By Irene Dutch <email@example.com>
Submitted January 2001
Summary: In this wonderful sequel to "Firestorm" and "Starfire and Sunstorm," Marty Kent finds herself falling in love. But is it a love too good to be true?
Content warning: Violence. This story deals with sexual assault.
This is a sequel to 'Firestorm' and 'Starfire and Sunstorm' and is a companion piece to 'Solar Eclipse' and 'Gale Force Winds'. It's best that you read 'Firestorm' and 'Starfire and Sunstorm' before reading this.
Many thanks to Sandy McDermin who made some very helpful and pivotal plot suggestions. I'm sure that I did things with her suggestions that she wasn't expecting, but I am still very grateful.
Thanks as usual to the readers of Zoom's message board who provided such excellent feedback. A person couldn't ask for better constructive criticism. Thank you to Laurie, Wendy and Karen, my three faithful beta-readers. Finally, a big thank you to Julie, my archive editor.
Warning: This is part one of a two-part story to be continued in 'Hiding in the Shadows'.
All standard disclaimers apply.
Please send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
In Chapter Eight of 'Starfire and Sunstorm,' we learn that Marty has inherited her grandparents' farm in Smallville, Kansas and is deeply happy to be a farmer. But Martha and Jonathan have both passed away, and Marty is very lonely on the farm. Her childhood friend, Ben Palmer — son of Rachel Palmer, the sheriff — has been away at college, studying to be a veterinarian. He's due to return soon to set up his practice. And Marty feels as though Astrid and Sam no longer have time for her since they were married. Her dog, Shadow, is her most loyal companion.
Marty is worried about turning twenty-one the following week. She needs to pick a superhero name and design a suit, and time is running out for both activities. Her brothers both wear quite colourful outfits, but Marty wishes to keep a lower profile. After a great deal of thought, she decides to use only black, white and grey when she designs her superhero uniform. After more thought, she realises that she wants to stay as inconspicuous as possible. If she could, she'd hide in the shadows, and so she decides to pick the same name as her dog. Upon her debut as a superhero, she will be known as Shadow.
Marty is also worried about the gossip and speculation that will most assuredly start up again when she makes her debut. When her brothers, Sam and Jon, also known as Starfire and Sunstorm, burst on the scene, there was a flurry of speculation about who their mother was. The media printed many stories about Firestorm, Ultrawoman and Vixen. Privately, her parents explained to Marty and her siblings that Firestorm had been one of their descendants, and had come to the past to ensure that Marty and her siblings would be born. To their disappointment, her mom and dad did not tell them who Firestorm was descended from.
Sam arrives to tell her that he and Astrid are going to have a baby, and that they both want her to visit more frequently. Marty is thrilled at the prospect of becoming an aunt, and the chapter ends. This story commences nine days later.
A very insecure Maria Ramirez held onto her microphone as if it were a life preserver. She just hoped that her viewers wouldn't be able to see how badly her hand was shaking. She had always wanted to be a TV journalist. This moment, as she was about to go on the air nationwide for the first time, was the culmination of all her dreams. She waited impatiently, listening through her earpiece for her cue. Jordan on the anchor desk was just finishing up a story… okay… here goes.
"… And with a breaking story in Greater San Juan, Puerto Rico, here is correspondent Maria Ramirez from KLTV's local affiliate. Maria?"
And, she was off and running, focusing on projecting the right mix of compassion, solemnity and professionalism.
"Thank you. This is an incredible situation here, Jordan. A local tour boat, the Sea Breeze, has been torpedoed. Yes, I said 'torpedoed.' No one is sure exactly what happened, but the theory is that the Sea Breeze's navigational computer made a crucial error, and the boat ended up in the middle of a U.S. Navy training exercise. Initial reports are a little sketchy, Jordan, but the word is that the boat was literally sliced in half. We have no word as to how many people were on board.
"To their credit, the Navy was quick to respond, immediately ceasing their training exercise. They sent out a speedy SOS, and are busy pulling people out of the water. But for many of those in the water, time is running out. Their only hope is that Superman and his two sons, Starfire and Sunstorm, have heard the publicly broadcast appeal for help.
"You can see behind me, extra emergency crews are set up to deal with any injured that cannot be treated on board the Navy vessels." Maria gestured at the ambulances and the tense emergency personnel as they waited, silently looking out to sea. It was an effective shot, highlighting their desire to be out in the thick of it, instead of waiting for the injured to be brought to them.
"In the meantime, no one in Washington is willing to comment on live torpedoes being used in their training exercise. We contacted the office of the local base commander, but only received a 'no comment'.
"Back to you … Wait! George, focus the cameras over there. Jordan, it looks like Metropolis's resident superheroes have come through for us once again. Yes, there's Superman, and Starfire's with him, and Jordan, look!
"Talk about an ingenious solution to a problem. I don't know if everyone can see what I'm seeing, but Superman and Sunstorm are carrying about twenty people between them in a spread out piece of sailcloth. It almost looks like a giant stretcher. They're landing, transferring the people to the care of the waiting emergency technicians, and taking off once again.
"And, here comes Starfire with … No! It's not Superman! It's not Sunstorm! Jordan, it's a woman! Starfire and an unknown superwoman are also carrying another twenty people."
Over the next twenty minutes, Maria and Jordan frantically kept a running commentary going about the dramatic sea-rescue taking place. Jordan focused on the unexpected appearance of the mysterious superwoman which frustrated Maria immensely. Yes, that was an important story, but so was the tour boat tragedy. She kept bringing the coverage back to that to Jordan's irritation.
Maria could hear the frantic exclamations of the Research Department in her earphones as they shouted hurried questions at each other, not waiting for any answers. As she watched the rescue continue at the harbour, she and her cameraman inched closer to the action, trying to stake out a good position away from the more powerful networks.
Before they could get too close however, an army of journalists jostled past them to take over the locations with the better views of the action. She recognised Courmaine from LNN as his large crew pushed past her to take the choice close-to-the-action spot she had hoped to claim. Then the slimy piece of work smirked as he looked back and caught sight of her frustration.
Courmaine was followed by Charlton, Franklin, and Stewart from the three big networks. Maria and George exchanged glances, irritated that once again, the small independent affiliate was being pushed aside. Making the best of it, Maria staked out a small area a short distance from the main action.
Her mike was off while Jordan filled the on-air time theorizing about this new player in the superhero game. Maria sighed. "I swear, George, if I didn't know that I'd get tossed off the air, blacklisted and sued, I'd kick Courmaine where it really hurts. The man's an insensitive jerk."
"I couldn't agree with you more," Maria heard coming from above. "I've heard horrible things about him."
Maria looked up and felt her jaw drop. The mysterious woman floated lightly down and landed beside Maria in a perfect position for the cameras. The young journalist glanced over at her not-so-respected colleagues and saw that all their attention was focused on Superman, Starfire and Sunstorm, as they, too, landed in front of their cameras, effectively distracting them from what was happening behind them.
Maria turned back to this newest of the superheroes and gaped at her, taking in all the details of her personal appearance.
She was dressed in what looked like a toned down version of Starfire and Sunstorm's outfits. Her one piece, tight-fitting outfit was a mix of black and grey swirled together and had an attached hood that covered her hair and her eyes. Her cape was grey and white mixed abstractly together, and she had Superman's 'S' crest in white on both her cape and her chest.
Maria grabbed hold of her wits with both hands and held on tight. "Would you mind if I ask you some questions in front of the cameras?" she asked politely.
The spandex clad woman glanced over her shoulder at the raucous crowd as it shouted questions at Superman and his sons before smiling at the nervous, trembling journalist. "As long as you don't yell them in my ear, I don't mind," she said calmly.
"Oh, no, never," Maria replied quickly, a quaver in her voice.
"Then go ahead. Whenever you're ready."
Maria quickly informed the producers over their link that she had breaking news and they better interrupt Jordan. Now. Immediately. They checked the feed coming in from George's camera and promptly did just that.
"Jordan, I'm here with… with… Who are you?" Maria blurted out, unable to think of a more effective question?
The mysterious woman half-smiled. "My name is Shadow," she answered.
"As in 'the Shadow knows'?" Maria asked, incredulously.
A flash of a grin passed over Shadow's face. "Hmmm, maybe I should have picked a name that hasn't been used before, but even so, I think I'll stick to Shadow."
Maria laughed, put at ease by the touch of humour in the new superhero's response. "Are you related to Superman, or to his sons?"
"I'm related to all of them. We're a family. Superman is my father. Starfire and Sunstorm are my brothers." Shadow glanced briefly but warmly at the masculine contingent that was still doing a wonderful job of distracting the other journalists.
"Would you mind telling me what it was like out there?" Maria asked, her one arm sweeping in an arc towards the ocean.
Shadow's eyes darkened. "It wasn't nice," she said, slowly. "In fact, it was pretty ugly. We were lucky. We got the distress call in a fairly timely fashion, and we were able to save quite a large number of people. About thirty people died as a direct result of the torpedo. Unfortunately, two women drowned after the fact." She crossed her arms defensively over her chest.
Maria sensed that those thirty-two deaths weighed heavily on this newest of superheroes. "I'm sorry," she said, impulsively taking one step closer and gently laying her hand on Shadow's arm.
Their eyes locked. The other woman's expression softened. "Thank you," she answered solemnly.
"Are you sure that everyone is now out of the water?" Maria asked, forcing herself to return to the story at hand.
"Yes," Shadow said with a slight smile. "My family and I crisscrossed the area thoroughly, and we are sure that all people have been retrieved."
"Any theories as to what happened, Shadow?"
Shadow shook her head emphatically. "No, we'll leave that to the U.S. Navy to answer. We arrived after the fact. We'd only be second-guessing the Navy and that's not our job."
Maria winced as she heard the news producer screaming at her through her earphones, asking her what the heck she was doing, telling her to forget about the tour boat disaster and concentrate on getting more information about Shadow.
"Do you mind if I ask you some personal questions?" she asked Shadow diffidently, worried that she might frighten the newest of the superheroes away.
A loud, outraged roar arose from the crowd that surrounded Superman and his sons. Maria turned to see her colleagues rushing towards her at a gallop, shouting questions at Shadow. She turned back to the other woman and looked at her helplessly.
"I don't mind you asking personal questions," Shadow answered, "but not here. These fellows are acting a bit rude. I'd rather talk to someone more professional." She smiled delicately at the camera.
Maria choked back a chortle at the thought that Courmaine and the rest of the 'rude' journalists would be viewing this interview later. She had no doubt that they'd be gnashing their teeth and frothing at the mouth.
"Where?" Maria asked, puzzled.
"Well, we can't take your cameraman, but if you have a tape recorder…"
Maria silently held hers up.
"Well, then," Shadow said, "let's go."
And to Maria's surprise, Shadow took the microphone out of her hand, placed it carefully on the ground and gripped Maria around the waist. "Ready?" Shadow asked.
Maria managed to nod.
And to Maria's amazement, Shadow launched them up into the air. As the harbour below disappeared from view, two things made Maria supremely happy. One, she had on a pantsuit instead of a dress, and two, she could see the incensed, angry faces of her so-called colleagues as they peered up jealously at them.
A few hours later, in the comfort of their living room, Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and two of their four children, enjoyed their impromptu get-together.
Vicky was, of course, in school. She had wanted to play hooky and stay home with her mom to watch the coverage, but Lois had vetoed the idea, sending her youngest daughter off the local high school with a promise that Lois would tape everything for her. However, Vicky had told her mother to give Marty a hug of congratulations for her, to celebrate her very successful superhero debut. Uncle Bernie and Uncle Jimmy had both phoned with their own brief words of praise.
Sam was home hovering over Astrid. The shock of discovering that she was pregnant hadn't worn off yet. Astrid had wanted to come over, too, but that idea had been thoroughly vetoed by Sam and Uncle Bernie. Everyone understood. No one wanted her to take any chances.
The rest of the family watched Maria Ramirez being interviewed on LNN. She looked a lot more self-confident than she had in the earlier KLTV coverage. She spoke in glowing terms about her flight with Shadow and their private conversation. Her recorded interview had been played. Clark and Lois had listened critically but Marty had handled the questions like a pro. She had said very little while simultaneously making Maria sound like an incredibly talented, seasoned journalist. They looked at each other approvingly as the recording drew to a close.
"So, what did you think?" Marty asked nervously as she clicked off the TV.
Clark smiled at his daughter warmly. "I think you did a great job, sweetheart."
"Thanks, Dad." Marty sighed in relief.
"You were really great out there, sis," Jon added. "You followed our lead really well."
"Thanks," Marty repeated.
"That was really nice of you to give Ramirez the exclusive. She seems to be a good journalist," her mom said, approvingly.
Marty grinned. "Well, after that scuttlebutt you guys told me about Courmaine and those other jerks, I figured even though she was new, she was the best one of the bunch to talk to."
"I wonder what those jerks would think if they knew that their dirty laundry was aired in front of Superman and his family!" Jon piped up.
"We probably know better who's more trustworthy than most of the press associations do," Marty added.
Lois smirked a bit. "Okay, I know it's a little petty, but it just feels so good when you give your exclusives to the decent journalists instead of the scum-sucking, gutter-crawling, sub-humans that give us all a bad name."
Clark laughed. "Come on, Lois, tell us what you really think!"
Lois, Marty and Jon broke into laughter, too. Their conversation soon turned to other matters until Marty stood up, dispelling the cozy atmosphere in the room.
"I better get back to the farm. I have some chores to tackle."
Clark sprang to his feet and embraced his daughter. "Okay, sweetheart. And you're okay, right? You're not going to dwell on those people who died."
"I think I'm okay, Dad. I feel bad, but I don't see what we could have done differently."
Lois got to her feet, moving a little slower than her husband. "Finally! Someone in the family who's not going to obsess about everything that they DIDN'T do!" She kissed Marty on the cheek. "Keep that attitude. It's the right one."
"I'll try to, Mom," Marty said as she embraced her mother.
"I better go, too," Jon said as he, also, got up from the couch. "I want to check in with Sam and Astrid before I go to that fundraiser tonight."
"What's money being raised for tonight?" Clark asked as he wrapped his arm around Marty as they walked to the back door.
"It's the annual 'Artists against Alzheimer's' fundraiser."
"Not a bad cause," Lois said as she hooked her arm in her son's as they followed Clark and Marty.
Jon grinned down at his mom. "No, it's not. The food's usually pretty good, too as well as the band. Anyway, bye, everyone." Jon kissed his mother on the cheek, shook his father's hand and lightly punched his sister's arm before walking out the door.
Lois and Clark turned back to Marty.
"So, you're sure you're going to be okay?" Clark asked, concerned.
"Da-ad, I'm fine. Really," Marty answered.
"Good," he said, relieved by her very normal, slightly exasperated tone of voice.
"When will you be back?" Lois asked.
"Tomorrow, after I'm done my chores. But I'll probably head straight over to Sam and Astrid's. I want to check on her."
"We might see you there," Lois answered in response. "If not, you're coming over for supper on Sunday, right?"
Marty grinned cheekily at her mom. "That depends. Who's cooking?"
Clark choked back a laugh.
Lois lightly smacked her daughter's arm. "You brat! Just for that, I should." She glanced at her husband, her eyes dancing in amusement.
"Hey!" Clark protested. "What did I do that you'd want to punish me, too?"
"Whoa!" Marty exclaimed, laughing at the look on her mom's face. "I'm getting out of here. I don't want to get caught in the middle of this one."
"Coward!" her father yelled after her as she scurried out the door.
Marty looked back to see her mother advancing inexorably on her dad. As the door swung shut behind her, she heard her mother start to protest.
"Wait! Clark, what do you think you're…?"
As Marty launched herself into the air, she heard a distinctly feminine squeal coming from the house. She grinned. Dad must have turned the tables at the last moment. He was good at that.
In her apartment in Greater San Juan, Puerto Rico, Maria Ramirez hung up her phone with a shaking hand. She sat down heavily on the side of her bed and looked at herself in the mirror that hung above her dresser. She shook her head. She didn't look any different. She certainly didn't look like someone who had just been offered an on-air position with KLTV in Metropolis.
She fell backwards onto the bed as if stunned. Laying there silently, staring blankly up at the ceiling, she hugged herself tightly. How quickly a life can change, she pondered. And it was all due to Shadow. If there were ever anything she could do for the superwoman, she would she vowed to herself as a wave of gratitude swept over her. She owed all her good fortune to Shadow, and she would never allow herself to forget.
In a seamy building in downtown Metropolis, in an office quite close to the Daily Planet geographically, but miles away in every other way, a very different type of journalist was also thinking about Shadow. His desk was scattered with pictures and files. The picture on the very top of the pile was a new picture, but it was well handled already. It was a picture of Shadow standing beside Maria Ramirez. He looked at the picture again, consulted his notes once more and then picked up his phone. He had arrangements to make.
The morning after her rather splashy superheroish debut, Marty quickly did her farm chores, changed into clean jeans and a baggy sweatshirt and then jumped into her beat-up pick-up truck to head into town to do errands. She did her banking, picked up more feed and returned her library books before deciding to take a break by heading over to Maisie's for coffee and a piece of pie.
Dora greeted Marty enthusiastically as she took a seat at the small counter, bringing her a cup of creamy coffee and a couple of extra sugar packets. Dora had taken the business over from her grandmother, but that didn't mean that Maisie was out of the picture. To the contrary, even at the age of seventy-nine, Maisie came in to the coffee shop everyday, ostensibly to supervise Dora, but in reality to gossip with all her friends. She had a special table that no Smallville resident would ever dream of sitting at without a direct invitation even if Maisie weren't there.
Today, she sat with her friends Marion Jones and Velma Cooper. The three women were all about the same age and were gabbing a mile a minute, their arthritic hands gesturing wildly, adding emphasis to their words. Marty glanced over and smiled as she watched the ladies natter to each other. On occasion Grandma Kent had joined Maisie at her table to gossip, too, but it hadn't happened that often. Grandma had been too busy to sit still for long. Marty sighed. She still missed her grandparents very much.
As if sensing that someone was watching them, Maisie looked up and immediately locked eyes with Marty. The older woman regarded her warmly for a long moment, then breaking the eye contact turned back to her friends and said a couple of quick words. Marion and Velma immediately got up and slowly made their way to the door, nodding and beaming at Marty as they passed.
Puzzled by the out-of-the-ordinary attention she had just received from the two seniors, Marty glanced back at Maisie. Maisie waved an arm in invitation, pointing at the empty chairs at her table. Wondering what was going on, Marty grasped her coffee cup and relocated, sitting down opposite the older woman.
"Marty!" Maisie exclaimed grasping the young woman's hand with her own wrinkled one. "It's good to see you."
"Thank you," Marty responded slowly, wondering about the level of enthusiasm being shown. "Uh, how are you feeling?"
"Good. Thanks for asking, honey. How 'bout you?"
"And your parents?" Maisie asked, her eyes twinkling.
"Great," Marty replied.
"They must be so proud of you!" Maisie exclaimed. At the look of surprise on Marty's face, she hastily added, "For the farm. For the wonderful work you've done on the farm."
"They're pretty pleased," Marty responded. "Dad, especially. He didn't want to see strangers taking it over. He was thrilled that Grandma and Grandpa decided to leave it to me."
"As well he should be." Maisie patted her hand approvingly. "I can't think of anyone who would love it more than you do, Marty." Maisie paused and took a sip of her tea before changing the subject. "Did you watch the news last night or this morning?"
"Yes, I did," Marty replied, tensing up.
"My, someone must be very proud of that young woman. Lots of coverage about her. She saved a lot of people yesterday. I'm sure her parents are tickled pink."
"Oh, yes, I'm sure they are."
"And her community, too. I'm sure that her friends and neighbours are thrilled. At least, if her friends and neighbours know that they're her friends and neighbours, if you know what I mean." Over the curved edge of her teacup, Maisie gazed innocently at Marty, her expression completely free of suspicion.
Marty stared back, equally innocently on the outside but getting even more tense on the inside. "Yes, I think I do. But, do you think she really has friends and neighbours?"
"Honey, she must have. Everyone has to live somewhere. I've never believed the theory that Superman and his family live in isolation somewhere. No, I think they have homes, good homes, and friends and neighbours, and their own lives. I know you know Superman and his kids. Am I wrong?" Maisie's eyes locked on Marty's.
"No, I don't think you're wrong," Marty said slowly, wondering if Maisie was actually saying what Marty thought she was. "I think you're completely right. I think they have homes that they love, and friends and neighbours that they cherish. I think you're completely right."
Maisie gazed at Marty for another long moment with a small smile hovering around her lips. Her eyes dropped and she took another delicate sip of her warm tea. "I'm glad to hear that, Marty, very glad. No one should live in isolation. By the way, her name is Shadow. Isn't that the same name as your dog?"
"Uh, yes, it is," Marty agreed, diffidently.
Maisie just nodded, as if having a more important question answered than the one she had asked. "Interesting coincidence," was all that she said.
Dora bustled over to the table dispelling the intimate atmosphere. "Gran, how are you doing? More tea? Marty, did you want a piece of pie?"
Marty opened her mouth to refuse when Maisie piped up. "Dora, bring Marty a piece of that lovely apricot pie you made. And Dora, it's on me."
"Sure, Gran." Dora scurried off to do her grandmother's bidding.
"That's not necessary," Marty said, hastily. "Thank you."
"You're welcome, Marty. But I should thank you."
"What do you mean?"
"Why, what could I mean except I'm thanking you for looking after your grandparents' place so well? It wouldn't feel right to have a non-Kent living there." Maisie beamed at Marty before surprising the younger woman by rakishly winking at her.
Marty laughed, feeling her tension start to dissipate a little. "Uh, Maisie?"
"When you were asking … When you said that…" Marty paused, took a deep breath and then just blurted out her question. "What did you mean by her friends and neighbours knowing they were her friends and neighbours? Do you think any of them really do know? About her, I mean?"
Maisie pursed her lips for a moment, deep in thought before replying. "Well, I think many of her friends and neighbours must know. They would have to; they're not stupid people. But I don't think everyone knows. I think, perhaps, it would just be the older people — the people who watched her grow and change. Maybe they've history with her father. Or her grandparents. Perhaps they have reason to be fond of them — or to be grateful to Superman. Lots of people are grateful to him. Why, he even saved Smallville from those new Krypto-whatevers. People around here sure think highly of him. It's hard to say if other people know or not." Maisie leaned forward and gripped Marty's wrist firmly. "But, Marty, they may know, and she may find out that they know, but I don't think they want to know, not officially. That would be too much of a secret for them to be trusted with. Speculation's okay; truth is too hard to handle. Do you understand me?" Maisie asked solemnly.
"Yes, I think I do," Marty said slowly, nodding her head at the older woman's words. "I think I completely understand you." Yes, Marty had received Maisie's message — loud and clear.
Dora arrived back at the table with a generous slab of pie for Marty. "I swear I don't know how you do it. You can eat anything, and you never seem to gain weight."
Marty glanced up at her with a self-deprecating grin. "That's because I'm already hefty."
"Goodness, Marty, you've got a great figure," Dora retorted. "Just because you're not tiny like your mom or your sister. You're just built along different lines, that's all. You're taller and more … um, more, well more built than your mom or Vicky. But you're not 'hefty'!"
"Dora, I think the word that you're searching for is voluptuous," Maisie interjected. "Marty, you're built like Elisabeth Taylor, or Marilyn Monroe. You'll never be a model, but then what real man would want an armful of sticks like that?"
"Uh, can we please change the subject?" Marty asked plaintively. She didn't like talking about her looks, as she certainly didn't like her physical appearance. Oh, sure, she made sure her clothes were always neat and clean when she wasn't doing chores, and that her hair was clean and tidy, but whenever she looked in the mirror, she saw an overly tall woman with muddy blonde hair and a few too many curves. Hefty. Sturdy. This was how she saw herself.
What Marty didn't see was that her body, amply built as she was, didn't have an ounce of fat on it. She didn't see that her curves were actually quite inviting, or that her eyes sparkled most of the time, as if she had a delightful secret. She didn't see how her ready smile lit up her face, or how her hair had lighter blonde streaks in it that caught and held onto the light. No, she couldn't see any of that. She could only see 'sturdy'.
She looked down at the piece of pie, the gold of the apricots contrasting with the blue and white of the thick plate it was on. The crust was flaky and just the right colour — not too dark and not too light. For a moment, she wanted to refuse it, but then she sighed philosophically, picked up her fork and dove in. It wasn't as if she would gain any weight by eating it. Or lose any by denying herself.
"How is it?" Maisie watched her, a satisfied smile on her face.
"Mmmm, wonderful," Marty answered, as she quickly swallowed, clearing the flaky, fruity goodness out of her mouth.
"Good!" Maisie patted her on the arm. Their conversation changed, turning to the goings-on of the small town. Maisie caught Marty up on the most current gossip, including the happy news that Ben Palmer was expected back in Smallville some time later in the week or early next week and that his mother, Rachel, was beside herself with joy.
Marty felt her coiled nerves relaxing. She was enjoying herself after the unexpected start to her conversation with Maisie. The pie was wonderful and the coffee just the way she liked it. And sitting in the diner was also wonderful. It was so, so normal. It was special for just that reason. Finally, reluctantly, Marty stood up to take her leave of Maisie.
The older woman looked up at her. "Marty, would you do something for me?"
"Next time, you see your… Next time you see Superman, would you tell him that we were all impressed by his daughter? That we think she did a good job."
Marty smiled, pleased and a bit embarrassed. "I will," she said, softly. "I'm sure that he'd be glad to hear that. So would she." The young woman bent down and carefully embraced the frail older woman. "Thank you," she whispered into Maisie's ear. "Thank you so much."
The older woman hugged her back, her grip tight. "You're welcome," the senior citizen whispered back.
Marty slowly pulled away from the other woman's warm embrace. "I'll see you later, Maisie."
Maisie didn't say anything. She patted Marty's arm once more and then picked up her teacup again.
Maisie sat alone for quite a few minutes. She sipped her tea and thought about her old friends, Martha and Jonathan. She knew that they'd just about be busting with pride if they were still around. Actually, wherever they were, she reckoned that they were pretty pleased.
Marion stuck her head back into the diner. Seeing Maisie sitting alone, she tugged Velma after her and they diffidently approached their friend's table once again.
"So, did you tell her?" Velma whispered.
Maisie nodded, still lost in thought.
"What'd she say?" Marion asked urgently.
Maisie looked up at her two friends and smiled warmly. "She was real happy to be told that we're proud of her. Real happy." She paused and looked down at the table for a moment, one arthritic finger gently tracing the mouth of her teacup. "But I'm worried about her. She's too alone. She doesn't seem the same since Martha and Jonathan passed. She's… well, I know she's not physically," Maisie whispered, glancing furtively around the small restaurant, "but emotionally, she's vulnerable."
Marion laughed heartily. "You're saying she needs a man."
Velma turned on Marion. "What is it about you? Ever since your husband died, you've been man-crazy. You weren't that way when he was alive!"
Marion giggled. "Maybe there's a reason for that!" she pointed out with a wicked grin. "Anyway, I still say she needs a man. Heck, we all do! What do you think, Maisie?"
Maisie shook her head, still looking solemn and worried. "No, I don't think that's it. That's not what I meant but I'm not sure what I do mean."
Marion laughed again. "Oh, come on, surely you two remember what it was like when we were that age. She needs a man to boost her ego. She needs someone to flirt with. I'm not talking husband material here, just someone fun. Who do we know?"
Velma jumped as if someone pricked her with a pin. "I know! I just got a phone call today answering my ad. I have a new boarder. He arrives tonight. He sounds perfect. Very charming and mysterious on the phone. He's a photographer for 'Rural Life' and is looking to do a photo-shoot of farms in this area."
Marion shook her head. "I don't know."
"Well, who else would we pick? Ben when he gets back to town? Come on, Marion, you know that he's a nice boy and all, but when you're looking for excitement, is he what springs to mind?"
Maisie interrupted. "I really don't think this is a good idea. Not when she's in the doldrums like she seems to be."
"Maisie, live a little. Okay, here's the deal. We'll check out this photographer, see what he's like and then introduce them if everything's okay. Deal?"
"Deal!" Marion agreed quickly.
The two friends turned as one to look at Maisie. She looked back at them, frustrated. Finally capitulating, she threw her hands in the air in surrender. "Deal. But I'm not so sure this is right."
Marty rushed through her afternoon chores, anxious to head back to Metropolis to see Astrid. It was hard to believe that her old friend was going to have a baby. Marty sighed and sat down on a bale of hay to think about it for a minute. Ever the opportunistic dog, Shadow rushed over and sat down beside her on the hay bale, sticking his head into her lap to be petted. Totally unconsciously, her hand went to his soft fur, stroking it automatically.
It was hard to believe that a little over a week ago, Marty had been afraid that she and Astrid were no longer friends. She had been feeling quite resentful of the fact that her best friend had dropped out of her life completely. But Marty hadn't understood. She hadn't understood what Astrid and Sam had been going through over the last couple of years. All those pregnancies and all those miscarriages, and they hadn't told anyone. Marty hadn't even had any idea that they had been trying to have a child.
Uncle Bernie had been the one to push them to come clean with Marty, Jon, Vicky, Mom and Dad. He had been the one to tell them that they needed the support of their family as Astrid tried, once again, to carry a baby to full term.
It must have been hard on Uncle Bernie to see his only child struggle over and over to get pregnant. And their family wasn't like other families. Uncle Bernie would have had to be intimately involved in their efforts to have a baby. He was the one that with the help of the Kryptonite, had to take blood from Sam and make a serum for Astrid. It must have been horrible for him to have to deal with his own daughter and the aftermath of each failed pregnancy. Going to the hospital hadn't been an option as no one wanted to see any anomalies show up in Astrid's blood tests. Uncle Bernie had had to do it all.
But Uncle Bernie seemed happy now, though, and Marty couldn't understand it. Okay, it was true that at three months, this was further along than Astrid had ever been in carrying a baby, but that was no guarantee that the pregnancy would be trouble-free. But Uncle Bernie didn't seem to let it faze him. He kept telling them that everything would be okay, and that this child would make it. He was so sure, almost as if he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that they would do it this time.
Uncle Jimmy had sure reacted oddly to the whole thing. Sam said that he just got really, really quiet and that he couldn't stop staring at Astrid's stomach. Marty guessed that in some ways, Uncle Jimmy felt more like a dad to Astrid than an honorary uncle. And he was Sam's godfather after all. He was family, plain and simple.
The next few months were certainly going to be very hard on Astrid and Sam, though. Uncle Bernie had advised Astrid to rest as much as possible with her feet up. Sam was certainly taking him literally, doing all the cooking and cleaning. He even carried her up and down the stairs although he managed to resist scooping her up in his arms for her regular trips to the washroom.
At the centre of all the fuss, Astrid was almost unnaturally calm. She wasn't worried either about the pregnancy saying that she had a good feeling about the whole thing. Marty was glad for that.
It had been both awful and wonderful when Marty had gone to see her the day after Sam had told her about the baby. Astrid had cried in Marty's arms, apologizing over and over again for having shut Marty out of her life. "I've been so depressed," she had sobbed. "I wasn't being fair to you, but I didn't want to see anyone," she had said again and again. That had been awful — to see her friend in such torment. But it had been wonderful to have the barrier between them dissolve away into nothingness as if it had never existed. It was nice to know that Astrid had had her own reasons for isolating herself from Marty, but awful to know what those reasons were.
Marty hadn't even known that Astrid and Sam had wanted to start a family. Her friend and her brother had never shared with anyone their strong desire to have children. She wouldn't want to start trying to get pregnant when she was still a newlywed, but Sam and Astrid had wanted to start a family immediately. Marty shook her head. Three years. They had been married for almost three years and had been trying for almost all this time and, with the exception of Uncle Bernie, no one had known.
All any of them could do now was keep a happy thought about the baby and be supportive come what may. Marty certainly hoped that this time at least, Astrid and Sam would become parents.
Anyway, enough wool-gathering. Time to get back to work and finish her chores. Marty pushed herself to her feet to the chagrin of her dog, Shadow, who had just got comfortable. Marty grinned at his discomfort and took a moment to offer solace by rubbing him behind his long, silky ears.
"Who's a good boy?" she murmured to him as she stroked him rhythmically. He really was wonderful company for her. Sometimes she didn't know what she'd do without this most faithful of companions. She had got him shortly after Grandma and Grandpa Kent had died, not able to stand the lonely nights, and it had really been a help to her. Sometimes, though, a dog just didn't seem like enough anymore.
The next morning, Maisie was, as usual, seated at her table in the small diner holding court with her friends and neighbours. It wasn't long until Velma arrived, escorted by a young, good-looking, blonde man. Her friend tugged him to her table and positively glowed as the stranger took a moment to hold a chair for her before sitting down himself.
"Maisie, I'd like you to meet Mr. Hunter," Velma stuttered, obviously quite flustered by this young man's charms.
"Please, call me Paul, Mrs. Watson." He smiled, his teeth flashing white in his tanned face. He looked to be in his mid thirties.
"Only if you call me 'Maisie', Paul."
"It would be my pleasure, Maisie."
Oh, this one really is a charmer, Maisie thought to herself. Very courtly manners, but were they just a bit studied or put on? She wasn't sure.
"Paul's in Smallville hoping to take pictures of traditional farms, Maisie," Velma interjected excitedly. "I've been wracking my brain trying to figure out who the best guide would be for him to have. Do you have any suggestions?" Velma winked at Maisie, waiting for her to make the obvious answer to the question.
Maisie didn't let her down although she still wasn't convinced that a man was what Marty needed. "Have you thought of Marty Kent, Velma? Her farm's been in the family for generations."
"She?" Paul asked with a smile. "A woman?"
"Yes, and don't sound so surprised, young man. Women can do anything they want, God willing, and this one happens to like farming."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to sound patronising," Paul hastily said in apology.
"That's all right. I just didn't like hearing anything that sounded like criticism. We tend to stick up for our own around these parts." Maisie looked him in the eyes as she spoke, feeling a little uneasy about this man all of a sudden.
"I'll keep it in mind. Once again, I apologise. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable." He smiled warmly at the two ladies once more, very sure of himself. "So, how do I meet this Marty Kent?"
Just then, Maisie looked up and saw Marty's pick-up pulling into the parking lot. For a moment, she felt like running out and warning the young woman off, but she didn't. Instead, she pointed and said, "There she is, coming into the diner now."
"You should have seen him, Astrid! He's so gorgeous! Did I already tell you this? His hair's blonde, and his eyes are blue, and he's a couple of inches taller than me, and…" Marty twirled around and then flung herself into the chair facing the couch where Astrid was reclining.
"Yeah, you already told me a few times, but you can tell me again," Astrid said, grinning. "It does sound like he made quite an impression on you!"
"Oh, he did," Marty said dreamily, clasping her hands together. "He was… he was just like a Greek god! He was, oh, he was wonderful! And he wants me to take him on a tour of the area. Plus, he wants to spend a lot of time taking pictures of my place. He was very complimentary when I told him about the farm."
"As well he should be," Astrid retorted. "You've done wonders with that place. Your grandparents had really let it run down — no fault of their own, but things got away from them — and you've really done a fantastic job of bringing it into the twenty-first century."
"Do you think I should cut my hair?" Marty asked, clearly not paying attention to what Astrid was saying.
Astrid just smiled to herself, glad to see her friend so happy. "You might want to trim it a bit, but I wouldn't cut it. A lot of men really prefer long hair."
"You think? Hmmm." Marty grabbed a strand of hair and held the end of it up in front of her eyes. "You're right. Maybe just a trim." She looked over at Astrid. "I wish you could come shopping with me. I need some new clothes, and I'd love the company."
"You mean you're finally going to wear something other than jeans?" Astrid asked incredulously.
"You don't have to sound so surprised," Marty replied defensively. "I do have other things in my closet, too, you know."
"Yeah, like sweat-suits!"
"Okay," Marty agreed, throwing her hands in the air in surrender. "So I like casual clothes. Sue me! Now you know why I really wish you could come with me. I have no idea what to buy. I mean, a big fashion decision for me is if I want pre-washed jeans or not."
"Why don't you ask your mom? Aunt Lois has fantastic taste."
Marty looked at her friend dubiously. "I guess I could," she said reluctantly. "Mom does always look pretty fantastic, doesn't she?"
Astrid nodded vehemently. "Let's just say that I hope I look that good when I'm her age."
"Marty, that's a little, um, not you, don't you think?" Lois Lane dubiously eyed the soft flannel shirt that Marty was thrusting in front of her.
"You don't like it?" Marty asked, biting her lip nervously.
"Well, I like it okay, but I don't think it suits the new image you're going for."
"Because I'm this huge lump," Marty blurted out angrily. "Why couldn't I take after you instead of Dad? At least on him, this… this bulk looks good!"
"Honey, you're not a lump!" Lois exclaimed, shocked at her daughter's vehemence. She tugged the hanger out of Marty's hands and replaced it on the rack. Lois stepped back and took a good look at her upset daughter, noting the dejected slump to her shoulders and the defensive posture. Quickly making a decision, she suggested, "Come on. Let's go grab a cup of coffee."
Marty shrugged and allowed herself to be led from the store. They strolled in silence to the food court in the mall. Lois directed Marty to a table while she went and purchased two cups of coffee.
The mechanics of getting their coffees ready, stirring in the cream and sugar, or in Lois's case the artificial sweetener, occupied them for a couple more minutes, but eventually there was nothing else for them to fuss with.
Lois leaned forward and rested her hand on Marty's. "Honey, we have to talk."
Marty pulled her hand out from under Lois's, leaned back and shrugged. "Whatever."
"Sweetheart, for the last few years you've been so hard on yourself due to your looks, and I have to tell you that it's not necessary. Why are you so negative about your appearance?"
Marty shook her head and then looked up at Lois, tears shining unshed in her eyes. "Mom, I can't help it. All I have to do is look at you or Astrid or Vicky, and then all I can think is how huge I am. You three are so tiny."
"So stop looking at us and start looking at different people to model yourself on. You're a beautiful woman, Marty, but you're definitely not built like me so why bother driving yourself crazy by comparing yourself to me? Look around. Find someone built like you that you admire and then imitate her. Maybe like that woman — over there." Lois discreetly pointed at a passing shopper.
Marty gazed after her enviously. "She's a lot thinner than I am, Mom."
Lois laughed. "No, I think you're thinner than her actually, but no one would ever be able to tell from the way you dress."
"What's wrong with the way I dress?" Marty asked rebelliously.
"Nothing! If you're six foot six, and have to stand up to pee. But you're not six foot six, are you? You're five feet ten, and you weigh around one hundred and seventy pounds, and I'd be very surprised if you don't sit down on the toilet! You don't have an ounce of extra fat on you, but even so, you're very voluptuous. You need clothes that drape around you, accentuating your curves instead of trying to hide them all the time. I've tried to tell you before, but you've never listened."
Marty looked at her mother, feeling helpless. "So what should I do?"
Lois smiled triumphantly. "Well, first, finish your coffee, and then you get to practice saying one thing over and over again. The rest is easy."
Lois giggled. "Let's just say that there are two words that you're going to be giving a workout today. 'Yes, mom'. You got that?"
Marty laughed. "Yes, mom."
"See? I told you it'd be easy!"
A very worn out, very happy Marty Kent finished hanging the last of her purchases in her closet. She had had to weed out quite a number of her old clothes to make room for them. She flopped onto the bed and looked, just looked at the array of new clothes in front of her. New jeans that were cut a little more generous in the hips to replace her overalls. New t-shirts in clear, bright colours that hugged her curves instead of sweatshirts. Flowing casual dresses that draped around her gracefully. Marty was thrilled. She couldn't believe how much money she had spent on herself, but it was worth it. She hadn't been doing enough to look after herself. Her mom had offered to help, but Marty had waved her off, happy that she could afford her new purchases. Glancing over at her dresser, she happily surveyed the new lipsticks and blushes. Subtle, but effective, she thought to herself as she gazed at herself in the mirror. And trimming her hair had neatened up her appearance considerably.
Her mom had done a great job helping her out, she thought. They had had a lot of fun, which Marty hadn't expected at all. Usually she hated clothes shopping with a passion, but Mom had made it enjoyable.
And then they had gone to dinner and had talked in a way that they had never really talked before — woman to woman instead of mother to daughter.
"How do you know when you're in love?" Marty had asked.
"You just do," her mom had answered. And then she had told Marty stuff about herself that Marty had never known before — that she had dated other men before Dad, that she had thought she was in love before, but that the difference between how she had felt for the other men and for Dad had been the same as the difference between night and day.
"If you have to wonder if you're in love, you're not," her mom had said. "It's when you don't have to wonder, when you really know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is the man that you want to spend the rest of your life with, this is when you're really, truly in love."
Marty lay back on her bed thinking about her mom's words. How wonderful it must be to feel that strongly about someone.
Well, whether he turned out to be the right man for her or not, Marty intended to impress Mr. Paul Hunter. He'd better prepare to be stunned, she thought smugly.
At the same moment that Marty was awash in romantic daydreams, the object of her affection was placing a phone call to a seamy office in Metropolis.
"I'm here," Paul said to his boss, making a point of keeping his voice low. Who knew if his old biddy of a landlady might be snooping around?
"How'd it go?"
"Couldn't be better," he answered smugly. "I made contact."
"Uh huh. The cover story was perfect. She's showing me around tomorrow."
"I'm still not sure about this, Paul. I find it hard to believe that a superhero would be happy running a farm."
"I'm telling you, I KNOW that Clark Kent's really Superman. This is not a theory on my part," Hunter retorted. "But, just for the sake of argument, you have to admit — Clark Kent and Superman both having two sons approximately the same age as well as a daughter — that's a remarkable coincidence."
"I know. I know," his boss grumbled. "But…"
"And didn't I predict that Superman's daughter would show up any day after Kent's daughter turned twenty-one?"
"But nothing," Hunter interrupted. "Listen to me, and listen to me good. This is not a theory. This is truth. Clark Kent is Superman. His sons are Starfire and Sunstorm and his daughter, this Marty, is Shadow. All I need is time to prove it, but prove it I will. All right?" he asked, raising his voice slightly on the last question.
"All right," his boss grumbled. "But if you don't get me proof…"
"Don't worry. It won't be a problem. By the time I'm done, she'll be putty in my hands."
Paul hung the phone up and looked out the window. What a hick town this Smallville was!
He shook his head as he thought over his conversation with his boss. That was one timid man. No foresight. No courage. But he had done one clever thing. He had remembered Paul's prediction and had called Paul in the Chicago office assigning him to this and giving him free rein in proving exactly who and what Marty Kent really was.
Okay, so their agendas were a little different. His boss, short-sighted man that he was, just wanted proof so he could increase circulation of his rumour-mongering trashy tabloid. Paul wanted more. Paul wanted vindication.
Paul turned his thoughts to the coming days. His revenge was nearly at hand. All that he needed was the proof, and he didn't care how he got it. He'd trick her, or charm her, or seduce her if he had to, but he was going to finally realise the dream that had been driving him since he was a little boy. Hmmm. Seducing her sounded like a good way to go. Her father had ruined his life and the life of the person who stood at the centre of his universe. If he seduced her, Miss Marty Kent of the luscious, ultra-rounded, curvaceous body, it would give him that much more pleasure. Icing on the cake, so to speak. Yes, that's what he was going to do. He was pretty good at it. Women tended to fall at his feet, after all. Little Miss Innocent would be no match for him. He would seduce her and with any luck, she'd give him the proof that he needed on a silver platter!
Paul leaned out the open window of his rented car and smiled at Marty as she stood in her driveway greeting him. His eyes lit up in appreciation of what he saw, causing her to blush. She flushed even more as his eyes traveled up and down her body, lingering for a moment on her hips and the curve of her bosom.
"Wow! You look… you look fantastic!" he exclaimed with a charming, boyish smile.
Marty thrilled at his words. "Thanks," she stammered, quite embarrassed at the attention, but incredibly pleased at the same time. She wasn't used to this level of attention, but when Paul, this sculpted hunk of a man, looked at her like that, she really could believe that she just might be an attractive woman after all.
"Are you ready?" he asked, eagerly.
"Yes, but… would you like to come in and have a cup of coffee before we go?" she asked, hesitantly.
"I'd love to," he said enthusiastically.
As Paul swung his long legs out of the car, Marty's dog, Shadow, advanced towards him to perform his regular inspection as he did for all visitors. Paul extended his hand to the dog's nose, but to Marty's surprise, Shadow started to back away. He didn't go so far as to growl, but he definitely seemed to want to keep his distance from Paul.
"I'm sorry," Marty apologized hastily. "He's usually friendlier. I don't know what's got into him."
Paul smiled, his teeth flashing white in his tanned face. "He obviously knows that I'm a rival for his owner's attention."
Marty felt herself blushing again, his words giving her a heady sensation.
"Anyway, come on in," she announced brightly as she turned towards the front door. "It won't take me long to make a pot of coffee, and we can plan what you want to see first."
Paul laid his hand gently on her forearm tugging her to a stop. "But first, I have to say 'thank you', Marty." His grasp slid down to her hand to squeeze it warmly. "You have no idea how much I appreciate you taking the time to help me," he said sincerely as he let go of her.
"You're welcome," she said, still feeling the gentle, ghostly pressure of his fingers. "It's no trouble at all."
And then, with excitement fizzing effervescently through her veins, she turned and led Paul into the house.
Marty arrowed through the air, zipping in and out of the clouds, diving and soaring and spinning, almost drunk in her euphoria. What a day! What a wonderful, glorious, delirious, delicious day! Paul had been so attentive, so gallant. Every part of her had been enraptured by his presence. They hadn't made it off the farm. He had insisted on a tour and had been so admiring of everything that she had accomplished. And she had accomplished a lot, Marty admitted proudly.
She had made a picnic lunch, and they had eaten it on a big blanket set out on the lawn. After, he had stretched out, begged the use of her lap as a pillow and talked with her. He had really opened up to her. She had the sense that he had really shared the true Paul Hunter with her. And the true Paul Hunter was a lovely person. He was actually a lot like her mom, Marty mused. Mom was very touchy feely, comfortable with casual physical contact. It had been embarrassing how strongly Marty had felt herself react in response to his hand brushing against hers as they walked, or when he had laid his head in her lap. She sighed happily as she relived those magical moments yet again.
The only fly in the ointment had been the behaviour of her dog. Shadow was normally so friendly with everyone. It was really bizarre, and Marty didn't know what to think. Luckily Paul had laughed the whole thing off, though. He was just so understanding and sensitive. Marty sighed happily once more as she put her dog's strange behaviour out of her mind.
It had been hard to say goodbye to him, but she did want to check on Astrid, and he had said that he had something else to do — a phone call to make. But, thankfully, they were going to see each other again tomorrow. She laughed in sheer delight and poured on the speed.
Uncharacteristically for her, Lois Lane remained silent as her eldest daughter gushed ad nauseam about a man. To be honest, she was so shocked by her normally sensible daughter's words, that she didn't know what to say.
Lois had been having a cozy visit with her son and daughter-in-law when Marty had rushed in like a whirling dervish and taken over the conversation completely. She had talked about 'Paul' this and 'Paul' that until Lois didn't want to hear the name 'Paul' anymore.
He did sound like a very nice young man, but Marty had said that he was at least thirty-five. A fourteen-year difference was a bit worrisome. Perhaps it would be prudent to check into this Mr. Paul Hunter and find out a little bit more about him. Discreetly of course. Marty would never forgive her mother if she found out that good old mom was checking up on her new boyfriend!
Why in the world was her boss checking out a 'Rural Life' photographer, Linda Herrera wondered. Was Lois thinking of recruiting him? If so, why? The man took pictures of farm machinery. How in the world could he be counted on to take photos of urban events? There wasn't much call for pictures of tractor pulls in the Daily Planet!
She knew better than to ask Lois questions like this. Lois was a good boss but there was a line that you just didn't cross if you wanted to stay on her good side. Linda knew her limits. Anyway, time to get this over with. She sighed and dialled the phone.
"Hi, boss, got that info you requested."
"Okay, Lois. First of all, he's been on staff at 'Rural Life' for the past eleven years. He's won numerous awards. Not married. No scandals in his past that I can find at a quick glance. Basically, he looks like a solid, dependable guy."
"Great! Thanks, Linda. I knew you'd come through for me."
"You're welcome, Lois. See you tomorrow."
After Lois hung up, Linda looked at the picture in the file once more. 'No wonder he's not married,' she thought. 'I know looks aren't supposed to matter, but this guy just has too many strikes against him. Bald, fat, short and covered with acne.' Even though she was ashamed of herself for her thoughts, she couldn't prevent herself from shuddering as she examined his face for the second time. 'Boy, oh boy, I sure hope she doesn't want to hire him. Who'd want to see that face everyday?'
Linda placed the file in Lois's inbox, and closed the door to the Editor's office securely behind her 'Oh, good,' she thought as she checked her watch. 'It's almost break time.' Instead of heading back to Research, she decided to head downstairs to the snack bar.
As the elevator doors closed behind her, her colleague, Tim, staggered into the newsroom, his arms piled high with the files that Lois had requested from Legal. Balancing the folders carefully in his arms, he opened the door to Lois's office, manoeuvred gingerly through the door and gratefully plunked the huge pile in Lois's inbox also.
The man in Velma Cooper's spare room who was definitely not bald, not fat, not short and not covered by acne was making a phone call. He made a call to the same number at the same time every Tuesday night. He'd been making the same call to the same number at the same time every Tuesday night since he was just a little boy. The conversation was short; it had to be unfortunately, but even so, it was the anchor of his life. His lifeline. His cornerstone.
The preliminaries ate into his precious time as they always did but long ago, he had learned not to let that bother him — too much. So he only had eleven minutes to talk to her instead of fifteen — that would have to do. He waited patiently until he finally heard her beloved voice. Trusting that the authorities had long ago lost interest in her conversations, he quickly filled her in as to what was happening in Smallville and how close he was to vindicating her. She was excited; he had known she would be. He felt himself flush with pleasure at her approval. But then she said a few words of her own.
"You did what?" he roared. "You promised you'd stop… I thought I could count on you not to…"
She snapped at him, and all his pleasure vanished in a flash. The rest of the conversation was strained as he tried not to snarl at her. He knew that if he gave in to his anger as he had once or twice before with her when she'd pulled this stunt, he would only spend the next week counting every minute till it was Tuesday night once again so that he could apologise to her. It was agonising to think that he could cause her pain and not be able to alleviate it for seven days.
They parted on good terms at the end, his love for her aching in his chest and overwhelming him emotionally as it always did in the final moment of their call. He whispered his goodbye and, as always, told her how much he loved her. She did the same, so quiet that he had to press the phone hard against his ear to hear her voice. And then she was gone — gone for another week.
Early Wednesday morning, Maria Ramirez looked around her office and shook her head in disbelief. She was here. She was really here in Metropolis. She honestly hadn't believed that it would happen, but it had.
It wasn't a big office, but what it symbolized to Maria was huge. She had so many ambitions when it came to her career, and she really felt that this was just the start for her. She happily started unpacking the box of personal belongings she had brought with her, putting pictures of her mom and dad on top of her credenza and a plant on her desk. She was startled by a knock on the door. A second later, the door opened slightly, and the smiling face of her new boss, Susan Howard, peeked in at her.
Maria had barely met Mrs. Howard, but she liked what she had seen.
"How are you settling in?" the older woman asked as she sauntered into the office.
"Things are fine!" Maria answered enthusiastically.
"I thought I'd fill you in about a few things," Mrs. Howard said as she took a seat across from Maria.
"Great," Maria repeated.
"Okay, first of all, you might want to stay out of Jordan's way for a couple of days. He's a Prima Donna at the best of times but now… Well, his nose is a little out of joint since you got a promotion out of the great coverage you did of Shadow's appearance and he didn't."
"Don't worry about it," Maria's boss hastily assured her. "Jordan's moved up as high as he's ever likely to get." The older woman briskly changed the subject. "Has anyone really laid out for you exactly what you'll be doing?"
"I gather I'll be a roving reporter. You know, heading out to fires or hostage situations, that kind of thing."
"Yes, that's right. You'll also be paying your dues by visiting dog shows, school plays, chess tournaments, etc." Ms. Howard laughed at the sour expression that passed over Maria's face. "And there's one other thing that I want to inflict… I mean assign to you. It's kind of a tradition around here."
"Oh, oh!" Maria exclaimed. "I don't like the sound of that."
"Well, it's not much fun but it is necessary. As the newest member of the team, you have the dubious honour of sorting through the junk mail for possible stories. It's all been opened. You don't have to worry about pornographic letters or mail bombs or anything."
"Don't you have someone from the secretarial pool sort the mail?" Maria asked incredulously.
"We used to, but we missed out on a couple of scoops that way."
Susan Howard tilted her head to one side as she thought about it. "Well, the first incident happened a long time ago. Ever hear of Dr. Platt?"
"Neither had I when I started here fifteen years ago, but he's the scientist that warned Lois Lane and Clark Kent about the sabotage on the Messenger. They took him seriously; they got the scoop. After the story broke, one of the secretaries ended up going to her boss in hysterics. Two days before the explosion, she had tossed out a letter from Platt that outlined his fears — in crayon I might add!"
"Wow!" Maria sighed.
Ms. Howard's answering sigh was heartfelt.
Maria felt a sudden desire to immerse herself in the junk mail, looking for ever-elusive major stories like that one had been. Why, that had been the story that first launched the legendary partnership of those most venerated of journalists, Lane and Kent. She looked over at her boss. "Okay, you've convinced me. Bring it on," she asked, grinning.
Susan Howard laughed. "Be careful what you ask for. You just might get it."
Quite a few hours later, sitting behind her now invisible desk that was piled high with opened envelopes of every size, shape and form, Maria found herself yawning. This was the dullest, most boring job in the whole world — probably in the whole solar system. She had no idea that there were so many kooks in the world. She had read scores of letters from people who were convinced that aliens were out to get them. Or intelligent talking dogs. Or ghosts, vampires, werewolves and other assorted mythical creatures. She had read letters written in crayon and marker and highlighter and in one case, quite possibly, blood. And in every instance, there had been nothing that even remotely warranted further investigation. She looked down at the half empty mail sack that was on the floor by her feet. 'One more,' she thought. 'I'll read one more and then I'm done for the day. Or the year. Or the rest of my life.'
She reached in randomly and grabbed an envelope. She pulled out the letter that was inside, and noted from the 'date received' stamp that the letter had actually been delivered that day. For a second she panicked. Had all these letters been delivered in just one day? Was she going to have to read this many every day? She scrabbled frantically through the discarded notes on her desk and then sighed in relief when she saw a 'date received' stamp of over a month ago on one of the letters. Whew, that was a relief!
Leaning back in her chair, she skimmed through the letter. Her eyes widened, and she read it again. And again, more slowly this time. Gazing off into space, she thought about it for a long time before making her decision. The letter was carefully placed back in the envelope, and Maria slipped the whole thing into her purse. She'd deal with this on her own time.
Clark Kent delivered his wife back to her office after taking her out to lunch.
"Thanks, honey. I appreciate you dragging me out of here." Lois smiled up at her husband as she sat down behind her desk.
"I know how much you hate going through the stuff from Legal. I thought you needed a break." Clark moved to stand behind Lois so he could knead her shoulders and neck.
"Mmmm, thanks," Lois purred. "All I had to do was sit down and look at this stuff and I felt all my muscles tighten up again."
"I know," Clark said sympathetically. He massaged her in silence for a few minutes before reluctantly letting go of his wife. "Okay, time to pay the masseur." He bent down and collected a kiss from her willing lips.
Lois grinned up at him. "Pretty cheap massage, if you ask me."
Clark laughed. "That was just the tip. I'll be collecting payment from you later."
"Promises, promises," Lois said, giggling. "Anyway, don't you have a press conference to get to at City Hall?"
"Yeah, you're right. Anyway, sweetheart, please promise me that you won't spend too much time on the Legal files. They'll still be here tomorrow."
Lois grimaced. "You had to remind me."
"Oops, sorry." Her unrepentant husband bent down, gave her another kiss and sauntered out of the office.
Lois sighed, looked at the stack of files in her in-box and shook her head. Clark was right. It wasn't like she'd be able to get through all these files today anyway. She'd do a third today, a third tomorrow, and the rest on Friday.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Marty phoned her dad at work in a panic.
"Dad, I need your help," Marty blurted out.
"What's wrong?" he asked, lowering his voice. "Did a rescue go bad? Do you need Superman to help? Train derailment? Hostage situation?"
"Dad! Calm down," Marty interrupted. "I don't need Superman. I need my father."
"Mom told you that I'm seeing someone, right?"
"Yeah, she did. You're not getting too serious about him, are you?"
"Oh, no," Marty said as she hastily crossed her fingers behind her back. "No, not at all. But I have a problem. He's taking me dancing tonight and… well… I don't know how," she wailed.
"I never showed you?" Clark asked, incredulously.
"No, and no one's ever taken me dancing. I mean, I've gone to school dances but no one ever dances, you know, old-fashioned. I've never slow-danced before." Marty paused and took a deep breath. "Help?"
Clark laughed. "I'll be there in five minutes."
Marty heaved a big sigh of relief. "Thanks, Dad!"
A few moments later, her father had arrived in Smallville without incident. Marty had pushed all the living room furniture back against the wall and located some classical CD's while she waited for him.
Less than a minute after he arrived, the two of them were solemnly attempting their first waltz. Thirty seconds later, Marty had banished Shadow from the room. He had thought that they were playing a new and wonderful game, and he more than made his feelings clear about being excluded from it. His mournful whimpers to be let back into the house were competing quite well with the strains of the waltz they were listening to.
Clark laughed. "Sounds like your dog's jealous."
"I guess I haven't been paying much attention to him the last couple of days." Marty blushed as her father lifted an eyebrow at her words.
"So, tell me about this guy," Clark asked. "Am I going to have to have a talk with him, or has he been watching his step?"
"Da-ad! Everything's fine. You don't have to worry. I'm a big girl now, and you have to admit, I can certainly look after myself."
"True enough, but just tell me one thing. Is he a good man?"
"The best, Dad. He's funny and sensitive and caring, and he really likes me for me. I feel special when I'm with him."
Clark pulled Marty close and planted a tender kiss on her forehead. "Good. But remember. You're special all the time, not just when you're with this guy."
"Thanks, Dad." Marty hugged her dad tight as they continued to dance.
"I'm surprised that you're making such a fuss about this guy, though, Marty. You've dated, haven't you?"
"Not since high school."
"But, but… okay, I'm prejudiced because you're my daughter, but there's nothing wrong with you. How come?"
"Gee, thanks for the compliment," Marty responded sardonically.
"Sorry. I mean you're a beautiful young lady. How come you haven't dated?"
"Who do you suggest I choose as a date? Neal Simmons?"
"The guy with the missing teeth? No, but surely you've met others that interest you."
Marty laughed. "I go to an online college. I don't enter chat rooms. I'm busy with the farm. When am I going to meet anyone?"
"What about Ben? Ben Palmer?"
"Puhleese, Dad! Are you kidding? Ben's a great buddy, good to go to the movies with, but that's all. Plus, I haven't seen him in at least four years. He's been away at school and hasn't been able to afford to come home for visits."
"I didn't know that," Clark exclaimed. "Poor Rachel. She must have been so lonely."
"I think it's been rough, but she seems fine. You know Sheriff Palmer. She takes life in stride." Marty stumbled for a second and then caught herself. "Oops! Sorry about that!"
"Ouch! Okay, I think we need more work on the 'light on your feet' part. That hurt!"
"I'm sorry. Is this better?" And with a cheeky grin, Marty floated up off the floor pulling her father with her.
"Ah, yes, your mother's preferred method of dancing," Clark said with a grin. "Not what I would recommend for you and this Paul to indulge in tonight."
Marty laughed. "No, not tonight."
"And not for a while, okay, Marty?" Clark pulled his daughter to a stop and gazed deep into her eyes. "Don't rush into anything, all right?"
"All right," Marty promised as she wondered if she were really capable of slowing her feelings down.
"Marty, thank you for a magical night," Paul said as he stood with her under her front porch light.
"No, Paul, thank you. Going dancing was a wonderful treat."
"And you're a beautiful dancer, very light on your feet," he said, gazing deeply into her eyes. "In fact, it makes me wonder…" His hand lifted to gently touch her cheek.
"It makes you wonder what?" she asked, softly, her heart beating a mile a minute.
"It makes me wonder what else you do well," he said huskily.
His hands moved up to frame her face as he moved closer. "In fact, I've been wanting to find out… I've wanted to know…"
"To know what?" Marty's breath caught in her throat.
"To know how you do this." His lips lightly touched hers. He pulled back for a moment, smiled at her warmly and then kissed her once more — more masterfully this time. He pulled away and rested his forehead against hers. "Mmmm, I thought you'd do that well," he said breathlessly.
Marty blushed, her eyes dropping down, away from his. For the life of her, she had no idea what to say. She felt his fingers, gentle on her face, tipping her head back, forcing her to meet his gaze.
"I've never felt like this before," he said gently. "You're an amazing woman, Marty Kent."
"No one's ever said anything like that to me, Paul. I… I don't know what to say."
He smiled, her knees going weak in response. "You don't have to say anything." His lips met hers once more, gently, tenderly before he pulled slowly away from her.
"Good night, Paul."
"Good night, Marty."
He spun on his heel and strode to his waiting car. For a moment, Marty wanted to call him back, to ask him to stay, but she didn't. But oh, how she wanted him to.
Before putting his car in gear, he glanced over at Marty and blew her a kiss.
Marty shyly imitated his action and then watched until the red taillights were gone before slowly entering her home. Even being boisterously greeted by her enthusiastic, tail wagging, tongue-lolling dog wasn't enough to shock her out of her blissful reverie.
Paul smiled smugly as he drove away from the Kent farm. He had her in the palm of his hand. He was a little surprised that she hadn't asked him to stay, but that was probably a product of her innocence. Her sweet innocence. It was going to be a pleasure to divest her of that!
She was absolutely ripe for the plucking. All he'd have to do would be to push a little bit and then she'd fall, plump, juicy and succulent into his bed. She was over-ripe. Totally delectable and delicious. Full of life and spirit. Too bad she was who she was. He could have enjoyed being with someone like her, but it wasn't going to happen. Some things were more important than romance. Like revenge. Or vindication.
Thursday morning, Marty kept a wary eye on the stove and oven. She was a good cook, but she wanted today's picnic lunch to be something special. She had dug out her grandma's old picnic basket and laundered the red and white chequered napkins as well as the matching ground cloth. Seeing the old basket brought back happy memories of fun afternoons with the whole family — going to visit the local swimming hole together or tossing a ball back and forth over in Schuster's field. Marty smiled, glad that she was going to have a chance to make new happy memories with this old basket.
Maria Ramirez sat at her desk wracked with self-doubt. She idly turned the envelope over and over again, fiddling with it as she thought about her problem. At the time, it had seemed like an easy decision to make, to keep this information private, but maybe that had been the wrong decision. She was starting a new job after all. Keeping secrets from her boss might not be a good way to go.
She was startled by a knock on the door. Once again, her boss, Susan Howard, stuck her head in. "How are things going today, Maria?"
"Fine." Maria looked at her boss's smiling face and found it very easy to make the right choice. "But I do have something to talk over with you."
"What is it?" the older woman asked as she came into the room and sat down.
"This." Maria held out the envelope to Ms. Howard.
The other woman took it, pulled out the letter and settled back in her chair to peruse it. Only a split-second later, she looked up and asked, "You're not taking this seriously, are you?"
"Why not?" Maria asked, puzzled.
"Because this crackpot sends us letters every few years, always about the same thing. Clark Kent is Superman, but she can't prove it." Ms. Howard tossed the letter back to Maria who caught it automatically. "She made that allegation years ago, and it was disproved then."
"I don't know," Maria said in response. "There might be something to it."
Susan Howard shook her head. "No, there isn't. I saw Superman and Clark Kent together with my own eyes after that President Doe fiasco. I know they're two different people." She looked Maria in the eyes and then sighed. "But judging from the stubborn look on your face, you need to be convinced, too. Okay, you can check it out. Do you want to manufacture some excuse to interview Kent?"
"No," Maria said, thoughtfully. "Kent's experienced. He'd have no trouble hiding the truth. No, I want to go to Smallville."
"Kansas?" Ms. Howard asked incredulously.
"Yes. If this Diana Stride is right, then Marty Kent is Shadow. And Marty Kent lives in Smallville, Kansas. I don't care how good a disguise this woman might have, if she really is Shadow, I should be able to recognise her. If I do, then I'll look for proof. Okay?"
"Okay. And if you find proof…"
"If I find proof, we'll have a great story," Maria said triumphantly.
Totally unaware of these new developments, Marty Kent was strolling hand in hand with Paul Hunter through Schuster's field. She almost felt like she was in some kind of made-for-TV movie. The fields were a lavish carpet of wild flowers, their delicate scent perfuming the air, and the sun was bright and warm.
She was supremely conscious of the man beside her. Every time she looked at him, she marvelled at his sheer good looks, his warm blue eyes and his shining blonde hair. He looked so wholesome and clean.
Every one of her senses was fine tuned to him. When he smiled, a rush of warmth rushed through her. When he spoke, she hung on his every word. And when he touched her…
She looked around, a little disoriented since she hadn't been paying attention to where they had been walking. Why, they had walked right out of Schuster's field and were on the outskirts of the new subdivision. Marty wasn't too happy about the new houses going up, but there was nothing more she could do about it. She had attended all the town meetings to protest the destruction of prime farming land, but the developers had had their way in this.
"Shall we keep going?" she asked Paul with a smile.
He looked down at her and grinned. "Sure. I feel like I could walk forever with you by my side."
Marty giggled, pleased by his words.
They strolled on, making idle comments about the houses under construction, wondering who would be moving in or what the houses looked like on the inside. The crescent curved in front of them. Marty knew that they would eventually end up quite near where they had started.
As the street curved back on itself, Paul pulled Marty to a stop. "Marty, honey, I don't know if I should ask this but…"
"What?" Marty asked, feeling herself blush at the term of endearment.
Paul gazed at her warmly and gently stroked her cheek before lightly kissing her. "I don't know if this is too soon…" His voice trailed off as he looked helplessly at her.
Marty squeezed his hand tenderly before moving closer to kiss him once more. "It's okay. You can ask me anything," she assured him.
Paul smiled at her gratefully and took a deep breath. As he raised his one hand to run it through his hair, Marty was touched and gratified to see it shake. He was really nervous, poor guy.
"Marty, I want to stay with you tonight," he blurted out.
She took a step back. "What?"
"Marty, honey, I am so desperately in love with you, and I don't want to push you into something that makes you uncomfortable, but I want to be with you tonight. I want to hold you in my arms and watch you sleep. Even if you're not ready for anything else, I want to do that much. Please, say that I can."
Marty felt her insides melt at his words. A rush of emotion flowed through her — love, tenderness, excitement, gratitude. "Oh, Paul, I love you, too," she exclaimed joyfully, her eyes welling up with moisture.
"You do?" he asked as he wiped away a couple of errant tears from her cheeks.
"Yes." She blushed, her eyes dropping to the ground for a moment before forcing herself to meet his gaze. "And you're not asking for something that would make me uncomfortable."
"Really," Marty assured Paul as she wrapped her arms around him. And it was true. She really did love him. Tonight, she would tell him the truth and if he still wanted her, she would make love with him.
He held her in a tight embrace and frantically plastered her face with kisses while murmuring tender endearments. Marty had never felt so cherished.
It was with a sense of loss that she felt him pull away from her. "Shall we continue on?" he asked. "Suddenly, I'm in a hurry to get you home again."
Marty blushed once again, embarrassed by the naked ardour in his voice. "I love you," she told him, hoping that the sound of those words would quell her sudden fears.
He kept one arm possessively around her waist as they walked, moulding her body to his. She felt a bit as though they had suddenly been joined at the hip.
A moment later, a wave of pain and nausea swept over Marty making her grateful for the support of her arm. 'Kryptonite!' she thought panicked. 'The construction. The digging. They found Kryptonite!'
"Paul, I… I don't f-feel v-very… I'm s-sick. P-paul, take me h-home." Marty felt the darkness close in on her. Dizzy, she was dizzy. And nauseous. Her stomach cramped, and her gorge rose in her throat.
As she gave herself over to the growing darkness, Marty was only peripherally aware of the stunned look on Paul's face as he watched her collapse on the road.
If Marty had been able to see the expression now on Paul's face, she wouldn't have been able to recognise him. The avid, greedy look that he currently wore was not one that he would have cared to show her. 'Kryptonite! There has to be Kryptonite around here,' he thought excitedly. Keeping a wary eye on Marty's recumbent body, he hurried to the nearest pile of excavated earth. He scrabbled frantically through the dirt pile with his bare hands until, yes, his hands touched a hard, earth-encrusted lump. The muck fell away when he scraped it and then his hands were lit up with the cool green glow of it. He wanted to yell and shout, to proclaim his triumph to the skies above, but instead, he quickly slipped the stone into his pocket. He approached Marty and even though she was unconscious, she still reacted, groaning as the stone got even nearer to her.
Paul took his time, slowly looking her over. He toed her in the ribs, but she didn't move. 'Oh, this is going to be good,' he thought as he hoisted her limp body to his shoulders. 'And I thought seducing her was going to be fun.' He paused, thought for a moment and then smirked broadly. 'I might still do that. Oh, she won't be as cooperative as originally planned, but who cares?'
Lois Lane closed the file in front of her with a snap before throwing it into her out box. It was so much easier spacing these files from Legal out. Clark had been pretty smart when he had told her to pace herself. Knowing that she wasn't going to try to read all the files at once had meant that she had been more willing to go through each one thoroughly. She had assimilated more information this way. She really should tell Clark how much he had helped her. Actually, thinking about it, she could come up with better ways than the use of words to thank Clark Kent. Her lips curved into a warm smile as she started to contemplate her various options when it came to expressing her gratitude.
The smile died away as she contemplated the small pile of files that still remained. Sighing, she reached for another one. Only a few more to do, and then she would have finished the second third that she had designated had to be done today.
Maria Ramirez was packing. It hadn't taken her long to discover that Smallville was a bit too far away to drive to from Metropolis. She threw a couple of casual but professional outfits into her bag as well as a pair of jeans and a sweater. Her plane was leaving the next morning at 10 a.m. It was about an hour flight and then a three-hour drive from the airport in Wichita. She put her ticket and her car rental information into her briefcase and thought about it some more. No, she had everything.
Maria sat down on the bed. Should she feel guilty about this, she wondered. Superman, Starfire, Sunstorm and Shadow, didn't they deserve to have their secrets? Didn't they have the right to privacy?
But this is big, she told herself. This is the biggest story around. She had the right to ask questions. She had the right to know and so did the public. But she owed a big debt to Shadow. Was this the way to pay her back?
No, she owed nothing to Shadow. She had been in the right place at the right time and that was that. She would get this story and she would publicize this story and she would report this story. Wouldn't she?
"Thanks Sam." Astrid laid her head against her husband's broad shoulder as he carefully carried her up the stairs. "You'll be glad when you don't have to do this anymore."
"Never," Sam proclaimed vehemently as he placed his wife gently on their bed. He sat down beside her and collected a kiss from her willing lips as payment for the service rendered.
Astrid sighed. "You carrying me around all the time is the only thing about being pregnant that I'll miss."
Sam grimaced. "This has been pretty hard on you, hasn't it?"
"Oh, I don't know," Astrid said, sarcastically. "It's actually pretty enjoyable having a bladder the size of a pea. And these hot flashes — they're a bonus!"
Sam laughed. "Plus you don't have to suffer the unwanted attentions from your lout of a husband."
Astrid's eyes locked on Sam's. "That's not a bonus, and you know it."
"Yes, I do." Sam cupped Astrid's cheek in the palm of his hand.
She turned and fervently pressed her lips into his palm causing Sam to groan throatily. "Six months and counting."
"Don't forget the six weeks after you give birth."
"Seven and a half months and counting." She looked at him seriously. "You know this is frustrating for me, too."
"I know," he whispered hoarsely. "It's a good thing I love you."
Astrid giggled. "Well, yes, of course you do, but that's what got us into this frustrating situation."
"I don't know, sweetheart. I keep wondering if this is some kind of insidious plot by your father. You know, problem pregnancy means that his mean, horrible son-in-law has to stop molesting his precious baby girl."
"Ha ha, very funny," Astrid said sourly with a quelling glance.
Sam noted the stern expression with concern. "Um, let me guess — sense of humour just flew south for the winter?"
"Uh huh, so watch your step." Astrid maintained the stern expression on her face for a few seconds only to dissolve in giggles as she threw herself into her husband's arms. "I do love you, Samuel James Lee Kent."
"I love you, too, Astrid Caroline Klein-Kent, and we'll get through the next few months. We had to wait once; we can do it again."
Astrid snuggled closer to Sam with a sigh of contentment. She finally, reluctantly pushed herself away from him and groaned. "Time to go to the bathroom again," she complained, answering the unspoken question on his face. "This is so irritating," she said over her shoulder as she headed into the attached washroom and closed the door behind her. She continued speaking, not bothering to raise her voice. She knew that Sam would still be able to hear her. "Here we are. All we can do for the next few months is cuddle — and I don't care what that notorious old Ann Landers' column said, I do enjoy doing a lot more with you than just cuddling — and then, boom! Somebody kicks my bladder or sits on it and that's it. Hugs and kisses are over."
Sam raised his voice slightly so his wife would be able to hear him over the sound of the running water. "It's okay, honey. They were going to be over anyway. It's almost time for me to do my patrol. Do you need anything before I head out?"
"No." Astrid opened the washroom door and moved back into the bedroom. "I'm fine. Thanks, honey." She kissed him and then took a step back as he spun into his 'Starfire' persona. He moved to the open window and was about to launch himself out when Astrid spoke up once more. "Hey, I just realised something."
"Marty never showed up tonight, but she said she would. Do you think you should check on her?"
Sam shrugged. "Didn't she have a date this afternoon with that guy she's been seeing?"
"Okay, so think about it. She's on a hot date, and her brother shows up to check on her. Think she'd be happy?"
"Oh, yeah, valid point. On second thought, honey, maybe you'd be safer staying close to home."
Sam turned back to the window. "I don't think I'll be too late, but don't wait up. You need your sleep."
"Good night, sweetheart. Be careful."
As Sam flew away, he chuckled in amusement. How many times had Astrid told him to be careful? How many times had he heard his mom say that to his dad? What did they expect was going to happen? Did they really think that some crazed lunatic bent on revenge was going to get their hands on Kryptonite? He shook his head. Not likely!
Late Friday morning, Lois looked up in response to the knock on her office door to see Jimmy's smiling face. He stepped in and carefully closed her door behind him.
"Hey, boss, your husband's gone out so I thought I'd ask if you want to go for lunch."
"Where's Clark?" Lois asked, her forehead wrinkling.
"He heard a mugging. He said to tell you that he was going to fly a patrol seeing as he was already going to be out and about. So, how about lunch?"
"I shouldn't, Jimmy. I only have a few files left and…" Lois looked at the remaining folders in her in-box with a grimace. "Oh, what the heck. Why not?"
"But just a quick lunch, though," Lois admonished. "I have to get this stuff done today. I refuse to take any of it home for the weekend."
"Is that the stuff from Legal?"
"Yeah." Lois rolled her eyes. "It's taken me three days. I can't believe I'm almost done!"
It didn't take her long to gather together her purse and her jacket, and the two of them set off. They quickly decided on the deli just down the block, and they walked to it in a companionable silence.
It was a little early for lunch so they had their choice of tables. Jimmy picked one in the dimly lit back corner. As she sat down with her cream soda and her pastrami on rye, Lois looked around and then grinned at her friend. "Are we meeting a source or something?"
He smiled. "No, but knowing how often our conversations stray into forbidden territory, I thought privacy might be in order."
Lois laughed. "Yeah, we always say that we won't discuss, you know, those things in public, but we always do."
"It's hard not to talk about those things when they're such a big part of our lives. I mean, I'm just as proud of," he lowered his voice to a whisper even though no one was around, "Metropolis' junior superheroes as you and Clark are."
Lois placed her hand lightly over Jimmy's. "I know you are, and you have every right to be proud of them, too. Clark and I both know that we didn't bring them up by ourselves. You, Bernie and Perry all helped — you and Bernie the most, but Perry did his part, too. I don't know what we would have done without you."
"You and Clark would have handled things just fine without us," Jimmy stated firmly. "I think you two can handle just about anything."
"I don't know about that, Jimmy. Remember what it was like when we were having trouble making up our minds whether we should talk to the boys or not?"
The two friends reminisced happily about various events in Lois's children's lives. They indulged in a spate of 'Remember when's' and 'What about the time'. Inevitably, the talk turned to Astrid's pregnancy.
"Do you think you're ready for someone to call you grandma?" Jimmy asked Lois, his voice teasing.
She laughed. "Well, the first time someone calls me that, I'll probably look around for Mom or Martha! I don't feel like a grandma. Grandmas are supposed to knit and bake and stuff like that — although my mom never did. Clark, though, he can hardly wait to be a grandpa. He's thrilled."
"I know he is," Jimmy said, his voice so quiet that Lois took a second look at him.
"How about you?" she asked, seriously. "How do you feel knowing that Astrid's pregnant with Lee?"
Jimmy shook his head and looked down at the remains of his tuna salad. "I don't know," he said after a moment's reflection. "I do know that Astrid's carrying Lee — the timing's right for it. But Lee's not a baby in my memory. She's not a little girl. She's a woman and I love her, and," his voice broke, "it's killing me that I'm so close to her and so far away all at the same time."
"Oh, Jimmy," Lois exclaimed sadly. "I'm sorry. I never thought about how hard this is for you. I mean you haven't talked about Lee for a long time. And I've been so excited… I never thought…"
"It's all right, Lois." Jimmy held up his hand, stopping further apologies from emerging from her mouth. "I understand. You have a totally different perspective than I do, and I am happy that Astrid and Sam are having a baby. I really am. You know that I love both of them. But," his voice dropped to a whisper, "I just wish things could have been different for Lee and me, that's all."
Lois thought he looked like a lost little boy. She slid her chair closer so that she could grasp his shoulders and give them a gentle squeeze.
Jimmy looked up from his contemplation of his plate, and plastered a brave smile on his face. "It's all right, Lois. I'll be fine. I don't sit around brooding all the time, you know."
"I know," she said softly.
Jimmy looked Lois in the eyes. "It's just once in a while that this bothers me."
"I know." He looks so sad, Lois thought, her heart aching for him.
"Thanks for letting me vent a bit." He dropped his gaze, looking a little embarrassed.
"You're welcome." Lois wished she could help her friend more, but there wasn't a lot she could do. Sometimes people really don't live happily ever after, she thought. She pushed her chair back from the table and stood up, slinging her purse onto her shoulder.
Jimmy got up silently and followed as she left the deli.
By the time they arrived back at the Planet, Jimmy seemed to be his usual light-hearted self once again. But Lois was newly aware of an undercurrent of sadness to his mood. The intensity of the emotional vibes that he was giving off was so strong, that she was almost relieved when they went their separate ways.
Jimmy headed back to his desk to work on his seven part series on drunk driving and Lois, after a detour to the ladies room to freshen up, went back to her desk to contemplate the last few of the dreaded Legal file folders. She surveyed her messages, but unfortunately nothing had come in that might delay her from tackling them.
Sighing, she reached for the uppermost file and started.
An hour later, Lois took a second to stretch and then reached for the last file folder in her in-box. Thank goodness. It was going to be so wonderful to finish. She took a deep breath, sighed heavily and opened the folder.
It took Lois a few precious seconds to figure out what she was reading. She hadn't realised that Linda had actually made a file about Marty's new friend. Hmmm, personal information looked good, he had won a few awards, no scandals, no improprieties in his personal life, finances were fine. Oh, Linda had attached a picture.
Lois looked at the photo incredulously. This, THIS was who Marty was crazy about? No, it couldn't be. She had said he was blonde — this man was almost completely bald. She had said he was tall — this man was short. She had said he was a Greek God — this man, well, this man wasn't. With a vengeance, he wasn't! It took a moment before the implications of this sank in. An impostor was cozying up to their daughter. Why? Who was he, and what did he want with Marty? She picked up the phone and dialled the farm only to listen to it ring and ring and ring. Something was very, very wrong. She could feel it.
Lois looked helplessly around her office for a second before realising that there was only one thing that she could do. She hadn't had to do it for years, but old habits died hard. She threw open her window, and yelled as loud as she could. "Help, Superman!!"
Literally a second later, a very startled superhero stood before her, the sonic boom still rattling the office windows.
Jimmy had developed some very disciplined work habits over the years. One thing he had learned from watching his two best friends as they worked was the value of being focused. Over time, he had developed the ability to block out the external and put all his attention on his work. But even his concentration was shaken by the sonic boom produced when Superman landed in Lois's office. Looking up, he saw Lois standing in front of the superhero, talking a mile a minute with her one hand flailing in emphasis in the air while she clutched a file in the other hand. Oh oh!! He stood up and slowly approached the office. Superman — Clark — caught sight of him through the glass and made an almost unnoticeable gesture of invitation to join them. He tapped lightly on the door, opened it and slipped inside — all the while aware of the other staff watching the interaction.
"What's going on?" Jimmy asked as Lois whirled around to confront the person who had the temerity to interrupt her conversation. He could see her whole body relax a bit when she realised that it was just him.
Clark moved past Lois and quickly closed the blinds to the obvious disappointment of Lois's curious staff who were peering in anxiously at their agitated boss and the colourful superhero.
"Look at this!" Lois exclaimed, waving the file in front of his face.
"Look at what?" Jimmy asked in exasperation. To his amazement, Lois actually seemed too overwrought to answer his question, the words refusing to emerge from her mouth. He had never, ever seen Lois so wound up before, and he had known her for a lot of years.
Clark plucked the folder from his wife's fingers, fanned it open in front of Jimmy and quickly filled him in as to what Lois had surmised.
After studying the photo of the real 'Rural Life' photographer, Jimmy regarded his two friends solemnly. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
Lois and Clark's eyes met briefly before they turned back to Jimmy and nodded in unison.
"We don't know for sure what the problem is, Jimmy, but there's only one thing that comes to mind," Lois said, bleakly.
"Kryptonite," Clark confirmed.
Jimmy took a deep breath. "So, I guess you can't get too close to the situation, Clark. You're going to have to take me to Smallville and drop me off."
"You!" Lois exclaimed. "She's my daughter! Clark, if you're going to take anyone to Smallville, it's going to be me. I insist."
Jimmy snorted in bleak amusement. It wasn't really funny but Lois was so completely predictable. "What's wrong with both of us going?" he asked in a mild tone of voice. "We should all go. What about the boys? Where are they? They should have heard your, uh, page of Clark here."
Before Lois could answer, her direct line rang — the line that bypassed her assistant and came directly to her desk. She looked at the phone blankly for a moment before answering the call on her speakerphone.
"Ms. Lane, I think you want to talk to me," a smooth masculine voice said.
"That depends," Lois snapped. "Who are you?"
"Oh, what a set-up for a straight line," he answered silkily. "I've always wanted to say this. I'm your worst nightmare."
"Who is this?" Lois asked again as she looked up in panic at her husband.
"Well, I think Marty must have told you about me. My first name is Paul, but my last name isn't Hunter, and I'm not a photographer for 'Rural Life'."
"What do you want?"
Paul laughed heartily, making Lois jump nervously. Clark rested his hands lightly on her shoulders as he listened silently and grimly.
The worst thing about this Paul's laugh, Jimmy reflected, was that it was so infectious. It was a nice laugh with nothing sinister about it at all.
"Your daughter would like to see you," Paul said finally, still chuckling. "She's 'dying' to see you, in fact!" he exclaimed knowingly.
"What have you done to her?" Clark asked menacingly, forgetting to be silent in his agitation. Clark's hands fell from Lois's shoulders as he moved closer to the phone.
"Why, it's Mr. Kent!" the voice on the other end of the line exclaimed. "Or should I say 'Superman'? Oh, please don't insult me by denying that that's who you really are. Your daughter's 'dying' to see you, too!"
Lois, Clark and Jimmy exchanged glances fraught with tension as they struggled to maintain their composure.
"Okay, here's the deal," Paul went on to say. "I want you two to come and join Marty, and I want you two to come alone. You really don't want to do anything different than that, believe me. I can make it very uncomfortable for Marty if you do. I know, because I already have!" he concluded brightly with a cheery chuckle.
Jimmy couldn't decide who looked more murderous at these words, Clark or Lois. They bore identical expressions of determination mixed with anger on both their faces.
"I've been watching the news," the other man continued on. "I know that your one son is in Turkey and the other's in Australia. No fair cheating and fetching them back. And no calling the police or bringing any of your buddies with you. I need you two alive, but I don't need anyone else."
"How do we know that you're with Marty?" Lois asked, her eyes locking on her husband's.
"Oh, that's easy," the other voice said cheerily. "Just a second."
Jimmy, Lois and Clark heard the phone clunk as he put it down and then they heard some scuffling noises in the background. It was only half a minute until they heard more, but it seemed much longer.
Lois and Clark both winced as they heard Marty's quavering, fearful voice.
"What's he done to you, honey?" Clark hastily asked.
"Kryptonite, Daddy," she whispered before breaking into heart-rending sobs.
Lois's hand flew up to her gaping mouth, and tears spilled from her eyes to run down her cheeks. Clark's hands fisted as he clenched his jaw, his skin pulling tight over his cheekbones. Jimmy found himself taking an involuntary step backwards feeling the pure, primal rage radiating from his friend.
"So, here's the deal, Lois and Clark," Paul said, oblivious to Marty's muffled sobs in the background. "I've been informed by a reliable source that it takes ten minutes for the average superhero to fly from Metropolis to Smallville when carrying a non-super passenger. You have eleven minutes. Use them well."
They heard the unmistakable sound of the phone being hung up on the other end.
"Oh, God!" Lois exclaimed, her eyes bright with tears. "Jimmy, we have to go."
"I know," he replied, never having felt this helpless in his life. "Should I call the police, or try to contact the boys?"
Lois and Clark both shook their heads vehemently.
"No. We can't take any chances. You heard him," Clark said quickly as he scooped his wife into his arms and headed for the window.
"If I don't hear from you within an hour, I'm calling Sheriff Palmer in Smallville," Jimmy called out the window as Lois and Clark disappeared into the sky. Once they were out of sight, he stumbled blindly to Lois's chair and collapsed into it, his thoughts and prayers winging to Smallville with his two best friends.
As Lois and Clark swooped into the farmyard for a landing, they could see signs of problems. The cows lowed urgently as they milled about in the pasture next to the barn. Clark could see that the cows' swollen udders were nearly dragging on the ground. A new wave of fear flooded through him as he realised from the look of them that the cows had missed last night's milking session as well as this morning's.
The chickens and the pigs were complaining loudly, too. Marty's dog, Shadow, rushed towards them, barking hysterically, his eyes wild in his agitation. Lois and Clark both knelt in front of the distraught dog, their hands out for him to sniff. He butted his nose into them and then, crying deep in his throat, pushed against them looking for reassurance. Lois hushed him, all the while looking around for signs of the intruder.
"I've been waiting for you," a voice called to them from the open kitchen window. "Marty's been waiting for you. Time for you two to join her."
"Why should we?" Lois cried out, her heart in her mouth, even though every part of her being urged her to go to her child. "You have Kryptonite there. You're only going to kill her. Why should we let you kill us, too?"
"Oh, I don't want to kill anybody, Lois," the stranger assured her. "I admit, it's not pleasant for Marty being around the Kryptonite that I found, and it won't be pleasant for you either, Clark, but I have no intention of killing any of you — unless you make it necessary, of course."
"What would make it necessary?" Clark asked grimly as he took his wife's hand gently in his.
"Oh, I'd kill Marty immediately if you were to refuse to join her," Paul answered, his tone steely and unmistakably sincere.
Lois glanced at Clark quickly. She could read clearly from his expression what his decision was. She had already made the same one. "Okay," Lois answered, unconsciously tightening her grip on Clark's hand. "We're coming in."
The two of them slowly advanced towards the house, Shadow dogging their heels.
"Stop!" Paul called out.
They halted, startled.
"Before you come in, do one thing. Look after those animals as quickly as you can? The noise is driving me crazy! And tie up that dog before I shoot it."
Lois waited patiently as Clark disappeared in a whirlwind. As if by magic, feed appeared in the yard and fresh water. A moment later, Clark reappeared, grasped Marty's dog firmly and, a little slower this time, whisked away once more to tie Shadow up to a chain attached to the barn. The farm animals settled down somewhat as they fell on the food and water. The cows continued to bawl on and off as they protested their swollen udders but they were a little quieter. Shadow's barks were now easier to hear as he strained against the chain holding him.
Clark took Lois by the hand once more, and once again they headed to the house. Lois watched Clark's face in concern and, as they stepped onto the porch, she saw it tighten in that oh-so-familiar expression of pain that always accompanied his exposure to Kryptonite. Quickly, she ducked under his arm and drew it across her shoulders for support. He gazed down at her gratefully as they arrived the door. Slowly, he reached out, grasped the handle and turned it. Taking a deep breath and holding it, he stepped through the door, followed closely by Lois.
At about the same time that Lois and Clark were meeting their fate in Smallville, Maria Ramirez stood beside her rental car, her thumb stuck defiantly out as she faced the oncoming traffic. Or at least as she faced the direction that the oncoming traffic would arrive from. If there was any, that is. Muttering curses under her breath, she glanced back over her shoulder at her car's front, right tire. The flat, front, right tire.
It wasn't the first flat tire Maria had ever had. It was however the first flat tire that she had had when she didn't have a spare tire in the trunk of the car. Or a jack. She had pulled out her cell-phone to call for help only to discover that the battery was dead. Unfortunately, her re-charger was in the suitcase that the airline had helpfully misplaced.
Maria was not having a good day. To add insult to injury, she had been standing here beside her car for the past fifteen minutes and had seen one car pass her by. Going in the wrong direction. The really frustrating thing was that by her calculations, she was only fifteen minutes away from Smallville. By car, that is. If some kind of vehicle didn't show up soon, she was going to find out exactly how far away from Smallville she was by foot. She wasn't looking forward to it.
A few minutes later, she was on the verge of deciding that walking was going to be her only option when a small car came chugging towards her, hauling an open U-Haul trailer that was piled high with boxes and furniture. For a second Maria thought it might pass her by, but it slowed to a stop just past her car. A tall, lanky man got out and approached her. "Need a hand?" he asked.
"I could use a lift," Maria said cautiously as she assessed the Good Samaritan in front of her. He looked safe, she thought. He had a friendly face, a nice smile and warm blue eyes. Not really an attractive man, but even so there was something very appealing about him. He looked like a man to be trusted, Maria thought, relaxing a tiny bit. If he weren't, he'd only end up finding out exactly how well Maria had done with her Judo training.
The stranger offered to change her tire for her and was just as disgusted as Maria had been to learn that the rental company hadn't included a spare or a jack with the car. It only took a second for Maria to grab her briefcase that had thankfully been on the plane with her, and not lost with the rest of her luggage, and climb into the small car. The man had had to shift a box of what looked like textbooks off the passenger seat into a rather precarious position on the trailer to make room for her but he had done it quickly. A few minutes later, the two of them were chugging down the road once more.
"Thanks a lot," Maria said gratefully. "I really appreciate it."
"No problem," he said, his large mouth stretching into a warm smile. "Oh, by the way, I'm Ben, Ben Palmer." He took his right hand off the steering wheel and thrust it towards her, without taking his eyes off the road.
She shook it awkwardly in the tight confines of the small car. "I'm Maria Ramirez," she said.
"So, Maria, where are you heading? If it's not too far out of my way, I can take you straight there."
After answering, Maria was bemused to learn that her knight in shining armour was a Smallville resident and that he was returning home after an absence of a few years. True, he had been away for a few years, but even so, he'd be able to tell her a little bit about the place. She'd have to be careful, though, not to raise any suspicions.
She asked him what he had been doing while he had been away and that was it for a good ten minutes. In short order, she learned about his career — he was a veterinarian — and about his mother who certainly sounded interesting — widowed and the local sheriff — and about his plans for the future — the main one being to set up a practice in Smallville because the nearest vet was about an hour away.
He was interesting to listen to. He threw in a couple of very funny stories about school and about his practical work for other vets. He really kept her attention. That could have been why she was so completely taken aback when he asked her why she was going to Smallville.
"To see a friend," she blurted out all the while thinking 'Idiot! Idiot! Idiot! You should have made up a story. You could have said you're looking to buy a farm, or you had business there, but no, you had to say that you're seeing a friend! Any second now, he's going to ask who your friend is', and the next moment, he did just that.
Maria froze for a moment thinking 'don't say Marty Kent! Don't say Marty Kent! Don't say…' when to her chagrin, she heard herself say "Marty Kent."
"You're a friend of Marty's?" he exclaimed excitedly. "So am I. I'm really looking forward to seeing her again. We used to hang out a lot — you know, going bowling, or to the show — that kind of thing. She's a good buddy."
"Oh, yes, she is fun, isn't she?" Maria hastily agreed. "Just a wonderful person."
"So, how do you know Marty?" Ben asked.
"Um, from Metropolis?" Maria answered, her voice quavering.
Ben laughed and looked sideways at her, his eyes twinkling. "You don't sound too sure," he pointed out.
"No, I'm sure. From Metropolis," Maria stated, more firmly. "It'll be great to see her. I haven't seen her for a while either. I was so shocked when she phoned and asked me to come visit for the weekend, that I just rushed right out and booked my flight. I wanted to see my 'buddy' again, my pal, my amigo. Marty and Maria, that's us. M&M's we called ourselves. You know — like the candies. Melts in your mouth and not in your hand, uh huh." Although it was difficult, Maria made an intense effort and managed to stop her nervous babbling. She lapsed into silence and worked really hard on not saying another word.
Ben looked at her sideways once more. "Sounds like you're going to have a good time."
"Uh huh, oh yeah, yep, a good time, yes, I'm sure we will," Maria assured him, thinking that this fifteen minute drive felt like it was taking hours. When, oh, when were they going to arrive? Smallville couldn't be that much farther, could it?
Only a moment later, Maria's unspoken question was answered as they passed the small sign announcing that they were now entering the Kansas town.
"Do you want me to drop you off at Marty's first, or would you like to stop and arrange for your car to be towed?" Ben asked.
She turned to answer him, only to pause and study his face. He looked so happy to be home. His eyes glowed with pleasure as his gaze darted here and there.
Before she could answer him, he yelped excitedly. "There's Mom's patrol car!" he exclaimed excitedly as he pointed. "Just a second. I have to see her first." He pulled his small, heavy-laden car into a parking lot. By the time Maria had unfolded herself from the tight confines of the passenger seat, Ben had run ahead of her, quickly disappearing into a small diner. Maria stretched before following him. She could use a cup of coffee and a washroom break and Maisie's Diner was as good a place as any to sit down and make more plans.
Jimmy paced up and down in Lois's small office. He looked at his watch once more. They'd been gone for twenty minutes; they were there now facing something he had hoped that they would never have to face again.
He threw himself down behind Lois's desk once more and turned on her small TV that was always set to LNN. Sam was still in Turkey dealing with an earthquake and Jon was in Australia combating a fierce fire that was burning out of control in the Outback.
What was he going to do? Every part of him wanted to be in Smallville helping.
Vicky popped into his mind suddenly. Could she help, he wondered. He thought about it for a long moment before shaking his head in resignation. Flying was her weakest power. She'd never be able to get to Smallville herself, let alone with him in tow. No, Vicky was best left ignorant until this could be resolved.
Jimmy looked at his watch. Two more minutes had gone by. Thirty-eight minutes more and he'd be on the phone to Sheriff Palmer. Jimmy got back up and went back to pacing.
A wave of nausea swept through Marty once more, rendering her completely oblivious to what was going on around her. She sagged against the ropes securing her to the chair and concentrated on breathing shallowly and evenly, trying to control her unruly stomach. She inadvertently took a deep breath and gasped in shock as her broken rib protested.
She had never been in so much pain in her life, and it went on and on and on, one moment blurring into the next. If anyone had asked her how long she had been enduring this agony, she wouldn't have had a clue what to say. It seemed to have been forever, she thought blearily. It was getting harder to imagine life outside the confines of this room. She raised her head and peered myopically at the once cozy living room. The normalcy of this room, the love that her grandparents had put into it — Paul had made a mockery of it. He had made a mockery of her life. Marty began to cry softly once more, the salt of her tears stinging her swollen cheeks and her split lip.
In the background, she heard her dog, her beloved companion, howling mournfully. That's what she felt like. That sound was an inadequate echo of her own despair.
"Oh my God!"
Who…? It sounded like… Mom?
"Shut up!" she heard Paul snap in response. "Not a word or she'll pay. By God, she'll pay."
Marty looked up wearily and tried to focus on the blurry silhouettes of the three people entering the living room. More hot tears spilled from her eyes as the distressed faces of her Mom and Dad came into focus. For a split second, she allowed herself to hope only to despair once more as she noted the ropes binding them and the gun trained on them by Paul. Marty's eyes clung desperately to her parents as Paul secured them to two other chairs.
"What did you do to her?" her father asked frantically.
A snarled 'shut up' was all the answer he received from Paul.
"Honey, are you all right?" her mother asked anxiously, not even paying any attention as Paul yanked viciously at the ropes around her.
Marty was too overcome with emotion to speak. She managed to nod even as more tears slid down her face. She saw her parents' faces darken with emotion as their eyes lingered on her bruised face and her split lip, but they didn't say anything more.
"My, isn't this cozy?" Paul said cheerily as he tossed the Kryptonite from one hand to the other.
Marty watched him warily as he paced slowly back and forth. It wasn't too bad when he was across the room for her but when he got too close… She heard her father groan in pain as Paul passed behind his chair. And then it was her turn to moan as he moved into closer proximity.
Finally, seeming to tire of his cat and mouse game, Paul pulled up a chair and sat across from the three of them. Marty closed her eyes, hiding the sight of his still handsome, smug, evil face. She opened them again at the sound of her mother's voice.
"Why are you doing this to us?"
Paul laughed. "I've been waiting for this moment for a long time," he admitted. "I've been waiting to ruin your lives the way you ruined mine."
"But I've never seen you before in my life," her dad protested.
"I know you haven't, Clark, but you did ruin my life and my mother's life. Tell me, do you remember an innocent reporter by the name of Diana Stride?" And Paul was off and running, the words tumbling out of his mouth.
Marty closed her eyes, zoning out for a few welcome minutes. She had heard this story before. He had told it to her multiple times over the endless night they had spent together. She didn't believe it; she couldn't. The implications were staggering if it were true. But it was impossible. There was no way that her father could have ever persecuted an innocent journalist for accidentally stumbling onto his secret identity. Everything Paul had told her had been completely out of character for her dad.
Paul had said that his mother, producer and host of 'Top Copy', an old tabloid style TV show, had somehow stumbled onto the story of the century — Superman's secret identity. He had said that her father had seduced Diana Stride in a vain attempt to influence her to back away from the story, and that when she had refused, he had pounced, faking evidence, suborning witnesses and generally participating in a huge miscarriage of justice. But Marty couldn't believe it. She didn't believe it. Dad could never have participated in something so seamy as this. He couldn't have. Could he?
Oh, Marty didn't know what to believe anymore. She was so confused. She had been hurt in ways that she had never dreamed possible. Her mind shied away from remembering what had occurred through the night and morning. She had loved this monster who wore an all too human face, and if he had been able to trick her so thoroughly… But Dad couldn't have done this. He just couldn't.
"But that's not what happened at all," Marty heard her mother blurt out. "Tell him, Clark. Tell him how she tried to kill you. Tell him how she was a paid assassin from Intergang."
"My wife is right, Mr. Stride…"
"No, she's not!" Paul exclaimed harshly. "She's wrong, and you're wrong. My mother's not some paid killer. She was a talented and respected journalist. She was a loving mother, and now she's a prisoner, and that's your doing! And now you're going to pay for what you did. Now there's finally going to be justice." He backhanded her father with an audible crack.
"Clark!" Lois screamed. Marty looked up to see her father with his head hanging limply to his chest. Paul yelled at her mother to shut up. It must have been audible to Shadow outside. His howls got louder, and a new noise was added. Marty could clearly hear metal clinking and then a thud every few seconds as he threw himself valiantly at the end of his chain in a desperate attempt to regain his freedom.
"Does that dog never shut up?" Paul snarled ferociously. He jumped to his feet, threw the Kryptonite down on his chair and left the room.
"Marty, what did he do to you?" her mother hissed frantically, her eyes darting to the door as if making sure that he was really gone.
"Nothing," Marty muttered, looking away.
"But he hit you, sweetie," her mother protested.
"I'm okay, Mom. I'll be fine." Marty squeezed her eyes shut as tight as she could, praying that her mother would stop questioning her. She didn't want to talk about the horrors she had gone through. "Is Dad okay?"
"I think so… Clark, honey, wake up! Sweetheart…"
Shadow's howls got even throatier and more feral sounding. Marty could hear Paul shouting at the dog to be quiet and…
The howls stopped with a suddenness chilling in its implications.
Marty's chest tightened; she started gasping for air.
"No!" she protested. "He wouldn't have… Not my dog!" Not her sweet dog that had never done anything to anybody. Not her dog that had kept her from going crazy from loneliness after her grandma and grandpa had died.
Paul burst back into the room, the gun in his hand. "I should have done that sooner."
"You killed him?" Marty could barely force the words out of her dry throat.
"Just be glad I haven't killed you."
"No," Marty moaned. "Please, no." The room started to spin, and darkness swirled closer and closer to her. Marty gave herself gratefully over to it.
Maria took a step inside the door of Maisie's diner and realised quite quickly that she was walking into the middle of a family reunion. A policewoman stood in the middle of the small restaurant with her arms wrapped around Maria's new acquaintance. Ben held her tenderly, patting her gently on the back. As she watched, Ben gave his mother one more tight squeeze before carefully disengaging himself from her arms. "Jeez, Mom, it's not that comfortable hugging you when you have all your cop stuff on."
The older woman stepped back from him and beamed up into her tall son's face. "Too bad," she said as she reached up to pat his cheeks. "You're just going to have to suffer." And she hugged him warmly once more.
As she watched the mother and son interact, she noticed three older ladies at a nearby table. One of them glanced at Maria briefly and then, her eyes widening, turned back to her two friends and started to talk a mile a minute. What was that all about, Maria asked herself.
Maria sat down at the counter, keeping a wary eye on Ben and his mother, preparing herself to be introduced once he remembered her presence. Sure enough, a minute later, Ben led his mother by the hand over to the young reporter. Maria noted an apprehensive expression on the older woman's face. It only took a second for her to realise that Ben's mother was wondering if she were about to be introduced to her son's girlfriend. She looked as though she were girding her loins to be pleasant to an intruder when all she wanted was to have her son to herself for a while.
"Hi, I'm Maria Ramirez," she said, sticking her hand out. Wanting to eliminate the worried look on the police officer's face, she hastily added, "Your son came to my assistance on the road when I was stranded with a flat."
"Oh, that's good," Ben's mother said, in relief. She smiled up at her tall, lanky boy. "So, not everything I taught you has been forgotten, I see."
Ben wrapped his arm around his mom's shoulders and squeezed gently. "No, not quite everything, I guess." He grinned down at his mom before continuing. "Maria's a friend of Marty Kent's. I'll help her make arrangements to have her car towed into town, and then I'll drive her out there."
"No, no, that's okay," Maria said hastily, feeling as though events were spiralling out of her control. She wanted to be in charge of when she saw Marty Kent, not to have a decision foisted upon her.
"You're a friend of Marty's?" Grabbing her cane, one of the older women got up from her nearby table. Her two friends got up to flank her. "Where did you two meet?" the senior citizen asked as she crossed her arms across her chest. "If you did meet, that is?" Her two friends, easily as old as she was, also folded their arms, imitating her action.
Maria was very annoyed at this woman's intrusion into a personal conversation as well as quite nervous and defensive about being questioned about her non-existent friendship. However, when she looked around the small diner, she realised that no one else seemed to mind this woman jumping feet first into her talk with Ben and his mother.
"What do you mean, Maisie?" Ben asked, a confused expression on his plain face.
"I mean this woman's as phony as a three dollar bill. She's no friend of Marty's. She's here to snoop around. She's that reporter that first met Shadow. I remember seeing her on the news."
"Say, you do look familiar," Rachel Palmer said, her eyes narrowing as she studied the nervous journalist. "You are that reporter, aren't you?"
"And if I am?" Maria said, trying to remain calm.
Maisie lifted her cane and thumped it emphatically onto the floor. "And if you are, we can't do nothing about it, but I just want to say, people in this town look out for each other. Marty Kent is one of our own, and we don't want to see her hurt by your lies."
Maria warily eyed the senior citizen's cane. It wasn't one of those cheap-looking aluminium ones. No, it was made out of highly polished wood and looked disturbingly solid and durable.
"Why in the world would a reporter be snooping around Marty?" Ben asked, clearly confused by the whole contretemps.
"You're too young to remember when Clark was accused of being Superman," Rachel told Ben in an aside. "It looks like the whole media circus is starting up again."
"Clark's Superman?" Ben exclaimed loudly.
"No, Clark is not Superman," his mother told him firmly. "I know. I grew up with Clark — went to the prom with him, for heaven's sake. And I met Superman during the whole New Kryptonian fiasco. Clark is definitely not Superman. Plus, Clark and Superman have been seen together on a couple of different occasions. There are pictures of the two of them!" Rachel turned to Maria and addressed her directly. "I sure hope you don't have any plans to resurrect that whole mishmash. We had enough of you media types overrunning our town after that Nor fellow left."
"I'm sorry but I can't guarantee anything," Maria said bravely as she tried to hold her ground. Maisie moved even closer, bristling with anger, her friends trailing after her. And so did Ben and his mother the Sheriff. Maria eyed them all nervously, feeling very much as if she was under siege.
Rachel pointed a stern finger at Maria and opened her mouth to speak when her cell phone rang. She flipped it open and looked at the call display before answering. The Sheriff's expression changed as Maria watched, going from curiosity to alarm and ending with veiled speculation as she regarded Maria solemnly.
"I think we can help you out with that," Rachel drawled into the phone. "Yes, I understand… Yes, you've explained clearly what's at stake…Yes, a reporter and no one else. You've made that crystal-clear… Give me fifteen minutes… Ten? Okay, I'll have to put the siren on, but I should just be able to make it in ten… No, I won't do anything rash."
Rachel clicked off her cell phone, folded it up and turned to face Maria directly, studying her intently. "I've changed my mind about you, Ms. Ramirez."
"Why does that give me a bad feeling?" Maria asked, her stomach sinking.
"Marty Kent, Lois Lane and Superman have all been taken hostage out at the Kent farm," Rachel continued, ignoring Maria's question. "That was the kidnapper, Paul Hunter — or rather not Paul Hunter. I guess he's fooled a whole bunch of us pretty good. Anyway, it seems he has an agenda, and he's eager to share it with the press. He's vowed that you'll come to no harm."
"And you believe him?" Ben interrupted, incredulously. Maisie and her two friends exchanged alarmed glances behind his back.
"No," his mother said, not taking her eyes away from Maria's. "But it is Ms. Ramirez's choice if she wants to help out or not. If she doesn't, I guess I could pretend to be a reporter and get inside, but I don't know how convincing I'd be."
"Rachel, you can't do that," Maisie interjected, her expression troubled. "I'm sure he's seen you around town. He'll know right away who you are."
"No, that's okay," Maria hastily assured them. "I'll go. It's my job, after all."
"Are you sure?" Sheriff Palmer asked, her expression stern.
Maria nodded, hoping that she didn't look as scared as she felt.
"Okay," Rachel said, briskly as she took Maria's arm. "We have to go. We'll go over dos and don'ts on the way. I can issue you a bullet proof vest but that's it."
"I understand," Maria answered as she was whisked out of the small Diner and hastily inserted into one of Smallville's police cars.
As Rachel started the car, she tersely issued a word of advice. "You better buckle up. This could get bumpy."
Maria scrambled to comply as the two of them whizzed out of the parking lot past the startled faces of Ben, Maisie and her two cronies as they spilled out of the small diner to stand on the porch.
Ben watched, slack-jawed in disbelief, as his mother disappeared with Maria Ramirez in tow. She had her siren going and the roof lights flashing and for a moment, Ben felt as if he had stumbled into a movie or a TV show. This kind of drama just didn't happen in Smallville. Oh, sure, the small town had its share of farm accidents and fires, untimely deaths and injuries, but kidnapping? Superman was involved too? It just didn't seem real to him.
And his mother. She had been Sheriff here for a very long time — since before he was born, but he had never seen her pull the 'big city cop' routine before. Seeing her demeanour change so suddenly like that, had been like watching Jekyll and Hyde.
Marty Kent was being held hostage too. Why? There had been nothing special about her. Oh, Ben had always liked her well enough; she had been a good buddy, but why would anyone have kidnapped her? It made no sense.
"Uh, Ben?" Startled, the young vet turned around to be confronted with three of Smallville's senior citizens.
"What is it, Maisie?"
Maisie shuffled her feet a bit, looked at her friends and took a stronger hold on her cane. "Uh, I've made… I mean, we've made a decision but we need your help."
"My help? What for?"
Maisie, Marion and Velma traded a few significant glances, turned to face him once again and all started to talk at once. It took him a second or two to make sense of their words.
"Whoa!" he exclaimed, holding his hand up to shush the older women. "Are you suggesting that we…? Are you saying that you want to…?
"Go and rescue Marty, Lois and Superman? Yes, that's exactly what we're suggesting. We feel partly to blame for this, so we want to help fix it."
Ben stared in amazement at the three friends. "And just how do you suggest we do that?" he asked, incredulously. "Do you really expect my mom will just let us stroll on up to the farmhouse and knock on the door? And do you really expect this man, whoever he is, to give us custody of his hostages if we ask him to?" He shook his head vehemently. "No way! Uh uh! There is no way that I'll help you with this. No way in the world!"
Ben's defiant declaration didn't seem to have much of an effect on the three older women. They exchanged a few significant glances and as one, advanced slowly and ponderously on the young veterinarian.
As he watched them approach, Ben was overcome with a fleeting desire to run far away from these women, but he didn't give in to it. After all, there was nothing they could possibly say to him that would make him give in.
As Ben's small car rattled through the night, he couldn't help but wonder how he had got himself into this situation. Maisie sat beside him, solidly planted in the passenger seat, her two hands resting on her solid wood cane. Marion and Velma were in the cramped back seat, exhorting him unceasingly to hurry up and drive faster.
Ben felt as though his whole world had turned upside down. The situation with Marty and Superman was plenty bizarre on its own, but then, these three had finished demolishing his worldview by transforming themselves completely.
He had always thought of Maisie and her friends as birds on a telephone wire, the way they had chattered away to each other, observing and commenting on life in their small town. But now they were coming on like pit bulls! Their twittering, harmless ways were gone and instead they radiated a strong sense of fierce anger and steely determination equally mixed. If force of personality were all that was needed to win out, the kidnapper wouldn't have stood a chance against these ladies.
"Come on, Ben. Doesn't this car go any faster?"
"Move it. You're going too slow."
His two, backseat tormentors continued to press him to hurry.
"The pedal's to the floor, already," he hissed through tightly clenched teeth as he focused on the road.
Velma and Marion subsided into silence once more. For a moment, the only sound was that of the wheels on the pavement and the wind whipping past the glass. The silence was broken by four words.
"I have a plan," Maisie intoned solemnly.
"We're listening," Ben said, looking straight ahead and clutching his steering wheel.
Maisie started talking and kept talking for a solid couple of minutes.
When she fell silent, Ben glanced at her briefly. "I'm not exactly happy with the role you've assigned to me," he informed her.
"We have two problems here, Ben. We have to distract the bad guy, and we have to distract your mother. You're the only one who can do what I'm asking. Okay?"
Ben thought about it for a minute. She was right, darn her, but his masculine pride sure didn't like this. "Okay," he agreed, begrudgingly. "But I have to say, Maisie, I'm really not happy with a plan that starts with us hoping that Marty didn't pick a different hiding spot for her spare key after Mister and Mrs. Kent died!"
"Me, too, Ben. Me, too."
Maria gingerly knocked on the kitchen door of the innocuous farmhouse. She was totally and completely unnerved and didn't know how she was going to get through the interview — if it was an interview, that is, and not a desire to add a TV reporter to the collection of hostages.
The ride there had been an experience and a half with Sheriff Palmer revealing herself to be a speed-demon in disguise. The roof-lights had been flashing, and the sirens blaring, and Maria had never been in any vehicle that moved that fast — at least, not one that had four wheels on the road. It hadn't helped that the Sheriff had taken her one hand off the wheel of the speeding car to use her radio to call her deputy. The deputy was about a half hour away, having been on the far outskirts of town ticketing speeders. He should have been ticketing his boss, Maria had wryly thought. Thinking back, there were times, when she would have believed that the police car was really flying, it was travelling so fast.
And then when they pulled to a stop in a cloud of dust near the barn, everything had looked so normal until they had spotted the crumpled pathetic body of a dog lying in a pool of blood.
The sheriff had been quick to pull out her cell-phone and call this 'Paul', whoever he was.
He had issued terse instructions and had once again pledged that Maria would be safe with him. Maria didn't know whether she believed him or not, but here she was anyway.
The door opened, and she faced a tall, handsome, dishevelled man. He looked rumpled, as if he had been sleeping in his clothes, and he had a gun tucked into the waistband of his slacks. Maria was not reassured.
"Come in, Ms. Ramirez. I'm glad you're here." He motioned her to enter.
Maria paused, took a deep breath and stepped inside.
Jimmy looked at his watch once more. It was time to call the Sheriff, he thought. But would that be enough? Did he really want to trust his best friends' lives to the police? Would the Sheriff do the right thing? How could she? She didn't know everything that Jimmy knew about the situation.
He paced back and forth for a long moment before deciding on an alternate course of action. Finally, taking a deep breath, he pushed a small button on his watch. It was time to call Starfire and Sunstorm home.
"Wake up! Wake up now!"
Marty clung desperately to the last few moments of unconsciousness. She didn't want to obey; it hurt too much to wake up. She kept her eyes closed, not wanting to respond to the voice — his voice.
Pain blossomed through her swollen cheekbone as Paul cracked his hand across her face. "Wake up!" he yelled in Marty's ear. She could hear her mother's muffled sobs in the background.
Wearily, reluctantly, the nerve endings in her face screaming at her, Marty opened her eyes. It was hard to focus; the vicious slap had left her groggy and confused.
"What…" Marty licked her dry lips, tasting the salt-sweet taste of her own blood as her split lip continued to ooze. She swallowed convulsively and tried again. "What do you want?" The words came out in a raspy whisper.
"My God, what did you do to her?" a strange woman asked.
"Nothing that she didn't need," Paul answered defensively.
"Look. You want me to interview her, right? Get the truth? You're going to have to let me do it my way, so back off."
Marty made no attempt to grab hold of the meaning of the words being spoken. She sat quietly, nursing her aches, trying hard to just blank out, paying no attention to the short argument until finally a few words did manage to catch her attention. Maybe it was because they were softly spoken and unexpectedly kind.
"Marty? Marty, honey, look at me. Here, have a sip of water. That'll make you feel better. Okay?"
The gentle tone of voice was enough to bring fresh tears to Marty's burning, swollen eyes. She looked up at the young woman leaning over her, proffering a glass of water, and focused. The newcomer was easy to recognise. It was Maria Ramirez. Marty felt no sense of alarm at this. She was so far gone, she wouldn't have been surprised or worried to see her grandma Kent in front of her. Maria Ramirez didn't even make her blink twice. Gratefully, she tipped her head back a little and let Maria trickle cool water down her throat.
"Is that better?" the young reporter asked.
Dumbly, Marty nodded, too tired to speak.
"Marty, you need to listen to me. Okay?" Maria pulled a chair over to sit in front of Marty.
Marty just looked at her, waiting patiently for more words.
"I'm going to ask you some questions. You have to answer truthfully, Marty. You just have to." Maria glanced worriedly over one shoulder at Paul who hovered behind her.
Marty flinched away from the weight of his gaze, desperately focusing all her attention on the young reporter.
"Marty, are you Shadow?" the young woman asked.
Marty heard her mother gasp at the question. She turned her head to gaze at her parents. Her father still sagged limply in his chair, with his head hanging low. The vivid bruises on his face explained his current state of unconsciousness and caused a renewed spark of anger to bloom in Marty's chest. And the fear written loud and clear on her mother's face helped to cut through the confusion clouding Marty's mind. It was easy to decide what to say in response to Maria's question. "No."
Paul bellowed, an angry, frustrated, mindless sound. Marty watched in terror as he circled Maria to stand before her once more. "What's your name?" he asked, fiercely.
His open hand smashed into the side of her face, the pain surging through her. "What's your name?" he asked again.
"Marty Kent." She forced herself to keep her eyes open, to glare at him defiantly, not wanting him to have the satisfaction of seeing her cringe. He swung at her once more, and try as she might, she couldn't help flinching.
Her chair went flying with her on it. Dimly she was aware of her mother continuing to sob, words of protest falling incoherently from her mouth only to be ignored by Paul. Maria argued with him, too, with the man, the monster, who had inflicted so much pain on Marty. The reporter voiced a protest at his actions, telling him they weren't going to get the truth this way.
"Shut up," he snarled at Maria. Marty watched his feet approach and stop in front of her eyes. "What's your name?" he repeated for the third time.
He kicked her in the side. All the air exploded out of Marty's lungs as she felt the liquid crunch of another rib breaking under his heavy foot. Her stomach rebelled, and she vomited messily onto the carpet, each paroxysm pulling and tugging at the broken bones. She wanted to die.
"What's your name?"
Marty gasped, trying to catch her breath.
"Shadow! Her name is Shadow!"
Marty twisted her head and looked up in shock. Her mother gazed at her apologetically before looking away guiltily. "Her name is Shadow," she repeated softly. "It's true. My husband, Clark Kent, is Superman, and our daughter is Shadow. Please don't hurt her anymore."
"Well, now," Paul said smugly as he roughly hauled Marty and her chair back to a sitting position. "That wasn't so hard, was it?"
The darkness beckoned Marty once more, like a giant feather bed. As she let herself sink into that warm, welcoming well, she heard her mother pleading with him. "Leave her alone. I'll tell you anything you want to know. Just leave her alone."
Lois Lane spilled her guts. Maria struggled to retain her composure as she made notes. She had never seen anything so brutal in her life as Paul's treatment of Marty Kent. He disgusted her, but she wasn't going to let that show until she and the three other innocent people in this room were all free of him. He was obviously mentally unstable and was very much to be feared. She and Lois both had been sincerely afraid that he had been about to beat Marty to death.
Maria wrote down all the details of what Lois was sharing while her agile mind worried and worked at the situation, trying to see a way out for everyone. Paul kept the Kryptonite close at hand so obviously neither Superman nor Shadow would be of help anytime soon. And the gun worried her. The fact that he had shot Marty's dog just proved that he was overly quick to use it.
He was calm now, though, relaxed and pleased that his mother would be 'vindicated' as he put it. Maria had made a point of thoroughly researching Diana Stride after she received the woman's letter and held the personal opinion that the woman was one very twisted sister. She was a highly trained, amoral, conscience-lacking assassin and deserved everything that she had received from the judicial system. The scary thing was that her son was even worse.
This whole thing was so pointless. It wasn't going to change his mother's life; she would still remain in prison — most likely until the end of her earthly days. And Paul couldn't reasonably expect to get away with this. He couldn't expect to just walk away as if nothing had happened. No, the only people that this was hurting, was Superman and his family. And they didn't deserve this. No one deserved this.
One part of Maria wanted this to be over so she could flee from the situation. She wanted to run away and forget that this had ever happened. But she knew that she would never forget, and she knew that she'd never be able to live with herself if she turned her back on Paul's three victims and walked away. No, they were all going to leave at once, but how? Little did she know that she was about to receive an unexpected answer to this question.
There was a loud knock at the kitchen door. Paul jumped to his feet and quickly looked out the window, pushing the curtain to one side. Straining to look around him, Maria could see the Sheriff and her deputy off near the barn. Sheriff Palmer looked upset and was talking a mile a minute to a man who was kneeling beside the pathetic body of the dog. He turned his head to answer her, and Maria realised that it was Ben. Paul let the curtain drop and turned around to face Maria once more.
"Don't let them try anything," he said, obviously believing that he had Maria's full support in his treatment of his hostages.
"I won't," she answered, her mind racing at the unexpected possibilities.
He strode quickly from the room.
Maria crept silently from her chair and pressed her ear against the kitchen door, straining to hear what was going on. To say that she was completely and totally shocked to hear two women talking to Paul would have been an understatement.
"… and so I was concerned, dear Paul, when I didn't hear from you all night. You never know what can happen to a person. Why, you might have been sick or injured or mugged. Marion and I decided that it was our duty, yes, our bounden duty to search you out and make sure that you were okay. And here you are!" the older woman exclaimed in delight.
"You shouldn't be here," Maria heard Paul protest ineffectually. "I don't want you here."
"Oh, we know you don't mean that, dear Paul," one of the women twittered sweetly. "You wouldn't have wanted us to worry, would you? You're too thoughtful a boy for that."
As Paul continued to protest the two women's presence, a flicker of movement caught Maria's eye by the living room window. A shadowed figure blocked out the light of the setting sun as it passed. Then to Maria's surprise, she heard the quietest of clicks and the front door slowly swung open. Maria closed her eyes, shook her head and opened her eyes once more, to discover that, yes, Maisie from the diner was really standing in the doorway. Maisie held up one wrinkled finger to her lips and then moved surprisingly silently into the dining room. Maria's eyes met Lois's, the two completely baffled women staring at each other in puzzled shock.
Behind the kitchen door, Paul was becoming more and more agitated. "Go away!" he shouted. "I don't want you here!"
"Well, I never!" one of the women protested. "Come on, Velma. We're not going to stay here and be spoken to like that."
Paul stomped back across the kitchen. Barely forewarned, Maria scurried back to her chair, managing to sit back down a split second before Paul re-entered the living room.
"Everything still in control?" he asked her, his face tense and angry.
"Yes. Fine," Maria quickly answered. "What was that all about?"
"Nothing. Not a thing. So," he briskly changed the subject. "Are you almost done with Lois?"
"Almost," Maria said, with an insincere smile that only touched her lips. "I want to take a little break from that, though, if that's okay. I thought I'd interview you now."
"Me?" he asked incredulously. "I wasn't expecting… Me? Why me?"
"Oh, it's a great story," Maria told him with an enthusiasm she didn't feel. "It's got everything. A mother's love for her son, his love for her. It's got your dream, the dream that's been driving you since you were a little boy, the dream to prove your mother right."
"Well, when you put it like that," Paul said, pleased and smug. "Sure, fire away with your questions."
"Here, before we start, let's get comfortable," Maria suggested pleasantly. "Let's turn our chairs so we don't have to strain to keep an eye on these three, okay?" Maria carefully shifted her chair so that the back of it faced the dining room. Paul shifted his chair to match. Maria didn't know what Maisie had in mind, but she wanted to give the older woman every opportunity to do whatever it was unseen by Paul.
"Tell me about your mother," Maria said. "Tell me about your earliest memories of her. Tell me what it was like visiting her in prison."
Paul started to talk, slowly at first but then faster and faster. The words poured out of him with Maria diligently making notes. As he lost himself in his words, he looked off into the distance, focusing on his memories. Maria glanced at Paul, saw that he wasn't watching and dared to look back quickly at the dining room. Her eyes widened as she saw Maisie slowly moving towards Paul's back, her heavy wood cane held high over her head.
Maria quickly faced forwards once again and focused all her attention on her notes. She didn't want to see what was happening. She didn't want to inadvertently react and ruin it. It was as if by looking away, she wouldn't jinx it. Maria's eyes darted to Lois Lane to see that the other woman was doing the same thing, her eyes fixed on the floor.
"… she's a good woman, my mother is. She did her best. It wasn't her fault that she's in jail. It's his fault, Superman's," Paul spat the last sentence out vehemently. "But I've made him pay, haven't I?"
"Oh, yes," Maria confirmed. "Yes, you've made him…" She threw herself to one side as the solid cane whooshed past her ear to connect with Paul's head. He pitched forward without a sound to land in a heap on the floor.
Maria fell onto her knees and scrabbled frantically under Paul's recumbent body for the gun. It slid, cold, hard-edged and dangerous into the palm of her hand.
"Oh! Oh my!" Maisie exclaimed shakily, her eyes focused on the unconscious man on the floor. She collapsed heavily onto a chair, her whole body shaking.
"Help!" Maria screamed. "Sheriff! Help!" Maisie and Lois added their feeble voices to the entreaties for assistance.
Paul groaned. Maria jumped at the noise, and her shaking hands tightened on the gun, nearly shooting him inadvertently.
"Oh my!" Maisie exclaimed again, her eyes blinking rapidly.
The front door banged open and Sheriff Palmer and her deputy crashed into the room, their guns drawn and at the ready. She was quick to take in the situation, immediately cuffing Paul before he could fully regain consciousness. Maria gratefully relinquished the gun into the Deputy's waiting hands. The two of them quickly dragged Paul out the front door. "Be right back," the Sheriff promised. From the sounds of it, they weren't being too gentle with Paul as they pulled him down the front steps.
"Maria! The Kryptonite! Get rid of the Kryptonite!" Lois begged frantically as she looked from her husband to her daughter and back again.
The young reporter wanted to collapse in a quivering heap but she responded to the slightly hysterical tone of Lois's voice. "What should I do with it?" she asked as she hefted the rock and looked around the living room helplessly.
"Put it in this," a strange voice answered as a new person ran through the broken front door. He proffered a metal box to Maria who quickly popped the rock inside. And then, the tension finally dissipating, she sank down onto a chair beside Maisie.
"Jimmy!" Lois exclaimed. "Thank God. How did you get here so fast?"
"Starfire brought me," he answered, as he motioned to the door. "We've been hovering over the house, listening. We got here just before all hell broke loose." Jimmy gazed admiringly at Maisie and Maria.
"Is it safe to come in now?" the superhero in question asked as he poked his head through the door.
"Yes," Jimmy answered, showing him the closed box.
Starfire zipped into the room, accompanied by Sunstorm. The small living room was definitely starting to feel very overcrowded.
The two men moved quickly to snap restraints. Sunstorm carefully lowered his father onto the carpet. Starfire tenderly lifted Marty into his arms and laid her down beside Superman. She moaned, the movement jostling her injuries.
"Look what he did to her!" Starfire exclaimed as he turned to face the room. "He beat her!"
Sunstorm moved to stand beside his brother to regard Marty and Superman. Maria could see their faces. They were both breathing hard, their eyes blazing with fire. As one, they wheeled about and lifted themselves up off the floor, their bodies aiming themselves like arrows at the open door.
"No!" Lois Lane stood up slowly, staggering a bit. Jimmy moved quickly to her side to support her.
"No?" Starfire spat out the question, defiantly.
"No. That's not what you stand for. I don't want to see blood on your hands."
"He deserves to pay," Sunstorm insisted.
"Yes, he does," Lois replied. "And he will pay — in a court of law." She glared at the two young men for a long moment. Sheriff Palmer appeared at the open door. She froze, struck by the tension between the three of them. Finally Starfire's eyes dropped away from Lois's. "You're right," he said, begrudgingly. Maria breathed a sigh of relief.
Ignoring the others in the room, Lois Lane spoke directly to the two men — to her sons, Maria suddenly realised, her new knowledge finally sinking in.
"I thought you were busy — what was it? One of you was in Turkey, the other in Australia."
The two men exchanged guilty glances but didn't say anything.
"I called them back," Jimmy said, fingering his watch. "I had no choice. You needed us."
Sunstorm gazed at his father and sister in concern. "Sometimes family has to come first."
Lois smiled wanly. "Yes," was all she said, but the way she said it made tears come to Maria's eyes. It was just one syllable, but it held such a wealth of meaning.
Sunstorm moved away from Lois, breaking the tension that was holding everyone else frozen in place. He moved over to crouch down beside his father. Starfire took up a post beside Marty. Sheriff Palmer tentatively stepped further into the living room. "My deputy's gone. He secured the prisoner and is transporting him to town. I'll call an ambulance," she said, her manner completely professional.
"No!" Lois exclaimed. "Uh, no," she repeated, a little softer this time. "One of our friends can come out and look after Marty and Superman. That way they won't have to be moved. Okay?"
"I'll go get Dr. Klein," Sunstorm said, getting up from the floor. "I can have him here in about ten minutes. An ambulance probably wouldn't be able to get here that fast."
Sheriff Palmer acquiesced to the plan, and Sunstorm was gone in a blur. Lois and Jimmy immediately took over his position beside Superman on the floor. Sheriff Palmer moved to stand by the open front door, surveying the situation.
"Are you okay?" Maria asked Maisie as they sat on the sidelines just inside the small dining room.
"I've never hit anyone in my life before. I never even spanked my daughter," Maisie said quietly. Her one age-spotted, arthritically swollen hand slowly and carefully rubbed the other as she looked off into the distance.
Maria took the older woman's shaking hand into her own and gently squeezed it. "You did a good thing," Maria assured Maisie.
"Yes," Maisie answered, her voice remote. She shook herself and looked over at Maria. "Yes, I did," she said, more firmly this time. "Thank you." She smiled at the younger woman and fell silent.
That was fine with Maria. After the heavy tension of the last hour, even that much of a conversation was exhausting. She, too, was content to sit quietly.
Superman came to fairly quickly, Lois filling him in as to what had happened to Paul with a few terse words. She made no mention of her interview with Maria — probably due to the presence of the Sheriff, Maria assumed. Starfire helped him up and, arm around his son's shoulders, Superman hobbled off to the washroom to clean up a bit.
Sunstorm returned with an older man in tow. Dr. Klein, Maria assumed. He fell to his knees beside Marty, immediately starting to examine her.
A moment later, Marty woke up in hysterics, screaming and sobbing, the piteous sounds wrenching at Maria's heart. Dr. Klein gave way to Lois who murmured endearments to her daughter. Marty slowly, almost reluctantly calmed down. The young woman gingerly opened her eyes to gaze up at her mother. "Are you all right?" she asked frantically, clutching at her mother's hands. "Did he hurt you, too?"
Lois was quick to reassure her, and Marty calmed down briefly only to get agitated a moment later. "Dad? Is he all right? Dad?" She painfully propped herself up on one elbow, her eyes searching the room.
Sunstorm turned away, his shoulders shaking and his face buried in his hands.
Lois, Dr. Klein and Jimmy tried to push her back down flat, but she fought them. "Dad?" she screamed hysterically. "Where's Dad?"
Superman rushed back into the room, Starfire half carrying him in support. "I'm here, sweetheart. It's all right," he told her, eyes focused only on her.
Marty strained one hand out to him. He knelt down quickly, overbalancing and almost falling before he could take her hand in his. She closed her eyes and sighed deeply, passing out once more. She looked so peaceful, Maria thought, so different from before.
Dr. Klein quickly directed Starfire to carry Marty to her bedroom so he could finish examining her. Lois and Superman stood up to try to follow, but he said no, telling them he needed privacy to make the examination. They acquiesced reluctantly, watching plaintively as Starfire carried the limp body of his sister up the stairs.
"Dad? Superman?" Sheriff Palmer asked, a quizzical expression on her face. "Clark, is that you?"
Superman scanned the room, panic written all over his face as he caught sight of Maria and Maisie. "I… I didn't know anyone else was here," he said, shaking his head as if to clear away cobwebs.
Lois, Jimmy and Sunstorm froze in place. They, too, bore a striking resemblance to deer caught in headlights. "I thought you saw them. I should have told you," Lois whispered. "I'm sorry."
"It's all right. I already knew," Maria assured Superman quickly.
"So did I," added Maisie. "I've known for a long time."
"But…but…" the Sheriff sputtered. "I didn't!"
Superman smiled apologetically. "Hi, Rachel," he said simply.
"Clark! You're Clark! But that means…" the police officer's voice trailed away.
"What?" Superman gently prodded her.
"That means I went to my prom with Superman!" she blurted out, breaking the tension.
"Don't worry, Clark and Lois. You know that I won't tell. We look after our own here," Maisie said virtuously. "And I'm sure Velma and Marion won't tell either."
"Oh, God!" Sheriff Palmer wailed as she pushed herself away from the doorframe.
"What is it?" Lois asked.
"I left those two crazy women locked up in the back of my squad car. I was just so mad when I spotted them banging on the door and talking to that crazy man… And you, Maisie," she spat over her shoulder. "You and I have to have a long talk about this." She paused, looked back and directly addressed Superman. "I won't tell either, Clark, although it is mighty tempting to brag that I dated you!"
"Thank you, Rachel," was all that he said in response.
As the door closed behind the police officer, the eyes of everyone in the room focused directly on Maria, pinning her in place.
"What about you, Ms. Ramirez?" Superman asked. The others didn't speak, seemingly content to sit back and listen intently.
It wasn't a comfortable question to think about for Maria. This wasn't just a big story; it was the story of the century. But people had to suffer in order for her to get this story. Okay, yes, people did have to suffer for most of the big stories, but this was different.
"I would like to know your intentions so that, if necessary, I can make arrangements to protect my family," Superman said, reasonably.
"Our family," Lois said, correcting him as she slipped her hand into his.
"Your family?" Maria mused out loud. "You're real people with a real family, aren't you?"
"Yes, we are," Superman answered. "And we love each other very much."
"What would you do if I decided to air this?" Maria asked.
Superman shrugged. "What could we do? We'd live with it. We wouldn't like it, but we'd manage." Although their expressions were very troubled, Lois and Sunstorm nodded in agreement.
Their fate rested in Maria's hands and they were just so… so accepting about the whole thing. "But how would you manage?" she asked.
Lois looked the young woman square in the eyes. "Well, Clark and I would have to quit our jobs. Our kids would, too. We'd have to pull our youngest daughter out of school. We always figured that if this happened, we'd have to move somewhere remote where no one could attack those of us who are more vulnerable. And then…"
"Wait!" Maria exclaimed. "What would you do about me? Would you try to get me to stop?"
"Only with words, Ms. Ramirez," Superman said wryly. "Anything else is not our style."
"What about Diana Stride?" Maria asked.
"What about her?" Superman responded seriously. "She went to jail because she killed people, not because she uncovered a story about me."
"You denied her allegations."
"Yes, I did, but she didn't have definite proof. You do. There's a difference. You have had a conversation with Superman and his family. We've admitted to you who we are. You've seen proof. Ethically speaking, we would have no choice but to admit that we are who we are. Like I said, there's a difference."
It was this that tipped the scales in Maria's mind. Yes, this was a fantastic story, but it was only a story. These were people, real people, and they had family and love and values. Maria didn't want to see them suffer any more harm and she didn't want the harm to come from any of her actions. She took a deep breath. "I won't tell either," she vowed solemnly.
Superman smiled warmly at her. "Thank you. If there's ever anything any of us can do for you…"
"Well… The odd exclusive would be nice — not all of them, but just a few — that would be great."
Superman grinned at his wife. "She reminds me of you, honey."
Maria beamed at the compliment. It was no small thing to be compared to the legendary Lois Lane.
Sheriff Palmer knocked against the doorframe. "I'm going to drive Velma and Marion back to town. They're feeling a little shaky. Then, I'm afraid I have to come back here and interview everybody. We sure don't want this guy to walk on a technicality. Uh, you don't have to worry. I'll help you decide what parts of this whole thing become public knowledge, and, um, what parts don't. Okay?"
"Okay. Thanks, Rachel." Superman smiled gratefully at the police officer.
Her expression softened. "You're welcome." She turned to leave, only to pause. "Hey, Lane!"
"Just to let you know — you might be married to him, but I'm the first person he wore a tuxedo for! Just thought I'd point it out." Rachel Palmer grinned and headed out the door.
"See, Clark, I told you. That woman's always been jealous of me!"
Ben sat back on his heels, pretty pleased with himself. Okay, he hadn't been the hero today, but Maisie had been right. He had done a much more effective job of distracting his mother's attention from the farmhouse than anyone else could have. He winced as he remembered exactly how angry his mother had been with him. He had a feeling that she'd be taking her irritation out on him for a very, very long time.
But on the other hand, even his mom had been pleased to know that Shadow would survive. It had been touch and go there for a while, but Ben had risen to the challenge. The poor dog had been shot in the lung. Thankfully, Ben had had all the tools and equipment necessary in his car and he had set up a crude operating room in the barn.
It had taken hours but Ben had managed to extract the bullet and repair much of the damage that had been done. Now, if only the stitches held and the wound didn't get too infected… At least Shadow was alive for now. He still had to be moved and that raised another question. Ben didn't have an office yet — didn't have any facilities to put him in. He didn't want the animal to have to travel too far or for too long. That would be far too stressful in his current condition.
"Hi," a soft voice said behind him.
Ben spun around and saw the figure of a man framed in the open door of the barn.
"Mr. Kent, sir?"
"Hi, Ben." Clark Kent sauntered into the dimly-lit barn.
"How did you get here so fast?"
"Superman brought me."
"Oh. How's Marty?"
Clark's face darkened. "She was pretty badly banged up," he said, grimly. "She has two broken ribs, various bruises and abrasions and a mild concussion, but she should be okay, physically. Emotionally… I don't know. But she'll be happy to know that her dog's alive. Thank you."
"It's my job, Mr. Kent."
"So, what's the prognosis?"
Ben explained Shadow's injuries to the older man, sharing his worries about the after care situation.
"I think we can solve that problem," Clark said. "We're going to be staying with Marty for a few days. We can certainly nurse him as well as our daughter. And it will definitely make Marty feel better to have her dog with her."
Ben smiled in relief. "And I could stop in a couple of times a day to check on him. I haven't got any plans for the next week other than to catch up on my sleep."
"Good," Clark said briskly. "Why don't you go see Marty for a moment? I think she'd like to hear about Shadow from you. I know she'll have lots of questions about him."
"Are you sure it's okay?" Ben asked.
Clark nodded. "I'll stay with him until you get back. Oh, and why don't you send out either Starfire or Sunstorm? They could get Shadow to the house without stressing him."
Ben blinked at the casual way Clark Kent had referred to the two young superheroes but he nodded in agreement.
A moment later, he was escorted into Marty's bedroom. Marty's mom motioned him to a chair beside the bed and then left the room silently. Ben sat down and slowly, reluctantly, looked up to regard his friend. A gasp escaped from his throat at the sight of Marty's swollen, bruised face.
Her eyes slowly opened at the sound, and she looked dully at him. "Hi, Ben," she whispered.
"Hi, Marty," he whispered back, a lump in his throat choking him. "Are you all right?" he blurted out only to mentally castigate himself. What kind of question was that to ask anyone who had been held prisoner by a psychotic monster? How insensitive could he be?
"He killed my dog," she said, so softly he could barely hear her.
"No, he didn't," Ben hastily assured his friend. "He shot him, but I operated. Shadow's still alive."
Marty's eyes locked on his. "You're not lying to me?" she asked, plaintively.
"No, I'm not," he said firmly. "Shadow's badly hurt, but he has a chance."
To his dismay, Marty began to shake, one hand lifting to clamp tight over her mouth. Tears flowed, and Marty sobbed hysterically.
"Ms. Lane! Ms. Lane!" Ben called in a panic.
Marty's mom rushed into the room. She pulled Marty into her arms.
"He's alive! He's alive!" Marty sobbed.
"I know, I know," Lois Lane crooned over and over again, motioning silently for Ben to leave.
Ben inched his way guiltily from the room. As he made his way down the stairs and out to the barn once more, the picture of Marty sobbing in her mother's arms stayed with him. She was as wounded as her dog was. Ben had the same desire when he looked at her as he did when he looked at Shadow. He wanted to be the one to heal both of them.
"You failed, you know," Rachel Palmer told the man in her lock-up. "Maria Ramirez has told the world that a misguided, looney-tunes, psychotic, son of the notorious assassin Diana Stride, lost his mind and victimised an innocent farmer convinced that she was the daughter of Superman. It's a good story, very detailed — very believable. Your former boss has completely disavowed you and has promised that his tabloid won't cover the story. The other tabloids are so shocked that one of their own would precipitate something like this that they've all backed away from this, too. The legitimate media have all picked up Ms. Ramirez's story, and the only questions being asked are answerable. Your mother failed. You failed." Rachel paused, regarding Paul Stride solemnly.
He sat on the hard metal bench, his knees pulled up into his chest, looking back at Rachel blankly. He looked like a shadow of his former self.
"Have a nice night," Rachel said, pleasantly. "I'll see you in the morning." She turned on her heel and left, humming happily. She was in a hurry to get home to Ben.
To be continued in 'Hiding in the Shadows'.