By Debby Stark
Summary: When old enemies weaken Superman with kryptonite, capture Lois and threaten Metropolis with a bomb, Clark finds he must call upon the T'ai Chi teachings instilled in him years ago by a wise Chinese teacher.
[Author's Note: This story started out explaining the return of a popular character (and all recognizable characters and situations written about below are the property of their respective owners), but it became much more when I could work in another idea. The missing character will no doubt return in the way the series' writers intend, but I don't care. So there. Also, this story happens maybe two years before my "Dawning" series and quite possibly during the second season of L&C:TNAoS, upon which it is based. The story was worked on in Nov-Dec, 1994 and finished 1/1/95, and may explain any knowledge of chi that Clark Kent indicates in the 1/8/95 episode.]
The sage is guided by what he feels and not by what he sees.
The hard and strong will fall. The soft and weak will overcome. The truth often sounds paradoxical.
Clark Kent, supersuited, sat on the floor, soaking up the midafternoon sun. He was facing a floor-to-ceiling, modern-style, sealed-shut window in an empty hallway in a big abandoned building miles outside of Metropolis, a city largely unaware of the plan for its destruction. As he eased into a meditative state, appreciation for the warmth was about all that Clark could manage comfortably since he was otherwise overwhelmingly concerned with healing.
The day had started normally enough. He'd walked into the newsroom exactly on time, as usual, and also as usual, Perry had stepped out of his office, pointed, and crooked a "come here" finger. He hadn't shouted "Kent, in here now!" but used the patented point and shoot method, so it was something too important to allow dawdling for a few minutes at one's desk. Assignment time.
Lois was already in Perry's office, but she liked to be five minutes early to everything. She also barely glanced at him, still angry, and right to be. Clark sighed to himself. He still couldn't figure out how to explain that he'd had to check out the possible gang-related fire in that school building without also explaining that he'd checked it out as Superman. And then to top that faux pas, he'd had no choice really but to phone in the details, which went (with credit to him) right into Beth's ongoing series on Metropolis's decrepit public buildings. So that had left Lois waiting, expecting him to arrive in the cab ("No, Clark, we're not taking the bus") because her Jeep was in the shop, and he was always on time except he wasn't tonight, and they were late for the museum opening ceremonies. She'd missed her interview with that famous British artist who had pointedly snubbed her the rest of the evening despite how beautiful she looked. So she was PO'd now.
Maybe she'd get over it. By Christmas. Of next year.
"Well, people, there's been a bomb threat," Perry said as he sat down behind his desk.
Lois wasn't impressed. "I'm not impressed. There are a dozen bomb threats every day. I get them myself all the time."
"Yes, I know, you're personal friends with the bomb squad—"
"I wouldn't have put it *that* way…"
He looked at her, in no mood at the moment to talk about anything but the news he had. "Be that as it may, I think there's something to this threat, particularly since rumor says it's big and due to blow some time today. Clark, Yusef's been at police headquarters all night. I want you to get over there, let him bring you up to speed, and take over for him."
"Right, Chief." He didn't see how he could learn any more than their more experienced night-desk colleague had, but it beat staying around here being the recipient of polar cap-temperature glares.
"Lois. I've heard a another rumor, that the Jaymes Boys Gang is back in town, and you can fill in the rest."
Her mood brightened. "The bomb!"
"Exactly, and it's six months to the day they ran themselves out of town with Superman hot on their tails. Too bad they scattered and he didn't catch them all. You know what to do."
She rose. "I'm on it already!" and she was out the door, breezing past Clark as though he were no more than a particularly stout coat rack.
"Haven't you learned yet not to make that woman angry?"
Clark shrugged helplessly.
Perry tried not to smile. "Go on, she'll forgive you in time for Christmas, if your lucky. If you want it earlier, remember one word: chocolate."
"Chocolate. Yes, sir." So much came down to chocolate with Lois; maybe if he coated himself in it… nah.
Clark returned to his desk, read the two messages that had come for him overnight, and wadded them up because they were unimportant. Lois's in box, on the other hand, was typically brimming, and she was pointedly ignoring him as she flipped through her card index, obviously thinking about which of her countless sources to bug for information. Knowing there was no way he could avoid talking to her, he came right out with it: "If I find out anything, I'll have to call you…"
"I let my answering machine talk to crank callers, wrong numbers, and crooked salesmen."
This was too much, she couldn't let her anger affect their working relationship (which wasn't the same thing as his getting the fire scoop affecting their personal, just-almost-date-maybe- if-you-looked-at-things-that-way the night before). He leaned on his desk toward her so he could say quietly, "I already apologized, what more do you want?"
She looked at him for a long, icy moment, reminding him of her best argument why there was no reason he, Clark, should have been diverted by a simple electrical short-circuit fire the night before: somebody else could have covered it (like that despicable go-getter intern Amy Persinek) because it had occurred on the south side of town, he lived on the north side, and Lois's place was in the middle, near downtown. "Why don't you just do what Perry assigned you to do? We do have a paper to get out, remember *that?*"
Smarting, Clark backed down, picked up a notebook and left, walking the few blocks to police headquarters. By the time he arrived, he was feeling a little better about things. Strolling through the crowded streets of the big city, avoiding pick- pockets, Hare Krishnas and bus exhaust, seemed to do that sometimes.
Yusef didn't have much to tell Clark about the bomb threat, but he had heard the Jaymes Boys rumor, too, and approached his contacts about it, discretely. He felt he had received some confirmation and so it was probably worth Clark's keeping it in mind. "Henderson hasn't come in yet, but he was here until late last night and not talking to anyone who wasn't on the payroll. Question him if you can get near enough," the older reporter suggested. "I've noticed he doesn't mind talking to you when he stoops to talk to the media at all."
"And watch out for the coffee, it's strong enough to choke a horse."
Clark nodded, thanked Yusef and watched the man leave.
And so his vigil began. He talked to the occasional officer, social worker or clerk who stopped by because they recognized him. He interviewed people brought in on various offenses and awaiting booking. If they had lawyers with them, he didn't get much. He talked to people who came in with complaints, had to wait to make their cases, and were pleased to discover he was a reporter.
In his spare time he wondered what Lois was doing, if she was having any luck. If there was something to be found, she'd dig it up. And if it was the Jaymes Gang, she'd probably go after them herself. He wished she wouldn't do that, but she'd been at it a lot longer than he had and had survived, somehow, without him (or Superman).
The Jaymes Boys were so dangerous though. They loved banks, hated Superman, and blamed Metropolis for having far too many of the first to tempt them and one too many of the second to thwart them. He had stopped them at just about every turn six months ago, then those who had escaped him had melted away underground. He recalled Lois speculating that they must have found another city with banks and no superhero to defend them. Clark had nodded noncommittally. It wasn't his job to defend the banks but keep people safe from gun- (and now big-bomb-?) wielding villains. He wouldn't be happy until the entire gang was securely behind bars.
Inspector Henderson turned up at 11 and was immediately mobbed by a mix of his subordinates and several reporters, most of whom had shown up at the last minute, having at last also sniffed out the bomb rumor. Clark stood on the edge of the crowd, trying not to look pushy because he couldn't quite bring himself to do that kind of thing even if it was expected of him; he noticed such tactics rarely gained much real news anyhow. Besides, he could hear everything and see it, too, if need be, and, as he had expected, Henderson wasn't saying anything of interest about a bomb or anything else. Clark did, though, note the intensely monotonous man glancing at him and got the feeling that was important.
It panned out some half hour later, when the public area of police headquarters had quieted to its normal dull roar with under tones of an anticipated lunch hour. Clark, the lone reporter again, was retaken his chair and was trying to exude an air of interest in his surroundings, when Henderson's secretary approached. He stood up, and she said: "He wants to see you."
Ah, a break at last! She led him to Henderson's office, a bright, no-nonsense place with lots of bookshelves, a fingerprint-smudged computer that wasn't turned on, and family pictures (from one of his wife to that of a small child clutching an upside-down puppy) on the desk. Henderson was propped up behind the desk in an uncomfortable-looking chair.
"What are you doing here, Kent?"
"Following up some leads."
Well… Forget the bomb, go for the real story: "The Jaymes Boys Gang."
"I see. Good leads?"
"I hope so…" This isn't my favorite place to spend my mornings, Clark thought.
Henderson quietly sized up the reporter. Clark didn't know what to make of that, but he didn't flinch either.
"Keep following them," Henderson said in a few moments. "It's difficult to believe anyone else would buying so much… bomb material…"
"In order to blow up… what?" A bank most likely, but the Jaymes Gang could also have returned with a new game plan and an intense desire for some new and different consumer good…
"I figure your partner Lane is looking into that…"
"I don't know, I've been here all morning."
Clark almost expected Henderson, who had ears in mysterious places, to ask if Lois was mad at him again.
No, instead he said quietly, "I hope she's looking southeast of the city, out in the countryside, on county land…"
Oh… "I hope so, too…" because suddenly he had it: there was a big, abandoned plant complex out that way… "Like maybe in the direction of Lexcorp Chemicals…?"
"That's my guess. Unfortunately, it's well out of my jurisdiction and the state police aren't particularly interested. Perhaps Ms. Lane could use her connections with Superman and ask him to snoop around in the interest of public safety…"
Had he been alone, Clark realized he would have rolled his eyes heavenward; give me strength… "I'm sure she'd be glad to. And is there anything you can tell me about the bomb?"
"Nothing other than we'll probably find only one."
"I see." It did fit the Jaymes Boys Gang's MO in that regard, though they weren't widely known for their use of explosives.
"Good. On your way out, ask Kathy to bring me some black coffee, will you?"
*Lois*'s connections with Superman, Clark thought as he made his way out of the building: ha! After the way she's been treating me… even if she's right…
He looked around for and found an as-yet unvandalized phone booth outside Police Headquarters but hesitated. He wondered, should he call this information in or check it out himself first? Perry expected something from him, though; it was his job to get what he could and call it in. But if the Jaymes Gang was holed up in the abandoned chemical plant, with its manufacturing facilities and all, and if somehow Lois had found out and was even now heading in that direction…
Still, his duty to the *Planet* weighed heavy; he put in the call and gave the switchboard Lois's extension. If she was there, then she wasn't in any danger. Maybe it was a good thing he had decided to call first.
But he only got her voice mail box indicating she was away from her desk but not where. Maybe in the ladies room. He hoped. He left the number of the phone in the booth and insisted to the recorder that she call him and *right away*, no fooling around, this was *really serious*. He waited on a bench nearby for five long minutes, during which time the phone booth was not used at all, but it was to no avail. He called again, this time getting Laurie, Perry's overworked, rarely seen clerk, who informed him that the Chief was at lunch. She switched him to Mrs. O'Shea, the Assistant Editor, who said, yes, Lois was gone, she had rushed away over an hour earlier, and, no, she hadn't left any messages for him, what did he expect after last night?
Clark mumbled some humble acknowledgment of his own shortcomings and proceeded to give her his information on the Jaymes Gang, plus some possible breaking news on the Wells Towers series of high-rise thefts, and a poignant story about a purse snatcher caught by a squad of senior citizens out for blood. Mrs. O'Shea said "Good work," and then told him to stick with Henderson and milk him for all the Jaymes material he could get.
Yeah, right. "I'm going to get some lunch first and follow up another idea I have because I don't think it's worth pressing the Inspector for more right now. I'll call in if it works out," and he said goodbye and hung up before she could protest.
He actually was hungry, and there were plenty of fast-food outlets in the area. The closest offered the Big-Bite Wheeler- Dealer Meal. As he sat in the restaurant eating it, ignoring its tiny size and cardboard texture, he planned his next move. Just as there wasn't much to the cheap meal, there wasn't much to plan: check out the chemical plant and look for signs of recent or current occupation. He thought that was most likely to be "recent" only, since the bomb was probably already in place, but there could be clues about how it had been made and moved, and maybe even its destination as well as where the Gang was now. The other part of the plan was to see if Lois was there. If the place was empty and she wasn't there, he could probably scoop her if she hadn't been and gone already. If it wasn't empty and she was there, either he'd either keep her out of or remove her from danger because she'd find it if anyone could.
He finished the Meal, dumped the paper trash in a receptacle, noted that as usual there was a men's room in the back, and he strolled toward it in the perfectly natural and ignorable manner he had perfected over recent years. He was looking for fast access to the alley in back, though, and the restaurant had your typical, unlocked, out-of-sight security door. He eased through it unnoticed.
The alley was empty and traffic on either end was light for a few seconds, more than enough time to change into his suit, fold his regular clothing away neatly, and jump into the air. He sped skyward before anyone could see and in any way associate him with the business he had just left. When there was no more crime to fight nor natural disasters to avert, maybe then he'd get into commercial product endorsements, but that wouldn't be any time soon.
Lexcorp Chemicals was big, as big as the big money that had been poured grandly into it, but not as big as the lawyers and liquidators who had vultured in upon Luthor's suicide. Litigation over the vast estate was still tied up in court and promised to be for years to come. Hundreds had lost their jobs here and elsewhere.
But this place was no longer high on environmental groups' hit lists, and birds and wildlife were returning to the miles of wooded country that surrounded the complex. Everything balances out, Clark thought as he hovered over the complex at about a thousand feet.
This was indeed a good place for the Jaymes Gang to hide out; he wondered why he hadn't thought of it himself earlier, like five minutes after Perry had given him the assignment. He wouldn't have wasted so much time at police headquarters.
Where to start. First things first: he looked around for Lois's Jeep. She'd have retrieved it from the shop already, what with it needing only a tune up and them not being able to sell her new tires or a paint job. It was a nondescript investigator's gray she liked because it could be easily hidden if she half tried. She wasn't one for half-way measures, though, and so he couldn't discount the possibility of her presence just because the Jeep didn't pop right into his telescopic/x-ray view.
Actually, when he thought about it, there were a lot of things he couldn't discount when he surveyed the complex as a whole. It looked closed up, fenced off and abandoned, but who knew what was really going on? Were there people hidden down there watching for intruders and him in particular? He couldn't hope for a 100-percent undetected approach, but he didn't have to throw subtlety to the wind either, so he decided to take his time in this search.
The easy problem to solve then was where to start looking for bomb-making activities. The lab portions of the complex, probably, but his x-ray vision revealed nothing. The expensive equipment must have been the first stripped out by the creditors. Ditto the manufacturing and production areas, though there was a large amount of packing debris, boxes, planks, that kind of thing lying about in one large chamber, so perhaps the bomb had been made there and moved out. Promising. The store houses, once full of supplies, and parking garages housing a fleet of vehicles were empty, and the dust there looked untouched. That left the administration building, which, on the face of it, looked as abandoned as everywhere else.
Except for the moving van and the smaller utility vehicle parked in a large, sheltered loading bay at the back of the building. That was interesting. There were security cameras, too, but he avoided the one that appeared active and pointed in the right general direction as he eased down into that area, as quiet as a cat actually trying to be quiet, and floated over to touch the hood of the moving van and grill of the smaller vehicle. Still warm.
He thought, I wonder where the party is…
The place was painted all over with probably illegal lead- based paint; the contractors had no doubt gotten away with it by either not mentioning it or pointing out that there wouldn't be any children around to eat the cheap stuff if it flaked off. Clark might have added that it made his preferred form of spying difficult, but it didn't slow down his sensitive hearing one bit.
There were adult male voices in the distance, deeper into the building, but before he could kick back to listen and decide if they were talking about something worth dealing with, he heard the approach of another vehicle. He rose into the shadows, prepared to watch.
It was another utility van and it contained four burly men, none of whom he recognized. They barreled out, went deeper into the building through what was probably the receiving office, and returned carrying taped-closed and labeled cardboard boxes that they began loading into the moving van.
Clark wondered if he should stop them and what excuse he had to do so. Their chatter was boring, but boring was no crime, even though it was about the latest Metropolis Megastars baseball team's loss (and what if Lois had wanted to go to that game instead of accepting Perry's museum tickets? Maybe, just maybe, he wouldn't have been so easily diverted by the fire…). The boxes appeared to be full of legal documents. No sign of money (real or counterfeit), gold bullion, explosives, pirated videos, illegally copied software, or anything else that Clark in his quasilegal capacity could act on with justification. He couldn't even be sure that these people weren't here totally legally because he hadn't been following the convoluted and complicated war Luthor's lawyers were waging in the courts and had no idea who owned this building now. Why everyone just didn't agree to turn the assets over to some needy charity Clark didn't know, unless of course the lawyers on all sides were getting paid by the hour from the various entities that made up Luthor's estate and its claimants.
Clark finally decided that there was nothing particularly suspicious to be found here and that he might as well head up to the roof and start looking down through it for bomb makers and/or Jaymes Gang members. The four men left the area again, probably for more boxes, and he prepared to slip away at superspeed, Clark pulled up as he just caught sight of Lois easing open one of the back doors of the small van originally here. She tiptoed across the floor to hide behind a stack of dusty boxes on the eastern wall of the loading bay. Had she come in driving the vehicle, hitched a ride, or just hidden there when the need arose? It hardly mattered. Had she seen him? Maybe not. He had been exceedingly quiet (as she had been, hiding there) and she hadn't looked up, let alone looked up toward him, as she'd traipsed across the open space, nor was she doing so now.
Her timing was impeccable, he had to say that for her. The four burly men and a fifth, who he recognized as a Jaymes Gang member of modest rank (i.e., only distantly related by blood), returned to the loading bay. The Gang member got into the van Lois had vacated and opened the driver's-side window to give some last-minute orders to the four remaining men. They were to be extra vigilant today in watching for intruders; Jeff Jaymes was getting antsy what with the plan drawing to a close, and his kind of antsy was usually worth heeding. He received promises to the effect that the four would redouble their efforts, and the Gang member pulled out and drove away.
Does this mean they know I'm in the area but not right here? Clark wondered. Surely they already would have been shooting at him or something equally useless already. Or did they suspect law enforcement officials were on to them? It was hard to believe that Henderson didn't have any influence over state agencies, though it was easy to believe that the agencies were jumping through hoops they'd made (and maybe tripping on purpose now and then) trying to get legal authority to approach the place…
Clark was glad he hadn't studied law past what an investigative journalist needed to know about it.
One of the four remaining men below declared it was time for the hourly walking inspection, a search for, seizure and throttling of trespassers as it were. He pulled a cellular phone off his belt and confirmed this with two other men, meaning there could be two other such teams in the area. That was interesting.
For poor Lois it was terrifying. Clark could easily imagine the worried look on her face as she tried to figure out what to do because her hiding place would probably be one of the first the guards would check.
Unless they were diverted. He looked off toward the opposite side of the big, long loading bay, saw unused lamps hanging down into that area from the ceiling, and melted the heavy cord holding one of them. It fell with a crash. A silent, well aimed puff next slammed shut a door further on. The guards rushed away in that direction. Clark smiled, shook his head and looked back at Lois, prepared to zip down, scoop her up, and get her the hell out of there.
But she was gone. Well, if the guards could be fooled by the diversion, she had every right to take advantage of it. Why she didn't stop and think a moment first, though, was beyond him. A little bit of forethought would have given him time to act on her behalf, and she would have bitten her tongue before criticizing his efforts. There was something about the suit that mellowed her out.
Though because of the lead-based paint it was difficult to see through the wall to the outside, he couldn't find any evidence of her having streaked off in that direction. Maybe she was fearful of being out in the open. She had worn sensible flat walking shoes but her brown skirt and fashionable tan blouse were not made for traversing the country side and avoiding barely covered swamps of waste chemicals. Too, it was unlikely she would have abandoned the building having gotten only this far. She wasn't a quitter.
So she had probably headed for the offices through which the men had been carrying the boxes of papers. They'd even left the doors open.
Now here was a problem. Should he follow her? Yes: there was just enough of the scent of danger about all this that told him if she were caught she would not be locked in a linen closet until the local sheriff could dispatch someone to arrest her for trespassing. If it hadn't been for that probability, Clark would have left her to her own devices and gone back to his scan- through-the-roof plan.
He didn't think it a great idea to ease down there and walk the halls looking for her while wearing the supersuit ("Yoo-hoo, Lois, where are you…?"). That was just a wee bit too conspicuous, and as paranoid as the Jaymes Boys were about him, all hell could break loose and naturally Lois would be in the big middle.
Option 3A was to turn up as Clark, which was limiting in its way but also opened up new possibilities. She'd fry him though for trying to scoop her on this story when he was supposed to be cloistered at police headquarters.
Option 3B was to grab someone of the appropriate size, knock him out and borrow his clothing. That generally worked on TV and was not to be sneezed at. Whether he'd reveal himself to her, if he had to, as Clark or Superman could be dealt with as events unfolded.
Until, of course, the heroine's angry then stifled scream was heard and planning and a little bit of forethought had to be hurled aside.
Superman was through the receiving office and into the building proper and a tastefully decorated and carpeted hallway that led who cared where, in about half a second. At the east end of the hall, some 20 paces away, two new burly men were holding Lois, who was struggling mightily and not all that pleased to see him simply standing there for two seconds straight. It seemed all she could do to keep from yelling at him to for god's sake hurry up and save her! Not that it wasn't on his mind, but more important was the sudden appearance of Juan Jaymes, Jeff Jayme's twin brother, who stepped out from a door to Lois's immediate right. She tried to kick at him but missed and fell back with a yelp. The man didn't appear to notice.
With the earlier reference to Jeff and the sudden appearance of Juan, that left, hmm, probably Jeremy and Joseph. Jason was in the state penitentiary serving time for the last attempted bank robbery, and Jerard was a well respected if somewhat off-beat priest doing missionary work in Utah. When he had time to chat with Lois, Clark told himself, he'd ask her (as Clark wanting to know, or, if she still wasn't talking to him, say Superman needed the information) if she had confirmed the whereabouts of the two still-at-large James Boys and any others of the extended clan.
But for now, there was this sandy-haired, medium-built, actually rather nondescript fellow approaching him, holding a can of… hair spray? No, not quite… something nagged him about it but he couldn't place it. It wasn't about Juan Jayme's vanity, no, the man's problems were deeper than that.
Clark sighed. Why did this look almost too easy? "Mr. Jaymes, I believe you jumped bail and have a date in court."
"No, that was Jacques," Juan snarled. "They didn't give me bail, I'm incorrigibly dangerous. I *broke* out of jail — and it was easy!"
Oh, yes, now he remembered. Henderson had been angry enough to have almost given him a three-minute interview about it.
"That wasn't a nice thing to do. The people of Metropolis went to a lot of trouble to give you a warm, comfortable cell…"
"People nothing, Superguy — it was you! I'm claustrophobic, so breaking out was a *great* idea at the time, *and* it worked because the Metropolis police force is totally incompetent! Now let *me* tell *you* something, Boringman," and his eyes glinted incorrigibly. "Make one false move and that woman dies and *you* won't feel very good, either!"
"That sounds false to me!" Juan cried and brought up, aimed, and fired off the lead-lined aerosol can.
A green-tinted string zipped out of it and stuck on Clark's left biceps and began to burn. He immediately recognized it for what it was, Kryptonite-impregnated plastic, and tried to jump back, shake off it and more, and make a beeline for the office door.
At that moment Jay Jaymes appeared in another nearby doorway behind him and Jerry Jaymes stepped through the opposite door in the office through which Clark had planned to escape. They were armed with similar string containers and using them, and they were laughing even more maniacally than Juan.
Lois was cursing at the top of her lungs, obviously unhurt and as yet unkilled, so he put her problem aside for the moment and concentrated on his own alarming plight. He couldn't avoid the string, it was everywhere (it truly was a clever idea, he thought later, much later), and it was sapping his strength and confusing his thought processes at a distressing rate. What was worse, he realized he had been backed into a corner of the office and there was no way out.
Juan stopped shooting, pulled out a small cellular phone, and in what seemed to Clark like no time a dozen more men were converging on the scene. "Bring him to my office. Don't let him give you any lip — but don't kill him, either."
That was when they thrashed him to within the proverbial inch.
He came to as he was being tied into a chair, something simple and metal without arms. He was in incredible pain (well, again thinking about it later, any pain would have been incredible, as he'd had so little experience with it in the last ten years or so). He told himself to never again listen to nagging little voices that coaxed him out of comfortable darkness and said unbelievably stupid things like "Hey, the Kryptonite hasn't sucked out *all* your invulnerability yet," or do-gooder little voices that added blithely, "there're still plenty of things you're perfectly capable of doing…"
The Kryptonite string had been removed for the most part but then twisted into ropes which could bind as effectively as chains did a human, and it was strong enough to hold him up and it burned when pressed against. Which, he supposed, was a "good" thing because he needed the incentive to sit up, which would allow him to see more, even if he didn't want to do that, either. He also realized dully that he didn't want to be conscious or even maybe alive. Among other things his back and ribs hurt with every breath (and he had to breathe, or gasp; Kryptonite seemed to force the need to), his left arm was shot through with pain, and something was happening to his left eye. Maybe it was swelling shut. Well, there wasn't much that much to see anyhow.
He certainly had no desire to look at Juan Jaymes.
"Awake, Stupidman? Or maybe Normalman now, hmmm?"
"Weakman," someone off behind him said. "Jelloman." Others laughed.
A woman's voice — Lois? — said, "You—"
"Gag that harpy!"
She got a few more useless words out before the gag was in place. While Clark was happy she was alive, he had to admit he was almost as happy she was forced into thoughtful silence, but if they had hurt her…
Jeff Jaymes came into sight and asked, "Planning something?"
Clark considered his course of action. It didn't take long: there was no course. At least not while he was the center of attention and he had the sinking feeling that he could be just that for some time to come, and the longer that was the worse things would become…
Then, not waiting for his comment on the question, they gagged him, too. He was forced to sit up straighter and almost fainted with the pain. When the room swam back into view, one of the Jaymes Boys, he didn't care which one, was explaining all the TV monitors that he was slowly aware were surrounding him. They showed scenes of Metropolis. Some Jaymes or another said something about broadcasting video cameras being set up all over the city and explained as publicity stunts. The TVs flashed picture after picture madly, except for one off up to the right, which seemed to be stuck on a view of City Center and, not surprisingly when he had time to think about it, the Bank of Metropolis, the Jaymes Boys' last stand in the city before being routed six months earlier.
They started talking about a bomb and Clark made a Herculean effort just to listen through the apathy the Kryptonite seemed to be encouraging. "You have a front-row seat," they were telling him gleefully. "You get to see two sunsets over Metropolis! What a bloody, lucky guy you are! We'll be miles away, owners of all that's left — admittedly not *much* — but you, *you* get to see it all go boom! And then, if this green stuff hasn't finished you off, this bomb," and Jerry Jaymes patted what Juan Jaymes pointed out to Clark's left, just barely visible to him, a black box with ominous-looking red and yellow blinking lights on its face and wires poking out of it, "will do you in. I'm sure you'll look great in angel wings. Have a good day," and several of the Jaymes's patted his cheeks, and maybe Lois's (definitely doing nothing more to her or he would have heard about it), and left.
Just like that.
Clark felt vaguely like he had barely survived an onslaught by band of evil twins of Harpo Marx…
There were sounds of movement behind him, outside this room full of nearly inaudible monitors, but in a few minutes those died away.
Leaving them alone in the room, in the building, helpless.
Lois tried to say something that sounded rather like "Superman?" through marshmallows.
He declined to waste any of what little energy he had left on even acknowledging her. While he had no idea what else he could do to set things right, engaging in a gagged and painful conversation with her, even if she was… well, maybe even though she was the woman he loved, was not an option. Instead he decided to concentrate on freeing his wrists, surely the first best step. Except of course his left arm was numb for some scary reason, his left shoulder shot through with conscious-threatening pain with every move, and his right hand, while working, felt weak and generally useless. And at this rate it wouldn't get any better.
He wondered about the chances Perry had ordered Lois to take Jimmy along with her and if the photographer might be hiding somewhere, awaiting the right time to jump out, snap a few pictures, explain what he was going to do, and maybe get around to saving them.
Chances were much better that she hadn't informed Perry where she was going or simply lied about it and, if forced to take Jimmy, she had ditched him at the first possible moment.
She must also have been tied into a simple, serviceable chair like his, something she could wiggle around in and try to rock and walk, aiming to approach him and work it so they could untie each other like on TV. Good idea. It often worked and that was what it sounded like. It also sounded, after a minute or so of furious activity on her part, that she had fallen over. She was cursing again, muffled, and maybe crying, too. He turned his head to the right a bit (so *this* was what a stiff neck feels like…) and could see that, yes, she had fallen on her side, her back to him. He could see that the legs of the chair were horizontal and that most likely it would be impossible for her to right herself again because her ankles seemed to be tied to the legs of the chair.
There was some tiny bit of good in all that. He wasn't particularly anxious for her to see him in such a state of disarray, even if it seemed that she was their only hope. In a few moments she stopped muttering. Maybe the fall had actually surprised her into another thoughtful silence.
Maybe… she was thinking up a better plan.
Any plan would do at the moment.
Even just a little one.
Unless she had hurt herself in the fall, like getting a con- cussion or something worse, and it was now taking effect, in which case… he could do nothing. He closed his eyes.
I don't want to die here…
I don't want to *die*…
And *really* I don't want *you* to die…
Tears threatened warmly.
"Oh, my, oh, my, oh, my, oh, my…"
Clark discovered that frowning, which he had managed not to do much of up to this point, stung and hurt a lot. The voice was familiar, but it wasn't that of any of the shameless multitude of Jaymeses who had assaulted him and roughed up Lois.
It was that of a thin, Caucasian dressed in black, which included (and Clark could just see this though it was quite a strain) a black winter-style cap pulled low over his ears.
Then he saw the gun because the man in black pointed it at his nose. He closed his eyes again. He didn't want to die quickly any more than he wanted to die slowly, though "quickly" did have its attractions at the moment.
"You may not believe this, but I'm going to untie and ungag you," the man in black said. "You will believe me when I warn you that if you give me any trouble, I'll kill her."
If I had the strength, Clark thought, I could really get irritated about self-aggrandizing expository speakers always threatening Lois…
She moaned. Was that a reaction to the threat aimed at him about her, or was she waking up or loosing conscious or what?
"I don't like the thought of having to do that because she's such a lovely woman," the man continued, "but I like trouble even less. Do you understand?"
No, actually, no. He opened his eyes, the right one more easily, and tried to nod. He would comply, he had no choice.
"I'll take that as a yes, so I'll give her something…"
He disappeared off behind Clark. Then Clark heard Lois struggle again in a muffled manner and slowly become quiet. His heart ached; it was surely one of the most onerous series of little sounds he'd ever heard…
"There, now, she's out of the way. Oh, wait a minute, I almost forgot about this little bomb over here, too…" The man disappeared behind a row of TV monitors, and, in a moment, the lights on the black box went out. The man returned. "A plug-in bomb, can you believe that? It probably makes all kinds of sounds and rattles and shakes and a little flag pops out and says `boom!' No doubt they wanted to give you a heart attack, hmm? In your present condition it wouldn't even take that much, would it? Ha, ha, ha!"
Clark thought: I'm surrounded by raving loonies.
But at least they make me look like a normal, regular guy…
The man in black removed the gag first. After licking his lips (so that's what his blood tasted like… one more thing he could have lived happily without experiencing) Clark, trying to sound like his alter ego, said, "I wondered when… you'd turn up again."
"Wonder no more. Personally, I was surprised they didn't put my likeness on milk cartons…"
And curdle it and frighten small children?
"But don't expect to see me interviewed on the morning news…" He untied Clark's ankles, a wise move since Clark needed some way to steady himself. As Luthor bent over, his cap nearly fell off, as though it had nothing to cling to. Clark thought he caught a glimpse of something he couldn't believe: bare skin? Had something happened to the man's full head of luxurious hair? But Lex moved quickly to recover and reposition the cap and Clark had no x-ray vision ability on line at the moment to reconfirm the bizarre discovery.
Then Clark noticed that his unexpected rescuer was dropping the Kryptonite string-rope into a black-painted lunch pail. Luthor continued as though all were normal and under control "…or by Mssrs Donahue or Koppel. You'll just feel my influence beginning to reassert itself in old, familiar ways — to you, anyway, if you can get your act together now…" he removed the belt of Kryptonite string, "and save the city."
"You should have… had better control of your people… You wouldn't have to worry about that," or rescue me, which must be galling…
"True, it's hard to find good help these days, particularly when I have trouble interviewing them directly… My, that is quite a shiner and looking worse by the moment. First black eye for you, I'll bet."
Clark didn't comment, though it was an accurate observation and it explained a lot. When the Kryptonite around his neck was gone and into the pail, he took a deeper breath and said, "The big bomb's in the new statue… in front of the bank then," for that was the only good reason that one monitor was "stuck."
"You do have some thinking capacity left, I wondered about that. Actually, I believe the bomb *is* the new statue — a fake exchanged for the real before it was even mounted, I assume, and that may include its base and perhaps the fountain, too, all in front of the Bank of Metropolis, which still holds a considerable amount of my on-the-books funds. I don't think the fools realized it, and even you'll never figure out my bookkeeping and aliases. I can arrange a run on the bank and ruin a good number of financial institutions with little harm to myself if I detect your meddling. So don't try. Just get better," he untied Superman's hands last, "and go get rid of that bomb — Hey! Don't fall over!" Fortunately, Luthor grabbed him by his right arm or he might have lost consciousness again.
"…not supposed to do this, you're supposed to recover quickly," he heard. It made absolutely no sense. He didn't care. He was feeling cold, another new sensation: a real, deep cold, not just an air temperature to be noted with mild if any interest. He was colder even than he remembered feeling when he was a little kid and it was winter and he'd run outside after bath time to play in the snow and Mom would run after him with his clothes and a coat and Dad would say "Oh, let him go"…
Wait a minute. Kryptonite-induced meandering was trying to obscure something important, a sudden big desire. "Sunlight," he gasped. That was it, he could feel that need right through to his core.
"I need sunlight."
"This is no time to worry about getting a tan—"
Clark tried to right-hand grab Luthor by the lapel but there weren't any and the most he could take hold of was a bit of sweater material somewhere about the man's left shoulder. He looked as seriously mean as he could manage and said as firmly as possible: "Sunlight!"
"All right, don't get yourself all upset. There are some big windows in the hall outside and they're facing southwest…"
They staggered together in what Clark could only hope was the right direction until he realized that Luthor had settled him down in front of a big window, in warm, luscious sunshine. He leaned forward and cradled his left arm after rubbing his good eye (hardly daring touch the other) and noticing with some alarm that his hand, which shook, came away bloody. He couldn't afford to think about that now and fled to find something better, like the position overall making him feel steadier, mostly, except for his stomach now. Was this nausea?
"Well, there you are."
Clark felt something; Luthor was draping his cape over him. Had it been pulled off in the fighting? Did it matter? No Jaymes had thought to take it as a souvenir, that was something good.
"You've got to get better, I can't rule the city if there's no city to rule."
At least Lex was goal oriented. "The bomb…"
"It wasn't my idea. Actually, I'd also like you to capture those fellows. I gave them an inch of a chance and they took ten miles of my precious time, and, *believe me*, I know how precious time is now." Lex was probably nodding knowing. "They weren't to branch out on their own until I allowed it and I didn't, so they've outlived their usefulness. They can't be traced to me, by the way, they have no idea I hired them. Hmm, that's probably why they didn't realize they should stay away from my bank…" The man no doubt struck a thoughtful pose. "Well, regardless, they must go and you're the one to take them out. And for your information, I'm sure they used up their entire small supply of Kryptonite in their clever little stunt, too. I know this because I passed it along to them, but I didn't tell them anything about it other than how to dilute it and to be prepared to use it against you. I don't share my power with just *any* one, as you very well know. I wonder which one of them was smart enough to figure out how to dilute it and put it into Superstring — Ha!" He paused, chortling to himself. "And this…" the sounds of writing, "is where they hang out. See how generous I can be? They claim it's their mother's house."
Clark felt Luthor tuck something into his belt and flinched away until it hurt more than not moving, which wasn't far. But the something was only a piece of paper. Great. "Thanks, I'll… get on it right away…"
"Good. Now, how long is this going to take? I mean, for you to be…" distastefully: "super again?"
Was Lex planning on sticking around to watch? Oh, no; no, no, no… The last thing he'd want to hear was ambiguity. It could drive a decisive man nutty. Nuttier. "I don't know."
Right on: "This is absurd! You can't *not know*! You only have a few hours until sunset!"
"It's at 5:49."
"Well, there, then, three hours. And the bomb will go off when they say it will, just after sunset, I don't doubt that at all. They expected you to come, of course, because you do stupid things like that, and Lois, too, for that matter — is that tedious Kent the only friend you have who has any brains? I don't see *him* sneaking around here making a fool of himself. I should have hired him away from the *Planet* when I had my chance, bought him and gotten him under control so he wouldn't have helped wreck my wedding, though actually… You know, I think my overwhelming competition scared him off and he gave up… Hmm. Well, it looks like you're the only one who doesn't share some blame for the unfortunate out come of all that because right up to the last minute I knew where you were…" Luthor probably shrugged imperturbably. "Oh, well, these things happen. But, no, you see, these fellows knew they'd capture you and make you suffer. They didn't stop to think how *anyone else*," read Lex Luthor exclusively, Clark thought, "would suffer… So you have to get better — *I* can't do everything!"
"You can call the police."
"Good god, the Kryptonite *has* gotten to your brain."
"Then go away."
"I am, and I'll come back when it's safe — *if* it's safe. You'll thank me one day."
"Thank you for leaving." No, wait. "Lex, wait, one more thing, I have," he took a careful breath, "just one little question…" how to ask the man if he was bald now?
"Oh, no you don't. You're so transparent. Well, I'll tell you: it's growing back, even now. It's something to do with the process that kept me alive, and when that's all finished, I'll be complete."
"If you say so…"
"I *know* so! Remember, I have Kryptonite — *and* I won't untie Lois, who's still napping, so she won't nag you."
Maybe he was reforming, in his own warped way. "Thanks."
"And I'll give you some advice: Don't ever get entangled with a woman who has control over your very life."
Gretchen Kelly? So she had succeeded, brought Luthor back to life? What a woman…
No matter. "I'll treasure that…"
"I'm trying. Go. Away."
Luthor left, and not a moment too soon.
Clark squinted out the window before him. He saw a swath of unkempt lawn, green due to recent early spring rains. Beyond that there was rolling forest land and then, miles and miles distant, was skyline of Metropolis. Great, he thought; I've traded seeing it on TV monitors for the real thing.
He noted that there were no walls outside the building to his left, in the southeast, so he'd have this terrific sunshine (clouds permitting) until sunset, which could actually occur over the city. But he didn't want to be sitting here watching it. Lex was right, the Jaymes Gang rarely failed to follow through on their threats or try to, and this was too big a threat for them not to make every effort to see it made real. The boxes of papers must have been deeds, liens, legal mumbo-jumbo. Counterfeit maybe, probably, but enough to claim what was claimable of the smoking real estate they expected Metropolis to become and probably put in for insurance on the rest. More court tie ups.
Realizing all that was classic 20-20 hindsight, he knew, and he could do nothing about it now.
He wasn't sure what to do to encourage his body's healing process. This wasn't like Luthor's ex shooting him with the Kryptonite bullet. That had come and gone, thanks to Lois (and he felt a small pang of guilt for her still being tied up in the monitor room, but he couldn't see how he could walk that far to untie her and revive her, or even turn around to wave). While that bit of Kryptonite had had some passing residual effect, making it difficult to race after the outlaw women and also have to stop the chemical tanker they were trying to escape in, it had cleared up within a half hour or so.
This was like having been trapped in Lex's cage — or even more like his first exposure when he'd lost everything and it had taken time to build back up to even being merely human. If he hadn't been with his folks he'd have been totally lost… Fighting with Trask, this was like that, but this time it was worse and he didn't have the anger driving him.
There was definitely a time factor in this. He had come to hope that his reaction to Kryptonite was like an allergic one, that his body would eventually become accustomed to it and be able to shake off the effects like an inoculated human could shake off, say, polio or measles or… no, not a cold.
But, of course, he had avoided every chance of hardening himself to the green bit of the backwaters of home. Too, there was so little of it. Bits and pieces of it seemed to get discovered and stored away and stolen and passed from hand to hand until he came across it and managed to get rid of it. Not the most efficient or desirable of ways to deal with a deadly poison. Now Lex had at least a lunch pail full, but he also had a modicum of intelligence and certain priorities that could be depended upon to guide him. Lex was not one to waste time or fail to see an opportunity. He needed Superman alive; ergo, he, Clark was no longer knocking at death's door.
It still felt like it though.
He needed to heal and fast. But there was no obvious method.
What he could do, though, he decided at last, was get out of his own way. Take a mental minivacation.
After his freshman year as university student, he had decided to spend his second summer in a row abroad, this time exploring a bit of Asia. India had been first, and he'd walked, bussed, trained, and even river boated his way across the country, from Calcutta to Goa to Bombay, then up to Delhi. He'd then headed east toward China, stopping over in Kathmandu, Nepal with a side trip to Mt. Everest for a good, long look despite it being the rainy season and no tourists were allowed to do any climbing. Along the way he'd met countless fascinating people, ate marvelous food, become conversant in several languages, saved some tigers, been charmed by numerous working elephants who had been curious about him, too, and learned something about meditation. Actually, he had learned he was quite good at it. He could sit quietly, become one with his surroundings and slowly shut them all out. Which, once he thought about it, was boring because he hadn't come to Asia to not see it. And, unlike the tourists chasing gurus to learn to deep meditate and fly, he had that part down pat, too, now, with all the practice.
He hadn't made much time to mediate since then, in that particular fashion, but he hadn't forgotten the feeling. And, as he looked casually back over it (in minivacation mode already), he recalled that in China he had learned an even better form of meditation, a moving kind that he could, right now, incorporate into a sitting meditation by simply thinking it through.
So he began to think about T'ai Chi Ch'uan. As though preparing to do the form, in mind he stood quietly…Step out, feet shoulders' width apart. Raise hands… grasp sparrow's tail… His back began to relax and lengthen, and the sunlight found more openings to penetrate as the frantic defenses he had thrown up earlier began to melt away…
Moreover, some part of his relaxing mind floated back in time and he recalled the circumstances of his having learned the ancient martial art.
While in Kathmandu and after exploring what he could of Mt. Everest, he had met two lesbian travelers, Marty and Lisa, who told him all about the yearly summer festivities in that city but that they were a good six weeks away yet. In the meantime the women planned to head into China and find a legendary Shaolin temple reputed to be in Sichuan Province, somewhere near the Wolong Natural Reserve where some of the last of the pandas were hanging out unmolested. If there was a temple full of martial arts-practicing priests, they planned to corner one and learn more. Clark found all that fascinating, particularly the panda part. They found him amusing and charming, in the way big sisters might, and challenged him to accompany them. He took them up on it because he was tired of making his way alone. They were nonthreatening traveling companions (unlike others made no moves on his body), and he in turn felt protective of them. Sisters, yes: older, experienced, tough and tender siblings and full of wild jokes he remembered even now.
It took ten days of rough traveling overland using a variety of modes of transportation before they trained into Puxiong and walked through it to an even smaller, nameless suburb village in the mountains somewhat higher than the subtropical valley regions and almost into a cool, comfortable alpine zone. This, the women thought, was the village that serviced the Shaolin temple. And if it wasn't, if there was no temple, so what? They'd had a great time getting here and it was a restful place to stay a few days. The valleys below had been heavily populated for millennia, but up here, where farming was harder, the population was small and quiet and the scenery was wonderful. As a good omen, too, even as back woods as this place was, they found a decrepit but adequate hostel, indicating that tourists weren't exactly unwelcome. They made it their headquarters. Clark saw little of the two after that because, as they knew, he was uninterested in learning martial arts. Unbeknownst to them, he had used his own innate abilities a few times (to discourage snakes, to foresee and casually suggest a way around bad terrain, to translate difficult dialects). They in turn at various times had scared off at least a dozen bandits who had taken them for easy targets, negotiated with a family that worked with elephants for a ride that saved miles of walking, and Marty seemed to have a gene that let her know all the train schedules without looking at a guidebook.
So it was he found himself in what passed for the only bar in town, drinking what passed for soda pop. It was fizzy and fruity tasting, and he'd seen other people drinking the same brand and not falling over dead. Not that he expected anymore that anything could ever affect him that way, but it might look odd if he didn't fall over dead if that was the general result of drinking the greenish liquid. But it tasted okay.
It was late in the day and he was beginning to think he had seen all there was for a tourist to see in an area that really didn't cater to them, despite the pandas, the hostel and the temple. Farm lands right up to the Preserve, the Preserve itself (into which he was only allowed to go a short distance as not to disturb the pandas but he understood that), the beautiful, misty mountains: all charming and worth a dozen pictures and several pages in his next letter home to his folks, which he would deliver himself later that week. There, a quick hug for whoever was home, fix any problems (like program tweaking for the new computer or moving furniture) and back in a few minutes, almost fast enough to singe his clothing.
Yet, even though he enjoyed the bucolic countryside of this exotic foreign land, he couldn't see any reason for staying here much longer. At the moment his plan was to pack up, walk back east to Puxiong and catch the train headed north toward Beijing about a weeks' distance away straight through. Unless he decided to try getting into Tibet again because the first train to arrive was going that way. If he headed north, then a stop-over in the mountains of Guilin was definitely on the itinerary: he wanted to see the sights and his father would be interested in what Clark could find out about the thousands of years of farming that had gone on in the area. After Beijing he'd have time to cross over to Tokyo or down to Borneo. It was mostly a vague plan, but that was the way he had come to like to travel. He could change plans as the whim hit.
He was unaware that a whim was about to hit him head on as he noticed the old man and old woman sitting across the room. They had been there when he had entered maybe 20 minutes earlier and requested the soda. The lighting in the bar was poor, much of it coming from the open door through which streamed the weak, rainy- season sun. So they had in effect been hiding in the shadows, and he had paid little attention to them until he became aware that they were watching him. The old man, really old, at least 50, took a pull on a bottle of beer and set it down still nearly full. The old woman, a lump of probably the same age as the man and dressed in typical black blouse and trousers, was sitting at his side; she had nothing in front of her.
Was she not thirsty or was it not expected of her? Clark was long past being surprised at the variety of ways people interacted with each other. His mother would never have sat meekly at his father side (though the old woman didn't exactly look meek); his father would have been alarmed and worried if she had. But in foreign countries things were done differently and that was what he had come to learn about. It never occurred to him to judge this or any other observation, just to absorb the information.
The old man was staring at Clark and making small, quiet comments about him to his wife. Clark could hear them perfectly well and knew enough Mandarin and the local dialect of it by now to have little difficulty understanding. They were sizing him up for some reason. This wasn't surprising, either, and it wouldn't be the first time on this trip he had to keep an innocent face, ignore what was going on, and walk away when he was ready to leave. He had realized he would be stared at. This had rarely been the case when he had wandered through Europe the year before, but this year he was visiting countries where he was taller than the average adult male, and, despite being weeks on the road, he still looked to be (and was) in good health and not racked with any of the normal equivalents turista. On the plus side, he had to admit that he had a vague Asian air, so those staring at him usually lost interest soon enough. Due to this he had come to the conclusion that his mother was right, he could usually fit into a lot of places.
He rose and went to the bar and, depending on sign language again (he had noticed that it pleased people to think they were helping him out), bought another bottle of soda to take back to the hostel with him. Then he turned toward the door, only to see that, indeed as he had heard, the old man from across the room had shuffled up behind him. The fellow just barely came up to Clark's broad, T-shirted shoulders, and the old woman behind him was an inch or two shorter than that.
"American boy?" the old man inquired politely in passable English. This was rather odd, Clark thought, as he had noticed the strong tendency for people to keep to themselves and their business and at most pay a false kind of deference to foreigners. Anything to avoid conflict, apparently, and he had played along as best he could. So to meet someone friendly and this outgoing was a plus. "Yes, sir."
The old woman seemed to sneer, said in her own language, "Fat, lazy American," and darted a look at Clark in time to see his surprise at the indictment.
Her husband chuckled, reverting to his native language. "No, he just needs to learn how to drink beer and leer at pretty women."
His wife gave the man a narrow look, which bounced right off.
Clark decided that "outgoing" may not have been the right way to describe the two after all and that he really didn't want to be here any longer. He said "Sir, ma'am," to excuse himself, using simple words in their language he could have learned anywhere so maybe they would begin to think he didn't actually know the language and not pursue him, and he eased around them.
But the woman moved to right there in front of him, pointing. "Fat, lazy American boy!"
There was only so much even the most decent and self-effacing 19 year old could take, and since somehow she suspected he did understand after all, he didn't worry about using her language now. "Ma'am, I'm an American, but I'm *not* fat and I'm *not* lazy."
"You will go home to America and because you are lazy you will tell everyone you learned everything about China and then you will get fat."
Huh? "I don't think so, ma'am." He wasn't sure about his future, other than he thought he was probably going to be a journalist (particularly if his mom kept submitting his pictures and parts of his letters to the *Smallville Journal* like she had last summer and they kept *printing* everything and *begging* for more…) and not a farmer despite his father's veiled disappointment. But he was quite sure the future didn't include becoming fat and lazy.
"He needs a teacher, wife, but I still say he is not good enough for you, his center is much too high. He will make a good student to learn my teachings though."
"He would become a lazy, fat *drunk* on your teachings!"
The old man laughed and slapped his knee.
She ignored him and turned her narrow look on Clark who had almost seen a chance to escape. She made missing it worse: "Walk past me and you do not need a teacher."
Was this beginning to sound like a cheesy midnight student union building good-cop-bad-cop kung-fu movie or what? If he had been wearing his glasses, would she have bothered him? "Ma'am," Clark said in his most respectful manner, because he never looked for fights, especially with a woman who was probably old enough to be his grandmother or maybe even great-grandmother, "I am not seeking a teacher."
She almost spat. "Fat, lazy, American boy."
Maybe there was a back way out of this place. He looked around quickly but seeing one and that it was blocked didn't take any use of his special x-ray vision in this one-room building. The patrons and the barkeeper appeared to be just barely noticing what was happening, which probably meant they were all ears and hanging on for dear life to find out what would happen next. Maybe the women came in and did this all the time, maybe that's why he had seen so few tourists in this little village. Maybe she frequented all the bars in the area with her drunken husband (though, unlike one might expect, he did not smell of alcohol). Maybe all the bus loads of tourists were taken right by this place, at 50 miles an hour, for a quick visit to the maybe- Shaolin Temple and the Preserve to see the Pandas, and then on to some comfortable Holiday Inn, and here he and his friends had walked into town from the train station miles away and missed the warnings.
"You can't do it. You're going to sleep here?"
Good grief. "No, ma'am," and he moved to ease around her.
But again she was right there, giving him a disgusted look. On his next try she was there again and even able to back him up a step or two. "Ma'am…" He could barrel right over her, he knew that, but—
"You are not too polite, fat, lazy American boy, you simply do not know one thing." She raised her hand to point at and poke his right shoulder, which he jerked out of her way, but that immediately exposed his left, which she poked instead, as though it had been her original target. She grabbed his left wrist then, perhaps because it was there, and he could almost feel her drawing strength from him. That was incredible — and he had no idea what to do to stop it other than pull away but she kept hold of him when he tried. By the lightest of a two-fingered touch yet. In surprise he dropped the bottle of soda but she plucked that out of midair and popped it into his left hand. She let him go and he clutched the bottle to his chest, almost afraid of what she might do next.
"Who *are* you?" he heard himself ask.
"I am someone who has decided to let you pass by today."
The old man sputtered into laugher again and nearly rolled on the floor.
The old woman headed for the door. Clark had to follow her, drawn almost — though he reminded himself in his own defense that it was the only exit and the air of the bar was suddenly way too thick with implications to stay.
She stopped outside and he had to as well. She pointed in a down-the-road direction. "If you want to learn what you do not know, what all the strength you have will never teach you, come to my house tomorrow morning at dawn."
The old man could be heard from inside. "If he wants to learn to drink beer and leer at pretty women, he can come here tonight!"
The old woman reached back into the bar, grabbed the old man, pulled him out and bounced him down the street toward what Clark assumed must be their home. The old man was having a great old time after having nursed only one quarter of one beer the whole time Clark had been there. Was he just naturally drunk or was it something else? And who was the woman and what the hell did she want with him?
His friends came back that evening and invited him to their room to tell him of their progress with putting a scare into the management of the reputed Shaolin Temple. He listened politely, but they knew him well enough by now to ask what was bugging him. He tried to explain what had happened in a mere five minutes that late afternoon in the bar and that it still didn't make any sense. He didn't mention the old woman's uncanny knowledge of his inconspicuous physical strength because surely it wouldn't have helped his friends to understand what had gone on.
The women looked at each other. Lisa said to Marty, "He's found a teacher."
"But I'm not looking for a teacher, you are. She should have talked to you two."
"But she didn't. She drew you to her. I bet she's the real master of the two."
"Yeah," Lisa said. "Her husband's all flashy and silly and draws the superficial students—"
"Not like *us*…" Marty laughed.
"While this woman, who probably raised a dozen kids and worked like an ox all her life or in some factory somewhere for half the pay they'd give a man, *she's* the real thing."
"If she was that busy," Clark cut in, "how could she have learned martial arts? And who says it's martial arts she teaches anyhow?"
"Nobody, but that's the way it usually works. Teachers usually appear either mysterious and enigmatic, or *totally* zonked out. It's expected."
"I can tell which is which already…"
"No, no, no, I said `appear', they *appear* that way. They're probably just regular Chinese folks who picked up what they know during their lives and have their own ways of passing it on to unsuspecting kids like you."
"And being so busy, your little old woman probably learned by osmosis or mail order — who knows, Clark? She probably won't talk about it, anyway, it's none of your business, really, and it won't be part of the game plan."
"But I'm not interested in some… esoteric game plan…"
"So you say. Just because you're not *looking* for a teacher doesn't mean you don't need one."
"But I have things to do."
Marty shook her head. "Like what? Go back to Kansas on the next steam-powered biplane outta here?"
"Well…" not exactly…
"Aren't you even curious?"
"Hey, remember?" Lisa grabbed his shoulder and shook him. "You're the one who's going to work for a great metropolitan daily someday."
"I never said that, Marty said that." The most he'd said was that the *Smallville Journal* was publishing his letters for some unknown reason ("They're good," his father had said simply, as though anybody with an ounce of sense would have agreed) and that he had worked on the Smallville High newspaper. But that had been just one of dozens of hobbies he had indulged in and clubs he'd joined while at school there. He could as easily have decided to pursue football or the stage or even a history major, because all that had interested him, too. "Maybe this woman's frightened you," Lisa said gently, "that's understandable, masters are supposed to do that, but, Clark, we've seen you surrounded by tons of elephants without the least look of concern on your face…"
The elephants had found him interesting and had wanted to play and test him out, but neither he nor they had been able to see how to do that without arousing the concern and ire of their trusted keepers. Explaining that they seemed to him just like big cows but different and smarter had been amusing at the time.
"And that doesn't change the question: aren't you even a *little* curious about what's going on?"
There was that… "Well…"
"I detect some curiosity at last," Marty said. "We'll wake you up at five before we go out to practice katas so you'll be there on time."
"Thanks, I think…"
Pick up needle at sea bottom… fan through back…
He was distracted as a surprising rush of warmth spread up his back and over his left shoulder. Having so little experience with pain, the pleasure of healing was almost as overwhelming. He gasped and opened his eyes. The left was doing better, something else to be pleased about. The sun was lower. He wondered about the time — then drop kicked the thought out of his head. Healing simply wasn't something he could rush or he might rush right into a setback. He had to have learned that much from the T'ai Chi and Madame Huang, he reminded himself.
As the feeling across his back neared normalcy (he almost dared move his shoulder now but he didn't try because his left arm still felt numb and that was scary), he could catch little sounds from back in the monitor room away somewhere to his left. Lois. She was conscious again. Oh, good, he sighed; whatever Lex had done to quiet her hadn't been permanent, on purpose or by accident. He had hardly dared think about the dismal possibility. And equally nice to hear, in a warped sort of way, she was becoming unhappy. From the sound of it, she was squirming around and working the gag out of her mouth. He wondered precisely where the monitor room was in relation to his current position and if she could see him.
It didn't matter though, did it? Nothing could be done about it now, it just wasn't the right time yet for action. He closed his eyes and tried to resume the moves.
"Superman? Superman! What are you doing out there? Are you all right?"
Well, maybe it was the right time to take some action after all and therefore something had to be done.
"Can you come untie me, please?"
He considered saying "No, I can't even walk at the moment," but he couldn't see how that could be construed as a perfectly normal response when she sounded like she would appreciate "perfectly normal" at the moment. He would have, too.
But he wasn't so sure he *couldn't* walk. No, wait, how about floating? He looked gingerly over his present condition, seeing that he still didn't have all that much going for himself, and figured he might get as much a quarter inch off the plush carpet. Not nearly enough, and no indication as to how long he could hold it at even that height. Skidding to a halt and tumbling about was not an appealing idea.
Walking was the only way. He looked back over his options and the t'ai chi one popped up again. Sink the chi into the dan tien and (Madame Huang wopped him with her empty bag of chicken feed) walk like the Earth wants you here.
But she was right. Walking meant placing one foot after the next, and easing his weight into each step with care, as though walking on a rotting rope-and-plank bridge over a deep gorge. Appropriately, he was in this one pretty deep already.
He ran his right hand through his hair to comb it roughly into the Superman style Lois was used to seeing, leaned on that right hand and pushed himself up. He grabbed for the wall and steadied himself there as the hallway swayed, but being upright wasn't nearly as bad an idea as it had been when Luthor had helped him out to the window. The suit and boots felt too tight, but at least he didn't have to worry about the cape, which had fallen off when he'd moved.
Lois was still tied to the chair, lying on her side, and her eyes widened as she watched him approach.
This is great, he thought, just great…
"You're hurt…" she whispered; obviously she was regretting having bothered him.
So, even if he could have shrugged, he couldn't have shrugged off her concern. A casual, I'm-taking-care-of-this-thank-you attitude had to do. "That's right." He entered the room and immediately felt that Luthor hadn't gotten all the Kryptonite. There wasn't much of it, but it was like a malicious tickle that wouldn't let up. "I can't stay in here long, there's Kryptonite all over the place."
"Oh, my god, that explains — I'll gather it all up after you…" not that she wanted to bother him with it now, but if he could just manage to sort of untie her a little bit…?
"Right. I'll untie you if you'll promise me something."
"You won't babble, I don't want to have to concentrate on that — Oh, and another thing, you won't touch me because I think it'll probably hurt."
She gulped. No doubt the first thing she had wanted to do was hug and try comforting him. "Okay…"
"And just one more thing: you won't report this."
"About me, that much anyhow. I don't really need news of this spread around." Not that the Jaymes Boys wouldn't say anything, but he planned to give them so much trouble they'd be begging their lawyers to get them into a nice, safe, maximum-security penitentiary. Which wouldn't protect them, of course, but it would be satisfactory. Luthor, on the other hand, would keep knowledge of this to himself because he didn't want any publicity in any event. Besides, Clark now knew something about him he probably wouldn't want Superman to divulge at any cost.
"Ah, well…" Lois said, obviously trying to think of a fast way around the request.
So much for *any*thing, Clark thought.
But he could sympathize. If she were Superwoman and he were simply Clark Kent, star reporter, even lust would make finding her, say, in the throws of PMS a hard story to pass up. Still, "Remember Resplendent Man?"
"Don't remind me — but this isn't the same thing, is it? Some secret that has to be kept from the world? We wrote about Kryptonite but never said it really worked…"
But Luthor had figured it out…
"No, it's… more personal." It was a pride thing, wasn't it? And there was nothing wrong with that, not really. But the I've- got-to-write-this-story-look on her face indicated that she didn't get it. "Think of it as doing me a favor. I don't really want to read… `Superman Limps to the Rescue, by Lois Lane' or anybody else…"
He sighed. He felt way too tired for this. "It could hurt or relationship… `Irreparable damage' is the phrase that comes to mind…"
"But if it's written just right…"
"And I'd have to give Clark all the interviews I want to give, and—"
"Okay, okay! I didn't say I'd write any gory details — I won't write anything at all! I'm just… trying to figure out how to approach the story without mentioning you — *Really.*"
Sure, whatever you say. "I hope you can." And maybe she would. He'd made the best threat he could think of on the spur of the moment and put a scare into her, he was sure of that. He reached down and grabbed the top of the chair and felt weak. He decided not to say anything until he had pulled her up, which used more of his reserves than he had expected. When she was on all four chair legs, he moved back again and leaned in the doorway, cradling his left arm.
She looked nearly ready for action. "Thanks! I was afraid you wouldn't…"
"Lois, I wouldn't leave you down there even if I thought you were lying to me. It's a pride thing, understand?"
"Oh…" as though it had just occurred to her that he might be fallible and entertain a little pride in his performance now and then — and be just as chagrined when things didn't work out. "I won't say anything, I *promise*, and as long as you don't go out with that black eye…"
"I'm working on that," and the broken arm and busted ribs and… how tiring.
"And my hands?" She turned to show him.
He stepped back. "I can't. There's some Kryptonite rope tying your wrists." Was this your idea of a joke, Luthor, or did you just overlook this bit? "I can't get near it."
"Oh!" She moved her hands back, as though hoping her body would shield him from deadly rays. Maybe it did, he thought, who knows, though no one had ever had to tell her to hurry up and get the lead out… She tested the bonds. "But it's loose! If I could get some leverage…"
He could give her that. "Sit still…"
Someone's shoe laces held her ankles to the chair legs and someone else's tie had been sacrificed along with some regular rope to tie her into the chair. Sloppy but effective, until they fell apart after a few moments of weak laser vision. She stood up unsteadily, wobbled to the other side of the room, and began to work at the rope around her wrists.
Because he couldn't help her, didn't want her to think she should be helping him, and he had no desire to further test his simply-allergic-to-Kryptonite theory, he left her alone and returned to his sunspot a long way down the hall (longer than it had seemed a few moments earlier, anyhow). He pulled up his cape and got it over his shoulders again. The dark red seemed to absorb more warm sunlight and feel more comforting than did the tight blue of his suit, which he wished he could have pealed off before now.
In a few moments he heard her creep up behind him and sound like she was anxious to say something but couldn't decide on the most appropriate words or even a good way to approach him. Apparently she came to some conclusion because she went away. Well, that was nice. Maybe she was going for help, except of course she had little idea of the scope of the problem other than knowing there was a bomb in Metropolis and it was due to go off soon. Still, seeking help was more than what he was getting accomplished at the moment, he admitted as he began to center himself and sink back into a relaxed, quiet position.
Someone's shoe laces held her ankles to the chair legs and someone else's tie had been sacrificed along with some regular rope to tie her into the chair. Sloppy but effective, until they fell apart after a few moments of weak laser vision. She stood up unsteadily, wobbled to the other side of the room, and began to work at the rope around her wrists.
Because he couldn't help her, didn't want her to think she should be helping him, and he had no desire to further test his simply-allergic-to-Kryptonite theory, he left her alone and returned to his sunspot a long way down the hall (longer than it had seemed a few moments earlier, anyhow). He pulled up his cape and got it over his shoulders again. The dark red seemed to absorb more warm sunlight and feel more comforting than did the tight blue of his suit, which he wished he could have pealed off before now.
In a few moments he heard her creep up behind him and sound like she was anxious to say something but couldn't decide on the most appropriate words or even a good way to approach him. Apparently she came to some conclusion because she went away. Well, that was nice. Maybe she was going for help, except of course she had little idea of the scope of the problem other than knowing there was a bomb in Metropolis and it was due to go off soon. Still, seeking help was more than what he was getting accomplished at the moment, he admitted as he began to center himself and sink back into a relaxed, quiet position.
Sometime later, someone said "Ah… Are you awake?" uncertainly.
He considered this from a distance inside himself. "Yes."
Then something wet and cold pressed against his forehead, and he nearly jumped out of his suit, which, he reflected later, would have been the funniest thing to have happened all day.
Lois grabbed his shoulder (the right, fortunately), probably thinking he was going to fall, and she explained quickly, "It's all right, it's all right, it's only water!"
Keeping an eye on her, acutely aware that she was watching him and wishing he didn't look so obviously like hell, he straightened up again. "You surprised me…"
"I'm sorry, I should have… said something, told you… Today's had a few too many surprises for you already…" That was a good way to put it. "Yes."
"Do you want me to…?"
Continue? She'd gone off and found water and paper towels and was trying her best to help him feel better… She could be so thoughtful when she put a little effort into it. So this was no time to discourage her, or to pass up feeling her touch now that he could be prepared for it. "Yes."
She was exceedingly careful, which he appreciated, and gave him a running commentary, which was scary and he could have lived without, but he had enough control of his reactions now, he hoped, that he wasn't letting on to his concern. She reported that he had a cut above his left eye and said something about reading that head wounds could bleed a lot but not be particularly serious. She guessed that applied to Kryptonians, too, but then it was closed already, which wouldn't have occurred in a human, who'd probably be dead by now anyhow.
"Oh," was all he could think to say.
When she seemed to be satisfied, she paused and thought about it and became anxious again. "Is there anything else I can do? Massage your back? Help you lay down…?"
No! But, more politely: "No, thanks… Give me that."
The wad of wet paper towels. Maybe she'd think he wanted to use it to work on himself. What she thought didn't matter in this. It had occurred to him that any blood extracted from the paper could lead to a better clone of him than his hair had, and he didn't want that tried again by anyone — and most particularly Luthor and his scientist "friend," because it seemed likely they would think of it if anyone else did. He decided to stuff the towels in a boot the next time she was out of the room, which could be any moment now, if she did as asked. "Find a phone and call Metropolis police. Talk to Inspector Henderson. Tell him the bomb is in the new statue in front of the main Bank of Metropolis building. The bomb may actually *be* the statue."
"Of course! That's where you stopped the Jaymes Gang last bank robbery attempt! I told Clark they should have stuck with drive-up branches in the suburbs!"
"I'll go find a phone, don't go anywhere!"
She rushed away.
Clark remembered Marty and Lisa pounding on his door at 4:59 the next morning. He'd been up most of the night writing, both a letter to his folks and in his journal, trying to figure out what was going on in his life all of a sudden, and getting just enough sleep to help him decide he had to go through with at least a brief visit to the old woman's home that morning.
He had the tea, rice cakes and some of the thin broth offered by the management of the hostel, and went out to watch his friends move through the various forms of martial arts they practiced. They did routines with both slow and deliberate movements and fast, flashy kicks. He was over being impressed with it because he'd seen them doing this almost every morning since they'd decided to travel together. It did have a different meaning this time around though.
As usual, the morning was misty, and mistier still as he walked up hill to the center of town, what there was of it, through it, and toward the old woman's house as dawn broke behind him, promising a warm, pleasant day in the mountains. Reaching the house the woman had indicated the evening before, he stood on the road, just beyond the sturdy fence that surrounded her property. The house looked competent and lived in, and of a somewhat higher quality than most hovels he had been seeing on this trip. She had a chicken house and chickens, and some pigs in a poke as well. Almost like home, he thought. There was lamp light visible through the barely curtained windows, and he could hear movement inside, but he refrained from looking inside to see what was happening. There were things that it was just not polite to do, particularly if his only reasons were a mild curiosity and the ability to do them.
That resolution was sorely tested as the sun rose higher. He stood there for some five minutes, waiting (didn't she expect him, or had she thought she had scared him into not coming?) and then he noticed across the road a tree and a bench under it and he decided to sit down. Half an hour. Finally reminding himself that he hadn't come to China to sit around or to do that just to wait for some crazy old little woman to think up more ways to insult him, he stood up.
The little woman, again dressed in that black, layered clothing, walked out of her house and motioned at him to approach.
It's about time, he thought.
"Fat, lazy, American boy has no patience, eh?"
Not again. "Ma'am—"
"Do you have a name or does *every*one call you fat, lazy American boy?"
"*You're* the only one who's ever called me that. My name is Clark Kent," and while he bowed a bit, he didn't offer to shake hands because she made no indication she wanted to.
"I am Madame Huang. Why have you come to bother me this morning?"
She hadn't struck him as being senile, but one never knew. Maybe raising a dozen kids could do that. "Because you invited me to. You said you were going to tell me what I don't know."
She looked almost genuinely surprised. "You can learn that, but I cannot tell you, Clarkent, only you can tell you that."
Great, and here he didn't know how to say "Is this one of those trick answers to one of those trick questions?" in Mandarin…
To top that, she turned away and began to walk around the house toward the back of her property.
"Can you feed chickens?"
"Then come feed these so we can have a fat one for lunch."
She had him do other chores as well. He wondered how many other tourists she had conned into helping her; probably plenty, considering how well kept up her place was. But it was at least an interesting way to pass a morning. She didn't ask that he do anything difficult, no heavy work which would have been no problem, just a lot of moving around. She watched him like a hawk, too, but it was her home so that was to be expected. He'd want his own folks to do the same under similar circumstances.
At midmorning she throttled a chicken with a quick movement of her bare hands and had him help prepare it. He'd done this at home in a different manner, but the results were usually the same: dinner. Not a pleasant way to get to the point, particularly for the chicken, but there it was.
Once lunch was cooking away on its own, she ordered him to sit at the little there in the main room of the house. She made tea from steaming water, herbs and twigs and who knew what, and, without asking if he wanted any, turned around gave him a cup full. She awaited his verdict with an ancient doctor's look. Not anxious, and especially not hoping to please. It tasted fine, and he said so. It might have tasted better with honey, but he didn't mention that.
"It may help to even out your strength," she "explained."
Huh? Whatever. But it was thoughtful, probably. "Oh. Thank you."
"You eat anything, yes?"
"Well, I can…" as far as he knew, but there were things he preferred to eat, which wasn't the question.
"And you don't get sick."
"I don't seem to, no, ma'am…" not in years, which was a good thing, he didn't want to get and pass on strange diseases like cholera or tuberculosis because needles couldn't penetrate his skin to deliver inoculations or draw blood for testing. This hadn't been a problem getting into the European community, what with their stream-lined passport system. But poor countries in this area of the world had all kinds of sanitation problems and proof of certain vaccinations had been required. With his mom's help he'd become a minor thief and forger to cover all this, but he was resigned to it, breaking the law for that kind of thing; it was that or stay home and that wouldn't have been fair. Fortunately no one in authority had noticed.
"Then, Clarkent, I will teach you T'ai Chi."
When he asked what that was, she showed him ten minutes worth of what she said was ultimately 108 moves, depending on who counted what. Yang style, she called it.
Nice for an old lady, he thought, but, well, too pedestrian for me, really; I'd rather learn something with high kicks and screams and voiced-over threats that didn't match lip movements if I have to learn a martial art at all… which he didn't want to. Maybe there was a way out of this. "How long will it take?" He could remember the look of most of the moves already, and realized there was a lot of repetition, though he had heard that true martial arts experts studied years and years before they considered themselves competent to wash their master's shoes, either one of them, and he didn't have years and years to dedicate to something he didn't want to do anyhow.
"For many, a lifetime. For a few, six months. For you, three days. To learn the moves. To learn all that there is to T'ai Chi Ch'uan, forever."
She showed him her back as she checked the soupy chicken stew she was preparing. "That does not mean that even a fat, lazy American boy cannot try to learn a small portion of it."
And here he hoped she'd gotten past her fix on that… "Well, I can stay for three days…"
"But I have not invited you to stay. I will let you know at the end of this day if you are now a student or if you are still a tourist."
There was his out: he *wanted* to remain a simple tourist… but after she had grabbed his curiosity by the neck and come this close to wringing it? He decided not to press what might be considered by some to be his luck. "Thank you."
Mr. Huang rolled in and she served lunch. Clark was expecting knee slapping "jokes" from the man but what conversation he made was polite and lovingly deferential to the woman, who responded in a quiet, favorable manner. Clark had nothing to say, he simply observed the interaction and thanked her for all the seconds offered. As the meal ended, she sent her husband into another room and he returned with a book. It was a mass-market-type paperback, cheaply made but sturdy appearing nonetheless, looked through but with still-new shine about it.
She gave it to Clark. "Take this up to a comfortable spot on the mountain and read it until you understand something."
She assumed he could read Chinese. She was right, as she seemed to be in all her assumptions. The *Tao Te Ching,* The Book of the Way. He had heard about it, but not gotten around to picking up a copy. Now here was one in the original language. Yep, this was… really something… Well, it was the principle of the thing, he supposed, so he tried to look appreciative and think up a good question. "Should I sit anywhere in particular on the mountain?"
"Not in a stream or on a sharp stick," and that was the extent of her advice.
Something he would have guessed on his own, he thought. "Okay…"
The walk was nice; and it didn't look like it would rain, either. He went a mile or two until he found a comfortable place with a view and he settled down to decipher the language.
By sunset he had to admit he was pretty much stumped. The characters and their meanings, combined with all the other characters in each passage, added up to too many possible interpretations. He recalled now that he had also heard that there were many translations of the book and not much agreement about which was the best and he could see why. What hope was there when the very first passage warned that if the Tao could be explained, then that wasn't the right Tao, and the Tao was at the heart of the matter and all around it, too. Unless it wasn't.
Well, I guess I'm still a tourist after all…
He trudged back down the mountain (he didn't feel like floating or flying), to the Huang residence, and found the couple sitting on their porch, reminding him somehow of his own parents taking in the evening air after a busy day. He waited until beckoned, approached and laid the book on a small table there near the door. "I'm sorry, Madame Huang, but I didn't understand any of it. Each page, each… set of symbols changes meaning so often and there are so many contradictions that I couldn't keep up."
She seemed to ponder this. Eventually she reached over and picked up the book and handed it back to him. "Keep it until you do understand."
"That could be a long time…"
"It's just a book."
"Well, thank you then… It has been nice meeting you, and you, too, sir, and thank you again for the dinner."
She didn't react to this oblique adios.
At least not the way he expected. "Come again at dawn, Clarkent. Bring the things you are traveling with. You may stay here for the three day you require to learn the moves of T'ai Chi. You may wish to stay longer after that. I will decide at that time."
Later that evening, in the next installment of his letter to his parents, he wrote: "The crazy old woman has asked me to move in with her." He could picture his mom's reaction: "Well, that's nice, dear, do have fun," and she'd smile encouragingly. Sometimes it seemed to him that she thought one of his leisure-time activities, now that he was a full-fledged university student out on his own, was jumping from bed to bed… and that she didn't exactly disapprove.
And his dad's reaction: "Just what do you know about this woman, Clark? Did you get a resume and character references? You just can't be too careful, son, there are a lot of strange and dangerous people in the world…"
But if I were too careful I wouldn't be here meeting these strange and… no, not dangerous people, not exactly…
He continued to write. "Her husband doesn't seem to mind. He still insists that I learn to drink beer and leer at pretty women with him, but honestly I haven't seen any pretty women — I mean, the kind it seems he might like to leer at, in this town. Almost everyone works on the land and they don't have much time for anything else. Besides, you know beer doesn't do anything for me. Madame Huang's tea might, though. I'll see if I can find out what herbs she uses, Mom. Maybe my strength does need evening out, whatever that means."
His friends returned from their peregrinations and invited him to share the string bags full of food they'd picked up here and there, and then they grilled him about the mysterious Madame Huang. They figured she had made him do chores so she could watch how he moved and handled himself, not because she didn't trust him. Neither of the young women thought he was a gawky kid still, so she probably didn't see any of that, either. They said Yang T'ai Chi Chuan — "and make her show you the Chuan part, too" — was a good style for him to learn. Wu style was medicinal and he was already healthy; Chen style was flashier, but neither Marty nor Lisa could come to any conclusion about Clark needing to be flashy. He shouldn't worry about the art not being what he'd seen in all the cheesy films. T'ai Chi would stick with him until he was old and gray, after his friends doing the "hard external styles" were all broken down and clamoring to learn what he already knew by heart. Besides, they said, when he got back to Kansas it would be easier to find a Yang-style teacher if he wanted to continue learning.
He decided not to mention that he was supposed to be going to learn it in three days; maybe that was unusual. He did say, "She wants me to move in with her…"
They didn't seem startled but pleased. "That's a good sign, the teacher taking the student in. She'll have you doing chores all over the place of course."
"I don't mind that. She also wants me to read this…"
"Oh, wow, the *Tao Te Ching,* isn't it? In Chinese yet. How far did you get?"
"The whole… well, the whole first few chapters. It doesn't make any sense, but she didn't seem to mind that that was what I thought."
"And if you'd lied and said it made perfect sense and she'd asked you to explain it to her?"
"It wouldn't have been right, neither lying nor the explanation."
"See?" Lisa said. "You're learning already."
Maybe that was it…
They informed him that since the monks at the Temple were insisting they didn't practice or teach martial arts, and since it looked like he had a safe place to stay for a while, they were headed north to check out some scenery they had heard about. But they would come back through town and, if he was still here, catch up with what he was doing. He appreciated their watching over him and said he would miss them. They doubted he'd have much time to miss them.
They were right.
Madame Huang put him to work the next morning first thing, warming him up by having him feed the chickens and the pigs with grain and scraps, help a neighbor with a balky set of oxen who didn't know what to make of his not giving in when they pulled, and odds and ends of things until she declared it time for breakfast and then the first lesson. Breakfast was light (good thing he wasn't very hungry, he thought), and the lesson consisted of copying her every move. This wasn't difficult. It was the first set of movements of the form. She told him that the same moves would be repeated throughout and that if he got them right now, it would be easier later on.
He found that the moves flowed naturally from one to the next, making some kind of sense that he couldn't put his finger on (like the Book of the Way) and being definitely more interesting than soothing wary oxen. After an hour of this, she sent him up the mountain with a simple but filling lunch and orders to continue reading the book. He came down in the evening, still, he conceded, unenlightened, and was told he could sleep on the back porch since it didn't look like it would rain.
He unrolled his bedroll there and sat on it to write to his folks by starlight. When he heard that Madame Huang and her husband (neither of whom had frequented any bars in the this night or the last as far as he knew) were asleep, he stuffed the letter, his used rolls of film, his filled-up note pad/journal, and a few souvenirs into a pouch bought for the purpose, buckled it around his waist, and took off for home.
It was twelve hours earlier in the day on the other side of the world. No one was home, and here he'd been looking forward to a hug. But in the "out" box, waiting for him, was fresh film, a new notepad and several pens, a big Snickers bar (which he tore open immediately), and a message regretting they'd missed him. No problems to report, nothing for him to do to help out, see you next week. I bet, Clark thought, they'll be waiting for me. They'll want to know all about my three days with Madame Huang…
They had also left the most recent weekly *Smallville Journal* laying next to the out box, opened to what had become "Kent Abroad" and what his letters home were turning into. He doubted he'd see Madame Huang's name or what he was doing with her mentioned there. His parents were positively scary paranoid when it came to concealing how inhuman even he was having to admit he was becoming, and her apparently seeing that part of him, too, wasn't something they'd want to advertise…
After his return to the Huang residence, he slept well and the next morning, not exactly surprisingly, Madame Huang asked him how his parents were. They hadn't been home, he shrugged, as though missing them hadn't been so important. She translated that correctly and regretted it along with him, adding that it pleased her that he was attentive to them, something she didn't expect to see from a… an American boy.
Whew! Clark thought.
This second morning was much the same as the previous one, with warm up chores around her house and for the neighbors, an insubstantial breakfast, and then the lesson. This second set of moves was more than twice as long as the first, with more complications, but, done rightly, with as much flow and satisfaction in imitating her. She sent him up on the mountain again with lunch but without the book. The goal was different this time: to find moving water, watch it, and tell her what he saw.
By the end of the day he could tell her that he had found a stream to observe and for the life of him he couldn't see that the water was doing anything other than what he expected. It was pretty… He decided not to mention he had considered washing his clothes in it to save hiring the woman who ran the hostel to do them.
"Did anything try to stop the water?"
"Were there rocks and logs in the water?"
Oh, of course. "Yes, ma'am."
"What did the water do then?"
"Flowed around them."
"And how long will the rocks and logs be there, if no one comes along and moves them?"
"Until the water wears them down?"
"And how much muscle," she pinched his shoulder, "does water have?"
"You are beginning to learn."
I am? Learn what?
Well, he thought, at least she's not calling me Grasshopper…
Day three: more chores (including, at her suggestion, washing his clothes), breakfast, the last part of the form, which was twice as long as the second, with even more repetition and, at last, a few potentially quick, startling moves, like Snake Creeps Down and Step Up to Seven Stars. Accomplishing all this felt good. The lunch assignment was to go to the mountain and find animals to watch. He could do that. She apparently assumed they would stick around and allow him to do so. Maybe Chinese fauna couldn't see American boys.
He saw birds and deer mostly, and some local squirrel and fox equivalents. He didn't sneak into the Preserve to see any Pandas; he figured they didn't need to be bothered by him. If the regular animals noted his presence when he came upon them, though, he was so quiet and nonthreatening that for the most part they apparently dismissed him.
"And what did you see the animals do?"
He had anticipated this. "They were themselves."
"Did they struggle to be themselves?"
"That is correct. Tomorrow we will see if you have learned the form."
So, as he could see a test coming, that night, when it was quiet and dark in the house, he went up on the mountain and practiced above a stream for an hour or so since it looked like water was important somehow in all this.
As he fed the chickens the next morning, she said, "You practiced in the air last night."
He wondered if she ever got tired of being psychic… "Yes, ma'am."
She took the almost empty bag of chicken feed from him and wopped him with it. "Don't do it that way. You do not have the experience yet to understand why. The earth is your friend, you need the earth," and she turned and headed for the practice area closer to the house. After thinking twice about her admonition and knowing no explanation for what he had done would suffice anyhow, he gave up and followed her and stopped when she did. She said: "Show me what you know about T'ai Chi Ch'uan."
Okay… He thought he had gotten over being self conscious doing it with her watching, but instead of being the teacher she was now the master and her gaze was unamused and critical. What was worse, as he did the very first grasp bird's tail, in which there was the very first ward off, she moved right up, took his right wrist with two fingers and pulled him right over. "You are too high."
And she kept doing that kind of thing. She stepped into the way of his pushing left hand as he eased through the single whip and he couldn't move her (without actively pushing her and this was supposed to be a passive martial art, if that was possible) or figure out how to compensate and move around her. As small as she was, she could be a wall at any time. When she had made whatever her point was, she melted aside, took his right wrist again and nearly flipped him. "You are too high." On his second brush knee twist she tapped his left knee and knocked it out from under him. "Too high, too high." Midway into the play guitar move she rested her arm on his and it was like an elephant had laid her trunk there. "Too high."
Where did the little breeze of a woman with a calm, unimpressed look on her moon face, get all the strength? He could have used his own strength against her, but that wasn't the point, was it? What would it have accomplished? Hurting her, probably, if he could move fast enough and she didn't anticipate it, which didn't seem likely.
He finally just stopped, not even having finished the first, simple, warm-up part of the form, hating to think what she would do to his probably equally flawed version of ward-off, parry and punch. "Madame Huang, I don't know the form after all."
"You are learning."
"That it is now time to stop imitating on the outside and to start to learn on the inside."
Great, just great, what's the point?
The point is… Clark opened his eyes.
The point is knowing that she could stop me because she used no strength and I couldn't budge her because I was too powerful. No strength was stronger than all strength, yes, she'd shown him that quite a few ways until it was obvious, until he'd gotten that warm inkling of the right feeling that simply letting go could attract, that feeling she was goading him toward experiencing in different ways… and he'd forgotten about it (she had probably expected that, too). Yet there was something about it that applied right here and now.
I keep rushing into things, he thought, expecting I can handle them because I have the strength…
His left arm hurt. Ah, the numbness was lifting. An easy x- ray glance told him that the shattered bones in his forearm were knitting evenly. He could breathe more deeply as well. He was healing and knowing that he could tolerate the remaining pain because it would be gone eventually. Soon maybe. He looked for his reflection in the window, but the sun was too bright. He reached forward and rested his fingers on the composite glass and pressed lightly. The window groaned but stayed put.
I'm not back yet…
A harder push would have done it, he thought, but that wasn't the way to pass the test. And it wasn't the point, strength wasn't the point, nor flying nor speed…
"All the phones are dead, I checked all over the building and they didn't leave so much as a cell phone," Lois announced as she returned. "But I found a can of paint!"
He hadn't expected that she was one of the raving loonies, too, but it was looking like a close thing. "Pardon?"
"It's probably illegal, but the ingredients say it has lead in it so maybe, if Kryptonite is radioactive like uranium and plutonium, the lead will stop it, hmmm?"
Here at last was a reason to smile. "I'm glad you're on my side, Lois."
"Oh, well, it was just a little simple deductive reasoning…"
While he didn't like hearing her disparage her own abilities, he said nothing about it so as to encourage her to get on with whatever she planned, which she did. Or tried to. She took the can into the monitor room but couldn't the thing open despite struggling mightily with it and insulting it, cajoling and begging it, and had to bring it to him. Flipping the lid off with his thumb was the work of a moment. She reclaimed the can, gathered all the bits and pieces of Kryptonite string she could find, sunk them in the paint, pushed them down in deep with a ruler she had liberated from someone's desk, and put the lid on it.
"I think I got it all," she announced from the doorway.
"It feels like you did."
"You could feel it all the way out here?"
"Let's say I feel more comfortable."
"And so you've been sitting here just…"
"Ah… Are you sure you wouldn't…" like to be fitted out for a raving loony suit, too? he finished for her, but she said, "like another cool cloth or something?"
He didn't feel feverish (was that it after the cold?) or bloody anymore, so no more wet paper towels were in order. Wet. "A drink of water would be nice."
"There's a water cooler just down the hall here…" she left and returned with one of those odd little conical-shaped paper cups full of water, no-doubt Luthor's subtle way of telling everyone to get back to work. She sat down beside him, on his right facing him, and watched him with a mix of interest and concern. Did she see Clark at all? He hoped not, though it seemed that the more he wanted her to the less she did see. In any event, he absolutely could not deal with that possibility now on top of everything else, so if he didn't think about it, maybe it wouldn't occur to her. He drank the water right down and thanked her.
"No." Then he noticed that she had eased out of the sun, looking for some shade maybe. She should have been sitting on his left. "Are you warm?"
"It is a little hot here, but you must like it or you wouldn't be… meditating here…?"
"I could use some fresh air," and direct sunlight, for that matter, yes. He reached forward again, rested his fingertips on the glass and pressed not with his strength but from his dan tien, remembering Madame Huang showing him where that was and the nervous thoughts that had crossed his mind until he realized there was nothing at all sexual about it or her really.
The glass fell out as a whole piece and landed with a whump on the grass below. Quite satisfactory.
Lois said, "Wow…"
The air was warm and fresh, and the sun, unencumbered, felt wonderful. He sighed. Things were looking a lot better and he thought he had at least 45 minutes until sunset. Plenty of time to figure out what to do about the big bomb. He closed his eyes.
He was glad that she seemed to hesitate to call him "Superman" to his face considering he was the only other person in the building and probably on the property and sometimes it seemed like such a crazy name anyway even though she had thought it up. "Yes?"
"I'm sorry I've been babbling."
"That's all right."
"I can't help it. I just have to think out loud sometimes. I get my best ideas that way, you know, it just happens, I've just developed that… Like, I've been thinking about all this, and it seems to me — and don't take this as a judgment or personal or anything like *that* — but it seems to me that they were expecting you."
True, but not her, since they'd run out of rope, hmm? But maybe that meant she hadn't heard Luthor or recognized his voice (what with the maniacal inflections it now had), and if she knew he had been here, she would have said something right away. She would have sent up smoke signals to Perry, and the world wasn't ready for that headline yet, even though it meant he couldn't write it, either.
So he simply said, "I agree."
"But what if you hadn't come? I mean, what if you hadn't figured out they were here, but did figure out where the bomb is? After all, big city, big bank, big bomb, or something, I don't know how, just that you did. Because it's logical. It seems to me they would expect that, too."
"So you discover the bomb is somewhere near the Bank of Metropolis because that was where they failed the last time, and they put it in the statue because the statue represents justice and they have this warped sense of humor, and what are you going to do about it, carry it away?"
Bingo, that was it. "I don't think so."
"Well, of course that's the first thing you'd think of doing — I mean, right, you *wouldn't* do it because… you've thought about it like I have. *I* think the bomb probably has motion detectors of some kind in it, not enough to set it off if a big truck goes by, but if it were pried loose, by you, because you could do that, that might be enough to set it off. Or even if you're careful, it might have altimeters or something that senses air pressure when you lifted it."
"That's entirely likely."
"And… and that's where my thinking on it runs into a wall. Sorry."
"That's all right."
"I mean, you can't take the chance of moving it, and maybe even your x-ray vision might set it off if you try to defuse it, I don't know. I guess you could help evacuate the city, but Metropolis is big and that would take time and even *I* didn't find out about the bomb until this morning…"
Clark realized he felt a sense of serenity, as though doing Wave Hand Like Clouds, one of the best serene-inducing moves in the whole form… "I have an idea," in fact, a whole arm load of them had come to him, only one of which she had to know about directly.
As expected, she said, "Oh, good. How can I help?"
And now he just had to pretend not to have heard her offer, which she should have expected, too, knowing he didn't like to find her in the thick of trouble and certainly wouldn't help her get there. But she wouldn't expect him to say: "I saw Clark earlier today…"
Still angry. But one of the ideas covered that. "I saw him in a phone booth, and he looked upset so I stopped by and asked him what was wrong."
"Upset? Was he stuck? Trapped?" she asked dryly. "Did he lock himself in so you had to rescue him? Did you *have* to?"
Supermen, he told himself, weren't supposed to hear insinuations like those or react to them. "He said he was trying to get hold of you but that you weren't at your desk and he thought you might not have wished to return his call…" But the action could be turned against itself… "You're angry at him again." Everybody else suspected that was the case, so why not use it to resecure his real identity in the event she started gazing too hard at him?
She rolled her eyes and sighed, "I don't care if *every* one knows about it! That's not… really…"
She had been about to get mad at him, at his apparent nosiness, just a little, which might have enhanced their unusual relationship. But no, she was hesitating (it had to be the suit…), so he said it: "It's not any of my business. But I know now you were probably on your way here. He said he'd gotten a tip about the Jaymes Boys' hideout."
"Well, I didn't need it, I found out about this place through *my* sources."
"And he told me Inspector Henderson had tipped him off to this place as well. But *this* isn't their hideout."
"Oh, yeah?" How dare it not be when she'd risked life and limb to get this far and do her bit to rescue him and all that?
"They may have manufactured the bomb and stored things here, but now they've cleared out. Clark gave me this to give to you…" and he pulled the piece of paper Luthor had given him out of his belt, glanced into it just to be sure it was what had been promised (am I taking a chance, he wondered, or going with the flow?), and handed it over.
She read the address of a home in the bedroom community of Midvale. "But this isn't Clark's handwriting…"
She noticed that kind of thing? Interesting. "He was sneezing while he wrote it. He said something about fearing he had caught the flu that was going around police headquarters. His lungs did look congested…" He felt the flow of the story come naturally, like gentle water nothing could stop, wearing away all resistance.
"And he wanted *me* to have this?"
"He said you were the best person to look into it, more so than the state police or the FBI, but I don't think even you are interested in tackling up to a dozen heavily armed men."
"Well, there is that… You, on the other hand, look like you're about ready to tackle anything. Your black eye's…" said as politely as she could, "almost normal looking now…"
It didn't feel normal, but it wouldn't hinder him either. "Good." Considering the gravity of the situation, he didn't care much any more what he looked like, which, when he reflected upon it, seemed like another indication of successful healing. "I can take you to the nearest phone and you can call Inspector Henderson while I do other things."
"I'd rather talk to him in person."
"Lois, if my idea doesn't work and the bomb goes off, I'll probably survive it, but you…" having almost lost her once today… "I wouldn't be very happy about you being blown up."
"I'm glad to hear that, but whatever your plan is, I'm sure it will work. Think positive! Let's go." And she stood up and offered him her hand.
It occurred to him that while Lois was taller than Madame Huang and not at all dumpy-with-age or froggy looking, he wouldn't have hesitated to take the Madame's hand for help. No, if he couldn't stand on his own, the plan, as simple as it was, really wouldn't work. He said, "No, thank you, I might pull you over," which perhaps she expected because she withdrew her hand and stood back a pace. He almost automatically tried to floated up until he realized he didn't want to be out of contact with the earth, even through the rug and concrete floor, until he was good and ready.
He stood up carefully, assessing his condition. A moment of dizziness passed. His left arm felt weak but that was passing, too, and he could defer to it for a while longer. He lengthened his back, unlocked his knees, sunk his chi into his dan tien, and sighed. All systems go, just, so it was time to get out of here.
Lois had picked up his cape and had that "wow I'm glad I know *you*" look in her eye. He tried to ignore it because it certainly wasn't something one could build a lasting relationship on, took his cape and draped it over her shoulders and pulled it tight… and gave up and gave in to the desire to exchange a friendly little kiss with her. She looked appreciative. He wished he could feel that way deep down inside, but as he wasn't getting anywhere with her as Clark in real life, one had to settle.
"Are you *sure* you want me to take you to Henderson?"
"If we find a phone and I call they'll put me on hold indefinitely."
Well, he couldn't argue that. He picked her up, made sure she was as comfortable as possible (she wasn't complaining), and told her he would have to travel fast. To protect her from windburn, possible frost bite and all the air being sucked out of her lungs, he explained he'd be flying backwards to encourage a protective air pocket, she shouldn't be alarmed. She said "Go for it," and cuddled even closer, light as a feather; he couldn't complain about that. So he jumped into the air with her and rather enjoyed the trip himself.
He told her his plan, sketchy as it still was, so that when they hovered outside Henderson's fourth-story office window, Lois could look like she knew what she was doing when she reached out and tapped on it.
Henderson turned, look calmly amazed, said "Well, Kent came through" (Clark lip read that and hoped the man would repeat some version of it to Lois) and gave them a luke-warm thumbs up and with some effort lipped "Down stairs."
"Oh, he'll meet us downstairs," Lois said as they floated toward ground level. "The man's a real ball of fire…"
"Perhaps he's keeping his distance from his work," an approach with which he could sympathize. He unwrapped his cloak from around her and tucked it into its proper place around his neck using the hidden velcro strips. "I'd go in with you, but…"
"But I can loom almost as well as you can. I just hope 20 minutes is enough."
"It has to be, we only have about 30."
"Then you better—"
Go. He was in the stratosphere before it occurred to him that he might have paused a moment to steal what could be a last kiss… No, she was right, think positive. He soaked up a full load of sunlight and then streaked back down to earth and a certain address in the community of Midvale.
Having learned his lesson, he paused over the house in question and scoped it out. It was on a large, heavily wooded lot that could hide considerable nefarious activity from neighbors who were not known for believing in neighborliness, if the rumors about this conservative suburb were true. Not that it mattered; Clark wasn't feeling neighborly, either, though not in the fashion the Jaymes family had expected of those they lived among.
Luthor was wrong, they hadn't used up all the Kryptonite, if that was what was in the two spray cans sitting on a workbench in the basement. It was the only place Clark could see any evidence of the possibility of the deadly material, and he could certainly feel none of its influence. Ten members of the family, two of them women (one of them most of the Jaymes Boys's elderly mother and the other, Jessica, the only woman born into their generation), were either lounging in the front room of the house, watching a big-screen TV, or in the kitchen, preparing a feast.
He zipped to a conveniently secluded waterfront cove and borrowed a large net and several lengths of rope. Five seconds later, back at the house, he laid the net out on a flat portion of the roof, jumped into the backyard, knocked on the back door, then decided, what the hell, and pulled the screen door off the hinges and tossed it aside. The two women there were startled, but Clark had no quarrel with them at the moment (though Ma Jaymes could surely have used a good talking to about child rearing). A quick look melted and set the lock on the door that led down to the basement, and a move just as quick removed the two Jaymes boys (he didn't care which ones they were) from the kitchen to the roof, where he bound their hands and warned them, "Just *try* to jump…" They cringed.
The remaining six brothers and cousins were rounded up just as easily, tied and gathered in the net. A matter of five minutes' work at the most, and pleasant work, too. The remaining fifteen minutes of the twenty he had given Lois to try to put her part of the plan into action had to be given to transporting this much of the Jaymes gang in as safe a manner as he saw fit. They didn't have to be comfortable, and they weren't, but most of them had to arrive alive, conscious, and on the way toward being convinced that he, Superman, champion of justice and defender of everyone's rights, was now a little bit crazy.
They were screaming and cursing and crying when they arrived high over the square and he let them go. While they were dropping, he removed scales from Lady Justice's upraised statue hand, caught the Jaymes Boys bundle again, and hung it where the scales had been. For some reason they failed to appreciate the inherent grace in the move. He floated down and turned the net until he caught sight of Juan James, who was mashed up against the rope, breathing hard because someone's foot was in his back, and an pale, upside-down Jeff Jaymes, who smelled as though he had quite recently lost all he had eaten that day in one fell swoop.
"Hello there," Superman said. "Remember me?"
The noise in the pack died down abruptly; he had an audience. Good.
"Yes, it's me, the one and only, and, you know, you've really upset me. I don't think I've *ever* been this angry at anyone," and he smiled sweetly. He didn't count the Lois-nearly-marrying- Lex fiasco because his folks had been the only ones who could possibly have known how truly distressed he'd been about all that.
"As you can see…" and he began to float along and turn the net with him, "the place is deserted. I got word out in plenty of time," or maybe Henderson had figured it out already, making Lois's assignment easier, or someone had convinced the mayor to began evacuating the city on the general principle of things, and to start from the center out. Whatever. "So your party is over and it's only four minutes until sunset. It's just you all and me — and the device I set up to bounce the explosive sound waves right back here. Very little damage will be done, I might feel a little tickle, and there will be only eight deaths. Yours. That kind of thing used to bother me, but today I can live with it."
"Look at it this way — and work with me here, I'm still not feeling my old chipper self — you don't have to stay and clean up after the mess. Of course, *you* will be the mess and there won't be very much *left* after the bomb goes off…"
"And your mother won't be able to collect on your life insurance because no one will be able to identify any pieces of you and I can't possibly remember who all of you are nor do I care…"
"But have a nice day anyway!" and he kicked back and floated away, a serene and self-satisfied fellow if there ever was one.
Yes, it was definitely a strength/no-strength thing, and observing and listening. For example, he could hear what had to be the bomb mechanism ticking away deep in the base of the statue, easing into some kind of bizarre and dangerous life as the sun set. He had been by here several times in the last month and hadn't noticed anything suspicious, so maybe today really was Big Boom Day. Maybe there was a timer and it was light activated. He noted that the way the statue was set in the plaza, the last of this time of spring's sunlight would hit it all the way to sunset… He dared not scan the statue for any outward-looking part of the bomb, like light-sensitive diodes, Lois was right about that; he could set the thing off way too early, which in this case could be earlier than the four minutes full sunset was due. His hearing though was passive and noninvasive, like water, like the plan…
And in moments he picked up from them the thread he had hoped to hear:
"Do you have the remote?"
"You always hog it!"
"Yeah, you always carry it around in your pocket!"
"You think you're Number Juan!"
"Just because you're the oldest doesn't mean—"
"Oh, grow up! He's bluffing!"
"Yeah, I'm sure he's bluffing!"
"He doesn't *look* like he's bluffing!"
"But he's a boy scout—"
"And I broke his arm, I know I did!"
"And *I* hit him in the head! Even boy scouts—"
"Do you have the remote or not????"
A TV remote control? A brief if chancy glance told Clark that Juan Jaymes indeed did have one in his pocket. What luck, and here he had budgeted two minutes to rush back to the Midvale house (odds being that the bomb defuser was there), find it, return, and figure out how to use it. Instead, he could continue to float away toward the bank, giving no clue that he was listening in, coming to settle perhaps fifty yards away on one of the surprisingly comfortable marble gargoyles that overlooked the main city plaza. He kept that fine, airy look of one who knew that he had a front-row seat for a great show, having paid so much to get in.
And there were enough Jaymeses who saw it just that way.
Boy scout, eh? Not today. A little more like Resplendent Man than Civil Rights Man today.
Juan, despite Jeff's defense, was set upon by his other brothers and cousins, who found the remote in about five seconds. There was an argument about who was untied yet, who knew how to operate the thing, the secret sequence of buttons to press, and just how little sister Jessica had programmed it, but eventually (with at least two minutes to spare, Clark figured, depending on just when after sunset the bomb was set to detonate) a Jaymes hand and arm stuck itself out of the netting from near the top of the bundle and aimed until the slowly turning net full of men put the hand and the remote in the vicinity of Lady Justice's head.
Clark scoped in and saw the sequence of four buttons hit (their mother's street address, how original, but something they were bound to remember, true). Then he saw the statue's eyes flicker electronically and noticed that the bomb's winding-up-to- blow sound suddenly reversed and began winding down. He dared his x-ray vision then on the bomb and confirmed the fact. Perhaps their original plan had simply been to blackmail the bank, thus necessitating the ability to turn the bomb off at least until the money was out, but the threat hadn't worked, the bank wasn't afraid, and word had been leaked to the press to try to heighten pressure on the bank.
In a nanosecond he snatched the remote out of the Jaymes' hand and said, "Thank you," because, above all, his folks had taught him to be polite even in the face of adversity and those were eight of the most adverse faces he had ever seen.
The uproar among them began again, this time, of all things, about his bluffing. Some people just had no sense of humor.
He tuned them out, took the batteries out of the remote and stuck it in his belt and the batteries in his other boot, and began looking more closely at the head of the statue. Yes, it contained a full-fledged control mechanism of some kind. He prepared to smash the thing to smithereens but paused. Jessica Jaymes might have planned for this, too. Strength/No strength. Let the bomb squad experts look at it, he thought, that's what they got paid to do after all and he always tried not to take paying jobs away from regular folks.
He coasted down to the base of the statue and considered the easiest way to get to the bomb itself. Tip the whole thing up, walk under and rip it out? He could imagine the Jaymes bundle screaming as the Boys went careening out over the plaza. Interesting thought, but again maybe not the smartest move. The bomb was making no sound, showing no signs of "life" even after being x-ray viewed, but jostling it might not be the wisest idea at the moment. He could tunnel in to or under it later, if the bomb squad wished.
He then heard the sound of engines coming to life some four blocks away. The cavalry: he had spotted their discretely placed cameras as soon as he had entered the central plaza. They must have figured it was now safe to come rushing in to the rescue. He thought it was too early yet, and, foreseeing this, had told Lois to get him some time beyond the time the bomb could go off, but maybe she had been unable to talk, cajole or scream sense into them.
He zipped toward the main force, spotted Lois and Henderson cloistered with the Mayor and the Chief of Police and alighted by them, immediately gaining their attention.
Lois looked pleased that her backup looming partner had arrived in good shape. Henderson was worked up enough to appear mildly interested. The mayor was prepared to argue: all this was costing money. Superman grounded himself and said simply: "The bomb may not be defused yet."
"There may be more to turning it off. Wait half an hour longer. That's all I ask." It could still blow them up at this distance before then, but at least he'd tried and maybe something would occur to him that he could do about it if he realized it was about to happen. It might even require strength and speed, but it would be part of the flow then.
The Mayor reluctantly agreed (it could cost more money not to); the Chief of Police hesitated.
So he needed bribing. "Give your bomb squad this. It apparently controls the bomb." Superman handed him the remote but gave the batteries to Henderson. "Ask them not to point that thing at the Plaza, please."
And he left. If all this reasonableness wasn't enough to stop the troop movement, then nothing was, and perhaps nothing would happen anyhow. He preferred caution though.
He sat down to wait on the edge of the fountain-base of the statue. He noticed that the partly cloudy sky was turning a pollution-tinted red, orange and yellow. Quite pretty somehow. He thought about Madame Huang and how maybe he'd been too young and too American (but not fat and lazy) to have all that Taoist stuff thrown at him all at once. Then again, she knew he wasn't going to stick around for six months, either, that he could survive a sudden, all-out emersion, and that it would make an impression on him.
He remembered sitting on the porch with her and her husband the evening after she had shown him how much he didn't know that morning, after she had tried to clue him in, a hopeless task he sighed, and after he had read more of the book and watched both water *and* animals that afternoon.
Master Huang was arguing that it would be helpful if she showed him the martial arts aspects of the form. She wasn't listening, saying he thought he knew how to fight already and needed to learn how not to fight.
He didn't know what to make of it. He hadn't been much interested in the various wrestling or boxing teams at school. He'd never fought anyone outside of a few times on the playground in grade school, defending younger, smaller kids. Rough-housing with his friends didn't count. He had played football against some really big fellows in midschool and high school and they were trying to recruit him at the university, but that didn't count either. He had no plans to fight anyone ever again. The whole idea was bizarre at best. Not that he couldn't defend himself, a score of would-be pickpockets had learned that.
Clark eventually begged his hosts' pardon and went around to the back porch and unrolled his bed there and laid down to hear the chickens and the pigs snoozing and see the mountain almost glow with night life in the distance. Despite his confusion he slept peacefully.
The next morning, at practice time, as she was tossing him around, throwing him to the ground and complaining about how "high" he was, he saw his friends approaching. His heart sunk. He was sure they'd claim they understood exactly what he was going through because they'd been there themselves, but he was equally sure he didn't want to hear about it. He wished he was a tourist again.
Madame Huang threatened to wop him with the empty chicken feed bag once more (it certainly didn't hurt, which she knew; it was more likely intended to refocus his attention) if he didn't turn back to the lesson, but he pointed. "Those are my friends. I told you about them."
She peered at them. They waved. "Hummp," she said. "Tall, skinny American girls."
"But they're not lazy."
"No, Blue Man Clarkent, they are not lazy."
She had started calling him "Blue Man" on occasion, god knows why, shortly after she had forced from him the evening before the observation that the animals didn't struggle because they knew who they were and that they didn't have to be anything else. But, sheesh, that was obvious!
"Come, practice is not over."
Wop. "Thank your lucky stars she's not using a stick, Clark," Marty said, "*My* teacher had a big solid oak jobby that could crack your skull open if he wasn't careful. Fortunately, he was."
"She thinks. I've noticed these lumps on her head that shouldn't be there and she gets these weird looks in her eyes. Says she saw you flying around over where we were camping one night…"
Clark wasn't in the mood to laugh, though he did manage a skeptical look at Marty to indicate he didn't think much of her claim to have seen him flying. They had teased him about a lot of things, and he had teased right back, but up until now he thought he had been very careful about not revealing anything out of the ordinary about himself. Maybe that was the night he'd found out he was nearly out of film and so had to get right home, and he'd been careless…
As Madame Huang wasn't pressing for him to tell them they should be moving on and here came Master Huang with wide eyes (did he consider that a leer?), Clark made quick introductions. There were bows and smiles all around, and even Madame seemed to be at ease and to know more English than he had expected. What he didn't expect her to say was, "Clarkent good student, learn fast."
His friends beamed on his behalf.
But he couldn't let a good stone go unturned to see its dark, damp side. "She keeps saying I'm too high, but that doesn't make any sense, I don't understand it."
Marty looked him up and down, seeing only his dusty clothing surely and not some weirdo who flew at night like a vampire or something. Lisa simply shrugged. "That just means your feet aren't on the ground."
"But they are," and he looked down. "They…"
It dawned on him. His feet were nearly six feet down there to the ground, on the Earth, which was reaching up to grab and secure him, and keep him from being too high, and even out his strength, too, probably, if he would let it…
Marty stage whispered to Lisa, "I see a little light bulb."
"Yeah, like someone opened the refrigerator and found chocolate mousse."
"You do miss that coffee shop in Berkeley, don't you?"
"Yeah, desperately sometimes… Look, Clark, just sink your chi into your dan tien and you can do anything. She won't be able to push you over or trip you up, once you've got the hang of it and know how not to be in her way."
And not like the rock in a stream… "That's what she's been saying." He looked at Madame Huang; she looked serene. "That's what you've been saying all along," he said in the most respectful, awestruck Mandarin manner he knew.
"Blue Man Clarkent not so fat and lazy any more," she replied in the same language. "You did not know that the earth throws you into the sky with joy when you fly, it is not all your idea."
And now he was glad she knew so little, or at least spoke so little English, and that his friends had picked up only bits of the local dialect (happily faking their way along instead), because he was still in touch with Lisa and Marty on occasion. They might have connected the Blue Man name and the Madame's flying reference and what Marty had seen one night with what he was doing in his spare time in Metropolis. They had written once to ask him all about Superman and what he knew about the fellow soon after, out of necessity, he'd burst on to the scene that way (he'd sent them clippings of Lois's breathless articles about the strange man from outer space, sure they wouldn't make any connection to him). They were as savvy in their ways as Madame Huang was in hers, and they might have seen in him a fellow who was struggling along because he didn't know himself who he was. Not that it mattered, according to the Book of the Way. He didn't have to *be* anything but… what he was, which currently was Superman-flavored Clark Kent, and not make it into some big production number of a struggle…
Maybe it was time to incorporate a bit of that into his life's outlook… He closed his eyes and thought of the form.
6:30. Time flies when you're dancing with a bomb, turning it into a flower, he thought.
And here they came, car loads of police, city officials and media, bomb squad vans, and, somewhere in there, Lois. Clark didn't want to stay for this, he had talked enough to them already (he wanted to leave and phone in the story), and he didn't want anyone to notice if he still looked at all beaten up, though he didn't feel that so much any more. But somebody had to explain about the bomb and also, if desired, remove the fellows still hanging off the statue.
The police arrived first, at some distance, and cut off access to the square to everyone but the bomb squad vans and their high-intensity lights. A dozen men (all men, Clark noted), heavily padded and helmeted, shot out of the backs of the vans and trooped up to where Superman was standing now waiting for them. He told them what he had discovered about the bomb and wondered, but did not ask, what they had decided about the remote. Jessica Jaymes had probably just used its off-the-shelf capability and the real work was in the head of the statue itself. They grilled him for minute details about what he had seen, having him superspeed draw several information-packed diagrams, and finally among themselves decided it was a one of those simple yet elegant devices they had dreamed all their lives about seeing but never once dared entertain the thought of experiencing for themselves.
Whatever, Clark thought. He said, "Then I'll leave it's disposal to you gentlemen."
"Don't worry," he was assured.
As for the Jaymes thought they could stay up there for a while longer since they hadn't started to spoil yet. Lois (who was nowhere in sight) had said she could identify those who had assaulted her. Clark was beginning to think she actually wouldn't say anything about what had happened to him (after all, Henderson hadn't asked him to stay for a line up identification session), but in case any of the Jaymes Boys decided to talk, a little reinforcing scare might be in order. He floated up and grabbed the attention of several of those in the bundle who were facing roughly in his direction.
"This was fun, wasn't it?"
They didn't agree and most of them weren't even happy they had survived their own handiwork. But they were listening.
"Tsk, tsk, tsk. It looks like I'll just have to think up some more games to play with you, won't I? Have any of you ever visited the North Pole? It's not a long trip — *cold*, but not more than an hour or so, the way I travel…"
Well, none of them wanted to go there, such party poopers, with the emphasis on poop for some of them since the flight from their home.
"I don't suppose you're interested in Mars either? It's pretty this time of year and there's this very interesting billion-year-old mountain-sized face… No? I'll tell you what, I can compromise. I'll come looking for you after you get out of jail, all right? We can have some *real* fun then…"
They didn't seem too pleased with that prospect either, but he left them with it and in the able (he hoped) hands of the police.
As he was rising away from the crowd below, he felt not only a wash of relief but a little tingling sensation. Nothing physical, more of a warning. He turned, looking around the plaza until, in the west, hundreds of yards away, he saw Lex, still dressed in black and wearing the same cap.
And holding up the lunch pail, pointing at it, smiling. Then, pulled by a frowning, nervous-looking blond-haired woman, he vanished into the deep shadows.
You won't get off so easy next time, Clark thought, and then it occurred to him that Lex was probably thinking the very same thing.
He returned to the now-deserted Midvale house and its basement, where he gingerly approached the two spray cans. They were empty and there was no other trace of Kryptonite here. Next, Lexcorps Chemicals. He checked by the receiving office first, from a distance, and was glad (in a way) to see that Lex must come have here, too, and collected any spare Kryptonite string. He followed the trail of his own blood, to his relief just drops of it here and there, to the monitoring room, along the way using his heat vision to steam away the evidence. He retrieved the paint can with Lois's collected Kryptonite string, made sure the seal was tight, sealed that and the bloody paper towels in another larger can and welded that one shut, and dropped the whole thing dead center into the Bermuda Triangle.
It was dark by the time he slipped into his own home sweet home, threw off his suit and took a quick, hot shower. Out of that and still damp, he grabbed up his phone, fell (lightly) on to his couch, put his feet up on the back of it, and called Kansas.
"Oh, Clark, you're on TV."
"Yeah, well…" He didn't want to talk about Superman — but then caught himself: don't struggle with it, it just happens, and it just happens to be you. "It's on tape, Dad. Are you having visitors tonight or anyone rooming with you?" because his folks had taken to hosting the occasional ag student interested in organic farming. Clark had been relieved upon learning of this because he still felt some guilt about not following in his father's footsteps and becoming a farmer, too. Ah, there was another thing not to struggle with.
"No, son, only you, if that's what you're really asking."
Clark heard the other cell phone pick up.
"We're on our way out the door, though, honey," his mom said psychically. "We're having dinner and seeing a movie. Will you be all right?"
"I just want to get away for a day or two, and I've got sick leave backed up from here to, well, China and I'm taking some."
"Then come. There's some left-over fried chicken and a pitcher lemonade in the refrigerator."
"Thanks, Mom!" That was all he wanted to hear, the permission to come, not about the food, he wasn't particularly hungry. He had one more call to make and a little acting needed, which he though about as he put on some comfortable clothing. The tired part would come naturally, but sounding congested was something he wasn't sure he could pull off and wondered why he had described himself that way to Lois, other than it sounded like something one with a cold would be.
But he found himself talking to Mrs. O'Shea. Perry had danced out of the office in unseemly high spirits, she said, and was at the scene of some wild bomb threat having the time of his life. She apparently did not think it a wise move for the editor of the paper to turn cub reporter just because all the regular reporters were busy all over the city.
Clark heard her out and then she accepted his excuse for not coming in ("I think I picked up that flu that's going around police headquarters," cough, cough). She also took down the details about the statue where he said he thought the bomb might be (height, weight, information he recalled from the publicity about the original and surely the Jaymes's had copied that as much as possible); what he had been able to find out during the day about the bomb itself (things the bomb squad spokesman could have told him had he asked as Clark); and good details about the Jaymes Boys' last hide out, which he said he had been observing all afternoon, up to the point when Superman disappeared over the horizon toward Metropolis with eight frightened men in a net, whatever that meant.
He asked her to give all that to Lois for her story and explain to the chief about his being sick. She told him about hot water, lemon juice and honey. Sounds like a good idea, he said. He warned her he was taking his phone off the hook for at least the next 24 hours so he could get some rest, coughed again, and hung up.
That was the last call but not the last chore. He washed his blood- and sweat-stained suit, hoping there wasn't anything like Kryptonite dust on it, though he'd been flying around enough probably to dislodge any of that. It cleaned up well. In the process he found a few small tears but that was good considering the beating; his mom would be pleased to hear how this blend of natural and artificial materials was really holding up. He shook the suit dry, patched the holes cleanly, folded and compressed it and the boots, stuck them into his sturdy old belt pouch, and left for Kansas.
"Don't wake him up, Jonathan…"
"I won't, I won't… It looks like he's a good half a foot up."
"That's not very high for all that we heard went on…" Martha took the flashlight from her husband and looked around the door at her son. Clark was stretched out diagonally over bed. Maggie the calico cat had appropriated three-fourths of his pillow (though Clark wasn't using it anyhow, or had given up trying), and Roscoe, the big mixed-breed, Lab-like dog, was happily snoring away on much of the lower portion of the bed.
"Oh, he looks so sweet… And like whatever brought him home wasn't such a big thing."
"And he laid out his clothes, look."
Clark's T-shirt and jeans were draped neatly over the back of the chair at the desk rather than having been tossed in that general direction, which would have been a real indication of something wrong.
"Maybe whatever it was beyond the bomb thing, he was able to deal with it better."
Maggie stretched, Clark adjusted himself a bit and eased down half inch. His parents pulled the door closed and decided to turn in as well since it was nearly 11.
The next morning, as Jonathan finished washing their breakfast dishes and Martha was half way through drying them, she elbowed him and pointed. Maggie the cat was sitting in the doorway into the dining area washing a high-thrust rear foot and managing to look indignant at the same time ("I was forced to come down here and do this!"). Roscoe appeared next, trying to look deserving of a handout and quite forgiving if nothing were forthcoming because he loved them despite all their faults.
Jonathan dried his hands on Martha's dish towel. "I'll go up and see how he is."
"I'll finish these and be right up, too."
Going up the stairs, Jonathan noticed that the bathroom door was open and the light was on. He looked in to see his tall, handsome son making faces at himself in the mirror. There were just some things he'd never understand about the boy. "Clark? Are you all right?"
Clark turned. "Oh, yeah, Dad, I'm feeling fine. G'morning," and they exchanged hugs.
"It's nice to see you, son, but it *is* unexpected…"
"I know. I'm glad you said I could come…"
Why was it so hard to talk to Clark sometimes? Other fathers surely had such problems with regular sons who, say, delivered the mail or taught school or bought out savings and loans or sold drugs… "Well, it was a bomb, that's a big thing…"
"Yeah, and it was a *really* big bomb, it could have wiped out the city. Oh, hi, Mom."
Martha had no trouble at all approaching Clark. She demanded and got a hug *and* a kiss. "Hi, honey…" She stepped back and looked him up and down. He was in the T-shirt and Levis she had snuck in and traded for the clothes he had worn flying home. She was eternally grateful that he had discovered how to put some kind of minor protective aura around himself, because she hadn't relished the thought of his asking how to wash bug-spattered clothing. Now Clark looked, what was it… "There's something… Move over here in the light… Is your face swollen?" and she turned his head gently for a better look.
"A little, I guess. It was a lot worse yesterday."
She frowned. Some things had to be dragged right out of the Clark and it wasn't because she sensed he was purposefully hiding anything, he simply didn't seem to realize it. She decided not to point out the obvious scar of a cut and the slightly greenish tinge of old bruises here and there on his arms. "Old," she knew, was probably yesterday, too. "Well, what happened? There was nothing about you being hurt on TV…"
"Good, I didn't want there to be. Let's just say it's a long story, and it involves both Kryptonite and Lex Luthor."
"*And* Lois keeping her promise not saying anything about it."
"Now that *is* a surprise," Jonathan chuckled.
"No wonder you came home, dear. And I'll bet you didn't eat any dinner, either. That chicken looked completely untouched. You'll eat waffles though, I made extra batter…"
She had to ask? He loved her waffles. She used up all the extra batter and made more, adding peaches and bananas and nuts and real maple syrup over that, and she could have shoveled it in, Clark thought, and she knew it. As he told his story about what had happened, she cleaned the kitchen all over again, working off some of the excess energy she always seemed to have, and his father sat and listened quiet and then pretty much agreed with him that if Luthor hadn't been trying to regain control of his empire by hiring the Jaymes Gang, none of this would have happened.
But his mother said, "Maybe, but he might have thought of something else and you could have been in worse trouble because he wouldn't have felt a need to clean up the mess he started. Now you know for sure he's alive and that he has some Kryptonite. You're prepared."
"Yeah, I guess you're right… If there were just something I could do about that stuff…"
"You could spray yourself with lead-based paint," Jonathan suggested and then smiled at his joke.
"Yeah, Paintman to the rescue…"
"Hue-man," Martha said quietly as she poured the last of that carton of milk for him.
Clark sat back and looked pained (which he was overly familiar with doing now). "Oh, that's *awful*…"
"Yes, it's worse than what I just thought of, The Paintster," Jonathan said.
"So this is what I get when I come home… And I'd have to carry cans of turpentine everywhere. Think of what *that* would do to my so-called love life…" and if he used just simple blue paint he could be Blue Man for real… He glanced at the kitchen clock: it was nearly 8, way too late for something that was now occurring to him that he should do. But it could be done tonight instead and probably better. "Well, is there anything I can do to help out around the place to pay for this great meal and your awful puns?"
His parents smiled knowingly at each other.
Move furniture and kitchen appliances; help fix a recently acquired tractor with spot welds, bending parts back into shape and such; clean up the barn; load some new programs on to the computer and test them out; and then he was ordered to stop being helpful and take the afternoon off. "You're supposed to be sick, you know, and after yesterday, who knows? You could still be feeling some of the effects," his mother warned.
He didn't feel any effects, he felt great, but he did decide to relaxing a bit wouldn't hurt, either.
A half hour after lunch, Martha came across him up in his old room staring into the closet. "What are you looking for?"
"A book… There it is." He floated up, pulled a sealed box off top shelf of the closet, turned and floated down to put it on the desk, opened and began digging through it.
"Be careful, you want to be able to seal it back up…" She was glad he didn't seem to be in a hurry to move everything to Metropolis and that he felt safe keeping what few Superman mementos he had here, for example, but neither did she want to put it all away again for him. When she saw what he found, she said, "Oh, it's that book in Chinese."
"I was thinking a lot about it yesterday. Time to brush up… Do you remember that picture of me in the suit that I liked and I sent you copy?"
"How can I forget? It's the *only* one you've liked."
"So I'm picky."
That's not the word she would have used. Reticent, shy, even embarrassed sometimes, but not picky.
"Well, I liked it, too. That's why I got a dozen color photocopies of it made the last time I was in Wichita." She'd had the feeling he might need some, had paid for them in cash, and no doubt anyone who wondered had simply thought her a middle-aged Superman groupie. But who wasn't?
"Great. Can I have one?"
The copies and the original were in her file cabinet in her office/studio. Clark sat at the desk there and used a pen and scrap of paper to practice several Chinese characters before drawing them in ball-point on a light-colored area in the lower part of one of the photocopies of himself in the suit smiling, but not too grandly, at the photographer, who happened to have been Jimmy. He had just delivered Lois to the *Planet*'s newsroom from some adventure or another during which he had stumbled over and rescued her, and Jimmy had crept up and begged for just one little eensy-weensy shot, it would be no big long thing to set up with lights or a studio, and it could do wonders for his career, please? Clark had been in a good mood so he had said sure, and, since he had some control over the situation, he had posed, and the picture had actually come out well. Later, as Clark at work, he'd pocketed one of the prints (he was due it, he figured, and there were dozens lying around anyhow; rumor had it they were planning to put it in a brochure; if so, they'd better talk to his agent first…) and sent it to his folks.
"My Chinese is rusty, Clark, you'll have to tell me what it says…"
Considering how much she had traveled in her youth, setting him up with tales of backpacking up the Amazon and in the mountains of New Zealand, Clark wouldn't have been surprised if she did know some Chinese. He told her and she laughed. "That's a good one. Planning on visiting her then?"
"Tonight after dinner. It'll be morning there. And then I can go back to Metropolis and have a miraculous recovery from the flu."
"I'll bag up some herbs you can take her, too, if you'd like, but stop back by here before you go home so I can give you something that should make Lois think you're just adorable again."
"She's *never* thought I was… But, Mom, I didn't say *any*thing about us having a fight…"
"You didn't need to, mothers know these things. Why don't you take the book out to the hammock and take a nap? You'll be traveling a lot tonight…"
He didn't think he would nap, but he did. He woke looking up into the trees, thinking about the day, and how he had no idea what was going on in the rest of the world and how nice that was…
Dinner was a usual one, filling and full of the pleasant conversation he reveled in. He washed and dried the dishes afterward, taking his time. His mother had been thinking about the gift herbs he would take along to China and had expanded on the idea. Three peanut butter jars with tight lids held three kinds of mint, and attached to each were baggies with fresh-cut samples of the live plants, "So she can see them in their natural state. Tell her she can have more if she'd like. Do you think her husband would like some chocolate-chip cookies?"
Clark had no idea but said, "Sure, I guess so," they certainly wouldn't be any extra burden to carry, and if the Huangs didn't want them, hey, he could find *some*one to eat them on his way back.
He heard the international weather report come up on CNN, which his father was relaxing in front of, and he noted there was one of the last of winter's storms churning uncertainly over northern Canada, so he'd have to fly higher there. That didn't worry him. As a kid going back and forth he'd flown low and could still do so when the need arose, such as disguising his origin and destination points. But now the militaries of the countries concerned had his flight signature and were unlikely to think he was a single missile attack when they picked him up going over the North Pole. The remainder of the northern hemisphere weather report didn't look bad either. He left before the regular news could resume.
It was just past dawn local time when he alighted unseen and stood at the front gate of the Huang residence. He wore his old T-shirt and jeans (washed now since his mother had tossed them in with a load she was doing anyhow). So, as planned, he looked much like he had when he saw Madame Huang the first time, and then visited for a few days three years later, the summer before he'd packed his bags and headed for Metropolis with a song in his heart, visions of a great career playing through mind, and all that kind of foolishness that had been nearly dashed to pieces during his first interview with Perry. Madame Huang had given him a refresher T'ai Chi course and a convoluted prejob-hunting- attempt pep talk that had made incredible sense after Perry had politely tossed him out.
Her place looked as well kept as ever, and he had noted before touching down that Master Huang was watching two Caucasians, a man and a woman about Clark's age, pushing hands in the back yard. He hadn't been able to get into that subtle form of interaction yet, there just hadn't been time.
Madame Huang, unchanged, stepped out on her porch, nodded at him, then turned and went back in. He took that as an invitation to follow her, particularly as she left the door open. "I hope I'm not disturbing you, ma'am, or your students," he said as he stepped inside the warm, dark house where he could smell some kind of stew cooking away over a gas fire on the Great Leap Forward-brand stove she hadn't had last time he had visited.
"The students will stop when Mr. Huang tells them to stop. They are his students because he is what they expect, and they don't stop because they don't attract the troubles to think about that you do. Do you come for breakfast?"
He was still pondering how sexism maybe didn't let the students see her as a teacher, and trying not to think too hard about the "attract the troubles" comment and the inescapable truth of it, and he had to catch up. "No, ma'am, I already ate."
"Tea would be fine," because she had water boiling on the stove's other burner anyhow.
"Yes, tea for bad day yesterday, hmm?"
There was no way she could have known the details of his yesterday (her two days ago) as she had no radio or TV, he'd had yet to see a newspaper between here and the nearest town, and what happened in Metropolis wasn't the kind of news she would have picked up in marketplace gossip. "It was a challenging day, but I thought a lot about your teachings."
She began putting together herbs and twigs and adding them to a cup of hot water. "It is always good to think about what one has been taught."
"I should be using it instead of just thinking about it now and then though…"
"Perhaps it is not time for you to think more than act."
"I don't know — it might help me not attract so much trouble…"
"The sage knows how to let trouble flow around him while he observes it. The sage also walks, measuring each step, but the earth invited you here to fly. What are you carrying?"
Struggling to keep up with her observations, he was glad to be given something easy to do. He unpacked his bag and told her what each thing was, at least the English equivalent. She opened the herbs, smelled them, and began mumbling about what she could use them for. Clark memorized that so he could tell his mother. She tried one of the cookies and smiled. "*Very* good medicine."
She asked him to sit down then and served him the tea she had brewed up, instructing him to drink it slowly. It tasted bizarre though not bad, and it also felt like it immediately began coursing through his body looking for imbalances to set right. Maybe it could do that, maybe it had some new ideas on the matter.
Then she looked at him hard. "You hurt all over, yes?"
"Yesterday, yes; today, no."
Rather than assure her that was the case, he paused. It had felt so good to have wrapped up the mess and gone home, well, he could have discounted a lot. Still…
"Your shoulder," and she imitated — overexagerated, actually — the guarding action he now saw he had been using, but that was right, he hadn't been using his left arm as much as he might have. The break in his forearm had healed up, but maybe they'd dislocated his shoulder or something that had thrown a subconscious scare at him. His excuse for not using it as much could have been that he was right handed when he wasn't feeling ambidextrous. "I guess it hurts a little," he admitted, but she'd need a jackhammer to do any kind of massage…
She walked up behind him, hardly taller than he was sitting. He felt a few moments of her gentle, probing pressure, and then a grab and a twist and, ah! "Wow…"
"Don't pick up an elephant today, please."
"I don't plan to…" He rotated his shoulder carefully and noticed the relaxed difference immediately. What else was still healing that he had no idea about? He wondered about asking for a supply of the tea… And she turned away to find a small tin to put some in.
Her back to him, she asked, "Did you bring something else for me?"
It would be as hard to hide Christmas presents from her as it had been from him when he'd been young. "Yes, ma'am," and she came over again with the covered tin as he pulled the picture, wrapped in a plastic bag by his mother, out of his shirt. He took it out of the plastic (thinking the bag might confuse her), gave the picture to her, and resumed sipping the tea.
She peered at it, looked at him, nodded, and then looked at the calligraphy carefully. He wondered if he had written it incorrectly or if perhaps she had trouble reading, which might explain the lack of newspapers of any kind. But no, she moved her lips as she read: "Fat, lazy, American boy," and smiled. "Not so fat and lazy any more. Now you just need to make that pretty woman happy to see you again."
He didn't even bother being startled or wondering how she knew that. "I'm taking care of it, thank you."
"I have heard of this work you do," and she indicated the picture. "It is not the job you wanted."
"No, it just happened. I guess you would say I drew it to myself."
"I would say that," she nodded and turned away to prop the picture up on the little shelf over her tiny kitchen sink. He wondered what visitors — hey, what the current students would think of it ("*Superman* comes to *you* for instruction and we missed him?" and she'd act indifferent about it), but then he decided as he finished the tea that if there were any danger in having a simple picture she could certainly take care of herself and she wouldn't have done it if she sensed it endangered him.
When she had arranged the picture to her liking, she faced him and looked her old self again. "I would also say that you are assisting people who do not know yet that they are responsible for their own deeds."
Hang here and think about this bomb you planted, Jaymes Gang… "I like that way of looking at it." If he was going to attract trouble anyhow, and there didn't seem any way out of it short of trying to mothball his suit again, he might as well see his job as not only helping the distressed but the distressors…
"Don't think so much, Clarkent. I hope you are going soon."
He told himself not to take that as quite being kicked out the door. "I just came to see how you're doing."
"Next time stay longer. You will learn push hands. I have a good student who is almost your big size. She will throw you here and there."
"I… look forward to it."
"And watch out for the man with no hair."
Even he knew that one. "I will."
"Not bald," that was a different word and she said carefully, "No hair."
Clark sat back, amazed. A hairless Lex? Lois was right, he *had* looked like a Ken doll in that block of ice… No wonder he was crazy. Clark marshaled all his strength not to smile at the poor fellow's misfortune. "That's very interesting news, Madame Huang."
"He has thrown his boulder into your river."
"I'll wear him away."
"Who knows? Are you going now?"
Yes, yes, yes. He wanted to give her an I'll-be-seeing-you- again hug after she escorted him to the front porch, but substituted a respectful bow. The road in front of her house was not a heavily traveled one, so in a moment, when the coast was clear, he jumped into the sky and headed home. He noticed that she didn't stay on the porch to watch but turned and went back into the house.
The next morning, he arrived precisely on time at the *Daily Planet*. Those who saw him on his way to his desk asked how he was doing and commented that he looked recovered, and he said he felt fine. Until, of course, that turned into apprehension when he saw that Lois was at her desk, pounding away at her keyboard, absorbed in her notes on some no-doubt-breaking story. If she noticed his approach, she gave no indication.
So he could slip the paper bag on to her desk before she could say anything. When she saw it a moment later and looked up at him with an indecipherable expression on her face, he explained quietly, so the rest of the noisy newsroom, which was unavoidably all ears, wouldn't hear: "My mom has great timing, she sent me a care package, and it arrived yesterday. But there's way too much stuff in it for me to eat. So if you'll take that and consider it a, well, a I'm-still-really-sorry, please- forgive-me gift…"
"Oh?" She peaked in the bag. "Brownies?!"
He considered saying something about there only being half a pan equivalent of them because he didn't want her to get fat or diabetic, but before he could decided how to phrase it so it wouldn't come out like an insult to her intelligence, she said, "Oh, Clark, you shouldn't have — but I'm not giving them back, either."
"Then you forgive me?"
"Oh, that. I forgave you Tuesday evening after seeing all that information you left for me, and then before that you asked Superman to give me the real address of the hideout, well… Don't tell me you didn't read the paper yesterday. No? Well, when Perry turned up to cover what was going on in the Plaza, I gave Inspector Henderson the real address but got out there myself just before the police did. The Jaymes's were gone, of course, but that's not your fault, you *tried* to get in touch with me earlier, I know that, though Perry really ought to get you a cell phone or a beeper or *some*thing. Anyway, they left plenty of evidence behind, so it was a really great tip. I was surprised I didn't see you there anywhere, but if you weren't feeling well, no wonder you went home since it probably looked to you like Superman had cleaned out the place. Oh, and, by the way, you look fine."
"I feel fine," considering all the worry, the *struggle* he had gone through the last 36 hours about nothing… "So you were all over the place on Tuesday. I wish I'd been here to hear your tales…"
"I was everywhere, but nothing much happened. Oh, I went to the old Lexcorps Chemicals plant and was found out by the Jaymes Gang and they threatened me and left me there all tied up," she shrugged, it happened every day, "but Superman rescued me and we figured out where the bomb was, and the rest, as they say, is history, Pulitzer history maybe."
"That's all? You hung around with him and solved the mystery and that's *all* that happened?"
She gave him an annoyed look. "Clark, Superman and I can work together as well as you and I do and nothing more happens between us than… than happens between you and me… darn it."
Oh? Just which couple was she darning that for? But it was obvious… wasn't it? There was no way to ask… "Oh, I see. I just wondered."
"Sure you did."
She was keeping the Kryptonite thing to herself, not even sharing a hint of it with her closest working confidant who was back in favor again. That was promising. What other secrets could she be trusted with?
And what else could he try? "Since we're friends again, are you doing anything tomorrow night?"
"Don't press your luck, Clark. Just because that artist was gay and I hated his work and I went anyway…"
"But you looked great…"
"*Maybe* I wasn't all dressed up for *him*…"
Huh? Whoa! She certainly hadn't asked the guy in the tights to take her, probably thinking he had better taste, but that left only… He couldn't think of anything to do but smile.
She smiled, too, but serenely. "Ask me again later if you want — but *I'm* driving."
What did the Buddhist say to the hot dog vendor? Make me One with Everything, Please.
(though I have an idea for a sequel…) The author thanks Laurie, Amy, and Marie for their proofing/ critiquing. I couldn't have finished it without you.
firstname.lastname@example.org early a.m., January 1, 1995