Hiding in the Shadows

By Irene Dutch <sirenegold@yahoo.com>

Rating PG-13

Submitted January 2001.

Summary: In this sequel to "Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt," Marty is forced to deal with the aftermath of a horrible ordeal. Can the love of those around her help her through it?

Content warning: This story deals with sexual assault. A small amount of coarse language.

This story is a direct sequel to 'Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt'. A next generation story set in the same universe as 'Firestorm', 'Starfire and Sunstorm', 'Solar Eclipse' and 'Gale Force Winds', this story deals with the aftermath of the vicious attack Marty Kent suffered in 'Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt'.

Many thanks to my beta-readers, Wendy Richards, Laurie and Karen Ward. A huge thank you to Julie, my archive editor. Finally, many thanks to Zoom's message board readers for their unfailing support.

All standard disclaimers apply.

***

*Our story begins one month after the events in 'Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt.'*

Bernie Klein struggled to focus on his paperwork. He'd just get started, and random thoughts would pop into his head. Concerned about his daughter, he couldn't stop thinking about how she was coping with a difficult pregnancy.

Astrid wasn't enjoying being pregnant, and Sam didn't seem too enamoured of the situation either. They both desperately wanted to be parents, but they had never anticipated that Astrid would have had her normal routine completely disrupted by her pregnancy. She was on leave from work and would be until after the baby was born. Dr. Klein had advised her to keep her feet up as much as possible due to the breakthrough bleeding that had been occurring intermittently since she'd conceived. If he hadn't known that everything was going to turn out fine, Bernie would have been quite worried about his little girl.

He didn't need to worry, however. He still remembered vividly his future granddaughter's visit to the past and all the things she'd told him — both on purpose and inadvertently. She'd referred to her parents in a completely casual and matter of fact way, and Dr. Klein had never had the feeling that there had been anything untoward that had happened to either of them. He frowned, as he remembered how she had never once referred to her grandmother, Caroline. After he and Caroline had been married, Bernie had been apprehensive about what was in store for his wife. He'd had reason to be. He'd figured out that she wouldn't survive until Lee arrived, but he'd never have guessed that she would have died in childbirth when his daughter, Astrid, had been born.

Bernie was also quite concerned about his friend, Jimmy Olsen. He grew quieter and quieter as Astrid's pregnancy progressed. Jimmy still missed Lee desperately after having fallen in love with her during her trip to the past. How must the man feel to know that his godson and his honorary niece were about to become the parents of the woman he loved? Jimmy didn't talk about it to Bernie or to Lois and Clark, but it was obviously weighing heavily on him. There wasn't much that any of them could say. All they could do was be there for him.

Bernie grimaced as his thoughts turned to another person whom he found difficult to help. Marty. He shuddered as he remembered examining her in the wake of the vicious attack on her. Sam had carried her up the stairs to her bedroom, and after he left, Bernie had helped her ease her clothes off so he could examine her.

He had been her doctor — her whole family's doctor — for a long time, so there was no discomfort involved on his part as she stripped. She, however, had been clearly uncomfortable, clutching a sheet to her chest, trying in vain to hide her injuries from him. It had taken him quite a few minutes of patient coaxing to get her to allow him to examine her. After, he had understood her shame. He didn't condone it — she had done nothing wrong — but he understood. He shuddered once more as he remembered his first sight of Marty's bloodstained thighs. Anger had burned deep within him, but he hadn't let it show. Somehow he had managed to keep a tight grip on his emotions and had dealt with her in a cool, calm and collected manner. But if he had had the animal who had done this in front of him, he would not have been able to answer for his actions.

When Marty realised that he knew what had happened to her, she had reached deep inside herself for strength. He could only watch and listen to her with admiration as her tears dried up and she regarded her doctor, her uncle, with immense dignity.

"My parents can't know," she had said.

He'd remonstrated with her, told her that they needed to know, that they would want to be there for her.

"No. Mom could handle it, I think, but it would just about kill Dad. You can't tell them," she'd said, answering his concerns.

Dr. Klein had continued to protest, but Marty had been adamant. As her doctor, he'd had no choice but to respect her wishes. As far as he knew, there were only three people who knew what had been done to her — Paul Stride (once known as Paul Hunter), Marty and himself.

Physically, Marty had healed very quickly. She'd been forced to use make-up to simulate bruises that had disappeared long before they should have. Emotionally was another matter, however. Dr. Klein wondered if she ever would heal completely.

He sighed. Everyone in the world had wounds that never went away. Look at him. He missed his wife, and he would continue to miss his wife until the day he died. For a moment, he wondered when that day would come. When Lee had travelled into the past, she'd left behind a ninety-year-old version of him. But when his day finally came, would he be happy to die so that he could see his beloved Caroline again? Or would he feel as though his work was incomplete? There were so many questions that he wanted to discover the answers to. Would he have enough time? Or too much?

Dr. Klein sighed once more and reluctantly forced his thoughts back to his paperwork.

***

"Shadow's healing fast," Ben said, trying to provoke some kind of response from his friend.

"Good," Marty answered with no measurable amount of enthusiasm.

"No sign of infection…" He ran his fingers lightly over the incision in the dog's side, searching for hot spots that would indicate a problem was brewing.

"Good," she answered, again.

Ben gently lifted the dog down from the examining table to set him at the feet of his owner. As he straightened up, he peered at Marty's downcast face. "You look better, too. Most of your bruises are gone except for a hint of yellow on the one cheekbone."

"Thanks." Marty bent down and rubbed Shadow's silky, long ears.

Ben took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. "Um, Marty?"

"Yeah?"

"Do you want to go out to dinner with me? Not on a date. I just thought you might need someone to talk to."

Marty fastened Shadow's leash to his collar with a metallic snick. "No."

"Okay," Ben said, hesitantly, "but if you change your mind…"

"I won't."

"Okay. Uh, bring Shadow back next week, all right?"

"Yeah." Marty and her dog slipped out of the examination room without another word. Ben could hear Marty talking to the receptionist, setting up next week's appointment, but he stayed out of sight.

Marty looked so much better, but it was obvious that she had a long way to go before she was back to her old self. That is, if she ever was back to her old self.

Ben had once worked on an old cat that had been rescued by the local Humane Society. The poor animal had been half-starved. That was bad enough, but it had been the psychological aspect to her suffering that had been the worst. She had been tormented viciously and was in such bad shape that the Society had been within a hair of euthanising her.

After six months, she had filled out and was physically healthy, but she had never been able to relax. She didn't trust anyone and would lash out viciously with her claws if anyone came too close to her. She had been completely untrustworthy to the end of her days.

Ben would have felt better about Marty's prospects for emotional recovery if she had been able to lash out like the cat had. She had to have an incredible amount of anger about what had happened, but he feared that she had turned it inside which wasn't healthy. She showed all the signs of a deep depression.

Ben knew that her parents came to visit every weekend, and that her siblings were frequent visitors, too. She was lucky that her family members were such good friends of Superman and his children. They were able to hitch rides to visit her on a very regular basis. Of course, if there had been no relationship between the Kents and Superman's family, then this whole fiasco might not have happened. Hard to say.

Paul Stride had turned out to be completely crazy. He had disintegrated emotionally and rationally, and had been found unfit to stand trial. Thankfully, the doctors had found that he was a menace to society, and he had been incarcerated in a mental institution. From everything that Ben had learned, there was little to no chance that Stride would ever be able to walk as a free man once more.

***

*One week later*

Once again, Ben faced Marty across the examining table. His fingers were gentle on Shadow's body as he carefully examined the dog.

"So, how about biking?" he asked, carefully not looking at her. "We'd have fun."

"No. Thank you."

"A movie?"

"No."

"Okay. Let me know if you change your mind."

"I won't," she said, softly and yet, unmistakably, firmly.

***

*The next week*

"Horseback riding?"

"No."

"A hike in the woods?"

"No."

"Okay. If there's something else you'd rather do…"

"No. But thanks for asking."

***

*The next week*

"Golfing?"

"No."

"Catch a baseball game?"

"No."

"Bungee jumping?"

"Bungee jumping?" she repeated, incredulously.

Ben was heartened by the fact that Marty had actually looked at him for a second before looking down at Shadow once more.

"Hey, I'm getting desperate here," he said with a self-deprecating grin. "You said 'no' to everything else I could think of."

Marty looked at him once more. She looked so sad that Ben wanted nothing more than to take her in his arms and tell her that everything would be okay, but he knew better than to try.

"Ben, what are you looking for from me? What do you want?"

"I'm your friend, Marty. I've been your friend for a very long time. I want to be there for you. That's all."

She nodded and looked down at the floor once more. "Good because I don't want romance."

"I'm not offering it." Ben placed Shadow at her feet.

"Good." She completed the familiar examining room ritual by bending down to fasten Shadow's leash onto his collar.

"So…?" Ben waited with his heart in his mouth. Dealing with his wounded friend was every bit as difficult and required as much tact and patience as dealing with an injured animal.

She faced him directly with a hint of a smile on her face. It was the first time since the attack that he had seen anything other than the very sad and introspective mask that she wore nowadays. "I don't want to go bungee-jumping."

"We don't have to. I just wanted to catch your attention. We could go skydiving instead," he offered with a sly grin.

Marty giggled weakly and shook her head. It wasn't much of a laugh — it sounded more like a cough than anything — but it was a real laugh even so. Ben was pleased.

"Oh, no skydiving, then," he said. "What do you have in mind? Maybe a picnic?"

"NO!" she exclaimed quickly, her expression shutting down once more. "Not a… not a picnic. Coffee. You could come over for coffee if you want. I… I don't want to go out, if that's okay with you."

"Fine," he was quick to assure her. "We don't have to go out. I'll come over tonight, okay? Around 7?"

"Yeah." Her eyes dropped away from his face again. "That's fine. I'll see you then."

And then Marty and Shadow were gone. Ben stared at the closed door of the examining room, amazed that she had finally given in and said 'yes' to him. He was so grateful. It was a step in the right direction.

***

Marty put her truck into park and switched off the motor. From her vantage point behind the steering wheel, she surveyed the farm. Thanks to her Dad, the place didn't look too neglected. Her sister and her brothers had tried to help, too, but Dad was the one who really knew how to do chores on a farm. It hadn't been fair for her to let him do all the work for so long, but Marty hadn't been able to bring herself to do too much. Physically, she had healed quite quickly, but it had taken her a good month before she could bring herself to leave the house. She had only taken the work back from her dad last week.

If it hadn't been for Ben opening up his new office and telling her that he could better look after Shadow there, she'd probably still be huddled in her bedroom in a heap. For a long moment, she was full of resentment at having been forced out of her safe sanctuary. The feeling wore off, though. After all, it wasn't fair to expect other people to cater to her fears. Plus, she knew that she had to start facing the world once again.

As if sensing that he'd been in her thoughts, Shadow nuzzled her arm from his position beside her on the front seat of the truck. She was quick to respond, caressing the black, furry, upturned face, and gazing into his wise, golden-brown eyes.

He had recovered very well. Pretty good for a dog that no one thought would survive. Oh, he did a lot more sleeping than he used to, and he put his nose in the air when one of the barn cats sauntered by. It was as if Shadow were saying, 'I'm going to ignore your existence as you're not worthy of being chased.' She was sure his attitude would change when he had more energy and was ready to resume tormenting the cats once again.

He needed a bit of help from her from time to time. He had trouble still with stairs, although he had nearly managed to make it to the second floor last night. She still lifted him in and out of the truck, and she still lifted him onto and off her bed.

Marty had never let Shadow share her bed before, but she had needed him in the past month and a half. He snuggled up close to her every night as she drifted off to sleep. Marty slept better with the weight of him pressed up against her legs although he did wake her from time to time. A couple of times, she'd been jarred out of sleep by having a cold, wet nose stuck in her ear. He frequently decided to express his affection by licking her face and any other parts of her that were exposed to the air. And once she had awoken, not knowing what had aroused her, only to shift a bit and come face to muzzle with Shadow as he gazed adoringly at her from a distance of only four inches away. It had been a bit disconcerting at three in the morning.

The one time she had forced herself to banish him from her bed, she had been jolted awake by a horrible nightmare. Not only that, she had actually woke up clawing her way through the ceiling above her bed. Marty hadn't told her Mom and Dad, instead fixing the hole before their next visit. She hadn't fooled them, though. They had gazed up at the rough patch in the plaster. Dad's nostrils had twitched at the sour smell of new paint even though she had aired the room out thoroughly. But neither of them had said anything. She knew that they understood. She also knew that they worried.

Her parents had been great. They'd both been solid rocks that she could lean on. Neither one of them had pressured her to say more than she wanted, but they made it clear that she had their unwavering support. Her mom had questioned her a couple of times about what had been done to her, but she'd been very quick to drop the subject when Marty had made it clear that she didn't want to talk about it.

Marty forced herself to open the driver's door and get out of the truck. She moved quickly, forestalling Shadow's attempt to get out past her. Instead, she caught him in her arms and gently lifted him down. He looked a bit disgruntled as she put him down on the ground. This constant lifting and carrying was obviously an affront to his dignity that he didn't intend to suffer for too much longer.

Marty entered her house by its back door, her canine companion following close behind her. She never went in the front door anymore as it led directly into the living room. The first time she'd been in there after the attack had been a horrible experience — all the pain and terror flooding back through her. Since then, she'd made a point of avoiding the room.

Marty gazed at the pile of dirty dishes in the sink as if seeing them for the first time. Her gaze roamed around the room, noting the stained floor and the greasy stovetop. She didn't want to bother tidying up, but with Ben coming over tonight, she really should.

Sighing, she gathered her cleaning supplies together and started, moving at a snail's pace to start, and then slowly gathering speed. It took her about fifteen minutes to clean the whole house from top to bottom — with the exception of the living room. The bulk of the time was spent waiting for the vacuum cleaner to keep up with her.

As she put the last of her cleaning supplies away, Marty couldn't help but wonder what she was making such a fuss over. Why had she agreed to let Ben come over? What had she been thinking? It wasn't as though she could bring herself to talk about any of it. Her parents, Vicky, Astrid, and her brothers had all tried to get her to open up, but she just couldn't. She didn't want them to know the full scope of everything that had happened.

Uncle Bernie had phoned quite a few times. A couple of times, he had even arranged for Sam to drop him off for a few hours, but though Marty knew that he was fully aware of all her injuries, she just couldn't bring herself to say anything to him. She was too ashamed. Uncle Bernie had told her, and continued to tell her every time that he called, that she had nothing to be ashamed of, but she did.

She had been a dupe. She had been a fool. She had thought that she loved the man who had ended up being her torturer. She had been going to put herself and her family's secret into his hands of her own free will. How could she not blame herself for what he had done to her when she had been under the influence of the Kryptonite? She was to blame, she told herself again. It was her own fault. If it hadn't been for the Kryptonite, she would have been the one who had betrayed her family's secret. She'd put her parents in jeopardy. It was obvious; she couldn't be trusted.

***

"Another cup of coffee?"

"Thanks." Ben held his cup up to Marty as she leaned over the table with the pot. He watched as she topped up his cup, refilled her own and then put the pot back into the coffeemaker.

He had been tempted to leave as their conversation was still struggling to get off the ground, but he was glad that he had forced himself to stay. She did look a little better even if getting her to talk needed as much care and patience as pulling porcupine quills out of a dog. He had borne the brunt of the conversation, telling her story after story about his studies. He felt quite proud. He had got her to smile half-heartedly at least four times and had coaxed a chuckle from her once.

"Do you want more pie?"

Ben groaned, dramatically. "I don't think I can eat another bite."

Marty half-smiled. "Thanks for bringing it with you. It's delicious."

"It is good. You know, everyone was so worried that the baking would go downhill when Maisie retired, only to find out that Dora's an even better baker than her grandma."

Marty sat down heavily, all expression on her face shutting down once more. "Maisie," she murmured softly, obviously lost in thought. She looked at the table for a long moment, tracing the pattern of the tablecloth with her finger, before facing him and asking, "How is Maisie?"

Ben sympathised with her discomfort. The mention of Maisie had to bring Marty face to face with thoughts of Paul Stride and the way Maisie had rescued Marty from further torment. He didn't let his feelings show on his face, however, instead dealing with Marty's question in as light-hearted a way as possible. "Maisie's great! Still going strong. She gave Tom Hartford heck the other day for speeding down Main Street. Mom says that Maisie's lecture was stiffer than anything that she, as Sheriff, would have said!"

Marty smiled, wryly. "That does sound like Maisie. I hope she never changes."

"Me, too." Ben took a sip of coffee in an effort to mask his nerves before asking Marty a very important question. "Um, Marty?"

"Yes."

"You know it's Maisie's eightieth birthday next month."

"Uh huh."

"Dora and her mom are organizing a party on the twenty-third."

"Yeah."

"Would you… go with me?"

"As your date?" Marty asked, a note of panic in her voice.

"No." Ben smiled warmly at her. "As my friend."

"I don't know…"

"Please?"

"No."

Ben sighed. "I'll tell you what. Take back that 'no,' and think about it. I won't pressure you. It's not that formal. We don't have to let them know ahead of time whether you're coming or not. Okay? Please?"

Ben held his breath as Marty thought over his proposition. He really wanted her to get out and about to see other people. It wasn't good for her to be cooped up on her farm all the time, only visiting his veterinary clinic because she had to. He barely managed to restrain himself from gasping with relief when she said, "All right. I'll think about it."

"Good." Ben smiled warmly at her and leaned back only to just about jump a foot out of his chair when a wet, black nose suddenly appeared from under the tablecloth and applied itself to his hand. "Whoa! Hey, boy," he said, greeting Shadow. "You just woke up and decided to join the party, is that right?"

The dog inched forward until his whole head protruded from underneath the cheery flowered tablecloth. Tongue lolling out, he sat waiting patiently for Ben to pet him.

Ben didn't disappoint Shadow. He stroked the long, silky ears, slightly tugging on them. Shadow closed his eyes in ecstasy and planted his chin on Ben's knee as Ben glided his fingers over the top of the dog's head. Ben looked across at Marty with a grin. "He's a sweetie, all right."

"Yes, he is," she replied, smiling tenderly at the dog. It was the first truly unguarded expression to cross her face, and it changed her features enormously. Ben's breath caught in his throat as Marty's smile transformed her. In the blink of an eye, she changed from his buddy, his pal, just another familiar face, into a beautiful and desirable woman.

Exerting steely control, Ben didn't let his new awareness of Marty show. Instead he scratched behind Shadow's ears. "You know, most dogs that I've treated can't stand me. Especially the dogs like Shadow who've had surgery and stitches and needles. It's pretty nice that he treats me like a good guy."

"He's a pretty good judge of character." Marty's eyes dropped and her happy smile faded away to nothing.

"What? What is it?" Ben asked, worried.

"I… Nothing important…"

"You can tell me," he said, softly.

"It's just that…" Her eyes flicked up to his face and then back down to the table. "Shadow didn't like him."

"Him?"

"Yeah, you know — him."

"Oh. Him. Shadow didn't?"

"Yes." Marty shuddered. "I thought it was because he was jealous that he wasn't getting enough attention." She sighed. "I wish I had been paying more attention."

Ben nodded sympathetically, waiting for her to go on. She didn't. Even so, it was a pretty big breakthrough for her. It was the first time she had talked with him about Paul Stride since the attack had happened. He wasn't going to jeopardise things by pushing her for more. "I'm glad that Shadow likes me," was all that he said.

Marty half-smiled at him, wistfully. "Me, too." Her smile didn't touch her eyes, however. Looking in those eyes made Ben want to weep. He wanted to reach across the table to take her hand in his. Instead, knowing better, he contented himself with caressing Shadow's upturned head.

***

Bernie Klein found himself in a melancholy mood when he got home from visiting his daughter and son-in-law. Astrid had happily shown him the nursery that was half-ready, and had displayed the stack of knitting that she'd been given for the baby. It had been a poignant reminder of the preparations that he and Caroline had made so many years ago when they'd been expecting Astrid.

The ache from missing Caroline was always with him, but it had faded quite a bit over time. It was only sometimes that it blossomed forth into full-fledged pain once again. It had done so tonight.

Bernie sighed as he picked up the framed photo of Caroline that always sat on the night table beside his bed. His fingers traced the lines of her face. All of a sudden, this one picture wasn't enough. Pushing himself off the bed, he dragged a box from his bedroom closet and sorted through the contents, finally unearthing a couple of photo albums. He sighed. Such a happy time in his life, and he only had a few pictures to show for it.

Turning pages in a photo album wasn't really enough, but it would have to do. Bernie's eyes misted over as he gazed at his long-past wedding photos. He and Caroline looked so happy. Clark and Lois looked so pleased for them, too. Bernie smiled. It wasn't every man that could say that Superman had been his best man. He shook his head. Except it wasn't Superman that he had asked to stand with him at this most important moment in his life. It was Clark — a real person with real feelings. And real problems, Bernie mused as he remembered various things that had happened over the years.

He turned the page to see pictures of the wedding reception. It had been small. They'd only had a few guests — Lois and Clark, a few doctors and nurses from the hospital, a couple of scientists from STAR labs. It had been wonderful, though, intimate and cozy.

Fresh tears sprang to Bernie's eyes as he continued to turn pages in the album. Here they were when they had been expecting Astrid. Caroline's stomach had expanded fast, putting her into maternity clothes while she was still in her first trimester.

She'd been dismayed when her morning sickness had started. "I thought I was being so sympathetic with my patients. I had no idea!" she'd wailed in between bouts of nausea. "I don't know why they didn't hit me! I told them to eat dry crackers. Ha! Like that works!"

But even with the very uncomfortable first trimester complete with nausea and fatigue, even in the last trimester when she couldn't sleep and neither could he because the baby had played football with his kidneys every night since Caroline couldn't relax unless she were pressed up as close as she could get to his back — even with all that, she'd been happy. They'd both been happy, ecstatic, that they were going to have a child.

Bernie had never shared with her his secret about that child. He'd never told her that they were having a daughter, and that their daughter would someday have her own daughter. He hadn't told her about the relationship their daughter would have with Superman's son. In a way he hadn't wanted to. It was private. It was his secret and Lee's secret, and it was somehow important to keep it that way.

Also, it wasn't just his secret; it was Clark's, too. He hadn't asked Clark if he could tell Caroline about his secret identity; it would have been presumptuous on his part. Clark hadn't brought the subject up either. Bernie had the feeling, though, that if Caroline had lived, she would have been told. For one thing, Bernie would have eventually brought the subject up himself with Clark. He would have insisted that she be told. Things would have been too difficult, otherwise. He sighed. She hadn't lived, though, had she?

He continued to turn the pages. Here were photos of Astrid taken at her christening. He'd broken tradition. Astrid had one godmother, but two godfathers. Bernie smiled as he gazed at the photo of Lois holding Astrid with Jimmy and Clark flanking her.

What would he have done without his three best friends? How would he have survived?

Here were pictures of Astrid frolicking in a wading pool with Sam, Jon and Marty. And of Astrid wrapped in a giant beach towel on her Uncle Jimmy's lap. And of Astrid… Bernie's eyes narrowed as something jumped out at him from the photos. Wait a second! Why had he never noticed this before?

He glanced at his bedside clock. It wasn't that late. He picked up the phone and dialled a number from memory.

"Hi, it's me… Do me a favour? Meet me at the lab first thing in the morning. Bring Clark and Lois, too, if they're available, okay? … Great. Thanks. See you tomorrow."

After removing a few photos, Bernie briskly put the photo albums away. His brain working away at this very interesting problem, he completed his bedtime ritual automatically, thinking ahead as to what test to do first.

***

"What are you saying, Bernie?" Clark asked. He and Jimmy had arrived at Bernie's office bright and early. Unfortunately, Lois had had an early morning meeting and couldn't join them.

"Look at these pictures!" Bernie Klein replied, thrusting two separate photos under his two guests' noses.

"Yeah, that's me, and that's Clark," Jimmy said, looking puzzled. "So?"

"So these pictures were taken about twenty-five years ago," Bernie said, feeling as though that explained everything.

Clark and Jimmy looked at each other blankly before turning back to their friend. He sighed at the confused expressions on their faces. He would have thought that Clark would get it at least. The man was a top-notch investigative reporter. Jimmy, too, had a pretty impressive reputation now. Maybe they just couldn't see the little details when it concerned their own lives!

"Jimmy, how old are you now?" Bernie asked, trying to not let his exasperation show.

"Almost forty-seven."

"Exactly," Bernie answered.

"I don't get it," Clark said.

Bernie sighed. Obviously he was going to have to spell this out completely. "Okay, guys. Let me try this again. Jimmy, how old were you when this picture was taken?"

"I was about twenty-two or twenty-three. Maybe twenty-four."

"Right. And you're forty-six now. Clark, look at this picture, and look at Jimmy, and tell me what you see."

Clark's eyes moved from the photo in Bernie's hand to Jimmy's face and back again. His expression remained confused for a moment, until Bernie could just about see the light dawn in Clark's eyes.

"Oh!" he exclaimed. "I get it now!"

"Get what?" Jimmy asked, obviously getting a bit frustrated.

"You look exactly the same," Clark explained. "Okay, the hair style's a little different, but your face is exactly the same. No wrinkles, no signs of aging. You still look twenty-two. Usually when someone says 'you haven't changed a bit,' they don't really mean it, but in your case, it's completely true. You really haven't changed a bit."

"It's not just Jimmy, Clark. You haven't changed much either." Bernie went back to his desk and picked up another photo. "And neither has Lois," he declared, brandishing it in triumph. "I can rationalize this situation with you, Clark. I could theorize that it has to do with your Kryptonian heritage. And Jimmy, you got some of Clark's life force during that whole 'Veda Doodsen' fiasco. Okay, so that makes sense. But Lois — she's not Kryptonian, and, while you've shared a lot with her, Clark, you've never shared your life force with her, so I'm not sure what to think." Bernie paused and took a deep breath. "I want to run some tests."

Jimmy and Clark looked at each other and grinned.

"Why did I know that was coming?" Clark asked with a chuckle.

"Me, too," Jimmy said, amused, too.

"I'm not that predictable, am I?" Bernie asked plaintively.

Jimmy and Clark looked at each other once again before turning to face the doctor. "Uh huh," they said in unison as they nodded their heads.

Bernie sighed. "We'll start with you, Jimmy. Would you mind rolling up…" He blinked. Jimmy's sleeve was already rolled up, and Jimmy stood in front of him, proffering his bare arm.

"Where's a cup?" Clark asked, looking around the lab. "I just know that you want me to pee in a cup. You always have in the past."

Jimmy cracked up. A heartbeat later, Clark joined in. Bernie couldn't help it. His laughter mixed with theirs.

***

Two mornings after their coffee 'date,' Marty pulled her truck to a stop in the gravel parking lot of Ben's veterinary office. Ben stood outside leaning on a fence, watching two horses graze in his small fenced yard.

"What's the big emergency?" she called to him as she swung her long legs out of the truck. Shadow tried to push out of the cab after her, but she moved him back out of the way of the door.

Ben turned to face her, and Marty stopped in her tracks, stunned at the cold, closed-in expression on her friend's face. "What is it? What's wrong?" she asked, forcing herself to move to his side.

He took a deep breath and turned around to rest his hands on the top rung of the wood fence. Marty could see his knuckles turning white.

"I need your help," he said, quietly, his attention still focused on the two horses. "I didn't know who else to ask. I need someone I can trust."

"What is it?" Marty asked again.

Ben gestured to the two large animals in front of them. "They were abused. I got a court order, and I seized them from their owner, and now I don't know what to do with them. I can't keep them here."

Marty gazed directly at them, belatedly noting the protruding ribs and shaggy coats of the two animals. "How…" Her voice caught in her throat. She coughed and tried again. "How were they abused? What was done to them?"

"It was more what wasn't done," Ben said, quietly. "They weren't fed properly. They weren't watered adequately. They were kept in their stalls all the time. Never let out in the field from what I could see. Both of them were ankle deep in excrement. That one," he said, pointing to a black gelding, "has infected feet. If I can't cure the infection, I'll have to put him down. The other one," he said, gesturing at a pretty chestnut mare, "her lungs don't sound very good. I'm hoping that mild exercise and good feed will straighten her out, but it's too soon to tell."

Marty was silent, gazing at the two stricken animals. Her heart went out to them. How could their owner have done this to them?

"Mom got an anonymous tip about them. She and I went out first thing this morning. Thank goodness, Judge Harper hadn't gone away on vacation yet. And thank goodness, he's a horse lover. He signed the papers right away so we were able to confiscate them immediately." Ben turned to face Marty directly. "I didn't know who to call. They need to be on a farm, and they need to be nearby so I can visit them regularly. I know that you keep cows, but I thought… I wondered if…"

"You wondered if I'd take them for you," she finished.

"Yeah. Will you?" Ben's eyes were hopeful.

Marty nodded. "Of course. Since I got rid of my pigs and chickens, I've got lots of room. I don't know all that much about horses, though. You'll have to coach me — tell me what to feed them, and how to treat them."

Ben closed his eyes and took a shaky breath. He exhaled noisily before looking at her once more. "Thanks, Marty. I knew that I could count on you. Tell you what. How about I ask my assistant to keep an eye on these guys, and you and I can go and get their stalls ready, and pick up some feed?"

Marty quickly agreed. Ben disappeared inside his office, leaving her with the horses. A lump rose in her throat as she watched the gelding limp around the paddock, and she listened to the mare wheeze.

Much later, Ben and Marty lounged on matching hay bales across from the horse stalls in Marty's barn. They listened to the crunching sounds of the horses munching their way through hay.

"They seem sweet," Marty said, her words breaking the companionable silence.

"They are," Ben replied. "It always amazes me that some animals can absorb any amount of abuse, and yet it doesn't seem to affect their temperament any."

"Yeah. I wish that held true for people," Marty said, bitterly.

Ben turned to her, a shocked look on his face. "Oh!" he exclaimed. "I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking… I didn't mean…"

"It's okay, Ben," Marty said, with a sigh. "I know you didn't mean anything. I'm just… having a hard time dealing with everything," she heard herself say much to her own surprise. It was the first time that she had brought up the subject of the attack. Up to this point, she'd only talked about it in direct response to questions.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Ben asked, his eyes intent on her face.

For a moment, Marty was tempted to open her mouth and let a flood of words out. She clamped down on that impulse, however — afraid that if she started talking about it, she wouldn't be able to stop. "No," she managed to choke out in response to Ben's question. "No," she repeated.

"Okay," Ben said, "but if you ever do want to talk…"

"No," Marty interrupted. "No, I don't."

"Okay."

They fell silent once more and watched the horses for a very long time.

"I'll be over first thing tomorrow. The mare's going to need I.V. antibiotics every day, and I'm going to have to treat those hooves a couple of times a day, too. Okay?"

"Okay."

"I'll be here at 7:30. I'll bring a couple of muffins from Maisie's if you put the coffee on." Ben grinned at her.

Marty grinned back. "It's a deal."

***

The next morning, Marty watched Ben in amazement as he worked with the horses. The mare hadn't flinched a muscle when Ben gently slid the hypodermic needle into a vein. He had slowly and carefully depressed the plunger, and the mare had still not reacted at all.

The gelding had been a little bit more nervous, but Ben had talked quietly and soothingly to him until he had calmed down. Then, he had stood quietly as Ben had hauled each foot into the air and scraped out all the infected material before packing each hoof with unguent.

Marty felt an unaccustomed respect for her friend. She hadn't really thought much about Ben before. He'd been her buddy, her pal, but that was all he had been. Now, he was this very professional, very caring veterinarian, and Marty was seeing a completely different side of him. It was unexpected.

"What are their names?" she asked, suddenly.

Ben shrugged. "I don't think they have any."

"Oh."

"Why don't you name them?" Ben suggested.

"Me?"

"Sure. You are helping to look after them, after all. Go for it."

Marty smiled and regarded the two horses for a long moment. Finally, she pointed at the gelding, and said, "Diamond. Because he's really rough looking so that makes him a diamond in the…"

"In the rough. I get it," Ben said, wincing a bit at the pun. "How about the mare?"

Marty studied the smaller of the two horses. Even to her untutored eye, she could see that she was a well put-together animal. "How about Gem? It fits with Diamond. What do you think?"

Ben grinned. "It's perfect for her. Okay. Diamond and Gem, it is."

Marty smiled in response. "So, you mentioned something about muffins?" she asked.

"Oh, right. Just let me wash my hands, and I'll get them from the car…"

Marty followed Ben, listening intently as he talked to her while he washed his hands under a hose. As he led her from the barn to her kitchen, she didn't think about the fact that she was smiling and laughing more than she had for weeks. She also didn't realise that she hadn't thought about Paul Stride or about his attack on her at all that morning. Instead she'd been intent on looking after the horses. She'd been focused on how she could help.

***

Maria Ramirez beamed up at the superhero. "Thanks for the interview, Superman. I appreciate the exclusive."

Superman smiled back. "Just living up to my side of our bargain."

Maria's expression turned serious. "You're not obligated, you know. I do like getting exclusives, but you know that I'd never tell even if you shut me out of all the stories."

"I know, Maria. But Lois and I are very grateful to you, and there's no way that we could ever repay you. A 'Superman story' once in a while is just a small measure of our gratitude."

Maria nodded. "Okay. It's just that I don't want you to feel obliged." She moved to the edge of her balcony and gripped the rail. "How's Marty doing?" she asked, not looking back at Superman as he stood, hidden in the shadows of the overhang from the balcony above.

She heard him take a deep breath. "A little better, I think," he answered quietly. "She's doing her own chores as of a few weeks ago."

"Do you think we'll see Shadow in action again?"

He sighed. "I don't know. If we do, it won't be soon. She's not ready."

Maria turned to face him. "Do you think it would be okay for me to call her? I've wanted to, but…" She glanced away once more. "I wasn't sure if she'd want to hear from me or not."

"I don't know."

"It wasn't my fault. Stride would have attacked her no matter who broke the story about her. I don't feel guilty about that. But I was there. I saw what he did to her. I'm afraid that she might resent me for being there. For being a witness."

"You could try and call her. She needs friends right now. We've all tried to help, to be there for her, but we're not enough. If you wanted to visit, one of us could…"

"No. One step at a time. I'll phone her and see how that goes. If a visit seems like a good idea, I'll let you know."

Superman stepped forward out of the shadows. "Thank you, Maria," he said, warmly. "Lois and I are so grateful that you were the reporter on the scene. You know as well as I do what some of our colleagues would have done with the story."

She nodded. She did know. Vividly. Having gotten to know this very honourable man standing in front of her, she felt a little queasy thinking about it.

"Let me know about visiting. I'll talk to you later."

She raised a hand in farewell as Superman launched himself into the air. He was gone in a heartbeat.

Maria turned her gaze to the cityscape in front of her. It looked so clean and fresh in the morning light. Such a crazy, bustling city. Sometimes this view of Metropolis made her excited. It energized her. Other times, like today, it made her homesick for Puerto Rico and her family.

Clark had told her that she had a free ride anytime she wanted to go anywhere in the world. Right now, it was all she could do not to call him back and beg him to take her home. But she didn't. She glanced at her watch. She had work to do. She'd have to hustle to get to the office on time. Her boss wouldn't be too upset if Maria were a few minutes late, though. Not when she showed up with another exclusive.

***

The key turned, unlocking the door with an audible click. Arms piled high with folders that hadn't fit in his briefcase, Jimmy pushed it open and entered the apartment.

The files were tossed onto the coffee table in front of the couch and ignored while Jimmy headed for the kitchen. He opened the fridge door and surveyed the contents only to close it again with a sigh. He wasn't that hungry anyway.

Throwing himself down on the couch, he reached for the first folder in the haphazard pile. He opened it only to close it again and toss it back on top of the others. Work wasn't very appealing at this moment in time. In fact, his whole daily routine wasn't very appealing at this moment in time.

Every morning, he got up, ate a healthy breakfast, headed into work, put in a full day, and headed home to eat dinner. By himself. Weekends were a bit more varied, but not by much. He'd visit with Bernie or he'd visit with Clark and Lois, or he'd go to see Perry and Alice in their retirement home. And he was always welcome at Sam and Astrid's or at Jon's apartment. He did love his friends, but suddenly, it wasn't enough. His life wasn't enough.

Bernie had presented him with an interesting problem. There was the distinct possibility that Jimmy was going to live a very long time — much longer than the average human being. He was very healthy; he couldn't remember the last time he'd had the flu or a cold, but thinking about it, he didn't doubt that it had happened before the Veda Doodsen incident. His doctor was always amazed at his physicals, telling his forty-plus patient that he had the heart, lungs and muscle tone of a twenty-year-old.

Great, Jimmy thought, sourly. What was the point of living so long when you didn't enjoy life anymore? Oh, there were moments of joy, but he was so lonely. He hadn't even been tempted to date anyone other than Lee. She had spoiled him for all others.

He had tried, he really had, to date others over the years. He hadn't wanted to, but he'd felt that he'd had to try to keep his promise to her. When Mr. Wells had come back for her, she'd asked him to promise that he wouldn't wait for her, but would try to have a good life. So he'd dated. And every date had been lacking in so much that it had just about broken his heart each time. He'd only ended up missing Lee more and more, and he'd finally given up. It was too painful.

And now, Sam and Astrid were expecting the birth of the love of his life, and he was going to have to play the part of the doting uncle. He didn't think he had it in him. He treasured his relationship with Clark and Lois's kids and with Astrid. He loved being Uncle Jimmy, but this was different. He had no desire to watch Lee grow up and date others. And he'd rather slit his own wrists than watch her marry, he thought, bitterly.

He snorted. She wasn't even born yet, and he was obsessing about the whole situation, jealous of some mythical suitors. How much worse would it be after her birth?

He pushed himself up off his couch to go and survey the contents of his fridge once more. If only for something to do, he really should make something to eat.

***

With Vicky away at Sam and Astrid's, Clark and Lois ate alone. They were almost finished with their meal. They had eaten in silence, which was a state of affairs that was becoming only too common. Clark had prepared a pasta dish that was on both of their short lists of favourites, but even so, they'd both spent an inordinate amount of time pushing the food around on their plates.

"You told me the Houghton story was almost done," Lois said, breaking the silence.

Clark came back to himself with a jolt. "Yeah. I'll have it on your desk by noon tomorrow."

"Good." Lois ran the tip of her finger around the edge of her water glass. "I should be able to get away by one at the latest. I thought I'd ask Jimmy to put the paper to bed. That way, we can head to Marty's early if nothing, um, super comes up."

"Okay, sounds good." Clark continued to toy with his food, frowning at the abstract design he'd created on his plate.

"Oh, Clark!" Lois exclaimed, sadly. "What are we going to do if she doesn't snap out of it?"

He sighed heavily. "She will."

"But what if she doesn't?" Lois's eyes glistened.

"She will," Clark insisted once more. "She has to. Marty's strong, honey. Once she gets over the initial shock and trauma, she'll recover."

"It's been almost two months. I'm scared, Clark."

He moved to her side in one swift motion and took her hands in his. "Why?"

She shook her head, a tear escaping and trickling down her cheek. "I don't want to say. I'm afraid if I do, if I say what I think, I'll be right."

Clark sighed again. He bowed his head. "I know. Do you think you're the only one who hasn't considered that something more might have happened? She was in Stride's clutches for a long time before we knew about it. But she keeps saying 'no,' that nothing like that happened."

"I don't believe her," Lois said, bluntly. "I've been beaten up before — heck, I've been dropped out of airplanes! I never took this long to recover. I… I'm really worried that he didn't just… hit her." Lois's voice cracked.

Clark screwed his eyes shut and took a shaky breath. "Me, too." His grip tightened on Lois's fingers.

"You never said…"

"What? That I was scared, too? I am. Very scared. I… I don't believe her, either."

"Why won't she talk to us?" Lois asked, plaintively.

Clark sighed again. "I don't know. She has to know that if he…" He roughly cleared his throat. "It's not like we'd blame her if he…"

"No, we wouldn't, but…" A pensive look came over Lois's face. "Maybe she blames herself."

"I hope not."

"I don't know what to do," Lois said, frustrated. "I don't know whether to push her to talk or not. If… it did happen, and I think it did, she needs to talk it out. I don't think that she can deal with this on her own."

"I don't know if I can talk about it with her, honey," Clark confessed, sadly. "I want to, but I don't know how."

"She's your daughter, too, Clark. We both have to try."

Clark ran his hands through his hair and looked away from his wife. "I feel ashamed."

"Why?"

"It's hard to explain." He looked at Lois briefly, his eyes tortured, before turning away once more. "I'm a man. I feel ashamed that a man did this to her. I… it's horrible to think that something you and I share… that the most profound physical expression of our love could be… perverted and twisted to hurt her."

Lois leaned forward to place her hand gently on his arm. "Clark, is that why we haven't made love since this happened?"

He groaned. "I can't. Every time, I think of… you and me in that way, I can't help imagining what he did to her." Clark's voice broke, and he buried his face in his hands.

"Oh, honey," Lois said, softly as she wrapped her arms around his hunched shoulders. "What you and I share has nothing to do with what might have happened."

"I know that, Lois! Do you think I don't know that? But I can't help it. I'm so worried and sick about this, it's eating me alive."

Lois sighed, heavily. "Why didn't we talk about this before?"

Clark slowly shook his head. "I don't know. I guess we weren't ready. Or maybe we didn't want to face the possibility."

"I never thought it would be a possibility for our girls. I always worried about them when they were younger — you know, we'd go to the park, and I'd insist that they stay close to me. I wouldn't let them go to the bathroom on their own in a restaurant but always went with them."

"I know, and I always went with the boys, too."

"But when their invulnerability kicked in, I stopped worrying about them. Or at least I stopped worrying about them coming to any physical harm." Lois paused in thought for a second. "Actually, that's not entirely true. I've always worried about Kryptonite, but I visualised it as more… final than this. I've always worried about someone killing them — or you." Lois looked up at her husband, her expression bleak. He squeezed her hand reassuringly. "I never thought about this," she finished.

"Neither did I." He took a deep breath and blew it out noisily. "There's another reason that I feel ashamed," he said.

"What?"

"It's my fault that he… that Paul Stride hated her so much. If I hadn't put his mother in jail… If it weren't for me… Diana Stride hated me so much, and she passed that hate on to her son. I should have done something different. I should have known…"

"Clark! She tried to kill you. She tried to kill me. Don't tell me that you're sorry that she didn't succeed!"

"What? Oh! No, I'm not sorry… Of course, I'm not sorry. But there must have been something I could have done differently. I should have handled the whole situation better…"

Lois snorted in exasperation. "Clark, when you put on your suit, you're Superman. You're not God. You're not omniscient, and yes, you're very strong, but you're not omnipotent either. There's nothing that you could have done differently. Not like me."

"What do you mean? What could you have done?"

"If I had gone through those files from Legal faster… We would have known sooner… We could have warned her. Three days. It took me three days to sort through all that info." Tears streamed down her face.

"But we had no reason to worry. We had no reason to be suspicious. You even researched him. He was smart. He adopted the name of a bonafide photographer. This is not your fault."

"But he hurt our daughter!" Lois's words were like the bursting of a dam. "He hurt our daughter," she repeated, sobbing.

The tears flowed on Clark's part, too. "I know," he said, his voice thick and rough. "Oh, Lois." He gathered her into his arms as his own sobs started.

They huddled together, their bodies shaking with the force of their emotion.

"We couldn't help her…"

"There was no way to stop him…"

"She was helpless…"

"At his mercy for a whole day…"

"We didn't know…"

They gradually calmed down. The tears still flowed, but the wracking sobs came to a stop.

Lois took a shaky breath. "I'd rather be dead if it kept her safe."

"Me, too. I wanted him to hurt me, not her."

Lois reached up to cup Clark's tearstained cheek in her hand. "He did hurt you, Clark… I was so scared. I thought he was going to kill the two of you in front of my eyes. I didn't care about me, but I was so worried about you." She started to sob again. "Clark, you and the kids are everything to me. I don't want to lose you. I don't want to lose any of you."

"I know. I feel the same way." Clark rubbed Lois's back gently until she calmed down once more.

"Oh, Clark!" Lois blurted out. "All this time, I've been blaming myself, and you've been blaming yourself, and we never talked about it! I was afraid that you might blame me, too!"

"Lois, honey, I could never blame you," Clark said as his fingers gently traced the line of her jaw.

"I didn't know… I wasn't sure… All I knew was that you weren't… you weren't… touching me… I thought maybe you did." Lois's tears burst forth anew.

Clark buried his head in her hair as he realised how his actions had appeared to Lois. He gently slid an arm under her legs and stood up, effortlessly. She looked up in surprise at his actions.

He gazed at her warmly. "I could never blame you," he repeated. "I love you."

Lois closed her eyes in relief. "I love you, too."

His lips brushed against hers lightly, once, twice and then came down more firmly. A long, sweet kiss later, she opened her eyes and studied the loving, warm expression on her husband's face as he carried her carefully up the stairs.

"I've been an idiot, haven't I?" he asked as he gently laid her on the bed.

"We've both been idiots," she said. "Now that we've managed to talk about this, hopefully we'll be able to help our daughter more effectively."

"And now that we've managed to talk about this, I'm not as scared to touch you," Clark admitted as he stretched out beside her.

Lois rolled over onto her side and rested her head on his chest. "Let's not do this to each other again, Clark. We can handle anything if we're together… if we haven't turned away from each other."

"I know. Sometimes, it's hard to remember, though." Clark gathered her close, his hands tentatively caressing her back. She was quick to reciprocate, instilling confidence in him.

They made love, joining together, two bodies, one soul. It was tender, it was sweet, it was life affirming, and it was unbearably sad.

After, Clark sobbed in Lois's arms as her own tears dripped unheeded from her cheeks, soaking his hair.

***

Blissfully unaware of her parents' anguish, Marty couldn't stop giggling. "It tickles," she said.

"I know. But it's fun, isn't it?"

Marty grinned at Ben, her eyes dancing. She stood in the middle of a grassy paddock, two horses nuzzling at her. He stood outside the fence, watching them as he leaned on the top rail.

"Why does turning your back to them work? Why would that make them so affectionate?" she asked. She jumped as from behind Diamond tried to mouth her neck once more. On her other side, Gem continued to rub her large head gently against Marty's arm.

"They're herd animals," Ben answered. "Anyone that's not part of the herd makes them a bit nervous. When you turn your back, you're isolating yourself from them. They don't like it, so they start trying to entice you back into the herd."

"Makes sense, I guess," Marty said as she turned to face the two animals. She pulled a couple of apples out of her pocket which Diamond and Gem crunched with a great deal of messy enthusiasm. Brushing the leftover bits of fruit off the bib of her overalls, she ducked under the top wire of the fence and emerged from the paddock. "That was fun!" she announced. "Thanks, Ben."

"You're welcome," he replied, pleased by the happy expression on his friend's face. Things had worked out so well. When he'd seized the two horses from their delinquent owner, he'd needed a home for them where they would be well cared for. Marty had sprung instantly to mind. He'd known that the horses would receive lots of attention, and that it would be good for them. He'd hoped that it would be good for her, too, but this was surpassing his wildest dreams.

"I wouldn't recommend turning your back on every horse you meet, though," he pointed out. "There are quite a few out there that you just can't trust." He gazed at the two in front of him that were busy mowing their way through the grass still wet from the morning dew. "But these guys seem pretty trustworthy. They've got really good dispositions."

"Yes, they do," Marty agreed as she leaned on the fence rail beside Ben. She turned to him with a happy smile. "I'm glad you brought them to me. I like my cows, but I've never bonded with them."

Ben laughed. "You think petting them is fun? When they're better, we should be able to ride them. Now that's fun!"

"Wow!" Marty glowed in delight, a wistful smile playing about her lips. "I've never ridden before, but I've always wanted to try." She glanced at Ben hopefully. "Do you really think they'll get well enough for us to ride?"

They started strolling to Ben's car, as it was time for him to head to work.

Ben nodded. "It's only been a couple of days, but Diamond's feet are at least ten percent better. Gem's cough seems to be drying up, too. It's going to take a while for the two of them to build up their stamina, though. They have to build muscle, too. We won't be riding them next week. But we might in a couple of months."

"I'm amazed that they're already putting on weight," Marty said.

"It's the feed we bought — different mix of hay than what you give your cows. More red clover in it. That helps put weight on."

"I'd say it's working. They look a lot better."

They came to a halt beside the small car.

Ben nodded again. "Yeah. In fact, they're so much better, I think it's time." He opened the door and folded his long body behind the steering wheel.

"Time for what?"

Ben smiled as he turned the key in the ignition. "I don't have any clients this afternoon. How about I get here a little early, and you can give me a hand?" he said through the open window.

"Doing what?"

"Giving them a bath, of course." Ben grinned at her as he put the car in gear. It lurched into motion. He chuckled as he caught sight of her open-mouthed expression in the rear view mirror. "A bath?" he heard her say plaintively as he set off down her gravel driveway.

Much later, the hot sun blazed down on the grassy field. Anyone passing by would have heard an interesting combination of noises. The braying, neighing sounds of a couple of excited horses mixed with yells and shouts from the two people. The boisterous barking of a dog completed the cacophony of noise.

Marty squealed once more as the cold spray from the hose soaked her back. "Stop spraying me! I'm not the one who needs a shower."

"I'd stop if you'd just hold her still!"

"I'm trying, but she's really fighting. She doesn't seem to like cold water." Marty glared at Ben, mock-ferociously. "I know exactly how she feels!"

"Sorry," he apologized hastily as the mare, dancing at the end of her lead-rope, jerked Marty around, and the cold water hit her in the face. "I'm trying. Do you want to trade places?"

Marty shook her head vigorously, sending water droplets flying in an arc around her. "No," she said, disgruntled. "I'm wet now. The question is — is she wet enough to be shampooed?"

"I think so." Ben tossed the hose down onto the grass and picked up a bucket of soapy water. Dipping a scrub brush in, he transferred some of the suds to the mare's back and started to rub energetically. Now that the cold water wasn't aimed at her, Gem settled down and seemed to enjoy the attention. Marty wasn't thrilled, though, when Gem decided to get affectionate and thrust her soap-covered head into Marty's armpit.

Marty had to laugh as she fended off the attentions of the affectionate mare. "Gee, thanks, Gem. It's incredibly kind of you to share your bath with me!" she said, sarcastically. She looked over at Ben with a grin. "So nice to be loved!"

"Hey, she's doing us both a favour. We're not going to need showers tonight!"

It wasn't true. The two of them were just as soaked as Gem was, but they were getting dirtier and dirtier. Luckily, they had both dressed appropriately. Ben wore cut-off denim shorts that were badly frayed at their hem. He had been wearing a tight T-shirt but had quickly stripped it off when things had started to get messy.

Marty had felt a little uncomfortable for a moment at his lack of clothing, but she had quickly reminded herself that this was Ben, her best friend, whom she had known forever. For heaven's sake, when they were thirteen, they'd skinny-dipped together on a dare. Of course, it had been night, and the moon had been hidden behind clouds, and no one had been able to see anything in the dark, but even so, the fact that they'd done it had to mean that it would be foolish for her to be thrown by his bare chest.

Her eyes flicked casually over to the piece of anatomy in question. Not a bad chest, she thought in spite of herself. Ben had a lot more muscles than she'd realised. Even though it was streaked with dirt where Gem had leaned against him, even though it was speckled with half-masticated pieces of grass, his chest still looked pretty nice to her untutored eyes. It wasn't like Stride's chest. He'd been too chiselled, the outer perfection of him hiding a rotting core.

Marty shivered, the heat of the sun no longer able to warm her spirit. Stride. Why'd he have to pop into her head? She'd been having such a good time with Ben and the horses. Was it always going to be like this — remembering what he'd done at such inopportune times? Would she ever be free of him? She glowered at the green grass at her feet only to gasp as Gem took a step forward, her very solid hoof landing on Marty's bare toes. Marty glanced at Ben surreptitiously as she eased the hoof back off again. He didn't seem to have noticed, thankfully. For a moment, Marty wondered why the prospect of Ben finding out her secret didn't give her the same half-nauseous, half-delighted frisson of excitement that she had felt when she'd contemplated letting Stride know. It must be because Ben didn't excite her in the same way as Stride had — or at least as he had before he'd revealed himself to be the proverbial scum of the earth. Her gaze guiltily flicked back to Ben and then lingered on the play of muscles in his back as he continued to scrub at the dirt on Gem's flank.

"There! I think that's got it. Ready for me to rinse her?"

Marty grinned. "Nope. I think turnabout's fair play. My turn to hold the hose."

"All right," Ben said in a resigned tone of voice. He plucked the lead-rope out of Marty's hands and braced himself. "Be gentle with me."

***

Ben welcomed the spray of cold water. It had been all he could do not to react to Marty as they worked together; he needed the water to cool down.

As they'd worked, she'd laughed and giggled, her beautiful eyes shining happily. Ben couldn't help but notice her shapely curves as the damp material of her T-shirt and shorts clung to her. Not wanting to scare her off, Ben had had to content himself with sneaking peeks at his extremely curvaceous and totally gorgeous friend.

Ben was very much afraid that he was falling completely and totally in love with Marty. He didn't think it was just pity for what she had gone through. And he didn't think it was just friendship. He'd had many friends of the opposite sex during his school years, but this was so much more intense. He also didn't think that it was just lust, although on his part, there was a fair dollop of that in the mix.

He knew, though, that he had to keep all those feelings buried as deeply as possible. Marty was so skittish. Who could blame her? She'd suffered an incredibly vicious attack that had turned her whole life upside down. And Ben very much feared that there had been more to the attack than what had been made public. He hoped not, but he feared it was a vain hope. It made him sick to think that she might have been violated so horribly.

Ben actually had a little bit of experience dealing with sexual assault and its aftermath. He had volunteered on a help line while he'd been in college, and he'd had a couple of callers who had been struggling to put their lives back together after having been assaulted in that way. He wasn't a trained psychologist, though. Most of what he'd said had been along the lines of who they should call, and what they could do. Other than that, he'd listened with an open mind and had commiserated with them.

To her credit, Marty finally seemed to be struggling hard to dig herself out of the pit of depression she had fallen into. She was being an incredibly fantastic help with the horses — even better than he'd hoped she would be. It had been great to find out exactly how well they worked together. For a moment, Ben dared to imagine what it would be like to have her in his life as his helpmate.

A spray of water across his face put an end to those thoughts. "Hey!" he protested.

"Sorry!"

"She might not be rinsed enough, but I sure am!"

Marty laughed and threw the hose down on the grass. "Okay, now what?"

Ben picked up a flexed strip of rubber.

"What's that?" Marty asked. "It looks like a squeegee for washing a windshield."

"That's exactly what it is," Ben told her. "It's just been bent a little bit, but it does a great job of getting most of the water out of her coat." He demonstrated, running the squeegee along the mare's side. He handed Marty her own gadget, and they worked together in a companionable silence.

"Okay, good enough," Ben said, finally. He led her over to the fenced paddock. "She'll finish drying in the sun, and then we can groom her." He looked back at Marty and grinned. "Ready to help with Diamond?"

Marty grabbed the hose and flourished it dramatically. "Aye, aye, sir! I'm at your command."

Ben laughed and quickly haltered the gelding. Leading Diamond out of the paddock towards Marty, one thought ran constantly through his mind. More than anything, he wanted Marty to always be as happy and light-hearted as she was at this moment in time.

Marty turned the hose on Diamond who promptly skittered out of the way. The arcing spray of water hit Ben full in the chest promptly putting a stop to his train of thought.

"Hey!"

"Sorry! Hold him still!"

"I'm trying," Ben protested. "Hey!" he exclaimed again.

"Sorry!"

***

As Clark flew her towards Smallville, Lois snuggled closer to his solid form and, uncharacteristically, closed her eyes. Normally she watched the world pass by below — a view that she'd never tired of over the years — but today she just couldn't be bothered. She was so tired. The release of tension that she had experienced the night before was enough to totally enervate her.

Thank heavens they had talked. Lois had known that Clark hadn't been angry with her, but she'd sensed, even so, that there had been something that he hadn't told her. Clark hadn't changed over the years; he still found it unbearably hard to share his worries and concerns with her. Normally she pressed him to open up — after so many years together she knew exactly what buttons to push — but she'd been too upset herself and too busy blaming herself to have the energy to deal with Clark's concerns.

Now that they had been able to talk, Lois felt infinitely better but also very off-balance. She knew that the brunt of the upcoming conversation with Marty was going to fall on her shoulders, and she had no idea how to prepare for this incredibly important talk with their daughter. At least Clark had promised to stay with Lois so they could present a united, concerned front. Lois felt that it was important for Marty to know that she had the support of both her parents — no matter how uncomfortable discussing things openly might be.

Clark swooped down towards the farmhouse with Lois in his arms only to pull up short.

"What is it?" Lois asked, a little apprehensive.

Clark carefully floated a little closer, making sure that he and Lois weren't visible from the ground. "Listen!" he exclaimed.

Lois couldn't believe what she was hearing. She could hear her daughter giggling, the sound mingling with the deeper laughter of a man. Shadow barked — a joyful sound — in the background.

Clark landed them on the far side of the house, away from the noise and then spun into his street clothes. He exchanged a puzzled glance with Lois, and then, hand in hand, they moved towards the commotion only to stop dead when they saw the sight in front of them.

Tension she wasn't even aware that she had been feeling leached from Lois's body when she recognised Ben Palmer. Marty and Ben seemed to be wrestling with a horse! Lois looked blankly at Clark, Clark gazed goggle-eyed back at Lois, and then they continued on, Lois unconsciously moving slightly ahead of her husband.

"Hi!"

At Clark's greeting, Ben spun around, hose still in hand. As the hose came into view — the hose spraying very cold, very wet water — everything seemed to start moving in slow motion. Lois could see the trajectory of the arc of water, she could watch as it moved towards her, but somehow, she couldn't manage to get out of the way in time.

Things snapped back into focus as the water sprayed full-force in her face.

"I'm sorry! I'm so sorry," Ben stuttered, dropping the hose onto the grass.

Lois pushed her wet hair off her face. "It's okay," she hissed from between clenched teeth, her lips fixed in a tight, polite smile. "No problem." She plucked her sodden blouse away from her torso. She could feel her cheeks heating up, but she clamped down tightly on her temper.

Marty started to laugh. Lois spun to face her and locked eyes with her daughter. Marty only laughed harder. Lois glanced at Clark to see that he had managed to escape the brunt of the water. The only reason he wasn't laughing, too, was because he was exerting steely self-control. From the look of him, that self-control was almost a thing of the past.

Lois eyed Ben, who still stood in front of her, shocked and upset, then regarded her husband once more. Clark's eyes were dancing mischievously. She finally turned to survey Marty who was holding onto her ribs in her merriment. Against her will, Lois's lips started to twitch, and she joined in, laughing, too.

Tacitly granted permission to give in to his desire to express his amusement, Clark just about fell apart. Ben was the last to join in.

Finally, Lois was able to regain a small modicum of control. "I figured we'd hitch a ride early to surprise you. Next time we'll call ahead," she said, sardonically.

"I'm really sorry, Ms. Lane," Ben repeated, sincerely. "I feel just awful."

Clark snorted. "If you think you feel awful now, just wait until Lois gets done with you!" Lois spun on him quickly and smacked him on the shoulder. "Ow!" he exclaimed, insincerely, a smirk on his face.

Oh, so Clark was going to tease her, was he? Well, two could play that game. "Honey, I'm sorry. Did I hurt you?" she cooed.

"Uh, no," he replied, tentatively, looking a little worried at the loving tone of her voice.

Lois sidled a little closer and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. "You took me by surprise… I didn't mean to slap you…" Her fingers stroked him slowly and sensually.

"It's okay," Clark assured her, his face relaxing a bit, showing his appreciation of the tender caress.

"Let me kiss it better…"

Lois pounced.

Instead of a loving kiss on the shoulder, Clark found himself on the receiving end of a full frontal embrace from a very wet wife. She ground her sodden body against his as she enthusiastically kissed him. When they came up for air, she had to peel herself off him, leaving behind a very interesting, very wet imprint on his shirt and slacks.

"That's it!" Clark exclaimed. "Where's that hose?"

Lois squealed and ran as fast as she could behind Ben, Marty and the horse. Ha! He wouldn't spray Marty. He wouldn't spray Ben. Laugh at her, would he? Just wait. But to her shock, Marty spun around and gripped her mother by the arm.

"It's okay, Dad. I'm already wet. Let 'er have it!"

Lois only had a second to gape in astonishment at her daughter before the water hit her full force. As she screamed in laughter and shouted mock-threats at Clark and Marty, she thanked God for the sound of her daughter's mirth.

***

"I'm really sorry, Ms. Lane," Ben said for the umpteenth time that evening. He placed the wet, clean plate in the drainer and picked up the next one to be washed.

"Ben, would you please stop apologizing to me," Lois said, wearily. "I keep telling you that it's all right." She dried the plate and put it away in the cupboard.

"I know. But I just feel so bad… I didn't know that you were there."

"Ben!"

At Lois's irritated exclamation, Ben's head snapped up, and he focused all his attention on her.

"Listen to me. I'm going to say this once more. It's all right."

"But…" he started to say, a look of worry on his face.

Lois's expression softened. "It really is all right, Ben. It was a small price to pay to hear Marty laugh like that. I can't pretend I was thrilled to get soaked…" she chuckled as she hitched Marty's spare pair of jeans back up onto her hips, "but I'd get soaked a hundred times if it meant I could hear her laugh so wholeheartedly once again. You don't know how happy that made me."

"Oh, I think I do," Ben replied. "I've been really worried about her, too. She didn't deserve any of this." He pulled his hands out of the soapy water, placed them on the edge of the sink and looked out the window in front of him. "It makes me sick that someone like Marty — someone so nice and sensitive and kind — could have something so horrible happen to her. It's not fair."

Lois placed a gentle hand on his arm. "Has she talked to you about it, Ben?"

"No. Not really." Ben turned to Lois, a distressed expression on his face. "I think she blames herself, though. For being tricked by his act."

Lois glanced up at him and did a double take. Her eyes narrowed as they searched his face. "You really care for her, don't you?" It was a statement rather than a question.

Ben smiled wryly. "Does it show?"

"It does to me. Maybe because I'm her mother. Or maybe because I've seen that exact same expression on Clark's face when he's been worried about me. Have you said anything to her?"

Ben snorted. "No, and I'm not going to either. She's not ready to hear anything like that from me. I don't know if she'll ever be ready." A movement outside caught his attention. He peered out the window intently. "They're on their way back. Boy, Marty gets the chores done at least ten times faster when Clark's helping!"

Lois giggled, startling Ben. He hadn't said anything that funny, had he? He turned to her. "You're not going to say anything, are you?"

Lois smiled warmly, her hand squeezing his arm. "Your secret's safe with me."

"Thanks, Ms. Lane."

"Ben, you're not ten years old anymore. You're a college graduate and an accredited professional. Don't you think it's time to call me Lois?"

"Okay… Lois."

***

"I had a great talk with Ben while you two were doing the chores. He seems very nice."

Marty glanced up at her mother before looking back down at the dregs in her coffee cup. "Yes, he is."

"I remember when he was ten, he always seemed to have a garter snake or a toad in his hand that he'd insist on showing me."

Marty half-smiled. "I remember."

"He seemed like such a geeky little kid. Who knew he'd be a vet someday?"

"I did," Marty said, shifting in her chair. "He told me a long time ago that that's what he wanted."

"Seems to be a very good vet, too."

"Uh huh," was all that Marty said. She didn't want to talk about Ben. Her friendship with him was too fragile at the moment to analyse.

"Rachel must be tickled pink to have him home with her."

"I guess so. He hasn't talked about her much."

"What do you talk about?" her mother asked, leaning forward onto her arms and fixing her gaze on Marty's face.

Her dad shifted in his seat and shot a look at her mother that was easy to interpret. He was clearly not happy with her for pursuing this topic of conversation.

"Animals," Marty said, bluntly, feeling a little cornered. "We talk about Shadow, Gem and Diamond and how they're doing. More coffee?" She pushed herself up from the table and strode over to the counter, her back to her parents. Marty gazed out the kitchen window at the darkness beyond. Her attention was captured by the reflection in the glass. Her mother was making interesting facial expressions at her father and was attempting to convey something to him with quite animated gestures. He shook his head, obviously not getting whatever her mother was trying to tell him.

"You should have never taught me how to spell," Marty said, spinning around to face them.

"Huh?" Her parents looked at her quizzically.

"It must have been a lot easier to talk over my head when you could spell everything out." At their puzzled looks, she continued, "I could see you… In the glass… You know, your reflection."

Her mother looked very defensive. Her father had the grace to look ashamed.

"Sorry, honey," he said. "We're worried about you."

Hot tears sprang to Marty's eyes. "I know," she replied, softly.

Her mother glanced at her father before turning back to Marty. "Sweetheart, we need to talk."

Marty's stomach knotted. "What about?"

"I think you know." Her mom got up and walked over to stand in front of Marty.

Marty couldn't look up. She couldn't look her mother in the eye. She sensed her father moving to flank her mother, making her feel cornered.

"We're worried about you," her father said, his voice strained.

Marty's breath rasped in her throat, her muscles starting to quiver.

"This man did horrible things to you. You need to talk about it."

"You need to talk to us."

"Have you thought about counselling? Bernie could recommend someone…"

"You have to let your feelings out…"

"I brought some information with me. About Rape Crisis Centres. We could sit down and look them over and…"

Their words came faster and faster, unwelcome to Marty's ears.

"No," Marty muttered, deep in her throat. "No!" she repeated, louder, shaking her head.

"But you need to," her mother insisted. "It's time."

"No! No, it isn't!" Marty exclaimed emphatically. "I don't need to! I don't want to." She felt claustrophobic, the walls closing in on her, her parents cutting off her only avenue of escape.

"Sweetheart, we love you." Her father placed a gentle hand on her arm.

"No!" Marty flinched and struck his hand off automatically. "I can't," she said, firmly. Her chest burned; she needed air. She looked up and glared at her parents who recoiled from her. "I love you, too. But I'm not going to talk about this. I'm not ready."

"Marty, we know something more happened…" her mother said, a worried look in her eyes.

"No," Marty repeated. "Nothing happened! Let me past… Now," she added vehemently when they didn't move fast enough.

As soon as they'd stepped out of her way, Marty was gone, flying blindly into the night.

***

Lois turned to Clark, her face white and stark. "We blew it," she said, simply. "We pushed too hard."

He nodded, his eyes bleak. "Should I…"

"Go? Yes. At least, I think so. You need to keep an eye on her. Tell her… we're sorry and that we love her…"

Clark took a step back and spun in place, his red, blue and yellow outfit replacing the jeans and t-shirt he'd been wearing.

"Tell her we won't push her anymore," Lois continued.

"I will." Clark pulled Lois into his arms for a quick, heartfelt kiss before darting for the open door.

After he disappeared, Lois slowly straightened up the chair that had been knocked over by Marty's precipitous exit from the room. She unplugged the coffeepot, dumped the grounds from the filter and rinsed everything out before quickly washing up the three mugs. Everything was done on autopilot. Her mind and her heart had taken wing with her husband, following the trail of her daughter's pain.

***

Clark arrowed through the sky, following Marty's path. He could sense where she was heading from the roiling of the disturbed air currents. He knew that if he weren't matching her speed, he'd be able to hear the thunder rumbling of her passage as they both broke the sound barrier. For a second he wondered if he'd be able to catch up to her as she had a good head start, but then realised that, yes, he was slowly but steadily narrowing the gap between them.

He flew in a panic. It upset him to see his daughter in such turmoil. He worried, wondering what she was going to do.

This worry was new to him. It was true that his children had unbelievable power — he, himself, had unbelievable power — but he had never thought of the possibility of any of them running amuck. Not that he thought Marty would do anything intentionally, but there was always the possibility of something inadvertent.

No, his kids had learned to control themselves in tandem with learning to control their developing powers. There had been a few miscalculations of how much force to apply to do a task, but they had been few and far between. The raw power that Marty was currently displaying in her headlong flight was a whole different order of magnitude.

Somehow it was easier to worry about Marty's loss of control than to worry as to what had caused it. He was heartsick to think that her extreme reaction to their attempt to discuss the attack might prove the truth as to what he and Lois had theorized had happened.

Clark sighed. He took a deep breath of the thin air that streamed past his face and focused on getting just a bit more speed out of his system. He had to catch up with her. He just had to. She was his daughter, and she needed him.

***

Marty flew in a blind, unreasoning panic. 'Get away! Hide!' her mind screamed. 'Curl up in a ball in the shadows where no one can see you. Where no one can hurt you ever again!'

She streaked through the sky, unaware of where she was, moving from darkness to sunlight and back again. She flew until her lungs gasped for air. She could sense her father's presence, keeping pace with her, tracking her, gaining on her. It made her that much more desperate to get away.

Marty slowly became aware that her father was flying parallel to her. He wasn't trying to intercept her, but was instead flying in tandem with her. He was accompanying her as she tried to ride through her pain. This realisation gradually brought her back to herself, her speed slowly diminishing to a more normal level.

It also made her realise that it wasn't her parents that she was trying to escape from; it was the demons she carried inside that she was attempting to flee. And couldn't.

Marty stopped and hung limply in the air. She watched dully as the speck that was her father slowly approached. When he was close enough that she could see the anguished expression on his face, he spoke.

"Can I come closer?"

Marty nodded, too worn out to speak.

Clark flew to hover, facing her. She looked down at the cloudbanks below, not wanting to see his face, not wanting to see how disappointed he must be in her.

She felt his hand lightly touch her hair. She flinched. His hand paused, before resuming the gentle caress.

"I'm sorry," he said, softly. "Your mom's sorry, too."

Marty nodded again, a lump rising in her throat.

"We put too much pressure on you to open up. It's just that…" His voice cracked. "We love you so much," he finished, the words sounding half-strangled.

Marty looked up to see tears running down her father's cheeks. Their eyes locked. She felt humbled by the depths of unquestioning love she could read in his face. "I'm sorry," she managed to gasp, forcing the words past the lump in her throat. "I'm so sorry, Daddy."

He reached out his hand once more to tentatively caress her tearstained cheek. A flood of emotion rushed through her, and she threw herself into his arms.

He held her close, murmuring tender words in her ear as she cried against his shoulder. "I can't… I can't…" she stammered over and over again. "I can't talk about it. I just can't."

"It's okay… You don't have to… We love you… We're here for you…"

She felt safe in his arms. Safe for the first time since… it had happened. Safe to just… let go. Cradled like a baby, Marty felt her thoughts stop. She gratefully slid into the warm and comforting darkness, not even aware when he gently laid her on her bed and covered her up.

She slept soundly and dreamlessly, not even waking when Shadow joined her, pressing his warm body up against her legs as close as he could get.

***

Dr. Klein rubbed his tired, burning eyes. He wasn't as young as he used to be, but this was important enough that it warranted him putting in the extra hours. Also, due to the nature of his research, it was imperative that the lab be deserted while he worked. Unfortunately, that meant he had to work in the wee small hours of the night. He sighed and pulled the results of Lois's blood test up on his monitor.

Well, this was interesting. Very fascinating. He wondered if it would be valuable to compare Lois's blood with Astrid's. His fingers flew quickly over the keys, and he pulled up the results of Astrid's most recent blood test. Oh, now that was very promising. That opened up a whole new avenue for him to explore.

Dr. Klein made rapid notes, his fingers barely keeping up with the speed of his thoughts. He worked intently, his gaze never wavering from his monitor, his fatigue momentarily forgotten.

From outside, his window blazed with light, the only one lit up in all of STAR labs. The security guard shook his head. What was so all-fired important, he wondered. Sometimes he felt that those scientists really didn't have their priorities straight. He pitied their poor families.

***

Clark got out of bed and stretched. Lois was sleeping soundly still and probably would for a couple more hours. She wasn't attuned to getting up at dawn. Truth to tell neither was he most mornings, but for what was probably a very significant, psychological, rooted in his early childhood reason, he always reverted when he stayed over on the farm. Too many mornings spent doing chores, he supposed.

Actually, thinking about it, the early morning had been one of his favourite times of the day. Everything seemed so fresh and clean. The animals would stir and greet him with sleepy grunts before suddenly snapping awake and demanding their breakfast. He and his father had never had much of a chance to talk while they simultaneously did the chores, but Dad had always taken the time to check in with him when they were done. Most mornings, they hadn't talked about anything too earth shattering, but Clark could remember a few momentous conversations. He smiled wryly. The morning he'd shared his new 'visual' abilities sprang to mind.

He'd never loved his father more.

Clark had been scared, worried, obsessed. Was he some genetic experiment that was doomed to go insane and run amuck? Was he some kind of Russian sleeper agent whose personality would be wiped out in a flash if he heard the proper code word? Would he then run amuck, killing everyone that he loved?

Clark shook his head as he pulled on his clothes. All his boyhood fears had had similar themes to them. Running amuck had figured quite prominently in all of them.

But Dad had taken it all in stride.

He'd been shocked, of course. He'd kept looking back and forth from the small fire to Clark and back again. Once Dad had accepted that it really had been his scared son who had set the discarded wood ablaze with his eyes, he had shrugged and overly casually said, "You'll be pretty handy on our annual camping trip, I reckon." Clark had been startled into laughing, and his Dad had grinned and then pulled him into a tight hug.

Oh, a pretty lengthy conversation had followed, and another one after they got back to the house and they'd told Mom, but it was that initial reaction that Clark had remembered all these years. Accepting. Tolerant. Pragmatic. Above all, loving.

Clark sighed and turned his thoughts to the present. He listened carefully to the sounds in the main bedroom. Marty was still sound asleep. Shadow was stirring a little bit. He carefully floated in and hoisted the sleepy dog into his arms. It was a measure of how used to his presence Shadow was, that he only opened his eyes and licked Clark on the cheek.

Clark paused for a second, watching his little girl sleep. She looked peaceful and relaxed.

Shadow wiggled a bit in his arms and Clark hastily left the bedroom.

He put the dog down when he reached the kitchen and was fairly confident that any small noises the two of them might make wouldn't rouse his wife or his daughter. After quickly setting up the coffeemaker, he and Shadow emerged into the weak sunshine. It looked like it was going to be another beautiful day.

He did the chores by rote, his body going through the motions automatically. All the while his mind worked away at what Marty had said last night. "I'm sorry," she had said. Did she blame herself? He'd read that victims of brutal attacks commonly did. But even so, he couldn't understand why. What in the world could be in her head that would make her accept the blame?

***

Vicky raced to the door and threw it open before the doorbell sounded again. Astrid and Sam were both sleeping in, and she didn't want them to be awakened if they absolutely didn't have to.

"Hi, Uncle Bernie," she said, brightly. "Sam and Astrid are both asleep."

"Vicky? Is it the weekend? I lost track of my days again." He scratched his head, looking puzzled. "I don't mind waiting for them."

"Come on in, then." Vicky laughed and kissed him fondly on the cheek. "Yes, it is the weekend. Mom and Dad headed out yesterday afternoon. They'll be back tomorrow. They wanted me to go with them, but… well, I find Smallville a bit boring so I'm here instead." She led her uncle into the tidy living room. "Sam and Astrid don't seem to mind my company."

Dr. Klein flopped down on the couch and grinned up at her. "They don't seem to mind mine either, and there's a lot more to object to with me," he said, jocularly.

Vicky sat down opposite him and giggled. "I don't know, Uncle Bernie. Fifteen-year-old brat or mad scientist. If I were them, I'd turn both of us away!"

Bernie laughed heartily. "Not just a fifteen-year-old brat, but a cheeky brat, too."

Vicky hastily shushed him, her finger to her lips.

"Oops," he whispered, with a guilty smile.

"Sorry," she whispered, giggling again. "I guess I was kind of cheeky."

They grinned at each other.

Vicky loved her uncle. He could be a little hard to understand at times, but he never talked down to her, and he always treated her like an adult. Not even her parents treated her that way. It was also so nice to have another person that she could talk to about what it was like to be part of her unique family.

She didn't have many friends, but that didn't worry her too much. She went to movies and parties in a group of girls. Other than that, she was relatively content to curl up with a good book. Jon was fun to pal around with; she liked it when he let her accompany him to his studio so that she could watch him paint. Sam and Astrid were mostly fun, although they hadn't been recently since Astrid got pregnant and started having so many problems carrying the baby. Now, all they did when she came to stay was talk or rent movies. The big highpoint was when Astrid let her feel the baby kick. She had to admit — that was kind of cool. Soon, there would be a baby for 'Aunt Vicky' to play with. Now that would be REALLY cool!

Vicky had gone to stay for weekends with Marty from time to time. She'd always enjoyed her older sister's company; at least she had until that jerk had beaten her up. It was hard to understand why Marty was still dragging her butt, though. That had happened weeks and weeks ago!

"Can I get you a cup of coffee, Uncle Bernie?" she hastily offered.

He suppressed a yawn. "No, thanks, honey. I've been up all night working at the lab. I wanted to talk to Sam and Astrid before heading home to sleep. Coffee would only keep me awake."

Vicky focused her hearing on Sam and Astrid's bedroom. "They're still sleeping. Do you want me to wake them?"

"No, it's okay. Astrid needs her sleep."

Vicky nodded. "And Sam didn't get in until about five this morning."

At the look of inquiry on her uncle's face, she hastily added, "He had to evacuate a small town in the Andes. Got the last person out, just as the mudslide hit."

"Good for him!"

Dr. Klein lay back and closed his eyes to Vicky's dismay. She had a couple of questions that she wanted to ask him.

Before he could doze off, Vicky quickly said, "Um, Uncle Bernie?"

His eyes slowly opened, and he sat up a little straighter. "Yes, honey?"

"Is Marty going to be okay? Mom and Dad don't tell me anything… I know she got beat up and everything, but that was a while ago, and she never smiles or laughs or talks about anything, and I'm really worried about her, and I just don't know what to do," Vicky finished in a rush.

"She's going to be fine, Vicky, but it takes time to recover from this kind of thing." He held up his hand to forestall her as she opened her mouth to say more. "Physically, she's fine, and she was fine within a couple of days of the attack. Psychologically, it was a huge shock to her, and that's what's taking so long."

"Oh." Vicky mulled that over for a moment. "Okay, then. I'm glad that she'll be all right eventually," she said, dismissing Marty's emotional anguish now that she knew that her sister would get better. "Um, I do have another question if you don't mind." Her tone made it very clear that she planned on asking her question even if her uncle did mind.

Luckily, Dr. Klein didn't mind, always making a point of being accessible to his honorary nieces and nephews. "Go ahead, sweetheart."

Vicky paused, her forehead wrinkling as she struggled to gather her thoughts. "Okay. I'm wondering what it is about Kryptonite that actually can hurt us."

Dr. Klein hid another yawn in his hand. "Kryptonite emits an unusual radiation. It has no effect on humans, but has an extremely toxic effect on Kryptonians — or part Kryptonians," he added with a weary smile. "It has a similar effect on you and your family as Uranium or Plutonium would have on me."

"But there are Geiger Counters available to warn you about those. Why can't we have a Geiger Counter that's tuned to Kryptonite?"

Dr. Klein sat up a little straighter. "A Geiger Counter tuned to Kryptonite…" He blinked rapidly as he looked blankly at Vicky. "A Geiger Counter… Tuned to Kryptonite… I could modify… If I changed the settings…" He shook his head before focusing his attention on his niece. "Out of the mouths of babes…" he muttered.

"Don't call me a babe," she warned, mock-seriously, waggling her finger at him.

"No, I didn't mean…" he started to protest until he caught sight of her wicked grin. He grinned back at her, a look of wonder on his face.

"So it would work, Uncle Bernie?"

"Yes, it would," he said, enthusiastically. "I can't believe that I never thought of it. Oh, there are certain things that might block the radiation, things that might prevent it from showing up on the Geiger Counter, but I should be able to think of a way around that." He sprang to his feet and headed for the door.

"Where are you going? Aren't you going to wait for Sam and Astrid?" Vicky hurried after him.

"No. My news can wait. I have to go to the lab. I have to run some tests," he replied, excitedly.

"But you're tired," she protested.

"Not anymore!" he exclaimed as he scurried out the door.

"Bye, Uncle Bernie," she called after him.

A jaunty wave of his hand was the only reply.

Vicky slowly closed the door and leaned against it. A smug smile spread over her face. It looked like she'd asked the right question.

She heard faint stirrings in Sam and Astrid's bedroom. Good! She could hardly wait to tell them all about this.

***

Yawning mightily, Lois stumbled to the kitchen following the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. She stopped dead when she saw her daughter sitting at the table, sipping from her mug.

"Good morning," she forced herself to say calmly as she moved to the counter to prepare her own.

"Morning, Mom," Marty said, putting her mug down quickly. She sat up straight, her eyes never leaving Lois as she moved about the kitchen.

"Did you sleep well?"

"Uh huh. Did you and Dad?"

"Uh huh. Speaking of which, where is your father?"

Marty nodded towards the window. "Out there helping Ben with the horses. I usually do, but Dad offered. I could tell that he wanted to get a good look at them, so I took him up on it."

Lois sat down across from Marty. "You'll have to introduce me to them properly later."

Marty smiled at Lois, a quick, almost frightened smile. "I will. You'll like them. They're very sweet."

'Sweet,' Lois thought. 'Uh huh. They're big, they eat hay and grass, they've got very large teeth, and they create huge piles of manure. Yeah, right, they're sweet.' She smiled encouragingly back at her daughter. "Yes, I'm sure that they are."

They lapsed into silence. Over the rim of her mug as she sipped her coffee, Lois studied her daughter who kept her face turned away from her Mom. By turns, Marty looked scared, defiant, sad, confused and angry. The overall impression Lois got was that, emotionally, her daughter was running on empty.

Clark had said that Marty didn't feel able to talk about the attack yet, but maybe there was something else that they could talk about. Lois thought for a long moment. "Honey," she said, causing Marty to jump. "Your Dad said that you don't want us to push you to talk about… well, you know. But that doesn't mean that we can't talk about other things."

"Like what?" Marty asked, her voice audibly shaking.

"Like the fact that you're not the only woman in the world who's ever been fooled by a man."

"You wouldn't have been!" Marty spat out, defiant angry protest written all over her face.

Lois smiled, sardonically. "You'd think so, wouldn't you?"

Her daughter sat up straight, her face shocked. "You mean you were!"

"Oh, yeah." Lois grimaced. "I've never really talked about it — oh, your Dad knows the basics — but I didn't go into details. And I haven't thought about it in years, but once upon a time, I thought… No, I knew that I was in love." Lois glanced at Marty to discover that she had succeeded in fully engaging her daughter's attention. "This was well before I ever met your father," she added as a look of distaste spread over Marty's face.

"What happened?" Marty asked, leaning forward towards her mother.

"I was young," Lois said. "New at the Planet. Your Uncle Perry had made it very clear that he'd taken a chance by hiring me, and that he eventually expected great things from me. I thought he meant 'immediately' and I went to work each day in a state of complete and total panic. I didn't know what I was doing.

"Working for the Planet was a far cry from working for a student newspaper. And every day, it seemed like I was tripping over something else that hadn't been covered in my journalism classes." She took a sip of coffee, met her daughter's eyes and grinned. "In other words, I was a complete and total idiot. I acted like I knew everything while inside I was screaming for help. I pretended to be more confident than I really was. No wonder people called me 'Mad Dog Lane.' I always told people that it was because I had a reputation for really sinking my teeth in a story and not letting go, but the truth of the matter is, everyone called me that because they'd scatter whenever I came into the room, and they all had this almost uncontrollable urge to shoot me!"

Marty giggled, her eyes dancing.

"So, there I was, muddling through my days, treating every story like it was a Pulitzer Prize winning story — did I ever tell you that in my first three months on the job, I was banned from three different cat shows? — all the while, panicking inside. In other words, I was completely and totally vulnerable. And then it happened."

"What? What happened?"

Lois grimaced. "Claude. Claude happened." She glanced up at her daughter briefly, before continuing. "He was French. Got transferred in from the overseas desk about five months after I'd started at the Planet." Lois thought back to her first impression of him, a rueful smile on her face. "Tall, good-looking, sophisticated, charming, and with this incredibly sexy accent. I took one look at him and just melted into a puddle."

Marty shifted in her chair. "I don't believe it. Not my Mom."

Lois grinned at her. "But I wasn't your Mom then. I was barely twenty-one. In some ways, my life was incredibly sheltered. I had never had much of a social life even when I was in College. I'd been so focused on my studies I hadn't dated much. I'd dated casually, but I tended to run the other way whenever anyone expressed a serious interest in me. I can thank your Grandma and Grandpa Lane for that. I had their example of 'How to Ruin Your Life in Ten Easy Steps' in front of me all the time. So, in other words, I had no frame of reference when this incredibly gorgeous man walked into my life."

"What happened?"

Lois shook her head before looking Marty in the eye. "Basically he seduced me. He asked me out, he fussed over me, he treated me like a princess. For the first time in my life, I felt special. I mean I must have been desirable if I had this gorgeous, fantastic guy drooling over me, right? It was a whole different world from having pimply-faced kids asking me to go steady. I fell for him hook, line and sinker."

"You said that he fooled you."

"Oh, yeah, he did. By the time he was done with me, I'd had my eyes opened to the world and the creeps in it." Lois glanced at Marty, a little worried as to how she'd take this next revelation, but continued anyway. It was more important that Marty see that she wasn't alone, than it was for Lois to retain her dignity in front of her child. "So, anyway, when I said he'd seduced me, I meant that literally. After we'd dated for a couple of weeks, he asked me to, uh, invite him into my bed. I was nervous — I'd never been with a man — but I convinced myself that it was okay because I loved him." Lois paused and took a deep breath. She blew it out slowly before continuing, "So I did."

"You mean Dad wasn't your…"

"My first? No. I wish he had been, but he wasn't."

"Then what?"

"Okay, then he, uh, joined me in bed, we finally went to sleep and when I woke up in the morning he was gone. Not only was he gone, but all my notes on a major breaking story were gone, too. He won a Kerth for that story!" Lois exclaimed, the last sentence bursting out of her mouth.

"Oh no!" Marty's mouth hung open.

Lois leaned forward and rested her hand on Marty's arm. "I told you this so you'd know that anyone can be tricked. Honey, Stride was obviously a consummate actor. He was manipulative and cunning. I don't doubt that you really loved what you saw. Unfortunately, what you saw wasn't real. Just like what I loved about Claude wasn't real either."

Marty looked at her, her eyes troubled. "So what's the solution? How do you find out what's real or not?"

"Take your time," Lois said, firmly. "Get to know people for who they really are. That's what I did with your father. We were best friends long before we were lovers. We didn't rush into anything, and I'm glad. Anyone can be a good actor for a day or two, but eventually, if it's just an act, over time you'll be able to tell."

"You've really given me a lot to think about, Mom. Thanks."

"You're welcome, sweetheart. I'm glad. That's really all your Dad and I want to do, you know. We both want to help. And I'm really sorry about last night. We won't push like that anymore. It's just that we wanted you to know that we're there for you. Okay?" Lois's voice broke on the last word.

Marty smiled, her eyes glistening with unshed tears. "Okay." With a rush, she moved to her Mom's side and pulled her into a fierce embrace. "Thanks," she whispered in Lois's ear.

***

The rest of the weekend was quiet. Ben came over twice a day to look after the horses, but didn't stay long as he got a lot of emergency calls over the weekend and was chronically short on sleep.

Marty and her parents took lots of walks and played cards in the evening. Mostly what Marty did was think.

She thought about Stride and how he had swept her off her feet. She'd been too trusting, too vulnerable. She'd thought she'd been in love. What was there about him that had made her feel that way so quickly?

He was gorgeous, Marty had to admit. Never mind that his exterior hid an ugliness of soul beyond compare, he'd been incredibly attractive. But she knew now that someone like Ben, who was not considered good-looking, actually had more beauty inside than someone like Stride could ever have.

Stride had played upon every one of Marty's weaknesses, which was another very bitter point. He'd made her feel desirable. He'd made her feel special. Just like Claude had made her mother feel.

And then he'd used her. Just like Claude had used her mother.

She and her mother had both been pawns. In their turn, they'd each been a means to an end. Oh, both men had taken their pleasure from the situation, Marty thought bitterly, but they'd both had another more important goal in mind.

A vagrant thought flew into Marty's head. Her mother had been abused — oh, not as violently as Marty had been — but she must have been left with issues about sex and men. And yet, her Mom had fallen in love with her father. Marty knew that they had a very sensual and loving physical relationship. So her mom must have been able to deal with her fears. Did that mean that there was a possibility that Marty might be able to as well? She hoped so because right now the thought of a man touching her in any way remotely sexual was enough to turn her stomach. Even when her father had touched her in comfort, she had flinched momentarily.

Marty didn't want to be left with a lingering fear of physical intimacy. She had always dreamed of having the type of loving relationship her parents did. She wanted marriage. She wanted children. She wanted her husband to be her best friend in the whole world. She'd dreamed of someday passing this farm on to one of her children who would love it as much as she did.

But what man would want her? How could anyone respect a person who had been tricked so thoroughly? Who could ever trust her when she'd been a participant in her own victimisation? Who would be patient enough to wait while she sorted through her fears? No one, she told herself bleakly. And yet… Her father had been there for her mother. He'd been her friend, her partner at work, and he'd waited until her mother felt able to give herself to him body and soul.

Her father was a special man. Marty didn't hold out too much hope that she'd ever find anyone who could measure up to him. He had a gentleness to him that was unexpected. He treated the weak with respect and dignity. When it came to his superhero duties, he discharged them with fairness and equity no matter how unpleasant they might be. For a second, an image of Ben scraping the smelly pus out of Diamond's infected hooves came to her mind, but she pushed it away continuing to focus on her father. Her Dad was special.

Thinking about her father made Marty's thoughts turn to the uncomfortable Shadow situation. Her father hadn't pushed her, but Marty knew that questions were being asked in the media as to why Shadow had only done one rescue and then had vanished from the scene. She supposed that she should don her costume once more and take to the skies, but it held no appeal for her. She'd suffered from too much violence up close and personal to want to expose herself to more. And, to be blunt, Marty didn't trust herself. She didn't feel that she could restrict herself to the use of appropriate amounts of force if she were to be confronted with any kind of assault or abuse situation. What kind of role could Shadow possibly have in society if she didn't feel competent to deal with violence?

Marty was fully aware that she needed to make a decision soon about Shadow, but she just wasn't ready. Which reminded her. She needed to thank Maria Ramirez for her supportive role during the whole thing, but she didn't want to see the woman. She was afraid that just looking at Maria would bring back all those feelings of pain and terror that she just wanted to forget, but Dad had said that Maria had been asking for her — that she was worried about her. She'd force herself to see the woman once, and then, courtesy satisfied, she'd be able to forget about her.

Marty's thoughts went round and round until by the time the weekend was over, she'd analysed her circumstances to death. But she felt a little better, a little more able to cope with life — as long as it didn't throw any more curve balls at her. Please God — no more curve balls!

***

Sunday evening, Clark, with Lois cradled in his arms, flew home to Metropolis in a much happier mood than he'd been in when they'd left Friday afternoon. Marty was doing so much better than they'd expected, although she still hadn't been able to bring herself to open up to them. Even so, there wasn't this overwhelming sense hanging over them of something evil hidden in the shadows. No, even though Marty couldn't talk about it, the full extent of what Stride's attack on her had entailed was now revealed in the light.

Marty had agreed to consider going to a Rape Crisis Centre. As Lois had pointed out, she could fly anywhere in the world and go to one anonymously. Just the fact that Marty had agreed to consider this was grounds for cautious optimism.

Clark understood how Marty might feel uncomfortable talking to her parents about the details of Stride's attack. How many times had he written editorials about sexual abuse espousing that the central issue that needed to be addressed was violence and not sex? And how many times had he interviewed victims of this type of abuse who stated that it was entirely about sex? Sex that had been used to hurt, to dominate, to diminish, and to humiliate. No, he understood exactly why Marty found this so difficult to face and so hard to talk about, especially with her parents.

Stride had attacked not only her body, but also her deepest sense of self. He had invaded her being, both physically and emotionally. It was going to take a lot of hard work before Marty was free of him. Clark wondered if she ever actually would be completely free. He hoped so.

He wanted his daughter to have what he and her mother had. She deserved happiness. She deserved a family of her own, separate from her parents and her siblings. She deserved children. He was sure that she'd be a great mother.

Even though she had none of that at the moment, she was fortunate. She had a loyal friend in Ben. He was good for Marty. Clark was very grateful that Ben could lift her spirits the way that he had.

Ben was a good man. He was gentle but with a good solid core to him. Clark had always liked the man, but had been newly impressed by his patience and sensitivity in dealing with Shadow and the horses. He treated the animals with a great deal of dignity. Ben was a good friend to Marty. She was lucky to have him in her life.

As a matter of course, Clark x-rayed his home as he approached. "We have company," he announced to his wife.

"Who?"

"Vicky's home from Sam and Astrid's. Bernie and Jimmy are there, too. They ordered in pizza. Looks like they saved us one."

Lois bristled. "I won't be happy if there are mushrooms on ours. Vicky knows how much I hate mushrooms!"

Clark quickly scanned the boxes. "No worries, honey. There's an untouched mushroom-free pizza staying warm in the oven."

"Okay, that's all right, then," Lois said, mollified.

Much later, after many slices of pizza, the adults got up from the table, ready to move into the living room. To her disgust, Vicky was deputized to clean up the kitchen.

"When you're done with the dishes, then go do something," Lois instructed her daughter.

"Like what?"

"Oh, I don't know. Do your homework or something."

"Mom! It's summer. I don't have any homework. Besides, I think I know what Uncle Bernie wants to talk to you about. Can't I listen, too?"

Lois looked at Bernie, her one eyebrow raised in inquiry. He nodded before heading into the living room. "Okay," she said. "But dishes first."

Vicky grinned and sprang into action. Not as fast as her siblings or her father, she still managed to have the kitchen cleaned up in about thirty seconds.

Lois laughed.

"What's so funny?" Vicky asked.

"When I think of how many times I could have used that kind of speed when I was a kid…" Lois ruffled her daughter's hair affectionately and grinned at her.

Vicky giggled and gave her mother a quick hug. She was about to follow her father and her two uncles into the living room when Lois put her hand on Vicky's arm, stopping her.

"Honey, are you okay with everything?"

"With what, Mom?"

"Your Dad and I have been pretty busy with Marty lately. We've been spending a lot of time with her, and you've been shuttled off to your brother's every weekend. I feel guilty."

"It's okay, Mom," Vicky assured her. "I understand. Marty's in pretty rough shape right now, and she needs you. Things will calm down again. Sam and Astrid have been pretty good to hang with, anyway. I'm comfortable there. Uncle Jimmy's great, too. He took me to the Fudge Castle last weekend. He said something about going to a movie next weekend."

"You're sure you're okay? That you don't need me?"

"I'm sure." Vicky nodded emphatically. "And of course, I need you. We all do. But sometimes one of us needs you more than the rest. Right now, it's Marty's turn."

Lois smiled. "You're a pretty smart kid!"

"I know," Vicky said, grinning.

"Pretty cheeky, too!"

"I've been told that before." She winked at her mother and pushed past her into the living room. Lois shook her head and followed her daughter.

Bernie paced back and forth in front of the couch. Vicky plunked herself down on the floor in front of her father, and Jimmy and Clark shifted over to make room for Lois to sit down beside her husband.

"Okay," Bernie said, clearing his throat, "I've got some preliminary results for you from my testing."

"Good," Clark muttered in an aside to the others. "I'd hate to pee in a cup for nothing!"

Choking back chortles, the four of them waited for Bernie to continue. He grinned, having overheard Clark's comment, but kept talking, obviously preferring to ignore his friend.

"Jimmy, there is a real and valid reason for you to still look so young. When Clark shared his life force with you, he also shared some of the benefits of being Kryptonian with you. You really are going to live longer than the norm, and you will age a lot slower than a normal person would. You'll probably make at least 110, possibly more."

Lois glanced over to see the expression on her friend's face congeal. This didn't look to be welcome news. She remembered her conversation with him from a few months before when he had confessed how much he dreaded the prospect of watching Lee grow up in front of him, an untouchable child instead of the vibrant woman that he had known in the past.

"Clark, you sacrificed some of your longevity for your friend," Bernie continued. "So, you have given up a portion of your lifespan. Judging from tests that I ran in the past on you, before the whole incident happened, I'd say you cut your lifespan by a quarter at least. Originally, I really do believe that barring accidents or other unforeseen circumstances, you could reasonably expect to live to be about 175. Now, however, I expect you to make, oh, around 130."

Lois gasped and squeezed Clark's hand a little tighter as she eyed him warily. He looked upset as he returned the gentle pressure of her hand on his.

Seeing the distress on Clark's face, Dr. Klein held up his hand to hush him. "I know what you're going to say. You don't want to live longer than Lois, am I right?"

"Yes," Clark answered with a loving glance at his wife. She held his hand lightly in her own and gently ran her thumb over its back in response.

"Not to worry, Clark. I ran more tests on Lois and Astrid, too, and discovered something really remarkable. Lois and Astrid are also aging at a slower rate."

"What?" Lois exclaimed, not sure how she felt about this new development. "But Clark didn't share any of his life force with me, so what gives?"

Bernie smiled. "It's his aura, Lois. And Sam's aura. We've always known that Clark can extend his aura to protect you when you're flying. It looks like it's even more efficient at protecting you then we thought. Right now, barring any unforeseen circumstances or accidents, I think that you, too, could have a similar lifespan to Clark."

The four adults fell silent. Clark wrapped his arms around Lois and laid his head against hers as they sat in the pensive quiet.

"Hey, Mom!" Vicky piped up, brightly.

"What, honey?"

"You know that necklace of yours that I like so much?"

"Uh huh."

"Well," Vicky said with a grin. "I think you should give it to me now. If I have to wait until you're dead, I'll be too old to wear it!"

The adults burst into laughter.

"Vicky, has anyone ever told you that you're a cheeky brat?" Jimmy asked as he wiped mirthful tears from his eyes.

Bernie chuckled. "I did just the other day, Jimmy." He cleared his throat. "Which brings us to the second thing I wanted to talk about. It's big."

"What is it?" Clark asked, seriously, responding to the solemn expression that had come over Dr. Klein's face.

"It was your daughter's idea," Bernie said. "She can be pretty smart at times."

"Why, thank you, kind sir," Vicky replied, as she got up and mock-curtsied in response.

Before she could sit back down, Bernie extended his hand to his honorary niece, handing her his keys. "Would you go and get it for me? It's in the trunk of my car."

"Sure." Vicky zipped over to the door, opened it and then proceeded at normal speed down the steps to the driveway.

Bernie watched her go with a serious expression on his face. "That daughter of yours gave me an idea that should prevent what happened to Marty from ever happening to anyone else."

"What?" Lois and Clark looked at each other blankly before turning as one to their friend. Jimmy, too, leaned forward, eager to hear more.

As Vicky returned to the room, carrying an unwieldy piece of machinery, Bernie started to talk. And talk. And talk some more. Once Lois, Clark and Jimmy understood the possibilities behind the Kryptonite Geiger Counters, they were all set to try them out that night. It was with a great deal of reluctance that they agreed to defer the testing.

"It's going to take a long time to check everywhere in the world, though, isn't it?" Lois asked, eyeing the machine.

"Not as long as you might think," Bernie replied. "After I'm sure that the prototype is as efficient and effective as it can be, I'll make four more. We'll have to make up a search grid. Clark and the kids should be able to pinpoint all the Kryptonite locations fairly quickly, but then will have to wait while those of us who aren't super-powered retrieve it for disposal — just like you had to wait when I cleaned up that Smallville construction site a few months ago. This isn't perfect; we won't be able to find out if criminals have stockpiled it in lead-lined safes, but it's a start."

Clark stood up suddenly, strode over to his startled friend and firmly grasped his shoulders. "Thank you, Bernie. And thank you, Vicky," he said as he moved to her side and pulled her into a tight embrace. "I am so sick of Kryptonite always turning up at the absolute worst time… Like when I was targeted by Trask…"

"Or Diana Stride," Jimmy pointed out.

"Or Luthor," Dr. Klein added.

Lois flinched. "Or when Marty literally stumbled over the stuff in front of Stride's son…"

Clark turned back to Dr. Klein. "And now you're telling me that this kind of accident won't happen anymore. You're telling me that there's a chance that no one's going to hurt any of my children ever again… I can't even begin to tell you how I feel, Bernie."

"How we feel," Lois corrected him as she moved closer, too. "You've been a good friend to us for many years, but this… This is…" Lois wiped a tear from her eye.

Dr. Klein roughly cleared his throat. "I wish we'd thought of it before. I wish Marty hadn't had to go through what she did." He, too, wiped a tear away.

Vicky moved away from the emotional adults to sit beside her Uncle Jimmy. Not paying any attention to his long face, she muttered, "Adults," in a disgusted tone of voice. "I just don't understand them. This is a good thing, and look at them! They're all just about bawling their eyes out."

"You'll understand someday," Jimmy said, "when you're older."

Vicky groaned. "Ack! You sound just like them. Uncle Jimmy, you've gone over to the dark side!"

Startled into laughter, he grinned at her and winked. "So will you one day," he replied.

"Not me," Vicky responded irrepressibly. "I'm not ever going to get old like you guys."

Clark looked up in shock. "What did you just say? What did you say, young lady? Old! Did you just call us old?" He pounced on her in a flash. "I'll show you who's old." His hands moved in a blur on her back.

"Dad, no!" Vicky squealed. "That tickles!"

"I know!" he exclaimed, grinning. "It's called revenge."

"I give! I give! Uncle!" Vicky yelped.

"You called?" Bernie asked, a completely deadpan expression on his face.

Clark burst out laughing and stopped tickling his daughter.

Vicky caught her breath and surveyed the adults who were strewn around the living room in various stages of hilarity. "Did I say 'old'?" she asked plaintively. "I should have said sadistic!" She turned on her heel. "I'm going to my room," she said stiffly. "Good night."

The adults exchanged amused glances at the air of insulted dignity that Vicky had put on. After a moment, their conversation picked up once more as they continued to discuss all the ramifications of the information they'd received.

***

Maria Ramirez paced around her small apartment wondering what she should do. She wanted to call Marty Kent and see if she were okay, but she was very much afraid that Marty would not want to hear the voice of someone who had been a witness to the degrading attack she had suffered. Maria had been close to calling a couple of times, but her fear had always held her back.

But Clark had said that he thought it was a good idea for her to call. She wanted to call. Maria sensed that Marty Kent was someone she could really like and be friends with, if Marty were willing, that is.

And she really did want to be there for Marty. Okay, yes, they weren't friends yet, but whom did Marty have to talk to besides her family? It would be good for her to have another woman to open up to, whom she didn't have to hide anything from. Maria didn't want to ever forget that it was because of Marty that she had her big break in journalism. And she was grateful to Marty's father for helping her to maintain her new reputation as a go-getter reporter with great sources. She wanted to pay Marty and her family back for their help. She needed to.

Maria's hand hovered over the phone as she tried to marshal the courage to pick it up. She took a deep breath, tucked the receiver under her chin, and dialled, only to hear it ring shrilly on the other end. An answering machine clicked on. Maria sighed and replaced the receiver in its cradle without leaving a message.

She spun around when she heard a light tapping at her open window. Maria was shocked to see the figure of Marty Kent hovering there. Marty was completely dressed in black spandex, a hood covering her hair.

"Hi."

"Hi," Maria said, stiffly.

"May I come in?"

She nodded.

Marty clambered through the window and stood awkwardly just inside. She looked poised for flight.

"So…" a stunned Maria said. There was silence for a long awkward moment. "Um, what can I do for you?"

Marty jumped. "Oh, yes, I, uh, wanted to thank you. I should have done it before, but I just couldn't… I wanted to but… Thank you for protecting my family. I appreciate it. They appreciate it. Not many reporters would have done that."

"You're welcome. I'm glad that I could help," Maria answered, formally.

"Uh, okay, then, I guess I'll say goodbye…" Marty turned to the window.

"No!" Maria exclaimed, hastily, one hand outstretched. "I mean you can if you want to, but… I just wanted to say… Um…"

"What?"

"Is there anything I can do?" Maria blurted out. "Do you need someone to talk to? I really want to help if I can. I feel so bad about what happened."

"It's okay," Marty said, quietly, her hands resting on the window frame. She cleared her throat and repeated it a little louder this time. "It's okay. I… I appreciate the offer. I really do, but…"

"It was awful being there — seeing what he did to you," Maria said, interrupting. "I thought he was going to kill you right in front of me. He was crazy. Absolutely nuts. I could see it in his eyes." She stared off into space as she talked, reliving the whole thing in her mind.

Marty slowly turned to face Maria. "I thought he was going to kill me, too," she confessed. "I was more worried about my parents, though. He hated my father so much. I didn't know it was possible for one person to hate another that much."

"I thought he was more creepy when he talked about his mother. He loved her so much, and she's such a total psychopath. How could he not see that?"

"I know," Marty agreed, nodding her head. "He believed everything that she'd told him over the years and refused to listen to anything Dad or Mom had to say about it."

"You know, your mother thought he was going to kill you, too," Maria said. "I could see it in her face, and hear it in her voice when she told him to leave you alone. She didn't even hesitate, Marty. She blurted out exactly what he wanted to hear. She would have done anything to get him to leave you alone. I would have, too," Maria added in a soft voice.

"Thank you." Marty roughly cleared her throat.

"I'll never forget what you did for me," Maria said earnestly. "If it weren't for you, I'd still be in Puerto Rico fighting with the other reporters for my chance at a story. I wouldn't be in Metropolis making a name for myself. Thank you."

Marty looked down at the floor. "I… It's okay. I just thought that you seemed like a decent person, and, well, I wanted you to have the story about… Shadow. I didn't want those other sleazoids to benefit from my debut."

Maria giggled at the description of her former colleagues who were still languishing in Puerto Rico. "Did you see the look on their faces as you took off with me in tow?"

Marty laughed.

"Why don't you come all the way in and sit down?" the young reporter suggested.

Marty nodded and sat down on the small couch beside Maria.

The two women talked for a long time. They talked about the first time they had met. They talked about Maria's career and the super help that it had received from time to time, and how grateful she was for that help. They talked about Paul Stride and how he tried to justify his attack on Marty.

She didn't share all the details of the attack she'd suffered, but Marty did find herself talking a little bit about what it had been like to be at a madman's mercy. She shared with Maria her fear and her hopelessness, her panic when her parents had arrived and when she realised that they were prisoners, too. She talked about her horror at the sound of the shot that had so grievously injured Shadow — almost killing him. She didn't talk about what Stride did to her; instead, she talked about how he had made her feel.

From there, they moved on to compare life experiences. Marty reminisced about growing up in a 'super' family. She told about how she'd discovered her father moonlighted as Superman and her reaction to her discovery. Maria giggled when she heard that Marty's first reaction had been that it was really 'cool' that her Dad was a big superhero. She chortled when Marty told her about her classmates in high school having crushes on her father and how 'icky' that had been.

Maria shared stories of her early life, too. Her family sounded like a warm and loving close-knit community. It was Marty's turn to snicker when she was told of the momentous dance recital wherein Maria fell off the stage and landed on her dance instructor. She hooted with laughter upon hearing the long and tortuous tale of Maria's first date.

Somehow the conversation shifted and they talked about Ben and the horses. Marty told Maria about the abuse they had suffered, and how Ben was tending to them so carefully. She described vividly how caring and sensitive he'd been with Shadow as her dog had struggled for his life. Marty talked about how grateful she was that Ben had been so persistent in trying to get her to come out of her shell.

Their conversation started to wind down.

"Thank you," Marty said, quietly as she looked down at her hands folded in her lap.

"For what?"

"This is the first time that I've been able to talk about it," she replied, lifting her eyes to meet Maria's. "I couldn't before." Marty pushed back her hood and ran her hands through her hair. "My parents wanted me to. My friend, Ben, wanted me to. But I just couldn't."

"Maybe that's because they're too close to the situation," Maria suggested. "Sometimes it's easier to talk to a stranger than a friend. Not that I'm a total stranger, but…"

Marty blinked back tears. "Yes…" She cleared her throat and tried again. "You're right. It was easier to talk to you because we're not friends. But I'd like us to be," she admitted, shyly.

"Me too!" Maria blurted out, extending a shaky hand towards Marty.

Marty clasped it firmly and shook it. "It's a deal," she stated firmly.

The two women grinned at each other.

"So, what's with the all-black outfit?" Maria asked. "What happened to the snazzy Shadow suit?"

Marty sighed heavily. "I don't want to wear it. I don't want to be Shadow right now." She went on to explain how she didn't feel able to cope with any more violence at the moment. "I don't even want to think about how I'd react if I caught some guy beating up his girlfriend."

"Ouch! I see what you mean. But can't you still be Shadow, and be more, oh, I don't know, selective in what you do?"

"What do you mean?"

Maria looked off into space thinking hard. "Who says that everyone in your family has to fight crime? Maybe you could focus on something completely different."

"Like what?"

"Well, you live in Kansas. Don't you get a ton of tornadoes there? Isn't there something that you could do to help when that happens? What about other states that flood every spring? Or the northern States that get hit with blizzards every winter? It seems to me that you could find enough to do just with severe weather patterns and other types of ecological problems, that no one would be surprised if you didn't fight crime."

Marty stared at Maria incredulously. "That's brilliant! I love it."

"So, you'll do it?"

"I think so. I'd want to talk to Mom and Dad first, but it really appeals to me. I was never that interested in fighting crime anyway. Those city patrols are really boring," she confided to Maria.

The young reporter giggled. "Okay, here's the deal," she stated firmly. "It's my idea so when you're ready to make the announcement, it's my story! Okay?"

Marty grinned. "Okay!" She stood up and moved to the window. "It's getting late. I better go. But I'm going to talk to Mom and Dad tomorrow, and I'll let you know what we decide as soon as possible. Write the announcement. You can clear the wording with me when I call you back, and then it's yours."

"Great! I'll wait for your call."

"Actually, maybe I'll zip back into town to tell you in person, if that's okay."

"Great!" Maria repeated. "Why don't you come for dinner tomorrow night?"

"Sounds good. I'll talk to you later." Marty launched herself out the window.

"Bye!" Maria called, leaning out the window. She was acknowledged with a wave as Marty zipped out of sight.

Maria stumbled back into her small living room and sank down on a chair. It had gone so well. They'd had so much to talk about. Maria felt excited and hopeful. She desperately wanted this burgeoning friendship with Marty to go well.

***

Over the next week, Marty saw Maria three more times. On the first night, she checked over the story to make sure she liked the phrasing of it and gave her the go-ahead to make the announcement of Shadow's new focus.

Her parents had been all in favour of the plan. Her Dad, especially, was very happy that Marty was choosing her own way to use her superpowers. He'd always said that what was right for him might not be right for his kids.

There hadn't been much of a reaction from the public to the announcement. It wasn't as if Superman, Starfire, and Sunstorm were going to stop fighting crime. And it wasn't as if Shadow would ignore a transgression if it took place right under her nose. Other than a few environmental groups lobbying Shadow for her support, the general public barely gave her decision any notice.

After vetting Maria's story, she'd stayed for dinner, and they'd had a wonderful time. Their conversation had been lively and interesting. Other than Ben, Marty had never had a best friend before, but Maria certainly seemed to be evolving into one.

Marty felt a little better each day. Ben still came over every day to work on the horses, and Marty enjoyed his company very much. They joked and laughed and played with the horses, but it felt different being friends with Maria. The two women related to each other in a completely distinctive way. They could talk about practically anything.

A couple of nights after their dinner, Maria and Marty went to a movie together, and had laughed at all the funny lines and had applauded as the hero and heroine got together.

The night after that, Marty took Maria flying. They went shopping in a street bazaar in Cameroon, and then went swimming surrounded by dolphins in an isolated bay on one of the Greek Islands. Maria kept shaking her head and saying 'I can't believe this is happening!' Marty offered to pinch her, but Maria turned her offer down in a hurry.

As they lay on the beach basking in the hot sun, they had a conversation with unsettling implications for Marty, however.

Maria spread sunscreen liberally all over her exposed flesh, arranged a comfortable wallow in the sand, and turned to Marty to say, "Ben seems like a really nice guy."

"He is," Marty answered. "I know he is. We've been friends since we were kids."

"Any possibility of you two being more than friends?"

"Me and Ben? No."

"Why not? I think he's kind of cute. Don't you?"

"Ben!" Marty exclaimed. "He's just… Ben. I don't think about whether he's cute or not."

"Well, I think he is," Maria assured her. "Oh, not 'Hollywood' handsome, but he has really nice eyes and a great smile. I have a feeling that he has a pretty great body under his clothes."

An image of Ben stripped to the waist and wrestling with the horses flashed through Marty's mind. She could have opened her mouth and assured Maria that, yes, Ben was nicely built, but found herself strangely reluctant to do so. She didn't like hearing Maria speculate about her friend. She didn't like hearing Maria tell her that he was cute.

"He's just Ben," Marty repeated, dismissively. "I don't worry about his looks or his body. That's not why we're friends."

And the conversation then shifted to a wickedly detailed, point-by-point breakdown of the physical attributes of the newscaster that Maria normally worked with. Maria was caustic and witty in her analysis of his physique, and Marty was breathless from laughing so hard.

The next time Ben came over to tend to the horses, though, Marty caught herself eyeing him as he worked. Ben had always been a dorky looking kid with big ears and a slightly crooked nose. He still had both attributes but somehow, now, they seemed to just… work. It was almost as though he'd needed to grow into his face. He wasn't good-looking in a classical sense, but Marty found, after thinking about it, that she liked his looks. His warm personality, his kindness and his quick intelligence were written all over his face for those with eyes to see them.

She almost wished that Maria hadn't said anything to her, though. She wasn't used to thinking about Ben as a man. He'd always just been her friend — the guy that she'd gone on hikes with, the buddy who went swimming with her at the old quarry. It was a new and slightly uncomfortable feeling to flush with warmth when he regarded her with his devastating blue eyes.

She wondered about the new feelings she had. She didn't feel the same animosity for Ben as she did for other men. Before, she would have said that, like her father, brothers and uncles, she didn't really see him as a man, and therefore, he couldn't threaten her. But now her eyes were open, and yet she felt that he still posed no threat. It was very confusing, and somehow hopeful. Did the fact that she trusted Ben mean that someday she might learn to trust others? That some day she might be able to share her life with another in complete intimacy? She hoped so. She wanted children. She wanted her own family. And she wanted love. She just wasn't willing to chase it anymore.

For the first time in months, Marty allowed herself to feel somewhat hopeful. She started to think about the future more than the past, and she started to believe that some day she just might be able to move on.

She felt so optimistic that she even banished her dog from her bed one night. Unfortunately, her nightmares returned full force. She wasn't freed from her fears just yet.

***

"… to date, the police department has had little to no success dealing with the resurgence of gang warfare in Hob's Bay. And, at this moment in time, another innocent child is fighting for her life in the hospital, innocent victim of what is becoming all too commonplace in this part of Metropolis — a drive-by shooting. This is Maria Ramirez reporting from Hob's Bay."

"Okay, we're clear, Maria."

"Thanks, Allan. Excuse me for a moment, would you? I see someone I know," Maria said, graciously to her cameraman. "Clark! Lois has you covering this, too?" she shouted as she crossed the street to greet her friend on the opposite sidewalk.

"Uh huh," he answered. "It's a big story. A sad one, but a big one."

The two of them stood alone, the inevitable onlookers dispersing and heading home now that Maria was done taping.

Maria moved close to him and softly said, "This must just kill you, Clark. I know that you've been spending a lot of extra time here the last few days. But Clark, I don't think that you could do anything more. What else is there that you could do?"

Clark smiled, but it didn't touch his eyes. "Have you been talking to Lois? You just repeated what she says to me all the time."

"Your wife is a pretty smart lady, Clark," Maria answered, patting his arm gently. "You should listen to her."

"I always listen to her, but that doesn't mean that I don't feel guilty when an innocent toddler gets gunned down in the street."

"I know. But unless a shooting happens right in front of you, what chance do you have of stopping it? You're fast, but you're not that fast."

Clark shook his head. "I know, but that's no consolation to that poor little girl's mother."

"I guess when you're a parent, there's nothing worse than seeing your child in pain."

"Yes," Clark said, simply, his poker face slipping for a moment.

"Oh, I'm sorry," she exclaimed. "I didn't mean to remind you…"

Clark grimaced. "Everything reminds me of Marty and her situation, Maria. Everything. Which reminds me — thank you for making that great suggestion about," he lowered his voice, "Shadow."

Maria flashed him a brilliant smile. "You liked that, did you?"

"I did. I want my kids to do their own thing, not to feel that they have to fill my shoes."

"Boots," Maria murmured.

Clark grinned quickly and continued, "Marty tells me that you two are becoming good friends."

"I really like her, Clark. We have a lot in common, and we've been having a heck of a lot of fun. Of course, I haven't had too much sleep over the past week, but a good night's rest is highly overrated anyway!"

He laughed. "Don't let her wear you out. She has a bit of an advantage over you when it comes to sleep."

"True," Maria said, "but I'm having so much fun that I'm not too worried about being sleep-deprived. Anyway, Clark, I better get back to Allan so we can take our tape back to the studio. I'll talk to you later. Say 'hi' to Lois for me, okay?"

"Will do, Maria. Great to see you. If anything new develops with this, I'll make sure you get another exclusive."

Maria pointed a finger at him. "I'll hold you to that, Clark. I was just thinking that it's been a while since my last one!" Her grin showed that she wasn't serious. Well, maybe a little serious.

Clark grinned back, but didn't say anything. Maria waved as she strode confidently across the street.

Clark made a last few notes and headed off around the corner. Talking to Maria had certainly helped lift his spirits. And knowing that she and Marty were friendly, doing all the fun things that friends should do, made him feel happier than he had in months.

Clark knew what it was like for Marty to add someone to her support network. He could remember the bone-chilling loneliness he'd gone through when he'd been younger. He'd always had his parents, but at times, they really hadn't been enough. He'd wanted a friend, too, but he hadn't known whom he could trust. At least he hadn't until Lois came along. Even before she'd found out about his secret identity, he'd shared more with her than he'd ever shared with any one of those friends who'd come before her. He'd learned quickly that Lois was someone that he could count on.

Maria had already shown herself to be someone that they could all count on, too. She knew the truth and had demonstrated that she was willing to protect that truth. She was a trustworthy friend, and Clark was glad that Marty had her in her life. Marty needed a friend.

Clark's enhanced hearing kicked in. He heard a volley of shots ring out behind him and the squeal of tires. And screams. He heard people screaming for help.

He ran for an alley and a second later, soared into the sky. His heart heavy, he wondered if any more innocents had been hurt in this latest escalation of gang violence.

***

After checking Gem's lungs and Diamond's hooves, Ben was very pleased. "Look at this, Marty," he said, pointing at the hoof he still had hauled in the air. "This is healing up very nicely."

As Marty leaned in to solemnly regard Diamond's hoof, he could feel the heat radiating from her body and smell the fresh clean scent of her hair. He yearned to be able to take her into his arms and tell her how he felt. It was all he could do to not pull her to him and plaster her with kisses. Every time he saw her, he fell more and more in love with her. She was the most special woman he had ever known. And one of the most gorgeous, too. It was strange how she was so beautiful, and yet, seemed to be completely unaware of it.

But it wasn't time to tell her how he felt, no matter how much he wanted to. She wasn't ready.

One of the women he had talked to on the Help-Line had said that the worst thing about being assaulted sexually was that suddenly almost every man that she knew became automatically suspect in her eyes. She'd said that she had started to wonder about the men she worked with, about her friends' husbands, about men she'd gone to school with. She'd said that it had been months and months but she still couldn't even entertain the possibility of trusting a man. Over the phone was one thing, but if Ben had ever suggested meeting her in person, she would have run away as fast as she could.

Ben hated having to hide his feelings, but he didn't want to be painted with the same brush as Stride was. He figured that it was the better course of valour to act in a completely asexual way around Marty, and try to distract her from the fact that he was a man and she was a woman — a very desirable woman, in fact.

"How much longer until we can ride them, do you think?"

Ben forced his thoughts back to his two charges. "Probably another month, at least," he replied as he let go of Diamond's hoof and straightened back up. "They're starting to muscle up quite nicely, but they're not there, yet. Gem's lungs, though, are almost completely cleared up. She might have some residual weakness if she catches a cold, but we'll deal with that when the time comes. Diamond's always going to have a bit of a problem with his hooves, but a good set of shoes should alleviate it a great deal."

"Good," Marty said, simply as she patted the gelding's neck. He turned his head and regarded her with calm, liquid eyes. "Oh, who's a good boy," she cooed as she continued to stroke Diamond. Ben gritted his teeth as a wave of envy rushed through his system. What he wouldn't give to hear her talk to him in that tone of voice! Although he'd prefer to hear a more… adult sounding compliment at the same time!

Marty and Ben turned the two horses out into the field and gave them their hay and refilled their water buckets.

"Do you want to stay for dinner, Ben? Mom and Dad should be here soon — at least, they should be if Superman's not too tied up." Marty had got into the habit of having Ben stay for the odd meal. From the way she invited him, though, it didn't seem to have any significance other than that of friendship.

"Sure," Ben agreed, hastily. "So, does Superman ever stay and visit — you know, have a meal with you guys or does he head out right away?"

A mischievous smile passed over her face. "I always ask him to eat with us. Sometimes he does — if he has time."

"Oh." Ben felt quite intimidated at the prospect. What if the superhero chose to stay tonight? Ben couldn't even imagine asking Superman to pass the bread. He couldn't imagine even trying to make small talk. A small part of him really hoped that Superman wouldn't have the time to stay for dinner, but most of him was quite excited at the prospect.

They strolled to the house and started getting dinner ready. They each assumed roles that were becoming customary, both of them moving easily around each other to start cooking. Ben worked on preparing the salad while Marty put together a simple casserole. He cleaned up their respective work areas while Marty set the table. All the time, they talked companionably about a little of this and a little of that. This was heaven, Ben thought. Absolute bliss. He wanted Marty to be by his side always and forever. But what chance was there of that, he wondered, sadly.

"Hmmm, they're a bit late," Marty said. "Mind if we put the TV on and catch the news? If Superman's really swamped, they might not make it till much later. I mean, they could ask Starfire or Sunstorm to bring them, too, but he's been their friend a lot longer so they tend to wait for him."

"No problem," Ben replied as he followed Marty to the small den. He suddenly realised that, in all the weeks he'd been coming here to visit, he'd never been invited into the living room. Why was that, he wondered. He didn't think it was personal. She didn't seem to use the room at all.

Marty switched on the TV and they settled onto the overstuffed comfortable couch. She surfed through the various channels until she found KLTV from Metropolis.

"… and now with more on this breaking story, here's senior correspondent, Susan Howard."

"That's Maria's boss. I wonder why she's taking this story," Marty mused.

"I don't know," Ben murmured, his attention focused on the screen.

The camera panned over a street scene. There were knots of people scattered around, police officers everywhere, and in the distance, a shrouded body. They could see the police photographers taking pictures. Standing over the pitiful figure sprawled on the ground, stood Superman, his back to the camera. He didn't look right, Ben thought. Normally, Superman looked more rigid and formal in all the pictures Ben had ever seen of him, but now his shoulders were slumped, every line of his body expressing dejection and pain.

Beside him, Marty leaned forward with a gasp, her eyes never wavering from the images on the TV.

The image of an older woman, her face drawn and her expression tight, filled the screen.

"Gang warfare is nothing new. Innocent victims are nothing new, either. A little girl fights for her life in hospital after a drive-by shooting this morning. And another innocent victim lies there…" The woman moved her arm in a sweeping gesture at the scene behind her. "… shot down in the street in a second shooting incident." She paused and took a deep breath. "I can't tell you her name — her next of kin have not yet been informed of her death — but I can tell you that she is one of journalism's own."

Marty gasped again, her expression troubled.

"It's not your mother," Ben hastily assured her. "I'm sure it's not your Mom. Superman's a good friend of your parents. He'd be more upset if it were your Mom, don't you think?"

Marty nodded. "You're right. And she's an editor; she doesn't normally go out into the field. That's what my Dad does."

The scene changed as Superman finally moved. He crouched down beside the body and laid a hand gently on the still figure in front of him. Then he got up and walked slowly and solemnly towards the cameras, not seeming to notice the small gathering of reporters in front of him. Ben had never seen such a sad, mournful expression on the superhero's face before.

The correspondent turned and readied her microphone. "Superman? What can you tell us about what happened today?"

"No comment, if you don't mind. I'm very saddened by this newest bout of violence, and I'm not ready to talk about it." Superman's voice was grim, his expression bleak.

At that moment, a reporter whose microphone bore the call letters for YRTV — a tabloid-style news station — pushed in front of Susan Howard and thrust his mike under the superhero's nose. "Superman? Can you confirm that the woman killed was Maria Ramirez from KLTV?" he shouted in Superman's face. Beside him, Susan Howard crumpled, her shoulders hunched over, her hands flying up to hide her face.

The camera panned in for a close-up of Superman. An intensely angry expression spread over his face as he leaned closer to the young man. "What are you doing?" he asked, loudly. "What the hell do you think you're doing? Her family hasn't been notified!" Superman glared at the reporter as he flinched back from the enraged superhero. "Get out of my way. You disgust me! You don't deserve to be called a journalist." Superman pushed past and launched into the sky.

Ben clicked off the TV and turned to Marty. He felt awful. Poor Maria! He'd only met her once, but she'd turned out to be a very nice person.

Marty sat as if frozen, her face white, her eyes bleak.

"That's awful!" Ben exclaimed. "I feel terrible. She was so nice."

Marty nodded, her expression unchanging.

"Are you all right, Marty?" he asked, starting to be a little worried over her pronounced reaction to this news.

Marty paused, looked at Ben and then slowly shook her head.

"You're not all right?"

Marty tried to say something, but the words seemed to stick in her throat. She roughly cleared her throat and tried again. "She was my friend," she whispered. "I saw her a lot… Superman and his kids helped us to get together."

"Oh, I'm so sorry," Ben said, softly, his heart aching for her.

Marty hunched over, her arms wrapped around her torso. She began to rock back and forth. "She was my friend," she repeated, her eyes looking lost and confused. "I need fresh air," she blurted out before jumping to her feet and rushing out of the room.

Ben leapt up and hastily followed her. He found her on the back porch, looking out over the yard in front of her. She had completely closed in on herself, her arms still wrapped around her torso, and her shoulders hunched. She looked so pitiful in her grief that Ben was moved to step forward to stand behind her. "I'm so sorry, Marty," he said, simply as he gently laid his hand on her shoulder. "I'm so sorry."

"Don't touch me!" she wailed. In a lightning quick flash, she spun around, hefted his hand in hers and continued the spin, letting go and pushing outwards violently.

Ben flew through the air, everything happening too fast for his mind to take in. He landed on the grass with a bone-jarring jolt, a sharp stabbing pain shooting through his right arm. He was in the field? How? What? The last thing he saw as the darkness beckoned was Gem's surprised brown eyes looking down at him as she thoroughly chewed her mouthful of hay.

***

Pain. He was in pain. Sharp, stabbing agony. His whole arm throbbed in time to its rhythm. Dull aching body. Metallic taste of blood in his mouth. Pain blossoming behind his tight-shut eyes, stomach roiling in response.

His brain didn't seem to be working right. He couldn't get past the images in his head of the world whirling by in a flash underneath him. He still felt the sensation of his body flying through the air, but he couldn't remember exactly why he'd decided to do that. Or how. He guessed that it had seemed like a good idea at the time, but he couldn't help but wonder why. What had he been thinking?

"Ben? Ben, can you hear me? Can you open your eyes?"

Ben didn't want to, but the voice was insistent so he tried. He managed to squint up at the figure above him, silhouetted by the light in the room. Ben didn't recognise the man. "You have a really high forehead," he blearily assured the stranger, his head feeling as though it were packed with cotton wool.

The man chuckled. "Uh huh. That could be because I'm bald. I'm Marty's uncle, Dr. Klein. I'm here to help you."

"Oh, right, Marty. Is she okay? Where is she? Did she go flying, too?" Ben tried to sit up, only to collapse moaning as his arm protested the pressure he'd put on it.

"Don't move! You've got a broken wrist that I have to look after."

Ben was happy to comply. He didn't think he could move again even if he wanted to. Which he didn't. Ever.

"Don't worry about Marty. She's fine. At least she was before. Now that your mother's with her, I'm not so sure if she'll stay that way." The doctor laughed again.

"What? What do you mean? My mom? Why aren't you sure?" Ben shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts, but immediately wished that he hadn't. His headache was fierce.

"No, relax, it's okay. I was just making a joke. Your mother's fine. Marty's fine." Dr. Klein patted Ben soothingly on his uninjured arm. "I want to clean up some of these abrasions, and then we'll splint that arm of yours. Just lie still. This might feel cold."

As Dr. Klein swabbed his various scrapes and cuts with alcohol wipes, Ben tried to make sense of what the man had just said. It didn't make any sense to him. If only he could think straight…

The very loud background noises started to clarify into words and voices.

"… Clark, you just stay out of this! That's my son. He's hurt, and I want to hear what your daughter has to say for herself!"

"Rachel, please, you need to calm down…"

"Like hell, I need to calm down! He has a broken arm, a concussion and who knows what else is wrong with him. So don't you tell me to calm down, Mr. High and Mighty Superhero!"

"I didn't mean it, Mrs. Palmer. I'm so sorry…" Marty's voice was strained and hoarse. "I'd never hurt Ben on purpose…"

"Why doesn't that reassure me, Marty? Maybe because you sent my boy flying about thirty feet through the air, and he got hurt when he landed? You think the accident part of this is going to reassure me?"

Dr. Klein moved away from the bed and firmly closed the door. The angry shouting was muffled, but not eliminated. "You don't need to hear that right now, Ben. There will be time to talk about all of this later."

"But that was Marty… And my mom, she sounded upset. I need to talk to them."

"Later. Don't worry about your mom. I suspect that a lot of what you heard is her frustration that I kicked her out of the room. She was too upset to keep you company. Once she calms down, I'll let her back in with you. Right now, I want to clean up that arm and put a cast on it. I'm going to give you an injection of a local painkiller. Even so, it's still going to hurt, but hopefully it won't be too bad. Okay?"

Ben nodded. He just wanted this over with.

Dr. Klein had explained that he was just going to have to tough it out overnight — that he had a concussion and that any kind of sedative could be dangerous in his condition. But his words didn't make a lot of sense to Ben. He tried to grasp their meaning only to have them flow out of his head like water through a sieve.

By the time Dr. Klein had finished setting Ben's wrist, the young man was shaking and nauseous. The sharp ache of his broken arm had faded a bit, turning itself into a generalized painful throbbing. Exhausted by the experience, his head still feeling muzzy making it hard to think, Ben fell quickly asleep.

Bernie Klein quickly cleared up, checked to make sure that Ben was resting comfortably and left the room, leaving the door ajar behind him. It was going to be a long night. Ben would have to be awakened every hour to make sure that his concussion wasn't too severe, and that he wasn't having any problems.

He headed into the kitchen, intending on bracing himself with a cup of coffee, only to be confronted with three worried faces.

Rachel Palmer's countenance was rigid with barely controlled rage. Every line of her body shouted out righteous anger. Dr. Klein had to admit that he had been panicked by the frantic phone call from Marty summoning him; how much more panicked would Rachel have been by her own phone call from Marty? From the way Marty had described what had happened, Dr. Klein had been expecting Ben to be a pulverized heap on the ground. No wonder Rachel was overreacting.

By the time, he had located Clark and they had flown out to Smallville, Rachel had managed to beat them to the farm by a couple of minutes. Where had Clark been, Dr. Klein wondered. He would have expected him to be here by his daughter's side or to be with Lois.

Clark looked more exhausted than he'd ever seen him. He'd finally managed to find a second to spin out of his Super suit. When they'd first arrived, he'd been forced to step in front of Rachel as she'd taken her anger out on Marty, and even the second required for Clark to change his clothes would have been a second too long away from that very touchy situation.

Marty sat, white-faced and shaking, her hands clasped tightly in her lap, and her shoulders hunched in protectively. Her eyes locked on his in a desperate mute plea for reassurance. Bernie nodded at her before turning his attention to Ben's mother.

"He'll be fine," Bernie said, hastily, addressing Rachel directly. "He does have a concussion, a few scrapes and bruises, and a broken wrist. It's a clean break and should heal in a month or two."

With an angry glare at Marty, Rachel blurted out, "How in the world is he going to make his living with a broken wrist? He's a vet. He can't do his work with only one hand."

"I'll help him," Marty offered, in a meek voice.

Rachel spun to face her. "You? Yeah, right! You'll help him just like you helped him earlier today. Maybe this time, you'll help him to a broken neck instead of a broken wrist!"

"Rachel!" Clark exclaimed loudly. "You're not being fair. Marty didn't mean — "

"I don't feel like being fair, Clark," Rachel interrupted. "I don't want to be fair. Why should I be fair when it was your daughter who just about killed my son? What's fair about that, I ask you!"

"Mrs. Palmer, please." Marty's voice was choked with tears. "I didn't mean to hurt Ben. I really didn't. And now that I have… Now that he has a concussion and a broken wrist…" Marty took a deep breath. "Mrs. Palmer, I know that I'd die before I ever hurt him again. I'd die before anyone or anything else could ever hurt him." She brushed moisture away from her cheeks. "Ben's my best friend. He's been my best friend since I can remember. He's really done his best to be supportive of me since… well, you know. Please give me the chance to make this up to him. Please give me the chance to help him the way that he's helped me."

Clark and Dr. Klein both forgotten for a moment, Rachel and Marty regarded each other solemnly. The older woman's expression softened by an infinitesimal amount as Marty made her impassioned plea. Rachel took a deep breath and then blew it out slowly. "Yeah, okay, if it's all right with Ben. He might not want anything to do with you after all this."

"It'll be his decision, I promise," Marty vowed solemnly.

"Plus you have to get your emotions under control, Marty. I know that you've been under a lot of strain recently, and I know that what happened to your friend today must have felt like the last straw…"

Marty nodded, turning even paler. Her eyes welled up anew with fresh tears.

"… but I'll tell you something. If it weren't for the fact that it would be totally ridiculous to do so, I would have been tempted to arrest you for assault, today."

"Rachel!" Clark interjected. "I can't believe that you would have ever done that."

"No, I wouldn't have, Clark, if only because I don't know how I could have made it stick without revealing your secret. Even so, it was tempting. Marty, boxers who hurt people out of the ring can be prosecuted for using deadly force just because of who they are, and what they've been trained to do. When you get angry, your whole body could be considered a lethal weapon. For that reason, you have an even greater responsibility to prevent your emotions from running away with you." Rachel leaned forward, her eyes locked on Marty's. "I want you to promise me that you'll try to deal with everything that's happened — the attack by Stride, Maria's death, the whole shooting match. I want you to promise me that you'll talk about it, either to your family or your friends or to a counsellor. I know that it will be hard, Marty, but I don't see where you have a choice. Okay?"

Marty nodded, a chastened expression on her face. "Okay."

"All right. Now that that's settled, I'm going to go and sit with my son." She pushed herself up from the table.

"I'm not going to stay, Mrs. Palmer. He'll be just fine. But you will have to wake him in an hour," Dr. Klein informed her. "He has to be awakened once an hour all night and into tomorrow."

"I'll help with that, Mrs. Palmer," Marty offered tentatively. "If that's okay…"

Rachel nodded at Marty. "All right," she agreed stiffly. "You can come and sit with me in a bit."

"I'll take Dr. Klein home and be right back with Lois," Clark said, standing up.

"No," Rachel told him. "Two of us should manage. Any more people might be too disturbing for Ben. Marty and I will be fine."

"Marty?" Clark asked, looking at his daughter in concern.

"Mrs. Palmer's right, Dad. We'll be fine. I'll let you know if I need you. Okay?"

"Okay," Clark agreed, reluctantly.

Rachel nodded curtly and left the room.

"So…" Clark said to his daughter. "At least Ben's going to recover."

Marty burst into tears. "I could have killed him!" She buried her face in her hands.

Clark stepped forward and folded her neatly into his arms. "But you didn't," he murmured. "He'll be okay."

"Your dad's right, honey. He's young and healthy; he'll bounce back," Dr. Klein assured her as he awkwardly patted her back. He and Clark exchanged worried glances over the top of her bowed head.

Marty raised her face from its resting place on her dad's shoulder to look at her uncle with a tentative smile. "Thanks for coming, Uncle Bernie. I didn't know who else to call. And thanks for bringing him, Dad."

"That's okay, sweetheart," Dr. Klein said. "You know that I'll do anything to help you. Any time. Sometimes I feel like you're my daughter, too." He turned to Clark. "I'm going to wait for you outside, okay? Don't rush. Marty, make sure you call me if you need me."

Marty nodded in response.

"Thanks, Bernie," Clark said with a grateful smile. He watched as his friend headed out into the late afternoon sun. Turning back to his daughter, he asked, "So, are you okay?"

"I'm pretty upset," Marty admitted, sniffling a bit. "Poor Ben." She heaved an enormous sigh. "And poor Maria. I can't believe it."

"Neither can I," Clark said, pulling away from Marty and sinking back down onto his chair. "I'd just seen her two minutes before." He looked up at his daughter with stricken eyes. "If I could have done something, I would have, honey. I… It happened so fast… There was nothing I could do…"

"I know." Marty sat down and took her father's hands in hers. Squeezing them gently, she continued, "You did everything that you could, but sometimes, there's nothing more that can be done."

"Yes." Clark shook his head. "I didn't want her to die, honey. I liked her. She… she reminded me of how your mother was when we first met."

"I liked her, too," Marty said, softly. "We were just starting to get to know each other… We had fun together. I think we were becoming really good friends." She paused for a second. "I could talk to her," she blurted out, her face distressed.

"She felt the same way about you, you know. She told me earlier today… She told me that she really liked you, and that you had a lot in common."

"Oh Dad!" Marty dissolved in fresh tears.

Clark pulled her into his arms and held her close as she cried on his shoulder. Crooning tunelessly under his breath, he rocked her back and forth in a rhythm as old as time.

"Why? Why did this have to happen? Why Maria?" Marty sobbed. "It's not fair! It's not fair!"

"I don't know, sweetheart," Clark murmured. "You're right. It's not fair," he agreed, softly. He buried his face in her hair as he rocked her, his own heart breaking.

She stayed in his arms for a long time, struggling to regain her composure in the wake of Rachel Palmer's lecture to her. Finally, she lifted her head and asked the question that weighed the most on her. "Was she in any pain … when it happened?"

"No, honey," Clark was quick to assure her. "It happened so fast. She didn't look… She looked… surprised."

Marty nodded, her face blank of emotion. "Such a small thing to be thankful for, Dad." She slowly moved out of her father's arms, her whole body stiff and aching from the strength of her anguish. "You better take Uncle Bernie home. I have to go and help Mrs. Palmer."

"Are you going to be all right? Rachel's still pretty upset."

"I'll be fine," Marty said with a bleak smile. "Besides, I deserve everything that she could possibly say to me."

"Honey," Clark said, reprovingly.

"It's okay, Dad. I'll talk to you later. I need to go and make things right with Ben."

"Okay, sweetheart." Clark kissed her tenderly on the forehead, cupped her face in his hand for a brief caress, and then left, the kitchen door swinging shut behind him.

Marty took a deep breath, slowly exhaled and headed up the stairs. She had to face Ben's mother. And she needed to face Ben.

***

Clark dropped Bernie off at Sam and Astrid's. He visited with his son and daughter-in-law briefly, all the while wondering how rude it would be to leave quickly. Sam commiserated with him about Maria's death; Clark only nodded in response. His emotions were too close to the surface to discuss the tragedy casually, even with his own son.

He left as soon as it was possible, heading home without any deviations from his course. He wasn't so far lost in thought that he didn't check for it to be safe before he swooped down and landed in the shadows of the sheltered back yard, however.

Clark didn't notice the tangle of flowers in the fragrant garden that he and Lois had taken such care in planting. He didn't notice the neatly manicured lawn or the comfortable garden furniture. He only had eyes for one thing. Lois. She stood at the kitchen window, looking out into the dusky night sky, waiting for him.

He strode up the slight slope, single-minded in his haste. She moved to meet him at the back door, flinging it open. As he ran the last few steps, she opened her arms wide, welcoming him into her embrace.

Their lips met, the shock of it still sweet even after so many years. Her hands came up to frame his face, her fingers splayed in his hair. Clark pressed himself against her slight body, letting her love wash over him, needing the shelter and protection that she offered freely.

He pulled back to gaze down into her warm brown eyes. "I love you," he told her, his voice shaking.

She reached a gentle hand up to tenderly cup his cheek. "I love you, too," she said, softly. She gazed up at him, her eyes luminous and compassionate. "Come on, sweetheart. Let's go in." Taking his hand in hers, Lois led Clark out of the darkness into warmth and light.

***

Rachel Palmer sat in a pool of light, her eyes never moving from her son's face. Marty sat opposite her on the other side of the bed, hidden in the shadows. Looking down at her hands lying limply in her lap, she was grateful for Rachel's silence, as Marty didn't know what to say.

Marty watched the minute hand on her watch inch its inexorable way closer to the time when they would have to wake Ben up. She would have given up any of her superpowers for the ability to stop the passage of time. She didn't know how to face him.

What was she going to say? How could she even begin to explain? She felt incredibly guilty that just the slightest touch of his hand had been enough to make her panic. How could she have treated her best friend in the whole world — her only friend outside her family, she thought sadly — like he was evil? How could she ever have confused his gentle and caring touch with the way Paul Stride had touched her? Marty shuddered at the memories.

Rachel's watch beeped, an incongruously cheerful sound in the dimly lit room. Marty jumped to her feet, her chair skittering backwards. Rachel glanced at her, one eyebrow lifted in inquiry.

"Are you all right?" the older woman asked.

Marty took two steps back away from the bed. "I shouldn't be here! I don't know what to say."

Surprisingly, Rachel Palmer smiled at Marty in reassurance. "It's all right. You just stay there. I'll look after him. Okay?"

Marty gulped for air. "Yes. Thank you. I'm sorry."

Rachel didn't say anything more to her, instead leaning closer to Ben.

"Ben, honey, I have to wake you up, sweetheart," Rachel cooed softly as she leaned over the bed.

Ben mumbled again — it sounded like 'Go away, Mom' — but his eyes remained stubbornly closed.

"Get up, Ben," Rachel said, a little firmer.

Still nothing.

Rachel glanced wryly at Marty before bending over her son once again. "A dog had a run-in with a porcupine," she told him sincerely. "You need to pull out the quills."

His eyes popped open. "What? Where?" He attempted to push himself up only to fall back onto the bed with a groan. Holding up his right arm, complete with cast immobilizing his wrist and extending to his fingers, he regarded it quizzically. "Huh?"

"It's all right, Ben," Rachel assured him, as she hitched her chair a little closer to the bed and sat back down. "I'm sorry, but I had to wake you. You have a concussion."

"I do?" Ben asked, narrowly missing whacking himself with his cast as he reached up to gingerly touch his head. "Huh?" he said again, as he looked at his cast once more.

"You also have a broken wrist," Rachel told him.

"I do?" he asked, sounding extremely confused.

"What do you remember?" his mother asked.

Ben shook his head and groaned again. "Not a lot, Mom. Just bits and pieces. I think… I learned how to fly tonight." His eyes were glassy and confused, his expression dazed. "But I don't know how to land yet. That's what got me into trouble," he told her seriously.

Rachel nodded solemnly. "Silly question, I know, but do you remember your name?"

"Sure I do, Mom. Why? Don't you remember your own son's name?" Ben asked, portentously.

Rachel gently stroked his hair back from his forehead. "Of course I do, honey, but I'm not the one who has a concussion."

"I have a concussion?"

"Uh huh."

"No wonder my head hurts."

"Is it bad?" Rachel cupped his cheek in her hand.

"No, it was worse before, but that guy — you know, the one with the really high forehead — he said I'd feel better pretty soon."

"You still haven't told me your name, honey," Rachel pointed out, smiling despite herself at his description of Dr. Klein.

He flashed her a brilliant grin. "You should know. You named me. Benjamin Frederick Palmer. Satisfied?"

"Absolutely."

"Where's Marty, Mom? What did you do to Marty?"

"I'm right here, Ben," Marty said, hastily stepping forward into the light.

He propped himself up on one elbow, his eyes blinking owlishly. Peering at her quizzically, he asked, "So what did Mom do to you? Are you all right?"

"She didn't do anything, Ben…"

"I didn't do anything, honey…"

The two women spoke at the same time.

"I heard you yelling," Ben said sternly to his mother. "Don't yell at her any more."

Rachel glanced guiltily at Marty. "I won't, sweetheart."

"Hey, Marty…"

"What?"

"Your uncle has a really high forehead!"

Startled into laughter, Marty patted him gently on his left shoulder. "I know, Ben. He's bald."

"Oh, that explains it. So, you're all right?"

"I'm fine," Marty reassured her friend.

"Good. I think I'm going to go back to sleep now," Ben said, yawning. His eyes closed on the last word.

"That's fine, son," Rachel told him. "We'll wake you again in an hour."

A snore was the only answer.

Rachel looked at Marty. "Coffee?"

She nodded. "Good idea. It's going to be a long night."

The two women quietly left the room and headed for the kitchen.

Marty silently poured Rachel and herself mugs of coffee, set out cream, sugar and spoons, and neatly arranged some cookies on a plate before sitting down at the kitchen table across from the older woman.

"I think he'll be okay, don't you?" Marty asked, tentatively.

"Yes." Rachel took a delicate sip of her hot coffee.

"He didn't seem too mad at me…" Marty's voice trailed off.

"No."

"Of course, he's pretty confused. I don't think he understands what happened yet."

"True."

Marty lapsed into silence, giving up for the moment. She nibbled on a cookie for a second, only to put it down on her paper napkin. She had no appetite.

"Stride raped you, didn't he, Marty?"

Rachel Palmer's words hung in the air for a long moment.

Marty took a deep breath, squeezed her eyes shut as tight as she could and nodded. "Uh huh," she whispered.

"I'm very sorry." Rachel's voice was sincere. "I suspected that he had, but I let it slide. I should have tried to get you some help."

"It's okay," Marty said, looking quickly at the older woman before glancing away again.

"No, it's not okay, Marty. It's just that, well, with your Dad being who he is, and you being who you are, I put the possibility out of my mind. I shouldn't have… I knew that Stride had Kryptonite, but I guess I just preferred not to know. I'm sorry."

"I… I really don't want to talk about it, Mrs. Palmer. Please." Marty could hear her voice getting higher and louder and more out of control.

"It's okay. I won't say anything more except… You're not the only woman in the world that this has happened to."

"I know," Marty said," but that doesn't make it any easier."

"No, I suppose it doesn't." Rachel frowned. She traced the edge of the serving plate with her finger. "I don't want you to think that all men are like that, though. Most men are honourable and trustworthy and decent."

"I know. Like Ben is. All the same, when he touched me… I just panicked. I hate that it scared me, but it did."

"Marty, I know my son. The last thing in the world he would ever want to do is to scare you. And he would never hurt you in a million years."

"I know," Marty whispered. "That makes what I did even worse."

"Ben won't see it that way," Rachel assured her.

"I wish I could believe that."

Rachel placed a gentle hand over Marty's. "I know my son," she said again.

Marty just nodded, unconvinced but not willing to argue the point with Ben's mother.

The conversation shifted to less weighty issues, to Marty's relief. They made desultory conversation about people and happenings in the town until it was time to wake Ben up a second time. And a third time. And a fourth time.

The conversations with Ben didn't vary by too much. He was still quite confused, almost drunk sounding. For some odd reason, he seemed to be a bit obsessed with Dr. Klein's head, and after discussing the state of the good doctor's hairline, he'd invariably lecture Rachel, upset that she'd yelled at Marty.

Sometime around two in the morning, Marty persuaded a half-asleep Rachel Palmer to head to bed in the guest bedroom. "It's all right," she told her. "I'll manage just fine on my own."

"Are you sure?" Rachel asked, struggling to suppress a yawn.

Marty smiled. "Yes. I can go a lot longer without sleep than you can."

"Well, there is that," Rachel conceded. "If you're sure…"

"I'm sure. Don't worry. I'll wake you up if I need you, okay?"

"Okay."

The next couple of conversations with Ben were much the same as they'd been with his mother. Marty stayed by the bed and watched him sleep in between bouts of consciousness. The solitude gave her ample opportunity to think about her friend Maria's short life.

She felt numb, thinking about Maria. It was so hard to believe. She'd been full of life one moment only to have a bullet rip that life away the next. It wrenched at Marty's heart.

Maria had had so much to live for. She had it all together. She'd had an up and coming career, she was very together in her social life — not dating at the moment, but that was by choice as she wanted to focus on her career. She had a large, loving family that she'd told Marty about. Marty's thoughts turned to her poor parents and her brothers and sisters. They must be absolutely heartbroken. And what a horrible way for them to learn about their daughter's death! Marty didn't blame her father at all for his uncharacteristic display of anger at the irresponsible reporter.

In turn, to her surprise, Dad hadn't blamed Marty at all for her own uncharacteristic loss of control. She was sure, though, that the lecture would happen in its own good time. For the moment, however, she was very grateful that he had held off. She wasn't looking forward to the upcoming admonitions.

How could Marty have lost it to such a degree as to hurt Ben? He hadn't done anything untoward. He hadn't said anything hurtful, he hadn't tried to hit her, he hadn't tried to do anything more overt than comfort her. All he had done was to lay his hand on her shoulder, nothing more than that. And she had half killed him.

She was no better than Stride. She knew that Stride had attacked her because of who she was, or rather, whose daughter she was. And she had reacted similarly strongly to Ben solely because he was a man. Never mind that he was completely different in every way from Stride. The only similarity between the two of them was anatomical. Being prejudiced against Ben because his anatomy had a little something extra than hers was like being prejudiced against him because his eyes were blue. It had nothing to do with what kind of person he really was.

With a pang, Marty remembered that Maria had liked Ben. Maria had said that he was nice, and that he was cute in a non-traditional way. Marty's eyes strayed to Ben's face on the pillow. Asleep, he wasn't the most attractive man she'd ever seen — oh, he wasn't ugly! — but he wasn't gorgeous either. His nose was a bit crooked, his mouth overly large, and his ears were big. But when he was awake, when he smiled at her, when he gazed at her with those lovely rich blue eyes, none of that mattered. He was very attractive, Marty realised. But her sense of him as an attractive man had nothing to do with his external looks, but was completely dependent on his personality. Ben's inner beauty spilled over to his outward appearance.

"Oh, Ben," she sighed, staring at his dear face, looking so battered and bruised. As she watched, his eyes flickered open.

***

"Hi, honey. What are you doing up?"

"I couldn't sleep, Dad. How about you?" Vicky answered as she sauntered into the kitchen.

"Couldn't sleep either," he answered with a wry grin.

"Some days I just feel as though I have energy to burn," Vicky told him. "I feel like I could fly around the world a few dozen times, and it wouldn't even wind me."

Clark smiled wistfully. "I remember. I used to feel the same way when I was your age. I wasn't flying yet, but I do remember running across the state of Kansas a couple of times in the middle of the night."

Vicky laughed. "Sounds like fun! I can't try that in Metropolis, though. Too many people out and about — even at four in the morning!"

Clark nodded as he sipped his tea. "Want a cup?" he asked, holding his mug in the air.

"Nah. Thanks, Dad." She got herself a glass of ice water and sat down across from her father. "So, what exactly happened yesterday? You didn't really tell me much last night."

Clark sighed, his expression becoming grim as he thought about the tumultuous events that had occurred the day before. "You know that Maria was killed, right?"

"Yeah," Vicky said. "It's too bad. She seemed nice."

"You didn't really get to meet her, but Marty, your mom and I all liked her very much. She didn't have as much to do with you or your brothers, though. Not by choice — it just worked out that way." Clark sighed again, and took another sip of tea. "Anyway, Marty got really upset about Maria's death, and she lost control of herself for a minute and, well, she didn't mean to do it, but she hurt Ben."

"What? You never told me that!" Vicky exclaimed, accusingly.

"I was pretty upset when I got in last night. I didn't want to go into details about everything with you. Mom and I weren't trying to intentionally hide anything from you, Vic, but…"

"It's okay," Vicky interrupted. "I know. So, what happened? Is Ben all right?"

Clark nodded. "He will be."

Over the next few minutes, Clark explained to Vicky exactly what had happened. He told her about Marty's friendship with Maria and how upset Marty was to learn that Maria had been killed. He told her how Ben had tried to comfort Marty, only to have Marty violently overreact to his touch and throw him into the field. He explained that Ben had a broken wrist and a concussion and that Marty was going to be helping him with his work. He told her about Rachel being upset.

"I just don't get it, Dad. Okay, yes, Marty was attacked and beaten up, but she's all healed now. Why would she overreact? It's not like Ben could ever hurt her. He doesn't have Kryptonite, and even if he did, he'd never use it." Vicky regarded her father solemnly, her expression puzzled.

"Everything's black and white in your world, isn't it, Vic?" The warmth of his regard ameliorated the harshness of his words.

"I don't know what you mean."

"I've noticed this before," Clark pointed out. "Things are either right or wrong in your opinion; there's no in-between. When something's over, it's over, and you put it out of your mind."

"Well… yeah," Vicky admitted. "So what?"

"So, as you get older, you'll realise that life doesn't work that way all the time. A lot of the time, the world around us is made up of shades of grey."

Vicky shook her head. "I don't get it."

"I know you don't, but somehow, I feel that it's time that you do. Get it, that is." He paused, studied the dregs of tea in his mug for a second and then looked up. "I want you to go with your mom and me today."

"Go where?"

"Go to Puerto Rico. Superman… is going to fly us there so we can visit with Maria's family. You did know her, honey, not well, I know, but even so, I think you should pay your respects."

Vicky nodded. She'd accompanied her parents to funeral homes before. It was nothing new.

Much later in the day, Vicky found herself standing in the middle of a crowded living room being scrutinized by a throng of Maria Ramirez's relatives. Her mother had stepped away to sign the guest book, her father was talking to Maria's two aunts in fluent Spanish, and Vicky felt quite alone. The whole atmosphere was alien to her. The older people in the room were sombre and solemn while Maria's youngest relatives darted in and out of the horde of people playing 'tag' and 'hide and seek.' The table in the adjoining dining room was laden with more food than Vicky had ever seen gathered in one spot before, and more and more arrived all the time.

The noise grated on her sensitive ears as the voices around her conversed in rapid-fire Spanish. Clark had made sure that all his children had been grounded in the rudiments of the major languages of the world, but these conversations were far beyond Vicky's rather tenuous grasp of the local dialect.

After a few minutes spent trying to look very inconspicuous, all the while conscious that she wasn't succeeding, Vicky was very relieved to be joined by her parents once again. They slowly pushed their way towards a couple who were the focus of everyone's attention in the room. Maria's parents, Vicky assumed.

Finally, the three Kents were face to face with an older man and woman. The man's face was lined and sun-worn, reminding Vicky that Maria had said that her father was a fisherman. The woman looked lost, her eyes blank. She was somehow not present in the room. Her body was, but her mind and her heart and her soul were elsewhere. She looked up, however, when her husband nudged her.

"It is Clark Kent and Lois Lane and their daughter, Victoria," Maria's father told her mother in heavily accented English.

Vicky smiled slightly at the couple, feeling foolish and unsure of herself. Should she smile at them? Was that wrong to do when they were grieving? Or would they understand that she was just trying to be polite and respectful of them? Vicky had never felt this out of place in her life.

She didn't know how to behave in this atmosphere. It had been different when her grandparents had died a few years ago. Then, she'd known practically everyone at the funeral home and the funeral. Then, she'd been one of the children and hadn't been expected to be all grown up. But now, her parents had made it more than clear that she was to behave as an adult.

Maria's mother's eyes narrowed in thought as she looked at the three outsiders standing in front of her. "Clark Kent and Lois Lane," she repeated, dismissing Vicky from her focused attention. "You are friends of his, I believe."

"Of his?" Clark asked.

"Of Superman," Mrs. Ramirez said, flatly.

"Yes," Lois replied. "He flew us here today…"

"You are not welcome here," Maria's mother said, heatedly.

"Isabella!" Mr. Ramirez exclaimed, loudly. "Stop this!"

"No, I will not!" Mrs. Ramirez half-shouted. "I will be heard!"

The room fell silent.

"I'm sorry. I…" Clark started to say.

"His friends are not welcome here. I blame him! I blame him," she repeated. "Why was he not fast enough? Where was he when my Maria needed him?"

Vicky took a step back, her eyes going back and forth from her parents to Maria's parents and back again. Lois looked very distressed as she quickly glanced at Clark before looking back at Mrs. Ramirez.

"That's not very fair," Lois said. "Superman felt badly…"

"I don't care how Superman feels!" Mrs. Ramirez blurted out. "What does he know? Does he know the pain of losing a daughter in the prime of her life? Does he know the pain of holding her limp body in his arms?"

"Isabella, stop this!" Mr. Ramirez said once again. "Superman did all that he could. You know that. He is only one man. He cannot be everywhere at once!"

Mrs. Ramirez rounded on her husband. "But she is dead, Luis! Our Maria is dead!"

He regarded her solemnly. "I know, Isabella," he whispered. "But you need to remember. There is nothing that anyone in the world can do that will change that."

Mrs. Ramirez looked at him for a long moment, her face frozen in anger, until suddenly her expression crumpled, and she broke down in tears. Another older woman wrapped her arms around Mrs. Ramirez's shoulders and led her sobbing from the room.

Mr. Ramirez watched her go, his expression troubled. Turning to face Clark, Lois, and Vicky, he sighed heavily. "I am sorry. Please forgive my wife. She is overcome by her distress."

"It's all right, Mr. Ramirez," Lois said, softly. "We do understand."

Clark nodded emphatically at Lois's words.

Vicky stood slightly behind her parents, feeling even more awkward and out of place.

"Superman is a very good man," Mr. Ramirez continued. "It is hard for my wife to remember that right now." He sighed once more. "When you see him, I wish for you to thank him for us…" His voice trailed off.

"To thank him?" Clark asked, his expression troubled.

Mr. Ramirez nodded. "Yes. Please thank him for coming and telling us about Maria in person. He was here before anyone else had a chance to phone and tell us they saw that horrible story on the news. He has a kind heart. It is true; it would have been much worse for us to have found out from the television."

"I'll tell him," Clark said, softly. Lois nodded. As Vicky watched, her mother gently squeezed her father's hand, offering him love and reassurance. It was something that Vicky had seen her do often, but somehow, today, it had extra significance.

Maria's father's attention then turned to Vicky. "And this is your daughter," he stated. "You are a lucky girl to have such fine parents. My Maria always had many wonderful things to say about them. And you are both lucky," he said, turning to Clark and Lois, "to have such a beautiful daughter. I do hope that you… treasure her." His voice broke.

Lois started to reach out her hand to his arm, but he stepped back, took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. She let her hand fall back to her side. "We are very sorry for your loss," Lois said, simply.

He nodded in response.

Clark and Vicky both murmured their condolences once more. Mr. Ramirez acknowledged them, and then the three Kents slowly made their way from the room. Vicky didn't think she would ever forget the sight of Mr. Ramirez, his heart breaking, standing in full view of the crowd, with great dignity solemnly accepting the condolences of each individual that approached.

Vicky and her parents were silent until they had moved out of sight of the Ramirez home.

"How do you stand it, Dad?" she asked. "How could you stand there and listen to Maria's mother blame you for her death?"

"I do it, because I have to," he stated bluntly.

"We know that Mrs. Ramirez needed a scapegoat. She needed someone to blame, and Superman was an easy target," Lois added quickly.

"I wouldn't do it," Vicky said, firmly. "Life's too short for that kind of thing."

"That's a coward's way out," Clark said in response. "All sorts of people are called upon to do all sorts of unpleasant duties that they'd rather not do, but they do it, because these are tasks that have to be done by someone. I'm sorry that Mrs. Ramirez holds me to blame, but my shoulders are broad, and I can take it."

"Your dad's done it before, and he'll do it again," Lois agreed, a proud expression on her face. She regarded her husband fondly.

They paused and looked around. No one was in sight so Clark quickly spun into his Superman suit. Vicky swiftly followed his lead, changing into her plain black Spandex outfit.

"Okay, you first, Vic," Clark said, moving closer to his daughter. "Think you'll be able to make it all the way home this time?"

"I hope so, Dad. I think my flying's really getting better, don't you?"

Clark grinned. "Once we get you into the air, that is. Ready?"

Vicky nodded.

Clark bent down, cupped his two hands together and Vicky placed her one foot on top.

"We'll talk some more at home, honey," Lois said.

Vicky nodded.

"One, two…" her father counted. She didn't hear him say 'three' as he thrust her violently into the air. Her arms extending straight over her head for balance, Vicky concentrated on not losing altitude as she angled her body towards the mainland. She couldn't seem to launch herself into the air, but once she was there, she could maintain her flight.

It only took a few seconds for her parents to catch up with her. They didn't talk to her, though, as it had been discovered that Vicky couldn't maintain her flying ability when she was distracted. However, she was able to think at the same time as she soared through the air. The one thing that kept running through her head was that she still didn't get it. She still didn't understand why her parents would put themselves into unpleasant situations when they didn't have to. She didn't understand why her father would be willing to take the blame for something he had no control over. And she still couldn't see those darned shades of grey that he had told her about!

***

Ben slowly opened his eyes. He didn't want to. Even his eyelids hurt. But the insistent pressure of his bladder told him unmistakably that he had no choice in the matter.

"Marty?"

"Hi, Ben," she said softly from her position beside the bed.

He peered at her blearily. She was a little out of focus around the edges, but his head felt a lot clearer than it had before. He had vague memories of strange conversations that he'd shared with both her and his mother, but he couldn't seem to remember exactly what had been said.

"Could you help me get up?" he croaked, his throat extremely dry.

"You shouldn't get up just yet," Marty said, solicitously.

"No, you don't understand. I have to get up!" he said, urgently as he fumbled his feet over the edge of the bed. "I have to, you know, go!"

"Oh. Oh! Of course. I'm sorry." Marty carefully supported him as he sat up on the side of the bed. As he got to his feet, he leaned on her heavily. Slowly and ponderously, they made their way to the bathroom that was across the hallway from Marty's bedroom.

Ben shut the door behind her and swaying slightly on his feet, hurried to relieve the insistent pressure of his bladder. After, he turned to the sink and awkwardly washed his hands before studying his bruised and battered countenance in the small mirror. His mind felt strangely detached from his body.

"There's an unopened toothbrush on the counter," Marty called through the door.

Ben picked up the package in his left hand and regarded it quizzically, his gaze moving from it to his right hand in its cast. He finally cracked the door open an inch and peered out at Marty's worried face. "Would you open this for me?" he asked as he passed the toothbrush out.

"Oh, yes, sure," she answered hastily as she quickly opened the package. "I never thought… I'm sorry…"

"It's okay. I can see that there's a lot I'm going to have to adjust to," Ben told her as he took the toothbrush back from her.

He closed the door and awkwardly managed to brush his teeth left-handed. He couldn't believe how hard it was to do something like this, something that he had taken for granted the day before.

"I never before realised how emphatically right-handed I am," he told Marty as he opened the door once more.

She was quick to sling his left arm over her shoulder and support him on his unsteady trek back to the bed. And then she was quick to fuss over him, helping him to swing his legs up, to cover him warmly with the blankets and to plump up his pillows. Finally, nothing left to fret over, Marty sat back down and regarded him seriously.

He studied her face, seeing the worry written plainly and clearly all over it. "It's all right," he told her, wanting to get everything out in the open.

"What is?" she asked, softly.

"I know you didn't mean to hurt me."

"Oh, Ben!" Her eyes moistened, and she looked down at the comforter covering him. As he watched, she blinked rapidly, obviously struggling to maintain her composure. "I'm so sorry," she stammered. "I'm so completely and totally sorry."

"I know, Marty. I am, too."

"You have nothing to be sorry for," she said, glancing up at him quickly before looking down once more. "It's all my fault."

"No, I am sorry. I'm sorry that you were hurt so badly. I don't blame you. I blame him."

Marty looked up at him again, a completely stricken expression in her eyes. "You know? You know what he did to me?" she asked, sounding distressed.

Ben nodded. "It was easy to figure out. I'm so sorry, Marty. I'm so sorry that he caused you such pain. I wish I'd been home. If I had been, maybe I could have done something…"

"Oh, Ben!" Marty wailed. "I half kill you, and you apologise to me! Why? You should be yelling at me! You should be furious with me! I don't deserve this. You shouldn't be so… so nice… so understanding! Why are you being so nice to me?" Her hands were clasped in front of her chest as she stared at him.

He gazed deep into her eyes. "Because I love you."

"What?" Marty jumped back from the bed.

"Because I love you," he repeated.

"Oh, yeah, okay, I guess… Yeah, of course you love me. I mean we are best friends, and we've known each other for years, and…"

"No. I love you the way a man loves a woman. I'm sorry if that scares you. God knows I don't want to scare you. But somehow I can't seem to gather the energy to hide my feelings from you tonight. I love you. I want you to be happy. I want to be the one to make you happy. I never want you to be hurt again, and I'll do everything in my power to prevent that from happening."

"I don't know what to say…" Marty's voice trailed off.

"You don't have to say anything," he told her. "I know that you're not ready for this yet. I don't know if you'll ever feel as though you are ready. I know that this is coming out of left field, and I know that you haven't thought about me that way. I know that you may never think of me that way."

"So why tell me?" Marty asked, moving slightly closer to him once more.

"I don't really know. I guess we could blame it on my concussion. I don't seem to have any kind of… I'm not sure what to call it… any kind of internal censor tonight. I seem to be saying pretty much whatever I'm thinking."

"Oh." Marty sat back down, still looking away from Ben. She didn't say anything. Neither did Ben. He was content to study her and watch the play of emotion across her beautiful face as she thought about his words. "Um, how's your head?" she asked, looking across at him.

"Wondering if I'll forget all about this conversation?" he asked with a slight grin.

Marty half-smiled and flushed, inclining her head in agreement.

"Not a chance," he told her emphatically. "Once the morning comes, I may regret spilling the beans, but I'm not going to forget this. No way."

"So, do you remember… everything that happened earlier?" Marty asked, tentatively, her body tensing as he watched.

He nodded sadly. "I'm so sorry about Maria."

"I am, too. You know she liked you. She told me so."

"I liked her, too," Ben said, softly. "I didn't know her well, but I did like what I saw of her."

"That wasn't what I meant, though, when I asked you what you remembered. Do you remember what happened… after we found out about Maria?"

Ben smiled at her warmly. "You mean when I found out that the woman I love is even more special than I thought?"

"You do remember."

"Not something that would fail to make an impression on me," Ben told Marty wryly. "Yeah, I remember my, uh, flying lesson, and I also remember hearing my mother go up one side of your Dad and down the other. Her words made no sense to me at the time, but now…"

"It doesn't bother you?"

"No." Ben leaned back into his pillows and tucked his left hand behind his head. "I'm sure that I'll have all sorts of questions for you later, but for right now, I couldn't care less. You're not going to scare me off so easily."

"I'm beginning to see that," Marty said slowly. "I mean if being tossed halfway to the moon doesn't scare you off, it must take a really special effort to discourage you!"

Ben grinned up at her, idly noting that she was starting to fuzz a bit more around the edges. "I'd love to continue this witty banter with you, Marty, but judging from the fact that my eyes are refusing to focus on your face, I'd say I have less than a minute to be coherent before I'm asleep again!"

"Oh, let me help get you settled," Marty said, moving quickly to help him shift to a prone position.

"Do you want to know something?" he asked her, feeling punch-drunk and reckless.

"What?" she asked, her face swimming in and out of focus.

"This is not the way that I'd dreamed of getting into your bed!"

Marty gasped. "Ben Palmer, go to sleep!" she ordered firmly.

"I was joking," he was quick to say, hoping that he hadn't distressed her.

"I know," she told him. "It's all right."

He was relieved to see that she was smiling. His eyes closed without his conscious volition, and he felt his body sinking into a deep, warm, cozy pit of darkness. As he drifted into oblivion, he wondered if he had really felt the gentle touch of her hand on his cheek or whether it was his imagination.

***

It was dark in her room. Marty found it very restful to sit and listen to the quiet soft sounds of Ben breathing as he slept in her bed. She didn't want to move, exhausted emotionally from the chaos of the past day.

Her eyes traced the lines of his face, lingering on his five o'clock shadow. From there, her gaze moved to his broad shoulders and wiry muscles. In a way she felt as though she were seeing him as a real person for the first time after all these years. After the attack by Stride, she had tried repeatedly to forget that Ben was a man, but his surprising declaration to her tonight had rubbed her nose in that fact.

So why wasn't she panicking?

She didn't want romance. She didn't feel as though she deserved romance. She wasn't ready for any of this. And yet…

And yet, at no point, had she been overcome with the desire to run screaming into the night when Ben had told her his feelings. At no point, had she wanted to thrust him away from her as she had earlier when he had laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.

Marty stretched her shaking hand out and laid it on his cheek, feeling the roughness of his whiskers underneath her fingers. Why did she feel no revulsion at the sensation of his flesh against her skin? He didn't feel alien to her touch. He didn't feel offensive or disturbing. No, he felt warm and alive, and when her fingers traveled up to stroke his forehead, soft and smooth. It surprised her how much she wanted to continue her tactile exploration. It took a major effort on Marty's part to pull her hand away to lay it once more in her lap.

So, Ben was in love with her. That was going to take some getting used to. It might make it difficult for her to help him with his work. She'd have to see.

She wished that she could reciprocate his feelings, but she couldn't, she told herself firmly. She wasn't ready. She didn't know if she could ever love anyone. But if she could… Ben was pretty wonderful…

Marty was totally unaware of the wistful, surprised and somehow, speculative smile on her face as she continued to study this stranger who also happened to be her best friend in the whole world.

***

"How's he doing?" Ben heard his mother ask as she came into the room.

He'd been lying, awake and tense, on the bed for the past ten minutes, trying to appear as if he were still asleep. He wasn't sure if he had managed to pull it off.

"Oh, you surprised me… I didn't hear you."

That surprised Ben. What had she been thinking about so hard that she hadn't heard his mother coming down the hall? Even with his relatively weaker hearing, he'd heard her just fine.

"He seems to be okay," Marty said, softly. "He woke up on his own about an hour ago. He, uh, remembered everything, wasn't, um, out of it, and I helped him get out of bed so he could go to the bathroom. We had a good, I mean, an interesting conversation."

She sounded flustered, Ben thought. What did she have to be flustered about? He was the one who'd put both feet into his mouth. He was the one who had just blurted out how he felt to her when she was nowhere near ready to hear anything like that. What had he been thinking? It made no sense to tell her that he loved her when only a few short hours before, the touch of his hand had revolted her beyond mere words! His ardent lover's declaration must have disgusted her completely.

"I was about to wake him again," Marty added.

"Why don't I do that?" his mother suggested. He heard the scrape of her chair on the floor as she moved nearer. "It must be pretty close to the time you do your chores.

"Oh, no, that's okay. Why don't you go and… have a cup of coffee or something, and I'll stay put?" Marty replied. She sounded reluctant to leave.

But Ben wanted her to leave. Just go away, he prayed fervently. He didn't want to see her. He was too embarrassed and upset and, oh, he didn't know how he felt. He knew that he couldn't bear to open his eyes and see revulsion in hers when she looked at him.

"That's okay, Marty," he heard his mother say in her firm, 'I'm the Sheriff and I'm in command here' type voice. "I've got everything under control now. You have things you need to do."

Marty acquiesced in the face of Rachel's determination and finally, thankfully, left the room giving him the privacy he desired.

He listened as Marty walked down the stairs. He heard Shadow's nails clicking on the wood as he followed her. Then he heard the kitchen door slam as Marty left the house. Only then did he relax.

"I know you're awake," Rachel murmured. "You might as well open your eyes."

Ben looked up at the loving, worried face of his mother as she leaned over the bed. "Oh, Mom!" he exclaimed as he twisted his head to bury his face in the pillow.

"What's wrong?"

"I'm an idiot! That's what's wrong."

"What happened?"

"I told Marty how I feel about her," Ben whispered.

"How do you feel about her?" his mother asked, sounding surprised.

Ben rolled onto his back to stare up at her. "I love her, Mom."

"You do?"

Ben nodded. "I love her so much, and that's why it hurts."

"Why what hurts?"

"I disgust her, Mom. All I did was touch her. It wasn't like I attacked her or anything. No, I put my hand on her shoulder, and she pitched a fit."

"A fit wasn't all that she pitched," Rachel pointed out acerbically.

"It was my own fault, Mom," Ben was quick to say. "I could tell how squeamish she was, I knew that I shouldn't touch her… I didn't think."

"Ben! The woman broke your arm and gave you a concussion. How can you say that it's your own fault?" Rachel asked indignantly.

"Well, okay, I didn't expect to go sailing through the air, but even so, I shouldn't have laid a hand on her." Ben shook his head fervently. "This has ruined everything! I wanted to take my time… I wanted to gradually gain her trust… I didn't want to rub her nose in how I feel! Where can we go from here? I disgust her, and now she's scared of me."

"Ben," Rachel said, slowly and patiently. "Telling someone how you feel is not a crime. And expressing love — feeling love — that's just beautiful. I'm sure that Marty will be able to deal with everything. Don't confuse how you feel with what Stride did to her. They're two different things. Because you love Marty, you have her best interests at heart. She knows that. I won't deny that she might feel quite confused about everything — Lord knows, I do! I had no idea how you felt about her — but she won't feel threatened. There's no reason for her to."

Ben's eyes searched hers desperately. "I hope you're right, Mom."

"She is right," said a soft voice from the hallway. Ben and Rachel turned their heads to see Marty move slowly into view in the doorway. "Sorry. I didn't mean to, but I could hear everything."

"I keep forgetting how fast you can move," Rachel muttered. But Ben barely heard his mother. He was too focused on Marty.

"What you said was beautiful, Ben, and I feel sad that I can't say it back to you." She moved into the room and sat down beside the bed, across from Rachel. "Ben, you're my best friend in the whole world, and you've always been there for me. But I can't tell you what you want to hear. I'm sorry."

"I'm sorry, too," Ben whispered, the lump in his throat preventing him from speaking clearly. Her declaration of friendship brought no comfort to him. He loved Marty with passion and fire, and it was distressing to know that she only viewed him as a genderless platonic buddy.

"I guess this is as good a time as any to bring up your work," his mother said, drawing his attention away from Marty.

Ben knew what his mom was doing; she'd done it his whole life. Whenever things got too intense, she'd distract him or change the subject. In the past, it had, at times, driven him crazy. Right now, he was grateful for this tendency of hers.

"Work?"

She nodded. "Marty and I discussed it, and if you're willing, she's going to help you — act as your hands, so to speak. It's your decision but I thought that you probably wouldn't want to take a leave of absence. Your arm is going to take at least six weeks to heal, and then you'll have to have physiotherapy to strengthen it. Honey, I don't think you can afford to let things go for that long."

Stricken dumb by her words, Ben stared at his mother in dismay. She was right. His start-up expenses had been quite high. He'd go bankrupt if he closed his clinic down for that long. But to work with Marty every day… To see her flinch if he got too close… How would he be able to handle it? And yet, what choice did he have? His mother couldn't take a sabbatical from the police force to help him out. And even if she could, his mother wasn't comfortable around livestock. Marty had cows. She knew her way around a farm. And with her strength, she could handle any animal that might get out of line. "It looks like I have no choice," Ben said slowly, his eyes locking on Marty's face.

"We'll start on Monday," Marty agreed.

"And now," Rachel said briskly as she stood up. "Do you feel up to heading home, sweetheart?"

Home. That sounded wonderful. He could get away from this feeling of torment and anguish and despair. He'd had enough. "Yes. I want to go home. Mom, please take me home."

***

"… then they left, Mom. He could hardly wait to get out of here. And now, I have no idea what to do — how to act, what to say. I don't know how I'm going to be able to face him on Monday."

"You'll be fine."

"How do you know?"

"You'll be fine because you have to be fine," Lois assured her, leaning across the kitchen table to take Marty's hand in hers. "Did you have any idea that Ben felt this way about you?"

"No!" Marty blurted out, her expression troubled. "No idea at all."

"So, how does it make you feel?" Lois asked, softly.

Marty gazed off into space. "I don't know, Mom. Scared and worried, I guess."

"Do you feel like Ben's pressuring you to feel something that just isn't possible?"

"No," Marty said, slowly. "Not really. I do feel pressured, but not by Ben. He made it more than clear that he didn't want to push me into something I'm not ready for. He said that he'd be patient and that he'd wait for me."

A warm smile spread over Lois's face. "Just like your father."

"Like Dad?"

"He said that he'd wait for me," Lois told Marty. "I had all sorts of fears about marriage. Your Dad helped me figure things out."

"You think Ben's like Dad?" Marty asked, a speculative look on her face.

"Yes, I think I do," Lois answered after a moment's thought. "They're both secure enough in their masculinity to show their sensitive sides. They're patient and caring and warm. I knew that Ben had feelings for you; I figured it out the last time we were here and he confirmed it, not trying to hide his feelings from me at all. From what he said, I could tell that as far as he's concerned, your needs come first. Your father's always been like that with me. Once, a long time ago, just after we started dating, he was willing to step aside and let me date someone he didn't particularly like, because he wanted me to make up my own mind. He didn't push me for more than I was willing to give. I loved that about him, and I still love that about him."

Marty nodded thoughtfully, not sure how she felt about her mother having been in the know about Ben's feelings before she was.

Lois smiled. "Pushing me wasn't your Dad's style, but we probably would have got together a lot sooner if he had. Things between us nearly got sidetracked a few times, but at least in the end, it all worked out."

Marty got up to replenish their coffee. Sitting back down, she leaned back in her chair and gazed at her mother. "You think that's the most important thing for Ben — that I be happy?"

Lois nodded. "I really do."

A grin spread slowly across Marty's face although she seemed quite unaware of it. "That's really… Wow! That's interesting. I just feel bad that… that I can't say that I love Ben. I wish I could."

Looking at the self-satisfied smirk on her daughter's face, Lois thought that it was quite possible that Marty felt something more than she was admitting. And something more than she was admitting to herself. Lois found it interesting that Marty stated that she couldn't say that she loved Ben. She didn't deny loving Ben, however. Very interesting. Perhaps this daughter of hers took more after Lois Lane than everyone thought.

"Dad, Vicky and I went to see the Ramirez family today," Lois told Marty, intentionally changing the subject.

The grin vanished from Marty's face in a heartbeat. "How are they?" she asked, tears shining in her eyes.

"Not good," Lois said. "But I don't think we could logically expect anything different. How could they be after the loss of their daughter?"

A tear spilled over and ran down Marty's cheek. "I miss Maria, Mom. I really liked her. Other than Astrid, I've never had a best girl friend, and even with Astrid, it wasn't like this."

"Of course it wasn't," Lois said. "Astrid's always been so focused on Sam. His needs came first before yours."

"I'm glad that they're happy; I really am, but it was nice what I had with Maria. It was… better than what Astrid and I share."

"Even when I was younger, I never had many girl friends," Lois told her daughter. "I had a couple, but we drifted apart. And then, after your Dad and I got together, well, we had to be so careful. If others got close to the two of us, they might figure out things that we don't want figured out. So I haven't gone searching for friends. I've always had Jimmy and Bernie and your Uncle Perry, but sometimes I've really wanted someone to go to a weepy movie with and someone to go clothes shopping with. That's why I really enjoyed going out with you shopping a few months ago. I felt that we were relating as friends as well as mother and daughter. It was really wonderful!"

Tears sprang readily to Marty's eyes. "I had fun, too," she replied, softly.

"You don't wear those clothes anymore, do you?" Lois asked.

Marty shook her head. "No. I know I look better wearing them, but right now I don't want to try to make myself more attractive. I'd rather wear my jeans or my overalls."

"That's okay," Lois said patting Marty's hand. "It won't do your new clothes any harm to sit in a closet for a while." She sighed. "So I guess this means that we can't go shopping again. Too bad. I enjoyed it."

"Well," Marty said slowly. "We could go to a bookstore or a movie together."

"Sounds great!" Lois exclaimed. "How about now?"

"Right now?" Marty asked, incredulously.

"Why not? No time like the present. Why don't you find Vicky and your dad, and let them know that they're on their own for dinner? You and I are going shopping!"

Marty giggled at the girlish transformation that her mother had instantly undergone. It was as if 'shopping' were a magic word!

She followed her mother's instructions. It didn't take her long to locate Superman and his 'superhero in training' daughter.

"I think you just have a mental block against it, or something," she heard him tell Vicky as she approached them two fields over. "It's not as if you can't jump high because you can. I don't understand why when you jump, you sink back to the ground like a lead balloon, but when I launch you, you manage to maintain your position."

"I don't get it either, Dad." Marty could see that Vicky was getting pretty frustrated. She put on a burst of speed and interrupted the flying lesson before Vicky managed to completely lose her cool. She quickly passed her mother's message along and headed back to the farm to pick her mother up for the shopping expedition.

"They get to take a break, Dad," she heard Vicky whine piteously. "I think I deserve a break, too!"

Marty chuckled. Vicky was such a ham — so completely melodramatic and over the top. How did her father stand it?

***

Clark fondly regarded his youngest child. She pushed the limits with her parents more than her older siblings had, but Clark and Lois tended to be just a bit more indulgent with her. Perhaps it was because she was the baby of the family.

He and Lois had wanted all their children, but still, Vicky was special. Jon and Sam had been eight years old, and Marty only five when both he and Lois had come to realise that they desperately wanted one last child. Vicky had been an absolute gift.

The twins had demanded so much of their attention when they had been preschoolers. And having a girl had been uncharted territory when Marty had been born. But with such a large gap in age between the older children and Vicky, they had been able to relax and completely enjoy her as a baby. Aided by their 'ready, willing and able' built-in helpers, she had been pampered in a way that was completely different from their other children.

Perhaps that was why she had such a narrow and rigid view of the world. She'd never been forced to share her toys or her parents' attention to the same degree as her siblings had. Vicky could be the most generous of souls at times, but it was always on her terms.

Clark didn't know if he were worrying about nothing or not. She was only fifteen. He remembered being pretty self-centred at fifteen. But all the same, it was a father's role to worry about everything and nothing all at the same time. It was quite likely that Vicky would mature on her own over time and would develop the ability to see all the complexities of any given situation, but Clark couldn't take that for granted. Vicky was his daughter with his powers. It was his responsibility that she fully understood what that meant. He was reluctant to take a 'wait and see' attitude.

"So, what do you think? Can we take a break, too?" Vicky pleaded, her bottom lip pouting and quivering pathetically. Her eyes begged and cajoled, and her whole posture drooped.

Clark smiled broadly and slung an arm around his baby girl's shoulders. "You know what?"

"What?" she asked, grinning as she beamed up at him.

"I think we should sign you up for acting class. You'd be a natural!"

She giggled, pulled away from him and bowed, sweeping her arm out in a grand gesture. "Thank you, kind sir. So, does that mean that we can take a break?"

"You're relentless — just like your mother!" He noticed that Vicky didn't deny it but just stood, arms folded across her chest, waiting for his answer.

"Come on," he said, relenting. "We can practice flying anytime. How often do we get the chance to go to Maisie's for dessert?"

"Do you think Dora's got any of that great chocolate cake left? You know the one I mean. It has three different kinds of chocolate, caramel sauce and a big glob of whipped cream."

"You mean the 'Death by Chocolate' cake?"

Vicky nodded happily.

"I don't know," Clark said, checking his watch. "You know she normally runs out of it pretty fast on a Saturday night. We better hurry."

Without a word, Vicky launched herself into the air and hovered, waiting for her father. "So?" she asked, tapping her foot on the empty space beneath her.

He grinned and looked up at her, waiting until she realised. As he watched, her impatient expression faded away, and she looked down incredulously. "I took off on my own? Dad! Look! I took off on my own!"

"I know you did, honey!" Clark exclaimed. "I knew that you could if you got past that mental block of yours. I should have offered you Dora's chocolate cake sooner!"

Vicky giggled happily. "So, are you coming?" she asked, persistent in her quest for chocolate.

"Yes, I am, but not like that," he answered as he took a step back and spun into jeans and a T-shirt. "You know we can't fly there. We have to drive."

"But a lot of people here know that you're Superman."

"Yes, but a lot more people don't. Nice try, young lady, but we're driving."

Vicky sighed melodramatically and dropped down to land in front of him. She sighed again and spun quickly out of her plain black spandex outfit and into her own jeans and a T-shirt. "Can we at least race to the truck?" she asked plaintively.

Clark cocked his head and listened carefully before nodding. "Think you can take your old man in a race, do you? Hah! That'll be the day. Okay, on three. One, two…"

Vicky took off in a flash, a cloud of dust rising in her wake.

Clark laughed and dashed after his errant daughter. "Hey! I didn't say three…"

***

"Wow! I'm pooped!" Lois exclaimed as she threw herself onto the overstuffed couch in the deserted corner of the bookstore. Marty sat down sedately beside her.

"I'm not surprised that you're pooped," Marty said, eyeing her mother wryly. "You practically bought out the store!"

"That's a bit of an exaggeration, honey," Lois replied. "I only bought a few books."

"Uh huh." Marty snatched the bags out of Lois's hands. "Let's just have a look here."

"Hey!"

Marty ignored her mother's protests and started hauling book after book out of the bag. "Regency romance, Regency romance, Regency romance," she listed. "Contemporary romance, classic romance, gothic romance, classic romance." She paused and shook her head. "Oh, and now we have books about how to write. Mother! You're an award-winning journalist, and you're still buying books about how to write?"

"I like to stay current," Lois muttered, defensively.

"How to write a novel, how to write your memoirs, how to write humour, how to write romance, and, oh heavens, Mom, you're kidding, right? How to write a newspaper article! You're terrible! You have a real problem," Marty lectured. "Shoppers Anonymous — I think we should sign you up for the Metropolis chapter."

"Okay, okay, I get it. You think I bought too much. Maybe I did. We don't need to look at any more of these. I'll take some of them back later." Lois snatched the bags out of Marty's hands and hastily shoved books any which way back into them.

"Wait a second. I wasn't done. What else did you buy? Don't tell me it was a cookbook; I won't believe you." Marty grabbed the bags back and dumped them out onto the easy table. It was easy for her to spot the one book she hadn't examined before. A hardcover, its title was emblazoned on the cover in big, bold letters. 'Dealing with Sexual Assault — A Guide for Victims.' "Oh," Marty said, all the laughter gone from her voice.

"I bought it for you," Lois said, softly as she placed a gentle hand on her daughter's arm.

"Oh," Marty murmured in a tiny little voice.

"Maybe I shouldn't have… I can take it back…" Lois grabbed it from the table. "Where did I put my bill? Oh, here it is. I'll be right back."

"No, it's okay, Mom. I'm fine," Marty told her, clutching her mother's arm and preventing her from standing up. "I appreciate it. I need to do something; I know that. I'm just… I can't talk about it with you. You'd think that I could. You are my mother after all, but I can't. I don't know why."

"That's okay." Lois patted her hand. "You don't have to talk to me, but you do have to talk to someone."

"That's what Rachel said."

"She knows?"

Marty nodded. "I didn't tell you. Last night, while we were waiting until it was time to wake Ben again, she just point-blank asked me." She sighed, heavily. "Ben guessed, too."

"He did?"

"Uh huh. You know I'm getting pretty tired of people guessing and me not having to say a word!" Marty exclaimed indignantly. "Does everyone know? How about Jon and Vicky? Or Sam and Astrid? Have they guessed, too?"

"If they have, they haven't said anything to me, honey." Lois thought about it for a minute. "No, I'm pretty sure they don't know. If they did, they would have said something."

"Good. Enough's enough. Maybe I'll tell them sometime, but I want it to be my decision."

"Uh, I notice you're no longer denying that you were assaulted sexually." Lois waited anxiously for Marty's reply to her statement.

"How can I, Mom? I know how I've been acting. No, I can't deny it any longer. But that doesn't mean that I can talk about it to just anybody."

"I know. I understand that. But I want to help." Lois regarded her daughter anxiously, worry written plainly on her face. "I could make you a list of Crisis Centres if that's okay with you."

"That would be great, Mom. Thanks." Marty gave her mother a wan smile.

"Do you want me to stick to Metropolis or Kansas or what?"

"How about California? Someplace away from both our homes."

"Okay. I'll do that as soon as your dad and I head back to Metropolis."

"Thanks," Marty repeated. She looked down blinking back the ever-ready tears and then took a deep breath before heaving a tremendous sigh. "Maybe I should buy a few more books," she said, in a transparent bid to change the subject. "Think they have any about the physiology of cats and dogs?"

"Worried about Monday, are you?"

"Uh huh. I want to be a good help to Ben. It would be awful if he lost business over all this. It's bad enough that I half crippled him; I'd hate to send him into bankruptcy also."

"Things will be fine, I know it. You'll be a good assistant for him." Lois paused, a thought suddenly occurring to her. "One thing, though. How are you going to explain working for him?"

"We already talked about it. We're going to tell people that he had a farm accident and leave it at that."

"No, I mean how are you going to explain how you can help him full time and at the same time run your farm? You're only one person. Everyone's going to wonder how you're able to manage doing all your chores. In the eyes of the world, you don't have superpowers. You don't want people speculating that maybe Stride was right, and you really are Shadow."

Marty sat in a stunned silence. "I don't know," she finally answered. "I haven't a clue what I'm going to do about that — never even thought about it. Any ideas?" she asked hopefully.

"No," Lois said, simply. "Not even one."

"What am I going to do?"

"I don't know."

***

Vicky scraped her fork along the heavy china plate, intent on scooping up the last dribble of caramel sauce and whipped cream. "Can I have another piece?" she asked hopefully.

Clark shook his head, amused at his bottomless pit of a daughter. "I think two pieces of 'Death by Chocolate' is more than enough."

Vicky sighed mournfully. "All right, I guess," she said plaintively. "At least can I have an ice cream cone for the ride home?"

Clark was startled into laughter. "I think you inherited your sweet tooth from both your mother and me. You certainly eat enough junk food for two!" He regarded his optimistic daughter fondly. "All right," he capitulated. "But at least let me finish my coffee first."

They sat in a companionable silence for a while. The small restaurant was almost empty. They'd timed their visit well. The stores weren't quite closed yet. It would probably get a lot busier in a few minutes.

"Dad, I've been thinking." Vicky ran her finger around the edge of her plate.

"What about?"

"Well…" She took a deep breath. "Okay, Marty's going to be helping Ben, right? So what about her farm? How's she going to get all the chores done as well as help him without proving that she's, well, you know?"

"I don't know. I hadn't thought about it." Clark folded his arms defensively across his chest, suddenly feeling quite worried.

"Well, I was thinking that… You know it's really boring in Metropolis in the summer. Usually I hang with Astrid and Sam or with Jon, but everyone's so busy now and Astrid's kind of stuck and now being with her and Sam is really boring, too and…"

"Would you mind getting to the point, honey?" Clark regarded his babbling brook of a daughter with amusement.

"I want to stay in Smallville for the summer and help Marty," Vicky blurted out. "She needs me. It's not like it's going to take me all day to do the chores either. I'll have a lot of free time to read and play on the computer and practice my flying and visit with some of the kids around here. What do you think?"

"I think… I'd have to talk to your mother and your sister, but it sounds like a plan to me." He picked up his cup to quickly drink down the last of his coffee. "Come on, honey. Let's head back to the farm and see if they're back yet." Clark hastily pulled a couple of bills out of his wallet. "Thanks, Dora!" he yelled to the woman in the back kitchen.

"You're welcome, Clark. See you later, Vicky," Dora shouted back, sticking her head through the food window.

"Darn, no ice cream," Vicky muttered as she followed her father out the door to the waiting truck.

"Suffering's good for the soul," an unsympathetic Clark told her as they clambered into the vehicle.

"Great. Nice to know my soul's getting a good workout," Vicky murmured under her breath.

Clark laughed. A moment later, an unrepentant Vicky joined in.

***

The next day, it didn't take Vicky long to put her personal stamp on Marty's house. Within minutes of her arrival, she had posters of her favourite musical groups on the walls, the closets bulged with her clothes and books were heaped on all available horizontal surfaces of the guest bedroom.

The rest of the day was pretty uneventful. Marty reviewed with Vicky how to do the chores and then left her baby sister to her own devices. Vicky didn't have a problem with that. She had lots of things that she wanted to do like go exploring on her own, play on the computer for a while, listen to music, read, and write in her daily journal.

They met for dinner, and Vicky was so busy talking Marty's ear off that she didn't notice that her big sister was uncharacteristically quiet. Marty cleaned up the kitchen in a flash after their supper was over, and then they watched a bit of TV together. Marty said 'good night' to Vicky fairly early, and their first day of their new living arrangements was over.

Vicky headed to her own room, wrote in her journal for a while and then went to bed. She slept like a baby.

On the other hand, Marty tossed and turned, dozing on and off, apprehensive about the new day. Would Ben be okay or would the whole thing be too much for him? Was she going to be a good enough assistant or would his business fail? What would it be like between them? Had their friendship been ruined? These thoughts and more kept churning in her mind all night long. In the morning, when she reluctantly got out of her bed to face the day, her eyes heavy-lidded and her stomach feeling sour from fatigue and worry, she felt as though she hadn't slept a wink all night long.

***

Ben, too, hadn't slept very well. He felt emotionally vulnerable and off balance after his inadvertent revelation to Marty, but even so, he couldn't avoid dealing with her. He needed her help to keep his business afloat.

He dreaded the coming of the dawn and the buzz of his alarm clock. He was so confused. Part of him couldn't help but be thrilled that he was going to be spending a great deal of time in close proximity to her over the next few weeks; but a greater part of him was so nervous and apprehensive that he was almost queasy. How was he going to be able to deal with her? Had their friendship been irreparably damaged by his precipitous declaration to her?

It was with a heavy heart that he got out of bed, awkwardly washed and dressed. On the way to work, he stopped at Maisie's for coffee and a muffin — anything to delay meeting with Marty. Even so, he was early, arriving at the clinic before his receptionist and before his friend.

Ben was in the storeroom, mentally organizing his supplies for the morning when both women arrived. He could hear Sally, his receptionist, greeting Marty. A moment later, there was a tap on the doorframe of the storeroom, and Marty stuck her head around the corner.

"Hi."

"Hi," he replied, not looking at her. He didn't want to see pity in her eyes or even worse, revulsion. She had said that he didn't disgust her, but it was hard to believe after the way she had overreacted to his casual touch a few nights earlier.

"So, what are we up to today?" she asked, inching into the small room.

"We've got farm calls this morning," Ben answered, doggedly looking away from her. "Vaccinations, that kind of thing."

"Okay. What can I do?" To Ben's distress, she moved closer.

"You could pack up those," he said, pointing at a box of syringes.

"Okay," she repeated. Space was at a premium and as she moved past him, her body brushed up against his. "Uh, excuse me," she said.

"Oh, sorry!" Ben jumped back from her. He could feel warmth rush through his body in response to the casual contact. He closed his eyes for a second, trying to control his reaction to her. When he opened them again, he met her quizzical glance. Embarrassed, he shrugged slightly and turned away.

"Ben?"

"So, have you ever given a cow a needle before?" he asked, ignoring what had just happened.

"Ben? We should talk."

"Because if you haven't, it's not that hard," he continued firmly.

She sighed. "Yes, I have. Many times," she replied, her tone resigned. "What with the closest vet having been an hour away, there was a lot that we all learned to do for ourselves."

"Good. Okay, we have everything then, except for coveralls for you. It can get pretty messy at times and…"

"I know."

"Oh, yes, right, of course you know." If Marty hadn't been there, Ben would have whacked himself on the head. Of course she knew. She owned a farm! She had her own cattle. He had to focus and stop dwelling on her or they'd never get any work done. Ben glanced around the small storeroom, not seeing what she needed on any of the shelves. "Sally!" he bellowed. "Where are the extra coveralls?"

"Top shelf, Ben," Sally shouted back to him from the front desk. "The step stool's behind the door."

"Thanks!" Ben closed the door, the small room immediately seeming more cozy and intimate than before and groped in the corner for the step stool.

"Don't bother," he heard Marty say behind him.

When he turned back to her, his jaw dropped as he watched her float effortlessly up to retrieve the clothing and then back down to the floor once more. "That is so cool!" he blurted out, all self-consciousness gone for a second.

Marty flashed him a quick, shy smile as she began pulling her coveralls over her neat tailored slacks and crisp blouse. "Thanks."

What was it like to fly, Ben wondered. He was overcome with a yearning desire to ask her to take him some time, but how could he? He was having enough trouble having a civil conversation with her; what would it be like to flown aloft in her arms?

"Uh, okay, then," Ben stammered. "Are we ready to go?"

"I think so," Marty answered, softly as she straightened up.

And they set off on their first call to Frank Thomson's place, not talking much in Ben's small car.

The cattle vaccinations were routine, but as Frank had a large herd, very time consuming. Marty took her role as veterinary assistant very seriously, competently injecting every cow before letting each one out into the field. Ben didn't have a lot to do once he saw that Marty knew what she was doing. Instead, he found himself studying her face as she worked. It was amazing how focused she was on what she was doing.

As if sensing his eyes on her, Marty glanced up at Ben quickly. Their eyes met, her cheeks coloured and she smiled at him fleetingly before turning her attention back to the cow in front of her. He intentionally turned his gaze from her, instead studying the clean barn and sleek cattle. Frank had a world-class operation here.

But even not looking at her, Ben sensed everything that Marty was doing, feeling when she shifted, when she looked around. Every part of him was completely attuned to her.

***

As she munched on her sandwich, Marty surreptitiously studied Ben's profile. It was easy to be surreptitious about it as he kept his face pointedly turned away from her. She sighed. Was he scared of her? Was he scared of how she might react, of what she was capable of doing to him? Had her behaviour on Friday night driven the final nail into the coffin of their relationship?

He would have probably never dreamed of telling her that he loved her if he had been in his right mind. How must he feel now? Had he revealed feelings that were no longer legitimate, her superpowers having killed them completely? Or had he changed his mind for other reasons? Had he decided that she was too mixed up, that she wasn't worth waiting around for?

Over the course of the weekend, she'd allowed herself to daydream about what it might be like to be with Ben romantically. Although her mind still shied away from thinking about him in terms of complete physical intimacy, she had relived what it had been like to stroke his face. She had wondered what it would feel like to have his arms around her or his lips gently touch her own. She had been intrigued.

But no more. She couldn't allow herself to think about it any more. She was alone now; the man who swore that he loved her obviously had the wisdom to back away.

"So, what do you have planned for the afternoon?" she asked, breaking the silence between them.

"A little of this and a little of that," was the distinctly unhelpful answer.

Marty sighed and went back to her sandwich.

***

Vicky waited impatiently for Marty to come home. After all her parents' veiled talk of how she needed to fully live up to her responsibilities, Vicky had a lot that she wanted to prove to the world around her, and to herself for that matter. She was completely determined to be a terrific help to her big sister, and she couldn't wait for Marty to see what she had managed to accomplish over the day. Plus, she had a great supper waiting — Grandma Kent's meatloaf, mashed potatoes, a melange of steamed vegetables, gravy, and apple pie complete with ice cream for dessert. You couldn't get any more traditional than that.

Marty's reaction to supper was disappointing, however. She picked at the meatloaf, drew pictures in her mashed potatoes and pushed the vegetables around on her plate. Then she turned down the apple pie and the ice cream, claiming to have no appetite.

When Vicky queried her, Marty assured her that everything was fine and that nothing was wrong, but somehow Vicky wasn't able to believe her. This was confirmed by Marty's extreme reaction to Vicky's surprise.

"I noticed you hadn't done anything in the living room for a while," Vicky said as she led her big sister into the room, tugging her along in her wake, "so I gave the room a really good cleaning and totally rearranged the furniture. If you hate it, I can put everything back, but what do you think?"

Vicky waited with bated breath for Marty's enthusiastic response to her work. Enthusiasm wasn't forthcoming, however.

All the colour drained out of her big sister's face as she looked around the cozy room. "Thanks," Marty stammered.

"Gee, you're welcome!" Vicky exclaimed sarcastically.

To her surprise, Marty rounded on her, her cheeks flushed and breathing hard. "I didn't ask you to do this! What do you expect? For me to grovel in gratitude for something I didn't even want you to do!" Her gaze traveled around the room again, her expression bleak and forbidding. "I hate this room! You shouldn't have done this."

"Marty, I don't get it. What's going on?"

"What's going on is my little sister decided to meddle in my life, that's what's going on!" Marty shouted, her face flushed and her fists clenched.

"What life? I just rearranged a room! One lousy stinking room!" Vicky shouted back, her temper flaring.

"Not just any room! This room. You chose to work on this room!"

"So what's so important about this room?"

"I look around this room, and everything reminds me of him," Marty hissed.

"What?" Vicky asked, confused, her anger fading away.

"There." Marty pointed to a space near the couch. "That's where he dropped me when he brought me back here. That's where he hit me! That's where he kicked me!"

"Marty, I'm sorry…" Vicky stammered.

Marty pointed at a painting on the wall. "And that's what I looked at the whole time. When he hit me, when he kicked me, when he was on top of me, I just kept my eyes on that, trying to block out what was happening! But I couldn't block it out. I tried, but I couldn't."

"Marty…"

"I used to love that painting. Grandma painted it. Remember? She gave it to me because I loved it so much. But now, I hate it. I look at it and all I can do is remember what it felt like when he… when he ripped off my clothes, and when he… when he climbed on top of me." Marty glared at her younger sister. "Everything… everything in this room is like that painting. Everything reminds me of him. And I just want to forget."

Marty turned around and stalked out of the room. Shocked at her outburst, Vicky couldn't rally to say anything, but just watched her go. Stride had raped her? He'd raped Marty? Oh, God. No wonder her parents had been so upset. No wonder Marty hadn't got over the attack yet.

The outside door slammed and Vicky heard the distinctive whoosh of Marty taking off. A second later, the rolling boom that resonated through the air revealed that Marty was traveling fast enough to break the sound barrier.

Vicky sank down onto the couch and surveyed the cozy room. It was hard to believe that anything so awful had actually happened here. Tears sprang to her eyes. But it had. And it had been awful. Marty's reaction proved just how awful it had been.

***

Marty's body cut through the air currents like a knife, the rush of the wind drying the moisture from her eyes before it had a chance to become tears. Barely aware of where she was going, images from her past swamped her mind.

She remembered what had happened in that living room that made it next to impossible for her to enter it again. She remembered what it had been like to look up at the once handsome face of Paul Stride, grotesque and distorted by his anger. She remembered what it had been like to wait to die. She remembered his fists and his kicks and his taunts and his insults. She remembered everything with an immediacy that hadn't changed over the past few months. Would it ever change? Would those memories ever fade?

She wanted her life back. She wanted to trust and to love and to yearn and to dream. She wanted to stop for coffee and pie at Maisie's and not feel uncomfortable talking to people. She wanted her home back, her cozy, warm living room with its memories of Grandma and Grandpa Kent and the time that they had spent together. She wanted to remember family picnics and walks with Ben and going out for dinner with her Mom and Dad, and not immediately compare everything to what had happened between her and Stride. She wanted her easy friendship with Ben back.

She was so tired of this. She was so tired of fighting the same battle over and over in her head. She was tired of letting Stride win. But she didn't know what to do. She didn't know how to stop.

She needed help. She knew that. She'd tried to deal with everything on her own, but she just couldn't cope. She didn't know how. No, she needed help, and she needed it now. Marty glanced at her watch. It wasn't too late. She could head to California. She could try.

It took her a second to orient herself, having lost her bearings in the wild flight she had made. She set off, focused, a destination in mind.

***

Many hours later, Marty returned home, disheartened. She'd flown to Los Angeles intent on visiting a Rape Crisis Centre, only to find, when push came to shove, that she couldn't do it. She couldn't share all her confused feelings with a total stranger. She'd hovered high above a couple of different Centres, and had watched the staff deal with phone calls and paper work. They were dedicated. They were hardworking. But they weren't people that she knew. So she had ended up turning around and flying home, feeling like even more of a failure than she had before.

What was she going to do? Rachel Palmer had been right. She needed to talk to someone, but whom? Her parents were more than willing to be there for her, but she didn't want to talk to them about all this. It would just about kill her father — supportive as he was — and it wouldn't be any easier on her mother. Jon and Sam were out. This was not something to be discussed with a brother. Vicky was too young, Marty reflected guiltily. She should have never said anything to her earlier. Hopefully Vicky wouldn't brood about it. Marty would have to make sure of that.

If Maria were still alive… But she wasn't.

Uncle Bernie had offered to help in any way that he could, but again, this was not something that she wanted to discuss with him. Their relationship was too paternal. Uncle Jimmy was not her choice for the same reason. And Ben… Ben was her friend. He was there for her. But there was this new awareness between them — a new awkwardness. She couldn't talk to Ben about this. Not ever. She had already damaged, if not destroyed, his feelings for her. If she were to open up… If she were to share the degrading details of what had happened… Their friendship would be completely and totally over. No, Marty couldn't talk to Ben.

But whom? Whom could she open up to?

***

It was late. Even so, Vicky heard Marty come in. She had lain in her bed, flat on her back and rigid as a board, as she waited to make sure that her big sister was safely home. She didn't get up, instead contenting herself with peeking through the wall to assess Marty's mood.

Marty wasn't visibly upset. She sat on the edge of her bed and gathered Shadow into her arms to cuddle, but looked relatively calm and in control. Good. That was something.

After Marty had stormed out, Vicky had been left alone to pull herself together. Vicky had thought of nothing other than the fact that her big sister had been violated in such a personal way. Marty hadn't done much dating that Vicky could remember. She couldn't ever recall Marty talking about someone special before she started mooning over Stride. It was logical to assume that her big sister had been a virgin until this had happened. And then to have that status ripped away from her violently… How awful!

It had taken Vicky a lot of thought and a great deal of soul-searching to calm down. She had found herself sitting with her journal, pouring out her thoughts onto the page. It was amazing how much better that made her feel, and how much easier it was to see all the ramifications of the situation when she had them down in black and white. She guessed that writing really was in the family.

Vicky's offer to help Marty out with her farm had been based upon nothing more than a desire to get away — albeit temporarily — from her parents. She hadn't planned on doing anything untoward, but it had been nice to contemplate having the freedom to stay up as long as she wanted, or to play on the computer whenever she wanted. It wasn't that she didn't love her parents; she did. But it was hard being treated like a child when she was close enough to being an adult. And hard being treated like an adult when she wanted to indulge in being a child. Making her offer to Marty had simply been a move made from expedience. She had wanted a break from all the talk of how to act and how to think and how to … be!

Now, however, it was more — much more — than that. Vicky was full of missionary zeal to help her sister. She wanted to make things better. She vowed that she would help make a difference. Her eyes narrowed as she contemplated the situation. She couldn't help too much with the emotional aspect of Marty's problem. But maybe there was something she could do on a more practical level. An idea flashed into her head. She hastily sat up and reached for the notebook and pen that had its place beside her bed. Scribbling frantically on the paper, even at super-speed, her hand was having trouble transcribing all the thoughts that raced through her mind. It was a few minutes before she had them all down on paper.

***

Over the next few days, things grew even more awkward between Ben and Marty. The only reason that they were still talking was because they had to. It wasn't that Ben was angry with Marty or that Marty was angry with Ben. It was that Ben was embarrassed and felt vulnerable and off balance. He still loved Marty; he just didn't know what to say to her in the face of her fear of him, in her fear of what he might want from her.

Oh, Ben didn't think that Marty was physically afraid of him — that would be silly and totally contrary to Marty's life experience, one totally rotten, horribly agonising experience to the contrary — but he did think that she was emotionally afraid of him. She'd been so terribly brutalized, and it was the emotional wounds that refused to heal. Then along came Ben, telling Marty the same things that Stride had — that he had feelings for her, that he loved her the way a man loves a woman. For Marty, it must have felt like he was pouring salt in those open wounds. He'd hurt her, and now she was afraid of him.

Marty, however, didn't feel afraid of Ben. What she felt was guilt — guilt that she couldn't open up to Ben, guilt that she hadn't started the counselling process, hadn't started trying to deal with her feelings as she'd promised that she would. And of course, guilt that Ben was struggling to make a living, hampered by the cast on his wrist and hand.

She'd tried to be more natural around Ben, she really had. But it was impossible. Every time she looked at him, she remembered what he had said to her the night he'd been concussed, and a flood of jumbled emotions would overwhelm her.

It was hard to pinpoint what she was feeling — fear, guilt, queasy excitement, embarrassment, sorrow, all mixed together in proportions she couldn't determine and for reasons she couldn't analyse.

Watching Ben struggle to cope with everyday tasks with one hand immobilized didn't help Marty feel better. She had to help carry supplies, take notes, open doors when his one good arm was encumbered, and otherwise try to be efficient and helpful while trying to remain unobtrusive. It just wasn't possible. And every time Marty's eyes fell on the white cast, she felt slightly sick to her stomach, her guilt at hurting him threatening to choke her.

The pressure was building up beyond her capacity to stand. Every night, she flew aimlessly about until she exhausted herself. And at least once each night, she'd find herself hovering above one of the Crisis Centres that she'd previously checked out. But she still couldn't do it. She couldn't bring herself to land and enter one of the buildings. The whole prospect was too terrifying. Eventually she would end up at home in the wee small hours of the night only to toss and turn, unable to sleep — unable to forget even for a few short hours.

And then in the morning, Marty would drag herself out of bed only to be confronted with her overly solicitous baby sister who would attempt to pamper her big sister in a way that Marty found incredibly uncomfortable. Vicky would insist on preparing a full country breakfast — ham, bacon, sausage, eggs, biscuits, gravy, coffee and more — and then would sit and watch Marty eat. All Marty normally had in the morning was toast and coffee! And the questions she asked! What her favourite colour was, what type of patterns she liked, did she like flowers, did she like plaids. Marty was too exhausted to figure out what Vicky was asking all these questions for, but the whole situation was driving her crazy. Something was going to have to give.

***

"So, what's next, Boss?" Marty asked, trying to come across as light-hearted, but only ending up feeling awkward.

"Well, right now I have to call Sabrina Callaway back," Ben replied as he glanced down at the pink message slip in his left hand. "She called while we were busy with Ruffles."

Marty smiled as she remembered how frustrated the young cat had been when her frantic scratching and clawing had had no effect on Marty. It hadn't taken any time for her to clip the cat's nails. She certainly understood why Ruffles' owner wouldn't do the job herself!

"Have you ever met her?" Ben asked.

"No. Have you?"

"No, she's pretty new in Smallville," Ben replied. "I haven't even heard anything about her."

"Me either."

As Ben dialled the phone, Marty busied herself tidying up the small office. It only took a moment for her to sweep up the tiled floor and disinfect the examining table. By the time she had put the broom away Ben was done. He was shaking his head.

"What? What is it?"

"She sounds like a fruitcake," Ben answered. "This could be interesting."

"So, what are we going to see?" Marty asked as she surveyed the supply shelves.

Ben grinned. "Chickens, goats, one pig, three cats, four dogs and a donkey."

"You're kidding, right?"

"Nope. Like I said; this could be very interesting."

***

"Welcome! Welcome to Earth-haven!"

"Earth-haven?" Ben whispered to Marty before they clambered out of his small car.

Their hostess advanced on them, her arms spread wide. Marty took one look at her and knew that she'd never met this woman before. There would have been no way that she could have ever forgotten a character like this.

Sabrina Callaway was in her early twenties, had deep auburn hair, a curvaceous figure, and was dressed as if she were a Hollywood version of a gypsy. She wore a high-waisted dress that flared out from a tight bodice to skirts that swished seductively around her bare legs as she walked. Her slender arms were laden with many cheap copper bracelets, and huge pendulous gold loops hung from her ears.

"You're Marty Kent, aren't you?" she asked, looking up at Marty.

Marty looked down at this exotic, petite and shapely woman and immediately felt gawky and overgrown. "Yes, I am," she answered, coolly.

"And you're Ben! Ben Palmer!" Sabrina continued, turning to face Ben. "I feel like we already know each other. I just sense that we're going to get along. Someone wonderful like you — so completely attuned to our brothers and sisters of the animal world — I just know that we have a lot in common."

Ben surreptitiously winked at Marty before smiling down at the petite woman in front of him. "So, who am I seeing first? One of my brothers or one of my sisters?"

"I want you to look at Clara first."

"Clara?" Marty asked, feeling a bit neglected in the face of Sabrina's enthusiastic greeting of Ben.

"Clara's my pig," Sabrina said. "I'm quite worried about her. Her aura's quite dark, and she's been so cranky lately."

"Her aura?" Ben asked, sounding a bit confused.

"I'm a sensitive, my dear," Sabrina assured him as she led them towards the barn. "It can be quite stressful being a sensitive. That's what made me decide to move to Smallville. My system needed to be cleansed after living in New York City."

"I can imagine your system needed to be cleansed," Ben said solemnly. "And your lungs, too!"

"Oh!" Sabrina exclaimed. "And you're witty, too! I knew that I was going to like you," she gushed, gazing up at him rapturously.

Marty glared at the other woman's back as she followed behind. She rolled her eyes at the fulsome compliments that Ben was receiving. She was somewhat mollified when Ben glanced at her quickly over his shoulder and winked, but was irritated once more when she noticed Sabrina place her hand gently on Ben's arm. She didn't ask herself exactly why she was so irritated. The woman's bare feet were very, very dirty, she noted with a sniff.

As they examined the full spectrum of Sabrina's animals from the 'cranky' pig to the 'out of touch with her feelings' donkey, Marty got more and more irritated and depressed. Ben seemed to be taking all the kooky statements in stride and knew exactly how to respond to them. Marty contented herself with nodding in response occasionally. Mostly she hung back and listened to the woman fawn over her friend.

"I think we've seen everyone," Ben said. "If you supplement their diet like I've suggested, I'm sure that everyone will get back in touch with their emotions once more."

Sabrina nodded, her face crestfallen. "I guess I got a little carried away, huh?"

"Well, tofu's fine. It's quite nutritious, but these animals need more than that in their diet. So do you."

"I wanted their diet to be completely free of manmade poisons. I wasn't aware that I could buy organic feed. I'll head to the feed shop right away."

"Make sure you ask for MacGregor's. That's a completely natural product — certified organic."

"I will. Thank you, Ben." And the woman had the audacity to stand close to Ben and gaze up at him warmly. Marty had the irrational urge to rip the woman's hair out by its sleek auburn roots — probably dyed, Marty thought. There was no way that the woman's hair could be that gorgeous shiny colour naturally, was there?

"So, we have seen all your animals, haven't we?" Marty asked, anxious to interrupt the touching tableau in front of her before she found herself vomiting.

"I think so," Sabrina answered looking around. "Oh, no, you haven't," she contradicted herself. "You've seen everyone but Maybelle."

"Maybelle?"

"She's inside. I'll get her." And the woman strode off to the house, her hips swishing sensuously from side to side as she walked away. Marty couldn't help but notice that Ben watched her as she moved away from them.

"What are those dogs so upset about?" Ben asked, his eyes narrowing in thought.

Marty hadn't even noticed the three dogs pacing back and forth in front of the house. As she watched them, they all started barking and howling once more.

Sabrina emerged from the house, a tiny little nondescript dog of indeterminate origin at her heels. Her appearance was greeted with a great deal of enthusiasm by the dogs waiting outside.

"She's in heat," Ben groaned as the three males pounced on Maybelle as one. There was a great cacophony of snarling and barking. White teeth flashed as the large dominant male chased away the two other dogs. Before anyone could do anything, he had jumped onto little Maybelle.

"How old is she?" Ben shouted as he approached Sabrina.

"About six months," the woman answered.

"Maybelle's too young for this," Ben told her.

Sabrina shrugged. "Oh well. I'm sure it will be fine. It's completely natural, after all."

"So are parasites," Ben snarled, "but we don't advocate infecting ourselves with them. No, Maybelle's too young, and that male's too big for her. The puppies would be too large for her to carry. We have to stop this."

"No," Sabrina argued. "It's fine. Leave them alone. Let's let nature take its course."

Marty tuned them out. Her eyes locked on the two dogs straining together. The little female squealed pitifully. At the sound, Marty's temporary paralysis faded. She turned on her heel and walked away, ignoring Ben's surprised shouts behind her.

She walked past Ben's car, and then started to run. She ran down the driveway and across the road to lose herself in the trees across the way.

Ben watched Marty go and sighed. He wanted nothing more than to follow, but he needed to deal with this situation first.

He turned to Sabrina. "Get me a hose."

"What are you going to do?"

"Cold water has the same deleterious effect on that species that it does on mine."

"No. It'll be fine. This is natural."

Ben's temper flared. "Let's see if you still say that when I have to carve your dog up like a roast beef dinner to get the puppies out of her belly. That's if she survives that long."

"Oh." Sabrina blanched and swallowed convulsively. "I'll be right back."

As she scurried off in search of a hose, Ben looked off into the distance. Even though Marty hadn't looked upset when she'd left, he knew that she was. He was worried about her. She hadn't looked right. Her face was blank of all expression, and she had moved like an automaton. Something was very, very wrong.

***

Ben paced back and forth in his small living room. Finally, he threw himself down onto the sagging couch only to push himself up almost immediately and start pacing once more.

Where was she?

He picked up the phone only to set it down immediately. Vicky had promised to call the minute Marty came in. She was worried, too. He glanced at the car keys sitting on his end table, but sighed and looked away. It wouldn't do any good for him to go looking for her. It wasn't like she was restrained to travel by conventional means. He didn't have a hope in the world of tracking her down by car. Thank goodness. Driving was certainly possible using only his left hand, but it was pretty awkward.

It was getting really late, but he knew that he'd never be able to sleep. For a second, he thought about phoning Marty's place in case she had snuck in while Vicky had fallen asleep, but he managed to resist the temptation. Poor Vicky must be getting tired enough of hearing from him; he had only called about thirty times over the past few hours!

Where was she?

A flood of irrational anger rushed through him. How dare she worry him like this? Didn't she know that he'd be concerned? Didn't she know that he cared what happened to her? But then rational thought returned and he realised that she was dealing with too many problems of her own to worry about his concerns.

Ben started pacing back and forth once more, his mind going a million miles an hour, his thoughts darting back and forth. He vacillated between dark worried concerns over what Marty was up to, and disgusted thoughts of the situation that had chased her away. Didn't that Callaway woman know anything about animals? She didn't deserve to have pets. He thought that he'd separated the animals in time, but they'd nevertheless have to wait to see if Maybelle was pregnant. The poor little mutt — no wonder Marty had been upset.

Where was she?

As if in answer to the question, there was a light, tentative tap on his front door. Ben strode over and flung it open. Marty recoiled with a yelp as the door banged into the wall.

"Oh, Marty," Ben breathed as he surveyed the pitiful figure of his friend. His anger melted away to nothing when he saw the anguished expression on her face.

Her hands were shaking as she wrung them together. Her eyes were large and desperate, a plea for help buried deep within. Her hair was tousled and wild, in tangles as if she had been running for hours. And she well might have been, Ben reminded himself.

"That's what he did to me!" she blurted out, not bothering to say a word of greeting. "He treated me like that dog treated Maybelle. I didn't want it. I said 'no' — I said it again and again and again — but he didn't listen to me. It didn't matter what I said, he didn't listen."

"Oh, honey," Ben said as he took her hand and drew her into the room.

"I fought him. I punched and I kicked, but the Kryptonite… It made me weak. I couldn't stop him. I tried and I tried, but I just couldn't do it," she told him earnestly, not reacting at all to the tears streaming down her pale face.

"I know," Ben assured her as he led her over to sit on the couch.

"Oh Ben! I couldn't stop him!" she sobbed. "He ripped my clothes off and he hit me and he… he…"

"I know, Marty. I know." He wrapped his left arm around her, the thought that she might do him physical violence once more not even occurring to him in the slightest. As she sobbed out the details of Paul Stride's vicious attack on her, he murmured a counterpoint of reassurances to her, thankful that she had chosen to come to him for comfort. What he listened to was enough to turn his stomach, but he maintained a tight control over his feelings. No matter how justified his anger at Stride, he couldn't allow any of it to show. Marty didn't need that. And Marty was the most important person in the world to him. He had to be strong for her. He had to be there for her. Now and for always.

***

A long time later, Marty slowly came back to reality although she wasn't in control of her emotions yet by a long shot. She clung to Ben as if he were a life preserver in the middle of a storm-tossed ocean. His arm was tight around her, pressing her into him and his voice murmured softly in her ear. "It wasn't your fault," he whispered and "It'll be okay." She held on tightly to his words, desperately wanting to believe him, but not sure if she was able to. The familiar choking wave of guilt rose up to grip her by the throat. She pushed it away, focusing all her attention on Ben's solid presence that helped to keep her demons at bay. As her wracking spasms of sobbing eased, she relaxed in his embrace, her whole body calming at his touch, a languid, warm and cozy feeling gradually overtaking her.

"Thank you," she murmured, drowsily suppressing a yawn. "Thank you, Ben, for being there for me. Thank you for listening."

She felt his lips brush against her cheek, non-threatening, completely platonic. "I'll always be there for you, Marty. Always," he assured her.

His words were definite and absolute. She had no choice but to believe his declaration. As her body relaxed into sleep, she clung to his words and to his body, grateful, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that this man would protect her, that this man would guard her with his very life.

***

Ben slowly came back to consciousness, his back and his neck protesting vehemently. He opened his eyes to see Marty still sleeping soundly. She wasn't on the couch where she had started. Instead she was over it, giving him a shock to his system.

Ben carefully unfolded himself from the cramped position he'd assumed in the easy chair he'd pulled over beside the couch. It was a relief to stretch his back and neck out, the pain easing slightly. And it was a relief to just sit and watch his friend sleep even if she slept in somewhat of a unique fashion. She looked a lot more peaceful than she had the night before.

It was amazing how much she had said, how much of her feelings she had shared with him. She'd kept so much inside. The pressure to let it all out must have been enormous. Ben knew better than to think that this was going to make it all better for Marty, but he did know that this was a major breakthrough and that it was a hopeful sign for her emotional health. He was just so grateful that she'd been able to trust him, that she'd thought of him when she needed a sympathetic ear.

Glancing at his watch, he saw that it was almost 8 a.m. He studied Marty as she floated in front of him sleeping peacefully. She looked like she was pretty out of it still. He should be able to make a few phone calls without waking her.

***

Vicky paced up and down in the farmhouse kitchen. Thankfully Ben had called letting her know that Marty was safe. She'd been about to call her parents and it was great that now she'd be able to put that off a little while longer. Eventually they were going to have to know about last night, and Vicky wasn't looking forward to that at all. She knew that she'd be on the receiving end of a lecture as to why she should have informed them about this very serious situation earlier. But at least now she had some breathing space before she was in line for that lecture.

From what Ben had said, Marty was in pretty rough shape; maybe she should call her parents. But no, a big part of Vicky was anxious that Marty solve her problems on her own. Vicky knew how good it felt when she, herself, solved her own challenges without having to be rescued by her mom and dad. She wanted Marty to have the same opportunity. And from what Ben had said, Marty had really opened up to him. Maybe this was a sign that she was starting to move past the trauma that she'd suffered.

Not for the first time since Marty had told her about the attack, Vicky found herself in the cozy living room. She lay down on the floor on the same spot that Marty had pointed to. Fixing her eyes on Grandma Kent's painting like Marty had so many months ago, she tried to imagine what it must have felt like to be tortured and humiliated. It felt pretty rotten. Oh, yes, she knew that what she felt was just a pale imitation of what Marty had gone through, but even so, it was horrible. Sitting up, Vicky reached for her journal so that she could do some more writing in another attempt to deal with her confused emotions.

Dad's words came back to her then. 'Everything's black and white in your world, isn't it, Vic?' But this, no, this wasn't black or white at all. She could see why there was no easy resolution for Marty. She could finally see those shades of grey that her parents had talked about, and she wished that she didn't. Would her idea help Marty, or was it just a quick fix? She didn't know. It was pretty na´ve, but it was still worth a try.

With a sigh, Vicky pushed her journal away. She was too confused to make sense of anything right now. She wandered out to the kitchen again, replenished Shadow's food and water, cuddled him for a bit, and then sat, lost in thought while he ate. The chores were done — she'd completed them over an hour earlier — and she didn't know what she was going to do with herself for the rest of the day. But she knew one thing. She knew that she wouldn't be able to focus on anything until she saw for herself that Marty was okay.

Vicky moved fast, her idle thoughts turning into action in the blink of an eye. She spun quickly into her plain black spandex flying outfit and, somewhat guiltily, was aloft in an instant. She wasn't supposed to fly solo yet, but she figured whatever Dad didn't know wouldn't hurt him. It only took a second before she was hovering high above Ben's small rental house. Narrowing her eyes, she gazed down at Ben and Marty, the roof and walls of his house melting away to nothing as she looked at them.

He was in the kitchen on the phone, keeping a wary eye on Marty as she slept floating above the couch. From the small restless movements that her big sister was making, Vicky could tell that Marty was on the verge of waking up. Focusing her hearing, she was in time to hear Ben say goodbye to Sally, his receptionist, and tell her that he'd see her in a day or two. It sounded like he had rescheduled all his appointments for the day and possibly for tomorrow too. That was nice of him to give Marty time to recover. Of course, Ben was pretty thoughtful.

"No," Marty moaned, and "Ben." It was incredibly tempting for Vicky to swoop down to Marty, but she managed to restrain herself.

Ben rushed to her side. He reached out gently and laid his hand lightly on her arm. "Marty," he said, softly. "It's all right. I'm here."

After what Marty had done to him the last time he'd touched her like this, Vicky was aghast. She braced herself, ready to dive down, through his roof if necessary, and catch Ben before he got hurt. But to her amazement, Marty quieted down immediately, her breathing slowing. Her eyelids fluttered and then her eyes opened and she looked straight into Ben's for one long frozen moment before she fell back onto the couch.

"Oh!" she exclaimed. "Was I floating again?"

"Yes," Ben told her, smiling down at her bent head. "It was pretty amazing."

"Oh. Sorry. Hope it didn't bother you."

"No. Like I said, it was pretty neat."

"Good." Marty glanced up at Ben quickly before hiding her face once more.

Vicky was able to see the wash of hot, red colour in Marty's face before she looked down. She ruthlessly suppressed a giggle. She shouldn't laugh, but her big sister looked so guilty, like she had been caught cheating at cards or something.

"How are you feeling today?" Ben asked, still smiling.

"Fine."

"Did you sleep well?"

"Yes." Marty refused to look up.

Ben's smile faded and his shoulders hunched in.

This wasn't so amusing, Vicky thought as her own smile vanished. Should she do something? Should she float down and interrupt, hoping to make things better. If she did, Marty would kill her! But she couldn't just float here and watch!

Before she could do anything, Ben took matters into his own hands. He took a deep breath, then sat down on the couch beside Marty and took her hand into his. "Don't do this, Marty," he said, calmly.

"Don't do what?" she asked, looking away.

"Don't shut me out. You let me in last night. But now you're pushing me away. Please stop. I need to be there for you."

"I'm not pushing you away." Her voice lacked conviction.

"Yes, you are. You think that you said too much. You think that I'm going to reject you because of what you told me. But I'm not going to. You're stuck with me forever. I'll be your friend forever."

Marty lifted her eyes to Ben's. Vicky caught her breath at the hurt, desperate, pleading look on her sister's face. "Do you mean that?"

He nodded, his eyes locked on hers. "I do."

"Even though I…" Her voice faltered. "Even though I don't know if I can ever feel the way that you want me to."

"Even though," he assured her. "I love you. But I think it's time to fully explain what I mean when I say that."

Vicky knew that this was too private, that she should fly away, closing her ears as she went, but for the life of her, she couldn't pull herself away. This was too intense.

"When I say 'I love you,' I mean that you are more important to me than anything or anyone else in my world. I mean that your happiness means more to me than my own. I love you, Marty. And the only thing that I want from you, really want from you, is for you to just let me love you."

Marty's cheeks were awash with tears. She gazed deep into Ben's eyes as he continued.

"I know that you're not ready for anything physical — that you may never be ready for anything physical — and I don't care. Well, maybe I do care," he admitted with a self-deprecating grin. "I won't deny that I think you're beautiful and that I'd love to be able to hold you in my arms," he paused, laughed and held up his right arm complete with cast. "Okay, I mean, hold you in my arms as well as I'm able. I want to kiss you, I want to join with you, but if you're never ready for that, that's okay, too. I want whatever you can give me. No more and no less. Last night, what you gave me was your trust. I don't want to lose that because you feel awkward or embarrassed. So I'm going to ask you again. Please don't push me away."

Vicky blinked rapidly. She ruthlessly tore her eyes away from the scene so far below her and forced herself to move in the direction of Marty's farm.

"Oh, Ben," she heard her sister exclaim, her voice choked with tears. "I do trust you! I do!"

Vicky glanced back in time to see Marty throw herself into Ben's embrace, sobbing. His head bent over hers, his lips brushing against her hair. The look on his face was so noble and steadfast that Vicky felt a rush of strong, unfamiliar emotion rising up in a wave in her chest. Resolutely she continued on her way away from Ben and Marty, leaving them their privacy. The tears rolled down her own cheeks, her hands brushing them away as they threatened to blind her.

The depth of Ben and Marty's emotions had been awe-inspiring, Vicky decided. For just a split-second, her view of the world had shifted, appearing to her in a kaleidoscope of rainbow colours, before it shifted back to black and white and yes, grey, once more. But now, she was full of the unfamiliar desire to bring the colours back, to banish the monochromes for good.

***

Kezia Jackson worked quickly and efficiently on clearing away more of the never-ending stream of paperwork. There just weren't enough hours in each day to make more than a small dent in the mound of paper, but she still tried. It was her fervent wish that the state of the world would change, rendering her job obsolete. She wanted to be declared redundant. Wasn't likely to happen, though, she thought with a snort.

As if to prove the truth of her feelings, the Centre's receptionist, Bonita, appeared before her. "A new one out front. You want to take this one, or should I see if Martina's free?"

"No, I'm fine," Kezia answered, pushing herself up from her desk. "What's this one look like?"

"No bruises. No signs of physical trauma. But she's got a friend with her. A 'male' friend." Bonita emphasized the one word, as if to make sure that Kezia caught the distinction.

Kezia moved a little faster at Bonita's declaration. She knew that the sight of a man in this place would be upsetting to many of the other women who came here in a search for healing and sanctuary. It wouldn't matter if this guy were a saint. It was the fact that he was male that would be upsetting. Superman, himself, wouldn't be welcome here.

A moment later, Kezia shut her office door and sat down across from her new client and her friend.

"Hi, I'm Kezia, and I'll be your counsellor," she said, extending her hand to the woman in front of her. The woman sat in that oh-so-familiar posture — slumped in on herself. The only difference with this one was her tight grasp on the hand of the man who accompanied her.

"I'm Marty. And this is Ben."

Ben nodded at Kezia. "I'm here for moral support," he said, before shifting all of his attention back to Marty.

"Are you sure you want Ben to stay, Marty? A lot of people find it a lot easier to talk when there's no one they know around."

"Yes," Marty stated emphatically. She looked up for the first time. "Ben's my best friend. And he promised he'd stay. I need him to stay."

Ben nodded, his face serious and solemn. "Marty's already told me a lot of what happened to her. She wants me here, so I'm not going anywhere."

Oh, this one was a keeper, Kezia thought. She could tell that he really cared for his friend, that there was no blame on his part for whatever had happened to her.

So many men, and women, too, blamed the victims of sexual assault for whatever had happened to them. It was as if, by doing so, they could distance themselves. They could pretend that nothing like that would ever happen to them. She'd seen this attitude time and time again — from victims themselves, even — and it was refreshing meeting someone who didn't feel that way.

"That's fine then, Marty. Okay, here's the deal. You're in control. You can tell me as much or as little as you want. You can come back as many times as you need. How's that sound?"

"Good," Marty answered, shyly. "It sounds good. I really… I have to talk. I've been hiding from what happened for too long so… I want to talk. It's just hard."

Ben scooted his chair a little closer to his friend. "It's okay. You can do this," he told her.

She tentatively smiled at him before facing Kezia directly. "Okay, a little over two months ago, this man arrived in town. He was good-looking and intelligent, and he swept me off my feet…"

As Marty continued to tell her tale, Kezia listened patiently, knowing the gist of what she was going to hear. Only the details changed, varying from victim to victim. But the results that the abusers left in their wake remained the same each time.

***

After a few days of intensive daily counselling, Kezia reflected on her new client's status. She was making good albeit uneven progress. There was a lot that she hadn't said about the actual attack, but Kezia felt that Marty was hiding the details for privacy reasons, not because she was in a state of denial. Why the attacker had specifically targeted her was still a mystery to Kezia. And the injuries and state of mind that Marty had been in suggested a greater level of force being applied than just physical, but Marty had vehemently denied being drugged in any way. But that wasn't really what was important to Kezia. She was more interested in what Marty didn't overtly say. She was interested in Marty's feelings about herself in the aftermath of this very traumatic incident.

It was good to see that a lot of Marty's anger was being directed outward against her attacker instead of being repressed, and, on the surface, Marty didn't seem to blame herself for the severity of the attack or for her injuries, but there was a core of anger deep inside her client that Kezia's words didn't seem to touch at all — anger aimed at herself.

Marty's friend, Ben, still came with her. He didn't say much, instead sitting, a solid presence in the room, and letting her clutch at his hand. Kezia wished that all her clients could have that level of support.

Ben certainly wasn't indifferent to what Marty said — his eyes would blaze with righteous anger at times as she talked about the abuse — but he always maintained a tight control over his emotions. Early on, he had confided to Kezia that he had done some crisis counselling when he had been away at school. But Kezia had the feeling that even if he hadn't, he would have had the same sensitivity to his friend anyway. It was amazing how completely attuned to her that he was. And she was to him, also, although to a somewhat lesser degree which was only understandable. After all, the woman had to work really hard to get in tune with her own feelings. That was enough of a chore for the moment.

What Kezia especially liked about Ben's interaction with Marty, was that he showed no signs of needing to be in control of her feelings. Too many times, Kezia had seen clients who had been told by their families or friends, how they should feel or when they should stop being angry or sad. Emotions never run by a timetable. And they varied from person to person. It wasn't that the friends or family members were unsympathetic, but in their desire to make everything better, many times they invalidated the victim's emotions. Kezia was glad to see that this wasn't happening here.

But that core of deep-seated anger worried her. Perhaps it was time for Kezia to do a little bit more specific counselling to attempt to root it out. From personal experience, she knew that things left unspoken did the most damage, and that they only got harder and harder to talk about the longer they were left untouched.

Her resolution had been made just in time. Bonita appeared to announce that Marty and 'her friend' were here again. Kezia sighed at the veiled animosity in Bonita's voice. It seemed that Bonita's issues with men were becoming a problem for her once more. But there wasn't time to deal with that now. Marty and Ben were here. Ben took up his customary position at Marty's right, holding her hand lightly in his own.

Kezia spent a few minutes as she always did, checking in with Marty, discussing small things in an attempt to make her relax a bit. She idly talked about music or the weather, but nothing too specific. She wanted this space to be a cozy haven for her clients. Too much reality would counteract that purpose.

Marty seemed to be feeling somewhat better on the whole. She shyly related that she had kicked her dog out of her bed and had slept the whole night without any nightmares. That was a great sign! Marty also stated that she was feeling more confident in her role as Ben's veterinary assistant, and that work had been easier for her to handle. At this statement, Ben had smiled and squeezed her hand, but had refrained from saying anything.

But this was too light and easy for Kezia. She knew that Marty had more hidden within that she needed to deal with. And she could guess what that was. They had never really talked about blame. Oh, on the surface, Marty said that she blamed her attacker, but Kezia knew that, like an iceberg, there was a vast untapped reservoir of emotions that lurked beneath that surface, hidden from the light. It was her role to drag all those negative emotions out of the shadows so they could be examined and analysed and hopefully destroyed in the light of day.

"Marty, how do you see your role in all this?" Kezia asked. She wasn't surprised to see a return of Marty's defensive body language. It was amazing how quickly she turned in on herself, her head hunching down into her shoulders.

"What do you mean? I was just a victim." Marty's voice was flat, toneless.

Kezia smiled reassuringly. "Well, this is one thing that we haven't talked about yet, but let me talk in generalities first. Victims of this type of assault usually end up going through many of the same emotions in the same order. You've heard of the stages of grief?"

Marty and Ben both nodded, their eyes intent on her.

"Well, this is similar. So far, Marty, you've been reacting in a very normal fashion. As we've already discussed, you were depressed which is certainly understandable. Now, you know depression means that emotions are repressed."

Again Marty nodded in response.

"Eventually, those emotions struggled to get out of your subconscious into your conscious mind, and you started to lash out in anger. Again, very normal and very understandable." Kezia paused and took a deep breath before broaching this new subject that would most likely prove to be uncomfortable. "So, if you're going to follow the same path as most other victims do, then you're also feeling guilty for having tacitly allowed the assault."

Marty stared at her, her mouth hanging open. "I… I…"

Ben's eyes flashed with anger as he glared at Kezia, but he didn't say a word. Her respect for him grew yet again. It couldn't be easy to sit there and hear Kezia suggest that Marty blamed herself for what she had gone through.

"Marty, I'm not saying that you are to blame; I'm saying that it's possible that, right or wrong, you might blame yourself. Think about it. Is it possible that you do blame yourself?"

For the first time in one of these counselling sessions, Marty pulled her hand away from Ben's. She pushed herself violently to her feet and started to pace back and forth. "Why would I blame myself?" she spat out defiantly. "I'm not the one who decided that I should be tormented and tortured. I'm not the one who asked for that madman to hit me and kick me. I didn't ask for my ribs to be broken." Her fists were clenched, and she was breathing hard.

"Oh, I'm sure that there's no reason for you to blame yourself, but I'm just asking if you do, even so." Kezia's eyes never shifted from the tense figure of the woman as she paced restlessly back and forth like a jungle cat in a cage.

"I can't believe you're really asking me whether I blame myself?" Marty snarled, her eyes narrowed and her whole body one tight, taut line.

"I am," Kezia answered calmly.

For one long frozen moment, Marty glared at Kezia. Kezia didn't flinch from the very visible anger that Marty was displaying, instead meeting her gaze serenely and unruffled.

Completely fulfilling Kezia's expectations, Marty collapsed into her chair, her face buried in her hands. "It is my fault!" she exclaimed, sobbing wildly. "I encouraged him."

Ben reached a shaking hand out to her, but at Kezia's quick motion, drew it back to lay it in his lap. His eyes glistened with emotion as he studied the trembling, overwrought woman sitting beside him.

"How was it your fault?" Kezia asked calmly, inwardly pleased at how easy it had been to break down this barrier.

"I was 'in love' with him," Marty spat out sarcastically. "I dressed up for him… I cooked for him… I took him on a picnic." She shook her head. "All he had to do was say 'hi' to me, and I got tongue-tied. All he had to do was look at me, and I blushed. I acted like an idiot."

Kezia was thrilled to hear the anger in Marty's voice. That was a good sign. She wasn't hiding from her emotions, instead meeting them head-on. This was good. Not pleasant for Marty, of course, but a very good sign.

"The worst of it was, not even an hour before he attacked me, I had told him…" Marty shook her head, wiping an angry tear away. She turned her face away from Ben and Kezia.

Ben reached out to her once more only to obey when Kezia waved him off yet again.

"What did you tell him, Marty?" Kezia asked.

Marty gasped for air. She jumped up and turned her back completely to the two of them. "I told him… I told him…" She took a deep breath. "I told him that I loved him, and that I wanted us to be intimate. So it's my fault. I led him on."

"No, Marty, it's not your fault," Kezia said, calmly. "When you think about it…"

"How can you say that it's your fault?" Ben interjected, finally out of patience. Kezia was impressed by how long he had been able to hold his tongue. "Okay, yes, you said that you were in love with him, but that didn't give him the right to hurt you! Nothing gave him that right. Nothing!"

"But I said…"

"I don't care what you said! He was wrong. You said 'no' and he didn't listen, and he was wrong!" Ben stood up and strode over to stand in front of her. Reaching out his one hand to cup her cheek, he tipped her head back to face him. "You know how long he'd been planning this. You know that his only goal was to take revenge on your parents."

Kezia shook her head, confused by what Ben was saying. He was making this sound a lot more complicated than the opportunistic date rape that Marty had described to her. She supposed that she should interrupt Ben and take over the session once more, but Ben's words had made it very clear that she didn't know all the facts of the situation. She decided to sit back and see where Ben took this, vigilant to the need to jump in if necessary.

"After he found… After you collapsed, do you think he cared whether you had feelings for him or not? He didn't care. Oh, it might have made his revenge just that little bit sweeter, but it didn't affect his plans for you or for your parents. He liked hurting the three of you. He was a sick, twisted, son of a bitch — literally — and he enjoyed causing you pain. But if you're bound and determined to blame someone other than him, then you could blame your dad. He's the one that put Paul's mother away. It's his fault!"

"It's not his fault!" Marty exclaimed, jerking away from Ben's hand. "How can you say that? Dad didn't know. He couldn't know that she had a son. He couldn't know that Paul was a psychopathic monster. How could he have known?"

"If he couldn't have known, Marty," Ben's voice was suddenly a lot softer, "how could you? The man had years to plan how to trick you. How could you have defended yourself from that?"

"I could have… I could have…" Marty's face crumpled, the tears flowing freely.

"There was nothing you could do. After he found that… thing, there was absolutely nothing you could have done. But even though you were physically powerless, you still fought him. You didn't give in to him. You didn't tell him what he wanted to know. Aren't you proud that you fought to protect your parents?"

Marty stared blankly at Ben, shaking her head, looking like a little lost child.

"I'm proud," he told her firmly. "I'm so proud of you. You never gave up. That man — that monster — he tortured you, but you denied him his victory as long as you could. Isn't that something to be proud of?"

"I… I…" Marty gazed at Ben, a look of dawning wonder on her face. "Yes! Yes, it is something to be proud of! Yes, you're right!" Marty clutched at Ben, burying her face in his neck. "You're right," she sobbed, over and over again. Ben's one arm came around behind her back to hold her as close as he could, rocking her back and forth as he held her. Over the top of her bent head, his moist, incredibly sad eyes met Kezia's. She nodded her approval, but the distressed expression on his face didn't change as he tucked his head down, curving his body slightly around Marty's.

"I'll be back in a few minutes," Kezia whispered, not wanting to disturb the intimate atmosphere in her office. "Take your time. I'll be back." She softly closed the door behind her and then took a deep breath. Something beautiful had just happened in front of her, and she had found it emotionally draining even just watching it unfold. How intense must it have been for Ben and Marty?

***

As she flew back to Smallville through the night sky, Ben tucked securely against the length of her side, Marty found herself sneaking peeks at her friend. He'd been so wonderful, so insightful, his simple words having had the force to absolve her from her guilt. A rush of gratitude flooded her with warmth. She'd never felt so close to anyone in her life as she felt to Ben at this moment in time. Her heart was peaceful.

Oh, she knew that memories of Stride's attack would come back and haunt her from time to time, but those memories had lost most, if not all, of their power over her. She was free, unshackled. With a grin, Marty tightened her grip on Ben's waist. "Hold on," she warned him before swooping up and over in a giant circle in the sky.

Ben laughed, his one good arm clutching at her convulsively. "Whoa! That was fun! What was that for?" he shouted over the rush of the wind.

"I'm happy!" Marty assured him.

"I'm glad," he shouted back. They exchanged grins, light-hearted and carefree before Marty turned her attention back to where they actually were in relation to the ground.

It was a bit turbulent, Marty having to fly faster than normal to escape the threatening storm clouds, and consequently, it was too noisy for them to talk as they usually did. But tonight, that was all right. Marty was content to be silent and to think. She still had a lot of things that she needed to get straightened out.

Her feelings for Ben were the main thing that she wanted to figure out. She snuck another peek at him and watched the play of expression on his face as they soared through the sky. She could tell that he found their faster rate of speed to be exciting. In so many ways, Ben was down to earth and pragmatic, but his enjoyment of her aerial acrobatics and of their speed showed a very different side of his personality.

It was so nice to have someone to trust. She knew that Ben would never want to harm her. Emotionally, she wasn't afraid of him at all. He had proven that he was her friend. He hadn't just asked for her trust; he had earned it — ten times over.

Her side tingled from the close contact of his body next to hers. He was a solid, comforting, warm presence and she was more than conscious of his closeness. It was nice to be near to him. It was wonderful to bury herself in his embrace, to hold him close, and to be held by him. But a lingering fear remained of what it would be like to be even more intimate with someone.

Ben wanted to be with her. He had said that he loved her and she believed him. And she did love him. She loved being with him. He was the most important person in the world to her — even more important than her parents or her siblings. But could she be with him the way he wanted? Would it be fair to try when she might fail? It would be horrible to do that to Ben — to raise his hopes only to dash them again. He deserved better. And that really would put an end to their friendship. To make the attempt and then to fail would be too big an obstacle to overcome.

She glanced at Ben once more only to find that he was watching her. He smiled and looked away again. What was he thinking, she wondered. How did he feel at this moment in time?

***

Ben felt confused. He was happy, incredibly happy, that Marty had made such a huge breakthrough. But he felt sick at what she had been going through, blaming herself as she had been. A wave of anger swept over him, his disgust at Stride's actions even more than ever. How could that man have been so devious, so cruel? His original plan of seduction and trickery had been bad enough, but then to torture her just because he could… Ben ruthlessly suppressed his anger to concentrate on the ground as it passed by so far below.

It was wonderful flying with Marty tonight. It was just as 'cool' as he had thought it would be. And tonight's wild weather made it more exciting than normal. And what it was like normally was pretty exciting all on its own. Being so close to Marty was like being next to heaven. She was a warm, sensuous presence, her shapely curves pressed next to him. It was a joy to know that she was no longer scared of casual physical contact, although there was nothing casual about it in Ben's mind. Every nerve ending tingled when she was near and he yearned to caress her, to kiss her and to embrace her.

They had been spending so much time together the last few days. That first day — after their night together — had set the tone for the rest of the week. The words had poured out of Marty as she snuggled into the comfort of his arms. He had never felt more needed or closer to anyone. They had gone for a walk together, hand-in-hand which had been a dream come true. A bittersweet dream to be sure since Marty was in such pain. But the closeness, the intimacy, had been everything that Ben had always wanted in his life, and it was so wonderful to share that with Marty who knew him better than anyone else in his life. And then to prepare their meals in a silent camaraderie, sharing the cozy domestic details with each other… Ben sighed. Oh, if only this could never end.

But he couldn't push her. He couldn't jeopardise the fragile nature of their current relationship. For a moment he wished that he had never shared his feelings with Marty, had never told her that he loved her, but at the same time, it had to help for her to know that someone valued her as a person, that someone had her best interests at heart. But where could they go from here? He didn't want to push her to move forward, and they couldn't move back. He sighed again, pushing those worries aside. He wasn't going to fret. Instead he was going to enjoy her company as long as it lasted, and try to be grateful for what they had instead of wistful for what might be.

***

Marty gave Ben one last quick hug before darting up away from his house. She zipped to her farm as fast as she could, enjoying the way her body split the air currents in her flight. As she hovered over her home, doing her automatic double-check that it was safe to land, it was as if she were seeing the farm with fresh eyes. How beautiful the fields were, lush with late summer's growth. And how contented the sounds that the sleepy cattle made, lowing softly to each other from within their individual stalls. The two horses were sleeping, Gem swaying back and forth on her four hooves planted firmly on the floor. Diamond was lying down, his legs tucked neatly close to his barrel-shaped body. Marty turned her gaze to the cozy farmhouse, the light spilling from each window. She could hear music playing faintly in the background and the hiss of steam escaping from under a pot lid as Vicky cooked in the kitchen. Shadow crunched contentedly at his supper in one corner of the room. Tears pricked at her eyes. How could she have forgotten how lucky she was? How proud of her farm she was?

She was ashamed for a moment. She had nearly given Stride the victory he had been craving. She had nearly given into him. But no longer. The shackles had been struck from her soul, and she was free.

Marty swooped down and landed just outside the kitchen door, her cape billowing out around her. Vicky spun around, wooden spoon in hand to smile at the sight of her.

"Hi!" Marty exclaimed, striding into the room after spinning out of her uniform. "Supper smells good. What'd you make?"

"Nothing special. Just a roast."

"Great!" Marty answered brightly. "What can I do?"

Vicky flashed her a grin. "Set the table?"

"Sure."

They worked in a cozy, warm silence. Marty slowly became aware that Vicky was studying her.

"What? What is it?" Marty finally asked.

"Oh. Sorry. You look… You look better."

Marty felt a grin spread across her face. "I am better," she declared triumphantly. "I feel great!"

To her dismay, she saw tears fill Vicky's eyes and spill over to lie like shimmering jewels on her cheeks.

"What?" Marty stammered.

"I'm so gla-a-a-a-d!" Vicky wailed, her tears coming in earnest now. "I'm so ha-a-a-appy for you!"

"Okay," Marty said, eyeing her sister dubiously.

Vicky took two steps forward and threw herself into Marty's arms. "I was so worried about you. I couldn't stop thinking about what you said. It must have been so horrible for you. I wanted to help and I didn't know how, and I'm so ha-a-appy that you're okay." She snuggled close to her big sister.

Marty was overcome with guilt as she held her baby sister in her arms. "I'm sorry," she said. "I should never have told you what happened to me."

"No, you're wrong," Vicky answered, looking up with anguished eyes. "I was so insensitive… I was so immature… I couldn't figure out why you weren't getting better. It was idiotic to think that the only injuries you suffered were physical. I'm glad that you told me. I wanted to help you. I'd do anything to help you. You have to know that."

"Oh, honey," Marty crooned, rocking Vicky slightly in her arms. "You have been a help to me; you really have. You helped me with the farm, and you've been cooking these great meals, and, well, you've just been there for me. I appreciate it. I really do. I'm sorry that I didn't tell you before."

"It's okay," Vicky said, looking up with a watery smile. "You had a lot of other stuff on your mind."

Marty laughed. "You're not kidding!" she exclaimed. "But I feel really good now so don't worry. I feel ready to move on."

"Good."

They moved away from each other, soppy smiles on each of their faces. Suddenly a worried expression spread like wildfire over Vicky's countenance.

"What's wrong?" Marty asked.

"If you're feeling better, maybe I shouldn't have done it," Vicky blurted out.

"Done what?"

"I just wanted to help. You said that the memories were really bad in there, and I wanted to change things a little — not too much, but hopefully just enough — and maybe I shouldn't have, but it seemed like a really good idea, although I kept thinking that it probably was dumb, but I did it anyway — just finished it today — and I'm not sure that I can switch things back, but if you really want me to, I probably could try and what if you don't like it…"

"Stop!"

Vicky's mouth snapped shut, and she stood, looking slightly cowed, eyeing her big sister guiltily.

"What did you do?" Marty asked patiently.

"I changed things around," Vicky answered her meekly.

"Changed what around?"

Vicky sighed. "It'll be easier to just show you." She took Marty by the hand and led her towards the living room.

Marty took one step inside the room and looked around in a daze, her mouth hanging open in her amazement. The room had been transformed.

"You did this all yourself?"

Vicky nodded, proudly. "Most of it. I had a little help from Jon, but yeah."

Vicky had sewn new fabric covers for the cushions on the couch and the easy chairs. The colour scheme was completely different — the once cheery autumn colours replaced by the delicate tones of springtime. It changed the whole feel of the room. Marty gazed around in wonder. Everything was the same, but different. Vicky hadn't discarded anything; she had just moved things around, transformed what she could and hoped for the best. And her best was very, very good. Even the painting that Grandma had given her looked different. That must have been what Jon had helped her with. It had been reframed with different coloured mats and it changed the whole look of the picture.

"Pretty stupid, huh?" Vicky said, her voice breaking the silence.

Marty turned and looked at her sister, feeling struck dumb. It was the worried look on Vicky's face that provided the final impetus for her to get the words out from where they were stuck in her throat.

"No! Not stupid at all," she assured Vicky quickly. "It's beautiful! It's perfect."

Vicky's shining eyes showed her how happy Marty had just made her.

***

Clark gazed soulfully into his beautiful wife's eyes that snapped in excitement, only to manfully tear his gaze away so that he could navigate. He heard her chuckle as she wriggled a little closer to him.

"Stop that!" Clark told her playfully. "You're making it hard for me to steer."

"I thought nothing prevented Superman from fulfilling his duties. Neither snow, nor hail, nor dark of night…"

"That's the Post Office!" he protested.

Lois giggled and snuggled in closer so that she could nuzzle his neck and ear. "So you can be distracted. Is that what you're saying?"

"Lois, if we fly into a tree, it won't be my fault!" Clark pulled back slightly and grinned at her. "I could say that Superman does have other duties that he could be fulfilling right now that are more interesting than being Lois Lane's personal taxi service."

She gazed at him, a mock hurt expression on her face. "More interesting… I'm hurt, I'm crushed, I'm devastated, I'm…"

Clark's hands strayed to more intimate territory. "After all, Superman's a married man. Perhaps he should be concerned about fulfilling his marital duties."

Lois's eyes twinkled in that delightfully wicked way that he loved so much. "Mmmm," she purred as she claimed a kiss from his willing lips. "That does sound promising, but…"

"But?"

"But," she continued, sighing heartily, "if you did, we'd be late for Maisie's party."

Clark sighed, too.

"But…"

"But?" he asked hopefully.

"But I give rain checks."

"Deal," Clark stated firmly. "On one condition. We only stay a couple of hours."

Lois giggled in response. "I can live with that," she purred, nipping at his ear.

They dropped like a stone for about ten feet before Clark stopped their downward motion. "Lois!" he protested. "If anyone's tracking my flight path tonight, they're going to wonder what the heck I'm on. Every time you do something like that, I end up flying all over the place!"

"Let 'em wonder!" She giggled again.

"You sound pretty happy."

"I am. And I know you are, too, honey."

He nodded in response.

"After all," Lois continued, "Marty sounds wonderful, and Vicky seems happy."

"Sounds like counselling's the best thing that Marty could have done," Clark agreed. "And it also sounds like a little independence has done Vicky good."

"Clark, we're so lucky." Lois leaned her head against his broad shoulder, a wide smile on her face.

"I know we are. How many couples could say that they're still madly, crazily in love after all the years we've been together?" He twisted his head to claim another kiss from her. "Man, you're going to make one sexy grandma!"

"You won't do too badly either, 'Grandpa'," Lois declared, trailing her hand down his spandex clad chest.

This time, Clark jumped and they rapidly ascended for a moment before straightening out again.

"We must be almost there," Lois said, peering down at the ground.

Clark paused, hovering in the air, a look of consternation on his face as he glared down at the earth below them.

"What is it?" Lois asked.

Clark sighed. "You did it to me again! We're in Alaska!"

"Sorry!"

Clark circled them around to head south once more, Lois's giggle hanging in the empty air behind them.

***

Sitting like a queen on her throne, Maisie sat near the front of the room, watching as her friends and family entered at the back of the large reception hall. She inclined her head graciously as she accepted the birthday greetings from the well-wishers who waited in line specifically to greet her. She enjoyed this, but it would still be nice when this part of the party was done so she could relax and unwind a bit.

As she watched, Vicky Kent came in, glancing around the large room in delight. What a pretty girl she was. Looked so much like her mother. She had a mischievous twinkle in her eye that Maisie always liked.

Speaking of Vicky's mother, there was Lois looking just as pretty as a picture. Her burgundy dress was elegant, sensual and tasteful. There were a lot of Smallville women who would have benefited if they had taken lessons from Lois as to how to dress. And Clark looked as handsome as ever. Such a nice young man. He was a real credit to Jonathan and Martha. Looking at him, it was hard to believe that Clark had done such wonderful things for the world. And yet, all anyone had to do was look at him, and they would know that he was an honourable man with strength of conviction. He was like Jonathan and Martha in that regard. Trust Martha Kent to have raised a son who had literally changed the world! If anyone could have done it, it was Martha. On second thought, Maisie guessed it wasn't so surprising, after all.

Oh! Ben and Marty! Maisie hadn't been sure if Marty were planning on coming, but there she was, looking stunning as she clung to Ben's arm. Good for Marty! A lot of the younger men were going to be pretty envious when they saw that she was with Ben. And Ben had made an effort to dress up, although the one sleeve split to accommodate his cast kind of ruined the effect. At least he'd tried hard.

Marty seemed a bit off-balance, but when Maisie contrasted what she had looked like a few months ago versus how she looked now, well, there was no comparison. There were a lot of people at her party, and she wouldn't be able to talk at length with everyone, but Marty was definitely someone Maisie wanted to check in with. Maisie needed to know that she was doing okay.

Rachel Palmer looked as competent as ever as she strolled into the hall. Who would have thought that that flighty little thing would have turned out to be such a great Sheriff? Maisie would never have believed it in a million years.

The mayor of Smallville, a relative newcomer who had only lived in the area for the past fifteen years, grabbed her by the hand and pumped it vigorously. "Congratulations!" he shouted as he motioned for the Smallville Press photographer to close in and take their picture together. Maisie smiled, inwardly amused by the pompous little man's continual quest for publicity. Big fish in a small pond, indeed! As he commenced his speech of congratulations, Maisie composed herself to listen, folding her hands neatly in her lap. It was exhausting to be a town icon. All she had done was live till she was eighty. Not really that hard to do and better than the alternative! But exhausting though it might be, it was fun. Most of the time, she amended as the mayor continued to drone on.

***

A couple of hours later, they had all had more than enough to eat. Even Clark had to admit that he had no desire to eat another bite. Lois and Rachel Palmer were tucked away in a discreet corner, chatting energetically. From the frequent amused glances in his direction, Clark had the feeling that they were talking about him. There was too much background noise to listen in, but he supposed he could have tried to lip-read. He wasn't sure, though, that he really wanted to know what they were talking about.

Vicky was surrounded by a horde of young teenage boys who all vied for her attention. She looked like she was having a wonderful time although Clark wasn't any too thrilled about the situation. Marty and a couple of the other local dairy farmers were talking shop, and Ben sat by himself, a little bit removed from the group, watching over her.

Seizing the chance, Clark tapped Ben on the shoulder and motioned to him to follow. He led the young man out of the hall into the warm summer night. After a quick scan to satisfy himself that there was no one else around, he turned to face Ben, who looked a bit uncomfortable.

"You wanted to talk to me, Mr. Kent?"

"Ben, you can call me Clark."

The man smiled tentatively. "Okay… Clark."

"Is something wrong? You're acting a little strange." Clark peered curiously at the young, suddenly sweating man.

"No. Nothing's wrong." Ben shifted from one foot to the other.

"Are you sure?" Clark asked.

Ben shrugged, self-consciously. "Sorry, Clark. I, uh, this is the first time that I've talked to you by yourself since I found out…"

For a second Clark was puzzled, but then he realised that Ben meant since he had found out the family secret. "Oh," he said, a bit embarrassed.

"It's going to take me a little time to get used to the fact that… that you're the most famous person in the world."

Clark laughed. "I'm not famous. Not that many people really know who Clark Kent actually is."

Ben glanced around the deserted yard in front of the hall. "But Superman is," he whispered.

"Ben, that's not really who I am," Clark replied, keeping his voice low. "Think about Marty for a second. Do you think of her as Marty Kent, or as Shadow?"

"Marty Kent, of course, but I've known her forever."

"Well, you've known me for at least as long. Lois and I visited your Mom in the hospital when you were born. She and your Dad showed you off to us. Heck, I think I changed your diaper a time or two over the next couple of years."

Ben's eyes just about popped out of his head. "You did?"

"Uh huh. So would you please relax? You're making me nervous."

Ben shook himself. He took a deep breath and then grinned at Clark. "Okay, I'll try. Sorry."

"That's okay." Clark grinned. "Now that that's out of the way… I wanted to thank you for all the support that you've given Marty. I don't think she'd be doing this well if it weren't for you."

"That's very kind of you, Clark," Ben replied, "but I think Marty deserves all the credit. She's been very brave. It's been hard for her to face what happened, but she's never flinched."

Clark gently grasped Ben's left shoulder. "Yes, she has been brave, but all the same, I do want to thank you also. Thank you for helping my daughter."

Ben nodded. "You're welcome. You know I'd do anything for Marty."

"If there's ever anything that I can do… If you ever need anything, you know all you have to do is ask."

"Thank you. But I'm fine."

"In the future, though…"

"I'll remember."

Clark extended his hand, and Ben awkwardly shook it with his left hand.

They smiled at each other, and then the two of them headed back into the noise and the crowd.

***

"I've been waiting for you, Dad," Vicky told Clark when he returned to the hall.

"You have?"

"Of course. The dancing's started, and I have to dance with my father first."

Clark grinned. "I thought some of these young guys would try and push me out of the way."

Vicky grinned back. "Well, they might try, but you and I both know that you're pretty unmovable when you want to be. Besides, I'd rather dance with you first." She grabbed his hand and turned, tugging him after her.

As they started to move to the music, Clark was struck by how mature Vicky now was. He sighed. His baby was almost all grown up. It was oddly depressing.

"Dad? I wanted to tell you that I understand what you were trying to say to me before."

"What's that?"

"I understand that the world's a lot more complicated than I want it to be. And I understand how sometimes we have to place the needs of others before our own."

"You do?"

"I do. I wanted to tell you — I thought that was pretty nice of you to tell the Ramirez's about Maria before they found out about it on TV."

"That's good. I'm glad to hear it."

"I guess we have to live up to higher standards because of who we are. If we don't, there's a temptation to misuse our abilities."

Clark smiled proudly down at his daughter. "So you understand why I push you."

She smiled back. "Yes, I do. And I guess I just want to say thank you. You were right to push me."

Clark pulled her tight into his arms and hugged her close. "I love you, sweetheart."

"I love you, too, Dad."

They broke apart and started moving in time with the music once more. A moment later, Clark felt a tap on his shoulder.

"Excuse me, sir," a weedy looking teenager said. "Can I dance with Vicky now? If that's okay?"

Clark sighed and stepped back, surrendering his daughter into the arms of another. "I'm too old for this," he muttered under his breath. He stood on the sidelines for a long moment, watching his youngest child chatter happily in the boy's ear. But he wasn't really sad. Instead his heart was full of joy at his daughter's newfound maturity. He tore himself away from watching Vicky move gracefully in the wake of the awkward teenager, instead going in search of his wife. If he were lucky, she'd be ready to go. He had a rain check to collect!

***

Marty saw her Dad lead Ben out of the reception hall. She was curious as to what they were saying to each other, but there was no way that she would have been able to listen in. The noise of the party was more than enough to mask their conversation. Besides, she was having a great conversation of her own. Forcing herself to relax and not worry about what the two men were saying about each other, she threw herself back into the debate about which feed was better for milk production. She had missed this. She loved her work, and she loved her farm, and she loved talking about both. It was wonderful to immerse herself into this part of her life again.

The band started, making conversation more difficult. Things broke up even more when some of the other farmers' wives started to drift over and claim their husbands to dance with. It only took a couple of minutes for Marty to be left sitting completely alone. But she wasn't alone long before Ben was there, standing before her.

"Would you like to dance?" he asked, extending his hand to her.

She raised her eyes up to meet his as he stood, looming over her. She felt strangely shy, but at the same time, strangely excited. "Yes," she heard herself say as she placed her hand in his. She had meant to ask him first what he and Dad had talked about, but suddenly it didn't seem to matter.

He tugged her to her feet, and unspeaking, led her to the middle of the dance floor. The music was soft and slow and unabashedly romantic. Ben turned to solemnly face her and without a second thought, she drifted into his arms. His cast was rigid, cold and heavy against her back, but his other arm was warm and comforting and familiar. Being in his arms was like coming home. Every nerve ending tingled at his solid, warm presence. Languidly they started slowly swaying together, keeping time with the music. The dance floor was already too crowded for them to do more than shift their feet back and forth, their bodies pressed closely together. It felt nice, Marty realised. It felt more than nice to be there with him, to be in his arms. Her one hand rested on his broad shoulder, muscular and firm, her other hand clasped in his, her fingers lightly wrapped around his cast. They were almost the same height, their cheeks brushing. The masculine roughness of his slight five o'clock shadow felt good against her face, and his breath was warm on her neck.

She inhaled, enjoying the soap-clean, masculine smell of him. His cologne was a bit musky. It suited him, she thought. It was rugged, just like he was. He wasn't handsome, but he had a good face. A kind face. A manly face. A face that was beautiful in her eyes, she realised.

Marty's eyes locked on his. She lost herself in their devastating blue depths. They shone with love and warmth and support. All for her, Marty realised, suddenly shy. She was the one who put that look in his eyes. Hastily, she looked down so she could blink away tears. She loved him. She knew that she did, but she was scared. There was one last fear that she had to conquer, and she didn't know if she were capable of defeating it. How could she give in to her love for him, how could she give him what he wanted, if she didn't know whether they could ever be intimate physically? The thought of it was enough to chill her to the core of her bones. She shuddered.

"Is there something wrong?" Ben asked, his voice worried.

"No." Marty glanced at him only to flinch at the concerned look in his eyes. "I just need some air. It's so crowded in here."

"Okay, I'll join you."

"No. I'm sorry. I think I just need to be alone for a minute if that's okay."

Ben stopped dead. "If that's what you want," he said slowly.

She ignored the devastated, hurt expression on his face. "I'm sorry. I'll be right back." In a panic, Marty turned on her heel and pushed her way off the dance floor, making her way as quickly as possible to the door.

She rested her hands on the railing of the porch and breathed in the slightly damp air of the evening.

"You had enough of the crowds, too, I see," a soft voice said from the shadows behind her.

Marty spun around. "Maisie!" she exclaimed, surprised that she hadn't sensed the presence of anyone else on the porch.

The older woman smiled at her. "You just missed your parents. They snuck out of here, holding hands and giggling like teenagers. I got the feeling they were heading home."

"Oh."

Maisie studied Marty for a long moment. "Sit beside me," she suggested, patting the wood slats of the porch swing.

Marty reluctantly moved to perch beside her.

"I'm glad to see you by yourself," Maisie said. "I've been worried about you. Are you doing okay?"

Marty tried to smile, but her lips quivered and her chin trembled. "I'm fine," she replied, insincerely. "Just fine."

"What's wrong?" Maisie asked quietly.

Marty turned to Maisie, intending on denying that anything was wrong, but she just couldn't do it. She couldn't keep up the pretence that everything was okay for a moment longer. After the breakthroughs that she had made, after all the effort that she had put into understanding and accepting her feelings, she realised that she was done pretending, that she was finished repressing her emotions.

"I guess things aren't fine," Marty admitted, giving in to the temptation to talk her feelings out.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Maisie asked.

Marty thought about it. Yes, she did, she decided. And she needed to talk to someone who knew what had happened to her. It wasn't fair to Ben after all his support of her, but he was part of this problem and she just couldn't talk to him about it. She needed a third party. Maisie fit the bill. She was discreet, Marty was comfortable with her, and the kicker was, she had asked to help at a time when Marty felt extremely vulnerable and off-balance.

Marty nodded. "Ben's in love with me," she said, glumly.

"Is that a good thing or a bad thing?" Maisie asked.

"I don't know," Marty replied. The words poured out of her. She told Maisie how she felt about Ben, that she trusted him emotionally, but the idea of physical intimacy terrified her. She knew that Maisie would read between the lines and understand exactly what had been unspoken for so long, she would understand exactly what Stride had done to her, but Marty no longer cared. She wasn't ashamed of her role in the attack any longer. She wasn't ashamed of being a victim. Finally, she fell silent.

"You say you love him," Maisie stated.

"Yes."

"And you trust him."

"Yes."

"Then you have to trust him with this," Maisie said firmly.

"How can I? What if… What if I can't get past what happened to me? What if I… hate it? What if I start to hate him?"

Maisie laughed. "Honey, there's no way that you'll hate it! I saw the two of you dancing together. I saw the look on your face. On both your faces. I'd say that there's no way that you won't enjoy it!"

"How can you be so sure?" Marty asked.

Maisie turned to her and laid a gentle hand on her arm. "I know. I know because what happened to you happened to me a very, very long time ago. I should have talked to you sooner… I wish that I had."

"It happened to you?"

Maisie sighed. "Yes. I was raped when I was only fifteen. A traveling salesman. Sounds like a joke, doesn't it? But it was no joke. I was lucky, though. Most girls in my position were ostracized by their own families, blamed for encouraging the man, but my parents were wonderful. They were very supportive. Even so, of course I didn't talk about it to anyone else. That just wasn't done."

"And you got married," Marty stated.

"Yes. Again, I was lucky. My husband was a wonderful, supportive, loving man. He was a true gentleman. My parents said not to tell him, to pretend to be a virgin on our wedding night. I can't blame them for their attitude. They had been taught that that was the way of the world. But I couldn't do it. As our wedding approached, I knew that I needed for him to know. I needed for our marriage to be honest. So I told him. Mind you, I was scared that he was going to call off the wedding, but I had to tell him all the same. It was the right thing to do."

"What did he say?"

"He put his arms around me and held me and told me he loved me. He said that he was sorry that I had gone through something so horrible, and he vowed that he would do his best to wipe those memories out of my mind."

"Did he?"

"Of course not. You don't ever forget something like that. But what he did do was teach me that there was more to sex than the act itself, and more to love than just words. He gave me new memories that were far more vivid to me — more real — than anything that had happened when I was fifteen. Marty, I was married when I was nineteen, and I was widowed when I was seventy and every night, we slept in the same bed. Every night he held me in his arms as I drifted off to sleep. Every night I thanked God we had found each other. Was I scared the first time we made love? Yes, but I had found a good man and I put my faith in that good man to get me through a terrifying experience. And Marty, once we got down to it, it wasn't terrifying any more. It was wonderful. And it remained wonderful to the end."

Marty gently pulled the older woman into her arms for a long, intense hug. "Thank you," she whispered.

Maisie pulled back and looked her in the eyes. "Go with your heart, Marty. What does your heart tell you to do?"

Tears spilling down her cheeks, Marty gazed solemnly at the older woman. "Well, right now," she said slowly, "my heart is telling me that I better go back inside and finish my dance with Ben."

Maisie patted her on the cheek. "That's my girl. I think your heart is telling you the right thing. Love is rare and special, and you should never turn your back on it. Doesn't mean that it's not hard work. It is, but it's worth it."

Marty nodded and headed back into the reception hall, focused on finding Ben. She frantically looked around the room, until she located him. He was sitting on the sidelines, glumly watching the crowd of dancers.

Marty pushed her way through the horde of people, never taking her eyes from him. He looked up as she neared and stood up to face her.

"I'm sorry," she said, simply.

"It's all right." His voice was flat and lifeless.

"I thought you might want to finish our dance."

"Only if you want to," he assured her, quickly.

"Actually," Marty said, taking a step closer to him, her heart pounding a mile a minute in her chest, "there's something else that I'd rather do."

"What?"

She took a deep breath and completely surrendered to the feelings swirling inside her. "This." Marty moved into his embrace, her arms slipping around his back, and her lips finding his.

He staggered, but she braced him, still kissing him, desperate for him to know how much she loved him, how much she really did trust him. His hand came up to cup her cheek, to tug her even closer as he leaned into her. Finally he pulled away to gaze longingly at her. "Marty?" he gasped, breathless. His eyes asked the question he couldn't say aloud.

"I love you, Ben," she told him, forgetting her fears for the moment.

A smile of incandescent joy spread across his face. "I love you, too," he said, simply. "More than I can say."

She laid her head on his shoulder, her body pressed into his, understanding something for the first time. Ben was her life. And she was his. Together, they could face anything.

***

Two months later — Kansas City

Ben staggered as he carried his bride through the open double doors of the honeymoon suite. Marty smiled. She knew that he was only pretending to stagger as she was making a point of helping him by levitating. His arms were only necessary to steer. If he weren't still going to physiotherapy for his arm, she would have insisted that he carry her under his own power, but fears for him had prompted her to help out.

Just inside the door, his grip shifted, and she slid down the length of his body to stand in front of him, warm and safe in the familiar circle of his arms.

"Mmmm," Ben murmured in the back of his throat as she leaned in for a heady, passionate kiss. She loved kissing him. No matter how afraid she was of anything else, she knew that she would never stop enjoying kissing him.

She pulled away from him reluctantly so that he could pay the bellhop.

Ben closed the double doors as the hotel employee left; Marty was able to clearly hear the click of the deadbolt as he engaged it. He turned back to her with a broad smile. "Alone at last."

"Uh huh." Marty couldn't help it. A frisson of fear mingled with excitement ran through her, but she banished it to the best of her ability. Plastering a warm smile on her face, she stepped towards him, only to have him meet her halfway.

It felt good to be in his arms. She focused on how wonderful being this close to him made her feel, trying to put out of her mind what was going to happen between them that night. It was silly of her to be scared of just that one thing when there was so much else that they could enjoy, she reminded herself.

"I love you, Mrs. Kent-Palmer," Ben told her, his hand caressing her cheek.

"I love you, too," she told him, grateful for the words — grateful to be reminded so that she could reconnect with the warm flood of emotion that she felt for him. If only she weren't so scared. If only they had already taken this step. How different would she feel then on this most special of nights?

But Ben had been the one to hold back. She had offered herself to him, desperate to get it over with, but he had said 'no'. He had said that it was important to wait for their wedding night. She had reminded him that she was no longer a virgin, but he had protested that it didn't mean he should treat her with a lack of respect. Much as she wished that they had already consummated their relationship, she couldn't help but love him even more for his attitude. But now, she was terrified, and she didn't know if she could do this. She didn't want her fears to hurt him. But the knowledge that they loved each other more than life itself had been the impetus to get her to this point; it had given her the courage to commit her life to him, but now the courage had faded away leaving her feeling small and scared and powerless.

She wasn't afraid of physical pain; that would be ridiculous. But what if she couldn't respond to him? Even worse, what if she couldn't help but respond with disgust and revulsion? The physical act of invasion that Stride had inflicted upon her had been more than unpleasant for many different reasons. First, of course, had been the fact that it had been very painful, in and of itself. But also, he had hit her and kicked her and taunted her to cow her into submission. Even if it hadn't been painful at all, the fact that she hadn't wanted it would have still made it unbearable. What if she couldn't get past those memories?

Stride had violently divested Marty of something that she valued even more now that she no longer possessed it. Before, she had taken it for granted. But it wasn't just her physical virginity that he had destroyed; he had damaged her ability to trust. She kept getting to the same point with Ben. She'd think that she'd have no problem because of her love for him. But then she'd find herself backing away from the commitment that she had made to him. Her love for Ben pushed her one way, her fears another.

Stride had damaged her faith in herself. Before him, she had never thought before of the possibility that she might be unresponsive. But she did now — constantly. The last few nights before the wedding had been torture of a different kind, but even so, she could still lay it at Stride's feet. He was to blame. She'd spent her nights tossing and turning, worrying about what it would be like after the wedding ceremony. Well, it was after the wedding ceremony, and at least she was about to find out. One way or another, the suspense would be over.

"It was a beautiful day, wasn't it, honey?" Ben took her hand in his and led her to the loveseat. They sat down, Marty tucking herself next to him.

"Yes," she agreed. "I don't think I've ever seen my parents so happy. Your mom, too! She looked like she was about to burst!"

Ben smiled tenderly at her. "I know. But she was sad, too. I think it made her miss my dad more."

Marty nodded. "I'm glad you didn't mind making the side trip to Metropolis before the reception. I would have hated it if Astrid had missed everything."

"I didn't mind," Ben said giving her a hearty hug. "It was just too bad that she couldn't be there. How much longer does she have to go?"

"About two months." She giggled. "I thought her eyes were going to bug out when I spun into my wedding dress so she could see it."

"I think I probably looked the same way when I saw you coming down the aisle towards me. I've never seen you look more beautiful."

Marty smiled, thinking back to earlier that afternoon. "Thank you. And I've never seen you look so happy as when you saw me. It made me feel pretty special to know that I'm the one who put that look on your face."

"You are special," he told her, his voice husky and soft. Turning to her, he cupped her cheek with his hand, his thumb caressing her skin. He tilted his face towards her, capturing another kiss from her willing lips.

It was Marty's turn to moan, deep in her throat as he slowly pulled away from her. Her eyelids fluttered down to hide her eyes from the burning intensity of his gaze. Suddenly shy, she hid her face against his neck.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

"Yeah." She nodded, pressing her face a little deeper into the crook of his neck.

"Not scared, are you?"

"I'm confused," she admitted, her voice shaking.

In one quick motion, he tugged her onto his lap, his arms loosely wrapped around her low back. Marty quickly ducked her head, resting it on his hair, not wanting to meet his eyes just yet.

"What confuses you? You know I would never hurt you," he told her, his lips brushing against the sensitive skin of her neck.

"I know. I'm not scared of you, but I am nervous about… being with you, about making love. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

Ben shifted so that she had no choice but to sit up straighter and gaze down into his eyes. "Don't be sorry. Don't ever be sorry." His voice was serious. "I'll never ask you to change how you feel. All I can do is ask that you share those feelings with me. Okay?"

"Okay," Marty agreed with a grateful smile, leaning in for another kiss.

He pulled back to frame her face with his hands, gazing intently in her eyes. "You know that we don't have to do anything that you don't want. And I mean anything. You know that I'll never ask you to do something that makes you uncomfortable."

"I know." Her voice was soft, husky with emotion. She did know. When he had broached the subject of marriage, she had been unsure, but he had told her over and over again that he would accept her on any terms. He had worn down her almost non-existent resistance. It hadn't been hard to do; she had wanted this marriage as much as he did. The only thing that had kept her from accepting immediately had been her fear that she wasn't being fair to Ben — being so worried about the physical aspect of their relationship. She felt that he had the right to expect to consummate their marriage, but he had voluntarily given up that right just to ameliorate her fears.

"I love you so much," she told him, seriously.

He nuzzled in as close as he could, his arms firm against her back. "I love you, too." His voice shook with emotion. "We'll take it slow. Step by step. Okay?"

"Okay," she agreed, her worries damped down for the moment.

He pulled back to gaze into her eyes, a loving smile on his face. "Whatever happens between us tonight, I want you to be happy. Never doubt that. Never."

"I know," she told him, her voice husky. "And I want you to be happy, too. I need you to be happy."

"You make me happy," he assured her, squeezing her hands firmly. "Only you. Nothing else… except…"

"Except?"

He grinned at her, breaking the tension. Running one finger around the inside of his collar, he continued, "Except I'd really like to get out of this monkey-suit!"

Marty laughed and glanced down at her own smartly tailored going-away suit. "Now that you mention it…"

"Do you want first dibs at the bathroom, or shall I?"

"No, you go first," she told him, anxious to delay. "I'll wait." She awkwardly clambered off his lap.

Ben stood up, cupped her cheek in his, kissed her lightly, and then grabbed his overnight bag to disappear into the luxurious bathroom.

Marty couldn't help but worry. Yes, Ben wanted to get out of his suit, but what if he came out naked?!? She pushed those interesting, alarming, but somehow intriguing thoughts out of her head and languidly drifted around the room, emptying her suitcase and organizing its contents on hangers or in drawers. She placed her overnight bag on the floor near the bathroom. Then she turned on the gas fireplace that was set against the one wall. It heated up quickly but the rolling waves of heat did nothing to dispel the chill deep in her belly.

Moving to the large window, she pushed back the drapes to gaze out at the darkness beyond. Far below, a subdivision of houses sprawled before her, shrouded by the night, relieved from bleakness by the light that spilled from their windows. She stared down blankly, her ears focused on the small sounds coming from behind the bathroom door. The shower was turned on, and Marty could hear the water patter like raindrops against the tile walls. She heard Ben clamber in, and she could immediately sense the difference in the sound as his body blocked most of the spray. Resolutely she turned her attention outward, trying to immerse herself in the darkness beyond.

She must have succeeded better than she'd expected because the soft click of the bathroom door opening surprised her more than it should have. He emerged, his reflection in the window backlit by the ruddy light of the fire, his face hidden in the shadows. As he came closer, the mirror image became clearer. Marty's breath caught in her throat, and she turned to him. He was slick and clean, his flesh slightly damp from his shower. His bare chest gleamed in the soft light of the room, his pyjama bottoms clinging wetly to his skin here and there. He had missed a drop of water and Marty watched, fascinated, as it slowly rolled down his neck to nestle at the hollow of his throat. She swallowed convulsively before tearing her eyes away. "I'll be right back," she whispered moving past him, only to turn back in a rush to catch the stray water droplet with the tip of her tongue. He groaned, his arms clutching her, knocked off balance by the quickness of her motion.

She tore herself away. "I'll be right back," she repeated in a soft murmur, and she fled into the sanctuary of the bathroom grabbing her overnight bag as she went.

The bright lights did nothing to dispel the confusion she felt. How could the sight of him affect her so much? She had wanted nothing more than to smooth her hands over the planes and contours of his chest, to feel his hands warm and gentle on her body, and then her mind had interfered, reminding her of things that she had wanted to forget.

Ben was nothing like Stride, she told herself sternly as she gazed at her reflection in the mirror. She had to remember that. He didn't want to hurt her. He loved her. And she loved him.

Marty reminded herself of what Maisie had said. Her husband hadn't been able to erase her memories, but he had been able to give her new ones to supplant them. That's what Ben was going to do for her; she had to believe it. She trusted him, and she had to trust that he wouldn't force her to do anything that she didn't want to.

Marty clung to these thoughts as she quickly and efficiently showered and made herself ready. She gritted her teeth as she drew her ivory-coloured silk negligee over her head. The folds of it slithered down to lie cold against her skin.

She looked at herself, vulnerable, exposed and heard the voice from her nightmare. 'Fat cow! Pig! You should be grateful to me. Who else would want you?' She winced as she remembered the slaps that had followed his words.

Shaking her head, she forced that horrible voice out of her head. 'Ben wants me,' she reassured herself. 'He loves me, and he desires me, and he'll be good to me.'

With one last glance at her reflection, pale and wan and wistful, she turned, took a deep breath and opened the door to emerge into the bedroom.

Ben, too, had been looking out at the cold, bleak sky. He resembled a statue, frozen and still.

"Hi," she said, softly, feeling shy and awkward.

He pulled the heavy drapes shut and turned to face her. "Hi," he replied, his voice husky.

Marty couldn't move. She could only stand and wait as he approached.

His eyes widened, the light of the fire striking sparks from their depths. "You look beautiful," he murmured in a tone of awe-struck wonder.

"Really?" Marty hated the plaintive sound of her question, but she couldn't help it; she needed his reassurance.

"Really." He said it simply and finally, his manner brooking no discussion. "I have never seen anyone more beautiful than you," he told her as he stepped forward to lightly touch the curly wisps of hair that framed her face. His fingers slipped through the tendrils to stroke against her cheek.

"Thank you," was all that Marty could say as his words mercifully blocked out the echoes of Stride's voice that had been ringing in her ears for far too long.

"I love you," she told him, ashamed, her words a desperate attempt to beg for more reassurance from him. She needed him to tell her how he felt. She needed his words to cling to, to control her fear.

Ben seemed to sense how she felt. "Don't be scared," he whispered. "Please don't ever be scared of me."

"I'm not," Marty told him quietly. "But I'm scared that you'll be disappointed… I'm scared that I'll be no good, that I won't be able to respond."

"I'll have to show you that you're wrong," Ben murmured as he pulled her into his embrace. "I love you. I could never be disappointed in you." His lips found hers in a kiss so sweet and tender that she felt her knees go weak.

With one quick motion, Ben scooped her up to hold her firmly in his arms. "Let me love you, Marty. Please. I need to show you how much I love you."

She gazed deep into his burning eyes, awed by the blazing passion that was buried within, but reassured by the patina of control that was there also. She was tempted to close her eyes to protect herself from the fiery emotions she saw in him, but instead forced herself to meet them face to face. "Yes," she whispered, surrendering all control to him.

He carried her over to the bed, placed her tenderly on it, and lowered his body to rest beside her. She lay flat on her back, looking up at him as he loomed over her. As she solemnly studied his dear beloved face, his honest face, she knew that she had nothing to fear from this man — now or ever.

Much, much later, Marty watched her lover sleep. He lay on his stomach, sprawled half over her, his face buried in the hollow of her throat. She shifted and even asleep, his lips brushed against her sensitive skin in a vain attempt to soothe her. It was a vain attempt because Marty had never felt more alive. Every nerve ending tingled, the blood rushed through her veins in an effervescent rush, and it was all because of Ben.

He had taken his time to quell her fears. It had taken long, sensuous moments for them to get to the point where she would allow him to divest her of her negligee. But it had progressed quickly after that. He had rid her of her clothing, himself of his own, and then had similarly discarded her fears and her inhibitions.

When he had come to her, it had been as if a part of her that had been missing since before she could remember, had suddenly returned to her, had suddenly come home. His flesh wasn't alien to her. How could she have worried about something that felt so right? It had been so natural.

He had been so nervous. As he'd slowly joined with her, words of love and tenderness had poured from his lips in an unending stream until Marty, in an attempt to assuage his fears, had forgotten her own and captured his mouth with hers. The kiss had stirred fires within, and she had blessedly felt herself respond to him, to his love and his tenderness and his fire and his passion. It had been wonderful.

And the second and the third time had been pretty fantastic, too, she thought, unaware that her lips were curving into a smug smile. She eyed his body speculatively, enjoying the way the flickering light from the gas fireplace played on his muscles, highlighting them and leaving behind all those intriguing shadows. Her eyes traveled down the length of his body, pausing when they reached the dip at the small of his back. It only took a second to decide that her hand needed to follow the path that her eyes had established.

Ben stirred, nuzzling into her, as she continued her exploration. "Mmmm," he murmured as he slowly woke up. Raising his head, he groggily gazed at her. "Hi," he whispered. "Couldn't sleep?"

"No." She grinned. "And it's all your fault, Ben Palmer."

"Oh, it is, is it? And why is that?"

"You've whetted my appetite for more," Marty told him, pointedly licking her lips. "I was hoping we could do something about that."

"More?" His expression was mixed — crestfallen, embarrassed, and yet, a little proud even so. "I don't know if I can!" he exclaimed, chagrined. "But I want to; I really do," he was quick to assure her.

She laughed, a low throaty sound. "I guess it's up to me then. I'll have to do all the work." She moved quickly, flipping him over onto his back and before he could blink had straddled him. Running her hands over his wiry, muscled chest, she gazed down at him, mesmerized by the satin-slickness of his smooth skin.

"Lord, have mercy," he groaned in a heartfelt plea. "I've created a monster."

"Well, you know what they say about us monsters," Marty purred.

"What?"

She grinned. "We're insatiable!" She swooped down on him, her mouth capturing his. His hands clutched her back as she moved to gently nibble his earlobe. But then he grasped her head firmly, pushing her away from him.

She gazed down into his eyes, worried that she'd pushed too hard. To her relief, he was smiling tenderly at her.

"I want you to know…" Ben said, quietly.

"What?"

"I want you to know that I've never been happier in my life."

Marty's eyes flooded with moisture. "Neither have I," she whispered. "I never thought that this feeling that I have inside — that you've given me — could ever exist anymore. It's like that hymn. 'I once was blind, but now can see.' I can see, Ben. I can see how much you love me. I can touch you, and I can be touched. And I can feel. My heart overflows with what I feel for you. Thank you for teaching me how to feel again."

His eyes shone in the dim light, a tear escaping to roll down his cheek. "Marty," he said, his voice hoarse. He reached up with a shaking hand to brush the wetness away from her eyes. He opened his mouth and then closed it, helplessly, mutely, gazing up at her.

"It's all right," she assured him. "You don't have to talk. Just feel. Just feel how much I love you, and how much you love me." Her hands moved sensuously over him as she nuzzled his neck, her body pressing his down into the yielding bed. His eyes closed, and his head fell back onto the pillows as he surrendered everything to her, just as she had to him.

THE END