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The day had started on a sombre note, but by evening the revelry was in full swing in the Kent farmhouse. Clark sat back, smiling, and watched Lois and Martha wrangling amicably over the correct answer to one of the Trivial Pursuit questions from earlier. Clark and Jonathan had trounced the women soundly, and Martha had indignantly packed Jonathan off to the kitchen to get refills of coffee and birthday cake, knowing full well that he would appreciate the opportunity to show off how well he could walk now.

Clark reflected incredulously, as he so often did, on the way his life had turned around in the last nine months. The joie de vivre that he had always felt in the alternate universe had accompanied him on his final return home, and as he gazed tenderly at Lois he knew why.

He had started work at the Planet in the autumn, as soon as the harvest was in, and to Perry White's loudly-expressed astonishment Lois had immediately asked to be partnered with him. Perry had been even more amazed when the partnership had flourished. Their personalities were different enough that they frequently struck sparks off each other, enlivening the newsroom to no small degree; but their differences were always resolved amicably in the end, and their styles complemented each other to produce a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Lois herself had had no difficulty getting a job at the Planet. She had started by cutting her hair, remarking to Clark that that way, any subtle differences her old acquaintances noticed would be put down to her appearance. Then she had simply walked into the Planet, marched into Perry's office, and announced that she'd been underground ever since discovering that Luthor had been behind the Prometheus sabotage, that she had been Clark's secret informant, and that she wanted her old job back. She had been installed at her counterpart's old desk before the day was out.

Clark knew how terribly hard those first days had been for her, working alone at the Planet with the ghost of her partner, not even able to talk to the people around her about it. He had visited her every evening, and held her close most evenings while she cried. He had worried at first that his resemblance to her Clark would make it worse for her, but she had shaken her head vehemently and clung to him when he had suggested leaving her, or bringing Martha to keep her company instead.

And as the weeks had passed, she had started to talk about her partner, reminiscing about the times they had spent together. She had asked Clark about his childhood and adolescence, slowly piecing together the puzzle of the man she had never really got to know, the man who had been both Clark Kent and Superman. She had cried over the way she had dismissed Kent in the early days as an incompetent hack, how she had ignored her attraction to him and fawned over Superman, and how she had turned her back on both of them to get engaged to Luthor.

And, in time, they had laughed together over lighter moments: Kent's ties, his pathetic excuses when he had needed to get away and be Superman, his penchant for getting delicious takeaways from secret locations which she now suspected were really in China, Italy and elsewhere around the world.

She had also masterminded the creation of Superman in this universe, remarking that she couldn't be so selfish as to deny the world the assistance of its superhero because of her private grief. Naturally, she had got the exclusive when Superman had made his debut appearance, coming to Metropolis's rescue when a group of renegade soldiers caused a total blackout of the city and foiling their plans to capture a military satellite. And she had planned their strategy for dealing with Bureau 39; using her knowledge of the organisation in her own world, they had located and destroyed its kryptonite stockpile before Jason Trask had ever heard of Superman, and as soon as he'd shown his face at the Planet he and his men had been arrested.

Finally, while spending Christmas in Smallville, Lois had asked whether the Kents would mind if she put up some sort of memorial for her Clark. After discussing it together, they had all agreed on a simple stone to be placed near the tree which housed the Fortress of Solitude. It was inscribed with Kent's initials, his nominal birth date and the date of his death, and the words, "Not of this world, but in the next, may you receive your just reward." The stonemason had helpfully pointed out what he thought was the mistake in the wording, and had been very puzzled when he was politely informed that there was no mistake.

This morning, Clark's birthday as it had been Kent's, the family had stood around the stone while Lois had read the eulogy she had written for her lost love. And on the way back to the farmhouse afterwards, her hand had stolen quietly into Clark's.

Jonathan emerged from the kitchen, bringing Clark back to the present. He quelled the urge to leap up and hold the brand-new swing door for his father, watching with amused pride as Jonathan manoeuvred the full tray onto the table without spilling a drop.

A sudden knock on the door startled them all, and Clark rose. He resisted the impulse to take off his paper party hat on the way to the door, reflecting that anyone who dropped by unannounced on a winter evening was likely to join in the celebration.

He flung open the door, and the friendly words of welcome died on his lips. The bottom had just dropped out of his world.

The visitor stood blinking in the sudden light from the doorway. After a moment he cleared his throat and offered a diffident, "Good evening, Mr Kent."

Clark belatedly remembered his manners. "Please come in," he said, standing aside. Try as he might, he couldn't summon up a smile. He turned to the rest of the household. "Lois, Mom, Dad... this is Mr Wells."

There was a deathly hush, then Martha swept forward, taking charge of the rest of the introductions. In short order they were all seated around the living room with coffee and cake, and Clark was numbly listening to Wells's explanation for his presence.

"I thought you would wish to know what occurred in the other universe when you left," he began.

Lois was nodding with keen interest, Clark saw with a sinking heart. He fixed his gaze on his plate.

"The flux facilitator of the dimension gateway overloaded, as you no doubt guessed," Wells began pompously, "and the device exploded, killing Mr Luthor. The explosion shattered the windows of the secret apartment, alerting the authorities to its presence, and Mr Luthor's records were discovered. Due to Mr Luthor's habit of secrecy, and also due to the mysterious disappearance of the Kryptonian globe before its secrets were discovered," and here Wells allowed a self-satisfied smirk to spread over his face, "the connection between Superman and Clark Kent was never discovered; so the senior Kents of that world are safe. They plan to leave the full story of their son's life to be published after their deaths.

"The details of Mr Luthor's villainy, however, and in particular his murder of Superman, are known. Superman's body was discovered in a secret laboratory where Mr Luthor's scientists were carrying out genetic experiments..." A small, choked sound escaped from Lois, and Clark reached out and covered her hand with his own. Her hand twisted under his and she clung to him gratefully.

"The laboratory was destroyed, and Superman's body was given a state funeral with full honours. There has been an enormous groundswell of public opinion against organised crime, and a memorial society called the Utopia Foundation has been instituted in Superman's honour. The future of that universe, which was very bleak before your intervention, Mr Kent, has been altered for the better."

Clark nodded curtly. "Thank you," he said.

Wells's gaze shifted to Lois, and he said the words Clark had been dreading. "But I also have another reason for coming. Ms Lane, you have been stranded inadvertently in a strange universe. If you wish, I can take you home."

"Home?" she echoed. She smiled, and the pain swelled in Clark's chest. He looked away.

There was a brief silence before Lois spoke again. "Lex took away everything I had," she said softly. "He murdered Clark. He blew up the Planet, killing Perry and Jimmy. He ended my career, he tried to destroy my independence and my self-respect, and he even tried to kill me.

"Here, I have my job back. I have Perry and Jimmy back. I even have a trust fund to run, administering the royalties from Daddy's patent." She looked at Martha and Jonathan, then glanced down at Clark's hand, still holding her own. "And I have people who care about me." She looked back at Wells. "This is my home."


A short while later, beaming mistily, Wells waved his final goodbye and stepped through his time window. He had promised to tell the Kents of the alternate universe that Lois was safe, and give them a copy of her eulogy for their son.

Clark turned to Lois, still smiling broadly. His cheeks were starting to hurt, but he hadn't been able to stop grinning since Lois had delivered her decision.

Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Martha tugging Jonathan into the kitchen.

"Thank you," he said softly to Lois. "That's the best birthday present anyone has ever given me." He knew that his heart was showing in his eyes, but for once he didn't feel he could hide it.

"Oh, you think it's for your benefit, do you, farmboy?" Lois said teasingly. She stepped closer and put her arms round him for a friendly hug; then she looked up into his face and her eyes went wide. "In case you hadn't figured it out yet, I'm not the self-sacrificing type," she continued, her voice growing husky.

Clark's arms closed about her, and she ran a hand up his chest and around his neck, pulling his head down. As his lips met hers for the first time, Clark revised his opinion.

This was the best birthday present anyone had ever given him.

... and they lived happily ever after.