By Nan Smith <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted: August 2001
Summary: The latest in the author's "Dagger" series; Lois and Clark's son, CJ, is beginning to develop some abilities he didn't expect.
This story is part of Nan Smith's "Dagger" series. See a list of all the stories in this series and get links.
Ready for the next story in this series? Read Unforeseen Consequences. Need the previous story? Read Charade.
Disclaimer: The familiar characters and scenes in this story are the property of DC Comics, Warner Bros. and whoever else can legally lay claim to them, and no infringement on their copyright is intended, but the story and new characters are mine.
This is the latest, so far, in my "Dagger series". For those who haven't read it, it comprises: Dagger of the Mind, Dagger's Edge, Assassin's Dagger, Doppelganger, Blind Man's Bluff, Countdown, Priorities, Vanishing Act, Charade and Heritage. This story can be read on its own, or, for a little background on CJ, I recommend Doppelganger.
This story has been cooking in my head for some time—ever since I wrote Doppelganger, actually. How do you tell a child that he's actually a clone of his father, who just happens to be Superman, created by his father's greatest enemy in order to destroy him? And what happens afterwards? Anyway, I finally took the plunge. I hereby present CJ's story…
The day the world changed for CJ Kent started out as an ordinary, if somewhat cold day in early November.
It was the kind of day when everyone wears hats and coats, and the sky is a dreary grey. The sun is up, but you can't see it, the trees have lost most of their leaves and the ones that remain look like limp, dirty rags hanging from the branches and one good, solid rain will sweep them all away.
CJ was out the door early this morning. Backpack slung over his shoulder, he started briskly down the sidewalk toward school. His punctuality had nothing to do with any particular like or dislike for his classes; CJ was an excellent student. His speed this morning was to try to make it to school before Wyatt.
Wyatt Dillon would have been a fourth grader, and was CJ's best friend at school. The fact that CJ had been a grade ahead of Wyatt until this year wasn't a matter of concern for him. The two boys had been friends since CJ, a veteran first-grader, had met Wyatt on his first day of kindergarten. Wyatt, the youngest of six brothers, was always the child with the oldest clothes, passed down to him from his older siblings, the one with the most beaten up bicycle, and the one who somehow always made the best grades of all of them. He'd been jumped ahead a year, this fall, and was now in CJ's fifth grade class.
And therein lay the problem.
Wyatt was the smallest boy in the class, and that made him a prime target for Biff Larson.
Biff was the biggest kid in sixth grade by a good margin. He and his three pals, Jake, Red and Clarence (alias Grunt), hung around together, a little clique of boys who were generally avoided by the other students. They never did anything within sight of the yard monitors, or the teachers, but their behavior before and after school was another story. Most recently, Biff had started a new before-school sport: arm wrestling. It wouldn't have been so bad if it had all been in fun, but Biff's opponents weren't given a choice and the stakes were generally lunch or milk money, and occasionally anything else of value on the victim's person as well.
CJ hurried. Wyatt and he had managed to avoid the "game" so far by getting to school early and making sure they were on the school grounds by the time Biff's crowd arrived. Biff had mentioned it to him in passing a day or two ago and that had put CJ on alert.
The yells and shouts of encouragement he could hear ahead of him as he approached the school informed him that he was too late. He broke into a run that brought him inside of a minute to the scene where Biff stood, grinning contemptuously at Wyatt, holding out his hand for the boy's lunch money. Wyatt's clothing was dirty and torn in two places, and CJ didn't need to guess hard at the means Biff's friends had employed to force Wyatt into the unequal contest.
"Hey, there, it's the other one!" Grunt's voice matched his nickname. "It looks like we're in luck. You're next, Shorty."
CJ stood his ground. "Come on, Wyatt, let's go. We're gonna be late for class."
"Not 'til he pays up," Biff said. "He lost fair and square."
CJ snorted. "Against *you*? That's not fair!"
A push from behind sent him staggering against Wyatt. "Okay, Shorty, tell you what." Red was grinning at him. "You get to wrestle Biff next. If you win we'll let you both keep your money, but if you lose you gotta hand it over today and tomorrow."
"Uh uh," CJ said. "You know fighting's against the rules."
"In school," Jake said. "We're not in school, yet." He gave CJ a push to his knees beside the wooden crate that was used as the field of contention. "Now, kid."
CJ looked desperately around. There was no one who would help him, he knew. Everyone was afraid of Biff and the others, and the few kids within view were keeping their distance. Well, he'd done without lunch once or twice before for one reason or another…
He gritted his teeth and set his elbow on the box. Biff's grin looked like a shark's teeth to him as the bigger boy planted his elbow firmly and gripped CJ's hand. Grunt intoned, "One, two, three…go!"
It wasn't going to be a contest, CJ thought, but he'd learned from his mom never to give up without a fight, so he tensed his muscles and tried to force Biff's hand toward the crate.
Biff's hand hit the wood two seconds later.
For a shocked second, no one moved or spoke. Then, Biff said, "No fair! You caught me off guard. Count for us again, Grunt."
Grunt repeated his count, and again, CJ slammed Biff's arm down onto the crate. CJ stood up, not sure how it had happened, but knowing that he'd won. "I win. Come on, Wyatt. We're going to be late."
"You cheated!" Biff roared. CJ and Wyatt ran.
All day, the two boys were aware at every recess that Biff, or one of his cronies was watching them. At the fourth through sixth grade lunch period, Grunt managed to get next to CJ and Wyatt in line and say, "After school, you're toast. Just wanted to let you know."
The two boys glanced at each other, but neither said anything while Grunt was within earshot. When the bell rang for the end of lunch recess, Wyatt looked at CJ. "What are we gonna do?" he whispered.
CJ shrugged. "I dunno. I guess we could report it to Mr. Grunlow."
"Yeah, and you know what he'll do. Biff's dad's a city councilman. Grunlow'll give Biff a warning and that will be it. Just like the time Billy Turner reported him."
Billy Turner had ended up with a bloody nose and two black eyes, and insisted he didn't know who had done it, but CJ knew, and so did everybody else. He bit his lip, trying to think. There had to be a way out of this. His dad always told him that you could usually think your way out of any ordinary mess, if you used your head, but this didn't seem ordinary, at least to him. CJ was a popular boy in school, in spite of the fact that he was at the head of his class. He didn't usually get picked on.
By two o'clock, he was in a mild panic. The final bell rang at two fifteen and then he and Wyatt would be on their own. How were they going to get away from Biff and the others? Not for a moment did he indulge in the illusion that Biff would go after them alone.
Ms. Peterson, his fifth grade teacher, was reminding them of their reading assignment for tomorrow. CJ had already finished the entire book, but he hadn't told her that. He glanced out the classroom window, estimating how long it would take them to make it to the gate and if they would have time before Biff got out of his class. The sixth grade classrooms were on the second floor. They might be able to make it…
The bell rang and Ms. Peterson dismissed the class. CJ picked up his backpack and headed for the exit, Wyatt on his heels.
They had a few minutes' start and they made the most of it. The Kent home was close, and waiting to undo the safety lock on Wyatt's bicycle would have taken too much time. The two boys ran, taking a shortcut that CJ knew.
Unfortunately, neither of them had taken into account the possibility that Biff or any of his friends might skip class. The four larger boys were waiting for them as they rounded the corner.
Biff grinned, looking more like a shark than ever to CJ. "Thought you were gonna get away, didn't you? I don't like cheaters."
"I don't cheat!" CJ retorted. "I won, fair and square!"
"No little shrimp like you beats Biff arm-wrestling," Jake said. "You musta cheated and now you're gonna pay."
CJ glanced frantically around, looking for an escape route. The four boys had boxed them in. Red lunged for Wyatt and pinned his arms behind his back. Biff cracked his knuckles. "Get him," he said to Grunt and Jake.
Both boys grabbed for CJ. This was it, he figured. What, he wondered, would his mom do in a spot like this? The answer hit him suddenly. He'd never done it before, and it might not work, but it sure couldn't hurt to try. He sucked in his breath and yelled at the top of his voice:
Clark Kent was interviewing City Councilman Francis Larson III when he heard his son's yell for help. CJ was a confident, self-reliant child. If he was yelling for Superman, then it was a real emergency. Quickly, he turned to Larson. "One last question, Mr. Larson. Do you have any comment on the city's permit process for the new shopping center being planned for the New River district?"
Larson shook his head. "Not at this time. I have a meeting in five minutes. Nice to talk to you, Mr. Kent." He turned away, and didn't see it when Clark strode quickly toward the men's room. Clark smiled grimly to himself as he ducked through the door. He'd figured that question would end the conversation quickly. Lois was deep into an investigation on that very thing, and the more she looked, the more irregularities she turned up. Clark made a lightning change and was on his way toward his son's voice in the matter of a split second.
CJ didn't really expect Superman to respond, but it had been a shot. Grunt pinned his right arm and Jake had him by the left. Biff drew back a fist, the grin on his face one of malicious pleasure.
CJ heaved backwards against the other two boys, and to his astonishment felt Grunt release his arm. CJ ducked, and Biff, unable to stop the blow, struck Jake square in the nose. Blood sprayed and Jake screamed in pain and fury.
Grunt and Biff grabbed for CJ, who rolled away. Red released Wyatt and lunged for him as well, managing to snag him by his arm. Wyatt, ever loyal, landed, yelling like a wild man on the larger boy's back, and wrapped both arms around his neck. Red let go of CJ to grab at Wyatt. Grunt and Biff tackled CJ, one from each side and bore him to the ground. CJ struggled frantically, but the two were pinning him with their full weight, and he waited for the inevitable beating.
But it never came. The weight of the two boys was abruptly lifted from him, and he peered up, unbelieving, to see Superman grasping each boy by the collar. Grunt and Biff struggled for an instant and then gave up.
"What's going on here?" Superman demanded, sternly.
"Those little shrimps attacked us!" Jake said, furiously, apparently completely unaware of how unlikely the story sounded. Blood dripped from between his fingers onto his sweater.
Wyatt dropped from the Red's back, looking ruffled and bruised, but surprisingly in control. "Don't believe them, Superman. They were getting ready to beat up CJ."
Superman was looking at the two boys whom he held. His eyebrow rose. "Well, well…you're Councilman Larson's son, aren't you, Francis? I thought I recognized you."
CJ got to his feet, wiping Jake's blood from his chin. At Superman's remark, he turned to stare at his Nemesis. Francis? That was almost as bad as Clarence!
"Yeah." Biff tried to look righteously angry, and failed. "If you make trouble for me, my dad'll make you pay, Superman. You better let us go."
Both of Superman's eyebrows went up this time. "Well, we'll see about that," he drawled. "I think four to two odds aren't particularly good, especially when the two are smaller than any of the four. Let's see what your fathers have to say when they pick you up at the local police station." He drifted upwards, and CJ saw the look of terror on Biff's face as his feet left the ground. "You two stay where you are. If you don't, I'll have to find you, and I might be a little irritated with you." He glanced at CJ. "You and your friend go on into your house, CJ. I'll tell your mom and dad what happened."
CJ and Wyatt were silent as they entered the Kent home on Hyperion Ave. They had the place to themselves for a little while before CJ's mom got home. Marta was supposed to go over to her best friend's house until four, Jonny was in Metro Elementary's after school program, and Jimmy was still in day care at the Planet. CJ had begged for the privilege of being allowed to stay at home alone after school, this year, and his mom and dad had agreed, as long as he followed the rules. He sincerely hoped that this incident wouldn't make them change their minds about it.
"What do you suppose is gonna happen?" Wyatt asked. "Biff's gonna be pretty mad."
"He was already pretty mad." CJ pointed out the obvious. "Let's talk to my mom and dad when they get home. Maybe they can help. You better call your house and tell 'em where you are."
"Yeah." Wyatt reached for the phone. "Mom'll be home pretty soon. I'll tell Hank."
Hank was Wyatt's oldest brother, CJ knew. He was a high school senior this year.
CJ headed for the kitchen. Dad usually left some kind of snack for when he got home from school, and he wasn't disappointed. He stuck his head through the door just as Wyatt hung up the phone. "Dad left us some milk and cookies. Come on and have some."
CJ was on his fourth cookie when he heard the sound of a key in the front door. Wyatt didn't appear to hear anything and looked up in surprise as CJ stood up. "What'sa matter?" he mumbled, through a mouthful of cookie.
"I think my mom's here," CJ said.
"CJ!" his father's voice called.
"In the kitchen, Dad!" CJ sank down into his seat again. A moment later, the kitchen door opened and his father entered the room, CJ's four-year-old brother trailing behind him.
"Where's Mom?" CJ asked.
"She had an appointment," Clark said. He glanced at his watch. "I'm going to pick up Jonny and Marta in an hour." He snagged two of the cookies off the plate, handed one to Jimmy and leaned against the counter. "I hear you two had a little adventure today."
"Superman told you, huh?" CJ said.
"Just that he heard you yell for help and he showed up to find you in a fight with four bigger boys. What happened?"
For the next half-hour, CJ and Wyatt between them went over in detail the events that had led to the fight a short time before. His father asked for descriptions of everything that had happened, and for the first time, CJ began to see why his father and mother were the Planet's best reporters. Not the smallest detail escaped his notice, and he seemed to know instantly if CJ or Wyatt had left something out.
When they had finished, he nodded. "I think it's time Mr. Grunlow had a visit from the Daily Planet," he said. "Don't worry about Biff. Superman told him he'd have his eye on him and his friends. And I suspect Mr. Grunlow will be more interested in paying attention to reports of misconduct in the future." He smiled at CJ's expression. "Mr. Grunlow is a good man, son. He just sometimes has too much respect for authority." He glanced at his watch. "I need to pick up your sister and brother. Wyatt, would you like to stay for dinner?"
"Sure, Mr. Kent!" CJ knew that Wyatt liked to eat at the Kent house. He'd told CJ that his dad's cooking was the coolest. CJ had to agree. Nobody cooked like Dad.
Of course, nobody cooked like Mom, either, but the only one who would eat most of her stuff was Dad. CJ didn't understand how he did it.
"Okay, why don't you call your mom and ask permission, and we'll get started when I get back. Come on, Jimmy, time for another ride in the car."
Later that evening, when his father had left to take Wyatt home, CJ stuffed his books and papers into his backpack for school tomorrow. In spite of his dad's assurance that he didn't need to worry about Biff and his friends, he was a little apprehensive. Biff wasn't the kind of guy who let anybody stop him from doing what he wanted to do. He'd heard that last year Biff had been on probation for bicycle theft, or something, but the rumors had died down and no one had dared to ask him, anyhow. The thought occurred to CJ quite suddenly that maybe that was where Superman had met him before. He'd called him Francis. Involuntarily he grinned. So Biff's real name was Francis, was it? That explained why he went by 'Biff'.
"All done with your homework?" His mom poked her head into his room. She'd come in while Clark was cooking dinner and had gone into the kitchen to talk to him. CJ had discovered that if he listened closely, he could sometimes hear people talking in other rooms, even if they were speaking in low voices, but Marta had her music turned up too loud for him to make out what they were saying. It wasn't that he eavesdropped on a regular basis, but Mom hadn't been feeling well, lately and CJ knew his dad was worried about her—which made CJ worry, too.
"Yeah," he said. "We did it together. Wyatt helped me with the math, and I helped him with his English."
"That's good," Lois said. She came into the room and sat down on the end of his bed. "Your dad tells me you nearly got into a fight today."
"Almost," CJ said, wondering why his mom was asking about it. "I didn't start it."
"I know that," Lois said, a slight smile in her voice. "I'd even have known it if your dad hadn't told me. You're just like him, sometimes. The only times I've ever known you to fight was when you couldn't avoid it, or when somebody was getting picked on."
CJ shrugged uncomfortably. "I guess."
"So," his mom said, casually, "Biff made you arm wrestle him?"
CJ nodded. "Yeah. And when I beat him, he said I cheated. I don't cheat, Mom."
"I know." Lois's smile had turned a little wry. "It must be in the genes."
"Nothing," she said. She glanced at the clock. "It's only eight-thirty. Don't go to bed yet, okay? Your dad and I want to talk to you when he gets back."
CJ felt as if someone had hit him in the stomach. "Mom…you're okay, aren't you? I mean, you went to the doctor today, didn't you?"
"Did your dad tell you that?" Lois looked a little annoyed.
"No. I heard Dad bugging you about the doctor the other day."
"But we were in the…" She stopped and looked at him closely. A little smile quirked at the corner of her mouth. "Martha was right," she said, with apparent irrelevance. "Kids grow up much too fast. I'm fine, honey. The doctor did a couple of tests, and we know exactly why I'm not feeling up to par. I thought I was too old, but apparently, Mother Nature didn't think so. Don't tell anyone yet, okay? You're going to have another brother or sister in a few months."
"Oh." CJ wasn't sure whether he liked that, but he guessed there wasn't any way out of it at this point. At least Mom wasn't sick or anything, but little brothers were trouble, like the time Jonny had gotten into his rock collection and used his specimens for slingshot ammunition. And sisters were a real pain in the neck, sometimes. He wasn't sure which one he would want less. "Gee, that's great."
His mother laughed. "Don't knock yourself out with enthusiasm, sweetie. Your Dad and I weren't exactly expecting this, either, but it will be okay. You'll see."
"What will be okay?" Clark Kent appeared suddenly in the doorway.
"Wow, you're back awfully fast," Lois said.
"The traffic was light. What will be okay?"
"I just told CJ about the new addition."
Clark laughed. "Oh. I can see he's thrilled. Almost as thrilled as you are."
"And you like it, too," Lois accused him.
"Can I help it if I think you're beautiful when you're pregnant?" Clark sat down next to her on CJ's bed and planted a kiss squarely on her mouth. CJ averted his eyes. His mom and dad always embarrassed him when Dad started smooching Mom in front of everybody, but he guessed it was better than some of his friends' parents who were divorced, or separated, or just fighting.
"I think we're embarrassing our son," Clark said. "We'll behave, honest. Right now, we need to talk to you, CJ. It's something pretty important, so why don't you close the door?"
CJ obeyed and, without thinking, pushed in the locking button. Mom and Dad were both looking kind of worried and he wondered if he'd done something wrong after all. They didn't seem mad at him, though.
When he turned around to resume his seat at the small desk they'd bought for him at the beginning of the school year, Dad had removed his glasses.
CJ had never seen his father without his glasses before. Even when they'd gone to the beach, Dad had gone swimming with them on, which Wyatt, Marta and he had all thought kind of funny. Dad had just explained that he couldn't see without them and wanted to be able to find his way back to the beach. CJ figured he was kidding, and the subject had never come up again. Now, he stared at his father. Dad looked kind of familiar, not in a Dad way, but he couldn't quite figure out how.
Clark smiled a little at him, and it looked to CJ as if he was sort of nervous, which was really funny, because Dad *never* got nervous—at least, unless you counted that big award last year—a Pulzer Prize or a Pitzer Prize or something like that. He and Mom had won it together and both of them had to make speeches, and Dad had nearly dropped his certificate, his hands were shaking so hard.
But this wasn't anything like that, so what was he nervous about?
Clark fiddled with his glasses. "CJ," he began, "you know what we told you, years ago, about how you came to us?"
"Sure. You adopted me from one of your relatives who couldn't keep me." He'd always wondered about that. They'd never told him who the relative was. A horrible thought struck him. "They don't want me back or anything, do they? Because if they do, I'm not going!"
"No, nothing like that." His father put a hand on his knee. "This isn't bad, son, at least I don't think it is. It's just something about your background that you need to know. I was hoping we wouldn't have to tell you this so soon, but what happened today showed me you need to know, now."
CJ didn't know how to take that, but he waited. What was Dad talking about?
"We couldn't possibly give you back to your biological parents even if we wanted to—which we wouldn't in a million years," Clark said. "This is a little hard to explain, okay? Lois and I adopted you when you were about a month old, but you're a relative of mine, all right, and a lot closer than anyone but only three other people—your Grandmother and Grandfather Kent, and Dr. Klein—know. You're my biological brother."
CJ just stared at him, blankly.
"I know this sounds crazy," Clark said, "but hear me out, okay?"
Numbly, CJ nodded. Dad was actually his *brother*? This was weird.
"That's not the most important part," Clark continued. "In the beginning, your mom and I thought we would never be able to have kids."
"I know," CJ said. "That's why you adopted me."
"Only in the beginning," Lois said, quietly. "Long before we found out that Marta was on the way, we wouldn't have given you up for anything, because we loved you. As a matter of fact, we fought to keep you when someone nearly took you away from us."
CJ had never heard that story before. "You're kidding! Why would someone do that?"
"That's all part of what we want to explain to you," Clark said, quietly. "You see, CJ, you really are a very special person—and not just to us, although," he added, with a smile, "you were always special to us, even before we knew the rest."
CJ controlled the urge to squirm. It embarrassed him when his mom and dad got mushy about him, even though he knew it was because they loved him. Clark smiled at him. "Sorry, son, I don't mean to make you uncomfortable, but this is important. Did you know that I'm adopted, too?"
"Yeah, you told me. But if I'm really your brother, how can—I mean—" CJ found himself floundering, not quite able to explain what he meant.
"That's what I'm going to explain," his dad said. "Let me tell you how your grandma and granddad found me. You see, most people think they're my real parents. Back when they were young, they discovered they couldn't have children, and they were refused adoption, too. In May of 1966, they were driving along a country road in Kansas when they saw what looked like a meteor in the sky. They saw it crash in Schuster's Field, and your grandmother, being who she is, had to investigate."
He grinned, and CJ echoed the grin. Grandma Kent would never change, even when she was ninety, he thought.
"What they found," his father continued after a moment, "surprised even her. You see, it wasn't a meteor. It was a tiny spaceship, and inside was a baby boy. That baby boy was me."
CJ absorbed that in silence. He stared at his father's face with the beginning of comprehension. "A spaceship?" he repeated.
"I'll show it to you sometime," his father said. "It's hidden on your grandparents' farm. Anyway, they took me home, named me Clark Jerome, and raised me as their own son." He was looking hard at CJ, now, and CJ felt as if butterflies had suddenly moved into his chest. No wonder his dad's face looked so familiar and different at the same time. He'd met Superman a few times, mostly when he gave them a lift to the Kent farm, and his picture was everywhere. There was even a statue of him in the park, honoring him for saving the world from the Nightfall Asteroid, with a canopy over it to keep the pigeons off.
Clark was nodding. "I became Superman after I moved to Metropolis so I could help people and still have a private life. That's very important to your mother and me. You mustn't tell anyone, not even Wyatt, at least until he's older. This is something no one must ever find out, unless you know without a doubt that you can trust him—and even then, think twice because it's a very dangerous secret. You're not invulnerable yet, and people might try to control Superman through you—or your mom, or your brothers and sister—if they knew the truth. Do you understand, CJ?"
"Uh…Yeah. I get it. I won't tell anyone." CJ was having a little trouble digesting the whole thing, but he understood what Superman was saying. Any of the zillions of bad guys he brought in would love to know that Superman had a family and who they were. CJ had seen plenty of videos that used that kind of scenario. He wasn't anxious for it to happen to his family.
Clark handed Lois his glasses, rose to his feet and moved to a clear spot in the bedroom. CJ held his breath, knowing somehow that what he was about to see was going to be very interesting.
Suddenly, his father became a spinning blur and CJ felt his jaw drop. The blur stopped, and in Clark's place stood Superman.
He closed his mouth with an effort. "Wow! That is *so* cool!"
Superman grinned a neat twin of Clark's smile and came to sit next to Lois again on the foot of the bed. "If you want, I'll take you flying in a while. Would you like that?"
CJ nodded, enthusiastically. Who wouldn't want to fly with Superman? But he hesitated, still curious. "But you said I'm your brother? How can that be?"
"That's a long story that's a lot more complicated, and we'll save it for another day," Clark said. "The point is, you're my son, but you're also my brother—a Kryptonian, like me. I started to get stronger, and my super-hearing began to come in when I was between ten and eleven—almost exactly your age. From what you told me this afternoon, I think you're beginning to get your super-strength."
"*That's* how I beat Biff today," CJ said, slowly. "But I'm not anywhere near as strong as you."
"No, and you won't be for a while," Superman said. "But it's starting. You're going to have to be careful that you don't hurt someone accidentally, and if you notice anything else unusual, tell me right away, okay?"
"Okay." CJ turned to look at his mother. She looked proud, but at the same time, he was surprised to see her wipe a tear from her cheek. "What's the matter, Mom?"
"Nothing, really." She sniffed determinedly. "It's just hormones."
Clark put his arm around her. "It's okay, honey."
"I know. Clark, I think you should check to see if he has any other powers beginning to appear. I think his super- hearing may be starting to come in, too."
Superman looked back at CJ. "Is it, do you think?"
CJ hesitated. "Maybe. I've got really good hearing."
"Well, we'll find out. Don't worry—it's a slow process. It's not going to descend on you all at once. I didn't fly until I was eighteen, but that might have been because I didn't know I could. At least, this time we have some idea what to expect. We won't have to do as much guessing as your grandparents and I did when I was growing up." He stood up. "Would you like to go for a short flight, now?"
CJ jumped to his feet. "That would be great!"
Lois smiled. "Don't be gone too long, guys. I'll leave the window open."
CJ had to admit to some nervousness as Superman led him to the window in his parents' bedroom. He'd seen how the superhero—his dad!—had carried Biff and Grunt by their collars earlier today, but he didn't think he'd do it that way with him. He was right. Superman slipped an arm around his waist and without warning the pull of gravity dropped away. Then, before he could speak or even take a breath, they were floating out the window as lightly as feathers.
All CJ could think of was the scene from Peter Pan when the children had flown away, but this was even better because he didn't have to imagine it. Superman's arm was tightly around his waist, and he knew without a doubt that his dad—he couldn't really think of Superman as his brother— wouldn't drop him. He looked back, to see the house dwindling behind him and realized that they were rising toward the clouds. Below them, the city was becoming a mass of bright lights in every color that he could imagine.
"How do you like it?" Superman asked, raising his voice a little so he could be heard over the sound of the wind.
"It's great!" He could see his dad smiling widely. "I always wanted to fly!"
"Well, in a few years you'll be doing this under your own power." Superman speeded up slightly, and suddenly they were surrounded by cold, damp mist. A cloud, CJ realized, belatedly. Almost as he realized it, they emerged from the cloud and above them was a black sky, spangled with stars.
"Oh, wow! This is cool!" CJ could see the constellations more clearly than he ever had with his telescope or even when they had gone camping in Yellowstone National Park. He had never realized before how many there were. He could see the bright, familiar ones, but there were others, smaller and not so bright, and if you looked carefully, there were even more that were smaller, as if they went on forever.
"See that light?" His father pointed to a slowly moving pinprick of light, far above. It would have been invisible from the ground. "That's Space Station Prometheus. And over there is a passenger plane headed from Paris to Metropolis. Did you know the military tracks me when I fly? I figure that's where some of the UFO reports came from before Superman made his appearance."
CJ found himself laughing. The thought of his dad being mistaken for a UFO was somehow extremely funny. Then he noticed that they were moving again. "Where are we going?"
"I thought we might drop in on Grandma and Granddad Kent," Superman said. "The sun's only just set in Kansas right now. Would you like to see them?"
"Sure!" CJ would have seized on any excuse to prolong this incredible flight, and Martha and Jonathan Kent were his favorite grandparents, anyway. Not that he didn't like Grandma Ellen and Grandfather Sam, but he was always afraid if he got fingerprints on Grandma Ellen's mirrors that she'd have a major breakdown or something. Superman accelerated, and they left the lights of Metropolis behind within less than a minute. Suddenly, CJ laughed.
His dad glanced at him "What?"
"Nothing. I was just thinking that I owe Biff something after all. I think I'll tell him thanks, tomorrow."
"Just don't tell him why," Superman said.
"Not a chance," CJ squinted his eyes against the wind in his face and his grin widened. "Not even a little one."
The next morning dawned bright and clear, and CJ crawled out of bed to the aromas of pancakes and bacon and eggs cooking. There wasn't any smell of anything burning, so CJ concluded Dad was making the breakfast.
He scrambled into his clothing and hurried down the steps to discover Clark in his work clothes, minus his jacket, and attired in a barbecue chef's apron, expertly flipping pancakes.
Looking at his father, it was a little hard to believe what had happened last night. Somehow, you just didn't think of Superman cooking breakfast like any ordinary guy, he thought. But Superman was really just Clark Kent, his dad, and had done this kind of thing for years. There wasn't any reason he should change now.
Then, he noticed something different. Dad wasn't using a pot lifter, and the handle of the iron skillet had to be pretty hot. He'd made the mistake of touching it one day some years before.
"Isn't it hot?" he asked.
"Sure." Clark winked at him. "I figured you'd be wondering this morning if it was all some kind of weird dream, so…" He left the sentence unfinished as he deftly transferred the pancakes to a plate, added a healthy serving of scrambled eggs and bacon and set the plate on the kitchen table. "There you go. There's butter, three kinds of syrup and strawberry jam. If you want anything else, you know where it is."
"This is fine." CJ reached for the orange juice pitcher. "Where's everyone else?"
"Your mom took them with her. I thought maybe Superman should fly you to school this morning—just to remind Biff and his friends that there's a good reason they shouldn't try to start anything with you and Wyatt. And then, I thought perhaps Superman should have a short talk with Mr. Grunlow. It's about time someone told him what kind of extortion racket Biff and his friends are running."
CJ nodded, his mouth full of pancakes. "I guess," he said, a trifle thickly around the food, "if Superman tells him, he'll have to believe it."
His dad gave a little smile. "Respect for authority can work both ways," he said.
And so, a short time later, Superman touched down in front of the elementary school gates and set CJ gently on the ground. Wyatt, standing just inside the fence, watched with wide eyes as Superman followed CJ onto the school grounds, and allowed him to indicate the direction of the main office. Out of the corner of his eye, CJ saw Biff and his cronies watching them stonily and quelled a small jab of nervousness.
Superman glanced casually in the direction of the boys, gave them a very faint smile and turned back to Wyatt and CJ. "Thank you, CJ," he said clearly. "If you or Wyatt have any more problems, just yell."
"We will, Superman," CJ assured him, and watched the Man of Steel stride toward the office, his cape swaying behind him. It was too bad they couldn't follow him, he thought, wistfully. He'd love to see the expression on Ms. Wentworth's face when Superman walked in.
"What's up?" Wyatt asked. "How come Superman brought you to school?"
"He's making sure Biff and the others know he's watching them," CJ said. "Come on, let's go get in line."
"So," Jonathan Kent said, "how is CJ handling it?"
"Okay." Clark floated in mid-air, holding the paint can for him. He could have done the whole job in a few seconds flat, but he knew his father preferred to do it himself. Jonathan was now semi-retired as he neared his seventieth birthday, but he liked to keep active. It didn't feel right, he had explained, to be lying in bed when the sun was coming up. "We still have to explain the clone thing to him. I'm not sure how he's going to take it."
"Well, you could always just sort of leave it out. No one really knows except a few of us".
"I don't want to lie to him," Clark said. "Where he came from doesn't matter, unless it matters to him. It's who he is *now* that's important."
"Then, it's up to you and Lois to be sure he understands it," Jonathan said, quietly. "He knows how much the two of you love him. I think, in the end that's what will count the most."
"You're probably right," Clark said. He floated back a few feet to view the final touches his father had put on the house trim. "Looks nice."
"Your mom wants everything right for the family this Thanksgiving," his father said. "Is Jimmy going to be able to make it this year?"
"So he says," Clark said. "I promised that Superman would fly his whole family out for the holiday. I had to play the guilt card, though. He didn't want to inflict a new baby on you and Mom during the holiday weekend."
Jonathan Kent laughed. "Does he have any idea how much Martha wants to see her new godson?" he asked.
Clark grinned. "Not until I told him how hurt Mom would be if they didn't come. Sandra was dreading going to her parents' place, though, so I got her on my side and together he was no match for us."
Jonathan descended the ladder. "Good. You're learning, son. Maybe by the time you're my age, you'll be as devious as your mother."
"Not possible," Clark said, cheerfully. He glanced at the sky for the fourth time in the last hour. "I hope this paint has the chance to dry before that storm hits."
"It will," Jonathan said, calmly. "The air's dry. The weather front won't be here before morning. I wanted to get the painting done before the first big snow of the season, to tell you the truth. I have the feeling I won't get another chance before spring."
"Just a feeling. Turn on the hose, will you? I've got paint all over my hands."
A few minutes later, the two men trooped into the farmhouse kitchen. Martha Kent took one look at them and laughed. "I swear, Jonathan, you get more paint on you when Clark helps than when you do the job alone. Go take a bath." She turned to her son. "Do you know you've got a big green streak across the top of your head? You better get rid of it, or people will wonder who threw paint on Superman!" She dropped her voice and mouthed the last word, silently.
"Grandma," Marta's distressed voice said from the doorway, "Patches caught a mouse and I think it's still alive. She's under the wood stove with it. What should I do? I'm afraid she's going to kill it!"
"Oh, heavens!" Martha looked helplessly at Clark. "Can you do something about it, Clark?"
Clark rolled his eyes at his father, who smothered a grin. Experience as a farm kid told him that Patches, the calico cat, was there exactly for that purpose, but, of course, Marta didn't know that and she felt sorry for the mouse. He went into the living room where CJ was sitting on the overstuffed sofa, petting the shaggy head of the terrier/ beagle mix that had adopted the Kent farm five years ago. Buster hadn't taken no for an answer, and his unswerving persistence had finally won over even Jonathan Kent, who had sworn he wasn't adopting any more confounded house pets. Buster was paying no attention whatsoever to the drama being enacted by the wood stove, being far too occupied with the fact that CJ was unerringly scratching a spot that had been irritating him all day. CJ looked up as his father entered the room, and grinned.
"Hey Dad, did you know your hair is green?"
"Your grandmother already told me." Clark knelt down to look under the stove and winced. "Um, Marta, I think it's too late. I'm sorry, honey."
Marta burst into tears and fled from the room. CJ shook his head. "I told her it was too late," he said, "but she wouldn't believe me."
Clark started to follow his daughter, but then CJ's words sank in and he paused. "*How* did you know it was too late?"
"Well—" CJ hesitated and lowered his voice. "I looked to see. I know one of Superman's powers is to see through things. I tried real hard, and for a second, I could see Patches and—and the mouse." He made a face. "It was kind of blurry, and it didn't last long."
Clark figured that was just as well. He nodded slowly. "I see." He glanced after Marta. "I better go talk to your sister. We'll discuss this tonight when the littler kids are asleep, all right?"
"Uh-huh," CJ agreed. He resumed the scratching of Buster's neck. "It's a little scary, you know?" He added, thoughtfully, "I hope Patches doesn't catch any more mice while we're here."
"Yeah," Clark said, making a mental note to be alert for the eventuality. "We're going to have to run a few tests and find out what you can do. Later, though. Marta's pretty upset."
By the time Clark had soothed Marta's distress and taken time to wash the paint from his hair, dinner was ready. Superman had flown the family to the Kent farm as soon as the kids had arrived home this afternoon. It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, a little over two weeks since the encounter with Biff, and all the planes were grounded in Metropolis due to an early snowstorm. After due consideration, Clark, as Superman, had saved the day and given the children a thrill at the same time. He would be bringing Jimmy, his wife and new son to the farm in the morning to participate in the Thanksgiving festivities. Jimmy and later his pretty wife had become fixtures around the Kent farm on holidays in recent years.
"I'll just have salad," Lois said. She was looking a little pale around the mouth.
Martha glanced at her in concern. "Don't you feel well, Lois?"
Clark looked sympathetically at his wife. Unlike previous pregnancies, with this one she was having her morning sickness in the afternoon and evening. It was just as well that he did the cooking in the Kent household, he reflected, or everyone would be making peanut butter sandwiches for their dinner. The only thing Lois had been able to stomach so far in the evening had been green salad, iced tea and sweet and sour pork imported from Shanghai, courtesy of Superman Express. Even her usual love for chocolate ice cream had disappeared, to be replaced with peppermint, which she usually hated. Clark, however, knew better than to comment on the situation, based on previous experience. "Um, we have some news," he said.
CJ didn't understand the fuss over the whole thing. Babies were smelly, messy, and noisy, not to mention all the stuff Mom and Dad had to cart around with them when one of his younger siblings was little, and there was always a special disposal pail sitting in the bathroom, half full of used diapers. Jimmy had only finally been trained last year, and he'd thought it was over with, but no such luck. Grown-ups were weird, that was all there was to it, even Dad and Mom.
A cold, wet nose nudged his knee and he glanced down. Buster was sitting at his feet, a pleading expression in his eyes as if he hadn't eaten in a week. CJ felt a tug of sympathy, even though he knew very well that Buster's bowl was full of kibbles. Careful to be certain that no one was watching, he sneaked a sliver of baked ham from his plate and slipped it to Buster, who snatched it and gulped it down as if he were half-starving.
He looked up to meet his father's eyes. He hadn't thought of it before, but Dad being Superman probably explained how he always seemed to know when one of them was skirting the rules around home. Clark's eyes crinkled slightly in silent amusement and his left eyelid flickered in a slight wink before he turned back to the other adults. Dad could be pretty cool sometimes, CJ thought.
After dinner, Mom and Grandma and Granddad Kent retired to the living room with Jonny and Jimmy while Clark and the two older children did the dishes. Dad could probably do them in seconds, CJ thought, wistfully, but he was holding himself to normal human speed because Marta didn't know, yet. He wondered if his sister and brothers would get super powers, someday. After all, they were only half Krypton people, or whatever you called them. It would be kind of nice, he decided. Marta was a pain sometimes, like the time she'd decided that all brothers had cooties and wouldn't let him touch her stuff for a couple of weeks, or the time she'd taken his alarm clock to time the toad races in the back yard and left it there and made him late for school. But one thing he had to admit was good about Marta; she wasn't afraid of animals like a lot of girls he knew and sometimes she was almost okay. He hoped she got super powers, too. It would be kind of lonesome if he was the only Kent kid who could do stuff like that.
It was still kind of weird to see Superman doing something on TV and remind himself it was really Dad. Last week when he waded in on that gang fight and CJ had seen some scruffy-looking punk break a bottle over his head, he'd been scared for a few seconds before he remembered that nobody could hurt Superman. Someday he'd have the same power, he thought. Then he'd never have to worry about falling out of trees or burning his hand on the stove again, or anything.
Behind him, the smash of a glass on the linoleum made him jump. He turned to see his sister staring at the mess she had made in consternation.
"Hey, watch it!" CJ said.
"It slipped," Marta said. "I'm sorry, Daddy."
"It's okay," Clark said. "I'll clean it up. Don't touch the broken glass or you'll cut yourself."
"I'll get the broom." CJ went to the little broom closet next to the back porch and removed the broom and dustpan.
"Get the mop, too," Clark directed, which made sense as the glass had been half full of milk. CJ pulled out the sponge mop, but the handle caught on a cord dangling from the shelf above and before he knew it, a can of bug spray, a dust buster and a broken toaster rained down on his head.
The toaster struck him squarely on the forehead, shattered and fell to the floor in a scattering of miscellaneous parts. CJ cried out and clapped a hand to the spot in sheer reflex. In a split instant, his father was at his side, removing his hand from his forehead to examine the injury.
For a second there was silence. His father stared at the place the toaster had struck. After a moment, he said, "Are you hurt?"
Numbly, CJ shook his head. He wasn't hurt, he realized in mild astonishment. His forehead didn't even hurt where the toaster had hit him.
"You broke Grandma's toaster," Marta informed him with sisterly smugness.
"Yeah, well, you broke her glass!" CJ retorted, nettled.
"Easy there, kids," Clark said. "And break it up. Let's get busy and clean up this mess."
"Don't worry about the toaster," Martha Kent said, some time later. "I'm just as happy to throw it away. Your father kept promising to fix it, but he never seemed to get around to it."
Clark glanced at his dad, who looked guilty. "I was going to get to it, eventually," he protested, but without conviction.
"You've been saying that for the last four years," Martha said, with a nudge of her elbow to his ribs. "It was becoming a fixture on that shelf. Is CJ okay?"
"He's fine," Clark said. "Not even a red mark."
"You think it might be because of his super powers?" Jonathan asked.
Clark nodded. "I think so. When did you first notice it about me?"
"Well, that's kind of hard to say," Jonathan said. "You fell out of a tree when you were seven and broke your leg, but I don't think you ever got hurt after that. At least, not seriously."
Martha was obviously making an effort at recall. "Jonathan, do you remember the time he fell off the barn roof?"
Jonathan looked surprised. "I'd forgotten that," he admitted. "You weren't hurt, so…" He broke off.
"You'd lost your baseball," Martha explained. "Don't you remember?"
Clark frowned. "Sort of. I went up after it, didn't I?"
Martha nodded. "You were just about CJ's age," she said. "You climbed up after the ball, and just as you grabbed it, I came out the kitchen door. I must have startled you, because you lost your grip and fell. I was sure you'd been killed, but you just had the air knocked out of you. You didn't even have a bruise."
"So the invulnerability was kicking in," Clark said. "CJ has the beginnings of several super powers. I probably did, too, but didn't notice at the time."
"Probably," Martha said. "You weren't looking for them, after all. Mostly, by the time you noticed, the power was pretty much full-blown."
"Yeah." Clark sighed. "I guess he and I will have to go some place private and check out his abilities—see how they're developing. Not this weekend, though. There's too much going on."
"It isn't as if it's urgent," Jonathan said. "If I remember, you were on the 7th grade wrestling team, and nobody noticed anything strange."
"I was pretty strong," Clark admitted, "but not so much that anyone thought it was unusual. It didn't really get like that until somewhere around 8th grade—about the time I started growing a little bit of a beard. I only had to shave about once a week, but I went through razors like crazy. It's going to be interesting to see how CJ's powers develop, now that we know what we're looking for."
"At least he'll have you to cut his hair," Martha said, with a tug at the lock that always fell across Clark's forehead whenever he let it grow a little. "It was a good thing longish hair was in style until you figured out how to cut it. I thought we were going to have to buy you a guitar or something for awhile."
"If I could carry a tune in a bucket, it might have made sense," Clark said. "Any musical talent in our family has to come from Lois's side."
"Maybe," Martha said, "but Marta has a lovely voice, or haven't you noticed?"
"I'd noticed. She takes after Lois, fortunately." Clark lowered his glasses and glanced toward the living room. "CJ's waiting for me. I better go talk to him."
CJ looked up when his father came into the room. Mom had taken the younger kids upstairs for baths a few minutes before, and he had been waiting for Dad to come talk to him, like he'd promised. It was crazy, the way everything was changing for him; it was as if the things that he'd known were solid and safe all his life had somehow switched around and all of a sudden, everything was different. One day he'd been an ordinary school kid, and the next he'd found out his father was Superman and that he was going to have Superman's powers himself, someday. He wondered if Dad expected him to be a superhero like Superman when he grew up. Not that it seemed like such a terrible thing, but CJ wanted to choose what he wanted to be, not what someone else wanted.
On the other hand, hadn't Dad told him once that there was nothing he couldn't be? Maybe that meant that his Mom and Dad wouldn't mind if he decided to be a fireman, or a policeman, or even an astronaut. Maybe he could do like Dad and be a superhero sometimes and a regular person the rest of the time. It would be kind of cool to fly through the air in a bright costume and rescue people, but he didn't really want other people to know the rest. Nobody would want to play baseball with him if they knew he could hit a home run every single time, except maybe Wyatt. Maybe sometime he could tell Wyatt about everything.
"Hi, kiddo," his dad said. "Want to go for a walk?"
"Good. I figured we could talk better where Marta couldn't hear us." His dad took CJ's coat from the rack by the door and handed it to him, then slipped on his own leather jacket. CJ wondered if he really needed it. He was Superman, after all.
The air was chilly outside, CJ thought, but he wasn't particularly cold. The sky here in Kansas was almost as clear as it had been when he'd flown with Superman that night his mom and dad had told him about what was starting to happen to him. Absently, he rubbed the spot on his forehead where the toaster had struck. He'd been surprised, but he hadn't been hurt. Did that mean he was starting to be invulnerable? The word was hard to pronounce, even in his mind but he knew what it meant. It meant he couldn't be hurt by any ordinary means— eventually, anyway. He didn't want to test it yet.
"Does your forehead hurt?" his dad asked.
"No." CJ touched the spot again. "I mean, I felt it hit me, but it didn't hurt. Am I invulnerable?"
"Probably not completely, yet," Clark said. "I wasn't completely invulnerable until I was about fifteen, but it took a lot to hurt me. I even fell off the barn roof once and wasn't hurt."
"Yeah. Your grandmother reminded me of it."
"Are you cold?"
CJ shook his head. "No."
Clark was silent for a moment. "Is there anything you'd like to ask, now that you've had a chance to get used to this whole thing?"
CJ shrugged. "I dunno. I don't know what to ask about."
"Yeah." His father dropped a hand on his shoulder. "It's always hard to be put on the spot. Anything you wanted to ask always disappears."
Dad was pretty smart, sometimes, CJ thought. He seemed to know things about kids that most grownups forgot. "That's about it."
For a few minutes, they walked in silence. "It's weird, you know," CJ said, finally. "I mean, I look like anybody else, but I'm not like other people. I'm a—what do you call it?—an alien."
"No, you're not," Clark said. "You're a native of Earth, CJ. You may be a Kryptonian, but you were born on Earth."
CJ thought that over. "Dad, how can I be your brother? You're lots older than I am."
Clark laughed. "I guess it seems like that," he agreed. "I'm about thirty-one years older than you are, but you're my brother, all right. As a matter of fact, you're my twin brother."
That was even more confusing. CJ tried to make sense of what his father had told him and couldn't. "I don't get it."
"I know. It's a little confusing, but I'll try to make sense of it," Clark told him. "You see, back when your mom and I were first married, we thought we couldn't have kids. I mean, I'm a Kryptonian. I'm less related to humans than a—than a clam. At least, we thought so. At least a clam was born on earth and I wasn't. Since then, Dr. Klein has decided by studying me, that humans of Earth and humans from Krypton are somehow related. We don't know why or how, but except for the powers, we're essentially human. Anyway, the local adoption agency turned us down, too, and we'd just about given up. Then, one night everything changed. We found you. Someone had sneaked into the house and left you with us, wrapped in a Superman blanket."
CJ had never heard this story before. "Who?"
"We didn't know," his father said. "All we knew was that we had this little miracle baby, together with a note that said you belonged to us. We weren't about to argue. Our lawyer helped us arrange things, and we adopted you, privately."
"So, then what happened?"
"About three months later, someone started trying to take you away from us. Someone tried to run your mom off the road, they searched your nursery; there was even an attempt to kidnap you from your day care. We weren't going to let anyone take you away from us, so we started investigating, while you stayed here on the farm with my mom and dad."
"What did you find out?" CJ couldn't contain his curiosity. This was all new to him.
"Well, I won't take you through the whole thing, but it turned out that an old enemy of ours was behind it. Do you know what a clone is, CJ?
"Sure. We studied them in Science class. A clone is a genetic copy of another animal or plant. They make them in labs for different things."
"Exactly. Well, this person had gotten a sample of Superman's hair and made a copy of me. He was going to raise that child as his son, and use him to attack Superman, when he was grown. Only someone else was afraid of what would happen if he succeeded. He stole the baby and gave him to Lois and me. That baby was you, CJ."
CJ was silent, trying to process that. Finally, he said, "So I'm just a copy of you." There was a sick feeling in his stomach. "And you kept me, to keep me away from him?"
"No." Clark's hand tightened on his shoulder. "CJ, you were the son we never thought we'd have. It didn't matter to us who you were, or where you'd come from because we loved you. The only thing we were afraid of was whether something would go wrong with you the way it had with other clones that had been made, up until that time. Dr. Klein assured us you were healthy and normal. We caught the guy behind the whole thing, managed to convince him you were the child of one of my relatives, and that his clone was dead. That was the end of it. There was never any question whether we wanted to keep you. You were ours, and we weren't going to lose you for anything."
"But I'm only a copy of you."
"So what?" His father—or brother, CJ thought—knelt down until their eyes were on a level. "CJ, Dr. Klein said it to me back then, and I'll say it to you now. Clones appear in nature all the time. They're called identical twins. Physically, they may be copies of each other, but they're not each other. They're different people, just as you and I are."
"But—I grew in a laboratory. In a vat of chemicals, or something."
"So? I was born on an alien planet that exploded and killed almost all of our species. Does that make me less of a person?"
"Of course not. *Where* you came from isn't important. It's what you are and what you become that counts. You're my son, and you always will be. Your mother and I love you very much and we're very proud of you, CJ. Don't ever doubt that." He stood up. "Come with me; I want to show you something."
Feeling very confused, CJ obeyed. Clark led him around the farmhouse to a spot some distance from the old building amid a stand of trees. "Do you remember seeing this before?"
CJ shook his head. He'd never been on this part of the Kent property before. Dad and he had built a tree house in A sycamore tree partway toward Rocky Cove, but here, in another tree was another battered tree house. In the darkness, he shouldn't have been able to read the letters painted on the lopsided sign that had been nailed to the door, but the words were clear even in the starlight.
"'Fortress of Solitude'," he read, slowly.
"This was my tree house when I was about your age," Clark said. "We didn't know where I'd come from, or how. It bothered me a lot. I came up here a lot to think, and, of course, my friends and I came up here to get away from girls." CJ shared a grin with Clark, but his father wasn't finished. "Come on up."
They drifted slowly upward until his dad set him down on the old, wooden platform. "Go on in. There's something here that I want you to see."
Once inside the tree house, Clark moved over to a wooden box that sat in one corner, brushed a few dry leaves and a layer of dust from its surface, and opened it. "Here."
Inside the box, CJ could see a glow. His dad reached into the box and lifted out…something.
It was round, a little larger than an orange, and looked like a model of the earth, except for the way it glowed. Clark held it out to him. "This is the navigational system that brought my ship to Earth," he said. "My father left me a message in it, to tell me where I came from. I've never been able to get it to repeat what it showed me, but in it was the story of what happened, and why I was sent here. I—" He broke off. The globe lifted gently from his hand, hovering over his palm, and before their eyes, the continents blurred and changed.
CJ stared at it. "Is that—"
Clark was nodding. "That was Krypton. I always wondered if there were any other messages in it, but if there were, it's never seen fit to give them to me."
The glow was brightening. CJ backed away half a step, but he wasn't really afraid. So many things had happened to him in the last couple of weeks that he thought maybe his surprise circuits were a little burned out.
The glow became dazzling, and then it faded. Between Clark and CJ a man stood. He seemed to look the two of them over, and then—
The voice was as much in his head as his ears.
"My son, Kal-El," he began, "that you hear this message means that you have now reached that next most important stage of your life. You have married and become a father." The eyes seemed to survey CJ, and he experienced the sensation that somehow the hologram—it *must* be a hologram, he reminded himself—was looking straight at him.
"Fatherhood is a privilege and a sacred duty of our House," the voice continued. "You are expected to be fair with your children, to love them and to protect them with your very life, as your mother and I have done all within our power to protect you. I cannot give you any better advice than this, in the limited time left to us. Treasure your children, Kal-El, for in them is the blood of our world and hope for the future." As the man finished speaking, a woman moved into view as if she had entered via an invisible door. She smiled, but said nothing, and the glow slowly faded. The globe settled back into Clark's hand and the continents became those of Earth once more.
"That was new," Clark said after a moment. "I've always known that the globe is attuned to me and apparently responds to certain cues. Somehow, it recognized you."
"Was that your real father?" CJ whispered.
"That was Jor-El and his wife, Lara," Clark confirmed. "And you heard what he said to me, CJ. The globe knew you were my son. I hope you know it, too."
CJ felt his eyes start to water and struggled for a moment not to cry. Boys his age didn't cry, he reminded himself, but the tears wouldn't stop. Clark stepped quickly over to him and put an arm around him. CJ buried his face in his father's jacket.
"CJ, wake up! It's snowing!" Marta's excited voice broke through the layers of sleep. He opened his eyes reluctantly. It had taken him longer than usual to fall asleep last night; there had been so many things to think about but somewhere along the line, the thoughts had become a jumble of dreams.
This morning, things seemed clearer. He was still CJ Kent and his mom and dad sure didn't care where he'd come from. Did it really make any difference? Shoving aside a few nagging doubts, CJ crawled out of bed. "First dibs on the bathroom!" he stated, and beat Marta out the door.
The house already had that "Thanksgiving" smell, he thought, descending the stairs a short time later. He could definitely smell turkey cooking, and there was the scent of nutmeg and sage in the air. Grandma must be up and beginning her Thanksgiving preparations.
Outside, he heard the telltale "whoosh" of Superman's arrival, and a moment later, someone knocked on the front door.
Conditioned by years of life in Metropolis, CJ checked out the window, to see Uncle Jimmy's wife, Sandi, with their new baby in her arms, standing on the porch. He opened the door.
"Hi, Aunt Sandi," he said. "Come on in. Where's Uncle Jimmy?"
"Superman went back for him," Sandi said, stepping through the door. "It sure smells good in here!"
CJ grinned and nodded, then, recalling his manners, he looked at the baby. "How's Perry?" he asked.
"He's fine," Sandi said. CJ shut the door behind her. It didn't seem that cold to him, but he thought that might be for the same reason that Dad didn't really feel the cold.
There was another "whoosh" outside. CJ glanced out the window in time to see Dad take off, leaving Uncle Jimmy to walk up the farmhouse steps alone. A moment later, Clark came slowly down the stairs as CJ opened the door. "Hi, Uncle Jimmy."
"Hi, CJ." Jimmy stepped inside and pulled off his knit cap while CJ closed the door a second time. "Hi, CK." He sniffed, deeply. "Mmm. Something sure smells good."
At that moment, Martha appeared in the kitchen door. "I thought I heard Superman leaving. I'm glad you were able to come," she added. Her smile became wider. "Oh, is that Perry? May I hold him?"
CJ moved out of the way of the adults and looked at his father. Clark winked at him. "Come on, CJ, let's go get some breakfast while your grandmother plays with the baby," he said. Martha smacked him lightly on the shoulder as he went by, and CJ grinned. His Grandma Kent's love of babies was legendary.
The smell of cooking turkey was even stronger when they entered the kitchen, and CJ inhaled appreciatively. His father did, too. The two glanced at each other and grinned. It was going to be a great dinner, CJ thought. Along the windowsill, he could see several of Grandma's homemade pumpkin pies cooling and with them a couple of mince pies and some of his favorite, apple pie as well.
"Where's Granddad?" CJ asked.
"Probably out finishing the chores," Clark said. He lifted his glasses and glanced around. "Yep. He's in the barn. Why don't you go out and see how close he is to being done?"
"Okay." CJ went out the kitchen door, not even bothering with his coat. Snowflakes brushed his face, cold and sharp and all around him, the tiny, glittering flakes fell unendingly. Here and there, patches of snow were beginning to collect on the ground. He could feel the temperature, but he wasn't cold. Was this part of being invulnerable? Only, he wasn't, he reminded himself, at least not completely. He didn't have enough faith in it if Biff should try to punch him, or something, anyway.
"Granddad!" he called.
"In here, CJ," his grandfather's voice answered him from the barn.
CJ followed his voice and found him dragging a large bag of chicken feed from the back storeroom. Without asking, he stepped up to help. Whenever he'd visited the Kent farm, he'd always helped his Granddad with the chores. He and Jonathan had been friends from as far back as he could remember.
The bag moved much more easily. Jonathan raised his eyebrows, in much the same way as CJ's dad. "Not bad, kid. Thanks for the help. Say—where's your coat?"
"Back in the house," CJ said. "I'm not cold."
"Oh." Jonathan said. "I guess you don't feel the cold as much, huh?"
"Not anymore," CJ said. "This is kind of weird, Granddad."
"I know." Jonathan smiled a little wryly. "Can you imagine what it was like for your father, when this started to happen to him? Martha and I didn't know what to think, at first—or even if it wasn't some figment of his imagination."
"I guess so," CJ admitted. "I never thought much about it, but I guess it would be pretty scary."
"It was," his grandfather admitted. "Once we realized that it was real, we had to tell Clark how we'd found him. We didn't know where he'd come from, of course. We'd thought maybe he was some kind of Russian experiment or something, and we were afraid that if the government found out about him, they'd take him away from us. It turned out, later, that we'd been smarter than we knew."
"Oh, there were these paranoid government types who thought your dad was the advance man for an alien invasion. Their leader was a nut case—Trask, I think his name was—who was determined to kill Superman, no matter how many people he had to hurt or kill in order to reach him. That was back when Superman first appeared, of course. It wasn't easy for him, but at least now people know Superman's on their side—except for the occasional wacko or criminal, of course."
"Sure," CJ said. Everybody he knew thought Superman was great—except Biff and his friends, naturally. "I'm not going to let anyone know about me, Granddad, or about Dad or anything. Um—" He hesitated a second. "Dad told me last night about me being a—a clone."
"Oh, that." Jonathan shrugged. "He was worried about telling you about it, but he thought you deserved to know the truth. CJ, it doesn't matter. You're as human—" He grinned suddenly. "—Or Kryptonian as he is. All that happened is that you were started out another way than most of us, but the result was the same. Lots of infertile couples have babies that were started in a laboratory, too. There isn't much difference as far as I can see."
"Yeah," CJ said. He'd heard all about that lady in Metropolis who'd had six babies all at once. They had talked about it in his science class when it happened. Suddenly, he felt better. "I guess there isn't."
"That's my boy," Jonathan said. "Come on, let's go back inside. I could use a cup of hot coffee."
"Dad's making breakfast for the rest of us," CJ said. "Uncle Jimmy just got here."
"Oh." His grandfather chuckled. "I guess Martha's playing with the baby, right?"
"Yeah." CJ grinned back at him in complete understanding. "I haven't had breakfast yet, either."
"In that case, let's go. But, CJ," Jonathan said, more seriously, "after this, wear your coat out in the winter, even if you don't need it. People will notice if you don't."
He hadn't thought of that. "Okay. Sorry."
"That's okay. Clark made some mistakes in the beginning, too. Just try to think ahead, all right?"
CJ nodded. "All right."
By the time they got back to the kitchen, Clark had a stack of pancakes sitting on a platter in the middle of the kitchen table, the stack of dishes, pots and pans that had been in the sink when CJ had left had vanished, and he was grilling sausages and bacon on the stove. The electric coffeepot on the sink board was perking vigorously and filling the kitchen with the aroma of coffee. CJ sniffed deeply. He'd tasted coffee once, and it hadn't been anything like he expected. Mom had explained that it was an acquired taste and then had to explain what an acquired taste was. CJ wasn't sure he'd ever learn to like the way it tasted, but he still liked the smell of percolating coffee.
Jonathan shut the door behind them. "That coffee almost done?" he inquired.
"Just about another minute," Clark said. "Need any more help out there?"
"Naw. CJ helped me," Jonathan replied. "There isn't as much to do, now, anyway."
"Something smells good," Lois said, entering the kitchen.
"That would be the turkey," Clark said. "Where are the kids?"
"Marta's in the living room helping Martha change the baby," Lois said. "Jonny and Jimmy are getting dressed."
"Have a seat," Clark invited. "CJ, will you get the silverware?"
"Sure, Dad." CJ obeyed, while Clark poured coffee for his father and Lois.
"How are you feeling this morning?" Clark asked her, quietly. "I was hoping you'd sleep later."
"You know me," she said. "I can't ever sleep late here. The sounds aren't anything like Metropolis."
"That's it," Jonathan said. "That rooster is going to be chicken and dumplings tomorrow."
"Oh, no!" Lois protested. "He didn't wake me up! I'd miss old Eggbert if he wasn't here. It was just so quiet—no taxi horns, no police whistles, no sirens—that's what woke me up."
"Oh," Jonathan said. He grinned. "Okay, Eggbert gets a reprieve, this time." He sipped the coffee and smacked his lips. "Nothing like real coffee. None of those flavored kinds that your mom likes."
Dad, CJ noticed, wisely said nothing. He squeezed into the chair next to his granddad and reached for the orange juice. Clark had turned back to the stove and was now shoveling the sausages and bacon onto a platter. "Here you go. Help yourselves. Would you like some, Dad?"
Jonathan shook his head. "I had breakfast at five," he said. "I'll just stick with coffee."
Marta marched into the room, looking pleased with herself. "I just diapered the baby!" she announced. CJ rolled his eyes.
By afternoon, the snow was several inches deep and showed no sign of slowing down. CJ and Marta drafted Jimmy and Clark to help them build snow forts, and a short time later the Great Battle of Smallville was waged in the front yard, Jimmy and CJ against Clark and Marta. When the snowballs had been exhausted, the four of them trooped back into the house, leaving their soaked boots on the front steps.
From the kitchen, CJ could hear the chatter of voices. Jonny and Jimmy were glued to the television, engaged in some sort of video game that appeared to involve numerous space ships and spectacular explosions. Naturally, Jonny was winning, but that didn't seem to discourage his youngest brother, who sat cross-legged on the rug, his tongue clamped firmly between his teeth and a ferocious scowl on his face.
"How about some hot chocolate?" Clark asked. "I think I can smell it."
At that moment, Martha emerged from the kitchen, a tray of steaming mugs in her hands. "If you ladies and gentlemen are through playing in the snow, how about something to warm you up?"
Jonathan followed her out. "This storm doesn't show any sign of stopping soon," he said. "I'm glad we finished the painting, yesterday."
"Me, too," Clark agreed. CJ glanced out the window. If anything, the cloud of flakes was thicker. A new layer of snow was rapidly covering the area they had disturbed a short time ago.
"Do you ever get snowed in, here, Jonathan?" Uncle Jimmy asked.
"Now and then." CJ's grandfather settled down comfortably in his favorite chair. "I figure the snow plows are already busy in town. Rachel's going to have her hands full with fender benders and stranded drivers by this evening."
"We'll be able to get home, though, won't we?" Sandi, looking a little worried, had appeared in the kitchen doorway as well, the baby in her arms.
"No problem," Uncle Jimmy assured her. "Superman doesn't have visibility problems, does he Clark?"
"Not that I've ever heard," CJ's father agreed. "Besides, he can fly above the clouds. Don't worry, Sandi. He'll get you home all right."
"Where's Lois?" Jimmy asked.
"She was feeling tired and went upstairs for a nap," Martha said. "Who wants hot chocolate?"
Everyone did. CJ sipped the hot liquid carefully, and caught an approving wink from his grandfather. He felt pleased with himself. The hot chocolate was steaming, but it didn't burn his mouth at all. His dad had told him that Uncle Jimmy knew about Superman, but Aunt Sandi didn't. He wasn't sure if Uncle Jimmy knew about him, yet, although he'd probably figure it out sooner or later. Except for his dad and grandfather, Jimmy was one of the smartest people, for a grownup, that CJ knew. And of course, there was Marta. He was going to have to remember to be careful not to do anything different in front of her or anybody, just the way his dad did when he wasn't being Superman. He could just see Marta blabbing about it to her friends, and that would be the end of their secret.
He almost missed seeing his father quietly head for the stairs. Dad was still a little worried about Mom, CJ thought. He was probably going to check on her. CJ would be glad when she was past this being-sick stage. She always looked pale and kind of greenish in the afternoon, now. He didn't like it when Mom felt bad. She did her best to hide how she was feeling, but he knew better. Maybe, he thought, hopefully, her nap would make her feel better for the turkey dinner. It didn't seem fair that she should miss out on Grandma's great cooking just because she was going to have another baby.
Unobtrusively, he separated himself from the group and drifted toward the stairs. No one had noticed his departure, and he quietly ascended the steps after Clark. When he reached the second floor, he could hear his father's voice, and his mother's softer reply. After a moment's hesitation, he knocked on the door.
There was an instant's silence and then Clark opened the door. "Hi, CJ. Is something wrong?"
"No. I just wanted to see if Mom was still feeling bad."
"Oh. Come on in."
Lois was lying on top of the bedspread, and even in the dimness, CJ could see the pale, greenish tinge on her face. "Oh, Mom! You're going to miss the turkey!"
Lois smiled wanly. "It's okay, CJ. Your dad's going to bring me some sweet and sour pork from Shanghai. It's the only thing I seem to want right now."
"I'll ask Mom to make you a salad and some iced tea to go with it," Clark said. He surveyed the expression on CJ's face. "What's the matter, son?"
"I just don't like it when Mom feels bad. She's going to miss Thanksgiving dinner because the baby's making her sick. It's not fair."
His father smiled a little. "No, it isn't," he said. "But unfortunately, that's the way it works, sometimes. Things aren't always fair. That's why it's up to us to help her as much as we can right now. Your grandma's planning dinner for about six o'clock, so just before that, I'll take off for Shanghai to get your mom's dinner. Fortunately, there's a Chinese place in town, so your Aunt Sandi won't think anything of it when I bring in Chinese food. It's up to you to help keep Marta and the younger ones distracted so they don't notice I'm gone. Okay?"
Lois smiled at him. "Don't worry, honey, this will only last a few weeks. It only seems longer."
"Sort of like the day before Christmas?" CJ asked.
"Sort of," Lois said. "Thanks for wanting to help, sweetie. It makes it better."
In spite of everything, though, Thanksgiving dinner was fun. The fact that Mom was having "traditional Thanksgiving sweet and sour pork", as Uncle Jimmy dubbed Lois's meal, made CJ laugh, and he felt better about it. Working on his third serving of turkey and mashed potatoes, he had to think that his family was luckier than some. He'd taken a big bag of cans to school for their yearly food drive for families that weren't as lucky, so he knew some families weren't having turkey at all. He tried to imagine what it would be like having corned beef hash for his Thanksgiving dinner, and couldn't. It wasn't fair, but as his dad had said, sometimes things weren't fair. Maybe, he thought, that was one of the reasons Dad had become Superman. When he grew up, he decided, he'd try to do something to help, too. It only seemed right that he could use the super powers he'd have someday for somebody besides himself.
"When you're finished with that turkey leg," his grandmother said, "would you like some dessert? How about pumpkin pie—or, maybe apple?"
CJ nodded vigorously, his mouth full of mashed potatoes.
"CJ's being a pig," Marta said, disdainfully. "He eats *all* the time. Brothers are gross."
"Marta!" Lois said, sternly,
"Well, he is," Marta said, sticking out her lower lip. "Maria says he's going to be fat."
"That will be enough, young lady," Lois said, in her no argument tone of voice. "I'm not interested in Maria's opinion, and you will mind your manners or you'll miss dessert tonight. Is that clear?"
Marta subsided, sulking. CJ waited until his mom wasn't looking and stuck his tongue out at his sister.
Uncle Jimmy saw him, but didn't say anything. CJ finished a last, large bite of turkey and smiled angelically at his grandmother. "I'm done, Grandma."
"Good," she said. "Clark, how about you help me bring in the pie?"
Thanksgiving, as it always did, went by too fast for CJ. When he left the Kent farm via Superman Express on Sunday afternoon, after helping his grandfather with the animals, CJ waved vigorously to his grandparents until the farm was a tiny, dark speck in the distance, sitting among a wide expanse of snow. Then he looked at his father's face. "Are we coming back for Christmas?"
Clark laughed. "Yes, but we won't be flying into Wichita until Christmas Eve. We have to go to Grandmother and Grandfather Lane's place the day before that."
"Oh," CJ said. That meant getting dressed up in his best outfit and having dinner in a restaurant. Grandmother Ellen cooked a lot like Mom, which kind of figured. Still, it wasn't so bad. He liked Grandmother Ellen, even if she did get a lot of headaches and Grandfather Sam was a pretty smart guy, although he did have some weird ideas, sometimes. CJ just didn't think you could get muscles by swallowing some kind of nasty-tasting stuff out of a bottle, although Grandfather Sam swore his "Biceps-in-a- Bottle" was a hot-selling item. CJ remained skeptical.
When they arrived back in Metropolis a few minutes later, it was late afternoon and a light snow was falling. The steps up to the townhouse were inches deep in ice and snow. Superman set CJ down on the sidewalk and stared at the coating. The layers of ice began to steam, and in less than a minute, the stairs were clear. CJ hurried up the still slightly warm flight of steps and let himself in, hearing the "whoosh" behind him as Superman took off for his return trip. The house was cold, and he hurried to turn up the thermostat and switch on the television. He tuned in right in the middle of an LNN newscast and was about to switch channels when the weatherman came on.
All the Kent children except Jimmy liked to watch the LNN weather forecaster. He was a funny little man who wore a variety of strange costumes purporting to represent the weather in different parts of the country. Personally, CJ was unable to see the connection, but the antics he went through to demonstrate the kinds of weather people were experiencing was better than a Milton the Monster cartoon, and they always tried to watch him.
At the moment, his face was turning pink as he blew up a large, purple balloon. What that had to do with the fact that he was predicting heavy snow for the next day CJ couldn't begin to guess, but there was a fifty-fifty chance that the schools would be closed tomorrow, and that got his attention. If tomorrow was a snow day, it meant he and Wyatt were going to have the whole day free. And maybe Mom and Dad would let them go to the park for part of the time, if they promised to stay out of trouble.
The purple balloon exploded with a loud pop and a shower of confetti, and the weather guy pretended to shake his fist at the howls of laughter from the off-screen camera operators. Suddenly a flood of balloons rained on the man from above, filling the screen with purple. The picture faded and an advertisement for Abercrombe's Flea Collars came on. Outside, he heard the "whoosh" of Superman's arrival again and a moment later, his mom opened the door. CJ turned off the television. Now was his chance to grab the family computer before Marta got home. He'd check the online weather forecast and then leave a message for Wyatt. After that, there might be some leftover pie in the fridge. Dad had promised he'd take some of it off Grandma's hands, and maybe Mom wouldn't mind if he got himself a snack…
"Now, you do exactly what Wyatt's mom tells you to do, you understand that, CJ?" his mother repeated. "If she tells you that you can't go to the park, that's too bad. I don't want to hear that you gave her any argument."
"Sure, Mom," CJ agreed. He grinned at his sister, who was pouting.
"It's not fair!" Marta said. "CJ gets to stay with Wyatt, and I have to go to the Planet and stay with all the babies, just because he's a year older!"
"And because Maria's mom has to work," Lois reminded her. "Maybe the next time it will be different. Hurry, now. I don't want to be late."
"Where's Daddy?" Marta asked. "I bet he'd let me stay here."
"I bet he wouldn't," Lois said, firmly. "Get in the Jeep, now, kids, and you seatbelt yourself in, Marta, no arguments."
CJ looked at the television screen out of the corner of his eye. The amateur video footage showed the devastation around a South American city where a huge earthquake had struck early this morning. The newscaster was saying something about Superman digging into the ruins of a hospital, looking for survivors. He knew where Dad was, all right, but he wasn't going to tell Marta.
He had to resist the urge to tell her to stop whining, though. Marta and her best friend, Maria, had recently decided all boys were pigs and never missed the chance to tell him so, and he'd taken every opportunity to show them how right they were. But just now, his mother had enough trouble without him adding to it, and besides, if he stirred things up with Marta, Mom might not let him go to Wyatt's after all, so he kept quiet.
It was some ten minutes later that CJ clambered out of the Jeep in front of the apartment that housed Wyatt's family. CJ hurried up the steps and entered, then ran up three flights of stairs to his friend's floor, disdaining the elevator. The thing was so slow that the one time he and Wyatt had been in it, he'd thought for a while that it had stalled.
Wyatt opened the door at his knock. "Hi, CJ!"
"Hi," CJ said. "Where's your mom?"
"In the kitchen. You want to watch TV for awhile?"
"Sure," CJ said. "Did you ask her about the park?"
Wyatt shook his head. "We'll ask her after she's finished her coffee. Brandon and Joe just left a few minutes ago, and the others are still asleep."
Wyatt's apartment was always messier than his place, CJ thought, which made sense, because of all the kids. Besides his five older brothers, Wyatt had two sisters, one of them in high school and the other one a little older than CJ. There was a pile of laundry on the living room sofa and the Dillon family cat, Custer, was sleeping on his back in the middle of it.
Wyatt grabbed the remote control from under the coffee table and turned on the television, keeping the sound low. Milton the Monster was just coming on, and the two boys settled down on the rug to watch. As Wyatt had said, they'd wait until his mom had finished her coffee before they asked about the park. By that time, CJ figured, she'd be happy to get rid of them for a while. It was going to be a great day.
True to the plan, Wyatt's mom was more than willing to let the two boys go out on their own, on the condition that they go only to the park and if they got cold they were to come straight back. Since the park was only a few blocks away, this seemed reasonable. Wyatt and CJ agreed immediately to the restrictions. While Wyatt got his coat, gloves, hat and boots, CJ scratched Custer's stomach. The big, yellow tabby purred roughly, half-closed his eyes and stretched, looking indecently pleased at the attention.
While Wyatt was struggling into his boots, his brother, George, still in his pajamas, emerged from one of the bedrooms, scratching his hair and looking sleepy. At least, CJ thought it was George. His twin brother, Barry, had a freckle just above one eyebrow, and CJ didn't see it, so this was probably George. Barry and George were in the eighth grade over at Maxwell Middle School and both played in their school band. George, if CJ remembered right, played the trumpet, while Barry's instrument was the drums. CJ had been here a few times when he had been practicing for some school event, and now made a point of being elsewhere whenever Barry was working on a new selection. He wondered how the other kids stood it.
"Hey, kid," George said. "Howya doin'?"
"Okay," CJ said. "Wyatt and I are going to the park."
"Don't freeze," George said. He headed for the kitchen.
Wyatt stood up, stamping to settle his foot down into the second boot. "Let's go, CJ."
They went down the stairs, avoiding the creaky elevator since, CJ pointed out, they wanted to get to the park sometime today. Outside, the sky overhead was a clear blue, but to the north, heavy black clouds were massing. CJ figured they could probably count on more snow this afternoon. The sidewalks were a trampled, muddy mess, lined with brownish snow and from not far away he could hear the distinctive sounds of the snowplows, busy clearing the streets of the snow that blocked them. They had already been to Wyatt's street. Small mountains of dirty snow lined the roadway, and the parked cars were half- buried in brownish-white. The sidewalk was slippery, too. There was a muddy path where people had walked, but the mud was half-frozen as well, and they had to mind their steps or they might wind up on the ground, as Wyatt discovered the hard way.
Still, it took more than slipping on the sidewalk to dampen their enthusiasm. The walk to the park took a little longer than usual, but they arrived at last. The entire area not sheltered by trees was covered by a good two feet of snow. A number of children were building snowmen and several boys about their age were engaged in constructing snow forts.
"Let's go over and see if the duck pond is frozen!" Wyatt suggested. CJ thought that sounded like a good idea. Last year in spite of the city rules, a number of kids had gone skating on the ice. Of course, that had been in January when the top layer had gotten thick enough to hold their weight. Right now, he wouldn't care to test it.
The pond was indeed frozen over. Several pigeons were hopping around on the surface, pecking at things, but CJ figured they weren't very heavy. In fact, if he looked hard, he could see big silver-colored fish swimming around under about a quarter of an inch of ice. He blinked and the scene became ordinary again. Wow! That must have been his x-ray vision kicking in, just like it had at the farm.
"Whatcha looking at?" Wyatt wanted to know.
"Nothing," CJ said. "Let's go over to the trees and build igloos!"
"Okay," Wyatt agreed.
There was one place in the treed section of the park where a small clearing made an open space surrounded by evergreens. CJ and Wyatt had found it some time ago and often used it for games during the summer as well as the winter. It was so private and quiet, with nothing but the occasional birdcalls to break the silence. The big, bushy evergreens blotted out most of the sounds of the city beyond and gave them an illusion of being all alone in the wilderness. A small stream, barely more than a foot-wide trickle that fed into the duck pond, bordered on one edge of the clearing and it made great wading on a warm, summer day. Now, of course, it was frozen solid. CJ put one foot tentatively on the surface and pulled it back when he felt the ice begin to crackle under his weight.
"Too thin?" Wyatt asked.
"Yeah," CJ said. He turned to survey their clearing.
The small expanse was deep in snow, and the possibilities were endless for two boys with equal amounts of energy and imagination. CJ began to clear an area, banking up the snow into thick walls. Wyatt hurried to help him, and before long they had the makings of a snow fort, meant to repel any number of invaders, though the exact identity of the enemy was unclear.
Tiring of the sport at last, they deserted their post to return to the more populated section of the park. They cut through the trees where only a sprinkling of snow had penetrated the pine branches. Pine needles crunched under their feet and the scent of the evergreens was thick in the air.
CJ sniffed deeply. "It sure smells like Christmas," he said. "I can hardly wait."
"Me, either," Wyatt agreed. "My dad's going to be home by then. He called Mom and us on Thanksgiving. He says they're almost done with the construction and if nothing goes wrong, he'll be flying back in three weeks."
"That's great," CJ said. "I'd sure hate it if my dad had to travel all over the world to work, like your dad."
"Yeah," Wyatt said. "But he's making a lot more money this way. Mom says we're going to move to a bigger apartment after Christmas. It'll be nice not to have to share my room with two brothers. George and Barry have their music junk all over the place and there's no room for my stuff."
CJ had seen Wyatt's room. It was about the size of the Kent laundry room and a lot more crowded. A thought struck him. "You'll still be going to the same school, won't you?"
"Oh, sure. It's only a couple of blocks away, over on Elm Street. We'll be closer to your house."
"That'll be great! We can walk to school in the morning!"
"Yeah," Wyatt agreed. He shivered a little. "I'm kind of cold. We should probably go home and get lunch. We can come back later."
"Yeah," CJ agreed. He wasn't cold, but he couldn't tell Wyatt that. A distinctly nippy breeze that they hadn't noticed in the sheltered clearing had sprung up while they played and the wind chill made the air feel colder than it really was. A light sprinkle of flakes filled the air as they emerged into the open and CJ looked around in surprise.
The sunlight had dimmed and he saw that the black clouds he had noticed earlier this morning now covered half the sky. A faint haze had drifted across the sun as well. There were still children in the park, but the numbers had thinned noticeably and the mothers and nannies with the smaller kids had disappeared.
"Wow," Wyatt said. "More snow. Maybe tomorrow will be a snow day, too."
"Yeah, maybe," CJ agreed.
"Well, well," a voice said from their left. "Look who's here. Superman's little buddies."
CJ spun around. Biff and his ever-present cronies were standing not ten feet away, grinning at them. Biff cracked the knuckles of one gloved hand. "And I happen to know," he said, "that Superman's in South America. He ain't going to hear it if you yell."
CJ backed away, pulling Wyatt with him. "Leave us alone, Biff," he said. "We don't want to fight you."
Biff grinned, nastily. "I'll bet," he said, "but you're gonna. Your mom made a lotta trouble for my dad; did you know that?"
"Yeah, I know," CJ said. He figured he couldn't be in any worse trouble at this point. "He's in jail for taking bribes!"
"Nobody's proved anything yet," Biff said, stubbornly. "Your mom's gonna be sorry, too. My dad said so. And so are you." He looked at Grunt. "Grab him, guys!"
"Run!" CJ yelled.
He dodged Grunt and Red and took off after Wyatt with the four older boys in pursuit. Running in heavy snow wasn't easy, but it was just as difficult for the bigger boys as they floundered after the two smaller ones.
CJ was faster than he had thought and had to consciously slow down a little so as not to outrun Wyatt. Maybe it would have been smarter to get away, but he wasn't about to abandon his best friend to get beaten up by these clowns. Maybe if they could make it out to the street they could spot a cop, he was thinking, when Wyatt slipped on a patch of ice and fell flat.
CJ stopped, trying to pull him to his feet, and in that instant Biff and his three friends were on them.
Biff bared his teeth in what CJ supposed must be a smile, gripping the smaller boy's wrists behind his back. "Now you're gonna get it, Shrimp. Let's go."
"Where?" Red asked.
Biff's smile widened. "Let's see how well they can swim."
Red looked doubtful. "You're kidding, right?" he said. "It's freezing."
"Yeah? So what?" Biff propelled CJ toward the pond, barely a hundred feet away. "Let's see if they can cheat their way outta that!"
CJ jerked desperately, trying to break Biff's hold. He didn't know if the freezing water would hurt him or not, but he was sure Wyatt would feel it. Biff clamped down harder on his wrists and shoved him forward. In spite of the struggles both boys put up, within less than a minute they were dragged kicking and writhing to the shore of the frozen pond.
"I dunno, Biff," Red protested weakly. "If one of them freezes we could get in trouble."
Grunt, holding a terrified Wyatt, sneered at his companion. "You're scared," he said. He gripped Wyatt by the collar and the seat of the pants, preparatory to hurling him into the water. Wyatt squirmed around, grabbing for a hold of any sort, tangled his fingers in the bigger boy's thick, strawberry blond hair and hung on for dear life.
Grunt yelled in pain and anger, letting go of the smaller boy to pry at his hands and CJ felt Biff's grip loosen ever so slightly. With a wrench that hurt his wrists and made his shoulders protest from the angle at which they were twisted, he tore himself free and stumbled forward into Jake. The older boy, not expecting an attack, no matter how unintentional, staggered sideways and fell onto the ice. There was an ominous crackling and then a splash as the frozen surface gave way. Jake vanished beneath the icy water.
For a second, nobody moved. Jake didn't reappear. "Jake!" Red shouted.
The ripples in the water smoothed out. If not for the broken patch in the ice, nothing might have happened.
"Jake!" Biff screamed. Wyatt let go of Grunt's hair and backed away. The larger boy didn't seem to notice.
"Let's get out of here," he yelled.
"Yeah." Biff turned and ran. Grunt followed him.
"Hey!" Red looked after them in disbelief. "You can't leave Jake!"
Neither of the two boys even paused. Red stared at their departing forms in shock.
CJ was on his knees by the pond. Jake was in there, and he was going to freeze or drown—or both—and it would be CJ's fault. He had to do something.
"Wyatt!" he shouted. "Go get help! Find a cop or somebody! Hurry!"
Wyatt nodded and took off, running. CJ stared into the murky water, willing himself to *see*! If he could just see where Jake was, maybe he or Red could get hold of him and pull him out. The water was really only a few feet deep. Why didn't Jake come back out?
As if someone had opened a door in the ice, suddenly CJ saw the problem. Jake was under there, all right, struggling, but he was beneath the layer of ice and he had no leverage to break the stuff. He must not be able to see where the opening was located, CJ reasoned.
For some reason, he was thinking clearly. He couldn't let Jake drown or freeze, and he could see the other boy's struggles were growing weaker. He pulled off his jacket. He was sort of invulnerable, he knew. The water probably wouldn't be so bad for him, and he had to do *something*!
"Hey, what're you doing?" Red demanded.
CJ didn't answer. Dropping his jacket to the snow, and not letting himself think about what he was doing, he took a deep breath and jumped.
The water was definitely cold, he realized. He wasn't that invulnerable yet, but it wasn't as bad as he'd feared, and he hadn't lost Jake. The bigger boy's movements had almost ceased, but CJ could see him clearly. He jackknifed in the water, paddling with his hands and kicking with his feet. It took only seconds to reach the other boy, and to grasp him by his hair. Turning in the water, CJ struck out with one hand and both feet, kicking strongly. It wasn't for nothing that he'd swum in the lake near his grandparents' farm from the time he was six. It seemed longer, but it was really only bare seconds before his head burst above the icy water. He gulped air. "Red!" he gasped. "I've got him! Grab him!"
The redheaded boy paused for only a second, and then reached past CJ to grab Jake by the collar of his jacket and haul him to shore. CJ scrambled after him, unaided. The air was a lot colder now, he thought, but he tried to remember what his Health teacher last year had told them about people who got too cold. You had to get them warmed up fast. He was just about to start pulling Jake's sopping clothes from his body when he saw Wyatt running toward them, a police officer beside him, and heard the man shouting into his radio for assistance. From somewhere, several other adults were converging on the scene of the accident and CJ thankfully turned the responsibility over to the newcomers. He figured he was in enough trouble. Mom was probably going to kill him.
"Ms. Lane! There's a call for you on line two! It's a Mrs. Dillon, calling about CJ!"
Lois turned her head at the call from Kelly, the current office gofer. She grabbed for the phone on Clark's desk. "Lois Lane."
"Oh, thank heavens!" Laura Dillon sounded agitated. "Lois, I thought you should know right away. CJ—"
"Is something wrong?" Lois asked, trying to keep calm. Laura wasn't the kind of person to get upset at trifles. Having eight children ranging from eighteen to nine, including two sets of twins, tended to make her pretty unflappable except in the direst of circumstances. "Is CJ all right?"
"Yes, pretty much. I wanted to let you know we're at Metro General." She heard Laura take a deep breath. "He's okay. Just a little cold, but he—he pulled another boy out of the pond at the park. He saved his life." There was the sound of muffled voices in the background. Laura said something that Lois couldn't quite hear, then she spoke to Lois again. "That was the doctor. He says CJ's fine. His temperature was normal when he got here. The nurse wants to know if someone can bring him some dry clothes."
"Tell them I'll be there as soon as I can," Lois said. She hung up, becoming suddenly aware that she was the center of attention. Perry was standing only a few feet away, looking concerned.
"Is everything all right, honey?" he asked.
Lois nodded, feeling a little shell-shocked. CJ's powers had begun to manifest only a little less than three weeks ago and he was already saving lives. Her baby boy was growing up before her eyes. She wasn't sure she was ready for this. "Yeah. That was CJ's babysitter. I have to leave, Chief. CJ's at Metro General and needs some dry clothes."
Perry's eyebrows flew up and she felt it necessary to add, "He pulled another boy out of the pond in Centennial Park."
Perry's face broke into a grin. "Oh, I see. You better go, then. And Lois—"
Already turning away, she paused. "Yes?"
"If there's a story in this, I don't want any other paper to get it first. Besides, that way you can control what's printed."
"Right, Perry," she said.
Heading away from Clark's desk, she heard him murmur softly, "Like father, like son," but she said nothing. For some years, she had been aware that Perry *knew*, and Perry knew she knew he knew, but it was never mentioned, by unspoken agreement between Perry, Clark and Lois.
After a brief stop at home, she continued on to Metro General. When she walked into the ER waiting room, Laura stood up, looking apologetic and relieved at the same time. Wyatt smiled and waved.
"Thanks for coming so quickly," Laura said when Lois hurried over to her. "CJ's still in there, wearing a hospital gown. He doesn't like it much."
"I'll bet," Lois said. "I better get these to him. Are you sure he's all right?"
Laura nodded. "I'm sure. They wrapped him up in blankets in the paramedic van and when they took his temperature, it was fine, but they said if CJ hadn't pulled the other boy out of the pond he might have died."
"I guess I better get the whole story from him," Lois said. "Were you there, Wyatt?"
"Then you can tell me about it later, okay?"
Again, Wyatt nodded. "Sure, Ms. Lane."
The nurse behind the admitting desk raised her eyebrows when Lois identified herself. "CJ Kent? You're his mother? Aren't you that reporter at the Daily Planet?"
Lois nodded. "Yes. My husband is Clark Kent—CJ's *father*," she added pointedly. "I have his clothes here." She held up the bag of CJ's things.
The woman smiled primly. "He'll be glad to see those. You have a very brave son, Ms. Lane."
Lois smiled wryly. "I know," she said. "I guess I wouldn't have expected anything else."
"Hey, CJ! You're on LNN!" Marta called, gleefully. CJ rolled his eyes. He hoped very much that tomorrow would be another snow day. If it was, maybe by the time he went back to school, the other kids would have forgotten about what had happened this afternoon. He opened the shade on his window to peer out at the sky. A few flakes still fell, but the clouds seemed to be clearing awfully fast.
His father knocked on the doorframe. "May I come in, CJ?"
"Sure." CJ turned from the window. "I'm glad you're back, Dad."
"So am I," his father said, very soberly.
Dad looked tired, CJ thought. It must have been pretty bad trying to help all those people who had been in the earthquake, but Superman had gone at once when he'd heard. That was what Superman did, after all.
"I heard about what happened today," his father said. "You did a brave thing, CJ."
CJ shook his head. "No I didn't. I was scared, but I'd knocked Jake into the water. I couldn't let him drown."
"I know," his father said. "But they were trying to throw you and Wyatt into the water—and when Jake fell in, Biff and Grunt ran away. *You* not only stayed, you jumped into freezing water to pull him out. Superman already talked to Red, by the way, and I called Jake's parents. You'll be glad to know that the doctors say Jake will be fine in a day or two."
"I'm glad of that." CJ flopped down on his bed. "But I don't *feel* brave, Dad. It's just that there wasn't anyone else who could help—so I had to."
Clark smiled. "Do you remember the Cowardly Lion, CJ?"
"Did he really need the Wizard's magic courage?"
CJ shook his head. "No."
CJ wondered what his father was driving at. "Because he already had courage. He just didn't know it."
"Exactly," Clark said. "He thought he was a coward because whenever he was faced with danger, he was afraid. But he never ran away; he handled it because someone had to, and most of the time he was the only one who could. If he hadn't been afraid, he couldn't have been brave, CJ, and neither could you. You saved Jake's life and there's nothing more important than a life. Your mom and I are proud of you."
CJ squirmed slightly, but it was nice to know that his parents were pleased with him. "Biff and Grunt are going to be mad, though."
"That's their problem. The way I hear it, Red isn't very happy with them for running off like that and neither is Jake. Jake's mother and dad said to tell you that they're very grateful to you for saving their son. I'm afraid you're going to have to put up with your fifteen minutes of fame just like everybody else." Clark grinned. "It won't last. In a few days mostly everyone will have forgotten."
"I hope so," CJ mumbled.
"They will. In the meantime, though, why don't you come downstairs? Your mom's serving ice cream."
"Peppermint?" CJ asked, cautiously.
"No; chocolate. She can't stand it, so she's getting rid of it until she's past this stage."
CJ rolled to his feet. "Okay. Chocolate's my favorite."
CJ tried to ignore Biff's voice as he and Wyatt entered the schoolyard. The bigger boy, accompanied by Grunt, moved around to block their path. "I was talkin' to you, Shrimp."
"I know," CJ said, evenly. "I just don't want to talk to you, Biff."
"Well, you're gonna. I bet you think you're a big hero. I don't like heroes."
"Leave 'em alone, Biff." Red had strolled up behind them, and the two smaller boys looked worriedly at each other. CJ hoped he wasn't going to have to yell for Superman.
"What's wrong with you?" Biff demanded.
"Nothing. Just leave 'em alone. They didn't do anything to you."
"What do you care?"
Red stepped past the two fifth graders and shoved his nose within an inch of Biff's. "You slimy coward. You ran off and left Jake to drown. I shoulda listened to Superman last time, but now I'm gonna. You bother these kids again, you're gonna be eating your teeth."
CJ hadn't noticed before, but Red was bigger than Biff, and he looked really mad right now. Biff took a step back, his mouth half open.
Red didn't move. He looked contemptuously at Grunt and then deliberately spat on the ground. CJ and Wyatt watched the drama playing out before them with their eyes wide.
Biff's blank expression changed to anger. "You wanta hang out with those losers, go ahead. I don't need you."
Red grinned, showing his teeth. "Just stay outta my way. And don't forget what I said. Leave 'em alone."
The first bell rang. Red glanced around at CJ. "Go on, kid. He isn't gonna give you any trouble."
CJ closed his mouth with an effort. "Thanks," he managed.
Biff and Grunt were walking away, trying to swagger. Red looked after them. "Losers," he said, in disgust. "Go on, guys. And if they give you any hassle after this, tell me. Okay?"
Speechless, CJ and Wyatt nodded in unison. Red grinned and headed for the sixth grade entrance.
"Wow," Wyatt said, after a minute.
"Yeah," CJ said. He glanced at his watch. "Come on, we're going to be late."
The two boys broke into a run.
Ready for the next story in this series? Read Unforeseen Consequences. Need the previous story? Read Charade.
Stories in Nan Smith's "Dagger" series, in order: Dagger of the Mind, Dagger's Edge, Assassin's Dagger, Doppleganger, Blind Man's Bluff, Countdown, Priorities, Vanishing Act, Charade, Heritage, Unforeseen Consequences, Christmas in Metropolis, Daddy's Little Girl, Suspicions, Mother's Day, A Tasteful Lesson, Too Hot to Handle, The Sting, Consequences, Middle School, and Degrees of Separation