By Becky Bain <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted July 2000
Summary: What if Clark hadn't returned from New Krypton? Lois learns that life goes on, and eventually finds closure… until, one day, the seeming impossible happens.
A word of warning: if Lois and Clark together and in love is necessary for your enjoyment of a story, this one probably isn't for you. But it came into my head several years ago and wouldn't go away until I wrote it.
I've said before, in other forums, that I (or maybe it's my muse!) like to play "What If?" when I write a story. What if this happened, how would our characters deal with it? The What If in this story will become obvious soon. The title of the story, Ad Astra per Aspera, is the state motto of Kansas. It means "To the stars through difficulties."
My thanks to the usual suspects — Kay, Beth, Dori, Karen, and LabRat — for beta-reading and offering their invaluable insights. Everything I write is much the better for their scrutiny!
The usual disclaimers apply.
"Earth to Tom!"
Daily Planet columnist Tom Warren snapped out of his daydream and focused on the sheaf of 8x10 black-and-white photos waving in front of his face. "Huh? Oh, hi, Jimmy."
"Boy, you were lost in space!" Staff photographer Jimmy Olsen grinned at him.
"I guess I was." Across the newsroom, the door to editor Perry White's office swung open; Tom's gaze shifted to follow the progress of the dark-haired, dark-eyed, thirty- something reporter who emerged. "She's really something, isn't she?" he murmured, to no one in particular.
Jimmy turned to look. "Who, Lois? Yeah, I guess so, but you've been around long enough to know you're wasting your time there."
"I've heard." He knew all about Clark Kent. "It's been about four years, hasn't it?"
"Since CK disappeared? Yeah, about."
"And nobody knows where he went."
"If they do, they aren't saying," Jimmy answered. "People said Lois and Clark had a big fight, probably because she was so upset about Superman going to New Krypton, and he ran off, but that never sounded like something CK would do, to me."
"And she's waited for him, all this time."
"Yeah. It just about broke her heart, but she won't let anybody say he's dead, or even that he's not coming back."
Tom knew that much. He'd been present in the newsroom when someone had suggested assigning a new reporter to the empty desk that still bore Kent's nameplate. Lois had turned on the hapless fellow with a blistering tirade that didn't end until Perry himself emerged from his office and called her away. "That's the only time I've ever seen her mad," he murmured.
Jimmy seemed to know what he was thinking. "Yeah. She hardly ever gets mad anymore. Since Clark left, I mean. She's so different now."
Different. Perry White had said that about Lois once, too, in Tom's hearing. "She's still a fine reporter," he'd said, looking through the blinds in his office window, into the newsroom. "But she's not the same anymore. Just lost that edge, you know, that made her great. I guess she figured out there was more to life than Kerth awards."
"Olsen!" Perry's roar came clearly through his open office door. "Am I going to have pictures of that warehouse fire any time today?"
"On my way, Chief!" Jimmy called. "See you, Tom," he tossed over his shoulder as he hurried off to deliver the photos.
"See you, Jimmy," Tom acknowledged. He watched Lois Lane settle into her chair and open the file she'd carried from Perry's office. She looked harried; Perry'd called her in almost as soon as she'd arrived this morning and had most likely derailed whatever story she'd been planning to work on in favor of something new.
With a sigh, Tom turned back to his own work. The column on his screen was half written… and stalled. He made a few abortive starts on a new paragraph, then grabbed for his coffee cup and pushed back his chair. Maybe a short walk would clear his thinking.
He was pouring his coffee when he noticed a mug, clean and empty, sitting beside the machine. He picked it up. 'Smallville Feed Store' it said, in dark green letters. Lois's cup. He glanced to where she sat frowning and tapping a pencil against her desk. No coffee.
She must have been called away as she was about to pour it. He thought a minute, then filled it with decaf, added milk and sweetener, and carried it across the newsroom.
She looked up. "Oh, hi, Tom."
He offered the cup. "Milk and two packets of the blue stuff, right?"
She looked surprised… and wistful? "Yes," she answered after a moment, and accepted the cup. "Thank you. That was sweet."
He shrugged. "I saw you hadn't had time to get any…"
She smiled. "Stuck on your column again?"
"How did you…?"
"Everybody knows when you're stuck, Tom. You get up and get coffee, or visit the vending machine, or go put paper in the copy machine, or stare out the windows for a few minutes."
He grinned at the impish expression on her face. "I'm that obvious, huh?"
"Pretty much." She sipped at her coffee. "Mmm, just right. How did you know?"
He shrugged again. "I just noticed, I guess."
"It's very thoughtful. Thanks."
"You said that."
"Yeah, I guess I did. Well, I should probably get back to…"
"Lois?" He didn't mean to interrupt her, but he was afraid if he waited, he'd lose his nerve. "I hope I'm not out of line to ask this, but I know it's been a long time since, well, and I don't know, but… would you like to have dinner with me some night?"
Shock flared in her dark eyes. "Dinner? You mean… like a date?"
He felt clumsy and awkward and incredibly stupid. "Well… yeah. I guess so."
Her glance went to her left hand, where a modest diamond solitaire sparkled, and then to a framed photograph on her desk. In the picture, a younger Lois smiled at a handsome, dark-haired man wearing wire-frame glasses.
She looked back at Tom with a deep, ineffable sadness in her eyes. "That's really sweet, Tom, but I'm sorry, I don't date. I'm engaged to be married."
Lois Lane was the woman of his dreams. She was beautiful, intelligent, warm and funny. And yet, for as long as he'd known her, there'd been a remoteness, a distance. She kept everyone, even those who called themselves her friends, at arm's length. If anyone had asked, Tom would have said she was lonely.
He'd half-expected the turn-down, knowing more about her history than she probably suspected. But between his deep attraction to her, and the loneliness he sensed, he'd had to ask. And even now, after she'd turned him down, he couldn't walk away.
"Okay," he said. "But listen…"
She waited patiently.
"Some people say I can be a pretty good friend. So if you ever need one… well, you know where I am."
Genuine surprise showed in her eyes. "That's… thanks, Tom. I'll remember that."
"Okay. Okay, then."
She smiled. "And thanks for the coffee."
"Want some more pie?" Jonathan asked, wielding the server.
"No, thanks, I couldn't eat another bite," Lois protested. "I'm stuffed. I always eat too much when I'm here."
"Makes up for all the times you don't eat enough when you're home," Martha said, with a touch of acerbity. "Look at you, nothing but skin and bones."
"Now, Martha," Jonathan interrupted. "Lois works hard. I'm sure she eats fine."
It was like Jonathan to take her side, Lois thought with a smile. And like Martha to scold. She wouldn't tell either of them how often she came home to takeout, or to a microwave dinner, or so tired she didn't bother to eat. It was enough to be here, with them fussing over her. Loving her.
*Take care of them.* It was the last thing Clark had asked of her before he left for New Krypton. And she had promised.
But even if she hadn't, she'd have kept in touch with the elder Kents. They were her lifeline when she was blinded by pain, struggling minute by minute with the desolation of Clark's absence. A year later when her parents, newly remarried, had been killed in a plane crash as they left on their honeymoon, Martha and Jonathan had been her mainstay. She'd had to be strong for her sister Lucy, and so Martha and Jonathan had been strong for her, holding her up, not letting her fall. Not ever letting her fall.
Lois knew perfectly well who was taking care of whom. And it suited her just fine. Not a month had gone by, since Clark left, that she hadn't seen them. Usually, she flew to Smallville, leaving after work on Friday, coming home late Sunday afternoon. The travelling exhausted her, but the visits buoyed her up, gave her the strength to make it through another four weeks without Clark. The rare months when she couldn't manage the time off, Martha and Jonathan flew to Metropolis, staying three or four days before heading home.
But this was one of the good months, with a day and a half of Smallville and the farm stretching in front of her, before she'd have to go back. "Here," she said, getting up. "Let me help you with those dishes…"
Martha had long ago given up arguing, or insisting that Lois was a guest. She was, to all intents and purposes, the daughter of the house now, and she liked helping. Jonathan began to clear the table; Martha filled a dishpan with hot, soapy water, and Lois opened the dishwasher. As they worked, they chatted amiably about the farm and the price of wheat.
Jonathan, finished with his part of the cleanup, leaned back against the counter and crossed his arms. "Sure is nice to have you here."
Lois smiled at him, then frowned at the pot in her hand. She pulled a bowl out of the dishwasher's bottom rack, and scowled.
"You can fit them both in if you do it this way," Martha said, showing her.
Why couldn't she ever see how things would fit, by herself? "Thanks," she said aloud.
"How's your investigation of those warehouse fires coming along?" Jonathan asked, distracting her.
She looked up. "So far I haven't found much to go on," she admitted. "I still think the owners are torching them for the insurance money, but Perry won't let me run the story until I have something concrete to back it up. I'm supposed to talk with the insurance people on Monday." She put liquid dishwasher detergent in the little detergent cup and turned the dishwasher on.
"You be careful," Jonathan cautioned.
She smiled. "It's okay. The insurance folks are the good guys. It's when I go down to the docks that you have to worry."
Jonathan's instant look of concern made her want to apologize and laugh, both at the same time, but Martha just shook her head.
"Don't you know yet not to take the bait?" she asked Jonathan, smiling. "She's teasing you."
Lois smiled too; she could twit Jonathan, but she could hardly ever get anything past Martha.
Martha finished wiping down the stove and turned to the coffee pot. Lois reached for cups so they could enjoy the nightly ritual of decaf and conversation.
"What's going on outside work?" Martha asked casually, pouring the coffee.
Lois shrugged. "Not much. Jimmy and I went to see a movie on Wednesday. I desperately need to get to the grocery store, there's nothing in my refrigerator but a half-bottle of water."
"Lois…" Martha shook her head.
"And somebody asked me out on a date," Lois put in quickly, before Martha could get started on her eating habits. And then, just as quickly, she regretted it, but it was too late. Martha put down the coffee pot with a little thump.
Off to the side, Lois could see Jonathan straightening, attentive rather than casual now, but she kept her eyes on Martha.
"I see," Martha said carefully. Too carefully? Lois couldn't tell. "Who asked you?"
"Nobody… a man who works at the Planet," she added, under Martha's steady gaze.
"Anyone we might have heard of?" Jonathan inquired, his tone casual.
Lois squirmed inwardly, but she could see there was no getting off this particular hook without giving more information. "Maybe. He's a columnist. Tom Warren."
"Oh, I read his column all the time!" Martha exclaimed.
"He seems like a sensible man," Jonathan added.
Martha smiled. "That's Jonathan's way of saying Mr. Warren agrees with him politically," she said, confidentially.
Lois relaxed just a little, and smiled. "Yeah, he agrees with me most of the time, too. He's a nice man."
"So, are you going to go out with him?" Jonathan asked.
"No! Of course not!" Suddenly defensive, Lois fingered the ring on her left hand. "I'm engaged to Clark."
There was a long silence. Martha looked at Jonathan with one of those meaningful looks that Lois couldn't always interpret. At last she sighed. "Lois, honey. If you like this man, maybe you should think about accepting his invitation."
Shock jolted through her. "No! Clark wouldn't want…"
"Clark loves you," Jonathan said, interrupting. "Enough to want you to be happy. What he wouldn't want is to see you like this, not eating right, not going out."
Her heart quailed. "How can you say that? When Clark comes back, he'll expect me to be waiting for him. I promised to wait. I love him."
"I know you do, dear." That was Martha, who had abandoned the coffee. "But maybe it's time we all started facing facts; it's been four years. If Clark was coming home, he'd have been here by now. Or he would have gotten a message to us somehow. I think we need to all start accepting… that Clark isn't coming home."
That weekend ended awkwardly; for the first time, Lois felt at odds with Clark's parents. She loved them, and knew how much she meant to them, but she was angry and appalled at their suggestion. Over the next weeks her heart raged and sulked and protested until finally, through sheer stubbornness and strength of will, she forced herself not to think about it any more. And if in the process she worked a few more hours, got a little less sleep — well, Perry loved her story on the warehouse fires and so did the Planet's readers.
As usual, she spoke on the phone with Martha and Jonathan several times during those weeks, but neither of them broached the touchy subject, so when the time came to visit again, she went thinking the matter was at rest.
Her optimism lasted just until they all three settled down with post-dinner cups of coffee.
"Jonathan and I have been talking," Martha began, without preamble. "We'd like to have a memorial service for Clark, and to have a headstone erected in the cemetery."
Lois shot to her feet, hardly noticing the scalding coffee that slopped onto her hand and wrist. "No! He's not dead! My Clark is not dead!"
Jonathan put up a restraining hand. "We hope he isn't. We trust that he isn't."
Martha brought a dish towel to wipe Lois's hand. "Did it burn you?"
Lois shook her head and tried to reclaim her arm. "How can you think about…" She couldn't even finish the sentence, glaring at Jonathan over Martha's bent head.
"Oh, honey." For the first time, she noticed how Martha's voice was shaking. "He's our son. We miss him and love him, too. There's nothing either of us would like better than to look up and see him standing here. But it's been more than four years."
"You said that last time." Lois's voice was trembling now, too. "But that doesn't mean he's dead."
"No," Jonathan said kindly. "But it probably means he can't come home."
Tears prickled in her throat. "I won't believe that."
"I don't want to believe it," Jonathan answered. "I want him here, with us. But if I can't have that… then I want him to be safe, wherever he is. I want him to be happy."
The thought of Clark, happy without her, struck a blow. "No," she murmured, fighting tears. "No."
Martha wrapped a strong arm around her shoulders. "Go on and cry if you want," she urged. "Lord knows I've cried buckets this past month, getting used to the idea. My boy isn't coming home; I'm never going to see him again."
Lois pushed to her feet, away from Martha's embrace. "You might accept that, but I don't!" she flung, wildly. "He's coming back. He promised he'd come back."
"If he could," Jonathan reminded her.
"No. No!" Distraught, Lois backed away from the kindness in their eyes, the comfort in their hands, and bolted from the house.
Outside, she ran blindly, tearing across the farmyard and into a fallow field. She stumbled on the uneven ground, but caught herself with her hands and plunged on, angry and appalled and scared. She fell again on the far side of the field, tumbling over once before pushing up and stumbling on. Until finally she fell headlong and, sobbing for breath and too exhausted to get up, curled on the hard, cold ground and gave in to the tears that had been streaming ever since she burst out the back door. She fought the ideas racing in her head, tried to cling to the image that had sustained her for so many long, lonely months. Clark, unable to demonstrate his feelings because he was in the red and blue, looking at her with such pain and longing…
What if he came back and she wasn't waiting? He'd be devastated. He'd feel betrayed, and he'd have every right. She'd promised to wait for him. She'd promised.
She always kept her promises.
Slowly she picked herself up from the ground. It was cold out, and she hadn't worn a coat. She hugged herself, conserving warmth, and looked up at the sky.
The moon was nearly full, casting pale light across the field. She could see the darker marks of her footprints, the scuffed patches where she'd fallen, in the haze of frost that covered the ground. She shivered, but when she began to walk, it was away from the house, not toward it. She wasn't ready to face Martha and Jonathan just yet.
Wasn't ready to face losing Clark forever.
Wasn't ready to give up her dreams.
She looked up, unerringly finding the star that was New Krypton's sun. "Are you all right?" she whispered. "Are you happy?"
Maybe he was. Maybe he'd already given up on them, and had moved on. Married Zara, or someone else, and found peace.
Maybe he'd be upset to know she was still clinging to his memory. Martha and Jonathan were right; he'd want her to be happy. He loved her that much. More than she'd ever been loved before. More than she ever expected to be loved again.
Couldn't she love him that much, in return? Not to ache for him to come back, but to let him go, and wish him well?
*No!* Her heart quailed. She wanted him here, with her, not on some distant planet, living without her. Being happy without her.
*But if he can't,* an insidious voice whispered in her head. Funny how it sounded like Jonathan. *If he can't come back, ever. Do you want him pining, unhappy?*
"No," she whispered, aloud. Her breath smoked in the chill air. "I don't want that."
It was the hardest thing she'd ever done. She looked up again at the star, watched its faint twinkle against the velvet backdrop of a Kansas sky. "I love you, Clark. I always will. You were the best thing that ever happened to me, and I won't forget. I won't ever forget." She paused, and swallowed a sob. "But it looks like your folks are right — you can't come back. So if you can't… since you can't. Be safe. Be well. And be happy."
She stood there, shivering in the night, watching the star. A sense of peace slowly settled over her. "Goodbye, Clark," she whispered.
Jonathan was waiting for her at the edge of the farmyard. "You must be frozen," he muttered roughly, and put a coat over her shoulders.
She hugged it close around her, and leaned into his bulk and warmth. "Thanks."
"I wanted to come after you, but Martha wouldn't let me," he admitted. "She said you had some things to work through and you'd be better off alone. But I was worried you'd get cold."
She gave a shaky laugh. "You were both right. I did have some things to work through and it was better alone. And I'm freezing."
He put his arm around her and squeezed. "Come on in the house, Martha's got some hot chocolate waiting."
Inside, over the steaming chocolate, Lois spoke, keeping her voice steady only with effort. "When?" she asked. "When will you have the service?"
"We thought maybe, the next time you come," Martha answered. "Next month."
"Listen up!" Perry's voice was commanding.
Tom looked up from his desk and wondered what could make Perry look so grim.
"Those of you who've been here for a while remember Clark Kent. Those of you who didn't know him have heard his name."
Tom found himself nodding. He certainly knew who Kent was.
"I've been on the phone with Clark's parents; they've decided to have a memorial service for Clark and have invited anyone here who wants to go and pay their respects. Mr. Stern has offered the corporate jet to fly to Smallville and back on the day of the service. Space is limited, so if you think you'd like to attend, get with Jimmy. He'll be keeping a list of who's going."
The buzz of voices swelled as Perry retreated into his office.
Tom looked instinctively toward Lois's desk. It stood empty, and he realized Perry would never have made the announcement if she were here. He must have deliberately waited until she was out of the newsroom.
When Lois came in later, the newsroom hushed. She must have noticed, but equally she must have known that Perry was going to make his announcement today. She crossed to her desk without looking at anyone, keeping her chin high. But there were new lines of strain around her mouth and eyes, and Tom wondered if she'd slept much since the decision to hold a memorial service had been made.
Tom's heart went out to her. She'd loved Kent, after all. She obviously still did.
At her desk, Lois finally lowered her head, making a show of sorting through papers on her desk, her action stiff and deliberate. She knew every eye was on her, and was too proud to acknowledge them.
She needed a friend.
He didn't stop to think. He got to his feet and crossed the newsroom to her desk.
She didn't look up, but her absorption in the papers on her desk became even more studied.
Just as he was beginning to think he should have left her alone, she looked up. Her expression was careful, controlled. She was determined, Tom thought, not to let her pain show, but her dark eyes sparkled in a way that made him think she might be on the verge of tears. He had to fight his instincts to keep from taking a step back.
"Yes?" Her voice was steady and restrained.
He let the shimmer of tears guide him. "I heard. About your… about Clark."
She ducked her head, just a little, at the name, but he was started now, and he forged on.
"About what his parents are… well. Anyway. It can't be easy for you, even after all this time. I just wanted to say… if you need… anything. A friend. I'm here."
"I don't." Her tone was brusque; she looked back down at her papers.
"Okay," Tom said, backing away. "But if you ever…"
She looked up then, and there was no mistaking it this time. There were tears in her eyes. "I'm sorry, Tom, I shouldn't have snapped at you. I know you're just trying to help."
He knew her reaction was instinctive, lashing out to cover a pain he couldn't imagine. "Yeah," he agreed, feeling clumsy and inept. "Well… I guess I'll get back to work."
Her voice, when she answered him, was again cool and distant. "That's a good idea."
Two days later, Kent's memorial service was still on his mind. Despite Lois's reaction to his sympathy, Tom cared about her, and beyond that, he cared about Clark Kent; he hadn't known the man, but sometimes he felt as though he had. Finally he surrendered to impulse. "Hey, Jim. Any spots left on the flight?"
Jimmy looked surprised. "For Clark's memorial? Uh, yeah. I've got two seats left. Why? You want to go?"
"I don't want to take a spot from someone else," Tom answered. "I didn't actually know Kent… but if there's room…"
"I think everyone who's going has already signed up," Jimmy said thoughtfully. "But I can put you down provisionally. If someone else comes up, I'll bump you. Fair?"
"Fair," Tom agreed, and went back to his desk wondering what it was that compelled him.
That weekend he flew into Smallville, Kansas with a planeful of subdued colleagues. A school bus waited at the tiny airport to transport them to the community church.
At the service, which was short but heartfelt, he caught only a glimpse of Lois, wearing black, with an older couple he assumed were Clark's parents. He had a better view of her at the cemetery, where Perry White said a few words before Lois and the older woman who must be Clark's mother joined together to unveil the simple headstone with Clark's name on it.
Afterward, the family mingled with those who had come, both the Smallville folk and those from Metropolis. Tom kept watch over Lois from a distance, but Perry and Jimmy stayed close to her, running interference if they thought she needed help fending off well-meaning well-wishers. It was obvious she didn't need him, so he hung back and tried to stay out of the way. He was successful until nearly time to board the bus for the trip back to the airport, when he turned and found himself face to face with Jonathan Kent.
"I don't think I know you, do I?" Jonathan asked, looking Tom up and down.
He hadn't expected to meet any of the family, hadn't even expected to speak to Lois. He wasn't even sure he wanted her to know he was there. But there was no way to avoid the portly man in front of him without being rude. "I'm Tom Warren, from the Daily Planet," he said finally. "I hope it's okay that I'm here. I didn't know your son, but working at the Planet, I've heard a hundred stories, and of course I've read everything he ever wrote, so I feel as if I'd known him. I wanted to pay my respects."
Awkward as the explanation seemed to Tom, Kent accepted it. "We appreciate that, son," Jonathan answered, shaking his hand. "We appreciate that very much."
"It doesn't feel like I thought it would," Lois said, when the last guest had left. "I thought I'd feel more… but it just seems like he's been gone for a long time. A very long time."
"Well, he has," Jonathan said. "We miss him, but we're used to him not being here now."
Lois looked down at her hand, then slowly, tenderly, pulled off her engagement ring. "I guess I shouldn't wear this any more."
"No, dear," Martha said. "You do what feels right. If that means wearing Clark's ring, then you wear it."
"But if I wear it, I'm clinging to the past, aren't I? Clinging to him… and he's gone now." She held the diamond in her cupped hand. "I'll always love him; I don't see how I could ever stop. But I have to let go." She slid the ring across the polished oak tabletop. "Will you keep it for me? I'd like to know it's with someone who loves him, too…"
"Of course," Martha agreed instantly. She picked it up gently. "I'll put it in with my mother's rings, and it will always be here if you change your mind."
"All right. Thanks, Martha."
Later, after dinner, Jonathan leaned back in his chair. "So," he said, too carefully. "Do you think you'll go out with that young man?"
"With Tom? I don't know. It's scary. Dating." Lois toyed with her coffee cup. "I never thought I'd find the right guy once — it seems impossible it could happen twice…"
"He seems like a nice enough fellow," Jonathan commented. "Doesn't look at all like that little picture they put in the paper next to his column."
Lois's head snapped up. "What?"
"He was here, with Perry and Jimmy and the others. Didn't you see him?"
"No…" Tom had come? All the way from Metropolis? But he hadn't even known Clark.
"I spoke with him at the cemetery," Jonathan said. "Right before we came back to the house. I don't know where you two were."
"That must have been when we were waylaid by Trish Edwards," Martha guessed. "I swear that woman could talk the ear off a stalk of corn."
But Lois only half-heard her. She was thinking about Tom Warren.
Since taking her that first cup two months ago, Tom had formed the habit of bringing Lois coffee when she seemed too busy to get some herself. He'd learned early on about why her expression sometimes seemed sad, or wistful, when she accepted the steaming mug. Jimmy had filled him in. "CK used to do that. Bring her coffee. To be honest, I'm kind of surprised she hasn't snapped your head off."
But she hadn't. He saw her come in the day she returned from Kansas after Kent's memorial service, watched her cross to her desk with her head high and her back straight. Saw her working diligently for a while, then saw her pick up the photo on her desk when she thought no one was looking, saw the slump of her shoulders as she held it in her lap and fingered the smooth wood frame.
Any uncertainty he'd been feeling vanished; he went to the coffee machine, filled her 'Smallville Feed Store' cup, and carried it to her. He stood there for nearly a minute before she noticed him.
"Oh!" she said, flipping the photo facedown and scowling. "Tom."
It wasn't quite the welcome he'd expected. He offered the steaming cup that had grown uncomfortably warm in his hand. "I brought you…"
"What were you doing in Kansas?" She cut him off without so much as a glance for the coffee he held.
He put the cup down on an uncluttered corner of her desk and shoved his hands in his pockets. "I don't exactly know," he confessed. "I just felt like I should be there."
"Why? You didn't even know Clark." She was regarding him with something alarmingly close to suspicion. He could see she was upset.
"I know. I… I just had to go. I've heard so much about him — everyone speaks well of him…" He shrugged, not knowing what else to say.
"Jonathan liked you," she said abruptly.
"Jonathan? Oh, right, Mr. Kent. I don't know when he had time to form an impression, we only talked for a minute."
"He reads your columns," she said, which wasn't really an answer, but Tom wasn't brave enough to challenge her.
"How are you doing?" he asked instead. "This past weekend must have been pretty tough on you."
She glowered, and for a moment he thought she was going to lash out at him, but then she took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I'm okay," she said at last. "It was hard, but I think, deep down, I knew it was coming. I knew he wasn't coming back."
Without anger to shield her, she looked so lost, so desolate. Not okay at all. And desperately in need of someone to talk to.
He didn't know if she had close friends here, or family. He only knew he would hate himself if he didn't try to help. "Listen," he said tentatively. "It's nearly lunchtime. I'll buy you a sandwich at Willie's if you'd like to get away for a little while."
It was a bit early for lunch; Willie's little restaurant was half-empty when Tom guided Lois to a small table near the window.
"Thank you," she said as he took her coat and helped with her chair.
"My pleasure," he answered, taking his own seat opposite. "To tell you the truth, I'm a little surprised you agreed to come with me."
She glanced down at her left hand; Tom had already noticed the bare ring finger, and the way she kept touching it. "Yeah," she admitted, a little rueful. "I'm a little surprised, too."
"Kind of scary, huh? Letting go."
She nodded once, quickly, without looking up.
The waitress came just then to take their order. When she left, Tom put both elbows on the table and propped his chin in his hands. "So," he said. "Tell me about Clark Kent."
He was surprised at how little prompting it took; once Lois began to talk, she didn't stop. She talked of how they'd met, how she'd resisted Kent as a partner, then resisted him as a friend. And finally, resisted him as a lover. "It took me such a long time to see him for who he was," she said, with no little regret. "I wasted so much of the time we could have had."
She talked about their courtship, and filled in many of the details that had been missing from newspaper accounts of their aborted wedding. When she finally wound to a stop, the lunch rush had come and gone.
"Wow," she said, with an embarrassed smile. "That's probably way more than you wanted to know."
He shook his head. "You needed to talk about it. About him. I was glad to listen." He smiled. "The more I learn about him, the more I'm sure I'd have liked Clark."
"You would have," she said promptly. "Everyone did. And he'd have liked you."
Back at the Planet, Jimmy intercepted them as they came in. "Hey, guys! Lois, Perry's looking for you. I kinda told him you were out on a date…"
"Not a date," Lois cut him off. "Two friends going to lunch. That's all."
Tom hadn't really expected anything else, but still his heart sank a little at the firm way she said it. Not a date.
"Well," he said, feeling awkward for the first time since she'd agreed to go. "Thanks for the company."
"Thank you for listening," she answered. As he turned to go, she put her hand on his arm. "Tom."
"What I said to Jimmy…"
He patted her hand. "It's okay, Lois. I understand completely. I'm just glad you're willing to be my friend."
"I'm lucky to have you as a friend," she answered quickly. "But the other thing…"
"It's all right," he said again. "Really."
"No, I…" she hesitated, her gaze sliding away from his. "I just wanted to say… give me some time. A few weeks, maybe." She looked at him. "And then ask me again. If you still want to."
His heart soared. "Of course I still want to. Whenever you're ready."
She nodded. "A few weeks. Then ask me."
Lois picked up the phone and held it thoughtfully for a minute. So much had changed in the six months since Clark's memorial service. She missed him — she knew she always would — but things were different now. And, she was learning, different wasn't always bad.
Determined, she punched the speed dial button.
"Hi, Martha," she said, when the phone on the other end was answered. "I was wondering… would you and Jonathan mind if I brought somebody with me the next time I visit?"
The delight in Martha's voice was evident. "Why, of course, honey! Anybody we know?"
This was the hard part. "Jonathan met him once. Tom Warren."
There was a short silence; Lois began to panic, thinking she'd made a mistake. Maybe she'd read the signs wrong, maybe Martha and Jonathan weren't ready after all for their son's fiancee — or ex-fiancee — to be getting serious about another man.
And she was getting serious, much to her own surprise. Tom had asked her out again, and this time they hadn't spent the whole time talking about Clark. She'd learned that Tom, who'd grown up in Colorado, was an only child whose parents had died, two years apart, while he was still in his teens. He'd put himself through college, then gotten a job with a small radio station. That had led to work at a powerful all-talk station; Tom had started as a late night talk show host, then worked his way up until his show had the prime morning spot. His firm, logical political opinions had led to occasional, then regular columns in one of Denver's newspapers. Eventually the column was syndicated, which had led to an offer from the Daily Planet. Unable to resist the chance to write for the world's finest paper, Tom had moved east. Lois dated him for two months before she found out he had his own radio show on one of the Metropolis stations, sharing his humor and insights from ten at night until two in the morning, three nights a week.
And it wasn't, like certain other people she could name, that he was hiding it from her. He simply didn't see the need to brag about it; it was something he did, but not what defined him, any more than his column defined him.
He was taller than Clark, and heavier. Sandy hair, hazel eyes, pleasant features, but not what anyone would call handsome, or even cute. But then, his looks weren't what attracted her.
She'd found him to be kind, generous, and thoughtful, with a quick wit and a self-deprecating sense of humor. He made her feel comfortable; he made her feel cherished; he was beginning to make her feel loved.
She'd almost forgotten, over the past four years, what that was like. She'd forgotten how good it felt.
"Martha?" she said now, feeling uncharacteristically timid. "If it's not okay, just say so."
"Oh, honey! Of course it's okay! I'm just surprised."
"I told you I'd been dating him," Lois protested.
"Sweetheart, you said he asked you out, once, months ago, and that you turned him down. And you haven't mentioned his name from that day to this."
Lois flinched guiltily. She'd started to bring up the subject a dozen or more times in the five months she and Tom had been dating, but unreasoning, niggling worry about how Clark's parents might feel kept her silent.
No, that wasn't true. She knew Martha and Jonathan loved her, and would support any choice she made. It was her own nagging sense of self-reproach; Clark was on New Krypton, away from everything and everyone he loved — and instead of waiting patiently, steadfastly, as she'd promised, she was moving on with her life. Giving up her dream of being with Clark, and — she admitted this now — learning to love another man.
"Oh, Martha," she breathed. "It's all so complicated. I don't know what to feel. Happy about Tom, about the way I feel about him. But so sad about Clark, about what we never had a chance to have together. I'm so torn…"
"I know," Martha said, with so much compassion in her voice that Lois knew she understood. "I've known for years that you would be the mother of my grandchildren… but it's only been in the past months that I've finally come to accept that Clark isn't going to be their father. That's been hard for me."
So many dreams — hers, Martha's, Jonathan's, even Clark's — crushed.
And yet, out of the remains of those broken dreams, the beginnings of new ones.
Lois leaned on the fence separating the farmyard from the nearest wheat field and breathed deeply. The air *was* cleaner here. Tonight it had the tang that often meant rain. She looked up, awed as always by the masses of stars you couldn't see from Metropolis because of all the light pollution. No clouds, at least not yet.
She smiled to herself, a small secret smile. The weekend had gone beautifully. Martha had already said she adored Tom, and he and Jonathan seemed on their way to becoming fast friends. They'd been out in the barn together all evening, repairing one of the old horse stalls. Not that the Kents had any horses right now, but Jonathan said it bothered him to leave things in disrepair, and the stall had needed fixing ever since fifteen year old Nick Martin had accidentally backed the tractor into it while helping with the harvest.
Still smiling, Lois decided to wander over and check on their progress. Maybe she'd even offer to help. She could swing a pretty mean hammer when it suited her.
Voices, not hammering, drifted out to greet her. She recognized Jonathan's husky baritone. "…he was twelve," he said. "Hit it so hard, the handle snapped clean in two. You can still see where he hit the post… you can put your whole thumb in the dent."
Lois froze, holding her breath.
"It must have been tough sometimes," Tom said, his voice casual. "Raising a son like that."
Jonathan chuckled. "Well, there was the year he kept starting fires accidentally. Took a while before he figured out how he was doing it. We had buckets of sand and water sitting around everywhere…"
"But I thought he could…"
Lois didn't wait to hear more. She took two cautious steps backwards, then turned and sprinted for the house.
"My goodness!" Martha exclaimed, when Lois burst into the kitchen. "What's chasing you?"
Lois slammed the door and leaned against it, panting. "Martha! Jonathan's out there telling Tom all about Clark!"
Martha put aside the scrap of fabric she'd been about to glue onto a colorful collage. "Well," she said mildly. "It's only natural Tom would be curious…"
"No!" Lois interrupted, her heart racing from more than the short run. "I mean he's telling him all about Clark. Everything. The part I heard was about breaking something by hitting it too hard, and setting fires."
"Yes, I heard you." Martha picked up a bright bit of ribbon and fastened it into place, then squinted at her latest creation. "How does this look to you?"
Lois's downward glance barely skimmed the surface of the collage. "It looks fine. Martha!"
Martha leaned back. "Jonathan obviously trusts Tom."
"How can he trust him? He's only known him for two days."
"He trusts him because you do," Martha said sensibly. "You know him, and you trust him. So Jonathan trusts him. So do I."
"So it's okay with you that Tom's out there learning everything there is to know about Superman?" Lois edged a little closer to hysteria.
"It's only fair he should know," Martha answered. "He should know what he's getting into."
Martha patted the chair beside her. "Lois, sit down. Let's talk about this."
Martha's calm did much to bleed away Lois's anxiety. Reluctantly she sank down in the chair.
"Now, the reason you're so worried about Tom knowing is because we've all continued to keep Clark's secret," Martha began.
Lois nodded; Martha knew the reasons as well as she did.
"And part of that's because there are criminals out there who might enjoy getting back at Superman by hurting us."
"Right. So the fewer people who know, the better."
"Of course. But you know, it's not as much of a secret as we might like. I know some folks around Smallville have their suspicions. I'd be surprised if Perry didn't, either."
"Perry knows," Lois said.
"Oh. Well, as I said…"
"He called me into his office a couple of years ago," Lois went on, as if Martha hadn't spoken. "And sat me down, and told me he'd figured it out. Mostly because he said he knows Clark wouldn't have just disappeared the way he seemed to. And because I was too upset when Superman left."
"Most people think Clark left because you were upset," Martha pointed out.
"Yes, but Perry's not just anybody. He's smart, and he's observant… and he figured it out."
"Yes, well, as I said, I'm not surprised. I'm sure Jonathan thinks Tom ought to know, too."
"Well, maybe he ought to know what he's getting himself into, falling in love with you," Martha suggested.
"What, Superman's going to come back and beat him up?" Lois asked bitterly. "We both know that isn't going to happen."
"Well, not the beating up part, certainly," Martha agreed. "I raised my boy better than that."
"Yes," Lois admitted. "You did. Oh… I miss him so much!"
"I know, honey. So do I. But now there's Tom."
Lois's glance was wry. "That doesn't help you."
"No. You do that. You're the daughter we never had, and I don't know what we'd have done without you," Martha said. "We love you, honey. I hope you know that."
"I do," Lois admitted. "I love both of you, too."
She shrugged. "When I'm not feeling horribly disloyal… I think so. I'm pretty sure…"
"Well, if you're looking for approval, you have it."
"What about Jonathan?"
Martha smiled. "He's out there in the barn spilling all of Clark's secrets; what do you think?"
"I guess so. But why is he telling him? I still don't understand."
"Well, like I said, probably some of it is so Tom will know just what he's getting himself into. And some of it, I expect, is Jonathan defending our boy. Letting Tom know that he didn't just get mad and run off, letting us all think he's dead. He wouldn't do that to us. Or to you."
Lois put out her hand and covered Martha's trembling one.
"My boy left because he had to, because he put duty and compassion above his own wishes, his own life. Oh, Lois, I hope he's all right, wherever he is. I hope he's happy."
Lois closed her hand and squeezed. "I hope so, too. Both of those things. I hope so, too."
When the men came in from the barn a little later, Martha was working on her collage again, while Lois sat nearby, reading. Or pretending to read.
"Lois. Want to take a walk?"
She looked up at Tom in surprise. "It's dark outside. You'll have noticed there're no streetlights?"
He grinned. "Yeah, but it's our last night here. And there's a moon."
"We used to take moonlight walks, Jonathan, remember?" Martha said, with a fond smile.
"We sure did," Jonathan answered. "This time of year, you can see pretty well if you take the old wagon road."
"And it's a pretty walk in the moonlight," Martha added. "I think you should go."
"But take a jacket," Jonathan said. "It's chilly."
"Three against one." Lois put on her best disgruntled look, but got up anyway.
Tom took a warm jacket from a peg in the back hall and held it for her to slip into.
Lois hesitated, then reached for a different garment. "I'll wear this one instead, okay?"
Tom shrugged and put the first jacket back, then held the door open for her. "What was wrong with the one I picked?" he asked, as they stepped off the back porch.
Lois took in a deep lungful of the chill October air. "It was Clark's."
One of the things she liked — loved — about Tom was that she didn't have to explain things like that. He understood. They walked in companionable silence until they picked up what Jonathan called the old wagon road — really just a pair of worn ruts in the prairie grass.
"Jonathan had a lot to say about Clark tonight," Tom said finally.
"Yeah, I know," Lois answered. "I heard you talking in the barn."
"Kind of a lot to think about."
"I know. I've been there."
"Yeah, I guess you have. No wonder you're not mad at him for leaving."
Lois dug her hands deeper into the pockets of Martha's wool coat. "Who said I'm not mad? Or haven't been, anyway, from time to time. I hated it that he had to go. I hated it that he didn't come back."
"Yeah," Tom agreed, after a moment's thought. "I guess you would."
"But he had to go. And I had to stay. And now, I have to make the best of things here, the way they are. I can't keep looking back. Can't keep wishing for what might have been."
He stopped; she stopped, too, and turned to look at him in the pale moonlight. "You're remarkable, you know? So much has happened to you, and you're still strong."
She shook her head. "No, I'm not, Tom. I put on a good front, sometimes, but inside, I've been so scared, and so lonely…"
He moved closer and she leaned into him. "I know," he said softly. "You were strong enough to love him, and you were strong enough to let him go. Now… I can't help wondering… are you strong enough to love again?"
"I don't think that takes strength," she argued.
"Sure it does. To open your heart up to hurt again…"
She looked up at him. "You aren't going to hurt me."
He smiled. "Not if I can help it."
"I know that about you."
"Do you know that I love you?"
She looked down. "Yes."
"Is that okay?"
She met his steady gaze then, and managed a shaky smile. "I guess it has to be." She dragged in a deep breath, fortifying herself, and blurted out what she'd known, really, for a long time. "Because I'm in love with you."
His arms came around her, and she pressed her face into his shoulder, letting him hold her. Letting him comfort her. After a long while, she looked up, and met him in a kiss.
When the kiss ended, he let go of her to fumble in his pocket. "I wasn't going to ask you this yet," he began.
Her heart clenched; she'd let down her barriers when she admitted first to herself and then to Tom that she loved him, but this… if he was going to ask what she thought he was, she didn't know whether to be happy or sad. Her hands, warm in the pockets of her jacket, fisted as she watched him.
He drew out a small velvet box and opened it. The ring inside was yellow gold, the modest, emerald-cut diamond glittering even in the moonlight. "Lois," he said formally. "I love you, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Will you marry me?"
Tears sprang to her eyes. "There's a part of me that will always love Clark."
"I know. That's okay, as long as the rest of you loves me."
"It does," she assured him, her voice trembling. "I do. Tom."
"I know it's sudden. You can take some time to think about it."
"No, it's… I knew you were going to ask." Saying it, she realized she had known, deep down. Had known for a long time. That Tom loved her, and wanted to marry her. He'd waited to ask, out of respect, and so that she would have time to come to love him. She shivered with the realization. "That's why I asked you to come here, to meet… well… my folks." Because they were hers now, the only parents she had, and she their only child.
"I know. But still…"
But still. She'd taken time to think, before. Had needed the time, and yet what might have been different if she hadn't? Maybe she and Clark would have been safely married by the time Zara and Ching came for him. Even if he'd had to go, maybe she would have had his child. She didn't want to make that mistake again. She nodded. "Takes some getting used to. But I can't imagine my life without you. Yes."
He stood there, holding the box, staring at her, his expression so droll she giggled.
And with the laughter came joy, bubbling up in a way she hadn't felt in years. "Didn't you hear me? I said yes."
She nodded, and giggled again as he dropped the box, ring and all, to scoop her up and swing her around.
"Yes!" he shouted, and kissed her repeatedly, joyfully. "This is such a cliche," he said finally, pulling back to look at her. "But you've just made me the happiest man alive."
She grinned, savoring happiness. "I sure hope so."
"Did you have a good walk?" Jonathan asked, as they came in the back door.
"Jonathan! Of course they did!" Martha scolded. "Just look at their faces."
Jonathan's grin was knowing. "Yep, they both look pretty happy."
"We are," Lois assured him.
"Happy enough to help eat some that cake Martha baked this morning?"
"You have to be happy to eat cake around here?" Tom inquired.
"Happy, sad, mad, glad, Jonathan's always ready to eat cake," Martha said. "You two want some? And there's coffee, too. Decaf."
"I'd love some," Lois declared, reaching for the coffeepot. "Here, let me help you…"
"Lois!" Martha caught her wrist and pulled her hand forward.
Lois's grin bordered on goofy. "Like it?"
"It's beautiful! It looks just right on your hand. Jonathan, look!"
"I see it," he said, and offered his hand to Tom. "Congratulations. When's the wedding?"
Lois and Tom were married in a modest ceremony three months later. Ten months after that, Martha and Jonathan hurried into a room at Metropolis General Hospital. Lois, propped up in bed, greeted them with a radiant smile. "I thought you'd never get here!" She opened her arms as they bent to embrace her.
Across the room, Tom lifted a small, blanketed bundle. Martha held out her arms as he carefully laid the squirming bundle into them. "There you go, little guy," he said softly. "Meet your grandma."
"Oh," Martha said, beaming. "He's just beautiful. Look, Jonathan, our first grandchild."
"Strong," Jonathan observed, letting the baby cling to one callused forefinger. "What's his name?"
Lois glanced across the room to Tom, who nodded slightly. He'd let her tell them. She couldn't help the brief tightening of her throat, in love for this man who was so generous, and in memory of another man, equally generous.
"We've named him Clark."
Tom opened one eye. Five year old Clark stood at the bedside, his expression urgent.
"Daddy!" Clark repeated, and pushed at Tom's shoulder. "Wake up!"
Tom groaned and squinted at the clock in the Kansas predawn darkness. "I thought we had a deal," he mumbled. "You don't wake me up before six."
"I know, but…"
"But, what? And make it good."
"There's a boy on the back porch."
Tom came instantly alert. "A boy? What's he doing?"
"Nothing. Just sitting there."
Tom glanced over his shoulder; Lois was still sleeping soundly. He rolled out of bed, slid his feet into slippers, and snatched up his robe before following his son downstairs.
Clark was right, there was an oddly-dressed boy, dark haired and dark eyed, huddled on the top step of the porch. Tom watched him through the window for a minute, then unlocked and opened the door.
The boy jumped to his feet and stood at quivering attention, his expression wary.
"Hi, son," Tom greeted the boy, and put a hand down to keep Clark from bolting out the door. "Awfully early to be visiting."
"Yes, I know," the boy answered. "I am sorry. I didn't mean to wake anyone."
"What are you doing sitting on the porch?"
"Waiting for it to be light." The boy gestured toward the pinkening eastern sky. "For morning."
"I am sorry," the boy said again. Tom wasn't sure, but he thought he detected the faintest of accents. "I am not sure I have the right house. I am looking for Jonathan Kent or Martha Kent?"
Tom rubbed a hand through his hair. "Martha Kent lives here, but she's not home right now."
"Is Jonathan Kent here?"
"Grandpa died," Clark said helpfully.
Tom squeezed Clark's shoulder in faint hope of quelling him, and shook his head. "I'm sorry, son, but Clark's grandpa — Jonathan — passed away two years ago. And Martha's off visiting her sister for a week. I'm their son-in-law, maybe I could help?"
The boy, who couldn't be more than ten, looked scared and confused. "Yes, please. Could you help me talk to someone in the city of Metropolis?"
"We could call there, sure," Tom answered. "Come on in."
After a moment's hesitation, the boy stepped past him, into the darkened kitchen. Clark, fascinated, swung around to watch.
Tom felt sorry for the boy, who was so obviously at a loss. "Can I get you something to eat or drink?"
"No, thank you. I would like to call Metropolis now, please."
"Sure. Do you know the number?"
The boy looked confused. "I am sorry…"
"Okay, the name, then? Of the person you want to call?
The boy hesitated, seeming to search his memory. "It is a woman," he said at last. "She is called Lois Lane."
Tom took an extra second to process the name, then wondered why he bothered being surprised. Things like this happened to Lois all the time. Or had, when they lived in Metropolis. Odd occurrences seemed less common in Smallville. "Clark," he said. "Go upstairs and get your mom. Right now."
"It's not light yet, Daddy," Clark protested, scowling. "She'll be mad."
"No, she won't," Tom promised. "Tell her I said she needs to come downstairs right now."
"Okay." Obviously loath to leave the kitchen, and the strange boy, Clark trailed out, hesitating at the doorway.
"Clark," Tom said firmly. "Go *now*."
Clark went. Tom could hear him thumping up the stairs at a run. A full two minutes later, he heard Lois's sleepy tread coming down. Clark preceded her into the kitchen, practically dancing. "See, Mommy?" he said. "There *is* a boy!"
"Yes," Tom added, "and he wants to talk to you."
The boy's eyes widened with alarm. "I am to call the city of Metropolis…" he began.
"No need to, son. This lady is Lois Lane, and she used to live in Metropolis."
The boy shifted his wary gaze. "And you are known to Jonathan Kent and Martha Kent?"
Lois, sleepy-eyed but obviously curious, nodded, and sat across the table from him. "Known them for years. Why?"
"If Martha and Jonathan Kent were not here… I was told to introduce myself to you. My father said you would see that I am cared for."
"Who are you?"
The boy straightened his shoulders and lifted his chin with pride. "I am Kyr-El, born from the House of Ra, and into the House of El."
Tom's stomach gave a little lurch.
No wonder the boy looked so familiar. He was the image of the photos Martha had in her room. The image of his father.
Lois went white, gripping the edge of the table hard. "Clark," she whispered, sounding strained.
"I'm right here, Mommy," their son said, going to her. Her arm slipped around his shoulders, drawing him close, but she never took her eyes from the slim boy sitting across from her.
Tom put a reassuring hand on the boy's shoulder. "It's all right, Kyr-El," he said. "Did I say that right?"
The boy nodded. "My father sent me. He said I would be safe here."
"You are," Tom said. "As safe as our own boy is. Your father knew you would be."
Kyr-El looked up, wide-eyed. "Do you know my father?"
"I never got to meet him," Tom answered, glancing at Lois. "But Lois knew him, very well. I'm sure that's why he told you to call her if Martha and Jonathan weren't here."
Lois finally found her voice. "Where is your father? Did he come with you?"
Kyr-El's eyes filled with tears; he shook his head. "No. He couldn't. He just sent me… after what happened to my mother and my brother…"
"Your mother is Zara?"
Kyr-El nodded, his face a mask of misery, even as pride kept his back straight.
"What happened to her, Kyr?" Tom made his voice gentle.
"They died. My mother and my brother Xan-El… they were assassinated. My father thinks it was meant for him… it means civil war, and so he sent me away." His face crumpled, and he began, finally, to cry.
Lois let the curtain fall back over the window out of which she'd been staring. "Martha?" she called. "I think I'll take some of those cookies you baked this morning and some lemonade out to the boys."
Martha looked out the kitchen door. "I thought you were working on a story."
Lois gestured vaguely toward her laptop computer, open and humming on a nearby table. "I am, but…"
"But a walk will clear your mind?" Martha suggested.
"Or help me figure out what I want to say next," Lois agreed. "I don't know what's wrong with me; I used to be able to whip out entire stories in twenty minutes."
"That was with a deadline staring you in the face," Martha said.
"Yeah, I guess so," Lois agreed. "That, and the pace was more frenetic in Metropolis. I've lived in Kansas so long now, I don't remember how to do it."
"Well, you said the story isn't due until tonight," Martha said. "So take your walk and clear your head."
"And feed the boys," Lois agreed, smiling.
She carried a paper bag full of ginger snaps in one hand and a big Thermos jug of iced lemonade in the other, swinging them gently as she crossed the barnyard. Twelve year old Clark wanted to raise goats as his 4-H project this year, and he and Kyr were supposed to be building a goat pen on the far side of the barn.
A battered old pickup truck sat at an angle behind the barn; Lois rounded the truck and stopped. Kyr, now sixteen, was holding onto one end of the woven wire field fencing, pulling it taut with both hands, while Clark hammered staples into the wooden corner post.
Appalled, Lois flew into protective mother mode. "Kyr Kent Warren!"
Kyr let go of the wire. It recoiled with a snap, forcing Clark to dodge out of its path before it flopped over onto the dusty grass. Kyr wiped his hands on the seat of his jeans, looking guilty.
"Just what do you think you're doing?" Lois demanded.
"Just helping Clark with his goat pen," he offered weakly.
"Your dad told you to use the truck and the winch to stretch the wire," she reminded him crisply.
"The winch is too slow," Clark volunteered. "Kyr said…" He shut up abruptly as Kyr kicked him, none too subtly, in the ankle.
"Kyr, you can't do things like that. What if someone had seen you? Ordinary people can't stretch wire fencing like that, not with their bare hands. If they know you aren't human, they could try to take you away from us. I know your dad's told you, over and over…"
She stopped in mid-tirade, because Kyr had clearly stopped listening. Instead, he stood with his head cocked, as if hearing something distant. It was a pose that was poignantly familiar. "What is it? What do you hear?"
He muttered a few disjointed syllables and bolted.
Lois jumped out of his path an instant before he would have bowled her over, and looked to her younger son. "What is it? What did he say?"
Young Clark, who had shared a bedroom with Kyr since the age of five, had more than a smattering of the Kryptonian language, and Lois knew that whatever Kyr had said, it had been in Kryptonian.
"I'm not sure," Clark said, his expression astonished as he stared after his brother. "He said something about he was coming." His gaze, wide and fearful, turned to his mother. "And he used the word 'father.'"
Lois's heart clenched in her chest; for a moment she could hardly breathe. She dropped the cookies and lemonade. "Get your dad," she instructed her son, and took off in Kyr's wake.
He was much faster than she was, of course, but the path he'd taken led only one place, the east pasture. She emerged from a stand of dusty cottonwoods and scrub oak, pausing at the field's edge.
A pair of horses grazed peacefully on the far side of the field; Kyr stood in the middle, gazing upward. Lois followed his look. After a moment, she caught the faintest of shimmers, hovering a dozen or so yards above the ground. The grass at Kyr's feet began to sway and dance, and finally flattened out in a neat oval pattern. An instant later a globe, iridescent and opaque, shimmered into being on the flattened grass.
Lois's breath stopped in her throat; she'd seen one of these before. It was a Kryptonian shuttlecraft, and it hadn't landed in this particular field by accident.
She watched the ship sit motionless under a clear summer sky — and then a portion of it wavered and a man, tall and dark, dressed in a foreign-looking tunic, stood beside it.
She would have known him anywhere.
"Clark," she heard herself whisper, just as Kyr gave an incoherent cry and threw himself into his father's arms.
Kyr was nearly his father's height now, the cool reporter's part of her brain noticed. When had he grown so tall? She moved toward them slowly.
Clark stepped back, looking at his son… and then his gaze shifted. He froze at the sight of her, then dropped his hands from Kyr's shoulders, murmured something Lois couldn't hear, and moved toward her. She stopped, waiting for him.
His expression was disbelieving. "Lois?"
She nodded and managed a smile.
Tentatively he opened his arms and she went into them without hesitation. She held him hard, so glad to see him, to know for sure he was safe and well, that all she could do was whisper his name.
Finally, though, he let her go and stepped back to look at her. "Lois."
"I thought I'd never see you again," she managed, her voice shaky. He'd changed. Like Tom, he was heavier than he used to be, and there was gray at his temples and lines of care and hardship on his face. And he probably hadn't worn glasses since he left Earth.
But he was still Clark.
"I'm… sorry." His apology came slowly, hesitantly, and she wondered what he saw, now, in her. His gaze moved to something over her shoulder, and she turned to see what had caught his attention.
Tom and young Clark stood on the edge of the pasture. Tom had his hand on the boy's shoulder, holding him back. Kyr bounded toward them, calling eagerly.
Clark glanced back toward his ship, still visible in the center of the field.
"It's all right," Lois said quickly, reading the look. "Tom knows who you are."
He gave her a terse nod. "But I should cloak the ship anyway. Someone else could come."
She nodded agreement, and it was only when he'd stepped away to conceal his craft that she realized he hadn't asked who Tom was.
As the ship faded from view, they turned to see Kyr coming across the field, bringing Tom and young Clark with him. Lois could feel the older Clark at her shoulder as they approached. Kyr was calling out in Kryptonian.
"Speak English," his father told him. "It's rude to speak in a language others don't understand."
"Sorry," Kyr said, his enthusiasm abated not one whit. "Father. This is my dad, and my little brother." He stopped for a second, looking puzzled, then started again. "'Dad' is a sort of name for father…"
Clark put up his hand. "I know, son. I grew up here, remember?"
Kyr's expression went flustered. "Oh, right."
"I'm Tom Warren," Tom said, and offered his hand. "And I've had the privilege of being Kyr's dad for the past seven years."
"As I have been privileged to be his father for the past sixteen," Clark acknowledged. "Thank you for watching over him for me."
"You're Kyr's father," young Clark said. "His real father."
"Yes, I am," the elder Clark acknowledged. "And you are my son's little brother?"
"Not his real brother, you know. Adopted brothers."
"They fight like real brothers," Tom said wryly. "This is our son. He's Clark, too."
The elder Clark betrayed nothing of what he might be feeling. He took the hand his young namesake offered and shook it. "Pleased to meet you, young man."
"Pleased to meet you, sir," young Clark answered. He glanced wistfully toward the center of the field. "Can I see your spaceship, sometime?"
"We can talk about that later," Tom intervened. "Right now, I think we ought to go up to the house."
That seemed like a good idea to all, and the adults began tramping across the field. Young Clark, buoyed by excitement, bounced alongside for a few yards, then raced ahead. "I'll go tell Grandma!" he cried.
"Clark!" Tom called after him.
Clark didn't slow.
"Clark!" Tom's voice snapped out with the authority of a whip, catching his son in mid-stride and bringing him around.
Tom waited until they'd closed a little distance and he didn't have to shout. "I think you'd better hold off on telling Grandma. She isn't as young as she used to be, and we don't want to startle her."
"Aw, Dad!" Clark began.
"My mom?" the elder Clark asked Lois, who was walking beside him.
His face clouded with apprehension. "How is she?"
"She's fine," Lois hastened to reassure him. "Not young anymore, but still quite capable of looking after not only herself, but the rest of us, as well."
He grinned. "Sounds like Mom." He sobered. "What about my dad?"
Lois stopped. "Oh, Clark, I'm sorry, Jonathan…"
His expression was stricken. "He's… gone?"
"It's nine years now. When Clark was three."
He swallowed visibly. "How…?"
"Pancreatic cancer. He had about six months from the diagnosis to… well… He wasn't uncomfortable until the very end. We were all there…"
"…except me," he finished, his eyes bleak. "Dad…"
She put out an impulsive hand and rubbed his forearm. "I'm so sorry, Clark. But you know how much he loved you."
Clark nodded. "Yeah. I hope he knew…"
"He did," she said strongly. "Don't ever believe he thought you were wrong to go, Clark. He knew how important it was. He understood."
Clark looked unconvinced, but at last he nodded and they resumed walking. Tom and the boys lingered a few yards up the path, but started off again when Clark and Lois did.
As they neared the house, they saw Martha sitting on the porch. She lifted a hand to wave, then aborted the gesture, pushed herself to her feet and leaned on the railing, one hand to her mouth.
"Mom," Clark said quietly, and began to run.
By the time he reached the porch, Martha had come down the three steps faster than she'd managed them in years; he caught her up in a bear hug, and Lois could hear her sobbing his name. She put an arm around her own Clark, and even embarrassed him by pressing a kiss to the top of his head; she could imagine how she'd feel if he stayed away as long as Martha's Clark had.
With the excitement of greetings over, the whole family trooped inside, where Martha had lunch waiting. She hurried to prepare another plate for Clark.
"If I'd known you were coming," she said, lamenting.
"Oh, no, Mom, it looks great! I haven't had a good ham and cheese sandwich in, well, eighteen years."
Kyr looked at his father in bemusement. "You'd rather have a sandwich than, say, a big dish of *vich*?"
Clark grinned. "To tell you the truth, son, I've never had much of a taste for *vich*. I'd much rather have one of my mom's home-cooked meals."
Kyr wrinkled his nose. "Grandma's cooking is okay, I guess."
"Considering it isn't Kryptonian cooking," Martha finished for him, laughing. "It's a good thing you came to us before you'd acquired a taste for it, Clark."
He shook his head. "I don't know, Mom. There've been times I wished I did have a taste for Kryptonian cuisine."
The look she gave him was sympathetic. "Well, we'll feed you up on Earth food now."
He grinned. "Not just Earth food, Mom. Good old-fashioned Kansas country cooking."
As they settled into eating, Kyr asked eagerly, "Tell me about New Krypton, Father. Is the war over?"
Clark beamed. How he'd missed this irrepressible son of his! Kyr-El was far too much like his father, and not nearly Kryptonian enough, Zara used to complain, smiling, but Clark thought it was just his own Earth upbringing rubbing off on the boy. Now that Kyr-El had lived in Kansas for seven years himself, he was more American than ever.
"The war is over," Clark said. The surprised looks on the faces of his Earth family said they'd forgotten about the war. He couldn't forget, though. He'd been there for all of it, seen too much, fought too hard. "It was an ugly few years, but it is over, and we prevailed."
"Good." Kyr-El's sober expression said that he hadn't forgotten how stark things on New Krypton could be. "I'm glad. Did any of my friends get hurt in the fighting?"
Clark felt familiar sadness creep in. "I'm sorry, my son. Dan-Li was killed when his family's home was destroyed."
"Oh." Kyr-El's expression went momentarily blank, and Martha reached over to put her arm around him.
"I'm sorry about your friend, Kyr," she said.
Kyr-El shook off his sorrow to ask about others. "What about my other friends?"
"Enn was hurt in the fighting, but he's nearly well now. Pai-Tu and Pharr are fine." Or as fine as young men who've seen too much war can be, he added silently.
"I know those names," young Clark said. "Kyr used to talk about them all the time when he first got here, didn't you, Kyr?"
As Kyr-El nodded, Clark watched the younger boy. Lois's son, he thought wistfully. And named for him, which said a lot about Tom Warren.
Kyr-El gathered himself. "And how's Rika?"
Clark had expected that one. "Rika is fine. She wanted to come, but I thought it better she spend time with her parents."
"Who's Rika?" Trust Lois to notice that Rika hadn't been lumped in with Kyr-El's friends. Clark hesitated, searching for words.
Kyr-El was less circumspect. "My birthwife," he said, around a mouthful of sandwich.
Lois stood up so fast her chair fell over. "Birthwife?" she repeated, her voice suddenly icy. "…like Zara…" She broke off, and bolted from the kitchen, letting the screen door slam behind her.
Clark started to put down his napkin and go after her, then paused, and looked across the table at Tom.
If Tom Warren minded that his wife's ex-fiance was sitting across the kitchen table from him, he didn't show it. His look seemed a combination of concern for Lois and amusement at Clark. "She's upset with you, not me," he said, shaking his head and answering Clark's unspoken question.
"Why is she mad at my mother?" Kyr-El wondered aloud.
"Your father will explain it later," Martha said, patting his hand. "Now go on, Clark. You're going to have to talk to her."
Clark nodded and went outside.
Lois was pacing, her arms crossed, her expression fierce. She stopped when she heard the door open, but didn't look at him.
"I'm sorry," Clark began, hesitant. "I didn't mean to upset you…"
She turned on him, all spitting fury. "How could you subject that boy — your own son — to that barbaric custom? I thought you were going to change things. I thought you were going to make them better!"
He stepped back from the intensity of her attack. "I'm trying. I have changed some things. But Zara taught me that the changes had to be gradual. And it's working, the people are accepting them. Or they were, before the war. I hope they will again."
"But your son has a birthwife."
He wouldn't back away from the truth. "Yes. He does."
She looked away, her wrath suddenly spent. "I don't understand that. I don't understand you. After all it cost us…"
"It wasn't Zara being my birthwife that separated us, Lois," he said gently. "You know that. It was New Krypton, and the unrest there. My going was the right thing. I know that now."
"Even though there was a war?"
"Even though. It would have been much worse without me there. So many more people would have died, or lived on under an oppressive rule."
"I understand why you went. but why didn't you come back?"
The question was so softly voiced, he almost didn't hear it. "What?"
"When you sent Kyr. Why didn't you come, too? They'd killed your wife, your son. Why stay?"
He wondered how he could ever explain it to her. "Because… my people needed me. Not the ones in opposition, the ones who planted the bomb. But the common people Zara was dead, we lost so many of our leaders during the first war. If I'd left, the opposition would have taken over. Nor would have become ruler and the people would have suffered. I couldn't let that happen. Not if staying would make a difference."
He half-expected another outburst, but instead she nodded thoughtfully. "Your mom and I talked about it a lot, after Kyr came to us," she said. "That's sort of what we figured."
"I would have come if I could," he told her. "If my people hadn't needed me."
"Needed you to marry Zara after all," she said. There was the faintest note of bitterness in her voice. "Needed you to father children."
"Yes," he answered evenly. "I needed to do all those things. I broke all the promises I made to you. I'm sorry."
She let her breath out in a long, slow sigh. "You had to help, however you could. Even if… even though it meant breaking promises."
"Yes," he agreed. "I did. I'm glad you understand."
"But a birthwife… Clark, it's so barbaric."
That was the second time she'd used the word; he wondered what he could say to make her understand. "It's not like it was with me and Zara," he said. "Kyr-El and Rika have known each other since they were babies. They played together when they were little, went to school together. They're friends. It's different for them."
She was looking at him now, but said nothing.
"And we made a good choice, Zara and I."
"Yes. She's bright, and funny, and full of fire." He glanced sideways to see how she would take his next remark. "Sometimes, she reminds me of you."
It worked; she smiled. "Poor Kyr."
"Lucky Kyr," he countered.
"Wonder if Rika thinks she's lucky," Lois mused. "And what did you mean when you said she was spending time with her parents?"
Trust Lois to pick up on that, too.
"That sounds like she doesn't live with them," she added.
He grinned. "She doesn't. She lives with me."
He had the brief pleasure of seeing Lois Lane at a loss for words. "With you?" she managed finally. "How old is this girl, anyway?"
"She's sixteen Earth years. Kyr-El's age. Don't give me that look. I live in a household of several dozen. Rika is part of that household. I guess you'd call her my foster daughter."
"That's weird," Lois said flatly.
"Well, it doesn't translate exactly. You know how the nobles in feudal times would send their sons to be fostered in other households?"
She nodded. "Yeah. Sometimes they were hostages, too."
"Right. It's a similar custom on New Krypton, and for similar reasons. That's why no one's questioned Kyr-El's absence all these years. They think he's being fostered somewhere else."
"Like King Arthur. No one knows he's here?"
Clark shook his head. "I was afraid for him, if anyone knew… When I sent him, I wanted to send a letter to my parents. Maybe one to you, too. But I was afraid, if the capsule was somehow intercepted… I could cover him being in the capsule — after all, his brother and mother had just been assassinated — but proof positive I was sending him to Earth? I could never have explained that. Not to Kryptonians. They wouldn't understand."
"I did wonder. But I thought you must have had your reasons. And anyway, you sent the most important thing. Kyr."
The Lois Lane he'd once known wouldn't have seen that. Not right away. He smiled at her. "Yes."
She looked back at him, her expression solemn. "Clark… I want to tell you how sorry I was to hear about your other son. And Zara, too. It must have been awful for you."
"Thank you," he said quietly. "It was the worst day of my life, even worse than the day I left Earth. I think… I think it was meant for me. I was supposed to go and speak, but at the last moment there was a crisis, and so Zara and Xan-El went in my place. And the bomb went off… there wasn't even enough left to bury them properly. All I could think was that I had to get Kyr-El someplace safe. And the safest place I knew…"
"Was here," she finished for him. "I'm so sorry."
He shrugged. "It was a long time ago. I'm used to it now."
She didn't let him get off that easy. "Used to what? Them being gone?"
She put her hand on his arm, the first touch since they'd come outside. "Oh, Clark."
"Anyway." His voice turned brisk. "The last thing I expected was to find you here, at the farm."
"Raising your son," she added.
"Raising my son," he agreed. "When I used to imagine that one day, you and I would have a child together, this wasn't exactly what I had in mind."
"I'm sorry, I… it's just unexpected. Surprising."
"I'm feeling kind of guilty right now," she confessed.
He looked at her in surprise. "Why?"
"Because I didn't wait. I promised, and then I didn't."
Tenderness rose in him. "Lois, you did what was right for you. I'm glad you're happy." He hesitated. "Um, you're happy, right?"
She sighed. "I was, 'til you showed up." She glanced at him. "Oh, don't look like that, Clark. I'm kidding."
"I am happy. I have a terrific husband, and two great sons, and the world's best mom."
"What about your parents? Doesn't your mother mind that you live…"
She cut him off with an abrupt shake of her head. "My parents remarried," she said, her voice too careful. "A year after you left. They were going to Fiji for their honeymoon. I don't know why they picked Fiji, but they were all excited about it, Mother especially. She'd bought a dozen sundresses, and even a bathing suit. And then she worried that she'd bought the wrong one, that she wouldn't look good in it, and…"
Even after all these years, he recognized the signs of distress in her outpouring of words. "What happened?" he asked, cutting her off.
She took a long, trembling breath. "Their plane crashed on takeoff. Some kind of engine trouble. There were only a handful of survivors…"
And her parents hadn't been among them. "Oh, Lois, I'm so sorry."
She made an impatient gesture with her hand. "Like you said, it was a long time ago."
She turned and gave him a bright, if not completely genuine, smile. "So, should we go back inside?"
He thought of her husband, waiting patiently in the kitchen, of his mother, and of the two boys who were their sons. They must all be wondering what was taking place out here on the porch. Knowing Lois — and they must all know Lois well, by now — they must be half-expecting bloodshed. He supposed that allaying their expectations wasn't altogether a bad idea. "Yeah," he agreed. "Let's go in."
Inside, lunch had gone on without them. The boys had just finished up and were squabbling amiably about who would clear the table and who would load the dishwasher. All chatter stopped, though, and all eyes turned to the door as Lois and Clark came in.
"Those dishes aren't going to wash themselves," Martha said a moment later, breaking the tension. "You boys get to work."
"Yes, Grandma," they muttered, and turned back to their task.
"Got everything worked out?" Tom asked, as Clark and Lois returned to their sandwiches.
"I think so," Clark offered, with an apologetic lift of his shoulders. He still didn't know how Tom, who seemed a decent enough fellow, was taking all this. If the situation was reversed, he'd probably be making himself crazy with dark and seething imaginings.
But Tom seemed placid enough as he polished off the last bite of his sandwich and drained his glass of iced tea. "Thanks, Martha," he said. "That was great."
"Yes, I make a fantastic ham sandwich," Martha agreed, smiling. "Anyone up for pie?"
"I am!" the boys chorused from the sink.
"You two can have dessert after the dishes are done," Tom told them. "I think I'll wait and have some pie later, Martha," he said. "Right now, I have to get ready for my show."
"Your show?" Clark asked.
"Radio show," Martha explained. "Tom writes a syndicated newspaper column, and has his own syndicated radio show that airs three afternoons a week."
"We've turned the old storeroom into a studio so he can broadcast from here," Lois added.
"But why here?" Clark felt compelled to ask. "Why Smallville? I never thought you'd leave Metropolis," he added, looking at Lois.
She shrugged. "After Clark was born… daycare, and worrying about him and…"
"And your father and I weren't getting any younger," Martha added.
"You'd asked me to take care of them for you, it was the last thing you ever said to me, but really it was them taking care of me, and I just wanted that for Clark. I wanted him to grow up the way you did. I wanted…"
"We both wanted something different from Metropolis," Tom interjected. "We talked about it, and we talked to Jonathan and Martha, and it's what we decided to do. For all of us. It's worked out pretty well."
"Oh, I'm so glad they were here when Kyr came!" Martha exclaimed. "I was in Topeka visiting your aunt Nancy. I don't know what he'd have done if they hadn't been home. You should have made better plans, Clark. He was only nine, he needed somebody to look after him."
"There wasn't time. I had to get him out of there, and I couldn't send anyone with him. I didn't know who to trust, so I trusted no one. He was in suspended animation for the flight, and his ship was programmed to land here and then fly itself into the sun after he disembarked."
"We know that part," Tom said. "Kyr told us how he traveled."
"Scares me to death to think of him coming all that way, alone," Martha said.
Clark smiled. "I came exactly the same way when I was a baby, Mom."
"Yes, but you couldn't tell us about it so I didn't know the details." She gave a shiver that said her imagination had been fired, and she didn't like what it saw.
"It's all right, Mom, apparently Kryptonians have been traveling that way for centuries, it's as safe as flying in an airplane is here."
"And we all know how safe that is," Lois snapped, and pushed to her feet.
Remorse flooded him. "Lois, I'm sorry, I forgot about your…"
Martha's hand on his arm stopped him. Tom got up and went to where Lois stood looking out the window. He touched her shoulder and murmured something Clark couldn't hear without superpowers, and those wouldn't return for a few days.
After a moment Lois nodded and gave a rueful smile. "Sorry," she said, to no one in particular.
Tom gave her a smile. "I've got to go. Clark, if you want to listen to the show sometime, you'd be welcome. There's an extra set of headphones in the studio."
"Maybe later," Clark said, and watched Tom disappear toward the back of the house. There was love — and a lot of it — between Lois and her husband, and he was glad of that.
Even if it did make his heart ache.
"Kyr's helping me build a pen for the goats I'm going to raise this fall for 4H," young Clark announced, when the kitchen was tidied to Martha's satisfaction. "Do you want to see it?"
"Sure," the elder Clark agreed.
Lois chimed in at the same instant. "Clark, he just got here, he can look at the goat pen later."
"We haven't finished it yet, anyway," Kyr said.
"Yeah," young Clark agreed. "We were working on it this morning, but then Mom came out and started yelling at Kyr."
Lois drew herself up. "I was not yelling. I was speaking with volume and emphasis."
"What'd you do, Kyr?" Martha wanted to know. Clark wanted to know, too, but he was glad it was his mother who had asked.
"He was stretching the fence wire with his bare hands," Lois answered. "Right out where anybody could see!"
Martha looked troubled. "Kyr, you know you can't just…"
Clark realized with a start that they — his mom and Lois — didn't know why he'd come. They hadn't guessed, although Kyr-El had known at once. He'd have to tell them. He'd have to hurt them in the telling. "It doesn't matter, Mom," he said feeling all the weight of responsibility descend.
She turned, surprised. "Clark, you should know better than anybody how careful he has to be. He's getting stronger every day, and pretty soon…"
He shook his head. "Pretty soon he won't have to worry about it."
"I know why," young Clark said. "Because Kyr won't be here. He came to take him away."
"Home," the elder Clark corrected softly, suffering from the anguish on Martha's and Lois's faces. "I've come to take him home."
There was no guest room; Lois and Tom had the upstairs room that used to be Martha and Jonathan's, while the boys shared Clark's old bedroom. An addition on the north side of the house provided a bedroom and bathroom for Martha so she could avoid the stairs. Clark had brought his things in from his ship and put them in an alcove off the living room which did triple duty as a study, storage space, and emergency sleeping space.
"I'll be fine," he insisted, when Martha protested and tried to give him her room. "You've never seen a Kryptonian sleeping chamber, or you wouldn't worry."
"Well," she said finally, "if you're sure."
"You could sleep with us," his young namesake offered.
That would put him on the other side of a wall from Lois and her husband. "Thanks," he answered, "but that room's pretty small. I'll be fine right here."
He finished unpacking and turned to his mother. "Where's Dad?"
Martha looked surprised. "He's in the cemetery, right by your grandfather and your Grandma Lucille."
Clark nodded; he'd expected that. "I'd like to go see him."
"Sure. I haven't been in a while, myself, and it's time I did. Kyr, can you drive us?"
Kyr looked doubtful. "I promised Mr. Irig I'd come help him with his tractor."
"You could call Wayne, honey," Martha suggested. "I'm sure he'd understand."
Kyr frowned. "Dad says it's important to live up to your obligations. And I promised."
"Your dad's right," Clark agreed quickly. It sounded like something his own dad might have said. "You keep your promise, son. If we can't go to the cemetery today, we'll get there another time."
"No need for that," Lois said, coming into the room. "I can drive you."
"I thought you had to finish that story…" Martha began, protesting.
"Well, I do, but…"
"You're still writing, then?" Clark looked interested.
She nodded. "Freelance, now, but I still sell most of my work to the Planet. Not so much investigative work any more, though. Mostly mood pieces, human interest stories."
"You hate that stuff."
She shrugged. "I used to hate it. Now… well, it keeps my hand in. And I found out… it's kind of fun."
He laughed out loud. "I told you that for years," he accused. "And you wouldn't listen."
She grinned. "After we get back from town you can take a look at the story I'm working on. Maybe you can see where I've gone wrong."
His expression turned doubtful. "It's been years since I tried to think or write in English," he said. "I don't know if…"
"Don't be silly," she answered. "You were always a wonderful writer. It'll come back to you."
But that was for later. Now they trooped out into the yard, Lois, Martha, and both Clarks. "Hey," the elder Clark said as they crossed the yard. "Nice truck."
"It's Dad's," his young namesake volunteered, opening a rear door on the gleaming four-door crew cab pickup.
"Tom's pride and joy," Lois admitted, pulling open the driver's door.
"But he got it for Grandma," young Clark said.
"For Grandma?" Clark opened the front passenger door for his mother and helped her up.
"Yeah," young Clark said, when they were all in. The women were in front, the men, young and old, were in the back. "Because she always rode in the back seat of our old pickup and Dad thought she shouldn't have to."
"Oh, Tom was being silly," Martha said. "The other truck was an extended cab, not a full crew cab, and you had to climb in through the front doors. He wanted me to sit in the front, when I was perfectly able to climb into the back!"
"Why didn't you just sit in the front?" Clark asked, mystified.
"Oh, well…" Martha got flustered, which wasn't a characteristic he remembered in her.
"Grandma thinks Mom and Dad should sit together when we go somewhere," young Clark offered. "Because she always sat next to Grandpa."
Oh. That made perfect sense, sounded exactly like something his mother would insist on, and explained why the tips of her ears were bright pink. Lois, he noticed, was giving inordinate attention to the task of guiding the truck along the unpaved drive.
For himself, Clark was just as glad to be sitting in the back seat, beside his younger namesake. He'd been prepared to hear about Lois, perhaps learn she was married, and a mother. But he hadn't expected to see her, hadn't at all expected to find her living in his parents' house. Hadn't expected his own son to be calling her Mom. He'd thought his own parents would be raising Kyr-El, just as they'd raised him.
The small distance between front seat and back was safer, for now, until he came to terms with things as they were, and not as he wished them to be.
The truth was, after all these years and miles apart, after fathering two sons with another woman, and grieving deeply and truly when she and one son died, after fighting wars and governing a world, he still loved Lois. He thought he always would. It had changed, of course, it had to. It was no longer a quick, passionate love, full of excitement and promise. But it was deep and steady and timeless; he would do anything for her. Even after all these years, he knew she felt the same about him.
But there was Tom, and young Clark. He would do nothing to harm her relationship with either of them. Even if he could stay, he would do nothing. And of course he couldn't stay.
The cemetery was just as he remembered it; a rolling expanse of grass spread out along the bank of a narrow river and shaded by tall cottonwoods. Lois parked the truck and led the way through the headstones to a pretty spot in the older part of the cemetery. Clark had been visiting here ever since he could remember; on Sundays after church, his parents would come to lay flowers and spend a few minutes looking introspective. They'd told him the names, so he knew who rested beneath each stone before he learned how to read. Grandma Lucille, and her husband Andrew. Grandpa Andrew's brother Aaron, who had died when he was fifteen, lay between Clark's great-grandparents. Another dozen Kents were there, too.
But Clark had eyes only for the newest stone. Its color was still fresh, the edges of the chiseled lettering sharp and clean. He crouched down and touched the polished granite surface reverently.
Jonathan Aaron Kent, it read. 1937 — 2004.
Not quite the promised threescore years and ten, but close. His father'd had a good life, Clark knew, full of love and laughter. He only wished his dad could have hung on for a few more years… well, nine more… just long enough so he could have seen him again.
"Sorry, Dad," he whispered. "I miss you. I love you."
There was no answer from the cold, silent stone. Clark trailed his fingers over the crisp letters and stood. His mother waited a little distance away; Lois was walking toward the river, and his namesake was, for the moment, nowhere to be seen.
For the first time, Clark noticed another stone in the Kent family plot, this one smaller than his father's, which had room for his mother's name and dates when her time came. But he was sure the simple gray stone hadn't been there the last time he'd visited the cemetery some twenty years ago. And no stranger would be lying in that spot, between his father and his grandfather. He frowned, and moved to read the stone.
Clark Jerome Kent, it said somberly. 1966 — 1996. Beloved son and husband.
Incredulous, he turned. "Me?"
His mother nodded. "It was your father's idea. Lois needed… we all needed… some closure. Some end to the part of our lives that had you in it. So that we could go on."
"Oh." He didn't know what to say to that. He'd had to go, but going had hurt the people he loved. He turned back to the stone. "Husband?" he asked wistfully.
"Lois insisted. She didn't want the stone at all, but once she knew we were determined… she asked for that. She said you'd made promises, both of you, before you left."
"She waited for you, Clark. For as long as she could, and even longer. But there just came a day…"
"I know. I wasn't coming back. She had to go on. I know."
His mother's hand, warm and comforting, slid over his wrist, gripped his hand. "If you get a chance, you might tell her that. It worries her to think you might believe she was… fickle."
His smile was sad, but genuine. "I'd never believe that. Not of Lois." He looked around and found Lois on the slope near the river. As he watched, young Clark climbed into sight, dirty and disheveled… and holding a fistful of wildflowers.
Clark hadn't been under the influence of a yellow sun long enough for his powers to have returned, so he couldn't hear what she said to her son, but the two of them turned and came across the grass.
"Here, Grandma," young Clark announced. "I got you some flowers for Grandpa's grave." He carefully divided his posy in half.
Martha accepted the flowers gravely. "Thanks, sweetie," she said, and went to kneel in the soft grass beside Jonathan's stone. Her lips moved silently and she closed her eyes for a moment. Then she laid the flowers at the foot of the stone and stood up, brisk again.
"Here, Mom." Young Clark pushed the rest of his flowers into his mother's hands. "Here are yours."
Lois looked flustered, and glanced toward the elder Clark, who was watching curiously. "Clark, I don't think…"
"You always put flowers on," he insisted. "Don't you want them?"
Obviously embarrassed, Lois looked at the flowers for a minute, then sighed and stepped past Clark and Martha. To Clark's surprise, she went not to his father's stone, but to the one with his name boldly engraved on it. She bent quickly and placed the flowers on the grass. As she straightened, she trailed her fingers across the sun-warmed granite, a tender gesture her self-consciousness couldn't hide.
And this time, he was close enough to hear her whisper. "I love you," she murmured, almost under her breath, before she stepped over to Jonathan's grave to lay a single daisy beside the flowers Martha had put there.
"Can we go now?" young Clark asked.
Lois looked at the elder Clark and shrugged. "Are you ready?"
He'd seen what he'd come to see, and said a final goodbye to his dad. "Yeah," he answered. "I guess so."
"Is there anybody you want to see while you're here, Clark?" his mother asked, as Lois eased the pickup off the cemetery road and onto the highway. "We could stop in…"
He shook his head. "I'm not going to be here that long, Mom. No point in getting everybody stirred up about my sudden reappearance."
"Too late for that," Lois said, smiling at him in the rearview mirror. "Didn't you see Ed Percy over by the maintenance shed?"
"Ed's caretaker at the cemetery now," his mother interjected.
"No," Clark answered.
"Well, he saw you. I saw his jaw drop. And you can't have forgotten about small town grapevines."
He frowned. "I guess that means everybody in town knows I'm back, now."
"I guess it does." Her glance in the mirror turned to a look of concern. "Is that bad?"
He thought a minute, then shrugged. "I guess not. Only everybody's going to be talking. Speculating. After I go… what will they say?"
"Who cares what they say?" Martha demanded fiercely. "What's important is you're here now. I'm not going to let any old gossips keep me from enjoying your visit."
And she wouldn't, either. But it was Lois who would be the brunt of the gossip. Everyone in Smallville knew they had been engaged. Everyone knew… well, not the details, but knew he'd left and not returned. Knew, even, that he'd been thought dead, if the headstone was any proof. Now he was back, clearly alive. In a few days he would disappear again, leaving Lois to answer — or not answer — the questioning looks. She would be the one to hear chatter suddenly fall silent when she entered a store, or passed by on the street. How fair was that?
Not fair at all, was the obvious answer… and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it.
It occurred to him suddenly to wonder what story Lois and Tom had given to explain Kyr's sudden appearance. How much stir would his disappearance cause? Maybe it was a good thing Ed Percy had seen him, after all.
They were nearly home when Martha spotted a figure walking along the side of the road. "Lois," she said. "It's Kyr."
"He must have gone over to Ricky's after he and Wayne finished with the tractor," Lois guessed as she pulled over.
Martha rolled down her window. "Hey!" she called. "Want a ride?"
Kyr accepted the offer with a grin and a wave, then trotted around and hopped into the bed of the pickup.
"Hey!" young Clark exclaimed, reaching for his seat belt. "Let me out! I want to ride in the back, too!"
Lois pulled back onto the road. "You can't," she said firmly.
Clark's voice went petulant. "Why not?"
Lois shook her head. "Clark, we've been over this. It's not safe for you."
"But you let Kyr ride back there!"
"That's different. Kyr is different. If he falls out on his head, he'll bounce. You'll break."
Of course, Clark thought. At sixteen, Kyr's invulnerability must be pretty well developed by now.
"I'm not going to fall out!" young Clark protested.
"That's right," his mother answered tersely. "Because you're not riding in the back."
Young Clark flung himself back against the seat, crossing his arms and scowling. "That's not fair! Kyr gets to do everything. I never get to do anything."
"Clark. It's time to drop it." There was warning in Lois's voice. "You get to do plenty, and you'll get to do more when you're older."
"I won't get to ride in the back of the truck," he grumbled, refusing to be placated. "I won't get to do anything you think is dangerous! You always let Kyr do anything he wants, and you never let me…"
He broke off as the truck suddenly swerved onto the shoulder, jerking as Lois brought it to an abrupt stop. She swung around in her seat. "I have had just about enough…" she started, but her son had already unfastened his seatbelt and flung himself from the truck, fleeing in a clumsy, stumbling run over the plowed field.
With an exasperated growl, Lois released her own seatbelt, threw open her door, and went after him.
Clark reached for his own door latch, and paused, uncertain. He looked at his mother. "This isn't because of me, is it? Because I'm here?"
Martha shook her head ruefully. "I'm afraid not. Clark got his mother's temperament…"
Oh. Clark began to grin, and repeated it aloud. "Oh."
His mother threw a mischievous glance over her shoulder. "So sometimes it's like gasoline and flame."
"Yeah," Kyr agreed, leaning in Lois's open door. "In fact, sometimes Dad… I mean, Tom…"
Clark gave his son a gentle look. "It's all right to call him Dad. That's who he's been for you, and I'm grateful."
Kyr looked embarrassed. "Yeah, okay. Well, sometimes Dad and Grandma make bets on whether or not Clark and Mom will kill each other."
"Oh, honey, that's not true!" Martha burst out. Then she grinned. "We bet on whether or not your mom will kill Clark, but he's been raised right, he'd never touch her."
"That's true," Kyr conceded. "They fight a lot, though."
"And you could help by not making such a show of being able to do things Clark can't," Martha told him. "It's no wonder he gets jealous."
"It's not like I try to do this stuff, Grandma," Kyr protested. "It just happens."
"Getting into the back of the truck, when you could have ridden in here with us, just exacerbates things, Kyr. You know that."
He looked shamefaced. "Sorry, Grandma. I'll ride up here now, okay?"
"Good idea. Hurry up, they're coming back."
Kyr took the most direct route, scrambling in through the front door and diving into the middle of the back seat. He squirmed upright and fastened his seat belt just as young Clark and Lois got back to the truck. Clark's face was tearstained, but he accepted Lois's arm around his shoulders, and even leaned into the brief squeeze she gave him before they separated to climb into the truck cab.
The ride back to the farmhouse was quiet. When they got there, young Clark bolted from the truck and disappeared behind the barn; Kyr looked at Lois, shrugged, and trotted after him.
Clark, carefully silent, helped his mother down from the front seat.
"I think I'll go see about getting dinner started," Martha announced, and went into the house.
Lois pushed a weary hand through her hair. "Sorry you had to witness all that."
"I'm sorry if I was a catalyst," Clark answered. "It can't be easy for any of you to have me here."
Lois's smile was wry. "It's complicated," she agreed. "But none of us wish you weren't here."
"Even Clark?" He nodded toward the barn.
"No, not even Clark. And maybe especially not Clark. He's actually pretty excited about getting to meet you. He had a Superman thing going for a long time."
Clark's eyebrows went up. "Superman?"
"He's become a folk hero since he left," she said, her tone impersonal. "People remember him and talk about him, the media does retrospectives. They still sell t-shirts and action figures."
"Oh. Who administers all that?"
"The Superman Foundation is alive and well," she answered. "Perry's been on the board of directors since he retired from the Planet, so I know it's on the up and up. You don't have to worry."
"I wasn't…" Her look silenced him. "Okay, I was. But if Perry's involved, I won't. I guess Superman's not really my province any more, anyway."
She shook her head. "We were sort of planning for how to introduce Kyr, when he came into his powers, but no, you don't need to worry about Superman. He's larger now than he ever was when he was really here. Certainly larger than I ever imagined he could be. And there are lots of people looking out for him and his image."
He relaxed, and nodded approval. "Good."
Tom came out of the barn and crossed the yard to them. "Cemetery visit go okay?" he asked.
"Fine," Lois answered. "Now ask me about the trip back."
He grinned. "Don't have to. The boys are out behind the barn blaming each other."
"I'd knock their heads together if I thought it would do any good," Lois said in exasperation.
"But it won't, so don't," Tom advised. "Don't you have a deadline?"
"Yow! Staring me in the face," she remembered. "See you guys later!" She disappeared into the house.
"How'd the radio show go?" Clark asked.
"I'm working off steam out in my workshop," Tom answered.
"Not too well, huh?"
"Well, it's a political show. Hardly anybody calls to agree with me," Tom said amiably.
Clark grinned. "What do you do in your workshop?"
"Come on, I'll show you."
Clark followed Tom into the barn. The inside wasn't much like he remembered. The stalls were still there, ranged along one wall, but the space formerly devoted to the storage and maintenance of farm implements and tools had been cleared out. Jonathan's solid wooden workbench still stood against a side wall, but beside it now was a table with a strong light mounted on a swinging arm. A neat row of shiny tools — knives and chisels and things he didn't know the names of — lay along one edge of the table. Under the light, a half-shaped block of blond wood stood amidst scattered shavings.
"You're a wood carver!" Clark said in surprise.
"It's a hobby," Tom admitted. "Working with my hands frees up my brain, somehow. I write some of my best columns out here."
Only then did Clark notice the open laptop computer sitting a safe distance away from the sawdust.
"Old Mr. Johnson used to do wood carving," Clark remembered. "Ducks and quail and quaint old cowboys with impossibly big mustaches."
"I know," Tom answered. "His son Bill is the one who got me started on it. It's a good hobby for me. You do anything to take your mind off what's troubling you?"
Clark went quiet, thinking. I used to fly, he wanted to say. But that was such a long time ago. "I used to play baseball," he said instead. "With the boys. Xan-El and Kyr-El. The members of the council thought I was crazy because I spent hours making gloves for all three of us. I had to use a synthetic instead of leather, and I didn't have a pattern so the first ones didn't come out right, but I kept trying, and by the time Xan-El was old enough, I had a mitt for each of us, and a ball."
"I know," Tom said. "Kyr came to us with a love of baseball. You'll see, tomorrow."
"He and his friend Ricky coach Clark's Little League team. They've got a game tomorrow afternoon."
Tom stepped out onto the porch and took a breath of the balmy night air. "Hey," he said quietly.
"Hey." Lois answered him from the shadows, where the porch swing hung.
"You okay out here?"
"Mmmm." He heard, rather than saw, her nod. "Just thinking."
He leaned against the porch rail and crossed his arms. "I guess you've got a lot to think about."
"I guess so," she agreed softly.
"You mind if I stay?"
"No. You have a lot to think about, too." She patted the seat next to her. "Come sit down."
He eased down onto the swing next to her and relaxed as she set the swing in motion. The slow back-and-forth glide was soothing. So was having his wife sitting close beside him.
"Clark's a nice guy," he said finally.
"Yeah," she agreed absently. "He is. Thank you for being so understanding about having him here."
"Where else would he go? This is his home. Martha is his mother, and Kyr is his son."
"I know, but… you could have made it harder on everybody."
"I could have," he agreed. "I won't even say I wasn't tempted. When I saw the two of you standing out in the field together, looking at each other…"
"I haven't seen him in eighteen years," she reminded him quickly.
"I know that. I know. But still, there was an instant…"
"I guess if Sharon what's-her-name ever showed up, I might feel the same way." He could hear the effort she was making to tease him.
The truth was, Lois only knew about his college sweetheart Sharon Morris because she'd pestered him until he searched his memory and dredged up the name. Before that, he hadn't thought about her in years. He shook his head. "Lois, with you around, Sharon wouldn't stand a chance."
But Lois thought about Clark every day. It was only natural. Living in the house where he grew up, with his mother and now his son. With their own son named for him.
And Tom could live with that. Had lived with that, for thirteen years now. But that was with Clark Kent millions of miles away. Not here, in their home. In the flesh.
He shifted uncomfortably. Stood up side by side with Clark, he knew he didn't compare well. He always meant to get more exercise, but somehow his intentions never translated into action. And his appetite — well, he wished he could blame that on Martha's cooking, but the truth was he'd always liked to eat. He was a large man, tall and big-boned so he carried his weight well, but there was no denying the spare tire around his middle.
Clark, on the other hand — Tom supposed that governing a planet and fighting a war helped keep a guy in shape.
Tom didn't have Clark's striking coloring, either. Nor his exotic good looks.
Of course Lois wasn't so shallow that she'd judge — or love — a person on appearance. But Kent had been an award- winning journalist, so he was intelligent and a gifted writer. From all accounts he'd been kind and generous and had a pleasant sense of humor. And Tom knew, possibly better than anyone, how much Lois had loved him. Still loved him.
Sharon Morris wouldn't stand a chance with him… but how did Lois feel, really, about having Clark here? Was she comparing the two men? Worse, did she think she'd made a mistake by not waiting?
Except for that moment in the field when Clark had first arrived, when Tom had seen them looking at each other in a way that made his gut feel cold, she hadn't said or done anything to make him think she regretted marrying him… but still.
He knew people thought of him as an easy-going sort of guy. Heck, most of the time, he *was* an easy-going guy. He'd never felt the need to get all worked up over something that might not happen.
But this thing today was making him just a little nervous.
And then Lois slid her hand, slim and warm, into his, and rested her cheek against his shoulder. "Thank you," she whispered.
"For…?" But he knew already. The tight, unhappy coil in his chest began to unwind.
She snuggled closer. "Just for being you. I love you."
"I know," he answered, and did. "I love you, too."
The next afternoon, both Clarks and Martha climbed into the back seat of the truck while Kyr drove them all into town. Kyr handled the big truck well, needing only minimal coaching from Lois, who occupied the seat beside him. Too bad driving was a skill he wouldn't need on New Krypton.
He pulled to a dusty stop next to the same baseball field where Clark had played as a boy. Kyr and young Clark grabbed equipment out of the back of the truck and ran toward the field. Clark offered a steadying arm to his mother as they followed. The bleachers, he noticed as they approached, were newer than he remembered, and there were real dugouts now, made of painted cinderblock, instead of splintered benches tucked behind battered chainlink.
But the field hadn't changed — still dusty grass in the outfield and fresh white chalk outlining the base paths, and boys — and a few girls — throwing baseballs back and forth as they shouted and laughed.
Little League baseball was a big deal in Smallville, with families and friends of players on each team turning out to watch, so the lower parts of the bleachers were already crowded. There was just enough space on the lowest bench for Martha and Lois to sit side by side. "There's some space higher up," Clark said. "I can sit up there."
"Oh, honey," Martha began, protesting, but he knew she couldn't climb the bleachers.
"It's okay, Mom, I can see better from up…"
"Clark! Clark Kent! Is that you?"
He turned toward the voice.
"It is you!"
He opened his arms in time to catch the middle-aged woman who launched herself at him. After eighteen years, he might not have recognized her except for the sheriff's uniform she wore. "Hey, Rachel. How are you?"
"Finer'n frog hair," she told him. "But you! Folks round here didn't think they'd ever see you again."
He didn't know how to respond to that, and looked to his mother and Lois for help.
"He's been home a couple of days now," Martha said, which wasn't much help at all.
"Old Ed said he'd seen him yesterday, at the cemetery," Rachel admitted. "Some of us thought maybe his eyes were going bad, though."
"That was us," Lois confessed. "We figured word had spread."
"It sure did," Rachel agreed, and turned back to Clark. "Are you here to stay?"
"No," Lois said for him. "He just came to get Kyr. He has to go back. They both have to go back."
Amazingly, Rachel didn't ask where it was they had to go back to. Nor did she ask where he'd been. She merely glanced over her shoulder to where Kyr was helping the boys on his team warm up.
"I'll be sorry to see him go," she said. "He's a good boy." She went up on her toes and hugged Clark again, hard. "If I don't see you before you leave, you take care of yourself, hear?"
"I will," he promised. "You, too."
He watched her walk away. "I didn't really think anybody'd recognize me after so long," he said. "And without the glasses."
"I think Rachel would know you anywhere," Martha said.
"She's still sheriff, huh?"
"Hasn't lost an election yet! Her boy Eric plays on Clark's team, see him there?" She pointed, and he picked out the boy she meant.
"I see. So Rachel got married, huh?"
"Yes, married Brad Stanley about the time Lo… about thirteen, fourteen years ago. They're real happy."
A boy about Kyr's age came around the bleachers and headed straight for Lois. "Hi, Mrs. Warren," he called. "Can I get the keys to your truck? Kyr says he left the first aid kit in there."
"Sure," Lois answered, and dug for the keys, handing them over with a smile. "Nobody's hurt, I hope?"
"Not yet," the boy answered cheerfully, and jogged off in the direction of the dirt field that doubled as a parking lot.
Mrs. Warren. Funny how that struck him. It wasn't as painful as he might have expected. Instead, he found himself glad, deeply and truly, that she'd found happiness. That she was happy, he didn't doubt. He'd seen her with Tom, seen the way they looked at each other, though to their credit they tried not to, in front of him.
He looked toward the field. Warmups were over and the game was about to start, so he climbed the bleachers and found a seat. From his new vantage point, he could see not only the field, but Lois and his mother, sitting four rows below him.
He watched them until the game started, then focused his attention on the field. He was absorbed in the game when his attention was drawn by a familiar voice.
He looked around and found Tom on the ground, looking up.
"Is there room up there for me?"
There was, barely. He nodded and waved, and watched as Tom picked his way up the crowded bleachers.
"Made it just in time," he said breathlessly, settling down at Clark's side. "What's the score?"
"It's just started," he answered. "You only missed the first half-inning. Listen, I could go down and sit with my mom, and Lois could come up and sit with you."
"No good," Tom said, shaking his head. "Lois won't let me sit with her at games. She says I'm too intense, that it's just a game, and I make her crazy."
"Lois says that?" Clark asked, astonished. "What happened to her 'I play to win' philosophy?"
Tom shrugged. "I don't know. I've heard about that Lois, but I've never met her."
"She does seem… calmer," Clark admitted, looking down on her dark head. "But for Lois to not be competitive…"
"Perry White says she hasn't been the same since you left," Tom said quietly. "He says she changed then. Martha says the same thing."
"All these years I've been picturing her as stubborn and feisty…"
"Oh, she's still those things," Tom said, laughing. "Especially the stubborn. Well, I guess especially the feisty, too. But that was a hard year for her. Losing you, and then her parents. Martha thinks she just came to see there was more to life than getting the story."
Clark shook his head. "I'm sorry she had to go through all that. I'm sorry I hurt her."
"It's not your fault, Clark. None of it's your fault. Things happen."
"Yeah. Things happen." He ran weary hands through his hair. "Sometimes I wish they didn't."
"Right," Tom agreed. "We all wish some things wouldn't happen." He looked toward the playing field. "Kyr's been looking forward to getting his driver's license and being able to drive to school this fall. And college — he was talking about Midwestern State. He was hoping he could get a baseball scholarship. Although he worried that maybe an athletic scholarship might be cheating, since… well, you know."
Since he was stronger and faster than any boy his age could hope to be. Right. Clark had gone through the same process himself, once.
Tom continued. "I was looking forward to seeing him do all those things. Helping him, advising him. Now… this time next week, he's not even going to be here." He went quiet for a minute. "I'm going to miss him. We're all… going to miss him."
"I know," Clark replied, feeling the inadequacy of the words. Tom had obviously come to love Kyr-El as his own son, and now Clark was taking him away. "I'm sorry."
Tom looked to where Kyr stood in the third base coaching box, giving signals to the runner on first. "It isn't going to be easy for him, either. He's lived a different life these past seven years."
Clark knew exactly how different his son's life had been. "I hope he's learned everything I wanted him to learn," he said softly. What he meant was, he hoped the sacrifice had been worth it. Worth him living alone, worth Kyr being sent away from everyone he knew and loved.
"Well, he's learned a lot about baseball," Tom said, smiling.
Clark grinned, grateful to have the mood lightened. "I'm sure he has." He watched his son for a moment. "I hope he's learned compassion. Generosity. The concept of fairness."
"Clark, he had those things when he came here."
Clark shook his head. "I don't know. I tried, Zara tried. But things are so different there, we were never sure the culture wasn't overcoming what we were trying to teach our boys. I'm glad Kyr had the chance to spend time here, learning old fashioned Kansas values."
"He's a good boy, Clark. He's going to be a good man."
Clark looked to where Kyr stood just outside his team's dugout, his arm around the shoulders of one of the younger boys he coached. The boy nodded repeatedly at what Kyr was telling him, then clutched his bat and trotted toward the batter's box.
"He's a leader," Clark said softly.
Tom followed his gaze. "Yes," he said. "I suppose he is."
Bewilderment shaded Tom's voice, and Clark felt the need to elaborate. "I love my son, Tom. No matter who he was, or how he'd turned out, I'd love him. But he's a leader… and I need him to be a leader. Our home needs him to be a leader."
He realized Tom was staring at him.
"I know how that sounds. How heartless…"
"No," Tom interrupted. "Not heartless. You sound like a man who's always balancing two agendas… your family and your country. Or your planet. That can't be easy, and I sure don't envy you."
"You'd be a fool," Clark said quietly. "You'd be a fool."
Supper that evening was exactly what Clark needed. For the second night in a row, his mother had gone all out fixing his favorite foods. Now, with the dishes cleared away, the family sat around the kitchen table, rehashing the afternoon's baseball game, which Kyr's team had won.
"You saw my hit, didn't you, Dad?" young Clark asked.
Tom nodded. "Got there just in time. Nice hit."
"And I caught that ball in the outfield. Jake Hunter won't brag so much at church on Sunday, because I caught the ball he hit."
"That wasn't an easy catch," the elder Clark said. "You made a nice play."
His young namesake beamed. "Thanks."
The radio was playing softly in the background, an oldies station Martha liked. A new song started and she reached over to turn it up. "Jonathan and I used to dance to this song," she said, smiling. "Remember, Clark?"
A sudden image flashed into his mind's eye — his parents twirling and sashaying in the kitchen when he was young, laughing and ending the dance with a kiss. "Sure."
Kyr jumped to his feet. "Come on, Mom."
Lois protested. "Oh, Kyr, not tonight, I…"
Kyr caught her hands. "Come *on*, Mom! You know you love it."
"Go on, hon," Tom urged.
Shaking her head, Lois let Kyr pull her to her feet and then they were swing dancing right there in the kitchen, stepping quickly to the music and executing turns and spins as if they'd rehearsed them.
And maybe they had. It was obviously something they'd done before, and Clark watched, fascinated. He'd seen his son performing the intricate ceremonial dances of Krypton, but those were cold and formal — nothing like this. This was fun. Tom was smiling, his mom was nodding her head in time to the music, young Clark was watching Kyr's feet as if trying to figure out the steps. Kyr was grinning. And Lois — Lois was beautiful, breathless and laughing as she tried to keep up. When the music ended, she collapsed in Kyr's arms and let him help her back to the table.
"Getting too old for this, Mom?" he teased.
"I'm young enough to take care of you, young man!" she answered, eyes dancing. "As soon as I catch my breath."
It was a warm family scene, and suddenly Clark felt the need for some fresh air. "Excuse me," he muttered, and stepped out on the back porch.
He was standing at the railing, looking up at the stars, when he heard the screen door open behind him. "I'm fine," he said, without turning. "Just needed some air."
"It's hard for you to watch her, isn't it?" Martha joined him at the rail and reached out to take his hand.
"Sometimes," he admitted. "But I'm thinking about Kyr- El."
"You're in Kansas now, son," she said gently. "At home you can call him by his full name, but here he's just Kyr."
"Right. Kyr. It took me forever to get used to Kryptonian formality. I guess I don't want to forget how to do it."
"You won't forget. But let him be who he is, these last few days."
"Am I being fair to him, Mom? I'd pictured him living here — only with you and Dad — and everything. But now, seeing him. He's happy here. He has friends, parents, even a little brother. Is it fair for me to come and take him away from all that? Take him back to a planet that's just emerged from civil war, where there is discord and unrest, and where he'll be a target, just because of who he is?"
Her hand slid up his arm and squeezed. "You saw how glad he was to see you. I think he'd given up on you coming for him, had resigned himself to staying here. But this isn't his home. Not really. He loves us, but his heart has always been on New Krypton."
"What does he have there? He hasn't seen his friends in seven years — his mother and his brother are dead. Everything has changed."
"You're there," she said simply. "Think, Clark. If someone had come along and taken you from us when you were nine, even if the place they had taken you was great, and they loved you — wouldn't you have wanted to come home?"
He didn't have to think. He knew the answer already. "Yes."
"Well, that's the way Kyr feels. He loves us, but he wants to go home."
Clark let out a long sigh. "That's good, I guess. Because like it or not, that's where he's going."
"Your dad was proud of you," she said quietly.
"For going back. For doing the right thing, no matter how hard it was. I'm proud, too. We know it wasn't what you wanted in your life."
"No. What I wanted was here. The Planet. You and Dad, here for me, always, when I needed you. And Lois. Most of all, Lois."
"Did you and Zara…?"
He shook his head. "We were friends. Good friends. Best friends, really. But no. It wasn't ever like with Lois."
"Yeah. Listen, Mom, I think I'm going to take a walk, okay?"
"All right. It's time for me to be thinking about bed, anyway. I haven't ever gotten used to the idea of sleeping in until seven or eight like Lois does."
"All those years of running the farm," he teased, and leaned down to kiss her cheek. "'Night, Mom. I love you."
"Good night, Clark. I love you, too."
Clark returned from a long ramble through fields and along deserted roads to find Lois standing on the back porch, looking up at the stars. "Waiting for me?" he asked as he neared.
She caught her breath in a quick, not-quite-soundless gasp, and jerked back.
"Sorry," he apologized. "I thought you heard me coming."
She shook her head and gave a little smile. "I'm okay, you just startled me. No, I was thinking."
Mentally, he backpedaled. "Sorry, you don't have to tell me."
"No, it's okay. About us, I guess. About you and me. What we might have been, if you hadn't had to go."
"Oh." He stopped next to the railing and looked up at her. "What might we have been?"
She gave a little shrug. "I don't know. Pulitzer Prize winners, for sure."
He grinned. "Did you ever…"
"Never even came close," she answered. "Kind of lost heart for it, I guess."
"That's what Tom told me," he agreed, sobering.
She folded her arms on the porch railing and leaned on them, eyeing him suspiciously. "Is that what you two were talking about, at the game?"
"Yeah. That, and that you won't let him sit with you at games."
Her mouth dropped open. "What? I never…"
He chuckled. "Guess he was pulling my leg on that one."
She relaxed and smiled. "Making an excuse to sit with you, more likely."
"Tom's a nice fellow. I like him."
She looked down on him, her expression serious. "That means a lot to me, Clark. I worried a lot about what you would think…"
"I think you waited long enough," he said softly. "I'm glad you're happy."
She nodded silently. "I wish… I wish you were happy, too. It hurts me to think of you alone."
He shrugged. He'd had years to get used to the solitude, which made it familiar, if not easy. "I'm used to it now."
"I hope you'll be open to… I mean, if the right woman came along…"
He knew that even after so many years, it cost her something to say that. He smiled. "Kryptonian women aren't like Earth women. I guess I just have a pretty high standard. So far, no one except Zara has come close."
Her expression changed to something approaching wistfulness. "You and Zara… were you… did you…?"
Of course she'd want to know. "No. Not really. I loved her a lot, but it was never… she loved Ching, you know."
Lois nodded. "I remember."
Painful memory came flooding back. "When he was killed — Zara had to stand there at the ceremony honoring his sacrifice, and pretend he'd meant no more to her than any of the other soldiers being honored. I admired her so much for that, for her dignity and her courage. And my heart broke for her, because I knew what she was feeling. I think I was the only one there who could."
"Kryptonians are that cold?"
He nodded. "Most of them."
She pressed her lips together in annoyance. "And yet you're marrying your son to one."
"My son *is* one," he reminded her. "So am I. And I told you, Rika's not like them. She's been with me. I've raised her."
That earned him a faint smile. "You said she reminded you of me."
He smiled back. "She does. You'd like her."
"The question is, will Kyr like her?" But if her question was sharp, her tone had softened. Maybe she was really beginning to understand.
"Kyr already likes her, remember? They've been friends since they were old enough to steal each other's toys."
He pressed his advantage. "And you have to admit, friendship isn't a bad foundation for love."
"That's true." She smiled. "I was friends with you, first. Friends with Tom first, too. But what if Kyr decides that however much he likes this girl…"
"Rika," he supplied.
"Rika. However much he likes this Rika, he doesn't love her, and doesn't want to marry her after all?"
He hesitated. "I think I would have to insist. Rika's family is powerful on our world; her marriage to Kyr-El is a significant alliance."
Lois's gaze was steady. "Even if it would make him unhappy?"
"Even if," he said, reluctantly. "I couldn't allow him to upset the precarious peace we've managed to attain. That has to be more important than a single person's happiness. It has to be."
Later, lying in bed beside Tom, who was snoring softly, Lois thought about that. Of course he would believe that. He'd given up his own happiness for the greater good, and he had to think the sacrifice was worth it. For his sake, she hoped it was.
It sounded like a horrible place, this New Krypton, spartan and feudal and barbaric, and yet he was going back. He wouldn't abandon his people.
She knew he couldn't do things any other way. The man who had once been Superman couldn't be any different than he was. He had the power to help, and so he did.
That would explain why he didn't seem as unhappy as she thought he might be. He was more reserved than the Clark she remembered, and there was a subtle, residual sadness about him, but she didn't think he was miserable in his new life. It wasn't what he'd dreamed of for himself, but he had a purpose, a goal. A destiny.
Guilt swept her, that Clark lived a life where, if he was not precisely unhappy, he wasn't truly happy, either. While she had her husband, whom she loved, and their son. She even had Martha, who'd begun as Clark's mother, and was now closer to Lois than her own mother had ever been. It wasn't fair. Of course, no one had ever promised fair. And maybe — just maybe — things were better on New Krypton for other people because Clark was there. Maybe things were closer to fair for them.
That was evidently what Clark believed, so she had to believe it too. For his sake. For her own sake. For Kyr.
Days passed quickly. Clark not only visited and admired the goat pen in progress, he spent a sunny afternoon helping Kyr and young Clark finish it. He whiled away a morning with a stack of scrapbooks his mother diligently kept, reading articles Lois had written since he left, and followed that later in the week with an afternoon reading some of Tom's old columns.
He helped Tom weed the vegetable garden Martha insisted on keeping, and let Lois talk him into painting the front porch swing.
As the week ended, he could feel himself getting stronger. His hearing was sharper, his eyesight more acute. It wouldn't be long before his powers were back, full force.
Next to Lois, he missed flying most of all, and he wished for days of bright sun, in the hope he'd be able to indulge one last time before he had to go. But the day before departure was wet and miserable. Everyone else seemed to have rainy day things to do, but Clark felt himself at loose ends. He looked through some of the oldest scrapbooks, but it depressed him to read the stories he'd written so many years ago. He put the books away and went in search of diversion.
"Hey." Clark stopped in the doorway to his mother's room. It still surprised him to find a spacious bedroom behind the door that had concealed only a small storeroom when he was a boy.
Martha and young Clark, who was sitting crosslegged in the middle of her bed, looked up.
"What's going on in here?"
"I'm helping Grandma clean out her dresser drawers," young Clark explained. "It's raining too hard to go outside."
"That's for sure," Clark agreed, glancing toward the window. A steady stream of rain ran down the glass.
"Want to help?" young Clark asked. "He can help, can't he, Grandma?"
"He always helped when he was a little boy," she said, smiling. "But maybe now he'd rather just sit and chat while we do the work."
"I don't mind helping," he said, looking around. "But it looks like you two have everything under control."
"We do," Martha agreed. She folded a sweater and placed it in a cardboard box at her feet.
"Stay," young Clark urged. "Grandma tells good stories while she's cleaning."
Clark knew that very well. He chuckled and pulled a straight chair from its place against the wall, settling himself comfortably.
On the bed, young Clark ran his hands across the worn surface of a carved wooden box. Clark recognized that box; it had once belonged to his mother's favorite aunt. "Can I open your memory box, Grandma?" young Clark asked.
"You may," she answered, and gave the older Clark a quick, smiling look he understood completely. He'd always opened the memory box himself to get his mother started on a story.
The boy turned the tiny key and lifted the lid. He rummaged gently inside before lifting out a pair of carved gold earrings. He grinned and held them to his ears. "What do you think?"
"I think it's a good look for you," Clark teased.
"Guys only wear one earring, though. Here." He tossed one across to Clark. "You can wear that one."
Clark obligingly held the earring up to his ear. "What do you think, Mom?"
"I think you'd better put those back before something happens to them," she said tartly. "Those belonged to your Grandma Lucille."
"I don't have a Grandma Lucille," young Clark said. "I have you, and there was Grandma Ellen, and Grandma Tori, but they died. No Grandma Lucille."
"Not yours, you goof," she told him affectionately. "Clark's. His father's mother. You remember her, don't you, Clark?"
"Sort of." He remembered a wide, warm lap, and arms that held him close. He remembered a friendly smile, and feeling safe and loved. He wondered how much of that was true memory, and how much was born of having heard this story countless times when he was growing up.
"She adored you. Grandpa Andrew was a little leery of you, you know, because you were adopted, but not Lucille. She took to you right off, called you her best boy. Look in that box, Clark, and see if you don't find a long gold chain."
"This?" the boy asked, holding it up. A carved gold pendant hung from the chain.
"Yes, that's it. Look close at the pendant — you'll see little nicks and dents in it."
Young Clark held the ornament up to the light and squinted. "I see them," he said.
Martha smiled. "Those marks were left by Clark's teeth. He'd sit in Grandma Lucille's lap and she'd let him play with it, and of course it went right into his mouth. Grandpa Andrew used to scold over it — he'd given her the earrings and the necklace for their fortieth wedding anniversary — but she never let that stop her. Clark liked the pendant, and that was enough for her. When she died, she left it to me, rather than to either of her daughters, and I know it was because of that. Because I'd know, and care, where those marks came from."
"But you never wear it."
Martha's smile turned a little wistful. "That sort of jewelry never did quite suit me," she said. "But it means a lot to me anyway. Someday it will be yours, and maybe you can pass it on to your daughter."
Young Clark wrinkled his nose at the notion of his own children, and set the necklace aside. He dug in the box again. "What's this?"
Martha reached out and he handed her another necklace. The dull sheen of old silver was offset by the turquoise stones.
"That's pretty, Mom," Clark said. "Where'd you get it?"
"Your father bought it for me," she answered, fingering the silver beads. "We went to New Mexico one summer, and he got it for me in Taos. That was after you left," she added.
"It's beautiful," he said. "Do you wear it?"
"She wears it for fancy stuff," young Clark answered. "Hey, Grandma, what's this?"
Between his fingers he held a ring made of white gold; at the top was a simple diamond solitaire.
Martha's gaze flicked quickly from the ring to Clark and back again. "That belongs to your mother."
"Oh. Why is it in your box, then? Did she lose it? I can give it back…"
Martha put out a hand and stopped him from leaping off the bed. "It's all right, Clark, she knows where it is. She asked me to keep it for her, and I have."
"Oh. And you'll give it to her if she ever wants it back."
"She isn't going to want it back," Clark said softly. "It's an engagement ring."
"Oh." Bewilderment creased the boy's face. "But she has one of those. She wears it all the time."
"Yes, honey, but this one was from before she knew your father," Martha interspersed.
"Mom was going to get married before Dad?" Young Clark looked genuinely surprised.
Clark had to smile. "A couple of times, actually."
Shock flared in the boy's eyes. "Why did she do that? Who were those guys? Why didn't she…"
"Sweetheart, those are questions you should ask your mother," Martha told him. "She can tell you what you want to know."
"Oh. But maybe she doesn't want to talk about it," he said, frowning. "If she never said anything…"
"I don't think she'd mind talking about it," Martha said placidly, with a quick glance for her son. "I think she hasn't said anything before now just because the subject never came up. So you ask her, if you're curious."
"Okay," the boy answered, still turning the ring in his fingers. "I will."
The rain finally stopped and the late afternoon sun was just starting to peek through when Lois picked her way across the soggy barnyard. "Tom?" she called, at the open barn door.
"In here," he answered.
She found him hunched over his laptop, typing away.
"Have you seen Clark?"
"Hmmm?" Absorbed, he didn't look up.
"Clark. Have you seen him?"
He finally looked up. "What?"
"Have you seen our son?"
"Umm… I don't think so. Why?"
She sighed and wrapped her arms around herself. "He asked me about the ring Martha has in her jewelry box."
She finally had his full attention. He didn't have to ask which ring. "And…?"
"I told him."
"What did he say?"
"Nothing. He seemed to take it in stride… and it sort of upset me, him asking, and so I didn't realize that he was upset about it, too. Until I heard the back door slam and saw him running across the yard."
"He didn't know you were engaged to Clark once?"
"Apparently not," she answered. "And I guess it never occurred to him that I could have had a life before you, or to wonder how I ended up living with Clark's mom. If he had, he'd have put the pieces together a long time ago."
"But he didn't. So it shocked him?"
"I guess it did. He was just so quiet… and I was feeling so, I don't know, unsettled, I guess, and I didn't notice."
"You're not a bad mother, Lois." Reassuring her on this point was automatic. "We can't be perfect parents, there's no such thing."
"But he was upset, and I didn't…"
"So were you." Tom's voice overrode her own distress. "He's young. He's resilient. He'll be fine."
"He's only twelve."
"He'll be fine," Tom repeated. "Let's see if we can find him, okay?"
Clark wasn't in the treehouse, nor in the tool shed. They were rounding the barn to check the goat pen when Tom stopped and put a warning finger to his lips. Lois edged closer and peered around the corner. Kyr, frowning just a little, stood over his younger brother, who hunched miserably against the barn wall.
Tom eased back. "I think Kyr can handle this one," he breathed, right into Lois's ear.
She hesitated, wanting to go and comfort her son herself.
Tom gestured toward the barn, but she shook her head. He touched her arm and gestured again, more emphatically.
She glared at him, but instead of backing down, Tom produced a rare glare of his own. He did it so seldom that it always startled her, and nearly always convinced her he was right. This time was no exception. With a reluctant backward look toward the corner which hid the boys, she retreated.
Kyr picked the driest spot he could find and hunkered down next to Clark. "Grandma's going to kill you," he began, conversationally. "You're covered with mud."
"I don't care." Clark rubbed one grubby hand against his filthy jeans and scowled.
"You will when she gets hold of you," Kyr predicted. "What's wrong?"
Clark sniffled and shook his head fiercely. "Nothing."
"You're out here sitting in the mud crying, and nothing's wrong?"
"I'm not crying!" young Clark growled. "Why would I be crying?"
"I don't know, that's why I'm asking."
Clark folded his arms on his upraised knees and buried his head. "Go away."
"Is it because I'm leaving tomorrow?" Kyr persisted.
Clark remained stubbornly silent.
Kyr changed tactics. "So… you're going to miss me, right?"
"No," Clark repeated.
"Sure, you are. You're going to miss me a lot."
"I won't miss you bossing me," Clark retorted.
"I'm not bossing you. I'm just sort of looking out for you. That's what big brothers do."
"Yeah," Clark sighed. "I guess so."
"So… you going to tell me what's wrong?"
Clark answered with a question of his own. "Do you want to go?"
Kyr felt the weight of responsibility settle onto his young shoulders. "I have to. It's my destiny."
"Don't you want to stay here, with us?"
Kyr looked off into the distance, choosing his words carefully. "I love you guys. Mom, Dad, Grandma. Even you." He gave his brother a friendly punch to the upper arm. "But… I've been waiting for seven years for my father to come get me. I want to go home."
"I thought we were your family now. I thought this was your home."
Kyr hastened to reassure him. "You are. And this is my second home. I love it here, Clark. I really do. Earth's a terrific place. But it's not New Krypton. It's not the same."
"Oh." Clark's voice was shaky; he stared off at the same distant horizon Kyr had been watching. "Is my mother going with you?"
The soft way he said it didn't do much to dampen the impact of his question. Shock flared, making Kyr's chest hurt. "What?"
"Is my mom going with you?" Clark repeated, doggedly. He wasn't scowling now. He looked sullen.
"No! Why would she go with us?"
"Because of her… and your father."
Nothing could have made less sense. "Mom and my father… what?"
"Grandma has this ring in her memory box. It was my mother's… and your father gave it to her. They were going to get married."
Kyr was bewildered. "I know. But what…"
"She said she loves him!" Clark's agony burst forth in a torrent of words. "She said she never stopped loving him, even after she met my dad. You're going away, and she's going with you, and it's not fair! She's my mom, not yours!"
All that passion made Kyr recoil. "I know she's not my mother," he said, stung. "I know that. My mother is dead."
Clark seemed not to hear. "I don't want her to go. I don't."
Kyr was transported back in time, to the palace on New Krypton. He heard again the shouts, the sound of running feet. Chaos wasn't the Kryptonian norm, and it frightened him. He ran to the small room he shared with his brother Xan-El and hid. It was there his father found him.
He could remember the gentle way his father touched his hair, the sadness in his voice as he told Kyr his mother and brother were dead. He remembered his own cry of protest when he learned he was to be sent away.
He could remember the hard hug his father gave him just before he climbed into the little ship that would carry him to Earth, the press of his father's lips on his forehead. Remembered, too, his father's choked admonition to behave himself, followed by the promise to come, someday, and bring him home.
And in the last seconds, he remembered his father saying he loved him. He'd had to use the English word. There was no word for love in the Kryptonian tongue, but that was all right, Kyr had grown up speaking his father's language as well as his mother's. He knew what love was, and how it felt. He even knew it was love that made his mother's and brother's deaths hurt so much.
His father understood all those things, too. His father was a compassionate man. And his father would never make his young namesake suffer the loss of his mother. He just wouldn't.
"You've got it wrong, Clark," he said aloud. "Father didn't come for Mom. He just came for me."
"She loves him. She said so. Doesn't he love her back?"
Kyr had never considered the question, but he looked at it now. He thought of how his father looked at Lois, sometimes, when he thought no one could see. "Yeah," he admitted. "I think he does love her."
"There, you see?" Clark's voice held both triumph and pain.
"Don't be stupid, Clark, just because he loves her doesn't mean he's going to take her with us. He can't. It's different on New Krypton, she'd die. And anyway, Mom loves Dad. She'd never leave him."
"But she said she loves Clark." The boy's voice was very small. "Look, she even named me after him."
"Dad once told me that was his idea," Kyr said. "And you can love more than one person. Mom loves lots of people — you, me, Dad, Grandma, Aunt Lucy and Uncle Ted. I think she even loves those bratty twins."
"Nobody could love them," Clark proclaimed. "Except maybe Aunt Lucy and Uncle Ted, but they have to love them, the twins are their kids."
Kyr had to smile. "Yeah, but I think Mom loves them anyway. So of course she could love my father, too."
Clark sat up straighter. "I guess you're right."
"Of course I'm right!"
Clark went quiet for a minute. "Kyr."
Clark looked down at his dirty knees. "I'm sorry about your mother. I'm sorry I said that about her."
Kyr thought back. "Oh. That's okay, I know you didn't mean it."
"I'm sorry she died, too."
"So am I."
The apology past, Clark looked up curiously. "You never talk about her; do you miss her?"
Kyr closed his eyes for a moment. "Yeah."
"Oh." Clark waited until Kyr opened his eyes again. "I'm glad you got to come here for a while. I'm glad you got to share my mom."
Kyr looked at him and grinned. "Yeah. So am I."
"Can't you stay just a few more days?" Martha sounded almost plaintive.
Despite his sorrow, Clark laughed. "I've been here almost a week, Mom. It's time."
"I know. But in a way, this is harder than the first time you left. Then, we had some hope you might come back someday. Now…"
He shook his head. "I took more time than I should have with this trip, Mom," he said softly. "I can never come back again. Kyr can never come back."
"Things are really that precarious on New Krypton?" she asked sadly.
"I hope not — but I'm afraid so."
"They've had you for eighteen years," she burst out in sudden rebellion. "What if you just stayed here? Earth needs you, too."
"Looks to me like Earth's done just fine without me," he answered. "But on New Krypton — if I'm not back soon, it'll be war all over again. I've seen war, Mom. I've fought, and bloodied my hands in battle. I can't leave them to face that again. Not if I can prevent it."
She sighed. "And you being there will prevent it."
"Yes. My people need me."
"I suppose I knew that was what you would say. But I had to ask."
He hugged her. "I know you did. And thanks. It's nice to be wanted." He hoisted a small carryall to his shoulder. "I'm going out to uncloak the ship and get it ready."
"I guess I'd better say goodbye, then," she said. Her voice broke only a little.
"We can say goodbye at the ship."
She looked longingly toward the window, beyond which lay the field, and the Kryptonian ship. "I'm not sure I'm up to walking that far," she admitted.
Clark shook his head. "We already discussed this."
"We?" she asked archly.
He grinned. "Everybody but you. You're coming to the ship. Kyr's going to help you out there, and Tom said he'd make sure you got back okay."
She looked doubtful.
"Come on, Mom. You can do anything you set your mind to."
She snorted. "I used to tell you that when you were a little boy. I should have known it would come back to haunt me. All right. You go on, and I'll be along with the family to say goodbye."
He bent and swiftly kissed her cheek. "Thanks, Mom. See you out there."
There were voices upstairs, where Kyr was getting his things together, but no one else was downstairs. Clark paused in the living room, which brimmed with memories from his boyhood and his young adulthood. It was hard to believe he'd never see it again. He paused again in the kitchen, placing something on the table. And then he stepped outside and pulled the door shut behind him.
Locating the cloaked ship was easy because of the flattened circle on which it sat. Uncloaking it took only a few seconds, and he slipped inside, checking the controls and setting a flight pattern. He wished he dared to stay a little longer — maybe as soon as tomorrow, he'd be able to fly under his own power. But he didn't dare — he'd been gone too long already.
Lois's voice, calling from outside the ship.
Hastily he finished preparing the ship for flight, and stepped outside.
She was alone.
"I saw you leave the house," she said, one hand up to keep the wind from blowing her hair in her face.
"Where's everybody else?" he asked.
"They're coming. Kyr was going out to say goodbye to the barn cats, and then they're coming."
"They'll be slow, because of Mom."
"Yes." She looked up at him. His beautiful Lois, watching him with sad, dark eyes. "I can't believe I have to say goodbye to you again," she whispered.
He shook his head and tried to smile. "I can't believe I have to leave again. This visit's been like a dream."
"Yes. They do."
She took a deep breath and nodded. "Take care of my boy."
"And take care of yourself, too." Her voice wobbled dangerously.
He nodded. "I talked to Tom."
"He said that since I was leaving, I could do this." He bent and kissed her, slowly, tenderly, with all the feeling his heart had for her. When he stepped back, there were tears in her eyes. "Never forget I love you."
The tears spilled. "I won't. I love you, too."
And then the voices, and the sight of the family — her family, now — coming through the trees.
Lois dashed away the tears and waited beside him until the little procession reached them.
Martha leaned heavily on Kyr, but she made it. She frowned at the gleaming iridescent globe of the ship. "This is it?"
Clark remembered she hadn't seen Ching and Zara's ship, those many years ago, and she hadn't seen this one arrive, either. And Kyr, of course, had arrived during the night; no one had seen his ship at all.
"It just looks like a big bubble. What's it like inside?"
"It's neat, Grandma," young Clark told her.
"And how, exactly, would you know that?" Tom asked him.
Kyr looked pained, and young Clark ducked his head sheepishly. "I wasn't supposed to say that, was I?" he asked his brother.
"Well, you might as well spill it now," Lois said briskly.
The brothers looked at each other and finally Kyr shrugged.
"Kyr brought me out the other day and showed me," Clark admitted. "And he made me this weird blue stuff to drink, but it tasted disgusting."
"That's *brai*!" Kyr protested. "It's good!"
"To a Kryptonian, maybe," young Clark muttered.
"Boys," Tom remonstrated. "It's your last few minutes together; do you have to fight?"
"We're not fighting, Dad," young Clark said. "We're just arguing."
Tom sighed. "Right."
Clark spoke to Kyr. "Put your things in the ship, son, and tell everyone goodbye."
Kyr did as he was told, stowing his bag inside the faint, shimmery bubble of the ship. He turned first to Martha. "Bye, Grandma," he whispered, hugging her tight. "I'll never forget you."
"Better not," she warned him, hugging back. Her voice trembled. "You remember everything we taught you."
"I will." He turned next to Tom. "Dad."
Tom took him into a hard hug. "I've always been proud to call you my son," he said huskily. "Keep on making me proud."
"Yes, sir," Kyr answered. "Mom?"
"I love you, Kyr. Take care of yourself. Take care of your father."
He kissed her cheek and hugged her hard. "I will. I promise."
He turned last to his brother. "You're going to be the oldest son now…"
"Again," young Clark reminded him.
"Again," Kyr agreed. "Grandma and Mom and Dad are all going to be depending on you."
"Yeah." Young Clark nodded. "Bye, Kyr."
"Come on," Martha chided. "You boys can do better than that."
Kyr grinned at his grandmother's words, and shrugged. He started to offer his hand, then changed his mind and hugged Clark instead. "Watch your step, kid," he warned, "or I'll come back and beat you up."
"You and what army?" Clark taunted automatically, but his eyes were filling. "Bye, Kyr."
Martha turned a stern look on the elder Clark. "You're not getting away without a hug this time," she told him.
"I wouldn't try," he answered, and hugged her tight. "Bye, Mom."
"Goodbye, son. I love you and I'm so proud of you!"
"Thanks. That means a lot to me."
He turned to Tom, who stood at his elbow.
"I'll take care of them for you, Clark," Tom said quietly. "All of them. You don't have to worry."
"I know. Thank you." He shook Tom's hand.
His young namesake was next. "There's not going to be any Superman again, is there?" the boy asked sadly.
"I guess not," Clark answered. "But you know, Clark, it doesn't take Superman to make a difference. Anyone can. Even you."
The boy ducked his head, grinning. "My mom says that."
"Your mom's right. You listen to her."
"Yes, sir. I will."
Lois was last in line, but he'd already said his goodbye to her. He stood before her, just looking, letting the image of how she was in this moment sear itself into his memory. And then he turned away. He didn't look back.
The family left behind gathered together, holding on to one another as they watched the ship lift from the grassy field. It hovered motionless for an instant, then streaked skyward, vanishing in a heartbeat.
"They're gone," Martha said, her voice breaking. "They're gone."
"Yeah, Grandma, but we're still here," young Clark said pragmatically, blinking back his own tears.
"Yes, you are," she said, and hugged him fiercely. "Yes, you are."
The walk back was slow and quiet. Martha leaned heavily on Tom and was flagging badly by the time they reached the farmhouse.
"I'll get you some water," Lois said, when they were inside. "Clark, pull out a chair for Grandma."
"What's this?" Martha picked up an envelope lying on the table. "Clark, it has your name on it." She looked up. "It's Clark's writing."
"Not mine," the boy denied quickly.
"No, not yours," she agreed. "Big Clark's writing. Here." She handed over the envelope and accepted the glass of ice water Lois offered.
"Open it, son," Tom urged.
Clark shrugged and ripped open the envelope. He pulled out a single sheet of paper and unfolded it. "It's a note." He frowned over the unfamiliar handwriting, and read it aloud.
This belongs with the ring you found in your grandmother's memory box. I know you don't think too much of girls yet, but that's going to change in the next few years and someday you'll meet someone you want to be with for the rest of your life. When that happens, it would please me if you'd think about honoring that love with this gift.
With admiration and respect,
Clark looked in the envelope again, and shook something out into his hand. He puzzled over it for a minute, then dangled a long silver chain from his fingers. On the end of the chain swung the companion to the ring in Martha's box — a woman's wedding band.