisted the urge to shake him. Who cared about that? "What about Cl- Superman?" I almost choked on the name.

"Kent, you mean?" the man asked, glancing up at me. I nodded silently, swallowing the surge of bile. Every person in Metropolis knew who he was already. Was there anything left to salvage at all of a future together as two ordinary people?

"White is giving a press conference in about twenty minutes near the Daily Planet. The reporters think Kent will be there too."

I made a hasty exit. Standing outside the small office, I thought hard and fast. Things had moved too quickly while I was busy making sure that Clark's life wasn't further endangered by that deadly stone. If Clark -- or Superman -- was going to speak at a press conference...

I rubbed a hand over my eyes. The day had been too long already; but I couldn't let him down now, no matter how tempting it might be. Our engagement was over; our entire lives were over. Everything we'd labored to achieve for twenty years had been destroyed in a single half-hour by Tempus. Tempus, and Her. But I couldn't abandon him. He'd essentially abandoned me by going with my nemesis, but I wasn't so childish that I would repay him in kind. If he was forced to go public with the secret he'd so desperately wanted to be kept, I couldn't let him face it alone. I had to be there and let him know I would still be generous: I would be the friend he needed, even if all the world had turned against Clark Kent and forced him to become Superman.

Traffic was awful. The trip from Hobbs Bay to central Metropolis, where the Daily Planet was located, usually took about forty minutes; that day, it took me an hour and a half. By the time I finally reached the fringes of the crowd, the press conference was already underway.

White was speaking, beaming as he celebrated his landslide victory. I couldn't help but feel a kind of vindictive triumph that Tempus, the awful man who had destroyed my world, had been thoroughly trounced. At least the people of Metropolis hadn't condoned his homicidal behavior!

Still, that wasn't what I really cared about at the moment. I fought and shoved my way through the rubberneckers, trying to get through to the front. I utilized every trick I'd learned over the years -- the high heel diversion, the elbow maneuver, even the whipping-the-hair- in-the-face trick. White was finishing his speech, waving at former President Presley, but I didn't care about that. I only had eyes for the figure standing just inside the Daily Planet building, the garish colors visible through the glass of the doors. I had to get to him and let him I know I was there!

Then the doors opened, and that strange man in the old-fashioned clothing -- the man who was inexplicably bound up in the horrible events of these last two days, even if I didn't know how -- stepped outside. The crowd ignored him, as I did, eager to focus on the figure that now emerged from the building.

I could easily read Clark's body language, even if he seemed to be holding himself more stiffly than usual. He was anxious, nervous, afraid. The shouting, shoving people were overwhelming to the man who had eschewed all attention for so many years. I redoubled my efforts to make my way towards him. I'm here, Clark, I'm here for you.

His gaze scanned the crowd, even as he started to speak. His words were formal and wooden, and my heart broke a little further for both of us. He seemed to think that he couldn't even retain his personality as Superman. I'm here, Clark. Look at me, and draw strength from me. We can't be together any more, thanks to your own behavior and Her, but I'm still here for you...

I shivered.

...if you want me...?

I watched as his eyes flicked from one face to the next, clearly searching for support. I continued to fight my way forward, waving at him. Look at me, Clark. I'm here.

Then his face brightened a little. He clearly saw something he liked --

But he wasn't looking at me.

Slowly, dreading confirmation of what I already knew, I turned my head to follow his gaze. She was standing in the mouth of the alley across from the Daily Planet. He was looking at Her.

AT HER.

I stopped struggling to reach him.

I stopped waving my arms in an effort to attract his attention.

I stopped.

Hot anger poured through me as I witnessed this final slap in the face. Even now, after all that she'd done, he still looked to Her.

Not that she cared, of course. She merely looked back at him, spoke for a moment with her elderly companion, then turned away.

As I watched Clark's eyes follow her into the alley, I could feel my fury subside, draining away into an empty hollow of bitterness. The torrent of emotions that had raged through me in the last two days now seemed distant and remote. With his betrayal complete, all I could feel was despair.

***

It took many weeks before we could face each other. By that time, any chance of regaining our former relationship was long since lost. Clark tried, I know, but circumstances conspired against us.

The tabloids' eager desire to ferret out Clark's secrets soon led to the discovery of our engagement. Even when it became clear that our engagement was over, the paparazzi refused to leave me alone. I nearly quit my job at LNN when I was forced to run a gauntlet of invasive, vulgar questions as I walked through the studio doors each morning. I did actually try to hand in my resignation, but the executive manager flatly refused to accept it. I knew, with sickening certainty, that his refusal stemmed from the increased ratings on my segments each morning; it seemed that everyone in Metropolis was eager to gawk at Superman's former fiancee. My own talents on camera no longer mattered. I was a circus sideshow, a secondary attraction to the man in the red cape. My own life had been destroyed as thoroughly as Clark's.

My parents fared little better. Infuriated by the invasion of their privacy, they refused all interviews; but many of their neighbors, perhaps relishing the opportunity to repay my mother's inquisitiveness into their own affairs, spoke at length to every reporter who darkened their doorsteps. My father's drinking grew more aggressive, and my mother's equilibrium deteriorated with every three-inch headline. They moved out of Smallville less than a month after Clark's debut as Superman, and they did not leave a forwarding address -- even for me. I had a beeper number where I could call them, and I knew they were somewhere in Colorado; but they were too frightened of being tracked to entrust me with their true location. I wondered, sometimes, if they felt that I, too, had betrayed them.

In those first awful days after She had callously destroyed our lives and disappeared to avoid dealing with the aftermath, it seemed that I had lost everything I ever had. My job had become little more than a carnival act; my parents had fled; my friends, even those that remained loyal, were wary and uncertain; and Clark -- my dear Clark who I still could not help but love -- was lost to me in his sudden mission to rescue the world from itself. There were times when I looked at the four walls of my apartment, my only haven from the maelstrom of the hungry media that lurked outside the building, and had to struggle to remind myself why I should keep going.

I spent long, lonely hours mourning for the good man who had died with Superman's birth. Even when Clark and I finally had a chance to talk, there was no denying that the Clark Kent I knew had been brutally murdered when Tempus exposed him to the world. There was no going back to his quiet anonymity; he could never walk down the street as an ordinary man. There was nothing left of the man who I had once dreamed of marrying. How could a man known for what he does, rather than as the wonderful person he is, possibly lead even a semblance of a normal life? And even if we could have gone back to what we once had, could any couple survive a marriage in which normalcy simply didn't exist?

I couldn't, and neither could he.

And he didn't.

He did try to continue his job at the Daily Planet, but he soon saw that it was hopeless; not only did his former sources back away from him, making it difficult to do any work as an investigative reporter, but his colleagues, overawed and more than a little intimidated, treated him like a pariah. Despite Olsen's assurances that his job at the Planet would always be secure, Clark was soon reduced to merely reporting on his own activities as Superman. He stopped going to work, sending his articles via e-mail instead.

He couldn't shop for groceries or rent a video. People saw him, recognized him, and... reacted. Some with adulation, some with fear, but too many without thinking of the man beneath that awful spandex suit, even when he wasn't wearing it. Clark had become more than a celebrity. He had become Superman, and no one seemed capable of thinking of him as anything else any more.

Sometimes, that even included me.

Clark seemed anxious for my forgiveness when he finally had the chance to tell me the entire story. It seemed that Lois Lane's ridiculous assertion that she hailed from another universe was actually true; he even told me, with careful caution, that his own counterpart was engaged to my nemesis in that other world. I listened silently when he told me this; my feelings had gone so far beyond reproach or condemnation that I couldn't even bring myself to show anger. Not openly, anyway. He had made me suffer, but it seemed all too clear that his own punishment was more than ample.

He had acted foolishly, and he shouldn't have submitted to her so easily. My dreams of lace and flowers, of a happy wedding in Smallville, had been destroyed by a hateful witch, but he had helped her. If he'd only listened to me, before it was too late... If only he'd remembered how we'd both labored so long to preserve his secret, instead of listening to a temptress with her own personal agenda.

I couldn't forgive what his actions had caused, but I did recognize that his penance was more than any ordinary human could bear. Despite my bitterness over the miserable landscape of my current life, I had to concede that his was infinitely worse. I, at least, could hope to retreat into anonymity if I tried; he could not.

No, I really blamed Her. Siren, medusa, exploiter, she'd been little more than a harpy who preyed on others for her own satisfaction. She'd gloried in her power over Clark, bending him to her will, pulling his strings and forcing him to dance to her tune -- and then she'd vanished, leaving him to try to put the pieces of his shattered life together. Worst of all, she still holds some kind of emotional influence over him. I'm not sure what it is; part of me isn't sure I want to know. But I can tell that he still misses her, despite the damage she caused to our lives. I don't understand it, but she still manipulates him, even from a universe away.

I wondered, sometimes, what would have happened if Lois Lane hadn't meddled with our lives -- if things had remained as they were. What would have happened after our marriage? I'd always felt sure that Clark would abandon the use of his powers and live at my side as an ordinary human being. Yet his covert use of his powers -- even before She exploded into our lives, and despite his promise to me - showed that he was simply incapable of standing idly by when people were in danger. No, we would have had to face the usage of his powers sooner or later... and what would have been the result?

Divorce? I don't think so; our bond was too great for that, forged over two decades of dependence on one another. A final ultimatum on my part? That, too, seems unrealistic; after all, my ultimatums had been more or less final even before the disastrous fiasco of Lois Lane, and that hadn't helped. We might have fought and argued about it; Clark might have even gone behind my back, using his powers on the sly, although I couldn't quite picture Clark in the role of a "cheating" husband.

Perhaps... Perhaps we, too, would have stumbled upon the compromise of a secret identity that would allow my husband to remain Clark Kent, while his powers served as an instrument for helping others. If it hadn't been for that hag and her heartless disregard of Clark's privacy, it may very well have worked. I'm sure I would have always worried that someone might make the connection between Clark and whatever secret identity he adopted, but at least we would be relatively safe. The scenario seems rather doubtful, but it might have happened.

But we'll never know, because a selfish, conniving woman callously used Clark for her own benefit, destroying our future. She needed his powers, and she ignored the man and the ramifications of her actions to get what she wanted. Perhaps she even thought that she meant well, as Clark has tried so often to convince me; but she certainly didn't stop to consider Clark's welfare. No, she only wanted to get back to her own little world, and she didn't care what happened to Clark after she'd gone.

And now Clark Kent is dead.

My Clark Kent is dead.

All that's left is the lonely superhero -- someone that I do not know.

Oh, Clark...

It's been six long months since that awful debacle that destroyed my happiness. We do see each other sometimes, but it's stilted, formal. We can't go back to what we have. He's consigned to a lonely existence... and so am I.

Unless I can bring myself to start again.

Can I?

It's so hard. I don't even know where to begin. For twenty years, it was Clark and me against the world; now it's Clark for the world, trying to make a difference, while I've been left out of the equation. The hype and publicity that surrounded me have more or less died down, but I'm afraid to pick up the phone or meet a stranger in a social setting. I'm too wary of being used, of someone seeing me as Superman's former woman instead of me, Lana Lang.

How could I trust again? Who could give me an assurance that they were interested in me for myself, instead of titillated by my celebrity past as Superman's girlfriend?

I can't know. There's no way to be sure. So instead, I make this nightly pilgrimage to my window, watching for Clark on his costumed patrols of Metropolis. I have to try and think that the outcome, as tragic as it's been for us both, has at least done some good to the city and the world.

I do wish him well, I suppose. I just wish there was hope -- for either of us.

A sudden sound broke my reverie as the strident ring of the telephone demanded attention. I ignored it, as I had done for so long now. The answering machine could do its job without any help from me.

And yet... Something made me stop and listen as the greeting ended and the message began.

"Lana?" The voice was tentative, but one that stirred warm tones of recognition from the faint echoes of my childhood in Smallville. "Hi, it's Pete, Pete Ross..."

My attention suddenly focused on the voice from the answering machine. This was someone I knew. Someone from my past, not an unknown from the current bitterness of my life.

Someone I could... trust?

"I'm in Metropolis right now on business, and I was wondering if I could see you. I'm a pretty good listening ear if you want to talk, or we could go out for coffee or something..."

I hesitated for a moment, wondering if I could take the next step...

Then, with a faint smile, I turned my back on the faceless window and moved to pick up the phone. My gaze skated across the abandoned wedding folder that still lay on the corner of my desk, but this time, the sight of it did not cause me further pain.

Goodbye, Clark. I hope that someday, you will find what you seek.

It's time to make a new beginning.
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